Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Some Die Hard

Stephen Mertz is a highly-respected author of men's action adventure, mystery and crime novels. As a prodigy of genre great Don Pendleton, Mertz penned a number of 'The Executioner' titles as well as creating action-oriented series' like 'M.I.A. Hunter' and 'Cody's Army'. His first novel, "Some Die Hard," was written in 1975. After an exhaustive search for a publishing deal, the book finally made print in 1979 via Manor Books, a popular producer of genre fare in the 70s. It was re-printed by Rough Edges Press in 2014 with bonus content providing an exclusive backstage peek at Mertz's negotiation with Manor and subsequent frustrations with the publishing house. That version is out of print now.

"Some Die Hard" was written under the pseudonym of Stephen Brett. Mertz later revealed the reason for this pen name comes from his love of Brett Halliday (Davis Dresser) and the 'Mike Shayne' mystery series. This speaks volumes considering "Some Die Hard" is a perfect homage to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. In essence, Mertz offers a unique presentation of a traditional locked-room mystery. This impossible crime follows the genre formula - murder, follow the clues, line up the suspects and name the killer. Mertz goes as far as name-checking some of his influences in the book - Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen and hard-boiled master Mickey Spillane.

The novel's main character is Dugan, a private investigator who is swept into a murder mystery from the vantage point of a warm bus seat. After witnessing a fellow passenger's death in the street while running from assailants, Dugan finds some intriguing photos of gambling markers stuffed inside of his old paperback. Before his death, the deceased obviously knew there was trouble and left behind a valuable clue for Dugan to discover. Mertz quickly sews the threads to connect the murdered man with the next intended victim, a wealthy architect named Carlander Court.

After taking a job from Court's daughter Susan, Dugan becomes enmeshed within the family's dynamic - attorney, attorney's fragile wife, assistant, doctor and the two heirs to the fortune - Susan and Tommy. In the "daddy's dying, who's got the will" narrative, Dugan learns that Tommy owes $15,000 in gambling debts to the dangerous Zucco. Tommy has now found himself on the outs with his terminally-ill father. His reckless lifestyle of gambling and promiscuity has led Court to re-evaluate his will. His artistic daughter, Susan, has proven to be the best benefactor, and after years of neglect, he has established a healthier relationship with her. As such, she will be the sole heir, leaving Tommy empty-handed. Dugan learns all of this from Court with an intriguing plot development - Tommy will be written out of the will the next day. Court fears that Tommy or Zucco will attempt to kill him that night to preserve the inheritance. If Tommy's omitted from the will, he receives nothing and Zucco's debts will remain unpaid. Court's death prior to the signing of the new will allows Tommy the inheritance as originally planned. 

Surely this is quite a murder mystery. Without giving too much away, Court is indeed murdered that night at a birthday party ripe with guests, family and friends. It's an impossible crime that Dugan must solve despite Zucco and Tommy's interference. Who's the culprit and how does the vast fortune connect the victim to the killer? All of this is masterfully orchestrated by Mertz, again clearly utilizing his literary influences while still maintaining his own identity.

Set in Langdon Springs, Colorado, Mertz wrote this first novel while living in Durango. The mountain town was populated by starving artists and the impact of that environment is apparent in "Some Die Hard.". I'd also speculate that the author takes some liberties by denigrating the wealthy. He's quick to criticize the wealthy lifestyle and, while not directly, uses it as a character trait to define the Court family as pompous. Mertz admits this time of his life was one of financial hardship, stating he had 54 cents to his name the day the book contract arrived. 

Overcoming adversity, Mertz was passionate about books and writing and maintained a consistent presence within the industry for decades. I'm not sure there is another Mertz book like this one. While I haven't read all of his work, I can steadfastly say that this surely has to be one of his best. It's a literary pursuit quite different from his violent novels written about vigilantes, soldiers and mercenaries. All of those are certainly entertaining and deserve praise, but "Some Die Hard" is truly exceptional. Do yourself a favor and hunt this book down.

1 comment:

  1. Read this Mertz book and James Reasoner's TEXAS WIND if you want to see two masters at work early in their careers.