After Dashiell Hammet's successful 'Continental Op' series of 1920s detective stories, the publishing world was ablaze with private-eye novels and short-stories. Adding fuel to the fire, Brett Halliday (real author: Davis Dresser) launched an empire of novels and magazines starring detective 'Mike Shayne'. Mickey Spillane's 'Mike Hammer' rose to the occasion and sold millions of paperbacks. It's no surprise that by the late 1940s, prolific crime novelist Frank Kane would enter the fray with his private-eye, “Johnny Liddell”. The series included 29 novels and numerous short-stories. The debut full-length, “About Face”, was published in 1947 but later was re-named “Death About Face”. In 1958, Dell reprinted a majority of these novels with new cover designs, including “About Face”, which was renamed “The Fatal Foursome”.
In the series' first three installments, Liddell is a New York City sleuth working for a detective agency called Acme. Later, the character would be an independent private-eye free from any pesky agency’s rules and regulations. In this series opener, Liddell has been summoned to Hollywood to investigate the disappearance of a pretty-boy movie star named Harvey Randolph. The client is a rotund, loud-mouthed producer who may have more than just a professional interest in the actor's exodus.
Liddell's procedural routine involves a lot of people, a lot of questions and a lot of alcohol. Once the protagonist finds Randolph, things escalate rather quickly. Everyone involved in Randolph's disappearance is suddenly wearing bullet-holes and Liddell fears he might be next. While teaming with a sultry reporter named Toni Belden and coroner Doc Morrisey, Liddell navigates a complex world of insurance fraud and body doubles. But is any of it really entertaining?
If you love detective fiction, then Frank Kane's literary creation is just right for the genre's era. There isn't anything overly complicated about the character – he's got the rod and know-how to discover who's taking the next powder. It's slightly humorous, overly fantastic (using the ol’ make-a-new-face-for-the-criminal-routine) and soaked with masculinity. While Liddell is one-dimensional, the pairing of Toni and Doc expanded the narrative to allow different viewpoints and theories on motive and murderer. I preferred their commentary more than the hero’s insights.
While certainly a mainstay in crime-fiction, Frank Kane's debut Liddell story is average at best. Maybe social media groups or a deep dive online could produce a “best of” list of preferred series reading. For me, the debut doesn't catapult Frank Kane into my next batch of books to read. There's so much better stuff out there.
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