Parallel to crime-fiction staples like Mike Shayne and Shell Scott, Johnny Liddell was a no-nonsense private-eye operating under the bright lights of The Big Apple. The series was authored by Frank Kane and consisted of 29 novels over a 20-year period between 1947 and 1967. Arguably, the series most defining moments are in the early 1950s era, so I decided to explore fan recommendations and try "Bullet Proof", originally published in 1951 by Dell.
The novel begins with Liddell receiving a phone call from a woman named Jean Merritt. She wants a second opinion on her father's death by suicide. Fearing that he was murdered, Merritt requests to meet Liddell on a lone cross-street at 10:30 PM to discuss pertinent facts about the case. Only Merritt doesn't show, instead she is replaced by a black Cadillac filled with hardmen. In an explosive opening chapter, Liddell dives for cover as Tommy guns eradicate a phone booth and nearby store. During the firefight, Liddell is able to kill one shooter but the man's identity leads to a number of questions and an intense interrogation inside the police precinct.
Learning that Merritt wired a $500 retainer for his services, Liddell is determined to learn what happened to the woman and her father. With the help of a wise medical examiner and a tenacious reporter named Muggsy (a series mainstay similar to Mike Shayne's Lucy Hammilton), Liddell delves into the Merritt family's history and their early ties to organized crime. When Liddell gets too close to the truth, he becomes a running target for a number of assassins. With riveting gunfights in the streets and hotel corridors, the aptly titled “Bullet Proof” delivers the goods in grand fashion.
While I enjoyed the 1947 Liddell debut, “About Face” (aka “Fatal Foursome”), I found it to be mired in mystery mud with very little action. Kane takes a cue from Mickey Spillane's red-hot character of that era, Mike Hammer, and adds a prevalent edginess to this book. There's even a scene with Liddell punching a beautiful prostitute in a hotel suite. The author uses the familiar genre tropes – hazy cigarette smoke, copious amounts of alcohol – to provide a seedy, darkly lit nightlife for the hero to operate. The atmosphere, engaging investigation and intense action sequences contribute to what is essentially the best Liddell novel I've read. “Bullet Proof” excels on all levels.
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