American author Norman Daniels (real name Norman Danberg, 1905-1995) is best known for re-introducing pulp hero Black Bat in 1939. Daniels authored a number of short stories featuring the character for Black Book Detective. Arguably, Black Bat was the catalyst for DC Comics' iconic Batman. Along with Black Bat, Daniels contributed stories for dozens of pulp magazines like Shadow, Gangster Stories, Thrilling Publications and All Detective. The author's post-pulp career was immensely successful as Daniels utilized a number of pseudonyms to write crime-noir and adventure paperbacks for a variety of publishers. My introduction to Daniels is the 1959 Avon paperback “The Captive”.
Jeff Castle is a WW2 veteran who now lives a quiet life in Africa as a big-game hunter. Upon hearing that his estranged grandfather is dying, Castle arrives on New York's East Side to pay his respects. After stopping in at a local bar for a drink, Castle is seduced by a sultry woman named Alma. After an afternoon of lovemaking at the woman's apartment, Castle steps out to buy a few drinks. Upon his return he discovers that Alma has been strangled to death. In my crime-noir experiences, “The Captive” was shaping up as a stereotypical “innocent man flees the corpse” novel. Thankfully, Norman Daniels had some interesting variations in store for the reader.
After fleeing the scene, Castle vows to find Alma's murderer. But Castle's quest for vengeance is sidelined when his grandfather advises him that he's the sole heir to his vast fortune. The heart of the estate is 60 small hotels and inns scattered throughout the state. As if it was a dire warning, Castle's grandfather, on his deathbed, pleads that nobody will take the fortune and asks Castle to fight for what is his. Questioning his grandfather's dying wish, Castle begins investigating the hotels he now owns. Shockingly, he discovers that all of the properties are full-staffed brothels.
Digging into the accounting ledgers, Castle discovers a complex earning schedule of rental income and the proceeds from properties' illegal affairs. After attempting to remove prostitutes from one of the larger hotels, Castle is brutally tortured and beaten in a cold dark basement. The Syndicate warns Castle that he may own the properties, but they control and operate all of the affairs. As the plot thickens, Castle learns that Alma's murder may have ties to the Syndicate's warning. In his quest to avenge Alma's murder, Castle finds that he's fighting the mob head-on.
First and foremost, Normal Daniels is an average writer. When compared to mid-20th century contemporaries like Charles Williams, Gil Brewer or John D. MacDonald, there is an obvious shortfall in the prose’s quality. Daniels' dialogue sequences are the heaviest casualty. With that being said, “The Captive” is still an engaging, thoroughly enjoyable literary work. The pace is brisk and both Castle and a few side characters are really engaging. I particularly enjoyed the author's connection from mobsters to the big-game hunting that Castle is familiar with. In a way it reminded me of the 1951 novel “The Killer” by Wade Miller (Robert Wade, Bill Miller). The narrative's twists and turns through Castle's new estate left me curious and wholly surprised. Further, I was ecstatic to find Daniels flesh out a familiar opening concept.
With “The Captive”, Norman Daniels pulls no punches – this is a violent crime yarn from cover to cover. Sadly, like many stellar crime novels of this period, the book has yet to be reprinted for new generations. Do yourself a favor and track down a copy. You can buy a used copy of the book HERE.
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