Female authors are rather underrepresented at Paperback Warrior (nothing personal, ladies!), so we put our feelers out for book recommendations of hardboiled vintage crime fiction by women. One name that kept popping up was Helen Nielsen (1918-2002), a popular mystery author of the 1950s and 1960s who also wrote TV episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Perry Mason. My introduction to her work was the 1953 paperback, Detour to Death (also released as just Detour). The novel remains available today as a cheap ebook and audiobook - both free with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.
Danny Ross is an 18 year-old drifter hitchhiking south from Chicago in search of a fresh start. He gets a ride with a kindly physician named Dr. Gaynor who needs to make a quick detour in the small town of Mountain View where the doc has patients among the locals. After a brief visit at the town’s diner, the Doc heads back to his car where Danny finds him minutes later murdered from a blow to a head. All in all, it’s a pretty basic setup for a pretty standard whodunnit.
Because Danny is both a stranger in town and the one who found the bludgeoned doctor, he’s immediately the prime suspect for the murder and detained pending further police investigation (i.e. beatings). Fortunately, two attorneys - one a drunk and the other an accomplished trial lawyer - team up to investigate the matter to learn the truth. This leads to some astonishingly unrealistic scenes of investigative procedures in which the attorney drags along both the sheriff and Danny to examine the crime scene and interview witnesses in a handful of scenes that defy any understanding of basic law enforcement operations.
While Nielsen could craft a decent mystery with solid prose, she introduces way, way too many characters for a 192 page book. I get that it’s a small town and a lot of people are suspects with varying motives, but I needed a Game of Thrones-style org chart to keep track of the townsfolk, their alliances, and their grievances.
Back to the woman-thing, Nielsen made some narrative choices that I think her male contemporaries would have done way differently. For example, the sheriff beats Danny to a bloody pulp to elicit a confession, but this was done off-page. Does anyone think that author Dan J. Marlowe would have passed up the opportunity to chronicle every nose-crushing blow? There were other examples where Nielsen pulled punches - both literally and figuratively - that serve to make the novel rather soft-boiled.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Detour to Death was just a paint-by-numbers mystery whodunnit. Nielsen could clearly write well enough, but her plotting in this one was a real snooze. Seeing the shortcomings of Detour to Death through a gendered prism may not be fair to other female authors, but we also shouldn’t be grading this softball of a novel on a curve just because the writer was a lady. There were certainly plenty of crappy crime novels written by both men and women in the 1950s. I was just hoping for something better given Nielsen’s reputation for quality.
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