The fiction of Cleve Adams (1895-1949) first appeared in pulp magazines like Double Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly. Beginning in 1940, Adams launched a seven-book series of private-eye novels starring Rex McBride. He also authored two novels starring private-eye John Shannon as well as a two-book series of mysteries starring Bill Rye (published under the pseudonym John Spain). The author also wrote a handful of stand-alone, hardboiled crime novels and a number of short stories. One of those, "The Key", was featured in the July 1940 issue of Black Mask and collected in the 2010 collection The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories.
"The Key" stars Canavan, a tough-as-nails police lieutenant working the beat in Los Angeles. After bringing a thug into Night Court, Canavan spots an attractive young woman named Hope who seemingly doesn't belong with the night's typical lot of thieves, prostitutes and miscreants. After paying her $8 fine for skipping out of a restaurant tab, Canavan offers to drive Hope back to the hotel where she resides. It's on this drive that Hope confesses to Canavan that she was to meet a man at the diner but he didn't show. Her belongings were apparently stolen from her room, including her meal money. Canavan, feeling pity for the young woman, escorts her to her hotel room only to awaken a few hours later with a knot on his head, his wallet missing and Hope nowhere to be found. Literally.
Canavan believes Hope is attached to something other than just petty theft. After chasing her trail, the police lieutenant runs into a Syndicate goon named Kolinski who may be behind the murder of Hope's brother. After learning that Hope may be on the run from her brother's killer, Canavan defies the law and finds himself as a wanted fugitive. In attempting to find Hope, Canavan hopes to prove his innocence as the corpses pile up.
This was a rather odd whodunit with a number of nonsensical scenes involving Canavan searching for clues. There's Kolinksi's racket of running a protection association for morticians begging them question: were mortuaries frequently robbed and vandalized in the 1940s? The idea of a “key to solve the murder” is an old genre trope that even feels over utilized for the time period. At six chapters, the novella moves briskly and Canavan is a believable hero. Everything else wasn't. Overall, "The Key" was an enjoyable albeit average mystery that left me curious to read more of Cleve Adams' literary work.
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