Lorenz F. Heller (1910-1965) was a New Jersey guy - and eventual Florida transplant - who authored genre books under the names Laura Hale, Larry Heller, Lorenz Heller and Larry Holden as well as TV scripts as George Sims. Black Gat Books has recently re-issued his 1957 paperback Dead Wrong originally published under the Larry Holden pseudonym.
Our narrator, ex-boxer Joe Molone, is planning to host an old friend named Harry Loomis who’s visiting town. As young men, Joe and Harry used to raise hell in the saloons of Newark, but nowadays Malone owns a modest building supply company, and Loomis works on cargo ships. Things take an early head-scratching turn when Harry doesn’t show up for their planned night of debauchery. Instead, Harry’s 24 year-old estranged daughter Claire shows up with a note from her father.
According to the letter, Harry has become fabulously wealthy from a savvy investment and wants to retire to Florida from the cargo ship business. Harry wants his daughter to be with him in Florida while Harry nurses his arthritic bones back to good health. As Joe is wondering why his old friend has stood him up, he learns that Harry has been murdered with a mysterious package missing. If you guessed that this is one of those books where the narrator has to solve a murder to clear his own name with the help of a beautiful girl, you’d be spot-on.
On the road to the truth, there are some excellent action sequences where Joe uses his fists on adversaries as if he was back in the boxing ring. Heller also creates some vivid secondary characters like the street hood with a knack for crafting edge weapons out of anything. Joe’s old flame - a nightclub chanteuse with some real street smarts - is another fantastically-drawn member of the supporting cast. These interesting, well-developed characters propel this rather standard crime-noir plot into something special and unusual. The prose is smooth and there’s no confusion in the storytelling despite many clever twists and turns leading to the tidy ending.
After reading both Dead Wrong and Heller’s A Rage at Sea, I’m beginning to feel that the author may be an unsung hero of 1950s crime fiction deserving greater recognition. Both novels were outstanding, and I’m looking forward to seeking out more of his work. Highly recommended.
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