In addition to two excellent stand-alone novels published under the Thomas Brandt pseudonym, Thomas B. Dewey (1915-1981) was the author of three successful and highly-regarded crime-fiction series titles: Singer Batts, Mac, and Pete Schoefield. Conventional wisdom is that the Mac books, which ran for 18 installments from 1947 to 1970, are the strongest of the three. I decided to start with the second book in the series, Every Bet’s a Sure Thing from 1953 - a novel currently available as a $5 ebook.
Mac (his only provided name) is a Chicago ex-cop turned private investigator who is hired to shadow a woman and two kids as they make their way from New York to Los Angeles on a train. What could be easier? You ride the train with her and keep an eye on the dame, right?
The identity of the client is a mystery to Mac, and it’s clear from the outset that this isn’t a simple domestic surveillance job. The target - her name is Harriet - gets off at every stop and uses the payphone, and local hoodlums are milling about every time she disembarks for a few minutes. Most relevantly, an prior operative who had been following Harriett is gunned down in the street as Mac takes over the cross-country surveillance during a Chicago layover. Someone in the shadows is playing for keeps.
Much of the book’s first half takes place on the train, and Mac’s curiosity gets the better of him. He gets to know Harriet and her kids along the journey. And that’s the thing about Mac that separates him from the other hardboiled private eyes from the mid-20th Century: he’s a nice guy with compassion and empathy for others. After reading hundreds of blood-on-the-knuckles mysteries with stoic heroes, having a protagonist narrator who cares about others was a breath of fresh air. Mac is no softy - he’s just human. He can kick ass and take a beating, but he does it because he wants to help others. When the paperback’s action shifts to Los Angeles, the big picture becomes clearer to both Mac and the reader.
By 1953, Dewey has been writing genre fiction professionally for nearly a decade, and his storytelling chops are solid. Mac is a fantastic narrator - self-deprecating and funny - and the reader will want to be his friend. Every Bet’s a Sure Thing is filled with delightful surprises at every turn. Don’t sleep on this one - get yourself a copy and read it ASAP. Highest recommendation.
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