In the 1950s, Richard Himmel (1920-2000) wrote five books in the Johnny Maguire series about a lawyer who functions as a hardboiled detective and all-around troubleshooter. I loved the series debut, so I was excited to tackle the second installment, The Chinese Keyhole from 1951. The book was originally a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback and has been re-released by Cutting Edge Books.
The novel opens with Johnny telling the reader something he neglected to share in the first book. During World War 2, Johnny was recruited into the OSS, the wartime precursor to the CIA, and he’s periodically called upon to set aside his law practice to engage in espionage at the request of the U.S. State Department. Yes, our favorite hardboiled Chicago lawyer is evidently a spook as well. It’s almost as if the author had a cool idea for a spy novel and decided to slot Johnny Maguire into the lead role because he had an extra protagonist just lying around with no immediate plans.
Anyway, Johnny’s handler instructs him to go to the Chinese Keyhole, a strip club in Chicago’s Chinatown, to deliver a coded message to an Asian stripper. One thing leads to another, and Johnny has a bloodbath on his hands. The only way to get close to the killers is to, well, sleep with a stripper. A part-time spy’s work is never done.
Meanwhile, Johnny’s childhood friend Tom was recently plugged in the back six times with no leads as to the killer’s identity. Tom was a walking saint on earth, and who would want to kill a guy like that? If you’re familiar with the way 1950s plotting works, you’ve probably already guessed that Tom’s death is somehow tied into the nudie bar spy situation. A central mystery develops regarding the identity of the enemy spy ring boss, and the solution - a big reveal at the end - was pretty obvious to anyone paying attention. That said, the series of final confrontations with Johnny’s adversaries was pretty outstanding.
Himmel was a great writer who knew how to keep a story moving, and The Chinese Keyhole is a sexy and exciting thin paperback. Readers should know that this 1951 work of disposable fiction has some retrograde things to say about Asians and gays. It didn’t bother me, but consider yourself warned that 1951 was, in fact, nearly 70 years ago.
Richard Himmel deserves to be remembered, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that The Chinese Keyhole was the high-mark of his writing career. It’s a romantic and exciting bit of domestic spy fiction, and I’m thrilled that Cutting Edge Books has made the series available to a new generation. I’m also excited to read what Johnny Maguire is going to do next.
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