A hotel is like a prison, he thought. The rooms are cells holding secrets and passions. Then something happens, the smallest thing, and the doors fly open. The explosion goes off. Panic. And fragments of truth.
Here’s one for you. In 1961, E. Howard Hunt wrote a little Gold Medal thriller by the name of House Dick, starring a detective at an upscale Washington, D.C. hotel. Eleven years later, he attempted to live out the world of his novels, and was arrested for breaking into a real Washington, D.C. hotel. What are the odds. Hunt had a fascinating career, both as CIA spook and as hack writer. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in the late ’40s and working for the OSS during the Second World War, he attempted to live two lives: a day-job flying a desk as an intelligence agent, and a personal life writing crime-mysteries and spy thrillers, many of which were set in Washington D.C. His CIA handlers didn’t like him writing under his own name, thus House Dick was published by under one of Hunt’s many pseudonyms, Gordon Davis.
The novel follows protagonist Pete Novak, aging and scruffy house detective to a 500-plus room D.C. hotel, the Tilden. Other than keeping the prostitutes and hustlers out of the joint, checking in on missing jewelry, and keeping an eye on the hotel staff to see if any have sticky fingers, Pete’s job is pretty quiet. As he explains it:
All quiet at the Tilden.
Except for the obese wife of a wealthy industrialist, the furtive face of a raw food quack and the memory of a silk-shirted hoodlum tossing a bill on the carpet for you to crawl and fetch.
All quiet except for the tortured face of a grey-eyed, ash-blonde lovely with a showgirl’s body and a conscience heavier than a carload of sins. Mouth, a slash of red; eyes that pleaded for pity, understanding. And lips that told nothing…
Let me try and explain that. First, a grey-blonde hottie named Paula Norton catches Novak’s attention when she’s checking in at the lobby; the two exchange witty dialogue before she departs. Later, he’s called up for a jewel heist—Mrs. Chalmers Boyd, “obese wife” of a wealthy Chicago insurance man claims someone stole her valuables, somewhere in the neighborhood of $90,000 worth. Her husband tells Novak that she’s delusional, that the jewels are still in a safe in Chicago. The part that feels fishy to Novak is the “physician” the Boyds are putting up, with his mail-order diploma and quack “cures” for Mrs. Boyd’s mental maladies.
But while investigating that jewel theft, Novak hears a commotion in a nearby room, and bursts in to find Paula getting worked over by her ex-husband. When Paula escorts her would-be hero out at gunpoint, the gears start turning in Novak’s head, and he returns to figure out what the hell was going on. Turns out her ex is an important hood in the Chicago crime scene fresh out of a jail stint, shaking her down for money. Money which she doesn’t have right now, she tells Novak; she’s here in D.C. to collect it via some shady transaction. The amount happens to be to the tune of $90,000. I think I see where this is going.
Hunt is a damn fine author with impressive prose; I assume it’s that Guggenheim experience showing through. His writing has an innate dynamism, and flows with a nice rapid rhythm, bounding over a tight-knit plot with abandon. It’s laden with slang and jargon, and while most of it has been lost to the ages, it’s not as overwhelming or baroque as in other novels. Hunt’s strength is with characters: they’re all developed and quite memorable, with unique personalities fleshed out by the first time you see them. The other Hunt I’ve read, Bimini Run, had a first-person PoV; this one is third-person, though it feels awkward at points from varying levels of omniscience, like Hunt had a hard time remembering that we’re not inside Pete Novak’s head the whole time.
That said, there’s nothing much new under the sun: while I love the prose, the novel is pretty stock when it comes to plot, devices, character types, and other staple tropes. It’s a straightforward private detective tale through and through. But an enjoyable one. I think its great characters and awesome surprises later in the novel were worth the price of admission, and the ending is spot-on.
The luster of Hunt’s dazzling prose and intricate plot would be lost without a spark of uniqueness. While House Dick is powered by formulaic pacing and stock tropes, it remains wild and unpredictable to the end, thanks to great characters, any one of whom could be culprit or victim. And that, I think, is why the novel shines. To me, Hunt proved he could write with Bimini Run (1949); House Dick shows that he could keep up that quality authorial voice and improve upon the foundation he’d established. Hunt’s writing, pacing, and characters were always made of fine craftsmanship, but here, those interesting characters are given something interesting to do: Hunt provides a developed, turbulent plot. This novel stands in a sea of similar contemporaries, but it stands tall and proud—it’s quality stuff, if a tad too familiar.