I never realized before there were so many ways to die. So many ways to kill people. Why are there so many deadly weapons?”
Clapp rubbed his lip and looked down at her. “Listen, Miss Gilbert. I’ve come to figure that man is the only deadly weapon. Take a gun. It’s an absolutely harmless thing—even makes a good honest paperweight—until some man gets his hands around it. You can strip a gun down to its basic parts and it’s lost its power. You can reduce a man to his chemical elements, but you’ve always got the spirit of whatever you call it left. And that spirit will find some damned way to do evil.
Returning once again to Robert Wade and William Miller. So far, I’ve been impressed and enthralled by every book of theirs that I’ve read, but it’s also been tricky tracking down novels by these forgotten masters. I picked up Deadly Weapon during a blowout sale of Prologue Books‘ e-books on Amazon earlier in the year, and now that I have a tablet I have a way to read it. I was surprised to find this was the duo’s first published novel, dating from 1946, but that was less a deterrent and more a point of interest. (Another point of interest is that it introduces police detective Austin Clapp, a supporting character from the six Max Thursday novels that Wade and Miller would write, starting in 1947.)
Private eye Walter James is on the trail of the drug cartel who killed his partner, led to a San Diego burlesque house by an anonymous tip from one Doctor Boone. But before he can make the meet, the contact is murdered. James decides to team up with police detective Austin Clapp to bust the drug ring once and for all. There are plenty of suspects for him to choose between. There’s the beautiful Shasta Lynn, the striptease artist headlining at the burlesque. There’s Laura Gilbert, whose romance with James blossoms over the course of the novel, and her father, who’s providing a lot of secret money to Shasta Lynn. There’s a retired Major, a quack psychiatrist, and a trio of Mexican drug lords. Untangling this web of shady dealers and dangerous characters might lead James to the mysterious Doctor Boone, who is the key to busting this case wide open.
As a first novel, Deadly Weapon is a bit rough, filled with awkward sentences and a stark minimalist style. It also shares fewer features with later Wade Miller novels than it does with Dashiell Hammett; it’s still a Wade Miller, and it feels like it, but parts of the book read more like an homage to the writers of the ’30s, lacking the spark of uniqueness and juicy wordplay that books like Branded Woman and The Killer had. The authors are spot-on at evoking Hammett’s style of prose, which is a bit of a surprise, and combine it with features of their later works—a romance between Walter James and Laura, the Southern California setting, the rapid pacing and shocking ending. The writing is detached and emotionless, but it includes some amazing characterization and stellar dialogue. The banter between Detective Clapp and Walter James is top-notch, and is one of the novel’s highlights.
So far, every Wade Miller novel I’ve read has balanced romance with murder; here, it’s the relationship between Walter James and Laura Gilbert. James is very protective of the girl, who’s a suspect because she was sitting next to the murdered man. James works hard to keep her father’s secret dealings with Shasta Lynn out of the thoughts of the police. Their actual romance is well-plotted, but somewhat awkward because the gender roles end up getting reversed in the middle. James is given feminine characteristics (not just from calling him “the slender detective” at all times, but from lines like “Walter James put his hand next to Laura Gilbert’s on the desk. It was just as white and almost as small”). Meanwhile, Laura Gilbert wants everyone to call her by her middle name, Kevin, for no apparent reason, which momentarily confuses Clapp and befuddled me.
Truth be told, Deadly Weapon isn’t on par with the best Wade Miller novels; it’s a fine detective novel in its own right, but it’s a generic ’30s-’40s detective novel with great writing and a solid ending. It’s an interesting exercise in minimalism that showcases what transpired before instead of what Wade and Miller would do in the next decade. I think it’s fascinating to see how much Hammett and Chandler influenced Wade and Miller, and to see how far their writing style evolved over the years. But while the prose was brisk, it was also bloodless, and the plot was a generic detective one despite some interesting elements and a shocking finale. (A revelation which also renders some of the characters’ actions as counterproductive, looking back after the big reveal.)
I still really enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone who likes old-school detective novels. Warts and all, it was fine entertainment that kept my rapt attention, and even after pondering some of the authors’ poor choices I still think it’s a strong and enjoyable novel. But it’s worth pointing out the rough beginnings and ragged edges. Deadly Weapon is a winner, but not for the reasons I expected; it’s not the greatest Wade Miller novel, but it is a great read. And that’s the important thing.
Ebook Comments: No complaints, the OCR/proofreading was great so I didn’t catch any errors (there may have been a few minor ones that slipped me by). A very polished publication on behalf of Prologue Books, available in the following flavors: Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Sony. Retails for $3.99 in digital copy, which places it in the impulse buy category in my opinion—a great price. I think this is one of a half-dozen I bought for a dollar each during Prologue’s amazing Kindle Gold Box Deal, months before I had a tablet; I wish I’d had a helluva lot more dollars back then.