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Milton K. Ozaki was born of a Japanese father and an American mother in June of 1913, and during his life he was “a newspaperman, an artist, and the operator of a beauty parlor.” But beyond that, he wrote mysteries. Over twenty of them. Most of them about private eyes, many using the pseudonym “Robert O. Saber,” starting out at the lowest of the paperback publishers (Handi-Book and Graphic) before moving up to Ace and then finally Gold Medal. His style improved during the ascent as well, and supposedly the best of his career came with his Gold Medal novels. But despite being one of the first Japanese-American mystery writers, Ozaki is hardly remembered today. I purchased several of his novels during Prologue Books‘ $0.99 Kindle sale in June, and was interested to see if Ozaki is worth remembering. Well…

Gold Medal #795 - 1958 - Darcy.

Gold Medal 795 – 1958 – Ernest Chiriaka, AKA Darcy.

Police Lieutenant Robert Fury is putting aside his badge and gun to go on a much-needed vacation. His wife, ex-high society girl Mary Ellen Quinn, is due to have their first child, and Fury wants to spend the time preparing for the baby and being close to his wife. The unsolved robbery cases can wait, can’t they? This morning, she lets him sleep in as she drives off to her doctor’s appointment. Meanwhile…

Wally Hirsch has collected two hired guns and a delinquent gun moll for the biggest heist of their career. The Revens department store in the heart of the Chicago Loop is gearing up for a pre-Christmas sale on November 1st, and aside from the employees’ payroll, will have spare cash on hand. How much? Over a hundred grand. Wally’s plan is ingenious, but fraught with danger: the four of them are going to knock over the store and be out before anyone knows what hit them. Meanwhile…

Not a single illegal activity happens in Chicago without Sam Nazarian knowing about it, and taking his cut. So when Sam finds out about Wally’s plan, and finds out Wally’s not going to cough up Sam’s 20% cut, he throws the lead to two plainclothes cops on the take. Eagle-eyed for glory, the two rush off to try and beat the robbers to the Revens store, at which point of chain of calamities occur. The cops are shotgunned down in an elevator, and when Wally’s crew runs outside with the money, they don’t find their getaway driver. Instead, they find Mrs. Mary Ellen pulling up in front of the store. And Wally sees a silver lining in the chaos—a cop’s wife for a hostage…

Between the influx of characters and perspectives, the novel races along at a dizzying pace; there’s really nothing to hold it back, and that unstoppable abandon makes it hard to put down. Even before the heist goes off, there’s an underlying tension in the novel, as we follow a variety of characters whose story-lines begin to intersect, align, and then develop the plot. And when the heist goes off, it’s intense, juggling points-of-view: the cops out for glory, Wally and his gunmen on the attack, Wally’s gun moll stuck in traffic, Ellen getting out of the car, Robert Fury building a crib. The tension is palpable, and only continues to amplify as Robert returns to the force to try and find his wife.

Ozaki’s prose lacks the flair of some of his contemporaries, but I think it’s too easy to damn most crime writers as “not Jim Thompson.” Ozaki’s writing is fast-paced and terse, very straightforward, but with a sense of humor. His earlier novels starring Carl Good, P.I., are noted for their hardboiled prose and wicked sense of humor, and Ozaki was oft-mentioned in Bill Pronzini’s Son of Gun in Cheek. Case of the Cop’s Wife is terse and taught, but still has that playful tone in some of the turns of phrase; the writing is plain and unadorned, but Ozaki’s plotting and variety of point-of-view characters keeps the action flowing. As such, it’s a hard book to put down; who knows what’ll happen after that next paragraph break?

I’ve always had a soft spot for novels with a constrained sense of time; the shorter the time period they take place in, the more tension it builds. Events become more tangible not only when you have other events to compare against—here, the different characters’ almost simultaneous actions—but also when there’s a way to compare those actions with the setting—the day/night cycle, the time within a day, all that. Case of the Cop’s Wife takes place just over a day: it begins the evening before the crime, runs through the day of the burglary, and ends in the wee hours of the morning of the day after. So, its events occur over a span of thirty-some hours. That sense of constrained time helps keep the novel moving at a steady pace, jumping between points-of-view to compact the narrative and keep tension high. In my view, it worked.

copswifeSo, is Milton K. Ozaki worthy of re-discovery? Yes so far. Prologue Books has picked up almost all of his Gold Medal novels, but many of his earlier novels have never been reprinted. Even if the Gold Medals are the best, I’m interested to see if they’re as good (or better) than this one, as well as how his earlier works compared. And I liked Case of the Cop’s Wife enough to buy the rest of Prologue’s Ozaki offerings during their June sale. An above-average thriller that moves along at a steady clip, has interesting characters put in uncomfortable situations, and whose deft pacing made it hard to put down. Sounds like a winner to me.

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