Richard Powell was one of the many authors Hard Case Crime led me to, and while Say It With Bullets isn’t as well-recieved by other readers, I thought it was a blast. On the down side, Powell didn’t write as much mystery fiction, turning to mainstream/literary fiction in 1956. Most of his mysteries are in the Andy & Arab series, where quirky married couple Andy and his Arabella Blake solve mysteries. Luckily, I found that Powell’s standalone novels A Shot in the Dark and Shell Game were reprinted by Stark House as a double, and now Prologue Books has released them for whatever flavor e-reader you use. The Stark House volume has a nice introduction about Powell’s life; the Prologue editions are very affordable. Either way it’s a win.
Manila, February 1945. Johnny Edwards made the mistake of wandering around alone in search of souvenirs. He found some, all right; bullets from a Nambu machine gun that riddled his legs. Miraculously, he’s saved by a Spaniard named Tony who stashes him in his cellar hideout until American troops rescue them. Flash forward several years; Johnny Edwards has returned to the lazy life of the idle rich. When Johnny receives a frenetic note from Tony pleading for help, he ignores it and spends the rest of his day fishing. The guilt eventually gets to him, and he sets out for Havana, where Tony was waiting in hopes of a U.S. entry visa. But Johnny arrives minutes too late, and finds Tony’s warm corpse: in desperation Tony had contacted a gang smuggling illegals into Florida, and when Tony chickened out, the gang disposed of him.
Johnny now has the guilt of Tony’s death hanging over him—if only he’d arrived a few hours earlier, he could have used his senator uncle’s money to get his friend out of the clutches of the underworld. When his attempts to flush out the smugglers fail, he does what any sensible person does and joins the Border Patrol. By coincidence, a girl he met in Havana—a date he blew off, in favor of fruitlessly chasing after the smugglers—happens to have a brother in the Border Patrol in need of a partner. And happens to live right where the smugglers are depositing their human cargo…
There’s a seam right in the middle of A Shot in the Dark, where the novel turns from Johnny’s existential crisis and personal quest for vengeance to become more of a Border Patrol procedural. The first half of the book is full of light wordplay and darker themes—Johnny stumbling around in the dark, almost catching Tony’s murderer, almost catching some bullets. The second half is more methodical, though the ending is nice and intense; Johnny is still set on vengeance, but it feels encompassed by the understaffed Border Patrol and its search for illegals. Johnny’s also lost his drunken depression in favor of balancing awkward relationships between the other major characters: his gruff partner, who thinks Johnny doesn’t deserve to be a Border Patrol agent; his partner’s pretty if desperate sister; and said sister’s date, a hunk who Johnny squabbled with in Cuba. It’s a bit bipolar, if still coherent, though I preferred the first half to the second. Why? Because Richard Powell’s writing strengths were out in full force.
Powell has this effortless writing style that, while not quite breezy, has an effervescent charm underneath its crispy noir shell. Johnny starts out as a horribly tortured soul, the lounge-about playboy whose inaction caused the death of the person who saved his (unproductive) life. Tony scraped by to survive, hoping for a better life in the States, while Johnny was out fishing. That existential crisis is subdued, but the driving force behind Johnny’s quest to find the murderers. And Powell manages to blend that dark and gritty backdrop with brilliant wit and wordplay. Johnny always has a fast comeback, and Powell’s use of third-person limited narrative we jump into Johnny’s train of thought when it’s convenient. I think that tongue-in-cheek element of Powell’s style is why he’s not better known today.
I say that not because I don’t like his novels—I love them—but I’ve seen enough reviews of Say It With Bullets to know anyone expecting a serious, traditional, hardboiled narrative is going to be disappointed with Powell. Right now, I really wanted that lighthearted kick his novels provide. The mystery is well-kept but not earth-shaking, the characters are interesting but rather thin, and the book moves at Speed of Plot thanks to Johnny’s senator uncle and his endlessly deep pockets. (Six months later, Johnny Edwards is now in the Border Patrol.) But Johnny’s a likable, sympathetic character trying to make amends for his mistake, with a great mind for witty wordplay even when drunk. Despite his self-deprecation, he’s a great protagonist to follow.
That, right there, is the root of why I’ve really enjoyed the works of Richard Powell: Powell’s novels are fun. It only took me a few nights to complete A Shot in the Dark, but I spent that time smiling, engrossed in Johnny Edwards’ quest of vengeance. If you welcome a change of pace in your diet of hardboiled mystery fiction, you could do worse than check out some of Powell’s novels.