Milton K. Ozaki is not one of the best-remembered crime novelists, despite a leading role in Bill Pronzini’s Son of Gun in Cheek. The first Japanese-American mystery writer, who penned almost 30 novels, Ozaki is one of those authors who’s since slipped into the shadows of time, though Prologue Books did pick four of his novels to republish as e-books. From what I’ve read, his Gold Medal novels were some of the best, though Ozaki’s work suffers from a surprising lack of reviews. And of the handful I’ve seen, none have touched this one, Case of the Deadly Kiss; here be dragons, I’m covering uncharted grounds.
Someone is murdering the girlfriends and sweethearts of policemen: tracking their routines, hunting them down in the dark of night, giving them a sloppy sickening kiss while strangling them. With the mayor up for re-election, and his fate resting on the competency of his chief of police, the police force kicks into overdrive in search of the killer. They need to nab him before the rival sheriff’s department catches up and makes off with all the credit. And one cop, John D’Alessandro, is on this case with a vengeance. For him, it’s personal: the last victim was his girlfriend Milly… and D’Alessandro’s only reason to live is to catch this killer and make sure justice is served. The detective force must move fast, because if don’t catch the perp soon, the days are counting down until he’ll strike again…
It’s odd reading a police procedural not written by Ed McBain. Ozaki’s police use established technique, but he forgoes things like re-creating official police documentation in favor of occasional expository facts… such as that 83 police officers is a reasonably sized force for a town of 60,000, or when characters list off their department’s roster or their wages ($60/week) in conversation. They’re interesting details, though their insertion into the narrative is awkward, often forced. McBain was a master of including realistic police technique into the narrative without slowing the pace; Ozaki’s pacing, by contrast, is jerky and more helter-skelter.
Part of that comes from the abundance of characters; at times it feels like every living soul in town has been committed to paper, as there is a surplus of non-essential characters who show up only for a few pages or a fragment of a chapter. Plus, there’s all the major characters in plot-threads Ozaki alternates between. When you include D’Alessandro, his boss Lieutenant Koda, the rivalry between the mayor and sheriff, the female victims, the cop boyfriends, and the killer—just to name the major players—you end up with over a dozen characters in a half-dozen story-threads and can start to see why I say it’s overburdened. I felt the use of multiple interwoven storylines worked better in Ozaki’s Case of the Cop’s Wife. In Case of the Deadly Kiss, it keeps the novel moving at a rapid pace and ties the various threads together for added complexity and multiple red herrings, but makes for choppy pacing.
Ozaki’s prose is clean of ornamentation, very sparse and straightforward, which makes the novel a brisk read. He’s also got a very playful tone, bordering on gallows humor with some of his wit. For example, one of the scenes with the local undertakers has them decide to raise rates on services, commenting “it’s not like they can take it with them.” That odd sense of humor, combined with some of his unintentionally funny phrases, are why Ozaki featured so prominently in Son of Gun in Cheek. In case you’re worried—it’s not too bad, though the pacing can be awkward at times, and I have to question some of the plot elements, namely that the police let D’Alessandro stay active on a case where his fiancée was slain.
The choice of setting is rather unique; many crime-mystery novels go for New York, Los Angeles, or an exotic locale, such as the Caribbean or Mediterranean. Ozaki set many of his novels in the small rust belt city of “Stillwell, Wisconsin.” You can check, but there’s no such place; it’s based on Ozaki’s hometown of Kenosha, nestled between Milwaukee and Chicago. The novel’s heartland setting adds some interesting elements: 1950s morality. Two sets of characters have (off-screen) sex, and then promptly worried about being forced into marriage or called a loose woman. Most characters in a hardboiled novel kill and sleep around with reckless abandon, so this novel’s portrayal of 1950s heartland morality is a sharp departure from the norm.
Case of the Deadly Kiss rests somewhere around average; it’s not a bad book, but not a terribly compelling or thrilling read either. The plot is decent—the core idea was a very good one; the characters are alright, but there’s a few too many of them. The writing was straightforward and brisk, though marred by occasional exposition dumps or awkward phrasing. I thought Ozaki’s next book—1958’s Case of the Cop’s Wife—was a competent and fast-moving potboiler. As for Deadly Kiss, I think it could be of interest to crime/detective readers of the forgotten books variety.