Whit Masterson was Wade Miller was Robert Wade and William Miller, probably the most underrated writing duo in the noir field. Under a handful of bylines—most anagrams for “Wade Miller”—the pair wrote some of the best hardboiled novels of the era, starting with the Max Thursday novels in the ’40s and ending with Bill Miller’s premature death in 1961, though Wade wrote solo well into the 1970s. Under the Masterson nom-de-plum, they had some critical success when Orson Welles adapted their Badge of Evil into his 1958 classic Touch of Evil. The rest of the Masterson novels were relatively hard to find until Prologue Books digitized a good number of them; Stark House and Hard Case have reprinted some of the best novels written under the Wade Miller name, so today most of their books are accessible.
As a divorce detective, Mort Hagan is used to worried husbands paying him to tail their wives under suspicions of infidelity, even though there’s something fishy about this Wayne Wishart. After a long day’s work Hagan realizes that the woman he’s following—Wishart’s wife—is his ex, Hilda, whom he recently divorced. With that, Hagan decides to quit this job, but before he gets the chance Hilda is murdered, shot in the back with a bow and arrow. Being first on the scene, and her former husband, makes Mort Hagan the primary suspect. It doesn’t help that the Wayne Wishart who hired him wasn’t the real Wayne Wishart, or that Hilda’s vengeful twin Dagne wants to put Mort six feet under. Hagan needs to do what private eyes do best—solve the case—before the cops run out of other leads.
Dead, She Was Beautiful has the same “machinegun tempo, tight writing, unexaggerated hardness” that Anthony Boucher described in earlier novels. The plotting is intense, a roller-coaster ride where every chapter ends on some new revelation—it’s hard to stop reading. Just when Hagan finds some critical new clue, the police have some other secret up their sleeve; his relationship with Dagne begins when she pulls a gun on him, then becomes a fleeting romance before bullets start flying. I associate that romance element—along with a south o’ the border setting that this book lacks—with Wade Miller. Who says tough guys don’t need love?
I just re-read my review of the first Wade Miller novel, Deadly Weapon, and wondered if I’d been too hard on it—I considered it one of my top reads that year, but wrote that it was a bit rough and unpolished compared to the duo’s later novels. I’d been thinking of works like Branded Woman, but Dead, She Was Beautiful also fits the bill: the dialogue crackling with energy, the plot blazing along with grace and rapidity. This is a book moving with machine-like precision, with two authors writing at the top of their game. And while much of the prose is trimmed down to a stark, bare-bones core built for speed, it has moments of creative beauty standing out in sharp contrast:
The Modern Community for Modern Living was no more alive than the first time he had seen it. It was still an advertising promise, an unborn town. His head-lights, swinging in a wide arc as he skidded off the main highway, startled a large white owl perched atop the billboard. The bird flapped away like a retreating ghost. But there was no sign of human life.
These passages come from the finale, where Mort peruses a killer through a moon-lit construction site that becomes nightmarish in the dark:
At various unexpected locations construction machinery — bull-dozers and graders and ditchers and earthmovers — loomed out of the night to startle him, like gods in some heathen pantheon.
But there’s not much to differentiate it from their many other private eye novels—with very few changes, it could easily have been another Max Thursday novel. The Whit Masterson byline was created so that Wade and Miller could diversify, write new stories with new characters, which sounds like the case here. It’s not the most unique Wade Miller novel I’ve read, even though it’s one of their most well-crafted.
As a diehard fan of Whit Masterson/Wade Miller, Dead, She Was Beautiful didn’t disappoint. These were authors capable of some of the best noir in the business, and this novel showcases what they did best. The writing is a fast and vivid and draws you into its twisty-turny plot, one man’s race against time to clear his name of a murder he didn’t commit. My recommendation should come as a no-brainer. For anyone who enjoys a good ’50s hardboiled noir, this book is more than worth the read.