Something came out of the shadows behind him and connected with his skull just back of the right ear. There was a tremendous explosion without any noise to it. He fell a long way, into a place that was black and cold and utterly quiet. He had a dream while he was down there. Someone was slapping his face, sharply but without passion.
As legend goes, Howard Hawks was so impressed by No Good From a Corpse that he asked for “this guy Brackett” to help William Faulkner write the screenplay for Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946). Hawks didn’t seem to mind that Leigh Brackett was a woman, or that most of her fiction published to-date had been space opera and planetary adventure printed in magazines like Planet Stories. In fact, Brackett became one of his go-to writers, in a screenwriting career that included eleven films (if you include the first pass of The Empire Strikes Back, a few months before she died from cancer). Long-time readers will recognize her as one of my favorite science fiction authors, as I’ve reviewed a number of her stories and novels. But despite the noir tone in her SF, and my love of noir, I have yet to read any of her few mysteries—No Good From a Corpse, Stranger at Home ghostwritten for George Sanders, Silent Partner, and the suspense novels An Eye for an Eye and The Tiger Among Us. Given its legendary reputation, and several recent glowing reviews, I find it hard not to pick up No Good From a Corpse.
Detective Ed Clive returns home from one job, only to be thrust into the middle of another. One of his childhood friends turned worst enemies, Mick Hammond, is having marital troubles, as Mick and his heiress wife Jane have received threatening letters. To make things worse, Laurel Dane is somehow involved—a nightclub singer who’s in love with Ed, and visa-versa, even though they know they’re rotten for each other. When Laurel winds up dead, Ed and Mick are the two prime suspects—while Mick is the one who ends up in the clink, Ed remains under the microscope, the police expecting he had a role to play in the murder. To clear his name, and in search of vengeance, he sets out to find Laurel’s killer. On his journey down dark alleys and across L.A’s oil-specked beaches, he’ll run into Jane Hammond’s femme fatale sister, uncover the dark truths of Laurel’s past, and take a helluva beating in the process.
It’s very easy to see why Hawks was so impressed by Brackett’s writing, and why he wanted her to help script a Raymond Chandler novel—Brackett is one of the few authors who can write Chandleresque prose better than Chandler. Perhaps not for the entire length of the novel, but long enough to make it count. The dialogue is some of the sharpest and toughest writing I’ve read all year, with a deft vocabulary and rapier wit. The plotting is as convoluted as Chandler at his best, a crisscrossing maze of turncoats and double-blinds and unexpected murders. The first three chapters exist as a whirl, a kind of organized chaos that isn’t fully explained or comprehensible until the following chapter. Brackett would often nail the noir mood in her science fiction, and such is the case here, melding the super-tough Ed Clive with some fine pulp poetry:
That’s the hell of this case. Nobody has a face. Nobody even has a voice. Just shadows and whispers and keys turning, and death in somebody’s heart, and no way to get any of it out into the daylight.
That doesn’t even get into one-off gems like “The rain on the metal top sounded like a regiment of small boys bouncing golf balls.” And its twist-laden plot has a slew of unexpected surprises waiting to sneak up on you, several of them sucker-punches that I didn’t see coming. (Speaking of sucker-punches, the finale is a hum-dinger—it’s a shocking, brutal end to the story, both fitting and entirely unexpected.) I’d also like to mention the novel’s excellent sense of atmosphere… not just noir atmosphere, the miasma of smog and cordite and cigarettes. Brackett’s inclusion of everyday wartime elements—crowds include masses of uniformed men, there’s mention of “dimout” conditions—distinctly date the novel’s place in history.
The novel does slip a few times, though. The pace is so unrelenting and moves with such mercurial dexterity that the plot becomes dizzying; I had a hard time keeping up with the first few chapters before some of the character relationships and motivations had developed to the point where I had some form of grounding. The plot moves fast, and Brackett doesn’t slow down and keep the reader up to speed—just keep running to catch up with it, you’ll pick most it up by context. There’s also some overdone attempts at humor. While these start out more as screwball comedy, fitting the era if not the tone, a few of the scenes descended to cartoon hijinks—such as the scene with Clive, his alcoholic junior detective Johnathan Ladd Jones, and a pair of hookers that takes place in a room apparently made of empty gin bottles. Thankfully, there are few of such scenes, and while they did break the immersion they did not spoil the novel overall.
No Good From a Corpse is an excellent novel, and in another world would have gone down as a noir classic… had Brackett not switched focus to her screenplays, perhaps, or if her entire bibliography had been mysteries and not space opera. Instead, it’s a fascinating look at what might have been, had Brackett’s career revolved around writing Chandleresque adventure on Earth and not on Mars. I could come up with some more superlatives to describe it, but I won’t bother; suffice to say that the novel lives up to its reputation, and aside from a few minor flaws it will more than entertain any reader who enjoys a good dose of noir. I highly recommend it to the hardboiled reader, and want to point out that you can download an e-book version free at Munsey’s.