Down at the edge of Mexican town, where the pavement gave out and the yellow dust drifted ankle-deep over the hard-packed adobe, a radio was moaning a dreamy beat into the night. It was the kind of music that needs two people, but only one was listening…
Helen Nielsen is not one of the more well-known grand dames of noir. Even her most famous novels are deep cuts, as none of them earned the kind of success that Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, or Margaret Millar attained. Nielsen’s Wikipedia page is about a hundred words long—pretty skimpy, considering she wrote over two dozen mystery novels from the 1940s until the 1970s. What’s known about her biography is that she studied at the Chicago Institute of Arts, then worked as an aeronautical drafter during the war and helped design the P-80, the first American jet fighter. She also wrote screenplays for TV, including four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and two of Perry Mason, and a multitude of short stories for the leading mystery magazines of the day. The lack of information about Nielsen is staggering in our information age, though of course her novels have been digitized—her works have been preserved even if the author’s background hasn’t.
Virginia Wales, waitress at a local diner, always looking for a good time, was bludgeoned to death in her room. The prime suspect is her ex-husband Frank, a quiet man now on the run from the law. The only person who thinks Frank is innocent is his current wife, a worried woman who begs newspaperman Mitch Gorman for help. Mitch isn’t so sure about Frank’s innocence, but he is fascinated by the case, even as his younger editor starts taking control of his story. It’s those niggling details that pique Mitch’s interest: why did Dave Singer, one of the local gangsters, all but panic after hearing of Virginia’s death? Singer has ties to the local arm of organized crime, an organization that trades in seedy nightclubs and narcotics. Mitch needs to find out the truth before the trigger-happy police find Frank Wales—and with his only help being his colleague The Duchess, the newspaper’s witty gossip columnist, Mitch may be in over his head…
Nielsen’s writing reminds me of Dorothy B. Hughes—both are intelligent, witty women who wrote quality noir full of rich atmosphere and fine-tuned prose. That’s about where the comparison ends, because they have completely different styles. Hughes wrote tough, suspenseful stories, all clipped prose and daggers, noir cut down to its raw elements and crushed under immense pressure like a diamond. Nielsen on the other hand displays her wry wit through some ingenious writing—I would not categorize it as humorous or comedic, because it isn’t, in the same way Chandler’s writing wasn’t. But Nielsen has the same kind of hyperbolic similes, the same wry but beautiful observations. Nielsen had some serious writing chops, and I’m at a loss as to why she isn’t more well known—she writes the kind of story I eat up. I should clarify that what Nielsen wrote was noir-lite—mediumboiled?—at best. It has noir and thriller elements, but it’s more in line with a traditional mystery, written with more of a ’40s modern flair that noir fans such as myself will appreciate.
Mitch Gorman is not the typical hardboiled protagonist—middle-aged and no longer fit, he ends up taking a lot of punishment without dishing any out of his own. His main weapons are his dogged determination to look into this case, and some wicked-sharp dialogue. The Duchess, his rival-slash-confidant, also wields her silver tongue as a weapon; while it’s no His Girl Friday, Obit Delayed has the distinctive “fast-talking journalists” vibe. The interplay between Mitch and The Duchess is great, as the novel’s characters are all interesting even if they aren’t well-developed. The setting, on the other hand, is quite evocative, despite Nielsen taking a light touch and not going overboard with description. (I am fond of desert noir, especially those that go south o’ the border, so I may be biased.)
I don’t understand why Helen Nielsen has remained unknown for this long; while not a certifiable classic in the genre, Obit Delayed is a capable and entertaining novel. The plot is nothing new, but it’s deftly handled and well executed, I think the book succeeds on the strengths of Nielsen’s fine writing and sharp dialogue. I have no idea if this is one of her best novels or not—it’s one of the few that have been reviewed, at all, online—but I leave it hopeful that, when I try her other novels, they’ll be this good. In particular, Detour and Sing Me A Murder intrigue me, since they were reprinted in the ’80s as part of the legendary Black Lizard line of mystery-noir novels. The bottom line? Obit Delayed is a pretty good read and a decent mystery, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good dose of wry wit.
Obit Delayed is relatively easy to find; copies of the Dell edition are common on eBay and in used bookshops for around $5, and Prologue Books released an e-version on all major e-book platforms for under $4.
Title: Obit Delayed
Author: Helen Nielsen
Publisher: Prologue Books
Release Date: 2015
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $1 (Kindle sale)
ISBN/ASIN: N/A (oop) / B007IX5CHS
First published: 1952