This was a lonely country he’d come to, a flat, arid corridor between twin ranges of low mountains that swelled up like calluses on the hand of God. Danny had come a long way from Chicago, and he still had a long way to go.
It’s something of a shame that Helen Nielsen is relatively unknown; while some interest in her works is burgeoning in the blogosphere, she really ought to have the same reputation as a grand dame of noir that Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, or Margaret Millar attained. The little biographical detail we know 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, before writing over two dozen mystery novels and several screenplays. The most notable novels are, perhaps, Sing Me a Murder and Detour, which were included in the masterful Black Lizard line of noir reprints back in the 1980s. 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.
Danny Ross is heading south to Mexico, eager to start a new life and abandon his past. A few hundred miles from the border his jalopy breaks down, and he finds himself forced to accept a ride from a kindly old driver, Doc Gaynor. Stopping at a roadside café and gas station, the talk of the town is of last night’s death—Francy, town lush and lady of the night, was killed by a hit-and-run, and Doc’s just returning from the hospital. Danny isn’t too interested as his thoughts remain set on starting anew in Mexico, but the town’s troubles become his when he returns to the car to find Doc’s body draped over the engine, a bloody rock next to his feet. Accused of killing the old man, maybe even Francy too, Danny is trapped by circumstantial evidence in a paranoid town whose mob mentality is roiling just beneath the surface. Soon enough, Danny is on the run, hoping to clear his name by finding a mysterious man in a raincoat before the sheriff–or a vengeful townsperson—catch up with him…
Danny isn’t alone, however; famed trial lawyer Laurent has asked the town drunkard, Trace Cooper, to aid in the investigation and defend Danny in court. Trace himself is a lawyer, and the heir to the Cooperton legacy; once the spoiled brat of the town founder, he fled depression and his family’s legacy-crushing debt to fight overseas in the War. He returned with a friend—a black man named Arthur—that set him at instant odds with the prejudiced town. His relationship with the community only got worse when his relationship with Doc Gaynor’s daughter Joyce ends in a spectacular blowup, after Trace decided to help out an old friend—Franny, the town tramp, and coincidentally victim of another murder the night before Danny’s arrival. While the novel appears to be Danny’s story, there’s as much of Trace here in the various small-town intrigues that come up.
While it looks like yet another “man on the run” novel, Detour takes the familiar plot and puts it in an unfamiliar place—not the urban jungle of the East Coast or California, but a small, claustrophobic town in the Southwest. The setting—bleak, dry, and desolate—is perfect for such a novel, a dusty small town full of melodrama where everyone has an ear on the party line to catch the latest gossip. (At which point I’m reminded of how many noir novels are set in the desert, for similar reasons.) Indeed, it’s that small-town melodrama that leads to some more memorable characters like Ada, downtrodden wife of the abusive sheriff, and the three ends of the Trace-Joyce-Franny triangle. Nielsen not only captures the bleak landscape of the dry desert, she also nails the flawed dark side of small communities. The characterization is quite well done, and Nielsen does a great job handling the motives and emotions of the cast.
Detour is another terrific little read by Nielsen, with a sharp plot, compelling characters, and strong mystery elements (though the killer’s identity is not one of them). While it looks like a thriller, and certainly has the elements of one, it’s also a very capable old-school mystery and figuring out the killer’s identity and motive remains the main driving force for the story. It’s a captivating novel of paranoia and intrigue in a dusty desert town with plenty going on behind the scenes, not overburdened with small-town melodrama but using it to enhance the characters and make the story more complex.
I’m surprised that Nielsen doesn’t warrant a mention in most mystery reference works; no, her novels didn’t reinvent or transcend the genre, but they remain above-average and compare favorably to other novels of the age. Highly recommended for fans of mystery in general or noir in specific. I have two more of her novels that I look forward to reading, and then I’ll have to buy the other eight or so available…
For another (similar) view, here’s Sergio at Tipping My Fedora.
Variant Title: Detour to Death
Editor: Helen Nielsen
First Published Date: 1953
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0.99 (Kindle sale)
MSRP: paperback oop / $3 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: no ISBN / B007SPFJII