A guy named X first told me about the Paul Pine mysteries. It was years ago now that I’d wandered into a warren-like used bookstore in Silver Spring, looking for detective stories similar to Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” and “Farewell, My Lovely.” X — everyone called him that, and I never learned his real name — rummaged around and came up with a couple of battered paperbacks titled “Halo in Blood” and “Halo for Satan,” both by John Evans. As I eventually learned, Evans was really Howard Browne (1908-1999), once an editor of Amazing Stories and, later, a Hollywood script writer.
Browne’s four Paul Pine novels — now gathered together in “Halo for Hire” — are quite consciously written in the wise-cracking, tough-guy mode of Chandler’s fiction and 1940s Humphrey Bogart films. Yet even with their faint tongue-in-cheek air (and an astonishing amount of cigarette smoking), they make for heavenly reading: Who doesn’t sometimes long to wander down mean streets while listening to the world-weary voice of a down-at-heels private eye? Browne’s alliterative shamus even quips like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, regularly encounters gorgeous dames with bedroom eyes, swallows a lot of scotch, and frequently stares out through the half-open Venetian blinds of his dingy office while rain falls steadily on all the living and the dead.
As an omnibus, “Halo for Hire” gets everything right, starting with Laurel Blechman’s cover art, which features — against the backdrop of big-city apartments — a Bruce Willis look-alike in a fedora and two baby-doll blondes. Inside, an introduction by popular-culture critic Richard A. Lupoff recounts Browne’s professional career and is followed, nearly 900 pages later, by a memorial afterword from the writer’s daughter Melissa Flagstad. Just as important, this hefty volume doesn’t falsely economize by printing the text in minuscule type (which isn’t the case, alas, for Soho Crime’s recent and otherwise very welcome “Collected Millar,” the complete mystery and suspense fiction of Margaret Millar). Besides “Halo in Blood” (1946), “Halo for Satan” (1948), “Halo in Brass” (1949) and “The Taste of Ashes” (1957), editor Stephen Haffner also reprints the single Paul Pine short story, “So Dark for April” (1952, from the magazine Manhunt), and a sizable chunk of an unfinished novel called “The Paper Gun.”
Let me describe just two of the mysteries. In “Halo for Satan,” Paul Pine is hired by Chicago’s Bishop McManus to locate a manuscript expert named Raymond Wirtz. Why? Because Wirtz claims he’s come into possession of several pages of parchment, written in Aramaic, by none other than Jesus Christ. He wants $25 million for this priceless treasure, and the Catholic Church will pay it — if the document can be proved genuine. Unfortunately, Wirtz has gone missing from his seedy, run-down apartment, leaving a body in the closet. It seems that several stop-at-nothing individuals are interested in Wirtz’s discovery, among them a dying Chicago racketeer (clearly based on Al Capone) and a ruthless criminal mastermind — whom nobody has ever seen — named Jafar Baijan. There will be other corpses before the double-whammy finish.
Along with the pleasures of an intricate plot, Browne offers plenty of those beloved stock characters who are de rigueur in the commedia dell’arte of hard-boiled detective fiction, including a tired homicide cop named Overmire and an ingénue with big eyes called Lola. Nor does he neglect the genre’s penchant for striking, often deliberately extravagant turns of phrase : “It was the kind of street where people lived who had hardly anything except their lives.” A stunning redhead, married but not letting that stop her, has “a face to bring hermits down out of the hills, to fill divorce courts, to make old men read up on hormones.”
In his introduction, Lupoff notes that the last completed Pine novel, “The Taste of Ashes,” blends the usual “cynical Chandleresque mannerisms” with the “darker and more pessimistic atmosphere” of James M. Cain (“Double Indemnity,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice”), concluding that the result is “nothing short of brilliant.” He’s right.
Nonetheless, “The Taste of Ashes” regularly calls to mind Philip Marlowe’s encounter with the dysfunctional Sternwood family in “The Big Sleep.” Someone is attempting to extort $20,000 from Serena Delastone, the coldhearted matriarch of the Delastone clan, which tightly controls the wealthy town of Olympic Heights. Serena wants Pine to shake down the blackmailer, but he refuses. Later that night, his phone rings. It’s Linda Jellco, the wife of a fellow private eye named Sam Jellco — who once worked for the Delastones. For some reason, Linda explains, her husband has unaccountably failed to return any of her calls to his hotel. He’s on a case, she knows, but could something be wrong?
In short order, Pine discovers Sam’s body but also learns that the ultra-polite Olympic Heights police don’t want the death investigated, possibly because of a connection to the ostensible suicide of Serena’s bad-apple son Edwin a few months earlier. As Pine probes ever deeper, he encounters the two Delastone daughters, the wild and gorgeous Karen and the studious and plain Martha, while the case grows increasingly complex and sordid. There are other murders, one by a least likely character. Though Browne slightly tones down his metaphors throughout, they still crackle: “I tried the knob with all the delicacy of a husband hearing a man’s voice in his bedroom”; “the silence of a bankrupt funeral parlor.” What’s more, the novel closes with perhaps the most archetypal and bittersweet last words in all of noir fiction.
So, if you’re looking for some terrific retro-reading for the summer, look no further than “Halo for Hire: The Complete Paul Pine Mysteries.” As X said long ago, when handing me those two battered paperbacks, “Enjoy.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Howard Browne
Haffner Press. 901 pp. $60