Friday, July 3, 2015

Friday Finds: “Shadow of a Killer”

Another in our growing line of vintage book covers we love.

Shadow of a Killer, by William Mole (Dell, 1959).
Illustration by James Hill.

Originally released in 1955 as The Hammersmith Maggot (not the most appealing of titles, eh?), this novel was subsequently thrust into print at different times as Small Venom and Shadow of a Killer. It was the first in a trio of detective-fiction works credited to “William Mole,” a pen name employed by William Anthony Younger (1917-1961), said to have been descended from William the Conqueror, England’s initial Norman monarch. Younger/Mole’s serial character was Alistair Casson Duker (called Casson), a wine merchant and gourmet with an amateur interest in criminal psychology.

In their Edgar Award-winning study, A Catalogue of Crime: Being a Reader’s Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, and Related Genres (1971), French-born historian/culture critic Jacques Barzun and his collaborator, Wendell Hertig Taylor, selected Hammersmith/Shadow of a Killer as a classic entry in this field. Yet Karyn Reeves, who read the book for her blog, A Penguin a Week, was surprised by that listing. “I have no idea,” she wrote in 2013, “what it was they found so compelling--the book I read featured an unappealing protagonist, fairly pompous prose (‘two barges were leaning heavily on the bare mud, looking like torpid louts still unrecovered from the night’s full swell of intoxication’), some doubtful wisdom, … and an unbelievable plot. It was the type of story in which the criminal helpfully leaves the single clue upon which his detection will ultimately depend, and where the sleuth turns up trumps with every guess.” She goes on to briefly describe Mole’s story line, which finds Casson hunting for a blackmailer:
[Casson’s] life is an easy one, and exactly the kind to which the blackmailer aspires--a home in Mayfair, premises in Vigo Street, a Rolls in the garage, and membership of a club in St. James’s Street; part of his fortune was inherited, part he has accumulated himself. He possesses an easy confidence, a sense of his own superiority and a certainty that he is right.

But he also seems unusually inquisitive and given to prying into others’ affairs. While he explains this trait by fashioning himself as a collector of oddities and someone who experiences curiosity as an itch, the truth is surely that Casson is nosey and manipulative. When he observes the normally strait-laced Henry Lockyer, director of Gammans Bank, throwing down one whiskey after another, his concern is not for the man but for the mystery: he is determined to know why he is behaving this way. He affects to offer assistance, but he is actually intent on taking advantage of Lockyer’s intoxication to keep him drinking and talking.

He discovers that Lockyer has been blackmailed. One thousand pounds have been paid to a man named Bagot to dissuade him [from] carrying out a threat to visit a police station and identify Lockyer as homosexual. This is, apparently, an almost perfect crime--the allegation alone would ruin Lockyer’s career, so its baselessness is irrelevant, no evidence need ever be produced, and the blackmailer can feel confident that his crime will go unreported. Lockyer certainly has no intention of pursuing the blackmailer, preferring to drown his sorrows in whiskey, but Casson decides that he will go in search of Bagot anyway. And while his principal concern is with catching the criminal, partly for his own entertainment and partly to rid society of the menace the man represents, Casson is also concerned with ensuring that the police don’t step in and take credit for his work.
Although reviewer Reeves wasn’t impressed--not impressed one bit--by this novel, Barzun and Taylor weren’t the only ones who were, for Younger went on to publish two more Casson tales, Goodbye Is Not Worthwhile (1956) and Skin Trap (1956, aka You Pay for Pity). He had previously produced a couple of poetry collections, The Dreaming Falcons (1944) and The Singing Vision (1946).

Personally, I would have bought the 1959 Dell Books paperback edition of Shadow of a Killer simply for its cover; it was painted by renowned Canadian illustrator James Hill, about whom I already wrote here. (More of Hill’s book art can be enjoyed here.)

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