I have a confession to make in regard to Ray Garton: he scares the shit out of me, and I mean that with the utmost respect and admiration.
As a fan of horror and suspense novels, this is hard to come by these days. Lord knows Stephen King has given me some sleepless nights over the years with books like It, Pet Sematary, and Salem’s Lot, but there are a handful of authors who affect me so much I won’t even read some of their material. For instance, Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a seminal work in the genre, but its violence and torture would be too much for me (especially knowing it was based on a real story). Ed Lee’s Ever Nat, with its over-the-top gore, would simply disturb me too much. I’ve yet to find material by Garton that I couldn’t get through, but his fiction takes me right up to the edge and challenges me with its subject matter (as an aside, one of his most popular books is a novel entitled Sex and Violence in Hollywood, which epitomizes much of his work; you know you’re in for a wild ride if Garton’s name is on the book in your hands).
Many moons ago, Garton made a foray into the world of pulp fiction, writing under the pseudonym Arthur Darknell. Two novels – Murder Was My Alibi and Loveless – were published by Lonely Road Books in an edition similar to the old-school Ace Doubles: read one novel, then flip the book over and read the other novel. It was a lavish edition, one that I briefly owned but sold before I had a chance to get very far into it. The Arthur Darknell Double was one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever purchased, and while it is currently out-of-print, copies are available at various retailers if you feel like springing $100+ for a copy.
Fortunately, the two novels have since been released by Open Road Media in affordable paperback and e-book editions. I sat down with Murder Was My Alibi this past week, excited to dive into a book I’d wanted to read for years. How did it go, you ask? Good. *Very* good, in fact.
Myron Foote is a private detective who tends to handle simple cases that keep him far away from unnecessary risk and violence. Enter Cynthia Thacketer, a beautiful woman who is dating Roger Blainebus, a shady businessman with alleged ties to the mob. Cynthia saw her boyfriend commit a serious crime, and she worries that Roger not only saw her spying on him, but will also do whatever it takes to keep her quiet, including murder. Afraid to go to the police for fear they may be working for Blainebus, she turns to Foote for help. Her plan: have Foote pretend to be her uncle, spending some time around the couple in hopes he’ll be able to ascertain what Blainebus knows. The detective balks at the idea – again, danger is not his game – but when Cynthia offers to pay $150,000, Foote agrees to the charade.
What follows is a modern P.I. tale that holds its own in a genre with a rich history of excellent storytelling. Truth be told, Garton surprised me on this one, not because he isn’t a capable writer (trust me, he is), but because Murder Was My Alibi feels like it came from a seasoned noir veteran. It contains all of the usual tropes – a grizzled detective, a damsel in distress, a sketchy villain, money, crimes galore – which make for a fine line to walk; readers of this type of material expect those things, yet they’ve been done so many times it’s easy to fall into a formulaic been-there-done-that storyline. Not so in this case, as Garton adds enough fresh twists and turns to keep readers guessing, myself included. I thought I had this one pegged early on, but it went a direction I wasn’t anticipating at all, which is a testament to how well the author did with his tale.
I don’t have many gripes about the book, and the ones I do have are pretty minor. My main issue is that Cynthia and Myron found the info they were looking for in regard to Blainebus’ crime almost immediately. I was surprised it was resolved so early in the story, and with such ease. Cynthia essentially knew what to look for prior to hiring Foote, so I’m not sure why she needed him in the first place (other than to drive the story forward). Not a huge deal, in the end, but having that portion of the story drawn out with more detail and tension would have been a plus. Also, while I can’t speak for the paperback edition, the e-book had enough typographical errors to be noticeable throughout. One more round of proofing by the publisher would have cleaned that up.
Murder Was My Alibi earns an 8 out of 10 from me. It was a fun, fast-paced read, and better than the other noir/crime stories I’ve read so far this year (including books by masters of the genre, such as Pronzini and McBain). If you enjoy this flavor of fiction, I heartily recommend it to you. As for me, I’m happy that I still have its sister novel, Loveless, waiting in the queue. If it’s as good as Murder Was My Alibi, I’m in for a treat.
Until we meet again…