Thursday, October 23, 2014

Every Bet's a Sure Thing

Recently, while listening to a Gunsmoke episode with William Conrad as Matt Dillion, I thought about Conrad's TV career. His biggest impact in the medium was probably the 1970s detective show Cannon. I'm pretty sure I saw a few episodes as a kid, but I didn't really have a strong memory of it.

So I went to the excellent Thrilling Detective website and looked Frank Cannon up. I stumbled across the information that one particular episode was based on a 1953 novel titled Every Bet's a Sure Thing, by Thomas B. Dewey. This was the second of 16 books featuring a Chicago-based P.I. named Mac. (It's one of the cases, like Spenser and the Continental Op, where we never learn the protagonist's full name.)

The entry on Mac talked about him as being "one of the must-read private eyes you've never heard of." Well, despite being relatively well-versed in the genre, I don't think I had heard of him before.
That was embarrassing. So I dug up a copy of Every Bet (having already Netflixed and watched the Cannon episode). 

And it was indeed a great book. To quote the Thrilling Detective entry: Mac's turf was Chicago, and he went down those mean streets (the actual title of one of his novels) toting a sensitivity and empathy, particularly for young people, that stood in stark contrast to the popular P.I. psycho-dramas of the time.

In this particular book, he doesn't spend much time in Chicago. He's been sub-contracted by a big agency to board a slow train to L.A. and keep tabs on a lady and her two young children. He isn't told why or told who the actual client is, but he decides the job is legitimate and goes along with it.

His first indication that it might be dangerous comes when one of the agency men is murdered soon after turning the job over the Mac. The next indication is when someone forces him at gunpoint to jump off the train while it's moving through Utah. 

By this time, he had struck up an acquaintance with the lady and her six-year-old son Roger. Mac's sympathy for young people and his paternal instincts are kicking in, especially since Roger has come to see him as a object of hero-worship. So Mac charters a plane and rejoins the train in Las Vegas. 

But trouble continues to stalk everyone involved. Soon after the train arrives in L.A., the case explodes outward to involve murder, drug smuggling, and missing children. Mac stays on the case
even when his immediate job is finished, working to make sure Roger and his baby sister are safe. Before he can manage that, though, he'll have to navigate a complicated labyrinth of danger and double-crosses. 

It was unwise, by the way, to watch the Cannon episode first. I knew a particular character was going to get killed before it happened. But the ending was significantly different from the book to keep the story from being completely spoiled.

Every Bet's a Sure Thing has a solid story, a real sense of danger during the action/suspense scenes and some great plot twists. I also liked its (for a P.I. novel) non-cynical outlook on life. There's a lot of brutal and despicable people in the novel and Mac is fully aware of this. But along the way, he is helped out by others who prove to be simply decent and dependable. It's a good balance, making the sympathetic Mac seem all the more believable. Mac will shoot a bad guy without hesitation if he has to, but he'll also take the time to tell a small boy a bedtime story. This is because he knows and accepts that there is both good and bad in the world--and he's chosen to be good. 

I'm glad to have discovered Thomas B. Dewey. His books are sadly out-of-print and my local public library doesn't carry them--I got Every Bet via inter-loan from the University of Colorado. But used copies are also available online, so I should be able to eventually bring myself up to speed on Mac's other cases. 

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