Thursday, November 20, 2014

Never Help a Drunk

If you're an amateur detective, you usually depend on just happening to be nearby when a murder is committed. For people like Jessica Fletcher, this works fine. It doesn't work for me--no matter what, everyone I know absolutely refuses to get murdered so that I can use brilliant deductive reasoning to solve the crime.

If you're a pro, though, you shouldn't have to depend on chance. A private eye such as Frederick Nebel's "Tough Dick" Donovan can reasonably expect clients to come to him.

But coincidence still rears its head from time to time. In the short story "Red Pavement," (published in the December 1932 issue of Black Mask) Donovan stops to help a drunk. They share a cab and when the drunk finds out Donovan is a P.I., he hires him to meet a girl at Penn Station while he (the drunk) sobers up. Then someone drives past the cab and shoots the drunk dead.

Donovan still feels he should meet the girl and break the news to her. But that leads to the girl coming into possession of a bag containing $14,000. Then the girl (and the money) disappears and the police are looking askance at Donovan because the dead guy was involved in a robbery a few years before and the money was never recovered.

So Donovan has to find the girl and the money--hopefully while the girl is still alive. Otherwise, he might end up in the slammer simply because he stopped to help a drunk. This all leads to a nice twist at the end.

I really enjoy Nebel's Donovan stories. Hard-boiled to the extreme, but (like Hammett and Chandler) always rooted in humanity, these fast-moving yarns among the best in the genre. "Red Pavement" drops Donovan into a case in an unexpected manner then forces him to play a dangerous long shot find the girl and drag himself out of the frying pan he's put himself in. And it provides a valuable lesson: don't help a drunk unless you're prepared to also solve a murder.

Hey, maybe that's what I'm doing wrong. I'm not helping enough drunks! By golly, I'll get to solve a murder yet!

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