Waking up hung over and next to a naked corpse is not a unique way to begin life as a crime novel protagonist — the premise that begins Ed McBain’s 1952 So Nude, So Dead also started off the Lawrence Block thriller After the First Death. Unlike the alcoholic of Block’s novel, SNSD features a heroin addict whose one-night stand with a nightclub singer has ended in her death by gunshot and a cache of drugs gone missing. SNSD was published under one or two different titles and pseudonyms during the 1950s, and then out of print until Hard Case Crime brought it back a half-century later.
For the Hard Case Crime edition, Gregory Manchess made the blood and needle marks go away, romanticizing the opening scene to some degree. The perspective from above invites suggests a judgement to be made: did the woman make some moral missteps that led to her demise? Should we be hoping for some kind of justice?
The idea of moral judgements toward characters is a potential problem area in pulp-style crime fiction; see the comments underneath my review of Block’s Sinner Man (yet another book that starts off with substance abuse and a murdered woman). Here, Ray Stone is a former piano prodigy whose free-wheeling lifestyle has led to a deeply ingrained opioid addiction. The singer he met in a jazz club obliged him with a night of sex and drug use, featuring a full 16 ounces of heroin to start partying with. Knowing that the drug would have made him oblivious to whatever events happened in the hotel room after he passed out, he presumes his own innocence. He also realizes that as a known “junkie,” the woman’s death would very likely be pinned on him by the police.
McBain makes it clear that the horror of violent death and the impending arrest for murder are not at the top of Stone’s mind. Instead, he is possessed with finding his next “shot” of a heroin needle:
He searched the closet frantically. All right, he told himself. All right, this is far enough, I want it enough now, I want it pretty damn bad, I want it very much, too damn much, I need it right now. Where is it? Where the hell did she put it? How much longer does a guy have to stand this? Jesus, how much longer do I have to wait for the day to begin? Where is it? Where did she put it? Sixteen ounces. Jesus, where did it go?
Granted, he only discovers that Eileen (the dead signer) has been killed after his search for the drugs come up empty. Yet, throughout the book he exposes himself to discovery by searching the streets for enough cash to buy his next hit. The descriptions of his drug withdrawal and craving are frequent and visceral.
He slammed the door of the medicine chest shut. His hands trembled and there was a lurching pain in his stomach. He scratched his cheek nervously, scratched his temple, scratched his cheek again. In desperation, he looked in the shower stall, found only a bar of soap, threw this against the wall in fury. Where the hell is it? his mind screamed. He scratched his cheek again, not knowing what his hands were doing anymore. The muscles along his back began to quiver. He had to have it! Where was it, damn it, where was it?
The frantic desperation is the strength of SNSD, a page-turner of a book that leaves plenty of logical gaps in its wake. Most of the women (the exception being Stone’s ex-girlfriend, whose apartment he forces into and raids for a bit of cash) seem to blindly throw themselves into his arms, even after he demonstrates a propensity for violence and shows up in filthy clothes. They offer far too many details about their relationships with other characters — Stone spends the book unraveling a smuggling ring — even though they spend only moments in his company.
The initial chapter, while starting the story with an appreciable degree of momentum, is also built on implausible decisions. Sixteen ounces is a very large amount of heroin, more than the 400 grams seized in a recent “massive trafficking bust” that took place in Washington D.C. For Eileen to have that much stowed away in her hotel room, she would have had to be involved in drug distribution, and certainly in a position to know the dangers of inviting a stranger over for the night. Much less, a man who admits to you his heroin addiction.
In any case, SNSD is a fast-paced trip through a unrealistic set of characters and circumstances. McBain invests most of his energy into describing how Stone tries to solve his mystery while managing the worst effects of his addiction. Not bad for an early effort, and if you can get past the stereotypes and the fact that critical information always reveals itself when needed, the sense of panic is acute. 5/10.
NOTE: the Hard Case Crime edition of SNSD comes bundled with an early McBain story featuring the down-and-out investigator Matt Cordell. Cordell is a little easier to accept as a functioning sleuth than Ray Stone, being an ex-police with years of experience.