Monday, August 4, 2014
The Hook #1: The Gilded Canary
The Hook #1: The Gilded Canary, by Brad Latham
September, 1981 Warner Books
Part of Warner’s short-lived Men Of Action line, The Hook ran for five volumes, and was unlike the other series in the line (ie Ninja Master) in that it was a period piece about an insurance investigator. If this first volume is any indication, The Hook has more in common with the hardboiled pulp of the 1930s, only with much more explicit sex. Seriously, this novel is so sex-focused that the first-page blurb is a sex scene.
The series is set in 1938, and Brad Latham (apparently in reality David Schow) really captures the period detail. Not only does he grace his colorful set of characters with dialog that appears to come right of a Bogart movie, but he also gives them equally-colorful names: Muffy Dearborn, Two-Scar Toomey, Jock Bunche, Jabber-Jabber Jacoby, Stymie the Fence, Jimbo Brannigan, etc. But while the dialog, names, and period details are colorful, plotwise the novel isn’t all that much.
Our hero, William “The Hook” Lockwood, works as an insurance investigator for Transatlantic Underwriters, and is currently tasked with locating torch singer Muffy Dearborn’s reportedly-stolen diamonds, which are worth fifty thousand dollars. Lockwood (we’ll just go ahead and assume he’s the uncle of Hugh Lockwood, one of the protagonists of Search) got his nickname from his boxing career; he’s 38, and fought in WWI. Now he solves the big cases for Transatlantic, rolling around New York City in a supercharged Cord.
Lockwood’s already on the case as the novel opens, heading into a Manhattan nightclub to catch Muffy Dearborn’s debut performance. The story of her jewels being stolen was leaked into the papers via Walter Winchell’s gossip column, and Lockwood has a hunch the story was leaked on purpose. He’s sure there’s more to the case than a simple theft. A plethora of lowlifes have assembled for the performance, and Schow introduces us to our entire cast, all of whom are conveniently gathered here in the opening pages.
Jock Bunche, Muffy’s awesomely-named former paramour, starts catcalling her during her opening number, and a huge fight breaks out. Here Lockwood unleashes some of his boxing skills, though he’s no superhuman. He gets some help from Raff Spencer, a hulking dandy who speaks with an affected British accent despite being American, and a WWI vet himself; he’s Muffy’s current paramour. Lockwood also runs afoul of Two-Scar Toomey, so named due to the scar running across his face, and the gangster boss goes to the top of his suspects list.
Lockwood’s detecting skills are pretty lame; he spends the entire novel just sort of wandering around New York, chasing one wild goose after another. Schow peppers the novel with several action scenes, many of them much overdone, in particular an endless, endless sequence midway through in which Lockwood is hauled off by a group of Toomey’s men and is able to talk them into a boxing match. A desperate Lockwood, unarmed and riding with the men who plan to kill him, suspects this is his only chance to live, but what could be a taut scene goes on way too long, with Lockwood getting beaten nearly as much as he gives the beatings. To make it all worse, the entire scene is rendered moot when Raff conveniently shows up to save him.
Otherwise we have car chases, like one Lockwood gets in early in the book, as well as a handful of gun fights. Lockwood also has no compunction about blowing people away, and Schow goes for the right approach with not having Lockwood bound by any laws. He has a friendly rapport with titan-sized Jimbo Brannigan, tough beat cop who runs this part of the city, and Brannigan usually just shows up in the aftermath of Lockwood’s latest fight and makes a joke. Brannigan also shows up to save Lockwood several times; our hero is actually saved from certain death several times in the novel.
While it’s all pretty mundane, despite the colorful setting and character names, one thing that separates The Gilded Canary from its peers is the ramped-up sex scenes. If this first volume is any indication, The Hook is one of the most sexually-explicit men’s adventure series ever, with Lockwood getting it on in super-graphic detail with Stephanie, Muffy Dearborn’s hotstuff French maid, as well as, expectedly, Muffy herself, who you won’t be surprised to know is a blonde goddess among women. The first-page blurb is just a hint of what’s in store for the reader:
Stephanie comes into it in what amounts to a shoehorning into the narrative, just showing up at Lockwood’s doorstep and telling her she’s moving in with him to “protect” him. Her hazy story has it that she once knew a man similar to Lockwood, back in France, and he ended up dead, and Stephanie now feels something certain is about to happen to Lockwood unless she’s there to watch him. It’s all obviously bullshit, but Lockwood lets her move in and decides to keep an eye on her, even though he knows she’s no doubt up to something.
The plot, concerning Muffy’s missing jewels, is itself kind of bland, and you wish there had been a more fantastic or at least memorable storyline for this first volume. But somehow Lockwood runs into an assortment of mobsters in his investigation, most notably Widwer “One-Eye” Levinsky, who wears a glass eye and puts Lockwood temporarily in the hospital early in the book, ambushing him and beating him unmerciful, as the Jerky Boys would say.
Muffy herself is a talentless shrew who worries more over her public image and who treats everyone with disdain, particularly Lockwood; that is, until she decides to become interested in him. Schow does a pretty good job of presenting Muffy as a calculating harpy with no redeeming features, and when Lockwood has the expected sex scene with her he at least has the dignity to be ashamed with himself. Mostly because he’s certain she had something to do with the theft.
In a scheme that turns out to be as overly-complicated as the one in Trouble Is My Business, Lockwood finally deduces who was behind the theft. It’s so complicated that, like a regular Banacek, Lockwood has to deliver expository dialog explaining it all for around twenty pages or so while everyone sits around and gapes at his intelligence. Schow does end it all with a bang, though, with the outed villains getting the jump on Lockwood, leading into a final-pages gunfight.
But still, the novel is just sluggish, and took longer to read than it should’ve. The mystery is too mundane to justify the book’s length, and there are too many instances in which Lockwood just stands around and wonders what lead to follow next. But then, this is just the first volume, so it could just be a temporary misfire before Schow finds his footing with the next four volumes.