Monday, April 24, 2017

The Lady Lost Her Head

The Lady Lost Her Head, by Manning Lee Stokes
No month stated, 1950  Phoenix Press

Proving my belief that “if it came out in hardcover, you can usually get a copy via Interlibrary Loan,” I was able to read this mega-scarce early novel by Manning Lee Stokes, thanks to the kind folks at UTA Austin. Also released in a paperback edition that’s just as scarce, The Lady Lost Her Head is one of the more obscure novels by the prolific Stokes, and all I could find out about it was that it’s protagonist was a comic book writer, as Stokes himself was at the time.

Written long before he began his association with book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, The Lady Lost Her Head (which is written in third-person, by the way) is still classic Manning Lee Stokes, a somewhat-lurid mystery with action that’s more so internalized than external, egregious padding, and a protagonist who constantly puzzles over this latest setback in his life. And yet for all that it’s still enjoyable for the most part, at least for me. I will say though that Stokes is better, I think, when he has a more action-oriented protagonist; I think the proactive mindsets of say Nick Carter or Richard Blade compel Stokes to have things actually happen in the narrative. But when your hero is a comic book writer slowly going to seed, there’s only so much action you can believably deliver.

Such is the case with the middling “hero” of The Lady Lost Her Head, portly, 33 year-old Martin Frost, current comic book writer, former “literary” novelist, his only book published “several years ago,” before the war, in which Frost served as an intelligence officer. Stokes shoots himself in the foot with this one; folks, if all the army’s intelligence officers were on the level of Frost, it’s a wonder we even won the war. The dude bumbles through the novel, veering between inaction or stupidity, trying desperately to clear his name for a crime he didn’t commit but shouldn’t have even been dumb enough to be blamed for in the first place.

Stokes does sort of ramp up the tension, as the novel occurs over a twenty-four hour period: July 13th, 1949. Frost wakes in the bed of Laverne Richardson, cougar wife of Frosts’s boss, Harry Richardson; she keeps an apartment of her own here in Manhattan, mostly to entertain the countless men she likes to screw behind her husband’s back. Frost is just her latest conquest and he’s only worked at the comic studio for a few weeks, finally giving in to the open invitation offered by mega-babe Laverne, who might have the personality of a vulture but has a body that just won’t quit. The novel was published too early for Stokes to indulge in the sleaze that would eventually become his forte – there’s no sex at all in the novel – but we get enough reminders about Laverne’s glorious protuberances and such.

But as for Laverne, we don’t get to know her at all: she’s the titular headless lady. Frost wakes up covered in blood, Laverne’s corpse on the floor beside the bed, the neck nearly shorn from the head. By the corpse is the instrument of Laverne’s death: a “Jap sword” gifted to her by an earlier conquest, a guy who served in the Pacific front and brought back this officer sword, wich usually hung on the wall of Laverne’s bedroom. Someone used it to chop off the lady’s head sometime in the few hours since she and Frost stumbled back to Laverne’s place after a night of heavy drinking and barely-remembered sex before both passed out.

Frost proves to readers posthaste what kind of a sap of a protagonist he’s going to be. Having woken up by the corpse of his cuckolded boss, Frost…takes a shower, smokes a cigarette, makes some coffee, eats some breakfast. Then he gets around to searching the apartment for clues behind the grisly murder. He finds a small tin box behind a console radio (the HDTV of the ‘40s), but before he can research further he hears the elevator doors open down the hall and the unmistakable sounds of cops on the way. Whereas the average person would’ve suspected immediately that this was all a setup, Frost only now gets with the program, and beats a hasty retreat, running across the rooftops in his successful escape.

This is another of those crime novels that occurs in a New York suffering from blistering summer heat, and Stokes often reminds us how sweaty our hero is – I felt bad for the dude, as this was in the days when the three-piece suit and hat was standard everyday wear and when air conditioning was a luxury. Frost heads to the offices of the comic publisher, so as to get the .45 automatic he left there the other week, borrowed by his boss Harry or somesuch. Friends, this bit with the gun was enough to drive me nuts, as Frost carries it around for the entirety of the novel…and never even uses it! Anyway here we get the one brief glimpse of comic writing in the novel; Frost hates the work, finds it mindless, and mostly writes scripts for a series about Red Condor, a flying costumed crimefighter. 

But anyone approaching The Lady Lost Her Head with hopes for a peek into what the life of a comic writer in the ‘40s was like will be disappointed. Stokes provides no details about the craft, focusing solely on his murder mystery; that Frost is even a comic writer is an arbitrary point, and the dude could’ve been a garbage man for all the connection his job has to the plot. While sneaking into the office Frost is surprised by the early appearance – it not even being 9AM yet – of his boss, Harry, who clearly is unaware that his wife is dead…not to mention that she spent the previous evening drinking with and eventually screwing Frost.

Frost beats another retreat, just as the cops call Harry to inform him of Laverne’s murder. On the crowded Manhattan streets Frost runs into another comic employee: Joan, a pretty young artist Frost intends to marry – not that Joan is aware of this. No, Frost has only known her the six weeks he’s worked for Harry, and after a few dates and one chaste kiss, Frost has decided that Joan’s going to become his wife. He tells her all about the previous night’s horrors – Frost (and Stokes) seems to gloss over the fact that Frost is admitting to the girl he intends to marry that he just screwed another woman the night before – and gets Joan’s promise to secretly help him out, mostly via money she promises to get for him by the evening.

Our hero is a hunted man throughout the novel, slinking through back alleys of Manhattan and finding more and more information about himself being published in the papers – Frost has now been named as the top suspect in the case, and a manhunt is out for him. He checks into a nice hotel, giving the fake name of Joseph Merlin, which I found exceedingly interesting; this appears to indicate that it was Stokes who later came up with the name Mr. Merlin, ie John Eagle’s wheelchair-bound boss in the John Eagle Expeditor series that was created and produced by Lyle Kenyon Engel. But it’s a one-off of a fake name, with neither Stokes nor Frost explaining the “Merlin” part nor why Frost even came up with it.

In the hotel room Frost breaks open that box from Laverne’s apartment, and inside finds a bunch of old checkbooks which show that the lady was well off, even before she married the wealthy Harry Richardson. Frost also finds a nude photo of the lady. It appears that she was being blackmailed, and Frost puzzles over some notes scrawled in the most recent book, referring to an “MC” and an “AI.” But Frost is once again a fool, paying a young page to go out and get him some new clothes – and not even questioning it when the kid comes back and turns down Frosts’s tip, hurrying out of the hotel room.

Yep, the kid’s called the cops, and Frost once again beats a hasty retreat in the nick of time. He slips into the conveniently-unlocked door at the end of the hall, finds himself standing over a half-naked brunette asleep on her bed. Through the most brazen deus ex machina I’ve ever read, Frost is able to convince this young woman, Aurora “Rora” Hunter, to help him. How? Well, Frost clamps a hand over Rora’s mouth before she wakes, telling her he’s not going to hurt her and that he’s hiding from the cops but is innocent. Rora goes over to her luggage…and comes back with a copy of Frosts’s novel, published all those years ago!

Friends, I couldn’t believe it. Rora just happens to be reading Frosts’s novel, which we’re informed wasn’t even a big hit or well known. An aunt just happened to give it to her to read on her trip here to New York – Rora was to be married this morning, but her fiance snubbed her at the last minute, and she’s been on a crying jag since, here in her hotel room. Despite the snub she’s a lovely creature with “small breasts” and she’s game to help Frost because she’s got nothing else going on. Besides, she figures that anyone who has written a book must be not only smart but also incapable of murder(!?), so she’s certain Frost was innocent of killing Laverne Richardson.

Rora proves smarter than our hero, helping him figure out the clues in Laverne’s books. Eventually they get to Greenwich Village, where a mysterious individual named Horsely might provide information on what exactly Laverne was into in the war years, and who might’ve killed her. He greets them at the door in makeup – “The man was a fairy.” But after getting roughed up a bit Horsely turns out to only be posing as such – again, Rora is the one to figure this out – and the makeup’s just there to cover his recently-shorn beard. For a bearded man was also seen at Laverne’s apartment the night of her murder, and it turns out to have been Horsely, who had come by to collect owed money from the doomed woman. Turns out she was in the blackmail business with him during the war years, and owed him a thousand or so.

Action is so sparse as to be nonexistant. Early on Frost runs away from a dumpy guy in a cheap brown suit who chases after him in a crowded subway station; our dumbass hero still doesn’t even realize until much later that it clearly wasn’t a cop after him. Hell, it takes Harry Richardson himself – who shocks Frost by being at Joan’s apartment that night – to explain to Frost that the murder was setup, given the phone call that alerted the cops to it in the first place! But anyway Frost proves to be further stupid, as Harry and Joan themselves are having an affair, so there goes that “I’m gonna marry Joan” stuff…and Harry calmly explains to Frost and Rora that he believes Frost is innocent, that his wife was a slut, and that Frost should turn himself in. He claims no knowledge of this “MC” or “AI.”

What makes Frosts’s foolishness so much more humorous is how Stokes often reminds us that Frost has a “writer’s mind,” meaning he’s able to suss out things a common man might miss. But Frost just comes off like a prime buffoon here; he even mopes to the nearest bar with Rora, tells her he’s failed to clear his name, and that he might as well turn himself in like Harry said. After a brief tiff – Rora has clearly fallen for Frost, but he can’t even see that – the jilted Rora sulks back to her apartment. That Frost might be putting her in danger is something he doesn’t even consider – but then Stokes himself ignores this, so it’s a moot point.

Closing in on a full day since the nightmare began, Frost finally gets a few breaks. Another mysterious dude’s following him, and this time Frost realizes it isn’t a cop. He beats up the guy in one of the novel’s pitifully few action scenes and conveniently enough finds a business card in the guy’s wallet. From this he learns the dude is a private eye, one hired by Harry Richardson to trail Laverne. Same goes for the guy in the brown suit Frost lost back in the subway station. Now we finally learn all – the “MC” of Laverne’s note refers to a Dr. Michael Cosgrove, an abortionist who also does the “reverse procedure” and who artificially insimenated Laverne – ie the “AI” of her notes.

The climax occurs back in Joan’s apartment, where everyone has gathered. Stokes, having successfully padded out 200+ pages, has his friggin’ hero bound to a chair while the villains exposit their motives and then shoot each other. Frost does nothing throughout. Since the book’s so scarce I’ll spoil it for you: Laverne got Cosgrove to impregnate her so as to force Harry to marry her, but Cosgrove went on to blackmail her. Somehow Harry found out about all this, freaked out that his seven year-old kid wasn’t “really” his (the kid btw spends the entire novel “off visiting his aunt and uncle” in another state), and had Laverne followed to expose her harlotry. On the night Frost was with her, Harry snuck into her apartment – and in a fit of rage chopped her head off. He then lied about this to everyone, framing Frost, even lying to the sleazy private eyes.

So in other words, the murderer turns out to be exactly who you thought it would be.

The last chapter is a nightmare of exposition in which a friggin’ police lieutenant who has never before appeared in the text stands over Frosts’s hospital bed (our hero injured due to a beating) and explains to him everything that happened, and why. It’s so lazy as to be hilarious. Frost himself has done nothing to solve his name and in reality did more harm than good, even beating up a random cop and a cab driver in his time on the run. But he does at least score Rora, who shows up again on the last page to declare her love for him.

I was curious what an early Stokes novel would be like, and I found out – unsurprisingly, it’s almost identical to his later novels, even down to the overwhelming amount of exclamation points in the narrative. But all the stalling and repetition customary of future Stokes novels is already here – there are at least three parts in which Frost recaps for himself all he knows about Laverne’s murder: clear page-filling at its worst. One thing missing from those later Stokes novels is any action, or a capable hero, but then Frost is supposed to be a regular guy and not an action hero. But I still do enjoy Stokes’s novels…maybe they’re like the literary version of blood pressure pills, just sedate, calming books that can lull the reader into a stupor of relaxation.

Stokes had a weird writing career…his earliest novels, all of them mysteries, were hardcover editions, but eventually he was paperback only. Then he started doing sleaze under pseudonyms, before becoming a house ghostwriter on various Engel productions, before moving on to a few film tie-ins under his own name. At the end of his career (and life) he was finally able to publish again under his own name, though both were paperback originals produced by Engel: The Evangelist (a book so scarce that the copy I ordered the other year was literally the only one listed on the entire internet), and Corporate Hooker, Inc.

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