Monday, June 7, 2021

The Girl In The Trunk

The Girl In The Trunk, by Bruce Cassiday
July, 1973  Ace Books

I have this lame tradition I’ve started over the years: each summer I read a grimy ‘70s crime novel – ie, Bronson: Blind RageDeath ListFramed, and etc. And now The Girl In The Trunk, which presents itself as being right up there (or down there) with the rest of them. Ironically I picked this one up several years ago but never read it, and over these past few years when I’ve been searching high and low for some new sleazy ‘70s crime kick, the book’s been sitting there neglected in a box. 

I should’ve known already that the book might have what I wanted: I mean for one thing there’s the striking (and uncredited) cover art, which is enough to raise one’s hackles. Then there’s the back cover copy, which is like Gannon or Stryker in how it tries to warn off potential readers, given the violent nature of its protagonist: “His fellow detectives on the Honolulu force didn’t like Egan. They couldn’t stomach his sick brutality, the unholy glee with which he trapped and roughed-up mugging suspects, and other victims for his sadistic fists.” So yes, we’re certainly in that grimy ‘70s crime paperback sweet spot, only one with an unusual setting: whereas most these types of books take place in New York or somewhere equally grimy, The Girl In The Trunk is set in sunny Honolulu. 

The novel also occurs over the course of a single day, which is another difference from the average crime paperback of the day. Author Bruce Cassiday keeps the momentum moving over the 200+ pages of the narrative, even skillfully working in the mounting tension of a tsunami that’s headed for Hawaii. The book opens with an 8.9 earthquake in Chile, and periodically the narrative cuts over to the officials monitoring the situation and the tsunamis that have arisen in its wake, with one of them bearing directly for Honolulu. And that’s another difference: The Girl In The Trunk, despite being packaged as a lone wolf cop thriller, is actually more of an ensemble piece, focused on a wide range of characters. This makes the book similar to some of the crime bestsellers of the day, a la The Anderson Tapes and The Taking Of Pelham 123

Lt. Jim Egan, a tough cop in his 40s, gets the back cover credit, but really he’s just one character of many: The Girl In The Trunk is more of a police procedural mixed with a disaster story than the gory yarn promised by the cover art and back cover copy. Egan’s story has it that his wife Berenice was murdered by muggers years before, and now Egan, a “freelance” agent for the Criminal Investigations Department, hunts down muggers to even the score. We meet him in this regard, coming out of a bar at 2:55AM on August 7th and being waylaid by a pair of muggers who think he’s a hapless tourist. But then when their knives come out Egan swoops into action, beating them merciless with his fists and feet. His reputation so precedes him that even the muggers are aware who he is, as are the disgusted cops who come by to round up the mauled muggers. Unlike Gannon or Bronson, Egan is still a cop, thus we learn he’s yet to actually kill any of his victims. 

Then there’s Toshi Yonomuro, 51 year-old chief of CID and Egan’s boss; a Hawaiian-born Japanese with an artificial left cheek that was grafted on after some Germans blew the real one off during WWII. Toshi has his share of the narratiev, as do his wife Blossom and their daughter, Lehua, a college-aged “radical” who has big plans for the rally that night, and claims her dad’s warnings of an impending tsunami are just typical “bourgeois fear” to keep the subversives confused. Both of these characters will carry a good bit of the plot, as does another officer, Ki, a 26 year-old who is “the most cerebral” guy on Toshi’s force and ultimately works the titular case with Egan. 

So just to reiterate, the sadistic tale promised by the cover and copy is only partly delivered on; we meet Egan while beating up some muggers, as mentioned, but he kills neither. We learn he’s now beaten 16 muggers since his wife was killed by one, but this backstory isn’t much elaborated on other than to show that Egan is pretty damn nuts. A few times in the story he will start seeing his dead wife’s face and get dizzy and consumed with violent anger. But other than that he’s just a dick, making a lot of racist comments about Hawaiians and “old Hawaii;” Egan came here before WWII, and often goes on how Hawaii was so much better before it became a state – something with which Toshi also agrees. 

For that’s another layer of the busy story: the various tiers of what is and isn’t a Hawaiian. Ie the native Hawaiians, those with Japanese heritage, those with Caucasian heritage, and those that are mixtures of the above. Then there are also lineages of whether one is “native born Japanese-Hawaiian” or whatnot. But as one of the characters muses, none of it really matters. Cassiday clearly was familiar with Hawaii and really brings the locale to life, as well as the festering racial hostilities and resentments. He even graces the narrative with some smatterings of Japanese, most of which reads correctly (fun fact: I studied Japanese in college and spent a semester in Tokyo). But this whole “race” angle is just one of the many subplots: police procedural, impending disaster, escaped convict, and even radical politics. 

The latter element is how Toshi’s daughter plays into the narrative: she’s been dating Danny, the leader of the Young People’s Family, a group of college-age radicals who want to split off from the Mainland and restore the “real” Hawaii. Here we get a peek into the radical movement mindset of the day, as well as the interesting revelation that at this point the hippies now called themselves “Earth people,” or at least so is Toshi’s belief. So Cassiday even works in a generational divide layer to the novel. He also displays how, no matter their age or race, radicals are a despicable lot: Lehua happens to be pregnant, and when she happily reveals this to Danny he responds that he’ll be glad to raise the kid, but he will be a “bastard,” because “the movement demands purity,” thus Danny can only marry a native Hawaiian. Of course this doesn’t go over very well with Lehua. 

As mentioned The Girl In The Trunk takes place over a single day, August 7 (year unstated), so there isn’t any opportunity for seeing how big revelations play out over time. It’s actually curious that Cassiday went for this “single day” setup, as there was plenty of room for him to flesh out the story more, particularly given the many plots. As it is, he injects a mounting tension with frequent cutaways to various one-off characters as they track the impending tsunami and put out the appropriate alerts. Interestingly one of these one-off characters happens to be “the second announcer” at a “hard rock FM station,” but Cassiday buzzkills any opportunity for fun here with the comment that the DJ is “over thirty” and thus “secretly hates hard rock!” 

So the vengeful cop leaving a trail of mauled corpses in his wake is a story that never happens in The Girl In The Trunk. Instead the main storyline has to do with the embezzlement of half a million dollars from a firm called Dill and Fox; the suspected party was a comptroller named Ames, and Egan and Ki will spend the rest of the novel hunting for him. One subplot, gradually minimized due to the impending threat of the tsunami, is that Toshi is concerned Egan’s mugger-maulings will make it into the news, the force of course not needing the bad press, but he still puts Egan on this Dill and Fox case because he’s “a good detective.” 

One questions Toshi’s opinion when Egan – who remember just beat up two muggers a few hours ago – is sent to the home of Ames, where Egan interviews the man’s attractive, middle-aged wife…and gawks over how she’s a ringer for Berenice, his dead wife. Mrs. Ames turns out to be rather poised for someone whose husband apparently just absconded with half a million bucks, and she trades some memorable barbs with Egan. Meanwhile Ki and even Toshi meet with various firm reps, lending the novel much more of a procedural tone than what the reader might’ve been expecting; in fact I wonder if Ace retitled and repackaged Cassiday’s novel to be more in-line with the violent thrillers then populating the bookstore shelves (or spinner racks). 

Indeed, the titular “girl in the trunk” is discovered early on in the novel, by a beach bum who comes upon a Datsun in the Honolulu Air Port parking lot, some stray dog trying to get into the trunk. Inside the bum sees a dead blonde, completely nude, but he rushes off (the dog tagging along), not willing to call in the discovery. Later though it’s found and Toshi and team go out to the airport while the ME examines; Cassiday furthers the procedural tone with a lot of real-world detail on corpse “lividity” and etc. Here we learn that the dead blonde was the mistress of Ames, the runaway comptroller. In the course of their investigation (ie, over the next few hours), the detectives will learn that Ames’s boss at the firm was also involved in an affair…with Mrs. Ames. 

Along the way we also have repercussions from Egan’s opening mugger-mauling; Toshi interrogates the two “victims,” a bit surprised that one of them seems so blasé about his upcoming jail time. Later (ie just a few hours later) the mugger escapes while being transported to jail, lending the novel yet another tangent: the fugitive on the run. This guy runs roughshod through Honolulu, taking advantage of the growing paranoia over the upcoming tsunami – which has now been determined to make landfall by evening. Cassiday throws around all kinds of curveballs here, with the escaping mugger running into various characters from the narrative. He also doles out a surprise reveal that I won’t spoil on who the mugger really is. 

Action is infrequent; other than the opening bit with Egan, we have a tussle or two, and a gory death when the mugger makes his escape during the transport. For a guy presented as so brutal, Egan doesn’t fare very well; there are two parts where his attacker nearly gets the better of him. That said, at one point he gets his hands on a guy and is about to kill him – again flashing on his dead wife’s face – and is only stopped by Ki. But the cops are very skittish about pulling their guns and shooting, even though Egan likes to constantly threaten people he’s about to. Again, it’s all more of a “realistic” procedural than a violent actioner. 

Cassiday loops all the threads in the finale, which of course sees the tsunami making landfall just as our heroes square away the case and apprehend the escaped mugger. Cassiday even works in Lehua’s plight; one of the subplots is her concern over telling her dad she’s pregnant. Our author manages to give this subplot a happy ending, but again we don’t know how much it will pan out, given that the story occurs over a single day. Cassiday’s focus is more on displaying the various dynamics of Honolulu and its people, and in this regard he really brings the locale to life. 

I wouldn’t say The Girl In The Trunk is a sleazy crime yarn along the lines of the others I’ve reviewed here, though you may be fooled into thinking it is by the cover. If anything it proves that Cassiday was a virtual chameleon so far as his writing goes, so prolific that he wrote everything from historical sagas (The Phoenician, which I got years ago but still haven’t read) to the final installments of Mace.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Interesting. That’s a new one to me.

Unknown said...

Hmmm, I'll betcha "Egan" is based on Eddie Egan, the real-life cop that "Popeye" Doyle from The French Connection was based on, as well as a cop in Badge 373. He had a reputation for brutality. Sounds like this book could be more Egan-sploitation! :)