Here’s another book in the string of pulp crime novels I’ve been reading, but this one’s a little different. The lasttwo that I read were written in the ’50s and ’60s, and published posthumously (after some touching-up). False Negative is set in Atlantic City in the ’50s, and the hard-boiled style certainly does a great job of aping the kitchiness that made those other books so charming. But it wasn’t actually written sixty years ago, so some of the dated mindsets put forth in the book made me a little uneasy.
Adam Jordan isn’t a detective, he’s a reporter, a sloppy one who gets himself fired and blackballed when he blatantly fudges a story. Since he was primarily a crime reporter, he takes on a job writing for a magazine that details real life murder mysteries. He begins to put together that a few local murders all have links to a minor league baseball player, and digs into the case, a little too deeply for his own personal safety.
Jordan’s character is really hard to root for. You want him to solve the case in time to perhaps save a couple of lives, and he shows occasional flashes of kindness, but for the most part he’s not really likable at all. He’s a bully to his “fairy” photographer friend, his opinion of women is misogynistic and his behavior toward them borders on rape. Though he is outwardly receptive towards racial equality (he smokes a joint with Louis Armstrong in one scene; gets annoyed when his editor won’t run a murder story he’s working on because the victim was black and the readers wouldn’t care), his inward racism is noticeable. He’s happy to bed a black girl for a while, until he thinks he has a shot at a prettier white girl. Also sloppy descriptions like this ooze out on occasion (Jordan suspects this guy Beach of faking being black to better blend in with lowlifes):
Jordan heard Beach call out to ask if he’d been killed yet. Narvin said, “No, motherfucker gettin’ ‘way,” and Beach, too angry to sound colored, said, “Idiot, can’t you do anything right?”
It’s not really fair to fault Koenig for being accurate in the prejudices rampant in the era his book is set. Nor would it be right to discredit him for having an unlikable protagonist. But the combination left a bad taste in my mouth. More than once I wondered why I was reading it. The mystery is decent enough (I’m purposefully leaving it out to avoid spoilers); the killer’s identity is telegraphed early for astute readers, but plenty of satisfying decoys present themselves as well.
The problem, I think, is that Jordan reports on murder stories. His jobs require people to be killed, and a serial killer provides a better story. Unlike a gumshoe or private dick, who are out to catch killers and perhaps saves lives, Jordan, though he too wants to follow the clues to the find the story, profits from a higher body count.
Sure, there are characters like Sherlock Holmes, a pompous know-it-all whose interest in solving cases is far more driven by ego than virtue. But Adam Jordan doesn’t have the charisma to pull off that kind of thing. He’s not built up as some sort of anti-hero, he’s supposed to be the good guy–he’s just a jerk.
For me, the fun of this sort of crime book is the hard-boiled mood. There’s lots of talking wise, of goofy character stereotypes, of clues lining up like dominoes until the hidden hand is finally revealed at the last moment to flick them into satisfying-if-too-neat denouement. When we’re talking about about a racist egoist you wouldn’t dare introduce to your sister, whose motivations are never fully clear, it’s just not as fun.