29 August 2013

Encyclopedia Brown Spoils the Day

A Body for a Blonde
Ken McLeod [pseud. Kimball McIlroy]
Toronto: Harlequin, 1954

Prior to this perilous trek through our neglected, forgotten and suppressed I'd read few mysteries. There was an Agatha Christie, something by Margaret Millar and something else by Ross Macdonald, but most were written by Donald J. Sobol, the creator of Encyclopedia Brown. An admirer of the boy detective, during my days at Allancroft Elementary School I studied his every case. Pretty much everything I know about solving crimes comes from good, good Leroy Brown; and so, it's really to his credit that I was able to finger the murderer by page seven of this pre-romance Harlequin. I spent the rest of the novel wondering just how long it would take the characters to clue in.

A Body for a Blonde isn't nearly as startling or shocking as the publisher would have you believe. That man behind the door is not being tortured; he's standing under a cold shower. The blonde is not that of the title, but his pal's tiny, baby-faced girlfriend. She should not be in diaphanous negligee.

No, A Body for a Blonde isn't startling or shocking, though it does contain a decent dose of humour. In the main, this is supplied by George Sloan, a hard working, seemingly well-paid writer plying his trade in post-war Toronto. George has just finished his latest when two burly movers appear at the door, interrupting his celebratory drink. He makes a mistake in granting the men entry, then compounds same by allowing them to leave a heavy steamer trunk in his living room. After they've left, George opens the trunk to find the cooling corpse of a dead man.

"Jee-zus!" says George.

His third mistake comes in picking up a gun that's lying on the body. It goes off, the cops rush in, and George is arrested for murder.

This would never happen in Idaville, Encyclopedia's hometown, but Toronto is different. George ends up drinking gin with jailer Joe in a holding cell. His one chance at salvation seems to lie in fiancée Mabel Jones, "a tall, beautiful, willowy girl who had paid her way through college by doing photographic modelling."

You know the type.

Former model Mabel is now a lawyer. Before she can get George off – nothing naughty intended – he makes a break that leads to her apartment and the shower scene so inaccurately depicted on the cover.

A Body for a Blonde is very wet. George, Mabel and their friends Roly and Rita spend about as much time drinking as they do trying to figure out who really dunnit. The whole thing comes off like a party game. There's a good amount of ribbing and ribaldry throughout, as when attention turns to George's blonde bombshell of a neighbour – yes, she of the title – Estelle Hilton:
Roly said, "I agree with George. I still see the thing just the way we had it figured out before. You two girls are just jealous of Estelle."
     Rita said,"Humph! That blowzy sex-bag? Nothing between her ears and everything between her..."
    Roly said, "Rita!" 
    "Well, it's true. Just because she's got a lot of blonde hair on her head and sticks out in all the right places you dopes figure she couldn't possibly be mixed up in a murder."
Meanwhile, the cops are so convinced of George's guilt that they don't really bother to investigate and are blind to strong evidence that might clear the writer.

The Toronto Police Service comes off very badly in this novel. It's because George gets a corrupt cop drunk on seized hooch that he's able to escape his holding cell. Minutes later, the murderer strikes again, killing within the very same police station. Whether sober or drunk, George moves freely through the city, climbing fire escapes breaking into apartments, and strolling through the lobby of the Royal York Hotel. He's present for two police raids on Mabel's miniscule apartment, but is not found.

See cover.

Worst of all, the murderer turns out to be a fairly senior member of the force.

Now, don't go accusing me of spoiling the novel; at worst I've ruined the first seven pages. Encyclopedia Brown would agree. A Body for a Blonde is recommended, but not as a mystery. A light read, a fun read and a bit of a ribald read, it should be kept away from the children of Idaville.

An observation: Though published in 1954, A Body for a Blonde at times reads like a novel from an earlier decade. Reference is made to Minsky's, the New York burlesque club that that city shut down in 1937. During his incarceration, George reads Zippy Stories, a New York-based magazine that didn't survive the Depression.

I've long been interested in this Canadian edition of Zippy from March 1939:

In Canada, the de la Roche surname was then nothing but a creation of Mazo de la Roche (née Roche), whose middle name just happened to be Louise. Could it be that the wealthy author of Jalna stooped so low as to contribute to a cheap, titillating mag? Of course not – but how to explain that name?

About the author: I have Thad McIlroy, the author's son, to thank for filling me in on his father's life and career:
My father, born Thaddeus Kimball McIlroy II (I'm "III"), was a dual citizen, born in New York City to an American father and a Canadian mother.
He went to elementary school in Canada and high school in the U.S. Then he mostly lived in Toronto and enlisted with the Canadian army, becoming a captain with the Royal Canadian Artillery and posted overseas. He stayed on in Europe after the war writing the official history of the Artillery in the 2nd War. He wrote for Saturday Night and for Esquire. He had radio plays performed on CBC.
     When he married my mother and started raising a family he moved over into public relations (as many journalists did, and do) in order to secure a steady income. 
Kimball McIlroy's only other published novel was The Fertile Four-Poster (New York: Crown, 1969). "Nothing came of it," writes Thad, "in particular: no paperback, not many copies sold."

He was working on a third novel, The Paddle that Wouldn't Float, when he died.

Object: A 158-page mass market paperback, with full-page ads for Raymond Marshall's Lady – Here's Your Wreath and Come Blonde, Come Murder by Peter George.

Access: A paperback original, A Body for a Blonde enjoyed one lone printing. Copies are scarce – just three are listed for sale online – though prices are reasonable at US$25 to US$35.

Worldcat provides no listing.

Get 'em before it's too late.

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1 comment:

  1. I didn't know Harlequin used to publish this sort of thing. I recently read that they're looking to publish horror, so I guess they never met a nickel they didn't want to make. Or something.