Guest blogger Randal S. Brandt is a librarian at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and the creator of two critically-acclaimed websites: Golden Gate Mysteries, an annotated bibliography of crime fiction set in the San Francisco Bay Area, and A David Dodge Companion, chronicling the life and works of mystery/thriller writer David Dodge (1910-1974). He has recently written the introductions to new editions of Dodge’s Death and Taxes (July, 2010), To Catch a Thief (October, 2010), and The Long Escape (December, 2011). Randal Brandt will be a guest at a Mystery Readers NorCal Literary Salon in the New Year.
RANDAL BRANDT: This is how it all began
David Dodge’s fifth mystery, THE LONG ESCAPE, originally published in 1948, has been reissued by Bruin Books and is now available in a handsome new edition. After four novels starring San Francisco tax expert James “Whit” Whitney, written while Dodge was working as a C.P.A. in San Francisco, this book marks the first adventure of Dodge’s second series character, expatriate private detective Al Colby.
By the time THE LONG ESCAPE was written, Dodge had relocated to Guatemala City, so it is only natural that Colby walks the mean streets of Latin America, operating out of Mexico City. The story begins when Colby is hired by a Los Angeles attorney to find one Robert R. Parker, who deserted his wife and $250,000 worth of property in Pasadena five years before. The wife doesn’t want him back; she just wants clear title to the property. Colby’s job is to find him and either prove him dead or persuade him to contact the attorney in order to sign the necessary documents transferring the property. The attorney had been able to trace Parker to Mexico City. Colby picks up the trail and follows it through Central America to Santiago, Chile.
This book holds a very special place for me. Not only was it the first Dodge novel I ever read, but the story of the circumstances surrounding my discovery of it is one that I’m sure Dodge would have appreciated. In 1994, my wife and I went on a vacation to Mexico City. One travel habit we share is to take along novels to read that are set in the locales we are visiting. For this trip my wife had taken along a tattered paperback she had picked up years before in a thrift store. The book, a 1950s Dell mystery “mapback,” featured a colorful map of Mexico and South America on the back cover, promised “A man hunt (girls included) from California to Chile,” and featured Al Colby, a Mexico City private eye. Perfect.
One morning I awoke feeling under the weather, as it were. Although we had been very careful, it turns out that even the most vigilant of norteamericanos can succumb to la turista. And it was raining. We decided to forego our sightseeing plans and spend the day resting and relaxing in our hotel room. To pass the time, my wife, whose digestion was untouched, got out her paperback, The Long Escape, by David Dodge. She kindly offered to read it aloud, giving me what I thought would be an excellent opportunity to sleep it off.
Several hours later I still had not slept a minute, but not because of la turista. She had read that book aloud, cover to cover in one sitting. When we finally closed the book I was feeling much improved, and my wife and I had a new author to pursue and, apparently, a new cure for the Aztec Two-Step.
People often ask me why I like David Dodge. My answer is pretty much the same as it is for any author. It all starts with the writing. Dodge’s books are consistently well-written. They are tightly-plotted with crisp, believable dialogue. About halfway through the first chapter of The Long Escape, Colby interviews a woman who is the current owner of the Buick that Parker drove to Mexico City:
Señora Molly Jean Mendoza lived in a pretty good apartment house out toward Lomas de Chapultepec. A frowsy maid let me in without asking my name or business, then went to call the señora while I parked my hat on a pile of American movie magazines.
Molly Jean turned out to be a rubia, a brassy blonde of the type a lot of Mexicans go nuts about. She was any age you want to guess, with a sulky mouth. She greeted strange gentlemen visitors in a form-fitting housecoat with a zipper running from neck to hem in front that practically said Pull me, kid. The handle of the zipper was a little bell that tinkled when she walked.
I don’t know about you, but Mr. Dodge had me at “Pull me, kid.”