Book Review: Nightmare in Manhattan by Thomas Walsh (1950)

I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

I bought a copy of this book for $2.95 at Downtown Books, and I was in the mood for a good older (pulp, noir) book after watching Call It Murder, a movie I got as part of a Humphrey Bogart movie box set and which Humphrey Bogart gets first billing only because his last name begins with a B. So after watching a poor transfer of a decent play turned into a bad movie, I picked this book up. Nertz. I deserved it, I suppose.

This book won the Edgar Award in 1951 for best first mystery novel. Apparently, the author was a widely-published short story writer, and the back cover explains that he’s an expert craftsman who doesn’t like a single waste word. Unfortunately, you can flip the book open to any page and find wasted words, impersonal expressions, extraneous adverbs, and everything else.

If this book served as our only artifact, we might assume that 1949 preceded the important invention of dialog. Open this book and just look at the text, and you might think you’re looking at a Russian novel or an academic piece of nonfiction. Long paragraphs fill out the pages, with nary a line of spoken dialog between–and when the characters speak, they speak in paragraphs.

These two factors alone would deprive a book of pacing, but that’s not all. Walsh apparently conducted his research into the Manhattan train depot, the primary setting of the novel, because he spends pages upon pages describing its environment and its back corridors. Whereas I like glimpses behind the scenes of different business/industrial scenes, Walsh pours these wordy descriptions into even climactic action scenes. The antagonist should run down a corridor. That’s all I need to see. I don’t need to know what rooms branch from the corridor, or how high the windows in the corridor are, or upon what rooms the other doors open. Just get the antagonist down the corridor.

Walsh also uses a poor device to try to build suspense, wherein he cuts between the cardboard characters, some of whom are lucky enough to be distinguished by their archetypes but others are only different in name, just as an important event is going to happen. Short cuts might prove interesting and suspenseful if the reader could tell the characters apart or cared about the characters. However, when the clock sits at twelve minutes to noon and these cut scenes stretch into paragraphs and dialogless pages of characters reflecting that they’re scared/anxious/nervous because the upcoming event is important amid meticulous recounting of the staircases and balconies of the train station, the reader just wants to fast forward those twelve minutes so that over the course of ten pages, something important will happen.

Perhaps I’m a jaded modern reader who doesn’t appreciate the important ground broken by this crime novel. But I do know that pulp fiction published at the same time had more at stake than this book. The plot: kidnappers, amusingly spelled kidnapers in this book (obviously, it preceded the common spelling of the crime), kidnape a child and hold him ransom for (pinky to mouth) fifty thousand dollars!. A tough transit cop and his superiors want to find the kidnapers before they kill the child. Russeted onto the story, we have an understated love interest in the secretary of the businessman whose son was kidnaped. Also, we have the train station, which is not personified and doesn’t become a character in any sense like Ray Chandler would do to LA or Ed McBain would do to The City.

The plot, really, is secondary to the mind numbing description and language. One cannot escape them, and indeed I didn’t so much read this book as rubberneck the wreck it became.

One last thought, and pardon me while I spoil the climax for you. The only mirth I derived from this book I found in the climactic thirty page final chase, wherein the tough cop mortally, or at least seriously, wounds the bad guy with a gunshot to the upper chest, and the villian leaps from a balcony and runs through a door into empty office spaces in the train depot, and falls down some stairs, runs down a corridor, falls down more steps, leaps out of the way of a train when he finds himself in a tunnel, and then almost makes it back to the child to kill him. The legions of law enforcement, meanwhile, cannot find where this fellow went. Because apparently, in 1950, they had not yet invented bleeding profusely.

I don’t think it was supposed to be funny, but during those thirty pages of climax, I had a lot of time to enjoy the absurdity.