False Notes

"Danger is part of my trade."
- Sherlock Holmes.

The licensed private-eye Barr Breed, prowling those mean streets of Chicago, has two recorded cases to his credit, The Body in the Bed (1948) and The Body Beautiful (1949), written by Bill S. Ballinger – an associate professor of writing who worked in advertising and broadcasting. You can read more about Ballinger and his work on the Thrilling Detective Website, which includes an uncomplimentary blurb from Anthony Boucher’s review of The Body Beautiful:
"A shabby museum of every cliché of plot, style and action." 
Well, I can't entirely disagree with Boucher's opinion, but still, I think that label is more applicable to the book discussed on here a few days ago, Murder at Grassmere Abbey (1934), than to this little hardboiled conundrum and with that book still fresh in my memory – I felt that the short comings in this one were less of an issue. Sure, it does go through the motions of pulpy, dime-store paperback, but I kind of liked how the hardboiled voice resonated in a theatrical setting and the plot wasn't bad for what is essentially just pulp. 

For Breed, the headache begins when Benny and Rusty try to set him up with Coffee Stearns, a drop dead gorgeous showgirl currently performing in Golden Girls at the old Marlowe Theatre, but Coffee is a solitary minded girl whose only expectation of Breed is to pick a corner to die in. That is, until she learns that he's a P.I. and promises to pay him in kind for his patient attentions, if he does a job for her, but the last thing he ever sees of Coffee is her falling from a gild swinging cage, open in front and elevated above the stage, into the orchestra pit – a knife is firmly planted in her gold-painted back.

Breed's cop-buddy Cheenan takes command of the case and at times takes even more from Breed than Cramer would have from Wolfe and Archie! Like shoving him from an elevator, while knocking down the lift attendant and greasing a cab driver for a quick getaway, but things like that doesn't deter them from bouncing light-hearted threats and verbal jabs off each other the moment they make contact. Hey, I said that I sort of agreed with Boucher and once you've made it pass the chapter with the hospital scene, in which a stitched-up Breed shrugs of the effects of a bomb blast before charging the streets, you've (pretty much) left the worst part behind you.

Anyway, Breed and Cheenan turn the old, but refurbished, Marlowe Theatre inside-out for evidence, interview Coffee's co-workers and everyone even remotely connected to her and tangle with anonymous clients, unwilling witnesses, two more corpses and a prowler with a gun – as well as tangling with each other. But the best parts were the solution to Coffee's stabbing and the dénouement.

Coffee Stearns was stabbed while sitting in an inaccessible cage, suspended above the floor, and while a seasoned knife-thrower was part of the show, that notion was never seriously entertained and a gleam that was seen shooting up to the cage, from the front side, made me suspect that the knife was worked with fish wire. My reasoning was that the swinging of the cage made a spring (or a contraption) unnecessary. It could be simply pulled in place with a wire, as Coffee was backing up when the cage began to ascend and move, but Ballinger relayed on a very Carrian gimmick – giving it a nifty twist in this particular setting. 

Not anything spectacular, but interesting for impossible crime buffs and also disappointing that this angle of the problem got very little exposure. But I did like how Breed gathered the suspects and began tying up the loose ends, all the while building up the suspense by buzzing in people, until everyone has been fed enough information to realize for themselves who the murderer is.

The Body Beautiful is not for you if you're looking for a mystery that offers crisp, highly-quality prose that is meaningful, three-dimensional characters that you can relate to and a plot that takes your breath away, but it’s perfect for a fun, fast-paced read. And believe me, there are worse mysteries out there.


  1. Was this title difficult for you to track down?

    Another one you might like is 'The Silvered Cage' by John Russell Fearn (originally published using the pen name Hugo Blayn)and recently reprinted as one of the Linford Editions as by Fearn. One of the problems the police detectives must solve is the disappearance of a lady from within a silvered cage. One of the characters has a true talent for proposing scientific explanations where the police are baffled.

    1. Not at all.

      And thanks for the suggestion!