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So Nude, So Dead


So Nude, So Dead

For mystery fans, SO NUDE, SO DEAD is a book they are going to want to add to their collection. Hard Case Crime and its editor, Charles Ardai, have done it again. They have rescued from obscurity a book by a great writer that nobody has read in over half a century.

Of course, we know Ed McBain as the creator of one of the greatest series in literary history, the 87th Precinct police procedurals. But under the pen name “Evan Hunter,” he was also a serious novelist, most famous for a book called THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, which led to the movie by the same name that helped launch rock and roll.

In the early 1950s, Salvatore Lombino was a young writer, struggling to learn his craft and working as a reader in a literary agency before becoming a freelancer. He worked in a lot of genres, including science fiction, where he made his first short story professional sale in 1951. He also used a lot of pseudonyms. Pseudonyms, in the world of pulp fiction, were the way a writer could sell multiple stories at the same time to the same magazine. You needed any advantage you could think of.

Much like today, the writing life back then was a tough way to make a living. McBain told me once that he was down to his last $200 in the bank when he sold THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE under the name Evan Hunter. It became a huge success. That was in 1954. In 1956, under the name McBain, the first of what would be 53 novels set in the 87th precinct appeared. Those novels would span the next half century in the fictional city of Isola and America.

SO NUDE, SO DEAD was written before the first 87th Precinct in 1952 and published in its current title under the name “Richard Marsten.” Then it disappeared, almost forever. It is a terrific noir novel, showing a great writer at the start of his career. Anybody who loves the 87th Precinct series will savor this book.

"...a terrific noir novel, showing a great writer at the start of his career. Anybody who loves the 87th Precinct series will savor this book."

It starts with a classic noir premise. Ray Stone, a piano prodigy, wakes up after a hard night of partying in a seedy hotel room next to a beautiful blonde. Then comes  the complications. First is the “jangling” ache he feels in his body. McBain writes, “It was almost delicious, especially when he knew he had the stuff waiting for him. It was awful too, but painful in a sweet way, almost as if the waiting were too exquisite to bear... God, he needed a shot.”

Ray is a heroin junkie, something he picked up just two months previously when he tried coke for the first time. Then comes the second complication. He is not going to get his shot. His partner in bed brought 16 ounces of smack into the Hotel Stockmere the night before. Ray tosses the room, and the drugs are gone.

Then comes the worst complication of all: the blonde, Eileen Chalmers, is dead in the bed, with two bullet holes in her belly. Ray needs a fix in the worst way, but soon word gets out about the dead girl, who was a band singer, and Ray become hotter than a firecracker. In his attempt to find out who killed her and stole the dope, another body soon turns up.

The book is set in New York in the early 1950s, and 52nd Street is still the capital of the world of big band and jazz. Ray’s journey will take him deep into that world. It was also the period of classic film noir. Think Richard Widmark in Night and the City from 1950. The city in that movie was London and the profession the fight game, not music, but young McBain captured the sense of the city at the heart of film noir.

He writes: “He had once loved the city because the city was warm, and the city had helped him nurture his talent. But now the city was a place in which to hide, a place in which to plot, a place in which to seek out a pusher. Twelve years, that was all. So much had happened to the kid with the dreaming fingers. He was twenty-six now, and his talent, his promise, what had happened…” The noir city is a dark place with dead ends.

“The merry-go-round never stops” is how Ray describes heroin. And it is a sad commentary indeed that 60 years later, heroin is still a popular and deadly drug in this society among the young and not so young. But (and this is the sign of a great writer) McBain resisted the chance to provide commentary or morality here. He just concentrates on telling a terrific blind alley noir.

And here is the really good news: Charles Ardai unearthed another lost McBain novel from the 1950s called CUT ME IN, which is described as a crime story in the business world set in a pre- “Mad Men” New York. It is scheduled for release in January 2016.

Once again, kudos to Ardai and Hard Case Crime for giving us lost books that are well worth reading. And it is also worth mentioning that this novel comes with an original cover painting by the great pulp artist Greg Manchess. The cover alone makes it worth buying if you love pulp fiction. SO NUDE, SO DEAD is one of the most exciting releases of 2015.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on July 17, 2015

So Nude, So Dead
by Ed McBain