When Sam Gowan wakes up from a bout of amnesia, he is standing over a corpse, an empty automatic in his hand. Despite the number of bullets in the corpse’s face, he recognizes the man as Ross Lambart, and the last thing Sam can remember doing is meeting up with Lambart in a bar.
Being “one of those average fellows you wouldn’t look at twice on a crowded street” (or as his wife refers to him, “the most spineless man I ever met … a weak fool, a real life Caspar Milquetoast, cringing from trouble like some cur dog”), Sam is horrified at the possibility of being a murderer, and promptly takes off running, trying to cover his tracks and dispose of evidence along the way.
Adding to the mystery, a strange woman calls out to him on the street as he bundles into a cab. The strange thing, though, is that this woman calls him David …
Being something of a prominent citizen, Lambart’s corpse presents the city with a problem. The police are under pressure to crack the case, and two very different policemen with very different methods are called in to find the murderer.
The first cop is Detective Sergeant Barney Manton, the kind of man who celebrates his birthday “with a stupid blonde and a fifth of cheap whiskey.” The other is his superior, Lieutenant Milligan, who has seen “a lot of innocent people hurt by careless police procedure. He didn’t like to hurt people: that was what had first turned him from the little back room and strong lights to the laboratory.”
And it is here, in the relationship between these two very different cops, that we find the real meat of Whittington’s solid paperback quickie, ‘Call Me Killer.’ Because, though he delivers on the thrill-ride aspects of a hardboiled noir mystery, it is actually in its deliberate, thoughtful subversion of the usual genre tropes that Whittington’s novel really comes into its own.
I’ve read other reviews and synopses online that describe this book as a cat and mouse saga between a hardboiled cop and a luckless chump circling down towards oblivion. It is a description that does the book a real disservice.
Because just as Robert Aldrich and A.I. Bezzerides did with their subverted Mike Hammer adaptation, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), here Whittington depicts his hardboiled cop as the real luckless chump — an out of touch bully dinosaur superseded by the specimen dishes and test tubes of the laboratory.
Indeed, if anything, it is Manton’s pitiful figure, and not Sam’s amnesiac fighting to clear his name, that fits the ‘noir’ model of a doomed loser:
“The honest fact was that Manton, living alone in a rented room with a radio he seldom snapped on, magazines he almost never read, hated nights: the lonely, small, dark hours.”
He is a man who lives for nothing but his job — but the methods of his job have changed, and he has not.
It is a narrative very different from the rather clichéd conservative fable of namby-pamby police methods allowing criminals to get away with murder, but it is of course a narrative much closer to the truth of decades of improved criminal detection techniques and plummeting violent crime figures.
For doubters, here’s psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker talking on the subject:
It is a reason-based view with which Lieutenant Milligan — and I daresay Harry Whittington — would agree.
But what of fiction’s much-loved hardboiled cop? Could it be that he no longer has a place in the modern world? What is it, then, about the figure that enables him to continue lumbering through the pages of our bestsellers, and stalking across the flickering silver screen?
Perhaps it is the very blandness of the relative safety we now live in that explains it. There is drama in violence but very little in science. Our continued desire for darkness in our fiction, and the subsequent familiarity with the concept that it resides in all of us — the self-exploration that we can carry out in the comfort of our armchairs — goes some way towards telling us why we are no longer so violent.
To paraphrase Pinker, in many instances we have simply reasoned the need for violence out of existence.
And as long as we don’t confuse the drama of our fiction with the real world we live in, then perhaps we can continue this potentially inevitable journey towards peace.
But seeing as this is a noir blog, and ‘Call Me Killer’ a work of noir fiction, we definitely shouldn’t end things in such a positive way.
Towards the end of the novel, Whittington has idealist Milligan provide his optimistic message: “No honest citizen has anything to fear from the law, not any more. It is his servant. And he need not be afraid if he leads an upright life.”
The hounded, beaten, victimized Sam, however, doesn’t see things so rosily. “If he leads an upright life, is lucky, has a Senator for an uncle, a defense attorney for a father, and owes the judge some money, then I agree with you.”
Ah, that feels much better, doesn’t it?