Classics in September — False Negative by Joseph Koenig — Joseph Koenig was nominated for an Edgar for Floater, his first novel, back in 1986. He subsequently went on to write Little Odessa, a walk in the underbelly of New York; Smugglers Notch, a story of murder in snowy Vermont; and in 1993 published Brides of Blood, a police procedural which takes place in Islamic Iran. A former crime reporter, Koenig is known for his hardboiled style, relentless action and unflinching violence. After almost two decades since his last novel, he presents False Negative. Published by Hard Case Crime, set in the 1950s, and reading like those old pulp crime novels that we know and love, it’s a perfect fit for our Classics in September theme.
It opens with unsentimental reporter Adam Jordan beating the cops to Little Egg Harbor, an Atlantic City beach, where the body of the beautiful Suzie Chase has been found. Jordan figures his gig at the Atlantic City Press is a step up from the Bronx weekly he used to work for, and this murder would be perfect for his Sunday feature about odd events in ‘America’s Ocean Playground’. However, he soon gets a call from Ed Pelfrey at Real Detective Magazine offering big bucks for black and white murder stories – no sentimentality required. Not only are they interested in the boardwalk beauty, but they really liked the piece he just did on the execution of Conrad Palmer, the heir who poisoned his parents to marry a well-endowed Steel Pier hostess.
Turns out Real Detective’s offer comes at a very opportune time. When Jordan hits the offices of The Atlantic City Press the next day he’s immediately called into his editor’s office. The boss is not amused. Jordan was supposed to cover Congressman Theodore Garabedian’s Armistace Day Speech, which he’s reported on numerous times before. This time he phoned it in using clips from past speeches but it just happens that Garabedian dropped dead 10 minutes after arriving at the American Legion Hall. So, no speech, and tons of embarrassment for the paper. Jordan is summarily canned and begins work on his first piece for Real Detective.
Plus, maybe now he can get round to working on his novel. But that’ll have to wait as bodies start piling up which bear quite a few similarities to the murder of Suzie Chase, and Jordan finds himself chasing down clues. Before he knows it he’s on the trail of a missing girl who danced on stage in Louis Armstrong’s show, leading to an affair with a dark skinned beauty of his own, who gives him more than a run for his money.
If you think Atlantic City in the 50s was innocence and light, think again. Joseph Koenig thoroughly explores the seedy underbelly of its culture and people in False Negative. He takes the casting couch to a whole new level. In Koenig’s world, the women can be bought and the men are more than happy to buy them. You can forget about having a sympathetic protagonist too. Adam Jordan is constantly thinking of ways to get a woman into bed and is pretty much every women’s nightmare. Settling down is not on his horizon, and he can be incredibly callous about the women in his life. He’s not bad, but he won’t be the first guy who comes to mind when you think ‘romantic hero’.
Koenig’s writing is very good, and sometimes downright excellent. Although Jordan is the focus, the author manages to flesh out supporting characters to wonderful effect. I especially enjoyed Jordan’s fling, Cherise, who doesn’t take crap from anyone, least of all Jordan. There’s also the effete, larger than life photographer Pix Pixley. Plenty of red herrings are well used, and I enjoyed the rather labyrinthine nature of the mystery. False Negative is a quick, dirty, fascinating slice of life in a time when race and gender relations were very different, and a woman’s greatest asset was her looks – which is extremely evident in scenes involving the art direction of Real Detective Magazine. Plenty of action and frankly great dialogue and sharp prose rounds out a great mystery that will appeal to lovers of classic noir and just plain excellent writing. Recommended!
Hard Case Crime/Titan Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars