Written by Ed McBain — Ed McBain, who died in 2005, had considerable success under a variety of pen names before he hit literary gold dust with his 87th Precinct novels. Before he began writing about detectives Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer and others, McBain wrote children’s books, an expose of juvenile delinquency, and pulp crime. So Nude, So Dead is the earliest example of his pulp crime and was initially published as The Evil Sleep! in 1952. Since its republication as So Nude, So Dead a few years later, this book has lain dormant for over half a century until now. On 17 July, it’s being re-released by Hard Case Crime with a new cover by Greg Manchess.
The novel has a familiar beginning. A young musician and addict called Ray Stone wakes up in a strange room with little memory of the night before. In the bed beside him is a dead girl. Eileen Chalmers was an addict too. Through the panic, and withdrawal symptoms that gradually grow more intense, Stone is able to piece together a little of the night before. Eileen sang with a combo, and Ray met her between sets at a nightclub. They shared a cab back to her hotel room and got high together. Eileen had shown Ray 16oz of pure heroin before they fell into a narcotic induced slumber. Examining her corpse, Ray discovers she was shot twice in the stomach and worse, from his selfish point of view at least, the heroin is gone.
Ray may be naive but he knows he’s been set up. His first call is to his father, who agrees to meet him with some money. But dad still entertains hopes of getting his son back on the straight and narrow and when the two meet Ray finds his father has invited the cops along too. Ray knows that if he goes along with them he’s more likely to be sent to death row than hospital for a detox, and barely makes his escape. Walking the mean streets of New York with the police after him, Ray knows he’ll have to find Eileen’s murderer himself. And he needs to do it quick, because when cold turkey really sets in he won’t be any use to anyone.
So Nude, So Dead carries us off into the seedy world of hophead jazz musicians, a world where a reefer stick can send a promising young pianist into the arms of heroin, and the arms of any number of amorous young women, be they half-Chinese strippers, supper club singers or just hangers on. Of course it has dated. There is nothing in this book which would be remotely scandalous now, but there is enjoyment to be had in this. Never before have I read a book where so many women think they can rid an addict of his habit with a romp between the sheets.
But the fun is not just in the nostalgia or the innocence of the time. McBain rattles through the action, delivering femmes fatales, hipster playboys, jealous husbands, and rough-housers aplenty. It may not have the polish of his later work, but even the novice McBain could recognise a good story and new how to make it work.
It is a slight novel, one that can be read in an evening quite easily, and the mystery is a little perfunctory. Perhaps aware of this, the publisher has added in a McBain novella, 20 pages or so in length, as a sweetener. Factor in the original cover painting done to Hard Case Crime’s exacting standards and So Nude, So Dead is a tasty package.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars