Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sleep With Strangers and Sleep With Slander by Dolores Hitchens

Sleep With Strangers introduces Jim Sader, a hardboiled or at least medium boiled Long Beach Private Investigator hired by Kay Wanderly to find her mother Felicia, who disappeared three nights before. Like many young women who hire private investigators, Kay is evasive in her answers and flighty and panicked in her attitude.

At the same time and completely coincidentally and unrelatedly, Sader’s partner, Dan Scarborough is hired to find Perry Ajoukian, who disappeared on the same night. Perry Ajoukian has a complicated, adversarial relationship with his oil shares-buying father, with whom he lives with his astonishingly beautiful wife (as Scarborough says, “I could describe her in detail, but you might think I wasn’t a gentleman.” (Chapter 2)).

As the story moves along, Sader learns that Kay has failed to disclose key information in a timely manner, including the fact that Felicia had a gun when she disappeared and is known to go on occasional “drunken rampages.” Sader also gets some let’s call them hunches that turn out to be profoundly significant to his investigation (i.e., an uncovered oil sump near a drilling field office located near the homes of the two missing people has a crucial clue and he investigates based on a feeling he has—as Scarborough puts it, “People never give God credit for anything anymore…” (Chapter 14)). Then there’s the fact that Sader’s investigation into Felicia’s disappearance connects neatly with Scarborough’s investigation into the disappearance of Perry Ajoukian. They discuss the coincidence of both of these people on the same night but they don’t really take the coincidence seriously—not even when Sader meets a suspect who mentions a Wanderly-Ajoukian connection.

There are lots of lovely touches throughout the book, like Sader’s internal monologue regarding the copy and the font used in his detective agency’s ads (“…[T]he wording, Sader thought, gave off an aura of secretive shrewdness.” (Chapter 14)). There are some amazing descriptions of Long Beach, “the town that had grown up from a village by the sea, a city with a hill in the middle of it, sprouting oil derricks like a forest of pins…” (Chapter 18). In Long Beach’s “amusement zone” called The Pike we learn about a game “!!GIVE THE PIGS A SLIDE!! 3 BALLS 25¢” As Sader describes it: “You hit the center of the target with a baseball and a pig comes out a runs to the slide and slides down it. The owner gives the pig a bite to eat, so he won’t mind coming down again next time. The sucker wins a plaster ash tray worth one tenth of a cent, plus a feeling of happiness over having given the pig a thrill…” (Chapter 4). Those pigs are kept in a room in the GIVE THE PIGS A SLIDE owner’s home. For zoning reasons he can’t keep them outside.

But the best part of the book is the mood that Hitchens sets. There is a palpable sense of melancholy and hopeless fear over everything. Sader had been “in Intelligence, in the Army. Cloak-and-dagger stuff.” He says he got into detective work because he though that “being a private detective would be more exciting, and less work,” but “[m]ostly it’s little frightened men who can’t pay their bills, or big defiant men who won’t support their families…” (Chapter 4). Sader’s age is never revealed, but he seems to be in his early forties, and he’s definitely feeling his age. Younger women regard him with casual disinterest. Throughout the book his younger business partner Scarborough repeatedly refers to Sader as “Papa,” and not in an affectionate way. Sader’s implicit fear of having irretrievably lost something he can never get back and recognition of his own mortality lead to his jumping to a very wrong conclusion and veering down (literally) the wrong road.

The second Jim Sader novel, Sleep With Slander, is almost as good. Sader is hired by a man called Hale Gibbings. Gibbings has received an anonymous note telling him that the child his daughter gave up for adoption five years before is being horribly mistreated by relatives of the family that originally adopted the child.

Sader takes an immediate dislike to Gibbings. In fairness, Gibbings was somewhat adversarial (“Makes you mad for someone to want to know if you’re any good?” (Chapter 1)), but his ire is basically instinctive. He takes the case, intending to act as an advocate for both the child and the woman who gave the child up for adoption. Sader discovers that the adoptive father died in a plane crash several years before, at which point the adoptive mother, Tina Champlain, seemed to undergo a complete lifestyle change, moving to Santa Monica and taking up with an entirely new social group. She died in an accident off Catalina island, while boating with her new boyfriend Brent and his father.

Over the course of the story Sader meets the calculating woman who facilitated the adoption, the cold relatives who feel no connection to a child that’s not a blood relative, the sad proprietor of Betty’s Baby Shop, and a father and son with serious abusive problems. He gathers seemingly conflicting eyewitness testimony, inscrutable photos, and untrustworthy letters. All the while, Sader continues to struggle with feelings of mortality. In the second chapter he thinks about “the erosion done his natural curiosity by time and by being in the detective business.” This is a brilliant and surprising bit of foreshadowing on Hitchens’ part. Sader doesn’t even learn the child’s name until the eighth chapter—and he doesn’t think to ask anyone. Gibbings calls Sader “a bungler" in the eleventh chapter. There is some evidence of that for sure, but Hitchens portrays Sader with a great deal of empathy, as a sad aging man trying his best to do the right thing despite his own failings and the horribleness that he’s encountered. I overlooked it to the point that it didn't even occur to me that Sader hadn't asked for the child's name until it was finally revealed.

Then, that ending. It’s a bit— Freudian. The book was published in 1960, and my suspicion is that this type of twist would have worked really well back then, or it would have at least felt fresh, and maybe even insightful. As it is, the resolution is by far the weakest element of the novel. For a mystery that’s very problematic. It’s more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit, which isn’t a bad thing obviously. But the mixture of earnest psychological insight and gimmicky psychology feels, actually now that I’m thinking about it, it feels almost post-ironic. Like Quentin Tarantino remaking Dario Argento with James Franco in the lead. So maybe it’s perfect for the current year.

Wow, speaking of Freudian, I just thought of James Franco as Jim Sader in an HBO series adapting these novels, one for each season. I'd subscribe.

As with Sleep with Strangers, there are a lot of really terrific Southern California touches. When Sader visits Tina Champlain’s last known address in Santa Monica he discovers that the place has been gutted and that a new freeway is is going through. “An area of a dozen blocks or so had been condemned, the houses and shops were in the process of being moved or demolished.” (Chapter Two). The description of the Wilmington home of Tina’s boyfriend, “a big old-fashioned frame place with a neglected yard” and a broken walk and an amateur boatyard with three unfinished boat hulls in the back is also really vivid. You can smell the paint and feel the boards creaking.

Bill Pronzini famously called Sleep With Slanderthe best traditional male private eye novel written by a woman.” I’m not sure I agree with that (I don't know when he made that assertion) but it is definitely worth your time. Aside from being terrific character-driven crime stories, both of these novels taken together provide a really fascinating time capsule of Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica. If you’re interested in what life was like there in the mid-50s, they’re especially recommended.

Dolores Hitchens is represented in the invaluable Library of America Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s two-volume set, with a book called Fool’s Gold. In addition, the Library of America is selling e-book versions of both Sleep With Strangers and Sleep With Slander.

Aside: My copies of these books were the Blue Murder paperback editions published in England in 1989. BOTH of the books features back cover blurbs that ruin important plot points so casually you’d think that the major twists they reveal happen in the first chapter. If you happen to get those editions, DON’T read the back covers until you’ve read the books.

Sleep With Strangers cover source.
Sleep With Slander cover source.

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