Friday, 25 May 2018

Richard Marsten's "Murder In The Navy" / Ed McBain's "Death Of A Nurse"

[Imagine the noise of that whistle that pipes people on deck happening here, as a greeting!]

No side-pod for this, but I (Paul) have just finished reading Ed McBain's "Death of a Nurse", originally published as a Richard Marsten novel called "Murder In The Navy" (1955) - the latter title being a more accurate one for the actual content of the book, but "Death Of A Nurse" seems to have been adopted as a more suitably 'pulpy' title which, given the content of the book, is fair enough.

That said, the original release by Fawcett Publishers in their Gold Medal Books imprint, a pretty-damn-pulp-fiction publisher, has a cracking painted rendition of a Naval rating attempting to dispose of the body of his murder victim onboard ship. Even better, the recommendation plastered across the cover is from none other than the "author of THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE" - yes, Evan Hunter himself, suggesting that his pseudonymous alter-ego has created a novel of "Superb Suspense!".

My edition was the 1980 Penguin Crime Fiction version, with the shiny Ed McBain graphic on the front that some of the 87th Precinct were (re)published in. The shattered thermometer on the front doesn't give anything of the story away, but by 1980 McBain's name is the main sales-pitch, so the image is almost secondary to that.

As to the tale itself - it's clearly Hunter writing in a proto-McBain voice. It's closer in tone to the 87th Precinct novels than it is to the Blackboard Jungle or A Matter Of Conviction and it is, once you strip away the specifics of the setting, a good mystery story with a pulpy romance woven through it. McBain/Marsten does a good job of stringing the reader along by quickly narrowing down the murder suspects down to two potential perpetrators, then following them in the story, but always concealing their name (in the hospital they always refer to the patients by bed-number, rather than name, for example), so we're left guessing in much the same way as our hero, Chuck Masters, who is following the case despite being told to leave it alone by the top brass. 

The trappings of life on board ship, at the naval training base in Norfolk, Virginia are all, despite the pre-book protestation that the locations and settings are not drawn as totally true-to-life, based on Evan's own navy experience in quite some detail (the ship isn't real and the layout of the bases etc., is fictionalised - a forerunner of the 87th Precinct "The city in these pages is imaginary..."). Hunter joined the Navy in 1944 (still under his birth name of Salvatore A Lombino) and served aboard the USS Hanson, which was commissioned in the docks at Norfolk, VA and, like the ship in the book, was selected to be converted to a radar picket ship. Much of the story revolves around the radar room and crew on board the vessel. Hunter himself served as a Radarman on the Hanson and so this is drawn from first hand experience. It's probably also worth noting that the inclusion of nurses on board and around the shipyards is perhaps a reflection of the time Hunter spent in hospital during his service, which happened at least a couple of times. 

The USS Hanson in 1966

The story ends with a properly pulpy resolution - a race against the clock, the increasing threat of violence, the damsel in (self-created) distress and our hero, sensitive and determined - but powerful - saving the day. It's a pretty good read for the scholar of McBain - seeing the development of the voice that comes to fruition in the 87th Precinct series - and it's a good example of the type of pulp output that helped to make or establish some authors in the 1950s. Look it up - it's available now in a new edition published by Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press, still listed as an Ed McBain ("writing as...") story, but now back to the original title of Murder In The Navy.

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