Thin Air by Howard Browne
Dell 894, Copyright 1954
"Our street was as black as an account executive's tie."
In 1954, three years before Howard Browne started his career as a television script writer, he wrote "Thin Air." It involves a theme that others have covered may times - a missing wife, with the husband being the main suspect. Of course Browne being no slouch of a writer, took it a step further and put together a sharp piece of crime literature, which starts in a sterile setting and then takes us down a bleak road of violent danger.
"It was no way to die. Her face was bloated and the wrong color, her mouth wide and strained far back, her tongue enormous. Her eyes bulged out until they were no longer eyes but something out of the psychiatric ward at Bellevue."
Ames Coryell finally pulls into his Westchester County driveway after thirteen straight hours on the road from a Maine vacation. Sleeping in the back seat is his exhausted wife and three year old daughter. On arrival, his wife immediately leaves the car to open the house while Coryell gets his sleeping daughter out of the back. Once inside, Coryell can’t locate his wife. She has disappeared. After a frantic search, he combs the neighborhood streets with no luck. The police are notified and later a male neighbor that his wife knew is found unconscious, near death in the bushes. Suspicion quickly turns to Ames Coryell as a suspect in the assault on the neighbor and his wife’s disappearance. Feeling that the cops are inept, Coryell decides he must take action and get personally involved to find out what happen on that night.
What makes this missing persons story different than others is Coryell’s position as vice president of a major NYC advertising agency. The next morning he heads to work assembling all his business contacts, using their skills to construct a world-class campaign to get leads on his wife. He has some of the best marketers, commercial designers, and researchers at his disposal. He puts together his little private detective agency in one day and has his wife’s photo out in the streets, on radio and television in hours. Leads quickly come in and he personally investigates them, during which a couple of murders occur. At this point in the story, Coryell plays it like a hardboiled dick, hitting the streets with gun in hand and roughing it up with a few informants. Though an amateur, he’s no dummy – he finally pieces it together.
Howard Browne doesn’t hold anything back from the reader. The clues are there throughout the story, we just have to grab the right ones and place them accordingly. He sure had the wonderful talent of taking a storyline that has been covered before and building it into a dark, noir potboiler. The twist in using the advertising agency as a means to locate Coryell’s wife was surprisingly unique, even though I thought he got into a little too much detail on it's workings for my taste. But after Browne sails through that, he takes us on a hardboiled trail through shabby apartments, small-time hoods, a dark mysterious proprietor and finally to a hell of an ending. A first-rate mystery novel.
I’ll admit “Thin Air” is a bit far fetch and not his best novel, but Howard Browne’s writing is so good that anything he authored is well worth your time. In fact later when the author was working as a writer for television, he adapted this storyline for numerous television detective scripts. There was a high demand for his TV crime dramas, but he really excelled when writing mystery novels. His best work is undoubtedly the four detective novels, featuring Chicago P.I. Paul Pine. Definitely one of the best detective series ever written, all four novels are outstanding and they are personal favorites of mine.
Halo in Blood (1946, pseud. John Evans)
Halo for Satan (1948, pseud. John Evans)
Halo in Brass (1949, pseud. John Evans)
The Taste of Ashes (1957, Howard Browne)
And if you can find it, don’t miss the one Paul Pine short story that appeared (under his pseud. John Evans) in the Feb. 1953 issue of Manhunt Detective Story, “So Dark for April.” In could be the best short story the prominent mystery magazine ever published.
Friday, October 31, 2008
Thin Air by Howard Browne