Friday, October 31, 2008

Thin Air by Howard Browne

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."

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.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I have one of those Halo books sitting on my TBR pile. Have to try it.

Scott D. Parker said...

Being a casual fan of "Mad Men" (that is, I know of it, watched and liked a couple of episodes, waiting for Season 1 on DVD at the library), I can't help but see some similarities between MM and this book. And, as always with classic pulp, the cover is fantastic. I have now added Howard Browne to The List.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I love the mud on those yellow shoes.

David Cranmer said...

Damn! I passed over one of these books in a second hand shop recently. I will go back and hope it's still there.

Frank Loose said...

Another Howard Browne book is: If You Have Tears. AKA Lona, under the John Evans pseudonym. Old copies are almost impossible to find and it took me two years to locate one. I wish i could say it was well worth all the hunting, but alas it fell a bit short. Still worth checking out to see another side of this author. It is Browne's take on the "obsession and murder" story. As i mentioned, the original editions are quite difficult to find, but a reprint by Gryphon is availabl

August West said...

Yeah, I believe his "crème de la crème" are the four Paul Pine novels. I know most feel that "The Taste of Ashes" is the best of the four, but I'm partial to "Halo for Satan." It more urban noir than "Ashes," and that ending is a knockout.

August West

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Someone totally new to me but I've got two halo books. Will have to read them.

RE: David - seems you and I are the second hand bookshop kings.

Barrie said...

I do like the excerpts you posted.

Kenny said...

Just finished wathing a first season episode of The Rockford Files, entitled "Sleight Of Hand." It was based on this book "Thin Air," by Howard Browne. Thanks for the information about him as a writer. Looks like I'll have to look up some of his stuff now, especially "Thin Air," if I can find it. Love reading all the hard-boiled stuff as well as writing it.

pbrocali said...

Funny your mention Rockford Files. I just happened to notice the episode was based on this story, so I went on an internet search to find out more about it, and here we are!!!