Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)
Alexander Hazard Williams (1894 – 1952) led a very varied life, which he often drew upon for his detective fiction writing, which took place in the 1930s. Throughout his working life he was involved with many organisations and institutions, including government ones, which I think helped him with the setting of this story, revolving around the WPA. The WPA is short for the Works Progress Administration, which was involved in providing relief for unemployed people, often finding them jobs on WPA run projects. Benjamin Cook, an executive with the WPA is concerned about one particular district overseen by Henry Ireton. He is hugely unpopular, with many protests taking place and his treatment of the Federal Art Projects leaves a lot to be desired. He has a bee in his bonnet that these projects are filled to the gunnels with subversive communists and he wants to take over greater control of them and fire their directors. It is these designs which cause Cook concern and lead to him employing our story narrator, James Moore, to report on what is going on in that area.
When Moore arrives at the WPA building there seems to be more than one protest in progress and in the midst of this is an attempt to hold a meeting between Ireton and the Art Project directors. However, violence breaks out in the waiting room between the protestors and the police, breaking up the meeting. It is only once the dust settles that it is noticed that Ireton, who returned to his office, has been murdered. Further death quickly follows as Ireton’s secretary is murdered the next day, preventing any real interrogation of her. Being such an unpopular guy the suspect list is pretty high for Ireton’s murder. There are personal reasons such as with Lawrence Parson, whose life has been made a misery by Ireton after Ireton had discovered Lawrence was seeing his daughter. There are also political factors to be considered, as it seems that Ireton was encouraging the development of a fascist nationalist group within the WPA, who were pressurising and terrorising other workers. Thankfully Moore’s old friend Lieutenant Pietro Tonelli is investigating the case, meaning Moore gets an inside track on the investigation.
In terms of style I think this book comes more from the hardboiled camp, with its consistent flow of wise-cracks and the tendency for fists to get used as much as words in the investigation process. Suffice to say Moore gets hit and shot at, at alarming rates in the story and everyone’s drinking ability is fairly impressive. I don’t think it is the sort of mystery you can solve entirely by yourself as a few pieces of information don’t get revealed until the solution, but I think the revealing of clues fits in with the subgenre style it is embodying, so it isn’t as irritating to the reader as it might in other mystery subgenres. The motive is unexpected and unusual and the solution overall offers the reader a number of surprises. However, one of the biggest things to stand out for me though was how eerily modern the political climate of the novel felt, particularly with the nationalist group victimising the WPA within, deeming who was and who wasn’t sufficiently American and therefore acceptable.
This is not my usual sort of read, but for all that I found it rather refreshing in its setting and milieu and Tonelli and Moore make for an entertaining and engaging detecting duo. The pace is very strong and there is plenty of action to keep your attention.