Very Cold in May (1950) by William P. McGivern

McGivern is a new to me author and this story begins with Jake Harrison attempting to leave the Saxon Club when a phone call detains him. It is from Gary Noble and unfortunately for Jake, he wants to know how quickly he can get down to his office. His dinner plans with Sheila have to go to the wall, (which is not great given that she’s planning on divorcing him, due to his work), but the latest client Gary has obtained is too good to pass up. The client is Dan Riordan, a successful businessman. A government committee is raking over his books to look at the contracts he fulfilled for the government during the war. Riordan is quite open with Gary and Jake about the fact that he cut corners, using inferior cheaper steel to make gun barrels for the army and is unapologetic for the fatalities that this decision caused. Riordan wants  Gary and Jake to handle his public relations whilst the investigation is on going and help him to appear in a good light in the papers. He also wants them to deal with a certain May Laval, who is writing her war memoirs and she is prepared to tell all, in a bid to regain the social spot light. Riordan is worried about what she may have on him in her diary.

It goes without saying really that it is only a matter of days before May is found murdered and her diary gone. Yet hers is not the only death, as subsequent follow, only to muddy the investigative waters. Motive is quite obvious in this matter, but given the number of people she could have hurt with her memoirs, the suspect list is far from short. May was a firm but casual friend of Jake’s and given how the case could affect his client, he keeps abreast of what the police are doing, as well as talking to those involved. But as his client becomes more and more questionable and the likelihood of him saving his marriage gets smaller and smaller, it seems there is a lot riding on who murdered May…

Overall Thoughts

McGivern doesn’t give us the most sympathetic cast of characters, or those that are more sympathetic don’t tend to get as much page space. But perhaps this is fitting for the moral vacuum the writer paints of the world of public relations and the theme of money vs principles becomes an increasing focus of the narrative. The dual role Jake takes on of amateur sleuth, as well as publicist for the number one suspect put me in mind of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, as did the milieu and the sorts of characters Jake has to interact with.

Contrary to many earlier detective stories the victim is not the most objectionable character and in fact Jake is usually the one trying to give a balanced picture of her. Riordan is the unrepentant wartime racketeer and it made me wonder how contemporary readers may have reacted to this character and his ambiguous fate. Would they have been more angered by having a character like that who is not fulfilling the role of murder victim. In some ways I think Riordan is a bit of red herring.

McGivern’s novel is quite a deceptive one, coming across as more simple than it really is. Yet as the pace picks up in the final chapters, it dawns on the reader that the author has given the reader a lot more clues than they realised they had, as he slips quite a number of them passed the reader through discrepancies in the characters’ dialogue. So I was quite surprised by the fact that I had correctly guessed the reason for May’s death, even if I had chosen the wrong culprit.

Rating: 4/5

Calendar of Crime: May (1) Month in Title


  1. Did not think Mcgiverns was the type of author you would read. He is more along the hardboiled/noir end of the spectrum. Never read him myself but heard he was one of the most popular crime writers in the 1950s.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the review, and the mention of many clues sneaker past the reader makes me think I might like it. But the reference to Gardner and the Perry Mason milieu makes me wonder if it’s the right sort of mystery… 😅 Maybe I should stick with the recent Brian Flynn reprints…

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      • I think I picked a few, based on Puzzle Doctor’s reviews. I already own a hard copy of “Peacock’s Feather”, which I purchased at some cost in the past – and so I’m glaring at the cheap price of the Dean Street ebook. 😠

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  3. McGivern is a long-term favorite of mine, and close to being a hero…he began his writing career being one of the most consistently interesting of the writers for the Ziff-Davis magazines, crime fiction and fantastic fiction and perhaps even their western and adventure titles (I’ll have to check on those), before leaving the Chicago area for WW2 service, and then upon returning to the US, he took a job as a crime reporter for the PHILADELPHIA BULLETIN, one of the better daily papers in the city…and this helped spur a series of excellent stories and novels, including the likes of THE BIG HEAT, SHIELD FOR MURDER, ROGUE COP, and the slightly later ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, all of which are set openly or obliquely in and around Philadelphia. (And all these were made into films ranging from decent to brilliant.) He was among the most humane, if no less willing to be unsparing of hypocrisy and petty evil, of hardboiled writers. A Chicago-based story of his was filmed for KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER on NBC in 1964, as directed by the young Robert Altman, and the version released to theaters and television syndication was retitled NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO. His career was largely LA-based by this time, writing for the likes of KOJACK as well as continuing to write novels, short fiction, films, and other work. If you want Just One More to try, ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW would be my recommendation.

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