House Dick is a 1961 crime thriller by E. Howard Hunt. You may now be saying to yourself, “Hang on, wasn’t E. Howard Hunt one of the infamous Watergate plumbers?” And if that’s what you’re saying then you’re spot on. Hunt served 33 months in prison for his part in the Watergate affair.
Hunt had joined the CIA in 1949 but he’d already worked for its predecessor, the OSS, during the Second World War. While working as an intelligence operative he moonlighted as an author of both spy novels and hardboiled crime novels, usually under pseudonyms (House Dick was published under the name Gordon Davis).
Given his background it will come as no surprise that House Dick is set in Washington DC. Pete Novak is a house detective at one of Washington’s largest hotels (no, not the Watergate Hotel, it’s the Tilden Hotel). Hotel house detectives figure in many hardboiled crime stories but this is the only one I can think of where a house dick is the actual hero.
The hotel setting is used quite effectively giving the book a kind of seedy glamour. Novak has seen the rich and famous at their worst and he has no illusions left. He’s cynical, but basically honest. Well, fairly honest.
His honesty will be tested when he meets Paula Norton. When he first encounters her she is being beaten up by her ex-husband, Ben Barada, a vicious but none-too-successful gambler. While Barada was doing time in Joliet Prison Paula had found herself a sugar daddy, wealthy (but more than slightly sleazy) businessman Chalmers Boyd. Boyd had given her gifts of expensive jewels. Unfortunately the jewels belonged to Boyd’s wife, and even more unfortunately Boyd was in fact financially dependent on his wife. His wife is in turn emotionally dependent on her doctor, Dr Bikel. Only he’s not a real doctor. He’s a naturopath, and even less scrupulous than most of that breed.
Julia Boyd wants her jewels back. Ben Barada wants Paula to blackmail Boyd to obtain either the jewels or the $90,000 that they’re worth. Paula wants the money. And what does Pete Novak want? Sadly, he wants Paula. He knows this is a dumb idea, and he’s doing his best not to get too deeply involved. This becomes awkward when Chalmers Boyd turns up dead in Paula’s hotel room, and Novak finds himself agreeing to help Paula out of the jam she’s now in.
She’s not the only one in a tight spot. Barada owes a great deal of money to a St Louis mobster who is not renowned for his forgiving nature. As a result he’s getting increasingly desperate, and when he gets desperate he’s even more vicious than usual. Somehow Pete Novak has to try to keep alive, to keep Paula alive, to avoid getting mixed up in anything too illegal and to make sure the hotel doesn’t find itself at the centre of a scandal.
It’s a more than competent hardboiled crime story with enough gritty dialogue and sleazy atmosphere to keep most fans of this genre happy.
Pete Novak has the combination of cynicism, stubbornness and a certain disillusioned humanity to make an effective noir detective hero.
The book is available from Hard Case Crime. Recommended.