Monday, February 20, 2023

Lorenz Heller's Dead Wrong

New Jersey-born Lorenz F. Heller (1910-1965) worked as a newspaperman and a seaman before turning to writing. He wrote crime fiction under a variety of pseudonyms including Frederick Lorenz and Larry Holden. Dead Wrong, published in 1957, was one of the three books he wrote as Larry Holden.

Joe Malone (the hero and narrator) owns a trucking company. The company owns a grand total of one truck. Joe is just getting by. It isn’t easy but he’s content enough. Joe’s a bit of a rough diamond, he grew up in a bad neighbourhood and he’s no Boy Scout. He is however on the whole an honest law-abiding citizen.

Then Harry Loomis gets in touch with him. Joe had been a boxer at one time which is when he met Harry. They’ve never been more than occasional drinking buddies. Harry says he has a present for Joe but Joe figures it’s just another of Harry’s usual lame jokes.

Then Harry’s daughter Claire shows up on his doorstep. She wants to wait at Joe’s apartment until Harry turns up. She’s not exactly close to dead old Dad. She hasn’t set eyes on him for twenty years, not since he walked out on her and her mother. Now Claire has received a letter from Harry. He tells her he’s ill but he’s about to come into a lot of money and the two of them can move to Florida. Claire can look after him and he’ll set Claire up financially. Harry doesn’t show, Joe and Claire get worried.

It’s a bit of a mystery but it isn’t really any of Joe’s business. On the other hand he takes a liking to Claire. She’s a nice decent normal girl. He’s never met one of those before.

Then the police show up and Joe discovers he’s the prime suspect in a murder case.

Joe also, quite unexpectedly, runs into two people from his past. One is Bunny Riordan, not just a thug but crazy as well. The other is Janice Noonan. She was Joe’s first love. Janice is now a high-class night-club singer, well out of Joe’s league.

The key to what’s going on seems to be that present Harry sent to Joe. Joe has no idea what is in the package but whatever it is it seems that people are prepared to kill for it. And Joe has absolutely no idea where it is or what it contains. He never received it.

There are a number of shady or potentially shady characters with whom Janice is involved, any one of whom might possibly have been mixed up in some serious criminal enterprise.

Joe is gradually drawn into a nightmare. He can’t persuade the police that he’s not involved in some major criminal conspiracy. People are getting killed. Joe gets beaten up more than once. There are very nasty very dangerous people involved. Joe is caught in the middle of something but he has no idea what it is. Somehow he’s going to have to figure it out.

Joe is a fairly likeable hero. He’s not the smartest guy in the world but he isn’t dumb. He’s a pretty tough guy but he’s no thug.

There’s a solid enough mystery plot here but this is very much noir fiction, with a flawed but basically decent protagonist. The mystery is not just the identity of the murderer but more importantly in this story the reason for the murder.

There are two females in the story who could quite easily turn out to be femmes fatales, Claire and Janice. One of them seems like a good girl type and one seems likely to be a bad girl but in noir fiction you never can tell.

The prose is suitably hardboiled. There’s no real sleaze but plenty of violence.

Dead Wrong is a fine example of noir fiction by a writer who is rather overlooked. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed another book by this author, The Savage Chase (written under the name Frederick Lorenz in 1954) and that one is absolutely superb.

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