Thursday, December 27, 2007

Book Review: Angel In Black by Max Allan Collins

It was in 1947 that radio stations played the hit song STREET OF DREAMS. Frank Sinatra crooned the haunting lyric “Dreams broken in two can be made like new on the Street of Dreams.” Frankie was wrong.

On a blustery morning of January 15, the nude corpse of a young woman was found in the Crenshaw District of Hollywood between the crossroads of 39th and Coliseum Street.

The tale gets even more frightening -- and diabolic. It was determined by the LA County coroner that the woman had been bound upside-down by ropes at the wrists and ankles and the letters “BD” were carved into her thigh.

Fingerprint analysis ascertained that “BD” was Beth Short, a.k.a.: the “Black Daliha.” Named the Black Daliha because of her choice of black clothing, she was just another young girl who traveled to Hollywood to become famous. Just like a Faustian deal with the devil, Beth got her wish. More than fifty years later, her unsolved murder still fascinates crime buffs and Hollywood archivists.

When a disemboweled creature is found at a crossroad, it is considered an ill omen. Beth was Hollywood’s ill omen, and one that causes alot of problems for Max Allan Collins’ ace gumshoe Nathan Heller.

In ANGEL IN BLACK, fact, fiction and speculation collide in this retro PI pulp novel complete with a colorful collection of tough guy and dangerous dame (most of which are Collins’ interpretations of real people) and sharp, snappy prose delivered in rapid session.

Heller is in LA to open a branch of his famous A-1 Detective Agency, and just happens to be with Bill Fowler of THE EXAMINER when Beth’s corpse is found. Things get a little “dicey” when he recognizes Beth’s sliced and battered face as a girl he used to know from Chicago, a fact which he keeps close to the vest. He is hired by Fowler’s newspaper to dig up some sleaze they can print, but the only things that Heller discovers are not suitable for the evening news.

Among the twist and turns of Collins’ 11th Heller novel are: a gang war brewing between mobsters, Jack Dragna and Mickey Cohen, an Orson Welles’ connection to DB (lifted from the book Childhood Shadows) and former G-Man Elliot Ness, still reeling from Cleveland’s own torso killing (lifted from TORSO.)

I will not spill the beans regarding the ending, which takes place in 1982 and involves Heller’s meeting with a thinly veiled version of a true crime author known for his writings on the BD case and a final fiery showdown the man that he fingered as the torso killer.

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