Wed 14 Jan 2009
by George Kelley
Harold R. Daniels was nominated for an Edgar in 1955 for his first novel, In His Blood. His other five novels feature the excellence of his first: interesting plots and situations, solid characterizations, and a sense of realism few crime novels achieve.
In His Blood (Dell, 1955) is the story of Milton Raskob, a worker at Hammersmith Chemical, a loner. Then something happens to change his dull, meaningless life:
There had been a flow of blood, which he rinsed off in the sink, and afterwards when he again picked up the knife to strip the mill, it felt different to him, almost like a personal possession, and he found himself gripping the wooden handle with a new and strangely pleasant familiarity. (pages 5-6)
Raskob is seized by the urge to kill, and he does. After following a school girl after a movie, he uses his knife to butcher her. The buildup to the scene is powerful and realistic.
Lieutenant Ed Tanager of Homicide is given the case. Tanager has personal problems: his daughter is hospitalized with suspected polio; Tanager’s wife is an emotional zombie as a result.
Raskob endures various humiliations, and after each he feels the urge to use his knife. He almost murders a little black girl, but she gets away. Later, he butchers a small boy in the park. Finally, the fever takes over and he slits the throat of a newborn baby in its crib.
The investigation is believable, realistic, and professional as Tanager and his men hunt for the killer. The reader feels the frustration of the lack of clues; but he also feels for Raskob as a man driven beyond his limits.
In His Blood isn’t a perfect book. Daniel’s writing style has its weaknesses, and the dialogue wanders into cliches too frequently. But In His Blood is a superb study of a modern day Ripper.
Daniels’ second book, The Girl in 304 (Dell, 1956), begins with the body of a young woman found in the woods: stripped and stabbed to death. For a moment I thought Daniels was going to tell the same story as In His Blood, only this time from the perspective of a Georgia sheriff, Ed Masters.
But this time we aren’t dealing with a psychopath: there’s motive and deception involved here. The plotting is tight and the characters are more fully developed than those of In His Blood.
I liked The Girl in 304 because Masters must first learn the secrets of the dead woman before he can find the killer, and in that process we discover truths about Masters and ourselves.
With The Accused (Dell, 1958), Daniels attempts something new. The format is radically different: sections of testimony introduce the narrative. The evidence presented in the trial is expanded and amplified by the chapter that follows it.
Alvin Morlock is a simple man teaching at a small college. He is unexceptional. He lives a lonely, studious life. But he meets Louise Palaggi, a tramp, and in a moment of supreme foolishness marries her. From that moment he is doomed.
But Daniels is subtle enough to make Morelock’s fate a tragic event by increments. Although two people are destroyed in this book, the crime is one of being punished for stupidity and pride rather than the usual premeditation. The Accused displays Daniels’ growth in writing skill and characterizations.
With his next book, Daniels gets even better. John D. MacDonald said, “Harold Daniels’ The Snatch belongs among the modern classics of crime and punishment.” The Snatch (Dell, 1958) involves three men desperate enough to kidnap the grandchild of a Mafia godfather, but men who lack the toughness and professionalism to get away with it.
Mollison is a grifter who’s come to the end of his road. He’s working for a used car company and is caught trying to work a con on the company. Mollison needs money to avoid a prison sentence.
Mollison knows Morgan, a bank teller who wants to live as well as the wealthy side of the Morgan family lives. Morgan needs money.
Mollison also knows Patsy, a handyman of low intelligence who admires Mollison’s phony style. Mollison tricks him into a part in the scheme.
The snatch comes off fine, but it’s the aftermath with murder and the psychological disintegration which produces the book’s finely crafted conclusion. The characters create their own doom in their own special ways.
The Snatch is Daniels’ best balanced book, reflecting narrative control and tight plotting.
For the Asking (Fawcett, 1962) features a character very much like Milton Raskob, the psychopath from In His Blood. Lawrence Merrick is a high school English teacher. He’s pushing forty. He has no close friends. He’s an indifferent teacher whose students consider him boring and stupid. The administration correctly labels him as a time-server.
But when Merrick assists at a school dance, he’s presented an opportunity to exercise the power and control he craves. While searching the school grounds for necking couples. Merrick stumbles on two students about to make love: Don Scott is the teen-aged son of the town’s doctor, while the girl, Jean Cole, is from the poor side of town.
Merrick uses his discovery of their activity to blackmail Scott for money and Jean Cole for sex. Slowly, Merrick’s power over these two young people begins the chain of events that’ll destroy them all. When Jean Cole becomes pregnant, Merrick’s mind bursts into a frenzy of hatred and murder.
For the Asking is a solid book. Its theme of dominance and submission painfully illustrates the ironies of youth and age.
With House on Greenapple Road (Random House, 1966; Dell, 1969) Daniels brings all of his experience and craftsmanship together. It is simply a stunning book, excellent in all respects.
A neighbor calls the police. Detective Dan Nalon comes out to the house on Greenapple Road. Here’s how Daniels describes the community it’s a part of, Fruit Hill Farms:
In the spring it is briefly attractive. The residents of many of the streets, bored with winter, break out their hoes and rakes; their spades and seed spreaders. The local supermarket does a sporadic business in Milorganite and Turf-Gro and Halts and a dozen other preparations with inspired names. For a time the grass is green and well trimmed. Tulips blossom. The real estate developer, however, cannily sold off the topsoil. The grass fades early. Most of the residents give up. the battle early and revert to their winter hobbies of beer-drinking and propagation. A few die-hards bring in loam and fight on, damning their neighbors for not keeping their dandelions and crabgrass under control. (page 1)
That is good writing, capturing the tedium and futility of suburban developments with cute names.
When Nalon reaches his destination he finds a kitchen covered with blood: seven pints of it. The press converge like barracuda, calling it ‘The Red Kitchen Murder.’ However, police can’t find the body. Marian Ord, the missing woman, becomes the object of a multi-state search.
But Nalon does a search of his own, and, like a time machine, uncovers Marian Ord’s strange, torrid past. Daniels exposes it carefully, skillfully, in a series of flashbacks. The ski instructor, the preacher, the lifeguard, the motorcycle fan, the salesman, the bookie. The path of Marian Ord’s life is like a minefield.
Nalon follows the case to the surprising conclusion and the result is perhaps Daniels’ best book. I highly recommend House on Greenapple Road and the rest of Daniels’ novels. He’s a fine writer and his books will give you hours of suspense and enjoyment.