JOHN BRETT – Who’d Hire Brett?   Detective Book Club [3-in-1 edition]; hardcover reprint,. Sept-Oct 1981. First edition: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Paperback reprint: Bantam, July 1989. No UK edition.


    My copy is the DBC edition, one of the so-called “Inner Circle” volumes in that set of books, and the only one that I could find a cover for — although I suspect I have the Bantam paperback, somewhere.

    There’s not much information about John Brett, the author. This was his only detective novel, and in the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, he’s described only as “born in England, the son of an earl; living near Hollywood,” a statement possibly obtained from the blurb on the hardcover edition. Now since this describes the character John Brett, except for the “earl” part, awfully well, I have a feeling that “John Brett” is not the author’s real name.

    And since he’s relatively skilled as an author, it’s also possible that we might know him as a mystery writer under another name altogether. Not that I have any suggestions.

    Getting back to the “earl” part, that might be true for the character in the book, too. He’s a glib sort of fellow who tells the story himself, but in doing so, he only hints at his background. He, we soon gather, is what’s called a remittance man — an exile living on money sent from home — in this case England. Something shady and quite possibly illegal back went on back there, but as I say, hints are all he’s going to give.

    He’s not exactly hired in this book, in spite of the title, but he is asked by a female friend to steal a valuable artifact from his upstairs neighbor, the upstairs neighbor having stolen the artifact from the female friend and her husband, they having it in their possession illegally, which is why they can’t call the police in on the theft.

    With me so far? I’ll let Brett take over to tell you what happens next. He’s just turned the icon (a Mud Dancer) over to the husband, Harry:

    “As I watched him drive off, I thought, considering it’s a quarter of five in the morning, and a theft has just been committed, and a secret rendezvous, and all that, wouldn’t it be interesting if a big black sedan, maybe a Buick or a Cadillac, or even a Rolls, were to pull up and someone were to pump old Harry full of holes?

    “Which is precisely what happened, at precisely that moment.”

    The police, naturally, suspect Harry’s wife, and since John Brett is close friends with the wife, they suspect him, too, for a while. To clear their names in the eyes of Sgt. Steinberg — apparently the only cop in the Beverly Hills Police Department, for he’s the only one who ever appears in person anywhere in the book — John and Edie and Edie’s enterprising and eavesdropping maid Marie decide to do a little sleuthing on their own. Make that a lot of sleuthing, although John has to be prodded by Marie, who’s another story, and being John’s age (Edie is older), sparks begin to fly, and more.

    I’ve been doing some hinting myself, but right now I’ll come out and say it. This is a comic caper in the same sense as many of Donald Westlake’s books under his own name were comic capers, not that I’m saying that Donald Westlake was the author of this book, though it’s kind of fun to imagine that he was.

    From page 60, just to give you a good idea. John and Marie are on the case together:


    “I pointed the Sunbeam in a direction that seemed likely to get us somewhere near the Beverly Hills Police Department. It didn’t. Instead, we wound up in a rather dismal place called Culver City that has a lot of strange-looking streets meeting at even stranger intersections. In Culver City, I discovered; nothing goes anywhere. Everything is coming from somewhere and seems to dissipate into nothingness. It’s what astronomers are lately calling, with a remarkable lack of cheeriness, a Black Hole. Everything collapses into it, and damned little gets out again. I began to flounder, and I’m afraid that the sight of a half-crocked Englishman floundering in a Sunbeam with a rather dazzling redhead at his side was enough to make the day for the locals. Not that they lined the streets to cheer, mind you, but I noticed a certain mocking quality in the eye of the policeman who stopped us.

    “‘Going somewhere?’ he asked.

    “It struck me as a rather stupid question, as it must have been obvious to him that we were not. After all, he had just succeeded in following us in five complete circles.

    “‘Beverly Hills Police Department?’ said I, giving him the bright smile.

    “‘Wrong town. Try again.’

    “Well, I knew it was the wrong town, for God’s sake. All I was trying to do was get it across to him that directions were needed. He was obviously dense. I tried again.

    “‘We want to go to the Beverly Hills Police Department.’ I tried to wither him with a look this time. Take my word for it: don’t ever try to wither a Culver City cop. They take it personally.”


    To get back to the case, however, this really is a detective story, although with all of the wackiness going on, you might begin to wonder. There is one line in the book which John Brett, for all of his semi-doltishness, which is obviously a front, picks up on and knows (he says later) who the killer is, right then and there. He’s right. If you read it correctly, you will, too.

    What I don’t know is whether or not his knowing then fits in with the rest of the book, as he tells it. That is to say, if he (or you or I) knew then what he says he knew — well, I’d have to read the book again.

    While in a one sense it’s completely out of character, it could very well be that John Brett is an even deeper character than he otherwise ever lets on.

    Since this was his only recorded outing as a detective, we may never know.

[UPDATE] 04-23-09.   As you see, I have found my copy of the Bantam edition.