HOWARD BROWNE as JOHN EVANS – Halo for Satan. Quill, paperback, circa 1984. First published as by John Evans: Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1948. Bantam #800, paperback, 1950; Bantam 1729, paperback, 1958.

JOHN EVANS Halo for Satan

   Over the years there have been mysteries written with the basic premise and understanding that the English language can be used to enhance the pure, unadulterated fun of reading. This is one of them.

   Paul Pine is a private eye, and even his client is an eye-opener and an eyebrow-raiser. And what Bishop McManus wants him to do is to track down a man who has offered to sell him a manuscript written, so he says, by Jesus Christ himself. The story goes on from there.

   Just before Pine finds the first body, he meets a girl. Page 38:

    I listened to the sound of high heels click into silence on the uncarpeted stairs. When there was nothing left but quiet, I lighted a cigarette and thought about Lola North. A slip of a girl who could put a flat-footed cop into his place, and who was probably proud of doing so. Maybe not, though. Maybe she was worrying a little over how easy the victory has been. And then again, maybe my sheriff’s star badge had been about as impressive as a grapefruit.

    A lovely girl, Lola North. Enough figure and not too many years and a face that could come back and haunt you and maybe stir your baser emotions. A girl who could turn out to be as pure as an Easter lily or steeped in sin and fail to surprise you either way.

   Later, going back into his office, Pine is given a good solid knock on the head. As he comes to, pages 63-64, he finds that there is another woman involved:

JOHN EVANS Halo for Satan

    I got a shoulder under my eyelids and heaved hard and they slid about halfway before they stuck again. It was like opening cottage windows after a rain. Pain gnawed at the back of head like rats in a granary.

    The hunk of ribbon and the smooth red hair were back again, with a face under them I hadn’t noticed before.

    It was a face to bring hermits down out of the hills, to fill divorce courts, to make old men read upon hormones. A face that could sell perfume or black lace undies and make kitchen aprons a drug on the market. Good skin under expert make-up to make it look even better. Brown eyes, with a silken sheen to them. Eyes with a careful, still look as though never just sure what the brain behind them was up to. A nose you never quite saw because her full lips kept pulling you away from it. Hair smooth on top and a medium bob in back that was pushed up here and there to make it casually terrific.

    And my aching head was supported pleasantly on a cloth-covered length of firm warm flesh that was one of the lady’s thighs.

    I said, “I laughed at a scene like this not more than an hour ago. I thought the usher was going to throw me out.”

    Her expression said she thought I was out of my head. I would have liked to be, after what had been done to it.

    “Are you all right?” It was the kind of voice the rest of her deserved: husky, full-throated, yet subdued.

    I said, “How do I know if I’m all right? I think I’ll kind of stand up.”

JOHN EVANS Halo for Satan

   Later on Lola North begins to tell Pine some of her story. Page 102:

    She turned her head to give me a long level stare. “In one way or another,” she said tightly, “I feel it’s largely my fault that my husband’s in trouble. I’m trying to make amends by getting him out of it. That’s why I followed him to Chicago.”

    I pushed what was left of my cigarette through the air vent and stretched as much of my frame as the limited space would allow. “Go ahead,” I said wearily, “and tell me. Pour out the words. My spirits are low and my ears are numb, but I’ll listen. Other people read books or go to the fights or walk in the sun or make love. But not poor old Pine. He just sits and listens.”

    She said stiffly, “This was your idea. You wanted to know these things,”

    “Yeah. Go ahead and tell them to me.”

   The next morning, Pine gets back to his office. Page 118:

    Nine-thirty was early for me to be at the office, any morning. But I had wakened about eight o’clock, dull-eyed and unhappy, and filled with a vast restlessness that had no answer.

    It was a dreary, rain-swept day, raining the kind of rain that comes out of a sky the color and texture of a flophouse sheet and goes on and on. I opened the inner-office window behind its glass ventilator, put my hat and trench coat on the customer’s chair and poked my shoe at the windrows of office junk left on the floor by yesterday’s prowler. The cleaning lady must have taken one look at the wreckage and gone downstairs to quit.

JOHN EVANS Halo for Satan

   On pages 130-131, Pine is at the home of the second woman:

    “Damn you,” she said. And then she laughed. “I’m not through with you yet, mister!”

    “What about Myles? Is he as broad-minded as he is rich?”

    She shrugged and she wasn’t laughing any more. “The hell with him,” she said recklessly. “I need young men — men with the sap of life in their veins and a good strong back. Myles is too old for me.”

    I said, “Another woman said almost the same thing to me last night. What’s the matter with you dames? You make a guy afraid of reaching his forties.”

   Later, after sitting around in his office with nothing happening for several hours, Pine starts to leave. Page 139:

    By eight-thirty I had all I could take. I had gone through everything in the paper except the want ads, there was a mound of cigarette butts in the ashtray, and my tongue tasted like something rejected by a scavenger. I glowered at my wrist watch, growled “Up the creek, brother!” for no reason at all and put on my trench coat and hat.

    The fat little dentist in the next office was locking his door for the day as I came out into the corridor. He nodded to me. “Good evening, Mr. Pine. You’re later than usual.”

    “And all for nothing,” I said. “I nearly came in to have you drill one of my teeth. Just for something to do.”

    His smile was a little sad in a dignified way. “I could have used the business, sir.”

Back in his office a little while later, on page 169:

    I dug out the McGivern mystery novel it finished it over half a pack of cigarettes. The women in it were beautiful and the private eye was brilliant. I would have like to be brilliant, too. I would even have liked to be reasonably intelligent. I put the book away.

   There is twist upon twist in the story that surrounds all these quotes, not all of them believable in the cold, clear eye of dawn, but they will make you sit up and take notice. Guaranteed.

— September 2003

Note:   The cover of the first Bantam paperback was “covered” earlier here on this blog.