William F. Deeck


  GEOFFREY HOMES – Forty Whacks. William Morrow & Co., hardcover, 1941. Reprinted in paperback as Stiffs Don’t Vote, Bantam #117, 1947. Film: Warner Brothers, 1944, as Crime by Night.

   Private detectives Humphrey Campbell, milk drinker and accordion player, and his boss, Oscar Morgan, who likes much stronger stuff, have left Los Angeles under some pressure and have relocated in Joaquin, California, to the distress of some people.

   With the exception of threats from the city’s district attorney, business starts out well, with a request to locate Joseph Borden, pianist. Campbell, the leg man and the brain man of the agency, at least in this novel, finds Borden, who is minus one hand, which hand was chopped off by his mother-in-law, Mrs. Gertrude Peck, the publisher of the city’s only newspaper. When the mother-in-law is found, first by Borden, considerably chopped up, the police believe Borden did it in revenge.


   There were, however, many other people who had no love for Mrs. Peck. In the midst of a political campaign, she had endorsed first one candidate for mayor and then another, both of them corrupt. One of the rewrite men on the newspaper said that all the employees were suspects. Her lodge, where she was killed, was as busy as an airline terminal what with people who feared or loathed her visiting just prior to her murder.

   Campbell solves the case, to my complete dissatisfaction. Not one of the better investigations of Morgan and Campbell, who can be compared to Frank Gruber’s Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg but are not nearly as amusing.

   (The title change by the paperback publisher indicates that even in 1947 the memory of Lizzie Borden had waned. Forty Whacks had that title because one of the character was named Borden and an ax was the murder weapon. The rhyme “Joseph Borden took an ax,/ Gave his mother-in-law forty whacks” keeps running through Campbell’s head. For those who may not know about the fascinating Lizzie Borden case, I highly recommend Victoria Lincoln’s A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight, reprinted by International Polygonics in 1986.)

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter 1988.