J. LANE LINKLATER “Mystery of the Mexicali Murders.” PI Alan Rake. First published in 10-Story Detective, January 1941. Reprinted in The Noir Mystery Megapack (Wildside Press, Kindle edition, 2016).

   Although the author of several hundred stories for the pulp fiction magazines, J. Lane Linklater, the pen name of Alexander William Watkins (1892-1971), certainly qualifies as an unknown author today.

   He did write seven hardcover mystery novels, all with a private eye character named Silas Booth. I’ve always meant to read one, but for some fault of my own, I never have.

   One series he wrote for Detective Fiction Weekly had lawyer Hugo Oakes as the leading character, and Monte Herridge wrote about him earlier on this blog here.

   He had few other recurring characters in the stories he wrote for the pulp magazines, but as far as I know, “Mystery of the Mexicali Murders” is the only appearance of private eye Alan Drake, a fellow who reminds me a bit about a fellow who Dashiell Hammett often wrote about.

   Here is the first paragraph of the story:

   The small plane from the north circled and came down. It had one passenger, an undersized, stocky man in whose volatile, fleshy face was explosive energy. His perspiring cheeks glistened in the light from the airport office as he walked toward it. He carried one very battered handbag. Billions of stars glared down at him from the sky over the great Imperial Desert.

   This is, of course, Alan Rake. He is here in the area along the border between California and Mexico after receiving an urgent telegram from the head of a big fruit shipping outfit, but when the man is shot dead in front of him when he first meets him, he decides to stay on the case and see if there’s some way he can still get paid the $5000 that was promised him.

   The case is a complicated one, with lots of suspects and a setting that is over 100 degrees during the day and not much better at night. One girl in particular, a young spitfire with flashing eyes named Edna, catches his attention.

   But more than the characters, and who it was who killed Warnbecker, takes second place to the setting, a cantaloupe-growing area that Linklater must have known well to describe it in as much depth as he does, including its vast underbelly of criminal activity. Rake mixes in well, seeing and observing, and quite remarkably, thinking too.

   Linklater was no Hammett — I should make that totally clear — but a better editor could have helped make the ending a lot tighter, and if so, this might be the small gem of a story that it almost is.