FRANK GRUBER – The French Key Mystery. Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1940. Paperback reprints include: Avon Murder of the Month #4, 1942; Avon #91, 1946, both as The French Key Mystery. Jonathan Press J89, [1957], as Once Over Deadly. Belmont L92-592, 1964. Film: Republic, 1946 (story & screenplay by Frank Gruber).

   Frank Gruber was a mainstay of the pulps, grinding out over 600,000 words a year for many years. In 1940 he turned out this, his first detective novel, in a week, and it was a big success (a film was made with Albert Dekker and Mike Masurki).

   It is the first of fourteen books with quick-thinking, fast-talking Johnny Fletcher, the world’s greatest book salesman, and his brawny sidekick, Sam Cragg. Fletcher and Cragg are locked out of their hotel room for non-payment of the bill; when they climb in through the window of the next room they find a dead body in their bed clutching an extremely valuable gold coin in his hand.

   From then on it’s one fast moving complication after another, as Fletcher must clear himself of murder, find the real killer, and solve the mystery of the coin. Despite a few improbabilities of plot, French Key is pulp writing at its best, with a briskly moving plot, breezy dialogue, and lots of action.

   It also offers an interesting picture of New York in 1939, when a nickel could buy a hamburger at a greasy spoon, as well as a ride on a subway, and a suite at the Waldorf went for as little as twenty-five dollars a day.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 5, September 1977.