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dead on the level

23 january 2012

The cover of the 1951 pulp paperback Dead on the Level shows a fairly cretinous looking Regular Guy staring out past your right shoulder. He's grabbing a whiskey glass as tightly if it were the lamppost he's soon going to be hanging off of. He's sitting at a booth with a mirror behind it; the upholstery on the booth looks like a giant purple Jell-O mold. In the foreground a white-gloved hand proffers a sheaf of greenbacks. In the mirror behind him, somewhat in defiance of the laws of optics, we see who he's looking at: a dame with "taffy-colored hair" and eyes "like purple smoke" (7). And an eleven-inch waist, I might add. The one glove we can see on her matches the moneyed glove in the foreground.

That's really the high point of Helen Nielsen's novel, which had been called Gold Coast Nocturne in its first edition earlier in '51. It would later be called Murder by Proxy in a 1954 film adaptation, which was later retitled Blackout. That last title – Blackout – may be the first that gets anywhere near the actual plot of Nielsen's book. But pulp fiction has always been more about atmosphere than consistency or decorum.

The atmosphere of Dead on the Level is disappointingly soft-boiled. Turns out that the cover dame, Phyllis Brunner, is giving our hero Casey Morrow, a drunken stranger, five grand to marry her. He wakes up in the morning unable to remember the wedding, and also as the prime suspect in the overnight murder of her millionaire father. The Chicago police ("Gold Coast Nocturne," remember) are pursuing the killer with all the speed of a gimpy trotter at Maywood Park. It takes Casey a day or two to find his orphaned bride whereupon instead of doing anything remotely realistic, Phyllis agrees to live with him as man and wife in a near-North-Side flat (as long as he sleeps on the divan), doing the ironing while Casey spends his days in rather lame incognito, solving her dad's murder.

It's a real mystery, but there's so little suspense that you can't get involved in the story. The language is clean and the sex is nil and the violence is more death-at-the-vicarage than down-these-mean-streets. And I'm reviewing it because . . . because ephemera from sixty years ago need their moment on the Internet, too. That's why this medium was invented.

Helen Nielsen, who died ten years ago at the age of 84, had a brief but busy career as a television writer in the 1960s, and a longer one as a crime novelist. She was no Dashiell Hammett – honestly, she was no Harry Whittington – but she knew Chicago, the home of her youth, and she worked some vivid local color into the less-vivid story of Dead on the Level. She was a pro – high praise in the fraternity of writers-for-hire of the mid-20th-century.

Nielsen, Helen. Dead on the Level. [Gold Coast Nocturne, 1951.] New York: Dell, 1951.