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v as in victim

13 june 2013

I ran across several invocations of Lawrence Treat's 1945 novel V as in Victim as the first-ever police procedural fiction. Excited by the prospect of at long last being able to read some literary phenomenon from the start, I had to get it. I don't have any idea whether the novel really was unprecedented in its genre, but it certainly is a procedural, and it certainly is early. As if to answer Raymond Chandler's 1944 concern that "the boys down at the Homicide Bureau" would be nonplussed if the typical English vicarage murder ended up on their desks, Treat gives us a murder mystery from the point of view of two civil-service employees punching the clock as they pursue the usual suspects.

Treat's heroes are Mitch Taylor, a flatfoot hoping to ring up promotions while avoiding black marks on his permanent record, and Jub Freeman, a lab technician who prefigures CSI by a good half century. The case they draw is something Agatha Christie would reject as too contrived: a hit-and-run manslaughter that is solved because the killer inadvertently killed an intended murder victim's cat while leaving her alive and murdering somebody else with a wrench to the back of the head. (No really, in the library with a wrench.)

The plot, of course, doesn't matter. One read, and still reads, these books for the hard-boiled language and the inchoate ideologies. Mitch Taylor, the unscientific one of our detective team, provides most of the hard-boiling.

Mitch took a long time to read [the autopsy report] and didn't understand half of it. Charlie Corrigan used to say that the medical report told you whether the corpse was dead or alive, and Mitch figured that was about the size of it. … He'd been hit by a blunt instrument and Mitch couldn't understand the rest of it. Except that Jarvis was dead. (63)
But Mitch does know how to brace a suspect. When lab man Jub Freeman tries to interview dynamite dame Fern Kent, he loses the plot:
Fern emptied her glass and went into the bathroom. Jub leaned back. He was getting nowhere fast. He was in an impossible situation with a nymphomaniac. (161)
Fern's nymphomania is compounded by the fact that her art-dealer husband Lee Kent is not entirely a man, if you know what Lawrence Treat means by that, though the suggestion that Lee is gay, closeted, and overcompensating doesn't get much more explicit. The rest of our suspects include a stalkerish apartment super, a grande dame whose 20 years of celibacy are wearing on her, a thuggish ice-cream manufacturer who eats half of each chocolate in a box, and a the cutest little canary in shoe leather, whose surname is, impossibly, Minx.

Andrea Minx is the girl whose cat has succumbed to a cause-of-death-unknown that turns out to have been lifted from a 2005 episode of CSI, if you believe in plagiarism by anticipation. Both our detectives are half in love with her: indeed, both our detectives are also half-seduced by the nymphomaniac; it isn't a stretch to say that the two men would be two halves of one perfect cop, intuition and science, if it wasn't that neither one of them displays much intuition.

Both Mitch and Jub embody perseverance, though: Mitch in running down evidence and Jub in analyzing it. Mitch Taylor's philosophy comes from Charlie Corrigan, not an actual character in the book, but the "absent mentor" stock figure that appears in many a later procedural:

You asked questions and people answered, and if you asked enough questions they made mistakes and then you had them. (33)
On that theory, Mitch arrests Andrea Minx. When he hears that news, Jub looks up from his microscope, where he's been examining some tan fibers found at the murder scene,
blinked once and walked stiffly into the locker room. Arrested? Had she been charged, too? He didn't believe it. They didn't have the evidence and they wouldn't charge her until they had it. They weren't that dumb.
But they were. They were even worse than that, for they were disagreeing with a spectroscope. (55)
Spectroscopes (again, remember this is 1945) are the novel's shorthand for uncompromising objectivity.
To Jub, it was more exciting than the wildest gun battle. Microscopic bits of paint, yielding up secrets which no eye was keen enough to discern. Vertical lines on a gray band, mysteriously spaced, giving up information as surely as if they had voices with which to speak. …
It gave you no double-talk. The lines were there. You compared them with the lines of another spectrograph, and you knew. (151)
Rhetoric and science play off each other all novel long, often in explicit dialogue. Late in the book, Jub muses on an old case where circumstantial evidence developed from traces at a crime scene was not enough to win a conviction.
After the trial, the lieutenant had remarked to Jub, "What you should have done is crack down right off and got a confession. Remember that, Freeman. The old way's always the best."
Jub had said, "Sure, Lieutenant. I'll remember." But he hadn't explained what he'd remember and he'd gone away thoughtfully. (170)

Of course, it's as much literary convention that clears Andrea Minx as Jub's spectroscope. She's the #1 suspect: last to see the victim alive, first to tip to the cops that he might be dead. (I'm talking a person here, not her cat.) So of course she has to be innocent. The rest of the cast is as artfully deployed to deceive as any crowd of suspects in your typical cosy-vicarage mystery. But there are new methods afoot to detect their guilt. And new characters to nab them: organization men, who have drifted into cog-in-the-works careers.

They speak the hard-boiled language of Cain and Woolrich and C.W. Grafton, though, and at least one reader of the 1945 first edition that I read took exception. Somebody corrected the copy in pencil here and there to improve its diction and its verb tenses. I can barely perceive the necessity, from my 21st-century lack of usage standards :) At one point Mitch's wife Amy says, "Ther's something I wanted to tell you, Mitch, only I forgot" (56-57). Our alert reader has corrected "forgot" to "forget": consecutio temporum, I suppose. At another point, Andrea Minx smells "something heavy and greasy which made her nauseous" (89). The pencil here has crossed out "nauseous," written "nauseated" in the margin, and added an exclamation point! If one were to collect the marginal corrections in a century's worth of books, it would tell more about the usage standards of the day than the language that actually got printed.

Treat, Lawrence. V as in Victim. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1945.