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the man who was taller than god

2 october 2018

Not that I have any lack of unread and un-reread books at home or in the office, but every once in a while I like to assure myself of a continued supply. A few days ago I got the idea that I could go to the huge newly-opened public library in downtown Arlington, Texas, where I live, and start to read the mystery shelf from A to Z. That ought to keep me in books for a while.

Not that I intend to read indiscriminately. I flipped through a couple of authors whose names started "Ab-" and decided against them. But I got my first hit on "Ad-," with Harold Adams' Man Who Was Taller Than God. This 1992 novel is an entry in a substantial series by a Minnesota author who started to publish private-eye novels after a long career in public service. Adams lived to be 91 and eventually published 16 "Carl Wilcox" books. My library has three of them.

Carl Wilcox is a 1930s private eye, but not one with a secretary and a frosted glass door with his name painted on. He comes from Corden, South Dakota, and has variously been a soldier, a cowboy, a convict, and a cop. As The Man Who Was Taller Than God opens, he is painting signs for a living in Hope, SD. Naturally a dead body appears in the town's sandpit.

Adams' prairie setting is perfect for a mystery series. These little Dakota burgs don't have much of an investigative infrastructure. The mayor of Hope farms out this murder case to Wilcox because the local police chief is a bit of a suspect himself. The dead man is the title character, a sometime insurance salesman and fulltime Lothario who could have been murdered by any of half-a-dozen husbands. Wilcox has to get on the road and interview the potential killers and their infatuated wives.

In the process, Wilcox assumes corpse Felton Edwards' place in the prairie ecosystem. He half-heartedly, almost unconsciously, courts any number of un- or badly-attached women, charming them all but getting nowhere with most, and dodging a few fists and bullets in the process. Ultimately, suspicion centers on an undertaker who has disappeared. But undertakers seem unlikely murderers, and this one seemed low-energy even for an undertaker. Wilcox tracks the missing mortuarian to Minneapolis and back, stopping for a side-trip to help a grieving niece in "Aquatown," which I take to be a pseudonym for Sioux Falls.

Despite its super-specific date and setting, The Man Who Was Taller Than God develops surprisingly little local or historical color. It's not that I find any anachronisms in Adams' text; it's that I find so little distinguishing detail. The characters drive Model Ts and Packards, but they don't so much as listen to the radio. The music, movies, sports, and politics of the time are filtered away, leaving just the essence of murder mystery.

I liked the book. It does not go in for purple passages, and the dialogue is never phony. Minor flaws might be the surplus of similar women for Wilcox to keep track of (though that's a flaw endemic to the whole PI genre), and Wilcox's superhero-like pugilistic skills (not unknown in other PI novels either, though the more classic hard-boiled detective spends more time getting beaten up than administering the beatings). I already checked out the other two.

Adams, Harold. The Man Who Was Taller Than God. New York: Walker, 1992. PS 3551 .D367M39