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seven steps east

1 november 2019

I ran across a first edition of Ben Benson's 1959 mystery Seven Steps East earlier this year at a used-book store in Mineral Wells, Texas. The back cover promised "documentary exactness," explaining that Benson was often "present with the State Police in the field" and had even watched "the State Police pathologist perform an autopsy at the morgue." In the event, Seven Steps East was more cozy whodunit than grim procedural, but it shows its author's talent for plot construction, character depiction, and local Cape Cod color.

Ralph Lindsey, Benson's series hero, is an instructor at the Massachusetts State Police academy. He teaches judo and other subjects. When his star cadet, Kirk Chanslor, doesn't return from a weekend pass, Lindsey sets out to discover what's happened to the lad. Lindsey's informal investigation is complicated by his backstory with Chanslor. They'd dated the same woman, Iva Hancock. They know the same folks, they've shared small-town secrets. They've both had their suspicions about a gangster who's sort-of gone straight by opening a luxury hotel on their part of the Cape. What kind of corruption was Chanslor onto in his spare time – a racket sinister enough to be fatal to a wannabe detective who stuck his nose in it?

Lindsey is thus more of a private eye than a cop, in Seven Steps East. His own investigation into Chanslor's disappearance is itself an informal gig, pursued along pathways of relationships and backstories that make the tourist venues of 1950s Cape Cod echo noirish Southern California. Seven Steps East is ultimately rather lightly boiled, and you see the solution to its whodunit a ways off. But the novel makes up for its lack of verbal edge or cynicism with some convincing social realism, and an engaging, economical plot. The one off-putting element of the novel is its admiration for the quasi-military aspects of the State Police. But that is a minor element and not heavily ideological. One gets the sense that Benson admired the more carabinieri-like aspects of some American police forces, but wasn't fanatical about them.

Benson himself (some Googling reveals) was a Jewish second-world-war veteran who took to writing as a way of dealing with combat trauma. Ralph Lindsey, Benson's series avatar, is ethnically unmarked, and the milieu of Seven Steps East largely one of neutrally-drawn white people. Benson expresses his vision of America more in terms of class than race or ethnicity. He would write a dozen or more mysteries, distinctly a cut above the pulp-paperback ranks, before dying suddenly of a heart attack around the time Seven Steps East was published. I will look out for more of Benson's work.

Benson, Ben. Seven Steps East. New York: Mill, 1959.