Wake Up Little Susie (Sam McCain Series #3)

Wake Up Little Susie (Sam McCain Series #3)

by Ed Gorman, Ed Gorman

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Filled with "joyously precise period detail" (Kirkus Reviews), this new Sam McCain mystery brings readers back to 1950s Iowa, as the Ford Edsel is unveiled-and a body is found in the trunk of one of the brand-new cars.

Sweetly nostalgic...The kind of hero any small town could take to its heart. (New York Times Book Review)

An excellent crime novel by

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Filled with "joyously precise period detail" (Kirkus Reviews), this new Sam McCain mystery brings readers back to 1950s Iowa, as the Ford Edsel is unveiled-and a body is found in the trunk of one of the brand-new cars.

Sweetly nostalgic...The kind of hero any small town could take to its heart. (New York Times Book Review)

An excellent crime novel by any standards. (Booklist (starred review))

Assured prose...Gorman's depiction of the town's rivalries keeps the tension strong. (Publishers Weekly)

'Happy Days' with an edge. (Joan Hess)

Editorial Reviews

Tom Nolan
Wake Up Little Susie is a joy to read: full of great period detail, small-town wisdom and Midwestern melancholy.
Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1957 perhaps the only thing worse than a new Ford Edsel is a new Ford Edsel with a dead body in the trunk. Veteran crime writer Gorman painstakingly evokes small-town America in the late '50s for this nostalgic prequel to The Day the Music Died. Sam McCain is a young lawyer and PI in quiet Black River Falls, Iowa. Susan Squires is the body discovered in the ill-fated new car while the whole town is engaged in a parade sponsored by the Ford Motor Company. Though the police are called to the crime scene, the bumbling efforts of the ruthless sheriff lead the local judge to assign Sam to the case on the q.t. Sam's prime suspect is Susan's abusive husband, David, a politically ambitious DA. Then David dies, and suspicion shifts to his ex-wife and to Susan's ex-lover. Gorman spends more time polishing up the period details, delving into the town's social intrigues and recounting Sam's love life than he does advancing the murder investigation. But his subplots converge when Mary Travers, a young woman who loves Sam and who was Susan Squire's best friend, vanishes. Gorman's assured prose fits his subject like a tailored suit. He mentions every song playing on the car radio as young couples neck in back seats, and the overall effect is a lot like a Bob Greene newspaper column set inside a mystery. Though the investigation moves slowly, Gorman's depiction of the town's rivalries keeps the tension strong. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Iowa lawyer/private investigator Sam McCain has plenty of clues and suspects in the murder of an ambitious county attorney's wife but can't quite put them together. An evocative return to the 1950s and sequel to The Day the Music Died (LJ 1/99). Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Avalon Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sam McCain Series, #3
Edition description:
1st Carroll & Graf Edition
Product dimensions:
6.33(w) x 9.33(h) x 1.03(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

So Elvis leaned over to me and said, "You know what it looks like?"

    "What what looks like?"

    "That grille."

    "No," I said. "What's it look like?"

    He grinned. "It looks just like a woman's—" He whispered a word naming the most private part of a woman's anatomy.

    He wasn't really Elvis, of course.

    On this Saturday, September 14, 1957, in Black River Falls, Iowa, on the lot of Keys Ford-Lincoln, there were at least a dozen Elvises, maybe eight James Deans, six Marlon Brandos, and maybe as many as twenty Kim Novaks. Everybody had to be somebody, so why not be somebody famous?

    I suppose it's kind of sad, feeling that you need to be somebody else. For a long time I wanted to be Robert Ryan. I really like that crazed Irish intensity of his. But he didn't wear anything distinctive—like Elvis's hair or James Dean's red jacket or Marlon's rolled-up T-shirt—so even when I walked down the street pretending to be him, nobody knew. It was real frustrating. Maybe Ryan will start wearing an eye patch.

    Being something of a car aficionado, I had been waiting for this day for months. This was the day that the Ford family of Detroit, Michigan, would bestow upon us the most futuristic, the most exciting of all family automobiles, the Edsel.

    I guess it's kind of funny how we look at cars. I remember this Russian diplomat saying that Americans were the only people he knew who wrote pop songs about their cars. Heck, I did even betterthan that. I dreamed about cars. Oh, sure, I dreamed about girls, especially the beautiful Pamela Forrest, but I also dreamed about cars. About owning, in addition to my red Ford ragtop, a black chopped and channeled '49 Merc. Or one of those little red street rods.

    I even had a couple of dreams about the Edsel, and what it would look like would be downright fantastic....

    According to Time magazine, Ford had spent $10 million advertising this launch. Even poet Marianne Moore had been asked to help name the vehicle. Her choice had been the "Moongoose." Declining her suggestion was about the only smart thing Ford had done in bringing this car to market.

    Keys Ford-Lincoln was so crowded, they'd had to hire extra cops to direct traffic. An hour before the unveiling, right on the same concrete slab where the cloth-covered Edsel would be brought, there had been a talent show. All the expected acts appeared—baton twirlers, tap-dancing twins, pig-call masters, Elvis impersonators, Lawrence Welk imitators, baggy-pants drunk acts, and two (God love 'em) little girls wearing spangly top hats who sang "God Bless America" with tears in their eyes—but the one I liked best was the saw player who kept cutting himself on the teeth of his instrument. By the time he'd finished "Ebb Tide" he was badly in need of medical attention.

    There was the high school marching band. There was a speech by the mayor. There were pennants and three dozen Brownies with hula hoops and two dozen Cub Scouts in Davy Crockett coonskin caps and twenty-three college boys trying to stuff themselves into a single phone booth.

    And then there were all the Elvises.

    Not only wasn't the guy next to me really Elvis, his opinion wasn't even original. A number of other men had expressed the same thing earlier in the day. About what the Edsel grille looked like, I mean.

    And that was about the only good feature on the whole car. The rest of it looked like something out of a cartoon. Piss elegant was the proper term. It had gadgets previously unseen in automobiles; it had pastel colors heretofore unknown to automotive metal.

    This wasn't just my reaction.

    You could see it on virtually every face. It was like opening a birthday box to find a rat crawling around inside.

    Being small-town folk the way we are, we didn't say any of this to Dick Keys, of course. The usually cool Dick Keys looked nervous. His story was that as the handsomest kid, not only in his class but in the entire valley, he would go on to marry his own kind: a beauty. Instead, he married a plain stout girl who just happened to be the wealthiest girl in the valley. There was no smoother salesman than Dick Keys, and he ran the Ford-Mercury dealership well day-to-day. But it was rumored, and I believe true, that his wife, who'd put up the money for the dealership, made most of the important decisions. Today, Dick wore a white button-down shirt, red-and-blue regimental-striped tie, and a pair of blue slacks. He was good-looking in the sort of way that the second lead in romantic comedies is good-looking. He never gets the girl. Dick's graying hair lent him an air of earnestness, and his slightly loose midsection reminded the rest of us mortals that when we reached Dick's age—he was in his early fifties—we too would be faded by time. If it could happen to Dick Keys, it could happen to any of us.

    Dick was one of hundreds of Ford dealers who were just now realizing that Edsel Ford and Robert McNamara had stuck him with one hilariously ugly sonofabitch of a car.

    Elvis snapped his collar up a little higher, gave me a lurid wink, cracked his gum, and said, "I gotta find me some chicks, man."

    I got a hot dog and went over to where Keys had set up a little carnival: a small Ferris wheel, a few battered bumper cars, a pony ride, and some clowns who vaguely scared me the way clowns had always vaguely frightened me.

    Keys had also rented some green park benches that pigeons had been decorating. I sat down on one and ate my dog.

    I was just finishing up my lunch when I saw her, and it was a good thing I was almost done because my stomach did its usual flip-flop. The same kind of flip-flop it had been doing since that first day of fourth grade when I'd instantly fallen in love with her: the beautiful Pamela Forrest.

    I once asked my mom if our family had ever been hexed. You know, if somebody had a grudge against Mom and Dad and put a curse on their firstborn, which would be me. Condemn him to love a girl forever beyond his reach. I am twenty-three, a lawyer, and have what they call "prospects." And I have a '51 red Ford convertible with the custom skirts, the louvered hood, and the special weave top that most of the guys around here, even the cool ones, envy.

    That's my story. Hers is, she's been in love with Stu Grant since ninth grade, just the way I've been in love with her. He's big, good-looking, rich, and powerful. He's also married. Pamela's convinced he'll someday leave his wife and take his rightful place at her side. Right, just like Liz Taylor and Eddie Fisher'll break up someday too.

    She was licking an ice-cream cone. She wore a crisp pink blouse and pink pedal pushers and pink flats. The blouse and pedal pushers had cute little black and white poodles on them. Her golden hair touched her shoulders, and her blue eyes looked fresh and bright. Everybody says she looks like Grace Kelly, and that's the neat thing: she does but she doesn't try to. It comes naturally for her. Just the way it does for Grace Kelly. If you see my point.

    "Hi, McCain."


    "May I sit down?"


    She looked startled. She's used to me making a fool of myself around her, so when I do otherwise it shakes her faith in how the universe works. "No?"

    I grinned. "Sure."

    "Oh, gosh, you scared me there, McCain."

    We come from the area of town known as the Knolls, Pamela and I. Worst section in all of Black River Falls. Her grandfather had money till the Depression, which was when they'd been banished from mansion to Knolls. Pamela was raised to believe she was an exiled princess. Someday she'd have money again and would therefore be restored to the throne.

    "What d' you think of the Edsel?" she asked between licks.

    "What d' you think?"

    "I asked you first."

    "I think it's terrible."

    "Me too. But I saw the Judge a few minutes ago and she loves it."

    The judge she referred to is one Esme Anne Whitney. Before the big war (as distinct from the little one in Korea), the Whitneys owned this town. The city council, the police and fire departments, the newspaper, the school board, the Presbyterian church, and both banks were run by them. Then a yahoo family one generation up from the South—Sykes by name—got lucky working for the army during the big war building airstrips and took over much of what the Whitneys had controlled. Now there was a pitched battle between the two camps. Because my law practice couldn't support me, I used the private investigator's license I picked up after graduating from the University of Iowa law school to work for Judge Whitney. If Pamela labored under the delusion that she would someday be a princess, Judge Whitney labored under the delusion that she would someday reclaim the town from the barbaric hordes that had stolen it from her family. She saw virtually all citizens of Black River Falls as unclean, uncouth, uneducated, unappreciative, ungodly, and just about every other un you care to name. It was her often stated wish that the Whitneys would once again reign supreme so the "little people" would have the Whitneys to imitate and aspire to. The beautiful, elegant Pamela Forrest was her secretary.

    "She loves it," I said, "because she used to date one of the Ford boys when she was at Smith and he was at Dartmouth. You know how she thinks. The upper classes have to stick together. Otherwise all of us Woolworth vulgarians'll overrun them."

    "She's a lot nicer than you think."

    "Yeah? When?"

    "You should see her on Christmas Eve. Handing out those dimes to little poor kids."

    "Yeah, that probably puts a real strain on her five-million-dollar bank account."

    "She makes sure they're shiny and new, McCain. She's a stickler for that."

    "She makes sure what's shiny and new?"

    "The dimes."


    "She goes to the bank and personally picks out every one."

    "I'd call her a saint," I said, "if she didn't hate Catholics so much."

    And that's when Pamela's stomach did a flip-flop. Or at least I imagined it did.

    A silent Dreamboat Alert had sounded. That's what some of the teenage girls at the Rexall soda fountain counter call it when a cool guy comes into the drugstore.

    This particular dreamboat was none other than Pamela's lifelong love, Stu Grant. And he was sans wife today, a fact that Pamela had no doubt noted instantly.

    "Oh, gosh," she said, as if Tab Hunter had just appeared. She handed me her cone. "Here. Finish this for me, will you?"

    She pushed the cone at me before I could say no. Being her slave, I took it. She went to work on herself, using the tools inside the small pink purse slung over her small pink shoulder. She touched up every inch of her lovely face and then jumped up and said, "See you, McCain."

    Yes, I had been cursed. My dad or mom had to have done something to somebody with supernatural powers. Because I just kept right on loving her. No matter what she did to me. No matter how hopeless it was.

After I finished off her ice-cream cone, faintly tasting lipstick on its rim, I just sat and watched and felt good about living here. Most of the people I graduated law school with rushed off to big cities, mostly Chicago, which is only four and a half hours away. I'd spent four recent days there at a law conference Judge Whitney had sent me to, and now I was happily back home. For all its flaws, I love the place.

    As if to confirm my regard for the town, Henry chose now to jump up on the bench. With his jaunty sailor's cap and his bow tie, Henry was looking his best. Henry is a duck, and as far as I know he's been a duck most of his life, though sometimes you have to wonder, the very human things he does. Maybe he started out as a kid and evolved into a duck. Henry belongs to a farmer who plants corn west of town. He brings Henry in for special occasions, like Edsel Day.

    Henry sat next to me and we watched the human parade roll past, the way it's been rolling past since those French trappers of three hundred years ago came down the Mississippi.

    In their quiet way, the people here are fascinating, and Henry must agree because he sure was looking them over. There, for instance, was the Kennard family: quadruplets. Mother and father run ragged by them but proud all the same. There's Denny Farnham. Lost both legs in Korea but came back here and opened up his own service garage. He takes care of my Ford for me, and it's damned good care. There's Mike Braly. He runs a little flower shop and a lot of people whisper he's a queer because he's forty-two and never been married and always goes to Cedar Rapids or Iowa City on weekends—meeting other queers, is what some say. But he's a good guy and just about everybody likes him. And then there's Tom Holmes. When he was a senior in high school here he ran back an interception forty-eight yards to take us to State. The one and only time we'd ever been to State. It was a real accomplishment for a town of 25,000-plus, and even though it happened in '46, folks still treat him like a hero. I don't care much for sports but I respect Tom. His two older brothers were killed in Italy and his dad lost a leg on the railroad where he'd worked as a brakeman, and yet despite those bad breaks Tom turned out to be a prosperous land speculator. And there was Mel Sager, full-blooded Mesquakie, a guitar player who has appeared with Western stars like Marty Robbins and Webb Pierce and Jim Reeves, who comes back to see his mom and his sister three-four times a year. And then there were the high school girls. We seem to get a bumper crop every year. Not just good-looking but smart too, going off to Iowa City or Des Moines or Cedar Rapids or Omaha to become nurses and bookkeepers and legal secretaries, many of them—between you and me—probably a lot smarter than the men they work for.

    Old folks needing relief from the hot sun, little kids needing bathrooms, sweet-faced junior high school girls needing attention from boys—a whole wonderful mix of people on this soft warm Indian-summer afternoon wandered around looking at the Edsels. Nice, easygoing, decent folks. I've got nothing against Chicago, but this is my home.

Car premieres are big deals in towns like ours. They're like opening nights. The big semis loaded with new cars roll in, and half the people in town start driving past the dealership for a glimpse. The cars are always covered up so you can only guess at how cool they look. Some of the semis come in late at night like they' re carrying military cargo the Russians might try and hijack. The dealers are smart enough to stage the premieres so there's never a conflict. Chevy usually goes first, then Ford, then Chrysler, then the lesser lines: American Motors and, lately, Volkswagen.

    "Hello, Sam."

    I'd seen her walking toward me: Mrs. Irene Keys. Hers was a kind of sadly biblical story. The rich girl with the plain face who was just naturally a target for girls and boys alike who wanted to bask in the rarefied air of that wealth. She learned early how to dress well. As she got older, her plain features had taken on a handsomeness not unlike a piece of Roman sculpture. There was great character in her face now. And she learned early to be friendly and seemingly open, though you sensed a ferocious intelligence she tried to hide. Wealth and superior intelligence would have been too much for most folks to handle. Even the Judge had remarked on how impressive having lunch was with Mrs. Keys. "She's up on everything, McCain. You just don't expect to find that in a hick town like this one." Over the years, Mrs. Keys had several times asked me to visit her book club for a discussion. I guess because of my age, she thought I'd be able to explain the allure of Kerouac and Ginsberg and Corso and Ferlinghetti to small-town matrons.

    Today, she wore a tailored brown suit that nearly matched the hennaed rinse she'd had put in her hair. She carried a shopping bag with KEYS LINCOLN on its side.

    "Enjoying yourself, Sam?"

    "Very much."

    "Dick hasn't slept well for nearly a month, he's been so worried about the Edsel."

    I lied. "Well, from the things I hear, everybody sure seems to like it."

    "Really? When I see people, they give me very evasive answers."

    I grinned. "They probably don't want to embarrass you with too much flattery."

    She laughed. "Always ready to turn a bad moment aside with a good line, Sam. That's why it's so much fun having you around. Any chance I could get you to come to the book club discussion we're having next month?"

    "Who're you reading?"

    "Henry Miller."

    I thought of all the words old Henry put in his books. "Really?"

    "Yes. And a couple of us have found words we—we aren't exactly sure what they mean. We think we know but we're not sure."

    "The minister's wife going to be there again?"

    She smiled. "She's the one who suggested it."

    "Well, why not? Just as long as Cliffie doesn't bust us for possession of pornography."

    "I'll make sure Dick puts the fix in. Isn't that what they call it when you bribe a policeman? A fix?"

    "That's what you call it. And may I suggest, with Cliffie, that you bribe him with comics. He's big on the Green Hornet."

    "I'll remind you later," she said. "About Henry Miller." She was still smiling. "But calling the chief Cliffie isn't very nice, Sam."

    The day made its appointed rounds. I watched the clouds for a time, remembering the Baudelaire poem loosely translated as "The Wonderful Clouds." So heartbreakingly beautiful. The day we studied it in class I was surrounded by people who absolutely didn't give a damn about it, including the teaching assistant, who, after each poet we studied, always said, "I'll still take Whitman."

    I sat and daydreamed. I wished I could paint. Or be a serious pianist. Or be taller. Or handsome. Or be better endowed in the groin department. Or be a great novelist. Or really and truly believe in God. Or figure out a way to get Pamela to marry me. Or stumble over a bag containing $300 million that nobody claimed. You know, the usual modest daydreams.

    "I think I'll buy one of these cars, McCain."

    The voice was unmistakable: Judge Esme Anne Whitney. She was approaching the park bench where I was lighting a Lucky. Smokes always taste better after food, even half-finished ice-cream cones.

    "You're kidding."

    "I dated one of the Ford boys."

    "So I heard."

    "Would you tell Henry that there's a lady here who would like to sit down?"

    "Henry, there's a lady here who would like to sit down."

    Henry didn't budge. He's one of God's few creatures not intimidated by Judge Whitney.

    I helped him down. He didn't look happy. He glared at the Judge, his little sailor's cap angled cutely on his little head and waddled away.

    "I doubt he's sanitary," she said.

    "He's a lot cleaner than some of my clients," I said.

    "I've seen some of your clients," she said, "and I agree."

    She didn't ask to sit down. She just sat down. Which was all right with me. I wanted some company, even if it was my boss.

    What you have to remember about Judge Whitney is that I don't necessarily like her but then again I don't necessarily not like her. And if that's confusing for you, think how confusing it is for me.

    The Judge is a damned good-looking sixty-year-old woman but, because she's usually so cold and baronial, people don't see that. Fashion-model slender. Poised. Model-like too in the brazen jut of nose and the impudence of eyes and upper lip. Her gray hair is kept short but very feminine. And somehow her tortoiseshell eyeglasses are sexy. She's also got a kid grin that shocks you the first couple of times you see it. She makes three pilgrimages a year to the Holy Land—the high-fashion stores of New York City—where she buys her clothes. You know, the French designers whose names you can't pronounce at prices your entire block couldn't afford if they pooled their money? Her choice in cigarettes runs to Gauloises and her choice in booze is brandy, which I could smell on her breath. Whatever you do, don't mention Ayn Rand. Rand is her favorite author, and she can give you five extemporaneous hours on the topic. Her major was law but her minor was philosophy.

    "Just because you dated one of the Ford boys doesn't mean you have to buy one."

    "Well, if I don't, who will?" she asked. She was peering down into the gray suede of her tiny purse, the same gray suede that accented certain spots of her gray sharkskin suit. "It's clear that the ordinary people out here can't see what an important and forward-thinking design concept this is."

    She held a handful of four-color brochures, like a poker hand. Which is where that "important and forward-thinking design concept" came from.

    "The one mistake the Ford boys made was marketing this beautiful car to the masses," she said. "It was clearly designed by and for the—well, more educated classes, shall we say."

    In case you hadn't figured it out yet, Esme Anne Whitney is a snob. After several brandies, the word rabble frequently falls from her lips.

    "Look what I found," she said.

    Her kid grin. Those baby teeth of hers. She looked pretty cute.

    Until I realized that what she found were three rubber bands. She gets some kind of deep dark Freudian sexual pleasure out of shooting rubber bands at me and seeing if I can duck away in time.

    But she was only teasing. She dangled the rubber bands so that I could see them and put them back. She was a proper lady after all. Shooting rubber bands should only be done in the privacy of one's office.



    "I'm out of cigarettes."

    "Have one of mine."

    "You smoke those American things."

    "You smoke those French things."

    "Oh, hell, McCain, give me one, I suppose."

    I gave her one. I even struck the match for her.

    She inhaled deeply. Exhaled. "These are even worse than I remembered." Then: "I clocked you yesterday."

    "Clocked me?"

    "Loitering at Pamela's desk."


    "She's mine, not yours, McCain. At least during business hours."

    "I'll try to watch it."

    "You always say that. Now I'm afraid I'll have to take action."


    "For every minute you stand out there mooning over her, I'm going to dock you a dollar. Given what I pay you, and given how long you moon, you could easily end up owing me money." She dropped her Lucky on the ground and twisted it into shreds with the tip of her gray suede high-heeled shoe. "These are terrible. Just terrible." She sat back and said, "Why don't you marry that Mary Travers? It seems to be a much better fit. Pamela has ... aspirations."


    "What in God's name does ah mean?"

    "It means that even though her family no longer has money, it once did. So you relate to her."

    "Sometimes families lose their fortune and then regain it again."

    "So I should stick with my kind and Pamela should stick with hers, is that it?"

    "No offense, McCain, but you're a man of simple needs. And from what I can see, Mary Travers—who is very very pretty, by the way—is also a person of simple needs."

    I was about to tell her how insulting her theory was—to both Mary and me—when I saw Dick Keys pushing through the crowd and shouting my name. He looked crazed. As a young man, he'd distinguished himself by flying more than sixty bombing missions as a tail gunner in World War Two. He was known for his charm, his self-possession.

    People were watching him now.

    Something was obviously wrong.

    He stumbled over somebody's foot and practically landed on his face in front of me.

    "Sam, you have to help me," he said, his breath coming in short gasps.

    "What's wrong?"

    "I'll explain when we get there."

    "Hello, Richard," the Judge said loftily. "Or aren't we speaking anymore?"

    He seemed to see her for the first time.

    "Oh, hi, Judge. God, I'm sorry, I'm just so—confused, I guess. I really need to borrow young McCain here, if you don't mind."

    "Consider him borrowed, Richard. But next time you could at least have the courtesy to say hello to me." She was the only person who called him Richard. He apparently brought out the schoolmarm in her.

    "I will, Judge, I promise," he said. And then: "C'mon, Sam. Hurry!"

    And we were off.

    It took us a good seven-eight minutes of broken-field running to get inside the service garage, where we were finally alone.

    "What's going on, Dick?"

    He looked at me lost in grief. "It's bad enough that everybody hates the Edsel grille because it looks like a woman's vagina. That isn't enough? Now I got a body on my hands."

    I really thought he might start crying.

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