Lawrence Lariar was one the most popular cartoonists of the twentieth century. But from the 1940s through the 1960s, he also crafted a line of lean and mean detective and mystery novels under his own name as well as the pseudonyms Michael Stark, Adam Knight, Michael Lawrence, and Marston La France. Lariar now gets his due as a leading artist in hardboiled crime fiction.
World War II has ended but Jeff Keye has one more mission: find the beloved sister of a buddy who died in France and break the news personally. An aspiring artist, Paula Smith was, by all accounts, sweet, simple, and warm-hearted. But now she’s missing and Jeff needs the help of detective Homer Bull.
What Homer has to go on so far are tight-lipped acquaintances, rumors of personal demons, a sequined trail that leads to the Times Square strip circuit, and the brutal, unsolved murder of a playboy art critic. Piece by piece, the real story of Paula’s life is starting to come together. And it’s not making for a pretty picture.
All Homer knows for sure is that Paula is definitely on the run. But is it to save her life or to cover her tracks?
The Girl with the Frightened Eyes is the 4th book in the Homer Bull & Hank MacAndrews Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Red Cross bus sailed down the incline and turned to stop in the broad concrete field before the Staten Island ferry slip. I lifted myself down to earth and smiled up at the pretty matron who had driven me down from Halloran Hospital.
She smiled back automatically. "End of the line. Good luck, soldier."
"Thanks. Maybe I'll be needing a little luck from here on out."
I walked straight for the ferry entrance and the earth felt strange to my feet. It was a fall day. November blew a cold wind in my face, loaded with the smell of automobiles and tar and salt and ship-smoke. A hundred new and wonderful noises beat against my ear. I heard the sound of many voices, the cacophony of horns, whistles, sirens and bells common to the waterfront. All this was a tonic for me. I paused in the shelter of the ferry entrance and breathed it all in, enjoying every sound and smell of civilization.
I lit a cigarette and squinted at myself in the mirror you get with your chewing gum. My face was pale and lean, as it had always been before I joined the army, a few million years ago. There was a fleck of gray over my ears that added age to my five and twenty. There were new, hairline wrinkles in the corners of my eyes, over my eyebrows and alongside the ends of my mouth. It all added up to me: Geoffrey Keye. It smiled at me in the mirror and I walked away from it.
People moved before me, all of them aimed at the ferry, walking fast, talking fast. I stood there looking back at the Red Cross truck and after a little while it pulled away up the ramp and disappeared in traffic.
I watched it go without regrets. It was my last tie to the army, my last memory of Halloran Hospital and the long row of beds and the cast on my left arm and the endless hours of restful monotony while waiting for this day and this hour and this minute.
Now the minute had arrived and I felt the immediate past slip away from me. I was back where it had all started, in New York City. Once across the bay I would walk into my past, my present and my future. The routine of city life would absorb me easily; I would slip back among old friends, into the free and easy groove of the cartoonist's life. I would draw funny pictures and think funny gags and meet funny people again.
It would be easy. My name had sold cartoons and caricatures three years ago — it was still fresh and vital and important to magazine editors and all the advertising agencies.
I walked over to the newsstand and stared at the magazine covers. The sight of them quickened my pulse, for these were the showplaces of the cartoonery trade. I found myself taking enjoyment from the bustle and clatter of life around the Staten Island ferry.
I bought a pack of cigarettes and surveyed the headlines. Our men were going places now. They were sprinkling Hitler's inner Fortress with well- aimed batches of screaming death. They were bombarding the deep and hidden fastnesses of the Reich and softening the monster for the kill. I thought of Normandy and the invasion and for a moment I was part of it again, marching through the hedge rowed fields with Kip Smith.
I swallowed hard when I thought of Kip. He and I had planned long ago to share this moment — this first bright day at home. We had discussed it at great length — in great detail. We were optimistic about our homecoming. Soldiers think of home and disregard the threat of bullets and pain and sudden death. But a bullet had banished Kip Smith's dream forever.
I reached into my pocket and brought out the small packet of correspondence Kip had given me. These were the last seven letters his sister Paula had sent him — a long time ago. Now I would call Paula Smith and arrange to see her. There were many reasons for meeting Kip's sister as soon as possible.
I walked into the phone booth and asked information for the telephone number of Mrs. Preston's place.
Calling Paula Smith excited me. The address was familiar because Paula and I had corresponded for two years. It was through Kip, after Kip and I had become buddies. Kip would read me her letters, in the beginning, and then sit for hours with me, discussing the vagaries of fine arts. It was because Paula was a painter that I wrote to her. Painting had been my first love, in the quick years of decision before I began to cartoon for a living. And Paula answered that first stumbling letter of mine and encouraged the correspondence. I had mailed many a rambling dissertation on art to her in care of Mrs. Kay Preston. We were old friends, yet strangers to each other. We had never met personally. I had never seen her face, even in a photograph. I wondered how her voice would sound.
I dialed the number.
A girl's voice answered, high and sharp. "Paula Smith? She isn't here."
"When will she be back?"
"I don't know. She moved out of here a long time ago."
I said, "I've got to reach her. Where did she go?"
There was a pause, a whispering and another voice, older, higher, said, "Paula Smith left no forwarding address."
"Are you sure?" I asked. "It's rather important that I get to her."
"I'm sorry I can't help you. Paula didn't tell me where she was moving."
I hung up and stood in the booth uncertainly. I studied the address on one of Paula's letters: 17 Quaker Lane, and tried to visualize the house. I checked my daydream and fought rising disappointment. I had been building this moment for two years, the exciting revelation of a new voice. It would have meant that I could meet Paula. I put her letters away and tried to forget them for a while. I failed. If I forgot Paula, I would be forgetting Kip.
I walked with the tide of people swarming toward the main gate and let myself be drawn into the stream, through the doors and turnstiles, across the waiting room and inside the upper deck of the familiar squat ferry.
The deck was crowded, as usual, jam-packed with hardy souls who relish the long boat ride across the bay to and from South Ferry.
A whistle hooted and a deeper hoot answered from somewhere out on the water. We edged out into the bay and into the scattered traffic of the harbor. A stiff wind skittered over the water and rolled the ferry gently in her course. A fat tug puffed diligently alongside a giant tanker. A few lazy gulls hung over our stern in easy grace.
The crowd in the ferry was a mixture of young people, old people, and a few servicemen. There were girls in the crowd, young and smartly dressed, and I caught myself scanning their faces and thinking about Paula Smith again. I caught myself wondering about her face and her figure and the way she might do her hair.
Kip Smith would have laughed at my state of mind. My befuddlement always amused him. "You look constipated, Jeff," he'd say. "When you start to gawk and cloud up your eyes and act ingrown, you look absolutely constipated."
We had gone through basic together, through the long and sweaty routine of conditioning. You live with a man for two years and if you like him it isn't long before he knows you as he knows a brother. You march with a man on maneuvers, you grunt with him and curse with him and after a while the gates are down and you see inside each other. And if you like what's inside, the man is your friend.
I liked Kip Smith from the moment I saw him. He was a tall boy, freckled, blue eyed and handsome in a roughhewn sort of way. He moved about the camp slowly and awkwardly, overwhelmed by the strangeness of it. He was given to honest thinking and it was this honesty that first amazed me.
"I'm not quite sure all these men know what we're fighting for, Jeff," he would say. "Do you know?"
"Democracy," I said. "Stab in the back. Pearl Harbor. Hitler. Mussolini."
"Those are the symbols. But how many of these fellows will ever recognize Hitler in a business suit on Main Street?"
I said, "Give them time. Once they learn the background for this shindig they'll be able to spot the Fuehrer even if he dresses up as Santa Claus. Besides, Hitler doesn't walk down Main Street very often these days."
"These days won't last forever. And Hitler has a million ghosts to carry on for him after he takes the leap into oblivion."
"You're worrying a lot about a little," I said.
"This is big, Jeff. This is the biggest, the longest war we've ever had," he said. "Fifteen million servicemen may come out of our country to do this job. It hits a man every once in a while and makes him sit back and close his eyes and think a little. I get to thinking about all the other camps like this and my mind can't handle all the details. I look at these barracks and begin to multiply this camp by all the other camps in the country and after a while I get a headache and give it up. The mathematics are too much for me. The man who's planning it all must be a genius. He's got to think of a few billion coordinated moves before we beat all the Fascists."
I liked the way his mind worked. He had a capacity for seeing ahead, looking around the tricky corners. He figured things out and adjusted himself for the problems of the future. His awkwardness vanished when we began to train on the big guns and it wasn't long before he had developed a skill that kept our yammering sergeant on his toes.
Kip Smith was the first man to get a stripe, but it left him cold.
"It doesn't mean anything," he said. "It's not good to pick one man out of a company and give him glory."
"You earned that glory," I told him. "The rest of us are still sluggards."
"One man doesn't fire a gun alone, Jeff. Every man on our gun deserves one of these."
He sat down on his cot and stared at the piece of cloth.
I clapped him on the shoulder. "Aren't you going to tell the folks back home about this? People will be glad to hear about it, even if you aren't."
He smiled up at me. "People? I haven't got any people. When I write my next letter to Paula, I'll let her know."
Paula Smith was his younger sister. There was an older one, too, but Kip didn't talk about her much. She was ten years older than he and he hadn't seen her in years. Jenny Smith had run away from home a long time ago, when his parents were alive. She had left the family to strike out for herself in the theatrical business. She became a dancer in burlesque and after that married a gangster and had her name in the papers. That was a long time ago, when the leftover gunmen from the prohibition era were exploring new fields. Later Jenny Smith tried to come home, but her parents never forgave her.
Paula and Kip had been brought up by an uncle in Brooklyn, a man with an unforgettable name — Benjamin Franklin. Kip's parents died in an accident and Uncle Ben took the children in and sent them to the local high school. He was a practical, kindly man.
"He was a martyr, really," Kip said. "Consider the problem we gave him and you'll understand. Uncle Ben had always been a bachelor. Imagine a man of fifty suddenly taking on two brats of high school age, both strangers to him. Oh, we liked him well enough, but we were a little too old to begin to love him, for all his goodness. We were with him until he died, on the day I reached my eighteenth birthday. He left us his fortune — a few thousand dollars and the old house in Flatbush. We stayed on in the house for a few months until Paula decided that we should move uptown so that we could be nearer our schools. She had enrolled in The New York Art School and was hell-bent on becoming a fine artist."
I was interested in the art angle and asked him how talented she was.
"Paula is good, Jeff, but she'll be a lot better after she finds herself."
"How long has she been painting?"
"Three years. She started out the way most beginners attack art, doing buck-eye academic things. She made fancy pictures of grapes and vases — you know, the usual trash. Then, suddenly, she dropped all that and began to paint her own way, big and broad and kind of screwball."
"I always called it screwball," laughed Kip, "but that was probably because I couldn't understand it. I'm no art critic. I like the sort of stuff the eye can enjoy — the kind of art that doesn't have to hammer at your brain and scream a hidden meaning to you in a very subtle way."
"You lowbrows are all alike," I said. "But you've got millions of members in your school of art appreciation."
He grinned at that one. "All right — I admit I'm no connoisseur, Rembrandt. I like the simple things in life — a painting by Norman Rockwell, a mural by Dean Cornwell. I'm the jerk who always says, 'I don't know what's good art, but I know what I like. Paula called me an academic diehard."
"Paula was right."
"Of course she was right. We never fought about it. After a while she gave up asking me for my fruity criticisms because I always reacted the same way to her stuff. It was much too modern for a moron like me."
"What kind of modern?" I asked. "There are a thousand variations on the theme."
He made a face. "I wish I knew the name you art bugs use for it. All I can tell you is this — it was pure American screwball, screwball figures and screwball heads, screwball back grounds and screwball foregrounds."
"And the color?"
We both laughed at his routine. I said, "Paula is probably wandering in the fields of impressionism. Maybe abstractionist or a cubist, or even a Dadaist from the way you describe her work. All of which means that she's probably on the right road, Kip. Invariably those people are the brave ones, the talented ones — and their severest critics are the small-change academicians who haven't either the guts or the talent or the imagination to make room for themselves in the field of modern art. Paula must be one smart little girl."
"You'd like her, Jeff."
"She's as pretty as her pictures are un-pretty. She's smart, too — plenty smart."
"An impossible combination," I said. "The only pretty and successful female artist I ever knew was a gal who did fashion designing and molded her creations to the lines of her own lush torso. She could drape rags on that figure of hers and sell them at phenomenal prices. She could also — "
"I'll get you a picture of Paula," Kip said. "She hasn't perfected that type of approach. She's got a pretty head and a good figure and a sense of humor that should panic even a cartoonist. She likes to laugh and she'll probably split a rib laughing at a jerk like you."
But he never did get me that picture. He wrote to his sister and told her about me. Her next letter had a few lines for me, telling me that she knew my cartooning and even liked it a little.
I began to exchange letters with Paula soon after that. Her letters were crisp, amusing and full of the joy of living. Kip enjoyed my interest in her. We spent many an hour talking about her career and her talent and his great love for her.
For a while after we reached England Paula wrote more often and her letters were filled with a new and fresh excitement. She was making progress. She was doing great things and would soon get her first commission.
"Is that good?" Kip asked.
"Most girl artists would swoon with delight to get a job of painting — anything. I knew a girl in art school who fainted when she saw her first picture hanging in a gallery."
"I guess I should feel proud of Paula," he said. "I don't. She's the sort of girl you expect to go places. I suppose any art job for dough is called a commission?"
"Paula sounds as though she's found an outlet for her fine arts — a rare thing in these hectic days when women labor at machines and fine arts go a-begging. Maybe she's located a gallery man who's giving her a small show in one of his empty seasons. Or maybe somebody else is buying her right off the easel. It's not impossible if she's got the talent."
"She's got the talent."
Her last letter arrived three months before we crossed the Channel into Normandy. Kip read it, shook his head over it and handed it to me with a face full of worry.
Forgive my delay in answering your last note and tell Jeff that goes double for him. I'm just getting over a shock — the shock of business in art — for in art as in everything else there is always the customer to please. My latest adventure in the art business is a grisly mess — a mess that frightens me, full of intrigue and petty grubbing around the money sacks. An artist needs money — wants money desperately, because money means time and time means the chance to play with one's talent.
But now I'm ashamed of myself, and afraid of the future. I'm ashamed of myself for not resisting temptation when the lure was money — filthy money, money that brought fear and worry and nightmare instead of the security I prayed for.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Girl with the Frightened Eyes"
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