THE HONEST DEALER (1947) by Frank Gruber
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
There must be something about people named Fletcher that attracts them to murders or murders to them. Anyone who has ever seen a few episodes of “Murder, She Wrote” knows that anywhere mystery writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher went, murder occurred. Stand-up comedians joked that anyone in his right mind, upon learning Jessica would be coming to the city or town in which he lived, should hie himself to a different locale rapidly and without looking back, lest he become the victim whose murder she would be solving.
Murder has a way of happening within Johnny Fletcher’s orbit, too. The itinerant Fletcher and his partner, Sam Cragg star in a series of books by the prolific pulp writer Frank Gruber. They call themselves book salesmen, but the only book they peddle is the dubious Every Man a Samson, which deals with body-building. Sam Cragg, who contends he’s the strongest man in the world, shows off his ultra-muscular form while Fletcher pitches the book to crowds. They’re a likable, often comical, pair of scammers who are frequently broke and sometimes only a step ahead of the law or someone to whom they owe money.
In The Honest Dealer, after deciding to drive through Death Valley at night, Fletcher and Cragg come upon a man mortallly wounded by a gunshot. Barely able to speak, he tries to reach into his pocket while telling Fletcher, “Send these to Nick in Las Vegas,” after which he goes limp in death. Fletcher searches his pockets and discovers a seemingly innocuous deck of playing cards, along with a matchbook from El Casa Rancho in Las Vegas and what looks to be a purple poker chip.
They have very little money between them, but Fletcher suddenly wants to go to Las Vegas. He explains that what looks like a poker chip is actually a gambling check worth either five or twenty-five dollars. They only have to find the place that issued it, and they can cash it in.
Once they get to Las Vegas, it doesn’t take long before what little money they have runs out. They try to go into their book-selling pitch but are prevented by a local cop they met shortly after arriving in the city when they tried to make a U-turn. The cop is a former celebrated African hunter and Hollywood celebrity named Catch ’Em Alive Mulligan, who gives them a single silver dollar. Fletcher parlays this into a small fortune at the gaming tables, where he’s on a hot streak and can’t lose, and he and Cragg are happily living in unaccustomed luxury.
But things take a bizarre turn when a corpse turns up in their hotel room. The corpse belongs to the unknown man they found in Death Valley. Who brought it? How did it get into their room--and why? Who made it a corpse? And who is the man? What’s the significance of the playing cards he gave Fletcher? To Cragg’s exasperation and dismay, Fletcher has a penchant for playing detective that more often than not gets them into trouble, often landing Cragg in jail. But Fletcher is determined to investigate, if only to clear the two of them of a possible murder charge.
Before long they meet the lovely Jane Langford, who has been living in Las Vegas for six weeks so she can divorce her husband Jim, with whom Fletcher gets into a brawl; Gilbert Honsinger, owner of El Casa Rancho, and his manager Whit Snow; Charles Halton, a young giant of a man who claims to have an infallible system for winning at the gambling tables; Nick Bleek the bellboy and Nick Fenton the dealer; Mr. Chatsworth, head of the Midwest Insurance Company; and Walter Cobb, a private detective.
Fletcher and Cragg’s circumstances are complicated by another murder, and eventually resolved at a poker game much wilder than the one Philo Vance put together in The “Canary” Murder Case.
As mentioned earlier, the very successful Frank Gruber began his career writing fiction for pulp magazines. Although he wrote in a multitude of genres, he later became known for and concentrated on mysteries and westerns. Having learned his craft in the pulps, he was a grinder. I don’t use the term disparagingly. Like many of his fellow pulpsters, he wrote to earn a living in order to support himself and his family, churning out stories and novels with a journeyman’s diligence and dependability, but not worrying about the niceties of Literature with a capital L. There was no time for that during the Depression years. He wrote a lean, unadorned prose that effectively conveyed his fast-paced entertainments. Readers looking for stylistic pyrotechnics, deep character probings, and profound insights into the human condition need not apply here. Those who want a diverting short mystery novel they can tear through in a few hours should find The Honest Dealer satisfying.
For additional information about Frank Gruber, see http://www.thrillingdetective.com/trivia/gruber.html
Barry Ergang (c) 2011
Winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award for the best flash fiction story of 2006, Barry Ergang’s written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. The Honest Dealer is one of the many books Barry has for sale—see http://barryergangbooksforsale.yolasite.com/