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Book review: The Body Looks Familiar and The Late Mrs. Five by Richard Wormser

The Body Looks Familiar and The Late Mrs. Five by Richard Wormser
The Body Looks Familiar and The Late Mrs. Five by Richard Wormser
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In two thrilling, out-of-the-ordinary crime stories, an assistant district attorney attempts to frame the city’s police chief for the murder of his mistress, and a travelling company vice president finds himself accused of the murder of his ex-wife.

The Body Looks Familiar and The Late Mrs. Five are both impressive novels by the late Richard Wormser, a prolific American writer of some 300 short stories, 200 novelettes, and numerous crime and detective novels, movie and TV novelisations, screenplays and Westerns.

Beginning his literary career in the 1930s as editor and writer for the famous publishing house Street & Smith, which specialised in dime novels and pulp fiction, Wormser went on to write for Hollywood film studios like Columbia Pictures and contribute seventeen of the Nick Carter spy novels.

The New York Times book critic Anthony Boucher once said of his work: ‘A Wormser book will be bright and fresh in the telling, and the story it tells will be not at all like anything else on my desk.’

This is very much the case with The Body Looks Familiar, which first appeared in abridged form as The Frame in Cosmopolitan in 1957, and then as a novel the following year. It is a tale unlike any other.

The shocking opening pages finds chief assistant district attorney Dave Corday lounging on the satin-covered bed in a woman’s apartment, listening to the radio and sipping a good Scotch and soda, casually waiting to commit murder.

Bitter because his late wife left him for the deputy chief of police, James Latson, who then cast her aside and she became a prostitute, Corday is deeply jealous of the man and wants revenge.

When Latson and his mistress arrive at her apartment, Corday calmly shoots her dead with Latson’s own gun and departs the crime scene, leaving the police chief in a ‘tight spot.’

Latson, unfazed by the murder, feels superior to Corday and believes there is nothing he cannot handle. Keen to avoid a scandal, and confident that ‘anything Corday could spin, he could unravel,’ he deviously sabotages the investigation by botching lab reports, tampering with department files to conceal facts, and producing a murder suspect.

What follows is an intriguing contest between two ruthless men, each looking to outsmart the other, without care for the lives they ruin in the process.

The second novel, The Late Mrs. Five, first published by Gold Medal Books in 1960, is the tale of Paul Porter, VP of marketing at a Chicago-based farming equipment company, who, while visiting current and potential customers in the rural, midwestern town of Lowndesburg, finds himself in the worst place at the worst time.

Quite by chance, Porter glimpses his deceitful, gold-digging ex-wife in the street and discovers she is now living in Lowndesburg and married to the richest man in town, John Hilliard the fifth, aka Mr. Five. Porter decides to pay her a visit, secretly hoping to make a sale to her husband, but nobody answers the door and he leaves.

Later that day, Porter learns that his ex-wife has been murdered. The police apprehend him, believing it is no ‘coincidence’ he drifted into town on the day she was murdered, and he becomes the prime suspect.

When the police chief’s daughter, who has rapidly become smitten with Porter, pays his $10,000 bond and he is released from jail, his situation gets impossibly bleak and he finds himself ‘on the run’ and on an uphill battle to prove his innocence and escape the electric chair.

Wormser, an Edgar Award-winning novelist and two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award for juvenile fiction, delivers a solidly entertaining murder mystery with a likeable main protagonist and interesting side characters.

As Bill Crider duly notes in his introduction to this Stark House reprint, the pairing of these two vastly dissimilar tales ‘gives readers an excellent opportunity to see Wormser at the top of his game in works that are strikingly different but equally entertaining.’

(Stark House Press, paperback, £14)