Using the pseudonym Ed Lacy, American novelist Len Zinberg achieved fame as a writer of critically successful mysteries in the 1950s and ’60s.
Winner of an Edgar Award for best novel in 1957 for Room to Swing, a typically hard-hitting story featuring African-American private detective Toussaint Moore, Lacy’s thirty novels have sold more than 28 million copies.
Lead With Your Left and The Best That Ever Did It, two of the author’s finest works, are a pair of taut, fast-paced detective stories that are noted for their gritty realism and sharply defined central characters.
Singled out by Edgar and Anthony Award-winning biographer Marvin Lachman as worthy of rediscovery, these two forgotten novels are reprinted this month in a Stark House combined edition.
The first story, initially published in 1956 in Mercury mystery book magazine as Keep an Eye on the Body and serialised in newspapers, was expanded and published by Harper & Brothers in January 1957 under the title Lead With Your Left.
Engrossing and action-packed, it features a very ‘cocky’ 21-year-old New York police detective named David Wintino who is assigned a homicide case involving a retired policeman shot dead in an alleyway while working as a messenger for a brokerage house.
Hot-headed and ‘a know-it-all,’ the baby-faced Wintino, who looks barely old enough to be in the boy scouts, is a clever, dogged detective who works hard and gets results. Despite no firm leads and department disinterest, he becomes fixated on the murder, obsessively working around the clock to find the culprit.
A second related cop killing, suggesting that these murders aren’t motivated by robbery, leads him to investigate the men’s past, including an intriguing cold case from sixteen years earlier involving a bootlegger named Sal Kahn who was sent to the electric chair.
Interestingly, Lacy shifts the emphasis away from the murders and onto the personal life of his philosophical, empathetic narrator who is perpetually worried about money, career, and marital happiness.
A talented amateur boxer with a fierce left hook and a hot temper that has got him in trouble on numerous occasions, Wintino must contend with incessant derogatory remarks about his youthful appearance and short stature, as well as bigoted insults from colleagues on account of his Jewish and Italian heritage.
Wintino also works all the time, to the detriment of his marriage, making his frustrated wife Mary as ‘sore as a boil’ at him for his meagre salary, the long hours, and the risks he takes. Vain, proud, and career-driven, Wintino is married to the force and committed to solving these crimes, no matter what damage it does to his health and to his marriage.
The second novel, The Best That Ever Did It, published by Harper & Brothers in March 1955 as part of their hardback suspense series, is a lively, fascinating tale about a private eye’s investigation into the apparently motiveless killing of a contest winner and a police detective outside a dive bar in New York City.
Again, Lacy presents a three-dimensional, sympathetic narrator who strays from the norm… this time, Barney Harris, a big, tough, 18-stone car mechanic who moonlights as a private investigator.
Harris, a widower who is struggling to raise his six-year-old daughter by himself while working nights to pay the bills, is hired by Betsy Turner, the young wife of one of the victims, to learn the truth about her husband’s death.
Unsatisfied by the way the police investigation has gone and impressed by Harris' ‘honesty and frankness,’ she suspects that her husband may have been suicidal and deliberately allowed himself to be killed.
More accustomed to ’skip-tracing’ cars and ‘following two-timing husbands and wives around,’ Harris, who has never had a criminal case before, never carried a gun, and has not ‘slugged a man’ since he was ten years old, is inexperienced and somewhat out of his depth.
As Lieutenant Franzino puts it, the private eye badge Harris carries is ‘one degree above the kind they give out with box tops to kids.’
Despite his lack of experience and lowly status, Harris has the passion, drive, and natural instincts of a great detective. He is also a morally decent person who worries about those who ‘volunteered information’ coming to harm or being framed for murder, is unafraid to rebuke policemen for mistreating suspects and unnecessary violence, and has no qualms about withholding information from Franzino until it serves him to do so.
Famed New York Times book critic and author Anthony Boucher, an avid reader of Lacy’s work, selected The Best That Ever Did It as one of the best books of 1955, describing it as ‘the year's most original and off-trail variant on the private-eye theme.’
As with Lead With Your Left, it’s certainly a riveting, stimulating novel, with a particularly engaging, likeable protagonist, a sure-footed plot, believable characters, smart dialogue, and hard-hitting prose.
(Stark House Press, paperback, £15.95)