Before there was Hard Case Crime, there was Black Lizard Books. Black Lizard was an imprint that specialized in reprinting out-of-print works of noir fiction by a variety of writers in mass market paperback format. Founded and overseen by writer/editor Barry Gifford in 1984, Black Lizard published more than ninety books between 1984 and 1990. In June 1990, the imprint was sold to Random House where it was merged with the preexisting Vintage Crime imprint to form Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. The reprints of vintage crime material continue, along with some contemporary works but this time the format is trade paperback.
Black Lizard featured novels by such genre stalwarts as Charles Willeford, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, Harry Whittington, Dan J. Marlowe, Charles Williams, Lionel White and Jim Thompson, among many others. I remember stumbling across a slew of Black Lizard paperbacks in a Half Price Books store sometime in the mid-'80s. I went nuts looking for every book I could find that had the Black Lizard logo on it. I bought as many of them as I could and in the years since, have managed to read many of them. I currently have 22 Black Lizard paperbacks on my bookshelves. I've been in the mood lately to sample some vintage crime fiction but rather than spend money for used copies or reprints on eBay or other websites, I decided I'd read some of the stuff I already had.
Which brings me to SING ME A MURDER, a 1961 murder mystery by Helen Nielsen. Nielsen also wrote DETOUR (not to be confused with the Edgar G. Ulmer film of the same name) as well as scripts for such television shows as PERRY MASON, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, ALCOA THEATRE and 87TH PRECINCT. She was one of the few women writers to sell stories to such male dominated crime magazines as MANHUNT, ACCUSED, HUNTED, PURSUIT and JUSTICE (among others), where she shared pages with Evan Hunter, Harry Whittington, John Jakes, and Gil Brewer. Nielsen was a whiz at plotting, a skill that is on clear display in SING.
Playwright Ty Leander is devastated by the death of his wife, the beautiful singer Julie San Martin. She met her end in a wildfire that consumed half of their Malibu Canyon home. When he learns about the death of Mary Brownlee, a look-a-like for Julie, he decides to attempt suicide in the same boarding house room where Brownlee was murdered by her jealous boyfriend. He doesn't really intend to kill himself but he feels he must atone in some way for the death of his wife. He declares to his attorney friend Cole Tyler that he intends to be charged with Brownlee's murder and take the place of the accused Mike Flanders (whom Tyler is defending). Got it?
Leander's bizarre actions at the beginning of the book are merely a ruse to get him involved in investigating the deaths of the women. He finds evidence that his wife may have been murdered at the same time it becomes clearer that Flanders is innocent. Who killed the two beauties? Among the suspects are lawyer Tyler, theatrical producer Marcus Anatole, set designer Alex Draeger (a woman) and moody young artist Dana Quist. Police detective Janus is also on the case which takes several surprising twists and turns before the killer is finally revealed.
SING ME A MURDER isn't noir or hard-boiled. It's a straightforward murder mystery with well drawn characters and a look into the goings-on in a mid-century artists' salon in Southern California. You have to pay close attention because Nielsen provides a lot of red herrings along with legitimate clues before the big reveal. Not the greatest murder mystery I've ever read but a perfectly fine way to spend a Memorial Day afternoon. Thumbs up to this one and any and all Black Lizard paperbacks you can find.