Sunday, September 04, 2011

Murder on Air

It might seem like an odd choice to review a novel by William L. DeAndrea in this series of hardboiled reviews. But in this case, I think the choice is defensible: Killed in the Ratings (DeAndrea’s first novel) is far more hardboiled than later entries in the Matt Cobb series. The book deservedly won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and DeAndrea would follow it up impressively, winning another Edgar the following year for The Hog Murders. (Here’s an interesting bit of trivia—looking at the dust jacket of Killed in the Ratings, it seems that DeAndrea originally planned to call his second book The Serial Murders.)

But back to Matt Cobb, who is starring in his first adventure as acting Vice-President of Special Projects. He basically handles anything too tricky for Public Relations that could endanger The Network, a giant television conglomerate like ABC or CNN. It all starts when Cobb gets a telephone call summoning him to a hotel room. The caller promises to reveal a shocking secret that could endanger the entire television industry. Naturally, Cobb arrives for the appointment, only to be greeted with a fresh corpse on the floor and a blow to the head from behind with an ashtray. When Cobb comes to, he finds himself in the singularly awkward position of having to explain what he is doing to the cops, preferably so that The Network doesn’t get involved.

The detective in charge of the case, Lieutenant Martin, has known Cobb since he was a young boy, which not only makes the investigation more difficult, but it compounds the awkward factor. It doesn’t help that a fellow officer, Rivetz, is convinced of Cobb’s guilt and can’t wait to slam a pair of handcuffs on him. Add to that gangsters, physical action, several attempts on Cobb’s life including a hit-and-run, and some excellent social commentary. Have it all told in a voice inspired by Archie Goodwin, and voila! You have yourself an excellent novel. It may not be completely hardboiled, but it gets close.

Unfortunately, the mystery is not DeAndrea’s finest. It’s a very clever puzzle with some excellent pieces, but the clueing seemed at times rather heavy-handed. Some clues were excellent, but their purpose was really undermined by very obvious pointers. Whodunnit is pretty obvious. The why is revealed well in advance of the who. The how is never called into question. Though it is a solidly constructed puzzle, it isn’t a particularly challenging one.

As always, DeAndrea’s writing is very engaging. I loved every moment of this book, even if I found the puzzle rather weak. There’s a lot of social commentary—sometimes, it’s commentary for its own sake, such as when Cobb muses on the meaning of some graffiti at the subway stop. At other times, the commentary is part and parcel of the plot—Rivetz, for instance, is personally anxious to nab a notorious gangster who happens to fit a demeaning Jewish stereotype. There are moments where he almost oversteps himself to reach his goal and also the side-goal of seeing Cobb behind bars. When contrasted with the actions of other police officers, especially Martin, it subtly brings up the whole topic of authority, how it can be misused, and how far is too far. It’s far better than having a routine police beating every novel. (Yup, I’m looking at you, Raymond Chandler…)

I suppose now is as good a time as any to sum things up. Although the book has more of a hardboiled flavour than usual for DeAndrea, it is just as delightful a read. You get the feeling that DeAndrea wasn’t certain yet whether the series would be hardboiled or a “strictly thirty-second egg”. However, this doesn’t interfere with the reading experience, and the author’s sense of humour shines through on many occasions. The plot is full to the brim with action, and although the puzzle is somewhat weak, it’s solidly constructed and will probably contain at least one surprise. Overall, it’s a very fun read from the author of The Hog Murders, Killed on the Rocks, and Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. The Edgar Award was well-deserved.


  1. Excellent review, Patrick! The feeling that DeAndrea hadn't made up his mind regarding the temper of this series also sneaked up on me while reading, but it makes for an interesting story that was still rough around the edges and the statuette was indeed well-deserved for this maiden voyage into the genre.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, TomCat. Our reviews agree on several points, and I personally can give DeAndrea some leeway considering it was his first time... as long as he didn't pull a Chandler (and forget to explain the mystery). Which he didn't. :)