Frank Kane wrote 29 novels and numerous short stories during his career.
You can check out a biographical sketch here and find some info on his work
at Thrilling Detective here. Poisons Unknown (1953) is the seventh book in his
series featuring private detective Johnny Liddell.
I picked three of Kane's P.I. series in a book store a few months ago,
all used but in good shape. I also picked up Bare Trap (1952) and
Red Hot Ice (1955). I might review those two later. But for
now I thought I would just review Poisons Unknown. I had never
read Kane before, and maybe other people out there haven't either, so I
thought a review might be in order just to get an idea of what Kane's
writting is like. Thrilling Detective says that Kane's series is
"a solid series, nothing really exceptional, but it gets the job done,
sorta like Johnny."
Poisons Unknown takes place in New Orleans, with the exception of
a very brief passage in the front. P.I. Johnny Liddell has gone down to
the Crescent City to find a guy named Brother Alfred, the leader of a
cult-type church outside of New Orleans. Liddell has been hired by Marty
Kirk, a local gangster. Kirk says he wants Brother Alfred found because
Brother Alfred has been making a lot of problems for him in the press
and he is afraid that Alfred's disappearance will somehow be blamed on
him. Liddell doesn't quite believe his story or trust Kirk's motives,
but he takes the case anyway due to the fact that he will be working
with some local P.I. talent — Gabby Benton, a female P.I. with whom
Liddell had a hot fling in years past.
The plot follows the traditional serial-plot formula. It's a decent plot
with a few good twists to it. Almost as soon as Liddell lands in New
Orleans he gets into trouble, and it progresses from there. I won't go
into the plot any more from here on as I wouldn't want to spoil the book
Kane breaks with tradition in his novels, putting his P.I. narrative in
third person. He has a habit of using Johnny Liddell's full name
throughout the book, long after the character has been introduced. It is
all too frequently "Johnny Liddell did this" or "Johnny Liddell did
that." He should have cut some of them out. He also has a propensity to
call a female character "the blonde" long after she has been introduced.
I chalk this down to a 50's era obsession with blondes. It tends not to
travel so well to 2006. But then, a lot of things probably don't travel
well to 2006.
There're also a lot of descriptions of smoking, or rather
with the act of sticking a cigarette in one's mouth. Kane uses small
variations on the sentence "Johnny Liddell picked up a smoke, stuck it
in the corner of his mouth, lit it" throughout the book — almost like a
mantra. It's not that the descriptions of smoking are bad in themselves
— only that the prose is unvaried describing them. There are also
too many similar descriptions of booze being poured into a glass. It's not
that I dislike these decriptions; I just think that some of them could have
been edited out or changed up a bit.
Kane's action sequences are smooth and fast — that's one advantage of
writing third-person, it helps in situations like that. In fact, "smooth
and fast" seems to be the preferred descriptor on the back covers of this
type of novel in the early 1950s. If a novel was good it was "smooth and
fast." I leave it to the reader to make any anthropological inferences
they may wish as far as that goes.
Kane can come up with a nice description or two when he feels like it.
"He swirled the liquor around in his glass and and watched the reflections
of the lights in the place blink in its depths." Too bad there aren't more
sentences like that in the novel.
Johnny Liddell (in this novel at least) seems to have a propensity for
getting his gun taken away from him by various people. If my own
private-eye got his gun taken away from him as much as Johnny, I'd
seriously have to consider finding a new profession for the guy. Kane's
descriptions of fight sequences were perhaps substitutes in this one. In
fact if this book is any indicator Kane seems to like brawling over gun-
play. Which doesn't mean there aren't a few shoot-outs in the novel, of
Post-Chandler detective fiction is tough. As a writer, you almost
naturally want to embrace and continue the tradition and style from
the past. On the other hand, you have to be careful to avoid falling
into pure stereotype or cliche, and ultimately you have to create a
style that is your own over somebody else's. It's a razor's edge and
it isn't easy and there aren't any hard and fast rules about it. Kane
in my opinion does a pretty good job. In fact I think the things that
are weakest about Poisons Unknown are more the questionable
influxes from 50s culture than literary influences from the past.
P.M.P.I. RATING (OUT OF 5)