I reviewed Poisons Unknown by Frank Kane earlier in the blog. You
can find some links about Kane and his life and work by going to that
review. In this one I'll be reviewing Bare Trap (1952), the sixth
in the line of Kane's detective novels featuring P.I. Johnny Liddell.
Bare Trap actually just precedes Poisons Unknown in chronology.
I read them backwards and am kind of reviewing them backwards.
Here's the set-up. Private-eye Johnny Liddell is sweet-talked by his
friend and fellow P.I. Muggsy Kiely into coming to Los Angeles and
taking on a case. The case involves the disappearance of Wally Reilly.
Reilly is the son of a once-famous and now-deceased actor. He stands to
inherit a lot of money on his twenty-first birthday with the provision
that he doesn't get into any trouble first, so of course he does by
getting into trouble with local mobster Yale Stanley over some gambling
debts. Johnny doesn't quite trust Stanley, but he knows that what the
mobster really wants is just to get his money. Johnny meets with him and
tries to work it out. Paying the money to Stanley would get the kid in
the clear and his inheritance would then be safe. The real problem being
that no one knows where Wally Reilly is at. Until he turns up dead. From
there on Johnny runs through a good number of people who might have
wanted Reilly out of the way, the eventual focus being on an extortion
scheme that has quite a good number of famous people in L.A. being
blackmailed and paying out to the crooks.
Kane seems to like fisticuffs, and there are numerous fight sequences in
the novel, at least one of which is completely gratuitous. Johnny gets
involved in one shoot-out, and just manages to squeak by that one with
In Bare Trap there is a scene in which Johnny goes to see
Syndicate boss Yale Stanley. "Yale Stanley sat on a corner of a desk
that looked as if it had cost a lot of money, his feet swinging lightly
against the side. He didn't look up from the absorbing task of cleaning
his nails with a small pocket knife." In Poisons Unknown, Johnny
goes to see a gangster by the name of Mary Kirk, who when Johnny first
runs into him is sitting "on the corner of a desk that looked as if it
had cost important money, his feet swinging lightly against the side. He
didn't look up from the engrossing task of pairing his fingernails."
Whoa! Oh well, if Johann Sebastian Bach can recycle entire scores, I
guess Frank Kane can recycle whole paragraphs, right? Kind of a modular
method of writing fiction, like post-war 50s architecture. Nice generic
paragraphs that one can throw in from novel to novel. Or maybe like a
jazz piece that we all know was used before by somebody else. I find the
whole thing humorous, but I have to take it kind of seriously, too. I
didn't know Frank Kane personally, but the 50s certainly were a period
of experimentation in fiction, and it kind of makes you wonder how the
influence of cultural elements such as architecture and jazz might have
entered into the pulp styles of the time. Providing that was Kane's
intent, of course; and I'm not sure if it was. Maybe he just figured
that nobody would notice anyway, so what the hell.
In any case, the paragraph(s) above aren't the only recycled bits in
common between Bare Trap and Poisons Unknown. I will be
reading Red Hot Ice next, so it will be interesting to see if any
of that has been recycled too and in exactly what ways.
There is one line from the book that I consider pretty smooth. Referring
to a woman's lipstick, his friend Muggsy says "She must put that stuff on
with a trowel." A pretty good line.
As I mentioned in my previous review of Poisons Unknown, Johnny
Liddell seems to have a serious problem with his getting his gun taken
away from him. In Bare Trap, Johnny gets worked over by a couple
of toughs in his hotel room at the beginning of the novel and gets
his .45 taken. He arranges through a contact to get another gun, which
is delivered to the hat-check desk at a local hotel. Johnny picks up the
package with the gun in it at the hotel and takes the box in to a
restroom and gets the .45 out. "He ripped open the box. Inside, nestled
in cotton batting, he found a gleaming, well-oiled .45. He took it out,
examined it. It was fully loaded, the serial numbers filed off. He
hefted it in the palm of his hand, approved, slipped it into his empty
Now the entire time I was reading that passage I was thinking to myself
that's going to last about twenty-four hours. Then he'll lose that
gun, too.. In fact, Johnny doesn't even keep it twelve hours. But soon
afterward he gets his own .45 back, the one the two goons had taken from
him, so everything's okay again. But never fear, he loses that gun again
too, eventually. Maybe Johnny Liddell could bulk order his guns from Spain
by the dozen. At least that way he wouldn't be out as much money when he
Now I suppose that even the best P.I. might have their gun taken from
them every once in a while. But my view of it is that a private-eye
wouldn't be that much different than a regular cop in that the last
thing you want to happen is to have your gun taken from you.
Evidently, Kane's brother was a NYPD cop and gave him technical advice.
You think his brother would have filled Kane in on that particular
point. And, in the interest of thoroughness, I should mention that
Liddell doesn't carry a back. Hell, what he really needs to do is carry
about five back-ups, given his luck. I would also have to say that
Liddell losing his gun in this novel does to some degree function as a
mechanism in the plot. The problem being that much the same thing
happens to him in Poisons Unknown.
As in Poisons Unknown there are plenty of short descriptions of
cigarettes being stuck in the mouth and lit with a match and of booze
being poured into a glass. There is generally a formula to smoking that
Kane employs on a regular basis in about two variations, repeated over
and over. And it doesn't only apply to cigarettes. Here are a few
excerpts form the novel:
Lighting a cigarette: "She selected a cigarette from the pack he held
out to her, took a light, drew in a lungful of smoke."
He's one for a cigar: "He scratched a match, applied it to the end of
the cigar, drew in a mouthful of smoke."
And here's one for a pipe: "Levin stuck the brier between his teeth,
applied a match to it, drew in a mouthful of smoke."
Writing in the 1950s, Kane didn't have his characters running around
smoking marijuana or opium. But by employing the formula and
extrapolating it a bit to the 1970s, I suppose we could come up with
something like this: "She put the joint between her lips, lit it with
the BIC, inhaled deeply and held it."
Now if you're going to have people smoking a lot in your novel you have
to describe it, and if you have a lot of people smoking quite a bit then
you are bound to run into some repetition. So I'm not going to give Kane
too much shit about it. I find it humorous, actually. In my short-story
"The Salesman," I paid a kind of mini-tribute to Kane by using his
lighting formula in one scene. Thanks, Frank.
There's another element that Kane throws in every once in a while
that I kind of like and find humorous. Johnny seems to have a tendency
to burn his tongue on the coffee he drinks. Not just sometimes, but
pretty much every damn time he picks up a cup of java. Hey, you think a
smart guy like Johnny would learn to maybe blow on it a bit or wait till
it cools off? No way.
Johnny Liddell has a gesture where he reaches up and pinches his nose
between thumb and forefinger. Unless Johnny has a cocaine habit that
Kane isn't telling us about, I figure it's just a 50s thing. I think
I've seen people like Frank Sinatra or Joey Bishop doing the same thing.
You don't see many people these days using that gesture, for some
Kane throws a female P.I. into this book, Muggsy Kiely, just like he did
in Poisons Unknown with female P.I. Gabby Benton. I find this
interesting. Is Kane suggesting that there should be more female P.I.s?
Or maybe more novels about female P.I.s? In both instances where Johnny
deals with these female private-eyes Johnny was brought in on the excuse
that the client didn't want to use "local talent" (i.e., a peeper who
was known in that particular town). Nevertheless, Liddell becomes the
lead investigator as soon as he moves in, kind of shoving the female to
the side. It's his case, I guess, so in a way it makes sense. But it
kind of makes you wonder what Kane had in mind by creating a fictional
female P.I., only to push her to a background role. Kane seems to be
breaking traditional 1950s gender roles and reinforcing them at the same
time. I was going to say something like "you can't have it both ways."
But in actual fact, I guess Kane did.
Kane's titles for these books have only the most tenuous connection with
the contents, or even no connection. There is one woman in the novel,
Terry Devine, who is the "trap" that the title suggests, and since the
plot involves sexual blackmail I suppose that she would have to be
"bare" at some point also. The title is a kind of pun, of course. As for
Poisons Unknown there are no actual poisons employed in the
novel, not even metaphorically. Kane's titles are meant to be eye-
catching, not really anything more. They're just advertising.
Speaking of which, and not that this has anything to do with Kane's
writing itself, but the cover of Bare Trap shows a brunette woman
sitting in a chair, with Johnny Liddell facing her and looking very
serious. The artist has the woman showing quite a bit of herself,
although it is impossible to tell wether she is actually naked or just
has some sort of skimpy bathing suit on — the suggestion is more the
former, of course. But the interesting thing is the background. Instead
of the background being the rest of the interior of the room, it shows
instead a high mountain range with pine trees and snow-capped peaks.
Now, I've been to the San Bernadino mountain range. But considering
that most of the novel takes place in L.A. proper, you have to wonder
about the mountain element. At the end of the book Liddell takes a trip
out to the valley, but there's no way the cover art is showing the
valley, pine trees or not. The cover is obviously some NYC production
artist's concept of — something or other. You have to really wonder
what was going through his head to put lofty, snow-capped peaks on the
cover. Unless he was thinking about actual bear traps. Bears live in the
mountains. Paint in some mountains. Who knows.
I am going to keep reading Kane. Unless I run into a novel that is
distinctly better than these two, or stylistically different, I will let
these reviews stand for the rest of the series. But I like reading Kane.
I found myself after a while liking his repetitions. They are like old
friends come to visit again. Kane isn't Spillane, not even close. But if
you like 1950s private-eye fiction, Kane is like the mint you stick in
your mouth between a more serious smoke.
P.M.P.I. RATING (OUT OF 5)