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no badge, no gun

14 october 2018

No Badge, No Gun is private detective Carl Wilcox's self-description, and most of the time he gets no pay and no perks, either. But he dislikes leaving loose ends before he hops into his Model T and finds another South Dakota village with murder on its plate.

I haven't been reading Harold Adams' Depression-era private-eye novels in any particular order (only three of the dozen-or-fifteen are in my public library). Consequently I can't comment on any long arc in Carl Wilcox's story. But No Badge, No Gun does show us Carl in love, or at least Carl so crazy about a woman's sexual charms that he takes her home to meet Ma and Elihu, his crusty father. Hazel Warford is all the more piquant because her estranged husband Derek has a habit of killing her boyfriends.

Derek also becomes the #1 suspect in the most recent murder case Carl is brought in on. It's not a cold case exactly, but it's rapidly cooling: the daughter of the physician in Jonesville, SD was strangled in the basement of her uncle's church, and the local authorities have no suspects. As always, the Jonesville cops would prefer that the killer be an out-of-towner, and Derek fits the bill (as does Carl, of course; and Hazel, for that matter). But so does the bible student that the victim had been keen on.

As in the other Adams mysteries I've read, there are quickly too many suspects. Carl proceeds via his usual method: question people with some connection, and pursue anything that looks like a lead across a series of concatenated interviews. Not a lot of deduction occurs, but in the process of talking to this person and that, Carl puts together a complicated picture of a town and its murderous energies: a novelistic approach, you might say.

As in other Wilcox books, too, there is little overt historical or local color – in No Badge, No Gun we do at one point learn about somebody's favorite radio programs, and we observe 1930s occupations like hotel-keeping and door-to-door encyclopedia sales. But Adams treats his settings as just that, and I sense that he writes confidently about a setting he knows inside and out, and thus displays almost no research results in his fiction. (I write of Adams in the present tense, as one should of any author, but he is unfortunately now past, having died in 2014 at the age of 90 or 91.)

I have now run out of Carl Wilcox novels to read, but I recommend them to anyone wanting a satisfying, character-oriented mystery series, adult in language and content but without a lot of noirish depths or brutal violence.

Adams, Harold. No Badge, No Gun. New York: Walker, 1998. PS 3551 .D367N63