David Duncan has this absolutely amazing novel called The Shade of Time. I’ll admit, it falls down a bit in the end, but it’s tightly written and there’s this incredibly audacious locked room murder that left me a fan for life. I had to find more by him, and I followed it up with The Madrone Tree; somewhat of an impossible crime in reverse that cements my perception that Duncan was a talented mystery writer. This leads me to Sweet and Deadly, a novel originally published under the much more appropriate name The Bramble Bush, as well as the suitable title Worse than Murder.
I don’t know that I’d quite call it a mystery. This is the type of semi-noir pulp where the main character gets knocked unconscious four times, poisoned, pushed down a cliff – all in a 24 hour period (I shudder to imagine the long term health consequences) – but man, it’s an incredible story, and the last fifty pages are every bit as breathless of a finale as any denouement that I can imagine.
The story opens in a remote Mexican village somewhere near Acapulco. Our main character – we’ll know him by several names by the time the book is through – has committed some unknown crime that prevents him from re-entering the United States. He’s teamed up with a crew of vagabonds and fugitives, and has been restoring a boat with the idea of sailing to Valparaiso, Chile and getting involved in some scheme involving a copper mine.
I hardly know why I mention all of that, because the trip to Valparaiso never materializes and really has nothing to do with the book, but it’s an example of the world building that David Duncan can accomplish in a few small chapters. There’s so much more there than what’s written directly on the page, and a small part of me wished that I could have read an entire book about that doomed mission.
Instead, the story takes a turn – and this is one of those cases where I debate describing what the plot is actually about, as half the fun is having it unfold / blow up before your eyes (but hell, I’ll give you a taste) – and our protagonist ends up stealing someone’s passport, impersonating them in order to cross the border into the US, and stumbling into a nightmare. It’s a cautionary tale: before you steal someone’s identity, you might want to know the details of the identity you’re getting into.
“The Bramble Bush” is a much more suitable title than “Sweet and Deadly”, as our lead finds himself ensnared in a situation teeming with thorns on all sides. This isn’t really a mystery – you know well who is behind various deeds – but there’s the puzzle of why everything is happening. In the end you might also learn that you made some false assumptions at times.
All throughout Sweet and Deadly is an engrossing read, but it’s really the finale that stands out. As the book closes, Duncan has stacked up impossible odds against both our hero and villain, and the balance constantly shifts – no, tumbles – towards an uncertain conclusion. It’s as gripping of a finale as I’ve read in a while, and although it may not close with the type of shocking revelation that you want from a mystery, it still delivered the same sense of satisfaction.
Count this down as a successful non-mystery read, maybe in the vein of something by Cornell Woolrich. I believe that there’s one more potential mystery by David Duncan titled Remember the Shadows, although it’s been difficult to track down so far. I’m curious if anyone has read it.
I ended up with a Mercury Mystery edition of the book, which I believe is the only version with the title Sweet and Deadly. It’s abridged, and I’m guessing that maybe a sex scene was trimmed, as the back cover states that a woman attempted to “make love” with the hero. No such thing happened in the story, although there was a scene that had the potential to lead to that.
These Mercury Mystery publications feature a double column print layout, so each page is basically like reading two. It’s a bit weird in terms of understanding how far you are into the story (this runs 127 pages and would probably be 200 in conventional format) but you get used to it.
I really wish I could have picked up a copy of the Worse than Murder printing from Pocket Books, as it’s the only edition that has one of those vintage painted covers in the style that I love so much.