House Dick – E. Howard Hunt

4 out of 5

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Your noir / pulp protagonists – cops, P.I.s, thieves – are quite often getting in matters over their heads, caught up in continually escalating plots that make for “what will they do next?” cliffhangers and page-turning setups. Then you have dudes like Pete Novak, hotel detective – or a house dick, if you like – who just do their jobs, and do them well, but stay at their station. Leave the money-grubbing to more scheming types; leave the manhunts to the police. That’s probably not enough for most writers to chop up into a story, but in the hands of E. Howard Hunt, Novak’s investigation for Hotel Tilden of some missing jewelry is full of page-turning gusto, slipping in all of the femme-fatale, back-alley brawlin’ tropes of the genre but fully within the set framework of Pete’s job. It’s a brief but thrilling novel, and keeps everything on the level: Pete looks in to some stolen jewels for a Mrs. Boyd, only to be told they’re not missing by Mr. Chalmers Boyd, and then Mr. Chalmers winds up dead in the room of the dashing and mysterious Paula Norton… Novak could play this cute and figure out how to get the girl and the money, but instead he does that rare thing and plays it smart: yeah, he gets mixed up with the dame and maybe gets his hands bloody, but he’s frank with his intentions and never misleads that his safety and security in his job is, essentially, his primary concern. House Dick’s events escalate outwards to involve the investigation of Officer Morley, and mob figures from out of state, but we keep coming back to the hotel, as Novak does, night after night. Instead of limiting the character, it makes him more human: in him we can see our own day-to-day, content in the rules we’ve lain for ourselves, accepting that others’ rules might be temporarily appealing, but aren’t, all-in-all, a good fit. Yeah, it helps that Novak’s apparently a good lookin’ feller who can throw a punch, but House Dick’s average joe sensibilities gives its comparatively low stakes setup a weighty feel; Hunt doesn’t have to rely on spectacle to keep things churning effectively for its 200 pages. While the book occasionally feels like it’s leaning a bit too heavily on slang and trope to shorthand its tone, after putting things in place, Hunt can drop that act somewhat and just let the good reading times roll.