Wade Miller,
The Killer and
Devil on Two Sticks
(Stark House, 2008)

While serving in the Pacific during World War II, Bill Miller wrote a 40,000-word mystery and sent it back home to his college friend, Bob Wade, who added 20,000 words to it by adding a couple of subplots. The resulting book wound up at Farrar Straus, then just getting started as a publishing house, and Miller returned from the war a published author, as well as one half of the most prolific and skilled mystery writing team the United States had yet produced. They chose the name Wade Miller as a pseudonym. Before the team was broken up by Bill Miller's death in 1961, they had published 21 novels under that name, one under the name Will Daemer, a few by Dale Wilmer and another half a dozen using the byline Whit Masterson.

Most of their books were hard-boiled noir stories featuring anti-heroes; their lead characters were often gangsters and professional killers, always people whose lives were about to be seriously disrupted by the situations the team invented for them. When television killed off the paperback original suspense thriller the way paperbacks had killed off the pulp magazines, the Wade Miller novels drifted out of print, if not out of memory.

Now Stark House, under their Noir Classics imprint, is returning them to print. Fans of suspense novels, as well as fans of good writing, should shout with joy. This volume contains two complete Wade Miller books, along with an introduction by the surviving half of the team and a well-researched article about the pair by David Laurence Wilson.

In The Killer, originally published in 1951, is about Jake Farrow, an American living in Africa and making his living as a guide and big-game hunter. Farrow is brought back to the States and hired by one of his clients, Walter Stennis, to track down and kill the biggest game of all -- the bank robber who killed his son during a robbery. The one condition: Farrow has absolute freedom to hunt Clel Bocock, the robber, but he must not kill him until Stennis is present. Farrow accepts the job for a number of reasons; he needs the money, a desire to help out his old friend Stennis, and one other reason, perhaps the true one, which he gradually comes to admit: the thrill of hunting down the biggest game of all.

As Farrow tracks the elusive Bocock, his hunt is complicated by the fact that he is not the only man looking for him. In addition to the police, another group of criminals wants to find him in order to get their hands on the $100,000 worth of negotiable bonds Bocock stole. A beautiful woman who turns out to be Bocock's wife is also involved in the search, and Farrow finds himself torn because he is developing feelings for the wife of the man he's been hired to kill.

All of this plays out in unexpected but satisfying ways. Whenever you think you have a Wade Miller book figured out, the team comes up with a neat plot or character twist and takes off in a different direction. Suffice it to say that many people are not who they present themselves as, and some of them are not even aware that they aren't. The Killer, then, is a terrific book that gives a lot of reading pleasure.

The other title in this volume, Devil on Two Sticks from 1951, is just as complicated and just as much fun. Steve Beck is the right-hand man to Pat Garland ,who runs the rackets in San Diego. Garland's position is precarious; other gangsters would like to bring him down and replace him, but as long as he has the books that will incriminate everyone, no one dares make a move on him.

He isn't as safe as he believes, though, because the California Justice Department has infiltrated his operation and is getting ready to bring him down. One of six trusted lieutenants is a spy and it's up to Beck to find out which one. Again, just as in The Killer, Beck's search is complicated by a woman he is falling in love with but, once more, the story does not play out the way you expect. Miller has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

In Devil on Two Sticks, the plot satisfies but the real genius of the story is in the characters. Garland, the crime boss, likes to give dinner parties out by his pool where he discusses existential philosophy, and Beck, the tough-as-nails enforcer, does not carry a gun, relying instead on his persuasive skills and reasonableness to keep the men in line. All of the characters are well drawn and, in the true existential fashion that their boss is always carrying on about, for these people, character is fate; each person's destiny is a result of the choices he or she has made.

If you have read Wade Miller before, you'll be glad these titles are available once more. If you haven't, well, here's a good place to begin. And once you begin, you'll want to continue.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

28 March 2009

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