By Leslie McFarlane
Reviewed by Jeff Salter
Though Leslie McFarlane published uncountable adult [meaning “NOT juvenile”] stories in magazines and papers – including several novel-length pieces that were serialized – this is the only adult title I could find that was later released as a complete monograph. Originally appearing by installments in Munsey’s Magazine during 1929, this was later published in early 1930 by Dutton. It was certainly the most successful of McFarlane’s adult novels, going through three printings.
My copy was republished in 2018 by Fiction House Press and features the original artwork which accompanied the magazine installments in 1929. I wish more of McFarlane’s adult novels survived in monographic form.
For those of you who do NOT know, McFarlane was the first – and most critics agree – the best of the ghost writers [collectively, Franklin W. Dixon] for the venerable Hardy Boys series. Working from outlines supplied by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, McFarlane wrote 20 of the first 26 HB titles — thereby bringing to life the characters, settings, and tone of most of the titles that followed in that franchise’s lengthy publishing history. [NOTE: all of the first 36 HB titles – including McFarlane’s 20 – were drastically revised and shortened beginning in 1959. So if you’ve only read a “newer” version of these old titles, you haven’t truly experienced the full flavor of McFarlane’s writing artistry.
And the “full flavor” is what we see in The Streets of Shadow — McFarlane’s novel for adults. What sets apart this adult fiction title is that McFarlane worked from his OWN plot outline, with his OWN characters and settings.
It’s a marvelous detective tale, set in Montreal [Canada] some hundred years ago. The characters – whether civilized or sinister – are fully drawn and the settings are vividly depicted. After the plot shifts into high gear, the suspense becomes intense.
Central to this story are two murders, for which an ex-con [Hinkey Lewis] is framed. Attorney Michael Brent agrees to defend him, but Lewis was caught at the scene of one crime after interacting with the victim and a cop a few minutes prior to that murder. Case closed. And he’s linked to the other murder elsewhere.
What can Attorney Brent do with such a hopeless defense? Well, he has to find the real killer or killers, of course. For that, he must prowl around the seedy criminal underbelly of Montreal society with danger on every dark, shadowy corner. During this investigation, Brent happens upon a beautiful maiden [Norah], just arrived from England after her mother’s death. It’s too complicated to explain here, but Norah traveled here believing her step-father [Midge Tapley] was in good stead. Imagine her horror to discover Midge not only lives in a trashy flop house, but he’s a flunky for a small time crime boss [Raoul Laboeuf].
Once Brent encounters Norah, he can’t get her out of his mind… and as things develop, he suspects she’s in dangerous proximity to Laboeuf and his nefarious activity… possibly including those two recent murders.
Should Brent descend into this seamy Montreal ghetto alone and unarmed? No!
Does he go anyway? Yes.
All in service to his innocent client [Hinkey] and in search of the lovely maiden [Norah].
To relate much more would spoil a dandy detective tale that rivals the travails of Sam Spade, the Saint, the Falcon, Mike Hammer, and other Private Eyes of that literary generation. Suffice it to say that Brent gets himself into inescapable danger. How he copes and if he survives leaves the reader guessing… and I’m usually pretty good at figuring out the whodunnit and howdunnit.
I especially liked two of the supporting characters: Minton (Brent’s dutiful and insightful clerk, advisor, and confidant) and Dryborough (owner of a second-hand book shop and Brent’s regular drinking buddy). It’s through interactions with these two that we learn a lot about Brent and his new murder case… details that would otherwise likely unfold in dreary exposition.
1. There’s a lot of slang – 1920s Montreal criminal culture – that takes some getting use to. For example: a watch that’s stolen and hocked is called a “turnip.”
2. In the beginning several chapters I found Attorney Brent to be rather UN-likeable. He was far too cocky and lazy … and he knowingly took advantage of his long-suffering clerk, Minton. But by the middle of the book, I was rooting for him anyhow.
Highly recommended if you enjoy good hard-boiled detective adventures. Additionally recommended — just so you can experience the writing craft of McFarlane when he’s working with his own characters, settings, and plots… and aiming for an adult audience. It’s terrific.
[jLS # 602]