Joseph Koenig was nominated for an Edgar Award for “Best First Novel” for FLOATER in 1986. He then wrote three novels in quick succession with his last, BRIDES OF BLOOD, mentioned as a New York Times Notable Book of 1993. And that was it. Until now.
Besides being his first published work in two decades, FALSE NEGATIVE is a terrific piece of pulp fiction regardless of when it was published. It has a timeless feel. One can’t help but wonder about the drought for such an obviously talented author --- and hope there's a 20-year supply of manuscripts sitting somewhere in Koenig’s office.
"FALSE NEGATIVE is a triumphant comeback for Joseph Koenig and another example of why Hard Case Crime is such an invaluable publishing house for mystery fans. Let us look forward to his next book, though hopefully we will not have to wait so long."
FALSE NEGATIVE will appeal to mystery lovers, to fans of the pulps, and to those who, like me, enjoy “Boardwalk Empire.” It is set in Atlantic City about 30 years after the time period depicted in the HBO series, which was really the glory days of the place once called “America’s Playground.” It is 1953. Booze is legal, but the city by the sea and its Beaux Arts facade are beginning to fade and start the long decline that will leave the city in virtual ruin within a few decades.
Andrew Jordan is a 26-year-old reporter for the local paper and has been working there for four years. He is now desperate to get out, as he feels he is “squandering his talent in a city where the major celebrities were beauty queens and a high diving horse.” He arrived naively, like most of those beauty queens, expecting to be part of the city’s earlier glory days. Koenig writes of the reporter’s decision to come to Atlantic City:
“It was a set up from the Grand Concourse, an opportunity to make his name trailing after movie stars, and big band singers, and the gangsters who ran the clubs where they entertained. But he almost never saw a hoodlum outside court. Whores, bookmaking and loan sharking brought in too much profit for the mob bosses to jeopardize by calling attention to themselves. The luxury suites above the hotel nightclubs were a no-man’s land for reporters. Frequent rumors of fights, drunken orgies, drug use, and midnight visits by abortionists were impossible to confirm. Publicists threatened libel. Jordan’s editors told him to dig for dirt somewhere else. If Atlantic City couldn’t keep its secrets, the stars would stay away, leaving it a swell place to buy salt water taffy, and build sand castles on the beach.”
And it is on that beach where Jordan finds the story that perhaps will spring him to the big leagues of newspapers. Listening to the police scanner one day, he manages to beat the cops to the place where a young woman has been found strangled on the beach. She turns out to be a beauty pageant contestant. At that very same moment, Jordan apparently commits career suicide. He gets himself fired from his newspaper when he covers another boring event featuring a local politician by writing the article “from clips” of a past speech and then passing it off as if he was actually there. Of course, the politician chooses that event as the place where he drops dead.
But his dead beauty queen story has attracted the interest of an editor at a pulp detective magazine in New York City. Koenig describes the pulps of 1953: “At a candy store on his corner the pulps were racked with the slick girlie magazines away from Life, Look and Saturday Evening Post. A dozen or so detective titles all seemed the same. On the cover of each one was a tough guy and/or babe with a gun, or a doe-eyed innocent in the clutches of a fiend. Easy to snicker at, but he’d never look down his nose at five cents a word…”
But by the 1950s, the pulps were also dying. An editor tells Jordan about their readers: “‘They’re dying off, and we can’t replace them because their children would rather watch TV than read.’” And television would kill off the pulps within a decade. The lack of reading among kids remains a problem six decades later.
Soon another body of a woman turns up on the beach, and Jordan is on that story as well. He has entered the world of noir; from the marijuana-filled jazz clubs where greats like Louie Armstrong play to the seedy photo studios, Jordan is on a journey through “the cool darkness under the boardwalk.” And he discovers the deadly truth that “Atlantic City made its name on girls playing to the fantasies of old men, the sweet public face of blood sport.”
FALSE NEGATIVE is a great pulp story that illustrates what is significant about noir writing. Yes, this is a story that will keep you turning the pages and entertained. But noir deals ultimately with the American Dream and the dark and sometimes deadly side of that dream for the dreamers, be they beauty pageant contestants or wannabe movie stars flocking to Hollywood or writers wishing they could pen the Great American Novel. In noir, there is always a price ultimately to be paid.
This is a triumphant comeback for Joseph Koenig and another example of why Hard Case Crime is such an invaluable publishing house for mystery fans. Let us look forward to his next book, though hopefully we will not have to wait so long.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on June 22, 2012