William Ard tragically died of cancer at a young age, but before he did, he shared his talents with the world. As one of the more popular writers of pulp fiction during the 50’s, he penned more than thirty novels in ten years. Among the prolific author’s most endearing characters is Timothy Dane, a New York detective with a moral code in line with the template set by Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective Phillip Marlowe. Though Ard’s work had entertaining narratives with stylistic characters, it is meant to do more than simply amuse: it is meant to engage with and challenge social issues. There are few novels more demonstrative of this than The Diary, which seems to be a narrative manifestation of libertarian ideals that dispels the fear mongering associated with the prohibition of marijuana, whilst challenging notions of big government and corruption in the police force and making room for some interesting conversation related to gender equality, class, perceived race or ethnicity and concepts of the ‘real’. The novel manages to successfully navigate such social issues whilst simultaneously providing an entertaining narrative.
Whilst most detective novels from the era are utterly devoid of ethnic diversity outside the occasional servant or musician, Ard’s The Diary incorporates it as a central theme and aligns it with conversations of class differences. When Ard’s protagonist, Timothy Dane, seeks out the novel’s presumed antagonist at the onset of the sotry, he enters a bar in Spanish Harlem and asks the bar tender in a room filled with Hispanic people, “Which one of these monkeys is Ricci Navarro?” (22) One might be inclined to believe that Dane is using the term ‘monkey’ as a pejorative slight, akin to its use as a racial slur in regard to people of colour. This is certainly the interpretation that Diane Rebow has when she dismisses Dane’s evaluation or Navarro as snobbish (32), which reads like a euphemism for ‘racist’. Diane sees herself as progressive and suggests that she is no better than Navarro and his friends, but for Dane, it is Navarro’s criminal behaviour that he doesn’t ‘approve’ of, as he tells Diane that if she truly thinks she is “no better than the likes of Ricci Navarro… [she’s] going to have to lay down in the gutter to prove it” (32). This demonstrates that despite the fact that Diane feels she is being progressive, she is actually the one framing Navarro in terms of race because she doesn’t imagine that Dane can see him as anything other than ‘Hispanic’. Dane advises Diane stay with her own ‘pack’, but he does not mean that she ought to stay in the same perceived race or ethnicity, but rather her ‘class’, where her naïveté is not going to be taken advantage of, as it was by Navarro, who stole her diary, and a couple of hoods who drugged her and stripped her down to take nude photos of her. While it is troubling that from both a class and ‘race’ perspective that the antagonists are either working class or Hispanic, in the broader context of the narrative it becomes clear that neither class nor perceived race is an indicator of morality as several of the aristocratic Caucasians prove to be amoral, whilst the hero is a working-class protagonist.
Diane’s construction of the ‘other’s allows Ard to weave in a narrative about the real and how it interacts with the constructed world. When Diane talks about Navarro, for instance, she say that he and his friends are Fascinating characters” (32). It is important to note that Diane uses the word ‘characters’ and not ‘people’. For Diane, they fit into imagined constructs that she incorporates into her diary, not as people, but as an imitation of “those pulp stories” (12). They literally are characters for her. This is reinforced by fact that Dane sees Diane’s affections from him as a romanticized construct, stating that “she’s in love with an idea” (107). Diane mistakenly adopts the belief that Dane killed Navarro for her, though he had nothing to do with the homicide, and finds the notion romantic. But when she comes to believe than her childhood friend Todd Hunter committed the murder, she realizes, as Dane says, that “Killing isn’t very glamorous… when it involves someone you’ve known all your life instead of a drifting stranger” like Dane (155). This romanticization of murder fits in with Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the ‘real’ against the ‘fake’, as the lives of the people in Diane’s peripheral become commodities that facilitate her indulgence in romantic stories, becoming nothing more than objects in a value system. Dane challenges this, stating that Diane needs to reject “the idea that human life is like money that can be spent on” her (89). Lives become a commodity later in the novel when Steel, a business man trying to facilitate his political agenda, trades in Dane’s life for his political advantage. The novel challenges the manner in which human life is treated as a commodity, and undermines these constructed value systems. This approach is validated by the fact that Austin Rebow rejects the nomination for governor because of the manner in which his colleagues have tried to secure his nomination.
These social constructs are undermined further when Dane challenges the prohibition of marijuana. When Diane tries to dramatize the contents of her diary, she warns Dane that there are things in there that would make him realize that she had adult problems that would change the way he viewed her naiveté. To prove her point she confesses that she is an ‘addict’, which she follows up with a declaration: “I smoke marijuana” (36). Dane nearly breaks into laughter, informing Diane that she is no addict and that though smoking the reefer is “a dirty little way to get drunk… it’s certainly no addiction” (36). This places smoking pot along the same lines as drinking alcohol, drawing a parallel between the two forms of prohibition, much as politicians like Justin Trudeau have done. Given the fact that America places over 20 000 people in prison on marijuana based offenses annually, and has people like Jeff Mizanskeys serving life sentences on marijuana related offences, it is clear that the prohibition of marijuana has done nothing more than add an economic burden on law enforcement and the justice and penal systems, whilst simultaneously depriving the governments of taxable revenue. By aligning pot with alcohol, arguing that it’s not addictive, and linking the fear mongering of marijuana with the naiveté of a character like Diane, Ard dispels the myth of Reefer Madness and promotes a more reasoned approach to marijuana.
The ineffective prohibition of marijuana is a symptom of a government that is too big, and whilst Ard’s novel certainly doesn’t fall under a ‘conservative’ umbrella, it does seem to take issue with big government. Ard writes that the shadows of New York “are crawling with vermin… and as sure as cancer they’ll destroy [the city] with their unspeakable lust” (60). The vermin, though, is not the traditional criminal element, but rather the political system as it is stated that “New York’s most dangerous enemy is already on the fringe of the shadows” in the form of Senator Tami Auriello (60). Auriello represents the government who has made marijuana illegal, but by the end of the novel it is revealed that he is selling massive amounts of marijuana from a bar he owns. This mirrors the corruption linked with the prohibition of alcohol as the government and police were turning a profit in the illegal sale of alcohol, as noted in the novel (150). This demonstrates the hypocritical nature of the government, and also how they profit by driving up the cost of certain vices through moral policing. This lack of sincerity is reinforced when the nominations from the governorship are being discussed as Austin Rebow’s support states that the three men vying for the nomination “will do everything [they] can to prevent the others getting the nomination, or winning the election if nominated” (61). Though they all represent the same party, they’d rather see the representative from the other party win the election than the person within their own party who beat them out for the nomination. Though Austin seems sincere, his campaign is soon corrupted. Dane notes early that “Politics isn’t [his] candy” because too “many things seem to go wrong between the theory and the practice” (65), and this is certainly the case with Austin Rebow as several men end up dead whilst he tries to secure his nomination. The big government, then, is portrayed as a self-interest entity that acts as a cancer, and rather than providing for the people, it acts as a retarding weight on their progress.
The police are an extension of this self-interest in Ard’s novel. Auriello has members of the police force working for him specifically, and Dane is threatened with arrest unless he agrees to hand over the diary, which he doesn’t have. The irony is that the man threatening to arrest Dane for the murder of Navarro is Navarro’s murderer. This demonstrates the over conflict of interest and abuse of power than can happen. During the exchange, Dane notes that he cannot object, despite the fact that the police office is acting unlawfully, because his “badge g[a]ve him every excuse he heeded to kill” Dane (72). This conflict of interest is present on both sides of the political spectrum as an officer named Flagg, who had been working with Dane, hands Dane over to Auriello toward the end of the narrative, despite the fact that he knows Auriello is planning on killing Dane. He does this because the District Attorney, who wants Austin Rebow to get the nomination, has made an agreement with Auriello. Flagg knows that Auriello plans on murdering Dane, but facilitates the crime. After a straight cop rescues Dane, Flagg recounts a story about how he used to take a cut of the liquor sold during prohibition, aligning him with the police working with Auriello who take a cut from marijuana sales, and when he speak to retirement, Dane responds that retirement is the “million-dollar word for every lousy cop” and asks “What happened to [New York] twenty year ago? Did a thousand thieves join the police department?” (150) Ard does offer a presentation of honest police, but he notes the potential pitfalls of placing too much authority in the hands of one person, and observes how that authority can be abused, which is a significant problem given all the recent cases of police brutality in America.
Ard’s novel is not all doom and gloom, as he also has some positive and progressive portrayals of women. Though Diane is depicted as a naïve child, this is not the exclusive presentation of women in the novel. Eileen, who is employed by a crooked magnate named Steele, is the personification of morality and courage, and refuses to allow herself to be objectified. Early in the novel, Dane calls her ‘Red’, because of the colour of her hair. She refuses to be defined by her appearance instructs Dane not to call her by that name. When he calls her ‘Red’ again, despite her wishes, she reasserts her request with a ‘Please’. Dane then recognizes that she does not like to be called ‘Red’, and so respect her request, but also offers insight into his reasons for not respecting her requesting, noting that he “was sore at the Deputies” who had emasculated him and concedes that there is no reason to “take it out on” Eileen (73). This suggests that when men are emasculated by other men, they turn on those whom they can abuse, transferring their frustration and projecting it onto the women in their lives Eileen does not tolerate this, however, as she repeats her assertiveness when Dane calls her ‘Honey’, telling Dane that he best not “have the gall to call [her] honey again” (118). Later in the novel, when Dane is in trouble, she shoots and kills a man in self-defence, demonstrating her skill, courage and assertiveness. When her employer seeks to trade Dane’s life for the missing diary, she calls the homicide department and gives them the heads up, thereby saving Dane’s life and demonstrating her loyalty to virtue over economic security. Eileen, then, is the embodiment of courage, assertiveness, and morality in the novel, performing each characteristic at a level unmatched by most of her male counterparts.
The Diary may not be on a par with Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye or The Big Sleep, but it is certainly as good as You Can’t Stop Me and any other William Ard novel. The novel’s plot does lull a little bit leading up to the climax, but the narrative is otherwise well paced. The characters, though they lack depth, are stylistic and enjoyable, and Ard constructs Dane in a manner that fits the prototype of Arthurian knight transposed onto New York’s seedy underworld. By peppering the narrative with libertarian ideals, addressing issues of big government, police corruption, moral policing and offering a progressive feminist-friendly cohort in Eileen, Ard creates a narrative that aged much more gracefully than the works of some his contemporaries. For fan of detective fiction, the Diary is an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
If you have a fondness for detective fiction from the pulp era, be sure to check out my reviews of publications from Hard Case Crime, such as Honey In His Mouth, The First Quarry and The Last Quarry by Max Allan Collins, Little Girl Lost, Songs Of Innocence, Branded Woman, The Girl With the Long Green Heart, and Murder Is My Business. You may also like my reviews of pulp-era detective fiction such as You Can’t Stop Me, The Name Is Jordan, Stamped For Murder, Pardon My Body and a host of novels by Carter Brown. For updates and new posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.