RARA-AVIS: The Death of Humpty Dumpty

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 23 Feb 2003

First, my hat is off to our list owner who after first restating the rules has now led by example in his fine write-up of John D's PALE GRAY FOR GUILT. I have good memories of this book. Although I read the pb, this was the first hardcover of a Travis McGee that I remember seeing. Some company
(Lippincott??) began publishing hardcover reprints of the pb originals and that may have been what this was. Anyway, thanks chief, and I will follow suit.

THE DEATH OF HUMPTY DUMPTY by David Alexander was first published in 1957, I presume by Random House who was Alexander's US publisher at the time. I read the 1959 Boardman reprint, one of many I have purchased over the years from Jeff Meyerson who regularly goes to England to find book treasures. The Boardmans are a special treat as they regularly gave hardback honors to American PBOs.

Anyway, back to the book at hand. This is one of the best of Alexander's Bart Hardin 8-novel series. Hardin was the managing editor of the Broadway Times, a theatrical and sporting journal who lived on 42nd Street just above the Bromberg's Flea Circus and Fun Arcade. Alexander spent ten years as the managing editor of the New York Morning Telegraph, so what he writes comes from a deep background.

Humpty Dumpty Hughes is the comic relief at a New York strip club. A holdover from burlesque, it used to be routine to have comics between the strippers or to act as MCs for the acts. Yea verily, I am old enough to have witnessed this personally. (Your correspondent pauses here to ruminate on the fact that he remembers those tired comics of decades ago even though the young ladies of that time are generally lost in a collage of tits and hips. Sigh...)

Alexander opens his story with Hardin at home in bed on New Years Eve. He refuses to go out and drink on the amateur night of the first of the year. He is watching television even though he can hear the crowd out his window. But a friend calls. Zita Janos is a young dancer who he befriended and got her a job at a grind joint called the Fig Leaf. She calls at a few minutes to midnight asking him to come share New Year's with her and he reluctantly dresses and goes the few blocks to her house. There, looking out the window, he witnesses an egg-shaped man dressed in a clown suit perched in a window of a hotel and then falling to his death. Humpty Dumpty Hughes, the comic who worked at the Fig Leaf.

Alas, it must be noted that Alexander is prone to these coincidences. One either accepts them or not. I do and I am quick to protest them.

But when he calls the police there is no body. It seems Humpty Dumpty landed on a ledge five or six floors below but the body was removed before the police arrived. He was however very dead as his body was later delivered to Hardin's door by a horse-drawn cab. (While it may seem obvious that he would have died, I remember that my wife's Uncle Carl went out the 11th floor window of the Admiral Farragut Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee and lived to star in a Ripley's Believe It Or Not cartoon. So I note his death precisely.
 Uncle Carl was probably drunker than Humpty Dumpty Hughes and that may have saved him)

The story we enter is a shadowy world of mobsters who control strip clubs as well as race track touts. It pits Hardin directly against a syndicate boss who always speaks of himself in the third person. Just when he seems to be too soft, Hardin shows toughness. He is a hard hero for me to predict. He always keeps me guessing. Meanwhile we are treated to a view of the world that drips realism.

Even after Alexander left his position with the New York Telegraph ( a publication on which his fictional Broadway Times is based, the author followed the racing world as a regular contributor to Blood Horse and other thoroughbred racing publications. His stories and first hand accounts were key pieces used to put together the superb book on Seabiscuit. He was a personal friend of the jockey and continued to chronicle the jockey's life long after he faded into obscurity. By the way, I can't wait to see the Seabiscuit movie.

Is this a great novel? No. I find some of his technique off-putting, such as the italicized chapter openings. I did enjoy the hell out of it and I sped through the reading enjoying every moment and am anxious to begin more by Alexander.

Pronzini, a fan of Alexander, noted that he was even better at short lengths than as a novelist. So I now have stacked up four or five of his short stories and novelettes on which I will report later.

Richard Moore

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