As a break from the compelling and often impetuous need to speak out on pressing issues, I offer here an excerpt from a novel that has nothing to do with current events. It is the first of two detective novels I completed before beginning work on Sparrowhawk.
Early in 1989 I was invited by the editor of Western Illinois University Press to contribute an article on detective fiction criticism for a collection of essays on that subject. My essay was not included in the collection that was ultimately published in late 1990 as The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory. I received no explanation for the rejection, and, having later read the book, did not wonder why my piece was rejected. For in my untitled piece I took to task academic literary critics who interpreted detective fiction from purely Marxist or sociological perspectives. One or two of those academics cited Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon as a perfect model of sub rosa Marxist literature. (Hammett later in his career was revealed as a communist.)
I argued in my paper that the novel was no such thing, that there was not a single Marxist “message” or “signifier” anywhere in its “deconstructed“ text. The story, first serialized in Black Mask Magazine before being cobbled together in novel form for publication in 1930, predated Hammett’s political conversion and activism.
At the time, I was nearing completion of my answer to The Maltese Falcon, of a detective novel set in the same month and year (December 1928), and set also in San Francisco. I finished China Basin in 1990. While Hammett’s novel is incomparable in plot, dialogue, and characterization, I found it dreary and almost claustrophobic. It did not portray a true picture of San Francisco in that period. My research revealed that it was a lively, vibrant city, and a showcase theater venue. Prohibition was in force, but that only added spice to the vitality of the place. That vitality was one of the things I wanted to bring to life, one commensurate with my own detective hero.
Hammett’s detective hero, Sam Spade, private detective, does not have a cameo in China Basin (although there is a subtle newspaper mention of the murder of his partner, Miles Archer). Cyrus Skeen, private detective, dominates the story. His cognitive skills are comparable to Spade’s. However, he has read more than one book, is a Yale graduate and a scion of Eastern wealth, and writes short stories under a pen name to protect his identity. He has a devoted secretary, as well, Dilys Jones, and friends on the police force. In China Basin he is approached in his office by a fascinating Frenchwoman, partner with a retired British officer in pursuit of a “dingus,” this one a few centuries older than a jewel-encrusted “black bird” that was the object of Spade’s enquiries.
What follows is Skeen’s first encounter with Vanessa Favaul. The late Capucine (actual name, Germaine Lefebvre), an exquisite French actress, served as a model for Favaul. The bust of Agrippa, a Roman statesman, general, and builder under Cæsar Augustus, served as a model for Cyrus Skeen.
Chapter 10: A Whiff of Perfume
The sound of the closing door, and a whiff of perfume, caused him to raise his head. As he did so, the woman approaching him lifted the fine mesh veil of a roundish hat from her face. Rich brown hair in marcel waves draped the sides of an attractive angular face that was frankly ruthless and calculating. Violet eyes beneath arched aristocratic brows haughtily appraised him. A noble, almost straight nose balanced a disdainful mouth whose red lips were never fully parted, but never fully closed. She wore an afternoon crepe satin coat of a dark brown that was nearly black. It was open and flared behind her to reveal a belted, long-sleeved dress of wine red. Long, elegant legs scissored confidently over the rug in black high heels.
The woman’s mouth bent in a formal smile as she removed one of her gloves. She stopped and gracefully extended a hand, saying, in a French accent, “Good afternoon, Mr. Skeen. I am Vanessa Favaul. It was kind of you to see me on so short a notice.”
“Good afternoon.” Skeen took the thin hand, held it for a moment, fought an urge to raise it to his lips, and forced himself to let it go. The effort, he noted, was not lost on the woman. “Won’t you please be seated?” He waved to one of the club chairs. Favaul sat, and crossed her legs with a whisper of silk.
Skeen sat and folded his hands on the blotter. “What can I do for you, Miss Favaul?”
“I am here to ask you to meet someone tonight, a colleague, out of the city, at a place of your choosing.”
“For what purpose?”
“To employ your services as a detective. Specifically, to ask you to find a man who does not wish to be found, and who is very good at it. He is in this city. That is all we know.”
“Why do you wish to find him?”
“He has something of ours. He stole it, in France, in August. He wishes to sell it back, and we are willing to pay. But he is making it very difficult.”
“Can you give me his name, and a description?”
“Yes, of course, though these are things which he changes at whim. They will be given to you if you meet my colleague tonight. You will learn also what the object is and why it is important that we repossess it. If you are able to find him and establish a confidence with him, we wish only to communicate on an amicable basis. Then you may act as liaison.”
Skeen leaned back in his chair. “Why couldn’t your colleague come here himself? Is he incapacitated in some way?”
Vanessa Favaul smiled in amusement at some personal thought. “Incapacitated? Hardly, Mr. Skeen. He is, perhaps, as virile as you. Between ourselves, he is overly and unnecessarily secretive and cautious, but that is his only foible, I can assure you.”
“Why would he wish to meet me outside of the city?”
“Again, I can only say that it is his wish. He does not want to risk being seen by this person until some mode of détente has been agreed to. Naturally, there is much animosity between him and this person.”
“And you can’t tell me now anything about this object you want back?”
“No. Only that it is of immeasurable value and of great antiquity.” Favaul paused to add, “And of some personal sentiment.”
“Would you be at this meeting, if I agreed to see your colleague?”
“No,” said Favaul, simply and finally. She reached into her purse and took out a cigarette and an ivory holder, which she fitted together. Skeen rose, took his desk lighter, and went around to light it. Then he lit one of his Old Golds.
When he was seated again, he asked, “How did you come to pick me for this proposal?”
“We have been in the city for several days. We made inquiries. You are highly recommended.”
“What were your criteria?”
Favaul seemed amused by the question. “Honesty, initiative, intelligence, élan, discretion, and an instinct for risk and venture.”
“You are not honest, Mr. Skeen?”
Skeen smiled. “Yes. Though there are many people who think honesty is synonymous with naiveté.”
Favaul made a throaty sound, a sound someone might make upon tasting good food. “You are wise to make that distinction. Which are you, then?”
“The first meaning. God’s never helped the man who assumed I was naive.”
“Of that I’m sure. What of women who so offended you?”
“I rarely make that mistake.” Skeen let his sight roam over the exquisite face. “What is your relationship with your colleague, Miss Favaul?”
Favaul made the throaty sound again. “Not what you suspect.”
Skeen merely smiled.
“I am simply a partner on an expedition of recovery.” The woman paused. “You should know something else that may affect your decision. There is some…danger involved. The person we seek to deal with is unpredictable and capable of violence. We hired a man of your profession some time ago for the same task -- we were not so demanding in our criteria then -- and he came very close to accomplishing it. However, he was killed. Yesterday, in fact. By the person we are pursuing, very likely.”
“What was his name?” asked Skeen, reaching over to tap an ash into the tray to cover his sudden alertness. “Two or three detectives have been killed in this city recently.”
“It was an odd name. Mungo Browne. Did you know him?”
“No. But I read about it in this morning’s papers.”
“So had we. It came as a surprise to us. We were thinking of dispensing with his services -- he could be very difficult, too -- but he saved us an unpleasant task. We were not sure how he would behave. It should have seemed ungrateful of us. It was through his efforts that we have come this far.”
“And you suspect this other person killed him?”
“We are inclined to believe that. But it may be that Mr. Browne encountered a common thief. It does not matter now.”
“He was shot while he was searching the room of an antiques dealer. Was he on the job there, do you think?”
Favaul shook her head. “It is possible. We do not know why he was there or what he was doing. He had many interests outside of our purpose for employing him.”
“You know, the police would be interested in knowing why he was in town.”
“Would you be interested in telling them?”
Skeen smiled again. “Not at the moment.”
The woman chuckled again. “Well, Mr. Skeen. May we have an answer?”
“My rate is forty a day, plus expenses, regardless of the outcome.”
“That is because you can always guarantee an outcome?”
Skeen nodded. “My clients have not always liked the outcome, but it is an outcome and I expect to be paid.” He paused. “Okay. I’ll see your friend and listen to what he has to say. Then I’ll make a decision. And he’ll have to be a little more forthcoming with information.”
The woman re-crossed her legs. She smiled. “Is there something to sign?”
“No. A day’s fee in advance will do, cash or check. I’ll write a receipt.”
Vanessa Favaul reached into her purse again and took out a small wallet. From this she extracted a fifty-dollar bill and laid it on the desk. “I have nothing smaller, I’m afraid.”
“That’s all right,” said Skeen. “I’m sure you’ll owe me much more before this is over.” He took out a receipt pad and wrote on the top form. “Are you staying in the city?”
“I would prefer not to say now, if you don’t mind.” The woman pulled her cigarette from the holder and doused it in the ash stand, then dropped the holder back into her purse. “You will see me again -- regardless of the outcome.”
Skeen tore the receipt from the pad and handed it over to her. “How did you get here? By taxi?”
The woman frowned. “Why do you ask?”
Skeen smiled. “I can’t see you taking a trolley down Market. You’d have the motorman rear-ending what’s stopped in front of him, or running down pedestrians.”
The frown vanished. “Americans pay the most unusual compliments. Are you always so forward with your clients?”
“Only when I feel there’s a reason to reciprocate.”
“I have hired a car,” said Favaul. “Now, about the rendezvous.”
“Would your colleague be willing to travel thirty or so miles?”
“It can be arranged.”
“All right. I’ll write out the directions. There’s a roadhouse in Palo Alto. That’s a college town south of us on the Peninsula.” Skeen drew a blank sheet of paper toward him and picked up his pen again. As he wrote, the woman rose and wandered about his office. She lingered near the small bookcase at the other end of the room. Her gloved hand reached out and a tentative finger ran idly over the spines of a few titles.
She turned her head. “You read French, I see. Can you speak it?”
“Some. I usually say things I don’t mean.” As he finished writing the directions, Skeen said, “Vanessa isn’t a common French name. How did you come by it?”
“My father was a great reader of Jonathan Swift, who invented it, I believe.”
“Here you are,” said Skeen, rising and holding out the paper. “It’s about an hour’s drive, if he’s driving. Or there are trains from the Fourth Street Terminal that stop in Palo Alto, where he can get a taxi.”
“He will be driving. Thank you.” The woman folded the paper into a square and put it in her purse. “Would eight o’clock be good?”
“That would be fine.” Skeen came around the desk and walked her to the door. “How will we recognize each other?”
“My colleague is about fifty years old, a little taller than you, very fit looking. He has a silver moustache and graying hair. His name is Heywood. He is English. I will, of course, describe you to him.” Vanessa Favaul held out a gloved hand. “Thank you again, Mr. Skeen.”
“Thank me if the job’s done -- and if I take it.” He took her hand. She squeezed his and lingered for a moment before breaking the contact. Skeen opened the door.
“Bon jour, Monsieur.”
“Bon jour, Mademoiselle. And, prenez garde.”
“Beware? Of what?’
“Of men like me.”
She turned to give him one last deceptively frosty, almost amused smile, over her shoulder, and then she was gone.
Cyrus Skeen stood for a moment, his hands in his pockets, contemplating the closed door. A faint aroma of Favaul’s perfume lingered in the air.
Dilys Jones, at her desk, restrained a grin. “What did she want?”
Skeen shook his head once and turned to her. “That,” he said, “was bait.”
© 1990, 2010 by Edward Cline