My rating: 5/10*
Nice cover, isn’t it?
Summertime, and the reading is easy.
This reasonably diverting police procedural is my first encounter with this writer, and I’d cheerfully pick up another if it showed up in front of me. It worked well for kick-back time yesterday. Enough puzzle element and moral dilemma discussion going on to keep it from being too black and white, and characters with enough personality to keep them straight in one’s head for the time needed to polish off this slender and more than slightly unlikely mystery.
Seven Steps East is the last title by Ben Benson, who started writing as therapy after spending three years in hospital due to war injuries sustained during his 1943-45 U.S. Army stint of active combat. He wrote something like 17 mystery novels between 1951 and his death at the too-young age of forty-four in 1959, sharing the key investigative roles between two fictional members of the Massachusetts State Police: Trooper Ralph Lindsey and Detective Inspector Wade Paris.
In brief, our main character Ralph Lindsey is given leave to investigate the disappearance of one of his star students, Kirk Chanslor – coincidentally a childhood acquaintance now engaged to be married to Lindsey’s ex-girlfriend – when the young man fails to return from a weekend’s leave from the State Police Training Academy where Lindsey is a part-time instructor.
An anonymous phone call leads Lindsey to Kirk Chanslor’s body, hidden beneath a pile of leaves in the forest, and the hunt is on for the killer.
Benson quickly takes us through the steps of a murder investigation, giving a willing nod to each member of the homicide team. Surprisingly for the genre, Ralph Linsey apparently gets along just fine with everyone in his department; there are no internal feuds or personality conflicts; everyone cooperates wonderfully, united in their goal to nail the bad people of their precinct. No question as to which side the cops are on – they hang out with the angels from start to finish.
Chasing down leads among hotel waitresses and bellboys, the investigation has Lindsey making himself unpopular with a powerful ex-gangster-turned-hotelier. Illegal gambling and a highly successful con-artist – someone who can change their eye colour at will, according to the one clue Kirk Chanslor has left behind – hold the key to the solution.
I guessed the gambling con early on, but the actual killer was a bit tougher to pin down, though when the big reveal came I wasn’t at all surprised.
All in all, a workmanlike piece of writing, with moments of flair and the promise of an interesting development for Trooper Lindsey’s future. A shame this turned out to be Ben Benson’s last book.
*The lowish rating reflects that while the book is readable enough, it is nowhere close to the top of the high standard set by the best in the mystery-thriller genre of its era. Raymond Chandler, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Rex Stout, among so many others.