There was a time when almost all the crime fiction I read had been recently published. I was young and callow and dismissive of any novels my parents or—heaven forfend!—my grandparents might have enjoyed in their own salad days. I desired nothing so much as to stay current with the genre’s latest developments, its freshest authors, its most wet-behind-the-ears trends.
But then I started buying vintage paperback mysteries and thrillers—primarily for the excellence of their cover illustrations, those eye-catching 1940s, ’50s and ’60s fronts graced by long-limbed lovelies and treacherous blondes and bent-nosed mobsters sporting pistols the size of Oklahoma. And every once in a while, on a crazy whim, I would pick up one of my well-thumbed thrillers…and actually read it.
Did you check out the Rap Sheet’s last “rediscovered read”?
Well, you can probably guess what happened: I began liking those collectible paperbacks, even though they weren’t still warm from their press runs and waiting to be discovered by influential critics. That’s how I became acquainted with books by Erle Stanley Gardner and Ellery Queen, Frank Kane and Mickey Spillane and Robert Kyle, David Goodis, Thomas B. Dewey and so many other authors. I started to recognize their work not as cheesy or antiquated, but as the rich source material for so many of the newer yarns I’d been digesting. Those older writers had experimented with and worked hard to define the genre I recognized mostly in its more polished, but often less daring state.
This doesn’t mean, though, that every old crime novel is a classic. Some can be pretty strange.
Take, for instance, J.B. O’Sullivan’s I Die Possessed.
Published by Pocket Books in 1953 (with a haunting cover by American book and magazine illustrator Verne Tossey), it was O’Sullivan’s sixth novel to feature Steve Silk, an unlicensed private eye in New York. Silk is very much like other fictional gumshoes of his era—smooth, wisecracking, and tough and athletic when he needed to be (even though he’d lost a lung in an auto accident that also ended his heavyweight-boxing career). “He picked up cases,” O’Sullivan wrote, “by rubbing shoulders with people who had dough, and who wanted protection, or their innocence proved, or a killer nailed.”
In I Die Possessed, it’s Marion Piper who needs Silk’s help. Her husband, a onetime “ace crime reporter” who’d found more success as a sleazy daily newspaper columnist, had returned home one evening after a night on the town—and been shot in the head with a .32. He perished instantly. Since she was also on the premises (supposedly at her dressing table, brushing her hair) and looks to be a very fortunate beneficiary of Piper’s premature demise, Marion deserves principal-suspect status. Except that the person in charge of this homicide investigation is Lt. Paul Talbot, a man who once harbored more than a passing romantic interest in Mrs. Piper. He’d prefer to pin the crime on just about anyone else among the dozens of people who were partying that night at the Piper home.
This all seems pretty straightforward and typical of the genre. However, one thing makes I Die Possessed stand out: the identity of its first-person narrator.
“What I like about the boys who dream up those comfy mystery stories is their ingenuity,” Peter Piper muses at this story’s outset. “You would not think that new angles could be found to the old, old murder-investigation-solution formula. But those boys have managed to find them. They have begun with the killer’s trial and worked back; they have begun with the first dark thoughts of murder and worked forward. They have evolved terrifyingly original murder methods. They have told their stories through the eyes of the detective, the detective’s friend, an innocent suspect, and from the viewpoint of the killer. Surely, I often said to myself with a laugh, the next one I read will be from the corpse’s angle. I am not laughing now. I did not know I would be writing the story myself. I did not know I would be the corpse…”
That’s right, we are witness to all of the action in this novel through the very slowly declining eyes of a dead man, Piper. Nobody else can see him, but we know the columnist is on hand—if only spectrally—as Talbot painfully questions Marion, and Marion confesses to having long been interested in another man, and Silk confronts a controlling, well-armed nightclub owner who may have been blackmailed by the dearly departed. Piper’s presence is minimal in some scenes, but we always know he’s around, smiling at women (like his sister-in-law) after whom he’d once lusted, gazing with astonishment at suspects who reveal themselves to be quite different people than he’d realized and cursing Silk every time the detective darts off after clues that Piper is confident will lead to dead ends.
Now, it would be one thing if we understood that Piper could identify his killer, and was observing all of these twists and travails simply to see how that person was ultimately ensnared by the law. But the interesting thing is Piper doesn’t know who did him in. Yes, he thinks he’s grasped the answer to that mystery and grows more convinced of his reasoning as the yarn rolls on. Yet the solution may surprise him as much as it does readers—and torture him, too, since there’s absolutely nothing he can do to guarantee that the real murderer is brought to justice.
Over the last couple of decades there have been a number of dead-person narrators in fiction, including in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and the comedy-drama TV series Dead Like Me. But odd as I Die Possessed may be, it did offer unusual angles to fictional crime-solving back in 1953.
Curiously, this was one among a mere handful of Steve Silk novels, penned by Irish author James Brendan O’Sullivan, to be published in the United States. There were more than 15 books in total, most of which were released in Europe without U.S. editions. Also prominent among the Silk series are the vividly titled Someone Walked Over My Grave and Don’t Hang Me Too High, both of which first saw print in 1954. If those works boast as many peculiarities as I Die Possessed does, they could be well worth my digging up.
I just wonder what their covers look like…
J. Kingston Pierce is the editor of The Rap Sheet, which will celebrate its sixth anniversary on May 22—appropriately, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday. He also serves as the senior editor of January Magazine.