Brooklyn Daily Eagle
At first glance, John Manbeck’s new crime novella, “Death on the Rise,” available on Amazon and barnesandnoble.com, reads like a typical Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett hard-boiled detective novel of the 1930s.
The characters refer to detectives as “gumshoes,” corpses as “stiffs” and coffee as “java,” and call each other names like “sister” and “wise guy.”
However, if one reads a little further, one realizes that “Death on the Rise” may be the first “potboiler” to be set in Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn. This makes sense, considering the fact that Manbeck is a former Brooklyn borough historian and lives in the Heights.
The Downtown landmarks of the early 1930s – some of which survive to the present day, and some of which don’t – are all there.
The Bossert Hotel is presented as “the Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn” with dancing on its Marine Roof. Nate Thomaston, a house detective at an unnamed seedy hotel, visits Foffe’s, a once-famous restaurant on Montague Street, where an Irish-American political boss is holding court.
A detective asks a prostitute if she’s working out of the “Behr House,” meaning the historic Behr Mansion on Pierrepont Street. The mansion indeed was a brothel at one time, although it’s now a respectable apartment house.
Thomaston visits another house of prostitution near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. And indeed, the Navy Yard, where thousands of men worked, was once ringed with brothels and “taxi dance” halls.
The original Brooklyn Daily Eagle even makes an appearance. Thomaston visits the Eagle offices to meet with an editor who tells him of a suspected link between a recent murder, the Mafia and a local lawyer who later winds up dead.
The other characters are predictable but very well depicted. You have the aggressive crime reporter, the Irish cop, the aforementioned Jewish lawyer and others. The residents of Thomaston’s hotel range from a bank clerk to an ex-boxer.
Above all, Manbeck’s attention to details is admirable. The movie stars and songs he mentions, from Wallace Beery and Al Jolson to “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” are consistent with the period in which the novella takes place, the early 1930s.
One of the cops is depicted as drinking water from a Dixie cup, which almost all water fountains were equipped with in those days. The streets of the Heights are portrayed as being made of cobblestone, which they certainly were before most were paved over.
This reviewer did find one questionable reference. One of the characters talks about “Murder Incorporated,” the Brownsville murder-for-hire gang. Murder Inc. didn’t become known to the general public until about 1940, when many of its members went on trial.
However, the types of people depicted in “Death on the Rise” – policemen, detectives, crime reporters – may well have been aware if its existence much earlier.
Al in all, “Death on the Rise” is a good read for all those who like old-fashioned detective and crime fiction.