Book review: The Broken Angel and Backfire and Other Stories by Floyd Mahannah

Treachery, revenge, blackmail, theft and murder are rife in The Broken Angel and Backfire and Other Stories, a memorable collection of hardboiled tales by the talented but overlooked 1950s crime writer Floyd Mahannah.
The Broken Angel and Backfire and Other Stories by Floyd MahannahThe Broken Angel and Backfire and Other Stories by Floyd Mahannah
The Broken Angel and Backfire and Other Stories by Floyd Mahannah

In a literary career that spanned a mere eight years, Mahannah, who died in 1976, produced five reasonably successful novels and eleven short, gritty stories that were published in popular magazines like Argosy, Adventure, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Manhunt.

This new story collection from Stark House Press includes the author’s most accomplished novel and six of his best shorter works, as well as an enlightening introduction by Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Bill Pronzini, who believes Floyd Mahannah’s ‘hard-edged’ work ‘stands the test of time better than many of his peers.’

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The Broken Angel, described by New York Times book critic Anthony Boucher as a surprisingly good novel that ‘has much of the appeal of Charles Williams’ studies in temptation,’ is about Roy Holgren, a provincial newspaper editor in Nevada, who is lured into a highly dangerous situation involving blackmail, grand theft and murder.

Hopelessly besotted with his manipulative, deceitful secretary Sara, who is extremely guarded about her past, Roy finds he can’t cope with the perpetual ‘ache that he was never without’ when she suddenly disappears. The goodbye note she leaves him, urging him not to try to find her, claims she’ is tempted to marry him but doesn’t want to mess up his life.

The note also confesses that the police are already looking for her. And we learn that so, too, are others.

The tenacious, sharp-witted Roy, determined to track her down, is one step ahead of everyone and locates her in a hospital in Lodi, California, where she is recovering from assault and battery. Desperate to be with her, he removes her from the hospital against the doctor’s wishes, fights off a male rival, and rents them a cabin along the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.

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But it’s a strained romance. With her recovery comes ‘sullen hostility’ and lies, and although occasionally there’s passion, often she hangs ‘like something dead inside the circle of his arms.’

Sara then manages to persuade Roy to get involved in a perilous scheme to make upwards of $25,000, connected to a jewellery heist in San Francisco the previous year, and he suddenly finds himself caught up in a gun battle and hunting down suspects, murder witnesses, diamonds and killers.

The other titular story, Backfire, which was first published in 1953 in the crime digest Manhunt, is an entertaining and intricately plotted murder mystery in much the same style as The Broken Angel.

Here, a beautiful and devious woman in San Francisco, Bernice Falknor, in an effort to be rid of her violent ex-boyfriend, fakes her own murder and attempts to start a new life elsewhere in California. But she is unwilling to lose her friend, Pete Mavrey, with whom she’s in love, and re-establishes contact with him, landing him in hot trouble.

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Mavrey, a man with girlfriend problems of his own, as well as a prison record, soon has the police on his trail, along with Bernice’s aggressive ex-boyfriend, a private detective, a money-grubbing wife, newspaper reporters and others looking to do him harm.

As with many of the stories in this collection, Backfire is a worthwhile tale, full of thrilling action, suspense, danger, deception and numerous unexpected plot twists.

(Stark House Press, paperback, £15.95)