Saturday, May 28, 2011

Axel Brand, The Dead Genius

Someone finds a dead body slumped over a desk. No sign of foul play. The examining physician says heart failure. Police detective Lt. Joe Sonntag is inclined to agree.

But his cheap-cigar-smoking captain Ackerman thinks otherwise. There’s a crime here somewhere, he keeps saying. Find it. And thus a skeptical Sonntag finds himself on another hunt for a murderer.

What I like about Axel Brand mysteries is the retro world of police work circa 1949 that it conjures. And the naked city his police call home is not the mean streets of New York, Chicago or LA. It’s the mainly placid Milwaukee, the beer capital of the Midwest.

I also like Joe Sonntag. He’s a hard-working, decent man, who wears inexpensive suits and rides a streetcar to work. At night he returns, often late, to his wife Lizbeth, a drink, and meatloaf. It’s an empty nest, one son grown and gone. The other son only a memory of a boy who thrived and then died of polio.

His marriage is a mostly comfortable one, though not without signs of strain. For lack of a job of her own, Joe’s wife takes more than passing interest in his work. You get the idea she wouldn’t make a bad cop herself. She settles for packing his lunch every morning and the occasional night out on his meager salary. On Sunday she goes to church alone.

1949 Buick Super
The crime is a nicely complex one, with just enough discoveries along the way to keep it intriguing. We meet three of Joe’s colleagues, who are assigned by Ackerman to the case. One is Frank Silva, who reads pulp westerns and is a young socialist with a vocal dislike for rich capitalists.

The dead genius of the title is a questioned document examiner. Often called upon as an expert witness, he could tell if a document was what it claimed to be. He could testify whether or not a will was forged. He could spot a phony contract, or a bogus signature. A walking encyclopedia of typewriter fonts, he could identify the year and make of the machine used to type a letter.

For all who knew him, he was also a man of mystery, claiming a past too far-fetched to be true and dying without heirs. The pieces won’t fit together, and there are those who might have had reason to do the man in. There's a disgruntled protégé with a desire to take over the business, and a doctor and lawyer in an unseemly hurry to cremate the remains.

Milwaukee County Courthouse, built 1931.  Photo by Sulfur.
Richard Wheeler (writing as Axel Brand) has said in an interview that he enjoys the police detective tradition as it was portrayed in Dragnet. This realistic police procedural started out as a radio series in 1948 and quickly transferred to television in the 1950s. (Read more here.)

Sonntag is not Joe Friday. The tone isn’t deadpan, but more like my favorite TV cop show, Barney Miller, which ran 1975-1982. (Read more here.) There’s humor and quirks among the men on the force, and Joe has a hidden side that haunts him each time he rides the streetcar between home and work.

Far from hard-boiled, maybe soft-boiled is what you call this kind of crime fiction. It’s love of its characters and the pitch-perfect evocation of the period make it thoroughly enjoyable. I hope Richard Wheeler has a whole lot more Joe Sonntag stories up his sleeve.

The Dead Genius will be released in August and is now available for pre-order at amazon.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: The Naked Spur (1953)


  1. Although I've read only a handful of books in this kind of genre, you make the book sound enticing.

  2. I am delighted that you enjoyed the novel. Here is a photo of the Wells Street Viaduct that makes my hero sweat. I rode over that thing hundreds of times as a boy, always afraid I'd land on the Miller Brewery below.

  3. I don't read a lot of crime fiction, but your comment about the pitch perfect characters makes me take a second look at this one.

  4. I prefer old-fashioned police work in mystery novels (and tv and movies). These days it seems nothing is solved without computers. Just plug in the data and out comes the criminal responsible.

  5. Sage, it's an enjoyable read about old-style crime detection.

    Richard, I see what you mean; that does look precarious.

    Charles, it's a Jimmy Dorsey kind of world, not heavy metal.

    Susan, Wheeler says this is what he likes about DRAGNET.

  6. (Barney Miller was a good one).
    I can't wait to read Dead Genius.