The Laughing Fox by Frank Gruber
Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)
In 1940, Gruber wrote this mystery full of pulp elements that pulp fans expected. The hero is a gambling man with a gift of gab. His sidekick has the loyalty of a canine and the strength of steel. Gruber valued variety and action so every two or three chapters some unexpected development occurs. Furthermore, unlike the usual urban setting of pulps, most of the action takes place at a Cattle Convention in Cedar City, Iowa. The theme is silver foxes, which exhibitors display with an eye on big profits at the climactic fox fur auction. All of these elements add up to an enjoyable read.
Smart and glib Johnny Fletcher and his sidekick Sam Cragg attend a Cattle Congress. Their day job is selling a body-building book for which Johnny makes the pitch and Sam’s pecs and lats break a chain wound round his chest. The night job is playing craps and poker games, in the subculture of ramblin’ gamblin’ men that didn’t fade in the US until the late 1960s.
Gruber liked writing about men who rambled, living in hotel rooms, making the most of free lunches in saloons, and enduring the endless hot dogs at diners on the road. Written in the late 1930s, the book is an artifact of the time when the US was coming back after the Depression, even though some people of promise have somehow missed the gravy train.
The background touches give us a confident feeling that the author is writing about people, places, and things that he knows like the back of his hand. The antique slang and turns of phrase, the etiquette of gambling, the mug’s chivalry toward the ladies, and authentic local settings and plain people feel very old-school American – plain, warm, outgoing, confident, resourceful — to me.
It’s still a mystery though. To clear himself of the two killings in the story, Johnny helps the local Sheriff – an import from rough and tough Kansas City so he’s nobody’s hick. Johnny and Sam travel to Chicago – Gruber is careful to appeal to local patriotism by calling lots of streets by name – to interview people about the 20-year-old disappearance of a rich kid that may have a connection to the fox exhibition slayings.
This is well-worth reading, both as a solid puzzle mystery and a wonderful piece of Americana. It was the second of fourteen Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg mysteries by Frank Gruber.