Dead Man’s Diary and a Taste for Cognac collect two separate novellas featuring Britt Halliday’s private detective Michael Shayne. These sorts of collections were a fun aspect of mystery fiction up until the 1960s. Whether it was Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, or Philip Marlowe, it was great to see how a detective worked both in very involved mysteries or somewhat simpler short stories or novellas. So I was really eager to see how Michael Shayne performed in short stories.
In “Dead Man’s Diary”, a wealthy man dies on a life raft at sea. A relative dies on land around the same time. Based on their respective wills, millions of dollars are at stake, depending on who died first. A man on the raft with the first man had tended the dead man and had kept a meticulous diary. He would be able to honestly establish who died first. However, the diarist is found dead and his journal is missing.
I was somewhat familiar with this story, as it was the basis for the 1950s Michael Shayne TV pilot. The story is better developed in the novella. There’s a lot going on to make this a really engaging story but not so much that it becomes overwhelming. It’s a very solidly plotted case with a solution that does take you by surprise but makes a lot of sense in retrospect.
In “A Taste for Cognac”, World War II is going on. Some men have to sacrifice their lives. Michael Shayne has to deal with domestic sacrifices, like the crummy excuse for cognac available, due to France being occupied by the Nazis, and the limited supplies of raw materials. However, Shayne stumbles into a former-speakeasy-turned-legitimate-bar and gets some good stuff, pre-War stuff that must have been smuggled in during Prohibition. Shayne sets out to discover where it came from, which inevitably leads to a mystery, murder, and a trail of bodies.
As a story, it’s not a bad little caper. But it’s not particularly memorable. It’s easily the lesser of the two stories, devolving more into hijinks than an engaging mystery.
It’s interesting to note that the first story in the book actually happens chronologically later. This is a creative decision that goes back to the original editions of this book, because “Dead Man’s Diary” is both a better story and a better title.
Overall, if you enjoy Michael Shayne novels or you like short fiction that leans to the hard-boiled side, this is worthwhile read.
Rating: 3.75 out of 5
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What do you think of Travis McGee?
Haven’t read him. I generally tend to prefer detective fiction from the 1930s-50s. When I do read books from the 1960s, it tends to be of characters like Nero Wolfe or Michael Shayne who have an earlier origin.
where do you stand on Ross MacDonald, and specifically, his Lew Archer novels from The Galton Case onward? I don’t love them quite as much as I did in my thirties, but it’s still my favorite private eye series.