“Age or youth didn’t interest Rick at the moment. She was a female, waiting in his room at an ungodly hour, and a female was out to kill him.”
Anselm File’s daughter isn’t Rick Train’s problem. Normally, he would love to report on the juicy story of the actress who claims to be a millionaire’s long-lost daughter, but Rick isn’t the New York Courier-Express‘ star reporter anymore. He just enlisted in the army and is due to report for training in seven days.
A lot can happen in a week, though: multiple murders, three attempts on Rick’s life, two more women claiming to be Anselm File’s daughter, and one beautiful girl who might turn out to be the love of Rick’s life…or the one trying to end it. Even Rick Train might have trouble clearing up this mess in only seven days.
The Hornets’ Nest is a stylish, reasonably intelligent crime novel, but not a fair-play mystery. The whole last section is packed with action that makes little sense, which segues into a denouement that is equally confusing because it requires Rick to explain a great deal of information that is being revealed for the first time. The solution hinges on a clue that could have been easily slipped in at an earlier point but was not, making the killer’s identity impossible for the reader to deduce. If you don’t mind that, it’s a fun ride that doesn’t require much effort to enjoy.
Rick Train is a character with a certain amount of backstory. As the young woman who seeks him out at the newspaper office exposits, “I’ve never met you before, but I’ve heard about you. They say you’re the best pistol shot in the country. They say you can write anything you please about the most dangerous criminals because they’re all afraid of you.” The girl is there to sell a sensational story to the paper, but Rick advises her that he is no longer on the job. She will have to return the next morning. He puts her in a cab, a piece of chivalry that will cost him dearly in the days to come. By the next morning, the mysterious woman is dead, killed by a trick shot that only a sharpshooter like Rick would be able to pull off.
None of the papers take notice of an unknown young woman’s murder. Instead, the scandal du jour is the death of rich misanthrope Anselm File, who left a fortune to the daughter he abandoned years ago. Three women claim to be the missing heiress: Hollywood starlet Sabine, gangster’s moll Carlotta, and southern belle Nelda. Even as he’s fighting off murder charges, Rick gets dragged into this circus by Anselm’s cousin Brenda File. She wants him to determine whether one of the claimants is legit. Rick can’t help noting that, if the genuine daughter cannot be found, all the money will go to Brenda and her niece Debby.
Along the way, Rick survives a number of murder attempts. All he knows about his assailant is that she is a woman. Needless to say, such a female-heavy case unnerves him, especially as he finds himself drawn to the lovely Debby.
The Hornets’ Nest is a highly professional production. It’s more workmanlike than inspired, but Bruno Fischer is a skilled workman, displaying a dry sense of humor between all the shootouts and heaving bosoms. A trip to Palm City, a down-at-heel Florida resort town, makes for a welcome change of scene, though not always a cheerful one.
Somewhere from the field of tombstones a rhythmic tapping drifted toward them […] The rich Florida moon spread an eerie pallor over the white and gray tombstones. The tapping was like the beating of a giant heart here among the dead. Rick was conscious of his wound now as he followed the others from one grave to another. There was a coldness in his blood that was not fear. The three other men scurrying from tombstone to tombstone seemed as tenuous and unreal as the spirits of those who lay beneath the ground might be.
Everything moves along very quickly. The Hornets’ Nest is like the weather—if you don’t like it, wait five minutes. That goes for the romance, the sharp-shooting, the gangsters, everything. So many characters and subplots cycle in and out and back in again that there’s no point even trying to keep track. Even the murders blend together after a while.
The Hornets’ Nest is a fast, zingy read that, while acknowledging that its readers have brains, practically demands that they turn them off. Rick Train is an appealing character, street-smart without being cynical, with a certain sense of decency that inspires him to stick with the case. While not quite a bullseye, The Hornets’ Nest at least hits the target.
The Criminal Record, March 4, 1944
Action-filled tale of mysterious deaths, fortune-hunting ladies, and super-tough gangsters. Exciting.
The Hornet’s Nest is out of print, with used copies available. It was included in a Detective Book Club volume with Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly and The Deaths of Lorna Karen by Roman McDougald.