Stewart Sterling’s 1955 murder mystery Alibi Baby had a striking cover of a blonde showing a lot of skin, asleep or dead in bed, and a blurb from the New York Times that the book was “most ingenious…and fascinating.”
It was the blurb from such an exalted review site that sent me looking for a copy of Alibi Baby, and, in reading it, I learned a bunch of things:
- As salacious as the cover was, the page 11 description of Maylene Kierze, a young woman from Georgia in one of the most expensive suites in the Plaza Royale Hotel, was even more so. Indeed, this was a rare case of the cover art under-promising the story inside.
- The salaciousness of the description of Maylene was the end of the salaciousness in the novel. Gil Vine, the hotel’s chief of security, finds her in tatters of pajamas while investigating a call of a disturbance. She has a bit to say but then falls asleep and, later, falls dead of a drug overdose. Then, Gil spends the novel trying to solve the crime — which turns out to be multiple crimes, three murders or at least deaths in six hours — and keep himself out of jail and protect the reputation of the hotel.
- I have since discovered that Sterling wrote a number of mysteries in which Gil serves as the investigator. I found it fun to learn, through the novel, the inside workings of a fancy hotel in the mid-20th century, not that I would have ever gotten in one at the time. And it was fun to see Gil use a variety of hotel employees to gather information and act as lookouts and serve as go-betweens. This was a fresh approach to the police procedural, an organization being employed to solve a crime but without the normal cop paraphernalia.
- On the other hand, certain straight-forward things that cops can do, such as get into places they want to get into and get people to talk who don’t want to talk, weren’t in Gil’s toolkit. So, the story got a bit complicated at times as Gil had to jury-rig ways of progressing in his investigation.
- That relates to the “ingenious” in the blurb. Sterling’s plot is very convoluted, and that complexity is exacerbated by his lack of cop-ness. As a result,The ending was confusing for me.
- Nonetheless, Sterling wrote a fast-moving story, and he didn’t leave a lot of time for the reader to think too closely about what was happening. A lot happens in those first six hours, and, in the end, Gil solves the crimes just about 24 hours after the first was committed. It’s a page-turner.
- Even with the confusion at the end, I enjoyed the ride, and I’m looking forward to reading another Sterling mystery featuring Gil Vine.
Patrick T. Reardon