In a writing career that spanned much of the 20th century, Howard Fast wrote some 76 novels, roughly one a year, starting in 1933.
To avoid flooding his own market, Fast used pseudonyms for about a third of the books — Behn Boruch three times and E. V. Cunningham 20 times. The Boruch books were biblical stories. The Cunningham novels were all mysteries, a dozen of which were titled with a woman’s surname, such as Sylvia, Phyllis and Alice.
Generally, these woman-name books, published between 1960 and 1973, were frequently re-issued in new editions and often translated into French, German, Swedish and Italian, as detailed in “E.V. Cunningham’s Women” at an extensive website devoted to Fast and his work.
The one title in the dozen that seems to have attracted the least attention in terms of follow-up editions is Helen, published 1966. And, after reading the novel, I can see why.
A lawyer on the make
For one thing, the guy who is trying to solve the mystery — which can be summed up as: Who was Helen Pikarsky? Why did she murder Judge Alexander Knowton? — isn’t very attractive.
He’s Blake Eddyman, a 37-year-old lawyer on the make in San Verdo, a desert gambling mecca that’s a stand-in for Las Vegas, aflow with cash and corruption, and he’s angling for a piece of the action. Married with two children, Blake isn’t the most endearing husband or attentive father, and, in fact, quickly falls in love — whatever that means to him — with Helen when he agrees to act as her defense attorney.
It’s a job he doesn’t want, but the DA twists his arm, holding out the possibility of future goodies if he accepts the task of giving Helen a good enough defense.
No one expects her to get off. She’s all but certain to be convicted of murder and executed by hanging. And, aside from the bad publicity that the hanging of a woman will bring to San Verdo, no one wants her to get off.
No one except Blake who becomes enthralled by Helen’s preternatural beauty, Olympian indifference and uncanny calm. She acts unconcerned to be facing trial and execution, and that drives Blake mad with fear that he will lose her although, of course, he’s never been in the same room with her except in the jail and court.
Helen is an odd mystery inasmuch as the investigation that Blake and authorities conduct doesn’t move toward a solution, only the deepening of the mystery of this 24-year-old streetwalker from Chicago.
Helen is the only one who will solve her mystery, and, when she does near the end of the book, it’s not the sort of crisp, clean-cut answer that most readers of this genre expect.
This novel is a story that Cunningham (Fast) uses to look at a wide spectrum of mid-20th century life — psychiatry and greed, religious faith and depravity, the business of gambling and the strictures of law.
Read with one frame of mind, Helen will be a frustrating story.
Read with another, it may be thought-provoking.
Patrick T. Reardon