Hard Case Crime trumpets False Negative as Joseph Koenig’s first work in nearly twenty years. Koenig wrote four well-regarded mysteries and thrillers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but he had not published anything since 1993’s Brides of Blood. False Negative marks Koenig’s return. It is a return not only to publishing, but also to an earlier era of crime writing.
Koenig’s protagonist, Adam Jordan, is a rising journalistic talent in 1950s Atlantic City. Nevertheless, Jordan commits a major error when he reuses old copy to describe a speech never given by a Congressman. Though Jordan expected the politico to rehash a timeworn speech, the Congressman instead drops dead before the speech starts. Adam Jordan’s story runs, and the obvious negligence ends his newspaper career.
Jordan’s unemployment prompts him to start writing for Real Detective magazine, leaving behind journalistic prestige for true crime and pulp. Jordan may switch publications, but he doggedly refuses to abandon his investigations into the death of Suzie Chase, a would-be Miss America wedded to a violent-tempered Yankees prospect. With handcuffs, bondage and strangulation, Chase’s lurid murder is ideally suited for true crime.
But the pulps have rules, even if those rules differ from newspapers’. Adam Jordan can’t write about Suzie Chase – or the subsequent women murdered in the same manner – until he can pin the crime on the murderer. Jordan is indefatigable, even as the narrative sometimes detours from the search for Chase’s killer. He’s a busy man, juggling two girlfriends, increasing responsibilities at Real Detective and trying to stay alive. Powerful interests in Atlantic City don’t look kindly on Jordan’s continual prying. And False Negative is shot through with seamy types: pimps, pornographers, pot smokers and other lowlifes.
False Negative starts off as straightforward pulp. Koenig’s narration at the beginning of the novel is tough, terse and unsentimental. While our memories quickly recall pulp’s evolution into hardboiled detective fiction, Adam Jordan represents a less remembered – but almost as frequent – pulp hero: the hardboiled newspaperman. Koenig gives us Jordan, and initially reveals him to us as a hard-nosed crusading archetype.
Koenig ingeniously scrutinizes the archetype he first presents, however, and False Negative is more than a nostalgia piece. Koenig is intimately familiar with true crime and pulp magazines circa 1953, and brings the period to life. We see not only the idealized reporter, but also how true crime magazines were operated. In a spare style that eschews both sentimentality and censure, Koenig demonstrates how such magazines exploited Middle America’s thirst for sensationalism and scandal. False Negative also handles Northern race relations in the early 1950s with equal deftness.
The beautiful Glen Orbik painting on the cover is not misleading. False Negative contains fine pulp writing in a style that would be right at home in the pages of Real Detective in 1953. But Koenig gives us more. Unlike the pulp tales Adam Jordan writes, False Negative is a self-aware exploration of the genre. Koenig gives use meta-pulp: pulp about pulp. He does so in an effortless style that is never pretentious. The resolution of the fetish murders is visceral, exploitive and satisfying. Koenig’s prose achieves a rare feat: making us regret the disappearance of pulp writing while not lamenting the cynical industry that produced it.