The Brass Cupcake is a strong example of John MacDonald’s entertaining approach to the detective and noir milieu.
Only a few years after World War II, former cop Cliff Bartells is working as an insurance investigator in the thoroughly corrupt Florence City, Florida. Having quit the force over an ethical crisis, Cliff now recovers stolen merchandise for his employers. When a wealthy Boston dowager is killed in what everyone assumes is a botched robbery, Cliff’s job puts him in the dangerous terrain between the local criminal establishment and the compromised police force. But the victim’s fiery niece, Melody Chance, inspires Cliff to pursue both the recovery of her aunt’s jewels and the truth about her murder. Using his wits and a lot of guts, Cliff pursues an end game that could have a far greater impact than merely catching a killer.
The prolific MacDonald was a noir/detective genre master in the post-War era. His southern noirs took full advantage of their distinctive locales, showing that crime and mayhem could flourish in the sun just as easily as they did in grittier northern cities. The Brass Cupcake was a highly entertaining crime caper, packed with unusual characters, overheated scenarios and lots of sardonic humor. Cliff was a highly engaging narrator, directing the reader through the treacherous environs of his corrupt home turf with a winking self-knowledge and a healthy skepticism for everyone around him. The unconventional Melody made for a strong match, an intelligent, hard-driving woman not given to sentimentality. MacDonald populated this universe with a cavalcade of colorful crooks, cops, hustlers and honest saps, giving his lead plenty of headaches, wrong turns and calamities along the way.
Like many of his contemporaries, MacDonald didn’t waste time, keeping the plot moving along at a rapid pace en route to a rousing, elaborately constructed finale. With a perfectly balanced blend of character, plot and tone, MacDonald crafted an entirely absorbing bit of comedic noir that still packed a dangerous punch.
The Brass Cupcake demonstrates why MacDonald’s work should be on the reading list of any serious genre enthusiast.