Monday, 5 August 2019

Mute Witness (Bullitt)

Author: Robert L Pike (aka Robert L Fish)
First Published: 1963
Pages: 175

The usual disclaimer here - I recently acquired this in physical format for a very cheap price, although the copy I bought is the 1969 Penguin Books version that ties into the 1968 film Bullitt (more on the that later) and not the edition pictured to left which is currently available online at a staggering £100!

Robert L Pike was a pseudonym used by the American writer Robert L Fish (clearly he had a sense of humour).  Born in 1912, Cleveland, Ohio, Fish began his working life as an engineer, before moving to South America and eventually taking up writing crime stories. He contributed to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and won the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel in 1962, for The Fugitive (no connection to the TV series). According to Wikipedia he also used the name Lawrence Roberts but I have not been able to track anything down in that name yet.

Mute Witness is set in New York in the early sixties. It follows a few days in the life of Lieutenant Clancy of the 52nd precinct.

It's Friday 9:10am. Currently covering for his superior Captain Wise who is sick at home, he is summoned to the Criminal Courts Office by the District Attorney, a man by the name of Chalmers. He is not to be messed with; Chalmers and Clancy have recent history which resulted in Clancy's demotion so they are off to a difficult start. Chalmers orders Clancy to look after a witness for him. A member of the mob is turning evidence and has travelled from the west coast to New York to testify in order to work out a deal with the DA. Chalmers is very keen to make a name for himself with this case. He tells Clancy he must ensure the safety of the witness until the trial the following Tuesday and gives him the address of where the witness is holed up in a low rent hotel.

Reluctantly Clancy does as he is asked and gathers his team, Sergeants Koproski and Stanton, to meet at the hotel. They make contact with the witness, Johnny Rossi, and decide on who will take the first watch.

By now, if you are at all familiar with the film version, Bullitt, you will notice some jarring differences. The names and the locations were changed. More on this later. Also if you are familiar, or even just reasonably good at guessing, you will work out what happens next. There is an attempt on Rossi's life and he is blasted with a shotgun. They race him to a private hospital where he is treated by the on-duty intern. Setting up another guard they leave Rossi to recover while Clancy and his team begin to investigate. Inevitably another attempt on Rossi's life will come and they need to get to the bottom of it fast so he can get to court on Tuesday. Clancy is immediately suspicious of Chalmers - how come the shooter knew where they were so quickly?

What follows is a nice little police procedural number by Fish. The time frame is very short and so the plot races by with sections of the book broken by day/time markers. Clancy is forced into doing something dangerous and against protocol, and it will only be through his sheer determination and the loyalty of his team and colleagues like Doc Freeman and Captain Wise that hold he will be able to solve the case and hold off an increasingly persistent Chalmers.

Fish writes cleanly and clearly, and it was a pleasure to read this novel. It really wasn't what I was expecting (based on my memory of the McQueen film) but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would as soon as I realised it was so different. Clancy is older than Bullitt - he comes across as more determined and more of a blood-hound type of detective never sleeping, never eating and chain smoking till he drops - not for him the luxury of a rich beautiful girlfriend in the form of Jacqueline Bisset to bed, nor the power of a Ford Mustang to drive.

The cast of characters supporting Clancy is great, especially Koproski and Stanton and Freeman, Fish delivers well rounded people with their own motives and quirks to keep things interesting. In terms of action, there is not really any to speak of. This is a 100% procedural, and the enjoyment you get is from trying to work out how Clancy and Co. are going to catch the hit man. No shoot-outs, no car chases.

In terms of the adaptation into Bullitt, clearly moving the entire story to San Francisco and losing the names of the detectives is a big one. Giving Frank Bullitt a girlfriend is another one - but maybe the studio just wouldn't green light a film with McQueen in with no love interest (its handled poorly in my opinion). The book was written in 1963 and Bullitt made in 1968. When you consider the changes in those short five years its not surprising that the film differs in others ways - there is still a feel of the fifties in Mute Witness - but Bullitt has its roots gripped firmly in the future half of the decade and is even a forerunner for many 70s films that copied its style.

I kept waiting for DA Chalmers to play a bigger part in the novel because Robert Vaughn was so good in Bullitt - alas its another of the ways in which the film diverges. I won't go on any more as I feel like I will spoil the novel for anyone interested. I would recommend reading Mute Witness. You may not like it as much as Bullitt, or like me, you may like it more for being the original story in its own right.

Fish is quite well represented in eBook format in my native country. You can collect most of his novels although they are not particularly cheap to pick up, so look out for deals would be my advice. His series set in Brazil, the ten volume Captain José Da Silva Mysteries are all available and would be worth looking into if you are after something a bit different in terms of location.