Created by E.V. Cunningham
Pseudonym of Howard Fast
“There can be nothing as cold and deadly as an evening of pedagogues frozen in their timidity of thought and multifold institutional fears, or pompous and irrational in their half-knowledge and their book-bound ignorance. . . .”
Howard Fast is yet another now-famous author who dabbled in the genre, giving us Sylvia (1960), an interesting one-off about a bookish, unassuming and somewhat reluctant private eye from Los Angeles, ALAN MACKLIN, who’s hired by Frederick Summers, an uptight millionaire, to do a background check on his fiancée.
It seems his betrothed, Sylvia, is living pretty large, speaks several languages and comes off as a woman of (some) wealth and taste. But she has no visible means of support. So Macklin, working from a few lines of handwriting, a photo and a copy of a book of her poetry, sets off to find out who she is and where she came from, tracing her dark, troubled past to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New York City, El Paso and even across the border into Mexico.
But as he follows the trail — and it’s not pretty — Macklin slowly realizes that he’s falling in love with his subject — or perhaps, her hard-fought, steely reinvention of herself, which he’s beginning to see as an admirable act of heroism. As one point or another prostitution, rape, blackmail and more all come into play, but this is not some guns a-blazing mean streets novel of blood and thunder–what violence there is occurs in flashback, and there’s no gunplay at all. Rather, it’s a slow, thoughtful journey of deduction and discovery, a slow burn, meet-cute marred only by some smug and dated moralizing near the end. But watching Macklin work the case, unaware of how the case is working him, makes this a compelling read.
While he was blacklisted, the author published about thirty crime novels under the alias of E.V. Cunningham, most featuring Masao Masuto, a Japanese-American detective in the Beverly Hills Police Department, and another dozen standalones, all of which featured women’s names as the title. Sylvia was his first stab at crime fiction.
As he wrote in the forward of a 1992 reprint, he was very proud to finally claim these books as his own in his own country, and was especially proud of Sylvia. “It began with a woman’s name: Sylvia,” he wrote, “I loved the name, I loved the (Franz Schubert) song, ‘Who is Sylvia and what is she?’ And the other sweet song ‘Sylvia’s hair is like the night.’ Dark hair, raven black, a tall woman and beautiful. I could envision her as I might a living person.”
The novel was generally well-received upon publication, and proved quite successful, particularly in France, where it was published under Fast’s own name, and was made into a film in 1965, directed by Gordon Douglas and starring George Maharis as Macklin, and a very blonde Carroll Baker as Sylvia. What happened to the dark hair?
Maharis is pretty good as the would-be history professor turned private eye, discreetly chewing gum and always looking slightly uneasy, as if the gumshoes don’t quite fit, but plowing a straight and entertaining path from clue to clue, and Baker gets to play Sylvia at several different ages, as victim, as predator and several spots in between. Peter Lawford plays the millionaire — it’s essentially a nothing role, which is about right. Unfortunately, the film — like the book — falls apart when hunter and prey finally meet, and they aim for big talky era-appropriate statements and a trite romantic ending that never quite rings true. They should have kept it small, and let the audience decide.
Dated, but intriguing.
- “A tracer with vicarious points of interest is a kind of combination sob-suspense story and the handling is tough to tremulous.”
— Kirkus on the novel
- “Sylvia is almost an anti-private eye novel. The ending throws the whole genre for a loop… It’s that ending that makes this something more than just another hard boiled private eye novel, and a good one at that. Sylvia is ultimately a novel about a private eye and not a private eye novel.”
— David Vineyard (Mystery*File)
- Sylvia (1960) | Buy this book
- SYLVIA | Watch it now!
Based on the novel by E.V. Cunningham (pseud. of Howard Fast)
Screenplay by Sydney Boehm
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Starring Carroll Baker as Sylvia
George Maheris as ALAN MACKLIN
and Peter Lawford as Frederick Summers
Also starring Edmond O”Brien, Joanne Dru, Viveca Lindfors, Ann Southern, Lloyd Bochner, Viveca Lindfors, Aldo Ray, Jay Novello, Connie Gilchrist, Alan Carney, Manuel Padilla Jr.
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