Black Eye – Neville Steed

ARC provided by Endeavour Press and Net Galley in exchange of an honest review 

When I first came across this title at Net Galley, I wasn’t really impressed. Black eye sounded like a reference to some pugilistic physical confrontation or possibly some kind of ancient precious stone with a curse on it (after all, it was drafted in the mystery section). Well, I was wrong on both counts. Black Eye is a play on Private Eye, with Black being the name of our charming protagonist. The synopsis of the book was intriguing, as was the timeline and the setting and so it was fortunate that I was able to get my hands on it. Not until I had read the book and marveled at the author’s very smart grasp of the era did I find out that the book was first published in 1989. This being a much needed reprint. Well, I am amazed that I have missed out on this author since I pride myself on being up-to-date on my British Crime writers – at least the ones that deal with stories set in the early 1900’s. Wonders never cease and I think Endeavour Press has got the right idea going about publishing this gem.

The Original Cover
The Original Cover

So, meet Johnny Black. A dashing young pilot who lived for the thrill and the novelty of the open skies. Until, that is, he was involved in a crash that resulted in him being grounded for life. After pottering around with a few ideas, he wins a good hand at the races and finally settles for trying his hand at private detection. It turns out to be not as easy as he had imagined it to be. The adverts in the newspaper yield almost zero results and funds are depleting at an alarming rate. And to top it all his first case is one that involves spying on a married woman because her husband is worried about her having an affair and that too in exchange of a bill that he has to pay. At this point, an old friend of his (who actually turns out to be considerably more than that as the story unfolds) brings him to the notice of another friend who is in need of discreet professional help.

What Johnny takes to be mere female histrionics quickly turns into something quite terrifying as the number of disappearing and dead bodies keeps increasing. As Johnny and Tracy (the old friend) try their best to stay a step ahead of a ruthless psychopath, with a lot of help from friends, the story takes numerous interesting twists and turns. Johnny is the quintessential ‘cool’ guy of that era with a kind heart and enough brains and courage to complete the package. In effect, the type that is always easy to fall for.

The language and the writing style is also characteristically 1920’s, with the phrases and way of speech that seemed to have been unique to the era. The dry, British humour in the book is spot on for my tastes and was worked into the story with a deft hand.

As a fan of Agatha Christie, it is always a joy and enormous relief to find that there was someone else who managed to do work that, if not similar, deals with a genre and an era that seems like one in which one may have wished to be born. Having discovered Neville Steed, it seems a pity that he wrote only 12 books, of which only two deal with Johnny Black. Must read for any Agatha Christie fans.

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