Once upon a time, the name “Lawrence Sanders” was prominently displayed in the paperback aisles of any supermarket. With novels that boasted a heady mixture of sex, greed, and blood, Sanders' particular brand of crime fiction was accessible, addictive, and downright delicious to any reader seeking escape. And now that warmer temperatures are just around the corner, it's the perfect time to pick up in his Florida-set Archy McNally series.
Years before McNally's 1991 debut, Sanders got his big break with his 1970 Edgar Award-winning book, The Anderson Tapes—the debut novel he wrote at the age of 50. By that point, he'd already made a steady career out of magazine writing, though the meteoric success of Tapes fully launched him into the world of books. Until his death in 1998, Sanders dabbled in nearly every variation of the crime genre—legal thrillers, detective stories, capers, you name it. His bibliography includes the popular Deadly Sins and Commandments series, the former of which was adapted into a Frank Sinatra film.
But one of Sanders' most beloved creations was Archy McNally, a suave womanizer-slash-PI who served the wealthiest neighborhoods of Palm Beach. The first of Archy's 13 outings came in McNally’s Secret, where a robbery case—Lady Cynthia's Horowitz's stamp collection has mysteriously vanished—explodes into a full-blown homicide investigation. Though he's instructed to keep his sleuthing discreet, Archy soon gets caught in the crosshairs of violence and scandal, which threatens to expose his own dirty laundry. Featuring all the murder, money, and mischief of the best beach reads, it should be your go-to book for the vacation days ahead.
Read on for an excerpt of McNally's Secret, and then download the book.
...Lady C. was reclining on a chaise lounge in the shade of an umbrella table. Not only was she lying in the shade, but she was swaddled in a voluminous white flannel robe, wore white socks to protect feet and ankles, and long white gloves to shield wrists and hands from that old devil sun. And, of course, she wore a wide-brimmed panama straw hat that provided even deeper shadow for her face and neck.
There were two phones, cordless and cellular, in view as I approached. Horowitz was using the cellular and waved me to a nearby canvas director’s chair while she continued her conversation. I could not help but overhear.
“No, no, and no,” she was saying wrathfully. “Just forget it. I don’t want to hear another word about it. Listen, sweetie, if I thought it was humanly possible, I’d tell you to go fuck yourself. Am I coming through loud and clear?”
She hung up and glared angrily at me through green-tinted sunglasses. “Have you met Mercedes Blair?” she demanded.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” I said.
“Believe me, lad,” she said bitterly, “it’s no pleasure. That woman is one of the great bubbleheads of Palm Beach. The last time I was in Cairo, I bought this absolutely divine ivory dildo. After I got back I made the mistake of showing it to Mercedes, not knowing she’s one of these save-the-elephant people. Well, she turned positively livid, and ever since she’s been busting my chops. She wants me to throw it away! Can you imagine? I just can’t get it through her tiny, tiny brain that the elephant croaked centuries ago. That ivory dildo is ancient Egyptian, a beautiful antique, and besides, it’s quite useful. But she keeps insisting I get rid of it. I’ll never speak to that stupe again as long as I live.”
Years ago I had come to the conclusion that life is strange. I decided then that the only way to hang on to one’s sanity with a sweaty grasp is to acknowledge the incomprehensibility of life. Accept all—and just nod knowingly.
So I listened to this tale of the ivory dildo, nodded knowingly, and made sympathetic noises. Lady Cynthia finished her tirade, leaned down to pick up a tumbler alongside her chaise. It contained what I guessed to be her first gin-and-bitters of the day. She took a sip and visibly relaxed.
“Want a drink, lad?” she asked pleasantly.
“Not at the moment, thank you.”
“That jazz you gave Connie about the hard-nosed gerbils—that was all bullshit. Right?”
“Right,” I said.
“And you want to ask about my missing stamps. Prescott said you’d be looking into it. Ask away.”
“Who knows about the disappearance of the Inverted Jennies?”
“Me, your father, you.”
“You haven’t told Consuela or anyone else on your staff?”
She shook her head. “Maybe one of them pinched the stamps,” she said darkly.
“Maybe,” I said. “Let’s see... in addition to Connie, you’ve got a butler, housekeeper, two maids, chef, and chauffeur. Right?”
“Wrong,” she said. “The butler and one of the maids quit about two weeks ago. Claimed they couldn’t stand the summer in Florida. Idiots!”
“So that leaves a staff of five,” I said. “Anyone else staying in the house?”
“My son Harry Smythe and his wife, Doris. Also my son Alan DuPey and his bride, Felice. They’ve only been married a month. And my daughter, Gina Stanescu. Also Angus Wolfson, an old friend. He’s down from Boston for a couple of weeks. He’s gay—but so what?”
“A full house,” I commented. “They were all here when the stamps disappeared?”
“Who knew the combination to the wall safe besides you?”
“No one. But that doesn’t matter. I never locked it.”
I looked at her and sighed. “I’ll have that drink now, please,” I said, figuring the sun had to be over the yardarm somewhere in the world.
“Of course. What?”
“Vodka and tonic will do me fine.”
She used the cordless phone to call her kitchen and order up my drink.
“Lady Cynthia,” I said, “why didn’t you lock your wall safe?”
“I couldn’t be bothered,” she said. “That stupid combination—I kept forgetting it and had to rummage through my desk to find it. Besides, I trusted people.”
I didn’t make the obvious reply to that. We waited in silence until the housekeeper, Mrs. Marsden, a motherly type, brought my drink. It had a thick slice of fresh lime—just the way I like it.
After the housekeeper departed, I said, “I don’t mean to get picky about this, but if you couldn’t remember the combination to your safe, isn’t it possible you forgot where you put the stamps?”
She shook her head. “They weren’t just in an envelope or anything like that. They were between clear plastic pages in a little book about the size of a diary. A thin book bound in red leather specially made to hold the Inverted Jennies. It’s not something you’d easily misplace. Also, I’ve torn the house apart looking for it. It’s just gone.”
“Would you object if I asked how you came into possession of those stamps in the first place?”
“No,” she said, “I wouldn’t object. Go ahead and ask.”
I laughed. “Lady Cynthia, you’re pulling my leg.”
“I’d love to, lad,” she said, leering like Groucho Marx, “but people might talk. I received those silly upside-down stamps as part of my divorce settlement from my first husband, Max Kirschner. Dear old Max. He loved to wear my lingerie, but he really knew how to manage a bank. He bought the stamps in Trieste. I think he paid ten thousand American for the block of four. But of course that was years and years ago.”
“Was he a stamp collector?”
“No, he just liked to own rare things. Like me.”
I wasn’t making great progress—perhaps because she seemed to be treating her loss so lightly. But that was her way—the dictum of haut monde: Never complain and never explain.
“All right,” I said, “if the stamps weren’t misplaced, let’s assume they were nicked. Anyone in particular you suspect might have sticky fingers?”
The question troubled her. “I’d hate to think it was one of my staff. They’ve all been with me for years.”
“But you said the butler and one of the maids quit. Was this before the stamps disappeared or after you became aware they were missing?”
She thought about that a moment. “No, the stamps were still here after the butler and maid left. I remember now: They quit, and the next day Alan DuPey showed up with his bride. Felice had never seen the stamps, so that night at dinner I brought them down to show her. Then, after dinner, I took them back upstairs and put them in the wall safe. That was the last time I saw them.”
“Any signs around the house of a break-in? Jimmied doors or broken windows—anything like that?”
“No. And after the gate is locked at night, Mrs. Marsden always turns on the electronic alarm system.”
“Are you certain she turns it on every night?”
“Absolutely. If it’s not turned on by midnight, I get a phone call from the security agency to remind me.”
“What do you do when you have a party that lasts until the wee small hours?”
“I always hire one or two guards for the occasion. Then, after everyone has gone home, the guards leave, the gate is locked, and the alarm activated.”
“Very efficient,” I observed, and looked into my half-empty glass. No clues there. “Okay, let’s put aside the idea of a break-in or someone on your staff pinching the stamps. Now what about your houseguests?”
“Don’t be silly,” she snapped at me. “My God, lad, they’re family. Except for Angus Wolfson, and I’ve known him for ages.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “And are they all well-off?”
“Not one of them is hurting.” She paused to finish her drink, then crunched the ice between her teeth. “But of course when it comes to money, enough is never enough—if you know what I mean.”
I nodded. “Lady Cynthia, if you expect McNally and Son to make a complete investigation of this matter, you’ll have to tell your staff and houseguests about the theft.”
She stared at me, outraged. Then: “Shit! If I do that, it’ll be all over Palm Beach within two hours.”
“True,” I agreed, “but that can’t be helped.”
“But that’s why I didn’t go to the police. I wanted to keep the whole thing private.”
“Can’t be done,” I said, shaking my head. “How on earth can I make discreet inquiries if people don’t know what I’m talking about?”
She considered that. “I guess you’re right,” she said finally, sighing. “But it means cops, reporters, and maybe the TV people. What am I going to tell them?”
“Lie,” I said cheerfully. “Tell them the stamps weren’t stolen at all but have been sent to a New York auction house for appraisal.”
She laughed. “You’re a devious lad, you know that? All right, I’ll tell the staff and guests.”
“Good. Then I can get the show on the road.” I put my empty glass on the umbrella table and stood up. “One more request: I’d like to take a look at the so-called scene of the crime, if I may. Do you mind if I go poking about in your bedroom for a few minutes?”
“Go ahead and poke,” she said. “You know your way around the place, don’t you?”
“Only the ground floor.”
“My bedroom is on the second. South wing. It stretches the width of the house. The east windows overlook the ocean and the west windows look down on the pool and patio. There...”
She gestured, and I looked to the second floor where opened windows, screened, were framed by French blue shutters.
“You can pry into anything you like,” she said. “Nothing’s locked.”
“It won’t take long,” I promised. “Thank you for the drink.”
I started away but she called, “Archy,” and I turned back, surprised that she had used my name. Usually I was “lad” or, when speaking of me to others, “Prescott’s son.”
She stared at me a moment, and I waited. “Last night you dined at L’Europe,” she said, almost accusingly. “With Jennifer Towley.”
“Oh-ho,” I said, “the grapevine has been working overtime.”
“Are you seeing her?” she demanded.
“Watch your back, lad,” she said. “There’s more to her than meets the eye. If I were you, I’d bring that association to a screeching halt. The lady could turn out to be a problem.”
I grinned at her. “One never knows, do one?” I said.
I continued on to the house, wondering just what the hell she was implying—and deciding it was merely Palm Beach gossip.
The interior of the Horowitz home was gorgeous, right out of Southern Accents, and all the more impressive because I knew the mistress had done the decorating herself. It was an eclectic mix of Victorian, Louis Quinze, Early American, and even a few Bauhaus touches. I know that sounds like a mishmash, but everything fit, nothing clashed, and the predominant colors were rich wine shades, a welcome relief from the sorbet pastels of most South Florida mansions’, many of which resemble the lobby of a Miami Beach hotel.
Lady Cynthia’s bedroom was large enough to accommodate an enormous four-poster bed lacquered in claret red, a tall wardrobe of carved pine, an escritoire painted with gamboling putti, and much more.
There were three huge crystal vases of fresh flowers, one in her dressing room. The walk-in closet contained enough costumes to outfit the female cast of My Fair Lady, and the racks of shoes would have made Imelda Marcos gnash her teeth. The bathroom was golden yellow: tile, tub, sink, John, bidet—everything. The faucets were tarnished gold: a nice touch, I thought. One strives for careless elegance, doesn’t one?
I didn’t search through the desk or turn over chair cushions—nothing like that. I was interested only in the wall safe, and that was easy to spot since it was not concealed behind a painting or camouflaged in any way. It projected slightly from the wall just to the left of the canopied bed. It was nothing special: single dial, single handle. The door opened easily and noiselessly. Inside were several manila envelopes tied with what appeared to be old shoelaces. I didn’t inspect the contents, but closed the safe door again, latching it with a twist of the stainless steel handle.
What I was interested in was the distance from the bedroom door to the wall safe. I paced it off. Fourteen long steps. I estimated an intruder could slip into the bedroom, open the safe door, extract the small red leather book containing the Inverted Jennies, close the safe door, and whisk from the bedroom within a minute. Two at the most. It was a cakewalk. But who took the walk?
Then I found another problem. On a bedside table, almost directly below the wall safe, was a large suede jewel case. I lifted the lid: It was like looking into a Tiffany display case. Question: What self-respecting crook would swipe the stamps and then not pause a sec to grab up a handful of those glittering gems? A puzzlement.
Hands in my pocket, I strolled about the bedroom, thinking it was spacious enough to swallow my entire suite at the McNally manse. I believe I was whistling “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” when I wandered to the west windows and looked down.
Lady Cynthia was paddling around in the swimming pool, obviously naked but still wearing her panama hat and sunglasses. Mrs. Marsden stood waiting on the tiled border of the pool, holding a big bath towel. As I watched, Lady C. came slowly wading out, white body gleaming wetly, and I saw how extraordinary she was.
Usually in the presence of great beauty, one has the urge to leap into the air accompanied by the clicking of heels. But now, seeing that incredible nude emerging from the pool—Venus rising from the chlorine—I felt only an ineffable sadness, realizing I had been born forty years too late.
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