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George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

Visa to Death

cover image By: Lacy, Ed (pseudonym of Leonard S. Zinberg) (male)
Publisher: Pocket Books, Inc. (Permabooks edition M - 3036)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 317: PS3523 .A238 V57 1956
Contributor: K. Dykstra


Era: 1950s Author as on Cover: Ed Lacy Geographic Locale: New York City Date of Publication: 1956  |  Original Date: 1955 Setting: urban; much of the action takes place in or near the Grand Caf in the Washington Heights section of New York City. The Grand Caf is patronized by neighborhood regulars, most of whom make little money and are unlikely to do much traveling; we are told that it's a good place for people to "escape -- temporarily -- the bitterness of tenement poverty." Other characters range into the middle class. Motives: wartime corruption, desire for easy money; desire to prevent exposure of the passport scheme devised by Pearson and Lund leads to murders Alternate Title: The Best That Ever Did It

Plot Summary

Franklin Andersun and Edward Turner are shot to death outside a bar. The problem is that no one can figure out why. Turner, a police detective, does not seem to have any relationship to Andersun; Andersun seems not to be involved in anything that could lead to murder; and so forth. The widowed Betsy Turner wants answers faster than the police can provide them, so Lieutenant Al Swan refers her to his brother-in-law, Barney Harris, a mechanic and strong-man type who does part-time work as a private investigator. Harris warns Mrs. Turner that he has never had a murder case before, and he knows that the police don't intend for him to do much work. She hires him anyway. When we aren't following Harris' progress, we're learning the life histories of the criminals, two Americans whose experiences in the armed forces in Europe during World War II taught them to always look for "the angle" that would bring in fast money. As the end of the book approaches, we know why Andersun and Turner were killed, and we watch to see whether or not Harris and the local police will catch the culprits.

Major Characters

Barney Harris adult male, about 6 ft., 4 in., strong, mechanic and part-time private investigator

Lieutenant Franzino adult male, middle-aged, "a small man, shabbily dressed....He had a thin face with a banana nose that had been busted a long time ago. An old hat was pushed back on his head, covering most of the iron-gray hair, and he looked serious, humorless, and very capable," teeth yellowed by tobacco, police detective

Al Swan adult male, middle-aged, "looked modern and slick....built like a strong middleweight and wore a girdle to keep his stomach flat. His clothes were the kind that said they were expensive, without shouting it, and Al took up a lot of time with his 'grooming.' ...manicured hands. But there wasn't anything foppish about Al; his fat face had the sullen cast of a fighter"; police lieutenant in charge of precinct detective squad

Martin Pearson adult male, 32 years old, "stocky, and of average height. He had a very ordinary face, except for his thick, bushy hair," which is dyed different colors at different times; photographer, ex-G.I., criminal looking for opportunities in post-war world

Sam Lund adult male, early 30s, "a large man....if his body was flabby it still showed signs of having been muscular at one time. His thin-featured face was overhandsome, but except for a fringe of hair above his ears, he was completely bald", actor, ex-G.I., criminal looking for opportunities in a post-war world

Franklin Andersun adult male, late 20s, "a thin young man....with the kind of face women didn't look at twice, or even once," stock clerk, ex-G.I.

Edward Turner adult male, police detective

Danny Macci adult male, middle-aged, "well over six feet tall. He had bushy strong hair that was all gray, an ugly face, and a large square chin....along with a pair of ears thickened like stuffed prunes, Macci had also contracted an eye disease that left him blind", former wrestler, now blind

Betsy Turner adult female, early 20s, "solidly built, the kind of strong figure the street-corner whistlers call 'built up from the ground.' She either had good breasts or a smart bra, and when you got to the face -- it didn't belong to either the figure or the clothes; it was a teen-ager's face, very solemn and big-eyed, her dark hair even-cut in bangs", wife to Ed Turner


guns, fists -- the male body inflicts a lot of violence, e.g. Danny crushes Pearson, breaking several of his ribs.

Level of Violence

the two murders get little space; they consist of two pops heard by the patrons of the Grand Caf and subsequent theorizing concentrates on the motive and the placement of the gunmen. Other violent incidents get more attention: Harris is angered, for example, when he sees Franzino slap Cliff, the pimp, across the face for no particular reason. Harris picks up the gold medal awarded to Franzino for his police work and bends it out of shape. This unacceptable slapping and hitting must be differentiated from the shows of strength that appeal to both Harris and Danny, who clearly share a respect for strong men who wrestle and box. However, Danny will hit Harris with a beer can, a painful blow that he considers a just revenge for Harris' unintentional betrayal of the prostitute, Louise, to the police. Danny's strength will be used against one of the murdereres by the end of the book, perhaps "redeeming" Danny by turning his physical violence to the resolution of the mystery.


except for Harris' 6-year-old daughter, the female characters are always created, in part, through shows of sexuality: Alma wants Harris for herself and asks him to make a muscle for her; Betsy Turner ends up in bed with him; Louise's activities as a prostitute create one relationship between the two murder victims, because both Franklin Andersun and Ed Turner have been regular customers. These women all display heterosexual tendencies, as does Threse, Pearson's girlfriend. Harris and other male characters, similarly, reveal heterosexual desires. At one point, Betsy Turner suggests that her marriage wasn't going well because her husband learned at work that he enjoyed beating men; her suggestion seems to be influenced by the fact that they had purchased a house in which the former occupant committed suicide, and he was said to be a "pansy." These are the only departures from heterosexuality in the book.

Gender Roles

Threse, the Frenchwoman who lives with Pearson while he is in France, has had small jobs in cinematic production because of her first husband. After his death, she has taken on more responsibility. Another "working woman" in the novel is Louise, the prostitute; a third is Alma, a waitress. Mrs. Turner is a widow who had tried taking up art as a hobby. Barney Harris is a chivalrous tough guy: he is big and strong, he works on cars, he solves the mystery, and various women want to sleep with him. He wrestles with his responsibilities as a single father.


there is very little attention to race. Several of the characters are not very clearly described, such as Barney Harris. Others seem to be Caucasian, except for Joe, a "big, brown heavy-set man" and fellow ex-fighter who runs the garage where Harris sometimes works. The question, then, is whether we should assume that everyone else in the book is Caucasian; does this assumption underlie the lack of detail?

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

alcohol is frequently used. Barney Harris witnesses much of the drinking and occasionally downs his own drink as well. Some characters clearly abuse alcohol, which Harris notes: Betsy Turner, he thinks, is beginning to live out her idea that she ought to become an alcoholic as part of her mourning for her dead husband. The two criminals, Pearson and Swan, drink to excess in some scenes that provide background information; e.g. Pearson is falling-down drunk when he comes up with the idea for the passport scheme. Oddly, Harris' brother-in-law, Lt. Swan, has a favorite practical joke that he likes to play on everyone: he secretly spikes their drinks with hard liquor and then watches them take their first sip.

Law Enforcement

the local police receive federal help at the end of the novel when the passport scheme is uncovered. Franzino and his colleagues intend to solve the murder and stay more or less honest. However, Franzino and Harris have a conflict over the treatment of a prostitute and her pimp, two characters who agree to provide valuable information to Harris if he will agree not to turn them in for their activities. Harris agrees to the deal and they give their information in good faith. However, when Harris feels that he must turn over the information to Franzino, he's furious at Franzino's response. Franzino pursues the two informants as suspects; he demands that they cease their activities, and he allows them to be harassed and beaten on the side. This leads to a debate between Franzino and Harris over two topics: relativity in the application of the law, and brutality/harassment of citizens. Ultimately, Franzino releases the prostitute and the pimp, but he warns them off further criminal activity in his ward. The prostitute and the pimp have had another bad experience with the police already: Ed Turner, one of the shooting victims, worked their neighborhood. He had alternated between demanding free sex and harassing them, as well as stealing the prostitute's money (which he sometimes returned later in the form of an expensive gift, having fallen partway in love with her.) When Lt. Swan first sends Mrs. Turner to his brother-in-law for help, he intends to placate her and to help his brother-in-law earn some money. However, he doesn't intend for Harris to accomplish much as a detective, nor does he expect his own department to be terrifically generous or respectful with Harris. Harris gets his foot in the door, though, and his ability to produce results gradually attracts more cooperation. There are several small outbursts from different policemen when they learn, at different points, that Harris is a private investigator.

Added Features

there seems to be a veiled reference to the film, The Third Man (1949). The reference comes in three parts: (1) the criminals once ran a scheme with another character, involving the illegal sale of penicillin and other drugs in post-war Germany, and they live in a corrupt world similar to that of the main character of The Third Man, Harry Lime; (2) the criminals are infatuated with cinema -- they want to make their own movies; (3) the actor, Sam Lund, proposes that he and Pearson sell their own passports to make money, thinking "Orson Welles couldn't have said the line better." Social conditions: the likeable prostitute delivers a monologue on her relationships with her pimp (apparently, he's not so bad for a pimp, and prostitutes are lonely people), and with the detective, Ed Turner (whose double-edged attentions exemplify the reason that she needs someone more reliable like her pimp as her friend). Technology: Pearson becomes a photographer, which changes his life; he shares an interest in cinema with his French girlfriend, Threse (who works in the field of movie production), and Lund, who hopes to act in a movie and has several reels of confiscated German film that they decide to use as part of their collaborative effort.

Subject Headings

Detectives, Private/ New York (N.Y.)/ Murder/ Police/ World War, 1939-1945

Psychological Elements

Lacy tells a detective story, but he wants to capture a certain mood of the post-war period at the same time. He spends entire chapters giving the life stories of Pearson and Lund: how did they develop interests in photography and cinema? how did they get involved in the war? how did they learn to manipulate the institutions involved in the war, to "go after the angle," to take part in schemes during and after the war in both Europe and America? Lacy also gives background on other characters: Danny, the blind ex-wrestler, didn't go to war, and he mutters under his breath while others tell their stories; Franklin Andersun changed dramatically during the war because he got to live "in the fast lane," flying around the world. In this way Lacy creates a tension between local and international factors, which the plot uses: investigators don't find a purely local motive for the killings and have to start thinking differently. The criminals are presented as people who were perhaps shaped more by the war and its air of corruption than by any other factor in their lives. Barney Harris, who narrates his chapters in the first person, is a widower. He is also a "tough guy," physically, who seems to cope reasonably well with grief. He has not lost his sense of decency. The greatest challenge that he faces, other than discovering the motive for the double murder and capturing the criminals, is that of raising his young adopted daughter as a single parent. Trying to work the odd and intense hours of his case, Harris continually worries about finding good babysitters and spending enough time with his daughter. The psychological paradigm seems to combine affect-oriented features (the air of corruption) with some moralistic questions and an awareness of the sociopolitical factor of the war.