No Way to Treat a Lady by William GoldmanBy William Goldman (Fawcett/Gold Medal; 1964)

Most William Goldman fanatics seem to consider this slim potboiler, originally published as a paperback original under the pseudonym Harry Longbaugh, a minor entry in his cannon. Having been written early on in Goldman’s career (and adapted into a mediocre 1968 movie), NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY lacks the slickness and polish of his later novels, with much slapdash prose and an uncertain grasp of tone (it’s difficult to discern if all the comedic elements were meant to be funny). Yet the wit, verve and imagination that characterize Goldman’s best work are very much evident in this suspenseful and macabre novel that predates everything from DEXTER to NATURAL BORN KILLERS in its furiously inventive account of the fortunes of a mass murderer. I say it’s one of William Goldman’s finest books.

Drafted in short, pointed chapters composed more often than not of diary entries and lengthy dialogue exchanges, it’s the story of a particularly cheerful and charismatic serial killer with a pure-hearted lawman on his trail. The latter is a Jewish detective named Morris Brummell who the killer periodically phones to boast of his activities. Said activities consist of murdering unsuspecting women by posing as, variously, a priest, a door-to-door salesman, a gay hairdresser, a woman(!) and Morris himself(!!).

The true reasons for the killing spree are unveiled toward the end of the book, as are the origins of the killer’s thespian talents. But this guy’s primary motivation is the fame and fortune he’ll surely glean from his murder spree–a desire, needless to add, that’s quickly realized when news of the killings turns up in the New York Times.

A large part of this novel’s magic is in its head-snapping unpredictability, particularly around the halfway point, when another psycho enters the scene. This copycat killer is a deranged momma’s boy whose methodology is far more brutal than the relatively chaste strangulations of his inspiration, with rape and mutilation added to the mix along with a string of victims that come to include Detective Brummell’s girlfriend.

The original killer is freaked, and becomes determined to take down the copycat. In the process he loses his chipper air, becoming the delusional freak everyone thinks he is. It all concludes in an outrageous three-way showdown, the details of which I’ll leave for you to discover on your own.