THE ILLUSTRATED DETECTIVE MAGAZINE. September 1931; 10¢, 122pp, 9″ x 12.”
This slick magazine distributed through Woolworths and published by Tower Books, is surely one of the strangest detective magazines of that or any other era. The full title includes The Illustrated Detective Magazine, Thrilling and Romantic Mysteries of Real Life, billed as “The Most Unusual Detective Magazine You Can Buy at any Price.”
The magazine was aimed at women running from 1929 to 1932 and changed its title after thirty three issues to Mystery. Not all the stories are romantic in nature, though the bias in favor of women readers is fairly evident.
The Illustrated Detective Magazine is an odd mix of disparate material. There are true crime and confession-style articles like “The Woman Who Paid With Her Life” by ‘a Police Official’ about the murder of blackmailer Vivian Gordon; “The Iron Czar” by Jim Roberts about early New York gangster Iron Man Becker; and “He Risked All for the Thrilling Chance,” asking what happened to the crusading detective/reporter of an earlier age, as well as beauty and cooking aids and articles on scientific detection.
The issue’s fiction opens with a story called “Received Payment,” unbilled to any author but described as ‘another’ crime busting account of Mary Shane, who turns out to be an attractive semi-independent sleuth in this case helping to put bootleggers out of business who sell poisoned bathtub gin. It’s a fairly tough little story and Mary Shane tough as nails in her underworld dealings, if not particularly realistic or believable. It’s closer to the dime novel than hard boiled. This and some other features are illustrated with dramatized photographs while some have black and white illustrations, mostly handsomely done in wash rather than line, thanks to the slicker paper.
This issue features the opening installment of “The Hollywood Bridal Night Murder” by Octavius Roy Cohen, featuring his popular fat jovial canny sleuth Jim Hanvey. Cohen was a sure seller on the front of magazines of the period, and Hanvey was popular enough to have two film outings. It’s standard Cohen fare, meaning entertaining but nothing special. You won’t be all that driven to find the later installments or the book publication unless you are an obsessive sort.
The second big story in the issue is “The Egyptian Necklace” by R. T. M. Scott, an adventure of Aurelius Smith, a private detective who would form the basis for Richard Wentworth and the Spider when Scott wrote the first entry in that series. While the story is dated, it shows the strengths and weaknesses of the Smith series and Scott’s writing, and is the most pulp-like of the stories in this issue. It’s probably the story most readers here will enjoy the most, with its hints of melodrama and mystery from the East.
Major fiction entry number three is a humorous tale by Ellis Parker Butler, “The Heckly Hill Murder” featuring ‘Oliver Spotts, the Near Detective of Mud Cove, Long Island.’ It is a moderately amusing romp by a well known humorist of his time, but mindful too that whimsey doesn’t always survive the passage of time. It shows Butler’s talents to good effect but how a modern reader reacts to it is anyone’s guess.
The rest of the magazine includes a sort of fictionalized expose called “The Queen of the Beggars” by James Jeffrey O’Brien, about a young man who runs afoul to the beautiful and dangerous self styled ‘queen’ of the big city beggars. There are also some rather sensational ‘true confession’ pieces, a bit on code-breaking, a plea and offer of a $1,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of Judge Crater, and articles on fingerprinting and other aspects of police work, interspersed with ads for Woolworths, articles sold at Woolworths, and publications of Tower Books.
All in all it is a very odd little magazine, but a pretty good bargain for a dime if you happened to be shopping in Woolworths. This was the third issue, and it continued until 1932 in more or less the same vein. It is certainly one of the stranger magazines of its type I’ve run across.
WEIRD TALES, September 1935. The cover of this issue includes one of artist Margaret Brundage’s beautiful nudes for which she was well-known, and still is, for that matter. It illustrates the first story, “The Blue Woman,” by John Scott Douglas, which puzzled me right then and there, since the woman on the cover is not blue, but a beautiful and entirely natural shade of pink.
I’m sure it helped sell a lot of copies of this issue, though. The story itself is not very good, though, and one wonders why Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales at the time, chose it to be the lead story. There is a pseudo-scientific reason why the woman is blue, and the observant reader will put two and two together within the first page or so of the story, as soon as it learned that the wife of wood-carver Ludwig Meusel was released from her job at a watch factory with a large payment of cash and a diagnosis of a fatal illness.
A lanky red-headed private eye named Ken Keith is brought into the case of murder that develops, which he solves with not too much effort. I do not know whether Keith appeared in the two earlier stories by Douglas that appeared in Weird Tales, but if not, perhaps he showed up in one of other roughly 350 stories Douglas also wrote for the aviation, adventure, detective and sports pulp magazines over the course of his writing career. Well, probably not the sports pulps.
The second story in this issue, “The Carnival of Death,” by Arlton Eadie, doesn’t so indicate it, until the end, when surprise! I discovered that it’s the first of four parts. I really hate it when that happens. It’s about mummies, ancient Egypt and a present day curse, and I’d love to able to finish it, but alas, my collection of Weird Tales isn’t extensive enough to do so.
The novel was published in its entirety by a British publisher but is impossibly difficult to find. Ramble House has published a restored edition of The Trail of the Cloven Hoof, another of Eadie’s novels serialized in Weird Tales the year before (1934), but so far, although promised, they don’t don’t seem to have found a copy of this one to use.
“The Man Who Chained the Lightning,” by Paul Ernst, is the second of eight adventures of Doctor Satan to appear in Weird Tales, and the story is more one of horror and the grotesque than weird, per se. Doctor Satan was one of the earliest and perhaps the longest-running of the pulp super-villains. His genius could have been put good use for the world, but instead he dressed in a red rubber suit and a cap with horns and used his fabulous inventions for the commonest of crimes.
In this story he uses electricity both to kill and to re-animate corpses to steal funds from the bank accounts of the city’s wealthiest men. Opposing him in this case is equally brilliant Ascott Keane and his more-than-secretary Beatrice Dale. Dr. Satan is foiled this time, but the image of his naked captives cooped up in cages too small for them will stay with me for a long time.
Before moving on, it should be noted that all eight of Dr. Satan stories have been collected any published in a single volume by Altus Press (2013).
I have always associated the name of Clark Ashton Smith with fantasy fiction, infused with the essence of poetry and the ebullience and brilliance of descriptive writing. The story “Vulthoom” is science fiction, however, but with no diminishment in the use of words to produce an almost overpowering sense of wonder.
Two men who find themselves in impoverished circumstances on Mars are invited to work for an immortal being, Vulthoom, having arrived from another planet millions of years ago and now living miles beneath the surface of the red planet, to help pave the way for him to conquer Earth. They resist, but trying to escape and after making their way through miles of underground tunnels and caves, they….
If the opportunity ever comes your way, read this one. As well as later in other collections, it first appeared in Genius Loci and Other Tales (Arkham House, 1948).
Next is the conclusion of “Satan in Exile,” by Arthur William Bernal, a novel serialized in four parts. I did not read it, but the synopsis suggests that it is a science fiction story about Prince Satan, a pirate or bandit of the interplanetary spaceways, with a nod toward Robin Hood. It has never been reprinted in complete form, nor can I suggest whether or not someone should.
“The Shambler from the Stars,” which follows, is a short story by Robert Bloch, and a rather famous one which is dedicated to a certain H. P. Lovecraft. Translating a ancient book from the Latin, while visiting an eccentric expert in the occult living in Providence, Rhode Island, the narrator manages to summon a strange vampire-like being from space. Here’s an excerpt:
“It was red and dripping; an immensity of pulsing, moving jelly; a scarlet blob with myriad tentacular trunks that waved and waved. There were suckers on the tips of the appendages, and these were opening and closing with a ghoulish lust…. The thing was bloated and obscene; a headless, faceless, eyeless bulk with the ravenous maw and titanic talons of a star-born monster. The human blood on which it had fed revealed the hitherto invisible outlines of the feaster.”
Two short short stories follow next. The first, “One Chance,” by Ethel Helene Coen, takes place in a plague-invested 18th century New Orleans and has a very effective O.Henry type twist. The second, “The Toad Goad,” by Kirk Mashburn, is a rather ordinary tale about an Aztec artifact collector in Mexico who removes a sacred object he shouldn’t.
“The Monster God of Mamurth,” by Edmond Hamilton, is a reprint from the August 1926 issue of Weird Tales (shown to the right). In this an archaeologist seeking ruins of ancient Carthage comes across city in ruins inside an invisible wall and guarded (for so he discovers once inside) by a giant invisible spider-like creature. Variations on a theme, but an effectively creepy one when in the right hands, as it is here. (Remarkably, as I have later discovered, it is the first of Hamilton’s many works of science fiction or fantasy to be published.)
“Return of Orrin Mannering,” by Kenneth Wood, and the last story in this issue, is a ghost story less than two pages long about how a desperate killer fugitive is brought back to justice. A filler, but smooth enough going down.
By this time, after all of capsule summaries and associated commentary, you will have realized that for the relatively steep price of 25 cents in 1935, readers really got a lot for their money. Not all the stories were gems, but how much ordinary, mundane non-genre short fiction from the the same year is still as readable today?
COLLECTING PULPS: A Memoir, Part 14: Weird Tales
by Walker Martin
Three years ago I discussed the Frank Robinson Collection auction which was organized by Adventure House. The biggest lot at that auction was the complete Weird Tales collection which sold for a quarter of a million dollars. Yes, that’s right, as in $250,000.00. Then we fast forward 3 years and again Adventure House held an auction for a complete collection of Weird Tales, only this time the set got zero bids. I believe a discussion of this auction will show not only what occurred and why one set sold and another set did not sell, but also we will learn how pulp collectors have changed over the years.
As with the Frank Robinson auction, this recent auction which was held on May 1, 2015, also did not generate much comment on the various discussion groups that I visit online. I know as a long time fiction magazine collector, I certainly want to talk about such subjects, in fact I’m starved for conversation and I guess that’s one of the reasons that I continue to post my pulp collecting memoirs. People have been collecting pulps for over a hundred years now, ever since the first one was published in 1896. I’ve been at it for over 50 years and I feel it’s important enough for us to continue posting articles and commenting about what happened during the time these fiction magazines ruled the newsstands.
I also feel it’s very important that we continue to support the two major pulp conventions, Windy City and Pulpfest. I’ve attended both over the years and have had many interesting conversations about the pulp era. At Windy City in April I had the opportunity to view the Weird Tales set which was on display behind the Adventure House tables. I also eagerly bought the $10.00 Weird Tales collection auction catalog. Published by Adventure House this is a 40 page full color description of the 274 issues. True, only 239 covers are shown but all are listed by condition in the back of the catalog. In addition to the 274 issues published during 1923-1954, the catalog also lists the 79 issues of the revived Weird Tales that were published during Summer 1973 to Spring 2014.
So this was a major auction of perhaps the most talked about, most famous pulp title of them all. It was advertised on the Adventure House website, emails were sent out announcing the auction, and a full color catalog was available for only 10 dollars. Why was it a flop? Why no bids?
Well, of course the most obvious reason is the fact that the minimum bid was set at $60,000. But if the Robinson WT set of three years ago sold for 250,000 dollars, how come this recent set could not attract $60,000? Well you know the old saying in real estate: location, location, location. In the pulp and book world, it’s: condition, condition, condition.
The Robinson collection was almost perfect. White pages, newsstand fresh covers, complete spines. Weird Tales was called “The Unique Magazine”. Well, the Robinson set was truly “unique”, definitely the best condition set of Weird Tales in existence. It could and did command a premium price.
So what was wrong with the set offered up for auction in May 2015? What prevented it from even getting one bid at the $60,000 minimum? The catalog described several good points such as blood red spines(they usually are faded), high quality paper, and custom made tray cases to hold each volume. When I viewed the set myself at the convention, I was impressed by all of the above. Unfortunately the following faults have to be mentioned:
1. The first 45 issues, March 1923 through June 1927 are bound in 10 blue volumes. Personally, I think using blue was a mistake. I have a set bound in red and it looks more impressive. But this is just a personal preference. The main problem with bound pulps is simply that many collectors won’t touch them at all. And those that will accept bound copies want a significant decrease in the usual price.
In the first paragraph I mentioned how pulp collectors had changed over the years, and this is one example. It used to be that old time collectors, guys who actually bought the magazines off the newsstands, loved to have their pulps bound. It gave them a look of respectability and the garish magazines looked more like a sedate book that they could proudly display on their bookshelves without being sneered at by other collectors and even non-collectors. Pulp collectors nowadays don’t think like this at all. They want the individual issues and they don’t like them bound.
2. Because they are bound these first 45 issues, which are very rare and expensive, only rate a good or good minus as far as condition.
3. Most issues in the early 1930’s have Scotch tape or clear tape on the head and foot of the spines. This was another practice that many of the old time collectors followed. I’ve seen pulps ruined with masking tape, discolored scotch tape, and even electrical tape. One guy even used stamps to close tears in the cover. Pulp collectors back then evidently thought nothing of closing and repairing tears with all sorts of tape. Now of course collectors frown on the use of tape.
4. The tray cases are a very good idea and look nice. Unfortunately several of the cases show water damage.
In my opinion, the above points prevented a high minimum bid and certainly explain why no one started off bidding at the $60,000 level. It’s too high a figure for a set in this condition. Perhaps a lower figure would have encouraged some beginning action and the final bidding might even have reached a high level. Perhaps a minimum bid of $20,000 would have been better but then again, you run the chance of the set going for such a figure and I guess the seller would consider that unacceptable.
I used to have a set of Weird Tales for many years but that was back in the days when you could buy issues for $5.00 each. Back in 1968, when I was discharged from the army, I had two big goals in my life: to get a complete set of Black Mask and a set of Weird Tales . I managed to do both within a few years. Since then I’ve seen many extensive runs of WT and I’m not even sure that it’s that rare. It seems that everybody, like many SF collectors, saved their copies! It’s really a pretty magazine, a thing of beauty.
My present set is not complete because I no longer care about the early issues of 1923-1925, most of which I find not that readable. My present set is a bound set from 1926-1954. I’ll tell the story about this set and it will illustrate the differences between the old time pulp collectors and the newer pulp collectors who never really bought any of the magazines off the newsstands.
In the 1980’s, Harry Noble, who had been buying pulps since the early 1930’s, decided to put together some bound sets of his favorite SF and fantasy magazines. He did this with such titles as Astounding, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Fantastic Novels, Unknown Worlds, and of course, Weird Tales . He had trouble finding an inexpensive binder but finally found someone who would bind several magazines into one volume for a low price. Harry didn’t really care about the early issues, not only because they were not that readable, but also because they were too expensive for him to buy. But 1926-1954 he could handle and he started to his project one volume at time.
But some of his issues were coverless and he borrowed copies from my set of individual issues and made color Xerox copies of the covers. There were at least a dozen, maybe more issues that were bound with Xerox covers. As a second generation pulp collector, I tried to talk Harry out of binding the pulps. Some of the issues were in really nice shape and it was a shame to see them bound with trimmed edges. But Harry was from the first generation of collectors and he liked the look of the bound volumes.
Harry worked on this project for almost 20 years, up until his death at age 88 in 2006. He had prior warning that his illness was terminal and at the 2006 Pulpcon he told me and several other friends that he was dying. He welcomed us to visit his house and buy his extensive collection of pulps, books, and vintage paperbacks. Which we did. I made four such trips buying his sets of Western Story, Astounding, Short Stories and other items.
One day, at dinner at my house, a group of us were having dinner and the subject of the Weird Tales set came up. Harry said he wanted $10,000 for the bound in red years of 1926-1954. I pointed out that not only were the most expensive issues missing, but the set was bound which was a problem as far as value was concerned. Also I knew from personal experience that at least a dozen issues had Xerox color covers. I also remembered that there were a few other issues with pieces missing out of the covers.
However, I said I was willing to pay $5,000 considering the flaws, etc. Another well known, veteran collector also said he thought it might be worth $5,000 but no more. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t even sure it was worth the 5 grand. Harry, who loved bound sets, was justifiably upset of course. In fact, he said he would throw them in the dumpster before selling them for $5,000. One of our friends got a laugh by saying to tell him which dumpster because he would be there.
I figured that was that but a couple weeks later, I got a call from Harry. He had tried several other collectors and bookstores and no one would pay the $10,000. I’m pretty sure they would not even have paid the $5,000. Harry said if I still wanted them I could have the set for $5,000 and I accepted. He didn’t last much longer and died in December of 2006. So ended a 40 year friendship.
But I still have Harry’s bound set and it looks beautiful bound in red in the master bedroom. But I’d still rather have them unbound!
Editorial Note: This video produced by Adventure House of the Weird Tales collection they were offering may not stay online for long, but at least for now, it is still up:
COLLECTING PULPS: A Memoir, Part 13:
Barbershops and Magazines
by Walker Martin
NOTE: The following may contain risqué and objectionable memories, but it also explains some of the factors and events that led to me being a pulp magazine collector.
In 1956 and 1957 I worked in a barber shop as a teenager in high school to earn some money. I needed more than my $1.50 weekly allowance to buy the SF digests and paperbacks. So every Saturday evening I would show up at the barbershop and clean it. The barber paid me a $1.50 for a couple hours work which consisted of dusting, sweeping, cleaning the mirrors, and waxing the floor. Easy work.
But the interesting thing was the guys who would show up after hours to have their hair cut by appointment only. Officially the shop was closed at 5:00 pm but many working men couldn’t go during the day to have hair cuts, so the barber worked after hours only by appointment.
These guys were a rough group and they didn’t want to read The Saturday Evening Post and True which were out for the women and men with their sons to read during the day. One of my responsibilities was to take care of the magazines in the back room and put them out Saturday night for the after hours men.
The pulps were dead by 1956 but the men’s magazines were thriving. The back room had copies of Playboy, Nugget, and other similar titles. Many of the men were WW II and Korean war vets and they loved the men’s magazines showing Nazis partying with nude girls on the covers.
Nothing really objectionable but hot by 1950’s and 1960’s standards. I once asked the barber why he didn’t have these magazines out during the day and he laughed, saying that the mothers would raise hell if they saw their kids looking at pictures of girls without clothes, etc.
As a 14 year old, I was fascinated by these magazines and often looked through them quickly in the back room. Sometimes I stayed too long and the barber and his friends would start yelling at me to come back and sweep the floor. They laughed and wanted to know what I was doing back there. I can’t even repeat some of the stories I heard them talking about.
To just give you a flavor of the risqué discussions I will mention that they had a rating system for the girls that would perform oral sex. The best was a girl who had a set of false teeth she would take out and put on the dashboard of the car. I guess having no teeth made her the best performer. The only problem was that several of the men thought this was hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing during the sex act.
Handling and quickly looking through these magazines made me into the fiction magazine collector that I am today. I started collecting back issues of digest SF and crime magazines. Then I soon started collecting the pulps. Mainly the SF titles like Astounding, Unknown, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, etc.
Years later, I started to collect Playboy, Nugget, Rogue, and some other titles. The fiction and some of the jazz music articles are still of interest but the photos of girls look pretty tame by today’s standards.
Next door to the barbershop was a small second hand bookstore run by an old man. He had tons of pulps piled up but all I was interested in was the SF magazines and the men’s magazines. He eventually died and all the magazines were thrown into garbage trucks. The store became a candy shop selling penny candy.
What happened to Jerry the barber? He died an early death from cancer. He was a smoker and only in his 40’s. The funny thing was that when my father was dying from cancer, he told me one day to ask Jerry to come out to the house and cut his hair. I never thought of barbers making house calls but I guess they do for ill and disabled people.
Shortly after, Jerry asked me how my father was doing and I had to tell him that he had just died. He was surprised and apologized and soon offered me the weekend job of cleaning his shop. I guess he felt sorry for me because I went from being a normal kid to just about complete silence. Reading SF was my only real enjoyment for a couple years.
So Jerry died in his 40’s just like my dad. His barbershop is some type of office now. I eventually stopped smoking at age 32. One of the reasons being what I had seen with my father and Jerry the barber.
It’s hard to believe all the above happened 60 years ago. But I’m still collecting old magazines!
NOTE: To access earlier installments of Walker’s memoirs about his life as a pup collector, go first to this blog’s home page (link at the far upper left), then use the search box found somewhere down the right side. Use either “Walker Martin” or “Collecting Pulps” in quotes, and that should do it.
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
Thanks to my office (where I keep my computer) being closed down for the holidays, followed by the frightful weather, followed by some health issues, I expected that my February column, if any, would be culled from those old book notes I wrote for my eyes only back in the Sixties and Seventies.
Surprise! Thanks to Joseph Goodrich, editor of that priceless selection from the letters between Fred Dannay and Manny Lee published in 2012 as BLOOD RELATIONS, I am now in possession of all the material from their correspondence that for space or other reasons Joe didn’t include in his book. There are gems in that material, which over the next several columns I’ll dole out here.
In a letter dated March 31, 1950 and not included or excerpted in BLOOD RELATIONS, Fred tells Manny that for years he’s been trying to interest various movie studios in subsidizing Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s annual story contests, arguing that an investment of as little as $10,000 would lead to an “increase in submitted stories,” “interest by bigger names,” and — always a high priority with Fred considering his background in the advertising biz — publicity.
Approached by Fred, MGM executives told him that “they have invested millions of dollars in literary contests, but never got a single desirable piece of property out of it….now they wouldn’t contribute $10, let alone $10,000.”
Not long after that exchange, MGM bought the movie rights to a second-prize winner in the latest year’s EQMM contest, “Once Upon a Train” by Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer, in which the authors’ respective series detectives John J. Malone and Hildegarde Withers teamed up to solve a railroad mystery.
Since the story wasn’t published until the October 1950 issue, MGM must have bought it from manuscript. (Those who have learned from Queen to read with extreme care may think Fred might have misdated his letter and actually wrote it in 1951, but this possibility is ruled out by his later statement to Manny that the story “has not yet appeared in EQMM….”).
Fred queried the suits at MGM and was told that they had only bought the story because they “‘had a spot for the use of two characters like Withers and Malone,’ a spinsterish schoolteacher and a dipso lawyer.” Later Fred learned that MGM’s original plan was to use the story as a vehicle for Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, who had scored a big hit as Ma and Pa Kettle in THE EGG AND I (Universal, 1947).
By the time the movie had been released, one actor and one character had been axed from the initial conception: Marjorie Main still starred but as Harriet “Hattie” O’Malley, not Miss Withers, and John J. Malone was still the leading male character but was played by James Whitmore. For anyone who wants to waste an hour watching this turkey, its title is MRS. O’MALLEY AND MR. MALONE (MGM, 1950).
In the same letter to Manny, Fred reports that MGM has also spent $5,000 buying movie rights to John Dickson Carr’s short story “The Gentleman from Paris” (EQMM, April 1950). This move baffled Fred as much as MGM’s purchase of rights to the Rice-Palmer story.
As everyone knows who has read Carr’s excellent tale, which is set in 1840s New York, the climactic revelation is that the main character is none other than Edgar Allan Poe. “[S]urely MGM does not intend to keep the identity of the detective a secret….”
Fred couldn’t figure out what the studio had in mind but any interested reader can find out by watching THE MAN WITH A CLOAK (MGM, 1951), a not-half-bad historical crime thriller starring a mustached Joseph Cotten as the Poe character (who calls himself Dupin) and Barbara Stanwyck and Leslie Caron as the female leads.
With a bit of space left over, I return to fields I plowed almost fifty years ago with comments on first novels by authors writing under their own names. Let’s begin with a writer whom I knew slightly and once, near the end of his life, lunched with at his lovely retirement home in Sedona, Arizona, armed with an assortment of first editions of his books, some of which he said were in better condition than his own, all of which he signed for me.
Richard S. Prather (1921-2007) was one of the first superstars of the paperback original, turning out a torrent of books for Fawcett Gold Medal in the Fifties and early Sixties which millions of readers gobbled down like Thanksgiving turkeys. I didn’t read them in order but, when I got to his first Shell Scott caper, CASE OF THE VANISHING BEAUTY (Fawcett Gold Medal pb #127, 1950) I had to concede that most of its plot and characters were lifted bodily from Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY with a few perfunctory variations.
One of a millionaire’s two spoiled daughters engages Scott to locate her missing sister and the trail leads LA’s coolest PI to the usual sinister nightclub, phony religious cult, dope smuggling, flying bullets, you name it. Prather had the gifts of pace and raw storytelling talent from the get-go but what distinguishes this otherwise routine programmer is Scott’s narration — bemused, self-mocking, gorgeously funny, and so wildly individual that he’s never been successfully imitated. He was, as we cruciverbalists say, a oner.
Bridge grandmaster Don Von Elsner (1909-1997) threw his hat, or perhaps I should say his lei, into the mystery ring with THOSE WHO PREY TOGETHER SLAY TOGETHER (Signet pb #S1943, 1961). Troubleshooter Colonel David Danning is hired by the board of directors of a packaging empire to protect its subsidiaries from a status-hungry gangster turned corporate raider.
The trail leads from a Chicago boardroom to Honolulu’s most lavish hotels and encompasses some superb stock-market shenanigans and a couple of murders which Danning must solve while on the run from both mobsters and cops.
At the climax all the characters unmotivatedly congregate for a Danning solution which is almost pure guesswork, but the pace is swift and the tooth-and-claw power struggles among tycoons seem to ring true.
SILVER STREET (Harper & Row, 1968) introduced the mystery world to E. Richard Johnson (1938-1997), a convict serving a life term at Minnesota’s Stillwater State Prison. It’s a short and unadorned tale of the mean streets in a nameless city where a modern Jack the Ripper is slicing up the local pimps for no discernible reason.
Streetwise homicide dick Tony Lonto’s hunt for the killer inevitably leads him to the discovery that his own girlfriend is a nympho and a whore. (Wouldn’t a streetwise cop have discovered this sooner?)
Superficially the book is tough as nails but it’s drenched with cloying romanticism beneath the surface. Nevertheless it won an Edgar for best first novel, an award which was duly presented to Johnson in the prison visitors’ room.
He wrote four more Lonto books and several other novels before being released in 1991 but by then his writing career was washed up and he died a few years later. So does crime pay or doesn’t it?
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
During the last months of World War II the editors of Esquire decided to launch a series of short detective stories and invited various mystery writers to create new characters for possible publication in the magazine.
Among the invitees was Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), perhaps the nuttiest author on earth. Harry got miffed at the thought of being asked to “submit a sample like a guy with a tin cup” and demanded $100 in advance. He must have fallen on the floor in shock when Esquire immediately sent him a check, although the editors specified that the advance wasn’t a commitment to accept his submission.
Keeler proceeded to string together a 14,000-word adventure about a barking clock and an astigmatic witness, with a 7½-foot-tall mathematically educated hick from the sticks serving as detective. At first the character was named just that — Abner Hick to be precise — but before sending out the manuscript Keeler prudently changed his name to Quiribus Brown.
When Esquire rejected the story, Keeler yanked Quiribus out of the plot, replaced him with that bedraggled old universal genius Tuddleton T. Trotter (who had starred in Harry’s mammoth extravaganza The Matilda Hunter Murder back in 1931), and added 85,000 more words to the story.
His Spanish publisher Instituto Editorial Reus issued the result as El Caso del Reloj Ladrador (1947). Keeler’s U.S. publisher, the bottom-rung Phoenix Press, put out a shorter version that same year as The Case of the Barking Clock.
Since Phoenix dropped Keeler in 1948, leaving him without a U.S. publisher for the rest of his life, Quiribus never saw the light of print in his native land. But Harry made him the protagonist in The Case of the Murdered Mathematician, issued in 1949 by his London publisher Ward, Lock.
So what new detective was chosen to grace the pages of Esquire? A New York PI named Peter Chambers whose creator was Henry Kane, a lawyer and something of a Chandler wannabee. Chambers narrates his own cases in an idiom, known to connoisseurs as High Kanese, which is worlds removed from Keeler’s style but just as lovably eccentric.
The first six Chambers stories appeared in Esquire between March 1947 and June 1948 and were collected as Report for a Corpse (Simon & Schuster, 1948).
The timing was unfortunate in the sense that the book came out several months after Anthony Boucher was let go as reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle and before he became mystery critic of the New York Times. I’d love to know what Boucher thought of this volume, but it was his predecessor Isaac Anderson who reviewed the book in the Times.
I read the tales a few decades ago but had forgotten them completely when I started to reread them earlier this year. They’re more cleverly plotted than most PI stories during the years Chandler dominated the genre, but there’s nothing truly memorable about any of them and the narration is a pale shadow of what would soon become mature Kanese.
According to just about any print or electronic source you might check, Henry Kane was born in 1918 and is still alive. Apparently neither of these statements is true.
Lawrence Block had several conversations with Kane in the early 1970s and, while preparing a memoir of him for Mystery Scene, did some investigative work that was worthy of his own PI Matthew Scudder. An old girlfriend of Kane’s told Block that “he was most likely born not in 1918 but in 1908.” At least when Block knew him, he “lived on Long Island — Lido Beach, if memory serves — and spent Monday through Friday in an apartment on 34th Street west of Ninth Avenue.”
Block tells us that he “took his work seriously, and insisted that each page be perfectly typed before he went on to the next one.” He was of Jewish descent but told Block that he “didn’t believe in any of that mumbo-jumbo.”
His lifestyle was that of the stereotypical PI: a Dexedrine pill every morning, at least a quart of Scotch and a couple of packs of cigarettes a day. “It must have been sometime in the early ’80s that he died,” Block surmises.
Of the eleven Henry Kanes listed in the Social Security Death Index, the one who was born in 1908 and died in 1988 is most likely our man. I would love to have met him, though not necessarily in that smoke-choked apartment.
In his years as conductor of the “Criminals at Large” column for the Times, Anthony Boucher reviewed most of the Kane novels and collections, even though they were published in the unprestigious paperback-original format.
I still recall vividly the time he reviewed one of those novels twice. Its U.S. title was Too French and Too Deadly (Avon pb #672, 1955). In his Times column for December 18, 1955 he called the book “probably enjoyable; Peter Chambers stories are usually amusing, and this one is said to include ‘a locked room within a locked room.’
“But the publishers have chosen to crowd a full-length novel into 122 pages by squeezing 500 words onto a 4-inch by 6-inch page; and squinting one’s way through the book is too much to ask of a reviewer, a reader, or anyone save possibly a Lord’s-Prayer-on-Pinhead engraver.”
Apparently Kane then sent Boucher a copy of the hardcover British edition, The Narrowing Lust (Boardman, 1956). In his column for June 24, 1956, Boucher reported that “now that it’s legible, it’s also highly readable” and “includes an unusually impossible-seeming locked room problem. It’s a welcome blend of strict detective puzzle and crisp and sexy thriller….”
In my last column I quoted the late Fred Steiner, composer of the Perry Mason theme: “You look at those old film noir pictures, they’ve always got jazz going for some reason or other.”
Since then I’ve discovered that this seems to be a classic case of false memory. The point was demonstrated by David Butler in his book Jazz Noir: Listening to Music from Phantom Lady to The Last Seduction (Praeger, 2002) and confirmed by William Luhr in his just published Film Noir (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012):
“Although many neo-noir movies have used single-instrument jazz solos to evoke the film noir era, it is difficult to find a canonical film noir [i.e. one that dates from the Forties or Fifties] that opens in that way. Most used full orchestral scores, as was standard studio practice.”
It’s only in TV private-eye series like Peter Gunn that jazz became the norm. And, as Lawrence Block points out, the strongest uncredited influence on that landmark series was the novels and stories of Henry Kane — who wound up writing the Peter Gunn tie-in novel (Dell pb #B155, 1960)!
Is this a weird world or what? Luhr’s book is one of the few that discusses in depth both canonical noir and the more recent evocations of the genre, of which perhaps the finest is Chinatown (1974). I recommend it highly to anyone invested in that type of film. And aren’t we all?
MIGNON G. EBERHART – Murder in Waltz Time. Short novel; first published in The American Magazine, May 1953.
This small gem of a detective story was reprinted in two of Mignon Eberhart’s later story collections, Deadly Is the Diamond (Random House, hc, 1958) and Best Mystery Stories (Warner, pb, 1988), and calling it a “short novel” is stretching it a bit, at best. Without resorting to counting words, I’d say it would run 60 to 100 pages in an ordinary paperback, depending on the size of type.
As I’m sure you know, many of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe tales first appeared in this same format and in this same magazine and were collected later in hardcover in groupings of three or four.
The American Magazine was always a favorite of mine as a youngster. I liked the cartoons, the photos, and the ads. Today I’m attracted to the same things, but now I like the stories and the artwork as well, plus the tidbits of interest about the movies, and items worth noting about radio and television stars and programs.
As for Eberhart’s story, it’s a solid detective tale, necessarily boiled down to its pure essentials because of its length. No time for but the briefest characterization, and the motivations barely more. It takes place in a Florida resort where the dancing team of Fran Allen and Steve Greene are the featured attraction, and it’s Fran who finds the body of elderly Miss Flora Halsey.
And as the investigation goes on, besides her nephew who was staying with her, more and more of the guests staying at the Montego House are found to have known Miss Halsey in the past, making Captain Scott’s job all the more difficult.
Here’s a paragraph that appears toward the end of the tale. It doesn’t reveal the killer in any way, but *WARNING* it might tell you more of the plot that you’d rather know, but I think it’s entirely indicative of the kind of story it is.
“Oh, yes, you know about that. Well, Scott’s men had picked up Jenkins at a bus stop. Abernathy recognized him; he’s the steward, all right. Abernathy had been trying to find Henry; he thought Henry was asking for murder, blackmailing the Senator, intending to use Abernathy as a threat, a witness, and put the screws on. Abernathy was too late; Henry had already acted and was murdered. We’ve told them about the Barselius. Bude admits to the lifeboat affair. Admits his sister knew about Henry’s attempts to blackmail him. Admits he had a gun. They can’t find the gun, and he admits his sister may have taken it, but — What’s the matter?”
“Nothing — nothing. Go on.”
Don’t get me wrong. As a mystery writer, Eberhart was a pro, through and through, and while I feel I might be admitting something you may find a little strange, I found this story to be much, much more than minimally entertaining.
AND IN THE SAME ISSUE:
FRANCES MALM – The Woman Involved. Short novel; first published in The American Magazine, May 1953.
There is no mention of Frances Malm in the current edition of Hubin’s bibliography of crime fiction, so unless she wrote tons of short fiction, I doubt that many readers today have ever heard of her. But since there’s more than one crime involved in this novella (my description) I’m reporting on it anyway — as I’m sure you’ve already noticed.
In length “The Woman Involved” is somewhat longer than the one by Mignon Eberhart, or at least that’s my impression. Once again I didn’t count words.
When a young woman, Dana Wallace, goes back home to settle her stepfather’s estate she finds, unexpectedly, both a mystery and a romance. A large sum of money is missing from Judge Poole’s checking account, and (with no apparent connection) a brash young man, on his way up and resented by the old guard residents of Middleford for doing so, offers to buy the property where the judge’s home is located.
Dana does a more-than-decent job of detective work, discovering a number things she did not know about her stepfather, but the emphasis here is rather more with the battle of rich vs. poor in matters of status in small town America, and Frances Malm puts her finger precisely on a number of the sore spots that can arise as a result.
A minor work, I’d have to truthfully say, and one that in all likelihood has never been reprinted. There’s no doubt that it’s mystery fiction, though, and it’s definitely worth reading.
PostScript. Frances had a sister named Dorothea Malm, who wrote a handful of novels published as gothic romance mysteries in the 1960s.
The only “real” novel that Frances wrote that I’ve been able to uncover is World Cruise (Doubleday, hardcover, 1960; Cardinal, paperback, 1961). Here’s the cover description of the book, the Cardinal edition: “The compelling story of a beautiful divorcee seeking love and fulfillment on a luxury cruise.”
— September 2003.
UPDATE. 01-01-12. My copy of this magazine has gone into hiding, and I’ve not been able to come up with a cover image, much less any of the interior art. Doing a Google search online, I did find a long partial description of the contents, however:
The American Magazine, May 1953. Vol CIV, No. 5. 144 pages. COVER: What’s Ahead for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor? Painting by Al Brule Articles include: AMERICA’S GLAMOROUS GODMOTHER Oveta Culp Hobby — the little woman who holds one of the biggest jobs in the US. A determined Texan, she looks out for the personal health and welfare of every one of us as US Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. by Clarence Woodbury; COVER ARTICLE: What’s Ahead for the Windsors? The Coronation next month may mean a new career for England’s jobless ex-King. By Roul Tunley. 5 page article; FUN TIME IN THE ROCKIES Canada beckons summer vacationists to its fabulous wonderland. By Richard Neuberg; A PEEK AT THE MOVIES of the MONTH; “Nature Girl” a short story by Elizabeth Stowe; “The Lie” a short story by Cynthia Hope and Frances Ancker; “Murder in Waltz Time” by Mignon G. Eberhart.
Or in other words, a small time capsule of what life was like in May, 1953.