Authors


FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   When I devoted one of last year’s columns to John Roeburt’s Jigger Moran novels, I didn’t promise to do another column on Roeburt but suggested that I might. Since then I’ve decided that he deserves not one but two more. This month for space reasons I’ll limit myself to the rest of his hardcover books.

***

   His first two novels, JIGGER MORAN (1944) and THERE ARE DEAD MEN IN MANHATTAN (1946), I discussed before. I wish I could say more about his third, SENECA U.S.A. (Samuel Curl, 1947), but I’ve never seen a copy and it’s a hard book to find. What this stand-alone novel is about becomes fairly clear from the Kirkus review:

   “Portrait of a small town, almost any small town, and the postwar forces of unrest, labor union and racial, reflected in the story of Shep Ward, newspaper editor and party line follower of a rich, reactionary publisher….” Shep’s wife “leaves him thinking he has lost all decency of point of view.” Then the publisher is shot and a Jew is charged with the murder, “only because of anti-semitism. Shep, forfeiting caution for the truth, airs the whole thing in an edition of his paper.” The reviewer’s conclusion: “The intentions here are worthier than the actuality—which is only mediocre.”

   Critic Irving Howe covered SENECA and four other novels with similar viewpoints in an essay for Commentary (January 1, 1948), opining that all five “range from the bad to the downright ludicrous….” What he thought about Roeburt’s book specifically I can’t say because only the first page of his essay is downloadable on the Web.

***

   As if scared out of the mainstream by reactions to his third novel, Roeburt returned in his fourth to the tough-guy genre and a character modeled on the later Bogart. Like any respectable roman noir, TOUGH COP (Simon & Schuster, 1949) opens at night. Johnny Devereaux, 41 years old and just retired after twenty years on the NYPD — although he somehow has a month or so to use his badge any way he pleases — is about to drive off from a 52nd Street nightclub when a lovely young woman flings open the passenger door of his Buick convertible and begs for his help.

   Jennifer Phillips was raised by and lives with an obese old man, known for his scathing reviews of Broadway plays, who claims to be her father. But as she’s matured from age ten to twenty, his interest in her seems to have become, let’s say, non-paternal. Devereaux agrees to talk to the woman who raised Jennifer as a child but finds her dead in her hotel room and gets slugged by someone hiding in her closet, who turns out to be a small-time subway pickpocket recently paroled from Sing Sing after serving 14 months on a firearms charge.

   The drama critic who claims to be Jennifer’s father and supposedly “used rattlesnake venom for ink” (although the two samples of his reviews that Roeburt gives us strike me as cutesy rather than venomous) turns out to be “a sybarite, unnatural, an obscene and gilded pervert.” Homosexual, of course.

   I need hardly add that this “dandified and dissolute sensualist” talks like Sydney Greenstreet. Shadowing him and enlisting PI Sam Solowey to pursue other leads, Devereaux discovers that a number of the people he encounters — -a publisher of hate pamphlets, an ex-boxer turned nightclub owner — share with Jennifer Phillips and her alleged father the fact that nothing is known about their origins. (Could any writer get away with that premise in today’s high-tech age?)

   In due course he finds himself looking into a 20-year-old murder and payroll robbery from which the loot was never recovered. Only one of the criminals was caught and that one was “accidentally” scalded to death in the shower at Sing Sing while the hood who slugged Devereaux was serving his sentence in the same prison. Trying to trace the backgrounds of all the people he’s run into takes Devereaux to a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district and into several chapters of investigation that show Roeburt at his best.

   At the climax he falls back on the most hackneyed “surprise” ending in the world of noir, but despite that and a few gaffes here and there — the former boxer is described as both a bantamweight and a middleweight, the dancers at Radio City Music Hall are called the Roxettes, and our old buddy the St. James Bible crops up at least twice — TOUGH COP is by far the most rewarding of the Roeburts I’ve read to date, with prose and plot kept under tight control from first page to last.

***

   That book was followed by the third and final Jigger Moran exploit, CORPSE ON THE TOWN (1950), which I discussed a few months ago. From that point forward, radio, movie and TV work apparently occupied Roeburt full-time for a while. In the second and final Devereaux novel, THE HOLLOW MAN (Simon & Schuster, 1954), two years have passed since Johnny’s retirement and he’s vegetating at a $1000-a-week job hosting dramatized true-crime stories on live TV when, as in TOUGH COP, a lovely woman begs him to help her.

   Five years earlier, struggling actress Nina Troy had secretly married boxing champ Rocky Star (born Rocco Starziano) and borne him a son. But Rocky vanished into thin air soon after the child’s birth, and Nina, now a huge success on radio and TV, is terrified that her marriage will be found to be invalid and her child illegitimate. (The only conceivable legal problem with the marriage is that Rocky had used a false name. New York law requires that people getting married have to prove their identities to the official or clergyman performing the ceremony, but I find it hard to believe that a detail of this sort would invalidate a marriage and turn any child of that marriage into what used to be called a bastard — the politically correct term today is nonmarital child — and Roeburt spends zero time exploring the legal issue. So much for any claim that he had a law degree!)

   But apparently someone doesn’t want the disappearance reopened: both Nina and the sportswriter she’d previously asked for help have been savagely beaten, and soon after agreeing to look into the case Devereaux too takes some lumps, although of course they don’t stop him or even slow him down. Like CITIZEN KANE, this novel is an investigation into a vanished or (in Kane’s case) recently deceased legendary figure: Was he a Saint or was he a Swine? (Anyone wondering why I capitalized those nouns will find out shortly.)

   Except for the beatings and a few shots taken at Devereaux as he and his PI friend Solowey look into Rocky’s past, there’s no crime until late in the game when one of the people closest to the missing champ is poisoned. Our tough cop, who isn’t a cop any more but unaccountably carries a badge and continues to beat up the ungodly without mercy, doesn’t crack the case until he recognizes the guy who’s been taking shots at him, after which the revelations come thick and fast.

   What makes THE HOLLOW MAN unusual is the utter weirdness of Roeburt’s style. First off, he can’t seem to tell a noun apart from an adjective or verb. “…transmuting her into something gross, and chicane, and murderous.” “…a busy quarter-century of detectiving.” “[C]ould he loom the fabric?” “…{A] wisping smile could even be read on his mouth.” At least three times in the first four chapters he twists the same noun into a verb: “You jackassed every one of them,” Devereaux tells another character.

   As if that weren’t enough, the pages are pockmarked with irrelevant religious allusions: crown of thorns, mote in his eye, consecrated, adoration, genuflection, incantation, resurrection, martyr, blasphemy, absolution, prayer, the list goes on and on, world without end Amen. To give one concrete example: “The truth, unholy or not, will pour like an almighty flood.” That makes three religion words out of eleven!

   If you thought two types of gaffe were enough, Roeburt offers a third by capitalizing nouns no one else would: Director, Youth Monitor, Host, Narrator, Scripter, Agency Men, Control Room, Account Men, Mother, the Universe, Shadow Men, a Case, a Mourner, the Law, the Sports Page — it’s as if inside the author there were an inner German (name of Scheisskopf?) clawing to get free.

   Naturally enough, wackadoodle sentences and phrases abound like warts on a — well, if you don’t know what amphibian I was about to name, you haven’t been reading these columns. Let me provide a few specimens:

   “The insinuation of the room was one-dimensional.”

   “The building itself was a thing of cardboard, a fabrication of paper and glue and bits of wire that sat whimsically in the bosom of a towering futurism of iron, mortar, and steel.”

   “…as consanguine as two people can be.”

   “He was conscious of her flesh, the rich pneumasis….”

   “[He] was not kind or specie to his master….”

   “His paterfamilias, as much as his notorious side, was parcel to his legend.”

   “Marco’s style of battle was never formular.”

   “His soft tone seemed efforted….”

   “She smiled up to him. An outside smile, not from the deep manufactory of her womanhood.”

   “The tables themselves were separate islands where caste was the denominator of tenancy.”

   “The man was ephemeral, with the merest instance of solidity.”

   “[T]he stir in the detective beggared the event.”

   “The taxi-driver looked squarely at the detective, in an efforted impassivity….”

   “‘You used every histrionic, every cunning.’”

   “…as if…he, Devereaux, was but one indivisive part of the whole.”

   In his review for the New York Times (June 13, 1954), Anthony Boucher said that Roeburt “might well be called the Theodore Dreiser of the mystery novel, both because he tries harder than most to see the sociological meaning behind murder and because he couches his well-conceived novels in an almost willfully strained and graceless prose…. I found the novel as compelling as it is tortuous.” The reference to Dreiser, of whom H. L. Mencken once said that he “came into the world with an incurable antipathy to the mot juste,” makes a lot of sense but, even though I hate to disagree with Tony, to my taste THE HOLLOW MAN is somewhat less than compelling.

***

   By the mid-1950s radio was dying and apparently Roeburt didn’t get enough television work to keep him as busy as he’d been, so he returned to writing novels, although none of them featured Devereaux or Jigger Moran or any other series character. Only two appeared in hardcover. THE LUNATIC TIME (Simon & Schuster, 1956; reprinted as DID YOU KILL MONA LEEDS?, Crest pb 3213, 1956) was described by Boucher in his Times review (August 19, 1956) as “unconventional, difficult and curiously compelling. An unsuccessful journalist, a psychotic dipsomaniac, half-involuntarily turns detective for a girl whose brother is in danger of the chair. His ultimate discovery should not surprise you, but this is one of those rare cases in which anticipation of the ending makes the novel, if anything, more fascinating.”

   Tony again mentions Roeburt’s “tortuous and somewhat strained writing” but stresses his “strong individuality and a certain morbid power.” Thanks to his review, and the longer discussion by Marcia Muller in 1001 MIDNIGHTS (1986), I think I know who killed Mona Leeds already. But I have a copy of the book and have made a date with myself to read it one of these days.

   I don’t own a copy of THE CLIMATE OF HELL (Abelard-Schuman, 1958; reprinted as THE LONG NIGHTMARE, Crest pb #246, 1958) but there’s enough information on the Web to provide a good idea of what it’s about. I’ll start by quoting the Kirkus review, unnecessary dashes and all:

   “Larry Stevens, a fisherman in Florida, is brainwashed into the identity of Kirk Reynolds, taken — by three men — to New York to live the life of a gilded bum, to renew his marriage with Laura, a lush, and to witness the murder of his presumed father — before his will is changed. Running away — to give himself up — -he must finally face the revelation of his own responsibility in the situation to which his sick, truant conduct has led. Up from the pulps, loud and lewd and lurid.”

   Tony Boucher’s Times review (May 25, 1958) is so much more positive it tempts me to track down a copy. He calls it “as headlong, urgent, read-in-one-desperate-sitting a narrative as has come my way in quite a while…. Roeburt’s odd, individual prose and his psychological variations on the theme give it freshness; and the perils of the impostor and the sheer evil of his criminal masters make a memorable nightmare of menace.”

   As chance would have it, while roaming the Web for more information on THE CLIMATE OF HELL I stumbled upon David Seed’s BRAINWASHING: THE FICTIONS OF MIND CONTROL: A STUDY OF NOVELS AND FILMS (Kent State University Press, 2004), which blithely gives away the surprise Roeburt was building up to. Well, I still might try to track down a copy.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   The first few years of Erle Stanley Gardner’s stories for the pulps were written in a style that might best be called style-less. Then, around 1930 or so, he discovered Dashiell Hammett — no surprise since they were both writing for the same pulps at the same time — and his most interesting work over the next several years makes it pretty clear which of his colleagues he was trying to channel. I call as witnesses the Ken Corning stories for Black Mask (1932-33), the first nine Perry Mason books (1933-36), the stand-alone novel THIS IS MURDER (1935), and the short-lived Pete Wennick series, also for Black Mask (1937-39).

   Another radical change in Gardner’s style and sensibility took place around 1937 when the Saturday Evening Post offered him huge sums of money for serialization rights to the Perry Mason’s before they came out in book form. But part of the deal was that Gardner had to tone Mason down, conform him to the “family-friendly” values of the Post, convert him from a social Darwinian Sam Spade with a law degree to an attorney who was more conventional, more acceptable to a huge public just as network TV was to demand during its heyday in the 1950s.

   This didn’t mean that everything Gardner wrote had to kowtow to “family values.” Roughly two years after making his Faustian bargain with the Post, he launched a new series which, like the Mason novels, he continued to write for the rest of his life.

   Under the byline of A. A. Fair he created the team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Bertha is obese, irascible, money-hungry and foul-mouthed, while Donald is a young bantamweight with a weakness for lovely women and a talent for scams. He has a law degree but it’s useless to him. “I wasn’t disbarred and I didn’t violate professional ethics,” he insists in an exchange with Cool early in the pair’s debut novel, THE BIGGER THEY COME (1939). “I told [a client] a man could break any law and get away with it if he went about it right.” To which Cool replies: “That’s nothing. Anyone knows that.”

   Imagine those lines appearing in the Saturday Evening Post! Lam goes on: “I told this man it would be possible to commit a murder so there was nothing anyone could do about it….That night he was arrested. He turned out to be a small-time gangster….[H]e told [the police] that I had agreed to tell him how he could commit a murder and get off scot-free….[I]f it looked good to him, he had planned to bump off a rival gangster.” The California Bar’s grievance committee “revoked my license for a year.”

   The year has passed but Donald is still unable to practice law: thanks to his suspension, no firm will hire him and thanks to being broke he can’t hang out his own shingle. But he still contends that with his advice one could “commit deliberate murder and go unpunished.” Bertha presses for more information: “And locked inside that head of yours is a plan by which I could kill someone and the law couldn’t do a damn thing about it?” Donald replies: “Yes.”

   It’s left up to us to imagine the smarmy seductive tone of Cool’s next line: “Tell me, Donald.” He doesn’t, of course, but at the climax he demonstrates his own thesis by getting up in an Arizona courtroom, confessing to a California murder (which in fact he didn’t commit) and daring the legal system to touch him for it.

   Here’s how the ploy works. After the murder in California, Donald drives across the state line into Arizona where he proceeds to frame himself on a charge of obtaining property under false pretenses, although leaving a legal escape hatch open for himself. He then drives back to California, runs through the quarantine station at the border, is chased and caught by California cops and locked up in the border town of El Centro.

   In due course he’s legally extradited to Arizona to face the false pretenses charge. Once he’s cleared himself and that charge is dropped, he confesses to the California murder. But when California moves to extradite him, he files a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that he can’t be compelled to return.

   “The only authority which one state has to take prisoners from another state comes from the organic law [meaning the state constitution] which provides that fugitives from justice may be extradited from one sovereign state to another. I am not a fugitive from justice….[A] man is not a fugitive from a state unless he flees from that state. He doesn’t flee from that state unless he does so voluntarily and in order to avoid arrest. I did not flee from California. I was dragged from California. I was taken out under legal process to answer for a crime of which I was innocent. I claimed that I was innocent. I came to Arizona and established my innocence. Any time I get good and ready to go back to California, California can arrest me for murder. Until I get good and ready to go back, I can stay here and no power on earth can make me budge.”

   Would the plan work? Gardner’s friend Dean John H. Wigmore scoffed at the device and ESG literally wrote a brief for him on the issue which made him concede that maybe Gardner had a point. But I wouldn’t recommend that anyone try to make use of it today. Of the two main cases Donald cited, one is easily distinguishable from the situation in the novel and the other was all but overruled by the California Supreme Court in 1966, a few years before Gardner’s death. Masochists who want fuller legal details will find them in my chapter on Gardner in JUDGES & JUSTICE & LAWYERS & LAW (2014).

   Unlike the Perry Mason adventures which by this time were appearing regularly in the Saturday Evening Post, THE BIGGER THEY COME has its full share of Hammett touches. Cunweather, the king toad, is clearly modeled on THE MALTESE FALCON’s Casper Gutman, and the brutal beating of Donald by Cunweather’s goons — or should I say gunsels? — instantly reminds us of the beating administered to Ned Beaumont in THE GLASS KEY. (Donald gets roughed up quite often in the course of the 30-novel series.)

   But above all else THE BIGGER THEY COME is an epic symphony of scams, one inside the other inside a third: everyone out to snooker everyone else, dog eat dog, devil take the hindmost, social Darwinism in action. And Gardner, born scrapper that he was, loves every minute of it. We get so immersed in all these scams that it’s easy to forget that Gardner never tells us exactly what happened between the first and second shots in Apartment 419, nor even who committed the murder that took place there.

   In the final chapter Bertha and Donald reunite in Arizona and we close with Donald entering the room of the young woman who was falsely charged with the murder. What happened between them after that is left to our imagination.

***

   THE BIGGER THEY COME was first published very early in 1939. The next Cool & Lam novel readers saw was TURN ON THE HEAT, which came out early in 1940. What no one knew until a few years ago was that between these books Gardner had written another C&L exploit, which his publisher rejected and which moldered away in his gargantuan filing system until long after his death in 1970.

   It was finally published by Hard Case Crime as THE KNIFE SLIPPED (2016). Donald is back in California with Bertha, for some unexplained reason legally unscathed despite having confessed in open court to a murder in that state. We’re also told very clearly (by Bertha, on page 15) that he was disbarred in California, not for the scam he pulled in THE BIGGER THEY COME but for the advice he had given a client before the beginning of that book, an act, so he had told Bertha, that had got him suspended from the bar for a year which was now up.

   Whether or not he could return to law practice, he doesn’t, and gets stuck with a routine shadowing job when a battle-axe mother and her frumpy daughter hire Bertha’s firm to investigate the daughter’s husband, who’s been seen in a nightclub with a sexy blonde. It doesn’t take much shadowing before Donald discovers that his target has two other apartments and two other names — one of them being Ned Pines, a real-world pulp publisher — and that both apartments are frequently visited by cops and firemen.

   Bertha quickly scents a political scandal and roots around for a way to profit from it, while at the fancier of his target’s two secret apartments Donald strikes up an acquaintance with Ruth Marr, the four-to-midnight switchboard operator, and falls for her as only Donald can. Late the next evening he’s keeping watch in the agency car outside the apartment building when the automobile door is opened by a frantic Ruth, who, or at least so she claims, has just found the man Donald was shadowing shot to death in his room and idiotically picked up the murder gun, which she passes to Donald, who deep-sixes it.

   Donald gets slapped around by cops, beaten to a pulp by thugs in the pay of the man behind the political scandal (which involves selling the answers to Civil Service exam questions to cops and firemen hungry for promotions), and soon finds himself on the run with Ruth, who he at least half believes committed the murder. The climax is a tour de force of cynicism, with Donald planting the murder gun on the king toad while the real murderer stays out of jeopardy by paying Bertha a generous chunk of blackmail money.

   There are some other inconsistencies between this novel and THE BIGGER THEY COME besides the question of whether Donald can practice law. In THE KNIFE SLIPPED Bertha has an annoying habit of referring to herself in the third person, which she does only once in THE BIGGER THEY COME. The sex, which was implied and offstage in THE BIGGER THEY COME, is much more overt in THE KNIFE SLIPPED.

   Donald makes out with Ruth in the agency car, pulling down her bra and exposing her breasts. Elsewhere there’s even a reference to Bertha’s nipples, which Donald coyly refers to as buttons. Perhaps it’s matters like these that have led some readers to conclude or at least suspect that Gardner didn’t write this book; that it was written much more recently to cash in on his name, as was done with other mystery writers in the past.

   Anyone remember BUT THE DOCTOR DIED? It was supposedly written by Craig Rice, who died in 1957, and features her series characters, but wasn’t published until ten years after her death and is brim-full of international intrigue elements that place it in the James Bond Superstar era, which Rice never lived to see. But I don’t believe we have a similar case here. Based on the style, the period details and the overall feel of the book, I can’t imagine anyone but ESG having written THE KNIFE SLIPPED.

   It’s equally hard to imagine just why Gardner’s publishers rejected the book. Too much sex? Or cynicism? Or sloppiness? (On page 21 the wife of the man Donald is to follow calls him an “assistant lawyer,” a designation that made my eyebrows go up a few notches, but seven pages later we learn that the guy’s title is Assistant Buyer.

   Much later in the novel Donald clubs the king toad and steals from his wallet over a thousand bucks, which he describes on page 149 as “sinews of war.” Surely he meant spoils?) Unless someone unearths the business correspondence on the issue, we’ll never know. Whatever the reason, I for one am glad that the publisher’s judgment was reversed.

   (With thanks to Vikram Katju, whose exchange of emails with me inspired this column.)

   I received the email below from Bill Pronzini today. Frank Bonham (1914-1988) was primarily a western writer, but he also wrote mysteries and science fiction, as well as a number of Young Adult novels. His career began in the pulps, which is where the interview begins. (His first published story was “Green Parrot,” which appeared in The Phantom Detective, September 1936.)


Hi Steve–

   Back in 1986 I co-hosted an interview with Frank Bonham that has been re-edited and just re-released on Berkeley’s KPFA radio station. Here’s a link to the new podcast that you might want to post on M*F. Frank’s reminiscences and anecdotes, especially those about the pulps and such writers and editors as Ed Earl Repp, Robert Leslie Bellem, and “Cap” Shaw, are absorbing and informative.

https://kpfa.org/area941/episode/the-probabilities-archive-frank-bonham-1914-1986/

            Best,

                Bill

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Once upon a time, when the occupant of the White House was a bald guy known as Ike, there was a popular CBS TV program on Sunday nights known as WHAT’S MY LINE?, in which the regular panelists had to guess the occupations of the special guests who appeared each week. The guests of course couldn’t be household names or the game would be pointless.

   One week in May 1958 the guests included a mystery writer: not a Carr or Queen or Christie of course, but someone who’d been banging out whodunits for decades without ever acquiring a name or much of a following. Subsequently the program used her photograph in promotional ads: “This sweet little elderly lady writes blood-curdling murder mysteries!”

   She’d been doing so since 1919, all but one featuring the same character. Her name was Lee Thayer — Emma Redington Lee Thayer if you want to be complete about it — and her sleuth was a red-headed young man of vaguely Holmesian cast named Peter Clancy. Thayer had at least two distinctions; she appeared on national TV and she continued writing Clancy novels until around age 92. (She died in 1973, a few months short of her 100th birthday.)

   Over the decades I’ve acquired a fair number of Thayers, and read a lot of them too. Frankly, they’re awful. Characters thinner than onion-skin paper, dime-novel prose, murder methods straight out of wackadoodledom — she had it all. Maybe that’s why I keep revisiting her. Maybe I just have a masochistic streak. Anyway, I recently decided to devote a column to a randomly selected trio of her works. Happy holidays, gang!

   Q.E.D. (1922) was her fourth novel, and if I liked it a bit more than most of her books, perhaps it’s because of the total absence of Wiggar, Clancy’s valet, an insufferable parody of English menservants whose coruscating bons mots like “Oh, Mr. Peter, sir!” make me feel as if my fingernails are being ripped out of me with pliers.

   Also it’s one of her simpler and more workpersonlike plots. In the wilds of northwestern New Jersey where Clancy and some friends are about to go off trout fishing, a total stranger is found outside the house of one of the group, only his own footprints visible in the thin coating of snow, a pistol in his pocket, his throat slit as if with a razor blade and his neck broken as if by a ju-jitsu expert, of which there happen to be three among the dramatis personae.

   The murderer is fairly obvious 100 pages before the climax but the denouement is Thayer at her purest, featuring a race against the clock and a howling thunderstorm. “The sky…was now riven by sharp swords of blinding light. The wind was rising in deep, sighing exhalations. In the lightning flash…were revealed high flung masses of cloud, lurid and awful, towering into the zenith….”

    The murderer runs for his life “at a mad pace through the blinding storm…” and there’s “a great roar as of the thundering voice of God” as a tree limb miraculously falls onto an overhead trolley wire and our villain is electrocuted. If you read Thayer, denouements of this sort, complete with Bible quotations, come with the territory.

   Remember, this book was written almost 100 years ago. Prohibition is in force, the movie industry has not yet completely uprooted itself from the East Coast, the police don’t seem to have any cameras, and there are so few automobiles on the streets of Manhattan that the cops let Clancy’s car defy all speed limits because of “the intelligent law that a man may drive as fast as he likes as long as he does not jeopardize others….” What I wouldn’t give for a proper legal citation of that law!

   It’s hard to believe that with local trains and a ferry you could travel from northwestern New Jersey across the Hudson to the heart of Manhattan in about 90 minutes, but there were large numbers of small commuter lines back then whereas today there’s only New Jersey Transit, which has no connections at all between northwest Jersey and New York.

   You also have to remember how old this book is when you encounter the racism. The face of a Japanese butler is likened to a “yellow mask” as are the faces of “all other Japs,” a sentiment which is followed by the cheerful humming of a mercifully forgotten tune: “All coons look alike to me.” Indeed we have come a long way.

    On a much more positive note are the fishing sequences, which strongly suggest that Thayer must have been a passionate angler of (dare I say it?) the first water, well versed in the ways of rods, reels, leaders, flies and the like. “[M]ost of the joy of fishing is fishing — messing around in the water—hearing the birds and the quietness — and watching the scenery go by.” How bucolic. Except for the fish.

***

   Q.E.D. is probably the earliest American detective novel I’ve ever read. (Previously the reigning champ was S.S. Van Dine’s 1926 THE BENSON MURDER CASE.) With our next Clancy we’re in familiar territory if we’re whodunit buffs, with Prohibition abolished and the Depression in full swing, financially devastating a huge number of people.

   HELL-GATE TIDES (1933) takes place entirely in Manhattan and mainly in a single two-story apartment in a high-rise tower on Gracie Place, just east of 81st Street and Carl Schurz Park and next to the East River, a building so luxurious it boasts a private dock for the use of yacht-owning tenants back from long excursions.

   A doctor friend sends one of his patients to consult with Clancy, a handsome young aristo named Alan McLeod who came within an inch of death thanks to strychnine administered in one of the items of his usual breakfast — coffee, a boiled egg, buttered toast and an orange.

   Calling himself Peter Carteret so as not to have to discard any of his personal items with monograms, Clancy and the intolerable Wiggar visit the McLeod mansion in the sky and find it occupied by Alan’s fiancée Gloria Kirby (who is near broke but concealing it well), an enigmatic housekeeper, an old family friend who loves to explore obscure corners of the world, and a flock of servants, the most suspicious being a tattooed Englishman named Bunce who is likely to remind you, if you grew up watching B Westerns, of that hulking Brit Harry Cording.

   There’s also a macaw, sometimes called a parrot, that only Bunce can induce to speak. Soon the party is joined by McLeod’s uncle and nearest relative, Russell Fahnestock, just back from a yacht trip. There’s no violence until about halfway through the book when, during a social gathering, Fahnestock steps out onto the balcony just off the huge living-room, apparently has intimate conversations with first Gloria Kirby and then Alan McLeod, and is never seen again until his body is found floating in the East River below, his neck broken and “a deep purplish mark encircling his throat….”

   The bird claims that Alan murdered his uncle. Clancy solves the crime only because the real killer carelessly left a fingerprint on Fahnestock’s cigarette lighter, which the police don’t find but Clancy does. This time Thayer eschews her signature apocalyptic ending but allows the killer — whose method is as wacko as that of the murderer in Q.E.D. — to dive out of an apartment window and drown himself in the book’s titular tides.

   Without consulting an expert I would take with several shakers of salt the criminological dogma that is advanced at least four times in the course of this novel. Clancy: “….[T]he criminal mind follows a pattern. A gun-man, for instance, will never use a knife, or vice versa.” (127) “A poisoner rarely carries a gun.” (262)

   Detective Captain Jake Kerrigan: “A poisoner is one kind of a man. A strangler is another. The two don’t blend.” (209) “A poisoner poisons. Get me? He doesn’t strangle.” (290) But perhaps the strangest scene takes place when beside the East River Wiggar encounters and befriends a homeless boy with dreams of being first a “detectuff” and then the next Will Rogers. A beat cop finds the two on a park bench with the Englishman’s arm cuddled around the kid and thinks nothing of it. In more recent times he’d probably suspect Wiggar was a priest.

***

   The most recent and by far the least interesting of the Thayer trio I’ve chosen for this column is DEAD END STREET (1936). The murders this time are incidental — a beat cop who saw too much, two professional burglars who learned too much about the masked mastermind behind their gang — and the main problem for Clancy is to determine who or what is driving to the brink of madness or suicide a young aristo named Arthur Madison, just returned to New York after having lived most of his life in China with his recently deceased father.

   The family mansion is at the extreme northern tip of Manhattan in an area which, judging by contemporary maps, looks very different today from the way it looked 80-odd years ago. (Thayer drew the dust jackets for all but the last few of her books but it would have been helpful if she’d drawn some maps for them too.)

   While looking into a series of jewel robberies from stately homes that have nothing in common except that each of them backs onto a waterway connected with the East River, Clancy and his buddy Captain Kerrigan happen to run into two women who are servants at the Madison mansion, a daughter and widowed mother fallen on hard times since the death of the head of the house — a doctor who as chance would have it once saved Kerrigan’s life — and are actually managing to save a little money working as housemaid and cook for $60 a month apiece plus meals. (My, how the value of the dollar has changed!)

   Already suspecting that the jewel thieves he’s hunting are based in the neighborhood, Clancy arranges for himself and Wiggar to be hired by wealthy old Henrietta Madison Ross and her crippled husband Leon Ross (at least once mistakenly called Nelson) respectively as chauffeur and butler, and in due course they discover that the attempts to drive Henrietta’s nephew Arthur into the looney bin are connected not only with the jewel thefts but also with the three incidental murders that happened nearby.

   Thayer provides enough secret rooms, underground passages and concealed tunnels for a year’s worth of silent serials, and this time the criminal mastermind is actually taken alive. The same dogma repeated so often in HELL-GATE TIDES pops up here too as Clancy informs us that “a crook sticks to tried and true methods. A knife is quick and quiet. The man that uses one…wouldn’t be risking the noise of a gun….” I am probably not revealing too much about the wacky plot to drive Arthur insane when I say that the Madison family fortune is based on the business of importing glass.

***

   Thayer thought of herself as a book designer and illustrator rather than an author, saying of her 60-odd novels “some are worse than others.” True enough! Both I and mystery writer/critic Jon L. Breen, who has probably read more Thayers than I have, agree that the best of her books that we’ve both read is EVIL ROOT (1949).

   No one will ever call her the peer of Christie, Sayers and P.D. James, but she put in close to half a century at the trade in which her achievements were at best modest, and she deserves a bit more than to be totally forgotten.

JAMES KIERAN – Come Murder Me. Gold Medal #150, paperback original, 1951; #419, 2nd printing, 1954.

   Whee-eew. Here’s the kind of story that simply takes your breath away, for sheer audacity of plot, if nothing else. A man with a split personality — the kind that kicks up on him whenever his lady friend walks out on him — blanks out and hires an unknown killer. The target: himself.

   There’s another girl in the story. She’s a witness to a cop killing in California, and she’s got a gunman on her trail, too. Guess whose apartment she takes refuge in? The tangled plot lines are told in a pulpy sort of fashion and are great fun, but I also have to add that there aren’t any great surprises either.

FOOTNOTE:   This is the same John Kieran who was the brother of Helen Reilly, and who is described in Barzun & Taylor as a journalist and radio star. This was his only crime novel. [He died the year after this book was published.] It might also be worth pointing out that two of Reilly’s daughters were Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen. I wonder what the family talked about at the breakfast table.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #18, December 1989, very slightly revised.


[UPDATE] 11/20/18.   Observant readers of this blog will immediately recognize that the basic plot line is the same as that of Paid to Kill, the movie reviewed just before this one. Believe it or not, this was almost entirely coincidental.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Anyone remember John Roeburt? My hunch is that few do even if they’re regular readers of this column. I believe he first swam into my ken in the late 1950s, when I was a teen and he was story editor and occasional scriptwriter for NBC-TV’s THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN (1958-59), starring George Nader and later Lee Philips.

   Being heavily into EQ at that time, I made it a point to check out this Roeburt guy and found several of his novels at my friendly neighborhood used book store. Prices were unbelievable back then: you could buy a hardcover for a quarter, a paperback for a dime. I picked up all the Roeburt I could find but, and weirdo that I am, read few if any of his books. Recently I decided he might be a good subject for a column and pulled down a few of his early novels from my shelves. Was I right? You tell me.

   A New Yorker from square one, Roeburt was born on March 15, 1909. At least one website claims that, like myself, he graduated from NYU Law School, probably during the pit of the Depression, but neither the Law School Alumni Office nor the Registrar’s Office has been able to confirm this.

   If he was an attorney, we don’t know whether he ever practiced law. Most of his career as a writer he spent in radio and later TV but he did turn out a book every few years. Outside the crime genre he’s best known for EARTHQUAKE (1959), a mainstream novel nominally written by TV comic Milton Berle and himself.

   This book had nothing in common with the 1974 Big Disaster movie of the same name, co-scripted by Mario Puzo and starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy and Lorne Greene, with special effects out the wazoo. Titles aren’t copyrightable but theoretically Berle and Roeburt could have sued on a claim of unfair competition.

   However, to succeed on that basis you have to establish that your title has developed a secondary meaning, i.e. it’s identified with you in the public mind the way, say, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is identified with Harper Lee. In any event there was no such suit and Roeburt wasn’t around to bring it. He had died of a heart attack on May 22, 1972 at his summer home on Fire Island.

***

   His first novel, JIGGER MORAN (Greenberg, 1944), which I picked up for a cool quarter back in my teens, is hard to classify. On the surface it’s a Mean Streets thriller in the Raymond Chandler tradition (although without first-person narration), but every so often it tries futilely to break out of its hardboiled mold and enter the mainstream, abandoning its protagonist for a few pages now and then, even offering a flashback to the childhood of one of the other principals.

   Jigger, whom one can easily imagine being played on the big screen by Bogart, is nominally a cab driver but actually an amoral “fixer” with both a Ph.D. and a law school diploma, which Roeburt insists on calling a degree De Juris. (This is both bad Latin and dead wrong: in Roeburt’s time what you got when you graduated from a law school was called an Ll.B., for Bachelor of Laws, although by my own graduation year, 1967, the name had been changed to J.D., for Juris Doctor. In any event, the second Moran novel tells us that he’s been disbarred for years.)

   Numbers racket kingpin Little Joey, whom one can easily imagine being played by Edward G. Robinson, hires Moran to clear him of the murder of a German-American doctor who apparently won a huge amount of money from Joey’s organization not long before he was found battered almost beyond recognition in his Yorkville home office. The trail leads Jigger to the usual zoo of lowlifes — including a psychotic whose wife died after a botched abortion at the doctor’s hands and several pseudo-intellectual leftists from Greenwich Village — and ultimately to a Nazi propaganda mill.

   What makes JIGGER MORAN stand out from the usual tough-guy thriller is that it’s studded with lines of the sort Bill Pronzini in an inspired phrase has called “alternative flapdoodle.” I’ll quote just a few, complete with page references so no one will think I’m making this stuff up:

    Jigger gave the cherchez la femme faucet a quarter-inch twist….(35)

    Jigger thrust a nail-file through a crack in Wang’s double-decker subtleties as a reminder that the good doctor had two strikes on him and Jigger was pitcher and umpire both. (129)

    Jigger pummeled his way through the mob cacaphonizing at Johnny’s bar…. (133)

    “Used to be a ranking sluggerdutch from Chicago.” (139)

    The office girl squared her breasts as Jigger zipped past…. (201)

    [H]e looked like a man jumping out of his skin. (208)

   Roeburt uses a number of throwaway references to evoke the 1944 atmosphere but they don’t always work. The Euro-café filled with “Viennese refugees who took fright with the bullet that reduced Dolfuss to a footnote in history” (209) is okay if the reader remembers that Engelbert Dollfuss (with two l’s), chancellor of Austria, had been shot by the Nazis in 1934.

   But what about Jigger’s prediction that he and a certain cop “will be principals in a rewrite of the Becker-Rosenthal case” (189)? Personally I don’t feel like going online to track down that ancient case, and I suspect very few readers would have wanted to do it back in that cenozoic era before the Web.

   Roeburt does even worse when he ventures onto religious turf. The well-known Catholic apologist and 1950s TV personality Fulton Sheen morphs in his hands into “Monsignor Sheean” (209), but that’s a mere bag of shells beside the unforgettable reference to “the St. James version of the Old Testament” on the same page!

   JIGGER MORAN was reprinted twice after its hardcover appearance: as THE CASE OF THE TEARLESS WIDOW (HandiBooks pb #46, 1946) and as WINE, WOMEN AND MURDER (Avon pb #807, 1958). I don’t have either of these editions and don’t know whether Roeburt cleaned up any of the wacko lines from the original but, as we’ll see shortly, there’s reason to believe he might have.

***

   One notices a certain cousinly resemblance between the beginning of JIGGER MORAN and that of Roeburt’s follow-up novel, THERE ARE DEAD MEN IN MANHATTAN (Mystery House, 1946). Jigger is pulled out of a crap game in a nightclub kitchen by Dixie Travers, a gangster driven out of New York and now holed up across the Hudson in Jersey City, and offered a large fee if he’ll clear up a murder.

   This time, however, the gangster himself is not under suspicion. The guy in the shadow of the hot seat is Blaine Fowler, who’s on trial for the murder of his mistress and almost certain to be convicted. Why does Travers care? Because, he says, Fowler owes him $50,000 in gambling debts and can’t pay up if he fries.

   Soon after Jigger takes the case, one of the Fowler jurors is (non-fatally) poisoned, a mistrial is declared and Fowler is released on bail. (Yeah, right.) Next someone tries to shoot the poisoned juror in his hospital bed, and Jigger finds himself in the thick of a conspiracy involving, among other notables, the DA who put Fowler on trial. Not only is our hero beaten to a pulp, which is par for the course in vintage PI novels, but he also gets scalped, which I think makes him unique in the tough-guy genre.

   In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle (March 17, 1946) Tony Boucher called the book “a highly individual and effective variant on the hardboiled school” despite its employment of “one of the oldest cliché solutions….” No, the murderer is not a woman Jigger has had sex with. Through the pages of this caper he remains chaste. Who’d want sex with a scalped man anyway?

   Various plot components make it clear that Raymond Chandler and especially FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1940) were very much on Roeburt’s mind at the time: witness the Moose Malloy-like hulk who administers the scalping to Jigger, and the phony sanitarium in the later chapters. The weirdo lines that marked JIGGER MORAN are fewer in number this time around but just as flapdoodlesque:

    “Christy… doormanned lugubriously, tallying all incoming customers with a clockometer.” (19) “Fowler can-canned his bottom to the edge of the bunk and his feet touched the floor.” (44) In the abridged paperback edition of DEAD MEN, which I happen to have (Graphic pb #42, 1951), the first of these howlers is cut completely and the second is toned down to the conventional “Fowler sat up in his bunk and swung around.”

   It’s revisions like these that lead me to suspect that if we had one or both of the paperback editions of JIGGER MORAN we’d find similar instances of — if I may perpetrate my own Roeburtism — second-thoughting.

***

   In the third and final Jigger Moran novel, CORPSE ON THE TOWN (Graphic pb #27, 1950), Roeburt dispenses with weirdo lines except for one or two like “Jigger smiled a shot of Vitamin W” (37). This time around the track we get much more dialogue — which is natural considering that so much of his writing took the form of radio drama — plus the only opening scene in any of the three that can reasonably be called noirish.

   On a rain-soaked evening, Jigger drops off a passenger in front of an apartment building on Greenwich Village’s Charlton Street and is about to turn in his cab and call it a night when a stranger he can barely see asks him to deliver a trunk to the Railway Express office near Penn Station, offering a fee of five bucks, which in 1950 was a princely sum for a short haul.

   On 31st Street he’s cut off by four cops in official cars and forced to accompany them to the police garage, where the trunk is taken off his cab and found to contain the body of a young woman, battered beyond recognition. The trail leads him to a wealthy upstate New York family, a police chief with a murderous streak, a professor of creative writing who was mentoring the dead woman, a red-bearded Greenwich Village artist with a penchant for blackmail and all sorts of other pungent characters.

   Since the book was published as a paperback original it was reviewed nowhere, not even in the New York Times, although if it had appeared a couple of years later Tony Boucher would certainly have covered it in his “Criminals at Large” column, which began in July 1951.

   What Tony would have said we’ll never know. Personally I found the book sort of confusing for a number of reasons, for instance the will that Roeburt summarizes for us in Chapter Nine:

   Wealthy grandmother disinherited her son and left most of her estate to her granddaughter provided she gets married before she turns 21. Would a court have found that provision contrary to public policy and void? One would expect that if Roeburt were a lawyer he’d at least bring up the issue but not a single word is said about it.

   The granddaughter did get married before turning 21 but her husband was also her first cousin. Is that legal? It is in New York today and presumably was back in 1950. But suppose she gets married before age 21 and then dies? We are told that “the old lady didn’t think to insure against such a contingency.”

   Well, duh! You don’t have to be a law school graduate to know that in that event the estate goes wherever the granddaughter’s will says it goes or, if she didn’t leave a will, to her nearest relatives by intestate succession.

   There are other sources of confusion too but it would be boring to harp on them.

   Several years after the novel’s first appearance, a new version was published as CASE OF THE HYPNOTIZED VIRGIN (Avon pb #730, 1956), whose front cover informs us in small print that it was “based on” CORPSE ON THE TOWN. The main difference between the two titles is that in 1956 Roeburt inserted several hundred words of new material about hypnosis and reincarnation, obviously designed to cash in on the then wildly popular book THE SEARCH FOR BRIDEY MURPHY. The additions were no improvements.

***

   Three Roeburts in one column is quite enough. If I decide to talk about his other books — notably TOUGH COP (1949) and THE HOLLOW MAN (1954), both featuring Johnny Devereaux, and the stand-alone crime novels THE LUNATIC TIME (1956) and THE CLIMATE OF HELL (1958), not to mention his countless scripts for radio and TV — it will have to be on another occasion. Probably not next month. If I may quote the “Send In the Clowns” song, maybe next year.

FRANK CASTLE – Murder in Red. Gold Medal #709, paperback original; 1st printing, October 1957.

   “Red” in the sense of Communist infiltration and intrigue, and unexpectedly so, since the blurb on the front cover doesn’t even hint at it — “They gave him only one choice: his girl’s life in exchange for his” — unless you can read something into that that I don’t see.

   It opens with an agent from behind the Iron Curtain — East Berlin, to be precise — making arrangements to cross the border from Mexico into New Mexico. What his mission is, he does not know. That he will learn only when the time comes. What he also was not told before hand is that a female companion will be assigned to him, an American, we learn right along with him, with a grudge against her country.

   Their journey is filled with the inevitable snags and interruptions that occur in books such as this. The stakes are high — something to do with a new project the Americans are working on, possibly involving ICBMs and/or other gadgetry. It’s still not a very exciting story, and truth be told, it’s a very minor one.

   The only thing that will keep most readers going, I think, is that every so often, Curt Weber’s memory starts to play tricks on him — there are things he should remember, he realizes, but can’t. I knew what that meant right away, and you probably already know as well.


Bibliographic Notes:  Frank Castle wrote five other mysteries for Gold Medal between 1954 and 1957. He also wrote a novelization of the Hawaiian Eye TV series for Dell in 1962. He also did a number of westerns for Gold Medal. How many I do not know, but it’s quite possible he wrote more of those than he did mysteries.

RICHARD FOSTER – Bier for a Chaser. Pete Draco #1. Gold Medal #899, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1959.

   The only thing I found interesting about this book is its cover. There is little else to it. PI Pete Draco, from Miami Beach, is brash and ballsy but noticeably weaker when it comes to brainpower, and somehow beautiful babe simply flock to his bedroom. I’d be hard pressed to say why.

   A syndicate kingpin has dies, and nearly a million dollars in gunrunning money has disappeared. (This was written back in the day when a guy named Castro was a folk hero.) This is boozy male fantasy fiction at either its worst or its finest — it is hard to say which.

–Reprinted and slightly revised from Mystery*File #17, November 1989.


Bibliographic Note: Richard Foster was but one of many pen names of Kendell Foster Crossen, best known perhaps under his M. E. Chaber byline for a long series of books about insurance investigator Milo March. Crossen wrote a total of seven mysteries as Foster, but only one was another Pete Draco adventure, that being Too Late for Mourning (Gold Medal, 1960).

BRUNO FISCHER – Murder in the Raw. Gold Medal #694, paperback original; 1st printing, August 1957. Cover art: James Meese. Reprinted as #1011, 1960.

   I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that Bruno Fischer wrote hundreds of pulp mystery stories, or if it is, it isn’t by much. (I’m counting stories under his own name as well as Russell Gray and Harrison Storm.) The first of these was “The Cat Woman” which appeared in the November 1936 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine under the Russell Gray byline.

   He wrote one hardcover mystery novel in 1939 (So Much Blood, for the obscure Greystone Press) but it wasn’t until the mid-1940s that he made the transition to novel length work for good. He was one of the early authors to sign up with Gold Medal when they began publishing, circa 1950, writing 11 novels for them throughout the first year they were in business.

   Obviously the most provocative thing about Murder in the Raw — well, make it two — are the title and the cover art, both designed to catch the eye of a would-be buyer (male, of course). I don’t know if the title was Fischer’s choice, but the scene shown is in the book.

   But even so, both the title and the cover art disguise the fact that this is a pretty good detective story and an even better character study. When newspaper reporter Clem Prosper tries to take a short vacation in a lodge along a lake, he finds his host missing and himself falling in love with a young woman living nearby who has been badly scarred by having been acquitted of killing her husband, a man she loved but did not know his secret life was that of a notorious gangster.

   Fischer does a good job of hiding the identity of the true killer, suggesting at one time it is one person, then another, and convincing the reader each time that it could have been him or her. I think that’s the sign of a good author, to flesh out and define his (or her) characters well enough to make what’s essentially a puzzle plot actually work.

   Lee Goldberg left this bit of good news as a comment following Richard Moore’s previously posted essay on author Ralph Dennis. Thinking the news deserves to be spread as much as possible, I’m reposting it here:

Lee Goldberg on the RALPH DENNIS Novels.


   I’m excited to announce that I’ve acquired the rights to all of Ralph Dennis’s work — his published and unpublished novels. Brash Books will be re-releasing his 12 Hardman novels, starting with the first four in December, and the rest through 2019. The Hardman books include a terrific introduction by Joe R. Lansdale … and subsequent books include afterwords by Richard A. Moore, Ben Jones and Paul Bishop. The first two titles in the series, Atlanta Deathwatch and The Charleston Knife is Back in Town are already available for preorder in paperback and ebook on Amazon, iBook, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

   We’ll also be re-releasing in 2019 a substantially revised version Ralph’s WWII thriller MacTaggart’s War, which we’ve retitled The War Heist. It was his last published title and didn’t do as well as he, or the publisher hoped. I believe i know why… I’ve gone back to his original manuscript, rearranged chapters, deleted chapters, and made other revisions to heighten suspense, sharpen characters, etc… cutting the book by about 35,000 words along the way (it still clocks in at 100K words).

   And we’re also going to be releasing many of Ralph’s unpublished novels … which, if they need revision, I will be doing myself. One of the manuscripts is going to be slightly reworked as a sequel to his previous published novel Atlanta (which we are likely to retitle before re-publishing).

   This has been a passion project for me ever since Bill Crider and Paul Bishop introduced me to the Hardman novels five years ago. I immediately decided I had to get them back into print, so I sought out the advice of my good friend Joel Goldman … and as a result of those discussions, a partnership and a publishing company were born. Now, after the publishing nearly 100 titles together, we are finally putting out the novels that we’d hoped would be our first releases.

   I can’t thank Richard Moore enough for all of his help making this deal finally happen.

   I can’t wait to hear what you think of the books as they roll out… and I hope you will spread the word. We want Ralph Dennis to get the recognition and readership he’s long deserved.

Next Page »