Authors


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


   Dashiell Hammett is universally acclaimed as the founding father of hard-boiled or what is now called noir crime fiction. I know that Carroll John Daly (1889-1958) entered the field shortly before Hammett, and that his earliest novels predated Hammett’s by a few years. But almost a century after both men began, Daly’s output does not hold up well by comparison, and I don’t have enough years left to explore it in detail. How about the first significant writer who followed in Hammett’s footsteps?

   Raoul Whitfield (1896-1945) was born in New York City, distantly related to Andrew Carnegie through the great industrialist’s wife. His father, a federal civil servant, was assigned to Manila as an accountant shortly after the Spanish-American War, so that Raoul grew up in the Philippines. As a young man he moved to Hollywood and is reported to have appeared in uncredited bit parts in silent movies. Upon the U.S. entry into World War I he enlisted and was trained as an aviator. Apparently his main overseas jobs were shuttling cargo to the front lines in France and towing targets for aerial gun practice, although he claimed heavy air combat experience.

   After the war he settled in Pennsylvania and worked as a laborer in a steel mill, as a bond salesman, and (maybe) as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post. He married his first and longest-lived wife, the former Prudence Ann Smith (1895-1990), in April 1923.

   Apparently his first short story was “The Pin” (The Cauldron, December 1922), which was reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for April 1985, a few years after Fred Dannay’s death, but it wasn’t until 1924 that he started turning them out like bratwursts in a sausage factory, mainly for pulps like Breezy Stories, Droll Stories and Street & Smith’s Sport Story.

   He made his first sale to Black Mask in 1926, with most of his early tales in that iconic magazine being air combat adventures, a genre he claimed to have invented, but within a few years his interests turned to combat between tough guys on terra firma. Once having gotten his feet wet in this new body of water, he became a staunch admirer of Hammett, who’d been swimming in it for about four years before him. They corresponded for a while before finally meeting in Hammett’s San Francisco stamping grounds, and thereafter they met periodically, downing oceans of bootleg liquor on every occasion.

   Hammett’s RED HARVEST had already appeared both in Black Mask (November 1927-February 1928) and as a novel (Knopf, 1929), and THE MALTESE FALCON in serial form (Black Mask, September 1929-January 1930), when Whitfield made his hardcover debut with GREEN ICE (Knopf, 1930), based on five Black Mask stories (December 1929-April 1930) and issued by Hammett’s own publisher at Hammett’s suggestion.

   There’s no private eye in the book, no one comparable to the Continental Op or Sam Spade. Released from Sing Sing after serving a two-year stretch for a vehicular homicide committed by his girlfriend, Mal Ourney (who to my mind would best have been played onscreen by Richard Dix, the star of several early-talkie crime movies) resolves to devote his life and inherited bankroll to wiping out the “crime-breeders,” the big-shot criminals who ensnare, frame and ruin the lives of little crooks.

   His girlfriend comes up to Ossining to reunite with him — or perhaps for a more sinister reason –– and is promptly shot to death, the first of a huge assortment of violent ends that stud Whitfield’s pages, at least a dozen in all and seven of them before the end of Chapter Five. The impossible-to-keep-straight plot involves a host of ruthless characters in pursuit of a fortune in emeralds which turns out to be — well, remember what Hammett’s black bird turned out to be?

   Events begin in Ossining just outside of Sing Sing but soon move to Manhattan and then to Pittsburgh (the dirty burg, Whitfield calls it) and its suburb Duquesne. The steel mill stench is everywhere. “Red flames streaked up into the sky from the plant stacks. Red smoke hung low. The air was heavy, thick with steel grime.” Ourney gets beaten up and blackjacked at least once too often and grins a lot more than a noir protagonist should. And I do get tired of his using human as a synonym for man or person.

   Dot Ellis got more space than most of the other humans. But there was one human that grabbed the headlines.

   “[W]hoever did—that human knew her well enough to know she was left-handed.”

   “….I got the idea that just a few humans were using a lot of other humans as they wanted, then framing them, smashing them—rubbing them out….”

   Until the middle of Chapter VIII Ourney takes it for granted that the black bird of this book is in the form of cash. Then he makes what he himself calls “a blind guess” and says: “Somebody’s after something, but it isn’t a hundred grand. It isn’t fifty grand. Maybe it’s stones.” As indeed it is. Surely Hammett would have found a more elegant way of putting his protagonist on the right track.

   But the book is still readable almost 90 years after its first publication, although clearly not in the same league with Hammett’s classics. Considering the Black Mask serialization dates of all three novels, any similarity with RED HARVEST and THE MALTESE FALCON that one may find in GREEN ICE can hardly be coincidental.

***

   Whitfield’s second novel, DEATH IN A BOWL (Black Mask, Sept-Nov 1930; Knopf, 1931), is a genuine PI exploit set in Hollywood, with a convincing background of the movie industry at the dawn of talkies and a relatively small cast of characters compared with the hordes that populated GREEN ICE. After screenwriter Howard Frey knocks out German émigré director Ernst Reiner while a tense scene is being shot, both men approach Hollywood PI Ben Jardinn, with Reiner claiming Frey is out to kill him and Frey insisting that the director wants to frame his scenario man in case he’s killed by someone else.

   The actual murder takes place the following evening at a Hollywood Bowl concert attended by some 12,000 people — including Reiner, Frey and the tempestuous star of Reiner’s movie — and conducted by Reiner’s illustrious brother. In the middle of a thunderous tone poem the Bowl lights suddenly go out, a tri-motored plane buzzes the field with its engines roaring, and the conductor is shot in the back four times, although later Whitfield changes his mind and tells us there were only two bullets in the body.

   Except for a plane-crash death and a second murder, not all that much happens in the remainder of the book beyond a constant stream of characters lying to and double-crossing one another, bringing home to us the quintessential noir insight that you can’t know or trust anyone, not even yourself.

   The climax is a somewhat creative variant of THE MALTESE FALCON’s you’re-taking-the-fall-baby denouement — although not in the same class with the twist Erle Stanley Gardner pulled off in the first Perry Mason novel, THE CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS (1933) — and the style is ersatz Hammett all the way. In both narrative and dialogue “human” is used as a substitute for “person” so often it becomes silly.

       ….[A]ll humans were difficult to work with….

       Humans were still pouring into the Bowl.

       The roar of the plane’s engines filled the bowl of humans.

       Humans were surging from the grass before the shell….

       The police are yelling that I caused an important human to get himself quieted….”

       “….The bushes are tall enough to hide a human.”

   Whitfield didn’t have anywhere near Hammett’s success in Hollywood. Movies were made out of none of his novels and only one short story (“Man Killer” from the April 1932 Black Mask, which was filmed as PRIVATE DETECTIVE 62, Warner Bros., 1933, starring William Powell) but, judging from DEATH IN A BOWL, he seems to have absorbed quite a bit of the early-talkie Hollywood atmosphere, with the director filming a scene required to stay in a sound booth looking down on the stage below.

   The autocratic director character Ernst Reiner was clearly modeled on the great German film-maker Fritz Lang (1895-1975), who in fact was still working in Germany in the early 1930s and didn’t move to the U.S. until a few years later, after Hitler came to power.

   Anyone who wants proof that Lang was on Whitfield’s mind need only look at what Ben Jardinn has to say about Reiner’s movies. “They show a good deal of imagination. Cities of the future, and that sort of thing….” (8) What is this but an unmistakable allusion to Lang’s 1926 masterpiece METROPOLIS? Long before anyone ever heard of the auteur theory, Whitfield has no doubt who holds the power in the film world. “Most directors are more important than writers.” (7)

   Whatever its weaknesses as a detective novel, DEATH IN A BOWL is redeemed by moments like these.


   TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONTH…

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MIKE PHILLIPS – Point of Darkness. Samson Dean #3. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1995. First published in the UK by Michael Joseph, hardcover, 1994. No US paperback edition.

   Phillips is new to me, though obviously not to everyone. The two previous tales about Sam Dean, a reporter of Anglo-Caribbean descent, have been set in London — Blood Rights and The Late Candidate. This, the first since 1991, takes place in New York City. Phillips also write the novelization of for the movie Boyz in the Hood.

   Sammy Dean is in the Big Apple to try to find the straying daughter of a boyhood friend dying in London. He’s no stranger to the city abd its Caribbean neighborhoods — Jamaica, Queens, the Bronx — but an outsider nevertheless, The girl had disappeared after working as a domestic for the aging parents of a high City official, and more people than Dean are looking for her — for reasons he doesn’t know. What seemed to be an uncomplicated if tedious and difficul task turns nasty, and he soon finds both himself and the object of his search in serious danger.

   This is blurbed as being “on the tradition of Walter Mosley.” Me, I’d have thought that Mosley was a few books shy of a “tradition” — but hey, whatever works. Phillips is a lot closer in tone ro Mosley than to Chester Himes or Barbara Neely, if that counts. Traditional or not, I liked it. Phillips seems to know his territory, and tells his story in first-person in an undramatic, semi-reflective way that I found appealing.

   The urban black/Caribbean world was new to me, and I thought he did an excellent job of painting its picture without slowing down the story. As I’ve said before, it would be foolish of me or any white man to try to judge the realism of black characters, but they seemed like real people to me, and believable and sympathetic ones. Phillips is a good writer with a different viewpoint.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #18, February-March 1995.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   One online source describes the author as having been “… born in Georgetown, Guyana. He came to Britain as a child and grew up in London. He was educated at the University of London and the University of Essex, and gained a Postgraduate Certificate of Education at Goldsmiths College, London.” Another source calls Sam Dean a “Jamaican-born, London-bred, street-smart, sexy, self-effacing, tough, and likeable black journalist.”

   There was but one more book in the series, that being An Image to Die For (1995).

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


   My presentation on Cornell Woolrich at Columbia late in March went over, I think, quite well, but I’m the least objective judge in the world when it comes to my own material. For about six weeks it was accessible on the Web and YouTube so every reader of this column could check it out if they wished. But as I put the finishing touches to this column I discovered that apparently it has been removed. Drat!

***

   In the middle of my presentation there was a special guest appearance (in voice only) from none other than Basil Rathbone, now dead more than half a century. I incorporated this sound bite from the grave because Roy William Neill, who directed the Woolrich-based movie BLACK ANGEL (1946), is best known for having directed most of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series (1941-46) starring Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

   In an appearance before a Holmes group in New York in 1965, two years before his death, Rathbone talked about Neill’s sudden death at age 59, soon after completing BLACK ANGEL. You can’t listen to it on your computer any more, but you’ll find a transcript of the relevant parts in my March column and also on pages 463-464 of my FIRST YOU DREAM, THEN YOU DIE. Thirty-odd years ago, when I first transcribed the recording for FIRST YOU DREAM, I took Rathbone to say that Neill was known among the Holmes crew as Muggsy, but listening several more times I realized it should have been Mousie and changed it in my column.

***

   I was not present at Rathbone’s New York talk but I had heard him live about a year earlier, when I was a senior in undergraduate school and he gave a talk at a girls’ college in New Jersey. He had lost much of his hair but was still as imperially slim and commanding and his voice as hypnotically powerful as we all remember him and it from his Holmes years.

   About ten years ago, sifting through some stuff I had written in college, I learned that during that same senior year I had also heard — well, you’ll soon find out. Anyone remember THE DEPUTY? No, it wasn’t a Western but an extremely controversial drama by Rolf Hochhuth, dealing with Pope Pius XII, the Nazis and the Holocaust. The play was staged in every major European country and came to the United States in 1963. I saw the New York version — which, as almost everyone agreed, was a preposterous travesty of what Hochhuth had written — and wrote an article about it for my college newspaper.

   I hadn’t given the matter a thought for generations until about ten years ago when I found and reread a copy of the article in that box of college writings and discovered to my stupefaction and delight that the part of the heroic young Jesuit who defied the pope and went to Auschwitz to share the fate of the Jews was played by a then little-known actor by the name of Jeremy Brett. That’s right: during the same academic year I had heard and seen the Holmes of my generation and the Holmes of the next.

***

   Hochhuth was born in Germany in 1931, the year before a young Englishman named John Creasey published the first of what were to be more than 500 novels under his own name and at least fifteen pseudonyms. He created the byline of Gordon Ashe and a character named Patrick Dawlish back in the late Thirties. After finishing another novel in three days, he wrote less than a year before his death, “I plunged into a Bulldog Drummond type of book.”

   He quickly discovered that Dawlish simply “would not behave like Bulldog Drummond” but, despite this surprise, completed that book, published in England as THE SPEAKER (John Long, 1939), in three and a half days. A few years after the end of World War II, Creasey traveled to the U.S. on a mission to find out why virtually none of his more than two hundred novels had been accepted by American publishers.

   Joan Kahn, the iconic mystery editor at Harper, read some of his English books and faulted them for having protagonists readers couldn’t identify with and for lacking the emotional element that the American public demanded. Creasey listened to her and within a few years was established as a Harper author. In later years he prided himself on his stylistic evolution. “My books are read emotionally….I write subjectively, to the heart.”

   His Gordon Ashe byline and the Patrick Dawlish novels remained unknown in the States except for one, first published in England as THE LONG SEARCH (John Long, 1953), which came out here as a paperback original from Ace Books and garnered zero attention, not even a review in the NEW YORK TIMES by Anthony Boucher, who covered most softcover mysteries as a matter of course. DROP DEAD! (Ace pb #D-71, 1954) is light on plot but demonstrates beautifully what Creasey learned from Joan Kahn.

   Dawlish comes to Arizona looking for his wife Felicity, who was on a solo trip to the States when she vanished near the Grand Canyon just after her guide jumped or fell or was pushed to his death. A few hours after his arrival at the Canyon he finds himself followed. The next morning two men stop him near the spot when the guide went over the canyon rim and threaten to throw him over too unless he tells them why he came to Arizona. He saves himself by dropping over the edge of the canyon onto a rock ledge twenty feet below.

   This is the first of a huge number of tight spots he walks into and gets out of in his frantic search for his wife. The trail takes him from Arizona to an isolated Nevada cattle ranch, then to Las Vegas and the California desert near Death Valley before he finally gets the answers, which aren’t terribly interesting. Essentially this isn’t a mystery but a traditional Western novel updated to the early Fifties, complete with convertibles, fire engines and a helicopter.

   The local color is vivid and seems to ring true, suggesting that Creasey had spent some time in the West, as witness also the following year’s Dawlish novel, DEATH IN THE TREES (John Long, 1954), which is set in Washington State. Occasionally, as when cabins are referred to as huts or shacks and a Vegas casino as a gaming saloon, the narrative betrays Creasey’s English origins.

   But despite the moment when a bad guy tells Dawlish that someone has “put the black” on him (which in gringo lingo means he’s being blackmailed), by and large Creasey is head and shoulders above most English writers when it comes to keeping his American characters from talking like Brits. Although Dawlish sounds English as he should, in some respects he reminds me of the protagonist of an American noir novel, often in mortal danger and suffering like Job. Here are four examples in fewer than fifteen pages.

       Pain stabbed through [his legs], but not so badly as it had done through his arms. (106)

       As he asked [whether his wife is dead] it seemed as if steel bands were fastening round him, and even breathing was difficult…. (114)

       It was almost dark when they landed, and the bump on landing jolted Dawlish’s head into screaming agony. (119)

       …[H]is eyes [were] glassy and his cheeks livid with the pain. (119)

   Whether lines like these are also in the earlier English version THE LONG SEARCH remains unknown, but its U.S. counterpart makes it clear that one of the lessons Creasey had learned from Joan Kahn, perhaps too well, was to make his heroes vulnerable. His Scotland Yard sleuth Inspector Roger West exhibits the same kind of vulnerability in novels of the same period like THE BLIND SPOT (Harper, 1954).

***

   Some Web sources claim that the first Dawlish novel was DEATH ON DEMAND (John Long, 1939), but Creasey himself — and who should know better? — identified his character’s debut book as THE SPEAKER, published earlier the same year. It’s interesting to compare the later Dawlish with his first appearance, which Creasey revised shortly before his death, although he missed a few gaffes, leaving intact the plural noun “sneak-thiefs” (2) and the singular noun “collaboration” where he clearly meant “corroboration” (20).

   The much younger Dawlish, who’s described as “a blond Atlas…with a reputation at sport and big game” (10), and his three buddies, who are clearly modeled on the boon companions of Bulldog Drummond or the early Simon Templar, are pitted against an Edgar Wallace-style hidden mastermind originally known as the Speaker but in this revision by the more sinister name of THE CROAKER (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973).

   In the U.S. version it’s the Croaker’s second-in-command who’s known as the Speaker, which leads me to wonder: If the boss toad was originally called the Speaker, what was the secondary toad’s moniker? Or could the 1939 version have been named for Number Two? Creasey offers full measure of action, punctuated with abundant exclamation points and italicized words as if the book were a novelization of the BATMAN TV series of a few years earlier. As usual in his pre-WWII novels, the hero and everyone else keep stiff upper lips and show zero vulnerability. It’s hard to believe that this Dawlish and the Dawlish of DROP DEAD! were meant to be the same character.

***

   For this column I can’t claim the virtue of unity, but I hope there have been compensations. Woolrich, Rathbone, Pius XII, plus Creasey and a Croaker and a Speaker — whatta cast!

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


   For reasons which will become clear about halfway through this column, my subject this month is David Goodis. Most of you who are reading this probably know a little about the man, but for the benefit of those who need their recollections refreshed, I’ll begin with a brief sketch of Goodis and his world.

   He was born in Philadelphia on March 2, 1917 and, except for a few years in Hollywood, spent most of his life there. Soon after graduating from Temple University he broke into print with RETREAT FROM OBLIVION (1939), a mainstream novel that made zero impact at the time and hasn’t been reprinted since.

   Rejected for military service in World War II, he spent the war years cranking out an estimated five and a half million words for Battle Birds and a slew of other pulp magazines, mainly tales of air combat with titles like “Death Flies the Coffins of Hitler,” “Death Rides My Cockpit” and “Guns of the Sea Raiders.”

   Almost none of this material has been reprinted either, and probably never will be. His greatest commercial success was his second novel, DARK PASSAGE (1946), a noir thriller about an innocent man convicted of his wife’s murder who escapes from San Quentin, has plastic surgery performed on his face and begins a hunt for the real killer.

   The Saturday Evening Post paid Goodis a huge sum for the right to serialize the book before its hardcover release, which inspired rave reviews including one from Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle (October 20, 1946): “[H]ere is the most notable talent to emerge in the field in a long time. Mr. Goodis has an originality of naturalism, a precise feeling for petty lives, a creatively compelling vividness of detail….This is the goods.”

   Very little time passed before Warner Bros. paid Goodis another huge sum of money for the movie rights. DARK PASSAGE (1947) was an excellent film noir directed by Delmer Daves and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Warners offered Goodis a screenwriting contract, but the results were disappointing from both his and the studio’s point of view. In 1950 he returned to Philadelphia and his parents’ house and reinvented himself as a writer of paperback originals.

   The style of DARK PASSAGE and his other novels of the late Forties evoked the naturalism of authors like Hemingway, but his initial impact on suspense fiction approximated that of Cornell Woolrich. Stylistically his paperbacks resembled his hardcovers except that a vital element had been discarded. What makes Woolrich the Hitchcock of the written word is his uncanny genius for making us feel the terror and uncertainty of his menaced protagonists. But we can’t experience true terror or uncertainty unless the outcome is genuinely in doubt, and in fact we can’t tell until the climax of a Woolrich novel or story whether it’s allègre or noir, whether the characters whose nightmares we share will be saved or destroyed.

   In Goodis’s paperbacks, however, there is no basis for even a moment’s hope and thus no real suspense. His people are born losers and victims who try to cheat their fate by living as zombies, shunning all involvement with others and the world, sustained by booze, cigarettes and mechanical sex. What they learn is that there’s no way out of the trap they’re in. Whatever they do or don’t do, life is going to get them.

   Character types, settings and motifs recur in his paperbacks with ritualistic frequency. A run-down old house in a seedy district of Philadelphia. A loud corner tavern, filled at all hours of the night with smoke and sweat, gin fumes and derelicts beyond hope. The docks, with at least one graphically described fistfight every time Goodis takes us there. A frightened, friendless, lonely man, living in the night. A fat sadistic woman, oozing grotesque sexuality. A brilliant creative person defeated by the world so badly that he’s reduced to a passive drunken wisp, muttering mournfully of meaninglessness. Bizarre little philosophic conversations between total strangers. Beaten protagonists dully resuming zombie lives as the novels end.

   It’s typical of Goodis’ world that in THE MOON IN THE GUTTER (Gold Medal pb #348, 1953) the viewpoint character Kerrigan lets go free the parolee whom his wife hired to beat him to death, gives up hunting for the man who raped his sister and caused her suicide, and goes back to live with his vicious wife.

   Or take that gem of noir BLACK FRIDAY (Lion pb #224, 1954). “January cold came in from two rivers, formed four walls around Hart and closed in on him.” The chilly hell that envelops Goodis’s luckless man-on-the-run from this first sentence only becomes more hellish as he stumbles upon a man shot to death in the street, gets away with a wallet containing $12,000 and winds up in a house on the northwest edge of Philadelphia and with, as in Sartre’s play, no exit.

   For housemates he has a beautiful young woman, a fat blonde whore (who has counterparts in other Goodis novels) and four psychotic criminals. When the novel ends, the poor schmuck in whose shoes Goodis has made us live is unspeakably worse off than when it began. “He had no idea where he was going and didn’t care.”

   Soon after the death of his parents with whom he’d lived since his return from Hollywood, Goodis himself died, on January 7, 1967, less than two months before his 50th birthday.

***

   Goodis, like Poe and Hitchcock and many others, owes a great deal of his recognition as a major figure to the French. The only biography of him to date is GOODIS: LA VIE EN NOIR ET BLANC (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984) by Philippe Garnier, who took great pains to interview everyone he could find who knew that haunted man.

   Although I and many others tried unsuccessfully for years to find a U.S. publisher for this book, it was no thanks to me that almost thirty years after its original publication some brave soul made the commitment. GOODIS: A LIFE IN BLACK AND WHITE (Black Pool Productions, 2013) is required reading for anyone who loves Goodis but is not at home in French.

***

   Until quite recently there was no book exploring the Goodis world, not even in French, but now we have Jay A. Gertzman’s PULP ACCORDING TO DAVID GOODIS (Down & Out Books, 2018). Gertzman, a retired professor of literature who knows Philadelphia very well indeed, doesn’t take us through the Goodis novels chronologically and developmentally — mainly, I suppose, because there are so many family resemblances among them — but opts to cover the history and sociology of the rundown Philly communities that Goodis before him knew just as well, and stresses his connections with literary and cultural icons like Hemingway, Faulkner, Freud and, first and foremost, Kafka. (The title of one of his chapters is “The Pulp Kafka of Philadelphia.”)

   Other approaches are possible, and I hope I live to see at least a few of them, but to Gertzman belongs the honor that with respect to Woolrich is mine. He was there first.


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


   Two of my recent columns (here and here) have been devoted to a once well-known but now largely forgotten writer named John Roeburt. This month is my third on the subject. And my last.

***

   Except for EARTHQUAKE (Random House, 1959), the mainstream novel supposedly co-authored by vaudeville/TV comic Milton Berle, all of Roeburt’s books during his last five years of creative life were paperback originals. THEY WHO SIN (Avon pb #T-321, 1959) and RUBY MacLAINE (Hillman pb #151, 1960) seem to have been sex-driven, and the title of THE MOBSTER (Pyramid pb #G566, 1960) speaks for itself.

   During these years Roeburt also turned out three media tie-in novels. THE UNHOLY WIFE (Avon pb #T-169, 1957) was based on the movie of the same name (RKO/Universal, 1957), which was directed by John Farrow and starred Diana Dors, Rod Steiger and Tom Tryon. As chance would have it, Steiger also starred in AL CAPONE (Burrows-Ackerman/United Artists, 1959), which was directed by Richard Wilson and featured Fay Spain and James Gregory. Roeburt’s novelization of the script (Pyramid pb #G405, 1959) followed soon after the movie’s release. His third and last effort of this sort was SING OUT, SWEET HOMICIDE (Dell pb #K105, 1961), which was based on the Warner Bros. TV series THE ROARING TWENTIES.

   That paperback marked the end of Roeburt’s career as a novelist. But before fading away he did crank out three quickie nonfiction books for softcover publication. GET ME GIESLER (Belmont pb #L92-536, 1962) was a biography of celebrity criminal defense lawyer Jerry Giesler, the Johnnie Cockroach of his generation.

   The subject of SEX-LIFE AND THE CRIMINAL LAW (Belmont pb #L92-560, 1963) is clear from the title. THE WICKED AND THE BANNED (Macfadden pb #60-147, 1963) had to do with books like LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER and TROPIC OF CANCER that were the subjects of obscenity prosecutions. I haven’t read this volume and can’t recall ever seeing a copy, but I feel safe in suggesting that anyone interested in the topic should turn instead to Charles Rembar’s THE END OF OBSCENITY (HarperCollins, 1986) or Edward DeGrazia’s GIRLS LEAN BACK EVERYWHERE: THE LAW OF OBSCENITY AND THE ASSAULT ON GENIUS (Random House, 1991).

   Those books were Roeburt’s last. As in CITIZEN KANE, let’s go back and explore our subject’s beginnings.

***

   After graduating from college—and from law school, if he ever went there—he held a variety of jobs. Apparently he drove a cab for a while, as one might have guessed from his three Jigger Moran novels, and worked in a few antique shops, making use of that setting in the second Moran exploit, THERE ARE DEAD MEN IN MANHATTAN (1946). His career as a radio writer came about as a result of his connection with one of the medium’s top producer-directors.

   Himan Brown (1910-2010) graduated from both Brooklyn College and Brooklyn Law School, although he never practiced law and never took the bar exam. In 1927, while still a student, he began reading poetry over a New York radio station and was soon hired for acting jobs that called for Jewish dialect. His earliest success as a producer-director was MARIE, THE LITTLE FRENCH PRINCESS (CBS, 1933-35), the network’s first daily soap opera.

   After several years doing soaps and action thrillers like DICK TRACY and FLASH GORDON, Brown created his first well-remembered series, INNER SANCTUM, a mystery-horror anthology show that ran on various networks between early 1941 and late 1952. For that series and others—including ADVENTURES OF THE THIN MAN, BULLDOG DRUMMOND, COUNTERSPY and THE FALCON—he needed a stable of writers, and among the literary workhorses who wound up in that stable was Roeburt.

   Exactly which Brown shows he worked on and how many scripts he wrote for each remains unknown, but by the mid-1940s he was so well established in the field of radio crime drama that he got tapped to write an article on the subject for a major magazine (“Bloody Murder on the Airwaves,” Esquire, September 1945).

   The earliest scripts known to be by Roeburt date from late 1947, and he turned out around two dozen for INNER SANCTUM between then and 1951, as well as three adventures of THE SHADOW. For one of Brown’s final radio series—BARRIE CRAIG, CONFIDENTIAL INVESTIGATOR (NBC, 1951-55, starring William Gargan)—he wrote at least 32 episodes.

   Among the less successful Brown shows he worked on were TALES OF FATIMA (CBS, 1949, starring Basil Rathbone), THE AFFAIRS OF PETER SALEM (Mutual, 1949-53), and THE PRIVATE FILES OF REX SAUNDERS (NBC, 1951, starring Rex Harrison).

***

   All this radio work didn’t keep Roeburt from dipping his toes gingerly in the Hollywood ocean. His earliest movie credit was JIGSAW (Tower/United Artists, 1949), starring Franchot Tone and Jean Wallace. Tone played crusading Assistant D.A. Howard Malloy, who runs afoul of an extremist group while investigating a series of murders. Fletcher Markle directed from a screenplay by himself and Vincent McConnor, based on an original story (perhaps a radio play?) by Roeburt.

   A few years later he became involved with two projects for independent producers Edward J. and Harry Lee Danziger and director Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-1972), a wild talent who’s best known as the master of ultra-low-budget film noir. Roeburt however wasn’t involved with any of the director’s movies in that category. His first and only screenplay for an Ulmer film (from an original story by George Auerbach) was the Runyonesque ST. BENNY THE DIP (Danziger/United Artists, 1951), starring Dick Haymes, Nina Foch, Roland Young and Lionel Stander.

   Roeburt received screen credit for additional dialogue on Ulmer’s Arabian Nights farce BABES IN BAGDAD (Danziger/United Artists, 1952), which starred Paulette Goddard, Gypsy Rose Lee, Richard Ney and John Boles. His work for the Danziger brothers also led, as we’ll see, to his being hired to write scripts for two of their TV series a few years later.

   His final screenplay was for one of the most obscure movies I’ve ever heard of. DEAD TO THE WORLD (National Film Studios/United Artists, 1961) was based on Edward Ronns’ novel STATE DEPARTMENT MURDERS (Gold Medal pb #117, 1951) and was directed by Nicholas Webster. In the leading roles were the immortal Reedy Talton and Jana Pearce. I dare you to find that pair in your reference books!

***

   As radio faded away and was replaced in the role of America’s home entertainment medium by TV, Roeburt did his best to go with the flow, but with how much success remains (dare I say it?) a mystery. Among the sparse TV writing credits for him documented by the Internet Movie Database, the earliest was the original story for “The Long Count” (FOUR STAR PLAYHOUSE, CBS, March 25, 1954), which starred Frank Lovejoy as McGraw, a PI with no first name.

   A few years later McGraw became protagonist of his own series (NBC, 1957-58), which Roeburt wasn’t involved with. It was also in 1954 that the connection with Himan Brown led to Roeburt’s writing at least four scripts for the short-lived syndicated televersion of the INNER SANCTUM series.

   The connection with the Danziger brothers also paid off for him when they hired him to write for two of their series which originated in England but were also seen in the U.S.: THE VISE (1955-59), which for most of its run starred Donald Gray as one-armed British PI Mark Saber, and THE CHEATERS (1959-61), with John Ireland as London-based insurance investigator John Hunter.

   Between series for the Danzigers, Roeburt worked at the position which first brought him to my attention, as story editor and occasional scriptwriter for NBC’s THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN (1958-59), a 60-minute live series. George Nader starred as EQ, with Les Tremayne playing Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen.

   Credits for this short-lived series are hard to come by. The Internet Movie Database lists nothing, and I have far fewer than I’d like to have. As story editor for the series Roeburt was almost certainly responsible for the decision to buy TV rights to novels by a number of other authors—including Hillary Waugh, Edgar Box (Gore Vidal), Harold Q. Masur and William P. McGivern—and yank out their continuing characters like Box’s Peter Sargeant and Masur’s Scott Jordan so that EQ in the person of George Nader could be shoehorned into the continuity.

   Roeburt is not known to have done any of these scripts himself but he did write the TV adaptation of the 1950 Queen novel DOUBLE, DOUBLE (November 14, 1958). The basis of one EQ episode (December 26, 1958) was Roeburt’s own 1954 novel THE HOLLOW MAN, adapted by Howard Rodman and with Nader implausibly taking the place of Roeburt’s tough cop Johnny Devereaux. The cast included Frank Silvera, Whitney Blake, Murvyn Vye and Wesley Lau.

   Two other episodes were allegedly based on Roeburt material. In “Four and Twenty—To Live” (December 12, 1958; script by Robert E. Thompson), Ellery is confronted by a young woman with a gun who demands that he phone the governor and request a stay of execution for her condemned father. And “The Jinn City Story” (January 9, 1959; script by Nicholas E. Baehr)starts out with Ellery’s plane forced by heavy fog to make an emergency landing at a small-town airport where he’s approached by a strange old man who asks him to clear someone falsely accused of murder. Featured in the cast were Peggie Castle, Vanessa Brown and Brian Keith.

   Neither of these plots sound like any Roeburt novel I’ve read, although they might of course have come from original stories or radio plays. When the series moved from New York to Hollywood and from live to tape, with Lee Philips replacing Nader as EQ, Roeburt apparently declined to go along for the ride. There’s a character named Amos Roeburt in one of the Philips episodes but that’s hardly sufficient evidence that John was involved with the show’s second incarnation, which survived only a few months.

***

   As far as I can tell, Roeburt did not appear in print or any other medium after 1963. Aside from a screenplay based on his 1958 novel THE CLIMATE OF HELL, copyrighted in August 1969 but never produced, how he occupied his time between the year of the Kennedy assassination and his own death remains unknown. Perhaps he’d saved enough money not to have to work anymore.

   We do know that he was prosperous enough to maintain a summer home on Fire Island, where in 1972 he died. Anyone interested in pursuing Roeburt more deeply than I’ve done in these columns will find his papers at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

***

   While working on this column I discovered to my surprise and delight that my copy of Roeburt’s movie novelization AL CAPONE, which I probably had never opened since buying it decades ago, was graced by an inscription in the hand of Roeburt himself—an inscription which I hope you can read below. Whether Roeburt was referring just to this one book as “horrendous” or was writing off his entire literary output remains unknown.

   As I hope this column and my earlier ones have shown, what he contributed to the genre we love is well worth at least a modicum of attention.


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.

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