Columns


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


   Usually this column deals with work by others: novels, stories, movies, whatever. This month, for starters anyway, it deals with me, or more precisely my latest book. Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law is a hefty tome that brings together various pieces I’ve written over the past quarter century on law-related fiction, films and TV.

   I admit up front that a few of the book’s chapters, for example the one on “Telejuriscinema, Frontier Style,” have nothing to do with the detective-crime genre, unless you include in that genre all sorts of TV Western series from The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid to Kung Fu.

   But many of the pre-Production Code movies that get picked apart in “When Celluloid Lawyers Started to Speak” belong to the genre in one way or another — even if I eccentrically insist on calling them juriscinema — and there are long individual chapters on Melville Davisson Post, Arthur Train and Erle Stanley Gardner, the lawyer storytellers who dominated what I eccentrically insist on calling jurisfiction from the tail end of the 19th century until Gardner’s death in 1970.

   There’s also a chapter on the three versions of the Cape Fear story, beginning with John D. MacDonald’s 1958 novel The Executioners and proceeding through the two vastly different movies called Cape Fear: the 1962 picture with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake with Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro.

   Also included are my takes on the fascinating if almost completely unknown court-martial film Man in the Middle (1964), with Mitchum playing a sort of Philip Marlowe in khaki, and on the equally obscure The Penalty Phase (1986), one of the last films directed by Tony Richardson, with Peter Strauss starring as a liberal judge faced with the nightmare of having to release a psychopath who raped and murdered seventeen young girls.

   The publisher of this volume is Perfect Crime Books, which also put out my Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection (2013), and I see on the Web that it’s been submitted for Edgar consideration to MWA.

***

   Did anyone notice? In the previous paragraph I referred to Arthur Train (1875-1945) as a lawyer storyteller but not as an author of crime or detective stories. Why? Because Train himself insisted that he didn’t write in that genre and had little interest in it. But many of his stories about attorney Ephraim Tutt and his entourage have to do with trials for murder or other serious crimes, and at least a few of them seem to me, and not just to me, to deserve a place in the genre we love.

   The earliest of these is “The Hand Is Quicker Than the Eye,” the fifth tale in the Mr. Tutt series, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post for August 30, 1919, and collected in Tutt and Mr. Tutt (Scribner, 1920). Ephraim also operates as both lawyer and sleuth in a number of other tales first published in the Post and later included in one or another Scribner collection, for example “The Acid Test” (June 12, 1926; Page Mr. Tutt, 1926) and “The King’s Whiskers” (December 30, 1939; Mr. Tutt Comes Home, 1941).

   My own favorite among the Mr. Tutt stories that include significant detection is “With His Boots On” (September 12, 1942; Mr. Tutt Finds a Way, 1945). That’s the one I chose a number of years ago when Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine editor Cathleen Jordan asked me to select and introduce a story about Ephraim for its Mystery Classic reprint series.

   Ms. Jordan thought the tale was seriously flawed — although she died before she could explain her reasons to me — and instead we settled on “‘And Lesser Breeds Without the Law’,” which struck me as only marginally crime fiction. This is one of a very few tales in the series that the Saturday Evening Post rejected. Why? In the 1920s another magazine owned by the same publisher had serialized a Zane Grey novel that was not only sympathetic to what were then called American Indians but ended with the Navajo hero marrying the white woman he loved.

   So many benighted readers were so outraged that the publisher adopted a new policy: NO MORE POSITIVELY PORTRAYED REDSKINS! EVER!!! That policy was still in force when Train submitted his story, which was set on New Mexico’s Cocas Pueblo reservation and anticipates the treatment of Native Americans that we tend to identify with Tony Hillerman. The tale appeared as an original in the Train collection Mr. Tutt Comes Home (1941) and never came out in a magazine until AHMM for February 2002.

***

   Not quite that long ago, when I was commissioned to write an essay on the poetry-crime fiction interface for the Poetry Foundation website, I decided that this column was the ideal place for material (of which there was a bunch) that wound up on the electronic cutting room floor.

   In recent years I haven’t run across any items that would justify reviving the old Poetry Corner feature, but now I have. Remember the world-famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)? One of his classic early poems was “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a work consisting of twelve lines divided into three stanzas, written in 1888 and first published two years later.

      Rex Stout, who needs no introduction here, considered Yeats “the greatest poet of the century.” (I assume he meant the 20th century.) In August 1943, a few years after Yeats’ death, Stout wrote “Booby Trap,” fifth of the Nero Wolfe novelets, which appeared in American Magazine for August 1944 and was included in the Farrar & Rinehart collection Not Quite Dead Enough not long afterwards.

   It’s one of the very few tales in the saga where Wolfe is working without pay as a civilian consultant to Army Intelligence and Archie Goodwin has become a major in the same branch of service. The hijacking of industrial trade secrets shared with the military for war purposes leads to the murder of a captain and a colonel, the latter taken out by a powerful hand grenade right in G2′s New York headquarters.

   The tale like so many of Stout’s is hopelessly unfair to the reader, with Wolfe fingering the culprit by the lazy old expedient of setting a trap and seeing who springs it, but for sheer readability it still holds up nicely after almost 75 years.

   All well and good, you may be saying, but where’s Yeats? Good question! In Chapter 4 Archie finds a sheet of paper containing a typed copy of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which for no earthly reason whatsoever is printed in the text. Its only plot significance is that both Wolfe and Archie immediately notice that it was typed on the same typewriter that produced an anonymous letter earlier in the story.

   Sharing that information with the reader didn’t require printing a line of Yeats’ poem, let alone the complete work. We know from John McAleer’s Rex Stout: A Biography (1977) — which misleadingly states that Stout quoted only the first “three stanzas” —that Yeats’ U.S. publisher raised a stink when the story appeared in print. Here’s how Stout explained to his Farrar & Rinehart editor.

   “I am an ass. When I was writing ‘Booby Trap,’ out in the country, I phoned somebody at Macmillan to ask if it would all right to quote that poem … and was told that it would be. But I made no record of the conversation, I don’t know the date that it took place, and I don’t know whom I talked to. Beat that for carelessness if you can, and let me know which jail I go to.”

   McAleer doesn’t tell us how the matter was resolved, but most likely Stout had to pay Macmillan some money. The poem must still have been protected by copyright in 1944, but it’s been in the public domain for decades and can be found online in a few seconds. On YouTube you can even hear Yeats reading it.

***

   The city of Ferguson is about 15 miles and 20 minutes’ drive from my home in St. Louis’ Central West End. While I was working on this column, Ferguson exploded. Hundreds of thousands of words have already been written about the events and I see no reason to add to them except to quote a passage from Ellery Queen’s non-series novel The Glass Village (1954) where the protagonist reflects “that man was a chaos without rhyme or reason; that he blundered about like a maddened animal in the delicate balance of the world, smashing and disrupting, eager only for his own destruction.”

***

   If Thanksgiving week was a sad time for reason and common sense, Thanksgiving Day was especially sad for our genre. P.D. James, one of the last great English detective novelists, died peacefully at her Oxford home. She was 94 and still thinking about writing one more novel. Peace be upon her.

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


   In ELLERY QUEEN: THE ART OF DETECTION I mentioned that the music for the first ten episodes of the ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN radio series, which debuted in 1939, was composed by the young Bernard Herrmann, and that three excerpts from his scores for the series could be heard on the Web, played on a synthesizer by David Ledsam.

   A few weeks ago I discovered that three complete Herrmann scores for the series were uploaded to the Web last summer, more than a year after my book came out. The episodes for which Herrmann’s music can now be heard are “The Fallen Angel,” “Napoleon’s Razor” and “The Impossible Crime,” which aired respectively on July 2, 9 and 16 of 1939.

   Each score runs from ten to twelve minutes and is played on a synthesizer by Kevin Dvorak. I’m sure the music would sound more like the Herrmann we know and love if it were played on the instruments for which he wrote it, but it’s a lot better than what we had before, which was nothing. Check all three out via the YouTube videos above.

***

   For us old-timers “Gone Girl” is the name of a Lew Archer short story by Ross Macdonald. Now it’s also the name of a first-rate crime-suspense movie, directed by noir specialist David Fincher and written by Gillian Flynn based on her 2012 best-seller of the same name.

   Most readers of this column are likely to have seen something about the picture, so I won’t bother to summarize the plot beyond saying that when beautiful Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears from her upscale Missouri home amid signs of violence, the media go into a frenzy and all but crucify her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) as her murderer.

   There are several strong females in the film so perhaps I’m not revealing too much when I say that one of them struck me as the film noir woman to end all film noir women, and a manipulator of such epic proportions that she leaves Diedrich Van Horn and all the other Iago figures in the Ellery Queen novels choking on her dust.

***

   A few weeks ago, with a bit of time to kill, I decided to tackle REDHEAD (Hurst & Blackett, 1934), the fourth of John Creasey’s 600-odd novels, the second of 28 that deal with Department Z — which in those days of Creasey’s youth was called Z Department — and the earliest I happen to own.

   According to the invaluable Hubin bibliography, this item was never published in the U.S., not even back in the early 1970s when Popular Library was putting out original paperback versions of countless Creaseys from the Thirties. My copy is an English softcover (Arrow pb #417, 1971) and indicates that the book was revised for republication, although the revisions must have been done with a very light hand indeed.

   Department Z has little to do with the operation, which pits a muscular young Brit named Martin “Windy” Storm and various of his cohorts against an American gangster known as Redhead who’s determined to bring his crime methods into England.

   If Creasey took this notion from Edgar Wallace’s 1932 novel WHEN THE GANGS CAME TO LONDON, he moved the center of gravity to the remote Sussex village of Ledsholm and the ancient castle that dominates the area. Much of the book’s second half is taken up by a long long action sequence in which our guys inside Ledsholm Grange are besieged by two separate gangs equipped with revolvers, automatics, machine guns, armored cars, explosives, the whole nine yards of weaponry.

   But since all the characters are stick figures, it’s very hard to keep the action straight or care who shoots or socks whom. Every other sentence ends with an exclamation point (“The greatest criminal enterprise in the history of England was reaching its climax!”), and the king toad makes Lord Voldemort look like a newborn kitten (“Through the hole in the wall he saw the demoniac eyes of Redhead, green, fiendish, glowing with the blood-lust that possessed him”).

   The writing is almost Avallonean in spots: “‘Be quiet!’ hissed Redhead.” And if Creasey preserved lines like “A bullet winged its message of death across the room, sending the dago staggering back”, I can’t help wondering what gems of political incorrectness he tossed out.

Fast forward to his books of only seven or eight years later, like the early Roger West novels (the first five of them collected in INSPECTOR WEST GOES TO WAR, 2011, with intro by me), and you see at a glance how radically Creasey’s writing skills improved over the Thirties.

***

   Or did it take that long? I also happen to have a copy of the next Department Z adventure, FIRST CAME A MURDER (Andrew Melrose, 1934; revised edition, Arrow pb #937, 1967). It has all the earmarks of a Thirties thriller but the writing is so much more restrained and stiff-upper-lippish that it’s hard to believe it came from the same pen as REDHEAD just a few months before.

   I don’t have copies of any Creaseys earlier than these but, judging from the quotations in William Vivian Butler’s THE DURABLE DESPERADOES (1973), both SEVEN TIMES SEVEN and THE DEATH MISER resemble FIRST CAME A MURDER in this respect. Of course, what I have is the revised version of the latter title, and perhaps Butler was quoting from the revised versions of Creasey’s earlier novels too.

   But in that case why does the revised version of REDHEAD sound so different? I can only speculate, and perhaps, in the words of so many Erle Stanley Gardner characters, I’m taking a button and sewing a vest on it. But it strikes me as significant that REDHEAD was originally published by Hurst & Blackett whereas the publisher of all the other early Creaseys was Andrew Melrose.

   Creasey once said that SEVEN TIMES SEVEN, the first novel he sold, was the tenth he’d written. Could REDHEAD have been one of the rejected nine? If there’s ever a comprehensive biography of that awesomely prolific author, perhaps we’ll learn the answer.

COLLECTING PULPS: A Memoir, Part 12 :
Rereading UNKNOWN and UNKNOWN WORLDS
by Walker Martin


   Why reread? I’ve known several readers and collectors who bluntly state that they seldom or never reread stories or books. They argue that there are too many new books waiting to be read, sort of the like the old saying, “So many books, so little time.”

   I love to reread but only my favorite books and stories. And only the ones that I consider to be outstanding or great. There is nothing more exasperating than to reread a book and realize that it was not even worth reading the first time. Not to mention the waste of time. That’s why I’ve always noted on a slip of paper the date read, my grade, and comments about the book. Then, decades later, I can tell at a glance what I thought of the book and whether it is worth a second reading or not.

   So aside from the enjoyment of rereading an outstanding book, why read it again? Some books demand a second (and a third and a fourth) reading because they have several layers and levels of complex meaning that you might want to explore and investigate. Also a book read in your twenties may reveal additional meanings when you reread it many years later. There have been books that I read as a young man that I didn’t have the proper maturity to truly understand but as an older reader, I now find them to be indispensable.

   Every reader has their favorite books that they have reread. Some of mine are:

         War and Peace — 3 times.

         Moby Dick — 3 times.

         The Sun Also Rises — 5 times.

         Under the Volcano — 5 times.

   In the different genres I’ve several books that I’ve reread:

   In science fiction: Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Stars My Destination. Also the novels of Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg; the short stories of J.G. Ballard and Theodore Sturgeon.

   In the detective and crime genre: the novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard, and Ross Macdonald.

   In the western field: the novels of Luke Short, Elmore Leonard, Elmer Kelton. Lonesome Dove is maybe the best western I’ve ever reread.

   I also have reread stories in the pulp magazines. Many literary critics make the mistake of lumping all the pulps into one sub-literary category. They think all the pulps published mediocre and poor action fiction of very little redeeming literary value. They are wrong. There is such a thing as excellent pulp fiction, and I’ve tried to point out some examples in this series on collecting pulps.

   Of course, I absolutely agree with Sturgeon’s Law which in simple terms may be explained as “90% of everything is crap.” This is a good thing to say to anyone who criticizes your tastes in reading matter. For instance if they sneer at your love for detective, SF, or western fiction, then you can state Sturgeon’s Law, which I’ve found to roughly apply to just about all forms of literary endeavor.

   In other words, I’m always looking for that less than 10% that I hope will be worth reading and rereading. As I reread my notes spread throughout thousands of books and fiction magazines, I see I’m now at a good point in my life where I’m reading mainly the good 10%. Sure, every now and then I make a mistake or blunder and find myself reading the 90% crap, but after so many years of reading, I’m getting pretty good at avoiding the stuff that is not worth reading.

   A couple months before the August Pulpfest convention, one of the committee members, knowing my love for the magazine Unknown, asked me if I would participate on a panel discussing the title. This made me think about Unknown and how I had started collecting and reading it so many years ago.

   When I first started to think about collecting it, I was just a teenager and had very little money. I had enough to buy the SF digests and paperbacks but a set of Unknown back in the 1950′s cost around $50, a sum that I never had until years later. Back then, just about all pulps were a dollar or less, a fact that is hard to believe now.

   Finally in 1963, while attending college, I managed to put aside $50 and I started scouting around for a set of the 39 issues. All I could pay was $50 but everyone I contacted wanted more. I even contacted the Werewolf Bookshop in Verona, Pennsylvania (this bookstore advertised in many of the digest SF magazines) and I still have the letter dated September 3, 1963. I stapled it into my Unknown book where I noted my thoughts and comments on the magazine. The owner stated that he had contacted three fans and only one was willing to sell and he wanted $200 for his set.

   Back in 1963 this was an outrageous sum, and it’s lucky I did not send money to the Werewolf Bookshop. It seems the owner was in the habit of sending you anything he had if he did not have the books that you ordered. Then when you complained about receiving books that you didn’t want, he would ignore your letters and keep your money. If I had sent him $200, there is no telling what he would have shipped me. Except that it would not have been a set of Unknown. I have read about and even met fellow collectors who fell victim to this scam.

   Fortunately, I eventually bought a set from Gerry de la Ree, a SF collector and dealer who lived in New Jersey. For decades in the 1960′s, 1970′s, 1980′s, Gerry mailed out monthly sale lists listing SF pulps, digests, books, and artwork. He wanted only $50 and I now had the complete set. I read several stories in scattered issues, but college and then being drafted into the army delayed my project of reading the complete set.

   However, by 1969 I was discharged and I spent six months of doing nothing but reading. I didn’t even look for a job, and I loved living in my mother’s house drinking beer and reading all day. She must of thought she raised a bum, but she was wrong. She raised a book collector and reader.

   I started reading from the first issue, March 1939 and I read each issue, every story, every word, until the end in October 1943. That’s 4 1/2 years and 39 issues. Over 250 stories ranging from novel length to short story. John W. Campbell, the editor of both Unknown and Astounding, estimated that the 7 by 10 inch pulp size issues contained 70,000 words of fiction and the 8 1/2 by 11 inch format contained 110,000 words.

   That means I read over 3 million words of fiction in 1969 when I started my project of reading the entire set. I forget how long it took me but since I was not wasting any time working, I probably read close to an issue every day or two. I then recorded my thoughts in a standard English composition notebook. I think they still make these things, black with white speckles and it says “Composition” on the front cover. With over 100 pages I could devote two pages to each issue, listing each story and author along with a grade and my comments. At the end of each year, I did a summary listing my favorites.

   During the Pulpfest panel, I read some of my comments from this notebook and a couple collectors asked me if I had such books for each magazine that I collected. I used to but I eventually switched to the system of putting a slip of paper in each magazine or book with my comments, grade, and date read. I have thousands of books and magazines with these annotations tucked inside each copy. I still have a few of the notebooks, with the Unknown comments being the most extensive. I see I have one on Weird Tales where I read and noted my reactions to reading three years of issues, 1933-1935.

   So to prepare for the panel, I reread only the stories that received an outstanding rating back in 1969. We often think that we were a different person 45 years ago and for the most part we probably were. I was in my twenties back then and ahead of me were all the usual things like getting married, raising a family, starting a career, buying houses, etc. Of course this series of essays deal with my collecting experiences. So what did I think at the age of 72 looking back on my younger self praising and exclaiming over the stories in Unknown?

   As I reread story after story, I was impressed again at the literary quality of the magazine. I guess that’s why I’m writing about the magazine again in 2014, only instead of just comments meant for my older self, I’m now writing for other collectors and readers and encouraging them to read and reread Unknown.

   What were the outstanding novels? Lest Darkness Fall and The Wheels of If by L. Sprague de Camp, who also wrote the superior Harold Shea novels with Fletcher Pratt. Death’s Deputy and Fear by L. Ron Hubbard; Hell Is Forever by Alfred Bester; Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber; None But Lucifer by H. L .Gold and de Camp.

   Among the shorter fiction, we have several novelettes by Henry Kuttner. I believe these stories represent the first quality fiction by Kuttner. Jane Rice also had several stories and when the magazine died in 1943, she almost stopped writing because Unknown was her favorite market. One of the sad things about Unknown ceasing publication was the fact the Jane Rice had a 33,000 word short novel that was scheduled for a future issue. But the manuscript has been lost by Street & Smith and Rice did not keep a copy. Anthony Boucher, Fritz Leiber, and Theodore Sturgeon also had many shorts.

   But despite all the excellent fiction in Unknown, the magazine can best be described and explained by simply looking at the art of Edd Cartier. He is Unknownwith its gnomes, demons, and fantasy figures that defy description. I once had a chance to buy an original Unknown cover painting by Cartier. In the 1980′s, someone was walking around one of the Pulpcon conventions with the painting but he wanted $2,000 for it. At the time I had bought many cover paintings but the highest price I ever had to pay was $400. One of my collector mistakes. I should have dug up the money somehow because it’s worth a fortune now.

   Cartier dropped out of fantasy and SF illustration sometime in the early fifties but I did manage to meet him around 1990 at Pulpcon in Wayne, NJ. Rusty Hevelin was running Pulpcon and he said Edd Cartier would be available to talk to one night. But it would be for only a special group of pulp collectors who Rusty would choose. Fortunately, I was one of them and it remains a Pulpcon highlight that I still remember all these years later.

   Speaking of Cartier brings up what I think of as one of John W. Campbell’s mistakes. With the July 1940 issue the cover art was discontinued. Campbell must have looking to attract more readers with a literary style cover showing a more bland, sedate listing of stories. Maybe he thought the illustrations too garish on the covers. But the lack of any cover art at all just made the magazine seem a puzzle to many newsstand browsers. One of the big reasons for cover art is to grab your attention while you are looking at scores of magazines. Without cover illustrations the magazine just was lost on the stands. Where do you put it? This experiment was tried by previous pulps like Adventure and The Popular Magazine, and it was never successful.

   I’ve owned several sets of Unknown during the last 50 years and it is still possible to pick up issues. After the panel a couple collectors told me they wanted to start collecting it and I told them to keep looking through the dealer’s room at Pulpfest because I saw several issues for sale. Usually the price is around $20 but I’ve seen higher and lower prices. Ebay also has issues.

   At present I own two sets, one is the usual individual 39 issues and one is a bound set in 14 hardcover volumes. There is an interesting story about this bound set. I only paid $400 for it at Pulpcon a few years ago and neither the dealer or me noticed that it had a signature in the first volume. When I got home I was amazed to realize that I had John W. Campbell’s personal bound set of the magazine. It was inscribed as follows, “To George Scithers, who worked hard for this set”. Signed John W. Campbell. I’ve worked hard for certain sets of magazines, so I know what he means.

   The magazine is not really rare because so many SF and fantasy collectors loved the magazine and saved their copies. It is probably the most missed of all the pulp titles. In the letter columns of old SF magazines, it is often referred to as “the late, lamented Unknown.” For several years after it ceased publication due to the war time paper restrictions, letters in Astounding kept asking when the title would be revived. Evidently Campbell intended to start it up again when paper was available. But that was not until 1948 and then Street & Smith killed off all their pulps except for Astounding in 1949.

   So Unknown remained dead but several magazines were influenced in the 1950′s. Fantasy Fiction lasted four issues in 1953; Beyond Fantasy Fiction lasted ten issues in 1953-1955; and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is still being published, has often printed Unknown type fiction.

   If you are not a collector but you still want to read some of the best fiction, there are several collections available:

UNKNOWN WORLDS: Tales From Beyond, edited by Stanley Schmidt and Martin H. Greenberg (Garland Books, 1988) This is the biggest and best collection. 25 stories and 517 pages.

RIVALS OF WEIRD TALES, edited by Weinberg, Dziemianowicz, and Greenberg. (Bonanza Books, 1990) Among stories from other magazines, there is a section of 11 stories from Unknown, amounting to 200 pages.

THE UNKNOWN, edited by D. R. Bensen (Pyramid, 1963) This paperback has 11 stories and story notes.

THE UNKNOWN FIVE, edited by D.R. Bensen (Pyramid, 1964) Another collection from Bensen.

UNKNOWN, edited by Stanley Schmidt (Baen Books, 1988) Nine of the longer stories and 304 pages. Paperback.

HELL HATH FURY, edited by George Hay (Neville Spearman Ltd., 1963) Seven stories in hardback.

OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, by A.E. Van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull (Powell Publications, 1969) This paperback has seven Unknown stories by Van Vogt and wife.

   And finally there are two full-length studies of the magazine:

THE ANNOTATED GUIDE TO UNKNOWN AND UNKNOWN WORLDS, by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz (Starmont House, 1991) This is an excellent study of all aspects of the great magazine. A total of 212 pages with a long essay about the magazine, followed with detailed story annotations on every story, a story index, an author index and much more! Highly Recommended.

ONCE THERE WAS A MAGAZINE, by Fred Smith (Beccon Publications, 2002). Each issue is discussed plus author and title index.

   So ends my rereading of Unknown and I hope to return someday. I guess we shall never see a revival of the magazine. I noted over a dozen pleas from readers in Astounding, all asking when Unknown would be revived, but the October 1943 issue was the last one. A digest issue was planned and discussed in the October issue but an order for additional paper reduction came and Unknown was a victim of WW II.

REST IN PEACE: Unknown and Unknown Worlds.

NOTE:   To access earlier installments of Walker’s memoirs about his life as a pup collector, go first to this blog’s home page (link at the far upper left), then use the search box found somewhere down the right side. Use either “Walker Martin” or “Collecting Pulps” in quotes, and that should do it.

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


   In the late Fifties and early Sixties private eye series on TV were a dime a dozen. One of the lesser known of these was released on DVD by Timeless Media not long ago and, never having watched it back in 1960 when it was first run, I decided to check it out more than half a century later.

   CORONADO 9 was a 30-minute syndicated series, released by Revue Studios, largely shot on location in San Diego and elsewhere, and starring 6’5″ Rod Cameron (1910-1983) as PI Dan Adams, a big beefy guy who conjures up images of a pro football player in middle age.

   What makes the series unusual is that its directors and writers went out of their way to avoid the tried-and-true elements we tend to associate with the PI genre except for the chases and fights, which we also associate with Westerns, and of course for the first-person narration, although almost every episode cheats with scenes outside the narrator’s presence. Adams is so untypical an eye that, assuming he has an office, we literally never see him in it.

   The main reason the series attracted me is that 16 of its 39 segments were directed by William Witney (1915-2002), the Hitchcock of the action film and my best friend in Hollywood. When it comes to visual excitement, most of Bill’s are not on a par with his great cliffhanger serials (one of which starred a much younger and leaner Rod Cameron) and Western features and episodes of TV series like BONANZA and THE WILD WILD WEST and THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, but the best of them are very good indeed.

   Whenever he could take over a locale and shoot his climax there, he did it with glee, commandeering a Coast Guard cutter for “The Day Chivalry Died” and the San Diego Zoo for “Obituary of a Small Ape,” just to give two examples. My favorite among Bill’s dozen-and-a-third is “Hunt Breakfast,” which despite its unintelligible title is a near-perfect film equivalent to those Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original novels that are central to the Fifties experience for many of us. In this episode Adams tries to save a friend and his family whose home has been invaded by three bank-robbing psychos, and the Witney visual fireworks run neck and neck with the violence.

   Of the 23 episodes not directed by Witney the most deserving of mention are at least four which were apparently shot on location in New Orleans and helmed by Frank Arrigo (1917-1977), who usually worked in Hollywood as an art director.

   The segments which take place overseas seem to have been filmed on the Revue back lot with help from stock footage and process plates. I certainly don’t believe that Arrigo shot “Film Flam” in Algiers, or “Caribbean Chase” in then newly Communist Cuba!

   Among the actors who appeared once or more often in the series are John Archer, Richard Arlen, Al Hodge (early live TV’s Captain Video), DeForest Kelley and Doug McClure. The veterans of Witney’s Western features and earlier TV films whom Bill found roles for in CORONADO 9 episodes include Jim Davis, Faith Domergue, Patricia Medina and Slim Pickens.

   Featured in two segments not directed by Witney is Lisa Lu, a well-known Asian actress best known over here as Hey Girl in HAVE GUN–WILL TRAVEL. A friend of mine who recently interviewed her tells me that in her eighties she is still acting.

   As so often when Timeless Media releases a TV series, there are a few technical problems with the transfer of CORONADO 9 to DVD. But if you can snag it for a decent price—it’s listed on Amazon.com for $17.99, and someone on the Web claims to have found it at Sam’s Club for $12.88 — it’s worth having.

***

   No one would rank Rod Cameron with the great cinematic PIs, like Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP, Ralph Meeker in KISS ME DEADLY and Jack Nicholson in CHINATOWN. But Liam Neeson comes within shouting distance as Lawrence Block’s recovering alcoholic and off-the-books investigator Matt Scudder in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, which is based on Block’s 1992 novel of the same name and came to theaters a few weeks ago.

   Directed and written by Scott Frank and filmed noirishly in Brooklyn where the novel takes place, the movie has garnered mixed notices to date, with the reviewer for the Los Angeles Times going so far as to call it torture porn. I’ve seen nothing on the Web or in print that attempts to stack it up against the novel (except for one cyber-comment that I stumbled upon as I was finishing this column) so I might as well do the honors.

   Since the book is narrated by Scudder, nothing can happen outside his presence, although Block cheats a bit in the first chapter where lovely Francine Khoury is abducted on a Brooklyn street and, after payment of $400,000 ransom by her narcotics-trafficker husband, is returned cut up into fresh meat.

   Unrestricted by first-person narrative, Scott Frank shows us the psycho kidnappers at work here and later in ways Block couldn’t. The novel takes place in 1992, the film in 1999, so that we’re treated to a few allusions to the Y2K panic, which has nothing to do with the plot, and also to the sight of pay phones on the streets of New York City, which do figure in the plot and still existed, I assume, at the end of the 20th century but are rarae aves in today’s cell phone era.

   The film’s climax is something like Block’s but also quite different, in ways that I won’t reveal here. Between beginning and end Frank touches base with Block only on rare occasions.

   A host of the novel’s characters make no appearance: Scudder’s wealthy call-girl lover, the teen-age computer hackers, the various cops Scudder hits up for information. Although one of the perps’ victims in the novel survives her ordeal and gets to talk with Scudder, in the movie there are no surviving women. Indeed two important male characters make it through the novel alive but wind up dead in the film, and several other men in the movie, like the obese groundskeeper and the DEA agents, have no counterparts in the book.

   The bloody incident that made Scudder a boozer is never mentioned in the novel but is dramatized for us in a flashback at the movie’s start, with the difference that Scott Frank morphs it into the catalyst for Scudder’s giving up the sauce and joining AA.

   The streetwise black teen who calls himself TJ has a big role in both novel and movie but Frank’s version of the character unlike Block’s is a vegetarian and a victim of sickle cell anemia, although Frank mercifully spares us the rhyming patter and much of the it-be-rainin-out jivetalk of TJ according to Block.

   Ironically enough, two of Frank’s alterations in the storyline seem to have been expressly rejected by Block. Late in both versions comes a scene in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery where a million dollars, much of it counterfeit, is exchanged for the 14-year-old girl who is the psychos’ latest victim.

   In the novel the exchange comes off without incident, and Scudder specifically tells the girl’s family (on page 269 of the hardcover edition) that “it’s crazy to get into a firefight in a graveyard at night”. That craziness Scott Frank embraces, letting the bullets fly and the cars screech and crash away as in a thousand other action flicks.

   After Block’s badguys have fled the cemetery, TJ tells Scudder (on page 286): “[I]f this here’s a movie, what I do is slip in the back [of the psychos’ vehicle] an’ hunker down ‘tween the front an’ back seats. They be puttin’ the money in the trunk and sittin’ up front, so they ain’t even gone look in the back. Figured they’d go back to their house…an’ when we got there I just slip out an’ call you up an’ tell you where I’m at. But then I thought, TJ, this ain’t no movie, an’ you too young to die.”

   Well, what Scott Frank wrote and directed is a movie and that’s exactly what his TJ does and how Neeson as Scudder finds the perps’ home base.

   What Larry Block thinks of the picture I have no idea. It does capture something of the spirit of the Scudder series, and Neeson’s performance is excellent, thanks in part to his wisely not attempting a New York accent.

   Most of Frank’s innovations help make the movie cinematic in ways that the dialogue-driven novel wasn’t and couldn’t have been. In the same league with THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP and CHINATOWN it isn’t, and the moments of extreme violence, especially to women, are integral to the storyline but may turn off potential viewers. (I saw it with a Vietnam veteran who later told me he had to close his eyes during some scenes.)

   To anyone wondering whether to see it or not, all I can say is: Hit the Web, do your homework, make (or as the Brits would say, take) a decision.

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


   In the years I’ve written these columns, death has overtaken a number of mystery-writing colleagues to whom I’ve said goodbye here. Till this month, all of them have been older than I. Now it falls to me to commemorate one who was more than five years younger. That is scary.

   On August 14, in Pompano Beach, Florida, a man who ranked with the finest private-eye writers of his time, and was a friend of mine for more than twenty-five years, shot himself to death. Jeremiah Healy was 66.

   The last time I saw him was in the fall of 2011, at the St. Louis Bouchercon. He looked fantastic, a trim handsome dude with thick gray hair and mustache and a beautiful girlfriend and (in his own words) the body of a 19-year-old paratrooper. He brought to mind a character in a radio soap opera my mother listened to when I was a small child, a fellow who, whenever asked how he was doing, would reply “Sittin’ on top o’ the world.”

   Why Jerry took his own life I won’t discuss except to say that, unknown to me, he’d been battling prostate cancer and clinical depression and alcoholism and perhaps other dark forces for years. In the magnificent words of Pope Francis, who am I to judge him?

   Like me, he was a law professor. When his career as a crime novelist began, he and I were the only mystery writers who had come to the genre from legal academia. In PI fiction it was the age of Robert B. Parker and of regionalism. Like Parker’s Spenser, Healy’s PI John Francis Cuddy was a jogger and amateur chef who lived and worked in Boston, a city he knew well and described almost like a human character.

   Parker I suppose was the Hertz of the area’s mystery writers and Healy the Avis, but for a variety of reasons — two of them no doubt because we shared the same day job and got to be friends — I always preferred Jerry‘s books over Parker’s. Spenser was single and Cuddy a widower who often visited his wife’s gravesite, and spoke to her, and was, or thought he was, answered.

   (Several widowers in movies directed by John Ford also spoke to their wives but never had dialogue with them. I once asked Jerry if he’d gotten the idea from Ford but he said he hadn’t.)

   One of Parker’s lasting innovations was to put his protagonist in a monogamous relationship with one woman, and as the death of Cuddy’s wife faded in time he followed in Spenser’s footsteps with Susan Silverman by getting monogamously involved with a female prosecutor.

   Healy’s first novel, Blunt Darts (1984), struck me as very good but perhaps too much in the shadow of Ross Macdonald. The New York Times called it one of the seven best mysteries of its year. His second, The Staked Goat (1986), I thought one of the finest PI novels I’d ever read. Almost thirty years after its publication I still say it belongs on any sensible short list of the great books of the genre since the death of Lew Archer’s creator.

***

   Number four in the series, Swan Dive (1988), begins with Cuddy obliging a lawyer friend by agreeing to bodyguard Hanna Marsh, who has left her sadistic husband and is seeking both a divorce and the luxurious marital home.

   Roy Marsh, not only a wife-beater and womanizer but a cocaine dealer on the side, tries to persuade Hanna to drop the suit by disembowelling their daughter’s cat. Cuddy goes outside the law to teach Roy a lesson in litigation etiquette, but a few nights later when Roy and a hooker are murdered in a fleabag hotel, all the evidence points to Cuddy, who is menaced not only by the police but by Roy’s coke-dealing compadres hunting for a missing shipment of their stock in trade.

   Healy carefully balances whodunit and mean-streets elements, skillfully draws characters (many of whom speak Ethnic English, a trademark in this series), gives us the usual sharply observed tour of metro Boston, and even imparts some movement to Cuddy’s long-stalled relationship with the lovely assistant D.A. whom at this point in the saga he refuses to sleep with out of loyalty to his dead wife.

   Yesterday’s News (1989) brings Cuddy to the decaying port city of Nasharbor, where a woman reporter on the local paper supposedly committed suicide less than twelve hours after hiring him to look into the murder of one of her confidential sources, a petty porn merchant claiming inside knowledge of police corruption.

   It’s a briskly paced and tightly constructed novel, bringing to life a number of social and professional environments, with richly varied characters and relationships and sleazoid dialogue in the manner of George V. Higgins punctuated by short bursts of action.

***

   You could never have guessed from Jerry’s first five novels that he was a law professor or even the holder of a law degree. It was only with Cuddy’s sixth full-length case that his creator’s two careers came together.

   The title of Right to Die (1991) perfectly captures its theme. Cuddy is brought to the not totally fictitious Massachusetts Bay Law School to investigate a string of obscene anonymous notes to Maisy Andrus, a fiery law prof who not only publicly advocates legalized euthanasia but admits that she euthanized her dying first husband, a wealthy Spanish doctor, and got away with it. (Why she wasn’t extradited to Spain to stand trial, and even got to keep all the property her husband left her, are questions I fear are never adequately answered.)

   In the first 150 pages more notes keep popping up and Cuddy goes around interviewing various people with ideological or personal reasons for hating Andrus’ guts, among them a black female minister, a Catholic pro-life fanatic, a Jewish doctor and a neo-Nazi skinhead. The suspects are well drawn and each of them mounts a soapbox on which to orate on issues of life and death.

   Things heat up in later chapters, but the climax leaves more nagging questions unanswered. And anyone who can swallow Healy’s biggest credibility sandwich, which consists of our middle-aged PI finishing the 26-mile Boston Marathon four days after getting out of Massachusetts General Hospital with a slug in the hip, is a veritable Dagwood.

   Jerry told me that a doctor at Harvard Medical School vouched for the possibility, saying that a bullet would have done Cuddy less harm than the flu, but I still don’t buy it.

   Chapter 5 of Right to Die ought to be required reading even for those in legal education who don’t enjoy mysteries. Cuddy, a Vietnam veteran and law-school dropout, visits Andrus’ Ethics and Society class and is exposed once again to that bete noir of jurisprudence, the so-called Socratic Method.

   Maisy Andrus’ classroom style, says Cuddy, “reminded me of a black Special Forces captain in basic training who ran the TTIS, the Tactical Training of the Individual Soldier, the most miserable obstacle course I ever experienced.”

   For the next several pages we see the Method in action: Kingsfieldesque bullying, rapid-fire cross-examination of hapless students, hypotheticals straight out of the classic police torture scene from Dirty Harry. Later in Andrus’ office she justifies the Method and her dispassionate use of it. Cuddy dissents.

   “I think torture is a serious matter. I think you do your students a disservice by abstracting it and then making it seem they have no way out of an intellectual puzzle.”

   “Have you ever witnessed torture, Mr. Cuddy?”

   I thought back to the basement of the National Police substation in Saigon. Suspected Viet Cong subjected to bamboo switches, lit cigarettes, telephone crank boxes, and wires. Walls seeping dampness, the mixed stench of body wastes and disinfectants, the screams….

   “Mr. Cuddy?”

   “No, Professor, I’ve never seen torture.”

   The sequence has nothing to do with the plot, but some of the best scenes in Healy’s previous books and especially in The Staked Goat aren’t tied to a storyline either. Standing on its own, this chapter is at once the most even-handed and the most riveting evocation of Socratic Method that I’ve ever encountered in a novel. And yes, that specifically includes The Paper Chase, to which we owe the legendary Professor Kingsfield.

***

   Shallow Graves (1992) comes closer to joining the PI novel and the classic detective tale than any other Healy book I’ve read. The insurance company which once bounced Cuddy for refusing to approve a phony claim hires him back as a freelance to look into the strangulation of Mau Tim Dani, an exotic and rising young fashion model of Sicilian and Vietnamese descent, whose life had been insured by her financially shaky agency for half a million dollars.

   The trouble starts when Cuddy discovers that the dead woman’s Sicilian side, her father and his kin, are Mafia; indeed that her granddad is the Godfather of metro Boston. Healy neatly divides our suspicions among a small cast of characters, offers portraits of the worlds of modeling, advertising and organized crime, and holds tension high despite an almost complete absence of violence.

   He keeps descriptions to a minimum and relies on long Q&A sequences not only to convey plot points but, as is his wont, to showcase several varieties of ethnically flavored English, from Vietnamese to Japanese to Sicilian to black. Anyone who beats Cuddy to the killer’s identity will have done better than I.

   Foursome (1993) takes Cuddy north to rural Maine, where three of the title’s quartet have been slaughtered in their lakeside retreat (very much like Jerry’s own, which I once had the pleasure of visiting) by a crossbow-wielding killer, with Cuddy’s client, the sole survivor of the four, having been charged with triple murder.

   Trying to flush out a credible alternate suspect, Cuddy finds several Mainers and even more folks back in metro Boston who might have wanted one, some or all of the foursome out of the way.

   This time I spotted the culprit long before Cuddy, mainly because I had come to know intimately how Jerry thought and worked. But he paints in vivid colors the pristine beauty of Maine and the big city’s mean streets and suburbs, skillfully characterizes a huge variety of people through Cuddy’s Q&A with them, and breaks up the interrogations with spurts of raw violence, making this longest of Healy’s novels to that point by all odds one of his best.

***

   There’s hardly need to go on, and besides I’m running out of space. Jerry’s legacy to readers consists of 13 Cuddy novels, two collections of Cuddy short stories, three legal thrillers about Boston attorney Mairead O’Claire, and two stand-alone novels.

   His legacy to those who were lucky enough to know him and be his friends is priceless. The countless Web comments on his death share a single leitmotif: what a kind, generous, giving man he was, how supportive and helpful to newer writers. He wasn’t Jewish, but if ever there were a living embodiment of the word mensch it was Jerry Healy. God, what a loss.

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


   My July column, the longest I’ve ever written, was completely devoted to the Mike Hammer TV series of 1958-59 but there are a couple of related items that I couldn’t squeeze in last time. I trust no Hammerhead will mind if I begin with these.

   Two questions surrounding the series caught my attention as I was fiddling with the column. First, was there a Hammer pilot episode and if so which was it? The order of original broadcast in New York or any other city doesn’t help because it was different in every market and completely up to the station owning the local rights. Copyright registration dates don’t help either, nor does the order in which they appear on the recently released DVD set. If the episodes had production numbers, I haven’t been able to find them.

   However, I think I’ve solved the puzzle while slowly making my way through the set. Throughout the series the role of Hammer’s friendly enemy Captain Pat Chambers is played by Bart Burns. But in one early segment there’s a plainclothes cop who’s referred to only as Pat but is clearly meant to be Chambers. The actor who plays him is not Bart Burns but Ted De Corsia, who also played Sergeant Velie for much of the run of the Adventures of Ellery Queen on radio.

   The episode is “Death Takes an Encore,” directed by Richard Irving and written by Frank Kane based on one of his short stories about New York PI Johnny Liddell (“Return Engagement,” Manhunt, February 1955, collected in Johnny Liddell’s Morgue, Dell pb #A117, 1956). For my money, that was the pilot.

   The second question also involves Frank Kane. Back in the late Forties he wrote around 45 scripts for that classic radio series The Shadow, and for several years there have been rumors that at least one of his Hammer scripts was a rewrite of one of his Shadow scripts. But which?

   I believe I’ve solved that puzzle too. Another early episode written by Kane, “Letter Edged in Blackmail,” shares a springboard with Kane’s Shadow script “Etched with Acid” (March 17, 1946): the protagonist in both tries to shut down a racket in which wealthy women with heavy gambling debts are forced to fake robberies of their own jewels. As neither Mike Hammer nor The Shadow would ever dream of saying: Q.E.D.

***

   Death has claimed two actors who were well known for having played TV detectives. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was the first to go. He died on May 2 at age 95, reportedly while mowing the lawn of his house in the horse-ranching community of Solvang, California.

   People of my generation first got to know Zimbalist on the Warner Bros. TV series 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64), in which he starred as ultra-suave PI Stuart Bailey. No sooner had that series left the air than he started playing Federal agent Lewis Erskine on the even longer-running The FBI (1965-74).

   When I met him — very briefly, at a film festival in Memphis — he was over 80 and still looked great. Judging from the photos of him I found on the Web, he still looked great in his 90s. Way to go! May we all be so lucky.

   The other recently deceased tele-icon was James Garner, who at age 86 was found dead in his Los Angeles home on July 19. Like Zimbalist he was best known for two long-running TV series but his were in different genres.

   His earliest claim to fame was as star of the Warner Bros. Western series Maverick (1957-63) but his interest for us stems from his years playing an un-macho PI in The Rockford Files (1974-80).

   In his autobiography The Garner Files (2011) he claimed that Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford were basically the same character, but he never said and probably never knew that the character from which both were sort of spun off was an icon of U.S. detective fiction, namely that quintessential American wiseass Archie Goodwin.

   I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if only there had been a Nero Wolfe movie with the middle-aged Orson Welles as Wolfe and the young Garner as Archie!

***

   Both Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip were created by the same man, who was also a co-producer and, as John Thomas James, a frequent scriptwriter for The Rockford Files .

   He first came to attention, however, as a mystery novelist. Roy Huggins (1914-2002) debuted in the genre with The Double Take (1946), whose protagonist, PI Stuart Bailey, was a character and first-person narrator owing a great deal to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and very different from the suave and perhaps a bit bland Bailey of 77 Sunset Strip.

   Anthony Boucher’s review for the San Francisco Chronicle (February 3, 1946) was spot on as usual: “Mr. Huggins adds nothing to the established hardboiled formula but does an unusually able job within its possibly overfamiliar frame.”

   At that time, with Dashiell Hammett having written nothing since The Thin Man (1934), “the established hardboiled formula” meant Chandler. The latter may not have read The Double Take himself but he clearly found out about it and, as witness his letter to fellow pulp veteran Cleve F. Adams (September 4, 1948), he was not amused.

   “I don’t know Roy Huggins and have never laid eyes on him. He sent me an autographed copy of his book … with his apologies and the dedication he says the publishers would not let him put in it. In writing to thank him I said his apologies were either unnecessary or inadequate and that I could name three or four writers who had gone as far as he had, without his frankness about it …. I personally think that a deliberate attempt to lift a writer’s personal tricks, his stock in trade, his mannerisms, his approach to his material, can be carried too far — to the point where it is a kind of plagiarism, and a nasty kind because the law gives no protection…. Somebody who read Huggins’ book told me that it was full of scenes which were modeled in detail on scenes in my books, just moved over enough to get by.”

   Somebody else informed Chandler that “the publishers told Huggins, in effect, that it was bad enough for him to steal my approach and my method or whatever, but stealing my characters was going a little too far. I understand there was some rewriting, but cannot vouch for any of this.”

   The letter to Adams can be found in Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, ed. Frank MacShane (1981), pp. 125-126. This is the only reference to Huggins in the index to MacShane’s book, but a careful reader will find Chandler revisiting the incident in later correspondence. Writing to spy novelist and later Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt on November 16, 1952, he says:

   “As you may know, writers like Dashiell Hammett and myself have been widely and ruthlessly imitated, so closely as to amount to a moral plagiarism…. I have had stories taken scene by scene and just lightly changed here and there. I have had lines of dialogue taken intact, bits of description also word for word. I have no recourse. The law doesn’t call it plagiarism.”

   Exactly nine months later, on September 16, 1953, writing to a master at his alma mater Dulwich College, he adds a bit more detail to the story.

   “A few years ago a man wrote a story which was a scene by scene steal from one of mine. He changed names and incidents just enough to stay inside the law…. The publisher to whom the book was sent demanded indignantly of the agent submitting it how he dared send them a book by Chandler under a pseudonym without saying so. When he learned that I had not had anything to do with the book he demanded certain changes to tone down the blatancy of the imitation and then published it. It did very well too.”

   These quotations come respectively from pp. 334 and 352 of MacShane’s collection.

   Huggins’ Hollywood career began when The Double Take sold to the movies and he was hired to write the screenplay for what was released as I Love Trouble (1948), with Franchot Tone as Bailey. By the time Chandler died, in 1959, Huggins had created Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip and both series were prime-time hits, but the creator of Philip Marlowe watched very little TV and may never have known that a sardonic prophecy he had made in his letter to Cleve Adams had come true:

   “More power to Mr. Huggins. If he has been traveling on borrowed gas to any extent, the time will come when he will have to spew his guts into his own tank.”

   Which is precisely what Huggins did.

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


   Anyone who’s read Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels — by which I mean the early ones, dating from 1947 to 1952, the ones in which Spillane overturned the whole Hammett-Chandler PI tradition by portraying Hammer as a sadistic psycho — has his own idea who should have played the character on screen.

   There’s a consensus that the actors cast in the part were inadequate except perhaps for Ralph Meeker in director Robert Aldrich’s subversive version of KISS ME, DEADLY (1955), where Hammer is not the Cold War jihadi Spillane imagined but a cheap punk. It may not be coincidence that Meeker bore a certain physical resemblance to Spillane.

   For my money the ideal screen Hammer would need to be a big bruiser, and of the actors from the period who are familiar to me the one I see as most like the character Spillane created was Lawrence Tierney (1919-2002). I challenge anyone to watch Tierney in that fine film noir BORN TO KILL (1947) and tell me he isn’t Hammer to the life. And judging from what I read on the Web, he was also a raging bull in the real world, serving several jail terms for beating people up in bars.

   The years of the early Spillane novels coincided with the dawn years of television, but the medium’s antipathy to sex and strong violence seemed to rule out Hammer as a star of the small screen. Then in the late 1950s the character invaded America’s living rooms in the person of Darren McGavin (1922-2006), who went on to star in several other series including RIVERBOAT, THE OUTSIDER and KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER.

   According to an interview McGavin gave decades later (Scarlet Street, Fall 1994), “Universal had made a contract with Spillane, and they made three pilots, one with Brian Keith. They couldn’t show them because they were all too violent.”

   The Keith pilot was written and directed by soon-to-be-superstar Blake Edwards (1922-2010). I’m told on the Web that it’s out there, and someday I’d love to see it. Keith as he looked in the Fifties strikes me as an excellent choice for the part, certainly more so than McGavin, who like Ralph Meeker resembled Spillane more than the Mick’s most famous character.

   “I was doing a play in New York,” McGavin recalled, “and they called me to come out and do this series. I read the script…[and] said, ‘This is ridiculous! I mean, you can’t take this shit seriously….[T]his is satire. It’s gotta be satirical.’ [The producers] said, ‘No, no, no—this is really very deadly, straight-on, dead-on serious.’”

   McGavin insisted on playing the part his way, and Universal bigwig Lou Wasserman came down to the set and told him, “You can’t make fun of this material.” McGavin said, “I’m not making fun of it, I’m just treating it in a lighter manner…. We have a contract for me to say the words that are put on the paper. I don’t want anybody telling me how to do it.” What the hell did he think a director was for? Amazingly, McGavin wasn’t fired, and according to him, the episodes “were instantly successful. People thought they were funny.”

   Spillane couldn’t have cared less how the character was portrayed, telling TV Guide “I just took the money and went home.” That magazine’s reviewer declared that HAMMER “could easily be the worst show on TV.” I have yet to find anyone who considered the program a laugh riot but it certainly was successful, running for two seasons of 39 episodes each. All 78 can be accessed on YouTube and are also available on a DVD set.

   If the series wasn’t like the Hammer novels and wasn’t a comic parody of Spillane either, how can we describe it? I suggest we think of it as a sort of visual counterpart of Manhunt, the digest-sized crime magazine that debuted in 1953, at the height of Spillane’s popularity, and printed tons of tales by those hardboiled writers who were clients of the Scott Meredith literary agency. I don’t think it was by chance that later in the decade several of those writers got to crank out Hammer scripts, or have their Manhunt stories adapted for the Hammer series, or both.

   To take the latter situation first, let’s look at Evan Hunter (1926-2005). By the time Hammer made it to the small screen, Hunter was writing mainstream bestsellers under his official name and the 87th Precinct police procedurals as Ed McBain. Earlier in his career he’d been writing tons of short stories for the hardboiled mags.

   It was in Manhunt that readers of the Red Menace era first encountered an edgy alcoholic PI named Matt Cordell. Although originally published as by Evan Hunter, the byline and the protagonist magically changed their names to Curt Cannon when the stories were collected as the paperback original I LIKE ‘EM TOUGH (Gold Medal pb #743, 1958), soon to be accompanied by the novel I’M CANNON—FOR HIRE (Gold Medal pb #814, 1958).

   Hunter’s career had skyrocketed so far into the stratosphere that he wasn’t interested in writing for the Hammer TV series, but three of his six Cordell stories from Manhunt were adapted by others into Hammer scripts. Hunter, needless to add, was a Scott Meredith client. So was Henry Kane (1908-1988), who found one of his Manhunt tales about PI Peter Chambers reconfigured as a Hammer exploit.

   So was Robert Turner (1915-1980), who devoted a chapter of his memoir SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE WRITERS BUT I WOULDN’T WANT MY DAUGHTER TO MARRY ONE! (Sherbourne Press, 1970) to his experiences working on the Hammer series. As Turner tells it, a whole pile of Scott Meredith clients got flown out to La-La Land and tried their hands at writing for the program but only a few succeeded.

   First and by far the most successful was Frank Kane (1912-1968), who was credited with 14 original scripts, 5 more written with a co-author, and 6 Manhunt tales (three of them about his own PI Johnny Liddell) Hammerized either by himself or somebody else. Kane had a habit of using gallows-humor titles for his novels and stories, and both he himself and others tended to use the same type of title for their HAMMER episodes.

   Witness the following lists:

      KANE NOVEL OR STORY

Bare Trap
Gory Hallelujah!
Lead Ache
Morgue-Star Final
Poisons Unknown
Slay Ride
Slay Upon Delivery
Trigger Mortis

      HAMMER SCRIPT BY KANE

Crepe for Suzette
A Detective Tail
A Grave Undertaking
Lead Ache (based on Kane’s short story)
Skinned Deep
Slay Upon Delivery (not based on Kane’s short story)

      HAMMER SCRIPT BY SOMEBODY ELSE

Bride and Doom
The High Cost of Dying
Just Around the Coroner
Merchant of Menace
My Fair Deadly
Stocks and Blondes
Swing Low, Sweet Harriet

   Robert Turner described Kane as “a big, bluff, hearty guy with a sometimes bawdy but always lively sense of humor… He drove [the producers] crazy, because he steadfastly refused to make carbon copies of his scripts.” He “could turn out a first draft in one or two days. He never gave it to [the producers] right away, though. Not after the first time, when they told him it couldn’t possibly be any good if he’d written it that fast. From then on he just threw the thing in a drawer for two or three days and visited around the lot.”

   He “would come to Hollywood for a month, write four or five scripts, and as soon as the last one was finished and okayed wouldn’t even wait for his check, but would head back to his family in New York….He always took the train….”

   Another well-known crime novelist turning out Hammer exploits was Bill S. Ballinger (1912-1980), who under his B. X. Sanborn byline wrote about a dozen scripts for the series. Most of what didn’t come from East Coast hardboilers was the work of four men who over the years turned out a small army of scripts for Revue Productions’ syndicated TV programs: Fenton Earnshaw, Lawrence Kimble, Barry Shipman and, most prolific of all, Steven Thornley (reportedly a byline of prime-time teleplaywright Ken Pettus).

   How about the guys who called the shots? The busiest of the Revue contract directors who worked on HAMMER was Ukraine-born Boris Sagal (1923-1981), who signed 20 of the initial 39 episodes plus 5 from the second season. Sagal soon became one of the top TV directors but his career came to a messy end: while filming the mini-series WORLD WAR III, he walked into the tail rotor blades of a helicopter and was partially decapitated.

   Also noteworthy among the first season’s directors was John English (1903-1969), one of the great action specialists who spent much of his creative life helming B Westerns and cliffhanger serials at the legendary Republic Pictures. English moved into television when the new medium displaced theatrical B features and spent several years at Revue.

   He directed only five segments of HAMMER but “Peace Bond” boasts perhaps the most exciting climax of any of the 78 episodes. McGavin’s mano a mano with an evil lawyer (Edmon Ryan) represents Republic-style action at its no-prop-left-unsmashed finest, every moment perfectly choreographed and complemented by the background music of Republic veteran Raoul Kraushaar.

   English’s best bud at Republic was my own best friend in Hollywood, William Witney (1915-2002), the Spielberg of his generation, a wunderkind who at the start of his career was the youngest director in the business. Between 1937 and 1941 the two co-directed 17 consecutive Republic serials, their visual styles so much alike that they often got into arguments about who had shot what.

   In the late Fifties, after Republic folded, Witney wound up at Revue, directing episodes of many of the same series English was working on, including MIKE HAMMER. During its second season Bill helmed 13 segments, far more than anyone else except Boris Sagal.

   His HAMMER work benefits from innovations like devising L-shaped sets, with the camera positioned at the right angle of the L so he could have it point east and shoot one scene while the technicians were preparing the north arm of the L for the next sequence, then have it swing around, point north and shoot that scene while the crewmen were tearing down the furnishings from Bill’s first shot and setting up what was needed for his third.

   If you watch only one of his 13 HAMMER segments, make it “Wedding Mourning” — the last episode filmed, he told me — in which Hammer for once is portrayed as something very close to the brutal psycho Spillane all unwittingly had created. Mike falls for a woman and is about to get married and change his life when his love is murdered and he runs amok, shooting and beating a swath through New York’s lowlifes. If any of the 78 HAMMER episodes qualifies as telefilm noir, this is it.

   In the cast lists of any Fifties series you’re likely to find a number of men and women who were prominent in movies from earlier decades and others who were to become famous on TV in the Sixties or later. Among those once better known who appeared in HAMMER episodes were Neil Hamilton, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Keye Luke, Alan Mowbray, Tom Neal and Anna May Wong. The first three also enjoyed later TV fame, respectively as BATMAN’s Commissioner Gordon, the voice of the titular horse on MR. ED, and KUNG FU’S Master Po.

   The actors who weren’t all that well known at the time of their HAMMER roles but made their marks later include Herschel Bernardi, Barrie Chase, Michael Connors, Angie Dickinson, Robert Fuller, Lorne Greene, DeForest Kelley, Dorothy Provine and Robert Vaughn. Anyone who can identify all these folks’ claims to fame either is a telefreak of the first water or has the DVD set.

   While cobbling this column together I was presented with a copy of the set and have begun watching the episodes. Some of them I haven’t seen in many years, others — mainly those directed by Bill Witney or Jack English — I taped when the series was broadcast on the Encore Mystery Channel.

   Will I make it through all 78? Dunno. Will I find anything interesting enough for another column? No idea. But if McGavin’s later PI series THE OUTSIDER ever comes out on DVD it might be worth exploring.

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