Columns


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


   Two weeks or so after this column is posted I’ll be traveling by Amtrak to the east coast, where on the evening of March 29 I’m giving a talk in New York City at Columbia University’s second annual Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival. Anyone who wants to learn more about this festival should visit its website. (Follow the link.)

   Why was I asked to take part in the program? Because this year the theme is Cornell Woolrich, and in certain quarters I’m rumored to know a bit about that haunted recluse. Just before my talk there will be a screening of BLACK ANGEL (Universal, 1946), which was based on Woolrich’s novel of the same name, and I expect to be concentrating on the relation between the novel and the movie. For the benefit of readers who won’t be able to attend the festival, I’ll cover the same subject here.

   THE BLACK ANGEL (1943) is one of the strongest, strangest and most wrenching of all Woolrich’s novels and the only one narrated throughout in first person by a woman. Superficially it’s a conventional Woman Menaced suspenser but once we crack its thin surface we’re in the jolting nightworld that is Woolrich’s private domain, and locked inside the mind and heart of one of his most twisted people.

   Like most Woolrich novels, it reminds us of other novels of his. It shares with PHANTOM LADY (1942) the race against the clock to save an innocent man convicted of murder, but this time it’s the man’s girlfriend not his wife who’s been killed, and it’s his wife who risks everything to save him from the chair.

   Like THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1940) it consists of a series of disconnected episodes with a tormented psychotic woman entering the lives of various men and devastating each in a different way. The angel of the title is Alberta French Murray, whose husband Kirk has taken up with nightclub entertainer Mia Mercer. Finding Kirk’s packed suitcase hidden in a closet, and knowing what until now she had only feared, she forces herself to go to Mia’s lavish Sutton Place apartment and beg for her man back.

   She finds the entrance door unlocked and Mia on the bedroom floor, smothered to death with a pillow. At that moment Mia’s phone rings. Alberta in a panic lifts the receiver to shut off the sound, hears Kirk’s voice on the other end, and hangs up without a word. Convinced that Kirk is innocent and frantic to protect him, Alberta steals Mia’s address book from the apartment. On the way out she notices and also takes with her a match folder, monogrammed with the letter M, which she finds wedged in the seam of the entrance door, apparently by the real murderer, who visited Mia openly once and then sneaked back to kill her.

   Alberta doesn’t report the murder to the police and doesn’t even think to call Kirk at his office and tell him Mia’s dead until it’s too late and he’s on his way to her place. The next time she sees her husband he’s handcuffed to a cynical cop named Flood and under arrest for Mia’s murder.

   A few pages later, thanks to the legally challenged Woolrich having wisely spared us a trial scene, he’s awaiting execution. While he’s sitting in the death house, she goes through his belongings, which the police have returned to her, and discovers that the monogrammed match folder she took from Mia’s apartment doesn’t belong to Mia herself. Therefore she concludes at once — and the intensity of Woolrich’s prose makes it easy for us to forget that her reasoning is ridiculous — that the real murderer must be one of the four names on the M page of Mia’s address book.

   She goes to Flood, who doesn’t send out underlings to check whether any of the four M’s uses monogrammed match folders but agrees to backstop Alberta’s crazy and time-intensive plan: to enter the life of each M in turn and try to pin the murder on him.

   For the rest of the novel we are with her and inside her as she carries out her mission. The first M is Martin Blair, a hopeless alcoholic into whose wretched life she insinuates herself until he commits suicide. Does she blame herself? “No, I was kind to him. I gave him something to die for…. It is better to die for something than to live for nothing.”

   The second M is Mordaunt, a foul-smelling doctor with a sideline of pushing narcotics, who soon takes her into his operation as a delivery person. This episode is full of suspense and anguish but Mordaunt never rises above the pulp monster level.

   Alberta emerges from the nightmare intact and with proof that the doctor isn’t the man she’s after. M3 is wealthy bon vivant Ladd Mason, whom Alberta entices into a relationship, then has Flood set up a hidden dictaphone device in her apartment to preserve any damning admission Mason might let slip. Eventually he admits that he’d visited Mia on the day of her death and found her body on the floor.

   She leaves him asleep in her apartment and goes on to her fourth quest, a man named McKee, a gambler-gangster-nightclub owner of a sort familiar from many pulp stories by Woolrich and countless others.

   Auditioning for and landing a spot in his club’s chorus line, she is soon installed in his Central Park West penthouse. She induces him to give her the combination to his safe and, at the earliest opportunity, opens it to hunt for evidence of his connection with Mia Mercer, but is caught by his goons and taken out to be executed.

   There’s no need to describe the rest of the novel, which ends with our black angel torn by love for one who is dead, shattered inside as she had shattered others, executioner and victim in one flesh.

***

   Fred Dannay once said of Woolrich that his “driving narrative power…carries readers on the crest of a tidal wave, and they are equally oblivious of the long arm of coincidence and the long arm of incredibility” when immersed in his fiction even though there “might be a hole in the plot structure that would destroy an ordinary story.”

   That is an inspired description of the raw material that the makers of the movie BLACK ANGEL (Universal, 1946) had to contend with: a wrenching, bizarre episodic novel whose protagonist’s obsessions grow to madness as she ruins others and herself to save her man from Mister Death.

   The film was directed and co-produced by British-born Roy William Neill (1886-1946), an industry old-timer fondly remembered for his Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. He and screenwriter Roy Chanslor took on the jobs of tightening the novel’s structure, reducing the number of male characters, making the female lead more sympathetic, and at the same time preserving the Woolrich qualities of suspense and emotional anguish. A tall order!

   June Vincent starred as Catherine Bennett and Dan Duryea as the alcoholic pianist Martin Blair, who is an amalgam of Woolrich’s Martin Blair and his haunted socialite Ladd Mason. The Dr. Mordaunt episode was scrapped, and in the movie the M-monogrammed matchbook leads the black angel not to several men as in the book but only one, nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre), who more or less corresponds to Woolrich’s love-struck gambler McKee.

   Vincent’s Catherine Bennett doesn’t carry out her quest alone as Woolrich’s black angel did but is joined by Duryea’s Marty Blair character. Although Woolrich’s Marty kills himself after his brief encounter with the angel, Duryea not only lives through the movie but is recovering from his alcoholism by the fadeout. Duryea falls in love with Vincent somewhat as Ladd Mason had with Woolrich’s protagonist but in the movie she doesn’t return his love but stays loyal to her convicted and unfaithful husband.

   Yet despite these changes and many more, every frame of this fine film noir is permeated with the Woolrich spirit, Neill and his cinematographer Paul Ivano investing every shot with a visual style that translates the novel into film with total fidelity to its soul and precious little to its literal text. It was Roy William Neill’s finest film, and his last.

***

   In November 1965, less than two years before his own death, Basil Rathbone in a talk before a group of Sherlock Holmes fans described how the director of so many Holmes movies and of BLACK ANGEL had died. Late in 1946, Rathbone said, he was appearing on Broadway in a production of THE HEIRESS.

   “One night to the theatre came dear little Roy Neill. We loved him. We called him Mousie. He was a little guy and as sweet as they come, though a damn good disciplinarian….[W]e didn’t disobey orders and we were always on time and we always knew our lines….There came to my dressing room, in a gray flannel suit and a white carnation, little Roy Neill. And he was going home, which was Maidenhead on the Thames, in England, for the first time in…something like fifteen-odd years….[He] took the keys out of his pocket, and he showed me one and said to me: ‘….That opens the door to my home at Maidenhead on the Thames.’ And he had had a housekeeper stay there for all this time, waiting for this wonderful moment when, after making substantial money, he was able now to go home and enjoy his life on the river Thames. And he boarded the ship, and—I only learned this later—and he arrived, and he went to Maidenhead, and he put the key into the front door, he turned it, and walked into the hall of his home, and dropped dead.”

   According to the brief New York Times obituary on Neill, the 59-year-old director had died of a heart attack in the London home of a nephew. But if Rathbone wasn’t embellishing the facts for the sake of a good anecdote, what a Woolrich-like death for the man who had just made what up to that time was the finest Woolrich-based film!

***

   Woolrich himself thought the picture a disaster. Early in 1947 he received a letter in which the poet and scholar Mark Van Doren, who had been one of his professors when he was an undergraduate at Columbia, mentioned having recently seen the movie.

   Woolrich then went to see the picture at a neighborhood theater. “I was so ashamed when I came out of there,” he wrote Van Doren on February 2. “All I could keep thinking of in the dark was: Is that what I wasted my whole life at?”

   Keeping in mind how radically the movie altered his novel, one can understand Woolrich’s point of view. Perhaps those who are there for the screening and my comments later this month will understand too.

   But that doesn’t mean he was right. For my money, if a single theatrical feature based on a Woolrich novel (as opposed to the features based on shorter work like Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW) could be preserved for future generations and all the rest had to be destroyed, BLACK ANGEL is the one I would opt to keep.


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.)

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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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


   Something unusual happened to me last month. For no particular reason I had decided that the subject of my September column should be that jolly old warhorse Bulldog Drummond. No sooner was the column ready for posting than, likewise for no particular reason, I pulled down from my shelves one of the earliest of the almost 600 novels written by John Creasey (1908-1973).

   Would you believe? That book was so closely related to what I’d just finished writing up that I could easily have tacked several hundred words about it onto my previous column if I’d felt like supersizing the thing. Well, I didn’t. Here those words are now.

   FIRST CAME A MURDER (London: Andrew Melrose, 1934) was Creasey’s fifth published novel and the third in his long-running series about Department Z or, as he called it in the early years, Z Department. All 28 Z novels contain an occasional scene in the office of Department head Gordon Craigie but in most of their pages we follow one or more of Craigie’s agents.

   In FIRST CAME A MURDER the name of the agent is Hugh Devenish, who with minimal change might easily have been another gentleman adventurer of the period with the same first name and seven different letters after the initial of his last—a gentleman who happens to have been the subject of my previous column. I don’t have the hardcover edition of 1934 nor the revised U.S. paperback (Popular Library pb #445-01533-075, 1972) but I do own a copy of the British paperback (Arrow pb #937, 1967) for which Creasey revised the original text.

   We open, as the title unsubtly suggests, with a murder. In the reading room of the Carilon Club in London’s Pall Mall, a certain Mr. Carruthers who had recently suffered heavy losses in the stock market is stabbed in the neck with a hypodermic needle filled with a poison called adenia which I gather Creasey made up out of (dare I say it?) whole cloth.

   There’s no mystery about who done it: the murderer is Rickett, the Club secretary. A week later, that prosperous man-about-town Hugh Devenish happens to have a casual conversation at the same club with Hon. Marcus Riordon, a wealthy obese financier who seems to have been made in the image of the young Charles Laughton. Discussing the recent murder in the club, Marcus describes the locus of the fatal stab as Carruthers’ neck.

   Instantly Hugh’s ears prick up; for, as we learn a few pages later, every newspaper report of the crime falsely declared that the injection had been in Carruthers’ wrist. Don’t ask why this deception on the part of the British press, which is never explained or even discussed, but it’s the springboard for everything that happens from then forward including an attempt to run down Devenish that same evening by an automobile near the Admiralty Arch.

   As chance would have it, Department Z is investigating the murder for its own reasons, and soon Hugh is eyebrows-deep in a rather vague plot by Hon. Marcus and a gaggle of henchmen to convert their ill-gotten gains into gold and jewels and sneak the loot out of England in a high-powered boat disguised as a tramp steamer. The final chapter, like that of the original BULLDOG DRUMMOND (1920), finds the Hugh D. of this novel marrying the young woman he saved from the brink earlier in the book.

   According to a brief foreword to my edition, Creasey made his revisions in 1967, at a time when he’d become rich and famous and a household name among mystery lovers. This doesn’t mean he revised it very carefully. We are told in Chapter 1 that the newspaper Carruthers is reading just before his death is the Star but, according to an official report summarized in Chapter 3, the paper he was perusing was the Sun.

   At the beginning of that chapter the structures surrounding Department Z’s headquarters are described as “towering precipices of brick and mortar.” I can imagine Creasey in 1934 writing at such white heat that instead of “edifices” he inadvertently used a sound-alike, but why didn’t he catch the gaffe a third of a century later?

   At one point Hon. Marcus plots to have a car similar to Hugh’s and bearing his license plate set on fire with an unrecognizable body inside which was supposed to be identified as Devenish, but the point of the ploy is impenetrable because the real Hugh remains untouched.

   FIRST CAME A MURDER was reviewed in the London Times by none other than Dorothy L. Sayers, who described it as a representative specimen of “the thriller with all its gorgeous absurdities full blown.” She said nothing about any of the flaws I’ve mentioned but pointed out that under the British nobility’s nomenclature rules it was impossible for Marcus, “the son of a dope-sniffing baronet,” to be an Honourable. Creasey left his villain’s title as it was: “I confess to a positive liking for those ‘gorgeous absurdities’, and I could not bring myself to remove any of them.” Which leaves us wondering what if anything he did remove or replace. Sayers’ comments about this book in 1934 apply just as surely to the 1967 version I read.

***

   The earlier chapters of FIRST CAME A MURDER are perhaps a little light on action but the second half, where something is happening on virtually every page, more than makes up the deficit. The exact opposite is true of the next book I pulled down from my shelves, John Rhode’s THE FATAL POOL (1960), in which almost nothing happens, and the little that does has all the flavor of boiled grass.

   In the first two pages, which required me to construct two family trees in order to keep track of everyone, we are introduced to (if I’ve counted right) sixteen characters, of whom six are dead and several more are alive but seldom or never appear. (One of the latter is said to be 55 years old — in other words, to have been born in or around 1905 — and also to have served in World War I. What, did they have drummer boys in that war?)

   The most recently dead among the cast is a young woman whose drowned body is brought into the dining room of Framby Hall at the bottom of page three. Yvonne Bardwell, notorious for getting engaged to men and then breaking up with them for no reason, has been one of the guests at a house party along with several other relatives of Col. Gayton, the Hall’s present owner, and a few non-relatives such as the professional birdwatcher who loves to go out at dawn and take home movies of rarae aves.

   Marks on Yvonne’s shoulders suggest that she was held underwater in the Hall’s outdoor swimming pool, originally part of a moat, in which she was accustomed to take a dip every morning before breakfast. The baffled local officials call in the Yard, and that afternoon Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn makes the first of a staggering number of train journeys from London to the town of Pegworth near which the crime took place. There follows an orgy of talk talk talk, in which nothing much is learned and no destination reached.

   On each of the next several Saturday evenings Waghorn reports his lack of progress to the other dinner guests of Rhode’s long-running series character, that ancient curmudgeon Dr. Priestley. At last there comes a development — the murder of the birdwatcher, perhaps as the result of trying to blackmail whoever drowned Yvonne Bardwell — and things begin to move, albeit at a snail’s pace, until at Priestley’s suggestion Waghorn confronts one of the cast, who confesses handily in abundant detail, revealing one of the least plausible murder motives I’ve ever seen, before conveniently giving the book’s title a new meaning.

   There are some who love the plodding British whodunit writers that detractors like to call the humdrums and there are some who can’t abide them. Everyone agrees, however, that in the forefront of the group stands Major Cecil J.C. Street (1884-1964), the author of 70-odd novels as John Rhode and another 60-odd as Miles Burton.

   (May I pause here to pat myself on the back? More than half a century ago I was the first to point out that Rhode and Burton must inhabit the same body. I based this conclusion on the fact that in every book under either byline, whenever anyone is asked a question the answer is always always always followed with the information that he or she “replied.”)

   My own view, which I’ve expressed in several columns over the years, is that many of the Rhode novels of the Thirties and early Forties are quite readable and interesting but most of the others are dreadful. THE FATAL POOL, apparently second-last in the long-running Dr. Priestley series, has been trashed even by the staunchest fans of the humdrums. Barzun & Taylor in CATALOGUE OF CRIME (2nd edition 1989) called it “The dullest conceivable Rhode…. Well-nigh unreadable.”

   With his usual hard-wired kindness, Anthony Boucher in the New York Times Book Review (26 February 1961) described it as “a moderately good example” of the long-running Priestley series. For my money the line that best does justice to it is one Tony himself perpetrated a number of years earlier, labeling a different Priestley novel “the dreariest Rhode I have yet traversed.”

   There are many such Rhode’s, I fear. To maximize your chances of finding a satisfactory book by this author, best stick with the ones dating from when FDR slept in the White House.

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


   I’ve never been a big fan of Captain Hugh Drummond but he was one of the first characters in crime fiction to swim into my ken. Among the books on my father’s shelves was a hardcover reprint of the 1920 novel that introduced Captain Hugh, titled simply BULLDOG DRUMMOND, with stills from the 1929 talkie of the same name that starred Ronald Colman.

   At around age ten, or maybe it was eleven or twelve, I tackled that book. Sixty-five years later, all I remember is that one of the king toads was a bloke named Henry Lakington who had a penchant for dissolving bodies in an acid bath. Drummond sets a trap for him and he winds up screaming madly as he lurches up a staircase after being plunged into his own tub, while Drummond intones: “Henry Lakington, the retribution is just.”

   Pretty powerful stuff for a pre-adolescent back in the early Fifties.

   I have a vague recollection that someone was found tortured with a thumbscrew, probably by Lakington, earlier in the proceedings. If only I had squirreled away my father’s copy of the book after he died, I could find out whether these juvenile memories are accurate. But I didn’t, which demonstrates, as I said before, just how little of a Drummond fan I’ve always been.

   According to the ST. JAMES GUIDE TO CRIME & MYSTERY WRITERS (1996) there are a total of ten Drummond novels. Their author was Herman Cyril McNeile (1888-1937), who served during World War I in Britain’s Royal Engineers and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His branch of service explains why in England his byline was Sapper. We’re not in England so I’ll call him McNeile.

    The fact that I own only two of the Drummond novels somewhat limited my options when I recently decided to revisit the old Bulldog. The title I chose was BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK (1933), which comes late in the series and only four years before McNeile’s death. Why I picked that one I’ll explain later.

   Despite the title — I should say despite the U.S. title because in England it was published as KNOCK-OUT — we open not with Drummond but with another McNeile character, a wealthy cricket-playing amateur sleuth named Ronald Standish who never caught on as Cap’n Hugh did. On a blustery evening in March, while relaxing in his rooms in London’s Clarges Street, Standish receives a phone call from James Sanderson, a high Home Office poohbah, which is cut off almost as soon as it begins.

   Suspecting foul play, Standish rushes into the night, breaks into Sanderson’s house in Hampstead five minutes away, and finds the man dead at his desk with a horrible hole through his eye. No sooner has he found the body when someone else enters Sanderson’s study. That visitor turns out to be Bulldog Drummond, and both adventurers quickly find themselves in hot water of the Edgar Wallace variety.

   The constable summoned by Sanderson’s butler turns out to be a fake. While Drummond and Standish are out fetching the real police, Sanderson’s house is invaded and torched. Back in the Clarges Street flat, Standish is drugged with his own whiskey — a fate Cap’n Hugh avoids by happening to choose beer as his tipple — and the place is invaded by three heavies whose casual conversation leads the undrugged Drummond to two more of the ungodly, a prominent surgeon and a beautiful blonde film star, and so on and on into the depths of a plot by international moneymen to sabotage the already staggering British economy.

   From the secondary literature one gets the distinct impression that McNeile’s once-famous protagonist is a xenophobic brute with no redeeming social qualities. We naturally expect that if a Jewish character should rear his hook-nosed head in a Drummond novel he’d be the worst sort of anti-Semitic stereotype.

   Surprise! Samuel Aaronstein, proprietor of a second-hand clothing store in Whitechapel and purveyor of disguises whenever the Bulldog needs one, bears no trace of what we might expect to find in McNeile unless one takes offense at a character who says vell for well and vith for with.

   Another of the surprises in STRIKES BACK I’d call neither pleasant nor unpleasant but just surprising. The lovely blonde film star I mentioned earlier turns out to be a clone of none other than Mae West. “Say, big boy,” she says after meeting Drummond at a party, “you’re talking boloney.” And later: “Come and see me some time, big man.”

   If you object that such lines don’t sound veddy British, McNeile agrees with you. “Say, Miss Frensham,” she says later to her secretary, who is now serving as the mole in the enemy camp, “I guess it’s customary in this country to give notice, the same as in mine.” There can be little doubt what country she’s claiming as her own. In other scenes McNeile forgets that the woman is supposed to be a Yank and gifts her with conventional Brit locutions.

   For xenophobia hunters the prime target in STRIKES BACK is the man behind the conspiracy to cripple the British economy, a cueball-headed Greek with the unsubtle name of Demonico who has a penchant for disguising himself as an old woman if things get too hot. He is sporting this getup at the climax when Drummond puts a hole in him.

   The reason I decided to dig into this particular McNeile novel is that at least nominally it was the basis for perhaps the best of the many movies about Cap’n Hugh that came out during the first dozen years of talkies. BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK (20th Century/United Artists, 1934), like its predecessor BULLDOG DRUMMOND (Goldwyn/united Artists, 1929), starred Ronald Colman.

   Featured in the cast were Loretta Young as Lola Field and Warner Oland as the wily Prince Achmed. Neither these nor any other characters in the movie have counterparts in the novel, except of course that Achmed is as slimy a foreigner as the novel’s Demonico. Dealing as it does with the disappearance of Loretta Young’s uncle under circumstances that make it appear he never existed, the movie’s plot anticipates Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES (1938) and several thematically similar stories by Cornell Woolrich like “All at Once, No Alice” and “Finger of Doom” (both 1940), but you’ll find nothing remotely akin to it in McNeile’s novel.

   For anyone who wants a quick and painless refresher course on the complete run of Drummond movies — right down to the laughable attempt in the late Sixties to turn Cap’n Hugh into a James Bond clone — the reading assignments are Chapter 6 of William K. Everson’s THE DETECTIVE IN FILM (1972) and pages 61-73 of Jon Tuska’s THE DETECTIVE IN HOLLYWOOD (1978).

   Bill Everson (1929-1996) was a good friend of mine for several decades. When the two of us put together an elaborate mystery film series 30 years ago for St. Louis County’s Webster University, STRIKES BACK was one of the pictures on the program. What makes it work, we said in our program note, is that the men who made it, primarily director Roy Del Ruth and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, trashed McNeile’s right-wing xenophobia and reconfigured Drummond as “a dashing, romantic, essentially comic character, all his adventures played tongue in cheek.”

   For the Bulldog of the airwaves all you need to read is the entry on the series in John Dunning’s ON THE AIR: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OLD-TIME RADIO (1998). I’ve never sampled this program, which was usually set on the American side of the pond and, says Dunning, “was remembered for years by people who thought it better than it was.”

   The most recent incarnation of Cap’n Hugh was in the parodic stage play BULLSHOT CRUMMOND (1974) and the later movie of the same name (1983). “Much of the play’s humor,” we learn from Wikipedia, “comes from its audacious (and intentionally failed) efforts to recreate film effects on stage.” The script was “designed to be performed by only five actors, one of whom plays seven characters.”

   On my birthday many years ago I happened to be in San Francisco, where the play was first performed, and was taken to see it by a former student, a mercurial little sexpot who had left St. Louis and settled in the city she found so beautiful she could never live anywhere else.

   I remember nothing of the play. The woman with whom I took it in I immortalized, if that’s the word, in three of my Loren Mensing novels plus a Milo Turner short story. On paper she still lives. In real life she died horribly in her early fifties. Thank you, Lou Gehrig. Not.

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


   Suppose all the readers of this column were gathered together in one room. At the front, standing before the lectern or podium or whatever the hell you call it, I pose a question: Any of you know something about Tom Everitt? Almost everyone in the room would probably answer: “Tom Whoveritt?” Perhaps one or two who had read my book THE ART OF DETECTION and were blessed with a photographic memory might say: “Wasn’t he the guy who provided the plots for Manny Lee to turn into Ellery Queen radio scripts after Fred Dannay dropped out and before Anthony Boucher came aboard?”

   Indeed he was. But aside from that fact, and the titles of more than thirty EQ scripts that were based on Everitt plot synopses, virtually nothing is known of him. While working on THE ART OF DETECTION I had ransacked the Web looking for a little more information about this mystery man but with no luck. Then out of the blue not long ago I received an email from a total stranger who, in the course of researching something else entirely, had unearthed more information about Everitt than I could have used even had I known of it in time to put it in the book. But there’s no reason I can’t summarize it here. Thank you, Jonathan Guss, for making this month’s column possible.

   John Thompson Everitt, whom I’ll call JT just to make things simple, was born in Yonkers, New York on December 11, 1908. His ancestors had arrived in Massachusetts by 1643 and had settled in the New York City area near Jamaica by 1650. JT’s father, Charles Percy Everitt (1873-1951), was a well-known rare book dealer, and Charles’ brother Samuel Alexander Everitt (1871-1953) was a partner in the Doubleday publishing house until his retirement in 1930. JT’s older brother Charles Raymond Everitt (1901-1947) also went into the publishing business, working at Harcourt Brace and later, until his early death, at Little Brown, the publisher of a volume of memoirs by his and JT’s father (THE ADVENTURES OF A TREASURE HUNTER: A RARE BOOKMAN IN SEARCH OF AMERICAN HISTORY, 1951).

   In 1930 JT graduated from Yale, where he was known as a soccer player. A year later he was hired by the CBS radio network to write for its March of Time program. By 1940 he had moved into the advertising side of radio at the Young & Rubicam agency where, among many other jobs, he was tasked with handling a prospectus from the NBC radio network on The Green Hornet, for which NBC was seeking a sponsor. Apparently he was still working at that agency when he became involved with the Ellery Queen series.

   Since its debut in June of 1939, every one of the scripts for the series had been written by Manfred B. Lee based on plot synopses prepared by his cousin and EQ collaborator Fred Dannay. (More precisely, every one except “The Dauphin’s Doll,” first broadcast around Christmastime 1943 and written by Manny alone.) Early in 1944 Fred’s wife was diagnosed with cancer. The burdens of taking care of two young children, plus editing a large annual anthology of short mystery fiction and running Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM), which had been launched in the fall of 1941, soon made it impossible for Fred to continue coming up with a plot a week for the radio series.

   He was several synopses ahead when he dropped out, and Manny squirreled these away for use in emergencies, relying most of the time on recycling earlier scripts under new titles and condensing 60-minute scripts from the show’s first season (1939-40) into its current half-hour format. But these ploys couldn’t go on indefinitely. Somebody had to be found to take over Fred’s function.

   How TJ came into the picture remains unknown. Possibly it was through his older brother Charles, who was working at Little Brown, publisher of the Queen novels and anthologies since 1942. Perhaps it was due to the connections Fred and Manny had retained with the advertising and publicity businesses where they’d gotten their start. Whether he was the first man brought in to assume Fred’s function as plot provider remains unclear.

   We don’t know exactly how many Dannay synopses Manny had in reserve, but several of the episodes dating from late 1944 strike me as too outrageous to have stemmed from Fred. Take, for example, “Cleopatra’s Snake” (October 12 & 14, 1944). As backstage observer of a live production of Antony and Cleopatra for experimental TV, Ellery becomes a key witness when the genuine poisonous snake being used in the death scene (yeah, right) bites to death the actress playing Cleopatra.

   Now let’s consider “The Glass Sword” (November 30 & December 2, 1944), in which Ellery tackles the case of the circus sword swallower who died when the sword in his stomach broke while the lights were out. Was it Everitt who cranked out the synopses that Manny turned into these scripts? Was it another Dannay substitute? Or, wacko though they are, could they have originated with Fred after all? For more information, keep reading.

   The earliest EQ script that we know came from a synopsis by Everitt was “The Diamond Fence” (January 24, 1945), which involves the murder of a middleman for stolen gems and the disappearance of five diamond rings from the scene of the crime under impossible circumstances. A substantial excerpt from this episode survives on audio as a “sneak preview” from the Armed Forces Radio Service.

   From that point at least through the end of March, every script Manny wrote was based on Everitt material. It was during these early months of the last full year of World War II that Manny enlisted Anthony Boucher (1911-1968) to take over Everitt’s function. It was an ideal choice. Boucher had already published seven novels in the Queen vein and had had short stories published in EQMM. Also, as we know from comments in various of his mystery reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle, he was an enthusiastic fan of the radio series.

   Since Tony lived in Berkeley, California and Manny on the east coast, collaboration on EQ radio scripts required vast correspondence between the two. This correspondence, archived at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, documents their work together in microscopic detail. The only aspect of it that concerns us here is Manny’s continual snarky remarks about Everitt, of which I’ll quote a few.

   On May 3, 1945, about six weeks before the broadcast of the first Boucher-Lee collaboration, Manny tells Tony that he’s “washed up” with Everitt, who “will do four more for us, and then he’s through. This by mutual agreement.” On the 17th of the same month, he says: “We want to avoid some of the weaknesses resulting from our present man’s so-called efforts….” And on the 24th he lets Tony know how he really feels about Everitt: “….At the end of our association with our ‘man,’ as I like to call him—hating his smug, treacherous guts as I do!—we’re finding more trouble…and sloppier submissions on his part even than usual….”

   On January 24, 1946, he describes one of the Everitt synopses he had to deal with as “a bad outline which I bought only because I was desperate …and bought and paid for it with the mental reservation that I’d probably have to do a thorough re-working job on it. I was a noble prophet.”

   But, simply because the EQ radio formula was so complex and demanding and Boucher with all his other commitments couldn’t conjure up a new plot synopsis on a weekly basis, Manny was forced to make further commitments to Everitt. “This was a desperation move,” he tells Boucher on October 30, 1946, “as his stuff always gives me headaches, but good….I had to do something in self-protection. I heartily wish now I hadn’t made that commitment…. But it can’t be undone and I can only hope that he doesn’t come through, so that I can order more from you.”

   Almost a year later Manny is still reluctantly dealing with Everitt now and then and, in a letter to Fred Dannay dated November 4, 1947, griping about it just as loudly. Discussing the possibility of repeating some of the scripts based on Everitt synopses, he describes Everitt as “such a son-of-a-bitch that, even though our rights to repeat the material without payment are clear, he would raise a considerable stink in the business if we didn’t pay him an extra fee….[F]or the most part he got tremendously overpaid in the original payment—the bulk of the creative work was done by me, out of sheer necessity.”

   If Manny were to offer a token fee of perhaps $50 per episode recycled, Everitt “would start haggling and chiseling and his tongue would wag plenty in the business….” What business Manny is referring to becomes clear later in the same letter. “[Y]ou don’t know…what that bastard has been saying and is still saying in the advertising business about his ‘part’ in the Queen show. There is no protection against his kind of conscienceless and unscrupulously shrewd self-propaganda….”

   As his correspondence with both Fred and Boucher demonstrates, at least during the radio years Manny was a Type A personality with a genius for getting hot under the collar, and the insane pressure of putting out a program every week probably shortened his life.

   Whether he was being too harsh on JT is hard to judge. One of the few living persons to have seen any of the Everitt material Manny turned into scripts is Ted Hertel, who helped choose the scripts included in THE ADVENTURE OF THE MURDERED MOTHS (2005). In connection with that project he was erroneously sent the synopses for “The Right End” and “The Glass Sword,” both with Everitt’s name on them.

   To judge by Ted’s comments, what Everitt gave Manny to work with was just as bad as Manny said it was. In an email to me he described the synopses as “so poorly written, so amateurish, that they could not possibly have been the work of Manny in any form.” (The scripts Manny based on these synopses were broadcast respectively on November 16 and 30, 1944.)

   Only one episode Manny based on an Everitt synopsis is available on audio. In “Number 31″ (September 7, 1947) Ellery tries to crack the secret of international mystery man George Arcaris’s success at smuggling diamonds into the Port of New York and to comfort a wonderfully dignified black woman by solving the murder of her son, the servant for a wealthy man-about-town. The cases seem unconnected until Ellery discovers the number 31 popping up in both.

   It’s an excellent episode, but how much credit should go to Everitt remains a mystery since no one in the last 70 years has seen his synopsis. I wouldn’t be surprised if the black woman was entirely the creation of the staunchly liberal Manny Lee.

   To the best of my knowledge the only Everitt radio work besides his EQ plots was a single script for The Shadow. In “The Creature That Kills” (January 6, 1946) Lamont Cranston, alias The Shadow, investigates the theft of priceless papers from the 20th-floor laboratory of a brilliant young scientist under impossible circumstances.

   It turns out that the thief, a master criminal with a Sydney Greenstreet voice, had an accomplice in the form of a trained 27-foot python which slid down the side of the building from the window directly above the scientist’s lab, got hold of the papers, then slid back up the wall to its master. What a snake! Do I detect here the same kind of wackiosity that pervades the EQ scripts about Cleopatra and the glass sword?

   In 1947 Everitt returned to radio full-time as Eastern program manager for the ABC network. We don’t know if he wrote any more for the medium, but Jonathan Guss mentions one script he contributed to the golden age of live TV drama, “Revenge by Proxy” (Colgate Theatre, May 14, 1950). The cast included Nancy Coleman, Phil Arthur, Bernard Kates and Victor Sutherland. As chance would have it, the following week’s drama, “Change of Murder,” was based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich.

   Everitt died on November 2, 1954, at age 45. Today he seems to be totally forgotten, perhaps deservedly so. The most that can be claimed for him is that he figures as a footnote in the Ellery Queen story. But at least now that footnote has been written.

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


   The earliest published stories of Erle Stanley Gardner, dating back to the middle 1920s, were written in a style that might best be described as non-existent. Around the end of the decade he began to be heavily influenced in terms both of style and story substance by Dashiell Hammett, and he remained more or less in Hammett’s shadow during the first few years he was writing novels including the earliest cases of Perry Mason, which began to appear in 1933.

   Mason as portrayed in the first nine novels about him could almost be a Hammett character: a tiger in the social Darwinian jungle, totally self-reliant, asking no favors, despising the weaklings who want society to care for them. Then a sea-change came over the character. The Saturday Evening Post offered Gardner a ton of money for permission to serialize the Mason novels before their book publication, but part of the deal was that the character had to be toned down to conform to the magazine’s “family values” ideology.

   Money talked. Mason from then on became a much tamer character, still skating on the thin edge of the law but always as advocate for a client we knew was innocent, so that we readers could delight in his legal tricks without the moral qualms we might experience if we thought the client might be guilty. Still, the earliest Masons remained in print unaltered, and many of us are especially fond of the novels of Gardner’s Hammett years. But how many readers know that there are more such novels than the first nine Masons?

   THE CLUE OF THE FORGOTTEN MURDER (1934) first appeared under the aegis of Gardner’s lifelong publisher William Morrow but under a pseudonym (Carleton Kendrake) and with the first noun in the title spelled CLEW. It’s unlikely that any of the novel’s original readers caught on that Kendrake and ESG were the same man, simply because a number of other writers were attempting to channel Hammett in the early Thirties, and also because the book’s protagonist doesn’t dominate the action from page one like the early Mason and isn’t even introduced until Chapter 7.

   Until then our viewpoint characters are, first, a crime reporter for a big-city newspaper and, after about thirty pages, one of the paper’s publishers. We open late at night in the Police Headquarters basement press room where reporter Charles Morden is learning about a number of incidents, among them the murder of a private investigator which doesn’t seem terribly interesting, not at the time anyway.

   Another item does capture Morden’s attention: a man driving a rental car with an attractive young woman was arrested on suspicion of DWI and then, being accused of having pulled some gas station hold-ups, has identified himself as Frank B. Cathay, a prominent citizen in the smaller nearby community of Riverview. Morden’s paper prints a story to this effect. Then the real Cathay comes forward, claims that his wallet was stolen by a pickpocket who used the ID inside to pass himself off as Cathay, and threatens to sue the paper for libel.

   At this point publisher Dan Bleeker decides to counterpunch by having Morden thoroughly investigate Cathay, hoping to turn up something that will make Cathay drop the suit. When Morden is murdered and Cathay dies (possibly of poison) shortly after the reporter’s body is found, Bleeker hires criminologist Sidney Griff, who is something of a cross between a Hammett character and Philo Vance, and from this point forward Griff takes center stage.

   At the climax we find him channeling not Vance or a Hammett sleuth but Carroll John Daly’s pistol-packing PI Race Williams, standing on the outside of a speeding taxi “with one foot on the running board, clinging to the rod of the windshield support with his left hand” while with his right he engages in a running gun battle with the murderer in another car, a battle which ends of course with a crack-up.

   To suggest the labyrinthine nature of the plot I’ll quote a remark from Bleeker to Griff in Chapter XVII. “My God, this case is full of women, and every woman has at least one alias. We started with the hitch-hiker, who gave the name of Mary Briggs to the police. We now find her in a hotel registered under the name of Stella Mokley, and probably that’s not her real name. [It is.] Then, there’s this Stanway woman, who apparently is Blanche Malone [a woman whose actual married name is Lorton but who was married to a certain Peter Malone and therefore claims to have been Cathay’s legal wife]; and there’s Alice Lorton [actually the daughter of the woman who calls herself Malone and Stanway], who built up a fictitious Esther Ordway [who Lorton claims was her roommate although in fact she had none]. I wouldn’t doubt if it turns out that Mrs. Cathay really isn’t Mrs. Cathay at all [which is exactly what is claimed by Blanche Malone, who also calls herself Stanway].”

   And those complications barely mention any of the men in the case! If you think the plots of Perry Mason novels are too twisty, perhaps you should give this one a miss. But it all seems to make sense if you think about it long and hard enough. There’s not a great deal of law here except for a brief discussion of the legal difference between accidental death and death by accidental means which crops up again a few years later in DOUBLE OR QUITS (1941), one of the earlier novels about Bertha Cool and Donald Lam which Gardner turned out as A.A. Fair, a byline which lasted decades longer than did Carleton Kendrake. Or than another pseudonym he used only once, a year after Kendrake’s debut and swan song.

***

   THIS IS MURDER (Morrow, 1935), first published as by Charles J. Kenny, is less of a brain-buster but also more like a Hammett novel, reminiscent of THE MALTESE FALCON and THE GLASS KEY in that, like Sam Spade and Ned Beaumont, its protagonist is with us from first page to last, and even more like THE GLASS KEY in that it deals with two corrupt political bosses fighting to gain power in the forthcoming election.

   District Attorney Phil Duncan, who is reasonably honest but allied with sleazy power broker Carl Thorne, is asked to look into the disappearance of Ann Hartwell, the half-sister of Thorne’s mistress Doris Bender. When Bender receives a note claiming that Hartwell has been kidnaped and demanding $10,000 ransom, the DA’s poker buddy Sam Moraine, a wealthy advertising executive, is chosen to deliver the money, mainly because the exchange of woman for money is to take place at sea and Moraine has a yacht.

   He comes to suspect that there’s something phony about the set-up but hands over the money and recovers the woman, only to be arrested by the Feds as his yacht puts in to port. No sooner has his buddy the DA pulled him out of that mess than he finds himself hip-deep in another when Ann Hartwell’s husband, a struggling and insanely jealous dentist, tries to kill him.

   Then thanks to some detective work by his secretary Natalie Rice, who seems to have an interest in the case more personal than any Della Street ever had, Moraine learns that that the kidnapping was indeed a hoax: Ann Hartwell went out to sea only hours before the “ransom” payment, and left for the docks in a taxi she entered near the home of political boss Peter Dixon, Carl Thorne’s enemy.

   Moraine plans to go out into the windy night and pay a surprise visit to Dixon but is kept from leaving his office by the DA and his chief investigator and sends Natalie Rice to Dixon’s house instead. While still closeted with the DA he gets a phone call from a terrified Natalie and, after another encounter with the furious Dr. Hartwell, makes his way to the Dixon house, which is in total darkness thanks to a tree having fallen over a power line.

   There he finds Dixon’s body, a broken window and a candle apparently snuffed out by the wind. Next morning the DA forces him to go to the morgue and view a dead body: not Dixon’s but that of Ann Hartwell, which has been found nearby. A little later Moraine discovers what’s behind Natalie’s involvement in the case, appropriates a suitcase filled with papers incriminating Carl Thorne and his machine, and makes plans to go on the run.

   The climax takes place at a Grand Jury hearing with Moraine cross-examining witnesses—he’s not a lawyer but the DA lets him behave like one—and, as if he’d suddenly become a Perry Mason clone, gets the real murderer to confess on the stand.

   Certainly THIS IS MURDER is closer to the Hammett model than THE CLUE OF THE FORGOTTEN MURDER was. But neither the Continental Op nor Sam Spade nor Ned Beaumont got involved in their dangerous escapades because the danger gave them what we today might call an adrenaline rush, which is precisely the reason Sam Moraine gives for his involvement.

   Still, he’s closer to a Hammett character than that bush-league Philo Vance figure Sidney Griff from FORGOTTEN MURDER. Both novels are still readable more than eighty years later, but few readers will deny that Gardner was wise not to bring back either of their protagonists and to stick, most of the time anyway, with Perry Mason.

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


   We continue our discussion of H. C. Branson with his third novel. He never tells us in so many words where CASE OF THE GIANT KILLER (1944) takes place but he does give us two clues. We open at a country club which is said to overlook Lake Erie. That lake borders on only four states—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. At first one might conclude that the events are taking place in Michigan, but later in the novel that state is referred to as a place other than the book’s setting, although whether Branson meant to rule out his home state or simply made a mistake isn’t clear.

   Bent is vacationing at the country club near the town of Port Arthur when he’s approached by two parties. The first to seek his advice is Barney Hogan, a local investment adviser whose wife’s first husband, convicted of embezzling from Hogan’s firm and just released from prison, is making revenge noises. The second is Elizabeth Orme, widow of a prominent Supreme Court justice, whose bookish young son has gotten involved with a married woman several years his senior.

   The two sets of dramatis personae are of course connected: the ex-con is the brother of the woman young Orme is involved with and her husband, Arthur Pickett, is Barney Hogan’s business partner. Pickett is found dead at the bottom of a cliff a few days after these conversations, and a few nights after the first murder Hogan is shot to death. As usual in Branson, the clues to both crimes are somewhat less than concrete.

   But Bent keeps formulating reconstructions of what might have happened and eventually the complex truth comes out. There’s not a smidgen of a hint that the United States is fighting a world war — not even in the final conversation between Bent and the novel’s Iago figure where the fact of war would be extremely relevant. It’s as if Branson had made a “contract with America,” similar to Georges Simenon’s wartime “contract with France,” to write nothing that would reflect the real-world situation at the time.

   Tony Boucher once again dispensed with a verb in his Chronicle review (26 March 1944) but was even more lavish in his praise: “The best Branson yet, a flawless job to delight the purist who does not insist on extraneous excitement, and demonstrating…that the so-called rules of detective fiction are made to be broken—but only by one who understands them as well as Mr. Branson.”

***

   In THE FEARFUL PASSAGE (1945) World War II is once again conspicuous by its absence, but this time Branson tells us unequivocally where his protagonist is based and where the action takes place. At 1:40 P.M. on a bright October day, after a journey of two to three hours, Bent steps off the train from New York City at the affluent town of Chalcis, having been summoned by county prosecutor Mark Shaftoe, on behalf of a private client he refuses to name, to investigate a murder that took place the night before.

   It’s apparent that the prime suspect in the murder of Gavin Hunter is young Tom Shepherd, the son of Hunter’s deceased wife by her first husband. Not only does Tom hate his stepfather but upon Hunter’s death he’ll inherit the fortune made by his biological dad, a wealthy candy manufacturer. At first it seems that Tom can’t possibly be guilty since he was in New York at the time of the murder. But when it develops that he was seen in Chalcis the evening of the shooting, he’s given a second alibi by the much younger wife of Professor John Winter Shaftoe, the uncle of the prosecutor who sent for Bent and an historian of civilizations whom Branson portrays as a sort of cross between Hemingway and Arnold Toynbee.

   In fact the town seems to be full of people, including the prosecutor himself, who don’t want Tom to be charged with anything. With only one murder, Branson’s fourth novel is more unified than the previous three but, in a quiet detached way, just as emotionally intense, although few if any readers are likely to beat Bent to the answer. Boucher in his Chronicle review (9 December 1945) didn’t eschew verbs but lavished praise as before: “Like all of Branson’s works this is a civilized and distinguished contribution to the serious literature of the detective story, and there’s a peculiar ironic aftertaste to this one.”

***

   On the first page of LAST YEAR’S BLOOD (1947) we’re told that Bent has come from New York, but later events prove pretty conclusively that the setting is nowhere in the Empire State. Near the end of the book we learn that one of the characters left Chicago at 7:10 P.M., drove to the nameless town where the novel takes place, committed a murder, and was back in Chicago by 4:35 A.M.

   From Chicago to Erie, Pennsylvania, which is a little nearer the Windy City than any point in New York, is almost 450 miles. Can you imagine driving more than 900 miles in a little over nine hours, years before anyone ever heard of the Interstate Highway System? If we assume that the novel’s center of gravity is in Michigan, probably not far from Ann Arbor where Branson lived, we aren’t likely to go far wrong.

   Wherever it is, Bent arrives there on a snowy February evening on commission from Bertha Gretsch, a wealthy vindictive old woman whose daughter Madeline was found in her garage, dead of monoxide poisoning but with chloral hydrate in her system. The death could have been an accident or suicide but Bertha insists it was murder, committed by Madeline’s new second husband, a young doctor.

   Bent begins a quiet investigation which is sidetracked when, the day after his arrival, Bertha herself is clubbed to death and stuffed into a clothes press in the house shared by the late Madeline and her husband. Eventually Bent comes to suspect that the deaths of daughter and mother are part of an elaborate scheme to channel the Gretsch fortune in a certain direction. (Haven’t we seen that element before in Branson?)

   The novel doesn’t offer a diagram of the family tree which might help to clarify the characters’ relationship to each other, but I’ve drawn one and you can access it by clicking here. This time, unlike in I’LL EAT YOU LAST, there are no estate law blunders.

   In 1947, with World War II over, Branson is willing to admit that it happened. Madeline’s second husband served in various stateside Army medical facilities and, after the war, worked as a psychiatrist in a VA hospital, and the husband of another female character (not related to the Gretsches and therefore not shown on the diagram) was killed in the Pacific. Not that any of these details are connected with the plot, which Bent probes in his usual speculative way and which he probably wouldn’t have been able to solve except that in the last chapter one suspect shoots another to death in full view of Bent and the local cop nominally in charge.

***

   THE LEADEN BUBBLE (1949) may well be Branson’s finest novel. Among those who thought so was Ross Macdonald, who in July 1953, a few years before he adopted that byline, called the book “remarkable” in a talk at the University of Michigan with Branson himself in the audience. Almost twenty years later, in a letter to Eudora Welty dated December 4, 1972 and included in the authors’ correspondence collection MEANWHILE THERE ARE LETTERS (2015): “Hank wrote some marvellous mystery novels, as you doubtless know—you perhaps remember THE LEADEN BUBBLE, and if you don’t give it a try….”

   Perhaps the book had a special appeal for Macdonald because so much of it takes place in a shabby-genteel boardinghouse of the sort he spent several years in while growing up in Canada. As BUBBLE begins we find Bent once again visiting a nameless state, although it can’t be too far from his home base because he arrives on a rainy Friday evening in mid-January, driving his own car, and apparently set out only a day or two earlier. What brings him to the town of Marchfield is a letter from an old friend, former Supreme Court justice Matthew Gregory, saying that he’s been “greatly disturbed” by something he doesn’t reveal.

   Bent reaches Gregory’s house only to find the old jurist an inch from death, and in fact he dies a few hours later, leaving Bent in the dark as to what he wanted. Might it somehow be connected with the dead man’s son Robert Gregory, whose estranged wife is about to file for divorce and, with the help of an odious local attorney named Horace Bradley, turn her soon to be ex-husband into a pauper? Might the appeal to Bent have something to do with the old man’s granddaughter, Robert’s niece, whose husband had found her in bed with another man and killed her? Might it be significant that the murderer’s attorney, who managed to get a jury to find the man not guilty (a foreshadowing of the O.J. Simpson trial almost 50 years later?), is the same shyster Robert Gregory’s wife has hired to clean out her husband?

   Bent begins to poke around and, discovering that shortly before his fatal stroke the elder Gregory had paid a mysterious visit to a boardinghouse in the town of Waterford, twelve miles from Marchfield, decides to rent a room in the house himself. On the evening of Bent’s first full day in the area, Horace Bradley is shot to death.

   As usual the suspect list is a long one: Robert Gregory, his rapacious wife, the lover who was in bed with old Gregory’s granddaughter when her husband shot her, and even the husband himself, whom Bradley had been dunning for an exorbitant fee. Barzun and Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME give away the murderer but I shall be kinder and quote only their last sentence: “The atmosphere of steady rain and glistening pavements suits the mood of night wandering, driving to nearby towns, and steady speculation aided by brandy and Beethoven’s piano works.”

***

   At the opening of BEGGAR’S CHOICE (1953) Bent is again disembarking from a train in a town that seems to be in the upper midwest although as usual Branson declines to name the state and mentions the town’s name, Fairfax, only once. Awaiting the detective is attorney Leo Murphy, brother of the county prosecutor, who has sent for Bent because of pervasive rumors that the recent death of aged local millionaire Augustus Lefever, apparently the result of a heart attack, was actually something more sinister.

   The principal beneficiaries of Lefever’s estate are his niece Irene Miller, long a resident of Fairfax, and a young grandnephew from California who happened to be visiting at the time of the old man’s death, but Bent doesn’t rule out the possibility that the murderer, assuming there is one, is an outside party whose motive was to enrich one or the other beneficiary.

   Not much happens besides speculation until some attempts are made on the life of the young woman who’s engaged to the grandnephew. As usual the guilty party never has to face a judge and jury. Although the last couple of paragraphs, describing the murderer’s fate, are strictly out of the blue, Tony Boucher in his New York Times review (21 June 1953) praised the book’s “fine tragic denouement.”

***

    As we’ve seen, opinions about Branson are divided. On the positive side we find not only Don Yates and Ross Macdonald, whom Branson had befriended when all three lived in Ann Arbor, but critics like Tony Boucher who probably never met him. In his final discussion of the novels Boucher called them “….so meticulous in detection and so subtly revealing of human character that they rank high among connoisseurs’ delights….” and commended their “sensitive, courageous, adroit, perspicacious probing….”

   On the other side we find Bill Pronzini, who found the books too “detached and emotionless” for his taste. After re-reading all seven novels in chronological order over a month or so, I’d venture the opinion that anyone with an interest in what is now commonly called Golden Age detection will find Branson an off-trail author well worth more attention than he’s received. Quirks, gaffes and all.

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