Columns


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


   Something like four years separate the first three of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels from the next two. The fourth in the series, A STAB IN THE DARK (Arbor House, 1981), begins as usual in Scudder’s favorite bar-restaurant, where he’s approached by Mr. London, a prosperous insurance exec with an unusual problem.

   Nine years ago his daughter had been the sixth of eight victims of a psycho killer known as the Icepick Prowler. Recently the perp has been caught and confessed to having slaughtered all the women—except Number Six, for whose murder he has an unshakable alibi.

   As chance would have it, Scudder had been briefly involved with that crime back in his cop days. Now he’s offered a sizable fee to reopen the old case and try to track down the copycat who committed the one ice-pick murder the Prowler didn’t.

   Even in the earliest Scudder novels Block tended to reduce plot to a bare minimum and concentrate on relationships, the sense of the city, and characters, first and foremost of course that of Scudder with his alcohol problem. These tendencies continue in A STAB IN THE DARK, which is a bit longer than any of the earlier Scudders so that many readers might expect more in the way of plot complications.

   What they get is fewer. Fueled by frequent pit stops for bourbon, our unlicensed PI proceeds methodically through various Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods. Almost halfway through the novel he describes his method, which is reminiscent of Simenon’s Maigret: “You gather details and soak up impressions, and then the answer pops into your mind out of nowhere.”

   There’s no violence along the way except yet another encounter with a teen-age mugger which, like the similar encounter in THE SINS OF THE FATHERS, has nothing to do with the plot.

   This time however, it’s connected with two of the book’s themes. One is the decline and fall of the city. A madman known as the Slasher has been carving up passersby on First Avenue. A 13-year-old boy has recently shot two women behind their ears. There’s been an upturn in muggings. “It’s wonderful how the quality of urban life keeps getting better.”

   The other is the effect of drinking on Scudder’s reactions to a violent situation. These elements create a context for the scene which didn’t exist in THE SINS OF THE FATHERS. Ultimately Scudder finds the ice-pick killer’s imitator, whose motive for murder takes a lot of believing although it helps us understand why this time there’s no question of private vengeance.

   Block manages to integrate the single violent episode in the novel with one of its main themes, but as far as I can tell he fails to do so with an episode of a radically different nature. In the midst of his investigation Scudder becomes involved with an alcoholic woman who’s been going to AA meetings. During one of their conversations she quotes the last six lines of Dylan Thomas’ “A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London.” I’ll limit myself to the first and last lines of the six.

   “Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter….


   After the first death there is no other.”

   Scudder is oddly moved by the lines: “There’s a door in there somewhere if I could just find the handle to it.” Later he visits a bookstore and finds the complete poem. “I read it all the way through….There were parts I didn’t think I understood, but I liked the sound of them anyway, the weight and shape of the words….”

   The subject never comes up again. Except for the obvious connection that the woman whose murderer he’s seeking is the daughter of a man named London, I can’t find the ghost of a link between “A Refusal to Mourn” and this novel. To hunt for one, you need only google Thomas’ name and the title of his poem.

   Another theme Block hints at but doesn’t pursue has to do with legal ethics. Relatively late in the novel, Scudder gets in touch with the attorney assigned to defend the genuine Icepick Prowler.

   “….Anybody crazy enough to want to could get him off without a lot of trouble….[I]f I made a fight the State’s case wouldn’t stand up….There’s lawyers who think the advocate system means they should go to bat for a guy like [the psycho killer] and put him back on the streets….Again between ourselves, I think lawyers with that attitude ought to be in jail alongside their clients.”

   It’s almost as if Block had foreseen Martin Scorsese’s version of CAPE FEAR (1991), which takes off from the premise that a lawyer (Nick Nolte) assigned to defend a sadistic rapist (Robert De Niro) threw the case because he knew what a menace his client was.

   Many law professors had something to say about that movie and most of them took the position that Nolte’s character was a Judas, a traitor to the legal system. My own take can be found in Chapter 8 of my book JUDGES & JUSTICE & LAWYERS & LAW (2014). I do wish Block had had more to say on this issue.

   He does have more to say about his protagonist. Scudder still lives in the same bleak hotel room, still tithes, still drops into churches at odd moments: “I didn’t say any prayers. I never do.” He continues to dip into that Lives of the Saints book we’ve seen in earlier novels. “The martyrs held a curious fascination for me. They’d found such a rich variety of ways of dying.”

   But clearly he’s drinking more than ever, to the point where we live through a blackout with him. Despite his involvement with a woman who’s trying AA, he doesn’t feel that route is right for him. At the end of the novel he and the woman put their relationship on hold by mutual consent and life goes on.

***

   EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE (Arbor House, 1982) is the fifth Scudder novel and at least twice as long as most of the previous four. At the time, Block seriously considered ending the series with this one. As he explained to interviewer Ernie Bulow, “Although each of the five books is a novel, complete in itself, it seemed to me as though they constituted one five-volume novel, and that had come to an end….” (78)

   Scudder is hired by a top-tier call girl who wants to break with her pimp and start life over but is afraid he’ll retaliate by having her disfigured or killed and brings in Matt as her go-between. The pimp, a cultivated black Vietnam veteran known as Chance, who lives in a converted firehouse and has a connoisseur’s taste in coffee and African art, assures Scudder that the woman is free to leave him. The call girl takes Scudder to bed as a sort of bonus.

   A few days later she’s found in a luxury hotel on Sixth Avenue in the Sixties, slashed to ribbons with a machete, her face hacked into “an unrecognizable mess.” A Hispanic clerk in the hotel, who may have recognized the slasher when he checked in, or perhaps was just an illegal immigrant fearing the law, mysteriously vanishes and is never found. Chance, the obvious prime suspect, swears he’s innocent and hires Scudder to clear him.

   It’s one of Block’s most powerful springboard situations and, especially in view of the book’s length, one expects an equally powerful plot. Block doesn’t oblige us. Having just reduced plot to a bare minimum in A STAB IN THE DARK, this time he offers us even less. What he concentrates on is Scudder’s worsening problem with liquor, his interactions with various cops and lowlifes and the other women in Chance’s stable, one aspiring to be a poet, another to be an actress, a third flirting with suicide.

   Block wants to paint a realistic picture of late-20th-century New York City, having Scudder read a parade of atrocity stories in the daily newspapers—stories that Block took from life. As he told Bulow, “Every day I would pick up a copy of the Daily News before I got on the subway,…and on the ride I would read about one outrage after another, and those would be the ones that I would specifically mention the next day. The city never failed me. It always supplied something for Scudder to read and remark about.” (89)

   It’s small wonder if we empathize with the drunken rant of stressed-out cop Joe Durkin in Chapter Fourteen which gives the book its title:

   “Bring back the chair and televise the fucking executions….We got the death penalty. Not for murderers. For ordinary citizens. Everybody out there runs a better chance of getting killed than a killer does of getting the chair. We get the death penalty five, six, seven times a day….You know what you got in this city, this fucked-up toilet of a naked fucking city?….You got eight million ways to die.”

   Any reader who imagines Block is thinking only of New York City is quickly corrected by what he told Bulow: “The faults that Scudder sees in the city, I think,…are universal these days. I think the whole country and the whole world is like that.” (55)

   Scudder reads and is told about countless psycho-sadistic incidents, and eventually encounters one as a teen-age black mugger emerges from a Harlem alley and accosts him, clearly intending to both rob and kill him. In this entire long novel’s only brutal onstage sequence, Scudder smashes the kid’s face and breaks both his legs.

   As we’ve seen, there have been similar mugging incidents in previous Scudders that were just as irrelevant to the plots of the books they appear in as this one is, but none were as deliberately sadistic as the one in EIGHT MILLION WAYS. It’s almost as if Block were trying to out-Spillane the Mick.

   About two-thirds of the way through the book comes another slasher murder, the victim this time being a transsexual street whore hacked to death in a sleazy Queens sex-and-porn motel, a crime that at last returns us to the main thread of the plot. After a visit to the Parke Bernet art gallery Scudder channels Maigret, suddenly intuiting the truth without benefit of anything remotely resembling a clue. Then he sets himself up as the next target for the slasher, who appears for exactly three paragraphs and is quickly disposed of in a sequence that is something of a take-off of the shower scene from PSYCHO.

   Didn’t this creep deserve a gruesomely painful end like his spiritual brother in the later Scudder novel A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, or at least something comparable to what the black mugger got earlier in EIGHT MILLION WAYS? The name of the person whose treachery ignited the whole mess is mentioned just a few times, and not only does he never appear onstage but at the novel’s end no one knows if he’s alive or dead.

   Clearly the portrayal of the city was vital to Block in EIGHT MILLION WAYS, but at least equally important was the evolution in Scudder. Every so often he drops in at an AA meeting but, as Block told Bulow, “when it comes his turn to talk, he always says ‘My name’s Matt, I’ll pass.’”

   EIGHT MILLION WAYS ends differently. Eleven days sober and having come within an inch of returning to drink, he again attends an evening meeting at St. Paul’s church in his neighborhood. “I thought about…going back to my hotel….I’d been up two days and a night without a break. Some sleep would do me more good than a meeting I couldn’t pay attention to in the first place.”

   But he stays, and when it’s his turn to speak, “‘My name is Matt,’ I said, ‘and I’m an alcoholic.’” The final words of the book: “And the goddamndest thing happened. I started to cry.” For Block this scene is crucial. “Scudder comes to terms with his alcoholism and goes through catharsis there,” (78) he told Bulow . This explains why he seriously thought about abandoning his protagonist at this point. It’s the good fortune of millions of readers that he changed his mind.

***

   The most important living writer of private-eye novels at the time EIGHT MILLION WAYS appeared was Ross Macdonald, who died a year later, in 1983. If some of the Lew Archer novels that propelled him to stardom were perhaps too densely plotted, EIGHT MILLION WAYS is clearly their polar opposite.

   Could Block have been trying to create the most plotless PI novel possible? If so, he made it work. EIGHT MILLION WAYS is intensely engrossing from first page to last, and remains for Block himself and for a huge number of his countless readers one of the finest of the whole lengthy Scudder series.

   The 1986 movie of the same name, starring Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette, was the last feature directed by Hal Ashby (1929-1988), who had won a film editing Oscar for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) and had helmed such hits as HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971) and COMING HOME (1978).

   The script was co-written by the no less distinguished Oliver Stone. The big names didn’t help. LEONARD MALTIN’S MOVIE AND VIDEO GUIDE rightly calls the picture a bomb, with “only faint resemblance to Lawrence Block’s fine novel.” I won’t waste time or words summarizing its plot or detailing how it differs from the book. Masochists who wish to do so may consult Google.

      —

NOTE: All page numbers refer to Lawrence Block & Ernie Bulow’s book of conversations AFTER HOURS (University of New Mexico Press, 1995).


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


   I had thought to devote my final column of the year to the next segment of my series about Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels, but a bout of ill health interfered. So this month we’ll turn to something extinct that I wrote perhaps 15 years ago, about a writer as far removed from Block as it’s possible to imagine: the nuttiest filbert who ever pounded on typewriter keys. I refer, as if you hadn’t guessed, to Harry Stephen Keeler.

***

   Harry (1890-1967) had been pounding that keyboard since around the outbreak of World War I, but in the early 1950s his career was in a death spiral. He had lost first a major and then a distinctly minor U.S. publisher (Dutton and Phoenix respectively) and would soon lose his British publisher Ward Lock. In his own wacko way he worked desperately to adapt to new markets and new styles. Seeing that science fiction was enjoying boom times, he tried his hand at that genre. The result was a series of commercially impossible novels whose protagonist is a house. Seeing that the police procedural represented the new wave in detective fiction, he tried his hand at that genre too. The result was another string of commercially impossible novels, each featuring a different Chicago police detective as the main character but having about as much relation to, say, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series as a toad has to grand opera.

   One of these books was The Straw Hat Murders, which was never been published anywhere in his lifetime, not even in Spain where he remained in print almost until his death. It was completed on October 14, 1958 and, weighing in at roughly 48,000 words, is one of the shortest novels he ever wrote. If offered by a trade-book publisher today, it would probably be blurbed as dealing with a big-city cop’s hunt for a serial killer. Which would be a technically accurate description but wildly misleading.

   We open on a street under an abandoned Elevated line as Huntoon Cambourne, British-born chief of homicide in Chicago’s police department, is parking his car on the way to investigate a telephone message from patrolman Aert de Gelder: “S.O.T.! No. 633.” None but a Keeler Kop would have made such a cryptic report but Cambourne has had no trouble deciphering it. “For what could ‘S.O.T.’ stand for but ‘Same Old Thing’?” Clearly there’s been yet another homicide in the piano studio on the third floor of the warehouse building at 633 South Street.

   “Yes, the Straw Hat Murderer—killer of four pianists—must have struck again. Springing—the crazy fool!—across that 7-foot gap in the roofs, three stories up—to get to the single and only ingress that could bring him into the murder studio, the roof trap. Must have struck—unless, perchance, ‘S.O.T.’ stood for something like—like ‘Samuel O. Torber’—or ‘Saul O. Tabwith’—at 633 Wabash Avenue—or 633 Dearborn Street —or—

   “But if he had struck again, Cambourne reflected, leaving the car, had he again left behind him the straw hat which, apparently, he wore, or carried, to every killing, rain, snow, shine, or sun? And had he, as in the last four cases, contemptuously, triumphantly, dropped his usual $20 goldpiece into the repository of the blind, deaf beggar around the corner, to mark his own flight to the [nearby railroad] depot? And thus make evident to the police the sheer futility of search for him? This latter being a theory, only, of Cambourne’s.”

   The building is owned by Max Goldfarb, who runs a secondhand office furniture store across the street as had his father Emmanuel and his grandfather Abraham before him. Emmanuel had bricked up the front entrance and all the front windows of the warehouse so that the only way in is via the back door, which is secured by an impenetrable lock. His will had specified that the room on the third floor must be preserved as is, complete with the $3000 grand piano on which after his wife’s death he had played the songs she had loved, so Max had advertised in Chicago’s foreign-language newspapers that the studio could be rented cheaply by piano students.

   Even after his tenants began getting knocked off—Robert Hordon and Charles Amodie stabbed in the back, Gustav Einhorn shot at point blank range, Louise Wanstreet strangled, and a straw hat of a different size and style found near each corpse—Max kept the killer’s apparent method of entry unsecured because under the fire laws he’ll be fined $1000 and sentenced to a year in jail if he nails up the roof trap. We learn all this and more, including the fact that a new $20 gold piece has been dropped into the receptacle of blind and deaf Piggy Bank Pete, before Cambourne clambers over the rooftops in imitation of what he takes to be the killer’s modus operandi and discovers that the fifth tenant, Elftherios Paleogus, has become the fifth victim—and that a fifth straw hat is in the murder room. When he can’t solve the crime, Cambourne is fired and returns to England where he rises to high position at Scotland Yard.

   All this happens in the first 72 pages of typescript, and only then do we learn that those pages did not take place in the present, as until this point we had every reason to assume, but twenty years in the past; which means, considering the date of the book’s composition, around 1938. Careful readers will note that in his efforts to fool us Harry didn’t play quite fair: the European conflict of 1914-18 was never referred to as World War I until, at the very earliest, the outbreak of World War II!

   Chapters 15 through 18 propel us forward ten years, roughly to 1948. A man in blue spectacles, who has no connection with the hero of Keeler’s classic The Spectacles of Mr. Cagloostro but used to be a world champion standing leaper with the nickname of The Human Frog, spends $20 on a long-distance phone call from Chicago to Cambourne’s office at Scotland Yard and claims to be the Straw Hat killer. The caller’s name is Steward Pann but the manuscript shows that originally it had been Peter Pann. Imagine Harry changing a character’s name because he thought it was too bizarre! The final chapters take place yet another decade later.

   In an endless conversation at London’s Carlton Club with his childhood friend Guy Standidge, who’s spent most of his life in faraway Kenya, Cambourne explains the true solution of the Straw Hat murders, which kulminates in the kind of Koindydink that Harry’s fans have come to love him for.

   Keeler does slip up here and there on points of motivation and motiving—how the murderer got hold of all his weapons is disposed of in a few perfunctory and speculative lines—but blesses us with some fine specimens of eccentric prose, two of which are worth singling out. He describes a multi-deck parking structure as “[o]ne of those places…where cars wind up and up and around—for 3 stories up sometimes—with white concrete ramps that look like strands of giant spaghetti….” Later he evokes a classical pianist at practice. “[T]he majesty—the very staccato trippery of his playing, here and there, showed that his whole ten fingertips must have been virtually little lambs, gamboling, playing hop, skip and jump—dancing the light fantastic, upon a green consisting of monotonous oblongs that formed a keyboard….”

   The Straw Hat Murders is the only Keeler title I can recall in which a family of Jews figures prominently. If one were to judge solely by the portrayal of Max Goldfarb—“dark and swarthy, with a huge beak of a nose and glittering black eyes” and “unusually thick lips”—it would take a Johnnie Cockroach to get Keeler acquitted of anti-Semitism. But precisely because the plot seems to require one stereotypical Jewish character of the worst sort, Harry goes out of his way to emphasize that the rest of the Goldfarbs are (living or dead) saints. “Max, your father…was, from all I hear, the finest old man this block ever had….You, Max, are greedy—self-seeking, and, in some ways, a murderer.”

   Late in the book Cambourne makes it clear to his pal Standidge that Max’s little daughter Rose from the early chapters, now grown up and married to a man named Yudelson, rivals her grandfather in wonderfulness. And at the climax Keeler even makes a stab at explaining anti-Semitism. “All hatreds of the Jewish race, Guy, stem out of the fact that one Jew has injured the hater sometime in the past. Then the whole race gets hated—by the victim.” I can’t help suspecting that STRAW HAT was never published in Franco’s fascist Spain precisely because all but one Jewish character was so admirable.

   Late in life Harry seems to have developed a genius for choosing the road through the yellow wood that no one in his right mind would travel by. His stabs at s-f and the police procedural are wacky to the max, and when he fiddled with serious issues like anti-Semitism he left himself wide open to misinterpretation. But then, if the novels he wrote in his last years had been conventionally acceptable, he wouldn’t have been our Harry. In The Straw Hat Murders he was quintessentially himself.

***

   Bill Pronzini would doubtless have called The Straw Hat Murders an alternative classic, but it’s most unlikely to appeal to admirers of, say, the Scudder novels of Lawrence Block. Still the question remains to be asked: If what I’ve written has piqued your curiosity, where might you obtain a copy? For the answer I can only refer you to that friend of all book lovers everywhere, Radhakrishnan Google. Good luck and happy holidays!

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


   This month I deal with the second and third of Lawrence Block’s novels about unlicensed PI Matt Scudder, but where I should begin presents a quandary because the print and Web sources I’ve consulted disagree as to which book is which. Apparently the one Block wrote right after THE SINS OF THE FATHERS was published a few months after the third book in the series. Decisions, decisions. I choose to cover them in the order in which they were written.

***

   The source of the title TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE (Dell #8701, paperback original, 1977) is a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which makes it the only one of the first three Scudders with a title not derived from a religious text. But it’s also the only one of the trio which is introduced by a motto, and this comes from a religious source.

   The version Block uses is too long to quote here, but it comes from the Talmud, specifically from the tractate SANHEDRIN, 4:5. A more succinct version of the first half of the passage — “Who kills one man kills the whole world” — -is found in a diary Cornell Woolrich left behind after his death. The second half of the quotation is also Talmudic — “Who saves one life saves the whole world” or, as it’s given in SCHINDLER’S LIST, “He who saves the life of one man saves the entire world” — but no one in Block’s novel brings up that line which, as we’ll see, is supremely relevant.

   If we know that this third Scudder novel in order of publication was the second in order of writing, its connections with THE SINS OF THE FATHERS stand out. Scudder of course still tithes, and visits churches when he needs to think, and keeps a Lives of the Saints book in his hotel room, although this time he doesn’t tell us any stories from it. Looking forward to the novel that in fact was published before this one, we find briefly mentioned a special prosecutor looking into police corruption, a subject that would be (was?) central in the third Scudder, which appeared on newsstands before the second.

   As usual in the novels from the time where Block’s protagonist is a practicing alcoholic, we begin in a bar. Scudder is approached by a small-time information peddler known as the Spinner who has come into big money thanks to blackmailing several wealthy people with dark pasts but has also become afraid that one of his marks is out to kill him.

   For a $320 fee (the price of the elegant suit the blackmailer is wearing) Scudder agrees to hold the envelope containing Spinner’s evidence against his victims and, if his client is indeed rubbed out, to open the envelope and identify and punish the murderer without exposing the victims who had meekly submitted to extortion. About two months later the Spinner is found dead in the East River with his skull crushed.

   Scudder opens the envelope, finds out who his suspects are and what they did, and comes into each of their lives, claiming to be carrying on Spinner’s blackmail, hoping that one of them will try to kill him as Spinner was killed. Unlike THE SINS OF THE FATHERS, the situation this time is filled with suspense and menace and violence that are integral to the plot.

   In due course Scudder identifies the person responsible for Spinner’s murder but again exacts his own form of punishment rather than turning the person over to the law. Perhaps he would have accomplished nothing if he had gone to the police since, as Block specifically mentions, the morally responsible party had done no more than what Henry II did when, at the height of his feud with Thomas à Becket, he is said to have cried out: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” (The line doesn’t come from T.S. Eliot’s 1932 play MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL, in which Henry doesn’t even appear as a character, but it is found in Jean Anouilh’s 1959 play BECKET which was the basis of the 1964 movie of the same name starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.)

   What compounds the irony is that Scudder himself earlier in the novel has done something similar, inadvertently driving an innocent suspect to suicide by demanding more blackmail money. “His finger had pulled the trigger, but I’d put the gun in his hand by playing my game a little too well.”

   Scudder also killed a hit man — in self-defense, in a vividly described mano a mano — but in the final chapter, admittedly employing guesswork, he shows another of the innocent suspects that his killing the man probably saved two other lives. Now we see the relevance of the part of the Talmudic passage Block did not quote. Could he have thought that bringing it up would have made the book too morally ambivalent? “Who takes a life saves two whole worlds” doesn’t sound terribly Talmudic.

   The part of the Talmud passage Block does quote carries forward the theme in THE SINS OF THE FATHERS that the worst deed of all is murder.

   But there is a difference between murder and other crimes, and the world is a worse place for the murderers it allows to walk unpunished.

   “You think human life is sacred, then?”

   “I don’t know if I believe that anything is sacred….I don’t know if human life is sacred. I just don’t like murder….”

***

   IN THE MIDST OF DEATH (Dell #4037, paperback, 1976) has no introductory motto but resembles THE SINS OF THE FATHERS in that the source of its title is religious, specifically a line from the burial service of the Book of Common Prayer: “In the midst of life we are in death.”

   In the body of this novel, however. there are very few religious allusions. Scudder becomes involved when a plainclothes cop unaccountably decides to turn Serpico and reveal everything he knows about corruption in the NYPD to the special prosecutor who was mentioned casually in TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE. Then a high-priced hooker comes forward and publicly accuses the cop of having extorted $100 a week from her for a long time. Soon after Scudder enters the case on the cop’s side, the hooker is found murdered in the whistleblower’s secret apartment in Greenwich Village, with the police determined to pin the crime on the traitor who was exposing their dirty secrets.

   This time there’s no onstage violence, and Scudder stays pretty much within the law except for a brief scene where, after having sex with his client’s wife, he breaks into the secret apartment and spends the night sleeping in the cop’s pajamas.

   As in THE SINS OF THE FATHERS, Scudder is asked about his drinking, and his answer this time is more ambivalent.

   “Are you an alcoholic?”

   “Well, what is an alcoholic? I suppose I drink enough to qualify. It doesn’t keep me from functioning. Yet. I suppose it will eventually.”

   But in this novel we get to see Scudder too drunk to function, and at the end he at least is thinking about cutting back on the booze. But his view of murder remains, shall we say, Talmudic.

   “[M]urder is different. Taking a human life, that’s something completely different….Nobody should ever be allowed to get away with that.”

   And his view of human nature is as bleak as ever.

   “Everybody’s weird….Sometimes it’s a sexual thing, sometimes it’s a different kind of weirdness, but one way or another everybody’s nuts. You, me, the whole world.”

   That’s not Scudder speaking but it surely represents his thinking.

***

   TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE, my favorite among the first three Scudders, was nominated for an Edgar award as best paperback mystery of the year. In light of that fact plus Block’s towering reputation today, it’s hard to believe that the three did not sell well. But they didn’t, and Scudder lay dormant until early in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, when Block resurrected him in two more novels, this time for a hardcover publisher (Arbor House), after which he again let his character lapse. The fourth and fifth Scudders will be covered next month.

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


   Let’s pretend we’re playing Jeopardy!, shall we? The category is Mystery Writers. Here’s the clue. This well-known crime novelist’s first short story appeared in January 1958, when he was nineteen, and today, more than sixty years later, he’s still active.

   The question, as every reader of this column should know, is: Who is Lawrence Block? In the PI world, which is all we’re concerned with here, his main claim to fame is the New York-based eye-without-a-license Matthew Scudder. Over the decades I reviewed many of the Scudder novels for the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat,but I’ve never covered the first three in the series. Isn’t it about time I did?

***

   At the beginning of The Sins of the Fathers (Dell pb #7991, 1976), Scudder is in a bar, meeting what, if he were licensed, we could call a potential client, a moneyed entrepreneur from upstate New York whose estranged daughter was recently slashed to death with a razor in the West Village. According to all the evidence the murderer was the young man with whom she shared a Bethune Street apartment, a minister’s son, who came out onto the street covered in her blood and confessed to the crime before hanging himself in his jail cell.

   The dead woman’s father, apparently on some sort of guilt trip, hires Scudder to find out more about the last years of her life. We then follow the unlicensed eye as he methodically gathers information, learning much about various people whose lives touched one or the other of the youthful dead. Finally he connects the dots to form a picture radically at odds with what seems to have happened.

   “The Scudder series was conceived as a series and contracted for as a series,” Block told interviewer Ernie Bulow, adding that the first three novels about the character were written “in ’74 or ’75—or maybe they were all in ’74, I’m not sure.” Ross Macdonald was still alive at the time but near the end of his career, and Dell, the original publisher of the series, promoted Block’s protagonist as “New York’s answer to Lew Archer.”

   The comparison makes some sense. Both Macdonald in his later novels and Block in his first Scudder novel deal centrally with dysfunctional families, and both the early Scudder and the late Archer are in some sense psychiatrists manqués. But as we follow Scudder’s information-gathering we’re also reminded of Hammett, especially of the longer Continental Op stories like “The Girl with the Silver Eyes.”

   There is, however, a huge difference. The Op’s step-by-step investigations tend to morph into violent action scenes whereas, at least in The Sins of the Fathers , there’s no shadowy “player on the other side” determined to prevent the protagonist from learning the truth and therefore no violence, except for the scene in Chapter 12 where Scudder momentarily becomes a Mike Hammer figure, breaking the fingers of a teen-age mugger’s right hand.

   The scene is irrelevant to the plot and may have been inserted simply because Block or the publisher decided there had to be violence somewhere in the book.

   That would explain the violence but wouldn’t account for the pervasive element that makes The Sins of the Fathers all but unique in PI fiction: religion. The title comes from a number of Biblical verses—Deuteronomy 5:9-10, Exodus 20:5-6, Numbers 14:18—on the theme that the fathers’ sins are visited upon the children.

   Then in the book’s first paragraph we find: “[T]he full effect of his face was as a blank stone tablet waiting for someone to scratch commandments on it.” In the same scene Scudder reminds us that “Cain said he wasn’t Abel’s keeper” and proceeds to explain to his potential client why he quit the NYPD after fifteen years.

   “I lost the faith.”

   “Like a priest?”

   “Something like that.”

   As he explains a few pages later, his quitting had nothing to do with religion:

   “I was off duty one night in the summer. I was in a bar in Washington Heights where cops didn’t have to pay for their drinks. Two kids held up the place. On their way out they shot the bartender in the heart. I chased them into the street. I shot one of them dead and caught the other in the thigh….One shot went wide and ricocheted. It caught a seven-year-old girl in the eye…and it went right on into her brain. They tell me she died instantly….Then I resigned. I just didn’t want to be a cop anymore.”

   Why then did Block throw in that religious reference? Obviously because it was meaningful to him.

   At the end of the chapter Scudder shares with us one of the habits he picked up since leaving the force: ;

   I tithe. I don’t know why. It’s become a habit, as indeed it has become my habit to visit churches….

   I like churches. I like to sit in them when I have things to think about….

   The Catholics get more of my money than anybody else. Not that I’m partial to them, but because they put in longer hours….

   Later, when he interviews the minister who was the dead boy’s father, their dialogue is filled with religious allusions:

   “Are you a Christian, Mr. Scudder?”

   “No.”

   “A Jew?”

   “I have no religion.”

   “How sad for you….Do you believe in good and evil, Mr. Scudder?”

   “Yes, I do.”

   “Do you believe that there is a such a thing as evil extant in the world?”

   “I know there is.”

   “So do I….It would be difficult to believe otherwise, whatever one’s religious outlook. A glance at a daily newspaper provides enough evidence of the existence of evil.”

   In Chapter 14, near the end of the novel, Scudder picks up a Lives of the Saints book he keeps in his hotel room—name one other PI in fiction who’d be likely to have that sort of volume handy!—and recounts for us the story of St. Maria Goretti, who chose to be stabbed to death rather than submit to rape, and of her killer who after 27 years in prison knelt beside the girl’s mother to receive Communion. “I always find something interesting in that book,” he says, although its relevance to the plot remains, dare I say it, a mystery.

    Just one page later, sipping bourbon-laced coffee in a bar, he reflects on the start of the chain of events he’s become involved in. “Maybe it was Eve’s fault, messing around with apples. Dangerous thing, giving humanity the knowledge of good and evil….” In Chapter 15, just before exposing the murderer, he tells the story of the akedah, Abraham’s obedience to God’s demand that he offer his only son Isaac as a human sacrifice, an allusion that is definitely relevant. And, just before the end of the novel, Scudder tells his adversary, whose suicide he’s about to enable, that he regards suicide as a sin:

   “….If I didn’t I probably would have killed myself years ago. There are worse sins.”

   “Murder?”

   “That’s one of them.”

   For one who has no religion, Scudder certainly has a lot to say about the subject. The religious dimension is less important in the later novels about him, although he continues his tithing habit and also makes a practice of attending the so-called Butchers’ Mass with his friend the stone killer Mick Ballou.

   But religion is only one fascinating aspect of The Sins of the Fathers . Another is alcohol. Clearly Scudder has a drinking problem, precipitated by the same incident that caused him to leave the NYPD and his wife and young sons and burrow into a shell. But he’s not an alcoholic. We have his word for it:

   “When did you ever see me drunk?”

   “Never. And I never saw you when you weren’t drinking.”

   “It’s a nice middle ground.”

   Eventually he’ll identify as an alcoholic and join AA, which figures as prominently in some later Scudders as religion does in this one.

   And there’s yet a third recurring theme: vigilantism. In Chapter 14, right after telling us about Maria Goretti, Scudder is discussing his present case with Trina, his barmaid buddy and casual sex partner, when he suddenly changes the subject to a crime he’d investigated back in his days as a cop, the rape and brutal murder of a 20-year-old woman.

   Scudder and his partner knew instinctively who was guilty but he’d covered himself too well. “…[W]e knew he did it, see, and it was driving us crazy.” Scudder’s partner wanted to “kill him and set him in cement and drop him somewhere in the Hudson.” Scudder, however, “thought of something better.” He framed the murderer as a major heroin dealer and had him put away for 10 to 20 years. In the third year of his sentence “he got in a grudge fight with another inmate and got stabbed to death.”

   Instantly, if we know our Cornell Woolrich, we’re reminded of one of his darkest Noir Cop stories, “Three Kills for One” (Black Mask, July 1942; collected in Night and Fear, 2004). Whether Block was familiar with this story remains unknown but, if he wasn’t, he reinvented it, especially in his Edgar-winning story “By the Dawn’s Early Light” (Playboy, August 1984; collected in Some Days You Get the Bear, 1993), which he later expanded into the Scudder novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986).

   Far more often than most other private eyes, except of course for Mike Hammer and his pedissequi (which means followers in another’s footsteps. God how I love that word!), Scudder goes outside the law to obtain justice or revenge or closure or whatever you want to call it. In some of the later Scudder novels we find Block turning handsprings as he works out new ways for his protagonist to exact private vengeance. William Ruehlmann’s Saint with a Gun came out in 1974, two years or so before Scudder’s debut, but if the book had been published in the late Seventies or the Eighties it would certainly have taken account of Block’s protagonist as one of the more serious specimens of what Ruehlmann called “the unlawful American private eye.”

***

   I was planning to cover all three of the earliest Scudders in a single column but, having gotten carried away by the first, I’ll need to reserve the other two for next month. Please join me then. And if you’re going to the Bouchercon in Dallas, feel free to say hello to me. I’ll be the old bum with the cane.

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


   I believe I saw him once, in a New York bar. It must have been in the bar of whatever hotel the Mystery Writers of America annual dinner was being held that year, back in the early 1970s. I had read a number of his novels and recognized him from the photographs I’d seen. He would have been near eighty by then. He had been named a Grand Master by MWA and I was a shy newbie in the genre. I didn’t have the chutzpah to introduce myself to him. My loss. He died a few years later.

***

   Philadelphia-born Baynard Kendrick (1894-1977) might have made it into the history books as a footnote if he’d never written a word. In 1914, within an hour after England entered World War I, he had enlisted in the Canadian army, the first American to sign up for the war his country entered three years later.

   It was during the war that he met a blinded English soldier who, after fingering Kendrick’s uniform and decorations, was able to tell him his entire service history. This incident apparently triggered his lifelong interest in the abilities and challenges of the blind. After the war he worked in management at a New York hotel but was fired in the grim Depression year of 1931, a week before Christmas, and swore never again to be subject to a boss. That was the beginning of his long life as a professional writer.

   What if anything he sold at the start of his new career remains unknown. The invaluable FictionMags Index website lists his earliest published short story as appearing in Liberty magazine in 1934. The same year saw publication of his debut novel, BLOOD ON LAKE LOUISA, which was set in rural Florida. His first novels with a continuing character were THE IRON SPIDERS and THE ELEVEN OF DIAMONDS, both published in 1936 and featuring Florida deputy sheriff Miles Standish Rice, who between 1937 and 1940 also appeared in more than a dozen stories Kendrick sold to Black Mask. Early in his career Florida was already a second home to him.

   In THE LAST EXPRESS (1937), his fourth novel and his first for Doubleday Crime Clu, he changed settings and made his mark in the history of his genre by creating the first American blind detective. After losing his sight in World War I, Captain Duncan Maclain set out to develop his other senses so as to more than compensate for his inability to see.

   With the help of his partner Spud Savage and Spud’s wife Rena and the German shepherd Seeing Eye dogs Schnucke and Dreist, he’d become New York’s leading private investigator, working out of a lavish air-conditioned penthouse at the corner of 72nd Street and Riverside Drive, a residence equipped with all sorts of devices, including a meticulously detailed Braille map of the city, without which he couldn’t function.

   In this book he’s consulted by lovely Evelyn Zarinka, who’s worried about the strange recent behavior of her brother Paul, an Assistant District Attorney. And well may she worry: on the night she talks with Maclain, Paul is blown up in his car, along with two caged white mice he was unaccountably carrying in the back seat, leaving the sort of Dying Message we tend to associate with Ellery Queen.

   As transcribed and heard by Maclain and printed by Kendrick, the message is: “Sea Beach Subway—the last express!” Paul’s major project at the time of his death was a murder he was trying to pin on nightclub owner Benny Hoefle, a sinister character who never appears onstage in this novel.

   The second murder takes place about 24 hours after the first. The scene is Hoefle’s club in Greenwich Village, which Maclain and District Attorney Claude Dearborn visit after receiving an anonymous tip that club singer Amy Arden has information about the bombing. Arden takes a seat at the investigators’ table and accuses a city engineer whose wife was having an affair with Paul but quickly passes out from the effects of (as Kendrick spells it) marihuana.

   The DA leaves the club in search of a doctor. While the club is in near darkness during a wild dance routine, Arden is stabbed to death within a couple of feet of our blind sleuth whose so carefully trained other senses fail to alert him to what has happened. The engineer Arden accused happens to be in the club at the time, as are Evelyn Zarinka and her fiancé, wealthy Charles Hartshorn, who happens to come over to Maclain’s table and discovers the murder. When several other club patrons claim they saw Hartshorn wielding the knife, the poor schnook is hauled off to the Tombs.

   The next day Maclain starts investigating the Sea Beach subway, apparently a genuine line in Brooklyn. Learning of a long sealed-up tunnel under that borough’s Atlantic Avenue, he speculates that Paul Zarinka might have hid something there and determines to find a way in. He and his entourage are followed to Brooklyn by Madonna, a Wilmer Cook type who starts a fire designed to kill Maclain and the DA and the municipal engineer while they’re hunting for a secret entrance.

   This not-bad thriller sequence turns out to be a red herring since Maclain has chosen the wrong tunnel, and it isn’t until he reinterprets the dying message that the truth begins to emerge. The penthouse climax pits Maclain and his trained police dog Dreist against Madonna and the real murderer, a minor character to say the least.

   As I’ve unsubtly suggested, there are a few problems with THE LAST EXPRESS. The plot is rather loose, the characters (except for Maclain and, to a lesser extent, Madonna) not all that vivid, the writing no better than serviceable. And I’m not sure I trust Maclain when he says that “a marihuana smoker, under the influence, will almost unconsciously obey a suggestion….” or that a single puff of weed is enough to knock a smoker out.

   Among the elements I found most rewarding are the evocation of underground New York with its labyrinth of tunnels, the historical material on the earliest abortive stabs at building a city subway system, and the portrait of the technology available in 1937 to help a blind person function like one with sight.

   Someone in Hollywood seems to have been more impressed by the novel than I since Universal Pictures bought the movie rights soon after publication. But those who made THE LAST EXPRESS (1938)—primarily director Otis Garrett and screenwriter Edmund L. Hartmann—had so little regard for what Kendrick had written that they turned Maclain (Kent Taylor) into a sleuth who could see!

   Also it seems that neither Paul Zarinka nor Amy Arden are killed, the name of the Wilmer Cook avatar morphs from Madonna to Pinky—can’t offend the Legion of Decency, can we?—and Hoefle who was completely offstage in the novel gets a speaking part. A few sentences I’ve adapted from the summary prepared by Les Adams for the Internet Movie Database show how radically the movie’s plot diverges from Kendrick’s.

   Underworld boss Frank Hoefle (Addison Richards) has evidence against him stolen by his henchman Pinky (Henry Brandon) from the DA’s office but it’s then stolen from Pinky and the thief demands $300,000 ransom for its return. Hoefle hires Maclain to put the money in a subway-station locker as the thief demanded, but pickpocket Eddie Miller (John “Skins” Miller) lifts the key.

   Maclain follows Miller to an apartment house but Miller sends the key up a dumbwaiter shaft. Eventually Maclain finds a 1914 newspaper story that explains the plot to him. Adams mentions that much of the film’s subway footage was recycled in Universal’s 1942 serial GANG BUSTERS, which as chance would have it also starred Kent Taylor.

***

   Later in 1937 Kendrick returned Maclain to action. Most of THE WHISTLING HANGMAN takes place in Doncaster House, “a collection of beautiful homes housed in a single building” or, more prosaically, a luxurious 480-room apartment hotel on Manhattan’s East 54th Street. Dryden Winslow, an American entrepreneur who’s spent the past twenty years in Australia amassing a fortune but has come home to reunite with the family he abandoned and die, reserves several apartments in Doncaster House—for himself, his son, his daughter, the two maiden aunts who have raised his children, and a niece and nephew from England—at a total cost of, I am not making this up, $130 a day.

   His own suite consists of “a 40-foot living room encompassed on three sides by a balcony,” opening from which are “two bedrooms, a dining-room, and a kitchenette.” Outside the French windows is a huge flagstone terrace. Residing across the corridor from this suite are a weirdo psychoanalyst and Winslow’s soon to be son-in-law. (Whoever drew the sketch of the 15th floor for the Dell mapback edition carelessly flipflopped these characters’ abodes.)

   On the evening of his arrival, Winslow orders a Gideon Bible delivered to his apartment. A few hours later, while talking with the daughter he hadn’t seen since she was a baby, he unaccountably steps out onto the terrace and the daughter hears a strange whistling sound. A few seconds later Winslow is found on a terrace nine floors below with his neck broken. At the request of his friend the hotel manager, with whom he was playing chess at the time of Winslow’s death, Maclain takes a hand in the investigation and, examining the body, quickly concludes that Winslow was hanged.

   That, together with the sound his daughter heard, gives the book its title, probably the most evocative of any Maclain novel. In due course, as usual in Kendrick, there’s a second murder: a hotel maid who saw too much is flung off the interior balcony of the suite next to Winslow’s as if by invisible hands and is found on the floor below with her neck broken as Winslow’s was.

   This book I enjoyed rather more than THE LAST EXPRESS. The plot is tighter, the reader is given ample clues, the setting is vividly drawn—thanks no doubt to Kendrick’s years in hotel management—and the Bizarre Murder Method is not too outlandish. I was fascinated by the glimpses of the machinery in a top-of-the-line 1937 hotel, ranging from a building-wide vacuum cleaner system to an ultra-modern kitchen refrigerator with its motor on top—both items figuring neatly in the plot.

   On the negative side, too much of the plot hinges on the seriously mistaken legal assumption that a man can write a valid will completely disinheriting his wife. Certainly no man can do this today, and I doubt he could do it in 1937 even if, as is the case here, the issue is governed not by US but by Australian law.

   Over the years I’ve caught Kendrick in other legal blunders, but he’s certainly not the only well-known mystery writer of his time who made up his own law as he went along. Ever read a Cornell Woolrich story with a legal component?

***

   Whether Kendrick was discouraged from immediately continuing with his character by that terrible Maclain movie remains unknown. In any event he returned to Miles Standish Rice and a rural Florida setting with his sixth novel, DEATH BEYOND THE GO-THRU (1938). Fred Dannay told me years ago that Kendrick followed this by writing Leslie Charteris’ THE SAINT IN MIAMI (1940), which is dedicated to its ghost.

   Then he switched publishers from Doubleday to Little Brown (and later to Morrow) and brought back Maclain, who is featured in all his novels from THE ODOR OF VIOLETS (1941) to OUT OF CONTROL (1945). During the war years THE ODOR OF VIOLETS was filmed as EYES IN THE NIGHT (MGM, 1942), directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Edward Arnold (star of the first Nero Wolfe movie back in 1936), who was a tad overweight for the part of Maclain but at least was allowed to play the character blind.

   In 1945 Kendrick became a founding member of Mystery Writers of America, Inc., holding Card #1 and serving as its first president. That he published so few books during the World War II years is probably accounted for by his work rehabilitating blinded veterans of the war, the fruit of his own experience during WWI.

   During the second half of the 1940s he abandoned mystery fiction for mainstream novels including one—LIGHTS OUT (1945), which was filmed as BRIGHT VICTORY (1951)—dealing with blinded vets. Then he came back to whodunits and published six more Maclain novels, from YOU DIE TODAY! (1952) to FRANKINCENSE AND MURDER (1961), but the ones I’ve read from that period struck me as cluttered and confused. He was named a Grand Master by MWA in 1967.

   A few years later a much more youthful and dynamic version of Maclain came to America’s TV screens in the person of LONGSTREET (ABC, 1971-72), starring James Franciscus as a blind insurance investigator. For what reason I haven’t the foggiest, but Kendrick’s character was acknowledged as the inspiration for the series, and at least five Maclain novels were reprinted by Lancer Books as tie-in items.

   If I had been casting the lead role and wanted an actor who at least to some extent resembled the Maclain of the novels, instead of Franciscus or anyone like him I would have opted for that mainstay of TV’s first few decades, John Dehner.

   Brief as it was, the LONGSTREET series was Kendrick’s last interaction with the visual media. At some point in his career he had moved permanently to Florida, where he died on March 27, 1977. His papers are archived at Florida State University in Tampa. How I wish I had ordered a double chutzpah straight up, that long-ago night in that New York bar when I had a chance to talk with him and blew it!

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


   THE VIRGIN KILLS (1932) was Whitfield’s third and final crime novel under his own byline and a sad comedown after his first two. Our narrator, sports columnist Al Connors, is invited to join a party on the yacht of shady gambler Eric Vennell (the “Virgin” of the title) as it makes its way up the Hudson from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie where the annual inter-university boat races are held.

   Accompanying Connors is Mick O’Rourke, a scar-faced Victor McLaglen type, who’s bodyguarded several top gangsters and has been recruited by Connors to perform the same function for Vennell, who claims he’s been threatened by racketeers after his investment firm lost a pile of their money on the stock market. Also on board the Virgin are a movie star, a bitchy female writer, a Lindberghesque aviator and some others.

   Not much happens until the big race, which the odds-on favorite California crew loses to Columbia thanks to its stroke—“the most important of the oarsmen”—collapsing and dying just before his crew’s “shell” reaches the finish line. An autopsy establishes that, either before or during the race, someone with a hypodermic needle had injected the victim under his left shoulder blade with a fatal dose of morphine.

   Not long afterwards, Vennell is found murdered in his cabin aboard the Virgin. The rest of the book is padded with endless speculations by the narrator, a Poughkeepsie cop and a Philo Vance type hired by the dead oarsman’s family. “He’s suave and very cold and superior….He’s the kind you read about in the books whose writers go in for annotations and such stuff.”

   Luckily for us, this character talks just like all the others in the book, making no attempt to ape that insufferable twit created by S. S. Van Dine. Eventually some movie footage of the race, shot from an airplane, comes to light and the murderer obligingly confesses everything. Since every moment of the action takes place on board the yacht, one might easily believe that the novel was originally intended as a stage play, with interpolated film footage at the climax.

   Whitfield is reported to have helped Hammett construct some of his plots, but I find this rumor hard to swallow considering how in THE VIRGIN KILLS he bungled some crucial physical details. At one point the Poughkeepsie cop asks: “Number Seven [the prime suspect among the California oarsmen] is right ahead of the stroke in a shell, isn’t he?” To which the captain of the Virgin replies: “He sure is.” This is confirmed by our Philo Vance stand-in, who tells us that Number Seven “was directly in front of [the morphine victim]—that is, ahead of him.”

   In that case, Number Seven would have had to reach behind him with one hand to puncture the victim, while rowing at full speed with the other. What an athlete! A page or so later Whitfield seems to have realized his blunder when he has the ersatz Vance character state that Number Seven’s “face was to [the victim’s] back….,” but he doesn’t bother to correct the earlier dialogue. We have to give Whitfield some credit for using “human” when he means “person” only a few times, but we must yank it back when he tells us over and over that the oarsman murdered during the race was “morphined.” If a different poison had been used, would we have been told that the poor guy had been arsenicked or strychnined to death?

   Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of THE VIRGIN KILLS is that the California crew’s physician happens to be named Doc Vollmer, which is also the name of the West 35th Street medico who is called in whenever a body turns up on or near the premises of Nero Wolfe. Either Rex Stout read this misfire of a mystery, and remembered, or we are faced with a full-blown Keeler Koinkydink.

***

   In 1933 Raoul and Prudence Whitfield were divorced. Did her long term affair with Hammett have something to do with the breakup? Hardly had the decree become final when Raoul married again, this time into the Vanderbilt family, and more or less retired from the words game. I have a sneaking suspicion that Hammett was tweaking Whitfield’s nose a bit when, early in THE THIN MAN (1934), he had Nick Charles say that he quit the PI game when his wife Nora inherited a fortune.

   Unlike Nick’s marriage, Raoul’s didn’t last long. Emily Whitfield filed for divorce in February 1935 but shot herself to death a few months later in their New Mexico ranch house, a chain of events on which Walter Satterthwait based his novel DEAD HORSE (2007). Thanks to her will, her estranged husband—who, being in California at the time, had a perfect alibi—morphed into a sudden millionaire.

   From then on he lived the high life and drank whiskey as if it were water. Eventually he married a third and much younger woman, a local barmaid who, in 1943, also killed herself. By this time Raoul had run through Emily’s Vanderbilt money and contracted tuberculosis, which took his life in January 1945.

***

   None of Whitfield’s three crime novels under his own name was reprinted in paperback during his lifetime. GREEN ICE appeared in softcover not long after his death (Avon Murder Mystery Monthly #46, 1947, as THE GREEN ICE MURDERS) and reappeared in the 1980s, along with DEATH IN A BOWL and THE VIRGIN KILLS, in the Quill Mysterious Classics series edited by Otto Penzler. Whitfield’s debut novel was also reprinted in hardcover by Gregg Press (1980) and, more recently, by Mysterious Press (2014).

   Between 1930 and 1933 the Knopf firm published three other Whitfield titles (WWI and aviation books apparently aimed at the juvenile market) and the obscure Penn Publishing Company issued another air adventure, but these have never been revived and are near extinct, as are the two crime novels issued by Farrar & Rinehart under the pseudonym of Temple Field (FIVE, 1931, based on the 5-part Black Mask serial published between June and October 1929, and KILLERS’ CARNIVAL, 1932, taken from the 6-part Black Mask serial published between August 1931 and January 1932).

   Of his 300-odd shorter tales the most easily accessible are the cases of the Filipino sleuth Jo Gar, certainly Whitfield’s most important character and probably the first ethnic detective after Charlie Chan. The eighteen genuine short stories about him were collected in JO GAR’s CASEBOOK (Crippen & Landru, 2002) and are also available, along with the two Black Mask serials in which he stars —one in six installments, the other in two—in WEST OF GUAM (Altus Press, 2002, expanded edition 2013).

   Most of Whitfield’s short stories featuring other series characters like Ben Jardinn or no such character at all are available to you only if your shelves are piled high with issues of Black Mask . Prudence Whitfield, the only one of Raoul’s three wives to survive him, prevailed upon Fred Dannay to reprint that six-part Jo Gar serial in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (February-July 1949; originally in Black Mask, February-August 1931, with no installment in the June issue) and also three other tales (May 1948, November 1951, June 1953).

   I suspect it was also due to Prudence that editor Hans Stefan Santesson chose two more Whitfield stories for reprint in The Saint Detective Magazine (March and August 1956) and a third (March 1960) featuring Jo Gar. Not much of a showing when stacked up against the novels and stories of Hammett and Chandler, which have been reprinted on a regular basis for generations, but then Whitfield was never in their league.

   Still, a letter from him or a first edition of one of his scarcer books can command more than $3000 in the collectors’ market. Whether or not they’re worth that much, it can’t be denied that Raoul Whitfield remains of interest today to anyone who wants to understand the formative years of the literature we now call noir.


NOTE: Part One of this two-part profile of Raoul Whitfield can be found here.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

       Humans were still pouring into the Bowl.

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

       Humans were surging from the grass before the shell….

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

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

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

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

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

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


   TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONTH…

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


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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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


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


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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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


Next Page »