Columns


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.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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


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


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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “…as consanguine as two people can be.”

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

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

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

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

   “His soft tone seemed efforted….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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