Thu 10 May 2012
by Francis M. Nevins
During the last months of World War II the editors of Esquire decided to launch a series of short detective stories and invited various mystery writers to create new characters for possible publication in the magazine.
Among the invitees was Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), perhaps the nuttiest author on earth. Harry got miffed at the thought of being asked to “submit a sample like a guy with a tin cup” and demanded $100 in advance. He must have fallen on the floor in shock when Esquire immediately sent him a check, although the editors specified that the advance wasn’t a commitment to accept his submission.
Keeler proceeded to string together a 14,000-word adventure about a barking clock and an astigmatic witness, with a 7½-foot-tall mathematically educated hick from the sticks serving as detective. At first the character was named just that — Abner Hick to be precise — but before sending out the manuscript Keeler prudently changed his name to Quiribus Brown.
When Esquire rejected the story, Keeler yanked Quiribus out of the plot, replaced him with that bedraggled old universal genius Tuddleton T. Trotter (who had starred in Harry’s mammoth extravaganza The Matilda Hunter Murder back in 1931), and added 85,000 more words to the story.
His Spanish publisher Instituto Editorial Reus issued the result as El Caso del Reloj Ladrador (1947). Keeler’s U.S. publisher, the bottom-rung Phoenix Press, put out a shorter version that same year as The Case of the Barking Clock.
Since Phoenix dropped Keeler in 1948, leaving him without a U.S. publisher for the rest of his life, Quiribus never saw the light of print in his native land. But Harry made him the protagonist in The Case of the Murdered Mathematician, issued in 1949 by his London publisher Ward, Lock.
So what new detective was chosen to grace the pages of Esquire? A New York PI named Peter Chambers whose creator was Henry Kane, a lawyer and something of a Chandler wannabee. Chambers narrates his own cases in an idiom, known to connoisseurs as High Kanese, which is worlds removed from Keeler’s style but just as lovably eccentric.
The first six Chambers stories appeared in Esquire between March 1947 and June 1948 and were collected as Report for a Corpse (Simon & Schuster, 1948).
The timing was unfortunate in the sense that the book came out several months after Anthony Boucher was let go as reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle and before he became mystery critic of the New York Times. I’d love to know what Boucher thought of this volume, but it was his predecessor Isaac Anderson who reviewed the book in the Times.
I read the tales a few decades ago but had forgotten them completely when I started to reread them earlier this year. They’re more cleverly plotted than most PI stories during the years Chandler dominated the genre, but there’s nothing truly memorable about any of them and the narration is a pale shadow of what would soon become mature Kanese.
According to just about any print or electronic source you might check, Henry Kane was born in 1918 and is still alive. Apparently neither of these statements is true.
Lawrence Block had several conversations with Kane in the early 1970s and, while preparing a memoir of him for Mystery Scene, did some investigative work that was worthy of his own PI Matthew Scudder. An old girlfriend of Kane’s told Block that “he was most likely born not in 1918 but in 1908.” At least when Block knew him, he “lived on Long Island — Lido Beach, if memory serves — and spent Monday through Friday in an apartment on 34th Street west of Ninth Avenue.”
Block tells us that he “took his work seriously, and insisted that each page be perfectly typed before he went on to the next one.” He was of Jewish descent but told Block that he “didn’t believe in any of that mumbo-jumbo.”
His lifestyle was that of the stereotypical PI: a Dexedrine pill every morning, at least a quart of Scotch and a couple of packs of cigarettes a day. “It must have been sometime in the early ’80s that he died,” Block surmises.
Of the eleven Henry Kanes listed in the Social Security Death Index, the one who was born in 1908 and died in 1988 is most likely our man. I would love to have met him, though not necessarily in that smoke-choked apartment.
In his years as conductor of the “Criminals at Large” column for the Times, Anthony Boucher reviewed most of the Kane novels and collections, even though they were published in the unprestigious paperback-original format.
I still recall vividly the time he reviewed one of those novels twice. Its U.S. title was Too French and Too Deadly (Avon pb #672, 1955). In his Times column for December 18, 1955 he called the book “probably enjoyable; Peter Chambers stories are usually amusing, and this one is said to include ‘a locked room within a locked room.’
“But the publishers have chosen to crowd a full-length novel into 122 pages by squeezing 500 words onto a 4-inch by 6-inch page; and squinting one’s way through the book is too much to ask of a reviewer, a reader, or anyone save possibly a Lord’s-Prayer-on-Pinhead engraver.”
Apparently Kane then sent Boucher a copy of the hardcover British edition, The Narrowing Lust (Boardman, 1956). In his column for June 24, 1956, Boucher reported that “now that it’s legible, it’s also highly readable” and “includes an unusually impossible-seeming locked room problem. It’s a welcome blend of strict detective puzzle and crisp and sexy thriller….”
In my last column I quoted the late Fred Steiner, composer of the Perry Mason theme: “You look at those old film noir pictures, they’ve always got jazz going for some reason or other.”
Since then I’ve discovered that this seems to be a classic case of false memory. The point was demonstrated by David Butler in his book Jazz Noir: Listening to Music from Phantom Lady to The Last Seduction (Praeger, 2002) and confirmed by William Luhr in his just published Film Noir (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012):
“Although many neo-noir movies have used single-instrument jazz solos to evoke the film noir era, it is difficult to find a canonical film noir [i.e. one that dates from the Forties or Fifties] that opens in that way. Most used full orchestral scores, as was standard studio practice.”
It’s only in TV private-eye series like Peter Gunn that jazz became the norm. And, as Lawrence Block points out, the strongest uncredited influence on that landmark series was the novels and stories of Henry Kane — who wound up writing the Peter Gunn tie-in novel (Dell pb #B155, 1960)!
Is this a weird world or what? Luhr’s book is one of the few that discusses in depth both canonical noir and the more recent evocations of the genre, of which perhaps the finest is Chinatown (1974). I recommend it highly to anyone invested in that type of film. And aren’t we all?
Previously on this blog:
A Corpse for Christmas, by Henry Kane. Reviewed by Bill Deeck.
Trinity in Violence, by Henry Kane. A 1001 Midnights review by Art Scott.
The Midnight Man, by Henry Kane. A 1001 Midnights review by Bill Pronzini.
A Corpse for Christmas, by Henry Kane. Reviewed by Steve Lewis.
Until You Are Dead, by Henry Kane. Reviewed by Steve Lewis.
A long quote from the latter book is included as a big chunk of the review.