A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by James L. Traylor

W. T. BALLARD – Say Yes to Murder. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1942. Penguin #566, paperback, 1945. Also reprinted as The Demise of a Louse, as by John Shepherd, Belmont, paperback, 1962.

   W. T. Ballard was one of Joe Shaw’s second wave of Black Mask boys. His first Black Mask story, “A Little Different,” appeared in September 1933. It featured Bill Lennox, troubleshooter for the fictitious General Consolidated Studios. (Ballard himself had worked for First National Studios in the early 1930s.)

   Lennox was one of the most popular series characters in Black Mask, and appeared in twenty-seven stories between 1933 and 1942. He’s not a PI exactly, but he has that same hard-boiled ethos; his exploits have an appealing under-stated sense of immediacy.

   After writing short stories for about ten years, Ballard published Say Yes to Murder, the first of four Bill Lennox novels, and set the standard for the Hollywood murder mystery. Ballard’s gift for this type of story is his careful depiction of scene and his emphasis on character in a subgenre that usually does not rely on such realism.

   Ballard invented a cast of characters that later became almost cliches of the movie industry. Sol Spurck, the crusty head of General Consolidated Studios; Nancy Hobbs, Lennox’s long-suffering girlfriend; and cops named Spellman and Stobert who are not quite as condescending toward Lennox as the typical cops of the hard-boiled detective novel.

   In Say Yes to Murder, Lennox investigates the murder of Leon Heyworth, a drunken actor whom Lennox finds stabbed and lying under the bed of actress Jean Jeffries, granddaughter of Lennox’s old friend Mary Morris. Faithful to Spurck and the studio, Lennox, with the help of Jake Hertz, a studio minion, and an empty piano box, moves the body from Jean’s apartment, attempting to keep Mary Morris’s name out of the papers.

   Along with a superior sense of timing and scene, Ballard’s novel shows great intricacy in plotting. Here the vital clue to the solution of the mystery is identity. An the characters are in show business, with consequent multiple personas. Lennox’s primary task is wading through the maze of personalities. Ballard presents the murder as a problem of separating illusion from reality, a method quite effective in focusing Hollywood’s artificiality.

   Noted critic James Sandoe praised Lennox because “he doesn’t have to flex his biceps to prove that he’s strong.” Say Yes to Murder is a consistently rewarding hard-boiled novel.

   The other three Bill Lennox novels are also excellent Murder Can’t Stop (1946), Dealing Out Death (1948), and the paperback original Lights, Camera, Murder (1960, as by John Shepherd). Ballard was a close friend of fellow pulp writer Norbert Davis and coauthored one novel with him, Murder Picks the Jury (1947), under the joint pseudonym Harrison Hunt.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

NOTE: Previously reviewed on this blog are:

      Murder Can’t Stop.
      Lights, Camera, Murder.
      Hollywood Troubleshooter (a collection of Bill Lennox short stories)