CHRISTOPHER B. BOOTH – Mr. Clackworthy. Chelsea House, hardcover, 1926.

   What I know about Booth is that he was a prolific writer for the pulp magazines in the 1920s and 30s, with just under three and a half pages of entries in Cook and Miller’s Mystery, Detective, and Espionage Fiction. These are only the detective stories. On Bill Contento’s FictionMags site, I also see a smattering of western stories for him, and these are only the tip of the iceberg, as relatively few of the western magazines have been indexed yet.

   According to Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, Booth wrote ten novels under his own name, all from Chelsea House, and eight more as by John Jay Chichester, also all from Chelsea House. Also to his credit is one book on which he shared the writing duties, and that was with Isabel Ostrander, another long-time writer for the pulps.

   To point out that you can not always trust the Internet for factual information, some sites suggest that Christopher B. Booth was a pseudonym for Isabel Ostrander. Not so, even though Ostrander (who died in 1924) really was the lady behind ‘Robert Orr Chipperfield,’ ‘David Fox,’ and ‘Douglas Grant.’

   Chelsea House was the hardcover publishing arm of Street & Smith Publications, which also produced Detective Story Magazine, where most (all?) of the novels were serialized first.

   Or cobbled together out of short stories, as was the book at hand, Mr. Clackworthy. There are nine of them in this volume. Of the book which was the sequel to this one, Mr. Clackworthy, Con Man, I do not know if the same is true. Hubin in CFIV does not say yes, which may very well mean no. (I suspect the answer is yes, however.)

   Enough of the general background, I suppose. To get down to business, you should know first of all (or based on the second title, you may have already deduced) that Mr. Clackworthy was one of those protagonists so often on the wrong side of the law in the 1920s, a con man. I imagine someone could write a thesis if not a dissertation on such individuals in the world of crime fiction.

   Here is an off-the-wall question. What character in what novel(s) would qualify as the last in the line of such con men, preying mostly on the rich and unscrupulous, but not necessarily giving to the poor, of which Mr. Clackworthy does not make a general practice?

   I am not an expert, so nor will I even attempt to list any of the other characters who would fall into the category. If you can help, please do, otherwise we shall leave the matter to someone who needs a thesis if not a dissertation on their academic record. (Of course such a someone then would be also obliged to put into perspective WHY con men who preyed mostly on the rich and unscrupulous were so prevalent in the 1920s. One can guess, though.)

   As a start to such a project, it belatedly occurs to me, if you will allow such an interjection such as this, may be Yesterday’s Faces #3 : From the Dark Side, by Robert Sampson (Bowling Green Press, 1987), a rollicking account of all sorts of bad guys who inhabited the pages of the pulp magazines.

   And by the way, before it slips my mind and we head off into the review itself, I would like to point out that in the pages of Detective Story Magazine Mr. Clackworthy met another of that magazine’s regular characters, Johnston McCulley’s lisping pickpocket, Thubway Tham, on at least one occasion: “Mr. Clackworthy and Thubway Tham” (Detective Story Magazine, March 4, 1922). Even though Cook-Miller suggests that only Booth was the author, this may be the first team-up on record between two characters created first by two separate authors. (Does one count, however, Arsene Lupin Versus Holmlock Shears, by Maurice LeBlanc, Richards, 1909? One must posit some ground rules, one supposes.)

   Further investigation into the subject reveals another story of interest: “Thubway Tham and Mr. Clackworthy,” by Johnston McCulley (Detective Story Magazine, February 18, 1922, or two issues earlier). You can read this story in the recent edition of Tham thtories from Wildside Press, Tales of Thubway Tham, although in that edition the story is called “Thubway Tham Meets Mr. Clackworthy.”

   One source does suggest that the team-up was a three-part serial. This may be so, but if indeed it is, I have not yet uncovered a third tale in the triptych, and to this date, the matter rests, for now.

   Let’s get on with the review. The best way to do that, I decided the moment I started reading it, is to quote the opening paragraphs, right from the beginning:

   “The greed of the human heart!” Mr. Amos Clackworthy, confidence man deluxe, sighed as he laid down his newspaper, which was folded to the want ad pages. He had been for some time engrossed in an analytical perusal of the “Business Chances” column.

   James Early, whose record at police headquarters credited him with the alias of “The Early Bird,” was standing at the window of Mr. Clackworthy’s [Chicago] Sheridan Road apartment, gazing glumly at the stream of traffic that flowed past in its usual Sunday afternoon flood. The Early Bird was a lost soul during those times when there was none of Mr. Clackworthy’s nefarious schemes under way to occupy his mind and to keep his wits sharpened.>P>

   All con men naturally work on the concept of greed, as many a Nigerian knows full well today. Booth’s prose style is not all that dissimilar to that of his contemporary (at the time), Erle Stanley Gardner, whose Lester Leith stories for Detective Fiction Weekly started out in very much the same fashion.

   Most of Mr. Clackworthy’s victims well deserve it — greedy bankers, swindlers, unscrupulous investors, and so on – getting their comeuppance in a rough and tumble sort of justice, in a naive, twinkle-in-the-eye sort of way, but even innocent banks sometimes fell afoul of his various and sundry plots and plans. (But were banks truly innocent of wrongdoing in the 1920s? Perhaps Booth’s readers did not really think so.)

   In any case, these stories were written, read and enjoyed in a different time and place. If you’re read this far into the review and other commentary, however, I see no reason why you shouldn’t read and enjoy them, too, even if no one is writing them like this any more.

— November 2005


UPDATE #1: Thanks to the eagle-eyed Monte Herridge, one of the nine stories has been identified so far. It is “Mr. Clackworthy Tells the Truth,” from the October 19, 1920, issue of Detective Story Magazine, the cover of which is shown here to the right. If and when others are identified, you will read about it here first.

   This particular story, amazingly enough, can be read online. (Follow the link.) What is interesting is that some editing was done when the story appeared in book form. Small descriptive sentences and paragraphs were removed. If you want to read the complete text, in other words, you have to go back to the primary source.


UPDATE #2. Very early on this blog, some 10 years ago now, I posted the results of my continued research into the stories in the three collections of Clackworthy stories, identifying as many as possible of the stories contained in each. (The third collection was published by Wildside Press in 2006.) You can read the post here.