A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins:

CLEVE F. ADAMS – Shady Lady. Ace Double D-115, paperback original, 1955. [Paired back-to-back with One Got Away, by Harry Whittington.]


   Adams is one of mystery fiction’s shadow figures. Born in 1895, he began selling to pulp mystery magazines in the mid-1930s, broke into hardcover novels at the end of the decade, and wrote most of his novels in a burst of creativity (and of recycling earlier pulp tales) during World War II. In these respects, his career paralleled that of Raymond Chandler.

   But unlike Chandler, Adams is today largely forgotten, even though he forged his own distinctive image of the private detective.

    The Adams eye is a sort of prose incarnation of Humphrey Bogart that predates Bogey’s movie detectives, but with more stress on the brutality and cynicism and less on the sentimental heart. He has a capacity for long, brooding silences, sudden ribald laughter, mad fury, and aloof arrogance. His features are wolfish and satanic and he often slaps women around during his maniacal fits of rage.


   He’s a racist, a fascist, and a hypocrite, but a tender ballad brings tears to his eyes. In one word, he’s an oaf, deliberately drawn by Adams so as to pull the rug out from under Chandler’s romantic image of the PI as a contemporary knight.

   Most of Adams’s novels depend on a stock company of recurring characters, mannerisms, scenes, plot elements, even tag lines of description and dialogue. He was an expert at borrowing story lines from Dashiell Hammett, rewriting Red Harvest three times and The Glass Key twice.

   But even when he coasted on the most familiar gambits in hard-boiled literature, he showed a genius for juggling diverse groups of shady characters, each with his or her own greedy objective.


   Right after Christmas 1949, Adams died of a heart attack. His pulp writer buddies Robert Leslie Bellem and W.T. Ballard helped out his widow by finishing his last novel. One version, entitled “Too Fair to Die,” appeared in the March 1951 issue of Two Complete Detective Books magazine, and four years later Ace Books published a more polished draft as the paperback original Shady Lady.

   It turned out to be the finest work of Adams’s career.

   Like many of his earlier novels, among the best of which are Sabotage (1940), Decoy (1941), and Up Jumped the Devil (1943), Shady Lady stars a shamus named Rex McBride.

   In this adventure he trails a missing embezzler’s girlfriend from Los Angeles to the mining metropolis of Copper Hill, Montana, arriving just in time to become involved in a vicious gubernatorial primary, a love affair with two sisters, and a string of murders.


   The plot is plagued with loose ends like many Adams efforts, but the book is so overflowingly rich in character sketches and powerful understated scenes that one is compelled to believe either that Bellem and Ballard contributed huge amounts to the manuscript or that, had he lived longer, Adams might have developed into a talent of near-Chandleresque dimensions. The electoral contest provides a marvelous setting for Adams’s ghoulish cynicism about American politics.

   In his seminal essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler argued that the PI novel requires a knightly hero to redeem the corrupt milieu. Adams disagreed violently, and in his world the protagonist is not a hero and no less corrupt than anyone else, just tougher and luckier. Repulsive the Adams eye may be, but he’s frighteningly hard to forget.

   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.