KURT STEEL – Murder for What? Hank Hyer #2. Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1936. Select Publications, digest-sized paperback, 1943. Also published, perhaps in abridged form, in Detective Mystery Novel, Fall 1948.

   McRae cultivated an English accent… it was like gold leaf on a slot machine.

   McRae is a gambler who is in a poker game with Hank Hyer when the subject of Kip Shannon comes up. Hyer, a NY based Private Eye in the Sam Spade/Michael Shayne tradition hasn’t got much use for Shannon, who married Broadway star and Hyer friend Lilith. It seems Shannon is back in New York and wanted for questioning in the murder of a policeman in his cabin upstate, though another man has been arrested for the crime. Nonetheless McRae seems unusually interested.

   Shannon is pretty much a washout, playing around on Lilith and blowing a career as a screenwriter in Hollywood before getting involved in some shady business with some shady people while wandering around the Pacific and Taos, New Mexico (already a well known artists retreat in 1936).

   “I’d be tickled to help keep Ken Shannon in a jam as long as it wouldn’t hurt Lilith. But nothing’d give my conscience more rheumatism than to lift him out of one.”

   But Hank barely makes it out the doorway with his winnings (hanging on to the money in his wallet is a running theme here) when reporter Corey Hilton shows up, the third wheel in the Shannon/Lilith relationship, dragging Hank to his apartment where Shannon is hiding out.

   “Corey picked Shannon for a roommate and Lilith picked him for a husband, neither of ’em took a sanity test.”


   Hank can avoid anything but trouble and for Lilith’s sake agrees to help Shannon against his better judgment, and barely gets out of Hilton’s door before he his sapped and kidnapped by two hoods mistaking him for Shannon.

   His “ride” is interrupted when the weather causes the car to wreck, and an annoyed Hank with a broken wrist finds himself near where Shannon is wanted by the police just south of Woodstock and does some investigating when Lilith shows up and on the train back both of them find themselves ducking the hoods that kidnapped Hank and followed Lilith looking for Kip.

   And what does sexy blonde siren Mrs. Venice Malinkell, one of the great femme fatale’s in the genre, friend of the gambler McRae, have to do with it all and what does she want when she shows up with a gun at Hank’s apartment where Shannon has been hiding out?

   Then too, why did Shannon’s father hire Hank to investigate Kip anonymously through a shady cousin

   Then Kip Shannon shows up in Hank’s apartment murdered…

   Kurt Steel, Rudolph Hornaday Kagey, wrote nine fast moving Hank Hyer novels about the tough, tight with a dollar, New York PI much in the style of Brett Halliday and Cleve Adams (though Hyer is more likable than any Adams protagonist). The books did well and were often reprinted in the pulps (as this one was in Detective Novels). They are fast paced and well written with Hyer one of the more believable private eyes with a nice balance of action, plot, and colorful characters.

   Hyer debuted in 1936, this was his second entry, and had a good decade long run before Kagey died in 1946 at forty-two bringing the Hyer saga to an end just as the paperback era was starting.

   As in any of the Hyer novels Hank finds things getting complicated as the case develops with multiple murders (Shannon’s father), gangsters, the Feds, and a fortune in counterfeit money and plates involved before Hank and a state patrolman storm Shannon’s snowbound cabin filled with heavily armed hoods and shoot it out with blazing tommy-guns and Hank wraps it all up neatly back in his apartment in New York nailing the murderer behind it all.

   Steel writes well and has the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, tight plotting, and colorful characters of the genre down to a science. Along with Richard Reeves’ Cellini Smith, he is probably one of the last great eyes of the era deserving to be resurrected and rediscovered and less well known because he didn’t have a presence in the major detective pulps.. My favorite of the Hyer novels is Judas Incorporated from 1939, perhaps the only one to appear from a major paperback publisher (Dell).

   Murder for What? is a surprisingly good second effort that reads as if it were written by a veteran of the genre. I give it the highest recommendation for any lover of the classic hard-boiled novel of the period.

         The Hank Hyer series

Murder of a Dead Man (n.) Bobbs 1935
Murder for What? (n.) Bobbs 1936
Murder Goes to College (n.) Bobbs 1936 [
Murder in G-Sharp (n.) Bobbs 1937
Crooked Shadow (n.) Little 1939
Judas, Incorporated (n.) Little 1939
Dead of Night (n.) Little 1940
Madman’s Buff (n.) Little 1941
Ambush House (n.) Harcourt 1943