John K. Butler | Hacker's Holiday | The Saint in Silver | The Killer Was a Gentleman | The Hearse From Red Owl | Butler and Hard-Boiled Fiction | Butler and Mary Roberts Rinehart | Tricky Enright | Sandy Taylor

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

John K. Butler

Recommended Works:

At the Stroke of Midnight (Complete Steve Midnight stories) Sandy Taylor of the Harbor Police tales Tricky Enright tales

John K. Butler

For a long time, the only one of John K. Butler's 70 pulp mysteries that had been reprinted was the excellent "The Saint in Silver" (1941). Now that all nine of the Steve Midnight stories are available in a modern reprint collection, At the Stroke of Midnight (1998), his work will begin to find the mass audience it deserves. Steve Midnight is a cab driver and an amateur detective; the fares he picks up at night get him involved in mysteries. The stories appeared in the pulp Dime Detective during 1940 - 1942. This collection is edited by John Wooley, who also did the Robert Leslie Bellem omnibuses, Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective and Roscoes in the Night.

Hacker's Holiday

The first half of "Hacker's Holiday" (1940) is better than the second, but it is a rich work anyway. The first half takes place in Venice, California, and is full of Butler's gift for describing place, including the architectural features of public areas, in this case roads, bridges and canals. Other Butler tales go to other public spaces, such as docks and airplane hangers. This is the only Steve Midnight tale to be set in Venice. Butler rarely reused settings in his Midnight tales. He seemed to want each new story to offer the reader a fresh setting, something new they hadn't read about before. Venice does not disappear from the world of Butler's stories, however. We are always reading in later tales that Steve's cab is passing through Venice, or that he is near Venice, or that someone lives there. It is still part of Steve's turf.

"Hacker's Holiday" comes the closest among the Steve Midnight tales to the "pulp style of plotting" (see the article on The Pulp Style of Plotting for a full discussion). It has many independent bad guys, each with different motives, and all of them constantly up to some nefarious scheme. This is one half of the "pulp style". However, the reader is not mainly left mystified till the end of the tale, about which villain is doing what, with a succession of criminal actions flying fast and furious, the other half of the traditional "pulp style". The story cannot be considered a full implementation of the style. Many of the Butler stories have more than one person involved in crime. This would not fly in a British Golden Age story, for instance, with their insistence on a single bad guy. However, most of these Steve Midnight stories are still remote from the multiple villain set-up of the "pulp style". In many Butler tales, there is one chief villain, and the other criminal characters tend to be acting under his leadership, or to be less deeply involved than himself. The villainy tends to form a pyramid, with one chief bad guy, then the lesser bad guys falling under his scope, and engaged in less sinister schemes.

"Hacker's Holiday" gives a full road map to the problems of women and abusive spouses. It reads as if it were written by a feminist of the 1990's, not a pulp writer of the 1940's. And it does this without exploitative scenes or lurid writing. Butler had a lot of sympathy with "ordinary" people and their problems.

The Saint in Silver

What traditions does John K. Butler's "The Saint in Silver" (1941) come out of? And why is this story so satisfying? To work on the second question first, Butler has a great skill for description. The events of the story seem to "come alive" with considerable vividness. So do the two main outdoor locations, the cemetery and the mansion. Both landscapes are loaded with symbols that can be interpreted as variously romantic, fairy-tale like, sexual or Freudian. Midnight always seems to be in narrow spaces, such as a tomb, a tunnel, or a small office, when he meets up with other men. Oftentimes these regions are underground. This imagery seems powerful, but what exactly does it symbolize? By contrast, his encounters with women tend to be in broader, more open areas outside these small spaces.

The sheer honesty of Butler's hero Steve Midnight is refreshing, too. He comes across as a 100% good guy, not at all cynical or vicious. Butler's portrait of a corrupt high life out of which the mystery emerges is also well done. There is a note of class consciousness in the story, and a Depression mood: it pits a honest but poor working man against a bunch of wealthy but crooked upper class types. Butler also excels at describing the sharp clothes and macho, moneyed looks of the upper class men. They may be crooks, but they are snappy dressers. Butler also likes the high powered cars of the era.

Steve Midnight has adventures while solving a mystery; in many ways this sort of mystery-adventure is a quintessential pulp mystery tale in the Dime Detective tradition, DD being the magazine in which the Midnight stories first appeared. Despite this, the story does not really involve the "pulp style of plotting", in which large groups of people are working at cross purposes, thus baffling the reader. Instead, Steve unravels the plot one step at a time. The story concentrates absorbingly on his detective work, not on the activities of the crooks, as it would in a "pulp style of plotting" story. In fact, the crooks largely lay low in the tale after the initial crime, just as in a Golden Age non-pulp style mystery. On the other hand, the story hardly has a fair play puzzle plot in which all clues are displayed in advance. Instead, the tale unwinds as an old fashioned unraveling of mysterious events.

The Killer Was a Gentleman

Along with "The Saint in Silver", "The Killer Was a Gentleman" (1941) is Butler's best Steve Midnight tale. It is the longest of the stories: this is in part because Butler puts so much vivid descriptive detail into the work. The story celebrates male bonding: through helping the murder suspect in the tale, Steve finds his ideal friend. Like Captain Hollister, this man is somewhat older than Steve, a man who can serve as a father figure. He has many outstanding personal qualities: a concern for other people, decency, a command of the English language, talent for his profession, and athletic skill. The story and Steve keep celebrating his "gentlemanly" qualities, by which they seem to mean most of the above. The Los Angeles locations are also very well described here. In addition to the suspect's well to do neighborhood - Butler had a great flair for mansions and their gardens - much of the story takes place on L.A.'s Main Street, then a "skid row" area of cheap gyms and pool halls. This is the same location that will show up a few years later in William Keighley's film noir, The Street With No Name (1948). Because of this, it is possible to compare Butler's descriptions with the area's visual depiction in the film: a very close match. In fact the boxing gym in the story seems extraordinarily close to Keighley's. Both Butler's story and Street are deeply concerned with male bonding, and it is interesting that both are set in exactly the same area of L.A. It is as if that area were closely linked to friendship between men, and certain kinds of macho adventure.

In real life Butler also made friends with men he admired. Frank MacShane's The Life of Raymond Chandler describes Butler's attempt to become friends with Chandler, an author twenty years Butler's senior; the anti-social Chandler kept Butler somewhat at a distance, as he did to most people. This was during the period that both men were pulp mystery writers. John Wooley's fascinating introduction to At the Stroke of Midnight describes Butler's later friendships with two men, who like him, were Republic Studios scriptwriters.

The Hearse From Red Owl

"The Hearse From Red Owl" (1941) is a later story in the Steve Midnight series. Its storytelling lacks the magical atmosphere and symbolism of "The Saint in Silver", but it does show Butler's conscientious attempt at creating a puzzle plot. This successful puzzle plot is the most distinguished feature of the story. Steve discovers repeatedly in it that things are not what they seem, as he uncovers a complex plot. Steve is a taxi driver for the "Red Owl" cab company, hence the name of the story. One section involves detection based on strange reports from Steve's cab meter; these are in the mystery story tradition of plots based on technical information on a specialized subject. The story also brings in some odd sidelights on the taxi business of its era. It has a different point of view from "The Saint in Silver"; that story put Steve in the middle of unfolding events of the story, whereas "Hearse" shows him detecting the morning after the strange events occur. Both tales show Butler's disdain for hypocrites whose perfect image masks corrupt private lives.

There are numerous scenes of detective work enabled by taxicabs in Butler's stories. Nearly every Steve Midnight tale has him tracking down the location of some suspect or victim by using the facilities of the cab company. Butler rarely repeats an effect. These are neat innovations in the history of pure detection.

Butler used a number of fairly powerful standard techniques in the construction of his puzzle plots.

Butler's reconstructions of crimes are well detailed. They often include clues, showing how Steve figured out the events. They also reason out why the bad guys did what they did, showing how each step was motivated and a logical consequence of the conditions in the story. Steve Midnight is a figure of logic, in the detective tradition.

The bad guys in the Midnight stories are often wandering around at night, using many steps and different kinds of transportation to get around, in an effort to shake off pursuers. They also often disguise themselves in different personas.

Other Steve Midnight Tales

Not all of the Steve Midnight stories are outstanding. "The Man From Alcatraz" (1940) is the poorest story in the series. It is also the weakest as a mystery - in fact, it is more a manhunt than a tale of mystery in the strict sense. "Dead Man's Alibi" (1941), a spy story, suffers from morbidity: it is much gloomier and more downbeat than a typical Midnight tale. Some of the material on Lockwood Aircraft company in the later stages of the story is interesting. These two stories are not recommended. Considerably better are "The Dead Ride Free" (1940) and "Death and Taxis" (1942). Their biggest weakness: both are fairly uninspired as mystery plots; but both of these uneven tales also have their virtues. Both stories have highly atmospheric opening cab rides, but this mood is not sustained in the subsequent stories.

At the Stroke of Midnight reprints the tales photographically from the pages of Dime Detective, illustrations, ads and all. In general, I like the cover paintings of the old mystery pulps, but not the interior illustrations. These Midnight tales run true to form: the cover by Malvin Singer is a lot better the opening black and white pictures to each tale. Interior artist John Fleming Gould has no sense of glamour at all, and his entire world looks ugly. So does his illustration of Steve, who he makes look like some brutish thug you'd meet in a dark alley.

Butler and Hard-Boiled Fiction

At first glance, the settings of the Midnight stories tend to be fairly typical of the hard-boiled world: entertainment venues, such as nightclubs with singers, honky tonk piers, boxing rings; cheap hotels and other dives; the mansions of the rich; apartment buildings.

However, there are some important differences between Butler and hard-boiled writers. There are plenty of crooked characters, but they tend to be more racketeers and big time swindlers, than the mobsters that flow through so much hard-boiled fiction. The swindles tend to be money oriented rackets, which deceive ordinary people and separate them from their money, and the swindlers maintain an aura of public respectability, unlike the mobsters of other writers. Butler shows little interest in vice, which is the mob's chief business in real-life: unlike many hard-boiled authors, there is very little in his stories about gambling or smuggling booze or drugs or vice.

The Midnight tales, unlike much hard-boiled fiction, do not actually take place within the underworld. For example, in many pulp stories, we are at a night club in a tense scene. The owner and several of the guests are all big time mobsters and hit men. They are all engaged in tense negotiation over mob business, and violence is always threatening to erupt. Scenes like this just do not occur in the Midnight tales. One might be at a night club, but the singer there is likely to be a tough but honest broad with no mob connections, and she might be taking to an equally innocuous bartender. If a racketeer shows up in Steve's cab, he is likely to be alone or with a partner, interacting with the hero or honest characters. This is a tough world on the fringe of rackets and swindles, not the mob itself.

Butler liked the deserted quality of buildings and streets by night, the sense that only a few people were around. He rarely took us to places that were full of people at night, such as theaters or nightclubs. In fact, the main night club sequence in the Midnight tales (in "The Hearse From Red Owl") takes place during the day. The club is just as deserted and eerie then as most of Butler's other settings are at night.

Butler's tales are constructed in chapters. Each chapter has its own title, as pulp conventions demanded. The titles in Butler tales are usually pretty interesting and apposite. In general, I prefer titles to merely numbered chapters in both novels and stories. They add a lot of interest and vividness to the tale. Each chapter in a Steve Midnight story tends to be at a different location. When the location changes, Butler starts a new chapter. This presumably made it easy on him as writer: he never had to make any tough decision as to where the break went. It also helps clue in the reader: it is like a change of scene in a play, a basic structural feature that recurs repeatedly, and helps give a story some much needed structure.

Butler and Mary Roberts Rinehart

Although I've now read a heaping helping of Butler stories, I still find it hard to place him within mystery tradition. While his subject matter is close to the hard-boiled tradition, his plot construction and story telling technique seems to have little in common with most other pulp writers.

Butler's closest analogue is to the stories of Mary Roberts Rinehart. "The Saint in Silver" especially reminded me of her "The Buckled Bag" (1914). The unraveling of a gripping mystery plot; the suspense events at night; a vaguely medical background; and elaborate locations loaded with sexual symbolism all seem in the Rinehart tradition. Even Midnight's relation with Captain Hollister, a gruff but honest policeman who serves as a friendly father figure to Steve, seems similar to the relationships between Rinehart's spinsters and the police. The policemen, tough professionals, seem skeptical at first of Rinehart's spinsters' amateur detective skills, but ultimately they become both impressed and even friendly. This is just the sort of relationship Steve develops with Captain Hollister. One of the woman suspects in the tale has a troubled marriage; this also reminds one of Rinehart. So does the tale's storytelling technique, in which event after detailed event is rigorously and vigorously described. Rinehart had perfected this step by step, "And then I did..." approach in her writings; Butler's style shows distinct similarities. Even the trolley rides in the story remind one of Rinehart's The Window At The White Cat (1909). The skepticism about religious cults in the story recalls Hammett's The Dain Curse (1928) and Chandler's Farewell My Lovely (1940), but it also recalls Rinehart's distaste for religious fanaticism in The After House (1914).

Steve Midnight is an amateur detective, just like most Rinehart protagonists. He is always stumbling across crimes, and then snooping around on his own to solve them. Often his motives are to prevent being accused of the crime himself.

Tricky Enright

Butler wrote series about other detectives. Tricky Enright was a lawman, operating undercover as a pretended crook. His tales also appeared in Dime Detective. "Why Shoot a Corpse?" (1938) was reprinted in Detectives A to Z (1985), edited by Frank D. McSherry, Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh.

Golden Age mysteries often created a closed circle of suspects: everyone present at a remote country mansion, for instance. By contrast, Butler's tales tend to happen in Los Angeles, and initially, anyone in that city can be regarded as a potential suspect. Butler's detectives have to isolate and track down people who might be involved in a case, out of the millions who live in LA. A good deal of the detective work in Butler involves finding ways to hunt down such suspects, often times with only the slenderest clues to go on. This detective work tends to be logical, and firmly based in the following up of genuine clues. The outstanding detective comic book Big Town (1951-1958) would also often concentrate on such pure detection finding of suspects.

The first half of "Why Shoot a Corpse?" concentrates on such tracking of suspects. Cabs taken by the characters play a major role in this section. They anticipate the cab-oriented Steve Midnight tales.

Sandy Taylor

"Death on the Hook" (1937) is perhaps the only story about Sandy Taylor, of the Harbor Police. The story is available on-line, at: http://www.adventurehouse.com/PDF/Headquarters_Det_37.03_Death_on_the_Hook.pdf. Sandy, like Tricky Enright, operates undercover, although Sandy masquerades as a waterfront drifter, not as a criminal. This story appeared in the sixth and apparently last issue (March 1937) of Headquarters Detective, a short-lived pulp magazine. During the exact same month, the comic book Detective Comics would debut with issue #1 (March 1937). Detective Comics contained numerous crime fighting heroes; one was Speed Saunders, who was also a member of the harbor police, and who frequently took on undercover roles. This is perhaps just an odd coincidence, although it does underscore the close cultural ties between pulp magazines and comic books. Sandy Taylor seems permanently undercover in a single role, the same as Tricky Enright, whereas Speed Saunders only goes undercover occasionally as demanded by a case, and with a new identity each time. Speed Saunders is also a federal agent, and fairly glamorized, whereas Butler's Sandy Taylor seems much more like an ordinary guy.

The mainstream novelist John Steinbeck would create Cannery Row (1945), which like "Death on the Hook" is also a look at a California community dominated by fishermen and canneries. Its atmosphere is a bit closer to that of Butler's story, than are the Speed Saunders stories. "Death on the Hook" will also anticipate elements of the finale of the film Terror in a Texas Town (1958), directed by Joseph H. Lewis.

Sandy Taylor, like Steve Midnight to come, operates in a tough, working class milieu. Its feisty heroine reflects the feminism that runs through Butler. The story quietly shows some of the negative features of alcohol and alcoholism - Butler is definitely not a pulp writer who admired booze.

"Death on the Hook" has a well constructed mystery plot. It shows such common, and admirable Butler features as a central situation that is different from what it appears; an intersection between a crime in the past (here a robbery) and the current events of the story; and sound detective work by the hero, reasoning a way towards the solution. Sandy Taylor unfolds his ideas step by step throughout the story, as he gets them.