Raymond Chandler | Brett Halliday | Post War Private Eyes | William Campbell Gault | Leigh Brackett | Hank Searls | Richard S. Prather | Michael Avallone | Wade Miller | Harold Q. Masur | Victor K. Ray | Stuart Brock / Louis Trimble | Ed Lacy | Dorothy B. Hughes | Howard Browne | Richard Ellington
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Uncollected short stories
Red Barry short stories
Calvan Calvano short stories
"So Pale, So Cold, So Fair" (1957)
Fatal Step (1948) (Chapters 1 - 11, 19 - 20, 28 - 29)
Uncollected short stories
Shakedown for Murder (1958)
Uncollected short stories
"Man in the Dark" (1952)
Just Killing Time (1953) (Chapters 1-9,22)
The Big Money (1954) (Chapters 1-5)
Tall, Dark and Deadly (1956) (Chapters 1-12)
The Name Is Jordan
Uncollected Scott Jordan short stories
Of all the really famous classical detective writers, Chandler was the weakest at plotting. He recognized this himself. This especially hurts his longer stories and novels, which tend to ramble on without any real logic or coherence. Nor do Chandler's works develop into coherent meanings or overall logical points. In the 1940's, John Dickson Carr slammed Chandler's work for its "poor construction". I think this phrase has two meanings. It simply refers to Chandler's very bad plotting. It also refers to a lack of any overall plan or structure to Chandler's books.
Chandler's great virtue was his brilliant prose style. He was wonderful with the English language. Whether in his vivid descriptions, the clever dialogue, or his meditations on life, Chandler expressed himself beautifully.
Chandler's gentle satire of detective stories, "Pearls Are a Nuisance" (1939), seems to me to be in part a spoof of Nebel's "Pearls Are Tears" (1933). In addition to the related titles, both stories have a similar plot about a detective who sticks his neck out to get pearls back that were stolen from an elderly, infirm, kind-hearted dowager. Chandler treated a similar theme seriously, as well, in "Mandarin's Jade" (1937), later used as a basis for Farewell, My Lovely (1940).
The basic game plan of Chandler's detective fiction, in addition, seems to me to be closer to Nebel's early Donovan work than to that of any other writer I know in Black Mask history. Both deal with a solitary, very tough detective, who meets a lot of eccentric criminals on mean streets. Both wisecrack, both get involved with a lot of violence. Neither author pays much attention to plotting or surprise solutions to mysteries. In this they are unlike Hammett, who usually had a puzzle plot with an elaborate surprise ending, and clues scattered through the narrative. (Nebel's later fiction would put a greater emphasis on puzzle plotting.)
In both Nebel and Chandler, emphasis is laid on intricate combinations of bad guys all struggling in scene after scene, battling it out with each other and the detective. Neither detective at all plans ahead, unlike Hammett's heroes; the hero just goes along battling it out from episode to episode. Behind both authors stands Carroll John Daly.
Settings and plot elements recur from Nebel's fiction into Chandler's. The nightclub or bar, with a dusty back corridor leading into the manager's office, where a confrontation takes place between hero and manager. The seedy hotel, where shadowing takes place. The heavy drinking of the hero, and detailed accounts of all his meals. The friend who gets in trouble, and needs to be rescued from his difficulties with the law, or criminals. Nebel's big killer Tubba Klem, in "Get a Load of This", seems like a precursor of Moose Molloy in Farewell, My Lovely.
There are stylistic similarities in tone between Nebel and Chandler, as well. Both recount everything that happens, bit by bit. Both use a flat, narrating tone that simply recounts facts.
Chandler was inspired by other authors, too. "Nevada Gas" (1935), a story with a gambler as a hero, and a mob background, seems to be in homage to Paul Cain's Fast One (1932), a novel with a mobster/gambler hero. Fast One was serialized in Black Mask; the novel version was praised by Chandler. The atmosphere and general style of "Nevada Gas" seem to be in imitation of Cain's work.
Chandler's use of a first person detective narrator who makes a lot of wisecracks ultimately comes from Carroll John Daly; Daly's approach influenced such writers as Forrest Rosaire and Robert Leslie Bellem, too.
In his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder", Chandler praises the British author of realist police procedural tales, Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts' detective techniques were an influence on such Chandler tales as "The Lady in the Lake", and "No Crime in The Mountains", as is discussed in detail below. Crofts was also a major influence on Dashiell Hammett. It has been fashionable in recent years to state that Black Mask writers were "uniquely American", and had nothing in common with either British authors or the Golden Age mystery novel. An examination of their works does not support this idea. Instead it suggests that Hammett and Chandler were American allies of the Crofts-led realist school. See the article on the realist school for a detailed discussion of its approaches, and for an extended look at Chandler's critical ideas in "The Simple Art of Murder".
His follow-up, "Smart Aleck Kill", is lousy; so is "Finger Man", although it was one of Chandler's favorite stories. Next comes "Killer in the Rain", one of Chandler's most sexually shocking stories. This piece, which he later expanded into The Big Sleep, still seems excessively lurid and sleazy even by 1990's standards. It is not one of my favorite Chandler tales, but at least he is not asleep at the switch like his last two tales.
Next come three tales all dealing with civic corruption. These are all good stories: "Spanish Blood" (1935), "Guns at Cyrano's" (1936), "The Man Who Liked Dogs" (1936). "Guns" is the best of the three, and introduces Chandler's series detective Ted Carmady.
"The Man Who Liked Dogs" was later partially incorporated into Farewell, My Lovely (1940), but reads very well as an independent work. Two situations from the story are repeated in the novel, but most of the plot was not used.
"Guns at Cyrano's" and "The Man Who Liked Dogs" both have unifying themes underlying their plot events. "Guns" is focused heavily on clothes, containing a whole world of unusual fashion statements. "The Man Who Liked Dogs" has a central scene of a sinister drying out clinic for drunks and drug users. As a reformed alcoholic himself, Chandler might have known and feared such places. Its sinister prison like aspects are echoed in the dogs held in pens in the veterinary hospital in the early scenes. Later a trip to a gambling ship creates another location of prison like aspect.
Chandler's first period spurt of outstanding stories concluded with "Pickup On Noon Street" (1936) and "Goldfish" (1936). The mirror apartments effect in "Goldfish" is particularly memorable, as is the story's ending. "Goldfish" marks the end of Chandler's first period.
After 1936 Chandler left Black Mask and switched over to Dime Detective. His pieces grew longer, and he created a new series detective, Johnny Dalmas. His stories seem no longer to be based on a central idea, situation or gimmick, as in his early works, and tend to be just "stories", attempts to tell a tale without any gimmicks or central hooks. Generally speaking, Chandler's work from this era is not as good as his earlier work for Black Mask, although it got progressively better as he approached 1939, the last year of his short story writing period. The best pieces from these years are "Red Wind" (1938), a story with a great opening scene and a good follow up, "Bay City Blues" (1938), a not-bad story with wall to wall wisecracks, and Chandler's best (and least typical) short work, "Pearls are a Nuisance" (1939).
"Pearls" is a comic gem. Written partly as a spoof of detective stories, it is both funny and a good detective story in its own right. The story also shows that Chandler in a happy and humorous mood was a better writer than Chandler in the quasi tragic mode he was always affecting. I wish Chandler had done more pieces like this.
Chandler also wrote an excellent shorter piece for the Saturday Evening Post. "I'll be Waiting" (1939) is Chandler's only story for the slicks, and manages to be an excellent mood piece.
Two interesting minor pieces are "The Lady in the Lake" (1939), which was expanded into the novel, and "Trouble is My Business" (1939). Although this entertaining work is fairly minor, it is hard to resist a story containing a vicious elderly millionaire, a predatory golddigger named Miss Harriet Huntress, a spoiled playboy gambler, a mobster, a murderous chauffeur, a 240 pound female detective and a hit man with a psychotic kid brother. Every hard boiled detective story should have a cast like this. Mary Roberts Rinehart used the line "trouble is my business" in a 1934 short story ("The Inside Story" in her 1937 collection Married People), but it has become famous in association with Raymond Chandler.
Chandler's pieces were getting progressively longer and more complex; finally he joined together several of his stories to form his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939). Parts of this book are very well written, including the opening visit to a millionaire's greenhouse, and the aftermath of the first murder at a hill side house. But the book fails to cohere as a whole, and shares much of the overall weaknesses of his recent short stories.
The best part of The Big Sleep is the ending. This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh's The History of the World (1610). Chandler's skill with words reached new heights here, a skill that carried over into his next novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940).
Farewell seems like "a week in the life" of a detective. Marlowe gets put through every possible scene, from the genteel to the adventurous, from the intellectual to the physical. Much of Farewell's claim to be a novel, considered as a unified work of art, comes from this very rounded portrait of a detective and his work.
The best parts of the book are the early sections. On the negative side, the scene in the sinister clinic is much too hair raising for comfort, and throws a negative pall over the reading experience of the book. Much of this and subsequent sections simply wallow in gloom. And like most of Chandler's fiction, the lack of strong overall plot weakens the effect, especially in the later chapters.
"No Crime in the Mountains" seems like a conscious attempt to write a mystery in the style of Freeman Wills Crofts. We know that Chandler was a great admirer of Freeman and Crofts, and his literary model Hammett also seems influenced by Croftsian ideas of realistic detection. The mountain resort setting of "Mountains" is described with the same level of detail one finds in the Backgrounds of the realist school of fiction. So is the Pacific Northwest setting of "Goldfish". "Mountains" has other Croftsian features. There are police detectives. Tracking bad guys from physical trails plays an important part in the detection. And the criminal enterprise in the story (unnamed here to avoid spoiling the tale!) seems especially Croftsian.
"Mountains" also follows Nebel like traditions. The bad guys are up to some criminal enterprise. Innocent bystanders accidentally tumble into it. This leads to their being murdered. The detective tracks them down, figuring out along the way what scheme the criminals are up to.
It is often said that Chandler's novel The Lady in the Lake (1943) was partly based on "Bay City Blues", the short story version "The Lady in the Lake", and "No Crime in The Mountains". It is certainly based on the first two. The short "Lady" forms the main basis of the novel, and the plot material from "Bay City Blues" is included, largely in the form of references to events happening many years ago. Consequently, most of the actual wisecracking writing in "Bay City Blues" was not reused in the novel, although its plot is incorporated.
"No Crime in the Mountains" is another matter. It has the same mountain setting as both the novel and short story versions of The Lady in the Lake. It also has essentially the same sheriff and his deputy as characters, although they have different names here. Otherwise it is an entirely independent, original story, with no connections in plot or writing with the book. As it is one of Chandler's best works, it deserves to be better known.
Both the short and long versions of The Lady in the Lake find Chandler in Golden Age, puzzle plot territory, unraveling an intricately conceived, ingenious crime. Neither really come off regarded strictly as plots, both being full of major implausibilities. But Chandler showed a good deal of entertaining ingenuity in the attempt, and it is interesting to see him working a vein different from much of his regular style. I prefer the short story version of "The Lady in the Lake": the novel version seems very padded. Chandler's puzzle plot technique here is molded on that of Freeman Wills Crofts. There are trails of people followed, and the plot turns on the "breakdown of identity" that is so important in the realist school. (The concepts of "backgrounds" and the "breakdown of identity" are discussed in detail in the article on the Realist School.)
Elizabeth Ward and Alain Silver's Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles (1987) is a picture book showing photos of the real life sites Chandler wrote about in his fiction, accompanied by excerpts from his writings, most of which show Chandler's descriptive powers at their peak. The photographs are beautiful, and do a great deal towards clueing a non resident of L.A. into what Chandler's world looked like.
Halliday is more a contemporary than a follower of Raymond Chandler.
The tale has features recalling Erle Stanley Gardner's DA books, which began with The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937):
Halliday's book also sets precedent by having the killer send messages to the police before each crime occurs.
The industry of paperback crime thrillers has been blamed for the complete demise of the pulps around 1953. It is not clear if simple competition from another medium is the cause of this tragic vanishing of the pulps. This destruction of an entire art form is typical of the 1950's. The 1950's are often seen as a placid time when nothing much changed. The historical record does not support this. Instead, it shows an era when art form after art form was trashed, abandoned and destroyed. Some of the popular arts that were completely abolished in the 1950's and early 1960's:
One might note that an attempt was made to destroy the comic book industry in America, as well, during the mid-1950's. Unlike the other art forms listed above, the comic book managed to survive.
Her fiction is emotionally sensitive, and deals with men who are trying to find renewed meaning in their lives. She also pays attention to plot logic, and includes real mysteries in both tales. I think the second, 1957 tale is much better than the first 1944 one, and I also enjoyed her 1960's film scripts such as Hatari! and El Dorado much more than her 1940's adaptation of The Big Sleep. Brackett seemed to grow as a writer as she got older.
"Design for Dying" (1944) is a melodrama about gangsters. In many ways this tale resembles a whole gangster movie of the era, and one can easily imagine it being made into a snappy film. The hero is even compared with Humphrey Bogart. Perhaps Brackett had a film dramatization in mind when she wrote it. It seems especially close in plot and mood to Raoul Walsh's film High Sierra (1941), with an aging gangster out of prison after many years finding conflicts with today's mobsters. The story is also full of the sort of intricate action scenes that were popular in the pulps, and which go back to Hammett and Daly. "Design for Dying" is not structured as a puzzle plot mystery: it seems to be a non-mystery oriented crime story. However, surprising connections keep emerging in the tale, and the technique of the story construction as a whole has close ties to the puzzle plot tale.
"Kickback for a Killer" (1949) has some vivid storytelling. It also has a simple but well done puzzle plot.
1950's private eyes are often seen as misogynous. Shell Scott seems to see women as "babes", and it would be easy to dismiss his tales as sexist. However, a reading of the stories actually discloses many themes that would be taken up by the woman's movement twenty years later. Scott's clients tend to be sympathetic women. Many of them come to Scott for help with issues like harassment and stalking. The plot of the story tends to consist of Scott going after the offending men, and helping the women with their troubles.
Prather's stories often involve high-tech gimmicks, often used for bugging or tracing evidence. These recall other 1950's and 1960's authors with an interest in such devices, such as Ian Fleming and his James Bond stories. One suspects that Fleming's work, and the movies based on it, influenced a whole generation of hi tech gizmo filled spy tales and movies. One also recalls such comic book series as Garner Fox's Atom tales. Prather's stories are mysteries, not spy tales like Fleming's, but they have a similar ethos of luxury living, high tech devices, violence and lots of glamorous women. Prather's interest in hi tech detection links his work with the Scientific Detection tradition.
Also fun (Chapters 3-4): the bar gets two patrons who dress in motorcycle jackets just like Brando wore in The Wild One (1953). This is an example of the movie references in Avallone. The two guys look menacing, but they turn out to be perfectly harmless. It suggests the tremendous appeal such black leather jackets had in that era. For a historical survey, please see my article on Leather Jackets in Film.
The Crazy Mixed-Up Corpse. Michael Avallone's The Crazy Mixed-Up Corpse (1957) is a private eye novel from the same era as Kendell Foster Crossen's tales of Milo March. Like Crossen, this is an escapist tale, with little of the angst associated with Raymond Chandler. Also like Crossen, Avallone includes sympathetic minority characters, in this case, a Chinese laundry man and his family.
The characters in Crazy are especially vivid. Many of the characters in the book represent emotional needs of the hero. Policeman Mike Monks is the hero's best friend, and someone who watches over him like a father. The Chinese kids represent Noon's desire to have kids. The two women in the book represent an emotionally sustaining woman, and cheap attractiveness respectively. The handsome cowboy character also fascinates Noon. All of these characters seem to come right out of his subconscious, and represent deep emotional longings on his part. They are described with overwhelming vividness by Avallone. The feelings they represent come over to the reader with astonishing clarity and emotional impact. The whole book has a surrealistic quality, in that everything it is emotionally charged. It is like an eruption directly from the inside of someone's fantasy life. Avallone's rich writing style also helps convey a lot of feeling to the reader.
Ed Noon is the least sexually arrogant private eye in mystery history. When the heroine tells him she finds him attractive, he is almost pathetically grateful. He goes on to share with the reader his almost unbearable loneliness. He conveys a sense of being blest by the heroine's attentions. This human quality is extremely refreshing. It is part of the way Avallone's characters talk about fundamental human needs.
Avallone breaks from mystery history in a number of ways. While private eyes tend to be poor, their work regularly brings them into contact with the rich and upper crust, in most authors. Not in Crazy. Ed Noon spends the entire book among characters of working class origin. Even though the cowboy is now a well to do gangster, his poor Texas origins are conspicuous. Much of the book is set within a few blocks of Noon's office, in a series of near-slum locations occupied by the working poor, Noon among them. Oddly, this helps the emotional sincerity of the book. The book is about people who represent emotional needs of Noon. It is not about social snobbery, or attempts to join the rich. The people in it seem even more accurate as emotional figures, because they are not carrying the burden of fantasies of wealth.
Avallone's book does not match critical depictions of his work as Camp. His grammar is good throughout, and his prose coherent. It is often wildly emotional and filled with metaphors, wisecracks and funky descriptions, but these are an asset, not a liability. His good characters are a bunch of working stiffs, and his bad ones deliriously slimy, but everyone gets a coherent portrayal. The adventure aspects of the novel tell a coherent story as well. The book does fall down badly in its puzzle plot aspects: they get brief, unsuccessful explanations at the end of the tale. This is a serious limitation in his work. However, the characters, the writing and the adventure elements make for a good reading experience.
Noon frequently quotes from various popular songs in this tale. He shows inventiveness in working their lyrics into his dialogue. They add a surrealistic touch to the writing. Despite what critics say, there are few film references in this novel.
Shoot it Again, Sam. Avallone's Shoot it Again, Sam (1972) is a spy thriller with few if any elements of mystery. Its first half (Book One) has a delirious plot, nutty and full of surrealistic humor. It is told with vigor and narrative flair by Ed Noon, and shows much of Avallone's gift for verbal expression. It also shows Avallone's vast knowledge of film history, with a discussion of Josef von Sternberg's Morocco (1930) being worked into the plot. Avallone, like Sternberg, has his own gift for creating mise-en-scène. Sternberg's plots are often as delirious as Avallone's, and Avallone's evocation of Sternberg's dream like atmosphere blends into Avallone's own surreal chain of events. This section is a cornerstone of the story. It is one structural element, out of which the whole flow of Noon's feelings is contrasted.
The plot in Shoot it Again, Sam largely takes place within Ed Noon's head. It has some external elements, but it is mainly concerned with the brain washing of Ed Noon, and his mental state. This ties in with the solipsistic feel of the Noon stories. They are above all concerned with the feelings and emotional life of their protagonist. The elaborate description of Noon's feelings, conveyed in heightened prose, underlines this emotion centered approach.
There is a bibliography, critical commentary, and an interview with Bob Wade, at the on-line journal MYSTERY*FILE.
Guilty Bystander (1947) is the first Max Thursday mystery novel. It is best in its first half (Chapters 1 - 18). This tells a unified story, about a kidnapping, and concentrates on its mystery plot. There are many mysterious events; at the end of these chapters, we learn an elaborate back-story, which explains the actions of the criminals that lie behind this series of events. The rest of the book, of lesser interest, mainly consists of action scenes, rather than plotting or mystery, and also suffers from a negative portrait of its woman characters. The first half is a bit related to the "pulp style of plotting", in which mysterious chains of events are explained as the overlapping actions of many groups of criminals.
The well-described settings of the tale's first half - a doctor's office, a seedy hotel, a businessman's office near the San Diego harbor - at first glance look respectable, but also serve as fronts for crooks and havens for the underworld. This gives the book an interesting ambiguity: half in the new, post-war world of middle class prosperity, half among the underworld characters of traditional pulp magazine fiction. Both the hero, and his ex-wife, son and her new husband, have fallen among these underworld fronts, and now find their lives engulfed by them. Their middle class aspirations are now submerged in a strange world, which imitates respectability, but which is actually devoted to crime. Wade Miller also avoids the extreme settings here of much private eye fiction, such as the mansions of the wealthy on the one hand, and underworld night clubs on the other. Both the criminality, and the lives of the honest characters, are pitched at a more believable, medium level.
Fatal Step is also an uneven but worthwhile work - a good novella expanded out with lesser chapters to form a novel. The book's best sections are its opening (Chapters 1 - 11), and clever puzzle plot ending (Chapters 28 - 29), with a interesting brief section in the middle (Chapters 19 - 20).
The subplot in Fatal Step dealing with an organization of private security guards reflects pulp magazine traditions, such as Frederick Nebel's "Hell Couldn't Stop Him" (1935). Nebel's tale also has an amusement park background - a fairly common setting for pulp fiction. Wade Miller's writing in general also resembles Nebel's, in that it takes place in a city not much used by other writers: Wade Miller in San Diego, Nebel in St. Louis. The way the hero struggles with his drinking problem in Guilty Bystander also recalls the alcoholism of some of Nebel's sleuths, such as reporter Kennedy.
Deadly Weapon has a gimmicky solution, praised by some writers, but which was actually old and much-used by the time of this novel.
The best part of the book is the visit to the psychiatrist's office (Chapter 11), which is probably inspired by Chandler's account of an equally sinister medical clinic in Farewell, My Lovely (1940), but which shows original imagination, as well. Sinister doctors and their offices will play a bigger role in Guilty Bystander.
Harold Q. Masur's short fiction shows some basic virtues. A story typically revolves around some situation "which is not what it seems". Here Masur is showing some ingenuity, and displaying his continuity with the puzzle plot tradition. Built on top of this ingenious situation is a murder plot. His lawyer detective Scott Jordan is hired by a client to investigate the situation or perform some lawyery business, and he stumbles into the midst of the murder. Jordan investigates the crime, figures out the central twist, and nails the killer.
The bad guys often manipulate a body after death, to make the crime look different than it was. Often times this is done by a different person than the one who did the actual killing. Two other Masur plot devices: frames, and impersonations. All three of these devices are schemes of bad guys to make one person seem very different from what they are. The person can be an innocent suspect who is made to look like a criminal (the frame), the murder victim (the body manipulation) or a character in the tale, usually a bad guy (the impersonation). But all three techniques have a similar "feel", and similar structural role in the mystery.
Masur sometimes uses the Chandler formula of interviewing each character in the tale, one at a time. The stories are also written to fall, to a degree, within the parameters of the Chandler-based, post WW II private eye paradigm, thus ensuring their commercial acceptance with the readers of the era. There are some differences, however. Masur is still faithful to many of the older traditions of the 1930's pulp magazine - in fact, some of his early tales appeared in my favorite of all the pulp magazines, Dime Detective. Reportedly, he wrote a large number of early pulp tales under pseudonyms; these are largely uncollected in books. (Later he would be associated with such non-hard-boiled magazines as EQMM and AHMM, editing anthologies for the latter.) Masur is not an absurdist, unlike Chandler. His plots make sense, and often center around some puzzle plot situation, just as in the Dime Detective tradition. There is a cheery atmosphere of escapism to the tales, also pulp like, and distinct from the weary weltschmerz of Chandler and Ross MacDonald. He also has some of the older pulp tradition's forward narrative drive. Masur is unfortunately more subdued than some of the wildly surreal pulp stories of a previous era, however: Chandleresque traditions of a realistic depiction of "mean streets" have unfortunately descended over the post war mystery story like a shroud.
The only Scott Jordan collection, The Name Is Jordan (1962), seems to be in the same series as Craig Rice's collection The Name is Malone (1958). Both were published by Pyramid Books, and both appeared in paperback editions in the late 1960's, with similar photographic covers by Morgan Kane. Kane is likely the creator of a similar cover for You Can't Live Forever, although that paperback is uncredited.
Masur focuses on rich, corrupt people. He dislikes people who are getting easy money: bankers, union bosses, corrupt politicians, and people living on inherited wealth. His stories are full of gold diggers, both male and female, who marry rich people for their money, and greedy heirs. Extramarital affairs are also common, often motivated by money. A common type in his stories is the arrogant rich man, haughty and condescending, snide to his inferiors, and sure to get involved with a fist fight with the hero. Another standard group of Masur characters are the underworld types. These are often obvious crooks. Their criminal schemes often play a role in the plot, but they are rarely the mystery suspects or the actual killers themselves. Their role is simply to add corruption to the plot, and motives to the central characters in the tale. They stand off to one side of the story. Their function is close to what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin, a motivating force in a story whose actual content is not that important.
Masur had high regard for the police: his series officer Lieutenant John Nola is smart and incorruptible. Federal agents often show up as well; they are implacable, efficient, buzz cutted and Brooks Brothers suited forces of nature, honest, but not too directly involved in the detection, more characters who keep the pot boiling.
The supporting cast of Masur's tales often includes legal workers, such as legal secretaries or research assistants. Another common type of support characters are low level private eyes and investigators. Both kinds of support characters are often employed by rich people in the tale. Their mortality rate is high: they are always getting bumped off for what they know. They have a real pathos; although sometimes they are crooked, more often they are sincere working people who are just trying to do their job, and getting killed for their pains. Other middle class people who work for a living, and who play a similar role in his tales are the bank guard in "The Double Frame" and the doctor in "The Silent Butler". All of these working characters are a lot more sympathetic than Masur's rich people. They are also a lot more realistic. The crooked rich of Masur seem to be a convention of the Chandler era private eye tale; they also show up in many other p.i. writers of the era. Masur bats them out, but they never really come alive, in my opinion. But the other middle class people seem to be more a personal Masur world. The middle class characters often have ambiguous relationships with the rich people. These relationships are made more mysterious by the fact that the middle class people have often been murdered. The real nature of these relationships is often among the most interesting, ingenious part of Masur's mystery plots.
The subplot about the mysterious playwright is decently handled, from a mystery plotting standpoint. It leads to a pair of well-constructed developments (Chapters 22, 23). Rex Stout will create a different "mystery of authorship" in Plot It Yourself (1959). Both works give an inside view of the business aspects of New York's literary world of the 1950's.
Scenes show Jordan being intimidated by his friends, a familiar Masur element that will be developed more fully in Tall, Dark and Deadly. When Jordan is railroaded into court by the DA, he is prosecuted by a sympathetic young lawyer on the DA's staff, who has been forced to take the case against his will (Chapter 7). The lawyer is "on friendly terms" with Jordan, we learn. And when the killer frames Jordan later in the novel, the friendly Lt. Nola's assistant Sgt. Wienick seems to rejoice to find a piece of incriminating evidence against Jordan (end of Chapter 15).
The murder frame involves an "identity theft" against Jordan (Chapter 14), anticipating the opening of The Big Money.
The plot in You Can't Live Forever about the villain's criminal scheme was re-used in the short story "Richest Man in the Morgue" (1953), with variations. Masur has tried to vary the details as much as possible. The actual scheme is different, and the one in You Can't Live Forever has better financial detail. Masur also uses different countries for the criminal. "Richest Man in the Morgue" has an interesting psychological clue, that has no analogue in the novel. Both works culminate in a trap for the criminal, involving a photograph that might expose the criminal's scheme.
Other elements get repeated: Masur begins both works with a similar sentence, colorfully summarizing some of the characters. And both stories have a millionaire offering Scott Jordan a custom-made cigar, in encounters that are both friendly and intimidating.
These opening sections also show Jordan constantly being arrested and interrogated by law officials. These unsmiling interrogators always seem to include some of Jordan's friends, here turned into accusers, just to complete his discomfort. The Big Money opens with a similar fantasy of Scott Jordan in trouble, with his identity and office taken over. There are signs that Scott Jordan enjoys these elaborately staged encounters, and finds them gratifying.
Also noteworthy: the brief but pointed comparison between mystery and mainstream fiction, in the speech by Beatrice Dennison (middle of Chapter 18). Masur, like John Dickson Carr in Chapter 15 of Night at the Mocking Widow (1950), implies that mystery fiction is far superior to "serious" literature, a view that was heretical in its day. Arthur Upfield also expressed somewhat similar ideas in An Author Bites the Dust (1948), and there are Helen McCloy's stinging comments in Chapter 9 of Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956), where she talks about popular writers being pressured to give up plot, the way literary writers did in the 1920's.
The other notable thing about "Trial and Terror" is how abstract it is. The most important thing in the characters' lives is not their physical environment, but their behavior, and how it interacts with the law. Masur describes their legal situation in great detail. By contrast, the buildings and rooms around them are barely mentioned. The world in which the characters live is mainly a legal, financial and moral one, in which their behavior is central. It is an abstract world, created out of the law. The mystery plot, too, arises entirely out of this world, and is part of it. The mystery plot depends on ambiguities in and hidden secrets of the legal and financial actions of the characters. It has nothing to do with the timetables, physical clues, locked rooms and other themes of much detective fiction.
"Three Men and a Corpse" looks at veterans coming back after World War II, and trying to establish themselves in new civilian careers. No one here is expecting big money. But there is a sense of underlying optimism, that lives can be built.
SPOILER. "Three Men and a Corpse" is an unusual, perhaps experimental detective story. It solves its mystery puzzle, and includes clues that lets it private eye hero find the solution. But the solution itself is off-trail, offering variations on the traditional detective story paradigm.
Commentary on Louis Trimble / Stuart Brock:
The best part of this book is the opening (Chapters 1 - 5), in which Cory is sent to investigate jewel robberies at a swank hotel. These sections show Brock celebrating America's new found post war affluence. He seems extremely proud of the modernistic elegance of his hotel, and the book looks forward to all the executive suites and modernistic offices and hotels that will be built during the 1950's. His detective too, while having tough guy mannerisms, is calculated to express a new sophistication in America. Cory is a former tennis bum with a Nob Hill background and an elegant wardrobe of $200 suits. He has an upper class appearance, which is why he is sent undercover as a wealthy hotel guest in the novel. His character is an Ordinary Guy who gets to move among the economic elite. He clearly represents the dream of many returning vets that they could move into the upper middle classes, a dream that would become a reality for many ordinary Americans during the next thirty years, as America moved from the mass poverty of the Depression to the mass affluence of the 1960's.
The opening sections are well written, but the book becomes progressively less interesting as it goes along. It moves away from its elegant opening to concentrate more on gambling and mob life. Brock's mystery technique is nothing much. Still, it is one of the private eye novels of its era least influenced by Raymond Chandler. Instead he is closer to Harold Q. Masur, and Howard Browne's The Taste of Ashes, in that he reflects post war middle class aspirations. The book is set in Seattle, for no apparent reason. It can hardly be recommended as a whole, but its opening sections do evoke an era in American life.
Like other of Lacy's writings, this is a genuine detective story, with a mystery and detective. While Lacy drops clues in the opening that make the killer easy to spot, the motives behind the crime make a surprising finale. This paperback original is short, almost an long novella, not a novel. It in some ways seems like a large short story. It is remarkably readable: Lacy has the storyteller's gift. The mystery scheme, like others of Lacy's, involves the exploitation of marginal, "forgotten" people on the edge of society. Lacy sees danger in being on the edge of things. Like Sherlock Holmes in "The Copper Beeches", he sees crime in the lonely countryside, where there are few protections for the innocent. By contrast, Lacy associates the city, especially his beloved New York City, with virtue. Lacy is always urging his protagonists to get more involved with life. Isolation causes their problems. Involvement with things is their cure. This is true on a personal, private level; Lacy also sees the big city as the greatest source of integration opportunity for his minority characters, the place where their opportunities for advancement are richest.
Lacy's work benefits from his interest in the lives of everyday people. A book like Shakedown for Murder has no mobsters or underworld characters; instead it concentrates on the inhabitants of a small town, from the richest to the poorest. This means that Lacy completely avoids the conventional settings and characters of the hard-boiled novel. There is violence in this world, and tough guy encounters, but they are ordinary people, not mob types. So while the feel of Lacy's book is vaguely hard-boiled - it is definitely not cozy - the setting is much closer to everyday life. Lacy's detectives tend to be solitary sleuths entering a new and alien world. The have no contacts or inside track; everyone they encounter is a stranger.
Both of these stories are constructed in three Acts:
Lacy wrote some brief anecdotes, that deal with crime in an amusing fashion. Such short-shorts as "The 'Method' Sheriff" (1967) and "Amen!" (1968) shows a wealth of detail in their brief compass.
Homophobia certainly hurts Lacy's best known novel, Room to Swing. After an impressive first two chapters, dealing with the black hero and the state of race relations in 1950's America, Lacy switches gears, and the novel turns to a portrait of white gay literati in the TV business. These sections are dubious in the extreme.
Both the NYC cops, and some contrasting but still sympathetic Madison Avenue advertising types, are well drawn. Lacy tends to be largely admiring, or at least indulgent, of white collar businessman who work in skilled professions, such as stocks or advertising, reserving his scorn for capitalists who actually employ and exploit workers. New York City is also depicted as a place of opportunities for all sorts of racial minorities, a portrait that Lacy contrasts with the all-white TV shows of the era. These businessmen are largely tangential to the main plot. The actual suspects in the novel are much less well drawn, an odd paradox. The businessmen are also more liberal than Lacy's politically moderate cop hero, another unexpected but interesting development.
Although the detective hero of Lead With Your Left is white and the sleuth of Room to Swing is black, they share many common characteristics. Both are hot tempered guys, both are members of minorities (the policeman of Lead With Your Left is both Italian and Jewish), both spend a lot of time combating prejudice and getting into fist fights over it. Both are Army veterans, both are skilled and smart, both are handsome and sharp dressers, both come from a working class background. Neither is very successful from a monetary point of view; both are involved with women who push them relentlessly towards other careers that would make more money, leading to intense conflicts. Both novels also have a background look at the new TV medium of the era, which was often New York City based.
Hughes is one of seven writers explored in depth in Jeffrey Marks' book Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s (2003).
For one thing, her plotting. The story is a genuine mystery tale, in which the hero continuously unravels more and more of the mystery. It is not a series of character sketches, in the manner of Ross MacDonald, but a genuine mystery tale.
For another, Hughes often plays surrealistic games with the conventions of the hard-boiled mystery story. The reader is taken back by strange twists and turns in the plot. These surrealist variations are perhaps in the tradition of Craig Rice, who also rang surrealist changes on the underworld story. However, surrealism is such a standard (and powerful) strategy of the classical mystery story, that one is hesitant is ascribing its presence in Hughes to any one source. There is a transformative quality to Hughes' tale, in which ordinary people pass into the underworld, gaining new roles and identities in the process.
"The Spotted Pup" is completely different in style from most of Hughes' books, which are suspense novels with literary pretensions. Most of the characters in it are neither emotionally disturbed nor psychopathic, and no one is psychoanalyzed. The characters are mainly not dysfunctional, unlike those of Hughes' novels. The hero of "The Spotted Pup" is especially supposed to represent a normal, decent man. Hughes' ideas of normality are surprisingly conventional. They extend to her hero keeping his business shoes shined, but not to a high gloss; such an extreme polish would apparently indicate that he is not a proper Organization Man of the era! Her hero is a genuinely nice person, but he is certainly no non-conformist. He is part of a trend in post war crime fiction to idolize bourgeois normality. For a nation that had just been through the Depression and W.W. II, such normality understandably seemed like a price beyond rubies.
While the tone of the novella is serious, it is vastly more light hearted than Hughes' suspense work. It is written as if she were taking a vacation from her "literary" fiction by grinding out a Hammett pastiche. It is just a minor footnote in mystery history, but it is fun, especially in its first half, where its plotting is richest. "The Spotted Pup" (1945) is one of three novellas Hughes wrote during 1945 - 1946 for Mystery Book, an atypical digest size magazine. Each issue's sole contents were two or three crime novellas. Their authors ranged from Golden Age novelists such as Margery Allingham, to private eye authors like Brett Halliday and Kurt Steel. A few pulp writers contributed, such as Cornell Woolrich, but most were writers of mystery books and for the slicks: for example, Anthony Boucher contributed what seems to be the only Sister Ursula novella, "Vacancy with Corpse" (1946). Hughes did publish a few detective stories in the pulps, and later her 1978 authorized biography of Erle Stanley Gardner; these associate her to a degree with the pulp tradition. You can find "The Spotted Pup" in the anthology Murder and Mystery in Chicago (1987), edited by Carol-Lynn Rössel Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg and Frank D. McSherry, Jr.
Hughes' story anticipates in some ways the later film Dead Reckoning (1947, directed by John Cromwell), with both its Army buddy hero, and its night club characters.
The best part of Browne's The Taste of Ashes (1957) is not the main plot, but the description of the police force in an affluent superb, in Chapters 7, 11, and 23. This is a clever bit of fantasy, with nice satirical touches on the new suburban lifestyle of America.
The Taste of Ashes shows the police of a well-to-do suburb imitating the business executives of a 1950's corporation. It's a fun fantasy. We get something similar in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, with a gathering of Al Capone's gang in the style of a banker's meeting, with a room that looks like a corporation's lavish boardroom, and the gangsters in extremely dressy business suits. The costume designer has gone especially all out. The massacre itself involves hit men masquerading as cops, also a bit of fantasy disguise.
Commentary on Richard Ellington:
The actual alibi trick, however, in It's a Crime, turned out to be different than I expected. That the alibi was a failure, seemed obvious; that it could be caused by a standard, well-known device in the genre also seemed obvious. But Ellington's solution doesn't actually use such a device. Instead, it comes up with a mildly new variation (Chapter 24).
Little in It's a Crime compensates for the dullness of its puzzle. The detective hero is hired in a tawdry divorce case, and later gets involved working against a sexual blackmail scheme. The sordidness of this material will form a negative feature in other Ellington fiction.
Among the better chapters: meeting the most sympathetic suspect, a failed, aging actress (Chapter 1), a tailing job with a New York theater background (Chapter 2), one of those macho chauffeurs who are de rigueur in a private eye tale (Chapter 5), a second look at the actress and her work in radio (Chapter 14). The pleasant acting and theater background will return in later Ellington, notably Just Killing Time (1953), where it gets a more elaborate treatment.
Uniforms form a motif in It's a Crime, from the chauffeur's to the Army uniforms once worn by servicemen in the recently ended World War II. Apartments and hotels are another running motif. In real life, Ellington would eventually go on to run a hotel in the Caribbean.
The main impossiblities are set forth in in Chapters 1-7. These chapters have a unified setting, mainly in Greenwich Village (a historical district in New York City). They make good reading.
After this, the tone of the book changes, and largely becomes less interesting. New suspects are introduced, and some sordid material that seems extraneous to the mystery plot. Little of this is very good. The book only picks up in Chapters 15 and 17, which explain the early impossibilities.
The choice of killer is not very interesting. And little about the murder actually turns out to have much to do with the impossibilities.
Although Drake is a fairly tough private eye, this case does not have him involved with the underworld, or organized crime. Instead, most of the suspects are from the theater or early live television. The book gives an inside look at early TV broadcasting. Author Ellington had a career in radio, both as a performer and writer, and this book has an authentic feel. This sort of New York show biz background would be far more typical of a Van Dine school author, like Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer, Kelley Roos, or the Lockridges. It is a pleasant surprise to encounter it in a private eye tale.
Other virtues: the cops are colorfully characterized. Narrator Drake clearly finds associating with these tough-but-classy guys gratifying.
And the descriptions of how various kinds of light illuminate the nocturnal stakeout in Central Park are also well done.
Just Killing Time would be much better off as a novella. It is at its best in its first third (Chapters 1-9), which sets up the crimes and the show biz background. After this, there is 100 pages of dull padding, before the brief solution (Chapter 22). The solution involves a puzzle plot. It is competently done - but none too original. The fact that the book is a real mystery will please mystery fans - but the lack of brilliance will disappoint them. The book is best at evoking a fantasy Manhattan of 1952, in which show biz was booming, colorful people were on every street corner, a tough talking but non-violent eye could hang out with cops, suspects and TV stars, and everything was just a cab ride or a subway trip away.