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

Recommended Works:

Raymond Chandler

The Simple Art of Murder Killer in the Rain

Uncollected short stories

Post War Private Eyes

William Campbell Gault

"Marksman" (1940)

Red Barry short stories

Calvan Calvano short stories

"See No Evil" (1950)

Victor K. Ray

"Three Men and a Corpse" (1948)

Dan Gordon

Lew Guyon-Sammy Sultan short stories

Hank Searls

The Adventures of Mike Blair

Leigh Brackett

"Design for Dying" (1944)

"So Pale, So Cold, So Fair" (1957)

Wade Miller

Guilty Bystander (1947) (Chapters 1 - 18)

Fatal Step (1948) (Chapters 1 - 11, 19 - 20, 28 - 29)

Uncollected short stories

Richard S. Prather

Shell Scott's Seven Slaughters The Shell Scott Sampler

Michael Avallone

The Crazy Mixed-Up Corpse (1957)

Ron Goulart

"The Peppermint-Striped Goodbye" (1965)

Middle Class Dreams

Ed Lacy

Room to Swing (1957) (Chapters 1-2)

Shakedown for Murder (1958)

Uncollected short stories

Dorothy B. Hughes

"The Spotted Pup" (1945)

Stuart Brock

Just Around the Coroner (1948) (Chapters 1-5)

Howard Browne

The Taste of Ashes (1957) (Chapters 7,11,23)

"Man in the Dark" (1952)

Richard Ellington

Exit for a Dame (1951) (Chapters 1-7,15,17,23)

Just Killing Time (1953) (Chapters 1-9,22)

Harold Q. Masur

You Can't Live Forever (1951) (Chapters 1-8, 14, 22, 23, 28)

The Big Money (1954) (Chapters 1-5)

Tall, Dark and Deadly (1956) (Chapters 1-12)

The Name Is Jordan

Uncollected Scott Jordan short stories


Raymond Chandler

I am not as big a Raymond Chandler fan as are many private eye enthusiasts. His work was undeniably influential: imitations of it form the basis of private eye literature, from the 1940's to the 1990's. And it is mandatory for a review of mystery fiction, such as this one, to include a detailed look at his work. But Chandler's work is so gloomy and downbeat that I find it hard to see how people get so much pleasure out of it.

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.

Influences on Chandler

People often talk as if Chandler's main influence as a mystery writer were Dashiell Hammett. Hammett certainly was a pioneer writer of the kind of hard boiled detective stories that Chandler wrote, and the ultimate source of much of Chandler's approach. But I suspect a much more immediate predecessor of Chandler was Frederick Nebel. Nebel's Dick Donahue stories were appearing in Black Mask when Chandler published his first story in that magazine in 1933, whereas most of Hammett's fiction was published in the 1920's.

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".

The First Chandler Short Stories

"Blackmailers Don't Shoot" (1933) is Chandler's first story. It is only one of a handful of his works to emphasize the formal intricate plotting so popular in traditional mysteries. Here the emphasis is not on who done it, but on the ever changing status of the hero and the other characters. At first our hero is presented as nothing more than a common blackmailer, but Chandler uses considerable ingenuity in changing our perception of what side of the law he is on, and what strategy he is following. Further ingenuity is expended on the role of various police, and the legal standing of the hero. The story is sometimes hard to follow, but very interesting and creative.

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.

Chandler Finds a Voice: The Key Black Mask Tales

Next comes "Nevada Gas" (1935), start of a genuinely creative period for Chandler. This mob tale has a great opening, and a fairly good follow up. It is somewhat sour in its view of human relations. It starts a series of stories all based on some strong idea or central situation. This is a hallmark of this series.

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.

A Period of Longer but Poorer Tales

Chandler's next story, "The Curtain", has interesting personal relationships in its opening, but otherwise is laboriously violence ridden. One shoot out simply follows another without pause. This, and his next story, "Try The Girl", mark a period of decline.

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.

Novels: The Big Sleep

In 1939 Chandler largely stopped writing pulp short stories, and turned to novels instead. I don't think any of his early novels are as good as his shorter pieces. Their greatest virtue is their prose style, which reaches its height in the second book, Farewell, My Lovely.

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, My Lovely

Farewell is based on three previous short stories, which Chandler combined, expanded and rewrote. "Rewrote" is the key word here. Chandler's skills as a stylist are at their height in this novel, especially its opening sections. The work is full of descriptive passages about LA and Santa Monica (Bay City in the novel). Many of these are so beautifully written they seem like prose poems. Chandler's dialogue and general mise-en-scène in the creation of atmosphere and emotional nuances of character and interaction is also at its height here.

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 & The Lady in the Lake

Chandler followed Farewell with a long short story, "No Crime in the Mountains" (1941). This is one his most smoothly written works. Filled with humor and an exciting plot, it is one of his most entertaining tales. It has a rich atmosphere describing the mountain resorts where the crime takes place. Less poetic than Farewell, it is still full of mountains of vividly realized descriptive detail.

"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.)

Recommended Reading

Frank MacShane's The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976) is a very informative biography. It is full of quotes from Chandler's letters, both autobiographical and literary. Chandler dictated an immense number of letters in his later years. They show both Chandler's weaknesses - they are rambling and unorganized - and strengths - they are vividly written. MacShane has taken these writings, and organized them into a logical framework, thus giving the reader the best of both worlds.

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.


Brett Halliday

Brett Halliday is the prolific author of novels and short stories, especially about private eye Michael Shayne.

Halliday is more a contemporary than a follower of Raymond Chandler.

Mum's the Word for Murder

Mum's the Word for Murder (1938) is Halliday's first published mystery novel. It was published before his first book about his series sleuth, private eye Michael Shayne, although apparently written after it.

The tale has features recalling Erle Stanley Gardner's DA books, which began with The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937):

Halliday's book is in the tradition of Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders (1936), being an account of a series of murders. Halliday mentions the solution of Christie's novel as a possibility at the start, although he does not refer to Christie by name. However, Halliday comes up with a new and original solution at the end, one that has been much imitated by later authors.

Halliday's book also sets precedent by having the killer send messages to the police before each crime occurs.


Post War Private Eyes

Chandler was largely obscure while he published in the pulps and his first four novels in hardback, but the reprinting of his novels in the new medium of paperback books in 1943 made him an immediate best seller. He sold millions of books, and became one of the best known writers in America. Movie (1944 - 1947) and radio (1949 - ) adaptations followed. After World War II ended in 1945, private eye tales imitative of Chandler largely replaced the old detective heroes in the pulps and other mystery magazines. While the old pulp tales tended to be exuberant and escapist in tone, the private eye stories were full of angst and weltschmerz. The p i stories were also more "realistic" in tone, tending to offer low key portraits of the hero doing battle with powerful evil people, mobsters and sinister millionaires and their beautiful but corrupt mistresses, instead of the gung ho adventure plotting of the 1930's. Mickey Spillane appeared on the p i scene in 1947 with his Mike Hammer novels, works that sold millions in paperback from 1949 on, and which contributed to the expansion of the paperback book.

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:

This is a record of destruction reminiscent of the Mayan Collapse. It is a cultural catastrophe on the order of the burning of the Library at Alexandria.

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.


William Campbell Gault

William Campbell Gault's post war private eye stories in the pulps show some unusual features. Many have strong elements of love or romance in them, bittersweet encounters that play major roles in the plot. This is in pleasant contrast to both the ascetic Marlowe and the swinging P.I.s of the era. The tales become quite emotionally involving. Oftentimes they have delicate, haunting finales. Family relationships can also play a role. There is also oftentimes strong puzzle plotting, with surprising, ingenious solutions.

Leigh Brackett

Leigh Brackett was an occasional writer of detective fiction, in the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler. Two of the stories I have read, including the well done "So Pale, So Cold, So Fair" (1957), deal with a man who cleans up a crooked town. This is basically similar to the plot subjects of her Howard Hawks movie westerns, Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1967). In an earlier tale, the overly gruesome and morbid "I Feel Bad Killing You" (1944), she calls her crooked area the Surfside Division of L.A., an obvious homage to Raymond Chandler, who created "Bay City" as the ultimate town run by crooked cops, in Farewell My Lovely (1940). Chandler's original was Santa Monica, now a lovely beach community near L.A., but at the time a notoriously corrupt burg. (Two of my favorite films were shot there, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) and Curtis Harrington's Night Tide (1960).) No one in Chandler succeeds in cleaning the city up: it just sits there and festers. Brackett takes the opposite approach, one that seems more in tune with traditional Westerns, such as Destry Rides Again (1939), in which the hero reforms the whole crooked town. Brackett clearly is expressing a personal vision here.

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.


Hank Searls

Before he became a mainstream writer and scriptwriter, Searls contributed nine stories to the pulps during 1949 and 1950, seven of which deal with private eye Mike Blair. Blair's clients are often underworld figures, such as bookies and nightclub owners. Blair often does divorce work, and other two-bit marital tasks. In short, he is much less glamorized than many of his private eye contemporaries, who only handle innocent clients, and who never touch divorce work. Within these limitations, Blair is completely honest and decent, however. In fact, his friendliness and lack of pretense make him sound far more appealing as a friend than such crusading figures as Mike Hammer.

"Kickback for a Killer" (1949) has some vivid storytelling. It also has a simple but well done puzzle plot.


Richard S. Prather

Richard S. Prather's stories are ostensibly about hoodlums and the rich. Actually, the activities depicted by them seem more typical of middle class Southern Californians trying to be hip. They are comic depictions of the sort of thing done by ordinary mildly prosperous Americans who have just enough money to indulge in the latest fads. This gives them a welcome element of social satire. They deal more with uninhibited denizens of La La Land, than with actual mob types who, I imagine, are a pretty grim bunch, in real life. Characters in Shell Scott stories tend to be submerged in their environments. These areas, usually part of the glitzy but trashy party life of the newer than nouveau riche, tend to be all encompassing locations that dictate dress, attitude and appearance. Many of them actually sound like a good deal of fun. Scott tends to make progress as a detective, not by pulling back from these environments and asserting his own uniqueness, but by plunging in deeper into them. For example, "The Best Motive" (1953) takes place at a Halloween themed nightclub; Scott puts on a skeleton suit he takes from a crook, and thus disguised, he infiltrates the bad guys. Scott first figures out who the killer is, usually by a burst of intuitionist insight. Then he lays a trap to catch the killer.

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.


Michael Avallone

Ed Noon novels

The Voodoo Murders. The Voodoo Murders (1957) is a minor book. But it has a few nice comic touches. Its cast of characters at the start links each person to their favorite dance. Avallone used similar casts of characters with symbolic linkages in other novels.

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.


Wade Miller

Wade Miller was the pseudonym used by two prolific San Diego, California authors, Bill Miller and Bob Wade. The two also published under other names, such as Whit Masterson. Orson Welles made one of the Masterson books, Badge of Evil (1956), into the film noir classic, Touch of Evil (1958).

There is a bibliography, critical commentary, and an interview with Bob Wade, at the on-line journal MYSTERY*FILE.

Guilty Bystander

Wade Miller wrote a series of six novels starring private eye Max Thursday. Although they all appeared chronologically after Raymond Chandler, they show little sign of Chandler's influence. Instead, the stories pleasantly reflect pulp magazine traditions of the pre-war years.

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

Fatal Step (1948) is the second Max Thursday mystery novel. It is best when it is conveying the feel of its San Diego locations, including one of the city's many amusement parks of the era. The book has a real "you are there" quality. Similarly, the descriptive writing in the first half of Guilty Bystander is also good, with everything from the characters' appearance to the locales precisely described.

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

The cop in the Thursday books, Lt. Austin Clapp, appeared in the team's first novel, Deadly Weapon (1946), but without Thursday. This book is far more conventionally hard-boiled than the later Thursday works, and far less interesting, as well. It lacks the vivid freshness of description found in the Thursdays. Instead it concentrates on sordid accounts of vice, in the mode popularized by Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep (1939). There is also some nasty homophobia, in the ugly Chandler tradition, as well.

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.

Short Stories: Psychoanalytic

Wade Miller's psychoanalytic mysteries, "The Memorial Hour" (1960) and "Seek Him in Shadows" (1966), both have some points in common. Both short stories are ultimately more concerned with the mind of the hero than with any external events. Indeed the stories eventually become solipsistic. Both range widely over the hero's whole life. Like Miller's other mysteries, the puzzle plots often turn on matters of identity. Both tales are absorbing reading; but both have puzzle plots that are easily guessed. Both stories do not conform to the stereotypes of the 1960's that have built up. After all, like the heroes of these stories, most people in the 1960's were gainfully employed, and more concerned with their personal difficulties than with any sort of counter culture. "The Memorial Hour" is both the more concise and the more inventive of the two tales.

Middle Class Dreams

A number of private eye writers of the post-1945 era were especially interested in the rise of a large, prosperous middle class in the United States after World War II. These writers include Harold Q. Masur, Stuart Brock, Ed Lacy, Howard Browne, Richard Ellington. Even the suspense writer Dorothy B. Hughes falls into this tradition with her occasional private eye tales. Other writers in this era were also experimenting with suburban settings, such as Bruno Fischer's "The Dog Died First" (1949).

Harold Q. Masur

There is a bibliography, critical commentary, and an interview with Harold Q. Masur, at the on-line journal MYSTERY*FILE.

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.

Characters

Masur also has a certain middle class orientation which is antithetical to the social alienation of the Chandler school of p.i.'s. He is obviously proud of his lawyer hero's education and professional status - Masur was a lawyer himself. Masur's attitude is in fact very close to the 1950's American pride in the nation's growing prosperity and increasingly middle class status. Masur also flaunts his education in the many cultural references which dot his tales. There are surprising references to tropical biology and customs in the stories, and a knowledgability about literature. Many of his descriptions show both a wry humor and a startling metaphor. Masur here is part of a 1950's tradition that equated education with social progress. Many people of the time thought that mass college education, available for the first time after WW II, would bring about a social paradise in future America. Intellectuality was cherished and admired by many people of the era, as a harbinger of a better world.

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.

You Can't Live Forever

You Can't Live Forever (1951) has some decent ideas, but fails to cohere logically as a whole: You Can't Live Forever has a lively opening, setting up a crime scene and a background of chicanery involving the financing of a hit Broadway play (Chapters 1-4). There is also a decent trial scene (Chapters 7-8). These opening chapters make soothing reading, even if they don't develop into a novel that is good overall.

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.

The Big Money

The Big Money (1954) comes out of the same world as "Murder Never Solves Anything" (1976). Both deal with stockbrokers and the world of finance - The Big Money is an early look at what today we call venture capitalists, although that term is not used in the novel. Both involve ingenious schemes to defraud people of their money. These show considerable sophistication about the intricate details of finance, both honest and crooked. Both have a sub-theme of impersonation, as part of these schemes. The Big Money is too drawn out, and runs out of inspiration after its first few chapters. "Murder Never Solves Anything" is both concise, and fascinating throughout.

Tall, Dark and Deadly

Tall, Dark and Deadly (1956) is one of Masur's most readable novels. The first half rings changes on a mystery involving a divorce (Chapters 1-12), with interconnections being explored between the characters. Unfortunately, the mystery solution of Tall, Dark and Deadly is not creative.

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.

Make a Killing

Masur frequently recycled the short story "Dead Issue" (1954). He reworked the plot for "The Woman Who Knew Too Much" (1957), then incorporated elements into the novel Make a Killing (1964). Unlike some of his earlier writings, Masur has stripped this novel of anything resembling "hard-boiled" elements. These would conflict with the tone of sophisticated, affluent New York that Masur is working so hard to convey. The best part of Make a Killing is its opening section (Chapters 1 - 8), which occurs before any mystery plot gets going. These chapters give a glamorous view of New York City's business world in the 1960's. The mystery that follows is utterly routine; it is also not well integrated with the business events that preceded it.

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.

Trial and Terror: a short story

"Trial and Terror" (1979) has some unusual features. First, it is one of the few lawyer stories that shows a hero lawyer defending a client who is obviously in the wrong. The client is not evil, but clearly he has done the wrong things with his finances and his professional conduct. Scott Jordan knows this, and simply tries to get the best deal for him. This is more realistic than many law tales. Secondly, the government lawyer going against Jordan and his client is not vilified. Instead, he is depicted as the sort of buzz-cutted, Brooks Brothers suited government man who often shows up in Jordan tales. Masur respects him even as he clobbers his hero. This sort of approach allows Masur an opportunity to explore legal territory not usually seen in fiction.

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.


Victor K. Ray

Three Men and a Corpse: a short story

"Three Men and a Corpse" (1948) is a pulp magazine short story. It is reprinted in the anthology 100 Dastardly Little Detective Stories (1993), edited by Robert E. Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg.

"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.


Stuart Brock / Louis Trimble

Louis Trimble, who also wrote as Stuart Brock, is a forgotten writer of the post-World War II era.

Commentary on Louis Trimble / Stuart Brock:

Just Around the Coroner

Stuart Brock's Just Around the Coroner (1948) is a mystery featuring his private eye Peter Cory. This sort of punning title is common in the pulp magazines of the era, but Brock only appeared a few times in the pulps, in 1952 as "Brock", and six times under his real name, Louis Trimble.

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.


Ed Lacy

Commentary on Ed Lacy:

Shakedown for Murder

Shakedown for Murder (1958) involves a middle-aged New York City cop investigating a crime in a small Long Island village. The story paints a detailed and multi-faceted picture of life in such a small town, complete with economics, sociology, and a look at minority groups in the area. While the story is critical of 1950's America's racial prejudices, it is also optimistic about opportunities for the characters to develop better lives. Lacy tends to see the good in people. Even his flawed characters have potential for growth and development. Lacy is both satirical about America's young men, and indulgent of them. He suggests that they are often polishing up their images in artificial ways. We see the cops in the opening chapter, and the junior executive types at the finale.

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.

Short Stories

Such late short stories as "Death, the Black-eyed Denominator" (1963) and "Heir To Murder" (1967) are genuine mystery stories, written in a decade when the genre wasn't fashionable. They tend to be in a fairly hard-boiled mode, featuring either tough cops or private eyes.

Both of these stories are constructed in three Acts:

Interwoven with all this is the hero's pleasant relationship with his girlfriend, and good natured relationship with the other (male) detectives on the case.

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.

Sin in Their Blood

One does not want to suggest that all of Lacy's work is good. A complete disaster like Sin in Their Blood (1952) shows us that homophobia was just as much a problem with left wing authors like Lacy as it was for right wing types like Mickey Spillane, and apolitical writers like Chandler. Such Chandler disciples as Ross Macdonald and Howard Browne also were obsessed with anti-gay hatred. Ultimately, this bigotry is a limiting factor in all these writers' works. Despite the attempts of their admirers to make them out as major novelists, much of their fiction actually consists of lies about gay people.

Room to Swing

The best part of Lacy's Room to Swing (1957) is the opening. It contains a much imitated scene of a well educated Northern black detective who has to face down the bigoted residents of a Southern hick town. This is an archetypal scene, which offers pointed pro Civil Rights commentary. The detective is far more intelligent, educated, and middle class than the bigots he meets, and he offers a portrait of a new, integrated, middle class America rising out of the old segregated one.

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.

Blonde Bait

Blonde Bait (1959) is much less offensive, but it is not very inspired, either. The book is a thriller lacking both a puzzle plot and plausibility. It gets a little more interesting towards its finale, when Lacy drags in a background of events from the Algerian War, but it never really amounts to much. Both of these books show their characters' desire to escape to a bucolic world, where they can live and love without any sense of responsibility.

Lead With Your Left

Lead With Your Left (1957) is a clever title, evoking both boxing, and Lacy's left wing politics. This book has readable storytelling, being full of interesting sociological detail about the US in the 1950's, and an engaging, very young cop hero. Too bad the mystery plot is so implausibly done. The hero is of the last generation of Americans who could plausibly build a career out of a high school education. This young guy is just out of school, then the Army; he is already married and engaged on a career with the police. His being all grown-up at age 20 or so is startling when contrasted with today's perpetual adolescence.

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.


Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes was a prestigious writer of suspense fiction. Most of this is out of scope for this Guide, which concentrates on "mysteries solved by detectives", rather than suspense.

Hughes is one of seven writers explored in depth in Jeffrey Marks' book Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s (2003).

The Spotted Pup: a novella

Dorothy B. Hughes' novella "The Spotted Pup" (1945) is full of private eye characters and settings that had been clichés for decades: the lonely private eye with his cheap office, the glamorous heiress looking for a missing man, the sinister night club run by underworld characters - but everything in it seems fresh, new and gripping. How does she achieve this effect?

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.


Howard Browne

Paul Pry: Private Eye Novels

Howard Browne is best known for his series of novels about Paul Pry, a private eye. The first, Halo in Blood (1946) has some effective storytelling, with several surprising plot twists. It is marred, like much of Browne's fiction, by a persistent homophobia, also an ugly feature of Browne's model, Raymond Chandler. This novel's basic set-up recalls Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939), with a millionaire calling in the solitary p.i. hero to interfere in the life of his wayward daughter, who is involved with lots of undesirable people.

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.

Short Stories

"Man in the Dark" (1952) has a well constructed puzzle plot. The plot keeps turning off into surprising directions. The story is also set in the newly affluent suburban world of post World War II America, here in the suburbs of Los Angeles. As in The Taste of Ashes, there is a vividly described police force. Nearly everybody works for a living in Browne's tale, and whole ways of life are described for all the characters, both the civilian characters and the police, based on their professions. All of the characters are deeply embedded in such career life styles; they seem to enjoy it and to get much of their sense of identity from them.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre

Brown scripted the film The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967), about the real life 1929 gangland slaying in Chicago. Browne had previously dramatized the same subject in a novel used as the basis for Seven Against the Wall (1958), an episode of the TV series Playhouse 90.

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.

Television Scripts

Browne was a prolific TV scriptwriter. An episode he co-wrote of Banacek, dealing with a stolen crucifix, is a gem. It develops into a tasteful, sympathetic, but exuberant fantasia on Roman Catholicism in the modern world, with characters representing many of the world's Catholic countries, such as Mexico, Italy, France and Banacek himself standing in for Poland. It is a highly unusual piece of writing. The search for the crucifix allegorically represents the characters' search for the Cross. Allegories are supposed to be dull, and religious dramas are supposed to be grim, but this one is both reverent and witty.

Richard Ellington

Richard Ellington was a private eye novelist who also wrote for radio. He is not to be confused with Richard "Dick" Ellington, the anarchist writer and publisher who was a member of the IWW ("Wobblies").

Commentary on Richard Ellington:

It's a Crime

It's a Crime (1948) is the second Steve Drake detective novel. It's a slow moving book, that laboriously sets up an alibi puzzle over its vast length. The puzzle is simple: in fact, it seemed obvious to me immediately whodunit, in the chapter that first introduces the suspect who turns out to be the murderer. This suspect's alibi seemed obviously full of holes.

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.

Exit for a Dame

Exit for a Dame (1951) is the fourth Steve Drake detective novel. It is unusual for a private eye book, in that it is full of impossible crime material. The great majority of impossible crime works (by other writers) feature amateur sleuths, who figure out the crimes through pure thinking. Indeed, Exit for a Dame shows signs of this tradition. Steve Drake functions almost as an amateur sleuth throughout Exit for a Dame, rather than as a professional shamus. He happens on the crime by pure chance, while walking down the street - just the way Miss Marple might. He investigates almost as an amateur would, just snooping around. And he keeps his involvement with the police to a minimum.

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.

Just Killing Time

Just Killing Time (1953) is the last of five mystery novels that Richard Ellington wrote about private eye Steve Drake. Drake, a two-bit but good-natured detective, has a modest office in Manhattan. This case has him involved in stakeouts in Central Park, blackmail payments in the theater district, and of course, murder.

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.