MacKinlay Kantor | Vincent Hall | Lincoln Steffens | Joseph Fulling Fishman | William Almon Wolff | Carl McK. Saunders | Tom Marvin | Howard Finney | George S. Schuyler | Roland Phillips | Howard McLellan | B.B. Fowler | Gang Busters: The Eddie Doll Case | Tom Curry | William Rough | E.C. Marshall | James W. Holden | Walt Sheldon | Lawrence Treat | William Fay | Matt Taylor | Kendell Foster Crossen | Edward S. Aarons / Edward Ronns | Hugh Lawrence Nelson | Jack Webb | William P. McGivern | Recommended Reading
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
"Die Before Bedtime" (1940)
MacKinlay Kantor's "Yea, He Did Fly" (written 1931) shows his skill with the non mystery story. While definitely not a mystery, one hesitates to call this a "mainstream" story, because it is also so different from most "literary" fiction. Written with an almost Shakespearean richness of language, it could be considered a prose poem. Like Shakespeare, Kantor here uses words outside their original contexts, in novel and unusual ways. For example, he speaks of a scene being "rinsed" by light, when a car's headlights swoop over it. Oddly enough, one can see similarities between this tale, and the storyteller of "The Light at Three O'Clock". There is the same fascination with light after dark, the same drawing of his heroes to places where danger and mystery lurk. There is also an emphasis on characters hiding in small narrow spaces, and ultimately emerging. Like "The Second Challenge" (1929), another early pulp tale, there is a nocturnal world in this story, one filled with danger, adventure, and personal self discovery. Kantor's use of rich language in "Yea, He Did Fly" is in the tradition of such 19th Century American Renaissance writers as Herman Melville and Harriet Prescott Spofford ("The Amber Gods"). It runs orthogonal to the dogma of his era that good prose should be in the American vernacular: see Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway. While Kantor often wrote about ordinary people, he rarely used ordinary language to do so. Kantor is too interested in lyrical descriptions, especially of nature and small town or neighborhood social life, to want to be plain. He is a rhapsodist, who wants to celebrate the beauty of the world around him. Kantor differs from American Renaissance writers such as Melville or Hawthorne, in that his stories are not loaded with symbolic meanings or resonances. There are no Minister's Black Veils in his tales to intrigue the reader with their symbolic weight. Kantor's typical hero is a young person beginning to discover the social world beyond his home. He is eager to explore the world around him. While the events he sees can be sad or even tragic, they are usually not bitter. Just seeing what lies beyond his own fence is fascinating to Kantor's hero. The lead can be a grown man or a child, or even an animal: Kantor had an especial sympathy for animals in his tales.
"The Trail of the Brown Sedan" (1933) is part of Kantor's Detective Fiction Weekly (DFW) series about police officers Nick Glennan and Dave Glennan, two Irish cop brothers. Little remembered today, it is a pioneer work of the Police Procedural. Kantor always had a strong realist side to him - he was a mainstream writer, and shared the bias of that tribe toward realism - and these tales try to give a fairly realistic look at police work, without sacrificing excitement and drama. They are very different in feel from the hard-boiled stories then appearing in Black Mask, and are perhaps a little bit closer to the tales of gangsters then appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, although Kantor's work has a bit more of a working class feel to it than the typical Post story. (See also Howard McLellan's "The Moll-Trap" (1929) from Colliers'.) While Nick Glennan is the central character, a whole group of cops are portrayed, anticipating the police procedural technique of an entire squad of cops as the "hero" of a tale. There is also an emphasis on ethnic diversity, with a wide range of immigrant groups sympathetically portrayed, both among the police, and the witnesses to the crime. Most of the characters are poor but respectable members of the working class - this is the depths of the Depression. Many city locales are also portrayed, with the police traveling from one to another. Kantor likes open spaces: city plazas, street corners, the entrance steps of buildings, fields, vacant lots. There is always a railroad in the background somewhere.
This is the same technique he used to describe the Iowa neighborhood of his childhood in "The Neighbors Light Their Lanterns" (1931), and also recalls his classic, "Yea, He Did Fly" (1931). The collective portrait of his neighbors in "Lanterns" also recalls the collective portrait of the cops in "Sedan". "Lanterns" is to a degree a cross between the mystery and the mainstream story, an unusual hybrid for its era. In fact, Kantor was not able to sell this tale anywhere.
Kantor's first published short story, the mainstream tale "Purple" (1922), also shows his ability to describe Iowa life. It contains some sharp comments on the relation between art and life. Both this tale and "Brown Sedan" also show Kantor's interest in unusual, non-standard things that can be done with photography.
Kantor would go on to write an early novel of the police procedural school, Signal Thirty-Two (1950). He records in his commentary in Author's Choice how much real life policemen of the early 1930's liked his Glennan tales. Not all of them are up to the quality of "Sedan". Both the OK "Sparrow Cop" (1933) and the dismal "The Hunting of Hemingway" (1934) are much too violent and plotless. The best parts of "Sparrow Cop" are the early sections, which deal with Glennan's pleasure in his new police uniform.
Kantor also wrote non-series tales of police procedure. "Something Like Salmon" (1933) is a well done story that mixes a police man-hunt for bank robbers with detection. The man-hunt theme is a perennial feature of Kantor's police stories. The detection in "Something Like Salmon" is performed not by a policeman, but by the sympathetic and highly observant Greek owner of a lunch counter. He anticipates the Greek restaurateur in Kantor's "That Greek Dog" (1941), and is typical of Kantor's sympathetic treatment of immigrants.
"Blue-Jay Takes the Trail" (1933) is also an absorbing story of a man-hunt around a small Midwestern city and its surrounding countryside, probably a fictionalized version of Kantor's home town of Webster City, Iowa. "Blue-Jay" suffers from excessive violence, but is otherwise an interesting tale. It is a pulp story, but it echoes the tradition popular in slick magazines of the era of pitting ordinary people against mobsters.
Kantor's "Night of Panic" (1949) is a short tale that takes place in Civil War era Washington D.C. It is not a mystery, but it can be considered a suspense work. (It can be found in Stewart Beach's anthology This Week's Stories of Mystery and Suspense.) It has many of the hallmarks of Kantor's earlier tales. It takes place at night, one that is partially and inadequately illuminated. It takes place in an urban landscape that includes houses, yards and streets, like "The Neighbors Light Their Lanterns", and urban open spaces, like "The Trail of the Brown Sedan". Everybody is looking for an elderly man in jeopardy, as in "Lanterns". It is written in Kantor's richly evocative style. It has two brothers, both in uniform, just like the Glennan Brothers of Kantor's pulp tales, one older and more experienced, the other young and eager. Both get involved in derring do and excitement, also like the Glennans. There are animals in the tales, horses and mules, like the dogs and moths of Kantor's earlier stories. These are archetypal Kantor landscapes and characters, ones that appear whenever his creative mind is evolving a story. It is a landscape that has its roots in Kantor's childhood memories, as he makes clear in Author's Choice. Children's worlds are heavily bounded by yards and streets, and everything in them takes on an enormous importance, and great tactile reality. This is true of Kantor's yards: every wall or hedge or feature seems overwhelmingly vivid and real. It is a world most of Kantor's readers can identify with, because we can remember childhood worlds of our own that are equally vivid in their details. Kantor's family members are always bound to each other by affection. They might have difficulties with practical issues - the wife in "Night" cannot face her husband's danger in the Civil War - but they are always full of warm feeling for each other. Both the family members, usually brothers, and the animals in Kantor's stories also seem child like. This is a child's world view, projected onto adults. When one uses the word "child like" one conjures up a stereotype of sticky sentimentality, faux naiveté, etc. None of that is present here. All the same, Kantor's stories are close to the genuine aspect of the world viewed by a child.
"That Greek Dog" (1941) is a mainstream story with strong elements of the thriller. Even though Kantor was largely aiming toward mainstream markets at that era (the story appeared in the Post), his imagination was clearly still drawing on suspense situations. (Similarly, when many science fiction writers write mainstream fiction, there is often a strong sf tinge to it.) This is probably a good thing; Kantor became much less sentimental when including mystery or suspense elements in his tales; far too many of his later mainstream stories are dunked in sentimental goo, and the sort of small town folksiness that was real big in his era, but which today seems as phony as a three dollar bill. The tale recycles imagery from his early pulp story, "The Second Challenge" (1929). Both take place in what is essentially his home town of Webster City, Iowa, both contain little restaurants (here a sweet shop), and both have dogs who get involved in nocturnal crimes, protecting their masters. Even though these stories were written 12 years apart, there is a strong personal element in common. This tale and others of its era show Kantor as an early, outspoken advocate of racial integration.
Kantor's "Gun Crazy" (1940) was the source for the 1949 film noir classic directed by Joseph H. Lewis; Kantor's film script was re-written by Dalton Trumbo. The short story seems to be the barest outline or plot synopsis of the movie, however. Scenes that are dramatized in detail in the film are just summarized in the story, and the prose tale is basically just a footnote in film history.
Of course, there might be a large common heritage of police stories drawn on by both writers as well: the police are by no means an institution neglected by popular literature, and Futrelle's "The Diamond Master" already showed many clichés of police activity, such as the third degree, way back in 1909, not to mention Gaboriau back even further. Pulp historians are largely in love with private detectives who appear in series tales, and police fiction from the pulps is much less reprinted. It is hard to tell how much or what kinds of police tales appeared in pulp magazines, let alone how good they were. Kantor has been reprinted because he was a mainstream author, Woolrich because he was a master of suspense.
Carl McK. Saunders' police tales of Captain Murdock appeared in Ten Detective Aces, otherwise home base of much weird menace fiction. Both Kantor and Woolrich also have ties to the weird menace school, and one wonders if there is a systematic link between weird menace and the police tale in the pulps, unlikely as that first sounds. At the very least, both weird menace and police stories are alternatives to the hard-boiled p.i. tradition, and might have struck an alliance for mutual survival. For another, the police seem to show up often in Paul Chadwick's weird menace stories, with police characters realistically and sympathetically described in the Kantor mode. Frederick C. Davis' Moon Man is also a policeman in his secret identity, and once again there is a realistic police drama lurking in the background of Davis' fantastic center stage melodrama.
"The Compliments of the Chief" shows the police and government as doing the bidding of wealthy businessmen. This would become a theme of Steffens' non-fiction work.
There is an informative article by Monte Herridge on the Old Calamity tales at Mystery*File. It includes a bibliography.
Old Calamity is a prison official, rather than a police officer, strictly speaking. However, he is a government official fighting crime, like the police. "Old Calamity's Stick-up" (1934) shows Old Calamity drawing on the resources of another Government institution, the Department of Justice in Washington. Old Calamity also uses the specialized skills of employees in the prison. This gives "Old Calamity's Stick-up" a "procedural" aspect, like police tales which draw upon the resources of police departments. However, "Old Calamity's Stick-up" attempts to tell an exciting, dramatic tale - it is not a low key story of procedural routine.
"Old Calamity's Stick-up" draws on in a mild way on a scientific domain, the classification of fingerprints. This gives it a mild Scientific Detection aspect.
The architecture of the prison is much discussed. This is in accord with the interest in architecture in Golden Age mystery fiction.
There are clues in "Old Calamity's Stick-up". SPOILER. Some of them have to do with slang that today most mystery fans know - but which were restricted to a subculture of crooks and police in 1934. Understanding such words was an indicator in 1934 of belonging to this subculture. The treatment of these clues is thus "fair" in this 1934 story - but this is an aspect that today's readers might not pick up on, since these words have now spread to the general population.
"Old Calamity's Stick-up" is reprinted in the anthology 100 Dastardly Little Detective Stories.
Police Detective. The crime is solved by Lieutenant Charley Mitchell of the New York City Homicide Squad. Mitchell is a series character in Wolff's novels. However, Mitchell only shows up intermittently throughout Murder at Endor. He is not the protagonist of the novel. That role is taken by the New York City reporter hero who narrates the story.
The book jacket blurb refers to Mitchell as "hard-boiled". This might be true of Mitchell personally, who is both tough and wry in his speech. But Murder at Endor is not hard-boiled as a whole. Instead, most of the characters are upper middle class. The jacket does suggest that by the year 1933, the words "hard-boiled" could be a selling point for a mystery.
We see camaraderie between the reporter hero, and various New York cops (end of Chapter 5, Chapter 6). This is a time capsule of a rough but friendly way of life. Mitchell first shows up unannounced in the hero's bedroom, an indication of the closeness between the two men (end of Chapter 5). This section shows an arrest. It is a kind of police procedural, showing typical police and court behavior of the era.
Another good section shows Mitchell conducting an investigation in a New York financial office (Chapter 20, start of Chapter 21).
Mystery Plot. The financial office investigation (Chapters 20, 21) contains the mystery plot's best development. It concerns a subplot, rather than the main murder mystery. This subplot is in fact more interesting than the book's main murder puzzle. Its mystery idea is not especially new or original. But it did take me by surprise.
Wall Street. Murder at Endor looks at Wall Street fraud among a group of mainly upper middle class characters. Murder at Endor does not explicitly blame Wall Street, or anyone else, for the Depression. But it was written at a time of mass public anger over Wall Street and financiers, who were widely seen negatively by the public trapped in the Depression.
The Bonus March. Murder at Endor is most interesting, for a sidelight that has little to do with the mystery plot. The hero encounters veterans walking to Washington, to take part in the Bonus March. This was a real-life protest against the Depression, asking for Government help (May-July 1932). Murder at Endor gives a vivid, mainly sympathetic account of a few of the marchers (Chapters 3, 5, 9). It shows opposition from vicious police to the marchers. Both the marchers and the hero get falsely accused of being reds (Chapter 3): just like the false accusations the real-life marchers faced. Depictions of social protest are not common in Golden Age mystery novels.
The marchers camp out near a road. Areas next to roads were seen as quasi-public land. There was interest in the Golden Age in such public regions. See "The Blue Chrysanthemum" from Tales from One Pocket (1928-1929) by by Karel Capek and The Farmhouse (1947) by Helen Reilly. Perhaps they reflected an interest in public property, and the ability of Government and common public institutions to have a positive affect on people's lives.
The march in general is tied to landscape: the roadside land, a bridge, the town limits and borders (Chapter 5). This reflects the Golden Age interest in landscape.
Race. The butler Clay is a sympathetic, dignified, largely non-stereotyped black man. He is, unfortunately, that cliche, the "devoted family servant". But he also talks without dialect, and is noted for his good English (Chapter 12).
Saunders' tale is well characterized, both in the continuing and "guest star" characters. I especially liked the Captain's breezy young aide, Jimmie Spence, who calls the Captain "Chief", just like Jimmy Olsen later called Perry White in the Superman comic books. After all, Murdock is chief of detectives in Central City, where the story takes place. (Raoul Whitfield's Five stories also took place in a town called Central City. Shades of the comic books' later Metropolis and Gotham City, not to mention that the Flash worked in Central City.) You can tell there is a good deal of affection among the detective team. The visiting Duchess of Savonia is also well characterized. I hope he brought her back for return appearances, in later stories.
Although Murdock is twice editorially blurbed as "Hard-Boiled" Murdock, an epithet that does not appear in the actual story, he seems considerably less hard-boiled than the characters who appeared in Black Mask. Nor does Saunders' literary style have much in common with Hammett's or the rest of the Black Mask school. Perhaps this is just the editor's way of distinguishing him from the weird menace writers like Paul Chadwick. Still, this indicates that by 1933, the adjective "Hard-Boiled" could be used to sell magazines.
Both work men's clothes into their plots. Both stories are at a turning point in how men dress. Traditionally they felt terrible wearing anything other than a suit; now they are wearing unofficial clothes at home involving slacks and leather jackets. They both prize these clothes for casual wear, yet feel they are not right for public display. The changeover is made a humorous yet vivid part of both tales, especially as they affect the narrator.
Spies have different motives from ordinary suspects in mystery tales. They are willing to go to greater extremes and make greater sacrifices than the traditional domestic suspect. Marvin uses such differences to construct a fairly innovative puzzle plot.
Especially notable is the way the black Pullman porter participates in the detective work that solves the mystery, something that was very progressive in 1932.
The schemes of the crook in this story show some affinity with the Rogue tradition, which was fast becoming a distant memory in 1932, although Octavus Roy Cohen was still flailing away at it in Scrambled Yeggs (1933). Cohen's tales of a Pullman porter, collected in book form as Epic Peters (1930), might have been an influence.
Schuyler's technique is less pulp oriented than Kantor's, and is closer to the Golden Age plotting technique found in novels of the era. It especially reminds one of Stuart Palmer's Murder on the Blackboard (1932), which also deals with a crime dependent on the architecture of the cellars of urban buildings. I have always liked Golden Age stories which center on buildings and architecture.
Schuyler's story is a find, and one suspects that we will be seeing much more of his reportedly voluminous mystery fiction being reprinted in the future. His tales appeared not in pulp magazines, but in black newspapers of the 1930's. "The Shoemaker Murder" is reprinted in the anthology Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes (1995) edited by Paula L. Woods.
In other ways, it shows signs of its pulp origins. The detective is a New York police inspector, not an amateur, or any other kind of a Great Detective. He is polite and fits in well into high society, but is ready to use his fists against criminals too. There is considerable sympathy for the servants in the story, who come across as real characters, and not just background props as in so many Golden Age novels. They clearly stand for the working people who were DFW's main readers. Several of the rich characters are viewed critically, as was the wont during the Depression. All in all, the story is vastly less snobbish, than say a Dorothy L. Sayers novel. Still, the tale milks its glamorous setting for all its worth; the story got the cover, which shows a tuxedoed young man and an evening gowned young woman watching the moment when the gems mysteriously disappear.
The story has a well done impossible crime puzzle plot, that would grace any Golden Age tale.
The overall tone of the writing recalls Erle Stanley Gardner, whose Lester Leith stories were DFW reader favorites, according to the letters section of the magazine.
The story builds up considerable sympathy for a young former crook, who seems to have reformed, and who is now working on the houseboat as a servant. He and the police inspector have a relationship that evolves over the course of the tale. Phillips' warm feelings here and in "Death Lies Waiting" show a real sense of emotion.
"Death Lies Waiting" shows the male bonding previously found in "Clews". Here it is an older detective who cares deeply when his friend, a young patrolman, is murdered. The detective is very working class, a common thread in Phillips, as are most of the characters in the story. The police here are surprisingly polite; they are the people's friends. They may wisecrack and talk tough among themselves, but they are very polite with the public. By the way, in 1944 in "Death Lies Waiting", Phillips is still using the spelling "clew".
Phillips shows the Golden Age interest in architecture. All three of the locations in the story are well characterized. There is an interesting symmetry in the second, a pair of apartments across the street, from which one can see into the other with opera glasses. Phillips imaginatively milks this for plot developments. The symmetry he builds up recalls symmetric developments in the tales of Allan Vaughn Elston. The final location in the story also mirrors the second. Phillips makes an unusual effect by having his hero slugged and brought there unconscious; when he wakes up he knows nothing about the exterior of where he is. This is unusual for any sort of detailed setting in a story - usually we see the characters enter it, and know its exterior geographical coordinates.
"Death Lies Waiting" takes place in the familiar hard-boiled underworld of police, professional crooks and entertainers. And its characters are certainly not upper crust. There are several fight scenes in the story, in the pulp tradition. Despite this, the tale does not really seem at all hard-boiled. Phillips never sends his characters even close to the extremes of violence and brutality featured in the hard-boiled tradition. Nor is he trying to depict characters with an extreme edge, as do the hard-boiled writers. Instead, he treats the events as an exciting adventure story. The tone is actually closer to Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys: stories in which the hero has run-ins with crooks, tracks them down, is captured by them, manages to intrigue against them at close quarters. This whole approach worked very well in kid's tales, and it works very well here. There is a genuine sense of adventure in Phillips, an evocation of what it must actually be like to solve an exciting case.
"The Moll-Trap" is not a mystery puzzle. Details of the murder are initially a little vague, and do get filled in later. But this is hardly a full-fledged "mystery puzzle with solution".
The cheap alley and rooms where the killer hides out are described in architectural detail. This "tough" story has something of the interest in architecture shown in many far more genteel Golden Age mystery puzzles.
"The Moll-Trap" shows an interest in the internal workings of the police. Both the police, and a crooked cheap bail bonds man's dealings with the police, get more attention than the underworld killers. But there is also an elaborate account of betrayal among the three killers, that turns into an intricate plot design.
"The Moll-Trap" discusses issues of money and compensation, for a policeman who has been disabled in line of duty. There was no general "unemployment compensation" in this era, and a better buts still evolving patchwork of state laws dealing with "workman's compensation". One suspects that "The Moll-Trap"'s details, presented as part of police life, might also be part of a national conversation on unemployment compensation in general. Hugh MacNair Kahler's "Queer Coin" (1920) is a crime story that shows the economic horrors of life for an injured poor worker in this era without unemployment compensation.
A partial short story bibliography is at The FictionMags Index.
The hero is trying to get evidence that will put a top mobster in prison. This concern with attacking big-time crooks rather than their two-bit "employees" recalls "The Man Higher Up" (1909) by William MacHarg & Edwin Balmer. "The Man Higher Up" expresses a left-wing critique of the powerful. This reminds us of Fowler's non-fiction works on cooperatives, also a left-wing movement.
The villain is a mobster wearing a "polo coat". Fancy coats for men were big in the 1930's, and allowed men to display some masculine swagger. See the hero and his coats in the comic strip Secret Agent X-9 (1934), drawn by the great Alex Raymond and scripted by Dashiell Hammett.
"Safety Deposit" has a clever plot idea, loosely related to the impossible crime tale. This plot is a "search for a hidden object" puzzle, a kind of mystery often found in non-pulp writers like Stuart Palmer and Ellery Queen.
"Safety Deposit" is reprinted in the anthology 100 Dastardly Little Detective Stories.
"The Eddie Doll Case" is an inverted detective story: a tale in which we first see the crooks the commit the crime, then watch the police track them down. The main focus is on the second, police part of the tale, which is much longer than the earlier section dealing with the crooks and their bank robbery. "The Eddie Doll Case" is notable for its relentless focus on police detective work. While the script contains suspense and a little action, it is chiefly concerned with showing the police doing detection.
"The Eddie Doll Case" includes a detailed look at criminals' modus operandi, and how these can be used by police to identify which criminals pulled off a crime. This is a standard part of detective fiction, but Disque's version of police techniques analyzing modus operandi, is unusually detailed and thorough. Such films as William Dieterle's From Headquarters (1933) and Anthony Mann's He Walked By Night (1948), show the police using punched cards and Hollerith machines to identify criminals by their modus operandi. Clearly, there was a good deal of sophistication in both the police work of this era, and its depiction in the media.
The last part of "The Eddie Doll Case" shows the police identifying and tracking down crook Eddie Doll. It follows the police step by step, as they gradually uncover more and more information on Doll. Nearly each line of dialogue shows the police uncovering some new tidbit of information, one that in turns leads to some other scrap of knowledge about the crook.
Step-by-step detective work was a frequent feature of the scripts John Broome wrote for that best of all detective comic books Big Town (1951-1958).
There is an informative article by Monte Herridge on Curry's work at Mystery*File. Herridge's article focuses on Curry's undercover cop Secret Agent George Devrite, whose tales appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly.
"The Sign" has an ingenious, original method of committing the crime. It is revealed at the tale's end, as part of the solution. The method is one that would only be possible in the Western milieu of the story. This further reflects the Western-mystery hybrid nature of "The Sign".
"The Sign" is reprinted in the anthology 100 Dastardly Little Detective Stories.
Dan Harwin keeps having ill luck, and is much abused by everyone in the story. This resembles a bit such amateur detectives of the pulps as the hard-luck taxi driver sleuth Steve Midnight of John K. Butler. Such hard luck is believable for a working class stiff like Steve Midnight. It is less plausible for an FBI man like Dan Harwin. In real life, he would be able to draw on support from the Bureau, something that only happens at the end of the tale.
Devrite goes undercover at various times in the tale. He sometimes poses as an honest person: a salesman, an on-going alternate identity of his that shows up in other stories in the series too. Other times he poses as a crook. Both roles help him with his detective work.
Devrite uses a straightforward sleuthing technique: he tracks down big time racketeers in the fur trade, and investigates both them and people connected to the specific case at hand. Eventually, he uncovers enough evidence to identify the guilty parties. This simple technique has the merits of believability and realism. One could imagine an approach much like this working in real life. It has the disadvantage of a lack of imagination. These are generic crooks investigated in a routine way. There is little in "The Dragon's Tooth" that we haven't all seen elsewhere many times.
SPOILER. The racketeers and the actual crook operate independently of each other, interacting in sometimes unexpected ways. This adds a touch of the pulp style of plotting to the tale: stories in which various bad guys operate independently, adding to the mysterious overall pattern of events.
SPOILER. The solution has an alleged plot surprise in its choice of killer, revealed midway through the tale. One suspects that most readers would have wondered about this person from the start.
The Dragon's Tooth itself adds a nice touch, with an explanation of the little mystery connected to it pleasantly done. Unfortunately, it has no connection with the rest of the mystery plot.
"Trooper Tape" tale doesn't specify where it takes place, but a character is visiting from New York City. State Trooper characters were fairly common in non-pulp writers of the era, who set tales in upscale country around New York, such as Rufus King.
"The High-Powered Corpse" is a mystery. It has a mildly clever solution. The tale is a "search for a hidden object" puzzle, a kind of mystery often found in non-pulp writers like Stuart Palmer and Ellery Queen.
The cop protagonist in "Dust" is apparently young: he is a Patrolman, the lowest rank of policeman. He is still unmarried, and out on a date with his girlfriend. They are at the movies: a locale frequented above all by young people in the 1940's. "Dust" thus has youthful characters and milieu. One wonders if it was written to appeal to a youthful audience.
"Dust" lacks a "puzzle" that can be solved: there is no way for the reader to logically deduce the identity of the killer. Instead, "Dust" concentrates on detective work, showing the cop hero using a sound approach to track down the murderer.
"Die Before Bedtime" has a policeman protagonist, the punningly named Detective Bayer Cubbs. Its plot bears little resemblance to what we think of as pulp conventions; instead it is almost a pure puzzle plot mystery in Golden Age style.
"Detective for A Day" shows a welcome vein of humor. In structure, this tale is not strictly speaking a mystery: it does not have a mysterious crime that needs to be solved. SPOILERS. But the plot does have some logical-but-surprising twists, that function in a way similar to the logical-but-surprising solution of a good mystery.
Justice Grooter in "Detective for A Day" is a thinly veiled version of the real-life 1930 "true crime" case of Judge Crater. One will get more out of "Detective for A Day" if one knows the background of the Judge Crater mystery.
Lawrence Treat has key admirers among experts on mystery fiction history: Anthony Boucher, who immediately hailed V as in Victim (1945) as a breakthrough in the treatment of the police and police procedure; Ellery Queen and Jon L. Breen who find V as in Victim the central book in the development of the police procedural subgenre.
Unfortunately, despite Treat's status as an innovator, I've been disappointed by much of Treat's work. His poorer work has the relentless lack of inspiration associated with the term "hack writing".
Scientific Detection. The best parts of V as in Victim deal with Scientific Detection. These sections (Chapter 1.5, last part of 2.1) show police lab scientists Jub Freeman and his partner Harold Callender investigating the crime with a spectrograph. These sections are no masterpiece, but they make informative reading.
There are also interesting histories in these sections of the lives and careers of Freeman and Callender. They form what comic books call origin stories, telling how these men became police scientists. Jub Freeman's life history reaches back into his childhood: something unusual in Golden Age detective fiction.
Other Scientific Detection episodes in V as in Victim are less interesting. Poor Stanley's mysterious death has an obvious cause (set forth in Chapter 1.2, solved in Chapter 6.2). At least, I figured it out right away, perhaps because it was not a new idea. SPOILERS. John Dickson Carr used the same cause in The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941).
Police: Not Much. V as in Victim mainly expresses a skeptical view of the police. Aside from the excellent police lab scientists, the police are depicted as barely competent time-servers, who do little but provide warm bodies patrolling Manhattan streets. Solving homicides mainly depends on questioning and stool pigeons.
This is the opposite view of Helen Reilly, who showed New York's homicide squad as dedicated, highly effective, and more brainy than anyone this side of the Princeton Physics Department.
I am not qualified to say which of these views of the 1945 police is more accurate. However, I do think that Reilly's cops are a lot more fun to read about than Treat's. V as in Victim is mainly a bore.
Communism. Jub is a working class kid from the tenements. I like the idea of a working class hero. But I am in strong disagreement with Treat's Communist sympathies that perhaps inspired this.
We also learn that the real last name of the novel's heroine Andrea Minx is in fact Marx!
V as in Victim takes a negative view of Modern Art, seen in an art gallery (Chapter 2.2). Such negative views likely reflected the Communist party line, which preferred "socialist realism".
Bigotry. V as in Victim expresses bigotry against lesbians (middle of Chapter 3.2). This is a long range problem with Treat's work, recurring in later short stories like "H as in Homicide" (1964) and "F as in Frame-Up" (1967). Treat was a hater. Communists have a long ugly history promoting anti-gay bigotry, and perhaps that influenced Treat's attitude. H as in Hunted opens with a cringe-inducing slur against Polish people. "F as in Fake" (1970) has a negatively portrayed Hispanic character.
Remarkably, Treat reversed course on lesbians in his short story "B as in Bludgeon" (1974). In this tale a lesbian suspect expresses pride in who she is. The story is not perfect - the lesbian is something of a comic character. But it is an admirable change in direction. And one that was quite progressive for 1974. In today's political jargon, Treat "evolved". "B as in Bludgeon" is a story that expresses Gay Pride.
The early novels about Taylor showed him as routinely taking bribes. This was depicted as common among police in the 1950 era. However, this aspect is thankfully absent in the short stories that appeared from 1964 on. Either Treat or editor Ellery Queen wisely decided to make Taylor and the other series cops honest.
"C as in Clue" (1964) has features that also play a role in the later "K as in Knife". SPOILERS:
"B as in Bullets" (1965) is the main short story focussing on police lab scientist Jub Freeman. It has some vivid color imagery, with its use of tape. Color imagery also appears in the costumes in "T as in Threat".
Jub's work eventually leads to a sort of simulation of the crime. It's like a work of sculpture, at the crime site. In "K as in Knife", there is a sort of simulation of the crime, created by suspects before the actual murder. Both simulations recall modern art, especially some Pop Art style installations. The 1960's were likely a high point of public awareness of Modernism in the USA. These tales reflect the seeping of Modernist art ideas into mystery fiction.
In his original appearance in V as in Victim, Jub worked in a New York City police lab with a partner. But in these later tales set in a smaller city, Jub is the sole police lab worker. The story stresses how he performs countless different lab techniques by himself.
"A as in Alibi" (1966) is Treat's attempt to write that old favorite kind of story, the alibi puzzle with clocks. The tale comes up with a new plot approach to create its alibi.
"A as in Alibi" takes a mean-spirited negative view of the mid-1960's folk singing craze. A look at folk-rock is in Corpse Candle (1967) by George Bagby. Both works feature as nemesises big, hunky, virile young males who are on the fringes of the counter-culture. Both men are flamboyant performers. Both are self-confident and cheeky to the point of insolence.
"B as in Burglary" (1967) is one of the few solo outings starring Jim Bankhart, a continuing supporting policeman character in the series. Bank, as he is known, was in good comic form in "C as in Clue". "B as in Burglary" starts out with pleasing comedy and romance too: something Bank can be involved with because he's single. Unfortunately, it ends in the sourest tragedy.
"B as in Burglary" reminds one a bit of Treat's pulp story "Death's Playgirl" (1940). Both have their heroes among a large group of strangers at a resort ("Death's Playgirl") or fancy estate ("B as in Burglary").
"T as in Threat" (1968) shows Treat going for light comedy, even silliness. The tale suffers from never being remotely plausible as a crime tale. But the comedy works. SPOILERS. The nurse is especially good. And how could Charlie's allergy involve his wife?
"T as in Threat" is unusual for pre-1970 detective fiction in offering us glimpses of the sleuth's childhood. By contrast, today biographical elements are everywhere in crime fiction. Treat clearly liked writing about kids: which perhaps motivated him to show us a bit about young Mitch.
Young Mitch is shown making up crime schemes, purely imaginary: he never puts them into practice. One wonders if this might serve as a metaphor for Treat's own authorship of stories.
"B as in Bludgeon" (1974) expresses concern over lead poisoning, and what long term exposure to lead can do to humans. Unfortunately, such concerns are more relevant than ever, with lead poising still a major problem today.
"P as in Poison" (1976) is another tale in which Treat takes on an old standby of mystery fiction. Here it is the mystery of how someone can be poisoned by mushrooms, despite precautions. Treat's idea is not bad at all. Unfortunately, his solution is embedded in a work with labored storytelling.
The solution has surreal qualities. SPOILERS. It also has aspects of a art object.
"P as in Poison" includes another standby: the surrealist message that is apparently meaningless, but which indeed means something. Treat's eventual explanation of the message is competent. See my list of mysteries Interpreting Modernist Text. This is another example of Modernist arts ideas influencing Treat's fiction.
His policeman hero Joe Devlin solves crime and battles urban corruption in Brooklyn, and there is plenty of urban Brooklyn atmosphere. The portrait of Brooklyn anticipates that in Hampton Stone's The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still (1950): tough neighborhoods, racketeers, political bosses, cops, Boy's Clubs run by social reformers trying to keep youth decent. It's a portrait that has a "traditional New York" feel. Fay's A Man of the People will focus on a old-fashioned, traditional NYC councilman and his close relations with his urban constituents.
"A Nice, Clean Job" was reprinted in an anthology the next year. According to David C. Cooke's Best Detective Stories Of The Year - 1950, Fay was mainly a writer of boxing tales and occasional romances for the slicks. He edited some pulps for a while, but never appeared in the mystery pulps as an author, at least not under his own name.
"A Nice, Clean Job" was also reprinted as "Ambitious Cop" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March 1955).
There is a murder, but we see all the details, and thus no mystery. This is fairly minor work, despite having some sympathetic characters. The cop hero's friend Fiari is especially nice.
A Man of the People shows some similar character types as "Uptown Story":
A Man of the People benefits from the lively performances of its principals, James Dunn as the big-shot, Roberta Shore and Martin West as the young lovers.
Al Hubin's bibliography Crime Fiction gives birth and death dates for Taylor. These suggest that this is the same Matt Taylor who was briefly a Hollywood scenarist (1926-1931), and whose brother was Sam Taylor, director of many of Harold Lloyd's film comedy classics.
There are moments when the over-formal phraseology and comic looks at crime recall the comedy short stories of Damon Runyon. The resemblance is quite visible in "McGarry and the Dancing Hoodlum". However, Taylor's tales are far from imitations. They differ from Runyon's in their strong focus on the police and allied good guys.
There was a radio adaptation McGarry and His Mouse (1946-1947) (Kitty is nicknamed his "mouse" in the short stories). The title is re-used from an early short story in the series "McGarry and His Mouse" (1940). Wendell Corey, Roger Pryor and Ted de Corsia variously played comic policeman McGarry. The show's opening: "And now here he is, Dan McGarry himself. Handsome as ever, brave as ever and confused as ever." There was also a television pilot McGarry and Me (1960).
Comic Adventure. Taylor's stories follow several different patterns. Some have mystery plots, some do not. Two of the best tales are comic adventure stories without mystery, in which his hero battles crooks. "Where's the Fire, McGarry?" and "Last-Minute McGarry" each have a comic-but-sinister crook who is hiding out from the law. In each, McGarry encounters him by accident, and a thrilling physical adventure ensues. Both have Dan on high-powered vehicles of transportation; in both the villains have similar nicknames. Both tales also get McGarry involved with the police's closest ally, the Fire Department.
"Raucous comic plots involving adventure with vehicles" is a description recalling the Tish stories of Mary Roberts Rinehart, although the Tish tales are typically not mystery or crime related. Both Rinehart and Taylor published in big circulation American magazines, and perhaps reflect common comic traditions of storytelling.
Mystery Plot. The McGarry tales with the best mystery plots are "McGarry and the Holdup Mystery" (1955), "McGarry Becomes a Trigger-Man" (1953) and "McGarry and the Mugger" (1954). These are tales with logical-but-surprising solutions. These mystery puzzles are solved through pure thinking, in the intuitionist tradition. While Dan McGarry is a cop, there is little use of police procedure, and no scientific detection, employed in solving these mysteries. The fact that some of the mysteries are solved by Kitty, an amateur detective, is consistent with this intuitionist approach: amateur sleuths and mysteries solved by pure thinking are core elements of the intuitionist tradition.
"Dan McGarry - Cop of the Year" has his hero trying to piece together some seemingly unrelated crimes. The solution does succeed in weaving them into a unified pattern. This is a less pure kind of mystery plot than the above stories, but its still shows a certain degree of ingenuity. McGarry becomes mildly famous for his crime solving ability in this tale, attracting some national attention by the end. This is the only explanation anywhere in the volume for the title, the "Famous McGarry". Otherwise, the title seems quite puzzling. In most of the stories, Dan McGarry is simply an ordinary plain clothes detective. He is well-liked and respected, but hardly well-known or famous.
Some stories have McGarry given police assignments that place him in a comically fish-out-of-water situation. These include "McGarry and the Vegetarian Thieves" (1956) and "McGarry and the Dancing Hoodlum" (1956). "McGarry and the Vegetarian Bandits" includes a simple mystery-and-solution puzzle. "McGarry and the Dancing Hoodlum" is a pure thriller, one with a bit of an ingenious ending. McGarry also gets strange assignments in "McGarry Goes Underground" and "McGarry and the Murderous Clown" (1954). These assignments are comic, but they are less purely fish-out-of-water than the previous tales. The stories' mystery puzzle solutions are also less clever and less logically motivated.
The solution of "McGarry and the Vegetarian Thieves" involves "thinking outside of received categories", or as a popular slang phrase has it, "thinking outside the box". To a degree, the solution of "McGarry Becomes a Trigger-Man" has an element of this as well, with McGarry finally getting the solution, when he looks outside his police life.
The solutions of "McGarry and the Holdup Mystery" and "McGarry and the Dancing Hoodlum" involve concealed stories hidden in the actions of the characters. There is perhaps an aspect of this in the solution of "McGarry and the Mugger" as well.
Setting. The jacket of the Detective Book Club edition says that the stories take place in Manhattan. And reference books state that the radio show version is set in New York City. However, the tales themselves seem to be set in a fictitious, unnamed city. The city has a different geography than Manhattan, and it also seems to lack pro or college football teams. However, the life of the city is deeply traditional, strongly recalling American life in 1940 Manhattan or Boston. In 1941, when the first tale in The Famous McGarry Stories is copyrighted, the stories probably reflected the lives of most people in big Northeastern US cities. But when they last appeared in 1956, they were already becoming dated, with many people moving to the suburbs.
The first story "McGarry and His Mouse" (1940) describes Traesury agents coming from New York to McGarry's city. When "McGarry, His Mouse and the Four Weird Brothers" (1941) appeared in This Week, page 2 of This Week had a "Sideline" in which Matt Taylor claims to be uncertain where McGarry lives, and whether or not the city in the tales in New York.
While violence and threatened murders by hit men appear in the tales, few of the stories involve an actual killing. This is in accord with their comic nature.
Dan and and Kitty both seem to be Irish, like many cops in New York or Boston. Somewhat surprisingly, Kitty often is the one who solves the mystery. She is frequently described as Dan's "brains". The stories are definitely non-sexist, maybe even feminist. In 1950, it was probably an agreeable fantasy for American women, to imagine themselves as a cop's steady girlfriend, solving his police crime assignments during their evening conversations. Fifty years later, most modern women probably prefer to read about women who are police officers themselves.
"McGarry, His Mouse and the Four Weird Brothers" (1941) sends McGarry off for a "restful" vacation on a farm. It is funny and cheering. The story contrasts McGarry's urban, police experiences with farm life to witty effect. The tale's plot structure and characterization seems modeled on the first McGarry story "McGarry and His Mouse":
"McGarry and the Top Kick" (1944) is a World War II era story. It depicts McGarry's service as a US Army Military Policeman (M.P.), stationed in his home city. Kitty is around too. "McGarry and the Top Kick" has no real crime or mystery elements, and in fact not much plot. It is a sentimental-comic character sketch about Kitty's Uncle Aloysius, who has been a "Top Kick" (Army Sergeant) since the dawn of time. Like other Matt Taylor tales, it deals sympathetically with the problems of older people.
"McGarry and the Beauty Queen" (1950) has Kitty entering a local beauty contest. This mild-mannered, genial tale does let Kitty and the other contestants keep their dignity - it doesn't at all play up the "sex object" aspects of beauty contests that have made them controversial among feminists. Instead, the tale gets its humor from competition between groups (the rivalry between the police and fire departments is mentioned again) and the betting that proceeds on the contest. This minor story is mild, with no mystery and only the thinnest crime elements.
"McGarry and the Box-Office Bandits" (1960) is a humorous gem, dealing with robbery and police undercover work. This little story has the same subject as Freeman Wills Crofts' The Box Office Murders (1929), but a very different development. Mainly, it is notable for its sparkling humor. There is also some satire of the horror movies of the era, and the gimmicks used to promote them in theaters; such gimmicks were associated in real life with the film director and flamboyant showman, William Castle. There is no puzzle plot. Stories elements recall "McGarry and the Murderous Clown".
"McGarry and the Box-Office Bandits" was reprinted in Brett Halliday's anthology Best Detective Stories Of The Year 16th Annual Collection (1961). The editor's introduction to the story says that two or three McGarry tales had been published in This Week magazine every year for twenty years. That makes roughly 50 stories. Since there are only a dozen in The Famous McGarry Stories, this implies that there are lots of uncollected tales. When published in This Week, "McGarry and the Christmas Handout" (December 21, 1947) was billed as the 31st tale. Un-reprinted tales include "McGarry and the Television Frame-up" (1950). Please also see a partial bibliography at The FictionMags Index.
The Nazi soldier is eventually defeated by an ordinary beat cop, given the archetypal "Irish Cop" name Tom Clancy. This tribute to the regular police links the tales to The Famous McGarry Stories. The encounter also symbolizes the defeat of the Nazi Superman by the ordinary citizen of Democracy.
The hero of "Power of the Press" is a retired widower living alone, but who has a good relationship with his grown son. This recalls a bit McGarry's Uncle Dennis, and his relation with McGarry, in "Where's the Fire, McGarry?".
Commentary on Kendell Foster Crossen (also known as M. E. Chaber):
Getting back to Crossen, his DFW Mortimer Death series was narrated by a policeman Watson, Sgt. George Stuart, a real roughneck who provides comedy relief. Just like Milo March, he has a real attitude, and is plenty prepared to bust in where he is not wanted: Crossen stories can start with the hero assigned to invade enemy territory. There is a great deal of exuberant comedy in the series, some of which is still left in the March books. There is also a skepticism about doctors and the chemicals they can employ, that runs throughout Crossen's fiction.
Sgt. Stuart is something of an unreliable narrator: a narrator whose ideas cannot be relied on. He always tells the truth about events in the story. But he is also full of self-praise, and the other characters' comments show that Stuart is in fact an incompetent detective.
"Too Late For Murder" (1941) has a good puzzle plot in it. "Too Late For Murder" also has an atmosphere pleasantly reminiscent of 1940's Hollywood whodunits - in this it recalls the pulp stories of Paul Chadwick.
"Too Late For Murder" can be found in the anthology Four-&-Twenty Bloodhounds edited by Anthony Boucher.
Crossen also follows Huxley's ideas in being concerned about psychoactive drugs, and their ability to manipulate populations. Crossen's spy novel The Splintered Man (1955) is probably the first work of fiction of any sort to discuss LSD. Crossen depicts LSD as a sinister drug, used by Soviet totalitarian scientists for purposes of mind control. Crossen also wrote anti-drug novels aimed at young readers.
Year of Consent is also notable for its depiction of computers as an instrument of social control. Crossen's technical specifications for the government computer (known as "Hugo") are remarkably detailed, precise and scientifically accurate. Crossen clearly had done a lot of serious research into science before writing his tales, which are unusually grounded in real science.
The hero of Year of Consent is a government employed private eye. He has a fancy title, but that is what his job really amounts to. In this he recalls a bit Todhunter Ballard's series sleuth Bill Lennox, who works as a private eye for a Hollywood film studio, keeping its stars out of trouble. He also recalls Milo March, who works both as a self-employed detective in many books, and occasionally as a US Government agent in others.
The hero is both a government agent, and a member of the underground. This allows him to experience situations from two sides. This is a bit similar to Milo March's undercover role in The Splintered Man.
The Splintered Man. The best book I have read in the series is The Splintered Man (1955). This is a spy novel, not a mystery tale, even though March is an American p.i.. It is the kind of pre le Carré spy tale that emphasizes gung ho adventure, more Scaramouche than Smiley. I enjoyed March's cheekiness, and the general escapist verve of this tale. It is consistently more imaginative than the average run of paperback original adventure stories. The way in which March keeps switching uniforms at the end of this tale is fun, and so are his sassy, anti-authoritarian attitudes.
A Hearse of a Different Color. A Hearse of a Different Color (1958) is a Milo March detective novel. It's a genuine mystery story, with fair play clues pointing toward the final solution, and other subplots along the way. The tale focuses relentlessly on detection throughout, with March constantly attempting to learn more about the crimes. The story never degenerates into a thriller or suspense tale. I found the puzzle plot of the book very easy to solve, but it is still there, unlike some private eye writers.
The tale suggests that nothing is as much fun as the life style of 1950s corporate America, with its endless flow of money, expense accounts, and the opportunities to pursue such activities as travel, nice clothes, cars, fine dining and romance. Both Milo March and some of the characters live in such a world, which is designed to be a pleasant fantasy experience for the readers. There is a relatively realistic tone to Crossen's work, at least when compared to such contemporaries as Richard S. Prather. Both men like the high life of the day, but while Prather spins fantasies about a private eye's life, Crossen sticks to a fairly realistic account of the opportunities open to a well to do business exec of the time. Of course, most Americans of the era could not afford to live on this scale. Still, Crossen's desires are relatively modest, and his delight in travel and good food would increasingly become affordable to the majority of Americans.
Milo March stories differ radically in tone from those of Raymond Chandler. Chandler's stories are dark, and they depict a world full of evil characters. Crossen despises mobsters and crooks, but basically he likes 1950's America and the world in general. Neither he nor March seem alienated, which is the word I'd use to describe Philip Marlowe and his successors. Instead, Crossen and March preserve a sunny, good-natured attitude towards most of life. Indeed, Crossen's tone is generally comic throughout. Even his mob villains have a slightly tongue in cheek quality. Parts of the story even approach the comedy of manners, something one associates more with Golden Age sleuths than 1950's private eyes.
Milo March also has a different attitude towards the men he meets, than most private eyes. Usually he winds up making friends with them, and the book is full of scenes of male bonding. March is especially fond of government agents, such as police and FBI men, Madison Avenue type executives, and artists. All of these types are described glowingly in Crossen's work. All of these men represent success, in different forms and professions. They tend to be highly competent and glamorous.
A Hearse of a Different Color strongly endorses integration and the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, its best parts deal with black "diviner" Willie Morell. Willie is the most colorful of the New Orleans locals March meets, and he is a character whose verbal facility and unique way of talking mark out as an original. Crossen's sympathy with black Americans reminds one of Ed Lacy.
The Flaming Man. The Flaming Man (1969) also has a Civil Rights theme. Once again, March travels to a case, this time to Los Angeles in the middle of the 1960's Civil Rights upheaval. These aspects only are used for one section of the story, however.
The novel resembles A Hearse of a Different Color (1958) in being a mystery story. Both novels are pleasant reading experiences, without being masterpieces of mystery fiction. The solution of The Flaming Man reuses plot ideas and subject matter from the Mortimer Death story "Too Late For Murder". They are used less for a pure puzzle plot in The Flaming Man than they are in "Too Late For Murder".
There is less emphasis on glamour in this case, than in some Milo March books. Instead, the story spoofs private eye traditions, by being almost entirely set in bars. Whenever Milo March wants to interview a suspect, or track down a clue, he goes to another bar to do it. There is something surrealistic about this, as well as being a satire on the traditional private eye tale. It is consistent with Crossen's depiction of substance abuse throughout his fiction.
The Man Inside. The Man Inside (1954) was made into a film of the same name in 1958, by director John Gilling. It is apparently the only film version of Milo March. It's a middling thriller, with March chasing a diamond thief all over Europe: a routine plot. Star Jack Palance captures Milo March to a T: macho, fun loving, cocky, skeptical, smart, and enjoying traveling. Palance also looks like March, tough, athletic, well-dressed in a corporate executive's suit, smooth, and with lots of energy. The best scenes showing March are towards the beginning. In its later sections, March tends to play the straight man to a set of zany comic character actors, including a young Anthony Newley as an eager cab driver. One wishes this film had had a better plot, and had spent more energy building up March's character. It does have some pleasant comedy. The film seems to have made little impression, either on its first release or later.
"Death on the Meter" (1945) shows Ronns attempting puzzle plot features. There is a Hidden Scheme that emerges in the solution. This Scheme is not bad, showing some ingenuity as a plot idea. It also produces a motive for the murders, that is logical but concealed. Unfortunately, the story surrounding the Scheme is more routine, and suffers a bit from grimness.
Opening. The opening (Chapters 1, 2) of Fountain of Death contain an unusual mini-mystery. The medical examiner summons Steve Johnson in an unusual way, and makes odd statements to Johnson about the killing. Steve Johnson has to reconstruct the history of the medical examiner's actions, and figure out reasons for his somewhat atypical behavior. This is a "mystery puzzle with solution". But it is a non-standard one, involving the behavior of an investigating official, rather than a criminal.
The police medical examiner is Dr. Quincy, anticipating the TV series about a pathologist, Quincy, M.E. (1976-1983). Quincy is a continuing character in the Steve Johnson series.
Some of the dialogue between Johnson and Quincy recalls H. C. Bailey - a writer not otherwise close to American police procedurals. "So you did notice that. I wondered." sounds especially Bailey-ish.
There is some pleasant local color in the opening about San Francisco's cable cars. This includes a look at politics surrounding them. Unfortunately, this subject mainly does not extend into the rest of the book.
Surrealism and Mystery. SPOILERS. Some aspects of the dead man seem surreal, especially his green hands (Chapter 1), and the odd contents of his pockets (Chapter 2). The pocket contents are hard to explain, or give a coherent logical view of. Eventually, these mysteries are explained by the dead man's profession (Chapter 7.3).
The victim's unusually long fingernails (Chapter 2.1), while not as surreal, are also eventually explained as part of his profession: another man in the same profession has long nails too (Chapter 9.2).
Later aspects of the victim's life also seem surreal, notably the photos in his safe (end of Chapter 9.2).
Adding Meaning to Objects. Nelson likes to introduce objects - then add meaning to them later on. The addition of meaning is a step by step process, with layer after layer added to the meaning of objects. Examples of this process in Fountain of Death include the vehicles involved with the opening murder, and later the photos in the safe.
The initial murder involves two linked objects: a San Francisco cable car and a nearby taxi. Layers of meaning about these vehicles:
A Jewish Policeman. One of the continuing series policeman in the Johnson books is Detective Isadore Harmon. From his name, he is likely intended to be Jewish, although I don't recall this being explicitly discussed. Like the other series policemen who work for Johnson, Harmon is a good guy. One suspects that Nelson is trying for both realism, and an anti-racist statement, by including a Jewish character on the team.
Like the other police in the series, there are light comedy aspects to Harmon's adventures. He tends to come up against officious people who give him a hard time.
The Far-Left Professor. There is a brief but funny satire on a far-left professor (Chapter 7.2). He's likely a Communist, from his glib line of patter, although his specific politics are not made explicit. SPOILER. Especially funny is his account of the crime.
Imagery. Nelson has a gift for symbols, and for symbolic objects. His hero's tuxedo serves many purposes during the course of the story, gradually becoming a symbolically rich object worthy of Hawthorne. Nelson enjoys writing about fancy suits for men: Ring the Bell at Zero (1949) opens with a description of the hero's specially modified suit.
Nelson used the technique of adding on layers of meaning to a symbol to other elements too. In the earlier Fountain of Death (Chapter 3.2), we learn that Detective Harmon is obsessed with his dream of opening a chicken ranch in the country. In Dead Giveaway (Chapter 1), Harmon is introduced in the novel, by seeing his reaction to actual chickens in the here-and-now, when he is assigned to police patrol San Francisco's wholesale poultry processing district. This is funny.
The chicken ranch recalls The Corpse Steps Out (1940) by Craig Rice, and policeman von Flanagan talking about buying a mink farm when he retires.
Background. "Giveaways" were live shows, in which prizes were given away to the audience. They were used by some movie theaters of the era, to lure customers to the theater. Dead Giveaway has a Background, of a troupe that specializes in putting on Giveaways. Oddly enough, we never see an actual, full Giveaway show.
Mystery Traditions. Dead Giveaway perhaps shows the influence of a number of mystery schools, without being closely associated with any of them.
Hugh Lawrence Nelson published just one pulp mystery story under his own name: "The Five-Fingered Clue" (Ten Detective Aces Vol. 38 #2, April 1940). Despite this, Dead Giveaway is somewhat in the tradition of such 1940's pulp writers of humorous mysteries as Norbert Davis and Frank Gruber. It also shows some similarity in tone to Craig Rice, whom Gruber probably influenced.
Dead Giveaway reminds one of the Van Dine school:
Webb is a strong storyteller, at his best. The mystery puzzle plots of his fiction, as far as I have read, are weak to non-existent, however.
Informative articles on Webb:
With the Jewish detective, the Irish priest, and the Hispanic members of the padre's parish, the Golden-Shanley series were some of the first books to integrate racially the hard-boiled novel. Webb would soon be followed in his sympathetic treatment of many races by other tough writers such as Ed Lacy and Kendell Foster Crossen. Mainstream writer Jack Kerouac would also explore a multi-racial California in On the Road (1957).
Unlike Lacy or Crossen, Webb's heroes were not private eyes. One suspects that this has tended to make his books less well known or remembered today, among fans of hard-boiled fiction. And while The Big Sin has a policeman hero, it is far from any sort of look at standard police procedure used to solve crimes. So the big audience for police procedural novels is not reading Webb either. All of this is too bad, because Webb is one of the more inventive tough novelists of his era.
The Big Sin. The first novel in the series, The Big Sin (1952), has a title that echoes Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939), as well as sharing its Los Angeles setting. It tells how Golden and Father Shanley first met.
Golden, a non-practicing Jew, takes no interest in Catholicism, here or elsewhere in the series. The padre is a different matter. The books chronicle Golden's deep attraction to the priest as a man, and the development of a Beautiful Friendship between the two hunky leads. The novel has a strong, if non-explicit, gay sensibility. It opens with the first meeting between the two men, with the Father approaching Golden for help with the murder of one of his parishioners, a night club dancer. The two men cross swords, and establish that they come from two different worlds. However, the way that the priest keeps noticing that Golden is really tough, and the similar discovery that the cop will make about the broad shouldered, muscular priest, will gradually develop an overwhelming pull on the two men. Along the way, Golden will also try to protect the victim's brother, a young prize fighter, getting him involved with even more thinly disguised gay imagery. The Big Sin is far from being any sort of openly gay novel. Golden's heterosexual credentials are carefully established, complete with a girlfriend. However, one notes that several scenes of Golden with women are interrupted by Golden's encounters with men.
In Webb's non-series thriller, One For My Dame (1961), the imagery deals with the aftermath of a crisis. The lead was tortured as a POW in Korea. Today, he is one of the walking wounded, trying to recover his emotional balance by leading a wholesome life as a pet store owner. The book is a vivid evocation of the trauma many men feel in their lives, and the struggle to regain balance. The Korean War background is a suitably macho metaphor or excuse, that allows male readers to examine such a man's problems without feeling a loss of male pride.
One For My Dame is best in its first long chapter, which runs over forty pages. It forms a powerful look at a man trying to recover from being emotionally tortured by previous events.
The pet store perhaps recalls the zoo settings of some of the novels Webb wrote as John Farr, such as Don't Feed the Animals (1955) and The Lady and the Snake (1957).
Commentary on William P. McGivern:
One interesting sidelight on the comics industry: a man who created pro-Soviet Union war stories for the comic books during World War II, when the Soviets were the USA's allies. He is now living in fear that he will be blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer. I do not know how realistic this subplot is. There were indeed quite a few real-life war stories in the comics praising the Soviet Army. I have no idea if their creators later faced investigations or blacklisting.
The best parts of "Killer on the Turnpike" show the highway police, and their search for the killer. These sections are a full "police procedural", giving a detailed look at how the highway police are organized and function. We see them using some standard approaches to track down the killer - and later an innovative plan to capture him that is far from standard.
Before McGivern, Karl W. Detzer also sometimes wrote realistic tales showing the State Police conducting a manhunt. The stories I've read by Detzer concentrate less on modern freeway systems and their policing than "Killer on the Turnpike", though.
Rick Raphael wrote a science fiction story "Code Three" (1963) about patrolling the advanced highways of the future. The article on Raphael points out some broad similarities in "Killer on the Turnpike" and "Code Three" in their treatment of the highways and their patrols. "Killer on the Turnpike" views the Turnpike as a marvel, and as one of the main subjects of the story: so the story's point of view is not too distant from science fiction, a genre which often focuses on technology.
Restaurants of the real-life Howard Johnson chain as used as settings in "Killer on the Turnpike". In 1961, these were ubiquitous, especially on the nation's highways, but today they are almost gone. My childhood memories say the best thing on their menu was desert: especially their ice cream sundaes. My friends also liked their unusual dessert, Indian Pudding. Other friends recall their Friday night fish fries.
"Killer on the Turnpike" was filmed for television as Nightmare in Chicago (1964-1965), directed by Robert Altman, no less. It is clear from plot descriptions that the story has been drastically transformed. The film's serial killer is now much, much more lurid and violent. Plus, the action has been switched to Illinois.
No pulp fan should be without Michael L. Cook and Stephen Miller's Mystery, Detective, and Espionage Fiction: A Checklist of Fiction in U.S. Pulp Magazines, 1915-1974 (1988). This guide attempts to list every story in every mystery pulp magazine ever published.