Frederick C. Davis | Merle Constiner | Frank Gruber | Norbert Davis | Richard Sale | Dale Clark | Robert Reeves | Frederick Nebel | Hugh B. Cave | T.T. Flynn | D. B. McCandless | Julius Long | Theodore Tinsley | Frances Crane | Walter Gibson | William E. Barrett | Max Brand | Recommended Reading
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Crime Over Casco (1946)
The Great Gerard stories
The Laughing Fox (1940)
The Mighty Blockhead (1941-1942)
The Fourth Letter (1947)
Oliver "The Human Encyclopedia" Quade stories
Sam Cragg stories
The Mouse in the Mountain (1943) (available on-line at http://manybooks.net/titles/davisnother07Mouse_in_the_Mountain.html)
Sally's in the Alley (1943) (available on-line at http://manybooks.net/titles/davisnother07sallys_in_the_alley.html)
Holocaust House (1940) (available on-line at http://manybooks.net/titles/davisnother07Holocaust_House.html)
The Adventures of Max Latin
Short-Trigger Man (1964)
The Four from Gila Bend (1968)
Murder at Midnight
Firpo Cole short story
"The Course of Justice" (1964)
"Naked in Darkness" (1965)
Carrie Cashin short stories
Ben Corbett short stories
Secret Agent Number One
Please see my detailed reading lists for pulp fiction anthologies.
The pulp magazines were full of series detectives, detectives who appeared in story after short story. These detectives were reader favorites, and often had careers that spanned a decade and dozens of tales. Most of their adventures had a light hearted side, with pleasant elements of escapism and excitement. The best of these tales, such as the ones listed above, are still very enjoyable reading. It is hoped that many more of them will be reprinted, in both anthologies and single author collections.
Commentary on Frederick C. Davis:
The Moon Man tales are well written stories of a noble thief and his struggles to preserve his secret identity. They remind me to a great degree of the comic book heroes of the 1960's and their own struggles with their secret identity. Although the Moon Man has no super powers, nor even lots of high tech gadgets à la Batman, he is costumed, including a cape, no less. The Moon Man also seems much closer in tone to the superheroes of the comic books than are other pulp heroes of the thirties, such as the Shadow or Doc Savage, even though both of these characters are often cited as ancestors of Superman, Batman and the rest. In his everyday identity as a 25 year old police Sergeant, the Moon Man is just an ordinary young man, without much in the way of resources or allies. He has a relatively realistic life, too, with colleagues, a fiancee, and a family. All of these characters play a major role in the series. The Shadow, by contrast, is a millionaire with a vast team of assistants, no regular job or personal contacts outside of his team, and a very vague personal life. He lives at the center of a vast crime fighting apparatus, one dedicated to terrorizing the entire underworld. The Moon Man's personal life seems much closer to Clark Kent's than does The Shadow's.
The Moon Man's fiancee Sue McEwen is a young woman eager to be a detective, and a full fledged amateur female sleuth in the Nancy Drew - Amelia Butterworth tradition. Her character reminds one a lot of Lois Lane, who was also a gutsy young woman always trying to unravel mysteries. She is fascinated by the Moon Man, and already in the first story she is trying to figure out who lies behind his mask. Shades of Lois Lane!
Davis hardly invented the hero with a secret identity; Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel is often cited as the first, with Johnston McCulley's Zorro another important pre-pulp precursor. Orczy emphasized ingenious plots to preserve her hero's secret identity; this feature is also central to Davis. Above all, Davis' work seems modeled on Frank L. Packard's tales of Jimmie Dale, also known as The Gray Seal. (A bit of trivia: the one way glass known as Argus glass used by the Moon Man for his helmet echoes the name of the newspaper in the Jimmie Dale series, The Morning News-Argus.) Davis preserves the anti-authoritarian aspect of his hero's activities, established by these writers, as well. But Davis' work does set the hero among a relatively normal, modern setting, and with well detailed personal life.
Bill Brent is a young newspaperman forced into writing a column for the lovelorn, under a female pseudonym. This recalls a number of earlier works from the 1930's. Nathanael West's mainstream literary novel Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) focuses on such a character. Miss Lonelyhearts was filmed as Advice to the Lovelorn (1933). The next year, the film Hi, Nellie! (Mervyn LeRoy, 1934) was made, without any acknowledgement of Miss Lonelyhearts. It too deals with a newsman forced into writing a column under a female name. But Hi, Nellie! is more of a crime tale, and less of a mainstream literary drama. The Bill Brent stories perhaps resemble Hi, Nellie!, in using the plot premise about such a reporter, mainly as a background to crime thrillers. Both the Bill Brent stories and Hi, Nellie! emphasize how macho their hero is, and how incongruous it is for him to be forced to write such a column.
By 1941 when Bill Brent was created, reporter detectives were common. Please see The Thrilling Detective Web Site for a detailed list.
We learn in the first tale that Bill Brent's full official name is William Coleridge Brent. One wonders if his middle name is a homage to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In any case, it is a lively novella with a complex plot. The story is a pure murder mystery, and one without series detectives. The tale is not quite fair play: Davis keeps introducing new plot ideas, that are not logically predictable from earlier clues. Still, it is inventive.
The story shares features with other Davis mysteries:
Commentary on Merle Constiner:
But the Dean is also a Sherlock Holmes-like genius detective, with a vast Holmes-like fund of specialized knowledge. Like Holmes, the Dean is a consulting detective, who lives and works in a rooming house presided over by a respectable landlady: here Mrs. Duffy. Just as Holmes is sometimes consulted by a hostile but admiring policeman, Inspector Lestrade, so does the Dean have a rivalry with an honest policeman, Lieutenant Mallory, who reluctantly consults him on the most baffling and bizarre incidents encountered by the police.
The stories also sometimes echo Rex Stout. Ben Matthews is a slum kid, while the Dean is a genius, a bit like how tough guy Archie Goodwin works for super-sleuth Nero Wolfe. The Dean spends a lot of time on non-commercial, intellectual hobbies, in the same way the Wolfe is devoted to orchids and gourmet food. The Dean sometimes sulks and takes it out on Ben, like Nero and Archie, and both teams do a lot of angling to collect big fees from rich clients. However, the well-developed, actual personalities of the Dean and Ben are very different from Nero and Archie; the Dean is not an armchair detective, like Wolfe, but goes everywhere; the Dean is a mature, dynamic acting if eccentric person, and not a big baby like Wolfe who has to be cajoled; and the raffish milieu is far from Stout's upper-middle class New York. The bacon, eggs and flapjack breakfasts frequently described in the stories also seem a world away from Stout's gourmet meals.
The pilot Dean story "Strangler's Kill" (1940) is especially well done. All the pieces of the plot come together superbly well. Today, with a title like that you would expect a horror story, but in the days of the pulps the titles were far more lurid than the actual tales themselves; one suspects that many of them were created by the magazines' editors, not the authors. It is actually a good natured, G-rated detective story. I would love to see a lot more of his work reprinted. In some other of his tales, the clues are eccentric and interesting, but the solutions tend to be a bit on the far fetched and illogical side. So far, all the Constiner tales available do have elaborate puzzle plot narratives, and point out once again how common this was in the best pulp magazine writers.
The characters in the Dean stories come from a huge range of backgrounds, from the very rich to the very poor, with every sort of working class background thrown in. Many characters do not have much money, and the tales show how poor everyone was at the end of the Depression. The rich characters have far less "class" than they often do in 1940's non-pulp mysteries, lacking the sophistication and pretension of those of the Van Dine school, the HIBK writers, or British country house whodunits. The rich characters often have mean streaks, and an addiction to night clubs, drink and dissolution. In addition to the respectable characters, rich, working class or poor, there are also an endless parade of con men, mob hit men and crooks. These tend not to be the mysterious murderer behind the puzzle plot. Instead, they add color and complexity to the plotting, as well as the action scenes that were de rigeur in the pulps.
The Dean and Ben live in a run down rooming house on the edge of the slums; they share three rooms, which double as their office, and never seem to have any money or consumer goods, and do not own a car. They seem like a portrait of the desperate financial state of middle America in the late Depression, themselves. While they always make a big bucks fee at the end of the story, their financial lot never improves in the next tale. One suspects that the big-money finish is designed to give the working class readers of the pulps a fantasy thrill. The Dean could be a portrait of an intellectually trained man with no job opportunities in the Depression, reduced to struggling to get by on his wits, and the tales make clear that Ben was at the end of his rope before he was "rescued" by the Dean and made his assistant.
The "merger of different subplots" construction of the Dean tales is partly related to, and partly different from, the pulp style of plotting. In the "pulp style", which was pioneered by Carroll John Daly, there are so many characters in the story, each pursing independent courses of action, that much of the mystery is trying to untangle which of them performed each new mysterious event in the tale. One gets some of that in Constiner's Dean stories. As the different subplots are sewn together, one often learns that mysterious actions are related to a character one would not initially suspect. This recalls the "pulp style". However, in the classic "pulp style" tales of Daly, Erle Stanley Gardner and their followers, all the actions are part of one large complex interacting network. By contrast, Constiner's Dean tales seem constructed more of discrete subplot pieces, all somehow unified together.
Merle Constiner uses a number of story telling paradigms to create his subplots. These run through several of the Dean tales.
The Dean often encounters mysterious words or phrases in the course of the investigation. These obscure words turn out to be part of some craft, science or lore. The Dean will eventually consult experts in this field, who explain the surprising meaning of these phrases. This in turn will add another piece to the growing plot mosaic of the story.
The con games of cheap grifters also create mysteries. The subplot will start with the Dean and Ben encountering some small, often bizarre or surreal trace of some con activity. This can be some oddball mechanical device used in its commission. Or the strange behavior of some minor character. Eventually, the Dean or Ben will deduce that this device or behavior is part of some larger con scheme. Constiner usually suggests that these are ancient, long established con games, tricks widely known in the underworld. However, all of these schemes seem little known. At least to me: they always take me by surprise. Formally, these strange bits of business leading to larger con schemes are similar to the use of strange phrases by Constiner. In each, and odd, obscure, and hard to explain story element turns out to be part of some organized body of knowledge, whether a respectable craft, as the odd phrases do, or an underworld con scheme. After the explanation of this mini-mystery, which takes place right in the middle of the tale, instead of waiting for the end, the activity thus revealed becomes in turn part of the overall plot of the story.
The Dean's own landlady, Mrs. Duffy, sometimes entertains the Dean's clients while he is out of the office. She always winds up developing some off trail approach to said hosting. She also solves subplots in the mystery, which the Dean puts to her in abstract form.
Constiner likes strange-themed parties. These seem to be a 1940's specialty. People seemed to like official hospitality in this era, and create all sorts of planned get togethers. Similar parties sometimes turn up in comic books, which often focused on such get togethers for their plots.
There are a lot of off-trail locales in which the bad guys have secretly buried bodies. Strange poisons play a role in the tales, with unusual symptoms. Wills and complex chains of inheritance also are common. All three are the common coin of much mystery fiction. But they also recall the work of R. Austin Freeman, as do the tales' emphasis on skilled craftsmanship and ancient lore. A plot twist early in "The Riddle of the Monster Bat" (1943) recalls ideas in Freeman's "The Naturalist at Law".
The Dean and Ben are always tracking down characters, who have been mentioned, but not yet seen on stage by the detectives or the reader. Sometimes this is a simple matter of looking them up in the phone book; other times it is a huge search that becomes a major element of mystery plotting, with an ingenious surprise when the character's locale is finally revealed. The characters often wind up living in some strange, colorful home, which is described in detail. There are dozens of such locales in the story, all eccentric, all vividly set forth.
Kincaid's personality comes across: bemused, ironic, sensitive to the slightest nuance, not easily deceived.
Kincaid has a restaurant-based office, like Norbert Davis' sleuth Max Latin, and a little bit of Davis' humor clings to the detective's characterization.
"Last Page of the Hangman's Diary" shows an interesting construction, joining together its subplot mysteries. Once a subplot mystery's solution is explained, it in turn leads to a second mystery. These second mysteries, as a group, all revolve around one central mystery - their explanations all form pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, involving one central riddle. This "two level deep" construction shows considerable formal beauty, and requires plotting skill. To give a concrete example, what and who are causing the hangman noises, and why? Once we learn the answer to this, the answer serves as clue in a new central puzzle. And what is the truth about the enigmatic "Dog's-Tooth Bond" the old man wanted investigated? When the truth about this is revealed, it too serves as a clue in another mystery: the same mystery for which the hangman noises solution became a clue. Not only is this two levels deep structure ingenious in itself. It serves to unify all the apparently completely unrelated subplots into a central mystery. Some other mystery subplots in the story (but not all of them) also take part in this grand design.
The name of the detective Kincaid, recalls Hake Talbot's sleuth Rogen Kincaid, who appeared in Hangman's Handyman (1942), a novel with a similar title to Constiner's story. Despite this, I cannot see much similarity between the two authors.
Black of the Moon. "Black of the Moon" (1946) is the only appearance of detective Lew Crockett. One wonders if this started out life as a Luther McGavock tale, and if Constiner changed the lead to sell it to a different pulp, Mammoth Detective. The names of the two sleuths are similar, and both travel to small Southern towns. Lew Crockett runs some small con games himself, but they are always to advance his detective work, never to make money. The overall detective plot does not cohere, with logical flaws in the plot. But some of the subplots are nice, and the story is pleasant reading. I especially liked the strange woman Crockett meets, and the subplot about the tool shed. The title refers to an odd back woods superstition, part of Constiner's ongoing interest in old lore - all of which he always debunks.
Sleuth Luther McGavock has a set-up recalling the Continental Op tales of Dashiell Hammett. Both:
"Let the Dead Alone" is set in a small town, somewhere near the Tennessee-Mississippi border. The tale shows the influence of Craig Rice's Trial by Fury (1941) of the year before. Both books are set in "typical" small towns, and attempt to give a portrait of this part of contemporary America. In both, the emphasis is on small town life, people and businessmen, not on the farmers or rural people of the surrounding countryside. Both give an almost sociological portrait. Both try to avoid cliches, and one notes that "Let the Dead Alone" is admirably not at all interested in "hillbilly" stereotypes. Both works also have a left-of-center point of view. "Let the Dead Alone" especially seems interested in offering a critique of local businessmen and the well-to-do. Constiner differs from Rice in his Southern setting - Rice's novel takes place in Wisconsin - and in including far fewer female characters than Rice.
There are also plot resemblances between the two works. Both have their detective sneaking out of his hotel room by night to sleuth around the town. Both involve explosions are part of their thriller plots.
Constiner includes that old stand-by, the absconding broker. This was a character popular in the early 1900's, in works like Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1907). Perhaps in tribute to this era, Constiner makes the broker be part of a "crime out of the past" subplot, set in 1909.
"Let the Dead Alone" has a subplot construction, like other Constiner novellas. The best subplot involves the gambling husband. This arrives at ingenious answers. It also extends the sociological portrait of the town's characters.
There is also a howdunit subplot: it is uncertain how the first murder was committed, physically. "Let the Dead Alone" shows some mild ingenuity here, but also some unpleasant gore.
The Turkey Buzzard Blues. "The Turkey Buzzard Blues" (1943) resembles "Let the Dead Alone" in that both tales send Luther McGavock to a small Southern town, richly described. In "The Turkey Buzzard Blues" the town is in the hill country. It is in Tennessee, which we can deduce since a game law violation threatens to get a character in trouble with Nashville, the capitol of Tennessee (start of Chapter 3).
A second similarity is the nature of the characters both authors' detectives encounter. These characters are very eccentric, and many of them are engaged in mysterious enterprises, activities that are distinctly off beat and off center. In both authors, the exact nature of these enterprises is often initially not made clear. Figuring out exactly what the characters are up to is one of the principal tasks of the detective, in fact. The detective is aided in this search by clues these enterprises leave behind, clues that are often distinctly bizarre, to the point of surrealism.
A third similarity of the two authors is their focus on the humorous eccentricities of Southern Life. The Dean stories take place in an unnamed town, but one which is hot and muggy, and which has commercial ties with New Orleans in some of the tales. It could well be a fairly Southern city, perhaps in Kentucky or Tennessee. Constiner's other series detective, Luther McGavock, often visited small Southern towns, the same as Poggioli. McGavock appeared in Black Mask, just as the Dean stories ran in Dime Detective.
Merle Constiner began publishing paperback Western novels under his own name. Correspondents tell me that some of the books published by "Tom West" were also by Constiner, although I have been unable to verify this from independent sources. The Constiner Westerns include: Last Stand at Anvil Pass (1957), The Fourth Gunman (1958) published as a "double" with Slick on the Draw (1958) by Tom West, The Cactus Kid (1959) by Tom West, Short-Trigger Man (1964), Guns at Q Cross (1965) published as a "double" with The Toughest Gun in the Territory (1965) by Tom West, The Action at Redstone Creek (1965), Wolf on Horseback (1965) published as a "double" with Bushwack Brand (1965) by Tom West, Outrage at Bearskin Forks (1966), Rain of Fire (1966) published as a "double" with Bitter Brand (1966) by Tom West, Top Gun from the Dakotas (1966) published as a "double" with Rattesnake Range (1966) by Tom West, Two Pistols South of Deadwood (1967), The Four from Gila Bend (1968), Killers' Corral (1968), The Man Who Shot "The Kid" (1969), Death Waits at Dakins Station (1970), Steel-Jacket (1972). He also wrote novels, mainly about the American Revolutionary War, for young people, including Meet Me at the Merry Fifer (1966), The Rebel Courier and the Redcoats (1968) and Sumatra Alley (1971). Many of these books are quite short, from 100 to 130 pages, and are perhaps more long novellas than novels, strictly speaking. They are refreshingly unpadded by modern day standards. Some of these novels are fascinating combinations of the Mystery and Western fiction. However, not all of Constiner's Westerns are deeply mystery oriented. The Cactus Kid (1959) by "Tom West" has a murder mystery, but it is a minor element in a unmemorable Western dealing with violent confrontations (although the encounter with the nesters at the start of Chapter 8 is good).This book, like the other "Tom West" tales, may or may not be by Constiner. Death Waits at Dakins Station (1970) is much better written, but it has little mystery, strictly speaking.
Unlike modern writers who mix mystery and Western fiction, such as Bill Pronzini and Edward D. Hoch, Merle Constiner does not emphasize the fact that he is combining genres. He follows many conventions of detective fiction, but never explicitly calls attention to this. One suspects that his publishers or his readers or both simply wanted a Western, and Constiner was incorporating mystery elements as part of his own writing approach.
Constiner is good at vivid details of daily life. He has elaborate descriptions of food in the old West, and buildings, as well a nature and the clothes people wear. This gives the tale a vivid, "you are there" quality. The tale is much less surreal than some of Constiner's 1940's pulp stories. It shows good storytelling. Constiner often emphasizes mysteries of character. We first meet someone, and both his hero and the reader wonder what they are really like. Gradually, we find out in the novel.
The fine cover painting (perhaps by Jack Gaughan - the inside illustration is signed with his "JG" logo) of the original paperback publication of Short-Trigger Man shows two cowboys riding the same horse; the cover blurb states: "Share my horse, share my fate!" The only trouble with this is that no such scene occurs anywhere in the novel. This is a classic mix-up.
I suspect that Short-Trigger Man has many autobiographical elements. Not in a literal sense, but it conveying the feel of the author's life: what Andrew Sarris calls a "stream of emotional autobiography". Merle Constiner's hero Watts Denning has many skills, some of which he uses professionally, some personally. He is a former gunman, now a professional barman. He is also an expert horseman, rider, cattleman, bookkeeper, student of human nature, and sleuth. All of these skills are poetic expressions of Constiner's own artistic gifts. Constiner had spent his life writing: it was a life devoted to art. Constiner's fiction had appeared in cheap outlets devoted to entertainment - pulp magazines and paperback original Westerns. This is similar to Watts' work as a barman in cheap but agreeable dives. Watts has no permanent home - he wanders from bar to bar to get work. Similarly, Constiner had found no permanent platform in publishing. Neither man minded this - both just accepted this as part of the nature of things, and enjoyed the variety of experiences, instead. The profession of barman is similar to Constiner's own: both serve up pleasant concoctions to the public. By the way, Short-Trigger Man does not emphasize alcohol; Watts often serves up a wide variety of non-alcoholic drinks to his Western patrons, as well as himself. He is as much a restaurateur, serving up beverages to accompany food, as what we today think of a barman. Watts' skills as a sleuth represent Constiner's ability to construct mystery plots; Watts' gunman abilities stand for Constiner's ability to write about violence, always a necessity in the world of pulp.
The working class environment of Short-Trigger Man also reflects Constiner's own life. My correspondents tell me that Constiner was a kindly man who spent his last years writing in a room in the back of the small house in Monroe, Ohio where his wife ran a nursery school. The room was decorated with the covers of Constiner's Western paperbacks. This is somewhat similar to the existence of Watts Denning, and most of his friends. Watts will wind up with a cot in a back room of whatever bar he is working, and enough food to eat. The other good characters in Short-Trigger Man lead similar lives. One holes up in the back of a burned out building. The sheriff and his wife have rooms above the courthouse; a friend owns and lives in a cheap bar on the wrong side of the rail road tracks, which he never crosses: he is uncomfortable on the fancy side of town. All of this is presented as typical existence in a small frontier town in the old West. But it also reflects the life of Constiner. Constiner should be compared to Mondrian, the great abstract painter who also devoted his life to his art. Mondrian never had more than a one room dwelling which served him as both a studio and as a bedroom. This is part of the price for what these men did. All in all, Short-Trigger Man is a poetic testament, telling us about Constiner's life and art.
Its location is the opposite of Short-Trigger Man. That book took place in the far North of the United States, near the Canadian border in Montana, while The Four from Gila Bend takes place in Arizona, in the far South near the Mexican border. Both novels are in arid, barren, near desert locations, as is The Cactus Kid (1959). Merle Constiner has a flair for describing such locations. They often have a poetic quality. They seem to give consolation to Constiner's heroes, and mirror their emotional states. Constiner discovers plenty of variety in these desert locales: they are rich and complex environments. The slow journeys his heroes take through these landscapes are often high points of the novels.
The Four from Gila Bend shows signs of its era, in its discussion of subjects that might have been taboo in an earlier time. One of the women in the book is in a common-law marriage, and the subject gets an airing that seems to reflect the hippie generation of the period. The book has quite a few sympathetic woman characters, most of whom are strong willed and gutsy, as well as being extremely down to earth and unrefined. This perhaps echoes the women's lib movement of the time. There is an anti-authoritarian attitude running through many of the characters and the book, with one of the sheriffs in the tale the subject of much satire. This too reflects the hippie era, and its skepticism about the fuzz. The hero of the book is a sheriff, so the book is hardly anti-police.
Women in the book tend to own property, and run land, while men tend to be in charge of businesses or professions. Villains in Constiner Westerns tend to be rich men with large business empires. They tend to be up to complex criminal schemes that result in murder. His good guys tend to be fast-drawing Western heroes. Often times, a female relative of the first victim plays a major role in the plot.
Gruber's work has much in common with Norbert Davis' in tone. Both mix comedy with detection. Both often put their hero in physical jeopardy. Davis' Bail Bondsman Dodd is also a two bit small businessman, whose work brings him in contact with the public. Both writers have a penchant for Amazonian women, whose skills with violence and beating up men are depicted as both comic and scary. It is hard to tell which of the authors influenced the other. The Gruber stories reprinted today are a bit earlier than Davis', but this could just be an artifact of publishing. Gruber's tone is more wholesome and less "sick" than Davis'.
Another writer who Gruber seems to have influenced is Craig Rice, especially in her stories about traveling photographers Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak. Handsome has a photographic memory, similar to Gruber's Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia. Rice's characters are small time street businessmen, just like Gruber's. Sam Cragg teamed up with Johnny Fletcher, the two selling books door to door in a series of 1940's Gruber mystery novels. Craig Rice's characters are a duo, just like Gruber's. If Handsome has a perfect memory, his publishers do not: his name is spelled Kuzak in The Sunday Pigeon Murders (1942), and Kusak in The Thursday Turkey Murders (1943), at least in the paperback editions.
The French Key. The first is The French Key (1940). It shows some charm in its storytelling, and in its low life detectives. Like other Gruber characters, they are on the borderline between regular businessmen, and small time hustlers or con-men. Some of Johnny Fletcher's con-man-like schemes recall similar clever gambits in Erle Stanley Gardner's fiction: I liked the encounter with the used car salesman (start of Chapter 16) and his pleasing trick to get all the suspects together for the denouement (middle of Chapter 18). The latter shows a genuine sense of style, and would make a good movie scene. But the solution of its mystery plot is poor, lacking both ingenuity, and any clues that would let anyone deduce the murderer.
The Laughing Fox. The Laughing Fox (1940) is the second Fletcher-Cragg novel, with a much better puzzle plot. It is a genuine mystery story, with an opening murder, detective work, and a number of mystery subplots. The Laughing Fox has a solution that surprised me. It has a Background of commercially raising foxes for fur, and exhibiting the animals at fairs. This recalls the poultry background of "Death at the Main". The Background is detailed and interesting, but it never winds up having much to do with the actual mystery plot.
The Laughing Fox looks at the lives of people in the Depression, and how talent does not seem to lead to success. This is interesting, mainstream fiction material.
Both The French Key and The Laughing Fox have characters who live in cheap hotels; these will also show up in Gruber's non-series novel, The Fourth Letter. These characters eat most of their meals in restaurants, and lead an almost transient life-style. Gruber goes into much satiric detail about this way of living. Many of the characters are traveling salesmen, and make their living on the road.
The puzzle plots and plot surprises in The Laughing Fox and The Mighty Blockhead deal with making connections between past and present. In both, it is hard to connect up past and present characters. And secrets and events in the past also have surprising links to current plot events. This sort of mystery plotting is interesting and creative. However, it has no links to the tradition of impossible crimes, ingenious alibis, hidden objects, mysterious murder methods and other "clever uses of a physical situation" puzzle plots, so often found in intuitionist puzzle plot mystery authors. It is a different kind of plotting.
The Mighty Blockhead. The Mighty Blockhead (1941-1942) is the seventh Johnny Fletcher-Sam Cragg novel. It offers a Background of an inside look at the fledgling comic book industry. American comic books had started in the early 1930's as a minor curiosity. The first Superman story (1938) changed comic books into a national craze, and huge commercial industry. Much of this industry was run by crooks who exploited the creative writers and artists. Gruber is well aware of this. In fact, his jaundiced, scathing and satirical treatment of the industry is the most knowing until such modern exposes as Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (2005). Artists continued to be naive in their dealings with crooked publishers for decades after The Mighty Blockhead appeared in 1942. In fact, in hindsight they would have been better off if they had read Gruber's novel, and taken its lessons to heart. Although The Mighty Blockhead eventually appeared in paperback, it seems to have been a relatively little known novel. It is not mentioned much by comic book historians, or for that matter, mystery experts.
The Van Dine school novelists of the Golden Age offered inside looks at New York City's intelligentsia, including Jerry North, the glamorous publisher-turned-amateur-sleuth in the novels of Frances and Richard Lockridge. Gruber also focuses on the publishing industry, in such mysteries as The Mighty Blockhead and the non-series The Fourth Letter. But Gruber's books target the lower depths of the publishing industry, not the prestigious, upscale literati featured by the Lockridges. Gruber had worked as an editor of a trade journal, and seems to have known the dark side of the publishing industry well. His books form an observant record of a creative but financially exploitative era of American cultural history.
The Mighty Blockhead shows good storytelling. Gruber keeps thickening the plot, adding new characters, situations and publishing industry detail to the story, in chapter after chapter. He pulls off a pair of decent mystery plot surprises along the way (see Chapter 8, and the start of Chapter 18). Unfortunately, there is nothing clever about the solution at the end of the novel. It is arbitrary, short, and does not offer a good explanation of why the corpse keeps getting moved around in the opening chapters.
The Mighty Blockhead resembles other Gruber novels, in that it offers retrospective looks back at the lives of its characters, and takes a side trip to the Midwest (here, Iowa).
The Army setting of this story is a full Background, in the Freeman Wills Crofts sense. The story concentrates on the day to day life of the base, and how it operates; it does not delve into big issues of war and peace, unlike much fiction about the Army. As in the Crofts school, there is an interest in technology used on the base, much of which was fairly high tech in its time. And as in Crofts, the detective is a professional policeman, now serving in Army Intelligence after he entered the service. As in Crofts, we see the physical analysis of crime scene clues by the detective. The story also gives a feel for both the landscape of the base and many of its buildings, in the Golden Age mystery tradition of interest in architecture. The tale's interest in radio is also found in Richard Sale and Hugh B. Cave, among pulp writers of the era. Radio was also a major craze in comic books of the time, such as Radio Squad.
The Fourth Letter. The Fourth Letter (1947) is a non-series mystery novel, and a highly readable one. It has a Background, depicting the operation of the circulation department of a journal sold to farmers, and goes into rich and interesting detail on this subject. Gruber himself had worked on trade journals in his younger days. The look at the attempt to sell subscriptions recalls the attempts to sell books in other Gruber works, although The Fourth Letter transpires on a much more business-like and professional level. Everyone in this book is a small-time entrepreneur, trying to sell something. Today computerization has utterly transformed circulation and subscription work; it is a fascinating business carried out on a truly huge scale that would have astonished the denizens of this novel. It is also interesting to see the specialized machines used for mailing in this era; these have also been transformed by modern technology.
The Fourth Letter takes place in a small town in Iowa, and continues Gruber's interest in Midwestern farm life. The cattle show here recalls the fox show in The Laughing Fox. The feel of the book as a whole recalls The Laughing Fox. Both works dive deep into the past histories of their characters, looking both at incidents in their remote past and youth, and the course of their entire lives. Once again, we see youthful hopes blighted, and lives led awry. The mystery story unfolds logically, and as in The Laughing Fox, there is a successful attempt to fasten the crime on an unlikely suspect. However, there are too few clues here, that would allow the reader to logically deduce the killer. Still, this is a good book.
The Fourth Letter also gives a detailed and unsympathetic look at small town life. Aside from the heroine, all of the locals are highly unappealing people; the hero and the other sympathetic characters in the story, such as the hotel proprietor, are all recent arrivals to the town from the big city. There is a long tradition in both mystery and mainstream fiction in this era of skepticism about small town life. As in "Death on Post #7", these likable characters are urban sharpies, now transplanted into an all-encompassing world far from their original haunts. They do not fit in very well, but are the only signs of life in that world.
Gruber's book shows how poorly paid but efficient working women were the mainstay of many businesses in the era. The heroine, despite all her knowledge of the business, is never offered any promotion or advancement here, while all sorts of incompetent males are leaders. Gruber never offers any explicit social commentary on this. But the extreme nature of the contrast between the male and female employees makes this conspicuous. Such a gap was set in stone in the era's social customs.
By the way, I cannot see what the title The Fourth Letter has to do with the plot or events of the novel.
"1000-to-1 for Your Money" is a murder mystery, but a parallel subplot about the identity of a swindler gets more attention. This identity mystery plot anticipates other "identity mysteries" in Gruber novels like The Laughing Fox and The Mighty Blockhead. Those books involve attempts to line up and connect characters and incidents between the past and present. There is no such past-present dichotomy in "1000-to-1 for Your Money". But the story does ask us to compare what we know about the characters, with the mysterious world of the swindler. And the solution involves a similar effort of alignment.
"1000-to-1 for Your Money" is a revised version of the story "The Sad Serbian", originally appearing in the March 1939 Black Mask. The ethnic slurs in the original have thankfully been cleaned up and removed, probably through the intervention of editor Ellery Queen, who printed "1000-to-1 for Your Money" in his magazine. It can be found in Ellery Queen's Anthology: 1965 Mid-Year Edition. The much inferior original version "The Sad Serbian" is in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (2007).
The idea of asking large number of people to "subscribe" to a swindle, in "1000-to-1 for Your Money", finds an echo of sorts in The Fourth Letter, which deals with subscription struggles of minor periodicals.
Gruber re-used the name of the detective Sam Cragg in "1000-to-1 for Your Money", for a series character in the Johnny Fletcher mysteries. However, the name seems attached to two drastically different characters: the personalities of the Sam Cragg in "1000-to-1 for Your Money" and the Sam Cragg in the Fletcher novels seem completely different.
Gruber also wrote fantasy fiction: the well done story "The Gold Cup" (1940) appeared in Weird Tales.
Norbert Davis' Number 1 fan during the 1940's: the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who loved Davis' books. (Thanks to reader Martin Thau, who pointed this out to me!) Wittgenstein was especially enthused about Davis' first novel, the zany The Mouse in the Mountain (1943), which Wittgenstein knew under its British title of Rendezvous With Fear. Apparently, Wittgenstein recommended this book to many of his friends, and even tried unsuccessfully to contact the author. Reader John Tingley gives more information: "About the Wittgenstein reference - it can be found on pp. 528-29 of Ray Monk's biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991). The 4.6.1948 letter to Norman Malcolm is printed in full on p. 109 of Malcolm's Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984). Wittgenstein was a special fan of "Street & Smith" detective magazines, and had Malcolm send them to him at Cambridge."
The relationship between Norbert Davis' private detectives and the police are especially complicated. The private eyes take especial delight in tweaking the noses of the police, often coming up with complex situations designed to annoy the police, but to which the cops have no choice but to consent, because the situation leads to the arrest of the bad guy. Another Davis plot twist: the police often try to pin the private eye's allegedly crooked schemes on them, only to discover their hidden positive side. However, Davis tends to be sympathetic to his police characters, as well. The heroic Mexican police in The Mouse in the Mountain seem designed to shatter stereotypes about Latin Americans, and his American cops, like all his characters, tend to be wily and persistent.
Norbert Davis was good at describing journeys into waste places: shacks in marshes near warehouses; snowstorms out West, weedy yards in isolated city manufacturing districts. Traveling in these environments usually results in comic physical indignities for his hero. The remote Mexican highlands of The Mouse in the Mountain, are one of the largest scale, and most successful, of such desolate regions in Davis. There is also the flash flood in the Mohave Desert at the finale of Sally's in the Alley. Urban desolate locations appear in "Murder in the Red", "Give the Devil His Due".
By contrast, there is the black gown worn by the glamorous woman in "Don't Give Your Right Name", Gertrude Glenn's green dress in "You Can Die Any Day", Joan Greg's green silk nightgown in "Holocaust House", the red uniform worn by the waitress at the drive-in in Sally's in the Alley, the woman's red high heeled shoe in "Watch Me Kill You!", the rich woman's white dress with red belt and turban in "Take It from Me", a woman's red rubies and maroon car in "Murder in the Red".
A man drives the maroon roadster in "Never Say Die". And hero Bail-Bond Dodd is dressy in a gray suit in "Take It From Me".
Walls in swanky locations in Davis tend to be colored as well: there is the red enameled art gallery in "Watch Me Kill You!", and the black leather paneled elevator in "Give the Devil His Due". The fancy apartment building hall has white walls, bright pink carpeting and matching pink doors in "You Bet Your Life".
Some comedy about a hotel mistaking the hero for a crooked, blackmailing private eye, anticipates those later, full-blown Davis stories in which honest PI's systematically masquerade as crooks.
The good-hearted but sarcastic chef seems like an early sketch for the chef in the Max Latin tales. He works in a Mexican restaurant, giving a hint that Davis will write the Mexico-set The Mouse in the Mountain.
The comically surreal scenes on Hollywood sets anticipate Sally's in the Alley.
A chauffeur is in a snappy plum-colored uniform, extending Davis' range of color imagery.
Murder in Two Parts. Norbert Davis' novella "Murder in Two Parts" (1937) was reprinted in the anthology American Pulp (1997) edited by Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg. The first half has some funny dialogue about a drunk the hero has to look after; this is the earliest Davis story I've read to show his trademark humor and clever dialogue. The relationship between his detective hero Brent and the drunk anticipates a little that between Doan and the dog Carstairs; in each the rather sneaky detective has to look after a non rational being who is physically large, self confident, and powerful.
Davis liked small, wooden, ramshackle, nearly cubical structures for the settings of his crimes, such as the bum's waterfront shack in "Murder in the Red". This story has a bathing cube, something I've never heard of elsewhere. The Golden Age interest in unusual architecture extended to Black Mask, where this story appeared.
The story's finale on a sea side cliff in the fog recalls other suspense finales in Black Mask tales exploiting sea side phenomena, such as the hurricane ending of Lester Dent's "Angelfish" (1936).
The tale also continues Davis' color coding: a female murder victim is wearing green pajamas, whereas a man is wearing a blue suit. A bad guy's green ring is the tip-off to his identity to Brent; clearly in Davis' world, this is the "wrong" color for a man to be wearing: it should be in blue!
You'll Die Laughing. Unlike many of Norbert Davis' stories, "You'll Die Laughing" (1940) does not star a professional detective, but rather an amateur, a young man who gets caught up in a murder at his apartment house. The story is reprinted in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps.
The tale has some genuine clues to the real murderer. Otherwise, the inventive and strange twists of the plot, are too outré for any reader to predict, and it can hardly be called a "puzzle plot" story. The story has a "hidden scheme" subplot, as well as a killer. The reader senses some sort of strange scheme must be going on: but it would be hard to predict what this scheme is from the information in the tale.
The painful crawling of the mystery man in the opening, recalls the hero Just Plain Jones of "Something For the Sweeper" (1937), and his difficulty walking on bad feet.
The architecture of the hero's dumpy building plays a role in the story, in the Golden Age manner.
Black is a persistent color in the story, on everything from clothes to the "chrome-and-black-marble" lobby of a fancy apartment house. The two apartment houses, one poverty-stricken and the other fancy, anticipate the frequent movement in the Max Latin tales between an earlier waste place mileu, and a swanky setting for the finale.
Take It From Me. The murder in "Take It From Me" is closely linked to an elaborate landscape, in the Golden Age mystery tradition (Chapters 2, 5). This adds to the interest of the tale.
"You'll Die Laughing" (1940), which appeared a year before the first Max Latin story, shows elements of the Max Latin paradigm. Its amateur sleuth runs nocturnal errands at the start of the tale - but for friends, not as a private eye - and one of them takes him to a small restaurant. After this, a body is discovered, and the police refuse to believe the hero's story. Finally, the second half of "You'll Die Laughing" takes the hero to a swanky apartment building. This is not the full Max Latin paradigm, but it does contain many of its elements.
"Watch Me Kill You!" (1941) is the first Max Latin tale. It introduces all the series characters. Most are in their final form, although Dick the headwaiter will be better developed in later tales. "Watch Me Kill You!" has five separate mystery subplots:
The mystery plot in the last Max Latin story "Charity Begins at Homicide" (1943) is simpler and weaker than those of the above-mentioned stories. I enjoyed the tale's comic storytelling anyway.
The only poor Max Latin tale is "Don't Give Your Right Name" (1941). It suffers from poor treatment of a minority and excess violence. Its subplot about Steamer is good, and there is a mildly interesting "hiding of a body" at the end, but it has little other distinction as a mystery.
A plot gambit in Norbert Davis is when someone who is painted as a big-time criminal turns out to be not such a crook after all. Often, this is simply a case of misleading gossip or slander. Examples include "You Can Die Any Day" and the Dodd "Murder in the Red".
In both the first and third murders in Sally's in the Alley, the sleuth and the reader know the killer is nearby, seemingly innocent, at the times of the killings. Similar killer behavior is found in "Watch Me Kill You!" and "Give the Devil His Due".
The second murder in Sally's in the Alley never builds up much puzzle structure or emphasis.
The main mystery puzzle in Oh, Murderer Mine is routine: someone commits some murders, and at the end, they are revealed, without much in the way of clues. The motive for the murder, linked to the killer's backstory, was a cliche by this time, being a variant on one having been found earlier in Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940) and Mignon G. Eberhart's Wolf in Man's Clothing (1942). This motive is not all that clever in those earlier writers either, to be frank.
Better in Oh, Murderer Mine are all the variant explanations of the crime. The Sheriff Humphrey keeps coming up with wild "solutions" to the crime, that are both absurd, yet strangely logical, complex and imaginative. And later, the Mexican detective has a number of stories about the crime, which also sound plausible at first, but which prove inaccurate. Finally, sleuth hero Doan offers his own alternate version of a previously expressed theory at the end. This theory turns out to be true.
The Mouse in the Mountain also shows a similar technique, wherein one character will introduce another character as a friend or acquaintance, followed by the new character introducing other characters, and so on throughout the novel. There is a branching pattern, or tree-like structure among the characters in the story.
"Murder in the Red" shows much less of Davis' paradoxical dialogue than his later tales in the 1940's; this kind of dialogue appears in Davis' other work as early as 1937, so Davis was simply operating in a different mode here.
"You'll Die Laughing" also introduces its characters in chains: but with some innovations. First, there is a prologue showing us an unnamed, mysterious man. Then the story proper starts, with the hero going to visit his boss. The boss sends him on an errand to see another man. This man sends the hero in turn on an errand to a third character, and so on. There are a whole series of such errands, that introduce most of the characters in the tale. But there is an exception: the man from the prologue shows up unexpectedly in the middle of these errands. The reader and hero have no idea what he is doing there. This gives a structural twist to the series of errands.
The first half of "Holocaust House" also mainly introduces its characters in a chain. They go: cab driver / MacTavish / J.S. Toggery / the train conductor / Jannen the stationmaster / lawyer Brill / heiress Miss Sheila Alden / society man Crowley. Some of these point the way to the next one in the chain. For example, Jannen conducts the hero to the mansion, where he is met at the door by Brill. Brill then takes the hero to the living room, where he meets Sheila Alden. heila Alden introduces the hero to Crowley.
The chain is not quite pure. Toggery appears earlier on the phone briefly, before this main chain starts. And we also learn about the tale's mysterious villain, going under the name Smith.
The last three Max Latin tales were published after the United States entered Word War II. They have backgrounds reflecting the homefront during the war. "You Can Die Any Day" is especially inventive, in deriving plot from this homefront background both for the tale's good guys and bad guys.
Davis' work has links to the screwball comedy films of the era. Harriet Hathaway in Sally's in the Alley recalls the relentless female zany played by Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Both characters hound a far more passive man. And the comedy about a woman's beauty parlor in Oh, Murderer Mine recalls the equally elaborate beauty parlor in The Women (1939).
Many authors wrote about doctor-detectives who solved medical mysteries. This does not seem to be the case in the Davis doctor tales I've managed to read, however. These doctors solve general, non-medical mysteries.
The Davis doctor stories do not have Davis' trademark humor. Instead, "Medicine for Murder" and "Doctor Flame's Murder Black-Out" are serious-toned tales. They have much suspense. And are set in all or part with the characters wandering around in danger at night. These settings are downright spooky. This approach separates them from the Davis series detective comedy-mysteries that are Davis' best-known works today.
SPOILERS. Both "Medicine for Murder" and "Doctor Flame's Murder Black-Out" feature one common Davis element: they bring home the crimes to a surprise murderer, during their solution.
Both Dr. Gregory and Dr. Flame keep their waiting rooms unlocked, even when they are not in their offices. This allows patients and other visitors to come there and take refuge. Dr. Flame's office is also heated, benefiting slum dwellers who have no other place to get warm.
"Medicine for Murder" and a non-doctor tale "Never Say Die", share a character type. This is a young man, some sort of servant broadly speaking, who wears a fancy uniform. These man are described as "natty" in their sharp uniforms. These include yacht crewman Floyd in "Medicine for Murder", and elevator operator Naylor in "Never Say Die". Both characters are known by just one name, rather than the "first and last names" most characters have. Both men talk is a casual earthy way, that suggests they are working class.
Sally's in the Alley. Sally's in the Alley (1943), the second Doan and Carstairs novel, is much grimmer than The Mouse in the Mountain, and suffers for it. The book falls into two halves, the first largely taking place in a remote town on the California-Nevada border, the second in Los Angeles and then in some vividly described desert scenes. The first half suffers from mean behavior on the part of Doan, making this section often unlikable. The novel does get better in the second half. Events in the second half sometimes surrealistically echo actions in the first half of the novel, an approach also found in such surrealist writers as Ellery Queen and Craig Rice. Also, events in the second half develop the plot, building on and extending plot ideas from the first half. The novel eventually builds up a coherent mystery plot.
The finale has some interesting political commentary. Davis' take on the events of World War II are as off trail as his other ideas, although they are completely patriotic.
The book is genuinely strange throughout, with weird characters and events. This strangeness is not always pleasant, especially in the first half, which often has a bitter quality, but the novel is truly far out. Characters in Davis are so deceitful, and/or running so many complex schemes, that almost no one in this book is leading a conventional life. Nearly everyone, from the detective hero on out, is involved in some strange existence, often involving a new persona or strange crooked scheme. This systematically divorces this book from conventional reality. Most of the characters are leading complex lives that are entirely imagined by the author; these lives are entirely made up for the book, and have no counterparts in the conventional world. Oddly, none of these lives are at all science fictional; here and elsewhere, Davis' imagination has little to do with the fantastic. All of the strange schemes relate instead to mystery story tradition. They are part of the complex plotting involving criminal activity that has long been central to the detective story. Davis has carried these ideas out to extreme length, with every character, including the detective, involved in some baroquely complex and ingenious activity. But all of the schemes relate to the detective story, and its heritage of ingenious plot. Like many traditional detective story authors, Norbert Davis is a deeply plot-oriented writer.
Many of the characters in Sally's in the Alley systematically subvert conventional ideas on how society should be run. This includes strange ideas on how police and detective work should be carried out. Davis experimented with such concepts in his short tale, "Walk Across My Grave" (1942) (not a Doan and Carstairs story). These sections have some satire. But mainly, they are exercises in pure imagination, showing how a conventional institution can be twisted into bizarre new directions. Chapter 6 is especially rich, in looking at the strange ways how the rotten authority figures in a small town conduct themselves. This chapter was singled out by Jon L. Breen in his review.
Private eye Doan is drafted by the Feds to help out with a spy case in Sally's in the Alley. This anticipates the Milo March private eye novels of Kendell Foster Crossen, in which the government also drafts March to be a spy in some adventures.
Restaurants, bars and hotels are frequent locales in Sally's in the Alley. These tend to be as outré and bizarre as possible. They include some of the earliest depictions in American fiction of the modern-day country-western bar and the drive-in restaurant. The workers in these establishments tend not to be crooks or deceitful. They can be comically strange. Also surreal in location: the trip to the Hollywood back lot in Chapter 12.
Oh, Murderer Mine. The final Doan and Carstairs novel, Oh, Murderer Mine (1946), shows a sad decline from the first two. It succeeds as a comic novel. But it lacks the imaginative look at strange characters and social situations found in the best Norbert Davis. It is also not that creative as a mystery puzzle.
Holocaust House. Doan and Carstairs made their debut, not in a novel, but in a novella, "Holocaust House" (1940). This tale is reprinted in the anthology The Arbor House Treasury of Detective and Mystery Stories from the Great Pulps (1983), edited by Bill Pronzini.
Doan is given a restaurant owner named MacTavish as a supporting character, and his dining car serves as a home base for Doan (Chapter 2) - anticipating chef Guiterrez in the Max Latin tales, which would start next year in 1941.
The first half of "Holocaust House" is pretty good, with two of Norbert Davis' outstanding set pieces set in waste places. Both episodes include buildings as well as nature:
Davis finally gets his mystery plot going in the second half. There are two surpass revelations about various suspects, that are nicely done.
The mystery about the identity of the killer, unfortunately does not show plot ingenuity. It is satisfying as story telling, however.
Doan is not as well developed as a character here, as he will be in the later novels.
Society smoothie Crowley (Chapter 5) makes an amusing Davis character.
We learn that Doan's home base is Bay City (Chapter 11). Bay City will soon be the setting of the Bail-Bond Dodd tales.
The first half makes some pointed social commentary about arms manufacturers. Comic books of the 1937-1940 era featured several stories attacking munitions manufacturers, including Superman's debut adventure, Siegel and Shuster's "Revolution in San Monte" (Action Comics #1,2, April, July 1938). But such political comments are rarer in prose mystery fiction. Such non-series Davis tales as "The Price of a Dime" and "You'll Die Laughing" offered looks at the poverty of the Depression and the depredations of loan sharks, that can also be seen as left-wing social commentary. The Dodd "Murder in the Red" has a Russian-American janitor who is a fiery street corner radical. Davis treats him as something of a crackpot, and milks him for off-trail humor, directed once again at that favorite Davis target, the legal system. But perhaps Davis has some sympathy for his ideas as well.
The energetic characters in the Dill stories tend to be well to do eccentrics, engaged in various sub rosa schemes. This brings them into contact with crooks and underworld types.
Double Trouble. "Double Trouble" (1936) has aspects of a medical mystery. Medical crime is an ongoing interest of Sale's, recurring in his novel Passing Strange.
The boyfriend is all dressed up in white tie and tails at the nightclub, and looks sexy. Men in Sale love putting on formal wear and going out to clubs. Other pulp writers favored evening clothes in fun locales too: see Roland Phillips' "Clews in the Wind" (1930), T.T. Flynn's "The Deadly Orchid" (1933), Charles G. Booth's "Stag Party" (1933), George Harmon Coxe's The Lady Is Afraid (1940), Norbert Davis' "Murder in the Red" (1940) and "Give the Devil His Due" (1942). See also my list of Comic Book Heroes in White Tie and Tails. Getting dressed up and going to nightclubs was frequent in Hollywood movies. It was a national craze in this era of entertainment.
While there is a murder in this novel, there is no murder mystery. Also, the villains and the good guys are clear in the tale right from the start. So the book is hardly a murder mystery in any sense of the term. However, the book does have elements of mystery. For one thing, the goals of the Nazi scheme here are mysterious, and not revealed till towards the end of the story. This serves as a mystery throughout the tale, the way a murder mystery does in a conventional book, and the lead characters do some detection to try to uncover it. Also, the reader constantly wonders what the next step in the Nazis' actions will be, and the next step the good guys will take to counteract it. Both kinds of action, when they show up, tend to be surprising and fairly ingenious. This too has aspects that are mystery-like: the actions are both logical and surprising, like the solution of a mystery. And like a mystery, the story is heavily plot oriented.
Murder at Midnight. Murder at Midnight contains two novellas, which did not appear in specialized mystery pulps, "Cape Spectre" and "Murder at Midnight". They presumably originated in either general purpose pulp magazines, such as Argosy, or in the slicks.
The heroes of both stories are involved in radio, at that time the most high tech communications medium in the world. Although the radio background of the tales is only tangentially involved with the mystery plots, it still makes for interesting reading. Sale was a ham radio operator in real life, and during World War II became involved in radio-based civilian defense work.
Neither tale is at all hard-boiled. Instead, both have a young man who gets plunged into a frightening situation.
The first half of each novella is filled with mystery. Gradually the puzzling events get explained. By around the midpoints of the stories, a clearly identified villain has emerged, and the last sections of the tales turns into a pure adventure and suspense thriller. I enjoyed the opening mystery sections of both works more than their finales. Neither novella is a classic, but both make pleasant reading.
"Cape Spectre" (1941) is set on an isolated wild island on the Florida coast. Its Caribbean setting, and elements of spy fiction in a World War II context, resemble Lawrence G. Blochman's Blow-Down (1939) and Helen McCloy's The Goblin Market (1943). The radio messages of "Cape Spectre" and the telegrams of The Goblin Market introduce readers to now obscure media of specialized communication. There is also much about radio in Blochman's Blow-Down. Many of these novels also have heroes who are traveling under false pretenses, who look like ordinary workers, but who have an agenda to investigate an already murderous situation.
"Murder at Midnight" (1945) is a more conventional mystery, with a setting amid the New York City upper crust. Its hero is a radio newsman, which merges Sale's interest in radio, with his enthusiasm for newspaper reporters like Daffy Dill.
Active Duty. "Active Duty" (around 1943) is a little short-story thriller, without elements of mystery, taking place in the United States, and with a radio background. It resembles the thriller-finales of such Sale radio tales as "Cape Spectre" (1941). This gripping story was later used by Sale as the plot of the motion picture Suddenly (1955), which Sale scripted.
Home Is the Hangman. Sale also wrote Home Is the Hangman, which consists of two long novellas, "Home Is the Hangman" (1940) and "Beam to Brazil" (1943), set in Haiti and Puerto Rico, respectively. Both radio thrillers are written in a style similar to "Cape Spectre" (1941). Unfortunately, both are markedly inferior to "Cape Spectre", and are definitely not recommended. There are signs that "Home Is the Hangman" was updated for book publication, making it consistent with recent historical events. Both of these novellas originally appeared in slick magazines, "Home Is the Hangman" in the Saturday Evening Post.
Unfortunately this minor novel is only partly set in Hollywood, and is mainly filled with unpleasant medical imagery. It is perhaps Sale's least enjoyable book. The emphasis on medical techniques recalls the radio technology in other Sale stories, suggesting that Sale, along with George Harmon Coxe, is the most technology oriented of the pulp mystery writers. The doctor narrator here is as skilled as the radio expert protagonists.
Benefit Performance. Sale's novel Benefit Performance (1946) has a Hollywood background, although its portrait of the movie industry is much less technology oriented that his radio tales. This story eventually bogs down, but it does have a logically constructed mystery plot. The story is best in Chapters 1-7, which sets up the plot, and then the solution in Chapter 24 and 25. The characters spend much time hanging out in night clubs: this is both a favorite hard-boiled locale, and a Sale tradition too. His men characters enjoy getting dressed up in tuxedos, and going dancing.
Clark enjoys creating elaborate Southern California landscapes. Dale Clark was born in the Midwest, but lived in Southern California during his writing years. Among his many early jobs was that of private detective, according to his autobiographical note in A. L. Furman's anthology, The Mystery Companion (1943).
The motives in some of Clark's tales, such as "You're Killing Me!" and "The Sound of the Shot", involve financial swindles. These include some sophisticated financial detail.
Clark sometimes has characters, both good and bad, appearing under new, assumed identities. These become part of the mystery puzzle plots of the tales.
Such solutions often deal with events separate from the actual murder. They can be about the interactions of the characters in the story, and their business and personal activities.
SPOILERS. Examples of such two-levels-deep mysteries include:
The Sting of the Hornet. "The Sting of the Hornet" (1940) appeared in a pulp magazine, but it seems like a full scale Golden Age mystery in miniature, with a country house full of suspects in a quasi-locked room mystery. Mainly, the tale is notable for its intricate plot, with endless complications in the Golden Age tradition. These include some ambiguous romantic and financial relationships among the characters, although this element is not as extensive as in "You're Killing Me!". The finale is a let-down: Clark has little ingenuity left for his adequate solution. But the tale's pleasantly complex storytelling makes for fun reading.
The only hard-boiled element is provided by the detective's assistant Brady, a tough ex-cop. The main sleuth is Doc Judson, a criminologist detective. The story has some welcome comedy - the brash teenage girl is a type that will later appear in such films as The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944). And roughneck Brady adds comic exuberance, too.
This tale was reprinted in High Adventure #84 (2005).
You're Killing Me!. Clark's "You're Killing Me!" (1943) is set in a war time chemical plant, like Hugh Pentecost's "The Dead Man's Tale" (1943), which appeared around six months later. "You're Killing Me!" is a much grimmer than Clark's High Price tales, with a high body count and some gruesome murders. It has lots of plot and is quite readable. Like "Smoke Sign", the story takes place in a detailed Southern California landscape.
The story has a complex puzzle plot. Clark develops a sustained ambiguity about the characters in the tale, and their relationships to each other. Many of the characters are members of an extended family; others have business relationships to each other. The pattern of relationships, and its ambiguous double meanings, becomes quite complex. This sort of ambiguity in relationships dates back to Fergus Hume, and is often found in Agatha Christie.
Also notable in the tale: the idealized portrait of an FBI agent, Steve Harrigan. Harrigan combines scientific skills with physical toughness and determination. He is a person with surprising facets. In some ways, he is as ambiguous all by himself as are the many relationships among the suspects.
"You're Killing Me!" was reprinted in A.L. Furman's anthology The Mystery Companion (1943).
Slay, Fido, Slay. Dale Clark's stories about private eye Highland Park Price are in the school of comic detective stories of the 1940's, and such writers as Norbert Davis and Richard Sale. His detective likes to gouge his crooked clients for big fees, essentially through blackmail; this gives him his nickname of "High Price". This is played for comedy in the stories, and is largely tongue in cheek in tone. High Price claims that his clients mainly come to him for dirty work, and that it is important for him to maintain an image of being a crook. This is in the tradition of Norbert Davis, whose honest detectives such as Max Latin also pose as crooks and shysters. Clark's treatment of this, like Davis', is full of clever paradoxes and ingenious twists. Both Clark and Davis treat this theme with considerable logic. Clark's ideas on this subject develop throughout "Slay, Fido, Slay" (1944), and add to the ingenuity of the story. High Price has to justify all his schemes to his pure minded and kind hearted secretary, Beulah Randy. She is determined to keep all agency business on the straight and narrow. This makes for effective comic counterpoint.
The Sound of the Shot. "The Sound of the Shot" (1946) is a comic mystery, with a charming double background of a show biz contest and a California resort hotel. It is reprinted in Otto Penzler's anthology The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (2010).
There are some vivid accounts of California plants, such as Manzanita, but not really a full landscape.
SPOILERS. The subplot about the show biz contest has some decent mystery aspects. These are completely non-criminal in nature. But they have a mystery structure: a situation with eventual hidden-but-logical revelations. Clark builds these two levels deep: first there is a surprising revelation, then a second surprise twist on the first.
The murder mystery has an odd, ingenious twist about the shot. This makes it possible for a character who seemingly could not have committed the crime, to have actually done so. This is not an impossible crime story, but such a plot approach has links to the impossible crime tradition. It is also technological, and makes "The Sound of the Shot" part of the Scientific Detection tradition.
The above plot twist involves witnesses' mistaken perceptions of a shooting. The next year, John Dickson Carr would write about perceptions of a shooting, and how they can be misleading, in Till Death Do Us Part (1944). Both authors draw on scientific facts.
The story takes place in La Jolla, California; Chapter 4 mentions such real life literary residents as Chandler, Jonathan Latimer and Dr. Seuss. One of the suspects in "The Sting of the Hornet" (1940) was a mystery writer, so Clark's interest in mystery writers as a topic had long roots.
Unfortunately, the novel's second half becomes sordid, with ugly mob violence predominant. The idea of a detective working for a mobster sounds fun on paper, but becomes awfully unpleasant in practice. Reeves had talent - but watching this book self-destruct in the middle is a disappointing experience.
Cellini Smith: Detective has a full Background, or rather two Backgrounds, showing the lives of both the hoboes and cheap burlesque. Reeves is surprisingly inventive, at coming up with different kinds of characters who relate to these activities.
The book also echoes Reeves' interest in anthropology. In his debut Dead and Done For, we learn that Cellini Smith studied anthropology in college, and that he is still interested in it as a field of study. In Cellini Smith: Detective, there is an anthropologist character. Oddly, Smith himself in Cellini Smith: Detective does not talk much about anthropology any more. Other pulp writers of the era also referred to the subject: the heroine of Norbert Davis' Oh, Murderer Mine (1946) teaches it in college.
Like the non-series short story "Dance Macabre", Cellini Smith: Detective shows Reeves' interest in jewelry. Both works include star sapphires.
Storytelling. Reeves' prose comes alive in action sequences: for example, the scene where his hero is hunted down within the burlesque theater (Chapter 6), or the episode where his hero heads on back to his apartment (the end of Chapter 8).
Another virtue is the humorous dialogue that parodies mystery conventions. When the hero is caught snooping around one of the dancer's dressing rooms, he tells her he is just looking for evidence to prove she is a murderess. This sort of bright comic dialogue appears throughout the book. Norbert Davis' heroes also often spoofed mystery convention, especially ideal behavior for an honest detective. Unlike Davis' Max Latin, Cellini Smith does not pretend to be a crook, however. He is merely a two bit operator at the end of his financial rope. In any case, Smith's dialogue recalls not just Davis and other pulp writers of his school, but also Georgette Heyer's burlesque of detective fiction in Death in the Stocks (1935).
Mystery Plot. Cellini Smith: Detective is a formal, puzzle plot detective novel, as the term would be understood by Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr. Like many Golden Age detective writers, Reeve builds up his story out of a number of different mystery subplots. MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.
The novel's best mystery idea involves the disappearance of the corpse. Corpses were always being kidnapped in Norbert Davis, Craig Rice, Richard Sale and other humorous writers of the 1940's, so this is not a new idea. In fact, one might say that any self respecting corpse in a 1940's detective story had to get kidnapped at least once. However, Smith has come up with a new motive for such a peregrination. He also does a good job with the story treatment here, making it relatively fresh in its trappings.
Like several other subplots in Cellini Smith: Detective, the disappearance is unraveled gradually, step by step, through the course of the book, rather than simply being solved in the last chapter. Each step involves a little mini-mystery being solved, with the subplot as a whole being made up of a series of such mini-mysteries.
Somewhat surprisingly, many of the mystery plot approaches Reeves uses for his subplots, echo those used by Baynard Kendrick. Kendrick, like Reeves, was a mystery writer who combined hard-boiled settings with formal mystery puzzles. The correspondence between Reeves and Kendrick's plotting technique is not 100% perfect, but it is still worth pointing out:
Howdunits are also a favorite of the Van Dine school. The burlesque theater also reflects the Van Dine School's interest in show biz, although it is much tackier than the more elevated show biz backgrounds in most Van Dine School writers.
"Dance Macabre" has a puzzle plot. Strange events are taking place at the dance hall, and the hero has to try to explain and interpret them. Reeves' ideas are simple, but inventive. There are actually a whole series of odd, mysterious bits of business that need such interpretation. One is a red herring. But most of the explanations interlock, into a unified logical back-story of the crime.
I get the impression that Nebel's reputation among pulp aficionados rests with his earlier, more hard-boiled work. Admittedly, this work shows one really tough detective coping with mean streets at the very depths of the Depression. Tough it is. But I personally much prefer Nebel's later work. It shows much better storytelling. The later stories of Cardigan in The Adventures of Cardigan, seem vastly more entertaining to me than the early Donahue tales collected in Six Deadly Dames. There is also some pleasant comedy in the later tales. Nebel's change of style is correlated with some changes in his personal life: he moved from St. Louis to Connecticut in 1934, got a new agent, started selling to the slick magazines, and gave up pulp fiction for the slicks entirely in 1937, mainly selling romantic works. Nebel's two styles also are related to two poles of pulp crime writing in general: a "hard-boiled" one emphasizing machismo, brutality, tough streets, and plotlessness, and a "pulp adventure" style emphasizing plot, puzzle mysteries, storytelling, escapist adventure, and good natured comedy. I much prefer the second kind of pulp writing, and feel that the more "hard-boiled" kind has been systematically overvalued by some critics.
Nebel's detectives also crusade against bribery and civic corruption, a recurring theme of Nebel's work.
Much of Nebel's work is set in St. Louis, a city that otherwise does not figure prominently in American fiction, and which makes an interesting background to his tales. Nebel was much influenced by his friend Dashiell Hammett, and Nebel's treatment of St. Louis reminds one of Hammett's treatment of his home town of Baltimore. Hammett did not describe Baltimore as exotic, the way he did San Francisco. Instead he used Baltimore when he needed a "typical" American city.
Both works have a similar kind of narration, where we see the outward manifestations of the characters' actions, and we have to guess at their inner feelings. The brief flair of color and texture in Nebel's opening paragraphs, where he mentions a blue leather divan, recalls the blue brick at the opening of Hammett's The Dain Curse (1928).
Nebel is conscientious about describing how things in his stories look visually. Characters, postures, the weather, buildings, offices, and means of transportation are all Nebel's favorite subjects for description, and usually described very well indeed. As a storytelling technique it is a bit mechanical - the reader knows that each scene is going to have so much dialogue, so much plot, and so much description - but it all functions quite effectively together. After all, readers are interested in plot, dialogue and description - they are elements of good fiction. There is a functionalist aspect to Nebel's technique. He was a commercial writer, and like other pulp writers had to grind out large amounts of work to keep afloat economically. His stories resemble the Bauhaus aesthetic of mechanical production, where following modern industrial techniques will help produce quality work in large quantities.
The early scenes in "Hell's Pay Check" describe a rainy city on a wet night. They are among the most vivid anywhere in the pulps, and repay study. The description involves looking at how buildings appear and vehicles respond to the wet, as well as direct descriptions of the weather.
Both the opening, and the finale set in the yard around a mansion, emphasize fences. Nebel seems interested in different kinds of fencing and their physical properties, including the different kinds of gaps they create that allow passage. All of this makes his descriptions have a "you are there" quality. Fences return in "Dog Eat Dog", and "Murder by Mail" describes the back yards of two buildings vividly.
"Doors in the Dark" has a scene in an "abandoned warehouse". The campy TV show Batman often had the villains setting up their hideout in an "abandoned warehouse", and I've learned to laugh at the phrase. But here such a warehouse appears in all seriousness, long before Batman. The warehouse is near a river, and Nebel has two paragraphs of vivid descriptive writing. They appeal to numerous senses, including sight, sound, temperature. They also evoke the wet feel of the atmosphere near a river, a weather-like effect that is not quite actual weather.
Hell's Pay Check. "Hell's Pay Check" (1931) is the second Cardigan story in Dime Detective. It was reprinted in the anthology Hard-Boiled Detectives (1992). It contains a frequent plot gambit in Nebel: a respectable, well-to-do father, whose playboy son gets involved with crooks, gangsters or nightlubs. This allows the father to be threatened by the gangsters, either with his son's gambling debts, or as in "Hell's Pay Check", with his son's romantic involvements. It also provides a premise for the detective's meetings with first the father, then the bad guys. The whole premise is related to another one, more common in other authors than Nebel: the innocent young woman who has to confront crooks that have entangled her weak-willed brother.
The opening of "Hell's Pay Check" is a dramatic encounter between the sleuth and crooks. After its completion, Nebel immediately reruns the encounter, as told from two new perspectives. First, we see how the events appeared to some innocent bystanders. Next, the police confront the sleuth with their version of the events. All of this allows Nebel to generate three different scenes, out of the same plot development. Furthermore, it allows for interesting variants on the plot. It is like a "theme and variations" in classical music. Later, an encounter between the sleuth and the villainess, will also generate some multiple perspectives, although not quite as complex as the above.
"Hell's Pay Check" shows Cardigan creating cover stories for his activities, first with a telegram, later with an alibi. The cover stories also allow for the generation of plot, with Cardigan constructing an alternative "reality". They also allow for humor and comedy relief.
"Hell's Pay Check" pits Cardigan against a representative of a sleazy tabloid newspaper. The tabloid guy is small, well-dressed but very deadly, a bit like villain Joel Cairo in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1929). Unlike Cairo, however, the tabloid guy is both a WASP and apparently straight - Nebel is not into the bigotry here that disfigured the Cairo character. The tabloider also has the enormous power of his sinister paper behind him, making the fight more evenly matched.
Dog Eat Dog. One can find similar techniques in other Nebel tales, such as "Dog Eat Dog" (1928). "Dog Eat Dog" opens with the policeman hero reconstructing a crime, based on evidence at a crime scene. Then Nebel immediately produces variations on the "night of the crime": first an account by another policemen, who turns out actually to have witnessed some of the events; then from the point of view of one of the suspects involved in the night's events; and finally by the policemen grilling the employees at the road house where much of the night's activity took place. This "story & variations" approach actually allows for good storytelling: each perpective allows for different aspects to emerge, such as the suspect's emotional response to the crime, or the forensic details at the crime scene.
Also, at the end of "Dog Eat Dog", the sleuth's friend Kennedy provides a cover story for him, a simple form of the far more elaborate cover fictions in "Hell's Pay Check". The cover story in "Dog Eat Dog" does provide a coda to the tale, serving as an emotional device stressing the friendship between the two men. The cover activities in "Hell's Pay Check" also develop male bonding, between the sleuth and the chauffeur who helps him.
Murder by Mail. "Murder by Mail" (1936) opens with an attack, that is immediately recounted for some people who did not fully witness it, and then for the police. More creatively, the second part of the story involves Cardigan and two other operatives from his agency each tracking down crooks. The tracking is done in parallel, with all three sleuths on the same trail - but separately. This makes for one of Nebel's "variations": three different versions of three sleuths, all on the same route following criminals. The sleuths' paths intersect in interesting ways, making for pleasing plot patterns. "Murder by Mail" is reprinted in Bernard Drew's anthology Hard-Boiled Dames (1986).
Spades Are Spades. "Spades Are Spades" (1934) echoes "Hell's Pay Check" (1931) in its story, characters and setting. It is as if Nebel used the first tale as a model for the second. However, the second story is more light hearted. Both tales:
Red Pavement. "Red Pavement" (1932) is a Dick Donahue tale, reprinted in the anthology The Arbor House Treasury of Detective and Mystery Stories from the Great Pulps (1983), edited by Bill Pronzini. It too opens with a man arriving in a strange city, and attacked during a cab ride. But here the man is not the detective Donahue, but rather the tale's murder victim. Nebel soon develops one of his cover stories: but here, the story protects not the sleuth, but the murder victim. It is as if the victim were formally substituted for the detective, in the plot structure of "Hell's Pay Check" and "Spades Are Spades".
Nebel runs through several "re-tellings" of these opening events. Then, after the woman vanishes at the train station (start of Chapter 4), the mystery plot seems "stuck". It is unclear about how the sleuth will proceed from here - he seems to have no clues and all of New York City as suspects. In a clever coup, sleuth Donahue immediately finds a logical but surprising way to learn more about the mystery. The approach seems to focus almost on the formal properties of the narrative itself: a retreat to its origin point. The approach also involves trailing criminals, linking it a bit to the finale of "Murder by Mail".
The finale shows a Nebel version of the "pulp style of plotting", that is, a tale in which multiple villains are independently doing things, and the detective has to sort out who is doing what. Unfortunately, this is the least interesting part of "Red Pavement".
Doors in the Dark. "Doors in the Dark" (1933) is a minor, if readable, MacBride & Kennedy tale. It is reprinted in Otto Penzler's anthology The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (2010). At one point, a policeman has investigated the last day of the victim, building up a chronology of his activities. This account is not created through shadowing, but from eyewitnesses. But it has much the same effect as the "series of events learned from shadowing or tracking" in other Nebel tales. It is unclear where the story will go from there. But an eye witness comes forward, with an unknown event caused by the victim, that takes place immediately before the other events, and changes their meaning somewhat. This recalls a bit the way the hero of "Red Pavement" goes back to investigate what happened immediately before the tale's opening events, thus "unsticking" the apparent dead end of the plot, and getting a new clue. Both stories move to an "origin point" of a series of events.
The closest ancestor to these stories of which I know, is not another pulp story. Instead, they resemble Bartlett Cormack's hit play The Racket (1927). The Racket stars:
"Law Without Law" (1929) attacks labor unions as corrupt. It seems to be an example of a right-wing pulp story. The dockside setting shows some documentary interest.
In addition to serving as the debut of MacBride & Kennedy, "Raw Law" (1928) includes an ex-cop named Jack Cardigan. It is not quite clear that this is the same sleuth that will be the subject of Nebel's long-running Jack Cardigan series in Dime Detective, starting in 1931. The grim, ruthless, violence-oriented Jack Cardigan in "Raw Law", who mainly likes to be violent against crooks, is a long way from the confident, famed detective sleuth of the Dime Detective tales. The later Cardigan is a major detective, the early Jack Cardigan mainly a trashy figure of violent vengeance.
Hugh B. Cave's crime stories are often structured as a duel between the detective hero, and a killer. The killer's identity can either be known or unknown, i.e. the story could either be a thriller or a mystery. There is often an ingenious, unusual setting, one that plays a major role in the development of the plot. Cave often likes night scenes, and darkness in general. The solutions to his stories often show ingenuity in the puzzle plot tradition, although they are not always structured as puzzle plots. At his best, Cave is a gripping storyteller. All of this shows some resemblance to Mary Roberts Rinehart. Then again, pulp tales in general often remind me of Rinehart's work.
The Lady Who Left Her Coffin. His short story "The Lady Who Left Her Coffin" (1936) falls into this category. It stars Mark Lane, Cave's "supernatural detective", a tough private eye who specializes in such crimes. Like other Cave stories, it features a nocturnal setting with a complex architectural background.
"The Lady Who Left Her Coffin", like "No Place to Hide", begins with a frightened big-businessman, scared at night.
The green dye on the detective's hands from his darkroom, is a good piece of color imagery.
"The Lady Who Left Her Coffin" is reprinted in the anthology The Mammoth Book of Pulp Action (2001) edited by Maxim Jakubowski.
The first four Peter Kane stories are not much good. They are among Cave's earliest detective tales. Some emphasize horror material. Then the series picks up steam with "The Screaming Phantom" (1935) and "Brand of Kane" (1935). These both have mild aspects of horror, being filled with spooky adventures in eerie nocturnal surroundings, but this material is much less horror oriented and more enjoyably atmospheric. These two tales also show good storytelling.
There is then a six year gap, before the next Kane pieces appeared in 1941-1942. These last three tales are much more comic, even exuberant in tone, and have no horror aspects.
Bottled in Blonde. "Bottled in Blonde" (1935) is likely the best of the early Peter Kane stories. One does not want to oversell it. Still it has virtues:
"Code 31" (1932) by Mary Roberts Rinehart, shows the infrastructure that is still open, after the rest of a city shuts down at night. One gets some of the same effect in "Bottled in Blonde".
The cellar at the crime scene, shows the Golden Age interest in architecture.
The liquor store in "Bottled in Blonde" anticipates the liquor dealer in "No Place to Hide".
The Man Who Looked Sick. "The Man Who Looked Sick" (1935) is the longest Peter Kane tale. Unfortunately it's labored and uninventive. The solution lacks ingenuity. Problems with the solution:
The amusement park setting is technological, although this aspect is not stressed. Still, it reflects Cave's interest in Scientific Detection.
SPOILERS. "The Screaming Phantom" has a clever plot about the identity of the killer. It fooled me!
Brand of Kane. "Brand of Kane" (1935) is an atmospheric tale with an unusual setting.
The ship shows the Golden Age interest in architecture. The dumbwaiter shaft anticipates the elevator shaft in "The Lady Who Left Her Coffin".
Swimming imagery shows up in this tale, and in "Ding Dong Belle", "The Dead Don't Swim".
Ding Dong Belle. "Ding Dong Belle" (1941) is especially breezy and enjoyable. It also has one of the better puzzle plots in the series.
The Dead Don't Swim. "The Dead Don't Swim" (1941) is a great title, and the story is entertaining reading. However, the solution is a bit disappointing: the actions of the characters seem poorly motivated. On the positive side, there are some solid clues to the solution, set forth by sleuth Kane at the end. SPOILERS. Also, Bradley is an interesting character, and is part of a nicely done subplot.
"The Dead Don't Swim" shows the same high tech interest in radio and electronics found in Richard Sale. This brings the story into the realm of Scientific Detection.
Detective work in "The Dead Don't Swim" involves tracking down a financial transaction (in this case, a contract to make equipment). Detective work exploring a financial transaction (selling an amusement park) is prominent in "The Screaming Phantom". Dashiell Hammett had detective work exploring finances in "Slippery Fingers" (1923), the first quarter of Red Harvest (1927) and "The First Thin Man" (1931). Hammett looks at bank balances and transactions, whereas Cave explores contracts.
"The Dead Don't Swim" has vividly described locales. These include technological settings, and remote areas in the countryside.
"The Dead Don't Swim" has the sleuth traveling to another town. So the series policemen Moroni and Moe Finch are not present. This is just as well, in my opinion - these police characters' rivalry only adds a bit to the stories.
No Place to Hide. "No Place to Hide" (1942) is also fun. It has good color imagery, in Cully's stolen possessions, and the lights in Druitt's room.
The sanitarium grounds form a simple landscape: something popular in Golden Age mystery fiction.
"No Place to Hide" is not a horror story. But it does have extensive nighttime scenes. The two main nighttime sequences, one near the start of the tale and one near its end, form parallel accounts of events.
SPOILERS. Examples include "Hell on Hume Street", "Bottled in Blonde", "The Screaming Phantom" (with two separate clues for two different villains), "Ding Dong Belle".
"The Man Who Looked Sick" has a variation on this kind of clue. Most of these tales have a clue, which indicates an entire profession, to which the killer belongs. "The Man Who Looked Sick" instead has a clue, that indicates specific behavior by the villain: something that only the villain does. This behavior is indeed done by the villain at work - but it is not done by other people in the same profession.
Similarly, the killer's work in "Brand of Kane" is the clue to the detective fingering him-or-her as the killer. But this is something about the killer's specific work. It is not something that applies to everyone in the killer's profession.
Kane's motives as a sleuth are often to help out his friend Moe Finch when he is in trouble. Such helping out a friend was a common theme in Nebel.
As a solitary private eye working for an agency, Peter Kane also resembles Nebel's sleuth Dick Donahue.
Cave's non-series tale "Curtain Call" (1938) has a police detective named Bill Donahue in it. The hard-boiled world of "Curtain Call" recalls the work of Nebel. Both authors describe crusades against civic corruption. "Curtain Call" also has scenes in the fancy office of a manager of a night club-casino; such scenes were common in Nebel's work.
Nebel's Donahue stories took place in the depths of the Depression, in an extremely hard-boiled world. Cave's stories often show the seedy side of the Depression, with businesses closed down, and well to do people involved in financially shady schemes. Ex-cop Peter Kane often represents working class people getting a glimpse of all this corruption and failed financial enterprise. It is a critique of a society in decay from a working class perspective. Kane's humorous skepticism towards the upper crust people he meets, and his rough neck attitude and lack of respect, represent how many working people felt towards their social leaders during this era.
Just as Nebel often set his stories in his home town of St. Louis, so did Cave set the Kane tales in his home town of Boston. Both are cities that only infrequently appear in the works of other crime writers. (Kane works for the Beacon Agency; one suspects the name refers to the historic Boston district Beacon Hill.)
Peter Kane also resembles somewhat the amateur sleuths of the intuitionist tradition, at least in his behavior as a detective. Although he is a private eye working for the Beacon Agency, he rarely draws on the resources of the agency or its other operatives to solve problems. Instead, he is just one single isolated guy, with no other detective resources than using his wits, to solve his cases. Such pure brain power recalls intuitionist sleuths. Nor does Kane has much involvement with his agency's clients, unlike most private eyes. Instead, he often takes on cases to help his friend Moe Finch, an honest but much victimized cop. Intuitionist detectives were often brilliant amateurs who helped the police with their gifts; Kane falls somewhat into this tradition, at least with his detective skills. One hurries to point out that socially, Peter Kane is far removed from the gentlemanly sleuths of many amateur detective stories, being a tough, rough, alcoholic ex-cop who mainly hangs around low lifes in his personal life.
Biographical information on Flynn is available at:
The plot elements of blackmail, a female crook, and how the plot line is resolved, all link "The Deadly Orchid" to "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891) in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
"The Deadly Orchid" depicts detectives catching a criminal, but there is no actual plot element of mystery to it. In this it differs from Nebel's Cardigan tales, which often deal with the detective investigating some mysterious crime. Flynn and Nebel were exact contemporaries, and their work seems related, at least in subject matter. The use of a couple in Flynn's tale, combined with a great deal of humor, also anticipates the comic TV mysteries of the 1980's, such as Moonlighting or Remington Steele.
Relations between men are also prominent in Flynn. Mike's interaction with the local agency manager Thompson, with their male client Maxwell, with well-dressed young broker Palmer, with the hotel staff and the bellboys, are a running theme throughout. The bellboys are uniformed - like Mike and his new tails, they are in special clothes. Men wanted to dress up in formal wear in that era: see my list of comic book characters in white tie and tails.
The first paragraph says Mike Harris is a "towhead": usually defined as someone with very light pale blond hair, that is almost white. But the tale's illustration shows Harris as dark-haired. And cover illustrations to other tales show Harris as a redhead. See the cover by John A. Coughlin for "Barred Doors" (Detective Fiction Weekly, v93 #4, May 18, 1935). This cover shows the dynamic Harris crashing through a wooden door. He holds a phallic flashlight and looks like he can smash through any barrier. His red hair and matching red tie are conspicuous. They form a red/green "complementary color" contrast to his sharp green suit.
"The Deadly Orchid" is reprinted in Bernard Drew's anthology Hard-Boiled Dames. Like the other Mike & Trixie tales, it first ran in Detective Fiction Weekly.
The Letters and the Law. "The Letters and the Law" (1936) is another enjoyable Mike and Trixie romp. Once again, this is a tale of adventure, without a murder mystery. However, Flynn does include some mini-mysteries along the way. There are a great diversity of criminal types here, and Flynn only gradually elucidates all their relationships with each other. He drops tantalizing clues along the way to their relations, which mystify the detectives and the reader, and eventually comes up with logical explanations of these clues in the bad guys' inter-relationships.
Another mini-mystery: Mike is knocked out by the criminals, and when he comes to, he is in a crooks' hideout he has never seen. He only gradually learns about his new environment. Roland Phillips will include a similar mystery of location in his pulp mystery "Death Lies Waiting" (1944). Phillips' and Flynn's solutions will be very different, but both Phillips and Flynn will embody the Golden Age interest in landscapes, buildings and architecture.
"The Letters and the Law" has something of the same feel as the mystery stories that would later show up in 1960's comic books, such as Lois Lane:
There is a murder mystery of sorts, but, in general terms, the culprits are obvious from the start (somebody from the cult). Only the motive is a mystery, and the story does an OK job with that. Once again, there is also a bit of a mystery, about the precise relationships between various bad guys at the cult.
The tale does a good job with the Roman togas the cult members are required to wear, integrating them with bits of business throughout the thriller plot. Once again, new clothes for men are a Flynn theme. Since everyone is wearing them, they have the aspect of a uniform.
Relations between men are once again prominent in "Brother Murder". The two cops who run through the story are well characterized, as is the motorcycle cop who arrests the hero at the start. So is Mike and Trixie's boss Lew Ryster at the detective agency. All of these are lightly comic characters. One wishes they were gracing a story with fewer stereotypes than "Brother Murder".
McCandless is remembered for a series of short stories, about tough, skilful woman private eye Sarah Watson. These ran in the pulp magazine Detective Fiction Weekly. A few have been reprinted today: "Cash or Credit" (1937) in Bernard Drew's anthology Hard-Boiled Dames (1986), and "The Corpse in the Crystal" (1937) and "He Got What He Asked For" (1937) in Otto Penzler's anthology The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (2007).
The stories are noted for their welcome sense of humor. Both intelligent, earthy Sarah Watson, and her good-natured but frequently bewildered young man assistant Ben Todd, are well characterized, and they and the other characters get some funny dialogue. Bernard Drew pointed out that the pair resemble and anticipate Erle Stanley Gardner's team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, who debuted in 1939. They differ in that Sarah Watson is the major brains of her outfit, coming up with most of the detective schemes. Ben Todd does usually get roughly one good detective idea per story, which prompts Sarah to say he's earning his salary.
The Watson tales are genuinely feminist. Sarah Watson is an excellent detective, and while the stories are far from preachy, they support a woman being able to do (and think) everything a man can.
"He Got What He Asked For" is the best of the Sarah Watson tales available today. It's a delightful adventure story, about Watson's attempt to recover some stolen jewels. There are some simple murder mystery elements, but they are not clever, and form only a minor part of the story. Mainly, this is a comedy-thriller. Watson does do a good job, unraveling some mystery aspects of the jewel theft.
Long's "C.D. for Corpus Delicti" (1944) deals with illusion that turns into reality: a fake murder, set up for blackmail, that becomes a real one. This sort of structure is also used in Long's puzzle plots. They often depend on an illusionary scheme. Long keeps putting a succession of different apparent villains as the cause of the events: first he makes one character look responsible for the scheme, then a second, and so on. Both the illusion vs reality theme, and the multiple versions of truth look a bit like Hammett. Also Hammett like is the way so many of the illusions seem to involve romantic relationships. Long, like Hammett, stresses an elaborate puzzle plot. There is also no sign of the "pulp style of plotting" in either Hammett or Long. There is ambiguity which comes from the series of lies, but not the classic pulp story where different groups of characters keep doing things. The characters do a lot of lying, and Long keeps having them confess up and tell the truth. Another Hammett similarity: a fondness for entering criminal domains, such as a carnival, or a nightclub, where neither the police or any sort of ousider has any control over the crooked activity taking place there. This is far less anarchic in Long than in Hammett however: Long's settings are simply criminal milieus, whereas Hammett's deal with all social authority breaking down.
"No Minimum For Murder" (1945), like "C.D. for Corpus Delicti" (1944), is a fairly short Dime Detective tale starring his lawyer detective Clarence Darrow Mort. Mort is a raffish defense attorney who frequents night clubs and bars, and clearly is in the tradition of Craig Rice's John J. Malone. The Midwest eccentrics of "Carnie Kill" also recall such Rice tales as Mother Finds a Body (1942) and The Thursday Turkey Murders (1943). Long is cheery, and the drunken Mort is good for a few laughs. But Long does not seem to be a comic writer in the Dime Detective tradition. He is basically a serious author.
Long was a prolific pulp writer, appearing frequently in Black Mask in 1943-1947, and contributing such pieces as "Death Has an Amateur Standing" (1945) to The Shadow, and "Limbo of Liquid Skeletons" (1943) to Strange Detective Tales. He also wrote novels, such as Keep the Coffins Coming (1947). One would like to read more of his work.
Tinsley's fiction exhibits approaches that distinguish it from many other pulp detective stories.
Tinsley's stories often exhibit thriller elements:
Tower of Darkness. "Tower of Darkness" (1935) also takes place on such a night.
"Tower of Darkness" shares features with "Riddle in Silk":
"Tower of Darkness" shows the Golden Age interest in architecture. Most of it takes place in or near a club with unusual architecture.
"Tower of Darkness" shares features with the opening sequence of the Scarlet Ace tale "Hell House":
An Influence from Anderson?. Frederick Irving Anderson was a prestigious writer of crime and detective short stories. Aspects of his short tale "The House of Many Mansions" (1928) anticipate Tinsley and his Scarlet Ace stories:
South Wind. "South Wind" (1932) is a tale of New York City, perhaps influenced by Damon Runyon's comic tales of Broadway grifters. It was reprinted in the anthology, The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946), edited by Joseph T. Shaw.
It is more a situation - crooks engaged in a scheme - than it is a full fledged story or plot. The same could be said of several of the Scarlet Ace tales. They set up some intriguing situation, resolve it through a fight or confrontation, then move onto another situation. The various set-ups are clever. But the tale as a whole is a string of incidents, not a unified plot.
"South Wind" also resembles the Scarlet Ace tales, in that it involves a team of good guys fighting a team of bad guys, and both are given roughly equally detailed characterization and emphasis in the story.
"South Wind" is part of Tinsley's long running series about Broadway columnist Jerry Tracey.
Dicks Die Hard. "Dicks Die Hard" (1936) is a brief, not-very-good short story by Tinsley. A cop tries to help his young brother. In "Tower of Darkness" the heroine gets involved because of her brother.
As best as one call tell from research, Frances Crane never had anything to do with pulp magazines. Her novels were published as books, never in the pulps. So by definition, she is NOT an author of "pulp fiction" and she is not a "pulp writer" and her books are not "pulp". Despite this, her books seem influenced by pulp fiction traditions, in both their private eye hero and their storytelling techniques. So she is tentatively included here as a writer influenced by the pulps.
Commentary on Frances Crane:
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. The best mystery idea in The Turquoise Shop involves the green spot on the floor:
The Yellow Violet is best in its brief opening (Chapter 1, first part of Chapter 2), a middle section describing a singer at a theater (Chapters 9, 10), and best of all in its long finale (Chapters 24-30). The opening serves to introduce the main characters. It gives one a look at the series sleuths on their home turf.
Much of the middle of The Yellow Violet seems dull, unfortunately:
The big fight in the finale between the good guys and villains also reflects pulp traditions. Such elaborately choreographed fights, described in complex detail, are everywhere in pulp magazine crime stories. The fight also has a lengthy build-up, where the narrator assesses the potential strategies that might be used when violence finally breaks out: also common in the pulps.
Some pulp magazine writers used what I've called the pulp style of plotting. In this many different characters are pursuing different goals, all acting independently, creating a series of bewildering events, and a mystery consists of untangling who is doing what. The Yellow Violet is not quite a full scale example of the "pulp style of plotting". But it does have at least four characters acting independently and mysteriously. It thus approaches the "pulp style of plotting".
Finale: Characterization. The finale benefits from some of the book's best characterization. When characters are introduced in The Yellow Violet, we often learn just a little about them. It is not until this finale that we begin to see them in depth:
Although there are some vague clues to one suspect's guilt (Chapter 30), these are not impressive. So the book largely lacks "fair play" clues to which characters are good or evil. The reader just has to accept the revelations as they unfold in the finale.
The subplot about the man in the brown felt hat is pleasantly done. SPOILERS. This subplot too falls into the above paradigm, of revelations about a character and their nature.
The Yellow Violet lacks the ingenious puzzles found in much of mystery fiction, such as impossible crimes, clever alibis, hidden schemes, etc.
Social Commentary. The finale expresses left-of-center politics. SPOILERS. It is critical of at least some American rich people, suggesting they might have Fascist sympathies and social attitudes (Chapter 30). Other authors who made similar assertions are discussed in the article on Helen McCloy. Crane suggests that the way rich people like to run society and control people in the USA is analogous to foreign Fascist dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. Critiques of control-obsessed rich people appears in other Crane books too.
The hotel desk clerk Soong is a non-stereotyped Chinese-American (Chapter 10, 30). His portrayal reflects liberal attitudes during World War II. China and the USA were allies, and left-of-center writers seized the chance to make positive portraits of Chinese characters.
It shares a Maine island setting with Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896 - 1909). Mystery writers Rinehart and Gibson were still writing about Maine in the 1940's, long after the eras of Longfellow and Sarah Orne Jewett in mainstream literature.
When I read this novel years ago, it seemed very ancient to me, but a look at its date reminds one that it was published after the Golden Age had come to an end in 1943. Next year, Mickey Spillane would burst on the scene, and his surface realism would spell the death knell for the extravagant fantasies of the pulps on the one hand, and the Ellery Queen type novel on the other.
Early in his career, he was a pulp writer, whose pulp work is known today from the reprint of a single 12 page story (in the anthology Hard-Boiled Detectives (1992)). "A Man's Last Hours" (1936) mixes all sorts of pulp genres:
The use of a sympathetic character who is seriously ill recalls Carroll John Daly's The Hidden Hand (1928).
Barrett has a vivid writing style. He uses both slang and imagery to try to create an underworld atmosphere, and to make each plot event as vivid and as compelling as possible.
Oddly enough, this highly literary style coexists in Brand's fiction with low brow, brutal descriptions of violence. Brand's spy characters are amoral, casually sending each other to their deaths. And his thriller characters are not much better, but are even more brutal: a Brand thriller can consist of thirty pages of his good guy and bad guy doing nothing but fighting it out. The elaborate fight scenes in Brand seem oddly anticipatory of the later fight scenes in Marvel comics.
So far, I have not seen any sign of a mystery plot in Brand's work: it seems to be all action or intrigue, with no puzzle. There can be a mysterious house full of spies that the hero must investigate, but this is hardly the same as a puzzle plot.
Brand's treatment of doctors and their problems is recognizably in the same tradition as that of Mary Roberts Rinehart and her literary disciple, F. Scott Fitzgerald. These Doctor Fiction stories combine idealism, a personal crisis, romance, and a realistic treatment of the exhausting life of young medical professionals. Many of the tales require moral growth from their young protagonists. They also require characters to show personal toughness and dedication to a profession, two qualities that audiences could identify with during the Depression.
Alfred Santell's 1937 film version of "Internes Can't Take Money" is very fine; it has spectacular sets and photography, as well as greatly expanding the story. I also liked George Marshall's 1939 film version of Brand's Destry Rides Again (1930), but have never read the book, which reportedly bears little relation to the film.
Brand's characters are hardly all young idealists: many are older characters, corrupt and full of weltschmerz. I don't like these guys very much, and don't enjoy reading about them.
Ron Goulart's The Dime Detectives (1988) is a very good critical study, and celebration, of the pulp magazines' series detectives. It is packed with useful information on these writers. Goulart also edited the fine anthology The Hard-Boiled Dicks (1965). Also recommended are Bernard Drew's Hard-Boiled Dames (1986), which collects stories about women from the 1930's pulps, and Herbert Ruhm's The Hard-Boiled Detective (1977), which reprints stories from Black Mask. Readers will also enjoy the delightful pulp omnibuses of Robert E. Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg, such as Hard-Boiled Detectives (1992) and Tough Guys and Dangerous Dames (1993). (It seems to be a rule that you can't publish a pulp anthology without the word hard-boiled in the title.)
Please click here for a detailed list of pulp anthologies (external to this website).