Larry Steele, Private Eye | Origin
Classic Comic Books Home Page (with many articles on comics)
These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
Larry Steele is a young man from an upper middle class family who is just setting up as a private eye. In many ways, he acts more like a gentleman adventurer in the E. Phillips Oppenheim tradition, than a private eye. He is courageous, and gung ho about his work and facing danger, but he is hardly a denizen of Raymond Chandler's "mean streets". In the Oppenheim tradition, he is idealistic and willing to help out people in trouble, as well as having a thirst for adventure. Larry Steele also seems like a nice person. He seems to get involved with his early cases out of loyalty to his friends. Such loyalty is appealing.
In this origin story, Larry and his family are living in Los Angeles. This opening chapter mainly takes place among Hollywood types. Larry gets dressed up in a sporty white tuxedo, to go to a Hollywood function, and exults, "I don't look like a private eye anymore!" Will Ely gives Larry a terrific wardrobe throughout. While flying, he wears a sport coat with an ascot. Larry's clothes reflect the lush informality of Los Angeles' and Hollywood's upper crust. He also goes undercover later in the series as a sailor.
Part 3 (#7 September 1937): In later episodes of this story, the FBI assigns an operative to work with Larry on the case. Hastings is also a young man, well dressed in a suit and tie in G-man tradition. He and Larry work great together as a team. Clearly, they form an idealized picture of male bonding. Such a relationship is close to the heart of the series. It is remote from the loner tradition of such prose detectives as Frederick Nebel's Dick Donahue, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and other go it alone private eyes.
At the first meeting at the FBI office of the two men, Larry is also in a suit, just like Hastings. Larry's is a spiffy double-breasted blue one. This underscores that Larry is on an equal social and professional plane as the FBI men, and socially accepted by them. Later however, throughout much of their partnership, Hastings is in a suit, while Larry is in his sailor costume undercover. This gives a pleasant asymmetry to their relationship. Each man gets his own distinctive style of dressing. It also slightly underscores that Hastings is a fed, while Larry Steele is a private eye.
Larry's undercover work as a sailor takes him to a Brooklyn waterfront dive. Such settings were comic in Detective Comics stories. Speed Saunders specialized in waterfront mysteries, as a fed assigned to the Harbor Police, while Slam Bradley also winds up in an even trashier looking dive, Joe's Joint, at the hilarious start of "At Sea" (#13, March 1938). This inter-penetration of setting and subject matter is typical of the early Detective Comics, whose series were always bouncing ideas off each other.
Parts 4 and 5: The final chapters of this story are the weakest. They move the tale out of adventure mode, and into that of the Gothic tale and horror fiction. Such Gothic stories were big in early comic books, but they have never appealed to me.
Many of Larry Steele's cases are best in their first episodes. Much of the story and especially atmosphere that is created for the tale is at their peak there. Later episodes tend to work out the plot in perfunctory ways. The early episodes also tend to be richest in "private eye" feel.
The Nick Orsati Case (Part 1) (1937). Writer: Will Ely. Art: Will Ely. Laura Wilkes asks Larry to rescue her brother James Wilkes from the clutches of a sinister gambling nightclub run by mobster Nick Orsati.
This story is among the closest in feel in Detective Comics to the sort of prose stories that appeared in Black Mask, during the Golden Age of hard-boiled pulp fiction. Underworld run night clubs were one of the main venues of pulp stories. And young men from rich families with more gambling fever than brains frequently had to be rescued from them: see Frederick Nebel's "Winter Kill" (1935), for instance. Larry Steele is operating more as a real private eye here than is frequently the case in Detective Comics, with a client (Laura) and a well defined mission.
Even here, there are some differences from the pulp model. Larry actually is an old friend to both Laura and James, so he is partly operating as a personal friend, not just a private eye. And few roughneck private eyes in the pulps would be as convincing as Larry is at impersonating a wealthy, gullible playboy visiting the gambling club. Larry is wearing his own evening clothes while doing this, and he looks far more refined and upper crust than most pulp pi's ever could. Finally, there is less emphasis on pure fighting here than in many pulp tales.
This story has features in common with a later Gardner Fox Hawkman tale, "The Heart Patient" (Flash Comics #12, December 1940). In both stories, the hero has to rescue a once refined, well to do young man from a life of dissipation: gambling here, drunkenness in "The Heart Patient". Both stories are sincere and successful at conveying a sense of horror at and disapproval of the life the young idiot is leading, without being sanctimonious. Such strong convictions probably did the young readers of the comic books good. The hero of both stories is a sophisticated young man, who is leading a much more dynamic, exciting and meaningful life with his hero work. The depiction of such an exciting and substance free life is probably far more convincing than any mere preaching about the possibilities of being "clean and sober." In both the hero is an old friend of the man who needs rescuing, and both tales convey a pleasant sense of male bonding. In both, the hero is wearing evening clothes.
Will Ely does a good job with his atmosphere. Everything is vividly drawn throughout. The hero Larry Steele looks especially splendid in his white tie and tails. Ely has also provided him with an elegant overcoat, top hat and scarf, all of which make him look like the complete well-dressed man. James Wilkes is in similar, nearly identical clothes: this helps express male bonding.
This is the beginning of the second story arc in Larry Steele. Larry is still living with his parents here. This is something that is nearly unheard of for detective heroes in pulp mystery fiction, although it seems much more common in the comics. Also: the whole Steele family has moved to New York. At the opening of the first arc, they were living in Los Angeles, and Steele had many friends among the Hollywood film community. There is a steady geographical pull in American comic books: it seems that sooner or later, nearly everyone is stationed in New York City, or some reasonable facsimile like Metropolis. One odd note: the elevated train is here called the L, when almost all other authors call it the El: same pronunciation, different spelling.
The Maine Castle Mystery (Part 1) (1938). Writer: Will Ely. Art: Will Ely. Larry's old Hollywood friend, producer Bill Graham, asks him to come along to an old castle he is scouting as a film location in Maine. Bill Graham had appeared in the first story arc in Larry Steele, "Mystery of the Wholesale Kidnappings", and he makes a welcome return here.
This story is a pleasant adventure tale, good natured and escapist, full of derring-do. There is nothing unique about it: there are umpteen stories about nocturnal adventures in creepy old buildings. Still, it is nicely done here. Ely works a rainstorm pleasantly into his plot, both the story and the art. It helps the atmosphere he builds up. It seems unlikely to me that there would be many castles in Maine, but the architecture of the castle is often woven into the plot. Larry spends the entire adventure in a good suit and tie. This helps the party atmosphere of the story.
The Larry Steele stories contain a number of "old dark house" tales, in which Larry winds up spending the night in a huge, spooky old building among its creepy denizens. Tales like this were probably inspired by James Whale's film The Old Dark House (1932). A more minor work in this same mode is "Mansion of Maniacs" (#22, December 1938), where the house is run by a mad scientist. Adventure stories like this formed a change of pace for Larry.
The Accident Racket (1938). Writer: Will Ely. Art: Will Ely. Larry helps a young girl who is framed by phony "accident" racketeers. There was a long tradition of such crooks who staged phony auto accidents, then tried to either blackmail their victims, or rip off the insurance companies. Such crooks showed up in both movies, and in prose pulp fiction tales.
The heroine comes to visit Larry at his apartment at the opening, asking for his help. This is similar to the beginning of "The Nick Orsati Case" (1937). Helping out beautiful, kind hearted young women in trouble was long a specialty of prose private eyes. A story like this is quite close to the hard-boiled tradition in prose mystery fiction.
Larry looks great in the opening, wearing a red dressing gown and white ascot tie. This is dressier than most prose private eyes looked. Spiffy dressing gowns were a 1930's specialty. Such dressing gowns were supposed to be as ornate and eye catching as possible. Here the bright red of Larry's gown, and its elegant shawl collar, make him look pretty spectacular. There is also something a bit flirtatious about entertaining a woman in such clothes, which have a suggestion of the bedroom about them. The way that dressing gowns cover the entire body, reaching nearly to the floor, also gives them a macho quality.
The Corpse in the Car Trunk (#23, January 1939). Writer: Will Ely. Art: Will Ely. Larry is framed for a killing he did not commit. The best part of this story is its opening, which contains the unusual framing. It is in the tradition of private eye detection. But the story also has a setting among the upper crust, including Lord and Lady Ashley. Unfortunately, after the opening the plot becomes routine.
Larry has some good clothes, including a double-breasted tux. It is dark and dressy. Later, there will be a dressing gown worn with ascot, and a good suit with vest.