John K. Butler | Hacker's Holiday | The Saint in Silver | The Killer Was a Gentleman | The Hearse From Red Owl | Butler and Hard-Boiled Fiction | Butler and Mary Roberts Rinehart | Tricky Enright | Sandy Taylor
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
This is the only Steve Midnight tale to be set in Venice. Butler rarely reused settings in his Midnight tales. He seemed to want each new story to offer the reader a fresh setting, something new they hadn't read about before. Venice does not disappear from the world of Butler's stories, however. We are always reading in later tales that Steve's cab is passing through Venice, or that he is near Venice, or that someone lives there. It is still part of Steve's turf.
"Hacker's Holiday" comes the closest among the Steve Midnight tales to the "pulp style of plotting" (see the article on The Pulp Style of Plotting for a full discussion). It has many independent bad guys, each with different motives, and all of them constantly up to some nefarious scheme. This is one half of the "pulp style". However, the reader is not mainly left mystified till the end of the tale, about which villain is doing what, with a succession of criminal actions flying fast and furious, the other half of the traditional "pulp style". The story cannot be considered a full implementation of the style. Many of the Butler stories have more than one person involved in crime. This would not fly in a British Golden Age story, for instance, with their insistence on a single bad guy. However, most of these Steve Midnight stories are still remote from the multiple villain set-up of the "pulp style". In many Butler tales, there is one chief villain, and the other criminal characters tend to be acting under his leadership, or to be less deeply involved than himself. The villainy tends to form a pyramid, with one chief bad guy, then the lesser bad guys falling under his scope, and engaged in less sinister schemes.
"Hacker's Holiday" gives a full road map to the problems of women and abusive spouses. It reads as if it were written by a feminist of the 1990's, not a pulp writer of the 1940's. And it does this without exploitative scenes or lurid writing. Butler had a lot of sympathy with "ordinary" people and their problems.
The sheer honesty of Butler's hero Steve Midnight is refreshing, too. He comes across as a 100% good guy, not at all cynical or vicious.
Butler's portrait of a corrupt high life out of which the mystery emerges is also well done. There is a note of class consciousness in the story, and a Depression mood: it pits a honest but poor working man against a bunch of wealthy but crooked upper class types.
Butler excels at describing the sharp clothes and macho, moneyed looks of the upper class men. They may be crooks, but they are snappy dressers. Butler also likes the high powered cars of the era.
Steve Midnight has adventures while solving a mystery; in many ways this sort of mystery-adventure is a quintessential pulp mystery tale in the Dime Detective tradition, Dime Detective being the magazine in which the Midnight stories first appeared. Despite this, the story does not really involve the "pulp style of plotting", in which large groups of people are working at cross purposes, thus baffling the reader. Instead, Steve unravels the plot one step at a time. The story concentrates absorbingly on his detective work, not on the activities of the crooks, as it would in a "pulp style of plotting" story. In fact, the crooks largely lay low in the tale after the initial crime, just as in a Golden Age non-pulp style mystery.
On the other hand, the story hardly has a fair play puzzle plot in which all clues are displayed in advance. Instead, the tale unwinds as an old fashioned unraveling of mysterious events.
It is the longest of the stories: this is in part because Butler puts so much vivid descriptive detail into the work.
The story celebrates male bonding: through helping the murder suspect in the tale, Steve finds his ideal friend. Like Captain Hollister, this man is somewhat older than Steve, a man who can serve as a father figure. He has many outstanding personal qualities: a concern for other people, decency, a command of the English language, talent for his profession, and athletic skill. The story and Steve keep celebrating his "gentlemanly" qualities, by which they seem to mean most of the above.
The Los Angeles locations are also very well described. In addition to the suspect's well to do neighborhood - Butler had a great flair for mansions and their gardens - much of the story takes place on L.A.'s Main Street, then a "skid row" area of cheap gyms and pool halls. This is the same location that will show up a few years later in William Keighley's film noir, The Street With No Name (1948). Because of this, it is possible to compare Butler's descriptions with the area's visual depiction in the film: a very close match. In fact the boxing gym in the story seems extraordinarily close to Keighley's. Both Butler's story and Street are deeply concerned with male bonding, and it is interesting that both are set in exactly the same area of L.A. It is as if that area were closely linked to friendship between men, and certain kinds of macho adventure.
In real life Butler also made friends with men he admired. Frank MacShane's The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976) describes Butler's attempt to become friends with Chandler, an author twenty years Butler's senior; the anti-social Chandler kept Butler somewhat at a distance, as he did to most people. This was during the period that both men were pulp mystery writers. John Wooley's fascinating introduction to At the Stroke of Midnight describes Butler's later friendships with two men, who like him, were Republic Studios scriptwriters.
Steve is a taxi driver for the "Red Owl" cab company, hence the name of the story. One section involves detection based on strange reports from Steve's cab meter; these are in the mystery story tradition of plots based on technical information on a specialized subject. The story also brings in some odd sidelights on the taxi business of its era.
The story has a different point of view from "The Saint in Silver"; that story put Steve in the middle of unfolding events of the story, whereas "Hearse" shows him detecting the morning after the strange events occur. Both tales show Butler's disdain for hypocrites whose perfect image masks corrupt private lives.
There are numerous scenes of detective work enabled by taxicabs in Butler's stories. Nearly every Steve Midnight tale has him tracking down the location of some suspect or victim by using the facilities of the cab company. Butler rarely repeats an effect. These are neat innovations in the history of pure detection.
Butler used a number of fairly powerful standard techniques in the construction of his puzzle plots.
The bad guys in the Midnight stories are often wandering around at night, using many steps and different kinds of transportation to get around, in an effort to shake off pursuers. They also often disguise themselves in different personas.
Considerably better are "The Dead Ride Free" (1940) and "Death and Taxis" (1942). Their biggest weakness: both are fairly uninspired as mystery plots. But both of these uneven tales also have their virtues. Both stories have highly atmospheric opening cab rides, but this mood is not sustained in the subsequent stories.
However, there are some important differences between Butler and hard-boiled writers. There are plenty of crooked characters, but they tend to be more racketeers and big time swindlers, than the mobsters that flow through so much hard-boiled fiction. The swindles tend to be money oriented rackets, which deceive ordinary people and separate them from their money, and the swindlers maintain an aura of public respectability, unlike the mobsters of other writers. Butler shows little interest in vice, which is the mob's chief business in real-life: unlike many hard-boiled authors, there is very little in his stories about gambling or smuggling booze or drugs or vice.
The Midnight tales, unlike much hard-boiled fiction, do not actually take place within the underworld. For example, in many pulp stories, we are at a night club in a tense scene. The owner and several of the guests are all big time mobsters and hit men. They are all engaged in tense negotiation over mob business, and violence is always threatening to erupt. Scenes like this just do not occur in the Midnight tales. One might be at a night club, but the singer there is likely to be a tough but honest broad with no mob connections, and she might be taking to an equally innocuous bartender. If a racketeer shows up in Steve's cab, he is likely to be alone or with a partner, interacting with the hero or honest characters. This is a tough world on the fringe of rackets and swindles, not the mob itself.
Butler liked the deserted quality of buildings and streets by night, the sense that only a few people were around. He rarely took us to places that were full of people at night, such as theaters or nightclubs. In fact, the main night club sequence in the Midnight tales (in "The Hearse From Red Owl") takes place during the day. The club is just as deserted and eerie then as most of Butler's other settings are at night.
Butler's tales are constructed in chapters. Each chapter has its own title, as pulp conventions demanded. The titles in Butler tales are usually pretty interesting and apposite. In general, I prefer titles to merely numbered chapters in both novels and stories. They add a lot of interest and vividness to the tale. Each chapter in a Steve Midnight story tends to be at a different location. When the location changes, Butler starts a new chapter. This presumably made it easy on him as writer: he never had to make any tough decision as to where the break went. It also helps clue in the reader: it is like a change of scene in a play, a basic structural feature that recurs repeatedly, and helps give a story some much needed structure.
Butler's closest analogue is to the stories of Mary Roberts Rinehart. "The Saint in Silver" especially reminded me of her "The Buckled Bag" (1914). The unraveling of a gripping mystery plot; the suspense events at night; a vaguely medical background; and elaborate locations loaded with sexual symbolism all seem in the Rinehart tradition. Even Midnight's relation with Captain Hollister, a gruff but honest policeman who serves as a friendly father figure to Steve, seems similar to the relationships between Rinehart's spinsters and the police. The policemen, tough professionals, seem skeptical at first of Rinehart's spinsters' amateur detective skills, but ultimately they become both impressed and even friendly. This is just the sort of relationship Steve develops with Captain Hollister. One of the woman suspects in the tale has a troubled marriage; this also reminds one of Rinehart. So does the tale's storytelling technique, in which event after detailed event is rigorously and vigorously described. Rinehart had perfected this step by step, "And then I did..." approach in her writings; Butler's style shows distinct similarities. Even the trolley rides in the story remind one of Rinehart's The Window At The White Cat (1909).
The skepticism about religious cults in the story recalls Hammett's The Dain Curse (1928) and Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely (1940), but it also recalls Rinehart's distaste for religious fanaticism in The After House (1914).
Steve Midnight is an amateur detective, just like most Rinehart protagonists. He is always stumbling across crimes, and then snooping around on his own to solve them. Often his motives are to prevent being accused of the crime himself.
Tracking. Golden Age mysteries often created a closed circle of suspects: everyone present at a remote country mansion, for instance. By contrast, Butler's tales tend to happen in Los Angeles, and initially, anyone in that city can be regarded as a potential suspect. Butler's detectives have to isolate and track down people who might be involved in a case, out of the millions who live in LA. A good deal of the detective work in Butler involves finding ways to hunt down such suspects, often times with only the slenderest clues to go on. This detective work tends to be logical, and firmly based in the following up of genuine clues. The outstanding detective comic book Big Town (1951-1958) would also often concentrate on such pure detection finding of suspects.
A section (Chapters 2, 3) of "Why Shoot a Corpse?" concentrates on such tracking of suspects. Cabs taken by the characters play a major role in this section. They anticipate the cab-oriented Steve Midnight tales.
Deduction: Guesses. The opening (Chapter 1) shows Tricky making a series of clever insights. The four insights are billed as "guesses". But actually they are sound deductions from facts. They are a bit like Sherlock Holmes' deductions about people in Doyle's stories.
These "guesses" help get the basic story elements of the tale set up. Similarly, Holmes' deductions are often about people he has just met, and establish basic facts about them.
Deduction: The Solution. The finale (Chapter 7) has Tricky figuring out which of the suspects are guilty. He does this through a process of deduction recalling the solutions in Ellery Queen.
Enright's deductions move through a series of stages. First he establishes that the guilty party must be one of five people. Then he uses deduction from facts, to show that three are innocent. And further deduction to show one is guilty. It is an impressive conclusion to the mystery.
Search. The tale (Chapter 6) also includes another Ellery Queen favorite: a search for a hidden object. The solution is much less clever than most of Queen's, however.
New Personas. SPOILERS. Bad guys who we will meet later as "themselves", adopt new personas at the start as masked gangland killers. Such disguised bad guys with new personas are a Butler tradition.
Technology. Early on (Chapter 1), we see a jukebox at a bar. It is not called a jukebox, but an "electric phonograph".
The mainstream novelist John Steinbeck would create Cannery Row (1945), which like "Death on the Hook" is also a look at a California community dominated by fishermen and canneries. Its atmosphere is a bit closer to that of Butler's story, than are the Speed Saunders stories. "Death on the Hook" will also anticipate elements of the finale of the film Terror in a Texas Town (1958), directed by Joseph H. Lewis.
Sandy Taylor, like Steve Midnight to come, operates in a tough, working class milieu. Its feisty heroine reflects the feminism that runs through Butler. The story quietly shows some of the negative features of alcohol and alcoholism - Butler is definitely not a pulp writer who admired booze.
"Death on the Hook" has a well constructed mystery plot. It shows such common, and admirable Butler features as a central situation that is different from what it appears; an intersection between a crime in the past (here a robbery) and the current events of the story; and sound detective work by the hero, reasoning a way towards the solution. Sandy Taylor unfolds his ideas step by step throughout the story, as he gets them.