Mr. District Attorney | Non-Series Tales
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Like the Big Town comic book in the same era, Mr. District Attorney featured relatively realistic tales of crime and mystery, in contemporary American settings. Both comic books mainly featured men in suits and ties, or police uniforms, with an occasional tuxedo: there were no super-hero costumes or costumed crooks. Neither had high-tech gimmicks along the lines of Batman's Batmobile or Batarang. The heroes had no secret identity, and never wore a mask. Science fiction was absent, and there were no super-heroes.
NAMES NOT KNOWN. Throughout most of his runs in various media, the reader or listener never learned the District Attorney's name. Other characters called him "the District Attorney" or "D.A.". His assistant Harrington often called him "Chief". There were other famous fictional characters whose names we don't learn:
STANDARD COSTUMES. Some comic book heroes are always dressed in the same way. This helps make them instantly identifiable to readers. The D.A. usually wears his double-breasted blue suit. And Harrington his double-breasted green one. Although he sometimes lives dangerously and wears his purple one or light brown one.
The Richest Man in Prison (1948). Writer: Ed Herron (France E. Herron). Art: Sam Citron (page 2 onwards), Dan Barry (splash). A clever crook embezzles a fortune, then plans to wait out his prison time and dig up his loot when released.
Mr. District Attorney, as depicted in this tale, is one of the least likable series characters in comic book history. He is definitely not a nice guy. Instead, he seems to specialize in tormenting and hounding criminals, all in the name of the law. This is all supposed to be justified in the name of crime prevention, but the actual effect is distinctly nasty. There are precedents to this character. The movie series Crime Does Not Pay sometimes included such relentless law officers. Also, Henry Hathaway's film noir Kiss of Death (1948) featured a relentless district attorney, played by Brian Donlevy, who specialized in squeezing and putting pressure on sympathetic criminal Victor Mature, often in ways that were both nightmarish and barely ethical.
This story develops into a full picture of the DA manipulating the convict into revealing where his loot is buried. He seems to have endless resources and power to manipulate the prisoner. He sends an assistant, Harrington, into the prison undercover to be the prisoner's cell mate. At the end of the tale, Harrington and the DA are celebrating their success in the DA's power office. Both men are well dressed in expensive looking suits. Both look like figures of wealth and power. Harrington is smoking a big cigar, and sitting on the DA's desk. Both of these handsome men look quite similar to each other.
The DA also has aggressive looking cops working for him, broad-shouldered men in sharp uniforms with Sam Browne belts and peaked caps (pages 9, 10).
Earlier we see the hierarchical relationship between the DA and his assistant Harrington (page 4). The DA issues Harrington orders, including severely unpleasant ones, and expects to be obeyed. The illustration emphasizes how broad-shouldered the DA looks in his good suit.
The Street of Forgotten Men (1949). Art: Howard Purcell. Crooks are preying on the desperately poor men who hang out in the Bowery.
The Case of the Money Makers (1949). Writer: Ed Herron (France E. Herron). Art: Howard Purcell. The team goes after a complexly organized counterfeiting racket.
The Game That Has No Winners (1949). Writer: Phil Evans. Art: Howard Purcell. Based on a cover by: Howard Purcell. A naive Society woman invites a carnival to hold a charity event on her estate, but the D.A. suspects they are crooks.
There are mini-mysteries, of how various scam carnival attractions work. These get fully explained. But there is no central whodunit mystery of identifying some culprit.
TUXEDOS. The D.A. and Harrington are in identical tuxedos. So are most of the men at the event. This is not something that would likely happen in real-life: instead, each man would have a different style tux. However, the unusual quality of men dressed perfectly alike, is part of what makes this tale so interesting.
The tuxedos are remarkably dressy. They are double-breasted, and with vests. They display the good builds of the men to perfection. The D.A. and Harrington look very handsome in them.
The tuxedos recall dressy business suits. Indeed, the D.A.'s tux recalls his standard double-breasted blue suit. He evens wears a pocket handkerchief with his tux, just like his suit.
Men dressed alike suggest uniforms. The D.A. calls tuxedos "the uniform" required for the event (bottom left page 2).
So the tuxedos do triple duty: formal wear, dressy business suits, uniforms.
OVERHEAD VIEW. An overhead panorama shows the layout of the carnival (top of page 3). This is a bit like the scale models of settings, that appear in "The Case of the Double Killing" and "The Impossible Crime". It also anticipates the overhead panorama of the campus in "A Medal for Pop Grogan".
COVER. The cover shows the D.A. trapping a tiny crook under a shell, in a shell game. Both men are in good business suits. The D.A. really looks dominant over the crook. He controls the crook with the shell, and is much bigger. Phallic flags and poles are behind him.
The cover shows the D.A. in his standard suit, not the tuxedo he wears for most of the story. The cover is one of the best depictions of the D.A.'s gold wristwatch.
Second Chance Farm (1949). Writer: Ed Herron (France E. Herron). Art: Howard Purcell. A farm gives ex-convicts a chance to get jobs and go straight,
This tale is unfortunately more timely than ever, showing the difficulties ex-convicts have getting jobs.
MYSTERY PLOT. There are mystery plot aspects to the story. The detective and reader have to figure out 1) What is being done? and 2) Who is doing it?
What is being done is quite elaborate. The sleuth learns about what is happening, in a series of stages.
This crime plot involves science, both in its execution and its detection. There is much science and technology in Mr. District Attorney, in general.
There is a clue to the identity of the bad guys (bottom left on page 4). It is a good, sound clue. But the story does not follow up and cite this clue again, during the solution. One wonders if this is an oversight. In "The Phantom Thief" by the same team, we similarly have a "good clue forgotten in the finale".
UNDERCOVER. Harrington gets his appearance changed for his undercover role (page 6). Like many episodes in Mr. District Attorney, this is a gratifying fantasy, masquerading as a bit of crime tale storytelling.
A whole series of events show the D.A. as the boss and Harrington as his subordinate. The D.A.:
The Execution of Caesar Larsen (#13, January-February 1950). Writer: Ed Herron (France E. Herron). Art: Howard Purcell. A vicious mobster who fears he's dying, creates and trains a double of himself, to make rivals think he is still alive after his death. This is a minor tale. It is best in the somewhat surreal scenes of the mobster training his double (pages 7, 8).
The premise anticipates other, better Herron-Purcell tales about surreal hoaxes in which men are transformed. These include "Where Is Marvyn Moon?", "The Crime Warden", "The D.A. Pounds a Beat".
ART. The gleaming floor of the mansion is nicely done (splash panel). It has an unusual white-and-pink checkerboard pattern.
The formal outfit (top of page 9), probably has to be classified as a tuxedo, even though it has a white tie. The outfit as a whole is shaped like a tuxedo, NOT like white tie and tails. A handsome young man seated near Caesar wears a similar outfit.
The same panels (top of page 9) show a casino game board, whose white-and-pink checkerboard echoes the floor on the splash panel.
The False Rumor Factory (1950). Writer: Phil Evans. Art: Howard Purcell. A racket spreads false rumors about business people, for hire.
The Wire Tap Crimes (1950). Art: Howard Purcell. A criminal gang tap phones to get inside information they can use in robberies.
TECHNOLOGY. I acquired a view of a typical tale about bugging: "Spies use powerful bugs, that let them hear everything. Good guys "sweep" rooms with high-tech devices, that help them find and remove bugs. The End." This is NOT what "The Wire Tap Crimes" is like, at all.
"The Wire Tap Crimes" comes from an earlier era, technologically. Its wire taps often involve stringing actual wires. "The Wire Tap Crimes" is full of detailed examples, or both this and other ingenious technologies. This view of technology will likely be new for contemporary readers, as it was to me. This is one of the two best aspects of the story.
UNIFORMS. The other best aspect of "The Wire Tap Crimes" are the uniforms. Only Good Guys get to wear this cool gear.
Both police phone expert Wayne Porter (page 6), and later Harrington (page 7), work on phone lines while wearing a windbreaker, huge white gauntlets, and tools on a belt. This gear forms a uniform, as a standard outfit. The windbreakers might be leather - it is hard to tell from the illustrations. Harrington's windbreaker buttons up the front, rather than being zipped (bottom left panel on page 7). Hero Boston Blackie wears a leather jacket with buttons in the film One Mysterious Night (Budd Boetticher, 1944).
The attendant (page 5) has one of those spectacular button-up white medical uniforms.
Guard and police uniforms appear at the start and end of the tale. The police uniforms at the end are dramatic, with leather Sam Browne belts, epaulettes, patch pockets and high-peaked caps. They anticipate the spiffy police uniforms at the end of "The Bachelors of Crime", in the next issue. And in one way they are better than the uniforms in "The Bachelors of Crime". The uniforms in "The Wire Tap Crimes" have stripes near the cuffs of the sleeves, that are insignia of rank.
We don't see the lowest parts of the police uniforms in "The Wire Tap Crimes". But the armored car guard uniforms at the start of "The Wire Tap Crimes" are different. They include flared breeches and tall boots. Such features will be incorporated into the police uniforms in "The Bachelors of Crime". It's as if the uniforms in "The Bachelors of Crime" are a combination of the best features of the armored car and police uniforms of "The Wire Tap Crimes".
The Crime Warden (1950). Writer: Ed Herron (France E. Herron). Art: Howard Purcell. Vengeful escaped convict Clyde Burson holds the people who sent him to jail, in his own fake private prison. This tale is often routine, and as a whole has weaknesses. However, it has a dramatic, unusual premise: the sort of premise Hollywood calls "high concept".
The passage where the captured DA is forcibly inducted as a prisoner into this fake prison is memorably perverse (it takes up most of page 6). Crook Clyde Burson is now in a good business suit, playing the "warden" of his fake (but real-looking) prison. It's an Authority Figure suit, with a big vest (last panel on page 6). An associate is also in one of these authoritative suits (right panel of middle row on page 6). They do look like the Warden and his classy aide. Everything about his prison looks authentic.
Especially charged: the scene where the DA has his name taken away from him, and becomes a mere prison number instead (middle left panel). A well-built crook in a sharp police uniform is playing a prison "guard", and issuing the DA his prison clothes with the new number on the chest. The crook looks especially happy to be playing this role,
Also notable: the convicts are roused out of their cells by a uniformed "guard", and marched off to breakfast (page 6). The "convicts" are put through the regimentation of prison life.
A PREDECESSOR. The main premise of the tale - ex-convict builds fake prison to get revenge on the man who sent him to jail - occurred as an episode in an earlier story. See "Where Is Marvyn Moon?" (#13, January-February 1950) (page 10). This tale was by the same team, Ed Herron and Howard Purcell. The treatment in "Where Is Marvyn Moon?" is much briefer. In both stories, the ex-convict bills himself as the warden of his fake prison, and crooks in sharp police uniforms serve as "guards". Both tales also have a crook in a sharp business suit, who works for the "warden".
One thing present in "Where Is Marvyn Moon?" but not in "The Crime Warden": a gun battle between real police and crooks uniformed as police, in a raid on the "prison".
The Bachelors of Crime (1950). Writer: Ed Herron (France E. Herron). Art: Howard Purcell. Four clean cut looking but dishonest recent college grads use their skills to commit a series of thefts. The splash shows them in cap and gown, receiving their Bachelor's degrees on completion of college. The four men are nearly identically dressed. The effect is of four men in uniforms.
One of the young men, John Gregg, is a psychology major; he uses his skills to psychologically manipulate the victims of the gang. This is the most interesting part of the story.
The hoaxes are sneaky, and very hard to for their victim to resist. The story goes into explicit detail about the mechanisms of such hoaxes. They perhaps reveal the writer's thinking on the subject.
The hoaxes he perpetrates remind one of the hoaxes that were common in Bill Finger tales, and one wonders if Finger is in fact the writer of this story.
However, this story has now been ascribed to Ed Herron. Herron wrote a tale about aliens who use their clean cut, masculine appearance to pull off a sinister hoax, in "The Invasion From Indiana" (Strange Adventures #49, October 1954). This recalls the Bachelors.
NO MYSTERY. This story has plenty of crime, but no mysteries to be solved. The reader always knows what is going on.
TUXEDO. The night club manager Vernon looks good in his tuxedo (pages 5, 6).
UNIFORMS. The tale's end (page 10) shows broad-shouldered cops in dressy uniforms. They have very high-peaked caps, jackets with epaulettes and precisely-positioned patch pockets, flared trousers, black boots, giant holsters, and black leather Sam Browne belts with harnesses. It's the whole works. These muscle men are clad in uniforms that evoke discipline.
The uniformed cops echo the Bachelors uniformed as college graduates at the start of the tale. Both groups wear dressy dark blue uniforms, white shirts and black ties, black leather shoes or boots, and have fancy head-gear. But the cops proceed to dominate the Bachelors:
The Case of the Double Killing (1950). Art: Howard Purcell. Based on a cover by: Howard Purcell. Someone kills a millionaire at his mansion.
MYSTERY PLOT. A whodunit murder mystery - not typical fare for this magazine. This story is has some decent mystery plot features, including (SPOILERS):
MODEL. The story's best part: the cover, which shows the DA reconstructing the crime using a scale model of the rooms where the killing took place. This is a delightful image, one sure to warm the hearts of Golden Age detective fans. The Philo Vance movie, The Kennel Murder Case (Michael Curtiz, 1933), had also included a scale model of a house in its dénouement. In both movie and comic, the model is around the size of a doll house. The cover also reminds one of the Dell "mapback" paperback books of the era, which featured a map or floor plan of the crime scene on their back cover. Some of the Dell mapbacks had this sort of 3D images of rooms, without ceilings.
The house depicted on the cover is quite upscale and refined in its furnishings. The cover is more genteel than many of the Mr. District Attorney covers, which often depicted fairly tough crime scenes. The genteel furnishings also recall Dell mapbacks.
The story also has a nice overhead view of the landscape around the murder mansion (top left, page 3). This too has a map-like effect. It also has nice geometric patterns:
The scale model stands up on a table, right in front of the sharply-suited D.A., and the dressily uniformed cop standing next to him. The model is a phallic symbol, in front of the two men. The model is also full of vertical lines that serve as phallic symbols. And a jaunting staircase.
CLOTHES. The suspects' clothes also convey the upscale milieu. One suspect is interviewed in a dressing gown: a typical upper class item (page 3). Men used to get to wear this jazzy fashion, that combines swagger with prestige. Like the DA's assistant Harrington in much of the story, the suspect has a hand thrust into a pocket. This dressing gown has a wide shawl collar: a swaggering feature. Its tight belt shows off Frank Manet's narrow waist, and sets off his broad shoulders. He's standing near a phallic fireplace design.
The DA on the cover is in a good suit, double-breasted with peaked lapels. He looks broad-shouldered, and very well-dressed. He also wears a beautiful gold wristwatch.
The State vs. Harrington (1950). Art: Howard Purcell. The DA's assistant Harrington looks guilty of a crime, and goes on trial for it.
MYSTERY PLOT. This crime tale has mystery, and a well-constructed plot.
The tale shows an interest in architecture (page 4). Architecture was prominent in Golden Age prose mystery fiction. The architectural idea in "The State vs. Harrington" seems both original and clever, to me.
Bits of science run through the tale:
The tale as a whole shows a commitment to sound detective work, rather than guessing or luck.
HARRINGTON AS PRISONER. After his arrest, Harrington is "put through the criminal processing line" (page 5). He has his name taken from him, and replaced by a number. He wears the number on the chest of his new convict's uniform, rather than a name.
This recalls the D.A. processed as a prisoner in the previous issue's "The Crime Warden" (page 6). His most charged scene had his name taken from him, and being issued prison clothes with his new number on the chest.
Harringtom has to wear this numbered-uniform constantly in jail, including during a visit by the D.A. (page 6). Meanwhile the D.A. is in his good suit. This is definitely perverse.
There are also fully uniformed jail guards, seen as standing, shadowy figures in the background (pages 5, 6). They too make a contrast with convict Harrington.
OVERHEAD VIEWS. There is a map-like overhead view of the courtroom (page 6). It recalls the scale models and overhead-views found in other D.A. tales.
Earlier (bottom left, page 3) there is an overhead view of criminals getting arrested.
COATS. Both the DA and Harrington look good in their long coats. The D.A.'s is a trenchcoat (pages 6, 7). There is a close-up of Harrington, with his collar turned up: a glamorous way to wear such coats (page 4). Harrington looks great in the coat in the finale (page 10).
The Phantom Thief (1950). Writer: Ed Herron (France E. Herron). Art: Howard Purcell. A mysterious thief, dubbed the Phantom Thief by the cops, somehow has inside information about places he robs.
As in Herron's "The Bachelors of Crime", we see numerous examples of crimes being committed by the thief.
MYSTERY PLOT. This tale has a solid mystery plot, dealing with how the criminals are getting information. I guessed the solution. But found the mystery plot enjoyable anyway.
A clue to how the crimes were committed, is found in a discovery the DA describes (last panel on page 5). Oddly, this clue doesn't seem to be mentioned again. The clue is fully consistent with the solution at the tale's end. A guess: Herron simply forgot to discuss this clue again, at the solution.
A subplot has hoax elements: sometimes found in Ed Herron. This is set forth (page 5) and solved (page 10).
MACHO MEN. There is a neat image, about a stakeout in a museum (top middle panel of page 8). It is funny, clever and macho, all at once.
A pair of well-built cops (in the last panel, page 10) wear the typical dressy uniforms of the series. The sharp uniforms include patch pockets, high-peaked caps with shiny visors, and leather Sam Browne belts. The DA and Harrington are also in the image. Phallic skyscrapers rise up in the background.
There is a good portrait of a firefighter (bottom left page 4). He wears the phallic number 2 on his helmet. A second firefighter wields a phallic hose (bottom right page 4).
A Medal for Pop Grogan (1951). Art: Howard Purcell. Retired cop Pop Grogan likes to tell tall tales about his heroic deeds while on the force. Sweet tale with welcome elements of comedy.
The tale has mystery elements, as well as crime and humor.
CHANGING CLOTHES. "A Medal for Pop Grogan" (page 8), like "The Crime Warden" (page 6), has a scene of men changing clothes. In both, this leads to a change in apparent social category and status. Both scenes have men changing out of suits, into something of less formality and social status.
REFLEXIVE STRUCTURE. We see some of Pop Grogan's tales. They are presented right in the middle of the story. These stories-within-a-story give "A Medal for Pop Grogan" a reflexive structure.
Later (page 8), the D. A. gets into the act. We see a story by him. It is his reconstruction of how the crooks operate.
THE CAMPUS. We get an overhead view of Vernon College (page 2). It's like a map of this small college, showing much of the campus. Other tales like "The Impossible Crime" and "The Case of the Double Killing" include scale models of their action, as part of their plots. This overhead view is not a model. But it does have something of the same effect.
Citizen Nye Dies Twice (1951). Art: Howard Purcell. An ordinary man with no financial resources is mysteriously kidnapped by a gang.
MYSTERY PLOT. The tale's mystery plot challenges the detectives and the reader to figure out the motive for the seemingly pointless kidnapping.
"Citizen Nye Dies Twice" has a similar finale as "The Crime Warden". In both, the hero is held captive by bad guys. But he finds a way to communicate with the outside world. His plea for help leads to his liberation. The communication methods are different in the two tales. The one in "Citizen Nye Dies Twice" is more ingenious. It also gets treated briefly as a mystery puzzle, with the reader challenged to figure out how the hero did the communication (pages 9, 10).
MEN. The glamour of television in that era is evoked (page 2). The announcer is a handsome, broad-shouldered, well-dressed man. His giant microphone is a phallic symbol.
The bedraggled men in the tale's second half, actually look good in their unshaved stubble and wrinkled clothes. They are all Good Guys: a category that often gets a glamour treatment in Mr. District Attorney.
The D.A. Pounds a Beat (1951). Writer: Ed Herron (France E. Herron). Art: Howard Purcell. To show his public support for the police during a time when a sinister gang is shooting cops, the D.A. dons a beat officer's uniform and patrols a slum district. This tale mixes suspense, social commentary, warmth and even some humor.
Such Ed Herron stories as "Where Is Marvyn Moon?" and "The Crime Warden" deal with fake prisons set-up by an evil criminal, with himself as "Warden". "The D.A. Pounds a Beat" deals with somewhat similar fakery, with the D.A. turning himself into a fake-but-convincing beat cop. The D.A.'s motives are far nobler. And he and the police are doing this voluntarily, while the fake prison tales had victims coerced into being "prisoners". Still "The D.A. Pounds a Beat" has some of the same kick as the fake-prison tales. It's a piece of fantasy played out in reality.
The D.A. looks terrific in his "beat cop" uniform. It's old-fashioned and traditional: just what this sort of live-out-a-fantasy tale needs.
The D.A. is forced into a being a prisoner in "The Crime Warden". And he transforms himself into a patrolman in "The D.A. Pounds a Beat". His transformation is at the center of both tales.
The badge number (lower left page 9) on the D.A.'s uniform cap is 583924. He seems as proud of his police cap, as he was ashamed of his prison number in "The Crime Warden".
The Impossible Crime (1951). Art: Howard Purcell. Crooks target the massive transfer of money by an armored car, from one bank to another. The D.A. is in charge of police attempts to prevent this.
This synopsis makes the tale sound like a "big heist" story. But the tale actually has a very different feel:
SCALE MODEL. "The Impossible Crime" includes a scale model, like "The Case of the Double Killing". It shows a whole "cityscape": an outdoor landscape of part of a city (page 3). By contrast the model in "The Case of the Double Killing" was of a single mansion.
There is also a map (page 4). The map is in black-and-white, unlike the rest of the story, which is in color.
Both the model and the map are used by Good Guys. Not the crooks.
THE POLICE. Police are deployed along the route. Some are undercover in various roles (page 4). This recalls the elaborate use of undercover police in the prose short stories of Frederick Irving Anderson.
THE TITLE. What does the title "The Impossible Crime" mean. I think it is saying, "With all the police precautions, it sure looks like it will be impossible for crooks to steal this armored truck."
Today, the term "impossible crime" has a very different meaning in mystery fiction. It refers to "locked room" and related mysteries, that look as if they were impossible to have occurred. This is a completely different meaning!
Nothing in this story "The Impossible Crime" is an "impossible crime" in the modern sense.
The Case of the Honest Ex-Convicts (1952). Art: Howard Purcell. Ex-convicts have trouble getting hired, so a philanthropists offers them 300 jobs in one of his factories. Outstanding work of social commentary in the tale's first half, plus a solid detective story in its second half.
Like "Second Chance Farm", "The Case of the Honest Ex-Convicts" is concerned with the difficulties ex-convicts have in getting hired for jobs. Both stories take place at a business that actually does hire ex-convicts: the farm in "Second Chance Farm", a factory in "The Case of the Honest Ex-Convicts".
The Case of the Plundered Pearls (1952). Art: Howard Purcell. Someone is mysteriously stealing only pearls, leaving other valuable jewels behind.
STRUCTURE. In some ways "The Case of the Plundered Pearls" is a mystery story, with the D.A., Harrington and Miss Miller struggling to find the solution to the mysterious thefts.
But the solution is set forth in the opening splash panel - so the reader always knows in general terms what is going on. This is not a thoughtless spoiler by the writer. Instead, I think the author wants readers to understand what is happening, rather than being baffled by a mystery. The story is a mystery to the D.A. and his team - but not to the reader.
Teresa Harling was trained by her father, who ran a detective agency. On his death in 1943, she inherited the agency, and became its proprietor.
The story gives Teresa Harling the full treatment that would be applied to a male private eye in the era. She has both brains and courage, and uses both to solve the dangerous, tricky case here. She gets no help from any men or male assistants, and is a full sleuth in the Raymond Chandler tradition. The story has some good dialogue, that celebrates her ability as a detective. It also makes strong feminist points about her work as a private detective.
The actual plot that Harling is involved with is very close to traditional private eye literature. She has a client who comes to her for help, a case that develops complications and snowballs, mobsters, the seedy fringes of show business, car chases on remote roads. It is straight out of the post-Chandler private eye tradition. In fact, it could easily be a Chandler tale, except for the sympathetic female sleuth at its center, something that was a rarity in its era in prose fiction. Consequently, one wonders if the case itself is a fictional one, made up by a writer for the comic book, rather than being a true story from Harling's files.