Sunday, June 28, 2020

Bower of Carnality: Too Many Clients (1960), by Rex Stout

Archie (Timothy Hutton)
interviews a client (the ubiquitous Kari Matchett)
in the  2002 film adaptation of
Rex Stout's Too Many Clients

Director Billy Wilder's titillating best picture Oscar winning film The Apartment, about an insurance clerk who climbs the corporate ladder by lending his domicile to his superiors for use as a cite to carry on extramarital sexual liaisons opened in American theaters on June 30, 1960. Author Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective novel Too Many Clients, about the murder of a randy plastics executive at his "bower of carnality" (as its colorfully termed in the novel), was published just under four months later, on October 28.  Stout's novel was already in the hands of his publishers by the time The Apartment opened, for Stout had written it in just thirty-five days, between May 6 and June 22; but one has to wonder if publicity about the upcoming film influenced the writing of Too Many Clients.  Or perhaps it was simply coincidence.  In any case, both the film and novel offer an interesting wry look at mores, sexual and otherwise, in the urban white collar world in the American mid-century.

Speculation about The Apartment doesn't come up in John McAleer's biography of Rex Stout, which, despite the bio's massive length, provides only limited literary analysis of individual Nero Wolfe detective novels.  After noting the time it took Stout to write it--I think McAleer diligently does this for almost all of the Wolfe books (Stout kept good records)--McAleer adds: "Archie here is at his funniest and most visible.  Maria Perez is the liveliest foreign girl to appear in the series since Anna Fiore in Fer-de-Lance, and the late Thomas a superb portrait of the businessman type that Rex despised."  And that's it.  There's not a lot to hang a hat on here, really, so in the lines below I shall provide my own take on this excellent detective novel.

Author and critic Julian Symons, as I noted in the last blog post, maintained that the Nero Wolfe books drastically declined after 1950, but a decade after that with Too Many Clients, I couldn't see evidence of that decline.  To the contrary, this is a strong Wolfe indeed.  It begins originally, with Archie getting requested to perform an investigative service for a man pronouncing himself to be Thomas Yeager, senior vice president of Consolidated Plastic Products.  It seems that Yeager thinks he is being followed to a certain location and he wants Archie to trail him to that location to discern whether this is true.  Archie soon discovers, however, that Yeager has been murdered and that the man identifying himself as Yeager was not in fact he.

The real Yeager's dead body is found covered over with a tarpaulin at an excavation cite in a slum district, across from the very building which the false Yeager had identified as his destination.  Upon further investigation Archie finds that the building conceals a love nest, or sex pad as it might have been called a few years later: Thomas Yeager's aforementioned bower of carnality.  He also finds that Yeager actually was murdered there, his body being later removed outside of the building.

The bower is maintained by resident caretakers Cesar and Felita Perez, who knew about their employers' goings-on (they had to clean up after him), but they insist that their beautiful sheltered though rather inquisitive daughter, Maria, knew nothing about it. 

In fact it was Cesar who moved Yeager's body out into the street, but he and Felita insist to Archie they did not kill him; and they want to hire the gumshoe to help them out of this jam. (Out of respect for the body, Cesar put the tarpaulin over Yeager's body, leaving fingerprints, which the police surely will trace to him if they ever find out about Yeager's bower.)  While he's in the bower with the Perezes in comes one of Yeager's lady friends (she has her own key), a stage actress named Meg Duncan.  She wants to retrieve a cigarette case which she thinks she left there and she ends up hiring Archie to find it for her and return it.  (You will be getting now, oif you haven't read it, why this book has its title.)

Ace detective Saul Panzer not being available, Archie installs Fred Durkin there to watch for future visitors and he tries to convince Wolfe, quarterly taxes being due, that they might have a lucrative case here.  Eventually they do, when Fred catches another lady in the bower, Julia McGee, who claims that she is Yeager's secretary and that the only thing she ever did there was a little dictation.  She brings in the president of CPP, pompous Benedict Aiken, who ends up hiring Wolfe, with the connivance of the board of directors, to keep the existence of the bower from becoming known.  (Scandal, don't you know.)  Another would-be client, Thomas Yeager's overbearing widow, comes into the picture as well, demanding that Wolfe find out who killed her husband, since CPP doesn't really care about that matter per se.  There's also yet another one of Yeager's lady friends who comes into the picture, but I've probably said enough (or more than enough) about the plot already.  Some people say plotting was not a strong suit of Stout's, to which I say, like certain characters in this books, "balls."

In this novel we learn more here about Wolfe's and Archie's (and implicitly Stout's) attitudes about sex, in a book that I actually found more serious than a lot of the works in the Stout canon.  (There's even a case of spousal abuse, about which I would like to say more, but it's too spoilerish; let me just say that the meaning of Archie's response raises some interesting questions.)  Stout again gets in some good licks at mid-century corporate culture, a subject in mystery which I find perennially fascinating (Stout's contemporary author Patrick Quentin was good on this subject too, but he wasn't nearly so prolific as Stout.)  I love when Wolfe contemptuously asks the sputtering Aiken, "How the deuce did you get to head a large and successful corporation?"

Puerto Rican Maria in the film version of West Side Story, played by actress Natalie Wood,
who was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko

Of course in his focus on upper class white America (people with the money to pay Wolfe's fat fees), Stout has been accused of, like film director Woody Allen, portraying a New York denuded of black and Hispanic people; and one senses that in Too May Clients Stout wanted to rectify that oversight a bit by introducing into the story the poor Puerto Rican couple, Cesar and Felita Perez, caretakers of the rich man's bower, and their daughter Maria.  Apropos of The Apartment, I might note that the next year's best picture, West Side Story, concerned poor Puerto Ricans and a beautiful girl named Maria.  I find it strange that in his Stout biography Professor McAleer refers to Maria Perez as a "foreign girl."  I presume she was born in the continental United States, but in any event her parents as Puerto Ricans would have been U. S. citizens.  Puerto Ricans had been so under American law for decades.  "My name is Cesar Perez," Cesar announces.  "I am a citizen of the United States of America."  Maria was not a "foreign girl."  But then a lot of people miss this point even today.

As for the mystery, it's nicely carried out by Stout, though Wolfe has some of the investigation done by Saul Panzer, invisibly to Archie and thus invisibly as well to the reader.  (However, one key point I would argue, is still surmisable by the reader.)  All in all the book is a delight for the mind.  In his introduction to the 1994 Bantam edition Malcolm, aka Steve, Forbes, Junior praises Stout for writing a mystery about a "high-powered, sex-crazed business executive" with such "nonprurient, critical detachment"; and, indeed, Archie's one single mention of a woman's nipples is as direct as the book gets when it comes to copulation and sexual allure.

Moreover, Stout as usual delights with his style and as his faultless sense of social observation. "Another point against him was that he had no hat," observes Archie.  "Ninety-eight per cent of men who can pay big fees wear hats."  Steve Forbes points out in the introduction that the next year John F. Kennedy would go hatless at his inauguration and soon hats for men would become "old hat."  Somehow the Nero Wolfe books were never quite the same.  Mid-century style helped give them their pulsating life.

Critics embraced Too Many ClientsAnthony Boucher, who on the whole preferred the Nero Wolfe novellas to the novels, found it "markedly ingenious.Sergeant Cuff in the Saturday Review of Literature pronounced Stout's novel "easily among his best.James Sandoe declared it "one of Mr. Stout's brighter books" and an "[e]xcellent diversion."  Just over eighteen years ago now (Where does the time ago?), a fetching adaptation of the novel aired as part of the excellent Nero Wolfe series starring Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin.  It may not be the best film of the series, Clients being perhaps a little cerebral for television, but it's worth it all just to see the visualization of the Thomas Yeager's bower of carnality.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"The biggest compliment Julian Symoms can pay to any book is to dislike it"--Mary Stewart Critiques a Critic

When British author Mary Stewart died six years ago at the venerable age of ninety-seven, she was hailed as a pioneer of the "romantic suspense" subgenre in mystery.  American authors Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhart and Leslie Ford, to cite three examples, had been at this sort of thing for years, but Stewart, a graduate with first-class honors in English from Durham University, gave it a lustrous new gloss of sophistication.  "Stewart's classic education served her splendidly,observes the Guardian in a 2014 obituary of the late author.  "Informed by lightly worn research, her books were intelligent and full of literary allusion.  It might be said that in subject matter and treatment she was a natural successor to Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte."

Mary Stewart (1916-2014)
Pretty impressive, eh?  Nor was the Guardian alone in its praise for Stewart.  Despite this, Mary Stewart goes unmentioned, in crime writer and critic Julian Symons' once highly influential survey of mystery and crime fiction, Bloody Murder (originally published in 1972), wherein romantic suspense is not particularly placed on a pinnacle, let us say. 

Symons, however, does not go unmentioned in a letter which Mary Stewart penned, five years after the publication of Bloody Murder, on November 28, 1977.  Stewart's letter was written in reply to one from John McAleer, a Boston College English professor and biographer of the late American mystery writer Rex Stout.

An evidently plaintive McAleer had written to Stewart concerning a Symons' review of McAleer's biography of Stout, which had been published in the New York Times Book Review on November 13.  Symons' assessment of the book was, to out it charitably, mixed; and it also managed to get in some rather dismissive asides against McAleer's highly esteemed subject, who had passed away at the age of eighty-eight two years earlier.

"No livelier man (than Stout) been the subject of a duller book," pronounced Symons bluntly.  "The art of biography rests in selection, and what you omit may be as significant as what you include.  This biography gives the impression of omitting nothing....The biographer's own comments are always jejune or banal."

As for Stout, Symons faulted the Nero Wolfe creator for being unwilling to put his soul into his detective novels.  "At the risk of outraging an accepted American myth," lectured Symons,

Julian Symons (1912-1994)
it must be said that [McAleer]absurdly inflates the [Nero Wolfe] stories' merit.  On the evidence of the Wolfe saga, Stout was simply not in the same stylistic league with Hammett, Chandler or Ross Macdonald.  His prose is energetic and efficient, nothing more.  His plots lack the metronomic precision of Ellery Queen's....The truth is that Stout wrote too much too easily, and that like all crime writers dependent on repeated introduction of the same characters--including Doyle and Simenon--his work was subject to the law of diminishing returns.  The early Wolfe books, those produced up to 1950, are infinitely better than those that followed, with "The Doorbell Rang" and "Death of a Doxy" offering exceptions to this rule....[Stout's] achievement was to create a Superman detective who will be remembered as long as people read crime stories; his limitation was that this figure operates in the context of books that are consistently entertaining, but for the most part just as consistently forgettable.

I have devoted a lot of my life now to writing about the people who wrote mystery and crime fiction, but I am a historian by training and have always tried to be a historian first and a "literary critic," if I indeed am one, second.  Taste is such a subjective matter that I often have shied in the past from making grand pronouncements beginning with words like "It must be said" and "The truth is."  I have found over the decades that the more I have read of mystery and crime fiction, the more catholic and generous my tastes have become.  The restrictive dogmatism of the Julian Symonses and the Jacques Barzuns I have increasingly abandoned, though it's interesting to write about it, as I am doing here now.

Certainly Julian Symons brought his own personal biases to bear on his assessment of Rex Stout.  (As for the McAleer biography, I will allow, as someone who has written biography myself, that I wish McAleer, an astoundingly proficient pack rat, had been more selective of the detail in his book--however he won an Edgar and I haven't, so there is that.) 

As someone who himself never in his crime fiction created a memorable series character (and I say this as someone who enjoys Symons' crime fiction), Symons believed that the commitment to an outsize Great Detective as series sleuth, whether it be Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Albert Campion or Gideon Fell, throttled originality in mystery fiction and kept it from developing into something more akin to mainstream literature.  Thus in his view Rex Stout had surrendered his considerable talent as a serious writer to a fundamentally superficial endeavor, even if yielded a character, Nero Wolfe, who would be "remembered as long as people read crime stories."  Paradoxically, Wolfe was an unforgettable character who appeared in mostly forgettable stories (at least after 1950).

The truth is (as Symons would say), though I can only speak for myself, I don't find the Wolfe stories generally forgettable, even if they do lack, like most everything under the sun, the "metronomic precision of Ellery Queen" (for some that might be a good thing).  Again generally speaking, I don't find the stories forgettable before 1950 or after 1950, to use Symons' somewhat arbitrary cutoff point.  (It won't surprise Wolfe fans to learn that Symons really liked Stout's Arnold Zeck saga.) 

Indeed, although my favorite Wolfe novel was published before 1940, I find the fecundity of and overall quality of Stout's production in the two decades between 1946 and 1966 astonishing and I personally favor this latter period of his writing as a whole.  I don't believe, as Symons declares in Bloody Murder, that after 1950 Stout stopped caring about his characters.  The carefully planned culmination of the Wolfe saga in A Family Affair (1975), for example, would suggest otherwise.

Before he died, Rex Stout saw
that Nero Wolfe had entered the
pantheon of Fiction's Great Detectives
Are the Wolfe tales, taken as whole, as memorable as those of, say, Sherlock Holmes?  I think not, yet what a high bar that is setting.  In that sort of race, it's okay to place second (or third or fourth, or fifth, etc. as the case may be).  Creating a character, or series of characters, and a world to go with them which people want to immerse themselves in year after year after year, even long after the author's death, is a singular achievement, one which rates higher than Symons' chary assessment of Stout in his review essay seems to credit.

What's the more memorable book from 1957: Stout's If Death Ever Slept or Symons' deliberately drab and dreary The Colour of Murder, which won the Gold Dagger from the British CWA for that year?  (Crime writers' awards groups love all things drab and dreary.)

I know what my pick would be, but that's subjective.  All I can say--and it must be said--is that I'm pretty confident more people would choose Stout's novel, even with the recent advocacy of the latter work by the British Library's vintage crime fiction reprint series and its distinguished editor, a great admirer of Symons.

But enough with my opinions!  What interests me here is the opinion of Mary Stewart.  She took two weeks to get back to Prefessor McAleer with a letter, but when she did, gracious, did she rain down hellfire and brimstone on the head of Julian Symons.  If McAleer ever read Stewart's letter aloud, Symons ears surely would have burned.

Stewart urged McAleer to "try to forget" that "silly Julian Symons' article."  He knew, and the public knew, Stewart assured him, that he had written a good book.  Yet she spent more time defending Stout's reputation and assailing that of Symons:

You also know that Rex Stout is an incomparably better writer than the pathetic and jealous Symons (or any of the grubby merchants he admires), and that this [jealousy] is the motivation of the review....It is typical of the man that he singles out Rex Stout's "sexy" novels as "among the best."  I only read one of them, How Like a God, and it was not in the same street as The Doorbell Rang and A Family Affair, or indeed any of the lucidly-written, mature works.  It is also nonsense to say that his style was not comparable to, say, Ross Macdonald.  To my eye and ear, RM's style is derivative, strained and totally predictable.  I can feel him trying.  Rex Stout's style was--is--flawless., please, ignore the man's opinions, even if you can't quite ignore his spite.  I have met him; he is a boor, and a second-rate writer, and has no sense of style--I mean, he would not know good English if he saw it.  The biggest compliment Julian Symons can pay to any book is to dislike it. 

....Believe me, everyone I know rates the wretched little man as I do.  Forget him.  You did a good job.  Have a happy Christmas.

a good murder never goes out of fashion
Well!  That is an uncategorical take-down.  Was it fair to Symons?  Personally I doubt that Symons was really motivated by jealous spite of Stout.  If so, why would he have praised Ross Macdonald, who was also, being an American bestseller, a much more successful writer than Symons?  No, I think Symons meant what he wrote, whether one agrees with him or not.  Obviously I don't, though I value his work more than Mary Stewart did.  Was Symons a boor?  Well, I know that Mary Stewart was not the first British crime writer of her generation to resent Symons' forcefully aired opinions, and nor was she the last. Symons in my view definitely had an "I have spoken" air about him that doubtlessly rankled.  Stung by his reviews of her later Campion novels, as I recollect, an outraged Margery Allingham wanted to have bounced from the CWA.

Symons had something of an aversion to the works of genteel lady mystery writers, whether British or American (excepting Agatha Christie, whose puzzle crafting ability he admired), while Stewart expressed disdain for the "grubby merchants" (one suspects the hard-boiled boys) whom Symons admired.  If one can but take a broader view and free oneself of one's partialities, one might say that there is merit to go around.  Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald and Stout all were fine stylists--and as for Symons and Stewart, well, in coming days I will have something more to say about them.

Note: The Julian Symons review and the Mary Stewart letter both can be found here, though I arrived at them independently several years ago.  Other people came to Stout's defense against Symons's critique, and several letters were published in the New York Times.  I quote from them here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"I decided just to write stories": Rex Stout on his Mystery Fiction

In 1935 thirty-two year old literary critic John Rensselaer Chamberlain published, in the Books of the Times column in the New York Times Book Review, a review of Rex Stout's newly published Nero Wolfe detective novel, The League of Frightened Men, Stout's second in what would prove a long, hugely popular and critically acclaimed series of murder mysteries.  John Chamberlain's review of Stout's novel encapsulates much of what mystery writers hate about literary critics, praising the book in a condescending backhanded way, seemingly in order to let people know that while he, John Rensselaer Chamberlain, may read and enjoy mysteries on occasion, he always--like the man who guiltily (though after much anticipation) visits the occasional house of ill repute--returns home at the end of his fun to the wife and mother of his children (this noble lady being Serious Literature in this possibly strained analogy). 

John Chamberlain also thoughtlessly revealed the identity of the murderer in his review of Stout's novel--because, one supposes, Chamberlain believed that only insignificant minds could actually care about the whodunit aspect of a mystery.  I have always felt there should be a special place in hell for book reviewers who deliberately spoil mystery solutions in their reviews, and I make no exception for John Rensselaer Chamberlain.  See ya in hell, John!

Like the man who read Playboy for the articles
American critic John Chamberlain (1902-95)
read mysteries for the Norman apses
Of Rex Stout's second Nero Wolfe detective novel, The League of Frightened Men, John Chamberlain pronounced in his NYTBR article:

[It] is a mystery story that has imaginative qualities beyond the ordinary....The good-humored, breezy, colloquial.  The characterization is sharp, and reminds me constantly of the fact that Rex Stout was a legitimate novelist before he took up the trade of mystery monger.

And. there you go!  Into Rex the critic slipped the sharp knife.  Although Stout had written a detective novel beyond the ordinary, in the very act of writing detective novels at all he had cravenly abandoned the ranks of "legitimate novelists." 

It is this sort of condescension that became a bugbear to altogether too many mystery authors, inducing them, in the hope of being taking seriously as writers, to seek to become "crime novelists"--people who "transcend the genre" by emphasizing in their mysteries everything but the actual mystery.

The year before, in reviewing Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors, John Chamberlain had adopted a similar line:

....Hating the usual run of mystery stories, we were decoyed into reading [Dashiell Hammett's] "The Thin Man" by virtue of a nonchalant Greek detective's knowledge of speakeasy mores.  Somehow the mystery went down easy with a round of old-fashioneds.  Could it be that we were weakening? We swore it could not be true.  But maybe we were weakening. For, dipping into Dorothy Sayers' "The Nine Tailors," we were beguiled by her manner of mingling an essay on the ringing of church bells...with a novel about theft and murder.  And when Lord Peter Wimsey turned from change-ringing to deduction, we somehow stayed for the show.  

The show (and we admit it through clenched teeth) is not at all bad.  It is not, thank Heaven! pure mystery; that would be too much.  Miss Sayers makes the sleuthing go down easy by mixing it up with an antiquarian's interest in fourteenth century Norman apses, in the character of the abbots of Catholic England, in the art of change-ringing, in the history of the casting of bells.  


Reading Dorothy Sayers, who is an intelligent woman as well as a writer of mystery stories, we wonder how much of our prejudice against the heirs of Sherlock Holmes is justified....More mysterious than her mystery is the way in which she makes the abstruse art of bell-ringing a living, integral part of her story.  Sooner or later she will be making chess, the Einstein theory, the art of concocting Welsh rabbits, heraldry or cricket germane to a mysterious death.  She ought to be hired by the schools to mix textbook matter with gumshoe work; then every student would pass.  

Perhaps Sayers might even have become a "legitimate novelist," had she tried.  Well, John Chamberlain had yet to read Gaudy Night.  (Reviewing that novel that same year in the Books of the Times column was left to Robert Van Gelder, who proclaimed Gaudy Night--whether with exaggeration or not I will leave for you to decide--"the Louvre Museum, the Coliseum, the Mickey Mouse of detective stories.  In it the mystery writing technique is lifted from the plane of checkers to the plane of chess, and the chess figures come alive.  Ideas rather than mechanics move the plot....")

John Chamberlain liked mysteries, when there was something else besides the actual mystery on which to focus his mind.  You don't read a detective novel to find out whodunit, really: you read it to learn all about bell ringing and Norman apses!  Increasingly this became the prevalent view in mystery criticism in the Thirties, marking the beginning of the decadent period in detective fiction, when the pure and austere detection of, say, Freeman Wills Crofts was beginning to seem simply passe, even banal, to many reviewers.  And much of the public seemed to follow along.

To Rex Stout's credit, however, he never fell into this trap.  He found a way to make his mysteries interesting to readers without resorting to mining details from pamphlets on church bells.  For the next four decades Stout penned his tales of Great Detective Nero Wolfe and his snappy assistant Archie Goodwin, never failing to, alas and for shame! entertain.  Of course it's no doubt true that many of Stout's readers peruse his books more to enjoy the patter between Wolfe and Archie and to soak up the atmosphere of Wolfe's brownstone than to solve the given murder mystery at hand, but Stout at least never neglected the mystery element in his books.  If you truly love mystery for mystery's sake (unlike, say, Mr. Chamberlain), Stout always provided you with one.

Dorothy L. Sayers may never have been aware of John Chamberlain's praise for her, across the pond, as an "intelligent woman as well as a writer of mystery stories," but Stout for his part read Chamberlain's review and immediately was provoked to pen a characteristically self-effacing yet still wryly pointed response. 

Why did Rex Stout cede the laurel of the "legitimate novelist"?  The answer lies below, in Stout's Apologia Pro Vita Sua (a defense of one's life), which was published in the Times a week after the appearance of John Chamberlain's review of The League of Frightened Men.  Appropriately for the creator of noted gourmand Nero Wolfe (Archie has a healthy appetite too for that matter, though throughout the series of mysteries he retains his boyish figure, much to the delight of the ladies), the answer to this literary riddle seemed to revolve around eating.  Stout wrote:

Once I lived in humble hovels
And wrote a few legitimate novels.
Now, tiring of the pangs of hunger,
I ply the trade of mystery monger.

Murder, mayhem, gun and knife!
Violent death, my staff of life!

I wrote, though eating not bewhiles,
Of fate profound and secret trials.
Now--calmed the empty belly's fury.
I write of guilt and trial by jury.

Suspense, excitement, thrills, suspicion,
Sources of excellent nutrition!

I took men's souls on bitter cruises,
Explored the heart and necked the Muses.
But now to me I say: poor critter,
Be fed, and let who will be bitter.

Clues, deductions, right and wrong,
O Mystery! Of thee I mong!

Of course Stout's "legitimate novels" have been out of print for decades, I believe, while his mysteries have gone through printing after printing.  It seems that there's nothing like a little murder puzzle to enliven our everyday lives.

the author at home, necking the mystery muse
 if a lesser lady, perhaps, she is still most winsome to my mind

Over three decades later, at a 1966 Books and Authors luncheon, Rex Stout, now an octogenarian and President of the Authors' League of America, commented knowingly to his audience of authors, "we all know what book reviewers are."  Perhaps John Chamberlain was one of the reviewers he had in mind.  Even in his eighties, Rex Stout had a good memory.

Stout explained that thirty-seven years ago he had decided to have a go at writing mainstream novels and had spent five years hard at it, before realizing "that if I went on trying to make serious comments about human character and human problems I would never turn out to be a Dostoevsky or a Balzac, so to hell with it, I quit."  At that point he resolved "just to write stories and to try to make them as good stories as I could."  Thus were Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin born.

Stout complained that today, in 1966, his latest Nero Wolfe novel, The Doorbell Rang, was being lauded by critics and commentators alike not for being a particularly good story, but for cocking a snook at the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.  However, when he wrote the novel, Stout modestly protested, "all I had in mind, as I always have, was to try to make it as good a story as I could."  He was not trying, he declared, to make some grand political statement about the state of American society in the Sixties.  He lamented that to keep getting such acclaim for future novels he supposed he would have to find a series of new satirical targets, such as "the Salvation Army, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Boy Scouts, the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan and the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

"Maybe that's what I ought to do," he ruminated whimsically.  "Instead of trying to write good stories, maybe I ought to be a professional crusader."  After all, that way Stout might, after three decades, finally "transcend the genre."  Fortunately for fans of mystery in mysteries, Stout would publish five more novels over the decade of life which remained to him, and they continued to be good stories--though Stout I suppose disappointed those who wanted Nero and Archie take on the Boy Scouts!

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Would a Rosewater by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet? The Mystery of Dashiell Hammett and Victor Rosewater

One of the characters in the Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man whom I didn't mention in my recent review of the novel is a man named Victor Rosewater.  He is an elusive presence in the novel, almost as elusive as "the thin man," aka Clyde Wynant, himself.  We learn that several years before the start of the novel Victor Rosewater believed that Wynant, an inventor, had stolen some sort of lucrative process from him and that he was making threats against Wynant, only to get warned off and into hiding by Nick Charles, back when Nick was working as a private detective.  When Wynant's secretary is murdered, one of the possible suspects in the crime is Rosewater, who based on his erratic past behavior is rightfully considered a rather dubious individual.

In what seems to me an odd coincidence, Victor Rosewater is also the same of a once well known Republican newspaper editor and author, who died in 1940, six years after the publication of The Thin Man.  Rosewater was the editor of the Omaha Bee, the demagogic paper which helped provoke the 1919 Omaha race riot and lynching, which I blogged about recently.  In the blog article I speculated that the events at Omaha in 1919, which included a white mob attacking and sacking the county courthouse, might have helped inspire Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest.  Omaha at the time was struggling with the kind of pervasive civic corruption which has engulfed the fictional Personville in Red Harvest, and Victor Rosewater played a big role (and a perfidious one) in what happened at Omaha.

like a bee
Rosewater stung Omaha in 1919
though this didn't prevent him from
receiving a laudatory obituary in the
New York Times at his death 21 years later
Omaha had a boss, Tom Dennison, a Democrat who ran the town and managed the vice (liquor, gambling and girls) for three decades, excepting two years when a reform mayor managed to get into power.  "Dennison's main business," writes an authority, Jan Voogd, "appeared to be maintaining the availability of prostitution, gambling and drinking."

In Dennison's view, something had to be done about the dread specter of reform in his city, so, it is believed, the boss had his ally Rosewater, the anti-Progressive Republican editor of the Bee (he had inherited the job from his immigrant Jewish father, the founder of the paper in 1906), commence a campaign of agitation against the reform mayor and his newly-appointed police commissioner, based on the notion that there was an unimpeded black crime wave washing over the city, imperiling the virtue of Omaha's white women.

To again quote Jan Voogd:

The new police commissioner persevered in his mission to root out prostitutes, bootleggers and gamblers, but in doing so, his detractors claimed, he was diverting limited police resources from keeping other crime in check.  Rosewater's newspaper, the Bee, used sensationalized coverage of crime to promote the idea that the city's law and order had been undermined.  The came the race riot.

I go over this in more detail in my earlier blog post, but after a woman and her boyfriend (who had connections to Dennison) claimed that a single black man had assaulted them and raped her, police arrested a forty year old meat packer afflicted with rheumatism named Will Brown and took him to the courthouse, where not long afterward a mob of thousands of furious white Nebraskans descended, determined to lynch Brown.  They smashed gun shop windows and looted arms and ammunition and proceeded to fire on, and set fire to, the courthouse, forcing the authorities inside to turn over the dubiously accused man, who they promptly hanged, shot, dragged behind a car and finally incinerated.  For good measure some in the mob tried to lynch the reform mayor as well, but at the last second he was rescued from the noose.  Remember this next time Donald Trump and his myrmidons say that we are having an unprecedented breakdown of law and order in this country.

note sent out to the lynch mob
as the courthouse smoked and burned
threatening to choke and incinerate everyone inside
"The Judge says he will give up the negro Brown
He is in the dungeon
There are 100 white prisoners on the roof
Save them
Two days after the lynching, the city's leading local paper, the Omaha World Herald, published an editorial which memorably characterized the lynch mob and its actions as "wholly vile, wholly evil and malignantly dangerous."  The World Herald editor, Harvey Newbranch, won a Pulitzer Prize that year for this anti-lynching editorial. 

Meanwhile Victor Rosewater kept on disgracefully demagoguing matters over at the banefully busy Bee, trying to help rioters evade the wheels of justice.  He went on the attack against the grand jury investigation into the manifold crimes committed by the lynch mob, going after the police department as a whole and specific police officers who testified against rioters.  Rosewater in the event was charged with obstruction of justice and later found guilty of contempt of court and fined $1000.

Rosewater's tactics worked, however, for though scores of arrests of rioters were made, no one was ever convicted of a crime and the reform mayor was defeated when he ran for reelection in 1920.  In an outcome like something out of a Roman Polanski film ("Forget it, Jake, it's Omaha") Tom Dennison was back in charge, with Victor Rosewater's help.  (For more on these tragic times, see Jan Voogd's Race Riots & Resistance: The Red Summer of 1919 [2008], a timely book if ever there were one.)

Victor Rosewater sold the Bee in 1920 and moved to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.  Was he getting out of Dodge, so to speak?  In the last twenty years of his life he authored several books, including a history of the Liberty Bell.  He was celebrated as one of the nation's prominent Jewish Americans and received a long and laudatory notice in the New York Times when he died at the age of 69 in 1940.  The role he and his newspaper played in the bestial Omaha race riot and lynching went unmentioned in the account of a noble life well-lived.  It was an outcome the dark irony of which which should have appealed to the author in Hammett, a man who had seen it all.

Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
(Twenty-five year old Victor Rosewater, a recent graduate of Columbia University,
where he majored in philosophy, upper right)

The corruption of urban political machines and the role of newspapers in that corruption is a focus of both Hammett's Red Harvest (1929) and The Glass Key (1931), so it seems quite a coincidence that Hammett would have accidentally latched on to a name like Victor Rosewater in The Thin Man.  In the film version of The Thin Man, the name of Victor Rosewater is changed to Victor Rosebury, suggesting that the filmmakers wanted to avoid the possibility of a legal wrangle.  One wonders how the name got by Hammett's publishers at Knopf.  (In the novel the name of pianist, composer and wit Oscar Levant is changed to Levi Oscant.)  Perhaps this offers further evidence that Hammett really had paid attention to, and thought about when he was writing, the mass violence at Omaha and other American cities in 1919-21. Certainly the civil liberties of black Americans was a matter which would preoccupy him over the remaining years of his life.  More on this soon.

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Mysteries You Have to Read 1--Through Thick and Through Thin: The Thin Man (1934), by Dashiell Hammett

Nora returned with two drinks and another question: "What's he like?"
"Tall--over six feet--and one of the thinnest men I've met.

Andy shook his head gloomily.  "Nobody sees him come, nobody sees him go.  What was that joke about a guy being so thin he has to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow?"

--The Thin Man (1934), Dashiell Hammett

It's customary for modern critics to pronounce that Dashiell Hammett's fifth and final completed novel, the mystery The Thin Man, is the "weakest" of all his books.  Although he found The Thin Man a "continuously charming and sparkling performance," fervent Hammett admirer Julian Symons, for example, detected in it evidence of "a slight decline."  Most professional opiners compare the novel unfavorably to Hammett's earlier works, particularly Red Harvest (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Glass Key (1931), which starkly portray grittier, darker criminal worlds.

I don't know that The Thin Man is the ninety-eight pound weakling, if you will, in Hammett's output, so much as it is deliberately light stylistically, but to most crime fiction critics--such serious and sober people they are--darkness inevitably covers light.  (I'm sure nine out of ten critics would tell you that they far prefer to Hammett and Raymond Chandler to Rex Stout or Ellery Queen, for example.) 

At the time, however, critics applauded Hammett's latest novel and the public lapped it up like champagne.  The Thin Man sold 32,000 hardcover copies in its first year in print, this at a time when mysteries ingloriously averaged merely 2000 sales in hardcover, mostly to rental libraries; and it spawned the famed Thin Man series of six films, all of them starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as the wise-cracking, hard-drinking series husband and wife detecting team, Nick and Nora Charles.

The success of The Thin Man, novel and films, created the vogue for bright and sophisticated "couples" sleuths in the United States, although one might argue that across the pond Agatha Christie had laid the predicate for this sort of thing back in 1922, when she introduced her flippant amateur snoopers Tommy and Tuppence in her second mystery novel, The Secret Adversary.  Hammett's admiring public had stuck with him through the early novels, where blood ran thick indeed, and I have no doubt that they would have stayed with him had he opted to write a series of Thin Man novels over the course of the Thirties.  Instead he contributed a couple of screen treatments for the next two Thin Man films, which were reissued in 2013 as "novellas," a misleading claim.  (Perhaps some enterprising modern mystery writer should rewrite them as such.)

And then there came silence, aside from a mainstream novel, Tulip, which Hammett desultorily worked on for two decades and never completed.  I think that Hammett, like a lot of talented crime writers, felt the urge to become a "serious writer," but could never pull it off; so instead his energies when into booze and left-wing political activism.  It was a huge loss to mystery fans.  But certainly Hammett never became a "hack" novelist.  His integrity's gain is our enjoyment's loss.

With The Thin Man there is always the danger of letting memories of the charming and frothy film series manipulate one's memories of the book.  Hammett's novel is not "screwball," as much of the film couples mysteries of the Thirties were, it is much more sexually explicit, and it has a certain ribbon of darkness twisting through it.  It's a long way from the world of Red Harvest, to be sure, but Hammett addicts can still tell, while perusing it, that they are addicts in Hammett-land.

When the novel opens in the dying days of December 1932, Nick and Nora, who reside in San Francisco, are visiting New York for Christmas, seemingly spending most of their time lapping up liquor at their hotel suite and myriad speakeasies.  Forty-one year old Nick Charles (aka Charalambides) is a retired private detective who six years earlier married lovely Nora, an heiress fifteen years younger than himself.  After the marriage her father died (naturally, I hope) and Nick quit the detecting biz to devote himself, when he isn't drinking (which is most of the time), to managing his wife's business interests.

1992 Vintage Books edition
Nick is leaning against the bar at a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street (the same street as the one in the 1979 Billy Joel album title), waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when in come small, blonde and rather pretty Dorothy Wynant, whom Nick hasn't seen in six years, when she was but eleven or twelve and he knew her eccentric millionaire inventor father, Clyde wynant.  Dorothy wants Nick's help in locating Clyde, whom she hasn't seen since he and her mother, Mimi, divorced and Mimi, a fat settlement in hand, departed with Dorothy and her slightly younger brother, Gilbert, for Europe.  They have since returned to the US, Mimi complete with a new younger "gigolo" husband, Christian Jorgenson, who generously helped her spend all the money she received from Clyde after the divorce.  They whole gang is now seriously in need of more dough.

Nick suggests that Dorothy try contacting her father's attorney, Herbert Macaulay.  Then in comes Nora, with her and Nick's dog Asta--who unexpectedly for fans of the films is female and a Schnauzer--in tow.  Out goes Dorothy.  As the chapter closes, Nick and Nora have this conversation, which is typical of their lively patter throughout the book (and had to be toned down for film):

Nora said: "She's pretty."
"If you like them like that."
She grinned at me.  "You got types?"
"Only you darling--lanky brunettes with wicked jaws."
"And how about that redhead you wandered off with at the Quinns' last night?"
"That's silly," I said.  "She just wanted to show me some French etchings."

Two days later Clyde Wynant's secretary, Julia Wolf, is discovered shot to death at her apartment by Dorothy's mother Mimi Jorgenson (formerly Wynant), who had come to pay a call on the secretary concerning the whereabouts of her ex-husband.  So who murdered Miss Wolf? 

A leading suspect is Wolf's boss, Clyde Wynant, the "thin man" of the title, who may have been her lover as well.  But Clyde has been absent from New York since October and cannot be located now, although he periodically sends letters to his lawyer and there are various people who claim recently to have seen or heard from him.  Booze-guzzling Nick wants nothing to do with the case, but he keeps getting dragged into it by Clyde's screwy family, as mixed-up a bunch of Freudian head cases as you will ever find in a vintage mystery.

Mimi and her "little white whips"
To Dorothy, Nick dismisses the utility of psychiatry, telling her: "I'm not a psychiatrist.  I don't know anything about early influences.  I don't give a damn about them.

However, it seems like the Wynants, or Jorgensons, could use the services of a good head shrinker.  Young Gilbert, a callow intellectual ("His head's so cluttered up with reading"), seems fixated with his own mother, while Dorothy is seethingly jealous of Mimi, who is Nick's age and still head-turningly attractive. 

As for Mimi herself, she seems to get some kicks, if you will, from beating her daughter, of whom she is jealous in turn.  "You must come over to our place some time [echoing Mae West?] and bring your little white whips," Nick cuttingly tells Mimi at one point. 

On another occasion he tells Dorothy that her mother "hates men more than any woman I've ever known who wasn't a lesbian."  To lawyer Macaulay, Nick sums up the Wynants' problems in a single memorable line: "They're all sex-crazy, I think, and it backs up into their heads."  Freud might not have put it quite that way (Ach!), but the train of thought arrives at the same place in the end.

The most famous of these sexually frank lines from the novel also involves Mimi, who certainly is a femme fatale in nature, whether or not she is one in fact.  Nora, who is a rather tough little number herself, asks Nick, after he tussles with a furious and violent Mimi, "when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn't you get an erection?"  Nick, responds "Oh, a little."

Although Hammett's publisher Knopf was able to make hay with the controversy generated by this naughty passage, even brazenly directing readers in a newspaper ad to the page where the exchange occurs, it was subsequently excised from later editions, including, amazingly to me, my modern Vintage Books edition.  (In the new version Nora euphemistically asks Nick whether he got "excited" when he wrestles Mimi.)

"How'd you happen???"
Nick (William Powell) with son "Nick Jr." (Dickie Hall)
in  Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), the fourth in the popular six film series.
Like Frankenstein's Monster, the Thin Man seemingly could not be stopped.

Certainly you won't see Myrna Loy querying William Powell in the Thin Man flicks about his erections, though presumably Nick got them on occasion, since Loy's Nora had given birth to a baby by the third film in the series.  In this sense the book is rather coarser than the films, linking them more to the Hammett novels (and to Hammett's own messy and rather sordid personal life). 

To many readers at the time, this sort of sexual frankness must have been titillating indeed.  Was this the first time the word "lesbian" had ever been uttered in a detective novel?  I recall how Hammett supposedly had to sneak the word "gunsel" (meaning young male homosexual) into The Maltese Falcon a few years earlier, yet apparently Knopf gave him no trouble over "lesbian."  Nick and Nora also use the words Jesus and Christ as oaths, something you won't be hearing in the film either.

There are gangsters aplenty in this world of screwy sybaritic rich people, though they play subsidiary roles in the tale, as well as cops, who while they are more upright than those you find in Red Harvest, nevertheless routinely third degree and beat up suspects with abandon, so long as they aren't rich.  When at one point in the novel Gilbert gets beaten after fleeing and resisting a cop (who didn't know who Gilbert was), he at least gets an apology from the lead police detective.

Also popping briefly up is a stray Communist type (Nick never gets his name), who opines at a cocktail party, "Comes the revolution and we'll all be lined up against the wall--first thing."  Nick dryly declares: "He seemed to think it was a good idea."  Maybe Hammett did too.  Like a lot of writers, I find, he had the ability to stand outside himself and criticize his own behavior, whether or not he changed it.  Maybe that's one reason he drank so much.  Self-awareness is can do things to you.

the clever couple
As for the mystery, it's workmanlike and thorough, with one particularly clever clue I thought, though I suspect any seasoned vintage mystery reader will beat Nick to the solution.  When Nora, who between drinks has become an enthusiastic amateur detective, suggests to Nick that "we make a list of all the suspects and all the motives and clues," Nick snidely puts her off:

"You do it.  I'm going to bed.  What's a clue, Mamma?

Yet Hammett devotes the last chapter of something under two thousand words to having Nick explain all about the murderer to Nora, who amusingly is somewhat skeptical that everything will really wrap up so nicely as Nick thinks it will.  For his part, Nick, when Nora asks him what will happen to everyone else in the case, replies "Nothing new....Murder doesn't round out anybody's life except the murdered's and sometimes the murderer's."  To which a vaguely deflated Nora replies, "That may be...but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."

Subversive words indeed with which to end a Golden Age mystery!  One of the many reasons why you have to read The Thin Man.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

From the Plagiarism File--Words Worth Stealing, Perhaps: James Hadley Chase's Blondes' Requiem (1945)

English crime writer James Hadley Chase is best known today for his scandalous debut novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939), in the writing of which Chase infamously borrowed heavily from William Faulkner's lurid self-described potboiler Sanctuary (1931).  But Chase didn't stop there, oh no.  (By the by, He Didn't Stop There easily could have been the title of a Chase crime novel.) 

In a 1948 letter Raymond Chandler caustically observed that a "fellow over in England named James Hadley Chase, the distinguished author of No Orchids for Miss Blandish (which is half-cent pulp writing at its worst) made a practice in one of his books in lifting verbatim or almost verbatim passages from my books and from those of Jack Latimer and Hammett.  He was forced to make a public apology...."  In a letter from the previous year, Chandler identified the offending Chase novel as Blondes' Requiem (1945), which Chase wrote under his "Raymond Marshall" pseudonym.  (All the better to hide the plagiarism with, my dear!)

To the extent that people have taken notice of Chandler's account, what they seem to remember is that Chase plagiarized Chandler in Requiem.  However, in 2017 the late and much-missed writer Bill Crider mentioned in a blog post that he had read Requiem, which had been reissued by Stark House (as Blonde's Requiem), to see whether he could spot similarities between it and Chandler's work.  He concluded that he could not.

Speaking for myself, having just looked at the first page I didn't notice similarity to Chandler but rather to another rather famous hard-boiled writer.  Marked similarity in fact.  In fact, this writer most definitely has been plagiarized.  Let's compare.  Here are the first lines of Requiem:

One look at Cranville was enough.

As I drove down Main Street a smell of dirt and decay drifted in through the open windows of the Packard.  In the far distance I could see the high brick stacks of the smelters stuck against the skyline.  They belched black smoke that had, in the course of time, yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess.  

There was a sordid, undisciplined feeling about the town I didn't like.  The first policeman I saw needed a shave, and two buttons from his uniform were missing.  The second, directing traffic, had a cigar in his mouth.

There's a crime writer being plagiarized here, all right, but it's not Chandler.  It's Dashiell Hammett.  Let me quote some lines from the first couple of pages of Hammett's debut 1929 crime novel Red Harvest:  

I first heard Personville called Posionville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in butte.  He also called his shirt a shoit.  I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name....A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.


The city wasn't pretty.  Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness.  Maybe they had been successful at first.  Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess.  The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that  had been all dirties up by mining.  Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.

The first policeman I saw needed a shave.  The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform.  The third stood in the center of the city's intersection--Broadway and Union Street--directing traffic, with a cigar in one corner of his mouth.  After that I stopped checking them up.  

I suppose Chase's philosophy was if you are going to steal, steal from best or why steal at all; but damn it all if Chase didn't manage to turn Hammett's gold into dross (speaking of smelters).  What an awful line, compared to the original, is They belched black smoke that had, in the course of time, yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess....  It's just a few changes here and there, but all of Hammett's hard hitting poetry is lost.  Not to mention how Chase loses the splendid capping snark about the Personville police in the line After that I stopped checking them up.  In it you detect the difference between a master and a second or third-rater--though I know that Chase has his advocates and that for many decades he sold like gangbusters around the world in paperback.  Stark House has reprinted several of his novels in twofer editions.

Chase's corrupt town motif in Requiem certainly recalls Red Harvest, although after the first couple of pages Chase's novel seems to segue a bit into Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939), where a rich old man hires a private detective to deal with the vexing matter of some vanished blondes.  I'll have to read over that part and compare it with Ray's writing.

Although as plagiarism nothing which I'm aware of still compares to this!  

Monday, June 15, 2020

American Carnage: Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1929) and Mass Violence in the United States

In 1929-30 Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, along with the author's two other novels, The Dain Curse and The Maltese Falcon, which quickly followed it, struck the landscape of classic mystery like a fistful of dynamite.  "Hammett is the man who set out for himself the task of raising the detective story to literature," one syndicated newspaper reviewer breathlessly pronounced of the new author (just like Dorothy L. Sayers was The Woman).  Hammett's Red Harvest, the reviewer noted, had been "hailed by many as a revelation of what the detective story could be in the hands of a master."  The novel was "original, unique, lively and real."

Today Red Harvest is routinely said to have been inspired by Hammett's experiences as an operative of the Pinkerton Detective Agency stationed in Montana in the years shortly before and after America's participation in World War One.  People who should know assure us that locations in Personville, aka "Poisonville," the fictional setting of the novel, correspond with real places in the Butte-Anaconda-Walkerville metropolitan area of Montana.  Specific Montana events which are said to have inspired Red Harvest are the lynching of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or wobblies) labor organizer Frank Little in 1917 and the 1920 Anaconda Road Massacre, where guards working for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company fired on a picket line of striking miners, killing one and injuring nearly a score of others.

Hammett's companion, playwright Lillian Hellman, later claimed of Hammett (among other things) that as a Pinkerton Op he had been in Butte in 1917 and actually had been offered money to personally kill Frank Little.  Dramatic as this story is, Lillian Hellman, was, not to mince words, a literary fabulist.  Hammett's daughter Jo also places Hammett in Montana, this time in 1920, but the sad truth is that there is a paucity of primary material about Hammett's early life (including Pinkerton Detective Agency records), just as there is in the case of that other great hard-boiled detective writer, Raymond Chandler.  Hammett's wife, Josephine Dolan, offers another connection to Montana, however, her family having come from Anaconda.  (This piece looks judiciously as these sources.)

Whatever the truth which lies buried in Hammett's biography, internal evidence from Red Harvest itself certainly indicates that the author had Butte in mind when he fashioned Personville.  Aside from the similarity to the name of Walkerville, now a Butte suburb, there is a passage where the Continental Op gives some of the sordid history of Personville and its boss, Elihu Wilsson, president of the Personville Mining Corporation and ruthless scheming capitalist pirate:

bullet holes in a window in the treasurer's office
at the Douglas County Courthouse in
Omaha, Nebraska, after the 1919 race riot
Back in the war days the I. W. W.--in full bloom then throughout the West--had lined up the Personville Mining Corporation's help....Old Elihu gave them what he had to give them, and bided his time.

In 1921, it came.  Business was rotten.  Old Elihu didn't care whether he shut down for a while or not.  He tore up the agreements he had made with his men and began kicking them back into their prewar circumstances.


The strike lasted eight months.  Both sides bled plenty.  The wobblies had to do their own bleeding.  Old Elihu hired gunmen, strike-breakers, national guardsmen and even parts of the regular army, to do his.  When the last skull had been cracked, the last rib kicked in, organized labor in Personville was a used firecracker.  

Not hard to see Butte here!  The Op goes on to describe what happened in Personville after ruthless old Elihu broke the strike:

He won the strike, but he lost his hold on the city and the state.  To beat the miners he had to let his hired thugs run wild.  When the fight was over he couldn't get rid of them.  

So when the Op arrives in Personville--let's just call it by its apt nickname, Poisonville--he finds it is run by those same thugs, who have set themselves up in charge as racketeers and bootleggers.  The Op has come at the request of crusading newspaper publisher Donald Wilsson--the idealistic son, only lately returned from France, of Elihu.  But Donald is found shot dead in a street before the Op ever lays eyes on him. 

The Op soon solves the matter of Donald's murder, but he has to evade attempts on his own life instigated by Powers that Be in the city.  This provokes him to vow to clean up Poisonville himself and he sets about it most sneakily and most effectively, with Elihu sitting on the sidelines, though the Op gets help of a sort from a mercurial and mercenary woman of rather easy virtue, Dinah Brand.  An orgy of violence in Poisonville follows, as the Op sets thug against thug in a grim gang turf war.  He manages to solve another murder, this one a murder from the past that comes complete with an Ellery Queen-ish sort of clue.  Before it's all over, the Op will be accused of murder himself, making yet another mystery he must solve.  There is a lot of bang for your buck in Red Harvest.

Compared to an English mystery from the period, even an Edgar Wallace shocker, the violence level of Red Harvest is extraordinary.  In the book there is a chapter titled "The Seventeenth Murder," which gives you some idea of what I mean; and there are yet more slaughters after that.  Of course the United States of 90 to 100 years ago was a vastly more violent country than merry old England (setting events in Ireland aside).  And that is was got me thinking that Red Harvest may well have had other sources of inspiration in recent American history besides those which tragically obtained in Butte, Montana in 1917-20.

In my previous post I made reference to the race riots that afflicted the US after World War One.  The intensity of the mass violence of these events is truly astonishing and offers a corrective to those who like to think of the time before the social upheavals of the Sixties as the "good old days."  Aside from racial violence, the period after the American Civil War up through the Depression saw as well the great struggle for dominance in the western world between capital and labor, of which the events in Butte referenced in Red Harvest were but one small manifestation.  

Douglas county courthouse in Omaha on fire
during the Omaha riot of 1919
Recently the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 has been in the news, because this month marked the 99th Anniversary of the outrage and President Trump dubiously has a MAGA rally set to take place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in five days.  The Tulsa Race Riot was indeed horrific, but I'm more interested, for the purpose of this blog piece, in a race riot which took place two years earlier, in Omaha, Nebraska, because I see in it a possible connection to Hammett.  

So what happened in Omaha?  As in so many other cases during that so-called "Red Summer" (a term which recalls the title of Red Harvest), violence erupted out of a white woman claiming that she had been sexually assaulted by a black man.  This always could be counted on to set a white mob up in arms (literally).  On September 26, 1919, the newspaper the Omaha Bee told the story--or told a story, if you will--under the headline "Black Beast First Stick-Up Couple."  The Bee dubbed the affair the "most daring attack on a white woman ever perpetrated in Omaha."  It expounded as follows:

Pretty little Agnes Loebeck....was assaulted by an unidentified negro at twelve o'clock last night, while she was returning to her home in company with Millard Hoffman, a cripple.

Pretty little Agnes and poor crippled Millard identified a 40-year old black meat packer, Will Brown, as the assailant, despite the fact that Brown was said to suffer greatly from rheumatism.  In the face of a large angry crowd gathering in the city, local police were able to escort Will Brown to the courthouse, but then all hell broke loose in Omaha. 

By the evening of September 28, a mob of some five to fifteen thousand people had converged on the courthouse, trapping prisoners and local government officials and personnel alike.  What followed describes:

By 8:00 p. m. the mob had begun firing on the courthouse with guns they looted from nearby stores.  In that exchange of gunfire, one 16-year-old leader of the mob and a 34-year-old businessman a block away were killed.  By 8:30 the mob had set fire to the building and prevented the firefighters from extinguishing the flames.  

When the Omaha mayor came out of the courthouse to try to talk down the frenzied mob, he was violently knocked down. Next thing he knew he found himself hanging from a rope before he passed out. 

Happily for the mayor someone intervened to save his life.  Will Brown was not so lucky.  To save themselves from incineration, the desperate occupants of the burning courthouse agreed to turn over Brown to the mob.  Brown was beaten unconscious, then hanged from a lamppost till he was dead.  His body was then riddled by bullets and set on fire.  Later his charred remains were dragged from a car around town.  Beaming white men, proud of themselves for having avenged a white woman's sullied virtue, posed for pictures with the corpse.  Pieces of the rope were sold as souvenirs.

report in Omaha's other major newspaper
the Morning World-Herald
A witness to the lynching was future actor Henry Fonda, then just fourteen years old.  Fonda's father owned a printing shop across the street from the courthouse and young Henry watched the whole thing from the second floor.  "It was the most horrendous thing I'd ever seen," he later recalled.  "We locked the plant, went downstairs and drove home in silence....All I could think of was that young man dangling at the end of a rope."

It was Spencer Tracy, not Henry Fonda, who starred in the 1936 Fritz Lang film Fury, which depicts scenes reminiscent of the Omaha riot (though the victim is white); but in truth similar stories could have come from other American  cities, there having been so many of these grotesque affairs that took place in the United States (and certainly not just in the South).

The seemingly over-the-top violence in Red Harvest, including bombing, Tommy Gun battles and the dynamiting of the city jail, truthfully comes straight out of contemporary newspapers.  What especially reminds me of Omaha in Red Harvest are a couple of additional things, however.  First, there's the Machiavellian way the Op sets the thugs against each other.  It has been credibly alleged that Omaha race riot resulted from Omaha machine politics, which makes the whole event even more hideous.

Will Brown, who lost his life in the Omaha Riot of 1919

Tom Dennison was the longtime political boss of Omaha.  In his cynicism and his ruthlessness, Dennison, aka the 'Old Grey Wolf," was like a character out of a Hammett novel.  "There are so many laws that people are either lawbreakers or hypocrites," he once said.  "For my part, I hate a damn hypocrite."  As boss of Omaha for three decades, Dennison ran the city's myriad crime rings, which included the trifecta of prostitution, gambling  and bootlegging.  Dennison's puppet mayor, Jim Dahlman, aka "Cowboy Jim," was in office from 1906 to 1930, doing Dennison's bidding, with the exception of one term, from 1918-1920, when a reform Republican candidate, Edward P. Smith, was in office.  Remember the mayor the race rioting mob tried to lynch outside the Omaha courthouse?  That was Smith.

Mayor Smith had been elected vowing to clean up vice and ban booze, which of course was utter anathema to Dennison, who responded, it is believed, by launching a covert campaign to undermine the new mayor.  This underhanded campaign allegedly included having some of his men assault white women in blackface, in order to escalate racial tensions in the city.  The demagogic Omaha Bee, one of the city's two leading newspapers, accused Mayor Smith of negligently allowing a black crime wave to take place on his watch, imperiling white women throughout the city.  (Although a Republican newspaper, the Bee had long ago formed an alliance with Dennison, a Democrat.)

a beaming Boss Dennison of Omaha
tips his hat
Agnes Loebeck's boyfriend, the "cripple" Millard Hoffman, is said to have worked for Dennison and been an active leader of the Omaha lynch mob.  It was also asserted that Agnes was a woman of doubtful virtue who carried a personal grudge against Will Brown. Whatever the exact truth of these matters, it is all incredibly seedy and disgusting (you can find an overview here) and it reminds me of the ruthless political machinations in Red Harvest and another Hammett novel, The Glass Key (1931). Will Brown was just a pawn on Boss Dennison's chessboard, one the Old Grey Wolf was only too willing to sacrifice to achieve his goal of ousting Omaha's reform mayor.  

When Raymond Chandler wrote that Hammett took crime out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley, he wasn't kidding.  But with Red Harvest it would be more accurate to say that Hammett loaded that vase with nitroglycerin and hurled it with maximum impact at the weighty edifice of staid and proper detective fiction. 

For people who wanted to read something in crime fiction that represented the cruelty and carnage that was going on in America (not to mention much of the world), Red Harvest really fit the bill.

There's another reason I see an Omaha connection to Red Harvest, but I can't go into yet, because the odd connection actually is found in another Hammett novel, The Thin Man (1934).  More soon!

Note: Photos mostly drawn from this article at 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Peter on the Road to Duluth: The Surnaming of Patrick Quentin's Leading Series Character

Duluth has now joined the American cities which have discovered how easily the safeguards of civilized justice can be leaped.  Suddenness is a common factor of all such outbreaks and law finally reasserts itself, but after lives are sacrificed and the community's good name besmirched....

The Duluth mob heard appeals to let law take its course.  Its members did not heed these appeals because they themselves wanted to kill.  We doubt if they were certain as to the guilt of the men who died asserting their innocence; but they wanted victims to assuage their lust for vengeance.  And victims they would have, whether innocent or guilty....

We hope Duluth will do better than other cities in dealing with the men who have brought stain to her good name.  Duluth is a very proud city and may set us all an example.  We certainly need one.  Mob violence is inexcusable in civilized communities.  The American lynching is a disgrace to us the world over.

--Chicago Tribune editorial, June 1920

They're selling postcards of the hanging;
They're painting the passports brown;
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors;
The circus is in town.

--"Desolation Row" (1965), Bob Dylan

downtown Duluth skyline

Even though Hugh Wheeler attained great success as a writer for film and stage, with his name associated with the Oscar-winning film version of Cabaret as well as his Tony Award winning play Big Fish, Little Fish and the Tony Award winning musicals Sweeney Todd, Candide and A Little Night Music, the mystery novels Hugh wrote with his partner Rickie Webb (as well as the ones he later wrote solo) never attained huge success in either venue, I think it's fair to say. 

The biggest film success Hugh enjoyed with his work was the 1954 cinematic version of his Patrick Quentin "Peter Duluth" detective novel Black Widow, a lavish color spectacle starring Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft and Peggy Ann Garner which though it received mixed reviews is still enjoyable to watch today (although not as good as it could have been).  There were also a couple of American B films based on Peter Duluth adventures, Homicide for Three (1948, based on Puzzle for Puppets) and Female Fiends (1958, based on Puzzle for Fiends), which were quickly forgotten.

It would be lovely to see film versions made of all of the Peter Duluth books, in sequence, but what would they do with the name of the hero of the saga?  Peter Duluth is kind of  a weird name for a person, as opposed to a city in Minnesota.  (In case you were wondering at this point, Duluth, Minnesota was named for a French explorer, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, du Lhut getting Anglicized to Duluth.)  Were any Americans ever actually surnamed Duluth?  In terms of actual, well, actuality, "Peter Klobuchar," say, would have made more sense as a name.

Two of the American film versions of Patrick Quentin novels replaced the surname Duluth with something else, evidently finding "Duluth" unappealing or too improbable.  In Black Widow, where he's played by Van Heflin, he's Peter Denver.  We know from Bob Denver and John Denver that "Denver" is an actual surname, although wait, John Denver's real surname was "Deutschendorf."  (Can't imagine why he changed it!)  In Female Fiends, where he's played by former Tarzan actor Lex Barker, he's known as Peter Chance, which sounds pretty stagy to me, though in fact "Chance" is a definite surname (a first name too, though I've never known any Chance Chances).

So why did Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler go with Duluth as Peter's surname?  I'll trot out an idea, which may strike you as farfetched as Duluth itself.

In their books Hugh Wheeler and Rickie Webb did not parade their liberal sensibility, if you will, on racial issues, but it is something which manifests itself in asides throughout their books, both the ones written by Rickie and by Hugh separately and the ones which they wrote together.  As I have discussed on this blog, Rickie's portrayal of two black characters in the 1932 novel Murder at the Women's City Club (written along with his collaborator, Martha Mott Kelley) is hardly without fault, but it's an improvement over most of the depictions of the time.  Further, in Murder at Cambridge (1933), written by Rickie solo, a Cambridge don significantly asks of the protagonist, a son of a sitting American Supreme Court justice:

ow is my old friend, Aloysius Fenton?  Is he still championing the cause of the desolate and the oppressed on the bench of the Supreme Court?"

"the desolate and the oppressed"
the Scottsboro Boys in prison meet with
their attorney, Samuel Leibowitz
Around the time Rickie was writing Murder at Cambridge, the United States Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision in the landmark case of Powell v. Alabama (1932), reversed the convictions of nine young black men for allegedly raping two white women on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama, sending their cases back to Alabama for new trials. 

The plight of the so-called "Scottsboro Boys," who for years were imprisoned and subjected to scandalously unfair trials, had become a liberal cause celebre throughout the country. This is the sort of case involving "the desolate and the oppressed" which Rickie might well have had in mind with these words. If anyone was unjustly oppressed by those in power in the Thirties it was the Scottsboro Boys.

For several years in Philadelphia, before he met Hugh Wheeler while summering in England, Rickie resided in a row house with his intimate American friend Robert Elson Turner and Frances Ritter Bartholomew, Head Resident of Philadelphia's Eighth Ward Settlement House, which ministered to the needs of the city's black population, and a co-founder of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP.  Rickie's first writing partner, Martha Mott Kelley, was a descendant of Lucretia Mott, the famed Quaker abolitionist, and a niece of Progressive reformer and NAACP co-founder Florence Kelley, women who vigorously tried, against much resistance, to make a better world for disadvantaged people.

In Rickie Webb's Death Goes to School (1936), Rickie witheringly refers to "riots, elections, lynchings, divorces," as "the jagged turmoil of American life."  The initial murdered schoolboy in the story is a son of a prominent Jewish judge in St. Paul, Minnesota who presided, we learn, over a trial of Nazi-sympathizing German-Americans who killed "many people" in "an outcrop of Hitlerian anti-Jewish riots," the grand object of which was "to drive all Jews out of the country.

This sounds more like a description of what was going at the time in certain countries in Europe, although in the United States there did exist the German-American Bund, a group which promoted Hitlerian ideology in America and helped lead the the formation in the US House of Representatives of the Committee on Un-American Activities.  And there was as well the fascist Silver Legion of America, which I discuss further below.

I'm not aware of the sort of large-scale American anti-Jewish riots to which Rickie refers in his fiction, in Minnesota or elsewhere in the US (though infamously there had been the horrific lynching of Jewish businessman Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915).  Yet based on its recent history America certainly could justly have been labeled a land of "riots, elections, lynchings and divorces."  A mere few years before Rickie moved to the United States in 1926 (to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love), there had been a choking spasm of racial violence throughout the country.  In 1919, for example, there had been a white supremacist race riot in Omaha, Nebraska, where not only was a black man lynched (that was to be expected, all too tragically, in these hellish affairs), but the mayor of the city nearly murdered as well. 

This was but one of over three dozen such riots which occurred in the US that year, the year of the "Red Summer."  They were spurred fatally on by the post-World War One economic slump, labor unrest, the rise of Bolshevism in Russia, and white fears of assertive black combat veterans returned home from the war.  (I have noticed some striking links between the Omaha Race Riot and Dashiell Hammett's crime novel Red Harvest, about which I'll be posting soon.)  In rural Arkansas, scores if not hundreds of blacks were killed in the Elaine Massacre, which is believed to have been the most murderous of these episodes.  1921 saw yet another deadly white supremacist riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where many black people were slain by whites yet again and their homes and places of business wantonly destroyed.  Almost inevitably, the perpetrators of these crime were never brought to justice.

Most pertinent for our purposes here, however, is a horrible event from 1920, referred to at the top of this post, which occurred in Duluth, Minnesota.  There in June three itinerant black circus workers accused of having participated in an alleged gang rape were lynched by a massive white mob who stormed the jail in which they were incarcerated.  After their grisly deed was done, the ghoulishly proud murderers bestially posed for a camera with their freshly killed corpses.  This was the only lynching of blacks known ever to have taken place in Minnesota.  The state passed anti-lynching legislation the next year.

Forty-five years after the lynching at Duluth, a young singer and Duluth native who himself had adopted a new surname beginning with the letter "D," Bob Dylan (formerly Robert Zimmerman) alluded to the lynching in a song, "Desolation Row," on his landmark album Highway 61 Revisited, quoted at the top of this blog piece.  Dylan's father, Abraham Zimerman, a Duluth furniture and appliance store manager, had been eight years old when the lynching took place.  However, for most people the event was put away and forgotten, as we are apt to do with shameful things.

So we are left to ask why in a detective novel published in 1936 did Rickie Webb set his fictional anti-Jewish riot in St. Paul, Minnesota?  Why was he so specific, when it would have been easier to invent a fictional place or just remain deliberately vague about the location?

At the time Death Goes to School was published in 1936, the fascist organization the Silver Legion of America, aka the Silver Shirts, was actively recruiting with some measure of success in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and energetically promoting its home-grown brand of racism, nationalism and theocracy.  The Minnesota Silver Shirts claimed not as many members in the state as there were lakes, but rather about 6000, all of them presumably devoted to the Legion's cause of ousting Jews from America.

The group was infiltrated in 1936 by a certain young reporter for the Minneapolis Journal named Eric Sevareid, who wrote a series of widely read articles about the experience.  Many of the readers of the paper, to Sevareid's dismay, denounced the journalist for his pains.  The minister of the largest Baptist Church in the state thundered that Sevareid was simply a "Red" and a naive "cub reporter."

In A Puzzle for Fools, which was published closer toward the end of 1936, Rickie and Hugh's series character Peter Duluth made his debut.  Peter was created by Rickie Webb (although Hugh eventually made him is own).  Could Rickie, still preoccupied with intolerance in Minnesota, have been familiar with the 1920 Duluth lynching party and thus had the word "Duluth" in mind when he dreamed up Peter? 

Increasingly the Peter Duluth novels are devoted to chronicling the anxiety and fear suffered by people caught in a web of violent crime and its investigation, climaxing in Black Widow (1952), where Peter himself is suspected by everyone around him, most unjustly, of murder, and he sees the police not as helpful allies but menacing adversaries out to crush him.  Did the word "Duluth" encode that acute fear of the disfavored, a fear of overtly hostile legal authority that LGBTQ people, whose sexuality was then a crime, instinctively felt as well?

Or perhaps there is a less metaphorical and more prosaic explanation which is waiting to be discovered somewhere in, say, the pages of an old Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  But I thought I would float this thought balloon here.

Duluth's memorial to its lynching victims