The City of Hell! – Leslie T. White (1933)

The piercing screams of a woman filled the awed hollow of silence left void by the chatter of a sub-machine-gun and acted as a magnet of sound to suck the big squad car to the scene.

That opening sentence had me diving for cover —  I mean the cover of the Cliffs Notes version.
Fortunately, things took a turn for the much better, although not immediately:

Even before the police driver braked the hurtling machine to a full stop, Duane and Barnaby debouched from the tonneau.

Did what from the what now?  From this point, things get more serious as a child has been killed with three slugs in the back from a drive-by shooting.  Just to keep the reader on his toes, Barnaby and Duane are the last names of the detectives.

The boy’s mother is not comforted by the presence of the police.  She shrieks, “You’re just like the gangsters wat [sic] kill my baby!  You know who did it, but you won’t do nothin’!”  Sadly, Barnaby and Duane know she is right to feel that way.  It was probably Krako’s boys hitting one of Okmyx’s men, but nobody saw nothing and they are all politically protected.  Even if they were hauled in, they would never be convicted.

It’s worth a shot, though.  They see Boss Ritter in his car and pull him over.  He is packing a .38, but has a permit all nice and legal.  They search his car without a warrant which is not so legal.  Ritter is utterly shocked when Barnaby punches him out and arrests him.  By the time they get to the police station, his lawyer is waiting to spring him.

This gets Police Chief Grogan’s goat and he chews Barnaby out for slugging Ritter, illegally searching the car, and hauling him in with no evidence.  He is busted down to a uniformed beat cop.  He tells off the corrupt Grogan and quits.

Later at Duane’s house, Barnaby and Duane are joined by two fellow cops.  The four men decide to establish an alternate legal system.  Not as vigilantes, but as private citizens operating by the rule of justice rather than the rule of law.  So, yeah, vigilantes.

Their first target is “Big Dutch” Ritter whom they haul out of La Parisienne Cafe before his companions see how he got his nickname.  Ritter knows that a squad car ride downtown ends at the police station, which is no problem.  He is a little concerned, though, that this time he has been thrown in the back of a private sedan, and the driver has an Uber rating with fewer stars than Batman v Superman.  Barnaby tells Ritter they are working for a different police force now — from the City of Hell!

Ritter is hauled subterranean to their HQ in an abandoned sewer line.  They say it is appropriate because it was built due to graft and is unusable.  Crooked lawyers in the above-ground court-rooms can’t save him now.  They have set up a whole judicial system down there including a judge, lawyer, clerk, grand jury etc that they have abducted into service as apparently kidnapping is not considered a crime in the City of Hell.

After a brief reign of terror justice, our boys clean up the streets, the police department, and hopefully that septic tank they are operating out of.  Of course there will be no repercussions for their unconstitutional shenanigans — having driven the old gang of corrupt bureaucrats out of their jobs, the City of Hell gang will assume those positions and keep their brothers out of jail.  The cycle continues.

Maybe my favorite story of the collection so far.  Who doesn’t love vigilantes?  Until they usually end up killing the wrong person, I mean.

Post-Post:

  • First published in Black Mask in November 1933.
  • Also that month:  Duck Soup released.

Stag Party – Charles G. Booth (1933)

Stag Party — Ha-cha-cha!  We’re off to a good start in the first two words!  The bad news is this is a novella — long enough to have chapters. The bright side is maybe I can milk this for a couple of posts.

1.

McFee of the Blue Shield Detective Agency is checking out a dame with “a subtle red mouth and experienced eyes with green lights in them.”  Irene Mayo needs his help.  Her beau Rance Damon went to the Gaiety Club to see local gangster Sam Melrose.  McFee knows that Melrose is hiding out on Larry Knudson’s yacht trying to avoid being served a subpoena, or sardines.  Even with the gangster at sea, Damon never came out of the club.  McFee checks it out.

2.

The downtown had gone downhill over the years.  Businesses had changed hands or closed, and “The Gaiety had gone burleycue” which I assume is a burlesque house with pulled pork, but then aren’t they all.  The Gaiety was closed in the afternoon, but McFee goes in anyway.  In the dark theater, Damon falls dead into his arms with a gunshot in his chest.  McFee assumes it is because Damon asked for change in the VIP Room.

3.

McFee follows the blood trail to an undressing room where he finds Mabel Leclaire. Mabel’s negligee is sticky . . . and also covered in blood.  He is able to tell she used the phone, probably for a call.  “Who’d you call?”  he asks.  “Go roll a hoop,” she replies to my inexplicable amusement.

4.

Local legitimate business man Joe Metz shows up.  He wants to get Damon’s body out of the club so owner Melrose isn’t implicated.  He accuses McFee of copping a grand jury file from Damon.  McFee asks where Melrose is, and Metz tells him he is aboard Larry Knudson’s yacht.  McFee makes his move — he smashes a lamp and flees in the dark.

5.

He is still able to find the fuse box and steal a couple of fuses to keep everyone in the dark.  Metz’s goons Tony StarkeMonty Welch, and Art Kline run around in the dark, colliding with furniture and bloodying their knees, which had always been more of a woman’s injury in this establishment.  They hear the cops roll up and take off.  McFee crawls to Damon’s body, but it is gone.

6.

Detective Hurley and his dicks find McFee, and are also interested in the whereabouts of the Shelldon File.  They confirm for the 3rd time that Melrose is on Larry Knudson’s yacht.  Chubby-chaser Hurley takes a moment to wistfully remember the old days.  “You need a pair of field glasses to see the jittering toothpicks that dance on the boards nowdays.”  Chief Detective Littner shows up to let us know for the 4th time that Melrose is on Larry Knudson’s yacht.

7.

At 3:15, McFee walks out “rolling a match in his ear.”  This is the 2nd time he has done that and I still can’t figure it what it means.  He finds Irene and they drive back to her place.  When McFee sees that they are being followed, he swings by a service station and buys a 5 gallon can of crank case oil.  He pours it out on the road causing a horrific crash for his pursuer and the school bus that should be a long shortly.

8.

Apparently this was too much excitement for Irene and she passed out.  McFee carries her up to her apartment.  He also finds the Shelldon File hidden in her coat.  She pulls a .38 on McFee to get it back, but it turns out to be full of blank pages.  McFee goes back home and finds Metz sitting in front of his apartment also holding a .38 on him.  His goons really rough McFee up.  Metz threatens him, “They got no use for dicks in heaven” which doesn’t exactly square with the way I picture it.  He is worked over pretty well before they are interrupted by Hurley and a reporter named Cruikshank.  Hmmm, of the Paris Cruikshanks?

9.

McFee drops by his office and finds a letter telling him Melrose has the Shelldon File.  I have a hunch it is on Larry Knudson’s yacht.  He meets Irene for lunch and she has received a similar letter.  McFee rolls another match in his ear.  He finds Damon’s body in the home of a clerk who had a shop near The Gaiety.  She was conked on the head and her gas jets had been opened.  Lucky that match in his ear wasn’t lit.

10.

Melrose finally returns from the Scudder yacht.  Wait, what?  We’ve been told four times it was Larry Knudson’s yacht — WTF is Scudder? [1]  McFee gets a phone call.  Muffled in the background he can hear someone yelling, “We are in a house on Butte Street!  I saw the name — Butte Street!  Butte Street!”  He is able to deduce that it is either Irene or The Jerky Boys . . . OK, that reference really only works in print.

11.

McFee goes to the house on Butte Street and, appropriately, breaks into the rear of the house.  He gets the drop on the gang roughing up Irene.  She comes up with a plan for her to replace Leclaire dancing at The Shawl Club that night.  She should be able to score the Shelldon File as well as a wad of singles.  McFee ties the men to chairs.  Leclaire protests, but McFee tells her, “I’ll forget you’re a lady if you don’t sit in that chair.”  She replies, “Forget it anyway.”  It doesn’t really fit the situation, but it is such a great exchange that I love it anyway.

12.

At The Shawl Club, we finally meet Melrose.  He is “an olive-skinned man with an uneven mouth and grizzled hair parted in the middle.  His face was old, his forehead corded by deep lines that never smoothed out.  He was thirty-eight.”  Irene does her dance, then she and McFee look for the file.  Just as they spot a manila file, they are busted.

13.

Melrose’s goons take McFee to see him.  Turns out Melrose doesn’t have the Shelldon File either, but thinks McFee does.  The cops bust in and break up the fun.  McFee convinces them to let him have a minute alone with Melrose.

14. & 15.

McFee explains everything.  It all makes sense and there were even clues along the way.  I must admit to missing the naughtiness of the Spicy Mega-pack; especially in a story called Stag Party which takes place mostly in places with dancey girls.  It is a great read, though, and even has a nice dark ending.  Hehe, Butte Street.

Post-Post:

  • [1] There is a Scudder Cup in yachting, but I don’t see anything called a Scudder Yacht so it must be the owner’s name.  Strangely enough, the phrase “Scudder’s yacht” appeared in the November 23, 1874 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Newspaper.
  • First published in the November 1933 edition of Black Mask.
  • Also that month:  Duck Soup released.

Double Check – Thomas Walsh (1933)

1,154 pages and 2.8 pounds — interesting in concept, but nearly impossible to read.

Devine was a small, slender man, thin-featured and quick of manner.  So it’s not Andy.  Or Divine.

He is a banker who is telling Detective Flaherty about blackmail letters he has been receiving. Unfortunately he lacked the foresight to save the letters for the police.  After getting a phone-call from the extortionists, he called the cops. The only clue is that he heard one of the men use the name Jigger.

Flaherty’s partner Mike Martin knows a Jigger Burns and says, “Jigger is a peter man.” I don’t even want to Google that.  Luckily, we are soon told that means he is a nitro expert.  The only blowing he does is -up safes.  Because Jigger was recently seen talking to Johnny Grecco, they somehow make the leap to question Grecco.  They head to the Esplanade to pick him up.

Grecco is not at the club, but one of his lackeys points out his girlfriend charmingly referred to as “the Polack.”  She is giving dime dances for $.25 so Flaherty hires her for a song.  Martin heads over to Flaherty’s house after he gets another threat about him calling the police.  While Flaherty is waiting for Grecco to show up, Martin calls in to say, “Someone laid a pineapple in Devine’s car.  Him and the chauffeur was blown to hell.”  Maybe it was that peter man.  Because of the nitro, I mean.

Flaherty returns to the club and looks around.  He asks, “Where’s that tall blonde, the Polack girl?”  She called in sick, tired of being the butt of two series of jokes impugning her intelligence [1].  He plays the cop-card, gets her name — Anna Brinski — and her address.  He busts into her apartment and finds her holding a pair tickets to Los Angeles, packing a whistle and a clipboard because the tickets said coach class.  That is enough for Flaherty to haul her downtown, although I’m still not seeing the connection.  A man comes to the door.  After a struggle, Flaherty shoots him.  As he is searching the body, Anna conks him on the head with a brass vase.

Flaherty wakes up half an hour later, but Anna is gone.  He identifies the dead man as Devine’s assistant, but can’t figure out his involvement.  He finds a piece of paper with “1934” written on it.  He staggers down the stairs of her apartment.  In front of Anna’s building, a man tries to shoot him from a passing car.  It would have been much easier to kill Flaherty in Anna’s apartment but the car could never have taken that tight corner at the base of the stairs.

After seeing an explosion in Devine’s bank, Flaherty goes to the only hotel in town tall enough to have a 19th floor.  Oh, and he calls the house dick.  Hehe.  Maybe to catch the peter man.  In room 1934, he finds Anna, Grecco, and the very much alive Devine. Flaherty puts all the pieces together.  The man killed in the explosion was a decoy for the similarly built Jigger. [2]  His pieces were not put together.

“Anna screamed suddenly, seeing the sudden bulge in the banker’s pocket.”

Since it is neither the house dick nor the peter man, it is just a pistol.  Yada yada, a bunch of cash and two honest cops.

Post-Post:

  • [1] How does she find her way to work in the morning?  Wakes up, goes home . . .
  • [2] Hey, the plot to Fletch!
  • First published in Black Mask in July 1933.
  • Born that month:  Joan Rivers & Gene Wilder.
  • The 2nd story in the collection to mention a flivver.

Frost Rides Alone – Horace McCoy (1930)

Captain Jerry Frost of the Texas Air Rangers, like me, hears footsteps behind him.  He and his reporterette companion Helen Stevens duck into La Estrellita [1].  It is a smokey cafe along the border filled with hombres y mujeres. Since this is 1930, this means it is on the south side of the border.  He sees his pal Captain George Stuart and tells him, “Hell’s about to pop.”

Frost notices three Mexican men — or as they’re known there, men — follow them into the bar.  One of them pretends to trip over Frost’s feet, but Frost catches him with an upper-cut. Before Frost can draw his pistol, the man’s two amigos have already drawn on him.  Stuart knocks out one of the men and grabs the third.  Frost brains him with a bottle as five more men ran into the bar.

The lights go out — the economy of characters suggests Helen threw the switch — and Frost fights his way out.  Luckily “Mexican marksmanship is notoriously bad.  The first love is the blade.”  Frost and Stuart find each other and escape across the street.  They start heading back to El Norte, but Frost is worried about the woman, so they head back to La Estrellita.  They ask the proprietor if he has seen the American woman.  He gives Frost an envelope someone gave a waiter.  Inside, a letter says, “Thanks Captain for the woman”  and WTF is so hard about keeping an agua glass filled?

Four days later, the Governor and the Adjutant-General of the Rangers have joined the search.  It is their responsibility to find blonde American babes missing in foreign lands until Fox News is invented.  They get a break as a Coast Guard cutter spots a woman on board a rum-runner.  Like Jack Bauer, Frost says he is going alone to rescue Helen. The A-G says, “I’d hate like hell to have him after me!”

In the next few sentences, we meet Jimmy O’Neill, Hans Traub, Ox Clay and Oliver Roland in Corpus Christi.  What happened to that economy of characters?  O’Neill was the one who spotted Helen.  He provides Frost with a plane to search for Helen.  Frost finally spots the cutter.  He lands the plane on the water and climbs aboard.

After killing one crew-member, he forces another to tell him there are six people on board, two of them women.  They are going to pick-up illegal rum, or four more women. Frost manages to kill or subdue all of the dudes.  He finds Helen in a luxurious cabin. She even has a phone on the wall.[2]  I don’t understand how a phone on a ship worked in 1930, but I don’t understand how it would work in 2017 either.

Turns out this chick — the one from the cafe — was just pretending to be Helen.  The fight was a set-up to kill Frost.  The real Helen has been locked away for a week.  So I guess the spotter on the Cutter was so desperate to see a woman at sea that it was hard to differentiate.  I think that also explains why pirates wear earrings, but that’s just a theory.

Frost saves the day and calls in the Coast Guard to clear away the bodies and hose down the deck.  Speaking of getting hosed, after things are settled, Frost takes the real Helen — who he met about 2 minutes ago — down below to make out.

This is standard action hero stuff — Indiana Jones, Dirk Pitt, etc.  I must say, though, that the stories in this collection are more intricately plotted than those in the $.99 megapacks — lofty praise indeed.  Good stuff.

Post-Post:

  • [1] Spanish for Tom Cruise.
  • [2] C’mon, even I know it is called a bulkhead.
  • First published in Black Mask in March 1930.
  • Also that year: Steve McQueen born and DH Lawrence died.
  • Horace McCoy’s best known work is the novella They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? which was made into a great but very bleak movie.  Not only was it a dark allegory for the weariness and hopelessness of the Depression, it gave Jane Fonda her first Oscar nomination launching her to be a thorn in people’s sides for the next fifty years.  On the other hand, it also spawned They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They? so we’ll call it even.

Honest Money – Erle Stanley Gardner (1932)

Ken Corning, a fighting young lawyer, tries to earn an honest living in a city of graft.

This is the first story in a series following idealistic young lawyer Perry Mason Ken Corning and his assistant Della Street Helen Vail.  They were clearly the prototype for Gardner’s later series, but with less obstruction of justice.  Seriously, I read 3 Perry Mason novels and his primary skill seems to be corrupting the evidence so no jury and few readers could follow it.

Cornings’ first client is Sam Parks.  Rather than simply see the man, the attorney first puts Helen through a ruse where she types pages of nonsense for three minutes and rushes it in to him as if it were 3 hours of billable time.

Sam Parks’ wife has been arrested for running a speakeasy.  Christ, what is this, Prohibition?  Oh.[1]  I like that as the cops busted into his establishment, Parks quickly pretended to be a customer by sitting down at an uncleared table and eating the erstwhile patron’s scraps.  Mrs. Parks, quite a good sport, played along and even collected the bill from him, although that 10% tip will not benefit him later.  She is hauled off to the can, the jug, the slam, the big house, the joint, the hoosegow, the pokey, the clink.

Immediately after Parks leaves, Corning gets a visit from Perkins, the cop who busted the restaurant.  Corning refuses to give him any info on Parks.  He then gets a visit from Carl Dwight.  Lawyers setting up a card table at a bus accident don’t get this much traffic.  Dwight is the local fixer, an operative of the political machine.  He offers Corning a $500 “retainer” to play ball, but Corning throws it back in his face.

After Corning pays a visit to Mrs. Parks at the prison, Mr. Parks calls to say he his coming back into the office.  Unfortunately, Parks is shot twice just outside Corning’s window.  Corning goes down to check things out.[2]  Actually he does show Perry Mason’s proclivity for hindering an investigation.  Among other things, he pockets a newspaper from Parks’ parked car.  There was an article cut out that covered Harry Dike’s appointment as superintendent of the Water Department — presumably no relation to the hairy dykes Mrs. Parks was meeting in prison.

The article said Dike was “firmly opposed to the granting of contracts and concessions to those with political pull, and that in the future the Water Department would be conducted upon a basis of efficiency with all work thrown open to the lowest responsible bidder.”  How was he not the one shot?  There is good reason as this seemingly virtuous Water Department jefe is just another thug.  He had been in a car accident with Mrs. Parks, while he was traveling with Carl Dwight the political fixer he was supposed to oppose.  She made trouble and had to be dealt with.  That’s Chinatown, Jake.

Mason Corning ties it all together and the story wraps up with yet more characters, a meeting in a restaurant, some counterfeiting hijinks, and even Corning getting off a few gunshots.  Despite being written 85 years ago, the writing has a contemporary feel. Gardner is able to make a raft of characters and an intertwining plot simple enough that I only had to read it twice to understand it.

Another good entry, although I miss the titular spiciness of the Spicy Adventure Megapack.

Post-Post:

  • [1] 1920 – 1933.
  • [2] In a sign of the times, he stands out in the crowd because he is hatless.
  • First published in Black Mask in November 1932.
  • Also that month:  FDR first elected.
  • When he died in 1970, Gardner was the best-selling author in history.