Friday, December 3, 2010

"Finders Killers!"

Detective Story Magazine was the very first fiction pulp to be devoted to crime stories. Begun way back in 1915 by Street and Smith, the magazine lasted until 1949 and produced an incredible 1,057 issues. For fifteen of its 34 years of publication (from 1917 to 1932) it was produced as a weekly! I know this was the era before television when people still read regularly, but really, how could anyone keep up? The kinds of detective fiction published in Detective Story was of the decidedly pre-hardboiled variety, consisting of Philo Vance-types and a long list of colorful series characters. This makes sense when one considers that the magazine itself was a reincarnation and continuation of the Nick Carter dime novels, and while the Carter character eventually faded away, it was brought back to life again in 1933 thanks to the popularity of another Detective Story character, The Shadow.

There is little worth remembering from this pulp, unless you're a student of the oddball series character in mystery fiction. The long list of now-forgotten names include Black Star, The Spider, Thubway Tham, The Thunderbolt, The Man in Purple, The Avenging Twins, and my favorite, the Crimson Clown. (I've know a few crimson clowns in my day.) There were lots of gentlemen detectives, manor house settings, well-behaved criminals and very few mean streets. This was the type of mystery fiction that Black Mask put a stake through, and by the end of its run -- from 1942-on -- newly-ensconced editor Daisy Bacon did her best to toughen up the magazine. Its most notable publication was probably Raymond Chandler's one story to appear in Detective Story, 1941's "No Crime in the Mountains," which later was used by the author to form the plot of his novel Lady in the Lake.

An excellent history of this pulp can be found on the blog Mystery*File.

When Detective Story Magazine folded after its Summer 1949 issue (it had slowed to a quarterly by then) the rights to the title were sold to Popular Publications, who waited three years before launching their own version of the magazine, a decidedly tougher version of the pulp. Sadly, the new version -- which was published as a bi-monthly -- lasted only six issues before ending for good in September 1953.

John D MacDonald contributed to both version of this magazine. In January 1948 his "Even Up the Odds" represented his only contribution to the original Detective Story, but his work managed to find its way into three of the six issues of the Popular reboot. "Finder's Killers!" (complete with the exclamation mark) appeared in the July 1953 issue and it is unusual JDM in several respects. It features a rare appearance of a licensed private investigator, a character type MacDonald usually avoided for the more creative kinds of investigators like insurance claims adjusters, "salvage experts," and ordinary citizens looking for the truth. It's also a rare case of of a JDM pulp story that contains no love interest -- no tall, beautiful blonde with slim legs and gray eyes for the hero to fall for at the end of the tale. Which is probably a good thing, for the protagonist of "Finder's Killers!" is a uniquely solitary figure in the MacDonald canon, a driven, focused and relentless investigator who has little time for anything but the case he is working on.

When we first meet Russ Gandy he's not a private eye but an FBI agent, although the agency is never specifically named. He's at the tail end of a long investigation and has located a fugitive criminal he's been hunting for for seven months, a thief named Torran who made off with "two hundred and forty thousand dollars in brand new treasury notes in five-hundred dollar denominations -- all in serial sequence, most of it still in the mint wrappers." Torran is hiding out in a cheap apartment in Chicago, secretly observed by Gandy and his agents, who are awaiting his move so they can run him to ground. MacDonald's opening paragraph is a beautiful example of the spare, expert first-person narrative he had developed into an art form after only seven years of writing. It describes the setting, sets the scene and the plot of the story, and reveals the kind of hard-ass protagonist who will lead us through the novella.

"We waited for him to run, because that was the final proof of guilt that we needed. We had him bottled up in a Chicago apartment. Our boys drove the cabs, delivered the milk, cleaned the street in front and in general covered him like a big tent. I don't know exactly how we gave it away. But we did. We threw it to him.... You could say we were careless. That's in the same league with Monday morning quarterbacking..."

When Gandy eventually faces his boss and gets the expected chewing out, he also receives the inevitable third-person character summation, allowing the reader to see the hero from a different perspective, while at the same time setting the story's real plot into motion.

"'I've watched you carefully, Gandy. You've got a lot of presence. You speak well and you think clearly. But you're too ambitious. You expect too much, to fast... I could butter you up to keep you aboard. During your four years with us, you've done well. But now you're marked. You saw what the papers did to us. That was unfortunate. Now you're not Agent Gandy any more in Washington. You're Russ Gandy, the one who lost Torran.'"

When Gandy is told he's being reassigned to teach at "the School," he angrily resigns. When he returns home he has a brief moment of clarity that represents the only introspection the character allows us to witness.

"I went back to the crummy room I'd rented and in which I'd spent only sleeping time. On four years of salary and expenses, when all you think about night and day is a job of work, you save dough... I'd left the little badge and the Bureau weapon and the identification card with [my boss]. I sat on the bed and cried without making a sound. Like a kid. He'd been too right. I was ambitious. And they'd taken away my toys."

After a long night and the obligatory downing of a bottle of booze ("... I brought it home and killed it. It came close to killing me.") he resolves to hunt down Torran on his own. He obtains a private investigator's license and a permit to carry a gun, then heads to Boston, where the owner of the stolen loot lives, a young woman who, thanks to MacDonald's description, we know will definitely not turn out to be a love interest.

"She was a blonde with a skin like milk in a blue glass -- a trembly, uncertain mouth, and eyes so close together they threatened to overlap."

She's eighteen year old May Marie Sispol and she lives in a big house with her aunt. Gandy tells her what has happened to him and offers to find the money on his own, for "a percentage on recovery." May is not impressed.

The scene that follows reads straight out of Raymond Chandler, a near pastiche so obvious that the author is forced to comment on it through his character in a rare bit of JDM literary humor.

"We were alone in a room with antique Italian furniture. It smelled like dust. When I realized that she meant what she said, I took her by the shoulders and shook her until her eyes didn't focus. Her aunt came in and bellowed at me. I pushed the aunt out of the room and locked the door. May Marie whimpered. I shook her again and she wanted to kiss me. Her breath was bad.

"Pretty soon she decided that this was a 'great love" and that I was a very dramatic type and it was all pretty much like out of a Raymond Chandler movie. By the time the cops the aunt had called started beating on the door, I had our little contract all signed and tucked into the back of my wallet...

"She gave the cops and her aunt undiluted hell. She raged like an anemic tigress. I held my breath and kissed her again and left with my contract."

From this point forward the real story begins, and it is as engaging, as sprawling and as well written as MacDonald was capable of in 1952. Gandy uses a few clues to make assumptions, one of which pays off, leaving the reader to wonder how the hapless FBI could ever get along without him. Excepting that, "Finder's Killers!" is a terrific piece of JDM short fiction, with echoes of "The Homesick Buick," "They Let Me Live," and other early JDM works. It is riveting, flawless pulp fiction that seemingly flowed effortlessly from the pen of the author and is nearly impossible to put down. And except (perhaps) for that one Chandleresque scene (which was obviously inserted on purpose... or perhaps the author couldn't believe what he had written and simply had to comment on it) it doesn't have a miscue in it anywhere.

Happily for the modern reader, "Finder's Killers!" (which MacDonald submitted as "All the Money in the World") has been anthologized. It was included in Maxim Jakubowski's terrific The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, a 1996 publication that is out of print but easily available from any online used bookseller. This collection also contains short works by Hammett, Cain, Thompson, Spillane, Goodis, Day Keene, Charles Williams and Ross Macdonald, to name but a few. Jim Thompson's entry, "Forever After," is worth the the price of the (used) book, especially for anyone who is a fan of Lou Ford's particular brand of torture.


  1. Your first paragraph asks the interesting question of how did readers keep up with their reading during the pulp era of 1900-1955. I have an extensive pulp collection, including over 1,000 issues of DETECTIVE STORY, and I've often wondered this myself. But not only was this the pre-television era, but it was the pre-computer and pre-electronic gadget period also.

    The modern reader is so distracted and over loaded with TV, cellphone, computer, blackberry, i-pod, texting, etc, that many just do not do any reading at all except for what is online. But back in the time when newstands groaned under the weight of pulps and slicks, many readers kept up not only with a weekly like DETECTIVE STORY, but also several other magazines.

    With the exception of the time spent at movie theaters and listening on the radio, you could read books and magazines for several hours each day. Those days are gone forever and there are fewer and fewer readers that spend alot of time reading authors like JDM and other vintage paperback, digest, and pulp authors.

    I guess that's why I love your website, Mystery File, and Bare Bones E-zine. They deal with the great pulp and digest era.

  2. Thanks for the great comments, Walker, and thanks for the wonderful Mystery*File article on Detective Story, which was obviously part of my research.

    I grew up in a house full of books and my mother was a compulsive reader, going through an average of a book a day and making two or three trips to the local library every week. But out of her four children, I'm the only one who inherited her love for the written word. And my own son doesn't read much. In an era where there are far too many distractions for anyone to get interested in fiction, I fear that reading will become more and more marginalized.

    JDM one hailed the advent of the computer age, because it would at least require the ability to read. I doubt if he could have envisioned people communicating with sentences like "RUOK? LOL! ;)"