MURDER MYSTERY MONTHLIES: The Early Crime Digests, by Peter Enfantino
A Story-by-Story Guide to MANHUNT, Part Two
How to follow up a premiere issue featuring the likes of Mickey Spillane, Cornell Woolrich, Evan Hunter, and Richard Prather? How about more Spillane, double the pleasure of Hunter, and add a lethal dose of the very popular John Ross MacDonald. According to the unsigned editorial on the inside front cover, the first issue’s entire print run of 600,000 sold out and “over a hundred thousand readers asked for the first issue of Manhunt at stands that were all sold out.” A bit of hyperbole, I’m sure, but Flying Eagle (which, incidentally, was known as simply “Eagle Publications” for the first two issues) had certainly stumbled into something big. Before long, Manhunt would not be the only monthly source of murder and mystery.
Volume 1, Number 2 February 1953
The Imaginary Blonde, by John Ross MacDonald (10,000 wds) **
Famous PI Lew Archer stumbles across his latest case when he stops for some shut eye at a motel in California. Archer awakes to the screams of a hysterical woman covered in blood outside his room. Later, after Archer checks out, he finds the owner of the blood parked in his car along a beach highway, very dead. When the motel manager hires Archer to find the murderer, the trail leads him to Palm Springs and a web of double identities and bone-crushing thugs.
Sex Murder in Cameron, by Michael Fessier (3000 wds) **
The town of Cameron buzzes when wealthy, handsome bachelor Cass Buford marries homely Linda. They buzz even more when Linda buries a hatchet in Cass’s head. Michael Fessier (1907-1988) was a San Francisco reporter when he began writing short stories in the 1930s. His novel, Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind, was published by Knopf in 1935, but his claim to fame was the several movies he wrote and/or produced, including The Merry Monahans (1944) and Red Garters (1954).
Dirge for a Nude, by Jonathan Craig (5000 wds) *½
Swingin’ piano player Marty Bishop is harrassed by his ex-girlfriend, the beautiful and bountiful singer Gloria Gayle. The harrassment stops when her vivacious nude body is found by Marty in the front of his Caddy. It’s up to Marty to piece together the puzzle of “who killed the babe” before the cops come calling. Ding-Dong-Daddy-O dialog has never done anything for me, and Craig’s hip dialog sounds phoney even for its time.
Stabbing in the Streets, by Eleazar Lipsky (5000 wds) ***
District Attorney David Wiley investigates the stabbing of a young seaman by a Spanish-speaking man, claiming self-defense. A good cast of supporting characters builds this into a well-done crime drama. It provides no real answers to the puzzle, but I think that makes it even more satisfying. Eleazar Lipsky is best known for writing the novel The Kiss of Death (1947). The movie version made a star out of Richard Widmark who, in a memorable scene, tosses a wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs. “Stabbing in the Streets” was Eleazar Lipsky’s only story for Manhunt.
Carrera’s Woman, by Richard Marsten (4500 wds) *½
Jeff McCauley has his hard-earned ten grand ripped off by an obese Mexican bandit named Carrera, but Jeff holds an ace card of his own. Carrera’s beautiful, but equally dangerous wife. Harlequin Romance done Manhunt-style. Comes off like one of those Grade-Z 1940s mystery flick quickies.
Marsten was a pseudonym of Ed McBain/ Evan Hunter and later became the author of the novels Runaway Black (Gold Medal, 1954); Murder in the Navy (Gold Medal, 1955); So Nude, So Dead (Crest, 1956) (which was actually a retitling of Hunter's first published novel, The Evil Sleep (Falcon, 1952)); The Spiked Heel (Crest, 1957); Vanishing Ladies (Perma, 1957); Even the Wicked (Perma, 1958) and, in my opinion, McBain’s best and most underrated novel, Big Man (Pocket, 1959). The Marsten name was also used on two of McBain’s three juvenile science fiction novels published in hardcover by Winston, Rocket to Luna (1953) and Danger: Dinosaurs! (1953). FOOTNOTE 1.
Attack, by Hunt Collins (1500 wds) **½
A cop on his honeymoon comes back to his cabana to find his wife beaten to death and the perp making tracks in the sand. About as noir and violent as the 1950s got. Too bad the story’s rushed and the characters thin (we never even learn the name of our hero).
The “Hunt Collins” byline was seldom used by Ed McBain, but it can be found on two novels, The Proposition (Pyramid, 1955, a retitling of Cut Me In, published in hardcover by Abelard in 1954) and the rare foray into science fiction, Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Pyramid, 1956, a retitling of Tomorrow’s World, published in hardcover by Avalon the same year). FOOTNOTE 2.
Everybody’s Watching Me, by Mickey Spillane (serial; part 2 of 4)
(See Volume 1, Number 1 for details)
So Dark for April, by John Evans (7500 wds) **
A dead body with no socks in his office in the dark part of April gives PI Paul Pine a big headache. Convincing the cops he had nothing to do with the murder, Pine begins his own investigation to find just who did in the nattily dressed corpse. Stolen collectible stamps and greedy in-laws provide the whys and whos. Not a lot to get excited about, and I just hate two-page expositories detailing scenarios our narrator couldn’t possibly know.
Paul Pine starred in four highly-regarded novels, Halo in Blood (1946), Halo for Satan (1947), Halo in Brass (1949) and The Taste of Ashes (1957). A fifth novel, unfinished because Browne had become bored with detective fiction, was later published, still unfinished, as The Paper Gun (1985).
The pulp Mammoth Detective was a favorite stomping grounds to John Evans, who also wrote under his own name, Howard Browne, and the psuedonym William Brengle. In addition to the Pine stories, Browne also created a real estate troubleshooter named Lafayette Muldoon and the department store detective Wilbur Peddie. Max Allan Collins has said that “among the post-Chandler private eye novels of the 1950s, there is no finer example than Howard Browne’s The Taste of Ashes.”
Howard Browne had a fascinating life and career. He was editor of the science fiction digests Amazing (1950-1956), Fantastic (1952-1956), and Fantastic Adventures (1950-1953), and later went on to a successful television career, writing for such shows as Maverick (the classic episode “Duel at Sundown” co-starred a very young Clint Eastwood), The Virginian, Ben Casey, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, and The Fugitive.
The Lesser Evil, by Richard Deming (7000 wds) **
Three wise guys want Manville Moon to take over as faux-Godfather to scare off a big syndicate that’s muscling into their territory. Moon agrees for a price but then regrets it when guns start blazing.
One-armed detective Manville Moon shot his way through many short adventures and three novels, The Gallows in My Garden (1952), Tweak the Devil’s Nose (1953), and Whistle Past the Graveyard (1954).
Richard Deming (1915-1983) also ghost-wrote at least ten novels as Ellery Queen, and his name can also be found on several Mod Squad and Dragnet TV tie-ins. He wrote competent, enjoyable mysteries but today is pretty much unknown, even to vintage mystery fans. You won’t find much ink on Deming in contemporary studies such as William L. DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (MacMillan, 1994). FOOTNOTE 3.
As I Lie Dead, by Fletcher Flora (5000 wds) ****
Cousins Cindy and Tony muse on their grandfather’s artificial beach how nice Acupulco would look if only they had the old man’s money. Being a take-charge kind of guy, Tony sees to it that Grandfather meets a watery demise. Unfortunately for the kissin’ cousins, their crime is witnessed by a rich neighbor. Being wealthy means this blackmailer wants something a little more warm: Cindy. Excellent cross-double cross story with a literal big bang climax.
Fletcher Flora (1914-1969) wrote dozens of short stories for such high class digests as Alfred Hitchcock, Ellery Queen, Mike Shayne, and Hunted. Flora’s novels include the superb The Hotshot (1956), which explores the seedy world of high school basketball betting, and Skullduggery (1967), a novel that, much like “As I Lie Dead,” involves money-hungry relatives.
1. The third Winston hardcover, Find the Feathered Serpent (1952), was McBain’s first hardcover and is highly sought (as are the other Winston books) by collectors. Incredibly enough, the Winston books have never been reprinted in softcover.
2. It seems that most of the great crime writers got their feet a little damp in the sci-fi waters. John D. MacDonald contributed Wine of the Dreamers (aka Planet of the Dreamers), Ballroom of the Skies, and the time-travel adventure The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything (1962).
Donald Westlake, under the psuedonym Curt Clark, wrote Anarchaos (1967), while the ultra-prolific Edward Hoch created the supernaturally-themed “Simon Ark” series and the “Computer Cops” novels.
Of course, the most prolific in both fields is probably Robert Bloch, author of the crime novels The Kidnaper (1954), The Scarf (1947), Firebug (1961), and Psycho (1959), as well as the “Lefty Feep” sci-fi/fantasy series.
All of these authors have also written hundreds of short stories in both genres. A special thanks to John Clute and Peter Nicholls’ invaluable The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin's, 1993) for reference on the sci-fi stuff. By all means, pick this book up if you’re able to find it, but make sure someone’s there to help you pick this monster up.
3. The exclusion of Deming from the DeAndrea book should come as no surprise. This somewhat snobbish “comprehensive guide to the art of detection in print, film, radio, and television” is anything BUT comprehensive. Other authors snubbed by DeAndrea include Jonathan Craig, Vin Packer, and Gil Brewer. Enough space is afforded, though, to such tripe as Robert Conrad’s made-for-TV movie ONE POLICE PLAZA.
Next Up: Ellery Queen. For earlier installments of this column, go here.
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Phil Stephensen-Payne for being the source of the image above. Many of the long run of Manhunt covers can be seen at his website here, all on one page. (I don’t believe he will mind if you could provide him with any of the ones he’s missing.)
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