Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Hearse of Another Color, by M.E. Chaber


Certainly the most common element of illustrations fronting crime-fiction paperbacks during the mid-20th-century was sexy women. Usually sexy women in distress and undressed to the extent that publishers and retailers would bear. Men were hardly banished from those classic book covers; however, they usually appeared in tandem with lightly clad lovelies. After all, the principal audience for such inexpensive novels was males, and they were more likely to be attracted by skin and sin than by depictions of masculine heroics.

Today’s showcased cover, from the 1959 Pocket Books edition of M.E. Chaber’s A Hearse of Another Color (originally published in 1958), finds an artist trying to do something a little different, yet not abandoning tried and true formulas. The illustrator in question is the prolific James Meese, who during the 1950s and ’60s created the fronts for novels by Gil Brewer (77 Rue Paradis), Sax Rohmer (Return of Sumuru), Richard S. Prather (Dagger of Flesh), Ellery Queen (The Glass Village), Erle Stanley Gardner (The Case of the One-Eyed Witness), Gordon Davis (I Came to Kill), Raymond Chandler (The High Window), Ian Fleming (Live and Let Die), and so many others.

While his excellent jacket for Hearse focuses on the story’s private-eye protagonist, the fedora-wearing and cigarette-smoking Milo March, Meese also set out to please the Pocket Books sales team and male shoppers everywhere by including the image of a shapely legged, high-heeled woman slinking down what looks like a building’s emergency escape ladder in a skirt that’s entirely too tight for such escapades. The cover’s teaser line heightens one’s expectations of salacious high jinks even further: “MILO MARCH, looking for a corpse, turns up a body that’s blonde dynamite!” That exclamation point seems superfluous. How can that line be read without ending on a high note?

To my mind, Meese’s front for this edition of Chaber’s novel is far more intriguing than the better-recognized 1970 Paperback Library Inc. edition. Yes, the latter (show above, left) features an illustration by Robert McGinnis. However, its depiction of the martini-quaffing and poetry-spouting March makes him look too much like the 1960s action film star Derek Flint (James Coburn) from Our Man Flint and In Like Flint--a similarity even more pronounced in McGinnis’ 1970 jacket for another March outing, A Lonely Walk (also displayed here).

A Hearse of Another Color was the ninth installment in the successful Milo March series, which eventually ran to more than 20 titles, from Hangman’s Harvest (1952) to Born to Be Hanged (1973). “M.E. Chaber”--a moniker that evidently derived from the Hebrew word for author, mechaber--was one of several noms de plume employed by New Yorker Kendell Foster Crossen, an ex-insurance investigator, guide book contributor, and editor of the magazine Detective Fiction Weekly, who later wrote for such TV programs as 77 Sunset Strip and Perry Mason, and in 1940 created the superhuman Buddhist crime-fighter Green Lama, a character immortalized by others in a series of comic-book adventures. As if all that weren’t enough, Crossen also penned science-fiction novels, one of those being the dystopian yarn Year of Consent (1954). According to The Thrilling Detective Web Site’s Kevin Burton Smith, Crossen “wrote over 400 radio and television dramas, some 300 short stories, 250 non-fiction articles and around forty-five novels.”

During his career, Crossen created several series sleuths, including Brian Brett and Pete Draco. But he’s best remembered now for Milo March, a spy turned “globetrotting investigator for Intercontinental Insurance.” As Smith puts it, “The general consensus about the series is that it’s fun, if not exactly Chandler.” Writing in the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, mystery history expert Mike Gross remarks specifically on A Hearse of Another Color, which takes place at least partly in New Orleans:
It’s a genuine mystery story, with fair play clues pointing toward the final solution, and other subplots along the way. The tale focuses relentlessly on detection throughout, with March constantly attempting to learn more about the crimes. The story never degenerates into a thriller or suspense tale. I found the puzzle plot of the book very easy to solve, but it is still there, unlike some private eye writers.

The tale suggests that nothing is as much fun as the lifestyle of 1950s corporate America, with its endless flow of money, expense accounts, and the opportunities to pursue such activities as travel, nice clothes, cars, fine dining and romance. Both Milo March and some of the characters live in such a world, which is designed to be a pleasant fantasy experience for the readers. There is a relatively realistic tone to Crossen’s work, at least when compared to such contemporaries as Richard S. Prather. Both men like the high life of the day, but while Prather spins fantasies about a private eye’s life, Crossen sticks to a fairly realistic account of the opportunities open to a well-to-do business exec of the time. Of course, most Americans of the era could not afford to live on this scale. Still, Crossen’s desires are relatively modest, and his delight in travel and good food would increasingly become affordable to the majority of Americans.

Milo March stories differ radically in tone from those of Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s stories are dark, and they depict a world full of evil characters. Crossen despises mobsters and crooks, but basically he likes 1950s America and the world in general. Neither he nor March seem alienated, which is the word I’d use to describe Philip Marlowe and his successors. Instead, Crossen and March preserve a sunny, good-natured attitude towards most of life. Indeed, Crossen’s tone is generally comic throughout. Even his mob villains have a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality. Parts of the story even approach the comedy of manners, something one associates more with Golden Age sleuths than 1950s private eyes. Milo March also has a different attitude towards the men he meets, than most private eyes. Usually he winds up making friends with them, and the book is full of scenes of male bonding. March is especially fond of government agents, such as police and FBI men, Madison Avenue-type executives, and artists. All of these types are described glowingly in Crossen’s work. All of these men represent success, in different forms and professions. They tend to be highly competent and glamorous.

A Hearse of [Another] Color strongly endorses integration and the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, its best parts deal with black “diviner” Willie Morell. Willie is the most colorful of the New Orleans locals March meets, and he is a character whose verbal facility and unique way of talking mark [him] out as an original. Crossen’s sympathy with black Americans reminds one of Ed Lacy.
It is symbolic of investigator Milo March’s onetime popularity, that he managed--if only briefly--to cross over from the literary to the cinematic world. In 1958, a British film adaptation of Crossen/Chaber’s 1954 novel, The Man Inside, was released with tough guy actor Jack Palance playing the smooth Mr. March, and Anita Ekberg and Donald Pleasence helping to fill out the cast. Adventure thrillers were very popular in movie theaters during that time, and would become even more watched as the James Bond films were introduced, beginning with Dr. No in 1962. Yet even with Palance in the lead role, and with Albert R. Broccoli working as a producer, March’s big-screen career didn’t take off.

Author Kendell Crossen died in November 1981, age 71. Reports are that he left behind an unpublished Milo March novel called Death to the Brides, which he had composed in 1974. Kevin Burton Smith says that Crossen’s publisher, Henry Holt & Company, “had refused to publish [it] back in the seventies because it contained an unflattering portrait of then-president [Richard] Nixon, and a spy mission to Vietnam.” Wikipedia explains that the manuscript “is preserved along with the rest of Crossen’s papers in the 20th-century collection of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.” Whether that missing last entry in the March series will ever surface is anybody’s guess at this point, but perhaps it could serve as the beginning of a Milo revival. Isn’t it about time?

3 comments:

Bill Crider said...

A classic Milo March cover is the one for the first pb of THE SPLINTERED MAN (1955). Beefcake, a hypo, and more. As for the book itself, I'd be willing to bet it's the first one ever to use LSD as a plot device.

Frank Loose said...

I own a copy of the Pocket version that you posted, and i read it last year. It was a good solid read.

Steve Lewis said...

Kendall Crossen was the first mystery writer I ever interviewed, way back in the early to mid-1970s, as I recall. If I ever uncover the zine it was in -- THE MYSTERY NOOK, perhaps -- I'll get it posted online. One of these days.

Crossen told me a lot about his writing career, including his days with the pulps, and about his various pen names, many of which were not well known at the time.

By the way, as he passed it along to me, the name M. E. Chaber comes from the Hebrew word, mechaber, which means (I think) author, scribe, or compiler.

I reviewed the movie THE MAN INSIDE on my blog a while back, at http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=691, if anyone wants to go back and read it.

I don't remember that the movie came up in the interview, though. Either I didn't know to bring it up (I didn't), or he didn't see any reason to mention it himself.

Personally I don't see much resemblance between Milo March and Jack Palance. James Coburn, to pick a name out of the air, comes a heck of a lot closer, but at the moment I think I see someone like Charles McGraw in the role.