Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dead, Man, Dead, by David Alexander

It’s been 40 years now since journalist, horse-racing enthusiast, and novelist David Alexander saw Dead, Man, Dead (1959)--his final series mystery--published in hardcover by J.P. Lippincott Company. Long enough for both his name and that of his principal fictitious sleuth, Bart Hardin, to have disappeared from tongues and texts.

These are likely not the fates Alexander had in mind for either himself or his oft-acclaimed fiction.

David C. Alexander was born in Shelbyville, Kentucky, on April 21, 1907, but soon moved with his family to Louisville. At 11 years of age, he began working as an office boy at the Louisville Courier-Journal. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Alexander attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and began his writing career with The Lexington Herald. “He showed an inclination for covering thoroughbred racing in that center of horse breeding,” the Times recalled, “and his comments on that phase of the sport attracted the attention of the owners of the now-defunct Morning Telegraph, then one of the country’s leading turf periodicals, published in New York.” (It was the Morning Telegraph that once employed former Old West lawman Bat Masterson as a sports writer; the same paper that popularized the nickname “Big Apple” for New York City.) Alexander was only in his mid-20s when he was named as the Telegraph’s managing editor, a position he held for the next decade. In addition to his other responsibilities with the broadsheet, he composed a column called “Beau Broadway,” which the Times said “gave a career start to several journalists who later became famous, notably the late Walter Winchell,” the man frequently credited with inventing the modern gossip column.

Despite his journalistic success, Alexander’s greater ambition was to join the growing ranks of American mystery novelists. To educate himself toward that end, wrote Bruce F. Murphy in The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (1999), “he enrolled at New York’s Institute of Criminology. Alexander took to the subject and did so well academically that he was offered several jobs in the field, which he turned down in order to write.”

During the early 1940s, Alexander fled Manhattan and returned to the familiar haunts of Lexington. He soon switched from newspaper reporting to doing publicity work for horse-racing tracks, and then during World War II signed on as a private in the United States Army, serving in the tank corps. The conclusion of his military stint left him free to write for sporting periodicals again, and he accepted a job as “turf editor” for the old New York Herald Tribune.

In 1951, while still laboring on behalf of the Tribune, Alexander saw his first crime novel published, Murder in Black and White. But it wasn’t until his fourth book, Terror on Broadway (1954), that he introduced Bart Hardin, his tall, blond-headed, and whiskey-and-sirloin-loving series protagonist. One of many newsroom investigators destined to make their marks on this genre, Hardin (who often worked in tandem/competition with New York police Lieutenant Romano) is described by Kevin Burton Smith of The Thrilling Detective Web Site as
the rambling, gambling two-fisted editor of The Broadway Times, who starred in eight novels back in the fifties, fondly remembered these days for, among other things, living above a flea circus in a Times Square tenement.

The Broadway Times was essentially a rag, covering horse racing, the fights and show biz, and as such, gave its pugnacious, decidedly hands-on editor ample opportunity to wander around and get involved in all sorts of jams and scrapes. Fortunately, the hard-drinking, hard-boiled ex-Marine, who apparently favored flowered vests for some reason, was more than up to the task. Over the course of the series, Bart got involved in everything from a serial killer named ‘Whacko’ stalking women in the theatre district (Terror on Broadway) to drug trafficking (Paint the Town Black). And fans of Yuletide murders that take place in flea circuses could do worse than checking out Shoot a Sitting Duck.
That last novel, published in 1955, shows Alexander’s love-hate relationship with New York City. Here, in an excerpt from the book’s beginning, he sketches out his main character’s personality while also capturing the flashy but sordid atmosphere of Broadway at Christmastime:
Broadway blazed as bravely as ever but the effect was that of a great house lighted for a party at which no guests appeared. A few passers-by scurried over the wide streets, seeming furtive as they lowered their heads to breast the gusty north wind that swept through the empty, glowing canyon with a throaty animal sound. The denizens of this tawdry alley, Bart thought, crawl into their private holes when other men concern themselves with the warm and simple pleasure of the greatest of the
holidays. ...

On every corner stood a red Santa Claus inadequately stuffed with a boozy Bowery bum who licked chapped lips behind his yak-tail beard and clanged a dolorous bell to lure coins into a cardboard chimney pipe that the welfare organization which employed him had discreetly padlocked.

Hardin lived on Broadway and he was used to being lonely in a crowd. He regarded the world he lived in with a cynical, detached fascination that was expressed in the slangy, ebullient columns of the paper he edited. He was fully aware of the hard facts of his own hard little world and he was resigned to them. He knew that Broadway ‘pals’ with their vociferous protestations of affection were different from friends, that Broadway’s preoccupation with sex in all its forms was far different from human love, that footlight histrionics were poor substitutes for real emotion, and the knowledge seldom troubled him. But tonight, somehow, it was different. The emptiness of the Big Street that had become his life seemed to reflect an emptiness inside himself as he walked toward his residence above [Bromberg’s flea Circus and Fun Arcade on 42nd Street], where young men in leather jackets fired small-bore guns at pipes and ducks, and oversized fleas performed incredible feats beneath magnifying lenses. The snow was falling faster now. Hardin watched the snowflakes swirl insanely in the lighted void, loath to land finally after their dizzy flight, and he thought of himself, and he laughed aloud at the comparison. The young couple in front of him looked back over their shoulders curiously.
In his popular Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994), mystery writer and columnist William L. DeAndrea observed that Alexander’s writing style “is rich and idiosyncratic, well suited for the Broadway milieu.” I’ll not argue with that.

Dead, Man, Dead, the cover of which we’re highlighting this week, is one of the Hardin mysteries I have not read. But I am led to understand that it features a Calypso background and “cold-blooded murder” among New York’s Caribbean island émigrés. A poster to the online crime-fiction discussion group Rara-Avis, who describes himself as “one of the few surviving fans of the late David Alexander,” opined that Dead, Man, Dead is “a bit tedious, although in 1959 it probably played well. The novel was redeemed somewhat by the crazed ventriloquist with his two dummies Hunch and Trudy.”

However, I’m less concerned here with Alexander’s story than I am with the cover of the 1960 Dell mass-market edition of Dead, Man, Dead. It’s the work of Robert Maguire, who, prior to his death in 1995, was heralded as one of the giants of 20th-century paperback illustration, especially known for his images of comely femmes fatales. For Dead, Man, Dead he delivered a redheaded lovely in a blue dress, looking as if she’s being backed into a corner by dread--perhaps related to the pin-punctured lookalike voodoo doll clutched in her right hand. It’s a bright, eye-catching bit of artwork that doesn’t suffer for being layered over with the book title, byline, and blurb.

Maguire created a substantial number of covers for crime and mystery fiction by John D. MacDonald, Jack Webb, Jim Thompson, and other authors. He also illustrated an assortment of soft-core porn works, such as $50 a Night, by Don James (“Her love was for sale--at the right price ...”), The Fires Within, by Loren Beauchamp (a pseudonym of Robert Silverberg), I Prefer Girls, by Jessie Dumont (“A strange story of twilight love, jealousy, and hatred”), and Strange Sisters, by Fletcher Flora (“This love was wrong, but she could not resist it”). Maguire’s contributions to the crime-fiction genre have recently been applauded by Jim Silke in his new book, Dames, Dolls, and Gun Molls: The Art of Robert A. Maguire, an essential text for the library of any pulp-era paperback enthusiast.

David Alexander, though, won’t be among that book’s purchasers. He died in the tumultuous midst of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, on March 21, 1973, at age 65. The New York Times reported that his end came “after a long illness,” but didn’t specify the nature of that infirmity. (Whatever the cause, it might help to explain why Alexander didn’t publish any novels after 1962.) He’d resigned from the Herald Tribune in the early ’60s and instead been hired as a horse-racing columnist for the Thoroughbred Record. “Although that publication is printed in Lexington,” the Times clarified, “Mr. Alexander continued to live in New York with his wife, the former Alice Lemere, whom he met while they were students at the University of Kentucky.”

Although Alexander is now probably remembered best for his Bart Hardin novels, editor Murphy notes that the author also composed books “about Tommy Tuthill and Terry Bob Rooke, who are a similar pair to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Tuthill and Rooke appeared in Most Men Don’t Kill (1951) and Murder in Black and White (1951).” Murphy goes on to explain that Alexander’s 1958 non-series novel, The Madhouse in Washington Square (which scored an Edgar Allan Poe Award nomination for Best Novel), “is a dark crime novel in which Alexander depicted the netherworld of street people, washed-up performers, has-beens, and others on the fringe of society. (Washington Square is in Alexander’s own neighborhood, Greenwich Village.) Hangman’s Dozen (1961) is a collection of Alexander’s short fiction; one of his stories won a prize in an Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine contest.”

Perhaps someday David Alexander’s work will be rediscovered by a wide audience. For now, those of us who have developed an interest in his books can only search them out on the Internet, then sit back and relive through his vivid prose what Times Square and Broadway were like in their post-World War II, pre-sleaze heyday.

READ MORE:Dead Man’s Clue,” by TomCat (Detection by Moonlight); “Murder Is No Laughing Matter,” by TomCat (Detection by Moonlight).


Anonymous said...

the madhouse in washington square sounds great just from that brief description...there's a copy available online for $50 or one in new zealand for $2, plus shipping.

Peter Kinder said...

A very nice piece. Thank you.

I grew up reading David Alexander in various horse racing journals. I don't think I ever knew he wrote mysteries.

His columns from 1960 onward in the Thouroughbred Record were witty, wise and passionate. He wrote marvelous historical pieces usually focused on racing from the 1880s onwards. He was always generous, forgiving in his descriptions, but even to a youth his opinions were clear. He was also a very clear-eyed observer of the politics around racing and the emergence of off-track betting.

When I picked up Laura Hillenbrand's very fine Seabiscuit, I felt as if I had read it before. As she fully acknowledges, she relied on Alexander's reporting, and she sure as hell picked up his style.

Alexander was one of those fine every-day journalists who deserve not to be forgotten but are. He served his readers well at the time and for the time. I'm not sure a journalist can ever hope for more.

As Hillenbrand observes, Alexander had a capacity for friendship that extended from hotwalkers to owners. I wish I'd known him.