I hadn’t intended to return to the subject of artist Harry Bennett so soon, less than a year after I highlighted his fine work on Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddell novels. But his illustration for the 1962 Permabooks edition of Start Screaming Murder, by Talmage Powell, has been beckoning from my cover files for the last couple of weeks. And there is no good reason to ignore it any longer.
I mean, the jacket shown above has everything: a bonny, underdressed danseuse; mobster types enjoying the floor show with their fedoras, pistols, and libidinous desires; a distinctive, hand-drawn title; and if it’s not obvious from those components that Start Screaming Murder is a novel of crime and detection, Bennett has superimposed the haunting outline of a weapon over his central figures. It must have taken superhuman restraint for a fan of Powell’s fiction, happening across this novel on a spinner rack during the Kennedy era, to decide there was anything more important to do with his 35 cents than snap it up. Bennett (who, at age 90, is still with us) knew just what crime-pulp readers wanted: flesh, fear, and firearms--not necessarily in that order. No wonder Permabooks hired him to create at least one more Powell book front, for its 1962 paperback version of With a Madman Behind Me.
Both of those novels, incidentally, feature a Tampa, Florida, private eye named Ed Rivers. In their Edgar Award-nominated, 1985 book, Private Eyes, 101 Knights: A Survey of American Detective Fiction, 1922-1984, Michael T. Nietzel and Robert Baker characterize Rivers this way:
Ed Rivers lives alone in a small apartment in a run-down neighborhood on the edges of Ybor City, as the Latin Quarter in Tampa, Florida, is called. Ed, who is in his early forties, has brown eyes and brown straight hair thinning at the crown. He is six feet tall and weighs approximately one hundred and ninety pounds. His face is heavy, bearish, dark tanned and creased. “Women either get a charge from his face or want to run from it. Men fear it or trust it to the hilt” [writes Powell]. Ed’s office in downtown Tampa has a sign on the doors which reads: Nationwide Detective Agency, Southeastern Office, Agent in Charge: Ed Rivers. Ed carries a .38 plus a knife in a sheath at the nape of his neck and he knows how to use both. Like most competent P.I.s, Ed has a friend at Headquarters--Lieutenant Steve Ivey who helps whenever Ed needs a buddy in blue. Ed’s office is in two parts--an outer office with a cracked leather couch and matching chairs and an inner office that has a desk, a filing cabinet and a beat-up Underwood typewriter. The building is old and gloomy and the stairs creak under Ed’s weight. Ed makes his own air-conditioning for his apartment--he puts a 25-pound block of ice in a dishpan, the pan on the table and an electric fan behind the pan pointed at the bed. Once upon a time, seventeen years ago, Ed was a cop in Jersey. Ed also had a girl but she took off with a hood that Ed was after. They raced a fast freight train to a crossing and lost. After drinking and drifting for several years, Ed wound up in Tampa working as a stevedore. Then Nationwide gave him a chance and he took it. He’s been at the P.I. business ever since.The Ed Rivers series began in 1959 with The Killer Is Mine and continued through four more novels, ending with 1964’s Corpus Delectable. Kevin Burton Smith of The Thrilling Detective Web Site says these books are “all well-written, emotionally satisfying reads, solid entries in the genre, and don’t cheat the reader. You could do a lot worse than dig these puppies up; a definite cut above most of the P.I. novels of the era.” In his Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994), crime novelist William L. DeAndrea remarks that “The well-realized, unusual setting, and Powell’s depiction of Rivers as a thinking and caring P.I., for all his skill with the gun and knife he carries, sets this series apart.” Conclude Nietzel and Baker: “Ed is a good knight, one who is a real pleasure to know.”
Start Screaming Murder is the fourth entry in this series. In the story, Nietzel and Baker explain, “Ed is sapped in an alley near his apartment. When he staggers into his pad he finds tiny Tina La Flor--a midget singer--hiding in his room after coming in over the transom. She was being chased by the sapper--Bucks Jordan--a heavy who was after her body. Ed comes to her aid for seventy-five bucks a day plus expenses--Ed’s going rate. Ed manages to catch Jordan at Tina’s house, beat him up and warn him about letting Tina alone. Bucks agrees and shortly afterwards Lieutenant Ivey shows up to tell Ed that Bucks is dead--murdered by his own blackjack. Now Ed has to find the real murderer as well as Tina who has mysteriously disappeared. In unraveling the knots, Ed is locked in a car trunk, hit on the head umpteen times and ‘angrified’ something awful! And when Ed is mad he really plays rough.”
The back-jacket copy teases the plot this way, emphasizing the obstacles Rivers must surmount in order to retrieve an important belt packed with cold cash:
I swung the wet, flat money belt, enjoying the slap of itAuthor Powell’s own story began in tiny Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he consumed his first tentative breaths in 1920. He went on to attend schools in that state as well as in Tennessee, New York, and California before studying writing at the University of North Carolina. Powell began his fiction-creating career in 1942, selling his work mostly to the pulp magazines.
against my leg.
I had gone through a lot to get that belt. I had consorted with midgets and freaks. I had been lied to, framed, been offered the bribery of a beautiful but depraved normal-sized woman’s body.
I had also been beaten senseless twice, another time left for dead, locked in the trunk of an abandoned car.
And now I was home, free.
“It’s a long story,” I said. I thought about it for a moment. “It began with a beautiful little doll who stands three feet tall. Unhappily she had an ache inside her almost as big as she imagined the rest of us to be.
“I just assumed early-on that I would grow up to be a writer,” Powell told an interviewer in 1997--three years before he died at age 79 in an Asheville, North Carolina, hospital on March 9, 2000. “I can’t identify any specific inspiration, or reason, for that state of mind. I received my first blush with ‘publication’ when I was in the fifth grade. I wrote a little story as an English assignment and the next day the teacher varied the usual daily routine to read the story to the class and invite discussion.
“The pulps were an influence simply because they were there, a voracious market, said to consume a billion words a year.
“Magazine fiction in those days supplied entertainment in proportion comparable to TV today. Editors were under constant pressure to fill their ‘books’ (they never referred to the publications as magazines) with stories that would retain and expand their readership in viciously competitive circumstances.
“The result for writers was largely a sellers’ market. Publishers employed staffs of specialist readers to spot signs of talent in the ‘slush pile,’ unsolicited stories that came in ‘over the transom.’ Writers received reports on submissions usually in two weeks or less, and were paid on acceptance. The writer who could steadily produce quickly moved up to double the base rate of a penny a word.”
Powell certainly knew how to produce quickly, but he was also able to write at a discernible cut above many of his contemporaries. Over the next half century, he peddled dozens and dozens of pulp short stories under his own moniker as well as the pseudonyms “Milton T. Lamb,” “Robert Hart Davis,” “Ann Talmage,” and others. He contributed to such “books” as Black Mask, Hollywood Detective, Ranch Romances, Fifteen Western Tales, and Dime Mystery, turning out yarns in pretty much every genre. (“I thought of genre in broad general terms, ... and enjoyed writing in any terminology,” the author said.) “After the demise of the pulps,” explains an article in the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, “Powell continued to write another 300 plus short stories for fiction magazines such as EQMM [Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine], Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne, Manhunt, and Suspense.” He also penned stories and screenplays for television, ghost-wrote the first two books in Ellery Queen’s Tim Corrigan series in the 1960s, and even composed a couple of novels (1969’s The Priceless Particle and 1970’s The Money Explosion) as tie-ins with the popular TV series Mission: Impossible. What’s more, he concocted non-series crime works such as The Man-Killer (1960), The Girl Who Killed Things (1960), and The Raper (1962, credited to “Jack McCready” and with a cover illustration by Rafael De Soto), as well as western novels such as The Cage (1969).
There’s no question, however, that Talmage Powell is best remembered for his mere handful of Ed Rivers private-eye tales. However, he could certainly be remembered for worse. I was just introduced to the Rivers books this year, but am enjoying them for some of the same reasons that I’ve come to appreciate the mid-20th-century novels of Thomas B. Dewey, Brett Halliday, William Ard, Robert Terrall, and others--strong characters, quirky plots, hard-driving narratives, and an originality of voice that came from these authors trailing fewer predecessors in the genre. As my friend Mr. Smith said, “You could do a lot worse than dig these puppies up.”