Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Man Who Had Too Much to Lose,
by Hampton Stone


Chicago illustrator Al Brule may be most fondly remembered for his post-World War II “pin-up girl” paintings. Like artists Gil Elvgren and Art Frahm, he was heavily influenced by another Windy City talent, Haddon Sundblom, who became famous for integrating beautiful--and mischievously underclad--women into U.S. advertising campaigns. Sundblom, according to an online history of pin-up art, had a “technique of using thick layers of paint to achieve a warmth and glow [that] was dubbed ‘the mayonnaise school.’” Brule capitalized on that technique in his own commercial work. A short biography, apparently lifted from 2002’s The Great American Pin-up, by Charles G. Martignette and Louis K. Meisel, says that
During the 1940s and the 1950s, [Brule] created many advertisements for major national corporations, most of them appearing as full pages in leading magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. Brule also painted a number of advertising images that were reproduced as twenty-four-sheet billboards, which lined America’s highways or were hung on the sides of buildings or specially erected platforms.
His pin-ups--a number of which can be enjoyed here--captured curvilinear lovelies in scenes that were captivating without being overtly sexual. Their impact derived partly from their ostensible innocence. In one particularly well-known piece, “Forced Landing” (shown on the left--click for an enlargement), which appeared originally on a 1963 calendar, a slender brunette disembarks from a passenger jet, only to be met on the runway by a brisk wind that lifts her skirt and, as she reaches up to steady her hat, causes her to dump the contents of her purse. Somehow amidst all of this precipitant frenzy, the young lady’s frilly knickers flutter down her gartered legs to settle atop her high heels. She couldn’t be more embarrassed by this incident ... and the men descending the roll-up stairs behind her could hardly be more pleased. At one time, there were many of these “panties falling down” pin-ups making the rounds, a number of them executed by the aforementioned Frahm. The physics involved in such wardrobe malfunctions were never adequately elucidated, but the imagery was nonetheless popular. With ample reason.

Brule (who is said to have died in May 2001) is considerably less familiar for his paperback book illustrations. But he did many of them, both for children’s books and for adult novels by the likes of Rex Stout, Mignon G. Eberhart, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Louis Malley, and George Bagby. Or should I say in that last instance, Hampton Stone, who is credited with writing the book I’m spotlighting this week, The Man Who Had Too Much to Lose? Actually, both Bagby and Stone were pseudonyms of New York-born, Princeton-educated Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985).

The Golden Age of Detection Wiki reports that “Stein worked as a journalist in the 1920s and 1930s,” and during World War II “he worked for the Office of War Information and did Army work in Chinese and Japanese translation.” He saw his first novel, Spirals, published in 1930. His early fiction was serious and avant-garde, but it didn’t sell well, so he turned instead to penning crime and mystery stories. After the war, explained Francis M. Nevins in the Mystery*File blog, Stein “became a full-time author and wrote so prolifically and skillfully that in the early 1950s, when he was turning out four or more titles a year, New York Times mystery critic Anthony Boucher called him the most reliable professional detective novelist in the United States.” Nevins notes that “Between 1935 and his death half a century later he produced an astounding 110 book-length mysteries ...” In addition, Stein found time to turn out short stories.

Under his own byline, Stein concocted tales featuring a “hard-bitten engineer” named Matt Erridge, as well as a series of novels built around archaeologists Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt, who roamed the exotic reaches of Central and South America in search of ancient artifacts--but usually discovered murder in the bargain. As Bagby, he composed books about Inspector Schmidt (“Schmitty”) of the New York Police Department, a sharp-witted homicide detective “who likes to complain about his aching feet,” as an entry in the Ultimate Mystery Fiction Web Guide observes. That same entry points out that the character of Bagby co-starred in those yarns as “the Watson to Schmidt’s Holmes, following him on cases, and acting as biographer.” There are 51 Schmidt novels, beginning with Ring Around a Murder (1936) and concluding, I believe, with 1983’s The Most Wanted.

As Hampton Stone, this author turned out 18 yarns (beginning with 1948’s The Corpse in the Corner Saloon) starring Jeremiah X. Gibson, a young ex-New York cop turned assistant district attorney, who does the majority of his work outside of courtrooms. “Gibby is assisted in this,” explained William L. DeAndrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994), “by his best friend and fellow assistant district attorney, ‘Mac’ (not to be confused with the private eye character Mac created by Thomas B. Dewey). Mac narrates most, but not all, of the adventures; the others are written in the third person. As in the author’s other New York-based series, [the Schmidt novels] ... the city is remarkably well done.”

The Man Who Knew Too Much was originally published in hardcover in 1955. Al Brule’s arresting illustration (shown at the top of this post) appeared on the 1957 Dell paperback edition. It’s a creation of remarkable contrasts--between the pretty woman with what looks like a pearl necklace and the menacing, dark-gloved hand approaching her neck; and between that green-washed image on the left and the smaller, more loosely defined, and lighter portrait on the right of a man (Gibby, perhaps?) in a suit and hat, with his back turned to the viewer. “A beauty and a beast--and a ruthless killer hunting both!” screams the sales blurb at the top of this cover. How can you not give this book a second look?

A few years back, Mystery*File editor Steve Lewis opined that “no matter what name he wrote under, Aaron Marc Stein was a man who could write. He could write circles around anybody. He could take a scene of a man getting up in the morning and searching for a button on the floor and expand into three pages worth of writing, and every word would be interesting and essential. What the man was thinking, what the man had for dinner the night before, who the man was planning on meeting as soon as he got dressed, having found the missing button first, and which way his shoelaces were tied, left over right or right over left.” For his efforts and excellence in the crime-writing field, in 1979 Stein was given the Grand Master Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Yet, he ended his days in a Manhattan co-op on Park Avenue, living with his sister, Miriam-Ann Hagen--who also wrote mystery fiction--and “having never attained the popular success he so richly deserved,” to quote Nevins once more. Stein perished from cancer on August 29, 1985, at age 79. Twenty-five years later, it’s only connoisseurs of this genre who even remember his name or novels.

READ MORE:Aaron Marc Stein: The Dead Thing in the Pool” (Tattered and Lost Ephemera); “Mike Nevins on Aaron Marc Stein, Nicholas Blake, Walter Kilbourne & Sydney Pollack,” by Francis M. Nevins (Mystery*File).

2 comments:

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Words and Eggs said...

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