Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Two-fer Tuesdays: Twelfth Plight

A twice-monthly pairing of book covers that just seem to go together. Click on either of these images to open up an enlargement.

Blogger August West gave the basics of Murder by the Dozen in a review he posted in 2008. “[From] 1934 through 1938,” he explained, “Hugh Wiley penned 12 short stories for Collier’s magazine featuring the Chinese-American confidential operative James Lee Wong. In 1951, Popular Library published all 12 in a paperback and I am glad they did. They are wonderful, quick, pulp who-done-its, with the educated James Lee (Wong is rarely used in the stories) solving cases for the [U.S.] Department of Justice or as a private man for [San Francisco’s] Chinese community. If you enjoyed John Marquand’s Mr. Moto novels or Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels, you’ll want to include Hugh Wiley’s Oriental sleuth in the grouping.”

After finding all this information on the Web, it took me a few minutes to recall why the name Mr. Wong was so familiar. Then it hit me: The character was portrayed by Boris Karloff in a succession of five movies shot during the late 1930s and early ’40s, beginning with Mr. Wong, Detective (1938). A sixth entry in the series, Phantom of Chinatown, hit theaters in 1940, and rather than Karloff, it starred Chinese-American actor Keye Luke, who had previously played “Number One Son” in the Charlie Chan films, and would go on to feature as blind Master Po in the 1972-1975 TV series Kung Fu.

According to a brief biography on the Web, author Wiley was born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1884, and “became an engineer during the first decade of the 20th century.” Following a stint with the U.S. Army in France during World War I, he “began writing professionally, beginning with an adventure tale entitled ‘Four Leaved Wildcat,’ which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on March 8, 1919. He followed this with a series of stories, ‘Mister Lady Luck,’ ‘Hop,’ ‘Junk,’ and ‘Solitaire’ among them, through the year 1920, and these were followed by his first books, The Wildcat in 1920 and The Prowler in 1921. … It wasn’t until 1934, however, that Wiley created the character that would give him his most lasting impact on Hollywood. That year, he published a story entitled ‘Medium Well Done’ in Collier’s magazine, in which he introduced the character of James Lee Wong, an educated, articulate, gentlemanly Chinese-American sleuth whose expertise at solving crimes carries him into contact with the most brutal of murders, and a world of opium dens and other presumed attributes of the Chinatown underworld.”

“Medium Well Done” is of course included in Murder by the Dozen, a paperback original that does its best to attract readers--not only with its cover art showing a woman being attacked at the door of an automobile, but with its back-jacket copy:

A woman’s scream pierced the silence of the Chinese cemetery. James Lee Wong raced to the scene, only to hear the distant grinding of gears as a ruthless abductor sped off into the night with a frightened victim. The case had started with a corpse in a dark alley--and a missing $200,000 which Fang Yut, a wealthy importer, had used to smuggle opium into the States. The worried lords of Frisco’s Chinatown called Detective James Lee to clean up the scandal. Lee soon found himself thrown into a whirlpool of violence which was to culminate in the strange death of Fang Yut and in the brutal kidnapping of a white girl. This is only one of twelve exciting action-packed stories featuring the famous Chinese master sleuth, James Lee Wong.
Unfortunately, I don’t find an artist credit for the illustration fronting Murder by the Dozen. If I had to guess, I’d say it was the work of Rudolph Belarski, whose talents were also exhibited on this book and this book, and who took many assignments for Popular Library during the mid-1900s. But I have no proof. So any knowledge readers can offer on this subject would be appreciated.

Meanwhile, though, I can say confidently that the painting that adorns the façade of Butcher’s Dozen--shown on the right at the top of this post--was done by Harry Schaare, about whom I last wrote here. Despite what said cover might suggest, this is apparently a non-fiction volume published by Signet in 1951. Its author, John Bartlow Martin, was described in his 1987 New York Times obituary as an “author, speechwriter and confidant of Democratic politicians who also served as Ambassador to the Dominican Republic …” The same piece notes that this Hamilton, Ohio-born son of a carpenter “became interested in modern literature in high school, and after graduating at the age of 16 he entered [Indiana’s] DePauw University [from which] he was expelled before the end of the year for drinking in his room.
He began his journalistic career as a $9-a-week “gofer” in the Indianapolis bureau of the Associated Press. He later went on to graduate from DePauw where he edited the school paper and wrote for The Indianapolis Times.

With a check for $175, the profits from his first freelance magazine article, Mr. Martin moved to Chicago with one suitcase, a portable typewriter and a desire to write.

After several years divided between writing for pulp detective magazines, more serious journals and service in the army, Mr. Martin established his national reputation with an article for
Harper’s magazine about an explosion at a mine in Centralia, Ill., that killed about 100 people. The article, which at 18,500 words was the longest in the magazine’s history, helped lead to a new Federal mine safety code.

Several articles and books followed, and Mr. Martin’s name became a familiar [sight] on the cover of the great mass-circulation magazines of the 1940’s and 1950’s:
The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Collier’s, and The Atlantic.
Butcher’s Dozen, first published in book form by Harper & Bros. back in 1950 (and later abridged for the Signet paperback edition), employs what Kirkus Reviews called “a direct, documentary approach for the retelling of six criminal cases.” That same periodical went on to explain that the work’s contents cover, among other infamous offenses, “Chicago’s Bookie Gang which ended up by fighting the Syndicate as well as the police,” “Clara Belle Penn who was strangled in Houston, Texas,” and--in its title story, which appeared originally in 1949--Cleveland, Ohio’s unsolved torso murders of the 1930s, a serial-killing spree that claimed 12 victims.

The back cover of Butcher’s Dozen can be seen here.

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