Monday, April 13, 2009

Bury Me Deep, by Harold Q. Masur

It was while writing last week about the short-story collection The Name Is Jordan (1962) that I was reminded of its author, Harold Q. “Hal” Masur. That in turn led me to recall Masur’s first book, Bury Me Deep (1947), and sent me to my office shelves in search of my copy of that work, which happens to be a 1984 Quill Mysterious Classics edition introduced by what I rank as one of the finest paperback crime novel covers produced since Lyndon B. Johnson was president.

But then maybe I’m just partial to book fronts decorated with underdressed lovelies bearing brandy snifters.

Could be.

Not only was Bury Me Deep the first published novel from lawyer-turned-wordsmith Masur, but it introduced Scott Jordan, the Manhattan investigating attorney who would star in all but a pair of Masur’s 13 novels over the next 34 years. And it has one of the greatest openings of all time, which inspired the 1948 Pocket Books reprint of this novel as well as the cover art on the 1984 Quill edition:
It was a cold Thursday evening when I first saw the blonde. I had just come home from Penn Station and I opened the door to my apartment and I found her there. She was curled upon on my sofa, listening to my radio, and sipping her own brandy. At least I assumed it was her own because I dislike brandy and never buy it.

I stood there, rooted. Her costume had me floored. She was wearing black panties and a black bra and that was all. She sat with one leg folded comfortably under her and she smiled at me. I had never seen her before in my life, and I stood just inside the foyer, gaping at her in slack-jawed astonishment and still hanging onto my Gladstone bag, completely unaware at the moment of its fifty-pound load.

She was a leggy, bosomy number, flamboyantly constructed, with bright jonquil-yellow hair and pearly skin that contrasted startlingly against the black underthings. She looked up at me, and the alcoholic glassiness in her eyes didn’t keep her from making them warm and cordial. Women have looked at me like that before, but never in church.

“Jordan?” she asked, almost in a whisper.

I nodded, still dazed.

“You’re a little late,” she said.
Had Jordan not just flown back to New York, exhausted, from Palm Beach, Florida, where he’d handled the sale of some property on behalf of friend, there’s no telling whether things might have gone differently. As it is, though, he bundles the blonde--who has collapsed onto his carpet in what appears to be a drunken stupor--into a taxicab and sends her home, then looks forward to a soothing bath. But he’s soon interrupted, first by a trio of strangers demanding to enter his apartment, and then by a battleship-size bruiser, the alleged boyfriend of that intoxicated beauty, whose name turns out to be Verna Ford. Finally, after chasing all those people away, Jordan enjoys only a few hours of sleep before he’s rousted by cops wanting to know what his involvement is in Verna’s death. It seems her drink was poisoned, and she died during the cab ride home.

From that point onward, our determined hero makes it his business to figure out why Verna was waiting for him, who slipped her a lethal Mickey, and what part those interlopers who disturbed his peaceful homecoming had in her untimely demise. Bury Me Deep offers a fast-moving story, with lots of twists, fisticuffs, and clever turns of phrase. Definitely a cut above many of the American detective novels churned out at the end of the Second World War.

According to an article by Gary Lovisi that appeared in Paperback Parade in 1992, author Masur “received $500 for [Bury Me Deep] from his hardcover publisher and $2,500 from Pocket Books in 1948 for the paperback edition. The book proved a bestseller and sold over a million copies in various Pocket Book printings. The royalties from this book enabled him to continue his writing career.” In 1963, the same work served as the basis for a Japanese feature film. And both it and a subsequent Jordan novel, So Rich, So Lovely, and So Dead (1958), were adapted as episodes of television’s The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen--the third boob-tube series to be based on the exploits of Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay’s
novelist-sleuth, Ellery Queen.

Not bad for a book that most people don’t remember anymore.

Born in New York City in 1909, Masur was educated at New Jersey’s old Bordentown Military Institute and New York University, and graduated from the New York University School of Law in 1934. He went on to practice law until the early 1940s, when he was drafted into the U.S. military and sent to China during World War II. Beginning in the late ’30s, though, Masur began to publish short fiction in >pulp periodicals such as Argosy, Popular Detective, and Detective Story Magazine. A biographical note in my copy of Bury Me Deep says that in 1952, after he’d produced just four novels, Masur “won the Storyteller’s Award from the Mutual Broadcasting System for achievement in the field of popular fiction ... At Bennett Cerf’s suggestion, the Pentagon brought him to Washington [D.C.] to participate in war games with the general staff.” Lovisi explains that Pentagon planners “wanted to create a roundtable to discuss Soviet aggression. They had assembled political, business, and military leaders from all over the country and asked Hal to help them out. Then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Curtis LeMay wanted a writer for the group, someone with imagination, and they couldn’t have picked a better person than Hal.”

Masur had imagination, that’s for sure. He wrote Bury Me Deep after being discharged from the military, and went on to compose numerous short stories for Mammoth Detective, Ten Detective Aces, and other pulp publications of that era. His yarns often appeared under assumed names such as “Edward James” and “Guy Fleming,” and they introduced a variety of short-term characters such as attorney Harvey St. John and private eye Albert Catraz (often abbreviated as Al Catraz--get it?). In 1951, Masur served as the ghostwriter of American opera singer Helen Traubel’s novel, The Metropolitan Opera Murders, about a soprano heroine who is instrumental in solving a mystery.

However, Scott Jordan proved to be his top-selling creation. In his interview with Lovisi, Masur said he wanted his lawyer hero to be “a guy who was as ingenious in law as Perry Mason, but who was as bright and as insouciant as Nero Wolfe’s Archie Goodwin. I wanted to get a combination between those two.” Lovisi dug further:
[Gary Lovisi]: Where did Scott Jordan come from? How much of Hal Masur is in Scott Jordan?

[Harold Masur]: Well, he’s a lot smarter than I am. A lot braver. I think that he is an idealized version of what I would have like to have been. He was an idealized version of the kind of lawyer I would have liked to have been, but I could not achieve. I’m not as smart as Scott Jordan. ...

GL: Scott Jordan is a hard-boiled lawyer and private eye, he’s an intelligent man who uses his brain, a thinking man’s hard-boiled detective. What do you think about hard-boiled fiction?

HM: If you were writing for the pulps in those days you had to be hard-boiled. I suspect that as time went on, Scott Jordan became more soft-boiled, a little more civilized. It takes time to develop a human being and the cases he’s in.

Let me tell you something about what I decided to do about Scott Jordan once he was underway. Most of the stuff then being written involved gangsters and the underworld, the Mafia and everything, and I decided that I wanted to write stories that were different from Erle Stanley Gardner. I didn’t want a client coming into the office with a case. I wanted Scott Jordan personally involved. In every case he was a friend of the client or something was happening to him that was unusual, and in each book I wanted to pick out a business [such as art forgery, high finance, etc.] that would be the background of the book that I knew nothing about so I’d have to research it.

In that way I felt that I could expand my own horizons, and at the same time try to synthesize information to give the reader something.
Masur’s efforts tended to be well received. Critic Anthony Boucher began his January 1960 New York Times review of Send Another Hearse with the sentence, “The sole serious fault in the novels of Harold Q. Masur is their infrequency: we’ve been vouchsafed only eight book-length cases for Scott Jordan since the lawyer-detective made his debut in 1947.” Even 48 years later, when author Jennifer Egan (The Keep) was asked by The Village Voice to identify her favorite obscure novel, she picked Masur’s 1951 Jordan outing, You Can’t Live Forever. “In his savvy, stylish novels of the ’40s and ’50s,” Egan explained, “Masur manages to wink continuously at the detective genre even as he revels in it.”

Writing at the collaborative Web site Golden Age of Detection, Michigan film and crime-fiction enthusiast Mike Grost explains the characteristics of the Scott Jordan yarns:
Masur is not an absurdist, unlike [Raymond] Chandler. His plots make sense, and often center around some puzzle plot situation, just as in the Dime Detective tradition. There is a cheery atmosphere of escapism to the tales, also pulp like, and distinct from the weary weltschmerz of Chandler and Ross Macdonald. He also has some of the older pulp tradition’s forward narrative drive. Masur is unfortunately more subdued than some of the wildly surreal pulp stories of a previous era, however: Chandleresque traditions of a realistic depiction of “mean streets” have unfortunately descended over the postwar mystery story like a shroud.

Masur also has a certain middle-class orientation, which is antithetical to the social alienation of the Chandler school of P.I.s. He is obviously proud of his lawyer hero’s education and professional status--Masur was a lawyer himself. Masur’s attitude is in fact very close to the 1950s American pride in the nation’s growing prosperity and increasingly middle-class status. Masur also flaunts his education in the many cultural references which dot his tales. There are surprising references to tropical biology and customs in the stories, and a knowledgeability about literature. ...

Masur focuses on rich, corrupt people. He dislikes people who are getting easy money: bankers, union bosses, corrupt politicians, and people living on inherited wealth. His stories are full of gold diggers, both male and female, who marry rich people for their money, and greedy heirs. Extramarital affairs are also common, often motivated by money. A common type in his stories is the arrogant rich man, haughty and condescending, snide to his inferiors, and sure to get involved with a fist fight with the hero. Another standard group of Masur characters are the underworld types. These are often obvious crooks. Their criminal schemes often play a role in the plot, but they are rarely the mystery suspects or the actual killers themselves. Their role is simply to add corruption to the plot, and motives to the central characters in the tale. They stand off to one side of the story. Their function is close to what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin, a motivating force in a story whose actual content is not that important.

Masur had high regard for the police: his series officer Lieutenant John Nola is smart and incorruptible. Federal agents often show up as well; they are implacable, efficient, buzz-cutted and Brooks Brothers-suited forces of nature, honest, but not too directly involved in the detection, more characters who keep the pot boiling.
Harold Masur served as president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1973 and later worked as the organization’s general counsel for many years--tasks that, in 1991, won him the MWA’s Raven Award, given “to honor outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing.” Masur edited half a dozen or more anthologies, for the MWA as well as for Alfred Hitchcock. And he continued composing his own fiction at least into his 80s. His final Jordan novel, The Mourning After, was published in 1981. That followed a couple of standalone “big books,” neither of which featured his famous series shyster: The Attorney (1973) and The Broker (1981). When Gary Lovisi spoke with him in the spring of 1991, Masur claimed he had written an “entire rough draft” of “a Scott Jordan novel about the publishing business, a funny sort of thing, but it’s a murder book.” That work seems never to have reached print, though, and one has to wonder whatever became of it.

Unfortunately, Masur isn’t around to provide the information. He died in Boca Raton, Florida, in September 2005 at age 96. A good long life for an imaginative man.

By the way, the author was evidently fond of the cover on that 1984 Quill edition of Bury Me Deep featured at the top of this post. Its design is credited to both Irving Freeman and Steve Macanga. Searching the Web, I find that Macanga took on some other assignments for the Quill Mysterious Classics series, creating, as an example, the jacket for its 1984 reissue of Jim Thompson’s 1952 classic, The Killer Inside Me. Freeman, meanwhile, is credited with a number of cover designs, including those of Holt, Rinehart & Winston’s 1981 edition of James M. Cain’s The Baby in the Icebox and Doubleday and Company’s Black Coconuts, Brown Magic, by Joseph Theroux (1983). Together, Freeman and Macanga also created the fronts for a few, if not most, editions of the short-lived 1980s magazine The New Black Mask. They even paid tribute to their own cover of Bury Me Deep with the front of New Black Mask’s seventh issue, released in 1986. Studying that mag’s cover, which is featured on the right, it’s hard not to recognize the resemblance.

ADDENDUM: In his excellent 1994 reference work, Encyclopedia Mysteriosa: A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Detection in Print, Film, Radio, and Television, author William L. DeAndrea wrote that there’s “one central mystery” about Harold Q. Masur that can’t be solved: “what the heck is the Q. for? ‘I’ve always had it,’ the New York-based Masur says. ‘The story in the family is that my father looked at me in the cradle and said we finally had some quality in the family. But I don’t believe it.’”

READ MORE:FFB: Bury Me Deep -- Harold Q. Masur,” by John “J.F.” Norris (Pretty Sinister Books); “Murder on Broadway, by Hal Masur (1958),” by Utter Scoundrel (Lies! Damned Lies!).


Cullen Gallagher said...

Just when i promised to stop buying more books until I tackle a few of the too many that are piling up...

Then you drop this in my lap - and I'm off to ebay!

Frank Loose said...

What a terrific and thorough review. Thanks for the effort. It's serendipitous --- just last week i was in one of our fair city's used book stores and came across several Masur titles. I had heard of his name before but had no impression about his work, so i made a note to check up on him. Alas, your review arrives. Guess i know where I'm heading this weekend. Thanks for the great review. And, like you, i love the cover of Bury Me Deep. Unfortunately, i don't believe this was one of the books i saw the other day. As Cullen said, there's always Ebay. And Biblio and Alibris and Abe ....