Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Corpse Came Calling, by Brett Halliday

Sometimes you make decisions ... and sometimes decisions are thrust upon you. The latter certainly seemed to be the case when, a few weeks ago, I went browsing through the West Burnside headquarters location of Powell’s Books, the largest bookstore in Portland, Oregon, and one of the most impressive establishments of its kind to be found anywhere in the United States. I was looking through its extensive stock of vintage crime fiction, searching for works by authors I don’t know well. And when I arrived at the “H” section, my eyes were suddenly drawn to a Dell paperback edition of Brett Halliday’s 1942 Mike Shayne novel, The Corpse Came Calling. Not only was the book jacket an out-and-out stunner--another one of those “bondage covers” that seem to become so popular on crime-fiction shelves during the post-World War II era--but there was a pink Post-it note protruding from the top of the book that read, “One of the Greatest Covers of All Time.”

Who was I to disagree?

Most readers of this page are probably familiar with the Shayne private-eye series, which began in 1939 with Dividend on Death and ended in 1976 with Win Some, Lose Some. Its creator, Halliday, was actually Davis Dresser, born in Chicago in 1904 but reared primarily in West Texas, where he lost his left eye in a barbed-wire accident. For the rest of his life, Dresser wore an eye patch--quite the dashing accessory for a purveyor of literary criminalities. The story goes that Dresser ran away from home at age 14, enlisted with the U.S. Army Cavalry, and went off to patrol the Texas-Mexico border. Later, he returned to finish high school, then drifted about the American Southwest, taking employment as a muleskinner and oil field laborer, before earning a college degree in civil engineering. But after a few years of being poorly paid as an engineer and surveyor, by 1927 Dresser was in the market for something more interesting to do. He settled on penning short stories for the old pulp magazines.

He wrote several early books under pseudonyms such as “Anthony Scott,” “Elliot Storm,” and “Asa Baker.” But it was the Halliday nom de plume that finally won him renown--though not immediately. “It took four years and twenty-two rejections before Dresser found a publisher for Dividend on Death (1939), the first Michael Shayne novel,” according to the Books and Writers Web site. Of that novel’s story line, the Web site Dr. Hermes Reviews offers this write-up: “There’s a perfectly fine plot about murders in the ritzy upper class, a young heiress going insane (or is she?), some hurried sex with a nurse and a large serving of violence (Shayne takes enough punishment to kill a mule in this one), most of the ingredients for a classic crime thriller. But it’s the little bursts of whacky deadpan comedy that make these books stick in my mind. Not many of us are composed enough to rinse blood from a nightgown while making breakfast (the trick is to use very cold water while the stains are fresh).” After that introduction, it didn’t take long for Dresser’s stories about his cognac-quaffing, evidence-tampering, mid-30s detective to become a commercial success.

The Corpse Came Calling was Miami gumshoe Shayne’s sixth outing, published two years after this “toughest red-head ever” (as his creator saw him) made his first appearance in B-movies, portrayed by Lloyd Nolan, who was both shorter and less coarse than the Shayne featured in the novels. (Nolan would go on to play the character in seven films, before being replaced by actor Hugh Beaumont, who later became better known as the paterfamilias Ward Cleaver on television’s Leave It to Beaver.) It was also one of the last novels in which Mike Shayne was a married man. His beautiful and exuberant young wife, the former Phyllis Brighton, was killed off shortly after Halliday sold Hollywood the rights to his detective series. (For details, see 1943’s Blood on the Black Market--aka Heads You Lose--described by some critics as the best of the Shayne adventures.) After that, our hero was free to romance any and, well, pretty much every female who tossed a sigh or smile his way.

Regarding the plot of The Corpse Came Calling, the opening-page teaser copy on my 1955 Dell paperback edition gives you a taste:
Two-faced blonde ...

She looked demure and innocent. She even choked on weak wine. Mike Shayne didn’t believe her when she said, “I’ve done some despicable things.”

Then she told Shayne she’d been a decoy girl in a divorce racket. And that she wanted a casual favor--the murder of her husband.

Two-fisted detective ...

Mike Shayne’s picture of the blonde was confused, but evidently she had a clear profile on him--it was labeled “fall guy.” She didn’t know that Mike Shayne isn’t often taken in--and when he is, the red-headed shamus has a temper the same shade as his flaming hair ...
Adding to the story’s attractions are a dying man in Shayne’s apartment doorway, Phyllis’ abduction by lecherous thugs, and its setting just six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Even more interesting, however, is the cover illustration featured at the top of this post. I think it’s the best of several jackets this novel has sported over time (including this one, which I’m guessing shows Shayne with his soon-to-be-late wife, and this one, illustrated by the great Robert McGinnis). It’s the work of a New Jersey-born artist named Robert E. Schulz (1928-1978), who, according to one source, “earned a degree in architecture from Princeton and studied art with illustrator Frank Reilly at the Art Students League in [New York City]. In the early 1950s, following a school competition, he was hired by Pocket Books and subsequently did work for Signet, Dell, and Bantam as well. ... His painterly style favored realism and tended to convey a strong sense of atmosphere.”

During the mid-20th century, Schulz’s art adorned the jackets of science-fiction works by Arthur C. Clarke (Sands of Mars), Murray Leinster (Space Tug), and Philip K. Dick (The World Jones Made). They could also be seen on adventure novels by Alistair MacLean (HMS Ulysses), and on westerns by Zane Grey (Arizona Ames) and William Hopson (Hangtree Range). No less significant were his artistic contributions to crime-fiction bookshelves. In addition to doing the Corpse Came Calling front, Schulz created the cover for a 1955 paperback issue of Halliday’s non-Shayne novel Before I Wake (1949, above). He did at least one cover for a Harry Whittington novel, One Got Away; the front for a Permabooks edition of Ed McBain’s 1957 novel, Killer’s Choice; and the haunting jacket for the 1958 Signet edition of Georges Simenon’s The Fugitive (both of those last two are shown at left).

Schulz, in fact, kept working long past the time Davis Dresser stopped. Dresser’s final Mike Shayne novel, Murder and the Wanton Bride, came out in 1958. After that, he continued to reap the financial benefits of his red-headed protagonist’s success in bookstores, on the silver screen, and in three radio series, but the “Halliday” novels were actually penned by the likes of Robert Terrall, Dennis Lynds (aka Michael Collins), and Ryerson Johnson. Other writers, among them Mike Avallone, James Reasoner, and Richard Deming, adopted the Halliday pseudonym themselves to compose Shayne yarns for Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine, which debuted in 1956. The Miami sleuth’s name and reputation were further enhanced thanks to Michael Shayne, a 1960-1961 NBC-TV series that starred Richard Denning. As Richard Meyers notes in his 1981 book TV Detectives, by the mid-’60s, Dresser “owned his own publishing firm, and became one of the founders of the Mystery Writers of America. [He] had gone from being just an author to being a mover--a power--in the entertainment business.”

The monthly Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine (later Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine) finally disappeared from sales racks in 1985. By that time, Dresser--a Santa Barbara, California, resident who was married for a decade and a half to fellow crime novelist Helen McCloy (creator of the series character, psychologist-detective Dr. Basil Willing) was also gone; he died in February 1977 at age 72. The character from whom they both profited for so long isn’t anywhere near as popular now as he once was. However, as I understand it, the 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was based in part on Dresser’s 1941 Shayne novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them.

To whoever attached that Post-it note to the copy I bought of The Corpse Came Calling, thanks for the inspiration. Any excuse to revisit Mike Shayne is a good one.

READ MORE:The Mike Shayne Comic Books,” by James Reasoner (Rough Edges); “Come Back, Shayne! Michael Shayne Mysteries on DVD,” by John Beifuss (The Bloodshot Eye); “Forgotten Books: Mum’s the Word for Murder--Brett Halliday (David Dresser),” by James Reasoner (Rough Edges); “The Hard-boiled Hero,” by Gary Giddins (The New York Sun); “Davis Dresser--A Working Bibliography,” by Kenneth R. Johnson.


James Reasoner said...

That is a nice cover. I hadn't run across that particular edition before.

If you'll allow me to quibble a little, the plot that website describes for DIVIDEND ON DEATH isn't right at all. That's actually the plot of SHE WOKE TO DARKNESS, a 1954 Shayne novel. I believe some other real-life mystery writers besides "Halliday" appear in that novel, but it's been quite a while since I read it, so I'm not sure. Also, DIVIDEND ON DEATH wasn't published under the Asa Baker pseudonym. I used to have a copy of the first edition published by Henry Holt in 1939, and the by-line was definitely Brett Halliday.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Thanks for the heads-up, James. Dividend on Death is one of the Mike Shayne novels I haven't read, so I wasn't alert to the errors in the write-up to which I linked. I have now substituted another description of that book's plot and made a few other smaller amendments to this post. I hope everything is correct now.


Anonymous said...

You have a nice collection of covers. I've borrowed one for my website, with a link back to your site. Thanks a million.

Karl-Erik Lindkvist said...

Nice! It was a long time ago I last read a Shayne novel, but I remember that my favorites used to be "Marked for Murder" and "This is it, Michael Shayne!" (I found "Dividend on Death" a little bit dull compared to Halliday's later work.)