Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Go, Honeylou, by Thomas B. Dewey

Let’s get one thing straight first: Thomas B. Dewey was not the fairly liberal Republican governor of New York who ran for the U.S. presidency in 1948 and--despite most predictions and one famously incorrect newspaper headline--lost badly to Democratic incumbent Harry S. Truman. No, that was Thomas E. Dewey. The author under consideration here is Thomas B. (for Blanchard) Dewey, whose two-decades-long career, stretching from the 1940s through the ’60s, left us with more than three dozen novels, most of them featuring one of two private detectives: the memorably compassionate Mac, and the happily married Pete Schofield, the latter of whom is responsible for the crime-solving in Go, Honeylou (1962).

Dewey was born in the Indiana town of Elkhart on March 6, 1915, and is said to have traveled widely through the American Midwest as a young man. According to the Edgar Award-nominated book Private Eyes, 101 Knights: A Survey of American Detective Fiction, 1922-1984, by Michael T. Nietzel and Robert Baker (1985), Dewey
received a Bachelor of Science in Education degree from Kansas State Teacher’s College (now Emporia State) in 1936 and did graduate work at [the University of] Iowa in 1937 and 1938 before moving to California, where he received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1973. Dewey held a number of writing and editorial jobs during his career, including a stint with the [U.S.] State Department, a magazine editorship, and several years with a Los Angeles advertising agency. He also taught English at Arizona State University for several years before turning to freelance writing on a full-scale basis.
Another source says this author was married twice, first to Maxine Morley Sorensen in 1951, and then again in 1972, to Doris L. Smith.

Dewey’s debut novel was Hue and Cry (1944), which concerned “a small-town girl who finds herself pregnant and unmarried.” It introduced readers to Singer Batts, a Shakespearean scholar and bibliophile who owns a small hotel in the fictional town of Preston, Ohio. Like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, Batts “is given a full slate of eccentricities,” observed critic Jon L. Breen in his Dewey profile for the Summer 2008 edition of Mystery Scene magazine: “his hobby is studying historical murder cases; he compulsively writes to lonely-hearts clubs; in deliberate reversal of the Wolfe pattern, he is painfully thin owning to a tendency not to eat; he drinks only to face contemporary murder.” The humble Batts is “one of the most reluctant detectives who ever tracked down criminals,” added Ray Broadus Browne in Heroes and Humanities: Detective Fiction and Culture (1986). He “does not like having his reading interrupted and often will not pay attention to anything said or done to him before he has finished a chapter in a book because he ‘can’t stop in the middle of a marginal note.’ Yet when on the trail of criminals Batts is witty, clever, and unrelenting as well as slothful. As is his hard-nosed helper, the manager [of his hotel], Joe Spinder.” Dewey continued interrupting Batts’ peaceful reading through three more novels--As Good as Dead (1946), Mourning After (1950), and Handle with Fear (1951)--before leaving him to the cool company of his bookshelves.

Halfway through the Batts and Spinder series, Dewey gave birth to a different sort of detective, of hard-boiled heritage but with a strong empathetic side that would later arouse favorable comparisons with Ross Macdonald’s Los Angeles private eye-cum-therapist, Lew Archer. The single-monikered “Mac” was “a former Chicago police officer forced out of the department because he was too honest. ... [He] solved a case that the powers-that-be wanted to quash,” recalled Bruce F. Murphy in The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (1999). “Mac,” continued Murphy, “is the fairly sensitive lonely guy of most good hard-boiled fiction, a sort of junior [Philip] Marlowe. He does not indulge in misogyny nor become caught up in saccharine romances, which makes many of the books still readable.” The character also claimed a modest streak a country mile wide. For instance, during his initial appearance, in 1947’s Draw the Curtain Close (aka Dame in Danger), Mac described himself as “just a guy. I go around and get in jams and then try to figure a way out of them. I work hard. I don’t make very much money and most people insult me one way or another. I’m thirty-eight years old, a fairly good shot with small arms, slow-thinking but thorough and very dirty in a clinch.” The fact that Dewey concealed his protagonist’s surname (perhaps revealing it finally in 1969’s The Love-Death Thing, when the sleuth asks a telephone operator to pass along a message from “Mac Robinson”) suggests he wanted his Windy City gumshoe to serve as an Everyman witness to the woes and family dramas of his era. That same intent lay behind Lew Archer, envisaged by Macdonald as a “selfless chameleon” who “likes to move through society both horizontally and vertically, studying people like an anthropologist.”

Over the course of more than two decades, Dewey produced 17 Mac novels. The best of those might be 1954’s The Mean Streets (which critic Breen counts among the 25 best private-eye novels of all time), A Sad Song Singing (1963), How Hard to Kill (1962), and Deadline (1966). But I also enjoyed The Case of the Chased and the Unchaste (1958), which sends Mac off to sunny California to help an obdurate film producer whose daughter appears threatened with abduction.

It’s for his Mac novels that Dewey is best remembered nowadays. But Mac was not this author’s final series protagonist, nor--frankly--was he the most fun. That description better fits Pete Schofield, who starred in nine screwballish adventures, beginning with And Where She Stops (1957). As Breen explained in Mystery Scene:
A light-hearted character with little in common with Mac save his first-person style, Pete is married to a beautiful redhead named Jeannie. Married private eyes are relatively rare. Brett Halliday had tried a similar situation early in the Michael Shayne series, but madcap Phyllis was such an irritating character, he wisely killed her off. Jeannie is much easier to take.

Though Mac is not without humor--he can occasionally get off a risible wisecrack--the Chicago op is a pretty serious fellow. Pete, whose base of operations is [California’s] San Fernando Valley, has a much better time, his cases tending toward the farcical. While Dewey’s attempts at humor in the Singer Batts series had fizzled rather badly, in the Schofield books he handles the comic mystery very well. In every case, Pete finds beautiful, voluptuous women, often in various states of undress, surrounding him, but in a rare hard-boiled tribute to marital bliss, he always stays true to Jeannie. When Pete races off to work on a case, Jeannie goes through the motions of objecting, but on the whole she is amazingly tolerant of his private-eye lifestyle. And not surprisingly, she has the frequent
urge to join in.
That’s precisely what happens in Go, Honeylou. Schofield takes $500 from Pierce Bonwell, an itinerant tent-revival preacher from Texas, in exchange for his driving north to San Francisco with Bonwell’s beautiful, too-trusting, 19-year-old blonde niece, Honeylou, and depositing her there with her “aunt” Cindy. One look at Honeylou (“Six feet of honeysuckle and magnolia; buttermilk, biscuits, and bourbon”), and Jeannie is glad she decided to come along for the ride. It’s pretty slow going at first, what with stops for hearty repasts and Honeylou taking time out for five-mile-long runs down the highway in her skin-hugging shorts and abbreviated sweatshirts (behavior guaranteed to slow traffic to a rubbernecking crawl). However, when Schofield is clobbered by a mountain of malevolence known as Eddie, and the girl and Jeannie are snatched, the pace of Dewey’s storytelling really picks up. The private investigator doesn’t even wait long enough to fill the local cops in on this kidnapping’s specifics, before speeding off toward the Golden Gate, where he thinks--or at least hopes--Eddie has taken them. Predictably, Aunt Cindy turns out to be something other than the generous relative Schofield was led to expect; she also turns out to be no longer breathing. And though our hero finally retrieves his spouse and his “bright-eyed and burstin’” young charge, he can’t keep them safe, but instead winds up imprisoned along with the women in a backwoods cabin, under the watchful gaze and firepower of Eddie and his quick-tempered Mexican partner, Ampara. Whether the captives can escape depends on Schofield’s deviousness--and maybe his seductive skills as well.

While this plot isn’t the newest thing under the sun, the story’s madcap aspects and the playful relationship between Pete and Jeannie Schofield make Go, Honeylou a pleasurable read. Along with the nonsensical but entertaining Too Hot for Hawaii (1960), the wonderfully titled The Girl with the Sweet Plump Knees (1963), and Only on Tuesdays (1964), Go, Honeylou probably ranks among the finest of the Schofield novels. Oh, and The Golden Hooligan (1961) isn’t half bad either.

Until only a few years ago, when I stumbled upon a first-edition Dell paperback copy of Go, Honeylou stacked among my late father-in-law’s books, I’d never read anything by Thomas B. Dewey. The fact that my wife’s father had enjoyed his work didn’t guarantee that I would like it; our tastes in crime fiction often diverged. But I was finally won over by this book’s cover, with its eye-catching suggestions of pulchritude and peril.

The jacket illustration is credited to Victor Kalin (1919-1991), known as one of “the mainstays of mystery cover art for [publishers] Dell and Berkley in the 1960s. Like [William] Teason [who did many Agatha Christie book fronts], a Kalin cover was often a still life composed of clues from the story. Other of his works, however, focused rather on the setting of the story--a sinister ruin or a mist-shrouded harbor. He sometimes even managed to combine the two approaches.” At his Mystery Fiction History site, Michael E. Grost provides more information about this artist’s style:
Some of the best mystery novel covers of the [1960s] were painted by Victor Kalin. If Teason’s works could be described as “cheery,” Kalin’s works could be called “dramatic.” He illustrated many Mary Roberts Rinehart books. Sometimes he would follow the Teason approach, and show a still life of clues on the cover--for example, for The Great Mistake. ... But more often Kalin’s approach was architectural, showing buildings and landscape scenes from the story. His illustration for The Window at the White Cat is a visual pun. The White Cat is a somewhat crooked political club; in the novel it is housed in an urban building. Kalin makes it an elaborate white house for his cover, somewhat Gothic and gingerbready. But if you look at the cover at a distance, the house turns into the face of a white cat. The windows of the house become the cat’s eyes, etc. It is a very clever visual illusion.
Kalin’s portfolio extended well beyond these examples, however. He illustrated novels by Kelley Roos (The Blonde Died Dancing), Helen Reilly (The Opening Door), Louis Falstein (Slaughter Street), Frank Kane (A Real Gone Guy), Donald Hamilton (Assignment: Murder), Harold Q. Masur (Murder on Broadway), and so many other crime writers. In addition, Kalin’s illustrations can be seen fronting terror novels such as The Druid Stone, by Simon Majors.

For Go, Honeylou, Kalin created what appears to be a reflected-in-the-mirror image of the titular Texas miss, slipping out of a dress while gripping a horn-handled revolver. That illustration isn’t inspired by any scene in the novel that I recall, but it works splendidly. And it’s accompanied by an inset image of detective Pete Schofield. While the Schofield books carried jackets not only by Kalin, but also by Barye Phillips, Ron Lesser, and others, that little Schofield badge--or a slight variation on it--was consistent on the Dell paperback releases of this series. It assured readers that they were in for a criminally good, if sometimes kooky reading experience.

In addition to the three series mentioned here, Thomas B. Dewey composed short stories for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and other periodicals, and standalone novels that were published both under his own name (such as My Love Is Violent [1956], Hunter at Large [1961], and A Season for Violence [1966]) and under the pseudonym Tom Brandt (Run, Brother, Run, 1954). By the time of his death in 1981, at age 66, Dewey had seen one of his Mac novels, 1953’s Every Bet’s a Sure Thing, turned into an episode (“Death Is a Double Cross”) of the 1971-1976 William Conrad P.I. TV series, Cannon, and he’d been elected a director-at-large of the Mystery Writers of America. Unlike the 1948 GOP presidential candidate, this Dewey was clearly a winner.

Which makes it particularly regrettable that his oeuvre has fallen out of print. Dewey, opine co-authors Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller in 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide Mystery and Detective Fiction, is “one of detective fiction’s severely underrated writers.” Adds Jon L. Breen in Mystery Scene: “Of those writers who worked away at the private-eye form for a score or more novels, Dewey ranks in the top handful.” If you get a chance to read these novels, follow my lead: take a chance and dive right in.

READ MORE:Doing Dewey Up Delightfully,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Killer Covers); “Paperback Warrior Primer—Thomas B. Dewey” (Paperback Warrior); “Noir Art: Victor Kalin,” by Chad de Lisle (Noir Whale).


mybillcrider said...

Dewey spent the latter part of his life in Brady, Texas, and was the mentor (and ex-father-in-law) of the late Texas mystery writer Barbara Burnett Smith.

Unknown said...

Another excellent post. Makes me curious to add Dewey's work to the enormous stack of pulp paperbacks on my nightstand.

Frank Loose said...

Great article. I've read several Dewey's and enjoyed them. Regarding Mike Shayne being married in his early books --- I liked Phyliss!

Anonymous said...

Tom Dewey never lived in Texas, though he is buried in his wife's family plot in Brady TX. He spent his last years teaching at ASU in Arizona. He is greatly missed to this day by his family and friends.

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