Monday, October 17, 2016

Pump up the Volume! Radioland Murders (1994)

witnesses to death
Scott Michael Campbell and Brian Benben

Radioland Murders, a terrifically frenetic yet warmly nostalgic comedy-mystery film produced by George Lucas, was overwhelmingly panned by critics upon its release in the US and promptly cratered at the box office, having one of the biggest second weekend drops in American film history; yet since then it has enjoyed a good life on television, video and DVD, having developed something of a loyal fan following.

I'll admit it, I'm one of those fan followers.  Sure, the film is far from Woody Allen's ingenious Bullets over Broadway (1994), but it leaves me with a smile.

Anita Morris
At the time of its release, Radioland Murders received a dreaded one-star review from the late film critic Roger Ebert, who lambasted it as "all action and no character."  It certainly is one frenetically paced film, obviously drawing inspiration from Thirties screwball comedy as well as slapstick Forties mystery spoofs like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's Who Done It? (1942) (which is also set at a radio station). 

The film was originally conceived by George Lucas when he was writing the script of American Graffiti. (He also has a certain untitled science fiction film in mind.)  By 1979 it was slated for production (Steve Martin and Cindy Williams had been approached to star as the leads), but it took fifteen years for the film, heavily rewritten to appeal to the MTV generation, finally to be made.

Set in 1939 during the inaugural night of a major new radio network (WBN-Chicago), Radioland Murders is a madcap, mile-a-minute mystery film with a fantastic cast, although many of the parts are little more than cameos. 

Frantic! Scott Michael Campbell and Mary Stuart Masterson

The film's main characters are radio scriptwriter Scott Henderson (Brian Benben), Penny Henderson (Mary Stuart Masterson), Scott's estranged wife and assistant director at WBN, and harassed page boy Billy Budget (Scott Michael Campbell); though there are a tremendous number of additional players, including:

Ixnay on the urdermay! Mary Stuart Masterson and Brian Benben

Michael Lerner
as Lieutenant Cross, the police officer investigating the murders; Dylan Baker as Detective Jasper, Cross's dim assistant; Ned Beatty as General Walt Whalen, the owner of WBN; Jeffrey Tambor as Walt Whalen, Jr., WBN program director; Larry Miller as Herman Katzenback, the German-born stage manager of WBN; Anita Morris as Claudette Katzenback, "the va-va-va voom girl with the va-va-va voom voice"; Stephen Tobolowsky as Max Applewhite, the WBN sound engineer; Michael McKean as Rick Rochester, the WBN band conductor; Corbin Bernsen as Dexter Morris, the station announcer; Christopher Lloyd as Zoltan, sound effects impresario; Ellen Albertini Dow as the WBN organist; and Bobcat Goldthwait, Harvey Korman, Robert Klein, Ann De Salvo and Peter MacNicol as additional scriptwriters.

Whew! Even after six murders, there is still quite a bit of cast left!

the frequently clueless WBN scriptwriters get a lot of helpful tips from
cleaning lady Morgana (Leighann Lord, center), in a nice bit of social commentary

I'll admit right off that the mystery element is certainly a fizzle as a fair play mystery, but the plot still offers the old attraction of keeping us in suspense to see who will be next to be bumped off.  Also, the film adheres to the classic "wrong man" plot gambit so beloved by Alfred Hitchcock and other suspense film directors, as Scott Henderson gets arrested by Lieutentent Cross for the murders and ends up making a break for it, getting pursued by the blundering cops all over the towering station building. 

On the lam with a fruity problem: Brian Benben

The production design of the film is fantastic (if improbably elaborate?) and the radio show parodies that hurtle past us are wonderful. (Of course it helps if you love old time radio.)  Roger Ebert was right that there isn't much emphasis on character development--I think the page boy Billy Budget, in a winsome performance by Campbell, actually has the most developed character (he even has a story arc!)--but a number of the characters make impact even with their limited screen time. 

Back on the case: Michael Lerner and Brian Benben

The great Michael Lerner makes a great blustering cop; Anita Morris, in her last role (she tragically died from ovarian cancer at the age of 50 seven months before the film opened), is funny and sexy to the very end; Stephen Tobolowsky offers a welcome oasis of calm for much of this frantic film; Dylan Baker is delightfully dim indeed; Michael McKean, is quite droll in a mostly visual performance (check out the Saber Dance scene); Corbin Bernsen is memorably suave and acidly snide as the announcer; and even Bobcat Goldthwait didn't seem as irritating as I remember him from those days. Brian Benben and Mary Stuart Masterton gamely follow the bickering and bantering path blazed by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, even if their lines aren't nearly as good and Benben's character is more schlep than sophisticate.

Off the hook?  Brian Benben and Mary Stuart Masterson

I should mention too that there are additional cameos, uber-cameos, by Joey Lawrence, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Barty and, in his last film, the legendary George Burns, then 98 years old and with a delivery as comically deadpan as ever.  Radioland Murders always leaves me wanting to see more of the characters who inhabit its world (until they get bumped off); and that's not a bad thing to say about any creative work.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Writing Illini, Part 2: More Detail on the College Days of Rudy Kagey, aka Kurt Steel

Pictured in this 1927 Sigma Alpha Epsilon group photo are
Rudolph H. Kagey (second row, fifth from left) and his close college friends
Charles E. Bliss and Robert M. Yoder (back row, second and fourth from left)

See Part One here.

One of Rudy Kagey's two closest undergraduate friends at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was Robert M. Yoder (1907-1959), a fraternity brother of Kagey's in Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

A man and his machine:
Robert McAyeal Yoder in the mid 1940s
(this copy now owned by the passing tramp)
Having become in his post-college years a columnist with the Chicago Daily News, Yoder achieved a certain literary distinction after his service in the Second World War, in which he, then a husband and father of three, was commissioned a naval lieutenant. His wartime job consisted, according to his daughter, of writing speeches for admirals. (He was evaluated during the war as "an exceedingly competent public relations officer" and "an exceedingly facile writer, with great ability.")

In the post war years Yoder became a nationally known humorist and an associate editor at the Saturday Evening Post. His daughter recalled that he "would have liked to have been a Fred Allen or a Grocho Marx.  He used the same kind of biting humor and would have liked the greater degree of notoriety held by those two. [He] was....a Democrat, a Presbyterian....The Presbyterianism was taken on from his mother, but he did not display it much....

When Yoder wed in 1932, the marriage was conducted by Charles Evans Bliss (1906-1986), a young Illinois county judge, who was another great undergraduate friend of Rudy Kagey during his college years.  (Like Kagey and Yoder, Bliss was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.)

Oddly enough, Robert M. Yoder was a very distant--eighth, to be exact--cousin of my mother's, something I didn't even know before I began learning about Rudy Kagey. Yoder's elder brother, Dale, was a noted twentieth-century labor economist. 

Sigma Alpha Epsilon, UIUC campus
Rudy Kagey himself was clearly interested in journalism when he attended UIUC, serving as literary editor and columnist at the Daily Illini, a student-run newspaper founded in 1871.  For the newspaper he reported on campus events, reviewed plays and wrote editorials and satires. Possibly his most notorious piece for the DI was an editorial he published in January 1925, when he was 20, titled "The Balance."

In this piece Kagey lamented the postwar decline in emphasis in college education on the fine arts relative to the mechanical sciences and athletics, querying: "Has the placement on an equal footing of the department of Modern Languages, Athletic Coaching, Animal Husbandry, and History not rather destroyed a great Balance that has existed since the beginning of wisdom?" As Kagey would have been well aware, college enrollment nearly doubled in the United States during the 1920s, and with this phenomenon came greater emphases on "practical" business and technical education, as well as a heavy focus on organized intercollegiate athletics, especially football, the popularity of which dramatically expanded over the course of the Jazz Age.

With his editorial Kagey succeeded in stirring up, as the DI put it, "hornets from the ravaged nest of the good people," who accused him of anti-democratic elitism.  In his letter to the paper, someone who signed himself "Sir Laughalot" surmised that "the academic Mr. Kagey...does not care much for football, animal husbandry, engineering or any of those pursuits which do not involve the assimilation of the higher learning."

a favored subject of Greek muses

Sir Laughalot allowed that "everybody knows that football and engineering...have pushed the Muses off their sacred wall and have built stadia and skyscrapers on Mount Olympus," but faulted "the Muses for putting up such a poor resistance."  Sir Laughalot pointed out that "Pindar wrote odes to Greek athletes that far outlived the fame of those athletes" and suggested that if "Herr Kagey really has the divine thirst let him stop raving about commercialism and morons, and take his pen in hand and compose an 'Ode to Red Grange' which will be read twenty centuries hence."

Kagey's college contemporary Red Grange (1903-1991), for those who don't know, played halfback for the University of Illinois from 1923 to 1925, winning for himself the nickname "the Galloping Ghost." He inspired the esteemed sportswriter and broadcaster Grantland Rice to pen these poetic lines about him, as Sir Laughalot had suggested to "Herr Kagey":

A man and his ball:
Red Grange commemorated
A streak of fire, a breath of flame,
Eluding all who reach and clutch;
A gray ghost thrown into the game,
That rival hands may never touch;
A rubber bounding, blasting soul,
Whose destination is the goal--Red Grange of Illinois!

In a 1983 interview Red Grange himself recalled of his college education at UIUC:

I didn't have a scholarship.  Never such a thing. Heavens no.  Everybody paid their own way.  I never got a dime to go to school.

I majored in business.  Took a business course and economics, history, analytical geometry.  I had all kinds of trigonometry.

And I had good marks in school.  Just because I played football, doesn't mean I was dumb.  A Lot of people think, because you play football, you're dumb.

A new football stadium had been completed at UIUC in 1923, the year of the lauded Red Grange's arrival, at the cost of 1.7 million, or about 24 million today (actually not so much by today's stadium standards, though it unquestionably represented the greatly increased financial commitments that colleges were making to football programs in the Twenties).  On October 14, 1924, some 67,000 people attended Illinois' home game against Michigan, which vaulted Red Grange, who over the game's duration scored six touchdowns (including a 95-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff), to national prominence. Rudy Kagey evidently was less impressed than Grantland Rice with Red Grange's dramatic accomplishment, however.

"R. E. H.," another contentious letter writer on the question of academic "balance," quite explicitly threw down the class card, castigating "poor, deluded Kagey" in unambiguously egalitarian terms: "Will you please tell him for me that today, even as three thousand years ago, the older order changeth, giving place to the new?"

Illinois Memorial Stadium (completed in 1923,
during Rudy Kagey''s freshman year in college)

R. E. H. urged that the old order, which he suggested Kagey try imagining as a seesaw, was no great shakes:

Now in the olden days, so fondly eulogized by Mr. Kagey, on one end of this seesaw were the University people.  There were only a few of them.  Mr. Kagey admits that fact.  At the other end was the great mass that constituted the rest of the people.  That, says Mr. Kagey, was the ideal Balance. ...The great mass of the people were down on the ground, in the muck, and the favored few--and favored by birth, please note--were up in the clouds, blissfully chattering of their wonderful Balance.

Now see what has happened.  One by one, the great mass has climbed up the seesaw toward the fulcrum.  Bit by bit, as they got closer and closer, and as some of them even crawled past the fulcrum and out amongst the favored few, the lighter end of the seesaw dropped and the lower end raised. The more near a level the seesaw became, the easier it became for the great mass to climb up the board. And as their end of the board began to sink, the favored few were forced to creep closer to the fulcrum themselves, to keep from dropping down.  They even began to mingle with the great mass. From such a mingling has come those dire calamities, Animal Husbandry, Athletic Coaching, and their ilk.

Of course there are still remnants of the favored few hanging on to the end of the seesaw. You can find them here in the back rooms of the seminars, and while they are forced down to the level of the others, or nearly so, they are still a separate, and probably an advanced, group.  But they aren't arguing how many angels can dance on the point of a pin, or whether Joan should be burnt because she talked of God and not the Church, they are discussing the economic interpretation of history, and psycho-analysis as a means of getting better results from employees.  Maybe, if Mr. Kagey walks very carefully and keeps his balance, he can edge his way out there.  Probably enough of the great mass are still left on the opposite end of the seesaw to keep the balance.

"Maybe, if Mr. Kagey walks very carefully and keeps his balance,
he can edge his way out there."

In contrast with "Sir Laughalot," the criticism of "R.E.H." is rather stinging toward Kagey, casting the young philosophy major as a snobbish elitist desirous of maintaining the college as a rarefied bastion of class privilege.  This attack prompted one "Cinicus" to come to Kagey's defense. "R.E.H.'s" letter may well have constituted a "swell little essay on social equality" "Cinicus" rather condescendingly conceded, but it missed the point entirely, since the "Balance" in Kagey's essay concerned not that "between aristocrats and peasants, or even college men and non-college men," but, rather, that "on which is weighed the value of the mechanic arts and the fine arts."

"Bernard" next entered the fray, chastising both Kagey and Cinicus for their lofty pretensions to intellectual superiority:

Strange as it may seem to Mr. Kagey and to Cinicus, there are other pursuits in this corner of the Cosmos besides Literature and The Arts....There is just as much learning involved in these other pursuits as there is in the former....Men fully as brilliant as our two Schoolmen, Kagey and Cinicus, may at this minute be carrying on research in Apiary Management, while the fratres ponder upon the submerging of the Balance.

I couldn't help thinking, as I read over this epistolary dispute, how a decade later Rudy Kagey would as "Kurt Steel" launch a successful writing career in crime fiction, one in which over time he would address highly topical social issues like racism and the struggle between capital and labor, typically from more of a liberal/left perspective. 

From the lofty heights of proud tower of pure intellect he chose to climb down annually in the Thirties and Forties and address the public in a popular literary medium. Perhaps his spat with Sir Laughalot, Bernard and, most of all, R. E. H. spurred him in this direction. 

However, there is evidence that Kagey's own family background tended to orient him this way as well.  In the next post I want to look at the public activities of Rudy Kagey's mother, Martha, who exercised great influence over him, and the future crime writer's own early expressions concerning the perennially thorny subject of race.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Writing Illini: Rudy Kagey (aka Kurt Steel) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Although Rudolph Hornaday Kagey (aka mystery writer Kurt Steel) was born in 1904 in the small Illinois town of Tuscola, sometime around the outbreak of the First World War he moved with his parents, Charles Claudius and Martha Francis (Hornaday) Kagey, to Flint, Michigan, where his father served as secretary and general manager of the Guaranty Title and Mortgage Company. By 1922, however, the family had returned to Illinois, specifically the city of Champaign, some thirty miles north of Tuscola.

Kagey House in Champaign, IL (right)

The Urbana-Champaign metropolitan area is home to the flagship campus of the University of Illinois system.  Rudy Kagey attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign between 1922 and 1927, received BA's and MA's there in 1926 and 1927.  In the latter year Kagey left UIUC for New York to attend Columbia University, where he received a PhD in philosophy in 1929. For the remaining 17 years of his short life he would teach philosophy at New York University.  Between 1935 and 1943 he also would publish ten mystery novels under his Kurt Steel pseudonym.

After his premature death at the age of 41 in 1946, Rudy Kagey's body was sent back to Tuscola, where he was laid to rest.  Matthew T. McClure (1883-1964), then Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UIUC and formerly the chairman of the philosophy department when Kagey was there, eulogized his late pupil as follows:

Rudy, as he was affectionately known to us, was carving for himself a distinguished career.  He must have seemed to himself to possess an inexhaustible store of energy, for he worked with a drive and at a tempo that knew neither caution nor limit.  His achievements as a writer of radio scripts, mystery stories, and magazine articles, as well as his more serious contributions to philosophy, his ruling passion, carried him in a swiftly moving rise to literary and professional recognition. 

Rudy never lost his affection for his friends here.  And we here never lost our interest and pride in his career in New York.  I remember how swiftly the news went around among us when we finally discovered that Kurt Steel was our own Rudy Kagey.

Kagey definitely made his mark at UIUC, as did his parents in Champaign, where they lived in a wide-porched Victorian house on West Hill Street.  I'll be looking at this matter, plus actually reviewing some "Kurt Steel," very soon.

"Death Loves a Shining Mark"
Rudy Kagey's burial plot in Tuscola, IL

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

So You're Going to Write a Mystery? Kurt Steel Has Some Tips For You

Kurt Steel's "So You're Going to Write a Mystery," is, like crime writer Todd Downing's "Murder Is a Rather Serious Business" (collected in my book Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing), a 1940s trade article advising would-be mystery writers on just how to go about it.  At about 2400 words it's shorter than Downing's piece, but still interesting in its own right.  The two men, by the way, had very closely contemporaneous crime writing careers, Downing publishing nine detective novels between 1933 and 1941, seven of them about amateur sleuth Hugh Rennert, and Steel publishing ten detective novels between 1935 and 1943, nine of them about series sleuth PI Hank Heyer.  Death curtailed the career of Steel, who was two years younger than Downing but died at the age of 41, while Downing simply retired from fiction writing, as far as we know, though he lived on for over thirty years.

A reading of "So You're Going to Write Mystery" makes clear that what one might call Kurt Steel's aesthetics of mystery writing were similar to those of Raymond Chandler, who followed Steel into print with a novel, The Big Sleep (1939), by four years, although he had been publishing short fiction in the pulps since December 1933, with the appearance of "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" in Black Mask.  Both men cited Dashiell Hammett as a guiding angel, though Steel in the article also discusses S. S. Van Dine, to whom deference still was paid at this time by many in the United States (where he had once been a huge bestseller) as one of the leading exponents of the classical, puzzle-oriented mystery novel.

In the beginning of the essay Steel (who was actually NYU philosophy professor Rudolf Kagey) jumps right into a problem that then much preoccupied mystery fiction theorists of the day (and would continue to do for decades to come, as, for example, when Julian Symons and Jacques Barzun jousted over the question in the 1970s): the distinction between the mystery as story and the mystery as puzzle.  Steel was most definitely in the story school, as he saw it.

Rudolph Kagey (aka Kurt Steel) in the classroom
at left are three NYC policemen who were taking special classes at NYU

"The problem of compiling a puzzle is one which belongs properly to the realm of logic and mathematics," Steel pronounced.  "As such it has nothing to do with the problem of writing a story.  Nothing whatever.  If you intend to write mysteries, you must understand that, and you must bear it in mind constantly.  You must learn, first of all, to write a story, a yarn, fiction that is honest and true in its own right, about people who are real with that impelling reality that people in well-written fiction have always had since Homer's day."

Steel declared that the "traditional detective story," by which he meant one centered strictly on the murder problem ("Who killed Cock Robin?"), is "simply a freezing of this universal pattern into one small and cramping mold.

the classic confession scene
"[T]o write a mystery story that has one chance in a hundred of making the magazines that pay, or which will have more than a one-day sale as a book," he advised mystery writing neophytes, "you must concentrate on some age-old problems of craftsmanship in addition to making a pretty puzzle and hiding clues.  You must learn to create characters, characters equipped with full complements of the vital juices; you must learn to describe a scene so that it sticks in the reader's mind...; you must learn the genuine springs of love and hate and fear and malice and charity and dip your story deep in them; you must, above all, never cheapen your story by sacrificing what you know to be the truth in order to achieve a flashy effect."

Like other prominent mystery fiction theorists at the time like Chandler and Dorothy L. Sayers, Steel was calling on the mystery story to move into the mainstream of fiction by adopting the qualities of the so-called "straight" novel; not relying "merely" on the puzzle to carry the tale, but rather the qualities of good writing, characterization, setting and scene.

"If you expect to be a success at writing mystery stories, you must set yourself to impressing people in such a way that they will not readily forget the stories you write.  That is the test.  To do that you must create something, not merely record the intricacies of the puzzle....a cash customer's experience in reading your story must be predominantly emotional. He must, in the act of reading what you have written, feel sympathy, suspense, hatred, grief, concupiscence, jubilation.  In short, he must participate in events which are dramatic because they involve the lives of genuine people brought together only incidentally by crime...."

Steel turned for an example to Dashiell Hammett's keystone hard-boiled text, The Maltese Falcon:

creator of the "blond Satan"
Dashiell Hammett
"If you will read (or re-read) Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon you will see what I mean.  Who cares whether a ragpicker or a Kleagle or Floyd Thursby actually killed Miles Archer?  But what reader can put that book down after the first paragraph, in which he meets Sam Spade who "looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan"?  And who, on finishing the book, can forget Brigid O'Shaugnessy, Joel Cairo, Gutman, Spade himself (who, despite the brevity of his career, deserves to live in the company of Vidocq and Holmes)?

The Maltese Falcon
is a book you don't forget, and it is that because it is a whale of a good yarn about fascinating people."

This emphasis on the mystery as being dependent primarily on the reader's emotional rather than ratiocinative engagement certainly goes against the Barzun school of mystery criticism, which cherishes the problem-oriented detective novel above all other forms of mystery. However, Steel did not, as Chandler sometimes seemed to, utterly discount the matter of the puzzle. 

sitting in judgment
S. S. Van Dine
Concerning the "construction and development of puzzles," Steel advised readers to consult S. S. Van Dine's Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories

Seventeen of the rules, Steel pronounced, "should be committed sternly to heart by anyone who tries to construct detective stories," as they "give a brilliant and simple chart of the pitfalls to be avoided."

Steel doesn't say what are Van Dine's three offending rules, but I feel confident that two he had in mind were the ones dealing with love interest and, to quote Van Dine's memorable term, "literary dallying":

#3 There must be no love interest in the story.  To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment.

#16 A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and detection.

Then there's the one (#17) that proscribes professional criminals as culprits, on the ground that the crimes such people commit "are the province of the police department--not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives."  Sniffed Van Dine: "Such crimes belong to the routine work of the Homicide Bureau."  (And. I might add more cynically, it saves the author from having to learn about police procedure.)

Steel offered three substitutions for Van Dine's "dubious trinity":

the sharp slap of reality
1. The detective...should not monopolize the spotlight to such an extent that his associates become mere lay figures slipping in and out of the wings at his bidding.  In my own case I have always tried to round out the cast of every story with several characters, each of which is interesting in his own right and with whom my Hank Hyer must share the stage whether he likes it or not.

2. The detective should be mortal like his opponent, not an observer of human frailties from the arctic eminence of his infallibility.  I have always been very careful to record Hyer's shortcomings candidly, never to gloss over his mistakes and the jams in which they land him.  Anyone who likes Hyer, likes him as a human being, not a calculating machine.

3. The pattern of the story should be such that minor characters are permitted to manifest a wider range of emotional response than merely fear, bewilderment, and prostration at the genius's feet.  That is, they should reveal idiosyncrasies, get into peripheral scrapes, make love.  In Judas, Incorporated I have extended the emotional latitude to include Hyer himself.
a chess problem
While Steel paid due, with exceptions duly noted, to Van Dine's rules, he nevertheless diagnosed readings of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest and The Thin Man as a "safe antidote to [Van Dine's] formalism.  These books of Hammett's are superior to anything Mr. Van Dine has written himself precisely because they break three of his cherished rules."

No "oh-so-irritating wise guy crap here" (see my immediately previous post).  Just well-meant advice for neophyte mystery-writers. How on point do you find it?  Certainly it was in accord with the temper of the times, as most modern crime fiction, I believe, tries, at least, to follow ideas similar to those laid out in Steel's three addenda. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"Oh-So-Irritating Wise Guy Crap": Chandler Melts Steel (But Was Chandler Full of Hot Air?)

Shot Down
Chandler wrote dismissively of
Kurt Steel's crime fiction but in
earning Chandler's scorn Steel
found himself in good company.
Raymond Chandler's marked crankiness toward other writers of crime fiction is amply demonstrated in his late-night correspondence (though regrettably all the acerbic hard-boiled author's fascinating correspondence still has not been preserved in a single volume).

To be sure, Chandler did praise some crime fiction authors, like Michael Innes and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, but in a net of vituperation he caught many another wriggling crime writer, including not only esteemed British Crime Queens like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorthy L. Sayers, but fellow American hard-boiled/noir authors like Ross Macdonald (one of the "literary eunuchs"), who felt the sting of Chandler's scorn all the rest of his life, and James M. Cain ("Proust in greasy overalls"), who returned Chandler's disfavor. There's no getting around it, Chandler was a very good (if highly entertaining) hater, and his ire found a lot of targets among his fellow mystery writers.

In a December 19, 1939 letter to the slick semi-hard-boiled mystery writer George Harmon Coxe (whose writing he once criticized in a letter to another correspondent), Chandler complained of the lack of good crime fiction in his local library in La Jolla, California, a city he dismissed, by-the-by, as "too dear, too damp, too elderly."

Chandler, it seems, was short of crime fiction to read. "If you still have that spare copy of your last book but one I'm hoping you are still feeling generous about it," he wrote Coxe, bluntly adding of his local library: "You're not represented."  He then declared, "But so are not a lot of other people who should be, and so are represented some mighty feeble gestures at detective fiction." On this point he expounded:

What do you make of a place that has one book by Hemingway, nothing by Faulkner, or Hammett, two pieces of oh-so-irritating wise guy crap by one Kurt Steel, everything by one J. S. Fletcher, a British brother who is far far duller than even a British brother has any right to be, nothing by Coxe, Nebel, Whitfield, or anybody you would think of as at all representative.  And my God no Gardner, yet a book called The Bigger They Come by A. A. Fair which copies the Gardner technique exactly and even swiped Gardner's idea of how Ed Jenkins couldn't be extradited.  

Raymond Chandler

Of course it's amusing to see Chandler complain about this nefarious "A. A. Fair" swiping from Erle Stanley Gardner, A. A. Fair having been a prominent pseudonym of Gardner's, but Chandler's recognition of the similarities of style in the novels of Fair and Gardner does show Chandler could be quite perceptive as a reader. (On another occasion he criticized Gardner's writing, though at yet another time, when he was bogged down with the plotting of his novel The Little Sister, Chandler expressly wished for Gardner's "facile plotting brain.") And few hard-boiled aficionados, I imagine, would cavil about Chandler's praise of a tough guy trinity like Dashiell Hammett, Frederick Nebel and Raoul Whitfield.

J. S. Fletcher could be, to be sure, rather, um, sedate, but what of Chandler's withering blast about mystery writer Kurt Steel's "oh-so-irritating wise guy crap"?  This shaft Chandler let fly at the end of 1939, a year in which Kurt Steel published a pair of what might be termed more serious social problem crime novels, Judas, Incorporated and The Crooked Shadow, efforts which I personally found quite interesting.

Had Chandler read either of these books? Or perhaps he had only read something of Steel's previous four shorter and slicker crime novels, what I call the Steel "Murder" series: Murder of a Dead Man (1935), Murder for What? (1936), Murder Goes to College (1936) and Murder in G-Sharp (1937).  Excerpts from critical reviews of the day give you some flavor of these earlier books:

Professor Rudolf Kagey smokes a pipe
while perusing a newspaper in 1942.
Rudy Kagey's "Kurt Steel" crime novels
were popular with reviewers and readers,
however much Chandler may have
dissented from general opinion.
The action, speed and lingo make it worthwhile. (Murder of a Dead Man)

Gangsters, gamblers, and counterfeiters contribute fast action to a tough but literate thriller. (Murder for What?)

Contains one of the most believable and nasty gangsters in fiction, wry humor, smart talk, shivers, and slick deducing. (Murder Goes to College)

For all its lurid descents into odd dives, voodoo overtones, crisply reminiscent patter, and abnormally observant detecting, it's slightly phony. (Murder in G-Sharp)

All of these persons deal in actions rather than words, and their actions are as quick and deadly as their words are forcible. (Murder for What?)

All six of the novels named above have a series detective, tough PI Hank Hyer, who also appears in Dead of Night (1940), Madman's Buff (1941) and Ambush House (1943). Hyer's qualities were described in this review of his debut novel:

[Hank] Hyer is a hard-boiled detective who does not shrink from burglary or other crimes when they suit his purpose.  No red tape is ever permitted to hamper his investigations. But tough as he is, his language is not so offensive to sensitive ears as that of some of the other detectives who have adorned the pages of recent detective fiction. So far as action and thrills go, he is the equal of any of them.  

Perhaps Chandler found all this synthetic and unconvincing, but I find Steel an entertaining writer. Ironically Steel himself--or I should say Professor Rudolf "Rudy" Kagey, philosophy professor of New York University, who wrote the "Kurt Steel" crime fiction--had a personal sense of mystery writing aesthetics that was rather similar to that of Chandler.  I'll be exploring this matter in an upcoming post on Steel's 1940s trade article, "So You're Going to Write a Mystery."

Friday, September 30, 2016

Hard as Steel with a Heart of Gold: The Hank Hyer detective novels of Rudolf Hornaday Kagey (1904-1946), aka "Kurt Steel"

aka "Kurt Steel" (1904-1946)
As "Kurt Steel" New York University college professor Rudolf Hornaday Kagey between 1935 and 1943 wrote ten detective novels, nine of which concerned the crime-busting exploits of Hank Hyer, a tough former boxer turned private eye. The Hank Hyer mystery series was popular in the US, spawning two films, the well-received Murder Goes to College (1937), based on the Steel novel of the same name, and the quickie follow-up Partners in Crime (1937), which apparently had no relation to an actual book by the author.

The son of Charles Claudius and Martha Hornaday Kagey, Rudolf Kagey was born in the small town of Tuscola, Illinois in 1904. He grew to adulthood there and in Flint, Michigan, where his father, a mortgage banker, moved to become secretary and general manager of the city's Guaranty Title and Mortgage Company.

Rudolf's paternal grandfather, John William Kagey, was an Illinois schoolteacher, farmer and Methodist Sunday-School superintendent of German Mennonite descent who came originally from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. A Civil War veteran, John Kagey enlisted in the Confederate army on 5 July 1861 and served in numerous battles, including Gettysburg, before deserting two-and-a-half years later and taking the oath of allegiance to the Union. (This latter episode goes unacknowledged in Kagey's entry in the Portrait and Biographical Album of De Witt and Piatt Counties, Illinois, 1891, which portrays Kagey unambiguously as a dyed in the wool Confederate throughout the war.)

Harry Hornaday (1867-1904)
Kansas educator and uncle of
Rudolf Hornaday Kagey
Rudolf's Indiana-born maternal grandfather, Christopher Hornaday, likewise fought in many battles during the Civil War, including the siege of Vicksburg, albeit on the Union side. Hornaday prosperously farmed in Crawford County, Kansas after the war, where one of his sons, Harry, at the turn of the century served as superintendent of education, strengthening the notable association of Rudolf's forbears with the teaching profession, of which Rudolf himself would become a distinguished representative.

Rudolf's maternal uncle Harry Hornaday, who the year Rudolf was born died at the age of 36, was memorialized as not only an exceptionally able educator and administrator but a "lover of justice and fair play" who "constantly championed the cause of the weak."

In his school, we are told, Harry "would not tolerate for an instant the ridicule of the poor by those more fortunate."  A total abstainer from alcohol himself, "he deprecated the use of intoxicating liquor by others" and "was a close student of the Bible."

Rudolf, who I think rather resembled Harry physically, shared some of the personal qualities of the uncle he never knew, such as vocational zeal, love of knowledge, moral fervor and a passion for fairness.  Like his uncle, Rudolf also passed away at much too young an age, being only 41 when he died, after what was reported to be a long illness.

Rudolf Kagey as a student
at the University of Illinois
An only child, Rudolf was educated at the University of Illinois and Columbia University before in 1928 joining the faculty of New York University, where he became an assistant professor of philosophy and director of the night school.

In 1930, Rudolf lived with Howard Selsam (1903-1970), a fellow philosophy student from Columbia University who became an instructor and later assistant professor at Brooklyn College.  Selsam's association with the Communist Party led to his resignation from Brooklyn College in 1941; he later became director of the Communist Party's Jefferson School of Social Science, which was destined to become an object of opprobrium during the McCarthy era.

Not long after 1930 Rudolf married Gladys Katherine Bleiman (1898-1991), daughter of Isadore Bleiman, a Jewish real estate salesman in Manhattan, and his wife Regina Leofler.  Karen, as she was called, had studied philosophy and psychology at Cornell University and had served as president of the Women's Dramatic Club.  An enthusiastic performer on stage, Karen in 1917, for example, played the "boy" in The Golden Doom (1910), a one-act play by Lord Dunsany that addressed philosophical questions of religious faith.

Outliving her husband by 45 years, Karen worked as a psychologist with STAR, the Society to Advance the Retarded, for nearly four full decades, from 1944 to 1982. In 1935 she and Rudolf had their only child, a daughter.

Karen Bleiman Kagey
Rudolf also served as director of public education for the New York World's Fair in 1939 and secretary of the Authors Guild, America's oldest and largest professional organization for writers. In the latter capacity he led a campaign, not long before his death, to win larger paperback royalties for mystery authors--a campaign with which I'm sure the crime writers who read this blog can sympathize!

As the latter point suggests, Rudolf Kagey was a committed supporter of the Labor movement and in his crime novels he gave intelligent expression to this and other liberal-left moral sentiments.  This aspect of his fiction lends his books added interest for the social historian, but additionally some of his mysteries are very good indeed, in my view, when judged "simply" as mysteries. 

This weekend I plan to discuss a couple of Kagey's detective fiction titles, one which was disappointing, I admit, but the other of which was first-rate.

The Hank Hyer Detective Novels of Kurt Steel

Murder of a Dead Man (1935)
Murder for What? (1936)
Murder Goes to College (1936)
Murder in G-Sharp (1937)
Judas, Incorporated (1939)
The Crooked Shadow (1939)
Dead of Night (1940)
Madman's Buff (1941)
Ambush House (1943)

The Imposter (1942)

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Pennyworth of GP Micklewright (and then some!)

book by GH Meyrick
jacket by GP Micklewight
Pennyworth of Murder (1943), a "comedy-thriller" according to the publisher, was the last of a quartet of crime novels that Gordon Holmes Meyrick completed before his tragic and mysterious death at the age of 34 (for more on Meyrick's death see some of my recent posts).  It seems to be the novel where the neophyte author found his own voice as a crime writer, making his early demise all that more sad.

I plan to review the book here soon.  But the novel also is of note for the cover art on the dust jacket by accomplished illustrator GP Micklewright (1893-1951), who is credited with more than 2000 book jacket designs over three decades. 

George Peace Micklewright was born in 1893 in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, not far from the great West Midlands industrial metropolis of Birmingham, to Richard Henry and Elizabeth Micklewright.

imagining a brotherhood of man
The son and grandson of blacksmiths who worked as coachmakers, George Micklewright before the outbreak of the Great War struck out on a different career path from his forebears, attending the Ryland Memorial School of Art and Crafts in West Bromwich. Afterward he studied art in Paris.

With mass martial slaughter occuring throughout Europe in 1914, Micklewright, like other unfortunate young British men, was subjected to conscription. In the event the artist, apparently a Quaker, was exempted, like 16,000 other English pacifists over the course of the conflict, from combat service under the conscience clause in the 1916 Conscription Act-- even as English combat deaths mounted to obscene levels that surely had been utterly inconceivable to most people when the war began.

Micklewright was placed in the newly-formed Non-Combatant Corps (or the "No-Courage Corps" as many of the print patriots in the press sneeringly dubbed it), which performed strictly non-violent physical labor in support of the war effort. Later that year Micklewright was tried and sentenced to 84 days of hard labor for refusing to obey the order of a superior officer.  (This sentence was commuted to 56 days without hard labor.)
Wilfrid Littleboy, a young Birmingham accountant of Quaker faith, recalled that after his referral to the Non-Combatant Corps he was sentenced to 112 days at Wormwood Scrubs upon his adamant refusal to don the soldier's uniform he had been issued and ordered to wear.

The Peace Pledge Union notes that during the Great War men who refused to wear the uniform

were formally charged and court-martialled.  Often they were treated harshly, bullied, deprived of basic needs and rights, and imprisoned in inhumane conditions.  So were men who refused to perform duties like handling munitions or building rifle ranges.

I don't know the nature of Mickleright's offense in the eyes of the British army, but once incarcerated at Wormwood Scrubs the artist did what came naturally to one of his profession, portraying the experience of the beleaguered conscientious objector in visual form om paper, in his "The C.O. in Prison" series.

"The Ideal" (upper right) shows, in Micklewright's view, what motivates and sustains the imprisoned conscientious objector: an idealized, noble vision of "international brotherhood." Another piece in the series (upper left) shows the privations suffered by the imprisoned conscientious objector.

Other wartime propaganda art took a decidedly different point of view from Micklewright, attempting to shame "conchies," as they were derisively termed, as contemptible, limp-limbed and lily-livered pansies shamefully letting down their country, leaving real men to carry the terrible burdens of bomb and bayonet (see below).
During the Great War over 16,000 British men invoked the conscience clause, 3400 of whom accepted call-up into the Non-Combatant Corps or the Royal Army Medical Corps.  Nearly 6000 "conchies" ultimately were court-martialled and sent to prison.  At least 73 died from brutal treatment they received, while others suffered long-term physical and mental illness (see the Peace Pledge Union website,

Micklewright, who was 25 years old at the end of the war, was one of the comparatively fortunate ones and lived another 33 years, during which time he established himself as an accomplished book jacket artist, producing over 2000 jackets in those years, seemingly mostly for genre literature: tales of adventure, westerns and mysteries.

To be honest, many of the books Micklewright illustrated are distinguished far more by his vivid jacket art than the writing of the authors, though there are some exceptions, like Pennyworth of Murder (naturally!) and authors such as Fergus Hume, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the distinguished American crime writers Helen McCloy and Lenore Glen Offord.

Some may find irony in the fact that many of Micklewright's jackets depict fisticuffs and gunplay, yet it has long been argued that crime and adventure fiction sublimates violent impulses rather than stimulates them. (Of course, it must be admitted, others have taken precisely the opposite view of this matter.)  In any event I get a lot of innocent (I hope) enjoyment out of the vigorous dust jacket art of G. P. Micklewright, and I hope you will too.