RARA-AVIS: The Vice Czar Murders

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 01 Dec 2002

THE VICE CZAR MURDERS by Franklin Charles (Wilfred Funk 1941)

The reason I chose this novel for my kickoff to 1940s month is that according to Hubin "Franklin Charles" is a collaboration between Cleve F. Adams and Robert Leslie Bellam. Adams was the creator of Rex McBride and other extreme hard-boiled detectives remarkable for their unappealing qualities. Adams seemed to delight in making his characters hard to like. They managed to be cruel, violent and stupid with hardly a breath of wit or intentional humor. They operate in a world that is matter-of-factly fascist as well as corrupt.

Cleve Adams has always fascinated me. He was an above average writer and I have to wonder why he would delight in making his characters hard to like. Despite his headliner role in the pulps of the 1930s and 40s and the considerable number of novels that made their way into hardback, he has never drawn interest by the revivalists. And I understand the reasons for that. When he is remembered at all, it is because of the correspondence he maintained with his friend Raymond Chandler.

Bellam is best known for his creation Dan Turner, the Hollywood Detective, the hero of scores of screwball novelettes. A Bellam story is as outrageously funny as an Adams story is impossibly grim. So what do you get when you combine the two? A pretty good novel, I discovered, well worth searching out despite the flaws of a very complicated, unlikely plot.

Adams plots were always impossibly complicated but then so were Chandler's and many others from the golden age of the hard-boiled novel. Our rescuers from the drawing room mystery took us into the allies and gutters but too often brought with them the numerous red herrings and the "everyone has a motive" concept of Dame Agatha.

But combining Adams and Bellam resulted in a novel that brings strengths from both writers. The tone is lighter, there is some humor even while the overall theme is serious.

The lead character is William Rock, an investigator with the district attorneys office. The DA is under pressure from the newspapers about vice in the city because the newspaper publisher has a personal grudge against the DA. It is unfortunate that the columnist Dan Corrigan, who is blasting his boss, happens to be married to Rock's sister. The DA, according to the newspaper, is ignoring the wide-open vice in the city that ranges from high-priced, Hollywood star look-alike prostitutes all the way to white slavery trade shipping girls to South America.

The novel opens with Rock visiting a burlesque house in a nasty mood typical of an Adams detective. "He sulked, watching the gyrations of the sub-morons who made up the chorus." But he manages to make a date to meet one of the dancers later in the evening. When he walks into her room, he's slugged and wakes up on the floor holding the pistol that killed the girl. When he gets his eyes open, he is looking up at a ring of cops. "They had nice whipcord uniforms of olive drab and Sam Browne belts and everything. Looking up at them from the floor they seemed very tall, almost the supermen the commissioner liked to call them."

The regular police hate the DA's men and Rock didn't blame them. "It was the system that was responsible...His (the DA's) natural alibi is the inefficiency of the police department, and any investigating he does on his own account is just an added slap in the face."

The lead cop on Rock's case is a lieutenant named Jack Santanya who was
"pretty good" but had a "hair-trigger, uncertain temper." Rock respects Santanya even while he is being smacked by him. "I know which ball comes up after the seven," Rock said. "Even looking at it from behind."

Rock manages to escape and is on the run for the rest of the book. Oh, he's recaptured now and then and undergoes a particularly brutal third degree.
"...He was more or less grateful to the guy for kicking him on the chin. He didn't think the top of his head could have stood anymore." But he always manages to escape or to be rescued by a cabby he befriends named Smitty. I have to tip my hat to Mike Nevins for pointing out that Adams loved having smart-talking savvy cabbies on hand to rescue his heroes.

There is a wealthy older woman nicknamed Diamond Annie, who made her money in the vice trade but that was back in the gold camp days and now is accorded respect by the DA, the publisher, and the cops. Rock's sister becomes involved, accused of one of the many murders, worried about her missing journalist husband, and generally getting in Rock's way. "This was what you got for having a family, he thought. No wonder they preached birth control. The guys who started that movement must have had sisters too."

The bodies pile up and so do the plot complications. Rock tries to sort it out but it's tough to do between beatings and shootings. "Rock dodged the blank wall at the end of this train of thought and tackled something else."

He also has to battle the distractions of a blonde "wearing an evening gown of clinging green lame that italicized her sleek contours, and her stockings were two-thread chiffon that must have cost five dollars a copy of somebody's money." He's trying to question the blonde ("Hell's fire, will you quit waving your legs and answer me?") when in walks his girlfriend, his sister and her columnist husband. Pure Bellam and a scene worthy of Thorne Smith.

I won't try to summarize the plot except to say that all characters, friend and foe of Rock, are motivated by a variety of personal interests rather than any public-spirited desire to clean up the city. There was a vice ring operating and it was being ignored by the DA but the publisher attacked him because he hated the DA. Rock solves the mystery of who is behind the vice ring because he has to in order to clear his name and along the way save people close to him.

The attraction of the novel is the gritty feel of a corrupt city, lots of action, funny bits and nice turns of phrase. And more than anything else, the gallery of memorable characters. I'll give you one more, a bad guy who walks in the room after his confederates have Rock spread-eagled on a bed, bound tightly head and foot.

"The other guy was tough. He'd been born tough and you could see that the years hadn't softened him any. His round head was a naked as a cue ball. The rest of his fact was an assortment of twisted features and pockmarks, and there were a couple of knife scars thrown in, just to make it harder. He had kind eyes. The kind the Chinese put in their dragons."

The tough guy ignores Rock while he talks to his comrades about the ongoing interrogation. "Go right ahead," Rock said. "Just pretend I'm not here. My feelings aren't easily hurt."

"That's what you think," the baldheaded guy says as he leans down to strike a match on Rock's trouser front to light his cigarette.

Now that's a great scene!

Richard Moore

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