RARA-AVIS: Shivering Chorus Girls

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 23 Dec 2002

James Atlee Phillips's second novel and first mystery was THE CASE OF THE SHIVERING CHORUS GIRLS (Coward-McCann 1942). A decade later Phillips would resume his mystery career as a Chandlerish novelist with PAGODA and SUITABLE FOR FRAMING. Before and after he would flourish as a story writer for Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post and for Hollywood, most notably as cowriter with Robert Mitchum of the classic drive-in movie "Thunder Road."

But let's drop back to 1942. Phillips was working as a flack for showman Billy Rose doing submissions for Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell when he pounded out CHORUS GIRLS in ten days. The novel featured a Winchell-like character and generously drew from Phillips' experience. The intent was to create a new Nero Wolfe.

Here is the first paragraph of that novel's blurb: "The success of the sedentary Nero Wolfe, not to mention Duncan Maclain with his Seeing-Eye dog, has paved the way for the appearance of Henry Morton Wardlaw, blind detective extraordinary, who never moves from his penthouse aerie."

Phillips very efficiently and dramatically sets up the blinding of Wardlaw, US Ambassador to Turkey, and his later installation in a New York City Penthouse where he poured over details of homicide investigations. To help him in his hobby, he advertises for and interviews candidates for assistants.
 He ends up hiring two: a recent graduate of a Colorado law school named Emery Landers and a former football beefcake from Boston College named George Caster "Bopeep" Patterson. These two become Wardlaw's Archie Goodwin. I can also envision them cast as characters in a Hollywood B series circa 1942: Van Johnson and Nat Pendleton playing the roles.

Let's first deal with what this novel isn't...it ain't the second coming of Nero and Archie. Wardlaw has a very promising beginning and I love the image of him brooding in his penthouse apartment with the sixty foot glass covered view in the backgound and "Ride of the Valkyrie" on the record player. But he soon disappears into a very secondary role. Bopeep and Landers have many enjoyable moments but Archie Goodwin they ain't. They routinely skip answering telephone calls that might be from their boss and get shitfaced drunk when all depends on them. People die because they would rather drink than do their duty and this is presented without condemnation.

Hey, I know it was a different era but I can compare them to Archie if not to modern day characters.

The whole thing is a mix of Nero Wolfe with plot elements that closely resemble FER DE LANCE and more hardboiled fiction. In fact, the writing is much grittier than Stout's Wolfe. The novel includes one of the most graphic third degree interrogation scenes ever presented in mystery fiction. This scene is not a backward look at bygone judicial habits long since abandoned. It is here and now as far as the readers of 1942 were concerned.

The characters conducting the third degree are not condemned at all. The man in the hot seat is guilty and the cops are just doing their job, even though they may be stupid and brutal. They take off their coats to allow free rein for swinging their shoulders. "His head was bent downward; time and time again the hose took it with a distinct thud, and each time the head bobbed. The man was not young. Blood had started out of his scalp, and sweat glistened on his face. First one and then another of the detectives would take the rubber snake and slap him across the scalp with it."

During the course of this, the detectives would throw water on him to awaken him and "the pinioned man raised his head suddenly and, pushing out his lips, tried to trap some of the moisture cascading down his face. A few drops fell into his mouth, and his neck jerked convulsively as he swallowed." One of the detectives began to swab his head "mopping up the moisture as it came off his forehead so that it would not reach his mouth."

The scene gets more graphic from this point on but I will spare you. The fact is that while we are all familiar with the "third degree" scene and how what are now considered constitutional rights used to be violated, it is stunning to see it matter-of-factly done by the "good guys" in a novel even one published in 1942. Yes, the cops were presented as corrupt idiots but in this instance they were "doing the right thing" and what they did was done with the knowledge of the Nero Wolfe wannabe Wardlaw.

So how do I summarize my opinion? This book is well worth finding and reading and it is also well worth someone reprinting. It is a very enjoyable read, although I will say it was a bit complicated for my tastes as it had about three plots going at the same time. It is fun on its own terms and it is also interesting and important as a novel that pushes the genre into new directions. It is also fascinating as a period piece that reminds us of where we were not so long ago in the criminal justice system.

Richard Moore

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