From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 05 Aug 2003

"Arthur finished shaving and then, although it was early in the morning for a drink, he poured a Scotch." From Edwin Lanham's SLUG IT SLAY (Harcourt, Brace & Company 1946) and reprinted by Bantam as HEADLINED FOR MURDER.

This is a throw-away line in Lanham's novel but as the preacher might say, I'm taking it as the text for my sermon because it illustrates a bigger truth. The hard-drinking hero of hard-boiled novels is a cliche but the hard-drinking reporter is a stereotype that is underlined through popular culture far beyond our little niche.

And, guess what, while exaggerated, there is some truth to the cliche which Edwin Lanham a veteran of various newspapers including the New York Herald Tribune well knew. And I know it as well. One of the reasons I enjoyed this novel is that I am a former reporter and have myself written mysteries with a reporter hero.

Reporters did drink quite a bit. I put this in the past tense because, as with the rest of society, they do not, in my experience, drink nearly as much as a group as they did in years past. Let me tell you a story about an old reporter I knew.

When I was a reporter in Atlanta there was an old-timer who was a legend because of his coverage of the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta during the 1940s. More people died in that fire than in any hotel fire in U.S. history. Dozens of people leaped to escape the flames and died in the fall. There was a convention of young people from around the state, high school students, many of whom died. This guy walked in off the street to a wire service and screamed "Give me a typewriter" and sat down and began writing and didn't get up or stop writing for 24 hours. He had been a newspaper reporter and witnessed the tragedy and searched out the nearest newsroom to spill his guts. At some point during that 24 hours the wire service hired him.

It was a wonderful story. But years pass and that reporter is pretty deep in the bottle. Now he favors the overnight shift where there is little contact with people, except through the phone, and the only requirement is accuracy and quickness. If you have those two things you can hold a job at a wire service. He liked the overnight shift because he could drink on the job without criticism. He would slip into the rest room and pull out a pint bottle he carried in his coat pocket, nestled under his arm, and take a slug. Nobody cared. He was accurate and he was quick. But we had reached an age when drinking on the job was frowned on. Hence the midnight shift.

So one day our hero is on his way to the bathroom for his periodic drink which required he pass near the elevators. It was after midnight. The elevator doors open and there is the bureau chief and, worse yet, a visiting executive from New York. There is no escape! He will be introduced and his liquored breath will be all too evident.

In his moment of panic, glancing around, he spots a penny on the floor. To avoid facing the arriving executives, the reporter says "A Penny!" and bends down to pick it up. His intention is to use this diversion to avoid directly facing the visitors. At least he would be able to duck below their noses because of the penny.

Unfortunately the pint slips out of his coat pocket, falls to the floor and shatters wetly into a thousand pieces. The reporter pauses just a moment, bending over, and lifts the penny up. He stands, looking intently at the penny and says: "Penny wise...Pint foolish."

Following this, he continues on his way to the bathroom. His recovery was so admired (these were after all writers who were judging him) that he retained his job.

So I can understand how Edwin Lanham has a newsroom in New York of a morning newspaper where the reporters and editors with regularity, and no condemnation, leave during their evening work period for a drink or two.

I was also charmed by the mechanics of Lanham's newsroom. We are talking
"hot" type here and I am in the last generation of reporters who grew up in the hot type era. Friends, the words and sentences had to be set in lead on a linotype machine. The "slug" in the title of the story refers to the word the reporter would put into the left hand corner of the story that would identify it.
 Stories were written in "takes," especially on deadline. So "Slay" would go down to composing as "Slay, Take One" and "Slay, Take Two" and etc.

Lanham much later wrote a book entitled THE PASTE-POT MAN, which I have ordered but have not seen. But I know what a "Paste-Pot Man" was. The paste-pot was essential to a reporter and editor. Forget computers! You are typewriting on copy paper. If you rewrite a paragraph, you don't want to retype the whole story! You tear out the new paragraph and glue it with the past-pot in place of the paragraph you are replacing.

All of those things of my past...past-pots, pica poles, and the pictures that had to be converted to engravings are all gone.

But to the story. Arthur Leslie is the relatively new city editor of the New York Courier when the publisher Forrest C. Willshire is murdered in his penthouse apartment above the newspaper. The publisher had written his own obituary and had it on file. When this was published in 1946, I am certain that it was a surprise to readers that obits were written in advance. Now it is more widely known. The obit for Bob Hope in the New York Times was written by a writer who had died a few years ago. Back in 1946 this would have been a surprise. The obit contains essential clues for what is initially thought a suicide is a murder and the suicide note is truly a fragment of the obit. The motive for the murder goes back decades to when the publisher was a young man of modest means in Oklahoma.

This is an inside job and the key is who had the motive. My biggest complaint on this novel is something that was common in novels of that time. Instead of a simple, straightforward story, it becomes complicated as the writer tries to introduce every character in the story to the death scene to make them a suspect. Even though the thrust of the story was contra-Christie style writing, there was a reluctance to abandon the convention of making everyone and his brother a potential suspect.

If you look at Hubin you will see that this novel is listed as part of a series. But the series is not featuring the reporter Leslie. The series is Lieutenant Madigan of homicide, who in this story is very much a secondary character. I don't know how he is treated in other novels but based on my enjoyment of this one I plan to find out.

Richard Moore

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