RARA-AVIS: Bouchercon discoveries

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 28 Oct 2003

Discovering new writers is always a highlight of attending a Bouchercon. Discovering new old writers is just as exciting to me. I do have a bad habit of going from zero to 60 very quickly on a limited knowledge about a writer. More than twenty years ago I listened to Mike Nevins sing the praises of William Ard and afterwards raced young Billy Crider to the book room to search this forgotten master out. Back home I found and bought more copies including the ones completed by Lawrence Block and John Jakes (which were pricey due to the hot covers). Unfortunately, I finally read a couple and found Mr. Ard to be a tad mediocre. Boring even. I will say that I liked his Buchannan westerns, a series he started. But that's about it.

So I am standing at dealer's table admiring recent purchases which included a very nifty Dell Mapback of WHERE THERE'S SMOKE a reprint of a 1946 novel by Stewart Sterling. Art Scott, paperback cover art expert extraordinare, came along about this point and I showed him the Dell and he nodded in appreciation at the condition. At this point I raised my other hand that held Ace Double D-415 with the side featuring Sterling's FIRE ON FEAR STREET, a reprint of a 1958 novel. "Apparently," I said, "It's a series."

Art gave me a quick surprised glance. "You've never read any of the Fire Marshall Pedley series?" My confession of ignorance clearly caused his estimation of me to sink. Oh I had seen the name and somewhere had a novel by him that had never tempted me to read. Art patiently explained to me that Sterling came out of the pulps and specialized in specialty detectives. His best known character was Fire Marshall Pedley with a career that began in the pulps, jumped to hardback novels in the 1940s and continued into the 60s. Art said Sterling also had a series featuring a "house dick" by the name of Gil Vine. I flipped the Ace Double over and there was DEAD CERTAIN on the other side featuring two Gil Vine novelettes.

I barely got home before I hit Abebooks.com and ordered more by Sterling. But before I went too far, I settled in to read the Ace Double. First up, Gil Vine. This is a first person series and the hotel background feels authentic.
 I have just today received a Pyramid Books edition of I WAS A HOUSE DETECTIVE by Dev Collans with Stewart Sterling, so I know he did research.

The Vine stories feature a tabloid style manner of expression that seems far more real to me than so many of the attempts to produce this sound. After stopping a woman's suicide attempt, Vine says: "She tried to fly," I briefed him. "Tim grabbed her before she spread her wings." Here's another randomly chosen example: "Larry's cagey enough not to let everything he knows leak out through his mouth..." I tire quickly of the Damon Runyon-type chatter but I had no problem with this.

There is one aspect of the stories that bothered me. I can suspend disbelief with the best of them in order to enjoy a story. But both these Vine stories had him delaying notifying the police of very serious crimes even while additional crimes were committed. Vine's job is to protect the hotel's reputation, and while he generally will not let a criminal go free, he will do most anything to protect the hotel.

Understanding that this was a different era, I cannot believe that the police in either of these stories would not have thrown him in jail for numerous crimes, even if he did solve the murder. It is one thing for a private eye to withhold evidence or obstruct investigations but an employee of a luxury hotel could not do this without serious repercussions with the authorities and with lawsuits.

Maybe I am too picky or getting to be a whimp in my old age because these stories, despite a sometimes breezy manner, are quite tough. And while in the real world the stunts pulled could not possibly be as overt as Vine's, his character is otherwise believable and remarkable for being openly amoral. He is not traveling these mean streets to right wrongs. His only concern is protecting the image of the hotel that employs him.

The first story begins with a woman guest saying she was raped and describing one of the hotel's richest and best known guests as her attacker. This is a hotel's worst nightmare. Vine calls in the House doctor who asks "Am I supposed to verify this assault?"

Vine answers, "No. Knock her out. Slip her a mickey. Enough to keep her asleep while I do some investigating."

So Doc slips her the mickey and within a few minutes (and about three pages) the woman dies of an overdose. Doc's shot was too strong or, more likely, she had something else in her system that made the additional narcotic lethal.

There is a fleeting moment when Doc feels a bit bad about it but that's about it on the regret front. I love Gil Vine's reaction. "My first instinct was to figure it a break for the house. After nine years on security, it's second nature to keep the hotel's name from being plastered with guk. Offhand, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to keep it clean." He continues to muse on the fact that the girl had only told the doc and himself about the rape. That fact need never come out. Finally, he decides that it would eventually have to be reported. "It wasn't conscience; I haven't had my conscience out of mothballs since '08. Call it pride. It griped me to have some bastard get away with something as raw as that, right under my nose." Still a little later Vine asks Doc if he could certify the death as being from natural cause but Doc ansers "Of course not."

My bottom line on Gil Vine is that these two stories were above average in many ways but I need to read a few more to make a firm judgment on the series.

As for Fire Marshall Pedley, he is the real deal and I will follow him into many more burning buildings. Told in the third person, Pedley is a big bulldog of a guy who moves forward in a straight line as he pursues arsonists.
"Moves" is the action word here and he not only moves, he plunges. In FIRE ON FEAR STREET Pedley gobbles bennies to keep going as he works around the clock to catch an arsonist trying to torch a tenement neighborhood. What I like about old Pedley is that Sterling allows him to be human. Trying to collar an old man, Pedley's ear is bitten and torn and bleeds for half the book. About the time it stops bleeding a patrolman mistakes the Fire Marshall for a prowler and slugs him with a nightstick, which starts the bleeding anew. As Pedley pops the bennies and forces himself to go on, it is evident that he is no longer operating at full capacity and eventually makes a major mistake. But nothing will stop him from working through his mistakes and eventually stopping the arsonist. I like this big guy!

Skipping to my other Pedley novel WHERE THERE'S SMOKE, there is this description of his method: "He knew only one way to go at a thing like this. Keep asking questions. With his eyes, when he could. With his mouth, when he had to. If you kept on asking questions and getting answers, the right one would be among them sooner or later."

The most notable aspect of the Fire Marshall Pedley novels is the pace. I love a writer who knows how to keep a novel moving and Sterling (real name Prentice Winchell) is one of the best at this I've ever read. Today's mail brought me a couple of additional Sterling novels and on the cover of one Anthony Boucher compares the pace to Erle Stanley Gardner's, who was renowned for his fast-paced narratives.

Stewart was not known as a stylist but he can be graphic in descriptions, such as this of a fire victim. "Blackened lips curled back against the teeth in a clown's grimace--a man whose face looked as if minstrel make-up had cracked and peeled from his skin, whose head was covered with charred fuzz where there had been hair."

When Pedley knelt down in a puddle of water to examine the body there is this: "Pedley put a palm to the dead man's chest, pressed gently. A tiny feather of smoke trailed from the blackened lips."

And while the prose rarely soars, there are moments when Stewart captures a gritty city feeling.

"He stood up, looked at the sky. The ugly glow was gone from the underside of the low-hanging clouds; the smoke drifting upward had little heat beneath it to give it wings. The boys had the blaze in hand.

"The pumpers were uncoupling. Soot-smudged men were taking up--handling the ice-sheathed canvas as cautiously as if they were juggling butcher knives. Gongs clanged the recall for hood-and-ladders. Motors roared. Police whistles shrilled. Sirens began their warning wail....The crowds at the fire line were already thinning. Hose trucks and combinations were rolling out from the curb, sliding away into the early dusk with bloodshot eyes."

So I now have another Vine mystery in hand thanks to the mail. ALIBI BABY in an Avon paperback from 1955. What a cover! Picking up the nearest edition of TWENTIETH CENTURY CRIME AND MYSTERY WRITERS I wasn't surprised to find a comprehensive write-up and publication history. I wasn't even surprised to see that it was written by Art Scott...and this is just about the spot where I entered this story.

Richard Moore

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