RARA-AVIS: Re: Gil Vine

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 06 Nov 2003

 Date: Sat, 1 Nov 2003 18:24:51 +0100
 From: "Geir Glosvik" < gglosvik@online.no>
 Subject: Re: RARA-AVIS: Bouchercon discoveries
 After reading this interesting story, I checked my shelves and found a
 Gil Vine book anno 1959: A Body in the Bed - published in a Norwegian
 translation in 1962. I never read it, but I'll sure read it now. I'm
 often amazed by what those publishers found it worth translating and
 publishing - everything from trash to Hammet/Chandler.
 Geir Glosvik
I'll be interested in what you think of Vine, although I have not read that novel, and am still just sampling the series. Curiously enough, one of the pulps I bought at Bouchercon has a very early Gil Vine story, although at the time I bought it I was a few hours away from being briefed on Stewart Sterling by Art Scott.

The pulp is "Top Detective Annual" with a banner across the top "The Year's Best Mystery Story Anthology" and just underneath that "1952 Edition." After getting it up to my room, I looked at it more carefully and was annoyed to find that I was wrong to believe my lying eyes. It wasn't a "best of the year" annual at all and in fact I don't believe there is a story from 1952 contained within. It is a reprint pulp that has an assortment of stories from the Thrilling Publications pulp chain with editorial director the legendary Leo Margulies. Stories from as far back as 1935 were selected from such mags as Thrilling Mystery, Thrilling Detective, Thrilling Adventures, Phantom Detective, etc.
 My irritation passed as the contents included new-to-me stories by Dwight Babcock, Fredric Brown, Wyatt Blassingame, Murray Leinster, William Campbell Gault and among the group a lead story by Stewart Sterling.

It was only this weekend that I noticed the Sterling story and was pleased to discover it is a Gil Vine story "The Glass Guillotine" from the November 1940 issue of Thrilling Detective. It's long (over 30 pulp pages) and the opening chapter caught my attention. The story predates Vine's hotel security career and is told in the third person, unlike the first person novels that followed. Vine is introduced as a private eye who has had a one-man agency since he left the FBI five years before.

I have yet to find any reference to the FBI in the Vine novels. The most notable background I've found in the novels is that Vine went through the Guadacanal campaign in the Pacific.

In the novels, despite Vine's colorful lingo, he is portrayed as something of a sophisticate. It may be that Sterling made these choses purposefully as Vine was at the crossroads of a cultural clash with the Fifth Avenue hotel setting and the more earthly chores of being a house detective. Then again, Sterling may have scattered the high-brow and lowbrow references willy-nilly. In one of the later stories, Vine dines on foie gras Strasbourg, venison steak sandwiches, and Stilton-in-Port. This is not a meal I would have chosen, although I had some rather odd combinations when I lived in Brussels, but Vine enjoyed it immensely.

Vine will also throw in an italicized non-English word, sometimes plopping it down into otherwise Americanism patter, such as when he once described his hotel thus: "The Plaza Royale is pretty generally classified as an upper-crust caravanserai." Two lines later he explains that his hotel doesn't cater to the convention trade. "...the high-powered wheels who flock to our Crystal Room would put on a flap if we let in the whoop--de-doo bunch for one of those water-pistol squirting get-togethers."

I'm trying to imagine Vine saying that with his mouth full of foie gras.

The pulp novel presents a simpler Gil Vine. He's the classic tough-guy private eye sitting at a table in "a disreputable joint" called the Bachelor's Club
(so named because no one would ever take his wife there). The plot is rather unusual for a pulp novel. Vine spots the leading candidate for the presidential nomination of a major party now holding its convention in the city. He is a member of the cabinet who Vine knew well from his years with the FBI.

Vine is stunned to see the dignified man in his early sixties at a ringside table, sloppy drunk and clutching a "honey-haired wench." Knowing that reports of this behavior would sink the statesman's candidacy, Vine makes his way to the table to rescue him just as a photographer appears with a camera. The blonde clutches the old guy and strikes a pose for the picture but Vine steps in the way and knocks the camera to one side. When objections are made by the bouncers, Vine pulls his .45 and stands them off while he escapes with the candidate and the blonde.

As sometimes happens in the pulps, the blonde turns out to be an okay dame and Vine eventually enlists her help. And he needs a lot of help because they no sooner climb into a cab than it's rammed by a laundry truck and the old guy is slammed into the meter box. So instead of continuing on to the Turkish Bath where Vine was going to sober the guy up for the big speech the next day, he directs the cabbie to steer the still-functioning taxi to a doctor Vine knows. Doc Easter "was not drunk but he had been drinking" but the observant Vine noted that "the fine square-fingered hands were steady." And drunk or sober didn't matter much anyway because Doc took one look and said "This man's dead."

Now at this point I was disappointed to see the old boy wiped out so quickly as the political plotline was interesting. But I have learned with Sterling that he will kill characters quite unexpectedly. The writing in this story is cruder than in his later novels and, given the penny a word or less rates, that isn't too surprising. I doubt that many pulp writers did much rewriting--Chandler being one obvious exception. But the absolute hell-bent pace carries the reader past bumpy spots in the writing and scattered cliches and as the reader whizzes along, the story takes several odd turns. The pace and the impossible-to-anticipate plotting reminded me of a A. E. van Vogt science fiction novel from his heyday in Astounding. Van Vogt wrote everything in short scenes and he used every idea that came to his mind. He feared that if he rejected an idea, it might block the flow and create a mental logjam. So he would let a central character die because he trusted his imagination would figure out a way to revive him in the next chapter.

Harder to do in a mystery, but back to Gil Vine. He's standing there mourning the death of his favorite statesman when Doc Easter murmurs "mistake somewhere" and uses one of those fine square-fingered hands to snatch the hair off the corpse's head. A wig! And the nose comes off as well. There's a young man underneath! An actor, for Christ's sake. The blonde confesses that she and her dead pal were hired to act out the scene in the club. Vine stuffs the wig and the nose in his pocket, asks Doc to hold off just a little bit before calling the cops, grabs the blonde and heads back to the nightclub. If that ain't the dead statesman, then somebody is holding him. He has to be out of circulation or the phony scandal wouldn't work.

I won't go into much more detail on a story no one else will be able to read but the scene shifts from the nightclub to a bowling alley to a ritzy hotel to a huge commercial laundry and finally to the convention hall. Vine is in separate knockdown fist fights with a political boss, the nightclub owner and his partner, the laundry truck driver, the laundry truck driver's giant friend and a chauffeur. Actually, some of these guys he fights more than once and two or three he shoots when they pull weapons in the course of the fist fights. He rescues one minor character from a torture chamber, is given a mickey
(nicknamed "the glass guillotine"), and gets the statesman's wife to give an emotional statement to the national political convention that buys time while he searches for her husband. The penultimate scene is in this huge laundry where Vine and the finally located cabinet secretary are trapped in a tightly sealed room where the villain pipes in hot steam that well-neigh cooks the two before Vine can manage their escape.

The final scene has Vine producing the rather worse-for-the-wear candidate in time to receive his party's nomination. The crooked political boss is confronted by Vine but he plunges into the crowd before the .45-waving Vine can stop him. Rather than chase the fleeing man, Vine goes to the podium, grabs the microphone, and announces to the delegates who was responsible for the kidnapping and attempted murder of their revered nominee. "For a moment the crowd near one of the exits appeared to mill around like cattle in a stampede. Then there was a shrill, thin cry of terror."

Whew! I think I've gotten my money's worth of entertainment from that old reprint pulp and there are eleven more stories still to be read. But, Geir, you should know that the character of Gil Vine herein described is very different from the hotel security chief in THE BODY IN THE BED, which opens with Vine finishing a gigot d'agneau for lunch.

Richard Moore

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