Friday means Friday’s Forgotten Books and Barry is back this week with another review. This was before my time, but it sounds like a cool book. For other suggestions make sure you go to Patti’s blog for the links.
THE BEST FROM MANHUNT (1958) selected by Scott and Sidney Meredith
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
For those readers too young to know or who simply don’t remember it, Manhunt was the premier mystery/crime fiction magazine that ran from 1953 to 1967, overlapping the pulp era, and replacing the defunct Black Mask as the pre-eminent outlet for the hardboiled fiction of its time. I own a couple of issues I bought years ago from e-Bay, and would have a great many more of both a profitable and collectible nature had I saved all the issues my father bought and read when I was a kid.
The anthology under consideration was “selected” by Scott and Sydney Meredith, co-founders of the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, which represented some of the notable writers of the period. I know that at least one of them, Evan Hunter, worked for the agency as an editor early in his career, and that some, perhaps all, of the showcased authors were agency clients.
The introduction by the Messrs. Meredith would have the uninitiated believe that Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett—cited in that order—invented the hardboiled detective story, and that those who came after lived in their shadows. In fact, Carroll John Daly came along first, followed very shortly thereafter by Hammett, in Black Mask the early 1920s. A host of others appeared in that and other pulp magazines long before Chandler was first published in 1933.
Still others began to publish decades after Daly, Hammett, and Chandler, whose last Philip Marlowe story appeared in Manhunt. For instance:—
In a taut ticking-clock tale by Evan Hunter, sixteen-year-old Tony, a member of the Royals gang, lies “On the Sidewalk Bleeding” at the far end of an alley in the rain after being attacked and stabbed by members of the rival Guardians. Unless someone comes to help him, he has about half an hour before he’ll bleed out.
With a history of homicides under his belt, has Robert Hummel killed Joseph Garcia in yet another instance of self-defense, or is it a “Mugger Murder”? Given some events throughout America in recent years, Richard Deming’s story is relevant sixty-two years after its original 1953 publication date.
Ruth Kramer is the focus of everyone in the courtroom. An attractive woman in her early thirties, the daughter of an adoring, doting mother and an abusive, soulless, no-longer-working father, her life so far has been anything but idyllic. But she has finally come to a “Decision” in this potent psychological drama by Helen Nielsen.
“No-luck” Frankie finally runs into a lot of success—money, women, and a thriving business— once he eliminates one of his life’s biggest obstacles. What he fails to realize, and that Fletcher Flora vividly makes plain, is that “The Collector Comes After Payday.”
In Jack Ritchie’s short tense tale, three convicts, Gomez, Keegan and Turk, have taken two guards hostage and are holed up in the prison mess hall. They tell the warden they want “a nice fast car and an open gate.” When that request is denied, Gomez suggests that they “Try It My Way.” His way involves murder.
Gene and his wife Anne, along with their neighbors Fred and Dot Baylor, make Thursdays “Movie Night” at the local drive-in theater. The night recounted by author Robert Turner involves a film about juvenile delinquency which piques Fred’s strong opinions on the subject. So does an intermission encounter in the snack bar, with lasting effects on everyone concerned.
An author one normally doesn’t associate with fiction of the Manhunt variety is Erskine Caldwell, but his “In Memory of Judith Courtright” is, in its quiet, understated way, every bit as powerful as an overtly hardboiled work. Why did eighteen-year-old student Merle Randolph take his own life? What kind of work is Judith’s friend Eve Grayson doing since she quit her teaching job over an administrative dispute and moved to New Orleans? How these events connect make up the most literary of the stories in this anthology.
On their way to a nighttime waterfront meeting, the two men, both of whom are parents of young boys, briefly join a crowd which is appalled at the sight of a kid who has been hit by a car. The police and an ambulance arrive, and they continue on to their “Day’s Work” where they conduct themselves as thorough professionals. Jonathan Lord’s gritty story is the shortest in the book.
If the people at Morton’s, where he works as manager of the shipping department, only knew what old Charlie Stevens did on every vacation for the past eight years! Oh, they talked about what they read in the papers, to his great satisfaction, but they didn’t know he was responsible. And now it’s vacation time again, which will mean he can add more newspaper accounts to “The Scrapbook.” But will there be the concomitant satisfaction on Charlie’s return to work? Jonathan Craig’s absorbing tale answers that question.
It’s another “Quiet Day in the County Jail” in Santa Maria County. They call her Red because of the color of her hair, and she’s been living there in an unlocked cell for a while, for her own protection, getting to know jailers and trusties alike as she awaits the arrival of a detective from Detroit to take her back to testify about something she witnessed. She’s far from certain she’ll live to testify. The story, first published in 1953, is bylined Craig Rice, who is best remembered for her wonderful screwball comedy mysteries starring John J. Malone and Jake and Helene Justus. Having read Jeffrey Marks’s biography of Rice, Who Was That Lady?, I knew that toward the latter part of her career (she died in 1957), a lot of stories attributed to her were actually written by others. I contacted Mr. Marks about this one, and he replied, “While no one can be 100% certain of the stories in this period, 1953 was a bad year for Craig. Given that it appeared in Manhunt first and was later anthologized by them, my opinion is that this story was ghostwritten. The Scott Meredith Agency, of which Manhunt was a part, did lots of ghosting in that era to help keep certain authors' names in front of the public. I don't have any idea of who wrote this short story (though I can tell you with other stories.)”
The second shortest story in the collection, Stanley L. Colbert’s “The Set-Up” is narrated by a jaded newspaper reporter beset with interrelated girlfriend and monetary problems. At the scene of a homicide, he makes a startling discovery which leads to a startling action. The potential long-term consequences are not of the beneficial sort.
“The Double Take” is what you do when you glance at something briefly, look away, then jerk your gaze back to it in stunned surprise. It’s only a part of what happens to private detective Shell Scott when he enters his own office and sees someone who resembles and claims to be him in a fast-paced, sometimes serious, sometimes comical story about a confidence scheme by Richard S. Prather.
Professor William Benson is “The Man Who Found the Money”—ninety-two-thousand dollars—on his way back to his Las Vegas hotel after losing at roulette the four hundred dollars he’d saved specifically for this gambling vacation. The reward for its recovery is not at all what he expects in the anthology’s final story by James E. Cronin.
In their introduction, the Merediths quote a portion of a bulletin Manhunt’s editors sent to authors: “We don’t want sentiment and we don’t want prettifying; we want the same kind of realism a New York detective employs when he tells you there are so many muggings, criminal assaults, and even murders in certain parts of the city….We’re as much interested in the whydunit and the howdunit as the whodunit, and we want our stuff to be tough as hell….”
I’m not convinced that every story in this collection fulfills some, let alone all, of those requirements, but I didn’t find any of them dull, either. Those readers who enjoy hardboiled fiction are likely to enjoy The Best from Manhunt.
© 2015 Barry Ergang