TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS
Some literary antiquarian of a rather special type may one day think it worth while to run through the files of the pulp detective magazines which flourished during the late twenties and early thirties, and determine just how and when and by what steps the popular mystery story shed its refined good manners and went native. He will need sharp eyes and an open mind. Pulp paper never dreamed of posterity and most of it must be a dirty brown color by now. And it takes a very open mind indeed to look beyond the unnecessarily gaudy covers, trashy titles and barely acceptable advertisements and recognize the authentic power of a kind of writing that, even at its most mannered and artificial, made most of the fiction of the time taste like a cup of luke-warm consommé at a spinsterish tearoom.
I don’t think this power was entirely a matter of violence, although far too many people got killed in these stories and their passing was celebrated with a rather too loving attention to detail. It certainly was not a matter of fine writing, since any attempt at that would have been ruthlessly blue-penciled by the editorial staff. Nor was it because of any great originality of plot or character. Most of the plots were rather ordinary and most of the characters rather primitive types of people. Possibly it was the smell of fear which these stories managed to generate. Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun. The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark with something more than night. The mystery story grew hard and cynical about motive and character, but it was not cynical about the effects it tried to produce nor about its technique of producing them. A few unusual critics recognized this at the time, which was all one had any right to expect. The average critic never recognizes an achievement when it happens. He explains it after it has become respectable.
The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passagework. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing. We who tried to write it had the same point of view as the film makers. When I first went to work in Hollywood a very intelligent producer told me that you couldn’t make a successful motion picture from a mystery story, because the whole point was a disclosure that took a few seconds of screen time while the audience was reaching for its hat. He was wrong, but only because he was thinking of the wrong kind of mystery.
As to the emotional basis of the hard-boiled story, obviously it does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done–unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made that happen. They were apt to be hard men, and what they did, whether they were called police officers, private detectives or newspaper men, was hard, dangerous work. It was work they could always get. There was plenty of it lying around. There still is. Undoubtedly the stories about them had a fantastic element. Such things happened, but not so rapidly, nor to so closeknit a group of people, nor within so narrow a frame of logic. This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action; if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.
As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. If the formula had been a little less rigid, more of the writing of that time might have survived. Some of us tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and sent back. To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack. There are things in my stories which I might like to change or leave out altogether. To do this may look simple, but if you try, you find you cannot do it at all, You will only destroy what is good without having any noticeable effect on what is bad. You cannot recapture the mood, the state of innocence, much less the animal gusto you had when you had very little else. Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.
As for the literary quality of these exhibits, I am entitled to assume from the imprint of a distinguished publisher that I need not be sickeningly humble. As a writer I have never been able to take myself with that enormous earnestness which is one of the trying characteristics of the craft. And I have been fortunate to escape what has been called that form of snobbery which can accept the Literature of Entertainment in the Past, but only the Literature of Enlightenment in the Present.” Between the one-syllable humors of the comic strip and the anemic subtleties of the litterateurs there is a wide stretch of country, in which the mystery story may or may not be an important landmark. There are those who hate it in all its forms. There are those who like it when it is about nice people (“that charming Mrs. Jones, whoever would have thought she would cut off her husband’s head with a meat saw? Such a handsome man, too!”). There are those who think violence and sadism interchangeable terms, and those who regard detective fiction as subliterary on no better grounds than that it does not habitually get itself jammed up with subordinate clauses, tricky punctuation and hypothetical subjunctives. There are those who read it only when they are tired or sick, and, from the number of mystery novels they consume, they must be tired and sick most of the time. There are the aficionados of deduction and the aficionados of sex who can’t get it into their hot little heads that the fictional detective is a catalyst, not a Casanova. The former demand a ground plan of Greythorpe Manor, showing the study, the gun room, the main hall and staircase and the passage to that grim little room where the butler polishes the Georgian silver, thin-lipped and silent, hearing the murmur of doom. The latter think the shortest distance between two points is from a blonde to a bed.
No writer can please them all, no writer should try. The stories in this book certainly had no thought of being able to please anyone ten or fifteen years after they were written. The mystery story is a kind of writing that need not dwell in the shadow of the past and owes little if any allegiance to the cult of the classics. It is a good deal more than unlikely that any writer now living will produce a better historical novel than Henry Esmond, a better tale of children than The Golden Age, a sharper social vignette than Madame Bovary, a more graceful and elegant evocation than The Spoils of Poynton, a wider and richer canvas than War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. But to devise a more plausible mystery than The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Purloined Letter should not be too difficult. Nowadays it would be rather more difficult not to. There are no “classics” of crime and detection. Not one. Within its frame of reference, which is the only way it should be judged, a classic is a piece of writing which exhausts the possibilities of its form and can hardly be surpassed. No story or novel of mystery has done that yet. Few have come close. Which is one of the principal reasons why otherwise reasonable people continue to assault the citadel.
La Jolla, California
February 15, 1950
* * *
* * *
We were sitting in a room at the Berglund. I was on the side of the bed, and Dravec was in the easy chair. It was my room.
Rain beat very hard against the windows. They were shut tight and it was hot in the room and I had a little fan going on the table. The breeze from it hit Dravec’s face high up, lifted his heavy black hair, moved the longer bristles in the fat path of eyebrow that went across his face in a solid line. He looked like a bouncer who had come into money.
He showed me some of his gold teeth and said: “What you got on me?”
He said it importantly, as if anyone who knew anything would know quite a lot about him.
“Nothing,” I said, “You’re clean, as far as I know.”
He lifted a large hairy hand and stared at it solidly for a minute.
“You don’t get me. A feller named M’Gee sent me here. Violets M’Gee.”
“Fine. How is Violets these days?” Violets M’Gee was a homicide dick in the sheriff’s office.
He looked at his large hand and frowned. “No–you still don’t get it. I got a job for you.”
“I don’t go out much any more,” I said. “I’m getting kind of frail.”
He looked around the room carefully, bluffing a bit, like a man not naturally observant.
“Maybe it’s money,” he said.
“Maybe it is,” I said.
He had a belted suede raincoat on. He tore it open carelessly and got out a wallet that was not quite as big as a bale of hay. Currency stuck out of it at careless angles. When he slapped it down on his knee it made a fat sound that was pleasant to the ear. He shook money out of it, selected a few bills from the bunch, stuffed the rest back, dropped the wallet on the floor and let it lie, arranged five century notes like a light poker hand and put them under the base of the fan on the table.
That was a lot of work. It made him grunt.
“I got lots of sugar,” he said.
“So I see. What do I do for that, if I get it?”
“You know me now, huh?”
“A little better.”
I got an envelope out of an inside pocket and read to him aloud from some scribbling on the back.
“Dravec, Anton or Tony. Former Pittsburgh steelworker, truck guard, all-round muscle stiff. Made a wrong pass and got shut up. Left town, came West. Worked on an avocado ranch at El Seguro. Came up with a ranch of his own. Sat right on the dome when the El Seguro oil boom burst. Got rich. Lost a lot of it buying into other people’s dusters. Still has enough. Serbian by birth, six feet, two hundred and forty, one daughter, never known to have had a wife. No police record of any consequence. None at all since Pittsburgh.”
I lit a pipe.
“Jeeze,” he said. “Where you promote all that?”
“Connections. What’s the angle?”
He picked the wallet off the floor and moused around inside it with a couple of square fingers for a while, with his tongue sticking out between his thick lips. He finally got out a slim brown card and some crumpled slips of paper. He pushed them at me.
The card was in golf type, very delicately done. It said: “Mr. Harold Hardwicke Steiner,” and very small in the corner, “Rare Books and De Luxe Editions.” No address or phone number.
The white slips, three in number, were simple I 0 U’s for a thousand dollars each, signed: “Carmen Dravec” in a sprawling, moronic handwriting.
I gave it all back to him and said: “Blackmail?”
He shook his head slowly and something gentle came into his face that hadn’t been there before.
“It’s my little girl–Carmen. This Steiner, he bothers her. She goes to his joint all the time, makes whoopee. He makes love to her, I guess. I don’t like it.”
I nodded. “How about the notes?”
“I don’t care nothin’ about the dough. She plays-games with him. The hell with that. She’s what you call man-crazy. You go tell this Steiner to lay off Carmen. I break his neck with my hands. See?”
All this in a rush, with deep breathing. His eyes got small and round, and furious. His teeth almost chattered.
I said: “Why have me tell him? Why not tell him yourself?”
“Maybe I get mad and kill the–!” he yelled.
I picked a match out of my pocket and prodded the loose ash in the bowl of my pipe. I looked at him carefully for a moment, getting hold of an idea.
“Nerts, you’re scared to,” I told him.
Both fists came up. He held them shoulder high and shook them, great knots of bone and muscle. He lowered them slowly, heaved a deep honest sigh, and said: “Yeah. I’m scared to. I dunno how to handle her. All the time some new guy and all the time a punk. A while back I gave a guy called Joe Marty five grand to lay off her. She’s still mad at me.”
I stared at the window, watched the rain hit it, flatten out, and slide down in a thick wave, liked melted gelatin. It was too early in the fall for that kind of rain.
“Giving them sugar doesn’t get you anywhere,” I said. “You could be doing that all your life. So you figure you’d like to have me get rough with this one, Steiner.”
“Tell him I break his neck!”
“I wouldn’t bother,” I said. “I know Steiner. I’d break his neck for you myself, if it would do any good.”
He leaned forward and grabbed my hand. His eyes got childish. A gray tear floated in each of them.
“Listen, M’Gee says you’re a good guy. I tell you something I ain’t told nobody–ever. Carmen–she’s not my kid at all. I just picked her up in Smoky, a little baby in the street. She didn’t have nobody. I guess maybe I steal her, huh?”
“Sounds like it,” I said, and had to fight to get my hand loose. I rubbed feeling back into it with the other one. The man had a grip that would crack a telephone pole.
“I go straight then,” he said grimly, and yet tenderly. “I come out here and make good, She grows up. I love her.”
I said: “Uh-huh. That’s natural.”
“You don’t get me. I wanta marry her.”
I stared at him.
“She gets older, get some sense. Maybe she marry me, huh?” His voice implored me, as if I had the settling of that.
“Ever ask her?”
“I’m scared to,” he said humbly.
“She soft on Steiner, do you think?”
He nodded. “But that don’t mean nothin’.”
I could believe that. I got off the bed, threw a window up and let the rain hit my face for a minute.
“Let’s get this straight,” I said, lowering the window again and going back to the bed. “I can take Steiner off your back. That’s easy. I just don’t see what it buys you.”
He grabbed for my hand again, but I was a little too quick for him this time.
“You came in here a little tough, flashing your wad,” I said. “You’re going out soft. Not from anything I’ve said. You knew it already. I’m not Dorothy Dix, and I’m only partly a prune. But I’ll take Steiner off you, if you really want that.”
He stood up clumsily, swung his hat and stared down at my feet.
“You take him off my back, like you said. He ain’t her sort, anyway.”
“It might hurt your back a little.”
“That’s okay. That’s what it’s for,” he said.
He buttoned himself up, dumped his hat on his big shaggy head, and rolled on out. He shut the door carefully, as if he was going out of a sickroom.
I thought he was as crazy as a pair of waltzing mice, but I liked him.
I put his goldbacks in a safe place, mixed myself a long drink, and sat down in the chair that was still warm from him.
While I played with the drink I wondered if he had any idea what Steiner’s racket was.
Steiner had a collection of rare and half-rare smut books which he loaned out as high as ten dollars a day–to the right people.
It rained all the next day. Late in the afternoon I sat parked in a blue Chrysler roadster, diagonally across the Boulevard from a narrow store front, over which a green neon sign in script letters said: “H. H. Steiner.”
The rain splashed knee-high off the sidewalks, filled the gutters, and big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying little girls in silk stockings and cute little rubber boots across the bad places, with a lot of squeezing.
The rain drummed on the hood of the Chrysler, beat and tore at the taut material of the top, leaked in at the buttoned places, and made a pool on the floorboards for me to keep my feet in.
I had a big flask of Scotch with me. I used it often enough to keep interested.
Steiner did business, even in that weather; perhaps especially in that weather. Very nice cars stopped in front of his store, and very nice people dodged in, then dodged out again with wrapped parcels under their arms. Of course they could have been buying rare books and de luxe editions.
At five-thirty a pimply-faced kid in a leather windbreaker came out of the store and sloped up the side street at a fast trot. He came back with a neat cream-and-gray coupé. Steiner came out and got into the coupé. He wore a dark green leather raincoat, a cigarette in an amber holder, no hat. I couldn’t see his glass eye at that distance but I knew he had one. The kid in the windbreaker held an umbrella over him across the sidewalk, then shut it up and handed it into the coupé.
Steiner drove west on the Boulevard. I drove west on the Boulevard. Past the business district, at Pepper Canyon, he turned north, and I tailed him easily from a block back. I was pretty sure he was going home, which was natural.
He left Pepper Drive and took a curving ribbon of wet cement called La Verne Terrace, climbed up it almost to the top. It was a narrow road with a high bank on one side and a few well-spaced cabinlike houses built down the steep slope on the other side. Their roofs were not much above road level. The front of them were masked by shrubs. Sodden trees dripped all over the landscape.
Steiner’s hideaway had a square box hedge in front of it, more than window-high. The entrance was a sort of maze, and the house door was not visible from the road. Steiner put his gray-and-cream coupé in a small garage, locked up, went through the maze with his umbrella up, and light went on in the house.
While he was doing this I had passed him and gone to the top of the hill. I turned around there and went back and parked in front of the next house above his. It seemed to be closed up or empty, but had no signs on it. I went into a conference with my flask of Scotch, and then just sat.
At six-fifteen lights bobbed up the hill. It was quite dark by then. A car stopped in front of Steiner’s hedge. A slim, tall girl in a slicker got out of it. Enough light filtered out through the hedge for me to see that she was dark-haired and possibly pretty. Voices drifted on the rain and a door shut. I got out of the Chrysler and strolled down the hill, put a pencil flash into the car. It was a dark maroon or brown Packard convertible. Its licence read to Carmen Dravec, 3596 Lucerne Avenue. I went back to my heap. A solid, slow-moving hour crawled by. No more cars came up or down the hill. It seemed to be a very quiet neighborhood. Then a single flash of hard white light leaked out of Steiner’s house, like a flash of summer lightning. As the darkness fell again a thin tinkling scream trickled down the darkness and echoed faintly among the wet trees. I was out of the Chrysler and on my way before the last echo of it died.