Hard as it is to believe, there’s a detective out there who has been the protagonist in novels that sold over 30 million copies, starred in hundreds of short stories, radio shows, movies, a television series, had his own digest magazine that lasted almost 30 years, and who at present has exactly one book in print. His name is Mike Shayne, his creator was Brett Halliday and I’ll wager that most have you have never heard of him, much less read any of his books.
I’d seen copies of Shayne paperbacks around, but it wasn’t until one of our faithful book scouts brought in (literally) a boxful of them that I really examined the phenomena. At first I was drawn to the covers, the early ones by master pulp artist Robert McGinnis, little paintings with a dramatic title like Violence Is Golden superimposed over a vivid image of a lush babe, work that if presented in a museum could easily pass for Pop Art. The later covers were much less art and much more camp, the kind of ridiculously posed photographs of random models that were inexplicably popular in the 70s and 80s.
As I enjoyed the front covers, I started reading the back ones too, and found that the novels themselves seemed somewhat intriguing, or at least diverting, the kind of short, small paperbacks you can jam in your pocket read in snatches without missing much. I started one and, reader, I was hooked. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of – without a doubt a Shayne novel is literary junk food, a Big Mac in book form – you know it’s not really that good, but somehow you just can’t put it down.
Although tough and rangy redhead Shayne is in some respects the stereotypical P.I. in his non-stop booze swilling, cigarette smoking and instant attractiveness to women, the books aren’t really as pulpy as I expected. There’s moderate violence and a respectable body count, but Mike often neglects packing his gun, and never blasts his way to a resolution, preferring a more cerebral approach. He’s often surrounded by more than willing dames who he strings along for the sake of the case, but his true heart lies with his wife (a staggering inconvenience in the shamus game who was eliminated early in the series) and then his devoted secretary, and the dames have the habit of conveniently passing out or being murdered before anything truly steamy can be consummated. The cases he’s involved in are less straightforward than most, involving a host of suspects, twists and turns galore, and are often resolved by assembling all involved for a talkfest a la Poirot.
Unfortunately, due to the pace of production, Halliday (real name Davis Dresser), who wrote thirty-one books in seventeen years before turning to ghostwriters, it often seems as if Mike, when he invariably tugs his earlobe in mid-narrative and wonders what the heck is going to happen, is only giving voice to his creator’s quandary. The settings, particularly when Mike operates out of postwar Miami, are often novel, but the prose is flat and Mike frequently pulling his earlobe and preferring Cognac is about as deep as the characterization gets.
The single Mike Shayne title still in print out of almost seventy published is 1945’s Murder is my Business, and I have to give the noir masters at Hard Case Crime credit, because of the fraction of the oeuvre I’ve read, it’s the best.
Like most of the series it has an intriguing set-up. A little old lady comes into Mike’s office with a letter from her son, who, after years working in mines in Mexico, has decided to return to the States and enlist in the Army. On his way to El Paso, he writes, he encountered a man who convinced him to join under a fake name so he could assist in investigating a spy ring. She also has a newspaper article about a recent recruit who died under the wheels of the limousine of Mr. Jefferson Towne, a local mining tycoon and candidate for mayor. Although the lady is not only little and old but also poor, and Mike always makes a point of profiting from his efforts, he has a history with Towne and figures he can collect somewhere along the line, so he heads to El Paso.
This is good news for the narrative, as it removes him from his usual setting and supporting cast of cardboard characters. Though he ends up with basically the same group – a reporter, a police chief, a hard partying gal with the hots for him, a manipulative rich guy/politician and an out and out mobster – at least they have different names and slightly different personalities. It also helps that, lacking his usual antagonist and comic foil, the preening Miami Beach police chief Peter Painter, he actually can work with the cops to unravel a case that includes an ever growing collection of complications and corpses. The wartime milieu and a few trips across the border also add spice, and the denouement, although only slightly less farfetched than most, is taut and satisfying.
Murder Is My Business isn’t really nasty enough to qualify as vintage pulp fiction, or refined enough to be a classic mystery, but, like its hero, it defiantly is what it is, a fast read, with a certain undefinable and once enormously popular something, pretty much the very thing they invented paperbacks for.