Tuesday, January 31, 2012

ALTERNATIVE CRIME: Death Walks on Cat Feet - Paul Haggard

That's supposed to be a skull in a hatbox.
Sometimes I get tired of reading the same old kind of whodunits - bodies in the library, find the hidden will, missing husbands masquerading as avenging killers. You know the kind of book I'm talking about. Every now and then I need a little jolt of the weird. Blowpipe murders, liquid nitrogen pouring out of a shower head, the search for a headless skeleton. You get the picture. I'll go browsing along my shelves for a book that's been sitting there for several years and when I dig into the pages of a select volume I usually get more than I ever bargained for. That's what happened when I started reading Death Walks on Cat Feet (1938) by Paul Haggard (aka Stephen Longstreet -- one time cartoonist, 1950s novelist,  and screenwriter). Once again I find I've stumbled across a book that not only seemed way ahead of its time but is also one of the many books featured in Gun in Cheek Bill Pronzini's love letter to "bad" mystery novels.

Death Walks on Cat Feet is either Haggard's second or third mystery book (two books were published in 1938) using this pseudonym and the only one to feature amateur criminologist, museum curator, and former coroner Sam Macabre. Perfect name for a coroner, eh? Not only is the lead detective suitably named but his strange museum housing an odd collection of artifacts dealing with notorious murderers and their crimes is called Macabre, Inc. And macabre is an understated adjective to describe the near necrophilic atmosphere that pervades this grisly, often stomach churning, and very pulpy detective novel.

It's the only book of the Golden Age I've ever read where coroners takes center stage as the amateur sleuths. The only policeman in this novel, Captain Fielding, does hardly any police work at all and allows Sam Macabre to run the show along with the current coroner of Manhattan. The really strange thing is that the majority of the book takes place in Miami, Florida and that Macabre, Fielding and the NYC coroner (named -- believe it or not -- Doc Savage) fly to Florida in search of a missing body, find another murder victim and take over the investigation of that crime in conjunction with the original murder that occurred in New York. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself and probably already confusing you.

Joy Rogers, Sam's niece, is charged with suspicion of murder when she accidentally stumbles across the corpse of Ludwig Elm, theatrical producer, who is discovered with a human skull left on top of his body. In fleeing the scene she leaves behind her monogrammed handbag and a hatbox with a one of a kind hat she intended to wear to her upcoming wedding. She seeks help from her Uncle Sam who decides to send her to an upstate New York sanitarium for safekeeping. An autopsy reveals that Elm died of natural causes, but that the skull reveals two bullet holes at the rear base. The investigation then shifts to discovering the identity of the person whose skull it is and what happened to the rest of the body.

The author circa 1975
(courtesy of the Stephen Longstreet website)
Captain Fielding is in charge of the case. He reluctantly takes Sam's word that Joy is innocent. Macabre challenges Fielding to a bet. If the police avoid arresting Joy for one week, Sam will use that time to hunt down the real murderer. Fielding agrees and the first thing they do is head to the home of Sam's oddball Polish sculptor friend. Why? To reconstruct the face of course. This is the first time I have ever seen something so completely modern done in a detective novel of this era.

A zany scene introduces the Polish sculptor who of course brilliantly creates an astonishing female likeness on the skull with the aid of modelling clay and his nimble fingers. You'd think it would take a couple of days, but no this genius does it all in a couple of hours. Facial reconstruction while you wait.  Sam then asks for photos of Ludwig's ex-wife who coincidentally has disappeared within the past few days. The sculpted face and the photos are a match. Now to find out who killed Mrs. Elm and why. The investigation takes them into the world of Broadway theater where we meet these colorful characters:

Eddy Prentiss – stage manager and ex-con with a rap sheet including petty theft, burglary and murder. Sam keeps him in mind as suspect number one.

Baroness Higgins (aka The Princess) – former crooked medium now a theatrical angel and wanna-be actress. Planning to marry Elm as soon as he could divorce his wife.

Freddy Martin – another stereotyped gay character who happens to be the costume designer for Ludwig Elm's current show that is intended to be a vehicle for the Baroness

Fern Deshaw – bad actress trying to pass herself of as Southern Belle who shows too much interest in Elm's murder and has a lust for diamonds. Turns out she too has a rap sheet, hers includes assault and battery.

Robert Deshaw – Fern's stepfather. Breeds and sells tropical fish. Rented a cottage to Elm's wife in Miami where Mrs. Elm fled when she left her husband. The one scene in which he appears is loaded with everything you never wanted to know about the care of tropical fish in home aquariums.

Dumpling Joe – pro wrestler turned bodyguard. Hired to keep an eye on Joy when she is stalked by Prentiss at the sanitarium. Coincidentally (of course) he also was bodyguard for Mrs. Elm who had a collection of valuable diamonds she loved to wear and needed protection from avaricious thieves.

Skulls, skeletons, missing diamonds, an obsession with graphic descriptions of autopsies, a disgusting scene devoted to the evisceration of fish, and a pool of flesh eating lampreys. What more could you ask for in weirdness?

As for detection:  How about Sam's esoteric knowledge of a 16th century Duke related to the Borgias who killed his rival's wife and dangled her decapitated head in front of his victim essentially giving him the fright of his life that helps Sam figure out that Ludwig Elm must've been frightened to death by the sight of Mrs. Elm's skull. Or Sam's arcane insight into a species of red ant known only to a certain area of Miami that helps him determine that an object was hidden under the bathroom tiles of Mrs Elm's home where said red ants were thriving. This book has weirdness in spades. Weirdness galore!

"Wait! Did you say flesh eating lampreys, John? But lampreys are only bloodsucking parasitical fish. They aren't carnivorous."

Oh you smart aleck, kid. You didn't even raise your hand. But of course lampreys aren't carnivores. That doesn't stop Mr Haggard or Longstreet or Weiner (pick a name, any name) from putting them in his book. This is an alternative classic mystery novel. There are no rules here. And especially no rules for grammar, syntax or metaphorical language. Making a nice segue to these select passages from Death Walks on Cat Feet.

The paperback reprint published under Longstreet's
other pseudonym and given a more lurid & fitting title
Describing Sam Macabre's problem with a bumpy ride on the flight to Miami:
Sam felt his stomach coming north on an elevator.

Describing the sounds of a gospel choir:
The obligattos of hosannas took on a strange grandeur.

The art of the simile:
Mrs. Elm's former cottage was as silent as an obelisk.

Metaphor a la Haggard:
The nine foot cyclone-fence, that did monkey shines around the estate, was topped with thick arteries of extra tough barb wire...

Wiseacre dialog:
"Lives there a dame who isn't a pushover for any kind of stinking gallantry?"

I could fill the page with examples of this memorable writing. But you must discover the rest on your own. If you dare...  Copies of Death Walks on Cat Feet are incredibly scarce but you can find a few copies under a different title and a different pseudonym (see photo at right) for between $15 and $23.  Or you can purchase my "well read" copy in the original hardcover using the original more poetic title. Just drop me an email.


  1. Fun! Sounds like some good reading when I get the time. Working on MASTER OF SHADOWS at the present.

  2. Sounds like fun, but I'd like to call a time-out. Liquid nitrogen out of a shower head??? I think I missed that one... Where can such a bizarre (and creative!) scenario be found?

  3. Tim -

    This really took me by surprise. There's even more I didn't have time or room to mention: a trip to the Miami dog races, the Negro Theatre Guild, and the loopy staged seance in the end in which the Baroness appears nude. It must be read to be believed.

    Patrick -

    That preposterous murder method is found in THE ROSE BATH RIDDLE by Anthony Rud. At one time you could buy a copy for $10 now they start at $40. I mentioned it in passing in my review of the Shell Scott book I reviewed last year. Rud's book will be featured soon in a future "Alternative Crime" post which I hope to make a monthly feature. Next month I step into the wacky world of Amelia Reynolds Long. I hope to return relatively unscathed.

  4. Sounds properly sinister, John. In your constant search to astound us with your vintage literary acumen, you continue to come with doozies.

    This doozie sounds especially good.

    Though, as usual, I'd never heard of the author. I do like the samples you provide....the writing samples, I mean. Ha!

  5. Those quotes are great! I have to admit I spit out my coffee laughing when I read "Mrs. Elm's former cottage was as silent as an obelisk." I have to ask: What does the title mean?

  6. He's stealing a metaphor from Carl Sandburg and adapting it to how death is just as silent:

    The fog comes
    on little cat feet.

    It sits looking
    over harbor and city
    on silent haunches
    and then moves on.

  7. It's certainly more evocative than Death Coughs Up a Hairball.