Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Ghost Knows His Greengages - R. B. Saxe

Great sufferin’ antimacassars!

Sammy Creed here. Me and the Ghost (or John Dobbs as his parents supposedly named him though by all the signs and portents I do believe he made it up) get mixed up in some pretty tight scrapes. We go way back. Back in the trenches to be specific. And that is when he got his nickname, the one by which I prefer to call him. Yeah, he has that spooky way of sneaking into a room appearing out of nowhere just like a blamed ghost. Comes in handy when we are facing up to all sorts of crooks and gorillas with plug ugly pans and uglier demeanors. Not to mention perfectly horrible taste in sartorial splendor. Man, these guys need several lessons in how to dress. They could take a cue from the Ghost or even me myself as we are two people who know good threads when we see ‘em.

OK, I can’t keep on with this. But you probably have guessed that Sammy and the Ghost are the two leads in today’s forgotten vintage crime novel The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940) by the equally forgotten R.B. Saxe. It’s an obvious homage to Damon Runyon but with a Canadian ex-solider doing the narrating instead of one of Runyon’s Broadway guys. But you’d never know he wasn’t American by the way he talks. Here’s one Canadian in love with the sound of gangster lingo and very American slang of the World War 2 era.

The book is set in England and the writer is British. As much as he knows way too much about Runyonesque patois he lets his English background let slip more often than he ought to. Like when Sammy calls the trunk of a car "the boot" or describes getting duded up in formal wear “fancy dress.” I don’t think a Canadian would use those very specific British terms if he was the kind of talker Sammy is.

And it’s that lingo that is the main attraction of Saxe’s book. The story leaves a lot to be desired. It’s Guys and Dolls transported to merry old London with a sharp contrast between Sammy’s borrowed American speech and the Ghost’s British tough guy act. It’s as if we had Lemmy Caution, Peter Cheney’s brutal private eye, teamed up with Harry the Horse or any number of Runyon’s second string characters.

The story? A simple revenge scheme. The Ghost and Sammy nearly run over a confused old man who walks into the path of the Ghost’s Italian sports car (a Boscalozzi, if you must know, but I think it’s completely made up). They rescue the gent, take him home, and discover the reason for his dazed stroll into traffic is because his bank account has been cleaned out by notorious stock market fleecer Joe “the Baker” Schreiner. The Ghost is determined to get back every last shilling of the old man’s money and help himself to a little extra if he can. Thereafter follows a lot of fisticuffs, broken noses and bruised muscles and egos as the two good guys go after the thugs and goons who make up Joe the Baker’s army of bad guys. Along the way the Ghost tokes on the occasional reefer to relax and get his wheels spinning in his fast paced brain while Sammy knocks back whiskey shots and trade quips with Mulligan their Chinese manservant. Oh yes, he’s got a real Chinese name but Sammy can never remember it so he just calls him Mulligan to simplify the matter.

I tried to overlook the abundance of racial slurs in this one but the constant references to “big schnozzles” of Jewish characters and dubbing the only black gangster in the book a “dinge” was a little too much for me. Most of the time I can forgive some of this “period charm” but this book seemed to be narrated by an ancestor of Archie Bunker. Runyon never did this kind of thing even for laughs and I wonder why Saxe thought he had to throw it in. It ain’t funny at all.

What I chose to concentrate on instead was Saxe’s wicked imagination and flair for turning out insane metaphors in Sammy's peculiar idiom. Here’s a sampling of the best that made me laugh out loud.

Last book in the Ghost & Sammy Credd series
"Maybe one of these days I’ll manage to get a line on [the Ghost], but up to the present I’m no more able to understand him than I could figger out the Theory of Relativity broadcast in Eskimo from Bugville, PA by a Jewish sword swallower in a straight jacket."
"…I realise that although all our duds come from exactly the same establishment we are as alike as one pea in a pod and the back wheel of a motorcycle."
"…where I come from they’re so tough the bed-bugs carry pneumatic drills."
"…but let me tell you here and now that to argue with the Ghost is about as effective as bombarding the Woolworth Building with doughnuts."
"My knowledge of English place names is about as much as could be engraved on the head of a pin by a one-armed Kansas barber using a fourteen pound hammer and a cold chisel."
"The Dud is very well behaved until I start to try to take off his pants and then he suddenly springs into action and commences fighting like a man-eating octopus who is suffering from a sharp attack of green apple colic."
The above, by the way, is not a sexual assault. Sammy says pants but he means trousers. That's the way we North Americans talk you know. The Dud (yes, it’s Dud and not Dude) is drunk and Sammy is trying to get him in bed so he can sleep. This is what the Canadian has to say about the proper way to treat pants:
“It is my opinion that for a guy to go to sleep with his pants on is not only very uncivilised, but is also not giving the pants a square deal into the bargain; it being a known fact that a pair of pants that have been slept in never succeed in occupying the same place in their owner’s affections as before, for no matter if they are pressed a million times there always seems to be a sort of stigma attached to them, if you know what I mean.”
See? I told you these guys are in love with their clothes. Lots of clothes talk in this book. Maybe a bit too much.

R.B. Saxe turns out to be a fake moniker. As fake as John Dobbs, no doubt. He was born Francis Dickson into a family of entertainers. His father was a music hall performer, his brother was an actor who made a living in pantomimes. Is it any wonder that Francis eventually found himself a musician writing songs and playing in a number of jazz bands? In addition to three comic crime novels he also wrote comic strips based on historical figures like “Deep Sea Doctor” about Wilfred Grenfell, a Victorian physician who served as a medical missionary to Canadian fishermen. For more info about this writer who’s almost as interesting as his wacky crime fighting duo see this intriguing post at Bear Alley Books.

The Ghost and Sammy appeared in four books. This was their debut. It was a breezy read and a fun visit, but I’ll not be seeking out the other books in the series. All of them, of course, are very hard to find. And only the first one was published in both hardcover and paperback editions. Probably because it was the best effort of the lot.

The Ghost and Sammy Creed series
The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940)
The Ghost Does a Richard III (1943)
The Ghost Pulls the Jackpot (1945)
What Can You Lose? (1947)

* * *

Count this as book #6 on my Golden Age "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" Bingo Card. This book satisfies the space G1 (“A Book with a Color in the Title”)."


  1. What I can tell you is, Book-Knowin' John -- we gave him that moniker on account of all the other Johns -- knows how to write a parody of a parody of a Runyon parody so youse can get the idea of about what he's talking. No, I can't keep it up either, but well done sir!

    I've never encountered this author -- I'm tempted to say "Thank goodness," since this sort of material is outside my comfort zone, as it were. But I note that the ugly edition at the top of the post is from the interesting UK Pocket line. There might be a hundred titles in this line, and they're not considered scarce or valuable, at least according to a rather dated price guide; I just think they're interesting because they attempted fairly consistently to bring strongly American fiction to the UK market, and this certainly qualifies. (You're absolutely right, Canadians don't talk like that unless they are being represented by American writers.)

    I think there's another good reason I've discovered to play the "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" game; I feel compelled to keep up with you, and you're a faster writer than I am!

    1. I wish I could claim I invented the exclamation that heads this post, but I lifted that straight from the pages of this book. Sammy also says "by all signs and portents" an awful lot so I threw that phrase into the Mixmaster, too. This was a lot of fun despite the Archie Bunker crap -- sadly a lot of that in the middle section. But he got me to laugh which is more than Dora "Richard" Shattuck managed a couple of weeks ago. You have to credit Mr. Dickson for his skill with gangster idiom. I think he deserves a writer's award for the sheer inventiveness of his loopy metaphors.

  2. There's also A Ghost Does a Richard III.
    What that involves, I don't know.

    Runyon impersonation seems to have been a hobby among British writers. Parts of Adrian Alington's The Great Test Match Crime are narrated by an American gunman...

    1. Shoot! How did I miss that? Thanks for the correction/addition. My post has been duly corrected to number four books and I added the title and date of publication.

    2. According to the British Library it's A Ghost Does a Richard III, so it may not be the same ghost...
      I also wonder what a Richard III is. I've only come across it as vulgar rhyming slang...

    3. It is indeed the same Ghost. Same author, too. The title as written above is correct. Someone at the British Library made a data entry error. You don't think they make a mistake every now and then? Believe me, they're far from infallible.

      You're right about the Cockney rhyming slang. "Knows his Greengages" is rhyming slang for "knows his wages" Dickson wrote a few songs incorporating rhyming slang so he was up on that type of idiom as much as he was expert at American gangster talk.

    4. I happen to have a black hard cover copy of the Ghost does a Richard the Third, and regardless of the criticism I've read here, I can say that I enjoyed it immensely, and re read it 3-4 times. It's lo ked a way on storage now, and I haven't seen it or my other books, about 7000 of them for many years. It was my ambition to become a rare vook seller but nevr found the right partner as I was a tyro. Never mind.

  3. John, this was absolutely worth reading if only for your parody of a parody at the beginning and the wonderfully horrible metaphors. Oh my. I'm still giggling.

  4. Not an author I know and I suspect it's goign to stay that way - much more fun to read your post about it - but then, that is a whole brank of literature i.e. more fun to discuss than to actually read! Thanks chum.