Friday, May 12, 2017

FFB: Hell on Friday - William Bogart

THE STORY: Johnny Saxon, once a highly popular short story writer, has given it all up to become a private eye. His latest case will take him back to his roots in the pulp magazine world when he's asked by his former publisher to find Dulcy Dickens, a rising star in the field of wartime romance stories. Hell on Friday (1941) might easily have been called "Everyone Is Looking for Dulcy" because Saxon finds himself in a sort of bidding war as two more people ask him to locate the woman, each time the retainer fee increases considerably. Then the missing person case turns deadly and dangerous when a rival publisher is murdered and Saxon is implicated as the killer.

CHARACTERS: The story is almost exclusively confined to the world of pulp magazine publishing and nearly everyone is involved is a writer, publisher or distributor. Saxon's best friend and colleague Moe Martin is a literary agent with a dwindling list of employable clients. A variety of characters seem to have parallels in the real world of 1940s pulp publishing. Sam Sontag, the murdered magazine publisher in the novel, is loosely based on publisher Harry Donenfield of Spicy Detective fame. Joe Rogers in the book is inspired by Rogers Terrill, editor-in chief of Popular Publications. Or so muses Will Murray in his essay that prefaces the reissued omnibus.

Jasper Ward is one of the more unusual guys of the bunch. He sports garishly colored shirts and ties with his tweed suits just like some kind of hood from Guys and Dolls. That's because while nominally he calls himself a magazine distributor, Ward is nothing more than a hood himself. Unethical and tough with his competitors he conspires with Sontag to undermine Rogers' discovery of Dulcy Dickens by trying to get Bogart to find her for them. Ward and Sontag plan to create a new magazine, just like Rogers is planning, that will be the vehicle for Dickens' wartime romance tales. As the story progresses we learn that the pulp industry is truly a cut-throat business and this kind of copycat publishing happened all the time. Publishers dropped the prices of their magazines along with the pay for their writers in order to be the most popular and bestselling in each genre.

A mystery man named Baron von Elman shows up and is the third person to hire Saxon to locate the missing lady writer. His finder's fee is $5000 making it the least refusable offer of the bunch, but also raises Saxon's suspicions. The Baron has never met Dulcy, but he insists he absolutely must locate her. Saxon wants to find out who the Baron really is and why he is so desperate and eager to pay the highest price to find Dulcy. When the Baron turns out to be the owner of a used bookstore with an interest in French novels Saxon suspects there is more to Dulcy Dickens than anyone has imagined. The mystery of finding her is complicated by learning who she is, where she came from, and uncovering the miracle of her prolific writing talent (she claims she can write four stories in a week!).

INNOVATIONS: The book reads like a B movie script and is chock-full of the conventions of private eye movies. In addition to the missing person main plot and a couple of murders, we get a prison break, gangsters in the pulp biz, two "Follow that cab!" chases, and more than the requisite number of gratuitous "shapely dame" passages. In one sequence Saxon spies on a women getting dressed while in front of her apartment window while he's talking on the phone in his office opposite her building. We get our fill of the usual wiseacre private eye talk and several variations on a running gag that always ends with "That would make a great story title." ("It was getting dark now, and it was snowing again. Winter in Manhattan. That's a good title, Johnny thought.")

QUOTES: Girls walking through the streets with fur-topped galoshes framing their pretty legs, dresses swirling in the wind, or wrapped against slim legs; people hurrying home from offices, leaning into the icy blasts that faced the canyonlike side streets; lights coming on, flickering diamonds that chased away the drabness of night. Taxi horns bleating. Newspaper boys huddled at street corners, flapping their arms, screaming, "Huxtra! Huxtra!" An ambulance yammering down the Avenue. People, weary people, pushing and cramming into subway kiosks like moles burrowing into the damp earth; others fresh and bright, just starting the day. [...] A man without a hat standing in the gutter, waiting quietly while his leashed dog sniffs an automobile tire. A taxi rushing by, its tires quietly making wet, sloppy sounds in the black slush. Mud splashing up. The dog owner cursing, "You louse!" Winter in Manhattan. People on an island. Millions of people. The pulse beat of a nation.

THINGS I LEARNED: The entire book is a fascinating study of the pulp magazine business and the life of a pulp writer. There is a lot of emphasis placed on the poor pay writers had to accept and the justifications that publishers gave for their "penny a word" or even "half a penny a word" pay scales. Only when a writer proved that his name on the cover would sell a magazine did the pay ever increase, but never by much. Saxon, we are told, was "prince of the pulps", one of the most popular and highest paid pulp writers at the top of his game. Then he just quit because there was no excitement in it for him anymore and "his stuff went stale." The background details also cover production, including the importance of the cover illustrations and the life of the much put upon artists; the intense rivalries between magazine publishers; and the surprising number of corporate informers who spy on the competitors for a price. Bogart drew on his personal experience in the pulp world and much of what is described in Hell on Friday actually took place when he was writing for the magazines.

William Bogart (circa 1946), from the
rear DJ panel of The Queen City Murder Case
THE AUTHOR: William Bogart was a prolific pulp writer who penned crime, detective and weird menace stories. Under the house pseudonym "Kenneth Robeson" he wrote several stories for the Doc Savage series. In addition to the Johnny Saxon trilogy of private eye novels he wrote two other crime novels: Sands Street (1942) and a novelization of the movie Singapore (1947) with Fred MacMurray as a skipper looking for a cache of hidden pearls and his missing girlfriend (Ava Gardner). Singapore was directed by horror and crime movie specialist John Brahm who had great success as a TV director throughout the 50s and 60s.

EASY TO FIND? Hell on Friday in its original hardcover is a scarce book and even more scarce in the US digest paperback edition I own retitled Murder Man (1945). There are three different paperback reprints under the title Murder Man, a digest from Tech Books (US), Harlequin #57 (Canada) and Phantom Books #640 (Australia). None of Bogart's private eye novels were published in the UK. All three reprints are relatively scarce in the used book market, the last two being genuinely rare.

Thankfully, all three books featuring Johnny Saxon have been conveniently reissued in a three-in-one omnibus. The hefty volume is called Hell on Friday: The Johnny Saxon Trilogy (Altus Press) and can be purchased either new or used from the regular bookselling outlets in this vast digital shopping mall we call the internet. The Altus Press reissue includes an informative foreword by Will Murray, an expert on Lester Dent and the Doc Savage series, who provides a detailed biography of Bogart and interesting background on the real people who inspired many of the characters in the first book. Oh! almost forgot. That omnibus volume is also available for purchase for a Kindle thingamabob from that well known e-tail giant.

Johnny Saxon Private Eye Novels
Hell on Friday (1941) also as Murder Man (Tech Mystery, 1945); (Harlequin 57, 1950); (Phantom 640, 1955)
Murder Is Forgetful (1944) also as Johnny Saxon (Harlequin 114, 1951)
The Queen City Murder Case (1946)
----
Hell on Friday: The Johnny Saxon Trilogy (2010) All three of the above in one omnibus

13 comments:

  1. This sounds very very good, John. I would rather not have to deal with a huge omnibus but I always like useful forewards, and I have purchased Altus books before. I will see what copies I can find. Thanks very much for an interesting review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Interesting how the covers are virtually identical. Enjoyed your review, as always.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm no expert on paperback publishing houses, but it seems that Phantom and Harlequin might have some tie with one another. Many of the Phantom paperback covers are near duplicates of Harlequin editions. Or maybe they were just shameless thieves!

      Delete
    2. The early Harlequin was itself was anything but innocent when it came to copying covers by other publishers. If interested, you'll find an example through this link.

      The thing I find most fascinating in the copycat cover is the variation. Harlequin's cover was clearly the more accomplished, but I wonder whether the artist was the most accurate. Was the woman at the door a brunette or did she have black hair? Was her gown black or white? And does the scene feature in the book at all? I ask this last question recognizing that mystery paperbacks so often feature misleading covers. The various editions of Margaret Miller'sAn Air That Kills feature some of the most extreme examples I've encountered.

      So, this enquiring mind must know... John, is the scene in the book? If so, is one more true than the other?

      Delete
    3. I've seen both of those posts, Brian. Much of what I know about Canadian paperbacks has been picked up from your blog posts and those at Fly By Night.

      When I get home I'll look over the scenes in which Dulcy appears (I'm guessing the women is supposed to be her) and let you know if that scene actually appears. My memory is telling me that it's completely invented by the artist(s). I think neither got her hair color right. But my you all know what my memory is like these days. Check back later for my findings.

      Delete
    4. Arghh. The Millar post I should've sent is this one.

      Apologies.

      Fly By Night is an invaluable resource. Here's hoping that it continues.

      Delete
  3. HELL ON FRIDAY looks great! I'll order the Altus Press book today!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've been a pulp collector since the late 60s, so I really enjoyed this one. It was long enough ago, though, that I need to read it again. Good thing I bought the Altus Press book a while back. My copy of the Tech paperback is falling apart!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I've ordered the omnibus volume, and thanks very much to you for this great review, bringing to my attention an author's work of which I knew nothing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It came yesterday in the mails. I've placed it near the top of the TBR.

      Delete
    2. That was fast! Hope you enjoy it. It's pretty unique for the subject matter and setting.

      Delete
  6. Well, John, once again you've sold me. Your review is making me want to order the omnibus. Why oh why do you do this to me?! HA!!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'll see about getting the Altus book - the pulp era always seems fascinating (presumably not so much if you had to make a living working within it!). And you know what else? Saw that SINGAPORE movie (well, I lived there for 5 years - not sure those boys at Universal were entirely faithful in their studio recreation :) )

    ReplyDelete

Comment Approval is turned on for this blog. I review all comments prior to publishing them.