Author Will Murray ('Doc Savage') has a comprehensive analysis of the pulp fiction detective 'Cardigan' in “The Complete Casebook of Cardigan, Volume 1: 1931-32” (Altus Press 2013). In it, he chronicles writer Frederick L. Nebel's rise through the pages of “Black Mask” magazine and his early creation of “Tough Dick” Donohue of the Inter-State Detective Agency. When “Dime Detective” launched in 1933 it featured Nebel and a knockoff of his own pulp character Donohue, Detective Jack Cardigan of the Cosmos Detective Agency.
In Cardigan's first adventure, “Death Alley” (what I am considering #1), Cardigan's first name is Steve. Later, his first name is given as Jack despite the author's original naming conventions. Murray does a fantastic job as Cardigan historian, even pointing out that by 1930 Dashiell Hammet's retirement of Continental Ops' Nameless Detective had left a void that even Raymond Chandler couldn't fill until 1933. Titles like Cardigan, Donohue and MacBride & John X of The Free Press kept the torch burning for detective fiction.
The second Cardigan story, “Hell's Paycheck”, originally appeared in the December, 1931 issue of “Dime Detective Magazine”. The story's beginning has Cardigan hired by an unnamed small town resident (I assume by wire with very little story provided to Cardigan). After departing the train station, Cardigan is chauffeured by limo down some winding back roads. He smartly asks to stop at a nearby store for cigars, makes a call to the man to gain a description of the limo driver and then hurries back to the limo knowing the driver is a fake. There's a shootout, a chase and ultimately Cardigan makes his own way to the man's residence where he learns the limo driver was carjacked and the unnamed man is actually the town's mayor, Mr. Holmes.
The quick synopsis is that the mayor is up for re-election and his son has engaged in a heated love affair with a corrupt woman. Holmes, hoping to buy her off, has provided her a check for $20,000 to go away. The woman has apparently cashed the check – she's driving a new sports car - but the check never cleared the bank. Holmes fears that a political opponent has provided the woman $20K and is now holding the paper check as an insurance policy. They can go to the tabloids proving Holmes paid off the woman or negotiate with the mayor to attain their agenda in an exchange for silence.
Cardigan is faced with a variety of enemies. First, there is a pesky, violent reporter that's following the detective for clues. Second is the political opponent, who could very well be running in the election or a syndicate leader holding the mayor hostage. The most exciting “villain” facing Cardigan? Surprisingly...it's the police.
Nebel's makeshift novella (about 35-pages overall) is an exciting detective novel that puts two rightful forces against each other. The Cosmos Detective Agency is doing plenty of good, but they expect Cardigan to play by the rules and perform his due diligence within the confines of the law. Two town cops, Strout and Blake, really push Cardigan off the scent – seemingly tangling the investigation in bureaucracy and inexperience. It's Cardigan's navigation of the legal system that's just as exciting as the heated revolver once the narrative explodes in a fiery crescendo.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first sampling of Cardigan. You can buy four volumes of “The Complete Casebook of Cardigan” that collects all of the stories from 1931-1937. These are available for about $30 each in softcover or $5 on Kindle. It's money well spent.