“Deadlier than Mike Hammer. Sexier than James Bond. Meet McHugh”
I can't help but groan at the poor marketing choice made by Modern Promotions, a division of Unisystems Inc. Publishing. Perhaps that horrific tagline, or the equally horrific cover art, led to the short lifespan for paperback hero McHugh.
The series, launched in 1959, lasted for five total books – all by author Jay Flynn. The series, rumored to have been created over a drunken lunch by both Flynn and original publisher Avon (who printed under improved artwork), stars US government agent McHugh operating out of a San Francisco watering hole called The Door. His boss is Burton Harts, who routinely sends McHugh chasing island dictators or downed Navy flyers. But the series debut, the eponymous “McHugh”, is a throwback to the hardboiled writing style.
The book opens with FBI agents Murrell and Foote meeting McHugh at an airport. They want information on a quarry named Johnny Stover, an electronics expert who's gone missing. How is McHugh involved? Stover is dating the sister of McHugh's lover Loris. McHugh, fearing the danger might be too close to Loris, takes to gumshoeing in search of Stover's track.
The book really gains footing when McHugh runs into San Francisco Inspector Kline. Stover, a hot rod enthusiast, may have purchased a car used in a 1936 gold heist. Some heavy mob players think that car contains clues on where the robbers hid a bulk of the heist. As McHugh becomes closer, both the mob and some heavy-handed criminals start squeezing in. The book's finale is a race to find Stover – hopefully alive holding keys to the car.
Jay Flynn was a talented writer with a penchant for quirky, over the top criminals. While never really pulpy or too contrived, these McHugh books seem wildly cartoonish. Oddly, this writing style or narrative flow doesn't detract from a thrilling story. Flynn's work with McHugh is a joy to read; entertaining, feisty and far from the “Mike Hammer Knockoff” description it unfairly receives from genre fans. While Flynn's life was tumultuous, and an adventurous novel in itself, his work on McHugh is admirable. It's what keeps the old guy turning those yellowed pages.
Note – For the wild story on the life of Jay Flynn, read author Bill Pronzini's 1988 article HERE.
Buy a copy of the book HERE