Between 1940 and 1964, talented pulp author Frank Gruber (1904-1969) wrote 18 novels starring down-on-his luck 'Johnny Fletcher'. Debuting in 1940, “The French Key” was a success that led to an eponymous film adaptation in 1946. Both NBC and ABC ran Johnny Fletcher mystery stories for the Golden Age of Radio. Beginning in 1964, Gruber signed a paperback deal with Belmont Tower for two more Johnny Fletcher books, “Swing Low, Swing Dead” and “The Corpse Moved Upstairs”. It appears that business arrangement led to a number of reprints of the Fletcher books for a new generation of fans. The misleading cover art paints Johnny Fletcher as a gun-toting detective instead of the bumbling, comical conman that Gruber intended.
My first experience with the series is the 1964 novel “Swing Low, Swing Dead”. While researching, I discovered that there are three fixtures with nearly every Fletcher novel. First, Fletcher's muscular sidekick Sam Cragg is featured in a bulk of the narrative and is just as important to the story as Fletcher. Two, the imprudent duo are always destitute, leading to charity from series character and hotel manager Mr. Peabody. For small favors, he allows them residence in New York's 45th Street Hotel. Lastly, the two always stumble into a mystery! That's really par for the course. Gruber takes some liberties and asks his readers to suspend their beliefs for the sake of a good story.
Discovering a craps game on the hotel's upper floor, both Fletcher and Cragg join the fun. In a fortunate streak of luck, Cragg bets borrowed money against a rock singer named Willie Waller. The musician, out of funds, bets a song manuscript against Cragg, promising it's worth hundreds of thousands. Quickly after losing the game and manuscript to Cragg, he dies from cyanide poisoning.
The bulk of the novel's 154-pages is Fletcher and Cragg determining the validity of the song and it's value. After cleared by the police of any suspicion, it's the duo's job to sell the song for the promised value. Once they stumble on a music producer and his client, a chart-topping musician named Al Donnely, they realize that either Willie's song was plagiarized or Willie ripped off the melody from Donnely. The answer Fletcher and Cragg are both seeking could be worth a small treasure due to the tune's rise to the top of the charts.
While all of this is fairly interesting from a music fan's standpoint, the idea of who killed Willie is the emphasis of this Fletcher mystery. With both Cragg and Fletcher seeking the true songwriter, they must contend with a shady record business and a scar-faced goon who might have his own motives for wanting the songwriter's identity. Again, despite Belmont's action-packed artwork...this is a lighthearted yarn - not the violent espionage or violent crime-noir story depicted on the cover.
Gruber's comedic approach connects Fletcher and Cragg to an Abbott and Costello sort of gag. The two are always counting pennies, shortchanging bartenders and begging Mr. Peabody for just one more buck. Their sole moneymaking endeavor is a snake-medicine bit with Cragg breaking chains and Fletcher selling a bogus book on how to gain super-strength in a few short weeks. “You can break chains too for a measly $2.90...no change back”. It's an entertaining short read that showcases Gruber's storytelling strength in the pulp fiction formula.
Through his characters, Gruber criticizes rock music as something that's immature and dumbed down for a new audience while praising the jazz era when music was...music. I think Gruber was probably comparing the mid-60s literary work of his new peers to the pulp fiction that paid the bills in his recent past. Regardless, Johnny Fletcher is elementary and a fun read if you keep your expectations minimal.
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