It's no secret that Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series was an empire. It's like the KISS of crime-fiction and by the late 1940s Spillane and Hammer boosted the genre to lofty commercial heights. Detective fiction was real cool...again. But, a decade before, a guy named Davis Dresser had done the same.
Dresser's Mike Shayne character was a media phenomenon. Beginning with the character's debut in 1939's Dividend on Death, Dresser, using the pseudonym Brett Halliday, penned fifty novels through 1958. The series forged 12 films, three decades of magazines, over 300 short-stories, comics, nine years of radio and 32-episodes of NBC television. Not that anyone is counting...but after Dresser's departure the book series continued for another 27 installments. That's remarkable considering Dividend on Death was reportedly refused by 21 publishers before finally being finding a home. Unfamiliar with the character, I chanced on a copy of Dividend on Death and spent the night with it.
While the series debut doesn't reveal much backstory, Shayne is a red-headed, Miami private-eye. Like most of his literary peers, Shayne is a heavy drinker and smoker who enjoys mingling with the ladies. Mixing business with pleasure is his M.O., and occasionally he can rely on his friendship with Miami Police Chief Will Gentry to ease him out of the most complex jams. In this first case presented to readers, Dresser creates a conundrum for Shayne and Gentry to navigate together.
A young woman named Phyllis drops in on Shayne and asks him for a rather odd job. Phyllis' mother is arriving at the family's Miami mansion and Phyllis wants Shayne to keep her from killing her own mother. The client suffers from a fixation that makes her want to kill her own mother to keep from sharing her with her new stepfather. Shayne takes the case but later finds Phyllis wandering around in the dark mansion with blood on her nightgown. A further probe shows that Phyllis' mother has indeed been murdered and Phyllis is the likely suspect. But here's the curveball: Shayne quickly scoops up Phyllis and drops her at his own apartment - including the bloody knife! Any reader would feel Phyllis is guilty as sin, but Shayne draws a different conclusion.
Dividend on Death was excellently written for 1939. For 2020 readers, I feel that Dresser's voice hasn’t aged as well as Mickey Spillane, Frank Kane, Ross MacDonald or even Richard Prather for that matter. This early novel comes across in a pulpy style that reminded me of the Golden Age detectives. I enjoy stuff like The Avenger, Green Lama and Doc Savage because I know what I'm getting. Dividend on Death took me by surprise in its rudimentary story-telling. Shayne is beaten senseless, shot four times, hides Phyllis from the very people that want to help him and her, including the city's police chief. Shayne seemingly steers completely off-road when he doesn't have to. These things don't necessarily ruin the story, but they certainly don't elevate the hero to a heightened sense of alertness and heroic turpitude. Maybe that's the whole point – screwball clumsiness meets investigative hunches. Like Shell Scott.
As a new Mike Shayne reader, I have an entire universe to explore. I'm not going to saddle my criticism, disappointment and lack of enjoyment on the fact that Dividend on Death wasn't a fabulous book. It probably isn't a fabulous representation of Dresser's voice and the style that he attained after numerous novels. If there is a short-list of Shayne’s greatest paperback hits, I'd entertain a deeper dive. For now, I respect the character, enjoyed witnessing Dresser's developing talents and appreciate what the Shayne character has contributed to the success of the crime-fiction genre.
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You are right that the early novels have not aged well. I didn’t like them at all. But Dresser was commercial minded and improved his writing to match audience expectations as the genre matured. I’ve read a handful of these books and it seems to me that among the last dozen or so novels he wrote are some of the best books of the series. I’m sure there are other gems to be found in the series but they’ve stayed buried due to the considerable length of the series to dig through and the impression people tend to have that the early books (usually the first ones people read) are representative of the series (they’re not). From what I’ve read you’d be better off skipping the early ones and taking a look at the books from around the mid 40s to mid to 60s. There’s some generic stuff here but some surprises as well.ReplyDelete