Monday, August 17, 2009

At The Stroke of Midnight

I would be very surprised if a single person reading this knew who John K. Butler was. It's a shame, but not surprising.

Butler was one of the many second-tier authors whose stories populated the pulp magazines from the 1920's through the 1940's. Butler didn't stay a pulp writer long -- he went to Hollywood in 1943 and wrote scripts for movies and later TV shows.

Butler wrote a fair amount of crime stories, among pretty respectable company. Some of the best-known mystery authors of the era got their start in the pulps -- Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris, and Raymond Chandler to name a few (and if you don't recognize those authors, shame on you).

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett set the standard (after John Carroll Daly's lead) for hard-boiled detective fiction, but many, like Butler, had their own takes on the genre.

Butler's main contribution was a series of nine novelettes (each about 12,000 words in length) featuring Steve Middleton Knight, nicknamed "Steve Midnight," driver for the Red Owl Cab Company in Los Angeles. The stories, published in Dime Detective from 1940-1942, are tightly written, and have a gritty realism that make them interesting reading even a half-century later.

Steve Midnight isn't Jessica Fletcher in a cab, or even a Sam Spade. Unlike the stereotypical hard-boiled detective, he isn't especially world-weary, nor overly cynical. He only gets involved with crime when someone cheats him out of a fare, or is jumped, or the actions of others cost him his job. And his goals are equally simple. He's not out to catch a murderer -- that's for the police. He just wants to get his money or his job back.

According to the back story, Knight used to be a millionaire playboy until the Depression hit. The family fortune disappeared, and Knight's father committed suicide. Suddenly, Knight, with no job skills and no money, had to support his mother and ailing sister. Fast-forward to 1940 when the first story begins, and the former playboy's now behind the wheel of a cab. But Knight's not bitter, or resentful, which makes the character far more complex than one generally gets in the genre. He's just doing what has to be done to survive.

Butler follows the convention of narrating the stories in the first person. But the prose doesn't sound forced or overly dramatic. Here's Steve Midnight describing a regular fare:
She was a small, sad-eyed blonde with a veneer of glamor. She always dressed to the hilt and wore the latest screwy hats and affected the glib sophistication of a telephone operator out on Saturday's date. The veneer was an attempt to cover the disappointment in the tough life she had to lead -- singing in cheap clubs like the Corinthian, mailing money to her folks in Kansas, and at the same time supporting a stumble-bum prize fighter named Poke Haley who divided his time between being counted out on the ring canvas and taking alcoholic cures in all the local sanitariums.

(from "Hacker's Holiday")

I first ran across Steve Midnight in "The Hard-Boiled Dicks," a 1967 anthology by Ron Goulart. I was struck by the quality of the writing, and so it was only a matter of time before I purchased "At the Stroke of Midnight," which collects all of the Steve Midnight stories together.

Butler had an understated, compelling style that I thoroughly enjoyed. If you're a fan of hard-boiled detectives (new or old), film noir, or just plain good fiction-writing, I recommend "At the Stroke of Midnight."
"A racket plied against lonely people, against the sick, against the worried, against the aged. The lousiest racket in the world, hiding behind the cloak of spiritual religion and defying you to prove it's just a cloak."

Talking about some aspects of today's health-care debate? Nope, Steve Midnight making an observation in "The Saint in Silver" in 1941.

- Ralph

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