Friday, October 9, 2009

Private Detective Stories: Roger Torrey

Roger Torrey was a Black Mask contemporary of Hammett and Chandler who never quite graduated out of the pulps. He did have one novel published, but only by a minor-league paperback company, and continued into the 40s writing for other detective pulps. Much of his work was done for the Speed line (formerly the Spicy line) - mags like Private Detective Stories, Super-Detective and Hollywood Detective.

I’m not saying Torrey was a good as Hammett, but I find his prose reminiscent of that in Hammett’s best Continental Op stories. Torrey doesn’t write for show (like, say, Robert Leslie Bellem). His stuff is economical and matter of fact, but laced with wry wit. It’s easy to hear the radio Sam Spade, Howard Duff, doing the talking.

Here’s a sample from the 1942 story “Somebody Stole My Gal.” This story features private detective John Ryan, one of Torrey’s major series characters. Ryan’s constant companion is his dog Toby (probably part pit bull), who’s always ready to bite the hand off anyone threatening his master.  

I stood beside him - with Toby between us as always - and we talked of this and that and the other thing. It was his turn first. I heard that business - what little there was of it - was lousy. I felt very sorry about this. I heard that the suckers screamed when they were hurt these days - and admitted that was a crying shame. That the nation was breeding a bunch of softies who couldn’t take more than more than six inches of knife in the back in a pleasant fashion.

I agreed that the wholesale liquor dealers were reaping a fortune from poor saloon keepers who were only trying to give their patrons an honest drink of whiskey and I argued right along with him about how the liquor dealers’ greed was the curse of the country.

Then it was my turn at bat. I told him about my landlord being a money-hungry vulture, hanging over the dead remains of my bank account. I complained about the War Department not giving my kid brother any leave and about them turning down first class soldier material in my own form. Griffo admitted, at this point, that they’d turned him down also, on account of a dilated heart.

We sobbed together on this.

I went into horse racing in some detail, claiming that they rigged every single race as soon as I got my money down on any single nag. I argued that the jocks were in combine against me - anything to let Ryan’s horses lose the pot.

And I ended with the tale about Toby and the police dog. How I was going to be sued for damages by the owner of a police dog, because of Toby taking a solid grip on the mutt’s ear and hanging on and shaking it a little bit. And that things had come to a pretty pass when a man’s pet dog couldn’t amuse himself in little ways like that.

All in all we had a swell time singing the blues.

Torrey’s novel 42 Days for Murder has been reprinted a few times and is not hard to find. A new story collection, Bodyguard and Other Crime Dramas was published recently by Black Dog Books, and a chapbook called The Quires Matter is available from The Vintage Library.


Laurie Powers said...

Nice! I didn't know a thing about Roger Torrey. I looked him up in the Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps and he has not one but two stories in it: "Mansion of Death" and "Concealed Weapon." Otto Penzler has got a great story of Torrey and his girlfriend in the intro - apparently they used to write together and both loved to drink. The used to write with a bottle of booze nearby and the first person that finished the story was allowed to have a drink. I'm going to read these two stories to celebrate the weekend.

Evan Lewis said...

Great story. I have that book, but with all the real pulps laying around I haven't looked at it much. The stories seem better when you're breathing in that real pulp aroma and trying to keep the pages from crumbling in your hands.

Walker Martin said...

I've read quite a few of Torrey's stories in Black Mask, Private Detective, Hollywood Detective. He wrote some of his best work for Daisy Bacon, the editor of Street and Smith's Detective Story Magazine; around a dozen novelets in the 1940's when the magazine was a digest. He died an early death in his 30's probably because of complications from his alcohol habit.

Evan Lewis said...

I've seen him in Detective Fiction Weekly, and Dime Detective (I think), but didn't know about the Detective Story appearances. I have a few of those digest-sized issues around and will have a look.

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