Friday, December 10, 2010

Forgotten Books: BRASS KNUCKLES, The Oliver Quade Human Encylopedia Stories by Frank Gruber

Frank Gruber created Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia, back in 1936, and sold his first few adventures to Thrilling Detective. The gimmick was that Quade had read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica four times and knew all the facts by heart. He employs this knowledge as a book huckster, selling a one-volume condensed version called the Compendium of Human Knowledge for $2.95. And while he’s at it, he just happens to solve murders.

At the time, Gruber was eager to crack Black Mask, going to the extent of courting the favor of Joe Shaw, but having no luck. When Fanny Ellsworth took the magazine’s reins, though, his luck changed. He had sold stories to her at Ranch Romances, and she was a fan of the Human Encyclopedia.

For Oliver Quade’s debut in Black Mask, Gruber gave him an assistant named Charlie Boston and cranked up the humor. That first story, “Ask Me Another,” leads off this book. Included are eight other Black Mask tales (including “Funny Man,” featured below) and one from Thrilling Detective. 

For anyone who’s read one of Gruber’s Johnny Fletcher & Sam Cragg novels, these stories are immediately familiar. Oliver Quade is clearly the prototype of Johnny. The only difference is that Johnny has not read the encyclopedia, and the book he sells is Every Man a Samson. Sam Cragg is basically Charlie Boston with muscles. So - if you like the Johnny Fletcher books, you’re sure to enjoy these stories too.

To me, the book’s main attraction is a 40-page memoir called “The Life and Times of the Pulp Story,” a sort of warm-up to his book The Pulp Jungle, published a year later in 1967. There are great stories here, touching on people Gruber knew well, like Joe Shaw, Carroll John Daly and Steve Fisher, and many others he merely crossed paths with.

One major feature of “The Life and Times” is Gruber's eleven-point formula for creating a sure-fire mystery story. I’ll be featuring that tomorrow here on the Almanack, and invite to come on back to take a squint at it.

Then on Sunday I’ll review the 1939 film Death of a Champion, the one and only Human Encyclopedia movie.  It’s based on one of the Black Mask stories in this book, “Dog Show Murder.” Hope to see you here for that one too.

 (click to enlarge)



Be sure to visit pattinase for more great Forgotten Books.

10 comments:

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I saw that movie when I was very young and was impressed with Lynne Overman's performance. Lynne's a man, BTW, and kind of homely, but he had a wonderfully understated presence.

Deka Black said...

Seems a good book! (yeah, my comments lately sucks. The guilty is my negbours on the second floor. Too noisy)

Walker Martin said...

When I read PULP JUNGLE and BRASS KNUCKLES in the late 1960's they really got me interested in collecting the detective pulps like BLACK MASK, DIME DETECTIVE, and DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY. Both books are must reads and should be in the libraries of all detective and pulp readers.

James Reasoner said...

This is a wonderful book. I've read it twice, and it's been long enough I'm thinking I ought to read it again.

George said...

I liked every Frank Gruber book I've ever read. I have BRASS KNUCKLES around here somewhere. Now, to find it...

Anonymous said...

That's funny you should mention this as I just read the first Quade story ("Ask Me Another") in the giant BLACK LIZARD BLACK MASK collection.

Now I need to get a copy of BRASS KNUCKLES.

Jeff M.

Randy Johnson said...

Nice pick. This one is on order winging its way to my home now.

Cullen Gallagher said...

I just picked up a copy of this last week and am hoping to read it ASAP!

Randy Johnson said...

Checked the mailbox on the way to the doctor this morning and there it was.

Richard R. said...

Id find a copy and order t, if only I had a place to put it once it arrived...