Friday, August 24, 2012

Forgotten Books: CONTRABAND by Cleve F. Adams (and Robert Leslie Bellem)


You’re probably familiar with the term “cannibalization.” It’s normally used to describe the process Raymond Chandler used to construct his first four novels - by combining pieces and plots from his earlier pulp stories.

Well, Cleve F. Adams, who was Chandler’s friend, used the same technique to put together most of his novels. Contraband no doubt would have been one of those, but when his health began to fail, he hired his friend Robert Leslie Bellem to do it for him. (We know this thanks to Mr. Steve Mertz, who interviewed Adams’ widow Vera and got the lowdown.)

To fans of both authors, like me, this makes Contraband an especially interesting book.

I had hoped to compare Contraband the novel with “Contraband” the pulp novelette and provide some examples of places where Bellem added to Adams’ prose, but that proved tougher than I thought. The problem is that the novel was clearly constructed from at least three novelettes, and the title story, from the Sept. 9, 1939 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly, is the only one in my possession.

In using the “Contraband” novelette, which comprises the middle third of the novel, Bellem pretty much left Adams’ prose alone. He used whole chapters, scenes and paragraphs, usually changing only characters’ names.

Why those names needed changing is a mystery. The hero of the novelette is U.S. Treasury agent James Flagg, who Adams used in an unknown number of pulp stories, and again in the 1941 novel The Black Door. In the Contraband novel, Flagg’s name was changed to Reed Smith. Was this Adams’ idea, or Bellem’s? We’ll probably never know.

It’s pretty clear that the first third of Contraband used an earlier Flagg story (perhaps the first Flagg story), in which he meets a spoiled heiress and suspects her of smuggling drugs from Mexico. This leads nicely into the material from the “Contraband” novelette, in which Flagg returns to Mexico to investigate a father-daughter team suspected of smuggling. The third portion of the novel, which takes place back in the States, pays a lot of lip service to the earlier smuggling plots, but is actually a pretty straightforward murder mystery. I wouldn’t be surprised if that third piece was based on a non-Flagg story featuring one of Adams’ many private detective or police characters.

Bellem’s main role here seems to have been to weld the stories together by overlapping scenes and characters. This works pretty smoothly through the first two-thirds of the book, but grafting the third story to the others seems to have presented more of a challenge. Reed (Flagg) Smith’s pursuit of the treacherous smuggler babe somehow morphs into the tale of a cop turned killer.

If  you’ve read Cleve F. Adams, you know he had one the most distinctive styles in the genre. (If you haven't read Adams, there's a complete story HERE.) Bellem managed to imitate that style pretty well, because he’d had a lot of practice. Under the pen name Jerome Severs Perry, he’d written stories about an Adams-like character called Little Jack Horner for Hollywood Detective and its sister magazines. So for the most part, it’s tough to identify portions of the novel that are pure Bellem.

Bellem does show his hand, though, when it comes to sex. Adams’ characters do a fair amount of rough kissing, but other than that, the subject never comes up. Not so with Bellem. He’d written dozens of titillating tales for the Spicy pulps, and later produced the two sleaze novels The Sex Ladder and Doctor of Lesbos.

So in the third portion of Contraband, when he’s trying harder to bring Adams’ plot lines together, Bellem allows the characters (both men and women) to discuss the subject more freely than Adams would have been comfortable with. This seems out of place in an Adams novel, but because the book was published in 1950, I suppose it was more in tune with the market of the time.

Here’s a plea: Can anyone out there can identify the other two stories used to build the novel? I’d also appreciate info on any other Jim Flagg stories you’re aware of. The only other one I have is “Passage For Satan” in the Sept. 14, 1940 issue of Argosy.




Forgotten Books is a pattinase Presentation.

9 comments:

Deka Black said...

Interesting way of recycling his own material.

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David Cranmer said...

What great history here, Dave. Thanks.

Cap'n Bob said...

Was there a movie made of this? The plot sounds similar to one I saw several years ago, but made in the fifties.

Evan Lewis said...

There've been movies with that title, Cap'n, but I'm not aware of an adaptation. Anybody else?

Charmaine Clancy said...

Murder in the Dope Racket... Dope Racket most foul.

I also think I remember a movie, but maybe called something about Borders.

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