Friday, September 28, 2012

Forgotten Books: Say Yes to Murder (aka The Demise of a Louse, aka Murder in Hollywood) by W.T. Ballard (aka John Shepherd)

Whew! What a strange publishing history this one's had.

Bill Lennox, the hero of this book, was one of Cap Shaw's regulars in Black Mask, appearing in 27 stories between 1933 and 1942. Ballard then put Lennox through his paces in four novels, of which this thrice-titled entry was the first. (The 1942 first edition seen here is described as an ABE dealer as a presentation copy with the following inscription: "To Joe Shaw who had more to do with Lennox's development than I did. Tod Ballard.") He's offering this copy for a mere $2500, plus postage.

Lennox is not a detective, he's a man without a title at Consolidated General Studios in Hollywood, and is usually referred to as just a "troubleshooter." He often acts like a detective, of course, because he's often called upon to sweep murders under the rug, and usually winds up having to solve them.

Though W.T. Ballard was a fixture in Black Mask, and must have been popular with readers, he's been largely ignored by hardboiled anthologists. Shaw passed over him for The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, Ron Goulart for The Hardboiled Dicks, William F. Nolan for The Black Mask Boys, and so on. Far as I know, the only Lennox story that's been reprinted is the first, "A Little Different," in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories.

This lack of respect is not too surprising. Ballard's prose was tough enough, with the clipped dialogue and largely objective approach Shaw admired. But unlike Hammett, Daly, Nebel, Chandler, Cain, Gardner and Whitfield, his writing has no distinctive style. His prose is just generic hardboiled, much like that of George Harmon Coxe, who is also absent from most anthologies.

That said, Say Yes to Murder, first published in hardcover in 1942, is a pretty good read, and delivers a lot of Black Mask flavor. Surprisingly, given the fact that most of those other writers recycled their magazine stories into novels, Ballard seems to have written this one - and those following it - from scratch.

Now for the publishing history.


The first reprint to appeared in 1943 - a digest edition from Sphere Publications, Martin Goodman President, and identified as B.D.S. #9 (B.D.S. apparently stood for Best Detective Selections). This one provided the most lurid cover art - a pointy chested blonde wielding a bloody knife - but fails the test in the word department, because it was heavily abridged. Along with large chunks of innocuous prose, the editors excised such objectionable words as "whorehouse" and "Christ." In one instance, the word whorehouse was replaced with "joint." (A word from the Art Police: There are pointy-chested blondes in the book, but none of them are murder suspects, and no female is seen holding a bloody knife.) If you can abide abridgments, this one is offered as a free download in a variety of eFormats at Munseys.com. That's HERE.


Next up, in 1945, was the Penguin paperback. This one says "complete" and "unabridged" right on the cover, and they weren't lying. Every word of the original, including the objectionable ones, appears to be there. (The cover art passes the test too. Car chase: Check. Body under bed: Check. Pills dissolving in water: Check.)


According to an ABE dealer, the Canadian paperback Murder in Hollywood was published in 1951. Can't prove it by me, because my copy of this White Circle Pocket Edition bears no date. But like the Penguin book, the text is all there. (Cover trouble: The brunette discovering the body - which should be laying face down -  should be wearing a long flowered housecoat with a zipper up the front. But hey, cleavage sells, even in Canada.)


The worst reprint in my possession is The Demise of a Louse, issued by Belmont in 1962, as by "John Shepherd." This was published as a follow-up to Lights, Camera, Murder (1960), the fourth and last Lennox novel, which was apparently a Belmont original. It, too, for some strange reason, appeared under the John Shepherd pseudonym. Ballard was writing a lot of westerns around this time, and it might be thought he wanted to reserve the Ballard name for his western audience. BUT that theory fails to account for the other W.T. Ballard mysteries appearing in paperback at around the same time: Chance Elson (1958), Fury in the Heart (1959), Pretty Miss Murder (1961) and The Seven Sisters (1962). And though The Demise of a Louse claims to be "a complete paperback version of the Best-Seller Say Yes to Murder," it's actually a reprint of the abridged Sphere digest. (Cover check: There are two brunettes in the book, and though one is glimpsed naked, neither is seen applying lipstick in her undies. The body, on its face with a knife is back, is okay, but should be halfway under a bed. Worst of all is the back cover, identifying Lennox as "the Rat-Pack Private-Eye." He is, of course, NOT a private eye, and there's no Rat Pack, or anything resembling it, in the book. An inside page identifies this as the second of the "Rat-Pack Private Eye" mysteries, following Lights, Camera, Murder. Sheesh.)


The book was reprinted again in 2009 by Blackmask.com. I don't have this one. Do you? If so, here's an easy way to tell if it's the original or the abridged version. Turn to Chapter 7, subchapter 3. It should begin: The doctor said, "I think she'll be all right now." If it doesn't, page back to subchapter 2, where you'll find that line. Viola! It's the censored abridgment. Or not.

Today's Forgotten Books links are assembled at SWEET FREEDOM.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Outstanding review and biblio history! Bowling Green University Popular Press did a Ballard/Lennox collection way back in 1985 (HOLLYWOOD TROUBLESHOOTER, edited by James L. Traylor. Also, back in 1977, I did a lengthy interview with Ballard that is here: http://www.blackmaskmagazine.com/ballard.html

--Stephen Mertz

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks Steve. I'll be hunting Hollywood Troubleshooter, and checking out that interview. In other news, I read your story in Blood & Tacos. Another good 'un!

Juri said...

I really liked a late crime novel by Ballard, called MURDER LAS VEGAS STYLE. (I would've said it's from 1967, but the Fantastic Fiction site says it's from 1958.) I've also liked Ballard's western novels, especially DUKE from 1965.

Evan Lewis said...

My copy of MURDER LAS VEGAS STYLE (a 95 cent "Unibook") has no dates at all. The copyright page is blank. I'll have to give it a read.

Derek Simons said...

I recently had some very old books given to me from a grand parent a blue hard cover of say yes to murder is one i have found any help on what this book would be worth or maybe a reference would be sweet if ya can. Please help me out... thank you.....Derek S.

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