Friday, March 15, 2019

Forgotten Books: HALF-PAST MORTEM by John A. Saxon (Robert Leslie Bellem?)

I hunted this book down sometime back in the '80s, because it was said to be written by Hollywood Detective author Robert Leslie Bellem. Googling the title now, I see it's available in POD, and still credited to Bellem.

Chances are that's true, but I'd like to see the evidence. Was there a clue found in his papers? Did his wife or agent or writer friend say so in an interview? Bill Pronzini listed the book as ghost-written by Bellem in Gun in Cheek back in 1982, but cites no source. I ain't disbelieving, just wondering out loud.

Half-Past Mortem, published in 1947, was the second book in a series (of two) featuring insurance investigator Sam Whelpton. Several online sources also list Bellem as the author of the first Whelpton book, Liability Limited, too, but I discount that as mere assumptionOn the Mystery File, Steve Lewis makes the educated guess that Bellem may have been a friend of Saxon's, and stepped in after the guy the wrote the first book and died. But he admits it's only a guess.

"John, a Saxon" is a mystery, too. It's about as subtle a pen name as "Pierre A. Frank" or "Giuseppe A. Paisono." So who was he really?

I have not read (or even seen) Liability Limited, so I'm no help on that end. As for Half-Past Mortem, all I can deduce for sure is that the author was at least an acquaintance of Bellem. That evidence appears on page 163 (of 250), when Whelpton impersonates a phone company employee to find out who a number belongs to. He tells us this:

     I manufactured a name and address out of thin air. "Is this Mrs. Belle M. Leslie of four-fifty-five North Raymond Street?"

Sure, that could have been Bellem playing games, but it could just as easily have been W.T. Ballard or another friend giving him a shout out. And why "Raymond Street" instead of "Robert Street"? Who's Raymond?  And speaking of Ballard, it seems possible he could have been a co-author, as he was on Shady Lady and several of the Jim Anthony pulp novels in Super-Detective.
The book offers no other solid clues. The first person narration is nothing like that of Dan Turner, but that doesn't disqualify it, because Bellem wrote in many different styles. The only Turnerish word in the whole book is "yapped," and that's used only once. There are several lines reminiscent of Dan Turner's interest in women, but that sort of thing was common in detective fiction of the time:

     A few minutes later Natalie came out, clad in white slacks and a rose-colored sweater. I noticed she was wearing slacks a long time after I noticed that she wore a sweater.

     I glanced at Burdick, but he wasn't looking at me. His eyes were on Gloria's well-filled nylons. I had noticed her legs myself and at another time I would have been more appreciative. Right now I wasn't. 

     I walked out into the reception room. As I did, Dupont's buzzer rang and Doris picked up some papers, started toward his office.
     She sure looked good from the rear.

As a novel, Half-Past Mortem is nothing special, but there's nothing wrong with it, either. I enjoyed reading it, and probably would have even without the Bellem connection. I give it one thumb up.


James Reasoner said...

John A. Saxon appears to have been his real name. Here's what the Fictionmags Index says about him: Born in Minnesota; died in Alhambra, California; reporter on the New York World; court reporter in the Los Angeles Superior Court for 30 years; movie scriptwriter. I believe Will Murray talks about him in WORDSLINGERS, too. It's not surprising that Bellem would have ghosted this one, since Saxon also wrote a bunch for the Spicy pulps and they probably knew each other because of that.

Art Scott said...

Have you subjected The Sex Ladder (Beacon 783) by "Anthony Gordon" to a similar textual scrutiny? It's widely attributed to Bellem, and has been since Lancecon days. I'm taking a copy to the LA Show to (I hope) sell. A quick riffle through the pages didn't disclose any obvious Dan Turnerisms.

Evan Lewis said...

I have The Sex Ladder and Doctor of Lesbos, and pretty sure I read both when I was a young whippersnapper. I suppose they're due for further scrutiny. But Jeez, I haven't even gotten around to reading Blue Murder yet.

Stephen Mertz said...

Way back in the mid-1970s I spent time in the UCLA Special Collections Room poring over their Robert Leslie Bellem collection. They have a copy of Half-Past Mortem which carries the enclosed inscription from Bellem to his wife, Bebe: "For my sweet Bebe from her hubby Robert Leslie Bellem who ghosted this for a guy who wasn't around anymore. Pasadena, Aug. 18, 1947." Come to think of it, this may have been where the "Anthony Gordon" book references begin as there are copies of both Beacon novels in a box of his published work--no other such paperbacks are included.

Evan Lewis said...

Okay, okay. I'm convinced. Thank you Professor Mertz.

Art Scott said...

Well done. Steve! Your rock n roll outlaw shell conceals the soul of a profound scholar.