Friday, December 4, 2009

Forgotten Books: Murder Wears a Halo by John Evans/Howard Browne

This book was published in 1997 by Gryphon Books (in what I assume was a small print run) and promptly forgotten. But that was the second time it had been forgotten.

“Murder Wears a Halo” made its first appearance in the Feb. 1944 issue of Mammoth Detective, then lay wasting away for 53 years before Gryphon got hold of it.

Why? I’m not sure.

Howard Browne is fondly remembered for his four Chandleresque Paul Pine novels (Halo in Blood, Halo for Satan, and Halo in Brass by John Evans, and The Taste of Ashes under his own name). Among his other novels is If You Have Tears, which he once referred to as his “James M. Cain book”.  Well, I’d have to call Murder Wears a Halo his James M. Cain/Erle Stanley Gardner book.

For the first half the novel, Browne is in Cain mode. Chicago pulp writer and nightclub denizen Don Hearn meets 18-year-old Loa, lovely, innocent, and straight off the farm, who is obsessed with writers - and he in turn becomes obsessed with her. Their relationship is on-again/off-again, and Loa goes out with other guys, but that’s really all that happens. No crimes are committed. There isn’t even a mystery.

Then, precisely at the mid-point, everything changes. Another writer (who writes for the slicks) is killed, and Hearn and Loa take a backseat to a Perry Mason-like attorney named Edicott Overend (End Overend).  The rest of the book is a Mason-style courtroom drama.

Both halves of the book are good. Browne’s writing is tight, smart and consistently entertaining. I read the whole thing in a day, and my attention never flagged.

But what makes this novel really special is that the narrator is a pulp writer. How many books can you name, written by a top-notch pulp writer, where the hero is also a pulp writer?

The first half of the book (the Cain half) is packed with pulp talk. Don Hearn talks to the reader about his writing, he and his friends talk writing, and when the girl Loa comes along, he discovers the subject of writing makes her dreamy-eyed - so he talks about writing even more.

Some of the pulp talk is clever and thinly disguised. Hearn sells a couple of stories (“Blood on the Sun” and “Sunken Sub”) to a mag called Argonaux. At one point the shows Loa a copy of Sleuth Stories, “a Green Star weekly of the Mooney line,” where his story “Death in Brass” is featured on the cover. The cover blurb reads “Also stories by Hugh Sale, Burt B. Cave, Richard Collier and others” (I’ll let you transpose those for yourself). Later, he sells a story called “Guns Along the Hudson” to Mammoth Detective, and mentions other real writers and magazines, so the line between fiction and reality is blurred. 

But that’s not all.

When Loa starts asking serious questions about writing, Don Hearn holds forth on the business of being a pulp writer. And while this is technically a fictional character talking, it’s clear Howard Browne is giving us the real lowdown on what it’s like, and what it takes to write for the pulps.

At the time this story appeared in Mammoth Detective, Browne was assistant editor for the magazine (a novelette, featuring series character Wilbur Peddie, skip tracer, appeared in the same issue under Browne’s name). He also had editorial duties at Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures.  So when it came to pulps, he knew what he was talking about.

For those of you who’ve read this far, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that this book is not easy to come by. There are a few copies offered on the ‘net, but I didn’t see one for less than $35. I don’t own a copy myself. I read the story in Mammoth.

The good news is . . . there’s enough serious pulp talk here to put together a short memoir/how to piece of Howard Browne's views on writing for the pulps. So early next week (look for it Monday or Tuesday) I’ll be posting a thing called “Howard Browne on Pulp Writing”, all culled from Murder Wears a Halo.  See you there, I hope.

P.S. Does anyone know where/why Browne got this fascination with "Halo" titles? This story predates the three Paul Pine "Halo" books. And I have another Mammoth with a novelette called "Halo 'Round My Head", also predating Pine. The mystery is - I found no reference to a halo in Murder Wears a Halo. I suppose the girl Loa could be thought of as angelic, but the point is never pressed. The title just seems to make no sense.

(click to enlarge)

For links to this week's other Forgotten Books, see Patti  Abbot's pattinase.


Todd Mason said...

You had to love Ziff-Davis magazines, with their relatively accurate word counts (72.000-word complete novel!). Perhaps Ray Palmer got them to do that, as he continued the practice in his own magazines after leaving Z-D.

Robert Bloch occasionally would write pulp fiction about pulp fiction writers, and others did as well...I think it not only seemed natural, but a nice injokey way of engaging the reader.

Howard Browne really should've written more of his own magazines, given how much better he was than most of his stable.

Todd Mason said...

I think the titular Halo here was just a means of connecting it to the earlier stories, from what you suggest.

I forget which issue of the 1980s AMAZING Browne published his memoir of his editorial years in, but you should seek that out if you haven't read it. Googling shows:
Title: A Personal Account: Profit Without Honor
Author: Howard Browne
Year: 1984
User Rating: This title has fewer than 5 votes. VOTE
Popular Tags: None Add Tags

Amazing Science Fiction, May 1984, (May 1984, George H. Scithers, Dragon Publishing, $1.75, 164pp, Digest, magazine) Cover: Douglas Chaffee - [VERIFIED]

pattinase (abbott) said...

What a great review. Thanks so much for all the work here.

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks, Todd. I'll have to hunt down that issue of Amazing. What I'm wondering is - where did this Halo business start? Is there a bibliography of his pulp stories that would show earlier Halo titles?

Evan Lewis said...

And thank you, Patti. You slipped in there while I was answering Todd.

Todd Mason said...

Don't know for sure, but the Saint was already a thriving series...

Deb said...

That's exactly what I thought, Todd. My guess is there was an attempt to piggy-back onto the success of "The Saint." Wasn't the logo a stick figure with a halo? I remember the old show with Roger Moore--in the opening Moore would say something witty/risque (usually to an attractive woman) and the halo would appear above his head.

Todd Mason said...

The logo is indeed a stick-figure man with a halo. Much used on the books and the magazines.

Todd Mason said...

Or a means, since I misread your query, of running a thread through his stories, still (as Deb also suggests) reminding folks of the Saint, however distantly. Halos do imply the dead, also, perhaps.

Richard Prosch said...

"...the subject of writing makes her dreamy-eyed." But of course!

Laurie Powers said...

Oh man, just as I was about to jump over to abebooks and get a copy of this you tell me it's hard to come by. Still, I want to read this and will keep an eye out for it. Thanks for another great review.

Evan Lewis said...

I think Abe listed one, Bookfinder two or three, Amazon two or three. Of course, sometimes there are several listings for the same copy, and its hard to tell.

Richard Robinson said...

Great pick! I've not read any of these - except the beginning in the page scan you provide is very familiar. Did you recently run that scan? If not I wonder where else I might have seen it, or read it, or? Boy, I'm stumped.

Excellent review.

Evan Lewis said...

Good catch, Rick. Yep, I did run that scan, and the pulp cover, about a month ago, when I found the mag in a box. I just now got around to reading it.

Rittster said...


Pronzini and Muller's 1001 MIDNIGHTS has info on two novels featuring pulp writers as protagonists. Here's a quote from Pronzini's review of William G. Bogart's (no relation to Humphrey)HELL ON FRIDAY (1941):

"HELL ON FRIDAY is noteworthy as one of the only two novels with a pulp publishing background (The other is William P. McGivern's BUT DEATH RUNS FASTER, published seven years later--a much better mystery novel but lacking the range of pulp lore and true pulpy feel of the Bogart book.)"


P.S. This topic comes at a perfect time for me, as I am currently reading Gruber's THE PULP JUNGLE and am loving it. After I'm done with that, I plan on immediately following it with Robert Bloch's autobiograpy, ONCE AROUND THE BLOCK, and then Westlake's take on being a sleaze writer, ADIOS SHEHERAZADE. I'd love to find first-person, novel-length (or close to novel-length) memoirs of what it was like to write crime/mystery paperbacks during the Gold Medal era, set mostly during the 1950's and 60's. James Reasoner already suggested two books--one by Robert Turner and one by Richard Wormser. If anyone else has a suggestion for me, please chime in.

Bob Schneider said...

The plot of one of Pronzini's "Nameless Detective" novels revolves around what was going on with a group of pulp writers decades before the time frame of the book. I forgot the title but it was the one that contained the hilarious dinner scene with "Nameless" and his partner and their respective girl friends.

Cap'n Bob said...

I met Browne at a Bouchercon and mentioned I was going to buy the new/old book of his that had been recently issued. He told me it was not very good and to save my money.

The Pronzini with the pulp connection is HOODWINK. There's a murder at a pulp convention.