Thursday, June 24, 2010

Twice Murdered: A story collection by Laurence Donovan

Prior to cracking open this new collection from Black Dog Books, all I knew about Laurence Donovan was that he’d written a handful of Doc Savage novels.

Now I know better. Boy, do I ever. This book makes it clear that Donovan was a pulp-writing powerhouse.  In a career stretching from 1928 to 1948, he turned out well over 400 stories and novelettes, plus more than 50 pulp novels featuring guys like The Phantom Detective, The Black Bat, The Whisperer, The Skipper - and yes, Doc Savage. Like many of his contemporaries, he wrote whatever the market wanted, resulting in a good mix of air war adventures, westerns and mysteries. (How do I know all this? I know, thanks to Tom Roberts' groundbreaking Introduction and overview of Donovan's career, and the eye-opening 18-page bibliography of his works.)

The amazing thing is that despite this enormous output, there has never been a book published with Donovan's name on it. Until now.

All but one of the twelve stories in Twice Murdered were written during the second half of his long career, and all but one originally appeared in the Trojan line of magazines (Spicy Detective, Hollywood Detective, Super-Detective and Private Detective Stories). And that, I think, is a good thing.

By 1938, Donovan had long since mastered his craft, and writing for the Trojan mags allowed him to focus on his own characters and tell stories the way he wanted them told. And he had fun doing it. That sense of enjoyment comes through strong in every tale, and makes them equally fun to read.

Donovan’s style might be described as a cross between Lester Dent and Robert Leslie Bellem. He mixes Dent’s wry humor and rat-a-tat-tat action with Bellem’s mastery of  slang. The result is consistently entertaining, and every tale races to a satisfying conclusion. For purposes of show and tell, I've scanned a couple of title spreads from the original magazines, and invite you to sample Donovan's prose.

(click to enlarge)

More than half of the stories are in the Spicy mold. Donovan handles the required titillation as well as anybody, but because he was older and more experienced (both in writing and living) than the other Spicy regulars, his tales deliver more variety and substance.

“Death Dances on Dimes” takes us into the world of dime-a-dance halls and sleazy strip joints.  “The Snoop” thrusts a house dick into a wild shoot-out with bank robbers in a hotel room.  In “Twice Murdered” a gambling house kingpin tries to scam his insurance company and ends up dead - twice.  “Never Hire a Killer” features a private dick hired to protect a society dude’s girlfriend, unaware both dude and dame have other agendas.  In “She Loves to Murder” a self-professed “love detective” becomes the fourth side of love triangle, with deadly results.

“Footprint of Destiny” from Hollywood Detective, opens at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where a starlet is murdered just as she places her dainty foot into the wet cement. “The Greyhound Murders” involves the dog-racing crowd and a four-legged murder weapon. The violence in “A Dame Murders Cold” appears to revolve around a dazzling Ming Dragon emerald, but actually stems from a much deeper game. And in “Two Can Play at Murder”, a disgraced ex-cop is lured into a double-murder frame, and neatly turns the tables on the mobsters.

(click to enlarge)

One of the longer stories in the book, a novelette called “Come In, Killer”, is almost Shakespearean as it plays out with mistaken identities, hidden motives and unexpected deaths. “The Man Who Came to Die” - the longest story of all - is also the strangest. As publisher Tom Roberts tells us in the Introduction, Donovan never sold to the weird mystery pulps, but this one would certainly have qualified. A detective starves himself to skin and bone to impersonate a rich guy thought to be the next victim of a clever and sophisticated insurance fraud scheme. No one in this tale is quite what they seem, and before it’s over half the cast winds up dead.

While I enjoyed every story, my favorite of the bunch was “Reagan Follows Up”, in which a newspaper editor defies his boss to go to war with the mob and expose the killer of a crusading cop. Donovan clearly identified with this guy, as Donovan’s pre-fictioneer days were spent as a newspaperman.

So. While Twice Murdered is Laurence Donovan’s first book, I predict it won’t be his last. Black Dog has finally brought Donovan out of Lester Dent’s shadow, and he won’t be going back.

For more info (and to order) visit BLACK DOG BOOKS.

For a review by James Reasoner, click HERE.

Tomorrow: A review of Donovan's Doc Savage novel Cold Death
Sunday: A complete Donovan mystery story from Speed Detective
Soon: A look at some of Donovan's Hero Pulp novels


David Cranmer said...

I'm leaving my comment before I've read your complete post because I can see (after scanning) being lost in the world of Laurence Donovan for the next hour or so.


James Reasoner said...

I love that wise-guy expression on Donovan's face in the photo.

Deka Black said...

Short stories... How much i love them. A type of medium what is a BIG milestone in the story and development of American literature. And shine with her own light in the genres i love so much.

The people should read more short stories collections/anthologies.

Deka Black said...

I fotgor earlier: One thing. above all else what i envy deeply, very deeply of a handful of pulp writers is the humongous amount of words typed every month. Wish i could do that!

(Mi personal goal is 1000 by day and is easier to reach each day, to tell the truth, but still, wow, some writers of the era seems to have lived beneath a words stream!)

Evan Lewis said...

1000 words a day is a good goal. It's not at all hard on any given day, but making time to do it EVERY day is the real challenge.

Deka Black said...

You got a point. Must sacrifice time for other things: Other hobbies, people...

Richard Prosch said...

So many words published, but no byline on a book 'til now --incredible!

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