Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mike Shayne's Weirdest Case [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Spoiler Alert: this piece will reveal the solution to both a story and a TV episode discussed.

Tough guy private eyes are not known for their adventures amongst the weird world of gypsies and psychics. As detectives, they are the hard-hitting, fact-based heroes who use their guns to speak for them. They would never encounter a Sussex Vampire or a Hound of the Baskervilles. The closest Philip Marlowe ever got to the outré was mentioning The King in Yellow in a story of the same name. Sadly, the Yellow Sign and the hideously wrapped priests of Leng have no part in the tale. Private eyes are strictly rational, if rowdy.

Despite this rationality, the detective genre as a whole is a close cousin to the tale of horror, going back to Sheridan le Fanu and Edgar Allan Poe and then back to the Gothics that spawned both genres. Every so often you find the suggestion of the supernatural slipping into more modern tales. In the Golden Age, writers like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr spiced up a locked room or an impossible murder with the hint that the killing was committed by Satan or witches. After World War II, this kind of thing became the domain of the comic books and the cartoons.

So it was a surprise to encounter it in the hard-boiled arena of Michael Shayne. "Murder Plays Charade" appeared in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, July 1959. The author of the story was, of course, Brett Halliday, a house name dating back to the first novel, Dividend on Death (1939) written by Davis Dresser. By 1956 and the creation of the magazine, Dresser had moved on, allowing ghost writers (no pun here!) to write the short novellas under the Halliday name. These included several authors associated with horror and science fiction, including Robert Arthur, Michael Avallone, Frank Belknap Long, Sam Merwin Jr. and Bill Pronzini. In 1959, the three most prolific ghosts were Robert Arthur, Richard Deming, and Robert Terrall.

Of these, Robert Arthur was most likely to have written a supernatural storyline. (I asked James Reasoner, one of the latter day Brett Hallidays, and he agrees, though no one seems to know anymore.) Arthur would be responsible in 1964 for creating and writing Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators, Hardy Boys types who solve mysteries that appear supernatural. The Secret of Terror Castle, The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, The Mystery of the Talking Skull, you get the idea. And no matter how supernatural things appeared, in the best Ann Radcliffe style, everything is explained away. Whether Robert Arthur wrote "Murder Plays Charade" or not isn't as interesting as what happens in the story, and later, to the story.

"Murder Plays Charade" begins when a strange-looking gypsy woman comes to Shayne's office asking for his help. She claims that through her gifts she knows her husband, the famous magician Voltane, will die if Mike Shayne doesn't do something to save him. Shayne blows her off, but a dollar bill he gave her appears with the words "YOU HAVE NO CHOICE," telling him it's not over yet.

It's Lucy Hamilton's birthday and Mike wants to please his girlfriend/secretary. She has tickets for the Voltane show, so he ends up there anyway. The centerpiece of the performance is the "Catching a Bullet With Your Teeth" trick. Supposedly, even Houdini never attempted it. It's not hard to guess how the trick ends up, with Voltane dead and the soldier who shot the bullet missing and under suspicion.

Robert Arthur
Shayne follows the trial through Mrs. Voltane. Upset, she is taken into the care of Dr. Vogel, a psychiatrist as well as an authority on psychical research. He takes Kara Voltane under his care, whisking her off to his sanatorium. Left alone, Shayne examines Voltane's props and bags backstage. He finds a secret compartment, but in true PI style gets sapped and the important evidence is taken. After some coffee and brandy, Mike's at it again, seeking the secret of how the bullet trick was done. To find the killer, he must solve the magician's best kept secret. He visits Dr. Vogel and finds Kara Voltane an unwilling patient. Shayne rescues her from the doctor's special hospital. The Vogel character seems ripe for being a gothic villain, not to mention his ghostbreaking background, but he is left behind and no longer important to the story.

Shayne feeds Kara, then goes on a wild goose chase as she claims she is having a psychic vision. She directs him to the house of General Zamboni, a failed stage performer and a marksman who once drew huge crowds. He's also the husband of Voltane's mistress. Kara's trick falls apart as Shayne clues in that Zamboni's son is the disappeared soldier, and that the "house she had never been to before" was well-known to her. This is the last of the seeming supernatural episodes in the novel. Using leg work, Mike eventually tracks down the man who hit him over the head in Voltane's dressing room, Willie Kling, who was Voltane's assistant, and gets the secret from the trunk. Armed with this evidence, Shayne solves the bullet trick and pinpoints the murderer.

The solution to both proves to be a silver plate, which Kara used to carry the bullet from the marksman to a member of the audience for marking. Once back on the plate, using a secret hatch, she would substitute the bullet for a blank, then remove the slug and give it to Voltane who would place it in his mouth. To kill her husband, all Kara had to do was give him another slug and let the soldier use the live round. The solution is quick and all supernatural potential for the tale falls away largely unused. I can imagine, if Robert Arthur wrote this story, that more magic scenes may have been used, but perhaps were edited away. There are some choice props like the gypsy prophecy and Dr. Vogel the ghostbreaker/gothic villain, but these are never exploited much beyond mere mention. The supernatural is never really considered or discussed. Not surprising in 1959, but disappointing to those who like a little more spook in their spook stories.

A year and a half later the story was used for an episode of the new Michael Shayne TV show. Starring Richard Denning of Creature From the Black Lagoon fame as a blond and rather watered-down Michael Shayne, the show lasted only one season. The expected characters were there, Patricia Donahue. then Margie Regan as faithful "Angel" and secretary, Lucy Hamilton. There was newspaper sidekick, Tim Rourke, played by Jerry Paris, and Herbert Rudley as Will Gentry of the Miami Police. And added, just to keep the teens happy, Gary Clarke as Lucy's kid brother, Dick Hamilton. (Sadly, Clarke does the best acting on the show. It's no surprise he got picked up for The Virginian a year later.)

1959 novella became the ninth episode of the series, receiving a slight name change as "Murder Plays Charades" (December 9, 1960). It was directed by Paul Stewart and guest starred John Van Dreelan as Voltane, Jane Domergue as Kara Voltane, and John Considine as Bruno Zambroni. It was written by Don Ingalls, a seasoned TV writer, who later wrote for Star Trek, The Virginian, Adam-12 and Fantasy Island. He was a producer on TJ Hooker and wrote the screenplay for Airport 1975. He was an experienced hand even in 1959 and would need his skill for taking the magazine novella and turning it into a useable script.

First off, the story was too short and didn't have enough characters. To remedy this, Ingalls adds Mrs. Emily Tallen of the Dauphin Country Club Charity Committee, theater manager Ned Webster,and he beefs up the part of Willie Kling into Gus Hartman, Voltane's supposed best friend. He involves and expands Dr. Harris (Vogel) and adds a teen cupcake named Georgia played by Sue Randall. The story still contains everything from the story, though moved around, along with the trick plate, but the killer is changed and the method of killing is as well with Mrs. Tallen (Voltane's spurned lover) shooting from off stage on the count of zero.

Ultimately what Ingalls did was expand and improve the story. He also removed all the supernatural stuff, small as it was. Kara Voltane does not visit Mike Shayne at the opening of the story. She does not lead him to Zambroni's house, pretending to have a vision. Dr. Vogel is no longer a creepy madhouse keeper, but a love interest for Kara Voltane. Even the plate from the trunk is changed to a scrapbook of Voltane's infidelities, containing a photo that Gus Hartman uses to blackmail Mrs. Tallen. Shayne finds the plate later amongst the gear. The solution to the trick, which is the key to the novella, is shrugged off as almost obvious and explained early on. Ingalls takes all the clues and creates his own ending.

So ends Mike Shayne's weirdest adventure, stopped almost before it started. Thankfully this lack of magic in the hard-boiled school would change, with role-playing games like Call of Cthulhu (1981) and films like Cast a Deadly Spell (1991). The tough guys of magic detection would be numerous in the new millennium, from John Constantine in comics, film, and TV to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. The combination of Chandlesque tough guys and magical bad asses is part of the landscape in 2015. Despite a little gypsy magic, Mike Shayne's editors back in 1959 didn't have a crystal ball to foresee it.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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