HAPPY HOLIDAYS, FROM BOSTON BLACKIE

December 19, 2015 at 10:43 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

In honor of the season, I’m pleased to present here the only Christmas story featuring Boston Blackie ever written by Jack Boyle:

Boston Blackie, the master cracksman of the “mob” of safe-blowers that had given the detective force the most strenuous and profitless month’s work in its history, emptied tray after tray of diamonds into the chamois-skin sack held by his youthful assistant, the “Cushions Kid.”  The haul was a gigantic one.  The door of the big strong box lay wrecked on the floor.  Inside the safe the stock of gems that had attracted thousands of Christmas shoppers to the window display of Lundstrom & Company lay at the mercy of the thieves.  Rapidly Blackie searched the safe, throwing aside gold bracelets, watches, and costly trinkets of every description.  He took only diamonds and money.  Both are well-nigh impossible to identify.

The crime was a climax in effrontery.  Forty feet away from the safe on the main street of the metropolis the night traffic of the city flowed past the store’s front doors.  Within half a block the presses of three big morning dailies had just commenced to roar.  On the corner an eager crowd of newsboys, a dozen or more pallid-faced nighthawks and a couple of policemen laughed and bandied just as they waited for a paper and the “owl” cars.  In the midst of all this Blackie had cracked the safe undetected.

With a skillfully-made skeleton key he and Cushions had entered the candy store next door to the jewelry firm.  In a half hour they had burrowed through the wall of plaster and lath and were beside the jewelry safe.  The glazed windows of the office in which the safe stood hid them from the street.  It was Blackie’s task to blow the safe without breaking this glass.  With a manufacturer’s plan of the safe before him he had spent long hours studying the problem, computing the risk.  Blackie was a crook who reduced everything to simple arithmetic.  For a one-thousand-dollar job he took a certain amount of risk, for ten thousand dollars exactly ten times that risk.  But if the trick involved ten times the unit of danger and promised but nine times the money, it was abandoned.  The Lundstrom job was more than risky – it was all but foolhardy.  But, though the danger was great, the loot was greater.

And now the “trick” was accomplished.  The noise of the explosion, slight though it was, had been effectively drowned by the staccato explosions of an automobile engine, apparently stalled a few doors away.  Emptying the last of the diamond drawers, Blackie motioned Cushions back through the wall and noiselessly followed.  Standing at the street door of the candy store, they stopped, listening.  Seemingly intent on his reluctant carburetor, “Jimmy the Joke” whistled cheerfully as he worked, giving them thereby the safety signal.

Blackie unlocked the door, stepped out and turned to relock it.  In the middle of the bar Jimmy’s tune changed suddenly, sharply.  Now it sounded the dreaded warning “coppers.”  The safe-blower turned the key like a flash and stepped away from the door toward the middle of the sidewalk.  He was too late.  A gray-clad Pinkerton watchman had turned the corner less than a dozen feet away and had seen the cracksman at the door.

Cushions, white to the lips, slipped his right hand into his sleeve where he carried a revolver after the fashion of the gunmen of the Chinese tongs.  The watchman reached for his whistle.  There was a tense half second in which life and death hung on equally balanced scales.  Then Blackie strode forward, gripping Cushions’ elbow in imperative negation as he passed.

“Why, here’s the very man we want!” he cried out, glad surprise in every tone.  “Watchman, I’m Mr. Archibald, manager of our other candy store on Mission Street.  Here’s my card.  Our cashier telephoned me an hour ago that she was not sure she had locked the safe and was worried about it.  I thought it best to come down and make sure.  It was locked, but, my man, it might not have been.  That brings me to my business with you.  We are carrying considerable money just now, and I’d appreciate it if you would give us a little extra care until after the holidays.  The safe is in plain sight from the windows, as you see.”  He motioned the watchman to the window of the candy store and indicated the safe, which was manifestly intact and locked.  Blackie jingled the keys he had used in locking the door and dropped them into his pocket.

“Just look out for us for the next fortnight, and – ah – drop in and present that card to the cashier on Christmas Eve.  I think she will have a little token of our appreciation for you.  Have a cigar?  Good night.  Chauffeur, drive me home – 1816 Page Street.”  The address was spoken loud enough for the watchman to hear. 

Blackie and Cushions stepped into the car.  Jimmy threw in the clutch and leaped forward.

Behind them the slow-witted Pinkerton underling stared at the card in his hand in indecision.  It bore the name “B.S. Archibald” and the address was 1816 Page Street.  That was where the gentleman had told the chauffeur to take him.  The lingering doubt vanished. 

“Gee, that there was a close shave,” the man muttered to himself, wiping his dripping brow.  “I hadn’t no doubt I’d run foul of a gang of burglars right in the act.  I might ‘a’ known he was too well-dressed and educated-like to be a burglar.  Suppose I’d tried to arrest him – the manager of the store!  They’d given me the sack, sure, at the office.  A man can’t be too careful in this business.  He’s got to go slow … Yes, the safe’s sure all right.”  He studied it carefully, and then, satisfied, passed on down the block, trying the doors.

This vignette first appeared in the August 1914 issue of The American Magazine as part of Jack Boyle’s tale “The Story About Dad Morgan.”  Merry Christmas!

JBF  12/19/15

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THE (ALMOST) TRUE STORY OF JACK BOYLE, STUART PALMER AND SHERLOCK HOLMES

December 6, 2015 at 11:14 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Jack Boyle’s one enduring character is Boston Blackie.  Though he did craft tales with other protagonists (Huk Kant and Pep Kirby, among the more memorable), none of these have captured the imaginations of readers, movie-goers and television viewers like Blackie.  Still, it should be noted that Boyle had an indirect hand in the birth of another popular mystery character of the 1930s and ‘40s – Stuart Palmer’s sleuthing school teacher Miss Hildegarde Withers.  Tom and Enid Schantz, founders of The Rue Morgue Press, tell the story this way:

Sometimes a seemingly ordinary event shapes a person’s life, even though it might take years before its significance is recognized. Such an event overtook 12-year-old Stuart Palmer as he was working his way through the pine bookcase in the attic of his family’s summer place in rural Wisconsin when he came across a small yellow volume with an intriguing sketch on the cover. It was The Houseboat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs, an 1896 collection of humorous sketches featuring the “shades” or ghosts Stuart Palmerof famous literary characters. Among the literary personages making an appearance was Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first private consulting detective … When the Palmer family returned to their winter home in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Stuart rushed to the local library where “the acidulous spinster librarian” handed him, “with a disapproving sniff,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, the second of the four full-length Sherlock Holmes novels. He quickly worked his way through the canon, practically memorizing passages from The Adventures and The Memoirs, failing only to find a copy of His Last Bow. It turns out that the library’s copy had been checked out to the town’s only ex-convict, who skipped town the next day with his girlfriend. The ex-con was Jack Boyle, whose lone book, Boston Blackie, would be filmed many times and many years later. Call it irony or call it coincidence, but the screenwriter for one of those films was Stuart Palmer. Boyle left behind him numerous unpaid bills and even more empty whiskey bottles, prompting the parents of Baraboo to hold him up to their offspring as an example of the evils of drink and the futility of making a living as a writer. “It was then,” Palmer said, “that I definitely chose what was to be my life’s work.”

So Jack Boyle’s example (dubious though it may have been) inspired Stuart Palmer to become a professional writer, which in turn led to the creation of the quintessential school teacher turned sleuth, Hildegarde Withers.  The anecdote of Palmer and the Baraboo library’s missing volume of Sherlock Holmes is delightful, and the picture it paints of Boyle as a bit of a scoundrel has the ring of truth.  Tom and Enid Schantz initially related this incident on their Rue Morgue Press website in July 2004, and later incorporated it into their excellent essay “The Many Puzzles of Stuart Palmer” (published in the 2013 Mysterious Press reprint of Palmer’s The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla).  The story offers a rare treat – a small glimpse into Jack Boyle’s life in Baraboo.  However, despite the vignette’s air of authenticity, there are a few problems with its details.

The first is an issue of timing.  Palmer was born in 1905, which dates the events of this anecdote around 1917 (if he was, indeed, twelve when he began devouring the Sherlock Holmes canon).  But Boyle didn’t move away from Baraboo until around May 1920 (relocating to a ranch he purchased in Colorado), so the story must have taken place a few years later than Palmer’s recollection.  Also, the woman who accompanied Boyle upon his departure was not a girlfriend, but his wife Violet.

Another inconsistency in this narrative arises from the statement that Stuart Palmer was the screenwriter of one of the Boston Blackie movies.  While he did author a number of screenplays in the 1930s and ‘40s (including several for such b-movie mystery series as Bulldog Drummond and The Falcon), Palmer’s name does not appear in connection with any of the Blackie films.  It is possible that his work was uncredited, or perhaps that he contributed the teleplay for an as yet undocumented installment of the Boston Blackie television series.  However, it seems more likely that a mistake is at play here.  Palmer was responsible for the story to the 1935 feature film One Frightened Night.  This film bears no relation to Boston Blackie, but in 1944 Columbia Pictures released an entry in their Blackie series titled One Mysterious Night.  Could the attribution of a Blackie screenplay to Palmer arise from a simple confusion of two similar titles?

Though a minor point, one further discrepancy in this anecdote bears mentioning.  Sherlock Holmes does not appear in John Kendrick Bangs’ 1896 collection A Houseboat on the Styx.  But he is a major character in its 1897 sequel, The Pursuit of the Houseboat.  Small variations from fact such as this, and the question of the year in which Boyle made off with the Baraboo Library’s copy of His Last Bow, suggest this anecdote sprang from a later reminiscence from Stuart Palmer.  The passage of years often robs a recollection of accurate detail, but not of the significance of its story.  Late in the second decade of the 20th century, Baraboo, Wisconsin played home to two generations of influential crime writers – one established, and the other in the infancy of his career.  Without even actually meeting, Jack Boyle nudged Stuart Palmer onto the path of writing.  So without knowing it, the creator of Boston Blackie was an element in the genesis of Miss Hildegarde Withers and dozens of popular mysteries for decades to come.

JBF 12/6/15

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