His Typewriter Spat Ka-Chow!
Robert Leslie Bellem's Dan Turner

"And then, from an open window, a roscoe coughed Ka-Chow"

The hard-boiled private eye, born in the low-rent pages of the pulps way back in twenties, has become a remarkably resilient mainstay of American popular culture, evolving with the times, popping up not just in literature, but film, radio, television, comics, the internet and undoubtedly whatever lies beyond. He's also proven to be quite fertile ground for all kinds of writers, from brain-dead hacks pounding out the most clichéd and purplish of prose just to pay the rent, to those who sweated and struggled over every single comma, taking themselves very, very seriously. You only have to read the innumerable letters and essays by high-faluting pen-pushers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald to know that these men (commonly referred to, almost in awe, as "The Big Three" of detective fiction) took themselves very seriously indeed.

But with Robert Leslie Bellem (1902-1968), the creator of legendary Hollywood eye Dan Turner, it's hard to know if he was serious or not, since he seemed to effortlessly churn out so much damn stuff (it's estimated he wrote over 3000 pulp stories, with Turner starring in at least 300 of them, not to mention 60 or 70 comic book stories.) In his prime, it was said that Bellem was pumping out a million words annually, and selling every single one of them to the pulps. But he was more than merely prolific -- he was a riot. The question, though, is did he know it?

Was he was trying to parody the hardboiled detective genre, barely ten years after its birth, with his stories of Turner, or (and this is even scarier) was he simply, completely unaware of how funny and original his style was?

Turner's a "private skulk," an "orb for hire," working the weird and wacky streets of Hollywood. His cases seemed to always involve the film world, and its tyranical film directors, jealous husbands, amourous starlets, treacherous stuntmen and back-stabbing co-stars. But it wasn't the outlandish, albeit predictable, plots or the cardboard characters that made the stories so funny, although some of the methods of murder were certainly pretty high on the Quirk-O-Meter. Nope, it was the high-octane use of every slang word known to man (and more than a few Bellem must have coined himself) that fueled the tales. Women were wrens or frills, and their breasts were pretty-pretties or tiddlywinks, something that Dan, "as human as the next gazabo," always took the time to notice. Cars were chariots, money was geetus and no one ever got killed in the stories, they were croaked, cooled, iced, de-lifed or had an act of killery performed upon them. Guns didn't go bang – they were roscoes and they spat, coughed and belched. Or somtimes they just sneezed, though the end result was the same -- people ended up dead. Dead as a fried oyster. As vaudeville. As an iced catfish. In fact, just knowing Turner seemed to be dangerous. Years before TV's Jessica Fletcher watched the citizens of Cabot's Cove drop like flies, Dan was cutting a wide swatch through the population of Hollywood. The only other recurring character in the series was his pal, and sometime-rival, Lieutenant Dave Donaldson of the homicide squad, whose chief pupose seemed to be to get the bodies hauled away.

Turner appeared in each issue of Spicy Detective from June 1934 to 1947, a pulp that specialized in "racy" subject matter. Eventually, it was re-christened (and supposedly cleaned up) Speed Detective, but the Turner stories continued. By 1942, he was so popular, he even had his own pulp, Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective, (later just Hollywood Detective), which lasted for eight years. Not only would there be a Turner story or three in each issue, sometimes Bellem would write the whole issue, using a variety of pen names (and, okay, occasionally. slyly retitling an old story).

Turner also appeared in a film, 1947's Blackmail, adapted from a July 1944 Speed Detective story, starring Richard Cortez as a blackmailed playboy who asks Turner (William Marshall) for help. Strictly B, from all reports. And more than forty years later, Turner fanatic John Wooley scripted an original story for The Raven Red Kiss-Off (1990) wherein Turner (Marc Singer) gets involved with a movie mogul, a beautiful starlet named Vala DuValle (Tracy Scoggins) and, as usual, blackmail. Apparently, this went straight to video, the equivalent of a B film these days, I guess.

Though, you ask me, film's the wrong medium for Turner anyway. With its breakneck pace, and bursts of wonky chatter, a half-hour TV show might be better, but let's face it – nothing compares to simply reading this stuff. Hackneyed and predictable, yes, but also hilarious as hell. Bellem may have been a hack, but the gink sure knew how to fling those words around.

Certainly, even back then, Bellem had his defenders. In a now-classic New Yorker piece, "Somewhere a Roscoe," humourist S.J. Perelman, an unabashed fan, lauded Bellem and called Turner "the apotheosis of all private detectives...out of Ma Barker by Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade." And fellow pulpster Frank Gruber allowed, in his memoirs, that Bellem was a rather eccentric character, so let's just assume he knew what he was doing.

But I bet Bellem didn't take himself very seriously. And neither should we. Let's just enjoy him. I mean, "dead as six buckets of fish bait"? You have to be one sad sack of a gazabo not to get a chuckle out of that one.

January-February 2001