Back in June, I read Murder and the Married Virgin (1944) by "Brett Halliday," a pseudonym of Davis Dresser, which came recommended to me as hard-paced locked room mystery and introduced to Halliday's private eye, Michael "Mike" Shayne – a hardboiled counterpart to Ellery Queen. A series with distinctively different periods and localities, a monthly short story magazine and eventually a who's who of ghostwriters.
Murder and the Married Virgin was as solid as a punch to the face and invited further investigation, which added several impossible crimes and a potentially interesting-looking World War II mystery to the big pile. But what really caught my attention was a short story by one of Halliday's well-known ghostwriters. A beloved writer around these parts of the internet with a legacy of his own.
Robert Arthur was a pulp and mystery writer who famously created a radio anthology series, The Mysterious Traveler, but most readers today will remember him as the creator and first author of The Three Investigator series – producing ten novels before passing away in 1969. But his dalliance with the juvenile mystery novel represents only a small portion of his output. Arthur mainly wrote short stories that were published in everything from Amazing Stories and Black Mask to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
During the late 1950s and early '60s, Arthur wrote two short Mike Shayne stories under the Halliday name. One of the stories sounded like it could belong with Allan R. Bosworth's Full Crash Dive (1942), Charles Forsythe's Diving Death (1962), Micki Browning's Adrift (2017) and Joseph Commings' short story "Bones for Davy Jones" (1953) to that rare subcategory of detective stories with submerged setting. So let's walk the plank and find out.
"Death Dives Deep" was first published in the January, 1959, issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and collected in Mike Shayne's Torrid Twelve (1961).
Mike Shayne, "tough as raw leather" and "not afraid of cops or crooks," is asked by Sandra Ames to undertake a job where he has two employers and "must keep an eye on both" to "see that one doesn't try to double-cross the other" – something "umpires do it every day of the baseball season." So he has no particular objections and deduces that his second employer is Captain Tod Tolliver. Shayne received a package that afternoon with an old, worn Spanish gold coin minted in 1670 and a note telling that "there's more where this came from." Before he can meet his second employer and get to work, Shayne is knocked unconscious and Captain Tolliver is kidnapped from his office by two thugs.
This is where the narrative begins to twist and turn like the Queen of Hearts maze with body around every corner. Seven in total! So you're never quite sure what to expect or what kind of detective story you're actually reading. Early on in the story, I began to suspect "Death Dives Deep" was cleverly played con-game with a hidden, quasi-impossible crime, but it didn't turn out to be one of those hard-hitting, cerebral private eye stories. Just a very well written piece of hardboiled pulp fiction and enjoyed it very much.
I particularly liked the treasure hunt and what, exactly, lay hidden on the seabed. Is it an old Spanish ship with "a strong room full of treasure" collected from all over South America or something more recently? And while the entire story takes place on the surface, the diving expedition is aptly incorporated into the plot and briefly turned the story into survival thriller when Shayne is stuck on a raft in the open ocean. Another point of interest is that, early on in the story, Shayne has a beauty parlor girl, named Ireneabelle, who is linked to the kidnappers and he calls another woman with her own beauty shop – requesting her call all her friends in the business and ask them. If they don't know, she has to ask them each to call five friends and keep the ball rolling until she's located. This is the exact same "Ghost-to-Ghost Hookup" system Jupe, Pete and Bob would go on to employ in The Three Investigators series (e.g. Arthur's The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, 1965).
So, all in all, "Death Dives Deep" is an engaging, hardboiled private eye story with some good action scenes (the helicopter!) and an excellently used backdrop, which once again made me understand why so many people are fascinated by the figure of the tough private eye figure. I remember someone compared the private eye to comic book superheroes who matured and lost their cape, but stubbornly continued to try to do something good in a hard, crime-ridden world where it's practically impossible to keep your hands entirely clean. Sometimes it seems pointless, but characters like Shayne continue to try to do right thing and restore some good to the world. No matter how many times they get knocked out or crack a knuckle. Arthur's "Death Dives Deep" is a good example where a lot of bad things have to happen before a little good can come out of it.
That being said, you expect something more traditional and plot-oriented in the next post. So stay tuned!