I stumbled upon this book while keeping an eye out for Bart House mysteries. I’ve enjoyed my Bart House copy of The Devil Drives so much that I figured I’d snatch up a few books by the publisher to see how they stacked up. As a physical specimen, John Smith Hears Death Walking is a vintage paperback lovers dream – nice artwork, top notch war-time paper stock, and a cover that feels like a well worn baseball mitt.
My curiosity was piqued when I noticed that this wasn’t actually a novel, but a collection of short stories. Wyatt Blassingame was a prolific writer of pulp stories and children’s novels, with a career spanning the 1940s-70s. My Bart House edition (which is the only edition) states that a series of John Smith stories were published in the pulp magazine Detective Tales, but oddly doesn’t list individual copyright references for any of the stories (unusual for a collection).Thanks to this helpful source, I was able to track down the original dates of publication for each story, which I’ve noted in the entries below.
None of that matters too much, because this is pretty awful stuff. The stories are mediocre pulp action thrillers with only a whiff of mystery (although one qualified for Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders reference book). I suppose they’d be tolerable enough to skim through if it wasn’t for the heaping helping of racism slathered across the pages.
The stories in John Smith Hears Death Walking take place in New Orleans, and I suppose given the publication date, it isn’t a surprise that you’d get some racism laced throughout the book. Racism in GAD mysteries isn’t unheard of, although in my experience it’s typically limited to a few choice slurs, lazy generalizations, and phonetic dialogue. Let’s face it, most characters in these novels are upper class caucasians surrounded by other upper class caucasians, and so thankfully racism doesn’t have that much of an opportunity to enter into the picture.
With John Smith Hears Death Walking though, the racism is of the aggressively demeaning sort (all racism obviously being demeaning regardless of intention). Detective John Smith clearly thinks lesser of his “servant” Bushelmouth, who’s portrayed as a lazy idiot with a single minded desire for corn whiskey. There’s a funny dichotomy between how Smith and Bushelmouth are depicted when enjoying themselves:
“John Smith sat with his chair tilted back, his feet on the rail, a mug of cold beer gripped by both hands and held in his lap. He had that sleepy placid feeling a man gets after a swim and a good meal.”
Now, I’m not actually going to quote the book for comparison, but you can possibly imagine the different way in which Bushelmouth is described when he’s placidly leaning back enjoying some alcohol. I was heavily tempted to abandon this read by the midway point, but I trudged on for posterity. Yes, you owe me.
The character of John Smith himself is of that over the top pulp variety (Smith seems to have been featured in 20 short stories). Smith was blind for ten years, during which he developed heightened senses. His vision has been restored by an operation, but his detective work is still aided by his powers, in particular super human hearing (hence the book’s title). The basics of all of the stories are that Smith gets wrapped up in some conflict with a criminal enterprise, gets in a shoot out (nearly always involving a boat), and kills the head criminal while the hired thugs scatter. None of the stories are really mysteries, although most of them finish with a detective style explanation by Smith, in which he lays out the criminal scheme and how he caught onto it.
The Murder Master/ The War Makers – Detective Tales, July 1940 / December 1940
The first story is split into two sections, although it’s really one continuous story with no meaningful delineation. John Smith receives a note requesting that he goes to a remote house at night, and very little other explanation other than, “If you do come, if you take the job, it will probably mean your own life”. Smith apparently can’t resist that enticing invitation, and almost immediately ends up on the wrong side of a gun. The man opposite has a tale to tell – a super criminal called The Murder Master (seriously…) is using blackmail to enslave the people of New Orleans into his service. Anyone Smith sees – a cop, reporter, politician, his own wife – may be in the employ of The Murder Master, and they’ll kill on his command to protect their secrets. If The Murder Master can obtain governorship of Louisiana, he’ll next conquer the United States.
Yeah, so this probably gives you an idea of how this whole series goes. Anyway, the guy holding John Smith at gunpoint suddenly dies, and there’s that exciting tinge for a moment that we may have an impossible crime on our hands. The victim appears to have been poisoned, but no one had approached him recently before the crime.
“It’s impossible, there must have been someone here in the room who killed him.”
The impossibility could be better summed up as “we don’t immediately know how he was killed” and is explained away the moment any investigation is done. Oddly, this qualified The Murder Master to be featured in Robert Adey’s famed compendium of locked room mysteries. I assume this is one of the weaker inclusions in the legendary work.
Anyway, it’s all down hill from here. John Smith spends another 30-40 pages battling various stooges of The Murder Master and avoiding being framed for the “impossible” murder. It seemed like it was never going to be over, and in fact the story concludes as just part one of what I assume is some 500 page Murder Master story arch. Thank goodness no more of it was included here.
John Smith Graveyard Detective – Detective Tales, June 1941
This is probably the one vaguely interesting story of the bunch. John Smith is summoned to the creepy old house of Philp de Gault. After the requisite dose of racism involving de Gault’s servant, we get the highlight story hook of this collection. De Gault is being haunted by the ghost of his uncle, who had been murdered by de Gault’s brother. De Gault dashes upstairs to grab a family photo and is found dead by Smith minutes later – without a mark on him! Admittedly, that exclamation point isn’t mine, I lifted it from the book.
It’s a promising set up wrapped in enough racism to turn anyone off. The story takes some strange turns from that point on and is actually the only one in the collection that could be considered somewhat of a whodunnit. It’s also the only story in which Blassingame captures any spirit of New Orleans. Aside from the presence of boats and a river, the rest of this book felt like it could have taken place in any US city.
Retained by the Corpse – Detective Tales, November 1941
A mortally wounded man stumbles into John Smith’s houseboat and pleads with Smith to track down his killers. The man soon succumbs to his wounds, but not until Smith promises justice. There’s a bunch of action reminiscent of The Murder Master, as Smith gets involved in a number of shootouts with organized crime. And… that’s about it.
The Corpse Fights Back – Detective Tales, April 1942
John Smith returns from vacation to find out that he’s been declared dead. A burned corpse wearing Smith’s clothes was found in a car and that was enough for a front page headline declaring his demise (despite the fact that Smith’s wife works at the newspaper). Bushelmouth and his girlfriend are convinced that Smith is a ghost and run screaming in terror, while the white characters immediately understand the mistaken identity.
Let’s see… there’s some plot involving organized crime and more shootouts on boats. I really have to stretch to remember the plot even though I just read this four hours ago. The case mostly focuses on how Smith tracks down the villains.
Death with a Thousand Faces – Detective Tales, July 1942
John Smith searches for a man who’s been swindling lonely women out of their money. He quickly tracks down his quarry, but the man flees, frightened by something he saw over Smith’s shoulder. The con artist is found a short time later, strangled by someone with seemingly inhuman strength.
Well, maybe not seemingly. Smith is up against a comic-book style villain who possesses a grip of steel and the ability to disguise himself at will. Like the last two entries, there’s really nothing of interest for a mystery lover.
Well, that’s probably it for my reading of Wyatt Blassingame. Subtract the racism from this and it’s still below the level I’m interested in reading. I ragged on Spider House a bit for being lesser pulp, and this is just lesser-lesser pulp. I suppose most any action scene is semi-gripping when you read it, but you’re bound to spend your time better flipping to a random action movie on TV.
It’s worth noting that two of Blassingame’s stories are published in collections by Otto Penzler – The Big Book of Ghost Stories and Big Book of Black Mask Stories – and I’ll assume that Penzler chose decent enough entries. Given that Blassingame was a prolific enough author, I’ll assume that he has some respectable entries in those sub-genres. If anyone has read anything worth reading, I’d be curious to hear about it.