A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Shovel’s Painful Predicament
“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep
(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)
I am far more into pastiche – that emulation of an author’s style – than parody, which uses the author’s work to get a laugh. But I do read a little parody; and have written a few short stories in that category. Black Gaters know I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. My first column here, which ran weekly for three years, was called The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes (an homage to Sherlockian Vincent Starrett).
And, since you’re reading the 82nd installment of A (Black) Gat in the Hand, you know I love wandering down those Mean Streets. If done well, I think you can mix genres. In this instance – for a little parody fun. William Gillette was THE great stage Sherlock Holmes, having rewritten a first draft of a play by Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Sherlock Holmes – A Drama in Four Acts became an international sensation. Gillette would play the role over 1,300 times on stage, make a film of it, and even, at age 82, record a radio version. It is still performed today, and such notables as Leonard Nimoy, Frank Langella, and Alan Rickman, have performed it on stage. Of course, I wrote about it here at Black Gate.
In 1905, Gillette was to perform a comedy sketch at a charity event. It fell apart at the last minute, and he quickly wrote the curtain-raiser, The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes, which he performed with the great Ethel Barrymore (John’s sister), as a fill-in. He would use it in the future, and it’s a fun spoof of a typical Holmes case.
I decided to rewrite Painful Predicament as a hardboiled parody. And I’m thinking of a follow-up. Shovel himself is a pretty regular PI, and I do use some over-the-top hardboiled prose. But I like the humor the client provides. So, here we go…
I sat in my office, watching dust motes dance in the sunlight. The slats were pulled halfway, and they made a regular pattern on the floor. Unfortunately, this was the most action the office had seen in a week. Being a shamus in this town meant dry spells in jobs, not just the weather. The phone wasn’t ringing, but I wasn’t all that certain I’d paid the bill, either. I wouldn’t need an armored truck if I withdrew my bank account. Hell, I wouldn’t even need a wallet.
I heard tentative footsteps in the hallway. It sounded as if their maker was reading the doors, looking for the right one. They stopped in front of mine. I stayed behind my desk and waited. Someone pounded on the door and it rattled on its hinges. I grunted an “It’s open” in surprise. I hoped the hinges remembered how to work.
A short blonde pushed open the door. She came in and sat down in the battered chair directly across the desk. She was pushing forty, and it was pushing back at her just as hard. I’d say that she was on the heavy side, but I couldn’t see that there was any other side. Her hair was pulled back sharply. My first impression was that she was wound pretty tight and needed to relax a bit. I’m not always correct, but I hit this one right on the kisser.
She fiddled a little with her big handbag as she sat down. I waited without saying anything.
“Mister Shovel, I need your help. A man is pursuing me. I’m afraid he’s going to kill me.” She said this in a voice filled with woe and I pegged this one as a drama queen.
“And what makes you think that, miss…?” I let the question hang, since she hadn’t introduced herself yet.
“Bovine. Cilla Bovine. You can call me Cilla.” She held out a meaty hand which I took.
“Now, Miss Bovine, tell me who this person is.”
She batted her eyes demurely. It had about as much effect on me as a picture of W.C. Fields. “This man, Jonathon Werndell, is obsessed with me. He follows me to work, writes me letters and calls me on the telephone. He just keeps saying that he’s in love with me, and if he can’t have me, no one can.”
I stared at her levelly. She was definitely playing the helpless card. It’s not one I would expect to be in her deck. “Can I see these letters?”
“Why, no. I throw them away as soon as they arrive. I’m quite terrified of him. I didn’t want them around me.”
Just like a scatterbrained dame. She gets rid of the evidence. “It would be helpful if you keep any more letters that you get and bring them to me.”
She seemed uncertain. “Yes, of course. That’s such a smart thing to do. But I haven’t received a letter in about a week. He’s been calling instead. Yes, he’s been calling me. Most frightening.”
“Uh-huh.” I leaned back in my chair. This one was hiding something. She definitely wasn’t on the square with me, but there was nothing I could hang my hat on just yet. And most clients didn’t tell me everything, anyways. Hell of a way to start a business relationship. “Have you met this man?”
She looked pensive. With every passing minute, I became certain she was playing a game.
“Yes. We were at a ‘book of the month club’ meeting at Murdock’s Bookstore. That’s where we met. We got to talking, and we seemed to hit it off rather well. We went out to a movie and dinner. But then he kept bothering me. Every day he would call me or send a letter. I became frightened and stopped answering the phone. I didn’t write him back.”
“Yeah. What happened then?”
“One day, he followed me to work. I don’t have a car, so I take the bus. I looked up and he was on it, looking out the window. I avoided eye contact and rushed into my building.”
“I see. Where do you work, Miss Bovine?”
“I’m a teller at First Bank of California.”
“Has he ever come inside the bank?”
She looked thoughtful. Judging by her expression, it was a painful process. “No, I don’t think so. At least, I’ve never noticed him in there.”
I decided to wrap this up. I wasn’t going to get anything useful out of her. I thought about turning her away, but I needed the dough. I always needed the dough. “What is it you would like me to do?”
“Why, tell him to leave me alone. I don’t want anything to do with the man. He’s scaring me.”
She was almost simpering. I had to hold back a sigh. “Do you know where he lives or works?”
“Yes, I wrote down his home address for you.”
I took the piece of paper. It was in a almost middle of-the-road neighborhood on the east side of town. It didn’t tell me much. I figured I’d swing over in the evening and ask him nicely to lay off of the broad. I couldn’t see what he had for her, but it takes all kinds.
I gave her my cost, which was twenty a day, plus expenses. She laid twenty ones out on my desk, thanking me about one time for every dollar she gave me. When she was finished, she looked at me with a soft smile. For a moment I thought I was sitting across from a jersey cow. I kept a neutral expression and assured her I would get started on the matter right away.
Telling me that she’d check in tomorrow, she got up and wobbled out the door on her high heels. She must have had pretty good balance to keep that much weight upright on those things.
As the door closed and I heard her footsteps fade away, I started to fill my pipe with tobacco. What a screwy broad. This one didn’t quite have all the electric circuits plugged in. But it looked like an easy job, and I certainly didn’t have anything else going on. Yeah – Sometimes I’m not too bright.
About 7:30, I drove my coupe to Wendell’s house. It was a small job, badly in need of a coat of paint. There was a jalopy on the downward side of the hill, parked at the curb. As I stepped up to the front door, I heard a radio inside. This was shaping up good. Maybe I was going to catch a break on this one. I was certainly due.
I don’t know why I ever get my hopes up.
The door opened a few seconds after I knocked. This guy needed a fresh shirt. And a shave. And a shower. I held out a card and said “Mister Wendell?”
He took it, read the name, and looked me up and down. I could see that it made no impression. It usually doesn’t. “What?” The way he said it, the word actually sneered at me.
“Do you know a Miss Cilla Bovine?”
He took a step back and suddenly I was facing a small pistol.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, putting both my hands up, palms facing him. “Take it easy.”
He was so nervous I thought that the gun was going to start shooting by itself. “I already warned her to stay away from me. Now get back in your car and get out of here. If I see you again I’ll plug you like a drain.”
This guy had some serious emotional issues. Which would explain his attraction to Miss Bovine. Once I judged that I wasn’t going to get shot immediately, I thought about his words. “I’m a private eye. She hired me to ask you to leave her alone. Has she been bothering you?”
A crooked grin came across his face. The gun lowered some. If he shot it now I’d be a one-kneed gumshoe.
”Me leave HER alone? What did she tell you?”
I put my hands down to my side and took a shuffle step backwards. “That you have been following her, writing letters, generally hassling her.”
Now he actually laughed. “That crazy cow has been chasing me for weeks. The security guard at the plant has orders not to let her past the front desk. She lives in a fantasy world. I ran into her in a bookstore and she started after me.”
“Can you describe her for me?”
He did. There was no doubt we were talking about the same woman. He put the gun away. “Sorry to draw on you. But she’s out of her mind. I have no idea what she’s going to do next, so you worried me. I’m thinking of getting the police to pick her up.”
I smiled myself this time. “I knew there was something more going on, but she didn’t give me enough to figure it out. Did she write you any letters?”
“Yeah, freaky poetry.”
“Could I see them?”
“Nah, I threw them away. I didn’t want to keep anything about her.”
I shook my head. Good lord, was everybody out to destroy evidence?
“So, no evidence of anything at all?”
He gave me an even stare. “Have you met her?”
I nodded. He smiled a little. “Do you think I’d be chasing her? Don’t you think it’s just a little more likely that she’s been bothering me?” He simply looked at me.
He had me there. I suspected that Freud himself couldn’t straighten Miss Bovine out. “Good point. I think I’ve taken up enough of your time. Thanks.”
“Be careful,” he added as I was walking away. “She’s not all there upstairs. Don’t let your guard down.”
I waved my acknowledgement and got in my car. Being a detective was not a career choice that I would necessarily make again.
I went home and drank myself to sleep. It seemed like the best way to end the day.
My office phone rang a little after ten the next morning. To my complete lack of surprise, it was Cilla Bovine following up. I told her that there had been some very interesting developments and asked her to stop by at 2:30. She giggled like the snorting of a buffalo. Imagine that.
As soon as I hung up, I made another call. “Yeah, Dunleavy, how are you? Can you come over at 2:00 today? I’m gonna have a live one in the office and I think you’ll want to pick her up. Great, see you then.”
I hung up and thought about taking a belt. But I wanted to have a clear head for my afternoon meeting. A grilled cheese sandwich was called for, so I took an early, and long, lunch.
The thumping in the hallway at 2:15 told me that my client was early. That was fine: I was ready. She sat down across from me and stared into my face. “Did you find that horrible man and force him to leave me alone?”
I imagine that she thought it was a helpless, feminine voice. It had all the restraint of a foghorn.
“Well, sort of. I did see Wendell. Seemed to be a level-headed guy.”
Her face scrunched up. She was either taken off-guard or was having digestive problems. “I can imagine how he might strike someone that way. He’s very sincere, but completely obsessive. I think he may have mental problems.”
Somebody surely was. There was a knock at my door. I called “Come in” as Miss Bovine turned and looked over her large shoulder.
A very thin man with spectacles entered the office. The uniform seemed a bit much. There were two young, beefy guys behind him in white suits. “Doctor Dunleavy, do you know Miss Bovine here?”
The woman looked like a deer in the headlights: a very large deer.
“Yes, I do. Her name is June Ryan. She slipped out of the asylum a couple weeks ago. Come along Miss Ryan. We’ll get you home now.” The two men moved forward to help her out of the room.
She turned to me. “This is surely just a simple misunderstanding, Mister Shovel. I’ll be back to finish our conversation once I get it all straightened out.” The two men herded her into the hall.
Dunleavy lingered behind. “How did you know she was one of mine, Shovel?”
“This one was way off her rocker. If she wasn’t from the asylum, she should have been. Her grip on reality was about as firm as a soup sandwich.
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Asimov – Sci Fi Meets the Police Procedural
The Adventures of Christopher London
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Hardboiled May on TCM
Some Hardboiled streaming options
Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell)
Hardboiled June on TCM
Bullets or Ballots (Humphrey Bogart)
Phililp Marlowe – Private Eye (Powers Boothe)
Cool and Lam
All Through the Night (Bogart)
Dick Powell as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
Hardboiled July on TCM
YTJD – The Emily Braddock Matter (John Lund)
Richard Diamond – The Betty Moran Case (Dick Powell)
Bold Venture (Bogart & Bacall)
Hardboiled August on TCM
Norbert Davis – ‘Have one on the House’
with Steven H Silver: C.M. Kornbluth’s Pulp
Norbert Davis – ‘Don’t You Cry for Me’
Talking About Philip Marlowe
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A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2019 Series (15)
Back Deck Pulp Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand Returns
Will Murray on Doc Savage
Hugh B. Cave’s Peter Kane
Paul Bishop on Lance Spearman
A Man Called Spade
Hard Boiled Holmes
Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn
Andrew Salmon on Montreal Noir
Frank Schildiner on The Bad Guys of Pulp
Steve Scott on John D. MacDonald’s ‘Park Falkner’
William Patrick Murray on The Spider
John D. MacDonald & Mickey Spillane
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A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2018 Series (32)
George Harmon Coxe
Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
Black Mask – January, 1935
Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
D.L. Champion’s Rex Sackler
Dime Detective – August, 1939
Back Deck Pulp #1
W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox
Black Mask – October, 1933
Back Deck Pulp #2
Black Mask – Spring, 2017
‘Max Allen Collins & The Hard Boiled Hero’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Campbell Gault
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: More Cool & Lam From Hard Case Crime
MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
Thomas Parker’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part One)
Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
William Patrick Maynard’s ‘The Yellow Peril’
Andrew P Salmon’s ‘Frederick C. Davis’
Rory Gallagher’s ‘Continental Op’
Back Deck Pulp #3
Back Deck Pulp #4
Back Deck Pulp #5
Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw on Writing
Back Deck Pulp #6
The Black Mask Dinner
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer since.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.
good times brother, thanks!
Thanks. I’ve done a couple Sherlock Holmes parodies where Holmes was a doofus. Thought I’d switch it around a bit for a hardboiled case. We’ll see if I can come up with an other Shovel. He’s fun.
What do you think of Prather’s Shell Scott stories, or Bellem’s Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective yarns? Both of those are pretty much hardboiled parodies.
I find Tuner so over the top, I have to read one story in multiple sittings. I’ve tried to get into Shell Scott, but he hasn’t taken yet. Though I do have a soft spot for him, as Prather leaving Fawcett/Gold Medal for more money elsewhere, resulted in John D. MacDonald creating Travis McGee. So that was a win. I can’t think of any hardboiled parody I really like. And just a few Holmes ones. I’m 95% pastiche.