Friday, April 10, 2009

Forgotten Short Stories: “The Name Is Jordan”

I’m not generally a short-story reader. I prefer tales of criminality that lead me through several hundred pages or more of complex plotting and character exposition. So when Patti Abbott suggested that bloggers, like me, who usually contribute entries to her Friday “forgotten books” series instead write tributes today to “forgotten short stories,” I felt at something of a loss. But then I started looking over my many bookcases, and plucking out short-fiction collections that I hadn’t read in a while, or that I’d purchased and somehow never gotten around to reading.

In the latter category fits The Name Is Jordan (Pyramid Books, 1962), a volume containing 10 brief cases handled by Scott Jordan, lawyer-turned-author Harold Q. Masur’s attorney-cum-detective. Introduced in the novel Bury Me Deep (1947), Jordan had the same tendency as Perry Mason did in Erle Stanley Gardner’s early books about him, to spend more time digging into crimes than defending his clients in court. But New Yorker Jordan never really outgrew his fondness for fisticuffs and curvaceous dames, and Masur had a wit about him that makes rediscovering his work worthwhile.

In “Richest Man in the Morgue” (originally published in 1953), Jordan stumbles across a corpse--costumed as, of all things, a Hindu dancer--cluttering up his apartment doorway. “I didn’t know the fellow from a hitching post,” he remarks. Yet he sets out to determine who the dead man is and why he chose to perish on his doorstep. I won’t give away the solution, but will note that it turns on the reappearance of the ne’er-do-well son of a shipping magnate and questions surrounding that man’s onetime traveling companion and secretary. In “The Double Frame” (1953), the mystery surrounds the disappearance of $200,000 in negotiable securities and stocks from a safety-deposit box, a beautiful woman with whom Jordan tries not to become too familiar (“It took a bit of doing. I had to keep a tight lid on my impulses, which must have been a novel experience for a woman with her assets. Those assets made her as solvent as the Federal Reserve Bank”), and the woman’s ex-husband, a not-too-bright bruiser who resembles Raymond Chandler’s Moose Malloy. And just to pick one other yarn from this batch, in “Dead Issue” (1954) we’re offered conflicting claims on a wealthy man’s estate, a missing will, the murder of a spinster, and an intruder in Jordan’s office who winds up charging the advocate with assault.

Masur isn’t the flashiest plotter, and Jordan often cracks cases through inspiration as much as observation. But then, most of these yarns don’t go beyond 15 pages in length (except for “Rhapsody in Blood,” which stretches out to 27), so there is not a lot of room for intricate story ripening. And the dialogue is mostly just serviceable, without the ingenious metaphors Chandler could offer, the snappy repartee familiar from Dashiell Hammett’s fiction, or the suggestive one-liners delivered by somebody like Frank Kane. From what I’ve read of the Scott Jordan stories, both in this collection and in Masur’s novels, they’re very typical of the mid-20th-century American breed: violent enough to keep the action steaming along, sexy enough to attract masculine readers who were looking for excitement beyond their daily routines with spouses, and sufficiently clever to make you think you were getting something that another author didn’t deliver.

Still, Masur’s often imaginative openings, his protagonist’s sardonic observations (“It seemed like the architects had searched for a musty smell and then built the Boncourt around it”), and the breadth of case types in which his shyster-sleuth could becomes involved all commend the Jordan tales to further investigation.

READ MORE: Take Another Look, Tough Guy,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Killer Covers).


pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Jeff. This is a lovely review of a writer new to me.

pattinase (abbott) said...

PS I remember so many book jackets like this from that era. Did they all use the same artist or was it just the look that makes them seem similar?

Glen said...

Masur was one of the best mystery writers of his generation. The Scott Jordan novels are all pretty darn good.

RJR said...

Masur used to start every Edgar Award Banquet off with a joke. I saw him as recently as 10 years ago, i think, at a Sleuthfest in Florida. I met him when I lived in NY, and after he had ptretty much finished writing Jordan novels. he was an interesting guy.


J. Kingston Pierce said...

To Patti:

The cover of The Name Is Jordan features an illustration by Morgan Kane, who did a lot of jacket artwork for detective and western novels during the 1950s and '60s. There's more about him at his Web site:

There were certainly many other artists illustrating book covers at the time, but they did often seem to follow a certain style. I think that was as much about the demands of editors and readers as it was about what the artists themselves wanted to do. But I could be wrong.