Friday, September 21, 2007

Off on the Right Foot

We’re always told to avoid judging a book by its cover. Yet some novel fronts are too seductive not to attract readers. A case in point is this 1960 Crest Book reprint of Lee Roberts’ If the Shoe Fits, which was originally published in hardcover the year before by Dodd, Mead & Company. I first came across this work at the Vintage Paperbacks & Digests Web site, among a number of jackets painted by distinguished American paperback illustrator Robert McGinnis. I confess, I’d never heard of Roberts before, but was willing to try out If the Shoe Fits on the basis of McGinnis’ distinctive artwork alone. I had only to send an online used-books dealer $15 for what was originally a 25-cent paperback (my, how inflation can get out of hand), and the novel was mine.

Only later did I do some research into this author’s history. It turns out that “Lee Roberts” was a pseudonym of Robert Martin (1908-1976), born in Virginia but reared in northern Ohio. As Gary Warren Niebuhr noted in a 2004 article for the old Mystery*File magazine, Martin “was a bank teller for the First National Bank of Tiffin [Ohio] from 1928 until 1934. He became a stock clerk at the Sterling Grinding Wheel Company in Tiffin in 1934. Martin was their stock department manager from 1936 to 1941, and an assistant in the personnel department from 1941 to 1945. He married Alverta Mae Smith in 1942, and they eventually had two daughters and one son. Martin became the assistant personnel manager from 1945 to 1950 and then the personnel manager. He enjoyed shooting, fishing and golfing.” In another M*F piece, this one published in 1998, veteran detective novelist Bill Pronzini recalls that Martin
was an avid reader (Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Maugham, Fitzgerald), and in the late thirties he decided to try his hand at stories for the pulp magazines. It wasn’t long before he was selling steadily to Popular Publications: throughout the forties and into the early fifties his name was cover-featured on Dime Detective, where the bulk of his stories appeared, as well as on such other magazines as Black Mask, Detective Tales, New Detective All-Story Detective, and 15-Story Detective. An occasional Popular reject appeared in Thrilling Detective and Mammoth Detective, among others.
Martin turned to book publishing, as the once-fertile market for pulp stories dried up after World War II. His first novel, Dark Dream (1951), was actually a combination of two novelettes that had previously appeared in 1947 editions of Dime Detective (“Death Under Par” and “Death Gives a Permanent Wave”). As in those shorter yarns, the novel featured a lawyer turned sleuth, James “Jim” Tobias Bennett, who headed the Cleveland office of a New York-based national detective agency. Kevin Burton Smith of The Thrilling Detective Web Site describes the black-haired, blue-eyed Bennett as “a rarity in detective fiction in the fifties--a happily-married man.” (Early on in the series, he proposed to his long-legged secretary, Sandy Hollis, and she accepted--though Sandy had some trouble ever picking a wedding date.) Mystery*File records Martin as writing 14 Bennett books, the last being Suspicion (1964).

In addition, the author penned eight novels under the “Lee Roberts” nom de plume. Four of those--including the book I picked up, If the Shoe Fits--starred a small-town doctor named Clinton Shannon. He was a slight modification of a character Martin had used in the pulps, Dr. Clinton Colby. “Shannon is married, while Colby is single,” Jim Fenton wrote in a 2004 M*F feature titled “Robert Martin: Too Good an Author to Be Forgotten.” “In each instance, Colby/Shannon has an attractive, competent female office assistant. The relationship between them is professional but the potential for love and romance is recognized, if not realized. This last statement needs some explanation. Shannon is definitely married [to a ‘small, dark woman, very pretty,’ named Celia, six years his junior] with a young son, and much is made of the ’60s style family life, but the nurse/secretary in love with the doctor/boss dynamic is very much present. It is particularly evident in Suspicion in a scene where his nurse disrobes in Shannon’s presence to tempt him (unsuccessfully). As if Shannon didn’t have enough trouble with just about everybody else suspecting him of killing a former flame ...”

If the Shoe Fits was the second Clint Shannon novel, after Once a Widow (1957). It begins with the physician-surgeon, a resident of the apparently fictitious town of Harbor City, Ohio, doing a favor for a local waitress, Kathy Ross. It seems that she met a quite handsome (and wealthy) young man, Paul Anway, during a recent trip to Cleveland, and fibbed to him about her life. Rather than confess that the rest of her family is “shiftless, no good,” and that she slings hash in a diner for a living, she has told him she’s Shannon’s nurse. Now, Anway is coming to visit her in Harbor City, and Kathy hopes the doc will play along with her ruse. Shannon feels somewhat paternal toward the unsophisticated waitress, with her trim figure, lightly freckled nose, and bronze hair. (Where the raven-maned minx from McGinnis’ cover illustration comes from is anyone’s guess.) However, he has some doubts about this situation--for one thing, he understood that Kathy had been going out with a young local guy, Fred Grimes, and he doesn’t want to be party to causing trouble between them. But after she reassures him that everything will work out just fine, Shannon agrees to help, and he even goes farther, suggesting that Kathy pretend to be renting a room in his home, as well, so Anway can pick her up and drop her off there, rather than at the less respectable Ross homestead.

If this affair seems straightforward at first, it doesn’t for long. In the wee hours of the morning after Kathy’s date with Anway, she suddenly rousts Shannon from sleep with an urgent phone call, telling him that her Cleveland heir has been hurt, and asking him to drive out to a nearby beach and help. The doc finds the girl there, barefoot, with alcohol on her breath, and Anway dead in his convertible, killed by “a solid, ugly blow to the back of the head, maybe several blows, by something heavy and blunt.” The virginal Kathy says that she fled the car for the beach, after Anway tried to put the moves on her, and contends that he was dead by the time she returned. After performing an autopsy on the deceased (he also serves as the coroner in this pocket-edition town), Shannon seems convinced of Kathy Ross’s innocence. But Chief of Police Chad Beckwith isn’t so sure. “Kathy may have killed him, protecting her--uh--virtue,” Beckwith suggests. Alternatively, Kathy’s ostensible boyfriend, Grimes, could have done Anway in out of jealousy. The solution to this tragic case may come down to figuring out who left the woman’s shoe print, positioned where the killer would have stood to clobber the unfortunate Cleveland “playboy.” Unfortunately, the shoes Kathy wore that night are missing.

At this point in his story, Roberts/Martin flashes back a few months before to the commencement of Paul Anway’s relationship with Irene Bristow, the brainy but “not really pretty” daughter of a prominent Cleveland attorney. Although their parents had long been friends, the author explains, “[s]he and Paul Anway had been boringly indifferent to each other during adolescence and after. It wasn’t until Paul, in his senior year at Ohio State, had eloped to Kentucky with the teen-age daughter of a small time Lorain racketeer that Irene really took notice of him.” Evidently, Irene likes bad boys. And she has no intention of losing her rich catch--especially after she discovers herself pregnant. But that’s exactly what Miss Bristow fears will happen, when the habitually deceptive Paul sneaks out on her to see Kathy Ross. So, did Irene ultimately kill him, again out of jealousy? Or does responsibility for his demise rest instead in the hands of the mobsters to whom Paul owed substantial gambling debts? Maybe the weaselish private eye Anway’s industrialist father hired to solve Paul’s murder--but who, as a result of blackmail, had previously been intimidating the boy on the mobsters’ behalf--did the deed.

If the Shoe Fits feels a tad dated, with its dissonant spurts of sexist dialogue (“What’s for dinner, woman?”) and its old-fashioned courtship rituals. But the author’s skill at setting up suspects, interweaving current and past story lines, and building intrigue in a multiple-car pursuit in the closing chapters all lift it above the reader’s expectations. There’s a pacing here that’s very familiar from other books of its era, as well as old Perry Mason episodes, and that deliberately leaves the reader unprepared for this tale’s surprising and distorted close--an ending that few modern crime novelists would attempt.

As Pronzini wrote in Mystery*File, Robert Martin was a “genuinely nice man who deserved a hell of a lot better than he got out of this life.” He added that the author “more or less quit writing in 1963, as a result of ... personal and professional disasters,” but that Martin was trying to make a comeback in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned. Pronzini, who corresponded with Martin during his last years, lamented in M*F: “The novel he had been writing in 1972, a non-series mystery called A Time of Evil, had not sold; neither had a Jim Bennett, A Friend of the Family, he’d written the previous year. An editor at Pinnacle had jerked him around on Friend for months, promising to buy it as soon as he could find a slot, only to eventually return the manuscript with the excuse that he was still over-inventoried ...”

Martin perished before those last books saw print. Should If the Shoe Fits be representative of his entire oeuvre, I look forward to reading more of Martin’s work in the near future. He may be another one of those crime novelists deserving of rediscovery long after his death--if not by Hard Case Crime or another publisher interested in classic manuscripts, then at least by those of us who haunt used book stores with an eye to quality.

In the end, I figure my $15 was well spent.

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