I just can’t help myself. Even though so many interesting new crime and mystery novels are covering bookstore shelves this summer, I find myself regularly seduced away by older works. Vintage volumes that have been out of print for years, penned by all-but-forgotten authors. Books that most modern readers have never heard of and are unlikely to happen across. While I try to keep up with what’s fresh (never an easy duty), I also set aside time to explore fiction by writers who struggled to enhance the popularity of this genre in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s—not because I fancy myself a literary scholar, but because many of those older stories are too fine or too much fun to ignore. I’m talking here about tales by the likes of Ellery Queen, Thomas B. Dewey, Margaret Millar, Alistair MacLean, Harold Q. Masur, Dorothy B. Hughes, Stanley Ellin, William Campbell Gault, Frank Kane, Erle Stanley Gardner (both his Perry Mason books and his Bertha Cool/Donald Lam series) and others.
Those others include Robert Terrall, once described by fellow novelist Ed Gorman (Elimination) as a “really fine craftsman” who was “especially good with dialogue,” and whose “sex scenes are really sexy and they’re good clean fun as well.”
Born in western Montana in 1914, and educated in part at Harvard (yes, that Harvard!), Terrall wrote film critiques and other pieces for Time magazine before he was drafted into the military during World War II. Afterward, he embarked on a fiction-writing career that saw him publishing his first novel (a thriller titled They Deal in Death) in 1943, followed in quick succession by several other stand-alone works. When America’s “paperback revolution” took off in the early 1950s, Terrall was well positioned to earn a living on the back of his literary imagination, producing wartime yarns (The Steps of the Quarry, 1951), bare-knuckled narratives about police and political corruption (The Crooked City, 1954) and even lighthearted sexual romps (The Wow Factor, 1970). Some of these novels carried his real byline, while others he wrote under such noms de plume as John Gonzales (including 1960’s End of a J.D. and two subsequent books starring “roving reporter” Harry Horne) and, more famously, Robert Kyle.
It was as Kyle that Terrall introduced the protagonist with whom anyone who remembers this author at all still associates him best: New York City private investigator Ben Gates. As Kevin Burton Smith of The Thrilling Detective Web Site explains, Gates possessed a “glib, raffish charm and an appreciation for the finer things in life, notably booze and attractive babes.” The character was neither world-weary nor angst-bedeviled, like so many gumshoes since, but was also never surprised by how seriously other humans could disappoint. Critic John Fraser adds that Gates “isn’t averse from breaking a few laws about the gathering of evidence, and can be effectively violent when needs be….Moreover, he appears to be Ivy League, or at least to have gone to a decent prep school. He is comfortable around the rich when a case takes him that way, as is (fictionally at least) Kyle himself. There are thoroughly convincing round-heeled debs, dissolute preppies, money-hungry upper-East-Side divorcées, and other more or less obnoxious types in the novels. Kyle knows how they speak and how their minds work.”
The Gates novels—five of them in total—boast intricate plots made easier to digest by the gumshoe’s sardonic humor, as well as by the author’s taste for quirky but credible supporting players and his linear, first-person storytelling style.
Ben Gates made his initial appearance in Blackmail, Inc. (1958) as a 34-year-old Manhattan-reared sleuth, temporarily relieved of his PI license for “unethical practice” (“I had let a woman shoot herself with my gun,” he tells early on), who is torn between helping a notorious scandal magazine avoid a costly lawsuit, or working for a captivating actress who’s a potential target of that very same rag. (Incredibly, he chooses the former.) However, it’s Gates’ third outing, Kill Now, Pay Later (1960)—in which the shamus’ ostensibly simple assignment to safeguard the presents at a glamorous wedding turns out to be anything but simple—that is probably most familiar to today’s readers, thanks to publisher Hard Case Crime having reissued it in 2007.
Over the years I’ve dug up and purchased all five of the Gates books, but it was only recently that I finally read the second of them, Model for Murder (1959).
Ben Terrall, a San Francisco journalist and the youngest of author Terrall’s four children, told me during an interview in 2009 that his father “had a sign over his desk which said, in large letters, ‘SIMPLIFY.’ He knew he needed to aim for less-complicated plots.” Maybe so, but Model for Murder provides nary a clue to his having absorbed that message. The tale commences with Gates locating a supper-club singer named Gail Ives in her Washington Square–area walk-up. He’s carrying with him $500 belonging to a deep-pocketed client, Charlotte Ringsted, who wants to purchase from the younger woman some undefined evidence of wrongdoing involving Ives’ fiancé—Charlotte’s ne’er-do-well cousin, Philip Ringsted. But before the PI can get into the apartment with that blackmail payoff, he hears a woman screaming inside...and then bullets come flying out through Ives’ front door, barely missing our hero. By the time Gates can find the building super and unlock Ives’ digs, the blonde songbird is dead, apparently having shot herself in the head with a “pocket automatic.”
When the information Ives had intended to sell for $500 isn’t found with her body, Charlotte Ringsted hires Gates to figure out what was worth such a sum, “and neutralize it.” It seems Charlotte and her cousin, Philip, are in the midst of a financial proxy fight for the future of their family’s “staid, old-fashioned” company, which manufactures oil-drilling machinery. An “unsavory character” named Leroy Castle, amply practiced in the dark arts of corporate takeovers, wants to win dominance over their company’s board. Charlotte fears Philip might throw his lot in with Castle, if it means he can dump his company holdings for more money after the takeover, or he might be extorted into helping Castle, with whatever dirt Gail Ives had on him. In either case, Charlotte wants Gates’ help in ensuring Philip does not betray their family business.
Which is much easier requested than accomplished. Author Terrall loads his story with a diverting assortment of twists and risks and dubious secondary performers. We get everything from stolen jewelry and possible intrigue against Philip Ringsted by his own late mother, to counterfeit money, a secret safe-deposit box, boisterous jazz clubs, weapons drawn for dramatic impact, assaults in hotels of varying refinement and a side-trip to Cleveland, Ohio, that leads to a very pricy and dicey cab excursion back to Gotham.
Oh, and of course there are the women.
Like other mid-20th century purveyors of private-eye fiction, Terrall knew his mostly masculine audience enjoyed casts plump with pulchritudinous females, so in Model for Murder he gives us not only the scantily clad Gail Ives, but a nude photographers’ model with “very white hair” (very unlike the brunette beauty Robert McGinnis painted for the cover of the 1959 Dell paperback first edition shown here), a thieving redheaded prostitute and the acquisitive Castle’s trophy girlfriend, who—after protecting Gates’ life—wastes little time in shedding her silky raiment. Giving voice to a thought that’s sure to be harbored by most of Terrall’s readers, a police detective comrade of Gates’ says to the PI late in this yarn, “[D]o you mind telling me why so many of the girls you run into seem to have no clothes on? That hardly ever happens to me.” What’s remarkable about Terrall’s women, as opposed to those concocted by some of his storytelling contemporaries, is that they often have considerably more on the ball than the men inhabiting this series.
According to Ben Terrall, his father—who passed away in 2009 at age 94—penned some 53 novels, including more than 20 ghost-written works starring Michael Shayne, the two-fisted, redheaded Miami private detective who was introduced by Brett Halliday (aka Davis Dresser) in 1939’s Dividend on Death. Against that total, Robert Terrall’s five Ben Gates investigations seem insignificant. Yet they’re breezy, well-written, packed with humor and offering a distinctive hard-boiled, first-person voice that raises the quality of what might otherwise have been merely serviceable tales.
Sadly, all entries in the Gates series appear now to have fallen out of print. But cheap copies aren’t hard to find on the Web. Consider this an opportunity to do some investigative work of your own. You’ll be glad you did.