You can be excused for confusing Richard Denning with Richard Deming. It’s easily and often done. The former was a New York-born film and TV actor who, during the mid-20th century, appeared in a variety of science-fiction and horror flicks (notably 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon and the next year’s Day the World Ended), and starred in a couple of small-screen mystery dramas: Mr. and Mrs. North (1952-1954), based on Frances and Richard Lockridge’s long-running amateur-sleuth series; and Michael Shayne (1960-1961), inspired by Brett Halliday’s books about a redheaded and rough-knuckled Miami private eye of that name. The still-handsome Denning later accepted a recurring role on the original Hawaii Five-O, playing the 50th state’s fictional governor.
The fact that both these gents figure into the American crime-fiction pantheon has much to do with why they’re often mistaken for one another. But while Denning did most of his work in front of a camera, Richard Deming (1915-1983) performed best behind a clattering typewriter. He was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but went on to gather degrees from St. Louis, Missouri’s Washington University as well as what’s now the University of Iowa. Deming was drafted into the U.S. Army nine months prior to Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, served for at least part of the Second World War as a captain, and later worked for the American Red Cross. He’s said to have sold his first short story, “The Juarez Knife,” to Popular Detective magazine in 1947. It introduced a Buffalo, New York-based protagonist who would soon become a regular in Deming’s early pulp fiction, former Golden Gloves champ and judo expert-turned-gumshoe Manville “Manny” Moon. According to Lee Server’s Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers (2002), Moon “distinguished [himself] from his numerous fierce, tough-talking private-eye brethren by his headquarters in a Mexican restaurant and his artificial leg, replacing the one that was blown off in action in World War II.” Moon made his initial novel-length appearance in The Gallows in My Garden (1953).
“It was an understood verity in the pulp-writing community that practitioners had to be prolific in order to survive financially,” editor Otto Penzler explains in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (2010), “and Deming was one of the most prolific of the later toilers of the craft.” He reportedly contributed more than 100 mystery and detective short stories to periodicals ranging from Black Mask and Manhunt to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (ha!—another connection to Denning). Deming is credited with having published more than 70 books, fiction as well as non-fiction, including a number that were released under such nom de plumes as Max Franklin, Halsey Clark, and Emily Moor. He also penned 10 novels behind the “house name” Ellery Queen, and a 1980 Hardy Boys adventure, The Vanishing Thieves, as “Franklin W. Dixon.” In addition to composing stories around his own imagined characters—such as Edge of the Law (1960), Hit and Run (1960, starring another Buffalo shamus, Barry Calhoun), Kiss and Kill (1960), Body for Sale (1962), and The Careful Man (1962, later filmed as the Tony Curtis comedy Arrivederci, Baby!)—Deming turned out paperback TV tie-in novels, employing the dramatis personae from Dragnet, Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, and The Mod Squad. Some of his yarns were adapted by others in the 1950s as episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and M Squad.
Almost 15 years into his career, though, and after producing the fourth and final Manville Moon novel, Juvenile Delinquent (1958), Deming tried once more to launch a durable crime series. This time the lead went to a good-looking but unmarried, 30-something vice cop, Matt Rudd. Actually, the man’s name was Mateusz Rudowski, and he was a Polish-American investigator long before Thomas Banacek made that an unexpectedly cool thing. “I’m not ashamed of my real name and I’m proud of my Polish ancestry,” Deming’s character explains at one point, “but people always ask me to spell it when I introduce myself as Mateusz Rudowski. They just nod when I say Matt Rudd.”
The action in these police procedurals takes place in a fictional burg called St. Cecelia, located…well, who knows where. It’s been suggested that Deming had southern California in mind, yet his occasional references to local ward politics, heavily ethnic European quarters of town, and urban factories burning soft coal enough to leave “a pall of smoke hanging over the city” hint at a Rust Belt setting instead. St. Cecelia is an ostensibly inviting place, but it claims undercurrents of sin and criminal racketeering that somehow fail to earn mention in tourist brochures. Even the police department isn’t quite above reproach. It “isn’t graft-ridden,” Sergeant Rudd insists, “despite what the general public thinks. But it is subject to pretty heavy political influence, because the police board is politically appointed.” Deming’s protagonist works out of the department’s Vice, Gambling, and Narcotics Division, and the puzzles that he and his partner, Corporal Carl Lincoln, face are drawn from all of those categories.
In 1963’s Anything But Saintly, for instance—the original cover from which appears at the top of this page, with artwork by the late, great Robert K. Abbett—Rudd and Lincoln are brought the case of a married tile company executive from Houston, Texas, one Harold Warner. While in town for a business convention, he’s found himself inconveniently “rolled” by a 24-year-old brunette prostitute, Kitty, who lifted $500 off him while she was visiting his hotel room one night, and he wants that money back. “It’s the principle of the thing,” he declares. For purposes of identifying the thief, Lincoln asks Warner:
“Any distinguishing marks?”
“Yes, one. She had a small tattoo in the shape of a heart on her left hip.”
Carl said sourly, “You left the light on, huh?”
Hoping to get a line on Kitty, Rudd goes to question Little Artie Nowak, who runs a major call-girl operation in town and is well-connected enough to swing some trouble his way, if he so chooses. But Rudd has learned a modicum of diplomacy during his time, and Nowak—who claims to employ Kitty, if not exactly appreciate her—agrees to give the cop $500 to make things right with the aggrieved Mr. Warner, saying he’ll collect the same amount from Kitty at a later date. Just when it looks as if this matter is closed, though, and Rudd and Lincoln can return to their frequent endeavor of working undercover in hotels to nab hookers, word comes that a pretty woman named Katherine Desmond, brunette and bearing a heart design on one hip, has been beaten and strangled in the apartment she shares with a fellow fille de joie. Might the unpredictable Nowak have taken revenge on Kitty for stealing from “Johns”? Rudd isn’t with the homicide detail, so this affair isn’t really his business. Yet he feels guilty. “I didn’t know Kitty personally,” he says, “but I hate to think I condemned a young girl to death for stealing a lousy five hundred dollars.” So, with aid from both another prostitute, Jolly, and a surprisingly observant, deal-making bar habitué—and without stepping on too many official toes—Rudd determines to find out who murdered Kitty. It’s a task that will lead him to unearth a risky double-crossing scheme, provoke his kidnapping, and almost land him in the drink with plaster of Paris booties.
The stakes are no less high in Death of a Pusher (1964). After being nabbed by Rudd and Lincoln for a pitifully small-time sale to an undercover cop, heroin peddler Benny Polacek strikes a deal with St. Cecelia’s district attorney. In exchange for his freedom, Polacek promises to provide proof that his main narcotics wholesaler is a bowling alley owner and prominent city councilman named Goodie White. Trouble is, on the night before Polacek is set to make his next heroin purchase, under the watchful eye of a secret police camera, he’s shot to death in his apartment. And of course, nobody can identify his killer—neither the cop sent to stake out his place nor the young brother and sister, Norman and Beverly Arden, living across the hall. Efforts to elicit a confession from White prove fruitless: he admits to knowing Polacek, but only as someone who’d ordered an extraordinary number of left-handed bowling gloves from him. And the dealer’s ex-girlfriend, lovely nightclub dancer April French, knows little about a habitual crook and pal of Polacek named Charlie Kossack, who might be the key to solving the pusher’s slaying. What Rudd really doesn’t expect, is that his search for Kossack will land him in the company of banker robbers, who seem ready and anxious to cash the cop out permanently, if that’s what it takes to ensure their escape.
At his best, Richard Deming was a smooth, solid mystery-maker, who offered up enough dynamic twists to keep readers awake into the wee hours. Yes, like other U.S. crime writers of his era, he made sure his stories blended violence with sometimes unnecessary, titillating sex; and though he was less guilty of this than, say, Frank Kane, Deming had the habit of repeating—almost word for word—chunks of basic information about his main players (particularly, in the case of Rudd, on the subject of the man’s brown eyes, which seemed devastating to women). But those things can be forgiven in tales that, while short, deliver multi-dimensional characters and ample droll dialogue.
Sadly, and strangely, Deming’s sequence of Matt Rudd novels ran even shorter than his previous Manville Moon series, leaving us with only three installments—the two mentioned above, plus 1961’s Vice Cop, which I haven’t yet enjoyed. (All of them are now available in e-book format.) This series had the ingredients to endure a much longer stretch, maybe even propelling Rudd—like Mike Shayne before him—into a starring role on television. Had he not been too old by the mid-1960s to take the role, Richard Denning might have made a splendid Matt Rudd.