I was rather caught off guard by a piece that appeared in The Village Voice back in 2008. The newspaper asked an assortment of prominent authors to name their “favorite obscure books.” While George Pelecanos chose Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling (1966), John Banville picked Harold Nicolson’s Some People (1926) and Donna Tartt selected Dorothy Dunbar’s Blood in the Parlor (1964), novelist and short-story writer Jennifer Egan endorsed one of the most forgotten works of the bunch, Harold Q. Masur’s You Can’t Live Forever (1951). She explained:
“In recommending the mystery novels of Harold Q. Masur—all, sadly, out of print—I can do no better than quote the first two paragraphs of You Can’t Live Forever:
“ ‘It started with a summons, a brunette, and a Turk.
“ ‘The summons was in my pocket, the brunette was in trouble, and the Turk was dead.’
“In his savvy, stylish novels of the ’40s and ’50s, Masur manages to wink continuously at the detective genre even as he revels in it.”
I can only imagine the confusion that must have crossed the faces of most Voice readers as they pondered Egan’s comments. After all, though 96-year-old “Hal” Masur had passed away not long ago, in September 2005, his most recent novel, The Mourning After—his 11th to feature Manhattan defense attorney-cum-private investigator Scott Jordan—had seen print 24 years before that, in 1981. New Yorkers love their locally set mysteries, of which there have been scores, but they cannot be expected to remember every fictionist who’s ever sent a character sashaying down Broadway or off to fish a corpse from the Hudson. That Egan still had a soft spot for Masur’s tales confirmed the latter’s status as one among a confined contingent of mid-20th-century crime novelists who did better than to simply feed their era’s hunger for hard-boiled and semi-sleazy narratives; like Ross Macdonald, Thomas B. Dewey, Robert Terrall (aka Robert Kyle) and a few others, Masur packed his stories not only with fisticuffs, but with thoughtful observations of societal changes in post–World War II America.
“The sole serious fault in the novels of Harold Q. Masur,” quipped influential New York Times critic Anthony Boucher in his January 1960 review of Masur’s then newest work, Send Another Hearse, “is their infrequency …”
Born in New York City in 1909, Masur went on to graduate from the New York University School of Law in 1934. He practiced in the legal arena until 1944, when he was drafted into the U.S. military and sent to China during World War II. By that time, though, Masur had begun experimenting with fiction-writing, producing a few abbreviated yarns for the pulp magazines under pseudonyms such as Edward James and Guy Fleming. “I thought as an attorney I ought to be able to write some detective stories,” he told interviewer Gary Lovisi in 1991. After the war, Masur saw his first novel published: Bury Me Deep, which introduced Scott Jordan, the intrepid, witty and often romantic star in all but two of Masur’s 13 novels over the next 34 years.
If Jennifer Egan liked the opening of You Can’t Live Forever, she must have gone absolutely gaga over Bury Me Deep’s beginning:
It was a cold Thursday evening when I first saw the blonde. I had just come home from Penn Station and I opened the door to my apartment and I found her there. She was curled upon on my sofa, listening to my radio, and sipping her own brandy. At least I assumed it was her own because I dislike brandy and never buy it.
I stood there, rooted. Her costume had me floored. She was wearing black panties and a black bra and that was all. She sat with one leg folded comfortably under her and she smiled at me. I had never seen her before in my life, and I stood just inside the foyer, gaping at her in slack-jawed astonishment and still hanging onto my Gladstone bag, completely unaware at the moment of its fifty-pound load.
She was a leggy, bosomy number, flamboyantly constructed, with bright jonquil-yellow hair and pearly skin that contrasted startlingly against the black underthings. She looked up at me, and the alcoholic glassiness in her eyes didn’t keep her from making them warm and cordial. Women have looked at me like that before, but never in church.
“Jordan?” she asked, almost in a whisper.
I nodded, still dazed.
“You’re a little late,” she said.
Of course, the virtues of Masur’s escapist mysteries extended beyond their introductions. As Lovisi points out, “Scott Jordan novels are full of action and hard-boiled dialogue and description, but they also have interesting stories with good plot elements and skilled detection. It’s fun to follow Jordan on a case—he’s no Perry Mason and he’s no Mike Hammer, but he gets the job done, and he’s the kind of guy you don't want to mess with. He’s an intelligent man, an educated man, and a man who won’t stand still and allow another guy [to] clean up a mess that’s been dumped in his lap. You could describe him as Sam Spade with a law degree. He’s the type of lawyer that Perry Mason could have been but never was. Perry was watered down for more mass appeal. Scott Jordan is the real thing.” In fact, the quick-fisted, in-your-face Mason who Erle Stanley Gardner developed in his early novels about that protagonist isn’t terribly dissimilar from Scott Jordan, though Jordan spent far less time in courtrooms than Mason did. As Masur intended, Jordan was a combination of the ingenious Perry and Nero Wolfe’s “insouciant” legman, Archie Goodwin. He was a proud, middle-class wage-earner who took manifest delight in bringing down the wealthy and corrupt set.
Another element distinguishing Jordan’s activities from those of Gardner’s man was in the manner by which the respective advocates drummed up their cases. “I didn’t want a client coming into the office with a case,” Masur told Lovisi. “I wanted Scott Jordan personally involved. In every case he was a friend of the client or something was happening to him that was unusual….”
So in Bury Me Deep, the lawyer-sleuth—demonstrating more restraint than most American males might’ve had at the ready—bundles the curvaceous blonde he’s discovered in his flat into a taxicab and sends her home…only to learn soon afterward that she was poisoned, and perished in transit. Jordan then makes it his business to figure out why the woman was waiting for him, who slipped her a toxic Mickey and whether her bruiser boyfriend played any role in her untimely demise.
In The Big Money (1954), Jordan surprises a brazen imposter making himself comfortable in the attorney’s Rockefeller Center office—a guy who, it turns out, is helping to pull a fast one on the long-missing wife of a financier. The very same financier, in fact, who’s already planning a second wedding and is seeking to cheat one of Jordan’s former professors out of his investment in a booming petrochemical company. Meanwhile, in Suddenly a Corpse (1949), an adipose stranger takes his final breath on Jordan’s doorstep, drawing him into a mystery that involves a fast-failing millionaire, his wayward niece and a fetching young entrepreneur accused of jewelry theft. And in The Legacy Lenders (1967), Jordan stumbles onto a dead woman caught in a traffic jam, then follows her trail backward, exposing insurance fraud and a scheme to profit from impatient inheritors of impressive estates.
“A [Jordan] story typically revolves around some situation ‘which is not what it seems,’ ” crime-fiction enthusiast Mike Grost writes on the collaborative website Golden Age of Detection. “Here Masur is showing some ingenuity, and displaying his continuity with the puzzle plot tradition. Built on top of this ingenious situation is a murder plot. His lawyer-detective…is hired by a client to investigate the situation or perform some lawyerly business, and he stumbles into the midst of the murder. Jordan investigates the crime, figures out the central twist, and nails the killer.”
Yet it’s how Masur embellished that simple formula—the plotting and philosophical ornamentation with which he draped his engrossing, twisted plots—that made his fiction popular. Yes, the Jordan books could be derivative, and we never learn much about his protagonist’s history, other than that he spent part of World War II “sitting behind a machine gun” somewhere in the Pacific; and yes, the casualty count in any installment of this series tests the bounds of credibility. (“What goes with you, Jordan?” inquires a police inspector in Suddenly a Corpse. “Half your clients wind up in the morgue.”) However, those yarns also offer a smattering of cultural erudition (Masur clearly valued higher education) and a helping of humor to mitigate the violence that’s essential to any hard-boiled whodunit.
Although Scott Jordan never made the leap to Hollywood, some of Masur’s storylines did. Bury Me Deep became the basis of a 1963 Japanese feature film, while that same novel as well as a later Jordan adventure, So Rich, So Lovely, and So Dead (1958), were adapted as episodes of television’s The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen (1958-59). For his many contributions to the genre, Hal Masur was named president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1973 and subsequently served as that organization’s general counsel.
If you’re hoping to easily find copies of Masur’s novels in stores…well, as a certain blonde once said, “You’re a little late.” Fortunately, though, enough were published that they turn up occasionally in used book shops and can be located via online sales sites. They’re worth a look, not because they’re great literature, but because they’re just so damn much fun.