For this latest installment of my “rediscovered reads” series, I’ve decided not just to champion an unjustly forgotten book, but also an unfairly forgotten novelist: Talmage Powell (1920-2000).
From his start as a wordsmith in the early 1940s, the North Carolina-born Powell produced an extraordinary proliferation of short stories, most of them crime-oriented and appearing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Manhunt, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and other fiction periodicals. In addition, he penned standalone thrillers and westerns, ghosted books under the famous Ellery Queen byline and even composed Mission: Impossible TV tie-ins.
Did you read about the Rap Sheet’s last “rediscovered read”?
But the novels for which Powell is best remembered were five he wrote about Ed Rivers, a bearish private eye who worked the humid streets of Tampa, Fla., beginning with The Killer Is Mine (1959) and concluding with Corpus Delectable (1964). As a later crime novelist, William L. DeAndrea, wrote in his Encyclopedia Mysteriosa: “The well-realized, unusual setting, and Powell’s depiction of Rivers as a thinking and caring P.I., for all his skill with the gun and knife he carries, sets this series apart.”
Rivers actually started out under a different moniker, Lloyd Carter, in “Her Dagger Before Me,” a tough, downbeat little Powell yarn that first saw print in July 1949 (and was republished last year in Otto Penzler’s Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories). It wasn’t until the late ’50s, though, after the heyday of American pulp mags had passed, that the author resurrected his protagonist.
The Killer Is Mine described the renamed Rivers as a 40-something New Jersey ex-cop who’d been living on Florida’s Gulf Coast for a decade and a half, ever since his girlfriend ran off with a “punk” he’d been trying to nail—only to die with her new lover in the path of “a fast-speeding train at a crossing.” A devastated Rivers had drifted south, won a job with the Nationwide Detective Agency and become a fixture in the Tampa press, recognized for his “loyalty and basic honesty.”
Beyond those characteristics, Rivers was familiar for his copious beer drinking, his nondescript apartment on the edge of Tampa’s Ybor City (“the Latin Quarter”) and the knife he wore in a sheath at the nape of his neck—extra protection against the undesirables with whom he habitually trafficked. Oh, and Powell reminded readers in every book that Rivers was “not a pretty man,” as one client phrased it, but was somebody who might prove attractive to a certain brand of female. Usually women who wind up enjoying three squares in a prison cell.
Of the five Rivers novels, the most interesting and best-plotted are The Killer Is Mine, in which the gumshoe falls in love with the wife of a guy he’s trying to save from the electric chair (you can well imagine how torn he is about that undertaking), and With a Madman Behind Me, a quick-stepping, 1961 tale that puts Powell’s sleuth in some of the tightest spots he’ll find in this series.
It all begins with a bang. And a few desperate whimpers. Following a dinner of “Cuban sandwiches and icy beer,” and a cold bath to combat his incessant sweating, Rivers spies a “skimpily clad girl” in the window of an apartment across from his, apparently waving to him invitingly. However, he also notices a threatening male in the woman’s digs, so dashes over to make sure that she’s OK. She isn’t. Her name is Ina Blane, and she is being threatened by Russ Leppert, a gun-toting escapee from a hospital for the criminally insane. While trying to relieve Leppert of his firearm, Rivers is knocked out and wakes up in car with the now-deceased Ina—just as Leppert sends them both careening through a bridge rail, into a swiftly flowing channel.
Employing his concealed blade, Rivers flees his bonds and swims to shore. Yet he’s hardly out of trouble. Leppert is sure to hear that he’s survived, and will want to eliminate him as a witness to his latest crimes.
Rather than wait around for the next attack, Rivers takes a job offered him by Veronica Knight, whose “inherited” son, Jerl Adcock, knew Leppert and Ina Blane, and has recently disappeared. Rivers hopes this will lead him to Ina’s killer. But he finds much more in the assignment than he’d expected, including a money-hungry Dixieland musician, a criminal kingpin trying for one last big score, a young woman as deadly as she is fetching and a big-dollar scheme to flood U.S. cities with pornography.
Yes, the smut angle dates this novel in the same way it does Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939); in our era of Internet porn, it’s hard to get excited about the proliferation of overexposed sex photos and black-and-white “stag movies” peddled from back rooms. But that datedness doesn’t detract seriously from the value of With a Madman Behind Me. Boasting high tension, alternately desperate and heroic characters, and often trenchant observations on the stratification of Tampa society, this work shows Talmage Powell with crime-writing chops equal to those of such contemporaries as Thomas B. Dewey, Robert Terrell (aka Robert Kyle), Brett Halliday and Harold Q. Masur. Respectable company, indeed.