Shean Connell
Created by Roger Torrey
(1901-46)

Published in 1938 (and reprinted by Dennis McMillan in 1988), 42 Days For Murder was the only novel by Black Mask regular Roger Torrey. It features private eye SHEAN CONNELL who fits the classic mold of the hard-drinking, fast-talking, quick-fisted PI. Connell is a barrel-house piano player who plays well enough to take club jobs when the cover is useful. Torrey played himself, and he has a nice, knowing touch when writing about the piano work.

One of the great attractions of this novel the setting of Reno, Nevada. Torrey lovingly describes a wide-open town, shown with great texture as when he shows us a hotel which both the crooks and the semi-corrupt cops leave as a neutral zone that can serve as a meeting place. Or, the brothel with 48 cribs in the shape of a horseshoe and the drugged-up whores who work there. Reno, at the time, was known as the divorce capital of the United States. In order to establish residency and be eligible for the courts of Nevada, it was necessary to live there for six weeks--hence the title.

Connell is hired by a rich guy whose wife decamped on him and moved to Reno in order to divorce him. Still in love ("...a man in love is always a pitiful thing"), the client just wants to talk with his wife but is prevented from doing so by her lawyer who has considerable legal and illegal power in Reno ("I've always hated the fat, smooth toad type and he was the perfect example"). That is Connell's assignment but nothing is as it seems and a complex but nicely worked out plot builds from this simple base.

The action is incredibly fast-pasted. This thing moves! But better than that is the running first person commentary of Connell. When his teenage sidekick, Lester, falls for this huge brassy blonde, Connell puts a word or two in his ear: "She's too big for you; she'd grapple with you and take two falls out of three. Why, my God, kid, you could have her, another cow, and a dozen milk bottles and start a milk route."

Or the girl he ends up paired with through much of the novel nicknamed "Spanish." She's drop-dead gorgeous but he hates her voice. "I don't expect them perfect, at my age, but I don't want them saying sweet nothings in my ear and sounding as though they had adenoids while doing it. It's not that I'm so fussy but you can hear a voice even in the dark."

Or when Lester remarked on the youth of a prostitute (who told the cops "Just a minute Chief. You ain't getting any cherry; I been pinched before") that she hardly seemed more than a child: "She's been further under the barn after eggs than you've been away from home, kid. That's a tough baby."

Or in commenting on the health status of a guy he'd shot: "My slug had caught him just below the knee and ranged up the whole length of his thigh. They dug it out up by his hip but they had to cut off his leg to find it."

As one who loves the old stuff from the twenties and thirties, this is simply a great read. Which makes an always frustrating situation even worse. Having read and enjoyed this book, I wanted to read more by Torrey. This was his only novel but since he was a Black Mask regular, I checked E.R. Hagemann's index to Black Mask -- Torrey has fifty appearances listed from his debut in the January 1933 issue to his final appearance in April 1942. Not only that but four of the stories published in 1937-38 featured Connell. I very much want to read these other Connell adventures but, to the best of my knowledge none of the four have been reprinted.

In fact, Torrey is one of the least reprinted Black Mask regulars. Joseph Shaw did choose a Torrey story for his historic The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (Simon and Schuster 1946). It was "Clean Sweep" from the February 1934 issue. I scratched around among the other likely anthologies on hand but came up dry. I had a moment of excitement when I spotted the Torrey byline in Maxim Jakubowski's The Mammoth Book of Pulp Action but it turned out to be another reprint of "Clean Sweep."

I suspect the problem is that the issues of Black Mask are too rare for much delving by anthologists. Too often they rely on what has been reprinted before by Fred Dannay in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and certainly by Shaw in his anthology and Ron Goulart in Hard-Boiled Dicks. As Torrey apparently died before the mushrooming of paperback reprints and didn't leave a widow or family to prod an agent, his stories are lost in those old issues. Perhaps they are lacking in quality but somehow I doubt that given the number of appearances in a magazine tough to crack like Black Mask.

It is possible to seek out those issues but it would take time and more money than I am willing to invest in the effort. One issue from 1937 for sale on ABE Books is going for $150.00. I imagine an issue of Black Mask that also contains a Chandler story would go for even more. Unlike science fiction and fantasy, collectors came late to mystery fiction with some exceptions like Fred Dannay. While not common, there were a reasonable number of complete sets of Weird Tales accumulated through the years. This didn't happen with Black Mask and to collect a complete run of the 340 issues at this late date would require a huge financial investment.

I can only hope that the popularity of hard-boiled fiction from the old school will continue to increase and make it worthwhile for someone to go in and mine the gold in those rare issues.

Not much is known about Torrey. The blurb on the McMillan edition calls Torey one of the "mystery men" of Black Mask "in that very little is known about his life, although, like his private eye hero Shean Connell, he was apparently an inveterate gambler, alcoholic and barrel-house piano player, and he supposedly died in the arms of his mistress somewhere in Florida in the late 1940s."

A brief first person description of Torrey is given by Frank Gruber in his fascinating memoir The Pulp Jungle (Sherbourne Press 1967). As Black Mask was his favorite magazine, Gruber made it a point to meet most of its contributors. This was made easier because the magazine had a Christmas party each year, which Gruber said was an "institution" that attracted contributors from around the country.   

"One of the most regular contributors to Black Mask, Roger Torrey, was extremely fond of the sauce. I once ran into him on Madison Avenue at nine o'clock in the morning. He was either still loaded from the night before or had gotten an early start that morning," Gruber wrote. "Personally, Roger Torrey was a tough little guy, as hard as the characters he portrayed so well in his stories." 

SHORT STORIES

  • "Hillbilly Stuff" (June 1937, Black Mask)
  • "Just a Nice Girl" (August 1937, Black Mask)
  • "One Good Turn" (November 1937, Black Mask)
  • "Relative Trouble" (January 1938, Black Mask)
  • "Murder Troup" (December 1944, Detective Story Magazine)
  • "She Sang of Murder" (March 1946, Detective Story Magazine)
  • "Where There’s Smoke There’s Murder" (April 1946, Detective Story Magazine)
  • "Gambler’s Payoff" (June 1946, Detective Story Magazine)

NOVEL

Report (and mini-rant) dutifully submitted by Richard Moore. Parts of this report originally appeared as posts on Rara-Avis.


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