"Difficulty is a matter of degree.All I can promise is I'll do my best."
His creator, British author Hartley Howard, once boasted that New York-based shamus GLENN BOWMAN was "the toughest wise-cracking private eye in the business."
I'm not so sure about that he was all that tough, but in his time the books featuring Bowman were definitely one of the more popular tough guy American private series around -- except, perhaps, in the United States. Perhaps that's because -- rightly or wrongly -- Howard wasn't American, and Americans didn't have to import their generic tough guy fiction from anyone.
And boy were these generic.
Bowman's got the coat, he's got the gun (a .38 smith & Wesson, of course), the obligatory rundown office and the tiny, faceless apartment. He's even got, at least in the earlier books, an approximation of the tough guy art found on American paperbacks, despite the fact most of these were British hardcovers.
He must be pretty good-looking, as well, because we're told (in The Sealed Envelope ) that "Dames... go for him in a big way and vice versa." But he remains single throughout his thirty eight adventures, living alone in his downtown "flatlet," drinking bourbon or beer (but only after the sun goes down) and living, apparently, on a steady diet of steak (medium rare) and French fries.
What he doesn't have going for him is anything particularly interesting or original. The Bowman novels are pretty typical private eye fare, drawing their influence equally from Mickey Spillane and, particularly in the latter books, Ross Macdonald, but not drawing it very well.
And seriously: what wise-cracks?
Still, in foreign markets and lending libraries in the fifties and sixties in particular, where a few choice American place names and a smattering of semi-hard-boiled patter were enough, the workmanlike Bowman books did phenomenally well: in Britain, in Italy, in Germany, in Portugal and even in Canada, where in my hometown of Montreal many libraries -- including the Atwater Library -- offered almost a complete run of the Bowman series well into the nineties.
Unfortunately, try as he might, Howard never quite pulled off the American tough guy tone he was so obviously aiming for. Nor was he helped immensely by his British publisher's tone deaf, hit-and-miss editing, which allowed such Anglo clunkers as "flatlet' and "Eric's Car Hire" to slip right in.
And it's infuriating to see him riding all over in a "Chevvy."
Though none of this seemed to bother his fans, who were perhaps comforted by Bowman's rather old-fashioned ways and his safe, pleasantly generic mysteries, more Golden Age in tone than hard-boiled, neither as coarse and disturbingly violent as Spillane or as complex and psychologically bruising as Macdonald. There must have been something reassuring to the "they don't write 'em like that anymore" crowd about the timeless casual racism that allowed Bowman to continue to refer to blacks as "coloureds" well into the seventies, or indulge in the kind of tiresome ethnic stereotypes that saw him pondering if Captain Henderson of the Homicide Bureau, (who happens to be Native American) still carried a tomahawk or regular arguiments with Ulysses Applebaum, his money-grubbing Jewish (of course) landlord, over past-due rent.
Take that, you young, politically correct whippersnappers!
And despite the cases that inevitably saw him tangled up in big money, fast women, organized crime and assorted varieties of murder and mayhem and occasional forays to different climes (Mexico, Rome, Malta, even Iowa) Bowman always played it rather safe himself. He considered himself "safe, reliable and honest" (Dead Drunk), taking the subway to his small, one-and-a-half office in Applebaum's "dump," arriving promptly at eight-thirty every morning.
He's also quick to let clients know what they're getting into.
"So long as I do my best my conscience won't trouble me," he offers at one point and then warns them that "My job is mostly waiting... I don't have to be clever. Just patient." And just in case a potential client fears being judged too harshly, good ol' Glenn reassures them that it's not his business "to condemn or condone."
* * * * *
It turns out there's a good reason for the Montreal libraries' interest in Hartley Howard. The author (real name: Leopold Horace Ognall) may not have been British at all. He was born in Montreal. True, he was later educated in Scotland and worked as a journalist (presumably in the U.K.) before turning to writing mysteries and thrillers. And he had a good long run at it, penning over ninety books in a career that spanned almost thirty years.
As Hartley Howard, he also wrote about Philip Scott, the owner of a successful toy company and secretly the head of a British spy unit, and under the pen name of Harry Carmichael, he also wrote about John Piper & Quinn, an insurance investigator and a crime reporter who team up to solve crimes in England.
Granted, Howard does have his defenders. B.V. Lawson in a review of The Last Vanity (1952), conceded that the Bowman books don't "rise to (Raymond) Chandler's level, perhaps, but it's still entertaining and Bowman's character is sympathetic and engaging."
Me? I liked the handful I read well enough, but I never felt the need to seek out more. I found them to be pleasant enough diversions, competently done, perhaps, but rather toothless. And life is too short to waste time reading books written to please -- or more precisely, not to offend -- everyone.
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