The Adventures of Cardigan
by Frederick Nebel

Review by Mario Taboada

"Hardesty was as dumb an egg as they come -- but boy how that baby could pitch ball. So when he tangled himself all up in a murder net it was up to that big dick from Cosmos to pick the knots. Or else - But there just wasn't any "or else". Cardigan had laid too much hard-earned dough on the Series to permit his favorite hurler to fumble himself into the hot seat."

That's the introduction to "Murder a la Carte." The big dick in question is Jack Cardigan and the author, Frederick Nebel (1903-1967), was one of the mainstays of the golden years of the pulp era and a frequent and well-received contributor to Black Mask and other leading pulps, notably Dime Detective. While his work has appeared in many anthologies (including, significantly, The Black Mask Boys, edited in 1946 by legendary editor Joseph T. Shaw), Nebel is hardly a household name among mystery fans - a thin excuse for this nostalgia review that the Gentle Reader will, one hopes, accept without too much Noisy Grumbling.

The six novelettes reprinted in this very welcome Mysterious Press collection all appeared in Dime Detective between 1933 and 1935; they serve as a reminder that there are accomplished hardboiled writers worth remembering besides the canonical Hammett and Chandler (the Experienced Pulp Fan knows this already).

The protagonist of these stories is Jack Cardigan, a quintessentially hardboiled private dick of Irish extraction who works for the Cosmos Agency. Our hero is no intellectual - in fact, he is something of a brute, fast and deadly with his fists and gun. Nebel painted with a palette of vivid colors and drew on a gallery of characters from all walks of life, including heinous and unusual villains, gorgeous dames in ambiguous situations, two-bit grifters, bought politicians and functionaries, and corrupt or dumb-as-bells cops. His dialogue is full of vitality and garnished with copious amounts of slang, much of it delightfully dated.

Cardigan's code is simple:

1) He badly wants to get the bad guys.

2) He will not touch the gorgeous babes who cross his path, including his frequent sidekick Pat Seaward, an intelligent, cute girl who all too often gets him out of jams.

3) He is quick to take justice in his own hands, to the point of killing on suspicion.

In "Murder a la Carte", Cardigan gets tangled up in the troubles of Sam Hardesty, a ball-player friend who, drunk to the gills, may have signed blank checks to unknown parties while in his hotel room in the company of a jane he picked up at a night club. Hardesty, recently married to the sweet woman of his dreams, is mortally afraid that the cancelled check will give away his drunken escapade. Further, his participation in the World Series is in jeopardy. Cardigan, out of more than friendship given the bets he has placed, charges ahead to find out who, when, how, and why - and soon is faced with the dead body of the jane in question; fearing that his pal Hardesty has been framed and is the likely victim of an extortion ring, Cardigan rounds up two shady gamblers who have been seen with the dead girl. The explosive, memorable resolution with thundering roscoes is too good to be given away.

The remaining stories are just as hard-boiled, including the superb "Hell Couldn't Stop Him", a case of disappearance that turns into a nightmarish adventure in an amusement park.

This is the sort of book that Edmund Wilson would have hated (in fact, had he condescended to read it, I am certain that he would have considered Cardigan's exploits a perfect example of pure trash and related to literature only by virtue of being in book form). I cannot think of higher praise for Nebel, a truly hardboiled writer whom, if the truth be told, I find more interesting than most American writers of the thirties.

Nebel's work exudes genuine vitality and conveys a sense of excitement often bordering on explosiveness. His depiction of life in the streets and the psychology of the era aim to be realistic; his plots are not as outlandish or comedic as Bellem's or Latimer's, two authors of the same era with whom he bears comparison.

In developing somewhat theatrical yet plausible plots, Nebel follows a middle way not unlike that of Norbert Davis, albeit without Davis's prodigious gifts as a writer and humorist. Nebel's use of social criticism is neither as constant and cynical as Chandler's or Howard Browne's nor as elegantly understated as Hammett's. While not top-drawer, he is definitely top-second-drawer.

Criticism aimed at the author's rather crude characterization would be perhaps misguided, for Nebel entertains by building up successive climaxes culminating in big shootouts, with all elements subordinated to maintaining the pace of the action. It is a recipe that served and fed him well (as it did many other pulp writers of the same era) and which, over six decades later, makes these tales strangely modern and gripping. The Frederick Nebel of the Cardigan stories reads like the Mickey Spillane of literature.

If you have a sweet tooth for good trash in the pulp style, are not put off by violence, and read mainly for enjoyment, this book may be of interest to you. If you are a fan of pulp mysteries and don't have it already, "The Adventures of Cardigan" is probably one to get and cherish.

The Adventures of Cardigan by Frederick Nebel
Introduction by Robert Weinberg.
Mysterious Press, 1988, trade paperback
Buy this book

Contents:

  • "Murder a la Carte"
  • "Spades are Spades"
  • "Hot Spot"
  • "Kick Back"
  • "Hell Couldn't Stop Him"
  • "The Dead Die Twice"

Review submitted by Mario Taboada, October 2002.


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