"Outside the sky was the same monotonous gray. The rain was drying into large puddles on Fifth Avenue. Max Thursday watched the early morning traffic and wished for the clean needles of a cold shower and something scalding to change the taste in his mouth."
San Diego private eye MAX THURSDAY is a decent man, almost gentle, working an indecent, harsh job, continually trying to come to terms with the contradictions of his life, in one of the best PI series to crawl out of the fifties. He's tall and thin, with wide shoulder, blue-eyed and black-haired, and usually in need of a shave. And he's been around a bit, so don't cross him.
When the series starts with Guilty Bystander (1947), he's lost: a gaunt, alcoholic ex-cop, ex-Marine and ex-private detective, reduced to working as a house dick in the Bridgway Hotel, a fleabag hotel. As his landlady points out to him, "You've been away a long time."
Then in walks Georgia, his ex-wife, asking him to find their kidnapped son, Tommy, whom he hasn't seen since he was a year-and-a-half old.
"I'm not a detective anymore. I'm a bouncer. You don't need anything I got," is his reply.
But Max -- just -- manages to rise to the occasion, suffering assorted betrayals and even a flogging. But nobody can beat up on Max as hard as Max can beat up on Max. It's one of the best series debuts in crime fiction.
Another case, after having killed four men, he even turns in his gun permit; afraid that if he doesn't he will kill again. Not Mike Hammer by a long shot.
But he's still plenty tough. By the end of the series, he's become an almost-respected member of the community, living in a nice duplex, even claiming membership in the Better Business Bureau. Assisting him in the series are his friend, lieutenant Austin Clapp of the Homicide Bureau and his new best gal Merle Osborn, crime reporter for The San Diego Sentinel, a trashy tabloid big on crime coverage.
Another plus is deftly handled setting, full of scenic venues and underworld grit, which the authors make full use of. San Diego's growing by leaps and bounds in the post-war years, and law enforcement isn't always keeping pace. As Thursday points out, it's "rougher than it used to be before the war."
One of the great eyes.
There was even a film version of Guilty Bystander in 1950. By all accounts it was a solid little effort, despite the low budget, the San Diego setting replaced by New York, and (from the stills I've seen) a particularly dippy mustache on Max Thursday (played by Zachary Scott.)
Wade Miller was actually two men, Bob Wade and Bill Miller, who together wrote 33 novels, including the Max Thursday series and Deadly Weapon, featuring Atlanta P.I. Walter James, and a whole bunch of non-series novels under a variety of pseudonyms, including Whit Masterson, Will Daemer and Dale Wilmer. Wade, an Edgar winner, wrote another 13 novels alone. Eight of their novels were made into movies, among them the Orson Welles noir (neo-noir? post-noir? last noir?) classic Touch of Evil, adapted from their Badge of Evil. In 1988, they received the Private Eye Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award. One could say Bob and Bill certainly made a name (or several, in fact) for themselves in the genre.
Mark M.'s intriguing tribute site to Max Thursday. My favourite part? His hunt for the San Diego locations used in the books.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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