Friday, May 31, 2013

FFB: "Shield for Murder" by Willam P. McGivern (novella version, BLUE BOOK, February 1951)

Mark sat in the waiting room in the hospital, chain-smoking, and wondering what he would do if [someone else] died. Nothing, probably, he thought. You just didn't do anything when people died, he knew. You just wished they hadn't....

--William P. McGivern, "Shield for Murder"

The novella version of this takes the last densely-packed 39 pages, not counting the back cover, of the 2/51 issue of Blue Book...Raymond Thayer's occasional illustrations don't take up much room, nor what I take to be (legendary) editor Donald Kennicott's blurb about how the corrupt cop at the heart of this story was the exception who proves the rule...whether that was a figleaf to deflect criticism or genuine concern...but it's a point McGivern himself makes from time to time in the story itself, though McGivern, already a veteran crime beat reporter on the Philadelphia Bulletin when he published this, also notes at least as fervently that police insularity...blind loyalty to each other in the face of perceived public disdain or hostility, is even more the engine of police corruption and abuse (that and the temptations driven by their license for violence, potentially dangerous work, and low pay). The novel version, published later in 1951, is not one of McGivern's most popular (I hadn't heard of it till just before receiving the Blue Book issue as a contest prize), and perhaps was puffed up from the novella, rather than the novel cut down to fit the magazine...there were two adaptations for a/v media, a 1951 Studio One adaptation on CBS-TV, and a 1954 film starring and co-directed by Edmond O'Brien (with Howard Koch); McGivern would use the title again for a Kojak script in the 1970s. 

Having published fiction with Ray Palmer's Ziff-Davis fiction magazines going as far back as 1940, at least (young McGivern, Isaac Asimov and Damon Knight getting their professional starts in those magazines, among not a few others, in those years), McGivern joined a crew of Chicago-based writers who would regularly turn out copy for the magazines, including Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Mammoth Mystery, Mammoth Detective, and Mammoth Western...(the only slightly older) Robert Bloch was probably the best writer to also participate thus, but McGivern was able to learn his craft with any number of often routine stories under his and "house" names, though sometimes rather oddly distinctive work as well, even as he mustered in for WW2 service. After the war came his sojourn in Philadelphia (along with enduring marriage to fellow writer Maureen Daly), where he gathered inspiration for such notable novels as The Big Heat, Rogue Cop and Odds Against Tomorrow...and he eventually followed fellow Palmer-stable writer (and Palmer's editorial successor at Ziff-Davis fiction magazines) Howard Browne out to Hollywood, where McGivern flourished.

But Ziff-Davis's crime-fiction pulps were dead by the time the short form of "Shield for Murder" was published (sadly, the first great inpulpation of Blue Book would fold within a few years, too), so this well-written, heartfelt and not terribly melodramatic account of a bad cop, out of the streetgangs of Philly in the 1930s and, through service as a street thug for the Republican machine, put into service as a cop, then through good fortune driven in part by nonchalance and abetted by those earlier political connections promoted to detective, and his attempts to garner some of the good life any way he can. With what would be his fourth novel in boards (some of his earlier longer stories for the fantasy magazines have been reprinted as public-domain texts recently), McGivern was still learning how to pull every aspect of a story together (assuming that some of that feeling isn't driven by it needing to be cut down for the magazine), but the pacing, the grace of the prose, and the attempts to portray all the characters in the story as realistically human as possible, with even our McGivern-analog journalist protagonist given to small pettinesses and thoughtlessness at his worst, and a rather better portrayal of the women characters (as actually complex, thinking adults) than is often the case in hardboiled fiction of this vintage (or too often even now), all give this a strength that shouldn't be ignored. I'm not sure whether this form of the story has ever been reprinted...but the Blue Book issue isn't Too expensive from the more reasonable vendors (and, hey, you get Jim Kjelgaard and Nelson Bond stories, too).

Philadelphia, as it currently is, suffering from a rash of police shootings of civilians, this novella (and its cousins) takes on an unfortunate currency...

For more (and more prompt!) reviews of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

Courtesy the FictionMags Index

Blue Book [v 92 #4, February 1951] (25¢, 144pp, large, cover by John Fulton)
Information from an eBay auction description.
* But Death Runs Faster (Dodd Mead, 1948) (a.k.a The Whispering Corpse)
* Heaven Ran Last (Dodd Mead, 1949)
* Very Cold for May (Dodd Mead, 1950)
* Shield for Murder (Dodd Mead, 1951)
* Blondes Die Young (Dodd Mead, 1952) (as Bill Peters)
* The Crooked Frame (Dodd Mead, 1952)
* The Big Heat (Dodd Mead, 1953)
* Margin of Terror (Dodd Mead, 1953)
* Rogue Cop (Dodd Mead, 1954)
* The Darkest Hour (Dodd Mead, 1954) (a.k.a. Waterfront Cop)
* The Seven File (Dodd Mead, 1956) (a.k.a. Chicago-7)
* Night Extra (Dodd Mead, 1957)
* Odds Against Tomorrow (Dodd Mead, 1957)
* Mention My Name in Mombasa: The Unscheduled Adventures of an
American Family Abroad (Dodd Mead, 1958) (with Maureen Daly)
* Savage Streets (Dodd Mead, 1959)
* Seven Lies South (Dodd Mead, 1960)
* Killer on the Turnpike (Pocket Books, 1961) (short stories)
* The Road to the Snail (Dodd Mead, 1961)
* A Pride of Place (Dodd Mead, 1962)
* Police Special (Dodd Mead, 1962) (omnibus - contains ??)
* A Choice of Assassins (Dodd Mead, 1963)
* The Caper of the Golden Bulls (Dodd Mead, 1966)
* Lie Down, I Want to Talk to You (Dodd Mead, 1967)
* Caprifoil (Dodd Mead, 1972)
* Reprisal (Dodd Mead, 1973)
* Night of the Juggler (Putnam, 1975
* Soldiers of '44 (Arbor Hourse, 1979)
* The Seeing (Tower, 1980) (with Maureen McGivern)
* Summitt (Arbor House, 1982)
* A Matter of Honor (Arbor House, 1984) (completed by Maureen
* War Games (Arbor House, 1984)


Walker Martin said...

I can also recommend the movie version of SHIELD FOR MURDER. In 1954 it was made into an excellent film noir starring Edmund O'Brien as the corrupt cop. It pulls no punches showing this police officer as a hardboiled criminal. O'Brien was perfect for the role because he was not your typical movie star. He was sort of average looking, overweight, not particularly good looking. Easy to identify with and very believable in the role.

Todd Mason said...

Yep, I mention the film (and the tv adaptation before and possibly much after) above, as well. But I haven't seen it...thanks for the rec. I certainly like D.O.A., another indy O'Brien project of a few years before, despite some goofy aspects.

However, the corrupt cop in the fiction is much more a bruiser...maybe not quite Mike Mazurki, but close.

George said...

McGivern was a top notch writer. He wasn't deterred from writing about controversial issues like crooked cops.

Todd Mason said...

Particularly since he had first-hand experience with Philadelphia's.