Friday, September 27, 2019

Forgotten Books: Tough As Nails: The Complete Cases of Donohue - Frederick Nebel

I first encountered Frederick Nebel’s work in the iconic 1965 anthology THE HARDBOILED DICKS, which made me a fan of hardboiled pulp crime fiction ever since. Editor Ron Goulart included one of Nebel’s Kennedy and MacBride stories, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. But then for years after that, I didn’t read much by Nebel since there just wasn’t a lot available. Half a dozen of his stories were collected in the paperback SIX DEADLY DAMES, but I never came across a copy of it.

That’s changed a great deal in recent years as dozens of Nebel’s stories have been reprinted by various presses that specialize in pulp fiction. He was a very prolific writer, turning out Northerns, aviation yarns, and straight adventure stories in addition to his mysteries. His first big success with a series character came with the hardboiled private eye Donohue, who appeared in fifteen stories in BLACK MASK from 1930 to 1935. All of these stories have been reprinted in TOUGH AS NAILS: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION OF DONOHUE STORIES. And what a wonderful collection it is. I’ve been reading these stories between other books for a while now and finally finished them.

"Rough Justice" (November 1930) is the first Donahue story, but it finds him in St. Louis on the trail of a fugitive, instead of his usual bailiwick of New York.

The next three stories are linked novellas that form a short novel of sorts: "The Red-Hots" (December 1930), "Gun Thunder" (January 1931), and "Get a Load of This" (February 1931) find Donahue solving several murders and scrapping with a wide variety of characters, including a couple of beautiful women, as everybody tries to get their hands on a diamond worth $90,000 that was stolen in Europe and smuggled into the States.

“Spare the Rod”, from August 1931, finds Donahue back in St. Louis, hired by a crusading lawyer to recover evidence incriminating some local gangsters, but of course, things don’t go exactly like Donohue expects them to.

In “Pearls Are Tears” (September 1931), Donahue is hired to be the go-between in the recovery of a valuable stolen necklace, but as anybody who’s ever read any private eye fiction knows, such exchanges never go off as they’re supposed to. In this one, a cop winds up dead, and Donahue has to track down the killer.

“Death’s Not Enough”, from October 1931, opens with Donahue relaxing at home. You know that’s not going to last. Sure enough, a guy with two slugs in his belly shows up on Donahue’s doorstep and promptly dies. Recognizing the victim as a crusading newspaper columnist, Donahue figures finding his killer will be good publicity, so off he goes on a wild chase that features several blazing gun battles.

The next three stories are connected, and the sequence forms another short novel. Donahue actually has a date in “Shake-Up” (August 1932), but as it turns out, there’s nothing romantic about it, the shady lady in question is actually a witness in a case Donahue’s working on. And when she gets murdered (no surprise there), of course Donahue sets out to find the killer, even if the search makes him some dangerous enemies. “He Could Take It” (September 1932) is a direct sequel, starting just a few hours after the previous story ended. Even though Donohue solved the murder, the case isn’t over, as several new angles crop up. Also in this story, we learn that Donohue’s actual first name is Ben, even though all his friends call him Donny. “The Red Web” (October 1932) is set three weeks later and wraps things up as a danger from the past comes back to threaten a young woman Donohue has met in the previous story.

In “Red Pavement” (December 1932), Donohue feels unusually generous and picks up a drunk out of the gutter to help him get home. Naturally, there’s a lot more to it than Donohue expects, and almost before he knows it, he’s dodging bullets and setting out to do a job given to him by a dying man.

The next three stories, “Save Your Tears” (June 1933), “Song and Dance” (July 1933), and “Champions Also Die” (August 1933) form a short novel in which Donohue gets involved with the boxing racket. He solves the murder of a fight promotor, saves a champion boxer from the wiles of a femme fatale, and tackles the murder of another champion and a boxing manager.

The final Donohue story, “Ghost of a Chance” (March 1935), is also the longest in the series, almost a short novel by itself. Donohue is approached by a potential client about a simple messenger job—somebody is supposed to pick up and deliver some money—but then a hotel house detective gets murdered, the potential client disappears, and things get complicated. The plot in this one is very good, but the story is weakened by the fact that it’s obviously a rewritten story that originally featured Nebel’s other series private eye, Cardigan, whose adventures appeared in DIME DETECTIVE. I’m not sure why the original version was rejected—like I said, it’s a pretty good story—but Nebel didn’t do a great job of rewriting it and it just feels a little off as a Donohue yarn.

That said, the little glitch at the end doesn’t keep TOUGH AS NAILS from being a superb collection. Nebel was just a fantastic writer and everything I’ve read by him has been tough and fast and very involving for the reader. This is the type of hardboiled private eye fiction I grew up reading and loving, and I’m glad I didn’t dig deeply into Nebel’s output until now, because I still have plenty by him to read. TOUGH AS NAILS is easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and I give it my highest recommendation. (Below are the covers of some of the BLACK MASK issues where these stories were published originally.)


Deuce said...

I've only read a few Nebels, all Cardigan stories. I really, REALLY enjoyed them. Nebel's style reminds me a little bit of REH's. I need to get more Nebel.

James Reasoner said...

Cardigan and Donohue are almost the same guy. Not quite, but close. I love Nebel's style. It really moves, which of course is also true of Howard.

Jeff Meyerson said...

I also love those Black Mask covers.

Adventuresfantastic said...

I love the covers. Thanks for posting them. I'm gonna have to get this one.

Richard Krauss said...

That first Donahue story, "Rough Justice," also appears in Rick Ollerman's Down & Out: The Magazine No. 1. Terrific! Thanks for your review, James--and all those covers!

Renaissance Women said...

Thank you for this. As I was reading your review I could feel my grandfather smiling. These would have been the stories he would have read as he worked as a brakeman on the railroads. Somehow knowing of these stories brings him closer. I'll have to check them out. Doris

Rick Robinson said...

I have both SIX DEADLY DAMES and this one, and have read both more than once. I have other Nebel as well, he was prolific, and I always enjoy reading his work. Thanks for this review, James.

Rick Robinson said...

By the way, my FFB this week is Novel Page, another good one.

James Reasoner said...

I should mention that those BLACK MASK covers came from the invaluable Fictionmags Index. I don't own all those copies! Doris, if your grandfather was a brakeman, I'll bet he also read RAILROAD STORIES, which published a lot of great fiction for many years. Railroad fiction is a completely vanished genre now, but I've enjoyed what I read of it. Rick, I'll check out your Norvell Page post. Page was a fine pulpster.