This is a great interview with the once-famous, now-obscure humor writer S.J. Perelman. He wrote a bunch of Marx Brothers stuff as well as a ton of plays, movies (notably “Around the World in 80 Days”) and short humor pieces. He almost got me thrown out of a library once because I was laughing so hard I was causing a disruption.
His writing probably will not age terribly well — not his fault, just a curse of comedy — but if you’re looking for a way into his style the story “Somewhere a Roscoe” is as good a place to start as any.
(Note: I got this off of the Internet Archive. It’s in the Public Domain. Also note that it contains archaic ethnic slurs, not his, but from the stories he’s quoting.)
SOMEWHERE A ROSCOE: S.J Perelman
This is the story of a mind that found itself. About two years ago I was moody, discontented, restless, almost a character in a Russian novel. I used to lie on my bed for days drinking tea out of a glass (I was one of the first in this country to drink tea out of a glass; at that time fashionable people drank from their cupped hands).
Underneath, I was still a lively, fun-loving American boy who liked nothing better than to fish with a bent pin. In short, I had become a remarkable combination of Raskolnikov and Mark Tidd. One day I realized how introspective I had grown and decided to talk to myself like a Dutch uncle. “Luik here, Mynheer,” I began (I won’t give you the accent, but honestly it was a riot), “you’ve overtrained. You’re stale. Open up a few new vistas— go out and get some fresh air!”
Well, I bustled about, threw some things into a bag— orange peels, apple cores and the like— and went out for a walk. A few minutes later I picked up from a part bench a tattered pulp magazine called Spicy Detective, … Talk about your turning points! I hope nobody minds my making love in public, but if Culture Publications, Inc., of 900 Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware, will have me, I’d like to marry them.
Yes, I know— call it a school-boy crush, puppy love, the senseless infatuation of a callow youth for a middle-aged, worldly-wise publishing house; I still don’t care. I love them because they are the publishers of not only Spicy 9 Detective but also Spicy Western, Spicy Mystery and Spicy Adventure. And I love them most because their prose is so soft and warm. “Arms and the man I sing/’ sang Vergil some twenty centuries ago, preparing to celebrate the wanderings of Aeneas. If ever a motto was tailor made for the masthead of Culture Publications, Inc., it is “Arms and the Woman/’ for in Spicy Detective they have achieved the sauciest blend of libido and murder this side of Gilles de Rais.
They have juxtaposed the steely automatic and the frilly pantie and found that it pays off. Above all, they have given the world Dan Turner, the apotheosis of all private detectives. Out of Ma Barker by Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, let him characterize himself in the opening paragraph of “Corpse in the Closet” from the July, 1937, issue:
"I opened my bedroom closet. A half-dressed feminine corpse sagged into my arms… . It’s a damned screwy feeling to reach for pajamas and find a cadaver instead."
Mr. Turner, you will perceive, is a man of sentiment, and it occasionally gets him into a tight corner. For example, in “Killer’s Harvest” (July, 1938) he is retained to escort a young matron home from the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles:
"Zarah Trenwick was a wow in a gown of silver lamé that stuck to her lush curves like a coating of varnish. Her makeup was perfect; her strapless dress displayed plenty of evidence that she still owned a cargo of lure. Her bare shoulders were snowy, dimpled. The upper slopes of her breast were squeezed upward and partly overflowed the tight bodice, like whipped cream."
To put it mildly, Dan cannot resist the appeal of a pretty foot, and disposing of Zarah’s drunken husband (“I clipped him on the button. His hip pockets bounced on the floor”), he takes this charlotte russe to her apartment. Alone with her, the policeman in him succumbs to the man, and “she fed me a kiss that throbbed all the way down my fallen arches,” when suddenly: From the doorway a roscoe said “Kachow!” and a slug creased the side of my noggin. Neon lights exploded inside my think-tank … She was as dead as a stuffed mongoose … I wasn’t badly hurt. But I don’t like to be shot at. I don’t like dames to be rubbed out when I’m flinging woo at them.”
With an irritable shrug, Dan phones the homicide detail and reports Zarah’s passing in this tender obituary: “Zarah Trenwick just got blasted to hellangone in her tepee at the Gayboy. Drag your underwear over here— and bring a meat-wagon.”
Then he goes in search of the offender:
"I drove over to Argyle; parked in front of Fane Trenwick’s modest stash … I thumbed the bell. The door opened. A Chink house-boy gave me the slant-eyed focus. ‘Missa Tienwick, him sleep. You go way, come tomollow. Too late fo’ vlisito’. I said ‘Nerts to you, Confucius,’ and gave him a shove on the beezer."
Zarah’s husband, wrenched out of bed without the silly formality of a search warrant, establishes an alibi depending upon one Nadine Wendell. In a trice Dan crosses the city and makes his gentle way into the lady’s boudoir, only to discover again what a frail vessel he is au fond:
"The fragrant scent of her red hair tickled my smeller; the warmth of her slim young form set fire to my arterial system. After all, I’m as human as the next gazabo."
The next gazabo must be all too human, because Dan betrays first Nadine and then her secret; namely, that she pistolled Zarah Trenwick for reasons too numerous to mention. If you feel you must know them, they appear on page no 20, cheek by jowl with some fascinating advertisements for loaded dice and wealthy sweethearts, either of which will be sent you in plain wrapper if you’ll forward a dollar to the Majestic Novelty Company of Janesville, Wisconsin. The deeper one goes into the Dan Turner saga, the more one is struck by the similarity between the case confronting Dan in the current issue and those in the past. The murders follow an exact, rigid pattern almost like the ritual of a bullfight or a classic Chinese play. Take “Veiled Lady/’ in the October, 1937, number of Spicy Detective. Dan is flinging some woo at a Mrs. Brantham in her apartment at the exclusive Gayboy Arms, which apparently excludes everybody but assassins:
"From behind me a roscoe belched "Chow-chow! A pair of slugs buzzed past my left ear, almost nicked my cranium. Mrs. Brantham sagged back against the pillow of the lounge . . • She was as dead as an iced catfish."
Or this vignette from “Falling Star’ out of the , September 1936, issue”
"The roscoe said ‘Chow!’ and spat a streak of flame past my shoulder … The Filipino cutie was lying where I’d last seen her. She was as dead as a smoked herring."
And again, from “Dark Star of Death,” January, 1938:
"From a bedroom a roscoe said: ‘Whr-r-rang!’ and a lead pill split the ozone past my noggin … Kane Fewster was on the floor. There was a bullet hole through his think-tank. He was as dead as a fried oyster.
And still again, from “Brunette Bump-off,” May, 1938:
"And then, from an open window beyond the bed, a roscoe coughed ‘Ka-chow!’ … I said, ‘What the hell—!’ and hit the floor with my smeller … A brunette jane was lying there, half out of the mussed covers… . She was as dead as vaudeville."
The next phase in each of these dramas follows with all the cold beauty and inevitability of a legal brief. The roscoe has hardly spoken, coughed, or belched before Dan is off through the canebrake, his nostrils filled with the heavy scent of Nuit de Noel. Somewhere, in some dimly lit boudoir waits a voluptuous parcel of womanhood who knows all about the horrid deed. Even if she doesn’t, Dan makes a routine check anyway. The premises are invariably guarded by an Oriental whom Dan is obliged to expunge.
Compare the scene at Fane Trenwick’s modest stash with this one from “Find That Corpse” (November, 1937) :
"A sleepy Chink maid in pajamas answered my ring. She was a cute little slant-eyed number. I said ‘Is Mr. Polznak home?’ She shook her head. ‘Him up on location in Flesno. Been gone two week.’ I said ‘Thanks. I’ll have a gander for myself.’ I pushed past her. She started to yip … ‘Shut up!’ I growled. She kept on trying to make a noise. So I popped her on the button. She dropped."
It is a fairly safe bet that Mr. Polznak has forgotten the adage that a watched pot never boils and has left behind a dewy-eyed coryphee clad in the minimum of chiffon demanded by the postal authorities. The poet in Dan ineluctably vanquishes the flatfoot (“Dark Star of Death”) :
"I glued my glims on her blond loveliness; couldn’t help myself. The covers had skidded down from her gorgeous, dimpled shoulders; I could see plenty of delishful, shemale epidermis."
The trumpets blare again; some expert capework by our torero, and (“Brunette Bump-off”):
"Then she fed me a kiss that sent a charge of steam past my gozzle … Well, I’m as human as the next gink."
From then on, the author’s typewriter keys infallibly fuse in a lump of hot metal and it’s all over but the shouting of the culprit and “Look, Men: One Hundred Breezy Fotos!”
Back in his stash, his roscoe safely within reach, Dan Turner lays his weary noggin on a pillow, resting up for the November issue. And unless you’re going to need me for something this afternoon, I intend to do the same, I’m bushed.