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Crossen, Kendell Foster

Page history last edited by Bill Kelly 10 years, 7 months ago
 

First Officers of the MWA: Bayard Kendrick, Marie Rodell, Ken Crossen and Clayton Rawson

Kendell Foster Crossen (1910-1981) was a popular American book and magazine writer who had many pseudonyms: ME Chaber, Bennett Barlay, Richard Foster, Christopher Monig and Clay Richards. He reviewed mysteries for Pic magazine during the 1940s. He was a noted practicing magician. His series characters were private investigators: Milo March, Peter Draco, Chin Kwang Kham, Kim Locke, Brian Brett and Grant Kirby.

 


Mike Grost on Kendell Foster Crossen

 

Kendell Foster Crossen was a prolific and uneven writer, who started out in the pulps, wrote series detective stories that mixed private eyes and espionage in the 50's and 60's, apparently worked in radio, and also dabbled in science fiction. His Milo March series was at one time very popular in paperback, written under his pseudonym ME Chaber. The best book I have read in the series is The Splintered Man (1955). This is a spy novel, not a mystery tale, even though March is an American p.i., and the kind of pre le Carré spy tale that emphasizes gung ho adventure, more Scaramouche than Smiley. I enjoyed March's cheekiness, and the general escapist verve of this tale. It is consistently more imaginative than the average run of paperback original adventure stories. The way in which March keeps switching uniforms at the end of this tale is fun, and so are his sassy, anti-authoritarian attitudes.

 

Crossen also wrote the Mortimer Death mystery stories for Detective Fiction Weekly (DFW) in the early 1940's, under his pseudonym Bennett Barlay; he also wrote for the magazine under his own name, Ken Crossen. (His pseudonym reminds one of Tennyson's "Only reivers reaping early, in among the bearded barley" - The Lady of Shalott.) Although this pulp is as prestigious as Black Mask and Dime Detective, surprisingly little fiction has ever been reprinted from its pages. Two of Woolrich's most enthusiastic masterpieces appeared there, "Death in the Air" (1936) and "The Room With Something Wrong" (1938), and I tend to think of DFW as a magazine that mixes detection with enthusiastic, even exuberant storytelling. DFW stories tend to have puzzle plots in them. DFW is also a magazine with a fondness for policeman sleuths, who were depicted as tough, sympathetic representatives of "ordinary people", who had to battle crooks, gangsters and corruption. Dale Clark once wrote a serial for the magazine, Cop's Crusade (1939), and this title pretty much sums up the tone of Good Vs. Evil that pervaded DFW's cop stories. In H. H. Matteson's "Hip and Thigh" (1935), the policeman actually has to impersonate a waterfront minister to battle a gang, and a great deal of old-style preaching is worked into the tale. Most of DFW's cops are roughnecks, with working class backgrounds, and often ethnic identities as well. The cops are clearly drawn from the people, and stand for The People, as well. They are not some alien force of authority. This is the Depression, and the urge to identify with the common man is strong. There might be some echoes of the proletarian orientation that was fashionable in mainstream literature of the day, especially in a DFW stalwart like McKinlay Kantor, who also had a foothold in the mainstream.

 

Getting back to Crossen, his DFW Mortimer Death series was narrated by a policeman Watson, Sgt. George Stuart, a real roughneck who provides comedy relief. Just like Milo March, he has a real attitude, and is plenty prepared to bust in where he is not wanted: Crossen stories can start with the hero assigned to invade enemy territory. There is a great deal of exuberant comedy in the series, some of which is still left in the March books. There is also a skepticism about doctors and the chemicals they can employ in both works. "Too Late For Murder" (1941) has a good puzzle plot in it, something that was unfortunately not preserved by Crossen when he wrote his Milo March tale. "Too Late" also has an atmosphere pleasantly reminiscent of 1940's Hollywood whodunits - in this it recalls the pulp stories of Paul Chadwick.

 

Crossen also wrote science fiction novels, pulp hero tales, and comic books. His 1940's pulp and comic book hero the Green Lama might appeal to today's readers and their fascination with Tibet. Crossen's Year of Consent (1954) is a dystopian science fiction novel, in the tradition of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Crossen depicts a future United States under the control of public relations and advertising experts, people who know how to manipulate public opinion. There is considerable satiric thrust to this, and it has only gotten worse in recent elections, with sound bites and negative campaigning. Crossen also follows Huxley's ideas in being concerned about psychoactive drugs, and their ability to manipulate populations. Crossen's The Splintered Man is probably the first work of fiction of any sort to discuss LSD. Crossen depicts LSD as a sinister drug, used by Soviet totalitarian scientists for purposes of mind control. Crossen also wrote anti-drug novels aimed at young readers. Year of Consent is also notable for its depiction of computers as an instrument of social control. Crossen's technical specifications for the government computer (known as "Hugo") are remarkably detailed, precise and scientifically accurate. Crossen clearly had done a lot of serious research into science before writing his tales, which are unusually grounded in real science.

 

The hero of Year of Consent is a government employed private eye. He has a fancy title, but that is what his job really amounts to. In this he recalls a bit Todhunter Ballard's series sleuth Bill Lennox, who works as a private eye for a Hollywood film studio, keeping its stars out of trouble. He also recalls Milo March, who works both as a self-employed detective in many books, and occasionally as a US Government agent in others.

 

A Hearse of Another Color (1958) is a Milo March detective novel. It's a genuine mystery story, with fair play clues pointing toward the final solution, and other subplots along the way. The tale focuses relentlessly on detection throughout, with March constantly attempting to learn more about the crimes. The story never degenerates into a thriller or suspense tale. I found the puzzle plot of the book very easy to solve, but it is still there, unlike some private eye writers.

 

The tale suggests that nothing is as much fun as the life style of 1950s corporate America, with its endless flow of money, expense accounts, and the opportunities to pursue such activities as travel, nice clothes, cars, fine dining and romance. Both Milo March and some of the characters live in such a world, which is designed to be a pleasant fantasy experience for the readers. There is a relatively realistic tone to Crossen's work, at least when compared to such contemporaries as Richard S. Prather. Both men like the high life of the day, but while Prather spins fantasies about a private eye's life, Crossen sticks to a fairly realistic account of the opportunities open to a well to do business exec of the time. Of course, most Americans of the era could not afford to live on this scale. Still, Crossen's desires are relatively modest, and his delight in travel and good food would increasingly become affordable to the majority of Americans.

 

Milo March stories differ radically in tone from those of Raymond Chandler. Chandler's stories are dark, and they depict a world full of evil characters. Crossen despises mobsters and crooks, but basically he likes 1950's America and the world in general. Neither he nor March seem alienated, which is the word I'd use to describe Philip Marlowe and his successors. Instead, Crossen and March preserve a sunny, good-natured attitude towards most of life. Indeed, Crossen's tone is generally comic throughout. Even his mob villains have a slightly tongue in cheek quality. Parts of the story even approach the comedy of manners, something one associates more with Golden Age sleuths than 1950's private eyes. Milo March also has a different attitude towards the men he meets, than most private eyes. Usually he winds up making friends with them, and the book is full of scenes of male bonding. March is especially fond of government agents, such as police and FBI men, Madison Avenue type executives, and artists. All of these types are described glowingly in Crossen's work. All of these men represent success, in different forms and professions. They tend to be highly competent and glamorous.

 

A Hearse of a Different Color strongly endorses integration and the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, its best parts deal with black "diviner" Willie Morell. Willie is the most colorful of the New Orleans locals March meets, and he is a character whose verbal facility and unique way of talking mark out as an original. Crossen's sympathy with black Americans reminds one of Ed Lacy.

 

The Flaming Man (1969) also has a Civil Rights theme. Once again, March travels to a case, this time to Los Angeles in the middle of the 1960's Civil Rights upheaval. These aspects only are used for one section of the story, however. The novel resembles A Hearse of a Different Color (1958) in being a mystery story. Both novels are pleasant reading experiences, without being masterpieces of mystery fiction.

 

There is less emphasis on glamour in this case. Instead, the story spoofs private eye traditions, by being almost entirely set in bars. Whenever Milo March wants to interview a suspect, or track down a clue, he goes to another bar to do it. There is something surrealistic about this, as well as being a satire on the traditional private eye tale. It is consistent with Crossen's depiction of substance abuse throughout his fiction.

 

Bibliography

As Ken Crossen

The Case of the Curious Heel (1944)

The Case of the Phantom Fingerprints (1945)

Murder Out of Mind (1945)

The Conspiracy of Death (1965) with George Redston

As Kendell Foster Crossen

The Tortured Path (1957)

The Big Dive (1959)

As Bennett Barlay

Satan Comes Across (1945)

As Richard Foster

The Laughing Buddha Murders (1944)

The Invisible Man Murders (1945)

The Girl From Easy Street (1952)

Blonde and Beautiful (1955)

Bier For A Chaser (1959)

The Rest Must Die (1959)

Too Late For Mourning (1960)

As M E Chaber

Hangman's Harvest (1952) aka Don't Get Caught

No Grave For March (1953) aka All the Way Down

As Old As Cain (1954) aka Take One For Murder

The Man Inside (1954) aka Now It's My Turn

The Splintered Man (1955)

A Lonely Walk (1956)

The Gallows Garden (1958) aka the Lady Came To Kill

A Hearse of Another Color (1958)

So Dead the Rose (1959)

Jade For A Lady (1962)

Softly in the Night (1963)

Six Who Ran (1964)

Uneasy Lies the Dead (1964)

Wanted: Dead Men (1965)

The Day It Rained Diamonds (1966)

A Man in the Middle (1967)

Wild Midnight Falls (1968)

The Flaming Man (1969)

Green Grow the Graves (1970)

The Bonded Dead (1971)

Born To Be Hanged (1973)

The Green Lama (1976)

As Christopher Monig

The Burned Man Dutton (1956) aka Don’t Count the Corpses

Abra-Cadaver (1958)

Once Upon A Crime (1959)

The Lonely Graves (1960)

As Clay Richards

The Marble Jungle (1961)

Death of An Angel (1963)

The Gentle Assassin (1964)

Who Steals My Name (1964)

 

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