Saturday, May 14, 2011

Harold Q. Masur by Ed Lynskey

Harold Q. Masur: Hardboiled With a Lawyerly Touch
By Ed Lynskey

The late Hal Masur’s debut novel Bury Me Deep was published in 1947 the same
year Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled classic, I, the Jury, also hit the bookstands.
Otto Penzler brought out a reissue in 1984, probably the most widely available
edition. You can’t miss it. The cover features an alluring, half-dressed blonde
poised on a pink sherbet armchair.

Masur graduated from the New York University School of Law in 1934. He practiced
law from 1935-1942 when he then served in the U.S. Air Force. Starting from the
late 1930s, he honed his writing craft by publishing short stories in various
magazines like Argosy (1939), Popular Detective, (1941), and Detective Story
Magazine (1949). He was also President of MWA (1973-74) and the recipient of
MWA’s 1992 Raven Award (in part for his providing pro bono legal counsel to
mystery writers).

Bury Me Deep opens with Scott Jordan returning from Florida to his New York City
apartment. He discovers a half-nude blonde (“bright jonquil-yellow hair”) on the
sofa sipping brandy and batting her eyes at him. This attention-getting device
does Spillane one better by frontloading the undressed babe (“She was wearing
black panties and a black bra and that was all.”) in its pages instead of a
striptease at the end. The trouble only begins for the weary lawyer when he
ships her home in a cab and she turns up dead.

Masur’s Scott Jordan series spanned nine novels and one short story collection
over three decades, a respectable run. Comparisons of Scott Jordan to Erle
Stanley Gardner’s
Perry Mason can’t be helped. Critics such as Art Scott draw distinct differences
between the two sleuthing lawyers, citing Jordan’s more active investigative
role. Masur commented on how he created the protagonist: “The series character,
Scott Jordan, a New York attorney, was first conceived to fall somewhere between
Perry Mason and Archie Goodwin . . . with the dash and insouciance of Rex
Stout’s Archie.”

I admire Masur’s evocative yet controlled prose style. For instance, he writes
about New York City after-hours: “Broadway had pulsed into neon-glaring night
life. Swollen throngs milled restlessly with a rapacious appetite for pleasure.
Box-office windows spawned long queues, and the traffic din was a steady roar in
your ears.” This same
passage could’ve been just as easily lifted out of a Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, or
O’Hara novel.

This title was a top-notch inaugural effort from Mr. Masur to establish a crime
fiction series. Faint echoes of PI Max Thursday (Wade Miller) and Carney Wilde
(Bart Spicer) ring in its pages. Yet, Scott Jordan remains his own man. The
analytical turn of his legal mind and his broader understanding of jurisprudence
give him a dramatic edge over the typical PI tales of his time. Jordan is also
an affable personality. Though this first book didn’t make the cut for review in
Anthony Boucher’s “Criminals at Large” column in the New York Times, subsequent
Scott Jordan titles did. Finally, Bury Me Deep mustered enough interest to win
an entry in Bill Pronzini’s classic critical work 1001 Midnights.

The End

A longer version of this article appeared in CRIME SCENE SCOTLAND.

Ed Lynskey's new titles are LAKE CHARLES and QUIET ANCHORAGE.

1 comment:

Cap'n Bob said...

One nit pick. There was no U.S. Air Force in 1942. It was the U.S. Army Air Forces until becoming a separate service in 1947. Glad to know my 32 years as a civilian employee of the USAF wasn't for naught.