04 February 2013

A Comic Book Artist's Absurd Murder Mystery

Artists, Models and Murder
Tedd Steele
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1948

Mothers, don't let your sons grow up to be private dicks; the hours are awful and so few require their services. Consider this novel a cautionary tale.

It's been two months since Steve Black left New York to set up shop in Metropolis and he's still awaiting his first client. What this particular dick thought was a smart move – "there's only three other detective agencies here" – has brought only bitterness: "There's not enough crime in this burg." This goes some way in explaining why it is that Steve allows himself to be hired by broken-hearted Webster Reynolds.

A successful artist – he smokes gold monogrammed cigarettes – Reynolds' story is fascinating. For nearly four years he's been involved with model Marcia Hunter. They became engaged around the end of year three, but decided to put off marriage until they'd saved up a nice nest egg. All went according to plan until Marcia suddenly, inexplicably spent three thousand dollars on an oil painting. "I called the thing a bloody daub," says Reynolds, "and told her she has [sic] been taken in for spending so much money."

The purchase was uncharacteristic of a woman who'd never paid more than two hundred dollars for a painting. More mysterious still, is the unexpected appearance of the artist, Pierre Robinette. Newly arrived from Paris, he offers ten thousand dollars to buy back his work of art. After Marcia refuses, Robinette starts in on winning her heart and Reynolds pops the Parisian paramour in the snout.

An artist himself – responsible for the May 1941 cover of Uncanny Tales and numerous comic books – Steele's intriguing premise is made fun through his wishful alternate reality. Artists are invariably handsome, sophisticated and well-paid, attributes they share with the writers in fellow Torontonian pulpist Keith Edgar's I Hate You to Death. I was reminded also of Horace Brown's The Penthouse Killings in that its private detective and Steve Black are dimwits.

If the case covered in Artists, Models and Murder is typical, Steve's lack of thought, his inability to put two and two together, is understandable. He suffers numerous beatings in his first twelve hours on the case, losing consciousness no less than seven times. I counted. Steve, poor Steve, thinks that the number is five.

The cover copy errs in mentioning Manhattan, before going on to claim: "Artists, models and gunfire are bound up in a swift-moving train of events that thrust Steve into a multitude of situations both hair raising [sic] and hilarious."

Hilarious? No, but that train of events moves so rapidly that one wonders whether Artists, Models and Murder is a parody. In one scene, Steve comes upon a murdered model, is knocked out, revived, surrounded by policemen, encounters an old acquaintance, is cleared of the crime and is told by the coroner that the murder occurred within the last thirty minutes. In another, newspapers report that a thorough investigation involving forensics has proven that Steve is responsible for a murder that took place less than two hours earlier.

Again, no. This is not a parody, but sloppy writing. The hilarity is meant to be found in the private dick's quick quips and head-scratching descriptions. "I felt as giddy as the Empire State Building's spire," a drunken Steve tells us. "My stomach kept leaping over the middle rail of an escalator and my one good eye was showing me the damnedest display of pyro-technics I had ever witnessed."

Artistic licence, I suppose.

Everything is explained at the end by the villain. He's going to kill Steve, so what the hell. "Take a seat there on the chair and I'll outline the beginning of the whole affair," he tells the private dick. Seven pages later, I found it was all beginning to make sense, more or less, though I was left with two questions:

   Did Tedd Steele do the cover illustration?

   Why does that cover not feature his name?

Artists: 3
Models: 2
Murders: 5 (including one artist and one model)

More trivia: Though it's clear that the novel takes place in the United States, Steele plays tribute to his hometown by naming the river that runs through the southern part of Metropolis the Don.

Object: The tag – ANOTHER NEWSTAND [sic] LIBRARY MYSTERY – gives good indication of what is to follow. To be fair, the publisher did get its name right on the first page:

What follows is 140 pages of faded print, burred print, skewed print, and typo-ridden text. In a mystery,  a clue that reads "P.W.R. 324" on one page and "P.W.F. 324" on another makes for challenging reading.

Artists Models and Murder or Artist, Models and MurderAgain, I turn to Mrs Vowels, who taught that the latter is correct. Wrong on the cover, but right on the spine, back and title page.

Don't get me started on the Oxford comma.

The cover illustration depicts a scene that is not in the novel. The painting featured is also not in the novel. Pierre Robinette's "bloody daub" depicts a raven-haired nude holding a poodle.

My paint-splattered copy once belonged to Jackson Pollock. Prove me wrong.

Access: With no listing on WorldCat and no listing from online booksellers, this ranks with Thomas P. Kelley's No Tears for Goldie as one of the most uncommon books I've covered here. Bowdler of Fly-by-night informs that Artists, Models and Murder was first published in 1946 by Toronto's Crown Novel Publishing for distribution in Great Britain. He's never seen a copy, which leads me to believe that I never will.


  1. Ever think of compiling all these posts on the Canadian alternative crime writers into a book? By now you have the makings of a new kind of Gun in Cheek.

    1. Not to give anything away, but... More anon.

  2. Replies
    1. Remarkable, is it not? Doubly so when placed next to the other News Stand Library title that month George Victor Martin's Mark It With a Stone. Just as naughty - and I think that's the same woman.

    2. Look to your contemporaneous pulps...and not a few paperbacks. Part of why "Paperback Writer" could be a concept for the Beatles two decades later...and why it drives me up a wall when would-be hipsters try to conflate pulps and paperbacks, when pbs were quite capable of getting a bad rap from bluenoses all on their seedy own...

  3. I have a copy of this book - i.e. Artists Models and Murder, by Tedd Steele, Toronto: export Publishing enterprises, 1946 - in nice condition, with cover art depicting a red-haired nude woman in a picture or mirror frame. Jim Anderson Books, Winnipeg