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Found Pages: The Remarkable Harold Ernest (“Darcy Glinto”) Kelly, 1899–1969.

Sidebar 6: Rogues’ Gallery:

1. Edgar Wallace, On the Spot (1931)


In a 1939 review in Scrutiny of biographies of Jack London and Edgar Wallace, no less a critic than Q.D. Leavis said that Wallace’s 1930

gangster play On the Spot is nearer to art and survival than anything that is likely to be in Jack London’s fifty volumes, perhaps because of his lack of ideals, his shrewd newspaperman’s knowledge of character and his friendships in the criminal underworld that qualified him to be the dramatist of this society. (VII, p. 479)

Had she seen it in the West End, I wonder? Had it come to Cambridge in a repertory theatre production? Did F.R. Leavis see it with her? A piquant thought.


The 1932 novel of the same name, during much of its length, feels play-like, with a lot of the action taking place in the lavish Chicago apartment of Tony Perelli, an obvious stand-in for Al Capone, though by no means identical in character.

In addition to what he read, Wallace would have heard a lot during the twenty-four hours that he spent in Chicago at the end of the Twenties, no doubt with members of the newspaper and criminal fraternities, who would have been flattered to be meeting the most famous crime novelist in the world, a bon viveur with entertaining things to report about the London scene.

The apartment is a site like the setting of an Ibsen play, Hedda Gabler for example, in which as people come and go, and talk and plan and go off and execute (sometimes literally), and come back and report, we have a growing sense of what is going on outside its confines and what has happened earlier.

Vain, romantic, ruthless Perelli plots against and intimidates rivals, copes with visiting cops, is sentimental (up to a point) about his current mistress, the beautiful Chinese Minn Lee (who loves him), is overly tolerant of the screw-ups of well-bred young Jimmy McGrath who joins his gang and is maneuvered into doing a killing that devastates him.

Filling in what was presumably implicit in the play, Wallace provides a lot of credible-sounding information about the running of a crime empire, and the psychology of gangsters large and small.


Quoting isn’t easy, because the effects tend to be cumulative. But here is Perelli with charming Minn Lee, in whom his interest (with another woman looming) is not what it was:

And now she put into words for the first time the plan she had formed.

“Can’t we get away from Chicago?”

He looked at her oddly.

“Sure—you can go by the Twentieth Century. You have time to make the reservation.”

“I said ‘we’,” she began.

He got up and pulled her urgently to her feet.

“We is not me. You are just you, understand? Nothing but. You are like the furniture. I like you—you are pretty, charming, and lovely to my eye, but so are all the things in the apartment. Yet they do not say ‘we’, huh? They do not say: ‘Tony Perelli, take us to Europe with you,’ huh?”

He took her face in his hands and kissed her on the mouth. He kissed her again and then struck her gently on the cheek.

“Damn’ fool!”

She smiled, became herself again, but her brightness was forced and he knew it. (Ch. 12)

Here is Perelli in full peroration to his nemesis, Chief Detective Kelly (there’s a lot of Irish here):

He was still a little staccato and breathless.

“You’re a swell feller—I hand it all to you. When you give me the green I pass; when you snap the red I stop. I know where I am with you. But there is only one way of running my racket and that is the way I go, eh? If one man is bumped off, or two men are bumped off, what does it matter? Are they innocent? Are they citizens? Tell me! They are hoodlums, murderers, bombers, hold-up men, vice men, everything! What does it cost to send them to the death house in the state of Illinois? Fifty t’ousand dollars! Fifty grand! Lawyers, jurymen, judges, new trial, new witnesses—eh, it goes on for years before the hangman says ‘Step on it!’ Four hundred people have been bumped off by gangsters—if you like, I am a gangster—by us! We save the state twenty million dollars—six cartridges for every sixty cents, eh? That’s cheaper than fifty thousand dollars. Outside the State Legislature there should be a statue to gangsters. We are benefactors—if you like, vermin that prey on vermin. It is unanswerable!” (Ch 19)

One can imagine Robert de Niro as Capone nodding and smiling appreciatively as he watches in his theatre box.


Minn Lee is central to the play.

Here is Kelly talking earlier with her.:

“Some days he’ll send you out to Cicero,” he said deliberately. “You know what you will do there?”

She shook her head.

“You will take charge of the big house where the swell fellows go.”

“No!” The word came vehemently, passionately. For a moment he thought he had shocked her.

“And then after a year,” he continued, “you’ll go down to the second house, where they drink beer and bad hooch, and then, by and by, you’ll have a room in the third house, where there’s no color bar.”


He swung her round by the shoulders and looked down into her face.

“That’s the way the others went, Minn Lee. All of them. Every girl who has been ‘Mrs. Perelli’ has ended in the same racket.” (Ch. 18)

Here, finally, very close to the end, is Tony after he has taken from Minn Lee all the jewelry that he has given her.

“These will look fine when they’re reset,” he went on. “You’ll get them back, Minn Lee, don’t you worry. I will make these sparkle like a million dollars—while you’re away.”

There was emphasis in the last words, and she looked at him.

“While I’m away?” she repeated.

He slipped the jewelry into his pocket.

“Yes, for a little time. This has upset me, but mostly what you told me about Jimmy. I love you too much,” he said dismally. “When you come back I will forget.”

“Where am I going?” she asked softly.

He took her hands in his.

“I will tell you. You want to help Tony, don’t you, my pretty? I have had a lot of trouble at Cairo. Those damn’ girls have been robbing me. So I fired the girl at the big ‘ouse, eh? She was no good.”

He heard the quick catch of her breath, and was prepared for tears, but they did not come.

“You want me to go there and take her place?” She shook her head.

“For a little while,” he pleaded. “You’re a swell manager, Minn Lee; you would put everything jake for me. You shall have a grand suite—better than the Blackstone. Servants, cars, have your friends—“

She shook her head … (Ch. 24)

I hear an echo of this in Pacco’s relationship with Nicole in Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise.


2. Peter Cheyney, This Man is Dangerous (1936)

In contrast to such genteel and Establishment-viewpoint entertainments as Hugh Clevely’s Sapper-ish The Gang-Smasher (1928) and Edgar Wallace’s disappointing When the Gangs Came to London (1932), Peter Cheyney creates in the first six chapters of This Man is Dangerous, with its incursion of American gangsters into England, an atmospherically consistent milieu in which violences that really hurt can occur at any point.

We hear of a hoodlum nailed up to a tree with four-inch nails, and a kidnapper telling a father that if he doesn’t ransom his daughter at the specified time he’s going to get her ears in a registered envelope. Lemmy Caution is kicked in the face by a dame in high heels, who tells him a few pages later, after he’s escaped from her clutches, that one of these days he’s going to get “a paraffin bath an’ I’ll just love to light it myself.”

After which she’s beaten up by a another woman, assisting Caution, who drags her off into a bedroom where “I gather that Connie’s giving Lottie the works properly an’ has got a pillow over her mouth to stop the neighbourhood getting excited.”

In search of information, Caution and a male associate beat up a cocky, well-dressed young mobster, in the course of which

he gets up and spits out a coupla teeth. I walk round to him an’ I sit him down on the chair again. I pick the chair and him up, and’ I throw the whole outfit against the wall. The chair busts an’ this guy falls down on the floor. He is covered with blood an’ he is not looking too hot. (Ch.3)

After he has spilled such beans as he has, while dabbing at his broken nose with Caution’s handkerchief, they tie him up and dump him in the cellar, where, as Caution tells us, things don’t look so good for him if they aren’t back in two or three days to release him.

At least, though, after Caution stops a bullet his arm gets stiff and gives him hell.


3. Gerald Butler, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1940)

The first few chapters of Gerald Butler’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands are a brilliant self-presentation of a small-time predator moving in on a new environment and obviously bound to keep failing because, while priding himself on his superiority, he is unaware of how distant he is from any acceptable norm. Here are a couple of samples.

In the first he has just jumped into a cab in which a stranger is sitting,

I jabbed him in the face and then clamped my hand quickly over his mouth, because he looked like the kind that might yelp when you hit him. But he was easy. He was such a soft mug that it was almost like robbing a blind baby.

“Turn out your pockets!” I told him.

He gaped as if I didn’t make sense.

“Your money,” I said, and slapped him again just to wake him up a bit. He looked such a frightened mug I could have spewed on him.

He shook like a jelly and pulled out his notecase. I grabbed it and moved back across the seat to give myself room. Then I brought my right fist over in a real lovely jab. He sagged on the seat like a lump of nothing. I shoved the notecase in my pocket, and rapped on the front window. As the cab slowed down, I opened the door and put my head out to catch the cabby’s attention before he looked into the cab.

“Drop me here—the other fellow’s going on to where he said,” I told him.

Before the cab had quite stopped I hopped on the curb and slammed the door.

“Cheerio, old man!” I shouted. “See you later.”

Here he is in an amusement arcade after playing a pinball machine:

I flicked my fingers for the girl who was looking after the place. She came along, and I pointed to the score and grinned. She grinned back and pointed to a notice on the machine which said it had been tilted.

“Sorry, mister,” she said.

She was a nasty, cocky little bitch.

“Give me those five cigarettes,” I told her.

“Nothing doing,” she said. “You tilted it. I saw you.”

Her hand was resting on the machine, and I brought down my elbow hard on the back of it. She snatched it away and yelped a bit.

“Get out!” she said. “Get out or I’ll have you thrown out.”

I laughed.

It was a time of day when a lot of people go to work, and there was no one else there except for a couple of pimply-faced, undersized mugs, who gave us a glance and started to edge away. There was no one else looking after the place, and I guessed that a part of her job was to keep the place nice and quiet and friendly. I looked along the rows of machines, and then looked back at her and grinned.

“Lots of glass around here, in these machines,” I pointed out.

She hesitated and then took the hint. She put her hand in her apron pocket and fished out the packet of five cigarettes.

“Now get out,” she said. “We don’t want people like you here.!”

I took the cigarettes and went out into the street.

The young girl with whom he subsequently becomes involved is able to handle him by a combination of common sense, genuine indifference at first (he’s a pest), a touching innocence, and, after a point an evident liking for him in one or two of his manifestations. Regeneration sets in (not altogether plausibly, perhaps), to the disadvantage of the prose.

But even without that, the book would still be vastly better than Gerald Kersh’s pretentious, misanthropic, misogynistic, and deeply depressing Night and the City (1938), a work with nothing in common with Jules’ Dassin’s fine noir of that title, apart from a few names and some bits about wrestling.





May 2006

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