Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Celluloid Burglar

In issue #58, Fall 2001, of BEHIND THE MASK, we published a story by G.T. Fleming-Roberts titled, “Death From Damascus”, sent to us by Monte Herridge. The story originally appeared in the April 1938 issue of DETECTIVE NOVELS MAGAZINE, a magazine from Ned Pines’ Standard line, ruled over by head editor, Leo Margulies. At the time I never thought much about the story.  But as you will see, I think this story may have a similar connection to this magazine group as “Funny Face”, by Norman Daniels, and “Murder On Parade” by George Green.
Before Daniels and Green started writing The Phantom Detective novels, they had to show Leo they could handle the hero/masked character. “Funny Face” and “Murder On Parade” were their initiation, so to speak. After their stories were turned in, and Leo liked them, the authors started churning out Phantom Detective yarns. So where am I going with this? Well, 1939 was just ahead. And 1939 was going to be the beginning of several new pulp characters under Leo’s guiding hand. Leo was looking for authors to spearhead those new series.
Norman Daniels, who had been away from the Phantom Detective series for a while, suddenly appeared writing a new Phantom yarn. I imagine there were some other authors that we haven’t paid enough attention to yet, but one name does stick out, and that’s G.T. Fleming-Roberts, who had been spearheading the Secret Agent X series for a few years. The April 1938 issue of DETECTIVE NOVELS MAGAZINES suddenly has a masked hero appear under the Fleming-Roberts byline.  A coincidence? It is possible, but highly doubtful.
Dated January 1940, but likely released November 1939, was a new series from Ned Pines called The Ghost Detective by G.T. Fleming-Roberts. Normally, stories had a “wait” period of about six months, so Fleming-Roberts was probably writing the series early in 1939. Was “Death From Damascus” his “try out” for spearheading a masked hero for Leo? My guess is, yes.
            The story features The Celluloid Burglar who is something of a Robin Hood, robbing from crooks to give to the poor, or something like that. Here is how we meet him:

A figure appeared from the shadows. He wore a black mask that glittered like polished ebony, hiding the man’s features. Two menacing eyes bored at them through the slanting eye slits of the mask. A hand held a small .25 trained on the three men.
He leaves a thin piece of black celluloid the size of a calling card at the scene to identify his work; the card is blank, except for a shiny black dot of ink – the dot is a piece of gleaming celluloid, shaped like a face – two tiny slanting eyes, and a slit of a mouth in the tiny black mask.
He carries pens in his coat pocket that contain an assortment of things: tear gas, tiny flashlight, and fake blood, among other items. He also wears a bulletproof vest.

Crooks sometimes call him a comic opera burglar. The case involves the theft of The Prince of Damascus dagger, a jeweled dagger that once belonged to the Middle Eastern conqueror, Melek-ed-Dhaher-Bihras. It is purported to be worth thousands of dollars.
The Celluloid Burglar is actually Detective-sergeant Harrison Hasty, better known as “Pretty Damn Hasty” because he solves crimes so fast. About the only description we have of him, is his wavy brown hair.
Lucky McGee is his assistant, and drives him everywhere, even on duty. McGee is an ex-con (his nickname come from his prison #1313). Hasty had found him when he was just a kid, starving in the gutter. When the boy was older he went to prison for something we are never told what, but when he was released and couldn’t find a job, Hasty had fed and clothed him. Lucky became his friend and companion, and aided him during his outings as The Celluloid Burglar.
We are told that Hasty had a good friend, P.I. Dick Connell, who was murdered, thus giving rise to The Celluloid Burglar.
There are two city officials, Police Commissioner Brady, and District Attorney Snathe.
G.T. Fleming-Roberts was a prolific writer, but I really doubt there were sequels to this story. I still feel that this was his “show” story to Leo, proving that he could handle the hero characters. If so, then we are aware of at least three such “show me” stories, and I bet there are others we haven’t discovered yet.

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