Friday, January 03, 2014

***The Life And Times Of Michael Philip Marlin, Private Investigator- On One Nick Charles (Okay, Nora Too), Private Eye- The (Real) Thin Man Case 


From The Pen Of Frank Jackman –with kudos to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler

Disclaimer: Of course Michael Philip Marlin is not alive. Christ, he would be over one hundred years old, although seeing the way private eyes today use the latest DNA samples, the Internet, techno-photography, enhanced this and that, and the ubiquitous GPS and still come up empty-handed, still can’t solve the damn case in front of them Marlin would still give them a run for their money if he were alive. Especially if some rough stuff was at hand. No, what the “The Life And Times Of Michael Philip Marlin, Private Investigator” means is that there is a Marlin, Tyrone, Marlin’s son, who has taken up the profession and is carrying on with his father’s work.

This may surprise many, including Marlin’s father, uh, step-father, no, that’s not right either, god-father, a guy named Raymond Chandler who did not know  that Marlin had a son, thought he was strictly a loner, a middle-aged loner and who was strictly a “love them and leave them” guy with the women. Chandler can be excused for being unaware of Marlin’s family status since he had lost touch with Marlin before he, Chandler, died in 1959. See Marlin kept it all hush-hush about his big affair with Fiona Fallon, yes, that Fiona, who gave the likes of Gene Tierney, Lauren Bacall and Rita Hayworth a run for their money in the femme fatale department back when they were lighting up the screens in the 1940s with a smile and a come hither look that every guy thought, no, knew was meant for him (keep that quiet just in case those guys married, and are still married to, the dish they took to that show).

They were having an affair on the sly after Marlin saved a producer’s bacon, a well-known producer who is still working so we will use some discretion, on a kidnapping case (of his daughter) who wrapped up the thing with no loss of life and no ransom paid and to show his gratitude he introduced them to each other. Fiona, a shapely green-eyed red-head, and Marlin hit it off right away. A child was born of their love, Tyrone, in 1946. It was never clear whether they had been married, nobody could find a marriage certificate (maybe today’s techno-dicks could find one, at least they should be able to do that). What is not in dispute is that on the QT Marlin acknowledged his son, and came through with child support when Fiona’s star started fade in the 1950s when shapely red-heads were being pushed out of Hollywood by curvaceous buxom blondes, as were those who like Fiona had been too close to the Hollywood Ten-types as well. More importantly, as Marlin wound down his personal involvement in his agency, Michael Philip Marlin and Associates, leaving the day to day operations to a guy named Miles Archer, a skirt-chaser but good on divorce work, work which brought in the serious 1950s Hollywood dough, he spent more time with Tyrone.

The pair, to use today’s term, bonded, bonded over Marlin’s endless tales about his own cases, and cases of guys that he worked with, or in competition with. After Marlin died in 1976, died the way he lived, by the way, taking two slugs to the heart from some two-bit gunsel, Elisha Cook I think his name was, who was ordered by old- time gangster boss of bosses Max Webber to “hit” Webber’s ex-girlfriend who had hired Marlin to protect her, Tyrone got “religion,” got the shamus bug that must have been DNA-embedded in his cells. Funny though Tyrone never used his father’s name when he went private, using his mother’s name Fallon instead.  His reason, like lots of children of the famous, was that he wanted to succeed or fall on his own ass. Besides more people, people who counted in Hollywood, remembered the beautiful if wild Fiona Fallon than some two-bit key-hole peeper (Marlin’s term not Tyrone’s). Moreover lone wolf shamuses with quirky habits, quick fists, and fast trigger fingers were not what serious money Hollywood was looking for in the 1970s. They wanted work done quietly, very quietly.   

One day somebody, somebody I know quite well, Joshua Lawrence Breslin the old time radical journalist (The East Bay Eye and other small newspapers and journals) asked Tyrone to tell him some of the stories that Marlin had told him about the days when men,and women too, made of steel, steely stuff anyway. One thing Josh wanted to know was about Marlin’s take on a famous gumshoe, a society guy named Nick Charles, who had solved one of the biggest murder cases around, the one they called the Thin Man case.  Tyrone laughed, laughed heartily when he was asked that question because Marlin would always bring that guy, Nick Charos he called him, and that case, up when he wanted to make a point about guys who should have taken up some trade, plumbing maybe, rather than private detection. Here is the way Tyrone explained the case to Josh who explained it to me one night not long ago over a few drinks, although I take full responsibility for what is written here.
Tyrone Fallon started the story out by saying  that one thing his father always said, said the thing almost every time he spoke of a case, spoke of it like some mantra, was don’t believe everything you hear around or read in the damn newspapers. And Tyrone remembered that Marlin (let’s call him that for convenience, besides everybody except a few flames, including Fiona, called him the manly Marlin surname rather than the wimpy Michael Philip, Philip with one “l”) punctuated that remark, punctuated it by digging a finger into Tyrone’s chest about one Nick Charos, strictly a creation of the tabloids and society swells.     

(Nick Charles, born Nicholas Charos, a Greek guy from the old neighborhood who could hardly wait to Anglicize his name like half the other sons and daughters of immigrants who stepped off the boat from Ellis Island back in the day in order to move in with the uptown crowd, the WASPs, when they, he, came of age )

The media went crazy when Nick solved what all the newspapers and radio reports called, for lack of a better moniker, the Thin Man case, the case of the murder of Lawrence Winot the big inventor/ industrialist, right under noses of New York’s finest. But Marlin, after he daily read the doings in the case in the Times got curious, very curious about how a guy, a society guy like Charles could have done such a feat, a feat that even he would have been hard pressed to solve from what he knew of the few facts provided by the press.  So he started to make some connections with his sources in New York City to find out what was what because something was out of whack. 

Those connections led him to NYPD Detective Lieutenant Tom Mallory, the cop in charge of the day to day operations of the case who told him over the telephone in several conversations exactly what did and did not happen in that case. Once Detective Mallory found out he was dealing with a real private eye, Jesus, the guy who solved, or rather wrapped up with a bow the famous Galton case, the Hollywood kidnap and ransom case with no loss of innocent life, and no ransom given he was more than happy to share the real facts of his case. All he asked of Marlin was that he keep the stuff under his hat, keep it between professionals since the media now that the dust had settled could have cared less about facts anyway. Mallory said that straight out at the beginning of their first conversation because the papers, radio too, had just cribbed the AP-UPI ticker, had gotten it all balled up. Especially the guy from the Gazette, Dashiell Hammett, who was mainly the flak-catcher on the case, apparently the only guy at that newspaper who could walk on two feet Mallory guessed. He cynically used the case to try to make a big name for himself, trying to move up in the business, and trying to win a by-line over the dead body of Winot.

The guy, Winot, apparently carried a lot of water in New York, whatever little quirks he might have exhibited which were learned as the case unfolded, so you knew there would be plenty of publicity. Hammett was nothing but a two-bit cub reporter trying to cash in. Christ, Hammett had previously spent his time at the paper writing some advice or “how to” column or something like that, you know “Should I wear brown shoes with a grey suit-coat?” that kind of stuff, lightweight stuff, for the Gazette newspaper before the police beat reporter, old reliable Glenn Hubbard, passed away and they needed somebody to cover the spot until they got a real beat reporter.

This Hammett was nothing but a bother, soaking up other guys’ material, real reporters, and just re-writing the stuff in that awful hard-boiled cop manner that he thought was the real thing, thought was the way cops, victims, or witnesses talked, gruff talk. You know, highlighting some cop, some cop he slipped a fiver to, telling the reading public about how the cop saved somebody’s bacon, or gunned down some desperado with no thought to his own safety. Not worrying about truth or anything like that, that’s for sure. The situation was awful until Mallory and his buddies threw him out of the reporters’ pit down at Precinct. But that only made things worse as Hammett started making stuff up out of whole cloth as he went along grabbling stuff of off the police channel and embellishing it. He was the guy who coined it the Thin Man case since when NYPD found Winot’s body it turned to be that of a tall thin guy. Why not the Tall Man case. Jesus, Marlowe could see what Mallory meant.

So you know Hammett was nothing but putty in a smoothie like Nick Charles’ hands.  Nick wouldn’t even have to work up a sweat just throwing out whatever “evidence” came into his alcohol-addled head. And Hammett lapped it up, all of it just like a dog. And printing whatever his wife, Nora, had to say for that matter who Mallory guessed had nothing better to do that clipping stock dividend coupons and decided that wouldn’t it be lovely to be crime-busters for a while, until the social season started anyway. So Nick Charles, or wife Nora, or the both of them gave Hammett all the information they wanted planted (and drinks at their favorite afternoon watering hole over at the Alhambra, the one on 54th Street not the one on 42nd). Hammett never checked any of it out and wound up with egg on his face when Nick, drunk probably, swore he had dinner with Winot one afternoon. It must have been a very quiet dinner on that date he gave out since according to the coroner’s report, an official report, Winot had been dead a couple of weeks by that time. Of course once NYPD, Mallory and his partners, solved the case all of that was water under the bridge and Nick came up, like every Mayfair swell, smelling of roses. Here’s the real story, the unvarnished story, if you can stand it.

This Nick Charles was a Greek kid from Mallory’s old neighborhood, from the only Greek family in an Irish neighborhood, his father ran the corner market is why. Mallory had run with his older brother, Samos, stealing hubcaps, batteries from cars and stuff, doing five-finger discounts of almost anything with some value from stores for a while before he got on the force. (Truth: Mallory said he got nabbed a couple of times but his father, a twenty- year cop himself got it squashed, squashed real good. The fact that Mallory disclosed that tidbit without having to do so impressed Marlin.) Nick later got on the force too through Mallory’s father who liked the kid, and he was likable in an Irish sort of way for a guy who wasn’t Irish but pure Greek. He left the force after a few years because he didn’t like the red tape and the paper work or something, didn’t get the big cases but was walking some beat out in Five Points before that place got too rough for cops to walk around in. Mallory heard the real reason he left was he was not getting what he thought was his proper cut of the graft from the bookies, tavern owners, and dope-peddlers on his beat and made a stink about it but let’s leave it at the reason Nick gave Hammett since that is what everybody will believe of Saint Nick anyway.

After a couple of years of bumming around, riding the rails (to get a feel for the country according to Hammett like running from railroad bulls with blackjacks and eating “jungle” stew was some kind of lark to see how the other half lived) Nick went private. Yeah, became a private key-hole peeper, a shamus, a gumshoe and every other put down name you can think of that real cops call home-wreckers, divorce work guys mainly, or just plain leeches. No offense, Marlin. Hell  in those days all you needed was a cheapjack license from the real cops (Mallory’s father helping again in his behalf) and five bucks and you were ready to go so nobody should  make more out it than that, make it like you had to grind away at some four- year college to get going.

Mallory had worked a couple of cases with Nick when he was around New York, nothing big, some stolen jewelry from a department store (He said he used his old time expertise as a five-finger discounter to wrap that one up. Nick wanted to fingerprint every kid under twenty who came the store for any reason, Jesus.). Another time a guy who skipped out of his wife and who NYPD was interested in on a Bunco charge, nothing stuff. Mallory forgot whether they ever nabbed that guy, maybe not. Then Mallory didn’t hear about Nick for a while until he ran into Samos one day back in the old neighborhood where he went to visit his mother. He stepped into the market that Samos had taken over from his father when he got too old to do it.  By the way, and this is what Marlowe liked about Mallory, his honesty which counted for a lot with him, especially the few cops who were not totally on the “take,” Mallory  had also stepped by in order to collect some protection money since Samos was running a betting parlor out of the back of the store. If you want to do such an illegal activity you best pay some protection money to the men in blue or you will find out fast that such activity is against the law. Samos was wise to that and paid up, paid up regularly and on time, no problem.

Samos said Nick had gone to the West Coast to try his luck there after he heard about a guy named Michael Philip Marlin, none other than Tyrone’s father, nothing but a private dick but with some street smarts. Marlin Tyrone said was making a bundle solving cases, especially one big Hollywood case where he saved some producer’s  bacon after a busted kidnap ransom on his daughter went sour, and he was getting some silky sheets action from the starlets (courtesy of that grateful producer) down in Los Angeles. Marlin hemmed and hawed as he said all this to Tyrone, kind of wanted to pass the starlet and silky sheets stuff off as just publicity. Tyrone bailed Marlin out by saying he understood that was Los Angeles before the war, before everything went crazy out there, before everybody and their brother and sister was crazy to go to Babylon.

So Nick tried his luck up north in Frisco. Mallory didn’t see his name or photograph in the papers in New York like you would about every other week with Marlin escorting some starlet at an opening night so he figured Nick busted. Later he heard that Nick had given up the private dick game and had gotten married to some frill with dough out there, Nora Allen, whom he had met on some case. He found out later (from Nora’s maid, maids always a good source for information) that Nick had actually dropped the ball on the case, an embezzlement of one of her father’s companies by a trusted employee, who got away to some Pacific island and was never caught. The father had subsequently had a heart attack and Nick was there to hold the daughter’s, Nora’s, hand before he passed on.  

Then one night Mallory was working the Club Soto, looking for a couple of guys, wise guys that he had questions, third –degree questions, to ask about a certain robbery at Kay’s Jewelry Store over on 42nd Street, when he spied Nick and that wife, Nora, a real looker. They had come to town for some stockholders’ meeting or something and were enjoying the night life while they were here. He had been drinking heavily and maybe she had too although she carried it better. They greeted, Nick introduced Mallory to Nora, cut up a few old torches and then they parted. That was the last he had heard of them until the Thin Man case broke a couple of months later, around Christmas. The Chief told Mallory, no ordered him, to bring Nick (and as it turned out this Nora who was the one with the real pull, with the dough to do the pulling) into the case since he, they, had bought a whole block of tickets to the upcoming Policemen’s Ball. So that was that. But already, and he hadn’t even told Marlowe thing one about the case, you could see where bringing in Mayfair swells, even if one of them was a busted-down gumshoe who got lucky, would ball the whole thing up. Would make more work for NYPD before he, they, were through. That stuff, filler really when Marlin thought back on it, was okay but after about two long telephone calls he was itchy to get the details of the case, as a matter of professional curiosity.     

So Mallory spilled it out on the third conversation especially when Marlin pulled his chain about who, or who did not have the investigative smarts to round the killer up. This thin man, this  Lawrence Winot, who even now people, people with cars, everybody, he was sure Marlin had have heard of (he had), or somebody you know has heard of, was a giant in the invention game, mostly about making automobiles faster and safer, and then producing the cars at one of his plants. Naturally a guy who can make cars safer and faster in this car-crazy world would have nothing but money hanging off of him. And he did, except that was not what pulled his chain. Thinking up new inventions was what made him tick.

His family, his wife, really ex-wife and three young marriage- eligible daughters though were another matter, they wanted dough and plenty of it. But him, people would see him around town and kind of laugh at him, privately laugh averting his face since you don’t laugh out loud when that much money is walking down the street and someday you might need a job, or a favor. The reason that they laughed though was that this Winot, about sixty years old was gangly, was a tall skinny guy who always looked a little disheveled, a little too long- haired and with a bleary-eyed look and like he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. But the biggest laugh was that he was kind of an absent-minded professor-type. You know head down and bumping into people or tripping and falling off a curbstone. That is why nobody, nobody meaning the family since his companies were managed by professionals who kept him away from production and company finances leaving him a toy- box laboratory to fiddle around in in one of the downtown buildings off of Seventh Avenue where he could be found at all hours, was nervous when he didn’t show up for a couple of weeks.

Oh yeah, once NYPD was on the case, although it was like pulling teeth to get the family to provide that information, that like a lot of guys with money and some old time reversion to a young man’s sexual dreams Winot was keeping company with his secretary. This secretary, this Janet, was a looker although Mallory said he didn’t know how she was at dictation or whether it mattered to Winot but she was all blonde and curves.  Mallory had her down as nothing but a gold-digger anyway, or high ticket call girl but that was not important. What was important was everybody, family, company executives, his lawyer, thought he was either with Janet under the silky sheets somewhere or out in some desolate, isolated spot inventing something on the QT. When Janet showed up one day at the office after coming back from vacation and said she hadn’t seen Winot for a couple of weeks and nobody could figure out from any evidence his whereabouts then the family, really Winot’s oldest daughter, Dorothy, filed a missing person’s report and that was how Mallory lammed onto the case.

Now this Winot family was buggy, buggy as Winot himself. Seems that Winot divorced his wife, Ida, in order to play with Janet. Such things happen all the time in and around New York, it’s that kind of city just like Marlin’s L.A. except there in real money in the former, but she had gotten remarried on the rebound to some gigolo, a guy named Roman Griffin who NYPD had a book on for pandering and some Bunco activities. Nothing big but enough to figure he was working some scam and for a while they had him set in stone for the big step-off. Ida, Mrs. Winot, ah, Mrs. Griffin thought Roman had dough, dough being very necessary to her up-town lifestyle which was threatened since Janet made sure that Winot cut Ida off after the alimony settlement. Griffin though was nothing but a gold-digger, male version. This Dorothy thought Roman had something to do with her father’s disappearance (as Mallory said so did he once they had a look at Roman’s rap sheet) and convinced her two younger sisters to go along with her on the story.

Jesus those two were nuts, nuts plain and simple, a couple of wayward nubiles with time on their hands while waiting for some guy to spring a wedding ring on them They, night and day, began spying on Roman, sending goofy notes, and threatening murder and mayhem if he did not confess to kidnapping their father. And that is where this Hammett guy, this cub reporter came into the picture. They, the sisters egged on by Dorothy who hunted down some information about Griffin and his previous shady life, had called him and as much as said Roman was the one. Hammett printed their sad-ass story and the whole town was ready to lynch Roman. But see Roman was known to NYPD , very well-known and so after a little friendly third –degree grilling they put him on ice as a material witness like they do all the time when they are not sure who did what and to whom. Just so you aren’t in suspense and get an example of how Mallory was in charge right from the beginning this Roman was cleared early, was nothing but a pretty boy con man, and in any savvy detective’s long experience con men don’t go in for murder, no way.

In all the uproar it turned out that Nick Charles, once he got sober enough to read, or have the newspaper read to him from what everybody heard about the wild parties at his place over at The Duchess Hotel where they were staying for their over-extended visit to the city, had been on a case for Winot back when he worked the New York City shamus streets. An industrial espionage case where Winot suspected an ex-partner, a guy named Livermore, of selling his plans to General Motors that Nick could never solve, but which gave him entrée with the Winot family. So between that big block of Ball tickets and his knowing the family Nick wormed his way into the case. (Apparently the Winot sisters were not the only ones with time on their hands or were looking for an off-handed thrill since Nora, charming, good-looking Nora, egged Nick on to take the case so they would have something to tell people at their next party, or something like that.)

Mallory said even with pressure from higher up they kept Nick at arm’s length most of the time, and he kept himself supplied with enough liquor to waltz through the thing. It was this flak-catcher Hammett and his daily bull that got all the attention while NYPD was hunkered down doing the real work. Every day page one in the Gazette Nick Charles this, Nora Charles that. Nick suspected some gangster one day or some ex-lover, or Janet the next while they were really either throwing some party for half of Nick’s old crumb bum friends from the old days or were out on the town drinking from slippers or something.

Truth, he, they, never were a factor in the case at all until that last night when Mallory had all the suspects up to the Charles’ apartment for a final grilling. See Winot had not disappeared, at least not on his own disappeared to silky sheets or to inventive isolation. One day the cops got a warrant and searched Winot’s lab looking for evidence that might help them  find him if he was out inventing something once the silky sheets with Janet angle blew up after she surfaced at the office. In one corner of the lab, a wall really, they “found” Winot, found his bones anyway, found him very dead, okay. So that was when Mallory came up with the idea of using a party at Nick’s place to nail the killer since he had a pretty good idea what happened at the lab, and who did the nasty deed. The way Hammett reported it after the dust settled was based on the idea that because it was Nick’s party where the killer was apprehended then it was Nick’s collar. Hammett was clueless that the “party” was a trap, had been set up that way not that somehow between martinis, dry, that Nick out of the blue exposed the killer and he crumbled before the great man’s deductive reasoning. Mallory was steaming for a month over that one.

Oh yeah how did they find that killer. Simple police work, simple tax-payer public police work.  They figured foul play from the time Janet surfaced without Winot. They had followed her, followed her for a couple of weeks until one afternoon she met at the Automat with a guy, a guy who was later identified as James Livermore, a competitor and ex-partner of Winot’s when they both were starting out after studying at MIT and who was a man with a grudge since he believed that Winot had stolen some patent, some patent for automobile transmissions and which had made Winot a bundle. This Livermore got nothing, nothing except for living out in the open air bumming and thumbing most of his life. This Janet was his daughter whom he had convinced to seduce Winot and then after he was perfume-crazed grab his dough while doing her job in the office.

That strategy proved too slow though, and Winot was kind of crafty and a cheapskate always hovering around when it came down to it, so they hatched a kidnap-ransom gag that has been used since about Adam and Eve, maybe before. The problem was that Winot recognized Livermore’s voice during the abduction at the lab and so old Winot’s days were numbered. Very numbered. NYPD checked every place Livermore or Janet might have been where Winot might have also been, checked carefully and they hit pay-dirt when they checked Winot’s workshop area and noticed that what looked like a fresh digging in one corner of the shop. They had that section of the wall dug up and there they found the remains of a man, a tall, skinny man. Winot.

It is one thing to suspect a guy of a crime, even murder, it is another to have a case against him, although a few times Mallory admitted the cops have had to frame a guy just to close a case (and Marlin knew that as well from his own checkered dealing with West Coast cops). But not this one, not with the Chief looking over everybody’s shoulder, not with Nick snooping around when he was dead drunk, and not with Hammett printing every fool theory that Charles threw his way. That is when Mallory decided to spring his trap at Nick’s house while everybody of interest was at his dinner party. Mallory had arranged the guest list to include the Winot family in toto, Julia, Winot’s lawyer, a few yeggs, and of course the Charles pair and their lapdog Hammett. Of course he had a few coppers acting as waiters and doormen to keep order and prevent the targeted guy from getting away. And the guest of honor although he didn’t know it? One James Livermore whom Mallory was able to get there using the ruse that Winot’s lawyer had information about settling up with him through his will.

When Mallory had everybody gathered and a couple of courses served he played a little game. He  asked Nick to eliminate anybody that he was sure was not involved in Winot’s disappearance and for a dipso he did pretty good, getting it down to Janet Livermore and an old yegg, John “Studs” Murphy. At that point James flipped out, flipped out badly yelling that Janet had nothing to do with Winot’s disappearance. He drew a gun and naturally Mallory had to put two slugs into him.

As for Janet, well they left Janet alone although they could have charged her with kidnapping pure and simple, felony murder too. The last anybody heard she was married to some big money stockbroker who liked blondes with curves and who maybe had murder in their hearts. As for Nick and Nora Charles they took the fastest train out of town that night, right after the gun play started. They boarded the Red-Eye Special that left around midnight and the last anybody had heard of them was they were back clipping stock coupons out in Frisco while using the lounge at the Drake Hotel as their favorite watering hole. Hammett, well, Hammett gave up the newspaper dodge and the last anybody  heard he was writing detective novels based on Nick and Nora’s exploits in that Thin Man case. Mallory grumbled into the telephone at that idea-“What a laugh.”             


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