Created by Stephen King
Though obviously he’s best known for his horror and fantasy fiction, Stephen King has been known to dabble in other genres from time to time — including ours. He’s also sung the praises of various crime and mystery writers, with John D. MacDonald being a particular favourite, and he’s paid tribute to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, “borrowing” Detective Steve Carella for a bit part early on in his epic novel The Stand. The Colorado Kid (2005) and Joyland (2013), both originally published by Hard Case Crime, and early short stories such as “The Fifth Quarter” (1972) have certainly broached the genre, while the Mr. Mercedes trilogy of novels (2014-16) and his awesome, woo-woo-free Billy Summers (2021) pretty much makes themselves at home.
But it’s King’s first foray into the shamus game, the memorable short story “Umney’s Last Case,” that’s the topic here. It first popped up in his third collection of short stories, Nightmares and Dreamscapes in 1993, and also as a stand-alone novella put out by Penguin.
Private eye CLYDE UMNEY walks the same mean streets of Los Angeles at around the same time as early Philip Marlowe (late 1930s). One morning, however, he wakes up to find that his world has been literally turned upside down and that nothing makes sense. It seems that Cylde is a fictional character in a series of detective novels and that, unknown to the poor sap, his creator, Samuel D. Landry, is using a little supernatural sleight-of-hand to literally trade places with his creation.
King gets kudos for authentically recreating the classic hard-boiled private eye world (the man certainly knows his Chandler–Clyde Umney was a character in Chandler’s 1958 novel Playback) and using it to create the kind of story that, despite the shamus trappings, doesn’t seem out of place in any of his anthologies. As the story ends, Clyde is stuck in the modern world (Oh, the horror!), but plotting revenge.
And man, that was all he wrote.
Except… that that wasn’t the end for our man Clyde. He reappeared in not one but two (count ’em, two!) adaptations in 2006.
By far the most prominent one was the television adaptation, starring William H. Macy as both the hapless gumshoe and his creator. It aired as the third episode of TNT’s anthology series, Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King. Macy was subsequently nominated for an Emmy for his performance.
Meanwhile, as part of King’s Dollar Baby program, where he sells the right to one of his short stories to an aspiring filmmaker for all of a buck, he’d already sold the rights to Rodney Altman. A student at the time at New York University, Altman used King’s name to raise a budget of $60,000–almost unheard of for a Dollar Baby production. But he delivered. The film may have been only 17 minutes long, but it was a finalist for Best Short Film of the Year at NYU’s First Run Film Festival, and still compares very favorably to the big budget television production. Not bad for a student film.
- “Umney’s Last Case” (1993, Nightmares and Dreamscapes) | Buy this book
- UMNEY’S LAST CASE
Premiere: April 8, 2006
Based on the short story by Stephen King
Screenplay by Rodney Altman and Emma Heald
Directed by Rodney Altman
Starring Joel Nagle as CLYDE UMNEY
and Jim Doerr as SAMUEL LANDRY
Also starring Mark Margolis, Christina Dunham,
- NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES: FROM THE STORIES OF STEPHEN KING | Buy this DVD
- “Umney’s Last Case” (July 19, 2006)
Starring William H. Macy as CLYDE UMNEY/SAMUAEL D. LANDRY
- “Umney’s Last Case” (July 19, 2006)
- They Wrote What?
Famous Writers Who Have Dipped Their Toes in the P.I. Pool
- Shane Mack
Another Dollar Baby eye.
THE DICK OF THE DAY
- August 15, 2021
THE BOTTOM LINE: An early short story, about a 1930s Los Angeles private eye whose creator won’t leave him alone. King does Chandler, but HIS way.
Respectfully submitted by Brian D. Rubendall and Kevin Burton Smith.