Created by Scott Mitchell
Pseudonym of Lionel Robert Holcombe Godfrey
Other pseudonyms include Elliot Kennedy
“I had long ago decided there had to be some difference between one side of the law and the other. So I would do it the hard way… you chump, I told myself. you poor deluded private cop. Brock Devlin — the last flower of chivalry on our continent.”
— Devlin makes like Marlowe in The Lonely Shroud
It was a pleasant surprise, stumbling across the old “Mechanics Library” (officially the Mechanics Institute of Montreal Library) on Atwater, just a few steps down the street from where I was working at the time–a almost-secret treasure trove of old books, including a slew of hard-boiled, hard-covered treasures from the thirties through the sevenites by British authors I’d never heard of (they also had an almost complete run of The Best Detective Stories of the Year–British editions, of course). It was there I first discovered the work of British authors Hartley Howard and Scott Mitchell, and I was pretty jazzed when I realized they had almost the complete run of their books.
At first I figured they would be just a couple of other British authors, late to the party by a few decades, lurching into the seventies trying to ape the “American-style” hard-boiled style, and inevitably falling short. Too little, too late, I figured. And certainly, Howard’s Glenn Bowman series, while it had its charms, was a far cry from Chandler and Hammett. Enthusiastic facsimiles at best.
But Mitchell’s series about tough guy P.I. dick BROCK DEVLIN?
That’s another story.
Somehow, Mitchell nailed it–a certain hard, but bittersweet quality and an eye for the tell that was positively, so help me, Chanderesque.
Brock was certainly a big enough guy to fill the gumshoes–he stood 6’2.” He was blue-eyed and “creeping up on forty” and admits at one point that “a fair number of women were supposed to find me reasonably attractive.” He carries a .38 Police Positive in a shoulder holster, smokes Chesterfields, and carries a flask, usually full of Four Roses bourbon. He drives an Olds that features a secret spring-loaded compartment hidden in the dashboard which conceals a small automatic.
Several characters comment that he looks tough, and he cops to a “facetious streak” and a tendency to crack wise, which is tempered by old-fashioned politeness (and occasionally, an even more outdated but typical suspicious attitude towards women). He lives alone in a small apartment in Los Angeles, likes jazz, and blames an old flame for “addicting” him to Mozart. He also likes to read, and can quote from the classics when the spirit moves him. Cyrano de Bergerac is a particular favourite.
Brock operates a small detective agency (“Brody and Devlin, Investigations. No divorce work; trouble a speciality; success striven for but not guaranteed.”) with his gum-chewing partner, Al Brody, who’s been known to shave off a corner now and then. They sometimes work together, but usually they work separate cases, and generally they can count on the assistance of Lieutenant Cal O’Herlihy of Homicide, an “incorruptible, tough, broad-shouldered Irishman.”
There are the usual and expected nods to Chandler (and The Lonely Shroud boasts a particularly nice Big Sleep-style meditation of aging, responsibilities and the detective’s lot), but the private eye Brock most reminds me of is William Campbell Gault‘s Brock Callahan. And it’s not just the name. Like Gault’s creation, Mitchell’s eye is a big lug with hidden depths, a reasonable amount of compassion, a workmanlike approach to his profession and a jaundiced eye, and the tales are spun with a similar clean, direct prose style.
Oh, and like the other Brock, there’s a steady love interest that’s more than window dressing. Like many an eye before him, Brock has a thing going with his and Al’s secretary, the spunky and intelligent Kay Stillman. The difference is that Kay is no mere long-suffering placeholder, there to bandage a wounded dick, or to be conveniently kidnapped if the plot needs it. No, Kay’s nobody bimbo, but an aspiring and successful novelist who nonetheless chooses to remain at Brody and Devlin. Brock figures one day they’re bound to tangle, and sure enough they finally connect in The Lonely Shroud. But, of course, it’s complicated.
The series continued to gain in content and depth, wrapping up with 1976’s ambitious Obsession (aka “Emergency over Corpses”), a multi-perspective story about jealousy, obsession and murder.
A bigger mystery may be why these books are so obscure. Neither Devlin or Mitchell is even mentioned in John Conquest’s Trouble is Their Business, yet somebody must have been buying them. I can understand them not going over in the States, but in the U.K.? Or even Canada? Given the quality of the books I read, their continuing obscurity is a puzzler. A stroll through the web reveals very little about the author, except that the series may actually have been more popular in non-English-speaking countries such as France and Germany.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lionel Robert Holcombe Godfrey was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire and educated in University of Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany, and in Nottingham, England. With a name like that, though, it’s easy to see why he used pen names, especially since his stock in trade seemed to be hard-boiled detective fiction. Besides the sixteen Brock Devlin books, he wrote several novels as Elliot Kennedy featuring Griff Dexter , another Los Angeles private dick. He seems to have abandoned crime fiction by the mid-seventies, however, and turned to writing biographies of such Hollywood icons Errol Flynn, Paul Newman and Cary Grant, and contributing to the British magazines like Films and Filming.
THE BOTTOM LINE
- American spoken here. This forgotten Brit pulpster spewed out Chandler-style hard-boiled patter better than some Yankeee Doodle Dandies.
TRIVIA AND TRIVIER…
- I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not, but Scott Mitchell was the name U.K. author John Harvey used for his own American-style private eye. After all, the prolific Harvey has a habit of playing fast and loose with the names of characters and pen names, and his private eye series started up about the same time that the Brock Devlin series was winding down. Plus, could anyone have really saddled their kid with a monicker like “Lionel Robert Holcombe Godfrey”? And, as I said, the Devlin books were definitely a cut above the usual hard-boiled Americana (at least as interpreted by British writers). Hmmmm…..
- “As soon as I entered the bar… I saw her sitting at the end, teasing her drink the way some women tease everything, from tame cats to wild men.”
— Sables Spell Trouble
- “Doesn’t money impress you guys? That’s un-American.”
— The Lonely Shroud
- “I specialize in urban decay.”
— The Lonely Shroud
- Sables Spell Trouble (1963) | Buy this book
- Some Dames Play Rough (1963)
- Deadly Persuasion (1964)
- The Lonely Shroud (1964) | Buy this book
- Come, Sweet Death (1967)
- Double Bluff (1968)
- A Knife-Edged Thing (1969)
- A Haven for the Damned (1971)
- Rage in Babylon (1972)
- You’ll Never Get to Heaven (1972)
- The Girl in the Wet-Look Bikini (1973)
- Dead on Arrival (1974)
- Nice Guys Don’t Win (1974)
- Over My Dead Body (1974)
- Death’s Busy Crossroads (1975)
- Obsession (1976)
THE DICK OF THE DAY
- The Lonely Shroud (1964)
An excerpt from the novel.