Carney Wilde

Created by Bart Spicer
Pseudonym of Jay Barbette
(1918-1978)

“If Bart Spicer’s been forgotten, it’s a real shame. He was one of the best writers of private-eye fiction in the last century.”
Bill Crider

Philladelphia’s CARNEY WILDE was one of the few P.I.’s who ever seemed to make money and remain respectable.

Over the course of the seven book series, which neatly spans the fifties, he goes from being a recently returned veteran in 1949’s The Dark Light, opening a struggling one-man detective agency in Philadelphia, and by the series’ conclusion with Exit, Running (1959), the agency has grown to the point where it has several hundred hundred employees, and Carney himself is retired, and married to Ellen Pomeroy, a photographer, whom he met in The Taming of Carney Wilde (1954)– despite his own proclamation earlier in the series that “nobody in my racket has any business with a wife.”

It’s an ambitious goal, detailing an private detective’s entire career arc, and as far as I know, the first attempt to do so, yet Spicer pulls it off.

But the over all story arc isn’t the only joy to be found in this series. While Spicer may be no Chandler (the author to whom he’s most often compared), he’s a better plotter, and his settings and story lines tend to be a little more varied and original than most of his contemporaries.

Not that he’d couldn’t turn on the flash when he wanted to. Pretty Sinister Books found this passage particularly “Chandleresque, and I agree:

“I lay back in the water, getting up enough interest to keep my date with Alicia. I had the courtroom stink in my nose and it didn’t mix well with Alicia. The dead sourness of unwashed bodies and disinfectant and brutality and fear and the clumsy maneuvering of justice. I got out of the tub and tried to rub some of it off.”

The books are full of such passages, although he kept the literary scenery chewing to a minimum, for the most part, never letting the reader forget that Wilde was a working man.

Indeed, Wilde’s blue collar sensibilites make it very clear that Wilde is no self-conscious shining white knight, constantly admiring his chivalry in the reflection of his inferiors, but simply a hard-working businessman trying to do his job. Issues of being paid or not paid are frequently raised, and his moments of self-doubt are more along the lines of whether he’ll be able to make the rent and not along philosophical lines. And when there’s detective work to be done, we don’t see lightning flashes of deduction or convenient explosions of coincidence, but a thorough professional doing the necessary legwork with intelligence and compassion. In a sub-genre known more for bullets, babes and two-fisted meatheads, Spicer wasn’t afraid to show that Wilde was an adult.

Maybe it was coincidence that Ross MacDonald‘s Lew Archer also made his debut in 1949, but Spicer was one of the leading private eye writers to gently work social commentary into his crime fiction. The second novel in the series, Blues for the Prince (1950), for example,  besides being possibly the best P.I. book about music I’ve ever read, is an astoundingly brave book for its time. Wilde’s attitude towards his client and his family, who are black, displays an almost unheard of empathy and cultural sensitivity rarely seen — even decades years later. A class act — Wilde comes off like the George Pelecanos of his time, and all in all, a fine, unjustly overlooked series.

And Spicer, whose real name was Jay Barbette, wrote more than just top-notch private eye novels. He was also responsible for numerous other crime novels, including the Harry Butten series (under his own name) and the spy thriller The Burned Man, involving the theft of nuclear material, which takes place in Franco’s Spain (where Spicer lived). Later in his career, he wrote several well-received historical novels, including The Tall Captains (1957), which follows the adventures of Duncan Crosbie, a disgruntled Scotsman who travels to New France to help the French in their battle with the British in the French-Indian Wars. (I’ve read this one, and it’s rollicking good stuff).

UNDER OATH

  • “… among the very best private eye novels of that or any decade, and it is regrettable that they have been largely ignored in the recent spate of private eye criticism…beautifully crafted…credible twists and surprises…convincing dialogue…interesting settings (Philly, Arizona, New Orleans).”
    — Art Scott in 20th Century Crime and Mystery Writers
  • “Spicer and Wilde border on top notch.”
    — David Vineyard (October 2015, The Mystery*File)

NOVELS

  • The Dark Light (1949)
  • Blues For the Prince (1950)Buy this book
  • The Golden Door (1951)
  • Black Sheep, Run (1951)
  • The Long Green (1952; AKA The Shadow of Fear)
  • The Taming of Carney Wilde (1954)
  • Exit, Running (1959)
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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