Johnny Fletcher & Sam Cragg

Created by Frank Gruber
Pseudonyms include Stephen Acre, Charles K. Boston & John K. Vedder
(1904-69)

JOHNNY FLETCHER and SAM CRAGG may claim to be private eyes or even book salesmen, but what they really are are scam artists supreme, always one step from the poorhouse or jail, it seems.

Johnny’s the “brains” of the two, the one with the gift of gab, the one who comes up with the con, the scheme, the play that will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Or at least enough to get a meal or a room for the night. Sam is the muscle, and then some, a musclebound galoot whose bicep flexing is more than enough to help Johnny sell multiple copies of Every Man a Samson which, in the normal scheme of things, would be enough to earn the boys bed and board. But the boys have bigger dreams than just some food in their stomachs and a place to crash.

Alas, nothing ever seems to go quite right for the pair — they usually end up gaining and losing a fortune a couple of times a book. And then someone ends up dead, and they have to track down the real killer.

It may have been a formula, but it was sturdy enough to last fourteen books, and every one I’ve read has been a fast-paced, entertaining romp. Not essential, maybe, but fun, fun, fun.

The first book in the series, The French Key (1940) even inspired a 1946 B-film from Republic. Gruber wrote the screenplay himself, and it featured Albert Dekker as Johnny Fletcher and Mike Mazurki (Moose Malloy in Murder, My Sweet) as Sam Cragg.

Author Frank Gruber was one of the most prolific of the great pulpsters, and recounted his experiences in The Pulp Jungle, a critical study. He also found the time to write several different private eye series. Beside Simon and Eddie, he wrote about cantankerous private eye Simon Lash, as well as dicks Otis Beagle and Joe Peel, and came up with TV hybrid P.I./cowboy Shotgun Slade.

UNDER OATH

  • “… my favorite Vegas-based mystery is The Honest Dealer… Like 90% of Frank Gruber’s generous mystery fiction legacy, it’s lean, shrewdly plotted and very very funny.”
    — Dick Lochte (October 2003, MysInDepth)
  • “I always wonder when reading older books if certain somewhat transparent plot points were as obvious back then or I have just seen them used too often since. For instance, there’s a minor bit in The French Key about getting back a rare coin slipped into a coin slot that was used on last week’s episode of Monk. Still, Gruber largely lives up to his goal of mixing the plotting of Gardner with the humor of Latimer, especially the latter. Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg are great characters. I often found myself laughing out loud. I’ve often stated how much I like con job novels. This is not one of those, but Fletcher is definitely a scam artist. Much of the humor comes from his ability to talk himself out of trouble. I will definitely be reading more books in this series.”
    — Mark Sullivan

SHORT STORIES

  • “The Sad Serbian” (March 1939, Black Mask; Sam Cragg)
  • “The Laughing Fox” (July 10, 1940, Short Stories; Johnny Fletcher)

NOVELS

  • The French Key (1940) Buy this book
  • The Laughing Fox (1940) Buy this book
  • The Hungry Dog (1941; aka “The Hungry Dog Murders”)
  • The Navy Colt (1941)
  • The Talking Clock (1941) Buy this book
  • The Gift Horse (1942)
  • The Mighty Blockhead (1942)
  • The Silver Tombstone (1945)
  • The Honest Dealer (1947)
  • The Whispering Master (1947)
  • The Scarlet Feather (1948)
  • The Leather Duke (1949)
  • The Limping Goose (1954)
  • Swing Low Swing Dead (1964)

FILMS

  • THE FRENCH KEY
    (1946, Republic)
    Based on the novel by Frank Gruber
    Screenplay by Frank Gruber
    Directed by Walter Colmes
    Starring Albert Dekker as JOHNNY FLETCHER
    and Mike Mazurki as SAM CRAGG
    Also starring Evelyn Ankers, John Elderedge, Frank Fenton, Richard Arlen, Byron Foulger

RADIO

  • JOHNNY FLETCHER MYSTERIES
    (1946, NBC)
    30 minutes
    Broadcast live
    Based on characters created by Frank Gruber
    Announcer: John Storm
    Starring Albert Dekker as JOHNNY FLETCHER
    and Mike Mazurki as SAM CRAGG

    • “The Navy Colt” (March 25, 1946 [audition])
      This earlier audition tape seems to have survived, with Dekker and Mazurki reprising their roles from the 1946 film. Two years later, ABC picked up the show from NBC, and had a whack at it.
  • THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY FLETCHER
    (aka “Johnny Fletcher”)
    (1948, ABC)
    Series premiere: May 30, 1948
    Last episode: November 27, 1948
    Based on characters created by Frank Gruber
    Writers: Frank Gruber, David Friedkin, Morton Fine, Bob Rys
    Director: Bill Rousseau
    Producers: Don Sharp, Bill Rousseau, Hal Finberg
    Music: Buzz Adlam
    Announcers: Owen James and John Storm
    Starring Bill Goodwin as JOHNNY FLETCHER
    and Sheldon Leonard as SAM CRAGG
    ABC, then a relatively new network, had a lot of faith in this one, supposedly spending over $6000 an episode, but the show failed to attract a sponsor and was canned after 14 episodes.

    • “Title unknown” (May 30, 1948)
    • “The Gift Horse” (June 6, 1946)
    • “The Whispering Master” (June 13, 1946)
    • “Title unknown” (June 20, 1946)
    • “Title unknown” (June 27, 1946)
    • “Title unknown” (July 4, 1946)
    • “The Silver Tombstone” (July 11, 1946)
    • “The French Key” (July 18, 1946)
    • “Title unknown” (July 25, 1946)
    • “Music for Murder” (August 1, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (August 8, 1948)
    • “The Vanishing Ferris Wheel” (August 15, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (August 22, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (August 29, 1948)
    • “Murder at a Summer Theatre” (September 5, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (September 11, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (September 18, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (September 25, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (October 2, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (October 9, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (October 16, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (October 23, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (October 30, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (November 6, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (November 13, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (November 20, 1948)
    • “Title unknown” (November 27, 1948)

TELEVISION

  • SUSPENSE
    (1949-54, CBS)
    260 25-minute episodes
    Black and white
    Broadcast live

    • “1000-to-One For Your Money” (April 4, 1950)
      Based on the short story by Frank Gruber
      Starring Tom Drake as SAM CRAGG
      Also starring Betty Garde, Paul Stewart, Carol Williams
      Sam Cragg goes to meet a client in the “Little Serbia” section of the city and finds that everyone in the neighborhood lives in fear of a mysterious loan shark.

FURTHER INVESTIGATIONS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Walt from Switzerland for the well-deserved smack upside the head. I appreciate it. Also, thanks to the DigitalDeliToo, for the lowdown on the radio shows. I trust those guys, even if they don’t trust me.

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