“Handsome” McFee (aka “Handsome” Blair)

Created by Charles G. Booth
(1896-1949)

He only appeared (sorta) in three stories in the pulps, but private eye “HANDSOME” McFEE deserves at least a mention–the chronicler of his exploits was prolific early hard-boiled writer Charles G. Booth, who was a frequent contributor to the crime and detective pulps, alongside Hammett and Daly.

“Handsome” (we never find out his real first name) was the proud owner of a pair of “V-thatched, somber eyes” and a “ruddy vitality,” and his favourite hangout was Cato’s, where he was known to drop by long about midnight for coffee and an occasional slice of apple pie.

The settings are the usual nocturnal settings of most hard-boiled pulp tales: nightclubs, bars, all-night cafés, apartment buildings, back alleys and the like, and the plots are, likewise, typically full of damsels in distress, gangsters, blackmailers, assorted thugs and murder. What distinguished Booth from his contemporaries was a certain willingness to actually inject some actually mystery into his plots, complete with clues and everything, as in the clever “Sister Act,” where the revelation of the killer’s identity is a neat but fairly played switcheroo, capped with another switcheroo.

The three stories were later rounded up in Murder Strikes Thrice (1946), considered by Otto Penzler to be “one of the rarest private eye volumes of the 1940s.”

THE NAME GAME

True confessions here. In the first “Handsome” McFee story, “Sister Act” (February 1933, Black Mask), Handsome’s last name is Blair, not McFee. Sure, the agency he works for has a different name, but it’s obviously the same guy. He hangs out at Cato’s in an unnamed city (probably Los Angeles), his cop buddy is Pete “Beautiful” Hurley, and he’s still the fast-thinking, fast-talking, coffee-slurping private dick he was in the other two stories. And by the time all three stories were rounded up in Murder Strikes Thrice, “Handsome” McFee was the star of the show.

FREQUENTLY, SECRETLY?

I may be misreading things (not an uncommon occurrence), but it’s mostly his cop buddy Hurley who actually calls McFee “Handsome.” And McFee calls Hurley “Beautiful.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charles G. Booth was was born in Manchester, England, but when his father died, he and his mother relocated to  Canada. There he grew up and volunteered to join the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force during World War I (just like Chandler). He subsequently served in the 203rd Battalion (Winnipeg Rifles), which sailed to England in 1916, and was honourably discharged the next year. Upon his return, following a lengthy hospital stay, he became interested in writing, and sold a number of short stories to Canadian and American magazines, while working at a lumber company. He and his mother to moved first, to Washington, and then to San Diego, California, where he began writing full-time. He was soon selling regularly to American pulps like Black MaskDetective Story Magazine,Western Story Magazine,and Clues. He also started writing movie scripts and novels. His screen credits include The House on 92nd Street (1945), a spy flick notable for its then-innovative documentary-style approach, for which he won an Oscar, and the 1945 noir classic Johhny Angel, based on his own novel, but he’s probably best known for The General Died At Dawn, which was made into a Gary Cooper movie (1936), and which was also based on one of his books.

For hard-boiled fans, though, he’s best known for pulp stories, for one of his stories being selected by Shaw for The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946), and for being included in Ron Goulart’s “Informal Reading List” in his The Hardboiled Dicks (1965).

UNDER OATH

  • “It’s very tightly written, with nice pitter-patter staccato prose.  Mcfee, a private detective, gets roped into a murder investigation by a movie star redhead with emerald satin pumps.  Her boyfriend, a promising DA, has been murdered by the mob.  
    Mcfee takes this opportunity to overthrow Poisonville, and get an uncorrupted DA and police chief into power.
    So yeah.  It’s a lot like Red Harvest.  That’s good, right?
    Yeah.  I think it’s good.”
    — Tony Baer (October 2020, Rara-Avis)

SHORT STORIES

  • “Sister Act” (February 1933, Black Mask) | Read it now!
  • “Cigarette Lady” (October 1933, Clues; aka “Queen High”?)
  • “Stag Party” (November 1933, Black Mask)

COLLECTIONS

  • Murder Strikes Thrice (1946)
    Contains all three McFee stories.

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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