Bill Lennox

Created by W.T. Ballard (Willis Todhunter Ballard)
Pseudonyms include P. D. Ballard, Harrison Hunt, Neil MacNeil, John Shepherd
(1903-80)

“Just a friendly town… When the knife falls, everyone helps you down into the gutter.”
— Lennox ponders Hollywwood in “A Little Different”

Here’s another iconic private eye who’s officially not a private eye, yet does pretty much everything a private eye does. The pulps were full of ’em.

And frankly, so is this site. So sue me.

WILLIAM TECUMSEH “BILL” LENNOX started out in the pages of Black Mask in 1933. He had been an ex-reporter and publicity flack, but when we meet him, he’s already working as a trouble shooter for General Consolidated Pictures, a big-time Hollywood studio. Never afraid to get tough when it was called for, and quick on his feet, Bill proves himself virtually indispensable to his employers in case after case–so much so that by the time the character graduated to novels in the forties, he’d become an executive producer. But rest assured that murder and mayhem, in true pulp tradition, seemed to follow Lennox wherever he went.

It should be mentioned, by the way, that despite being in the constant company of various, often troubled and/or seductive Hollywood beauties, Lennox remained pure of heart and true to his infinitely patient girlfriend Nancy Hobbs, who worked as a writer for the movie rags, throughout the series, and was often on Bill’s case to quit his job, head back to New York City, and finally write his novel.

That was Bill’s plan, as well, but somehow, something always came up. But the real truth was that he was just as susceptible to Hollywood’s seductive charms as anyone.

Bill’s last appearance in the pulps was in “Lights, Action—Killer!,” published in the May 1942 issue of Black Mask, but that same year he made his novel-length debut, Say Yes To Murder,  published by “John Shepherd,” a pseudonym. By that time, Ballard had gained quite a rep as a writer of westerns, and didn’t want to confuse his new audience.

Bill Lennox appeared in four more novels: Murder Can’t Stop (1946)Dealing Out Death (1948), The Murder in Hollywood (1951) and Lights, Camera, Murder (1960). All of them, perhaps not surprisingly, are set in Hollywood, and the film industry. What is suprising, though, is that Ballard took the industry so seriously–there’s none of the goofy, slapstick gobbledeegook comedy of Robert Leslie Bellem‘s Dan Turner. Sure, Ballard skewers the often outlandish methods and machinations of the industry sometimes, but there’s a harder, darker edge that has aged well. Which is why it’s such a surprise that the Lennox stories are so infrequently reprinted, and that the only attempt to collect the stories was almost forty years ago.

Ballard was one of the fabled Black Mask Boys, and Lennox was one of the magazine’s most popular characters, and it’s easy to see why. Ballard was no great stylist, but he was a hell of a storyteller, and the Lennox stories are tremendously entertaining, full of plots that move and characters worth reading. It should also be noted that Lennox, with his gig as a “troubleshooter,” helped pave the way for several other non-P.I. P.I.s, including house dick Gil Vine, department store dick Don Cadee, TV network snoop Matt Cobb, as well as the Coen Brothers’ Eddie Mannix from Hail, Caesar! and HBO’s  Ray Donovan. Although credit should go where credit’s due–Ballard himself admitted he was inspired to create Lennox after reading  some stories featuring Theodore A. Tinsley’s Jerry Tracy.

Author Willis Todhunter Ballard was one of the more prolific and talented pulpsters, writing mostly westerns and mysteries, and he continued writing novels long after the pulp market dried up. He wrote novels about P.I.’s Sam Boyd and Mark Foran, and under the Neil McNeil pen name, he wrote about the private eye team of Tony Costaine and Bert McCall. After WWII, when Ballard claimed that you couldn’t even give detective stories away, he turned to writing westerns as Todhunter Ballard. In fact, the novel Gold in California won a Spur award, and much of his western short story work is great. He also apparently had a knack for romantic comedy, although most of those stories are buried in the pulps. But more lucrative were the film and television scripts he also cranked out.

TRIVIA

  • Ballard was the first cousin of Nero Wolfe creator Rex Stout, with whom he shared a middle name (Todhunter).

UNDER OATH

  • “(Lennox) doesn’t have to flex his biceps to prove that he’s strong.”
    — James Sandoe

SHORT STORIES

  • “A Little Different” (September 1933, Black Mask)
  • “Positively the Best Liar” (November 1933, Black Mask)
  • “A Million Dollar Tramp (October 1933, Black Mask)
  • “Trouble-Hunted” (January 1934, Black Mask)
  • “Tears Don’t Help” (April 1934, Black Mask)
  • “That’s Hollywood” (May 1934, Black Mask)
  • “Whatta Guy” (July 1934, Black Mask)
  • “Crime’s Web” (September 1934, Black Mask)
  • “Snatching is Dynamite” (October 1934, Black Mask)
  • “In Dead Man’s Alley” (November 1934, Black Mask)
  • “Murder Isn’t Legal” (December 1934, Black Mask)
  • “Gambler’s Don’t Win” (April 1935, Black Mask) | Kindle it!
  • “Numbers With Lead” (January 1936, Black Mask)
  • “Blackmailers Die Hard” (May 1936, Black Mask)
  • “There’s No Excuse for Murder” (September 1936, Black Mask)
  • “Whipsawed” (December 1936, Black Mask)
  • “This is Murder” (March 1937, Black Mask)
  • “Fortune Deals Death” (July 1937, Black Mask)
  • “Mobster Guns” (November 1938, Black Mask)
  • “No Parole from Death” (February 1939, Black Mask)
  • “Scars of Murder” (November 1939, Black Mask)
  • “Pictures for Murder” (September 1940, Black Mask)
  • “The Lady with the Light Blue Hair” (January 1941, Black Mask)
  • “Not in the Script” (July 1941, Black Mask)
  • “Murder is a Sweet Idea” (November 1941, Black Mask)
  • “The Colt and the Killer” (February 1942, Black Mask)
  • “Lights, Action—Killer!” (May 1942, Black Mask)

NOVELS

  • Say Yes to Murder (1942; aka “Murder in Hollywood,” “The Demise of a Louse”)Buy this book
  • Murder Can’t Stop (1946; also Winter 1949, 2 Mystery Novels)Buy this book
  • Dealing Out Death (1948)
  • The Murder in Hollywood (1951)
  • Lights, Camera, Murder (1960; as by John Shepherd)

COLLECTIONS

  • Hollywood Troubleshooter: Five Novelettes From Black Mask (1984) Buy this book
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Drawing of Ballard from Willard Mullin, snatched from the dustcover of 1948 edition of Dealing Out Death.

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