Created by Octavus Roy Cohen
If Octavus Roy Cohen is remembered at all these days, it’s for his two early detectives: fat, folksy white private eye Jim Hanvey and buffoonish black sometime-detective Florian Slappy, and the latter’s unflattering and unfortunate caricatures of African-Americans. Granted, those were different times, and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of malice in his depictions but, as mystery critic Jon Breen rightfully suggests, “let’s just say (the stories are not) not likely to be reprinted any time soon.”
If Hanvey and Slappey were colourful, cartoonish and occasionally (especially in Slappey’s case) over-the-top, DAVID CARROLL was not. A case could arguably be made for him as an early private eye, but he was far more in the Great Detective mode, having a lot more in common with Sherlock Holmes, say, rather than Race Williams.
He was small, sober, and reserved, boyish-looking despite his thirty-something years, and tended to play things close to his chest. Here’s how he’s described in the 1922 novel Midnight:
“It wasn’t David Carroll’s way to talk much, or to show any untoward emotion. It was Carroll’s very boyishness which was his greatest asset. He had a way of stepping into a case before the principals knew he was there, and of solving it in a manner which savored not at all of flamboyance. A quiet man was Carroll, and one whose deductive powers Eric Leverage fairly worshiped.”
Despite his apparent colourlessness, however, Carroll bore some striking similarities to Cohen’s much better-known Hanvey, who was plenty colourful. The two detectives both had good reputations with the cops, a surprising amount of empathy, a gift for getting suspects to squawk, and an annoying habit (to both members of law enforcement and many readers), of keeping his suspicions to himself until the final pages, when the usual suspects are usually gathered at the usual time. Both detectives also subjected readers to a wearying barrage of dialect.
If’n yah know what Ah mean…
Also notable are signs of the burgeoning P.I. genre: the occasional suggestion, first of all, that the police just might be corrupt, and plenty of colloquialisms and underworld slang which, although dated now, must have seemed like a burst of fresh air at the time. And all the books are purportedly “cleverly constructed and highly readable,” with the latter entries in the series even working in some humour and some early Golden Age fairplay.
- “Gray Dusk” (December 6, 1919, All-Story Weekly)
- The Crimson Alibi (1919; originally serialized in All-Story Weekly) | Buy this book
- Gray Dusk (1920; originally serialized in All-Story Weekly) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Six Seconds of Darkness (1921; originally serialized in Munsey’s Magazine) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Midnight (1922) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- THE CRIMSON ALIBI
Adapted from the novel by Octavus Roy Cohen
Written by George Broadhurst
Original Run: Broadhurst Theatre, New York; July 17, 1919-August 1919)
Total Performances: 51
Produced by George Broadhurst
Directed by Mrs. Lillian Trimble Bradley
Starring Harrison Hunter as DAVID CARROLL
Also starring Robert Barrat, Catherine Cozzens, Mary Foy, George Graham, Edna James, Gardner James, Robert Kelly, Roy La Rue, Thais Lawton, William E. Lemuels, Bertha Mann, Inda Palmer, William H. Thompson, Thomas Traynor, Robert Vaughn
A play in a prologue and four acts
- A Note on Octavus Roy Cohen
Mystery critic and writer Jon Breen weighs in on the value of Cohen, in this short but fascinating article from Mysteryfile.com