Max Thursday

Created by Wade Miller 
Pseudonym of Bob Wade (1920-2012)
and Bill Miller [1920-1961])

“Outside the sky was the same monotonous gray. The rain was drying into large puddles on Fifth Avenue. Max Thursday watched the early morning traffic and wished for the clean needles of a cold shower and something scalding to change the taste in his mouth.”
— Max ponders the new day, after sleeping with a suspect in Guilty Bystander
.

San Diego private eye MAX THURSDAY tries to be a kind and decent man, but he lives in a world that doesn’t necessarily call for either. And yet he carries on, struggling to come to terms with the contradictions of his life, in one of the best private eye series to crawl out of the fifties.

He’s tall and thin, wide shouldered, blue-eyed and black-haired, and usually in need of a shave. And he’s been around a bit, so don’t cross him.

When the series starts with Guilty Bystander (1947), he’s lost: a gaunt, alcoholic ex-cop, ex-Marine and ex-private detective, reduced to working as a house dick in the Bridgway Hotel, a fleabag hotel. As his landlady points out to him, “You’ve been away a long time.”

Then in walks his ex, Georgia, asking him to find their kidnapped son, Tommy, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a year-and-a-half old. so Max isn’t exactly father-of-the-year either.

“I’m not a detective anymore. I’m a bouncer. You don’t need anything I got,” is his curt reply.

Of course, he steps up.

But even then, he barely manages to rise to the occasion, suffering assorted betrayals and even a flogging. Still, nobody can beat up on Max as hard as Max can beat up on Max. It’s one of the most impressive and promising series debuts in hard-boiled crime fiction, and the five tense, taut and fast-moving books that followed delivered on that promise.

One case, after having killed four men, Max even turns in his gun permit; afraid that if he doesn’t he will kill again. Not Mike Hammer by a long shot.

But he’s still plenty tough. By the end of the series, he’s gone from flophouse dick to becoming an almost-respected member of the community, living in a nice duplex, even claiming membership in the Better Business Bureau. Assisting him in the series are his friends, Lieutenant Austin Clapp of the Homicide Bureau and his new best gal Merle Osborn, crime reporter for The San Diego Sentinel, a trashy tabloid big on crime coverage.

Another plus is deftly handled setting, full of scenic venues and underworld grit, which the authors make full use of. San Diego’s growing by leaps and bounds in the post-war years, and law enforcement isn’t always keeping pace. As Max points out, it’s “rougher than it used to be before the war.”

But it’s Max himself who’s the main attraction here. A complicated man, trying to fit into a world still reeling from a world war, and moving faster than he can keep up.

One of the great eyes.

There was even a film version of Guilty Bystander in 1950. It’s a solid little effort, despite the shoelace-level budget, the San Diego setting replaced by New York, and a particularly dippy mustache on Max Thursday (played by Zachary Scott.) This is one of those forgotten films that screams for a more faithful adaptation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Wade Miller was actually two men, Bob Wade and Bill Miller, who together wrote 33 novels, including the Max Thursday series and Deadly Weapon, featuring Atlanta P.I. Walter James, and a whole bunch of non-series novels under a variety of pseudonyms, including Whit Masterson, Will Daemer and Dale Wilmer. Wade, an Edgar winner, wrote another 13 novels alone. Eight of their novels were made into movies, among them the Orson Welles noir (neo-noir? post-noir? last noir?) classic Touch of Evil, adapted from their Badge of Evil. In 1988, they received the Private Eye Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.

One could say Bob and Bill certainly made a name (or several, in fact) for themselves in the genre.

THE EVIDENCE

  • “I always close their eyes first thing… Don’t like to have them watch me.”
    –Stein, the medical examiner to Max, as he’s about to perform an autopsy, in Guilty Bystander

NOVELS

FILMS

  • GUILTY BYSTANDER Watch it now!
  • (1950, Film Classics)
    Based on the novel by Wade Miller
    Screenplay by Don Ettlinger
    Directed by Joseph Lerner
    Produced by Rex Carlton
    Starring Zachary Scott as MAX THURSDAY
    Also starring Faye Emerson, Mary Boland, Sam Levene, J. Edward Bromberg, Kay Medford

THE DICK OF THE DAY

  • June 3, 2021 (A Thursday, of course)
    One of the best P.I. series of the fifties–taut, tense and unjustly forgotten. From drunk & flophouse dick to almost respectable gumshoe, what a long strange trip it was.

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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