Created by William F. Nolan
Pseudonyms include Frank Anmar, F. E. Edwards & Warren Kastel
“Mickey Mouse said hello to me. Goofy was trotting along behind him, leading Pluto. Inside each larger-than-life figure some guy was making a buck walking around with a big rubber head. There are worse things to do for a living… And I was doing them.”
— Bart reflects on a private eye’s life
“A dum-dum .30-30 can do a lot of damage. In like a pea, out like a plate.”
— Bart shows his sensitive side to a grieving client
It’s a joke, right?
As far as I knew, BART CHALLIS was a rather rundown, beat-up but tough, hard-nosed private eye with a armpit” of an office in downtown Los Angeles who wasn’t above getting his hands dirty. While other eyes sneered at divorce work, Bart wasn’t quite as fussy. He drank too much Scotch (he had a preference for Black Label), drove a souped-up Chevy Corvair (!), and was not above peeping through a few keyholes, shaking down debtors or whatever else it took to survive. He appeared in a couple of hard, fast and–I’d been told–unjustly forgotten novels back in the late sixties, full of “terse, dry-as-bone prose and staccato rhythms” that One Hundred and One Knights called “crackling good yarns.”
Sounded good to me.
Well, until I actually read Bart’s 1968 novel debut, Death Is for Losers.
I was expecting prime rib, and I didn’t anticipate this baloney thast reached its sell-by date long ago. Episodic, ham-handed pulp is more like it, full of admittedly well-realized scenes, but strung together with little rhyme or reason, and bursts of over-boiled prose that makes Richard Prather’s Shell Scott adventures look like Ross Macdonald. This book tries so hard I could almost feel the fun being sucked out of the room every time I started a new chapter. Investigating the murder of a stripper, Bart manages to have a shootout in a funhouse, skydive, race dune buggies, get assaulted numerous times, go to Disneyland, get shot once or twice, make love to an attractive female drag racer, crash a car or two, and sweet-talk his girlfriend Lyn (a gun-toting babe into Yogic sex) into stripping at a club to gather information.
And the action continues in the sequel, The White Cad Cross-up (1968), where Bart himself recaps the action (so far), admitting he’s already been “Shot at by a triggermasn, cracked in the neck by a fag, tortured by a pain crazy dame, slugged on the head by a suicide, and worked over by two hoods.”
As representative of that era’s detective fiction, I guess the books (both adapted from earlier short stories) do the job, but they’re hardly example’s of the era’s best. I can only guess that Nolan, a well respected writer (and an affable gent I once shared a Bouchercon panel with), was putting us on. Or tripping over his own enthusiasm. Which, giving him the benefit of the doubt, might well have been the case.
A third novel, The Marble Orchard, was never published (although Nolan later recycled the title for one of the books in his Black Mask Boys series).
Perhaps Nolan himself realized Bart’s adventures weren’t aging well, or perhaps that the genre had changed, because he announced in the introduction that “A Long Time Dying,” which appeared in the The Eyes Have It in 1984, would be Bart’s last adventure, and that he would be killing him off in the first chapter of a new novel he was planning; one that would feature Bart’s younger half-brother, Nick Challis, who’s also an eye.
Bart, he explained, was “just too damn old to sustain a savage beating in a Beverly Hills alley or bed a man-hungry blonde who demands multiple orgasms.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bart was brought to you by the same well-respected gent, clearly a big fan of this stuff, who brought us the sci-fi classic Logan’s Run, a couple of absolutely essential Hammett biographies, Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook and Dashiell Hammett: A Life at the Edge and that wonked-out sci-fi eye Sam Space. The man knows his pulps. He’s also responsible for The Black Mask Boys trilogy which that featured the fictionalized crime-fighting adventures of pulp writers Hammett, Chandler and Gardner.
So, with all that, I thought it would be sort of nice to read his take on a straight private eye character. Looks like I was misinformed, or I’ve completely missed the point. Or maybe I’m just feeling disappointed because I was expecting one thing, and got something else.
In 1997, Gryphon Publications issued Double Novel #13, which collected one story with Bart, and one featuring Nick. And judging from the short story I read, Nick’s a slightly straighter, less pulpy version of Bart–even if the client in his first story turns out to be… Mickey Spillane!
STRAIGHT FROM THE AUTHOR’S MOUTH
- “God, how I love tough private eyes!”
— William F. Nolan in his introduction to “A Long Time Dying,” the final Bart Challis story
- “Strippers Have To Die” (May 1964, Chase; as by “F. E. Edwards”)
- “The Pop-Op Caper” (October 1967, Playboy)
- “A Long Time Dying” (1984, The Eyes Have It )
- Death Is For Losers (1968) | Buy this book
- The White Cad Cross-up (1969) | Buy this book
- The Marble Orchard (unpublished)
- Gryphon Double Novel #13: The Brothers Challis (1997) | Buy this book
Includes “The Pop-Op Caper” (with Bart) and “The Pulpcon Kill” (with Nick).
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.