Great Moments of Unconsciousness
“If it weren’t for concussions I wouldn’t get any sleep at all.”
— Amos Walker in The Left-Handed Dollar.
According to our resident medical expert, Dr. Lawrence R. (Dick) Tartow, M.D, “The most glaring, and still universal medical mistake in P.I. novels is the speed with which people recover from being knocked unconscious (i.e. suffering a severe concussion) and the companion fact that with all these repeated whacks on the head with blunt instruments, there has never been a single sub-dural hematoma in the history of mystery writing.”
And Richard Makover had this to add “One further comment on head trauma. Not only doesn’t anybody get a subdural, many times they don’t even suffer either retrograde or anterograde amnesia. Loss of consciousness (a concussion) always creates loss of memory for minutes to hours before the blow was struck and often also for some time after consciousness is regained. But our heroes always remember not only the moment before but often the blow itself! Can’t happen that way. Latest example I’ve seen is Amos Walker in Estleman’s otherwise superb The Witchfinder (1998). He’s shot in the head and tells us every detail!”
And just in case you think this is all nit-picking and would prefer another opinion, here’s what Mark Gunther, M.D. has to say in response to Dr. Dick’s comments: “Agreed. I would offer as contender the other end of the same process: ease and accuracy with which heroes and villains produce instant, reliable, and safe coma using a single blow. And don’t get me going on digging out bullets…”
Nonetheless, private eyes seem to continue to be rendered unconscious with alarming frequency. Maybe the trenchcoat and the gumshoes should come with a football helmet…
- “Something like a ton of bricks comes down and…after that…everything goes black.”
— Three Gun Terry in “Three Gun Terry” by Carroll John Daly (1923)
EDITOR’S COMMENT: You wanna know how long this tradition has been going on? This is from what is generally considered the very first hard-boiled private eye story, ever!)
- “…he festooned an uppercut smack on my chinstrap…It rocked my conk so far back I could count the rafters overhead. They merged into a jumble as my glimmers went cock-eyed. Then Max corked me again. Then all my fuses short-circuited and I became useless.”
— Dan Turner in “Diamonds of Death” by Robert Leslie Bellem
- “The man in the back seat made a sudden flashing movement that I sensed rather than saw. A pool of darkness opened at my feet and was far, far deeper than the blackest night. I dived into it. It had no bottom.”
— Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
- “She maced me another swat that put me down for the count with bells jangling in my think tank.”
—Dan Turner in “Gun From Gotham”by Robert Leslie Bellem
- “He met me head on, and we locked horns like a couple of moose. I had a death grip on his coat, and I felt it
tearing. And then Bogard brought up his knee and planted it on me in a place I don’t like to talk about. I doubled over, sicker than seven hells. Tony Bogard picked up a bottle from the table in the middle of the room and christened me with it, as though I’d been a ship being launched. I went down and out.”
— Dan Turner in “Beyond Justice” by Robert Leslie Bellem
- “…a red-hot slug maced me across the back of the cranium, knocked me into the middle of nowhere.”
— Dan yet again, in “Killer’s Keepsake”by Robert Leslie Bellem
- “The sky came down and hit me on the noggin. All the stars in the heavens fell with the sky and danced in my optics, and all at once I was pitching down a long dark tunnel that gulped m like a raw oyster. My head came off and floated away. It wasn,t a head, it was a balloon, and somebody had cut the string. It drifted on a rising current, and the current became a whirlpool of pain filled with India ink… Blooey. I didn’t even feel the floor when it bounced me.”
— Nick Ransom in “Preview of Murder” by–who else?–Robert Leslie Bellem
- “My head vibrated like strings on a hockshop banjo and my stomach churned.”
— Nick Ransom returns to consciousness, ibid.
- “I had the stunned moment of shock when the lights danced and the visible world went out of focus but was still there. He hit me again. There was no sensation in my head. The bright glare got brighter. There was nothing but hard aching white light. Then there was darkness in which something red wriggled like a germ under a microscope. Then there was nothing bright or wriggling, just darkness and emptiness and a rushing wind and a falling as of great trees.”
— Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
- “Then the elevator leaned over and slammed me on the head.
— Carl Good in Sucker Bait by Robert O. Saber
- “My brain made itself very small and crawled into a deep, narrow hole in the ground and pulled the dirt in over it and went to sleep.”
— Jake Barrow in The Hoods Come Calling by Nick Quarry (Marvin Albert)
- “Something came down on the back of my head. It couldn’t have been the Queen Mary’s anchor; there wasn’t enough water around. I dived into a shoreless sea of black ink, pulled folds of black velvet over my head and burrowed into a coal pile. I was out.”
— Paul Pine in Halo in Blood by Howard Browne
- “The scene exploded into fire and darkness. I didn’t even remember being slugged. Fire and darkness and just before the darkness a sharp flash of nausea.”
— Philip Marlowe in The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler.
- “I felt a blunt shock to the back of my head and a short, sharp pain. The floor dropped out from beneath my feet, and I was falling, diving toward a pool of cool black water. Then I was in the black water, and there was only the water, and nothing left of me. Nothing left at all.”
— Nick Stefanos in Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go by George Pelecanos
- “A great, hot force exploded against Kurtz’s chest and God’s own flashbulbs went off in his skull.”
— the seemingly indestructibleJoe Kurtz gets taken down in Dan Simmons’ Hard Case.
- “Dark fog engulfed my brain. My arms and legs turned to jelly… I sprawled to the floor, as limp and uncoordinated as a dropped bunch of rubber bands.”
— Jake Barrow in No Chance in Hell by Nick Quarry (Marvin Albert)
- “Movement flashed in the corner of my eye and my head went flying off my shoulders.”
— Amos Walker in American Detective by Loren Estleman
- “Then a rainbow exploded inside my head and the floor reached up for me.”
— Carl Good in Too Young to Die by Robert O. Saber
- “The guy went down like an empty suit.”
— Jack Reacher in The Affair by Lee Child
- “A red, red nose blossomed before my eyes, spread out until it filled the universe, and then turned rotten and decomposed into a mountain of red worms that wriggled wildly away into the darkness.”
— “Beauty” Black in Death is My Shadow (1959) by Edward Ronns
- “Boom! An explosion of pain roared through me, blasted me all the way to my shoestrings. Klieg lights made pinwheel patterns in my glims, and atomic bomb took my grey cells apart, and I plunged into a deep black well of unconsciousness. For me it was the end of a chapter.”
— Dan Turner in “Careless Corpse” by Robert Leslie Bellem
Of course, there are tons more of these floating around. If you’ve found a good one, and feel like sending it in to me, go ahead — knock yourself out!
A FINAL THOUGHT
The only time I can remember someone talking about the actual dangers of knocking someone unconscious in detective fiction is this exchange between hacker P.I. Kidd and his sidekick LuEllen, who puts a potato in a sock to use as a sap because it’s legal to carry, and the potato, she had heard “was soft enough to be non-lethal.” She ends up not needing it, and they have this exchange:
“I’m glad you didn’t have to slug anybody,” I said after a while.
“So am I,” she said. “I’d do it, but I think…”
“Whacking people on the head…I don’t know. The theory sounds OK, with the soft potato and all, but I’ve got a feeling that some of them might die.”
— Kidd and LuEllen in The Empress File by John Camp (or John Sandford if you prefer)
List compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to the good doctors, and to field investigators Ron DeSourdis, Professor Dale Stoyer from the prestigious Buffalo School of Hard Knocks, and a cast of thousands for their help with this one.