Rocky Steele

Created by John B. West
(1905-60)

Perhaps not surprisingly, ALOYSIUS ALGERNON STEELE prefers to be called “ROCKY.

Can you really blame him?

After all, neither Aloysius nor Algernon is the kinda monicker any self-respecting hard-boiled P.I. wants to go by. And as a Lucky-smoking, cognac-swigging, ex-boxer and former commando (he saw action in the Pacific in WWII) now running the Steele Special Services, Inc. Detective Agency in Manhattan, Rocky definitely qualifies as some kinda tough guy. He may work closely with the cops when he has to, and may even carry a silver police badge which reads “Special Investigator,” but make no mistake–Rocky’s his own man. He appeared in six rough and tough PBO’s in the late fifties/early sixties, that definitely showed the influence of Mike Hammer.

But this guy makes Hammer look almost subtle, by comparison. Rocky calls the big fat forty-five that always nests under his left arm “Betsy,” and he ain’t afraid to use her if he has to. He’s also got the obligatory devoted (and stacked) secretary. But of course she’s not just eye candy–Vicky Boston also happens to be a judo expert and the proud owner of “two peaches (that) thrust up in the air like anti-aircraft guns.” Naturally, she has the hots for Rocky, but of course he won’t touch her because he plans to marry her someday.

Ah, the fifties!

But don’t just write off ol’ Rocky’s some kinda of retro kneejerk sexist pig just yet. Rest assured that he’s fully in touch with his feminine side. At least according to him…

“Like I told you…I got female hormones in my blood and I ain’t ever been accused of being a pansy, but I must have ’em, because sometimes I get intuitions.”

Of course, when all those feminine instincts don’t help, he can always return to his usual M.O., which usually consists of slapping around suspects (and witnesses) until they talk…

We’re talking prime P.I. cheese here, stuff so bad it’s good. I mean, plenty of guys tried to milk the Spillane cash cow, but West’s bucket remained almost entirely milk-free.  A couple of chapters of West is probably enough for most folks. But if you’re ever in the mood for some truly boneheaded, preposterous and laughably politically incorrect P.I. fare, Rocky’s your man. He was even mentioned in Bill Pronzini’s Gun in Cheek (1982) pretty much certifying the books as “alternative classics.”

   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

To tell the truth, the story of the man behind the Rocky Steele books may be better than the books themselves. Because what really makes them so gosh-darn worthy of note is that John B. West was Black. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1905, he was one of four children–his father was a medical faculty member at Howard University, and his mother was a school principal. He attended Dunbar High School in D.C., and later attended Williston Seminary, a boarding school in Easthampton, Massachusetts, before studying medicine at Howard University. It was the start of a long and distinguished career in medicine. Shortly after becoming a doctor, he travelled to Ethiopia where he worked as a special advisor and health administrator. Returning to the States in 1931, he went back to school, where he obtained a master’s degree in public health at Harvard. He worked in Tuskegee, Alabama for both the Veterans Administration Facility there and for Macon County, and served in Harlem as the first black director of the District Health Officer for the Central Harlem Health District and during World War II, he worked on the executive staff of the Army’s Station Hospital in Arizona, achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, before shipping out to Liberia in 1942 to command a station hospital as senior surgeon in the United States Army Medical Corps. He remained there after the war to run the United States Public Health Mission for malaria control, and became something of a mover and a shaker, owning a broadcasting company, a manufacturing firm, and a hotel/restaurant operation.

As if that wasn’t enough, in his spare time, apparently just for shits and giggles, he wrote tough guy P.I. novels about a very white New York City private eye. Although in retrospect, Rocky was decidedly less racist than some of his fellow eyes of the era. At least as far as African-Americans went. “Why such an educated and successful black doctor would want to write such slavish, lily-white imitations of Spillane remains one of mystery fictions unsolved mysteries.”

It’s a mystery that will unfortunately never be solved–West died in an automobile accident in Ghana, on February 22, 1960,  survived by his German wife, two daughters, and a son, which means all of his mystery novels featuring Rocky except for the first, An Eye For An Eye (1959), all were published posthumously.

NOVELS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

2 thoughts on “Rocky Steele

  1. Really enjoyed the info. on Rocky Steele and his author. Many black writers in the past wrote about white characters because racist publishers would not publish black writers or stories about black characters that defied the demeaning stereotypes that many whites preferred to see. Many would be surprised at the contributions of African descended people throughout world history. Your contribution is greatly appreciated.

    1. Well, in this case, the publishers knew West was Black. His author pic was featured on the back of several of the paperbacks. So they weren’t racist as far as who they published. As for whether they had an impact on the content, it seems unlikely–West apparently wrote the books mostly for his own amusement, and left them behind when he died, with the last five published posthumously. So I’m assuming the publisher’s influence, racist or not, was negligible in this case. West just wrote the stuff he liked.

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