75 YEARS OF CONTINUOUS CRIME-STOPPING - PART TWO
By Jim Doherty
Comic strips are, of course, a visual medium, and Chester Gould's great talent was his ability to tell a story in pictures. Obviously, as with other visual mediums, films and stage plays, for example, it all begins with a plot. And when Gould, of necessity, found it necessary to write stories in order to be able to illustrate, he turned out to be a fine writer, too. His dialog was sharp, his characters memorable, his plots twisty and suspenseful, and he had a knack, a Dickensian knack, for instantly engaging his audience's emotions and sympathy.
But he was a writer in a particular medium, a visual medium, as I said, and his writing existed primarily to serve the visual element. He wrote stories because, as a comic strip artist, he needed stories to illustrate, in much the same way that Shakespeare wrote plays because, as an actor, he needed plays to act in.
Dick Tracy, of course, is no longer just a comic strip character, he's a multi-media star. Over the last three quarters of a century, he's appeared in movies, TV shows, animated cartoons, radio dramas, etc. But Gould's participation in those adaptations was vestigial at best. He knew his medium was the comic strip, just as Shakespeare's was the stage, and he stuck to comic strips almost exclusively throughout his career.
One wonders how a Dick Tracy novel or short story might have come out if Gould had ever written one. Maybe he would have stumbled badly in a medium with which he was unfamiliar. Maybe he would have soared to new heights. We'll never know.
Dick Tracy did appear in prose fiction, of course, just as he appeared in virtually every other available entertainment medium throughout his, and Gould's, long career. But it was left to others to bring Tracy into the world of novels and short stories.
Arguably, Tracy's first exposure in prose fiction were in a series of heavily illustrated books for children, put out by the Midwestern juvenile publisher Whitman, called “Big Little Books.” These volumes were roughly one-inch thick, and exactly four and a half inches tall by four and a half inches wide. They featured stories about almost every character likely to be popular with kids, from Buck Rogers to the Lone Ranger, from Bugs Bunny to Popeye, from Tarzan to Superman. Between 1932 and 1967, Tracy was featured in 27 different Big Little Books, more than any other character except Mickey Mouse.
When you opened a Big Little Book, you saw an illustration on the right page, and a block of text describing whatever was going on in that illustration on the left. In the Tracy BLB's, the illustrations, for the most part, were Gould's own work, cobbled from the comic strips, with the dialog balloons and captions edited out, and adapted into the text that appeared on the left page.
I say that the BLB's were “arguably” Tracy 's first foray into prose fiction because, just as arguably, they weren't really prose fiction at all. One could take the position that, for practical purposes, the BLB's were just comics presented in a slightly different way, just as a monthly comic book is a different type of presentation than a daily or Sunday newspaper strip. The captions were just to the left of the picture instead of above, below, or within the picture. So, aside from this brief mention, I won't be dealing with the Tracy BLB's at length.
I will be dealing with Whitman, however, since it was also the publisher of the first two books that can be inarguably classified as actual, full-fledged Tracy novels. And these were original stories, not adaptations of scripts by Gould from the strip. The first, Dick Tracy – Ace Detective , appeared in 1943.
Given the copyright date, it'll come as no surprise that the story has a wartime theme. Tracy is asked by the Army to be the personal bodyguard of a scientist working on an important defense project. This will mean leaving his city and traveling to the wide open spaces of the American west, where the scientist is conducting his research and experiments.
The novel is credited to Gould, but was almost certainly ghosted. For one thing, there are a number of errors the author makes about Tracy 's world. Tracy 's deliberately unnamed city, for example (apparently Chicago , though this is never explicitly stated), is identified as “Elton,” which in the “canonical” strip, is specifically identified as a suburb.
More importantly, Tracy is depicted doing things that seem to defy common sense or normal human expectations. For example, when his adopted son, Junior, is kidnapped by enemy agents, and no clues are immediately apparent, Tracy seems to just shrug his shoulders and move on to the next case, trusting that eventually some lead to Junior's whereabouts will turn up. And despite the title's declaration that Tracy is an “Ace Detective,” he seems to do precious little detective work in this novel. Solutions just sort of drop into his lap. Ultimately, Dick Tracy – Ace Detective is a disappointment, but its historical importance as the very first genuine Tracy novel is undeniable.
The sequel, Dick Tracy Meets the Night Crawler (Whitman, 1945), is a major improvement. Tracy 's on a fishing vacation in Colorado , along with his squeeze, Tess Trueheart, his adopted son, Junior, and his partner, Pat Patton, when he is asked to look into a disappearance. A member of the board of a local mining enterprise has gone missing, and his colleagues are afraid he may have been murdered. The local sheriff is, as he puts it, a competent “saddle cop,” but admits he is no hand at a complicated missing persons case, and still less at homicide investigation.
A note left behind by someone identifying himself as “The Night Crawler” asserts that the disappearance is a murder and that the rest of the Board will also die, one by one. Over the next few days, in a situation reminiscent of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None , the Night Crawler's predictions come true as the remaining members of the Board start disappearing.
Tracy has his hands full, trying to safeguard those board members who haven't yet disappeared while he follows up clues to the Night Crawler's identity and hideout. When Tess and Junior are kidnapped and held hostage by the Crawler, Tracy , in contrast to his reaction in Ace Detective , is genuinely concerned, and saving them becomes his top priority. Further, he does actual detective work, following up clues, and making reasonable deductions. When Tracy himself disappears, Pat takes over and proves himself to be the solid, dependable pro you'd expect a cop like Tracy to have as a partner, not the buffoon he's often depicted as in some media adaptations. Add to this a top-notch villain in “No-Neck” Noriago, aka “The Night Crawler, a true “grotesque” worthy of Gould himself (though perhaps a bit too reminiscent of Gould's own 1941 rogue, the Mole), a scary setting in the network of subterranean mine tunnels where much of the action occurs, and lots of the wild and wooly action that Tracy stories in any medium are known for, and you've got all the ingredients needed to make Tracy and company as welcome on the printed page as they are in the funny papers.
The two Whitman novels were, of course, aimed at the juvenile market. The next full-length novel to feature Tracy was, apparently, intended for adults. It was a paperback original called Dick Tracy and the Woo-Woo Sisters (Dell, 1947), in which the square-jawed cop is assigned to a case involving twin news-hens Madge and Millicent Woodley, who collaborate on a popular local gossip column as the titular “Woo-Woo Sisters.” I wasn't able to read this book before writing this column. It's prohibitively expensive, when you can actually find one for sale, and those few libraries that have copies in their collections don't circulate them, particularly not through interlibrary loans. That being the case, I can't tell you much about this one, other than that, as with the two Whitman novels, it's credited to Gould, but, again as with the Whitman novels, is almost certainly ghosted. According to one source, in fact, the author of Woo-Woo Sisters was a woman. It does occur to me that the notion of a pair of beautiful blonde twins, as the Woodleys are described, evokes, perhaps deliberately, the “Summer Sisters,” those ill-fated siblings from the 1943 “Brow” continuity.
If you're interested, you can get a look at the front and back covers of Woo-Woo Sisters here:
It was more than two decades before Tracy was again seen in a full-length novel. It would be nice to say that William Johnston's take on the iconic cop was worth the wait, but his novel, entitled simply Dick Tracy (Tempo Books, 1970), was an even bigger disappointment than Ace Detective . Johnston 's best known for TV tie-ins, original novels featuring characters from popular television shows. Over the years, he's written books based on Get Smart , Ben Casey , Happy Days , The Brady Bunch , and Welcome Back, Kotter . It's very possible that Johnston 's Tracy novel was originally a TV tie-in assignment deriving from a proposed mid-60's Dick Tracy television show that never got past the pilot stage, and was back-burnered when the networks failed to give the series a go-ahead.
Johnston 's Tracy makes no reference to the space travel that was then a major part of the strip, but it had enough science-fiction trappings to fit rather well into that particular era of Tracy history. Tracy and his partner, Sam Catchem, are pitted against a master criminal styling himself “Mr. Computer,” whose modest plan is to kidnap several men, each of them the top geniuses in their various fields, use a brain-drain machine to strip them of all their knowledge and then transfer it himself, and use that knowledge to take over the world. It's a fanciful enough plot that it makes Junior's romance with (and eventual marriage to) an extra-terrestrial hottie almost believable.
The most disappointing aspect of Johnston 's book, though, is that it makes only the most fleeting use of the trappings we're used to seeing in a Tracy story. Outside of Catchem, no regulars from the strip make an appearance. Policewoman Lizz Worthington, adopted son Junior, wife Tess, et al, are all conspicuous by their absence. None of them even rates an off-hand mention. Even Chief Patton is only referred to as “the chief,” as though Johnston couldn't be bothered to take the time to find out the character's name. Moreover, Tracy makes no use of the two-way wrist radio that had been a part of the strip since 1946, nor of any of the other predictive devices Gould had introduced into the strip over the years. There's nothing about Tracy , as Johnston writes him, that's particularly Tracy-like. He's just a nondescript cop whose name happens to be Dick Tracy and whose partner is an equally nondescript cop who happens to be named Sam Catchem.
As an historical note, though, this novel does mark the first time Catchem was a character in a prose Tracy story.
What might be termed the “Golden Age” for prose Tracy stories began in 1990, and was timed to coincide with the release of Warren Beatty's multi-million dollar film version of Dick Tracy .
Award-winning mystery novelist Max Allan Collins, who had been writing the newspaper strip since Gould's retirement in 1977, was the natural choice to do the novelization for the film. His prose adaptation, entitled, like the film (and like Johnston 's novel) simply Dick Tracy (Bantam, 1990), became rather notorious for being one of the few whodunits ever published in which the identity of the culprit was not revealed.
Like the film, the novel pits Tracy against a coalition of some twenty different villains from the strip, criminals he faced one at a time in their original newspaper appearances, but who he has to take on simultaneously in the feature-length movie extravaganza. One of these is a character known as “The Blank,” a hoodlum wearing a mask that makes him appear faceless. In the comic strip, the Blank was actually an escaped convict named Frank Redrum, seeking revenge against his treacherous former partners in crime, and his faceless persona hid a disfigured visage. In the film, however, the Blank is someone entirely different, someone whose identity is not revealed until the end of the film, adding a minor puzzle element to the plot.
Collins's novel was released to bookstores several weeks before the film was released to theatres, and the film's producers did not want the “surprise” ending ruined for moviegoers. Consequently, they decreed that the last chapter of Collins's novelization had to be rewritten so that the Blank's identity was not actually revealed. Only the final edition of the book (which went through several printings) included Collins's original chapter, in which the character who had been masquerading as the Blank was specifically identified, and, as that final edition never made it into bookstores, having been, instead, sold en masse to a school book club, relatively few people read it.
Whether the Blank's identity remains a mystery or not, Collins's adaptation of the film script to prose is one of the most satisfying movie novelizations ever published. Tracy fans were, quite frankly, divided in their opinions of the film. Some loved it and others hated it. But even those who loved it admitted that it was a trifle over-produced and more than a trifle under-plotted.
Collins, while staying generally faithful to the film's storyline, beefs up the plot materially, making some of the more obvious logical lapses disappear. He also manages to work into the story some well-loved supporting characters from the strip, like billionaire industrialist Diet Smith and scenery-chewing actor Vitamin Flintheart, who were absent from the film. Tweaking details here and there, he manages to bring the whole story a bit closer to both the spirit and the letter of Tracy 's world as Gould laid it down.
Roughly simultaneously with the release of the Tracy novelization, an anthology of Tracy short stories, Dick Tracy – The Secret Files (TOR Books, 1990), appeared in bookstores. Edited by Collins and Martin H. Greenberg, the book gave a number of well-known writers, including Edgar-winners like Edward D. Hoch, Henry Slesar, and John Lutz, Shamus-winners like Ed Gorman, and popular genre writers like Barry Malzberg, Wayne Dundee, and Ron Goulart, the chance to try their hands at a Tracy tale. Stories span the decades from the ‘30's to the ‘90's, and treatments range from fast-action thrillers to fair-play puzzles. The two best stories in the volume are Mike Resnick's “Origins,” in which a struggling young cartoonist named Gould, who's been having trouble coming up with a saleable comic strip, meets a handsome young Chicago police detective named Tracy Richards and gets an idea for a feature that just might have some staying power; and Collins's own “Not a Creature Was Stirring,” in which Tracy and his squad spend the Christmas season tracking down a serial killer who's preying on children.
Collins's novelization of the film was popular enough that he was contracted to write some sequels. The first of these was Dick Tracy Goes to War (Bantam, 1991). Freed from the constraints of having to follow a pre-existing film script, Collins was able to spread his wings and write the novel he truly wanted to write. Where the film, and its novelization, had been set vaguely in the mid to late ‘30's, the novel, as its title implies, is set during World War II. Collins follows the film format to the degree that the storyline utilizes several different villains from the strip (ones that Beatty somehow overlooked) joining together against Tracy . Collins also incorporates plot devices and other elements from a number of different Tracy strip stories, so, while the novel is not, strictly speaking, based on a strip story, neither is it a wholly original novel.
The novel opens with Tracy tying up the loose ends on a few open cases before heading to Washington , DC . Like most able-bodied young men during the Big One, Tracy has entered the military. Specifically, he's been commissioned as a lieutenant commander in the Office of Naval Intelligence. Looking forward to assignments that will put him in combat overseas, he's dismayed to learn that his post of duty will be stateside. In fact, he'll be assigned to his own home town, working as the liaison between the ONI and local law enforcement, and more specifically with the very police force that employs him in civilian life.
Naturally disappointed that he won't be serving in an actual theatre of war, Tracy 's also troubled by the fact that his relationship with Tess has hit some rocky shoals. Tess has gotten a little tired of the long years of “is-you-is-or-is-you-ain't” and wants Tracy to set a date, something he's reluctant to do while there's a war on and he's in uniform (at least figuratively). This has led to a break-up, one Tracy hopes is temporary, but when a recently paroled piano player named 88 Keyes starts to take an interest in Tess, an interest Tess seems to reciprocate, Tracy's not all that sure he'll be able to win her back.
In the midst of all these soap operatics, Tracy 's also got some actual counter-espionage to attend to. A group of Nazi spies, led by the mysterious Black Pearl and a vicious she-monster referred to only as “Mrs. P,” is forming a fifth column within America's criminal underworld, and Tracy's got to stamp it out before it gets too well-established. At the same time, the enemy agents are close to getting their hands on the formula for Xylon, the most powerful non-atomic explosive in the world, a formula Tracy 's got to keep out of the hands of the Axis at all costs.
Dick Tracy Goes to War is probably the single most satisfying Tracy novel ever published. With a solid, well-constructed plot, vividly realized characters, and lots of Gould-style action, it is a showcase for both for Collins's novelistic flair and his devotion to the Tracy mythos. Best of all, it has a character named “Jim Doherty,” described as a rookie cop with a “lilting Irish brogue.” I don't have a lilting Irish brogue, being some three generations removed from the “Auld Sod,” but I was a rookie cop who got a huge charge out of reading about my fictional doppelganger participating, even if only as a walk-on character, in a Tracy investigation.
One of the few criticisms I would make of the book comes out of a circumstance over which Collins had no control. Since it is a sequel to the film novelization, it takes place in the film's “continuity,” so to speak. As a consequence, Gould's two most important wartime villains, the Nazi spies Pruneface and the Brow, are unavailable for a book they would otherwise seem tailor-made for, since they were already eliminated in the film (and in the novel Collins adapted from it) where they were erroneously depicted as American gangsters rather that agents of the Third Reich.
Collins himself was particularly proud of this book, declaring it to be the best Tracy work he ever did in any medium, as well as one of his best books overall. I'm admittedly prejudiced about any book that includes a character named “Officer Jim Doherty,” but I'd have to agree.
Collins also wrote the last Tracy novel published to date, Dick Tracy Meets His Match (Bantam, 1992). Set during the Christmas season of a prosperous, post-war 1949, it involves Tracy in a brand new entertainment medium called television. He and his long-time fiancé, Tess Trueheart, are finally going to tie the knot, and, since Tess has risen from a lowly riveter in one of Diet Smith's WW2 defense plants to the Vice-President in Charge of Programming for the newly formed Smith Broadcasting Network, they've decided (somewhat against Tracy's better judgment) to combine business with romance by exchanging vows on a live television broadcast, the first episode of a new SBN series called The Big Wedding in which lucky young couples will be treated to an all-expense paid nuptial celebration every week.
The wedding gets disrupted when a vengeful ex-con named “Trigger” Doom tries to kill Tracy during the broadcast, leading to a foot chase, a rooftop shootout, a gripping punch-up, and spectacular ratings, but, by the end of the broadcast, a still unmarried Dick and Tess.
Convinced that there is more to the attack than a simple desire for revenge, Tracy starts an investigation behind the scenes of Smith's TV studio (the same building, by the way, that was the Big Boy's nightclub/headquarters in Dick Tracy and a Stage-Door Canteen in Dick Tracy Goes to War ). The murder of Ted Tellum, SBN's most popular on-air personality, seems to confirm Tracy 's suspicions that the attack on his wedding was part of a larger conspiracy, and soon the chisel-chinned copper is, as usual, up to his neck in danger, and it's anyone's guess whether he'll even survive long enough to get Tess to the altar.
Not as good as War , this third novel is still a wonderfully entertaining look, not only at Tracy and his cadre, but at the early days of television. Again, he follows the film's format of pitting Tracy against several foes, but resists the urge to overload the book. Where Dick Tracy had some twenty bad guys (and gals) clamoring for space and attention, some of whom had little to do other than drop their names before dropping out of sight, Collins was careful to use only bad guys who fit comfortably into the plots he'd constructed for War and Match . Consequently, War only used about a half-dozen or so members of Tracy 's Rogues' Gallery (including major leaguers like the Mole and B.B. Eyes), all of whom were integral to the story.
By the time Collins got to Match , most of the first-string rogues had been used up, and he's able to come up with only two who really fit well into the story he's telling, the aforementioned Doom, and the main bad guy, ex-wrestler turn entertainment agent/extortionist T.V. Wiggles, both of them strong characters, but both of them, nevertheless, clearly pulled from the second team bench. To get a few more co-conspirators involved who actually fit into his storyline, Collins has to resort to taking characters who were actually sympathetic in their strip appearances, like songstress Dot View, and make them accomplices to the criminal goings-on.
But if it isn't the best Tracy novel ever, it's a very close second, and it's a shame that the series ended after only three novels.
There were tentative plans, according to some sources, for at least one more book in the series. Slated to be set circa 1956, it would have pitted Tracy against organized crime figures intent on taking over the music industry, and would have included lots of background info on the payola scandals of the ‘50's, the criminal infiltration of the jukebox business, and the emergence of rock-n-roll as the dominant form of popular music. Collins, a rock musician as well as a crime novelist, would have been able to bring a solid measure of personal experience, expertise, and insight into this novel, and it would have followed a long Gould tradition, dating all the way back to the 1940 story “Mary X,” of involving Tracy in the music industry. It was to have been entitled Dick Tracy on the Beat .
I don't know how far plans went on this book. It may exist in manuscript form, or it may never have gotten past the proposal stage. In any case, it's very unlikely that the book will ever appear now, due to the bitter acrimony between Collins and Tribune Media Services that led to his departure from the strip (and the strip's subsequent slide into mediocrity).
Indeed, the strip's falling popularity, and a series of lawsuits over who owns various licensing rights make it highly unlikely that any new Tracy novels will ever be written or published.
But if, by some miracle, Dick Tracy on the Beat ever does appear in bookstores, I'll be one of the first in line waiting to buy a copy.