INTRODUCTION: HE STEPPED IN IT!
Letís start with a spoiler alert. Anybody who wants to approach Five Million in Cash with a mind like a blank slate, the proverbial tabula rasa, may be excused right now. Turn to Chapter I, enjoy the book, and come back when youíre ready.
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Okay, Gentle Reader, youíre either still here or youíre back again. In either case, letís feel free to talk about this very odd novel.
It starts like one of those comic fantasies that were popular in the 1930s. The most famous and successful of all was Topper, by Thorne Smith. Smith had been writing for years. Heíd tried his hand at everything from thinly disguised war memoirs to poetry to at least one serious murder mystery, but it was his humorous fantasies about ghosts, living statues, magical sex changes, walking skeletons, and people turning into animals that made him wealthy and famous.
When Topper was published in 1926 it captured the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, otherwise known as the Era of Wonderful Nonsense. Smith gave the reading public a generous portion of sex, booze, and supernatural hi-jinx. When the Great Depression hit three years later, the same formula offered readers a light-hearted escape from their gloom. Smithís fantasies inspired a whole school of fiction. Writers who imitated him included pre-Psycho Robert Bloch, pre-Dianetics L. Ron Hubbard, and a fellow named Charles F. Myers whose made a modest career out of writing about a Topper-inspired sexy apparition named Toffee.
One can well imagine the young Tiffany Thayer (1902-1959), then a struggling young writer not yet out of his twenties, deciding to try his hand at the genre. Thus:
When Ben Flindersí alarm clock rattles him out of a sound sleep, he steps from his bed and discovers that heís ankle-deep in money. Literally. Heís an ordinary guy, a bachelor living in a Spartan rented room, working in an auto paint shop in Manhattan. He has no idea how much money heís stepped into, although itís clearly a fortune, and he has no idea how it got into his room.
Did the Tooth Fairy fall in love with Ben and favor him with several million simoleons? Did Ben get drunk, wander into an illicit gambling den, and break the bank? Is this all a dream?
One can imagine what Thorne Smith would have done with this story, or any of Smithís imitators. I imagine that Tiffany Thayer had just such a task in mind when he started writing Five Million in Cash, but for some reason he never followed through with the zany humorous fantasy that he seemed to have in mind.
Instead, Thayerís mild-mannered automobile painter soon discovers that the source of all that money was neither a beautiful fairy with a magic wand nor a streak of gamblerís luck, but a crooked scheme involving not one but two criminal gangs and some crooked politicians.
The simplest solution for Ben would have been to give the money back. But back to whom? And how is Ben to arrange the transfer? Instead, Ben Flinders decides to keep the money. And once he is plunged into the underworld of 1920s New York, heís off on one of the wildest adventures you can imagine.
The ingredients of a pulp gangster novel are all there. Mobsters, car chases, disguises, alluring vamps, blasting revolvers, blazing machine guns, false identities, speakeasies. I donít know this for a fact, but itís my guess that the young Thayer wrote this book in the late 1920s, sent it out to any number of publishers, and got back nothing but rejection slips.
But in 1930, Thayer hit with his own first, most distinctive, and most successful novel, Thirteen Men. The fact that the book was illustrated by the great Mahlon Blaine didnít hurt. Suddenly Thayer could sell, and sell he did. Thirteen Men was followed by Thirteen Women, One Man Show, Three-Sheeter, and Thayerís unique re-imagining of such classics as The Three Musketeers and the Mona Lisa.
But there was Five Million in Cash sitting in a bottom drawer in Thayerís desk. Authors donít like to have unpublished manuscripts hanging around. Now Thayer could probably sell Five Million in Cashł but it wasnít really a very good book. At least by conventional standards. Not that any of Thayerís books were. He was an odd bird, thatís for certain.
Still, one can imagine: he wanted Five Million in Cash published but he didnít want it published.
Today we might call Thayerís state of mind, cognitive dissonance. In Thayerís day a simpler term might have been, confusion. But there was a solution, a scheme that would reconcile his two desires. If he used a pseudonym on the book, he might clear some cash while maintaining his new-found succes díestime as Tiffany Thayer.
Hence: O. B. King. And he was right. He sold the novel and it appeared twice in 1932. A hardcover edition was published by Doubleday, Doran. A few copies survive, but the dust jacket is extremely scarce. And the text was included in Star Novels Quarterly, a pulp magazine issued by the same company.
As far as I can determine, Thayer never used the O.B. King pseudonym again, nor did he ever reveal what the initials ďO.B.Ē stood for. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps Thayer just snatched the name out of thin air, the same way he snatched all that money out of thin air and dropped it on Ben Flindersí bedroom floor.
There are some things that weíll never know.
But this much I do know: Five Million in Cash is a wild, amazing, incredible yarn. Itís unlike any other book Iíve ever read, and Iíve read a lot of books. A lot!
As Tiffany Thayer said of his own most famous work, Thirteen Men, ďThis probably isnít the best book youíve ever read, and it certainly isnít the worst, but itís the damnedest.Ē
Or something like that.
Richard A. Lupoff