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by Gelett Burgess





If you ever get to see Two in the Dark, a very scarce movie released in 1936, do not by any means, miss it. The opening scene alone is superb. A man awakens in a big-city park, dizzy and confused. He doesn’t know where he is. He doesn’t know what he’s doing there. He doesn’t even know who he is.

Soon he meets a young woman. She knows exactly where she is and who she is. She’s homeless and she was sleeping on a bench.

The scene is fairly faithfully adapted from Two O’clock Courage, a novel by Gelett Burgess, published by Bobbs-Merrill two years before. The screenwriter, Seton I. Miller, resequenced some of the events in the novel, but the characters and the story are definitely Burgess’s.

Now, if you’ve ever read the novel Buddwing, by Evan Hunter, published in 1964, or seen the motion picture Mister Buddwing, released two years later, you will find the opening sequence hauntingly familiar. In fact, not only the opening sequence of the two novels and their respective screen adaptations, but their general plot structures are remarkably similar.

In each case the male protagonist searches his clothing and pockets in hopes of learning his identity. In each case he fails, but does find sufficient clues to help him with his quest. In each case he meets a woman who provides some additional information, then another woman, then another, working toward the goal of learning just who he is.

Gelett Burgess’s protagonist might obviously turn to the local police for assistance, or seek medical treatment. But before he can act he learns that a sensational murder has taken place, and as he pieces together clues he comes to suspect that he may himself be the killer!

In the course of their adventures both Burgess’s protagonist and Hunter’s adopt a series of identities. And here, both these protagonists reflect their creators’ lives.

Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) was a trained architect who pursued an academic career until he was cashiered due to his extracurricular activities. He worked as a journalist, a comic strip cartoonist, an author and illustrator of children’s books, a magazine editor, a short story writer, a playwright, and a novelist.

Although Two O’clock Courage was published in 1934, it was clearly written some time before that, as Burgess’s characters frequent big-city speakeasies—and Prohibition had ended in 1933. Other period references to Greta Garbo, Jeanne Eagels, Harry Houdini and other performers of the era serve further to set the period of the story.

Evan Hunter—born Salvatore Lombino in 1926—changed his name legally to Hunter in 1962. As John Abbott he wrote a thriller, Scimitar. As Curt Cannon he wrote hardboiled, I’m Cannon—for Hire. As Hunt Collins he wrote science fiction, Tomorrow and Tomorrow. As Richard Marston he wrote a series of novels, Even the Wicked and others, set against the world of Elizabethan theater. He ghosted a novel for screwball mystery writer Craig Rice, The April Robin Murders.

But he was most prolific and most successful as Ed McBain, creator of the 87th Precinct. He reserved the byline Evan Hunter for his more serious, mainstream fiction. He even wrote one book as Evan Hunter and Ed McBain.

He died in 2005. I knew him, although not as well as I’d have liked to. He was a lovely man, modest and unpretentious, yet full of brilliant anecdotes. I didn’t know about Two O’clock Courage when I last spoke with Evan—for that was the persona he most preferred, at least in our own relationship.

Had he read Two O’clock Courage? Had he seen the 1936 film? He was ten years old when it was released. He might well have seen it and experienced so strong an impact that he incorporated major elements from it into Buddwing. Maybe he read Burgess’s book, or saw a 1946 remake of the film.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps this is all coincidence.

If only I’d known about Burgess when last I spoke with Hunter. But now we’ll never know.

In any case, prepare yourself for a most remarkable reading experience as you turn the pages of Two O’clock Courage. The book is a psychological study. It’s also a murder mystery, and it introduces some of Burgess’s most fascinating characters. As the protagonist goes from woman to woman you’ll find each one more intriguing than the last. And you’ll learn something of the “out of town” theater world of the 1930s.

Two O’clock Courage is the third of Surinam Turtle Press’s reissues of the works of Gelett Burgess. In it his style progresses from the Edwardian sentimentality of The Master of Mysteries and The White Cat, and shows a more modern, hard-edged quality that will continue in the next planned Burgess volume from Surinam Turtle Press.


 Richard A. Lupoff


April 2008



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