Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, April 11, 2023


 "Dead Man's Head" by Robert Leslie Bellem (from Spicy Detective Stories, August 1936; reprinted in Pulp Fictions, edited by Peter Haining, 1996)

"I opened the package and a human head rolled out onto my lap.  A man's head -- with a bullet hole between the eyes."

And we're off and running with another wild adventure of Dan Turner, the Hollywood Detective.  Turner's literary career lasted sone two decades, from June 1934 to March 1953, appearing in at least an incredible 355 short stories.  Although Dan Turner is arguably creator Robert Leslie Bellem's most famous creation, the Turner stories count for just a small portion of Bellam's output, which is estimated at over 3000 pulp stories.

A Dan Turner story is like no other.  It's hardboiled and embued with sex (mainly hinted) and not-so-subtle violence.  It's also more than a little wacky and infused with a type of English colloquialism that just doesn't exist in the real world.  Guns go "Ka-chow!" and "Chow! Chow!" and "Wr-r-rang!"  But it's not guns that make that noise -- it's "roscoes."  As Kevin Burnett Smith wrote, "[I]t was the high-octane use of every slang word known to man (and more than a few Bellem must have coined himself) that fueled the tales.  Women were wrens or frills, and their breasts were pretty-pretties or tiddlywinks, something that Dan, "as human as the next gazabo," always took time to notice.  Cars were chariots, money was geetus and no one ever got killed in the stories, they were croaked, choked, cooled, iced, de-lifed or had an act of killery performed on them.  Guns didn't go bang -- they were roscoes and they spat, coughed and belched.  Or sometimes they just sneezed, though the end result was the same -- people ended up dead."  And references that would not be coinsidered PC today?  Forget about it.

Back to "Dead Man's Head."  The severed head had been delivered anonymously to Turner's apartment door.  He recognized who it was -- a once-popular movie comic named Skinny Arkle, whose career ended after a wild night with an extra named Nancy Norward.  Nancy ended up dead and Skinny went on trial for her murder.  The jury decided that she had died from natural causes, but the publicity over the case made Arkle's career as dead as the girl was.  (Any resemblance to the real-life Fatty Arbuckle case must be a sheer coincidence, right?)  Arkle fled to Euarope for a while, then came back to Hollywood, eventually marrying a rising star; she made enough cookies and he had enough geetus stashed away for them to live comfortably.  So what was his head doing in a package outside Turner's door?

Turner calls his homicide squad friend Dave Donaldson, who tells him to meet him at headquarters.  And bring the head.  As he leaves the apartment, he bumps into a blonde bimbo who needs to speak to Turner immediately.  She's the sister of Skinny Arkle's wife.  The pair had gotten into a vicious argument and Arkle stormed out, threatening to come back and kill his wife.  That was three days ago and the girl and her sister are frightened.  Turner tells her she needn't worry about Arkle and shows her the severed head.  The girl faints.  Now Turner is in a quandry.  He has to go to police headquarters and he can't bring an unconscious girl with him.  If he leaves her, she may flee before he returns and he wants to question her.  So he does what any "private skulk" or "orb for hire" would do.  He takes off her clothes and leaves her in just a bra and panties, figuring she won't go out in public like that.  Then he hightails it police headquarters.

Turner and Donaldson go to Arkle's mansion to question his wife. but the little Chink maid did not want to disturb her.  Turner recognized a strange car in the driveway as belonging to a big Hollywood director.  They push their way past the maid and charge upstairs.  They hear a shot.  Barging into the bedroom, they find Arkle's wife, both very naked and very dead.  Standing over the body is the big-time director with a roscoe in his hands.  They tell him to drop the gun and stick out his fins for the nippers; if he doesn't, the cop with sock him on the dome with the soft end of his roscoe.  The director punches Donaldson and manages to push Turner down as he flees.  Turner is just a few seconds after him when he reaches the front door.  The director is already in his car.  Two shots are fired.  Turner thought they were aimed at him, but the director is slumped over in his gar, the warm gun next to him, great crimson gushers of blood spewing out of him.  He dies, but it wasn't suicide.  Donaldson figure the killer had to be the director's wife, who had found out about his affair.  He heads off to her home while Turner waits for the response team to pick up the two corpses.  He uses the time to light a gasper and check out the crime scene.  The Chink maid tries to escape through a window.  She begs him to let her go and fits against him like tissue paper.  They kiss, and Turner's blood starts racing...Fade out.  "It was some time later when I said, 'Okay, baby." and Turner begins to question her.  He lets her escape through the window, but then the police arrive and he tells them she just got away.  The police nab her and Turner tells them to put the nippers on her.

Donaldson comes back with the news that the director's wife had a solid alibi, but the director's fiirst wife was Nancy Norward, the girl Arkle had been accused of killing.

I won't go into how Turner solves the case, because you might not believe me.  But in the end, the killer fired his roscoe at Turner and a slug zinged past his skull, so Turner sent three slugs into the guys guts.  The killer gurgles in his throat and vomits a little blood from his punctured guts, the a spew of crimson gushed out of his kisser, and he folded up.

Case closed.  But Turner still has a girl in her underwear and he really should give her clothes back to her.  But he won't hurry about it.

Robert Leslie Bellem (1902-1968) started the Dan Turner series in Spicy Detective Stories in 1934 and that magazine remained a primary home for the Holywood Detective until the magazine (by then retitled Speed Detective) closed in 1947.  In 1942, however, Turner got his own magazine -- Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective. the title late shortened to Hollywood Detective; which ran until late in 1950.  Bellem evidently wrote all the stories in that magazine, using a plethora of pseudonyms.  Over the years, about 23 collections of Dan Turner stories have been published, some of them unauthorized and some even mimeographed.  Bellam also wrote at least 70, and possibly as many as a hundred, comic book stories about Turner; many of these were published in the pulps and some reprinted as fillers in regular comic books.  Two collections of the comics have been published.  There were also two Dan Turner movies made -- one, Blackmail, in 1947, and the other, The Raven Red Kiss-Off, a terrible mess that went direct to video in 1990 and died there.  The script by John Wooley for the 1990 film was evidently published in 2020.

When the pulps died, Bellem turned to Hollywood, writing mainly for television in the 1950s and 1960s.  According to IMDb, he wrote at least 126 scripts for such shows as Dick Tracy, Superman, The Lone Ranger, Perry Mason, and The F.B.I.


  1. I don't know about changing language in some older books, but I find "Chink Maid" offensive, worse certainly than "Oriental Maid," which is also considered offensive now. Oriental maid wasn't meant to offend but this term was. What do you think?

    1. Yes, it was offensive as all get out. But I think it was standard for the time and the particular market. SPICY STORIES was a lower tier pulp and could get away with it. Actually, the magazine was a step up from the "shudder pulps" of the day, which added misogyny and torture to the mix of racism and violence. Things began to change somewhat and racial perjoratives were slowly -- very slowly -- being eased out, although much of the stigma remained in such things as stereotypical dialog from Blacks, Asians, and Latins. I hope that people reading these stories today have a clear awareness that times and many social attitudes were quite different back then.

    2. Also a matter of reflecting the values (or lack of them) of the characters, as well as those of the assumed audiences...there was certainly a bland acceptance of dismissive pejoratives, but also the childish delight in offhandedly employing them. Still with us.

  2. I wish I was more well-read in this era. The field is so vast that one can never know enough.