Brett Halliday

Genres - Mystery, Crime

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Brett Halliday might not have had the recognition or the critical cachet of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but he was a very successful and popular mystery author for over 30 years, with an international readership and a string of movie and television adaptations that ran from the '30s to the '60s. Halliday was the pseudonym of Davis Dresser, a Chicago-born, Texas-raised author whose early life reads almost like a work of fiction. The boy lost an eye in an accident involving barbed wire at a very young age, and Dresser wore an eye-patch all of his life. If the accounts of his boyhood are to be believed, he rode with General John J. Pershing as part of the punitive expedition that pursued Pancho Villa into Mexico, signing up for the army cavalry illegally when he was barely in his teens. Dresser later earned a degree in civil engineering, but, like a lot of young men starting out in the early '20s, found poor pay for his work, principally as a surveyor. Dresser began writing in the late '20s as a way of supplementing his income, and he found some success authoring love stories and adventure tales for various pulp magazines under names such as Eliot Storm and Anthony Scott, among others. It took him a long time to establish himself in the mystery field; however, he went through nearly two dozen rejections with his detective fiction before Dividend on Death was published in 1939. The latter -- originally credited to Asa Baker -- introduced detective Michael Shayne, the hero for most of Dresser's subsequent works. Shayne -- who was based on a real-life person whom Dresser had met -- was a tall, red-headed, cheerful but tough Irish-American with a taste for good liquor (especially cognac) in moderation and had a winning way with clients and witnesses (especially women) when he needed it; he was based in Miami and had a reputation as one of the best private investigators in the city and commanded more respect than was usual for private detectives from the local police. Over the next 20 years, Dresser wrote dozens of Michael Shayne novels, interspersed with Westerns and other genre fiction (some written under his own name). The Shayne stories became an institution unto themselves, generating a radio series and later a television incarnation, as well as a mystery magazine that lasted for over 30 years.

Then there were the movies, which were a peculiar array of work. 20th Century Fox bought the rights to the Michael Shayne books soon after they started appearing and cast Lloyd Nolan, a talented and often under-used actor, in the role of the happy-go-lucky Irish detective. The movies -- fast-paced B-pictures -- started rolling out at the rate of three per year in 1941 and 1942, beginning with Michael Shayne, Private Detective (based on Dividend on Death). The character embodied by Nolan, with an honest, earthy charisma unusual for his time in a screen detective, proved very popular. Strangely enough, however, none of the later Michael Shayne movies used the Brett Halliday plots. Instead, the studio preferred to put the character into stories adapted from other mystery works to which they already owned the film rights. The most notable of these, and the most often shown of Fox's six Shayne films (getting a theatrical run here and there, even in the 21st century) was the last of them, Time to Kill (1942), the plot for which came from Raymond Chandler's The High Window, with Michael Shayne replacing Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The character disappeared from the screen for the duration of the Second World War, and then reappeared, this time at Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) in 1946 with Murder Is My Business, starring Hugh Beaumnontdoing a series of threadbare films in the role through 1947. There was also a radio series and later a series of television-produced adaptations starring Richard Denning, dating from the early '60s. Although Dresser's books tend to utilize a formula and, on that level, were predictable, he could surprise us with certain plots and creative twists, such as one in which Brett Halliday, the "author," becomes a prime suspect in a murder and must call in Michael Shayne to clear him. In terms of content, the books were also notable for making considerable use of the detail and local color of Miami, FL, as a setting; the author found it a richer canvas to work with than his real-life home in Southern California -- in that regard, the Shayne stories anticipate Marvin H. Albert's Tony Rome character and the films adapted from his books. In 1955, one of Dresser's stories, You Killed Elizabeth, was adapted into the British-made anthology thriller film Three Cases of Murder, which was easily the most ambitious movie with which his work was ever associated.

After 1959, Dresser ceased writing the books himself and engaged a series of ghost authors, including Wallace Ryerson Johnson, Robert Terrall, and James Reasoner, who kept the books going following Dresser's established pattern in their plotting and characterization. In more recent years, Bill Pronzini -- who wasn't even born when the first Michael Shayne story was published -- has taken over the Halliday pseudonym. Dresser was a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America and earned an Edgar Award in 1953 for his criticism. He founded a successful publishing company with his first wife, fellow mystery writer Helen McCloy, and his second wife was mystery writer Kathleen Rollins, with whom he collaborated late in the '40s on Before I Wake and A Lonely Way to Die (credited to Hal Debrett), before their marriage.