It’s surprising that Michael Shayne isn’t better known, yet Brett Halliday’s two-fisted hard-drinking, hard-thinking private detective is certainly worth rediscovering. Perhaps in today’s world of CSI and forensics it might be easy to poke holes in the plot, yet taken in context, and with the police work at the time these were written, they come off quite well and are highly entertaining page turners. In the Elusive Author’s The Case of the Blood Red Stars, A Kelly Riggs Mystery, the final chapter title is an ode to Michael Shayne and Brett Halliday—Blood on the Stars, the 15th Shayne novel and where the specific idea came from for the “McGuffin.”
Described as tall and rangy, with course red hair, bushy eyebrows, a corrugated forehead with deep trenched cheeks, he operates primarily from his apartment hotel in Miami, overlooking Biscayne Bay. It’s always amusing to see how quickly, and by what page, Mike will take his first (of many) snorts of cognac—his favorite beverage—and this being fiction, he consumes more liquor than is probably humanly possible. In fact, all the Michael Shaynes stretch credulity to the limit, but then that’s part of the fun. The Miami settings are particularly evocative, and Halliday puts you right there with his mood-filled descriptions.
The series featured a regular cast of characters. Described as lean like a racing hound, tall, gangly reporter Tim Rourke is Mike’s best friend, and helps him in various ways to solve some of his best cases. Whether running down facts in the newspaper’s clipping “morgue,” being a sounding board over drinks, or in one case—transporting a body that refuses to go away—one time he gets too close to the truth and narrowly escapes death.
Shayne’s main antagonist is Miami Beach Chief of Detectives Peter Painter. Halliday’s description of Painter is so perfect it’s always a pleasure when Shayne comes up against him. On the other hand, Shayne has an ally on his side of the bay in Miami Police Chief Will Gentry, a big florid solid cop who lets Mike Shayne go the limit, and always seems to have his back.
In his first case, Shayne meets a young debutant, Phyllis Brighton. He encounters her again in the next novel, and this time they fall in love though Shayne is fifteen years her senior. They marry, but Halliday had a difficult time working a married Shayne into the action, and when a lucrative movie deal came up it was decided Phyllis should be dropped from the series. She dies tragically in childbirth, and the child also succumbs.
The tone of the series definitely takes a turn at this stage, with Shayne leaving Miami for New Orleans in Michael Shayne’s Long Chance. There, he meets a local girl on his first case, Lucy Hamilton, and she goes on to become his faithful secretary. After a couple of novels they return to Miami. Their relationship is complicated, and though they do mix business with pleasure—they do not sleep together. Lucy Hamilton is a wonderful character, and the complexity of her relationship with Shayne lends another layer of interest behind the mysteries.
Michael Shayne was featured in mass market Dell paperbacks for over three decades, with millions of copies sold worldwide. In 1940 Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights, producing seven films starring the always reliable character actor Lloyd Nolan as Shayne. Despite almost total deviations from the novels, these are quite well-done and entertaining little mysteries. In 1946, Fox dropped the series, which was picked up by poverty row PRC (Producer’s Releasing Corporation) which cranked out five more, much cheaper productions starring Hugh Beaumont (Leave it to Beaver).
Michael Shayne was on radio during the forties and fifties, played variously by Wally Maher and screen actor Jeff Chandler. Then came the 1960-1961 hour long NBC TV series starring Richard Denning (Creature from the Black Lagoon) in 32 episodes. You can watch an episode now at TV4U.Com on the Detective Channel. In 1955, Dresser created Michael Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, which ran for some thirty years.
Interesting factoids: in addition to Michael Shayne, Richard Denning played on two other long running crime shows, Mr. and Mrs. North, and as the Governor on Hawaii Five-O. Several of the Michael Shayne TV scripts were written by Richard Levinson and William Link, creators of Columbo and many other mystery characters and shows.
The Kelly Riggs Mysteries owe a huge debt of gratitude to Brett Halliday and Michael Shayne, and we’ll be investigating this character again in future posts. But in the meantime, check him out for yourself!
Part of detection is making connections.