The Short Career of Robert Reeves
By John L. Apostolou
Although undergoing a period of decline, the pulp magazines of the 1940’s provided
an outlet for several fine young writers. Among the regular contributors to the crime
pulps were Ray Bradbury and John D. MacDonald, then just beginning their illustrious
careers. Discussing the Black Mask writers of that era, Anthony Boucher
One of the last of the writers developed by Black Mask, and one of
the best, was Robert Reeves, who began pulp writing with the offbeat equipment of a
degree in anthropology and a career as stage manager for the Theatre Guild. Today he’s
possibly the least known of the major tough writers - probably because he died young
without going on to the great success in slicks or films or radio that so many others
The writing career of Robert Reeves spanned less than a decade. His first work was
published in 1939 and the last in 1945. His contribution to the mystery genre, though
small in quantity, was impressive. My research indicates that he produced three novels,
nine short stories for Black Mask, and two short stories for Dime
Detective. He may have written for other magazines, but I have been unable
to locate any additional stories by him.
exists in print on the life of Robert Reeves. Dust jacket notes tell us he was born
in New York City in 1912 (or in the last months of 1911) and raised on the south shore
of Long Island. The best source of information on his education and early work experience
is a short piece in Black Mask, from which we learn that he:
acquired an A.B. at New York University, Washington Square Branch, where he majored
in History, English and Anthropology. He promptly put his education to work as driver
of an armored Post Office Department truck. Among other activities that engaged his
attention from time to time are carpentry, cabinet-making, candy-making, reading for
Fox Films and various and sundry Broadway play-brokers. He had several years experience
in show-business as a casting director, play doctor, stage manager and assistant producer.
Stage managed for the Theatre Guild at one time. Has forsaken his other interests now
to concentrate on the problem of making Cellini Smith support him.(2)
And Cellini Smith, Reeves’s private eye character, did support him - at least
for a few years.
Most, if not all, of the Cellini Smith novels and short stories were written after
Reeves moved to California in the late 1930s, probably in 1938. It is likely that he
hoped to break into the movie industry, but all we know for certain is that he settled
in geographical Hollywood, that section of the sprawling city of Los Angeles where
members of his family had lived for some years.
Cellini Smith made his initial appearance in Dead and Done For, published
by Knopf in 1939. The second Smith novel is No Love Lost (1941), which
is also known as Dog Eat Dog - an earlier and shorter version that
had been serialized in Black Mask - and as Come Out Killing,
the slightly abridged 1953 paperback edition. The third and last in the series is Cellini
Smith: Detective (1943).
Strictly speaking, Dead and Done For is not a private eye novel.
The main character, Cellini Smith, keeps books for a gang that runs the pinball machines
- an illegal activity - in New York’s Lower East Side. Cellini is a college graduate,
his education paid for by the boss of the gang, Tony Moro. When Moro is arrested for
the murder of a Broadway producer, Cellini investigates the crime in order to prove
his boss innocent. Making a swift transition from bookkeeper to detective, he solves
the case, but not before the number of corpses multiplies. In this book, and in this
book only, Cellini bears some similarity to a character in Mario Puzo’s The
Godfather named Tom Hagen, the role played by Robert Duvall in the movie.
Dead and Done For is a superior first novel, firmly in the hardboiled
tradition. Reeves makes good use of his background in the theatre, and a minor character,
Nicky, seems to be modeled on Reeves himself.
The next two Cellini Smith novels are set in Los Angeles. No longer tied to the underworld,
as a result of certain events in the first novel, Cellini becomes a private investigator.
Assisting him is sometime boxer Duck-Eye Ryan, formerly a gunman in the Moro gang,
who functions as a comic sidekick. Another running character in these novels, and in
the Cellini Smith short stories, is homicide detective Ira Haenigson, Cellini’s
friendly enemy in the Los Angeles Police Department.
In No Love Lost, Cellini is hired by a group of prizefighters to
solve the murder of boxing promoter Miles Morton. The boxers are certain that local
professional wrestlers, whom they despise, are responsible for Morton’s death,
but Cellini finds other suspects and uncovers a link to a scheme to ship crude oil
to Japan (the time is shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor).
Cellini Smith: Detective has a similar plot. Here the victim is a
young hobo, Danny Meade. The clients are Meade’s friends, also hoboes, and the
likely suspects are members of a rival hobo organization, the Ramblers. The motive
in the case involves the location of a deposit of tungsten ore, a material needed for
the war effort. Much of the action takes place in a burlesque theatre, giving Reeves
another opportunity to display his knowledge of show business.
As may be gleaned from the above remarks, neither of these latter two novels is to
be taken seriously. In Dead and Done For, Reeves maintains a nice
balance between toughness and humor. In the Los Angeles books, however, humor predominates.
Some evidence can be found to support Anthony Boucher’s comment that Cellini “is
unique among hardboiled private eyes in being admittedly an intellectual - and tough
enough to get away with it.”(3) Cellini does read books on anthropology and does
occasionally make a witty quip, but his methods of detection rarely exhibit any real
thought or ingenuity. I tend to agree with Ron Goulart, who says that Cellini Smith
is “vaguely incompetent” and that the Reeves novels are "fine examples
of the screwball side of the hardboiled school."(4)
Of the eleven short stories Robert Reeves wrote for the pulps, seven feature Cellini
Smith. All seven are set in Los Angeles, and most of them are mildly comic. The murders
Cellini solves often occur in unusual settings: on an airplane in flight ("The
Flying Hearse"), in an Army induction center ("Murder A.W.O.L."), in
a sanitarium for alcoholics ("Alcoholics Calamitous"). During World War II,
Cellini becomes the security foreman at a Burbank aircraft plant, unhappy that he is
frozen on the job and cannot volunteer for military duty.
Reeves created one other series hero, Bookie Barnes, who appears in three amusing
short stories. Barnes is a truck driver who investigates crimes he encounters on the
highway. He is called "Bookie" not because he makes book but because he attended
college and once read a book.
The only non-series short story by Reeves is "Dance Macabre," a crime story
with a nightclub setting. The main character is Firpo Cole, a former pickpocket who
does odd jobs in the club. This downbeat tale is not at all typical of Reeves's work.
The fiction of Robert Reeves is worthy of further discussion, but I have chosen to
devote the remainder of this article to an account of his final years — a story
that, to my knowledge, has never been told. Despite an extensive research effort, this
account is incomplete. Perhaps there are TAD readers who can provide additional facts.
On July 22, 1942, a spectacled, balding, thirty-year-old bachelor named Robert Reeves
enlisted in the United States Army. After basic training, Private Reeves returned to
Los Angeles to work at the recruiting and induction center. Later he was assigned to
the Army Air Corps, serving in the 500th Bombardment Squadron of the 345th Bombardment
While in the service, Reeves continued to write. In the years 1943 to 1945, he had
one novel - Cellini Smith: Detective - and three short stories published.
On the dust jacket of the novel, he mused about the postwar years:
Ambitions and aspirations after the war is over? It is difficult to say. I know one
writer who wants to go to Tibet on a donkey, preferably in the company of Jane Wyatt,
and another who wants to have his ashes scattered over the M.G.M. lot from a P-38.
My ambition is to march down Unter Den Linden and then get a thirty-foot twin-screw
boat strictly for fishing purposes.
But Reeves did not celebrate the Allied victory in Berlin, nor did he fulfill the
dream of owning a powerboat.
His unit, the 500th Bomb Squadron, flew B-25 medium bombers on combat missions in
the South Pacific from June 1943 to the end of the war. The squadron was stationed
on New Guinea, Biak, Leyte, and other Pacific islands. By the summer of 1945, it was
flying from Clark Field on the Philippine island of Luzon. The Japanese in the Philippines
had been defeated, but B-25s were carrying out sorties over Formosa and night attacks
on Japanese shipping.
I have been unable to establish whether Reeves flew combat missions or performed duties
on the ground, but official records show that he died on July 11, 1945, only a month
before the war ended. At the time of his death, Reeves held the rank of captain. His
body was buried in foreign soil and re-interred, in 1950, at Fort McPherson National
Cemetery near North Platte, Nebraska - far from the cities of New York and Los Angeles
where he had spent most of his life. The fact that Reeves and four other GIs were buried
in a common grave may indicate they died together in a plane crash.
Although now virtually forgotten, Robert Reeves was a talented mystery novelist and
an important Black Mask writer. His untimely death cut short a career
which had the potential of becoming a notable one.
- Anthony Boucher, Introduction to Come Out Killing by Robert Reeves
(New York: Mercury, 1953), p. 4.
- "Behind the Black Mask" (department), Black Mask, October
1940, pp. 44-45.
- Boucher, p. 4.
- Ron Goulart, ed., "An Informal Reading List," in The Hardboiled
Dicks (Los Angeles: Sherbourne, 1965), p. 196.
ROBERT REEVES: A CHECKLIST
The three listed novels feature Cellini Smith. Series characters for the short stories
are abbreviated as CS for Cellini Smith and BB for Bookie Barnes.
Dead and Done For. Knopf, 1939; Ryerson (Toronto), 1939; Cassell
(London), 1940; Grosset & Dunlap, 1941. Also published as Pas folle, la guepe!
trans. Jacques David and Henri Robillot, Gallimard (Paris), 1951.
No Love Lost. Holt, 1941; Oxford (Toronto), 1941. Also published
as Come Out Killing, Mercury pb, 1953. (An earlier, shorter version serialized as Dog
Eat Dog in BlackMask, September-October-November 1940.)
Cellini Smith: Detective. Houghton, 1943; Allen (Toronto), 1943;
Pony pb, 1946. Also reprinted in Thrilling Mystery Novel Magazine, Jan. 1946.
Stories in Black Mask
3/41 "The Flying Hearse" CS
4/41 "Dance Macabre"
6/41 "The Cat with the Headache" CS
8/41 "Murder in High Gear" BB
1/42 "Bail Bait" CS
11/42 "A Taste for Murder" CS
11/44 "Murder A.W.O.L." CS
1/45 "Blood, Sweat and Biers" CS
9/45 "Alcoholics Calamitous" CS
Stories in Dime Detective
3/42 "Over a Barrel" BB
6/42 "Murder Without Death" BB
Copyright 1985 by John Apostolou. Reprinted by permission of the author. Article originally
appeared in The Armchair Detective Vol. 18, No. 2 (Spring 1985).