Black Mask Library

Oliver Quade, The Human Encyclopedia: An Introduction

[This introduction is set to appear in a new edition of
Oliver Quade, The Human Encyclopedia,
due out
soon from MysteriousPress.com.]

By Kevin Burton Smith


"The price of this magnificent volume is not twenty-five dollars as you might expect, not even fifteen or ten, but a paltry two-ninety-five. It sounds preposterous, I know, but it's really true! All the wisdom of all the ages for only two ninety-five!"

          The "magnificent volume" in question is The Compendium of Human Knowledge, a handy dandy single volume which offered "all you will ever need to know, the answer to every question... Classified, condensed and abbreviated."

          A variation of that huckster's spiel lies at the heart of every story Frank Gruber wrote about Oliver Quade, the self-proclaimed Human Encyclopedia, and one of the more intriguing sleuths to appear in the hard-boiled detective pulps of the 1930s.

          Intriguing, because in a world of steel-eyed cops and men who made trouble their business, when it came to sleuthing Quade was undeniably a rank amateur, with no more business sticking his nose into a murder investigation than the average reader. He had absolutely no franchise upon which to build a series -- not even the flimsy guise of an advice columnist for the love-lorn (Frederick C. Davis's Lora Lorne) or the shaky premise of an employment agency specializing in "odd jobs" (Alan Farley's Mike Tyre).

          Nope, all Quade did was sell encyclopedias -- hardly a magnet for murder and mayhem. But this was, after all, the pulps.

          And so, in fifteen fast-paced and pulpy stories (four published in Thrilling Detective, the remainder in Black Mask), Quade found himself thrust again and again into the midst of murder investigations, with only his overly large ego, his boundless curiosity and the most colossally bad luck in the pulps to blame. Quade, it seemed, was incapable of pitching his book and flogging his wares without someone dropping dead somewhere close by. At first he worked alone, but when Gruber moved to the more lucrative Black Mask, the stories got longer, and he gave Quade a partner: Charles Boston, who would serve as Quade's stooge, assistant, second banana and sounding board. But the essential formula remained unchanged.

          In each and every story Quade would gain admission to somewhere he wasn't invited, or hadn't paid the entrance fee. It might be a dog show, a poultry exhibition, a racetrack, a State fair, an exclusive mountain top resort, a carnival midway or an illegal cockfight. Anywhere where a crowd was gathered and where he figured he (with or without Charlie) might be able to peddle a few books. Quade would start off by loudly introducing himself as The Human Encyclopedia and then challenge the gathered crowd, daring them to stump him with a question, any question on any topic at all. Naturally, Quade, a man blessed with a photographic memory and no small amount of flimflammery, somehow knew the answer to everything. Then, having properly astounded the crowd, he would unleash the pitch, and suggest that they too, could look up the answer to any question they ever wanted to know and thus become an intellectual giant, the envy of their peers, and all for a measly $2.95.

          At this point, a body would be discovered or someone would drop dead.  And the cause of death would never be from natural causes.

          Quade, the perpetually uninvited guest and eternal outsider, would promptly be deemed a suspect. Oh, sure, there was invariably a charming young lady with large, innocent eyes and a handsome figure, somewhere in the 20-22 year old age bracket, around for Quade to impress (and occasionally to protect and defend) and usually an officious police officer or two for Quade to run circles around, but the main reason Quade got into so many homicide cases was simply that he couldn't walk away. His reputation as the world's smartest man -- if not his freedom -- would be at stake, and so it would be up to Quade to find the real murderer.

          Along the way there'd be a few oddball characters (yokels were a frequent target, as were the wealthy and/or pompous), and eventually, utilizing a combination of gumption, arcane knowledge and a few scams, Quade would crack the case wide open, save the girl, and sell a few encyclopedias.

          The formula -- and make no mistake, it was definitely a formula -- proved extremely effective, partly because Gruber, a solid craftsman, brought a journeyman jazz musician's talent for improvisation to the proceedings, playing infinite variations on the theme without ever quite losing the melody.

          And for a readership still reeling from the Great Depression, it must have been quite a melody, this notion of a cocky, scrappy fly-by-nighter with the bellowing voice and the gift of gab traveling from town to town, footloose and fancy-free, getting involved in all sorts of screwball shenanigans at some of the most peculiar of places, putting it to the rubes and the suits, solving crimes and racking up enough encyclopedia sales to "salt away twenty thousand or so bucks every year."

          Even today -- or perhaps especially today-- that melody still lingers, and it will only take a story or two to have even modern day audiences humming along.

Black Mask

Quade was pulp writer Gruber's first series character, supposedly inspired by the author's own scouring through an encyclopedia looking for story ideas. But the basic template of the brains-and-brawn pairing would serve him well for later series characters, including Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg, a perpetually broke con artist and sometime book salesman and his muscle-bound partner/stooge who appeared in over a dozen novels; Simon Lash and Eddie Slocum, a book-loving private eye and his long-suffering assistant; and Otis Beagle and Joe Peel, a couple of shifty Hollywood private eyes.

          Gruber was one of the more prolific of the writers for the pulps, and when that market dried up, he simply moved on to Hollywood and began writing for TV and film. In later years he returned to writing novels, as well as a memoir of his years in the literary trenches, appropriately titled The Pulp Jungle (1967), in which he offered up his eleven-point breakdown of what makes for a good mystery; a formula that he claimed he had perfected, and that had stood him in good stead for all those years.

          The formula must have worked. In his long career, Gruber claimed to have sold over 300 stories to the pulps, mostly detective tales and Westerns, and to have placed his name on over 60 books and more than 200 TV and film scripts.

          You could look it up...

Black Mask

Kevin Burton Smith is a writer and critic. He's the editor and founder of the Thrilling Detective Web Site, and a columnist and critic for Mystery Scene.

A Complete List of Oliver Quade Stories can be found at Kevin Burton Smith’s amusing and informative website, thrillingdetective.com. Don’t pick up a mystery tale or research a famous detective without it!


OLIVER QUADE SHORT STORIES

"Brass Knuckles" (November 1936, Thrilling Detective)
"Death at the Main" (December 1936, Thrilling Detective)
"Murder on the Midway" (January 1937, Thrilling Detective)
"Pictures of Death" (February 1937, Thrilling Detective)
"Ask Me Another" (June 1937, Black Mask)
"Trailer Town" (August 1937, Thrilling Detective)
"Rain, the Killer" (September 1937, Black Mask)
"Death on Eagle's Crag" (December 1937, Black Mask)
"Dog Show Murder" (March 1938, Black Mask)
"Death Sits Down" (May 1938, Black Mask)
"Forced Landing" (October 1938, Black Mask)
"State Fair Murder" (February 1939, Black Mask)
"Funny Man" (May 1939, Black Mask)
"Oliver Quade at the Races" (November 1939, Black Mask)
"Words and Music" (March 1940, Black Mask)