Although undergoing a period of decline, the pulp magazines of the 1940s 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 says:
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 achieved.1
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.
Little 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 Group.
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.
- 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 Black Mask, September–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:
- “The Flying Hearse” (March 1941; Cellini Smith)
- “Dance Macabre” (April 1941)
- “The Cat with the Headache” (June 1941; Cellini Smith)
- “Murder in High Gear” (August 1941; Bookie Barnes)
- “Bail Bait” (January 1942; Cellini Smith)
- “A Taste for Murder” (November 1942; Cellini Smith)
- “Murder A.W.O.L.” (November 1944; Cellini Smith)
- “Blood, Sweat and Biers” (January 1945; Cellini Smith)
- “Alcoholics Calamitous” (September 1945; Cellini Smith)
Stories in Dime Detective:
- “Over a Barrel” (March 1942; Bookie Barnes)
- “Murder Without Death” (June 1942; Bookie Barnes)
Authored by John L. Apostolou. Copyright © 1985, 2020 Steeger Properties, LLC. Reprinted by permission of the author. .