(All biographical information in this piece is gleaned from editor Robert Adey’s introduction to Banner Deadlines, and Edward D. Hoch’s afterword).
Joseph Commings (1913-92) never made it big as a writer, but nonetheless had a career that spanned the years from World War Two to the early 1980s. A lot of his output was the kind of soft-core sex paperbacks that are a lost art today, but he also wrote some 33 short stories about Senator Brooks U. Banner, an amateur sleuth who specialized in impossible crimes. Fourteen of those stories are collected in this posthumous volume.
The Banner stories fall into four periods:
1947-50: eight stories appeared in surviving old-school pulp magazines: Ten Detective Aces, 10-Story Detective and Hollywood Detective (home of Dan Turner, the private skulk whose cannon yammered “chow-chow!”). When these mags went out of business, there was no more market for Banner stories until…
1957-63: fourteen stories appeared, most of them in a magazine called Mystery Digest. Before and during this period, Commings kept trying to sell to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, the top publication in the field, but never succeeded; his explanation was “the editor took a dislike to me.” (But that may not be the whole story, as we shall see.)
1963-68: after Mystery Digest folded, Commings kept trying to sell Banner stories; four made it into print, three in The Saint Mystery Magazine and one in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.
(In the early 1970s, Commings had two strokes, which pretty much put an end to his writing career. Not entirely, though…)
1979-84: In 1979, Commings and Edward D. Hoch collaborated on a new Banner story and sold it to MSMM. Encouraged, Commings dusted off six unpublished Banners and found them a home in the same market over the next five years.
Adey’s introduction also says that as the short-story market dried up, Commings wrote no fewer than four novels about Banner, only one of which appears to have involved impossible crimes, and none of which found a publisher. No copies of any of the manuscripts appear to exist.
I think there are several reasons why Commings never made it to the top rank of mystery writers.
There’s no way around it; Commings’ writing style is adequate at best. At worst, it’s just plain clumsy, to the point where it made the stories in this book tough for me to slog through. Commings learned his trade during the early 1940s, when pulp magazines were already starting to die off but were still significant players in the magazine game. It’s no secret that many of the most successful pulp writers ground out their tales fast and with little to no regard for graceful prose, and not only was Commings of that school, he continued to write that way throughout his career, long after commercial short fiction had moved on. Here’s the first paragraph of “Murder Under Glass”, the first story in Banner Deadlines:
In his soup-and-fish [i.e. his tuxedo] Senator Brooks U. Banner stood waiting under the six-arm crystal chandelier and juggling a cocktail glass in his thick fingers as gingerly as if it were a soap bubble. He was tall and girthy. His stiff, horse-sized collar was rasping the folds of his thick red neck. His ancient claw-hammer coat had cloth-covered buttons and trick pockets in the tails. There was an acre of boiled shirt front; his black shoes were mirrors. He weighed 270 pounds stripped – and wished he were.
Let’s compare that with how John Dickson Carr introduces a detective. From the first page of his novella The Third Bullet:
Colonel Marquis was a long, stringy man whose thick and wrinkled eyelids gave him a sardonic look not altogether deserved. Though he was not bald, his white hair had begun to recede from the skull, as though in sympathy with the close cropping of the grey mustache. His bony face was as unmistakably of the Army as it was now unmistakably out of it; and the reason became clear whenever he got up – he limped. But he had a bright little eye, which was amused.
In introducing Banner, Commings just states one physical detail after another, which is how a lot of the pulp writers did it. Carr’s description is a lot smoother and not only tells us what Colonel Marquis looks like, but hints at what kind of character he will turn out to be.
There were writers who got their start in the pulps but later developed a much smoother style; Erle Stanley Gardner is the most famous example. (See Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer for an instructive look at the way he wrote the original draft of the first Perry Mason novel, and how he later revised it to make it far less pulpy.) I suspect that Commings’ failure to evolve this way, more than any personal animus, was why he never cracked the Ellery Queen’s market. Choose a random issue of EQMM from the Forties or Fifites; pick a random story from that issue; whichever one it is, I promise you it’ll be better written than the Banner stories.
Brooks U. Banner resembles nothing so much as an American version of Sir Henry Merrivale: a big fat man, a walker of the corridors of power, a man impatient with social convention, to whom the police gladly defer when there’s an impossible crime to be solved. For me, though, Banner never comes alive the way H.M. does even in a poor book like The Cavalier’s Cup; he’s a person, while to me Banner comes across as more a collection of traits. (It doesn’t help that the way he talks is annoying. Carr knew how often to use “lord love a duck” and “burn me” and so on, and when enough was enough.)
Nor are the supporting characters in the various stories any closer to three-dimensional. Of course, there are plenty of mystery writers, from Christie and Carr on down, who make extensive use of stock characters, but most of Commings’ are plain old cardboard.
“Okay,” you may be saying, “but I don’t read impossible-crime stories to savour the author’s style. It’s nice when the prose is graceful like Carr’s, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me if it’s less adept. And as you admit yourself, Carr pretty much had a standard traveling company of characters who reappear from book to book. It’s the impossible crimes and their solutions that count. How are Commings’?”
I’m sorry to say… most of the ones in Banner Deadlines are not very good. More precisely, Commings comes up with some intriguing situations, not just typical “locked rooms,” but for the most part the solutions made me say “saw that coming” or “there’s a flaw there” or “that would have a one-in-a-million chance of working in real life.” To be sure, I sometimes have one of those reactions with, say, a Dr. Sam or Great Merlini story, but Commings provoked them in me over and over again while I was reading this book. Even the collaboration with Hoch is well below the latter author’s standard; if you don’t guess how the impossibility in that one was pulled off, you may turn in your amateur detective’s badge.
Well, so much for my analysis of Commings’ writing. I had originally planned to do a story-by-story analysis of Banner Deadlines, but on reflection I’m not going to bother. What I just said of the stories in general is true of most of them individually, so why repeat myself?
That said, I did flat-out enjoy one story, “The Spectre on the Lake”. In this one, two men row out into the middle of a lake where they’re both shot in the head at close range, even though neither had a gun, there wasn’t one in the boat, and no one else came near them. I think it was inspired by a passing reference in a mystery by another author that was published before this tale came out, but I won’t be any more specific than that.
There’s also “Fingerprint Ghost,” in which a murder is committed using a dagger (polished just before the crime) that retains a clear set of fingerprints, which don’t match those of anyone who could physically have done it. What’s good about the solution: it could work, and it’s completely different from the one in Carter Dickson’s Nine – And Death Makes Ten. What’s not so good is that I’d already seen it in a short story by another writer, whom I won’t name here. I imagine Commings and the other writer came up with the gimmick entirely independently, and if you haven’t read the other story, this one may baffle you.
And a word about “The X Street Murders,” which was reprinted in impossible-crime anthologies in 1994 and 2006 and is certainly the best-known Banner story. As you may already know, it involves a locked- (or rather, observed-) room shooting in an office, followed immediately by a courier delivering a sealed envelope to the murder site. The envelope turns out to contain a gun, which the crime lab reports to be the murder weapon. For me, this one had an intriguing set-up followed by a disappointing solution (and one really silly clue), but some other people hold it in higher regard. If you do, you may like the other stories in Banner Deadlines better than I did.