Brett Halliday Essay - Critical Essays


The feature that most distinguishes the Mike Shayne series is the relationship between Brett Halliday and his creation. As one critic has stated, “the believability and durability of the Mike Shayne character is due in no small part to the incredibly dramatic circumstances surrounding his origins.” In two published essays (“Michael Shayne as I Know Him” and “Michael Shayne”), Halliday claims that his hero is based on a real-life person named Mike, with whom he had a personal relationship, and that the novels are patterned on actual cases from the detective’s files. Halliday asserts that his first meeting with “the rangy redhead” occurred on the Tampico waterfront during the writer’s oil field days. Four years later, Halliday again ran into Mike in a New Orleans bar.

There are, however, interesting discrepancies between the two accounts. In “Michael Shayne as I Know Him,” two thugs follow a woman into the bar, and Mike tells Halliday to “get out of town fast and forget [he’d] seen him.” In “Michael Shayne,” however, there is no woman, the two thugs are seemingly after the redhead, and Mike growls to Halliday, “Stay here.” Furthermore, in the latter account Halliday writes, “They disappeared into the French Quarter, and I’ve never seen him again.” In the former version, however, Mike suddenly appears at Halliday’s log cabin in Colorado years after the New Orleans encounter and discusses his “lucrative private detective practice in Miami.” They proceed to meet off and on for the next few years, with Halliday serving as the detective’s best man and comforting the redhead after the death of his wife.

What is fact and what is fiction? In some ways the answer does not matter, for, in either case, Halliday created a highly memorable character, one who has appeared in books, magazines, and films as well as on radio and television—even in comic books. In fact, Shayne has been called “the best and most enduring of the tough guy private eye school of mystery fiction.” The tough-guy school (the word “tough” appears more than a dozen times in Dividend on Death), prominent in the 1930’s and 1940’s, was an outgrowth of the hard-boiled style typified by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; its distinctive characteristics include the use of the private investigator as the central character, the whodunit plot featuring more deduction than violence, and the lack of personal and sociological insights.

Shayne is the prototypical tough guy private investigator. At the core of his being, Halliday stresses, the detective “not only does not lie to anyone else; what is more important, he does not lie to himself.” His success is based on “his ability to drive straight forward to the heart of the matter without deviating one iota for obstacles or confusing side issues.” Although he lives in a violent world, Shayne relies on his thought process. A recurring scene in the series is the private investigator sitting up late into the night ruminating on a case, while alternately drinking cognac and ice water. He has, as Halliday writes, “an absolutely logical mind.” Even his sternest critics have noted that Shayne, unlike many of his mean-street contemporaries, has “an occasional brain wave” and performs “some legitimate detecting.”

Little is revealed about Shayne’s personal life. In fact, Halliday professes,I know nothing whatever about Shayne’s backgound. . . . I don’t know where or when he was born, what sort of childhood and upbringing he had. It is my impression that he is not a college man, although he is well educated, has a good vocabulary, and is articulate on a variety of subjects.

For example, in Dividend on Death the only biographical information occurs when Shayne momentarily recalls “he was a freckled Irish lad kneeling by his mother’s side in a Catholic chapel.”

Appropriately, all ghostwriters for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine were given a “bible” (a writer’s guide), “Mike Shayne of Miami,” that outlines the detective’s basic personality traits. It lists biographical data (starting only from the point of his wife’s death), his physical description (red hair, gray eyes, long legs), his mannerisms (rubbing the lobe of his left ear with his left thumb and forefinger, scraping his thumb across his stubble), his mentality (always truthful, fearless, sensitive, logical), his likes and dislikes (fighting and drinking cognac versus dirty fighting and drunks), his habits (wears pajamas, sits at rear tables in restaurants)—as well as his environment and friends. “Mike Shayne of Miami” concludes by suggesting that Shayne is “the supreme individualist, the Renaissance Man in a Rip-off Age.” In other words, ghostwriters in the 1980’s dealt with...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)