Cleve F. Adams Essay - Critical Essays


Cleve Franklin Adams contributed hard-boiled mystery fiction to pulp magazines in the mid-1930’s, eventually publishing his first story, “Vision of Violet,” in the February, 1936, issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection. In the summer of 1940, he was employed by Ken White, editor of Black Mask, to “inject new life and vigor into the magazine and to reestablish the magazine’s tougher, hard-edged image.” This period of apprenticeship allowed him to create several hard-boiled detective heroes, gradually bringing into existence the private eye who would be given the name Rex McBride.

And Sudden Death and Sabotage

Adams’s first two novels, Sabotage and And Sudden Death, were published in 1940. With these novels featuring private investigator Rex McBride, Adams created a new, intriguing variation on the detective hero. Instead of a Philip Marlowe or a Sam Spade with whom the reader can empathize, the reader is presented with the antithesis of these characters—Rex McBride, the private investigator as antihero or chauvinist pig: Crude, coarse, and cynical, yet sentimental, he is deficient in morals and enigmatic in nature. McBride “has a capacity for long, brooding silences, sudden ribald laughter, mad fury, and aloof arrogance.” No one—clients, police, criminals, or female friends—understands him. McBride, however, get results. Adams, who sees motivation as the crucial element in the mystery and detective genre, notes the impulse that drives him: “his singleness of purpose . . . He has been hired to do a job and he is going to do it. Come hell or high water he’s going to do it.”

As Adams acknowledges, this conception of the detective hero is an inversion of the hero legend. Unlike Chandler’s Marlowe, McBride is not a knightly hero and does not attempt to redeem the corrupt. He is an ordinary man. Although cast in the hard-boiled mold, McBride is a complex individual. His personal involvement with a case may be prompted by the need for justice or simply the need for money. He is emotional and impulsive. By turns he is arrogant, caring, coldhearted, generous, moody, sentimental, and ruthless. Yet it is his changeable nature that makes him human and believable.

Other characters in the novels are also realistically drawn, from clients to villains. As one critic says, Adams “showed a genius for juggling diverse groups of shady characters, each with his or her own greedy objective.”

Careful plotting is not a primary characteristic of Adams’s fiction. He prefers instead to let situations accumulate until the hero finds himself in a jam. As he views it, the detective who is logically motivated will...

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