Thomas Kyd (1901-1976) Essay - Critical Essays

Alfred Bennett Harbage


When Thomas Kyd began writing his Sam Phelan novels in the mid-1940’s, the detective assigned to an urban police force had not yet become a staple of mystery and detective fiction. Although elements of earlier detective genres recur in the Phelan books, they are transmuted into a fresh conception. Like earlier mystery writers of the genteel variety, Kyd demonstrates a fondness for wit and literary allusion, but he does not allot such accomplishments to Phelan; rather, he distributes them among his cohorts and minor characters. To a considerable extent Sam’s character is defined by means of his plainspoken reactions to their knowledge and cleverness. Closer to the practical, tough-minded, tough-talking private investigators of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Phelan emerges as less crude and cynical, more sensitive and kindhearted, than his hard-boiled predecessors.

He is also a public servant, part of a team of investigators whose analysis of criminal evidence has become increasingly specialized. Kyd was offering a detective much closer to reality than either the leisured English sleuth of writers from Arthur Conan Doyle to Dorothy L. Sayers or the private eye who freelanced or had vague connections with an agency. Such a figure posed a considerable challenge for Kyd. A police detective could not plausibly operate in the highly distinctive manner of either of those previous types; nor could the author afford to lose him in a maze of officials and procedures. A different personality was called for: someone who attained distinction not as a brilliant or bold individual but as a leader and coordinator of the efforts of a heterogeneous group. Prescribed routine and scientific techniques became more important, but neither could be allowed to swamp the interest in the protagonist that had sustained the detective novel for several decades. In response to this problem, Kyd created Sam Phelan.

Police officers had long suffered from a reputation as brave and tenacious but stupid enforcers of the law—a reputation presumably justifying the amateur or private detective. Kyd wisely avoided making Phelan a mere butt of humor. Instead, he created a sympathetic investigator with manifest strengths and weaknesses, a man who strikes readers as like them in many ways, though in the last analysis a bit more perceptive, as a good detective of any sort should be. Phelan, a mere high school graduate, must, like many of his generation in various fields of endeavor, deal with and depend on the assistance of the more highly educated. J. Roth Newbold, the dapper district attorney, takes a dim view of Phelan’s intelligence, while the latter despises the snobbishness of this wittier and more sophisticated representative of a class he can well do without. Phelan manages to maintain a generally good working relationship with Newbold’s two assistants, both clever and well educated, although he is inclined to disparage their overingenious theorizing about the crimes they investigate and to wax gleeful when he can disprove them.

Phelan is intelligent enough to acknowledge his reliance on the findings of police photographers, ballistic experts, and other technicians. An essentially practical man, he values the mysterious ways of analysts of physical evidence but has little use for abstract speculations, his impatience with long-windedness even leading him to neglect his usual thoroughness on occasion. In Kyd’s third novel, Blood on the Bosom Devine (1948), for example, Phelan avoids the duty of interrogating an eyewitness to a murder because he knows the witness to be an exasperatingly absentminded professor—until his chief, Cleveland Jones, advises him to carry it out. Phelan trusts the chief, despite the latter’s penchant for quoting Shakespeare and John Milton, because Jones has worked his way up through the local police ranks and demonstrated his command of constabulary nuts and bolts. Naturally, Phelan learns nothing valuable from the professor—his instincts are usually correct—but he realizes that while a good detective pursues positive hunches, he cannot afford to exclude witnesses on the basis of even well-founded hunches.

Sam Phelan sometimes jumps to conclusions that are right but only gratuitously so. In Blood on the Bosom Devine he suspects the right person and accuses him after several days of intensive work, but then, because of the murderer’s sincerely indignant reaction to a wrongly attributed motive, withdraws his accusation, only later realizing the true motive and circling back to get his man. Because Phelan can admit his mistakes, however, neither Chief Jones nor the reader loses faith in him. Phelan seems to rule out some of his suspects very abruptly; his decisions, however, reflect a commonsense approach that keeps him on or close to the right track. Diverting details hold no charm for him.

Phelan uses much of the lingo of the hard-boiled detective....

(The entire section is 2018 words.)