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Pulp Pages: “Three Wise Men of Babylon” by Richard Sale

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“The streets were dark with something more than night.” —Raymond Chandler

“If a character caught on,” the prolific but now oddly under-the-radar short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, and movie director Richard Sale once noted, “then you knew they would ask for more. A popular series sold a lot of copies . They’d get letters from readers asking for more about so-and-so.”

In the case of Sale, who had knowledge of tough, fast-talking big city news hounds, pulp fans were asking for the wisecracking so-and-so Joe “Daffy” Dill, reporter at the New York Chronicle, and not invariably his attractive colleague Dinah Mason (hard-shell, squeamish center at the sight of corpse-like substances). The stories, published by Detective Fiction Weekly, were part and parcel of the mysteries, horror tales, exotic adventures, war stories, and sea stories the “Dumas of the pulps” — in a 10-year period Sale published nearly 500 stories, nearly one a week — turned out as one of pulp’s celebrated million-words-a-year speed fiends of the 1930s and '40s.

The “march of crime,” as Dinah puts it, advances in “Three Wise Men of Babylon,” (published in the April 1, 1939 issue of DFW), though very tentatively at first, as Big Apple Daffy has reservations about what seems to be an editor of a mid-western town rag asking for collaboration on a hotel knock-off. Things get curiouser and curiouser, however, as the bodies pile on. Meanwhile, the murderer may be deaf, and the rural editor, who has announced himself as arriving in New York, may not be who he says he is. “The thing is really beginning to get hot,” Daffy exclaims. To make sure the heat is seemingly on and stays on, Sale keeps the twists and turns coming to the end, the suspenseful tensions taut throughout, and the narrative flowing naturally from one paragraph to next:

"We had better luck here, though. Dr. Kyne said that Penn had been dead for at least thirty-six hours and that the slug was a .32, and undoubtedly the same gun which killed Hanes had killed Penn. I reminded myself to check with John Harvey of the Babylon Gazette on the slug which which had killed Wilbur Penn. There was an avenging angel on the trail somewhere and it would be a good idea if we stopped him. Murder is a habit when you do too much of it, the killer might easily leave a line of dead behind him, getting scared and more scared on the way. It’s fear that makes murder, in one way or another.
Martin Penn had been a shrewd man, so shrewd that even in death he had pointed out a clue to his identity of his killer."

Richard Sale’s novels included 1936’s Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep, a hard-boiled evangelistic escapade of prisoners on the lam from Devil’s Island (filmed as Strange Cargo in 1940 with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford), and a series of Hollywood-set novels such as Lazarus No. 7 (1942) and the dark-humored Passing Strange (1942) . While Sale made inroads directing movies, mostly light-hearted fare like Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955), his last directorial effort was the suspenseful high seas drama Abandon Ship from 1957. Also notable was the 1954 thriller Suddenly with Frank Sinatra as a professional assassin taking aim at the President, which was written but not directed by Sale.

Sale continued writing books and movies to the end of his life in 1993, including the best-selling novel The Oscar (1963), For the President’s Eyes Only (1971), and 1980’s White Buffalo (for which he also wrote the film adaptation). Obviously he didn’t have to depend on “If a character caught on.” Sale had enough talent, craftsmanship, and wide-ranging knowledge that the reading public was assuredly going to ask for more.

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