Thursday, April 4, 2019

Noteworthy Reads: Re-discovering Thomas B. Dewey's "MAC"

Speaking for myself, I guess a more accurate title for this piece might have been: Re-appreciating Thomas B. Dewey's “Mac”—inasmuch as I discovered this fine book series many moons ago. For those unfamiliar, Mac is a Chicago-based private eye who appeared in sixteen books written by Mr. Dewey from 1947 to 1970.
Most of the titles have been re-issued in eBook format by Wildside Press, which is where I recently “re-discovered” them and immediately downloaded and re-read about a half dozen of the later titles. They held up just fine. In fact, from a more mature perspective (more mature in years, at least, if not in all ways), I may have enjoyed them even more.
I first discovered Mac and Mr. Dewey in the middle Sixties, you see, having had my appetite whetted for all things hardboiled by Spillane/ Hammer and and most everything of that sort that came both before and after. The thing that really caught my attention about Mac, though, was that he operated out of Chicago. Given my Illinois roots, I found this a refreshing change from so much of what I was reading (both tough-guy PIs and the spy thrillers that were beginning to take root) being set on either the east or west coast, maybe Miami (via the enormously popular Mike Shayne).
Yet here was Mac, doing his PI thing practically in my back yard. Not only that, but many of his cases took him out of the city and to smaller towns and more rural settings throughout the state. (All of this would would prove to be more influential than I realized at the time when, about twenty years later, I created my own PI character, Joe Hannibal, and made his base of operations Rockford, the state's second largest city up to the north. Mac, some of the works of Dan J. Marlowe that were set in the Midwest, and Max Allan Collins' Iowa-based Quarry books, all combined to convince me that it was perfectly fine to set my own series in an area that wasn't on either of the coasts but was familiar to me and one I could perhaps capture with some added accuracy.)
Getting back to Mac, while I enjoyed all of the books back when I first read them, I remember finding them a bit slow-paced at the time. I was younger then and more into the rougher style of the Mike Hammer types, with plenty of wisecracks, hot dames, fisticuffs, and gunplay. You don't get a lot of that with Dewey and Mac. Mac owns a gun and carries it when a case turns dangerous enough, and he can also duke it out pretty good when necessary. But he's not quick to resort to either if it can be avoided. He's not big on wisecracks and he works obligingly with the cops. Donovan, his main police source in the city and a former mentor from his own days on the force is more father figure than pal. In DEATH AND TAXES, when Donovan is seriously wounded and hospitalized through much of the book, Mac's concern for his old friend is very genuine and touching. And though he plods steadily on, trying to crack the case that the shooting is part of, it's not as some wild-eyed gunslinger out for vengeance. 

A term frequently applied by others who have written about the Mac series is: compassion. Mac is “the compassionate private eye”, the precursor, it is often pointed out, to Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, who would gain much wider acclaim with that sort of approach in the decades to follow. (In an interview with Macdonald, when asked to name some other authors whose work in the same genre that he liked to read, he mentioned Dewey along with William Campbell Gault.)
Mac's deepest empathy is often with his own clients, especially those who are young and/or most vulnerable. This is very much in evidence in my three favorite books from the series: The aforementioned DEATH AND TAXES, where Mac is assisting the estranged daughter of a former gangster; THE KING KILLERS, in which he works with another PI to help protect a young woman who is peripherally involved with a dangerous paramilitary group; and A SAD SONG SINGING, where he is hired by an innocent yet feisty young woman to help find her lost love, a wandering minstrel/ songwriter, while at the same time protecting a suitcase with mysterious contents that the missing lad left in her possession.
Dewey is not a word stylist in the sense of, say, Chandler or even Macdonald. His prose is simple and straightforward, yet perfectly adequate for the job to be done. And Mac, for the most part, is merely a conduit to the cases and people he gets involved with. We never really learn much about him other than that he's a man of somple tastes who doggedly pursues the jobs he takes on. In DRAW THE CURTAIN CLOSE, his debut appearance, he describes himself this way: “I'm just a guy. I go around and get in jams and then try to figure a way out of them. I work hard. I don't make very much money and most people insult me one way or another. I'm thirty-eight years old, a fairly good shot with small arms, slow-thinking but thorough, and very dirty in a clinch."
That sums it up pretty good. The mysteries are solid and well-plotted, the characters Mac encounters are interesting and well drawn, the writing is as previusly described. There's some rough stuff along the way, a smattering of gunplay and coarse language, and some attractive, well-described women but little in the way of sex. In the final two books in the series, Mac relocates to Los Angeles but not much really changes. He remains his same low-key self, establishes a solid new cop contact via his old Chicago mentor Donovan, even searches around until he finds a set-up that provides him an office with living quarters in the back, just as he had in Chi-town. The characters he encounters are af bit more colorful, the women seem notably hotter (but still no sex), and there's the hint of a romance between Mac and a fortune teller neighbor that might have blossomed into more if the series had continued.

All in all, some mighty good hardboiled (but not too) stuff. Worth checking out. And anyone wanting some strong arguments for the oft-stated case of crime fiction being one of the most accurate mirrors held up to our changing culture over the decades, would be hard pressed to find any better examples than in Mac titles like THE MEAN STREETS or A SAD SONG SINGING.
No less an authority than Bill Pronzini once called Mac one of the most underappreciated of the fictional private eyes. I second that. If you want to pursue the matter and develop some overdue appreciation, I recommend you hunt down some the out-of-print paperbacks or check out the very modestly priced eBook versions avialable from Wildside. I think you'll be glad you did.


Barry Ergang said...

I read Dewey's The Case of the Chaste and the Unchaste decades ago, having heard good things about his work, and I wasn't disappointed. Subsequently (meaning a few decades later) I found a used paperback copy of You've Got Him Cold and wasn't disappointed by that one either. In our current decade or close to it, I found paperback editions of Every Bet's a Sure Thing and The Case of the Murdered Model. I've read and enjoyed the former (you can find my capsule review here:, and one day soon will get to the latter.

It's great to learn Wildside has reissued this series because it merits discovery and/or rediscovery (as the case may be).

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