Stamped For Murder: Bad Puns and Arthurian Detectives

Ben Benson, who passed away in 1959 before even reaching the age of 50.

Ben Benson, who passed away in 1959 before even reaching the age of 50.

I have been unable to find much information about Ben Benson, the author of Stamped For Murder, and I’m not even sure if that is his real name as pseudonyms were very common for the authors of pulp fiction.  Pennant Books seemed more interested in touting other titles than sharing any biographical information about the author.  Ironically, though Benson was an American writer who wrote in English, it is the Spanish Wikiepedia page that has the only biography on him.  It is a biographical experiment in minimalism, stating simply that “Benjamin Benson (Boston, 1915New York, 1959) è stato uno scrittore statunitense”, or loosely translated (by Google Translate) “Benjamin Benson was an American writer.”  There seem to be several foreign language sites that speak to Benson’s work, but no English sites that offer any sort of biographical information about him.  What is clear is that his approach to the detective genre was more in keeping with the Arthurian romance than were many of his peers.  Though a number of crime-fiction writers borrowed from the template of the Arthurian romances, most updated the morality, making sure to use sex as a selling point and featuring anti-heroes who smoked and drank far too much to be exemplars of virtue.  Benson’s protagonist, Wade Paris, seems to be the antithesis to that, more in line with Colombo that with Carter Brown’s Al Wheeler, or Danny Boyd.  While serving as a detective novel that stays loyal to romantic morality, it also offers a diverse portrayal of women that challenge patriarchal stereotypes, while simultaneously attacking capitalist values based on avarice.

 

stampedformurderThe novel centers on a murdered man—Arnold Gregg—whose business deals in stamps, hence the atrociously cheesy title that is somehow as endearing as it is laughable: STAMPED FOR MURDER!  Get it?  Because he was murdered and he sold stamps.  Anyways… Paris is tasked with finding the murderer and soon meets the victim’s niece: Linda Gregg.  It is through Linda that Benson first tackles patriarchal stereotypes.  A Mr. Basso, who was Arnold’s assistant, put a secretary named Dodie Saratoga to work.  Saratoga had been favoured by Arnold due to an affair between the two, and Basso sees Arnold’s death as an opportunity to teach Saratoga some humility.  When Basso suggests to his new boss, Linda, that “a girl must learn humility” and asks Linda if she agrees, Linda curtly answers “No”, and the tell Basso to close “the door behind” him.  When Linda comes onto Paris later in the novel, Paris spurns her, telling her that that she tries “very hard to be disliked” and going onto say that hardness “isn’t always becoming in a woman.”  Paris is adopting the patriarchal view here and prescribing which demeanour she might take, and suggesting that her priority should be how she looks, failing to realize that her demeanour might be necessary for a woman working in business.  Linda is equipped to deal with this mansplaining and turns it back on Paris, asking him if he thinks “it looks any better on a policeman”.  Linda’s independence is further reinforced when she asserts that she “pull[s her] own oar.”  Benson is clearly developing Linda an a strong, assertive and successful woman who is independent and does not need a romanticized hero to offer her comfort.

 

Like many pulp-era detective novels, Benson's covers often featured titillating illustrations.

Like many pulp-era detective novels, Benson’s covers often featured titillating illustrations.

Creating a world in which all of the women are as sharp as Linda Gregg, though, would be too idealistic and perhaps an inversion of patriarchal stereotypes, which would serve to polarize the problem instead of solving it.  With this in mind, Benson’s novel works because it offers diverse portraits of women, some of whom are morally neutral, like Saratoga, and some of whom are amoral.  When speaking of an affair her father had been involved in, Linda defends him, stating that sometimes she thought that “it wasn’t his fault”, informing Paris that a “woman can twist a man”.  This scene can be problematic, but a forward reading contrasts the view that women are controlled by men.  In this scenario, it is suggested that the women have control over the men, and though this instance suggests the feminine influence is corrupting, when balanced with other instances in the novel, it creates a diverse portrayal of women.  At the apex of the novel (SPOILER ALERT!) it is revealed that Carlotta Kilsyth was the murderer and the mastermind behind an elaborate stamp recycling scheme.  She is happy to boast that the plan was a profitable one and that “it took a woman to figure out all the involved angles.”  This is especially interesting considering that of the other two men involved, one was a military man and the other was a university graduate, would normally be perceived as intelligent and capable, but neither was as inventive as Carlotta.  Her influence was corrupting, but again, this adds to the diverse array of female characters.

 

Benson's novels were translated into several languages, which might explain why many of the sites that speak to his work are not English language sites.

Benson’s novels were translated into several languages, which might explain why many of the sites that speak to his work are not English language sites.

As is the case with most detective novels, there are elements of the male gaze.  When introducing Saratoga for the first time, the omniscient narrator (a somewhat uncommon convention in detective novels that often prefer first-person narratives), is sure to catalog every feature: “Her hair was brassy yellow, darkened at the roots.  She had a round, fair face, with a somewhat thick nose.  The skin was grainy and large-pored, but the mouth was well shaped and curved.  Her figure was round and full-breasted, slightly heavy in the hips and calves of her legs.  She was wearing a tight print dress and ankle-strap shoes with very high heels.”  It could be argued that the high heels were an important detail as foot prints with heels were found at the crime scene, and the physical description is important, as a description was given of a young woman who had been seen at the cabin where Arnold had been killed, but there are details that are unnecessary here.  A witness, who himself exemplified the male gaze and was chastised by his wife for describing the woman at the cabin in sexual terms, offering some criticism of the objectifying male gaze.  The witness described her a built, but did not go into the kind of detail the author goes into.  There is an element of the titillating here, but in the context of the work and int he genre, it does seem that Benson is aware of the male gaze and after offering some commentary through the characters, opts not to indulge in the kind of overt sexualization that one can read in the works of Carter Brown.  Attractive features are described, but they are not overtly sexualized.

 

Christina Hendricks would be perfect casting for a film adaptation of Stamped For Death, as her Mad Men character Joan Harris grapples with morality in the face of economics throughout the series.

Christina Hendricks would be perfect casting for a film adaptation of Stamped For Death, as her Mad Men character Joan Harris grapples with morality in the face of economics throughout the series.

Women can often be viewed in an economic context in the novel.  Capitalist values seem to be a corrupting influence in the novel.  They move Perry and Carlotta Kilsyth to commit crimes, and inspire Val Antra to turn on his business partner Charlie Fondy.  In the case of Saratoga, she is found to be taking on an older lover and one that she is not particularly smitten with.  Her motivation is money.  She is also pursued by Perry, who it turns out is deceiving her with the hopes that it will lead to financial profit.  Saratoga, then, finds her path in life impeded by financial obligations created by capitalist constructs.  But not all the women succumb to these influences.  Nancy Hedges, who is initially engaged to Antra at the beginning of the novel, learns of his dishonesty and despite the fact that he is in a better financial position than Fondy, leaves Antra for Fondy because she admires Fondy’s integrity.  Hedges is the morally virtuous recreation os F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan, who forgoes wealth in favour of love.  Linda, though she is wealthy, also demonstrates that money is not a priority to her.  When she reiterates her interest in Paris during the novels’ epilogue, Paris tells her that he would be unable to provide her with the kind of extravagant experiences she is used to enjoying with her wealthy romantic interests.  Her response is abandon the more class-appropriate entrée of fillet Mignon and invite Paris to “a special place for hamburgers”.

Carter Brown novels often featured similar covers, but Brown's protagonists were far more morally complicated than Benson's.

Carter Brown novels often featured similar covers, but Brown’s protagonists were far more morally complicated than Benson’s.

The morality of Paris is part of what makes this novel unique.  In several scenes he is offered a drink, and in every case he turns the drink down.  This aligns Paris with detectives like Columbo, rather than the hard drinking detectives featured in the works of Carter Brown and even Raymond Chandler.  When Linda first comes on to Paris, she is spurned and states that it is her “own fault of course” admitting that she always “thought the detective was immediately seduced in the girl’s apartment.”  Paris responds: “I’ve never been that lucky.”  This serve to dispel the sexual fantasies that propel the narrative in many detective novels, and demonstrates that Paris is moved neither by sloth, gluttony or lust, and in the context of the rest of the novel, it is clear that he is not moved by greed/envy or vengeance either as he works for a pittance of what others in the novel are turning over, and when he has an opportunity to, he does not try to harm those who have harmed him.  The humility that Paris shows throughout also demonstrates that he is not influenced by pride either. Clearly Paris is built up as a moral exemplar, a stark contrast to the antiheroes that populate most detective novels from the pulp era.

 

In looking at the covers for the detective novels from the pulp era, it becomes clear that unless your define diversity a incorporating blondes, brunettes and redheads, there was an utter lack of diversity in these works.

In looking at the covers for the detective novels from the pulp era, it becomes clear that there was an utter lack of diversity in these works.

Like most detective novels, there is a lack in cultural and ethnic diversity; even if there is morally diverse collection of men and women, almost all of them are Caucasian.  The idea of prejudging based on appearance does come up in the work though.  In one scene Nancy Hedges suggests that Paris can see Fondy is innocent just by looking at him.  Paris responds: “You mean I could tell by looking at him?  That would make police work too easy.”  This notion that one cannot determine innocence or guilt by the appearance of a suspect may seem like common sense, but when read in the context of an era when police often prejudge a suspect based on their skin colour, it is clear that this sentiment can reach beyond simply affirming that one cannot determine innocence merely by looking at a person, but likewise that one cannot determine their guilt.  This means that skin colour does not imply guilt, as many police officers assumed in the era.  I may be projecting here, especially given that utter lack of diversity in the work, but it remains an interesting line.  There is only one man of an ethnicity other than Caucasian: a Hispanic man who is described as an “undersized doorman [who] bowed his head, [and] said, ‘señor’ in a midwstern accent, [as he] pushed [a] door open for” Paris.  This man is the only representation an ethnicity other than Caucasian, and he is placed in a subservient role and is portrayed as undersized.  This may be a descriptive approach, or merely a subconscious addition to the text, but it is clear that there is a lack of diversity and that stereotypes, whether being lampooned, documented or encouraged, are at the very least present in the work.

 

Benson seems to invoke the pastoral golden age.

Benson seems to invoke the pastoral golden age.

Detective novels often romanticize the city in contrast to the Arcadian tradition of a pastoral golden age, but there is a passage in Benson’s work that lends itself to an ecocritical reading.  He is challenged at one point for being cynical, but he defends his perspective as one that is realistic, rather than cynical.  He later confesses: “I wish I had a nickel for every time I wanted to chuck the whole rotten business and buy a farm somewhere in the wilderness.  Out where there are no people at all.  There I wouldn’t find any crime.  Because without people, there is no crime.”  Here he sees humanity on the whole as a corrupting influence (not a gender specific influence), and notes that the absence of humanity would equal an absence of crime, suggesting that the natural world possesses an innocence that humanity does not have access to.  He also uplifts a rural setting over an urban setting, suggesting that there is peace in nature and a solace to be found in a remediation with the earth.

 

The outward strength that Gina Carano displays would make her an ideal casting choice to play the independent Linda Gregg.

The outward strength that Gina Carano displays would make her an ideal casting choice to play the independent Linda Gregg.

In terms of the craft of writing, Benson does have some strengths.  There are times in the novel where he chooses certain words and is able to encapsulate more into a sentence than some can pack into an entire page (or in the case of E.L. James and entire trilogy of ‘novels’).  When we are first introduced to Linda, she asks how she is supposed to go about burying her uncle, admitting that she hasn’t “buried anybody in a long time.”  Because she is in her twenties or perhaps early thirties, we know that she is not at an age where she would been burying anybody, much less having done so long enough ago that she forgets the procedure.  It is later revealed that she had lost both of her parents at a young age, but this subtle sentence foreshadows this loss, a loss incurred at a tragically young age, and helps to shape her character and present her as an independent person.  In another scene, when leaving Linda, Paris tells her that she will “get everything that’s coming to” her.  Again, Benson plays with words.  The sentence could be read as affirming or threatening, depending on how it is delivered, but Benson does not describe the inflection or tone.  Instead he allows the reader to wallow in the uncertain implication of the statement, demonstrating that the protagonist himself is uncertain as to what that means, but is committed to ensuring that whatever happens, it will be warranted.

 

Ben Benson (right), likely researching police procedures here to add authenticity to his work.

Ben Benson (right), likely researching police procedures here to add authenticity to his work.

As far as suspense and action go, Stamped For Murder is not as exciting as some pieces of detective fiction from the pulp era, and it is not a mystery that is easily unwound by the reader with evidence presented int he fist act.  The killer is not introduced until late in the novel, and initially offers no indication that she is involved.  In this manner there is not enough puzzle pieces to engage the reader, but the characters are interesting enough and the approach unique enough to keep the reader engaged.  The work is enhanced when read as either a part of the feminist dialogue, or as a continuation of romantic narratives, but stands on its own as well.  It would have been interesting if the characters were more culturally and ethnically diverse, and if the motivations of the antagonists and protagonists were explored more fully, but overall the piece is enjoyable and interesting.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  If you enjoy it and would like to read more reviews of detective fiction from the pulp era, feel free to read my reviews of the Carter Brown novels Wheeler, Dealer! Remember Maybelle Until Temptation Do Us Part, The Phantom Lady, The Corpse, The Sometimes Wife, The Body, and The Aseptic Murders, as well Dale Bogard’s Padon My Body, Wade Miller’s Branded Woman and Harold Q. Masur’s The Name Is JordanAnd be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler to get updates of my most recent posts.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Ben Benson, a Purple Heart military veteran, was born in Boston, MA, in 1913, the son of Hyman and Rachel Dashevsky, whose family name was changed to “Benson” after or during the immigration process.

    During WW2, Benson, assigned as a machine gun squad leader, was badly wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. He spent many months recuperating in Army hospitals, and, from that point, always needed a cane to bet around. he began writing during his recuperation as a form of occupational therapy. He sold his first short story in 1947.

    Wade Paris, was introduced in ALIBI AT DUSK. He was a Detective Inspector in the State Police of an unnamed commonwealth on the Eastern Seaboard. Massachusetts was the likely model, but his unnamed state was not as obviously MA, as, say, Ed McBain’s “Isola” was obviously Manhattan, or Raymond Chandler’s “Bay City” was obviously Santa Monica.

    Whether the setting was obvious or not, Benson was studying the methods and organization of the Massachusetts State Police, the oldest statewide law enforcement body in the US (predating even the TX Rangers, which is older as an organization, but younger as a professional police agency), up close and personal, and incorporating the research into his fiction.

    The unnamed state continued unnamed through LILY IN HER COFFIN, the fourth book in the series (STAMPED FOR MURDER was the third). For his next book, THE VENUS DEATH, Benson introduced another series character, rookie uniformed Trooper Ralph Lindsay. In this book, the MA State Police was specifically named as the hero’s organization. For the next Paris book, TARGET IN TAFFETA, Benson specifically identified the heretofore unnamed state as Massachusetts, and Paris as a high-ranking detective in the MA State Police.

    As the two series developed, Paris was promoted to captain, and appointed Chief of Detectives for the MA State Police. Lindsay gained more experience, left his “rookie” status behind, but, except for one undercover gig (THE GIRL IN THE CAGE, which was loosely adapted into the film RUNNING WILD), remained a uniformed trooper.

    Eventually, there were seven Lindsay novels, ten Paris novels, and one stand-alone, THE BLACK MIRROR, featuring MA State Police Det. Sgt. Pete Bradford.

    Benson died, still quite young, in 1959, a mere 14 years after sustaining the wounds that probably hastened his death. His last novel, THE HUNTRESS IS DEAD, was published posthumously thanks to the efforts of his widow.

    The MA State Police still remembers Benson with great fondness. An article about him appears in the Oct 2012 issue of THE LOG, the in-house magazine of the Massachusetts State Police Museum. I believe a PDF file of this issue might be available on the ‘Net.

    Benson was an early practitioner of what later came to be called the “police procedural,” a detective story in which the main interest is the authentic depiction of the profession of law enforcement (or at least, the appearance of the authentic depiction).

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough reply. It is much appreciated and you have added some valuable pieces to this conversation!

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