Don’t blame ME for the insensitive name… that phrase was coined almost a century ago. It really is a genre all its own, though you don’t see it much any more. It had a pretty good run, though, with dozens of series in prose, film, and television, from the 1930s to the 70s.
I suppose we should define the term. Basically, this refers to a certain subset of the private-eye genre wherein the detective has to overcome a particular personal handicap to do his job. I.e., he’s blind, he’s confined to a wheelchair, he’s dying… something is wrong with him but that doesn’t stop him from saddling up and catching crooks.
The genre was pioneered in the pulps, back in the thirties. Back then Steeger Publications, in particular, had been skidding pretty close to the line of what was acceptable in the line of “weird menace” pulps they had going; ostensibly mystery and horror titles, but with a strong streak of S&M. The covers usually featured leering perverts torturing tearful helpless women– which was not at all uncommon for pulp magazine covers back then, but the difference is that stories in the Steeger magazines actually made good on the cover’s promise of hideous lechery to be found within.
When Steeger Publishing decided enough was enough, there was no moral component to the change, it was strictly a financial decision. The powers that be simply felt that the weird-menace thing was getting tired, sales were down, it wasn’t worth the hassle they got from distributors. They needed something new to differentiate their mystery and suspense magazines from the other dozens of tough P.I.’s on the racks. How they landed on grotesquely handicapped heroes, I’m not sure; I have a hard time imagining that editorial conference. (“Hey, Mort, whaddaya think if we make the hero an ugly hunchback instead of the villain?”) Nevertheless, that was what was done, and for a while, they prospered.
No disorder, no handicap, was off-limits. For example, there was D.L. Champion’s Inspector Allhoff: Brilliant, decisive, and hard-charging, Deputy Inspector Allhoff was the NYPD’s ace detective until bullets from a mobster’s machine gun robbed him of his legs, his career, and—in the opinion of an associate—his sanity. Yet Allhoff was too good a man to be put out to pasture, so New York’s police commissioner found a way to keep him employed and refer to him such cases as the department couldn’t or wouldn’t handle. Confined to a wheelchair and operating from a seedy tenement flat, Allhoff is assisted by two cops: Battersly, the rookie patrolman whose brief moment of cowardice cost the inspector his legs, and Simmons, the bitter career cop who detests Allhoff but sticks with the embittered cripple to protect his own pension.
Fun group, huh? The Inspector Allhoff stories aren’t exactly good-time reading but they are remarkably clever and well plotted, and I have to give it up for a pulp writer who was so willing to GO THERE and make his crippled-but-brilliant hero that horrible, some seventy years before anyone ever heard of Gregory House M.D.
Then there was Bruno Fischer’s Calvin Kane, the “Crab Detective.” His withered and twisted body forced him to scuttle along the floor with his “mightily-muscled arms.” This series was too freaky even for Dime Mystery, and eventually Fischer retooled Kane into the more acceptable Ben Bryn, a polio victim who started by pushing himself around on a little cart but eventually spent enough time in rehab to get the use of his legs back. Bryn was a hit and appeared a number of times in the magazine over the next couple of years.
Or how about Nat Perry… the Bleeder.
Perry was a hemophiliac, meaning “the tiniest cut could KILL him!” Nevertheless, he hung in there and had quite a few adventures in the pages of Dime Mystery over the next few years.
One of the most successful of these was Baynard Kendrick’s blind detective Duncan MacLain.
Kendrick published a number of novels about MacLain, who was able to turn his blindness into an asset by picking up on other sensory clues that sighted people would miss. There were even a couple of movies starring Eddy Arnold as MacLain.
A couple of decades later, MacLain would spawn two imitators. I fell in love with the first one the second I saw it– James Franciscus as Longstreet, a TV series that ran for one season in 1971.
Mike Longstreet, crack insurance investigator, is blinded by an explosion that also kills his wife. He refuses to accept defeat, though, and grimly returns to his profession, determined to reclaim as much of his life as he can. This was just a terrific show from Stirling Silliphant, and he even wrote his martial arts coach into the show– some kid named Bruce Lee.
This episode has possibly my favorite fight ever seen on television, when Mike goes down to the docks to challenge the brutish warehouse worker that previously assaulted him, even after being assured by all his friends– and Bruce Lee– that he’s not ready. It’s a crime that this show isn’t available on home video but there are a few up on YouTube.
The other one you can probably guess. But Stan Lee was also a big fan of blind Duncan MacLain and decided to cop the idea for Marvel’s Daredevil, a comics hit for years that’s now tearing it up on Netflix.
But it all started with Baynard Kendrick and Duncan MacLain. Stan says as much in his book Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, and Stirling Silliphant made sure Baynard Kendrick got a screen credit on Longstreet.
TV had its own little run of “defective detectives” for a while. Longstreet only ran one season but Ironside, with its wheelchair-bound protagonist, did considerably better.
If the show owed anything to Inspector Allhoff and the pulps, no one was admitting it. But there were definitely similarities, especially how Chief Ironside was given a special headquarters and a couple of officers detailed to assist him. But I’m inclined to put it down to coincidence. Inspector Allhoff is a pretty deep dive into pulp culture, and considering the number of gimmick detectives on TV coming from Universal and Quinn Martin in the 1970s (Barnaby Jones was old, Cannon was fat, James Farentino only worked for a Cool Million, etc., etc.) it was only a matter of time till someone came up with “wheelchair.”
The idea of handicap-as-gimmick kind of faded away as America gradually got its consciousness raised about how to treat people with disabilities. Nevertheless, the idea still comes up every so often. In comics, former Batgirl Barbara Gordon as the wheelchair-bound Oracle had a good run, even making the jump to television for a half-season as one of the Birds of Prey.
DC Comics eventually reversed Barbara’s misfortunes and made her Batgirl once again, which struck me as a shame. Oracle as a character was way more interesting than Batgirl.
And of course there’s the obsessive-compulsive Adrian Monk.
There were some complaints from advocacy groups about playing Mr. Monk’s mental illness for laughs, but I imagine Tony Shalhoub just chuckles and polishes his Emmys. It ran eight seasons, and there were also a number of original novels by Lee Goldberg based on the show, and even a few short stories by Mr. Goldberg that appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
But Mr. Monk is the last one of the modern era, I think. I suppose the case is there to be made that these kind of gimmicks are as insensitive and exploitative as advocacy groups say they are, but I think it all depends on the execution. And for those of us that are scholars of junk culture, we have a fondness for stuff like this just because it’s so damn weird. I mean, come on, the Crab Detective? The Bleeder? How can you not love those guys? It almost makes me want to construct some sort of team-up story about the League of Extraordinary Handicaps. The Justice League of Lame.
We don’t have that, but we do have a couple of anthologies for those who are interested.
The Defective Detective in the Pulps and its follow-up volume, More Tales of the Defective Detective in the Pulps, are really great collections that give you the best of the old stories. Long out of print, but you can find them used on Amazon by clicking on the handy links there, and if you choose to do a little shopping there for other stuff, we still get a referral fee. We appreciate it; that helps us keep the lights on around here.
Back next week with something cool.