Hank Hyer

Created by Kurt Steel
Pseudonym of Rudolf Kagey
(1904-1946)

Now here’s a weird one: you’d think Kurt Steel would be the private eye’s name, and HANK HYER would be the author.

Nope.

It’s Hank’s creator who’s got the unlikely moniker of Kurt Steel. Then again, that’s just a pseudonym of Rudolf Hornaday Kagey. So I guess Kurt Steel is an improvement, after all.

Hornaday? Really?

But I digress…

According to the very helpful information provided by the Dell paperback edition (love those mapbacks!) of Judas, Incorporated (1939), Hank’s a “tough and well-muscled private investigator,” a former boxer who “takes himself and the world with adequate salt, and rarely allows sentiment to intrude upon the fundamentals of life. Hyer likes things stirred up and is not adverse to giving fate a stimulating prod. Only a fat fee check can lure him from Broadway.”

He works out of a Greenwich Village apartment on Bank Street, and he’s not hurting for bucks — he’s been known to charge up to $10,000 a case.

In other words, a typical hard-boiled dick of the era, albeit an early one who actually predates the debut of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe by a few years. And Steel saddled Hyer with an interesting background: he’d been a brilliant welterweight boxer at one point.

The author, at one time a Columbia University philosophy professor, was born in Tuscola, Illinois, and was a long-time supporter of the Labor movement.  He was, perhaps not surprisingly, an admirer of Hammett, and his books show a marked distaste for gentlemanly sleuths and brainiac detectives. They’re generally fast-moving, and he’s got some nifty dialogue and character development.

The series seemed to be a little more political (or at least more aware of politics) than most hard-boiled books of the era, and given his background, it shouldn’ty shock anyone that he generally leaned to the left. In his 1944 article The Ethics of the Mystery NovelAnthony Boucher notes that Judas Incorporated was “a pro-union labor novel,” while in Ambush House (1943), Hank adopts a young girl, a refugee from the Spanish Civil War.

Altogether, Hank (sometimes Henry) appeared in nine novels in the thirties and forties, and proved popular enough to inspire at least a couple of B-films from Paramount. 1937’s Murder Goes To College, was based on his novel of the same name, published the previous year. It featured Lynne Overman as Hyer and Roscoe Karns was added as Sim Perkins, providing comic relief as a bumbling, booze-swilling reporter, and was promptly followed by Partners in Crime, also 1937, also apparently based on Murder Goes to College. This second film might be most notable for an early appearance by Anthony Quinn.

OUCH!

Although his books were generally well-received, and popular enough to spawn at least two fims, not everyone was a fan. Raymond Chandler, in a 1939 letter to George Harmon Coxe, dismissed a couple of Steel’s books as “oh-so-irritating wise-guy crap.”

TRIVIA

UNDER OATH

  • “Tops for the tough type.”
    Time Magazine, June 5, 1939, on Judas Incorporated.

NOVELS

SHORT STORIES

  • “The Friendly Slayer” (September 1947, Detective Novel)
    As far as I know theonly short story, and I’m not even sure if “The Friendly Slayer” is merely an alternate title for the reprinting of one of Steel’s novels, or a completely original work and a late addition to the series. Editions of at least a few of his novels were reprinted in pulp magazines, including Murder in G-Sharp (Fall 1948, Detective Novel Magazine) and Murder For What? (Fall 1948, Detective Mystery Novel).

FILMS

  • MURDER GOES TO COLLEGE
    (1937, Paramount)
    77 minutes, black & white
    Based on the novel by Kurt Steel
    Screenplay by Brian Marlow, Robert Wyler, Eddie Welch
    Directed by Charles Riesner
    Cinematography by Henry Sharp
    Film editing by Edward Dmytryk
    Starring Lynne Overman as HANK HYER
    and Roscoe Karns as Sim Perkins
    Also starring Marsha Hunt, Astrid Allwyn, Harvey Stephens, Buster Crabbe, Earle Foxe, Anthony Nace, John Indrisano, Barlowe Borland, Purnell Pratt
  • PARTNERS IN CRIME
    (1937, Paramount)
    66 minutes, black & white
    Based on the novel Murder Goes to College by Kurt Steel
    Screenplay by Gladys Unger, Garnett Weston
    Directed by Ralph Murphy
    Cinematography by Henry Sharp
    Film editing by Eda Warren
    Produced by Harold Hurley
    Starring Lynne Overman as HANK HYER
    and Roscoe Karns as Sim Perkins
    Also starring Muriel Hutchison, Anthony Quinn, Inez Courtney, Lucien Littlefield, Charles Halton, Charles C. Wilson, June Brewster, Esther Howard, Nora Cecil, Russell Hicks, Don Brodie, Archie Twitchell
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith, with an important lead from Bill Kelly. Thanks, Bill.

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