Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dodge

Today I welcome Guest Blogger Randal S. Brandt. Randal S. Brandt is a librarian at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley and the creator of two critically-acclaimed websites: Golden Gate Mysteries, an annotated bibliography of crime fiction set in the San Francisco Bay Area, and A David Dodge Companion, chronicling the life and works of mystery/thriller writer David Dodge (1910-1974). He has recently written the introductions to new editions of Dodge's Death and Taxes (July 2010) and To Catch a Thief (forthcoming, fall 2010).

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dodge

David Dodge was born one hundred years ago today on August 18, 1910 in Berkeley, California. Now, just in time for Dodge’s centenary, his first novel, DEATH AND TAXES, has been published in a new edition by Bruin Books. Originally published in 1941 and out of print in the U.S. for over sixty years, the mystery introduces San Francisco tax expert James “Whit” Whitney who is reluctantly drawn into the investigation of his partner’s murder. The case revolves around the recovery of a quarter of a million dollars in overpaid taxes, Prohibition-era skullduggery, flying bullets, and a seductive blonde. It also involves witty dialogue, romance, and heavy drinking—aspects that immediately drew comparisons to Dashiell Hammett’s THE THIN MAN. Venerable San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen was the first to make the comparison: “Macmillan will bring out … a moiduh mystery with a Thin Mannish S.F. background; it’s called Death and Taxes, and was written by David Dodge, a local accountant, f’goshsakes.”

After spending much of his childhood in Los Angeles, Dodge settled down in San Francisco in 1933. Trained as a tax accountant, he turned his hand to mystery writing on a five-dollar bet with his wife, Elva, that he could produce a better mystery than the ones they were reading on a rainy family vacation. Macmillan published his DEATH AND TAXES and Dodge won the bet.

Three more Whitney novels soon followed. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dodge joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, holding down a desk job in San Francisco for the duration of World War II. Upon his release from active duty in 1945, and with the assistance of a modest inheritance from one of Elva’s distant relatives, Dodge packed his family—which included five-year old daughter Kendal—into a car and headed for Guatemala via the Pan American Highway in search of new plot devices and cheaper living south of the border. The move inspired Dodge’s second mystery series, featuring an expatriate private investigator named Al Colby working in Latin America, and his second writing career as a best-selling author of humorous “travel diaries” that documented the family’s (mis)adventures on the road.

The travel bug bit Dodge hard. Fortunately, travel and writing were the perfect compliments. In 1947, Dodge began a long, profitable relationship with Holiday magazine as a free-lance writer; he also had a deal with Pan American airlines for free airfare in exchange for contributions to their guidebooks. Dodge’s travels provided him with backgrounds, settings, characters, and experiences for his novels, travel books, and numerous magazine articles; his books and articles provided him with enough money to continue his travels. Except for the four years that Kendal was in high school, when they “settled down” in Princeton, New Jersey, the Dodges were constantly on the move, with stops in Peru, the Côte d’Azur, Casablanca, South Africa, and countless other places.

It was the south of France that provided Dodge with the raw material for his most successful novel, TO CATCH A THIEF, published by Random House in 1952. Alfred Hitchcock liked it so much he immediately bought the movie rights and brought the story to the screen in 1955 with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the lead roles.

For the remainder of his career, Dodge alternated between whimsical anecdote-filled travel adventures and taut suspense thrillers set in exotic locales. His final novel, THE LAST MATCH, remained unpublished at his death in 1974 and languished among the family papers for over thirty years until it was finally published by Hard Case Crime in 2006.

TO CATCH A THIEF—also out of print for decades—is on deck for a new edition by Bruin Books in the fall. I think David Dodge would have been pleased at having the centennial of his birth marked by a renewal of interest in his work. Happy Birthday, Mr. Dodge.

Randal S. Brandt is the creator of A David Dodge Companion and Golden Gate Mysteries.

A David Dodge Companion
Hard Case Crime
Bruin Books:
Golden Gate Mysteries

1 comment:

vallerose said...

Loved your column. I didn't realize that Dodge wrote To Catch a Thief it's a wonderful film. Looking forward to reading one of his books.