Henry Abner

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Writer

Henry Abner (September 17, 1884 – July 10, 1935) was the pen name of policeman and fiction author Henry Abner Sturdivant. Abner was a well-known but commercially unsuccessful writer of golden era hard-boiled detective novels and short stories (active 1925–1935). Abner's death in 1935 led to him being nearly forgotten during the post-war heyday of detective fiction. In fact, Abner is probably best remembered today as the butt of scorn from Raymond Chandler in his 1950 essay "The Simple Art of Murder", in which Chandler lampoons Abner's first novel Death Wears Yellow Garters.[1]

Personal life & law enforcement career

Henry Abner Sturdivant was the fourth of six children born to John Patrick and Susan Frances Sturdivant. The Sturdivants were a prominent rural planter family from Taliaferro County, Georgia, although little is known about Abner's childhood.[2] Abner followed in the footsteps of his older brothers in choosing a career in law enforcement. Eldest surviving brother Thurman Olin (T.O.) Sturdivant would eventually become Chief of Police of the City of Atlanta, and next eldest brother William Jefferson Sturdivant was a railroad detective for the Pinkerton detective agency.[3]


Before becoming a police officer, Abner spent time working the cotton fields with relatives in Echols County, Georgia, near the Florida border. The time he spent there, though brief, would be influential in his writing, as the backwoods swamp would become a favorite setting for future work.[4] Abner married Lora Maddie Campbell on March 26, 1922. They produced only one child, a daughter named Sara (born September 20, 1928). Abner joined the police force of Washington, GA in 1915 and was promoted to chief by the summer of 1925. Although a strict man, Abner, or Chief Sturdivant as he was known, was popular with locals, and particularly well-liked amongst Washington’s African American population.[5]

Death

Henry Abner Sturdivant was killed in the line of duty on July 4, 1935. His injuries were sustained when he was thrown from the running board of a stolen automobile, as Abner attempted to apprehend the suspect. The suspect, Tom Booker, drove through Washington’s town square where Abner and another officer waited to make an arrest. Abner was treated in the local hospital for six days, but finally succumbed to his injuries on July 10.[6] Booker was tried and convicted, and received a life sentence for the death of Chief Sturdivant.[7] Abner was buried in his family’s plot in Sharon Methodist Church, Taliaferro County, Georgia.

The tombstone of Henry Abner and Lora Campbell Sturdivant. Sharon Methodist Church, Taliaferro County, Georgia.

Literary career

Abner was both stimulated and bored with the life of a small town lawman. He had known little else but the quiet peace of rural Georgia, except for the fantastic journeys he was able to take through fantastic literature. He was an avid reader, and began writing in order to see stories with characters that he liked, in settings he could relate to. Although he had been writing since as early as 1920, his first piece was not accepted for publication until 1925’s “Cold, Dark Night”, when it was released in an early summer issue of Flynn’s.[no citations needed here] In a 1934 interview Abner stated that, unlike other writers of his time, he was not seeking recognition or even financial gain: “I write because I have to. Now, I make a comfortable living as a police officer, but the stories satisfy something in me that money and fame never could.”[8]

Abner without exception featured male protagonists in his stories. As was typical for the genre and the time in which he was writing, Abner’s work reflects the idea that women were regarded as weak and weak-willed, and often served as a source of trouble for the ubiquitously male heroes. His heroes were never repeated, although they often differed in name only, as many of them share almost identical backgrounds and traits. It has been speculated that Abner was trying to “find the perfect protagonist” by slightly tweaking his formula with each new work. The fact that he never found this perfection, and that he never offered readers repeat adventures with the same main characters, may very well have led to his lack of popular success.[9]

As can be expected from an author raised in rural antebellum Georgia, racial stereotypes also play heavily into Abner’s work. Although in some instances he was recognized for including sympathetic minority characters at all, even if they were only sidekicks to the ubiquitously white male protagonists.[10]

His work was appreciated by contemporary writers, but found little popular support and generally poor readership, which may be a leading factor in why his pieces are so difficult to find today.[no citations needed here] His unique slant on the hard-boiled detective tale, especially when considering the less-than-ordinary but far-from-exotic locales and cultures represented, were a big hit with colleagues, but lacked mainstream appeal and commercial success. In fact, Abner’s style was used as a precautionary warning for aspiring writers in the publishing industry.[11] A leading modern theory is that Abner’s rural southern heritage made his writing unfit for recognition in a landscape dominated by northern and western, primarily urban, publishers and critics.[12]

Works

Novels

All the novels except Heaven Needs Heroes were originally serialized in three, four, or five parts in various magazines.

  • Death Wears Yellow Garters (published on February 12, 1928)
  • Heaven Needs Heroes (July 21, 1930)
  • Big Easy Takedown (April 14, 1933)
  • Million Dollar Murder (January 30, 1935, previously serialized as Million Dollar Pistol)

Short fiction

  • "Cold, Dark Night", 1925
    • Abner’s first published serial features a small town sheriff chasing a killer through a blizzard. Curious, since Abner would later become known for works involving decidedly warmer settings.
  • "The Floozy Packed Heat", 1925
  • "Hard Men, Hard Times", 1925
    • Not much is known about this work, outside of marketing references to it in later Abner publications.
  • "The Wrong Side of Dead", 1926
  • "Sweet Deadly Embrace", 1926
  • "The Murder Train has Left the Station", 1926
    • Literal title for a novel about a series of murders aboard a train. A single victim is killed between each stop, until only the killer and the hero remains.
  • "Bourbon Boys and Broken Hearts", 1926
    • A sheriff’s deputy rescues a femme fatale from moonshiners and bootleggers, only to discover that she has been double crossing him to get information about the police investigation for her co-conspirators.
  • "The Brothel on the Bad Side of Town", 1927
  • "Death Wears Yellow Garters", 1927
    • Famously lampooned in Raymond Chandler’s Essay “The Simple Art of Murder”,[13] this early serial cum novel tells the tale of a lady of the night that goes on a killing spree, taking out her former johns. Early in the plot she is only identified as wearing the titular yellow garters.
  • "Dice and Death", 1927
  • "Georgia Clay", 1927
    • A story about a farmer (the titular “Samuel Clayton”) seeking revenge on a gang of marauding bandits that terrorize his small rural town.
  • "Jiggaboo Shakedown", 1928
    • A troublesome but funny negro con man teams up with a white detective to solve a series of murders in the black community. The first of three books featuring Clyde "Shoeshine" Brown, a recurring “negro sidekick” character. It’s noteworthy that although Brown appears in three stories (and in fact is shot dead in two), the protagonists he assists are one hit wonders.[14]
  • "Grand Theft Murder", 1928
    • Noteworthy, in that this story features a police officer that dies in a manner eerily similar to Abner's own death.[15] In the story, a deputy is killed in pursuit of a gang of car thieves, and the chief of the police force seeks his revenge on the killer. While it is a strange coincidence, the prophetic nature of this work was quickly hand-waved, as Abner’s work featured many small town police officers meeting their various demises in many different fashions.[16]
  • "Lover by Day, Killer by Night", 1929
  • "Heaven Needs Heroes", 1929
    • Chronicles a day in the life of a crime-fighting ex-detective priest from the country, as he takes on devil-worshipping drug dealers in inner city Atlanta.[17]
  • "Cement Shoe Sisters", 1929
  • "Blood Red Cotton", 1930
  • "Blacker than Midnight", 1930
  • "King Swamp", 1930
    • A cityboy federal agent is sent to take out a bootlegging operation in the deep swamp. Clyde Brown’s second appearance.
  • "Trigger Man Blues", 1931
    • In this story, a hit man comes clean, and decides to take out the organized crime syndicate that killed his woman.
  • "Big Easy Takedown", 1931
    • Spiritual successor to King Swamp, a yankee marshall is sent to collect a fugitive from the seedy underbelly of 1920s New Orleans. It should be noted that the titular Big Easy refers to a notorious jazz club, as the moniker had yet to find popular footing in reference to the city itself.[18] Clyde Brown’s third and final appearance.[19]
  • "Stranglewood Swamp", 1931
  • "The Dark Gets Darker", 1932
    • Notable in that this work explores a series of murders amongst the black community in a southern city (Macon, Georgia). Of course this is only a matter of degree, as the case is investigated and solved by a boilerplate white male detective, brazenly named “Charles White”.[20]
  • "Good Time Gals and Hard Faced Men", 1932
  • "Six Shots for Justice", 1932
    • In Abner’s only flirtation away from the hardboiled detective genre, a cowboy cop goes on a violent rampage after a series of brutal murders. It is generally agreed that this story is “only dressed up as a western” and that it features most of the same themes and stock characters as Abner’s more typical work.[21]
  • "Dying Light", 1933
  • "Million Dollar Pistol", 1933 (later collected as Million Dollar Murder)
    • A jewel-encrusted handgun, said to be designed by Faberge himself, goes missing from a museum in Manhattan. The setting is quite notable because of the frequent geographical and logistical errors in the descriptions of the city and its transportation systems (the cost of a cab was greatly exaggerated, for example). Critics universally panned Abner’s attempt to break from his standard setting.[22]
  • "How Heavy This Badge", 1933
    • A policeman considers early retirement after the death of his partner. Later the entire plot turns out to have been a set-up, as the protagonist's partner was on the take.
  • "Smells Like Murder", 1934
    • The tale of a blind detective and his trusty Bloodhound Rusty.
  • "Cheap Chin Music", 1934
    • This story chronicles a ring of underground boxing matches, and the men that rig them. Like many of Abner’s tales, it features a central protagonist seeking revenge for the death of a friend (or in this case, a brother).[23]
  • "Trouble Stew", 1934
    • A sleuthing short order cook solves the murder of a local politician.
  • "King Bastard", 1934
    • A tale about “the sleaziest criminal to ever set foot in the deep south”. This story was nearly considered unpublishable because of the profanity of the main villain, as evidenced by even the title.[24]
  • "Bang! Bang! Bang!", 1935
    • This story investigates three murders that all occur in one night, all apparently happen at the same time and involve the same gun, but at different locations across town. How can small-town reporter Whit McCullers possibly solve a case that the police don’t want to believe, and that doesn’t make any damned sense besides?[25]
  • "Dead End Alley", 1935
    • In this story the titular alley itself is personified, as bad things happen to people that dare to venture down it. "Dead End Alley" offers a supernatural twist to Abner’s standard fare. In the conclusion, it is revealed that a gang of dope peddlers have an operation in a basement under the alley, and they are killing innocent victims that happen upon their operation by accident.

References

  1. Chandler, Raymond (1950). The Simple Art of Murder. ISBN 0-394-75765-3. http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/chandlerart.html. 
  2. Harris, Mary K. (30 April 2005). "John Patrick Sturdivant". http://mkhgenealogy.com/11240/. 
  3. "Injuries Claim Life of H.A. Sturdivant". The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia): p. 2. July 11, 1935. 
  4. Ullman, A.G. (August 18, 1934). "Servicing the Southern Mystery Fan". Publishers' Weekly: 42. 
  5. "Chief Sturdivant Ties Knot". The News Reporter (Washington, Georgia): p. 1. March 27, 1922. 
  6. "Injuries Claim Life of H.A. Sturdivant". The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia): p. 2. July 11, 1935. 
  7. "Booker is Indicted in Sturdivant Case". The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia): p. 10. August 7, 1935. 
  8. Ullman, A.G. (August 18, 1934). "Servicing the Southern Mystery Fan". Publishers' Weekly: 41–42. 
  9. Sampson, Robert (1988). Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines. Volume 4: The Solvers. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. p. 174. ISBN 0-87972-414-5. 
  10. Ullman, A.G. (August 18, 1934). "Servicing the Southern Mystery Fan". Publishers' Weekly: 42. 
  11. Gruber, F. (April 5, 1941). "The Mystery Writer Can Make Money". Publishers' Weekly: 22. 
  12. Sampson, Robert (1988). Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines. Volume 4: The Solvers. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. p. 175. ISBN 0-87972-414-5. 
  13. Chandler, Raymond (1950). The Simple Art of Murder. ISBN 0-394-75765-3. http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/chandlerart.html. 
  14. Sampson, Robert (1988). Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines. 4: The Solvers. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. p. 176. ISBN 0-87972-414-5. 
  15. "Injuries Claim Life of H.A. Sturdivant". The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia): p. 2. July 11, 1935. 
  16. Walbridge, E.F.; Pearson, E.L. (May 4, 1941). "Who Killed Henry Abner?". New York Libraries: 29. 
  17. Sampson, Robert (1988). Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines. 4: The Solvers. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-87972-414-5. 
  18. Gerould, K.F. (August 3, 1935). "Murder for Pastime". Saturday Review of Literature: 33. 
  19. Sampson, Robert (1988). Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines. 4: The Solvers. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. p. 176. ISBN 0-87972-414-5. 
  20. Sampson, Robert (1988). Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines. 4: The Solvers. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. p. 175. ISBN 0-87972-414-5. 
  21. Sampson, Robert (1988). Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines. 4: The Solvers. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. p. 176. ISBN 0-87972-414-5. 
  22. Gruber, F. (April 5, 1941). "The Mystery Writer Can Make Money". Publishers' Weekly: 22. 
  23. Gerould, K.F. (August 3, 1935). "Murder for Pastime". Saturday Review of Literature: 34. 
  24. Walbridge, E.F.; Pearson, E.L. (May 4, 1941). "Who Killed Henry Abner?". New York Libraries: 29. 
  25. Sampson, Robert (1988). Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines. 4: The Solvers. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. p. 25. ISBN 0-87972-414-5.