#1032: “It is possible to simulate death, as I can demonstrate to interested parties…” – Adventures of a Professional Corpse [ss] (1941) by H. Bedford-Jones

Henry Bedford-Jones wrote several hundred pulp stories under at least a dozen noms de plume, but this is my first encounter with his work…and a most intriguing encounter it turned out to be, with these four stories about dead-man-for-hire James F. Bronson.

My awareness of Bedford-Jones is entirely due to his repeated mentions in the excellent Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner (1975) by Francis L. and Roberta B. Fugate, which makes it clear not just that Gardner went out of his way to emulate Bedford-Jones’s output and level of success — they were at one point the only two pulp authors making $50,000 a year from their writing — but also that the two men corresponded regularly. As such, it’s not too fanciful to see that Gardner might also have been one of Bedford-Jones’s influences, not least in the lawyer Earl Carter who, in first story ‘The Artificial Honeymoon’ (1940) is responsible for setting our protagonist Bronson upon his unusual professional pathway.

Carter, we’re told, “was full of legal tricks” and…

…admitted freely that he did not serve the law but made it serve him, and at times ran pretty close to the wind…. He was not a mouthpiece for crooks, as he had little or no criminal practice and wanted none. He did specialize in helping people who were in a jam — and who could pay heavily for the help…

No matter how respected or innocent a person might be, the law could trap him and squeeze him — unless he happened to have an attorney who could outsmart the law.

“And I’m the outsmarter, you bet.”

Carter is more obviously motivated by pecuniary interests than Gardner’s law-baiting outsmarter Perry Mason, but their family trees arguably grow out of the same root. And it’s sort of a shame that we see so little of Carter, because the role of Bronson is simply to be a knowing cat’s-paw to enable some shenanigans (“To the best of my knowledge I’ve never been employed toward the harm of anyone, or in contravention of the law,” he tells us early on) and the role is far more interesting than the man playing it. It’s hard not to wish that the more colourful Carter had been the character imbued with the gift of masquerading death with sufficient realism to convince most doctors, but I suppose the lawyer would have to be front and centre in any designs he orchestrated, not laid out in a coffin surrounded by flowers.

There’s actually very little in the first story that seems to make Bronson’s singular ability necessary — as far as everyone else is concerned, things are going to pan out in a different way that would have worked just as well — but it is amusingly written (“Tabitha and her law firm were utterly respectable, aristocratic, and practically saints; so upright they nearly fell over backward.”) and it sets both Bronson and the reader off on the route for the coming attractions. Hired with the express purpose of giving a convincing appearance of death, Bronson’s role here is minor and, since he’s effectively in a sleep state throughout the key part of proceedings, we’re not ever given the chance to witness our professional corpse in action.

Gotta love the fact that Bedford-Jones supplies the actual recipe for the tincture that renders Bronson insensible, too. Just begs the question of whether anyone tried it themselves, doesn’t it?

“Oh, god, do not try it yourself.”

Despite an almost aggressively pulpish title, ‘The Blind Farmer and the Strip Dancer’ (1940) is a tale with a surprisingly moral edge to it. Bronson is approached by Viola Dane, the dancer of the title, whose father, the eponymous farmer, kicked her out of house and home when she fell pregnant to a passing Lothario. Now, Dane want Bronson to act as said Lothario and pretend that they’re married so that she can get back in her family’s good graces, before Bronson then “dies” and so frees her up to marry a man she actually has her eye on.

The moral aspect creeps in in two surprising ways: firstly Bronson’s own qualms about allowing this woman to possibly simply want to foist her young child onto her family so that she is free to live an easier life, and secondly in the opening stages in which he reveals turning down a job — pretending to have been killed in a car wreck by a reckless driver whose father wants scared straight — only for the object of the deception to then be killed in an accident several months later. The first point here is surprisingly well-plotted, too, and pleasingly not simply tied off come the story’s close, showing that an element of personal doubt will always be attached to this undertaking, adding to the misgivings that Bronson has despite the apparent decency of the ruses he undertakes:

I do not wish to convey any sense of jaunty smartness on my own part. I was only too poignantly aware of the grief and shock that this business must bring to the good people around. This is one aspect of my singular profession from which I always shrink.

Also pleasing is the Sherlock Holmes-esque allusion to other cases never to be written down (“…a ticklish job which made us a pile of money but can never be put into print.”). Sure, it’s old hat by now, but Bedford-Jones really does have a good eye for enriching his milieu, and this story shows off that skill admirably.

‘The Wife of the Humorous Gangster’ (1940) was published third but seems like it should have been the second tale, since it details the beginnings of Bronson’s partnership with Dr. Roesche, who acts as doctor-on-the-spot in Bronson’s schemes and is on hand to revive him once the hullabaloo has died down. This story, again written in a superbly readable tone, is notable mainly for Bedford-Jones’s talents with minor characters — though his rendering of Prohibition-era gangster Dion Caffery, who’s simply not tough enough to kill anyone and so needs Bronson to fake the deed, feels hilariously optimistic. But the story undoubtedly benefits from the unsparing depiction of Caffery’s mistress, Nelly:

She was one of those women who think themselves very deep, who have a “Why?” for everything as though in search of hidden motives, eho set themsevles to understand a man with their eyes and lips better than he understands himself; they are usually fools, Such vapid, doll-like beauties fancy themselves very subtle, and I suppose they find many a sap who falls for their pretty ways.

There’s some enjoyment to be had in Bronson picking apart the plotting of Caffery’s fake murder, showing an attention to detail which fits well into the universe of Bronson’s talent — he’d want to make sure as few questions as possible end up being raised after the event, after all — and the fact that this is playing out against the background of a burgeoning gang war only serves to make it all that little more enticing when the ending comes and the carefully-planned scheme falls so predictably apart…

“I have no witty comment to make.”

Finally, and easily the oddest of the lot, is ‘The Affair of the Shuteye Medium’ (1941), in which Bronson and Roesch — yes, it’s spelled differently in this story, and I don’t know if that’s Bedford-Jones’s doing or otherwise — are engaged by John McWhirt to ruin Professor St. Edward, a medium who has come to believe in his own powers and whose claims of contact with McWhirt’s dead son killed McWhirt’s grieving wife. The tale is odd firstly because it makes you question precisely what Bedford-Jones’ problem with Scotsmen is (c.f. “When a Scotchman claims to be a philanthropist, you want to keep your eyes peeled!”/”But we should have known that McWhirt, being Scotch, had kept a card or two up his sleeve.”) and secondly because, well, he seems to lean heavily into St. Edward actually having mediumistic powers and being in genuine connection with the other side.

Now, to a certain extent, given how this plays out, it makes no difference whether St. Edward is genuine or not, because the man admits having faked certain results — recalling the excellent point about this very topic raised in, I believe, About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935) by Anthony Abbot — and the man’s obviously crooked and shameless in his exploitation of the grief of people whose lives have been ruined. But the fact that we’re not entirely sure that he’s a complete charlatan, and that he might actually be offering genuine succour to people in the world of this story, muddies the waters just enough to make his intended ruination a little hard to root for.

This is, perhaps, the only instance in this slim collection where you feel the slight cheapness of Bedford-Jones’s writing, since he describes St. Edward’s seances in the following way…

[We] witnessed things past comprehension, mixed up with undiluted fakery. The only explanation was that the professor had a number of stooges planted in his circle; yet the people who got messages or manifestations or even materializations were not, to my way of thinking, stooges. They were too really and profoundly affected.

…yet we’re never told what was experiences or how the fakery is achieved. Now, maybe this is because society had woken up enough mediums and their bullshit by this point…but that feels both too optimistic and too at odds with the actual talents the man would appear to possess, given the experiences that Bronson and Roesch(e) go on to have. So, yeah, I can kind of see why Bedford-Jones gave up on this interesting series after only four tales, because he’d written himself into a bit of a corner and could probably find no way to extricate himself, so abandoned this stream of income and went back to the millions of words that had been so profitable in other seams.

In the final analysis, Adventures of a Professional Corpse is a fascinating insight on the sort of material that the brain must toy with when required to produce thousands of words to a deadline year after year. Apparently inspired by an advert that Bedford-Jones saw in the paper, I can see how the idea might have appealed to him, while also acknowledging that he perhaps runs the gamut of the type of story this setup would allow him to write — in this regard they remind me of the tales about smuggler Kek Huuygens by Robert L. Fish: they go so far, and stretching the concept any further loses the core principle that makes them worth writing in the first place.

And yet, I won’t deny that they are well-written, bringing to mind the likes of Gardner in their smooth phrasing, slick reversals, and well-explored settings, and will certainly be on the lookout for more of Bedford-Jones’s work in the years ahead. The six of you who have actually clicked on and read this post are now one up on everyone else: if you get a chance to encounter these without paying too much for them — this edition from Altus Press contains 80 pages of print, plus a one page biography copied from when Bedford-Jones was still alive — they genuinely do come recommended for a weird and enjoyable time.

9 thoughts on “#1032: “It is possible to simulate death, as I can demonstrate to interested parties…” – Adventures of a Professional Corpse [ss] (1941) by H. Bedford-Jones

  1. In the age where novelty was perhaps running low, this does seem like an interesting new angle to try and write a crime or mystery story from. I didn’t know about the Gardner connection. I am intrigued by your next Thursday book choice as I wouldn’t have thought Rinehart would be your thing.


    • The Gardner connection is intriguing, because it’s pleasing to think that inspiration flowed in both directions — Gardner called Bedford-Jones “The King of the Woodpulps” and Bedford-Jones responded by referring to himself as “the old King of the Woodpulps” when ESG ended up becoming so successful, passing the mantle on.

      As for RInehart — I’m well aware of the risk of simply being told that someone isn’t to my liking and missing out on something I might have otherwise loved…look at all the years I could have been reading Freeman Wills Crofts but avoided him because I was told how boring he was. So Rinehart has been in the Intended Reading pile for a while, it just took these AMC reprints for her to progress onto the TBR. And finally her days has come…! Starting it tomorrow, so we’ll see how it goes.


  2. Interesting – I wonder how one of these two giants of pulp writing ended up being remembered to this day, whereas I’d never heard of Henry Bedford-Jones at all.
    How is “The storytelling techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner”? Does it require having read many of his books? What kind of focus does it have – the title sounds writing-technique focused, but the content you mention sounds biographical.


    • Two words: Tee Vee. Gardner’s work being adapted for television is the undoubted difference, since the Masons have remained popular while practically all his other work — Doug Selby, Cool & Lam, etc — remains of interest only because he’s so well known for Perry.

      The Fugate book is very good, though, yes, has a more biographical bent. I imagine it was titled to give the impression that it would teach you how to write as much as Gardner did, whereas instead it simply offers a slight insight into his process, opting instead to catalogue the sheer size of his fictional undertakings. As a biography of his work, it comes highly recommended.


      • Good point about TV! It does sound a bit like Gardner’s characters are more memorable, too…

        Thanks for the summary of the other book. I imagine I’d want to read a bit of Gardner first. There are so many it’s hard to know where to start. I was thinking the Cool & Lam series sounded the most appealing to me.


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