Dead Is The Door-Nail

I’ve always heard this expression as: Dead as a door-nail. A rather odd expression to begin with. So I checked on its origins. Apparently no one is absolutely sure of whence the simile came. The best scholars can theorize it is  a reference to the nails used on large wooden doors back in the middle ages. The first time the expression was noted was the 1300s, with Shakespeare using the expression in Henry VI.  The most logical explanation, from my internet wanderings;  nails were made by hand, hence expensive and recycled. However, doornails had to be pounded into the wood through the door and then bent back, a process called ‘clenching’. Which made them useless for reuse, therefore, dead.

A quote from the opening of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol:

“Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

For whatever reason, author Paul Haggard used ‘is’ instead of ‘as’ in his novel of the same name. A crime novel so overwrought in its prose, I simply had to share. I was so taken with the convoluted sentences, I used PENCIL to mark passages I wanted to reference. I never ever never mark up my books, so that’s how startling and downright awesome his writing is to me!  (in a oh my, how on earth did this get published sort of way)

I can’t remember where I bought my dust jacketless copy, but it’s in fair condition with the words: RETURN to STORY DEPT., Paramount Pictures Inc. on the front endpapers. Naturally, I was intrigued. So, back to the mac board, surfing to see if any film had been made using this rather ridiculous plot with stereotypical characters  and unusually risque situations. No listing that I could find–but here’s a review in  Kirkus from when the book was first published–

Pub Date: April 29th, 1937
Publisher: Lippincott
Rapid — tough — occasionally phony — but good entertainment. A sports — writer and his camera man become involved in a case involving blackmail, two murders and attempts at murders. Good fast pace for hard-boiled newspaperman, trying to escape his divorced wife, get the story and solve the mystery.
(he got the amount of murders wrong–I THINK he’s off by one–it’s hard to tell)
But it’s what else I found about Mr. Haggard that bowled me over. First, his name wasn’t Haggard–that among several other nome de plumes were used to pen over 100 books! Some were jazz history, a few ghosted bios, and other crime novels. He was an artist of some measure, watercolor, collage, and cartoons. He wrote detective stories for radio, he wrote bits for the crooner Rudy Vallee, he contributed cartoons to The New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s among other major magazines of the 1930s. And he did this under his real name–or as close to his given name as he wanted to go. He was born Chauncey Weiner in 1907. Naturally, this wasn’t a popular name in terms of bullying, so he quickly took Henry for his own, changing it to Henri, when he started his career in art. The family last name was originally Weiner-Longstrasse, but his grand father decided just on Weiner, or Wierner, they used both spellings, and dropped the Longstrasse. When approached to write by a well known author, Bennett Cerf, he took on the name, Stephen Longstreet, and kept it as his ‘real name’ even recreating his bio for various publications. Haggard’s own grand daughter is having difficulty reconstructing his life story. In the mid 30s he began his writing under Paul Haggard, and he wrote four Mike Warlock, sports writer slash detective, novels. After this jaunt into the mystery world, the next decade saw him complete twelve novels, one of which was made into a musical, and he began writing for the silver screen. His biggest hit was The Al Jolson Story! But, wait, these decades were only a warmup for the next ones–the 50s saw him write steamy novels, jazz histories, and five films, including that long overblown circus tableau, The Greatest Show on Earth. His best years were yet to come–in the 60s he churned out forty-one more books, many were collaborations with other artists. And a few more moving picture screenplays went under his belt.
He contributed to twenty-nine more books in the ’70s, the 80s he dipped his toes into a children’s book. His art was displayed, he celebrated 50 years of marriage to a woman who was no slacker either–the titles of pianist and activist, were part of her resume. He died in 2002! 95, if my math is good, which it rarely is.
After discovering all of this my big question is–why haven’t I heard of this guy before? For goodness sake, he was a one man renaissance machine! And my less important one is–should I continue to goof on this book, now that I’ve discovered this jack of all trades, apparently master of all?
Yeah, why not.
To give a small taste before posting some quotes–check out the Mike Warlock chapter heads:
A Nude Woman Dies
Two Drinkers and a Crooner
More Work for the Coroner
Screwballs on Parade
Fun in a Morgue
The House of Jitters
Hammer in a Coffin Nail
For some reason, he’s broken the book into two parts–naming the first, Murder Rides the Merry-Go-Round, and the second, Anecdotes Over an Open Grave. There is no major shift in action, plot, or locale, so I can only assume he did it for his own amusement.
The story  is related by a Watson character–his photographer, and roommate, Abner Gillray. Warlock and Gillray. Yep, with those character names I knew I was in for a different kind of ride. The death of socialite and tennis champion, Doris Castle, is described within the first couple of paragraphs, and here’s where my fun began.
“Now, many a pretty lady has gone to her death in a more flamboyant style-but few have ever sent the headlines into such big and black, carnage screaming fits of kudos, rhapsodic cliches and innuendoes at the good-for-nothing, lazy punks the police were, when it came to catching a killer.” Oh, boy, if this were just the beginning, what did he have in store for the reader in the rest of the tome?
It didn’t take long to find out.
“Our art department–those dear little craftsmen–had retouched the parabolas and round mollescent flesh on the three column cut of the body; and added a lacy, wispy, pair of step-ins–the last was sop to the League of Decency. The story had been handled with the usual dirge-toned fireworks of expert reporting, and I was deep in the paragraphs when a strange deshabille of sound came to me above the screwball drone of the usual newspaper office sing-song.”
Wow. I had to highlight the hyperbole just in case you were asleep by this point in the article, otherwise, I believe you may have discovered the unusual phrases on your own.
But oh, the stuff that dreams are made of!–he describes the city editor’s anger over Mike Warlock being absent when he needs him. After Abner explains that Warlock is drinking in the back of McShorley’s (I assume Haggard didn’t want to use the real name of this historic bar, McSorley’s) reading James Joyce. The ‘beef faced’ editor bemoans;
“In my hour of need–a book lover! What a time to get literary. Here is the sweetest little murder since Starr Faithful. Mike Warlock, that goddamn dilettante, is off swilling ale and adjectives in some foul rookery. I’ll break that Mike Warlock in two! If it isn’t sex it’s sur-realism with that punk. I’ll murder the next person who gives my reporters books! Just wait until I get my hands on that bibliophile!”
This type of dialog never wanes. Characters swear, something not that prevalent in 30s crime novels. “Where is that sonofabitch?” from the editor took me a bit back. So did the explicit nudity, again, something a writer would allude to, but not describe in a mainstream novel.
The characters tend to be large cliches–the singer, a rather laid back ladies man; Warlock’s ex-wife, a loud, demanding floozy with a killer body,  Professor Ott, a lying larger than life player in pictures; a sociopath former ally to the Nazis whose torture techniques foreshadow the dentistry used on Dustin Hoffman–the sociopath is dressed as a woman, wig, lipstick, the entire deal. Another unusual feature for such an early mystery–and various nasty stereotypes–particularly of gay men.
And  there are soooo many. Character after character pop up, and sometimes out, that I had trouble keeping track, probably because the plot wasn’t making any sense to me. There’s the murder, love letters, dope rings, ritzy sanitariums to dry out, a tough murderous wife of a successful businessman appearing from nowhere with a gun, Ott’s chauffeur uttering his last words, a dentist blown up–or–was he stabbed to death first, the rigged x-ray set up to kill Warlock?, and if so, then how could the dentist still be alive, which is indicated, if  already stabbed to death, and his entire insides torn out via the bomb? This discrepancy was never addressed. Or maybe I couldn’t navigate through the excited prose at that point!
I suppose you could say the plot moves at a quick pace, if you could figure out the plot. Whatever is happening in the book, it does seem to rush about a bit. The murderer is revealed, and if you were staying awake during the entire book, you probably were disappointed. You could have taken a nap, because the obvious suspect is shown at the beginning, and ends up being the obvious suspect. At any rate, the following are some choice selections from the book-enjoy them like a big Chinese meal, they will satisfy at first, until upon second glance, the gilded prose perched prettily within paragraphs may begin to dim. See?!! It’s got me doing it!
Choice selections!
****“We got off into a stainless steel hall designed by a Ouija board lover. Puce drapes broke the creme de menthe walls on which at regular spaces hung a few Freudian virgins and some low spirited complexes by Picasso.
****“Ira ordered the Jap boy to bring in some drinks.” (just one of many current no-nos)
****“The morose sea drove its waves across the sands with a porcine grunt, and the with wet guile  drew back, and again came in on the bone-white strands for another white-capped heave. A flagellant breeze disheveled us,  and I ducked my neck into my topcoat.”
****“Monk, the bucktoothed copy boy, put his yellow head in the door and calmly picked his nose. His father was a grave digger, his mother read teacups. Monk collected Garbo stills.”
****“He puffed out his cheeks like one of the little pigs and roared”
****“With a snarl of brakes we bounced to to a stop before the terra cotta and birthday cake palace, that was Ott’s Climax, “The Cathedral of Certified Cinema.”
****“I’m sorry Gussie–I couldn’t get away.”
“I bet you had a good excuse”
“The best,” I said, watching a little praying mantis of a man do a sword swallowing routine over a pot of beans. . . .
“A fine how-do-you–do!” yelled Gussie, throwing a Mongoloid-looking pudding at the praying mantis’ elbow.
****“Sutton Place rested in a plutocratic calm. A few high priced dogs worked at their promiscuity against perpendicular objects, and scattered up and down the street stood cars of dark, heavy respectability.”
****“A light rain began to fall, and the streets mushroomed forth into a toad-stool paradise of umbrellas.”
****“It all ties up like a package of homemade fudge.”
****“Some shots answered him.
“They were close. I could feel the last few combing my hair.”
****“It was a grotesque and strange allegory. There I was minding my own business, when a dapple flanked centaur came into my catalepsy and pursued me with a tommy gun. Two garroters, preposterous dopes of arabesque abnormalities, kept trying to twist lengths of rubber-covered wire around my neck.”
****“It would take a nosy etymologist with a dozen bloodhounds to find DuBarry’s. To the stranger, its outside is masked with the physique of a run down cigar store and pulp magazine stand. . . .In an exterminator’s case rest three aged boxes of cigars, fighting a losing battle with mold and claustrophobia. Spiders are busy as hell, printing unlimited editions of their etchings in cosy nooks.”
****“It was a smoke they brought in. Picked him up in Harlem. Had been conked over the head with a bottle. Well, Doc had just finished slitting this dark baby open, and was lifting out an armful of cogs, when the  big dinge sits up and begins to sing. Doc went right through the window, and we didn’t see again for a week. The tar baby got up off the table and started running around and holding himself together.”
“What happened to the coon?”
“We called in an interne who sorted him out and stitched him together. He was fine after that. We kept him as a porter and use him as Exhibit A for visiting firemen.” (Haggard doesn’t discriminate–he flames the Irish, Jewish people, Italians, basically everyone–but this is the harshest example in the book)****
****“Fat men, thin men, choir boys, bar-flies, thespians, and zaftig chippies filled every nook.. . .
Three minor playwrights mistook me for a producer and tried to palaver me into an interest in their violets. . . .Let’s get our business over with and duck this mess of ballet girls, Anglophiles and tycoons.. . . .Two interior designers swished by in disgust.”
****” You get scared as a high school virgin at her first Charlie Chan picture.” (let me know if you figure out what that means.)
****“I bet she just wanted you as a brother” Warlock said.
“If you incest,” I said, but he missed the gag and I let it lay.
****“Mike was sitting at the round table, under a chaos of rhododendrons and andromedas, in a Ming vase of the Woolworth dynasty.”
****In the hallway stood Hal North and a tall blond nance. Both held heavy 44 automatics in their hands. North clicked the Yale lock closed, and the fag said in a cold, high woman’s voice,
“Reach. The first rube that makes a move gets this roscoe in his guts.”
He tiptoed over on his high heels and took Mike’s gun off the desk.
“This is no drag,” said Mike.
“Let me introduce you to Captain Angel,” North said.
The swish narrowed his eyes and drew the lipsticked mouth into a cruel thin line. He had a rep as a fey gunman who followed any order he was paid for.
North looked doped to the ears. We knew better than to anger anyone loaded with “nose candy.” (another explicit reference not usually seen)
Captain Angel yawned and leaned against the fireplace, his long face, thin nose and cobalt blue eyes wrapped in ennui. He licked his over red lips and gave a smile that was a ‘case curiosa.’
“I will now tattoo on your face in my best handwriting a few common four letter words that one rarely sees in print. Starting on your forehead I will begin with the worst word I can think of. My art work will please you. I am an impressionist. I work with dots. Seurat would have admired my pointillism; if not my bad taste  in words.
Captain Angel dipped his tool into the ink and held it over Mike.
“Now for our phallic anecdotes.”****
****Hilton’s private sanitarium was a three story brownstone house hiding between two towering apartment ant-hills of saccharine design.
To the unknowing it might have looked like the quiet residence of an old New York family. But to the wise mob of drunks, hop-heads and flamboyant slatterns of both sexes, it was a sanctuary and first-aid station.  In Hilton’s electric cabinets, steam baths, needle showers, and sun booths, the elect were tried and found wanton.”
****“As we rolled downtown. the streets grew dirtier and gayer. Fifkin’s naborhood was an aphrodisiac of sensual razzle dazzle. Movies, pin games and cheap stories, with sidewalk pullers-in filled it to the gutter.
Fifkin’s–Glory Burlesk Palace–50 Girls–50 Girls–As You Like Them–50 Girls–50
The billboards and front of the garish theatre were covered with rococo dryads and gaudy chippies.
It was early, but the happy hooligan debauchees, and the flop-house bacchanal habitues, were already forming a long line of phlegmatic art lovers before the box office. Mike and I pushed our way through the waiting delivery-boy satyrs and unemployed glandular paladins. I pointed to a huge colored poster of a nude danseuse shaking her architecture at a group of admiring primates.
A tall thin man with yellow skin and the face of Dante’s in Purgatory sat behind a desk reading Billboard. His finger rings were still on the gold standard.”****
****It was no night for diabolical manipulations. A warm wind ran through the streets and the moon was a blurred lithograph among a nebulous coiffure of clouds. Just off Sutton Place an organ grinder sprayed “Rigoletto” over the streets, and all the little bookshops I passed were doing a steady business in browsers and bibliomaniacs. “
****“Who calls those strumpets with a printing press a business? Moronic moujiks goosing the public! Tawdry depravity, jammed down the gullet of subway riding, sub-normal Bronx mandarins. To hell with the whole purple obscenity that calls itself the newspaper business.”
****“Nellie’s cooking is going into a decline and has reached a new squalid level in singed steak carnage and casserole  autopsies. I’m thinking of giving them a stomach pump on their wedding anniversary.”
****And finally, the reason  for the title?  “The back lock was broken, and only a large nail kept the back door closed. The murderer entered by bending the nail  back, and pushed it back when he left. There’s nothing deader than a door nail.”
I do wish I could find the other three at reasonable prices–I don’t doubt they contain more of the insane!
To see Stephen Longstreet’s website:
Dust jacket of Dead is the Door-nail is from :



4 thoughts on “Dead Is The Door-Nail”

  1. Good lord, that made my brain explode. Great find, Diane, the entire book is a head-banging example of purple prose!

    • Nancy! Hilarious right! There is another author who has a rep as being worse–I’ve not yet been able to navigate a book of his, lol. But when I do, I’ll write about it. Keeler–that’s the name to remember!

  2. It’s all tongue in cheek, I think. Longstreet wrote these in the same vein as Michael Avallone — never to be taken too seriously. Though maybe some personal biases crept into both men’s writing, the homophobic passages particularly. Avallone was not a fan of pretty (or “too handsome”) gay men, that’s for sure.

    I was going to review Haggard’s DEATHS WALKS ON CAT FEET later this year. It may go to the top of the pile and get done this month now after reading your enticing review. Thanks for reviving this unique writer, Diane.

    I’m not a fan of nasty gay stereotypes either. Ellery Queen’s books are littered with them – both gay and lesbian clichés. Ugh! If I find any in the Haggard book I own I will be unforgiving in my review.

    • John! Oh, where did you get a copy of Death –Cat Feet?? I want one, whah!!!
      I’m not as sure he’s writing tongue in cheek, but if so, it’s over the top, even for that, lol lol.

      Yes, stereotypes are difficult to see in older lit, but I keep reminding myself of how society dealt with ethnic and sexuality back then, and use it as a lesson as to how far we’ve come. I’d never dream of trying to excise the portions of a book that is hateful–better to see how much better off we are now.

      I can’t wait for your review–I think you can link things here–please do so we all can read it!

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