Although he won an Edgar Award for his crime fiction in 1972, Frank McAuliffe never became a household name. He was, and is, loved and admired by a small but devoted cult of readers, and his out-of-print paperback volumes can command impressive prices on eBay. But his protagonist, professional assassin and master of disguise Augustus Mandrell, who debuted in 1965 with McAuliffe’s Of All the Bloody Cheek (published in French as Un Sacre Culot!), never got his big time movie franchise, never joined the pantheon of iconic antiheroes like James Bond or Mike Hammer.
Wherever the fault for this may lie, it certainly doesn’t lie with any shortcomings in the writing. McAuliffe was a much better prose stylist than Ian Fleming or Mickey Spillane. His Mandrell, an Englishman, narrates his adventures in the first person, in a sophisticated tone of droll, urbane understatement, seasoned now and then with a chilly riff, as in:
“…I slapped the wide strips of adhesive across his mouth—sealing man’s great portal; capping the distorter of history; the majestic tunnel; the lair of the foolish serpent; the cave of winds, brilliant by the instant, foul by the century.”
Like many readers, I was startled to learn that McAuliffe, who died in 1986, was not a Brit, but an Irish-American from New York who wrote his books as a sideline to his day job as a civilian technical writer for the U.S. Navy. By email from her home in Idaho, McAuliffe’s daughter Liz Gollen disabused me of my suspicion that he must at least have been a world traveler, since Mandrell’s “commissions” take him from Liverpool to the South of France to Iran.
“…Believe it or not, he did not travel to Europe at all… I really don’t know how my father knew so much about World War II and all the political unrest associated with it other than he read Time Magazine religiously and watched Walter Cronkite and the news. I never saw him poring over history books or anything of the sort. He was just a very intelligent man… and a lot of fun to live with.”
A lot of fun to read, too. The time is overdue for a serious revival of interest in McAuliffe’s work. Of All the Bloody Cheek was reprinted by Point Blank in 2006. Set in and around the WWII era, the book is formatted as a series of four “commissions,” each an account of another murder plot against some unlikable victim—a Vichy officer or a shady doctor or an Iranian cult fanatic—with its attendant twists and complications. Really a quartet of discrete short stories linked by recurring characters and gags, it’s a wryly amoral gem, an unacknowledged minor classic of American knavery.
It’s also, possibly, a parody of, as well as an indulgence in, highflown English literary style. In the preface, Mandrell explains that:
“Being entirely self-educated, I have managed to retain a rich enjoyment of the colorful circumlocutions of the English language, even while rejecting its impossible syntax and grammar… Rules are for the trammeled—Mandrell makes his own. A language is meant to be used fully—for pleasure, comment, communication, even for profit.”
This puffery may in part have been intended as nationalistic satire of the English—notes daughter Gollen, “Many people thought my dad was English, something my mother scoffed at, as both my parents were 100 percent Irish!” But it’s also reasonable to guess that McAuliffe may have been speaking for himself through his protagonist in that defiant passage, and warning us that if this isn’t how we like our prose, we should look elsewhere.
Mandrell’s claim that he was self-educated, at least, appears to have had a parallel in his author’s life. According to Gollen,
“He graduated high school in the Bronx, New York. I think he had a little college, not much, in Terre Haute, Indiana (his parents moved there from the Bronx and I heard Dad travelled by freight train back to the Bronx to visit family and friends). He also took a creative writing class after he married my mother which I think was very influential. I heard my Dad was a very shy guy that always had his head in a book. (That all changed!)”
Gollen’s recollections suggest that her father ultimately came to share his creation’s fastidiousness:
“My father almost always wore a suit and tie. He hated to get his hands dirty. His father had been a mechanics teacher at the state pen in Terre Haute, Indiana. My father knew how to fix anything mechanical but he refused to get dirt under his fingernails. We all learned the workings of the internal combustion engine.”
…as well as Mandrell’s flair for the macabre:
“We were subjected, as kids, to dad’s constant home movie-making. Not the normal “special events” kind of movie but one with plots that he wrote out. Usually they were murder mysteries where invariably the baby (whomever that happened to be in the populating process) ended up with the murder weapon in hand and the motive being confiscating all the beer the adults involved could conjure up…”
…and his disregard for official institutions:
“My dad wrote his books out in the station wagon in the parking lot of Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church while Mom marched all seven of us into church every Sunday.”
“If I were to guess, my dad was Mandrell. His quick wit and savvy about political affairs and his appreciation of women were all a part of him as a man.”
McAuliffe uses Mandrell’s lofty tone to fine, if often rather grim, comic effect, softening his violence and atrocities with genteel, polite euphemism. He even captures the heavy-handed way that Brit authors tend to caricature Yanks. His Mandrell sometimes takes a wounded tone over the horrors with whom he is—he insists—falsely associated. In one book, for instance, Mandrell disavows any involvement in the assassination of Trotsky, citing the coarseness and crudity of the modus operandi as proof.
The subsequent Mandrell volumes, Rather a Vicious Gentlemen (1968) and For Murder I Charge More (Edgar winner in 1972 for Best Paperback Original), are to some extent more of the same, each consisting of four “commissions.” The stories here tend increasingly toward caricature and farce, however, not to mention further outrages in sexual politics and other matters of political correctness (crime fiction, indeed popular fiction in general, from the ‘60s and ‘70s can be hard to enjoy without a fairly high tolerance in this regard. It seems more unsavory than grotesque pulp worldviews from the ‘30s and earlier—we somehow expect later authors to know better).
The later collections also become more densely self-referential in their linkages to the earlier stories. It’s really only by way of this device that these books can even nominally be called novels. It’s also how For Murder I Charge More can carry the implication that the leader of the Third Reich may have survived the War and ended up a manager in… Oh, never mind. Read for yourself.
There was at least one other Mandrell adventure, “The Maltese Falcon Commission,” an homage to two favorite influences of McAuliffe’s. “He really admired Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett,” recalls Gollen. This tale, which inserted Mandrell amongst characters and situations from both of his idols’ stories, was anthologized in a hardcover collection called Men and Malice from 1973.
2010 marked the long-belated publication, by The Outfit, of a fourth Mandrell volume, Shoot the President, Are You Mad? Even by McAuliffe’s standards, this tale of the antihero’s involvement in a Presidential assassination plot is an exceedingly odd little book. The only one of the extant Mandrell stories that’s a sustained novel-length narrative, it’s peopled with the likes of luscious opera divas and right-wing reactionaries that wouldn’t seem out of place at a Tea Party rally. It’s even more overtly farcical than the other stories in the series, with Mandrell’s disguises proving as impenetrable as those of a Shakespearean heroine. It might almost be titled Carry On Assassinating.
Shoot the President, Are You Mad? was completed by McAuliffe in 1975, but rejected by Ballantine, supposedly on the grounds that the country still hadn’t healed from the JFK assassination twelve years earlier. In fairness, this is about the same distance that we now have from the 9/11 attacks, and one can imagine that a manuscript which told the story of a terrorist plot against New York City in a jolly, facetious tone, and from the terrorist’s point of view, might still give a publisher pause. In any case, it certainly has its trenchant moments, as when Mandrell remarks:
“While the Americans are indeed a vindictive people they are also an easily distracted lot. The fluctuations in the baseball world or the peccadilloes of some Hollywood personality will shortly absorb their thirst for blood.”
These works are bookended, at the front and back of McAuliffe’s fiction career, by non-Mandrell novels, one western and one contemporary gangster thriller. His horse opera Hot Town was published in 1956, attributed to “Frank Malachy,” by that imprint rather touchingly named Permabooks—my edition fell apart, page by page, as I read it.
Hot Town features a loner hero, Walker Coombs, the agent of powerful interests but also his own man. Coombs arrives in a comprehensively corrupt Texas town and tangles with factions ranging from a brutal sheriff to a Napoleonic Mexican bandit with an eye to conquest of his native country to a beautiful young madam to a beautiful young horse rancher—who, as promised by the vivid cover, at one point lashes our hero as he’s tied to a fence.
It’s a pretty good yarn—a bit overplotted, maybe, but intelligently written, with noir tendencies; it owes more, probably, to Red Harvest than to Zane Grey. Liz Gollen offers some insight into her father’s approach to the western:
“I read in some notes that he realized westerns were the hot genre. He knew he had to have something that stood out. He noticed that not many, if any, had been written in first person. So that’s what he did and it paid off.”
The first person allowed for an unusual degree of introspection. It’s doubtful that many purchasers of lurid pulp westerns were expecting such reflective passages as:
“I knew she was strong. And I hoped she was very strong, because the aches in my body rested only when splashed with the soft-oil thought of revenge. And revenge against a weak person is only senseless, flavorless cruelty.”
“There is something about the first few seconds of rubbing your arms around a half-dressed woman that answers a couple of life’s tough idle questions. The lonely-moment questions like, What am I kicking around in the world for? What are any of us doing here?”
“He had accepted death’s gift to the living—contemplation of life’s shortness and the senselessness of most of our daily actions; and a defeated counting of the number of years under our skins.”
In 1979 McAuliffe’s swansong, The Bag Man, was published by Zebra Books. Written in short, punchy, poorly-punctuated sentences (and sentence fragments), this gangster tale centers on Cord—a short version of his nickname, “Cordite”—a freelance money courier for a New Jersey mob Don. While Cord is in the middle of transporting, and laundering, a couple of million dollars in cash by airline, the Don is deposed by his own brutal goons, who then find Cord uncooperative when it comes to returning the loot.
Though briskly readable and not without flashes of wit, The Bag Man is the least of McAuliffe’s published works. The prose suggests hasty composition, and displays little of the polish and florid playfulness found in the Mandrell stories, or even Hot Town. Gollen’s memories of the book suggest a reason for this: “Dad told me he wrote The Bag Man for money.” (“Seven kids!” she adds.)
The Bag Man is, however, the most classically noir in terms of structure and content, and it has the signature McAuliffe characteristic—the protagonist of mysterious identity, plying his shady expertise outside the system. It even includes a scene in which a man (not the hero this time) is tied up and lashed.
All of these works taken together form a peculiar and mostly obscure little canon (at this writing, McAuliffe doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry). It’s possible that the Mandrell stories had some influence on the tongue-in-cheek sagas of Trevanian—another American who came across like a Brit—but this is strictly speculation. McAuliffe’s strong wish, according to his daughter, to break into movies and TV remained unfulfilled, and his books have stubbornly remained cult curios. “All I know is that Dad did not get rich as a writer,” notes Gollen.
It may be too late for him to get rich, but I would argue that it’s past time for him to get famous. McAuliffe deserves recognition as a master of noir comedy, if only because, like a journeyman noirist, he dwelt, right down to his award, almost entirely in the realm of the paperback original. And original he certainly was. Let’s let his daughter have the last word:
“My dad was the most intelligent man I have ever met and for the life of me I don’t know where it all came from. He was first generation American from Irish immigrants, so maybe the genetic pool of writers, storytellers and survivalists ran pure in him. I adored my dad.”