Hugh Pentecost's John Jericho Series: Flawed but still fun

an essay by Ed Lynskey

I cut my teeth on adult crime fiction by reading the half-dozen John Jericho novels. Being a sentimental softie, this many years later, I decided to revisit Mr. Jericho. Naturally, a thirteen-year-old’s reaction is different to an adult’s. Indeed, contemporary commentators have cited plot lapses and Pentecost’s tendency to over-moralize among other flaws in the series. And yet, the tall, rugged, red-bearded John Jericho (6-6, 240-lbs.) still cuts a striking figure. The author’s crisp prose style, believable dialogue, and intelligent pacing also combine to make the books a fun read.

Hugh PentecostHugh Pentecost was the best-known penname adopted by Judson Pentecost Philips (He also wrote under Philip Owen). J. Randolph Cox has pointed out Pentecost wrote the detective fiction and Philips produced suspense novels. Philips was born on August 10, 1903 and died on March 8, 1989. Educated in London, he graduated from Columbia University in 1925.

Philips’ first book, co-written with Robert W. Wood, Jr., was titled Hold 'Em, Girls! The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Men and Football (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1936). As a number of hardcover authors including Bart Spicer and William P. McGivern, Philips launched his crime fiction career by winning Dodd, Mead’s Red Badge Mystery prize (1939, Cancelled in Red using a philatelic theme and starring Luke Bradley). Philips also wrote for TV (Ray Milland Show, Studio One) and the movies (Warner Brothers).

Philips’ writing output was prodigious. He wrote almost a hundred novels. Early work appeared in such pulps as Argosy, Flynn’s, and Detective Fiction Weekly. He also wrote for larger circulation periodicals such as Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, Colliers, and Cosmopolitan. Philips was a founder and president (1947) of Mystery Writers of America. In 1973, along with Alfred Hitchcock, he received MWA’s Grand Master Award. The real Hugh Pentecost was a great uncle of Philips who was a colorful trial lawyer practicing in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century.

The John Jericho series was an author favorite. Other recurring characters in the Philips/Pentecost oeuvre included Uncle George Crowder, Luke Bradley, Pierre Chambrun, Julian Quist, Grant Simon, Dr, John Smith, and Peter Styles. Philips’ fondness for fictional characters is understandable. He had an inexhaustible supply of them. Philips said, "I once used to claim a deduction on my income tax for ‘saloon talk,’ explaining in a note that people were the source of my income and that I had to go where they were and listen to them. The IRS approved but insisted that I call it ‘research.’ The name of the game is people, and they are endlessly rewarding, never uninteresting, and where everything begins and ends."

Sniper (1965) kicked off the John Jericho novels in grand style. Noteworthy, this narrative is told in third-person point of view and not seen through the eyes of Arthur Hallam as the subsequent novels are. The series’ strengths and weaknesses gleam through from the start. Foremost, plot is a little shaky. A minor character who stutters then suddenly stops seems obtrusive. On the other hand, Jericho as the epic protagonist ("some ancient Viking warrior") virtually leaps off the page. In Korea, we learn, Jericho led Marine commandos. His bold presence propels the novel’s jaunty pace and expresses its indignant outrage. The main plot was adapted from the true story of a New England headmaster who was gunned down. Pentecost would continue to rip many future Jericho stories from the headlines.

Jericho comes to the aid of a troubled, affluent family. Fredric George Pelham, Sr., the patriarch and solicitous minister, unexpectedly inherits a large sum of money. He uses the windfall to establish a boys academy. A sniper then plugs him between the eyes. For ten years, no arrests are made in Pelham’s homicide. Everybody in the Pelham family suffers from smothering guilt and paralyzing doubt. The love interest Jericho hooks is one of the daughters, Louise Pelham.

Jericho in the self-proclaimed role of a social crusader is a little hard to swallow. We learn he has been below the Mason-Dixon Line (this is during the Civil Rights era) to paint "a Negro with a tortured, fear-twisted face." Jericho’s patronizing attitudes toward women strike a false if not quaint note. Yet, John D. MacDonald’s knight-errant Travis McGee and the men in some of the Charles Williams Gold Medal books take the same stance. It was a different time and different attitudes prevailed.

Critic Anthony Boucher writing in the New York Times Book Review gave Sniper a thumbs up: "Nice portrait-painting by Mr. Pentecost of the many-faceted dead man who is still more alive than his descendents, and a pretty sequence of twists in the solution." Jacques Barzun commented that Jericho was a "better psychologist than he is a detective but his stature as man and artist comes through very well." Best Seller applauded the debut book as "a well-sustained, suspense novel." Marv Lachman rightfully contends this inaugural novel is the best in the series.

Hide Her From Every EyeHide Her From Every Eye (1966) came out as book two. John Jericho leaves his studio in Greenwich Village and rents a house in the Berkshire foothills of Cromwell, Connecticut, "to paint placid landscapes." True to form, he gets little or no painting done. Instead he arrives in his "fire-engine Mercedes" and almost sideswipes a drunken lady sprawled out in the storm-blasted road. She is Marcia Potter. Jericho runs her home, tucks her into bed, and falls asleep in front of her crackling fire.

The next morning a hungover Marcia tells a sad saga about her eight-year-old son Tommy drowning in a local lake while she had been passed out. Or had Tommy really drowned? Right off Jericho suspects foul play. His investigation exposes the grubby side of the idyllic New England hamlet. Marcia’s husband, the local prosecutor, a judge, a town physician, and a state trooper form a shadowy cabal shielding an ugly secret. A young man in a wheelchair may become an ally. By page 106, Jericho calls in his Watson, Arthur Hallam, to help bring things to a full boil. A second murder further incriminates Marcia and but also steels Jericho’s resolve to save her.

A better-than-average entry, Hide benefits most from an adventuresome plot, a full array of despicable bad guys, and a passionate hero. Jericho and Hallam in rural New England away from home in New York City are fishes out of the water which adds to their charm. High mark must also go to the creation of a vibrant setting and effective dialogue. However, Marv Lachman correctly points out, "Jericho’s involvement in crimes is more difficult to believe than in most series because with disturbing frequency he comes upon a crime while driving or when one of his ex-lovers has called to ask for his help."

The novel’s other less-than-successful facet is Jericho’s professions of outrage at social injustices. Looking at the state trooper, he thinks, "He’d seen the type in many places: in Selma, Alabama, for instance, where they’d been armed with clubs, and tire chains, and tear-gas bombs as well as guns." No doubt such inflammatory passages rooted the narrative to the chaotic 1960s and were used to gain reader empathy. Perhaps a flashback showing us this turmoil might be more satisfying. Also, Marcia Potter portrayal as a lady lush seems a bit wooden. Jacques Barzun found the "detection minimal" and the "ending somewhat forced" but the New England setting as "pleasant."

The Creeping Hours (1966) was the third novel. Again the narrative is told through the first-person voice of friend Arthur "Hally" Hallam, "author of Kafkaesque novels." By now, Hallam relating long passages of Jericho’s story as secondhand can be a bit jarring. (The reader is frequently reminded how Jericho later related his yarn to Hallam, including his thoughts.) This time Jericho assists a fellow artist, Tommy Nolan, who allegedly died of a suicide. Pat Barry, Nolan’s lover and confidante, phones Hallam to ask Jericho for help. Of course, they suspect murder, not suicide, is what did in Tommy Nolan.

Zelda (Zelda Fitzgerald?) Rankin is a singer/actress ("in a class with Streisand and Lena Horne") under contract to make an hour TV special for a big cosmetics corporation. Nolan’s paintings are part of the set design. This upsets Pat Barry, then in turn Jericho. The artist is reduced to crass commercialism. The sordid side of TV productions comes into play. Predictably, Barry and Jericho become lovers for physical as well as spiritual reasons.

The main villain Jericho focuses his energies on exposing as a killer is Don Ferrick, Zelda’s sadistic bodyguard. Also a person of interest is Zelda’s alcoholic, paranoid husband, Perry Lewis. Along with their entourage of hangers-on and wannabes, Zelda and Perry party in a cavernous building in New York City called "Hell Hole." Such decadence vexes Jericho and Hallam who are more into hot jazz than this new rock-and-roll group, The Beatles.

Judgement falls harshest on the "longhairs" wearing "cuckie clothes" who make up Don Ferrick’s hip clique. They seem hedonistic and self-destructive as they are violent and bizarre. At one point, Jericho alone takes on a score of them who attack in brute force. Two who are picked up and questioned by the police call themselves "Herman Melville" and "Charles Dickens." The humor typically found in the Jericho vehicles is dry and almost incidental.

Jericho and Hallam (i.e., Pentecost) don’t understand or particularly like this new generation. Their disdain comes through clearly. Critical reactions to The Creeping Hours came from the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Giant Jericho, artist and free spirit, discovers he’s a square when he tangles with sadism and murder. Strangely moving." The Los Angeles Times touted this Jericho novel as "a top-notch thriller."

If the litmus test for a sympathetic protagonist is whether you’d pick John Jericho to go with you down a dark alley, then he passes hands down. Again, Jericho’s compassionate, quixotic, and charismatic personality transforms him into a likeable tough guy. The reader feels drawn into the scenes. You’d enjoy sitting at Zirato’s as Jericho downs his shot of bourbon on the rocks with a lime twist or smokes his curved, black-stem pipe. As one interesting sidebar, Hallam admits his fondness for old pulpsters, "I used to devour by the yard the works of people like Fred MacIssac, Judson Philips [the author himself], Erle Stanley Gardner, H. Bedford-Jones and dozens of others."

The fourth entry was titled Dead Woman of the Year (1967). Again Arthur Hallam narrates the yarn and Lt. Pascal, a yet another series character (Lieutenant Pascal’s Tastes in Homicides, 1954), appears as the cop friend. Structurally, the novel adopts the same three-act (Part I, Part II, Part III) presentation. The heroine is Lydia Trask, a glamorous career lady ("She was as much photographed as a Sophia Loren or a Julie Christie."). A stand-in, lookalike model is attacked and killed by acid thrown in her face. Jericho believes the attack was intended for Lydia and sets out to thwart her enemy.

In a telling moment, Hallam in this novel reveals something of Jericho’s artist/warrior dual nature: "Jericho is, deep down, an emotional person. He gives a vivid expression of his feelings through his painting. But he has, under ordinary conditions, the capacity to throw a switch on his feelings and deal coldly and rationally with facts." Again however, Jericho finds precious little time for his painting, the profession that pays his bills.

The critical reception for Dead Woman was a positive one. Chicago Tribune called it "fast and virtually unguessable." Publishers Weekly said, "A whodunit for readers who like them both urbane and romantic." Anthony Boucher at The New York Times weighed in with warm praise, "Nice integration of puzzle, love story and exceedingly tight 12-hour action combine to create a model of the straightforward whodunit."

Girl with six fingersNumber Five was the oddly titled The Girl With Six Fingers (1969). This John Jericho title sticks out in my mind from my boyhood perusing. A band of hippies travel from New York City to the small town of Glenview in upstate New York. They stage a "Happening" on a country estate involving LSD, drums, and the gaudy body painting of artist-model Linda Williams ("A stark-naked, scarlet-green-purple Linda."). Local rowdies bust in and break up the psychedelic gala. Linda turns up missing and her boyfriend Mike Bradshaw seeks John Jericho’s help to locate her. Jericho’s sidekick/narrator Hallam shows on the scene.

Not surprisingly, this book notched its share of solid reviews. Library Journal raved, "Plenty of action, hard to put down." Best Sellers stated, "Big John is given a hostile reception and, later on, a working-over when he uncovers some dirty laundry among the gentry of staid Glenview; but he wins out in a surprising finish."

At the same time, Times Literary Supplement summed up the book’s shortcomings. "One doesn’t want to carp, but the trouble with Hugh Pentecost, as with his alter-ego Judson Philips, is too much morality for a story-teller’s good. His not-at-all-bad novels are overloaded with protest against violent America. This apart, the current books is about one of those terrorized townships now ostensibly for law and order but actually darker doings: and everyone’s out of moral step but our hero."

The last of the half-dozen novels, A Plague of Violence (1970), involves a sniper in its plot as the first book did. Also like in the debut novel, Plague uses a third person point of view without the presence of Arthur Hallam or Lieutenant Pascal. This reason, among others, rates this title as the second strongest in the series. Jericho first attends a fund-raising event for the New England Creative Arts Foundation at an estate in Connecticut. Alex Bowman, Jericho’s host, worries about his wife Liz ("rich as God") after the sniper strikes. Thrown into this mix is a colorful entourage including Tanya Zarkova (ballerina), Eric Trail (actor), and Martin Lomax (director).

As an aside, Judson Philips certainly had the milieu down for writing this book. He established a summer theater, Sharon Playhouse, in 1951 in Sharon, Connecticut which he managed until 1977. (The same playhouse is still in operation today, albeit on a shoestring budget.) He married the actress Norma Burton. His father Arthur was an opera singer and his mother Fredericko also an actress.

Jericho reports the sniper attack to the state police. The cops and local townspeople have the perfect excuse to descend on the commune. Sides are drawn. Violence ensues, including murders. Again, Jericho abhors and rejects violence and yet it follows him everywhere.

In his NYTBR piece, Thomas Lask commented on this aspect: "Nothing in the book is as good as the troopers’ iron-fisted entrance to the commune and the communards equally savage response. There is no distance then between the reader and the events, and private concerns are swept away by the force of this all consuming social violence."

Presumably Dodd, Mead found the Jericho series sales figures too tepid to offer further book contracts. (The Hallam narrator used in the middle books couldn’t have helped the series. Furthermore no explanation is offered about poor Hallam’s fate.) Hugh Pentecost however managed to keep the John Jericho character perking after the novels stopped. Frederic Dannay, founder and editor Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (1941-1982), was a big fan of the Jericho character. EQMM published John Jericho short stories through the 1970s up into the late 1980s. Anthologies in the 1990s featured Jericho stories.

Marv Lachman has observed how the Jericho short stories drew heavily upon newspaper headlines for their source material. Philips once said his approach was "to write stores that fit into the current climate." Jacques Barzun notes one tale ("Jericho and the Dying Clue") is "compact" and "solid" which might well describe the entire corpus of Jericho short stories. Ed Hoch has described the Jericho stories as "certainly good." Marv Lachman cites "Jericho and the Silent Witnesses" as one of the more accomplished stories. Crippen & Landru will bring out a collection of these short fictions in Summer 2005, an eagerly awaited event.

In conclusion, the John Jericho projects -- robust though not without their flaws -- offer an entertaining rediscovery. However, an adult reader certainly brings a different perspective than, say, a teen-ager’s impressionable enthusiasms. Yet, I’ll always fondly remember reading under the shade of a big pin oak about the larger-than-life, red-bearded Viking crusader-artist and his adventures. Youthful summers and good books stay that fresh in the mind.

Marv Lachman sadly notes, "What is distressing is how forgotten he [Philips] is now, though he has only been dead 15 years." Any interest for reprints in the Jericho series will probably fall on the first (Sniper) and last (A Plague of Violence) titles. Other Pentecost series characters such as Pierre Chambrun (the clever manager of the Hotel Beaumont) and Julian Quist (the stylish PR man) probably merit more serious consideration for a second life in print.

Writer Ed Gorman eloquently reminiscences about one reader’s experience with John Jericho. "For much longer than should have been legal, my guiltiest pleasure was the work of Hugh Pentecost under his various names. Part of my fascination with his books was his idyllic presentation of New England, my favorite part of the country though I've never been there.

"The second part of my fascination was picking up on the way he plotted mysteries which, in my teen years, seemed pretty cool if rather transparent. But even then, as my reading of all those Gold Medals showed me, he was pretty old-fashioned in the way he did things.

"I tried reading a Jericho in my early thirties and was shocked to find how bad it was in every respect. Frederick C. Davis, an uneven pulpster and friend of Pentecost, has been treated much more gently by time. Old-fashioned, yes, but redeemed by the fact that his people, if not his plots, hold to reality."

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Copyright © 2005 Ed Lynskey

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Ed Gorman, Marv Lachman, and Ed Hoch for sharing their insights and assistance.

Bibliography

Barzun, Jacques and Wendell Hertiz Taylor, editors. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Book Review Digest. Bronx, NY: H. W. Wilson Company. 1965, 1969.

Cantwell, Barbara Kirwin. "A Rose By Any Other Name." SBC Knowledge Ventures. http://www.snet.net/features/issues/articles/2002/02150101.shtml

Contemporary Authors. Vols. 89-92. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Contento, William G. Mystery Short Fiction: 1990-2003 An Index to Mystery Magazines, Anthologies, and Single-Author Collections. http://users.ev1.net/~homeville/msf/0start.htm#TOC

CyberSpace Spinner. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine: Fiction Index. http://www.hycyber.com/MYST/EQ_pa.html

Green, Joseph and Jim Finch. Sleuths, Sidekicks, and Stooges. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1997.

Grost, Michael E. "Hugh Pentecost." A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection. http://members.aol.com/MG4273/classics.html.

Hayden, Robert and Lawson Carter, editors. How I Write (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972). "The Short Story" by Judson Philips.

Henriksson, Christian and Thomas M. Johnson. Hugh Pentecost/Judson Philips/Philip Owen Bibliography. http://hem.passagen.se/orange/pente.htm.

Herbert, Rosemary, editor. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. "Hugh Pentecost" by J. Randolph Cox.

Internet Book List. http://www.iblist.com/book9952.htm

Lask, Thomas. "Whodunit Has Dun It Again." New York Times Book Review. November 21, 1970. 29-2.

Reiley, John M., editor. Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers. 2nd Edition. NY: St. Martin’s, 1980. "Hugh Pentecost" by Marvin Lachman.

U.S. Social Security Death Index. Available at various genealogical web sites.

Williams, Sidney. John Jericho. The Thrilling Detective web site. http://www.thrillingdetective.com/eyes/jericho.html

Zeman, Barry and Angela. "Mystery Writers of America: A Historical Survey." MWA web site. http://www.mysterywriters.org/pages/about/history.htm.

John Jericho Series Bibliography

NOVELS

Sniper (Dodd, Mead, 1965/ Boardman 1966)

Hide Her From Every Eye (Dodd, Mead, 1966/Boardman, 1966)

The Creeping Hours (Dodd, Mead, 1966/Boardman, 1977)

Dead Woman of the Year (Dodd, Mead, 1967/Macdonald, 1968)

The Girl With Six Fingers (Dodd, Mead, 1969/Bollancz, 1970)

A Plague of Violence (Dodd, Mead, 1970/Hale, 1972)

Four titles reprinted by Grove Press Zebra Series in 1974.

SHORT STORIES (First appearance cited where known.)

* "Jericho and the Skiing Clue" (November 1964, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Painting Clue" (July, 1965, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Dying Clue" (October, 1965, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Silent Witness" (November 1965, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Nuisance Club" (August 1966, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Go-Go Clue" (1966)

* "Jericho and the Dead Clue" (1971)

* "Jericho and the Two Ways to Die" (September 1972, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Deadly Errand" (January 1973, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Missing Boy" (1973)

* "Jericho Plays It Cool" (1973)

* "Jericho and the Sea of Faces" (1974)

* "Jericho and the Frightened Woman" (1974)

* "Jericho and the Unknown Lover" (February 1975, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Studio Murders" (November 1975, EQMM)

* "Jericho On Campus (October 1976, EQMM)

* "The Birthday Killer" (July 1978, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Million-To-One Clue" (February 1979, EQMM)

* "The Man Who Stirred Champagne" (September 1979, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Assassin" (December 1979, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Cardboard Box (April 1980, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Memorial Night" (August 1980, EQMM)

* "Act of Violence" (July 1982, EQMM)

* "Jericho and the Lady Jogger" (1985)

* "Jericho's Way" (February 1987, EQMM)

The Battles of Jericho by Hugh Pentecost. Introduction by S.T. Karnick. "Lost Classics Series."

Crippen & Landru Publishers. Doug Greene, editor. Summer 2005. Collection of first 12-15 stories.

ANTHOLOGIES

"Jericho and the Two Ways to Die" collected in The Best Crime Stories, ed. Michael Stapleton, London: Hamlyn, 1977.

"Jericho and the Unknown Lover" collected in The Best Crime Stories, ed. Anon., Mallard Press, 1990.

"Jericho and the Cardboard Box" and "Jericho and the Deadly Errand" collected in Fifty Years of the Best from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, ed. Eleanor Sullivan, Carroll & Graf, 1991.

"Jericho and the Deadly Errand" and "Jericho and the Studio Murders" collected in Masters of Suspense, ed. Ellery Queen & Eleanor Sullivan, Galahad, 1992.

"Jericho's Way" collected in Ellery Queen's Searches and Seizures, ed. Ellery Queen, Chivers Press, 1995.

ED LYNSKEY's crime short fiction has appeared in such online venues as Handheld Crime, Plots With Guns, Judas, The 3rd Degree, Hardluck Stories, The Murder Hole and others. Ed Lynskey has two novels making the usual rounds: The Dirt-Brown Derby and Pelham Fell Here. A third, The Blue Cheer, will be published by PointBlank Press in 2005.
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