"Three years of high school. Canadian army at sixteen. A year in a hank. Then working in a sawmill, then keeping time and books in a logging camp. Then playing piano in a theatre. Graduated, or maybe it was going the other way, into a theatre organist and worked at this until talking pictures killed this business. This took me up and down the West Coast and as far east as Tulsa, Oklahoma, though most of the time was spent in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Ran a show on the Klamath Indian Reservation until 1930. Then many things . . . starving and pick and shovel and driving a truck among them." [dustjacket blurb, 42 Days for Murder]
This was all prior to 1932, when Roger Torrey took up the writing game.
Roger Torrey is another of those authors that contributed such memorable fiction to the classic pages of Black Mask and in the process helped define the hard-boiled genre. But like fellow Black Mask contributors Norbert Davis and Horace McCoy, he remains an enigma due to death at a young age with no surviving family. What little is known about him is pieced together from snippets from the memories of his contemporaries.
His stories are most often told in the first person or the third person, frequently that of some interchangeable detective (often of Irish descent). Either way they are told in a direct, no frills, terse manner. Believable motives drive his characters that interact against a backdrop of cheap urbana.
The first work Torrey sold to Black Mask was while the magazine was still under the seminal editorship of Joseph Shaw and appeared in the January 1933 issue. Torrey would contribute another fifty-one works before his final appearance in the April 1942 issue.
(Years later when Shaw was compiling The Hard-Boiled Omnibus for Simon & Shuster, he included Torrey's "Clean Sweep" from the February 1934 of Black Mask.)
In addition to his sales during this time to Black Mask, Torrey sold another eleven works to Dime Detective, another mainstay magazine of classic pulp crime drama between 1934 and 1941.
Frank Gruber reminisced about Torrey in The Pulp Jungle (Sherbourne Press, 1967):
"One of the most regular contributors to Black Mask, Roger Torrey, was extremely fond of the sauce. I once ran into him on Madison Avenue at nine o'clock in the morning. He was either still loaded from the night before or had gotten an early start that morning." Adding: "Personally, Roger Torrey was a tough little guy, as hard as the characters he portrayed so well in his stories."
Torrey was the seasoned hard drinker and gambler; had apparently spent his fair share of time in gin joints and swizzle halls; had pounded the eighty-eight keys enough to know his way around and earn a livelihood doing it, and utilized this first-hand experience of such environments to set many of his tales. Piano players populate the reoccurring dance hall settings Torrey created in his fiction.
In 1938 Hillman-Curl released Torrey's only novel as part of the "Clue Club Mystery" series. An excellent tale steamrolling in the true hard-boiled vein, 42 Days for Murder features private eye Shean Connell. This fast-paced novel weaves an intricately plot around murder in Reno, Nevada.
1938 also found Torrey contributing works to Private Detective, one the Trojan line of pulps starting with the March issue. Shortly thereafter his name began to appear with regularity. Between 1938 and 1946 he had no less than seventy-eight works of assorted lengths: novel-lengths, novellas and short stories printed between the covers of Private Detective. His work also appeared in other Trojan titles too: Hollywood Detective (eight during '44-'45), Speed Mystery (nine from '43-'44) in addition to Super-Detective (twenty-one from 1943-‘46).
The postwar years found many authors facing the problem of declining markets. Torrey found an outlet for his work at Street & Smith's Detective Story where editor Daisy Bacon continued to buy from Torrey despite his drinking and finance problems. Years later Bacon said:
"I stayed with Roger Torrey in spite of the protests from the business department about his money habits.Because of this, many editors also hacked down but I always thought his stories made it well worth contending with. Of course he and I had an interest in common in that we were both concerned about the welfare of animals. I always thought that he and Jonathan Latimer had a good old-fashioned down-to-earth touch with sex that a good many of the other tough writers lacked."
Torrey met a writer Helen Ahern in New York and the pair was soon spending time together. Besides their obvious mutual occupation the couple also shared a favorite pasttime-consumption of alcohol. Torrey fell in love and the couple relocated to Florida. Fellow author Steve Fisher penned the following lines about the end of Torrey's life:
". . .Then one afternoon he felt poorly and lay down on a couch and asked if she'd make him some tea. [She] brought the tea. Roger sipped it, thanking her, then rested his head on the pillow.
‘Hold my hand, Mommy, because I'm going to die.'
She held his hand and Roger Torrey closed his eyes for the last time."
Black Dog Books currently has one collection of stories by Roger Torrey available: Bodyguard.