Robert Leslie Bellem

Robert Leslie Bellem
Beyond Dan Turner Robert Leslie Bellem (1902-1968) entered the field of creative writing like many aspiring fictioneers before him—as a reporter. He cut his teeth on newspapers beginning in the city of his birth, Philadelphia, and moved on to Tulsa, and later San Jose. By 1925 Bellem had sold some poetry and was trying his hand at fiction. Then, in 1928, he relocated to Pasadena, California, working for the local newspaper as a reporter and later as an advertising manager. About this same time Bellem starting submitting works of fiction to magazines. Many of his early works were directed to a reading market still popular today-that of the detective story. But further investigation by Bellem soon discovered another potential market for his writing skills. The late '20s were a time of "fun and night life" for many young people. This liberation lead to a progressiveness in sexuality. Open discussions about such matters became more accepted, as did promiscuity. And newsstand publications catered to these desires. Thus were born the girlie magazines. With titles such as Spicy Stories, Zesty, Pep, or Saucy Stories, many such magazines filled their pages with lighthearted farces containing plenty of implied sexual encounters, each bound under the colorful cover of a scantily-clad female.

True to his pugnacious nature, Bellem knew he could handle the style needed to write this type of fiction. Fellow writer and friend W. T. Ballard said of Bellem: "He looked over the markets, chose one he could handle fast and easily, and hewed to the line. And was highly successful in so doing." Bellem recounted how he got started in 1928 with the light-heart sex stories: "I was thumbing through a magazine one day. I stumbled on an illustration to a story; it was one of the high-grade slick-paper mags, and this art was double A-one. It depicted two or three native South Seas island gals—clad in no more than the law allowed-surrounding one rather embarrassed-looking beachcomber.

"I squinted at that daub and got a definite inward reaction. I sat down at my typewriter and batted off ‘Eden Island,' a sex yarn. It was the first sex farce I'd ever written. I sent it to Pep. They bought it and yelled for more of the same. That's four years ago-now I sell about five or six sex farces a month, and hardly get time to write anything else!"

Pep was one of a chain of girlie magazines put out by enterprising publisher Frank Armer. Other titles Armer produced included Spicy Stories, Broadway Nights and Ginger Stories, each of which Bellem sold works to. He also had fiction appear in Hollywood Nights, Gay Parisienne, as well as La Paree among others.

Each artistic person has his or her own way of approaching their work. For Bellem it was a staunch belief in the philosophy that setting the proper mood led to better creativity. As such, he frequently wrote while listening to classical music. If the piece he was working on required more emotion, he would put on music to elicit that response from himself, and the more passionate his writing would become.

Bellem provided this insight into his approach of writing and setting the mood with music: "We writers are actors, psychologically. In fact, if we amount to a tiny damn as writers, we're confoundedly good actors, inwardly. For we, ourselves must act out the stories we write-must jump our consciousness from one character to another swiftly as the action or the dialogue changes between paragraphs.

"If I want to write a very serious ‘problem' yarn and [composer] Caesar Franck puts me in a serious mood, why not dust Caesar Franck off and make it work? Or if I want something light and frothy, why not turn on the radio and tune in on a jazz-band's wavelength?

"I suppose that too much of it would ruin the effect. You couldn't write with a banjo strumming in your ear all day. But mood music to get you started right, mood pictures to put you in the proper beginning frame of mind, both help."

Today best remembered for his tongue-in-cheek gumshoe Dan Turner-the only pulp detective to ever have an entire magazine devoted to him with Hollywood Detective—Bellem wrote a variety of fiction, including adventure, detective, western, mystery, weird, and of course, the sex farces. During the 1930s Bellem regularly appeared in the Trojan/Culture pulps Spicy Detective, Spicy Mystery, Spicy Adventure and Private Detective (and their later incarnations as the Speed titles), both under his own name and a stable of pennames. (On more than one occasion an entire issue of a pulp was comprised of works by Bellem under several names.) As well, Bellem had fiction in Real Detective Stories, Detective Fiction Weekly, Thrilling Detective, Mammoth Detective, The Ghost, Thrilling Spy Stories, Super Detective and Popular Detective, to name but a few.

Somehow, between turning out thousands of pages of copy for the pulp magazines, Bellem found the time to write several novels. These included: Blue Murder (Phoenix Press, 1938), a hard-boiled tongue-in-cheek novel introducing Duke Pizzatello of the Kohlar Agency; The Vice Czar Murders (Wilfred Funk, NY 1940), co-authored with friend and fellow writer Cleve Adams under the pseudonym Franklin Charles; Half-Past Mortem (Mill NY 1947), one of two books featuring hard-boiled detective Sam Welpton, written under the name John A. Saxon, and Window With the Sleeping Nude (Quinn Pub. Co., Inc., Kingston, New York, 1950.), that appeared as a paperback. Others followed as well.

bellem_blackmail_1947As the pulp field dwindled, Bellem looked for new markets for his writing. With the television studios of Southern California just around the corner from Bellem's Pasadena residence, their need for scripts seemed an obvious choice to pursue. He proved just as successful in this new medium as he had been with the printed word. Some of the programs Bellem authored scripts for include Dick Tracy, Perry Mason, The Adventures of Superman, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, 77 Sunset Strip, Captain Midnight, The F.B.I., Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Broken Arrow, Iron Horse, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Death Valley Days, and The Millionaire.

But the Hollywood scene was by no means unfamiliar to Bellem. Years earlier he had authored radio scripts for Boris Karloff's Creeps by Night. And 1947 had seen the release of Republic B picture, Blackmail, based on Bellem's Dan Turner story, "Stock Shot" (Speed Detective, July 1944). Directed by Lesley Selander, with the screenplay by Royal B. Cole, it starred William Marshall in the lead role, with longtime serial actor Grant Withers as Inspector Donaldson.

Shortly after moving into a much-anticipated new home in Pasadena, Bellem suffered a heart attack and died in 1968, leaving behind his wife, Bebe.

—Tom Roberts

Black Dog Books has one collection of stories by Robert Leslie Bellem currently available: Surgeon of Souls. More are in the offing.

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