Jay J. Armes, Investigator

I’ve been asking anyone I know, beyond a certain age, if they remember this real character. I recently came upon a Narratively article that caught me up on the now 89 year old Investigator. I went on to buy his 1976 autobiography.

Jay J. Armes was a big deal when we were kids. He built up his own legend by taking on and quickly cracking tough cases with a unique guaranteed-results policy. I don’t remember knowing about him, but I probably did. How many private eyes have their own action figure??


The action figure came with a case which had multiple interchangeable ‘hand’ attachments. Armes lost both hands to a recreational explosives accident as a young teen. He became adept at using surgically articulated hooks, from doing up shirt buttons to mastering all manner of firearms. The hooks actually confer some advantages in certain situations, like in a first fight or to break out a window. Armes really does have some options for attachments, including high quality prosthetics for ‘dress’ use, and one of the hook models has a single shot pistol for the ultimate quick draw.

from Armes’ autobiography

Armes is known, among these many other things, for an elaborate home compound including a lake, zoo, gymnasium, helipad, and basement shooting range (with programmable moving targets – in the 70s!). An accessory to the action figure combined some of Armes’ home and office scenes.

This article is meant to be a book review, so let me get to a hearty recommendation of this read. It’s a blast. Frederick Nolan lays on plenty of Chandler-worthy prose while Armes lends and endless supply of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction real life stories.

I didn’t plan to lay awake nights fretting over that. Cathy Chandler had just proved that I couldn’t trust her an inch, and I told her so. I also told her that I intended to keep her handcuffed until we were back in the United States.

The lady was from New Mexico and she was beautiful. Cat-green eyes, honey-blond hair and the kind of figure that Raymond Chandler once said would make a bishop want to kick a hole in a stained glass window. She was a former New York model, twenty-nine years of age, and her husband was the Onion King of America.

The biographical parts of the book are consistently self-promoting, as one should expect from the auto- variety. The stories are well varied. Most of the recollections detail a type of investigating that is that is all at once thorough, fast, and non-confrontational (as much as possible on all counts). I will spoil just one story.

A somewhat wealthy older American woman reported a theft of a large jewel collection. Her father had worked for DeBeers for many years, and so he had accumulated an outsized collection of fine stones and settings for a working man. She would not accuse family, but Armes narrowed his focus quickly (after a long set of interviews and background checks) on a granddaughter who was studying abroad.

Armes posed as a gem broker, case chained to his claw, and arranged to have a chance encounter, dropping the name of an uncontactable mutual acquaintance, with the young woman. After a pleasant luncheon he offered to take her out to the finest place in Paris for dinner, the kind of place for which one dresses up and wears the best accessories. Naturally the lady donned a new dress and decorated herself with the best of the stolen gems, ready to ask her new friend about getting them graded and if he knew who could re-cut them.

At dinner Armes ticked off each piece against the list he was given. He presented his real credentials to the girl. She gave up immediately, having been caught stone cold, in the middle of a fine restaurant, and having little recourse. They retrieved the rest of the diamonds, went back to the U.S. together, and no charges were ever filed.

You can read plenty more about Jay J. Armes if you want. He has been featured in a complete set of American magazines and newspapers and received numerous awards in his field.

Is Jay J. Armes for Real? Texas Monthly, 1976

Famous El Paso private eye Jay J. Armes selling his home and offices, but not retiring, El Paso Times

Jay J. Armes still solving cases at 88, says it keeps him young KTSM

A look back on Jay J. Armes’ favorite investigations of all time KTSM


“Harvey Cannot Be With Us Today”

In the spring of 1942 a graduation ceremony, like many others across the country, was held at the University of California at Berkeley. This ceremony was special, as over 400 students were unable to attend for a peculiar reason. Among them was the valedictorian, Harvey Itano.

“Harvey cannot be with us today,” said university president Robert Gordon Sproul. “His country has called him elsewhere.”

Mr. Itano had been taken from school and placed into the Tule Lake internment camp for alien and non-alien Americans of enemy ethnicity. In California this was largely Japanese. Over 100,000 persons in the American west (all of which was designated a ‘military zone’) were uprooted and incarcerated for the duration of the war.

The novel Red Jade, still in production, is set in World War II California. The experience of the Japanese Americans and their children and the impact of their sudden removal on the rest of society is key to the historical fiction. Nicolas Guyon will need to understand them, their contemporary enemies, and their ancient rivals, to solve a hopeless case.

Should the reader wish to know more about Mr. Itano, there is plenty to read! He was eventually allowed to leave the concentration camp to continue schooling in St. Louis (technically all people in the war zone had prior and standing opportunity to move outside the military zone, but few found actual situations). He went on to be lauded for advances in medicine and biochemistry.

UPI Archive, 50 Year Berkeley Reunion
Revolvy.com, Harvey Itano
L.A. Times Obituary, Harvey Itano

internees at Tule Lake concentration camp


Right On, Ray

I’m reading Raymond Chandler again, after far too long a separation. Since finishing Farewell, My Lovely I have: written three four books, read the collected works of Dashiell Hammett, been dumped three four times, and run out of gas on a small displacement motorcycle in the middle of Texas. I should have plenty of writing material.

I’d forgot how much I love this work! But quickly I am overtaken by a dreadful feeling, of the worst sort to an author about to begin a new work in earnest… I am not worthy!

But at the same time, I am given this – permission to do all kinds of wild, fun, and wicked things in my own writing.

And if I get to revel in a shared deep-rooted suspicion of the machinations behind feminine motivations, all the better.


Will They Ever Learn?

The novel Gray Gold is set in WWII America, but it could be fit to any time. Anywhere and every time there are rule makers, cronies set up to profit from those rules, and people willing to work around the edges of the system to make their own way. A new article at Reason.com touches on just one golden opportunity set up by modern governments.

Politicians Make Bootlegging Great Again

When Prohibition ended in 1933, my great-grandfather, Giuseppe Marano, thought his money-making glory days were over. Having made a good living selling alcoholic beverages to willing buyers at a time when that business was illegal across the country, he and his cohorts certainly viewed the passage of the 21st Amendment as the end of a very profitable era. Except that it really wasn’t. Politicians may have formally dumped the national ban on booze, but in many places they’ve imposed enough foolish restrictions to keep bootlegging a going concern.

If you can pick up a hot 1939 Lincoln like Nick Guyon’s, skip the extra fuel tanks and set it up to run whisky.


Desert Heat

[Nick Guyon put thought and experience into the kit of tools he took out on jobs.]

I double checked that the pull bar to the carbs was yanked full out to max efficiency. The mechanic who installed it promised the engine would sip fuel like a nun at a whisky bar that way, but if I pushed it in, he had it set to open up wide and give me a good twenty horses over the stock setup.

After I’d bought that rig and tried it out, with a big grin showing, the greasy wrench showed me a bulletin about oiling problems on the aging Ford V-12 design. I was out another sixty bucks for him to fit a secondary oil pump, but I had a hot motor that could outrun and outlast anything on the road.
I’d made a few other changes to the car, but nothing that mattered on a simple escort job like this. All I had to do was keep the truck in front of me, and scare off anyone who approached it. I couldn’t imagine anything getting it its way but a skittish road runner. But since I was technically on detail, I had a few appropriate tools.

The PI-standard snub-nose .38 revolver sat in its usual place, in a pocket holster locked in the glove box. I didn’t like anything about it, but some places that license private investigators actually insist that a .38 revolver is the only piece they carry. Go figure. Anyway, it looks harmless enough that most people aren’t put off by it.

More to my liking, and usually closer to me, was a Canadian-made 9 mm pistol. A lot of guys swear by the big fat .45 caliber rounds, but I had a baseball bat in the trunk which is about as useful for close-range slugging. Plus, when working alone I liked to bring a lot of friends with me, and the 9 mm stacks thirteen rounds under the barrel.

A classic Remington pump shotgun shared the trunk with the bat. It wasn’t real smooth, partly because I’d notched parts of it to make more noise when racking. The noise of a shotgun being pumped is enough to make a mob change its mind, sometimes.

A little food and water, besides what the other driver had handed me, a good flashlight, and an overcoat for the desert night completed my kit.


The Diggingest Bastard

I finally got around to finishing a long-planned task – reading Marshal Erwin Rommel’s book, Infantry Attacks.

From a book like this one can comment on the documented history, the book as literature, the military tactics, and the lessons one can take away. The book review part of this piece I will get out of the way first.

In any biographical work, especially autobiographical, one must look for a positive bias. Some biographies are written by doting fans of the subject. Even the most earnest autobiography will, if only by omission, skew toward making the subject look good. That said, this work is earnest and limited only by its focus on the subject at hand. The exploits of Rommel and his troops are backed up by both myth and medals.

The particular edition I read, an on-demand print of the hurried 1943 American translation, has unique attributes. As a contemporary artifact of WW2, it is honest history — this is what was actually put in front of American officers at Fort Leavenworth. But later editions are reported to be better translations. The figures in this printing are clear but too few and too small. The text is written relying on the intended maps and diagrams for the reader to follow the action.

The writing is clear, literate, and evocative. Certainly it is not a grand novel or a musky thriller, but the action is dynamic (from the actuality and from the writing) and a reader is entertained.

The place in history of this story is World War I, but it gives a slice through theaters that don’t fit the most popular narratives of that war. Rommel was engaged over the trenches of northern France shortly after the beginning of the conflict. Basic lessons had been learned and passed on to units in training, but the great stalemate had not set in. Dynamic action for small units was still possible — if the right leader set up the attack.

After early action in the French countryside, Rommel took over training up a mountain unit which saw some action in the Vosges before being shuttled to the southeastern fronts. In Romania, Hungary, and Italy Rommel would find great success repeatedly using tactics that he had drilled into his companies. Many will not have learned much about the fighting in these regions, but Rommel makes clear that maneuver warfare was alive and well in these mountains late into the conflict.

Rommel’s consistent tactical approach was to pin his enemy with whatever heavy fire he had or could call up, make him commit against a feint, and sneak around him under cover to attack weak points. Over and over his pin-prick assault squads got behind large units and took many prisoners without firing a shot.

Rommel tells a story of being uniformly aggressive. He explains when to not make a direct attack, but with rare exception comes up with a solution of maneuver. He kept tired troops marching and attacking at every opportunity chasing a retreating enemy. Driving this is his own deep regard for hasty field fortifications.

Rommel explains repeatedly how, by spade and pick, infantry can quickly become almost impervious to conventional artillery. He kept tired troops up all might often digging trenches that would have only a few hours’ use. As a reward they got to carry on with amazingly light casualties and remain coherent fighting units able to beat back counterattacks that should have been overwhelming.

Here Rommel leaves lessons that apply to all warfare with ranged weaponry, from antiquity through today and the foreseeable future. Jumping forward 25 years and halfway around the world, we can look at the long-lasting defenses of Japanese islands. More by digging than by might of arms outnumbered and ridiculously outgunned defenders inflicted outsize casualties on attackers in every place where effort was made to use the ground to full effect. Rommel’s exposition particularly reinforces the wargaming behind X-Day: Japan, the journalistic novel of the planned invasion of Japan. Plenty of picks and shovels are at hand in the Japanese farm land, and plenty of farmers who suddenly have nothing else to do.

I’m glad I read this book. It makes me want to read much more about the time period and the lesser-known theaters of WWI.

Most importantly, finally, I get to say, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”


The Waiting Game

Eventually I found a good place to wait, a rural corner store closed for the day. I was suddenly nervous. I had every reason to be anxious, but up to that point I had been too busy to let it come out.

I went through a practiced routine of exercises to kill the butterflies and settle my mind. I smoked a cigarette, too, but I would have done that anyway.

I thought about getting shot down by Angela Vickers in sixth grade. I thought about getting shot for real behind an underground casino in Newark. I thought about the current situation and decided everything that could be done to control my situation had been done. I was at peace. If things went badly it was just dumb luck.


“I tame Hellcats!”

One can find thousands of vintage war time print ads which people have scanned so we can poke fun at them later. A popular format was the multi-panel story, in this case in straight-up comic book style.

Until late in World War Two, flight schools in the U.S. were chronically short of the need for combat pilots, which had to be men. Women filled the ranks doing everything short of front line missions, including patently dangerous jobs like initial flight testing or long-range ferry service over the vast Pacific.

On this page for Camel, Ms. Teddy Kenyon (no rank given), puts a Navy fighter through its paces. But the repeated message is that Camel is the men’s favorite. It just happens to also be easy on the lady’s throat.


Gray Gold teaser – April 16, 1943; Tucson, Arizona

I skimmed the main headline stories while eating. Fighting in north Africa. Fighting in the Solomons. Federal intervention in another strike. Over a cigarette and second cup of coffee I got into my usual chore of working through the inside pages. A kitchen fire with no casualties but loss of the entire house. A war bond event coming up. A war bond event total from two days ago. A boring weather forecast.

I took my time over the classifieds. I wasn’t in the market, but used car ads said much about conditions in any city. At the beginning of rubber rationing, every car ad claimed ‘good new tires’ if it could. Very few made the claim any more. It was a cinch that the wheels of those cars were shod in ratty old shoes. The lucky ones would have gummy cheap retreads.

As I came across space-for-rent listings, I circled some and took a few notes. I needed a more permanent place to live, and a small office would be ok if it could be had cheaply enough. Just into the last paper, the Tucson Citizen afternoon edition from the day before, a short story jumped out at me.

Prominent in section B, on the front page under the fold, was the headline “Another War Truck Hijacked on NM Highways”. The article mentioned the Zelatoff company, that it was a critically needed load of copper wire and plate, and that the entire vehicle was taken. Thankfully my name wasn’t mentioned, just that, “a hired armed escort was overcome entirely by the brigands and did not even observe the direction of their escape.” I thought it was a hatchet job, but wasn’t about to call in and complain.


For Whom the Booze Tolls

Liquor production for civilian use was greatly curtailed during World War II. By 1945, with the end in sight, big money was lining up to push old and new brands in front of post-war consumers. It was expected to be a wet gold rush.

ad Schlitz beer 1945

ad Shenley whisky 1945