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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, Harvey Itano
L.A. Times Obituary, Harvey Itano

internees at Tule Lake concentration camp


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!”



Welcome to, the home of published works (and lesser emissions) of Shawn D. Mahaney. This site will focus on current and upcoming books from Shawn, blog posts about research and writing and publishing, and snippets and previews from upcoming works.

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