MIKE QUIN AND MORE
The man known as Mike Quin was an American journalist, primarily writing for the Communist press on the West Coast in the 1930s and 1940s. But Mike Quin was not his real name. He was christened Paul William Ryan when he was born in 1906 in San Francisco. And he called himself Robert Finnegan when he wrote several crime novels in the 1940s. I’ll use Quin most of the time.
Quin’s Irish father was a travelling salesman who seems to have deserted his family at an early stage. His mother, of Irish-Jewish-French extraction, was a dressmaker. He left school when he was fifteen and worked at various jobs before going to sea when he was nineteen. According to a biographical sketch of Quin written by Harry Carlisle (more about him later) he was in the merchant marine until just before the 1929 Wall Street Crash. It was during his years at sea that he met “an old time Wobbly” (member of the Industrial Workers of the World) who talked to him about the iniquities of the capitalist system.
When Quin returned to life on shore he worked for a time in a bookshop in Hollywood which was frequented by people connected with the film industry. He had been writing himself but hadn’t yet appeared in print. It was during this period that, influenced by a writer friend, he began to read Marxist books and pamphlets. I have often wondered whether the bookshop that Quin worked in was Stanley Rose’s, famous for being a hangout for many writers employed in the film capital? More than a few of them had left-wing inclinations, something which led to their downfall during the late-1940s and early-1950s when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) focused its attention on Hollywood.
Quin used his real name, Paul Ryan, when he had a short story published in Scribner’s in 1934. It was reprinted in The Best Short Stories: 1934. And it pointed to his main concerns as a writer in wanting to express clearly material drawn directly from his experiences and observations. It isn’t overtly political but it does make an ironic comment on the way in which a bullying policeman is more concerned about having clubbed a down-and-out he thought was sleeping but was actually dead than he is about the live hoboes he has harassed and beaten.
I’m not sure just when Quin joined the American Communist Party, but he attended meetings of the Hollywood John Reed Club (a communist organisation meant to encourage proletarian writing), and moved back to San Francisco in time to report on the 1934 general strike in the city for the Western Worker, a communist publication. His writings were then a regular fixture in Party magazines and newspapers until his death in 1947. There were several small collections of his articles, satirical poems, stories, and other odds and ends, but probably the best source for a general view of what he did is to be found in On the Drumhead: A Selection from the Writing of Mike Quin, edited, with a biographical sketch, by Harry Carlisle and published posthumously in 1948.
Quin wrote a book-length account of events in San Francisco in 1934, but had difficulties in finding a publisher willing to take it on. It was eventually published in 1949, and later reprinted by International Publishers in 1979. The writing is detailed and direct and clearly the work of someone there at the time, and who was without doubt on the side of the strikers. It’s of relevance to note that the Foreword to the 1979 edition was written by Harry Bridges, one-time President of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), which had been at the forefront of the 1934 strike. Quin felt a close affinity to the union and its members. The authorities frequently accused Bridges (born in Australia, an ex-seaman and Wobbly) of being a member of the Communist Party and tried to deport him, though without success.
Quin never tried to give an impression of objectivity in his writing. Words were a weapon in the class war, as far as he was concerned. In retrospect it might seem that this would restrict their impact. And it’s true that Quin’s adherence to a Party line could raise doubts about his intentions. When the Party opposed the entry of the United States into the Second World War he produced a pamphlet, The Yanks Are Not Coming, supporting the Party line. When Germany invaded Russia in 1941 the Party changed its tune and so did Quin as he called for unity in the face of the Fascist threat.
It’s doubtful if Mike Quin’s name now means anything unless you happen to be someone with a specific interest in San Francisco labour history and/or the history of the American Communist Party. But as Robert Finnegan he still has some credibility, as witness the three 1940s crime novels Paul William Ryan wrote under that name. They’ve recently been re-published in one volume by Stark House Press, which specialises in resurrecting old mystery writers and their work. The books were originally published by Simon & Schuster, New York, and later as pulp paperbacks by Bantam and Signet. One of them, The Bandaged Nude, came out as a British Penguin in 1952.
All three of the novels feature Dan Banion, a reporter with a social conscience. In The Lying Ladies he takes up the case of a young drifter who has been falsely accused of the murder of a maid in a rich woman’s house. The setting is pre-Second World War. The immediate post-war period in San Francisco provides the background for The Bandaged Nude with Banion mixing with the city’s bohemian set as he investigates the death of a young artist. It should be stressed that the San Francisco Finnegan writes about is one that existed before the 1950s and the city’s associations with the Beats brought it to the attention of a wide public. Tom Cantrell, writing about this book, says that Finnegan used actual locations, though sometimes with slight twists in their names. The real bars known as the The Black Cat and The Iron Pot became The Iron Cat and The Black Pot in the novel.
The third novel, Many a Monster, also has events taking place in San Francisco just after the war, and Banion is out to rescue a shell-shocked ex-soldier from being framed for a series of murders. An interesting aspect is that, in the course of his investigations, he comes up against an organisation called The White Knights which is, it claims, out to save America from Jews and blacks. It’s interesting because a novel called Murder in the Glass Room, written by Edwin Rolfe and Lester Fuller and published in 1946, has a similar group aiming to attract people to its anti-Jews and blacks programme. Both Rolfe and Fuller were members of the Communist Party, and Rolfe had a track record of writing for The Daily Worker and serving with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. His book, The Lincoln Battalion, published in 1939, was the first history of the Americans who fought in Spain. Rolfe was also a poet and his work in that field is still worth looking at. He died of a heart attack in 1954, possibly as a result of being harassed by the FBI and HUAC.
Before leaving the subject of a right-wing scheme to persuade ex-servicemen and others into joining a group with supposed patriotic aims and a prejudice against Jews and blacks, we might consider the 1946 film, Till the End of Time, which starred Robert Mitchum, Guy Madison, Bill Williams, and Dorothy McGuire. It was directed by the then left-wing Edward Dymtryk. There is a scene in a bar where Mitchum, Madison, and Williams, all ex-servicemen, are approached by men who see them as prospective recruits and, making it clear that they don’t accept Catholics, Jews, and blacks, invite them to join their group. A lone black in army uniform overhears the conversation and moves quietly away. I assume there was an organisation, similar to the one described by the writers and filmmakers referred to, active on the West Coast in the post-war period?
Paul William Ryan/Mike Quin/Robert Finnegan died from cancer in 1947, and so missed being rounded up, prosecuted, and possibly imprisoned when the ant-communist hysteria swept across America in the late-1940s and early-1950s. His writings for the Communist Party press might best be described as functional. They were lively and intended for the times they related to and a readership that would largely agree with what was said. But the three novels do indicate that he knew how to sustain a story, develop characters and situations, and make locations of relevance to the plot. He might never have been a great writer but he had the potential to be a good one in his chosen field of crime novels.
Earlier I mentioned Harry Carlisle as editor of a collection of Mike Quin’s work for Communist Party publications. Like Quin he was a dedicated communist. Carlisle was English, born around 1898, and moved to America around 1920. He worked at various jobs and had some connections to the film business. His one novel, Darkness at Noon (not to be confused with Arthur Koestler’s book of the same name) was published in 1931 and was based on his experiences as a young miner in Britain. When the anti-communist purges began his status as an American citizen became the subject of a long court battle and he was eventually deported from the United States in 1962. He spent time in Russia and several Eastern bloc countries, and then returned to the United Kingdom.
Mike Quin, Edwin Rolfe, Harry Carlisle. People from a largely-forgotten past, and, with regard to Quin and Carlisle, too often dismissed as “party hacks and/or bureaucrats” because of their communist connections. Rolfe’s poetry should give him some lasting power. But they all had something to offer, and it’s fascinating to think about what it was and is it still important?
Paul Ryan. “The Sacred Thing” in The Best Short Stories:1934 (Jonathan Cape, London, 1934).
Mike Quin. On the Drumhead: A Selection from the Writing of Mike Quin (The Pacific Publishing Foundation, San Francisco, 1948).There is an informativel biographical sketch of Quin by Carlisle.
Mike Quin. The Big Strike (International Publishers, New York, 1979).
Robert Finnegan. The Dan Banion Trilogy (The Lying Ladies; The Bandaged Nude; Many a Monster) (Stark House Press, Eureka, 2022). There is a useful introduction by Tom Cantrell.
Edwin Rolfe & Lester Fuller. Murder in the Glass Room (Bantam Books, New York, 1948).
Edwin Rolfe. Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1993).
Edwin Rolfe. The Lincoln Battalion: The Story of the Americans Who Fought in Spain in the International Brigades (Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, New York, 1939).
Tom Cantrell. The Mysteries of Roy Huggins and the Deportation of Harry Carlisle (Hekate Publishing, Brooklyn, 2021). Huggins was a novelist (The Double Take and Too Late for Tears), screenwriter, and one-time communist, who testified when called before HUAC and named Carlisle and others as Party members. He also assisted the Immigration authorities in their attempts to deport Carlisle.
Bruce Nelson. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s (University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1998).
Howard Kimeldorf. Reds or Rackets? The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988).
Alan M. Wald. American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012).
Harvey Klehr. The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (Basic Books, New York, 1984).