[From the Globe pocket book, "Rise and Fall of the Pulp Icons"]
By 1970 Joe Hell, about 70, was a desperate alcoholic, making ends meet by doing a few covert and highly illegal odd jobs for FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in crime-infested Bay City. While invisible as an operative, Hell was quite visible in his frequenting of Bay City's seediest dives, from opium dens housing depressing bordellos to gin joints parading the city's most down and out strippers and working girls. It was in the worst of these strip clubs, the Pink Pussycat, that Hell met Molly Stern, a 17 year old Kansas City girl who had moved to Bay City with dreams of making it in the theater and wound up working as a cocktail waitress. The unlikely pair quickly gravitated to each other, and Stern became Hell's last known lover.
Stern was raised on Joe Hell pulp tales, passed on to her by her parents. It seems likely she fell in love with the man Hell was in his glory days rather than the man Hell had become. At the very least she saw qualities few others saw in Hell at that time. Whatever the case, the affection was apparently mutual. Although Hell did not change his habits, remaining as heavy a drinker as ever and becoming increasingly emotionally abusive, he indulged Stern with gifts and money in a way he had never done in previous affairs. Some have speculated that he attempted to make up for all of his previous treatment of women by using up the last of his money on Stern.
In July of 1970, he left Stern an envelope with a letter and a bank deposit box key. He was never seen again. Stern was questioned but the police were satisfied she was uninvolved. Police characterized the letter as personal and unimportant to the case. Stern never revealed its contents. Despite reward offers and a search by several of Hell's remaining detective friends, no trace of Hell was found. Many underworld figures bragged they participated in his demise but no substantiation was ever given, even three decades after the fact.
Joe Hell's legacy was not merely the hundreds of dime store pulp magazines written about him. It's all too easy to forget the impact this one man had on a world struggling its way through the Great Depression. His exploits alongside freedom fighters in the Spanish Civil War were not merely good copy, they set the stage for a worldwide conflict fought man by man in each country. While many would like to forget his 1930s role as a cold-blooded assassin in Europe, one is forced to wonder if the many nazis and communists he killed would indeed have been dangerous influences. It's certain at a minimum that Germany's experiment with nazism under the ineffectual "Der Fuhrer" Goebbels would have been more militant and bloody under other men. In his role as a provocateur and double or triple agent he perhaps single-handedly brought an abrupt end to Japanese imperialistic dreams in the late 1930s and early 1940s and, intentionally or not, promoted the union of China under Mao in 1940. Of course it's tempting to give too much credit to his exploits; perhaps he simply had a better publicist than others in Dashiel Hammett and his white-washed stories of the romantic playboy.
Hell's other legacy remains in the form of at least a dozen known illegitimate children, each active in some unconventional career or lifestyle, ranging from hardened criminals to freethinking artists.
[From Jack Hell's grade-school record, 1978]
Child is by turns sullen and buoyant. Hyperactive? Known illegitimate, mother cares about child but household disrupted by immoral "live-in" short-lasting relationships. School psychiatrist suggests she is repeating a pattern of abusive relationships, possible Electra complex. J.Stern seems too grown up for 8, acts like 15. In fights frequently, never gives up; beaten up by A.S. many times in a row until rumors reported he beat A.S.. J.S. suffered broken arm and ribs in the meantime. Good candidate for new special ed opportunities, needs help with aggression. Mother mentions Catholic school but family apparently too poor; ditto for military school. Despite all, grades reasonable.
[From Jack Hell's high school record, 1987]
Jack's need for attention is overwhelming; constantly asks questions, and volunteers too much; however he refuses teacher and peer assistance. Refuses to dissect animals and quit biology but excels in other sciences. Interested in history but refuses to study 20th century. Needs military schooling but seems torn on higher education options. Refuses guidance counseling but polite to authority figures. Insists on wearing ridiculous-looking mohawk with leather jacket but clearly not part of the "punk" clique. Persistent rumors regarding sometimes-violent antisocial tendencies, none substantiated. Other boys too scared?
[From Jack Hell's private diary, July 17, 1988]
She told me today. It's like someone crammed a rock down my throat and into my heart. But it explains a lot. I always knew there was a story to who my real father was. She told me about him, her story. She always loves the beat 'em and leave 'em type. No wonder she fell for him. But she claims he never touched her, but she showed me some of the letters. His idea of romance - sick. I'm NOT his son.
[July 24, 1988]
Hung over again. Stupid. Got to do something. I'm acting like him. But I always did. I just never knew why.
[August 17, 1988]
They came after her. I don't know who they were. She should never have told me who I was. She keeps telling me I should be proud. Makes me read those stupid books and his writings. He wasn't dumb. The books don't even tell all of the tale. He had some honor, in his twisted sick way.
But that's not important. I got home in time. They ran off. I guess they were scared of the Hell boy. Pause for thought.
I shaved the mohawk, complete straight edge. Going to the gym but I hate being around jocks.
I've got to find out who wants to hurt her.
[February 2, 1989]
Haven't written. Sorry dairy. You're the only one now.
So the funeral is over. That's it. I'm doing the P.I. license test this summer for sure. Got the training down. Will avenge, that's it.
Time for a milk bath. Got to stop drinking, the baths cheer me up. I can't believe I got the idea from Joe. But it works.
[December 25, 1993]
Another divorce case. It's getting old, I'm tired of watching old men cheat with young office cohorts, male and female, stealing their innocence, corrupting their souls. Every day I swear the world steps closer to the brink of hell. Shrewish housewives, bored executives - a slow meaningless death for a race that's outlived its usefulness. Better to be an ant. They and their cold calculating diligence will rule the world.
In the meantime I'm just a cow trapped in the herd. Useless, grazing on the fat of the land, living by being a parasite on the failed relationships of impotent bulls and lobotimized cows as we all meander to the slaughter.
I've gotta get a life.
[June 20, 1996]
The name protects me as much as it curses me. Bookies cringe when I call, even when I owe them money. Women fall for me after they hear it. And my liver - it must be made of pure steel. Been 2 months and I don't think I've eaten, just booze.
I'm Jack Hell. That's it. Watch out world.
[November 5, 1998]
I peel back your pages, my well worn friend, and wonder about who I really am. I avenged her death yet feel empty. I am hunted but feel like the hunter. I despite my father yet claim the name.
At least the bottomless bottle of peppermint schnapps has stopped flowing. Im disinfected, I've lived off the stuff for two months. The shakes are over and I can focus my eyes. I'm back to pulling in 5Gs on a good week and blowing only 4 on the horses and poker. Enough money for milk baths twice a week.
But I can't stay as fat, dumb, and happy as an overly nourished silver-spooned captain of industry. I'm taking the big cases, taking the chances, pissing into the wind. This time it's Lee Whitehead of Dagget Industries. He's been having multiple affairs behind his wife's back. It'll make the papers and make enemies, but I can't ignore it. She's not even paying me. The poor messed up girl isn't even allowed to "dirty her hands" on the checkbook. He controls her life, every aspect. There's more I know but the affairs are all I can prove. Wouldn't even have come across it had he not cut me off in traffic. Call me the bad guy but I don't let it go. Can't. This is a society, and it can't be allowed to crumble by the petty indulgent vices of would-be Neros. Followed him and figured it all out. She had no clue, and I felt bad, like I was the one who had betrayed her, as if I was the one who walked down the altar in a post-Miami Vice tux and promised a lifetime of nuptial bliss, all the while plotting ways to symbolically return to the womb with a succession of willing Oedipal accomplices. He's a sick man, I'm bringing him down.
[January 1, 1999]
Happy freakin' new year. I'm writing this by the light of my last candle, purchased at one of those dingy 24 hour stores for a prince's ransom. Whitehead's putting on the squeeze. Evicted from my place by his influence, here I am in a boarding house where he's gone so far as to cut the electricity off. They're all suffering because of me. I'm moving out tomorrow, gotta learn to be more nimble in my arrangements. That fat S.O.B. is driving me underground, soon I'll be living like a trapped rat, scurrying from point to point, pushing buttons for scraps of food poisoned with drugs and diseases. He's playing with me now, he knows he's got all the cards.
Anyway, at least tomorrow I can stay at Diamond Debi's. At least she's got cats. Been a while since I could have a pet around. Such a good, smart little cat, that Fungi Girl, some times that's all it takes to cheer me up. That and while Debi's out a nice milk bath. Tomorrow will be a good day.
God I hope nobody ever opens this diary.
[December 31, 1999]
I've been running too long. I've got to prove once and for all that even in this day and age one man can stand up and make a difference. I've left behind a string of angry bookies, murdered girlfriends, and dubious dealings, all the while excusing my amorality by believing my petty divorce cases were done on behalf of the weaker party, that my mob dabbling was on behalf of avenging my mother. It's all been for naught; instead I've wound up like some character in a Kafka story, running from his father's accusing glare, running into certain doom like a moth to a flame. It's time to stop, turn around, and reverse my own personal metamorphosis into a caricature of Joe Hell. There's guys out there, there's always been guys out there, some as crazy as bats, donning costumes and acting like rejects from a Quixotic play. Well it's time I got counted in. I don't need the trappings, the strange suits, the flashy looks. I just need to be the real Jack Hell and nothing more. That's it.
I think I can make a living at the gambling thing; I figured it out and I only lost money last year on the bad bets, just a few less and I'm in like Maverick