Eric Stride, His MG TA and His Colt Detective Special

I consider that my novels are largely character-driven, and from the beginning, I decided that Eric Stride would be something of an outsider, and he would in various ways stand apart from his colleagues on the Newfoundland Constabulary. Stride, as introduced to readers in Undertow, the first book in the series, is not an average Newfoundland policeman. For one thing, he is very affluent, in a time and place when the economic status of a policeman (in the 1940s) would not be very high. Newfoundland, with some very obvious exceptions, notably among the merchant class of St. John’s, was not an affluent society. Stride lives in a large house in a part of the city known as “Millionaires’ Row”, he drives a sports car, a 1938 MG TA, and lives a very comfortable lifestyle.

Another difference is that Stride is not from St. John’s, the island’s capital city. He is, in the local parlance, from “around the bay”. In Newfoundland, very much more so in the 1940s than now, the population of Newfoundland was roughly (sometimes very roughly) divided into two major groups: those who were born in St. John’s, and those who were not. In common parlance, those born in St. John’s were often referred to as “townies”; those who came from outside St. John’s, especially from the small settlements or “outports” strung along the coastline, were variously known to the townies as “bayboys”, “baymen”, or – much worse – “baywops”. There was a “them-and-us” division in the island, and in the society generally.

Stride is aware of, and sensitive to, this reality of Newfoundland society. That realisation colours his reactions to people. He is typically sympathetic to the underdog, but he is also polite, and even a little self-effacing, in his dealings with members of the establishment. This is notably the case in his various encounters with the “upper class” in the second book in the series, The Rossiter File.

Once I decided that Stride would be a “bayman”, I needed to find an appropriate place for him to be from. I chose a community on the island’s south coast, Bay d’Espoir, and for a couple of reasons.

First, the name has a special appeal for me. Newfoundland has a complex history that has involved, at various times – in addition to its aboriginal people, the Beothuk – the English, the French, the Spanish and the Portuguese. And it is a history that is reflected in the wonderful variety of place names that exist to this day: Portugal Cove, Spaniard’s Bay, Petit Jardin, English Harbour, and Port aux Basques are typical examples. The name Bay d’Espoir is French, but apart from that, the name has, if you will, an additional twist. Translated into English, “Bay d’Espoir” means “bay of hope”; in “Newfoundlandese”, it becomes “Bay Despair”. Thus, the Newfoundland pronunciation is directly opposite to the name’s literal meaning. I have always found that irresistible.

The second reason for choosing a birthplace for Stride on the island’s south coast is that the location put the young Eric Stride in the vicinity of the two French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. These islands – ceded to France in 1763 under the Treaty of Paris – were very important in the rum-running trade that developed in North America when the Volstead Act became law in the United States in January 1920, setting in place Prohibition, America’s “great experiment”.

The Prohibition experiment was doomed to failure, as anyone with even half an eye on human history should have been able to predict. As Winston Churchill was quoted at the time: “Prohibition is an affront to the whole history of mankind.” As indeed it was. The United States paid, in the decades following Prohibition, a very high price, marked by a profound disrepect for the law of the land, and the institution of Organized Crime as a major element in American, and world, society.

There is a huge literature and many, many films that deal with the Prohibition phenomenon and its various aspects. Much of the writing is romanticized, some of it is comic, and almost all of it – including the comedic takes – includes a great deal of violence. And in fact, violence was a major component of the Prohibition Era; with so much money at stake, and almost all of it deriving from the rampant illegality that attended bootlegging and rum-running, violence was inevitable. In both Undertow and The Rossiter File, I recounted how Eric Stride entered the rum-running trade with the notion that it was a “victimless crime”, but then, towards the end of the Prohibition period, he was almost killed when his boat was raided by a rival gang. The violence that was associated with Prohibition cannot be overstated, nor the array of vicious criminals who came to dominate a large part of the business. What follows below is a partial “rogues gallery” of infamous characters.

     

Charles “Lucky” Luciano                                 Meyer Lansky

          

               Al Capone                        Jack “Legs” Diamond

              Dutch Schultz

          Hymie Weiss

     

             George Remus                                    Arnold Rothstein

                                                File:Bugs Moran.jpg

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel                    George Clarence “Bugs” Moran

File:Valentine Day massacre.jpg

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

All that having been noted, the illegal trade in rum, and other social medicinals, was the basis of Stride’s affluent lifestyle. For details, the reader is referred to Chapter 7 of Undertow.

Stride’s MG TA

Now, for a brief discussion of Stride’s unusual car. I chose an MG TA for Stride, simply because I liked the look of the car, and because it was such an unlikely vehicle for a 1940s policeman in St. John’s to drive. (I will also mention that I took my inspiration – if that is what it can be called – from Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who drives a red Jaguar in his duties with the Thames Valley Constabulary.)

An historical note from Undertow:

Stride’s car, a 1938 MG TA, which he had purchased before the war, had caused … a stir. Stride’s District Inspector, Jack McCowan, had blanched when he first saw the car, but finally rationalised it through reference to the fact that the Constabulary, operating on a modest budget, possessed only a couple of working vehicles. The MG was a wonderfully inappropriate vehicle for Newfoundland, and it was Stride’s pride and joy. He’d had the suspension modified to cope with the sometimes vestigial roads in and around St. John’s, but if he drove carefully, there usually wasn’t a major problem.

A small confession is now in order. When I wrote Undertow I had not actually seen an MG TA up close, and that led me to write an embarrassing error into the narrative. At one point in the story I have Stride opening the “boot” of his MG and taking out a pair of boots in preparation for a jaunt across the barrens near Tors Cove Pond. Later, when I finally had an opportunity to inspect a TA, I discovered that what I had interpreted from photographs as a “boot”, was in fact a rectangular fuel tank perched on the rear of the car. Well, writers do make mistakes. And sometimes we will actually admit to having done so.

My embarrassing mistake notwithstanding, I think the MG adds a delightful touch to the stories, and to Stride’s character. I see him as the sort of fellow who would drive a sports car, who would take pleasure in manoeuvring his MG TA over the “vestigial” roads in and around 1940s St. John’s. The MG, after all, was a tough little car, and was designed (and routinely re-designed) for racing on dirt roads in England and elsewhere.

So, all that having been noted, here is a brief history of Stride’s MG TA.

First, there is the name of the car. MG stands for Morris Garages, these being named for William Morris (later, Lord Nuffield). The famous MG “Marque” was first used in 1924. From 1932 on, all MGs share a certain characteristic of style. First of all, there is the distinctive square radiator fronting a long hood – or “bonnet”, to use the British term. The doors are cut away to provide a comfortable armrest, and to accentuate the sporting lines. The car’s rear is also distinctive, with the spare tire (or “tyre”) resting on the rectangular fuel tank. (Yes, that famous fuel tank!)

In 1935, the MG Car Company was folded into the Nuffield group, losing most of its independence. At first, Lord Nuffield wanted to do away with the sports car line, believing they were more trouble than they were worth. But he was persuaded otherwise, and the famous MG Marque was retained. The first MG TA appeared in 1936, as the “TA Midget”, and over the next three years the company produced just over 3,000 vehicles. The MG TA originated the justly famous T-series design. The two-seater car had the famous square radiator design, the swept wings and running boards, the folding windscreen, and the large accessible bonnet. The car was a great success, although it was not without its problems.

In 1939, the TA was replaced by the MG TB. The major difference between the two models was in the engine compartment: the TA’s sometimes troublesome overhead camshaft (ohc) engine was replaced with a simpler overhead valve engine, a change that brought about lower production costs, and also easier owner maintenance. In the event, however, only a small number of TBs were produced before the Second World War broke out in September of 1939. During World War Two, the MG Car Company, like most British industries, were enlisted in the war effort, producing tanks and aeroplane parts, and other war items.

When the war ended in 1945, the MG Car Company was anxious to get back to making sports cars. The MG TB was redesigned into the most famous of the T-series cars, the MG TC, although the changes that were made were subtle. At the same time, the MG company in a sense “went international”. During the war, some of the hundreds of thousands of American troops stationed in Britain took an interest in the MG sports car line, and at war’s end the soldiers brought some of those unique cars back with them to the United States. Later, on the strength of this, the company began to sell cars in North America, especially in the United States, and the company also became interested in racing its cars in North America. The MG legend was thus firmly established.

The MG TC was in production for six years, from 1945 to 1949, and about 10,000 cars were eventually produced.

Given that Stride’s MG TA is a 1938 model, and that the MG TC was a superior vehicle, it’s possible that Stride will be looking for an upgrade at some point. But that eventuality will have to wait for the completion of another novel in the series.

Stride’s Colt Detective Special

The Colt Detective Special is a carbon steel framed double action short-barreled revolver; it belongs to a class of firearms known to gun enthusiasts as ‘snubnosed’, ‘snubbies’, or – even more picturesquely – ‘belly guns’. As the name Detective Special suggests, this class of gun was used as a concealed weapon by plainclothes police detectives. When the gun was introduced in 1927, it was unlike anything on the market at the time. Previous concealable revolvers were either of ‘break top’ design, and chambered for comparatively weak and low-powered cartridges, or they were larger revolvers customized through shortening the barrel and grip frame. The Detective Special was the first premium grade ‘swing-out’ revolver designed from the outset to be carried concealed and capable of chambering the .38 special cartridge, which was a high-powered bullet in the 1920s – and is no slouch, even today.

I decided early on that Stride would own a weapon, and that he would carry it with him in certain circumstances, even though it was against regulations. The members of the Newfoundland Constabulary, like their British and Irish counterparts, were not customarily armed, although they did have weapons training. In special situations, the policemen might be armed on duty, but this would have been very unusual. My having Stride carry a weapon was not just a gimmick, or a fantasy, on my part. Long before my first book was published, I had a number of conversations with a former policeman who had been on the Force in the 1940s. He told me that at least one plainclothes detective did in fact carry a weapon on certain occasions; and coincidentally that his weapon of choice was the Colt Detective Special.

Stride’s carrying a weapon in defiance of both custom and regulations could, obviously, get him in some trouble. It also gives the author an opportunity in some future book to use this as a plot element.