Karl Detzer – Journalist, Soldier, Editor, Writer

When I was going through my collection of Adventure, looking for Talbot Mundy or Arthur Friel stories, I kept running across Karl Detzer’s firemen stories. I got interested after reading a couple of these stories, and tried to find more information about him. The only Karl Detzers I came across were a soldier and an editor at Reader’s Digest. Could they be the same person? Find out after the break.

Karl Detzer c. 1942
Karl Detzer c. 1942
Karl William Detzer was born on September 4, 1891, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the son of August Jacob and Laura (Goshorn) Detzer. His father was born in 1854, 55 years after George Washington had died, and had rung the church bell to announce Lincoln’s death in 1865. [More about his father in another article to follow this one.]
At the age of 16, Detzer joined the local newspaper, The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, as a reporter cum photographer. He remained a reporter for the next nine years, working for three newspapers, all in the same area.
In 1916, he enlisted in the US Army and was sent to the Mexican border to handle the insurgents led by Pancho Villa, and became a sergeant there. In 1917, he was sent to Officer Training School, and became a captain. As captain, he was sent to France, where his battalion saw heavy fighting.
Captain Karl Detzer c. 1920
Captain Karl Detzer c. 1920
When the Armistice happened, Detzer was not sent back Stateside. He remained in France, and took command of the newly formed Department of Criminal Investigation in the American zone of control. The job was to break wave of crime which had flared up at war’s end, as criminals took advantage of the confusion. His territory extended from Paris to Brent.
He came back to the States in 1920 to face a court martial when some prisoners accused him and his division of cruel treatment and torture to extract confessions. More than a hundred witnesses testified to the cruel treatment. Detzer faced possible life imprisonment on this charge. He was acquitted, and left the army.
 He settled in Chicago, where he found a job as an advertising manager of a department store there, and met a girl from Iowa who held the city desk on one of the local papers. He married the girl, Clarice Abbey Nissley, on 26 November 1921.
At that time, he decided that he could make a living writing, quit his job as advertising manager, and moved to Leland, Michigan, where the family had their summer home.  This marked the beginning of his career as an author. Some of his stories were based on his experiences in the Army, and some were based on his personal experiences.
He got national fame with his series of stories in the Saturday Evening Post about the Fire House gang, which were based on incidents that happened when he riding around with Chicago firemen.
“They claim I burned Chicago end to end in those stories just as Harold Titus was said to have burned all the north woods in his.
In those days, when I was tired of writing, I’d go down to the fire station and ride out with the men answering the alarms. I did the same thing with the state police.”
As he mentions above, he also went out with the Michigan State Police, and became a honorary member for his work in presenting their work to the public. Seven of his stories based on these experiences were bought by Harold Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, and turned into a movie, Car 99, with Fred MacMurray playing the hero. This development led him to Hollywood. From 1934 to 1937, he was a screen writer and technical director, working for Paramount, RKO, MGM and Universal Studios. A serious sunstroke ended this part of his career.
By this time, he had become tired of writing fiction. In 1938, DeWitt Wallace of Reader’s Digest made him a roving reporter, and later he became a roving editor for the magazine, at which he remained till his retirement.
In 1942, he enlisted in the US Army again, and became a special assistant to George Catlett Marshall, commander of the general Army service forces. He came out of the war with the Distinguished Service Medal and with the rank of colonel.
In 1947, he and his wife bought a local newspaper, the Leelanau Enterprise Tribune, and ran it for the next four years. In 1948, at the request of the military governor of West Germany, Lucius Clay, he became a special advisor on the Berlin air lift. His wife ran the paper when he was stationed overseas.
He passed away on 28 April, 1987 in Branford, Connecticut, survived by his daughter. His son, Karl Jr., had passed away five years after World War 2, as a result of wounds suffered during that time and his wife had passed away in 1982. He had written more than a thousand stories and twelve books, in addition to some poems.
Later this week, I’ll be sharing four articles and stories of his: first an account of his father’s life, second a firemen story, third a piece about fire fans, and lastly a short funny story that is different than most of his stuff that you might have come across.


  1. I notice that Detzer was 51 when he enlisted during WW II. Reminds me of Dashiell Hammett enlisting at 48 despite poor teeth, bad health, and being skinny as a rail. Usually men trying to enlist at this age were turned down. I'd like to find out how they managed to get in, etc.

  2. I couldn't find any information about it. He wrote one volume of his autobiography, Myself when young, which dealt with his childhood. He had plans for another volume, but I could not find any publication record for it.

    My guess is that he would have known someone who got an exception made – probably someone who he knew as a reporter – like you say, 51 year old men joining up would be rare.

  3. I knew someone in the 1950s who claimed to be Karl Detzer's daughter– Dionne? She was married to but estranged from an architect named Lukens, whose name she used.

  4. I found his 1942 American Legion membership card and his 1943 chiefs of police card in a box of junk I bought at a flea market in New Jersey this weekend. Did a search for him and it brought me to this blog

  5. I have yet to receive any information concerning Dionne Detzer Lukens. Was/Is she the daughter of Karl, as she claimed. She lived in a second-floor apartment over a store in downtown Port Allegany, Pa., in the mid-1950s.

  6. I recently watched Car 99 to see how it compared with "Michigan's Greatest Manhunt", a Detzer story which was published in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1934. My Dad comes from Kaleva Michigan, and the Detective Fiction Weekly story is based on the bank robbery in Kaleva in 1933. That much I know is true, because Detzer provides a lot of information about a bank robbery in Kaleva which is similar to the story my father told me. My question is whether Car 99 was somehow loosely based on Detzer's Kaleva bank robbery story as well. My father said it was, but, now that I've seen the movie, I say that, even though there's several connections, it probably wasn't, especially if he wrote a lot of similar stories. Or maybe the movie is a conglomeration of several Detzer stories. What do you say?

  7. I think you missed this in my post: "Seven of his stories based on these experiences were bought by Harold Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, and turned into a movie, Car 99

  8. Thanks Sai. Unfortunately, the Saturday Evening Post archives is searchable by issue but not by the author of published stories, so, as nearly as nearly as I can tell, I would have to look through the index page of every issue between 1921 and 1934 to find their Karl Detzer atories. I've contacted Saturday Evening Post about this conundrum, but so far without response. Do you happen to know what year these stories were published, or, better yet, which issues? .

  9. The FictionMags Index comes to your rescue on this one. Look for Stories by Author, find the link to Karl Detzer's page, click on the (chron.) link by his name to order stories by date of publication. Once you do so, you should be able to find the issues of the Saturday Evening Post with Detzer stories in them from 1933-34. Looks like he didn't have anything earlier in that magazine, so it should be relatively simple to click through those issues.

  10. Looking for publications newly in the USA public domain as of 1/1/2021 I came across his "True Tales of the DCI". It is good reading and depicts aspects of US history which were suppressed at the time or not well recalled later probably because the idea that doughboy deserters were a plague upon the French population.

  11. Detzer had prior service in the US Army, so he didn't reenlist, he applied to have his commission as an officer reactivated. This happened in thousands of cases just after Pearl Harbor and the influx of experienced soldiers with prior service helped the military greatly as America geared up for WWII.

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