REVIEWED BY JIM McCAHERY:

   

C. W. GRAFTON – The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope.  Gil Henry #1. Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1943.  Dell #180, mapback edition, no stated date. Mercury Mystery #97, digest-sized paperback, 1945. Perennial Library, paperback, 1983. Poisoned Pen Press, trade paperback, 2020.

   Ruth McClure of Harpersville, Kentucky becomes suspicious when her deceased dad’s boss, William J. Harper, offers her exorbitant prices for her father’s shares of stock in his company with the stipulation that she turn over to him her father’s papers as well. She approaches Gil Henry, a junior partner in his law firm to investigate.

   Gil is an unusual investigator — short, pudgy, thirty, and living at the YMCA. He takes the case and Harper is killed shortly thereafter in his study. Ruth’s stepbrother is arrested on suspicion and Gil has to quit the firm to represent him because the firm proper already handles the Harper estate. Soon a neighbor, Miss Katie, is killed as well.

   There are some very good scenes at the bank when Gil is trying to get into the safety deposit box belonging to Ruth’s father. It’s fairly complicated with a lot of references to stocks and depreciation and whatnot, and Gil does some handy will juggling himself at the request of Mrs. Harper.

   It’s all neatly tied up at the end, however. The Mother Goose title is a bit far-fetched. Gil represents the rat gnawing at the rope, setting off an inevitable chain of events. I will definitely read the sequel,  The Rope Began to Hang the Butcher (1944).

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 3, Number 6 (December 1980).

   

HOWARD BROWNE “So Dark for April.” Paul Pine. Novelette. First published in Manhunt, February 1953 [Vol. 1 No. 2] as by John Evans. Collected in The Paper Gun (Dennis McMillan, 1985) under the author’s real name, Howard Browne. Reprinted also under the author’s real name in The Mammoth Book of Private Eye Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg (Carrol & Graf, 1988).

   Unless I am mistaken, this is the only instance of Chicago-based PI Paul Pine appearing in a work of short fiction. Not only that, but if you’re a fan of Raymond Chandler, you really need to read this one. If Raymond Chandler never existed, neither would Paul Pine. He’s his own man, mind you, with his own particular brand of cases he tackled, so I can’t, nor wouldn’t, call the stories pastiches in any sense of term. What they are are a lot of fun to read. I’ll list all of Pine’s novel length investigations at the end of this review.

   It (probably) goes without saying, but you can’t get the full flavor of a Paul Pine story in one as short as “So Dark for April.” It has a semi-wacky opening, though, one that will draw any reader of PI stories right on in. Pine walks into his office one day only to find a dead man in his outer waiting room. The man has been shot in the chest. He has very little by which he could be identified, and his clothes do not match. A good new coat, dirty slacks, and shoes but no socks.

   The detective sergeant on the case is belligerent to Pine, nothing new there. Very seldom do cops and PI’s get along. The day is rainy, hence the title, but that’s nothing that people living in Chicago take much note about. Pine’s detective work is excellent, but it’s the telling that makes the story:

   It was one of those foggy wet mornings we get early in April, with a chill wind off the lake and the sky as dull as a deodorant commercial.

   His nails had the cared-for look, his face, even in death, held a vague air of respectability, and they didn’t trim hair that way at barber college.

   [Sergeant Lund] grinned suddenly, and after a moment, I grinned back. Mine was no phonier than his. He snapped a thumb lightly against the point of his narrow chin a time or two while thinking a silent thought, then turned back to the body.

      The Paul Pine series —

         As by John Evans:

Halo in Blood. Bobbs Merrill 1946
Halo for Satan. Bobbs Merrill 1948
Halo in Brass. Bobbs Merrill 1949

         As by Howard Browne:

The Taste of Ashes. Simon & Schuster 1957
The Paper Gun. Dennis McMillan 1985 (collection)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:

   

ELIZABETH GEORGE – In the Presence of the Enemy. Thomas Lynley et al #8. Bantam, hardcover, 1996; paperback, 1997. TV movie: BBC/PBS, 2003.

   After I read the [most recent] of this series I got rid of all I had but the first three, and crossed George off my reading list. I had gotten tired of the unremitting angst that seemed to suffuse about two-thirds of the pages, which were too numerous. A friend said this [one] was more like the early ones I had liked considerably, though, so …

   The acknowledged but illegitimate child of a woman high in the Tory government is kidnapped, and both she and the child’s father, the editor of a muckraking left-wing tabloid, receive notes demanding that he acknowledge his first-born child on the front page of his paper. The woman, fearing political repercussions, is unwilling for either that to happen or the police to be notified; the man, though willing, abides by her decision and seeks help in finding the child. This help consists of Simon St. James, Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley’ s best friend, and Lady Helen Clyde, his fiancé. Then the story turns darker.

   I shouldn’t review this series where anyone new to it might read the review (and I won’t), because it wouldn’t be fair to them or George. Y’ see, her characters have just worn me out. There’s not as much browbeating and hair-tearing angst from them here as in some of the previous ones, but it doesn’t take much for me now, not with this bunch. I really don’t like them anymore. Too, George creates some of the most miserable, Rendell-ian characters imaginable, and I don’t like that. And her books are too damned long.

   What it amounts to is that she doesn’t do anything I enjoy any longer, and the fact that she’s without argument a more than competent prose stylist isn’t sufficient to change that. I will not read another of these.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #22, November 1995
IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts

   

CHARLES FINCH – An Extravagant Death. Charles Lenox #14. Minotaur Books, hardcover, February 2021; softcover, January 2022. Setting: Newport RI / New York City, 1878.

First Sentence: It was a sunny, icy late morning in February of 1878, and a solitary figure, lost in thought, strode along one of the pale paths winding through St. James’s Park in London.

   British Enquiry Agent, Charles Lennox, solved a case that brought down Scotland Yard with the three top men headed to trial. Prime Minister Disraeli determines it best that Lennox is not in England during the trial and sends him to the United States with the Queen’s Seal on a tour of the East Coast law enforcement agencies. 1878 Newport, Rhode Island: a place of extreme wealth and self-indulgence. A place of new money, and a focus on marrying well. The murder of a young woman of the first diamond doesn’t fit into this scenario. Lennox’s help is requested.

   Finch does an excellent job of providing a summary of Lenox’s background, folding in that of his wife, Lady Jane, in the process. However, it is confusing that the case for which Lennox is being lauded falls into a huge gap: When did Lennox and Jane have a second child? When did Polly and Dallington, Charles’ partners in the agency, get married? And most of all, what was the case that brought down Scotland Yard? Either this reviewer blanked out this information, or Finch and/or his publisher just decided to skip a book and these annoying little details.

   As Lenox gets to know New York, Finch presents the stark contrast between the wealthy and the laboring class very well, demonstrating compassion but not dismissiveness or pity. Lenox’s excitement is tangible as he crosses the border from New York to Connecticut, consulting his little book of maps showing the thirty-eight states, as one learns the origin of the word “shrapnel,” and later the term “I heard it through the grapevine.” Those small bits of information lend richness to the story.

   Just as with the contrast in settings, Finch displays the contrasts in characters and their lives with the working class and merchants of the town, to the very wealthy “cottage” owners such as the Vanderbilts and Mrs. Astor. As is often true, some of the most interesting characters are those of ex-soldier James Clark, and Fergus O’Brian, the Irish valet,

   It is interesting to see Lenox dogged determination and attention to detail as he investigates every aspect and every possible suspect. The details of how and why Lily, the victim, was killed are laid out perfectly and done in a scene of edge-of-seat suspense rather than the more pedestrian style of Christie. The final chapters are heart-warming, especially the requests he makes on behalf of others.

   An Extravagant Death is just shy of being excellent, in part due to a scene at the end. The mystery is well done with some secondary characters nearly stealing the show. It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here.

Rating: Good Plus.

DOROTHY B. HUGHES “The Homecoming.” Short story. First published in Murder Cavalcade (Duell Sloane & Pearce, 1946, the first MWA Anthology). Reprinted in Rex Stout’s Mystery Monthly #9, 1947, and Verdict, July 1953. Also reprinted in Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy & Otto Penzler (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

   There isn’t a lot that’s new in this chilling short story of a jilted lover’s leap into madness and revenge. When “Hero Jim” comes home from the war as just that, while stay-at-home Benny’s contribution to the war effort was limited to working in his home town’s recruiting center, it’s no wonder that the latter feels the way he does when Nan takes up with Jim again.

   No, it’s the telling that will this tale stuck in your head for a while. Hughes’s prose is both poetic and incisive. The reader knows exactly what is going to happen and can’t look away. An ordinary writer whose talent was confined to the level of the pulp magazines at the time simply wouldn’t have been up to the challenge. Dorothy B. Hughes simply nails it in “The Homecoming,” a small noirish gem of a tale.

   And one quite worthy of an author whose novel-length work was responsible for movies such as The Fallen Sparrow (1943), In a Lonely Place (1950), and Ride the Pink Horse (1947), each one an absolute classic of the film noir genre.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Julie Smith & Bill Pronzini

   

E. V. CUNNINGHAM – Samantha. Masao Masuto #1. William Morrow, hardcover, 1967. Popular Library, paperback [date?]. Also published as: The Case of the Angry Actress. Dell, 1984.

   Samantha was a pathetic Hollywood hopeful who ended up on the casting couch with a succession of unscrupulous men. Even then, she failed to land a part. Eleven years later, the men are being murdered, apparently in revenge. Each of them is now married to a woman who just might be Samantha with a new name. Detective Sergeant Masao Masuto of the Beverly Hills Police Force has his work cut out for him.

   This is the book that introduced Masuto, a Zen Buddhist like his creator, who is actually the prolific Howard Fast writing under a pseudonym. A Nisei who lives in a Culver City cottage with his wife, three children, and his beloved rose garden, Masuto is culturally about as distant from the fast-lane denizens of Beverly Hills as a cop can get. Yet he declines to let them rattle him; he doesn’t envy, despise, or judge them.

   His trademark cool — sometimes masking a very human inner turmoil — is as appealing as his sometimes acerbic wit. The Hollywood crowd, not surprisingly, is mystified by him and his Zen ways; he explains himself with a disarming simplicity that leaves them even more baffled.

   The contrast between the two cultures he moves between is the chief charm of this and the other Masuto mysteries, among them The Case of the One-Penny Orange (1977), The Case of the Russian Diplomat (1978), and The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs (1979).

   Before creating Masuto, Fast published, under the Cunningham name, a number of non-series thrillers utilizing the first names of their female protagonists as titles. Some of these have serious themes: Sylvia (1960), Phyllis (1962). Others are comedic in tone: Penelope (1965), Margie (1966). Most have rather outlandish plots that entertain despite putting a strain on the reader’s credulity.

   Fast’s first crime novel, Fallen Angel (1952), originally published under the pseudonym Walter Ericson, was made into the 1965 film Mirage, with Gregory Peck and Walter Matthau; both novel and film are taut and engrossing but suffer from that same lack of believability.

     ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

CORNELL WOOLRICH. “Dipped in Blood.” Novelette. First published in Detective Story Magazine, April 1945. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1964, as “Adventures of a Fountain Pen.” Collected in The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich (Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1965) also as “Adventures of a Fountain Pen.” Film: US title, Oh, Bomb! (Japan, 1964, directed by Kihachi Okamoto).

   There is a small but significant subgenre of both fiction and the movies in which the story follows an object of some importance is followed through its lifetime as it’s passed from hand to hand in small vignettes. It may be a gun, an automobile, almost anything, including a similar chain connecting people in all walks of lives. (If there’s a name to such a subgenre, I don’t know what it is. Maybe someone reading this can help.)

   The object in this richly ironic story by Woolrich is a fountain pen, manufactured to order as a means of assassination by one gangster meant for another. Things go awry, however, as they always do in a Woolrich story, with one final twist at the end, about which I will tell you only that it’s there but nothing more. There are things best to be discovered on one’s own.

   I don’t believe this is one of Woolrich’s better known stories, but what it has is both an ending worth waiting for and people in it who are described to perfection in just a few words or lines. This is why, when back in the 1970s when I first started to seriously read mysteries, if I was asked who my favorite mystery writer was, it was always a tossup between Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, or Cornell Woolrich, in alphabetical order. That still holds true today.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THERE WAS A YOUNG LADY. Nettlefold Films, 1953. Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray, Sydney Tafler, Bill Owen, Charles Farrell, Robert Adair, Geraldine McEwen, Kenneth Connor, Bill Shire. Screenplay: Lawrence Huntington. Story by Vernon Harris & John Jowett. Director: Lawrence Huntington. Currently available on YouTube.

   David Walsh (Michael Denison) is one of those rather hapless English public school types common to British comedy in the Post-War era, a nice chap, but not really suited to anything practical like the jewelry business he has inherited from his uncle and knows nothing about. Luckily for David his fiancee Elizabeth (Dulcie Gray) not only knows jewelry, but business.

   In fact she has a bright idea to buy the family jewels of a titled old school chum (Bill Shire) of David’s who is in a money bind, and sell them at a tidy profit if she can get past David’s stubborn refusal to use his old chum for business.

   Pushed to the brink by David’s recalcitrance and more than a little annoyed by the obvious crush the sexy receptionist (Geraldine McEwan — yes, Miss Marple) has on him Elizabeth walks out …

   And right into a smash and grab hold up at a nearby jewelry store. When the frightened criminal (Bill Owen) grabs her and drags her to the getaway car she finds herself in the company of a hopeless crew of wanna be mastermind Sydney Tafler, muscle man Charles Farrell who would rather garden, Owen, and none to bright Robert Adair who wants to be a chef.

   Truth is, these boys are so poorly organized Elizabeth takes pity on them and masterminds their escape just to get her ordeal over more quickly, but now they are holding her hostage at a manor house outside London that Farrell’s uncle watches for the owners.

   Luckily Elizabeth is able to slip a note to David on a tip she gives a local (Kenneth Connor) who gives them a lift on his hay cart after they dump the getaway car. Unluckily he doesn’t notice.

   While Elizabeth gradually takes over the gang because she is so much smarter than the rest in the way of this kind of comic crime caper David decides her plan isn’t so bad after all and arranges to buy the collection from his friend putting it in their office safe — the old one because he refused delivery on the new one Elizabeth bought while he was still mad at her — and forgets to call the insurance company when Connor shows up with Elizabeth’s note.

   Meanwhile the efficient Elizabeth, having befriended one of crooks, convinces them to make a killing by holding up the jewelry exchange where she and David have their offices with a promise to free her if the plan works. And wouldn’t you know it they hit the wrong office — hers.

   Other than a really annoying theme song this is a cute minor British comedy of the era, hardly a rival to Ealing Studios or any classics of the form from that time, but enjoyable on a British Damon Runyon note with comic crooks, a hapless hero, and a heroine frustrated by not being taken seriously despite being smarter than everyone around her.

   It’s clever, the characters well developed, and the actors fine. Denison was successful minor lead, Gray a competent actress, and the faces like Tafler, Owen (Compo on the long running British comedy Last of the Summer Wine), Adair, McEwen, and Connor — all familiar faces even if you don’t know the names.

   There is a particularly nice bit as a snide Gray reads a cheap thriller in bed out loud while outside, unknown to her, Denison is doing the exact same things she is narrating. There’s also a nice attempted hold up by the boys in the city that goes awry in exactly the way Elizabeth predicted ironically because of Denison and his titled friend who keep getting in the way while shopping for an engagement ring for the friend.

   There are no big laughs here and only the most minor of physical comedy bits, but it is an entertaining time killer that performs well above its class, and has a nice ironic and charming ending, charm being the operative word for the entire film.

   

DAY KEENE “Nothing to Worry About.” Short story. First published in Detective Tales, August 1945. Collected in League of the Grateful Dead and Other Stories (Ramble House, 2010). Reprinted in Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy & Otto Penzler (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

   There is a long tradition of stories such as this one. It is a prime example of tales in which one half of a married couple plans to kill the other one, but even though the planning is perfect, things do not work out as well as the guilty person had in mind.

   In this one – and far from the very first one in its subgenre – an Assistant State’s Attorney named Sorrell, and someone who should know better but who’s arrogant enough to think he can get away with it, decides to kill his wife, a woman he now hates and who, he is convinced, is holding his career back. But even more, he has another woman in mind already to replace her.

   It doesn’t work out, of course, but in addition to than the well-timed twist in the end, author Day Keene fleshes out the other characters, too, ones that other writers might even have omitted, or at best glossed over. And yet I demur. There’s nothing really new in this one. It’s a good story, but why (I wonder) was it recently selected as one of the “Best American Noir of the Century”?

BRUNO FISCHER – The Hornets’ Nest. Rick Train #1. Dell #79, mapback edition, [date?]. Cover by Gerald Gregg. Previously published in hardcover by Morrow, 1944. Originally appeared in Mammoth Detective, May 1944, as “Murder Wears a Skirt.”

   While this was newspaper reporter Rick Train’s first appearance in print, he could have just as well have been a private eye with one last case before he’s called up by the army as part of the war effort. Not only is he fairly known as a guy who’s broken or solved several big cases, he’s also noted as a collector of all kinds of guns as well as being a crack shot with all of them.

   With only a week before he reports for duty, he finds himself up to his ears in yet another case of double homicide, beginning with a somewhat forlorn young girl with a story she’d like the Train’s paper to buy. Turning her down because he’s already cleared out his desk, he soon learns that she’s been shot and killed soon after leaving him. He doesn’t have a client, but he is of course committed to finding her killer.

   The case, as it turns out, involves an estate that’s up for grabs, with no less than three claimants for the money. All three have good credentials. The question is which one wants the money more than the others? And all the while Train is trying to answer that particular question, he soon becomes the target of the killer himself, presumably – a woman who seems to be as good with a gun as he is.

   The story is competently told without being anything close to exceptional, with characterization next to nil. As a pulp writer, though, with lots of tales well under his belt, Fischer’s prose is smooth enough to keep this one moving. Until that is, when it comes to the final solution and explanation. Without the reader even noticing, the story turns out to have been more complicated than he or she probably realized: it takes eleven full pages to get through Train’s explanation of everything that had just happened in the previous 180.

   Never mind that. As a detective Train is good enough that I had to wonder why his second and final appearance was only in Kill to Fit, a digest-sized paperback original published by a third-rate company called Five Star Mysteries (1946). (Whether that one also first appeared in pulp magazine under a different name, I do not know.)

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