REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

JUMP INTO HELL. Warner Brothers, 1955. Jacques Sernas (as Jack Sernas), Kurt Kasznar, Arnold Moss, Peter van Eyck, Norman Dupont, Lawrence Dobkin, Patricia Blair (as Pat Blake), Lisa Montell (as Irene Montwill). Writer: Irving Wallace. Director: David Butler.

   This somewhat obscure 1950s war film is a decidedly anti-communist, flag waving piece. And the flag being waved here is most assuredly the red, white, and blue. But not the one you might expect from Warner Brothers. No. Instead, it is the tricolor flag of the French Republic which is being proverbially hoisted here.

   Rather than taking us into an American unit in the Second World War or the Korean War, Jump Into Hell showcases the French military in its last stand against the Viet Minh communist revolutionaries at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. As an entry point into the story, the movie focuses primarily on four French soldiers who chose to volunteer for duty. The emphasis is on Captain Guy Bertrand (Jacques Sernas), who has never been in any real combat but was a German POW during the Second World War.

   Joining him are Captain Callaux (Kurt Kasznar), who seems to think that showcasing his bravery might help with his marital problems; Lieutenant Heldman (Peter van Eyck), who fought under Rommel, but is not a member of the Foreign Legion; and the youthful and decidedly innocent, Lieutenant Maupin (Norman Dupont).

   While there’s a subplot involving Bertrand’s illicit love affair with the wife of a soldier already based at Dien Bien Phu, most of the film is about how these four men adapt to life in a combat zone. As you might expect with a somewhat lesser war movie from the era, there’s a lot of stock footage in this one. Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly obvious and does serve to take the viewer out of the story.

   As far as direction and cinematography, it’s nothing special. Adequate, but not anything overly memorable one way or the other. There are some very good moments in Jump Into Hell such as when Callaux volunteers to get much-needed drinking water for his unit, but nothing that remotely compares to other combat films. All told, it’s a somewhat unique film because of its subject matter about the French in Indochina, but it’s not anything I’d recommend going out of your way to see.

   

DASHIELL HAMMETT “The Scorched Face.” The Continental Op #17. Novelette. First published in The Black Mask, March 1925. Collected in Nightmare Town (Mercury, paperback, 1948) and The Big Knockover (Random House, 1966). Reprinted in Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini & Jack Adrian (Oxford University Press, 1995) among others.

   You may certainly correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this is one of Hammett’s better known stories, and do you know, I don’t remember reading it before last night (from the Pronzini/Ardian anthology). I know I read The Big Knockover from cover to cover when it came out in paperback, but last night? Nothing came back.

   Here’s something else you can correct me on if I’m wrong, and that’s that I think the story is based on one of Hammett’s own cases when he was a Pinkerton detective. He’s hired here by a distraught father whose two daughters have gone missing. There was a small disagreement about money, but nothing out of the ordinary. What convinces the Op that the girls may be in considerable danger is that one of their female friends commits suicide the same evening after he questions her about them.

   The first part of the tale is filled with plodding legwork — no, plodding is not quite right word. It’s the kind of work a private investigator always has to do before he gets any traction on a case, and yet Hammett’s flair for detail as well as the personalities involved keeps the story in at least second gear until things begin to fall into place. This is about halfway through, and this is when the story really starts to take off, punctuated by short one line paragraphs that the reader (me) simply can’t read fast enough.

   The crime involved is not a new one by today’s standards, but I’ll bet it raised a few eyebrows back in 1925. It didn’t do too badly last night, either.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins

   

   I am satisfied that Lawrence Block, who turns 82 this year, is the finest living writer of private-eye novels, and that his protagonist Matthew Scudder is the late 20th-early 21st century counterpart of Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. In previous columns I’ve explored the earlier Scudder novels, going back to his debut in 1976. This month we take the character to near the end of the century which first saw him come to life on the page.

***

   If A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD (1990) and A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE (1991) were the most powerful novels in the series to date, one of the main reasons was that they pitted Scudder against genuinely satanic adversaries. So does the next book in the series. A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (1992) opens with a scene presented in third person, and for a few minutes we wonder if we’re reading about the unlicensed PI we’ve come to know so well. But Matt and first-person narration return after two pages, and the rest of Chapter 1 alternates between the two modes. It’s as if Block were determined to make the third-person scenes more vivid and, yes, more graphic than they could possibly have been in the form of dialogue between Scudder and others.

   The tale these scenes tell is of the kidnaping of 24-year-old Francine Khoury from the street outside the ethnic market in Brooklyn where she’d been shopping. Her husband Kenan, a prosperous narcotics trafficker, receives phone calls from the abductors demanding a million dollars for her return. They settle on $400,000. After the ransom is paid, Khoury gets another call, telling him his wife is in the trunk of a Ford Tempo parked illegally at a fire hydrant around the corner. He and his brother Peter check and find her: cut up into cutlets and wrapped in plastic bags.

   Peter, who isn’t in the drug trade but is a recovering junkie and alcoholic, recommends that Kenan hire Scudder. Once committed to the case, and thanks to his police contact Joe Durkin, Matt learns that Francine wasn’t the first woman to be mutilated and murdered by criminals using the same modus operandi. Eventually he finds one young woman who escaped alive, although only after the perps performed an obscene parody of the novel and movie SOPHIE’S CHOICE, making her decide which of her breasts they should cut off. With the help of two teen-age computer hackers brought to him by his young black buddy TJ, he obtains the numbers of the various pay phones on which the murderers called Kenan Khoury.

   Then comes another kidnaping, the victim this time being the adolescent daughter of a Russian drug dealer, and the inevitable race to save her from sexual violation, mutilation and death. The first part of the climax, packed with tension but without a moment of onstage violence, takes place near midnight in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, site of the exchange of the girl for a million dollars; the second, at the serial killers’ house.

   In A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD Scudder killed a psychopathic monster in cold blood but, unwilling to make a habit of the practice, declines to take part in Khoury’s vengeance, which is best described by one of the Latin phrases tossed around earlier in the novel by an attorney recalling the legalisms in that language that he learned in law school. The phrase: lex talionis. Later Khoury describes the scene for Scudder — so graphically it makes him vomit. As might many readers.

***

   Block apparently realized that if all subsequent Scudders involved combat against satanic adversaries they’d soon become indistinguishable. In the next book in the series he tried another experiment in minimalism. The basic story of THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (1993) occupies at most 25% of the novel’s 316 pages, the murderer never appearing onstage for a moment and not even his name mentioned until page 292.

   Scudder and Elaine casually meet Glenn Holtzmann, a yuppie lawyer working at a large-print publishing house, and his pregnant wife Lisa. For some reason, or perhaps just on cop instinct, Scudder is turned off by the man. Lisa loses the baby, and one evening about two months later her husband is shot to death with four bullets, three in the body and the fourth in the back of the neck as a coup de grâce, while standing in front of a pay phone — not inside a booth, they don’t exist anymore — on Eleventh Avenue almost within sight of the high-rise condo on West 57th Street where he and Lisa lived.

   Within 24 hours a near-homeless street person and Vietnam veteran is arrested for the murder, the shell casings from the four bullets found inside his stinking Army jacket. He doesn’t remember whether he committed the crime or not. His younger brother, another recovering alcoholic, hires Scudder to make sure of the facts one way or the other. The job brings Matt in close contact with Lisa, who calls on him for help when she finds a strongbox containing several hundred thousand dollars on a closet shelf, and it soon becomes apparent that Glenn Holtzmann was obtaining huge amounts of cash from a mysterious source.

   In the course of the investigation Scudder and Lisa begin an affair. There’s not a moment of violence or menace in this novel except for a brief interlude when Scudder takes on another case, this one pitting him against a sadistic psycho whose ilk we’ve seen in other Block novels. Several interesting chapters follow Scudder as he methodically probes Holtzmann’s past, but in the end the truth is revealed to him by a transsexual hooker and Scudder and Elaine move in together while Matt seems poised to continue his affair with Lisa.

   This is one of those Block novels you read not so much for the story as for the extraneous incidents surrounding the story, my favorite being the one on page 97 where Scudder recounts a mob hit in which four innocent people sitting at a table on one side of a restaurant were blown away and the four intended targets on the other side were left untouched. “The shooter, it turned out, was dyslexic, and turned left when he should have turned right.” Moral? “Everybody makes miskates.” Or, as Hammett put it unforgettably, we live while blind chance spares us. This incident, like several but not all the others, is thematically related to the core story: I won’t say how.

   Like other Scudder novels, THE DEVIL KNOWS features guest appearances by the usual regulars: Mick Ballou, TJ, Matt’s former lover the sculptor Jan Keane, his AA sponsor Jim Faber, the cop Joe Durkin, the black albino Danny Boy Bell. One of these doesn’t make it to the last page, and though Block doesn’t intend the death to be a surprise, on general principles I won’t say who. I do get the impression that for a while Block seriously considered making Ballou the murderer and writing him out of the series, but if so, clearly he had second thoughts. I prefer the Scudders with a stronger story and a satanic adversary but, like millions of others, I can’t stop reading these books.

***

   If Block was bothered by the lack of sufficient core story in THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, he solved the problem in the next Scudder, A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN (1994), by pitting his protagonist against another serial killer, although this one is not a sadist but something of a philosopher. One of the current members of a 31-man club which may have been founded centuries ago, and whose only purpose is to meet for dinner every year on the first Thursday in May and and commemorate the members who have died since the birth of the club’s present incarnation in 1961, comes to Scudder when it dawns on him that there are only fourteen members still alive.

   To put it another way, there have been an unusual number of member deaths in the past 30-odd years: some unsuspicious, like that of the young man who was killed in Vietnam in 1966; some clearly from natural causes, others apparent accidents or suicides, four clearly murders. This premise requires that many of the characters, being dead, never appear onstage, but Block with superb skill makes them all but come back to life as Scudder investigates how they died—and whether a member of the club has been devoting years of his life to killing off his fellow members. (No, this is not a tontine, where the last man standing gains millions, nor is it a trust as in my novel BENEFICIARIES’ REQUIEM where every death in the family increases the share of the survivors. If there is a serial killer, he can’t be motivated by money.)

   Eventually, and largely by trial and error, Scudder identifies his adversary, with whom he’s had a most unusual relationship before this moment, and the game of cat and mouse takes a new turn. Some of the murders have been exceptionally brutal, particularly one whose details Scudder learns from his NYPD friend Joe Durkin: the wife of a murdered club member who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time “was garroted with a strip of wire. Her head turned purple and swelled up like a volleyball….She had a fireplace poker thrust up her vagina and well into the abdomen.”

   When one of the club members (a controversial criminal defense lawyer notorious for getting guilty monsters acquitted) assures Scudder that the legal system will never be able to bring the killer to justice, the only option left on the table is extra-legal vengeance. In this case vengeance takes a unique and not too plausible form, but at least it circumvents the Mike Hammer type of justice we found in novels like A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD.

   On the personal side, Scudder is still a sober alcoholic regularly attending AA meetings, living with Elaine and sleeping now and then with Lisa. The usual regulars make their expected appearances, not only Joe Durkin but Mick Ballou and TJ and Scudder’s AA sponsor Jim Faber. Also appearing, and in a major role, is one we have seen in Block novels many times before: Mister Death. Even before the first word of the book, we get to read William Dunbar’s poem “Lament for the Makaris” with its incessant refrain Timor mortis conturbat me (fear of death terrifies me). The theme is reinforced by the huge number and variety of deaths we encounter (although there’s hardly a moment of onstage violence in the entire book) and dialogue about death. “Cancer, heart attacks, all those little time bombs in your blood vessels. Those are the things that scare you.”

   The speaker will die violently a few chapters after he says this. Scudder: “[M]an is the only animal that knows he’ll die someday. He’s also the only animal that drinks.” Mick Ballou: “But do you think there’s a connection?” Scudder: “I know there is.” Like so many other novels in this powerful series, A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN makes it understandable that so many are now calling all PI fiction noir.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

FOUR FACES WEST. MGM, 1948. Joel McCrea, Frances Dee, Charles Bickford, Joseph Calliea, and William Conrad. Screenplay by C. Graham Baker and Teddy Sherman, from the story “Paso Por Aqui” by Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Produced by Harry Sherman. Directed by Alfred E Green.

   “Pop” Sherman’s last Western is a gentle affair, maybe too gentle, but a fitting coda for the man who brought Hopalong Cassidy to the screen.

   Joel McCrea stars as a wandering westerner who rides into town and robs the bank while Marshall Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford) is giving a speech a few blocks away. A chase ensues. And ensues. And goes on… and on…. And about the time I’d had enough, the story takes a turn that brings things to a worthy, if tame, ending.

   Aye, there’s the rub. I’m not going to put in a ((SPOILER ALERT!)) here because it’s pretty obvious early on that nothing very bad is going to happen here. And when the viewer figures that out, the film forfeits a certain amount of interest. Much as we like the characters, it’s hard to care about them when we can see a happy ending galloping across the screen with every shot. And speaking of Shot, nobody gets killed in Four Faces. Hell, nobody even gets shot much. There’s not even a decent fist-fight in the whole film, and at a certain point we no longer expect one, so there’s no need to add ((END OF ALERT!)) here.

   For viewers accustomed to seeing a certain amount of action in their oaters — even a pacifist Western like Angel and the Bad Man — this can be off-putting. Four Faces compensates with a literate script, strong performances (Charles Bickford embodies everything I’d like to think Pat Garrett really was) and lustrous photography, and I’d like to think this was what Sherman wanted his Hoppy series to be.

   I’m just glad it wasn’t.

   

THE CHICAGO CODE. “Pilot.” Fox. 07 February 2011. Jason Clarke (Jarek Wysocki), Jennifer Beals (Teresa Colvin), Matt Lauria, Delroy Lindo. Director: Charles McDougall.

   Another short-lived series on Fox, The Chicago Code lasted 13 episodes before not being renewed for a another season. On the basis of the first episode, I think it deserved better, but if no one is watching, what can even the network execs do?

   As who I consider the star of the series, though, Jennifer Beals plays the Chicago Police Department’s first female superintendent, a token placement in that position by City Alderman Ronin Gibbons (a perfectly cast Delroy Lindo), who think he has a puppet he can manipulate to his liking whenever he wants. Not so. In fact, quite the opposite. Knowing he is a crooked as a snake and twice as deadly, she recruits a pair of other cops as a secret squad to bring him down.

   Which is about as far as this first episode goes, but it does its job in defiling all of the characters and what the stakes are exceedingly well. So far there does not seem to be anything out of the ordinary that might convince you or anyone else anyone to stay with it, but I found all of the characters both well defined and well played.

   The series does not seem to have ever come out on DVD, and the only streaming option I’ve come across is at an asking price of $1.99 a clip. For 13 episodes, that seems rather pricey for a series that once watched is gone, so as they say, we shall have to see.

   

REVIEWED BY RAY O’LEARY:

   

LEE WILSON – This Deadly Dark. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1946. Handi-Books #78, paperback, 1948.

   I picked this one up at a used book sale because its tattered dust cover heralded it as the winner of the $1,000 Red Badge Prize Mystery. Of the dozen previous winners listed inside, however, only two were by familiar names: Hugh Pentecost and Christianna Brand, and only her Heads You Lose was a familiar title.

   Matt Rogers, having just returned from a three year stint as a soldier and war correspondent in the Pacific and Japan, returns to bis Crime Beat for the San Francisco Globe. Receiving an anonymous tip on a recent crime of violence, Rogers is lured into an alley near the scene of the crime, where he’s assaulted and viciously blinded by person(s) unknown. Wallowing in self-pity and trying to work up the nerve to kill himself, he’s goaded into investigating the crime once more by R. B. (you don’t learn what the initials stand for until the last few paragraphs) Clancy, a female photographer for People (!) magazine.

   Though Wilson is no prose stylist, he (?) offers some pretty decent dialogue, and, more importantly, brings his characters to life. Though I spotted the Vital Clue (but not the killer) well before Rogers did, and saw the hate-turning-to-love relationship between Rogers and Clancy marching down Main Street, I found this all-in-all to be a pretty solid effort.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #66, July 1994.
   

Editorial Update: Lee Wilson was the pseudonym of Laura Elizabeth Lemmon, (1917-2003). This was her only work of crime fiction.

O’NEIL DE NOUX “The Heart Has Reasons.” PI Lucien Caye. Novelette. First published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, September 2006. Collected in New Orleans Confidential (Create Space, 2010).

   Besides the list below of short stories that New Orleans-based PI Lucien Caye has been featured in, there are five novels, with a sixth promised as coming soon. I doubt that the list of short stories is complete,. The author is nothing but prolific, with perhaps over 40 books and 400 short stories to his credit. Nor is Lucien Caye De Noux’s only recurring series character; others are Dino Francis LaStanza, John Raven Beau, Jacques Dugas, and Joseph Savary (also probably not a complete list). Some (or none) of these gentlemen may also be PI’s.

   There is not too much to learn about Lucien Caye in “The Heart Has Reasons.” The year is 1948, the city is New Orleans, and Caye has an office on the ground floor of the house he lives in, not far from (or in) the French Quarter; his living quarters are on the second. He was wounded in the war; and at the time this story takes place, he is independently wealthy, thanks to a grateful client who has recently died and remembered him in his will.

   Which is why he is able to show his softer side in this tale. He takes in a young girl and her baby from a torrential rainstorm and learns that the father is in trouble with a local loan shark. He is in fact in the hospital with a broken arm, incurred when he couldn’t pay what he owes. Choosing to play the role of The Equalizer, long before The Equalizer came along, Caye decides that the young couple, as yet not married, need someone on their side for a change.

   Which he does, most efficiently. The time and the locale also add greatly to the tale. Nicely done.

   

      Magazine appearances –

The Heart Has Reasons (nv) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Sep 2006
Too Wise (nv) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Nov 2008
They Called Her the Gungirl (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Jul/Aug 2010
The Marriage Swindler (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Mar 2013
The Magnolia Murders (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Jul/Aug 2017
The Peeschwet (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Mar/Apr 2019

   Taken from the Thrilling Detective website:

      Non-magazine appearances:

“Erotophopia” (1997, Kiss and Kill: Hot Blood 8)
“Hard Rain” (1999, Pontalba Press Presents Short Stories: Volume 1)
“Friscoville” (April 1999, Hemispheres; 2001, The Thrilling Detective Web Site; aka “The Problem on Friscoville Avenue”)
“Lair of the Red Witch” (2000, The Mammoth Book of Erotic Short Stories)
“St. Expedite” (September 2001, Hemispheres)
“Bluegums” (February 2003, City Slab)
“The Iberville Mistress” (2003, Flesh & Blood: Guilty As Sin)
“Expect Consequences” (2003, Fedora II)
“Guilty of Dust and Sin” (2009, New Orleans Mysteries)
“Tenderless Night” (October 2010)
“She Gleeked Me” (August, 2011)
“Christmas Weather”
“Kissable Cleavage”

   COLLECTIONS

New Orleans Confidential (2006; revised 2010).

   NOVELS

Enamored (2012)
Rapacious (2014)
Hold Me, Babe (2016)
Dame Money (2018)
Walkin’ the Blues (2020)

BODYGUARD. “Episode 1.” ITV/BBC One, UK, 26 August 2018. Richard Madden as PS David Budd; Keeley Hawes as The Rt. Hon. Julia Montague MP, the Home Secretary and Conservative Party Member of Parliament for Thames West: Sophie Rundle as Vicky Budd, David’s wife; plus a large ensemble cast. Director: Thomas Vincent.

   After successfully defusing a terrorist attack aboard a speeding train, PS David Budd is assigned the ask of guarding Home Secretary Julia Montague against possible attempts on her life. Unknown to host of his superiors, Budd is suffering from PTSD from his years of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but because of his moody and sometimes violent behaviors at home, he is separated from his wife and two children.

   There isn’t a lot of time to fill out an actual story in this, the first of six episodes, but it certainly does a great job of paving the way for what comes next. Budd does not care much for the policies of the woman he is guarding, thinking of her as just another politician who does not care for the men and women who must do the fighting to carry them out, and conflict between them seems inevitable. His domestic problems at home are also sure to play a role in what comes next.

   The British seem to do this kind of story much better than we seem to on this side of Atlantic. With only five more episodes to go, I’m much more likely to finish this particular example of that than some others I’ve been sampling. (I assume you’ve been following my recent investigations into streaming TV right along with me.)

   

ROY WINSOR – Three Motives for Murder. Ira Cobb #2. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback original1st printing, July 1976.

   The first book in this “Ira Cobb” series, The Corpse That Walked, won an Edgar, for Best Paperback Mystery, I believe. In Mystery*File #3, I rated it as a C Plus. I’m out of step, I’m afraid, and am still not impressed.

   Professor Cobb’s “Watson” is young Ph.D. (in English) Steve Barnes, whose engagement party is disrupted by the discovery of the dead body of his future brother-in-law. A lot of dirty linen comes to light, and most everyone comes under suspicion, as Ned Penrose was one of those worthless, idle scoundrels even the best families try to hide.

   My objection in not in the padding (road-map directions between any two locales), or the ridiculous coincidences (disguised as “complex relationships”), but more in the fact that the police disappear completely from the scene, allowing Cobb to run the show on his own, interviewing witnesses, carrying evidence around with him the whole genteel amateur detective bit. It rubs me wrong.

Rating: C

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 2, March 1977.

   

Bio-Bibliographic Update: There was a third book in the Ira Cobb series, that being Always Lock Your Bedroom Door (Gold Medal, 1976). As for the author, Roy Winsor, here’s an excerpt from his Wikipedia page:

   “He is most famous for creating some of the longest running soap operas in television history. Before he created television soap operas he wrote for many radio serials. He also produced the Western Have Gun – Will Travel for the radio. In 1951 he created the long-running soap opera Search for Tomorrow (1951-1986). For Search for Tomorrow, he first worked with fellow soap opera writer Agnes Nixon. The same year he created Love of Life (1951-1980). 3 years later he would create another long-running soap opera The Secret Storm (1954-1974). The year before The Secret Storm ended he would take over as head writer of the NBC soap opera Somerset, he wrote for the show from 1973 to 1974. In 1981 after a long break he returned to soap operas and co-created (with Bob Aaron) the serial Another Life (1981-1984) for CBN.”

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Susan Dunlap & Marcia Muller

   

AGATHA CHRISTIE – The ABC Murders. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1936. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1936. Reprinted many many times, in both hardcover and soft, including an edition published by Pocket in paperback entitled The Alphabet Murders in 1966. Film: MGM, 1966, also as The Alphabet Murders, with Tony Randall as Poirot. TV adaptions: (1) An episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, ITV, UK, 5 January 1992., with David Suchet as Poirot (2) A three part mini-series on BBC One, UK, 2018, as The ABC Murders with John Malkovich as Poirot.

   Agatha Christie has long been acknowledged as the grandc dame of the Golden Age detective-story writers, Beginning with her moderately successful The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), Christie built a huge following both in her native England and abroad, and eventually became a household name throughout the literate world. When a reader – be he in London or Buenos Aires – picks up a Christie novel, he knows exactly what he is getting and has full confidence that he is sitting down to a tricky, entertaining, and satisfying mystery.

   This enormous reader confidence stems from an effective combination of intricate, ingenious plots and typical, familiar characters and settings. Christie’s plots always follow the rules of detective fiction; she plays completely fair with the reader. But Christie was a master al planting clues in unlikely places, dragging red herrings thither and yon, and, like a magician, misdirecting the reader’s attention at the exact crucial moment. Her murderers – for all the Christie novels deal with nothing less important than this cardinal sin – are the Least Likely Suspect, the Second Least Likely Suspect, the Person with the Perfect Alibi. the Person with No Apparent Motive. And they are unmasked in marvelous gathering-of-all-suspects scenes where each clue is explained, all loose ends are tied up.

   As a counterpoint to these plots, Christie’s style is simple (even undistinguished). She relies heavily upon dialogue, and has a good ear for it when dealing with the “upstairs” people who are generally the main characters in her stories: the “downstairs” people fare less well a1 her hands, and their speech is often stilted or stereotyped.

   Christie, however, seldom ventures into the “downstairs” world. Her milieu is the drawing room, the country manor house, the book-lined study, the cozy parlor with a log blazing on the hearth. Like these settings, her characters arc refined and tame, comfortable as the slippers in front of the fire – until violent passion rears its ugly head. Not that violence is ever messy or repugnant. though; when murder intrudes, it does so in as bloodless a manner as possible, and its investigation is always conducted as coolly and rationally as circumstances permit. One reason that Christie’s works are so immensely satisfying is that we know we will be confronted by nothing really disturbing, frightening, or grim. In short, her books arc the ultimate escape reading with a guaranteed surprise at the end.

   Christie’s best-known sleuths are Hercule Poirot. the Belgian detective who relies on his “little grey cells” to solve the most intricate of crimes; and Miss .lane Marple, the old lady who receives her greatest inspiration while knitting. However, she created a number of other notable characters, among them Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, an amusing pair of detective-agency owners, who appear in such titles as The Secret Adversary ( 1922) and Postern of Fate (1973); Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, who is featured in The Secret of Chimneys ( 1925), The Seven Dials Murder ( 1929), and others; and the mysterious Harley Quin.

   The member of this distinguished cast who stars in The ABC Murders is Hercule Poirot. Poirot is considered by many to be Christie’s most versatile and appealing detective. The dapper Belgian confesses gleefully to dying his hair, but sees no humor in banter about his prized “pair of moustaches.” And yet he has the ability to see himself as others see him and use their misconceptions to make them reveal themselves and their crimes.

   A series of alphabetically linked letters are sent to Poirot, taunting him with information about where and when murders will be committed unless he is clever enough to stop them. The aging detective comes out of retirement, he admits, “like a prima donna who makes positively the farewell performance … an infinite number of times.” Is the murderer a madman who randomly chooses the victim’s town by the letter of the alphabet, or is he an extremely clever killer with a master plan? And why has he chosen to force Poirot out of retirement?

   These questions plague Poirot’s “little grey cells” as the plot thrusts forward and then winds back on itself time and time again. Well into the novel, Christie teases the horrified reader by introducing a coincidence that looks as if it will solve the cases, then snatches it back, dangles another possibility, snatches that one back, too. And so on, until the innovative and surprising conclusion is reached. Poirot is at his most appealing here, and Christie’s plotting is at its finest.

———
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

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