Reference works / Biographies


ROSEMARY HERBERT – The Fatal Art of Entertainment: Interviews with Mystery Writers. G. K Hall, hardcover, 1994.

   These are some of the better interviews with authors I’ve seen. Herbert has obviously read the books of each of them and thought about what she read. While she has certain themes she tries to explore with each author, she does quite well when discussing their individual oeuvres. She fawns a bit at times, but that’s probably hard to avoid. Hey, I can fawn with the best of ’em myself.

   The authors included are a mixed bag, and it would be interesting to know how they were selected. They are: Catherine Aird, Robert Barnard, Patricia Cornwell, Jonathan Gash, Sue Grafton, Jeremiah Healy, Reginald Hill, Tony Hillerman, P. D. James, Jane Langton, John Mortimer, Barbara Neely, and Julian Symons.

   They all had interesting things to say, some of course more so than others. It’s a bit pricey ($35) for anyone not really into this sort of thing, but it’s meaty, too. I was impressed with the book, and I’m usually not with interviews.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.


ED GORMAN, MARTIN GREENBERG, LARRY SEGRIFF & JON L. BREEN, Editors – The Fine Art of Murder. Carroll & Graf, oversized trade paperback, 1993. Galahad Books, hardcover, 1995

   What can I say about a book that has pieces by: Bill Crider on Texas Authors; Marv Lachman on Rockey Mountain Mysteries; Ellen Nehr on Cat Mysteries, Dog Mysteries, and the Doubleday Crime Club; Walter Albert on Researchers; Bob Napier on Fandom; Janet Rudolph on Conventions and Mystery Weekends; Peggy Albert on Nancy & Jessica; and Steve Stilwell interviewing Al Hubin.

   Well, I can say that I can’t imagine any real mystery fan not finding enough of interest to make the book worth the $17.95 purchase price. Besides the luminaries listed above, there are pieces by such lesser lights as Larry Block, Bill DeAndrea, Harry Keating, Ed Gorman, Max Allan Collins, John D. MacDonald, Vin Packer, Carolyn G. Hart, Bill Pronzini, Margaret Maron and a further cast of dozens.

   Jon Breen contributed the introductory remarks for most of.the`various sections. Many pieces are original, some are reprinted, but all were written by people who know how to write and write well, and did. My own favorite sections were on pulps and paperbacks, but there’s something (and more than one something) for everyone. It’s a browser’s delight that covers just about every aspect of the field, written by a group of people who know their subject.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #11, January 1994.

by Francis M. Nevins

   No sooner did I send off my November column than I learned of another death in October. Norman Sherry, who devoted almost thirty years of his life to researching and writing a 3-volume, 2250-page biography of Graham Greene, died on October 19 at age 91. For Volume One (1989) he received an Edgar from MWA. The New York Review of Books chose Volume Two (1994) as one of the eleven best books of its year. If I have a special fondness for Volume Three (2004), perhaps it’s because I contributed to it a little.

   The story of how he came to be Greene’s biographer has been often told. In 1974, the year he turned 70, the man who was perhaps the finest English novelist of the 20th century — and certainly one of the finest crime and espionage novelists ever — was in the market for a biographer and became interested in Sherry, whose previous life of Joseph Conrad Greene had much admired.

   The two met for lunch at London’s Savile Club but apparently nothing was decided. They met again and, walking across a busy street, Greene was knocked down by a taxi. “You almost lost your subject,” he said to Sherry. “Not half so bad as losing your biographer,” Sherry replied. That bit of quick wit got him the job. It was the beginning of a decades-long hunt with Sherry the literary detective tracking Greene through Mexico, Cuba, Liberia, Vietnam, Haiti, most if not all of the Third World places in which his quarry had set novels.

   The quest was ruinous to Sherry’s health — dysentery, gangrene that cost him fifteen feet of his intestines, the list seems endless — but he carried on. After Greene’s death in 1991 he found himself at odds with his subject’s closest relations, many of whom despise his three volumes. You can find what Greene’s son Francis thought of the books by googling “Graham Greene Norman Sherry,” such as this article from the New York Times, and there are similar critiques elsewhere on the Web.

   But there are also extravagant, near-idolatrous comments by others. My own view is that if you want to understand, or at least come as close as humanly possible to understanding, the brilliant, profoundly devious, sex-obsessed alcoholic who wrote like a dark angel and gave us THIS GUN FOR HIRE, BRIGHTON ROCK, THE CONFIDENTIAL AGENT, THE MINISTRY OF FEAR and so many other novels that have nothing to do with crime or espionage, you can’t do without Sherry’s epic biography.

   But perhaps I’m biased since, as I said above, I contributed a morsel to Volume Three. After such a buildup I’d be a toad if I didn’t share that morsel here with those who haven’t read the biography, so here goes. Back in 1984 and purely by accident I discovered that James Atlee Phillips, better known as Philip Atlee, author of the Joe Gall espionage novels, had moved to St. Louis County where I lived. Jim was reputed to be an interview-shunning curmudgeon but I took a chance, called him and, to my flabbergastment, was invited to come out to his place for dinner.

   After the meal we adjourned to his basement office, and I taped an hour-long conversation with him which was published in Espionage magazine (November 1985). That interview went so well that arrangements were made for me to follow up by interviewing Jim’s younger brother, David Atlee Phillips.

   David, who lived in Bethesda, Maryland, had written a novel and one or two nonfiction books but until his retirement a few years before our meeting most of his time had been spent working for the Central Intelligence Agency in Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Venezuela, rising through the ranks to become one of the foremost practitioners of what is euphemistically called covert action.

   The next time I was on the East Coast I took the Amtrak Metroliner from New York to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station where David met me. We had an excellent lunch at La Mirabelle, a restaurant in McLean, Virginia that was favored by people in the CIA. Over our meal he told me a story which was so good, I insisted on his repeating it when we got to his house and I had my cassette recorder running.

   In the late 1950s, soon after Cuba had become a Communist country under Fidel Castro, David was sent to Havana in deep cover. He was there when Graham Greene came to work with director Carol Reed on the movie OUR MAN IN HAVANA, starring Alec Guinness and based on Greene’s novel of the same name. Much of the picture was shot on the streets of Havana, with David shadowing Greene as they filmed.

   “And at one point Greene said to the director, ‘All right, we should change this line and have him say the following.’ And Alec Guinness said: ‘Fine.’ But then a comandante, a man with a star on his shoulder, a military censor, walked up and said: ‘No, you can’t change that line.’ I’ll never forget the look on Graham Greene’s face when he realized for the first time that there might be some flaws in the new Cuban society,…when his work was suddenly subject to censorship.”

   My interview with David was also published in Espionage (July 1987) and, like my conversation with his brother, can be found in my book CORNUCOPIA OF CRIME (2010), but you won’t find the anecdote I just quoted in the magazine version. Not wanting to see that incident permanently on the cutting room floor, I shared it with Norman Sherry, who included it in Volume Three of the Greene biography. That’s the tidbit I contributed to Norman’s massive project. I still think it was worth saving.


   I haven’t read Peter Ackroyd’s ALFRED HITCHCOCK: A BRIEF LIFE but recently read a review in the Times with a passage I particularly liked: “[T]he world of menace [Hitchcock] conjured embodies our deepest, most existential fears. Fears (especially resonant today) that the universe is irrational, that evil lives around the corner, that ordinary life can be ripped apart at any moment by some random unforeseen event.”

    Let’s play Jeopardy! for a minute, shall we? Answer: The author whose work and world are described by those words equally as well as Hitchcock’s. Question: Who is Cornell Woolrich? Second answer: Same as the first but with “composer” substituted for “author.” Question: Who is Bernard Herrmann?

   Hitchcock, Woolrich, Herrmann, so much like Jules and Jim and Catherine in Truffaut’s film: round and round, together bound. When I first started calling Woolrich the Hitchcock of the written word, that was a moment of inspiration if I ever had one.


   I received an interesting email recently from a man who had been reading some of the early Woolrich stories collected in my DARKNESS AT DAWN (1985) and had a question about one of them, the 1934 “Walls That Hear You.” That tale, in case you’ve forgotten it, is about a man who discovers that his younger brother has been found with all ten fingers cut off and his tongue severed at the roots.

   Later, in the hospital, we are told that he “shook hands hard” with his brother. How is this possible, my reader asked, when the younger brother’s fingers have been cut off? Could Woolrich have been writing at such white heat that he forgot this? The best reply I could come up with was that we’re supposed to imagine the narrator embracing his kid brother’s fingerless and bandaged hands between his own. Can anyone reading this column come up with anything better?


MURRAY FORBES – Hollow Triumph. Ziff-Davis, hardcover, 1946. Reprinted as The Big Fake (Pyramid #97, paperback, 1953).

HOLLOW TRIUMPH. Eagle-Lion, 1948. Re-released as The Scar and The Man Who Murdered Himself. Paul Henried, Joan Bennett, Eduard Franz, Leslie Brooks, Mabel Paige and Jack Webb. Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, based on the novel by Murray Forbes. Directed by Steve Sekely.

   Murray Forbes’ Hollow Triumph has an interesting idea for a book: Henry Mueller is a failed medical student and small-time chiseler with an over-sized ego, fresh out of prison when he discovers he bears an amazing resemblance to Viktor Bartok, a prominent psychologist. Readers of this sort of thing will figure at once that Mueller will kill Bartok and take his place, and that’s pretty much what happens, but Forbes gives it a cute twist: Mueller’s impersonation becomes a greater success than he figured on (the American Dream: if you fail at one thing, re-invent yourself as something else) and as time passes, he wins even greater fortune and honor… and he can’t stand the fact that the murdered man is getting all the credit for his killer’s work: Mueller rubbed out Bartok, but it was Mueller who got erased, and his overweening pride leads him to….

   It’s a clever thought, and somebody should write a book about it someday; Murray Forbes just didn’t seem too interested. Time and again he just tells us about things when he should be showing them. So we get lines like “She felt suspicious,” or “He was scared,” which ain’t exactly deathless prose. There are even points where Forbes seems to lose interest entirely, and instead of story-telling, he resorts to synopsis, resulting in passages like, “He went to New York to receive the honor, then came back and continued work with his patients…”

   I kept reading, but I’m not sure why.

   Fans of Old Time Radio may recall Murray Forbes as an actor on Ma Perkins and other programs, but this was his only novel, and in 1948 the Movies bought it, discarded most of the plot, noired up the rest, and released it under the original title and as The Scar, then as The Man Who Murdered Himself, creating an identity crisis to equal its protagonist’s.

   Joan Bennett is quite good here in a softer role than usual, but Paul Henreid’s acting, like Forbes’ writing, is just perfunctory. On the other hand, there’s fine photography by John Alton, and Daniel Fuchs’ script makes intelligent use of a plot twist that would have been a facile punch-line in lesser hands.

   Triumph/Scar/Murdered starts off with Henried/Mueller getting out of jail and leads quickly into a heist of a gambling joint (not in the book) that goes suspensefully wrong, leaving our antihero on the run from gangsters and hiding out in L.A. Things get tight when he’s spotted by the hoods, but when Mueller makes the switch with Bartok they get even tighter as he finds Bartok has a messy personal life, a grasping girlfriend… and is in debt to the Mob.

   It’s all done in suitably noir style, but without the artistry that distinguishes films like Night and the City or Out of the Past. Director Steve Sekely had his moments (mostly marginal ones in B movies), and he doesn’t spoil this one, but he never gives it the subversive energy that marks the classics of the genre.

   Fortunately Daniel Fuchs’ screenplay provides some unexpected highlights: Even when the leads fail to convince, the minor characters surprise us with quirky moments we weren’t expecting: A garage attendant starts dancing, a dentist turns loquacious, and a lowly scrubwoman proves to be the most perceptive character in the film.

   The marginal virtues aren’t enough to completely redeem The Scar, but I’ll remember it a little longer for them….

KAREN A. ROMANKO – Television’s Female Spies and Crimefighters: 600 Characters and Shows, 1950s to the Present. McFarland, softcover, February 2016.

   The full title of this book is self-explanatory, I’m sure. I’ve only browsed through it myself, so this is not a review, but in my opinion this is a book that every reader of this blog ought be know about, if you don’t already.

   To open the book, author Karen Romanko provides a long and knowledgeable introduction to the overall history of female crimefighters on television, followed in the main portion of the book by a comprehensive alphabetical listing of all relevant TV series and their significant characters, cross-referenced between the two. For example, the TV series Elementary and the character Joan Watson each have their own entries, each mentioning the other in bold face.

   The first entry is Acapulco H.E.A.T., followed by Lydia Adams (Southland); the last two are Roberta Young (Snoops) and The Zoo Gang, a British production that aired in this country on NBC in 1975.

   This is a book that’s easy to get caught up in, following one familiar show to its star and then to others not so familiar, and vice versa for (in my estimation) hours on end.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TREASURE OF RUBY HILLS. Allied Artists, 1955. Zachary Scott, Carole Mathews, Barton MacLane, Dick Foran, Lola Albright, Gordon Jones, Raymond Hatton, Lee Van Cleef. Based on the story “The Rider of the Ruby Hills,” by Louis L’Amour. Director: Frank McDonald.

   For a Western with quite a few excellent character actors, Treasure of Ruby Hills is overall something of a disappointment. Based on a Louis L’Amour story, the movie stars Zachary Scott as a man determined not to follow his deceased father down the rabbit hole of frontier criminality.

   Scott, with menacing eyes and a thick mustache, portrays the enigmatic Ross Haney, a man determined to revenge the death of his friend and business partner at the hands of Frank Emmett (the always enjoyable-to-watch Lee Van Cleef). Haney also seems to have a greater scheme in mind. Although it takes a while for the viewer to learn his overall motivations, one soon learns that Haney’s overall objective is to control the water supply to the town of Soledad, so as to exert power over the thuggish cattle barons who rule the town.

   Sounds simple enough.

   Unfortunately, the film tries to do too much. It introduces far too many characters in a running time of just over seventy minutes. There’s the rancher brother and sister combo. No surprise here: Haney falls in love with the sister and ends up the mortal rival of her would-be fiancé, Alan Doran, portrayed by Dick Foran.

   There are also two rival cattle/land barons, Chalk Reynolds (Barton MacLane) and Walt Payne (Charles Fredericks), both of whom end up with a bellyful of lead thanks to Doran’s scheming. Plus, there’s the marshal; Scott’s other would-be business partner; a wounded man whom Haney tends to; an innkeeper; and a waitress. Add to this some backstories about the characters and you end up with an overall muddled story, one that simply refuses to flow smoothly.

   What Treasure of Ruby Hills does have going for it is, however, is atmosphere. The narrative unfolds in a semi-claustrophobic, self-enclosed universe of suspense and violence. There really are no good guys here, just men morally clad in shades of grey, burdened by the albatross of their past misdeeds and their family history.

   Significantly, there are no children in the film and, if I am not mistaken, apart from horses, no animals either. The movie presents the West as rough and tumble world, where live is cheap and loyalty is a commodity to be bought and sold.

   As much as I like Zachary Scott, Lee Van Cleef, and Barton MacLane, I’d very much hesitate to categorize Treasure of Ruby Hills as a particularly good film. Sad to say, but it’s really just another mediocre mid-1950s Western. But somehow I managed to see it through to the very end, wondering how it’d all turn out and who’d still be alive and kicking once the proverbial dust settled. Take that for what it is, as it surely must mean something.

NOTE:   This movie is available for viewing on Hulu. Follow the link.

William F. Deeck

WILLIAM DAVID SPENCER – Mysterium and Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel. UMI Research Press, hardcover, 1989, 344 pp., $49.95. Southern Illinois Press, softcover, 1992.

   Perhaps I should start with a disclaimer: my theology, such as it is — or, sadly more accurately, was — was gained from nuns at a parochial school. Now that I can look back on it with detachment, they were dear ladies but woefully inadequate in their understanding of religion. Any questions not covered in the catechism were met with “Never mind” or disappointed looks or mitigated horror.

   Thus, my understanding of Spencer’s chapter on “Modus Operandi: Mysterium into Mystery” is at best suspect, at worst completely befuddled. But I didn’t get the book so that I could learn theology; I got it to read about clerical detectives and their theology.

   Spencer says — and I have no disagreement with him — that the clerical crime novel may be divided into three classifications. The most general, he says, is any tale that involves the clergy and crime. This type of novel involves “saintly side-kicks” — “as in Jack Webb’s or Thurmin [sic] Warriner’s tales or in a lesser sense in Christopher Leach’s Blood Games or Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s Where the Dark Streets Go.”

   The second division is the novel in which a crime is committed by a cleric. Spencer provides several examples, though not the most unusual one, which I can’t name since to do so would be to give away whodunit.

   Finally, and the focus of this book, are the mysteries solved by the cleric. Part One of Spencer’s treatise is “Rabbis and Robbers,” dealing with two tales from the Apocrypha and with the novels of Harry Kemelman. Although Spencer lists Joseph Telushkin in his “Graph of the Clerical Crime Novel in English,” Rabbi David Winter is not dealt with in this study.

   Part Two is “Priests and Psychopaths,” the Roman Catholic clergy, both ordained and nonordained — in the latter case the various nuns and brothers.

   Part Three is “Ministers and Murders” — yes, as you may have gathered, Spencer does have a thing for alliteration, even when it can be somewhat misleading- representing the various Protestant clergy.

   How well does Spencer sum up the clergy characters and their theology? Quite well, I believe, in those cases in which I have read at least one of the books by an author. The only authors I haven’t read are Barbara Ninde Byfield, whom I hope to get around to shortly, and James L. Johnson, who wrote the Code Name Sebastian Series, a series, after reading Spencer’s descriptions of the novels, I feel I can skip without any loss. (Oh, all right, I merely started The Name of the Rose. Some people, I am informed, have read, enjoyed, and understood it, though I am dubious whether any one person did all three.)

   Keep in mind, of course, that Spencer is not rating the clergy characters as detectives or the novels as detective tales; he is dealing with the books as to how they reflect the characters’ theology or, in one case, the near absence of it.

   Errors? If you get as upset as I do over the misuse of “flaunt” for “flout,” you’d join me in considering that a mistake. Otherwise, except for his curious notion that Eco’s William of Baskerville chewed tobacco in fourteenth-century Europe, Spencer is, as far as I could tell, quite accurate in depicting plot and character.

   Oversights? The only clergy detective not dealt with that I know of is the Reverend Peter Eversleigh, sometimes called the Padre, featured in several of Richard Goyne’s novels. This Protestant clergyman detective seems to have been overlooked by all who have published lists of religious sleuths. Since in the one novel I have read in which the Padre appears there is nothing about theology, perhaps no great loss has been suffered from lack of knowledge about him. The Lipstick Clue (Paul, 1954) is, however, a rather decent novel of detection.

   Is Mysterium and Mysteries a fair value at $49.95? I paid that price, and I feel it was worth it. After all, there is a fair amount of information about clerical detectives as detectives but very little about their theology. Dedicated fans of the Divine Mystery, or Holy Terror, or the clerical crime novel, or whatever you want to call it, probably should own this study. Others should suggest that their public library acquire it.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.

William F. Deeck

T. J. BINYON – Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction. Oxford University Press, hardcover, 1989; softcover, 1990.

   Though I find it both distressing and difficult, I will refrain, for the most part, from criticizing Mr. Binyon’s book on the basis of what I would have written had I not been incompetent and indolent and had I written a reference work of this sort.

   Mr. Binyon’s intent — he achieves his goal — is to present a selective history not of the genre but of the genre’s principal character: the detective. He posits three main classes:

   The professional amateur, or private detective, such as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot; the amateur amateur, such as Dupin or Dorothy Sayers’s [Oh, why won’t people give the lady her much cherished initial?] Lord Peter Wimsey; and the professional, or policeman, a category which can be subdivided into the professional professional, the policeman who is only a policeman, such as Lecoq or Freeman Wills Crofts’s Inspector French, and the amateur professional, the policeman who is not only a policeman, such as Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn or P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh….

   Despite its deficiencies, this classification, amplified by further subdivisions and with the addition of a final section on historical and comic detective stories and on criminals as heroes, provides the basic structure of this book. The categories are not sacrosanct, however; similar characters in different categories can be brought together, and connections across classes are made, where useful.

   Under the Professional Amateur, Mr. Binyon subdivides by various categories: Sherlock Holmes and the Magazine Short Story, Holmes’s First Successors, Dr. Thorndyke, Law, Medicine, Journalism, The Private Detective: 1920 to the Present, The Private Eye from Williams to Warshawski, etc.

   For the Amateur Amateur, there are such classifications as Priests, Missionaries, and Rabbis, The Theatre, Husbands and Wives, and Finance. Within the Police category can be found Inspector French, Younger Policemen, More Cultured Policemen, and the Amateur Professional.

   In his necessarily subjective judgments for placement in the various categories, I found nothing with which to argue. Quibble, yes, that goes without saying. Of course, I did take issue with some of his judgments about quality. For example, Mr. Binyon finds Nancy Spain’s novels quite amusing, where-as I have never detected any humor in them.

   Most shocking to my mind, he gives the Lockridges’ Mr. and Mrs. North novels short shrift. When Mr. Binyon prefers Lynn Brock’s Colonel Gore over Philip MacDonald’s Col. Anthony Gethryn, one can but gape. Judging Ellery Queen, as he appears to do, on the first dozen books isn’t quite fair play.

   Still, if there is a weakness in the book, which there isn’t, it is that in many cases Mr. Binyon mentions a book or a series but fails to make a judgment, even misguided, on quality.

   For errors, I noted but two: Erle Stanley Gardner’s first name is spelled Earle the two times it is used. Sara Woods’s Antony Maitland is said to have a game leg rather than a bad right arm. Of course, there’s the curious sentence, probably the handiwork of a clumsy copy editor, that ! took some while to figure out- as you know, I’m a bit slow: “After Priestly the curious view — implicit in both Futrelle’s stories and Rhode’s early books — that logic is the prerogative of the scientist’s lapses….” Well, I guess I figured it out.

   Writing about the Amateur Amateur, Mr. Binyon says he “is usually as amiable — and occasionally appears as foolish — as [Bertie] Wooster; but the foolishness is only a mask, concealing a keen brain and an iron will.” As I have demonstrated, more or less, in another review, it is P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith to whom these gentlemen should be compared, not the mentally negligible Wooster.

   In the first paragraph of this review, I said I would refrain “for the most part” from criticizing Mr. Binyon for what was not included in his survey. At this point I must state that any discussion of Crooks and Villains series is woefully incomplete without a mention of Frank McAuliffe’s Augustus Mandrel[ and Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Charlie Mortdecai.

   Authorities on the genre may not learn anything new from Murder Will Out. Luckily, such paragons aren’t numerous, and I am not among their number, so I both enjoyed Mr. Binyon’s book, well written and witty, and furthered my knowledge of the genre. Moreover, his remarks about Peter Antony’s novels have started me off on another author hunt that will also include Mr. Binyon’s two crime novels, Swan Song and Greek Gifts.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.

A Review by MIKE TOONEY:

JOHN DICKSON CARR’S “THE THREE COFFINS”: A HOLLOW VICTORY? by J. Morris. CADS Supplement 13, 2011. 54 pages; illustrated with diagrams, maps, and photographs. Appendix I: Floor Plan of the Crime Scene. Appendix II: “The London of THE THREE COFFINS” by Tony Medawar.


   Previously on ONTOS, there was a posting about John Dickson Carr’s immensely popular THE THREE COFFINS (a.k.a. THE HOLLOW MAN) editorially wondering out loud whether it might be his best novel.

   If you’re in the same crowd with Edward D. Hoch and Julian Symons who thought it was, after reading J. Morris’s CADS monograph, you might change your mind.

   In his introduction, Morris tells us:

    “There are elements of THE THREE COFFINS which I admire greatly, and these will be pointed out from time to time in what follows, and highlighted in the concluding section. However, my analysis is overall extremely critical of Carr’s book. Unlike, for instance, THE CROOKED HINGE or THE JUDAS WINDOW … THE THREE COFFINS, in my view as against [Douglas] Greene’s, can only disappoint, the more carefully it is reread. Its defects are wider and deeper than the two or three most commonly noted difficulties with the main plot construction.”

   Essentially, by a close reading of the text, Morris has identified over two dozen mistakes which Carr and his supposedly punctilious editors somehow overlooked when the book went to press. Typically these errors are of a factual or logical nature, given what has been established in Carr’s narrative, thus threatening to unravel the author’s own carefully wrought construction:

    “I will point out discrepancies, unexplained facts, impossibilities, implausibilities, misdirection that I consider unfair—and occasional moments of inspired mystification. In any analysis of this sort, meta-questions about fair-play conventions will necessarily arise, and I will point these out but not pursue them at great length.”

   As Morris notes, Carr occasionally trips himself up due to a tendency—not always indulged in—towards what Morris terms Unnecessary Webwork, imposing thematic resonances that could easily have been dispensed with.

   Among the twenty-five “problems” Morris discovers in THE THREE COFFINS, he pinpoints six of them as being major flaws:

      – “The Problem of the Unnoticed Haze”
      – “The Problem of the Dying Man’s Lie”
      – “The Problem of the Bamboozled Detective”
      – “The Problem of the Panicked Murderer”
      – “The Famous Time Problem”
      – “The Problem of Twenty Minutes”

   To be fair to Carr, Morris also gives six good reasons why THE THREE COFFINS should not be scorned, even with all its defects.

   And be forewarned: Morris tells us that A HOLLOW VICTORY? is “one huge spoiler, for obvious reasons. Those unfamiliar with THE THREE COFFINS should leave the premises.”

   All in all, A HOLLOW VICTORY? is a fine addition to Golden Age of Detection scholarship.

Editorial Comment:   This review first appeared on Mike’s own new blog:
 Check it out.

Reviewed by JOSEF HFFMANN :         

RITA ELIZABETH RIPPETOE – Booze and the Private Eye: Alcohol in the Hard-Boiled Novel. McFarland & Co., softcover, 2004.


   “The hard-bitten PI with a bottle of bourbon in his desk drawer – it’s an image as old as the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction itself.” Thus begins the blurb for Rippetoe’s book.

   The frequent and often excessive consumption of alcohol by detectives in hard-boiled crime fiction is a notable phenomenon. What significance does this have in the novels? In her introductory chapter, Rippetoe emphasises that the permissive attitude towards alcohol was by no means a matter of course in the history of the USA, as demonstrated in particular by the Prohibition era, which plays an important role in crime literature.

   Whenever detectives or other persons drink alcohol during this period, they flout the legal order just as it pleases them. Drinking behaviour, including that which is permitted, makes a statement, especially in the case of male investigators, about how controlled and tough they are if they can absorb alcohol without malfunctioning.

   The circumstances and consequences of drinking behaviour indicate whether the detective is acting responsibly and has moral integrity. His particular and individually differentiated moral code becomes clear as a result. Furthermore, society’s changing attitude to alcohol consumption is also illustrated in crime novels, which reveals something of the social mores of the time.

   Rippetoe addresses these aspects of the detective novels of Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Robert B. Parker and Lawrence Block, devoting one chapter to each author. Hammett is accused of abandoning his realistic representation of the effects of alcohol consumption in the Op novels in favour of a reality-denying attitude to Nick and Nora Charles’ boozing in his last novel. Even the criminal acts of doing business with alcohol are palliated in the book. Rippetoe attributes this change to Hammett’s alcoholism.

   A characteristic of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is the fact that it is described repeatedly which alcoholic drinks he consumes where and when. His precisely controlled social behaviour serves to present him as a hero, who preserves his self-respect by means of his moral codes.

   There are three types of situation in which alcohol consumption fulfils a specific function and which are described in detail: hospitality, manipulation of the drinker and self-medication. Rippetoe explains the keen eye for the social state of drinking with the help of Chandler’s life story, including his career as a drinker.

   Mickey Spillane’s detective Mike Hammer differs from Philip Marlowe in two respects as far as alcohol consumption is concerned. First, Hammer usually doesn’t drink anything stronger than beer. In the later novels he prefers Miller Lite, which Spillane was contracted to advertise. Hammer thus demonstrates his connection with the majority of his readers, blue collar workers.

   Second, Hammer usually remains stone-cold sober when required by his job as a detective. He adapts his drinking behaviour to the professional moral code. The fact that he can hold his liquor when necessary is due to his status as a male superhero. Yet, like Chandler, Spillane also tends to trivialise the damage caused by alcoholism in some protagonists. However, the cause for this cannot be found in Spillane’s biography.

   Robert B. Parker’s detective Spenser has more in common with Mike Hammer than most readers and critics realise. This relates to acts of violence as much as to drinking behaviour. Spenser also tends to drink beer. He drinks Heineken, Amstel or Rolling Rock. At meals he drinks the appropriate wine. At times he drinks bourbon, in later novels Irish whiskey. But he always makes sure that he does not drink alcohol to excess. He owes that to his professional ethos.

   Rippetoe considers the effects of excessive alcohol consumption and alcoholism to be presented most realistically in the Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block, who himself had a drinking problem, which he has since overcome. The occasional investigator Scudder is an alcoholic, who over the course of the series undergoes a development from a self-endangering, uncontrolled drunk to a responsible, sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous. He has an ethical code that he follows tenaciously. The AA takes over the function of self-medication in Scudder’s life.

   The penultimate chapter is dedicated to the drinking behaviour of the hardened female detectives in the works of Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski. Because society likes to judge the alcohol consumption of women differently to that of men, the question arises as to how successful the transformation from the male to the female private detective has been in terms of alcohol consumption.

   The detectives Sharon McCone, Kinsey Milhone and Kat Colorado drink alcohol, generally in moderate quantities and, in line with the drinking customs of the 1980s and 1990s, often white wine. Each of the protagonists consumes alcohol at least occasionally for the purpose of self-medication, in order to be able to deal with the stress of the case.

   Each has personal dealings with someone who regularly drinks to excess. Kijewski shows most clearly the negative aspects of alcohol consumption, which is not surprising from a former bartender, who also furnishes her detective with this professional background.

   The final chapter contains a summary of the conclusions of the study. It is inexplicable to me why the novels of Sara Paretsky have not been treated in any detail, as V. I. Warshawski sometimes drinks too much alcohol. Moreover, surely the particularly bibulous investigators in the stories by Jonathan Latimer and Craig Rice should have received at least a mention, as is the case with the detectives of James Lee Burke and James Crumley, for example, in the final chapter.

   What is problematic about Rippetoe’s approach is that she only addresses critical-realistic presentations of alcohol consumption, thus excluding any humorous treatment in the manner of a screwball comedy. In this respect, her morality curtails literary freedom.

   “All writers are drunks, you know. Would-be, borderline, confirmed, sodden, reformed; one stage or another. All drunks, every damned one of us,” says pulp veteran Russell Dancer in Bill Pronzini’s detective novel Hoodwink. Alcohol abuse by crime writers is such a regrettable affliction. Some of the best were dependent on alcohol, at least during certain phases of their lives: Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, Georges Simenon, Patricia Highsmith, Ted Lewis, James Ellroy and so on.

   Somehow, alcohol, at the right dose, appears to have an inspirational effect on the work of crime writers. And it relaxes the body and mind, which are exhausted from the act of writing, relatively quickly and easily. On the other hand the addiction has cast some authors such as Gil Brewer, Craig Rice and James Crumley into social squalor. Lawrence Block is of the opinion (according to Rippetoe) that alcohol abuse among writers leads to inhibited development and prevents them from breaking new ground.

   Rippetoe is an “independent scholar” of genre fiction, who has specialised in detective fiction. She lives in Orangevale, California. Her study is informative and worthy, albeit at times somewhat heavy going due to its academic style. But the topic has by no means been addressed comprehensively. Further examinations would be desirable.

— Translated by Carolyn Kelly.

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