Reference works / Biographies

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.

A List by Josef Hoffmann

   This list contains only biographies which are written about one crime writer or a couple who works together. It does not include books which have two or three short biographies like Master of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel 1920-1961 by Curtis Evans.

   Furthermore the list does not contain autobiographies of the writers like G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography or memories of partners or relatives like Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers by Jo Hammett or Highsmith – A Romance of the 1950s by Marijane Meaker (Vin Packer).

   Also the list does not contain biographical fiction like Arthur and George by Julian Barnes about Arthur Conan Doyle.

   I cannot say that the selected biographies are the best because there are many more I do not own and have not read. I also have to admit that I have not read all forty biographies on the list in full length because some I use only as reference books. Fortunately most of them have an index where you can look for special names, books and events. I am sure that I missed several real gems on my list, and I hope that readers will supplement the list with their comments.

   The list presents the books in the chronological order of the lives of the mystery writers. It begins with the oldest and ends with the youngest person.

      Poe, Edgar Allan (1809-1849)

Ackroyd, Peter: Poe: A Life Cut Short, Vintage Books 2009

Symons, Julian: Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Penguin Books 1981

Zumbach, Frank T.: Edgar Allan Poe. Eine Biographie, Winkler 1986

      Collins, Wilkie (1824-1889)

Klimaszewski, Melisa: Brief Lives: Wilkie Collins, Hesperus 2011

      Doyle, Arthur Conan (1859-1930)

Carr, John Dickson: The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Pan 1953

Lycett, Andrew: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, FREE PRESS 2007

Stashower, Daniel: Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Holt & Company 1999

      Chesterton, Gilbert Keith (1874-1936)

Pearce, Joseph: Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton, Hodder & Stoughton 1996

Ward, Maisie: Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Rowman & Littlefield 2005

      Wallace, Edgar (1875-1932)

Lane, Margaret: Edgar Wallace: The Biography of a Phenomenon, Doubleday, Doran 1939

      Van Dine, S. S. (1888-1939)

Loughery, John: Alias S. S. Van Dine, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1992

      Chandler, Raymond (1888-1959)

Hiney, Tom: Raymond Chandler: A Biography, Vintage Books 1998

MacShane, Frank: The Life of Raymond Chandler, E. P. Dutton & Co. 1976

Williams, Tom: A Mysterious Something in the Light: Raymond Chandler: A Life, Aurum Press 2012

      Christie, Agatha (1890-1976)

Morgan, Janet: Agatha Christie: A Biography, HarperCollins 1984

Osborne, Charles: The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, HarperCollins 2000

      Cain, James M. (1892 -1977)

Hoopes, Roy: Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain, Southern Illinois University Press 1987

      Sayers, Dorothy Leigh (1893-1957)

Hitchman, Janet: Such a Strange Lady: A Biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, New English Library Hodder and Stoughton 1988

Hone, Ralph E.: Dorothy L. Sayers: A Literary Biography, Kent State University Press 1979

      Hammett, Dashiell (1894-1961)

Johnson, Diane: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, Picador 1985

Layman, Richard: Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1981

Mellen, Joan: Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, HarperCollins 1996

Nolan, William F.: Hammett – A Life at the Edge, St Martin’s Press 1983

      Marsh, Ngaio (1895-1982)

Lewis, Margaret: Ngaio Marsh: A Life, Chatto & Windus 1991

      Glauser, Friedrich (1896-1938)

Saner, Gerhard: Friedrich Glauser. Eine Biographie, Suhrkamp 1981

      Woolrich, Cornell (1903-1968)

Nevins, Francis M., Jr.: Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, The Mysterious Press 1988

      Simenon, Georges (1903-1988)

Bresler, Fenton: The Mystery of Georges Simenon, Heinemann 1983

Eskin, Stanley G.: Simenon. A Critical Biography, McFarland&Company 1987

Marnham, Patrick: The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon, Bloomsbury 1992

      Dent, Lester (1905-1969)

Cannaday, Marilyn: Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage, Bowling Green State University Popular Press 1990

      Queen, Ellery: Fredric Dannay (1905-1982), Manfred Bennington Lee (1905-1971)

Nevins, Francis M.: Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection: The Story of How Two Fractious Cousins Reshaped the Modern Detective Novel, Perfect Crime Books 2013

      Thompson, Jim (1906-1977)

McCauley, Michael J.: Jim Thompson: Sleep with the Devil, Mysterious Press

Polito, Robert: Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, Vintage Books 1996

      Fleming, Ian (1908-1964)

Pearson, John: Alias James Bond – The Life of Ian Fleming, Bantam Books 1967

      Himes, Chester (1909-1984)

Muller, Gilbert H.: Chester Himes, Twayne Publishers 1989

      Ambler, Eric (1909-1998)

Howald, Stefan: Eric Ambler. Eine Biographie, Diogenes 2002

      Marlowe, Dan J. (1914-1986)

Kelly, Charles: Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe, Asclepian Imprints 2012

      Macdonald, Ross (1915-1983)

Nolan, Tom: Ross Macdonald: A Biography, Poisoned Pen Press 2001

      MacDonald, John D. (1916-1986)

Geherin, David: John D. MacDonald, Frederick Ungar 1982

      Highsmith, Patricia (1921-1995)

Wilson, Andrew: Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, Bloomsbury 2004.

JOSEF HOFFMANN – Philosophies of Crime Fiction. No Exit Press, UK, softcover, July 2013; US, softcover, October 2013.

JOSEF HOFFMANN Philosophies of Crime Fiction

   This is not a review, only a brief post to draw your attention to this upcoming book, authored by an occasional contributor to this blog, Josef Hoffmann. I’ve browsed through it well enough, however, to recommend it to you, whether Professor Hoffmann were a friend of mine or not.

   From the front cover, quoting noted philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “More wisdom is contained in the best crime fiction than in conventional philosophical essays.”

   From its page on the Amazon website, much of which is also found on the back cover of the book: “Josef Hoffmann covers influences and inspirations in crime writing with references to a stellar cast of crime writers including Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Dashiell Hammett, Albert Camus, Borges, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Ted Lewis. Hoffmann examines why crime literature may provide stronger consolation for readers than philosophy. [...] Josef Hoffmann’s combination of knowledge, academic acuity, and enthusiasm makes this a must-have book for any crime fiction aficionado — with or without a philosophical nature.”

   From Josef’s article “Hard-boiled Wit: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Norbert Davis” on the main Mystery*File website: “…it can be safely assumed that Wittgenstein’s taste complied with that of his time, and that he therefore partook of all the developments in crime fiction. His liking for the more modern literary style of the hard-boiled detective stories probably developed when they had made their way into almost all the crime story magazines, including Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine – on the model of the Black Mask.”



DEE HARKEY – Mean As Hell. University of New Mexico, hardcover, 1948. Signet, #856, paperback, 1951. Ancient City Press, trade paperback, 1989.

   I don’t have much to say about Dee Harkey’s Mean As Hell except that it deserves to be better known. Harkey’s account of his work as a Peace Officer in the old west, from the 1870s until 1911 is a work of interest, excitement and considerable charm.

   His naïve (in the best sense) style and easy narration of his life and times — from being besieged on the prairie as a child by “110 Indians” (I love that touch!) to the escape of a local badman by Flying Machine — lend a unique charm to his tales of rustlin’, shootin, fightin’ and all the assorted mayhem one reads a Western in search of.

   Find a copy of this somewhere and enjoy it!

by Marvin Lachman.

   I really wanted to like THE POETICS OF MURDER (1983), edited by Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe, an Edgar-nominated collection of essays from Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich in hardcover and trade paperback. Good writing about mystery is always in short supply. Unfortunately, this is an anthology of pretentious essays, written from an academic viewpoint, and boring as hell.

   One essay argues that the “…intense curiosity aroused by the detective story derives from its association with the primal scene, a psychoanalytic term reference to a child’s first observation, either real or imagined, of sexual intercourse between his or her parents.” Other essays deal wih “The Detective Novel and Its Social Mission;” “Delay and the Hermenautic Sentence;” “From Semiotics to Heremneutics: Modes of Detection in Doyle and Chandler;” “Metaphysical Detective Stories in Postwar Fiction.”

   An East German writer, Ernst Kaemmel, claims that the detective story is the child of capitalism, its crimes involve attacks on private property. He celebrates the absence of detective stories in Socialist countries but has missed the main reason. It is that the idea of finding truth, so essential to the detedcteive story as we know it, was not accepted in Nazi Germany, nor currently in East Germany or the USSR.

   Professor David Grossvogel, reasoning along similar lines, finds the detective story bad because, by providing fictional mysteries to solve, it distracts readers from the real mysteries (and problems) of life. I wonder what, if anything, Professor Grossvogel does for escape.

   In POETICS OF MURDER mysteries are repeatedly compared to “literature.” Opinions are tossed off, as if sacred, with no explanation, e,g., “Certain works are easily rejected, however. I have trouble reading Edgar Wallace and Ellery Queen, though I have tried several times.” Almost every article has a publish or perish quality to it, with never a feel for the fun in reading the mystery.

   Now, if you want a really good book of essays about mystery fiction, pick Howard Haycraft’s classic THE ART OF THE MYSTERY STORY (1946), just reprinted in trade paperback by Carroll & Graf. The editor and his contributors are just as erudite and insightful, but they have written for people who read and love mysteries, and the differences show both in quality and variety.

   We have serious but non-pedantic, pieces by Chesterton, Chandler, Knox, Gardner, Sandoe, Carr, and many others. There’s also humor, including Rex Stout poking his tongue in his cheek to prove that Watson was a woman. We have Edmund Wilson deriding the form, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd” and its proponents, writers like Nicholas Blake, Anthony Boucher, and Joseph Wood Krutch, giving a different viewpoint.

   There are lists of great books, classic introductions by Sayers and Van Dine, reviews by Dashiell Hammett, etc. If ever an anthology deserved to be called “great,” THE ART OF THE MYSTERY STORY does.

   However, one need not go back to 1946 to find a good book about the mystery. A fine recent book is THE CRAFT OF CRIME (1983) by John C. Carr from Houghton, Mifflin in hardcover. Carr provides interviews with twelve of the most popular mystery writers around and by adroit questioning and selection of articulae subjects, he has given us an interesting book which also increases our knowledge of the field.

   The writers selected are Kendell, Lovesey, McBain, Francis,Langton, Gregory Mcdonald, Mark Smith, Robert B. Parker, Van de Watering, June Thomson, McClure, and Lathen. Mr. Carr is a good questioner with only occasional lapses when he is in too obvious awe of his subject. Otherwise, the Q and A technique works quite well, with the exception of a bias against William Faulkner which Carr betrays in several questions.

   Most of the time we get probing questions which permit these writers to demonstrate how interesting and witty they are. There are differences in quality as is inevitable in a collection of this type, but not a bad interview in the lot. My favorites are those with Parker and the two women who write as as Emma Lathen.

   Parker has some trenchant things to say about academic life which he was able to leave in 1979 for full-time writing. His description of his priorities in life make us feel as if we really know him, though I’m not sure about liking him. Parker provides a neat summary of the difference between old-style mysteries and the kind he writes, claiming that the world is “no longer amenable to logical deduction.”

   He’s probably right in that regard, but he misses the point that it is exactly for that reason that many of us look for escape reading in which intellect does triumph. As long as writers write (and the public buys) mysteries like Parker’s which are often resolved by fist fights or gun battles, rather than by brains, we shall have a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

– Reprinted from The Poisoned Pen, Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter 1984/85.



WILLIAM LUHR – Raymond Chandler and Film. Frederick Ungar, hardcover/softcover, 1982; bibliography and index, photographs, filmography. Florida State University, trade paperback, 1991.

AL CLARK – Raymond Chandler in Hollywood. Proteus, hardcover/softcover, 1983; index, filmography. Silman-James Press, trade paperback, 1996.

   I have paper editions of both these books: the Luhr is a 5-1/2 x 8″ yellowback, the cover sporting a portrait of Chandler set into an oval frame next to a pulp illustration; the Clark is a large-sized 8 x 10-3/4″ book, the cover featuring a brown hat with a revolver resting on the brim.

   The Luhr pages are densely packed with text in small type, while the Clark is profusely illustrated with stills, lobbycards and other advertising material for the films. Luhr is an associate professor of English and film at St. Peter’s College, and Al Clark is a Spanish-born publicist and magazine editor who is currently creative director of the Virgin Records group, based in London.

   The copy for Clark’s biography is probably written by him and is a tongue-in-cheek view of his life; Luhr’s credentials are presented soberly. The casual reader is likely to assume that Luhr is writing a serious study of Raymond Chandler’s Hollywood career and that Clark has put together an album for the film buff.


   In fact, both books are valid contributions to the literature on Chandler’s Hollywood years. Luhr’s approach is largely analytical, a close reading of his films. Clark went to Los Angeles where he interviewed people involved in the films and people who knew Chandler, and his narrative is a mixture of production information and film analysis.

   Clark unfortunately only cites his sources in his preface: there are neither notes nor bibliography. He seems more sensitive than Luhr to information furnished by people like Leigh Brackett, but both men communicate their enjoyment of the films and of Chandler’s fictional world, and I would not want to be without either book.

   The layout on the Clark book is handsome, and the stills, not the tiny postage stamps one often sees, are generously displayed in an attractive format. I compared the two accounts of The Long Goodbye, and while they are not perfectly congruent they are in general agreement, with, as one would expect, Luhr going into greater detail about the film and Clark more enlightening on the actual production. He incorporates a lengthy interview with Nina Van Pallandt into the chapter, and it is the insight furnished into the making of the film that makes Raymond Chandler in Hollywood a more intimate look at the Raymond Chandler film world.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 7, No. 2, March-April 1983.

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