Authors


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

   

   In a column from a few years back I discussed the Maigret short stories that Georges Simenon wrote in the late 1930s, the years just before the outbreak of World War II. There were very few such stories during the war years but, sandwiched between several non-series books, we find a total of six Maigret novels, which are all worth some attention.

   We have to keep in mind, of course, that Simenon wrote them in France when that country was first threatened and then occupied by the Nazis. It was an unwritten rule during these years that every novel, story and film had to be set, explicitly or by implication, back in the tranquil Thirties. (For the impact of this rule on the French film industry, which was totally controlled by Germany during the occupation years, I refer you to my friend Tony Williams’ 2018 essay “The Silence of the Noir” in FILM NOIR PROTOTYPES: ORIGINS OF THE MOVEMENT, ed. Alain Silver & James Ursini.) This is certainly true of Simenon’s wartime fiction, whether stand–alone novels or Maigrets.

***

   A few months into 1939, Simenon and his then wife and their newborn son moved to Nieul-sur-Mer, a village about six kilometers from the seaport city of La Rochelle. That was the family’s home at the time Hitler invaded his neighbors and it was there that he wrote the final two Maigret short stories. (All the later Maigrets at less than novel length are too long to be described as short stories.) Both tales first appeared in the weekly Sept Jours and were collected after the war in MAIGRET ET LES PETITS COCHONS SANS QUEUE (Presses de la Cité, 1950).

   “L’homme dans le rue” (Sept Jours, 15 & 22 December 1940, as “Le prisonnier dans la rue”) is a tale of pure atmosphere, with a plot all but non-existent. On a freezing Sunday night a well-to-do physician is shot to death in the Bois de Boulogne. A few days later Maigret has an announcement published in the newspapers that an arrest has been made and that a reconstruction of the crime will take place early the next morning.

   With the arrestee played by a small-time criminal known as P’tit Louis (perhaps the same Louis who appears in several other Simenons and perhaps not), the reconstruction is held, with Maigret’s men planted all over the Bois to check out anyone who seems unduly interested.

   Attention quickly focuses on one man and the chase begins, “a chase which was to go on for five days and five nights, through a city that was unaware of it, among hurrying pedestrians, from bar to bar, from bistro to bistro, Maigret and his detectives taking it in turns pursuing this solitary man and becoming, in the end, as exhausted as their quarry.”

   After Maigret plants another story in the papers, this one completely false, the man gives up and confesses — -no, he is not the murderer — and the story ends. It first appeared in English as “Inspector Maigret Pursues” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1967), and was collected under its original title “The Man in the Street” in MAIGRET’S CHRISTMAS (Hamish Hamilton 1976, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1977). In English, by the way, P’tit Louis becomes Louis the Kid.

   If nothing else, “Vente à la Bougie” (Sept Jours, 20 & 27 April 1941) is a sterling example of unity of time and place, consisting of a single scene in a single setting, an isolated country inn in the middle of the marshes of the Vendée, although describing the tale requires me to break those unities.

   On the evening before a local farm is to be auctioned off on a cash-only basis, apparently for non-payment of debts and taxes, two wealthy peasants come to the inn with large sums of money for the bidding. Near midnight one of these men is found in his room with his skull fractured, his mattress on fire and his well-stuffed wallet missing.

   Maigret, presently head of the crime squad in Nantes (a position he never held except in this story), comes alone, believe it or not, to investigate. There are seven suspects: the innkeeper (who happens to be an ex-convict), his fat paramour, a teen-age servant girl, the farmer who was about to lose his property, the other potential buyer, and two locals.

   Recognizing that the case depends on why the mattress was set on fire, Maigret makes the seven re-enact their moves on the fatal evening over and over. As usual in Simenon, the reader has no chance to beat the Commissaire to the solution, which involves an insurance policy of a sort that, if it ever existed, must have been unique to France: the insured is paid off if he lives to age 50!

   The tale appeared in English as “Inspector Maigret Directs” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March 1967) and, like the one before it, was collected in MAIGRET’S CHRISTMAS. In case you were wondering, “Vente à la Bougie” literally means sale by candlelight, which has somehow, don’t ask me how, come to mean an auction.

***

   In December 1939 Simenon wrote the earliest of the six wartime Maigret novels, LES CAVES DU MAJESTIC, which wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1978 (as MAIGRET AND THE HOTEL MAJESTIC). The title seems to be a tip of the beret to Simenon’s friend and admirer André Gide (1869-1951) and his 1914 novel (which he refused to call a novel) LES CAVES DU VATICAN.

   The basement of this luxe Paris hotel (which, according to www.trussel.com, a gem of a website if ever there was one, was modeled on the Claridge in the same city) has more to do with Simenon’s plot than the caverns underneath the Vatican with Gide’s, but in neither work are the caves central as those beneath the Paris Opera House are in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

   The Maigret novel opens early one morning as a breakfast chef at the Majestic discovers the strangled body of a wealthy American woman in a basement locker and soon finds himself the prime suspect. Maigret discovers — Simenon doesn’t bother to tell us how — that the woman was French by birth and had been a semi-pro hooker in Cannes before she met an American millionaire and tricked him into marriage. In time the plot morphs from sexual to financial intrigue, and at the climax Maigret uncharacteristically punches the murderer in the nose.

   Here and elsewhere in middle-period Maigret, Simenon seems to stress plot more than earlier or later, although Ellery Queen-style fair play is still not his cup of café au lait. Writing at white heat as he did, he slips here and there; for example, a police report in Chapter One gives the age of the dead woman’s maid as 42, but when Maigret gets to meet her much later in the book she’s described as an old lady.

   What makes LES CAVES rough going in spots for American readers is that either the translator or the publisher was very careless with punctuation, sometimes forgetting to insert a new set of quote marks to indicate a new speaker, at other times inserting new marks although the speaker hasn’t changed.

   And one tends to get heartily sick of hearing Maigret ask “What’s he (or she) saying?” whenever a character speaks English and of hearing American characters ask the same question whenever Maigret or someone else speaks French.

   Still and all, I liked this book. After reading tons of Simenons in which Maigret simply absorbs people and atmospheres and at the appropriate moment tells us who did what, it’s a pleasure to find one in which he acts a bit more like a detective.

***

   A month later, in January 1940, Simenon wrote LA MAISON DU JUGE (translated as MAIGRET IN EXILE, 1978). Thanks to a shake-up at the Police Judiciaire, Maigret has been transferred to Luçon, in the Vendée. After vegetating there for a few months he is visited by an old woman from the village of l’Aiguillon, some six kilometers from Luçon, a tiny place where the main occupation is mussel-gathering.

   Her husband, a retired customs inspector who had met Maigret in the past, has sent her to tell him that a few days earlier, while on a ladder pruning one of his fruit trees, he had seen a dead body on the floor of a second-story room in the house back-to-back with his own, a house owned by a retired judge named Forlacroix. The body is now no longer where it was, and the suspicion is that the judge is going to drag it out and toss it into the sea as soon as the tide is high enough.

   Maigret comes to l’Aiguillon, joins the old customs inspector’s surveillance, and watches the judge setting out to do precisely what it was suspected he was about to do. Thus begins the investigation, not only of the judge but of his mentally disturbed daughter, his violent-tempered estranged son, and a tough local mussel-gatherer who was sneaking visits to the house for sex with the daughter.

   As usual, Maigret reaches the truth by intuition, coming close to making us doubt he’s a detective. Even though the bedroom of the judge’s daughter adjoins the room where the corpse was first seen, he never bothers to interrogate her: one conversation with her would have ended the book then and there.

   Simenon even allows the judge to exit the scene halfway through the novel by confessing to a 20-year-old murder and having himself put in prison, without any formalities, any trial, rien ne va plus. I find it hard to believe that under French law at the time this was, shall we say, kosher.

   The vividly evoked atmosphere that we usually find in Simenon is conspicuous by its thinness. The English translation has flaws of its own, playing so fast and loose with French accent marks that the cedilla under the c in Luçon, which signifies that the letter is pronounced soft as in Lucy rather than hard as in lucky, is perhaps best described as now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t. By any measure this is certainly one of the lesser Maigrets.

***

   That Simenon managed to do any writing at all during the tumultuous year 1940 is something of a miracle. Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in May. Simenon, a Belgian citizen though residing in France for more than fifteen years, expected to be drafted.

   He went by train to Paris but, on consulting with the Belgian embassy, he was directed to serve as unofficial high commissioner for the thousands of Belgian refugees pouring into his part of France. He tackled this job with the manic energy he devoted to writing. When did he eat? When did he sleep? his colleagues wondered.

   After three hectic months he closed the reception center he had created and returned to Nieul and his career. A few months later he and his family moved further inland to Fontenay-le-Comte, not far from Luçon where Maigret had been stationed in LA MAISON DU JUGE. He rented part of a huge château recently vacated by the Nazis and, in December, resurrected his signature character.

   In CÉCILE EST MORTE (translated as MAIGRET AND THE SPINSTER, Hamish Hamilton 1977, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1977) Maigret is back in Paris and in his office on the Quai des Orfèvres, working on a case involving a Polish gang that seems to date this novel contemporaneously with the 1938 short story translated as “Stan the Killer.”

   During this period he’s been visited several times by a dowdy and sheeplike young woman with the complaint that someone has been sneaking by night into the fifth-floor apartment she shares with her widowed and near-bedridden aunt: someone who disturbs various items of furniture but never takes anything.

   As the novel begins she’s waiting for Maigret on yet another morning, but by the time he arrives and is ready to see her she’s vanished, leaving behind a frantic note. Alarmed, he visits the woman’s apartment building and finds her aunt, who in fact owned the building, strangled to death. Later that day the missing niece is also found dead, in a broom closet in the Palais du Justice building, which is connected with the Police Judiciaire by a glass door.

   Among the most likely suspects in the aunt’s murder are a penniless nephew whose wife is about to give birth and a disbarred lawyer suspected of child molestation who occupies the apartment just below the dead woman’s. Maigret soon learns that Aunt Juliette was a miser who kept a fortune in thousand-franc notes hidden in her apartment, that she treated her niece Cécile as more or less a slave, and that, at the behest of her ex-lawyer tenant, she had become whole or part owner of several brothels.

   As the case proceeds, Maigret’s superior asks him to let a visiting Pennsylvania criminologist tag along with him on the investigation. The Yank adds nothing to the plot but helps expand the book to its proper length. Maigret is given a chance to explain his methods — which boil down to the simple sentence “I feel things” — and also to introduce the American to French cuisine, like cèpes à la bordelaise and coq au vin, washed down with Beaujolais and, later, with coffee and Armagnac. (Cèpes are wild mushrooms, also known as porcini.)

   The book ends with the truth discovered (although one discovery generates a thorny legal issue in which Simenon has no interest but which those who dote on such matters and don’t mind having part of the plot spoiled for them can find discussed by clicking here) and the Parisian and the Philadelphian getting tipsy together. Thanks to its rich atmosphere and vivid character sketches, CÉCILE ranks very high among the cases of Europe’s most famous detective.

***

   These first three wartime Maigrets were not published separately like all the previous books in the series but in a single 528-page omnibus, MAIGRET REVIENT (1942). They appeared in the U.S. in individual volumes decades later.

   Between 1941 and 1943 Simenon wrote three more book-length Maigrets, which appeared in France in an even larger omnibus volume, plus one short novel about the Commissaire which is accessible in English only on the Web. These we’ll save for another column.

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

   

   Does anybody still read F. Van Wyck Mason? I began buying his books in my teens and accumulated a generous assortment of them over time but read very few if any until recent years. His first name was Francis, his middle name was pronounced Van Wyke, and he was born in Boston in 1897, although some print and Web sources give the year as 1901, which strikes me as wrong because that would have made him 15 or 16 at the time the U.S. entered World War I, in which he is said to have served.

   He spent most of his early years in Berlin and Paris, where his grandfather was U.S. Consul General, and didn’t learn English until he was in his teens. After graduating from Harvard in 1924 he started his own importing business and traveled the world purchasing antique rugs and other objets d’art. As a fiction writer he debuted in 1928, appearing in many pulps but most often in Argosy, which published several of his historical adventure serials with titles like CAPTAIN NEMESIS, CAPTAIN JUDAS, CAPTAIN RENEGADE, CAPTAIN REDSPURS and CAPTAIN LONG KNIFE.

   As these titles unsubtly suggest, he was a military kind of guy, serving in Squadron A of the New York National Guard and later in the Maryland National Guard. He was also something of an athlete, his favorite sport being polo, a subject which crops up in many of his novels and stories. During World War II he put his writing career on hold and returned to the military, rising to the rank of Colonel and the position of chief historian on General Eisenhower’s staff.

   After the war he returned to fiction writing and eventually moved to Bermuda, where in 1978 he drowned. He was probably best known for a string of gargantuan historical adventure novels, beginning with THREE HARBOURS (1938), STARS ON THE SEA (1940) and RIVERS OF GLORY (1942), but here we are interested in his early crime fiction — not on its merits but because, as we’ll see shortly, it had a huge influence on one of the giants of the genre.

***

   His first novel, SEEDS OF MURDER (1930), introduces his series character Captain Hugh North, an officer in Army Intelligence but never seen in uniform and obviously intended as an American Sherlock Holmes. Appropriately enough, he has a Watson who, like the original, happens to be a medical man, a doctor named Walter Allan.

   North is visiting with Allan at Hempstead, Long Island, when both men are invited to dinner at the palatial home of Royal Delancey, a former Philippine plantation owner who made a fortune during World War I and afterwards, back in the U.S., bought into a firm of stockbrokers. Delancey’s version of Toad Hall is hit by a savage storm before dinner can be served. Then one of his house guests, who is also his brokerage partner, is found dead in his bathroom, seemingly having strangled himself with a strong chain.

   But why was his apparent suicide note written on a piece of paper a quarter-inch shorter than the other sheets on his desk, and how could he have reached the hook on which the chain was hung by standing on a wire-and-enamel wastebasket too flimsy to support his weight?

   Even stranger, why were three mysterious seeds found on the bathroom floor, arranged in a precise triangle? North keeps his counsel and doesn’t dispute the police verdict of suicide, but before dawn the next morning Delancey himself is stabbed to death with an exotic dagger in his bedroom, and three more of those triangularly arranged seeds are lying beneath his chair.

   Among the suspects are Delancey’s mistress, his abused young wife and her brother (both of whom are near broke after having entrusted him with their money), a former neighbor who had also lost heavily by investing with Delancey, and a sinister Filipino butler who perpetrates lines like “‘Scuse if I speak slow. Me no spik English ver’ well.”

   At times the novel veers close to silent-movie melodrama, especially at the action climax where North disguises himself as a gypsy and sets a trap for the murderer in front of a disused Russian Orthodox church. But, unlike most of the subsequent books in the long series, this one is a genuine detective novel, rife with complexities, clues, conundrums, the works.

   Mason seems to know his Philippine background but ridiculous is the best word for his notion of an inquest, held in the Delancey living room and culminating with the coroner’s jury indicting two suspects. The novel isn’t as scrupulously fair as, say, an early Ellery Queen, and its politically incorrect portrayal of Filipinos and gypsies — oops, my bad, we’re required today to call them Roma — make it an unlikely candidate for revival in the 21st century.

***

   THE VESPER SERVICE MURDERS (1931) begins much as SEEDS OF MURDER did, with North on vacation and staying with his Watson at the palatial home of a nabob, but the prosperous Massachusetts mill town they’re visiting may perhaps owe something to the Poisonville of Hammett’s RED HARVEST (1929), crooked politicians, fat sloppy cops and all.

   The city’s corrupt mayor is running for re-election against a Reform candidate who’s backed by North’s host, a wealthy old judge, and who’s courting his sponsor’s lovely daughter. After a tense conversation involving the judge, the rival candidates for mayor and a local businessman who’s also interested in the judge’s daughter, the mansion is visited by an old Army buddy of North’s, now a detective hired by the judge to investigate the current administration.

   Within minutes after the conference has broken up comes a double murder, with the investigator shot dead on the drive outside the mansion and the mayor on the grounds close by, while the judge is conked on the head in his study and the mysterious message given him by his detective burned. The mayor leaves North with one of the reasons this book is historically important: a dying message.

   The next morning, after another weird coroner’s inquest, held in the mansion and presided over by the state police, a bomb goes off in the house. North sends the injured judge and his daughter to their summer place in the forest a few hours away and continues to investigate, soon getting on the track of a mystery man known as Vesper who apparently controls the city.

   Fearing for the judge’s life, North and Allan go by train to the hamlet of Deer Lake Junction, only to find the whole area menaced by a forest fire. And so on and on until the climactic shoot-out between North and Vesper, punctuated by lightning flashes and thunderclaps. Mason slathers on the melodrama with a trowel, displays his ignorance of German by adding umlauts to words like Oberleutnant and Sturm, and still labors under the SEEDS OF MURDER delusion that a coroner’s jury can indict someone for murder. On the other hand, he evokes the stifling heat vividly and handles two central clues with great subtlety.

   No one would call VESPER SERVICE a classic but, as I said before, it’s of considerable historical value for the influence it exerted on one (or perhaps two) of the finest detective novelists of the Golden Age. Fred Dannay (1905-1982), who customarily did the plotting for the novels he and his cousin Manfred B. Lee (1905-1971) wrote under the byline of Ellery Queen, is known to have gotten many of his ideas from other novels, notably Conan Doyle’s THE VALLEY OF FEAR (1914), whose main plot device he adapted again and again in the early Queen books (1929-35).

   Quite clearly he also drew on THE VESPER SERVICE MURDERS, which contains at least four elements familiar from the EQ canon. First and foremost is the one I mentioned before, the dying message theme, which the cousins first used in THE TRAGEDY OF X (1932, as by Barnaby Ross) and continued to employ for decades. Next comes the motif of color blindness, which recurs in Queen again and again (although Fred and Manny, who both smoked heavily as young men, never claimed as does the oculist in VESPER SERVICE that the disease can be caused by excessive tobacco).

   Then come the clue of the train conductor’s ticket punch, which is central to THE TRAGEDY OF X, and the forest fire, which dominates THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY (1933). Except perhaps for THE VALLEY OF FEAR, I suspect there’s no other book to which Queen is so indebted as THE VESPER SERVICE MURDERS.

***

   Around this time it must have dawned on Mason that he couldn’t indefinitely continue the North series in its original configuration. After all, his protagonist was supposed to be a captain in the Army, and so far he’d had nothing but civilian detective cases with few military aspects.

   His creator made some stabs at addressing this problem in the third North novel, THE FORT TERROR MURDERS (1931), dropping Dr. Allan down the memory hole and swapping the stateside settings of the first two Norths for a more exotic locale. We are on the Philippine island of Luzon, and North, stationed in Manila, visits the isolated military outpost of Fort Espanto to play polo, although if he came with a team we see neither hide nor hair of any other player on his side.

   At a dinner party hosted by the post’s commanding officer, North hears stories about a fabulous treasure hidden by Jesuit priests (who were expelled by the Spanish in 1767) somewhere in the monastery over which the original Fort Espanto was later built. The party is interrupted by a young Spaniard who announces that the treasure has been found.

   North accompanies the colonel, his aide, several other officers and the four women in the dinner party as they go out in near pitch darkness to search the long deserted original fort. It should come as no surprise to any reader when the Spaniard is stabbed to death and the lieutenant who was working with him vanishes.

   The next day brings another murder along with various incidents like North finding a cobra in his desk drawer. But the main intellectual thrust of the novel is not so much solving the murders as cracking the code leading to the treasure, a complex cipher devised by a diabolically clever Jesuit in the 1760s and involving a pair of unusual rosaries, the Latin text of the Our Father and the positions of two stars.

   The reader of course is given no chance either to penetrate the code or to figure out who killed whom. On the plus side, the Philippine atmosphere seems to ring true and Mason doesn’t spare us the white racism: “These islands would be a great place if there weren’t any Filipinos on them,” North is told by a fellow officer.

   But the multitudinous lieutenants and captains in the cast are a bit hard to tell apart and an inordinate number of them seem to be living in the post commander’s lavish house. For better or worse, FORT TERROR makes clear that the original version of North as a sort of soldierly American Holmes had become history.

   In later novels Captain Hugh tackled various problems of international intrigue in exotic locales and did so well that he was promoted to Major and then to Colonel, nimbly leapfrogging over the intervening rank of Lieutenant Colonel. These books converted him from a Holmes-like figure to something of a prototype for James Bond and perhaps for James Atlee Phillips’ American secret agent Joe Gall. Will I tackle any of them in later columns? Dunno.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:

   
GREGORY BEAN – No Comfort in Victory. Harry Starbranch #1. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1995; paperback, 1996.

   Well, if one of your old standbys lets you down [referring to Sue Grafton’s “L” Is for Lawless, reviewed here],  why not try a new character and a first novel? Bean was born and raised in Wyoming, currenty lives in New Jersey, and has been a newspaper reporter and editor for the last fifteen years. Excelsior …

   Harry Starbranch is an ex-Denver cop, police chief of a small town in Wyoming, acting as County Sheriff out of Laramie and running for the office. A brutal rape and murder at a nearby ranch with the raper murdered there also sets off a chain of events that involves cattle rustling, vigilantism, and a number of other bloody deaths.

   Well, this wasn’t bad. It was a little slow in spots, and I think the problem may have been that at 350 pages it was about 75 too long. Bean has a nice, easy prose style, and is good at both straight narrative and at describing the Wyoming countryside. His characters were well done, too, though a couple seemed a bit more unlikable than necessary.

   Starbranch himself has potential, I think, and it will be interesting to see what Bean does with him. This isn’t the kind of maiden voyage that calls for predictions of stardom, but assuming that he improves as he goes along, I think Bean will do well.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #21, August-September 1995

   

      The Harry Starbranch series

1. No Comfort in Victory (1995)
2. Long Shadows in Victory (1996)
3. A Death in Victory (1997)
4. Grave Victory (1998)

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

   

   There’s a general rule to which the most conspicuous exception in our genre is Agatha Christie: an author’s work dies with the author. Certainly Aaron Marc Stein’s has. Over a period of almost half a century he wrote a total of 114 novels, all but three of them whodunits, and at the peak of his career he was praised by Anthony Boucher of the New York Times Book Review as the most reliable professional detective novelist in America.

   Try to find any of his books now. I began reading Aaron in my teens and got to meet him when he was in his early seventies. We remained friends for the rest of his life. Isn’t it time that I try to resurrect him?

   He was the consummate New Yorker, born there on 15 November 1906, and for his college education went no farther than Princeton University, across the Hudson in New Jersey, from which he graduated in 1927, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. His first publisher was Covici Friede and his first novels, SPIRALS (1930) and HER BODY SPEAKS (1931), were of the avant-garde type and saw print thanks to endorsements from Theodore Dreiser.

   He then adopted the pseudonym of George Bagby for a long-forgotten romance novel, BACHELOR’S WIFE (1932). By this time he’d become interested in mystery fiction and, still using the Bagby byline, began writing what turned out to be a 48-book series of whodunits featuring Inspector Schmidt, a Manhattan police detective who is characterized mainly by taking off his shoes whenever possible, to ease the sore feet he developed in his early years as a beat cop.

   The first three Schmidts were published by Covici Friede, with either Aaron or his editor opting to use Bagby as both the byline on the novels and the Watson figure. Bagby the character is not a cop but a professional writer commissioned to turn Schmidt’s cases into fiction. He calls himself Schmidty’s ghost writer but, since he not the Inspector is presented as the author, it’s more accurate to describe him as Schmidty’s chronicler, just as S.S. Van Dine, still a name to reckon with in the first half of the 1930s, was the chronicler of his detective hero, although Bagby is much more vivid than his unheard and invisible counterpart in the Philo Vance novels.

***

   The fourth Schmidt, which is the earliest I have on my shelves, was the first of dozens of Aaron’s novels published over the next near half-century by Doubleday Crime Club. With the income from his early books rather paltry, he prudently kept the day job he’d held since shortly after graduating from Princeton, as a reporter for the New York Evening Post.

   Eventually he became the paper’s radio critic, learned a huge amount about the inner workings of a broadcasting system, and put his knowledge to use in MURDER ON THE NOSE (1938). Schmidty and Bagby are implausibly first on the scene when the report comes in of what might almost be a John Dickson Carr impossible-crime situation: At the end of his signature tune “I Telegraph My Love to You,” and simultaneous with the sound of a clashing cymbal from the small orchestra backing him up, radio crooner Roddy James has been shot to death by an invisible assassin with an invisible gun in a broadcast studio full of people who saw nothing and heard nothing.

   It soon develops that everyone on the scene — the musicians, the announcer, the sound control engineer, the sponsor — had opportunity to commit the murder, but no one seems to have a motive, and the only real mystery besides the obvious one of how-was-it-done concerns why the program’s sponsor, a manufacturer of toothache remedies, insisted on James as the program’s singer when he was unpopular, technically inept, and did nothing to promote the sponsor’s product.

   Eventually there’s a second murder, a poisoning in a jazz club, and then a third, which bears a cousinly resemblance to the first, the victim this time being shut inside the broadcast system’s transmitter and electrocuted. With Schmidt we learn a great deal about the inner workings of 1930s radio before the solution, which is perhaps a bit too technical but indicates that Aaron must have done a prodigious amount of research into the nuts and bolts of broadcasting.

   There are far too many said substitutes, the most overused of the lot being “murmured,” and a few incidental details, like the group of female gospel singers from Harlem who keep turning up at murders, are treated in a manner that might offend some 21st-century political correctness freaks. But I must say I enjoyed the book and am delighted to have had Aaron sign my copy more than forty years ago.

***

   Before his next novel appeared, Aaron started working as a staff writer on Time magazine but he waited a few years to make use of that background. For the sixth Schmidt, THE CORPSE WITH THE PURPLE THIGHS (1939), he tapped into memories of his tenth reunion at Princeton in 1937, which I can’t believe was as chaotic or liquor-soaked as its fictional counterpart.

   Although neither the town of Princeton nor its university is mentioned specifically, Bagby tells us that he is of the class of 1927, which Aaron was too. Having traveled by train to the nameless town from whose nameless university he’d graduated ten years earlier, and wearing the pirate costume that is the uniform for the class of ‘27, George makes for the firehouse that is serving as headquarters for the alumni of his year. (Alumni is precisely the right word here since all the grads are men. Princeton didn’t go co-ed until the late 1960s.)

   After some imbibing and a crap game he leaves the firehouse and, in the alley alongside the building, stumbles in the dark over what he first assumes is a drunk sleeping it off but quickly discovers is a corpse. He calls the local police, then returns to the alley with a fellow member of the class of ‘27 who’s a doctor. Voila! No corpse.

   The Inspector drives down, arriving late that night, and tells Bagby that someone tried to run his car off the road after he’d stopped for directions at a local roadhouse, which happens to be run by a scar-faced mobster. Schmidty immediately takes over the local police department and soon gets to meet several of Bagby’s classmates including that doctor, a football hero known as Stinker, a congenital drunk known as Zipper, and a guy with a movie camera who’s determined to get every member of the class into his film.

   Complications keep piling up during the long Friday night and, thanks to a total of three murders (the same total as in MURDER ON THE NOSE), nobody gets much sleep. Soon after the traditional Saturday morning parade of the various classes of grads, Schmidty pulls the proverbial rabbit out of the hat and, with total unfairness to the reader, collars the killer.

   Bagby’s summary of everything that happened consumes several pages and leaves us wondering why the culprit made such a microscopically detailed confession. Frankly, I found this exploit rather uninvolving. Could Aaron have made a mistake taking Schmidty out of the big city? I didn’t try to count the number of lines of dialogue that the characters murmur but it must be huge.

***

   We’re back in Manhattan with the next Schmidt novel, THE CORPSE WORE A WIG (1940). Like the previous books I’ve discussed here, this one features three murders, a very tight time frame, and countless lines of dialogue that their speakers murmur. (On one page that verb appears three times in ten short paragraphs.)

   We also find what in later years was to become one of Aaron’s trademarks, a host of long long sentences worthy of Hegel or Faulkner. Here’s a typical example from early in Chapter One.

   Just as my long career as Schmidty’s ghost has convinced me I cannot hope to rival his capacity for unraveling the tangled threads of a crime into its logical components and reassembling these into the inevitable web of the crime’s true texture, just so I do flatter myself that I have profited from this association with Schmidty at least to the extent of being able to confront a simple point of evidence with an open mind and read it for what it is worth.

   

   The plot begins when a medical examiner doing a routine autopsy on another doctor, who seems to have died of natural causes, calls in Schmidty upon discovering that, as per the title, the cadaver was wearing a hairpiece — and beneath it a bullet hole which, on its way into the top of his skull, penetrated a perfectly fine head of hair identical to the wig.

   With Bagby in tow as usual, the Inspector visits the dead man’s office and residence, on the ground floor of an East 77th Street apartment building, and soon discovers that the doctor had only seven patients and wanted no more.

   Questioning his nurse and her artist boyfriend reveals that the doctor had taken up the hobby of etching, and that a great deal of the cyanide he’d been using in his hobby is missing. During the Q&A two visitors come knocking, a former criminal turned theatrical wigmaker and a clearly but subtly gay hairdresser who prefers to be called a scalp specialist.

   It soon develops that the doctor derived most of his income from operating a private medical service for injured criminals. Later that day the wigmaker and an employee of the hairdresser are found poisoned, giving us the requisite three bodies. Before midnight Schmidty has solved all three crimes, although Aaron denies us any chance to anticipate the solution and reveals the little-known fact that triggered Schmidt’s suspicions only in the last paragraph.

   Nevertheless I sort of liked the book, mainly because of some interesting situations — would a woman try to create an alibi by tethering herself to a permanent-wave machine that burned her hair and scorched her scalp? — and the glimpses of offtrail environments like the wigmaking and hairdressing emporiums. But purely as a detective novel it’s nothing special.

***

   The eighth in the series, RED IS FOR KILLING (1941), differs from earlier Bagby novels in several respects. There’s only one murder — supplemented by two near-fatal assaults, one of them on Bagby himself — the time span covers two whole days and nights, and Aaron seems to have cured himself of the Faulkner sentence syndrome and murmuritis.

   He also made such use of his stint at Time magazine, which he portrayed (whether fairly or not I have no idea) as a zoo full of screwballs writing their journalism in a wacko parody of normal English, that he would surely have been fired if he hadn’t already resigned to become a professional novelist.

   Schmidt and Bagby visit the offices of the upstart newsmagazine Tidings, on the top three floors of the same skyscraper that houses the Coast to Coast Broadcasting Network from MURDER ON THE NOSE, when the body of its newest employee, the sharp point of a letter spike buried in the back of his neck, is found in one room of the magazine’s offices, a special library devoted to the collapse of an automotive empire.

   His aching feet encased in comfortable slippers, Schmidty comes to suspect that the more he learns about the dead man and why he was hired the more likely he’ll find the murderer, and starts questioning several of the Tidings brass — a can of mixed nuts of the first water — and a few outsiders including an obnoxious gossip columnist, a politically ambitious plutocrat and the widow of one of the men involved in that business collapse.

   Readers are apt to figure out the late Harold Quimby’s real identity sooner than Schmidt does but have no chance of solving the murder puzzle ahead of the Inspector since Aaron as usual has no interest in playing fair. But his vivid if perhaps biased evocation of the newsmagazine environment, foreshadowing his explorations of various Manhattan milieus in later novels, helps make RED IS FOR KILLING one of his better early efforts.

***

   Those efforts consist of nine Bagbys plus the first four whodunits published under his own name, which featured the archaeologist/amateur detective team of Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt.

   What put an end to his first period was Pearl Harbor. He joined the Office of War Information and later the Army, in which he served as a cryptographer. On his return to civilian life he went back to writing full-time and continued to do so until his death forty years later.

   It was the novels he wrote in the late Forties and Fifties that led Anthony Boucher to call him the most reliable American practitioner of his genre. In later columns I hope to explore some of them.

   
NOTE: I first read this book in 2006, and this review was first posted in June 2009. I’ve just read the book again, but instead of writing a new review, I’ve decided to re-post this old one.
   

DAVID DODGE – Shear the Black Sheep.   Popular Library 202, paperback reprint; no date stated, but circa 1949. Hardcover edition: The Macmillan Co., 1942. Magazine appearance: Cosmopolitan, July 1942.

   After I finished reading this, the second murder mystery adventure of accountant detective Jim “Whit” Whitney, I went researching as I usually do, and it didn’t come as any surprise to learn (from a website devoted to David Dodge) that Dodge was also a CPA by profession, and that he started writing mystery fiction only on a dare from his wife.

   Although Dodge went on to another series (one with private eye Al Colby) and after that several standalones, there were only four books in the Whit Whitney series, to wit:

Death and Taxes. Macmilllan, hc, 1941. Popular Library 168, pb, 1949.

DAVID DODGE

   
Shear the Black Sheep. Macmillan, hc, 1942. Popular Library 202, pb, 1949.

Bullets for the Bridegroom. Macmillan, hc, 1944. Popular Library 252, pb, 1950.

DAVID DODGE

   
It Ain’t Hay. Simon & Schuster, hc, 1946. Dell 270, pb, mapback edition, 1949.

DAVID DODGE

   
   You can find much more detailed entries for each of these books at the David Dodge website, which includes a complete bibliography of all of his other books, both fiction and non-fiction. Not to mention his plays, his magazine stories, the articles he wrote and all of the radio, TV and movie adaptations of his work, the most well-known of which is To Catch a Thief, the Cary Grant and Grace Kelly film from 1955. Comprehensive is an understatement, and it’s definitely worth looking into, just to see a bibliography done right.

   As for Whit Whitney, his home base is San Francisco, but in Shear the Black Sheep he is talked into taking a case in Los Angeles over the New Year’s Eve holiday weekend. Against his better judgment, he agrees to check into the activities of a client’s son, who seems to be spending too much of his father’s money in the business they’re in. They’re a wool brokerage firm — hence the title. The son has also left his wife and new-born baby. Is there another woman?

DAVID DODGE

   Assisting Whitney — or making her way down to LA on her own to spend the holiday with him, or as much of it as there is left after Whit’s investigative duties are over– is Kitty MacLeod, “the best-looking girl in San Francisco, and pretty clever as well,” as she’s described on page 12.

   I’ve not read the first book in the series, and make no doubt about it, I will, but in that book (according the short recap on just about the same page) Whit’s former partner was murdered and at the time, Kitty was his wife.

   It’s now six months later, and Whit and Kitty have become very close. Whit is beginning to worry that some of his colleagues are starting to talk. There had even been some talk at the time that Whit had had something to do with Kitty’s ex’s departure from life, and getting out of the jam at the time seems to be the gist of the story in Death and Taxes.

   But that was then, and this is now. There is indeed a woman involved, as suspected — getting back to the case that Whit was hired to do — and the woman leads to a hotel room, and in the hotel room are … gamblers. A crooked card game, and the black sheep is getting sheared.

   It is all sort of a light-hearted tale, in a way, but then a murder occurs, and a screwy case gets even screwier — in a hard-boiled kind of fashion. Let me quote from page 160. Whit is talking to his client, who speaks first:

    “I don’t think it’s wise to interfere with the police, Whitney.”

   “I won’t interfere with them. I’d cooperate with them except that they’ve told me to keep out of it. I want you to know how I feel, Mr. Clayton. You hired me to find out what Bob was doing with your money, and to stop it. I found out what was going on, but I thought the best way to stop it was to let these crooks get out on a limb, and then saw it off behind them. I thought I could protect your money and show Bob what was happening at the same time. I guessed wrong. I don’t know who killed […] or why he was killed, and I don’t think I’m responsible for his death, but I’m in a bad spot and I’d like to bail out of it by myself — for my own satisfaction. The police needn’t know what I’m doing. I don’t have to tell you that I don’t want to be paid for it, but if you haven’t any objection, I’ll try to find out who killed […] and get your money back.”

   
DAVID DODGE

   Here are a few lines from page 170, at which point things are not going so well:

    He got off the bed and prowled thoughtfully around the room in his stocking feet, still holding the beer glass. What would Sherlock Holmes do with a case like this? Probably give himself a needleful in the arm — Whit drained his beer glass — and deduce the hell out of the case.

   Whit tried deduction.

   
   Those were the days when mystery thrillers were also detective novels. After a long paragraph in which Whit tries out his best logic on the tangled threads of the plot, and who was where and when and why:

    It was a pretty wormy syllogism. As a deducer Whit knew he was a lemon when it came to logic, and he was an extra-sour lemon because he didn’t know enough about Bob Clayton to figure out what he might do in a given set of circumstances. Such as having a pair of football tickets to dispose of, for example. Ruth Martin might have known where they went, but didn’t, ditto Mrs. Clayton, ditto John Clayton. Jack Morgan was the next one to try.

   
   What’s interesting is that Kitty has more to do with solving the case than Whit does. Things happen rather quickly at the end, and if all of the loose ends are (or are not) all tied up, no one other than I seems to think it matters, as long as the killer is caught — who was not someone I suspected, or did I? I probably suspected everyone at one point or another.

   I also wonder if what happens on the last page has anything to do with the title of Whit Whitney’s next adventure in crime-solving. Read it, I must. And I will.

— March 2006.

   
[UPDATE #1] 06-24-09.   That’s a promise to myself that I haven’t kept yet, alas, and re-reading this review (and looking at those paperback covers) gives me all the resolve I need to follow through. You can count on that and take it to the bank. Non-negotiable.

[UPDATE #2] 06-29-21. Looks like I can’t keep promises very well, even those I make to myself. This is still the only book in the series I’ve read. I have just given myself a good talking to.

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

   

   In memory of Alex Trebek we begin with a Jeopardy!-style clue. This iconic suspense writer appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine 70-plus times, and now more than half a century after his death he’s in the magazine again. The question of course is: “Who is Cornell Woolrich?”

   Beginning with Volume 1 Number 1 (Fall 1941) he had a total of 75 stories in EQMM (or, depending on whether you count once or twice the tale published in two parts in two consecutive issues, 76). I will add a complete list of his originals and reprints in the magazine at the end of this column. Recently, with the publication of the January-February 2021 issue, the number has risen to 76 (or 77). There’s a story behind how this new story was unearthed, and it falls to me to tell it here.

   Woolrich was a native New Yorker, born in 1903, to parents whose marriage came apart soon after they moved to Mexico where his father lived. He grew up there with his father, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich (1878-1948), but after he reached high-school age and returned to Manhattan to live with his mother and maternal grandfather, he never saw Genaro again.

   His earliest novels and stories, beginning in 1926, were not in our genre but somewhat closer (well, maybe not all that close) to the work of the young literary idol of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1934 he began a 15-year period of white-hot creativity as the master of suspense, the Hitchcock of the written word. During the middle 1950s, with those years behind him, he set out to return to mainstream fiction with a series of stories about the birth, adolescence, maturity, old age and death of a New York hotel from its opening night in 1896 till the eve of its demolition in 1957.

   Before these tales were published in book form as Hotel Room (Random House, 1958), the editors decided that each chapter in the collection except the first and last, which constitute a framing story, should have some link with an historic event: the end of World War I, the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, the stock-market collapse.

   This decision required the removal of the tales without such a connection. One of these, “The Penny-a-Worder,” was bought by EQMM founding editor Fred Dannay and published in the magazine’s September 1958 issue, the first of a dozen Woolrich originals in the magazine between then and 1970, two years after Woolrich’s death. Were there other such stories? And if so, what happened to them?

   Woolrich’s will left all his literary rights in trust to Columbia University, where he had gone as an undergraduate in the Twenties (although he quit in his junior year when his first novel sold), and Columbia is also the repository of his papers. In March 2019 I was invited to come east and give a talk at the university’s second annual Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival, which was devoted to the many movies based on Woolrich. (You can find my presentation below.)

      

   During the several days of the program, the Columbia library presented an exhibit of Woolrich papers, of which I was treated to a private viewing while I was in New York. Most of what was on display I had seen before, but two manuscripts were new to me.

   As chance would have it, however, I remembered something about one of them. Several years ago Otto Penzler told me that he’d been offered a heretofore unknown Woolrich story, apparently one intended for but excised from Hotel Room. He remembered its first words and quoted them to me: “She came to the hotel alone….” He had not bought the document and didn’t know what had happened to it. Now in 2019 I was staring at the typescript of a story with the exact same first words.

   After returning to St. Louis I asked the professor who had invited me to Columbia if he could possibly arrange for me to be sent a copy of that story. He did, and I liked it very much. And, thanks to the evolution of our genre “from the detective story to the crime novel” over the 60-odd years since Woolrich had written what I now held in my hands.

   I thought it might interest Janet Hutchings, the present editor of EQMM, and emailed her a copy made from mine. Learning that she too liked it very much, I put her in touch with the agent for the Woolrich estate and a deal was made. If you have the first issue of the magazine for this year, you have the story — not under Woolrich’s awkward original title, “The Fiancée Without a Future,” but as “The Dark Oblivion.” Quite an improvement, yes?

   A question may have crossed your mind as you were reading the last paragraph: What about that other Woolrich story in the exhibit? Well, I managed to obtain a copy of that one too, but it was hardly worth the effort. “The Fault-Finder” is not only a poor story — one of many such dating from Woolrich’s last years — but it isn’t crime fiction even in the broadest sense of that term.

   Since no one is ever likely to see this 13-page story, I have no qualms about describing it. The year is 1915, and a husband and wife are in the St. Anselm Hotel, preparing to set out on a vacation cruise across the Atlantic. (Woolrich doesn’t bother to mention that in fact all Europe was at war that year.)

   The woman keeps insulting and belittling her poor henpecked husband. Finally he goes out to a tavern across the street to drown his sorrows and stays there too long so that their ship has already left New York Harbor by the time he returns to the hotel. Furiously she orders him to call up the steamship line and demand their money back. Klutz to the last, the husband can’t remember the name of the ship they were to sail on.

   His wife berates him as an incompetent imbecile and tells him that they were booked on — have you guessed it? — the Lusitania. End of story. It’s perfectly consistent with the central insight of noir — in Hammett’s words, that we live while blind chance spares us — but that doesn’t qualify it as crime fiction or improve it as a story.

   Woolrich may have written these tales a little before the publication of Hotel Room or he may have written them a few years later, in the very early 1960s. What suggests this second possibility is that, along with copies of the stories themselves, Columbia had sent me a sort of cover sheet in Woolrich’s handwriting, the table of contents for a new and expanded version of Hotel Room, with the title of the book changed to Nine Nights in a New York Hotel and each story in the 1958 version re-titled also. The most fascinating aspect of this sheet of paper is at the top: Woolrich writes his own name as the author, just as it was in the 1958 version, then crosses it out and substitutes his well-known pseudonym William Irish! Why did he do that? I think I can explain.

   After the breakup of his marriage to Woolrich’s mother, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich had had liaisons with many women, the last and longest being with Esperanza Piñon Brangas. Their daughter Alma was born in Nogales, Sonora on 17 June 1938 and, as far as I know, is still alive.

   “I learned I had a brother who was a writer when I was fourteen,” Alma said in a telephone interview in Spanish with the Argentine author Juan José Delaney. In 1961 Alma came up from Oaxaca to New Jersey to visit her father’s half-nephew Carlos Burlingham (1925-2004) and his family, staying with them for more than a year.

   Carlos wrote to Woolrich via his publisher, expecting that the son of his Tio Genaro would want to meet the half-sister he’d never seen. He received in reply a telegram from Woolrich’s attorney, of which Carlos gave me a copy. “He flatly refused to accept the fact” that he had a half-sister, Carlos told me, and the attorney insisted that Genaro had remained faithful to Woolrich’s mother throughout his life.

   Once settled in New Jersey, Alma crossed the Hudson to New York in hopes of meeting her famous half-brother. “But he wouldn’t receive me…. I remember that he sent out his secretary saying that he didn’t want to see me.” Woolrich never had a secretary. Juan José Delaney told me that the word Alma had used in their phone interview was secretario.

   It was a man who had turned her away from Woolrich’s door. That man had to have been Woolrich himself. I can’t prove it but I know it. How could anyone have resisted the temptation to sneak a peek at his only living relative without revealing himself? If he had died without a will, his half-sister who speaks little or no English would have inherited all his copyrights by intestate succession.

   To me that explains why on 6 March 1961 he signed a document leaving his rights and everything else he owned in trust to Columbia University. It also explains why, later in 1961, he legally changed his name to William Irish: it was a way of spitting in the face of his long-dead father. The table of contents page for that anticipated new edition of Hotel Room, with its conspicuous name change at the top of the sheet, almost certainly dates from around this time. That new edition of course never materialized, and the tale he called “The Fiancée Without a Future” never saw print until the beginning of this year.

   Now that you know the stories behind that story, I hope that, if you haven’t already read “The Dark Oblivion“ in the January-February EQMM, you soon will.
   
   

CORNELL WOOLRICH Stories in EQMM, along with original appearances:

Fal 1941 Dime a Dance (Black Mask, Feb 1938)
Sep 1943 After-Dinner Story (Black Mask, Jan 1938)
Sep 1944 The Fingernail (”The Customer’s Always Right,” Detective Tales, Jul 1941)
Mar 1945 The Mathematics of Murder (“What the Well Dressed Corpse Will Wear,” Dime Detective, Mar 1944)
May 1945 Leg Man (Dime Detective, Aug 1943)
Feb 1946 The Earring (“The Death Stone,” Detective Fiction Weekly, Feb 1943)
Jul 1946 If the Dead Could Talk (Black Mask, Feb 1943)
Dec 1946 Angel Face (“Face Work,” Black Mask, Oct 1937)
Feb 1947 You Take Ballistics (Double Detective, Jan 1938)
Apr 1947 Steps Going Up (“Men Must Die,” Black Mask, Aug 1939)
Feb 1948 That’s Your Own Funeral (“Your Own Funeral,” Argosy, 19 Jun 1937)
Aug 1948 The Night Reveals (Story, Apr 1936)
Nov 1948 Johnny on the Spot (Detective Fiction Weekly, 2 May 1936)
Dec 1948 The Body in Grant’s Tomb (Dime Detective, Jan 1943)
Mar 1949 Speak to Me of Death (Argosy, 27 Feb 1937)
Apr 1949 Somebody on the Phone (Detective Fiction Weekly, 31 Jul 1937)
May 1949 Momentum (“Murder Always Gathers Momentum,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 14 Dec 1940)
Jul 1949 Collared (Black Mask, Oct 1939)
Oct 1949 Blind Date (“The Corpse and the Kid,” Dime Detective, Sep 1935)
Dec 1949 Mystery in Room 913 (Detective Fiction Weekly, 4 Jun 1938)
Mar 1950 The Humming Bird Comes Home (Pocket Detective, Mar 1937)
Jun 1950 The Night I Died (Detective Fiction Weekly, 8 Aug 1936)
Sep 1950 Cab, Mister? (Black Mask, Nov 1937)
Dec 1950 The Heavy Sugar (Pocket Detective, Jan 1937)
Mar 1951 Through a Dead Man’s Eye (Black Mask, Dec 1939)
Jul 1951 Death in Round Three (Pocket Detective, Apr 1937)
Sep 1951 Charlie Won’t Be Home Tonight (Dime Detective, Jul 1939)
Nov 1951 All at Once, No Alice (Argosy, 2 Mar 1940)
Mar 1953 Goodbye, New York (Story, Oct 1937)
May 1953 Dormant Account (Black Mask, May 1942)
Jul 1953 Cinderella and the Mob (Argosy, 23 Jun 1940)
Sep 1953 The Loophole (“Three Kills for One,” Black Mask, Jul 1942)
Mar 1954 The Last Bus Home (“Of Time and Murder,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 15 Mar 1941)
Jun 1954 Dead Shot (“Picture Frame,” Black Mask, Jul 1944)
Oct 1954 Debt of Honor (“I.O.U.—One Life,” Double Detective, Nov 1938)
Dec 1954 Something That Happened in Our House (“Murder at Mother’s Knee,” Dime Detective, October 1941)
Feb 1955 Meet Me by the Mannequin (Dime Detective, June 1940)
Mar 1955 Invitation to Sudden Death (“Blue Is for Bravery,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 27 Feb 1937)
Jun 1955 Death at the Burlesque (“The Fatal Footlights,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 14 June 1941)
Sep 1955 The Most Exciting Show in Town (“Double Feature,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 16 May 1936)
Dec 1955 One Night To Be Dead Sure Of (“The Living Lie Down with the Dead,” Dime Detective, Apr 1936)
May 1956 The Absent-Minded Murder (“Cool, Calm and Detected,” Black Mask, Apr 1941)
Sep 1956 The Ice Pick Murders (“Death in Duplicate,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 17 Feb 1940)
Jan 1957 Wait for Me Downstairs (“Finger of Doom,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 22 Jun 1940)
Feb 1958 Endicott’s Girl (Detective Fiction Weekly, 19 Feb 1938)
Mar 1958 Don’t Bet on Murder (“You Bet Your Life,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 25 Sep 1937)
Jun 1958 Hurting Much? (“Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 4 Aug 1934)
Sep 1958 The Penny-a-Worder (original)
Feb 1959 The Inside Story (“Murder Story,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 11 Sep 1937)
Mar 1959 Blonde Beauty Slain (original)
Sep 1959 Dead Roses (“The Death Rose,” Baffling Detective Mysteries, Mar 1943)
Jun 1961 Hot Water (Argosy, 28 Dec 1935)
Oct 1961 The Singing Hat (“The Counterfeit Hat,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 18 Feb 1939)
Jan 1962 Money Talks (original)
Apr 1962 One Drop of Blood (original)
Feb 1963 The Cape Triangular (Detective Fiction Weekly, 16 Apr 1938)
Jul 1963 I’ll Never Play Detective Again (Black Mask, May 1937)
Mar 1964 Working Is for Fools (original; radio-play version of “Dilemma of the Dead Lady,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 4 Jul 1936)
Apr 1964 Steps…Coming Near (original)
Jun 1964 When Love Turns (original)
Oct 1964 Adventures of a Fountain Pen (“Dipped in Blood,” Street & Smith’s Detective Story, Apr 1945)
Dec 1964 Murder After Death (original) Dec 1965 Just Enough to Cover a Thumbnail (“C-Jag,” Black Mask, Oct 1940)
Jul 1966 It Only Takes a Minute to Die (original)
Dec 1966 All It Takes Is Brains (“Crime on St. Catherine Street,” Argosy, 25 Jan 1936)
Apr 1967 The Talking Eyes (“The Case of the Talking Eyes,” Dime Detective, Sep 1939)
Jun 1967 Divorce—New York Style: I (original)
Jul 1967 Divorce—New York Style: II (original)
May 1968 For the Rest of Her Life (original)
Feb 1969 Rear Window (“It Had To Be Murder,” Dime Detective, Feb 1942)
Dec 1970 New York Blues (original)
Apr 1972 Only One Grain More (“The Detective’s Dilemma,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 26 Oct 1940)
Sep 1972 The Lie (Detective Fiction Weekly, 9 Oct 1937)
Jul 1975 Mystery in the Statue of Liberty (“Red Liberty,” Dime Detective, 1 Jul 1935)
Oct 1978 Death Between Dances (Shadow Mystery Magazine, Dec 1947-Jan 1948)
Jun 1983 The Phantom of the Subway (“You Pays Your Nickel,” Argosy, 22 Aug 1936)

   If you’re as big a fan of obscure mystery writers and characters as I am, you’re going to enjoy this immensely.

BLACKIE SAVOY

   Over the past twenty years David Vineyard has been tracking down information about a man who certainly qualifies as all but totally forgotten, Australian thriller writer Paul Savoy and his primary series character Blackie Savoy. Tidbit by tidbit, piece by piece, David has also painstakingly put together a bibliography of perhaps the most difficult set of books to find in all of mystery fiction.

   Over the past several weeks, David and I have compiled all of this information into a single article and posted it on the primary Mystery*File website. (Follow the link.)

   The article is far too long to have been posted it here on the blog. Cover images have been included, but the books, both hardcover and paperback, are so scarce that many of the scans are in far poorer condition than I’d have preferred. Nonetheless, working on the principle that something is better than nothing, I’ve included everything that David has been able to send me.

   The article plus the bibliography, which includes adaptations of Savoy’s work into a single film, Blackie Savoy Gets His (Centaur Studios, 1935), comic strips, radio shows, and a four-year syndicated program on Australian TV that seems to have slipped the memories of almost everyone, is, we believe, all that is known about the author.

   Obviously if anyone can supply any more information, including specific publishing dates, reprint editions, and any covers that David has not come across on his own, would be extremely welcome.

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

   

   Around 5:30 A.M. on Saturday, January 9, I lost one of my closest friends in the mystery field. John Lutz was the first writer I met after moving to St. Louis in the early 1970s. At that time, when he was in his early thirties and I in my late twenties, he was known only for his short stories in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock and other genre magazines. We grew as writers together, our first hardcover novels coming out a year apart.

    Either more prudent or more cowardly than John, I kept my day job. He chose to write full-time, and soon became very well known indeed, perhaps more for the novel that was turned into the movie SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992) than for any other book. He continued to write until about two years ago when Parkinson’s and other health issues ended his long career.

***

   He was a native Texan, born in Dallas on September 11, 1939. When he was four his photographer father moved the family to St. Louis. Soon after the end of World War II the elder Lutz opened a tavern which he continued to own and operate for more than twenty years. John graduated from Southwest High School in 1957 and, having not the foggiest notion what he wanted to do with his life, found a job as a movie theater usher. The following year, at age 19, he married Barbara Jean Bradley, who worked at the same theater. The marriage lasted more than sixty years.

   A young man who becomes a husband and father before he’s old enough to vote, and who has to support the family putting in long hours at low-level jobs, will rarely have the energy to read for enjoyment, let alone to write, during what little free time he has. John Lutz did. In the early 1960s he was working on various night shifts as a civilian switchboard operator for the St. Louis Police Department, a forklift operator, and a warehouseman for a grocery chain.

   By daylight he was reading voraciously — among his favorites at the time were John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, John Collier, Gerald Kersh and Roald Dahl — and pounding out dozens of his own short stories at warp speed, sometimes not even bothering to make a carbon. When or if he slept remains a mystery. “It looked easy,” he said, “so I tried it and found out it wasn’t.”

   None of his stories sold but that, he said after making the grade, was “part of the learning process.” Dozens of rejection slips in a row have aborted countless potential writing careers but John refused to get discouraged. “I saw I could improve, so I kept at it.” After a while the editors who turned down his material began to write supportive comments in their sorry-we-can’t-use-this letters. “That’s a good sign. I’d know I was close to a sale then.”

   Most of his stories were mysteries because he liked to read them and thought they were relatively easy to sell. One frabjous day in early 1966 he opened his mail and out popped a contract. He was still working the night shift at a grocery warehouse when his first story came out. “Thieves’ Honor” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 1966) opened the door for him, and acceptances soon began pouring in. Six of his tales appeared in 1967, ten in ‘68, five more in ‘69. Within a few years of his unheralded entry into the genre he was being published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, the science-fiction periodical Galaxy, the Diners Club magazine Signature, men’s mags like Knight and Swank and Cavalier.

   But the majority of his stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and many of those are among his finest. In 1975, his tenth year in the field, eighteen new Lutz tales were published including five (under his own name and four pseudonyms) in a single issue of a single magazine. Now that’s productivity!

   Even after 1971 when his first novel was published, John prudently held onto his job as night warehouseman. Eventually he found a better-paying position as a truck driver. In 1973, after being laid off from that job, he decided to take a crack at full-time writing. Two years later he and his wife Barbara and their three children and their dog moved across St. Louis County to a stucco house on a wooded corner lot in suburban Webster Groves, where they lived for the next thirty-odd years.

***

   There are no series characters in most of his short stories but there are what one might call series elements. The two that are identified with him are husbands seeking a method of wife-disposal and off-the-wall business organizations. Occasionally, like the creator of two different series detectives who has his sleuths work together on a particular case, he used both signature elements in a single story, for example “Fractions” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, June 1972), which is about a company that manipulates unwanted spouses into cheating.

   John could create a new business as easily as a rabbit can create another rabbit, but most of his imaginary entities share a common factor. Beneath the impressive facade and the smiles and the handshakes they’re out to take us. He was never all that fond of the self-congratulatory social Darwinism known as the free enterprise system, and even when dealing with businesses that exist in reality he combined a healthy cynicism with imaginative bizarrerie and came up with dandy items like “Mail Order” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, April 1975) and “Understanding Electricity” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, August 1975), which read as if Kafka had come back from the grave to collaborate with Ralph Nader.

   Not all his stories were of this sort, but the best do tend to stem from wildly distinctive premises, like “The Real Shape of the Coast” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1971) with its lunatic detective trying to solve a murder in the asylum, or “Dead Man” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, March 1974) where we share the last hours of a tycoon locked inside a walk-in vault with a few hours’ air supply as he gropes desperately for a clue to the identity of his own murderer.

   His first decade as a writer also saw the publication of his first two novels. THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER (1971) is a paperback about a fugitive couple being stalked across the Midwest by the police but mainly by their own lies and self-deceptions and fears. BUYER BEWARE (1976) introduced St. Louis PI Alo Nudger, whose trademark is a nervous stomach and whose specialty is the legal counter-kidnaping of children kidnaped by non-custodial parents.

   Then came four breakthrough books that established him as a writer to contend with. BONEGRINDER (1977) is a bit like JAWS out of water, pitting a rural sheriff against a Bigfoot-like monster terrorizing a small town in the Ozarks. LAZARUS MAN (1979) is a Watergate-era political thriller in which the G. Gordon Liddy figure gets out of prison determined to kill the Nixon figure and his cronies one by one, only to find that they’re just as bent on killing him.

   JERICHO MAN (1980) is the first but far from the last novel in which John mined the Lawrence Sanders vein of urban violence, with a tough NYPD captain and a young architect battling the madman who planted dynamite in the foundations of several high-rises when they were under construction. In THE SHADOW MAN (1981) a U.S. Senator is stalked through the Manhattan nightscape by what seems to be a psychotic political assassin with the power to be in several places at once.

   John never stopped writing short stories even when he was turning out a novel a year, but his magazine appearances became rarer. A few of his tales from this period featured series characters like Nudger or BONEGRINDER’s Sheriff Billy Wintone, and an occasional non-series story furnished raw material for a later novel, like “The Other Runner” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1978), the source for one of the scariest of the murders in LAZARUS MAN a year later.

   But stories like “Pure Rotten” (Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, August 1977) and “Dear Dorie” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, September 16, 1981) are as crazy as any he dreamed up in his early days, and “High Stakes” (The Saint Mystery Magazine, June 1984) is one of the most terrifying short stories of suspense since the death of Cornell Woolrich.

   The Edgar that Mystery Writers of America awarded him for the Nudger story “Ride the Lightning” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, January 1985), was an honor well deserved and long overdue.

   In THE EYE (1984) John and co-author Bill Pronzini revisited Lawrence Sanders country and came up with a powerful noir thriller. A wealthy madman living in a Jersey Palisades highrise keeps his balcony telescope trained on the residents of a single block of Manhattan’s West 98th Street. His name is God, and those who violate his commandments he kills.

   Assigned to the series of West 98th Street murders is plainclothesman E.L. Oxman, a diligent plodder trapped in a cancerous marriage and desperate for affection on almost any terms. When he takes up with the promiscuous young artist who lives on the murder-plagued block, they both unwittingly nominate themselves as God’s next targets.

   Next John revived Alo Nudger but in a somewhat reconfigured version. The character’s ill-advised first name is almost never mentioned, he no longer specializes in the legal kidnaping of children (or anything else), the narration has shifted from first to third person, and the protagonist’s symbiotic relationship with his city has become almost as strong as Spenser’s with Boston or Philip Marlowe’s with L.A.

   The new Nudger comes close to being a total loser, plagued by overdue bills and deadbeat clients and a bloodsucking ex-wife and shoddy consumer goods and that old nervous stomach and most of all by his near-paralyzing unaggressiveness and compassion.

   His office is above a doughnut shop in a dreary suburb of north St. Louis County. He drives a dented old Volkswagen Beetle that he has trouble finding whenever he parks in a shopping center lot and which tends to die on him for lack of maintenance when he uses it to chase or shadow someone.

   He shares the world of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp: whatever can go wrong for him, will. In NIGHTLINES (1984) Nudger encounters a suicidal woman whose life is even more messed up than his own while hunting the slasher who’s been using the phone company’s private equipment-testing lines to make blind dates with his female victims.

   RIDE THE LIGHTNING (1987), expanded from his Edgar-winning short story, puts Nudger in a hopeless race against the clock to save a petty criminal from being electrocuted for one crime he may not have committed. The tenth and final novel in the series was OOPS! (1998) which, I immodestly point out, was dedicated to me.

   One Nudger book a year left John ample time to launch a second private eye series, this one set in central Florida and featuring a character for whom the perfect movie incarnation would have been Robert Duvall. Fred Carver is a balding fortyish ex-cop whose police career ended when he was kneecapped by a Latino street punk. Vegetating in the beachfront bungalow he bought with his disability pay, Carver is pushed into PI work by friends on the force who want him to stop pitying himself and get on with his life.

   In TROPICAL HEAT (1986) Carver is hired by a lovely realtor to find her lover, who in the middle of a solitary continental breakfast on her terrace either walked out on her for no reason, or jumped off a cliff into the ocean, or was pushed off. The search leads to a condominium time-sharing scam, a drug deal (in Florida what else?), an underwater duel with a knife-wielding Marielito, an airboat chase through the Everglades, and an emotional entanglement which neither Carver nor his client is equipped to handle.

   The plot is of the bare-bones variety but the meat on those bones is prime noir, saturated with vivid descriptions of the Florida heat. All the subsequent Carver novels had one-word titles: SCORCHER, KISS, FLAME, BLOODFIRE, HOT, SPARK, TORCH, BURN, and finally LIGHTNING (1996). For me the finest of the lot is KISS (1988), one of the most disturbing and downbeat of all PI novels.

   Interspersed among his PI books are about sixty short stories published in anthologies of original fiction plus several stand-alone thrillers. SWF SEEKS SAME (1990) is a prime specimen of noir contemporaine in which a young woman in New York advertises for someone to share an apartment with and winds up with the roommate from hell.

   This became by far the best known Lutz novel when it was filmed by director Barbet Schroeder as SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992), starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

   His novels of the 21st century are about twice as long as any of his previous books and, beginning with THE NIGHT CALLER (2001), noir fiction’s favorite word was in the titles of the first half-dozen. Later books followed the lead of JERICHO MAN and THE EYE, concentrating on protracted duels between big-city cop Frank Quinn and various sociopaths.

   In their golden years the Lutzes were living in a lovely house in the affluent suburb of Des Peres that was large enough to accommodate frequent visits from children and grandkids. Their winters were spent in Sarasota and they loved to visit New York for a concentrated week or two of theatergoing.

   John continued to write up a storm, filling his pages with the doings of lovers and losers, butchers and victims, fools and clowns, hunters and prey. His final novel was THE HAVANA GAME (2019).

***

   Over the decades we interacted often. In my second novel, CORRUPT AND ENSNARE (1978), as The Honorable Jon Lutz he was elevated to the rank of justice on a nameless state’s supreme court, and in my short story “The Spark” he became Lon Judson, an author notorious for his stories about husbands killing their wives.

   My fourth novel, THE NINETY MILLION DOLLAR MOUSE (1987), was dedicated to him, and a year later I edited BETTER MOUSETRAPS (1988), his first collection of short stories.

   John and Barb and my late wife Patty and I enjoyed many dinners together at a number of restaurants, of which I most fondly remember the dining room of the Hotel Daniele, right near the line separating St. Louis city from the county seat of Clayton, a restaurant I renamed The Auberge and cannibalized for the fine-dining scene in BENEFICIARIES’ REQUIEM (2000).

   The last time I saw him was in March 2020, shortly before Covid-19 dominated the world. He said nothing, needed a walker to get around, had lost a lot of weight, but he could still function. That soon changed. He deteriorated over the rest of last year and died a little more than a week into this one.

   The only other writers with whom I had such a close and rich relationship were Fred Dannay and Ed Hoch, both of them now long dead. Is it any wonder that as the years pass I feel empty and alone more and more often?

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

   

   After completing five novels about William Crane, Latimer took a break from crime fiction and made an attempt to go mainstream. The result was DARK MEMORY (1940), his last hardcover book to appear in the U.S. for fifteen years, offering us what John Fraser in a Mystery*File essay many years ago called “a Hemingwayesque African safari novel” with “no mystery/thriller/crime fiction aspects to it at all….”

   Then Latimer returned to the PI genre, but carelessly and in great haste and with trimmings American publishers seem to have found repulsive. SOLOMON’S VINEYARD (1941) was issued and apparently sold quite well in Blitzkrieg-battered England but on this side of the pond was available for decades only under a different title and in bowdlerized form. I am lucky enough to have copies of both the censored and the uncensored versions and therefore am in a position to compare them in detail.

   First however I need to describe what happens in VINEYARD, in which Latimer’s obvious goal was to incorporate as many elements from Dashiell Hammett as was humanly possible. Our first-person narrator, St. Louis-based PI Karl Craven, is both fat and tough like Hammett’s Continental Op, although Craven tells us flat out that he cares about nothing but eating, boozing, fighting and sex, while the Op’s only passion is detective work.

   If VINEYARD had made it to the movies he might have been played very effectively by William Conrad as he looked when he portrayed one of the killers in THE KILLERS (1946). Paulton, the Missouri city at which Craven steps off the train as the book begins, is clearly modeled on Poisonville from RED HARVEST, complete with ubiquitous gangsters and corrupt officials and even a sloppy cop in the first chapter.

   Several characters, such as fat Chief Piper and the good-hearted hooker Carmel Todd and her tubercular half-brother, come straight out of HARVEST where their names were Chief Noonan (another fat man), Dinah Brand and Whisper Thaler. Events in both novels are (dare I say it?) triggered by the killing of the son of the town’s richest man (Donald Willsson in HARVEST, Caryle Waterman in VINEYARD), although the latter’s death is not a deliberate murder. Like the Op in HARVEST, Craven spends a good part of VINEYARD manipulating the gangster factions in the town so that they wind up killing each other off.

   But Latimer doesn’t neglect the other Hammett novels. Deeply involved in the sleazy affairs of the community is a bizarre religious cult such as the one the Op tackled in THE DAIN CURSE, and Craven’s mission in Paulton is to get a young woman out of the Temple’s clutches just as the Op tried to do in DAIN. He was preceded on this mission by his partner, who was shot to death not long before Craven’s arrival, and as we all know from THE MALTESE FALCON, when a PI’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.

   It’s not clear whether Latimer borrowed anything from THE GLASS KEY, but Craven does get punched around several times although, unlike Ned Beaumont, he gives back at least as many blows as he receives. From THE THIN MAN nothing seems to have been lifted, perhaps because Latimer had taken his fill from that final Hammett novel in RED GARDENIAS.

   Soon after the war a modified version of VINEYARD was published in Mystery Book Magazine (August 1946) and, a few years later, as a paperback original (Popular Library, pb #301, 1950). Both versions had a new title, THE FIFTH GRAVE, and differed from VINEYARD in several ways, which deserve some exploring:

   (1) The most defensible alteration corrects some gaffes. Three of the minor characters in VINEYARD — the hotel porter, the salesman who gets into a fight with Craven in the hotel bar, and the good-hearted whore’s half-brother — -are all named Charley. In the U.S. version the salesman is rechristened Teddy and the half-brother Donnie. (The corrupt police chief in VINEYARD is named Piper and one of the gangsters killed in a shootout is called Piper Sommes, but the American editors missed this overlap and left both names intact.)

   An especially huge gaffe takes place in Chapter 15 when Craven searches the temple’s treasure vault and finds more than $50,000 in cash including, I am not making this up, thirty $600 bills. In THE FIFTH GRAVE this becomes thirty-one $500 bills. Both versions tell us that a total of $52,100 was found but if you add up the figures in VINEYARD — 25 $1,000 bills, 30 $600, 27 $200, 62 $100 — the sum total is $54,600. It seems that Latimer was writing so fast he couldn’t even get the math right. At least the American editors could add properly.

   (2) The dates on the five gravestones Craven discovers in Chapter 15 of VINEYARD are given as 1937 through 1940, the year the events take place. In the U.S. version, supposedly set when the tale was published in Mystery Book, the years are updated to between 1942 and ‘46. For the same reason the poster Craven notices early in Chapter 17, advertising the Clark Gable movie SAN FRANCISCO (1936), is eliminated.

   (3) Early in VINEYARD Craven sends the hotel porter for magazines, specifying: “Film Fun and some of those others with photographs of half-naked babes, and Black Mask.” In Mystery Book, whose editors weren’t interested in plugging other publications, this becomes “Movie magazines and a pulp detective.” The phrase about the half-naked babes remains untouched.

   (4) But elsewhere the sexual innuendo is toned down. Compare these sentences from the first pages of the two versions:

   1941: “From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed….She had gold-blonde hair, and curves, and breasts the size of Cuban pine-apples.”

   Mystery Book and Popular Library: “From the way she looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be a hot dame…. She had gold-blonde hair, and plenty of curves.”

   For a much more drastic bowdlerization, take a look at the rough-sex scene in Chapter 9. The “she” is the woman from the first paragraphs, who’s known as the Princess. Everything that was dropped when VINEYARD was published in the U.S. I’ve put in caps:

   She slapped me….She hit my arms and my chest. I tried to hold her.

   “HIT ME!” SHE SAID.

   It was GODDAM queer….She struck my chest.

   SHE SAID: “HIT ME.”

   I hit her easy on the ribs. “That’s right! That’s right!” She hit me a couple of hard blows. Her eyes were wild. She hit me a hard punch on the neck. I hit her in the belly…. She kept coming in, punching hard.

   I GAVE HER ONE OVER THE KIDNEYS. SHE GRUNTED AND CLENCHED WITH ME. SHE BIT MY ARM UNTIL THE BLOOD CAME. I SLAPPED HER. SHE PUT HER KNEE IN MY GROIN. IT HURT. I LOST MY BALANCE, GRABBED FOR HER, AND WE BOTH WENT DOWN. WE ROLLED AROUND ON THE DIRTY FLOOR OF THE SHACK, BOTH PANTING…. I GOT OVER HER, HOLDING HER DOWN ON THE FLOOR…. She bit my arm again and I slugged her in the ribs. … My hand caught in the scarlet shirt. The silk tore to her navel.

   “Yes,” she said.

   I GOT THE IDEA. I RIPPED THE SHIRT OFF HER, SHE FIGHTING ALL THE TIME AND LIKING IT. I RIPPED AT HER CLOTHES, NOT CARING HOW MUCH I HURT HER. SHE SQUIRMED ON THE DIRTY FLOOR, PANTING. THERE WAS BLOOD ON HER MOUTH…. IT TASTED SWEET. SUDDENLY SHE STOPPED MOVING.

   “Now,” she said. “NOW, GODDAM YOU! Now!”

   

   (5) You noticed, I’m sure, that among the items eliminated from the quoted passages were two “goddams.” Other words that might offend American readers’ religious sensibilities were also omitted here and there. For example, in Chapter 6 Craven tells us: “Jesus, I was tired!” Three guesses which word was dropped by Mystery Book and Popular Library.

   (6) Finally and most significantly, at least for us in the 21st century, the U.S. versions deep-six Craven’s frequent habit of using our least favorite six-letter word, or its first three letters as a diminutive. This form of censorship is defensible, I suppose. But, keeping in mind that VINEYARD is narrated in first person, and that Craven seems the kind of guy who would frequently use these words, to me at least it’s also questionable. In any event it was done and we can’t undo it.

   Despite changes the basic story in both versions remains the same. No attempt was made to plug the numerous holes in the plot, so that we never learn why the Princess won’t let Craven kiss her on the mouth, or what his murdered partner’s American Legion button was doing in the temple’s treasure vault.

   Whichever version you read is a tribute to Latimer’s carelessness and haste. The Popular Library paperback came out alongside the first wave of Mickey Spillane novels but if the 1941 version had found a U.S. publisher back then, Mike Hammer might not have seemed so shocking after the war.

***

   

   During the run-up to Pearl Harbor Latimer moved to southern California and began concentrating on B movie work including THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT (1939, starring Warren William) and PHANTOM RAIDERS (1940, with Walter Pidgeon as Nick Carter). After graduating to A pictures and completing the screenplay for the 1942 remake of Hammett’s THE GLASS KEY he enlisted in the Navy, returning to Hollywood and script writing after the war.

   Ten of his screenplays were for director John Farrow (1904-1963), with whom he seemed to have a special affinity. The first two established both Farrow’s and Latimer’s credentials in film noir. THE BIG CLOCK (1948) was an excellent noir about the editor of a Time-like true crime magazine (Ray Milland) who discovers that the murder he’s investigating was committed by his media-tycoon boss (Charles Laughton).

   NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948) differed radically (due in large part, I suspect, to the devoutly Catholic director) from the 1945 Cornell Woolrich novel of the same name on which it was based, with Edward G. Robinson transformed from Woolrich’s haunted prophet to a sort of Jesus figure who goes to his death to save his quasi-daughter (Gail Russell).

   Either before joining the Navy or soon after his discharge, Latimer had moved to La Jolla, California, a genteel suburb of San Diego. Late in 1946 that town became the home of the reigning monarch of his and Latimer’s common genre, Raymond Chandler. The two veterans of PI fiction and the Hollywood studios became friends. Latimer, said his more celebrated and also more reclusive colleague in crime, “knows everybody and likes everybody….” He was one of the few people who attended the funeral service for Chandler’s wife, who died in December 1954.

   At the tail end of his screenplay-writing years Latimer published two stand-alone crime novels — SINNERS AND SHROUDS (1955) and BLACK IS THE FASHION FOR DYING (1959) — but these are not in the PI genre and won’t be considered here. During his final period as a writer he concentrated on television, turning out 32 scripts for the PERRY MASON series. Among those based on Gardner novels, I especially recommend “The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll” (24 January 1959); among the originals, “The Case of the Capricious Corpse” (4 October 1962).

   As far as I can tell, his final TV script was “The Greenhouse Jungle” for COLUMBO (15 October 1972). He died of lung cancer on 23 June 1983, a few years after my almost conversation with him. He’s been dead almost forty years now but for my money, he and Raoul Whitfield, whom I discussed in previous columns, still rank as the most interesting PI writers between Hammett and Chandler.

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

   

   We never met but once we came close to having a conversation. It was the late Seventies, and I was in La Jolla to attend the annual meeting of the University of California library board on which I served. He lived in the same town, and I was given his phone number and tried to call him one evening. His wife answered, saying he literally couldn’t talk with me: he’d just gotten out of the hospital after surgery for throat cancer. That was as close as I came to contact with Jonathan Latimer.

   If you watched PERRY MASON regularly during its first-run years on TV (1957-66) you saw his name in the credits again and again. Erle Stanley Gardner is said to have called him the only writer who really mastered the art of writing MASON scripts. Between the second of the show’s ten seasons (1958-59) and its last (1965-66) he wrote a total of 32 hour-long scripts for the series: 25 originals, 6 adaptations of Gardner novels and, I kid you not, one script based on a short story by Hugh Pentecost. But that was the tail end of his career. Our main concern here is with his beginning.

   He was born in Chicago on 23 October 1906 and named Jonathan after his great-great-grandfather, who had served on George Washington’s staff during the Revolutionary War. After graduating from Knox College (Galesburg, Illinois) in 1929 he returned to Chicago and worked as a crime reporter for the Herald-Examiner and the Tribune, meeting several celebrity gangsters while on the job. He was in his late twenties when he began writing novels, the first six published by Doubleday Crime Club, five of them featuring a private detective and somewhat under the influence of the overwhelmingly dominant author of that genre during the 1930s, Dashiell Hammett. The first of these was MURDER IN THE MADHOUSE (1935).

***

   It opens inside an ambulance with a guy named William Crane in handcuffs and being transported through upstate New York to a private sanitarium for well-to-do mental cases. No sooner has he arrived than he seems to establish why he’s there by claiming to be a famous detective, no less in fact than C. Auguste Dupin.

   The kicker is that he really is a detective, a PI hired to infiltrate the sanitarium and look into the claim of one of its residents, a dotty old lady who loves to knit, that a box containing negotiable bonds worth $400,000 — a huge amount back in the days when gasoline cost 11 cents a gallon — has vanished from her room. (If you’re wondering why she kept that fortune unprotected, well, didn’t I tell you she was dotty?)

   The inmates of this nameless loony bin, whom Crane quickly meets and begins to interact with, include a fellow who thinks he’s Abraham Lincoln, a wolf man who prowls around the grounds on all fours, another guy who hasn’t spoken a word in four years, and several more, perhaps a few too many. The doctors in charge are at each other’s throats, most of the nurses are predatory sexpots in starched whites, and the staff is mainly composed of weirdoes like the religious maniac who acts as night watchman.

   As per the title, there is a murder in the madhouse, four of them in fact. The local law enforcement people are idiots, but there are genuine clues to follow and Crane does a neat job of reasoning in between hearty slugs of the local applejack.

   Like Hammett’s Continental Op, Crane is not a lone wolf but works for a big agency, its head being an unseen character known as the Colonel (later expanded to Colonel Black). Unlike the Op, he doesn’t narrate his own cases. But Latimer’s style consists mainly of simple declarative sentences such as we find in Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON and THE GLASS KEY. And Crane, like Nick Charles in THE THIN MAN, drinks gallons of booze.

   What Latimer contributes to these established ingredients is a sardonic gallows humor whose like is not found in Hammett. We don’t find a great deal of this in MURDER IN THE MADHOUSE but it soon becomes prominent.

***

   Like Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON and Ned Beaumont in THE GLASS KEY, Crane was onstage at every moment of MADHOUSE, but his next case features several scenes without him. In HEADED FOR A HEARSE (1935) he’s still based in New York but spends almost all of his time in Chicago, racing against the clock to save an innocent man from the electric chair. Joan Westland was found shot to death in her locked apartment, to which only she and her estranged stockbroker husband Robert had keys.

   There’s no murder weapon on the scene but ballistics tests establish that the fatal bullet came from a rare British pistol of World War I vintage. Robert owned such a pistol, which has mysteriously vanished. The people in the apartment below Joan’s testify that they heard a shot at a time when by his own admission Robert was visiting her.

   He’s convicted and sentenced to death, but shortly before his execution he receives a note, apparently from a criminal prowling in Joan’s apartment building at the time of the murder, who claims he can prove Robert’s innocence. With less than a week before his date with the chair, Robert brings in a sleazy criminal lawyer named Finklestein, who in turn brings in Crane.

   As in MURDER IN THE MADHOUSE, our PI spends many hours guzzling the sauce as more bodies pile up but somehow manages to get sober for the denouement two hours before Westland is to be fried. The plotting is tight and the solution to the locked-room puzzle pretty simple by John Dickson Carr standards but rather ingenious, although the tie-buying clue and the telephone-call gimmick still leave me scratching my head.

   The most powerful scenes take place in the death house at the beginning and end of the novel. In Chapter XI comes a pure specimen of Latimer’s gallows humor as we get a description of a Bascom Wonder Funeral, “including a handsome Lincoln hearse, three automobile loads of mourners (we can augment your mourners if you desire), the use of our private chapel with the $8000 Barton organ and the Golden Isle Quartette,” plus “a choice of five distinctive caskets.” All for the low low price of $217!

   Those not at home in the geography of the Windy City can have a lot of fun with a map tracking Crane’s taxicab journeys back and forth across the Chicago River from Point A to Point B in search of the vanished pistol. But I must warn potential readers that, its merits as a whodunit to one side, HEARSE is a generous anthology of political incorrectness, with epithets taboo in the 21st century strewn all over the landscape: Heeb, sheeny, Chink, dago, even the six-letter word which I’d be screamed at as a racist if I repeated.

   All this is okay when coming from the mouths of characters of the Archie Bunker ilk but not so okay in the early pages of Chapter IX when it seeps into the third-person narrative. Small wonder that HEARSE didn’t appear in paperback until more than twenty years after its hardcover publication and then, like another Latimer novel we’ll discuss eventually, only in bowdlerized form (Dell pb #D1896, 1957).

   Two years after its publication HEARSE became the basis of the first in Universal Pictures’ 8-film Crime Club series. THE WESTLAND CASE (1937) was directed by industry old-timer Christy Cabanne (1888-1950) from a screenplay by Robertson White. Preston Foster played Crane, with Frank Jenks as his sidekick Doc Williams.

   I can’t recall ever seeing this picture but from what I’ve read on the Web (including Dan Stumpf’s review for Mystery*File) it seems to have followed Latimer’s plot fairly closely, although I’m willing to bet that none of the racial and ethnic epithets with which the novel abounds survived into the movie.

***

   In his first two books Latimer tried his hand at the whodunit laced with gallows humor but the next one was his masterpiece in that vein. In THE LADY IN THE MORGUE (1936) New York is still Crane’s base but while temporarily in Chicago he receives a wire from his boss, Colonel Black, directing him to hang out at the Cook County morgue and try to identify the body of an attractive blonde who apparently hanged herself in her cheap hotel room right after taking a bath and disposing of all her shoes. (As we learn later, the firm has been hired by members of a wealthy family who are afraid the dead woman might be the clan’s rebel daughter.)

   But the body is stolen from the morgue during the wee hours and the night attendant bludgeoned to death. The hunt for the missing corpse soon leads to the murder of an undertaker and a wave of wacky-gruesome incidents as Crane and his sidekicks Doc Williams and Tom O’Malley encounter a pair of feuding gangsters, a gaggle of luscious blondes, and an alcoholic bulldog in whose company they conduct a midnight search of a cemetery for another (or is it the same?) vanished female body.

   Crane finds little time to sleep but plenty to guzzle  — including a slug of embalming fluid unaccountably kept in a bottle of Dewar’s Scotch — as he and his buddies lurch from one cockeyed venue to another, perhaps the most vivid being the dime-a-dance joint where all the girls dance in their underwear and the morgue where Crane wraps himself in a sheet and, posing as an embalmed corpse, waits for the murderer.

   The solution is chaotic and what passes for reasoning leaves much to be desired, but what a madcap epic! In his entry on Latimer in 20th CENTURY CRIME AND MYSTERY WRITERS (3rd ed. 1991) Art Scott calls it “a genuine mystery classic….grotesque and hilarious at the same time, a masterpiece of black comedy.”

   That may be too thick a coat of encomium, but if you’re going to read any Latimer at all it’s gotta be THE LADY IN THE MORGUE. Note for the triviac: In the first edition the drug best known as pot is rendered as marahuana, a spelling I’ve never seen before, but in Crime Club’s hardcover reprint of 1953 it’s changed to the form we all know and love.

   Under the novel’s title but without much resemblance to its anarchic plot, THE LADY IN THE MORGUE (1938) became the third entry in Universal’s series of Crime Club movies, with Preston Foster returning as Crane. This one was directed by Otis Garrett, who had served as film editor on THE WESTLAND CASE, with screenplay by Eric Taylor and Robertson White.

   A copy of the movie accessible on YouTube shows us that the man claiming to be the vanished corpse’s brother was portrayed by Gordon Elliott, who later in 1938 started going by Bill or Wild Bill Elliott and, under these monickers, quickly become a notable star of B Western flicks.

***

   No novel under Latimer’s byline appeared in the year after MORGUE but a novel by Latimer did. THE SEARCH FOR MY GREAT-UNCLE’S HEAD (1937) was published as by Peter Coffin, who also serves as first-person narrator (Peter Nebuchadnezzar Coffin, to give him his full name). Anyone who had read an earlier Latimer novel was unlikely to have been fooled by the new byline since the detection is done by none other than Colonel Black from the Crane series.

   In his ENCYCLOPEDIA MYSTERIOSA (1994) William L. DeAndrea called it “a weird hybrid of country house cozy and hard-boiled effects.” That’s good enough for me. Sometime soon I’ll explore Latimer’s three final PI novels — two about Crane, the third not.

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