Authors


RICHARD FOSTER – Bier for a Chaser. Pete Draco #1. Gold Medal #899, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1959.

   The only thing I found interesting about this book is its cover. There is little else to it. PI Pete Draco, from Miami Beach, is brash and ballsy but noticeably weaker when it comes to brainpower, and somehow beautiful babe simply flock to his bedroom. I’d be hard pressed to say why.

   A syndicate kingpin has dies, and nearly a million dollars in gunrunning money has disappeared. (This was written back in the day when a guy named Castro was a folk hero.) This is boozy male fantasy fiction at either its worst or its finest — it is hard to say which.

–Reprinted and slightly revised from Mystery*File #17, November 1989.


Bibliographic Note: Richard Foster was but one of many pen names of Kendell Foster Crossen, best known perhaps under his M. E. Chaber byline for a long series of books about insurance investigator Milo March. Crossen wrote a total of seven mysteries as Foster, but only one was another Pete Draco adventure, that being Too Late for Mourning (Gold Medal, 1960).

BRUNO FISCHER – Murder in the Raw. Gold Medal #694, paperback original; 1st printing, August 1957. Cover art: James Meese. Reprinted as #1011, 1960.

   I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that Bruno Fischer wrote hundreds of pulp mystery stories, or if it is, it isn’t by much. (I’m counting stories under his own name as well as Russell Gray and Harrison Storm.) The first of these was “The Cat Woman” which appeared in the November 1936 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine under the Russell Gray byline.

   He wrote one hardcover mystery novel in 1939 (So Much Blood, for the obscure Greystone Press) but it wasn’t until the mid-1940s that he made the transition to novel length work for good. He was one of the early authors to sign up with Gold Medal when they began publishing, circa 1950, writing 11 novels for them throughout the first year they were in business.

   Obviously the most provocative thing about Murder in the Raw — well, make it two — are the title and the cover art, both designed to catch the eye of a would-be buyer (male, of course). I don’t know if the title was Fischer’s choice, but the scene shown is in the book.

   But even so, both the title and the cover art disguise the fact that this is a pretty good detective story and an even better character study. When newspaper reporter Clem Prosper tries to take a short vacation in a lodge along a lake, he finds his host missing and himself falling in love with a young woman living nearby who has been badly scarred by having been acquitted of killing her husband, a man she loved but did not know his secret life was that of a notorious gangster.

   Fischer does a good job of hiding the identity of the true killer, suggesting at one time it is one person, then another, and convincing the reader each time that it could have been him or her. I think that’s the sign of a good author, to flesh out and define his (or her) characters well enough to make what’s essentially a puzzle plot actually work.

   Lee Goldberg left this bit of good news as a comment following Richard Moore’s previously posted essay on author Ralph Dennis. Thinking the news deserves to be spread as much as possible, I’m reposting it here:

Lee Goldberg on the RALPH DENNIS Novels.


   I’m excited to announce that I’ve acquired the rights to all of Ralph Dennis’s work — his published and unpublished novels. Brash Books will be re-releasing his 12 Hardman novels, starting with the first four in December, and the rest through 2019. The Hardman books include a terrific introduction by Joe R. Lansdale … and subsequent books include afterwords by Richard A. Moore, Ben Jones and Paul Bishop. The first two titles in the series, Atlanta Deathwatch and The Charleston Knife is Back in Town are already available for preorder in paperback and ebook on Amazon, iBook, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

   We’ll also be re-releasing in 2019 a substantially revised version Ralph’s WWII thriller MacTaggart’s War, which we’ve retitled The War Heist. It was his last published title and didn’t do as well as he, or the publisher hoped. I believe i know why… I’ve gone back to his original manuscript, rearranged chapters, deleted chapters, and made other revisions to heighten suspense, sharpen characters, etc… cutting the book by about 35,000 words along the way (it still clocks in at 100K words).

   And we’re also going to be releasing many of Ralph’s unpublished novels … which, if they need revision, I will be doing myself. One of the manuscripts is going to be slightly reworked as a sequel to his previous published novel Atlanta (which we are likely to retitle before re-publishing).

   This has been a passion project for me ever since Bill Crider and Paul Bishop introduced me to the Hardman novels five years ago. I immediately decided I had to get them back into print, so I sought out the advice of my good friend Joel Goldman … and as a result of those discussions, a partnership and a publishing company were born. Now, after the publishing nearly 100 titles together, we are finally putting out the novels that we’d hoped would be our first releases.

   I can’t thank Richard Moore enough for all of his help making this deal finally happen.

   I can’t wait to hear what you think of the books as they roll out… and I hope you will spread the word. We want Ralph Dennis to get the recognition and readership he’s long deserved.

JEAN LESLIE – A Hair of the Dog. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1947. No paperback edition.

   As an author, Jean Leslie is all but unknown today, but in mid-40s and early 50s she wrote a total of eight works of mystery and detective fiction, all published under Doubleday’s long-established Crime Club imprint. The first three take place in Academia and feature a series character named Peter Ponsonby, a professor of some note who dabbles on the side in writing pulp mysteries. About the author herself, Hubin supplies the following information: “Jean Leslie Cornett (1908-1994). Born in Omaha, raised in Santa Monica; teaching fellow in psychology.”

   Anyone interested in a little Internet research can take it from here. This may be a small foothold to work from.

   The book itself, Leslie’s fourth, begins in an unusual way. The story is told by Jennifer Caldwell, a young woman who has been the secretary to a wealthy but retired manufacturer of dog food for several years now. She stops in at a lawyer’s office, one chosen at random, to explain her concerns. Her employer has just decided to cut several family members out of his will, but to add a bequest of $100,000 to Jennifer.

   After telling Mr. Barclay all the details of her employer’s family, plus two research scientists who live on the property, along with two servants, she then tells him she doesn’t want the money and what can he do to help her about it? He replies that he’s a corporation lawyer and he doesn’t handle cases like this. She retorts, then why did you spend the last hour listening and leering at me? He replies, who wouldn’t?

   This is, of course, yet another dysfunctional families such as vintage detective mysteries are often populated with, but Jennifer’s employee, whose largess everyone else depends on, is a fine old gentleman who know exactly who the members of his family are. Unfortunately someone decides to stop him permanently before he actually signs the new will he has threatened everyone with.

   As a detective story, this one is purely middle of the road, and in fact I enjoyed it less than I did the characters themselves, all of whom had some depth to them, including the narrator, who quickly reveals that she has some secrets she’s not sharing. As for Mr. Barclay, it seems as though the attraction was mutual, and no, Chapter One is not the last we see of him.

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


   Suppose all the readers of this column were gathered together in one room. At the front, standing before the lectern or podium or whatever the hell you call it, I pose a question: Any of you know something about Tom Everitt? Almost everyone in the room would probably answer: “Tom Whoveritt?” Perhaps one or two who had read my book THE ART OF DETECTION and were blessed with a photographic memory might say: “Wasn’t he the guy who provided the plots for Manny Lee to turn into Ellery Queen radio scripts after Fred Dannay dropped out and before Anthony Boucher came aboard?”

   Indeed he was. But aside from that fact, and the titles of more than thirty EQ scripts that were based on Everitt plot synopses, virtually nothing is known of him. While working on THE ART OF DETECTION I had ransacked the Web looking for a little more information about this mystery man but with no luck. Then out of the blue not long ago I received an email from a total stranger who, in the course of researching something else entirely, had unearthed more information about Everitt than I could have used even had I known of it in time to put it in the book. But there’s no reason I can’t summarize it here. Thank you, Jonathan Guss, for making this month’s column possible.

   John Thompson Everitt, whom I’ll call JT just to make things simple, was born in Yonkers, New York on December 11, 1908. His ancestors had arrived in Massachusetts by 1643 and had settled in the New York City area near Jamaica by 1650. JT’s father, Charles Percy Everitt (1873-1951), was a well-known rare book dealer, and Charles’ brother Samuel Alexander Everitt (1871-1953) was a partner in the Doubleday publishing house until his retirement in 1930. JT’s older brother Charles Raymond Everitt (1901-1947) also went into the publishing business, working at Harcourt Brace and later, until his early death, at Little Brown, the publisher of a volume of memoirs by his and JT’s father (THE ADVENTURES OF A TREASURE HUNTER: A RARE BOOKMAN IN SEARCH OF AMERICAN HISTORY, 1951).

   In 1930 JT graduated from Yale, where he was known as a soccer player. A year later he was hired by the CBS radio network to write for its March of Time program. By 1940 he had moved into the advertising side of radio at the Young & Rubicam agency where, among many other jobs, he was tasked with handling a prospectus from the NBC radio network on The Green Hornet, for which NBC was seeking a sponsor. Apparently he was still working at that agency when he became involved with the Ellery Queen series.

   Since its debut in June of 1939, every one of the scripts for the series had been written by Manfred B. Lee based on plot synopses prepared by his cousin and EQ collaborator Fred Dannay. (More precisely, every one except “The Dauphin’s Doll,” first broadcast around Christmastime 1943 and written by Manny alone.) Early in 1944 Fred’s wife was diagnosed with cancer. The burdens of taking care of two young children, plus editing a large annual anthology of short mystery fiction and running Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM), which had been launched in the fall of 1941, soon made it impossible for Fred to continue coming up with a plot a week for the radio series.

   He was several synopses ahead when he dropped out, and Manny squirreled these away for use in emergencies, relying most of the time on recycling earlier scripts under new titles and condensing 60-minute scripts from the show’s first season (1939-40) into its current half-hour format. But these ploys couldn’t go on indefinitely. Somebody had to be found to take over Fred’s function.

   How TJ came into the picture remains unknown. Possibly it was through his older brother Charles, who was working at Little Brown, publisher of the Queen novels and anthologies since 1942. Perhaps it was due to the connections Fred and Manny had retained with the advertising and publicity businesses where they’d gotten their start. Whether he was the first man brought in to assume Fred’s function as plot provider remains unclear.

   We don’t know exactly how many Dannay synopses Manny had in reserve, but several of the episodes dating from late 1944 strike me as too outrageous to have stemmed from Fred. Take, for example, “Cleopatra’s Snake” (October 12 & 14, 1944). As backstage observer of a live production of Antony and Cleopatra for experimental TV, Ellery becomes a key witness when the genuine poisonous snake being used in the death scene (yeah, right) bites to death the actress playing Cleopatra.

   Now let’s consider “The Glass Sword” (November 30 & December 2, 1944), in which Ellery tackles the case of the circus sword swallower who died when the sword in his stomach broke while the lights were out. Was it Everitt who cranked out the synopses that Manny turned into these scripts? Was it another Dannay substitute? Or, wacko though they are, could they have originated with Fred after all? For more information, keep reading.

   The earliest EQ script that we know came from a synopsis by Everitt was “The Diamond Fence” (January 24, 1945), which involves the murder of a middleman for stolen gems and the disappearance of five diamond rings from the scene of the crime under impossible circumstances. A substantial excerpt from this episode survives on audio as a “sneak preview” from the Armed Forces Radio Service.

   From that point at least through the end of March, every script Manny wrote was based on Everitt material. It was during these early months of the last full year of World War II that Manny enlisted Anthony Boucher (1911-1968) to take over Everitt’s function. It was an ideal choice. Boucher had already published seven novels in the Queen vein and had had short stories published in EQMM. Also, as we know from comments in various of his mystery reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle, he was an enthusiastic fan of the radio series.

   Since Tony lived in Berkeley, California and Manny on the east coast, collaboration on EQ radio scripts required vast correspondence between the two. This correspondence, archived at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, documents their work together in microscopic detail. The only aspect of it that concerns us here is Manny’s continual snarky remarks about Everitt, of which I’ll quote a few.

   On May 3, 1945, about six weeks before the broadcast of the first Boucher-Lee collaboration, Manny tells Tony that he’s “washed up” with Everitt, who “will do four more for us, and then he’s through. This by mutual agreement.” On the 17th of the same month, he says: “We want to avoid some of the weaknesses resulting from our present man’s so-called efforts….” And on the 24th he lets Tony know how he really feels about Everitt: “….At the end of our association with our ‘man,’ as I like to call him—hating his smug, treacherous guts as I do!—we’re finding more trouble…and sloppier submissions on his part even than usual….”

   On January 24, 1946, he describes one of the Everitt synopses he had to deal with as “a bad outline which I bought only because I was desperate …and bought and paid for it with the mental reservation that I’d probably have to do a thorough re-working job on it. I was a noble prophet.”

   But, simply because the EQ radio formula was so complex and demanding and Boucher with all his other commitments couldn’t conjure up a new plot synopsis on a weekly basis, Manny was forced to make further commitments to Everitt. “This was a desperation move,” he tells Boucher on October 30, 1946, “as his stuff always gives me headaches, but good….I had to do something in self-protection. I heartily wish now I hadn’t made that commitment…. But it can’t be undone and I can only hope that he doesn’t come through, so that I can order more from you.”

   Almost a year later Manny is still reluctantly dealing with Everitt now and then and, in a letter to Fred Dannay dated November 4, 1947, griping about it just as loudly. Discussing the possibility of repeating some of the scripts based on Everitt synopses, he describes Everitt as “such a son-of-a-bitch that, even though our rights to repeat the material without payment are clear, he would raise a considerable stink in the business if we didn’t pay him an extra fee….[F]or the most part he got tremendously overpaid in the original payment—the bulk of the creative work was done by me, out of sheer necessity.”

   If Manny were to offer a token fee of perhaps $50 per episode recycled, Everitt “would start haggling and chiseling and his tongue would wag plenty in the business….” What business Manny is referring to becomes clear later in the same letter. “[Y]ou don’t know…what that bastard has been saying and is still saying in the advertising business about his ‘part’ in the Queen show. There is no protection against his kind of conscienceless and unscrupulously shrewd self-propaganda….”

   As his correspondence with both Fred and Boucher demonstrates, at least during the radio years Manny was a Type A personality with a genius for getting hot under the collar, and the insane pressure of putting out a program every week probably shortened his life.

   Whether he was being too harsh on JT is hard to judge. One of the few living persons to have seen any of the Everitt material Manny turned into scripts is Ted Hertel, who helped choose the scripts included in THE ADVENTURE OF THE MURDERED MOTHS (2005). In connection with that project he was erroneously sent the synopses for “The Right End” and “The Glass Sword,” both with Everitt’s name on them.

   To judge by Ted’s comments, what Everitt gave Manny to work with was just as bad as Manny said it was. In an email to me he described the synopses as “so poorly written, so amateurish, that they could not possibly have been the work of Manny in any form.” (The scripts Manny based on these synopses were broadcast respectively on November 16 and 30, 1944.)

   Only one episode Manny based on an Everitt synopsis is available on audio. In “Number 31″ (September 7, 1947) Ellery tries to crack the secret of international mystery man George Arcaris’s success at smuggling diamonds into the Port of New York and to comfort a wonderfully dignified black woman by solving the murder of her son, the servant for a wealthy man-about-town. The cases seem unconnected until Ellery discovers the number 31 popping up in both.

   It’s an excellent episode, but how much credit should go to Everitt remains a mystery since no one in the last 70 years has seen his synopsis. I wouldn’t be surprised if the black woman was entirely the creation of the staunchly liberal Manny Lee.

   To the best of my knowledge the only Everitt radio work besides his EQ plots was a single script for The Shadow. In “The Creature That Kills” (January 6, 1946) Lamont Cranston, alias The Shadow, investigates the theft of priceless papers from the 20th-floor laboratory of a brilliant young scientist under impossible circumstances.

   It turns out that the thief, a master criminal with a Sydney Greenstreet voice, had an accomplice in the form of a trained 27-foot python which slid down the side of the building from the window directly above the scientist’s lab, got hold of the papers, then slid back up the wall to its master. What a snake! Do I detect here the same kind of wackiosity that pervades the EQ scripts about Cleopatra and the glass sword?

   In 1947 Everitt returned to radio full-time as Eastern program manager for the ABC network. We don’t know if he wrote any more for the medium, but Jonathan Guss mentions one script he contributed to the golden age of live TV drama, “Revenge by Proxy” (Colgate Theatre, May 14, 1950). The cast included Nancy Coleman, Phil Arthur, Bernard Kates and Victor Sutherland. As chance would have it, the following week’s drama, “Change of Murder,” was based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich.

   Everitt died on November 2, 1954, at age 45. Today he seems to be totally forgotten, perhaps deservedly so. The most that can be claimed for him is that he figures as a footnote in the Ellery Queen story. But at least now that footnote has been written.

Hi Steve,

   Francis Pollni is in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV for a couple of titles and his last book was published in 1978. Since then he seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Just wondering if you could post a question on your blog to see if anyone knows what happened to him.


POLLINI, FRANCIS (1930- )
    -Glover (Putnam, 1965, hc) [England] Spearman (London), 1965.
    Pretty Maids All in a Row (Delacorte, 1968, hc) Spearman (London), 1968. Film: MGM, 1971 (scw: Gene Roddenberry; dir: Roger Vadim).


   He was born in Pennsylvania 9/9/1930 and married his English born wife, Gloria Ann Swann born 1936, in London in 1959, She is on 1960s London electoral rolls apparently by herself, though he is probably not listed as he could not vote here. I believe he is the F. Pollini living Norwich, Norfolk in the late 1970s according to phone directories, the last appearance in the 1980 edition.

   His wife is still there in the 2000s, the last sighting of her being a 2014 newspaper report on the death of their daughter Lisa, while their other daughter Susanne is apparently working in academic circles in Northern England. She is also on electoral rolls around that time but no listing for him.

   I cannot find any trace of him after 1979 (in that 1980 phone directory). Nothing in any records on Ancestry etc.

   There is a 2011 post about him ‘What ever happened to Francis Pollini’ although it seems to deal with his writings rather answering the question. He has a Contemporary Authors entry, but that basically only gives his birth and marriage details.

   Could you use these facts to post an inquiry in case someone does know something. He is a borderline crime writer, but it would be nice to know what happened to him, where he is and what he is doing now, if anyone knows, of course.

           Thanks

                   John

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


   The earliest published stories of Erle Stanley Gardner, dating back to the middle 1920s, were written in a style that might best be described as non-existent. Around the end of the decade he began to be heavily influenced in terms both of style and story substance by Dashiell Hammett, and he remained more or less in Hammett’s shadow during the first few years he was writing novels including the earliest cases of Perry Mason, which began to appear in 1933.

   Mason as portrayed in the first nine novels about him could almost be a Hammett character: a tiger in the social Darwinian jungle, totally self-reliant, asking no favors, despising the weaklings who want society to care for them. Then a sea-change came over the character. The Saturday Evening Post offered Gardner a ton of money for permission to serialize the Mason novels before their book publication, but part of the deal was that the character had to be toned down to conform to the magazine’s “family values” ideology.

   Money talked. Mason from then on became a much tamer character, still skating on the thin edge of the law but always as advocate for a client we knew was innocent, so that we readers could delight in his legal tricks without the moral qualms we might experience if we thought the client might be guilty. Still, the earliest Masons remained in print unaltered, and many of us are especially fond of the novels of Gardner’s Hammett years. But how many readers know that there are more such novels than the first nine Masons?

   THE CLUE OF THE FORGOTTEN MURDER (1934) first appeared under the aegis of Gardner’s lifelong publisher William Morrow but under a pseudonym (Carleton Kendrake) and with the first noun in the title spelled CLEW. It’s unlikely that any of the novel’s original readers caught on that Kendrake and ESG were the same man, simply because a number of other writers were attempting to channel Hammett in the early Thirties, and also because the book’s protagonist doesn’t dominate the action from page one like the early Mason and isn’t even introduced until Chapter 7.

   Until then our viewpoint characters are, first, a crime reporter for a big-city newspaper and, after about thirty pages, one of the paper’s publishers. We open late at night in the Police Headquarters basement press room where reporter Charles Morden is learning about a number of incidents, among them the murder of a private investigator which doesn’t seem terribly interesting, not at the time anyway.

   Another item does capture Morden’s attention: a man driving a rental car with an attractive young woman was arrested on suspicion of DWI and then, being accused of having pulled some gas station hold-ups, has identified himself as Frank B. Cathay, a prominent citizen in the smaller nearby community of Riverview. Morden’s paper prints a story to this effect. Then the real Cathay comes forward, claims that his wallet was stolen by a pickpocket who used the ID inside to pass himself off as Cathay, and threatens to sue the paper for libel.

   At this point publisher Dan Bleeker decides to counterpunch by having Morden thoroughly investigate Cathay, hoping to turn up something that will make Cathay drop the suit. When Morden is murdered and Cathay dies (possibly of poison) shortly after the reporter’s body is found, Bleeker hires criminologist Sidney Griff, who is something of a cross between a Hammett character and Philo Vance, and from this point forward Griff takes center stage.

   At the climax we find him channeling not Vance or a Hammett sleuth but Carroll John Daly’s pistol-packing PI Race Williams, standing on the outside of a speeding taxi “with one foot on the running board, clinging to the rod of the windshield support with his left hand” while with his right he engages in a running gun battle with the murderer in another car, a battle which ends of course with a crack-up.

   To suggest the labyrinthine nature of the plot I’ll quote a remark from Bleeker to Griff in Chapter XVII. “My God, this case is full of women, and every woman has at least one alias. We started with the hitch-hiker, who gave the name of Mary Briggs to the police. We now find her in a hotel registered under the name of Stella Mokley, and probably that’s not her real name. [It is.] Then, there’s this Stanway woman, who apparently is Blanche Malone [a woman whose actual married name is Lorton but who was married to a certain Peter Malone and therefore claims to have been Cathay’s legal wife]; and there’s Alice Lorton [actually the daughter of the woman who calls herself Malone and Stanway], who built up a fictitious Esther Ordway [who Lorton claims was her roommate although in fact she had none]. I wouldn’t doubt if it turns out that Mrs. Cathay really isn’t Mrs. Cathay at all [which is exactly what is claimed by Blanche Malone, who also calls herself Stanway].”

   And those complications barely mention any of the men in the case! If you think the plots of Perry Mason novels are too twisty, perhaps you should give this one a miss. But it all seems to make sense if you think about it long and hard enough. There’s not a great deal of law here except for a brief discussion of the legal difference between accidental death and death by accidental means which crops up again a few years later in DOUBLE OR QUITS (1941), one of the earlier novels about Bertha Cool and Donald Lam which Gardner turned out as A.A. Fair, a byline which lasted decades longer than did Carleton Kendrake. Or than another pseudonym he used only once, a year after Kendrake’s debut and swan song.

***

   THIS IS MURDER (Morrow, 1935), first published as by Charles J. Kenny, is less of a brain-buster but also more like a Hammett novel, reminiscent of THE MALTESE FALCON and THE GLASS KEY in that, like Sam Spade and Ned Beaumont, its protagonist is with us from first page to last, and even more like THE GLASS KEY in that it deals with two corrupt political bosses fighting to gain power in the forthcoming election.

   District Attorney Phil Duncan, who is reasonably honest but allied with sleazy power broker Carl Thorne, is asked to look into the disappearance of Ann Hartwell, the half-sister of Thorne’s mistress Doris Bender. When Bender receives a note claiming that Hartwell has been kidnaped and demanding $10,000 ransom, the DA’s poker buddy Sam Moraine, a wealthy advertising executive, is chosen to deliver the money, mainly because the exchange of woman for money is to take place at sea and Moraine has a yacht.

   He comes to suspect that there’s something phony about the set-up but hands over the money and recovers the woman, only to be arrested by the Feds as his yacht puts in to port. No sooner has his buddy the DA pulled him out of that mess than he finds himself hip-deep in another when Ann Hartwell’s husband, a struggling and insanely jealous dentist, tries to kill him.

   Then thanks to some detective work by his secretary Natalie Rice, who seems to have an interest in the case more personal than any Della Street ever had, Moraine learns that that the kidnapping was indeed a hoax: Ann Hartwell went out to sea only hours before the “ransom” payment, and left for the docks in a taxi she entered near the home of political boss Peter Dixon, Carl Thorne’s enemy.

   Moraine plans to go out into the windy night and pay a surprise visit to Dixon but is kept from leaving his office by the DA and his chief investigator and sends Natalie Rice to Dixon’s house instead. While still closeted with the DA he gets a phone call from a terrified Natalie and, after another encounter with the furious Dr. Hartwell, makes his way to the Dixon house, which is in total darkness thanks to a tree having fallen over a power line.

   There he finds Dixon’s body, a broken window and a candle apparently snuffed out by the wind. Next morning the DA forces him to go to the morgue and view a dead body: not Dixon’s but that of Ann Hartwell, which has been found nearby. A little later Moraine discovers what’s behind Natalie’s involvement in the case, appropriates a suitcase filled with papers incriminating Carl Thorne and his machine, and makes plans to go on the run.

   The climax takes place at a Grand Jury hearing with Moraine cross-examining witnesses—he’s not a lawyer but the DA lets him behave like one—and, as if he’d suddenly become a Perry Mason clone, gets the real murderer to confess on the stand.

   Certainly THIS IS MURDER is closer to the Hammett model than THE CLUE OF THE FORGOTTEN MURDER was. But neither the Continental Op nor Sam Spade nor Ned Beaumont got involved in their dangerous escapades because the danger gave them what we today might call an adrenaline rush, which is precisely the reason Sam Moraine gives for his involvement.

   Still, he’s closer to a Hammett character than that bush-league Philo Vance figure Sidney Griff from FORGOTTEN MURDER. Both novels are still readable more than eighty years later, but few readers will deny that Gardner was wise not to bring back either of their protagonists and to stick, most of the time anyway, with Perry Mason.

THE NON-MAIGRET NOVELS OF GEORGES SIMENON
by Walker Martin


   In the comments following Steve Lewis’s review of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novel, The Bar on the Seine, he asked about my favorite non-Maigret novels. I see from my notes that I spent most of 2015 reading Simenon’s psychological crime novels. I read most of the hundred or so novels and even thought of writing an article for Mystery*File about my experience. But I couldn’t figure out how to discuss 75 or so novels in an article without making it into a long book.

   But now that the question has come up again, here’s a short answer. For anyone interested in Simenon’s non-series crime novels, I recommend that you buy an omnibus of four novels titled A Simenon Omnibus (Hamish Hamilton, UK, 1965). Here are my notes on all four:


MR. HIRE’S ENGAGEMENT. This was one of the first of his serious non-Maigret novels. Told from the viewpoint of a very strange man, a peeping Tom. Made into two movies: Panique (1947, France) and Mr Hire (1989, France).


SUNDAY. Told from the viewpoint of a guy plotting to poison his wife. Looks autobiographical to me especially in regard to his relationship with the girlfriends. Simenon said more than once that he had thousands of sexual encounters.


THE LITTLE MAN FROM ARCHANGEL. Excellent tale of a second hand book store owner and stamp collector who makes the mistake of marrying a slut 16 years younger. He’s 40 and she is 24. Needless to say, this does not have a happy ending. The book and stamp details are fascinating.


THE PREMIER. Also known as The President. Not only a study of politics and the political life but also a look at old age and the impact it has not only on the famous but also every man. I was so impressed by this novel that I reread most of it immediately. Made into a 1961 movie starring Jean Gabin (Le President).


   I consider all these novels excellent and there are many more titles that impressed me, too many to list here.

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


   We continue our discussion of H. C. Branson with his third novel. He never tells us in so many words where CASE OF THE GIANT KILLER (1944) takes place but he does give us two clues. We open at a country club which is said to overlook Lake Erie. That lake borders on only four states—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. At first one might conclude that the events are taking place in Michigan, but later in the novel that state is referred to as a place other than the book’s setting, although whether Branson meant to rule out his home state or simply made a mistake isn’t clear.

   Bent is vacationing at the country club near the town of Port Arthur when he’s approached by two parties. The first to seek his advice is Barney Hogan, a local investment adviser whose wife’s first husband, convicted of embezzling from Hogan’s firm and just released from prison, is making revenge noises. The second is Elizabeth Orme, widow of a prominent Supreme Court justice, whose bookish young son has gotten involved with a married woman several years his senior.

   The two sets of dramatis personae are of course connected: the ex-con is the brother of the woman young Orme is involved with and her husband, Arthur Pickett, is Barney Hogan’s business partner. Pickett is found dead at the bottom of a cliff a few days after these conversations, and a few nights after the first murder Hogan is shot to death. As usual in Branson, the clues to both crimes are somewhat less than concrete.

   But Bent keeps formulating reconstructions of what might have happened and eventually the complex truth comes out. There’s not a smidgen of a hint that the United States is fighting a world war — not even in the final conversation between Bent and the novel’s Iago figure where the fact of war would be extremely relevant. It’s as if Branson had made a “contract with America,” similar to Georges Simenon’s wartime “contract with France,” to write nothing that would reflect the real-world situation at the time.

   Tony Boucher once again dispensed with a verb in his Chronicle review (26 March 1944) but was even more lavish in his praise: “The best Branson yet, a flawless job to delight the purist who does not insist on extraneous excitement, and demonstrating…that the so-called rules of detective fiction are made to be broken—but only by one who understands them as well as Mr. Branson.”

***

   In THE FEARFUL PASSAGE (1945) World War II is once again conspicuous by its absence, but this time Branson tells us unequivocally where his protagonist is based and where the action takes place. At 1:40 P.M. on a bright October day, after a journey of two to three hours, Bent steps off the train from New York City at the affluent town of Chalcis, having been summoned by county prosecutor Mark Shaftoe, on behalf of a private client he refuses to name, to investigate a murder that took place the night before.

   It’s apparent that the prime suspect in the murder of Gavin Hunter is young Tom Shepherd, the son of Hunter’s deceased wife by her first husband. Not only does Tom hate his stepfather but upon Hunter’s death he’ll inherit the fortune made by his biological dad, a wealthy candy manufacturer. At first it seems that Tom can’t possibly be guilty since he was in New York at the time of the murder. But when it develops that he was seen in Chalcis the evening of the shooting, he’s given a second alibi by the much younger wife of Professor John Winter Shaftoe, the uncle of the prosecutor who sent for Bent and an historian of civilizations whom Branson portrays as a sort of cross between Hemingway and Arnold Toynbee.

   In fact the town seems to be full of people, including the prosecutor himself, who don’t want Tom to be charged with anything. With only one murder, Branson’s fourth novel is more unified than the previous three but, in a quiet detached way, just as emotionally intense, although few if any readers are likely to beat Bent to the answer. Boucher in his Chronicle review (9 December 1945) didn’t eschew verbs but lavished praise as before: “Like all of Branson’s works this is a civilized and distinguished contribution to the serious literature of the detective story, and there’s a peculiar ironic aftertaste to this one.”

***

   On the first page of LAST YEAR’S BLOOD (1947) we’re told that Bent has come from New York, but later events prove pretty conclusively that the setting is nowhere in the Empire State. Near the end of the book we learn that one of the characters left Chicago at 7:10 P.M., drove to the nameless town where the novel takes place, committed a murder, and was back in Chicago by 4:35 A.M.

   From Chicago to Erie, Pennsylvania, which is a little nearer the Windy City than any point in New York, is almost 450 miles. Can you imagine driving more than 900 miles in a little over nine hours, years before anyone ever heard of the Interstate Highway System? If we assume that the novel’s center of gravity is in Michigan, probably not far from Ann Arbor where Branson lived, we aren’t likely to go far wrong.

   Wherever it is, Bent arrives there on a snowy February evening on commission from Bertha Gretsch, a wealthy vindictive old woman whose daughter Madeline was found in her garage, dead of monoxide poisoning but with chloral hydrate in her system. The death could have been an accident or suicide but Bertha insists it was murder, committed by Madeline’s new second husband, a young doctor.

   Bent begins a quiet investigation which is sidetracked when, the day after his arrival, Bertha herself is clubbed to death and stuffed into a clothes press in the house shared by the late Madeline and her husband. Eventually Bent comes to suspect that the deaths of daughter and mother are part of an elaborate scheme to channel the Gretsch fortune in a certain direction. (Haven’t we seen that element before in Branson?)

   The novel doesn’t offer a diagram of the family tree which might help to clarify the characters’ relationship to each other, but I’ve drawn one and you can access it by clicking here. This time, unlike in I’LL EAT YOU LAST, there are no estate law blunders.

   In 1947, with World War II over, Branson is willing to admit that it happened. Madeline’s second husband served in various stateside Army medical facilities and, after the war, worked as a psychiatrist in a VA hospital, and the husband of another female character (not related to the Gretsches and therefore not shown on the diagram) was killed in the Pacific. Not that any of these details are connected with the plot, which Bent probes in his usual speculative way and which he probably wouldn’t have been able to solve except that in the last chapter one suspect shoots another to death in full view of Bent and the local cop nominally in charge.

***

   THE LEADEN BUBBLE (1949) may well be Branson’s finest novel. Among those who thought so was Ross Macdonald, who in July 1953, a few years before he adopted that byline, called the book “remarkable” in a talk at the University of Michigan with Branson himself in the audience. Almost twenty years later, in a letter to Eudora Welty dated December 4, 1972 and included in the authors’ correspondence collection MEANWHILE THERE ARE LETTERS (2015): “Hank wrote some marvellous mystery novels, as you doubtless know—you perhaps remember THE LEADEN BUBBLE, and if you don’t give it a try….”

   Perhaps the book had a special appeal for Macdonald because so much of it takes place in a shabby-genteel boardinghouse of the sort he spent several years in while growing up in Canada. As BUBBLE begins we find Bent once again visiting a nameless state, although it can’t be too far from his home base because he arrives on a rainy Friday evening in mid-January, driving his own car, and apparently set out only a day or two earlier. What brings him to the town of Marchfield is a letter from an old friend, former Supreme Court justice Matthew Gregory, saying that he’s been “greatly disturbed” by something he doesn’t reveal.

   Bent reaches Gregory’s house only to find the old jurist an inch from death, and in fact he dies a few hours later, leaving Bent in the dark as to what he wanted. Might it somehow be connected with the dead man’s son Robert Gregory, whose estranged wife is about to file for divorce and, with the help of an odious local attorney named Horace Bradley, turn her soon to be ex-husband into a pauper? Might the appeal to Bent have something to do with the old man’s granddaughter, Robert’s niece, whose husband had found her in bed with another man and killed her? Might it be significant that the murderer’s attorney, who managed to get a jury to find the man not guilty (a foreshadowing of the O.J. Simpson trial almost 50 years later?), is the same shyster Robert Gregory’s wife has hired to clean out her husband?

   Bent begins to poke around and, discovering that shortly before his fatal stroke the elder Gregory had paid a mysterious visit to a boardinghouse in the town of Waterford, twelve miles from Marchfield, decides to rent a room in the house himself. On the evening of Bent’s first full day in the area, Horace Bradley is shot to death.

   As usual the suspect list is a long one: Robert Gregory, his rapacious wife, the lover who was in bed with old Gregory’s granddaughter when her husband shot her, and even the husband himself, whom Bradley had been dunning for an exorbitant fee. Barzun and Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME give away the murderer but I shall be kinder and quote only their last sentence: “The atmosphere of steady rain and glistening pavements suits the mood of night wandering, driving to nearby towns, and steady speculation aided by brandy and Beethoven’s piano works.”

***

   At the opening of BEGGAR’S CHOICE (1953) Bent is again disembarking from a train in a town that seems to be in the upper midwest although as usual Branson declines to name the state and mentions the town’s name, Fairfax, only once. Awaiting the detective is attorney Leo Murphy, brother of the county prosecutor, who has sent for Bent because of pervasive rumors that the recent death of aged local millionaire Augustus Lefever, apparently the result of a heart attack, was actually something more sinister.

   The principal beneficiaries of Lefever’s estate are his niece Irene Miller, long a resident of Fairfax, and a young grandnephew from California who happened to be visiting at the time of the old man’s death, but Bent doesn’t rule out the possibility that the murderer, assuming there is one, is an outside party whose motive was to enrich one or the other beneficiary.

   Not much happens besides speculation until some attempts are made on the life of the young woman who’s engaged to the grandnephew. As usual the guilty party never has to face a judge and jury. Although the last couple of paragraphs, describing the murderer’s fate, are strictly out of the blue, Tony Boucher in his New York Times review (21 June 1953) praised the book’s “fine tragic denouement.”

***

    As we’ve seen, opinions about Branson are divided. On the positive side we find not only Don Yates and Ross Macdonald, whom Branson had befriended when all three lived in Ann Arbor, but critics like Tony Boucher who probably never met him. In his final discussion of the novels Boucher called them “….so meticulous in detection and so subtly revealing of human character that they rank high among connoisseurs’ delights….” and commended their “sensitive, courageous, adroit, perspicacious probing….”

   On the other side we find Bill Pronzini, who found the books too “detached and emotionless” for his taste. After re-reading all seven novels in chronological order over a month or so, I’d venture the opinion that anyone with an interest in what is now commonly called Golden Age detection will find Branson an off-trail author well worth more attention than he’s received. Quirks, gaffes and all.

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


   Three months ago, while writing the column in which I said farewell to my old friend Don Yates, I hinted that one of these days I hoped to devote some attention to H.C. Branson, who lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan and befriended Don when he was growing up in that city. The time has come to realize that hope.

   Henry Clay Branson (1904-1981) was born in Battle Creek, Michigan. He read the Sherlock Holmes stories as a boy, was educated at Princeton and the University of Michigan, and spent a few years in Paris and elsewhere in Europe, reading Philo Vance novels and trying without success to become an expatriate literary figure, before he settled in Ann Arbor.

   According to Don’s entry on him in 20th CENTURY CRIME AND MYSTERY WRITERS (3rd ed. 1991), he “was one of the most familiar of card-holders at the Ann Arbor Public Library, where he withdrew and consumed hundreds of mystery stories.” Whether he was independently wealthy or had a day job I haven’t been able to determine. Once a highly regarded and fairly prominent detective novelist, he’s remembered today, if at all, for having also befriended a young academic born Kenneth Millar but best known as Ross Macdonald.

   According to Tom Nolan’s 1999 biography, Macdonald and Branson remained in touch and exchanged letters regularly until Branson’s death, two years before Macdonald’s own. Our concern here however is not with Macdonald, who’s been the subject of a number of books, but with Branson’s seven detective novels, published between 1941 and 1953 and featuring a bearded, sophisticated former physician and free-lance criminal investigator named John Bent.

   The character never made it to the movies but if he had, for my money the ideal actor to play him would have been Vincent Price—not as he looked in the Forties and early Fifties when the novels first came out but the more mature Price, before he descended into hamminess and schlock horror pictures.

   As we’ll see shortly, Anthony Boucher reviewed most of Branson’s whodunits, first for the San Francisco Chronicle and later for the New York Times, and always praised them to the skies. On whether they’re worth reading and reviving today, opinions differ. Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME (2nd ed. 1989) have positive things to say about all seven. William Deeck concurs in his reviews of several Branson titles for Mystery*File. But Bill Pronzini in 1001 MIDNIGHTS (1986) is nowhere near so enthusiastic, saying: “Branson wrote literate, meticulously plotted (but flawed) novels in which the emphasis is on deep-seated conflicts that have their roots in the dark past.”

   Might the later Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald, whom Branson had befriended when both men lived in Ann Arbor, owe their emphasis on the same kinds of conflicts to Branson’s books of the Forties? Perhaps, says Pronzini, but he leaves no doubt about which of the two authors is superior. “There’s a good deal of passion among the characters [but] Bent is a virtual cipher….The writing, while well crafted, is so detached and emotionless that the reader tends to lose interest….Had Branson…been able to make Bent more human and sympathetic, had he injected some passion and vividness into his work, he might have become an important figure in the mystery field.”

   Branson had no desire to explore a different setting in every novel, but on the other hand he couldn’t allow his master criminologist to keep returning to the same part of Michigan in every case. That, said Don Yates, is why “[o]ne is never precisely sure where the action [in a particular novel] is taking place. In his mind, Branson sees all of his stories laid out in and around Battle Creek, Jackson, and Kalamazoo, Michigan.” Sometimes however, as we’ll see, he unintentionally indicates a setting that can’t possibly be the area around Ann Arbor.

   The Branson septet contains certain family resemblances which some might call gaffes and others quirks. The off-trail clues we might have expected from reading early Ellery Queen and writers like Anthony Boucher who were strongly influenced by Queen are conspicuous by their absence, replaced by lengthy speculations about possibilities. The word “perfectly” recurs almost as often as does “replied” in the novels of John Rhode/Miles Burton.

   A host of other characters, sometimes two in the same book, happen to share Bent’s first name. Bent and virtually every other character except the occasional child consume huge quantities of liquor and tobacco. They also smile incessantly, and shrug their shoulders. (That latter phrase always irritated Fred Dannay. “What else can they shrug?” he’d demand to know.) Any music played in the course of a Branson novel is invariably classical chamber music — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, most of the household names — and there are some nice incidental scenes involving the 78 rpm sets on which such music was bought and played in people’s homes 70-odd years ago.

   The murderer almost invariably escapes facing a judge and jury, either because he (or she) commits suicide, dies accidentally, or is killed in turn. Each of these resemblances pops up several times as we make our way through the seven novels.

***

   The first pages of I’LL EAT YOU LAST (1941) find Bent driving around the shore of beautiful Lake Badenoch on his way to the area’s Toad Hall, the home of former Senator James Maitland, who is a toad of the first water, having amassed in his decades in the seats of power a fortune of between 50 and 55 million dollars. (In today’s money that would probably make him a billionaire.)

   Maitland has sent for the great investigator because several of his closest relatives — first his sister and her entire family, then his brother, most recently his much younger and promiscuous wife — have suffered apparently accidental deaths within a few months of each other. The old senator has come to be afraid that at least some of the deaths may be part of an elaborate scheme to channel his fortune in certain directions, and that he’s next on the death list.

   Events prove him a true prophet: on the evening of Bent’s arrival, Maitland is fatally shot by a slug from a .22 rifle fired through the window of his lordly library. Bent is a total outsider, but thanks to his reputation as a criminologist he immediately becomes unofficial head of the police team assigned to the murder; another family resemblance in Branson’s novels.

   Among the suspects are Maitland’s few surviving relatives — his intellectual nephew, his distant cousin and factotum, the daughter of a predeceased cousin — and various non-relatives like the odious college president and the members of a fanatical religious cult whose Vatican City is adjacent to the Maitland property. Bent spends most of his time drinking, smoking, and teasing out various possibilities without benefit of substantive clues. Unfortunately the labyrinthine plot he exposes at the climax is vitiated by a radical mistake of law which any interested reader who doesn’t mind my revealing who done it can learn about by clicking here.

***

   At the end of the first chapter of THE PRICKING THUMB (1942) we are told that the date is Monday, November 24. This is irrelevant to the plot but is still significant for two reasons. First, on the reasonable assumption that the year is 1941, we are less than two weeks away from Sunday, December 7, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. You’ll find no hint of that earth-shaking event anywhere in the novel.

   Second, the Thursday following the 24th has to be Thanksgiving Day, although Branson treats it as a day just like any other, with nobody even having a turkey dinner. Late in the afternoon of the 24th Bent in his home city receives a visit from old friend Marina Holland, whose much older husband Gouvion has been suffering from some strange illness and has recently had a violent argument with his 20-year-old son by his first marriage.

   The next evening Bent drives from his never identified home base to the town of New Paget and discovers Gouvion shot to death in his study, apparently a suicide. Gouvion’s younger brother arrives at the Holland house and announces that he’s just come from the nearby home of Dr. Brian Calvert, the Holland family physician, with whom according to local gossip Marina was having an affair, and found two more dead bodies: that of Dr. Calvert and Marina herself.

   Apparently Gouvion had shot the other two, then returned to his house and taken his own life. Bent isn’t satisfied and, as is his wont, commandeers the local authorities and takes over the investigation. There are virtually no tangible clues, which is pretty much par for the course in Branson, but by the end of the week Bent has exposed a particularly brutal murderer and scheme. Anthony Boucher left the verb out of the key sentence in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle (20 December 1942) but left no doubt that he was pleased: “Quietly convincing detective and unusually interesting murderer in a solid and rewarding work rare in the American mystery.”

         (To Be Continued)

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