Authors


Dear Steve,

   I remember with delight the correspondence between my late husband, Dennis Lynds, AKA Michael Collins, and you and Ed Lynskey that went into creating the wonderful Dan Fortune page on Mystery*File. It’s an outstanding analysis and resource.

    “Dan Fortune is the sort of guy you’d like to strike up a conversation with late at night or in a bus station. He stays a choice friend from book to book.” Ed wrote that, and I’ve never forgotten it. Ed succinctly and vividly captured the essence of the series.

   With that in mind, I’m thrilled to tell you Dan Fortune is back. The entire 17-book series of private eye novels are available again, for the first time in Kindle and trade paperback. We hope a new generation of readers will discover Dan, and that long-time fans will enjoy rereading the classic tales.

   In addition, we’re offering a $1.99 sale for the Kindle version of the first book, Act of Fear, which won the Edgar Award, to help get folks started. Take advantage here.

   Last week I sent out a newsletter readers might find interesting. Here’s the link.

   Who is Dennis Lynds? A raconteur and Renaissance man, he’s considered among the most important and influential writers of private-eye stories in the past 50 years. Beginning in the late Sixties, he changed the mystery form and along the way created iconic private detectives who won the hearts of readers and the awards of critics. His books remain not only entertaining but relevant, while giving vivid life to the eras in which he wrote.

   And finally, here’s his new, revamped website: www.DennisLynds.com

   Thank you so much for letting me alert readers, Steve. You make many contributions to our industry, and I am grateful.

                  All best,

                     Gayle

          www.GayleLynds.com

   

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


JOHN NEWTON CHANCE – Aunt Miranda’s Murder. Macdonald, UK, hardcover, 1951. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1951.

   Aunt Miranda is Miranda Jeans, author of 49 novels of what appear to be romantic suspense. It is unclear whether Jeans, considering that she has been married three times, is the name under which her books appear. Some of her titles are High Honeysuckle, The Weak Avenger and The Wraith of Retribution.

   At age 84, Aunt Miranda feels that she is near death. Having been bothered by a ne’er-do-well nephew for some years and having no wish that her heirs should be bothered by him after her death, she threatens to kill him. The next day, the nephew’s body is found under the couch in the music room, shot to death with a pistol presented to her some years ago by an admirer.

   Covering up for Aunt Miranda becomes the order of the day, although no one seems sure that this aged lady did indeed murder her nephew.

   A splendid cast of characters makes for enjoyable reading and also tempts one to seek out other novels by John Newton Chance.

— Reprinted from CADS 17, October 1991. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.


Bibliographic Notes:   Under his own name, John Newton Chance (1911-1983) wrote over 120 mystery novels between 1935 and 1989, many of them not published until after his death. Very few of them ever had US editions. Chance also had a number of pen names, one of which was John Lymington, which he used primarily to write science fiction. It’s under that byline that you can find his Wikipedia entry.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


ANNE HOCKING – Poison Is a Bitter Brew.Chief Inspector William Austen #7. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1942. First published in the UK as Miss Milverton, by Geoffrey Bles, hardcover, 1941.

   Miss Milverton, or Aunt Augusta to some, is the doyen of the Milverton family in Trevarrow, a large Cornish village. She has inherited, for the duration of her life, the Milverton home, grounds. and farm, and administers them as a maiden lady of uncertain years and fixed views would be likely to do. Miss Milverton cannot be said to be liked by anyone, but she is certainly respected by most.

   Unfortunately, the heir to the estate is a bit of a wastrel with a tendency to low morals, though not as low, Miss Milverton feels, as those of his wife. When the heir dies on the estate from what appears to be food poisoning — oxalic acid presumably made from rhubarb leaves — there is little mourning.

   Another death under similar circumstances opens up a reinvestigation of the first one, and Chief Inspector William Austen is brought in from Scotland Yard. Austen is a gentleman and a scholar, and he handles the investigation in a manner befitting those two attributes.

   The novel is well written, with some interesting characters, but the ultimate heir is a bit too charming, or so we are told, to be real. Still, this book makes one look forward to reading more mystery novels by Anne Hocking.

— Reprinted from CADS 17, October 1991. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.


Bibliographic Notes:   Anne Hocking was the name under which Naomi Annie Hocking Messer (nicknamed “Mona”) wrote most of her more than 40 mysteries, in a career extending from 1933 to her death in 1966, with one book appearing in 1968, two years after her death. Over 30 of them were cases for Superintendent Austen. Only a small fraction of her work was ever published in the US.

   I’ve asked Dick Etulain, the author of the following book to tell us more about it. He’s most graciously agreed:

RICHARD W. ETULAIN – Ernest Haycox and the Western. University of Oklahoma Press, hardcover, illustrated, 2017.

   This book attempts to resurrect writer Ernest Haycox as a major figure in the development of the fictional Western. It is not a biography; Haycox’s son, Ernest Haycox, Jr., does that in his smoothly written book On a Silver Desert: The Life of Ernest Haycox (2003). Nor is it primarily a work of literary criticism. That book is available in Stephen L. Tanner, Ernest Haycox (1996).

   Rather, my book is a work of literary history, tracing Haycox’s literary career from its origins in the early 1920s to his death in 1950.

   Born in 1899 and reared in Oregon, Haycox contributed to high school publications and then to college outlets at Reed College (1919-20) and the University of Oregon (1920-23). By graduation, Haycox had published several stories in pulp magazines. Hoping to establish strong links to fictional outlets in the East, Haycox traveled to New York City, where he met editors important to his career in the 1920s. Meeting Jill Marie Chord (also from Oregon) on the train east, they married in New York City but soon returned west to Portland, which would be the Haycox home for the remainder of his life.

   By the end of the 1920s, Haycox was a steady contributor to many pulp magazines, including such stalwarts as Adventure, Short Stories, and Western Story Magazine. In 1928, he published his first full-length serial, which appeared the next year as Free Grass, his first novel. In the opening 1930s, Haycox made his first appearance in Collier’s and remained a steady contributor for almost twenty years.

   Hoping to move to the top of writers of Westerns, Haycox experimented with several new wrinkles to chosen genre. He created reflective protagonists (“Hamlet heroes”) and dark and light heroines (passionate and reserved women).

   Even more important, he began to turn out historical Westerns, infusing his lively fiction with historical backgrounds such as building the transcontinental railroad, fighting Indians in the Southwest, and settling Oregon. His most notable historical Western was Bugles in the Afternoon (1944), a fictional recreation of Gen. George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

   Immensely successful, Haycox was nonetheless dissatisfied with the restrictions of the Western and entered a period of revolt in the last half-dozen years (1944-50) of his career. Abandoning lucrative serial markets, he set out to write first-rate historical fiction. His best historical novel, The Earthbreakers (1952), appeared two years after his death.

   Talented, ambitious, and driven, Ernest Haycox became a major figure in popular fiction written about the American West. Haycox’s continuing growth, gradual but steady, amply demonstrates an author determined enough to defy popular demands and honest enough to write novels consistent with his changing literary beliefs.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


OSMINGTON MILLS – No Match For the Law. Chief Inspector William Baker #3. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1957. No US edition.

   Mr Justice Craven is rather an amusing personality — that is if you don’t have to appear before him as barrister or defendant or plaintiff. In that event, his biting wit might not appeal. And it’s not always comfortable being a member of his family.

   During a cricket match to celebrate St. Geoffrey’s Day. a match that takes place between the ‘law’ — members of the bar — and ‘order’ — local civil officials — Judge Craven, in his 70s and having scored 42, takes a break and drinks a beverage he made himself from a recipe he found in an old book. Three hours later he dies from oxalic poisoning. a rather unpleasant way to go.

   Since there were people about who had no liking for the judge. the police do have some suspects. though because of the circumstances it’s a small list. Later, more information is developed that broadens the field.

   Both the police and the suspects are interesting people. Mills handles characterization well. If there’s a complaint, it is that there are so many characters who are possible suspects that he can’t really do justice to all of them. Chief Inspector Baker of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch is at the cricket match when the judge is poisoned and handles the investigation well, but how was he to know about the joker in the woodpile?

   Purists may cavil and claim that this is not a fair-play novel. Perhaps it isn’t. It is certainly an excellent whodunit.

— Reprinted from CADS 16, May 1991. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.


Bibliographic Notes:   Osmington Mills was the pseudonym of Vivian Collin Brooks, (1922-2002). Besides five other detective novels, he was the author of ten cases for Inspector Baker between 1955 and 1966. Only five of the fifteen have been reprinted in the US.

[UPDATE.]   If you read the comments, you will find that it has been suggested — and confirmed — that Osmington Mills was female, and that all references to her as “he” should be changed to “she.”

LESLIE T. WHITE “Tough Guy.” Reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017. This issue’s Mystery Classic, selected and introduced by Jim Doherty. First published in Liberty, 21 June 1941. Reprinted in Liberty Quarterly: 19 Tales of Intrigue, Mystery & Adventure (Vol. 1, No. 1, ca. 1950).

    In his introduction to this story, Jim Doherty makes a solid case for Leslie White as one of the very first practitioners of the police procedural novel. Up for discussion in particular are Me, Detective (1936), a biographical account of White’s own career, Harness Bull (1937), and Homicide (1937).

    Most of White’s work was done for the pulp magazines, producing as he did well over 100 short stories for that market, beginning with “Phoney Evidence” in The Dragnet Magazine, January 1930. To substantiate his case, Doherty describes some of White’s career in police work, and how he used it to give all of his crime fiction a solid, believable setting.

    “Tough Guy” was written toward the end of his pulp fiction days, and that’s even a stretch, as Liberty magazine was not really a pulp. It’s the story of a tough cop named Gahagan who lives for nothing other than his job, a primary part of which is nailing a notorious killer and crime boss by the name of Danny Trumbull.

    Things go awry in his life when the trail leads him to Trumbull’s eight-year-old daughter Penny, who lives alone with her father but who has no idea how totally bad he is. This one starts out in full tilt pulp mode, but by the end, it’s become, as you might have expected, a long way from being a hard-boiled tale of a tough guy cop. Quite the opposite.

    Which does not make it a bad story, by any means. In fact, I enjoyed this one more than any of the other twelve stories in this latest issue of AHMM, many of them (to my mind) rather weak efforts and/or not interesting to me. It’s starting to get difficult to justify spending $7.99 an issue for a magazine that I can’t get excited about any more.

D. B. OLSEN Rachel & Jennifer Murdock

D. B. OLSEN – The Cat Saw Murder. Rachel & Jennifer Murdock #1. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1939. Dell #35, paperback, mapback edition, no date stated.

   Although this is the second case for Lt. Mayhew, his first being The Clue in the Clay (Phoenix Press, 1938), this is the book that introduced Rachel Murdock (and only briefly in this one, her sister Jennifer) to the world of mystery fiction. And for someone who’s 70 years old, Rachel is active and agile, with a sharp, inquisitive mind.

   It’s her niece whom she’s come to visit, and her niece who is the victim of bloody murder, with a whole rooming house full of suspects. And of course there is a cat. The whole story is told with gaps and holes, however, and it’s all muddled up in grand old fashion.

[PLOT WARNING] And it’s the gaps and holes that I’ll be discussing from this point onward, and while I don’t intend to tell you whodunit, I am going to tell you more details of the plot than I would if this were a more ordinary review. Let’s go point by point:

   (1) I suppose one cat could be switched with another, and the owner would never be able to tell the difference right away, but it doesn’t seem likely to me that such a masquerade could be pulled off for very long. On page 126, at any rate, Miss Rachel expresses doubts to Lt. Mayhew that her cat Samantha is really the cat she’s always had. “No,” she told him slowly. “I’m not sure.” End of chapter.

   Whether or not she could be taken in by somebody else’s cat, when the next chapter begins, this small piece of the plot is totally ignored — no questions, no immediate followup, no anything — and it’s page 208 before it’s brought up again, when Rachel decides to test the possibility that the cat’s fur has been dyed.

   (2) The same kind of maneuver takes place at the end of Chapter 17. Miss Rachel is questioning Clara, a small girl who lives in the house, and Clara says she knows “Something happened the night the lady died.” She won’t tell Rachel, though, not until she’s promised a kitty of her own. End of chapter.

   The next chapter begins, nothing is mentioned, and it isn’t for another 20 pages that Miss Rachel decides to get serious about it. Then she promises Clara a kitty, and they all discover that the girl saw someone leaving the dead woman’s apartment that night with a bloody axe in her hand. This is not what I call terrific detective work.

   (3) Mayhew is not really a slouch as a detective, since he did get alibis from everyone in the house immediately after the murder — and it was pretty good work to establish that it was an inside job so quickly — but then why does it take him until page 235 to start cross-checking those alibis, and then until page 244 before he starts out on the footwork needed to verify them?

   (4) I don’t understand this one at all. On page 118 he sets up a trap for the killer with a girl he is starting to get sweet on. “I’ll be watching,” he tells her on the same page. On page 127, he’s woken up from his vigil to find Sara in the process of being strangled in the room across the hall. He taps gently on the door and asks, “Is everything all right” The girl’s half dead, and he’s tapping gently on the door.

   (5) In Chapter 16 the girl’s mother tries to commit suicide. Why? I don’t know. She’s rescued in the nick of time, and the matter’s never mentioned again.

   (6) The man across the hall from the murdered woman has disappears, but Mayhew finds a note with the word CAVES written on it hidden inside a shoe. Does he suspect that there are caves in the area where the man will eventually be dug up? Nope. Is that where he’s found? Yep.

   (7) You’re going to think I’m screwy, but I enjoyed the book anyway, and I’d read the next in the series any time at all. You figure it out.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #23,, July 1990. (slightly rearranged and revised).


Bibliographic Notes:   Lt. Stephen Mayhew appeared in seven of D. B. Olsen’s detective novels, five of them overlapping the mystery adventures of Rachel and Jennifer Murdock, who appeared together in 13 novels between 1939 and 1956, all of which featured cats in the title.

   As for D. B. Olsen, she may be better known today under her real name, Dolores Hitchens, which starting in 1952 she used as the byline for 20 later novels, sometimes in tandem with her husband Bert, that were not nearly as cozy as the Olsen books were.

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


   Two months ago I devoted my column to Stanislas-André Steeman, a European crime novelist who was almost never published in this country and unsurprisingly has long been forgotten here. This month’s topic is an English writer who was once published regularly over here but has been just as completely forgotten.

   Christopher Bush (1888-1973) was one of the stalwarts of the British detective novel’s golden age, but almost nothing is known of his life. According to the Penguin paperback edition of one of the books I’ll be talking about shortly, he was born of Quaker ancestry in an East Anglian village and served in both World Wars. At the time of the Penguin reprint in the early 1950s he was living in Suffolk and pursuing his hobbies of bridge, crossword puzzles and what he called “post-middle-aged self.”

   Back when I was a mystery fiction newbie I read at least a dozen of his books. After a few years I concluded that there wasn’t much of interest in what he wrote after World War II, when his series character, a moneyed bloke named Ludovic Travers, opened a detective agency and began narrating his exploits in soporific first-person prose.

   But the pre-war Travers novels I found much better written and characterized and much more engaging. Bush’s specialty was the perfect alibi, with which in most of his novels several suspects happen to be supplied. You won’t lose money if you bet that the one with the apparently most impregnable alibi is the murderer.

***

   The earliest of the three Bushes I recently decided to tackle is THE CASE OF THE CHINESE GONG (1935). The Great Depression, or as Bush calls it the slump, is very much in evidence and has laid low three of the four principal characters, the father of two of whom was the brother of the other pair’s mother. The failed toy manufacturer, his brother the painter on his uppers and their cousin the struggling schoolmaster are in desperate financial straits and stay precariously afloat only thanks to the generosity of the cousin’s brother, a gassed veteran of World War I, who is himself near broke thanks to bailing out his brother and cousins.

   The only hope of the four is their uncle, a wealthy and vindictive old tyrant who reigns in a stately home near the town of Seaborough. He has refused to help any of them, but when he dies they’ll each inherit enough to make them whole again. All four come down to celebrate (if that’s the word) the old man’s 74th birthday, at which the festivities (if that’s the word) are marred when he’s shot to death in his drawing room, in the presence of his solicitor and three of the four next of kin (the painter being in a summerhouse about twenty feet away), while across the room the resident butler is loudly ringing the titular gong. Happily Travers is in the area, visiting Major Tempest, chief constable of the county, and as usual takes a hand in the investigation.

   I wouldn’t call this book a model of fair play with the reader, and there are a number of gaffes. Would you believe that three independent plots to kill the old man are going on at the same time? (At one point Travers ventures the suggestion that everyone did the crime together, showing the influence of Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS just a year after its publication.)

   The sinister letter Uncle Hubert received early on, supposedly from the husband of his estranged sister, is never explained, and the diagram that precedes the book fails to show the side door to the summerhouse, which figures heavily in the plot. Even back in 1935 I should think that simple police routine would have uncovered the scorch marks in the screen that Travers finds at the climax, proving where the fatal shot was fired from.

   But it’s a readable enough effort, and studded with the kind of lines one never finds in postwar Bush. Here for example is a description of the Toad Hall in which Uncle Hubert lives. “It was a biggish Victorian house, with gardens chock-full of second-rate rubbish—monkey-puzzle trees, laurel shrubberies, mossy croquet-lawn and miniature temple-cum-pagoda summer-house—as in the year its first owner had had them laid out.” GONG leaves much to be desired but showed me that I still have an affection for Golden Age puzzles.

***

   THE CASE OF THE MISSING MINUTES (1937; U.S. title EIGHT O’CLOCK ALIBI) takes place in the same area but it’s far superior to CHINESE GONG and indeed may be Bush’s finest novel. Travers is approached by his sister after a former maid tells her of strange doings and horrible night shrieks in the house called Highways where she and her husband are the servants.

   Soon after Travers makes an investigatory visit to the village of Seabrake — which happens to be not far from Seaborough where CHINESE GONG took place — he finds stabbed to death the bizarre old man who was living at the house with his 10-year-old granddaughter. Among the prime suspects are the child’s tutor and a classical pianist who happens to be in Seabrake on vacation.

   As usual in Bush novels, both men and some other characters as well have seemingly airtight alibis. At the head of the police team who come to the scene are the trio we met in CHINESE GONG — chief constable Major Tempest and his subordinates Inspector Carry and Sergeant Polegate — and all three are delighted to have Travers’ help in sorting things out.

   I can discuss this novel without revealing the murderer but not without giving away a central part of the plot. At about the two-thirds mark Travers connects the dots between a large number of subtle indications, concludes that the dead man had been a sadistic child-abuser obsessed with inflicting physical and psychological torture on his half-Jewish granddaughter with the aim of driving her insane, and refuses to give the police any more help finding the murderer.

   In Golden Age British detective novels this was a radical story element indeed, and Bush exerts all of his skill persuading us that if anyone ever deserved killing it was the old monster whose murder Travers is investigating. Readers who want to know whether or not the killer was caught will have to track down their own copy of the book. Mine is not for sale.

***

   CHINESE GONG and MISSING MINUTES are unusual in the Bush canon in that they take place outside the London area and therefore are without Travers’ usual Scotland Yard counterpart Superintendent George Wharton, who sports “a huge weeping-willow of a moustache” and, to me anyway, looks and sounds something like the late great Leo McKern when he played Rumpole of the Bailey.

   In THE CASE OF THE TUDOR QUEEN (1938) the setting is close to London and Wharton is front and center as usual. Passing through the village of Arneford, he and Travers encounter a frightened maid and wind up in a house in the London suburb of Westmead where they encounter two dead people: an actress who had recently scored a success playing Mary Tudor and the horserace-loving old rip who served as a sort of factotum to her.

   Both have died of poison, and as far as anyone can prove it was a case of double suicide, unless the man killed the woman and then, a day or so later, poisoned himself. Various parties are interviewed — the owner of the theater where the Mary Tudor play ran, the playwright, the actors who played the male leads opposite the dead woman — and eventually Travers comes up with a theory of how the most elaborate alibi might have been faked.

   At the fadeout the police are preparing to arrest the person Travers’s analysis points to. But since his reconstruction is speculative to say the least, and since there’s no proof even that the two deaths weren’t suicides, I would hate to have been the prosecuting attorney trying to get a conviction on this state of the evidence.

***

   Well, I’ve beaten around enough Bushes for one column. I do own several more pre-WWII Ludovic Travers novels that predate the three I’ve talked about here. Perhaps someday I’ll dig them out and report on them. If I hold out that long.

Editorial Acknowledgement:   The photo of Christopher Bush at the top of this post was borrowed from J. F. Norris’s “Pretty Sinister” blog. Thanks, John!

BERNIE GUNTHER, P.I. STILL COMING TO HBO
by Gilbert Colon

   At Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop in April to promote his twelfth Bernie Gunther private eye novel, Prussian Blue, author Philip Kerr was asked by an audience member about whether a Bernie series or movie was still in the works.

   “Like everything in film, it’s glacial,” he answered. The project (which would draw from the Berlin Noir trilogy) was at HBO in 2016 when Kerr was at the same venue while promoting his previous entry, The Other Side of Silence.

   Since then, HBO experienced a change in management, “and the new management was going to sweep it out with everything else that was old.” But to Kerr’s surprise, it turns out that it remains in “quite active development, whatever that means,” that concluding qualifier dripping with a cynicism worthy of Bernie himself.

   Maintaining a hopefulness from the jaded romantic side of Bernie, he adds, “It took Harry Bosch 20-25 years to get where he is.” Tom Hanks was connected with the Bernie project as executive producer at least as far back as 2012 when, per Kerr, “He came to my house in Wimbledon for dinner.”

   More recent industry news indicates that he likely is still involved. If that remains the case, perhaps Hanks, who directed the Raymond Chandler episode “I’ll Be Waiting” for Showtime’s superb but forgotten Fallen Angels series (1993-1995), should direct one episode. At last report, Peter Straughan, who scripted the 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was mentioned as screenwriter.

   Bernie Gunther, for those who do not know, is an ex-SD officer who worked for Reinhard Heydrich before becoming a private investigator. Kerr has taken Bernie through three decades, five continents, and a dozen novels to date. Prussian Blue sees him in both 1939 and 1956. As Kripo’s superlative homicide detective, Bernie is assigned by Martin Bormann to the murder case of a low-ranking bureaucrat at Obersalzberg, home to an elite Nazi community and Hitler’s mountaintop retreat.

   The clock is ticking before the Führer returns to celebrate his fiftieth birthday and discovers a shocking crime has been committed on the terrace of his own residence. The past explosively collides with the present when, seventeen years later on the French Riviera, the freelance Bernie is strong-armed by East German Stasi to poison a female agent in London with a vial of thallium.

   Questioned about casting Bernie for any adaptation, Kerr rattles off the same list of names he did last time, as reported in The Strand Magazine: Klaus Maria Brandauer (Mephisto), Arnold Schwarzenegger (“believe it or not”), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones), and Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method). (Fassbender, incidentally, will be playing another series character this year, Jo Nesbø’s Detective Harry Hole, in The Snowman.)

   New names surface during this appearance though. “Jon Voight wanted to be Bernie, and Woody Harrelson said so in magazines. For all I know they’ve cast [Bernie] already.” The author is always the last to know.

   “I won’t be doing any cameos,” he assures, “the way Lee Child does in the Jack Reacher movies. Except if they offer me a scene as a really nasty Gestapo officer. I could really bring something to that.” With a smart-alecky smirk, he wisecracks, “I really just want one of those leather coats, that is the bottom line.”

   While Kerr has a wicked sense of irony, he is never flippant about the grave historical aspects of his series. When the question is raised about comparisons between Bernie Gunther and Philip Marlowe, Kerr says, “Chandler [and his L.A.] had corrupt politicians and nightclub owners, but my novels have the crime of the century – the millennium – as a backdrop.

   “I don’t think I’m exploiting the subject matter. The books are an essay in understanding.”

GILBERT COLON has written for several print and online publications, including Filmfax, Cinema Retro, Crimespree, Crime Factory, and Strand Mystery Magazine. He is a contributor-at-large for both the St. Martin’s Press newsletter Tor.com and bare•bones e-zine. You may reach him at gcolon777@gmail.com.

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


   Remember MGM-TV’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.? It was one of the most successful of the many quasi-spy series that flooded prime time in the wake of the early James Bond movies. The stars were Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin, with Leo G. Carroll as their boss, Alexander Waverly. The series ran for four seasons (1964-68), the first in black-and white and the remaining three in color.

   I began law school at around the time U.N.C.L.E. debuted but, despite a grueling study schedule, managed to catch most of the first season’s episodes, which were reasonably serious with lots of action. Once the series switched to color it also switched to spoofery and camp. I stopped watching.

   But millions stuck with Solo and Illya, and once the ratings showed that U.N.C.L.E. was a hit, MGM-TV commissioned a series of tie-in novels, 23 in all, the first of which was written by Michael Avallone (1924-1999). I had no interest in junk paperbacks but in 1970, when I moved to East Brunswick, New Jersey and was working as a Legal Aid attorney, I discovered that my apartment was only a few blocks from Avallone’s house and called him.

   That was the beginning of a weird off-and-on relationship that lasted till his death. Before becoming a neighbor of his I had known very little about him, but after we met I began to collect his books, of which there were dozens. Many of them were movie or TV tie-in novels for which he was paid around $2,000 apiece and which he ground out on his smoking typewriter in a few days or a week. I don’t recall reading any of these, but I did get him to sign them and squirreled them away.

   After my wife died and I moved into a condo, I segregated all the tie-in books and put them into a cabinet with sliding doors which were generally kept closed. A couple of months ago I happened to open one of those doors and, since the books were arranged alphabetically by author, discovered a bunch of Avallone that I’d never read, including that MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. novel and two tie-ins from the unsuccessful spin-off series THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1967-68), which starred Stefanie Powers as April Dancer and Noel Harrison as Mark Slate. I decided it was time to tackle the trio.

   Avallone’s great contribution to pop culture was the Avalloneism. You can’t pick up any of his 200-odd books without finding yourself awash in lines you’d swear couldn’t possibly have been published. But they were. Thousands of them. Small wonder that I soon began to think of Avallone as the Ed Wood of the written word. These three tie-in books offer further proof that my name for him was not off the mark.

   In THE THOUSAND COFFINS AFFAIR (Ace pb #G-553, 1965) Solo and Illya fly to a remote German village to find out what diabolical device killed an U.N.C.L.E. scientist while in his tub and why, just before dying, he put on his clothes backwards.

   It’s no surprise that the culprit is a minion of the evil agency THRUSH, a villain called Golgotha who comes straight out of the Weird Menace pulps of Avallone’s teens. Solo solves the puzzle when he remembers that the dead man was a mystery nut with a particular fondness for Ellery Queen—and that one of the best known Queen novels, THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY (1934), had to do with a corpse who was also dressed backwards.

   Someone, quite possibly Avallone himself, called the book to the attention of Fred Dannay, who was half of the Ellery Queen collaboration and the closest to a grandfather I’ve ever known. A number of years after the incident Fred told me that he’d been furious with Avallone for having given away the raison d’être of the CHINESE ORANGE puzzle. But Avallone couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Hadn’t he promoted Queen? In a paperback that sold a gazillion copies, hadn’t he plugged one of the most famous EQ titles?

   Whether the book really sold that well remains a mystery. In later years Avallone publicly accused the publisher of having cheated him out of huge royalties. The name in the copyright notice is MGM-TV, and most likely he wrote it as a work made for hire, earning a flat fee and no more. In any event Ace had nothing more to do with him. But a year later, when MGM-TV launched the GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. series and made a tie-in book deal with another publisher, it was Avallone who was tapped to write the first two entries, the only ones that appeared in the U.S. although three more came out in England.

   More than half a century has passed between the time Avallone’s contributions to the U.N.C.L.E. saga appeared and the time I pulled them out of my sliding-doored cabinet and read them. I was not disappointed.

   First let’s take THE THOUSAND COFFINS AFFAIR, which should have won an Edgar had there been such an award for largest number of words misspelled. In a mere 160 pages we encounter such gems as propellor, esconced, earthern (twice!), jodphurs and cemetary. We are also treated to butchered German locutions like dumbkopf, Vast ist?, Seig heil! and nicht yahr.

   Illya’s patronymic or middle name, never given in the TV series, is rendered as Nickovetch, which is gibberish. (The genuine Russian name closest to Avallone’s invention is Nicolaievitch, which I happen to know only because it was the patronymic or middle name of Tolstoy.) And there’s hardly a page without at least one juicy Avalloneism. I will show mercy and offer only a handful, complete with page references.

   There was something damnedably odd— (19)

   The mechanized bug shot over the road, whipping like the mechanical rabbit at a quinella. (41)

   Stewart Fromes’ ten stiff naked toes wore no shoes. (57)

   Jerry Terry said “Oh!” and that was all. For Napoleon Solo, it said it all. Oh, indeed. (82)

   Like a dead fish, Solo’s right arm fell to his side. (100)

   The unexpected was always likely to happen when you least expected it. (140)

   When we turn to the second and third of Avallone’s contributions to the saga we find more of the same. THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. #1: THE BIRDS OF A FEATHER AFFAIR (Signet pb #D3012, 1966) not only recycles some of the misspellings like propellor and esconced, it describes one of the bad guys as both a Hindu and a Sikh.

   On one page he’s killed by a bullet in the back of the neck and on the very next page we are told that “[b]lood from his blasted skull dripped to the floor.” As if those gaffes weren’t enough, Stefanie Powers’ first name is spelled wrong on the front cover. (That one we have to chalk up to Signet.)

   Storywise it’s typical Avallone, with first Slate and then Dancer kidnapped by THRUSH in a plot to swap them for a top enemy scientist, who claims to have discovered the secret of eternal life and is being held at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. It turns out that the scientist has an identical double who’s operating as a mole inside the good guys’ stronghold but no one in U.N.C.L.E. suspects they might be twin brothers as in fact they are.

   At one point while April Dancer is being held prisoner, a THRUSH man relieves her of “her handbag, personal effects, and even her bra (without having had to undress her).” Neat trick if you can pull it off!

   Of Avalloneisms the book has no shortage. This time I’ll limit myself to five.

   Noise echoed around the room, gobbling up echoes. (20)

   “You’re a fool,” the redhead hissed. (23)

   His kindly brown eyes were unaccustomably grim. (69)

   Her bra, taut from immersion, was strangling her breasts. (72)

   The whipsaw wore a long green velvet dress. (80)

   Tugs and seagoing freighters mooed like enormous cows in the harbor. (103)

   Whoops! Was that six? Just goes to show that quoting from Avallone is habit-forming.

   THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. #2: THE BLAZING AFFAIR (Signet pb #D3042, 1966), in which Stefanie Powers’ name is again misspelled on the front cover, pits our heroic agents against an organization calling itself TORCH and described on the back cover as “so fantastically evil it puts THRUSH to shame!”

   April begins by foiling an assassination plot in the Ruritanian kingdom of Ostarkia, then joins Slate in Budapest before the two of them go on to Johannesburg on the trail of a TORCH scheme to fund its plans for world domination with South African diamonds. There seem to be fewer Avalloneisms this time around, but those that survived the Signet editorial process, such as it was, are choice.

   Kurt’s beady eyes roved between them, not sure what they were talking about, not certain as to exactly what to do next. (59)

   The colt in the chair was straining at the leash now. (69)

   The man with the withered face frowned a frownless frown. (71)

   Like so many little men wanting to be bigger than they ever really were in the first place. (126)

   In case I’ve whetted your appetite and you’re determined to read more of these cubic zirconia without visiting your shelves or a secondhand bookstore, I’ve put together a much more extensive catalogue from the trilogy, again complete with page references, which I’ve provided because I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m making this stuff up. You’ll find the bonanza of boners by clicking HERE. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Next Page »