Authors


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


   In the years I’ve written these columns, death has overtaken a number of mystery-writing colleagues to whom I’ve said goodbye here. Till this month, all of them have been older than I. Now it falls to me to commemorate one who was more than five years younger. That is scary.

   On August 14, in Pompano Beach, Florida, a man who ranked with the finest private-eye writers of his time, and was a friend of mine for more than twenty-five years, shot himself to death. Jeremiah Healy was 66.

   The last time I saw him was in the fall of 2011, at the St. Louis Bouchercon. He looked fantastic, a trim handsome dude with thick gray hair and mustache and a beautiful girlfriend and (in his own words) the body of a 19-year-old paratrooper. He brought to mind a character in a radio soap opera my mother listened to when I was a small child, a fellow who, whenever asked how he was doing, would reply “Sittin’ on top o’ the world.”

   Why Jerry took his own life I won’t discuss except to say that, unknown to me, he’d been battling prostate cancer and clinical depression and alcoholism and perhaps other dark forces for years. In the magnificent words of Pope Francis, who am I to judge him?

   Like me, he was a law professor. When his career as a crime novelist began, he and I were the only mystery writers who had come to the genre from legal academia. In PI fiction it was the age of Robert B. Parker and of regionalism. Like Parker’s Spenser, Healy’s PI John Francis Cuddy was a jogger and amateur chef who lived and worked in Boston, a city he knew well and described almost like a human character.

   Parker I suppose was the Hertz of the area’s mystery writers and Healy the Avis, but for a variety of reasons — two of them no doubt because we shared the same day job and got to be friends — I always preferred Jerry‘s books over Parker’s. Spenser was single and Cuddy a widower who often visited his wife’s gravesite, and spoke to her, and was, or thought he was, answered.

   (Several widowers in movies directed by John Ford also spoke to their wives but never had dialogue with them. I once asked Jerry if he’d gotten the idea from Ford but he said he hadn’t.)

   One of Parker’s lasting innovations was to put his protagonist in a monogamous relationship with one woman, and as the death of Cuddy’s wife faded in time he followed in Spenser’s footsteps with Susan Silverman by getting monogamously involved with a female prosecutor.

   Healy’s first novel, Blunt Darts (1984), struck me as very good but perhaps too much in the shadow of Ross Macdonald. The New York Times called it one of the seven best mysteries of its year. His second, The Staked Goat (1986), I thought one of the finest PI novels I’d ever read. Almost thirty years after its publication I still say it belongs on any sensible short list of the great books of the genre since the death of Lew Archer’s creator.

***

   Number four in the series, Swan Dive (1988), begins with Cuddy obliging a lawyer friend by agreeing to bodyguard Hanna Marsh, who has left her sadistic husband and is seeking both a divorce and the luxurious marital home.

   Roy Marsh, not only a wife-beater and womanizer but a cocaine dealer on the side, tries to persuade Hanna to drop the suit by disembowelling their daughter’s cat. Cuddy goes outside the law to teach Roy a lesson in litigation etiquette, but a few nights later when Roy and a hooker are murdered in a fleabag hotel, all the evidence points to Cuddy, who is menaced not only by the police but by Roy’s coke-dealing compadres hunting for a missing shipment of their stock in trade.

   Healy carefully balances whodunit and mean-streets elements, skillfully draws characters (many of whom speak Ethnic English, a trademark in this series), gives us the usual sharply observed tour of metro Boston, and even imparts some movement to Cuddy’s long-stalled relationship with the lovely assistant D.A. whom at this point in the saga he refuses to sleep with out of loyalty to his dead wife.

   Yesterday’s News (1989) brings Cuddy to the decaying port city of Nasharbor, where a woman reporter on the local paper supposedly committed suicide less than twelve hours after hiring him to look into the murder of one of her confidential sources, a petty porn merchant claiming inside knowledge of police corruption.

   It’s a briskly paced and tightly constructed novel, bringing to life a number of social and professional environments, with richly varied characters and relationships and sleazoid dialogue in the manner of George V. Higgins punctuated by short bursts of action.

***

   You could never have guessed from Jerry’s first five novels that he was a law professor or even the holder of a law degree. It was only with Cuddy’s sixth full-length case that his creator’s two careers came together.

   The title of Right to Die (1991) perfectly captures its theme. Cuddy is brought to the not totally fictitious Massachusetts Bay Law School to investigate a string of obscene anonymous notes to Maisy Andrus, a fiery law prof who not only publicly advocates legalized euthanasia but admits that she euthanized her dying first husband, a wealthy Spanish doctor, and got away with it. (Why she wasn’t extradited to Spain to stand trial, and even got to keep all the property her husband left her, are questions I fear are never adequately answered.)

   In the first 150 pages more notes keep popping up and Cuddy goes around interviewing various people with ideological or personal reasons for hating Andrus’ guts, among them a black female minister, a Catholic pro-life fanatic, a Jewish doctor and a neo-Nazi skinhead. The suspects are well drawn and each of them mounts a soapbox on which to orate on issues of life and death.

   Things heat up in later chapters, but the climax leaves more nagging questions unanswered. And anyone who can swallow Healy’s biggest credibility sandwich, which consists of our middle-aged PI finishing the 26-mile Boston Marathon four days after getting out of Massachusetts General Hospital with a slug in the hip, is a veritable Dagwood.

   Jerry told me that a doctor at Harvard Medical School vouched for the possibility, saying that a bullet would have done Cuddy less harm than the flu, but I still don’t buy it.

   Chapter 5 of Right to Die ought to be required reading even for those in legal education who don’t enjoy mysteries. Cuddy, a Vietnam veteran and law-school dropout, visits Andrus’ Ethics and Society class and is exposed once again to that bete noir of jurisprudence, the so-called Socratic Method.

   Maisy Andrus’ classroom style, says Cuddy, “reminded me of a black Special Forces captain in basic training who ran the TTIS, the Tactical Training of the Individual Soldier, the most miserable obstacle course I ever experienced.”

   For the next several pages we see the Method in action: Kingsfieldesque bullying, rapid-fire cross-examination of hapless students, hypotheticals straight out of the classic police torture scene from Dirty Harry. Later in Andrus’ office she justifies the Method and her dispassionate use of it. Cuddy dissents.

   “I think torture is a serious matter. I think you do your students a disservice by abstracting it and then making it seem they have no way out of an intellectual puzzle.”

   “Have you ever witnessed torture, Mr. Cuddy?”

   I thought back to the basement of the National Police substation in Saigon. Suspected Viet Cong subjected to bamboo switches, lit cigarettes, telephone crank boxes, and wires. Walls seeping dampness, the mixed stench of body wastes and disinfectants, the screams….

   “Mr. Cuddy?”

   “No, Professor, I’ve never seen torture.”

   The sequence has nothing to do with the plot, but some of the best scenes in Healy’s previous books and especially in The Staked Goat aren’t tied to a storyline either. Standing on its own, this chapter is at once the most even-handed and the most riveting evocation of Socratic Method that I’ve ever encountered in a novel. And yes, that specifically includes The Paper Chase, to which we owe the legendary Professor Kingsfield.

***

   Shallow Graves (1992) comes closer to joining the PI novel and the classic detective tale than any other Healy book I’ve read. The insurance company which once bounced Cuddy for refusing to approve a phony claim hires him back as a freelance to look into the strangulation of Mau Tim Dani, an exotic and rising young fashion model of Sicilian and Vietnamese descent, whose life had been insured by her financially shaky agency for half a million dollars.

   The trouble starts when Cuddy discovers that the dead woman’s Sicilian side, her father and his kin, are Mafia; indeed that her granddad is the Godfather of metro Boston. Healy neatly divides our suspicions among a small cast of characters, offers portraits of the worlds of modeling, advertising and organized crime, and holds tension high despite an almost complete absence of violence.

   He keeps descriptions to a minimum and relies on long Q&A sequences not only to convey plot points but, as is his wont, to showcase several varieties of ethnically flavored English, from Vietnamese to Japanese to Sicilian to black. Anyone who beats Cuddy to the killer’s identity will have done better than I.

   Foursome (1993) takes Cuddy north to rural Maine, where three of the title’s quartet have been slaughtered in their lakeside retreat (very much like Jerry’s own, which I once had the pleasure of visiting) by a crossbow-wielding killer, with Cuddy’s client, the sole survivor of the four, having been charged with triple murder.

   Trying to flush out a credible alternate suspect, Cuddy finds several Mainers and even more folks back in metro Boston who might have wanted one, some or all of the foursome out of the way.

   This time I spotted the culprit long before Cuddy, mainly because I had come to know intimately how Jerry thought and worked. But he paints in vivid colors the pristine beauty of Maine and the big city’s mean streets and suburbs, skillfully characterizes a huge variety of people through Cuddy’s Q&A with them, and breaks up the interrogations with spurts of raw violence, making this longest of Healy’s novels to that point by all odds one of his best.

***

   There’s hardly need to go on, and besides I’m running out of space. Jerry’s legacy to readers consists of 13 Cuddy novels, two collections of Cuddy short stories, three legal thrillers about Boston attorney Mairead O’Claire, and two stand-alone novels.

   His legacy to those who were lucky enough to know him and be his friends is priceless. The countless Web comments on his death share a single leitmotif: what a kind, generous, giving man he was, how supportive and helpful to newer writers. He wasn’t Jewish, but if ever there were a living embodiment of the word mensch it was Jerry Healy. God, what a loss.

THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


MELISA C. MICHAELS – Through the Eyes of the Dead. Walker, hardcover, 1988. Worldwide Library, reprint paperback, 2000.

   Science-fiction writer Melisa C. Michaels turns to our field with Through the Eyes of the Dead. Aileen Douglass and her partner Sharon Atwood run a private detecting agency in Berkeley. Business isn’t good — it rarely is in this business, with so many PI’s around — and it’s not helped when their only client gets himself killed.

   William MacMurray just wanted his wife found, with hope for a loving reunion; strange that this fond desire should get him shot. Meanwhile, Aileen surprises someone trying to hot-wire her car. Her glands — certainly not her brain — seem to take over, and she invites the would-be car thief, a gypsy, into her home. Soon she’s helping him rescue a sister, bullets are flying, and things are not at all what they seem.

   Pleasant.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Notes:   Melisa C. Michaels’ contributions to the world of science fiction can be found here. This was the only appearance of PI’s Douglass and Atwood, but another female PI named Rosie Lavine appeared in two of her fantasy novels, both involving malevolent elves. Titles: Cold Iron (Roc, 1997) and Sister to the Rain (Roc, 1998). One source indicates that Lavine has a partner named Shannon Arthur, and that their PI agency is based in San Francisco. Douglass and Atwood are included on the Thrilling Detective website; Rosie Lavine is not.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


JOHN VAN DER ZEE – Stateline. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, hardcover, 1976. Pyramid, 1977.

   Similar in vein to Murder Plan, by John Bingham (reviewed here) is Stateline, by John van der Zee, which seems very 70s in parts (the heroine’s name is Rain, for instance) but come to think of it, a lot of 70s stuff seems rather 70s at times.

   The plot depends on the Police overlooking a rather obvious clue, and ignoring a bit of procedure that was SOP when I started Police Work in ’72, but the remarkable thing is that the characters and story are strong enough to hold the tale together despite this.

   Ferrell is a retired cop, working Security at a chintzy casino in Stateline, Nevada, and suffering from a near-terminal case of low self-esteem. One morning he’s handed an unusual Bad Check case: the author of the rubber has not skipped out, as most do, but is waiting around in his hotel room to be arrested.

   Ferrell tries to talk him into a settlement, but the man — who neither admits nor denies his guilt – refuses and is duly incarcerated pending trial. Ferrell warns his bosses that this may all be leading up to something tricky, but he can’t think what, and they press charges anyway — and when the plot explodes, they duly elect Ferrell as their scapegoat.

   As I say, there are holes here big as a roulette wheel, but there are also some very nice touches of characterization and a few telling incidents related with some skill: an early off-the-cuff detail of gamblers and tourists stepping over a heart-attack victim on their way to the tables, for instance, or scenes of Ferrell’s co-workers nervously shunning him as the corporate ax prepares to fall.

   All this, tied in with a plot that keeps moving to a neat, low-key wrap-up, make this one quite enjoyable.

Bibliographic Note:   John van der Zee (1936-   ) has one other title listed in Hubin, that being Blood Brotherhood (Harcourt, 1970). Says Kirkus of this earlier book, in part: “Somehow Mr. van der Zee [...] contrives to put forth this tale about the portentous murder of an Establishment-bucking labor leader as not only remotely possible but current.”

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


LEWIS PADGETT [HENRY KUTTNER] – The Brass Ring. Duell, Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1946; Bantam Books #107, paperback, 1947, as Murder in Brass.

   A year earlier, Seth Colman had stopped participating actively in his detective agency. Although he was good at investigating, he had begun to hate the work. Despite his best efforts to avoid it, however, his wife, Eve, who has apparently seen too many Powell/Loy movies, gets him involved in trying to find a lunatic. As soon as Colman arrives on the scene in Westchester County, N.Y., the lunatic — or someone — commits murder.

   Not only does Eve show up to view, not necessarily take part in, the proceedings, but Colman is saddled with the assistance of Art Bednarian, who is interested in money only because it can buy booze and broads. Bednarian possibly possesses some form of telepathy, having been known to have spotted murderers through their “smell.” However, he also suspects females of varying crimes when they turn down his kind offers to take them to bed.

   Colman is a fascinating character, whose depths Padgett plumbs well. The ending is definitely not upbeat.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   According to both Hubin and Wikipedia, Lewis Padgett was the joint pseudonym of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, a husband and wife team who are much more well-known as science fiction and fantasy authors. Under the Padgett byline they also wrote The Day He Died (Duell, 1947).

THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


M. R. D. MEEK – A Mouthful of Sand. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1989. Worldwide, paperback, 1990. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1988.

   I quite like M.R.D. Meek’s stories about Lennox Kemp, and A Mouthful of Sand is no exception. Kemp, a lawyer, was barred from practice when he took money to pay his wife’s gambling debts. She disappeared along with his reputation, and he served a lonely six years’ penance as a private investigator.

   Now he’s back in the law, doing very well, having a relationship (albeit uneasy) with Penelope Marsden. His life is coming back together; perhaps he will marry Penelope and banish the loneliness he fears so much.

   Here a tycoon asks him for a written opinion on the state of British marriage law. Lennox complies, then [leaves] to go on vacation to Cornwall, coincidentally to the coastal town where the tycoon’s wife has gone to recover from severe depression. But her condition worsens, and the battered head of a man is found on the beach. Soon Kemp finds himself ensnared — heart and mind.

   Very effective storytelling, full of subtleties and dense with expressive language.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes: Since Lennox Kemp is a Private Eye, there’s no place better to look for information about him than the Thrilling Detective website. There Kevin Burton Smith says, in part: “… while waiting to be reinstated (the events leading up to his disbarment are related in the first book in the series), he earns his daily bread as an op for the London-based McCready’s Detective Agency. But he is eventually reinstated, and this spare yet often elegant series, full of rich characterization, and sharp writing, continues, with Kemp as a particular hands-on type of attornney, part Perry Mason and part Lew Archer.”

   His creator was in real life Margaret Reid Duncan Meek (1918-2009), a retired lawyer.

       The Lennox Kemp series —

With Flowers That Fell (1983)

The Sitting Ducks (1984)
Hang the Consequences (1984)
The Split Second (1985)
In Remembrance of Rose (1986)

A Worm of Doubt (1987)
A Mouthful of Sand (1988)
A Loose Connection (1989)
This Blessed Plot (1990)
Touch and Go (1992)

Postscript to Murder (1996)
If You Go Down to the Woods (2001)
The Vanishing Point (2003)
Kemp’s Last Case (2004)

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


HENRI WEINER – Crime on the Cuff. William Morrow, hardcover, 1936.

   Cartoonists who are detectives are rare. Also infrequent are one-armed detectives. In this novel, John Brass combines the two as he investigates a dual kidnapping plus murder on his doorstep. Meant to be amusing and exciting, the novel fails on both scores.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   This is the one of two mystery novels by author Stephen Longstreet (1907-2002) published under this name. The other is The Case of the Severed Skull, a paperback reprint of Death Walks on Cat Feet (1938), published in hardcover as by Paul Haggard.

   Also in the late 30s Longstreet wrote three other works of crime fiction as by Haggard, all three with a series character named Mike Warlock, about whom I know nothing, in spite of the interesting sounding name.

   As a literary novelist and playwright, Stephen Longstreet turns out to be significant enough to have a Wikipedia page of his own, and as a screenwriter, even more credits on IMDb. Says the biography page for him there: “Studied in Paris and at Rutgers and Harvard Universities, graduating from the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (Parsons) in 1929. [...] Writer, cartoonist, and painter. He published over one hundred novels and five books on jazz, illustrated with his own drawings and watercolors.”

JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON – They Died in the Spring. Hammond Hammon & Co., UK, hardcover, 1960. Linford Mystery Library, UK, softcover, 1990. No US edition.

   This is the second of three recorded cases that Chief-Inspector James Flecker of Scotland Yard is known to have worked on. The first was Gin and Murder (1959), the third and final one was Murder Strikes Pink (1963). They Died in the Spring takes place in April, not surprisingly, in a part of England called Bretfordshire, where a retired Colonel has been found shot to death. An accident, it is thought at first – the old gentleman is found fallen in a woods with his shotgun nearby — but gradually it becomes clear that it is a case of murder instead.

   That Colonel Barclay had recently announced his intention to plough over the local cricket field, land which in truth he owned, may have led someone in respond in anger, but the Colonel was the sort of person who seems to have made enemies easily. But what could be the connection between his death and that of a young female German house servant in the neighborhood? The case is too much for the local police force, and Flecker is called in to assist.

   Much of what follows is tedious police work. Lots of questions, lots of answers, not all of which agree which each other, lots of notes taken on the backs of envelopes, lots of conferring with Detective-Sergeant Browning, who is working with Flecker on the case. There is something of a Midsomer Murders feel to the investigation, except that Inspector Barnaby is happily married, while Flecker has regrets.

   From pages 122-123:

   He [Fletcher] felt detached and solitary among the pleasure-seeking family parties and fell to reckoning how old his children would be by now if he and Pauline had stayed together ad had them. […] He shook himself and superimposed the gray shadow of police pay and promotion across his mental picture of the blue and white sitting-room. Though he was a useful backroom boy, he was hardly the sort to rise high; he was too impatient of routine, too unconventional. He’d need superintendent’s pay at least to marry the sort of woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life and, by the time he had it, ho would be bald, eccentric and egocentric and have false teeth. He sighed and turned his mind back to the case.

   The case is, one must admit, rather routine, consisting largely of the breaking down of alibis. As an author, Pullein-Thompson seems more adept at describing the local countryside in a fashion that caught my attention more than did the case itself.

   From page 131:

   Ten minutes brought him [Flecker] to the spot in the larch plantation where Colonel Barclay had died, and he stood there for a time, lost in thought. The larches had not yet grown tall enough to shade the track and so, at Flecker’s feet, primroses raised pale, naïve faces and flamboyant dandelions, the extroverts of the spring flowers splashed their exuberant yellow among the grass. It was very quiet; Sunday had stilled the tractors, and Flecker collected the sounds one by one. Somewhere away on the hill a dog barked, there was the distant angry moo of a protesting cow, nearer two birds sang, and in the yellow flowers of a self-sown sallow beside the tracks, the bees droned ceaselessly. Man oughtn‘t to do his dirty work in such places, thought Flecker, he should murder beside the railway line or behind the gasworks, but then he reminded himself that a week ago the woods had not looked like this and that track had been a cold grim place.

   I confess that I didn’t follow the investigation all that closely, but I definitely enjoyed the book, especially the ending, which had nothing to do with nabbing the killer, but which took me by surprise. I had to look back and check to see, but yes, the clues were all there.

R.I.P. JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON (1924-2014). Besides the three Flecker mysteries, Josephine Pullein-Thompson was far better known in England for her pony books written primary for girls. According to her online obituary in The Guardian on 22 June 2014, “In the equestrian novels that she, her mother Joanna Cannan and her younger twin sisters Diana and Christine, wrote – nearly 200 between them – riding horses was also the way that girls could show that they were just as good as boys, if not better. Their heroines relished mucking out stables and the freedom of galloping away across the countryside, and the pluckiest were able to turn bedraggled nags into rosette-winning champions, later returning home to celebrate with a truly ‘supersonic tea’.”

   Joanna Cannan, by the way, was also a mystery writer, with some thirteen works of crime and detective fiction included in Hubin.

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