by Francis M. Nevins

   Craig Rice (1908-1957) is something of an acquired taste. She was immensely popular in her heyday, so much so that Time magazine made her the subject of a cover story back in 1946, and her reputation was still high enough more than forty years after her death that a book-length biography was written about her (Jeffrey Marks’ Who Was That Lady?).

   Thanks to publishers like Rue Morgue Press, at least a few of her novels are still available today, but no one would call her a posthumous bestseller. What made her stand out among her contemporaries was the way she blended traditional whodunit elements with the kind of wacky humor one associates with Hollywood screwball comedies. In an earlier column I discussed her debut whodunit, 8 Faces at 3 (1939). This time I tackle her second.

   The Marks biography doesn’t tell us whether Rice worked directly in radio before turning to novels. But she did serve for brief periods in the late Thirties as radio critic for a small midwest magazine, so it’s no surprise that the background of The Corpse Steps Out (1940) is a Chicago station. Its sensational singing star Nelle Brown, married to an ex-millionaire more than twice her age but (although Rice treats the subject discreetly) rarely without at least one lover in her own age bracket or younger, is being blackmailed by a former paramour on the basis of some, shall we say, erotic letters she wrote him.

   Between the regular broadcast of her musical variety show and the re-broadcast for the west coast, she sneaks off to the man’s apartment and finds him shot to death and the letters gone. She goes back to the station and tells her press agent, Jake Justus, whom we first met in 8 Faces at 3.

   Jake pays his own visit to the apartment and finds the corpse has vanished. Pretty soon Jake’s girlfriend and soon-to-be wife Helene Brand and the rumpled liquor-sodden attorney John J. Malone, both also familiar from Rice’s earlier novel, are running around with Jake to find the body, save Nelle Brown’s radio career, expose the murderer, and drain Chicago of its liquor supply.

   No one ranks The Corpse Steps Out among Rice’s greatest hits but it’s often bracketed with her mystery-as-screwball-comedy titles. Not by me. The body of the first of three murderees is moved around Chicago twice and that of the second once, but there’s nothing wildly humorous about these developments. I’d call the book a fairly straightforward whodunit, impossible for any reader to solve ahead of the protagonists and pockmarked by one huge coincidence: Jake and Helene are driving past a certain old warehouse when they notice it’s on fire and Jake for no good reason breaks into the building and finds the corpse he’s been looking for.

   True, the proceedings are punctuated here and there by screwball dialogue. In Chapter 10 Jake settles down in the apartment he’s temporarily sharing with Helene. “I love our little home, dear….Where shall we hang up the goldfish?” In Chapter 28, as the end comes near, Malone assures Jake that “we’re leaving no turn unstoned.” To which Helene replies: “That’s wrong….[W]e’re leaving no worm unturned.”

   Genuine Hollywood screwball comedies tended to dwell on sexual innuendo but Rice keeps it to — dare I say it? — a bare minimum. About to take off on a nuptial trip with Jake, a somewhat casually attired Helene says: “I’d better get dressed, unless you don’t mind my being married in pink pajamas.” To which Jake replies: “It would save time….”


   He’s much more of an acquired taste than Rice, but my favorite among wacky mystery writers based in Chicago (or anywhere else) is Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), whom I’ve loved since my teens. Besides having the Windy City in common, Keeler and Rice shared the experience of having been institutionalized, he early in life, she later. When he was about 20, Harry’s mother for unknown reasons had him involuntarily committed for more than a year.

   That period had a lasting effect on his novels. In The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro (1926) Jerry Middleton, heir to a Chicago patent-medicine fortune, is replaced by an impostor and railroaded into the state mental hospital where he’s befriended by the genuine madpersons, sweet souls one and all, and nearly killed by an assassin who‘s been hired to get admitted to the asylum and slice him up. The scene where Jerry is analyzed by that world-renowned shrink Herr Doktor Meister-Professor von Zero is probably the most hilarious lampoon of Freud ever committed to print.

   About a dozen years later Keeler revisited the nuthouse theme in the novel published in two volumes as The Mysterious Mr. I (1938) and The Chameleon (1939). The nameless narrator is on a mission to collect $100,000 by returning an escaped millionaire to the loonybin before midnight. On his quest he trips blithely through close to a hundred identities, posing in turn as a tycoon, a safecracker, a locomotive engineer, a gambler, several different detectives, several authors, a couple of actors and a philosophy professor — just to name a few! — before this forerunner of The Great Impostor returns to the asylum where, as he assures us, he’ll spend the rest of his days reading British magazines and sipping Ch teau d’Yquem with his keeper.


   At the end of The Corpse Steps Out, which appeared about a year after The Chameleon, Rice offers a similarly benign take on asylums:

   Murderer: “I haven’t a very long time to live. I’d hate to spend it in a penitentiary. But they don’t send madmen there, do they, Malone?”

   Malone: “No, a pleasanter place.”

   Murderer: “A quiet room in a pleasant place, with a radio set perhaps….I couldn’t ask for much more.”

   Severe alcoholism and several manic-depressive and suicidal episodes led to Rice herself spending part of her last years in California’s Camarillo State Hospital and other institutions. I doubt that she found them the pleasant places she and Keeler had once conjured up. As critic William Ruehlmann has said, she wrote the binge and lived the hangover. Poor woman.

William F. Deeck

WILLIAM GORE – There’s Death In The Churchyard. George G. Harrap, UK, hardcover,1934. No US publication.

   Pondersby Jonson becomes ill in the church at Sutton Eacham. When helped out of the church after the services by his host, Captain Stoyner, squire of the village, Jonson expires, but not before accusing his host of having murdered him.

   Stoyner and Jonson had had a fierce argument the night before; Stoyner possessed the poison used to commit the murder; Jonson, a financial ‘shark’ from the city, was trying to do down the good captain; Stoyner was the only one who could have administered the poison if what he says about the poison is true.

   It seems like an open-and-shut case. The villagers are all convinced that the squire did it, although their opinion is that the murder was certainly justifiable. Stoyner puts up no defence at the coroner’s hearing, his opinion being that if the jurors don’t want to believe a chap with his breeding, background, and record, so much the worse for them. They don’t justify his faith.

   During the trial itself, he will not allow himself to be defended by a barrister. If it costs £2000 for an obviously, or so he claims, innocent man to be found not guilty, then there really isn’t any justice.

   Luckily, this rather headstrong and proud man has a few believers and supporters. The vicar, married to Stoyner’s sister-in-law, finally spots, during one of his tedious sermons, how and why the murder was committed.

   This is a well-plotted, well-written, and amusing novel, with an unusually true-to-life private detective. It also has one of the few acceptable children in the genre, which makes it worth reading on that count alone.

— Reprinted from CADS 20, 1993. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.


WILLIAM GORE: pseudonym of Jan Gordon, 1882-1944.

   There’s Death in the Churchyard. Harrap, UK, 1934.
   Death in the Wheelbarrow. Harrap, UK, 1935; Mystery House, US, 1940 as by Jan Gordon. [Insp. Ernest Penk]
   Murder Most Artistic. Harrap, UK, 1937; published in the US by Doubleday, 1938. [Insp. Ernest Penk]

by Francis M. Nevins

   It’s hard to imagine two writers with less in common than Graham Greene and Erle Stanley Gardner, but we know that Greene was an enthusiastic reader of the Perry Mason novels, and in one of my columns several years ago I quoted from a letter about Mason which Greene sent to fellow Gardnerian Evelyn Waugh. Recently I discovered that Mason even figures in one of Greene’s novels. The Honorary Consul (1973) is set in northern Argentina and among its principal characters are Dr. Eduardo Plarr, a physician in sympathy with the revolutionary movement in that country, and León Rivas, a former priest turned guerrilla leader. On page 36 of the novel we find the following:

   León was someone whose word [Dr. Plarr] believed that he could always trust, even though his word seemed later to have been broken when Plarr heard that León had become a priest instead of the fearless abogado who would defend the poor and the innocent, like Perry Mason. In his school days León had possessed an enormous collection of Perry Masons stiffly translated into classical Spanish prose… Perry Mason’s secretary Della was the first woman to arouse Plarr’s sexual appetite….León, it seemed to him, was struggling back from a succession of failures toward the primal promise to the poor he had never intended to break. He would end as an abogado yet.

   Is that really how Mason comes across in Spanish, as lawyer to the Left and friend to those who have no friend? Quien sabe?


   Maybe readers of Gardner in Spanish translation confuse Mason’s fierce loyalty to clients with something ideological. The murderee in The Case of the Screaming Woman (1957) is a doctor who ran an illegal service connecting wealthy women desperate for a child and girls about to give birth out of wedlock.

   Mason discovers that the doctor kept a secret notebook that can prove large numbers of children are illegitimate and adopted. Out of Mason’s sight, the woman who stole the book from the dead man’s office gives it to Della Street, who later asks Mason whether it’s ethical for her to have it.

   Mason: “Hell, no!… That notebook is stolen property, Della. If I take it into my possession, I become an accessory after the fact. [But] I haven’t the faintest intention of letting that property get to the police.”

   Della: “And if I should have that book, where would it leave you professionally?

   Mason: “Behind the eight ball if I knew you had it.”

   Then he says: “Ethics are rules of conduct that are made to preserve the dignity and the integrity of the profession. I’m inclined to conform to the spirit of the rules of ethics rather than the letter.”

   Della: “But what about the courts?”

   Mason: “They’ll conform to the letter rather than the spirit. If the police ever find out that [the notebook] came under my control, [Hamilton Burger the DA will] throw the Penal Code at me.”

   Della: “And then what will you do?”

   Mason: “Then I’ll truthfully say that I don’t know where the book is… I’m not going to throw heaven knows how many children to the wolves….”

   Della: “And you’re willing to risk your reputation and your liberty to keep that from happening?”

   Mason: “You’re darned right I am. I’m a lawyer….”

   Anti-establishment passages of this sort were to come to a screeching halt once Mason in the form of Raymond Burr became a star of prime time TV but they may help to explain how in Spanish he might have been mistaken for a revolutionary with a law degree.


   Screaming Woman happened to be published between two of the finest Mason novels of Gardner’s middle period, The Case of the Lucky Loser and The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll, and is certainly not in the same league with those gems.

   At least two key characters never come onstage even for a moment, the more important of the pair isn’t even mentioned until very late in the day, and the dying message clue is one of the feeblest I’ve ever encountered. But it moves like a bullet train and remains well worth reading almost 60 years ago.


   By a coincidence worthy of Harry Stephen Keeler, Gardner’s is one of two novels I’ve read recently in which crucial characters are kept offstage. The other is Georges Simenon’s Félicie est là, which was written in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France, first published in French two years later and still under the occupation, and translated into English as Maigret and the Toy Village (1979).

   After a one-legged old man is shot to death in the bedroom of his house in a small residential development being built in the countryside, Maigret visits the scene and is driven to distraction by the dead man’s impossible housekeeper. Here, unlike in Screaming Woman, it’s the murderer himself whom we never get to see or hear, and in fact his name isn’t even mentioned until page 116 of the 139-page American version.

   Does it matter? I’m not sure. When someone as nutty as Keeler throws in characters who are no more than names, we couldn’t care less, especially when they have names like Hoot Ivanjack, Hamerson Hogg and the three Threebrothers brothers. When someone like Gardner does it, there’s a problem. Simenon seems to me to fall somewhere between these extremes.


   Having read a fair number of the novels Simenon wrote during the war, I’ve concluded that he entered into a “contract with France” to say nothing about the Nazi occupation and backdate everything to the Thirties without explicitly saying so — at least not often. We find one exception to this rule in the first paragraph of Toy Village:

   Years later, Maigret could still have pointed to the exact spot where it happened, the paving stone on which he had been standing, the stone wall on which his shadow had been projected.

   This tells us pretty clearly that the events he’s describing took place years earlier. Simenon’s relation to the two German occupations he experienced, the first in Belgium during his adolescence, the second in France at a time when he’d become one of the best-known European novelists, is explored in depth by biographers like Pierre Assouline and Patrick Marnham.

William F. Deeck

ROBERT AVERY – Murder on the Downbeat. Arcadia House, hardcover, 1943. Death House #3, digest-sized paperback, 1944.

   Clarinetist Steve Sisson is widely respected for his great jazz playing, but he has lots of enemies. Early one morning in Fat-Ankles’s joint during a jam session, one of those enemies shoots Sisson in the head with the working part of an ice pick.

   The girlfriend of jazz columnist Malachy Bliss is arrested for file murder, she having had the opportunity and several good reasons for doing away with Sisson. Bliss, who is an even bigger toper than Jonathan Latimcr’s Bill Crane, begins his own investigation among musicians and the underworld.

   After Avery has constructed a quite good, but perchance not accurate, simile — “as pure as a seminarian’s dream” — his inventiveness is exhausted. A typical Arcadia product: interesting background, poorly executed novel.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 1990, “Musical Mysteries.”

Bibliographic Notes:   Robert Avery wrote three other mysteries, but all for the lending-library market. This seems to be Malachy Bliss’s only appearance, but two feature a sleuth named Joe Kelly, described by Bill elsewhere as a writer and amateur detective:

A Murder a Day! Mystery House, 1940. [Joe Kelly]
The Corpse in Company K. Swift, 1942. [Joe Kelly]
Murder on the Downbeat. Arcadia, 1943.
A Fast Man with a Dollar. Arcadia, 1947.

William F. Deeck

LUCY CORES – Corpse de Ballet. Duell Sloane & Pearce, hardcover, 1944. Collier, paperback, 1965. Rue Morgue Press, trade paperback, 2004 (shown).

   The first, and last, time he danced in his own ballet creation “Phoebus,” Izlomin went mad before its completion. Now cured, he plans to re-create his masterwork for the American Ballet Drama in New York City. This time he finishes the performance, but then apparently commits suicide by hanging himself.

   With the aid of Toni Ney, trained as a ballet dancer but who now writes an exercise column, Captain Andrew Torrant of New York’s finest investigates the circumstances surrounding Izlomin’s death and discovers a hotbed of intrigue and jealousy in the world of professional ballet,

   Balletomanes should appreciate this novel. I enjoyed it from the ballet aspect but found it otherwise lackluster.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 1990, “Musical Mysteries.”

Bibliographic Notes:  Lucy Cores has four entries in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV. Corpse de Ballet was her second, with Painted for the Kill (1943) her first, also a case solved by both Toni Ney and Captain Tarrant. These were the protagonists’ only two appearances; both books are easily available from Rue Morgue Press.

   For more on Lucy Cores, the author herself, follow this link to the Rue Morgue website for a long biography of her.

William F. Deeck

ALEXANDER IRVING – Symphony in Two Time. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1948. No paperback edition.

   After murder in the medical school [in Bitter Ending, 1946], Dr. Anthony Post returns in murder with music-some of it good, some of it not. Post is engaged to Paula Taft, pianist and composer, the niece of that grande dame, Mildred Taft-Manning.

   Mrs. Taft-Manning is the power behind the Taft Institute and its orchestra, a leader in the W.C.T.U., head of the Brooklyn anti-gambling league, president of the anti-vivisection committee, etc. You get the idea. She is married to a much younger man, another composer, who is poisoned and then apparently plays the piano in the wrong key in a locked room.

   Strychnine was available for the poisoning, but the murderer switched to the nicotine that Dr. Post had with him. Later, another person dies of arsenic poisoning.

   There arc no sympathetic characters here, just as there were not in Bitter Ending, Irving’s first novel, which I did not particularly enjoy. This one is much more amusing, even though Post may grate on many people’s nerves.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 1990, “Musical Mysteries.”

Bibliographic Notes:   Alexander Irving was the pen name of Anne Fahrenkopf (1921-2006) and Ruth Fox (1922-1980). Together they wrote only one other work of mystery fiction, a non-Dr. Post novel, Deadline (Dodd Mead, 1947).

   A mini-review of Symphony in Two Time from The Saturday Review, 18 September 1948: “Ultra-sophisticated in right sense of word; witty, knowledgeable on music matters, actionful — and semi-quaver disappointing in solution.”

   Bill Deeck mentions a locked room in his review, but since the story is not included in Bob Adey’s book on Locked Rooms, it seems doubtful that that aspect of the mystery has any other relevance than that.

by Francis M. Nevins

   A library of mysteries is something like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box: you never know what you’ll find. What I happened to pull off a shelf the other day was one by Peter Cheyney entitled The Killing Game (Belmont Tower #50767, paperback, 1975) and looks like one of the author’s old spy novels in its first U.S. edition.

   The front cover blurb reads: “When the British Secret Service decides to recruit a guy there is no safe way he can say no.” The back cover blurb gives us more of the same: “A guy doesn’t say no when the British Secret Service decides he‘s the right man for some job. First, they ask him nice, then if he still resists they put on the pressure. If he still refuses to play cricket, the sinister sophisticates in the Saville (sic) Row suits may even frame him into jail in order to make him bite the bullet. After that he’s in over his head, and it’s just like the Mafia or the I.R.A. — once in, never out. They teach you all the dirty tricks and give you a license to kill. It’s a rotten, vicious business — The Killing Game.”

   Once you start skimming a few of the pages between these blurby covers, you’re likely to start giggling. Why? First off, the book isn’t a novel, it’s a collection of eight short stories. Second, no one gets forced into working for the Brits as the blurb describes. Third, and most likely to set the coffee pouring out the nose, the protagonists of the eight stories are women, and six of them even have a female first-person narrator! I think it’s safe to assume that Belmont Tower’s blurb writer was a man. And that he didn’t keep his job long.


   The original British title of The Killing Game is a bit hard to figure out. The copy I own, a Four Square paperback dating from 1968, is called The Adventures of Julia. The title page indicates that it was first issued in hardcover by the short-lived Todd Publishing Group back in 1954, a few years after Cheyney’s early death, as You’d Be Surprised, which is indeed the title of one of voluptuous spy Julia Heron’s short adventures (I use the word loosely).

   The invaluable Hubin bibliography doesn’t agree, listing The Adventures of Julia as the original title and giving You’d Be Surprised as the title of a Cheyney novel, published by Collins in 1940 and set in Paris. After a session of Web research I’ve concluded that Hubin is right about the novel, although he neglects to tell us that its protagonist is that rootin’ tootin’ two-gun-shootin’ G-Man (and mangler of Yank slang) Lemmy Caution.

   It would seem then that You’d Be Surprised was used as a Cheyney title no less than three times: on the 1940 novel, on the Julia Heron short story and, after Cheyney’s death, on the hardcover edition of Julia’s collected exploits. What a mess!

   I gather from Hubin that all eight tales in the Julia book originally appeared in pamphlet form during the years of the Blitz. They must have been intended to keep the minds of English readers occupied as they huddled in their air-raid shelters and the bombs came down on London. Mystery historian Howard Haycraft once mentioned that special “raid libraries” had been set up in Underground stations during the war for Londoners taking shelter from Hitler’s bombs but they aren’t mentioned in any accounts of the blitz that I’ve read, for example the vivid description in Volume 2 of Norman Sherry’s The Life of Graham Greene (1994). If anyone can direct me to fuller information about these libraries I’d be much obliged.


   Let’s cross the Channel, shall we? People who have read more of Georges Simenon’s hundreds of novels than I have tend to divide the Maigret cycle into at least three periods. The first runs from Pietr-le-Letton (written 1929, first published in France 1931) to Maigret (written 1933, first published in France 1934; first published in the UK as Maigret Returns, 1941), while the second opens with the short stories that began to appear in French magazines in 1936 and continues through a series of novels published in France during World War II. (Simenon made a great deal of money during the Nazi occupation of France but apparently was not a “collabo”.)

   The earliest of these novels was Les Caves du Majestic, which Simenon wrote in December 1939 but wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1978 as Maigret and the Hotel Majestic. The title seems to be a tip of the beret to Simenon’s friend and admirer André Gide (1869-1951) and his 1914 novel (which he refused to call a novel) Les Caves du Vatican.

   One of the most famous scenes in that book takes place on an express train between Rome and Naples: a character named Lafcadio, who’s sharing a compartment with a stranger named Amedée, throws the poor guy out of the speeding train to his death. Lit crit types call this un acte gratuit, an act without motivation, although Gide later questioned whether there could be any such animal.

   There are no actes gratuits in Simenon’s novel. The basement of the Hotel Majestic in Paris (which, according to, a gem of a website if ever there was one, was modeled on Claridge’s Hotel in the same city) has more to do with Simenon’s plot than the caverns underneath the Vatican with Gide’s, but in neither work are the caves central as those beneath the Paris Opera House are in The Phantom of the Opera.

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

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

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

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

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

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