Authors


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

   

   I am satisfied that Lawrence Block, who turns 82 this year, is the finest living writer of private-eye novels, and that his protagonist Matthew Scudder is the late 20th-early 21st century counterpart of Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. In previous columns I’ve explored the earlier Scudder novels, going back to his debut in 1976. This month we take the character to near the end of the century which first saw him come to life on the page.

***

   If A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD (1990) and A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE (1991) were the most powerful novels in the series to date, one of the main reasons was that they pitted Scudder against genuinely satanic adversaries. So does the next book in the series. A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (1992) opens with a scene presented in third person, and for a few minutes we wonder if we’re reading about the unlicensed PI we’ve come to know so well. But Matt and first-person narration return after two pages, and the rest of Chapter 1 alternates between the two modes. It’s as if Block were determined to make the third-person scenes more vivid and, yes, more graphic than they could possibly have been in the form of dialogue between Scudder and others.

   The tale these scenes tell is of the kidnaping of 24-year-old Francine Khoury from the street outside the ethnic market in Brooklyn where she’d been shopping. Her husband Kenan, a prosperous narcotics trafficker, receives phone calls from the abductors demanding a million dollars for her return. They settle on $400,000. After the ransom is paid, Khoury gets another call, telling him his wife is in the trunk of a Ford Tempo parked illegally at a fire hydrant around the corner. He and his brother Peter check and find her: cut up into cutlets and wrapped in plastic bags.

   Peter, who isn’t in the drug trade but is a recovering junkie and alcoholic, recommends that Kenan hire Scudder. Once committed to the case, and thanks to his police contact Joe Durkin, Matt learns that Francine wasn’t the first woman to be mutilated and murdered by criminals using the same modus operandi. Eventually he finds one young woman who escaped alive, although only after the perps performed an obscene parody of the novel and movie SOPHIE’S CHOICE, making her decide which of her breasts they should cut off. With the help of two teen-age computer hackers brought to him by his young black buddy TJ, he obtains the numbers of the various pay phones on which the murderers called Kenan Khoury.

   Then comes another kidnaping, the victim this time being the adolescent daughter of a Russian drug dealer, and the inevitable race to save her from sexual violation, mutilation and death. The first part of the climax, packed with tension but without a moment of onstage violence, takes place near midnight in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, site of the exchange of the girl for a million dollars; the second, at the serial killers’ house.

   In A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD Scudder killed a psychopathic monster in cold blood but, unwilling to make a habit of the practice, declines to take part in Khoury’s vengeance, which is best described by one of the Latin phrases tossed around earlier in the novel by an attorney recalling the legalisms in that language that he learned in law school. The phrase: lex talionis. Later Khoury describes the scene for Scudder — so graphically it makes him vomit. As might many readers.

***

   Block apparently realized that if all subsequent Scudders involved combat against satanic adversaries they’d soon become indistinguishable. In the next book in the series he tried another experiment in minimalism. The basic story of THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (1993) occupies at most 25% of the novel’s 316 pages, the murderer never appearing onstage for a moment and not even his name mentioned until page 292.

   Scudder and Elaine casually meet Glenn Holtzmann, a yuppie lawyer working at a large-print publishing house, and his pregnant wife Lisa. For some reason, or perhaps just on cop instinct, Scudder is turned off by the man. Lisa loses the baby, and one evening about two months later her husband is shot to death with four bullets, three in the body and the fourth in the back of the neck as a coup de grâce, while standing in front of a pay phone — not inside a booth, they don’t exist anymore — on Eleventh Avenue almost within sight of the high-rise condo on West 57th Street where he and Lisa lived.

   Within 24 hours a near-homeless street person and Vietnam veteran is arrested for the murder, the shell casings from the four bullets found inside his stinking Army jacket. He doesn’t remember whether he committed the crime or not. His younger brother, another recovering alcoholic, hires Scudder to make sure of the facts one way or the other. The job brings Matt in close contact with Lisa, who calls on him for help when she finds a strongbox containing several hundred thousand dollars on a closet shelf, and it soon becomes apparent that Glenn Holtzmann was obtaining huge amounts of cash from a mysterious source.

   In the course of the investigation Scudder and Lisa begin an affair. There’s not a moment of violence or menace in this novel except for a brief interlude when Scudder takes on another case, this one pitting him against a sadistic psycho whose ilk we’ve seen in other Block novels. Several interesting chapters follow Scudder as he methodically probes Holtzmann’s past, but in the end the truth is revealed to him by a transsexual hooker and Scudder and Elaine move in together while Matt seems poised to continue his affair with Lisa.

   This is one of those Block novels you read not so much for the story as for the extraneous incidents surrounding the story, my favorite being the one on page 97 where Scudder recounts a mob hit in which four innocent people sitting at a table on one side of a restaurant were blown away and the four intended targets on the other side were left untouched. “The shooter, it turned out, was dyslexic, and turned left when he should have turned right.” Moral? “Everybody makes miskates.” Or, as Hammett put it unforgettably, we live while blind chance spares us. This incident, like several but not all the others, is thematically related to the core story: I won’t say how.

   Like other Scudder novels, THE DEVIL KNOWS features guest appearances by the usual regulars: Mick Ballou, TJ, Matt’s former lover the sculptor Jan Keane, his AA sponsor Jim Faber, the cop Joe Durkin, the black albino Danny Boy Bell. One of these doesn’t make it to the last page, and though Block doesn’t intend the death to be a surprise, on general principles I won’t say who. I do get the impression that for a while Block seriously considered making Ballou the murderer and writing him out of the series, but if so, clearly he had second thoughts. I prefer the Scudders with a stronger story and a satanic adversary but, like millions of others, I can’t stop reading these books.

***

   If Block was bothered by the lack of sufficient core story in THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, he solved the problem in the next Scudder, A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN (1994), by pitting his protagonist against another serial killer, although this one is not a sadist but something of a philosopher. One of the current members of a 31-man club which may have been founded centuries ago, and whose only purpose is to meet for dinner every year on the first Thursday in May and and commemorate the members who have died since the birth of the club’s present incarnation in 1961, comes to Scudder when it dawns on him that there are only fourteen members still alive.

   To put it another way, there have been an unusual number of member deaths in the past 30-odd years: some unsuspicious, like that of the young man who was killed in Vietnam in 1966; some clearly from natural causes, others apparent accidents or suicides, four clearly murders. This premise requires that many of the characters, being dead, never appear onstage, but Block with superb skill makes them all but come back to life as Scudder investigates how they died—and whether a member of the club has been devoting years of his life to killing off his fellow members. (No, this is not a tontine, where the last man standing gains millions, nor is it a trust as in my novel BENEFICIARIES’ REQUIEM where every death in the family increases the share of the survivors. If there is a serial killer, he can’t be motivated by money.)

   Eventually, and largely by trial and error, Scudder identifies his adversary, with whom he’s had a most unusual relationship before this moment, and the game of cat and mouse takes a new turn. Some of the murders have been exceptionally brutal, particularly one whose details Scudder learns from his NYPD friend Joe Durkin: the wife of a murdered club member who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time “was garroted with a strip of wire. Her head turned purple and swelled up like a volleyball….She had a fireplace poker thrust up her vagina and well into the abdomen.”

   When one of the club members (a controversial criminal defense lawyer notorious for getting guilty monsters acquitted) assures Scudder that the legal system will never be able to bring the killer to justice, the only option left on the table is extra-legal vengeance. In this case vengeance takes a unique and not too plausible form, but at least it circumvents the Mike Hammer type of justice we found in novels like A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD.

   On the personal side, Scudder is still a sober alcoholic regularly attending AA meetings, living with Elaine and sleeping now and then with Lisa. The usual regulars make their expected appearances, not only Joe Durkin but Mick Ballou and TJ and Scudder’s AA sponsor Jim Faber. Also appearing, and in a major role, is one we have seen in Block novels many times before: Mister Death. Even before the first word of the book, we get to read William Dunbar’s poem “Lament for the Makaris” with its incessant refrain Timor mortis conturbat me (fear of death terrifies me). The theme is reinforced by the huge number and variety of deaths we encounter (although there’s hardly a moment of onstage violence in the entire book) and dialogue about death. “Cancer, heart attacks, all those little time bombs in your blood vessels. Those are the things that scare you.”

   The speaker will die violently a few chapters after he says this. Scudder: “[M]an is the only animal that knows he’ll die someday. He’s also the only animal that drinks.” Mick Ballou: “But do you think there’s a connection?” Scudder: “I know there is.” Like so many other novels in this powerful series, A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN makes it understandable that so many are now calling all PI fiction noir.

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

   

   Does anyone still read Christopher Bush, or even remember him?

   Dean Street Press, a small English publishing house, is determined to make sure that both questions are answered Yes by setting out to reprint every single one of Bush’s detective novels, each with a superb general introduction by Curtis Evans based on information from Bush’s grandniece. The introduction is comprehensive enough that I need do no more than hit a few high spots here.

   Most print sources give the year of Bush’s birth as 1888, but according to Evans, he was born to farm-laborer parents in Norfolk, East Anglia, on Christmas Day of 1885 and given the rather odd name of Charlie Christmas Bush. Early in the 20th century he obtained a job as instructor at Wood Green School, a co-ed institution in Oxfordshire. He served in World War I, being stationed for one year in the Middle East, and returned to his schoolmaster position when the war was over, retiring in 1931 to write full-time.

   Between 1926 and 1968 he turned out a total of 63 detective novels, most of them published in the U.S. as well as England, many of them centering around a “perfect alibi” gimmick, all featuring a character named Ludovic Travers. He died at age 87, in September 1973.

   In THE PLUMLEY INHERITANCE, published in 1926 but set in 1919, Travers is a relatively minor character, an invalided war veteran serving as private secretary to wealthy financial wizard Henry Plumley, who kills himself after making a cryptic speech. The hero of this debut novel is Geoffrey Wrentham, a Bulldog Drummond type who enlists Travers in the search for Plumley’s missing money.

   In Bush’s second novel, THE PERFECT MURDER CASE (1929), Travers has come up in the world. “After an exceptionally brilliant career at Cambridge he had written that perfectly amazing Economics of a Spendthrift, a work not only stupendous in its erudition but from the charm of its style a delight in itself. Then had come World Markets, now a textbook in the schools, and finally with The Stockbroker’s Breviary a return to the whimsical style of his best known work.”

   Thanks to inherited money and huge royalties he doesn’t need to work, but he’s taken a position as head of the financial department of Durangos Limited, a firm of “expert consulting and publicity agents for the world in general….” Funnily enough, Durango House also boasts a Detective Department, headed by John Franklin, who in Bush’s next several novels is something of a co-protagonist with Travers as they team with Scotland Yard Superintendent George Wharton to solve various bizarre murders. By 1934 Durangos has vanished and Travers has morphed into a wealthy dilettante and amateur sleuth.

   I first discovered Bush sometime in the latter half of the 1950s. I was in my late teens at the time and spent most of my leisure hours haunting the shelves in the mystery section of the public library in Roselle, New Jersey. The only Bush novels the library had were the relatively recent ones, dating from the late Forties and the Fifties, all narrated by Travers who has launched his own private detective agency after World War II, all dull as dishwater. After four or five tries I gave up on both author and character. At that time I had no idea that the earliest Bush novels dated back to the late 1920s and, until the outbreak of war, had been without a first-person narrator.

   A few years later, thanks to various secondhand bookstores, I discovered some of those novels and began buying and reading them—and found them much more satisfying than the pedestrian products of the postwar years. One of them, THE CASE OF THE MISSING MINUTES (1937; US title EIGHT O’CLOCK ALIBI), struck me decades ago and still strikes me now as one of the finest detective novels of England’s Golden Age. But I’ve read many more from that period than I’ve discussed in this column, and recently I decided to re-read a few of them and see how they stood up today.

***

   Beginning in 1932, the titles of all the Bush novels began with THE CASE OF, but his American publishers, perhaps fearing confusion with the Perry Mason novels which had been launched in 1933, changed most of the titles, so that THE CASE OF THE THREE STRANGE FACES (1933) became THE CRANK IN THE CORNER and THE CASE OF THE 100% ALIBIS (1934) crossed the pond as THE KITCHEN CAKE MURDER. For some unknown reason the English titles remained intact on a few, including THE CASE OF THE CHINESE GONG (1935) and THE CASE OF THE TUDOR QUEEN (1938). I’ve reviewed both of those in an earlier column so let’s move on to another pair.

   In THE CASE OF THE DEAD SHEPHERD (1934; US title THE TEA TRAY MURDERS) Travers happens to be visiting Wharton in his Scotland Yard office when the walrus-mustached Superintendent invites the bespectacled amateur of crime to come along and help him investigate a murder at Woodgate Hill County School, an educational institution for boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 18, located in one of London’s outer burbs.

   History master Charles Tennant has been found dead in the Masters’ Common Room, apparently of oxalic acid poisoning, his hand clutching a huge 1910-era catalogue of chemical apparatus. (No, this is not an Ellery Queen-style dying message, and its meaning is impossible to figure out until Bush gets good and ready to tell us.) The headmaster, Mr. Twirt, is strangely absent from the school even though he had arranged a meeting with several people including a constable at four o’clock.

   His absence is soon accounted for when he’s found murdered too, in the shrubbery outside the school, apparently by a heavy sledgehammer lying nearby. “[A] miserable specimen of a man” Travers calls him, based on nothing but the look of his dead body. It quickly becomes apparent that Travers’ opinion of Twirt is shared by virtually everyone at the school:

   “He was humbug personified,” says his colleague Maitland Castle. “I generally alluded to him as the bastard.” Later Castle calls his former boss “a loose talker, a liar, and generally unscrupulous” and “an egomaniac….[W]hen people ventured to protest he’d say he had a disloyal staff, and threaten them with the sack.” (Sound like anyone we see every day in the news?) He was “the most loathsome little swine I’ve ever met….[I]n his love for himself, he was the most devoted of men….It was consoling to think of Twirt as dead, it didn’t matter a damn how.” As for the women instructors, “[h]e used to bully them unmercifully.”

   All the other present and former school personnel that Travers and Wharton interview pay similar compliments to their erstwhile boss. Mr. Godman: “When Twirt got his knife into anybody, he was absolutely unscrupulous in making that person’s life hell….He was the filthiest little squirt I ever ran across.” Miss Holl: “He was the dirtiest little rat.” Mr. Furrow: “The man was a public danger….He’d driven more than one of us to the edge of a breakdown.” Mr. Lustiford: “If ever there was a poisonous swine, it was he.”

   It’s a wonder that no one refers to him as a toad, but then the English have always had a soft spot in their hearts for the inoffensive and sweetly singing little critter known to biologists as Bufo bufo. The crimes are solved not by rational deduction but rather by a series of inspired hunches, culminating in Travers’ attending an outdoor performance of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM where a few Shakespearean lines turn on the light bulb in his head, so to speak, and enable him to reach the ultimate solution.

   Twirt’s murderer is rather easily guessable, and one or two maps of the grounds around the school would have been helpful supplements to the two diagrams of the building’s innards that Bush provides. But DEAD SHEPHERD is one of the better Bushes I’ve read, and one of the most personal. His portrait of the County School and its denizens—or should I say inmates?—leaves no room for doubt as to how he would have described his schoolmaster years. In a word, hellish.

***

         Remember remember the fifth of November
         For gunpowder treason and plot.
         We see no reason why gunpowder treason
         Should ever be forgot.

   This is one version of the first lines of a poem dating back to around 1870. The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy in 1605 among a number of Catholic terrorists, the best known of whom was Guy Fawkes, to blow up the Houses of Parliament during an address to that body by the Protestant King James I. The plot failed and Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered (although he escaped that grisly fate by falling off the scaffold and breaking his neck), and the Brits have memorialized the plot every November 5 by lighting bonfires all over the countryside.

   If you aren’t familiar with that event in English history you’ll be lost in Bush’s THE CASE OF THE BONFIRE BODY (1936; US title THE BODY IN THE BONFIRE), which begins with what turn out to be multiple coincidences and climaxes with more of the same.

   On a foggy November 4 afternoon, Travers is driving back to London after attending an auction. As he’s passing the outer suburb of Garrod’s Heath he sees a man running wildly beside the road and pulls over. Rev. Giles Ropeling, who’s also the local scoutmaster, has a gruesome story to tell. He and two scouts were rebuilding the amateurish bonfire they had prepared for Guy Fawkes Day when they discovered inside the bonfire structure a man’s body, naked and with its head and hands cut off.

   Travers hangs around until the local police arrive, then continues on to London. Later, in Wharton’s office at Scotland Yard, he shows the Superintendent what he picked up at the auction, a rare silver coin known as the Limerick Crown which is worth about £60, a small fortune back in the Thirties. On the way home he sees a beggar selling matchbooks outside the old Piccadilly underground station and gives him what he thinks is a half-crown but just might be the rare coin he’d bought earlier that day, which he can’t find when he gets home.

   Soon after he’s back in his flat he gets a phone call from Wharton, inviting him to come along and help investigate the stabbing murder of a doctor. Would you believe that all three of these incidents turn out to be interconnected?

   At the denouement Travers exposes another round-robin of coincidence: the murderer “knew the old story that if a man stands all his life in Piccadilly Circus, sooner or later the man he’s looking for will pass by under his nose.” In this case the murderer was looking for two men. Would you believe they both passed by under his nose, and that he recognized both of them even though he hadn’t seen either man for roughly ten years?

   Much of the novel is taken up by dueling speculations on the part of Travers and Wharton—speculations which have nothing in common except a lack of factual basis. But the final chapters feature more physical action than one usually finds in Golden Age detective novels, and despite the orgy of coincidences I found it an absorbing read, full of alibi gimmicks devised by Bush with fiendish delight.

***

   Thanks to Curtis Evans and Dean Street Press, anyone interested in English detective novels of the Golden Age can learn a great deal about Bush’s life and read all 63 of his novels. Personally, I’ve read enough for a while. No one — well, almost no one — would call Bush one of the greatest names of that noble era but he does deserve to be remembered, and at least a few of his books to be read.

NOTE: This review from the past was first posted on this blog on August 11, 2009. I’ve been prompted to reprint it because the previous review, also a repost, was of the movie Murder on the Campus, which was based on another book by Whitman Chambers, also a locked room mystery.

       —

WHITMAN CHAMBERS – Dead Men Leave No Fingerprints. Stanton Lake #1 (and only appearance). Doubleday, hardcover, 1935. Hardcover reprint: Caxton House, 1939. Paperback reprint: Detective Novel Classic #28, circa 1943.

WHITMAN CHAMBERS Dead Men Leave No Fingerprints.

   Late last year I made a major purchase of over 200 of old mystery digest paperbacks like this, most of them being published in the 1940s. Most of them also are abridged, cut “to speed the story,” and if so they’re not very desirable from a reading standpoint, but the often lurid covers can still make them very much collectible. This one, with no indication otherwise, is the full, uncondensed version.

   And it provides a relatively inexpensive way to read a mystery writer about whom I know nothing more than a list of the books he wrote. With no characters ever appearing more than one book, Chambers never made a name for himself the easy way. His first mystery appeared in 1928, and he seemed to hit his stride with nine books from Doubleday (not all under the Crime Club imprint, as I recall) between 1934 and 1941.

   A few more novels appeared through the war years, then one paperback original from Pyramid after the war ended, followed by two more paperback originals from the relatively schlocky Monarch line in 1959 and 1960.

   I mentioned the lack of a continuing series character. If Chambers would have decided to go with one, you’d think it would have to be the leading player in this book, a private detective named Stanton Lake. Most of the action takes place at a beach hideaway near Dipsea, 16 miles north of San Francisco, as Lake tries to help a beautiful Danish movie star stay out of trouble with the moral-turpitude clause of her contract.

   Hilda Haan — that’s her name — had a stand-in leave the country under her name while she went for a quiet sojourn in the country with one Theodore Raybourne. It was intended to be a love nest for two, but now that she wants out, Theodore’s family has moved in, and she needs Lake’s help.

   In he goes as well, and soon after, murder follows, in a house with all of the entrances locked from the inside. It was not a fool-proof job of locking, but it is still almost assuredly an inside job.

WHITMAN CHAMBERS Dead Men Leave No Fingerprints.

   The biggest obstacle to cracking the case is not the locked room aspect, however. It’s the fact that the only fingerprints on the murder weapon are those of a dead man, a convict who died in prison without ever being released.

   A second murder is even more puzzling, occurring in a totally sealed room. An immediate solution presents itself, but to add to the growing bewilderment, it also does not hold up to close inspection. Chambers had fun with this one, I think, even though this is not a major entry in the list of Locked Room Mysteries:

   Here’s a quote to show you what I mean about the fun part. From page 89:

    “I know what you’re thinking,” Lake said quickly. “If Dr. Pageot killed this woman, he must have also killed [name omitted]. It would be too much of a coincidence to have two murderers strike at this one family within twelve hours. And if Pageot is guilty, that leaves John Royal [the dead convict] out — the fingerprints, the unlocked side door, the empty grave, and all the rest notwithstanding.”

    “I was,” the sheriff admitted, “thinkin’ something like that.”

    “Let it pass,” Lake advised. “Keep your mind open until all the evidence is in. It is not impossible that John Royal killed [..] and that Pageot killed [..], however incredible it appears on the surface. Just remember that we are still on the surface. We may have a long way to go before we are on the bottom, and” — he smiled calmly — “we may already be there and don’t know it….”

   While the murder method may be a bit far-fetched (and Chambers makes it sound as though it just might work, maybe), the motive(s) is/are — well, let’s just say “interesting” is the key word, without saying how likely it (or they) may be.

   I apologize for deliberately trying to be vague here. Lake sweats this one out, doggedly serving his client’s interests all the way through, and being rewarded mightily in the end for his efforts.

   Is this one worth reprinting? It’s a minor find, not a major one, pulpishly told, a little bit goofy, in all honesty, and flawed no doubt by investigative practices no longer found acceptable today (page 91) and by the stereotypical representation of a Chinese servant who not so incidentally has an important role to play in the tale.

   Is it worth reading, though? Assuming that you’ve read (and understood and/or let pass by) all of the qualifying statements made in the preceding paragraph, a definite “yes” to this one.

— January 2004

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

   

   A few weeks ago I received an email from bookseller Lynn Munroe, asking me a question about the uncollected short stories of Cornell Woolrich. The result was that I got interested in how many uncollected stories there were and how many might be worth collecting. It will take more than one column to explore these questions but let’s start here.

***

   For the first two years in which Woolrich published crime-suspense stories, the number of uncollected tales is zero. Why? Because I brought together all three of the tales that first came out in 1934 and all ten of those that appeared in ‘35 in the collection DARKNESS AT DAWN (1985). Woolrich’s output grew exponentially in 1936: a total of 26 crime stories, earning him a total of $4,300, which was a respectable annual salary back then.

   Some of them—for example “The Night Reveals” (Story, April 1936), “Johnny on the Spot” (Detective Fiction Weekly, May 2, 1936), “The Night I Died” (from the same magazine’s August 8 issue) and “You Pays Your Nickel” (Argosy, August 22, 1936), which is usually reprinted as “Subway”—rank among his most powerful short stories. Others from that year—including, I fear, most of the dozen that remain uncollected—are pretty terrible.

   The year kicked off with one of the worst tales he ever perpetrated; perhaps the worst of his career. The mild success of the Popular Publications pulp chain with weird-menace magazines like Dime Mystery inspired rival entrepreneur Ned Pines of Thrilling Publications to launch a competing monthly called Thrilling Mystery, which debuted in October 1935 under editorial director Leo Margulies (1900-1975).

   During its 50 issues the magazine offered a parade of strange cults, diabolic rituals, gruesome murders, sadistic villains, slavering beasts and (of course) beautiful young women shivering in peril. Woolrich dipped his toes into these weird waters just once. Like the 1935 classic “Dark Melody of Madness” (better known as “Papa Benjamin”) and the 1937 classic “Graves for the Living,” “Baal’s Daughter” (Thrilling Mystery, January 1936) is about hapless innocents falling into the clutches of repulsive religions.

   But this version of the story is so sloppily and luridly written, so overloaded with stupid inconsistencies and grotesque twaddle, that to claw one’s way through its pages is an act of masochism. Narrator Bob Collins visits his psychiatrist friend Dr. Dessaw to ask for help in freeing his fiancée Gloria’s dotty aunt from a Westchester cult.

   As Woolrich Coincidence would have it, the head of the cult is Dessaw, who drugs Bob and spirits him to the religion’s headquarters mansion on the banks of the Hudson, where in rapid order our hero is stripped to his shorts, flogged by a tongueless black giant, menaced by a man-eating panther, tortured with boiling oil injected into his veins, forced to kneel before a woman calling herself the reincarnated goddess Ishtar, forced to help lure Gloria to the mansion for ritual sex with with the god Baal who of course is Dr. Dessaw, and so on and on long past our endurance.

   The narrative throbs with clunkers like “The fiend on the throne stood up and turned to me as I quivered there, ashen-faced” and “I was prone there, at the mercy of the he-devil and the she-devil….” How desperate must Woolrich have been to have cranked out this garbage?

***

   Of the dozen uncollected Woolrich stories from 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly was the original home of seven, including two that might well deserve collection. Not, though, the first pair we consider here. “Blood in Your Eye” from the March 21 issue is an insanely bad cop story set in an anonymous city on which Woolrich sticks the label Los Angeles.

   Mitchell, a rambunctious young homicide dick, is the only one who sees the truth when a murder victim is found in a rooming house with the image of his killer apparently imprinted on his eyes. Instead of sharing his insight, Mitchell throws down his badge in disgust at his colleagues’ willingness to believe medieval superstition and goes out to solve the crime lone-wolf style.

   The hunt takes him to two venues that Woolrich was to use over and over, a manicurist’s booth and a dance hall. For this one you have to accept that neither a roomful of cops nor the medical examiner can tell the difference between genuine and glass eyes, but the climax is violent and the central gimmick Guignol-gruesome.

   Just two weeks later, in the magazine’s April 4 issue, came “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” which Woolrich submitted as “Death in Three-Quarter Time.” In a lifetime of reading whodunits I’ve never come across an alibi gimmick as wacko as this one. Homicide cop Dennis Small happens to be in the Curfew Club on the night when the specialty dancer Emilio is shot to death in his dressing room just a few minutes after he and his partner Lolita have finished performing a bizarre new number.

   All the evidence points to chorus line dancer Mary Jackson, for whom Emilio was about to dump Lolita. This tale too is never likely to be reprinted or collected so I might as well give away the solution: Lolita herself killed Emilio before the dance, then rigged herself in a crazy costume and went out into the spotlight and convinced a clubful of people that she was both herself and her partner! The story becomes interesting only in the final scenes when Woolrich makes us empathize with her for two crucial noir reasons: she had lost her love and she’s about to die.

   For the next uncollected story we jump into the summer months. “Nine Lives” from the June 20 number is set in the waterfront district around New York’s South Street. Demon newshawk Wheeler stumbles onto the story of an old bum who’s been treated by three sinister strangers to booze, food, clothes, and to an insurance policy on his life. The best scene finds Wheeler bound, gagged and left for dead at the bottom of an old-fashioned bathtub filling with water, but even in this serial-like incident there’s nothing terribly urgent.

   Later that summer, in the August 15 issue, came “Murder on My Mind,” the earliest appearance in Woolrich and perhaps the earliest in crime fiction of a plotline which was a staple of film noir classics like SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946, directed by Joseph H. Lewis) but ultimately goes back to the Greek tragedy OEDIPUS TYRANNUS.

   Marquis, the detective narrator, is assigned with his partner Beecher to the brutal murder of a harmless cigar-store clerk, but as the investigation goes forward, countless tiny details push Marquis and the reader closer and closer to becoming convinced that the murderer is Marquis himself.

   This tale has never been reprinted or collected as it first appeared but a heavily revised and less crudely written version was included as “Morning After Murder” in the paperback collection BLUEBEARD’S SEVENTH WIFE (Popular Library pb #473, 1952, as by William Irish).

   The trademark Woolrich combination of breathless urgency and plot flubs permeates the long story which he submitted as “Right in the Middle of New York,” but it’s so packed with action and tension that one barely notices that nothing in it makes sense, not even the published title, since no murder is committed at all in “Murder in the Middle of New York” from the September 26 issue.

   Tony Shugrue, a relatively honest protégé of mobster Chuck Morgan, is set up by his mentor with phony references and gets hired by wealthy Cole Harrison as chauffeur for his beautiful and spoiled daughter Evelyn. Unaware that he’s married, Evelyn makes several passes at her driver, and for a while we’re reminded of the romance between another flighty heiress and her chauffeur in Woolrich’s 1927 pre-crime novel CHILDREN OF THE RITZ.

   Finally Tony realizes that Morgan plans to kidnap Evelyn, hold her for ransom, kill her and leave him to take the fall. From this point on the story morphs into a wild roller-coaster ride crammed with thrills, anguish and suspense as Tony fights to save himself and his wife and Evelyn from the gang. Some of the dialogue creaks—“‘Rats!” he hissed viciously through his teeth. ‘Lower than rats, even!’”—and the crucial scene requires Tony literally not to recognize his wife at close quarters.

   But the irresistible Woolrich urgency sweeps away all nitpicking into the ash heap and suggests that this one of the uncollected dozen may deserve being revived.

   I feel the same way about “Afternoon of a Phony” from the November 14 issue—so much so that it was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (June 2012) at my recommendation and with a new introduction by me.

   The story is something of a departure for Woolrich, a charming, clever and bizarre whodunit where the detective role is played by a con man. Clip Rogers steps off the train at the Jersey seaside resort of Wildmore and is instantly mistaken by the brainless local cops for Griswold, the supersleuth from Trenton, whom they’d sent for to help solve the bludgeon murder of a woman in one of the town’s vacation hotels.

   What complicates the case beyond the local yokels’ power to unravel is that the woman’s eight-year-old son, who witnessed the crime in the middle of the night but is too young to understand its meaning, has identified as the murderer a man with a perfect alibi. Rogers exposes the real killer rather neatly, but the story becomes distinctively a Woolrich tale only afterward when, as in “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” a criminal motivated by lost love takes center stage and, for a page or two, becomes a deeply sympathetic character. His comment that the impostor Rogers is more humane than any cop he’d ever met is evidence that when Woolrich drew genuine cops as brutal thugs he wasn’t doing it inadvertently.

   His final 1936 appearance in Detective Fiction Weekly was one of his weakest, but for anyone with a little knowledge of law, it’s a coffee-out-the-nose classic. The year’s last issue, dated December 26, included “The Two Deaths of Barney Slabaugh,” in which Woolrich dusted off his favorite James M. Cain plot twist, backdated it forty years, and threw in so much of the tinny insult humor and gangster stereotypes from the current James Cagney movies that the illusion we’re in the New York of the 1890s isn’t sustained for a microsecond.

   Manhattan racket boss Emerald Eddie Danberry is persuaded by his shyster lawyer Horace Lipscomb that the proper way to kill rival mobster Barney Slabaugh is to take the man prisoner, frame himself for Barney’s murder beforehand, and get himself acquitted in court. Then, Lipscomb explains—foreshadowing an infamous recent comment by Donald Trump?—even if Danberry were to murder him in full view of a thousand people he could never be prosecuted for it.

   Danberry asks for the name of this marvelous rule of law. Lipscomb replies: Why, it’s the Statute of Limitations! (Cue the coffee.) Fighting DA Barry McCoy, one of the city’s few uncorrupt officials, tries to snooker the plot, and fate works another Cain trick to help him out in this super-pulpy tale, which is full of police brutality, casual racism and enough Woolrich-style wisecracks to sink an aircraft carrier.

***

   So much for eight out of the dozen, and quite enough for one column. I’ll finish the tabulation next month. With perhaps a bonus thrown in to boot.

BASIL COPPER – The Curse of the Fleers. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1977. No US paperback edition. Published previously in the UK by Harwood-Smart, hardcover, 1976. Reprinted by PS Publishing , UK. hardcover, 2012.

   There are mysterious things happening in an old manor house located in a remote corner of Dorsett, and a wounded army officer oon leave is called upon to investigate. The ancestral home of the Fleers comes intact with all the required trappings: decaying towers and battlements, endless passageways, underground catacombs and unexplored caverns, and of course, an ancient curse on the family living within.

   Copper tries hard, casting suspicions far and wide, but he can’t add any life to this tale, many times told. Not my cup of tea. Maybe yours?

–Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 3, May 1978.


Bibliographic Update:   Basil Copper was a prolific British author of both crime and supernatural fiction. He is best known for a long series of stories about Solar Pons, a Sherlock Holmes read-alike first created by August Derleth. Unknown to most readers in the US, he also wrote over 50 novels chronicling the adventures of American PI Mike Faraday.

ROBERT TWOHY “McKevitt–100 Proof.” Short story. Albin McKevitt 1. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1968. Probably never reprinted.

   Albin McKevitt opened he door, swayed there, and beamed at the roomful of faces turned toward him. “Greetings and salu … greetings and felic .. greetings and all that,” he said “Hic.”

   Detective Lieutenant Throop, nearest the door, was the first to break the silence in the room. “Sweet mother of us all,” he whispered.

   Thus begins this tale, an absolute gem of a throwback to the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s, in which detective heroes could be as drunk as a hoot owl and still be able to solve the cases they somehow stumble into.

   Albin McKevitt is not a PI, but he might as well be. Instead, however, he’s a reporter with a nose for news, and in the room, besides the members of the local police force, are one man and two women. And a dead man, a bullet hole squarely in the middle of his forehead.

   They claim it was a matter of self-defense, one of the women having shot and killed her husband, with the other woman there as a bona fide witness. McKeviit asks a few questions, wanders around, then called his editor, telling him, to the astonishment of the good lieutenant, it’s murder all right. Premeditated murder.

   Besides its obvious comic overtones, this is also a bona fide detective story. One could only wish that there had been many more adventures of Albin McKevitt that Robert Twohy could have told us about, but alas, this is a one and done.

   As an author of detective mysteries and short stories, Robert Twohy wrote almost 80 of them between 1957 and 1994, all for either Ellery Queen’s or Alfred Hitchcock’s magazines. Someone named Jim Quark was in four of the; otherwise all of his other work were standalones like this one.

MARY (THERESA ELEANOR) HIGGINS CLARK, author of some 50 plus crime and suspense novels died yesterday, January 31, 2020, at the age of 92. Her sales, in the millions of copies, must rank her as being among the greatest of any recent or current writer in the field.

   Theatrical films have been made of the following novels: A Stranger Is Watching (1982), Where Are the Children? (1986), Lucky Day (2002) , and All Around the Town (2002), and dozens more have been adapted into made-for-TV films.


   The following bibliography has been taken from the Fantastic Fiction website:

      The Alvirah and Willy series —

   [A lottery winner and her husband use their winnings to solve crimes.]

1. Weep No More, My Lady (1987)

2. The Lottery Winner (1994)
3. All Through The Night (1998)
4. Deck the Halls (2000) (with Carol Higgins Clark)
5. The Christmas Thief (2004) (with Carol Higgins Clark)
6. Santa Cruise (2006) (with Carol Higgins Clark)
7. Dashing Through the Snow (2008) (with Carol Higgins Clark)
8. I’ll Walk Alone (2011)
9. The Lost Years (2012)
10. As Time Goes By (2016)
11. All By Myself Alone (2017)

      The Regan Reilly series (with Carol Higgins Clark)

   [Regan Reilly is a private investigator based in Los Angeles.]

Deck the Halls (2000)

The Christmas Collection (2006)
Santa Cruise (2006)
Dashing Through the Snow (2008)

      The “Under Suspicion” series

   [Laurie Moran is a producer on the television series ‘Under Suspicion’, a documentary program which investigates unsolved cold cases.]

1. I’ve Got You Under My Skin (2014)

2. The Cinderella Murder (2013) (with Alafair Burke)
3. All Dressed in White (2015) (with Alafair Burke)
4. The Sleeping Beauty Killer (2016) (with Alafair Burke)
5. Every Breath you Take (2017) (with Alafair Burke)
6. You Don’t Own Me (2018) (with Alafair Burke)

       Other Novels —

Aspire to the Heavens (1960) aka Mount Vernon Love Story (non-criminous)
Where Are the Children? (1975)

A Stranger Is Watching (1978)
The Cradle Will Fall (1980)
A Cry in the Night (1982)
Stillwatch (1984)
While My Pretty One Sleeps (1989)
Loves Music, Loves to Dance (1991)
All Around the Town (1992)
I’ll Be Seeing You (1993)
Remember Me (1994)
Pretend You Don’t See Her (1995)
Let Me Call You Sweetheart (1995)
Silent Night (1995)
Moonlight Becomes You (1996)
You Belong to Me (1998)
We’ll Meet Again (1998)
Before I Say Good-Bye (2000)
On the Street Where You Live (2000)
He Sees You When You’re Sleeping (2001) (with Carol Higgins Clark)
Daddy’s Little Girl (2002)
The Second Time Around (2003)
Nighttime Is My Time (2004)
No Place Like Home (2005)
Two Little Girls in Blue (2006)
I Heard That Song Before (2007)
Where Are You Now? (2008)
Just Take My Heart (2009)
The Shadow of Your Smile (2010)
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (2013)
Inherit the Dead (2013) (with C J Box, Lee Child, John Connolly, Charlaine Harris, Jonathan Santlofer and Lisa Unger)
The Melody Lingers on (2015)
I’ve Got My Eyes on You (2018)
Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry (2019)


   Seven issues of Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine were published sporadically between 1996 and 2000.

ALLEN K. YOUNG “Reflection on Murder.” Short story. Professor Posenby #2. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1968. Presumably never reprinted.

   The tenth rule of Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction says that “twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.” This second of several stories Alan K. Young wrote about retired poetry and code expert Professor Ponsby (no first name known) takes this rule head on and makes an excellent story out of it.

   It doesn’t in any way break the rule, since the fact that Tom and Barnaby Varden are twins is stated up front with no denying it. There is also no denying that one of them murdered their uncle, but which one? Almost no one can tell them apart, so eye witnesses to the fact that one was seen leaving the house at the time of murder are of no value.

   What’s more, the other brother was seen at a boxing match the next town over at the time of the murder, gives one of the two an unshakeable alibi. But which one was which?

   Totally sure that no jury would ever convict either one “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” they boastfully send the following poem to the harried police chief, who comes to Ponsby with it. I hope you can read it:

      

   I believe I have read another story with exactly the premise, but without the poem, and yet, if so, I do not remember where I read it or who wrote it. You may be able to figure it out — all the clues are there — but I am chagrined to say I didn’t. This is a puzzle story only, with only a cursory attempt at characterization, but as such it’s exceedingly well done. It’s like admiring a solidly constructed crossword puzzle at the end of the week in the New York Times. I enjoyed it immensely.

   It probably won’t ever happen, but Young wrote enough Ponsby stories to put together a very decent collection. I’d buy it!

NOTE: Alan K. Young’s papers regarding his short story writing are stored at Columbia University. A short desription of the collection says that the author “is a former junior-college English instructor, with a B. A. in English from Harvard and an M. A. in the same subject from the University of California.”


       The Professor Ponsonby series —

Letter from Mindoro (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Mar 1968
Reflection on Murder (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Oct 1968
The Secret of the Golden Tile (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jun 1969
Ponsonby and the Shakespeare Sonnet (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Oct 1969
Ponsonby and the Dying Words (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Aug 1970
Ponsonby and the Classic Cipher (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Dec 1971
Child’s Play (vi) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jan 1972
Ponsonby and the Ransom Note (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jun 1972
To See Death Coming (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Apr 1973
Truth Will Out (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jun 1974
Incident on a Bus (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Feb 1975

     —

PostScript:   Since most you are not likely to ever read this story, I will give you a big hint as to the solution in Comment 1. Don’t read it until you’ve either given up or you want to know if the answer you’ve come up with is correct or not.

Added later: A full explanation is given in Comment #2.

CHARLES ALVERSON, who died several days ago (January 19th), had a relatively minor career in the world of crime fiction, but his two books about San Francisco-based PI Joe Goodey struck me as being very done, both solidly in the Raymond Chandler tradition. After reading the two of them, I was constantly on the lookout for the third, but alas, it never turned out to be.

   Quoting from his first book (*), here’s the first paragraph:

   I was stretching a tall gin and tonic at Aldo’s, the only bar I knew that hadn’t yet torn up my tab, when I looked up and discovered that my elbow room to the west had been annexed by an elderly gentleman in a three-piece suit.

   And from the second:

   “Don’t mistake me for a moralist, Rachel.You know better. I’m just an ex-cop scuffling after enough money to stay alive and operating. If some justice gets done in the process, that’s fine. It makes the client feel better about paying.”

   According to Wikipedia, after deciding perhaps that mystery writing wasn’t going to pay the bills, Alverson Alverson was managing editor of the British environmentalist magazine Vole, financed by Terry Jones of Monty Python, and was co-screenwriter of Terry Gilliam’s film Jabberwocky, and was co-developer of the story and co-writer (uncredited) of the first draft of the screenplay that became Brazil (1985).

(*) This quote and the one following are included in Dick Lochte’s long essay on Joe Goodey you can find on the Thrilling Detective website.


        The Joe Goodey series —

Goodey’s Last Stand. Houghton Mifflin, 1975

Not Sleeping, Just Dead. Houghton Mifflin, 1977


    Plus one crime-related standalone novel:

Fighting Back. Bobbs Merrill, 1973

   Noted TV journalist and news anchor JIM LEHRER died today at the age of 85. Of his many other accomplishments, which will most assuredly be included in the many obituaries appearing now online and again in tomorrow’s newspapers, he also wrote a good many works of crime fiction, most of which I seem to have missed knowing about for all these years.

   The first series of note are the light-hearted adventures of One-Eyed Mack, Oklahoma’s lieutenant governor, who solves mysteries in his spare time. Lehrer also wrote two books about Charles Avenue Henderson, a former CIA agent who wants nothing more to do but retire in peace and quiet, , but who finds that actually doing so is not as easy as he thought.


      The One-Eyed Mack series —

Kick the Can. Putnam 1988

Crown Oklahoma. Putnam 1989
The Sooner Spy. Putnam 1990
Lost and Found. Putnam 1991
Fine Lines. Random House 1994
Mack to the Rescue. University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.


    The Charlie Henderson series —

Blue Hearts. Random House 1993. ISBN 0-679-42216-1.

Purple Dots. Random House, 1998.


      Crime-related standalone novels include —

The Special Prisoner. Random House, 2000.
The Franklin Affair. Random House, 2003.
Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination. Random Houose, 2013.

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