PETER CHAMBERS – Downbeat Kill. Abelard-Schuman, US, hardcover, 1964. First published in the UK by Robert Hale, hardcover, 1963.

   There was a time — this was long ago — when I thought there was somehow a connection between the author Peter Chambers, and the private eye character Peter Chambers whose adventures were told by Henry Kane. That the author Peter Chambers’s most frequently used character was also a PI (named Mark Preston) made such a connection all the more plausible. So so I thought.

   It turns out, as has been well known for many years now, that even though his character’s stories take place in California, Peter Chambers the author is as British as they come, and there is no connection to Henry Kane or his character whatsoever. Chambers’ real name is Dennis Phillips (1924-2006), and while having written only one crime novel under his own name, he wrote almost 40 as Chambers — most but not all with Preston — one as Simon Challis, five as Peter Chester, and thirteen as Philip Daniels.

   Very few of them have been reprinted in this country. Downbeat Kill is one of only eight of Preston’s cases to have been published over here. On the basis of this sample of size one, in spite of this overall rather sizable output of 36 in all, I find it really doubtful that I will find myself searching out any others.

   For one thing, Chambers (the author) has a totally tin ear when it comes to things Americana. This is the story of a universally disliked TV deejay whose death has been threatened, calling Preston in, His name is Donny Jingle (not his real one, though); the man works for a TV conglomerate called Amalgamated Inter-Coastal Television (or A.I.C.T. for short); and in a town called Monkton City, California. Worse, to my sense of hearing, every time Preston mentions his car by name, he calls it a Chev, but maybe that’s me.

   The case turns into murder when one of the go-fer guys working for Donny Jingle dies in a car bombing in his place. Preston digs up a lot of dirt as he investigates, but none of it is very interesting, and the ending is one big yawner.

   He doesn’t even make a big play for Donny Jingle’s personal secretary. Meh. This is one mediocre mystery at best.

by Francis M. Nevins

   On Christmas morning I finished proofreading my next book — which has nothing to do with mystery fiction and won’t be described here — and, with time on my hands, began reading a pile of randomly chosen short stories in the hope that at least one would generate an item for this column. I was not disappointed.

   In addition to her well-known Albert Campion stories, Margery Allingham (1903-1966) wrote a few dozen non-series shorts, most of them for English newspapers. I’d read only a couple of these but, finding one in Thomas F. Godfrey’s anthology English Country House Murders (1988), decided to give it a whirl.

   “The Same to Us” has to do with a jewel robbery at posh Molesworth Manor during a house party whose guest of honor is Dr. Koo Fin, “the Chinese Einstein” and creator of the Theory of Objectivity (obviously a take-off on Einstein’s Relativity hypothesis). What brought me up short was Allingham’s remark that “already television comedians referred to his great objectivity theory in their patter.”

   Come again? Television comedians? In a story that was first published in 1934 and clearly takes place during that “long weekend” between World Wars? I realized at once that I’d stumbled upon yet another specimen of Unconscionable Updating, where an author tries to make an old story seem up-to-the-minute.

   But could I prove it? My shelves didn’t happen to include a copy of the London Daily Express for May 17, 1934, in which the tale had first appeared, but I did have The Allingham Minibus (1973), where it was first collected. No help: the same TV comedians pop up there.

   Luckily I also had Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for January 1950, in which Fred Dannay had reprinted the tale long before its book appearance. There I found what I take it Allingham had written: “….and already music-hall comedians referred to [Dr. Koo Fin’s] great ‘objectivity’ theory in their routines.” My guess is that the change was made after her death.


   Among English writers perhaps the most unconscionable updater was John Creasey (1908-1973), who wrote countless thrillers set in London during World War II and then later, when he’d become rich and internationally famous, revised them to get rid of the war atmosphere and sold them as contemporary novels.

   Two examples of the harm he did to his own work will suffice here. In Chapters 12 and 13 of Inspector West Regrets (1945) Roger West and his sergeant find themselves in a gun battle with gangsters that takes place in two connected air-raid shelters dug into the earth in the adjoining backyards of two houses in parallel streets. In the revised version of 1965 the bomb shelters become conventional garages.

   In Holiday for Inspector West (1945) as first written and published, Roger and a contingent of cops lay siege to a gang headquarters in a complex of arches supporting a wartime railway bridge and intended to shelter Londoners bombed out in the Blitz. In the 1957 updated version that setting too becomes a casualty.

   Anyone interested in reading these two novels the way Creasey originally wrote them, plus three others from the WWII years, should hunt down Inspector West Goes to War (2011), a handsome coffee-table book with an introduction by — oh hell, how did you guess?


   There have been updaters on our side of the pond too, among them that kafoozalus of wackadoodledom Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967). One of the earliest examples of a youthful specialty of his, which most of us call short novels or novelettes and he liked to call novellos (no doubt with the accent on the first syllahble) was originally titled “Misled in Milwaukee.”

   Keeler wrote this 26,000-word novello in 1916 and sold first publication rights for a whopping $65 to the Chicago Ledger, where it appeared as a 5-part serial (23 June-21 July 1917). As the year of publication tells us, Prohibition was still in the future at the time this tale first appeared. Five years later, as “The Search for Xeno,” it was included in the December 1922 issue of 10-Story Book under the byline of York T. Sibley — a bit of deception Keeler thought prudent because the editor to whom he sold the reprint rights was himself!

   (Between 1919 and 1940 he spent his afternoons editing the magazine while devoting mornings to writing dozens of the long, convoluted and sublimely nutty novels for which he is famous, or perhaps le mot juste is notorious.)

   The 1922 version is the earliest that survives and was used as the text for the presently available edition of the tale, first published by Ramble House in 2003 as a separate volume and, two years later, as part of the collection Three Novellos,both graced with an introduction by — oh hell, you guessed it again!

   This version keeps what I assume was the original description of what protagonist Clint Farrell sees as he approaches Milwaukee by rail. “Outside in the darkness, great breweries slid past the train, their square-cut buildings, dotted with tiny windows, looming against the pink-tinged sky from the foundries, their gigantic grain and hop silos illuminated by sputtering, brilliant lights strung up and down the concrete cylinders.”

   But, since this time the year is 1922 and Prohibition is in full swing, Farrell quickly learns that the man he’s looking for works at “the Southern Wisconsin Near-Beer Company on East Water Street, near Grand.”

   That wasn’t the last time Keeler fiddled with this tale. Sometime in the late 1950s or early Sixties, long after all his English-language publishers had dumped him, he completely rewrote it — eliminating the 1916-era shirt collars that are crucial to the plot, replacing the near-beer with drinks that weren’t ersatz, and splicing in some references to the atomic bomb and other feeble attempts to update — and, retitling it “Adventure in Milwaukee,” included it with two other novellos in a package he sent to his Madrid publisher Instituto Editorial Reus. Señor Reus passed on this one, saying — assuming he spoke Keeler Spanglish! — “We no wan’ theez novelitos, my fr’an.” The threesome remained unpublished until that incomparable loon sanctuary Ramble House got into the act early in the 21st century.


   Even Ellery Queen was not immune to the updating bug. In EQMM for March 1959 Fred Dannay reprinted “Long Shot,” a Queen story that takes place in Hollywood and was first published in 1939. This time around, the names of all but one of the Tinseltown luminaries who attend the big horse race have been changed.

   Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo are fused into Sophia Loren, Al Jolson is replaced by Bob Hope, Bob Burns (remember him?) by Rock Hudson, Joan Crawford the second time by Marilyn Monroe, and Carole Lombard by Jayne Mansfield. Who’s the only star with enough name recognition to survive the update process intact? Clark Gable.


   Any number of writers have played the updating game but the only one I know of who defended doing so was John D. MacDonald (1915-1985). Back in the early Eighties I and a few others who admired John’s early work persuaded him that we should put together a large collection of his pulp stories, along the lines of what I had done a decade earlier with Cornell Woolrich’s stories in Nightwebs (1972).

   With John’s help we got hold of photocopies of just about every published tale of his salad days, mailed them back and forth to each other with comments, and ultimately winnowed the list down to thirty.

   These we submitted to John, who axed three of them but was satisfied with the other 27. The result was not one sizable collection but two: The Good Old Stuff (1982) and More Good Old Stuff (1984).

   But before these 27 stories were republished, John insisted on updating — not all but some of them — and, in his Author’s Foreword, defended the practice vigorously. Most of his changes, he said, had to do with “references which could confuse the reader. Thirty years ago [i.e. back in the early 1950s] everyone understood the phrase ‘unless he threw the gun as far as Carnera could.’ But the Primo is largely forgotten, and I changed him to Superman.”

   Where a particular story was “entangled with and dependent upon” the years following World War II when the tales were written, he wisely chose not to update. But where a story “could happen at any time,” he did.

   “I changed a live radio show to a live television show. And in others I changed pay scales, taxi fares, long-distance phoning procedures, beer prices, and so forth to keep from watering down the attention of the reader. This may offend the purists,” he concedes, and it did indeed bother all four of us who edited the books (Marty Greenberg, Jean and Walter Shine and myself), but John of course outvoted us. Someday I’d love to see those collections in print yet again, with every story restored to the way he first wrote it. That’ll be the day!


   If John’s rationale for updating ever had any validity, I submit that it has none at all in our high-tech era. To use his own example, anyone who sees the word Carnera and is baffled need only Google the name, as I just did, and find more than 600,000 references in less than a second. Do we live in amazing times or what?

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

MARTIN CAIDIN – The God Machine. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1968. Paperback reprints include: Bantam, 1969; Baen, 1989.

       — Four Came Back. David McKay Co., hardcover, 1968. Paperback reprints include: Bantam 1970; Baen, 1988.

   Martin Caidin, who wrote science fiction and adventure grounded in hard science and technology, and who is best remembered today for his novel Cyborg, which became the basis for the cult television series The Six Million Dollar Man, was never really part of the science fiction community his work most resembles. Most of his novels, like Cyborg, are thrillers using science fictional elements, and the writer he most resembles is Mickey Spillane in his narrative style and politics — which became increasingly bizarre (*) and dominant in his work later in his career.

   But before that he wrote some entertaining adventure novels with a bit of hard science and technology in a blend of SF and thriller adventure novel that was unique to him.

   The God Machine is the old supercomputer takes over the world trope. The hero, Steve Rand, works on Project 79, and as the book opens he is getting suspicious after an attempt on his life. He soon becomes convinced that it was the work of Project 79, a computer which may have achieved true AI (artificial intelligence).

   Caidin was a top notch suspense novelist when he wanted to be, and Rand’s first person narration has an immediacy that will likely remind you favorably of Mickey Spillane, both in some fairly explicit (for the time) Spillane style sex scenes and the violence.

   Rand manages to find a couple of allies in the project (one an attractive pneumatic fellow scientist) and in a suspenseful final down to the wire conflict must penetrate the near omniscient Project 79 and its lethal radioactive core in order to destroy the machine. It may not be as thoughtful as D. F. Jones’s Colossus: The Forbin Project of Charles Eric Maine’s B.E.A.S.T., but you can’t fault it as storytelling.

   Four Came Back has an international group of eight astronauts sent to a space station in near-earth orbit contaminated by an alien virus accidentally brought on the ship. As the orbit deteriorates and the virus spreads they have to face that not only will they not be rescued, they may have no choice but to destroy themselves to keep from spreading the disease to Earth.

   The crew is a mix of men and women, so there is a strong sexual element, kept in hand unlike some of Caidin’s later novels, and the narrative tension remains strong to the last page. It was a timely book when it first appeared, as NASA was seriously concerned they not bring anything back from space with the early Gemini missions, and it still works despite dating though Michael Crichton far surpassed it on all points with The Andromeda Strain. Four Came Back falls somewhere between Strain and Alistair MacLean’s The Satan Bug (published as by Ian Stuart).

   The immediacy of Caidin’s best work shows here, and many of today’s thriller writers could learn something about narrative drive from reading these. Caidin delivered a maximum of suspense and drive in the books of this era, and many are still worth reading, even if the science and technology that were his selling point are out of date.

   At his best, including Marooned (basis in an expanded version for the hit film with Gregory Peck), The Last Fathom, Cyborg, Whip, Almost Midnight, and Three Corners to Nowhere, Caidin wrote highly readable thrillers often with a strong basis in barely speculative day after tomorrow science and featuring strong narrative drive.

   He was always at his best writing about flying. His years as a pilot and his love of flying was another thing he shared with Mickey Spillane, and in addition to his novels he wrote several good nonfiction works about flying and space as a reporter. He also penned novelizations of films such as The Final Countdown, the Six Million Dollar Man series, an updated Buck Rogers novel, and books in the Indiana Jones series of paperback originals for Bantam. His work roughly spans from 1956 to 1990 including non fiction and fiction, novels and short fiction.

   I re-read the two reviewed here a few years ago, and while the science may not hold up and the technology has long since been surpassed, the narrative drive and Caidin’s convincing voice still shine through. These are solid entertaining and cinematic novels from his best period and are well worth a read, if you don’t mind your science well behind the contemporary norm and somewhat old fashioned pulpish writing.

(*) FOOTNOTE.  In the Eighties Caidin hosted a Joe Pyne style talk show in which he confronted extremist groups and their leaders, then late in his career he became convinced he was possessed with PSI powers which was reflected in his novels often featuring amoral murderous supermen as protagonists. (I don’t think even Caidin would call them heroes.)

   Some of his later books are disturbing reading for anyone who admired his earlier work, with some titles like Beamriders, Prison Ship, The Messiah Stone, and Dark Messiah just unreadable for me.

   These later books combine the worst of the late works of Robert A. Heinlein with Randian extremism and almost Sadean scenes of sex and violence. Be warned, depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing. Whether it serves as a warning or as an enticement, most of those late works were published by Baen Books. In general I would avoid most of his work past 1981 save for the Indiana Jones books and TSR’s Buck Rogers: A Life in the Future (1995), but everyone will be their own guide.

IAN ALEXANDER – The Disappearance of Archibald Forsyth. Hutchinson & Co., UK, no date stated [1933].

   Back in the printed version of Mystery*File, issue #46, one of the items in Al Hubin’s “Addenda to Crime Fiction IV” columns revealed that Ian Alexander was a previously unknown pen name of Alexander Knox.

   In the very same issue, and totally unconnected with the Hubin entry, Charlie Shibuk mentioned Alexander Knox as one of the actors who appeared in Andre DeToth’s film None Shall Escape. This very remarkable coincidence went unnoticed by me, but naturally Charlie spotted it right away. He added the following information, which appeared in the letter column of M*F 47: “Knox was born in Canada in 1907 and appeared on stage and screen in England and America. He portrayed the title role in Wilson (1944).”

   Not only that, but he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in that film.

   As for his crime-writing career, this book at hand is the only one Knox wrote as Ian Alexander. In the 70s he wrote two novels included in Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, both historical adventure novels based on the Canadian wilderness of the late 18th century. As Leonard Blackledge, he wrote one crime novel entitled Behind the Evidence (Hutchinson, 1935), and as John Crozier, he wrote two others: Murder in Public (Hutchinson, 1934) and Kidnapped Again (Hutchinson, 1935)

   Both of the latter two novels featured a character called “Falcon,” who doubtlessly was not the Falcon of movie and radio fame, and created in book form by Drexel Drake in 1936. (Or was it Michael Arlen, in a 1940 short story called “Gay Falcon”? The radio series always credited Drake as creator of the character, who was called Michael Waring; Arlen was always the one stated as creating the fellow in the 1940s movie series: either Gay Lawrence (George Sanders) or Tom Lawrence (Tom Conway).)

   No more digressions, however. The sleuth in The Disappearance of Archibald Forsyth is a very interesting fellow, indeed, and it’s a shame that this was apparently his only case on record. His name is Eagels, he works and has a growing reputation as a private investigator in London, at least with Scotland Yard. He’s also, well, I’m going to do some extensive quoting here, if you don’t object too loudly. From pages 12-13:

   Eagels was a man whom it was impossible to pump. Most people have their little weaknesses, their penetrable moments, but Conway [from Scotland Yard] has never seen this tall figure when it was not utterly self-possessed, the features composed and unmoving, the dark eyes caves above the high cheek-bones, caves with fire in their depths. Eagles was a North American Indian. His father has been a chief of the Iroquois, has done well in Canada and given his son an excellent education along the lines of the white man he saw about him, but he had not neglected to give him the keys to the great storehouse of the knowledge of his own race.

   Eagels never had a Christian name that anybody knew. His skin was remarkably fair for an Indian, and he had served seven years with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before he was connected with the bootlegging case that made his name in America. He had come to England shortly after, a strange man, gaunt and somewhat uncanny. Already his unusual facilities were being noticed by Scotland Yard. He had worked with the Yard on several cases while he was still connected with the R.C.M.P., and there was a mutual respect between them which the passing months did nothing to diminish.

   Eagels’ secretary and trusted assistant is Millicent Doe, who also deserves a mention. They make an unusual couple working together. From pages 20-21:

   They were working late. Eagels had dinner sent in at about eight-thirty, and for half an hour they left their desks and ate a strange, silent meal by the fire. They were odd companions. The perky, rather hard American girl, bred on the Broadway booze racket, efficient, capable, terse, emotionless, and the Indian, inheritor of a vanishing race. When they talked it was as if what went between the lines was more important than what was said.

   Question: Is this the first appearance of an American Indian as a detective? How many others are there?

   Here is something else equally striking. Read this, taken from page 72, as Eagels is thinking over the case so far (and yes, I promise to tell you something about that sometime soon as well):

   Conway might go to the house if he liked with a preconceived theory, but he wouldn’t. With this fact fixed in his mind, the complete refusal to theorize in advance which he had learned from Holmes himself the only time he had met him, Eagels listened to the conversation of the others.

   On page 97, Eagels considers what to do about a butler with an unfortunate habit of listening at doors:

   “I suppose,” he said, half aloud, half to himself, “that a bribe to keep his mouth shut would only open it wider. Old proverb: ‘Mouth shut with wampum will open with more.’”

   From pages 102-103 we find a tidbit of understanding about Eagels’ philosophy of human nature:

   Eagels could not help throwing a backward glance at the gloomy house as he left it, and thinking of the tortured hours the two children were going through [it is their father who has disappeared, probably murdered], hours that would probably echo all through their lives with recurring misery. He wondered if the influence which was behind it all had ever thought of the effect his actions would have on the happiness of the people he touched. Even the most callous, ordinary person, he thought, would have some consideration for other people’s feelings. This seemed to him sufficient distinction between the ordinary person and the person who is capable of murder.

   Crimes of sudden passion excepted, Eagels worked on the theory that a murderer is never a perfectly ordinary being. He is lacking in some quality, some essential element of humanity. He was quite convinced that a normal person is as incapable of murder as he is incapable of building a sky-scraper single-handed.

   I have been thinking about the next quote, whether to include it or not, and I’ve decided, what the hey, let’s go all the way. From pages 126-127:

   “Anyway,” said Conway, suddenly heaving a sigh, “this proves one thing that we’ve been thinking. It’s a gang that’s at the bottom of the whole business. If it is a murder, there must have been at least two people to get the body away from the church, and if it was enforced disappearance, they must have had more. If he disappeared himself, there are strange goings on which I can only explain by bringing in a gang. I can’t see the motive, though, that’s the worrying part.”

   “Yes,” said Eagels, “I’d thought of that. A gang seems the only solution. At least it seems the only solution at present. I don’t like it. If it was murder, it was too clever for a gang. The best murders are done by specialists – no accomplices. If it wasn’t murder, I don’t understand what has happened since. What about the will? Have you looked into Forsyth’s financial position?”

   “He’s not as rich as he was five years ago, but then, who is?” [Remember that is was 1933.]

   “He’s quite sound? No wriggling out of debts or anything?”

   “No debts that I can see. He was a careful old miser.”

   “What do you think of the note he left?”

   “The one you pinched from me, you mean?”

   “The one we made the little mistake about.”

   “Mistake my eye.” Conway grinned. “I don’t see why you wanted to have it; it was obviously a forgery.”

   “Too damned obviously.”

   “What do you mean?”

   “Well, I haven’t examined it yet, but it looks to me as if Forsyth was disguising his own hand.”

   Conway whistled.

   Luckily Miss Doe is a forgery expert, among other skills, but Eagels’ outwardly competent and calm facade does not reveal the torment roiling up inside. From pages 230-231:

   If he had been resolved before, Eagels was filled now with a determination that comes to few men. Down somewhere deep within him there was smouldering a terrible hatred. He admitted to himself that he had muddled the case horribly. The detectives of fiction that never make a mistake never occurred to him. He remembered the great detectives of reality – Sherlock Holmes himself – had sometimes been saved from grave errors by luck, and luck alone, but could he expect luck now? Holmes had never depended on luck. “Get your man.” The catchword was still branded on his brain. “Get your man.”

   “I’ll free Donald,” he swore to Joan. “Please, please trust me.”

   There is more. On page 233 Eagels is confronted with an important document that has disappeared from a locked safe:

   Could Feeny have taken the paper away with him? No. Eagels had read it after he left. Conway? No, he didn’t even know of its existence, and the porter had said no one climbed the stair after he went out. Therefore nobody entered the office at all. But the paper was gone!

   Nobody entered the office.

   Eagles thought carefully, remembering that if there was a contradiction in facts, it did not mean the facts were definitely wrong. It meant that his connection or interpretation was wrong.

   There is a lot of confusion that occurs just before the end. A lot of action that goes on that doesn’t seem to have nay meaning – until at length, in Chapter Sixteen, beginning with page 278, all is revealed. That it takes most of ten pages is quite telling. If this is your kind of detective fiction, as it is mine, usually, and yes, it’s probably an acquired taste today, you’re going to wish that this was not the only recorded appearance of detective Eagels.

— April 2015.

[UPDATE] 12-28-15.   I didn’t realize how long this review, was. I hope you made it here all the way through to the bottom, but I suppose that on occasion the scroll bar on the right side of your screen does have its uses. If by chance I happen to have intrigued you a little about this book, I regret to tell you that a search online two minutes ago turned up exactly no copies.

   More importantly, however, after writing this review I attempted to answer my own question and started putting together a checklist of Native American detectives in mystery fiction. I haven’t worked on it in ten years, but at the time I think w=it was fairly complete. Take a look, should you be so inclined.

   Please also read the comments. The first is from Jamie Sturgeon, who had some interesting information to report on the two books Knox wrote as John Crozier.

William F. Deeck

JOHN FARR – The Deadly Combo. Ace Double D-301, paperback original, 1958. Bound back-to-back with Murder Isn’t Funny, by J. Harvey Bond.

   Two factors militate against this novel for me: I am not all that fond of the hard-boiled mystery and listening to jazz I find painful. Despite my biases, I must conclude that John Farr, a pseudonym of Jack Webb, has written a dandy novel.

   Mac Stewart. whose position on the Los Angeles police force I don’t quite understand — he’s a plainclothes detective who cruises just like a patrolman — has been a jazz enthusiast since he used to sit in alleys listening to tin pan in a noisy speakeasy. Stewart’s love for the music drew him to Dandy Mullens, a former jazz great, from whom he learned a great deal. When Mullens is found stabbed to death in another alley, Stewart investigates on his own.

   As I said, this is a hard-boiled novel, but Farr often approaches poetry in his writing. particularly when he is dealing with jazz. It’s somewhat fair play, also, though Stewart is helped by the murderer — at least the first one — being not too bright.

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

Bibliographic Notes:   First of all, the Jack Webb who wrote this book is not the radio-TV-movie actor Jack Webb. There was a lot of confusion about this in the early days of mystery fiction fandom (and elsewhere I’m sure). The Jack Webb who wrote this book was the author of eleven mystery novels under his own name, nine of them with the unlikely sleuthing pair of Father Joseph Shanley and Sammy Golden.

   As John Farr, Webb wrote five more crime and detective novels, two of them with a series character named Cy Clements, about whom I know nothing. The Deadly Combo was Mac Stewart’s only appearance.

by Francis M. Nevins

   I’ve never had much interest in Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) but somewhere along the line I wound up with a copy of Jan Cohn’s biography IMPROBABLE FICTION (1980). A few weeks ago, for no particular reason, I started idly skimming through this book. At least it was idle skimming until a paragraph on page 155 brought me up short. It seems there was a time early in the 20th century when Rinehart became interested in spiritualism.

   As we learn from Cohn: “Mary and Stan [her husband] probably had their first experience with spiritualism in 1909, at Lily Dale near Chautauqua, where there was a spiritualist camp. Both had sittings there with a medium named Keeler. First they wrote notes on a slate and awaited replies that were to come through Keeler. Stan wrote notes to his father, his brother Charlie, and a young doctor friend, but the replies were unsatisfactory. A trumpet seance followed and Stan’s brother Charlie spoke, but again it was unconvincing.”

   The Keeler mentioned here didn’t make it into the index of Cohn’s book, obviously because she didn’t know the rest of his name. I do. I had read about this spiritualist before, and I remembered where. Not to keep anyone in suspense, he was the uncle of Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), the nuttiest filbert who ever sat down to a typewriter and one of my favorite writers ever.

   Harry’s first wife had died of cancer in 1960, and her death so devastated him that for the next three years he was unable to write fiction. He did, however, bang out a long series of “Walter Keyhole” newsletters. These in effect constituted a low-tech blog, printed on multi-colored paper, discussing any subject that caught his fancy—cosmology, autobiography, writers’ gossip, religion, restaurants, cats, whatever — and mailed out on an irregular basis to almost everyone for whom he had an address.

   The hobby, or whatever you want to call it, cost him up to $50 a week, an amount not to be sneezed at in those days, but he obviously felt the price was worth it and kept it up, although less frequently, even after he remarried and until about six months before his death. Over the decades I acquired originals or photocopies of 188 of these newsletters, and several years ago I organized the material in them into THE KEELER KEYHOLE COLLECTION (2005), a hefty volume which I still thumb through with enjoyment every so often. I knew that was where I had first heard about Harry’s slate-writing uncle, and finding the relevant passages plus a bit of time with my good buddy Joe Google brought me up to speed.

   Pierre L.O.A. Keeler (the initials stand for Louis Ormond Augustus) was born in 1855, or perhaps 1856, and died in 1948 at age 92, or perhaps 93. Late in 1960 Harry wrote in one of his Keyhole newsletters that Pierre,

   “…known for decades in the spiritistic trade as ‘Alphabet’ Keeler, had clients at Lilydale, New York, who came from all over the world to receive ‘messages’ from their dead loved ones. He was a ‘slate-writer’ and brought the messages through on his slate or their slates, as they desired. Whether the messages were genuine or just super-legerdemain doesn’t matter; it brought the bereaved ones great comfort. He died not long ago [did Harry really think twelve years was a short time?] at an extremely advanced age, leaving a nephew in Washington practicing Federal law and a nephew in Chicago [Harry himself, of course] who writes on paper instead of slates….”

   A few months later, after reading a piece about Pierre in the National Enquirer, he complained in another Keyhole that the Enquirer “neglected completely to point out that the high spot of his work was to bring out messages from the ‘dead’ not only upon the slates brought by his clients, but in actual handwritings of the dead.”

   Are we to conclude that Harry believed Unc was a genuine medium? Not at all. In a later Keyhole, probably dating from the summer of 1963, he claims to have known Pierre “fairly intimately” and describes him as “a consummate sleight-of-hand artist, deriving his astounding results via various methods, [and] was, therefore, a charlatan. Was, in short, exactly like all male members of the tribe of Keeler.” No Mike Avallone-style I’m-the-greatest hype for Harry!

   Googling Pierre’s name, we find that he was quite a character, continuing his slate-writing career for decades despite being exposed again and again by a number of psychic investigators including Houdini. Could he have fooled people on the same scale in the Internet age that allows us to learn so much about him with so little effort? Probably. There’s an old Latin proverb, mundus vult decipi, the world wants to be deceived, that I suspect remains true today.


   Writing about his uncle, Harry consistently misarranged his middle initials, L.A.O. instead of L.O.A. I don’t know if we should make anything of this, but it’s a sober fact that the female lead in one of the most charming Keeler novels, Y. CHEUNG, BUSINESS DETECTIVE (1939), is a young woman of Chinese-Hawaiian descent named Loa Marling. Did Harry derive that name from his uncle Pierre’s middle initials?


   Writing about Harry can easily become habit-forming, for me anyway. I acquired the habit back in my teens when I first discovered HSK, and here I am about to turn 73 and still hooked!

   Having become a lawyer and law professor during those intervening decades, I have a particular interest in Harry’s take on that subject. Very few of his books have lawyer protagonists but one of those few is the first Keeler novel that I ever stumbled upon. The main character in THE AMAZING WEB (1930) is David Crosby, a young attorney who screws up his first big case—where the defendant is the woman he loves!—but goes on several years later to prove himself a tiger of the courtroom, with a golden future as a criminal defender ahead of him and, as Keeler Koinkydink would have it, the same young woman at his side. Here, at the end of more than 500 pages of plot labyrinth, is where David Just Says No.

   “I have a clear realization of the long years to come. Of the hundreds of truth-telling witnesses I shall have to beat down into a state bordering on hysteria. Of the other hundreds of witnesses whom I shall put on the stand and who will craftily perjure themselves….Of being the last refuge of criminals trying to save both their liberty and their loot—of having to save them because I shall not know whether they are guilty or innocent, and because the saving of such is my profession. Of being…in bitter fights in court where I must make a liar of the man who tells the truth and shame him before his friends and the world….[T]he road to the moon is directly through the muck.”

   Instead David decides to buy a farm and devote the rest of his life to producing “clean sweet food for the thousands.”


   The other Keeler novel with a lawyer protagonist offers a more positive view of the profession and is also of historical importance because its protagonist is a woman. THE CASE OF THE LAVENDER GRIPSACK (1944) is the fourth and final volume of what today is known as the Skull in the Box series. Elsa Colby, recent graduate of Chicago’s Northwestern Law School, has signed a Keeler Krackpot Kontract that will divest her of title to a valuable piece of real estate known as Colby’s Nugget, and vest title in her rascally uncle Silas Moffit, if she should be disbarred or lose a criminal case within a certain number of months.

   For obvious reasons Elsa is accepting no cases and spends her time making a quilt. Moffit pressures Judge Hilford “Ultra Legal” Penworth to compel her to defend a capital case she can’t possibly win and to disbar her on the spot — which is within the judge’s power as Chief Commissioner of the Ethical Practices Subdivision! — if she refuses. To understand what the case is about you have to read the three previous Skull in the Box books — THE MAN WITH THE MAGIC EARDRUMS (1939), THE MAN WITH THE CRIMSON BOX (1940) and THE MAN WITH THE WOODEN SPECTACLES (1940) — but any readers not up to that ordeal may substitute the summary I wrote for the second edition of Jon L. Breen’s NOVEL VERDICTS (1999).

   The trial — for a murder that took place less than 24 hours earlier! — is to be held in the drawing room of Judge Penworth, who is suffering from a bad case of gout. The courtroom action is full of long-winded speeches and light on Q-and-A but packed with Keeler’s inspired daffiness — and with sentences like this one and several of those above which feature long asides punctuated with an exclamation point! The crossword puzzle exegesis in Chapter 13 is guaranteed to pop the eyeballs of every cruciverbalist, and the surprise ending will knock the socks off any reader with the patience to hang on till the end. As in THE AMAZING WEB, although this time the attorney is the woman and the client the man, they’re clearly going to get married after the book is closed.


   Thanksgiving is two days away as I finish this column. In the years of his widowerhood Keeler endured a number of long and lonely turkey days, and an entry in a Walter Keyhole newsletter written late in 1962 memorializes one of them.

   “We had our choice of having 3 soft-boiled eggs (only thing we can cook) as a dinner, then seeing the Three Stooges conk each other over the head at the Logan [his neighborhood theatre], or of having 3 soft-boiled eggs as a dinner and re-reading Keyser’s MATHEMATICAL PHILOSOPHY. You guess!”

   I hope everyone who reads this column had a far more pleasant holiday than that.

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.

Next Page »