Authors


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


   I can’t claim to have read all 70-odd Maigret novels, but I’ve been reading them off-and-on since my teens and I still find many of them fascinating, especially the ones from the Thirties. Unfortunately my French isn’t good enough to allow me to read them as Simenon wrote them, but over the years I’ve sometimes wound up with two different translations of the same book, and a number of them are now being translated yet a third time. Reading two translations side by side is a heady experience, especially if you put on your detective cap and try to figure out what is and what isn’t in the original.

   There were characters a bit like Maigret and characters actually going by that name in a few of the more than 200 pulp novels Simenon wrote under a dozen or so pseudonyms in the 1920s, but the first genuine Maigret was PIETR-LE-LETTON, which was written in 1929 and published by A. Fayard et cie two years later as either the third or the fifth in the monthly Maigret series. In the States, as THE STRANGE CASE OF PETER THE LETT (1933), it was the fourth of six early Maigrets published by the Covici Friede firm.

   I am lucky enough to have a copy of that edition. No translator is credited but various sources in print and online claim that Simenon’s French was first rendered into English by Anthony Abbot. As all lovers of detection know, Abbot was the name under which best-selling novelist Fulton Oursler (1893-1952), following the lead of S. S. Van Dine, both signed and narrated the cases of New York City police commissioner Thatcher Colt, published originally by Covici Friede.

   Many decades ago I read all the Abbot novels and wrote an essay about them which in its final form can be found in my CORNUCOPIA OF CRIME (2010). I had heard the rumor that Oursler had translated the early Maigrets but, since he had died when I was a child, I couldn’t ask him. I did however write his son Will Oursler (1913-1985), who was also a part-time mystery writer both under his own name and as Gale Gallagher and Nick Marino.

   In a letter dated January 4, 1970 — My God! More than 46 years ago! — he replied as follows: “[M]y father did not make the actual translation as he simply was not that fluent in French. It is more probable that most of his effort was in the area of editing and polishing after the translation was done. It is certain that he would not have been capable of translating six Maigret novels.”

   The second translation of PIETR-LE-LETTON, retitled MAIGRET AND THE ENIGMATIC LETT, was by Daphne Woodward, published in 1963 as a Penguin paperback and sold in the U.S. for 65 cents. According to Steve Trussel’s priceless Maigret website, the Woodward version “is much closer to Simenon’s French text, the first being wayward at times.”

   Even without the French text at hand, I’ve found indications that Trussel is right. The novel features an American millionaire staying in the posh Hotel Majestic who is strangely connected with Pietr. The 1933 translation gives his name as Mortimer Livingston, which seems perfectly proper for the character. Daphne Woodward renders the name as Mortimer-Levingston, which is silly but consistent with the young Simenon’s ignorance of all things American.

   This character has a secretary, staying in London but never seen or spoken to. His name in the 1933 translation is Stone, which sounds fine. In Woodward’s rendition he’s called Stones, which is dreadful but again consistent with Simenon’s ignorance. It seems clear that the anonymous original translator went out of his or her way to Americanize various details in the novel that Simenon flubbed. Or was that part of the polishing job by Fulton Oursler?

   Written before Maigret and his world had crystallized in Simenon’s creative mind, PIETR-LE-LETTON is significantly different from almost all the later novels in the series. For one thing, it’s much more violent, with a total of four murders (the work of three different murderers) plus a suicide, committed in Maigret’s presence and with his gun.

   There’s also a great deal more physical action, with Maigret racing from Paris to the Normandy fishing port of F camp and out over the rocks along the muddy seacoast after his chief adversary despite being half-frozen and having been shot in the chest! But there’s a genuine battle of nerves between Maigret and his quarry, more intense and existential than their counterparts in many later books in the series, and the evocation of atmosphere which was Simenon’s trademark is as powerful as in the finest films noir. In either translation this debut novel is a gem.

***

   In 2014 Penguin Classics released yet another translation, this one by David Bellos and bearing the title PETER THE LATVIAN. Did some political correctness guru decide that Lett was a demeaning term like Polack? And what did Bellos make of passages like the beginning of Chapter 13? In Woodward’s version: “Every race has its own smell, loathed by other races…. In Anna Gorskin’s room you could cut it with a knife…. Flaccid sausages of a repulsive shade of pink, thickly speckled with garlic. A plate with some fried fish floating in a sour liquid.”

   There’s nothing like that first sentence in the 1933 rendition, perhaps because Fulton Oursler cut it out, but we do get to see and smell the “horrible pink sausages, flabby to the touch and filled with garlic” and “a platter containing the remains of a fried fish swimming in a sour-smelling sauce….” Need I mention that this scene takes place in the rue du Roi-de-Sicile, in Paris’s Jewish ghetto?

***

   While fine-tuning this month’s column I discovered that there really was, or at least might have been, a Latvian criminal named Pietr. He was known as Peter the Painter and his real name may have been Pietr Piatkow, or perhaps Gederts Eliass or Janis Zhaklis. He seems to have emigrated from East Europe to London where he joined an ethnic gang that stole in order to fund their radical political activities.

   He is believed to have taken part in the infamous Siege of Sidney Street which inspired the climax of Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), although a brief sketch in England’s Dictionary of National Biography warns us that “None of the … biographical ‘facts’ about him … is altogether reliable.”

   Whether Simenon had ever heard of this man remains unknown, but in any event the fictional Pietr the Lett is not a leftist radical, does not commit crimes of violence and turns out not even to be Latvian. Which raises another mystery: Why did Simenon call the guy Pietr the Lett? Pietr the Estonian — or the Esty? — would have sounded ridiculous even in French, but there’s absolutely no reason in the novel why he couldn’t have been a genuine Latvian. Ah well, c’est la vie.

***

   Train murders were something of a Simenon specialty. Of course, when such a crime takes place in a Maigret, it’s bound to lose intensity and vividness simply because we can’t be there to witness it. This is certainly true of the first murder in PIETR-LE-LETTON, and it’s also true of a Maigret short story dating from about seven years later.

   We learn from Steve Trussel’s website that “Jeumont, 51 minutes d’arrêt!” was written in October 1936 and, along with more than a dozen other shorts from the same period, was first collected in France as LES NOUVELLES ENQU TES DE MAIGRET (1944). It was never included in any collection of Maigret shorts published in English but did appear in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 1966, as “Inspector Maigret Deduces,” with no translator credit and with an unaccountable 1961 copyright date.

   (The FictionMags Index explains the date — the story’s first appearance in English was in the UK edition of Argosy for October 1961—and identifies the translator as one J.E. Malcolm.)

   As in PIETR-LE-LETTON, Maigret tackles a murder on a train, this one bound from Warsaw to Berlin to Liège in Belgium (Simenon’s birthplace) to Erquelinnes (on the Belgian side of the border with France) to Jeumont (just across the line on the French side) and on to Paris, except that one of the six passengers in a particular compartment is found dead in his seat at Jeumont. The dead man is a wealthy German banker named Otto Bauer.

   Called in by his railroad-detective nephew, Maigret gets in touch with his Berlin counterparts and learns that Bauer was forced out of the banking business “after the National Socialist revolution, but gave an undertaking of loyalty to the Government, and has never been disturbed….” and also that he’s “[c]ontributed one million marks to party funds.”

   Clearly, despite his name, Bauer was a Jew, and was desperately trying to escape Nazi Germany with whatever money he could salvage. That element is what makes this tale unique among the Maigret stories of the late Thirties. At least in translation there’s not a word of sympathy for the victim, not a word of disgust for the regime he was fleeing. For Maigret, and for Simenon I fear, it’s just another factor in another case. The murder weapon, by the way, turns out to be a needle, which was also one of the murder weapons in PIETR-LE-LETTON although not the one used in the train killing.

***

   I wouldn’t venture to guess how many train murders can be found in Simenon’s stand-alone novels, but the most vivid and intense that I can recall takes place in Chapter 2 of LE LOCATAIRE (1934; translated by Stuart Gilbert as THE LODGER in the two-in-one volume ESCAPE IN VAIN, 1943). Elie Nagear, a desperate young Turkish Jew, bludgeons to death a wealthy Dutch entrepreneur with whom he’s sharing a couchette on the night train from Brussels to Paris after it crosses the French border. (In European trains of the Thirties a couchette was a small chamber used as sleeping quarters by two and sometimes four total strangers.) On the run from the police, he takes a train back to Belgium and holes up in a boarding house for foreign students in the city of Charleroi.

   In Chapter 9 there’s a brief conversation between Elie and a fellow roomer. “They were talking in the papers of the difference between French and Belgian law. Well, suppose someone who’s being proceeded against in Belgium by the French police commits a crime in Brussels, or some other Belgian town…. What I mean is, that a man who’s liable to the death penalty in France might happen to commit a crime in Belgium. In that case, it seems to follow that he should first be tried in Belgium, if it’s in that country he’s arrested. And it also follows, doesn’t it, that he should serve his sentence in that country?”

   What Simenon assumes his readers know is that France at this time still had the death penalty while Belgium had abolished it. On May 10, 1933, in Boullay-les-Trous, a village south of Paris, an obese pornographer named Hyacinthe Danse, who was known to Simenon, murdered both his mother and his mistress. Fearing that he’d be caught and guillotined, Danse took the train to Liège in Belgium, where on May 12 he murdered his childhood confessor (and also Simenon’s), a Jesuit priest named Hault, and then turned himself in.

   This case was apparently still pending in Belgium when Simenon wrote LE LOCATAIRE. Sure enough, in December 1934 Danse was convicted of Hault’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, meaning that he couldn’t be extradited to France and stand trial for the other murders until he was dead. Less than two years later, Simenon turned the Danse story into a short Maigret, included as “Death Penalty” in the collection MAIGRET’S PIPE (1977) and discussed in my column for September 2015.

   Which is enough journey to France for one month. Or, as they say on the left bank of the Seine: basta.

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


   If this column doesn’t appeal to you, don’t blame me. Steve Lewis thought some readers might be interested in my latest book, even though it has nothing to do with our genre. So I’ll start off this month recycling the book’s introduction, which I believe conveys what it’s about, and reveals an aspect of your columnist that may surprise many who think of me as just a mystery wonk.

***

   If you leave out the accident of my birth, the origin of They Called the Shots dates back to 1952. The Korean war was raging overseas, HUAC and Senator Joe McCarthy were raging on the home front, the blacklist was on full tilt, and I was nine years young, living in Roselle Park, New Jersey.

   One night my parents, taking me along, went out to an appliance store to buy their first television set. It was, if memory serves, an Admiral with a 12 -inch screen. The price was around $225 or $250. For the next several years that set drew me to it like a magnet.

   In the early Fifties the major movie studios considered TV the enemy, offering for nothing the same product that theaters charged admission for. They wouldn’t allow their old films to be shown on the small screen, and in their current pictures they often wouldn’t allow a set amid the furniture of a living-room scene.

   Growing up in the New York City area, I had access to seven channels: the CBS, NBC and ABC flagship stations (Channels 2,4 and 7 respectively), the short-lived DuMont network, plus three local independents. With the majors boycotting the medium and the number of made-for-TV series rather small, TV programmers starved for material on film had to fall back on the smaller fry among movie-making companies, mainly Republic, Monogram and PRC.

   During the Thirties and Forties those companies had put out an endless stream of B pictures, primarily but not exclusively Westerns, and Republic had also offered dozens of cliffhanger serials. This was the product, interspersed with Hopalong Cassidy movies (out of which William Boyd, the only actor to play Hoppy, made megamillions by buying the rights to those flicks and licensing them to stations across the country) and early made-for-TV series like The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, that kept me glued in front of the set for hours every evening. I became a certified telefreak.

   On that tiny screen I watched movies featuring the exploits of various Western stars of previous decades over and over. Some were trio pictures with groups like The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters and The Rough Riders. Most starred a single hero: Gene Autry, Eddie Dean, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard (Ken s less successful but perhaps more talented brother), Tim McCoy, Jack Randall, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and of course the young John Wayne.

   I got to the point where I could identify at sight dozens of the actors in B Westerns who usually fell to the heroes bullets or fists — Roy Barcroft, Tristram Coffin, Kenne Duncan, I. Stanford Jolley, Charles King, John Merton, Marshall Reed, Hal Taliaferro, Harry Woods, just to name a few at random. Eventually I caught on that the person usually named in a picture s final credit must be important, but what a director did and how he did it I hadn’t the foggiest.

   As I grew older I lost interest in shoot-em-ups and cliffhangers, considering them beneath the notice of a young intellectual such as I fancied myself to be.

   Years slid by. I completed college and law school, passed the bar, and eventually uprooted myself from the east coast to St. Louis where I was invited to become a law professor. And then, slowly but surely, a strange thing happened. I became interested in those old movies again. I had the pleasure of meeting in their golden years some of the actors whose younger incarnations I had watched for hours on end, magnetized by that 12 -inch screen.

   Most important of all, I began to meet and become friends with some of the men whose names were familiar to me from the final credits of those pictures. The ones who called the shots. The directors. I got to watch their films again, sometimes sitting beside them. I got to listen to their stories. Eventually I began to write about them.

   This book is the culmination of that process. It s taken me thousands of hours of viewing time and hundreds of hours of writing time but in my twilight years I still consider the time well spent. I hope I ve communicated what I’ve gotten from all those films, and from the people who made them, in the following pages.

   But perhaps I can spell out here what I’ve looked for, and often found, in pictures of this sort. Reduced to two words, what the first-rate films contain and what the first-rate directors infuse into their films is visual imagination or, in two more words, visual excitement. This quality is the alpha and omega of the kind of movies discussed here.

   Each chapter is self-contained and can be read separately. But many also throw light on other chapters, and to help readers navigate among them, the first time in any chapter the name of a director is mentioned who is the subject of an earlier or later chapter, that name is highlighted.

   For example, in the chapter on William Witney you can see highlighted names like John English or Alan James or Ray Taylor from Bill s point of view, and later you can turn to the chapters on those men and see Bill from their perspective.

   The directors I knew best tend to get the longest and most quote-filled chapters but, because they contributed so much to this book, I want to single them out for mention: in the order of their births, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1893-1987), Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000), Thomas Carr (1907-1997), and my closest Hollywood friend, Bill Witney (1915-2002). A few others covered here, like Oliver Drake (1903-1991) and R.G. Springsteen (1904-1989), I knew but not all that well. Others, who died too soon, I never had the pleasure of meeting.

   Every director covered here is dead, and most of them died before the beginning of this century. In a sense this book is an assortment of flowers on their graves. In another sense it brings them back, I hope, to life.

***

   While we’re on the subject of shoot-em-ups, a reader of my last month’s column asked if any of John Creasey’s contributions to that branch of literature got published in the USofA. The answer is Yes. War on the Lazy-K, as by William K. Reilly — one of three bylines under which Creasey turned out (if I’ve counted right) 29 smokeroos for low-on-the-totem-pole English houses like Wright & Brown and Stanley Paul — first appeared in London in 1941, amid the carnage of World War II, and came out over here five years later under the imprint of Phoenix Press.

   Yes, the same Phoenix Press that at the same time was presenting to an indifferent world the novels of that incomparable wackadoodle Harry Stephen Keeler. I am the proud owner of a copy of the Reilly opus, picked up for 50 cents at a YMCA book fair in St. Louis twenty or more years ago. Another copy wound up in the hands of Bill Pronzini, who devotes a couple of pages to it in his tribute to badly written Westerns, Six-Gun in Cheek (1997).

   When I was in Wales back in pre-euro days I pungled up 50 pence apiece for each of several Creasey cactus epics published only in England, but that’s another story. Let’s stick to the one that made it across the pond.

   This one actually has a plot of sorts, but what I find most amazing is that a writer who had never yet visited the U.S. and knew next to nothing about the old West could hammer out so many books of this type in a few days apiece. The narrative passages of Lazy-K are readable enough, although pockmarked with exclamation points and lacking the urgency of the Inspector West and Dr. Palfrey novels Creasey wrote during the same war years.

   But Gad, the dialogue! Just about every one of the horde of characters in this book speaks in dialect—the same wacky dialect for the whole passel of ‘em! “Why’n hell can’t yuh old-timers stop arguin’ among yourselves?” “C’n yuh use a drink?” “Yuh ain’t got a touch of whiskey with yuh, by any chance?” “Yuh’ve heerd me.” The only characters who are spared this form of discourse are the Mexicans. “Thees ees a surprise, Kennedy. I was told that you wair dead.”

   “He wanted to be kept hidden until after Deegby was gone. But undair cover he negotiated with the other outfits.” There’s also one character who’s a Kiowa — or, as Creasey spells it, Kiawa — but him no speakum much. Can you imagine having to remember to misspell so often while pumping out ten or fifteen thousand words a day? What a delight to encounter the occasional rare moment when Creasey blinks and actually spells you y-o-u!

***

   At least one other among Creasey’s posse of pistol-smokers was published over here, but not in book form. Hidden Range (1946), published in England as by Tex Riley, takes up virtually the entire February 1950 issue of Real Western Stories, one of the Columbia chain of ultra-low-budget pulps edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes. I tripped over a copy of this one in a secondhand bookstore somewhere in Ohio and snagged it for another 50 cents.

   A quick look at the invaluable FictionMags Index website revealed a curious fact I hadn’t been aware of before. A year after Lowndes used Hidden Range in Real Western Stories, he used the exact same novel, this time retitled Forgotten Range, in the February 1951 issue of Western Action, another Columbia pulp. He must have been desperate for material that month!

   But could the Index be wrong here? According to other Creasey bibliographies in print and online, Forgotten Range is a different book, published in England as by Tex Riley in 1947. It strikes me as more credible that this is the title Lowndes ran early in 1951. In any event, he had earlier run another Creasey shoot-em-up, this time under the William K. Reilly byline, Brand Him for Boothill! (Western Action, July 1949), but what title and pen name this one sported in England remains a mystery.

   A word which brings us back to what this column is supposed to be about.

***

   Hundreds of Creasey’s crime novels were published in the U.S. from the early 1950s until well after his death in 1973, but only nine appeared here before he became a top name in the genre. Eight of these, chronicling the earliest exploits of Raffles-like John Mannering, a.k.a. The Baron, appeared under Creasey’s Anthony Morton byline between 1937 and 1940, although for some obscure reason the character’s nom de thief on this side of the pond was Blue Mask.

   The ninth, and the only book to bear Creasey’s own name on its spine until he became established over here years later, was Legion of the Lost (1944), one of the early espionage adventures of Dr. Palfrey and his colleagues, offered by a publishing house called Stephen Daye, Inc., which seems to have vanished into the mists a few seconds after it was born.

   At a time when I had little or no idea who Creasey was, I found a nice copy of this rarity in an old used bookstore in Elizabeth, N.J. that was a favorite hangout of mine in my formative years. What did the book set me back? One quarter. A wise investment, yes?

ROSS THOMAS —
An Author Profile by BARRY GARDNER:


   Ross Thomas to me succeeds on every level as a writer of fiction. His plots are intriguing, complex without being bewildering; his prose is smooth, seamless and unobtrusive; his dialogue fits his characters like a made-to-measure suit; but his strongest suite is characterization. I have yet to read a Thomas book without the feeling that here was a person, usually a group of people, that I would like to meet again.

   For better or worse, I have had that pleasure relatively seldom, for with the exception of eleven books featuring three different sets of characters (see list below), Thomas has chosen to eschew the series character. Eleven out of twenty-three might not seem all that much like eschewing, but except for two they were written over fourteen years ago. Perhaps he is wise; none of the sequels have quite measured up to the originals, in my eyes.

   Thomas has won two Edgars: for Best First Novel with The Cold War Swap in 1966, and nearly 20 years later for Best Novel with Briarpatch in 1984. Many people, though, consider Chinaman’s Chance his best novel; certainly it’s the book that finally began to gain him the major recognition he so richly deserved.

   My own favorite of Thomas’s books is The Fools in Town Are on Our Side. It is really two stories, the first of a man who doesn’t care about anything and how he came to that condition, the second the story of cleanup-by-further-corruption of a town. Comparisons to Hammett’s Red Harvest are inevitable, at least partially apt, and have been made; nevertheless the two books bear little resemblance but for that partially shared theme.

   He may have created his most numerous set of memorable characters here, and that is high praise indeed. To me, this is the quintessential Ross Thomas novel.

   My choice for second-best is The Seersucker Whipsaw. The character of Quentin Sharlene is unforgettable, and the story of an African coup is both entertaining and riveting from beginning to end. Almost every character is a major or minor masterpiece. The treatment of the African milieu was exceptional, I think, for 1967.

   His next, due out possibly by the time this sees print, is reported to be a third in the Durant-Wu series; but that’s immaterial — as long as there is a next.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #3, September 1992.


       The Mac McCorkle-Michael Padillo series –

1. The Cold War Swap (1966)
2. Cast a Yellow Shadow (1967)

3. The Backup Men (1971)
4. Twilight at Mac’s Place (1990)

       The Philip St. Ives series (as by Oliver Bleeck)

1. The Brass Go-Between (1969)

2. The Procane Chronicle (1971)

3. Protocol for a Kidnapping (1971)
4. The Highbinders (1974)
5. No Questions Asked (1976)

       The Quincy Durant-Artie Wu series –

1. Chinaman’s Chance (1978)

2. Out On the Rim (1987)
3. Voodoo, Ltd. (1992)

       Other novels –

The Seersucker Whipsaw (1967)
The Singapore Wink (1969)

The Fools in Town Are On Our Side (1970)
The Porkchoppers (1972)
If You Can’t Be Good (1973)
The Money Harvest (1975)
Yellow Dog Contract (1976)
The Eighth Dwarf (1979)

The Mordida Man (1981)
Missionary Stew (1983)
Briarpatch (1984)
The Fourth Durango (1989)
Ah, Treachery! (1994)

Editorial Comment:   Voodoo, Ltd. was the book that Barry was referring in his last paragraph. Ah, Treachery! was Ross Thomas’s final book, and was also not included in the bibliography Barry prepared for this profile when it was first published.

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.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
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.

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