Authors


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


HOWARD BROWNE – The Taste of Ashes. Paul Pine #4. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1957. Dennis McMillan, trade paperback, 1988. TV adaptatation: Pilot episode of Bourbon Street Beat (ABC, 5 October 1959).

   An early contributor to the Ziff-Davis line of pulps in the 1940s, Howard Browne later became managing editor of several of that Chicago-based publisher’s science-fiction and fantasy magazines. He also wrote extensively for radio and early TV, scripting more than 700 dramatic shows for the two media.

   In 1946 he published his first mystery novel, Halo in Blood, under the pseudonym John Evans, and followed it with two more, Halo for Satan (1948) and Halo in Brass (1949); all three feature Chicago private detective Paul Pine, one of the best of the plethora of tough-guy heroes from that era. Although the Pine novels are solidly in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, they have a complexity and character all their own and are too well crafted to be mere imitations.

   The Taste of Ashes is the fourth and (at least as of this writing) final Paul Pine adventure. Browne evidently chose to publish this one under his own name because it is longer, more tightly plotted, and more ambitious than the “Halo” books. Offbeat, violent, exciting, it is the story of Pine’s involvement with the lethal Delastone clan:

    “… the Colonel, who wore his hair like the late William Jennings Bryan and was more afraid of scandal than of sudden death; Martha, a member of the sensible-shoe set; the lovely Karen, who owned a temper and a burglar tool; Edwin, who had gone to Heaven, or some place, leaving a monument of horror behind; and Deborah Ellen Frances Thronetree, age seven, an authority on the Bible and Captain Midnight, who was plagued by nightmares.”

   A hood with the wonderful name of Arnie Algebra, a reporter called Ira Groat, and the haunted widow of another private eye are just three of the rich array of other characters Pine encounters on his violent professional (and personal) odyssey.

   All three of the John Evans titles are also first-rate. Both Halo in Blood and Halo for Satan have highly unusual opening situations: In the former, Pine joins twelve other persons in the burial of a nameless bum; and in the latter, a Chicago bishop is offered a chance to buy a manuscript purportedly in the handwriting of Christ for the staggering sum of $25 million.

   Browne is also the author, under his own name, of a nonseries novel, Thin Air (1954); the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of advertising executive Ames Coryell’s wife and his utilization of his ad agency and its methods to track her down form the basis for this tale of suspense. Thin Air has received considerable praise, but this reviewer finds it somewhat farfetched and Coryell a less than likable protagonist. Paul Pine is a much better character, and the private-eye novel the true showcase for Browne’s talents.

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Bibliographic Update:   Published in 1985 by Dennis McMillan was the collection of Peter Pine stories entitled The Paper Gun, which included the unfinished and never before published title novel, plus the novelette “So Dark for April,” which previously appeared in Manhunt, February 1953, as by John Evans

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


GAVIN HOLT – Six Minutes Past Twelve. Prof. Luther Bastion #1. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1928. No US edition.

   Luther Bastion, O.B.E., D.Sc., F.R.S., F.A.S.L., and Major Kettering-Bevis, D.S.O. only, are holidaying in the country after strenuous travel abroad. The man from whom they are renting their cottage, Samuel Dubeyne, a chap who is the company promoter personified, is found one morning partly in the local creek, shot to death with the pistol by his side, a definite, according to the police, suicide. Professor Bastion, however, has other ideas.

   Well, of course, the Professor is correct. He and the Major, with the Major protesting occasionally, begin their own investigation, and they discover that Dubeyne was a thorough scoundrel, that he was murdered, and that many people had reasonable cause to do him in.

   For a time, the Professor and the Major work with the police, but then their ways part, somewhat against the Major’s wishes. The Professor knows, or is guessing, more than he is telling, and he wraps the case up to his own, though certainly not the police’s, satisfaction. He is also not above a spot of burglary and concealing evidence.

   This is not a fair-play novel. Much information is withheld from the reader. Several people who were not known about before are brought in at the end. But the enjoyment in the book should come through following the investigations and the machinations of the Professor, with the Major travelling along behind physically and mentally.

— Reprinted from CADS 13, February 1990. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   There were sixteen Professor Bastion novels to follow, the last appearing in 1936. Gavin Holt was the pseudonym of Charles Rodda, (1891-1976); he also wrote mysteries as by Gardner Low and Eliot Reed.

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


   Ever heard of Stanislas-André Steeman? Thought not. In Anglo-American crime fiction his name is all but unknown, but in Europe and especially France he’s considered one of the most important exponents of the roman policier. Like his far better known older contemporary Georges Simenon, he was Belgian by birth, born in Liège in 1908, five years after the creator of Maigret.

   Simenon launched the Maigret series early in life, but Steeman’s first books, written in collaboration with Hermann Sartini (whose nom de plume was Sintair) were published in 1928, a year before the first Maigrets and when Steeman was 20 years old at most, maybe even 19. After five novels the partnership broke up, and from then on Steeman was on his own, turning out more than 30 policiers before his death in 1970 at age 62.

   Only two of his novels made it across the Atlantic, with the 1931 SIX HOMMES MORTS translated (by the wife of poet Stephen Vincent Benét) as SIX DEAD MEN (Farrar & Rinehart, 1932) and 1932’s LA NUIT DU 12 AU 13 appearing in English as THE NIGHT OF THE 12th-13th (Lippincott, 1933). After that he became a nonentity in English but he was already a celebrity in France, having won the Grand Prix du Roman d’Aventures for SIX HOMMES MORTS.

   Steeman’s principal detective character was Inspector Wenceslas Vorobeitchik (the Russian word for sparrow), usually called Monsieur Wens, but on the basis of what I’ve found on the Web, it’s impossible to determine how many of Steeman’s novels he appeared in. Most of what we in the U.S. know about his work we owe to Xavier Lechard’s superlative “At the Villa Rose” website, which I highly recommend. Lechard calls Steeman “one of the greatest authors of the French Golden Age, and arguably one of the greatest mystery writers of all times….”

   Unlike Simenon, whose goal was to go beyond the conventions of classical detective fiction, Steeman loved them and loved even more to play with them. SIX DEAD MEN for example is a Tontine story of the sort we tend to associate with Ellery Queen. The fatal six agree that whoever outlives the others will inherit most of the men’s money, then the group starts dying off.

   A few years after its appearance in English translation, this novel was the basis of a low-budget “quota quickie” movie, THE RIVERSIDE MURDER (Fox British, 1935), directed by Albert Parker, with Basil Sydney starring as Inspector Philip Winton (obviously the Brit counterpart of Monsieur Wens) and, in one of his earliest film roles, Alastair Sim playing his sergeant. Featured in the cast are Ian Fleming (no, not that Ian Fleming) and Tom Helmore, who more than twenty years later played the Iago figure in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO.

   Thanks to my friend Tony Williams and his forthcoming essay on French film noir during the years of Nazi occupation, I know more about Steeman’s involvement with the movie industry of his adopted country than can be learned on the Web.

   The French version of the same Steeman novel, LE DERNIER DES SIX (1941) was directed by Georges Lacombe from a screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977), who went on to become a director himself and indeed to become celebrated as the Hitchcock of France. I don’t know whether the Monsieur Wens of Steeman’s novel or the Inspector Winton of the 1935 British film had a sex partner, but in this version as played by Pierre Fresnay he has a mistress, portrayed by Suzy Delair, who was Clouzot’s mistress at the time, and according to Tony Williams, the pair operate as a sort of Nick-and-Nora couple.

   The movie must have been a hit with French audiences of the Occupation era, for it was soon followed up by Clouzot’s first film as a director, L’ASSASSIN HABITE AU 21 (1942), again starring Fresnay and Delair and with a screenplay by Clouzot and Steeman, whose 1939 novel of the same name was never translated into English, but it takes place in London and involves a serial killer who murders his victims in the fog, leaving behind a calling card in the name of “Mr. Smith.”

   Since England in 1942 was at war with the Nazis, Clouzot inserted Fresnay and Delair from LE DERNIER DES SIX as Wens and his mistress Mila Malou and shifted the locale to France and the killer’s nom de guerre to Monsieur Durand. According to Tony Williams, the serial killer in the film turns out to be three men, former schoolmates each of whom believes himself to be a sort of Raskolnikov.

   At the end of the film, says Williams, “all three master criminals have their hands in the air when they are surrounded by the police.” Wens stands opposite the ringleader of the three and, in order to strike a match on his neck, has him lower his right hand, while his left remains in the air as if he’s giving the traditional Nazi salute. How could Hitler’s censors have missed this zinger? If L’ASSASSIN sounds like a serious film noir, Williams insists that this time Fresnay and Delair form “an even more excessive screwball comedic partnership” than in LE DERNIER DES SIX.

   The end of World War II did not end the connection between Steeman and Clouzot. The only new Steeman novel published during the war had been LEGITIME DEFENSE (1942). A few years after the liberation of France, Clouzot took this novel as the basis for his film QUAI DES ORFEVRES (1947), which Xavier Lechard describes as “arguably the best adaptation of Steeman’s work and one of the summits of French cinema.”

   Steeman wasn’t pleased with the result, principally because Clouzot “changed the guilty party….” Having worked on the screenplay, perhaps he was better satisfied with MYSTERE A SHANGHAI (1950), directed by Roger Blanc and based on the second and last Steeman novel to be translated into English, LA NUIT DE 12 AU 13.

   Steeman continued to write crime novels until his death but apparently they were far removed from his earlier books. Monsieur Wens returned in POKER D’ENFER (HELL’S POKER, 1955) and SIX HOMMES À TUER (SIX MEN TO KILL, 1956) but as a sort of shape-shifter, with the principal puzzle being which character in the story is he. Steeman’s final novel, AUTOPSIE D’UN VIOL (AUTOPSY OF A RAPE, 1971), is described by Lechard as “a courtroom mystery set in the United States” and displaying “a grim worldview with none of the author’s previous flippantness.”

   Although I’ve read a lot of Simenon and most of the Swedish team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and some of Friedrich Duerrenmatt and a few others, most of the mysteries I’ve consumed in the 60-odd years since I discovered Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan have been written in English. I’ve never read Steeman but what I’ve learned about him while researching this column leads me to think I might have missed a bet. Perhaps we all have.

ANTHONY GAGLIANO – Straits of Fortune. Jack Vaughn #1. William Morrow, hardcover, June 2007. Harper, paperback, June 2008.

   Jack Vaughn is a former New York City cop (there’s a long story behind that) who’s now a personal trainer in Miami, and in Straits of Fortune he takes on a job that might qualify him for unlicensed PI status if it weren’t totally illegal, no matter how you look at it.

   The father of his former girl friend (there’s a long story behind that, also) hires him to dispose of a yacht on which the body of the man his daughter dumped Jack for (that’s the long story told briefly) is still lying. Jack hesitates for most of a day, but an offer of $100,000 (half up front) has a way of allowing a lot of qualms to be shushed up and tossed away.

   There is a catch, of course. There is a second body on the yacht. Jack scuttles it anyway, but before he gets to shore, he is… Well, gee, I’m telling you the whole story. Suffice to say that Jack is in a jam, no doubt about it, and it’s a damn good thing he’s in shape, or he wouldn’t get out of it with an entirely whole skin.

   So. There’s lots of action, but there’s also a lot of backstory to be filled in, which Jack tells us about himself. To action fans, this is the kind of thing that could make for an awful lot of down time. The overall result is therefore a bit uneven, as first novels sometimes are, but there is, I found, a certain poetic flow to Gagliano’s prose that propelled me along with a nice rhythm and beat. It doesn’t quite smooth over one medium-sized hole in the plot, but it’s one I found easy enough to ignore, and I kept on reading.

   Nor is this all I should tell you. The last chapter, after all of the shooting is done, and some certain ends are tied up, is well worth the price of admission in itself.

   Now for the bad news. Anthony Gagliano was only partway through Jack Vaughan’s second adventure when he died of a stroke in 2009, at the age of only 53. This first novel was based on his master’s thesis at Florida International University, and Les Standiford and Dan Wakefield, his instructors and mentors there, took it upon themselves to work on the manuscript and finish the book for him.

   The title of the second book is The Emperor’s Club, and was published in 2014. I’ve already ordered a copy.

JOSEPH LOUIS – Madelaine. Bantam, paperback original; 1st printing, March 1987.

   Billed as an “Evan Paris Mystery,” here’s a prime example of how detective work can be used as a means for personal therapy. Paris was once an investigator of sorts, but then became a best-author and was even nominated for an Oscar as a screenwriter.

   When his wife was kidnapped and murdered, however, his life went into a downward spiral and into a complete funk for over a year. Until, that is, he’s asked to find the father of a little old lady’s three-year-old granddaughter. Trudy’s mother Madelaine was also a murder victim, and it’s the mall similarity between the two cases that brings Evan Paris back to life again.

   Tracking down Madelaine’s past is like chasing down a ghost, however, a veritable will-o’-the-wisp. Lew Archer was never haunted as greatly as this by his own memories. But as in Ross Macdonald’s work, this is a case that depends a great deal on untangling the myriad threads in more than one family’s lives, and unraveling the secrets that most of them would prefer to keep concealed.

   This is a powerfully emotional book, there’s no denying it, but as a mystery, I think most readers will put the pieces together just a little faster than Evan Paris does.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, considerably revised (mostly reorganizing and rearranging).


Bibliographic Update: This book was nominated for the Shamus Award for Best Original Private Eye Paperback by the Private Eye Writers of America, and for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel by the Crime Writers of Canada in 1988. A second and final book in the series was The Trouble with Stephanie (Bantam, 1988).

   Prior to this series, the author published five books under his own name, Joseph Mark Glazner, about a character named Billy Nevers (Warner, paperback originals, between 1979 and 1981). The New York Times described Nevers as “a wheeler‐dealer in the world of finance, the creation of Joseph Mark Glazner, a Toronto public relations man.”

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


   Last month I talked about some of the correspondence between Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, and Harry Stephen Keeler, creator of the craziest characters — not to mention the books that housed them! — ever conjured up on land or sea. But I had no space to say anything about the one Keeler book in which ESG is mentioned. THE GALLOWS WAITS, MY LORD! was written in 1953, the year Harry’s last novel to appear in English in his lifetime came out, and was published nowhere, not even in Spain, which continued to put out books of his until shortly before his death in 1967.

   Thanks to that rogue publisher Ramble House, GALLOWS has been available in Keeler’s native tongue — which is not to be confused with English! — since 2003, and it can still be found on the Web. The setting is the mythical banana republic of San do Mar and the plot has to do with the frantic attempts of a Yank who bears the un-Yankish name Kedrick Merijohn to escape hanging, by order of Presidente Doctor Don Carlos Foxardo — whose crack-brained treatise is the required text in every hospital in the country, not to mention its med school! — for the poisoning murder of a stranger while the stranger was trying to poison him. It doesn’t help Merijohn’s case that he inexplicably changed shoes with the corpse after the fatal incident.

   Very late in the book we join British diplomat Sir Clyde Kenwoody in Hollywood where he meets Detective Sergeant Pete O’Swin, who’s wearing a purple derby and a rainbow-hued plaid jacket.

   “Hope you’ll pardon these here sartorical accoutryments, Sir Clyde, but when I got the call from my own chief to report instantly to you here, I’d just finished, over at Metric-Golden-Meier, a walk-on part in one of their new who-done-its — Th’ Case o’ the Dizzy Dipplodoccus by Erle Stanley Gardner, in case you’re int’rusted — yeah, I do a little histrionicals, y’know? — and they not only insisted … on my fetchin’ along a standard dick’s derby — but a purple one! — and bringin’ this screaming mimi of a jacket for a coat. Techn’color ‘twas in, see? And 3-D.”

   This paragraph, which no one else living or dead could have written, not only reveals how HSK made use of ESG — and why whenever I write about our Harry I tend to insert clauses like this one, which invariably end with an exclamation point! — but perhaps will explain to readers who have been spared any acquaintanceship with his immortal works why I call him the wackiest wackadoodle who ever wore out a typewriter ribbon.

***

   Keeler sometimes played the wack for the game’s sake, sometimes to make a point, and occasionally he did both at once, as witness a passage one chapter later when the same O’Swin expounds on one of Harry’s loony laws while also reminding us that his creator was something of a Socialist.

   “Well, Mr. Larson, in this gre-e-at and glor-i-ous Land of the Free an’ the Home o’ the Brave — this Garden Spot of a Utipio run and opyrated for th’ human Serf and countless serfs yet unborned, by th’ National Amer’can Association of Malefact — skip it—Manufacturers, there is a unwrit pervision ‘at a lug took into custardy gets his rap cut in half later if he’s made a sing to them as took him in. A sing bein’ a squawk. A squawk bein’ a co’fession ….”

   When the issue is raised that perhaps the actions of O’Swin and Sir Clyde are unconstitutional, the diplomat points out that “if you’re taken over there [to the police station], and start to set forth your constitutional rights and prerogatives, you’ll only wake up a few hours later lying on a cold cement floor of an isolated cell, with an aching — more probably broken — jaw….” To which O’Swin adds: “Well … we have evoluted certain interestin’ methods t’ cope with the Bill o’ Rights and the Constitution.” This is precisely how matters stood until a number of years later when the Supreme Court began applying federal Bill of Rights protections to criminal defendants in state courts.

***

   In another recent column I devoted an item to the strange case of Georges Simenon’s stand-alone crime novel STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE, which was published in Nazi-occupied France in 1940 as LES INCONNUS DANS LA MAISON and made into a French movie of the same name the following year but wasn’t translated into English until after World War II. The translation, by Geoffrey Sainsbury, appeared in England in 1951 and in the U.S. three years later.

   It’s the same translation both times, right? Wrong!!! In the English version as reprinted in 2006 by the New York Review of Books with a new introduction by P.D. James, we find on page 70 a passage where the protagonist Hector Loursat ponders whether there are any similarities between him and any of the strangers in his house. “Yet there was no connection. Not even a resemblance. He hadn’t been poor like Emile Manu or a Jew like Luska….”

   In the American version this becomes: “There was no connection. No resemblance. He hadn’t been poor like Manu, or an Armenian like Luska….” Incidentally, Manu’s first name in the American version is Robert, not Emile. The first alteration is understandable, and exactly what Anthony Boucher had done several years before when translating for EQMM a Simenon story with a Jewish villain. But why the second change? And, if we were to compare the two versions line by line, how many more alterations would we discover?

***

   It’s not connected with anything else in this column, but I feel compelled to bring up a recent death. Colin Dexter, creator of the immortal Inspector Morse, died on March 21, age 86. I met him once, when he was on a book tour with a St. Louis stop, and was smart enough to bring with me the only Morse novel I then had in first edition, LAST SEEN WEARING (1976), which he signed for me.

   The earliest entries among his thirteen novels didn’t make much of an impression, but once the Morse TV movie series was launched, John Thaw’s superb performance as the brilliant but flawed Oxford sleuth caused Dexter’s sales to climb into the stratosphere. The series lasted for 33 episodes, each approximately two hours long. Ten of them, including my favorites — “The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn” and “Service of All the Dead” — are based on his novels.

   The other three novels — THE RIDDLE OF THE THIRD MILE (1983), THE SECRET OF ANNEXE 3 (1986) and THE JEWEL THAT WAS OURS (1991) — were never officially filmed. Three early episodes were based on ideas or other material by Dexter, and when he turned them into the novels above, they were not remade. (The respective telefilm titles for the trio are “The Last Enemy,” “The Secret of Bay 5B” and “The Wolvercote Tongue.”)

   In Dexter’s final novel, THE REMORSEFUL DAY (2000), which was also the source of the last Morse TV movie, the Inspector dies — not at the hands of a murderer but because, as Dexter explained, he drank too much, smoked too much and almost never exercised. Well, he may have died physically, but I strongly suspect he and his creator will live on for many decades to come.

SIMON NASH – Dead Woman’s Ditch. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1964. Roy, US, hardcover, 1966. Perennial Library PL777, US, paperback; 1st printing, 1985.

   Most of this adventure of Adam Ludlow takes place in and around a small English hotel in remote Somerset at the end of September, and for some reason, all of the rooms are filled. What it takes a while for the police to realize, after one of the guests has been murdered, and unpleasant man by the name of Silas Taker, is that each of the others has a motive, that of blackmail.

   Scotland Yard is called in, and back in the days when they could still so things ike that, they call upon Ludlow for assistance themselves. Ludlow is what you might call a literary academician, an amateur dabbling in crime, and in this one he gets a (brief) taste of impending personal violence as well.

   There are obviously lots of suspects in the case, plus lots of clues and false trails, and it’s still a puzzle to me why the naming of the killer seems to fall as flat as it does. Barzun and Taylor [in A Catalogue of Crime] feel that this is one of Ludlow’s weaker adventures. Since it’s the first I’ve ever read, I wouldn’t know, but while I enjoyed the book, I guess what I was expecting was a stronger finale.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, very slightly revised.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   Simon Nash was the pseudonym of Raymond Chapman, 1924-2013, a Professor of English at London University and an Anglican priest. There are no books in Hubin under his own name.

       The Adam Ludlow series [each also features Inspector Montero] —

Dead of a Counterplot, 1962.
Killed by Scandal, 1962.
Death Over Deep Water. 1963.
Dead Woman’s Ditch, 1964.
Unhallowed Murder, 1966

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


WILLIAM RUSHTON – W. G. Grace’s Last Case, or the War of the Worlds, Part Two. Methuen, UK, hardcover, 1984; paperback, 1985. No US edition.

   [England in the 1890s], the War of the Worlds is at an end, with the earth and its microbes victorious. Castor Vilebastard (pronounced “Villibart” according to Vilebastard, but we know better), about to bowl to W. G. Grace, the world’s foremost cricketer, collapses on the pitch at Lord’s, an Apache arrow in his back.

   This novel is what may be called a reverse roman à clef — that is, there are fictitious people going about under real names. There are also real people using their real names.

   Some of the more active real people — there are scores of them — are Grace, Dr John Watson, Inspector Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Professor Moriarty. The fictitious people, among others, are Dr Henry Jekyll, along with his compatriot, Mr Hyde, and A. J. Raffles. Lord Greystoke makes a brief appearance.

   Sherlockians will, of course, be fascinated by this new adventure of Dr Watson’s although they may be outraged when they note the suggestion that he has it off with Queen Victoria. They may also be puzzled by Watson’s introducing himself to Grace as “John D. Watson”, as if there weren’t enough problems with the good doctor’s name. To add to the confusion, Watson claims he saw Moriarty vanish over the Reichenbach Falls. And, unfortunately, Watson is portrayed as more than a bit of a nitwit, which he never was.

   Still, the author makes up for these strange statements by telling us, albeit too briefly, how Holmes, with Watson’s inadvertent aid, was responsible for the ultimate defeat of the Martians.

   To enjoy this novel, no reader need be aware of what a silly mid-on or even a silly mid-off does on the cricket field. What is essential to bring to it is an appreciation of delightful farce, verbal slapstick, and good bad puns as Grace, Watson, and allies pursue Pollux Vilebastard, twin brother of Castor and an even bigger villain than Moriarty, to find out just what in (and out of) the world he is up to.

   The Times Literary Supplement called this “a comic tour de force”. A typical English understatement, I’d opine.

— Reprinted from CADS 23, ca. 1994. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.


Biographical Note:   From his Wikipedia page: “William George Rushton (18 August 1937 – 11 December 1996) was an English cartoonist, satirist, comedian, actor and performer who co-founded the satirical magazine Private Eye.”

BASIL HEATTER – A Night Out. Popular Library #771, paperback original; 1st printing, September 1956. A shorter version appeared in Manhunt, September 1954, as “The Empty Fort.”

   For an author with a double dozen books to his credit, over a period of over three decades, there is not much known about Basil Heatter (1918-2009), except for one fact that is invariably mentioned whenever his name comes up.

   Here, for example, is the biographical blurb about him that’s on the first page of the book in hand:

    “Born on Long Island in 1918, Basil Heatter attended schools in Connecticut, then went abroad when he was 16 for a two year travel stint in Europe.

    “Returning to America, he went to work for a New York advertising agency. During the war he served as skipper of a P.T. boat in the southwest Pacific.

    “He is the son of Gabriel Heatter, the radio commentator, and at present he, Basil, is a news commentator for the Mutual Broadcasting System.”

   That was in 1956. From CRIME FICTION IV: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1749-2000, by Allen J. Hubin (2015), we learn just a little more:

    “Born on Long Island, the son of radio commentator Gabriel Heatter; was advertising copywriter in 1970s living on a boat off Florida, and racing and chartering; died in Miami, FL.”

   Heatter has thirteen books included in CFIV, one marginally, but at the moment A Night Out is not one of them, and it should be. The crime involved is not a major one, I grant you, not at the beginning, at least — that of smuggling some booze out of Cuba to shrimp boat skipper Johnny Flake’s home port of Key West — but small capers like this often run into trouble, matters escalate, and some people end up wounded or dead, and that’s exactly what happens here.

   While this is criminous enough to suit most readers of this blog, I’d have to admit that most of the book consists of character studies of the players in it. All of them have a past, and events in the past have a way of making people who they are today. It takes awhile for their paths to converge, however, ending in a midnight shootout in an abandoned fort off the islands of Dry Torgugas, but the getting there is well worth it.

   There are two women involved, Molly being the one that Flake let get away, and the other Jessica, is the promiscuous live-in lady friend of yachtsman Allan Chambers, who can’t live without her, but neither can he live with her. Another player is an old rummy named Cruze, who was at one time a terrific ship’s engineer, but it’s only because Flake needs someone in a hurry does he hire on the old man who’s now seriously afflicted with the shakes and an unquenchable thirst.

   More than a crime novel, what this book is is pure noir. Most — not all — of the participants in the drama that takes place in this book are doomed, in one way or another. Most have no future, save what chance and pure luck give them. There’s little they can do to help themselves.

   Although far from being in their league, Heatter channels F. Scott Fitzgerald and maybe Ernest Hemingway in this novel, more so than he does either of the two old standbys of Hammett and Chandler. While all but forgotten today, Heatter is more than adequate as a writer — he certainly knew his way around boats and the Gulf of Mexico — and he brings his characters enough to life that I know I’ll remember them all for a while to come.

   John Payne could play Johnny, and Walter Brennan would be perfect as Cruze. Gail Russell could easily be Molly, but to tell you the truth, no matter what movie taking place in the 50s that I happen to be casting, there’d always be a part for Gail Russell.

THE LOST BOOKS OF PETER CHEYNEY, Part Two
by Keith Chapman


   Part One of this two-part article can be found here.

   The Detective Weekly cover (1937) is from the FictionMags Index. This is the issue that ran The Gold Kimono, which was written by Cheyney under his Stephen Law byline. Note that it has the title as “Gold” not “Golden”, as recorded in the FictionMags listings, and which I now believe might be a mistake.

   The art is unmistakably by Eric Parker who was still working for the Amalgamated Press (by then Fleetway Publications) when I got my first-ever job on leaving school (as an editorial assistant on the staff of the Sexton Blake Library). Later (1964), I commissioned Eric to do interior illustrations for the Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine when I founded and edited this digest for Micron Publications.

   And here below is the Detective Weekly cover for The Riddle of the Strange Last Words, another Stephen Law novella, which I believe was a version of the newspaper story Death Chair. Roy Glashan informs me that Detective Weekly used the wrong artwork for this issue. The illustration in fact depicts a scene from another newspaper serial, the Vengeance of Hop Fi, which DW was to use as The Mark of Hop Fi.

   I have found a Collectors’ Digest article by Brian Doyle at Google that throws a little more light on the early Cheyney career. I noted in particular this piece:

    “In 1926 he founded and directed the Editorial and Literary Services Agency. He and his staff researched, wrote and sold stories and features to newspapers and magazines throughout Britain and overseas. His agency was extremely successful and sold nearly 800 press features in its first year alone. Cheyney specialised in writing about real-life crime and criminals…”

   I surmise that the four full-length Cheyney works just discovered in the digitized Australian and New Zealand newspapers were bought from this agency … also that the loss of Cheyney’s “massive set of files on criminal activity in London …destroyed during the Blitz in 1941” (Wikipedia) possibly included the newspaper serials.

   Although I’d read before of Cheyney’s part in writing “Tinker’s Notebook” (a Sexton Blake feature in the story paper Union Jack), I didn’t know that he’d attempted a Blake yarn of his own and had it rejected. I did know that his friend Gerald Verner (aka Blake author Donald Stuart) had a hand in adapting Cheyney novels for the stage.

Note:   This article has been slightly revised and expanded since it was first posted.

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