Authors


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


   Two months ago I devoted my column to Stanislas-André Steeman, a European crime novelist who was almost never published in this country and unsurprisingly has long been forgotten here. This month’s topic is an English writer who was once published regularly over here but has been just as completely forgotten.

   Christopher Bush (1888-1973) was one of the stalwarts of the British detective novel’s golden age, but almost nothing is known of his life. According to the Penguin paperback edition of one of the books I’ll be talking about shortly, he was born of Quaker ancestry in an East Anglian village and served in both World Wars. At the time of the Penguin reprint in the early 1950s he was living in Suffolk and pursuing his hobbies of bridge, crossword puzzles and what he called “post-middle-aged self.”

   Back when I was a mystery fiction newbie I read at least a dozen of his books. After a few years I concluded that there wasn’t much of interest in what he wrote after World War II, when his series character, a moneyed bloke named Ludovic Travers, opened a detective agency and began narrating his exploits in soporific first-person prose.

   But the pre-war Travers novels I found much better written and characterized and much more engaging. Bush’s specialty was the perfect alibi, with which in most of his novels several suspects happen to be supplied. You won’t lose money if you bet that the one with the apparently most impregnable alibi is the murderer.

***

   The earliest of the three Bushes I recently decided to tackle is THE CASE OF THE CHINESE GONG (1935). The Great Depression, or as Bush calls it the slump, is very much in evidence and has laid low three of the four principal characters, the father of two of whom was the brother of the other pair’s mother. The failed toy manufacturer, his brother the painter on his uppers and their cousin the struggling schoolmaster are in desperate financial straits and stay precariously afloat only thanks to the generosity of the cousin’s brother, a gassed veteran of World War I, who is himself near broke thanks to bailing out his brother and cousins.

   The only hope of the four is their uncle, a wealthy and vindictive old tyrant who reigns in a stately home near the town of Seaborough. He has refused to help any of them, but when he dies they’ll each inherit enough to make them whole again. All four come down to celebrate (if that’s the word) the old man’s 74th birthday, at which the festivities (if that’s the word) are marred when he’s shot to death in his drawing room, in the presence of his solicitor and three of the four next of kin (the painter being in a summerhouse about twenty feet away), while across the room the resident butler is loudly ringing the titular gong. Happily Travers is in the area, visiting Major Tempest, chief constable of the county, and as usual takes a hand in the investigation.

   I wouldn’t call this book a model of fair play with the reader, and there are a number of gaffes. Would you believe that three independent plots to kill the old man are going on at the same time? (At one point Travers ventures the suggestion that everyone did the crime together, showing the influence of Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS just a year after its publication.)

   The sinister letter Uncle Hubert received early on, supposedly from the husband of his estranged sister, is never explained, and the diagram that precedes the book fails to show the side door to the summerhouse, which figures heavily in the plot. Even back in 1935 I should think that simple police routine would have uncovered the scorch marks in the screen that Travers finds at the climax, proving where the fatal shot was fired from.

   But it’s a readable enough effort, and studded with the kind of lines one never finds in postwar Bush. Here for example is a description of the Toad Hall in which Uncle Hubert lives. “It was a biggish Victorian house, with gardens chock-full of second-rate rubbish—monkey-puzzle trees, laurel shrubberies, mossy croquet-lawn and miniature temple-cum-pagoda summer-house—as in the year its first owner had had them laid out.” GONG leaves much to be desired but showed me that I still have an affection for Golden Age puzzles.

***

   THE CASE OF THE MISSING MINUTES (1937; U.S. title EIGHT O’CLOCK ALIBI) takes place in the same area but it’s far superior to CHINESE GONG and indeed may be Bush’s finest novel. Travers is approached by his sister after a former maid tells her of strange doings and horrible night shrieks in the house called Highways where she and her husband are the servants.

   Soon after Travers makes an investigatory visit to the village of Seabrake — which happens to be not far from Seaborough where CHINESE GONG took place — he finds stabbed to death the bizarre old man who was living at the house with his 10-year-old granddaughter. Among the prime suspects are the child’s tutor and a classical pianist who happens to be in Seabrake on vacation.

   As usual in Bush novels, both men and some other characters as well have seemingly airtight alibis. At the head of the police team who come to the scene are the trio we met in CHINESE GONG — chief constable Major Tempest and his subordinates Inspector Carry and Sergeant Polegate — and all three are delighted to have Travers’ help in sorting things out.

   I can discuss this novel without revealing the murderer but not without giving away a central part of the plot. At about the two-thirds mark Travers connects the dots between a large number of subtle indications, concludes that the dead man had been a sadistic child-abuser obsessed with inflicting physical and psychological torture on his half-Jewish granddaughter with the aim of driving her insane, and refuses to give the police any more help finding the murderer.

   In Golden Age British detective novels this was a radical story element indeed, and Bush exerts all of his skill persuading us that if anyone ever deserved killing it was the old monster whose murder Travers is investigating. Readers who want to know whether or not the killer was caught will have to track down their own copy of the book. Mine is not for sale.

***

   CHINESE GONG and MISSING MINUTES are unusual in the Bush canon in that they take place outside the London area and therefore are without Travers’ usual Scotland Yard counterpart Superintendent George Wharton, who sports “a huge weeping-willow of a moustache” and, to me anyway, looks and sounds something like the late great Leo McKern when he played Rumpole of the Bailey.

   In THE CASE OF THE TUDOR QUEEN (1938) the setting is close to London and Wharton is front and center as usual. Passing through the village of Arneford, he and Travers encounter a frightened maid and wind up in a house in the London suburb of Westmead where they encounter two dead people: an actress who had recently scored a success playing Mary Tudor and the horserace-loving old rip who served as a sort of factotum to her.

   Both have died of poison, and as far as anyone can prove it was a case of double suicide, unless the man killed the woman and then, a day or so later, poisoned himself. Various parties are interviewed — the owner of the theater where the Mary Tudor play ran, the playwright, the actors who played the male leads opposite the dead woman — and eventually Travers comes up with a theory of how the most elaborate alibi might have been faked.

   At the fadeout the police are preparing to arrest the person Travers’s analysis points to. But since his reconstruction is speculative to say the least, and since there’s no proof even that the two deaths weren’t suicides, I would hate to have been the prosecuting attorney trying to get a conviction on this state of the evidence.

***

   Well, I’ve beaten around enough Bushes for one column. I do own several more pre-WWII Ludovic Travers novels that predate the three I’ve talked about here. Perhaps someday I’ll dig them out and report on them. If I hold out that long.

Editorial Acknowledgement:   The photo of Christopher Bush at the top of this post was borrowed from J. F. Norris’s “Pretty Sinister” blog. Thanks, John!

BERNIE GUNTHER, P.I. STILL COMING TO HBO
by Gilbert Colon

   At Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop in April to promote his twelfth Bernie Gunther private eye novel, Prussian Blue, author Philip Kerr was asked by an audience member about whether a Bernie series or movie was still in the works.

   “Like everything in film, it’s glacial,” he answered. The project (which would draw from the Berlin Noir trilogy) was at HBO in 2016 when Kerr was at the same venue while promoting his previous entry, The Other Side of Silence.

   Since then, HBO experienced a change in management, “and the new management was going to sweep it out with everything else that was old.” But to Kerr’s surprise, it turns out that it remains in “quite active development, whatever that means,” that concluding qualifier dripping with a cynicism worthy of Bernie himself.

   Maintaining a hopefulness from the jaded romantic side of Bernie, he adds, “It took Harry Bosch 20-25 years to get where he is.” Tom Hanks was connected with the Bernie project as executive producer at least as far back as 2012 when, per Kerr, “He came to my house in Wimbledon for dinner.”

   More recent industry news indicates that he likely is still involved. If that remains the case, perhaps Hanks, who directed the Raymond Chandler episode “I’ll Be Waiting” for Showtime’s superb but forgotten Fallen Angels series (1993-1995), should direct one episode. At last report, Peter Straughan, who scripted the 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was mentioned as screenwriter.

   Bernie Gunther, for those who do not know, is an ex-SD officer who worked for Reinhard Heydrich before becoming a private investigator. Kerr has taken Bernie through three decades, five continents, and a dozen novels to date. Prussian Blue sees him in both 1939 and 1956. As Kripo’s superlative homicide detective, Bernie is assigned by Martin Bormann to the murder case of a low-ranking bureaucrat at Obersalzberg, home to an elite Nazi community and Hitler’s mountaintop retreat.

   The clock is ticking before the Führer returns to celebrate his fiftieth birthday and discovers a shocking crime has been committed on the terrace of his own residence. The past explosively collides with the present when, seventeen years later on the French Riviera, the freelance Bernie is strong-armed by East German Stasi to poison a female agent in London with a vial of thallium.

   Questioned about casting Bernie for any adaptation, Kerr rattles off the same list of names he did last time, as reported in The Strand Magazine: Klaus Maria Brandauer (Mephisto), Arnold Schwarzenegger (“believe it or not”), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones), and Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method). (Fassbender, incidentally, will be playing another series character this year, Jo Nesbø’s Detective Harry Hole, in The Snowman.)

   New names surface during this appearance though. “Jon Voight wanted to be Bernie, and Woody Harrelson said so in magazines. For all I know they’ve cast [Bernie] already.” The author is always the last to know.

   “I won’t be doing any cameos,” he assures, “the way Lee Child does in the Jack Reacher movies. Except if they offer me a scene as a really nasty Gestapo officer. I could really bring something to that.” With a smart-alecky smirk, he wisecracks, “I really just want one of those leather coats, that is the bottom line.”

   While Kerr has a wicked sense of irony, he is never flippant about the grave historical aspects of his series. When the question is raised about comparisons between Bernie Gunther and Philip Marlowe, Kerr says, “Chandler [and his L.A.] had corrupt politicians and nightclub owners, but my novels have the crime of the century – the millennium – as a backdrop.

   “I don’t think I’m exploiting the subject matter. The books are an essay in understanding.”

GILBERT COLON has written for several print and online publications, including Filmfax, Cinema Retro, Crimespree, Crime Factory, and Strand Mystery Magazine. He is a contributor-at-large for both the St. Martin’s Press newsletter Tor.com and bare•bones e-zine. You may reach him at gcolon777@gmail.com.

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


   Remember MGM-TV’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.? It was one of the most successful of the many quasi-spy series that flooded prime time in the wake of the early James Bond movies. The stars were Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin, with Leo G. Carroll as their boss, Alexander Waverly. The series ran for four seasons (1964-68), the first in black-and white and the remaining three in color.

   I began law school at around the time U.N.C.L.E. debuted but, despite a grueling study schedule, managed to catch most of the first season’s episodes, which were reasonably serious with lots of action. Once the series switched to color it also switched to spoofery and camp. I stopped watching.

   But millions stuck with Solo and Illya, and once the ratings showed that U.N.C.L.E. was a hit, MGM-TV commissioned a series of tie-in novels, 23 in all, the first of which was written by Michael Avallone (1924-1999). I had no interest in junk paperbacks but in 1970, when I moved to East Brunswick, New Jersey and was working as a Legal Aid attorney, I discovered that my apartment was only a few blocks from Avallone’s house and called him.

   That was the beginning of a weird off-and-on relationship that lasted till his death. Before becoming a neighbor of his I had known very little about him, but after we met I began to collect his books, of which there were dozens. Many of them were movie or TV tie-in novels for which he was paid around $2,000 apiece and which he ground out on his smoking typewriter in a few days or a week. I don’t recall reading any of these, but I did get him to sign them and squirreled them away.

   After my wife died and I moved into a condo, I segregated all the tie-in books and put them into a cabinet with sliding doors which were generally kept closed. A couple of months ago I happened to open one of those doors and, since the books were arranged alphabetically by author, discovered a bunch of Avallone that I’d never read, including that MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. novel and two tie-ins from the unsuccessful spin-off series THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1967-68), which starred Stefanie Powers as April Dancer and Noel Harrison as Mark Slate. I decided it was time to tackle the trio.

   Avallone’s great contribution to pop culture was the Avalloneism. You can’t pick up any of his 200-odd books without finding yourself awash in lines you’d swear couldn’t possibly have been published. But they were. Thousands of them. Small wonder that I soon began to think of Avallone as the Ed Wood of the written word. These three tie-in books offer further proof that my name for him was not off the mark.

   In THE THOUSAND COFFINS AFFAIR (Ace pb #G-553, 1965) Solo and Illya fly to a remote German village to find out what diabolical device killed an U.N.C.L.E. scientist while in his tub and why, just before dying, he put on his clothes backwards.

   It’s no surprise that the culprit is a minion of the evil agency THRUSH, a villain called Golgotha who comes straight out of the Weird Menace pulps of Avallone’s teens. Solo solves the puzzle when he remembers that the dead man was a mystery nut with a particular fondness for Ellery Queen—and that one of the best known Queen novels, THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY (1934), had to do with a corpse who was also dressed backwards.

   Someone, quite possibly Avallone himself, called the book to the attention of Fred Dannay, who was half of the Ellery Queen collaboration and the closest to a grandfather I’ve ever known. A number of years after the incident Fred told me that he’d been furious with Avallone for having given away the raison d’être of the CHINESE ORANGE puzzle. But Avallone couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Hadn’t he promoted Queen? In a paperback that sold a gazillion copies, hadn’t he plugged one of the most famous EQ titles?

   Whether the book really sold that well remains a mystery. In later years Avallone publicly accused the publisher of having cheated him out of huge royalties. The name in the copyright notice is MGM-TV, and most likely he wrote it as a work made for hire, earning a flat fee and no more. In any event Ace had nothing more to do with him. But a year later, when MGM-TV launched the GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. series and made a tie-in book deal with another publisher, it was Avallone who was tapped to write the first two entries, the only ones that appeared in the U.S. although three more came out in England.

   More than half a century has passed between the time Avallone’s contributions to the U.N.C.L.E. saga appeared and the time I pulled them out of my sliding-doored cabinet and read them. I was not disappointed.

   First let’s take THE THOUSAND COFFINS AFFAIR, which should have won an Edgar had there been such an award for largest number of words misspelled. In a mere 160 pages we encounter such gems as propellor, esconced, earthern (twice!), jodphurs and cemetary. We are also treated to butchered German locutions like dumbkopf, Vast ist?, Seig heil! and nicht yahr.

   Illya’s patronymic or middle name, never given in the TV series, is rendered as Nickovetch, which is gibberish. (The genuine Russian name closest to Avallone’s invention is Nicolaievitch, which I happen to know only because it was the patronymic or middle name of Tolstoy.) And there’s hardly a page without at least one juicy Avalloneism. I will show mercy and offer only a handful, complete with page references.

   There was something damnedably odd— (19)

   The mechanized bug shot over the road, whipping like the mechanical rabbit at a quinella. (41)

   Stewart Fromes’ ten stiff naked toes wore no shoes. (57)

   Jerry Terry said “Oh!” and that was all. For Napoleon Solo, it said it all. Oh, indeed. (82)

   Like a dead fish, Solo’s right arm fell to his side. (100)

   The unexpected was always likely to happen when you least expected it. (140)

   When we turn to the second and third of Avallone’s contributions to the saga we find more of the same. THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. #1: THE BIRDS OF A FEATHER AFFAIR (Signet pb #D3012, 1966) not only recycles some of the misspellings like propellor and esconced, it describes one of the bad guys as both a Hindu and a Sikh.

   On one page he’s killed by a bullet in the back of the neck and on the very next page we are told that “[b]lood from his blasted skull dripped to the floor.” As if those gaffes weren’t enough, Stefanie Powers’ first name is spelled wrong on the front cover. (That one we have to chalk up to Signet.)

   Storywise it’s typical Avallone, with first Slate and then Dancer kidnapped by THRUSH in a plot to swap them for a top enemy scientist, who claims to have discovered the secret of eternal life and is being held at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. It turns out that the scientist has an identical double who’s operating as a mole inside the good guys’ stronghold but no one in U.N.C.L.E. suspects they might be twin brothers as in fact they are.

   At one point while April Dancer is being held prisoner, a THRUSH man relieves her of “her handbag, personal effects, and even her bra (without having had to undress her).” Neat trick if you can pull it off!

   Of Avalloneisms the book has no shortage. This time I’ll limit myself to five.

   Noise echoed around the room, gobbling up echoes. (20)

   “You’re a fool,” the redhead hissed. (23)

   His kindly brown eyes were unaccustomably grim. (69)

   Her bra, taut from immersion, was strangling her breasts. (72)

   The whipsaw wore a long green velvet dress. (80)

   Tugs and seagoing freighters mooed like enormous cows in the harbor. (103)

   Whoops! Was that six? Just goes to show that quoting from Avallone is habit-forming.

   THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. #2: THE BLAZING AFFAIR (Signet pb #D3042, 1966), in which Stefanie Powers’ name is again misspelled on the front cover, pits our heroic agents against an organization calling itself TORCH and described on the back cover as “so fantastically evil it puts THRUSH to shame!”

   April begins by foiling an assassination plot in the Ruritanian kingdom of Ostarkia, then joins Slate in Budapest before the two of them go on to Johannesburg on the trail of a TORCH scheme to fund its plans for world domination with South African diamonds. There seem to be fewer Avalloneisms this time around, but those that survived the Signet editorial process, such as it was, are choice.

   Kurt’s beady eyes roved between them, not sure what they were talking about, not certain as to exactly what to do next. (59)

   The colt in the chair was straining at the leash now. (69)

   The man with the withered face frowned a frownless frown. (71)

   Like so many little men wanting to be bigger than they ever really were in the first place. (126)

   In case I’ve whetted your appetite and you’re determined to read more of these cubic zirconia without visiting your shelves or a secondhand bookstore, I’ve put together a much more extensive catalogue from the trilogy, again complete with page references, which I’ve provided because I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m making this stuff up. You’ll find the bonanza of boners by clicking HERE. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Hi Steve

   Martha Mott Kelley (sometimes misspelt Kelly) was an early co-author of Richard Webb Wilson writing as Q. Patrick, for Cottage Sinister (1931) and Murder at the Women’s City Club (1932; published in the UK as Death in the Dovecote). Searching on the internet, little seems to be known about her except she was born New York in 1906 (a date confirmed in records) while her date of death is often said to be 2005.

   I can now confirm that that date of death is incorrect. On Ancestry, there is a section for ‘US Consular reports of births 1910-1945’ which has a form dated London May 3 1937 for the birth of Sarah Mott Wilson, daughter of Martha Mott Wilson, nee Kelley, born 30 April 1906 in New York, and Stephen Shipley Wilson aged 32 who were married in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, April 26 1933. They were then living at Villas on the Heath, London.

   Unfortunately the GRO Death registration has made a typo of her middle name, though it would be found by searching for Martha Wilson and her date of birth, listing her as Martha Matt Wilson. And a search of the (UK) Probate Index finds a Martha Mott Wilson of 3 Willow Rd, London who died 17 November 1989.

   All this can be found by diligent searching on Ancestry etc. Most of the records with incorrect date of death of 2005 give no indication of her marriage. In fact very little seems to be known about her according to the Internet. So I hope this will help to at least fill a couple of gaps in our knowledge of her. Perhaps the lack of information about her marriage to Stephen Wilson has caused some guesswork about her death. Does anyone know the origins/source of her supposedly dying in 2005, or even 1998 as the odd website says?

   Incidentally, Stephen Shipley Wilson was born 4 August 1904 in Birkenhead, Cheshire and died 16 September 1989 (living 3 Willow Rd, London). He worked for the Public Record Office and Ministry of Transport, becoming Keeper of the PRO 1960-1966 when he retired.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


A. A. THOMSON & FALKLAND L. CARY – Murder at the Ministry. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1947. Published earlier as a play (French, 1942). No US edition.

   Clarendon House had once been a mental home, and to some it still appears that way because it now is inhabited by civil servants and scientists working on a top-secret project. The project’s leader, Sir James Reid, receives an anonymous note accusing his wife and fellow scientist Peter Faber of hanky-panky. He confronts the two and shortly thereafter is shot dead.

   There are several suspects besides Sir James’s wife and Faber. There is Captain Knowles-Parker, who is brighter than he appears to be, Lydia Grant, Sir James’s secretary, and Mr. Noote, the nearly perfect bureaucrat.

   Since Faber has the best, if not the only, motive, attention is focused on him. But Sir James’s doctor provides Faber with an alibi.

   Inspector Richardson of Scotland Yard is baffled. Captain Knowles-Parker, who helps in the investigation, is equally bewildered. Only through some hints that Mrs. McIntyre, one of Clarendon House’s charwomen, gives out when she has a mind to, is the villain brought to justice. How anyone understands her Scots accent, however, is beyond me. One can read what she has to say two or three times and extract the meaning, but hearing it once and grasping what she has said strikes me as bordering on the miraculous.

   Like Mrs. McIntyre, I spotted the murderer, although for slightly different reasons. I couldn’t figure out the motive, though, and don’t accept it now that I know it.

   Mrs. McIntyre is a forerunner to H.R.F. Keating’s Mrs. Craggs, though I think she drinks a bit more and certainly more steadily . She is well worth discovering.

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


Bibliographic Notes:   The two authors collaborated on one other mystery novel, that being But Once a Year (Jenkins, 1951). Murder at the Ministry seems to have been Mrs. McIntyre’s only outing. Falkland Cary’s solo work in terms of crime fiction otherwise consisted only of plays. A. A. Thomson’s contributions to the field include no other novels, but he does have one published play to his credit as well as several short story collections, some of which are criminous.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


JONATHAN LETHEM – Gun, with Occasional Music.Harcourt Brace & Co., hardcover, 1994. Tor, paperback, 1995.

   Lethem was “born in the 60s, watched TV in the 70s, and started writing in the 80s.” This is his first novel, he’s at work on a second, and that’s all we know.

   Conrad Metcalf in a Private Inquisitor, which is the futuristic equivalent of a PI. (“PQ” doesn’t quite have the same ring to ot, somehow.) An ex-client of his is murdered, and the man the Inquisitors suspect of killing him comes to Metcalf protesting his innocence, and asking for help.

   Metcalf turns him down, but then for quixotic reasons of his own decides to become involved. This is sort of a PI story, after all. Problem is, nobody wants him poking around — not the dead man’s wife, not an enigmatic gangster, and most of all not the Inquisitors. It’s a brave new world, and it such creatures in it.

   This is a mystery/science fiction hybrid that won’t satisfy either camp. For SF fans there’s a potentially interesting culture set an unspecified number of years in the future, but there’s no background or rationale for it at all — it just is.

   For PI fans, Metcalf is almost a stereotypical mean streets kin of guy, but the futuristic trappings — evolved animals, a taboo against questions, musical news, “babyheads,” Karma cards (a debit balance means the freezer), and more — only prove distracting.

   Lethem is a moderately good writer in terms of prose and pacing, though there’s not a great deal of characterization aside from Metcalf himself. I was able to get through the book with some enjoyment (though not a great deal) because I’m an ardent fan of both hardboiled PI’s and science fiction. I can’t imagine any other kind of reader liking this much at all.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #13, June 1994.


Editorial Update:   This book received more acclaim from SF fans than Barry expected. It was ranked Number One in that year’s Locus poll for Best First Novel, was nominated for a Nebula, and had considerable support for a Hugo. I don’t recall mystery fans taking much if any notice of it, but I may be wrong about that. If you’re interested in learning more about Lethem’s career, you can do no better than to check out his entry in the online SF Encyclopedia.

MARION BRAMHALL – Murder Is Contagious. Kit Acton #5. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1949. Unicorn Mystery Book Club, hardcover, 4-in-1 edition. No paperback edition.

   Life on the college campus was different after World War II both as it was before the war and as it is now. Veterans were coming home and going to school. They were often older, married, and they had kids. They also lived in makeshift housing. Quonset huts.

   And if one kid got the measles, there was an epidemic. What Kit Acton and her professor husband Dick also face is a pair of murders, born of love and hatred and the cramped housing conditions. Reading this book 40 years later, you know what this reflects, more than anything else, is an era of the past that will never appear in any high school history class.

   According to Hubin, this was the last of five mysteries written by Marion Branhall, all starring Kit (Marsden) Acton. He doesn’t mention husband Dick. I assume that Marsden was her maiden name, and that they met and got married sometime earlier in the series.

   Dick is the detective in the family, however. Issuing a small PLOT WARNING notice at this point, he discovers who the killer is long before Kit, but he doesn’t tell her (or the reader) until after the climactic finale, during which Kit has interestingly made the clues fit another suspect altogether.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #23,, July 1990. (shortened and slightly revised).


[UPDATE.]   At the end of this review, I made some comments about the author, now deleted, not knowing much about her, I wondered if she might possibly be male, thinking that the name Marion is often masculine. On the other hand, “it’s Kit who tells the story, and it sure doesn’t sound like a man who’s putting words in her mouth.”

   I can now report that, as Al Hubin says in the latest CFIV, that Marion Bramhall (1904-1983) was indeed female, and in fact was the daughter of a minister and lived in Massachusetts.

      The Kit (Marsden) Acton series —

Murder Solves a Problem. Doubleday, 1944
Button, Button. Doubleday, 1944
Tragedy in Blue. Doubleday, 1945
Murder Is an Evil Business. Doubleday, 1948
Murder Is Contagious. Doubleday, 1949

Note:   A Kirkus review of Tragedy in Blue suggests the correct order of the first two books, both published in 1944, is as above. There is no mention of husband Dick in the review. Kit Acton’s partner in solving this third case is instead Lt. Gifford, apparently a Massachusetts state trooper In fact, the review calls it “[a]nother Kit Acton-Lieutenant Gifford story…”

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.

« Previous PageNext Page »