Characters


Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


SUZANNE ARRUDA – The Leopard’s Play. NAL, hardcover, January 2009; trade paperback, September 2009.

   “It comes at you with madness in its pale yellow eyes, Simba Jyke.”

   Among the more entertaining mystery series to emerge in this century, Suzanne Arruda’s books about female flyer and photojournalist American Jade del Cameron, aka Simba Jyke, meaning lioness, set in British East Africa post WWI, are an entertaining mix of adventure, action, solid detection, exotic location, and early feminism.

   Like Hemingway, Jade drove an ambulance in Italy during the war, and has come home to British East Africa where she has an ongoing romance with bush pilot and former ace Sam Featherstone. As The Leopard’s Prey, the fourth entry in her adventures, opens she is working for the Perkins and Daley Zoological Company helping to collect and capture animals for zoos (don’t go all politically correct, this is taking place in the era of Frank Buck, Clyde Beatty, and great white hunters of the Hemingway vein.

   The stories are historically accurate and feminist or not, Jade is a woman of her time, taking the job to keep the animals from extinction), as the jacket says: “…lassoing zebras, chasing down a rhinoceros, and posing as bait for a leopard.” She even has a pet cheetah named Biscuit, again not untrue to the era or the type.

   There is a murder of course. Jade’s friends Maggie and Neville Thompson find the body of a merchant, and her lover Sam is implicated, so Jade naturally has to clear his name, which leads to cracking Sam’s plane up in the African wilderness and a long trek to safety where savage beasts are the least of her problems. All this leads to being cornered by a murderer planning to use a killer leopard as a murder weapon, and an aging lion named Percy with a mind of his own.

   “My mother says you must watch for danger in a killer’s eyes.” a native warns Jade. She just misunderstands which killer the old native woman means, to her almost fatal chagrin.

   Jade is not a particularly cerebral sleuth, hardly Miss Marple in a leather flying jacket and jodhpurs. She has an Indiana Jones streak, though she is never presented as a super woman or comic book heroine. Her adventures are well within the laws of probability, given that she stumbles on more than her fair share of adventure and bodies while moving from one job to the next.

   Her attitudes are enlightened, but not unknown in that time frame, yet another example of Arruda’s research. She’s something of a mix of Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, and Pancho Barnes with a bit of Pearl White and Nyoka the Jungle Girl thrown into the mix along with a grown up Nancy Drew.

   The series captures the Africa of the era, from the adventure and romance of Out of Africa to the high and low social whirl of White Mischief, with nods to Hemingway’s African tales and memoirs. The action is well handled, and Jade is no mean sleuth. Like Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands mysteries Arruda never lets the mystery take a back seat to the adventure aspect of the books, and like that series, the world Jade moves in is richly portrayed and researched from the attitudes and politics of that world to the details of cameras, planes, and clothes.

   Arruda’s style is simple and straightforward, literate, but never complex and deceptively easy to read.

   I haven’t been able to follow the series beyond this one, but the first four books remain fresh and original, with green-eyed Jade a heroine you can root for. The books have the quality of an old fashioned adventure film like Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Too Hot to Handle, with the same crackling dialogue, wit, and action, but there is a well done mystery at the heart and a clever heroine/sleuth to pull for.

          The Jade del Cameron Series

Mark of the Lion (2006)
Stalking Ivory (2007)

The Serpent’s Daughter (2008)
The Leopard’s Prey (2008)
The Treasure of the Golden Cheetah (2009)

The Crocodile’s Last Embrace (2010)
The Devil’s Dance (2015)

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Art Scott


JAY FLYNN – A Body for McHugh. Avon T-444., paperback original, 1960. MacFadden-Bartell 75-378, paperback, 1966.

   This is one entry in a nifty little five book paperback series that Flynn did in the early 19608. McHugh owns a backstreet San Francisco bar, the Door, that serves as the local watering hole for assorted spy types, ours and theirs.

   McHugh (no first name is supplied) is one of ours, working for one of those secret agencies tucked away in a Pentagon sub-basement; he periodically takes on assignments messing around in Mexican or Caribbean revolutions, recovering Nazi war prizes, and the like.

   Oddly, the books were packaged as if they were typical private-eye novels; consequently they may have failed to find the audience that would best appreciate these neatly crafted action yarns. Matt Helm fans,in particular, will find them right up their street.

   In this one, a man is knifed just outside the Door, and a scared young girl, apparently there to meet him, slips out the back way before McHugh (and the FBI and CIA agents hanging around) can get a line on her.

   The killings that ensue (some engineered by adept assassin McHugh) have to do with a missing suitcase full of money, the loot from a double-cross-infested operation by a group of Cubans trying to get their wealth out before Castro grabbed it.

   The action ranges up and down the California coast, from San Francisco to L.A. to Carmel, with assorted law-enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and the Mafia mixed into the caper.

   The other four books in the series are McHugh (1959), It’s Murder, McHugh (1960), Viva McHugh! (1960), and The Five Faces of Murder (1962). Flynn also wrote a number of nonseries suspense novels, among the best of which are Drink with the Dead (1959), about a bootlegging operation in northern California; and The Action Man (1961), about a heist involving a golf tournament modeled on the one at Pebble Beach.

         ———
   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.

Editorial Note:   For a long personal profile of Jay Flynn by Bill Pronzini, along with a complete bibliography of the author put together by myself, check out this page on the primary Mystery*File website.

LAWRENCE BLOCK – The Cancelled Czech. Gold Medal d1747; paperback original; 1st printing, 1966. Jove, paperback, 1984. Signet, paperback, 1999. Harper, softcover, 2007.

   The gimmick in the Evan Tanner spy series is that because of a head wound he suffered in the Korean War, Tanner cannot go to sleep. He has used the time that you or I would be sound asleep to read and study and learn about all kinds of handy things, but as gimmicks go, that’s about as far as it does. Maybe it came up more as a device to build a story around in the first book in series, The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep. In this, the second, it’s barely mentioned in passing.

   What this book does have going for it is the title, which is terrific, even if it doesn’t fit the story, but it’s close, and sometimes that’s all that counts. Tanner is recruited by the unnamed head of the unnamed agency he sees to work for (as for why, perhaps again the first book might prove useful) to enter Czechoslovakia (then solidly behind the Iron Curtain) and rescue a leader of the still existent Nazi cause. He is old and sick, but it seems it would be better to try to obtain the secrets he has hidden away somewhere than to have him be summarily tried and executed.

   Well, OK. It would be also nice to have a plan, but Tanner seems to fly by the seat of his pants, more often than not, easing out of one scrape only to fall into another. One thing that could not have been planned is Tanner’s finding Greta, the girl on the cover, and a Nazi as well as a nymphomaniac. Strangely enough she seems to favor Jews as lovers, as well as Tanner, due to the surgery done to a certain part of their male anatomy.

   And as it happens, Greta turns out to have a crucial part of Tanner’s plan to get his target out of the castle of a prison in which he is incarcerated. I think it helps if you catch on earlier than I did that Lawrence Block is not entirely serious about this affair — which I did at this point I assure you — and to tell you the truth, once Greta’s role is over and she’s dumped from the story, the rest of the tale is simply not nearly as interesting.

      The Evan Tanner series –

The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep. Gold Medal, 1966.

The Canceled Czech. Gold Medal, 1966.
Tanner’s Twelve Swingers. Gold Medal, 1967.
Here Comes a Hero. Gold Medal, 1968.
Tanner’s Tiger. Gold Medal, 1968.
Two for Tanner. Gold Medal, 1968.

Me Tanner, You Jane. Macmillan, 1970.
Tanner on Ice. Dutton, 1998.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


J. A. KONRATH – Rusty Nail. Hyperion, hardcover, 2006; softcover, 2007.

   I have said it before and will reiterate, I have had it with serial killers. I just don’t read or buy serial killer books. In fact, the only reason I picked this one up was because Publisher’s Weekly described it as a “cross between Carl Hiaason and Thomas Harris.”

   That, I admit, piqued my curiosity, and since it was a Dollar Store Wonder what could I lose? I could afford to risk 109 pennies (with tax).

   The heroine of this series is Lieutenant Jacqueline ‘Jack’ Daniels, second generation Chicago homicide cop, age 46, looks younger, dresses nice by shopping smart, and has a self confessed smart mouth. Her life isn’t looking all that good either. Her mother, the first generation homicide cop, is in a hospice facility in a coma Jack blames herself for. Her partner, Herb Benedict, her strong right had and friend is about to discover he has a tumor from his colonoscopy. She screwed up the relationship with the man she loved, and he has someone new. And there is a copycat killer following the path of Phil Kork, the serial killer whose capture made her famous, in fact, a little too famous.

   A big part of her problem is sexist and none-too-bright Harry McGlade. Harry was a private eye who helped her catch Kork and parlayed it into fame for both of them. Something the department is none to happy about:

   “The superintendent has been getting some flack lately about that TV show.”

   “TV show?”

   “That series with the PI and the fat woman who plays you.”

   The series is called Fatal Autonomy, and it has made Harry McGlade rich and Jack miserable. Whenever she introduces herself to anyone they comment she has lost weight. They can’t separate her from her job, and she can’t separate herself from Harry. He even wants her to be his ‘best man’ at his wedding.

   Worse still, the woman he is marrying, Holly, is a Barbie doll private eye, younger than Jack, smart, a fine markswoman, black belt, and to add insult to injury sincere, friendly, and despite Jack’s best — or worst — efforts, determined to be friends and help catch the copycat killer. She even saves Jack’s life. How dare she?

   There is also her cat, Mr. Friskers, who doesn’t seem to like her, but her Mother loves him; her lack of a sex life; and the fact it seems the serial killer is seeking revenge on Jack and everyone who was involved in catching and killing Phil Kork, including everyone and everything Jack loves.

   Jack is on the trail though, and the hunt will take her through the Mid-West into Kork’s family history and a virtual family reunion of serial killers and mass graves. Meanwhile Konrath introduces us in alternating chapters to Alex, the serial killer behind these murders and from a twisted and shocking history tied to the Kork’s.

   Aside from being literally knee deep in rotting corpses, Jack also manages to get shot at, threatened with losing her job, and seriously singed in a fire. It’s enough to make a girl wear cheap sensible shoes to work — a real trial for the fashion and name brand conscious Jack.

   If you haven’t caught on yet that comparison to Carl Hiaason and Thomas Harris was accurate. The serial killer is a monster, and graphically, if never exploitatively, described — it’s all Jack can do to keep from ruining a few crime scenes. What balances that is Jack is smart, attractive, good company, a genuinely good detective, and best of all, fall out of the chair and roll on the floor funny. Slight smiles aren’t her style. Jack is laugh-out-loud funny, and few books get audible chuckles out of me:

   His head was bald, but he had bushy white eyebrows long enough to comb, and enough ear hair to stuff a pillow.

   The shoes (Dior) were acquired at an outlet store and had been mispriced. I got them for eight bucks. I remember holding my breath when the cashier rang them up, figuring she’d notice. She didn’t. That’s been the high point of my year so far.

   He had to be putting me on. No one was this slow outside of Hee Haw.

   All play and no work makes Jack a bit flighty.

   … a careful mirror examination of my face, studying the wrinkles and deciding I needed nothing short of spackle to fill them in.

   Told by the FBI, who are trying to horn in, the obviously copycat murders are copycat murders “… was your first clue the note or that it took place in the same house as the Kork murders?”

   Mr. Friskers had his face buried in his bowl. He hissed at my interruption of his gluttony. I hissed back and set the bag on the corner, next to the sink. The cat ran up and swiped a claw at my leg… It was always my left leg. He’d clawed me a dozen times, but never the right leg. Sadism with an agenda.

   “Hey, your name is Jack Daniels.”

   “That’s me, lightly braised but in the flesh.”

   “I like that TV show that you’re in, that Fatal Autonomy. You’re pretty funny. I loved the one where you were screaming and screaming and screaming for help and that private eye guy took off his dirty sock and crammed it in your mouth.”

   I gave him a weak smile. “Yeah, good episode.”

   Peter chimed in, “My favorite is the one where you tracked down that killer and went to shoot him but forgot to load your gun.” He slapped his leg grinning. “Classic.”

   There is a nice twist at the end, not really withheld from the reader, and for once a least likely suspect that has been set up right, and all the subplots stay raveled together for the multiple payoffs.

   The titles are all mixed drinks. Rusty Nail, Whisky Sour, Bloody Mary and more. I can say honestly, that serial killer or not, I would read another one, and these days that is praise for any series, serial killers or not. Jack Daniels proves almost as good company as her namesake, and if you stay up all night with her, you can still go to work in the morning and there is no hangover.

   One last great line, delivered by Herb’s wife. It turns out Herb didn’t have a tumor, but he did have a heart attack, which Jack has trouble understanding why they didn’t find earlier until Herb’s wife Bernice explains: “It’s hard to diagnose a heart condition by sticking a camera up your ass.”

   That sums up Jack’s life and Rusty Nail as well as anything.

      The Jack Daniels series -

1. Whiskey Sour (2004)

2. Bloody Mary (2005)
3. Rusty Nail (2006)
4. Dirty Martini (2007)
5. Fuzzy Navel (2008)
6. Cherry Bomb (2009)

7. Shaken (2010)
8. Stirred (2011) (with Blake Crouch)

65 Proof: Jack Daniels and Other Thriller Stories (2009)
Shot of Tequila (2009)   [ebook]
Jack Daniels Stories: Fifteen Mystery Tales (2010)
With A Twist (2011)   [short story]
Jacked Up! (2013) (with Jack Kilborn and Tracy Sharp) [novella]

PETER LOVESEY – Bertie and the Seven Bodies. Mysterious Press, US/UK, hardcover, 1990; paperback, US, 1991. Arrow, UK, paperback, 1991.

   Bertie in this case refers to Edward VII (1841 – 1910), but with the story taking place in 1890, when he was still Prince of Wales, the heir apparent to his mother, Queen Victoria. It is Peter Lovesey’s delightful conceit that Bertie, as he was commonly known, besides being a notorious playboy and philanderer, fancied himself as detective of some merit, even though the results are usually far off the mark, and quite amusingly so.

   A phase of his life, previously unrecorded, that continues the affair of the seven bodies, which takes place in an English manor where an array of English society has gathered for a weekend of shooting, perhaps the last of the season. But when the deaths start occurring, each tied to the day of the week, it is up to Bertie to solve the case before the police are called in. The scandal it would cause, you know, not to mention Bertie especially not wishing the story to reach the Queen’s non-approving ears.

   So not only is the story comic and light in nature, except for the deaths, of course, but Lovesey also makes sure the mystery is well-clued as it could be. Bertie and company come up with any number of explanations, which an appropriate of who the killer might be, all of them very convincing, only to have some small detail not fit, with the whole house of cards falling only to need another to be built up again.

   I hedged there at the beginning of the previous paragraph in my statement that the story is as well-clued as it could be. It is a minor tour de force for Lovesey to have constructed a tale with so many possible solutions, but the key to case is not discovered until page 209 of a 228 page book, and I challenge anyone to put the pieces of the plot together before then. But when everything falls into place as smoothly as it does here, all is forgiven.

   Highly recommended.

   The Albert Edward, Prince of Wales series –

      Novels –

Bertie and the Tinman (1987).
Bertie and the Seven Bodies (1990).
Bertie and the Crime of Passion (1993).

      Short stories (may be incomplete) —

Bertie and the Fire Brigade. Royal Crimes, Maxim Jakubowski & Martin H. Greenberg, editors, 1994.
Bertie and the Boat Race. Crime Through Time, Miriam Grace Monfredo & Sharan Newman, editors, 1997.

LAWRENCE BLOCK – The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza. Random House, hardcover, 1980. Pocket, paperback, 1982. Reprinted many times since, including Signet, paperback, December 1998.

   The copy I just read was the fairly recent Signet edition from the 1990s, so it took me by surprise the first time Bernie Rhodenbarr, the bookshop owner in Greenwich Villagewho does a little burglary on the side, needed to find a phone booth to make a telephone call in New York City.

   How many generations ago was 1980? Long before Google came along, that’s for sure. Think how much time Bernie could have saved making a whole series of long distance calls, trying to track down information about a rare coin called the 1913 V-Nickel.

   Today, you could look it up. According to web page on the other side of the link, the coin, were you to burgle a home in Manhattan and find one, would be worth three to four million dollars, perhaps more.

   And burgle a home in Manhattan and find one is exactly what Bernie and Carolyn Kaiser, his lesbian friend and oft-times confederate in crime, do. Soon ending up dead is Bernie’s good friend (and neighborhood fence), elderly Abel Crowe. Since the theft matches Bernie’s MO, the police suspect him for not only that killing, but also the death of the wife whose home was robbed. One problem: Bernie and Carolyn were the only the second of three sets of burglars that night.

   Which means there are a lot of characters to keep track of, even more than this brief outline of the story might suggest. But Bernie tells the story in such a light, humorous way, punctuated by witty observations about the city and its inhabitants, that the pages simply fly by in very enjoyable fashion.

   Until that is, page 223 of a 302 page novel, when the shark is jumped or the pooch is tipped or whatever the current vernacular may be. Now this is between only you and me, and it may be only me, but up until that time I got the idea that Bernie and I were buddies, and he was keeping me informed of everything he was seeing and doing.

   But on page 223 he suddenly cuts me out of the picture. He tells Carolyn who he thinks did it. Reluctantly, to be sure. It takes until page 224 before she convinces him to tell her everything. Me, nothing. And here I thought we were friends.

   Of course, I really didn’t want him to tell me, but why Carolyn? I was disappointed.

   It also put a strain on Bernie in the pages that follow. Doing this and that, going here and there, making those phone calls to who knows who, and not being able to tell me what it was that he was doing. It’s not until one of those “gather everybody together in one place” that Bernie reveals the truth and gets the killer (or killers) to confess.

   And of course a book by Spinoza takes its rightful place in the denouement, exactly as the title says it would.

       The Bernie Rhodenbarr novels —

Burglars Can’t Be Choosers (1977)

The Burglar in the Closet (1978)

The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling (1979)
The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza (1980)
The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian (1983)
The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994)
The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart (1995)
The Burglar In The Library (1997).
The Burglar In The Rye (1999)
The Burglar on the Prowl (2004)
The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons (2013)

PostScript:   I do not know what kind of name Rhodenbarr is — Googling it turned up only six full pages of Bernie’s before I gave up. Perhaps Lawrence Block simply made it up. That plus the fact that Bernie tells the story himself makes it difficult to put a face to the character. I do not know who should play him in the TV series I have in mind.

    One thing for sure. It won’t be Whoopi Goldberg.

DONALD HAMILTON – The Interlopers. Gold Medal T2073, paperback original; 1st printing, 1969. Reprinted several times.

   It’s been a while since I’ve read one of Matt Helm’s adventures. When they first came out, I used to gobble them down like cotton candy, but for some reason, I don’t remember this one. It came out the year my wife and I moved from Michigan to Connecticut, and I starting teaching here, so quite possibly I had other things on my mind.

   This one is number twelve in a series of 27 books that started with Death of a Citizen in 1960. In my opinion now, I don’t believe that it’s one of the better ones, but a less-than-average Donald Hamilton book is still far above the average other spy or espionage thriller of the day.

   I’m not exactly sure why this particular adventure never quite took off for me. Helm is his usual competent hard-boiled self, telling his own story, killing the bad guys with no sense of remorse, either part of the job or kill or be killed. He is also quite willing to bed any lady who offers, even if he is not sure which side she is on.

   And there are several sides to be on in this novel. As an assignment on behalf of another government agency to pose as a courier for Russians to foil a plot against the defense systems of the west coast of the US, Helm is confused by a group of amateur but still deadly interlopers who do not seem to be on either his side or the Russians. And the aforementioned lady is on either his side (his boss says no), or the Russians from whom she has defected (or so she says), or or she’s playing a different hand altogether (my thoughts on the matter).

   Part of the problem is that the setting is not all that interesting: traveling through Canada from Washington state to Alaska, not the most exotic of locales. Or it may be that the plot the Russians have come up with is so lame: along the way Helm is to meet five different contacts (complete with secret identifying phrases), with the info he so gathers to be inserted in the studs on the Labrador puppy Helm is required to take along with him.

   The title is appropriate. There are many interlopers in this story, and Helm is rightfully disdainful as to their abilities as largely out-and-out amateurs. Not an amateur, though, is the Russian assassin that Helm’s own boss has asked him to eliminate. It all makes for a very large pot of characters, but it takes a long time for things to come to a boil.

PostScript:   Since Matt Helm tells his own story, it was difficult for me to get a decent picture of him in my mind’s-eye, and while the cover provides what the publisher thought was a good likeness (as shown), I have to say I disagree. But given that illustration, I’ve been trying to think of a movie actor who resembles this fellow. I’ve come up with a couple of possibilities, but none good enough to mention at the moment. What do you think? Any suggestions?

   That dude in the later cover is a total imposter, as far as I’m concerned.

   Also, if you haven’t seen it already, go back and read Michael Shonk’s recent review of the Matt Helm television series, the one with Tony Franciosa in the title role.

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