Characters


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.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


SPENCER DEAN -Price Tag for Murder. Doubleday, hardcover, 1959. Pocket #6048, paperback, 1961.

   This is one more in the series of interminable — if this novel is any guide — adventures of Don Cadee, Chief of Store Protection at Ambletts Fifth Avenue. As information comes to Cadee’s attention that an entire warehouse of merchandise, a warehouse that should have had no existence, has disappeared, he is simultaneously faced with the suicide or murder of a key employee in the store’s purchasing department.

   Some minor problems for Cadee are the installation of a closed-circuit television to scan areas in the store and the perhaps imminent departure of a company executive to Mexico, possibly accompanied by some of the store’s funds and one of the store’s best buyers.

   For those who like action, or what seems like it, and dialogue, with very little description or writing style and not a whole lot of plot.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 6, November-December 1987.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   Spencer Dean was the pen name of (Nathaniel) Prentice Winchell (Jr.) (1895-1976). Other pen names he used were Jay De Bekker, Spencer Dean, Dexter St. Clair, Dexter St. Clare & Stewart Sterling. The latter is perhaps the most well-known. According to Al Hubin Crime Fiction IV, he was “born in Evanston, Illinois; died in Tallahassee, Florida; worked for an advertising agency, then newspaper man; editor of trade publications, journalism lecturer; wrote and produced over 500 radio mystery shows, wrote for films and TV; published some 400 magazine detective stories.”

   A long article by Richard Moore about Stewart Sterling and his various “specialty detectives” can be found here on the primary Mystery*File website.

      The Don Cadee mystery series –

The Frightened Fingers, Washburn, 1954.
The Scent of Fear. Washburn, 1954.
Marked Down for Murder. Doubleday, 1956.
Murder on Delivery. Doubleday, 1957.
Dishonor Among Thieves. Doubleday, 1958.
The Merchant of Murder. Doubleday, 1959.
Price Tag for Murder. Doubleday, 1959.
Murder After a Fashion. Doubleday, 1960.
Credit for a Murder. Doubleday, 1961.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


ZELDA POPKIN – Death Wears a White Gardenia. J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, 1938. Red Arrow Books #5, digest-sized paperback. 1939. Dell #13, paperback, 1943.

   Mary Carner, department-store detective, appeared in five books, of which this is the first. At least in this novel, the store is Jeremiah Blankfort and Company in New York City, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an appearance by the Governor’s wife.

   Also adding to the festivities is the discovery of a corpse that turns out to have been Andrew McAndrew, credit manager of Blankfort’s and a chap, it would appear, given to blackmailing married customers who charge items for their girl friends. He also had his own girl friends, one of whom is carrying his child.

   The suspects are limited to those who were working in the store the previous evening before the anniversary celebration, but that is nonetheless a rather large number. McAndrew’s fed-up wife and brother-in-law and a junky but talented shoplifter add to the total.

   Mary Carner is convinced that the murder was committed by an employee of Blankfort’s. That part of the investigation is stymied since the store’s owner will not allow the employees to be questioned until the sale day is over. This is, after all, still in the depths of the Depression, and the department store’s finances are rather rocky.

   Better than Spencer Dean’s department-store mysteries, but not much better. One hopes that Popkin improved in her later novels.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.


       The Mary Carner (Whittaker) series –

Death Wears a White Gardenia. Lippincott, 1938.
Murder in the Mist. Lippincott, 1940.

Time Off for Murder. Lippincott, 1940.
Dead Man’s Gift. Lippincott, 1941.

No Crime for a Lady. Lippincott, 1942.

   Zelda Popkn wrote two other works of crime fiction, So Much Blood (Lippincott, 1944), and A Death of Innocence (Lippincott, 1971) which was the basis of a TV movie of the same title. (CBS, 1971 with Shelley Winters and Arthur Kennedy).

   For more on the author herself, here’s a link to her Wikipedia page.

RICHARD HIMMEL – The Rich and the Damned. Gold Medal s735, paperback original; 1st printing, January 1958.

   Of the eight novels Richard Himmel wrote for Gold Medal, five of them recounted the adventures of Johnny Maguire, a hard-nosed Chicago-based lawyer who grew up in a working class, blue collar neighborhood. If we can take The Rich and the Damned as being representative of the earlier books, none of which I’ve read at any time less than 40 years ago, he’s still touchy about his background if anyone brings it up.

   I’m not sure how representative this book is, though. It’s the last of the five, and even though the blurb on the front cover says, “Johnny Maguire is back, and once again mixed up with molls, and murder,” there are no molls in this, not a one, and no murder, either. In fact, there not even a crime in this book, even though (from the titles) all of the earlier books had him tackling crime of all kinds and all corners.

   The closest that anything that resembles a crime in The Rich and the Dammed takes place is when a hoodlum from Maguire’s youth has him beaten up in a futile attempt to make him reveal the terms of a industrial mogul’s will after he dies.

   In therein lies the story. Maguire has been a sometimes bedmate with the dead man’s daughter, but she’s not the only person set to inherit. One son (or stepson) is of the prodigal variety, and has been disowned. The other is a scholarly wimp (my word) who suddenly finds some legs to stand on, thanks to a new lady friend, whose eyes are probably more on the father’s fortune. The other daughter has been sheltered from the world, particularly men and it takes all of Maguire’s will power to resist when she begs him to show her what she has been missing.

   The mobster is working on behalf of a competitor trying to take over the company, and the conditions of the will are important. Surprisingly to everyone, the will leaves equal portions of the stock to each of the four, even though it is Rourke, Maguire’s red-headed girl friend, who has ever shown any interest in the company, and in fact it is she who has been running the firm in recent years, having learned the ropes by starting at the bottom.

   And Maguire, respected by all four of the beneficiaries of the will, is the one caught in the middle, and it is his working class background that formulates his philosophies toward the problems of the wealthy and well-heeled. Does he take advantage of the situation and make himself one of them, one of the rich and powerful? Or does he stick to his basic roots and let them go on squabbling and their not-so-merry way?

   Believe it or not, Richard Himmel was a writer good enough to make all of this interesting, very much so. Johnny Maguire makes a decision, and the book ends. What happens from there, we’ll never know. This is the last anyone has heard anything about Johnny Maguire.

Bio-Bibliographic Notes:

    The Johnny Maguire series –

I’ll Find You. Gold Medal, 1950.
The Chinese Keyhole. Gold Medal, 1951.
I Have Gloria Kirby. Gold Medal, 1951.
Two Deaths Must Die. Gold Medal, 1954,
The Rich and the Damned. Gold Medal, 1958.

   There is little to be learned about Johnny Maguire on the Internet. I found a review of I’ll Find You on Bill Crider’s blog, and not much else. I don’t think Bill will mind if I quote from his comments, one line only: “Gangsters are involved, and there’s a murder, but this isn’t really a crime novel. In its own twisted way, it’s a love story in the Gold Medal vein, with the emphasis on speed, with lots of raw emotion, with plenty of melodrama.” Given that statement, maybe I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was at the lack of criminal activity in this book also.

   As for the author himself, I found an online obituary for Richard Himmel to be very interesting. Besides being a writer, Himmel was for most of his life one of the country’s best known interior designers. Truth, believe it or not, is often stranger than fiction.

DOROTHY SIMPSON – The Night She Died. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1981. Bantam, paperback, 1985. Poisoned Pen Press, trade paperback, 1998, First published in the UK by Michael Joseph, hardcover, 1981.

   In the world of crime fiction, there seems to be an unwritten law that a new private eye has to have a gimmick, a little quirk of behavior, perhaps, that will help him (or her) stand out from all the others. There is a similar theory for policemen, and it holds that because of the nature of their job, they need humanizing: a loving family, perhaps. Teething babies. Bad backs.

   Inspector Thanet is lucky. He has all three.

   His current case involves a murdered woman. Who killed her? Her husband, with whom she was seeing a marriage counselor? Her thwarted, amorous boss? The determined ex-suitor?

   Thanet’s investigation also takes him back into the past, over his sergeant’s objections, to dig up an unsolved murder the victim may have witnessed as a child. The problem is that looking into this old case is as dry and uninteresting as poking around in a pile of dusty bones, and it’d be awfully easy to give the story up as routine right here.

   And this you shouldn’t do, as Simpson has a terrific surprise in store for the persevering reader who sticks it out to the end. I suspect there’ll be a good many people who’ll never reach it. Exquisitely plotted, and ploddingly told — a sad combination.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1981.


      The Inspector Thanet series –

1. The Night She Died (1981)
2. Six Feet Under (1982)
3. Puppet for a Corpse (1983)
4. Close Her Eyes (1984)
5. Last Seen Alive (1985)
6. Dead On Arrival (1986)

7. Element of Doubt (1987)
8. Suspicious Death (1988)
9. Dead By Morning (1989)
10. Doomed to Die (1991)

11. Wake the Dead (1992)
12. No Laughing Matter (1993)
13. A Day for Dying (1995)

14. Once Too Often (1998)
15. Dead and Gone (1999)

JANICE LAW – Death Under Par. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1981. iUniverse, softcover, 2000.

   With the obvious exception of horse-racing, I think more mysteries have had to do with golf than with any other sport. Unless you can come up with another physical pastime I’m not thinking of, golf is the clear runner-up, which is what leads us to the latest Anna Peters thriller.

   She and long-time boy friend Harry have finally tied the knot, and for their honeymoon they travel to Scotland, for a working vacation during the British Open — he’s an artist on assignment for Sports Illustrated. There have been vandals at work, however, and threats have been made against one of the golfers. In case you haven’t been following Miss Peters’ adventures, she runs her own security business, and it quickly becomes a working honeymoon for her as well.

   She finds a common thread between the golfer and two of her leading suspects: they all attended the same small college in Hartford (Trinity College, recognizably incognito). As a result, there is a good deal of local Connecticut scenery involved as well, including a quickie tour through the offices of the same newspaper [the Hartford Courant] that prints most of my reviews.

   Which, of course, interested me much more than it will most of you. This is a straightforward crime story, making it more realistic than the puzzle artifices of a pure whodunit, perhaps, but in all truth, this case of Anna Peters presents no other challenge than that of sheer endurance.

   A twist was needed. This one comes straight.

Rating: C.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 3, May/June 1981 (slightly revised).


The Anna Peters series –

1. The Big Payoff (1975)
2. Gemini Trip (1977)
3. Under Orion (1978)
4. The Shadow of the Palms (1979)
5. Death Under Par (1981)
6. Time Lapse (1992)
7. A Safe Place to Die (1993)
8. Backfire (1994)
9. Cross-Check (1997)

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