Characters


REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


  ROBERT J. RANDISI – Stand-Up. Miles Jacoby #6. Walker, hardcover, 1994. Perfect Crime, softcover, 2012.

   Miles Jacoby is at a crossroads in his PI career. One of the best PI’s in New York is offering him a partnership, and he’s tempted. Before he can finalize a decision, though, two cases pop us. One involves a stand-up comedian who thinks someone has stolen all his jokes, and the other a strongarm friend who’s involved in some way in a gangster’s murder. Jacoby finds himself bouncing back and forth between them, and both of them generate bodies and blood.

   Before I say anything more, let me say this: I wish to hell that crime writers would either quit trying to use microcomputers as part of their plots, or get someone who knows something about them to check the manuscripts. I am so tired of their fuck-ups I could just scream. Don’t they realize that there are enough people out there now who are computer-literate that they can’t get away with it? Pfui. Bah.

   Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can say that this was a typical Randisi book — breezy, facile, competent, lots of snappy dialogue, fast-moving. I like Jacoby as a character, and the supporting cast too. The plot has a pulpy feel to it this time; not that that’s necessarily bad, you understand, but I seem to remember earlier books having a little more depth.

   Easy, pleasant reading, but it’s nothing you’ll remember a week later. I always have the feeling Randisi could do a lot better if he’s just take the time.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #17, January 1995.


      The Miles Jacoby novels —

Eye in the Ring (1982)
The Steinway Collection (1983)
Full Contact (1984)
Separate Cases (1990)
Hard Look (1993)
Stand Up (1994)

M. McDONNELL BODKIN “The Hidden Violin.” Short story. PI Dora Myrl. First appeared in Dora Myrl, the Lady Detective (Chatto, UK, hardcover, 1900). Reprinted in The Big Book of Female Detectives, edited by Otto Penzler (Black Lizard, US, 2018).

   This very short story was probably not the lead one in the collection it first appeared in (see above), since it gets right down to business with no discussion at all as to how Dora Myrl got started as a professional detective way back in the year 1900.

   And the business at hand is an “impossible” crime: how it is that a stolen Stradivarius violin can be heard being played in a locked room, but when anyone knocks and is invited in, there is no violin to be found, no matter how diligent the search.

   The solution is simple but nonetheless rather clever, and what’s more, clues for readers to solve the case on their own are all there to be discovered. Nicely done!


Bio-Bibliographic notes:   The author, Matthias McDonnell Bodkin (1850-1933), was an Irish nationalist politician as well as a noted author, journalist and newspaper editor, and barrister. (Follow the link above to his Wikipedia page.)

   Besides the collection of a dozen stories that “The Hidden Violin” appears in, Dora Myrl also shared top billing in the novel The Capture of Paul Beck (Unwin, 1909) and makes a cameo appearance in the collection Young Beck (Unwin, 1911).

   What is most assuredly a first, if indeed not unique in the annals of PI fiction, when Dora finds herself in competition with another detective by the name of Paul Beck in solving the case they are both working on. The book was the aforementioned The Capture of Paul Beck, and in it they end up falling in love and getting married.

GEORGETTE HEYER – Behold, Here’s Poison. Supt. Hannasyde #2. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1936. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1936. Dutton, hardcover, 1971. US paperback reprints include: Bantam, January 1973. Fawcett Crest, 1979. Berkley, July 1987. Also reprinted many times in paperback in the UK.

   There was a time in the 1970s, I’d say, when every used bookstore that carried paperbacks had a shelf devoted to Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. For all intents and purposes, she created the category. Many publishers put out two or three a month, all following the style, pace and mode of Georgette Heyer’s books Those were gentler times, and modesty prevailed. The category no longer exists. Like Gothic romances, publishers stopped publishing them quite a few years ago.

   Heyer also wrote thrillers, twelve n all, four of them with Superintendent Hannasyde along with his trusty assistant Sergeant Hemingway, who if Behold, Here’s Poison is an accurate example, spent much of his time asking questions of the servants of the house.

   Hannasyde’s problem in this book is two or maybe even threefold. Dead is the master of the house, one in which two overlapping but directly related families reside, and all of them had to put up with Gregory Matthews’ temperament and mean-hearted ways, or move out. There are plenty of suspects, in other words.

   Problem number two: The doctor’s first diagnosis is that of natural causes, but when one family insists on an autopsy, the cause of death is discovered to have been nicotine poisoning. By t he time Hannasyde is called in, five days have gone by. No physical clues remain.

   Alibis are also useless. There is no way to even determine how the poison was administered. It’s a tough case for any detective to crack, and Hannasyde has to admit so also, if only to himself and Hemingway.

   But the dialogue between the squabbling and assorted family members is both wicked and delicious, particularly that of cousin Randall, whose sharp tongue exposes all of the false pretenses and facades of the rest of the family, much to the sophisticated reader’s amusement and pleasure. His barbs especially hurt since he is also the primary beneficiary of the dead man’s estate. He’s quite the character, Randall is, and one not easily forgotten once met.

   The solution to the mystery is the weakest part of the book. The killer’s identity I’d say is impossible for the reader to discern on his or her own. The motive, at least. You might be able to figure who done it by the process of elimination, but what’s the fun in that?


        The Superintendent Hannasyde series —

Death in the Stocks. 1935
Behold, Here’s Poison!. 1936
They Found Him Dead. 1937
A Blunt Instrument. 1938

       The Inspector Hemingway series —

   [all four of the above, plus]
No Wind of Blame. Hodder 1939
Envious Casca. Hodder 1941
Duplicate Death. Heinemann 1951
Detection Unlimited. Heinemann 1953

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “The Silver Mask Murders.” The Man in the Silver Mask #3. Novelette. Detective Fiction Weekly, 23 November 1935.

   In the years during which Erle Stanley Gardner was one of the most prolific pulp writers around, he tried his hand not only at mysteries — tons of them — but westerns, adventure stories and even science fiction (collected in The Human Zero: The Science Fiction Stories of Erle Stanley Gardner, 1981). Given the undeniable fact of the latter, it should come as no surprise that he dabbled in the equivalent of the hero pulps as well.

   The most famous of the latter were The Shadow, The Spider, Operator #5 and so on. Most were the primary occupants of their own magazines. Gardner’s contributions to the genre consisted of only three long stories in the pages of Detective Fiction Weekly, all in 1935. Having read only this, the third and last of them, I don’t know if the hero in these stories was ever given a name. He seems to have been known only as The Man in the Silver Mask.

   You can probably guess why, but to confirm your suspicion, the cover of the magazine his third adventure appeared in will illustrate as well as words could do. Besides his general anonymity, nothing also is known about his background, nor why he feels to need to keep his identity a secret. All we know for sure is his fierce determination to fight crime.

   Assisting him in these endeavors are a hunchbacked Chinese mute servant by the name of Ah Wong, and a female secretary/assistant named Norma Lorne and described as “a rather slender, willowy young blonde,” who aids The Masked Man outside the office as well as in.

   In “The Silver Mask Murders” this vigilante on the side of justice comes up against a powerful nemesis named Thornton Acker, a lawyer whose clientele consists solely of other criminals who can afford his steep fees ($250,000 this time around) to help them get out of jams they can’t manage to do on their own.

   Acker’s task in this one is to make sure that a man in prison doesn’t testify against his boss in court, which he does in spectacular fashion. But the Man in the Silver Mask is working on the other side, that of law and order, and Acker’s meticulous planning soon begins to go further and further awry.

   For the most part, this is routine stuff, with a lot more violence, I suspect, than ever appeared in any other Erle Stanley Gardner story. One scene sticks out, though, one in which Silver Mask is threatening a hoodlum he’s holding captive with physical torture at the hands of his Chinese assistant. When asked later by Norma Lorne whether or not he was bluffing, Silver Mask confesses that he doesn’t know.

   The story ends with many underlings dead or in jail, but with Acker still at large. A blurb at the end of the story advertises that the next installment of the series would be coming soon, but it never did. The world of mystery fiction never noticed.


   The Man in the Silver Mask series —

The Man in the Silver Mask. Detective Fiction Weekly, July 13 1935

               

The Man Who Talked. Detective Fiction Weekly, September 7, 1935

               

The Silver Mask Murders, Detective Fiction Weekly, November 23, 1935

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


JERRY KENNEALY – Beggar’s Choice. Nick Polo #9. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1994. No mass market paperback edition.

   One of the cover blurbs calls this an “underrated series,” and I’d have to agree. Almost none of the books have made it to paperback, which is dismaying when you think about the large amount of trash that does. Kennealy is, like his character, a San Francisco PI.

   Polo and his lady friend are doing a regular stint of volunteer work in a soup kitchen when one of the homeless regulars asks Nick to check a couple of license plate numbers. He says they belong to people who’ve been generous to him, but Nick has doubts about that. He has even more doubts when they turn out ti belong to a Tong lord and a wealthy businessman, but before he can find out anything else, the homeless man is dead, victim of a somewhat suspicious hit-and-run. He decides to check into it a little further, and the hornets stat buzzing about the proverbial nest.

   The Polo books aren’t Edgar material but they are enjoyable, solid examples of standard PI fare without a lot of breast-beating, angst, and Significant Social Issues. Polo is a likable and well-developed character, as is his current lady, reporter Jane Tobin.

   Kennealy’s prose is competent though not flashy, and he tells a reasonably fast-moving, well-constructed story. Though he doesn’t overwhelm you with ambiance, he obviously knows San Francisco [and overall, what he’s doing].

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #17, January 1995.


       The Nick Polo series —

   NOVELS

Polo Solo (1987)
Polo Anyone? (1988)
Polo’s Ponies (1988)
Polo in the Rough (1989)
Polo’s Wild Card (1990)
Green With Envy (1991)
Special Delivery (1992)
Vintage Polo (1993)
Beggar’s Choice (1994)
All That Glitters (1997)
Long Shot (2017)

   SHORT STORIES

“Polo at the Ritz” (May 1993, New Mystery; also 1999, First Cases 3)
“Reluctant Witness” (2000, The Shamus Game)
“Carole on Lombard” (2001, Mystery Street)
“Love for Bail” (2015, Fifty Shades of Grey Fedora)

JOHN STEPHEN STRANGE – The Clue of the Second Murder. Van Dusen Ormsberry #2. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1929. Grosset & Dunlap, hardcover reprint (cover shown).

   When this book was written (60 years ago!), Philo Vance was all the rage, and in the same pattern is fastidious gentleman detective Van Dusen Ormsberry, whose second recorded case this is. Assisting him is his 13-year-old protégé, the freckle-faced Bill Adams.

   While the book is readable, the telling is flawed, and Ormsberry does very little in the way of detecting. He is a bad judge of character, and allowing young Bill to assist leads to an even greater error on his part. His career was over after only one more book.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #18, December 1989, very slightly revised.


        The Van Dusen Ormsberry series —

The Man Who Killed Fortescue. Doubleday 1928
The Clue of the Second Murder. Doubleday 1929
Murder on the Ten-Yard Line. Doubleday 1931


[UPDATE] 11-28-18.   Time does not stand still. It’s now been almost 90 years since this book was written, very near a relic — but not a forgotten one. There is currently a POD edition published by lulu.com, apparently from a source in the UK. I don’t know if how interested anyone (including myself) would be after reading review above, but as a note to myself, I did say it was readable.

   I did not say much about the plot, so I went looking, and I found this description of the book online:

   “After leaving his sisters opulent Garden Party in 1927 Greenwich, Connecticut a naval inventor is shot dead while driving his Packard down a country lane beside the estate. Bill Adams, teen sleuth, begins the investigation, calling his friend, Detective Van Dusen Ormsberry home from his vacation in France to prevent an unjust conviction. Ormsberry must wade through the accused’s past political scandal; the torrid love triangle of the accused, the stage actress and the victim; and the post-World War I International espionage ring he discovers to find the actual murderer.”

JEFFERY WILDS DEAVER – Hard News. Rune #3. Doubleday, hardcover, 1991. Bantam, paperback, June 1992.

   Rune, not her real name, but the name she goes by, is an aspiring photojournalist and filmmaker living in a houseboat on the Hudson River in Manhattan. She’s in her early 20s, and as taken from Jeffrey Deaver’s website, she’s “five feet two inches of slick repartee, near-purple hair, and poetic imagination” with “with more ambition than political savvy.”

   A description which doesn’t entirely do her justice, but it’s close enough. In Hard News, after watching a videotaped interview with him, she becomes convinced that a convict named Randy Boggs is actually innocent of the murder he claims he didn’t commit.

   Where does she take her story on him to prove his innocence? Directly to Piper Sutton, the news anchorwoman for Current Events, one of the mostly highly watched TV news programs on the air. Somehow she manages to persuade Sutton to go ahead with the project. (It may have something to do with the fact that the man murdered was the head of the network at the time.)

   All to the good. But do things go smoothly? In a word, no. She does manage to stir up a lot of trouble for both herself and the man in prison. Rune’s life style is, shall we say, somewhat unique, making for a story that’s a lot of fun to read. What makes it even more so is the fact she does all of the work on her project burdened down by a three-year-old girl whose mother abandoned her in Rune’s care.

   Even as early as this in his career Jeffery Deaver, well-known now as the author of a long list of books about quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme, had a way with words, turns of phrases and twists in the tale he’s telling that titillates the reader’s mind and teases one’s brain. The story, while rushed in the ending, isn’t at all bad either.


Bibliographic Note: At the end of the paperback edition, which I’ve just read, the next Rune book was announced as being The Mystery of You, to be released in January 1993. The book was never published. I wonder if it was ever written.


       The Rune series —

Manhattan Is My Beat. Bantam 1989
Death of a Blue Movie Star. Bantam 1990
Hard News. Doubleday 1991

IONE SANDBERG SHRIBER – Pattern for Murder. Lt. Bill Grady #7. Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1944. Detective Book Club, hardcover reprint, 3-in-1 edition. Armed Services Edition #798, paperback. Mercury Mystery #113, digest-sized paperback (slightly abridged).

   With all of the above options available, unfortunately I had to settle for the one that was abridged. I’ve never checked to see what kind of editing job was done by the people at Mercury and their line of mystery paperbacks, but I’m hoping I didn’t miss too much with this one. I don’t think so, but I’m saying that with my fingers crossed.

   And a word about Grady, the police detective on the case. He appeared in eight of of the eleven mysteries written by author Ione Sandberg Shriber between 1940 and 1953. In Pattern for Murder he’s almost always referred to only as Grady. His first name of Bill is used only once, as I recall. Once he’s called Major, never as Lt. Grady, but other sources all agree that that’s his proper title.

   The use of “Major” may have come from his Army days; he’s accompanied on his investigation in this one by a chap named Hemingway who lives with Grady and appears to be a sort of aide-de-camp. Readers of earlier books in the series may know more about both gentlemen, but this is not the kind of mystery novel that pays any attention to its detective’s background or personal life.

   And in fact he does not show up or is even mentioned until page 49 of the 126 page edition I read. It takes that long to set up the situation — one of those very, very dysfunctional that show up awfully often in 1930s and 40s mystery fiction — and believe it or not, I was looking at the page number, which just happened to be 47, when I was trying to decide whether to keep reading or not.

   I’m glad I did, though. This turned out to be quite a decent work of detective fiction, with lots of suspects, alibis, red herrings and so on. The story is largely told from the perspective of an outsider, Miss Katy Sturtevant, who comes to the home of an old college friend to be the maid of honor at her wedding.

   But her friend is not marrying the man Katy expects, but her guardian, who is many years only. The man Katy expected to be the groom is already married, as it turns out, and to the daughter of Shannon’s guardian. There are several other relatives on hand as well, including a sister, an aunt and a cousin, only the latter of whom seems to be leading a normal life, plus a ultra-fat gentleman who turns out to be the family lawyer, along with a nurse and a missionary to China in the US now trying to raise funds for a trip back.

   Once started, though, the focus is which one of these could be a killer. It’s enjoyable ride, albeit a very somewhat disjointed one. As an author, Shriber has an annoying habit of ending one chapter with what seems to be a major revelation, only to jump in time to begin the next one. It’s a bit disconcerting, that’s all, no more than that, I assure you. Fans of the books published by the late lamented Rue MOrgue Press will love this one.


       The Lt. Bill Grady series —

The Dark Arbor. Farrar 1940
Head Over Heels in Murder, Farrar 1940
Family Affair. Farrar 1941
Murder Well Done. Farrar 1941
A Body for Bill. Farrar 1942
Invitation to Murder. Farrar 1943
Pattern for Murder. Farrar 1944
The Last Straw. Rinehart 1946

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


  WENDI LEE – The Good Daughter. Angela Matelli #1. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1994; paperback, 1996.

   Lee is [at the time of this review] the Associate Editor of Mystery Scene, and is married to Terry Beatty. artist of the Max Allan Collins-written crime comic, Ms. Tree. This is her first novel, though she has published short stories featuring Angela Matelli.

   Matelli is an ex-Marine, member of an extended Italian family, and a brand-new PI hanging out her shingle in Boston. She has an ex-cop uncle (“No-Legs” Charley), and a mother and a good sister and a bad sister. Her first case comes to her on her first day through the auspices of the previously mentioned uncle — an ex-cop friend of his wants Angela to investigate a man his daughter is seeing, because he has a bad feeling about him. Something is wrong somewhere. because very quickly her client is killed and Angela herself is attacked.

   A brief aside, telling you that the client is killed is exactly the sort of plat point that I don’t like to see revealed in reviews, but the cover copy gives it away, so why not?Blurb writers are worse than reviewers, sometimes. Often.

   This wasn’t bad. It has the typical focus on family/friend relationships that’s part of almost every mystery write by women, and here they verge on being, but aren’t quite, the irritating kind that ruin so many of the current crop of crime books for me.

   Matelli is a nicely drawn and appealing character, and already stands out from the crowd by not falling for a cop or a suspect in her first book. Lee’s writing is competent and her pacing good, and if she doesn’t know Boston like the back of her hand, she fakes the hell out of it,

   The plot was decent except for one major hole: the client could gave easily done what Matelli did, which was go to a friend on the police and have the background on the suspect dug up. Overall I don’t think Lee is or has the potential to be a threat to any of the top-line PI writers, but she’s certainly better than some.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #17, January 1995.


The Angela Matelli series —

   Novels:

The Good Daughter (1994)
Missing Eden (1996)
Deadbeat (1999)
He Who Dies (2000)
Habeas Campus (2002)

   Short stories:

“Salad Days” (Winter 1994, Noir)
“The Disappearance of Edna Guberman” (1994, Murder For Mother)
“Check Up” (1996, Lethal Ladies)
“The Other Woman” (1997, Vengeance Is Hers)

KELLEY ROOS – One False Move. Jeff & Haila Troy #10 (*). Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1966. No paperback edition.

   This is a strange one. This was the first new book featuring the mystery-solving team of Jeff and Haila Troy in 17 years, and of all things, in spite of their obvious compatibility in all of their adventures in the 1940s, in One False Move, they’re divorced, and she has absolutely nothing good to say about her ex-husband

   What’s also very strange is that Haila, who tells the story, is only 28 in this one. If story time is the same as real time — and that’s a big “if” — that would make her two years old when the Troys solved their first case together in 1940. (*) The count is probably off up above when I called this number 10 in the series, as this assumes that “Beauty Marks the Spot” is number 9. That was a novella published separately in Dell’s 10-Cent series of paperbacks, but in fact it had been included earlier in Triple Threat, a collection of three tales published in 1949.

   Be all this as it may, if all this inconsistency can be ignored — and I confess I found it difficult — the mystery is a good (but not great) one. Haila is staying with her aunt in a small town in Texas where they are putting on a historical pageant in which Haila has agreed to take part. Dead is one of the crew. It is assumed he was blackmailing someone who finally decided he or she had had enough.

   All of the actors and stage crew are suspects, and all of them, once the investigation begins, are discovered to have been acting furtively and strangely, obviously with secrets to hide.. Overall this is a case in which clearing all of the false trails away is more interesting than the conclusion itself, but as detective stories go, this one is a solid one.

   Do Jeff and Haila get back together? You needn’t ask. In my opinion, though, and I’m only partly joking when I say this, there are times when authors should not be allowed to interfere in their characters’ lives, and this is one of them.

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