J. M. T. MILLER – Weatherby. Ballantine, paperback original; 1st printing, September 1987.

   Artie Weatherby, to be precise. This one’s the first of three recorded adventures, but it’s not quite clear where it takes place. Somewhere in the Southwest is the best I can say. Somewhere in a fairly large city (but with streets I’ve never heard of), but somewhere such that not far out of the city you can find yourself in a desolate “sun-baked, sun-bleached, sun-drenched” misery of a town called Desolado.

   Artie is hired by a young woman to find out where her brother is, and where he is is in Desolado, riding a Harley with a big-bosomed bimbo named Bunny hanging onto him from behind. A local storekeeper suggests that he’s riding with a gang of bikers called the Satan’s Sadists, who may also be heavily involved with heavy drugs across the border activity.

   Not hardly good news. Other characters in this story are the siblings’ father, who is rich, maintains a zoo in his back yard, and who thinks he’s turning into a werewolf. The girl’s fiancé is a well-known plastic surgeon who has been in trouble with various medical boards.

   Not your usual functional family, but nothing seems to faze Weatherby all that much. Not that there’s much to the story. I had it all figured out by page 144, then I skipped to the end of the book to find out if I was correct. I was. I hate it when that happens.

   About Weatherby himself, I seem not to have much to say. Totally generic, in other words, in a semi-macho sort of way. But in passing, I did learn not to trust the judgment of James Ellroy when it comes to touting PI fiction to unwary readers. The blurb on the front cover makes me think he was reading another book altogether.

       The Artie Weatherby series —

Weatherby. Ballantine, 1987.
On a Dead Man’s Chest. Ballantine, 1989.
The Big Lie. Nelson, 1994.

   The author, Janice Marie Tubbs Miller, wrote one other crime novel under these initials and two as Janice Miller.


BARBARA D’AMATO – Hard Women. Cat Marsala #4. Charles Scribner’s, hardcover, 1993. Worldwide Mystery, paperback, 1994.

   This is the fourth of D’Amato’s novels about Chicago freelance journalist Cat Marsala. In previous books she has dealt with the lifestyle of the rich, the world of drugs, and organized lotteries; here she delves into the world of prostitution. As usual, she finds more than she likes or is safe for her.

   Cat has her first television assignment, a short piece on prostitution. A group of Chicago’s city fathers known as the Sinless Seven are making a push to rid the city of streetwalkers, and a local tv station thinks that this is a good time to feature a story on such. Though apprehensive, Cat is glad of the chance, and hits the courtrooms and streets in search of material. A young call girl whom she has interviewed shows up at her apartment, battered, and Cat takes her in for a few days. Then, the girl is found dead on the street in front, murdered.

   D’Amato is a good writer. She manages to pack a wealth of information about prostitutes and their sad, murky world into the story without slowing t down. But then, the story is as much about that world as is a murder mystery. The finding of the killer isn’t exactly an afterthought, but to me it clearly wasn’t as important to D’Amato as what she had to say about prostitution.

   I don’t care much for Cat Marsala as a person. Her attitudes are simply too different from mine for much empathy. It speaks well for D’Amato’s skill at characterization that she came enough alive for me to say that, but it’s hard for me to fully enjoy a book when I can’t like the lead character. Try it, though — if you can like Cat, you’ve got a winner.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #6, March 1993.

      The Cat Marsala series —

1. Hardball (1989)
2. Hard Tack (1991)
3. Hard Luck (1992)
4. Hard Women (1993)
5. Hard Case (1994)
6. Hard Christmas (1995)
7. Hard Bargain (1997)
8. Hard Evidence (1997)
9. Hard Road (2001)

JOHN SHANNON – The Concrete River. John Brown Books, hardcover, 1996. Berkley, paperback, February 1998.

   What this book is, or rather what it is not, is your grandfather’s traditional PI novel. One blurb on the back cover makes a comparison to Raymond Chandler. The setting is Los Angeles, true enough, and the comparison is not badly made, but the setting has been updated to modern-day LA (as of twenty years ago, that is), and it is Raymond Chandler as filtered more through Robert Altman’s version than any slavishly imitated copy of Mr. Chandler himself.

   The PI in question, for which this is his first recorded case, is Jack Liffey, a Viet Nam veteran and currently an out of work technical writer, a father of one, but now divorced and far behind on his alimony payments. To supplement his income he has discovered a knack for finding missing children.

   In this case, however, the woman he is asked to find is the Mexican-American mother of a boy he found several months before. He’s asked on the job too late, however. Her body is found washed up in Long Beach; suspicion is that she was dumped into the Los Angeles River somewhere a lot closer to home, and the river did the rest.

   The fact that she was working on behalf a community activist group fighting the conversion of an abandoned rubber plant into an opera house — an amenity for the rich, not the people who live in the area — is the only lead Liffey has to go on. But still. Murder on behalf of an opera house? No. There is more to the story than that, as Liffey soon painfully discovers.

   Shannon’s view of L.A. is near apocalyptic. The city is running on fumes, with rotten infrastructure and bizarre traffic incidents consistently occurring as Liffey makes his way around town in hunt of a wider truth, a search for morality, if you will. His budding romance with an ex-nun also takes up a good portion of the book, which naturally will slow things down for the reader who expects only a pulp fiction mentality on just another PI tale.

   Which, to repeat myself, most definitely The Concrete River is not. One quote may may be enough to tell you whether or not this is a series meant for you:

   Not for the first time, he thought of his marriage as a hat that had blown off while he was looking out over a canyon. He’d made a grab for it at the time, but then it was just gone, dwindling out of sight, leaving a bit of hat feel around his forehead but even that fading fast. It was the kind of thing that could still make you feel guilty about being broke, though.

   In case you were wondering, though, and you’re looking for more, there is a scene later on that shows that when he needs to be, Jack Liffey is also as hard-boiled as they come. Guaranteed.

      The Jack Liffey series —

1. The Concrete River (1996)
2. The Cracked Earth (1999)

3. The Poison Sky (2000)
4. The Orange Curtain (2001)
5. Streets on Fire (2002)
6. City of Strangers (2003)

7. Terminal Island (2004)
8. Dangerous Games (2005)
9. The Dark Streets (2006)
10. The Devils of Bakersfield (2008)

11. Palos Verdes Blue (2009)
12. On The Nickel (2010)
13. A Little Too Much (2010)
14. Chinese Beverly Hills (2014)

W. GLENN DUNCAN – Rafferty: Wrong Place, Wrong Time. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1989.

   This is the fourth of six recorded adventures of a Dallas-based PI named Rafferty, all published by Gold Medal in the late 80s and early 90s. There is some similarity in the stories to another PI based in Boston in that he is a rather macho guy, has a steady girl friend with whom he gets along very well, including lots of friendly banter, and a buddy named Cowboy (with all that that implies) whom he calls on whenever he gets himself into a jam and needs help.

   It is also a book that is fun to read for most of its way — until, that is, you start getting the “is that all there is?” feeling about two-thirds of the way through. Both of the cases Rafferty is working on turn out to be very light ones, even though the first results in a case of murder almost immediately: a guy posing as a bounty hunter hires Rafferty to distract his intended victim, and succeeds.

   The second, that of an elderly gentleman being harassed by neighbor kids, is amusing but nothing more, even if the older man, who starts out being a devout curmudgeon, turns out to have had a life well worth living, much to Rafferty’s pleasure.

   I mentioned earlier the existence of another PI working the Boston area, and the similarities between the two sets of characters. Echoes of the other series with this one are obvious, but to tell you the truth, I think I heard Robert Urich’s voice in the first person commentary than I did the other fellow’s. Not that that’s entirely a bad thing, you understand, but your mileage may vary.

       The Rafferty series —

1. Rafferty’s Rules (1987)
2. Last Seen Alive (1987)
3. Poor Dead Cricket (1988)
4. Wrong Place, Wrong Time (1989)
5. Cannon’s Mouth (1990)
6. Fatal Sisters (1990)

ANN CLEEVES – Sea Fever. Fawcett Gold Medal, US, paperback original; 1st printing, October, 1991. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1993.

   This is the fifth mystery novel in which inveterate birdwatcher George Palmer-Jones has become involved with solving a murder. It shouldn’t be too surprising: even though he’s now actually a retired civil servant, he and his wife Molly have become partners in an “enquiry agency” to keep themselves busy in their declining years.

   George hates the term “private detective,” but there is no escaping it: “enquiry agent” or PI, that’s the kind of work they do. George has birds on his mind most of the time, however, and if it weren’t for Molly to push him, I think his business would be nothing at all, in no time flat.

   They’re hired to trace a wayward son who refuses to come home, or to acknowledge the existence of his worried parents in any way. That he is also an ardent birdwatcher makes the Palmer-Joneses the ideal couple to track him down. They catch up to him momentarily on a sea cruise/birdwatching expedition, but almost as quickly they lose him at the hands of a killer.

   Murder at sea means a limited number of suspects, and this is classical detection at very nearly its most overwrought, with little annoying hints of what is yet to come and a (female) police inspector who finds her own life very nearly exploding out of control.

   Don’t get me wrong, though. While this may not be the equivalent of John Dickson Carr in plot complexity, it is a pleasant voyage through waters charted several times or more. Every time I take the trip, I enjoy it just about as much as the time before, and that’s the kind of book this is.

— This review first appeared in Deadly Pleasures, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1993 .

      The Palmer-Jones series —

1. A Bird In The Hand (1986)

2. Come Death and High Water (1987)
3. Murder In Paradise (1988)
4. A Prey To Murder (1989)

5. Sea Fever (1991)
6. Another Man’s Poison (1992)
7. The Mill On The Shore (1994)
8. High Island Blues (1996)

JEROME DOOLITTLE – Body Scissors. Pocket, hardcover, 1990; reprint paperback; 1st printing, November 1991.

   On the cover is a quote from the Washington Post, calling this a “riveting political thriller.” Well, I had some doubts, but I read it anyway. What does the Washington Post know? They may think this book is a political thriller, since that’s what they’re looking for, but just between you and me, what this really is a top-notch PI story instead.

   It’s a little hard to argue the point, since on page 14, even Tom Bethany says he’s not a PI: “…I’m sort of a researcher, sort of a political consultant.” He works primarily for politicians and campaign committees, apparently, looking for leaks, trying to stop leaks before they start, that sort of thing. His home base is Cambridge,near Harvard Yard, and as you may know, Boston politics do get a little nasty at times.

   He’s hired to check out a prospective Secretary of State in this case, however, to avoid another Eagleton affair, and if the work he does isn’t PI work, I’ll tum in my trenchcoat at once. What strikes his eye first is the unsolved death of J. Alden Kellicott’s daughter, a victim of Boston’s once-notorious Combat Zone.

   That, plus some niggling doubts about Kellicott’s character, found by industrious research and a knack on Bethany’s part to get people to start talking. Doolittle, whose first novel this is, certainly doesn’t show it. He’s a whiz at dialogue, and he has a tremendous amount of insight into his characters and the relationships existing between them.

   I quibbled a little about this being a political thriller — but as you can see, the statement’s not that far off base — and the adjective “riveting” is well taken. I’d use the phrase “prose that tingles with anticipation” — it’s that good.

   Unfortunately, Bethany also makes four major errors as the detective in this case. Since Doolittle is ultimately responsible for those as well, maybe I should point them out to you, but of course with the usual [WARNING: Plot Alert!!]. Here they are, my advice to any new PI’s on the block:

   (1) Don’t leave would-be assassins hanging around at loose ends. (2)When you work with guns, don’t forget to check the bottom of the barrel. (3) When you bait a trap, don’t let the cheese stand alone. (4) When the rat takes the bait, don’t leave the cat on guard.

   There you go. No charge for these. Don’t leave home without them. But now I’m being serious: if you’re a PI fan, don’t miss this book.

— This review first appeared in Deadly Pleasures, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1993 .

      The Tom Bethany series

1. Body Scissors (1990)
2. Strangle Hold (1991)

3. Bear Hug (1992)
4. Head Lock (1993)

5. Half Nelson (1994)
6. Kill Story (1995)


AARON ELKINS – Old Scores. Chris Norgren #3. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1993. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback, 1994.

   One thing about Elkins, he picks widely varying specialties for his series characters. Though he;s best known for his “bone doctor” series about Gideon Oliver, the Norgren books seem to be pucking up steam. Chris Norgren is curator at the Seattle Art Museum, and who’d have thought the world of acquisitions would be so hazardous?

   A famous French collector wants to give the museum a Rembrandt — great, hein? Well, maybe. There are a couple of catches: the painting has no provenance, and no scientific tests will be allowed. Chris’s director wants him to go to France and make an accept/reject decision. Chris wants to reject it out of hand, but goes anyway, at the cost of some discombobulation to his already shaky love life. Things are even weirder than expected in France, the situation turns nasty, and murder is done. Well, hell, what did you expect?

   I don’t believe for a minute that any museum would even consider accepting a master painting without provenance and/or testing, but what do I know about museums? Aside from that, this was the kind of entertaining tale I’ve come to expect from Elkins. I like Norgren as a character, and find the artistic background interesting and edifying. Elkins tells a good story, and creates a good set of supporting characters. His stories fall somewhere between cozy and hard-edged, and while I don’t think anyone would call them memorable, they provide an enjoyable read.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #7, May 1993.

      The Chris Norgren series —

1. A Deceptive Clarity (1987)
2. A Glancing Light (1991)
3. Old Scores (1993)


B. J. OLIPHANT – Death and the Delinquent. Shirley McClintock #4. Fawcett, paperback original, 1993.

   I like Sheri Tepper whatever name she writes under. At least I think I do; I haven’t read any of her A. J. Orde books, though I’ve got one waiting. I do like the Shirley McClintock series a lot and think they’re good enough for hard covers.

   Shirley and her foreman/companion vacationing in the mountains of New Mexico after the traumatic events in the last book with her daughter Allison and Allison’s schoolmate April. April isn’t working out too well. She’s nosy, neurotic, and thoroughly obnoxious, and Shirley has decided to send her home when a sharpshooter wounds Shirley’s mule and kills April. Accident? Hard to see how it could be.

   Some strange items are found in April’s belongings, and then a newborn is stolen from a hospital nursery. Of course it all fits together but Shirley-on-crutches is damned if she sees how.

   Tepper/Oliphant/Orde’s strength has always been her characters, whether they’re cat-like aliens or independent Colorado ranch ladies. Shirley McClintock is one of the stronger and more realistic, and an altogether appealing heroine. I haven’t found anything to dislike in this series. The writing is good, the characterization excellent, and the plots haven’t strained my credulity. All of the regulars have become real people, and I look forward to seeing more of them.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #7, May 1993.

       The Shirley McClintock series —

Dead in the Scrub. Gold Medal, 1990.

The Unexpected Corpse. Gold Medal, 1990.
Deservedly Dead. Gold Medal, 1992.
Death and the Delinquent. Gold Medal, 1993.
Death Served Up Cold. Gold Medal, 1994.
A Ceremonial Death. Gold Medal, 1996.
Here’s to the Newly Dead. Gold Medal.

   Sheri S. Tepper also wrote six mysteries as A. J. Orde, the leading character in these being Jason Lynx, an antiques dealer based in Denver CO. Under her own name, however, she was far better known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, as you can see from her bibliography here. She died last month, on October 22, 2016, at the age of 87.

JOANNE DOBSON – The Maltese Manuscript. Poisoned Pen Press, hardcover, 2003; softcover, 2006. ibooks, mass market paperback, May 2004.

   I haven’t been reading the recent crop of cozy mysteries very much any more. They’ve become too soft and fluffy for me. Too much giddy character interplay, too much emphasis on hobbies, quilting or cooking, and worst of all, too little puzzle or mystery. They’re meant for female readers who can’t get enough of them, not for men who want hardboiled PI stories or old folks like me who want real detective work and/or surprise twists in their tales. So I pass them by, and have been for quite a while.

   With exceptions. While this one may not be recent, it is a cozy by nature, being one of a series of mystery adventures had by a Women’s Studies professor at a small elite college in a fictionalized version of the Amherst MA area. What it does have is a gimmick encapsulated in the title that caught my immediate attention anyway, as it may have already snagged yours as well.

   Part of the detective fiction holdings at Enfield College is the original manuscript of The Maltese Falcon, annotated and corrected in Hammett’s own hand. Valuable? I’d say so, if it existed. (Does it?) But when it disappears during a crime fiction conference at the school, the dean wants the incident hushed up. Who’d donate to any library that has such poor security in place?

   Karen Pelletier is the professor referred to in paragraph two, and with the assistance of mystery writer Sunnye Hardcastle, creator of he extremely popular PI Kit Danger books, plunges right into solving both the theft of the manuscript and more, the mysterious death of a nighttime intruder in the underground stacks of the school’s library.

   Complicating matters is that Karen’s boy friend is Lt. Charlie Pietrowski of the local police force, who doesn’t want her butting in, and a PI named Dennis O’Hanlon whom Karen meets up with again at a high school reunion, and coincidence be damned, he has just been hired by the dean to worr undercover while investigating the theft. That Karen is attracted to him causes some problems, wouldn’t you know?

   After some slow going in the first 80 or pages, the book takes off at last, as the investigation finally begins. There is a lot of witty and wry commentary on the academic approach to deconstructing mystery fiction along the way, and a book thief’s storage houses for the thousands and thousands of the valuable first edition mystery hardcovers he’s stolen from libraries all across the country would be a sight to behold, if it ever existed.

   A minor work, when all’s said and done, but it’s still fun while it lasts. And as a final postscript, let me add that the quoted portions of Sunnye Hardcastle’s novels are patently (and joyously) awful.

      The Karen Pelletier series

1. Quieter Than Sleep (1997)
2. The Northbury Papers (1998)
3. The Raven and the Nightingale (1999)
4. Cold and Pure and Very Dead (2000)
5. The Maltese Manuscript (2003)
6. Death Without Tenure (2010)

MARGARET SCHERF – The Beaded Banana. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1978. No US paperback edition.

   The title sounds like that of a second-rate rock group, but it’s actually the prized possession of a member of the fly-by-night movie company that’s shooting on location in Summerfield, Montana. An undesirable Las Vegas element is moving into town as well, and some unsavory political hi-jinx foreshadow some very strange things about to happen, including murder.

   The detective is retired pathologist Dr. Grace Severance, and it’s no reflection on her to say that what we have here is a mystery full of flutsy old ladies doing their thing. The humor is of the quiet zinger type, which does a lot to mitigate all the conclusions that are so ungracefully leapt to along the way.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 3, No. 1, Jan-Feb 1979.

      The Dr. Grace Severance series —

The Banker’s Bones. Doubleday, 1968.
The Beautiful Birthday Cake. Doubleday, 1971.
To Cache a Millionaire. Doubleday, 1972.
The Beaded Banana. Doubleday, 1978.

    The Beaded Banana was Margaret Scherf’s final book. Between 1940 and 1978 she wrote a total of 24 works of detective fiction, including four in her Emily & Henry Bryce series, and seven more featuring Rev. Martin Buell. Many of her books also take place in Montana.

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