DENNIS LEHANE – A Drink Before the War. Patrick Kenzie & Angie Gennaro #1. Harcourt & Brace, hardcover, 1994. HarperTorch, paperback, July 1996. Reprinted several times since.

   This is a first novel. Lehane was born and raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and still lives in the Boston area. He has worked as a teacher of writing and a counselor of abused children, and that’s all we know about him.

   Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are private detectives who are natives of Boston’s blue-collar Dorchester section, and still live there. The case that will change their lives starts simply enough: according to a prominent local politician, a black cleaning woman has stolen some important Statehouse documents from his office. He wants her found, and he wants them back.

   Finding the woman isn’t that difficult; that’s their profession. Finding the “documents” and staying alive are two other stories entirely. The crime leads to other crimes, everybody’s a victim, and Boston’s ghettos threaten to erupt into an apocalyptic gang war — with our intrepid stalkers in the middle of it.

   Well, hell. I thought I has my choice for Best First Novel of 1994 locked in months ago, with Mallory’s Oracle. Now along comes Lehane with A Drink Before the War, and all of a sudden the short list has grown by one, and I have to at least think about re-opening the polls.

   This is a powerful story and a superbly written one. It doesn’t break any new ground in the private detective patch, and the plot is a little more cowboy than I usually like, but my goodness it’s well done.

   Lehane does everything well, but what he does best are characters and prose. Kenzie and Gennaro are beautifully crafted protagonists. They have depth, and they come alive on the page. The book’s other characters are equally well crafted, though in less depth, with not a false note struck among them.

   It’s all done with some of the best prose I’ve read this year. It’s not lyrical, but it’s witty, strong, and evocative. The dialogue rings true, and Lehane brings the meaner, seedier part of Boston into the living room of your mind. The book is about damaged people and a damaged society, and who does what to whom, and how, and why.

   It’s bloody, and it’s hard, and I think it’ll stay with you a while. What it is more than anything else is good; astonishingly so for a first novelist, and I can’t wait for the encore, If this doesn’t win a First Novel Shamus the PWA will lose what little credibility they have with me.

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

[UPDATE.]   A Drink Before the War was not nominated for an Edgar, but as Barry suggested it should, it did win a Shamus from the PWA as Best First Novel for the year 1994.

      The Patrick Kenzie & Angie Gennaro series —

A Drink Before the War (1994)
Darkness, Take My Hand (1996)
Sacred (1997)
Gone, Baby, Gone (1998)
Prayers For Rain (1999)
Moonlight Mile (2010)

ROBERT SHECKLEY – Live Gold. Stephen Dain #3. Bantam J2401, paperback; 1st printing, July 1962.

   I’m not sure, but Live Gold may be unique in the annals of detective fiction. We know the villain from very early on. In fact over 90 percent of the story follows along with him on his latest arduous journey across northern Africa, circa 1951-52, with a contingent of perhaps 400 very indigent Muslims on their once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca.

   Or so they believe. What they do not know is that their guide, Mustapha ibn Harith, is leading them instead straight into slavery. Live gold.

   What we the reader do not know is which one the seven Europeans traveling with them is the international agent Stephen Dain. Each and every one might be the man, but neither Harith nor his sycophant assistant, a Greek named Prokopulous, can determine which one he is — and their attempts to do so form the thrust of the story.

   Robert Sheckley was, of course, far better known for his long career of writing witty and often outright comic science fiction, usually in the short story form. The wit is often present in this, Dain’s third recorded adventure. I don’t think Sheckley could have stopped himself if he had tried. It’s subtle, though, and a reader unfamiliar with his style of writing may not even notice.

   What I found amusing personally, for example, was Sheckley’s apparent fondness for place name dropping, a trend that takes place every so often throughout the book. Take this passage from page 109:

   [On] the third day of Dhu ’l-Hijja, the train had reached Kosti on the White Nile and was speeding eastward past the cotton fields of the Gezra. At noon the train passed Sennar Dam on the Blue Nile and turned north toward Medani and Khartoum.

   After a while one begins to wonder if Sheckley had ever been near any of these places. The alternative, of course, is that he had a really good atlas at his disposal.

      The Stephen Dain series —

Calibre .50 (1961)
Dead Run (1961)
Live Gold (1962)
White Death (1963)
Time Limit (1967)


DAVID DANIEL – The Heaven Stone. Alex Rasmssen #1. St Martin’s, hardcover, 1994. No paperback edition.

   This is Daniel’s first novel, and it won the PWA/St. Martin’s Best first PI Novel Award for 1993. It’s blurbed by Jerry Healy and Les Roberts, and Les, at least, honestly liked it.

   Alex Rasmussen is a PI in Lowell, Massachusetts, an ex-cop who left the force under a cloud. He’s hired by a social worker to look into the murder of one of her clients, a Cambodian the police think was involved with the drug trade. She’s convinced he wasn’t, and wants Rasmussen to prove her right.

   He doubts he can help her, but as an old friend on the force sent her to him, he agrees to see what he can find out. In the end, it’s more than he wants to know.

   I can see how this won the St. Martin’s contest. It’s better than most first novels, as good as a lot of PI fiction being written these days, and better than some. Daniels writes smooth prose and has an engaging lead, a certified old-style PI — pure of heart, empty of wallet, full of wisecracks. What’s not to like?

   Well, the plot wasn’t anything special, and there was some foolishness with the police that an editor should have caught, if there was any such thing as an editor any more … but I guess the main problem was that it’s the same old recipe, and the ingredients weren’t special enough to make the end product anything really out of the ordinary.

   If Healy or Roberts had written it, I imagine I’d say “decent, but he can do better.” Maybe Daniel can, too.

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

      The Alex Rasmussen series —

1. The Heaven Stone. October 1994.
2. The Skelly Man. September 1995.
3. Goofy Foot. February 2004.
4. The Marble Kite. April 2005.

RALPH DENNIS – The Buy Back Blues. (Jim) Hardman #12. Popular Library, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1977.

   In this, the last of the Hardman series, he’s hired in Chapter One to find a waitress’s missing husband, Bob, a bartender by trade. The man turns up dead, but Hardman has already made a connection between him and several break-ins and thefts in homes after parties where he’d worked. The insurance company is interested, and Hardman has a new client.

   I may be wrong — it’s been a while since I’ve read any of the earlier books in the series (over forty years) — but many of the rough edges that Hardman had in his earlier adventures have long since worn away. He’s overweight (“pudgy”), white and balding. Assisting him on all of his cases is Hump Evans, who is black, over six feet six inches tall, and a former star football player.

   There is an elephant in the room whenever this series is discussed. Both this series and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books started in 1974, and even though Dennis had the first seven Hardman books published that year, I don’t think Parker read any of them. Or as Ed Gorman once wrote, mixed race detective duos have been around since at least the days of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

   It has also been noted over the years that Hardman’s appearance (read his description above…) is at some odds with the publisher’s marketing strategy for the series, which makes the books out to be Executioner style men’s adventure paperbacks (…and compare with the cover art in the image provided). Any guy who bought one of them on the basis of the covers had to have been badly disappointed.

   But what Dennis did provide for the series is a drive that keeps the stories constantly moving, even though the stories are otherwise standard enough PI fare, and The Buy Back Blues is no exception. At the end of the book, Hardman and his off-and-on girl friend are back on again, and if the series had to end with Hardman standing at the window of a mountain cabin with Marcy still in bed while he’s watching the mist rising from the valley below, why that’s not a bad conclusion at all.

   The Jim Hardman & Hump Evans series —

Hardman 1: Atlanta Deathwatch (1974)
Hardman 2: The Charleston Knife’s Back In Town (1974)
Hardman 3: The Golden Girl & All (1974)
Hardman 4: Pimp for the Dead (1974)
Hardman 5: Down Among the Jocks (1974)
Hardman 6: Murder’s Not an Odd Job (1974)
Hardman 7: Working for the Man (1974)
Hardman 8: The Deadly Cotton Heart (1976)
Hardman 9: The One-Dollar Rip-Off (1977)
Hardman 10: Hump’s First Case (1977)
Hardman 11: The Last of the Armageddon Wars (1977)
Hardman 12: The Buy Back Blues (1977)

DANA CHAMBERS – She’ll Be Dead by Morning. Jim Steele #3. The Dial Press, hardcover, 1940. Popular Library #238, paperback, no date stated [1950]. Popular Library Eagle EB-5, paperback, 1953.

   The gimmick in this tough guy detective series is that Jim Steele is not a private eye, even though all of his cases, which he seems take on only as favors to friends of friends, are precisely the kinds of cases that PI’s take on.

   In this one he’s “hired” to help a wealthy old man to help his daughter get though the trouble she’s obviously in. He’s recently lost two of his other children to accidents, so Steele has no problem in saying yes at the same time he’s tearing up the blank check he’s offered.

   In other books in the series Steele’s day job is said to be hat of writing radio thrillers, but in this one, he calls himself only a businessman, but no ordinary businessman gets into the kind of scrape that he does in this one.

   Which starts out with a bang. Whatever trouble that Suzy is involved with, there is someone who wants him off the case, and badly. After being shot through the arm Steele is told to get out of town — to take a train to Chicago — and only if he does, will his wife be released. She has been kidnapped and in the hands of the bad guys.

   Steele gets on the train, followed closely by someone obviously assigned to keep an eye on him, but he dumps the guy off the train, follows suit and finds the man dead. He has until the train’s arrival in Chicago, which he will not be on, to find whoever has his wife and rescue her.

   An action-packed adventure story, in other words. It starts well but gets talky and sags in the middle, before ending up on a higher note, but as a full-fledged detective novel, which in my opinion was not one of the author’s stronger points. This is a case of simply going off in too many directions, in other words, but all in all it’s good enough to tell me I ought to find time to read more of the series, most of which I already own. Unaccountably I have allowed them to sit idle for far too long.

       The Jim Steele series —

Some Day I’ll Kill You (n.) Dial 1939
Too Like the Lightning (n.) Dial 1939
She’ll Be Dead by Morning (n.) Dial 1940
The Blonde Died First (n.) Dial 1941
The Frightened Man (n.) Dial 1942
The Last Secret (n.) Dial 1943
The Case of Caroline Animus (n.) Dial 1946

PARNELL HALL – Murder. Stanley Hastings #2. Donald J. Fine, hardcover, 1987. Onyx, paperback, January 1989.

   PI Stanley Hastings first appearance was in Detective, read and reviewed be me in M*F10 [but not yet online], and as I said then, Hastings is not really a PI. More of an ambulance chaser, a self-admitted coward. The scrapes he gets into are invariably amusing, compulsively readable, and not to be missed.

   In this case a housewife in his son’s kindergarten’s car pool is also a daytime hooker, unwillingly, and Hastings is asked yo help retrieve an incriminating video tape from her pimp, whom he finds dead. Is he up to the challenge? Read this. It’s the real thing.

[FOOTNOTE.]   No, I’m not going to tell you anything about the ending. It’s not quite up to the suspense-building climax of the first book, but it wil do. What I thought I’d mention instead is that when Hastings watches the tape, he tells us exactly what is on it/ He has a problem facing his client after that, which is probably the same reaction I would have.

   Pamela Berringer’s character also changes at this point, ever so subtly, from an innocent victim to someone who has something of an upper hand. Most curious.

— Reprinted and slightly revised from Mystery*File #17, November 1989.

      The Stanley Hastings series —

Detective (1987)
Murder (1987)
Favor (1988)
Strangler (1989)
Client (1990)
Juror (1990)
Shot (1991)
Actor (1993)
Blackmail (1994)
Movie (1995)
Trial (1996)
Scam (1997)
Suspense (1998)
Cozy (2001)
Manslaughter (2003)
Hitman (2007)
Caper (2010)
Stakeout (2013)
A Fool for a Client (2016)

    Short stories —

“The Petty-Cash Killing” (November 1999, EQMM)
“The Missing Heir” (2000, The Shamus Game)
“Faking It” (2002, Most Wanted)
“Oh, What a Tangled Lanyard We Weave” (2005, Murder Most Crafty)
“Death of a Vampire” (2010, Crimes By Moonlight)
“Times Square Shuffle” (2013, Crime Square)
“The Naked and the Dead” (2015, Fifty Shades of Grey Fedora)
“The Dead Client” (2015, Dark City Lights: New York Stories)

by Francis M. Nevins

   I’ve never been a big fan of Captain Hugh Drummond but he was one of the first characters in crime fiction to swim into my ken. Among the books on my father’s shelves was a hardcover reprint of the 1920 novel that introduced Captain Hugh, titled simply BULLDOG DRUMMOND, with stills from the 1929 talkie of the same name that starred Ronald Colman.

   At around age ten, or maybe it was eleven or twelve, I tackled that book. Sixty-five years later, all I remember is that one of the king toads was a bloke named Henry Lakington who had a penchant for dissolving bodies in an acid bath. Drummond sets a trap for him and he winds up screaming madly as he lurches up a staircase after being plunged into his own tub, while Drummond intones: “Henry Lakington, the retribution is just.”

   Pretty powerful stuff for a pre-adolescent back in the early Fifties.

   I have a vague recollection that someone was found tortured with a thumbscrew, probably by Lakington, earlier in the proceedings. If only I had squirreled away my father’s copy of the book after he died, I could find out whether these juvenile memories are accurate. But I didn’t, which demonstrates, as I said before, just how little of a Drummond fan I’ve always been.

   According to the ST. JAMES GUIDE TO CRIME & MYSTERY WRITERS (1996) there are a total of ten Drummond novels. Their author was Herman Cyril McNeile (1888-1937), who served during World War I in Britain’s Royal Engineers and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His branch of service explains why in England his byline was Sapper. We’re not in England so I’ll call him McNeile.

    The fact that I own only two of the Drummond novels somewhat limited my options when I recently decided to revisit the old Bulldog. The title I chose was BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK (1933), which comes late in the series and only four years before McNeile’s death. Why I picked that one I’ll explain later.

   Despite the title — I should say despite the U.S. title because in England it was published as KNOCK-OUT — we open not with Drummond but with another McNeile character, a wealthy cricket-playing amateur sleuth named Ronald Standish who never caught on as Cap’n Hugh did. On a blustery evening in March, while relaxing in his rooms in London’s Clarges Street, Standish receives a phone call from James Sanderson, a high Home Office poohbah, which is cut off almost as soon as it begins.

   Suspecting foul play, Standish rushes into the night, breaks into Sanderson’s house in Hampstead five minutes away, and finds the man dead at his desk with a horrible hole through his eye. No sooner has he found the body when someone else enters Sanderson’s study. That visitor turns out to be Bulldog Drummond, and both adventurers quickly find themselves in hot water of the Edgar Wallace variety.

   The constable summoned by Sanderson’s butler turns out to be a fake. While Drummond and Standish are out fetching the real police, Sanderson’s house is invaded and torched. Back in the Clarges Street flat, Standish is drugged with his own whiskey — a fate Cap’n Hugh avoids by happening to choose beer as his tipple — and the place is invaded by three heavies whose casual conversation leads the undrugged Drummond to two more of the ungodly, a prominent surgeon and a beautiful blonde film star, and so on and on into the depths of a plot by international moneymen to sabotage the already staggering British economy.

   From the secondary literature one gets the distinct impression that McNeile’s once-famous protagonist is a xenophobic brute with no redeeming social qualities. We naturally expect that if a Jewish character should rear his hook-nosed head in a Drummond novel he’d be the worst sort of anti-Semitic stereotype.

   Surprise! Samuel Aaronstein, proprietor of a second-hand clothing store in Whitechapel and purveyor of disguises whenever the Bulldog needs one, bears no trace of what we might expect to find in McNeile unless one takes offense at a character who says vell for well and vith for with.

   Another of the surprises in STRIKES BACK I’d call neither pleasant nor unpleasant but just surprising. The lovely blonde film star I mentioned earlier turns out to be a clone of none other than Mae West. “Say, big boy,” she says after meeting Drummond at a party, “you’re talking boloney.” And later: “Come and see me some time, big man.”

   If you object that such lines don’t sound veddy British, McNeile agrees with you. “Say, Miss Frensham,” she says later to her secretary, who is now serving as the mole in the enemy camp, “I guess it’s customary in this country to give notice, the same as in mine.” There can be little doubt what country she’s claiming as her own. In other scenes McNeile forgets that the woman is supposed to be a Yank and gifts her with conventional Brit locutions.

   For xenophobia hunters the prime target in STRIKES BACK is the man behind the conspiracy to cripple the British economy, a cueball-headed Greek with the unsubtle name of Demonico who has a penchant for disguising himself as an old woman if things get too hot. He is sporting this getup at the climax when Drummond puts a hole in him.

   The reason I decided to dig into this particular McNeile novel is that at least nominally it was the basis for perhaps the best of the many movies about Cap’n Hugh that came out during the first dozen years of talkies. BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK (20th Century/United Artists, 1934), like its predecessor BULLDOG DRUMMOND (Goldwyn/united Artists, 1929), starred Ronald Colman.

   Featured in the cast were Loretta Young as Lola Field and Warner Oland as the wily Prince Achmed. Neither these nor any other characters in the movie have counterparts in the novel, except of course that Achmed is as slimy a foreigner as the novel’s Demonico. Dealing as it does with the disappearance of Loretta Young’s uncle under circumstances that make it appear he never existed, the movie’s plot anticipates Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES (1938) and several thematically similar stories by Cornell Woolrich like “All at Once, No Alice” and “Finger of Doom” (both 1940), but you’ll find nothing remotely akin to it in McNeile’s novel.

   For anyone who wants a quick and painless refresher course on the complete run of Drummond movies — right down to the laughable attempt in the late Sixties to turn Cap’n Hugh into a James Bond clone — the reading assignments are Chapter 6 of William K. Everson’s THE DETECTIVE IN FILM (1972) and pages 61-73 of Jon Tuska’s THE DETECTIVE IN HOLLYWOOD (1978).

   Bill Everson (1929-1996) was a good friend of mine for several decades. When the two of us put together an elaborate mystery film series 30 years ago for St. Louis County’s Webster University, STRIKES BACK was one of the pictures on the program. What makes it work, we said in our program note, is that the men who made it, primarily director Roy Del Ruth and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, trashed McNeile’s right-wing xenophobia and reconfigured Drummond as “a dashing, romantic, essentially comic character, all his adventures played tongue in cheek.”

   For the Bulldog of the airwaves all you need to read is the entry on the series in John Dunning’s ON THE AIR: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OLD-TIME RADIO (1998). I’ve never sampled this program, which was usually set on the American side of the pond and, says Dunning, “was remembered for years by people who thought it better than it was.”

   The most recent incarnation of Cap’n Hugh was in the parodic stage play BULLSHOT CRUMMOND (1974) and the later movie of the same name (1983). “Much of the play’s humor,” we learn from Wikipedia, “comes from its audacious (and intentionally failed) efforts to recreate film effects on stage.” The script was “designed to be performed by only five actors, one of whom plays seven characters.”

   On my birthday many years ago I happened to be in San Francisco, where the play was first performed, and was taken to see it by a former student, a mercurial little sexpot who had left St. Louis and settled in the city she found so beautiful she could never live anywhere else.

   I remember nothing of the play. The woman with whom I took it in I immortalized, if that’s the word, in three of my Loren Mensing novels plus a Milo Turner short story. On paper she still lives. In real life she died horribly in her early fifties. Thank you, Lou Gehrig. Not.


LES ROBERTS – The Lake Effect. Milan Jacovich #5. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1994; paperback, 2000.

   I’m continually bemused by the fact that everyone doesn’t share my opinion that Les Roberts is in the top rank of currently practicing PI writers. Over the last two or three years I don’t think that anyone in that group other than Larry Block has written as consistently well as he has.

   Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich owes someone a favor. He doesn’t like owing favors in general, and he really doesn’t like this one, because it’s to the heir of Cleveland’s reigning capo. The payback seems harmess enough: Jacovich is to act as security consultant to a mayoral political campaign in one of Cleveland’s affluent suburbs. Milan can’t figure out why this mobster wants him there, but it doesn’t take him long to put his talents to good use.

   Jacovich is one of the best-characterized of today’s PI’s to me. He’s bright, and he’s tough, and he has a stern, somewhat inflexible moral code that gives him — and others — problems at times. Personal morality is a theme that pervades all of Roberts’ fiction, and to his credit it is never dealt with in a simplistic fashion.

   The philosophical underpinnings are never obtrusive, though, and Roberts tells a well-paced story in excellent prose. He handles all aspects of the novelist’s craft well, but his strengths are his characters, his prose, and the fine sense of place that permeates his books, particularly in the case of Jacovich’s Cleveland, which he obviously loves.

   This another good one from a very good writer.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #16, November 1994.

      The Milan Jacovich series —

Pepper Pike (1988)
Full Cleveland (1989)
Deep Shaker (1991)
The Cleveland Connection (1993)
The Lake Effect (1994)
The Duke Of Cleveland (1995)
Collision Bend (1996).
Cleveland Local (1997).
A Shoot in Cleveland (1998).
The Best Kept Secret (1999).
The Indian Sign (2000).
The Dutch (2001)
The Irish Sports Pages (2002)
King of the Holly Hop (2008)
The Cleveland Creep (2011) !
Whiskey Island (2012)
Win, Place or Die (2013; written with Dan S. Kennedy).
The Ashtabula Hat Trick (2015)

DAVID EVERSON – Rebound. Robert Miles #2. Ivy, paperback original; 1st printing, September 1988.

   While Robert Miles is a PI (Mid-Continental Op and Associates), his specialty is political intelligence. Of course you realize that this is as much a contradiction in terms as “student athlete.” which is what this story is all about: an impending basketball scandal.

   Lincoln Heritage University is also where Miles’s wife (separated but amicably so) happens to work. All this background is interesting, but except on occasions mow and then, this is merely adequate PI fare. What Everson has to do is to make it both leaner and meaner.

— Slightly revised from Mystery*File #20, March 1990.

      The Robert Miles series —

Recount (1987)
Rebound (1988)
Instant Replay (1989)
Rematch (1989)
A Capital Killing (1990)
Suicide Squeeze (1991)
False Profits (1992)

    Short stories:

“Catnap” (1991, Cat Crimes)
“Operation: Trojan Horse” (1991, Solved)

HAROLD ADAMS – The Man Who Met the Train. Carl Wilcox #7. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1988; paperback, May 1989.

   Although in the past Carl Wilcox has been on both sides of the law, at the beginning of The Man Who Met the Train he is a itinerant sign painter, working his way around 1930s Depression-era South Dakota, making ends meet when and how circumstances allow. When he comes across a one-car auto accident in which three are dead, one is seriously injured and a small four-year-old girl is pulled to safety unscratched, circumstances allow him to put on his favorite guise, that of private detective.

   Working for both the local judge and then the town banker (but not at the same time), Wilcox finds himself more and more the center of both the town’s curiosity and hostility, and as he does so, incidentally solves the murder of the young girl’s father, a genius with numbers who could not hold his liquor and who was assumed to have had a fatal accident or committed suicide (perhaps) by walking in front of an ongoing train not long before.

   Although he had his own distinctive style, Adams wrote as closely in the mode of Dashiell Hammett as any author I can think of. His stories are as definitely hardboiled as they come, but they come fully equipped with an underlying sensibility that shows how deeply he understood people too. And it’s not the plot that’s the key in this one. It’s the people in it that makes this story sing.

        The Carl Wilcox series —

1. Murder (1981)
2. Paint the Town Red (1982)
3. The Missing Moon (1983)
4. The Naked Liar (1985)
5. The Fourth Widow (1986)
6. The Barbed Wire Noose (1987)
7. The Man Who Met the Train (1988)
8. The Man Who Missed the Party (1989)
9. The Man Who Was Taller Than God (1992)
10. A Perfectly Proper Murder (1993)
11. A Way with Widows (1994)
12. The Ditched Blonde (1995)
13. Hatchet Job (1996)
14. The Ice Pick Artist (1997)
15. No Badge, No Gun (1998)
16. Lead, So I Can Follow (1999)

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