Characters


REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


SARAH DUNANT – Birth Marks. Hannah Wolfe #1. Doubleday, hardcover, 1992. First published in the UK: Michael Joseph, hardcover, 1991.

   This is Sarah Dunant’s second mystery, but the first (I believe) featuring London-based private detective Hannah Wolfe.’ I believe we have a winner here.

   Hannah accepts a job that’s basically a missing persons case — young ballet dancer hasn’t send her more-or-less adopted mother a card when she should have, and the woman is concerned. Though Hannah first believes that the young woman simply wanted not to be found, she takes the case because she needs the money. After the investigation has begun, but before anything substantive has been learned, the missing dancer is fished out of the Thames, dead, an apparent suicide, eight months pregnant.

   Based on what she’s learned, Hannah doesn’t believe it,`nor does someone else: she is retained by an anonymous client to investigate further. The` trail leads to Paris, and leads Hannah into an ever-deepening questioning of her own feelings about motherhood.

   Hannah Wolfe was not only believable, but appealing, and altogether the best feminine PI I’ve met in a long while. The character was beautifully developed, as were those of her sister, her ex-boss and “mentor,” and several others. Dunant’s prose style is literate and understated, and the narrative flow was very good.

   This was an excellent book. There were no unbelievable characters, the plot made sense, the writing was fine, and it didn’t end in an orgy of violence. I don’t want to go overboard, but I liked this better than any first book (for me) Ive read in a while. You need to give this lady a try.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #5, January 1993.


       The Hannah Wolfe series —

Birth Marks. Joseph, 1991.
Fatlands. H. Hamilton, 1993.
Under My Skin. H. Hamilton, 1995.

ANDREW BERGMAN – The Big Kiss-Off of 1944. Holt Rinehart & Winston, hardcover, 1974. Ballantine, paperback, March 1975. Perennial Library P673, paperback, 1983.

   Andrew Bergman’s novels about Manhattan-based private eye Jack LeVine are very much in the Raymond Chandler vein, which is not a bad vein to be in at all.

   From page 15:

   I really wanted to soak up the box scores, to follow the exploits of wartime baseball’s one-armed outfielders, and blind, deaf and dumb infielders, but I was trying to figure how I had wandered into a murder in a space of two hours. World wars were all very interesting, but the stiff in 805 had me staring into my coffee long before I could drink it. The feeling was unmistakable. I have it one one case a year, maybe every year and a half. I was getting in over my head.

   Jack is a big guy, bald, Jewish, once married but no longer, smokes Luckies, drinks Blatz, and is a very good guy for a Broadway chorus girl being blackmailed for making the wrong kind of movie to have on her side. What Jack doesn’t count on is that the case will end up with him deeply involved in the Roosevelt-Dewey election campaign of 1944.

   Mr. Dewey, in fact, makes a major appearance. Mr. Roosevelt does not. Mr. Bergman, who later on became a well-known scriptwriter and director, knew his way around a typewriter even at this early date, and the story goes down nice and easy. Very enjoyable.

Bibliographic Note:   There was one immediate followup novel, Hollywood and LeVine (Holt, 1975), then nothing was heard from Mr. LeVine for over 25 years, when Tender Is LeVine came out from St. Martin’s in 2001.

CHARLES KNIEF – Emerald Flash. St. Martin’s, hardcover, April, 1999; paperback, May 2000.

   Opening paragraph:

   The first time I saw Margo Halliday she was stark naked, running for all she was worth down a Honolulu alley in the middle of the night.

   Telling the story is ex-SEAL and now Hawaii-based private eye John Caine. Emerald Flash is the third of four recorded adventures.

   Chasing Margo Halliday is her ex-husband:

   The big man jogged past and I dropped him with a flying kick, He went down easy but refused to let go of the pistol, so I broke his wrist and he gave it up. All the fight went out of him. He deflated like an octopus brought up on a lure and dropped into the bottom of a canoe, when it knew it was going to die.

   Caine doesn’t see Margo again until seven months later, when she is accused of killing her ex-husband. Not only that, but hard on her trail is a gang of Colombian thugs, and for good reason. They think she is somehow in possession of a fortune in stolen emeralds. She remembers Caine, and she calls on him for help.

   He does, but it isn’t easy. I was reminded of John D. MacDonald in a couple of ways, not only the obvious one, but Caine also has a philosophy of life very similar to that of a certain Travis McGee. But there is a difference: no matter how close he and Margo get as man and woman, they sleep in separate beds, and none of the McGee books had the same amount of firepower that is called upon in this one: rifles, grenades, Glocks, even an elephant gun.

   Somewhat toward the end of the book:

   It had been a year of extremes. I felt good and fit. My wounds all had healed. I had gone up against powerful enemies and had vanquished them all, including the one who had ordered my destruction.

   And now it was over.

   It’s not a perfect book. Too much of the story depends on things that happened in earlier ones, for example, and a long, lengthy portion of the book consists of Caine and Margo on the run, which with all of the aforementioned firepower is exciting enough for two or three books, but crammed into just this one, it somehow managed to slow the pace down rather than enhance it.

   On the other hand, when things are going a little slower, Caine manages to get along with a brain as well as brawn, and is as quick with a quip as Jon Stewart on a good night, and that’s very good indeed.

       The John Caine series —

Diamond Head (1996)
Sand Dollars (1998)
Emerald Flash (1999)
Silversword (2001)

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


GASTON LEROUX “The Woman with the Velvet Collar.” First published in English in Weird Tales, October 1929. Reprinted in Startling Mystery Stories, Spring 1969, and in several anthologies of weird fiction since. Originally published in French as “La femme au collier de velours” in 1924.

   Although it took me a while to become fully immersed in Gaston Leroux’s “The Woman With the Velvet Collar,” by the story’s end I was left with the indelible impression that I had just read a well-crafted horror tale. First appearing in English translation in Weird Tales, Leroux’s conte cruel transports the reader to Corsica, a land known for its vendettas and its cultural and physical separateness from mainland France.

   “The Woman With the Velvet Collar” unfolds with a discussion between two sailors, a sea captain named Gobert and his friend, Michel. The two men are discussing Corsican vendetta stories, with Gobert assuring Michel that he has a story that is far more horrifying than any run of the mill vendetta. The tale further unfolds as Gobert begins to tell a story within a story, about his experiences in Corsica in which he encountered a ghost like woman dressed all in black and with a black velvet ribbon around her neck.

   As it turns out, the woman was named Angeluccia and she was married to a local Corsican official. But she kept a secret from her husband! She was secretly romantically involved with her cousin, one of her husband’s employees. Without giving too much of the plot away, let’s just say that the guillotine makes a bloody appearance in this fiendishly clever tale about what happens when a costume party in which Angeluccia dresses up as Marie Antoinette turns into the beginning of a dark foray into the supernatural.

Bibliographic Note:   Captain Michel also appeared in three additional stories:

       Le noël du petit Vincent-Vincent (1924); The Crime on Christmas Night (1930).
       Not’ Olympe (1924); The Mystery of the Four Husbands (1929).
       L’auberge épouvantable (1925); The Inn of Terror (1929).

JACK LYNCH – Seattle. Warner, paperback original, October 1985. Reprinted under the author’s original title Yesterday is Dead, Brash Books, softcover, May 2015.

   Jack Lynch, who died in 2008, was a long time newspaper reporter who began his career in Seattle before moving to San Francisco and the Chronicle, then quitting to write eight PI Pete Bragg novels, all but the last paperback originals in the 1980s. Of these one won a Edgar and two received Shamus nominations.

   The books came out during a time in my life when I was buying paperbacks like crazy but reading almost none of them. This is the first of the Bragg books that I’ve read, and I have to knock myself on the side of head and wonder why.

   The information that the original title for this, the seventh in the series and the last until 17 years later, came from the Thrilling Detective website, and as is often the case in situations like this, the original title, Yesterday Is Dead, is better. In this book Bragg, who is based in San Francisco, makes a return trip to his home town of Seattle to help a friend who’s in trouble, and along the way he finds that going home is almost never as easy as it sounds.

   The friend is Benny Bartlett, a mild-mannered photographer and freelance writer whose life has been threatened. If he doesn’t get out of town, he’s been warned, he’s going to be killed. Bragg drops everything at once and heads northward to Seattle, where he hasn’t been in five years.

   In the course of helping Benny with his problem, Bragg’s path crosses those of several distinctive women, one of them his ex-wife Lorna. Sparks fly with at least two of them, including Lorna. It also shouldn’t come as any surprise that several seemingly unconnected threads of the story are connected, in a fairly prosaic fashion.

   But it is Bragg as a character, who tells his own story, that’s the fascination here. Over the years he’s changed a lot, Lorna says, he’s tougher now, and in the course of his stay in Seattle, he takes an graphically described beating with perhaps an even more painful recovery. He learns even more about himself in Seattle, and for me it’s a bit of a shame that this last novel turns out to me to be the first one I read. Worse, though, I’m sure, for fans of the series at the time, as it took longer and longer for a next book to occur, it left them wondering if there would ever be another one.

      The PI Peter Bragg series —

Bragg’s Hunch. Gold Medal, 1981.

The Missing and the Dead. Gold Medal, 1982.
Pieces of Death. Gold Medal, 1982.
Sausalito. Warner, 1984.
San Quentin. Warner, 1984.

Monterey. Warner, 1985.
Seattle. Warner, 1985.
Wolf House. iUniverse, 2002.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MICHAEL BOWEN – Faithfully Executed. Richard Michaelson #2, St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1992. No paperback edition.

   I enjoyed both this and the first Michaelson novel, Washington Deceased. Michaelson is a retired foreign service officer, now with the Brookings Institution. He is somewhat of a Washington insider, and is shamelessly angling for a high ranking post with the`next administration.

   The Michaelson novels remind me somewhat of Ross Thomas in their plots and general outlook on the world of politics, though Bowen isn’t the writer that Thomas is. He’s more than adequate, though, and writes entertainingly. He’s also written two baseball mysteries that I haven’t had the opportunity to read, and one other non-series mystery.

   The current book deals with the murder of a man about to be executed, plots to rig computerized elections results, and various other kinds of skullduggery. Recommended for those who enjoy political goings on mixed with mayhem.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #4, November 1992.


      The Richard Michaelson series —

1. Washington Deceased (1990)

2. Faithfully Executed (1992)
3. Corruptly Procured (1994)
4. Worst Case Scenario (1996)
5. Collateral Damage (1999)

Other Bibliographic Notes:   Bowen has written three books in his Thomas & Sandrine Cadette Curry series, taking place in New York in the 1960s, but only the second, Fielder’s Choice, appears to have baseball as part of its plot. Since the year 2000, Bowen has also written five books in a series featuring Rep & Melissa Pennyworth. Rep is an attorney who keeps running across cases of murder.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MATT & BONNIE TAYLOR – Neon Dancers. Palmer Kingston #2. Walker, hardcover, 1991. No paperback edition.

   This is the second in a series set in an unnamed Florida city featuring two reporters: Palmer Kingston and his lover and rival, A. J. Egan.

   Kingston is something of an eccentric, living in a garish mansion surrounded by neon signs and antique cars. Egan is a tenant in the mansion. If it all sounds a little strange, well, it is. The story, though, is a relatively straightforward tale of hijinks with the zoning board, a U. S. Attorney out to make a name for himself, and various parties trying to either aid or thwart his and the zoning board’s designs.

   The attorney turns up dead, and Kingston has problems with A. J., his publisher, the law, and just about everybody else. I found him to be a very likeable character, the milieu an interesting one, and the Taylors’ storytelling skills more than adequate.

   In short, I liked it, and will hunt up the first in the series. Recommended.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #4, November 1992.


      — The Palmer Kingston & A. J. Egan series:

Neon Flamingo. Dodd Mead, 1987.
Black Dutch. Walker, April 1991.
Neon Dancers. Walker, November 1991.

KIN PLATT – The Screwball King Murder. Random House, hardcover, 1978. No paperback edition.

   Private eye Max Roper’s latest sports-related caper involves the not-so-accidental drowning of a flaky left-hander who had just signed a million-dollar contract to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

   Murder follows Roper like a well-trained puppy, but baseball fans will be disappointed to learn that the motive for Hondo Kenyon’s death really lies in the totally antithetical world of skin flicks and acid rock.

   Slick, and superficial, detective work.

Rating:   C.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1978. This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.


      The Max Roper series —

The Pushbutton Butterfly (1970)

The Kissing Gourami (1973)
The Princess Stakes Murder (1973)
The Giant Kill (1974)
Match Point for Murder (1975)
The Body Beautiful Murder (1976)

The Screwball King Murder (1978)

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   I can’t claim to have read all 70-odd Maigret novels, but I’ve been reading them off-and-on since my teens and I still find many of them fascinating, especially the ones from the Thirties. Unfortunately my French isn’t good enough to allow me to read them as Simenon wrote them, but over the years I’ve sometimes wound up with two different translations of the same book, and a number of them are now being translated yet a third time. Reading two translations side by side is a heady experience, especially if you put on your detective cap and try to figure out what is and what isn’t in the original.

   There were characters a bit like Maigret and characters actually going by that name in a few of the more than 200 pulp novels Simenon wrote under a dozen or so pseudonyms in the 1920s, but the first genuine Maigret was PIETR-LE-LETTON, which was written in 1929 and published by A. Fayard et cie two years later as either the third or the fifth in the monthly Maigret series. In the States, as THE STRANGE CASE OF PETER THE LETT (1933), it was the fourth of six early Maigrets published by the Covici Friede firm.

   I am lucky enough to have a copy of that edition. No translator is credited but various sources in print and online claim that Simenon’s French was first rendered into English by Anthony Abbot. As all lovers of detection know, Abbot was the name under which best-selling novelist Fulton Oursler (1893-1952), following the lead of S. S. Van Dine, both signed and narrated the cases of New York City police commissioner Thatcher Colt, published originally by Covici Friede.

   Many decades ago I read all the Abbot novels and wrote an essay about them which in its final form can be found in my CORNUCOPIA OF CRIME (2010). I had heard the rumor that Oursler had translated the early Maigrets but, since he had died when I was a child, I couldn’t ask him. I did however write his son Will Oursler (1913-1985), who was also a part-time mystery writer both under his own name and as Gale Gallagher and Nick Marino.

   In a letter dated January 4, 1970 — My God! More than 46 years ago! — he replied as follows: “[M]y father did not make the actual translation as he simply was not that fluent in French. It is more probable that most of his effort was in the area of editing and polishing after the translation was done. It is certain that he would not have been capable of translating six Maigret novels.”

   The second translation of PIETR-LE-LETTON, retitled MAIGRET AND THE ENIGMATIC LETT, was by Daphne Woodward, published in 1963 as a Penguin paperback and sold in the U.S. for 65 cents. According to Steve Trussel’s priceless Maigret website, the Woodward version “is much closer to Simenon’s French text, the first being wayward at times.”

   Even without the French text at hand, I’ve found indications that Trussel is right. The novel features an American millionaire staying in the posh Hotel Majestic who is strangely connected with Pietr. The 1933 translation gives his name as Mortimer Livingston, which seems perfectly proper for the character. Daphne Woodward renders the name as Mortimer-Levingston, which is silly but consistent with the young Simenon’s ignorance of all things American.

   This character has a secretary, staying in London but never seen or spoken to. His name in the 1933 translation is Stone, which sounds fine. In Woodward’s rendition he’s called Stones, which is dreadful but again consistent with Simenon’s ignorance. It seems clear that the anonymous original translator went out of his or her way to Americanize various details in the novel that Simenon flubbed. Or was that part of the polishing job by Fulton Oursler?

   Written before Maigret and his world had crystallized in Simenon’s creative mind, PIETR-LE-LETTON is significantly different from almost all the later novels in the series. For one thing, it’s much more violent, with a total of four murders (the work of three different murderers) plus a suicide, committed in Maigret’s presence and with his gun.

   There’s also a great deal more physical action, with Maigret racing from Paris to the Normandy fishing port of F camp and out over the rocks along the muddy seacoast after his chief adversary despite being half-frozen and having been shot in the chest! But there’s a genuine battle of nerves between Maigret and his quarry, more intense and existential than their counterparts in many later books in the series, and the evocation of atmosphere which was Simenon’s trademark is as powerful as in the finest films noir. In either translation this debut novel is a gem.

***

   In 2014 Penguin Classics released yet another translation, this one by David Bellos and bearing the title PETER THE LATVIAN. Did some political correctness guru decide that Lett was a demeaning term like Polack? And what did Bellos make of passages like the beginning of Chapter 13? In Woodward’s version: “Every race has its own smell, loathed by other races…. In Anna Gorskin’s room you could cut it with a knife…. Flaccid sausages of a repulsive shade of pink, thickly speckled with garlic. A plate with some fried fish floating in a sour liquid.”

   There’s nothing like that first sentence in the 1933 rendition, perhaps because Fulton Oursler cut it out, but we do get to see and smell the “horrible pink sausages, flabby to the touch and filled with garlic” and “a platter containing the remains of a fried fish swimming in a sour-smelling sauce….” Need I mention that this scene takes place in the rue du Roi-de-Sicile, in Paris’s Jewish ghetto?

***

   While fine-tuning this month’s column I discovered that there really was, or at least might have been, a Latvian criminal named Pietr. He was known as Peter the Painter and his real name may have been Pietr Piatkow, or perhaps Gederts Eliass or Janis Zhaklis. He seems to have emigrated from East Europe to London where he joined an ethnic gang that stole in order to fund their radical political activities.

   He is believed to have taken part in the infamous Siege of Sidney Street which inspired the climax of Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), although a brief sketch in England’s Dictionary of National Biography warns us that “None of the … biographical ‘facts’ about him … is altogether reliable.”

   Whether Simenon had ever heard of this man remains unknown, but in any event the fictional Pietr the Lett is not a leftist radical, does not commit crimes of violence and turns out not even to be Latvian. Which raises another mystery: Why did Simenon call the guy Pietr the Lett? Pietr the Estonian — or the Esty? — would have sounded ridiculous even in French, but there’s absolutely no reason in the novel why he couldn’t have been a genuine Latvian. Ah well, c’est la vie.

***

   Train murders were something of a Simenon specialty. Of course, when such a crime takes place in a Maigret, it’s bound to lose intensity and vividness simply because we can’t be there to witness it. This is certainly true of the first murder in PIETR-LE-LETTON, and it’s also true of a Maigret short story dating from about seven years later.

   We learn from Steve Trussel’s website that “Jeumont, 51 minutes d’arrêt!” was written in October 1936 and, along with more than a dozen other shorts from the same period, was first collected in France as LES NOUVELLES ENQU TES DE MAIGRET (1944). It was never included in any collection of Maigret shorts published in English but did appear in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 1966, as “Inspector Maigret Deduces,” with no translator credit and with an unaccountable 1961 copyright date.

   (The FictionMags Index explains the date — the story’s first appearance in English was in the UK edition of Argosy for October 1961—and identifies the translator as one J.E. Malcolm.)

   As in PIETR-LE-LETTON, Maigret tackles a murder on a train, this one bound from Warsaw to Berlin to Liège in Belgium (Simenon’s birthplace) to Erquelinnes (on the Belgian side of the border with France) to Jeumont (just across the line on the French side) and on to Paris, except that one of the six passengers in a particular compartment is found dead in his seat at Jeumont. The dead man is a wealthy German banker named Otto Bauer.

   Called in by his railroad-detective nephew, Maigret gets in touch with his Berlin counterparts and learns that Bauer was forced out of the banking business “after the National Socialist revolution, but gave an undertaking of loyalty to the Government, and has never been disturbed….” and also that he’s “[c]ontributed one million marks to party funds.”

   Clearly, despite his name, Bauer was a Jew, and was desperately trying to escape Nazi Germany with whatever money he could salvage. That element is what makes this tale unique among the Maigret stories of the late Thirties. At least in translation there’s not a word of sympathy for the victim, not a word of disgust for the regime he was fleeing. For Maigret, and for Simenon I fear, it’s just another factor in another case. The murder weapon, by the way, turns out to be a needle, which was also one of the murder weapons in PIETR-LE-LETTON although not the one used in the train killing.

***

   I wouldn’t venture to guess how many train murders can be found in Simenon’s stand-alone novels, but the most vivid and intense that I can recall takes place in Chapter 2 of LE LOCATAIRE (1934; translated by Stuart Gilbert as THE LODGER in the two-in-one volume ESCAPE IN VAIN, 1943). Elie Nagear, a desperate young Turkish Jew, bludgeons to death a wealthy Dutch entrepreneur with whom he’s sharing a couchette on the night train from Brussels to Paris after it crosses the French border. (In European trains of the Thirties a couchette was a small chamber used as sleeping quarters by two and sometimes four total strangers.) On the run from the police, he takes a train back to Belgium and holes up in a boarding house for foreign students in the city of Charleroi.

   In Chapter 9 there’s a brief conversation between Elie and a fellow roomer. “They were talking in the papers of the difference between French and Belgian law. Well, suppose someone who’s being proceeded against in Belgium by the French police commits a crime in Brussels, or some other Belgian town…. What I mean is, that a man who’s liable to the death penalty in France might happen to commit a crime in Belgium. In that case, it seems to follow that he should first be tried in Belgium, if it’s in that country he’s arrested. And it also follows, doesn’t it, that he should serve his sentence in that country?”

   What Simenon assumes his readers know is that France at this time still had the death penalty while Belgium had abolished it. On May 10, 1933, in Boullay-les-Trous, a village south of Paris, an obese pornographer named Hyacinthe Danse, who was known to Simenon, murdered both his mother and his mistress. Fearing that he’d be caught and guillotined, Danse took the train to Liège in Belgium, where on May 12 he murdered his childhood confessor (and also Simenon’s), a Jesuit priest named Hault, and then turned himself in.

   This case was apparently still pending in Belgium when Simenon wrote LE LOCATAIRE. Sure enough, in December 1934 Danse was convicted of Hault’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, meaning that he couldn’t be extradited to France and stand trial for the other murders until he was dead. Less than two years later, Simenon turned the Danse story into a short Maigret, included as “Death Penalty” in the collection MAIGRET’S PIPE (1977) and discussed in my column for September 2015.

   Which is enough journey to France for one month. Or, as they say on the left bank of the Seine: basta.

JOHN LUTZ – Buyer Beware. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1976. Paperjacks, paperback, 1986. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1992.

   Private eyes tend to specialize these days. Alo, Nudger, for example, comes highly recommended in child custody cases. That he’s not the hard-boiled type is well illustrated by his dependence on antacid tablets, but enough money can overcome many qualms.

   Murder is not in his line, but once persuaded, he takes his investigation into the efficient world of business and finance, which is faced with a deadly extension of the rules it plays by.

   Lutz has an eye for people and background that adds greatly to a tale that holds its own most of the way, yet I did wish the scheme were not ultimately so far-fetched, made all the more so by the rushed wrap-up.

Rating: C plus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 4, July 1977. This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.

      The Alo Nudger series —

1. Buyer Beware (1976)
2. Night Lines (1985)

3. The Right to Sing the Blues (1986)
4. Ride the Lightning (1987)
5. Dancer’s Debt (1988)

6. Time Exposure (1989)
7. Diamond Eyes (1990)
8. Thicker Than Blood (1993)

9. Death by Jury (1995)
10. Oops! (1998)
11. The Nudger Dilemmas (story collection, 2001)

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