Characters


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)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


C. J. HENDERSON – No Free Lunch. Jack Hagee #1. Diamond, paperback original, 1992.

   Jack Hagee had his genesis in Wayne Dundee’s Hardboiled, and the short stories were collcted by Gary Lovisi under the title What You Pay For (Gryphon Publications, 1990). I’ve seen them in neither form. Hagee is an ex-cop from Pittsburgh, and his home now is New York City. It’s a Big Apple decayed as that of Vachss and Solamita, and the first few pages are as grim, angst-ridden, and overwritten as anything you are likely to see.

   Hagee is visited by a singularly unappetizing fat man from Pennsylvania, whose fianceé has disappeared. The would-be client fears she has fallen with bad company at home and come with them to NYC, and wants Hagee to find her. Hagee, reluctant but broke, accepts the case.

   A trip to the Pennsylvania hometown reveals that the lady was a tramp and the client not as harmless as he appeared. Hagee returns to the city and begins hunting down the players. When he starts finding them people begin to die.

   This got some nice advance notices, including one by Richard Prather likening the thrill he got from it to the one he had upon reading Raymond Chandler. I’m not sure about Prather; maybe his memory failed him, or could be he mistook indigestion for a thrill. Something, anyway.

   Prose sample describing a woman’s red hair: “It jumped in long, fierce waves whenever she turned her head, crashing against her bare shoulders like the tide against white sand. It teased the blood with sparkling shocks — flaming crackles, the kind of look men kill their best friends over.” It all sounds painful.

   The writing gets in the way of the story. In some places it’s pretty good writing, in some places abysmally bad. but it gets in the way of the story. The whole thing was suggestive to me of an attempt by Mickey Spillane to imitate Raymond Chandler. There’s enough mindless violence and brutality to make up five modern PI novels. If you liked Spillane and Mike Hammer, you might like Henderson and Jack Hagee. I did (sort of), but I don’t.

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


      The Jack Hagee novels –

No Free Lunch (1992)
Something For Nothing (1993)

Nothing Lasts Forever (1994)

   Jack Hagee has also appeared in short stories and graphic novels. For more information, please consult the Thrilling Detective website.

GRET LANE – Death Prowls the Cove. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, no date stated but known to be 1942.

   Nothing much seems to be known about Gret Lane, author of 13 works of crime and detective published in England between 1925 and 1943, except that the name itself is a pseudonym. The first two are standalone tales, two others are cases tackled (and solved, one presumes) by a policeman by the name of Inspector Hook. All of the rest (nine in all) feature an amateur originally named Kate Clare, but once she is married, she is Kate Marsh, as she is in Death Prowls the Cove.

   And in eight of the nine, she is paired up with a police inspector named John Barrin, but by the time Cove was written, and perhaps for some time before, he had retired from Scotland Yard. Both families, Kate and her husband Tony Marsh (who writes adventure tales), and Barrin and his wife Jennie (a matron of 60 or so who knits a lot) now live in semi-detached cottages in the small town of White Owl Cove along the shore in South Devon.

   Between them they have two maids, Polly and Sarah, sisters who in turn are engaged to two former miscreants, now totally reformed, from earlier books, named Bill and Jo-Jo. Dead not too far into the book is Jo-Jo’s Uncle Pierre, a former smuggler who has come to live in England from France.

   Suspected are Uncle Pierre’s former colleagues in crime; Bob Daw, a loutish local poacher of a fellow who had an argument with the dead man in a local drinking establishment before his death; a coterie of neighbors high above the cove who act very suspiciously; and Bill or Jo-Jo themselves, separately or together.

   This is a very cozy affair, with lots of huddled plans and strategies on the part of the combined two households, along with a local police inspector who is more than willing to let both Kate and John Berrin have the way with the investigation.

   And any self-respecting criminal who begin to beware when Kate starts reflectively rubbing the side of her nose. I hope I haven’t made this as unexciting as it is not, but truthfully the killer(s) can easily discerned by the laziest of readers — the scale and scope of the tale being so narrowly restricted as it is.

   I wouldn’t mind reading another, if I could afford it. The least expensive copy offered for sale online is in the $60 range, and some of the earlier ones have even higher price tags, if they are offered for sale anywhere at all.

       The Kate Clare (Marsh) series –

The Cancelled Score Mystery. Jenkins 1929 [JB]
The Curlew Coombe Mystery. Jenkins 1930 [JB]
The Lantern House Affair. Jenkins 1931
The Hotel Cremona Mystery. Jenkins 1932 [JB]
The Unknown Enemy. Jenkins 1933 [JB]
Death Visits the Summer-House. Jenkins 1939 [JB]
Death in Mermaid Lane. Jenkins 1940 [JB]
Death Prowls the Cove. Jenkins 1942 [JB]
The Guest with the Scythe. Jenkins 1943 [JB]

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


J. ROBERT JANES – Sandman. Soho, US, hardcover, 1996; paperback, 1998. First published in the UK by Constable, hardcover, 1996.

   The sixth in a series of novels set in occupied Paris (1943) and featuring an unlikely pair of investigators who have become friends, Louis St. Cyr of the French Sûreté, and Hermann Kohler of the German Gestapo. They investigate what are thought of as “ordinary” crimes (not connected to the ongoing occupation), which in this case is the series of rapes and murders of schoolgirls by a serial killer called the “Sandman.”

   Within the confines of the unusual situation, the novel follows a fairly conventional path, with incompetent superiors who threaten to impede the investigation by the two dogged, competent detectives.

   The distinction of the book is in its setting, a cold winter in occupied Paris, where the weather and the occupation have settled into the bones and the soul, and the believable characterizations. This is definitely a series to which I will want to return.

       The St. Cyr and Kohler series —

1. Mayhem (1992)
2. Carousel (1992)
3. Kaleidoscope (1993)

4. Salamander (1994)
5. Mannequin (1994)
6. Sandman (1994)
7. Stonekiller (1995)
8. Dollmaker (1995)

9. Gypsy (1997)
10. Madrigal (1999)
11. Beekeeper (2001)
12. Flykiller (2002)

13. Bellringer (2012)
14. Tapestry (2013)
15. Carnival (2014)

16. Clandestine (2015)

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


FRANK GRUBER – Swing Low, Swing Dead. Belmont L92-586, paperback original, April 1964. Cover art: Victor Kalin. Reprinted several times, including Belmont B75-2039, 1970.

   Once again through no fault of their own, Johnny Fletcher, masterly and maybe masterful bookseller who specializes in one title, and Sam Cragg, the strongest man in the world, are living hazardously. Sam has won all rights to a rock-and-roll song called “Apple Taffy,” the first line of which is “I love apple taffy, sweet, sweet, sticky sticky apple taffy.”

   Johnny claims this song is better than most, and adds: “The whole point and purpose of rock and roll music is to see how childish, how infantile you can make it.”

   Several people are seeking the original manuscript, some for a consideration, others for nothing, except, perhaps, the lives of Johnny and Sam. After all, someone has poisoned the original composer, and that someone is not likely to let a few more lives stand in his or her way.

   Fletcher has street smarts and Cragg has no smarts. Both of them would like to be rich, but Fletcher knows such a change in fortune would take all the fun out of their lives, such as it is, though Cragg may have a different opinion since he likes to eat regularly. Gruber`s Fletcher and Cragg novels are great fun if not sampled too often.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 1990, “Musical Mysteries.”


       The Johnny Fletcher & Sam Cragg series —

The French Key. Farrar 1940.

The Laughing Fox. Farrar 1940.
The Hungry Dog. Farrar 1941.
The Navy Colt. Farrar 1941.

The Talking Clock. Farrar 1941.
The Gift Horse. Farrar 1942.
The Mighty Blockhead. Farrar 1942.
The Silver Tombstone. Farrar 1945.

The Honest Dealer. Rinehart 1947.

The Whispering Master. Rinehart 1947.
The Scarlet Feather. Rinehart 1948.
The Leather Duke. Rinehart 1949.
The Limping Goose. Rinehart 1954.
Swing Low Swing Dead. Belmont 1964.

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