Characters


REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MIKE PHILLIPS – Point of Darkness. Samson Dean #3. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1995. First published in the UK by Michael Joseph, hardcover, 1994. No US paperback edition.

   Phillips is new to me, though obviously not to everyone. The two previous tales about Sam Dean, a reporter of Anglo-Caribbean descent, have been set in London — Blood Rights and The Late Candidate. This, the first since 1991, takes place in New York City. Phillips also write the novelization of for the movie Boyz in the Hood.

   Sammy Dean is in the Big Apple to try to find the straying daughter of a boyhood friend dying in London. He’s no stranger to the city abd its Caribbean neighborhoods — Jamaica, Queens, the Bronx — but an outsider nevertheless, The girl had disappeared after working as a domestic for the aging parents of a high City official, and more people than Dean are looking for her — for reasons he doesn’t know. What seemed to be an uncomplicated if tedious and difficul task turns nasty, and he soon finds both himself and the object of his search in serious danger.

   This is blurbed as being “on the tradition of Walter Mosley.” Me, I’d have thought that Mosley was a few books shy of a “tradition” — but hey, whatever works. Phillips is a lot closer in tone ro Mosley than to Chester Himes or Barbara Neely, if that counts. Traditional or not, I liked it. Phillips seems to know his territory, and tells his story in first-person in an undramatic, semi-reflective way that I found appealing.

   The urban black/Caribbean world was new to me, and I thought he did an excellent job of painting its picture without slowing down the story. As I’ve said before, it would be foolish of me or any white man to try to judge the realism of black characters, but they seemed like real people to me, and believable and sympathetic ones. Phillips is a good writer with a different viewpoint.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #18, February-March 1995.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   One online source describes the author as having been “… born in Georgetown, Guyana. He came to Britain as a child and grew up in London. He was educated at the University of London and the University of Essex, and gained a Postgraduate Certificate of Education at Goldsmiths College, London.” Another source calls Sam Dean a “Jamaican-born, London-bred, street-smart, sexy, self-effacing, tough, and likeable black journalist.”

   There was but one more book in the series, that being An Image to Die For (1995).

RICHARD ROSEN – Saturday Night Dead. Harvey Blisssberg #3. Viking, hardcover, 1988. Signet, paperback, June 1989.

   In this third adventure of PI (and former major league baseball player) Harvey Blissberg, the death of the producer of a late-night comedy show is designed to give him a smooth transition from sports-related mysteries to the world of show business. It doesn’t work. Compared to earlier entries in the series, it’s definitely not a step up.

   There are a lot of suspects, many of whom Harvey quickly eliminates. In fact, most of the clues point one way, but it still comes as a surprise when Harvey decides who the killer is with nearly 80 pages to go. On page 233 Harvey admits his reasoning was all guesswork.

   Neither exceptionally well told, nor more than merely bland. On the basis of this one, I think Harvey had better go back to playing the outfield.

–Reprinted with some mild revisions from Mystery*File #14, July 1989.


       The Harvey Blissberg series —

Strike Three You’re Dead (1984)
Fadeaway (1986)
Saturday Night Dead (1988)
World Of Hurt (1994)
Dead Ball (2001) .

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


CAROL O’CONNELL – The Man Who Cast Two Shadows. Mallory #2. Putnam, hardcover, 1995; paperback, 1996.

   I was really afraid to read this, after liking O’Connell’s debut with Mallory’s Oracle as much as I did.

   TV news reports policewoman Kathy Mallory dead at 6 o’clock, but she’s not. Someone who resembled her and was wearing one of her castoff coats is, however, and Malory naturally takes an interest in who she was and who saw to it that she wasn’t any more.

   Mallory is technically on suspension because of a shooting incident, but she doesn’t fret about technicalities. She quickly determines by computer-aided deduction that the killer must live in a particular building, and shortly thereafter is ensconced in the same building, determined to smoke him out.

   But there are several suspects, and though Mallory wouldn’t agree, there seems to be some question as to who is the hunter, and who the prey.

   This didn’t have the impact on me that Mallory’s Oracle had. Having said that, I should probably say that there’s a real tendency on my part (and I imagine on that of most of us) to judge the follow-up to a highly regarded book by standards that are perhaps set too high. I should judge it on its own merits, and not by how it compares to its predecessors, but I don’t know if I’m able to do so.

   O’Connell is still a superb prose stylist. There were no passages that “grabbed” me as there were in the previous book, but there was a sustained quality of word-crafting that not too many equal. I felt there were some plot problems here, and some character problems, the latter mostly causing the former.

   It’s impossible to discuss them without giving away the plot, which I almost guarantee will have some surprises for you. Too many, maybe; some mental gear-shifting that O couldn’t easily manage.

   This is the kind of book that I hate to review briefly, as its pluses and minuses call for a critique that I’m probably not qualified, certainly not prepared to do. O’Connell is a vastly talented writer, but I think she needs an editor. And I don’t think she had one here. Still—

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #18, February-March 1995.


      The Kathleen Mallory series —

1. Mallory’s Oracle (1994)
2. The Man Who Cast Two Shadows (1995)
3. Killing Critics (1995)
4. Stone Angel (1997)
5. Shell Game (1999)
6. Crime School (2002)
7. Dead Famous (2003)
8. Winter House (2004)
9. Find Me (2006)
10. The Chalk Girl (2012)
11. It Happens in the Dark (2012)
12. Blind Sight (2016)

SHELLEY SINGER – Spit in the Ocean. Jake Samson #4. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1987. Worldwide, paperback, June 1989.

   Vandalism — let’s not get into whether you’d call it murder — at a sperm bank, then a fatal accident off the rocky spit into the ocean north of San Francisco suspiciously does look like murder. Luckily unlicensed PI Jake Samson is already on hand to investigate.

   Along with him is his partner, Rosie Vincente. It takes a while to determine their relationship more than that, but in a word: none. This mystery comes as close to the classic detective story as any I’ve read recently, spoiled only by a “gratuitous” sex scene.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #14, July 1989.


        The Jake Samson series —

Samson’s Deal. St. Martin’s, 1983.
Free Draw. St. Martin’s, 1984.
Full House. St. Martin’s, 1986.]
Spit in the Ocean. St. Martin’s, 1987.
Suicide King. St. Martin’s, 1988.
Royal Flush. Perseverance, 1999.

RICHARD HOYT – 30 for a Harry. John Denson #2. M. Evans, hardcover, 1981. Penguin, paperback, 1984.

   Having worked for a newspaper at one time himself, private eye John Denson is a natural to be hired by the Seattle Star to help flush out a Harry, vernacular for a crooked reporter with a habit of shaking down local business establishments.

   Denison has a suspect from the start, but when the man is found murdered, the scope of his investigation is widened dramatically. The local vice industry is strongly interested in the case, and so are certain Japanese gentlemen with a finger in the area’s salmon business.

   Hoyt’s first book and Denson’s case immediately preceding this one was entitled Decoys, and overall, it’s probably the stronger of the two. The approach taken this time around is considerably more direct, for one thing, with fewer layers of misdirection being applied. Hoyt has a winning way in creating well-defined characters, however — in this case those especially of the type usually found hanging around a city room. I’m already looking forward to his next one.

–Reprinted in slightly revised form from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 1, Jan-Feb 1982.


        The John Denson series —

1. Decoys (1980)
2. Thirty for a Harry (1981)
3. The Siskiyou Two-Step (1983) aka Siskiyou (1984)
4. Fish Story (1985)
5. Whoo? (1991)
6. Bigfoot (1993)
7. Snake Eyes (1995)
8. The Weatherman’s Daughters (2003)
9. Pony Girls (2004)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


DON WINSLOW – A Cool Breeze on the Underground. Neal Carey #1. St.Martin’s, hardcover. 1991; paperback, 1996. Nominated for an Edgar award for Best First Novel.

   Neal Carey is a young man employed by a firm called Friends of the Family, which exists to solve nagging little problems that might annoy friends, acquaintances, or business associates of an old New England bank. Carey is called away from his studies — the firm is financing his education — to hunt down the daughter of a politician who has run away from home, and has been sighted in London.

   He doesn’t care much for the assignment, or the timing that’s going to cause him to fail a course, but really doesn’t have much choice. And as if finding a runaway in a huge city weren’t chore enough, he’s given a deadline. Off he goes to the Smoke, where he finds that nothing is ever simple. But he already knew that.

   I can see why Winslow is getting a lot of attention. I don’t know whether the series will stand the test of time — or even if the second and third are as good as the first, for that matter — but I liked this considerably. A good bit of the book is devoted to flashbacks that tell us who Carey is, and how he got to where he is today, and these interludes are well integrated with the story proper.

   Winslow has what may be the most important ingredient in making it big in the field — an engaging “voice.” His characters are interesting and believable, his narration smooth. The plot was nothing special, but nothing especially offensive either. Underground is one of the better series debuts I’ve read, and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain the standard he’s set.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #18, February-March 1995.


      The Neal Carey series —

A Cool Breeze on the Underground (1990)
The Trail to Buddha’s Mirror (1992)
Way Down on the High Lonely (1994)
A Long Walk Up the Waterslide (1995).
While Drowning in the Desert (1996).

MICHAEL INNES – Lord Mullion’s Secret. Charles Honeybath #3. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1982. Penguin, US, paperback, 1983. Published previously in the UK by Victor Gollancz, hardcover, 1981.

   There may be a few others, but Innes is one mystery writer who can get away with writing a full-length detective story that doesn’t have a single murder in it. Famed portrait painter Charles Honeybath returns for this latest of now three witty adventures. allowing Innes’s more famous detective character, Sir John Appleby, to continue enjoying his retirement a while longer.

   Asked by an old friend to paint his wife, Honeybath quickly discovers that Mullion Castle is filled to the brim with secrets. Small unaccountable things begin to happen as soon as he arrives, including some switched paintings, a clandestine romance between a gardener and the lord’s older daughter, and a dotty great-aunt’s sudden penchant for sleepwalking.

   Stately mansions may be becoming more and more difficult to maintain, but they do have their places in mystery fiction, don’t they?

–Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 1, Jan-Feb 1982.


      The Charles Honeybath series —

The Mysterious Commission. Gollancz 1974
Honeybath’s Haven. Gollancz 1977
Lord Mullion’s Secret. Gollancz 1981
Appleby and Honeybath. Gollancz 1983

EMMETT McDOWELL – Stamped for Death. Jonathan Knox #1 . Ace Double D-329, paperback original, 1958.

   I used to collect stamps. I’ve never been able to explain what the fascination is, but even though I sold my collection some time ago, for no good reason, the urge has never quite gone away. I never had any like the ones at the core of this story, though, a set of rare Hawaiian “missionary” stamps.

   Louisville auctioneer Jonathan Knox has an eye for rare collectibles, too. After a few stories for the pulps (*), this is his first book appearance. I’m sorry to say that it shows. Lots of incoherent action, in a naive sort of way, although the topless belly dancer does have her charms.

   The other half of this Ace Double is entitled Three for the Gallows, and consists pf three novelettes by Emmett McDowell, the first featuring Jonathan Knox as well. It’s reprinted from a 1953 appearance in Triple Detective Magazine (“All She Wants Is Money,” Summer 1953).

   The remaining two stories, neither of them with Knox) were first published in 1949 in King Features Syndicate’s Great Mystery Novelettes series, and that’s all I can tell you about that. Does anyone know anything more. (*) I also have not been able to identify another Knox story that appeared in the pulps, so the use of the plural in this regard in the original review may be in error.

–Slightly revised from Mystery*File #16, October 1989.


        The Jonathan Knox series —

Stamped for Death. Ace 1958
Bloodline to Murder. Ace 1960
In at the Kill. Ace 1960
Portrait of a Victim. Avalon 1964 (no paperback edition)

M. D. LAKE – Amends for Murder. Peggy O’Neill #1. Avon, paperback original, November 1989.

   A frustrating book. There aren’t many detectives who are female campus cops, and the idea produces lots of good possibilities, most of which are only hinted at in this book. Peggy O’Neill is her name, and she’s the one who finds the body of a murdered professor of English.

   Determined to show the city police a thing or two, Peggy then uncovers some of the dead man’s more unseemly past. What bothered me was the way she knew things before she (and the reader) was told, and the way the killer was caught, by sheer accident.

–Very slightly revised from Mystery*File #16, October 1989.


   The Peggy O’Neill series

1. Amends for Murder (1989)
2. Cold Comfort (1990)
3. Poisoned Ivy (1992)
4. A Gift for Murder (1992)
5. Murder by Mail (1993)
6. Once upon a Crime (1995)
7. Grave Choices (1995)
8. Flirting with Death (1996)
9. Midsummer Malice (1997)
10. Death Calls the Tune (1999)

FRANCIS DUNCAN – So Pretty a Problem. Mordecai Tremaine #5. John Long, UK, hardcover, 1950. Sourcebooks, US, trade paperback, 2018.

   It’s strange, but I have a feeling that Francis Duncan’s detective novels are selling now as well as they ever did, if not a whole lot better. Four of his six novels are back in print, and in the list of the titles at the end of this review, I’ve added the current Amazon sales ranking. They may not look spectacular, but believe me, they are — especially for detective fiction. Most of the books I have listed for sale on Amazon have rankings in the 3 to 8 millions. I don’t have any books there over 20 million.

   For an author no one had even heard of a year ago at this time, that’s quite an achievement.

   Duncan’s series character is a chap named Mordecai Tremaine, a retired tobacconist whose hobbies are reading romance novels and solving crimes. He’s done so well at the latter that’s he’s on a first name basis with several policemen at Scotland Yard, and they don’t mind in the least if he does some investigating for them on his own.

   The structure of So Pretty a Problem is an odd one, especially at first glance. Part I consists of the murder and the immediate investigation. This section is about 90 pages long, and it serves largely as a prologue to Part II, all of which takes place before the murder. This portion, over 160 pages long, consists entirely of Tremaine’s interactions with the murder victim and his wife and all of the other suspects-to-be. Ordinarily this section would come first, chronologically speaking, but 160 pages in a detective novel before the first murder occurs is an awfully long time to keep a reader’s interest at a high edge of anticipation.

   Part Three reverts to real time and Tremaine’s meticulously worked out explanation, including one of those “gathering the suspects together in one room” types of detective story expositions. Since this section is over 130 pages long, any complaints that current mysteries are longer than than they used to be will fall on deaf ears when you compare them to this one.

   Dead is an extremely successful high-society artist. He is found shot to death in his isolated home off the coast of England, connected to the mainland by means of only a single footbridge that an invalid lady is constantly watching. The only person found in the house except for the dead man is his wife, who tells two obviously false stories to the police, who believe neither one, but neither do they believe that she is the killer.

   I enjoyed this one. What impressed me the most about the story is how well Duncan made the explanation fit the facts so precisely, and yet before the explanation, there does not seem that there is one that’s possible. Knowing human character is a big asset for Mordecai Tremaine, and if this is an example of how he unravels a mystery as complicated as this, I’m going to go on and read all of his other cases in solving crimes.


       The Mordecai Tremaine series –

Murderer’s Bluff. Jenkins 1938
They’ll Never Find Out. Jenkins 1944
Murder Has a Motive. Long 1947 (*) #600,815
Murder for Christmas. Long 1949 (*) #119,807

         

So Pretty a Problem. Long 1950 (*) #192,556
In at the Death. Long 1952 (*) #88,764
Behold a Fair Woman. Long 1954 (*) #123,776

   Those marked with a (*) have been recently been reprinted in the US by Sourcebooks.

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