KENN DAVIS – Acts of Homicide. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback original; 1st printing, October 1989.

   Here’s an example of another series of private eye novels that I managed to accumulate most — if not all of — back when they were being published, but until now this is the first I’ve read. Or maybe the second, as the first in the series came out in 1976, and sometimes it’s difficult to think back that far and be sure.

   In any case, the PI in question is Carver Bascombe, who is black and who works in the Berkeley, California, area. Unfortunately, in this, the seventh of his eight appearances, there’s not much else that’s said about him. He tends to be taciturn, shrugs a bit when confronted, and that’s about I can tell you at the moment.

   The case he’s on in Acts of Homicide finds him working undercover as an accountant for a acting company that’s preparing to put on an updated version of Medea. Unfortunately someone seems intent on stopping the production, and his or her attempts to do so are finally sufficient to bring on the police. The book begins with the murder of a young girl who would have liked to have been a member of the cast, but who was only allowed to work behind the scenes instead.

   More murders occur, and besides helping the police, Carver Bascombe finds himself becoming more and more attracted to the officer in charge, a capable enough woman but one whose career depends on her hiding the hide the fact that she is severely disturbed by the sight of dead bodies.

   With lots of suspects to be combed through, this is a detective puzzle through and through, undermined (in my mind) by the fact that the first victim was found nude with all of the blood drained from her — a sensationalistic killing there was no real need for in terms of the plot. Kenn Davis is a very smooth writer, though, especially when it comes to dialogue. On the other hand, an occasional propensity for using exclamation marks in his own narrative was (I thought) a negative.

   All in all, however, this was a decent enough venture that I’d read another, when I come across another in my collection, entertained as well by an author who seems to have known something about putting on plays and the history of the stage.

   In support of that last statement, let me point out that some of the characters’ names in Acts of Homicide are also those of actors in the past, sometimes the far distant past:

         Edmund Kean
         Charlotte Cushman
         Colley Cibber
         Frank Craven
         Barton Booth
         Charles Macklin
         August Iffland

   … and more than likely, a few others I missed.

       The Carver Bascombe series —

The Dark Side. Avon, 1976 [with John Stanley]
The Forza Trap. Avon, 1979.
Words Can Kill. Gold Medal, 1984.
Melting Point.Gold Medal, 1986.
As October Dies. Gold Medal, 1987.
Nijinsky Is Dead. Gold Medal, 1987.
Acts of Homicide. Gold Medal, 1989.
Blood of Poets. Gold Medal, 1990.

by Francis M. Nevins

   Everyone has heard of the rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) is best known for having compiled some anthologies of “Rivals” stories that later became the basis of a popular British TV series. Very few would disagree that the most eminent and durable of Holmes’ rivals is Nero Wolfe: the brilliant detective, the Watson, the unforgettable place where sleuth and narrator live, and so on. But are there any rivals of Nero Wolfe? Every so often one finds a character, usually obese and irascible, whose first name comes from Roman history and his last from an animal: Trajan Beare, say, or Tullius Dogge. But if that sort of name were necessary, Wolfe would have few rivals indeed.

   Back in the Thirties and Forties Robert George Dean wrote a series about Tony Hunter, a PI working for an agency at whose head sits one Imperator Schmidt. What makes this series distinctive is that Tony does both the legwork and the brainwork and Schmidt is never seen, at least not in the few Hunter novels I’ve read.

   Then there’s a pulp series by D.L. Champion about an acerbic and sardonic investigator named Rex Sackler. This character is not fat and intellectual like Wolfe but pathologically thin and a compulsive pennypincher. He spends money “with all the ease of a bantam hen laying a duck’s egg” and is addicted to maneuvering his legman Joey Graham (whose narrative style is vaguely Archie-esque) into poker games at which he wins back most of the poor schnook’s salary.

   But for my money the most notable of the Wolfe-and-Goodwin rivals is the duo created by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair: the team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, whose debut dates from 1939, five years after Wolfe’s debut in Fer-de-Lance.

   Bertha is certainly obese and irascible enough for a Wolfe rival, but she’s also foul-mouthed and money-mad and not at all brilliant but dependent on her legman and later partner for brainwork. Donald Lam is certainly no match for Archie Goodwin when it comes to brisk crisp narration but the way he tells his stories is far livelier than the relentless business English of Gardner’s Perry Mason novels.

   One rarely finds law as a central element in a Nero Wolfe novel (although 1959’s Plot It Yourself has a lot to do with copyright law and reflects Stout’s years of work with the Authors’ Guild), but it’s a rare Cool & Lam novel which doesn’t revolve around law in one way or another.

   Gardner was no expert on the history of the kind of fiction he wrote but he clearly knew Melville Davisson Post’s “The Corpus Delicti” (1896), which introduced criminal lawyer Randolph Mason. The heart of that classic story was the attorney’s ability and willingness to advise a client how to commit a cold-blooded murder, admit the deed in open court and walk away free. Gardner developed the core of Post’s story into The Bigger They Come (1939), first and perhaps finest of the C&L novels. Here’s the crucial conversation between Lam and his new employer.

   Cool: “Donald,…I know all about your trouble. You were disbarred for violating professional ethics.”

   Lam: “I wasn’t disbarred and I didn’t violate professional ethics.”

   Cool: “The grievance committee reported that you did.”

   Lam: “The grievance committee were a lot of stuffed shirts. I talked too much, that’s all.”

   Cool: “What about, Donald?”

   Lam: “I did some work for a client. We got to talking about the law. I told him a man could break any law and get away with it if he went about it right.”

   Cool: “That’s nothing. Anyone knows that.” [Can you imagine such cynicism in a Perry Mason novel?]

   Lam: “The trouble is I didn’t stop there. I don’t figure knowledge is any good unless you can apply it. I’d studied out a lot of legal tricks. I knew how to apply them.”

   Cool: “Go on from there. What happened?”

   Lam: “I told this man it would be possible to commit a murder so there was nothing anyone could do about it. He said I was wrong. I got mad and offered to bet him five hundred dollars I was right, and could prove it. He said he was ready to put up the money any time I’d put up my five hundred bucks. I told him to come back the next day. That night he was arrested. He turned out to be a small-time gangster….[He told the police] that I had agreed to tell him how to commit a murder and get off scot-free. That he was to pay me five hundred dollars for the information, and then if it looked good to him, he had planned to bump off a rival gangster.”

   Cool: “What happened?”

   Lam: “The grievance committee…revoked my license for a year. They thought I was some sort of a shyster. I told them it was an argument and a bet. Under the circumstances, they didn’t believe me. And, naturally, they took the other side of the question — that a man couldn’t commit deliberate murder and go unpunished.”

   Cool: “Could he, Donald?”

   Lam: “Yes.”

   Cool: And you know how?”

   Lam: “Yes….”

   Cool: “And locked inside that head of yours is a plan by which I could kill someone and the law couldn’t do a damn thing about it?”

   Lam: “Yes.”

   Cool: “You mean if I was smart enough so I didn’t get caught.”

   Lam: “I don’t mean anything of the sort. You’d have to put yourself in my hands and do just as I told you.”

   Cool: “You don’t mean that old gag about fixing it so they couldn’t find the body?” [Clearly a reference to Post’s “The Corpus Delicti” although not a completely accurate description of Randolph Mason’s plan.]

   Lam: “That is the bunk. I’m talking about a loophole in the law itself, something a man could take advantage of to commit a murder.”

   Cool: “Tell me, Donald.” [Gardner leaves us to imagine the smarmy seductive tone in which she must have said this.]

   Lam [laughing]: “Remember, I’ve been through that once.”

   After such a buildup I’d be a toad if I didn’t explain Lam’s scheme without, I hope, ruining The Bigger They Come for those who have never read it. I commit a murder in California. Then I drive across the state line into Arizona where I proceed to frame myself on a charge of obtaining property under false pretenses, although leaving open a legal escape hatch for myself.

   I then drive back to California, run through the quarantine station at the border, get chased and caught by California cops who lock me up in the border town of El Centro. In due course I am legally extradited to Arizona to face the false pretenses charge. Once I clear myself and that charge is officially dropped, I confess to the California murder. But when California moves to extradite me, I file a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that on these facts I can’t be compelled to return.

   Except that he doesn’t actually commit a murder, this is exactly what Donald Lam does in The Bigger They Come: “The only authority which one state has to take prisoners from another state comes from the organic law which provides that fugitives from justice may be extradited from one sovereign state to another. I am not a fugitive from justice….[A] man is not a fugitive from a state unless he flees from that state. He doesn’t flee from that state unless he does so voluntarily and in order to avoid arrest. I did not flee from California. I was dragged from California. I was taken out under legal process to answer for a crime of which I was innocent. I claimed that I was innocent. I came to Arizona and established my innocence. Any time I get good and ready to go back to California, California can arrest me for murder. Until I get good and ready to go back, I can stay here and no power on earth can make me budge.”

   Is this good law? Gardner’s good friend John H. Wigmore, dean of Northwestern Law School, first scoffed at the argument. Then, after Gardner had literally written a brief for him on the issue, he admitted that the loophole had greater possibilities than he had first supposed. But I wouldn’t advise anyone to try it today. The principal case on which Gardner relied was all but overruled by the California Supreme Court in 1966, a few years before his death.

   Perry Mason was portrayed by many different actors in the movies, on radio and of course on TV. As far as I can determine, Cool and Lam have appeared in the media only three times. The second novel in the series, Turn on the Heat (1940), was the basis for an episode of ABC Radio’s U. S. Steel Hour, June 23, 1946. Who played big Bertha remains unknown but Donald was portrayed by, of all unlikely people, Frank Sinatra.

   During the golden age of live TV, The Bigger They Come was adapted for the 60-minute CBS anthology series Climax! with Art Carney as Donald and Jane Darwell as Bertha. The date was January 6, 1955, my twelfth birthday. I don’t remember if I was drinking coffee at that age but if I had been, I’m sure it would have come pouring out my nose like the waters of Niagara at sight of Ed Norton from The Honeymooners playing a PI.

   Finally, in 1958 Gardner’s own company, Paisano Productions, produced a 30-minute pilot for a projected C&L TV series, directed by Jacques Tourneur, with ex-jockey Billy Pearson as Lam and Benay Venuta as Cool. Gardner himself introduced the characters from the Perry Mason office set but the pilot failed to attract any sponsors, although it can be seen today on YouTube.

   Personally, I regret that the role of Donald was never offered to the young Steve McQueen. He wasn’t pint-sized like Billy Pearson but short enough, and judging from his role as Western bounty hunter Josh Randall in Wanted — Dead or Alive he would have been great at projecting Donald’s cockiness and insolence. Any dissenting opinions?


KAREN KIJEWSKI – Copy Kat. Kat Colorado #4. Doubleday, hardcover, 1992. Bantam, paperback, 1993.

   I think that Karen Kijewski (pronounced, I am told, Kee-you-skee) is rapidly moving into the class of Muller, Grafton, and Paretsky in terms of quality, if not of sales.

   In this case, Kat Colorado is hired to investigate the murder of a Grass Valley, California, bartender-owner by the victim’s crusty godfather. Though reluctant to get involved in an open case, Kat agrees to go undercover and work at her old profession, bartending, to try and find what really happened. Though there is no evidence, the police and many town members suspect the dead lady’s husband, who has been left with their small child. He hires Kat as a bartender, and the hunt is joined.

   The book is as much about Kat’s own problems with guilt from a killing in a previous case as anything; she is being crippled by recurring nightmares. The opportunity to change identities weighs strongly in her decision to accept the case. Missing from this book are her egregiously imposing “best friend,” and her adopted grandmother, for which I am grateful; earlier books have suffered greatly, to me, from Kat’s allowing herself to be sorely put upon by these two.

   Kijewski’s writing is powerful, and Colorado has emerged as an appealing and well realized character. Some of the other cast members were not as believable, or perhaps there were just too many neuroses/psychoses in one plot. All in all, though, this was an excellent and moving story.

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

       The Kat Colorado series —

Katwalk (1988)
Katapult (1990)

Kat’s Cradle (1992)
Copy Kat (1992)
Wild Kat (1994)

Alley Kat Blues (1995)
Honky Tonk Kat (1996)
Kat Scratch Fever (1997)
Stray Kat Waltz (1998)


TIMOTHY HALLINAN – Incinerator. Simeon Grist #4. William Morrow, hardcover, 1992. Avon, paperback, 1993.

   I think I like Hallinan’s books a little more with each one. A couple more and he’ll move into my personal top ten.

   Someone is dowsing LA’s derelicts with gasoline and incinerating them. Grist is hired by the wealthy daughter of the latest victim to find the killer, and then blindsided by a press release she issues. He very nearly quits the case the next day, after receiving a personal, hand-delivered note from the killer at his home. He is persuaded by the client and the police to continue; the police, who the client believes have done little until now to solve the case, think that Grist may furnish the only link to the killer that offers hope.

   Reluctantly, he acquiesces, and enters into a shaky “partnership” with the LAPD and their psychiatrist; enforced by the client’s threat to go public with the whole mess if the police fail to cooperate.

   The story sustains an unusual amount of tension as Grist and his unwilling and less than dependable allies try to identify the killer before he incinerates others, Grist included. If a spur were needed, it becomes apparent that the killer knows Grist personally. Grist wishes it were reciprocal.

   The overeducated Simeon Grist — four degrees from UCLA — is one of the better-delineated and least clone-like PI’s of recent years. The killer is believable, and scary. Hallinan is an excellent writer, with a smooth narrative flow and good ear for dialogue. I think this is one of the better private detective tales of 1992.

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

       The Simeon Grist series —

1. The Four Last Things (1989)
2. Everything but the Squeal (1990)

3. Skin Deep (1991)
4. Incinerator (1992)
5. The Man with No Time (1993)
6. The Bone Polisher (1995)

   In more recent years, Hallinan has written seven adventures of Poke Rafferty, an American expatriate living in Bangkok, and six cases for Junior Bender, an ex-burglar turned PI for LA mobsters.

GLORIA DANK – Friends to the End. Bantam, paperback original; 1st printing, October 1989.

   This is the first of four murder mystery investigations tackled by the unlikely team of Snooky Randolph, a young 20-something member of the idle rich, and his curmudgeonly brother-in-law, Bernard Woodruff, world renown writer of children’s books. The latter and his wife (and Snooky’s older sister) live in the rich lower left corner of Connecticut, of course, while Snooky stops by and stays (and stays) every once in a while.

    Dead at a dinner party for a small group of friends is the wife of a man that no one in particular likes. Poison, insecticide, in something she drank. What the poison meant for her? Or for her husband, as he claims loudly to the police?

   Snooky’s connection is that he is in love, he thinks, with the stepdaughter of the dead woman, while Bernard finds that even though he dislikes mankind — and hates children — and greatly to his amazement, that armchair detective work is much to his liking.

   This is a humorous novel, with lots of witty commentary on life in suburban Connecticut and the people in it. From page 123, referring yo Mr. Hal, the gardener: “Finding his employer’s dead body was clearly the most exciting thing that had happened in Harold Shrimpton’s life since the Super Bowl.”

   It is also a decent detective novel, even given that once the number of bodies starts to pile up, the number of possible suspects goes down in equal number. I enjoyed this one.

       The Snooky Randolph & Bernard Woodruff mystery series

Friends Till the End. Bantam, 1989.
Going Out in Style. Bantam, 1990.
As the Sparks Fly Upward. Doubleday, 1992.
The Misfortunes of Others. Doubleday, 1993.


JAN BURKE – Goodnight, Irene. Irene Kelly #1. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1993. Avon, paperback, 1994. Pocket, paperback, 2002.

   I didn’t expect to like this. First, there was the blurb, “In the best-selling tradition of Grafton & Paretsky.” Sure. You bet. Second, it featured a new amateur sleuth by a new writer, both female, and my luck’s been poor with that combination. But I was wrong.

   Irene Kelly is a Southern Califomia ex-reporter. Her mentor and close friend is killed by a bomb, and the murder would seem to be linked to an old slaying with which he had been obsessed, his current investigation of a local money-laundering scheme, or both. Irene quickly becomes the next target of the killer, even before she begins to probe into things. The situation is complicated by a rekindling flame with a local policeman whom she had briefly be involved in the past.

   I loved the first line: “He loved to watch fat women dance.” Burke is an good writer, accomplished far beyond her first-book status. Kelly is both likable and believable as a person, as are most of the other players. The plot was pretty standard, and I was neither surprised by the outcome nor found it too convincing but these are faults not limited to inexperienced authors. There were plot elements that usually tum me off (the romance with the cop in particular), but Burke’s writing and my liking for the heroine mostly overcame them.

   This is one of the better debut novels in a while, and I look forward to more and better from Burke.

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

      The Irene Kelly series —

1. Goodnight, Irene (1993)
2. Sweet Dreams, Irene (1994)
3. Dear Irene, (1995)
4. Remember Me, Irene (1996)
5. Hocus (1997)
6. Liar (1998)
7. Bones (1999)
8. Flight (2001)
9. Bloodlines (2005)
10. Kidnapped (2006)
11. Disturbance (2011)

NOTES:   Goodnight, Irene was nominated for an Anthony award for Best First Novel. Bones was awarded an Edgar by the MWA for Best Novel. Irene has only a secondary role in Flight, which is told from the point of view of her husband, homicide detective Frank Harriman.


M. R. D. MEEK – Touch and Go. Lennox Kemp #10. Charles Scribner’s Sons, US, hardcover, 1993. Worldwide Mystery, US, paperback, 1994. First published in the UK: Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1992.

   I gave a previous Kemp adventure a very lukewarm review not too long ago, and now I wonder if maybe I wasn’t just in a bad mood. This one is quite good.

   Kemp is an English solicitor, once disbarred and working as a private agent, now reinstated and successful. His past comes back to complicate his present when his ex-wife, for whom he had committed the acts that led to his disgrace, dies in America and mentions him in her wills.

   Yes, wills, because there seems to be two of them, though the original of the second has vanished, along with the jewels Kemp had been willed in the first. The kicker is that the second leaves a quite considerable everything to Kemp, at the expense of some very unsavory types from Las Vegas.

   It all gets quite complicated, and dangerous as well when it appears that the second may hold up. On top of everything else the only secretary Kemp has ever had is pregnant, and he must replace her.

   I found this an engaging story from beginning to end. For reasons I can’t put the proverbial finger on, Kemp was a much more appealing character to me than he has been in the past, and I found the other characters well done also.

   Meek’s prose was low key and understated as usual, and fitted the story well. It is not, by the way, a murder mystery in any sense, but don’t let that put you off. All told, a very enjoyable book, marred only by an ending in which I couldn’t quite believe.

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

      The Lennox Kemp series —

1. With Flowers That Fell (1983)
2. The Sitting Ducks (1984)
3. Hang the Consequences (1984)
4. The Split Second (1985)
5. In Remembrance of Rose (1986)
6. Worm of Doubt (1987)
7. A Mouthful of Sand (1988)
8. A Loose Connection (1989)
9. This Blessed Plot (1990)
10. Touch and Go (1992)
11. Postscript to Murder (1996)
12. A House to Die for (1999)
13. If You Go Down to the Woods (2001)
14. The Vanishing Point (2002)
15. Kemp’s Last Case (2004)

William F. Deeck

ANNE NASH – Cabbages and Crime. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1945. No paperback edition.

   After the Easter rush, Nell Winters and Doris (Dodo) Trent decide they deserve a vacation from their flower shop. Death Valley, bereft of gardenias and violets, strikes their fancy. Unfortunately, as they begin their trip, they stop off to see Dodo’s cousin, who operates a dog kennel.

   Because of a birth and measles, Nell and Dodo have to take charge of the kennel, with the help of Sif, a German shepherd. Not an easy task, particularly for Dodo, who is just a tad overweight. Even Nell says: “Did I ever complain about flowers? Those silent expressions of Nature. The worst they ever do is to up and die when your need is the sorest. But they do it without one yip.”

   While Nell and Dodo don’t get to Death Valley, death comes to them, in the form of a corpse in a cabbage sack. Don’t read this one for the mystery aspect, which is disappointing. Read it for the travails of Nell and Dodo as they try to cope with their furry charges.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter 1990, “Beastly Murders.”

      The Nell Winter and Dodo Trent series —

Said with Flowers. Doubleday, 1943.
Death by Design. Doubleday, 1944.
Cabbages and Crime. Doubleday, 1945.

FYI:   J. F. Norris has a long and interesting review of Said with Flowers on his blog from earlier this year. (Follow the link.)

William F. Deeck

JACK DOLPH – Murder Makes the Mare Go. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1950. Unicorn Mystery Book Club, 4-in-1 volume, hardcover reprint. No paperback edition.

   On a two-year sabbatical, 35 year old Doc Connor twice a week has a clinic for the down-and-out. His primary interest, however, is horse racing. Thus, he is called upon by a horse trainer to check a horse, unfortunately already dead.

   Doc suspects poison, rather than heart attack, and that’s what it turns out to be. Neither the trainer nor the horse’s owner, a nightclub operator, wants Doc to investigate, not that that stops him. Indeed, he goes on to discover that an elderly dishwasher at the nightclub died of glanders, which means be was around a horse with the disease or —

   All of Dolph’s novels feature Doc Connor. From their titles, they also all deal with horse racing. If they are as good as this one, they are worth looking for.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter 1990, “Beastly Murders.”

      The Doc Connor novels —

Murder Is Mutuel. Morrow, 1948.
Odds-On Murder. Morrow, 1948.
Murder Makes the Mare Go. Doubleday, 1950
Hot Tip. Doubleday, 1951.
Dead Angel. Doubleday, 1953.


ROB KANTNER – The Quick and the Dead. Ben Perkins #7. Harper, paperback original, 1992.

   Thanks to Leonard, Estleman, Jackson, and Kantner, Detroit has become one of the better-known cities on the hardboiled map. The city, its makeup and its history, are an important part of each author’s approach to his story, though the focus of each of course varies. Kantner’s for the seventh Ben Perkins is the world of Detroit Catholicism.

    Perkins, the sometime private eye, full time maintenance head of a large apartment complex, is currently enjoying the benefits of an interesting life. His boss would like to fire him, a mafia don wants some incriminating material Perkins has, and an ex-lover is about to have their child.

   Now a local judge who is in a position to both help and harm him wants him to take on a job for St. Angela’s parish — for no pay. The ex-priest of the church is being considered for canonization during an upcoming visit by the Pope. The problem is that when his body was dug up to be examined, it wasn’t there; the coffin was filled with bricks. Perkins’ job: find it, and find out why it is missing.

   I’ve generally enjoyed Kantner’s novels. Perkins, and ex-factory worker and ex-union enforcer, is a well-realized bluecollar type of PI, and Kantner tells a good story in very good prose. The books don’t make me want to start babbling about “transcending the genre,” but then again they rarely bring on one of my tirades about foolish people and foolish plots. This one is no exception. It won’t make you forget Chandler, but it’s a solid example of the hardboiled type.

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

       The Ben Perkins series —

1. The Back-Door Man (1986)

2. The Harder They Hit (1987)
3. Dirty Work (1988)
4. Hell’s Only Half Full (1989)
5. Made in Detroit (1990)
6. The Thousand Yard Stare (1991)

7. The Quick and the Dead (1992)
8. The Red, White and Blues (1993)
9. Concrete Hero (1994)
10. Trouble is What I Do (story collection; 2005)
11. Final Fling (2007)     ADDED LATER (see comments)

Next Page »