Characters


RICHARD HOYT – Decoys. John Denson #1. M. Evans, hardcover, 1980. Penguin, paperback, 1984.

   John Denson is a Seattle-based private eye. While his first case is no out-and-out classic, it is refreshingly different, and Denson’s a character I’d love to see again.

   Nor would I mind if his competition in this book for an unknown treasure – unknown to Denson, that is – were to show up along with him. She is Pamela Yew, also a private investigator, and she knows what the objective is. They make a bet. She will win the $50,000 piece of artwork adorning Denson’s office. He will win, um, her.

   A lot of male/female stuff comes into play. Denson does not think PI work is a woman’s line. She refuses to stay on the pedestal he offers her. Who wins? You’ll have to read this one for yourself to find out.

   There are also a large number of “decoys” in this book. It all depends on how deep allegorically you want to dig. And even so, if you like your detective fiction fast-paced with a lot of twists, and populated by characters who know what they are all about, I can’t imagine your failing to enjoy this one.

Rating: A minus.

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 2, March/April 1981.

   
     The John Denson series –

Decoys (1980)
30 for a Harry (1981)
Siskiyou (1983; aka “The Siskiyou Two-Step”)
Fish Story (1985; aka “Contract Killer”)
Whoo? (1991; aka “Flight of Death”)
Bigfoot (1993)
Snake Eyes (1995)
The Weatherman’s Daughters (2003)
Pony Girls (2004)

      Short Stories –

“Private Investigations” (1984, The Eyes Have It)

PAUL KRUGER – Weave a Wicked Web. Phil Kramer #2. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1967. Paperback Library 63-180, paperback; 1st printing, December 1969.

   There’s a little reviewer’s license going on there in the line up above. Phil Kramer’s not a licensed PI. What he is instead is a practicing attorney, but what he’s hired to do in this, his second appearance, is definitely a PI’s job, and the way he tackles it is exactly how a PI would. A PI in other colors is still a PI, no matter how you may look at it. Or him, as the shoe may fit.

   It all begins when a beautiful blonde walks into his office to have a woman called Kitty Bates found. She also has a description of her, but nothing about her background or anything else. She also will not say why she wants her found. There’s not much for Kramer to go on, but when he sees a story in a newspaper about a woman’s otherwise unidentified body having been found, the wheels in the case finally get going.

   And what a case it is. It turns out that Kitty Bates – yes, it is she – has been blackmailing someone in his client’s family for a long time, and that possibly even before she was killed, someone else had impersonated her to obtain $50,000 in cash from someone else in the family. And then two, maybe three, other deaths occur, Kramer is knocked out from behind at least once, and all of the alibis of those who may have responsible are leaking like sieves.

   This, in other words, is a detective story with a capital D. Do not expect any more character development than there is in your average Perry Mason novel, for there is none. There are twists galore in the telling, culminating in a long scene at the end, over ten pages long, in which all of the suspects have been gathered together while Kramer explains all – naming two killers in succession before finally implicating the real one.

   All fine and good, but even if this sound fine and good to you (and I freely admit that some may not), the telling is awfully dry, with lots of repetition as Kramer continually goes over the facts with everyone he speaks to. It’s a good mystery, no doubt about it, but with only a minimum amount of  juice in it to speak of, it’s not a great one.

   

      The Phil Kramer series –

Weep for Willow Green. Simon 1966
Weave a Wicked Web. Simon 1967
If the Shroud Fits. Simon 1969
The Bronze Claws. Simon 1972
The Cold Ones. Simon 1972

   Besides her five Phil Kramer novels, “Paul Kruger,” a pen name of Roberta Elizabeth Sebenthall,   (1917-1979), has five other works of crime fiction included in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV.

ARTHUR LYONS – Castles Burning. Jacob Asch #5. Holt Rinehart & Winston, hardcover, 1979; paperback, 1982. Movie adaptation: Slow Burn (Showtime, 1986). Reviewed here.

   I didn’t care much for The Dead Are Discreet, the first of several adventures of PI Jacob Asch that Arthur Lyons has written up. It was four years ago when I read it, and in these pages I called it “mired in … muck [with] a plot full o! inconsistencies …” and I gave it a “D.”

   I might have been wrong. (Well, maybe .) At any rate, what Castles Burning strongly suggests is that I should not have been automatically skipping all the books he’s written since then.

   Not that this one started out all that well. Asch decides to give an artist a helping hand in tracking down the latter’s son, the spoils of a marriage that went on the rocks some ten years before. The artist’s specialty: kinky sex, brought lovingly to life on canvas. Quoting the artist’s agent on page three, “We live in an erotic age, dear boy.”

   But group groping and decor in leather are soon dismissed as a major topic of interest, and thankfully so. The true theme cuts just a little closer to home: alienated children, children with all that money can buy, but junked-out children nonetheless, and maybe therefore. Quoting again, this time from page 190, “They grew up bent because that was the way the light was coming in.”

   The boy Asch is looking for is dead. The mother has remarried, and now she has a stepson instead. Thanks perhaps to Asch’s inquiries, the boy is kidnapped, and Asch’s client is blamed.

   The characters are vivid and sensitively drawn. Pain and anguish always tend to do that to people, but this time it’s real and not simulated. Asch’s Jewishness only once comes to the fore, serving briefly to help escalate his growing sense of guilt. In all, the kidnapping serves to create some nicely tension-packed scenes before they fade off into a fairly tame closing.

   But only in comparison. For some books the ending would be enough; it’d be what they’d build upon.

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 1, January-February 1981.

Rating: A minus.

   
   The Jacob Asch series —

The Dead Are Discreet (1974)
All God’s Children (1975)
The Killing Floor (1976)
Dead Ringer (1977)
Castles Burning (1979)
Hard Trade (1981)
At the Hands of Another (1983)
Three With a Bullet (1984)
Fast Fade (1987)
Other People’s Money (1989)
False Pretenses (1994)

         Short stories:

“Trouble in Paradise” (1985, The New Black Mask # 1)
“Missing in Miami” (1986, Mean Streets)
“Double Your Pleasure” (January 1989, AHMM)
“Dead Copy” (1988, An Eye For Justice)
“Twist Of Fate” (January 1990, AHMM)
“The Tongan Nude” (October 1997, AHMM)

REVIEWED BY RAY O’LEARY:

   

MARGARET DOODY – Aristotle Detective. Bodley Head, UK, hardcover, 1978. Harper, US, hardcover, 1980. Penguin, paperback, 1981.

   Stephanos, a young Athenian and ex-pupil .of Aristotle, is taking a morning walk when he hears cries coming from the house of a wealthy neighbor named Boutades, who is shortly thereafter discovered with an arrow in his throat. A few days later, Stephanos’ cousin Philemon, who is in exile for having killed a man in a tavern brawl, is accused of the murder.

   As Philemon’s nearest relative, Stephanos must defend him in the ancient Greek equivalent of a trial. Naturally, considering the title of the book, he goess to his old mentor for help in clearing his cousin’s name.

   An interesting and entertaining excursion into ancient Greek culture, with an intriguing mystery and a lot of information about the Athenian legal system passed painlessly and pleasantly along to the reader.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #42, November 1989.

   
      The Aristotle and Stephanos series —

1. Aristotle Detective (1978)
2. Aristotle and Poetic Justice (2002)
3. Aristotle and the Secrets of Life (2003)
   aka Aristotle and the Mystery of Life
4. Poison in Athens (2004)
5. Mysteries in Eleusis (2005)
6. Aristotle and the Egyptian Murders (2010)
7. A Cloudy day in Babylon (2013)

   Short Story:

Aristotle and the Fatal Javelin (1980)

   

From Wikipedia: “Margaret Anne Doody (born September 21, 1939) is a Canadian author of historical detective fiction and feminist literary critic. She is professor of literature at the University of Notre Dame, and helped found the PhD in Literature Program at Notre Dame, and served as its director from 2001-2007.”

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

   
   With this month’s column we return to an author I’ve been writing about since my teens and still find fascinating in my late seventies: that incomparable filbert Harry Stephen Keeler, who was born in 1890, died early in 1967, and pounded the typewriter from his early twenties until near the end of his life. During his long career he created many series but only a few series characters.

   Usually the central element in a Keeler series was not a human being but something else: a house, a book, a circus, an industrial plant, a skull. On the rare occasions when he did create a continuing character, he usually got tired of the man in a year or so and dropped him. The single exception to this rule was Keeler’s first and clearly his favorite series character, that ancient bedraggled universal genius and patron of homeless cats whose name is Tuddleton T. (for Travelstead) Trotter.

   Exactly when Trotter first saw the light of print remained unknown until recently. His earliest appearance between hard covers was in THE MATILDA HUNTER MURDER (Dutton, 1931). But that literary doorstop of 741 closely printed pages was an expansion of a 65,000-word tale, “The Michaux Z-Ray,” which Harry had completed in 1915 and sold for $100 the following year to the Chicago Ledger, where it was published in ten installments (8 April-10 June 1916), all but the first of which are now online thanks to Villanova University.

   Which is why we now know that the detective of that serial is not Trotter but a gazabo by the name of Copelia Jarrick who does have quite a bit of similarity to his later counterpart. Trotter’s debut under the latter name was in the vastly longer book version, where he doesn’t come onstage till page 200, summoned by Chief of Detectives Callahan to solve the riddle of the Z-ray machine that is apparently responsible for the deaths of both Mrs. Hunter and her poodle and is also connected in some way with the year-old theft of a platinum brick from a bank in a one-horse town in rural Missouri. But before we see him up close and personal he gets quite a buildup in a conversation between Callahan and insurance magnate Carter Ellwood.

   “[H]e’s my criminological scientist….a man who tackles crimes where science—or highly specialized knowledge—has been used….For Trotter, Ellwood, is a man who’s wise himself to chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, insanity, optics, medicine, X, Y, Z, P, D and Q rays as well as probably every other kind of rays there are, or might be supposed to exist. He knows the identity of every expert in the world on any given subject. And it’s he who works with us here at the detective bureau on all the cases of any nature that have to do with science and crime combined….He’s content to dabble in problems…for the pure love of solving the problem and nothing else….[T]he man’s got more information concerning crime and criminals packed away in his card index of a brain than our Bertillon cabinets….”

   In “Z-Ray” Callahan describes this genius in similar language, almost all of which is repeated in MATILDA HUNTER:

   “….Cope’s our bearded savant—our grisly scientist who gets the bizarre problems of the police game to tackle.”

   “Why, the man’s got more information packed away in that card index of a brain than our Bertillon cabinet in yonder room….He knows something, I’ll warrant, of every crime that’s committed between Shanghai, China and Bird Center, New York, during the last ten years. And all the time he’s poring over the daily telegraphic reports that are wired in here, he’s figuring out the result of what happens to the eleventh integral of x plus y if you raise it to the nth power and immerse it in a solution of sulphuric acid….”

   Under either name the character is clearly Keeler’s take on Sherlock Holmes, who was still appearing in new adventures when Harry wrote ”Z-Ray” and whose creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died around the time the serial was being expanded into a literary gargantua. But when Callahan in MATILDA HUNTER tells Ellwood that Mr. TTT is the author of a brochure entitled “Crime—Always a Motived Social Reaction As Well As a Motivated One,” we realize that there’s at least as much of Harry himself in the character as there is of Holmes. The distinction between motivation and motiving comes straight out of Keeler’s off-the-wall treatise, THE MECHANICS (AND KINEMATICS) OF WEB-WORK PLOT CONSTRUCTION.

   When Trotter steps into Callahan’s office he’s described, in language that comes word for word out of “The Michaux Z-Ray,” as ”a composite picture of a ruddy-faced English gentleman from one of Dickens’ books, and a caricature drawn by an artist on a comic valentine.” We also find in “Z-Ray” a detailed physical description:

   The English appearance was borne out by the pink, even rubicund, cheeks, and the stolid, heavy face with the hair dropping below the temples in two sideburns tinged with gray. He possessed a well-defined paunch, which was covered by a tightly buttoned, dingy vest. Across the vest was a massive gold watch chain….His coat was a decidedly English cutaway, but it was soiled and spotted, and in one or two places actually burned thru as tho by acids.

   The “thru” and “tho” spellings, which (as we know from his newsletters) Keeler despised and which he changed to their conventional forms in MATILDA HUNTER, were obviously mandated by the Chicago Ledger style sheet. The “Z-Ray” description continues:

   ….His slightly gray hair stuck up on his head in all directions, giving him to a great extent the appearance of a porcupine, or a cat, bristling with anger. And on his nose were a pair of old-fashioned, steel-bowed spectacles, tilted at such a grotesque angle that the left lens stood directly beneath his left eye, and the right one well above the right eye. His collar was of the batwing pattern, tied with a rusty, black bow tie, and peeping from his slightly frayed coat sleeves were a pair of very soiled cuffs, held together by brass cuff links sich as one can find in any city five-and-ten-cent store….Copelia Jarrick’s socks comprised a tan one and a giddy red one with green polka dots.

   Keeler reproduced most of this description in MATILDA HUNTER, adding that Trotter is about 65 years old and changing that tan sock to “a yellow one with circular stripes of tan….” Had there been a movie about him, the perfect match for the part would have been W.C. Fields—provided the director could restrain him from muttering “Godfrey Daniel” and juggling with pool cues!

   Between Trotter’s appearance on the scene and the resolution of the MATILDA HUNTER riddles come another 541 closely printed pages, full of the bizarre characters and character-names and dialects and wacky coincidences that only Harry dared dream up. Lots of invented “facts” too.Notice, for example, how the romantic problems of Matilda’s whitebread nephew Jerry Evans—which are more complex than those of his “Z-Ray” counterpart Billy McClintock—vanish in an instant on page 737 with the confident scientific assertion that (as somewhat loosely paraphrased by Keelerite Robert E. Briney) “if your mother had six fingers on one hand, you cannot distinguish between violet and black.” Yeah, right. For better or worse, that’s our Harry.

   Between MATILDA HUNTER and the second Trotter novel, Keeler’s style had evolved from the Dickensian mode to the eccentric patois that cost him much of his readership over the years and drove him from the prestigious publishing house of E.P. Dutton to (if I may coin a Keelerism) the bottom rung of the literary barrel, a.k.a. Phoenix Press.

   In THE CASE OF THE BARKING CLOCK (Phoenix, 1947), social outcast Joe Czeszcziczki (whom everyone mercifully agrees to call Zicky after a few pages) is about to be executed for the murder of State’s Attorney Umphrey Ibstone and appeals for help to Trotter, now long forgotten and living in a cubicle in Chicago’s Hotel of Nameless Men.

   The woolly-headed old genius takes two-thirds of the book just to reach Zicky in the death house but proves Joe’s innocence in jig time and earns a comfortable retirement for himself and his beloved cat Sebastian Sixsmith. Harry’s London publisher Ward Lock came out with a longer and more involuted version of the novel in 1951.

   Two years after issuing the U.S. version of BARKING CLOCK, Phoenix cut its ties to Keeler. Two years after issuing the English edition, Ward Lock did likewise, leaving Harry with no publisher in his own language. He continued to write direct for translation into Spanish and Portuguese, but even Instituto Editorial Reus of Madrid and Editorial Seculo of Lisbon passed on some of his submissions including the third and final Trotter adventure, THE TRAP, which was completed on July 11, 1956.

   In this gem of daffiosity Trotter is well into his eighties and has been “dead socially” for decades (like Harry himself), and only a few ancients with long memories recall his great triumph in the 25-year-old “Locust Street Murder Case,” i.e. THE MATILDA HUNTER MURDER.

   His wardrobe is still atrocious and his wits still keen as he probes the murder of a Chinese laundryman in Oklahoma and the theft of a unique privately printed book of laudatory anecdotes about Harry’s favorite race (all of them, as a note informs potential publishers, made up out of whole cloth by Harry himself).

   Before Trotter triggers the titular trap and the murderer of Charley T’Seng is exposed—in the last paragraph, no sooner!—we get to wander in a webwork whose strands include a purple velour hat, a sleepwalking hillbilly, a vanishing glass of water, the Noodle King of Omaha, the cat Grimalky Stripedy-Pants and her five little kittens, a diamond implanted in a cancerous tumor, and so much more. Anyone whom I’ve turned on to this king of eccentrics is invited to hunt on Amazon or another Web-based bookseller for the trilogy celebrating him.

REVIEWED BY RAY O’LEARY:

   

C. DALY KING – Obelists Fly High. [Lt. Michael Lord & Dr. L. Rees Pons #3. Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, US, hardcover, 1935. Dover, trade paperback, 1986, 2015. Published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1935.

   A re-read of a book I probably bought when it was first reprinted. In this case, I didn’t remember anything about it, so it was like reading it for the first time.

   Dr. Amos Cutter, a prominent surgeon and brother of the Secretary of State goes to the Police after receiving a letter saying he will be murdered on the following day at noon central time. Cutter is going to Reno, where his sister is getting a divorce and his brother is in the hospital in need of an operation that Cutter is one of the few surgeons who can perform.

   The Commissioner assigns Capt. Michael Lord to protect Cutter as they fly across country with Cutter’s nieces: the beautiful Fonda Mann, who is fond of men and her sister Isa who is a lesbian. (Note that King wasn’t very subtle with his names). Also along is Cutter’s assistant Hood Tinkham. Among the passengers is Lord’s friend, psychologist Dr. L. Rees Pons, who is going to Hollywood to provide psychological background for a script involving two women in love with each other (obviously pre-Code.)

   There’s also author Hugh L. Craven, who is a friend of the girl’s father, a former British spy during the Great War and a believer in the theories of Charles Fort. (ASIDE: Some 30 or so years back I came across a one volume edition of Fort’s books and read it. Some of the stuff is pretty interesting in a Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not sort of way. Other stuff is just damn silly.) Anyway, at noon central time as they’re flying over the mid-west, Cutter dies, and it’s up to Lord to find the killer before the plane reaches Reno.

   Of all the Dover reprints I’ve read this is probably the most poorly written. Characters and dialogue are mediocre at best and there’s an elaborate timetable provided that I couldn’t bother going through. However, King manages to pull off a big surprise midway through the book and then tops that in the final few pages. He also provides at the end a list of clues with the page and the line on that page where they were given so that the reader can go back and verify them.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #40, September 2005.

   

Editorial Notes: Quoting from Martin Edwards’ blog and a review he wrote of Obelists en Route:

   “‘Obelist’ was a word that King made up. He defined it in Obelists at Sea as ‘a person of little or no value’ and then re-defined it in Obelists en Route as ‘one who harbours suspicion’. Why on earth you would invent a word, use it in your book titles, and then change your mind about what it means?”

   Another online review can be found here at the Invisible Event blog. (He gives it Zero stars.)

   

      The Obelists series —

Obelists at Sea. Knopf 1933.
Obelists en Route. Collins 1934. No US publication.
Obelists Fly High. H. Smith 1935.
Careless Corpse. Collins 1937. No US publication.
Arrogant Alibi. Appleton 1939

   Lt. Lord makes a solo appearance in Bermuda Burial (Funk, 1941)

STUART KAMINSKY – Never Cross a Vampire. Toby Peters #5. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1980. Mysterious Press, paperback, 1984, 1995.   ibooks, paperback, 2000.

   As a flight into the past, Stuart Kaminsky’s series of adventures starring Hollywood private eye Toby Peters has come now to be a regularly scheduled event. As in his previous four cases, this affair, which introduces both Bela Legosi and aspiring screenwriter William Faulkner as clients, is fairly dripping with nostalgia. With a capital N.

   The time is January 1942, just as the US was gearing up for its mammoth forthcoming war effort, and every so often we are obliged to sit down and listen to Peters recite his breakfast menu, brand name by brand name, and to read his newspaper along with him, item by item.

   This litany of places, names, and events, while marginally interesting, becomes very much suspect, however, the moment Peters mentions having listened to a program on the popular radio series Suspense. As it so happens, the first program in the series, which lasted until 1962, or some twenty years, was not broadcast until June 17, 1942, or not until six months after the events related here.

   Kaminsky has put more effort than usual into the plot this time, which includes, very briefly, a locked room murder, but sloppy and inaccurate time-tabling – not month and year this time, but the time of day – makes it a little difficult to do more than guess who done it.

Rating: C

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 1, January-February 1981.

   
      The Toby Peters series (with a tip of the topper to his page on the Thrilling Detective website) —

   NOVELS

Bullet for a Star (1977; Errol Flynn).
Murder on the Yellow Brick Road (1977; Judy Garland).
You Bet Your Life (1978; Marx Brothers).
The Howard Hughes Affair (1979; Howard Hughes).
Never Cross a Vampire (1980; Bela Lugosi).
High Midnight (1981; Gary Cooper).
Catch a Falling Clown (1982; Emmett Kelly).
He Done Her Wrong (1983; Mae West).
The Fala Factor (1984; Eleanor Roosevelt).
Down for the Count (1985; Joe Louis).
The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance (1986; John Wayne).
Smart Moves (1986; Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson).
Think Fast, Mr. Peters (1988; Peter Lorre).
Buried Caesars (1989; General MacArthur).
Poor Butterfly (1990; Leopold Stokowski).
The Melting Clock (1991; Salvador Dali).
The Devil Met a Lady (1993; Bette Davis).
Tomorrow Is Another Day (1995; Clark Gable).
Dancing in the Dark (1996; Fred Astaire).
A Fatal Glass of Beer (1997; W.C. Fields).
A Few Minutes Past Midnight (2001; Charlie Chaplin).
To Catch a Spy (2002; Cary Grant)
Mildred Pierced (2003, Joan Crawford)
Now You See It (2004; Harry Blackstone).

   SHORT STORIES

“The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance (1984, The Eyes Have It)
“Busted Blossoms” (1986, Mean Streets)
“Long Odds” (2002, Murder on the Ropes)
“Denbow” (2009, Sex, Lies and Private Eyes)

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

   

   In previous columns I’ve discussed Lawrence Block’s earliest Matthew Scudder novels, in which the ex-cop turned unlicensed PI was a practicing alcoholic. That period culminated with EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1982), in the final chapter of which he admitted his alcoholism at an AA meeting, and WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES (1986) in which, a few years into sobriety, he tells a story from back in his drinking days.

   From then on he remains sober—even if tempted at times to return to the bottle—and changes some of his habits, no longer tithing as in previous novels but giving away countless dollar bills to the panhandlers he meets on the street.

   In OUT ON THE CUTTING EDGE (1989) he’s working on the kind of case Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op called a wandering daughter job: a Subaru dealer from Indiana has hired him to locate the fourth of his six children, who came to New York in hopes of an acting career but dropped out of touch with her family a few months earlier and vanished from her usual haunts.

   That is one of CUTTING EDGE’s two plot threads. The other begins after an AA meeting when fellow alcoholic Eddie Dunphy hints that, pursuant to Step Five of the organization’s program, he’d like to confess to Scudder all the sins of his past life. A few days later Matt discovers Dunphy’s body in the bathroom of his rent-controlled apartment. The evidence indicates death by autoerotic asphyxiation, which means that he hanged himself while masturbating.

   In most crime novels this plot thread would turn out to be interconnected with the other one. Not here. While checking out the bars the vanished Paula Hoeldtke frequented, Scudder encounters Mick Ballou, a huge Irish professional criminal known for his brutal rages: he’s said to have beaten one informer to death with a baseball bat and to have displayed another’s severed head in a bowling bag. Oddly enough, this stone killer and Scudder become close friends of sorts. Ballou happens to know the truth about Paula and eventually shares what he knows with his newfound buddy, after which the two go off to attend the Butchers’ Mass, a ritual that will pop up regularly in future novels.

   As for the second plot thread, Block blithely conceals from us until the climax that Scudder has linked Eddie Dunphy’s death with a whole series of murders, whose motivation would only be possible in New York. With even less of a unified structure than earlier Scudders, with entire chapters not the least bit relevant to what little story there is, CUTTING EDGE is certainly a minor entry in the series. But somehow it keeps us reading, almost as if we were being swept downstream by a swiftly flowing river. Very few authors could have pulled off this feat but Larry Block is one of them.

***

   With A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD (1990) the series takes a quantum leap forward as, for the first time, Scudder is pitted against an adversary who might be described as a cross between Max Cady from CAPE FEAR and Hannibal Lecter, as close to a Satan figure as is possible in a godless world.

   Scudder gets a late-night phone call from Elaine Mardell, the enterprising hooker from IN THE MIDST OF DEATH (1976), who has received an envelope with a clipping from an Ohio newspaper telling of the brutal slaughter of a family—a respectable furniture store owner, his wife, and their three children—which local police have written off as a murder-suicide case. The wife, Elaine tells Scudder, had been a colleague of hers in prostitution before her marriage, and in a flashback sequence from Scudder’s years as a cop we learn that, a dozen years ago, he and the two call girls had conspired to frame James Leo Motley, a sadistic psycho apparently beyond the law’s reach, and send him to prison on a one-to-ten-year sentence.

   Motley had sworn vengeance on Scudder and the women, and now it seems that he’s slaughtered one of them, along with her husband and kids, and that Elaine is his next target. Motley comes on stage only a few times in this 300-page novel, but Block creates a sense of menace throughout the book as Motley (who thinks nothing of butchering children and having anal sex with a dead woman) claims several more victims, including a woman whose only link with Scudder is that they shared the same last name.

   At one point he even lures Matt into a trap and, as a taste of what lies ahead, tortures him. Finally Scudder takes the offensive and—well, do you remember the climax of CAPE FEAR when Robert Mitchum as Cady is drowning Gregory Peck and Peck grabs a large rock at the river bottom and smashes Mitchum’s skull with it? All but a handful who saw that movie were clamoring for Peck to keep hitting Mitchum with that rock until his brains were mush.

   When I interviewed J. Lee Thompson, who directed the picture, he told me that he too wanted Peck to kill Mitchum but was overruled by studio execs who demanded that the movie should end with a ringing endorsement of the legal system’s competence to protect us from feral humans. Whether the mano a mano between Scudder and Motley ends as CAPE FEAR ended or as Thompson wanted it to end, I’d be a toad if I revealed here. Most of Block’s readers won’t need three guesses, or even two, to reach the answer.

***

   With A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE (1991) Block returned to the two-plot-threads structure he’d used without great success in OUT ON THE CUTTING EDGE, but this time the parts of the whole are connected in a fresh and unusual way. We open with Scudder and Mick Ballou attending a mediocre boxing match at a near-empty arena in the dreariest part of Queens. Amid the sparse spectators Matt happens to notice a man smoothing back a teen-age boy’s hair, and the gesture strikes him as strangely familiar.

   Next comes a flashback chapter in which we learn what brought Scudder to the arena: not the fight but a job. A gay man with HIV, the brother of a brutally murdered young pregnant woman, has hired him to investigate her husband, an exec of the cable TV service that televises the matches in that Queens arena, whom the brother suspects of being behind the murder. That night in bed Scudder suddenly remembers where he’d seen that hair-smoothing gesture before: in a snuff film.

   A second flashback, this one running two chapters, begins after an AA meeting six months earlier as a fellow alcoholic asks Scudder to look into a videocassette of THE DIRTY DOZEN that he’d rented from a local store, only to find that fifteen minutes of the film had been erased and replaced with footage of a man and woman in S&M costumes having sex with a teen-age boy in shackles and then apparently killing him.

   Now we return to present time, and stay there. Trying to trace the boy in the snuff film and the boy in the Queens arena, Scudder encounters a black teen known as TJ who will become a fixture in the series from this point forward, his dialogue a compound of it-be-rainin-out argot and rhyming jivetalk that tends after a while to get on the nerves. My nerves anyway. Eventually our unlicensed PI finds the connection between the two plot threads—yes, this time there is one. The climax is a Walpurgisnacht of sex and gore in the same arena where the book began as Scudder and Mick (with some backup) take on a devilish pair of recreational killers (with some backup).

   Afterwards they attend the Butchers’ Mass and both of them take Communion. Why did Scudder do that? “I don’t know,” he says on the last page. “There are lots of things I do without knowing why the hell I do them. Half the time I don’t know why I stay sober….”

   For me SLAUGHTERHOUSE is the breakthrough book, the one where Block worked out and perfected all the key elements of the Scudder series. The proper length and complexity. The guest appearances by characters from previous Scudders: not only Elaine and Ballou but the cop Joe Durkin and the pimp-turned-art-dealer Chance and the “albino Negro” Danny Boy Bell and Scudder’s mentor Jim Faber. The explosive climax in which Scudder imposes his own brand of private justice or vengeance or whatever you choose to call it against one or more sadistic sociopaths beyond the reach of the law.

   And last but far from least, the interspersed stories—from the daily newspapers, from the cops Scudder encounters and from his own past and those of fellow AA members—all irrelevant to the plot but cumulatively painting a grim portrait of la cité noire. One of the longest of these story sequences, from the morning Daily News and Chapter 8 of SLAUGHTERHOUSE, offers a superb example of Block’s technique:

   An elderly Washington Heights woman had been killed watching television, struck in the head by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting on the street outside her apartment….The woman was the fourth bystander killed so far this year….

   On Park Avenue…a man had leaned out the window of an unmarked white van to snatch the handbag of a middle-aged woman who was waiting for the light to change. She’d had the bag’s strap looped around her neck…and when the van sped off she was dragged and strangled….

   In Queens, a group of teenagers walking across the Forest Park golf course had come upon the body of a young woman who had been abducted several days earlier in Woodhaven. She’d been doing her grocery shopping on Jamaica Avenue when another van…pulled up at the curb. Two men jumped out of the back, grabbed her, hustled her into the van, and climbed in after her….A preliminary medical examination disclosed evidence of sexual assault and multiple stab wounds to the chest and abdomen.

   Don’t watch television, don’t carry a purse, don’t walk down the street. Jesus.

   Or, as Hammett put it several years before Larry Block was born: We live while blind chance spares us.

PATRICIA WALLACE – Deadly Grounds. Sydney Bryant #2. Zebra, paperback original; 1st printing, May 1989.

   I don’t remember the title of the first one, but this is [San Diego-based] PI Sydney Bryant’s second recorded adventure. She’s hired here by a neighbor, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who finds the body of a friend along a pathway of the private girls’ academy they both attended.

   Complicating the story is Sydney’s potentially torrid love affair with the policeman in charge. While Wallace’s easy writing style often seems to explain too much, as if telling the story to someone reading a mystery for the first time, she does know teenage girls.

PostScript: Well, she convinced me, at least. It’s really too badthat both the title and packaging make th book look to much like a run-of-the-mill horror novel, at least at first glance — and how much chance does a book get to find its proper audience, anyway?

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #13, June 1989

      The Sydney Bryant series —

Small Favors. Zebra 1988

            

Deadly Grounds. Zebra 1989
Blood Lies. Zebra 1991

            

Deadly Devotion. Zebra 1994

            

August Nights. Five Star, hardcover, 2002

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


ASHLEY GARDNER – Death at Brighton Pavilion. Cpt. Gabriel Lacey #14. JA/AG Publishing, softcover, December 2019. Setting: Regency England.

First Sentence: I woke, or seemed to.

   Captain Gabriel Lacey’s old enemy, Colonel Hamilton Isherwood, has been murdered. Isherwood’s blood is on Lacey’s clothes and a cavalry saber is in Lacey’s hand, and there is a gap in his memory as to what happened. The one person who might know is Clement, a footman, and Isherwood’s son asks for Lacey’s help in identifying his father’s killer. While trying to put the pieces together, Gabriel learns of two Quakers who are missing and promises to make inquiries as to their whereabouts.

   There’s nothing like a good hook; an opening that captures your attention from the very beginning. Having the protagonist come to consciousness in the company of a dead body, a saber in this hand, and the victim’s blood on his clothes accomplishes that goal.

   It’s also nice that new readers need not worry about coming into the series with this 14th book. Gardner does a very good job of introducing each of the characters and establishing their relationships. She also incorporates the intimacy between Lacey and his wife Donata in a way that is lovely, romantic and a bit sexy, but never detailed.

   Gardner creates an excellent sense of place, inviting the reader into the environment in which the characters find themselves. Often, too, she provides bits of history and general information, such as that about Quakers, never overwhelming the story, but enhancing it.

   One likes to read of protagonists who have a strong moral and ethical base, who believe in doing what is just. Lacey is just such a character in spite of the urgings of others. At the same time, he is not perfect and does have a past, yet one of the best traits of Lacey is his humanity; his sense of responsibility. In other words, he is believable.

   Gardner creates an assumption and immediately dispels it carrying one along in the investigation. Her writing draws one back to her books due to her voice; her dialogue and the subtle humor incorporated which is offset by an excellent accounting of grieving– “That was the trouble with death. I too had been brought up to believe we should rejoice that the one we loved was with the lord, but somehow I never could. I could feel only emptiness, the lessening of myself for the absence of that person.”

   Death at Brighton Pavilion is a thoroughly enjoyable period mystery with plenty of twists, action, wonderful period details, and an ending that moves the series forward. As the author says– “Captain Lacey’s adventures continue…”

Rating: Good Plus.


      The Captain Gabriel Lacey series —

1. The Hanover Square Affair (2003)
2. A Regimental Murder (2004)
3. The Glass House (2004)
4. The Sudbury School Murders (2005)
5. A Body in Berkley Square (2005)
6. A Covent Garden Mystery (2006)
7. A Death in Norfolk (2011)
8. A Disappearance in Drury Lane (2013)
9. Murder in Grosvenor Square (2014)
10. The Thames River Murders (2015)
11. The Alexandria Affair (2016)
12. A Mystery at Carlton House (2017)
13. Murder in St. Giles (2018)
14. Death at Brighton Pavilion (2019)

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