Columns


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


   Anyone who’s read Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels — by which I mean the early ones, dating from 1947 to 1952, the ones in which Spillane overturned the whole Hammett-Chandler PI tradition by portraying Hammer as a sadistic psycho — has his own idea who should have played the character on screen.

   There’s a consensus that the actors cast in the part were inadequate except perhaps for Ralph Meeker in director Robert Aldrich’s subversive version of KISS ME, DEADLY (1955), where Hammer is not the Cold War jihadi Spillane imagined but a cheap punk. It may not be coincidence that Meeker bore a certain physical resemblance to Spillane.

   For my money the ideal screen Hammer would need to be a big bruiser, and of the actors from the period who are familiar to me the one I see as most like the character Spillane created was Lawrence Tierney (1919-2002). I challenge anyone to watch Tierney in that fine film noir BORN TO KILL (1947) and tell me he isn’t Hammer to the life. And judging from what I read on the Web, he was also a raging bull in the real world, serving several jail terms for beating people up in bars.

   The years of the early Spillane novels coincided with the dawn years of television, but the medium’s antipathy to sex and strong violence seemed to rule out Hammer as a star of the small screen. Then in the late 1950s the character invaded America’s living rooms in the person of Darren McGavin (1922-2006), who went on to star in several other series including RIVERBOAT, THE OUTSIDER and KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER.

   According to an interview McGavin gave decades later (Scarlet Street, Fall 1994), “Universal had made a contract with Spillane, and they made three pilots, one with Brian Keith. They couldn’t show them because they were all too violent.”

   The Keith pilot was written and directed by soon-to-be-superstar Blake Edwards (1922-2010). I’m told on the Web that it’s out there, and someday I’d love to see it. Keith as he looked in the Fifties strikes me as an excellent choice for the part, certainly more so than McGavin, who like Ralph Meeker resembled Spillane more than the Mick’s most famous character.

   “I was doing a play in New York,” McGavin recalled, “and they called me to come out and do this series. I read the script…[and] said, ‘This is ridiculous! I mean, you can’t take this shit seriously….[T]his is satire. It’s gotta be satirical.’ [The producers] said, ‘No, no, no—this is really very deadly, straight-on, dead-on serious.’”

   McGavin insisted on playing the part his way, and Universal bigwig Lou Wasserman came down to the set and told him, “You can’t make fun of this material.” McGavin said, “I’m not making fun of it, I’m just treating it in a lighter manner…. We have a contract for me to say the words that are put on the paper. I don’t want anybody telling me how to do it.” What the hell did he think a director was for? Amazingly, McGavin wasn’t fired, and according to him, the episodes “were instantly successful. People thought they were funny.”

   Spillane couldn’t have cared less how the character was portrayed, telling TV Guide “I just took the money and went home.” That magazine’s reviewer declared that HAMMER “could easily be the worst show on TV.” I have yet to find anyone who considered the program a laugh riot but it certainly was successful, running for two seasons of 39 episodes each. All 78 can be accessed on YouTube and are also available on a DVD set.

   If the series wasn’t like the Hammer novels and wasn’t a comic parody of Spillane either, how can we describe it? I suggest we think of it as a sort of visual counterpart of Manhunt, the digest-sized crime magazine that debuted in 1953, at the height of Spillane’s popularity, and printed tons of tales by those hardboiled writers who were clients of the Scott Meredith literary agency. I don’t think it was by chance that later in the decade several of those writers got to crank out Hammer scripts, or have their Manhunt stories adapted for the Hammer series, or both.

   To take the latter situation first, let’s look at Evan Hunter (1926-2005). By the time Hammer made it to the small screen, Hunter was writing mainstream bestsellers under his official name and the 87th Precinct police procedurals as Ed McBain. Earlier in his career he’d been writing tons of short stories for the hardboiled mags.

   It was in Manhunt that readers of the Red Menace era first encountered an edgy alcoholic PI named Matt Cordell. Although originally published as by Evan Hunter, the byline and the protagonist magically changed their names to Curt Cannon when the stories were collected as the paperback original I LIKE ‘EM TOUGH (Gold Medal pb #743, 1958), soon to be accompanied by the novel I’M CANNON—FOR HIRE (Gold Medal pb #814, 1958).

   Hunter’s career had skyrocketed so far into the stratosphere that he wasn’t interested in writing for the Hammer TV series, but three of his six Cordell stories from Manhunt were adapted by others into Hammer scripts. Hunter, needless to add, was a Scott Meredith client. So was Henry Kane (1908-1988), who found one of his Manhunt tales about PI Peter Chambers reconfigured as a Hammer exploit.

   So was Robert Turner (1915-1980), who devoted a chapter of his memoir SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE WRITERS BUT I WOULDN’T WANT MY DAUGHTER TO MARRY ONE! (Sherbourne Press, 1970) to his experiences working on the Hammer series. As Turner tells it, a whole pile of Scott Meredith clients got flown out to La-La Land and tried their hands at writing for the program but only a few succeeded.

   First and by far the most successful was Frank Kane (1912-1968), who was credited with 14 original scripts, 5 more written with a co-author, and 6 Manhunt tales (three of them about his own PI Johnny Liddell) Hammerized either by himself or somebody else. Kane had a habit of using gallows-humor titles for his novels and stories, and both he himself and others tended to use the same type of title for their HAMMER episodes.

   Witness the following lists:

      KANE NOVEL OR STORY

Bare Trap
Gory Hallelujah!
Lead Ache
Morgue-Star Final
Poisons Unknown
Slay Ride
Slay Upon Delivery
Trigger Mortis

      HAMMER SCRIPT BY KANE

Crepe for Suzette
A Detective Tail
A Grave Undertaking
Lead Ache (based on Kane’s short story)
Skinned Deep
Slay Upon Delivery (not based on Kane’s short story)

      HAMMER SCRIPT BY SOMEBODY ELSE

Bride and Doom
The High Cost of Dying
Just Around the Coroner
Merchant of Menace
My Fair Deadly
Stocks and Blondes
Swing Low, Sweet Harriet

   Robert Turner described Kane as “a big, bluff, hearty guy with a sometimes bawdy but always lively sense of humor… He drove [the producers] crazy, because he steadfastly refused to make carbon copies of his scripts.” He “could turn out a first draft in one or two days. He never gave it to [the producers] right away, though. Not after the first time, when they told him it couldn’t possibly be any good if he’d written it that fast. From then on he just threw the thing in a drawer for two or three days and visited around the lot.”

   He “would come to Hollywood for a month, write four or five scripts, and as soon as the last one was finished and okayed wouldn’t even wait for his check, but would head back to his family in New York….He always took the train….”

   Another well-known crime novelist turning out Hammer exploits was Bill S. Ballinger (1912-1980), who under his B. X. Sanborn byline wrote about a dozen scripts for the series. Most of what didn’t come from East Coast hardboilers was the work of four men who over the years turned out a small army of scripts for Revue Productions’ syndicated TV programs: Fenton Earnshaw, Lawrence Kimble, Barry Shipman and, most prolific of all, Steven Thornley (reportedly a byline of prime-time teleplaywright Ken Pettus).

   How about the guys who called the shots? The busiest of the Revue contract directors who worked on HAMMER was Ukraine-born Boris Sagal (1923-1981), who signed 20 of the initial 39 episodes plus 5 from the second season. Sagal soon became one of the top TV directors but his career came to a messy end: while filming the mini-series WORLD WAR III, he walked into the tail rotor blades of a helicopter and was partially decapitated.

   Also noteworthy among the first season’s directors was John English (1903-1969), one of the great action specialists who spent much of his creative life helming B Westerns and cliffhanger serials at the legendary Republic Pictures. English moved into television when the new medium displaced theatrical B features and spent several years at Revue.

   He directed only five segments of HAMMER but “Peace Bond” boasts perhaps the most exciting climax of any of the 78 episodes. McGavin’s mano a mano with an evil lawyer (Edmon Ryan) represents Republic-style action at its no-prop-left-unsmashed finest, every moment perfectly choreographed and complemented by the background music of Republic veteran Raoul Kraushaar.

   English’s best bud at Republic was my own best friend in Hollywood, William Witney (1915-2002), the Spielberg of his generation, a wunderkind who at the start of his career was the youngest director in the business. Between 1937 and 1941 the two co-directed 17 consecutive Republic serials, their visual styles so much alike that they often got into arguments about who had shot what.

   In the late Fifties, after Republic folded, Witney wound up at Revue, directing episodes of many of the same series English was working on, including MIKE HAMMER. During its second season Bill helmed 13 segments, far more than anyone else except Boris Sagal.

   His HAMMER work benefits from innovations like devising L-shaped sets, with the camera positioned at the right angle of the L so he could have it point east and shoot one scene while the technicians were preparing the north arm of the L for the next sequence, then have it swing around, point north and shoot that scene while the crewmen were tearing down the furnishings from Bill’s first shot and setting up what was needed for his third.

   If you watch only one of his 13 HAMMER segments, make it “Wedding Mourning” — the last episode filmed, he told me — in which Hammer for once is portrayed as something very close to the brutal psycho Spillane all unwittingly had created. Mike falls for a woman and is about to get married and change his life when his love is murdered and he runs amok, shooting and beating a swath through New York’s lowlifes. If any of the 78 HAMMER episodes qualifies as telefilm noir, this is it.

   In the cast lists of any Fifties series you’re likely to find a number of men and women who were prominent in movies from earlier decades and others who were to become famous on TV in the Sixties or later. Among those once better known who appeared in HAMMER episodes were Neil Hamilton, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Keye Luke, Alan Mowbray, Tom Neal and Anna May Wong. The first three also enjoyed later TV fame, respectively as BATMAN’s Commissioner Gordon, the voice of the titular horse on MR. ED, and KUNG FU’S Master Po.

   The actors who weren’t all that well known at the time of their HAMMER roles but made their marks later include Herschel Bernardi, Barrie Chase, Michael Connors, Angie Dickinson, Robert Fuller, Lorne Greene, DeForest Kelley, Dorothy Provine and Robert Vaughn. Anyone who can identify all these folks’ claims to fame either is a telefreak of the first water or has the DVD set.

   While cobbling this column together I was presented with a copy of the set and have begun watching the episodes. Some of them I haven’t seen in many years, others — mainly those directed by Bill Witney or Jack English — I taped when the series was broadcast on the Encore Mystery Channel.

   Will I make it through all 78? Dunno. Will I find anything interesting enough for another column? No idea. But if McGavin’s later PI series THE OUTSIDER ever comes out on DVD it might be worth exploring.

COLLECTING PULPS: A MEMOIR, PART ELEVEN –
Frank Robinson, 1926-2014
by Walker Martin


   I’ve just learned that Frank Robinson died on June 30, 2014. Another of my old pulp friends that I will miss and one less of the collectors who used to actually buy the pulps off the newsstands in the thirties and forties. Frank was born in 1926 and was 87 years old at the time of his death.

   Frank wore many hats, and I’m not talking about the hat that he always wore. He was an SF author, a writer of mainstream action fiction, an editor for the men’s magazines such as ROGUE, CAVALIER, PLAYBOY, a speechwriter for Harvey Milk, who was shot and killed in the 1980′s, a member of the San Francisco gay community, and finally at the end of his life, a movie actor. (He had a bit part playing himself in the movie, MILK.)

   However, though I was aware of all the above, I knew him only as one of the most intense and fanatical pulp magazine collectors that I have ever known. He was a “condition collector” and probably the top such collector among pulp collectors. Frank just didn’t collect nice condition pulps; he collected magazines that were often in perfect condition with white pages and glossy, new looking covers and spines. This is getting harder and harder to do because the pulp era is now many decades in the past, the last ones dying in 1955. (There are a couple of exceptions such as RANCH ROMANCES.) Some of the beautiful magazines that Frank collected are now close to a hundred years old.

   I first came into contact with Frank in the early 1980′s when he wrote me about some of his wants. We corresponded for many years and traded pulps back and forth. Not an easy thing to do because Frank only wanted perfection. He had what other collectors called “the wall of pulps” and they were all in fine or mint condition. His SF magazines were probably the best condition set in existence and his WEIRD TALES were a thing of beauty.

   During our correspondence, it was only natural that the subject of Pulpcon would arise. I urged him to attend the annual convention which was usually held in the Dayton, Ohio area. He eventually went to many of the conventions in the 1980′s and 1990′s and was finally awarded Pulpcon’s highest honor, the Lamont Award, at Pulpcon 29 in 2000.

   When I think back on our many conversations at Pulpcon, I cannot recall a single non-pulp related discussion. All we ever talked about were book and pulp matters. Wait — I do remember once showing him an original pen and ink illustration from a SF magazine that was used on one of his stories, but that was just about as far afield as we ever strayed.

   And that was how I liked it. Pulpcon was like a big book and pulp party, as if you had died and had gone to heaven. No families, no problems, forget your worries and just dive right into a gigantic room full of old magazines and books. I once had a friend who carried on an affair with a motel maid during the convention. When he told me about it, I was puzzled. Why, was my response. Sex could be pursued the other 51 weeks of the year. Why bother during Pulpcon?

   Frank felt the same way. Usually he could be found sitting behind a table comparing pulps and upgrading his magazine collection. You couldn’t miss him with his trademark golf cap and sonorous, deep voice. Pulpcon once had a guest that had worked at Ziff Davis as Frank had back in the forties and when he heard The Voice, he immediately knew who it was and yelled, “Why it’s that kid from the mailroom!”. He didn’t recognize the face but you could never forget Frank’s voice.

   Great collectors compile great collections not just by buying them but also by helping other collectors. I’ve run into this a hundred times with old-time collectors over the years. Here are some examples where Frank attempted to help me with my collection:

   1. During our correspondence, Frank asked me for my want list. At the time I was collecting just about every major pulp title except for the love, sport, and aviation/war magazines. Therefore it was several pages long and handwritten. He found several of my wants and we traded back and forth. A couple months later, I received in the mail a neatly typed manuscript. It was my handwritten want list that Frank had typed and without errors. It must have taken him hours to do it.

   2. Upon hearing that I had 112 SEA STORIES and only needed 6 issues for a complete set, he said he was willing to let me have his issues if he had the ones I needed.

   3. I was once talking about how I had various parts of the famous October 1912 Tarzan issue of ALL STORY but I was missing some pages. He offered to try and put together a complete issue if he could manage it.

   4. Since that didn’t work out, once Frank was at an auction on the east coast, and called me at work. He wanted to know how high I was willing to bid on the Tarzan issue and he would bid and get it for me. Unfortunately I was only prepared to go as high as $5,000 and someone else got it. But this is another beyond the call of duty or friendship action.

   As Frank got older, I guess he finally reached the point that we all eventually get to. He decided to find another home for his great collection. One of the great magazine auctions of several decades was held by Adventure House a couple years ago. It was simply called The Frank Robinson Collection auction and of course all serious collectors started to squirrel away money, borrow and rob the family bank accounts, lie to their non-collecting spouses, and otherwise act in ways that would be frowned on in polite society.

   I knew that most of the Robinson collection would be beyond my means because of the premium that we put on nice condition pulps. Fortunately I had most of the magazines already in lesser shape. But I did want something from the Frank Robinson Collection for my own collection and in memory of our friendship. I was fortunate to get several WESTERN STORY MAGAZINE issues from the early twenties in beautiful condition. But even these white paper artifacts cost me a lot more that I had thought they would. Each issue cost me over $100. A friend of mine got caught up in a bidding war and paid over $900 for a magazine that was worth less than a hundred.

   So I knew I was in dangerous territory. For instance the WEIRD TALES set went for over a quarter of a million dollars. But as all collectors know, you can always get more money, but rare books and pulps are not so easy to find. All collectors make mistakes. One of mine was selling my set of the 71 issues of PLANET STORIES for a thousand dollars several years ago. True, my set was not that great condition but I missed the garish, good girl art covers and the space opera. The letter columns were of great interest and fun to read.

   I decided to get the PLANET STORIES set at the Robinson auction. I knew they would go high, maybe cost more money than I would want to spend. I had sold my beat-up set for peanuts, which came to $15 each. What would the best condition set in the world go for? I knew the copies were perfect, white pages, bright, newsstand fresh covers and spines and that new pulp smell. They were new, 60 to 70 years after being printed!

   Even at $100 each the set would cost $7100 and I knew such condition would force the bidders to go higher that $100 each. It sure did but after the dust settled, I was the proud owner of the greatest set of PLANET STORIES in existence. Not just in the world but in existence! If you are a serious book or magazine collector, then you know this feeling. At first I figured I paid too much, but maybe not because I soon was offered my money back plus a set of PLANET STORIES in nice shape if I would sell the Robinson copies. I refused of course.

   Shortly after the above events, I went to the Windy City pulp show in Chicago. Doug Ellis had invited a few art and pulp collectors out to his house for lunch before the start of the convention. I was wandering through looking at the pulp art when I heard the sound of snoring on a couch in the basement. I went over and there was Frank Robinson laying flat on his back, sleeping. With his hat on! I stress the hat because Frank always had the golf hat on and even swam with it on according to reports. Well, now I knew that he even slept with the hat on.

   I didn’t say anything, but in a daze I went upstairs and said to Deb and Doug, “What’s cooler that having pulps from the Frank Robinson Auction?” “Having Frank himself as part of your collection!” Well of course he was just visiting, and I went back downstairs and looked at him again. This time he woke and without a second’s hesitation, said “Hi Walker” and proceeded to talk about pulps. I told him I had a special stamp and ink pad made and I was going to stamp each issue of PLANET STORIES on the cover and contents page the following statement: FROM THE FRANK ROBINSON COLLECTION.

   Of course I would be crazy to do that but I have been called crazy before. The magazines are so perfect that I’m afraid to handle them and I certainly can’t read them without degrading the condition. However, I solved my problem by buying back my beat up set that I had sold for $1,000 a dozen years ago. This time it cost me $1,700 to get them back. Now I have two sets of PLANET, one to read and one as a shrine to the memory of Frank.

   My last conversation with Frank was a couple years ago. I was looking at some WEIRD TALES that looked perfect and were up for auction. I heard that distinctive voice say, “Hey Walker, look at the paper inside.” I did and it was browned and brittle. We grinned at each other.

   RIP Frank.

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


   Last month I revisited a number of short novels — what the immortal Harry Stephen Keeler liked to call novellos, with the accent on the nov — but when I finished that column I felt like checking out a few more specimens and pulled down some volumes by Rex Stout, who at least among Americans was and still is the best known performer at that length.

   Many decades ago I had read almost all the Nero Wolfe novels, long and short alike. In fact Wolfe’s last bow, A FAMILY AFFAIR (1975), was the first book I reviewed for the now long defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and I still remember the book page editor adding a paragraph to tell readers that Stout had died, at age 88, between the time I’d sent in my review and the day it was published.

   Rereading a couple of Wolfe’s shorter exploits recently, I enjoyed them as much as ever but found, as I’d noticed long ago, that Stout’s well-known habit of making up the plots as he went along often led him to paint himself into a corner. Take for example “Not Quite Dead Enough” (American Magazine, December 1942; collected in NOT QUITE DEAD ENOUGH, 1944).

   This very early Wolfe novello takes place a few months after Pearl Harbor. Archie Goodwin, a newly minted major in Military Intelligence, is assigned to recruit his former boss, who would prefer to lose a pile of weight and join the infantry so he can kill Germans himself. Archie carries out his mission by framing himself for a murder and all but forcing Wolfe to clear him.

   This time the sage of West 35th Street actually exposes the truth of the matter by something like deduction but, as he rightly points out at the wrap-up, the culprit’s scheme was “the silliest idea in the history of crime.” (Once Archie’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Lily Rowan tells the truth, as she’s bound to in due course, the only possible killer is the one who did the deed.)

   In “The Twisted Scarf” (American Magazine, September 1950; collected in CURTAINS FOR THREE, 1950, as “Disguise for Murder”) the murder takes place in Wolfe’s own office on a day when he has allowed the members of the Manhattan Flower Club to invade the brownstone and admire his orchids.

   The victim? A young woman who, shortly before her demise, took Archie aside and told him that while touring the plant rooms she had seen the person who had murdered a girlfriend of hers a few months earlier.

   There’s much more physical action at the climax of this novello than one usually finds in Stout, and the murderer’s identity is a genuine surprise, but there wouldn’t have been a story at all except for the culprit having done something abominably stupid over which I shall draw a Salome’s veil except for those who opt to strip it off by clicking here.

   I’m now going to change the subject. Well, not really.

***

   Most mystery readers in my age bracket are likely to have read a few novels or stories by Frank Kane (1912-1968), the creator of PI Johnny Liddell. In his earliest appearances, which date back to around 1944, Liddell would probably have reminded most readers of Dashiell Hammett’s dumpy, overweight and streetwise protagonist The Continental Op.

   One of those early tales was “Suicide” (Crack Detective Stories, January 1945), in which Liddell tries to prove that a man who apparently killed himself by eating his gun was actually murdered. This story wasn’t in either of Kane’s short story collections (JOHNNY LIDDELL’S MORGUE, 1956, and STACKED DECK, 1960) but was included in that now rare anthology RUE MORGUE NO. 1 (1946).

   Who edited that anthology? Rex Stout and a guy named Louis Greenfield. How is that relevant here? Because the gimmick from “Suicide” pops up three years later in the Nero Wolfe novello “The Gun with Wings” (American Magazine, December 1949; collected in CURTAINS FOR THREE, 1950).

   Didn’t I say I wasn’t really going to change the subject? It seems that when Stout didn’t make up his plots as he went along he took them where he found them.

***

   Soon after Mickey Spillane and his sadistic sleuth Mike Hammer appeared on the scene and quickly transformed PI fiction — whether for better or worse is a matter of taste — Frank Kane decided to reconfigure Johnny Liddell into something of a Hammer clone, younger and better-looking and tougher and sexier than in his original incarnation, albeit without the carnage and psychotic rants that were the early Spillane’s trademarks.

   The Liddell books do have their fans but for my money, if ever there were a truly generic PI series this is it. The writing is flat, the plots and characters from stock, the various adventures so interchangeable that Kane thought nothing of recycling whole passages from one Liddell novel into another. (Wasn’t it Marv Lachman who first discovered this?)

   How fitting that late in the Fifties, when the first Mike Hammer TV series was launched, one of the first writers tapped to crank out scripts for it was Kane.

***

   Ah yes, the first Mike Hammer TV series. I don’t believe I’ve ever written it up before so it just might make a nice subject for next month’s column. Don’t touch that dial!

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


   Having eaten up much of the past few weeks paginating the index for JUDGES & JUSTICE & LAWYERS & LAW, I must again rely on my dusty old files to provide raw material for this month’s column.

   Lucky for me that my files are full of the stuff. In my salad days, beginning more than half a century ago, I got into the habit of writing for-my-eyes-only reviews not only of the full-length whodunits I read but also of the shorter works variously called short novels, novelettes, novellas and novellos, the last term coined by my beloved Harry Stephen Keeler, who probably pronounced the word with the accent on the first syllable.

   From the hundred-odd paragraphs of comment on tales of this length that are moldering in my files I’ll exhume a few that strike me as not too uninteresting today.

***

MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   Of all the characters who appeared frequently in novellos during the Golden Age, the two who stand tallest are Nero Wolfe and Simon Templar. Among the pile of tales of this length which the young Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) wrote about his Saintly hero, one of my favorites is “The Inland Revenue” (The Thriller, 25 April 1931, as “The Masked Menace”; collected under its better-known title in THE HOLY TERROR, Hodder & Stoughton 1932, and THE SAINT VS. SCOTLAND YARD, Doubleday Crime Club 1932), in which we follow Simon as he tries to raise enough money to pay his income tax by extorting it from a sinister mastermind calling himself the Scorpion.

   It’s a preposterously tongue-in-cheek saga with an astoundingly unfair surprise ending, but Charteris carries it off with the help of the satiric wit and brashness that were his trademarks.

***

MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   When Charteris launched his career, by far the most popular English mystery writer was Edgar Wallace (1875-1932), who produced novels, novellos and short stories faster than a rabbit can produce baby rabbits. One of the most rousing and richly plotted of his tales at the length we’re investigating today was “The Man from Sing Sing” (The Thriller, 7 February 1931; collected in THE GUV’NOR AND OTHER STORIES, Collins 1932, U.S. title MR. REEDER RETURNS, Doubleday Crime Club 1932).

   The parlormaid of Mr. J.G. Reeder, perhaps Wallace’s best known series detective, leads her boss into a bizarre case involving a lost false mustache, a spectacular embezzlement, a murdered Eton lecturer and a fortune found in a haystack. Our sleuth connects these and other items with reasoning that runs the gamut from sketchy to non-existent, but Wallace scores with his dry wit, tantalizing plot, swift economy of movement, and loving depiction of English working-class mores.

***

MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   Baynard Kendrick (1894-1977) created more than one series sleuth but his signature character was the blind detective Captain Duncan Maclain. The captain debuted in 1937 and usually appeared in novels, but during the WWII years he also turned up in three novellos, collected after the war as MAKE MINE MACLAIN (Morrow, 1947).

I don’t have a copy of that book but I do own each of its component parts, and reread one of them recently to see if my opinion of it had changed since 1968. It hadn’t.

In “The Murderer Who Wanted More” (American Magazine, January 1944) one of the potential legatees of a Staten Island matriarch’s estate is shot to death during a fierce snowstorm while traveling on the post-midnight local train from the St. George ferry terminal to the end of the line at Tottenville to visit his dying mother. Both before and after that murder come several attempts on the life of another potential legatee, a lovely young artist who had recently painted Maclain’s dogs.

   The captain’s key deduction is unconvincing and the motive Kendrick attributes to the killer shows that he didn’t know the first thing about the law of wills, but the Staten Island setting is unusual and vivid enough.

***

MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   The earliest collections of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novellos appeared in 1942 and 1944 but contained only two tales apiece. Most of Wolfe’s cases at that length appeared three to a book, but only after threesomes had been published featuring other sleuths including Duncan Maclain, as we’ve just seen, and Michael Shayne, the Miami-based PI created by Brett Halliday (1904-1977).

   Fast, complex and professional are the words for “Dinner at Dupre’s” (Mystery Book Magazine, September 1946; collected in MICHAEL SHAYNE’S TRIPLE MYSTERY, Ziff-Davis 1948), in which Mike’s search for the murderer of a prospective client leads him to the hamlet of Cheepwee, Louisiana and a temptingly described Southern dinner with a nymphomaniac who has a new angle on the bigamy racket.

   Brisk pace, shrewd plotting, an honest if not startling solution, and minimal self-conscious toughness prompted me a few generations ago to give this one very high marks.

***

MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   Now we tackle a work actually written not too long before I began to set down some of these scribbles. Richard S. Prather (1921-2007) didn’t turn out a slew of novellos about his quintessentially cool PI Shell Scott, but the few he did were among the joys of my late teens.

   Take for instance “Babes, Bodies and Bullets” (Cavalier, April 1958; collected in SHELL SCOTT’S SEVEN SLAUGHTERS, Fawcett Gold Medal pb #S1072, 1961). Hired to solve a Beverly Hills attorney’s murder, which he witnessed, Scott runs into a gaggle of gruesome gangsters, an assortment of luscious wenches and a mounting heap of corpses.

   The plot is sorta thin, but Prather’s feel for action and tempo and his wild-and-woolly prose, plus a sequence of gruesome horseplay in an underworld hospital, lift this novello to the top of the heap.

***

MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   May I stray from the month’s topic for a moment? The last living actor to portray Ellery Queen in any national medium died on March 12, a few weeks short of his 100th birthday. Richard Coogan was best known for TV work — starring in the early live sci-fi series CAPTAIN VIDEO, having a long-running role in the daytime soap LOVE OF LIFE, playing Marshal Matt Wayne on the Western series THE CALIFORNIANS — but he began his career in radio and portrayed Ellery during late 1946 and early ‘47.

   Anthony Boucher, who at that time was collaborating on the weekly scripts with EQ co-creator Manfred B. Lee, described Coogan’s performance in a letter to Lee (25 October 1946) as “not quite so smug” as his predecessor’s. Coogan’s main interest in his twilight years was golf. He was in his mid-nineties when I talked with him over the phone in connection with my book ELLERY QUEEN: THE ART OF DETECTION, but he struck me as in amazingly good health, and anyone who checks out his reminiscences of CAPTAIN VIDEO on YouTube, which date from roughly the same time, will surely get the same impression. May we all live so long and well.

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


   I could have sworn I’d read all of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels decades ago, but when I recently pulled out The Case of the Singing Skirt (1959) from my shelves nothing in it struck me as familiar.

MIKE NEVINS

   Club singer Ellen Robb is framed for theft and fired after refusing to help casino owner George Anclitas and his partner Slim Marcus trim wealthy Helman Ellis in a crooked poker game. Mason visits the casino and threatens Anclitas with a recent appellate decision holding that in a community property state like California a gambler’s spouse can recover any money the gambler lost.

   Later Ellen finds a Smith & Wesson .38 in her suitcase and, fearing that Anclitas is out to frame her for something more serious than theft, goes to Mason again. In her presence, Mason happens to have a phone conversation with another lawyer in which he cites several cases holding that if a person is shot by two different people and could have died from either wound, only the one who fired the second shot is guilty of murder.

   Without telling Ellen, Mason switches the gun she found in her bag for another of the same make and model that he happens to have in his safe. That evening he and Della Street secretly hide the gun he took from Ellen in the casino. Then Ellis’s wife Nadine is found shot to death — twice — aboard the couple’s yacht.

   The police find the switched gun in Ellen’s possession and arrest her. Ballistics tests prove what seems impossible on its face: that the switched gun fired at least one of the fatal shots. In the courtroom scene, which takes up almost half the book, a third gun enters the picture and Mason eventually exposes some stupendous weapon-juggling.

MIKE NEVINS

   Anthony Boucher in his review for the New York Times (September 27, 1959) called Singing Skirt “one of the most elaborate problems of Perry Mason’s career, with switchings and counterswitchings of guns that baffle even the maestro… This is as chastely classic a detective story as you’re apt to find in these degenerate days.”

   True enough. After finishing the book I whipped up a document which traces the wanderings of all three .38s and, unless I messed up somewhere, seems to establish that all the weapon-switching rhymes. (This document gives away so much of the plot that I won’t include it here, but if you’re interested, follow this link to a separate webpage.)

   But if Ellen had told Mason all she knew, the truth would have been obvious before the preliminary hearing even began. Why didn’t she? She had promised the real murderer she wouldn’t! Gardner’s need to camouflage this silliness explains why he jumps into court almost immediately after Ellen’s arrest, leaving out any subsequent conversations between Mason and his client.

   And if that aspect of the plot isn’t silly enough, how about the woman, never seen before, who marches unbidden into the courtroom at the end of Chapter Fourteen and confirms Mason’s solution?

   Gardner once said: “[E]very mystery story ever written has some loose threads… After all, on a trotting horse who is going to see the difference? The main thing is to keep the horse trotting and the pace fast and furious.”

   Well, I’m not sure that every mystery ever written has plot holes, but far too many of Gardner’s do. Nevertheless he remains a giant of the genre and one of the most important lawyer storytellers of the 20th century. Which is why he gets a chapter to himself in my next book.

***

   It’s called Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law: Essays on Jurisfiction and Juriscinema and will be published later this year by Perfect Crime Books. At least six of its ten chapters deal with matters that should interest readers of this column: three on major American lawyer fiction writers (Melville Davisson Post, Arthur Train and, of course, Gardner) and another three on a trio of notable law-related movies (Cape Fear, Man in the Middle, The Penalty Phase).

   The longest chapter in the book is called “When Celluloid Lawyers Started to Speak” and covers law-related movies from the first years of talking pictures, many of which have a crime or mystery element.

   If you happen to groove on Westerns as well as whodunits, there are also chapters on law-related shoot-em-ups from the 1930s but after Hollywood began strictly enforcing its Motion Picture Production Code (July 1, 1934) and on what I like to call Telejuriscinema, which means law-related episodes of TV Western series from the Fifties and Sixties.

   I expect this gargantua to run close to 600 pages, the sort of book Harry Stephen Keeler once described as perfectly designed to jack up a truck with. As more information becomes available I’ll report it in future columns.

***

   Since one of the dozens of movies I discuss in the Celluloid Lawyers chapter may have played a role in Gardner’s work, I may as well close this column with a page or so from my book, as a sort of sneak preview of things to come.

MIKE NEVINS

   In the early Perry Mason novels, which were heavily influenced by Hammett and especially by The Maltese Falcon, we are allowed to see only what happens in Mason’s presence. But soon after the Saturday Evening Post began serializing the Masons prior to their book publication, scenes with other characters taking place before Perry enters the picture became commonplace.

   Where did Gardner get this notion? Quite possibly from a fascinating but little-known movie dating from the early years of talkies. The Trial of Vivienne Ware (Fox, 1932) was directed by William K. Howard from a screenplay based on Kenneth M. Ellis’ 1931 novel of the same name.

   It opens with the title character (Joan Bennett) and her fiancé, architect Damon Fenwick (Jameson Thomas) going to the Silver Bowl nightclub where Vivienne is insulted by Fenwick’s former lover, singer Dolores Divine (Lilian Bond).

   After taking Vivienne home, Fenwick returns to the club to pick up Dolores. The next day Vivienne sends Fenwick a letter she comes to regret. Several hours later the police arrest her for his murder. Representing her is attorney John Sutherland (Donald Cook), who is also in love with her — an element we never find in a Perry Mason novel.

   The trial, perhaps the most swift-paced in any movie, begins with a mountain of evidence against Vivienne. One: On the morning after the nightclub scene she visited Fenwick’s house, walked in on Dolores in sexy pajamas eating breakfast with him, and stalked out furious. Two: Immediately afterwards she sent Fenwick a letter which might be construed as threatening.

   Three: Her handkerchief was found near Fenwick’s body. Four: A neighbor claims to have seen her entering Fenwick’s house that night. Vivienne denies being anywhere near the house at the time of the murder but Sutherland doesn’t believe her. Nevertheless he puts her on the stand and she testifies as follows.

MIKE NEVINS

   One: Her letter to Fenwick was meant to break their engagement, not to threaten him. Two: She must have dropped her handkerchief during her breakfast visit to Fenwick’s house. Three: At the time of the murder she was at a hockey game which she left early because she felt ill.

   The district attorney (Alan Dinehart) cross-examines her so ruthlessly that she breaks down and sobs that even her own lawyer doesn’t believe her. At this point we find ourselves in the juristic Cloud Cuckoo Land that most Hollywood law films sooner or later enter: the prosecutor calls the defense lawyer as a witness! (How many times has Hamilton Burger pulled the same stunt with Mason?)

   Changing Vivienne’s plea from not guilty to self-defense, Sutherland testifies that he attended the hockey match with her and, when she left early, followed her to Fenwick’s house. On the next day of trial Sutherland proceeds as if he were still pleading his client not guilty. First he calls witnesses who put Dolores Divine at Fenwick’s house at the time of the murder.

   Then he calls Dolores herself, who testifies — as dozens of characters in Mason novels would do after her — that she found the body and said nothing about it but isn’t the murderer. (The film isn’t clear about this but apparently Vivienne, like so many of Mason’s clients, had done the same.)

   I won’t delve any further into the plot but at the end of the picture spectators are roaring, flashbulbs blazing, lawyer and client embracing, and the jury returning a verdict of — well, can’t you guess? All this in less than 60 minutes!

   We’ll never know if Gardner saw this movie, or perhaps read the novel it was based on, but the resemblance between the pattern here and that of so many middle-period Masons is remarkable.

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


   Health issues, tax chores, snow — I have more excuses for the lateness of my latest column than a toad has warts. This month we cross the Atlantic and resurrect my impressions of some British whodunits I read back in the late Sixties and Seventies. I didn’t read them in chronological order but I’ll arrange them that way for the column.

***

   Leslie Charteris’s Meet—the Tiger! (Ward Lock 1928, Doubleday Crime Club 1929) is just as cornily melodramatic as the title suggests, featuring a pure heroine whom the mustachioed leering villain tries to force into marriage and a hidden mastermind captaining a clutch of super-crooks.

   What saves this book from the graveyard of worthless imitations of Edgar Wallace is that its hero, appearing for the first time, is a daring young swashbuckler christened Simon Templar but better known as The Saint.

   Simon’s two-front war against Scotland Yard and the super-crooks for the prize of a fortune in gold hidden somewhere around a Devonshire village lacks the gleeful outrageousness in plotting, prose and people-drawing that was soon to become the hallmark of the Saint Saga, but its historic interest is hard to deny.

***

   H.C. Bailey’s Garstons (Methuen, 1930; U.S. title The Garston Murder Case, Doubleday Crime Club 1930) is set on the palatial estate of the munitions-manufacturing Garston family and in the surrounding towns and villages.

   The 20-year-old disappearance of an obscure chemist whose formulas the Garstons may have stolen, the theft of some cheap jewelry from the fiancée of a long-dead Garston scion, and the strangulation of the ailing matriarch in a dark archway of the family castle, blend into a neat problem for psalm-spouting criminal lawyer Joshua Clunk.

   Bailey here uses the multi-viewpoint approach, putting us inside the heads of Clunk, his Scotland Yard antagonist Superintendent Bell (who will be familiar to readers of the author’s Reggie Fortune stories), a local inspector, a Jane Eyre-like nurse, and the young student who falls for her in the chaste old-fashioned way.

   The interplay of each one’s knowledge with the others’, some fine scenes of interrogation and recapitulation, and a wealth of details of time and place and history and geography combine to make this long, slow, carefully constructed work a model British detective novel of the Golden Age.

***

   George Bellairs’ Death of a Busybody (John Gifford 1942, Macmillan 1943) finds genial Inspector Littlejohn paying a wartime visit to the town of Hilary Magna to find out who drowned the village voyeur in the vicar’s cesspool.

   He encounters some amusing bucolic suspects and his investigation moves more briskly than is customary in English whodunits, but the climax is clumsily structured, the solution is reached purely by legwork, and the culprit is obvious to readers (though not to the supposedly seasoned officials) as soon as he offers his alibi.

   A sharp incidental picture of a country hamlet in wartime is the highlight of this all too average specimen.

***

   In Harry Carmichael’s Put Out That Star (Collins, 1957; U.S. title Into Thin Air, Doubleday Crime Club 1958) we follow insurance investigator John Piper as he looks into the disappearance of a glamorous British movie queen from a fashionable London hotel.

   Eventually he discovers how, who and why, but the only readers who won’t have tumbled to the truth a hundred pages ahead of Piper are those who are completely innocent of the hoariest cliche denouement in English mystery fiction.

   Carmichael also manages to slip in the most hackneyed American climax in the genre and to leave several huge holes in the plot. Quite an achievement, yes?

***

   A Murder of Quality (Gollancz 1962, Walker 1962) casts John LeCarre’s ex-spy George Smiley in the unusual role of private sleuth, invading Dorsetshire’s posh and snobby Carne School in order to look into the fatal bludgeoning of an instructor’s wife shortly after she stated that she was afraid her husband was trying to kill her.

   Smiley pokes into the animosities between townies and gownies and between the Anglicans and the Baptists without neglecting physical clues like the piece of bloody coaxial cable and the altered examination paper, but LeCarre never clarifies how Smiley reached his solution nor what the murderer’s plan was.

   However, the confused plot is balanced by fine evocations of scene and character, including two of the bitchiest females I’ve ever encountered in a whodunit.

***

   John Creasey’s The Depths (Hodder & Stoughton 1963, Walker 1967) isn’t really a mystery but a blend of philosophy, SF and suspense that’s typical of his postwar novels about Dr. Palfrey and the international organization Z5.

   This account of Palfrey’s war against the mad-scientist ruler of an undersea kingdom who’s discovered the secret of prolonging life indefinitely and can also create tidal waves powerful enough to destroy any ship or seacoast in the world crawls at snail speed and bulges with plot holes.

   But it’s worth reading for a few fine character sketches — notably that of another doctor who slowly discovers a humanistic conscience — and especially for the climax where Creasey evokes the moral nightmare of politico-military decision-making in today’s world. The implied value judgments may rouse readers to fury but very few of the tough questions are evaded in this early specimen of the techno-thriller.

***

   Douglas Clark’s Deadly Pattern (Cassell 1970, Stein & Day 1970) is a plodding and drearily written quasi-procedural in which snobbish Detective Chief Inspector George Masters and his three Scotland Yard subordinates are dispatched to a tiny coastal town to investigate the almost simultaneous disappearances of five drab middle-class women.

   When four of them are found buried by the seashore, Masters and company crawl into action, taking 169 pages to uncover a psychotic killer whose identity should be apparent to every reader by page 30.

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


   Thanks to my office (where I keep my computer) being closed down for the holidays, followed by the frightful weather, followed by some health issues, I expected that my February column, if any, would be culled from those old book notes I wrote for my eyes only back in the Sixties and Seventies.

   Surprise! Thanks to Joseph Goodrich, editor of that priceless selection from the letters between Fred Dannay and Manny Lee published in 2012 as BLOOD RELATIONS, I am now in possession of all the material from their correspondence that for space or other reasons Joe didn’t include in his book. There are gems in that material, which over the next several columns I’ll dole out here.

***

   In a letter dated March 31, 1950 and not included or excerpted in BLOOD RELATIONS, Fred tells Manny that for years he’s been trying to interest various movie studios in subsidizing Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s annual story contests, arguing that an investment of as little as $10,000 would lead to an “increase in submitted stories,” “interest by bigger names,” and — always a high priority with Fred considering his background in the advertising biz — publicity.

Mike Nevins

   Approached by Fred, MGM executives told him that “they have invested millions of dollars in literary contests, but never got a single desirable piece of property out of it….now they wouldn’t contribute $10, let alone $10,000.”

   Not long after that exchange, MGM bought the movie rights to a second-prize winner in the latest year’s EQMM contest, “Once Upon a Train” by Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer, in which the authors’ respective series detectives John J. Malone and Hildegarde Withers teamed up to solve a railroad mystery.

   Since the story wasn’t published until the October 1950 issue, MGM must have bought it from manuscript. (Those who have learned from Queen to read with extreme care may think Fred might have misdated his letter and actually wrote it in 1951, but this possibility is ruled out by his later statement to Manny that the story “has not yet appeared in EQMM….”).

   Fred queried the suits at MGM and was told that they had only bought the story because they “‘had a spot for the use of two characters like Withers and Malone,’ a spinsterish schoolteacher and a dipso lawyer.” Later Fred learned that MGM’s original plan was to use the story as a vehicle for Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, who had scored a big hit as Ma and Pa Kettle in THE EGG AND I (Universal, 1947).

   By the time the movie had been released, one actor and one character had been axed from the initial conception: Marjorie Main still starred but as Harriet “Hattie” O’Malley, not Miss Withers, and John J. Malone was still the leading male character but was played by James Whitmore. For anyone who wants to waste an hour watching this turkey, its title is MRS. O’MALLEY AND MR. MALONE (MGM, 1950).

***

Mike Nevins

   In the same letter to Manny, Fred reports that MGM has also spent $5,000 buying movie rights to John Dickson Carr’s short story “The Gentleman from Paris” (EQMM, April 1950). This move baffled Fred as much as MGM’s purchase of rights to the Rice-Palmer story.

   As everyone knows who has read Carr’s excellent tale, which is set in 1840s New York, the climactic revelation is that the main character is none other than Edgar Allan Poe. “[S]urely MGM does not intend to keep the identity of the detective a secret….”

   Fred couldn’t figure out what the studio had in mind but any interested reader can find out by watching THE MAN WITH A CLOAK (MGM, 1951), a not-half-bad historical crime thriller starring a mustached Joseph Cotten as the Poe character (who calls himself Dupin) and Barbara Stanwyck and Leslie Caron as the female leads.

***

Mike Nevins

   With a bit of space left over, I return to fields I plowed almost fifty years ago with comments on first novels by authors writing under their own names. Let’s begin with a writer whom I knew slightly and once, near the end of his life, lunched with at his lovely retirement home in Sedona, Arizona, armed with an assortment of first editions of his books, some of which he said were in better condition than his own, all of which he signed for me.

   Richard S. Prather (1921-2007) was one of the first superstars of the paperback original, turning out a torrent of books for Fawcett Gold Medal in the Fifties and early Sixties which millions of readers gobbled down like Thanksgiving turkeys. I didn’t read them in order but, when I got to his first Shell Scott caper, CASE OF THE VANISHING BEAUTY (Fawcett Gold Medal pb #127, 1950) I had to concede that most of its plot and characters were lifted bodily from Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY with a few perfunctory variations.

   One of a millionaire’s two spoiled daughters engages Scott to locate her missing sister and the trail leads LA’s coolest PI to the usual sinister nightclub, phony religious cult, dope smuggling, flying bullets, you name it. Prather had the gifts of pace and raw storytelling talent from the get-go but what distinguishes this otherwise routine programmer is Scott’s narration — bemused, self-mocking, gorgeously funny, and so wildly individual that he’s never been successfully imitated. He was, as we cruciverbalists say, a oner.

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Mike Nevins

   Bridge grandmaster Don Von Elsner (1909-1997) threw his hat, or perhaps I should say his lei, into the mystery ring with THOSE WHO PREY TOGETHER SLAY TOGETHER (Signet pb #S1943, 1961). Troubleshooter Colonel David Danning is hired by the board of directors of a packaging empire to protect its subsidiaries from a status-hungry gangster turned corporate raider.

   The trail leads from a Chicago boardroom to Honolulu’s most lavish hotels and encompasses some superb stock-market shenanigans and a couple of murders which Danning must solve while on the run from both mobsters and cops.

   At the climax all the characters unmotivatedly congregate for a Danning solution which is almost pure guesswork, but the pace is swift and the tooth-and-claw power struggles among tycoons seem to ring true.

***

Mike Nevins

   SILVER STREET (Harper & Row, 1968) introduced the mystery world to E. Richard Johnson (1938-1997), a convict serving a life term at Minnesota’s Stillwater State Prison. It’s a short and unadorned tale of the mean streets in a nameless city where a modern Jack the Ripper is slicing up the local pimps for no discernible reason.

   Streetwise homicide dick Tony Lonto’s hunt for the killer inevitably leads him to the discovery that his own girlfriend is a nympho and a whore. (Wouldn’t a streetwise cop have discovered this sooner?)

   Superficially the book is tough as nails but it’s drenched with cloying romanticism beneath the surface. Nevertheless it won an Edgar for best first novel, an award which was duly presented to Johnson in the prison visitors’ room.

   He wrote four more Lonto books and several other novels before being released in 1991 but by then his writing career was washed up and he died a few years later. So does crime pay or doesn’t it?

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