by Francis M. Nevins

   I’ve never had much interest in Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) but somewhere along the line I wound up with a copy of Jan Cohn’s biography IMPROBABLE FICTION (1980). A few weeks ago, for no particular reason, I started idly skimming through this book. At least it was idle skimming until a paragraph on page 155 brought me up short. It seems there was a time early in the 20th century when Rinehart became interested in spiritualism.

   As we learn from Cohn: “Mary and Stan [her husband] probably had their first experience with spiritualism in 1909, at Lily Dale near Chautauqua, where there was a spiritualist camp. Both had sittings there with a medium named Keeler. First they wrote notes on a slate and awaited replies that were to come through Keeler. Stan wrote notes to his father, his brother Charlie, and a young doctor friend, but the replies were unsatisfactory. A trumpet seance followed and Stan’s brother Charlie spoke, but again it was unconvincing.”

   The Keeler mentioned here didn’t make it into the index of Cohn’s book, obviously because she didn’t know the rest of his name. I do. I had read about this spiritualist before, and I remembered where. Not to keep anyone in suspense, he was the uncle of Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), the nuttiest filbert who ever sat down to a typewriter and one of my favorite writers ever.

   Harry’s first wife had died of cancer in 1960, and her death so devastated him that for the next three years he was unable to write fiction. He did, however, bang out a long series of “Walter Keyhole” newsletters. These in effect constituted a low-tech blog, printed on multi-colored paper, discussing any subject that caught his fancy—cosmology, autobiography, writers’ gossip, religion, restaurants, cats, whatever — and mailed out on an irregular basis to almost everyone for whom he had an address.

   The hobby, or whatever you want to call it, cost him up to $50 a week, an amount not to be sneezed at in those days, but he obviously felt the price was worth it and kept it up, although less frequently, even after he remarried and until about six months before his death. Over the decades I acquired originals or photocopies of 188 of these newsletters, and several years ago I organized the material in them into THE KEELER KEYHOLE COLLECTION (2005), a hefty volume which I still thumb through with enjoyment every so often. I knew that was where I had first heard about Harry’s slate-writing uncle, and finding the relevant passages plus a bit of time with my good buddy Joe Google brought me up to speed.

   Pierre L.O.A. Keeler (the initials stand for Louis Ormond Augustus) was born in 1855, or perhaps 1856, and died in 1948 at age 92, or perhaps 93. Late in 1960 Harry wrote in one of his Keyhole newsletters that Pierre,

   “…known for decades in the spiritistic trade as ‘Alphabet’ Keeler, had clients at Lilydale, New York, who came from all over the world to receive ‘messages’ from their dead loved ones. He was a ‘slate-writer’ and brought the messages through on his slate or their slates, as they desired. Whether the messages were genuine or just super-legerdemain doesn’t matter; it brought the bereaved ones great comfort. He died not long ago [did Harry really think twelve years was a short time?] at an extremely advanced age, leaving a nephew in Washington practicing Federal law and a nephew in Chicago [Harry himself, of course] who writes on paper instead of slates….”

   A few months later, after reading a piece about Pierre in the National Enquirer, he complained in another Keyhole that the Enquirer “neglected completely to point out that the high spot of his work was to bring out messages from the ‘dead’ not only upon the slates brought by his clients, but in actual handwritings of the dead.”

   Are we to conclude that Harry believed Unc was a genuine medium? Not at all. In a later Keyhole, probably dating from the summer of 1963, he claims to have known Pierre “fairly intimately” and describes him as “a consummate sleight-of-hand artist, deriving his astounding results via various methods, [and] was, therefore, a charlatan. Was, in short, exactly like all male members of the tribe of Keeler.” No Mike Avallone-style I’m-the-greatest hype for Harry!

   Googling Pierre’s name, we find that he was quite a character, continuing his slate-writing career for decades despite being exposed again and again by a number of psychic investigators including Houdini. Could he have fooled people on the same scale in the Internet age that allows us to learn so much about him with so little effort? Probably. There’s an old Latin proverb, mundus vult decipi, the world wants to be deceived, that I suspect remains true today.


   Writing about his uncle, Harry consistently misarranged his middle initials, L.A.O. instead of L.O.A. I don’t know if we should make anything of this, but it’s a sober fact that the female lead in one of the most charming Keeler novels, Y. CHEUNG, BUSINESS DETECTIVE (1939), is a young woman of Chinese-Hawaiian descent named Loa Marling. Did Harry derive that name from his uncle Pierre’s middle initials?


   Writing about Harry can easily become habit-forming, for me anyway. I acquired the habit back in my teens when I first discovered HSK, and here I am about to turn 73 and still hooked!

   Having become a lawyer and law professor during those intervening decades, I have a particular interest in Harry’s take on that subject. Very few of his books have lawyer protagonists but one of those few is the first Keeler novel that I ever stumbled upon. The main character in THE AMAZING WEB (1930) is David Crosby, a young attorney who screws up his first big case—where the defendant is the woman he loves!—but goes on several years later to prove himself a tiger of the courtroom, with a golden future as a criminal defender ahead of him and, as Keeler Koinkydink would have it, the same young woman at his side. Here, at the end of more than 500 pages of plot labyrinth, is where David Just Says No.

   “I have a clear realization of the long years to come. Of the hundreds of truth-telling witnesses I shall have to beat down into a state bordering on hysteria. Of the other hundreds of witnesses whom I shall put on the stand and who will craftily perjure themselves….Of being the last refuge of criminals trying to save both their liberty and their loot—of having to save them because I shall not know whether they are guilty or innocent, and because the saving of such is my profession. Of being…in bitter fights in court where I must make a liar of the man who tells the truth and shame him before his friends and the world….[T]he road to the moon is directly through the muck.”

   Instead David decides to buy a farm and devote the rest of his life to producing “clean sweet food for the thousands.”


   The other Keeler novel with a lawyer protagonist offers a more positive view of the profession and is also of historical importance because its protagonist is a woman. THE CASE OF THE LAVENDER GRIPSACK (1944) is the fourth and final volume of what today is known as the Skull in the Box series. Elsa Colby, recent graduate of Chicago’s Northwestern Law School, has signed a Keeler Krackpot Kontract that will divest her of title to a valuable piece of real estate known as Colby’s Nugget, and vest title in her rascally uncle Silas Moffit, if she should be disbarred or lose a criminal case within a certain number of months.

   For obvious reasons Elsa is accepting no cases and spends her time making a quilt. Moffit pressures Judge Hilford “Ultra Legal” Penworth to compel her to defend a capital case she can’t possibly win and to disbar her on the spot — which is within the judge’s power as Chief Commissioner of the Ethical Practices Subdivision! — if she refuses. To understand what the case is about you have to read the three previous Skull in the Box books — THE MAN WITH THE MAGIC EARDRUMS (1939), THE MAN WITH THE CRIMSON BOX (1940) and THE MAN WITH THE WOODEN SPECTACLES (1940) — but any readers not up to that ordeal may substitute the summary I wrote for the second edition of Jon L. Breen’s NOVEL VERDICTS (1999).

   The trial — for a murder that took place less than 24 hours earlier! — is to be held in the drawing room of Judge Penworth, who is suffering from a bad case of gout. The courtroom action is full of long-winded speeches and light on Q-and-A but packed with Keeler’s inspired daffiness — and with sentences like this one and several of those above which feature long asides punctuated with an exclamation point! The crossword puzzle exegesis in Chapter 13 is guaranteed to pop the eyeballs of every cruciverbalist, and the surprise ending will knock the socks off any reader with the patience to hang on till the end. As in THE AMAZING WEB, although this time the attorney is the woman and the client the man, they’re clearly going to get married after the book is closed.


   Thanksgiving is two days away as I finish this column. In the years of his widowerhood Keeler endured a number of long and lonely turkey days, and an entry in a Walter Keyhole newsletter written late in 1962 memorializes one of them.

   “We had our choice of having 3 soft-boiled eggs (only thing we can cook) as a dinner, then seeing the Three Stooges conk each other over the head at the Logan [his neighborhood theatre], or of having 3 soft-boiled eggs as a dinner and re-reading Keyser’s MATHEMATICAL PHILOSOPHY. You guess!”

   I hope everyone who reads this column had a far more pleasant holiday than that.

by Francis M. Nevins

   Craig Rice (1908-1957) is something of an acquired taste. She was immensely popular in her heyday, so much so that Time magazine made her the subject of a cover story back in 1946, and her reputation was still high enough more than forty years after her death that a book-length biography was written about her (Jeffrey Marks’ Who Was That Lady?).

   Thanks to publishers like Rue Morgue Press, at least a few of her novels are still available today, but no one would call her a posthumous bestseller. What made her stand out among her contemporaries was the way she blended traditional whodunit elements with the kind of wacky humor one associates with Hollywood screwball comedies. In an earlier column I discussed her debut whodunit, 8 Faces at 3 (1939). This time I tackle her second.

   The Marks biography doesn’t tell us whether Rice worked directly in radio before turning to novels. But she did serve for brief periods in the late Thirties as radio critic for a small midwest magazine, so it’s no surprise that the background of The Corpse Steps Out (1940) is a Chicago station. Its sensational singing star Nelle Brown, married to an ex-millionaire more than twice her age but (although Rice treats the subject discreetly) rarely without at least one lover in her own age bracket or younger, is being blackmailed by a former paramour on the basis of some, shall we say, erotic letters she wrote him.

   Between the regular broadcast of her musical variety show and the re-broadcast for the west coast, she sneaks off to the man’s apartment and finds him shot to death and the letters gone. She goes back to the station and tells her press agent, Jake Justus, whom we first met in 8 Faces at 3.

   Jake pays his own visit to the apartment and finds the corpse has vanished. Pretty soon Jake’s girlfriend and soon-to-be wife Helene Brand and the rumpled liquor-sodden attorney John J. Malone, both also familiar from Rice’s earlier novel, are running around with Jake to find the body, save Nelle Brown’s radio career, expose the murderer, and drain Chicago of its liquor supply.

   No one ranks The Corpse Steps Out among Rice’s greatest hits but it’s often bracketed with her mystery-as-screwball-comedy titles. Not by me. The body of the first of three murderees is moved around Chicago twice and that of the second once, but there’s nothing wildly humorous about these developments. I’d call the book a fairly straightforward whodunit, impossible for any reader to solve ahead of the protagonists and pockmarked by one huge coincidence: Jake and Helene are driving past a certain old warehouse when they notice it’s on fire and Jake for no good reason breaks into the building and finds the corpse he’s been looking for.

   True, the proceedings are punctuated here and there by screwball dialogue. In Chapter 10 Jake settles down in the apartment he’s temporarily sharing with Helene. “I love our little home, dear….Where shall we hang up the goldfish?” In Chapter 28, as the end comes near, Malone assures Jake that “we’re leaving no turn unstoned.” To which Helene replies: “That’s wrong….[W]e’re leaving no worm unturned.”

   Genuine Hollywood screwball comedies tended to dwell on sexual innuendo but Rice keeps it to — dare I say it? — a bare minimum. About to take off on a nuptial trip with Jake, a somewhat casually attired Helene says: “I’d better get dressed, unless you don’t mind my being married in pink pajamas.” To which Jake replies: “It would save time….”


   He’s much more of an acquired taste than Rice, but my favorite among wacky mystery writers based in Chicago (or anywhere else) is Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), whom I’ve loved since my teens. Besides having the Windy City in common, Keeler and Rice shared the experience of having been institutionalized, he early in life, she later. When he was about 20, Harry’s mother for unknown reasons had him involuntarily committed for more than a year.

   That period had a lasting effect on his novels. In The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro (1926) Jerry Middleton, heir to a Chicago patent-medicine fortune, is replaced by an impostor and railroaded into the state mental hospital where he’s befriended by the genuine madpersons, sweet souls one and all, and nearly killed by an assassin who‘s been hired to get admitted to the asylum and slice him up. The scene where Jerry is analyzed by that world-renowned shrink Herr Doktor Meister-Professor von Zero is probably the most hilarious lampoon of Freud ever committed to print.

   About a dozen years later Keeler revisited the nuthouse theme in the novel published in two volumes as The Mysterious Mr. I (1938) and The Chameleon (1939). The nameless narrator is on a mission to collect $100,000 by returning an escaped millionaire to the loonybin before midnight. On his quest he trips blithely through close to a hundred identities, posing in turn as a tycoon, a safecracker, a locomotive engineer, a gambler, several different detectives, several authors, a couple of actors and a philosophy professor — just to name a few! — before this forerunner of The Great Impostor returns to the asylum where, as he assures us, he’ll spend the rest of his days reading British magazines and sipping Ch teau d’Yquem with his keeper.


   At the end of The Corpse Steps Out, which appeared about a year after The Chameleon, Rice offers a similarly benign take on asylums:

   Murderer: “I haven’t a very long time to live. I’d hate to spend it in a penitentiary. But they don’t send madmen there, do they, Malone?”

   Malone: “No, a pleasanter place.”

   Murderer: “A quiet room in a pleasant place, with a radio set perhaps….I couldn’t ask for much more.”

   Severe alcoholism and several manic-depressive and suicidal episodes led to Rice herself spending part of her last years in California’s Camarillo State Hospital and other institutions. I doubt that she found them the pleasant places she and Keeler had once conjured up. As critic William Ruehlmann has said, she wrote the binge and lived the hangover. Poor woman.

by Francis M. Nevins

   It’s hard to imagine two writers with less in common than Graham Greene and Erle Stanley Gardner, but we know that Greene was an enthusiastic reader of the Perry Mason novels, and in one of my columns several years ago I quoted from a letter about Mason which Greene sent to fellow Gardnerian Evelyn Waugh. Recently I discovered that Mason even figures in one of Greene’s novels. The Honorary Consul (1973) is set in northern Argentina and among its principal characters are Dr. Eduardo Plarr, a physician in sympathy with the revolutionary movement in that country, and León Rivas, a former priest turned guerrilla leader. On page 36 of the novel we find the following:

   León was someone whose word [Dr. Plarr] believed that he could always trust, even though his word seemed later to have been broken when Plarr heard that León had become a priest instead of the fearless abogado who would defend the poor and the innocent, like Perry Mason. In his school days León had possessed an enormous collection of Perry Masons stiffly translated into classical Spanish prose… Perry Mason’s secretary Della was the first woman to arouse Plarr’s sexual appetite….León, it seemed to him, was struggling back from a succession of failures toward the primal promise to the poor he had never intended to break. He would end as an abogado yet.

   Is that really how Mason comes across in Spanish, as lawyer to the Left and friend to those who have no friend? Quien sabe?


   Maybe readers of Gardner in Spanish translation confuse Mason’s fierce loyalty to clients with something ideological. The murderee in The Case of the Screaming Woman (1957) is a doctor who ran an illegal service connecting wealthy women desperate for a child and girls about to give birth out of wedlock.

   Mason discovers that the doctor kept a secret notebook that can prove large numbers of children are illegitimate and adopted. Out of Mason’s sight, the woman who stole the book from the dead man’s office gives it to Della Street, who later asks Mason whether it’s ethical for her to have it.

   Mason: “Hell, no!… That notebook is stolen property, Della. If I take it into my possession, I become an accessory after the fact. [But] I haven’t the faintest intention of letting that property get to the police.”

   Della: “And if I should have that book, where would it leave you professionally?

   Mason: “Behind the eight ball if I knew you had it.”

   Then he says: “Ethics are rules of conduct that are made to preserve the dignity and the integrity of the profession. I’m inclined to conform to the spirit of the rules of ethics rather than the letter.”

   Della: “But what about the courts?”

   Mason: “They’ll conform to the letter rather than the spirit. If the police ever find out that [the notebook] came under my control, [Hamilton Burger the DA will] throw the Penal Code at me.”

   Della: “And then what will you do?”

   Mason: “Then I’ll truthfully say that I don’t know where the book is… I’m not going to throw heaven knows how many children to the wolves….”

   Della: “And you’re willing to risk your reputation and your liberty to keep that from happening?”

   Mason: “You’re darned right I am. I’m a lawyer….”

   Anti-establishment passages of this sort were to come to a screeching halt once Mason in the form of Raymond Burr became a star of prime time TV but they may help to explain how in Spanish he might have been mistaken for a revolutionary with a law degree.


   Screaming Woman happened to be published between two of the finest Mason novels of Gardner’s middle period, The Case of the Lucky Loser and The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll, and is certainly not in the same league with those gems.

   At least two key characters never come onstage even for a moment, the more important of the pair isn’t even mentioned until very late in the day, and the dying message clue is one of the feeblest I’ve ever encountered. But it moves like a bullet train and remains well worth reading almost 60 years ago.


   By a coincidence worthy of Harry Stephen Keeler, Gardner’s is one of two novels I’ve read recently in which crucial characters are kept offstage. The other is Georges Simenon’s Félicie est là, which was written in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France, first published in French two years later and still under the occupation, and translated into English as Maigret and the Toy Village (1979).

   After a one-legged old man is shot to death in the bedroom of his house in a small residential development being built in the countryside, Maigret visits the scene and is driven to distraction by the dead man’s impossible housekeeper. Here, unlike in Screaming Woman, it’s the murderer himself whom we never get to see or hear, and in fact his name isn’t even mentioned until page 116 of the 139-page American version.

   Does it matter? I’m not sure. When someone as nutty as Keeler throws in characters who are no more than names, we couldn’t care less, especially when they have names like Hoot Ivanjack, Hamerson Hogg and the three Threebrothers brothers. When someone like Gardner does it, there’s a problem. Simenon seems to me to fall somewhere between these extremes.


   Having read a fair number of the novels Simenon wrote during the war, I’ve concluded that he entered into a “contract with France” to say nothing about the Nazi occupation and backdate everything to the Thirties without explicitly saying so — at least not often. We find one exception to this rule in the first paragraph of Toy Village:

   Years later, Maigret could still have pointed to the exact spot where it happened, the paving stone on which he had been standing, the stone wall on which his shadow had been projected.

   This tells us pretty clearly that the events he’s describing took place years earlier. Simenon’s relation to the two German occupations he experienced, the first in Belgium during his adolescence, the second in France at a time when he’d become one of the best-known European novelists, is explored in depth by biographers like Pierre Assouline and Patrick Marnham.

by Francis M. Nevins

   My last column took us to France, and for the first part of this one we’re going to stay there, or at least in Europe. Lately I’ve been reading a number of Georges Simenon’s novels and short stories, dating from 1936 till the late years of the war, that are usually lumped together as the Maigret middle period.

   How many short stories should be included in this group depends on how long a tale must be to disqualify it for the designation. According to the most comprehensive Maigret website, the number of shorts is 28. The earliest nine of these were apparently written in a single month, October 1936, and at least eight of them were first published in Paris-Soir-Dimanche between late that month and the first week of 1937.

   Nobody seems to know where and when the ninth originally came out, but it’s one of these tales that I want to dissect here. Why? Because, unless I’ve missed something, it makes zero sense.

   “Peine de Mort” (Paris-Soir-Dimanche, November 15, 1936) appeared in EQMM as “Inspector Maigret’s War of Nerves” (October 1968) and in Maigret’s Pipe (Hamish Hamilton 1977, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1978) as “Death Penalty.”

   Maigret stalks Jehan d’Oulmont, a dissolute young Belgian he suspects of having bludgeoned to death his wealthy uncle and stolen the 32,000 francs Unc had brought with him to Paris for a bout of high living. It’s a foregone conclusion that if convicted, d’Oulmont will be sentenced to the guillotine. But Maigret has absolutely no evidence against the guy, who therefore is given official permission to return to Belgium in the company of his Jewish mistress, with Maigret taking the same train and continuing to shadow and harass the young man.

   Along the way Simenon plants the crucial information that d’Oulmont has studied law and that Belgium has abolished the death penalty. The climax takes place in a Brussels nightclub where in Maigret’s presence, a local detective arrests d’Oulmont and claims to have an extradition warrant for him. D’Oulmont reaches inside his girlfriend’s handbag, pulls out a gun and shoots at Maigret, who has earlier had the weapon replaced by another loaded with blanks.

   So no one’s been hurt, there’s no new evidence, the missing 32,000 francs have never been found, and yet Simenon assures us that d’Oulmont, although he’s escaped the guillotine, will be sentenced to life in a Belgian prison! For what crime? Discharging a pistol in a crowded nightclub? I’m amazed that Fred Dannay didn’t spot the glaring holes in this story.

   We can understand what went wrong here if we call on our friend Joe Google and discover, among other treasures, a 2007 essay in The Spectator by Simenon biographer Patrick Marnham. One of Simenon’s acquaintances during his early days as a journalist in Liège was an older man named Hyacinthe Danse, the obese proprietor of a pornographic bookshop whom Simenon described as “un vicieux” and Marnham calls a pedophile, blackmailer and pimp.

   One day in May 1933 the 50-year-old Danse butchered his mistress and his own mother with a hammer in a small village south of Paris and fled to his native Belgium. In Liège he called on one of his old teachers, a Jesuit named Father Hault who had also taught Simenon, made his confession to the priest, shot him three times, then took a taxi to the police station and surrendered.

   In December 1934 his death sentence was automatically commuted to life imprisonment, which meant that he couldn’t be extradited to France and the guillotine until he was dead. Simenon clearly based “Peine de Mort” on this incident, even having Maigret refer to “the murderer Danse” at the climax, but apparently forgot that there needed to be a real murder in Belgium in order for the legal gimmick to work. Quel dommage.

   Marnham discusses the matter on page 81 of his Simenon biography The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret (1992). I suspect that the obese porn merchant Labri, who appears in another of the stories Simenon wrote in October 1936 (“Une Erreur de Maigret,” translated in Maigret’s Pipe as “Maigret’s Mistake”), was also based on Danse.


   Let’s cross the Channel again, shall we? Every so often I feel an urge to revisit the world of John Rhode (1880-1964). Usually Rhode is lumped with the school of British detective novelists that Julian Symons labeled the Humdrums, and it can’t be denied that his prose is wooden and his characters flat, including Dr. Priestley, that ancient and magisterial grouch who starred in dozens of Rhode’s novels between the late Twenties and 1960 when he retired from writing.

   But I discovered him in my teens, built up a goodly supply of his books over the next few decades, and still find him readable in an unchallenging sort of way. Recently I tackled In the Face of the Verdict (Dodd Mead, 1940), in which Dr. P is longer onstage and more active than is his wont.

   The scene is Blacksand, a seaside village a little more than two hours by train from London. Sir John Hallatrow, the community squire, asks for help from Priestley’s friend Dr. Oldland, who in turns calls in Dr. P, when the drowned body of a fellow aristo who was badly scarred in World War I is hauled in by fishermen in their net.

   The evidence seems to indicate that the dead man somehow fell into the local river late at night while crossing the footbridge between Hallatrow’s stately home and his own, but Priestley has his doubts about the verdict of accidental death that the coroner’s jury brings in. Then the brother of the first corpse is also found drowned, and slowly but surely Priestley and his Scotland Yard colleagues uncover a complex scheme to route a substantial estate according to a sinister design, with a telepathy racket and a Water Drinkers League figuring on the edges of the plot.

   When I saw the 1940 copyright date on this novel, I was surprised that not a word of Rhode’s dull but soothing prose suggests that England is reeling under Hitler’s blitz. A quick check on Google explained why: the book was first published in the UK (without the first “the” in the title) back in 1936, three years before World War II began. I was also surprised that Rhode didn’t provide a map of the area around Blacksand, which I for one would have profited by. (I tried to draw one for myself but gave up.)

   This is certainly one of the smoother Rhodes that I’ve hiked over the years, but I recommend it only to those who have a taste for the humdrum now and then.

COLLECTING PULPS: A Memoir, Part 17:
Why Attend PulpFest?
by Walker Martin

   The last couple days I’ve been thinking about PulpFest which will be held August 13 through 16, 2015, in Columbus Ohio. That’s this Thursday coming up! I’ve been deluged by logical and sane looking collectors and non-collectors all asking me the same question. Why bother attending PulpFest? They have shown up at my house; they have called me on the telephone; they have sent me emails.

   Enough is enough! Here’s a list of excuses for not attending that I hear all the time, and why none of them are good ones:

1–I have no money! Sorry but I’ve attended many a Pulpcon in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s and I went with very little money. Are there no credit cards? Are there no credit unions? Are there no non-collecting spouses to borrow money from?

   Even when I had the money, I often blew it before the convention by visiting local bookstores like Bonnett’s and Dragon’s Lair in Dayton, Ohio. If not in the bookstores, then in the hotel rooms of friends who let me see what they were bringing to sell. I learned to go without much cash but I brought a few boxes of pulps to trade and sell at my table.

2–I’m in poor health and too sick to attend. Sorry again! I had a friend who had a terminal illness and came to Pulpcon anyway. Another friend actually collapsed at the convention and died soon after. I myself once threw my back out three days before the show and my doctor and chiropractor both told me to forget making the long drive to the convention.

   I felt like I was crippled for life but I managed to squeeze into the car and drive out even though I had to stop numerous times near hotels because I thought I was not going to make it. I could then rent a room and lay there for a couple weeks until I could stand. It took me 16 hours instead of the usual 9 hours but I made it. I spent the entire convention standing because sitting down caused back spasms.

3–I have no space or I live in a small apartment. Collectors always make space for the things they love! When I first met Bob Lesser in the 1970’s he had an apartment full of Disney toys. This was NYC and the apt was tiny. A path from the front door to the bed and another path to the bathroom. Otherwise, every inch was toys, robots, paintings.

   I once ran out of space and I hunted for over a year until I found a bigger house. I went to dozens of open houses and looked at hundreds of houses. I finally found a big house. Unfortunately I soon filled it up with books and now I need a bigger place! The old story…

4–My wife is a non-collector and forbids me to go. Tell me about it! I’ve been married over 40 years and I’ve heard it all. I still go and I still collect. Once Les Mayer told me in 1990 at Wayne, NJ that his wife thought he was a business meeting. If she knew he was at a Pulpcon she might burn his pulps.

   Collectors have to become masters of deception and great liars to defeat the non-collector. Many a time I’ve lied and many a time I’ve smuggled books into the house in the dead of night while “she who must be obeyed” slept the innocent sleep of the non-collector. Non-collectors exist to be ignored…

5–I can’t get off from work. Sorry but not a valid reason. My employers always knew I was a rabid book collector who always without exception took off a week during Pulpcon in the summer. I made sure that my vacation request was in as early as I knew the convention dates.

   Once they sorrowfully told me I couldn’t go because of some work bullshit. I went anyway and left it to them to ignore my absence without leave or put up with one pissed off book collector. I realize the employment situation is different nowadays but which is more important, your job or your collection, your marriage or your collection? Right, your collection.

6–Who cares about the convention. I can buy my pulps off ebay, etc. Once in the 1920’s and 1930’s the dime novel collectors existed. But they didn’t have a convention and died off. Now I know of only a few in existence and dime novels are just about worthless. If I had a table full of dime novels priced at a buck apiece, most collectors would scurry by in disgust.

   We have to support the two big pulp conventions: Windy City in Chicago and PulpFest in Columbus. If we don’t, then one day we will wake up and the pulps might be dead. These shows garner a lot of attention and people keep talking about the pulps because of the efforts of Mike Chomko, Jack Cullers, Barry Traylor, Doug Ellis, John Gunnison, and others.

7–And finally the best reason for attending! They are a hell of a lot of fun. Not only do you get to roam around a gigantic dealer’s room full of books and pulps but you get to meet and talk to some of the greatest collectors and dealers.

   These will lead to future deals and contacts. Plus you can eat and drink with these guys! Though I seem to be one of last of the drinkers. And the panels! All day and all night we will be discussing pulps and books. What’s cooler than that?

8–Walker, it’s too late! Like hell. There are hotels with rooms available nearby. What’s the most important thing in a serious collector’s life? His collection without a doubt.

   We work, we slave, we march on to the bitter end where we will eat dirt in the boneyard. We live lives of quiet desperation and worry about the afterlife. Go to PulpFest and collect some books and pulps! You only live once…

by Francis M. Nevins

   A library of mysteries is something like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box: you never know what you’ll find. What I happened to pull off a shelf the other day was one by Peter Cheyney entitled The Killing Game (Belmont Tower #50767, paperback, 1975) and looks like one of the author’s old spy novels in its first U.S. edition.

   The front cover blurb reads: “When the British Secret Service decides to recruit a guy there is no safe way he can say no.” The back cover blurb gives us more of the same: “A guy doesn’t say no when the British Secret Service decides he‘s the right man for some job. First, they ask him nice, then if he still resists they put on the pressure. If he still refuses to play cricket, the sinister sophisticates in the Saville (sic) Row suits may even frame him into jail in order to make him bite the bullet. After that he’s in over his head, and it’s just like the Mafia or the I.R.A. — once in, never out. They teach you all the dirty tricks and give you a license to kill. It’s a rotten, vicious business — The Killing Game.”

   Once you start skimming a few of the pages between these blurby covers, you’re likely to start giggling. Why? First off, the book isn’t a novel, it’s a collection of eight short stories. Second, no one gets forced into working for the Brits as the blurb describes. Third, and most likely to set the coffee pouring out the nose, the protagonists of the eight stories are women, and six of them even have a female first-person narrator! I think it’s safe to assume that Belmont Tower’s blurb writer was a man. And that he didn’t keep his job long.


   The original British title of The Killing Game is a bit hard to figure out. The copy I own, a Four Square paperback dating from 1968, is called The Adventures of Julia. The title page indicates that it was first issued in hardcover by the short-lived Todd Publishing Group back in 1954, a few years after Cheyney’s early death, as You’d Be Surprised, which is indeed the title of one of voluptuous spy Julia Heron’s short adventures (I use the word loosely).

   The invaluable Hubin bibliography doesn’t agree, listing The Adventures of Julia as the original title and giving You’d Be Surprised as the title of a Cheyney novel, published by Collins in 1940 and set in Paris. After a session of Web research I’ve concluded that Hubin is right about the novel, although he neglects to tell us that its protagonist is that rootin’ tootin’ two-gun-shootin’ G-Man (and mangler of Yank slang) Lemmy Caution.

   It would seem then that You’d Be Surprised was used as a Cheyney title no less than three times: on the 1940 novel, on the Julia Heron short story and, after Cheyney’s death, on the hardcover edition of Julia’s collected exploits. What a mess!

   I gather from Hubin that all eight tales in the Julia book originally appeared in pamphlet form during the years of the Blitz. They must have been intended to keep the minds of English readers occupied as they huddled in their air-raid shelters and the bombs came down on London. Mystery historian Howard Haycraft once mentioned that special “raid libraries” had been set up in Underground stations during the war for Londoners taking shelter from Hitler’s bombs but they aren’t mentioned in any accounts of the blitz that I’ve read, for example the vivid description in Volume 2 of Norman Sherry’s The Life of Graham Greene (1994). If anyone can direct me to fuller information about these libraries I’d be much obliged.


   Let’s cross the Channel, shall we? People who have read more of Georges Simenon’s hundreds of novels than I have tend to divide the Maigret cycle into at least three periods. The first runs from Pietr-le-Letton (written 1929, first published in France 1931) to Maigret (written 1933, first published in France 1934; first published in the UK as Maigret Returns, 1941), while the second opens with the short stories that began to appear in French magazines in 1936 and continues through a series of novels published in France during World War II. (Simenon made a great deal of money during the Nazi occupation of France but apparently was not a “collabo”.)

   The earliest of these novels was Les Caves du Majestic, which Simenon wrote in December 1939 but wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1978 as Maigret and the Hotel Majestic. The title seems to be a tip of the beret to Simenon’s friend and admirer André Gide (1869-1951) and his 1914 novel (which he refused to call a novel) Les Caves du Vatican.

   One of the most famous scenes in that book takes place on an express train between Rome and Naples: a character named Lafcadio, who’s sharing a compartment with a stranger named Amedée, throws the poor guy out of the speeding train to his death. Lit crit types call this un acte gratuit, an act without motivation, although Gide later questioned whether there could be any such animal.

   There are no actes gratuits in Simenon’s novel. The basement of the Hotel Majestic in Paris (which, according to, a gem of a website if ever there was one, was modeled on Claridge’s Hotel in the same city) has more to do with Simenon’s plot than the caverns underneath the Vatican with Gide’s, but in neither work are the caves central as those beneath the Paris Opera House are in The Phantom of the Opera.

   The Maigret novel opens early one morning as a breakfast chef at the Majestic discovers the strangled body of a wealthy American woman in a basement locker and soon finds himself the prime suspect. Maigret discovers — Simenon doesn’t bother to tell us how — that the woman was French by birth and had been a semi-pro hooker in Cannes before she met an American millionaire and tricked him into marriage. In time the plot morphs from sexual to financial intrigue, and at the climax Maigret uncharacteristically punches the murderer in the nose.

   Here and elsewhere in middle-period Maigret, Simenon seems to stress plot more than earlier or later, although Ellery Queen-style fair play is still not his cup of café au lait. Writing at white heat as he did, Simenon slips here and there; for example, a police report in Chapter One gives the age of the dead woman’s maid as 42, but when Maigret gets to meet her much later in the book she’s described as an old lady.

   What makes Les Caves rough going in spots for American readers is that either the translator or the publisher was very careless with punctuation, sometimes forgetting to insert a new set of quote marks to indicate a new speaker, at other times inserting new marks although the speaker hasn’t changed.

   And one tends to get heartily sick of hearing Maigret ask “What’s he (or she) saying?” whenever a character speaks English and of hearing American characters ask the same question whenever Maigret or someone else speaks French.

   Still and all, I liked this book. After reading tons of Simenon’s in which Maigret simply absorbs people and atmospheres and at the appropriate moment tells us who did what, it’s a pleasure to find one in which he acts a bit more like a detective.

COLLECTING PULPS: A Memoir, Part 16:
A Field Trip
by Walker Martin

   Recently, Steve Lewis reviewed the issue of Argosy for June 9, 1934. My copy of this issue is now over 80 years old and still in great shape with the pages very supple and no browning or brittleness. Nice cover and full spine. It has a nice smell and no pulp shreds to clean up. I like the cover by Paul Stahr with the macabre scene of two skeletons showing that two poker players were struck dead while playing cards.

   Which reminds me of a field trip I once made to buy a couple original pulp cover paintings by Paul Stahr. It was in the mid-1970’s, and I was consumed by the desire to track down as many pulp paintings as I could find. This was 40 years ago (hard to believe that so much time has passed!), and I was busy doing the usual things that men in their thirties were always doing, like marriage, raising a family, job career, buying a house, and thinking about my next car.

   But my real interests, now that I think back on my life, was reading, collecting books, vintage paperbacks, pulps, and trying to find the cover paintings used on the paperbacks and pulps. The video revolution was still several years off, so I had not yet started to buy hundreds of video tapes of old movies and serials. Not to speak of the thousands of dvds that I now have cluttering up my house.

   Sure, all that other stuff is important in a life, but does anything really match the enjoyment and thrill of collecting books and art? This is the main subject of my two series: Collecting Pulps and Adventures in Collecting. Collectors are always paying lip service to their jobs and families, but I have often found them to be addicted to that greatest vice of all: book collecting. Otherwise known as bibliomania.

   And of course collecting pulps, paperbacks, and original art are all offshoots of book collecting. I remember many of my friends in college, the army, at work, were often involved in wasting time boozing, taking drugs, gambling, or that most dangerous sport of all, chasing women. I like to pretend that I was not addicted to these mundane vices. No sir, I was back then a Collector with a capital C and I still think there is no higher calling for a life’s work.

   I still wake up each day thinking about what I’m going to read or what books or pulps I can add to my collection. Not to mention what old movies I want to watch. And of course the collecting of original art, which is one of the most unique things to collect. A book or pulp for instance may have many copies in existence, but a piece of art is unique, a one of a kind thing connected to the collecting of books.

   I’ve always wondered why more book and pulp collectors are not interested in at least having a few examples of cover art to hang on their walls, in their libraries, between the bookcases or if the art is small enough, on the book shelves with the books. I can understand not being able to spend thousands of dollars on artwork, but I have many times picked up amazing art bargains for very little money. Even today, some artwork can be bought for a few hundred or less. I’ve had more than one friend that liked to buy new cars every couple years for many thousands of dollars but would turn pale in horror at the thought of spending a few hundred on a pulp cover painting.

   Which brings me around to the details of my field trip. In the 1970’s and even in the 1980’s, it was possible to buy non SF cover paintings for very little money. Very few collectors were interested in such genres as detective, western and adventure paintings. As a result of this lack of interest I routinely bought pulp and paperbacks paintings for prices as low as $50 and for many years I was paying only an average price of $200 to $400 each for artwork. Now prices are higher but you still can find bargains, especially at the two pulp conventions: Windy City and Pulpfest.

   In fact, it was at one of the early Pulpcons that a friend told me about an art store in Brooklyn NY that had pulp art for sale. I had no idea about how to navigate to and through Brooklyn but he agreed to meet me a the Penn Station train station and take me out to the store. It was the typical small store but it was crammed with paintings.

   I still remember the very large painting by Walter Baumhofer that the dealer showed me. It was enormous and showed a shootout in a bar between gangsters. It was used as an interior in a slick magazine, perhaps The Saturday Evening Post or Colliers. But he wanted a few hundred for it and I couldn’t buy everything, so I reluctantly passed on it. One of my collecting mistakes from 40 years ago that still haunts me. I still dream about these mistakes and often wake up in the middle of the night cursing myself. My wife wonders what the hell, but most collectors probably know what I’m talking about.

   The dealer showed me several other pieces, and I was shocked to see how he had the paintings stored. Most were unframed, and he was just pulling them out and scraping the paint off as he yanked them out. Finally he got to the paintings that I could afford at the $200 level. There were several Paul Stahr paintings, and I recognized them as Argosy covers. Stahr was very prolific and did many covers for the magazine in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

I decided I could spend $400, after quickly calculating how much I owed my wife, mortgage, car payment, and a couple pulp collectors who sold me sets of pulps on the installment plan. The paintings I bought were used for the covers on Argosy for December 3, 1932 and December 24, 1932. So we packed them up for the long trip back home and casting a final look of regret at the big Baumhofer masterpiece, I left the store. I never returned, and I’m sure it is long out of business.

   I had the paintings nicely framed, and both were hanging together for around 20 years. I still have the December 3, 1932 painting but the December 24 artwork suffered a tragic end. Steve Kennedy, a NYC art dealer who just died a few weeks ago specialized in pulp art. He thought he could get me a good deal in a trade but I would have to give up the December 24, 1932 piece. So he took the painting and mailed it off on approval to another collector. Later on, he told me the sad news that the Fed Ex or UPS truck had caught on fire and the painting was destroyed.

   All collectors have the time travel dream. You know the one where you go back in time and buy a stack of Hammett or Chandler first editions. Or maybe you buy several issues of the first Tarzan All-Story or the first Superman comic. One trip I would make would be back to the Brooklyn store of 40 years ago. Only this time I’d say to hell with the bills and mortgage payment and by god, I’d buy that beautiful Baumhofer gangster painting!

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