Columns


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


   Anyone remember John Roeburt? My hunch is that few do even if they’re regular readers of this column. I believe he first swam into my ken in the late 1950s, when I was a teen and he was story editor and occasional scriptwriter for NBC-TV’s THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN (1958-59), starring George Nader and later Lee Philips.

   Being heavily into EQ at that time, I made it a point to check out this Roeburt guy and found several of his novels at my friendly neighborhood used book store. Prices were unbelievable back then: you could buy a hardcover for a quarter, a paperback for a dime. I picked up all the Roeburt I could find but, and weirdo that I am, read few if any of his books. Recently I decided he might be a good subject for a column and pulled down a few of his early novels from my shelves. Was I right? You tell me.

   A New Yorker from square one, Roeburt was born on March 15, 1909. At least one website claims that, like myself, he graduated from NYU Law School, probably during the pit of the Depression, but neither the Law School Alumni Office nor the Registrar’s Office has been able to confirm this.

   If he was an attorney, we don’t know whether he ever practiced law. Most of his career as a writer he spent in radio and later TV but he did turn out a book every few years. Outside the crime genre he’s best known for EARTHQUAKE (1959), a mainstream novel nominally written by TV comic Milton Berle and himself.

   This book had nothing in common with the 1974 Big Disaster movie of the same name, co-scripted by Mario Puzo and starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy and Lorne Greene, with special effects out the wazoo. Titles aren’t copyrightable but theoretically Berle and Roeburt could have sued on a claim of unfair competition.

   However, to succeed on that basis you have to establish that your title has developed a secondary meaning, i.e. it’s identified with you in the public mind the way, say, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is identified with Harper Lee. In any event there was no such suit and Roeburt wasn’t around to bring it. He had died of a heart attack on May 22, 1972 at his summer home on Fire Island.

***

   His first novel, JIGGER MORAN (Greenberg, 1944), which I picked up for a cool quarter back in my teens, is hard to classify. On the surface it’s a Mean Streets thriller in the Raymond Chandler tradition (although without first-person narration), but every so often it tries futilely to break out of its hardboiled mold and enter the mainstream, abandoning its protagonist for a few pages now and then, even offering a flashback to the childhood of one of the other principals.

   Jigger, whom one can easily imagine being played on the big screen by Bogart, is nominally a cab driver but actually an amoral “fixer” with both a Ph.D. and a law school diploma, which Roeburt insists on calling a degree De Juris. (This is both bad Latin and dead wrong: in Roeburt’s time what you got when you graduated from a law school was called an Ll.B., for Bachelor of Laws, although by my own graduation year, 1967, the name had been changed to J.D., for Juris Doctor. In any event, the second Moran novel tells us that he’s been disbarred for years.)

   Numbers racket kingpin Little Joey, whom one can easily imagine being played by Edward G. Robinson, hires Moran to clear him of the murder of a German-American doctor who apparently won a huge amount of money from Joey’s organization not long before he was found battered almost beyond recognition in his Yorkville home office. The trail leads Jigger to the usual zoo of lowlifes — including a psychotic whose wife died after a botched abortion at the doctor’s hands and several pseudo-intellectual leftists from Greenwich Village — and ultimately to a Nazi propaganda mill.

   What makes JIGGER MORAN stand out from the usual tough-guy thriller is that it’s studded with lines of the sort Bill Pronzini in an inspired phrase has called “alternative flapdoodle.” I’ll quote just a few, complete with page references so no one will think I’m making this stuff up:

    Jigger gave the cherchez la femme faucet a quarter-inch twist….(35)

    Jigger thrust a nail-file through a crack in Wang’s double-decker subtleties as a reminder that the good doctor had two strikes on him and Jigger was pitcher and umpire both. (129)

    Jigger pummeled his way through the mob cacaphonizing at Johnny’s bar…. (133)

    “Used to be a ranking sluggerdutch from Chicago.” (139)

    The office girl squared her breasts as Jigger zipped past…. (201)

    [H]e looked like a man jumping out of his skin. (208)

   Roeburt uses a number of throwaway references to evoke the 1944 atmosphere but they don’t always work. The Euro-café filled with “Viennese refugees who took fright with the bullet that reduced Dolfuss to a footnote in history” (209) is okay if the reader remembers that Engelbert Dollfuss (with two l’s), chancellor of Austria, had been shot by the Nazis in 1934.

   But what about Jigger’s prediction that he and a certain cop “will be principals in a rewrite of the Becker-Rosenthal case” (189)? Personally I don’t feel like going online to track down that ancient case, and I suspect very few readers would have wanted to do it back in that cenozoic era before the Web.

   Roeburt does even worse when he ventures onto religious turf. The well-known Catholic apologist and 1950s TV personality Fulton Sheen morphs in his hands into “Monsignor Sheean” (209), but that’s a mere bag of shells beside the unforgettable reference to “the St. James version of the Old Testament” on the same page!

   JIGGER MORAN was reprinted twice after its hardcover appearance: as THE CASE OF THE TEARLESS WIDOW (HandiBooks pb #46, 1946) and as WINE, WOMEN AND MURDER (Avon pb #807, 1958). I don’t have either of these editions and don’t know whether Roeburt cleaned up any of the wacko lines from the original but, as we’ll see shortly, there’s reason to believe he might have.

***

   One notices a certain cousinly resemblance between the beginning of JIGGER MORAN and that of Roeburt’s follow-up novel, THERE ARE DEAD MEN IN MANHATTAN (Mystery House, 1946). Jigger is pulled out of a crap game in a nightclub kitchen by Dixie Travers, a gangster driven out of New York and now holed up across the Hudson in Jersey City, and offered a large fee if he’ll clear up a murder.

   This time, however, the gangster himself is not under suspicion. The guy in the shadow of the hot seat is Blaine Fowler, who’s on trial for the murder of his mistress and almost certain to be convicted. Why does Travers care? Because, he says, Fowler owes him $50,000 in gambling debts and can’t pay up if he fries.

   Soon after Jigger takes the case, one of the Fowler jurors is (non-fatally) poisoned, a mistrial is declared and Fowler is released on bail. (Yeah, right.) Next someone tries to shoot the poisoned juror in his hospital bed, and Jigger finds himself in the thick of a conspiracy involving, among other notables, the DA who put Fowler on trial. Not only is our hero beaten to a pulp, which is par for the course in vintage PI novels, but he also gets scalped, which I think makes him unique in the tough-guy genre.

   In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle (March 17, 1946) Tony Boucher called the book “a highly individual and effective variant on the hardboiled school” despite its employment of “one of the oldest cliché solutions….” No, the murderer is not a woman Jigger has had sex with. Through the pages of this caper he remains chaste. Who’d want sex with a scalped man anyway?

   Various plot components make it clear that Raymond Chandler and especially FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1940) were very much on Roeburt’s mind at the time: witness the Moose Malloy-like hulk who administers the scalping to Jigger, and the phony sanitarium in the later chapters. The weirdo lines that marked JIGGER MORAN are fewer in number this time around but just as flapdoodlesque:

    “Christy… doormanned lugubriously, tallying all incoming customers with a clockometer.” (19) “Fowler can-canned his bottom to the edge of the bunk and his feet touched the floor.” (44) In the abridged paperback edition of DEAD MEN, which I happen to have (Graphic pb #42, 1951), the first of these howlers is cut completely and the second is toned down to the conventional “Fowler sat up in his bunk and swung around.”

   It’s revisions like these that lead me to suspect that if we had one or both of the paperback editions of JIGGER MORAN we’d find similar instances of — if I may perpetrate my own Roeburtism — second-thoughting.

***

   In the third and final Jigger Moran novel, CORPSE ON THE TOWN (Graphic pb #27, 1950), Roeburt dispenses with weirdo lines except for one or two like “Jigger smiled a shot of Vitamin W” (37). This time around the track we get much more dialogue — which is natural considering that so much of his writing took the form of radio drama — plus the only opening scene in any of the three that can reasonably be called noirish.

   On a rain-soaked evening, Jigger drops off a passenger in front of an apartment building on Greenwich Village’s Charlton Street and is about to turn in his cab and call it a night when a stranger he can barely see asks him to deliver a trunk to the Railway Express office near Penn Station, offering a fee of five bucks, which in 1950 was a princely sum for a short haul.

   On 31st Street he’s cut off by four cops in official cars and forced to accompany them to the police garage, where the trunk is taken off his cab and found to contain the body of a young woman, battered beyond recognition. The trail leads him to a wealthy upstate New York family, a police chief with a murderous streak, a professor of creative writing who was mentoring the dead woman, a red-bearded Greenwich Village artist with a penchant for blackmail and all sorts of other pungent characters.

   Since the book was published as a paperback original it was reviewed nowhere, not even in the New York Times, although if it had appeared a couple of years later Tony Boucher would certainly have covered it in his “Criminals at Large” column, which began in July 1951.

   What Tony would have said we’ll never know. Personally I found the book sort of confusing for a number of reasons, for instance the will that Roeburt summarizes for us in Chapter Nine:

   Wealthy grandmother disinherited her son and left most of her estate to her granddaughter provided she gets married before she turns 21. Would a court have found that provision contrary to public policy and void? One would expect that if Roeburt were a lawyer he’d at least bring up the issue but not a single word is said about it.

   The granddaughter did get married before turning 21 but her husband was also her first cousin. Is that legal? It is in New York today and presumably was back in 1950. But suppose she gets married before age 21 and then dies? We are told that “the old lady didn’t think to insure against such a contingency.”

   Well, duh! You don’t have to be a law school graduate to know that in that event the estate goes wherever the granddaughter’s will says it goes or, if she didn’t leave a will, to her nearest relatives by intestate succession.

   There are other sources of confusion too but it would be boring to harp on them.

   Several years after the novel’s first appearance, a new version was published as CASE OF THE HYPNOTIZED VIRGIN (Avon pb #730, 1956), whose front cover informs us in small print that it was “based on” CORPSE ON THE TOWN. The main difference between the two titles is that in 1956 Roeburt inserted several hundred words of new material about hypnosis and reincarnation, obviously designed to cash in on the then wildly popular book THE SEARCH FOR BRIDEY MURPHY. The additions were no improvements.

***

   Three Roeburts in one column is quite enough. If I decide to talk about his other books — notably TOUGH COP (1949) and THE HOLLOW MAN (1954), both featuring Johnny Devereaux, and the stand-alone crime novels THE LUNATIC TIME (1956) and THE CLIMATE OF HELL (1958), not to mention his countless scripts for radio and TV — it will have to be on another occasion. Probably not next month. If I may quote the “Send In the Clowns” song, maybe next year.

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


   Something unusual happened to me last month. For no particular reason I had decided that the subject of my September column should be that jolly old warhorse Bulldog Drummond. No sooner was the column ready for posting than, likewise for no particular reason, I pulled down from my shelves one of the earliest of the almost 600 novels written by John Creasey (1908-1973).

   Would you believe? That book was so closely related to what I’d just finished writing up that I could easily have tacked several hundred words about it onto my previous column if I’d felt like supersizing the thing. Well, I didn’t. Here those words are now.

   FIRST CAME A MURDER (London: Andrew Melrose, 1934) was Creasey’s fifth published novel and the third in his long-running series about Department Z or, as he called it in the early years, Z Department. All 28 Z novels contain an occasional scene in the office of Department head Gordon Craigie but in most of their pages we follow one or more of Craigie’s agents.

   In FIRST CAME A MURDER the name of the agent is Hugh Devenish, who with minimal change might easily have been another gentleman adventurer of the period with the same first name and seven different letters after the initial of his last—a gentleman who happens to have been the subject of my previous column. I don’t have the hardcover edition of 1934 nor the revised U.S. paperback (Popular Library pb #445-01533-075, 1972) but I do own a copy of the British paperback (Arrow pb #937, 1967) for which Creasey revised the original text.

   We open, as the title unsubtly suggests, with a murder. In the reading room of the Carilon Club in London’s Pall Mall, a certain Mr. Carruthers who had recently suffered heavy losses in the stock market is stabbed in the neck with a hypodermic needle filled with a poison called adenia which I gather Creasey made up out of (dare I say it?) whole cloth.

   There’s no mystery about who done it: the murderer is Rickett, the Club secretary. A week later, that prosperous man-about-town Hugh Devenish happens to have a casual conversation at the same club with Hon. Marcus Riordon, a wealthy obese financier who seems to have been made in the image of the young Charles Laughton. Discussing the recent murder in the club, Marcus describes the locus of the fatal stab as Carruthers’ neck.

   Instantly Hugh’s ears prick up; for, as we learn a few pages later, every newspaper report of the crime falsely declared that the injection had been in Carruthers’ wrist. Don’t ask why this deception on the part of the British press, which is never explained or even discussed, but it’s the springboard for everything that happens from then forward including an attempt to run down Devenish that same evening by an automobile near the Admiralty Arch.

   As chance would have it, Department Z is investigating the murder for its own reasons, and soon Hugh is eyebrows-deep in a rather vague plot by Hon. Marcus and a gaggle of henchmen to convert their ill-gotten gains into gold and jewels and sneak the loot out of England in a high-powered boat disguised as a tramp steamer. The final chapter, like that of the original BULLDOG DRUMMOND (1920), finds the Hugh D. of this novel marrying the young woman he saved from the brink earlier in the book.

   According to a brief foreword to my edition, Creasey made his revisions in 1967, at a time when he’d become rich and famous and a household name among mystery lovers. This doesn’t mean he revised it very carefully. We are told in Chapter 1 that the newspaper Carruthers is reading just before his death is the Star but, according to an official report summarized in Chapter 3, the paper he was perusing was the Sun.

   At the beginning of that chapter the structures surrounding Department Z’s headquarters are described as “towering precipices of brick and mortar.” I can imagine Creasey in 1934 writing at such white heat that instead of “edifices” he inadvertently used a sound-alike, but why didn’t he catch the gaffe a third of a century later?

   At one point Hon. Marcus plots to have a car similar to Hugh’s and bearing his license plate set on fire with an unrecognizable body inside which was supposed to be identified as Devenish, but the point of the ploy is impenetrable because the real Hugh remains untouched.

   FIRST CAME A MURDER was reviewed in the London Times by none other than Dorothy L. Sayers, who described it as a representative specimen of “the thriller with all its gorgeous absurdities full blown.” She said nothing about any of the flaws I’ve mentioned but pointed out that under the British nobility’s nomenclature rules it was impossible for Marcus, “the son of a dope-sniffing baronet,” to be an Honourable. Creasey left his villain’s title as it was: “I confess to a positive liking for those ‘gorgeous absurdities’, and I could not bring myself to remove any of them.” Which leaves us wondering what if anything he did remove or replace. Sayers’ comments about this book in 1934 apply just as surely to the 1967 version I read.

***

   The earlier chapters of FIRST CAME A MURDER are perhaps a little light on action but the second half, where something is happening on virtually every page, more than makes up the deficit. The exact opposite is true of the next book I pulled down from my shelves, John Rhode’s THE FATAL POOL (1960), in which almost nothing happens, and the little that does has all the flavor of boiled grass.

   In the first two pages, which required me to construct two family trees in order to keep track of everyone, we are introduced to (if I’ve counted right) sixteen characters, of whom six are dead and several more are alive but seldom or never appear. (One of the latter is said to be 55 years old — in other words, to have been born in or around 1905 — and also to have served in World War I. What, did they have drummer boys in that war?)

   The most recently dead among the cast is a young woman whose drowned body is brought into the dining room of Framby Hall at the bottom of page three. Yvonne Bardwell, notorious for getting engaged to men and then breaking up with them for no reason, has been one of the guests at a house party along with several other relatives of Col. Gayton, the Hall’s present owner, and a few non-relatives such as the professional birdwatcher who loves to go out at dawn and take home movies of rarae aves.

   Marks on Yvonne’s shoulders suggest that she was held underwater in the Hall’s outdoor swimming pool, originally part of a moat, in which she was accustomed to take a dip every morning before breakfast. The baffled local officials call in the Yard, and that afternoon Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn makes the first of a staggering number of train journeys from London to the town of Pegworth near which the crime took place. There follows an orgy of talk talk talk, in which nothing much is learned and no destination reached.

   On each of the next several Saturday evenings Waghorn reports his lack of progress to the other dinner guests of Rhode’s long-running series character, that ancient curmudgeon Dr. Priestley. At last there comes a development — the murder of the birdwatcher, perhaps as the result of trying to blackmail whoever drowned Yvonne Bardwell — and things begin to move, albeit at a snail’s pace, until at Priestley’s suggestion Waghorn confronts one of the cast, who confesses handily in abundant detail, revealing one of the least plausible murder motives I’ve ever seen, before conveniently giving the book’s title a new meaning.

   There are some who love the plodding British whodunit writers that detractors like to call the humdrums and there are some who can’t abide them. Everyone agrees, however, that in the forefront of the group stands Major Cecil J.C. Street (1884-1964), the author of 70-odd novels as John Rhode and another 60-odd as Miles Burton.

   (May I pause here to pat myself on the back? More than half a century ago I was the first to point out that Rhode and Burton must inhabit the same body. I based this conclusion on the fact that in every book under either byline, whenever anyone is asked a question the answer is always always always followed with the information that he or she “replied.”)

   My own view, which I’ve expressed in several columns over the years, is that many of the Rhode novels of the Thirties and early Forties are quite readable and interesting but most of the others are dreadful. THE FATAL POOL, apparently second-last in the long-running Dr. Priestley series, has been trashed even by the staunchest fans of the humdrums. Barzun & Taylor in CATALOGUE OF CRIME (2nd edition 1989) called it “The dullest conceivable Rhode…. Well-nigh unreadable.”

   With his usual hard-wired kindness, Anthony Boucher in the New York Times Book Review (26 February 1961) described it as “a moderately good example” of the long-running Priestley series. For my money the line that best does justice to it is one Tony himself perpetrated a number of years earlier, labeling a different Priestley novel “the dreariest Rhode I have yet traversed.”

   There are many such Rhode’s, I fear. To maximize your chances of finding a satisfactory book by this author, best stick with the ones dating from when FDR slept in the White House.

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


   I’ve never been a big fan of Captain Hugh Drummond but he was one of the first characters in crime fiction to swim into my ken. Among the books on my father’s shelves was a hardcover reprint of the 1920 novel that introduced Captain Hugh, titled simply BULLDOG DRUMMOND, with stills from the 1929 talkie of the same name that starred Ronald Colman.

   At around age ten, or maybe it was eleven or twelve, I tackled that book. Sixty-five years later, all I remember is that one of the king toads was a bloke named Henry Lakington who had a penchant for dissolving bodies in an acid bath. Drummond sets a trap for him and he winds up screaming madly as he lurches up a staircase after being plunged into his own tub, while Drummond intones: “Henry Lakington, the retribution is just.”

   Pretty powerful stuff for a pre-adolescent back in the early Fifties.

   I have a vague recollection that someone was found tortured with a thumbscrew, probably by Lakington, earlier in the proceedings. If only I had squirreled away my father’s copy of the book after he died, I could find out whether these juvenile memories are accurate. But I didn’t, which demonstrates, as I said before, just how little of a Drummond fan I’ve always been.

   According to the ST. JAMES GUIDE TO CRIME & MYSTERY WRITERS (1996) there are a total of ten Drummond novels. Their author was Herman Cyril McNeile (1888-1937), who served during World War I in Britain’s Royal Engineers and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His branch of service explains why in England his byline was Sapper. We’re not in England so I’ll call him McNeile.

    The fact that I own only two of the Drummond novels somewhat limited my options when I recently decided to revisit the old Bulldog. The title I chose was BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK (1933), which comes late in the series and only four years before McNeile’s death. Why I picked that one I’ll explain later.

   Despite the title — I should say despite the U.S. title because in England it was published as KNOCK-OUT — we open not with Drummond but with another McNeile character, a wealthy cricket-playing amateur sleuth named Ronald Standish who never caught on as Cap’n Hugh did. On a blustery evening in March, while relaxing in his rooms in London’s Clarges Street, Standish receives a phone call from James Sanderson, a high Home Office poohbah, which is cut off almost as soon as it begins.

   Suspecting foul play, Standish rushes into the night, breaks into Sanderson’s house in Hampstead five minutes away, and finds the man dead at his desk with a horrible hole through his eye. No sooner has he found the body when someone else enters Sanderson’s study. That visitor turns out to be Bulldog Drummond, and both adventurers quickly find themselves in hot water of the Edgar Wallace variety.

   The constable summoned by Sanderson’s butler turns out to be a fake. While Drummond and Standish are out fetching the real police, Sanderson’s house is invaded and torched. Back in the Clarges Street flat, Standish is drugged with his own whiskey — a fate Cap’n Hugh avoids by happening to choose beer as his tipple — and the place is invaded by three heavies whose casual conversation leads the undrugged Drummond to two more of the ungodly, a prominent surgeon and a beautiful blonde film star, and so on and on into the depths of a plot by international moneymen to sabotage the already staggering British economy.

   From the secondary literature one gets the distinct impression that McNeile’s once-famous protagonist is a xenophobic brute with no redeeming social qualities. We naturally expect that if a Jewish character should rear his hook-nosed head in a Drummond novel he’d be the worst sort of anti-Semitic stereotype.

   Surprise! Samuel Aaronstein, proprietor of a second-hand clothing store in Whitechapel and purveyor of disguises whenever the Bulldog needs one, bears no trace of what we might expect to find in McNeile unless one takes offense at a character who says vell for well and vith for with.

   Another of the surprises in STRIKES BACK I’d call neither pleasant nor unpleasant but just surprising. The lovely blonde film star I mentioned earlier turns out to be a clone of none other than Mae West. “Say, big boy,” she says after meeting Drummond at a party, “you’re talking boloney.” And later: “Come and see me some time, big man.”

   If you object that such lines don’t sound veddy British, McNeile agrees with you. “Say, Miss Frensham,” she says later to her secretary, who is now serving as the mole in the enemy camp, “I guess it’s customary in this country to give notice, the same as in mine.” There can be little doubt what country she’s claiming as her own. In other scenes McNeile forgets that the woman is supposed to be a Yank and gifts her with conventional Brit locutions.

   For xenophobia hunters the prime target in STRIKES BACK is the man behind the conspiracy to cripple the British economy, a cueball-headed Greek with the unsubtle name of Demonico who has a penchant for disguising himself as an old woman if things get too hot. He is sporting this getup at the climax when Drummond puts a hole in him.

   The reason I decided to dig into this particular McNeile novel is that at least nominally it was the basis for perhaps the best of the many movies about Cap’n Hugh that came out during the first dozen years of talkies. BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK (20th Century/United Artists, 1934), like its predecessor BULLDOG DRUMMOND (Goldwyn/united Artists, 1929), starred Ronald Colman.

   Featured in the cast were Loretta Young as Lola Field and Warner Oland as the wily Prince Achmed. Neither these nor any other characters in the movie have counterparts in the novel, except of course that Achmed is as slimy a foreigner as the novel’s Demonico. Dealing as it does with the disappearance of Loretta Young’s uncle under circumstances that make it appear he never existed, the movie’s plot anticipates Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES (1938) and several thematically similar stories by Cornell Woolrich like “All at Once, No Alice” and “Finger of Doom” (both 1940), but you’ll find nothing remotely akin to it in McNeile’s novel.

   For anyone who wants a quick and painless refresher course on the complete run of Drummond movies — right down to the laughable attempt in the late Sixties to turn Cap’n Hugh into a James Bond clone — the reading assignments are Chapter 6 of William K. Everson’s THE DETECTIVE IN FILM (1972) and pages 61-73 of Jon Tuska’s THE DETECTIVE IN HOLLYWOOD (1978).

   Bill Everson (1929-1996) was a good friend of mine for several decades. When the two of us put together an elaborate mystery film series 30 years ago for St. Louis County’s Webster University, STRIKES BACK was one of the pictures on the program. What makes it work, we said in our program note, is that the men who made it, primarily director Roy Del Ruth and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, trashed McNeile’s right-wing xenophobia and reconfigured Drummond as “a dashing, romantic, essentially comic character, all his adventures played tongue in cheek.”

   For the Bulldog of the airwaves all you need to read is the entry on the series in John Dunning’s ON THE AIR: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OLD-TIME RADIO (1998). I’ve never sampled this program, which was usually set on the American side of the pond and, says Dunning, “was remembered for years by people who thought it better than it was.”

   The most recent incarnation of Cap’n Hugh was in the parodic stage play BULLSHOT CRUMMOND (1974) and the later movie of the same name (1983). “Much of the play’s humor,” we learn from Wikipedia, “comes from its audacious (and intentionally failed) efforts to recreate film effects on stage.” The script was “designed to be performed by only five actors, one of whom plays seven characters.”

   On my birthday many years ago I happened to be in San Francisco, where the play was first performed, and was taken to see it by a former student, a mercurial little sexpot who had left St. Louis and settled in the city she found so beautiful she could never live anywhere else.

   I remember nothing of the play. The woman with whom I took it in I immortalized, if that’s the word, in three of my Loren Mensing novels plus a Milo Turner short story. On paper she still lives. In real life she died horribly in her early fifties. Thank you, Lou Gehrig. Not.

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


   Suppose all the readers of this column were gathered together in one room. At the front, standing before the lectern or podium or whatever the hell you call it, I pose a question: Any of you know something about Tom Everitt? Almost everyone in the room would probably answer: “Tom Whoveritt?” Perhaps one or two who had read my book THE ART OF DETECTION and were blessed with a photographic memory might say: “Wasn’t he the guy who provided the plots for Manny Lee to turn into Ellery Queen radio scripts after Fred Dannay dropped out and before Anthony Boucher came aboard?”

   Indeed he was. But aside from that fact, and the titles of more than thirty EQ scripts that were based on Everitt plot synopses, virtually nothing is known of him. While working on THE ART OF DETECTION I had ransacked the Web looking for a little more information about this mystery man but with no luck. Then out of the blue not long ago I received an email from a total stranger who, in the course of researching something else entirely, had unearthed more information about Everitt than I could have used even had I known of it in time to put it in the book. But there’s no reason I can’t summarize it here. Thank you, Jonathan Guss, for making this month’s column possible.

   John Thompson Everitt, whom I’ll call JT just to make things simple, was born in Yonkers, New York on December 11, 1908. His ancestors had arrived in Massachusetts by 1643 and had settled in the New York City area near Jamaica by 1650. JT’s father, Charles Percy Everitt (1873-1951), was a well-known rare book dealer, and Charles’ brother Samuel Alexander Everitt (1871-1953) was a partner in the Doubleday publishing house until his retirement in 1930. JT’s older brother Charles Raymond Everitt (1901-1947) also went into the publishing business, working at Harcourt Brace and later, until his early death, at Little Brown, the publisher of a volume of memoirs by his and JT’s father (THE ADVENTURES OF A TREASURE HUNTER: A RARE BOOKMAN IN SEARCH OF AMERICAN HISTORY, 1951).

   In 1930 JT graduated from Yale, where he was known as a soccer player. A year later he was hired by the CBS radio network to write for its March of Time program. By 1940 he had moved into the advertising side of radio at the Young & Rubicam agency where, among many other jobs, he was tasked with handling a prospectus from the NBC radio network on The Green Hornet, for which NBC was seeking a sponsor. Apparently he was still working at that agency when he became involved with the Ellery Queen series.

   Since its debut in June of 1939, every one of the scripts for the series had been written by Manfred B. Lee based on plot synopses prepared by his cousin and EQ collaborator Fred Dannay. (More precisely, every one except “The Dauphin’s Doll,” first broadcast around Christmastime 1943 and written by Manny alone.) Early in 1944 Fred’s wife was diagnosed with cancer. The burdens of taking care of two young children, plus editing a large annual anthology of short mystery fiction and running Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM), which had been launched in the fall of 1941, soon made it impossible for Fred to continue coming up with a plot a week for the radio series.

   He was several synopses ahead when he dropped out, and Manny squirreled these away for use in emergencies, relying most of the time on recycling earlier scripts under new titles and condensing 60-minute scripts from the show’s first season (1939-40) into its current half-hour format. But these ploys couldn’t go on indefinitely. Somebody had to be found to take over Fred’s function.

   How TJ came into the picture remains unknown. Possibly it was through his older brother Charles, who was working at Little Brown, publisher of the Queen novels and anthologies since 1942. Perhaps it was due to the connections Fred and Manny had retained with the advertising and publicity businesses where they’d gotten their start. Whether he was the first man brought in to assume Fred’s function as plot provider remains unclear.

   We don’t know exactly how many Dannay synopses Manny had in reserve, but several of the episodes dating from late 1944 strike me as too outrageous to have stemmed from Fred. Take, for example, “Cleopatra’s Snake” (October 12 & 14, 1944). As backstage observer of a live production of Antony and Cleopatra for experimental TV, Ellery becomes a key witness when the genuine poisonous snake being used in the death scene (yeah, right) bites to death the actress playing Cleopatra.

   Now let’s consider “The Glass Sword” (November 30 & December 2, 1944), in which Ellery tackles the case of the circus sword swallower who died when the sword in his stomach broke while the lights were out. Was it Everitt who cranked out the synopses that Manny turned into these scripts? Was it another Dannay substitute? Or, wacko though they are, could they have originated with Fred after all? For more information, keep reading.

   The earliest EQ script that we know came from a synopsis by Everitt was “The Diamond Fence” (January 24, 1945), which involves the murder of a middleman for stolen gems and the disappearance of five diamond rings from the scene of the crime under impossible circumstances. A substantial excerpt from this episode survives on audio as a “sneak preview” from the Armed Forces Radio Service.

   From that point at least through the end of March, every script Manny wrote was based on Everitt material. It was during these early months of the last full year of World War II that Manny enlisted Anthony Boucher (1911-1968) to take over Everitt’s function. It was an ideal choice. Boucher had already published seven novels in the Queen vein and had had short stories published in EQMM. Also, as we know from comments in various of his mystery reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle, he was an enthusiastic fan of the radio series.

   Since Tony lived in Berkeley, California and Manny on the east coast, collaboration on EQ radio scripts required vast correspondence between the two. This correspondence, archived at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, documents their work together in microscopic detail. The only aspect of it that concerns us here is Manny’s continual snarky remarks about Everitt, of which I’ll quote a few.

   On May 3, 1945, about six weeks before the broadcast of the first Boucher-Lee collaboration, Manny tells Tony that he’s “washed up” with Everitt, who “will do four more for us, and then he’s through. This by mutual agreement.” On the 17th of the same month, he says: “We want to avoid some of the weaknesses resulting from our present man’s so-called efforts….” And on the 24th he lets Tony know how he really feels about Everitt: “….At the end of our association with our ‘man,’ as I like to call him—hating his smug, treacherous guts as I do!—we’re finding more trouble…and sloppier submissions on his part even than usual….”

   On January 24, 1946, he describes one of the Everitt synopses he had to deal with as “a bad outline which I bought only because I was desperate …and bought and paid for it with the mental reservation that I’d probably have to do a thorough re-working job on it. I was a noble prophet.”

   But, simply because the EQ radio formula was so complex and demanding and Boucher with all his other commitments couldn’t conjure up a new plot synopsis on a weekly basis, Manny was forced to make further commitments to Everitt. “This was a desperation move,” he tells Boucher on October 30, 1946, “as his stuff always gives me headaches, but good….I had to do something in self-protection. I heartily wish now I hadn’t made that commitment…. But it can’t be undone and I can only hope that he doesn’t come through, so that I can order more from you.”

   Almost a year later Manny is still reluctantly dealing with Everitt now and then and, in a letter to Fred Dannay dated November 4, 1947, griping about it just as loudly. Discussing the possibility of repeating some of the scripts based on Everitt synopses, he describes Everitt as “such a son-of-a-bitch that, even though our rights to repeat the material without payment are clear, he would raise a considerable stink in the business if we didn’t pay him an extra fee….[F]or the most part he got tremendously overpaid in the original payment—the bulk of the creative work was done by me, out of sheer necessity.”

   If Manny were to offer a token fee of perhaps $50 per episode recycled, Everitt “would start haggling and chiseling and his tongue would wag plenty in the business….” What business Manny is referring to becomes clear later in the same letter. “[Y]ou don’t know…what that bastard has been saying and is still saying in the advertising business about his ‘part’ in the Queen show. There is no protection against his kind of conscienceless and unscrupulously shrewd self-propaganda….”

   As his correspondence with both Fred and Boucher demonstrates, at least during the radio years Manny was a Type A personality with a genius for getting hot under the collar, and the insane pressure of putting out a program every week probably shortened his life.

   Whether he was being too harsh on JT is hard to judge. One of the few living persons to have seen any of the Everitt material Manny turned into scripts is Ted Hertel, who helped choose the scripts included in THE ADVENTURE OF THE MURDERED MOTHS (2005). In connection with that project he was erroneously sent the synopses for “The Right End” and “The Glass Sword,” both with Everitt’s name on them.

   To judge by Ted’s comments, what Everitt gave Manny to work with was just as bad as Manny said it was. In an email to me he described the synopses as “so poorly written, so amateurish, that they could not possibly have been the work of Manny in any form.” (The scripts Manny based on these synopses were broadcast respectively on November 16 and 30, 1944.)

   Only one episode Manny based on an Everitt synopsis is available on audio. In “Number 31″ (September 7, 1947) Ellery tries to crack the secret of international mystery man George Arcaris’s success at smuggling diamonds into the Port of New York and to comfort a wonderfully dignified black woman by solving the murder of her son, the servant for a wealthy man-about-town. The cases seem unconnected until Ellery discovers the number 31 popping up in both.

   It’s an excellent episode, but how much credit should go to Everitt remains a mystery since no one in the last 70 years has seen his synopsis. I wouldn’t be surprised if the black woman was entirely the creation of the staunchly liberal Manny Lee.

   To the best of my knowledge the only Everitt radio work besides his EQ plots was a single script for The Shadow. In “The Creature That Kills” (January 6, 1946) Lamont Cranston, alias The Shadow, investigates the theft of priceless papers from the 20th-floor laboratory of a brilliant young scientist under impossible circumstances.

   It turns out that the thief, a master criminal with a Sydney Greenstreet voice, had an accomplice in the form of a trained 27-foot python which slid down the side of the building from the window directly above the scientist’s lab, got hold of the papers, then slid back up the wall to its master. What a snake! Do I detect here the same kind of wackiosity that pervades the EQ scripts about Cleopatra and the glass sword?

   In 1947 Everitt returned to radio full-time as Eastern program manager for the ABC network. We don’t know if he wrote any more for the medium, but Jonathan Guss mentions one script he contributed to the golden age of live TV drama, “Revenge by Proxy” (Colgate Theatre, May 14, 1950). The cast included Nancy Coleman, Phil Arthur, Bernard Kates and Victor Sutherland. As chance would have it, the following week’s drama, “Change of Murder,” was based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich.

   Everitt died on November 2, 1954, at age 45. Today he seems to be totally forgotten, perhaps deservedly so. The most that can be claimed for him is that he figures as a footnote in the Ellery Queen story. But at least now that footnote has been written.

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


   The earliest published stories of Erle Stanley Gardner, dating back to the middle 1920s, were written in a style that might best be described as non-existent. Around the end of the decade he began to be heavily influenced in terms both of style and story substance by Dashiell Hammett, and he remained more or less in Hammett’s shadow during the first few years he was writing novels including the earliest cases of Perry Mason, which began to appear in 1933.

   Mason as portrayed in the first nine novels about him could almost be a Hammett character: a tiger in the social Darwinian jungle, totally self-reliant, asking no favors, despising the weaklings who want society to care for them. Then a sea-change came over the character. The Saturday Evening Post offered Gardner a ton of money for permission to serialize the Mason novels before their book publication, but part of the deal was that the character had to be toned down to conform to the magazine’s “family values” ideology.

   Money talked. Mason from then on became a much tamer character, still skating on the thin edge of the law but always as advocate for a client we knew was innocent, so that we readers could delight in his legal tricks without the moral qualms we might experience if we thought the client might be guilty. Still, the earliest Masons remained in print unaltered, and many of us are especially fond of the novels of Gardner’s Hammett years. But how many readers know that there are more such novels than the first nine Masons?

   THE CLUE OF THE FORGOTTEN MURDER (1934) first appeared under the aegis of Gardner’s lifelong publisher William Morrow but under a pseudonym (Carleton Kendrake) and with the first noun in the title spelled CLEW. It’s unlikely that any of the novel’s original readers caught on that Kendrake and ESG were the same man, simply because a number of other writers were attempting to channel Hammett in the early Thirties, and also because the book’s protagonist doesn’t dominate the action from page one like the early Mason and isn’t even introduced until Chapter 7.

   Until then our viewpoint characters are, first, a crime reporter for a big-city newspaper and, after about thirty pages, one of the paper’s publishers. We open late at night in the Police Headquarters basement press room where reporter Charles Morden is learning about a number of incidents, among them the murder of a private investigator which doesn’t seem terribly interesting, not at the time anyway.

   Another item does capture Morden’s attention: a man driving a rental car with an attractive young woman was arrested on suspicion of DWI and then, being accused of having pulled some gas station hold-ups, has identified himself as Frank B. Cathay, a prominent citizen in the smaller nearby community of Riverview. Morden’s paper prints a story to this effect. Then the real Cathay comes forward, claims that his wallet was stolen by a pickpocket who used the ID inside to pass himself off as Cathay, and threatens to sue the paper for libel.

   At this point publisher Dan Bleeker decides to counterpunch by having Morden thoroughly investigate Cathay, hoping to turn up something that will make Cathay drop the suit. When Morden is murdered and Cathay dies (possibly of poison) shortly after the reporter’s body is found, Bleeker hires criminologist Sidney Griff, who is something of a cross between a Hammett character and Philo Vance, and from this point forward Griff takes center stage.

   At the climax we find him channeling not Vance or a Hammett sleuth but Carroll John Daly’s pistol-packing PI Race Williams, standing on the outside of a speeding taxi “with one foot on the running board, clinging to the rod of the windshield support with his left hand” while with his right he engages in a running gun battle with the murderer in another car, a battle which ends of course with a crack-up.

   To suggest the labyrinthine nature of the plot I’ll quote a remark from Bleeker to Griff in Chapter XVII. “My God, this case is full of women, and every woman has at least one alias. We started with the hitch-hiker, who gave the name of Mary Briggs to the police. We now find her in a hotel registered under the name of Stella Mokley, and probably that’s not her real name. [It is.] Then, there’s this Stanway woman, who apparently is Blanche Malone [a woman whose actual married name is Lorton but who was married to a certain Peter Malone and therefore claims to have been Cathay’s legal wife]; and there’s Alice Lorton [actually the daughter of the woman who calls herself Malone and Stanway], who built up a fictitious Esther Ordway [who Lorton claims was her roommate although in fact she had none]. I wouldn’t doubt if it turns out that Mrs. Cathay really isn’t Mrs. Cathay at all [which is exactly what is claimed by Blanche Malone, who also calls herself Stanway].”

   And those complications barely mention any of the men in the case! If you think the plots of Perry Mason novels are too twisty, perhaps you should give this one a miss. But it all seems to make sense if you think about it long and hard enough. There’s not a great deal of law here except for a brief discussion of the legal difference between accidental death and death by accidental means which crops up again a few years later in DOUBLE OR QUITS (1941), one of the earlier novels about Bertha Cool and Donald Lam which Gardner turned out as A.A. Fair, a byline which lasted decades longer than did Carleton Kendrake. Or than another pseudonym he used only once, a year after Kendrake’s debut and swan song.

***

   THIS IS MURDER (Morrow, 1935), first published as by Charles J. Kenny, is less of a brain-buster but also more like a Hammett novel, reminiscent of THE MALTESE FALCON and THE GLASS KEY in that, like Sam Spade and Ned Beaumont, its protagonist is with us from first page to last, and even more like THE GLASS KEY in that it deals with two corrupt political bosses fighting to gain power in the forthcoming election.

   District Attorney Phil Duncan, who is reasonably honest but allied with sleazy power broker Carl Thorne, is asked to look into the disappearance of Ann Hartwell, the half-sister of Thorne’s mistress Doris Bender. When Bender receives a note claiming that Hartwell has been kidnaped and demanding $10,000 ransom, the DA’s poker buddy Sam Moraine, a wealthy advertising executive, is chosen to deliver the money, mainly because the exchange of woman for money is to take place at sea and Moraine has a yacht.

   He comes to suspect that there’s something phony about the set-up but hands over the money and recovers the woman, only to be arrested by the Feds as his yacht puts in to port. No sooner has his buddy the DA pulled him out of that mess than he finds himself hip-deep in another when Ann Hartwell’s husband, a struggling and insanely jealous dentist, tries to kill him.

   Then thanks to some detective work by his secretary Natalie Rice, who seems to have an interest in the case more personal than any Della Street ever had, Moraine learns that that the kidnapping was indeed a hoax: Ann Hartwell went out to sea only hours before the “ransom” payment, and left for the docks in a taxi she entered near the home of political boss Peter Dixon, Carl Thorne’s enemy.

   Moraine plans to go out into the windy night and pay a surprise visit to Dixon but is kept from leaving his office by the DA and his chief investigator and sends Natalie Rice to Dixon’s house instead. While still closeted with the DA he gets a phone call from a terrified Natalie and, after another encounter with the furious Dr. Hartwell, makes his way to the Dixon house, which is in total darkness thanks to a tree having fallen over a power line.

   There he finds Dixon’s body, a broken window and a candle apparently snuffed out by the wind. Next morning the DA forces him to go to the morgue and view a dead body: not Dixon’s but that of Ann Hartwell, which has been found nearby. A little later Moraine discovers what’s behind Natalie’s involvement in the case, appropriates a suitcase filled with papers incriminating Carl Thorne and his machine, and makes plans to go on the run.

   The climax takes place at a Grand Jury hearing with Moraine cross-examining witnesses—he’s not a lawyer but the DA lets him behave like one—and, as if he’d suddenly become a Perry Mason clone, gets the real murderer to confess on the stand.

   Certainly THIS IS MURDER is closer to the Hammett model than THE CLUE OF THE FORGOTTEN MURDER was. But neither the Continental Op nor Sam Spade nor Ned Beaumont got involved in their dangerous escapades because the danger gave them what we today might call an adrenaline rush, which is precisely the reason Sam Moraine gives for his involvement.

   Still, he’s closer to a Hammett character than that bush-league Philo Vance figure Sidney Griff from FORGOTTEN MURDER. Both novels are still readable more than eighty years later, but few readers will deny that Gardner was wise not to bring back either of their protagonists and to stick, most of the time anyway, with Perry Mason.

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


   We continue our discussion of H. C. Branson with his third novel. He never tells us in so many words where CASE OF THE GIANT KILLER (1944) takes place but he does give us two clues. We open at a country club which is said to overlook Lake Erie. That lake borders on only four states—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. At first one might conclude that the events are taking place in Michigan, but later in the novel that state is referred to as a place other than the book’s setting, although whether Branson meant to rule out his home state or simply made a mistake isn’t clear.

   Bent is vacationing at the country club near the town of Port Arthur when he’s approached by two parties. The first to seek his advice is Barney Hogan, a local investment adviser whose wife’s first husband, convicted of embezzling from Hogan’s firm and just released from prison, is making revenge noises. The second is Elizabeth Orme, widow of a prominent Supreme Court justice, whose bookish young son has gotten involved with a married woman several years his senior.

   The two sets of dramatis personae are of course connected: the ex-con is the brother of the woman young Orme is involved with and her husband, Arthur Pickett, is Barney Hogan’s business partner. Pickett is found dead at the bottom of a cliff a few days after these conversations, and a few nights after the first murder Hogan is shot to death. As usual in Branson, the clues to both crimes are somewhat less than concrete.

   But Bent keeps formulating reconstructions of what might have happened and eventually the complex truth comes out. There’s not a smidgen of a hint that the United States is fighting a world war — not even in the final conversation between Bent and the novel’s Iago figure where the fact of war would be extremely relevant. It’s as if Branson had made a “contract with America,” similar to Georges Simenon’s wartime “contract with France,” to write nothing that would reflect the real-world situation at the time.

   Tony Boucher once again dispensed with a verb in his Chronicle review (26 March 1944) but was even more lavish in his praise: “The best Branson yet, a flawless job to delight the purist who does not insist on extraneous excitement, and demonstrating…that the so-called rules of detective fiction are made to be broken—but only by one who understands them as well as Mr. Branson.”

***

   In THE FEARFUL PASSAGE (1945) World War II is once again conspicuous by its absence, but this time Branson tells us unequivocally where his protagonist is based and where the action takes place. At 1:40 P.M. on a bright October day, after a journey of two to three hours, Bent steps off the train from New York City at the affluent town of Chalcis, having been summoned by county prosecutor Mark Shaftoe, on behalf of a private client he refuses to name, to investigate a murder that took place the night before.

   It’s apparent that the prime suspect in the murder of Gavin Hunter is young Tom Shepherd, the son of Hunter’s deceased wife by her first husband. Not only does Tom hate his stepfather but upon Hunter’s death he’ll inherit the fortune made by his biological dad, a wealthy candy manufacturer. At first it seems that Tom can’t possibly be guilty since he was in New York at the time of the murder. But when it develops that he was seen in Chalcis the evening of the shooting, he’s given a second alibi by the much younger wife of Professor John Winter Shaftoe, the uncle of the prosecutor who sent for Bent and an historian of civilizations whom Branson portrays as a sort of cross between Hemingway and Arnold Toynbee.

   In fact the town seems to be full of people, including the prosecutor himself, who don’t want Tom to be charged with anything. With only one murder, Branson’s fourth novel is more unified than the previous three but, in a quiet detached way, just as emotionally intense, although few if any readers are likely to beat Bent to the answer. Boucher in his Chronicle review (9 December 1945) didn’t eschew verbs but lavished praise as before: “Like all of Branson’s works this is a civilized and distinguished contribution to the serious literature of the detective story, and there’s a peculiar ironic aftertaste to this one.”

***

   On the first page of LAST YEAR’S BLOOD (1947) we’re told that Bent has come from New York, but later events prove pretty conclusively that the setting is nowhere in the Empire State. Near the end of the book we learn that one of the characters left Chicago at 7:10 P.M., drove to the nameless town where the novel takes place, committed a murder, and was back in Chicago by 4:35 A.M.

   From Chicago to Erie, Pennsylvania, which is a little nearer the Windy City than any point in New York, is almost 450 miles. Can you imagine driving more than 900 miles in a little over nine hours, years before anyone ever heard of the Interstate Highway System? If we assume that the novel’s center of gravity is in Michigan, probably not far from Ann Arbor where Branson lived, we aren’t likely to go far wrong.

   Wherever it is, Bent arrives there on a snowy February evening on commission from Bertha Gretsch, a wealthy vindictive old woman whose daughter Madeline was found in her garage, dead of monoxide poisoning but with chloral hydrate in her system. The death could have been an accident or suicide but Bertha insists it was murder, committed by Madeline’s new second husband, a young doctor.

   Bent begins a quiet investigation which is sidetracked when, the day after his arrival, Bertha herself is clubbed to death and stuffed into a clothes press in the house shared by the late Madeline and her husband. Eventually Bent comes to suspect that the deaths of daughter and mother are part of an elaborate scheme to channel the Gretsch fortune in a certain direction. (Haven’t we seen that element before in Branson?)

   The novel doesn’t offer a diagram of the family tree which might help to clarify the characters’ relationship to each other, but I’ve drawn one and you can access it by clicking here. This time, unlike in I’LL EAT YOU LAST, there are no estate law blunders.

   In 1947, with World War II over, Branson is willing to admit that it happened. Madeline’s second husband served in various stateside Army medical facilities and, after the war, worked as a psychiatrist in a VA hospital, and the husband of another female character (not related to the Gretsches and therefore not shown on the diagram) was killed in the Pacific. Not that any of these details are connected with the plot, which Bent probes in his usual speculative way and which he probably wouldn’t have been able to solve except that in the last chapter one suspect shoots another to death in full view of Bent and the local cop nominally in charge.

***

   THE LEADEN BUBBLE (1949) may well be Branson’s finest novel. Among those who thought so was Ross Macdonald, who in July 1953, a few years before he adopted that byline, called the book “remarkable” in a talk at the University of Michigan with Branson himself in the audience. Almost twenty years later, in a letter to Eudora Welty dated December 4, 1972 and included in the authors’ correspondence collection MEANWHILE THERE ARE LETTERS (2015): “Hank wrote some marvellous mystery novels, as you doubtless know—you perhaps remember THE LEADEN BUBBLE, and if you don’t give it a try….”

   Perhaps the book had a special appeal for Macdonald because so much of it takes place in a shabby-genteel boardinghouse of the sort he spent several years in while growing up in Canada. As BUBBLE begins we find Bent once again visiting a nameless state, although it can’t be too far from his home base because he arrives on a rainy Friday evening in mid-January, driving his own car, and apparently set out only a day or two earlier. What brings him to the town of Marchfield is a letter from an old friend, former Supreme Court justice Matthew Gregory, saying that he’s been “greatly disturbed” by something he doesn’t reveal.

   Bent reaches Gregory’s house only to find the old jurist an inch from death, and in fact he dies a few hours later, leaving Bent in the dark as to what he wanted. Might it somehow be connected with the dead man’s son Robert Gregory, whose estranged wife is about to file for divorce and, with the help of an odious local attorney named Horace Bradley, turn her soon to be ex-husband into a pauper? Might the appeal to Bent have something to do with the old man’s granddaughter, Robert’s niece, whose husband had found her in bed with another man and killed her? Might it be significant that the murderer’s attorney, who managed to get a jury to find the man not guilty (a foreshadowing of the O.J. Simpson trial almost 50 years later?), is the same shyster Robert Gregory’s wife has hired to clean out her husband?

   Bent begins to poke around and, discovering that shortly before his fatal stroke the elder Gregory had paid a mysterious visit to a boardinghouse in the town of Waterford, twelve miles from Marchfield, decides to rent a room in the house himself. On the evening of Bent’s first full day in the area, Horace Bradley is shot to death.

   As usual the suspect list is a long one: Robert Gregory, his rapacious wife, the lover who was in bed with old Gregory’s granddaughter when her husband shot her, and even the husband himself, whom Bradley had been dunning for an exorbitant fee. Barzun and Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME give away the murderer but I shall be kinder and quote only their last sentence: “The atmosphere of steady rain and glistening pavements suits the mood of night wandering, driving to nearby towns, and steady speculation aided by brandy and Beethoven’s piano works.”

***

   At the opening of BEGGAR’S CHOICE (1953) Bent is again disembarking from a train in a town that seems to be in the upper midwest although as usual Branson declines to name the state and mentions the town’s name, Fairfax, only once. Awaiting the detective is attorney Leo Murphy, brother of the county prosecutor, who has sent for Bent because of pervasive rumors that the recent death of aged local millionaire Augustus Lefever, apparently the result of a heart attack, was actually something more sinister.

   The principal beneficiaries of Lefever’s estate are his niece Irene Miller, long a resident of Fairfax, and a young grandnephew from California who happened to be visiting at the time of the old man’s death, but Bent doesn’t rule out the possibility that the murderer, assuming there is one, is an outside party whose motive was to enrich one or the other beneficiary.

   Not much happens besides speculation until some attempts are made on the life of the young woman who’s engaged to the grandnephew. As usual the guilty party never has to face a judge and jury. Although the last couple of paragraphs, describing the murderer’s fate, are strictly out of the blue, Tony Boucher in his New York Times review (21 June 1953) praised the book’s “fine tragic denouement.”

***

    As we’ve seen, opinions about Branson are divided. On the positive side we find not only Don Yates and Ross Macdonald, whom Branson had befriended when all three lived in Ann Arbor, but critics like Tony Boucher who probably never met him. In his final discussion of the novels Boucher called them “….so meticulous in detection and so subtly revealing of human character that they rank high among connoisseurs’ delights….” and commended their “sensitive, courageous, adroit, perspicacious probing….”

   On the other side we find Bill Pronzini, who found the books too “detached and emotionless” for his taste. After re-reading all seven novels in chronological order over a month or so, I’d venture the opinion that anyone with an interest in what is now commonly called Golden Age detection will find Branson an off-trail author well worth more attention than he’s received. Quirks, gaffes and all.

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


   Three months ago, while writing the column in which I said farewell to my old friend Don Yates, I hinted that one of these days I hoped to devote some attention to H.C. Branson, who lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan and befriended Don when he was growing up in that city. The time has come to realize that hope.

   Henry Clay Branson (1904-1981) was born in Battle Creek, Michigan. He read the Sherlock Holmes stories as a boy, was educated at Princeton and the University of Michigan, and spent a few years in Paris and elsewhere in Europe, reading Philo Vance novels and trying without success to become an expatriate literary figure, before he settled in Ann Arbor.

   According to Don’s entry on him in 20th CENTURY CRIME AND MYSTERY WRITERS (3rd ed. 1991), he “was one of the most familiar of card-holders at the Ann Arbor Public Library, where he withdrew and consumed hundreds of mystery stories.” Whether he was independently wealthy or had a day job I haven’t been able to determine. Once a highly regarded and fairly prominent detective novelist, he’s remembered today, if at all, for having also befriended a young academic born Kenneth Millar but best known as Ross Macdonald.

   According to Tom Nolan’s 1999 biography, Macdonald and Branson remained in touch and exchanged letters regularly until Branson’s death, two years before Macdonald’s own. Our concern here however is not with Macdonald, who’s been the subject of a number of books, but with Branson’s seven detective novels, published between 1941 and 1953 and featuring a bearded, sophisticated former physician and free-lance criminal investigator named John Bent.

   The character never made it to the movies but if he had, for my money the ideal actor to play him would have been Vincent Price—not as he looked in the Forties and early Fifties when the novels first came out but the more mature Price, before he descended into hamminess and schlock horror pictures.

   As we’ll see shortly, Anthony Boucher reviewed most of Branson’s whodunits, first for the San Francisco Chronicle and later for the New York Times, and always praised them to the skies. On whether they’re worth reading and reviving today, opinions differ. Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME (2nd ed. 1989) have positive things to say about all seven. William Deeck concurs in his reviews of several Branson titles for Mystery*File. But Bill Pronzini in 1001 MIDNIGHTS (1986) is nowhere near so enthusiastic, saying: “Branson wrote literate, meticulously plotted (but flawed) novels in which the emphasis is on deep-seated conflicts that have their roots in the dark past.”

   Might the later Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald, whom Branson had befriended when both men lived in Ann Arbor, owe their emphasis on the same kinds of conflicts to Branson’s books of the Forties? Perhaps, says Pronzini, but he leaves no doubt about which of the two authors is superior. “There’s a good deal of passion among the characters [but] Bent is a virtual cipher….The writing, while well crafted, is so detached and emotionless that the reader tends to lose interest….Had Branson…been able to make Bent more human and sympathetic, had he injected some passion and vividness into his work, he might have become an important figure in the mystery field.”

   Branson had no desire to explore a different setting in every novel, but on the other hand he couldn’t allow his master criminologist to keep returning to the same part of Michigan in every case. That, said Don Yates, is why “[o]ne is never precisely sure where the action [in a particular novel] is taking place. In his mind, Branson sees all of his stories laid out in and around Battle Creek, Jackson, and Kalamazoo, Michigan.” Sometimes however, as we’ll see, he unintentionally indicates a setting that can’t possibly be the area around Ann Arbor.

   The Branson septet contains certain family resemblances which some might call gaffes and others quirks. The off-trail clues we might have expected from reading early Ellery Queen and writers like Anthony Boucher who were strongly influenced by Queen are conspicuous by their absence, replaced by lengthy speculations about possibilities. The word “perfectly” recurs almost as often as does “replied” in the novels of John Rhode/Miles Burton.

   A host of other characters, sometimes two in the same book, happen to share Bent’s first name. Bent and virtually every other character except the occasional child consume huge quantities of liquor and tobacco. They also smile incessantly, and shrug their shoulders. (That latter phrase always irritated Fred Dannay. “What else can they shrug?” he’d demand to know.) Any music played in the course of a Branson novel is invariably classical chamber music — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, most of the household names — and there are some nice incidental scenes involving the 78 rpm sets on which such music was bought and played in people’s homes 70-odd years ago.

   The murderer almost invariably escapes facing a judge and jury, either because he (or she) commits suicide, dies accidentally, or is killed in turn. Each of these resemblances pops up several times as we make our way through the seven novels.

***

   The first pages of I’LL EAT YOU LAST (1941) find Bent driving around the shore of beautiful Lake Badenoch on his way to the area’s Toad Hall, the home of former Senator James Maitland, who is a toad of the first water, having amassed in his decades in the seats of power a fortune of between 50 and 55 million dollars. (In today’s money that would probably make him a billionaire.)

   Maitland has sent for the great investigator because several of his closest relatives — first his sister and her entire family, then his brother, most recently his much younger and promiscuous wife — have suffered apparently accidental deaths within a few months of each other. The old senator has come to be afraid that at least some of the deaths may be part of an elaborate scheme to channel his fortune in certain directions, and that he’s next on the death list.

   Events prove him a true prophet: on the evening of Bent’s arrival, Maitland is fatally shot by a slug from a .22 rifle fired through the window of his lordly library. Bent is a total outsider, but thanks to his reputation as a criminologist he immediately becomes unofficial head of the police team assigned to the murder; another family resemblance in Branson’s novels.

   Among the suspects are Maitland’s few surviving relatives — his intellectual nephew, his distant cousin and factotum, the daughter of a predeceased cousin — and various non-relatives like the odious college president and the members of a fanatical religious cult whose Vatican City is adjacent to the Maitland property. Bent spends most of his time drinking, smoking, and teasing out various possibilities without benefit of substantive clues. Unfortunately the labyrinthine plot he exposes at the climax is vitiated by a radical mistake of law which any interested reader who doesn’t mind my revealing who done it can learn about by clicking here.

***

   At the end of the first chapter of THE PRICKING THUMB (1942) we are told that the date is Monday, November 24. This is irrelevant to the plot but is still significant for two reasons. First, on the reasonable assumption that the year is 1941, we are less than two weeks away from Sunday, December 7, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. You’ll find no hint of that earth-shaking event anywhere in the novel.

   Second, the Thursday following the 24th has to be Thanksgiving Day, although Branson treats it as a day just like any other, with nobody even having a turkey dinner. Late in the afternoon of the 24th Bent in his home city receives a visit from old friend Marina Holland, whose much older husband Gouvion has been suffering from some strange illness and has recently had a violent argument with his 20-year-old son by his first marriage.

   The next evening Bent drives from his never identified home base to the town of New Paget and discovers Gouvion shot to death in his study, apparently a suicide. Gouvion’s younger brother arrives at the Holland house and announces that he’s just come from the nearby home of Dr. Brian Calvert, the Holland family physician, with whom according to local gossip Marina was having an affair, and found two more dead bodies: that of Dr. Calvert and Marina herself.

   Apparently Gouvion had shot the other two, then returned to his house and taken his own life. Bent isn’t satisfied and, as is his wont, commandeers the local authorities and takes over the investigation. There are virtually no tangible clues, which is pretty much par for the course in Branson, but by the end of the week Bent has exposed a particularly brutal murderer and scheme. Anthony Boucher left the verb out of the key sentence in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle (20 December 1942) but left no doubt that he was pleased: “Quietly convincing detective and unusually interesting murderer in a solid and rewarding work rare in the American mystery.”

         (To Be Continued)

COLLECTING PULPS: A Memoir
Part 21: Pulp Art, Part Three
by Walker Martin


   This is the third and last column on one of my favorite subjects: Pulp Art. The two prior installments may be read on Mystery*File as Part 19 and Part 20.

   Often I’m asked where can a collector buy pulp or paperback art? eBay is certainly a source and I have often typed in an artist’s name and looked to see what is available. Or I’ve tried different combinations of words on eBay such as Original Pulp Art, Cover Paintings, Paperback Paintings, etc. Another source that I’ve used are the auction houses such as Heritage Auctions. Or you can visit another art collector. They often have pieces that they would be willing to trade or sell. For instance I’ve bought art from such well known collectors as Bob Lesser, Doug Ellis, and Bob Weinberg. At the recent pulp brunch at my house in November, I bought several Bjorklund drawings from WILD WEST WEEKLY from art collector and dealer, Paul Herman. As I mentioned earlier, Matt Moring and I completed a trade involving 4 pulp paintings at the brunch.

   But one of the best sources for original art are the pulp conventions: Windy City in Chicago, PulpFest in Pittsburgh, and Pulp Adventurecon in Bordentown, NJ. Of the three shows I consider Windy City to be the best source for original pulp and paperback art. The convention lasts three days each year and there are perhaps as many as a dozen dealers with art for sale. Next, comes Pulpfest with two main art dealers: Doug Ellis and Craig Poole. Sometimes other book dealers bring in art: Nick Certo, Scott Hartshorn, Mark Hickman, Ray Walsh, etc. Pulp Adventurecon is usually about the books and magazines but this year Craig Poole had several tables with excellent pulp, digest, paperback and slick art. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

   Frankly, I collect art because I love collecting but if you are thinking of possible investment value, you can’t go wrong with original art as an investment. Of course I’m assuming you pick nice pieces and not poor art. For instance I have a painting from DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY that is just a bloody hand. Another from the same magazine, is just the face of some ugly criminal. It’s possible these paintings will never be worth anything except for a few hundred dollars, but since I collect pulp magazines, I was happy to buy them as examples of the poor cover art occasionally used by the magazines.

   As you may have noticed I have no problem with buying unframed art, art in poor condition, even art with holes in the canvas. I used to frame everything, but now I say the hell with it and hang them up as is. If a piece is falling apart, I have restored it, however. There are art restorers that work on paintings, in fact Matt Moring and I met a restorer at the Bordentown convention and he has emailed us several photos of excellent pulp art that he has worked on.

   An important thing to remember is to be sure and collect original art that you like. If you like SF, there is plenty out there. Hero pulp art is very popular but quite expensive. Same thing with risque or spicy art such as pinup art. Detective and mystery art has increased in value during the past few years. I can remember when you couldn’t get much of anything for a detective pulp painting. Western art still remains fairly inexpensive except for the big names like Nick Eggenhofer or Gayle Hoskins.

   Many collectors make the mistake of ignoring western art which is a big mistake. The cover paintings are full of action, very colorful, and inexpensive compared to SF, hero and detective pulp paintings. So far there is practically no interest in love or sport cover paintings. Not many collectors are interested in the love or sport magazines either. As a result we don’t see many covers at all from these two genres. It’s possible they have mostly been lost or destroyed due to this lack of interest.

   Here are some great examples of inexpensive pulp art. Most collectors don’t seem that interested in preliminary art but they can be quite stunning as these pieces show. Often such prelim work is very sketchy or not that well done but these two pieces by Delano and Baumhofer are almost finished enough to appear as covers. The two magazines show how the finished cover paintings turned out and you can see there is not a lot of difference between the preliminary work and the finished canvas. The Baumhofer one showing the cowboy on the ground is especially impressive as a preliminary sketch.





   Now here is an example of a preliminary by De Soto that is very sketchy and unfinished. There is no way this Spider prelim could be used as a cover as is. But it does give the editor an idea of what the artist planned to do with the large painting on canvas. As far as I know this sketch was never made into a finished painting. By the way, I have two SPIDER preliminaries and they are quite rare. Only a couple of the cover paintings are known to exist.


   This is one of the earliest cover paintings that I have. It’s from 1914 and the artist is Howard Hastings. He painted a lot for OUTDOOR LIFE and that type of magazine so maybe it is from a slick. I bought this from art dealer Steve Kennedy in 1989 for $700. During this period I could spend about $700 each month on art and much later Steve told me that my $700 each month was a life saver for his business at the time. He had just started to deal in pulp cover paintings, and no one except for me was buying from him. Too bad I couldn’t spend more than $700 each month because I lost out on some nice art that Steve sold later to other collectors.


   I got this one from Pulpcon in the eighties for only a couple hundred. I wonder how it got that hole in it? It’s FIFTEEN WESTERN TALES.


   This is one of my very favorite illustrations. It’s a great Nick Eggenhofer interior, probably for a two page spread. It shows two stage coaches passing each other and one looks ready to tip over. By the way, I haven’t located where this is from in case anyone can help me out. It may be WESTERN STORY or one of the western titles published by Popular Publications like DIME WESTERN or STAR WESTERN.


   This is PEOPLES from the early 1920’s and the artist is Wittmack. This is another painting I got from Kennedy when he was selling me one painting a month back in 1989. I never bothered to get it framed. Frankly I find that framing sometimes detracts from the painting. Steve liked to frame his paintings in a gold frame which I did not like much. And of course Bob Lesser habit of framing the pulp magazine inside with the painting, I found to be sacrilege and very annoying! But despite my many complaints over the years Bob continues this practice. As far as I know there is no museum, art gallery or art restorer that would frame the magazine under glass with the painting. After a few decades you would have a pile of pulp chips and a stain on the canvas.


   I love when I get this type of painting. It’s by Norman Saunders and was used on a pulp AND a paperback years later. It was first used on WESTERN ACES magazine in the 1940’s and then reused on the Ace Double titled GUNSMOKE GOLD in the 1950’s. One funny story about me buying this art. When I first saw it the dealer wanted $200 for it as a paperback cover. I stupidly looked closely and muttered that it was signed by Saunders and bang, the price went up right away to $400. Later I discovered it was also a pulp and this makes it worth far more than the $400 I had to pay.


–   Whatever happened to art dealer Tony Dispoto? I bought this from him and it’s a great piece by one of the best of the pulp artists. It’s a Flanagan from BLUE BOOK in the mid-1930’s illustrating a great adventure serial by James Francis Dwyer.


   This is a rare example of Walter Baumhofer’s early work. It’s from ADVENTURE in the mid-twenties and I got it at Windy City for only a couple hundred dollars.


   FIGHT STORIES by Gross. A pulp collecting brain surgeon was once visiting me and was interested in this because boxers often require such surgery.


   I love showing this painting to visitors. It’s 10 STORY WESTERN by De Soto and has over 20 pinholes punched through the canvas. In other words someone used it as a dart board! I’ll never get it restored because it shows just how little respect these paintings used to command back in the day. I’ve heard so many horror stories of cover paintings thrown away, lost, burnt, etc. Back when they were painted they were just about considered worthless.


   Author Ryerson Johnson once told me that he was an editor for a couple years for Popular Publications back in the forties. When he resigned to return to full time writing, he was shown into a large room full of paintings and illustrations and told to take what he wanted because it was all going to be thrown away eventually. He took several paintings and a couple large stacks of interior illustrations. Decades later he sold this art to me and other collectors.


   When I first bought this ADVENTURE cover, it was on a board that was spongy and soft. You could take off pieces of the board with two fingers. I thought it was just about worthless and ready for the garbage. But art restorers can do magical things and this painting was saved. It was somehow transferred to another board without any damage.


   This is another strange story. Collector Al Tonik had the paperback to this cover and decided to commission artist Rudi Nappi to paint it again as a recreation of the original painting. The artist did the recreation which is almost an exact copy for $100. But then later on I discovered the original paperback cover painting. So Al sold me the recreation to go along with the original cover painting. I now have both paintings, the original which was done in the 1950’s and the recreation which was done in the 1990’s or thereabout. Sometimes we think these old paintings are lost but they show up anyway!


   This is from BATTLE STORIES and I bought it from Illustration House in NYC. Notice how the magazine reversed the image. They did this sometimes to make room for the magazine title or cover blurbs.


   This is by the great Frank Paul and is from FAMOUS FANTASTIC MYSTERIES, one of my favorite magazines.


   This is FIGHTING ACES by Blakeslee. I got it from Bob Weinberg back in the 1980’s. He was just released from the hospital and needed money to pay his medical bills. He had over a dozen of these aviation paintings which he sold but I only bought two of them. I guess I was broke again!


   I also collect advertising posters which are pulp related. This is a poster advertising Street & Smith’s DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE.


   I have several paperback racks which I spent decades searching for. This is the first one I found and I had to trade a Clark Ashton Smith first edition to get it back in the 1970’s. Most collectors don’t realize how rare these things are. Someday after we are gone they will be worth a lot of money.


   An unusual night scene which must have happened to many cowboys. They hear a sound and reach for their gun. I got this one a couple years ago at the Bordentown convention and it’s from WESTERN STORY in the thirties. I saw the art dealer come through the door and I immediately ran up and asked the price. It was inexpensive so I bought it. But I had driven in with my old pal Digges and when I went to put it into the car there was absolutely no room. He had filled the entire car up with boxes of pulps. Fortunately my friend, Sai Shanker was visiting me the next day and he delivered it to me at my house. But we were so busy talking that he almost drove off to the airport with it still in his car.


   Well, that’s it, all you need to know about pulp art in three easy installments. Thank you Steve Lewis for publishing this and thank you Sai Shanker for taking the great photos. And finally thank you to all my art collecting friends over the many years. Many of you may no longer be with us, but you are not forgotten. After all we are just the temporary caretakers of our collections. Eventually we leave but the collections continue on!

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


   At the end of last month’s column we saw Simenon becoming a bit uncomfortable with having retired Maigret and deprived him of official status. His next published case, “L’Etoile du Nord” (Police-Film/Police Roman, 30 September 1938), takes place two or three days before he’s due to retire and features, of all people, Sergeant Lucas, who according to “Mademoiselle Berthe et son Amant,” published less than six months earlier, was killed beside him.

   Madame Maigret is already in Meung-sur-Loire, preparing their new home, and the Commissaire has spent the night cleaning out his office in the Quai des Orfèvres. Around dawn he hears the phone ringing in the office next to his, picks up the receiver and quickly finds himself going out in the rain and gloom to investigate a murder in the titular establishment, one of those “drab fourth-rate hotels” to be found near every major train station, in this case the Gare du Nord.

   The victim is Georges Bompard, a fortyish womanizer who rented a room from the hotel’s night porter around 3:30 A.M., two hours before someone entered the room (which apparently wasn’t locked) and stabbed him in the back. Prime suspect is a self-proclaimed prostitute in her late teens who claims to have picked up Bompard in the street and rented her own room in the Etoile du Nord shortly before her customer rented his. Maigret takes her back to Headquarters where there begins a tense confrontational interrogation of the young hooker, complete with seamy sexual stuff—the kid is made to stand naked with other whores picked up during the night—but also with clues of the sort we might expect to find in, say, the cross-examination of a hostile witness by Perry Mason.

   The story never appeared in EQMM—obviously because too many elements, including a botched abortion crucial to the plot, were not to Fred Dannay’s taste—and as far as I know its only appearance in English was in MAIGRET’S PIPE. Too bad. It’s one of the most intellectually challenging of the shorter Maigrets, and one could almost say that Simenon permits the astute reader to figure out the truth by pure reasoning.

***

   With “L’Auberge aux Noyés” (Police-Film/Police-Roman, 11 November 1938) Maigret is back in harness as if he’d never retired, although he’s not at the Quai des Orfèvres but in the town of Nemours on a business visit to the local captain of gendarmerie. A savage storm comes up and he spends the night at the house of Captain Tillemont, who receives a phone call at 6:00 A.M.—another of those damn early-morning phone calls!—and invites the Commissaire to accompany him to the site of a “curious accident” where the highway between Nemours and Montargis parallels the banks of the river Loing.

   There’s a curve in the road 700 meters from the Auberge des Pecheurs, which means the Fishermen’s Inn but is locally known as the Inn of the Drowned (the story’s French title) because of several fatal accidents at the curve. Now there seems to have been another. “A ten-ton lorry, one of those stinking monsters that travel by day and by night along main roads,” has hit a car stalled at the curve with its lights off. The car went over the bank into the swollen Loing but no one knows what happened to the young couple who were apparently inside.

   When the auto is pulled out of the water, somehow the door of the luggage compartment comes open and reveals the body of a middle-aged woman, her throat cut by a razor. With the Auberge aux Noyés as his headquarters Maigret takes an unofficial hand in the investigation and soon finds reason to believe that things aren’t what they seem. That evening, under weather conditions equally miserable, he sets up a reconstruction of the event as only he can.

   It’s an excellent story, perhaps more cerebral than emotional, although there are too many unseen but crucial characters and too much happens too quickly at the climax. I wish Simenon had taken a few thousand extra words for this one, which appeared in EQMM for January 1975 as “The Inn of the Drowned” and in MAIGRET’S PIPE as “The Drowned Men’s Inn.”

***

   Perhaps the most popular of the Maigret short stories, at least in this country, is “Stan-le-Tueur” (Police-Roman, 23 December 1938). It’s the earliest short Maigret to appear in English, translated by Anthony Boucher (EQMM, September 1949), and was collected both in THE SHORT CASES OF INSPECTOR MAIGRET (1959, Boucher’s translation) and in MAIGRET’S PIPE (1977, translated by Jean Stewart). Its title all three times was “Stan the Killer,” a literal translation of the French title.

   Simenon opens with Maigret and his men—including once again the supposedly deceased Sergeant Lucas—having staked out a shabby hotel which is being used as a hideout by between four and eight Polish criminals, a ruthless gang responsible for raids on several farmhouses and the slaughter of everyone inside including children. The gangsters are known only by the colorful nicknames the police have given them—the Beard, One-Eye, Spinach, the Fat Boy—and their leader, known as Stan the Killer, has sent a note to Maigret threatening to shoot down any number of innocent bystanders if an arrest is attempted.

   Into this powder keg steps Michel Ozep, a former Polish army officer with nothing to live for, who comes to Maigret and offers in effect to commit suicide by cop, taking Stan out in order to prevent bloodshed even if it means his own life. At the climax Maigret sends Ozep into the Hôtel Beauséjour to confront the young Polish woman who runs with the gang, and the results are violent and tragic.

   In some respects the two English translations of this story differ wildly, and we must try to account for the differences. In Boucher’s version Maigret from a hotel room across the street from the gang’s hideout observes the young woman “dusting the frame of a bright-colored picture on the wall.” On entering the room he discovers that the picture is a portrait of the woman herself, who’s lying on the floor with her throat cut. He pulls down the picture and finds from the lettering on the back that it’s an illustration accompanying an article entitled “The Pretty Pole and the Terror of Terre Haute” from the American true crime magazine Real Life Detective Cases.

   Except for the woman’s throat being cut, there’s not a word of this in Jean Stewart’s later translation. Did Stewart omit it or did Boucher invent it? I strongly suspect the latter. As we’ve seen in earlier columns, Boucher did have a tendency to translate very freely at times. Besides, the American details suggest Boucher because they seem to ring true—and also to be way beyond Simenon, who in the Thirties knew less than nothing about the U.S., so much so that in the Stewart version (and presumably the French original) Maigret and Lucas “drew aside the [dead] woman’s dress and uncovered white flesh on which was the mark with which, in America, they brand criminal women.”

   From what benighted source did Simenon unearth that tidbit? And should we be surprised that Boucher thought it necessary to get rid of it and substitute his own account of how the French police learned of the woman’s American criminal background?

   Within less than a year of the story’s appearance in EQMM it became the basis of a 60-minute live TV drama (THE TRAP, CBS, 20 May 1950), starring E.G. Marshall and Herbert Berghof, although which actor played Maigret seems to be lost to history. A little more than two years later the story was recycled for CBS’ STUDIO ONE SUMMER THEATER (1 September 1952), this time with Romney Brent and Eli Wallach in the leading roles although once again we don’t know which man played Maigret. Paul Nickell directed from a teleplay by Paul Monash, whose script was likely used also in the version seen on THE TRAP considering that the adaptations were broadcast on the same network so close together. In view of the infant medium’s infantile restrictions I find it hard to believe that either TV version came close to doing justice to Simenon’s story.

***

   In “La Vieille Dame de Bayeux” (Police-Roman, 3 February 1939) we find Maigret transferred to Normandy and based temporarily in Caen, where he’s been assigned to reorganize the Brigade Mobile, the French counterpart of England’s Flying Squad. There he’s visited by 28-year-old Mlle. Cécile Ledru, the paid companion to wealthy widow Joséphine Croizier, with whom Cécile lives in Bayeux, a half-hour from Caen.

   While on a visit to Caen for dental work and staying in the palatial home of her nephew and heir Philippe Deligeard, the older woman suffered a fatal heart attack. More than one doctor has certified the nature of Joséphine’s death but Cécile is convinced that her benefactress was murdered and insists that Maigret investigate. The result is a fascinating but almost completely cerebral story, so arranged that most readers will be able to figure out the gist of the plot but can’t possibly know the details until Simenon reveals them.

   This story too was translated twice, by Boucher for EQMM (August 1952) and the SHORT CASES collection and by Jean Stewart for MAIGRET’S PIPE, the title all three times being “The Old Lady of Bayeux.” Once again there are differences between the translations but they’re not as consequential as those between the two versions of “Stan the Killer.”

   According to Boucher, Cécile tells Maigret: “I was an orphan, and I started out in life, at the age of fifteen, as a maid of all work. I was still wearing pigtails, and I didn’t know how to read or write.” Stewart renders this passage: “I was an orphan, and my first job was as a maid of all work. I was only fifteen, with my hair still down my back, and I couldn’t read or write….”

   Close enough, yes? The other variations are no more important than this one. The strangest detail in the story is common to both translations and therefore almost certainly Simenon’s: Cécile tells Maigret that she knows she takes nothing under Mme. Croizier’s will because “I drew up the will myself….” Neat trick for someone who isn’t a notaire!

   This story too was adapted for live TV in the medium’s infant years. “The Old Lady of Bayeux” (SUSPENSE, CBS, 2 September 1952, 30 minutes) was directed by Robert Stevens from a teleplay by Halsted Welles. This time we know who played Maigret. It was Mexican-born Luis Van Rooten (1906-1973), one of the best known actors of radio’s golden age, who indeed appeared on THE ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN and was the subject of an encomium by Queen co-creator and radio supervisor Manfred B. Lee.

   In a letter of 1 August 1946 to Tony Boucher, who was collaborating with Manny on Queen scripts while also translating Simenon, Jorge Luis Borges and others for EQMM, Manny called Van Rooten “a little bald-headed guy who for my money is one of the great radio actors….A terrific performer. You simply can’t believe that a voice like that can come from a guy so small.”

   Anyone who’d like to travel back in time and see Van Rooten playing Maigret is in rare luck: this particular episode of SUSPENSE happens to be accessible on YouTube. Featured in the cast are Edgar Stehli (Philippe Deligeard) and Nicole Stéphan (Cécile). There’s more suspense in the SUSPENSE version than in Simenon’s story, but for my money Van Rooten with his bald pate and neat little mustache evokes Poirot rather than the heavy-set titan of the Quai des Orfèvres.

***

   The last Maigret story to be written and published before the outbreak of World War II was “L’Amoureux de Madame Maigret (Police-Roman, 28 July 1939), which appeared in EQMM (“The Stronger Vessel,” January 1952, translated by Boucher) but didn’t show up in a collection until MAIGRET’S PIPE (1977, translated by Jean Stewart).

   Here but to the best of my knowledge in no other novel or story, the Maigrets’ home is an apartment in the Place de Vosges, where Simenon and his first wife in fact lived from 1924 until the early Thirties. Madame Maigret notices a strange old man in a dandified outfit sitting motionless in the park below her window for hours on end and mentions the matter to her husband, who playfully suggests she has an admirer (the amoureux of the title).

   One summer evening Maigret goes down to talk to the old man and finds him shot to death, apparently from a window of the apartment house looking down on the park. It quickly becomes apparent that the “old dandy” was a young man wearing a wig and false mustache, but why he spent hours every day sitting on that park bench remains a mystery.

   Then one of Maigret’s neighbors reports that his maid has vanished, along with his wife’s jewelry. Madame Maigret herself takes something of a hand in the investigation, which establishes that the two matters are of course connected, but the denouement reveals a spy vs. spy intrigue with the countries carefully unspecified, appropriate for the time but not very exciting, and Maigret is ordered to drop the case.

   As Fred Dannay pointed out in his introduction to the EQMM translation, the first English-language title is based on a Biblical verse (“giving honour unto the wife as unto the weaker vessel,” 1 Peter iii, 7). Almost certainly the title came from Boucher, who knew his Bible well.

   As with some of the earlier tales in the series, comparison of the two translations yields some interesting results. In Boucher’s version, examination of the murdered man’s clothes reveals “a sizable quantity of very fine flour—not pure, but mixed with traces of bran….” The bran indicates a mill rather than a bakery, but what would the dead man be doing in a mill?

   The question is answered at the end when, in Boucher’s words, we learn that he lived “at Corbeil, near the mills.” Jean Stewart bungles the translation when she locates the man’s home “at Corbeil, near Moulins….” Moulin means mill, but if the French word refers to a place not a physical mill, the flour-and-bran dust in the dead man’s clothes remains unaccounted for.

***

   “L’Amoureux” was the last story in which Maigret appeared for almost three years. He was next seen in MAIGRET REVIENT, a volume consisting of three new novels, published by Gallimard in 1942 but written during the earlier years of war and ocupation: LES CAVES DU MAJESTIC late in 1939, LE MAISON DU JUGE and CÉCILE EST MORTE in 1940. In 1944, still under Nazi occupation, Gallimard published another omnibus of original novels, SIGNÉ PICPUS, which consisted of the title book (written in 1941) plus FÉLICIE EST LA (from May 1942) and L’INSPECTEUR CADAVRE (from March 1943), plus an assortment of non-series short stories dating from 1937-38.

   The same year saw publication by Gallimard of LES NOUVELLES ENQUÊTES DE MAIGRET, which brought together all the short stories discussed here and in earlier columns. Three new Maigret shorts, including one never officially translated into English, also came out during the dark years.

   These works, all of which seem to have embodied Simenon’s “contract with France” to say not a word hinting that the country was under German control, are best discussed in another column at another time. This one is far too long already.

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


   A few columns ago I spent some space on the earliest Maigret short stories, written by Georges Simenon in a single month and published in the French weekly magazine Paris-Soir-Dimanche between October 1936 and January 1937. This time we take a look at some of the slightly later and somewhat longer tales about the titan of the Quai des Orfèvres, including two that have never been published in English. Not in print anyway.

   After a hiatus of a bit more than a year, the second series of Maigret stories began to appear on a monthly basis in the interconnected weeklies Police-Film, Police-Roman, and Police-Film/Police-Roman. All were collected during the Nazi occupation period in LES NOUVELLES ENQUÊTES DE MAIGRET (Gallimard, 1944) except what I shall call the two outliers, which were included in later printings of the collection. The last three stories in the series first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1949 and 1952 and most of the others much later, in the early and middle 1970s. All but the two outliers were included in the collection MAIGRET’S PIPE (1977).

   Of the ten stories in the series the earliest to be published in French was “Mademoiselle Berthe et son Amant” (Police-Film, 29 April 1938), which appeared in EQMM for April 1973 as “Maigret and the Frightened Dressmaker” and in MAIGRET’S PIPE under its proper title, which I assume any reader of this column can figure out. Maigret has retired and is happily cultivating his garden at his villa in Meung-sur-Loire when he receives an anonymous letter from a woman claiming to be the niece of a Police Judiciaire colleague of his who was killed by his side. (Later this colleague is identified as Sergeant Lucas, but as far as I can tell, no fellow cop has ever been killed by Maigret’s side, least of all Lucas, who appears several times after this story, including in one of the ten tales in this series.)

   Maigret travels to Paris, meets Mlle. Berthe on the terrace of Montmartre’s Café de Madrid, and discovers that she’s the lover of one of four young men who robbed a radio store in the boulevard Beaumarchais and killed a cop during their getaway. That young man, now a fugitive, has sent Berthe some letters threatening to kill her if she doesn’t abandon her work as a free-lance dressmaker and join him on the run.

   Maigret takes a room in a hotel facing Berthe’s apartment and starts to keep watch. In a neighborhood bistro known as the Zanzi-Bar he meets Berthe’s brother, a young hoodlum called P’tit Louis, who’s been following her. (There are countless Simenon underworld characters known by that name, which some translators leave as is and others, like Jean Stewart in this story, render as Louis the Kid.) Later Berthe is attacked in her apartment, but Maigret sees through what has been going on—though the reader who can do likewise is as rare as a toad with wings—and magnanimously allows the dressmaker and her Albert to escape.

   “Tempête sur la Manche” (Police-Film, 20 May 1938; published both in EQMM for December 1978 and in MAIGRET’S PIPE as “Storm in the Channel”) seems almost like a full-length Maigret in miniature, complete with the vivid atmospheric touches one always encounters in Simenon novels. The Commissaire has been retired for three months and he and Mme. Maigret are in the harbor city of Dieppe, awaiting the Channel boat that will take them to a vacation in England.

   But the harbor is shut down by the titular storm and the Maigrets take shelter in a quayside boardinghouse. When one of the maids in that establishment is shot down on the deserted rue de la Digue on the way back from carrying a boarder’s luggage to a Channel boat about to brave the storm and make for Newhaven, Maigret tries to keep his identity a secret but soon finds himself helping the local police identify the murderer, who seems clearly to have been one of the boarders.

   The central clue is a series of numbers written on a back of a boardinghouse menu card, but not one reader in a million will be able to decipher the figures although Mme. Maigret grasps their meaning in an instant. The story implausibly ends with the police beating a confession out of the murderer—not at Headquarters, which would be credible enough, but in the boardinghouse front room.

   Next came “Le Notaire de Châteauneuf” (Police-Film/Police- Roman, 17 June 1938), which was translated in EQMM for March 1972 as “Maigret and the Missing Miniatures,” the same translation appearing in MAIGRET’S PIPE as “The Three Daughters of the Lawyer.”

   Maigret, still retired, is puttering around his garden, “in a patch of tomatoes so ripe that they dropped to the ground and spilled their scarlet juice,” when he receives an unexpected visitor named Motte, a notaire from Châteauneuf, some 40 kilometers from Meung-sur-Loire. One of Motte’s three daughters, 19-year-old Armande, is engaged to a poor but handsome young man who aspires to be an artist. Motte is also a collector of “carved and engraved ivories,” several of which have disappeared from his study.

   The prime suspect is his soon to be son-in-law, whose father is a notorious international thief, but Motte’s chief clerk, who wants Armande for himself, might have taken the ivories in order to discredit his rival the aspiring artist. Then of course there are Motte’s three daughters, and his all-but-invisible wife, and Motte himself.

   This turns out to be one of those Maigrets in which there’s no crime but only what we might call a domestic entanglement. It’s a bright and springlike tale, but it must have convinced Simenon that as long as he kept Maigret retired and without authority, he’d be pretty much confined to unexciting cases like this one.

   He overcame this challenge, in part at least, with the next month’s tale, “L’improbable Monsieur Owen” (Police-Roman, 15 July 1938), which has never been officially published in English but can be read and downloaded on the Web simply by googling the title.

   When Mme. Maigret is summoned to Quimper to care for a dying aunt, the former Commissaire heads south to Cannes at the invitation of an old friend, nominally the porter at the palatial Hôtel Excelsior, who seems to have the clout to treat Maigret to a luxury suite indefinitely at no charge. His enjoyment of the high life is interrupted when his benefactor knocks on his door and reports some strange goings-on in the hotel.

   A young man no one has ever seen before has been found naked and drowned in the tub of a suite in which resides a well-to-do Swede with the most un-Swedish name of Owen who meanwhile has vanished, leaving all his clothes and possessions behind. An empty whiskey bottle is found which didn’t come from the hotel but Owen’s lovely French nurse has also vanished.

   It almost sounds like an Ellery Queen puzzle but Maigret refuses to become involved, although he gets sucked in before he knows it. The highlight of the story is the exceptionally strong interrogation scene in the final pages, but Simenon never bothers to explain what the grand scheme underlying the events was all about, let alone how it could have been profitable enough to justify the carload of francs it must have cost. How that whiskey bottle figured in the plot likewise gets dropped down the memory hole. Quel dommage. This story had potential that Simenon let go to waste.

   In “Ceux du Grand Café” (Police-Film/Police-Roman, 12 August 1938) the Maigrets are back in Meung-sur-Loire and the bored former Commissaire has taken to spending his afternoons drinking at the local bistro and playing cards with the other town characters, who are never referred to by their names but only as the butcher, the mechanic (a.k.a. Citroën), the blacksmith and the veterinarian, who also happens to be the mayor.

   The only parties besides Maigret who have names are Urbain, the proprietor of the Grand Café, and the barmaid Angèle, whose “blouse is particularly well filled.” One afternoon the butcher is found shot to death at the edge of town shortly after displaying to his fellow Grand Café habitués a wallet apparently filled with 1000-franc notes which are now missing.

   Maigret is begged to step in by the mayor and every other dignitary in town but adamantly refuses until events force his hand. This tale, which has a much thinner plot than “Monsieur Owen,” can also be accessed on the Web by googling the title.

         (To be continued.)

Next Page »