Columns


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


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

MIKE NEVINS

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

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

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

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

MIKE NEVINS

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

MIKE NEVINS

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIKE NEVINS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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


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

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

***

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

Mike Nevins

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

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

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

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

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

***

Mike Nevins

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

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

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

***

Mike Nevins

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

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

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

***

Mike Nevins

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

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

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

***

Mike Nevins

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

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

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

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

THE SERIES CHARACTERS FROM
DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY
by Monte Herridge


        #17. OLD CALAMITY, by Joseph Fulling Fishman.

   Joseph Fulling Fishman created the prison series (ran 1928-1939) for Detective Fiction Weekly about the jailer Old Calamity, making use of his knowledge of crime and prisons. In fact, Fishman wrote more nonfiction articles on these subjects from 1925-1942 for Detective Fiction Weekly than stories in the fiction series.

   He also wrote articles for other magazines such as Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post, and books about crime and prisons. Fishman was a 1931 choice for a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was awarded a grant for being chosen. According to Wikipedia, the Fellowships “have been awarded annually since 1925 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those ‘who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.’ ”

   The name Old Calamity is what the three thousand inmates of the state prison at Cosmopolis call him. The guards and other personnel call him Ole Dep Fletch out of his hearing. His real name is Deputy Warden Fletcher, and even though there is a warden who is a political appointee, Fletcher is really the one running the prison.

   The wardens of the prison were all political appointees, but Fletcher was a professional jailer. The wardens were appointed by the state governor, but the governor on one occasion said: “You know, Fletcher. You’re really the one I should appoint warden, but of course there’s politics . . .” (Old Calamity’s Stick-up)

   “Thirty years of combating the plots and counterplots and the intrigues and chicanery of thousands of inmates of every degree of criminality and cunning and viciousness . . . had sharpened the perceptions of the Deputy Warden.” (Old Calamity Starts a Fight)

   This long experience gave Old Calamity an advantage when dealing with the many problems that he came across in his job. He knew just about every trick the convicts tried, and how to deal with them. He enjoys his work, and at one point turns down a job offer from a rich businessman with the comment “I’m afraid not, thank you,” Old Calamity replied. “I’m doing the kind of work I like and that’s worth more than money.” (Old Calamity Sniffs a Clue)

OLD CALAMITY

   He usually went to work in the prison at seven in the morning, and had a regular routine except when emergencies or problems interrupted. His usual morning routine was “supervising the count, reading his mail, making assignments of new prisoners, and so on, . . .” (By a Nose)

   He doesn’t let the routine of everyday work get himself in a rut where he overlooks things; he notices the smallest detail of what may turn out to be very important to him and the prison. Probably why he has lasted so long in his job.

   The stories are basically all about Old Calamity, with very few appearances by a regular cast of characters. One regular is Croaker Engle, the “brusque old prison doctor.” His appearances in the stories are usually very short. Before him, a Doctor Cosgrove made a single appearance in the story “Fine Feathers.”

   The prison warden is mentioned in the stories, but plays very little part in the stories. An exception to this are the stories “Old Calamity Starts a Fight,” and “Between the Lines,” where part of the story takes place around the warden. The warden of the prison is replaced at one point in the series. The warden and Old Calamity both have homes right next to the prison grounds.

   The stories usually involve murder in the prison by inmates murdering other inmates, for various motives. Prison breaks and conspiracies aimed at escaping prison are also elements in the stories. Fletcher has to break up the escapes, which sometimes are very cleverly planned.

   In the story “Old Calamity Scores Twice,” he not only has to foil a planned escape, but solve a clever locked cell murder made to look like suicide. In “Between the Lines,” he literally has to read between the lines of a prisoner’s book reading material to discover a plot to escape using explosives.

OLD CALAMITY

   The earliest story in the series, “By a Nose,” involves uncovering a murder by bomb and finding the culprit. His investigations of various kinds involve him acting more as a detail-oriented detective than as a deputy warden.

   Another concern of prison authorities is the use of illegal drugs by the inmates. The story “Fine Feathers” relates the attempt of Old Calamity to stop the flow of drugs into the prison, and in a later story, “Old Calamity Starts a Fight,” the problem of drug usage is also the main theme. This is certainly based on situations in real prisons at the time. Morphine is the drug mentioned in these stories.

   “Fine Feathers” relates some of the problems that drug usage by inmates causes – aggressiveness and fighting by prisoners, and other irrational behavior. One prisoner high on drugs even set his cell on fire.

   One story showed Old Calamity on vacation, enjoying relaxing fishing. However, the local law enforcement find out he is there and enlist his aid in solving a series of inexplicable burglaries. (Old Calamity Sniffs a Clue)

   This use of Old Calamity’s talents outside his own prison was not the only time this occurred. It appears that he was available for aid at other prisons having problems. In the story “The Suicides in Cell 32,” he travels to Milford State Prison to help investigate a series of murders made to look like suicides.

OLD CALAMITY

   Warden Olmstead of the prison knew of his reputation and had requested his help. In less than twelve hours Old Calamity has solved the mystery and was on his way back to his own prison. He noted: “I guess that some of the birds up at my place will be sorry it didn’t take me several weeks. I’m afraid they won’t be any too glad to see me back in the morning.”

   In “Old Calamity Lays the Ghost,” he travels to another prison in Springdale in response to another request for help. Warden Armitage of the prison has a mystery for him to solve: twice men in their cells have been stabbed and nearly killed. In both instances knives were found in the cells, but no evidence was found as to how the men could have been stabbed inside of locked cells.

   Old Calamity finds an ingenious method has been employed in the stabbings. It took him a few days to resolve this one, but he had developed the patience to wait for the right time. “He had often waited weeks and sometimes months for the development of a prison plot. He knew it was something that could not be hurried, . . .”

   The series is very good in its story telling and relation of the various mysteries Old Calamity is involved in. Altogether, Fishman’s descriptions of prison life and the psychological aspects of the stories seem to be very convincing, and made the stories more than mere sensationalistic prison stories such as other pulp writers wrote.

       The “Old Calamity” series by Joseph Fulling Fishman:

By a Nose October 27, 1928
Fine Feathers February 2, 1929
The Yawn March 2, 1929
Old Calamity Stages an Act April 6, 1929
Old Calamity Lays the Ghost April 9, 1932
Old Calamity Holds the Wire July 23, 1932
Old Calamity Starts a Fight September 17, 1932
Old Calamity Scores Twice February 11, 1933
The Suicides in Cell Thirty-Two June 17, 1933
Between the Lines September 9, 1933
Old Calamity Sniffs a Clue April 7, 1934
Old Calamity Cleans Up May 19, 1934
Old Calamity’s Stick-up June 23, 1934
Old Calamity Stops a Leak June 5, 1937
Honor of Thieves March 18, 1939

    Previously in this series:

1. SHAMUS MAGUIRE, by Stanley Day.
2. HAPPY McGONIGLE, by Paul Allenby.
3. ARTY BEELE, by Ruth & Alexander Wilson.
4. COLIN HAIG, by H. Bedford-Jones.
5. SECRET AGENT GEORGE DEVRITE, by Tom Curry.
6. BATTLE McKIM, by Edward Parrish Ware.
7. TUG NORTON by Edward Parrish Ware.
8. CANDID JONES by Richard Sale.
9. THE PATENT LEATHER KID, by Erle Stanley Gardner.
10. OSCAR VAN DUYVEN & PIERRE LEMASSE, by Robert Brennan.
11. INSPECTOR FRAYNE, by Harold de Polo.
12. INDIAN JOHN SEATTLE, by Charles Alexander.
13. HUGO OAKES, LAWYER-DETECTIVE, by J. Lane Linklater.
14. HANIGAN & IRVING, by Roger Torrey.
15. SENOR ARNAZ DE LOBO, by Erle Stanley Gardner.
16. DETECTIVE X. CROOK, by J. Jefferson Farjeon.

COLLECTING PULPS: A MEMOIR, PART TEN –
What To Do With Our Collections As We Get Older
by Walker Martin


   Recently, once again, the old question came up about why wives often hate book and pulp collections and what should be done as the collector gets older.

   I can only speak about my own wife and collection but I have heard that many other pulp and book collectors suffer from the hatred of the non-collector. I stress the word “non-collector” because I really have found out during a half century of collecting that the non-collector does not understand the collector at all. I am not talking about a nice little collection of books in dust jackets that sort of look nice in the den.

   No, I am talking about filling a house full of books, pulps, vintage paperbacks, DVDs, and original art. My house is a 5 bedroom house with a full basement and a two car garage that I converted into a library. All the rooms have books in them except for my son’s room and the dining room. The family room, the living room, the bedrooms, the basement, are all stuffed with my collection which I have happily accumulated since 1956.

   I have found out that it is not reasonable to expect a non-collector to understand the joy and fun such a collection gives to the collector. Most non-collectors see such a large collection as clutter, a hoarder’s sickness, a mess, a waste of money.

   If you tell a non-collector that something is worth a thousand dollars, they will say “great, sell it and buy a sofa” or something. I once did a series of posts on PulpMags called “The Loneliness of the Pulp Collector.” I tried to do it with a sense of humor but many other collectors saw my point about being alone with no one to talk to about what you are reading or collecting. My neighbors, my relatives, my co workers, all do not understand me or why I have such a large amount of books and pulps. They think my original cover paintings from the pulps and paperbacks are trash or offensive because most show women in peril or distress being threatened by insane cretins.

   I am now 71 and don’t think about getting rid of my collection or selling it or what will happen after I’m gone. It’s been my life for so many years that I cannot imagine being without it. I keep telling myself that I should slow down and maybe stop but I’m still going strong and spending thousands on rare cover art and sets of magazines. I’m not rich but my one vice is I love reading and collecting books and pulps.

   To give you an idea of the way I think as a collector, when I was discharged from the army I was so happy that I had survived, that I wrote out some life goals for myself to follow. The first two were to collect complete sets of Weird Tales and Black Mask. Which I managed to do in the 1970′s. In other words my goals were not the usual ones of getting a good job and starting a career, getting married and starting a family, buying a nice car house, etc.

   True, I did all these things but my main goals have always revolved around reading and collecting books, pulps, paperbacks, and original art. Speaking of original art, I’ve been trying to stop buying it because I’ve filled up all the wall space and since I’m getting older, why keep buying, etc. But here is another example, recently while at the Windy City Pulp convention in Chicago I saw a beautiful and amazing piece of art, quite large, by Howard Wandrei. It is an unpublished work and cost more than I like to spend but it was so impressive and bizarre that I had to buy it.

   Maybe you get my point by now. I’m a collector first and foremost and intend to keep at it until I die. I also happen to be a father, husband, retired from a responsible job, etc. But these are things that billions of other people have also done. Being a collector and reader is something special and unusual especially in these times of electronic gadgets, facebook, and twitter.

   So, right now I’m doing nothing about my books except reading them. After I’m gone someone else will read and enjoy them.

   OK, enough, I have to tell my wife that I just bought another set of Planet Stories, even though I have the Frank Robinson set already. See, his set is too nice to read and ….

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


   During the late Sixties and early Seventies I seem to have developed the habit of reading, and writing up for my eyes only, a number of first mystery novels (either for an author or a byline) that for the most part I admired. Restricting myself to books by dead Americans that were first published under pseudonyms never seen before, I venture to cobble together my end-of-year column out of this ancient raw material.

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MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   The year before Davis Dresser (1904-1977) began using the name of Brett Halliday for his endlessly running Michael Shayne private eye series, he created a byline all but unknown today to chronicle the cases — all two of them — of Jerry Burke, an El Paso police administrator who favors brainwork over PI tactics.

   In MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER, as by Asa Baker (Stokes, 1938), his adversary is a serial-killer who advertises in the local paper, daring Burke to stop him. After three apparently unconnected murders our hero comes up with a neat solution which is also found in at least three later crime novels much more familiar to readers than this one. (I’d be a toad if I revealed their titles or authors.)

   Occasional realistic insights into poverty, anti-Mexican racism and literary amateurs make up for the ill-informed excursions into law and psychoanalysis. That the book Burke’s Watson is trying to write turns out to be the book we’re reading adds a Pirandelloesque fillip to a fine fast-moving unpretentious novel, which of course was reprinted as by Brett Halliday after that name had become a staple item in the genre.

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MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985) had been writing whodunits since 1935, first as George Bagby and then also under his own name. After wartime service as an Army cryptographer he launched a second pseudonym and a third series. THE CORPSE IN THE CORNER SALOON, as by Hampton Stone (Simon & Schuster, 1948), introduces Gibson and Mac, two investigators from the New York District Attorney’s office who get assigned to a case of apparent murder and suicide with grotesque sexual overtones.

   Along with a raft of suspects and some deftly juggled criminal possibilities we are offered knowing evocations of the postwar clothing business, the old-style saloon milieu, and the postwar apartment shortage. The solution is so nobly complicated that I shrugged off the few loose strands of plot and the sniggering tone of the sex passages as minor annoyances.

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MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   Elizabeth Linington (1921-1988) wrote whodunits under her own name and several pseudonyms, each book being written in about two weeks. In CASE PENDING, as by Dell Shannon (Harper, 1960), she introduced Lt. Luis Mendoza, an arrogant, amorous, brilliantly intuitive LAPD Homicide detective who senses, and almost succeeds in tracking down, the link between two unconnected female corpses each with one eye mutilated.

   Shannon interweaves the murder case with counterplots involving illegal adoption, the planned disposal of a blackmailer, a narcotics drop, and Mendoza’s pursuit of a bemused charm school instructor, but in every part of the book she irritates us by recording characters’ thoughts in the same monotonous ungrammatical shorthand they use when they speak.

   On the plus side she has a gift for probing agonized minds (a 13-year-old boy who knows too much, a petty civil servant plotting the perfect murder), for adopting at least some of the values of the strict detective novel, and for presenting an explicit atheistic viewpoint without pretentiousness or propagandizing.

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MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   Emma Lathen, the joint pseudonym of Mary Jane Latsis (1927-1997) and Martha Henissart (1929- ), first appeared on the spine of BANKING ON DEATH (Macmillan, 1961), in which John Putnam Thatcher, vice-president of a prestigious Wall Street bank, has to elucidate a murder problem with ramifications in New York City, Buffalo, Boston and Washington.

   The bank’s search for a missing trust fund beneficiary ends with the discovery that he’s been bludgeoned to death in the middle of a blizzard, and its duties as trustee require Thatcher to take a hand in the investigation.

   The characters and writing are nothing special but there are fine evocations of Wall Street, Brahmin elitism, and the curious behavior of airports during snowstorms, and the deductive puzzle is neatly constructed.

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MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   It certainly wasn’t his first novel, but KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH, as by Tucker Coe (Random House, 1966), introduced a new byline and a new series character for prolific Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008).

   A Syndicate boss who for obvious reasons can’t go to the police hires disgraced ex-cop Mitch Tobin to take a break from building a high wall around his house and find out who inside the “corporation” first seduced his lover and then murdered her.

   The trail to the truth is basically psychological and unmarked by incidents of violence. Tobin guesses right far too often and the killer turns out to be a walk-on part, but Coe deals skillfully with a variety of failed relationships and unsentimentally with the insight that professional criminals are no different from other successful American businessmen.

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MIKE NEVINS Reviews

   A DARK POWER, as by William Arden (Dodd Mead, 1968), was also not a debut novel except in the sense that, like KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH, it introduced a new byline and a new series character for its author, the equally prolific Dennis Lynds (1924-2005).

   Industrial spy Kane Jackson, who seems to have been modeled on Lee Marvin’s screen persona, is hired by a New Jersey pharmaceutical combine to recover a missing sample of a drug potentially worth millions. The trail leads through mazes of inter-office love affairs and power struggles and several bodies, some naked and others dead, come into view along the way.

   Arden meshes his counterplots with precision, draws several vivid characters trapped by their own ambitions in the jungle of high-level capitalism, and caps the story with a double surprise climax. The plot is resolved by clever guesswork but that’s the only weakness in this admirably tough-minded whodunit.

***

   I’ve just discovered on the Web that half of Emma Lathen seems to be still alive, which means that I haven’t completely restricted myself to the dead. But I also discovered, while combing through comments I first typed up on my trusty Olympia Portable almost half a century ago, that I have enough material for January 2014 if the seasonal blahs continue to get me down.

   Next time the subject will be American debut novels published under their authors’ own names. Meanwhile, until I cobble together my first column of the new year, happy holidays to all who may see this one.

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


   Feeling tired and lazy in these dog days of early autumn, I began asking myself whether I could cobble together a respectable column from the mystery reviews I wrote for my eyes only back in the Sixties and Seventies. To provide a soupcon of unity I decided early on to limit myself to U.S. writers and to novels I wasn’t terribly happy with. Shall we see how the experiment came out?

***

   Baynard Kendrick’s Blind Allies (Morrow, 1954) begins promisingly as a seedy character who claims to be but obviously is not the son of an oil tycoon retains blind detective Captain Duncan Maclain to go to his dad’s mansion at 3:00 A.M. and open a safe whose combination is in Braille.

   May I jump to the first murder? The lights go out in the old dark house, all the suspects run around like buffoons, the lights go on and voila! a body. Back in 1968 I couldn’t find a single kind word for this disaster of a book, which struck me as wretchedly organized and plotted and written, stuffed with implausibilities and contradictions, padded beyond endurance, and resolved by blatant guesswork.

   My reaction would probably be the same were I to re-read it today, but if you’ve tackled this or any other book discussed here more recently than I and think I was too harsh, please say so.

***

   In recent decades dozens of female private eye novelists have flourished, most if not all of them writing about female private eyes. But back when Chandler ruled the genre the only woman in the field was M. V. (Mary Violet) Heberden (1906-1965). She seems to have been heavily influenced by Brett Halliday, and her PI Desmond Shannon is best described as Mike Shayne seen through a woman’s eyes.

   His problem in The Lobster Pick Murder (Doubleday, 1941) is to find out who stuck the pick into the sadistic plastic surgeon’s medulla oblongata. Nothing about this exercise — plot, prose, characterizations, upper-crust Long Island setting, theatrical milie — rises above the drearily competent, and most readers will identify the perp about 200 pages before Shannon. Some of the later Heberdens I’ve read are much better but they’re not on the table this month.

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FRAZER Find Eileen Hardin

   The writer who was born Milton Lesser (1908-2008) and is best known as Stephen Marlowe, creator of globe-trotting PI Chester Drum, also used other bylines. Roughly 90% of his Find Eileen Hardin — Alive! (Avon #T-343, PBO, 1959), signed as by Andrew Frazer, is the mixture as before.

   Private dick and former football hero Duncan Pride returns to his alma mater when his old girlfriend, now married to his old coach, begs him to help find the coach’s missing teen-age daughter, who’s rumored to have become a call girl. The search brings him up against criminal enterprises like prostitution, abortion (remember this was a dozen years before Roe v. Wade), the enticing of innocent virgins into a life of sin and the fixing of college athletic events, not to mention murder.

   Frazer does give us a few reasonably vivid scenes at a deserted oyster cannery and the old Idlewild air terminal, but the book is too long and full of cliches, much of the motivation would not be out of place in a soap opera, and the sniggering attitude towards sex is a turn-off.

***

   The success of Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie and countless others disproves the thesis that sexism forced all or most women mystery writers of the pre-feminist era to adopt male bylines. But it was common practice for women writing the sorts of mysteries generally associated with men, like M.V. Heberden with her PI series, and also like DeLoris Stanton Forbes (1923- ), whose novels about police detectives Knute Severson and Lawrence Benedict appeared under the name Tobias Wells.

   Dead by the Light of the Moon (Doubleday, 1967) is a readable but uncompelling semi-procedural about the murder and de-breasting of an old woman in a Boston apartment building during the great East Coast blackout of 1965. Wells has just finished spreading suspicion evenly among various fellow tenants of the victim when suddenly and arbitrarily the guilty party confesses. Sure, real-life crimes often end this way, but a fiction writer must do better.

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KOEHLER Hooded Vulture Murders

   The novels of Robert Portner Koehler (1905-1988) were published almost without exception by a house at the absolute bottom of the literary food chain, although it does hold the distinction of having been the last U.S. publisher of that great wack of American literature, Harry Stephen Keeler.

   Koehler’s The Hooded Vulture Murders (Phoenix Press, 1947) deals with two hapless California PIs who stumble upon the murder of a blackmailing journalist while driving through southern Mexico on the uncompleted Pan American Highway. Naturally the bumbling native officials welcome with open arms the intrusion of these brilliant Anglo sleuths, although readers may wish the boys had stayed home.

   Koehler paints local color vividly enough but the book is ineptly plotted, woefully written, pathetically characterized, laughably clued, and all in all a pretty lame excuse for a whodunit.

***

   Enough for one month. It took more time and work than I expected to unstiffen the language of these ancient jottings without changing anything substantive. But it’s good to know that I have enough material in the archives for a few more columns if I get to feeling tired and lazy again.

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