Columns


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

   

   I am satisfied that Lawrence Block, who turns 82 this year, is the finest living writer of private-eye novels, and that his protagonist Matthew Scudder is the late 20th-early 21st century counterpart of Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. In previous columns I’ve explored the earlier Scudder novels, going back to his debut in 1976. This month we take the character to near the end of the century which first saw him come to life on the page.

***

   If A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD (1990) and A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE (1991) were the most powerful novels in the series to date, one of the main reasons was that they pitted Scudder against genuinely satanic adversaries. So does the next book in the series. A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (1992) opens with a scene presented in third person, and for a few minutes we wonder if we’re reading about the unlicensed PI we’ve come to know so well. But Matt and first-person narration return after two pages, and the rest of Chapter 1 alternates between the two modes. It’s as if Block were determined to make the third-person scenes more vivid and, yes, more graphic than they could possibly have been in the form of dialogue between Scudder and others.

   The tale these scenes tell is of the kidnaping of 24-year-old Francine Khoury from the street outside the ethnic market in Brooklyn where she’d been shopping. Her husband Kenan, a prosperous narcotics trafficker, receives phone calls from the abductors demanding a million dollars for her return. They settle on $400,000. After the ransom is paid, Khoury gets another call, telling him his wife is in the trunk of a Ford Tempo parked illegally at a fire hydrant around the corner. He and his brother Peter check and find her: cut up into cutlets and wrapped in plastic bags.

   Peter, who isn’t in the drug trade but is a recovering junkie and alcoholic, recommends that Kenan hire Scudder. Once committed to the case, and thanks to his police contact Joe Durkin, Matt learns that Francine wasn’t the first woman to be mutilated and murdered by criminals using the same modus operandi. Eventually he finds one young woman who escaped alive, although only after the perps performed an obscene parody of the novel and movie SOPHIE’S CHOICE, making her decide which of her breasts they should cut off. With the help of two teen-age computer hackers brought to him by his young black buddy TJ, he obtains the numbers of the various pay phones on which the murderers called Kenan Khoury.

   Then comes another kidnaping, the victim this time being the adolescent daughter of a Russian drug dealer, and the inevitable race to save her from sexual violation, mutilation and death. The first part of the climax, packed with tension but without a moment of onstage violence, takes place near midnight in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, site of the exchange of the girl for a million dollars; the second, at the serial killers’ house.

   In A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD Scudder killed a psychopathic monster in cold blood but, unwilling to make a habit of the practice, declines to take part in Khoury’s vengeance, which is best described by one of the Latin phrases tossed around earlier in the novel by an attorney recalling the legalisms in that language that he learned in law school. The phrase: lex talionis. Later Khoury describes the scene for Scudder — so graphically it makes him vomit. As might many readers.

***

   Block apparently realized that if all subsequent Scudders involved combat against satanic adversaries they’d soon become indistinguishable. In the next book in the series he tried another experiment in minimalism. The basic story of THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (1993) occupies at most 25% of the novel’s 316 pages, the murderer never appearing onstage for a moment and not even his name mentioned until page 292.

   Scudder and Elaine casually meet Glenn Holtzmann, a yuppie lawyer working at a large-print publishing house, and his pregnant wife Lisa. For some reason, or perhaps just on cop instinct, Scudder is turned off by the man. Lisa loses the baby, and one evening about two months later her husband is shot to death with four bullets, three in the body and the fourth in the back of the neck as a coup de grâce, while standing in front of a pay phone — not inside a booth, they don’t exist anymore — on Eleventh Avenue almost within sight of the high-rise condo on West 57th Street where he and Lisa lived.

   Within 24 hours a near-homeless street person and Vietnam veteran is arrested for the murder, the shell casings from the four bullets found inside his stinking Army jacket. He doesn’t remember whether he committed the crime or not. His younger brother, another recovering alcoholic, hires Scudder to make sure of the facts one way or the other. The job brings Matt in close contact with Lisa, who calls on him for help when she finds a strongbox containing several hundred thousand dollars on a closet shelf, and it soon becomes apparent that Glenn Holtzmann was obtaining huge amounts of cash from a mysterious source.

   In the course of the investigation Scudder and Lisa begin an affair. There’s not a moment of violence or menace in this novel except for a brief interlude when Scudder takes on another case, this one pitting him against a sadistic psycho whose ilk we’ve seen in other Block novels. Several interesting chapters follow Scudder as he methodically probes Holtzmann’s past, but in the end the truth is revealed to him by a transsexual hooker and Scudder and Elaine move in together while Matt seems poised to continue his affair with Lisa.

   This is one of those Block novels you read not so much for the story as for the extraneous incidents surrounding the story, my favorite being the one on page 97 where Scudder recounts a mob hit in which four innocent people sitting at a table on one side of a restaurant were blown away and the four intended targets on the other side were left untouched. “The shooter, it turned out, was dyslexic, and turned left when he should have turned right.” Moral? “Everybody makes miskates.” Or, as Hammett put it unforgettably, we live while blind chance spares us. This incident, like several but not all the others, is thematically related to the core story: I won’t say how.

   Like other Scudder novels, THE DEVIL KNOWS features guest appearances by the usual regulars: Mick Ballou, TJ, Matt’s former lover the sculptor Jan Keane, his AA sponsor Jim Faber, the cop Joe Durkin, the black albino Danny Boy Bell. One of these doesn’t make it to the last page, and though Block doesn’t intend the death to be a surprise, on general principles I won’t say who. I do get the impression that for a while Block seriously considered making Ballou the murderer and writing him out of the series, but if so, clearly he had second thoughts. I prefer the Scudders with a stronger story and a satanic adversary but, like millions of others, I can’t stop reading these books.

***

   If Block was bothered by the lack of sufficient core story in THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, he solved the problem in the next Scudder, A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN (1994), by pitting his protagonist against another serial killer, although this one is not a sadist but something of a philosopher. One of the current members of a 31-man club which may have been founded centuries ago, and whose only purpose is to meet for dinner every year on the first Thursday in May and and commemorate the members who have died since the birth of the club’s present incarnation in 1961, comes to Scudder when it dawns on him that there are only fourteen members still alive.

   To put it another way, there have been an unusual number of member deaths in the past 30-odd years: some unsuspicious, like that of the young man who was killed in Vietnam in 1966; some clearly from natural causes, others apparent accidents or suicides, four clearly murders. This premise requires that many of the characters, being dead, never appear onstage, but Block with superb skill makes them all but come back to life as Scudder investigates how they died—and whether a member of the club has been devoting years of his life to killing off his fellow members. (No, this is not a tontine, where the last man standing gains millions, nor is it a trust as in my novel BENEFICIARIES’ REQUIEM where every death in the family increases the share of the survivors. If there is a serial killer, he can’t be motivated by money.)

   Eventually, and largely by trial and error, Scudder identifies his adversary, with whom he’s had a most unusual relationship before this moment, and the game of cat and mouse takes a new turn. Some of the murders have been exceptionally brutal, particularly one whose details Scudder learns from his NYPD friend Joe Durkin: the wife of a murdered club member who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time “was garroted with a strip of wire. Her head turned purple and swelled up like a volleyball….She had a fireplace poker thrust up her vagina and well into the abdomen.”

   When one of the club members (a controversial criminal defense lawyer notorious for getting guilty monsters acquitted) assures Scudder that the legal system will never be able to bring the killer to justice, the only option left on the table is extra-legal vengeance. In this case vengeance takes a unique and not too plausible form, but at least it circumvents the Mike Hammer type of justice we found in novels like A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD.

   On the personal side, Scudder is still a sober alcoholic regularly attending AA meetings, living with Elaine and sleeping now and then with Lisa. The usual regulars make their expected appearances, not only Joe Durkin but Mick Ballou and TJ and Scudder’s AA sponsor Jim Faber. Also appearing, and in a major role, is one we have seen in Block novels many times before: Mister Death. Even before the first word of the book, we get to read William Dunbar’s poem “Lament for the Makaris” with its incessant refrain Timor mortis conturbat me (fear of death terrifies me). The theme is reinforced by the huge number and variety of deaths we encounter (although there’s hardly a moment of onstage violence in the entire book) and dialogue about death. “Cancer, heart attacks, all those little time bombs in your blood vessels. Those are the things that scare you.”

   The speaker will die violently a few chapters after he says this. Scudder: “[M]an is the only animal that knows he’ll die someday. He’s also the only animal that drinks.” Mick Ballou: “But do you think there’s a connection?” Scudder: “I know there is.” Like so many other novels in this powerful series, A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN makes it understandable that so many are now calling all PI fiction noir.

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

   Does anyone still read Christopher Bush, or even remember him?

   Dean Street Press, a small English publishing house, is determined to make sure that both questions are answered Yes by setting out to reprint every single one of Bush’s detective novels, each with a superb general introduction by Curtis Evans based on information from Bush’s grandniece. The introduction is comprehensive enough that I need do no more than hit a few high spots here.

   Most print sources give the year of Bush’s birth as 1888, but according to Evans, he was born to farm-laborer parents in Norfolk, East Anglia, on Christmas Day of 1885 and given the rather odd name of Charlie Christmas Bush. Early in the 20th century he obtained a job as instructor at Wood Green School, a co-ed institution in Oxfordshire. He served in World War I, being stationed for one year in the Middle East, and returned to his schoolmaster position when the war was over, retiring in 1931 to write full-time.

   Between 1926 and 1968 he turned out a total of 63 detective novels, most of them published in the U.S. as well as England, many of them centering around a “perfect alibi” gimmick, all featuring a character named Ludovic Travers. He died at age 87, in September 1973.

   In THE PLUMLEY INHERITANCE, published in 1926 but set in 1919, Travers is a relatively minor character, an invalided war veteran serving as private secretary to wealthy financial wizard Henry Plumley, who kills himself after making a cryptic speech. The hero of this debut novel is Geoffrey Wrentham, a Bulldog Drummond type who enlists Travers in the search for Plumley’s missing money.

   In Bush’s second novel, THE PERFECT MURDER CASE (1929), Travers has come up in the world. “After an exceptionally brilliant career at Cambridge he had written that perfectly amazing Economics of a Spendthrift, a work not only stupendous in its erudition but from the charm of its style a delight in itself. Then had come World Markets, now a textbook in the schools, and finally with The Stockbroker’s Breviary a return to the whimsical style of his best known work.”

   Thanks to inherited money and huge royalties he doesn’t need to work, but he’s taken a position as head of the financial department of Durangos Limited, a firm of “expert consulting and publicity agents for the world in general….” Funnily enough, Durango House also boasts a Detective Department, headed by John Franklin, who in Bush’s next several novels is something of a co-protagonist with Travers as they team with Scotland Yard Superintendent George Wharton to solve various bizarre murders. By 1934 Durangos has vanished and Travers has morphed into a wealthy dilettante and amateur sleuth.

   I first discovered Bush sometime in the latter half of the 1950s. I was in my late teens at the time and spent most of my leisure hours haunting the shelves in the mystery section of the public library in Roselle, New Jersey. The only Bush novels the library had were the relatively recent ones, dating from the late Forties and the Fifties, all narrated by Travers who has launched his own private detective agency after World War II, all dull as dishwater. After four or five tries I gave up on both author and character. At that time I had no idea that the earliest Bush novels dated back to the late 1920s and, until the outbreak of war, had been without a first-person narrator.

   A few years later, thanks to various secondhand bookstores, I discovered some of those novels and began buying and reading them—and found them much more satisfying than the pedestrian products of the postwar years. One of them, THE CASE OF THE MISSING MINUTES (1937; US title EIGHT O’CLOCK ALIBI), struck me decades ago and still strikes me now as one of the finest detective novels of England’s Golden Age. But I’ve read many more from that period than I’ve discussed in this column, and recently I decided to re-read a few of them and see how they stood up today.

***

   Beginning in 1932, the titles of all the Bush novels began with THE CASE OF, but his American publishers, perhaps fearing confusion with the Perry Mason novels which had been launched in 1933, changed most of the titles, so that THE CASE OF THE THREE STRANGE FACES (1933) became THE CRANK IN THE CORNER and THE CASE OF THE 100% ALIBIS (1934) crossed the pond as THE KITCHEN CAKE MURDER. For some unknown reason the English titles remained intact on a few, including THE CASE OF THE CHINESE GONG (1935) and THE CASE OF THE TUDOR QUEEN (1938). I’ve reviewed both of those in an earlier column so let’s move on to another pair.

   In THE CASE OF THE DEAD SHEPHERD (1934; US title THE TEA TRAY MURDERS) Travers happens to be visiting Wharton in his Scotland Yard office when the walrus-mustached Superintendent invites the bespectacled amateur of crime to come along and help him investigate a murder at Woodgate Hill County School, an educational institution for boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 18, located in one of London’s outer burbs.

   History master Charles Tennant has been found dead in the Masters’ Common Room, apparently of oxalic acid poisoning, his hand clutching a huge 1910-era catalogue of chemical apparatus. (No, this is not an Ellery Queen-style dying message, and its meaning is impossible to figure out until Bush gets good and ready to tell us.) The headmaster, Mr. Twirt, is strangely absent from the school even though he had arranged a meeting with several people including a constable at four o’clock.

   His absence is soon accounted for when he’s found murdered too, in the shrubbery outside the school, apparently by a heavy sledgehammer lying nearby. “[A] miserable specimen of a man” Travers calls him, based on nothing but the look of his dead body. It quickly becomes apparent that Travers’ opinion of Twirt is shared by virtually everyone at the school:

   “He was humbug personified,” says his colleague Maitland Castle. “I generally alluded to him as the bastard.” Later Castle calls his former boss “a loose talker, a liar, and generally unscrupulous” and “an egomaniac….[W]hen people ventured to protest he’d say he had a disloyal staff, and threaten them with the sack.” (Sound like anyone we see every day in the news?) He was “the most loathsome little swine I’ve ever met….[I]n his love for himself, he was the most devoted of men….It was consoling to think of Twirt as dead, it didn’t matter a damn how.” As for the women instructors, “[h]e used to bully them unmercifully.”

   All the other present and former school personnel that Travers and Wharton interview pay similar compliments to their erstwhile boss. Mr. Godman: “When Twirt got his knife into anybody, he was absolutely unscrupulous in making that person’s life hell….He was the filthiest little squirt I ever ran across.” Miss Holl: “He was the dirtiest little rat.” Mr. Furrow: “The man was a public danger….He’d driven more than one of us to the edge of a breakdown.” Mr. Lustiford: “If ever there was a poisonous swine, it was he.”

   It’s a wonder that no one refers to him as a toad, but then the English have always had a soft spot in their hearts for the inoffensive and sweetly singing little critter known to biologists as Bufo bufo. The crimes are solved not by rational deduction but rather by a series of inspired hunches, culminating in Travers’ attending an outdoor performance of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM where a few Shakespearean lines turn on the light bulb in his head, so to speak, and enable him to reach the ultimate solution.

   Twirt’s murderer is rather easily guessable, and one or two maps of the grounds around the school would have been helpful supplements to the two diagrams of the building’s innards that Bush provides. But DEAD SHEPHERD is one of the better Bushes I’ve read, and one of the most personal. His portrait of the County School and its denizens—or should I say inmates?—leaves no room for doubt as to how he would have described his schoolmaster years. In a word, hellish.

***

         Remember remember the fifth of November
         For gunpowder treason and plot.
         We see no reason why gunpowder treason
         Should ever be forgot.

   This is one version of the first lines of a poem dating back to around 1870. The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy in 1605 among a number of Catholic terrorists, the best known of whom was Guy Fawkes, to blow up the Houses of Parliament during an address to that body by the Protestant King James I. The plot failed and Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered (although he escaped that grisly fate by falling off the scaffold and breaking his neck), and the Brits have memorialized the plot every November 5 by lighting bonfires all over the countryside.

   If you aren’t familiar with that event in English history you’ll be lost in Bush’s THE CASE OF THE BONFIRE BODY (1936; US title THE BODY IN THE BONFIRE), which begins with what turn out to be multiple coincidences and climaxes with more of the same.

   On a foggy November 4 afternoon, Travers is driving back to London after attending an auction. As he’s passing the outer suburb of Garrod’s Heath he sees a man running wildly beside the road and pulls over. Rev. Giles Ropeling, who’s also the local scoutmaster, has a gruesome story to tell. He and two scouts were rebuilding the amateurish bonfire they had prepared for Guy Fawkes Day when they discovered inside the bonfire structure a man’s body, naked and with its head and hands cut off.

   Travers hangs around until the local police arrive, then continues on to London. Later, in Wharton’s office at Scotland Yard, he shows the Superintendent what he picked up at the auction, a rare silver coin known as the Limerick Crown which is worth about £60, a small fortune back in the Thirties. On the way home he sees a beggar selling matchbooks outside the old Piccadilly underground station and gives him what he thinks is a half-crown but just might be the rare coin he’d bought earlier that day, which he can’t find when he gets home.

   Soon after he’s back in his flat he gets a phone call from Wharton, inviting him to come along and help investigate the stabbing murder of a doctor. Would you believe that all three of these incidents turn out to be interconnected?

   At the denouement Travers exposes another round-robin of coincidence: the murderer “knew the old story that if a man stands all his life in Piccadilly Circus, sooner or later the man he’s looking for will pass by under his nose.” In this case the murderer was looking for two men. Would you believe they both passed by under his nose, and that he recognized both of them even though he hadn’t seen either man for roughly ten years?

   Much of the novel is taken up by dueling speculations on the part of Travers and Wharton—speculations which have nothing in common except a lack of factual basis. But the final chapters feature more physical action than one usually finds in Golden Age detective novels, and despite the orgy of coincidences I found it an absorbing read, full of alibi gimmicks devised by Bush with fiendish delight.

***

   Thanks to Curtis Evans and Dean Street Press, anyone interested in English detective novels of the Golden Age can learn a great deal about Bush’s life and read all 63 of his novels. Personally, I’ve read enough for a while. No one — well, almost no one — would call Bush one of the greatest names of that noble era but he does deserve to be remembered, and at least a few of his books to be read.

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

   

   Let’s begin with the unfinished business from last month, in other words with the final four uncollected Cornell Woolrich stories from 1936. During that year the steadiest publisher of his tales was Detective Fiction Weekly but the second steadiest was Argosy with six contributions in twelve months, three of them never reprinted in hardcover or paperback collections.

   “Gun for a Gringo” from the September 5 issue is the earliest of several Woolrich stories about various macho Americans in one or another banana republic. The local color obviously stems from his memories of growing up in Mexico, and more likely than not the adventurous protagonists are based however loosely on his father Genaro Hopley-Woolrich. In “Gun for a Gringo” the narrator-hero is Steve Willoughby, a former Chicago gangster now residing in the land of Costamala and bodyguarding the country’s dictator, one- armed Presidente Savinas.

   A band of scruffy revolutionaries approach Steve and offer mucho dinero if he’ll assassinate Savinas during an official banquet. Steve goes along in order to catch the conspirators red-handed but is caught playing double agent and railroaded into the state insane asylum. After enough time in the madhouse for Woolrich to take full advantage of the place’s noir potential, Willoughby escapes and, in a blaze of action, tears back to the capital trying to save El Presidente’s life.

   The story works well on a simple cliffhanger level except that Woolrich gives us no reason to care whether or not the one set of corrupt politicos is ousted by the other. As usual in these Gallant Yank Abroad sagas, the racism is thicker than the heat and stronger than the plot.

   “Public Toothache Number One” from the November 7 issue is a semi-hardboiled comedy about a bill collector, obviously modeled on Jimmy Cagney, who makes a dunning call on a certain dentist just in time to be mistaken for that fellow by henchmen of the country’s most wanted criminal, who’s in hiding and suffering from a ferocious ulcerated tooth.    These gangsters are so stupid they let our hero fill their hideout with carbon monoxide fumes from an auto on the pretext that it’s a form of anesthesia. Enough said.

   Woolrich closed out his sales to Argosy that year with the kind of exotic adventure yarn with which the magazine was identified. “Holocaust” from the December 12 number takes place on the island of Santo Domingo during the French Revolution and deals with a bloody slave revolt.

   The female lead is 18-year old Aurelie Blanchard, daughter of a plantation owner, a girl who admires Voltaire and opposes the whipping of slaves and says of blacks, echoing Shylock’s words in The Merchant of Venice about Jews, “Do they not laugh as we do, weep as we do, bleed when cut, draw breath as we do?”

   In this story the answer is No. They are a savage tide, a horde of repulsive brutes in loincloths and Jacobin caps, screaming for victims to torture, shouting Robespierre slogans and war cries and voodoo chants all in the same breath, all except Aurelie’s faithful old nurse Marthe who saves her life.

   In the first and most vividly conjured-up sequences, Mon Repos is besieged. Aurelie’s mother kills herself, Aurelie herself is buried alive, and her fiancé Robert Lemaitre and the sadistic but cowardly plantation overseer Picard are taken prisoner and tortured until Aurelie turns the tables by rising from her open grave and masquerading as a zombie.

   She and the two Frenchmen boil the rebel leader in a vat of wax and escape into the jungle where more terror awaits them. It’s a long and ultra-lurid tale, worthy of appearance in Thrilling Mystery alongside “Baal’s Daughter” which we dissected last month, but nowhere near as vividly written as the noir classics Woolrich set on his home turf.

   One of the least popular of the Popular Publications pulps was Ace-High Detective, which lasted just seven issues, from August 1936 through February-March 1937. Its November 1936 number included “Evil Eye,” the earliest of several stories Woolrich was to write about the encounters of various plucky and mischievous young boys with death and terror, but this one unlike its successors is played almost entirely for comedy.

   Bronx plainclothesman Dan Kieran takes his 8-year-old son Danny to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a newly unearthed mummy with a priceless emerald eye. The orb is supposedly protected by an ancient curse that whoever tries to steal it will be blinded by the god Osiris. Danny slips away from his dad at closing time and is locked in the museum, as are two dimwits nicknamed Jojo and Donkey Mouth who plan to steal the eye during the night.

   Woolrich tells almost none of this story from the viewpoint of the boy as he would in later tales of this sort. Instead he concentrates first on making us laugh as we watch the thieves’ comic interplay (which may remind sufficiently aged readers of the scenes between Jackie Gleason and Art Carney on TV’s The Honeymoners) and the bungling efforts of Danny’s father and a helpful traffic cop to break into the museum and rescue the brat, and then on making us shudder as the gory curse is fulfilled. The setting shows that Woolrich intended “Evil Eye” to be included in his book of New York Landmarks stories- — a book that for unknown reasons never came into being.

***

   
   For the rest of this column let’s delve into a topic as far removed from Woolrich as possible, a trio of traditional detective novels from the Golden Age of that noble genre in England between World Wars. The authors I usually discuss when I’m on that subject are John Rhode and Christopher Bush, whom I’ve been reading intermittently since my teens. I don’t believe I’ve ever written a word about this month’s author. Isn’t it about time I did?

   Cyril Hare was the writing byline of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, who was born in the county of Surrey on 4 September 1900 and, in the interstices of a legal career, produced nine highly regarded novels and more than forty short stories. His earliest novel, Tenant for Death  (1937), written while he was still practicing law and before he migrated to the judicial side of the system, introduced Scotland Yard’s Inspector Mallett, a tall stout man with a taste for sumptuous lunches, not as memorable a protagonist as, say, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse who debuted almost forty years later but far more vivid than the all but characterless sleuths who were commonplace in British detective fiction of the Golden Age.

   Lionel Ballantine, a crooked financier on the brink of exposure and arrest, is found strangled to death with a Venetian blind cord in a house in Kensington, recently rented by a paunchy full-bearded man calling himself Colin James who seems to have vanished. The murder took place shortly after the release from prison of a banker who had been innocently caught up in Ballantine’s crimes and had sworn revenge in open court after his conviction but was still behind bars when the mysterious Mr. James made his first appearance.

   The banker however is hardly the sole suspect. Mallett also has to consider Ballantine’s equally corrupt secretary (who today would probably have a title like Executive Administrative Assistant), the bigamous husband of Ballantine’s mistress, a dotty nobleman who served on the crooked company’s board of directors, and several more. The traditional clues are few and far between — notably the riddles of why Ballantine was found wearing a sloppily tied green bow tie with an elegant gray suit and what happened to the umbrella with which he was last seen — but Mallett connects the dots with rare ingenuity and Hare succeeds in keeping us puzzled while playing fair all the way.

   Barzun and Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime  (2nd ed. 1989) called this book “a very engaging debut,” distinguished by “sound yet uncommon philosophizing….” Readers who aren’t interested in legal issues or jargon may rest assured that Tenant for Death  is free of both.

***

   

   Except for a brief colloquy in Chapter 1 on whether fishing rights are a covenant running with the land or an easement — terms which for attorneys will evoke fond or bitter memories of their Property course as first-year law students — legalisms are also absent in Hare’s second book.

   I’m sure there are other detective novels in which anglers and angling are central to the plot but I can’t recall any in which the pursuit of fish figures so prominently as in Death Is No Sportsman (1938). An elaborate map of a three-mile stretch of the river Didder and its surroundings, which most readers will have to consult again and again as various characters traipse through the area, portrays footpaths, a ford, a cart track, a bridge across the river, and assorted copses and trout pools, with stately Didford Manor at the map’s northern edge and the village of Didford Magna (which is dwarfed by its companion village Didford Parva) at its southern end.

   Each summer weekend the village’s only pub is taken over by four Londoners, the members of a fishing syndicate which owns the exclusive right to cast reels along this stretch of the river. All four have reasons to despise Sir Peter Packer, the wealthy owner of Didford Manor, who late one hot Saturday afternoon in June is found on a tiny piece of solid ground known as the Tump with a bullet through his eye that took most of his brains with it when it exited. Suspects besides the four fishermen include the young wife of the syndicate’s senior member, the even younger wife of odious Sir Peter, a young man from the village whose fiancée Sir Peter had (as we used to say) knocked up, and — perhaps — the rector’s unspeakable wife and the local doctor.

   Almost halfway through the novel Scotland Yard in the person of Inspector Mallett is called into the case, which is labyrinthine to the max and brim-full of fishing lore. Dare I venture to suggest that most if not all of the dramatis personae must be Anglicans?

   Whether Hare plays completely fair with the reader is uncertain. At the denouement Mallett offers several reconstructions of what happened, each positing a different killer, but it’s all a charade to pressure the real murderer into a confession without which, as Mallett freely admits to his local colleagues, there’s no real evidence against the culprit.

   The authors of A Catalogue of Crime couldn’t agree on a    verdict, with Wendell Hertig Taylor calling it the second best of the nine Hare novels while Jacques Barzun disliked it “because of the long windup and fumbling detection.” One can see his point: without real evidence how could Mallett reasonably identify the guilty party? But I remain uncertain about my own verdict. Who can decide when doctors disagree?

***

   
   In Hare’s third book, the last he completed before the outbreak of World War II, Mallett appears only in the early and final chapters, but for my money it’s the finest detective novel of the trio. Suicide Exceptted (1939) opens on the last evening of the Inspector’s holiday, which he’s spending in a stately Georgian house turned mediocre country hotel, 42 miles from London.

   That evening in the hotel lounge, after an indigestible meal, Mallett is approached by a fellow guest, a rather eccentric old bloke named Leonard Dickinson, who hints that he may take his own life before morning. As any whodunit devotee might have guessed, he’s found dead in his bed by the maid bringing him his breakfast. The physical evidence plus Mallett’s statement convinces the coroner’s jury that Dickinson deliberately took a fatal overdose of a sleeping potion called Medinal (which I gather Hare invented out of whole cloth), and a verdict of suicide is reached.

   Shortly thereafter it develops that less than a year before his death the old man had put most of his money into a life insurance policy on himself — a policy which offers a huge payout but becomes null and void if he should kill himself within a year of its inception. Faced with the prospect of destitution, Dickinson’s son Stephen and his daughter Mary, assisted by Mary’s fiancé Martin Johnson, set out to prove to the insurance company that the old gentleman was murdered by one of his fellow guests at the country hotel.

   A rum assortment of guests indeed! An antiquarian parson and his wife, a young couple spending an illicit night, a mystery man who stayed confined to his room, a Lincolnshire dowager and her mentally challenged son, a gas company executive rendezvousing with a blackmailer, and of course Mallett himself and the decedent.

   Most of the novel follows various combinations of the three amateur detectives, whose sleuthing soon establishes that an incredible number of the hotel’s guests that night had motives for killing the old man. Mallett comes back into the picture and exposes the murderer, whose identity is a stunning surprise (at least to me), although later I discovered that Hare had planted all sorts of subtle pointers to the truth which aren’t apparent except on a second reading.

   For some reason Barzun and Taylor weren’t impressed by this novel, calling it “one-third good, two-thirds fumbling.” Long after the end of the war, when it was first published in the U.S., Anthony Boucher in the New York Times Book Review (7 November 1954) found it “more conventional and less witty” than Hare’s postwar novels but “adroit in its manipulation of [the] three amateur detectives” and “distinguished by a plot-twist” worthy of Agatha Christie. With the last point I agree completely.

***

   
   Hare spent the WWII years first as a judge’s marshal (somebody who sits with and performs various chores for a judicial officer), then with the Department of Public Prosecutions and finally with the Ministry of Economic Warfare. Apparently he was kept quite busy, so much so that during the war he published only one novel, Tragedy at Law  (1942), which many consider his masterpiece.

   With the defeat of Hitler he resumed writing a book every few years. In 1950 he was appointed a County Court judge for his native Surrey, a position he held until he died, at the all too early age of 57, on 25 August 1958. Whether he chose the title himself or his publisher came up with it when he was no longer with us, it’s equally fitting that his last novel is called Untimely Death.

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

   

   A few weeks ago I received an email from bookseller Lynn Munroe, asking me a question about the uncollected short stories of Cornell Woolrich. The result was that I got interested in how many uncollected stories there were and how many might be worth collecting. It will take more than one column to explore these questions but let’s start here.

***

   For the first two years in which Woolrich published crime-suspense stories, the number of uncollected tales is zero. Why? Because I brought together all three of the tales that first came out in 1934 and all ten of those that appeared in ‘35 in the collection DARKNESS AT DAWN (1985). Woolrich’s output grew exponentially in 1936: a total of 26 crime stories, earning him a total of $4,300, which was a respectable annual salary back then.

   Some of them—for example “The Night Reveals” (Story, April 1936), “Johnny on the Spot” (Detective Fiction Weekly, May 2, 1936), “The Night I Died” (from the same magazine’s August 8 issue) and “You Pays Your Nickel” (Argosy, August 22, 1936), which is usually reprinted as “Subway”—rank among his most powerful short stories. Others from that year—including, I fear, most of the dozen that remain uncollected—are pretty terrible.

   The year kicked off with one of the worst tales he ever perpetrated; perhaps the worst of his career. The mild success of the Popular Publications pulp chain with weird-menace magazines like Dime Mystery inspired rival entrepreneur Ned Pines of Thrilling Publications to launch a competing monthly called Thrilling Mystery, which debuted in October 1935 under editorial director Leo Margulies (1900-1975).

   During its 50 issues the magazine offered a parade of strange cults, diabolic rituals, gruesome murders, sadistic villains, slavering beasts and (of course) beautiful young women shivering in peril. Woolrich dipped his toes into these weird waters just once. Like the 1935 classic “Dark Melody of Madness” (better known as “Papa Benjamin”) and the 1937 classic “Graves for the Living,” “Baal’s Daughter” (Thrilling Mystery, January 1936) is about hapless innocents falling into the clutches of repulsive religions.

   But this version of the story is so sloppily and luridly written, so overloaded with stupid inconsistencies and grotesque twaddle, that to claw one’s way through its pages is an act of masochism. Narrator Bob Collins visits his psychiatrist friend Dr. Dessaw to ask for help in freeing his fiancée Gloria’s dotty aunt from a Westchester cult.

   As Woolrich Coincidence would have it, the head of the cult is Dessaw, who drugs Bob and spirits him to the religion’s headquarters mansion on the banks of the Hudson, where in rapid order our hero is stripped to his shorts, flogged by a tongueless black giant, menaced by a man-eating panther, tortured with boiling oil injected into his veins, forced to kneel before a woman calling herself the reincarnated goddess Ishtar, forced to help lure Gloria to the mansion for ritual sex with with the god Baal who of course is Dr. Dessaw, and so on and on long past our endurance.

   The narrative throbs with clunkers like “The fiend on the throne stood up and turned to me as I quivered there, ashen-faced” and “I was prone there, at the mercy of the he-devil and the she-devil….” How desperate must Woolrich have been to have cranked out this garbage?

***

   Of the dozen uncollected Woolrich stories from 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly was the original home of seven, including two that might well deserve collection. Not, though, the first pair we consider here. “Blood in Your Eye” from the March 21 issue is an insanely bad cop story set in an anonymous city on which Woolrich sticks the label Los Angeles.

   Mitchell, a rambunctious young homicide dick, is the only one who sees the truth when a murder victim is found in a rooming house with the image of his killer apparently imprinted on his eyes. Instead of sharing his insight, Mitchell throws down his badge in disgust at his colleagues’ willingness to believe medieval superstition and goes out to solve the crime lone-wolf style.

   The hunt takes him to two venues that Woolrich was to use over and over, a manicurist’s booth and a dance hall. For this one you have to accept that neither a roomful of cops nor the medical examiner can tell the difference between genuine and glass eyes, but the climax is violent and the central gimmick Guignol-gruesome.

   Just two weeks later, in the magazine’s April 4 issue, came “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” which Woolrich submitted as “Death in Three-Quarter Time.” In a lifetime of reading whodunits I’ve never come across an alibi gimmick as wacko as this one. Homicide cop Dennis Small happens to be in the Curfew Club on the night when the specialty dancer Emilio is shot to death in his dressing room just a few minutes after he and his partner Lolita have finished performing a bizarre new number.

   All the evidence points to chorus line dancer Mary Jackson, for whom Emilio was about to dump Lolita. This tale too is never likely to be reprinted or collected so I might as well give away the solution: Lolita herself killed Emilio before the dance, then rigged herself in a crazy costume and went out into the spotlight and convinced a clubful of people that she was both herself and her partner! The story becomes interesting only in the final scenes when Woolrich makes us empathize with her for two crucial noir reasons: she had lost her love and she’s about to die.

   For the next uncollected story we jump into the summer months. “Nine Lives” from the June 20 number is set in the waterfront district around New York’s South Street. Demon newshawk Wheeler stumbles onto the story of an old bum who’s been treated by three sinister strangers to booze, food, clothes, and to an insurance policy on his life. The best scene finds Wheeler bound, gagged and left for dead at the bottom of an old-fashioned bathtub filling with water, but even in this serial-like incident there’s nothing terribly urgent.

   Later that summer, in the August 15 issue, came “Murder on My Mind,” the earliest appearance in Woolrich and perhaps the earliest in crime fiction of a plotline which was a staple of film noir classics like SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946, directed by Joseph H. Lewis) but ultimately goes back to the Greek tragedy OEDIPUS TYRANNUS.

   Marquis, the detective narrator, is assigned with his partner Beecher to the brutal murder of a harmless cigar-store clerk, but as the investigation goes forward, countless tiny details push Marquis and the reader closer and closer to becoming convinced that the murderer is Marquis himself.

   This tale has never been reprinted or collected as it first appeared but a heavily revised and less crudely written version was included as “Morning After Murder” in the paperback collection BLUEBEARD’S SEVENTH WIFE (Popular Library pb #473, 1952, as by William Irish).

   The trademark Woolrich combination of breathless urgency and plot flubs permeates the long story which he submitted as “Right in the Middle of New York,” but it’s so packed with action and tension that one barely notices that nothing in it makes sense, not even the published title, since no murder is committed at all in “Murder in the Middle of New York” from the September 26 issue.

   Tony Shugrue, a relatively honest protégé of mobster Chuck Morgan, is set up by his mentor with phony references and gets hired by wealthy Cole Harrison as chauffeur for his beautiful and spoiled daughter Evelyn. Unaware that he’s married, Evelyn makes several passes at her driver, and for a while we’re reminded of the romance between another flighty heiress and her chauffeur in Woolrich’s 1927 pre-crime novel CHILDREN OF THE RITZ.

   Finally Tony realizes that Morgan plans to kidnap Evelyn, hold her for ransom, kill her and leave him to take the fall. From this point on the story morphs into a wild roller-coaster ride crammed with thrills, anguish and suspense as Tony fights to save himself and his wife and Evelyn from the gang. Some of the dialogue creaks—“‘Rats!” he hissed viciously through his teeth. ‘Lower than rats, even!’”—and the crucial scene requires Tony literally not to recognize his wife at close quarters.

   But the irresistible Woolrich urgency sweeps away all nitpicking into the ash heap and suggests that this one of the uncollected dozen may deserve being revived.

   I feel the same way about “Afternoon of a Phony” from the November 14 issue—so much so that it was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (June 2012) at my recommendation and with a new introduction by me.

   The story is something of a departure for Woolrich, a charming, clever and bizarre whodunit where the detective role is played by a con man. Clip Rogers steps off the train at the Jersey seaside resort of Wildmore and is instantly mistaken by the brainless local cops for Griswold, the supersleuth from Trenton, whom they’d sent for to help solve the bludgeon murder of a woman in one of the town’s vacation hotels.

   What complicates the case beyond the local yokels’ power to unravel is that the woman’s eight-year-old son, who witnessed the crime in the middle of the night but is too young to understand its meaning, has identified as the murderer a man with a perfect alibi. Rogers exposes the real killer rather neatly, but the story becomes distinctively a Woolrich tale only afterward when, as in “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” a criminal motivated by lost love takes center stage and, for a page or two, becomes a deeply sympathetic character. His comment that the impostor Rogers is more humane than any cop he’d ever met is evidence that when Woolrich drew genuine cops as brutal thugs he wasn’t doing it inadvertently.

   His final 1936 appearance in Detective Fiction Weekly was one of his weakest, but for anyone with a little knowledge of law, it’s a coffee-out-the-nose classic. The year’s last issue, dated December 26, included “The Two Deaths of Barney Slabaugh,” in which Woolrich dusted off his favorite James M. Cain plot twist, backdated it forty years, and threw in so much of the tinny insult humor and gangster stereotypes from the current James Cagney movies that the illusion we’re in the New York of the 1890s isn’t sustained for a microsecond.

   Manhattan racket boss Emerald Eddie Danberry is persuaded by his shyster lawyer Horace Lipscomb that the proper way to kill rival mobster Barney Slabaugh is to take the man prisoner, frame himself for Barney’s murder beforehand, and get himself acquitted in court. Then, Lipscomb explains—foreshadowing an infamous recent comment by Donald Trump?—even if Danberry were to murder him in full view of a thousand people he could never be prosecuted for it.

   Danberry asks for the name of this marvelous rule of law. Lipscomb replies: Why, it’s the Statute of Limitations! (Cue the coffee.) Fighting DA Barry McCoy, one of the city’s few uncorrupt officials, tries to snooker the plot, and fate works another Cain trick to help him out in this super-pulpy tale, which is full of police brutality, casual racism and enough Woolrich-style wisecracks to sink an aircraft carrier.

***

   So much for eight out of the dozen, and quite enough for one column. I’ll finish the tabulation next month. With perhaps a bonus thrown in to boot.

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


   This month’s column is like the two roads that diverged in a yellow wood. On the first road is a signpost with the initials EQ. On the second, the one less traveled by, there’s another signpost, this one initialed HSK. Any guesses?

***

   In recent years—no, make that recent decades—it seems that I’ve either written or edited or had some connection with the vast majority of books having to do with Ellery Queen, the single exception being BLOOD RELATIONS (Perfect Crime Books, 2012), Joseph Goodrich’s excellent selection from the often acrimonious correspondence between Frederic Dannay (1905-1982) and Manfred B. Lee (1905-1971), the first cousins who used the name Ellery Queen as both their joint byline and their series detective.

   Now we have a second exception: Laird R. Blackwell’s FREDERIC DANNAY, ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE AND THE ART OF THE DETECTIVE SHORT STORY (McFarland, 2019), a title so unwieldy it won’t all fit on the book’s spine, which omits THE ART OF. Blackwell’s aim is to encompass in just 218 pages “the true impact of Ellery Queen on the detective-crime short-story genre.” By Ellery Queen of course he means Fred Dannay, the scholarly-bibliophilic-editorial half of the Queen partnership, who as founding editor of EQMM labored feverishly, beginning at the magazine’s birth late in 1941 and ending not long before his death, both to revive the best short stories of the distant and recent past and to encourage the creation of equally fine stories in the present and future.

   Blackwell knows the 40-odd Dannay years of EQMM backward and forward and writes insightfully of the milestone authors and stories that Fred had a hand in developing or preserving. We traverse the entire range of the genre from Poe through Conan Doyle and Chesterton to then newcomers like Stanley Ellin and Edward D. Hoch (who wound up having more than 500 stories published in the magazine) to a few like Jon L. Breen and Josh Pachter and myself who began appearing in EQMM when we were young and Fred was well along in his editorial career and who carry on today like old warhorses continuing, perhaps more gently, to smite the earth.

   If I had had a hand in Blackwell’s book I would have nudged him to include the birth and death years of the dozens of authors he covers, giving readers a more vivid sense of the scope and flow of detective-crime fiction in its short form. But I would have fought like a T. rex for the removal of the superabundant typos which pockmark almost every page.

   For the benefit of anyone who might think superabundant too strong a word, let’s pick one author totally at random, like the winner of a megabucks lottery, and take a look at what Blackwell has to say about that person. Who won the lottery? Yikes! I did. You’ll find the entry on me at pp. 129-130.

   First off, he spells my first name wrong, Frances, the female way, not Francis, the pope’s way, and that of every other man whose name I’ve ever seen written down. Next, he omits my middle initial, as he does with virtually every other author with an initial in his or her byline. Also he gets the titles of two of my early stories wrong. Then he lists as a non-series story one of my earliest EQMM contributions, in fact the first Fred Dannay bought from me, which is not a story at all but a poem (if you want to call it that) in the manner of that great poet (if you want to call him that) Ogden Nash.

   Among the other stand-alone stories he credits me with is one (“Black Spider” from the August 1979 EQMM) which features Loren Mensing, also the protagonist of four of my novels and a pile of other EQMM tales. All these flubs in exactly 14 lines of print!

   But it’s not as if I’m treated worse than other EQMM contributors. When it comes to having my name misspelled, I stand beside “Jacque” Futrelle (19), “Irving” Cobb (21), “Cornel” Woolrich (22, 90), John “Colliers” (23), Philip “Macdonald” (76), Damon “Runyan” (113), “George” Simenon (128, 189, 216), Ross “MacDonald” (167), and—almost forgot!—that old standby Edgar “Allen” Poe (152).

   When it comes to missing middle initials I’m also in excellent company, along with Jon Breen (30, 115, 180), Pearl Buck (101), Charles Child (151), Mignon Eberhart (21), Robert Fish (103, 121, 181) and Edward Hoch (36, 104, 159), just to mention those whose last names begin with the letters A through H. Middle-initialed luminaries like John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker would no doubt have endured the same fate had Blackwell mentioned them.

   Several authors with three-name bylines, including Dorothy Davis (102, 119) and Earl Biggers (54, 191), get their middle names chopped off. And a number of contributors besides yours truly get story titles messed up, as witness James Yaffe’s “Mr. Kirashubi’s Ashes” (139), Thomas Flanagan’s “The Cold Winds of Adeste” (124, 209), and Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbunkle” (45) which will lift every Sherlockian’s eyebrows to the heavens.

   More than one protagonist of a stand-alone story, like Kachoudas (or, as Blackwell calls him, Kouchadas) in Simenon’s prize-winning “Blessed Are the Meek,” is listed as a series character. Even book titles mentioned in passing are mangled; notice, for example, Blackwell’s version of the Bill Pronzini-Marcia Muller nonfiction anthology 101 MIDNIGHTS, which dumps a whopping 900 witching hours down the memory hole.

   A number of significant dates are also off, for example the death of Ed Hoch, which occurred in 2008 not 2018. (If only Ed had enjoyed the extra ten years of life with which Blackwell gifts him!)

   But now comes the weird part. Those 14 scrambled lines about me are followed by three paragraphs of text which demonstrate that Blackwell is both knowledgeable and insightful about the stories I wrote for EQMM back in the Seventies and early Eighties when Fred Dannay was still alive and editing. This strange dichotomy, that the material in coherent sentences is of a much higher order than what is found in the lists, persists throughout Blackwell’s 218 pages.

   It’s almost as if he had completed the part of the book that consists of sentences and then turned the list-making function over to an ignoramus. The sentences contain very few factual flubs (the main one I caught being that Erle Stanley Gardner’s scam-artist character Lester Leith is identified on page 71 as a criminal lawyer) and plenty of keen observations. All the gaffes I’ve highlighted don’t seriously detract from what Blackwell has accomplished here. If you can turn a blind eye to everything but the good parts, you can learn much from this book.

   Now let’s move away from serious stuff and spend a few minutes with the great wackadoodle of detective-crime fiction.

***

   In the late 1950s the Chicago branch of Mystery Writers of America was a small and sleepy organization, among whose members was our revered filbert Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967). Even though no American publisher had bought a book from him since 1948 and his English publisher had dropped him five years later, Keeler kept up his membership—mainly because it gave him access to just about the only social life he had—and kept hoping his luck would change.

   His closest friend among the members was W.T. Brannon (1906-1981), an eyepoppingly prolific author of true-crime pieces for magazines. The members he seemed to envy most deeply were Richard Himmel (1920-2000) and Milton K. Ozaki (1913-1989), who had managed to hitch rides on that gravy train of 1950s popular fiction, the original paperback novel.

   Keeler was no more equipped to write for that market than is a toad to perform a Louis Vierne organ symphony, but every so often he’d make a half-hearted stab in that direction. THE AFFAIR OF THE BOTTLED DEUCE (Ramble House, 2009).seems to have started out as one of those stabs.

   This 65,000-word novel, completed on August 15, 1958, was immediately followed by THE STRAW HAT MURDERS, which I discussed in this column a few months ago, and THE CASE OF THE TRANSPARENT NUDE, which I may take up later this year. What makes all three rarae aves in the Keeler Kanon is that they might pass in a pea-soup fog for the kinds of softcover originals about tough cops tackling crime in the big city’s mean streets that were being published regularly by Gold Medal, Ace, Avon, Dell, Pyramid and countless other houses of the time.

   Pull down Fender Tucker’s A TO IZZARD: A HARRY STEPHEN KEELER COMPANION (Ramble House, 2002), turn to the collection of opening paragraphs from Harry’s novels in the bibliography at the end of this matchless tome, and compare the first lines of BOTTLED DEUCE with those of every other novel he wrote during the year or so before and after. See the difference?

   Police Captain Michael Simko, day-chief of Chicago Avenue Police Station, raised the telephone on his battered desk as it rang raucously.
   “Chicago Avenue Police Station,” he said wearily.

   One might almost believe Harry thought that if he aped the pb-original manner for a few pages, some editor would send him a contract and advance without bothering to read further! It didn’t work, of course. BOTTLED DEUCE was published nowhere—not in the U.S., not in England, not even in Spain where a number of his Fifties novels had been appearing as originals—until the Ramble House edition which came out early in 2005.

   Among the paperback thriller specialists of the Eisenhower years were some first-rate talents: David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Day Keene, Harry Whittington, John D. MacDonald, Jonathan Craig and Ed McBain, just to name seven. If what you want is not what these guys offered but the unreconstructed nut that was our Harry, fear not. BOTTLED DEUCE begins as he introduces us to his versions of pb-original Homicide cops: Louis TenEyck Ousley, skinny and wart-faced and called Lousy Lou by all and sundry—a nice role for Dan Duryea if by some miracle the movie rights in this then unpublished and by sane standards unpublishable book had been sold back in the Fifties!—and Homer “Butterball” Tomaroy, who resembles a human dumpling and would have been a perfect part for Lou Costello.

   Then Harry quickly forgets what he started out to accomplish and the train of plot switches onto the tracks we know and love. Lythgoe Crockett, a naive and paranoid young man living in a dump in Chicago’s Little Italy while trying to write the Great American Novel—his costume while in the throes of composition being bathing trunks and grass slippers!—apparently shot himself in the head in his apartment, all of whose doors and windows are locked from the inside, shortly after receiving a package containing a deuce of diamonds in a bottle. What could have motived and motivated such an act?

   Then when Lousy Lou discovers that the gun dangling from Crockett’s nerveless hand is made of wax, the question morphs into: Why would anyone commit murder in such a cockamamie way, and how could both murderer and weapon have vanished from Crockett’s sealed apartment? In time the answers seem to emerge, and Rilla Kenshaw, girl magician, finds herself in jail and indicted for the crime by sadistic State’s Attorney Herman Kober, her only hope being the lone-wolf investigation of Lousy Lou, with sympathetic nods from Assistant State’s Attorney Chalfont Nortell.

   Eventually Harry allows himself to vent some pet peeves, notably the sex-obsessed nature of current best-sellers like PHAETON PLACE and—talk about biting the hand he hoped would feed him!—of the novels published as 25-cent paperback originals. The case climaxes with a reconstruction of events in Crockett’s apartment, presided over by Lousy Lou but dominated by Sheridan Overturf, a bottom-rung magazine publisher whose like Harry had dealt with and worked for in his salad days as an editor.

   If you’re familiar with the milestones of detective fiction, you won’t long wonder why in the late chapters Harry introduces—in his own inimitable way, by having other characters talk about him!—one Jamrock James, a.k.a. Old Sherlock Holmes the II’d. Any Sherlockian who gives the matter some thorght should be able to anticipate the ultimate gimmick in this book, although the trappings are a million times zanier than Conan Doyle’s.

   BOTTLED DEUCE isn’t in the same league with the Keeler Klassics of the Eisenhower era like THE STREET OF A THOUSAND EYES and THE RIDDLE OF THE WOODEN PARRAKEET, but it’s wackily satisfying in its own terms and all true Harryphiles huzzahed loudly when it finally became available. So might you if you care—or should I say dare?—to check it out.

    —

Editor’s Note:   Thanks to graphic designer-artist Gavin L. O’Keefe for providing me with both front and back cover images for the Keeler book, done most stylistically in the 1940s Dell mapback mode.

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


   Something like four years separate the first three of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels from the next two. The fourth in the series, A STAB IN THE DARK (Arbor House, 1981), begins as usual in Scudder’s favorite bar-restaurant, where he’s approached by Mr. London, a prosperous insurance exec with an unusual problem.

   Nine years ago his daughter had been the sixth of eight victims of a psycho killer known as the Icepick Prowler. Recently the perp has been caught and confessed to having slaughtered all the women—except Number Six, for whose murder he has an unshakable alibi.

   As chance would have it, Scudder had been briefly involved with that crime back in his cop days. Now he’s offered a sizable fee to reopen the old case and try to track down the copycat who committed the one ice-pick murder the Prowler didn’t.

   Even in the earliest Scudder novels Block tended to reduce plot to a bare minimum and concentrate on relationships, the sense of the city, and characters, first and foremost of course that of Scudder with his alcohol problem. These tendencies continue in A STAB IN THE DARK, which is a bit longer than any of the earlier Scudders so that many readers might expect more in the way of plot complications.

   What they get is fewer. Fueled by frequent pit stops for bourbon, our unlicensed PI proceeds methodically through various Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods. Almost halfway through the novel he describes his method, which is reminiscent of Simenon’s Maigret: “You gather details and soak up impressions, and then the answer pops into your mind out of nowhere.”

   There’s no violence along the way except yet another encounter with a teen-age mugger which, like the similar encounter in THE SINS OF THE FATHERS, has nothing to do with the plot.

   This time however, it’s connected with two of the book’s themes. One is the decline and fall of the city. A madman known as the Slasher has been carving up passersby on First Avenue. A 13-year-old boy has recently shot two women behind their ears. There’s been an upturn in muggings. “It’s wonderful how the quality of urban life keeps getting better.”

   The other is the effect of drinking on Scudder’s reactions to a violent situation. These elements create a context for the scene which didn’t exist in THE SINS OF THE FATHERS. Ultimately Scudder finds the ice-pick killer’s imitator, whose motive for murder takes a lot of believing although it helps us understand why this time there’s no question of private vengeance.

   Block manages to integrate the single violent episode in the novel with one of its main themes, but as far as I can tell he fails to do so with an episode of a radically different nature. In the midst of his investigation Scudder becomes involved with an alcoholic woman who’s been going to AA meetings. During one of their conversations she quotes the last six lines of Dylan Thomas’ “A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London.” I’ll limit myself to the first and last lines of the six.

   “Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter….


   After the first death there is no other.”

   Scudder is oddly moved by the lines: “There’s a door in there somewhere if I could just find the handle to it.” Later he visits a bookstore and finds the complete poem. “I read it all the way through….There were parts I didn’t think I understood, but I liked the sound of them anyway, the weight and shape of the words….”

   The subject never comes up again. Except for the obvious connection that the woman whose murderer he’s seeking is the daughter of a man named London, I can’t find the ghost of a link between “A Refusal to Mourn” and this novel. To hunt for one, you need only google Thomas’ name and the title of his poem.

   Another theme Block hints at but doesn’t pursue has to do with legal ethics. Relatively late in the novel, Scudder gets in touch with the attorney assigned to defend the genuine Icepick Prowler.

   “….Anybody crazy enough to want to could get him off without a lot of trouble….[I]f I made a fight the State’s case wouldn’t stand up….There’s lawyers who think the advocate system means they should go to bat for a guy like [the psycho killer] and put him back on the streets….Again between ourselves, I think lawyers with that attitude ought to be in jail alongside their clients.”

   It’s almost as if Block had foreseen Martin Scorsese’s version of CAPE FEAR (1991), which takes off from the premise that a lawyer (Nick Nolte) assigned to defend a sadistic rapist (Robert De Niro) threw the case because he knew what a menace his client was.

   Many law professors had something to say about that movie and most of them took the position that Nolte’s character was a Judas, a traitor to the legal system. My own take can be found in Chapter 8 of my book JUDGES & JUSTICE & LAWYERS & LAW (2014). I do wish Block had had more to say on this issue.

   He does have more to say about his protagonist. Scudder still lives in the same bleak hotel room, still tithes, still drops into churches at odd moments: “I didn’t say any prayers. I never do.” He continues to dip into that Lives of the Saints book we’ve seen in earlier novels. “The martyrs held a curious fascination for me. They’d found such a rich variety of ways of dying.”

   But clearly he’s drinking more than ever, to the point where we live through a blackout with him. Despite his involvement with a woman who’s trying AA, he doesn’t feel that route is right for him. At the end of the novel he and the woman put their relationship on hold by mutual consent and life goes on.

***

   EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE (Arbor House, 1982) is the fifth Scudder novel and at least twice as long as most of the previous four. At the time, Block seriously considered ending the series with this one. As he explained to interviewer Ernie Bulow, “Although each of the five books is a novel, complete in itself, it seemed to me as though they constituted one five-volume novel, and that had come to an end….” (78)

   Scudder is hired by a top-tier call girl who wants to break with her pimp and start life over but is afraid he’ll retaliate by having her disfigured or killed and brings in Matt as her go-between. The pimp, a cultivated black Vietnam veteran known as Chance, who lives in a converted firehouse and has a connoisseur’s taste in coffee and African art, assures Scudder that the woman is free to leave him. The call girl takes Scudder to bed as a sort of bonus.

   A few days later she’s found in a luxury hotel on Sixth Avenue in the Sixties, slashed to ribbons with a machete, her face hacked into “an unrecognizable mess.” A Hispanic clerk in the hotel, who may have recognized the slasher when he checked in, or perhaps was just an illegal immigrant fearing the law, mysteriously vanishes and is never found. Chance, the obvious prime suspect, swears he’s innocent and hires Scudder to clear him.

   It’s one of Block’s most powerful springboard situations and, especially in view of the book’s length, one expects an equally powerful plot. Block doesn’t oblige us. Having just reduced plot to a bare minimum in A STAB IN THE DARK, this time he offers us even less. What he concentrates on is Scudder’s worsening problem with liquor, his interactions with various cops and lowlifes and the other women in Chance’s stable, one aspiring to be a poet, another to be an actress, a third flirting with suicide.

   Block wants to paint a realistic picture of late-20th-century New York City, having Scudder read a parade of atrocity stories in the daily newspapers—stories that Block took from life. As he told Bulow, “Every day I would pick up a copy of the Daily News before I got on the subway,…and on the ride I would read about one outrage after another, and those would be the ones that I would specifically mention the next day. The city never failed me. It always supplied something for Scudder to read and remark about.” (89)

   It’s small wonder if we empathize with the drunken rant of stressed-out cop Joe Durkin in Chapter Fourteen which gives the book its title:

   “Bring back the chair and televise the fucking executions….We got the death penalty. Not for murderers. For ordinary citizens. Everybody out there runs a better chance of getting killed than a killer does of getting the chair. We get the death penalty five, six, seven times a day….You know what you got in this city, this fucked-up toilet of a naked fucking city?….You got eight million ways to die.”

   Any reader who imagines Block is thinking only of New York City is quickly corrected by what he told Bulow: “The faults that Scudder sees in the city, I think,…are universal these days. I think the whole country and the whole world is like that.” (55)

   Scudder reads and is told about countless psycho-sadistic incidents, and eventually encounters one as a teen-age black mugger emerges from a Harlem alley and accosts him, clearly intending to both rob and kill him. In this entire long novel’s only brutal onstage sequence, Scudder smashes the kid’s face and breaks both his legs.

   As we’ve seen, there have been similar mugging incidents in previous Scudders that were just as irrelevant to the plots of the books they appear in as this one is, but none were as deliberately sadistic as the one in EIGHT MILLION WAYS. It’s almost as if Block were trying to out-Spillane the Mick.

   About two-thirds of the way through the book comes another slasher murder, the victim this time being a transsexual street whore hacked to death in a sleazy Queens sex-and-porn motel, a crime that at last returns us to the main thread of the plot. After a visit to the Parke Bernet art gallery Scudder channels Maigret, suddenly intuiting the truth without benefit of anything remotely resembling a clue. Then he sets himself up as the next target for the slasher, who appears for exactly three paragraphs and is quickly disposed of in a sequence that is something of a take-off of the shower scene from PSYCHO.

   Didn’t this creep deserve a gruesomely painful end like his spiritual brother in the later Scudder novel A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, or at least something comparable to what the black mugger got earlier in EIGHT MILLION WAYS? The name of the person whose treachery ignited the whole mess is mentioned just a few times, and not only does he never appear onstage but at the novel’s end no one knows if he’s alive or dead.

   Clearly the portrayal of the city was vital to Block in EIGHT MILLION WAYS, but at least equally important was the evolution in Scudder. Every so often he drops in at an AA meeting but, as Block told Bulow, “when it comes his turn to talk, he always says ‘My name’s Matt, I’ll pass.’”

   EIGHT MILLION WAYS ends differently. Eleven days sober and having come within an inch of returning to drink, he again attends an evening meeting at St. Paul’s church in his neighborhood. “I thought about…going back to my hotel….I’d been up two days and a night without a break. Some sleep would do me more good than a meeting I couldn’t pay attention to in the first place.”

   But he stays, and when it’s his turn to speak, “‘My name is Matt,’ I said, ‘and I’m an alcoholic.’” The final words of the book: “And the goddamndest thing happened. I started to cry.” For Block this scene is crucial. “Scudder comes to terms with his alcoholism and goes through catharsis there,” (78) he told Bulow . This explains why he seriously thought about abandoning his protagonist at this point. It’s the good fortune of millions of readers that he changed his mind.

***

   The most important living writer of private-eye novels at the time EIGHT MILLION WAYS appeared was Ross Macdonald, who died a year later, in 1983. If some of the Lew Archer novels that propelled him to stardom were perhaps too densely plotted, EIGHT MILLION WAYS is clearly their polar opposite.

   Could Block have been trying to create the most plotless PI novel possible? If so, he made it work. EIGHT MILLION WAYS is intensely engrossing from first page to last, and remains for Block himself and for a huge number of his countless readers one of the finest of the whole lengthy Scudder series.

   The 1986 movie of the same name, starring Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette, was the last feature directed by Hal Ashby (1929-1988), who had won a film editing Oscar for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) and had helmed such hits as HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971) and COMING HOME (1978).

   The script was co-written by the no less distinguished Oliver Stone. The big names didn’t help. LEONARD MALTIN’S MOVIE AND VIDEO GUIDE rightly calls the picture a bomb, with “only faint resemblance to Lawrence Block’s fine novel.” I won’t waste time or words summarizing its plot or detailing how it differs from the book. Masochists who wish to do so may consult Google.

      —

NOTE: All page numbers refer to Lawrence Block & Ernie Bulow’s book of conversations AFTER HOURS (University of New Mexico Press, 1995).


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


   I had thought to devote my final column of the year to the next segment of my series about Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels, but a bout of ill health interfered. So this month we’ll turn to something extinct that I wrote perhaps 15 years ago, about a writer as far removed from Block as it’s possible to imagine: the nuttiest filbert who ever pounded on typewriter keys. I refer, as if you hadn’t guessed, to Harry Stephen Keeler.

***

   Harry (1890-1967) had been pounding that keyboard since around the outbreak of World War I, but in the early 1950s his career was in a death spiral. He had lost first a major and then a distinctly minor U.S. publisher (Dutton and Phoenix respectively) and would soon lose his British publisher Ward Lock. In his own wacko way he worked desperately to adapt to new markets and new styles. Seeing that science fiction was enjoying boom times, he tried his hand at that genre. The result was a series of commercially impossible novels whose protagonist is a house. Seeing that the police procedural represented the new wave in detective fiction, he tried his hand at that genre too. The result was another string of commercially impossible novels, each featuring a different Chicago police detective as the main character but having about as much relation to, say, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series as a toad has to grand opera.

   One of these books was The Straw Hat Murders, which was never been published anywhere in his lifetime, not even in Spain where he remained in print almost until his death. It was completed on October 14, 1958 and, weighing in at roughly 48,000 words, is one of the shortest novels he ever wrote. If offered by a trade-book publisher today, it would probably be blurbed as dealing with a big-city cop’s hunt for a serial killer. Which would be a technically accurate description but wildly misleading.

   We open on a street under an abandoned Elevated line as Huntoon Cambourne, British-born chief of homicide in Chicago’s police department, is parking his car on the way to investigate a telephone message from patrolman Aert de Gelder: “S.O.T.! No. 633.” None but a Keeler Kop would have made such a cryptic report but Cambourne has had no trouble deciphering it. “For what could ‘S.O.T.’ stand for but ‘Same Old Thing’?” Clearly there’s been yet another homicide in the piano studio on the third floor of the warehouse building at 633 South Street.

   “Yes, the Straw Hat Murderer—killer of four pianists—must have struck again. Springing—the crazy fool!—across that 7-foot gap in the roofs, three stories up—to get to the single and only ingress that could bring him into the murder studio, the roof trap. Must have struck—unless, perchance, ‘S.O.T.’ stood for something like—like ‘Samuel O. Torber’—or ‘Saul O. Tabwith’—at 633 Wabash Avenue—or 633 Dearborn Street —or—

   “But if he had struck again, Cambourne reflected, leaving the car, had he again left behind him the straw hat which, apparently, he wore, or carried, to every killing, rain, snow, shine, or sun? And had he, as in the last four cases, contemptuously, triumphantly, dropped his usual $20 goldpiece into the repository of the blind, deaf beggar around the corner, to mark his own flight to the [nearby railroad] depot? And thus make evident to the police the sheer futility of search for him? This latter being a theory, only, of Cambourne’s.”

   The building is owned by Max Goldfarb, who runs a secondhand office furniture store across the street as had his father Emmanuel and his grandfather Abraham before him. Emmanuel had bricked up the front entrance and all the front windows of the warehouse so that the only way in is via the back door, which is secured by an impenetrable lock. His will had specified that the room on the third floor must be preserved as is, complete with the $3000 grand piano on which after his wife’s death he had played the songs she had loved, so Max had advertised in Chicago’s foreign-language newspapers that the studio could be rented cheaply by piano students.

   Even after his tenants began getting knocked off—Robert Hordon and Charles Amodie stabbed in the back, Gustav Einhorn shot at point blank range, Louise Wanstreet strangled, and a straw hat of a different size and style found near each corpse—Max kept the killer’s apparent method of entry unsecured because under the fire laws he’ll be fined $1000 and sentenced to a year in jail if he nails up the roof trap. We learn all this and more, including the fact that a new $20 gold piece has been dropped into the receptacle of blind and deaf Piggy Bank Pete, before Cambourne clambers over the rooftops in imitation of what he takes to be the killer’s modus operandi and discovers that the fifth tenant, Elftherios Paleogus, has become the fifth victim—and that a fifth straw hat is in the murder room. When he can’t solve the crime, Cambourne is fired and returns to England where he rises to high position at Scotland Yard.

   All this happens in the first 72 pages of typescript, and only then do we learn that those pages did not take place in the present, as until this point we had every reason to assume, but twenty years in the past; which means, considering the date of the book’s composition, around 1938. Careful readers will note that in his efforts to fool us Harry didn’t play quite fair: the European conflict of 1914-18 was never referred to as World War I until, at the very earliest, the outbreak of World War II!

   Chapters 15 through 18 propel us forward ten years, roughly to 1948. A man in blue spectacles, who has no connection with the hero of Keeler’s classic The Spectacles of Mr. Cagloostro but used to be a world champion standing leaper with the nickname of The Human Frog, spends $20 on a long-distance phone call from Chicago to Cambourne’s office at Scotland Yard and claims to be the Straw Hat killer. The caller’s name is Steward Pann but the manuscript shows that originally it had been Peter Pann. Imagine Harry changing a character’s name because he thought it was too bizarre! The final chapters take place yet another decade later.

   In an endless conversation at London’s Carlton Club with his childhood friend Guy Standidge, who’s spent most of his life in faraway Kenya, Cambourne explains the true solution of the Straw Hat murders, which kulminates in the kind of Koindydink that Harry’s fans have come to love him for.

   Keeler does slip up here and there on points of motivation and motiving—how the murderer got hold of all his weapons is disposed of in a few perfunctory and speculative lines—but blesses us with some fine specimens of eccentric prose, two of which are worth singling out. He describes a multi-deck parking structure as “[o]ne of those places…where cars wind up and up and around—for 3 stories up sometimes—with white concrete ramps that look like strands of giant spaghetti….” Later he evokes a classical pianist at practice. “[T]he majesty—the very staccato trippery of his playing, here and there, showed that his whole ten fingertips must have been virtually little lambs, gamboling, playing hop, skip and jump—dancing the light fantastic, upon a green consisting of monotonous oblongs that formed a keyboard….”

   The Straw Hat Murders is the only Keeler title I can recall in which a family of Jews figures prominently. If one were to judge solely by the portrayal of Max Goldfarb—“dark and swarthy, with a huge beak of a nose and glittering black eyes” and “unusually thick lips”—it would take a Johnnie Cockroach to get Keeler acquitted of anti-Semitism. But precisely because the plot seems to require one stereotypical Jewish character of the worst sort, Harry goes out of his way to emphasize that the rest of the Goldfarbs are (living or dead) saints. “Max, your father…was, from all I hear, the finest old man this block ever had….You, Max, are greedy—self-seeking, and, in some ways, a murderer.”

   Late in the book Cambourne makes it clear to his pal Standidge that Max’s little daughter Rose from the early chapters, now grown up and married to a man named Yudelson, rivals her grandfather in wonderfulness. And at the climax Keeler even makes a stab at explaining anti-Semitism. “All hatreds of the Jewish race, Guy, stem out of the fact that one Jew has injured the hater sometime in the past. Then the whole race gets hated—by the victim.” I can’t help suspecting that STRAW HAT was never published in Franco’s fascist Spain precisely because all but one Jewish character was so admirable.

   Late in life Harry seems to have developed a genius for choosing the road through the yellow wood that no one in his right mind would travel by. His stabs at s-f and the police procedural are wacky to the max, and when he fiddled with serious issues like anti-Semitism he left himself wide open to misinterpretation. But then, if the novels he wrote in his last years had been conventionally acceptable, he wouldn’t have been our Harry. In The Straw Hat Murders he was quintessentially himself.

***

   Bill Pronzini would doubtless have called The Straw Hat Murders an alternative classic, but it’s most unlikely to appeal to admirers of, say, the Scudder novels of Lawrence Block. Still the question remains to be asked: If what I’ve written has piqued your curiosity, where might you obtain a copy? For the answer I can only refer you to that friend of all book lovers everywhere, Radhakrishnan Google. Good luck and happy holidays!

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


   This month I deal with the second and third of Lawrence Block’s novels about unlicensed PI Matt Scudder, but where I should begin presents a quandary because the print and Web sources I’ve consulted disagree as to which book is which. Apparently the one Block wrote right after THE SINS OF THE FATHERS was published a few months after the third book in the series. Decisions, decisions. I choose to cover them in the order in which they were written.

***

   The source of the title TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE (Dell #8701, paperback original, 1977) is a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which makes it the only one of the first three Scudders with a title not derived from a religious text. But it’s also the only one of the trio which is introduced by a motto, and this comes from a religious source.

   The version Block uses is too long to quote here, but it comes from the Talmud, specifically from the tractate SANHEDRIN, 4:5. A more succinct version of the first half of the passage — “Who kills one man kills the whole world” — -is found in a diary Cornell Woolrich left behind after his death. The second half of the quotation is also Talmudic — “Who saves one life saves the whole world” or, as it’s given in SCHINDLER’S LIST, “He who saves the life of one man saves the entire world” — but no one in Block’s novel brings up that line which, as we’ll see, is supremely relevant.

   If we know that this third Scudder novel in order of publication was the second in order of writing, its connections with THE SINS OF THE FATHERS stand out. Scudder of course still tithes, and visits churches when he needs to think, and keeps a Lives of the Saints book in his hotel room, although this time he doesn’t tell us any stories from it. Looking forward to the novel that in fact was published before this one, we find briefly mentioned a special prosecutor looking into police corruption, a subject that would be (was?) central in the third Scudder, which appeared on newsstands before the second.

   As usual in the novels from the time where Block’s protagonist is a practicing alcoholic, we begin in a bar. Scudder is approached by a small-time information peddler known as the Spinner who has come into big money thanks to blackmailing several wealthy people with dark pasts but has also become afraid that one of his marks is out to kill him.

   For a $320 fee (the price of the elegant suit the blackmailer is wearing) Scudder agrees to hold the envelope containing Spinner’s evidence against his victims and, if his client is indeed rubbed out, to open the envelope and identify and punish the murderer without exposing the victims who had meekly submitted to extortion. About two months later the Spinner is found dead in the East River with his skull crushed.

   Scudder opens the envelope, finds out who his suspects are and what they did, and comes into each of their lives, claiming to be carrying on Spinner’s blackmail, hoping that one of them will try to kill him as Spinner was killed. Unlike THE SINS OF THE FATHERS, the situation this time is filled with suspense and menace and violence that are integral to the plot.

   In due course Scudder identifies the person responsible for Spinner’s murder but again exacts his own form of punishment rather than turning the person over to the law. Perhaps he would have accomplished nothing if he had gone to the police since, as Block specifically mentions, the morally responsible party had done no more than what Henry II did when, at the height of his feud with Thomas à Becket, he is said to have cried out: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” (The line doesn’t come from T.S. Eliot’s 1932 play MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL, in which Henry doesn’t even appear as a character, but it is found in Jean Anouilh’s 1959 play BECKET which was the basis of the 1964 movie of the same name starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.)

   What compounds the irony is that Scudder himself earlier in the novel has done something similar, inadvertently driving an innocent suspect to suicide by demanding more blackmail money. “His finger had pulled the trigger, but I’d put the gun in his hand by playing my game a little too well.”

   Scudder also killed a hit man — in self-defense, in a vividly described mano a mano — but in the final chapter, admittedly employing guesswork, he shows another of the innocent suspects that his killing the man probably saved two other lives. Now we see the relevance of the part of the Talmudic passage Block did not quote. Could he have thought that bringing it up would have made the book too morally ambivalent? “Who takes a life saves two whole worlds” doesn’t sound terribly Talmudic.

   The part of the Talmud passage Block does quote carries forward the theme in THE SINS OF THE FATHERS that the worst deed of all is murder.

   But there is a difference between murder and other crimes, and the world is a worse place for the murderers it allows to walk unpunished.

   “You think human life is sacred, then?”

   “I don’t know if I believe that anything is sacred….I don’t know if human life is sacred. I just don’t like murder….”

***

   IN THE MIDST OF DEATH (Dell #4037, paperback, 1976) has no introductory motto but resembles THE SINS OF THE FATHERS in that the source of its title is religious, specifically a line from the burial service of the Book of Common Prayer: “In the midst of life we are in death.”

   In the body of this novel, however. there are very few religious allusions. Scudder becomes involved when a plainclothes cop unaccountably decides to turn Serpico and reveal everything he knows about corruption in the NYPD to the special prosecutor who was mentioned casually in TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE. Then a high-priced hooker comes forward and publicly accuses the cop of having extorted $100 a week from her for a long time. Soon after Scudder enters the case on the cop’s side, the hooker is found murdered in the whistleblower’s secret apartment in Greenwich Village, with the police determined to pin the crime on the traitor who was exposing their dirty secrets.

   This time there’s no onstage violence, and Scudder stays pretty much within the law except for a brief scene where, after having sex with his client’s wife, he breaks into the secret apartment and spends the night sleeping in the cop’s pajamas.

   As in THE SINS OF THE FATHERS, Scudder is asked about his drinking, and his answer this time is more ambivalent.

   “Are you an alcoholic?”

   “Well, what is an alcoholic? I suppose I drink enough to qualify. It doesn’t keep me from functioning. Yet. I suppose it will eventually.”

   But in this novel we get to see Scudder too drunk to function, and at the end he at least is thinking about cutting back on the booze. But his view of murder remains, shall we say, Talmudic.

   “[M]urder is different. Taking a human life, that’s something completely different….Nobody should ever be allowed to get away with that.”

   And his view of human nature is as bleak as ever.

   “Everybody’s weird….Sometimes it’s a sexual thing, sometimes it’s a different kind of weirdness, but one way or another everybody’s nuts. You, me, the whole world.”

   That’s not Scudder speaking but it surely represents his thinking.

***

   TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE, my favorite among the first three Scudders, was nominated for an Edgar award as best paperback mystery of the year. In light of that fact plus Block’s towering reputation today, it’s hard to believe that the three did not sell well. But they didn’t, and Scudder lay dormant until early in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, when Block resurrected him in two more novels, this time for a hardcover publisher (Arbor House), after which he again let his character lapse. The fourth and fifth Scudders will be covered next month.

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


   Let’s pretend we’re playing Jeopardy!, shall we? The category is Mystery Writers. Here’s the clue. This well-known crime novelist’s first short story appeared in January 1958, when he was nineteen, and today, more than sixty years later, he’s still active.

   The question, as every reader of this column should know, is: Who is Lawrence Block? In the PI world, which is all we’re concerned with here, his main claim to fame is the New York-based eye-without-a-license Matthew Scudder. Over the decades I reviewed many of the Scudder novels for the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat,but I’ve never covered the first three in the series. Isn’t it about time I did?

***

   At the beginning of The Sins of the Fathers (Dell pb #7991, 1976), Scudder is in a bar, meeting what, if he were licensed, we could call a potential client, a moneyed entrepreneur from upstate New York whose estranged daughter was recently slashed to death with a razor in the West Village. According to all the evidence the murderer was the young man with whom she shared a Bethune Street apartment, a minister’s son, who came out onto the street covered in her blood and confessed to the crime before hanging himself in his jail cell.

   The dead woman’s father, apparently on some sort of guilt trip, hires Scudder to find out more about the last years of her life. We then follow the unlicensed eye as he methodically gathers information, learning much about various people whose lives touched one or the other of the youthful dead. Finally he connects the dots to form a picture radically at odds with what seems to have happened.

   “The Scudder series was conceived as a series and contracted for as a series,” Block told interviewer Ernie Bulow, adding that the first three novels about the character were written “in ’74 or ’75—or maybe they were all in ’74, I’m not sure.” Ross Macdonald was still alive at the time but near the end of his career, and Dell, the original publisher of the series, promoted Block’s protagonist as “New York’s answer to Lew Archer.”

   The comparison makes some sense. Both Macdonald in his later novels and Block in his first Scudder novel deal centrally with dysfunctional families, and both the early Scudder and the late Archer are in some sense psychiatrists manqués. But as we follow Scudder’s information-gathering we’re also reminded of Hammett, especially of the longer Continental Op stories like “The Girl with the Silver Eyes.”

   There is, however, a huge difference. The Op’s step-by-step investigations tend to morph into violent action scenes whereas, at least in The Sins of the Fathers , there’s no shadowy “player on the other side” determined to prevent the protagonist from learning the truth and therefore no violence, except for the scene in Chapter 12 where Scudder momentarily becomes a Mike Hammer figure, breaking the fingers of a teen-age mugger’s right hand.

   The scene is irrelevant to the plot and may have been inserted simply because Block or the publisher decided there had to be violence somewhere in the book.

   That would explain the violence but wouldn’t account for the pervasive element that makes The Sins of the Fathers all but unique in PI fiction: religion. The title comes from a number of Biblical verses—Deuteronomy 5:9-10, Exodus 20:5-6, Numbers 14:18—on the theme that the fathers’ sins are visited upon the children.

   Then in the book’s first paragraph we find: “[T]he full effect of his face was as a blank stone tablet waiting for someone to scratch commandments on it.” In the same scene Scudder reminds us that “Cain said he wasn’t Abel’s keeper” and proceeds to explain to his potential client why he quit the NYPD after fifteen years.

   “I lost the faith.”

   “Like a priest?”

   “Something like that.”

   As he explains a few pages later, his quitting had nothing to do with religion:

   “I was off duty one night in the summer. I was in a bar in Washington Heights where cops didn’t have to pay for their drinks. Two kids held up the place. On their way out they shot the bartender in the heart. I chased them into the street. I shot one of them dead and caught the other in the thigh….One shot went wide and ricocheted. It caught a seven-year-old girl in the eye…and it went right on into her brain. They tell me she died instantly….Then I resigned. I just didn’t want to be a cop anymore.”

   Why then did Block throw in that religious reference? Obviously because it was meaningful to him.

   At the end of the chapter Scudder shares with us one of the habits he picked up since leaving the force: ;

   I tithe. I don’t know why. It’s become a habit, as indeed it has become my habit to visit churches….

   I like churches. I like to sit in them when I have things to think about….

   The Catholics get more of my money than anybody else. Not that I’m partial to them, but because they put in longer hours….

   Later, when he interviews the minister who was the dead boy’s father, their dialogue is filled with religious allusions:

   “Are you a Christian, Mr. Scudder?”

   “No.”

   “A Jew?”

   “I have no religion.”

   “How sad for you….Do you believe in good and evil, Mr. Scudder?”

   “Yes, I do.”

   “Do you believe that there is a such a thing as evil extant in the world?”

   “I know there is.”

   “So do I….It would be difficult to believe otherwise, whatever one’s religious outlook. A glance at a daily newspaper provides enough evidence of the existence of evil.”

   In Chapter 14, near the end of the novel, Scudder picks up a Lives of the Saints book he keeps in his hotel room—name one other PI in fiction who’d be likely to have that sort of volume handy!—and recounts for us the story of St. Maria Goretti, who chose to be stabbed to death rather than submit to rape, and of her killer who after 27 years in prison knelt beside the girl’s mother to receive Communion. “I always find something interesting in that book,” he says, although its relevance to the plot remains, dare I say it, a mystery.

    Just one page later, sipping bourbon-laced coffee in a bar, he reflects on the start of the chain of events he’s become involved in. “Maybe it was Eve’s fault, messing around with apples. Dangerous thing, giving humanity the knowledge of good and evil….” In Chapter 15, just before exposing the murderer, he tells the story of the akedah, Abraham’s obedience to God’s demand that he offer his only son Isaac as a human sacrifice, an allusion that is definitely relevant. And, just before the end of the novel, Scudder tells his adversary, whose suicide he’s about to enable, that he regards suicide as a sin:

   “….If I didn’t I probably would have killed myself years ago. There are worse sins.”

   “Murder?”

   “That’s one of them.”

   For one who has no religion, Scudder certainly has a lot to say about the subject. The religious dimension is less important in the later novels about him, although he continues his tithing habit and also makes a practice of attending the so-called Butchers’ Mass with his friend the stone killer Mick Ballou.

   But religion is only one fascinating aspect of The Sins of the Fathers . Another is alcohol. Clearly Scudder has a drinking problem, precipitated by the same incident that caused him to leave the NYPD and his wife and young sons and burrow into a shell. But he’s not an alcoholic. We have his word for it:

   “When did you ever see me drunk?”

   “Never. And I never saw you when you weren’t drinking.”

   “It’s a nice middle ground.”

   Eventually he’ll identify as an alcoholic and join AA, which figures as prominently in some later Scudders as religion does in this one.

   And there’s yet a third recurring theme: vigilantism. In Chapter 14, right after telling us about Maria Goretti, Scudder is discussing his present case with Trina, his barmaid buddy and casual sex partner, when he suddenly changes the subject to a crime he’d investigated back in his days as a cop, the rape and brutal murder of a 20-year-old woman.

   Scudder and his partner knew instinctively who was guilty but he’d covered himself too well. “…[W]e knew he did it, see, and it was driving us crazy.” Scudder’s partner wanted to “kill him and set him in cement and drop him somewhere in the Hudson.” Scudder, however, “thought of something better.” He framed the murderer as a major heroin dealer and had him put away for 10 to 20 years. In the third year of his sentence “he got in a grudge fight with another inmate and got stabbed to death.”

   Instantly, if we know our Cornell Woolrich, we’re reminded of one of his darkest Noir Cop stories, “Three Kills for One” (Black Mask, July 1942; collected in Night and Fear, 2004). Whether Block was familiar with this story remains unknown but, if he wasn’t, he reinvented it, especially in his Edgar-winning story “By the Dawn’s Early Light” (Playboy, August 1984; collected in Some Days You Get the Bear, 1993), which he later expanded into the Scudder novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986).

   Far more often than most other private eyes, except of course for Mike Hammer and his pedissequi (which means followers in another’s footsteps. God how I love that word!), Scudder goes outside the law to obtain justice or revenge or closure or whatever you want to call it. In some of the later Scudder novels we find Block turning handsprings as he works out new ways for his protagonist to exact private vengeance. William Ruehlmann’s Saint with a Gun came out in 1974, two years or so before Scudder’s debut, but if the book had been published in the late Seventies or the Eighties it would certainly have taken account of Block’s protagonist as one of the more serious specimens of what Ruehlmann called “the unlawful American private eye.”

***

   I was planning to cover all three of the earliest Scudders in a single column but, having gotten carried away by the first, I’ll need to reserve the other two for next month. Please join me then. And if you’re going to the Bouchercon in Dallas, feel free to say hello to me. I’ll be the old bum with the cane.

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