Columns


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

   

   Around 5:30 A.M. on Saturday, January 9, I lost one of my closest friends in the mystery field. John Lutz was the first writer I met after moving to St. Louis in the early 1970s. At that time, when he was in his early thirties and I in my late twenties, he was known only for his short stories in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock and other genre magazines. We grew as writers together, our first hardcover novels coming out a year apart.

    Either more prudent or more cowardly than John, I kept my day job. He chose to write full-time, and soon became very well known indeed, perhaps more for the novel that was turned into the movie SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992) than for any other book. He continued to write until about two years ago when Parkinson’s and other health issues ended his long career.

***

   He was a native Texan, born in Dallas on September 11, 1939. When he was four his photographer father moved the family to St. Louis. Soon after the end of World War II the elder Lutz opened a tavern which he continued to own and operate for more than twenty years. John graduated from Southwest High School in 1957 and, having not the foggiest notion what he wanted to do with his life, found a job as a movie theater usher. The following year, at age 19, he married Barbara Jean Bradley, who worked at the same theater. The marriage lasted more than sixty years.

   A young man who becomes a husband and father before he’s old enough to vote, and who has to support the family putting in long hours at low-level jobs, will rarely have the energy to read for enjoyment, let alone to write, during what little free time he has. John Lutz did. In the early 1960s he was working on various night shifts as a civilian switchboard operator for the St. Louis Police Department, a forklift operator, and a warehouseman for a grocery chain.

   By daylight he was reading voraciously — among his favorites at the time were John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, John Collier, Gerald Kersh and Roald Dahl — and pounding out dozens of his own short stories at warp speed, sometimes not even bothering to make a carbon. When or if he slept remains a mystery. “It looked easy,” he said, “so I tried it and found out it wasn’t.”

   None of his stories sold but that, he said after making the grade, was “part of the learning process.” Dozens of rejection slips in a row have aborted countless potential writing careers but John refused to get discouraged. “I saw I could improve, so I kept at it.” After a while the editors who turned down his material began to write supportive comments in their sorry-we-can’t-use-this letters. “That’s a good sign. I’d know I was close to a sale then.”

   Most of his stories were mysteries because he liked to read them and thought they were relatively easy to sell. One frabjous day in early 1966 he opened his mail and out popped a contract. He was still working the night shift at a grocery warehouse when his first story came out. “Thieves’ Honor” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 1966) opened the door for him, and acceptances soon began pouring in. Six of his tales appeared in 1967, ten in ‘68, five more in ‘69. Within a few years of his unheralded entry into the genre he was being published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, the science-fiction periodical Galaxy, the Diners Club magazine Signature, men’s mags like Knight and Swank and Cavalier.

   But the majority of his stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and many of those are among his finest. In 1975, his tenth year in the field, eighteen new Lutz tales were published including five (under his own name and four pseudonyms) in a single issue of a single magazine. Now that’s productivity!

   Even after 1971 when his first novel was published, John prudently held onto his job as night warehouseman. Eventually he found a better-paying position as a truck driver. In 1973, after being laid off from that job, he decided to take a crack at full-time writing. Two years later he and his wife Barbara and their three children and their dog moved across St. Louis County to a stucco house on a wooded corner lot in suburban Webster Groves, where they lived for the next thirty-odd years.

***

   There are no series characters in most of his short stories but there are what one might call series elements. The two that are identified with him are husbands seeking a method of wife-disposal and off-the-wall business organizations. Occasionally, like the creator of two different series detectives who has his sleuths work together on a particular case, he used both signature elements in a single story, for example “Fractions” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, June 1972), which is about a company that manipulates unwanted spouses into cheating.

   John could create a new business as easily as a rabbit can create another rabbit, but most of his imaginary entities share a common factor. Beneath the impressive facade and the smiles and the handshakes they’re out to take us. He was never all that fond of the self-congratulatory social Darwinism known as the free enterprise system, and even when dealing with businesses that exist in reality he combined a healthy cynicism with imaginative bizarrerie and came up with dandy items like “Mail Order” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, April 1975) and “Understanding Electricity” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, August 1975), which read as if Kafka had come back from the grave to collaborate with Ralph Nader.

   Not all his stories were of this sort, but the best do tend to stem from wildly distinctive premises, like “The Real Shape of the Coast” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1971) with its lunatic detective trying to solve a murder in the asylum, or “Dead Man” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, March 1974) where we share the last hours of a tycoon locked inside a walk-in vault with a few hours’ air supply as he gropes desperately for a clue to the identity of his own murderer.

   His first decade as a writer also saw the publication of his first two novels. THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER (1971) is a paperback about a fugitive couple being stalked across the Midwest by the police but mainly by their own lies and self-deceptions and fears. BUYER BEWARE (1976) introduced St. Louis PI Alo Nudger, whose trademark is a nervous stomach and whose specialty is the legal counter-kidnaping of children kidnaped by non-custodial parents.

   Then came four breakthrough books that established him as a writer to contend with. BONEGRINDER (1977) is a bit like JAWS out of water, pitting a rural sheriff against a Bigfoot-like monster terrorizing a small town in the Ozarks. LAZARUS MAN (1979) is a Watergate-era political thriller in which the G. Gordon Liddy figure gets out of prison determined to kill the Nixon figure and his cronies one by one, only to find that they’re just as bent on killing him.

   JERICHO MAN (1980) is the first but far from the last novel in which John mined the Lawrence Sanders vein of urban violence, with a tough NYPD captain and a young architect battling the madman who planted dynamite in the foundations of several high-rises when they were under construction. In THE SHADOW MAN (1981) a U.S. Senator is stalked through the Manhattan nightscape by what seems to be a psychotic political assassin with the power to be in several places at once.

   John never stopped writing short stories even when he was turning out a novel a year, but his magazine appearances became rarer. A few of his tales from this period featured series characters like Nudger or BONEGRINDER’s Sheriff Billy Wintone, and an occasional non-series story furnished raw material for a later novel, like “The Other Runner” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1978), the source for one of the scariest of the murders in LAZARUS MAN a year later.

   But stories like “Pure Rotten” (Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, August 1977) and “Dear Dorie” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, September 16, 1981) are as crazy as any he dreamed up in his early days, and “High Stakes” (The Saint Mystery Magazine, June 1984) is one of the most terrifying short stories of suspense since the death of Cornell Woolrich.

   The Edgar that Mystery Writers of America awarded him for the Nudger story “Ride the Lightning” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, January 1985), was an honor well deserved and long overdue.

   In THE EYE (1984) John and co-author Bill Pronzini revisited Lawrence Sanders country and came up with a powerful noir thriller. A wealthy madman living in a Jersey Palisades highrise keeps his balcony telescope trained on the residents of a single block of Manhattan’s West 98th Street. His name is God, and those who violate his commandments he kills.

   Assigned to the series of West 98th Street murders is plainclothesman E.L. Oxman, a diligent plodder trapped in a cancerous marriage and desperate for affection on almost any terms. When he takes up with the promiscuous young artist who lives on the murder-plagued block, they both unwittingly nominate themselves as God’s next targets.

   Next John revived Alo Nudger but in a somewhat reconfigured version. The character’s ill-advised first name is almost never mentioned, he no longer specializes in the legal kidnaping of children (or anything else), the narration has shifted from first to third person, and the protagonist’s symbiotic relationship with his city has become almost as strong as Spenser’s with Boston or Philip Marlowe’s with L.A.

   The new Nudger comes close to being a total loser, plagued by overdue bills and deadbeat clients and a bloodsucking ex-wife and shoddy consumer goods and that old nervous stomach and most of all by his near-paralyzing unaggressiveness and compassion.

   His office is above a doughnut shop in a dreary suburb of north St. Louis County. He drives a dented old Volkswagen Beetle that he has trouble finding whenever he parks in a shopping center lot and which tends to die on him for lack of maintenance when he uses it to chase or shadow someone.

   He shares the world of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp: whatever can go wrong for him, will. In NIGHTLINES (1984) Nudger encounters a suicidal woman whose life is even more messed up than his own while hunting the slasher who’s been using the phone company’s private equipment-testing lines to make blind dates with his female victims.

   RIDE THE LIGHTNING (1987), expanded from his Edgar-winning short story, puts Nudger in a hopeless race against the clock to save a petty criminal from being electrocuted for one crime he may not have committed. The tenth and final novel in the series was OOPS! (1998) which, I immodestly point out, was dedicated to me.

   One Nudger book a year left John ample time to launch a second private eye series, this one set in central Florida and featuring a character for whom the perfect movie incarnation would have been Robert Duvall. Fred Carver is a balding fortyish ex-cop whose police career ended when he was kneecapped by a Latino street punk. Vegetating in the beachfront bungalow he bought with his disability pay, Carver is pushed into PI work by friends on the force who want him to stop pitying himself and get on with his life.

   In TROPICAL HEAT (1986) Carver is hired by a lovely realtor to find her lover, who in the middle of a solitary continental breakfast on her terrace either walked out on her for no reason, or jumped off a cliff into the ocean, or was pushed off. The search leads to a condominium time-sharing scam, a drug deal (in Florida what else?), an underwater duel with a knife-wielding Marielito, an airboat chase through the Everglades, and an emotional entanglement which neither Carver nor his client is equipped to handle.

   The plot is of the bare-bones variety but the meat on those bones is prime noir, saturated with vivid descriptions of the Florida heat. All the subsequent Carver novels had one-word titles: SCORCHER, KISS, FLAME, BLOODFIRE, HOT, SPARK, TORCH, BURN, and finally LIGHTNING (1996). For me the finest of the lot is KISS (1988), one of the most disturbing and downbeat of all PI novels.

   Interspersed among his PI books are about sixty short stories published in anthologies of original fiction plus several stand-alone thrillers. SWF SEEKS SAME (1990) is a prime specimen of noir contemporaine in which a young woman in New York advertises for someone to share an apartment with and winds up with the roommate from hell.

   This became by far the best known Lutz novel when it was filmed by director Barbet Schroeder as SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992), starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

   His novels of the 21st century are about twice as long as any of his previous books and, beginning with THE NIGHT CALLER (2001), noir fiction’s favorite word was in the titles of the first half-dozen. Later books followed the lead of JERICHO MAN and THE EYE, concentrating on protracted duels between big-city cop Frank Quinn and various sociopaths.

   In their golden years the Lutzes were living in a lovely house in the affluent suburb of Des Peres that was large enough to accommodate frequent visits from children and grandkids. Their winters were spent in Sarasota and they loved to visit New York for a concentrated week or two of theatergoing.

   John continued to write up a storm, filling his pages with the doings of lovers and losers, butchers and victims, fools and clowns, hunters and prey. His final novel was THE HAVANA GAME (2019).

***

   Over the decades we interacted often. In my second novel, CORRUPT AND ENSNARE (1978), as The Honorable Jon Lutz he was elevated to the rank of justice on a nameless state’s supreme court, and in my short story “The Spark” he became Lon Judson, an author notorious for his stories about husbands killing their wives.

   My fourth novel, THE NINETY MILLION DOLLAR MOUSE (1987), was dedicated to him, and a year later I edited BETTER MOUSETRAPS (1988), his first collection of short stories.

   John and Barb and my late wife Patty and I enjoyed many dinners together at a number of restaurants, of which I most fondly remember the dining room of the Hotel Daniele, right near the line separating St. Louis city from the county seat of Clayton, a restaurant I renamed The Auberge and cannibalized for the fine-dining scene in BENEFICIARIES’ REQUIEM (2000).

   The last time I saw him was in March 2020, shortly before Covid-19 dominated the world. He said nothing, needed a walker to get around, had lost a lot of weight, but he could still function. That soon changed. He deteriorated over the rest of last year and died a little more than a week into this one.

   The only other writers with whom I had such a close and rich relationship were Fred Dannay and Ed Hoch, both of them now long dead. Is it any wonder that as the years pass I feel empty and alone more and more often?

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

   

   After completing five novels about William Crane, Latimer took a break from crime fiction and made an attempt to go mainstream. The result was DARK MEMORY (1940), his last hardcover book to appear in the U.S. for fifteen years, offering us what John Fraser in a Mystery*File essay many years ago called “a Hemingwayesque African safari novel” with “no mystery/thriller/crime fiction aspects to it at all….”

   Then Latimer returned to the PI genre, but carelessly and in great haste and with trimmings American publishers seem to have found repulsive. SOLOMON’S VINEYARD (1941) was issued and apparently sold quite well in Blitzkrieg-battered England but on this side of the pond was available for decades only under a different title and in bowdlerized form. I am lucky enough to have copies of both the censored and the uncensored versions and therefore am in a position to compare them in detail.

   First however I need to describe what happens in VINEYARD, in which Latimer’s obvious goal was to incorporate as many elements from Dashiell Hammett as was humanly possible. Our first-person narrator, St. Louis-based PI Karl Craven, is both fat and tough like Hammett’s Continental Op, although Craven tells us flat out that he cares about nothing but eating, boozing, fighting and sex, while the Op’s only passion is detective work.

   If VINEYARD had made it to the movies he might have been played very effectively by William Conrad as he looked when he portrayed one of the killers in THE KILLERS (1946). Paulton, the Missouri city at which Craven steps off the train as the book begins, is clearly modeled on Poisonville from RED HARVEST, complete with ubiquitous gangsters and corrupt officials and even a sloppy cop in the first chapter.

   Several characters, such as fat Chief Piper and the good-hearted hooker Carmel Todd and her tubercular half-brother, come straight out of HARVEST where their names were Chief Noonan (another fat man), Dinah Brand and Whisper Thaler. Events in both novels are (dare I say it?) triggered by the killing of the son of the town’s richest man (Donald Willsson in HARVEST, Caryle Waterman in VINEYARD), although the latter’s death is not a deliberate murder. Like the Op in HARVEST, Craven spends a good part of VINEYARD manipulating the gangster factions in the town so that they wind up killing each other off.

   But Latimer doesn’t neglect the other Hammett novels. Deeply involved in the sleazy affairs of the community is a bizarre religious cult such as the one the Op tackled in THE DAIN CURSE, and Craven’s mission in Paulton is to get a young woman out of the Temple’s clutches just as the Op tried to do in DAIN. He was preceded on this mission by his partner, who was shot to death not long before Craven’s arrival, and as we all know from THE MALTESE FALCON, when a PI’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.

   It’s not clear whether Latimer borrowed anything from THE GLASS KEY, but Craven does get punched around several times although, unlike Ned Beaumont, he gives back at least as many blows as he receives. From THE THIN MAN nothing seems to have been lifted, perhaps because Latimer had taken his fill from that final Hammett novel in RED GARDENIAS.

   Soon after the war a modified version of VINEYARD was published in Mystery Book Magazine (August 1946) and, a few years later, as a paperback original (Popular Library, pb #301, 1950). Both versions had a new title, THE FIFTH GRAVE, and differed from VINEYARD in several ways, which deserve some exploring:

   (1) The most defensible alteration corrects some gaffes. Three of the minor characters in VINEYARD — the hotel porter, the salesman who gets into a fight with Craven in the hotel bar, and the good-hearted whore’s half-brother — -are all named Charley. In the U.S. version the salesman is rechristened Teddy and the half-brother Donnie. (The corrupt police chief in VINEYARD is named Piper and one of the gangsters killed in a shootout is called Piper Sommes, but the American editors missed this overlap and left both names intact.)

   An especially huge gaffe takes place in Chapter 15 when Craven searches the temple’s treasure vault and finds more than $50,000 in cash including, I am not making this up, thirty $600 bills. In THE FIFTH GRAVE this becomes thirty-one $500 bills. Both versions tell us that a total of $52,100 was found but if you add up the figures in VINEYARD — 25 $1,000 bills, 30 $600, 27 $200, 62 $100 — the sum total is $54,600. It seems that Latimer was writing so fast he couldn’t even get the math right. At least the American editors could add properly.

   (2) The dates on the five gravestones Craven discovers in Chapter 15 of VINEYARD are given as 1937 through 1940, the year the events take place. In the U.S. version, supposedly set when the tale was published in Mystery Book, the years are updated to between 1942 and ‘46. For the same reason the poster Craven notices early in Chapter 17, advertising the Clark Gable movie SAN FRANCISCO (1936), is eliminated.

   (3) Early in VINEYARD Craven sends the hotel porter for magazines, specifying: “Film Fun and some of those others with photographs of half-naked babes, and Black Mask.” In Mystery Book, whose editors weren’t interested in plugging other publications, this becomes “Movie magazines and a pulp detective.” The phrase about the half-naked babes remains untouched.

   (4) But elsewhere the sexual innuendo is toned down. Compare these sentences from the first pages of the two versions:

   1941: “From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed….She had gold-blonde hair, and curves, and breasts the size of Cuban pine-apples.”

   Mystery Book and Popular Library: “From the way she looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be a hot dame…. She had gold-blonde hair, and plenty of curves.”

   For a much more drastic bowdlerization, take a look at the rough-sex scene in Chapter 9. The “she” is the woman from the first paragraphs, who’s known as the Princess. Everything that was dropped when VINEYARD was published in the U.S. I’ve put in caps:

   She slapped me….She hit my arms and my chest. I tried to hold her.

   “HIT ME!” SHE SAID.

   It was GODDAM queer….She struck my chest.

   SHE SAID: “HIT ME.”

   I hit her easy on the ribs. “That’s right! That’s right!” She hit me a couple of hard blows. Her eyes were wild. She hit me a hard punch on the neck. I hit her in the belly…. She kept coming in, punching hard.

   I GAVE HER ONE OVER THE KIDNEYS. SHE GRUNTED AND CLENCHED WITH ME. SHE BIT MY ARM UNTIL THE BLOOD CAME. I SLAPPED HER. SHE PUT HER KNEE IN MY GROIN. IT HURT. I LOST MY BALANCE, GRABBED FOR HER, AND WE BOTH WENT DOWN. WE ROLLED AROUND ON THE DIRTY FLOOR OF THE SHACK, BOTH PANTING…. I GOT OVER HER, HOLDING HER DOWN ON THE FLOOR…. She bit my arm again and I slugged her in the ribs. … My hand caught in the scarlet shirt. The silk tore to her navel.

   “Yes,” she said.

   I GOT THE IDEA. I RIPPED THE SHIRT OFF HER, SHE FIGHTING ALL THE TIME AND LIKING IT. I RIPPED AT HER CLOTHES, NOT CARING HOW MUCH I HURT HER. SHE SQUIRMED ON THE DIRTY FLOOR, PANTING. THERE WAS BLOOD ON HER MOUTH…. IT TASTED SWEET. SUDDENLY SHE STOPPED MOVING.

   “Now,” she said. “NOW, GODDAM YOU! Now!”

   

   (5) You noticed, I’m sure, that among the items eliminated from the quoted passages were two “goddams.” Other words that might offend American readers’ religious sensibilities were also omitted here and there. For example, in Chapter 6 Craven tells us: “Jesus, I was tired!” Three guesses which word was dropped by Mystery Book and Popular Library.

   (6) Finally and most significantly, at least for us in the 21st century, the U.S. versions deep-six Craven’s frequent habit of using our least favorite six-letter word, or its first three letters as a diminutive. This form of censorship is defensible, I suppose. But, keeping in mind that VINEYARD is narrated in first person, and that Craven seems the kind of guy who would frequently use these words, to me at least it’s also questionable. In any event it was done and we can’t undo it.

   Despite changes the basic story in both versions remains the same. No attempt was made to plug the numerous holes in the plot, so that we never learn why the Princess won’t let Craven kiss her on the mouth, or what his murdered partner’s American Legion button was doing in the temple’s treasure vault.

   Whichever version you read is a tribute to Latimer’s carelessness and haste. The Popular Library paperback came out alongside the first wave of Mickey Spillane novels but if the 1941 version had found a U.S. publisher back then, Mike Hammer might not have seemed so shocking after the war.

***

   

   During the run-up to Pearl Harbor Latimer moved to southern California and began concentrating on B movie work including THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT (1939, starring Warren William) and PHANTOM RAIDERS (1940, with Walter Pidgeon as Nick Carter). After graduating to A pictures and completing the screenplay for the 1942 remake of Hammett’s THE GLASS KEY he enlisted in the Navy, returning to Hollywood and script writing after the war.

   Ten of his screenplays were for director John Farrow (1904-1963), with whom he seemed to have a special affinity. The first two established both Farrow’s and Latimer’s credentials in film noir. THE BIG CLOCK (1948) was an excellent noir about the editor of a Time-like true crime magazine (Ray Milland) who discovers that the murder he’s investigating was committed by his media-tycoon boss (Charles Laughton).

   NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948) differed radically (due in large part, I suspect, to the devoutly Catholic director) from the 1945 Cornell Woolrich novel of the same name on which it was based, with Edward G. Robinson transformed from Woolrich’s haunted prophet to a sort of Jesus figure who goes to his death to save his quasi-daughter (Gail Russell).

   Either before joining the Navy or soon after his discharge, Latimer had moved to La Jolla, California, a genteel suburb of San Diego. Late in 1946 that town became the home of the reigning monarch of his and Latimer’s common genre, Raymond Chandler. The two veterans of PI fiction and the Hollywood studios became friends. Latimer, said his more celebrated and also more reclusive colleague in crime, “knows everybody and likes everybody….” He was one of the few people who attended the funeral service for Chandler’s wife, who died in December 1954.

   At the tail end of his screenplay-writing years Latimer published two stand-alone crime novels — SINNERS AND SHROUDS (1955) and BLACK IS THE FASHION FOR DYING (1959) — but these are not in the PI genre and won’t be considered here. During his final period as a writer he concentrated on television, turning out 32 scripts for the PERRY MASON series. Among those based on Gardner novels, I especially recommend “The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll” (24 January 1959); among the originals, “The Case of the Capricious Corpse” (4 October 1962).

   As far as I can tell, his final TV script was “The Greenhouse Jungle” for COLUMBO (15 October 1972). He died of lung cancer on 23 June 1983, a few years after my almost conversation with him. He’s been dead almost forty years now but for my money, he and Raoul Whitfield, whom I discussed in previous columns, still rank as the most interesting PI writers between Hammett and Chandler.

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

   

   THE DEAD DON’T CARE (1938) made considerably more money for Latimer than his first three Crane novels, thanks to being bought by the high-paying Collier’s magazine and published as a 10-part serial (“A Queen’s Ransom,” 14 December 1937 – 5 February 1938). Which perhaps explains why this fourth book in the series isn’t anywhere near so grotesque and bizarre as THE LADY IN THE MORGUE.

   The setting is Florida, within driving distance of Miami and Key West, and we open with Crane and his sidekick Tom O’Malley approaching a resplendent mansion, their firm having been hired by the bank that serves as trustee of the fabulous Essex estate to investigate a series of “pay-$50,000-or-else” notes signed The Eye and delivered to playboy Penn Essex under impossible circumstances. Putting up at the family’s palatial shack, they find already in residence an assortment of characters, perhaps as in previous Crane novels a few too many, but nothing radical happens until Penn’s younger sister Camelia is kidnapped at gunpoint in front of a Miami gambling casino to which Penn is in hock for close to $25,000.

   Thereafter the tenor of the notes from The Eye switches to “pay us fifty grand or we kill her.” Then the weirdest of the house guests, a woman who claims to be descended from a Mayan high priest, is poisoned in the middle of the night in her own locked bedroom with no one else inside except Crane, who’s sleeping off a sexual encounter with her. Our sleuth’s guzzling capacity is insatiable as usual but a few chapters before the end of the book he manages to supervise a traditional gathering-of-suspects at which by a sort of reasoning process he names the murderer.

   But Camelia Essex remains in kidnapers’ hands, and the final chapters are devoted to a violent seaborne action sequence in which Crane takes part but is certainly no superhero.

   Much of the narrative consists of simple declarative sentences as in Hammett but there’s also a fair amount of vividly colorful descriptive prose of the sort we never find either in Hammett or in earlier Latimer novels, starting with the first sentence: “Sunset splashed gold paint on the windows of the white marble house, brought out apricots and pinks and salmons in the flowering azaleas.” Early in Chapter XVI we find the following passage:

   The clouds were splendid. They towered high above the horizon, giving the effect of a city on fire. Heliotrope smudged their bases, but the towerlike peaks were bright with scarlets, roses, salmons and oranges. Above, the sky was sapphire.

   “Pretty gaudy,” Crane said. “It looks like Sam Goldwyn had a hand in it.”

   Even more unlike Hammett are the occasional wildly funny moments, like the one in Chapter III where Crane, several sheets to the wind, makes bold to correct O’Malley’s grammar.

   “No. You do not use ‘trun.’ We are not going to be ‘trun’ to the alligators.”

   “You’re tellin’ me?”

   “If you have to use ‘trun,’ use it this way: he fell like a trun of bicks.”

   “You mean a trun of bricks.”

   “Or a one-trun tuck.”

   Less amusing is dat ole debbil n word, which crawls out of the woodwork once or twice in the final chapters.

   The most memorable sequence in the book comes in Chapter XIII when Crane wakes up in the wee hours, in the mood for another round of amour, and begins sexually teasing the naked woman in bed next to him, then after a while discovers to his horror that she’s dead. A later scene takes place in Key West, where Ernest Hemingway famously had one of his homes, and in Crane’s company we visit Sloppy Joe’s, the bar where Papa hung out.

   We never get to see the great author, of course, but from a conversation between Crane and some professional anglers we glean a few anecdotes about his fishing habits. One of the four kidnappers involved in the final action sequence happens to be known as Toad, which makes him the third crime-fiction character I’ve encountered — the others being Joseph P. Toad in Chandler’s THE LITTLE SISTER and Capitaine Crapaud in one of Gerald Kersh’s Karmesin stories — to sport the name of the sweetly singing little critter known to biologists as Bufo bufo.

   Like the two Crane novels before it, THE DEAD DON’T CARE was adapted into a Crime Club series movie, but under a different title, THE LAST WARNING (1938), which was directed by Albert S. Rogell from a screenplay by Edmund Hartmann. Preston Foster and Frank Jenks were back as Crane and his sidekick Doc Williams who, as we’ve seen, had very little to do in the novel and was replaced by Crane’s other sidekick Tom O’Malley.

   The names of the characters were de-exoticized: Imago Paraguay became Carla Rodriguez, Count Paul di Gregario was reduced to Paul Gomez, and the first names of the siblings Penn and Camelia Essex were toned down to John and Linda. I don’t recall ever having seen the movie but from the descriptions on the Web it seems to have followed at least the broad outlines of the novel, although I’d bet money that what I called the most memorable scene in the book, if filmed at all, was trun on the cutting-room floor.

***

   

   The fifth and final Crane novel is quite different from the others. For one thing, we’re never told where the events take place except that it must be somewhere in the upper Midwest. For another, a good bit of the narrative is so bland it reads like stage directions. (A walks out by the front door. B enters by the French window.) I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Latimer first planned the work as an original screenplay for the Crane movie series, then changed his mind or had it changed for him and reconfigured it as a novel. In any event RED GARDENIAS (1939) did well for him since it too first appeared as a serial in Collier’s (10 June – 5 August 1939).

   If it were originally intended as a screenplay, clearly the primary influence on it was the first couple of sequels to THE THIN MAN (1934). Ann Fortune, Colonel Black’s niece, plays Nora to Crane’s Nick and engages in dialogue with him that’s sort of reminiscent of the exchanges between William Powell and Myrna Loy in those movies. A multi-millioned manufacturer of refrigerators and washing machines has retained the firm to investigate the suspicious death of his nephew, who was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his sedan nine months earlier, with the scent of the titular gardenias on his clothing, and later the similar death of his son, who was likewise found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage about a month before the book opens.

   Posing as a new hire in the manufacturer’s advertising department and with Ann in tow passing as his wife, Crane moves into the dead nephew’s house and, in the middle of his first night, surprises a burglar who turns out to be his client’s other son. Over the next few days he encounters other members of the family circle: the dead son’s widow, the dead nephew’s ex-wife, a second nephew who is a lawyer and represented the ex-wife in the divorce proceedings against his brother, a tennis-loving doctor who runs the local hospital, a gangster’s moll who was playing around with the dead nephew, the list goes on and on for perhaps, as in other Crane novels, a little too long.

   Eventually there’s a third carbon monoxide poisoning in the family, followed by a suspenseful duck hunt, a shoot-out in an isolated farmhouse and, after perhaps too many complications, the exposure of a poorly concealed Least Likely Suspect. Among the plot problems is the fact that there’s never a scintilla of official suspicion about so many similar deaths in the same family, and you must pull down those raised eyebrows and stifle that giggle when you come to the ridiculous hospital action scene in Chapter 18.

   In addition, you have to hold your nose when in Chapter 8 a black nightclub singer is gratuitously referred to (in the narrative, not by a racist character) as a jigaboo. Crane as usual guzzles up a storm, imbibing everything from Scotch and soda to champagne and laudanum. Between drinks he asks all sorts of questions about the murders and in general acts like anything but a newly hired advertising copywriter, yet no one ever suspects he’s not what he claims to be. The last line hints that he and Ann Fortune will soon get married, but if Latimer had any plans for other Nick-and-Nora-type books they came to nothing and Crane never appeared in print again.

***

   
   It was the end for William Crane but not quite the end for Latimer’s involvement with the PI novel. In late 1940 or early ‘41 he made one final venture into the field, far from his best work but certainly the most controversial and therefore requiring a fair amount of space to discuss. For this reason the book known originally as SOLOMON’s VINEYARD and later as THE FIFTH GRAVE will be saved for next year. Happy holidays!

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

   

   We never met but once we came close to having a conversation. It was the late Seventies, and I was in La Jolla to attend the annual meeting of the University of California library board on which I served. He lived in the same town, and I was given his phone number and tried to call him one evening. His wife answered, saying he literally couldn’t talk with me: he’d just gotten out of the hospital after surgery for throat cancer. That was as close as I came to contact with Jonathan Latimer.

   If you watched PERRY MASON regularly during its first-run years on TV (1957-66) you saw his name in the credits again and again. Erle Stanley Gardner is said to have called him the only writer who really mastered the art of writing MASON scripts. Between the second of the show’s ten seasons (1958-59) and its last (1965-66) he wrote a total of 32 hour-long scripts for the series: 25 originals, 6 adaptations of Gardner novels and, I kid you not, one script based on a short story by Hugh Pentecost. But that was the tail end of his career. Our main concern here is with his beginning.

   He was born in Chicago on 23 October 1906 and named Jonathan after his great-great-grandfather, who had served on George Washington’s staff during the Revolutionary War. After graduating from Knox College (Galesburg, Illinois) in 1929 he returned to Chicago and worked as a crime reporter for the Herald-Examiner and the Tribune, meeting several celebrity gangsters while on the job. He was in his late twenties when he began writing novels, the first six published by Doubleday Crime Club, five of them featuring a private detective and somewhat under the influence of the overwhelmingly dominant author of that genre during the 1930s, Dashiell Hammett. The first of these was MURDER IN THE MADHOUSE (1935).

***

   It opens inside an ambulance with a guy named William Crane in handcuffs and being transported through upstate New York to a private sanitarium for well-to-do mental cases. No sooner has he arrived than he seems to establish why he’s there by claiming to be a famous detective, no less in fact than C. Auguste Dupin.

   The kicker is that he really is a detective, a PI hired to infiltrate the sanitarium and look into the claim of one of its residents, a dotty old lady who loves to knit, that a box containing negotiable bonds worth $400,000 — a huge amount back in the days when gasoline cost 11 cents a gallon — has vanished from her room. (If you’re wondering why she kept that fortune unprotected, well, didn’t I tell you she was dotty?)

   The inmates of this nameless loony bin, whom Crane quickly meets and begins to interact with, include a fellow who thinks he’s Abraham Lincoln, a wolf man who prowls around the grounds on all fours, another guy who hasn’t spoken a word in four years, and several more, perhaps a few too many. The doctors in charge are at each other’s throats, most of the nurses are predatory sexpots in starched whites, and the staff is mainly composed of weirdoes like the religious maniac who acts as night watchman.

   As per the title, there is a murder in the madhouse, four of them in fact. The local law enforcement people are idiots, but there are genuine clues to follow and Crane does a neat job of reasoning in between hearty slugs of the local applejack.

   Like Hammett’s Continental Op, Crane is not a lone wolf but works for a big agency, its head being an unseen character known as the Colonel (later expanded to Colonel Black). Unlike the Op, he doesn’t narrate his own cases. But Latimer’s style consists mainly of simple declarative sentences such as we find in Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON and THE GLASS KEY. And Crane, like Nick Charles in THE THIN MAN, drinks gallons of booze.

   What Latimer contributes to these established ingredients is a sardonic gallows humor whose like is not found in Hammett. We don’t find a great deal of this in MURDER IN THE MADHOUSE but it soon becomes prominent.

***

   Like Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON and Ned Beaumont in THE GLASS KEY, Crane was onstage at every moment of MADHOUSE, but his next case features several scenes without him. In HEADED FOR A HEARSE (1935) he’s still based in New York but spends almost all of his time in Chicago, racing against the clock to save an innocent man from the electric chair. Joan Westland was found shot to death in her locked apartment, to which only she and her estranged stockbroker husband Robert had keys.

   There’s no murder weapon on the scene but ballistics tests establish that the fatal bullet came from a rare British pistol of World War I vintage. Robert owned such a pistol, which has mysteriously vanished. The people in the apartment below Joan’s testify that they heard a shot at a time when by his own admission Robert was visiting her.

   He’s convicted and sentenced to death, but shortly before his execution he receives a note, apparently from a criminal prowling in Joan’s apartment building at the time of the murder, who claims he can prove Robert’s innocence. With less than a week before his date with the chair, Robert brings in a sleazy criminal lawyer named Finklestein, who in turn brings in Crane.

   As in MURDER IN THE MADHOUSE, our PI spends many hours guzzling the sauce as more bodies pile up but somehow manages to get sober for the denouement two hours before Westland is to be fried. The plotting is tight and the solution to the locked-room puzzle pretty simple by John Dickson Carr standards but rather ingenious, although the tie-buying clue and the telephone-call gimmick still leave me scratching my head.

   The most powerful scenes take place in the death house at the beginning and end of the novel. In Chapter XI comes a pure specimen of Latimer’s gallows humor as we get a description of a Bascom Wonder Funeral, “including a handsome Lincoln hearse, three automobile loads of mourners (we can augment your mourners if you desire), the use of our private chapel with the $8000 Barton organ and the Golden Isle Quartette,” plus “a choice of five distinctive caskets.” All for the low low price of $217!

   Those not at home in the geography of the Windy City can have a lot of fun with a map tracking Crane’s taxicab journeys back and forth across the Chicago River from Point A to Point B in search of the vanished pistol. But I must warn potential readers that, its merits as a whodunit to one side, HEARSE is a generous anthology of political incorrectness, with epithets taboo in the 21st century strewn all over the landscape: Heeb, sheeny, Chink, dago, even the six-letter word which I’d be screamed at as a racist if I repeated.

   All this is okay when coming from the mouths of characters of the Archie Bunker ilk but not so okay in the early pages of Chapter IX when it seeps into the third-person narrative. Small wonder that HEARSE didn’t appear in paperback until more than twenty years after its hardcover publication and then, like another Latimer novel we’ll discuss eventually, only in bowdlerized form (Dell pb #D1896, 1957).

   Two years after its publication HEARSE became the basis of the first in Universal Pictures’ 8-film Crime Club series. THE WESTLAND CASE (1937) was directed by industry old-timer Christy Cabanne (1888-1950) from a screenplay by Robertson White. Preston Foster played Crane, with Frank Jenks as his sidekick Doc Williams.

   I can’t recall ever seeing this picture but from what I’ve read on the Web (including Dan Stumpf’s review for Mystery*File) it seems to have followed Latimer’s plot fairly closely, although I’m willing to bet that none of the racial and ethnic epithets with which the novel abounds survived into the movie.

***

   In his first two books Latimer tried his hand at the whodunit laced with gallows humor but the next one was his masterpiece in that vein. In THE LADY IN THE MORGUE (1936) New York is still Crane’s base but while temporarily in Chicago he receives a wire from his boss, Colonel Black, directing him to hang out at the Cook County morgue and try to identify the body of an attractive blonde who apparently hanged herself in her cheap hotel room right after taking a bath and disposing of all her shoes. (As we learn later, the firm has been hired by members of a wealthy family who are afraid the dead woman might be the clan’s rebel daughter.)

   But the body is stolen from the morgue during the wee hours and the night attendant bludgeoned to death. The hunt for the missing corpse soon leads to the murder of an undertaker and a wave of wacky-gruesome incidents as Crane and his sidekicks Doc Williams and Tom O’Malley encounter a pair of feuding gangsters, a gaggle of luscious blondes, and an alcoholic bulldog in whose company they conduct a midnight search of a cemetery for another (or is it the same?) vanished female body.

   Crane finds little time to sleep but plenty to guzzle  — including a slug of embalming fluid unaccountably kept in a bottle of Dewar’s Scotch — as he and his buddies lurch from one cockeyed venue to another, perhaps the most vivid being the dime-a-dance joint where all the girls dance in their underwear and the morgue where Crane wraps himself in a sheet and, posing as an embalmed corpse, waits for the murderer.

   The solution is chaotic and what passes for reasoning leaves much to be desired, but what a madcap epic! In his entry on Latimer in 20th CENTURY CRIME AND MYSTERY WRITERS (3rd ed. 1991) Art Scott calls it “a genuine mystery classic….grotesque and hilarious at the same time, a masterpiece of black comedy.”

   That may be too thick a coat of encomium, but if you’re going to read any Latimer at all it’s gotta be THE LADY IN THE MORGUE. Note for the triviac: In the first edition the drug best known as pot is rendered as marahuana, a spelling I’ve never seen before, but in Crime Club’s hardcover reprint of 1953 it’s changed to the form we all know and love.

   Under the novel’s title but without much resemblance to its anarchic plot, THE LADY IN THE MORGUE (1938) became the third entry in Universal’s series of Crime Club movies, with Preston Foster returning as Crane. This one was directed by Otis Garrett, who had served as film editor on THE WESTLAND CASE, with screenplay by Eric Taylor and Robertson White.

   A copy of the movie accessible on YouTube shows us that the man claiming to be the vanished corpse’s brother was portrayed by Gordon Elliott, who later in 1938 started going by Bill or Wild Bill Elliott and, under these monickers, quickly become a notable star of B Western flicks.

***

   No novel under Latimer’s byline appeared in the year after MORGUE but a novel by Latimer did. THE SEARCH FOR MY GREAT-UNCLE’S HEAD (1937) was published as by Peter Coffin, who also serves as first-person narrator (Peter Nebuchadnezzar Coffin, to give him his full name). Anyone who had read an earlier Latimer novel was unlikely to have been fooled by the new byline since the detection is done by none other than Colonel Black from the Crane series.

   In his ENCYCLOPEDIA MYSTERIOSA (1994) William L. DeAndrea called it “a weird hybrid of country house cozy and hard-boiled effects.” That’s good enough for me. Sometime soon I’ll explore Latimer’s three final PI novels — two about Crane, the third not.

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

   
   I had already decided that the subject of this column would be Erle Stanley Gardner when I learned about the new incarnation of Perry Mason in an 8-part mini-series on HBO. I don’t have cable or satellite but from conversations with a few friends who do, plus the write-up in the New York Times and in the June/July issue of the AARP magazine, I get the distinct impression that poor old ESG is whirling in his grave.

   It’s the early 1930s and Mason (Matthew Rhys) is a World War I veteran, an alcoholic, and suffering from what we now call PTSD. He’s not (or at least not yet) a lawyer but a sleazy private eye working for and studying law under an established criminal attorney. In effect he’s morphed into a squalid avatar of Paul Drake. When his mentor dies just before he’s to try a big murder case, Mason completes his apprenticeship, sits for and passes the bar, and takes over the defense.

   Sound crazy? But the premise does touch base with Gardner more than you might think. ESG never went to law school but apprenticed himself until he felt he was ready to take the bar. The new Mason’s mentor (John Lithgow) is named E.B. Jonathan, which is precisely the name of the crusty and ethically challenged lawyer who served as mentor to Pete Wennick in a short-lived series Gardner wrote for Black Mask in the late Thirties.

   The portrait of Mason’s city seems to come straight out of the city, modeled on Poisonville in Hammett’s RED HARVEST, where Ken Corning practiced in another of Gardner’s Black Mask series: crooked cops, corrupt pols, the whole nine yards. Perhaps I’ll catch up with this version of Mason someday.

***

   

   Gardner and I go back a long way. I discovered him in my teens, and over the generations I’ve read all of the Mason novels, some of them three or four times, and most of the A.A. Fairs, very few of them more than once. Not re-reading the exploits of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, at least the early ones, may have been a mistake. Last year I discussed THE BIGGER THEY COME (1939), with which the long-running series kicked off, and THE KNIFE SLIPPED, which was probably also written in 1939 but didn’t get published until just a few years ago.

   In TURN ON THE HEAT (1940), which until recently was considered second in the series, we learn what we would have learned from THE KNIFE SLIPPED had it not been rejected 80-odd years ago: that Donald was not just suspended for a year from the California bar for dreaming up a legal way to commit murder, as he’d told Bertha in THE BIGGER THEY COME, but permanently kicked out of the profession.

   In any event he’s working for Cool as a PI but not yet her partner when the firm is hired by a man calling himself Smith. The job is to locate a young doctor’s wife who, after the failure of her marriage, had vanished almost twenty years earlier (meaning soon after the end of World War I) from the then thriving small town of Oakview, several hours’ drive from LA.

   The young doctor had also vanished, apparently along with his attractive nurse, but Smith insists he has no interest in either of them. Donald drives to Oakview to research public records and the back files of the local newspaper, where he learns from the editor’s niece, a bright young lady desperate to leave the now dying town, that he’s the third person to be hunting for information on the vanished couple.

   At the end of his first day on the job he’s given a black eye and run out of town by a tough guy who might be a cop. Undeterred, Donald soon learns that the elusive doctor has changed his name and set up practice in thriving Santa Carlotta, which is much closer to LA and seems to be Gardner’s name for Santa Barbara. A few days later a telegram from the Oakview editor’s niece tells him that the doctor’s wife has come back and, posing as a reporter for the paper, he revisits the town to interview the now middle-aged woman.

   Another lead takes him to the second of his two predecessors on the trail of the doctor’s wife. Soon he reaches the core of the mystery: the doctor is now running for mayor of Santa Carlotta and the corrupt politicos in office are trying to create a scandal around him. Eventually there’s a murder, and it seems that, like so many characters in Perry Mason novels, both the medico and the ambitious newspaper gal discovered the body and kept mum about it. As Mason would have done but without benefit of legal gimmicks, Donald sets out to clear the innocent.

   Considering the family resemblances between Gardner and Fair novels, it’s amazing that it took years before the two authors were recognized as one. As in so many Mason cases, a few questions remain unanswered at the end of GOLD COMES IN BRICKS. How did the bent cop Harbet learn of Donald’s involvement so quickly? Why was the photograph of a character who never appears in the book removed from the dead woman’s apartment? But Gardner keeps things moving at warp speed, creates a network of deceptions within deceptions (including a couple of scenes where Donald scams Bertha), and even offers a dollop of fair-play detection. If you wonder why some readers prefer the C&Ls over the Perry Masons, read this novel.

***

   

   GOLD COMES IN BRICKS (1940) resembles the earlier C&Ls in that the murder is a relatively trivial event buried under a mountain of scams. Passing himself off as, of all things, a physical fitness instructor, Donald enters the household of prosperous businessman Henry Ashbury, who’s hired the firm to investigate a pair of $10,000 checks to cash recently signed by his daughter Alta, and quickly learns that her father’s suspicions are on the mark: she’s been paying gambler Jed Ringold to get back some stolen love letters written to her by a married man about to go on trial for the murder of his wife—letters which the man’s sleazy defense attorney is desperate not to let fall into the hands of the prosecution.

   All hell breaks loose when Ringold is shot to death in his hotel room a few minutes after being given a third check by Alta. Donald, spying on the situation from the room next door, takes the check out of Ringold’s pocket before slipping away. For a few chapters his maneuvers to protect himself and Alta and confuse the witnesses who saw him on the scene take a back seat as he heads for northern California to look into a scheme to sell stock in a gold-dredging venture and, with the help of a tough old prospector who might be a Gardner self-portrait, launches a plot to scam the scammers.

   The frantic pace and abundant insights into securities fraud and gold-claim salting hold our attention despite having little to do with the murder. Donald falls in love as usual but this time does not get beaten up. As customary in these early outings, it’s his show all the way. Bertha curses and grouses about money but doesn’t contribute a great deal. So much for the claim that the C&Ls are variations on what Rex Stout had initiated five years before THE BIGGER THEY COME. Perhaps Donald is a bit like Archie Goodwin (although he could never take orders or narrate as engagingly as Archie does), but at the thought of Bertha as another Nero Wolfe, the mind turns cartwheels.

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

   
   With this month’s column we return to an author I’ve been writing about since my teens and still find fascinating in my late seventies: that incomparable filbert Harry Stephen Keeler, who was born in 1890, died early in 1967, and pounded the typewriter from his early twenties until near the end of his life. During his long career he created many series but only a few series characters.

   Usually the central element in a Keeler series was not a human being but something else: a house, a book, a circus, an industrial plant, a skull. On the rare occasions when he did create a continuing character, he usually got tired of the man in a year or so and dropped him. The single exception to this rule was Keeler’s first and clearly his favorite series character, that ancient bedraggled universal genius and patron of homeless cats whose name is Tuddleton T. (for Travelstead) Trotter.

   Exactly when Trotter first saw the light of print remained unknown until recently. His earliest appearance between hard covers was in THE MATILDA HUNTER MURDER (Dutton, 1931). But that literary doorstop of 741 closely printed pages was an expansion of a 65,000-word tale, “The Michaux Z-Ray,” which Harry had completed in 1915 and sold for $100 the following year to the Chicago Ledger, where it was published in ten installments (8 April-10 June 1916), all but the first of which are now online thanks to Villanova University.

   Which is why we now know that the detective of that serial is not Trotter but a gazabo by the name of Copelia Jarrick who does have quite a bit of similarity to his later counterpart. Trotter’s debut under the latter name was in the vastly longer book version, where he doesn’t come onstage till page 200, summoned by Chief of Detectives Callahan to solve the riddle of the Z-ray machine that is apparently responsible for the deaths of both Mrs. Hunter and her poodle and is also connected in some way with the year-old theft of a platinum brick from a bank in a one-horse town in rural Missouri. But before we see him up close and personal he gets quite a buildup in a conversation between Callahan and insurance magnate Carter Ellwood.

   “[H]e’s my criminological scientist….a man who tackles crimes where science—or highly specialized knowledge—has been used….For Trotter, Ellwood, is a man who’s wise himself to chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, insanity, optics, medicine, X, Y, Z, P, D and Q rays as well as probably every other kind of rays there are, or might be supposed to exist. He knows the identity of every expert in the world on any given subject. And it’s he who works with us here at the detective bureau on all the cases of any nature that have to do with science and crime combined….He’s content to dabble in problems…for the pure love of solving the problem and nothing else….[T]he man’s got more information concerning crime and criminals packed away in his card index of a brain than our Bertillon cabinets….”

   In “Z-Ray” Callahan describes this genius in similar language, almost all of which is repeated in MATILDA HUNTER:

   “….Cope’s our bearded savant—our grisly scientist who gets the bizarre problems of the police game to tackle.”

   “Why, the man’s got more information packed away in that card index of a brain than our Bertillon cabinet in yonder room….He knows something, I’ll warrant, of every crime that’s committed between Shanghai, China and Bird Center, New York, during the last ten years. And all the time he’s poring over the daily telegraphic reports that are wired in here, he’s figuring out the result of what happens to the eleventh integral of x plus y if you raise it to the nth power and immerse it in a solution of sulphuric acid….”

   Under either name the character is clearly Keeler’s take on Sherlock Holmes, who was still appearing in new adventures when Harry wrote ”Z-Ray” and whose creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died around the time the serial was being expanded into a literary gargantua. But when Callahan in MATILDA HUNTER tells Ellwood that Mr. TTT is the author of a brochure entitled “Crime—Always a Motived Social Reaction As Well As a Motivated One,” we realize that there’s at least as much of Harry himself in the character as there is of Holmes. The distinction between motivation and motiving comes straight out of Keeler’s off-the-wall treatise, THE MECHANICS (AND KINEMATICS) OF WEB-WORK PLOT CONSTRUCTION.

   When Trotter steps into Callahan’s office he’s described, in language that comes word for word out of “The Michaux Z-Ray,” as ”a composite picture of a ruddy-faced English gentleman from one of Dickens’ books, and a caricature drawn by an artist on a comic valentine.” We also find in “Z-Ray” a detailed physical description:

   The English appearance was borne out by the pink, even rubicund, cheeks, and the stolid, heavy face with the hair dropping below the temples in two sideburns tinged with gray. He possessed a well-defined paunch, which was covered by a tightly buttoned, dingy vest. Across the vest was a massive gold watch chain….His coat was a decidedly English cutaway, but it was soiled and spotted, and in one or two places actually burned thru as tho by acids.

   The “thru” and “tho” spellings, which (as we know from his newsletters) Keeler despised and which he changed to their conventional forms in MATILDA HUNTER, were obviously mandated by the Chicago Ledger style sheet. The “Z-Ray” description continues:

   ….His slightly gray hair stuck up on his head in all directions, giving him to a great extent the appearance of a porcupine, or a cat, bristling with anger. And on his nose were a pair of old-fashioned, steel-bowed spectacles, tilted at such a grotesque angle that the left lens stood directly beneath his left eye, and the right one well above the right eye. His collar was of the batwing pattern, tied with a rusty, black bow tie, and peeping from his slightly frayed coat sleeves were a pair of very soiled cuffs, held together by brass cuff links sich as one can find in any city five-and-ten-cent store….Copelia Jarrick’s socks comprised a tan one and a giddy red one with green polka dots.

   Keeler reproduced most of this description in MATILDA HUNTER, adding that Trotter is about 65 years old and changing that tan sock to “a yellow one with circular stripes of tan….” Had there been a movie about him, the perfect match for the part would have been W.C. Fields—provided the director could restrain him from muttering “Godfrey Daniel” and juggling with pool cues!

   Between Trotter’s appearance on the scene and the resolution of the MATILDA HUNTER riddles come another 541 closely printed pages, full of the bizarre characters and character-names and dialects and wacky coincidences that only Harry dared dream up. Lots of invented “facts” too.Notice, for example, how the romantic problems of Matilda’s whitebread nephew Jerry Evans—which are more complex than those of his “Z-Ray” counterpart Billy McClintock—vanish in an instant on page 737 with the confident scientific assertion that (as somewhat loosely paraphrased by Keelerite Robert E. Briney) “if your mother had six fingers on one hand, you cannot distinguish between violet and black.” Yeah, right. For better or worse, that’s our Harry.

   Between MATILDA HUNTER and the second Trotter novel, Keeler’s style had evolved from the Dickensian mode to the eccentric patois that cost him much of his readership over the years and drove him from the prestigious publishing house of E.P. Dutton to (if I may coin a Keelerism) the bottom rung of the literary barrel, a.k.a. Phoenix Press.

   In THE CASE OF THE BARKING CLOCK (Phoenix, 1947), social outcast Joe Czeszcziczki (whom everyone mercifully agrees to call Zicky after a few pages) is about to be executed for the murder of State’s Attorney Umphrey Ibstone and appeals for help to Trotter, now long forgotten and living in a cubicle in Chicago’s Hotel of Nameless Men.

   The woolly-headed old genius takes two-thirds of the book just to reach Zicky in the death house but proves Joe’s innocence in jig time and earns a comfortable retirement for himself and his beloved cat Sebastian Sixsmith. Harry’s London publisher Ward Lock came out with a longer and more involuted version of the novel in 1951.

   Two years after issuing the U.S. version of BARKING CLOCK, Phoenix cut its ties to Keeler. Two years after issuing the English edition, Ward Lock did likewise, leaving Harry with no publisher in his own language. He continued to write direct for translation into Spanish and Portuguese, but even Instituto Editorial Reus of Madrid and Editorial Seculo of Lisbon passed on some of his submissions including the third and final Trotter adventure, THE TRAP, which was completed on July 11, 1956.

   In this gem of daffiosity Trotter is well into his eighties and has been “dead socially” for decades (like Harry himself), and only a few ancients with long memories recall his great triumph in the 25-year-old “Locust Street Murder Case,” i.e. THE MATILDA HUNTER MURDER.

   His wardrobe is still atrocious and his wits still keen as he probes the murder of a Chinese laundryman in Oklahoma and the theft of a unique privately printed book of laudatory anecdotes about Harry’s favorite race (all of them, as a note informs potential publishers, made up out of whole cloth by Harry himself).

   Before Trotter triggers the titular trap and the murderer of Charley T’Seng is exposed—in the last paragraph, no sooner!—we get to wander in a webwork whose strands include a purple velour hat, a sleepwalking hillbilly, a vanishing glass of water, the Noodle King of Omaha, the cat Grimalky Stripedy-Pants and her five little kittens, a diamond implanted in a cancerous tumor, and so much more. Anyone whom I’ve turned on to this king of eccentrics is invited to hunt on Amazon or another Web-based bookseller for the trilogy celebrating him.

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

   

   Perhaps I’ve written a bit much lately about Lawrence Block. Perhaps it’s time to return to another of this column’s favorite subjects, classic Golden Age detective fiction. Are you with me?

***

   I’ve been reading John Rhode off-and-on since I was a teen, and found that his pre-WWII Dr. Priestley novels were far superior to those that postdate the War. I’ve rarely read one as early as PINEHURST (1930; US title DR. PRIESTLEY INVESTIGATES), one of the early novels in the long-running series. Unlike the later entries, this one offers substantially fewer characters, and that professorial old curmudgeon has a bigger and more active role than he assumes in his postwar outings.

   We open on a rainy foggy November night as young Tom Awdrey, much the worse for liquor, drives erratically into the port city of Lenhaven and is stopped by two constables, who haul him into the police station and book him on a drunk driving charge, only to find a dead body, apparently run over by Awdrey’s car, in the dickey (what we’d the call the rumbleseat) of his two-seater. As chance would have it, Superintendent King is at the station chatting with an old friend, Chief Inspector Hanslet of Scotland Yard, who sits in on the next morning’s interrogation.

   Awdrey denies the existence of a body in his car and insists that what was in the dickey was a bust, a plaster cast of a sculpture called “The Slave-Trader” which he was bringing to its creator, a well-known sculptor who spends winters in Lenhaven. That cast is nowhere to be found. Awdrey also claims that he picked up a passenger not far from the town and dropped him off at a gate near an out-of-the-way pub called The Smelters’ Arms.

   Hanslet visits the pub and learns from the landlord that the gate leads to Pinehurst, a huge and all-but-ruined old house presently owned by a strange old man named Coningsworth who lives there in total isolation with his wife and daughter and sister-in-law and a gardener, a yacht of sorts anchored nearby in the mud of the River Drew and connected with land by a gangway.

   Coningsworth apparently spends his evenings prowling around the grounds with a rifle, and on one occasion started shooting unaccountably into the darkness. His daughter tells Superintendent King that someone had fired shots into the house a few nights earlier while the family were at dinner, and the gardener reveals that someone had dug a huge hole in the kitchen garden’s lily-of-the-valley bed. On Hanslet’s return to London he visits Dr. Priestley and gives him an account of the case. Priestley theorizes that there’s something valuable hidden in or around Pinehurst, and that somebody is after it.

   A few days later he and his secretary Harold Merefield revisit Lenhaven, which the Professor had first seen in an earlier Rhode novel, THE HOUSE ON TOLLARD RIDGE (1929). That night there’s a burglary at Pinehurst with nothing taken but a hundredweight of brass door-fittings and nothing left behind but some fingerprints that prove the criminal is missing the middle finger of his right hand. Investigating Coningsworth’s bedroom, Priestley and King find a huge assortment of firearms and what seems to be a homemade burglar alarm.

   Eventually, and thanks to Priestley’s acumen, the sleuths learn that before Coningsworth was run over he was poisoned by something called convalleramin which I suspect Rhode made up out of (dare I say it?) whole cloth. Late in the proceedings a roughneck sailor takes center stage and tells the investigators the backstory, which involves the hijacking of rum-running vessels off the Atlantic coast. Prohibition, remember, was still in force in the U.S. at the time.

   PINEHURST is not without its flaws: the double life of one of the main characters takes a bit of believing, and Rhode for no earthly reason reveals the identity of the murderer in THE HOUSE ON TOLLARD RIDGE. On the plus side, although Priestley freely admits that he has “nothing tangible with which to support” some of his numerous deductions, most of them strike me as better grounded and less speculative than a lot of his conclusions in other novels. That virtue, together with a climax featuring more physical action than we’re accustomed to see in Dr. Priestley novels and some vivid descriptions of the area, lead me to recommend this one as somewhat above average for Rhode.

***

   Does the name E. C. R. Lorac ring a bell? The U.S. publisher of the earliest novels to appear under that byline referred to the author as Mr. Lorac but in fact “he” was a woman, Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958), who wrote 48 detective novels as Lorac and another 23 as Carol Carnac. Seven of the early Loracs were published on this side of the pond by Macaulay but most of her novels didn’t come out over here until after World War II when as both Lorac and Carnac she became a fixture in the Doubleday Crime Club stable.

   Her best-known series character was Scotland Yard sleuth Robert Macdonald, who figures in every one of the four dozen Loracs but, as far as I can tell, is not characterized at all beyond the fact that he’s a Scot. In the entry on Rivett in 20th CENTURY CRIME AND MYSTERY WRITERS (3rd edition 1991), Mary Ann Grochowski describes Macdonald as “physically active, lean, tall, with a penchant for walking the English countryside though a most expert driver when the occasion demands one.”

   THE CASE OF COLONEL MARCHAND (1933) was her fifth novel published in England and third in the U.S., two of the first quintet having never made it across the Atlantic. Detective Chief Inspector Macdonald is called in to investigate the poisoning murder of a wealthy 55-year-old womanizer and patron of the arts while having tea in his elegant Grosvenor Square drawing room with a lovely young lady, identity unknown, who apparently walked out of the house with her music case and some valuable jewelry after her host dropped dead.

   Everyone else in the house at the time of the poisoning worked for Marchand—his secretary Richard Lambert, the lordly butler Gibbs, the racing-buff chauffeur Fenton, the young footman Dicks—and all of them except a couple of anonymous menials seem to be concealing something. When the remains of the tea and of the cakes and sandwiches that were served with it are found innocent of poison, and when the substance that killed Marchand is identified as potassium cyanide, which is a solid not a liquid, Macdonald broadens the circle of suspects to include people who weren’t in the colonel’s house at the time of his death, particularly his solicitor John Dillon and his nephew Derrick.

   A few days after the murder the mystery woman comes forward and reveals that Marchand was, as we say nowadays, hitting on her, and claims that when she walked out he was alive and well. Macdonald drives her back to her home, a studio in Gower Street mainly inhabited by artistic types, and sees leaving the building none other than Marchand’s nephew, a clear indication that he knows either the young woman or one of the other tenants. Investigating these, he discovers—although Lorac doesn’t tell us this immediately—that one of the others, not an artist but an analytical chemist, is the spitting image of the dead colonel’s nephew. The mystification builds to an action climax in the burial ground of an old London church.

   I haven’t read enough Lorac to rank MARCHAND among the Macdonald novels but, thanks not only to the plot but to the echoes of World War I and the Depression and the details of painting and sculpture and music and interior decoration, it did sustain my interest throughout. The murderer however is the most stereotypical culprit imaginable, and the clue that leads Macdonald to the poisoner strikes me as an extremely slender reed on which to build a structure of incrimination. Barzun and Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME (2nd edition 1989) have nothing to say about this one but tell us that only two of Rivett’s novels are “first-quality performances” and then name only one of them, MURDER BY MATCHLIGHT (1946), which I happen to have. Maybe it’s worth a look.

***

   Did anyone guess? After these excursions we return to perhaps the least likely suspect when it comes to Golden Age detective novels. Yes, Lawrence Block again. And for good reason.

   There were no more Matthew Scudder novels for three years after A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN but in his next appearance he might almost have been a different character. Few if any would use the word noir to describe EVEN THE WICKED (1997), in which Block abandons the sense of existential menace and the laser focus on suffering and death to try his hand at something closer to, believe it or not, our old amigo the Golden Age detective novel, complete with references to those masters of the locked room John Dickson Carr and Edward D. Hoch. One character even calls Scudder Monsieur Poirot!

   The major storyline involves someone signing himself The People’s Will who has taken to writing letters to a New York Daily News columnist, predicting and then bringing about the violent death of various evildoers. First to be killed is a rapist and murderer of children whom, along with his female accomplice, Scudder describes as “animals—a label we affix, curiously enough, to those members of our own species who behave in a manner unimaginable in many of the lower animals.” The woman had the decency to kill herself; the man, like a certain infamous murder defendant about two years before this novel’s publication, was acquitted thanks to having a fictional counterpart of Johnnie Cockroach as his lawyer.

   Next to bite the dust is a Mafia kingpin “who had survived innumerable attempts to put him behind bars,” followed by an anti-abortion fanatic whose rhetoric was responsible for a clinic bombing and the assassination of a doctor and nurse. The subject of the fourth death prediction is a violent Jew-hating black radical, although Will (as he’s come to be known) is saved from following through on this prophecy when his target is beheaded with a ceremonial ax inside his walled compound by one of his entourage.

   Then comes a fifth letter, targeting the lawyer who got the child-murderer acquitted, and this (pardon the expression) man calls in Scudder, who arranges round-the-clock protection for him with the large agency he occasionally does per diem work for. Despite a phalanx of bodyguards and a Kevlar vest, the attorney is killed anyway, in his luxury apartment, by cyanide added to a bottle of single-malt whiskey under impossible circumstances. (This accounts for the references to Carr and Hoch.)

   In due course Scudder figures out the truth behind all five deaths but there’s a problem, not for him but for his creator: as of this point the book is nowhere near long enough. Block deals with the problem by involving Scudder with another murder, this one occurring before the locked-room poisoning, its victim a former drug addict visibly dying of AIDS with which he was infected by needle-sharing but shot to death in the vest-pocket park across the street from his Greenwich Village apartment by a killer who took pains to verify his victim’s identity before pulling the trigger.

   This crime doesn’t fit Will’s MO but arguably was a sort of practice run by the serial killer. After learning a great deal about life insurance (did you know murder is considered an accidental death, triggering a policy’s double indemnity clause?) and the so-called viatical arrangements that were common when AIDS was rampant and fatal, Scudder cracks this case too, encountering that utter rara avis in Block, a somewhat sympathetic murderer.

   But the book still isn’t long enough, which is why at the beginning of Chapter 18 a second Will pops up, mailing new threats to the same tabloid columnist the first Will corresponded with. This aspect of the novel is then suspended until the beginning of Chapter 24 when Scudder returns from Ohio, having cleaned up the viatical case, and learns that there’s been a new victim, a vicious New York Times theater critic. (Anyone remember John Simon?)

   Scudder solves this murder too, pulling off what is known in hockey as the hat trick. But what a difference from earlier books in the same series! EVEN THE WICKED is so cerebral it’s hard to believe it’s a Scudder novel, and so disunified one could almost believe Block shoehorned into the works two short stories, unrelated to each other or to the main plot, in order to wind up with 328 pages. I suspect he was trying his damndest to escape from what for all its intensity had become something of a formula for him, but I for one wish he’d stayed closer to home and so, I believe, do many of his readers.

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.

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