Columns


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


   Anyone remember a Cornell Woolrich story called “The Fatal Footlights”? It first appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly for June 14, 1941 and finally found a hardcover home when I included it in my Woolrich collection NIGHT & FEAR (2004). The setting is a cheap burlesque house on New York’s 42nd Street and the plot kicks off when the featured dancer, who performs with her body painted gold all over, collapses on the runway during a show and dies.

   We soon learn that it was the gold paint that killed her, and that someone had stolen the paint remover from her dressing room precisely in order to cause her death without laying a finger on her. Of course, what death by gilding conjures up for most of us is not this obscure Woolrich story but the James Bond movie GOLDFINGER (1964) and Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel of the same name. Fred Dannay had reprinted Woolrich’s story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for June 1955 under the new title “Death at the Burlesque,” and if the tale came to Fleming’s attention it was probably by this route.

***

   For the media the megadeath of April 2016 was that of pop icon Prince. But just one day earlier, on the 20th of the month, death claimed the director of GOLDFINGER — and of several other Bond films. Guy Hamilton was born in Paris of English parents in 1922 and entered the British film industry after service in World War II. In 1952, having put in a few years as an assistant director, he made his first film, THE RINGER, based on something — whether a novel, a story, a play or just the character is unclear — by Edgar Wallace.

   It wasn’t until his involvement with Sean Connery and GOLDFINGER that he came to prominence, and in later years he directed three other Bond films: DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971), again with Connery, and LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), both starring Roger Moore. He also contributed to the more serious type of espionage film as director of FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1966), based on the novel by Len Deighton and starring Michael Caine.

   Near the end of his career he helmed two pictures based on Agatha Christie novels and filmed in the manner of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, with a huge budget and tons of guest stars. THE MIRROR CRACK’D (1980) starred Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple, with guest stars including Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor, while Peter Ustinov took the lead as Hercule Poirot in EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982), with Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, James Mason and Diana Rigg among the guest stars.

***

   The actress in GOLDFINGER who met her death by gilding was Shirley Eaton (1937- ). As chance would have it, I met Ms. Eaton twenty-odd years ago, at the Memphis Film Festival. We both happened to pick the same time to have lunch in the convention hotel restaurant and out of the blue she asked if she could sit with me, saying she didn’t like eating alone.

   Was I a hot dude in those days or what? No, I didn’t make a pass at her, nor she at me, but in her middle fifties she was still quite lovely. I was interested in Guy Hamilton, GOLDFINGER’s director, and asked if she knew how I could get in touch with him. She told me that she understood he’d retired and moved to Majorca. With no more to go on than that, I wasn’t able to track him down. Now he’s gone for good. Obituaries indicate that Majorca was indeed his final home.

***

   So why was I interested in Hamilton? Not because of GOLDFINGER, or any other Bond film, and not because of the Christie-based pictures either. Just before GOLDFINGER, Hamilton had directed a picture that fascinated me: a commercial failure, not even mentioned in the New York Times obituary, but one that I was using in my Law and Film seminar at St. Louis University and wanted to write about. Odds are that no reader of this column has seen or heard of it.

   The literary source of the film was the 1959 novel THE WINSTON AFFAIR by Howard Fast (1914-2003), a super-prolific author who was a Communist and, back in the Red Menace era, served a prison term for contempt of Congress. Among general readers he’s best known as the author of SPARTACUS (1951), source of the blockbuster movie with Kirk Douglas; among mystery fans he’s remembered for the whodunits he wrote as E.V. Cunningham.

   No one would call THE WINSTON AFFAIR a mystery but it might be considered a legal thriller. The time is late in World War II and the place is India, which Fast knew well from his work as a war correspondent. Large numbers of British and American troops are serving in the area side by side and tension between the two armies is running high.

   Barney Adams, a West Point graduate and wounded combat veteran, is assigned as defense counsel at a court martial. The defendant, Lieutenant Charles Winston, is a middle-aged misfit who at a military outpost in the boondocks cold-bloodedly shot to death a British sergeant in full view of several witnesses.

   In order to restore unity with their British allies, the American commanders are determined that Winston be tried promptly and hanged. But since Winston happens to have a Congressman as his brother-in-law, the court-martial must be conducted not in the drumhead style but with the facade of due process preserved. It’s made clear to Adams, however, that he is not to raise the only defense available: insanity.

   Everyone with professional expertise admits privately to Adams that Winston was and still is insane but a “lunacy board” with no psychiatric experience has ruled to the contrary. At a press conference before the trial, Adams responds to an Indian journalist’s question with the statement that might does not make right and justice can only exist apart from power. Once the court-martial begins, he jumps the reservation and goes all out to establish an insanity defense, clearly destroying his own military career in the process.

   The biggest problem with THE WINSTON AFFAIR is that, like so much “socially conscious” fiction, it’s heavy on earnest rhetoric and light on drama. In MAN IN THE MIDDLE (1963), the movie based on Fast’s novel, the Debate on Great Issues tone is either scrapped or, where kept, is made subordinate to story and character.

   Let’s compare the first few paragraphs of WINSTON and the first minute or so of the movie. Fast begins with a banal exchange of dialogue between the area’s commanding general and his sergeant. Guy Hamilton opens the movie with a stunning pre-credits sequence as we watch Winston (Keenan Wynn) stride from his quarters to the tent barracks, walk into the British sergeant’s canvas cubicle, take out a pistol and pump four bullets into him. In the novel we never see the murder.

   Barney Adams is the protagonist of both works but his biography differs sharply from one to the other. Fast’s character is a captain, 28 years old, six years out of West Point and an honors graduate of Harvard Law School. The Adams of the movie looks to be in his mid-forties, as Robert Mitchum was when he played the role, and accordingly holds the higher rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

   This version of the character knows next to nothing about military law and certainly never went to a civilian law school. He’s invested much more of himself in his career as a soldier than has Fast’s Adams, and if he sacrifices that career trying to save his pathetic and disgusting client, the stakes are much higher than they are for his novelistic counterpart.

   The ultimate evil in Fast’s novel is anti-Semitism. Winston is a paranoiac who believes he’s being plotted against by “international Jewry, the Elders of Zion, the whole kit and kaboodle of Nazi filth.” A Jewish officer calls him “a decaying cesspool of every vile chauvinism and hatred ever invented…, who spat in my face and called me a kike and a sheeny….”

   Guy Hamilton and his collaborators drop the anti-Semitism theme, a decision which displeased Fast mightily, and anachronistically replace it with what in the early 1960s was much more timely. You guessed it. Racism. The British sergeant he killed, Wynn tells Mitchum, “was altogether an evil man. He’d sit and spout democracy, then he’d go out….Up into the hills, one of these native villages. He had women up there. Black women. I saw him!….I used to follow him up that hill and watch him with those black witches up there. He was defiling the race, Colonel….He wasn’t fit to live in a white man’s world.”

   As Mitchum is leaving the guardhouse, Wynn is taken out for his daily exercise. Guy Hamilton places us with Mitchum, looking down into the sunken prison yard, watching Wynn pace back and forth in an enclosed stone cube that is a perfect visual correlative for his racism.

   I could go on for many more pages — and did just that in a chapter on the movie and Fast’s novel that was first published in the University of San Francisco Law Review and is included in my Edgar-nominated JUDGES AND JUSTICE AND LAWYERS AND LAW (2014) — but space compels me to cut to the bottom line.

   The key to understanding the differences between novel and film is that, during the four years between them, two monumental events occurred: the publication of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1960) and the release of the classic film version (1961) with Gregory Peck. Hamilton’s movie does what Fast’s novel couldn’t have done.

   Robert Mitchum’s version of Barney Adams creates a new type of Atticus Finch figure: tough and laconic, almost a Philip Marlowe in khaki, where Atticus was loving and compassionate; representing not a sympathetic and clearly innocent black man in the South of the 1930s but a guilty white racist of the worst sort. “It’s easy to fight for the innocent,” Mitchum says, perhaps referring subtly to Atticus. “But when you fight for the sick, for the warped, for the lost, then you’ve got justice.”

   His (and Guy Hamilton’s) Barney Adams doesn’t have a license to practice law but, as I see it, offers a more challenging and less reassuring incarnation of the lawyerly ethos that is permanently linked in the public mind with the years of the Supreme Court under Earl Warren.

***

   We’ve come a long way from Cornell Woolrich and death by gilding and it would be hard to end this column neatly by going back. Since many readers of this column are movie buffs, I’ll close by quoting a letter about MAN IN THE MIDDLE sent to me by Howard Fast early in 1996.

   Most of the shooting, he said, took place “on Lord Somethingorother’s estate about ten miles out of London. I was in London with my family and I watched a good bit of the filming. Bob Mitchum was wonderful. For me he was the best film actor of his time. Each day he sat quietly on the set, putting away a quart of whisky. When his scene came he never flubbed a word, while the British actors were flubbing all over the place. They never had to do a second take because of Mitchum… I was awed by the ability of the British film makers to reproduce an Indian setting there near London.”

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


   I can’t claim to have read all 70-odd Maigret novels, but I’ve been reading them off-and-on since my teens and I still find many of them fascinating, especially the ones from the Thirties. Unfortunately my French isn’t good enough to allow me to read them as Simenon wrote them, but over the years I’ve sometimes wound up with two different translations of the same book, and a number of them are now being translated yet a third time. Reading two translations side by side is a heady experience, especially if you put on your detective cap and try to figure out what is and what isn’t in the original.

   There were characters a bit like Maigret and characters actually going by that name in a few of the more than 200 pulp novels Simenon wrote under a dozen or so pseudonyms in the 1920s, but the first genuine Maigret was PIETR-LE-LETTON, which was written in 1929 and published by A. Fayard et cie two years later as either the third or the fifth in the monthly Maigret series. In the States, as THE STRANGE CASE OF PETER THE LETT (1933), it was the fourth of six early Maigrets published by the Covici Friede firm.

   I am lucky enough to have a copy of that edition. No translator is credited but various sources in print and online claim that Simenon’s French was first rendered into English by Anthony Abbot. As all lovers of detection know, Abbot was the name under which best-selling novelist Fulton Oursler (1893-1952), following the lead of S. S. Van Dine, both signed and narrated the cases of New York City police commissioner Thatcher Colt, published originally by Covici Friede.

   Many decades ago I read all the Abbot novels and wrote an essay about them which in its final form can be found in my CORNUCOPIA OF CRIME (2010). I had heard the rumor that Oursler had translated the early Maigrets but, since he had died when I was a child, I couldn’t ask him. I did however write his son Will Oursler (1913-1985), who was also a part-time mystery writer both under his own name and as Gale Gallagher and Nick Marino.

   In a letter dated January 4, 1970 — My God! More than 46 years ago! — he replied as follows: “[M]y father did not make the actual translation as he simply was not that fluent in French. It is more probable that most of his effort was in the area of editing and polishing after the translation was done. It is certain that he would not have been capable of translating six Maigret novels.”

   The second translation of PIETR-LE-LETTON, retitled MAIGRET AND THE ENIGMATIC LETT, was by Daphne Woodward, published in 1963 as a Penguin paperback and sold in the U.S. for 65 cents. According to Steve Trussel’s priceless Maigret website, the Woodward version “is much closer to Simenon’s French text, the first being wayward at times.”

   Even without the French text at hand, I’ve found indications that Trussel is right. The novel features an American millionaire staying in the posh Hotel Majestic who is strangely connected with Pietr. The 1933 translation gives his name as Mortimer Livingston, which seems perfectly proper for the character. Daphne Woodward renders the name as Mortimer-Levingston, which is silly but consistent with the young Simenon’s ignorance of all things American.

   This character has a secretary, staying in London but never seen or spoken to. His name in the 1933 translation is Stone, which sounds fine. In Woodward’s rendition he’s called Stones, which is dreadful but again consistent with Simenon’s ignorance. It seems clear that the anonymous original translator went out of his or her way to Americanize various details in the novel that Simenon flubbed. Or was that part of the polishing job by Fulton Oursler?

   Written before Maigret and his world had crystallized in Simenon’s creative mind, PIETR-LE-LETTON is significantly different from almost all the later novels in the series. For one thing, it’s much more violent, with a total of four murders (the work of three different murderers) plus a suicide, committed in Maigret’s presence and with his gun.

   There’s also a great deal more physical action, with Maigret racing from Paris to the Normandy fishing port of F camp and out over the rocks along the muddy seacoast after his chief adversary despite being half-frozen and having been shot in the chest! But there’s a genuine battle of nerves between Maigret and his quarry, more intense and existential than their counterparts in many later books in the series, and the evocation of atmosphere which was Simenon’s trademark is as powerful as in the finest films noir. In either translation this debut novel is a gem.

***

   In 2014 Penguin Classics released yet another translation, this one by David Bellos and bearing the title PETER THE LATVIAN. Did some political correctness guru decide that Lett was a demeaning term like Polack? And what did Bellos make of passages like the beginning of Chapter 13? In Woodward’s version: “Every race has its own smell, loathed by other races…. In Anna Gorskin’s room you could cut it with a knife…. Flaccid sausages of a repulsive shade of pink, thickly speckled with garlic. A plate with some fried fish floating in a sour liquid.”

   There’s nothing like that first sentence in the 1933 rendition, perhaps because Fulton Oursler cut it out, but we do get to see and smell the “horrible pink sausages, flabby to the touch and filled with garlic” and “a platter containing the remains of a fried fish swimming in a sour-smelling sauce….” Need I mention that this scene takes place in the rue du Roi-de-Sicile, in Paris’s Jewish ghetto?

***

   While fine-tuning this month’s column I discovered that there really was, or at least might have been, a Latvian criminal named Pietr. He was known as Peter the Painter and his real name may have been Pietr Piatkow, or perhaps Gederts Eliass or Janis Zhaklis. He seems to have emigrated from East Europe to London where he joined an ethnic gang that stole in order to fund their radical political activities.

   He is believed to have taken part in the infamous Siege of Sidney Street which inspired the climax of Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), although a brief sketch in England’s Dictionary of National Biography warns us that “None of the … biographical ‘facts’ about him … is altogether reliable.”

   Whether Simenon had ever heard of this man remains unknown, but in any event the fictional Pietr the Lett is not a leftist radical, does not commit crimes of violence and turns out not even to be Latvian. Which raises another mystery: Why did Simenon call the guy Pietr the Lett? Pietr the Estonian — or the Esty? — would have sounded ridiculous even in French, but there’s absolutely no reason in the novel why he couldn’t have been a genuine Latvian. Ah well, c’est la vie.

***

   Train murders were something of a Simenon specialty. Of course, when such a crime takes place in a Maigret, it’s bound to lose intensity and vividness simply because we can’t be there to witness it. This is certainly true of the first murder in PIETR-LE-LETTON, and it’s also true of a Maigret short story dating from about seven years later.

   We learn from Steve Trussel’s website that “Jeumont, 51 minutes d’arrêt!” was written in October 1936 and, along with more than a dozen other shorts from the same period, was first collected in France as LES NOUVELLES ENQU TES DE MAIGRET (1944). It was never included in any collection of Maigret shorts published in English but did appear in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 1966, as “Inspector Maigret Deduces,” with no translator credit and with an unaccountable 1961 copyright date.

   (The FictionMags Index explains the date — the story’s first appearance in English was in the UK edition of Argosy for October 1961—and identifies the translator as one J.E. Malcolm.)

   As in PIETR-LE-LETTON, Maigret tackles a murder on a train, this one bound from Warsaw to Berlin to Liège in Belgium (Simenon’s birthplace) to Erquelinnes (on the Belgian side of the border with France) to Jeumont (just across the line on the French side) and on to Paris, except that one of the six passengers in a particular compartment is found dead in his seat at Jeumont. The dead man is a wealthy German banker named Otto Bauer.

   Called in by his railroad-detective nephew, Maigret gets in touch with his Berlin counterparts and learns that Bauer was forced out of the banking business “after the National Socialist revolution, but gave an undertaking of loyalty to the Government, and has never been disturbed….” and also that he’s “[c]ontributed one million marks to party funds.”

   Clearly, despite his name, Bauer was a Jew, and was desperately trying to escape Nazi Germany with whatever money he could salvage. That element is what makes this tale unique among the Maigret stories of the late Thirties. At least in translation there’s not a word of sympathy for the victim, not a word of disgust for the regime he was fleeing. For Maigret, and for Simenon I fear, it’s just another factor in another case. The murder weapon, by the way, turns out to be a needle, which was also one of the murder weapons in PIETR-LE-LETTON although not the one used in the train killing.

***

   I wouldn’t venture to guess how many train murders can be found in Simenon’s stand-alone novels, but the most vivid and intense that I can recall takes place in Chapter 2 of LE LOCATAIRE (1934; translated by Stuart Gilbert as THE LODGER in the two-in-one volume ESCAPE IN VAIN, 1943). Elie Nagear, a desperate young Turkish Jew, bludgeons to death a wealthy Dutch entrepreneur with whom he’s sharing a couchette on the night train from Brussels to Paris after it crosses the French border. (In European trains of the Thirties a couchette was a small chamber used as sleeping quarters by two and sometimes four total strangers.) On the run from the police, he takes a train back to Belgium and holes up in a boarding house for foreign students in the city of Charleroi.

   In Chapter 9 there’s a brief conversation between Elie and a fellow roomer. “They were talking in the papers of the difference between French and Belgian law. Well, suppose someone who’s being proceeded against in Belgium by the French police commits a crime in Brussels, or some other Belgian town…. What I mean is, that a man who’s liable to the death penalty in France might happen to commit a crime in Belgium. In that case, it seems to follow that he should first be tried in Belgium, if it’s in that country he’s arrested. And it also follows, doesn’t it, that he should serve his sentence in that country?”

   What Simenon assumes his readers know is that France at this time still had the death penalty while Belgium had abolished it. On May 10, 1933, in Boullay-les-Trous, a village south of Paris, an obese pornographer named Hyacinthe Danse, who was known to Simenon, murdered both his mother and his mistress. Fearing that he’d be caught and guillotined, Danse took the train to Liège in Belgium, where on May 12 he murdered his childhood confessor (and also Simenon’s), a Jesuit priest named Hault, and then turned himself in.

   This case was apparently still pending in Belgium when Simenon wrote LE LOCATAIRE. Sure enough, in December 1934 Danse was convicted of Hault’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, meaning that he couldn’t be extradited to France and stand trial for the other murders until he was dead. Less than two years later, Simenon turned the Danse story into a short Maigret, included as “Death Penalty” in the collection MAIGRET’S PIPE (1977) and discussed in my column for September 2015.

   Which is enough journey to France for one month. Or, as they say on the left bank of the Seine: basta.

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


   If this column doesn’t appeal to you, don’t blame me. Steve Lewis thought some readers might be interested in my latest book, even though it has nothing to do with our genre. So I’ll start off this month recycling the book’s introduction, which I believe conveys what it’s about, and reveals an aspect of your columnist that may surprise many who think of me as just a mystery wonk.

***

   If you leave out the accident of my birth, the origin of They Called the Shots dates back to 1952. The Korean war was raging overseas, HUAC and Senator Joe McCarthy were raging on the home front, the blacklist was on full tilt, and I was nine years young, living in Roselle Park, New Jersey.

   One night my parents, taking me along, went out to an appliance store to buy their first television set. It was, if memory serves, an Admiral with a 12 -inch screen. The price was around $225 or $250. For the next several years that set drew me to it like a magnet.

   In the early Fifties the major movie studios considered TV the enemy, offering for nothing the same product that theaters charged admission for. They wouldn’t allow their old films to be shown on the small screen, and in their current pictures they often wouldn’t allow a set amid the furniture of a living-room scene.

   Growing up in the New York City area, I had access to seven channels: the CBS, NBC and ABC flagship stations (Channels 2,4 and 7 respectively), the short-lived DuMont network, plus three local independents. With the majors boycotting the medium and the number of made-for-TV series rather small, TV programmers starved for material on film had to fall back on the smaller fry among movie-making companies, mainly Republic, Monogram and PRC.

   During the Thirties and Forties those companies had put out an endless stream of B pictures, primarily but not exclusively Westerns, and Republic had also offered dozens of cliffhanger serials. This was the product, interspersed with Hopalong Cassidy movies (out of which William Boyd, the only actor to play Hoppy, made megamillions by buying the rights to those flicks and licensing them to stations across the country) and early made-for-TV series like The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, that kept me glued in front of the set for hours every evening. I became a certified telefreak.

   On that tiny screen I watched movies featuring the exploits of various Western stars of previous decades over and over. Some were trio pictures with groups like The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters and The Rough Riders. Most starred a single hero: Gene Autry, Eddie Dean, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard (Ken s less successful but perhaps more talented brother), Tim McCoy, Jack Randall, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and of course the young John Wayne.

   I got to the point where I could identify at sight dozens of the actors in B Westerns who usually fell to the heroes bullets or fists — Roy Barcroft, Tristram Coffin, Kenne Duncan, I. Stanford Jolley, Charles King, John Merton, Marshall Reed, Hal Taliaferro, Harry Woods, just to name a few at random. Eventually I caught on that the person usually named in a picture s final credit must be important, but what a director did and how he did it I hadn’t the foggiest.

   As I grew older I lost interest in shoot-em-ups and cliffhangers, considering them beneath the notice of a young intellectual such as I fancied myself to be.

   Years slid by. I completed college and law school, passed the bar, and eventually uprooted myself from the east coast to St. Louis where I was invited to become a law professor. And then, slowly but surely, a strange thing happened. I became interested in those old movies again. I had the pleasure of meeting in their golden years some of the actors whose younger incarnations I had watched for hours on end, magnetized by that 12 -inch screen.

   Most important of all, I began to meet and become friends with some of the men whose names were familiar to me from the final credits of those pictures. The ones who called the shots. The directors. I got to watch their films again, sometimes sitting beside them. I got to listen to their stories. Eventually I began to write about them.

   This book is the culmination of that process. It s taken me thousands of hours of viewing time and hundreds of hours of writing time but in my twilight years I still consider the time well spent. I hope I ve communicated what I’ve gotten from all those films, and from the people who made them, in the following pages.

   But perhaps I can spell out here what I’ve looked for, and often found, in pictures of this sort. Reduced to two words, what the first-rate films contain and what the first-rate directors infuse into their films is visual imagination or, in two more words, visual excitement. This quality is the alpha and omega of the kind of movies discussed here.

   Each chapter is self-contained and can be read separately. But many also throw light on other chapters, and to help readers navigate among them, the first time in any chapter the name of a director is mentioned who is the subject of an earlier or later chapter, that name is highlighted.

   For example, in the chapter on William Witney you can see highlighted names like John English or Alan James or Ray Taylor from Bill s point of view, and later you can turn to the chapters on those men and see Bill from their perspective.

   The directors I knew best tend to get the longest and most quote-filled chapters but, because they contributed so much to this book, I want to single them out for mention: in the order of their births, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1893-1987), Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000), Thomas Carr (1907-1997), and my closest Hollywood friend, Bill Witney (1915-2002). A few others covered here, like Oliver Drake (1903-1991) and R.G. Springsteen (1904-1989), I knew but not all that well. Others, who died too soon, I never had the pleasure of meeting.

   Every director covered here is dead, and most of them died before the beginning of this century. In a sense this book is an assortment of flowers on their graves. In another sense it brings them back, I hope, to life.

***

   While we’re on the subject of shoot-em-ups, a reader of my last month’s column asked if any of John Creasey’s contributions to that branch of literature got published in the USofA. The answer is Yes. War on the Lazy-K, as by William K. Reilly — one of three bylines under which Creasey turned out (if I’ve counted right) 29 smokeroos for low-on-the-totem-pole English houses like Wright & Brown and Stanley Paul — first appeared in London in 1941, amid the carnage of World War II, and came out over here five years later under the imprint of Phoenix Press.

   Yes, the same Phoenix Press that at the same time was presenting to an indifferent world the novels of that incomparable wackadoodle Harry Stephen Keeler. I am the proud owner of a copy of the Reilly opus, picked up for 50 cents at a YMCA book fair in St. Louis twenty or more years ago. Another copy wound up in the hands of Bill Pronzini, who devotes a couple of pages to it in his tribute to badly written Westerns, Six-Gun in Cheek (1997).

   When I was in Wales back in pre-euro days I pungled up 50 pence apiece for each of several Creasey cactus epics published only in England, but that’s another story. Let’s stick to the one that made it across the pond.

   This one actually has a plot of sorts, but what I find most amazing is that a writer who had never yet visited the U.S. and knew next to nothing about the old West could hammer out so many books of this type in a few days apiece. The narrative passages of Lazy-K are readable enough, although pockmarked with exclamation points and lacking the urgency of the Inspector West and Dr. Palfrey novels Creasey wrote during the same war years.

   But Gad, the dialogue! Just about every one of the horde of characters in this book speaks in dialect—the same wacky dialect for the whole passel of ‘em! “Why’n hell can’t yuh old-timers stop arguin’ among yourselves?” “C’n yuh use a drink?” “Yuh ain’t got a touch of whiskey with yuh, by any chance?” “Yuh’ve heerd me.” The only characters who are spared this form of discourse are the Mexicans. “Thees ees a surprise, Kennedy. I was told that you wair dead.”

   “He wanted to be kept hidden until after Deegby was gone. But undair cover he negotiated with the other outfits.” There’s also one character who’s a Kiowa — or, as Creasey spells it, Kiawa — but him no speakum much. Can you imagine having to remember to misspell so often while pumping out ten or fifteen thousand words a day? What a delight to encounter the occasional rare moment when Creasey blinks and actually spells you y-o-u!

***

   At least one other among Creasey’s posse of pistol-smokers was published over here, but not in book form. Hidden Range (1946), published in England as by Tex Riley, takes up virtually the entire February 1950 issue of Real Western Stories, one of the Columbia chain of ultra-low-budget pulps edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes. I tripped over a copy of this one in a secondhand bookstore somewhere in Ohio and snagged it for another 50 cents.

   A quick look at the invaluable FictionMags Index website revealed a curious fact I hadn’t been aware of before. A year after Lowndes used Hidden Range in Real Western Stories, he used the exact same novel, this time retitled Forgotten Range, in the February 1951 issue of Western Action, another Columbia pulp. He must have been desperate for material that month!

   But could the Index be wrong here? According to other Creasey bibliographies in print and online, Forgotten Range is a different book, published in England as by Tex Riley in 1947. It strikes me as more credible that this is the title Lowndes ran early in 1951. In any event, he had earlier run another Creasey shoot-em-up, this time under the William K. Reilly byline, Brand Him for Boothill! (Western Action, July 1949), but what title and pen name this one sported in England remains a mystery.

   A word which brings us back to what this column is supposed to be about.

***

   Hundreds of Creasey’s crime novels were published in the U.S. from the early 1950s until well after his death in 1973, but only nine appeared here before he became a top name in the genre. Eight of these, chronicling the earliest exploits of Raffles-like John Mannering, a.k.a. The Baron, appeared under Creasey’s Anthony Morton byline between 1937 and 1940, although for some obscure reason the character’s nom de thief on this side of the pond was Blue Mask.

   The ninth, and the only book to bear Creasey’s own name on its spine until he became established over here years later, was Legion of the Lost (1944), one of the early espionage adventures of Dr. Palfrey and his colleagues, offered by a publishing house called Stephen Daye, Inc., which seems to have vanished into the mists a few seconds after it was born.

   At a time when I had little or no idea who Creasey was, I found a nice copy of this rarity in an old used bookstore in Elizabeth, N.J. that was a favorite hangout of mine in my formative years. What did the book set me back? One quarter. A wise investment, yes?

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


   On Christmas morning I finished proofreading my next book — which has nothing to do with mystery fiction and won’t be described here — and, with time on my hands, began reading a pile of randomly chosen short stories in the hope that at least one would generate an item for this column. I was not disappointed.

   In addition to her well-known Albert Campion stories, Margery Allingham (1903-1966) wrote a few dozen non-series shorts, most of them for English newspapers. I’d read only a couple of these but, finding one in Thomas F. Godfrey’s anthology English Country House Murders (1988), decided to give it a whirl.

   “The Same to Us” has to do with a jewel robbery at posh Molesworth Manor during a house party whose guest of honor is Dr. Koo Fin, “the Chinese Einstein” and creator of the Theory of Objectivity (obviously a take-off on Einstein’s Relativity hypothesis). What brought me up short was Allingham’s remark that “already television comedians referred to his great objectivity theory in their patter.”

   Come again? Television comedians? In a story that was first published in 1934 and clearly takes place during that “long weekend” between World Wars? I realized at once that I’d stumbled upon yet another specimen of Unconscionable Updating, where an author tries to make an old story seem up-to-the-minute.

   But could I prove it? My shelves didn’t happen to include a copy of the London Daily Express for May 17, 1934, in which the tale had first appeared, but I did have The Allingham Minibus (1973), where it was first collected. No help: the same TV comedians pop up there.

   Luckily I also had Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for January 1950, in which Fred Dannay had reprinted the tale long before its book appearance. There I found what I take it Allingham had written: “….and already music-hall comedians referred to [Dr. Koo Fin’s] great ‘objectivity’ theory in their routines.” My guess is that the change was made after her death.

***

   Among English writers perhaps the most unconscionable updater was John Creasey (1908-1973), who wrote countless thrillers set in London during World War II and then later, when he’d become rich and internationally famous, revised them to get rid of the war atmosphere and sold them as contemporary novels.

   Two examples of the harm he did to his own work will suffice here. In Chapters 12 and 13 of Inspector West Regrets (1945) Roger West and his sergeant find themselves in a gun battle with gangsters that takes place in two connected air-raid shelters dug into the earth in the adjoining backyards of two houses in parallel streets. In the revised version of 1965 the bomb shelters become conventional garages.

   In Holiday for Inspector West (1945) as first written and published, Roger and a contingent of cops lay siege to a gang headquarters in a complex of arches supporting a wartime railway bridge and intended to shelter Londoners bombed out in the Blitz. In the 1957 updated version that setting too becomes a casualty.

   Anyone interested in reading these two novels the way Creasey originally wrote them, plus three others from the WWII years, should hunt down Inspector West Goes to War (2011), a handsome coffee-table book with an introduction by — oh hell, how did you guess?

***

   There have been updaters on our side of the pond too, among them that kafoozalus of wackadoodledom Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967). One of the earliest examples of a youthful specialty of his, which most of us call short novels or novelettes and he liked to call novellos (no doubt with the accent on the first syllahble) was originally titled “Misled in Milwaukee.”

   Keeler wrote this 26,000-word novello in 1916 and sold first publication rights for a whopping $65 to the Chicago Ledger, where it appeared as a 5-part serial (23 June-21 July 1917). As the year of publication tells us, Prohibition was still in the future at the time this tale first appeared. Five years later, as “The Search for Xeno,” it was included in the December 1922 issue of 10-Story Book under the byline of York T. Sibley — a bit of deception Keeler thought prudent because the editor to whom he sold the reprint rights was himself!

   (Between 1919 and 1940 he spent his afternoons editing the magazine while devoting mornings to writing dozens of the long, convoluted and sublimely nutty novels for which he is famous, or perhaps le mot juste is notorious.)

   The 1922 version is the earliest that survives and was used as the text for the presently available edition of the tale, first published by Ramble House in 2003 as a separate volume and, two years later, as part of the collection Three Novellos,both graced with an introduction by — oh hell, you guessed it again!

   This version keeps what I assume was the original description of what protagonist Clint Farrell sees as he approaches Milwaukee by rail. “Outside in the darkness, great breweries slid past the train, their square-cut buildings, dotted with tiny windows, looming against the pink-tinged sky from the foundries, their gigantic grain and hop silos illuminated by sputtering, brilliant lights strung up and down the concrete cylinders.”

   But, since this time the year is 1922 and Prohibition is in full swing, Farrell quickly learns that the man he’s looking for works at “the Southern Wisconsin Near-Beer Company on East Water Street, near Grand.”

   That wasn’t the last time Keeler fiddled with this tale. Sometime in the late 1950s or early Sixties, long after all his English-language publishers had dumped him, he completely rewrote it — eliminating the 1916-era shirt collars that are crucial to the plot, replacing the near-beer with drinks that weren’t ersatz, and splicing in some references to the atomic bomb and other feeble attempts to update — and, retitling it “Adventure in Milwaukee,” included it with two other novellos in a package he sent to his Madrid publisher Instituto Editorial Reus. Señor Reus passed on this one, saying — assuming he spoke Keeler Spanglish! — “We no wan’ theez novelitos, my fr’an.” The threesome remained unpublished until that incomparable loon sanctuary Ramble House got into the act early in the 21st century.

***

   Even Ellery Queen was not immune to the updating bug. In EQMM for March 1959 Fred Dannay reprinted “Long Shot,” a Queen story that takes place in Hollywood and was first published in 1939. This time around, the names of all but one of the Tinseltown luminaries who attend the big horse race have been changed.

   Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo are fused into Sophia Loren, Al Jolson is replaced by Bob Hope, Bob Burns (remember him?) by Rock Hudson, Joan Crawford the second time by Marilyn Monroe, and Carole Lombard by Jayne Mansfield. Who’s the only star with enough name recognition to survive the update process intact? Clark Gable.

***

   Any number of writers have played the updating game but the only one I know of who defended doing so was John D. MacDonald (1915-1985). Back in the early Eighties I and a few others who admired John’s early work persuaded him that we should put together a large collection of his pulp stories, along the lines of what I had done a decade earlier with Cornell Woolrich’s stories in Nightwebs (1972).

   With John’s help we got hold of photocopies of just about every published tale of his salad days, mailed them back and forth to each other with comments, and ultimately winnowed the list down to thirty.

   These we submitted to John, who axed three of them but was satisfied with the other 27. The result was not one sizable collection but two: The Good Old Stuff (1982) and More Good Old Stuff (1984).

   But before these 27 stories were republished, John insisted on updating — not all but some of them — and, in his Author’s Foreword, defended the practice vigorously. Most of his changes, he said, had to do with “references which could confuse the reader. Thirty years ago [i.e. back in the early 1950s] everyone understood the phrase ‘unless he threw the gun as far as Carnera could.’ But the Primo is largely forgotten, and I changed him to Superman.”

   Where a particular story was “entangled with and dependent upon” the years following World War II when the tales were written, he wisely chose not to update. But where a story “could happen at any time,” he did.

   “I changed a live radio show to a live television show. And in others I changed pay scales, taxi fares, long-distance phoning procedures, beer prices, and so forth to keep from watering down the attention of the reader. This may offend the purists,” he concedes, and it did indeed bother all four of us who edited the books (Marty Greenberg, Jean and Walter Shine and myself), but John of course outvoted us. Someday I’d love to see those collections in print yet again, with every story restored to the way he first wrote it. That’ll be the day!

***

   If John’s rationale for updating ever had any validity, I submit that it has none at all in our high-tech era. To use his own example, anyone who sees the word Carnera and is baffled need only Google the name, as I just did, and find more than 600,000 references in less than a second. Do we live in amazing times or what?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

   Malone: “No, a pleasanter place.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Della: “But what about the courts?”

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

   Della: “And then what will you do?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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