May 2007

   A few posts back, mystery writer George Marton was discussed, this in conjunction with my comments on the movie based on a thriller mystery he co-authored with Tibor Méray, Catch Me a Spy.

   I listed there the books he had to his credit in Crime Fiction IV, a list that’s repeated below. I also pointed out he was born in 1900, but that no year of death had been noted, and that that was all I knew of the man.

   Thanks the investigative endeavors of Victor Berch and Ted Murphy, working separately, I can now tell you more. First, a repeat of George Marton’s entry in CFIV, adding his year of death and correcting his year of birth.

    MARTON, GEORGE (1899-1979)
         * The Raven Never More [with Tibor Méray] (n.) Spearman 1966.
         * Catch Me a Spy [with Tibor Méray] (n.) Allen 1971; Harper, 1969.
         * Three-Cornered Cover [with Christopher Felix] (n.) Allen 1973; Holt, 1972.
         * The Obelisk Conspiracy [with Michael Burren] (n.) Allen 1975; Stuart, 1976.
         * Alarum (n.) Allen 1977
         * The Janus Pope (n.) Allen 1980; Dell, 1979.

   While the books above all fall generally into the category of spy fiction, I’ve yet to come up with much in terms of story descriptions — and this is rather surprising — nor have I found scans of any of the covers, not one. Both of these omissions will be taken care of in a later post.

   His full name was George Nicholas Marton. Born June 3, 1899, in Budapest, Hungary; died April 13, 1979, in West Hollywood, California. Of the Jewish faith, Mr. Marton earned a PhD from the Sorbonne in 1924 and was a internationally known literary agent in Vienna between 1925 and 1937, and in Paris from 1937 to 1939.

   Fleeing the Nazis and coming to the US aboard the SS Normandie on March 30, 1939, he became president of the Playmarket Agency in Los Angeles from 1939 to 1944, later working for MGM. During World War II, Mr. Marton served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the National Guard. Returning to Paris, he became the literary agent for 20th Century Fox in Paris until his retirement in 1963 or 1969. (There are conflicting dates given for the latter.)

   It was not until his retirement that he turned seriously to writing. Besides the film based on one of his novels, one other, Play Dirty (1968), came from an original story he wrote. The movie, a “Dirty Dozen” type of war drama, was directed by André De Toth and starred Michael Caine in the leading role.

   His final novel, The Janus Pope, did not appear until after his death from cancer at the age of 79.

JOHN SPAIN - The Evil Star

Popular Library 239, paperback reprint; no date stated [1950]. First Edition: E. P. Dutton, hardcover; April 1944. Digest paperback reprint: Detective Novel Classic #44 [date?]. Magazine appearance: Thrilling Mystery Novel Magazine, Spring 1945.

   The detective in charge of the case that develops in The Evil Star is Lt. Steve McCord, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, Homicide Detail. Cleve F. Adams, noted pulp fiction writer who wrote a tidy sum of hardcover novels as well, wrote three novels as by John Spain. The other two featured a private eye named Bill Rye.

The Evil Star

   The link will take you to Kevin Burton Smiths Thrilling Detective website, where you will, if you wish, learn more about a couple of other PIs, one named Rex McBride (five novels), the other John J. Shannon (two books). From Adams pulp days but no stories in book-length form, Kevin also has an entry for Violet McDade & Nevada Alvarado, two very early fictional private eyes in the overall scheme of things (seven novelettes in Clues Detective Magazine between 1935 and 1937).

    Since these detectives are fairly well-documented, theres no need for me to do so, which means all the more space to discuss the book at hand. (The rundown in the paragraph above does not include all of Adamss novels, however. Perhaps Ill get back to some of the rest of his fiction sometime soon.)

    This is a complicated case, and I wont even begin to try to spell anything out for you. Whats sort of unique, though, is that there are not twins involved, but triplets. Three young women named Faith, Hope and Charity, and while they live far apart and separate lives, they for some reason all turn up in LA at the same time.

   Charity is a school teacher, in town for a national convention of school supervisors.

    Faith is a secretary and traveling companion of an elderly woman named Gretchen Van Dorn, who is also wealthy and the owner of the Ayvil Star, said to have a curse on it. (Weve heard that story before.)

   Hope is another story altogether. Shes a bubble dancer from San Francisco who disappears from police headquarters after being brought in bruised and without her memory. She may be involved, it turns out, with the killing of a crooked LA public works commissioner named Welles up in San Francisco.

   If you were to put some of the pieces of the puzzle from here, as meager as Ive left the details, some of them, Im sure, would fall right into place.

    I might mention two other matters, though. First, there seems to be a leak in the LAPD, and McCord might be the person responsible, so most of the time hes working on the case unofficially and on leave from the department. Secondly, and the reason he stays working on the case, is that he quickly falls for one of the sisters, and Charity in particular. Solidly and with a loud thud. So solidly that he cannot believe his good fortune, thinking that she might vanish like a piece of fog or mist in his hand. It colors his thinking, but so do various konks on the head and the killing of at least one good friend on the force.

The Evil Star

    The end result is a hard-boiled case combined with a semi-screwy caper that has aspirations of being a detective story, with an ending definitely not from Agatha Christie. From page 157 (of 159):

    [the killer, name omitted] sighed gustily, lifted [his/her] gun at McCord, hesitated for one brief fatal second. In that second McCord shot [him/her] squarely in the mouth.

   This never happened in a Christie novel, or did it? I havent read all of hers, and some of the endings in her books may have been equally tough, in a purely figurative sense, mind you. You tell me.

   But to get back to John Spains book, it all turns out well in the end. Just in case you were wondering.

— March 2007

CRISTINA SUMNERS – Familiar Friend

Bantam; paperback original. First printing: August 2006.

   Familiar Friend is the third in a series of mystery adventures in which the two leading characters have an exceeding complicated relationship, which I will get to in a moment. First of all, however, here are the books:

      Crooked Heart. Bantam, hc, October 2002; reprint pb, September 2003.

      Thieves Break In. Bantam, pbo, October 2004.

      Familiar Friend. Bantam, pbo, August 2006.

   There is a long story behind the writing of these books and why it took so long for them to find a publisher. The author hints at it in the Acknowledgments to this one, but then she goes on to say that the story would bore us. As if. But if I have read this introduction correctly this, the third book, was the first one written, or at least plotted, and that was back in the 1970s when she was taking courses at Princeton, which is the town upon which her fictitious town of Harton, New Jersey, is modeled.

   Harton being the home of the Reverend Kathryn Koerney and police chief Tom Holder, who are tacitly in love with each other, but neither of whom dares to admit it, even to themselves. Tom Holder is married, but to a wife he does not love, nor does she love him. Kathryn Koerney is all but committed to another man, a rich Englishman named Kit Mallowan. (From what I’ve gathered, Kathryn is equally wealthy, if not wealthier, but I can’t tell you any of the details, this being the only book of the three that Ive read. I also gather that she met Kit in England, where Book Two took place.)

Familiar Friend

   The setting in Book Three is purely academic, at least in the beginning, given that the body of the chairman of the local universitys Spanish department being found on the driveway leading into St. Margarets, a parish church. The man was universally disliked by his colleagues, it is soon revealed, making sure that there are many, many suspects for Holder to interview in the initial stages of the investigation that quickly ensues.

   Curiously enough, however, even though all of these professors, wives, students and the staff, crew and a group of the usual university hangers-on are strongly depicted, with considerable time and energy put into making them distinct individuals (all with motives), and with all of this elaborate background already built and ready to wear, the author seems to forget about (most of) them and concentrates instead on the not-so-minor issue of mysterious disappearance of Holders wife, causing the local D.A. to…, and Father Mark to…, and then Kit to…

   I can say no more, but it is a lot of fun. You will have to read it for yourself. Sometimes the leading characters behave like teenagers in their rather complicated dance they perform in establishing their relationships to each other, but its all done in such a nicely charming fashion, that I am sure that all but the most surly curmudgeon would not be pleased and object to it.

   The puzzle of the mystery is classically done as well, what with time tables and the shrewdest of plans concocts by the villain(s) involved. The last line has nothing to do with the mystery (as opposed to the Ellery Queen novel I covered not so long ago), but if you care anything at all about the characters, it will make absolutely certain that you will not miss where the next episodic installment of their amusing romance (but not to them) will take them next.

— September 2006

[UPDATE] 05-30-07.  Unfortunately, given the pattern of appearances of books in this series, it looks as though there will still be over a year’s wait.

CATCH ME A SPY. [a/k/a TO CATCH A SPY] Capitole Films, 1971. Kirk Douglas, Marlène Jobert, Trevor Howard, Tom Courtenay, Patrick Mower. Based on the novel Catch Me a Spy by George Marton & Tibor Méray. Co-screenwriter & director: Dick Clement.

Catch Me a Spy

   The particulars on the novel, as per Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, are as follows:

      Catch Me a Spy (with Tibor Méray). Allen, UK, hc, 1971; Harper, US, hc,1969.

   The author twosome wrote one other book together:

      The Raven Never More (with Tibor Méray). London: Spearman, hc,1966.

      This is the extent of Tibor Méray’s entries in CFIV. George Marton has a small number of other books listed for him. All are hardcover editions unless indicated otherwise:

   MARTON, GEORGE (1900- )

      * Three-Cornered Cover [with Christopher Felix] (n.) Allen, UK, 1973; Holt, US, 1972.
      * The Obelisk Conspiracy [with Michael Burren] (n.) Allen, UK, 1975; Stuart, US, 1976. [France]
      * Alarum (n.) Allen, UK, 1977.
      * The Janus Pope (n.) Allen, UK, 1980. Dell, US, pb, 1979.

   I imagine George Marton has passed away by this time, but at the moment I have to confess that this is all I know about him.

To Catch a Spy

   And after all, this is a review of the film that was based on one of his books, and one I enjoyed but have rather mixed feelings about. The plot, however, should come first, and so I shall. Fabienne (Marlène Jobert), the rather naive young niece of a British intelligence official (Trevor Howard) is romanced and quickly married to John Fenton (Patrick Mower), but their honeymoon in Bucharest is rudely (if not crudely) interrupted by Fenton’s arrest and whisking off to Russia, where an exchange for a spy in Britain’s hands is demanded.

   When the swap falls through (and this is meant literally), the spy the Russians wanted not being available, in order to obtain her husband back, Fabienne must find another spy to offer them instead. This is where a chap named Andrej (Kirk Douglas) comes in.

   As there are in all good spy movies, there are several secrets behind some of these statements, none of which will I reveal, but after some quarreling and other small rows between the (now) two primary participants, a mutual kidnapping and several other humorous interludes, the day is saved — in a frenzy of final revelations and speedboat chases.

Marlene Jobert

   And I confess that I did not realize for a while that there WERE humorous interludes in this movie, and it took me several double-takes before I fully caught on. British humor is rather dry, often with a “did they really mean that?” sort of approach to comedy, at least on the viewer’s part, or so it was for me.

   I should have mentioned before now that this is a British film, in spite of Kirk Douglas being a well-known American star, and Marlène Jobert being equally well-known in France, but not in the US until recently, when it was revealed that she is the mother of Eva Green, female star of the most recent James Bond movie.

   But to get back to the point I was making, the movie we are talking about (and not Casino Royale) is amusing but not hilarious. It was also done in, at least for me, by accents. Both the British accents in this film, sometimes near impenetrable, and Mlle. Jobert’s French accent, often in a whispery voice, have convinced me that I might enjoy the movie even more if I were to watch it again and give them (the accents) a second try, which indeed I may.

   Or not. I didn’t see the attraction between the two leads. Kirk Douglas is tall and scruffy looking, while Mlle. Jobert appears short and pixie-ish if not waif-ish. She seems to all but disappear whenever they are on the screen together, standing one next to the other. Perhaps another viewing of this film would convince me otherwise, but right now, after seeing the movie only once, I can’t imagine opposites ever attracting each other as strongly as they are supposed to have done in To Catch a Spy.

Online cover scans for the Phoenix Press mysteries are now complete from 1936 through 1952, when the last of their titles was published.

Coming up next: the crime fiction published by Hillman-Curl between 1936 and 1939. Authors included in this line of lending-library mysteries include Bram Stoker, Steve Fisher, J. S. Fletcher, E. R. Punshon, Roger Torrey and many others. Look for the covers soon. You will read about it here first.

   The results are in. The question was, as posed by Jeff Pierce, head man at The Rap Sheet blog:

   Name ONE crime/mystery/thriller novel that you think has been most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years?

   With something like 100 reviewers, bloggers, fans and authors responding (some of them falling in all four categories), it wasn’t surprising to see that there was very little overlap, not only in the stories but even with the authors themselves.

   One story managed to get three mentions, however:

         Night Dogs (1996), by Kent Anderson

   Four more stories received two nominations each:

         Anatomy of a Murder (1958), by Robert Traver

         Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), by Chester Himes

         Interface (1974), by Joe Gores

         Night of the Jabberwock (1951), by Fredric Brown

   Authors mentioned more than once (more than one title) were:

      Charles Willeford, P.M. Hubbard, Ross Macdonald, Colin Harrison, and Jess Walter.

   You can play a game with yourself, no prizes offered, by seeing (a) how many of the books you read, and then (b) how many of the authors you’ve read.

   In my case, the answer is (a) 13 and (b) 30. After reading mystery fiction for nearly 55 years, this is bad. Down right pitiful. I demand a recount! Wait ’til next year!

DONALD E. WESTLAKE – Pity Him Afterwards

Carroll & Graf; paperback reprint, 1996. Hardcover edition: Random House, 1964. British hardcover: T. V. Boardman, 1965 (American Bloodhound #499). Paperback, UK: Penguin, 1970.

   It seems odd that there was no prior paperback edition before this one from Carroll & Graf — I’m assuming that the one from Penguin I found on ABE is a British edition. It was written at the beginning of Westlake’s career, however, and it was written just before it went in a different direction, and a terrifically successful one at that, so perhaps it got lost somehow in the transition.

   Let me show you what I mean. Here are Westlake’s first five books — I’m ignoring the non-mysteries and the ones he wrote under different names. (A topic that needs some attention, perhaps, and one that if not done already by someone else may indeed be discussed at further length here someday.)

      The Mercenaries, Random House, 1960.
      Killing Time, Random House, 1961.
      361, Random House, 1962.
      Killy, Random House, 1963.
      Pity Him Afterwards, Random House, 1964.

   All tough guy thrillers, more or less, in one way or another.

   Then came:

      The Fugitive Pigeon, Random House, 1965.
      The Busy Body, Random House, 1966.

The Busy Body

      The Spy in the Ointment, Random House, 1966.
      God Save the Mark, Random House, 1967.

   Comic capers all of them, in one form or another. And all were picked up by the Mystery Guild, as was Killy in the first grouping, but that was the only one of the five that was, and it is one that has never had a paperback edition in the US at all. (Can that be? That doesn’t seem right. But no, all I’ve found is a British PB from Penguin.)

   What I am trying to say is that until he started writing the funny stuff, no one knew who Donald E. Westlake was. And then all of a sudden they did, and there wasn’t a publisher around who wanted to confuse the reader by saying, hey, here’s Westlake, and he wrote this other stuff, too.

   Or I’m making this up out of nothing. It’s pure conjecture, nothing more.

   It isn’t as though Pity Him Afterwards is a bad book. Far from it, and it’s about time I started the review, isn’t it?

   If you remember OTR (Old Time Radio) and as a kid you listened to shows like Inner Sanctum, Suspense and The Whistler soon before bedtime, you will remember quite a few of them that began with an mad lunatic escaping from a mental institution, an asylum, a building which in my imagination had festooned with turrets and outside walls covered with barbed wire and unimaginable things taking place inside.

   And a motorist comes along and gives the madman, a hitchhiker, a lift, to his everlasting regret, a regret which sometimes did not that long at all. You can pick up the story from there. As often as it happened in real life, it happened 10 to 100 times more frequently on the airwaves of the 1940s and early 50s.

   I’m not sure how often it occurred in the world of mystery fiction. I do remember Margaret Millar’s The Iron Gates (Random House, 1945) as falling into the category, but no others come to mind, at the moment.

   Other than Pity Him Afterwards, that is. Just like I remembered it. Perfectly. Back then it was pull-up-the-covers time, but since I’m a few years older now, no, it didn’t bother me as nearly as much as madmen on the prowl did back then, when I was a kid, lying on the floor next to the radio, my heart pounding.

   Robert Ellington is one such escapee, although Westlake refers to him almost exclusively as the madman. Taking the identity of the fellow who picked him up, a young actor, the madman finds his way to Cartier Isle, and the summer playhouse where he becomes one of the troupe of players. The madman has a gift of mimicry and role-playing, and with a few well-chosen lies, he manages to fit right in. But which one of three newcomers to this season’s program is he?

Pity Him Afterwards

    He kills his first victim the second day he is on the job. Cartier Isle, a wealthy, upscale summer community, no state mentioned, has only a four-man police force, headed by Dr. Eric Sondgard, who is a mere college professor the rest of the year. It is this other half of his professional life that allows him to judge people quickly. He’s a quick profiler, in other words, but while reluctant to call in the state troopers, he soon begins to feel in over his head a whole lot sooner than he expected.

    The reader may become confused right about here. Not about the story itself, which is perfectly clear, but rather the category the story falls into. A detective story, perhaps? On page 58 a detailed timetable is created, eliminating all of the people staying in the boarding house next door to the theatre except for the aforementioned three newcomers. (The idea of a wandering tramp being responsible is discarded as soon as messages from the killer are found written with soap in the bathroom and with jam on the kitchen table.)

    Sondgard tries a bluff based on a fingerprint that he does not actually have, but it is a clever idea. On pages 127-128, however, he is beginning to worry that he is using the wrong approach:

   Sondgard shook his head in angry irritation. It was worse than a double crostic. Worse than Finnegans Wake without a pony. Worse than the detective books so many of his fellow professors — but not his fellow captains — insisted on writing every summer, in which the final clue came from the author’s specialty; an inverted signature in a first-edition Gutenberg De civitate Dei, the misspelling of the Kurd word for bird, the inscription on a Ming Dynasty vase, or the odd mineral traces found embedded in the handle of the kris.

   And so, no, in spite of first impressions, that’s not the kind of story it is. A thriller, then, as it started out to be? Pressured by the bluff, the killer … but no, that would be telling.

    Let me go back and show you some more what kind of writer Westlake was when he was in his early 30s. Lyrical and clear, pungent and confident, a glorious let-it-all-out sort of prose, written almost with the sheer joy of writing. It may not work for everyone, but there are passages in this book that made me only sit back and quietly admire them.

   For descriptive writing, from page 91, for example, and of an ordinary bar, no less, down the street from the theatre:

   The facade of the Lounge was Southern plantation, complete with pillars and a veranda and white front door. But inside the disguise was dropped completely; the interior was the stock bar decor to be found anywhere in the United States. A horseshoe-shaped bar dominated the center of the room, with booths at the side walls. The normal beer and whiskey displays, with all their flashing lights and moving parts, were crowded together at the back bar amid the cash registers and the rows of bottles. Most of the light came from these back-bar displays, aided only slightly by the colored fluorescent tubes hidden away in the trough that girdled the room high up on the wall. Lithographs of fox-hunting scenes predictably dotted the walls, and the imitation gas lamps jutting from the wall over each booth said Schlitz around their bases.

   With a setting such as a summer playhouse, a story works only if the author knows his way around summer playhouses, and the people who inhabit them. Westlake does, or he does well enough to convince me.

   Besides having the ability to describe bars, he also knows people, including the awkward boy-girl situation in which neither quite knows what the other party is thinking. From page 167:

   Mel was not at all sure of himself. Mary Ann seemed open and honest and friendly, and she had no objection to being here alone with him, but he wasn’t at all sure how much that meant. Because she was assuming more and more importance to him, he wanted to make no rash or ill-advised moves, wanted to avoid inadvertently driving her farther away from himself.

   So he hadn’t yet kissed her. He’d been thinking about it, more or less constantly, ever since they’d landed here [on a small island in the middle of a lake], but as yet he hadn’t even begun a move in that direction.

   He argued with himself about it, telling himself that after all she had come out here with him, and after all under circumstances like this she had to expect him to kiss her, didn’t she? But God alone knew went on in the minds of girls; she might not be expecting to be kissed at all. She might be thinking of them now as sister and brother.

   On the other hand, what if he didn’t try to kiss, and she’d been waiting all day for him to make the first move? Wouldn’t that be just as bad? If she did want to be kissed, and he didn’t kiss her, wouldn’t that drive her away from him just as surely as if she didn’t want to be kissed and he did try?

   It was a problem.

   A problem indeed, and a universal one. A problem, you will pleased to know, is finally resolved a page or so later, ignoring the madman, the two of them in fact ignoring the world around them and working out the problem on their own.

   The problem of the madman is another matter, and in a short book, only 185 pages long, the matter seems to end too quickly and abruptly. Not that I’m displeased. It’s a ending worthy of being called an ending, with only a doctor, the head of the asylum from which the madman escaped, regretting the loss of the madman’s intelligence and potential, if only he could have been cured.

    The title, not so incidentally, comes from Dr. Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson. Entry for April 3, 1776.):

   MURRAY. “It seems to me that we are not angry at a man for controverting an opinion which we believe and value; we rather pity him.”

   JOHNSON. “Why, Sir; to be sure when you wish a man to have that belief which you think is of infinite advantage, you wish well to him; but your primary consideration is your own quiet. If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We should knock him down first, and pity him afterwards.”

– September 2005

[UPDATE] 05-28-07.   You may be wondering why I happened to pick this review out the archives where it’s been mothballed for well over a year. On his blog a couple of days ago, Ed Gorman reviewed this same book by Donald Westlake, and if you were to stop over there to read it, it’s pretty clear that we were reading the same book. A slightly different perspective, it goes without saying, but it’s the same book, and it’s one we both think you should read (speaking for Ed without a prior consultation on doing so, but I don’t think he’s going to disagree).

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