Fri 29 Feb 2008
ELLERY QUEEN – The Adventures of Ellery Queen.
Pocket 99; paperback reprint; 1st printing, March 1941. Earlier editions: Frederick A. Stokes, hardcover, November 1, 1934. Grosset & Dunlap, hardcover, July 1936. Mercury Bestseller Library #1, digest paperback (abridged), February 1940. Triangle, hardcover, June 1940.
And of course the book has appeared from many another publisher over the years. I’ll add cover images for some of them along the way.
This will be a long review. Over the years I’ve never known exactly how to review collections or anthologies of short stories. I have the need, I guess, to cover each story in detail. I don’t have knack that other reviewers have of keeping the review crisp and concise with a quick summing up of the book’s overall qualities.
So this will be a long post. I read these stories at a pace of one or two an evening, then wrote up each one the next day in a diary sort of format. I may do some summarizing at the other end, but perhaps not. In any event, here are the comments that came to mind as I read them, with all story titles beginning with “Adventure of …”
“The African Traveler.” First publication. As the opening story, it’s based on an intriguing premise. Ellery has agreed teach a course in Applied Criminology at a local (unnamed) University. From the students who’ve applied, 63 in all, he’s chosen only two, John Burrows and Walter Crane, both with high academic achievements. Wheedling her own way into the course is the fawn-eyed Miss Ickthorpe, thanks to the fact that her father, Professor Ickthorpe, is the fellow on the faculty who inveigled Ellery into giving the course in the first place.
Their first assignment, a field trip to the scene of a crime: a murdered man alone in his bedroom, where all four see the body still lying on the carpet. Nothing like getting your feet wet upon a moment’s notice!
After seeing all of the clues, each of the three sleuths-in-training come up with a different solution – and choice of killer – from each of the others. And equally, of course, all three are wrong. Ellery probably has the inside edge, but I’d have graded the students almost as highly.
I have one quibble about the wristwatch, a fact that Ellery tosses off lightly but doesn’t make sense to me, but of course (once again) having a case with three partial and one full solution like this is what EQ the author was at one time known best for.
As far as I know, this is the only assignment the three students have had that was ever recorded. Too bad; they seemed to work well together, if not entirely successfully. (It may be my imagination, but Ellery seemed a little nonplussed at having an unexpected student to deal with, and primarily because she was female.)
“The Hanging Acrobat.” First published in Mystery magazine, May 1934, as “The Girl on the Trapeze.” The female half of a husband-and-wife pair of circus acrobats is found hanged to death inside of the theatre where the show still manages to go on the next day, as distraught as the male half, the rather slow-minded Hugo Brinkerhof, may be.
In rather macabre fashion, the possible suspects – most of them other performers who had made time with the dead woman at one time or another – are interviewed at the scene of the crime before the coroner has come with the rope around her neck creaking and the body swaying gently back and forth. Erggh.
The primary clue has to do with the kind of knot that was used. There was a bit of misdirection involved right about here, but at least in my case as a reader, it didn’t succeed. My eye stayed on the pea. The slightness of the detective work makes the overall tale appear all the more inadequate. Not one of EQ’s better efforts.
“The One-Penny Black.” First published in Great Detective magazine, April 1933. This is the oldest story in the collection, and one that at best I found only mildly enjoyable. It begins with old Uneker’s horrible German accent, as he tells Ellery about the recent happenings in his mid-Manhattan book shop, and ends with one of the more absurd endings to a detective story I’ve ever read.
It turns out that a thief who stole a rare stamp from a neighboring store made his getaway from a neighboring store, and now someone is buying – or stealing – every copy of Europe in Chaos that Uneker had on the shelf at the time.
Sgt. Velie doesn’t get it, but I think every reader will. That part’s fine, but Ellery’s subsequent deductions depends on a man’s snuff habit – an abominable inclination shared by Ellery’s father – and won’t mean a lot to modern readers. After registering this one mild complaint, I’ll return to the ending, wherein Ellery triumphantly discloses where the stamp is.
I don’t believe that either half of the EQ writing partnership understands collectors at all, and therefore I don’t believe a word of it!
“The Bearded Lady.” First published in Mystery magazine, August 1934. One of the greatest strengths of the early EQ repertoire was the “dying message” story that helps define their approach to their 1930s detective fiction: the pure puzzle aspect. In this one, a dying artist (also a doctor, making both professions important, paints a beard on a woman in the painting he was last working on. Question: Which of several suspects was the message referring to?
That there are only a few suspects in the house should have made it easier, but I found that keeping track of them difficult to do, forcing me to go back and re-read several passages several times. There is a huge to-do about estates and who gets what when who dies, and maybe it was late at night, because that was hard to follow also.
But, and a big but, if you’re a fan of “dying message” detective puzzles, as contrived as they are – and this one I cheerfully admit is contrived – this is a good one.
“The Three Lame Men.” First published in Mystery magazine, April 1934. A kidnapped businessman, his ex-gang girl slash showgirl mistress dead of suffocation in the closet of her apartment, and the muddy footprints of three men – all of whom limped – and no means of getting the man out of the window.
When you look back at the story, you realize that it’s a minor one – no one’s going to remember its solution as being remarkable or outlandish in any way – but it still works as a puzzle, thanks primarily to the nifty build-up and the rather outre trappings. Or if the word bizarre works for you, then use that instead.
“The Invisible Lover.” First published in Mystery magazine, September 1934. Ellery makes his way out of Manhattan for this one, to a small town upstate called Corsica NY (population 745), where a young man is in jail for killing the rival to his girl friend’s hand. The bullet that killed the man, a recent newcomer to the village, turns out to have fired by the young man’s gun.
When Ellery meets Iris Scott he understands why the bees have been buzzing. She is Circe and Vesta in one, he thinks. It takes a trip to the graveyard and digging up the dead man’s body to prove the young man’s innocence, but mildly macabre settings like this have been occurring all book long, and it fits right in.
It does the trick, too. A good story with a solution to match.
“The Teakwood Case.” First published in Mystery magazine, May 1933. I’m beginning to see a pattern here, and it’s hardly a surprising one. The earlier the story was written, the more rigid the format and presentation. As time went on, the EQ partners seemed more and more adept at avoiding stereotyped characterizations and letting Ellery’s detective work appear smoother and more skillful, instead of being forced.
This is an early one, having to do with a dead man in an apartment apparently mistaken for its owner, his brother. Inspector Queen does his usual routine with the snuff, and the rest of the case revolves around a pair of cigarette cases, each of the brothers owning one of them. The killer comes as a fairly good surprise, but the telling is dull.
“The Two-Headed Dog.” First published in Mystery magazine, June 1934. Another aspect of these early EQ stories that I haven’t mentioned before is the oblique way they often begin, sometimes abruptly – in the sense that the story has already begun before the reader is invited in – but sometimes more conventionally, as this one does, standing out in comparison to some of the others which didn’t.
Either way, I’ve discovered that the openings are tough for me to handle. They’ve often overwritten or overcharged – that’s the best word I’ve come up with so far to describe the phenomenon – and it takes a while for the story to settle down and begin to pull itself together and into shape.
This is not a complaint. I chalk it up to sheer literary exuberance – the love of words and telling a tale. Reading their early stories now, I can sense the joy the EQ cousins must have had in writing them, and the overall effect has been contagious. My complaints, as you’ve been reading them, seem minor in comparison.
This story, with its roots based on Greek mythology (Cerberus), is a good one. It’s a ghost story about a Cape Cod roadside inn with a haunted cabin for rent, and it’s up to Ellery to deduce why and by whom. Genuinely spooky, but perhaps too much so, as some questions are left unanswered in the denouement.
“The Glass-Domed Clock.” First published in Mystery League Magazine, Oct 1933. This particular “dying message” mystery story was written even before the previously mentioned one, “The Bearded Lady.” It also features what had been a standard ingredient in the half dozen or so Ellery Queen novels published up this time, a Challenge to the Reader…
…with one difference. This one comes right at the beginning, reporting as it does that Ellery had stated: “Anyone with common sense could have solved that crime. It’s as basic as five minus four leaves one.”
Didn’t do me a bit good. I didn’t read carefully enough. A murdered curio dealer leaves a trail from a broken glass-domed clock to a jewel whose position was far back in the case he took it from, making it obvious that the jewel was a key to the message as well as the clock, as there were many other clocks he could have chosen to break.
This is a very finely – and fairly – plotted story. And yet, it’s also a little too fussy. And more than that, the EQ stories don’t seem to have aged well, and the significance of the clock is a case in point. In contrast, the Sherlock Holmes stories seem ready to last another century, and EQ’s don’t. Maybe Ellery needed a Watson to “uncomplicate” the stories he was in. (I know. My spell-checker knows that that’s not a word also.)
“The Seven Black Cats.” First published in Mystery magazine, October 1934, as “The Black Cats Vanished.” There is yet another young unattached woman whom Ellery meets in this story who is fascinated by either his appearance or his reputation in solving crimes, or both.
Nothing seems to come of these brief, cursory attachments, as the lady in question never appears again in another story. While Ellery seems to welcome the attention, he also seems uneasy about it – until, that is, he’s solving the mystery at hand takes the full focus of his abilities.
Take Miss Curleigh, for example. She’s the pet store owner who poses Ellery the problem in this tale: why a woman who hates cats keeps buying another one week after week, each almost identical to the one before.
The woman’s name is Euphemia Tarkle, and she is also bedridden, an invalid. I haven’t been keeping note of unusual names in the previous stories, but this one is, well, unusual. Unusual enough for Ellery to be take notice of it himself, when he hears it.
One other aspect of a common EQ trait occurs in this one, otherwise about average for the stories in this collection. The killer’s name – and yes, of course, there is one – is revealed until the last two words in the story.
“The Mad Tea-Party.” First appeared in Red Book Magazine, October 1934. EQ has been saving the best for last, although I liked the first one and quite a few others too. I’ve always liked mysteries that connect themselves in wacky ways with nursery rhymes and childrens’ stories, and this is among the best of them.
The cousins must also enjoyed theatrics among their repertoire of mystery tricks, for for when Ellery manages to reach an isolated friend’s home in the hinterlands on Long Island – on a dark and rainy night, yet – he’s confronted with the other guests acting out their roles in a scene from Alice in Wonderland.
And when the host mysteriously disappears during the night, and mysterious packages beginning arriving – all connected with Alice once again – it makes for one of the cleverest detective stories in the entire collection. Did I mention one scene in which the entire party is drugged and falls asleep for several hours? I should have.
I don’t think that many people will catch on to what’s going on in this one. It’s a beauty.
Whew. This review is long enough already, so don’t expect a long summary, after all. If you’re a fan of detective stories with a capital D, then either you’ve read this book already, or you should – and posthaste. If you don’t particularly care for the contrivances that make detective puzzles work, then you’re not probably reading what I’m saying right here, either.
Thu 28 Feb 2008
ERIC HEATH â€“ Murder of a Mystery Writer.Arcadia House, hardcover 1955. A rewritten version of Death Takes a Dive, Hillman-Curl, 1938.
Whenever you come across a book that is — how shall I phrase this? — not as good as it could have been, how overwhelming the temptation is to start quoting large portions of it just to prove the point. Only a consideration of space unwisely used keeps my resistance high.
Murder of a Mystery Writer begins with chapter one, as so many books do. Criminologist Dr. Wade Anthony, whose pet theory it is that motion pictures will soon be the crime investigatorâ€™s number one tool, takes his secretary-assistant Penny Lake along with him, hoping to find Mystery Lodge (about which more later) a quiet place of seclusion in which to write his latest book.
Instead, when upon arrival they find themselves snowed in, they also find themselves interlopers to a branch meeting of the Mystery Writersâ€™ Guild that is running concurrently. The mystery writers are past experts at slugging away at each other with a continuous flow of insults, but one of the other main topics of discussion is the possibility of a perfect crime being committed. At length, one of the more obnoxious of the authors is done away with. Could this have been a trial run?
This may in fact sound pretty good, and without quoting, I canâ€™t say that Iâ€™m conveying very well the fact that the first few chapters are pure, unadulterated corn. Mystery Lodge is a prime example of what some misguided entrepreneurs consider a topnotch tourist attraction. Bizarre is hardly the word for it. Itâ€™s filled with phony coffins, artificial corpses in the closets, snakes hanging from the chandeliers — all the brain child of the saturnine host, the greatest mystery reader in the world, Antrim Zarzour.
Heath has his heart in the right place, however, and I have to admit, it’s a valiant effort. The murder is committed at dinner, with a gunshot ringing out as the lights go off, whereupon the weapon immediately disappears. There are lots of suspects and mysterious servants, a dying message, a tuning pipe, and a trapdoor or two.
All very interesting, you might agree. But beyond the fact that Heath demonstrates no great skills as a writer, the fact remains that murder is not a game that has to be solved according only to the rules. If there was no such thing as mystery fiction, this story would be impossible — in more ways than (the obvious) one. [D]
— From The MYSTERY FANcier
, Vol. 3, No. 2, Mar-Apr 1979. (Slightly revised.)
[UPDATE] 02-28-08. In my first paragraph, I mentioned the restrictions I placed upon myself in refusing to quote or paraphrase long passages. But when Bill Pronzini provided me with the cover image that graces this review, he reminded me that:
“I not only have a copy in jacket (scan attached), I found it so atrocious when I read it back in the early 80s that I wrote a six-page dissection of its plot absurdities and accorded it Alternative Hall of Fame status in Gun in Cheek (Coward McCann, 1982). A classic!”
How could I resist? I didn’t quote from Eric Heath’s book back in 1979, but I am going to quote Bill today, almost 30 years later. These paragraphs describe what immediately followed the murder that was committed at dinner, as mentioned above:
Dr. Anthony immediately assumes command, over protests from the others as to his qualifications. Cora Courtwright has the last word on the matter; when Zarzour makes grumbling noises, she says, “Youâ€™d better sit down and cool your gum shoes, Zarzour. You are only a reader of mystery fiction, and we are only the writers of such popular tripe. Therefore, the famous Doctor Anthony is in complete command of this snowbound murder castle.”
Anthony proceeds to question everyone, without learning much. The mystery writers, meanwhile, argue over which of them is going to write up Langâ€™s murder in fictional form; each wants to do so and each under the title Murder of a Mystery Writer. Nobody pays much attention to the corpse.
Suspicion falls on the dwarf, Gargoyle, when Zarzour claims to have found the murder weapon in Gargoyleâ€™s possession. (He also found a Maxim silencer, and thatâ€™s why nobody heard the shot that killed Lang.) The dwarf proclaims his innocence. He doesnâ€™t know how the gun and silencer got into his coat pocket, he says, which is where he discovered them when he returned to his room after the shooting.
Anthonyâ€™s sharp questioning reveals that Gargoyle had once spilled a glass of water in Langâ€™s lap and Lang had cursed him for his clumsiness. Everyone thinks this is a very damning motive for murder. Cora is particularly pithy in her condemnation: “Does anybody know whether cretinism causes people to see better in the dark than normally built people?”
Dr. Anthony isnâ€™t so sure of Gargoyleâ€™s guilt, though. As he confides to Penny later, “Iâ€™m inclined to think that there is a much deeper psychological basis for this crime than a dwarf committing murder to avenge a personal insult.”
For the other five and a half pages, you’re going to have to read Gun in Cheek for yourself. (You’re going to have trouble reading Heathâ€™s book itself, though, if you’re interested in primary sources. Nary a copy is offered by anybody online.)
And for those of you willing to investigate further, here is the complete entry for Eric Heath in Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin:
HEATH, ERIC (1897?-1979?)
Death Takes a Dive (Hillman-Curl, 1938, hc) [Cornelius Clift, Jr.; Los Angeles, CA]
Murder in the Museum (Hillman-Curl, 1939, hc) [Cornelius Clift, Jr.; California]
Murder of a Mystery Writer (Arcadia, 1955, hc) [Wade Anthony; California] Rewritten version of Death Takes a Dive, q.v.
The Murder Pool (Arcadia, 1954, hc) [Wade Anthony; Los Angeles, CA]
[UPDATE] 03-05-08. Excerpted from an email sent me by Bill Pronzini:
[When Al says that] Murder of a Mystery Writer is a â€śrewriteâ€ť of Death Takes a Dive, it probably gives the wrong impression that the two books are more or less identical â€” a case of total self-plagiarism. Not so.
The latter uses the exact same plot devices as the former, but the setting in Dive is a Beverly Hills house party, and the characters, while similar in other ways, are Hollywood types (sans dwarf, rather than mystery writers. Also, Dive is narrated by a â€śglamorous hard-as-nails female detectiveâ€ť named Winnie Preston and the criminologist who solves the caper and earns Winnieâ€™s undying love is called Copey.
Wed 27 Feb 2008
I had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Marlowe and his wife Ann at the 1997 Bouchercon in Monterey, at which he received the Private Eye Writers of America’s Life Achievement Award – an honor that I was privileged to help bring about.
Steve and I corresponded often in the years since; I considered him a friend and I believe he felt the same about me. In 2002 he and Ed Gorman both asked me to write a preface to Drum Beat: The Chester Drum Casebook – a collection of five short stories and one complete novel (Drum Beat–Dominique) that was published by Five Star the following year.
Below is the first three-quarters of that preface, “A Fast Drumroll,” which gives a concise and I hope worthy overview of Steve’s life and career.
A FAST DRUMROLL
by Bill Pronzini
When Stephen Marlowe introduced Washington, D.C.-based private investigator Chester Drum in the mid-1950s, both the traditional private eye tale and the tough-and-sexy paperback original were at or near their height of popularity.
The first six Mike Hammer novels by Mickey Spillane were runaway bestseller; Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer was well-established, as were Thomas B. Dewey’s Mac, Wade Miller’s Max Thursday, and Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne, among others. Softcover publishers were selling millions of copies annually by well-known professionals and such discoveries as John D. MacDonald and Richard S. Prather.
Of the dozens of new detective characters who were born each month in paperback editions, most had exploitive, lackluster careers and passed on with little notice. Only a handful made any kind of lasting impact, and fewer still were innovative enough to enter the pantheon of distinguished fictional sleuths. Chet Drum was and is one of that rarified number.
The reason for Drum’s success is twofold. First: Unlike his contemporaries, nearly all of whom plied their trade in a large, urban U.S. environment, his “beat” was international and the cases he investigated of a far-reaching, often volatile political nature. While he maintained an office in Washington – and later, another in Geneva, Switzerland – his cases took him to such global locales as Iceland, India, Russia, Spain, France, Italy, and South America.
And second: Drum’s creator is both a writer of considerable talent and a lifelong globetrotter himself. The respected critic Anthony Boucher, reviewing one of the early Drum novels in the New York Times, said that “very few writers of the tough private-eye story can tell it more accurately than Mr. Marlowe, or with such taut understatement of violence and sex.”
He might have added that Marlowe’s depictions of foreign backgrounds, the result of first-hand experience, are as vividly rendered as they are authentic. And that Chet Drum is a fully realized character, believable as both man and detective – intelligent, tough when he has to be, compassionate yet unsentimental.
The first Drum novel, The Second Longest Night, appeared in 1955. Notably, the publisher was Fawcett Gold Medal, the first of the paperback houses to specialize in original, male-oriented category fiction. (Not “pulp fiction,” a term that has been grossly misused since the Tarantino film, but rather an apotheosis of the true, pulp-magazine fiction of the ’30s and ’40s. The best of the softcover originals published by Fawcett, and such others as Lion, Dell, and Avon, were rough-hewn, minor works of art, perfectly suited to and representative of their era.)
Between 1955 and 1968, Marlowe produced twenty Drum novels for Gold Medal, resulting in an aggregate sales of several million copies. One of these, Double in Trouble (1959), was a collaboration with Richard S. Prather, in which Drum joins forces with Prather’s Shell Scott to solve a common case.
Despite the lurid titles of some of the early entries – Killers Are My Meat, Homicide Is My Game, Peril Is My Pay – all are literate, fast-paced, action-oriented without being overly violent, sexy without being sex-laden, and compulsively readable.
Although he was still in his twenties when he created Chester Drum, Stephen Marlowe was already an established writer. (“At the age of eight,” he has been quoted as saying, “I wanted to be a writer and I never changed my mind.”) In 1949, after graduation from William and Mary, he joined the staff of a prominent New York literary agency and soon began to sell science fiction to Amazing Stories and other leading pulp magazines of that era; most of these, as well as a number of adult and young-adult s-f novels, appeared under his birth name, Milton Lesser.
By the mid-1950s, he felt he’d done as much as he wanted in the s-f field and was beginning to concentrate on suspense fiction. He became a regular contributor to such digest-sized, hardboiled crime-fiction magazines as Manhunt (where the first Drum short story, “My Son and Heir,” was published in 1955, Accused, Hunted, and Pursuit.
His first suspense novel, Catch the Brass Ring, appeared as an Ace Double paperback in 1954. Several other non-series novels followed, under the Stephen Marlowe byline and as by C. H. Thames; the most accomplished of these is the unfortunately-titled Blonde Bait (Avon, 1959, as by Marlowe). In addition to the Drums, he also wrote two other series: a pair of private eye tales as by Andrew Fraser, and four enjoyable novels featuring a team of investigators for “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” as by Jason Ridgway.
When changing tastes and editorial policies brought about the cancellation of the Drum series in 1968, Marlowe turned to more ambitious suspense novels with international settings and complex themes. These include Come Over, Red Rover (1968), The Summit (1970), and The Cawthorn Journals (1975), the last named a chilling narrative set in Mexico that explores the reality of magic, the nature of evil, and the corruption of power.
His literary interest and intent metamorphosed yet again in the 1980s, when he began a series of brilliantly conceived, meticulously researched novels exploring the lives and personalities of genuine historical figures. The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus (1987) became a critically acclaimed international bestseller, as did The Lighthouse at the End of the World (1995), a seminal study of the tortured genius, Edgar Allan Poe, and The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes (1996), which he considers the best of all his novels.
Marlowe’s horizons may yet change again; the novel he is presently writing  is contemporary in setting and different in theme from anything else he has done. “The last thing you want,” he says, “is to feel jaded by or with your work. The New York Times once called me the most prolific mystery writer in the United States. I said, ‘Good Lord, I don’t want to be the most prolific anything; I would love to be the best.’”
Tue 26 Feb 2008
THE GHOST AND THE GUEST. 1943, Producers Releasing Corporation. James Dunn, Florence Rice, Sam McDaniel, Robert Dudley, Mabel Todd. Story: Milt Gross; screen writer: Morey Amsterdam. Director: William Nigh.
Morey Amsterdam you know if you’re old enough to have watched The Dick Van Dyke Show on TV. He played Buddy Sorrell, one of Rob’s fellow writers on the fictional “Alan Brady” comedy show. Milt Gross you may not know, unless you’re heavily into animation and 1930s and 40s comic strips and books.
But put them together to write a mystery movie, and what do you get? A comedy movie, of course! Of course there is a spooky old haunted house, a coffin of an recently executed convict that proves to be empty when the local constabulary comes to examine it, secret passages, trick panels, openings in walls where sinister eyes can be seen looking through, and non-stop laughs all the way through.
Maybe that last part is conditional. You may think of routines like these to be utter corn, which of course is true, but I’ll be willing to wager that even so, you may be tempted to smile every once in a while.
James Dunn, a long time comedic actor, and Florence Rice, daughter of famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, play newlyweds who’ve been given the home by her father – a former hideout of the sinister gangster whose demise I’ve just attested to. Instead they meet the former hangman (dour Robert Dudley) who did the job and who claims the house is his. The couple’s black chauffeur (Sam McDaniel) completes their threesome. The rest of the cast consists of various mobsters, molls and cops, including the pulp-story writing chief of police, a nice touch.
Dunn is his usual likable clowning self, and Florence Rice, both pretty and charming, seems to match him step for step. I would have thought she’d have had a long continuing career in movies, but not so. This was her last one, at the age of only 36. (She was in over 45 movies before this one, though.)
Luckily the movie is just over an hour long. I’m not tempted to ever watch it again, but with one large caveat, it was fun, in a dopey sort of way, while it lasted. Not funny though, was the former hangman’s trailing after the chauffeur with a noose in his hands. I’ve seen the same bit in other movies of this type, and in no case was it one of Hollywood’s finer moments.
Tue 26 Feb 2008
HELEN REILLY – The Silver Leopard
Detective Book Club; hardcover reprint, 3-in-1 edition, July 1947. Hardcover first edition: Random House, 1946. First magazine appearance: Mystery Book Magazine, January 1947. Paperback reprint: Dell 287, mapback, 1949.
This is a post-war society mystery novel — a different life than most of ours (I would imagine), but real people are involved. In her books, Reilly’s main detective is Inspector McKee, head of the Manhattan Homicide; of the 35 to 40 mysteries she wrote, he appeared in all but two or three. New York City was her most favored locale, though excursions to suburban Connecticut were common, as so it happens in this novel.
I’ve not read many of her books, but in the ones I have, McKee — while eventually on the scene — is not the primary protagonist. He seems to have been content to stay in observer status: looking in on the affair from without, balancing the facts he knows with the people he sees.
In this book, to take a handy example, we follow the actions of Catherine Lister, whose uncle had died several years ago, but whose life is still very much centered about her aunt and her two cousins (not her aunt’s children). There was recently a broken romance in Catherine’s life (due primarily to Harriet, called Hat, one of the two cousins) but now there is a new fiancĂ© (Nicky, who has just been invalided out of the war).
But when Catherine’s aunt announces her own plans to re-marry, events begin to snowball — and somehow the silver leopard that Catherine’s uncle had sent her just before his untimely death is intricately involved.
I don’t quite understand the last attack on Catherine’s life — I don’t think it’s quite enough to say that the killer was perhaps slightly crazed — but otherwise this tangled web of mystery and romance was a lot of fun to read, in observer status, in much the same way that McKee does.
— August 2000 [slightly revised]
[UPDATE] 02-26-08. For a lot more on Helen Reilly’s career, see Michael Grost’s long article about her on the main Mystery*File website, followed by a complete bibliography and lots of additional covers.
It was interesting to note that while I assume the book was popular when it first appeared, it has not been reprinted since 1949. As I said in a followup comment to the preceding review of Last Seen Hitchhiking by Brett Halliday, some books (and authors) are very much a product of their own time and era, and I’m sure that The Silver Leopard is one of them.
In my opening sentence, I referred to this as a “post-war society” mystery novel. I think you can often learn more history from mystery fiction — at least very small slices of it — than you can anywhere else. And that includes high school and grade school textbooks, from which — other than their parents — most people learn about the world that came before them.
Mon 25 Feb 2008
BRETT HALLIDAY – Last Seen Hitchhiking
Dell 4683; paperback original. 1st printing, August 1974.
By this date in the career of famed private investigator Mike Shayne, all of his adventures were appearing as paperback originals and (unknown to unwary buyers) were ghost-written by other writers. Brett Halliday — as I’m sure you know, but I’ll mention it anyway — was the pseudonym of Davis Dresser. After 1960 or so Dresser started to contract out the stories to authors such as Robert Terrall (mostly) and Ryerson Johnson (once or twice). What the circumstances were, I don’t know, but in any case Terrall was the man who wrote this one.
Which makes difficult such judgments as comparisons in style between this and Halliday’s Tickets for Death, reviewed here (by me) not too long ago. Dresser’s books were written in the 40s and 50s, though, and the 60s and 70s were a different era altogether.
Mike Shayne was still a tough private eye based in Miami, but society itself had changed, and sexual freedom had come to a large sectors of it. The F-word is used with no inhibitions in this book, for example, and that a fairly graphic description of sexual perversions (you might say) is included seems to say that this is not your grandfather’s brand of mystery tale. (Well, maybe yours, but certainly not mine.)
Shayne is called in by a fellow (female) detective, who needs his help in tracking down a missing (female) grad student, who disappeared while (probably) hitchhiking away from the scene of a crime — the theft of an extremely valuable Central American artifact.
We (the reader) know that she was indeed the captive of a certain kind of predator — again fairly graphically. We don’t (quite) know her final fate, but that that it’s tied rather intricately with each of the two cases Shayne is working on certainly comes as no surprise, a near no-brainer.
There is also a rather unique way in which Shayne solves them: by doing a live broadcast from a radio talk show, trying to entice a killer out of hiding as well as the captor of his lady friend — the killer and the captor are perhaps the same person, but we suspect not — plus any witnesses who believe they have anything else of interest to share.
All in all, this is a solid, suspenseful mystery, unraveled in part by the intelligence, believe it or not, of the detective at work. As a bonus — depending on your point of view, perhaps — hippies, LSD and free sex are elements of this country’s cultural history, and this is definitely a jolt back into time, describing a huge capsule chunk of our past only now getting into schoolbooks. (And some of this never will.)
– August 2000 [slightly revised]
[UPDATE] 02-25-08. Since the review was already written, and it has been for seven and a half years, I didn’t see any reason for having you wait any longer for it.
For the best one page coverage of Mike Shayne and all of the venues he’s appeared in, along with the authors who wrote about him, you really ought to go to this portion of Kevin Burton Smith’s “Thrilling Detective” website.
If that’s not enough, then there’s more: an entire website devoted to the red-headed Irishman. Check it out at http://www.mikeshayne.com/.
Sun 24 Feb 2008
BRETT HALLIDAY – Tickets for Death.
Dell 8885; paperback reprint. 1st printing, new Dell edition, July 1965; cover art by Robert McGinnis. Hardcover first edition: Henry Holt & Co., 1941. Several other paperback editions, including Dell 387 (mapback); cover art by Robert Stanley.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Mike Shayne private eye novel, and I think I’d forgotten how hard-boiled a guy he was. Back in 1941, Shayne was a two-fisted detective in the Dashiell Hammett-Black Mask mode, a bit derivative, maybe, but by no means a fellow to mess around with.
Take pages 24 and 25, for example — a very early event in this case centered around a sudden influx of counterfeit racetrack tickets. Shayne and his wife have just registered in a hotel, when he’s called down to another room. Something triggers his suspicions, and he goes in ready for action. Within four paragraphs the two hoodlums in the room are slumped on the floor dead. Shayne himself is injured, but “It was only a flesh wound.” Naturally.
Nor does the wound hamper his range of action for the remainder of the night. And there is a lot of action, and during the midst of it, Shayne runs into a lot of characters that both he and the reader have to keep constant track of:
There is a pint-sized newspaper editor who seems to delight on rousing up stories. There is the owner of a disreputable night club just outside the city limits. There is a cop who, while not perhaps crooked, is heavily beholden to the criminal elements in town. There is the manager of the race track, and there is a girl who tries to frame Shayne up in the old badger game. There is another girl who knows something and tries to entice Shayne into paying her for what she knows. There is a shyster of a lawyer who is trying (among other activities) is trying to get the inventor of a new camera gimmick to sign the rights over to him.
And there is Phyllis, who (at the time of this story) is married to Mike Shayne. Having a wife on hand is an interesting twist added to a tale of a hard-drinking private investigator, but (apparently) there are only so many twists that an author can manufacture from the concept — and marriage vows really have to tie a guy down a lot — and Phyllis soon disappeared from Shayne’s long life in fiction.
What’s remarkable is not so much any of the above, but that out of the tangled morass of a plot (as indicated above) the author Brett Halliday makes a coherent mystery novel out of it. Most (if not all) of the confusion that the tangled non-stop motion and literary sleight-of-hand is eventually unraveled, and neatly so. Good work all around.
— August 2000 [slightly revised]
[UPDATE.] 02-24-08. I’ve read a few other Mike Shayne novels since Tickets for Death. In fact, the very next book I read (back in the year 2000) was one. Look for my comments about it here sometime within the next couple of days.
As for Phyllis, I’ve done some investigating on my own, and I have the answer. In Brett Halliday’s own words (well in the words of Davis Dresser, who ought to know), taken from The Great Detectives, by Otto Penzler (Little, Brown, 1978):
“20th Century Fox bought The Private Practice of Michael Shayne as a movie to star Lloyd Nolan and gave me a contract for a series of movies starring Nolan as Shayne. For this they paid me a certain fee for each picture starring Shayne, promising me an additional sum for each book of mine used in the series.
“But they didn’t use any of my stories in the movies. Instead, they went out and bought books from my competitors, changing the name of the lead character to Michael Shayne. I was surprised and chagrined by this because I thought my books were as good or better than the ones they bought from others, and I was losing a substantial sum of money each time they made a picture.
“I finally inquired as to the reason from Hollywood and was told it was because Shayne and Phyllis were married and it was against their policy to use a married detective.
“Faced with this fact of life, I decided to kill off Phyllis to leave Shayne a free man for succeeding movies. This I did between Murder Wears a Mummer’s Mask and Blood on the Black Market (later reprinted in soft cover as Heads You Lose).
ďż˝I had her die in childbirth between the two books, but alas! Fox decided to drop the series of movies before Blood on the Black Market
was published, and the death of Phyllis had been in vain. I have hundreds of fan letters asking what became of Phyllis, and now the unsavory truth is told.
“With the movies no longer a factor, in my next book, Michael Shayne’s Long Chance, I took Shayne on a case to New Orleans where he met Lucile Hamilton and she took the place of Phyllis as a female companion. I brought her back to Miami with Shayne as his secretary, and in that position she has remained since.”
“I don’t know exactly what the situation is between Shayne and Lucy Hamilton. They are good comrades and she works with him on most of his cases, but I don’t think Shayne will ever marry again. He often takes Lucy out to dinner, and stops by her apartment for a drink and to talk, and she always keeps a bottle of his special cognac on tap.”
[BONUS.] From a website called www.bookscans.com I have found an image of the back cover I will add here at the end. Why have a map of the mystery available, and not use it?
Sat 23 Feb 2008
JOHN RHODE – Three Cousins Die
Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1959. Dodd Mead & Co., US, hardcover, 1960. [The cover shown is of the latter.]
The first of the three seems to have killed himself; the second is the victim of a far too hasty knife attack; the last dies in a puzzling sort of automobile accident. Dr. Priestley asks a few pertinent questions of Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn, and although he’s never on the scene himself, he’s easily able to establish the common factor that connects all three events.
This is surely no-nonsense investigation at its finest. Rhode was indubitably an author at least a quarter century behind his time. Little or no effort is spent on the kinds of trivial matters that commonly pass for characterization or secondary motivation. Slow-moving; and, yes, I knew who did it as soon as Dr. Priestley did. [C minus ]
– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 3, No. 2, Mar-Apr 1979.
When I wrote this review, it looks as though I was channeling mystery critic Julian Symon and his opinion of the “humdrum” school of detective fiction. From Bloody Murder (1974) he describes what he means:
“Most of them came late to writing fiction, and few had much talent for it. They had some skill in constructing puzzles, nothing more, and ironically they fulfilled much better than S. S. Van Dine his dictum that the detective story properly belonged in the category of riddles or crossword puzzles. Most of the Humdrums were British, and among the best known of them were Major John Street …”
The Major Street he was referring to was also John Rhode, author of the Dr. Priestley books, as well as Miles Burton, who related to the world cases solved by Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion.
Three Cousins Die came toward the end of Street’s long writing career, which extended from 1925 to 1961. Only three more Rhode novels came later, and three more Burton’s.
For whatever reasons – supply? demand? – this particular book is also hard to find. There are seven copies on ABE at the moment, ranging in suggested price (and condition) from $30 to $65.
I couldn’t tell you whether my opinion today would match the one stated above or not. I seem to remember railing away at some private eye around the same time for having too much characterization; that is, too many details of his home life. What can I tell you? I was much younger then.
Fri 22 Feb 2008
LESLIE CHARTERIS – The Last Hero.
International Polygonics Library; paperback reprint, November 1988. Previous editions: Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hc, 1930. Doubleday Doran & Co./The Crime Club, US, hc, 1931. Plus: Ace/Charter, pb, 1982. Also published as: The Saint Closes the Case, Sun Dial, 1941; Fiction Publishing Co., pb, 1967. And as: The Saint and the Last Hero, Avon #544, 1953.
A fairly complicated publishing history, in other words, and it’s far from complete. But it’s not nearly as complex as the history of The Saint as a character himself. This has generally been considered the second Saint novel, but after reading the Wikipedia entry (under Simon Templar) I am certainly willing to go along with the now accepted chronology: that Meet – the Tiger! was first, and Enter the Saint (consisting of three novellas) was second.
My own exposure to The Saint was through the stories that appeared in every issue of The Saint Detective Magazine when I was in my teens and shortly beyond. The stories came from every time period and in no order whatsoever, so thinking of how The Saint first came on the scene and developed as a character would have been impossible, even if I’d have seriously considered doing so.
From reading The Last Hero at this much later date, and matching my thoughts up with several of the online histories of The Saint, it’s clear in retrospect that Charteris was still tinkering with the character, revising and improvising details as he went along, creating as he did a back story that may (or may not) have stayed constant all the way through the remaining books and collections — nearly a hundred in all.
I’ll not bore you with details, as I’d probably get them wrong, and besides, there’s a book by Burl Barer called The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film and Television 1928-1992. (MacFarland, 1992, 2003) that if you’re interested, will get them right. I don’t have a copy, and I will have to get one.
There is also a humongous website devoted only to The Saint that deserves more exploring than I’ve had a chance to do so far.
You may remember the IPL cover to the left as one that has appeared here before. The cover from Avon edition (below right) features Patricia Holm, the love of Simon’s life, fairly prominently. The third one (above right) is from a set of Saint novels that came out when the Roger Moore TV show was playing in the US.
I don’t particularly believe that the title The Saint Closes the Case is apt at all, since the villain, a wealthy arms dealer named Dr. Rayt Marius, manages to survive, only to appear in a few more of the Saint’s adventures, along with his patron, the brutally ambitious Crown Prince of some small unnamed European country.
I said brutally ambitious, and I meant it. In 1930, the clouds of war were beginning to form once again, and it was easy for readers of the day to believe that ruthless profiteers like Marius and the Prince did for a fact exist. Once Simon Templar learns of a mad scientist’s new invention, a veritable death ray machine, he knows that if it were to fall into the wrong hands, or even the right hands, the world would not be likely to survive.
The solution? Kidnap Professor Vargan, confiscate his plans, persuade him to destroy his weapon – or suffer the consequences. There is no bluff on The Saint’s part. He may have his usual devil-may-care attitude about him, but he’s not joking. He and his small group of comrades in arms are deadly serious.
This group of friends includes the previously mentioned Patrica Holm, who gets kidpanned in return, to The Saint’s dismay; Roger Conway, new to the business and prone to error; and Norman Kent, the titular hero:
From the prelude, page 13: “…and it is also the story of one Norman Kent, who was his friend, and how in one moment in that adventure held the fate to two nations, if not of all Europe, in his hands; how he accounted for that stewardship; and how, one quiet summer evening, in a house by the Thames, with no melodrama and no heroics, he fought and died or an idea.”
From Caroline Whitehead and Geroge McLeod, Knights Errant of the Nineeteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, Chapter 5:
“Norman Kent is an archetypal knight errant. Though formally a man of 20th Century England, he lives (and dies) by the Code of Chivalry. He loves totally his Lady, Particia Holm – who, like Don Quixote’s Dulcinea, is not aware of that love. He is totally loyal to his Liege Lord, Simon Templar. Like Sir Gawain in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, Norman Kent takes on the threats to his Lord. Not only physicial threats to life and limb, but also the sometimes inavoidable need to take dishourable acts which would have reflected badly on the reputation of King Arthur/Simon Templar is taken on, wholly and without reservation, by Sir Gawain/Norman Kent.”
Heady stuff that, then and now, although there are things here about which the reader is not totally aware while the book is in progress. [Nothing essential, but to ease my mind, please forget that you just read it.] After a slow beginning – as the author sorts out his primary character’s affairs, for perhaps the benefit of himself as much as more the reader – this is an adventure nearly without equal. The prose simply sings. On his way to rescue Pat, taken from pages 152-153:
“He smashed through the traffic grimly, seizing every opportunity that offered, creating other opportunities of his own in defiance of every law and principle and point of etiquette governing the use of His Majesty’s highway, winning priceless seconds where and how he could.
“Other drivers cursed him; two policemen called on him to stop, were ignored, and took his number; he scraped a wing in a desperate rush through a gap that no one else would ever have considered a gap at all; three times he missed death by a miracle while overtaking on a blind corner; and the pugnacious driver of a baby car who ventured to insist on his rightful share of the road went white as the Hirondel forced him on to the kerb to escape annihilation.
“It was an incomparable exhibition of pure hogging, and it made everything of that kind that Roger Conway had been told to do earlier in the evening look like a child’s game with a push-cart; but the Saint didn’t care. He was on his way; and if the rest of the population objected to the manner of his going, they could do one of two things with their objections.
“Some who saw the passage of the Saint that night will remember it to the end of their lives; for the Hirondel, as though recognising the hand of a master at its wheel, became almost a living thing. King of the Road its makers called it, but that night the Hirondel was more than a king: it was the incarnation and apotheosis of all cars. For the Saint drove with the devil at his shoulder, and the Hirondel took its mood from his. If this had been a superstitious age, those who saw it would have crossed themselves and sworn that it was no car at all they saw that night but a snarling silver fiend that roared through London on the wings of an unearthly wind.”
If you can’t read that without getting the least bit of thrill, please try taking your pulse again.
[UPDATE] 02-23-08: I thought you might like to see this:
Fri 22 Feb 2008
Posted by Steve under Authors
, ReviewsNo Comments
LOREN D. ESTLEMAN – The Rocky Mountain Moving Picture Association
Forge, paperback; 1st printing, July 2000. [Hardcover first edition: Forge, March 1999.]
Movies are a large part of everyone’s life today, whether viewed in theaters, seen as videos at home, or the basis of watercooler gossip at work. It comes as a distinct pleasure, therefore, to read about the early days of the pre-Hollywood motion picture industry, back in the days of makeshift sets, mind-melting lighting systems and hand-cranked cameras.
People did what they had to in order to get those dazzling images up on the screen. In this novel Buck Bensinger’s leading lady Adele Varga is a former Mexican prostitute. She’s also the producer, the secretary, the bookkeeper, and when she needs to, she’s also the company’s publicity director. Buck’s new leading man is an ex-convict, just released from San Quentin.
In the real world, before he started making movies, D. W. Griffith (to pick just one example) was a cash boy in a dry goods store. Other recognizable names are bumped into now and again, as Buck tries his best to get his latest two-reel epic finished.
The villain, though? Surprise of surprises, none other than Thomas Alva Edison, dubbed by Buck as “The Lizard of Menlo Park.” Twenty years after coming up with the moving picture process, Edison discovered that there was money to be made from the idea, and he helped form a monopolistic trust (the Motion Pictures Patents Company) whose sole function was to keep anyone else from making movies.
Driven from the East Coast, the early pioneers in the field were forced westward to California, where they finally made their stand. And where they faced vandalism, kidnappings, wide-scale destruction of movie lots, and worse. (Edison himself may have been unaware of what was transpiring in his name, and the Pinkerton detectives who worked for the Trust were, as they claimed, on the side of the law.)
People in on the early days of anything are not always aware of their eventual footnoted places in history — they’re there to do a job, with a love for what they’re doing — and it’s left to others to look back later and marvel at their accomplishments. Giving us (the reader) the same perspective in this story is Tom Boston, a would-be writer born Dmitri Pulski, the son of a northern California iceman. Sent by his father to negotiate a sale of eight tons of ice to the Rocky Mountain Picture Association, Tom finds life in the sunny south much more to his liking and never returns to the life of cutting ice in the Sierra Nevadas. What he receives, along with a paycheck, is a ringside seat to the birth of a new industry.
What happens next is pure fiction, a novel too good to be fiction, and if it didn’t really happen, it should have.
— August 2000. This review first appeared in The Historical Novels Review. It has been very slightly revised since then.
[UPDATE] 02-22-08. I’ve just checked — I hadn’t before — but this book is not included in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV. I’d have to skim through it again to be sure, but from the review itself, which is all I’m going by, there doesn’t appear to be quite enough crime element in it to qualify for inclusion.
But the facts about Edison and the tactics of the Pinkertons on behalf of Motion Pictures Patent Company are true enough, and obviously Loren Estleman has a mystery (and western) writer’s approach to telling a rattling good tale.
Anybody interested in the early days of movie-making ought to enjoy this book. You’ll probably be able to buy it online easily enough, but for some reason, other than my own copy, I’ve never seen another one in a bookstore, new or used.
[ADDED LATER.] This book was written during a particularly fertile period in Estleman’s career. In the four year period from 1997 to 2000, he wrote a total of ten books, all major ones. Since then, he seems to have slowed down to a more normal pace of a book a year. Taken from his wikipedia entry:
# Never Street (1997; Amos Walker)
# Billy Gashade: An American Epic (1997; historical)
# The Witch Finder (1998; Amos Walker)
# Jitterbug (1998; Detroit series)
# Journey of the Dead (1998; western)
# The Rocky Mountain Moving Picture Association (1999; historical)
# The Hours of the Virgin (1999; Amos Walker)
# Thunder City (1999; Detroit series)
# White Desert (2000; Page Murdock)
# A Smile on the Face of the Tiger (2000; Amos Walker)
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