October 2009


THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER. Columbia, 1933. Adolphe Menjou, Greta Nissen, Ruthelma Stevens, Dwight Frye, Donald Cook, Harry Holman, George Rosener. Based on the novel About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932) by Anthony Abbot. Director: Roy William Neill.


   More stylish than Dear Murderer [recently reviewed here ] but less intelligent, The Circus Queen Murder offers Adolphe Menjou as Anthony Abbott’s Thatcher Colt, crusading District Attorney essaying that pre-doomed enterprise, a vacation from crime.

   Colt and his Gal Friday (An actress with the unlikely name Ruthelma Stevens, very good in a Glenda-Farrell-ish way.) quickly hook up with a traveling circus that just as quickly turns into one of those hotbeds of passion celebrated in cheap movies and paper-backs: threats, killing, more threats, murder and impersonating-a-cannibal ensue before things sort themselves out.

   Under the sure hand of director Roy William Neill (he of Universal’s “Sherlock Holmes” series) this moves along quickly and with a certain amount of class, filled with catchy camera angles and some surprisingly subtle touches.

   I particularly liked Stevens reporting a conversation to the investigators: “He called her a lying little [micro-pause] cheat,” and a few minutes later, Menjou looks at her knowingly and says, “So he called her a lying little [same micro-pause] cheat, did he?” leaving our fertile minds to conjecture just what he really called her.


   Unfortunately, there’s more style than sense here. I kept waiting for the legendary Thatcher Colt to come up with some brilliant deduction, surprise us with some clever twist or maybe just shoot something, but (WARNING!) there are no bombshells here: no surprise about the killer, the victim, none of that, and we pretty much just watch Adolphe Menjou watch things turn out the way they would have if he’d never stepped in.

   Something does finally lift Circus Queen out of its rut, though, and that’s Dwight Frye, the spiritual progenitor of Elisha Cook Jr. and a cult actor if ever there was one, here cast perfectly as the maniacal cuckold.

   Frye was perhaps a limited actor, but he was unforgettable in Dracula and Frankenstein, and here, given a meaty part, he takes it in his teeth and runs with it, turning this into a pretty satisfying time.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins:

ANTHONY ABBOT – About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress. Covici Friede, US, hardcover, 1931. UK title: The Crime of the Century, Collins, hc, 1931. Also published as: Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress. Popular Library #286, 1950.

ANTHONY ABBOT Clergyman's Mistress

   Fulton Oursler is best remembered as a magazine editor, for Liberty in the 1930s and Reader’s Digest in the late Forties and as the author of the religioso blockbuster The Greatest Story Ever Told (1949). But in younger days he also contributed to the mystery genre, using the by-line Anthony Abbot for eight detective novels starring New York City police commissioner Thatcher Colt.

   The format of the first six is clearly borrowed from S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance series. Each title falls into rigid About the Murder of pattern; Colt is portrayed as wealthy mandarin intellectual; his cases are narrated and signed by his faithful male secretary; his familiars include a stupid district attorney, a crusty medical examiner, and dignified butler; the novels tend to begin with a body found under bizarre circumstances, with strange clues pointing to a host of suspects; the investigation is punctuated by conferences at which, in the spirit of Socratic debate, the detectives offer alternative reconstructions of the crime; and a second murder usually takes place about two-thirds of the way through the book.

   Like those of the young Ellery Queen, Abbot’s variations on the Van Dine framework are better written and characterized and somewhat livelier than the Philo Vance books themselves, although Abbot unfortunately followed Van Dine in declining to play fair with the reader.

ANTHONY ABBOT Clergyman's Mistress

   The second and perhaps best in the Thatcher Colt series was About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress, which like many Van Dine novels was based on a famous true crime. In this version of the Hall-Mills case of the 1920s the bodies of a respected Episcopal minister and of a beautiful singer in his choir are found floating down the East River in a rowboat.

   Colt quickly takes over personal command of the investigation, with a huge assortment of peculiar clues — nine dumbbells, a bloody-pawed cat, Chinese sumach leaf, a bag of dulse — implicating various members of the minister’s and the singer’s households.

   Staying in full control of a stupendously complex plot, Abbot also treats us to vivid glimpses of early-1930s New York and to a sardonic portrait of the WASP clergy.

   Most of the Thatcher Colt novels are cut from the same pattern, including About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930), which launched the series; About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932), with its background of a circus playing Madison Square Garden; and About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935), with its intimations of the occult.

   The last two Anthony Abbot titles, The Creeps (1939) and The Shudders (1943), lack Van Dine elements and are believed to have been ghosted by another writer.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Editorial Comment: The other writer has been tentatively identified as Oscar Schisgall. See the comment following the previous review.

William F. Deeck

ANTHONY ABBOT – The Shudders. Farrar & Rinehart, US, hardcover, 1943. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, 3-in-1 edition, February 1943. UK title: Deadly Secret: Collins, hc, 1943.

    “The author requests that in discussing The Shudders readers and reviewers do not give away its plot.” An understandable request by Anthony Abbot (who in reality was Fulton Oursler), one must admit, since the plot is asinine.


    Still, a reviewer must mention something about the book, besides declaiming that Anthony Abbot, the narrator and Watson for Thatcher Colt, is an even bigger twit than S.S. Van Dine, the narrator and Watson for Philo Vance, which is a claim many won’t believe until they encounter Abbot the narrator.

    Briefly then — and I hope that Abbot’s shade does not come back to haunt me — Thatcher Colt, New York City Police Commissioner, more detective than administrator, has been responsible for the conviction of a villain who poisoned his boss and mentor and made off with two million never-located dollars.

    The evening he is to be executed, the poisoner asks Colt to visit with him. He warns Colt that an even greater villain — a Dr. Baldwin — who kills for sport and who kills undetectably is lurking about ready to do untold damage.

    The poisoner is executed, with Colt looking on, and then Colt begins an unsuccessful three-year search for Baldwin. One day the former warden of the prison at which the poisoner was executed rushes into Colt’s office to tell him that he has met Dr. Baldwin, that the poisoner’s executioners are dying off, and that the warden is to be next.

    He also has more important information to impart, but he’s too busy talking about side issues to do so, and then he dies — of apparently natural causes.

    Why is Dr. Baldwin seemingly avenging the executed poisoner? It’s all too silly and impossible to narrate, even if the author’s request was to be flouted even more than I have, already.

    Skip this one.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1987.

Editorial Comment:   I’ll post a review by Mike Nevins of Anthony Abbot’s About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress next. At the end of his comments, he points out that the last two Abbot mysteries, The Creeps and The Shudders, are said to have been written by someone else.

    And, yes, it appears to be so, or at least it’s highly conjectured to be true. In Part 7 of the online Addenda to his Revised Crime Fiction IV, Al Hubin names Oscar Schisgall as the probable suspect.

    Which makes me curious, of course. Why should Fulton Oursler have farmed off his series character to someone to write up his last two adventures? If anyone knows or learns more, please elucidate!


MARK GATISS – The Vesuvius Club: A Bit of Fluff. Simon & Schuster, UK, hardcover, November 2004; Scribner’s; US, trade pb, October 2005.


   I have always been an appalling judge of character. It is my most beguiling virtue.

   So speaks Lucifer Box (“I have a horror of artichokes.”), Edwardian portraitist, and His Majesty’s most daring — and decadent — secret agent, spy, and when the need arises, assassin, the hero of Mark Gatiss’s novel of mystery, conspiracy, dirty doings, and — of course a threat to the future of the Western world and particularly the waning sun of the British Empire post Victoria.

   Box, who lives at Number 9 Downing Street (because somebody has to), has been assigned to find the missing agent Jocelyn Utterson Poop aided by his hench-woman and nude model Delilah, who has just helped him dispose of his late luncheon guest Everard Supple, a treasonous diplomat:

   It was midway between the fish course and the pudding, as Supple opened his mouth to begin another interminable tale, that I did the decent thing and I shot him.


   The decidedly bi-sexual Box is dispatched by his chief (Joshua Reynolds, a dwarf who gives out his assignments from a bathroom, “Three foot something in his stocking feet and ever so jolly.”) to a case involving the beautiful Miss Bella Pok, his boy assistant handsome Charlie Jackson, and the grizzled vulcanologist Emmanuel Quibble, as well as poisoned centipedes, foggy London chases, kidnapped scientists, and a plot to set off Mount Vesuvius by a Neapolitan secret criminal society.

   It’s a wild chase, equal parts Oscar Wilde, Fu Manchu, H.P. Lovecraft,. Monty Python, The Avengers, James Bond, and Austin Powers. The tale is spun by Gatiss, an award winning star and co-creator of the British comedy, The League of Gentlemen and sometime writer for Doctor Who, in a perfectly toned voice that sparkles with witty epigrams and playful adventure.


   Of course you may find Lucifer Box a bit of a scoundrel, but his raffish adventures among the seedier side of the Edwardian demimonde are outlandishly entertaining and addictive.

   There is even a twist in the tale of near poetic justice for our hero. Which of course he escapes — you can’t very well succumb in the first book in a series. Simply bad taste, that.

   I smiled what my friends call, naturally enough, the smile of Lucifer.

   And you’ll be smiling too, though perhaps not as dashed devilishly. A tasty and charming bit of fluff, exactly the thing for a cold winter’s night.

       The Lucifer Box series —

    1. The Vesuvius Club (2004)
    2. The Devil in Amber (2006)
    3. Black Butterfly (2008)


R. AUSTIN FREEMAN – The Stoneware Monkey.

Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, 1938. Dodd Mead & Co, hardcover, 1939. Paperback reprints: Popular Library #11, 1943. Dover, with The Penrose Mystery, 1973.

R. AUSTIN FREEMAN The Stoneware Monkey

   There wasn’t anything in my unread pile that got me excited, so I decided to reread something I haven’t read in probably 30 plus years. This was paired with Freeman’s The Penrose Mystery by Dover and sold in an oversized paperback for the grand price of $4, according to a sticker on the front.

   The first two-thirds is narrated by young Doctor James Oldfield, a former student of Dr. Thorndyke, covering for a vacationing doctor in the village of Newingstead. Returning from a house call, Oldfield hears a police whistle, and, going to investigate, he comes across the body of a mortally injured policeman and is soon joined by another policeman and a diamond merchant named Kempster who has just been robbed.

   The dying policeman had been hit over the head with his own nightstick, which has the left thumbprint of the killer who escaped by stealing Oldfield’s bike.

   A few months later, Dr Oldfield has bought the practice of a deceased doctor in Marylebone, London and is called in when a pottery maker named Peter Gannet is suffering from stomach troubles. When he can’t discover the cause of Gannet’s illness, he seeks the help of his old teacher, Dr. Thorndyke, who diagnoses arsenic poisoning.

The Stoneware Monkey

   Suspicion falls on Gannet’s associate, Frederic Boles, who shares a studio with Gannet and who makes, in Oldfield’s opinion, some ugly jewelry. Gannet recovers after a brief stay in the hospital, invites Oldfield to drop by the studio and even teaches him about pottery making.

   After witnessing a pretty nasty blowup between Gannet and Boles, Oldfield stops going around to the studio until Mrs. Gannet calls upon him. She has just returned from a two week vacation and her husband has disappeared. She has been afraid, however, to go into the studio and asks Oldfield to do so.

   He soon realizes that someone has recently used the kiln and then discovers a small bone that he recognizes as human. Since Mr. Boles has disappeared around the same time as Gannet, it looks like murder. And when the police discover a left thumb print that matches the one of the dead policeman’s nightstick on a piece of Boles’ jewelry, they are more than eager to get hold of him.

The Stoneware Monkey

   The last third of the novel is narrated by Thorndyke’s associate Dr. Jervis, and covers Thorndyke’s investigation of the crime and how he comes up with the solution.

   Well, you can’t call Freeman a colorful writer, though he manages to make the two narrations sufficiently different so they seem to be by two different persons.

   He also takes some amusing pot-shots at what was then Modern Art. The plot twists won’t come as much of a surprise to readers who have read a lot of classic detective stories, but it was an enjoyable re-read. The title, by the way, refers to an ugly piece of sculpture that plays a big part in the solution.


LISA LUTZ – The Spellman Files. Simon & Schuster, hardcover; First Edition: March 2007. Trade paperback: February 2008. Mass market pb: Pocket, January 2009.

LISA LUTZ Spellman Files

   This darkly humorous series debut is told in the first person from the point of view of Isabel Spellman, a P.I. in her family’s San Francisco firm.

   The organization of this book is a post-modern revelation. Ostensibly it’s a series of reports in the case file that Isabel produces as she’s trying to track down her missing 14-year-old sister Rae, who is already skilled in certain investigative techniques.

   In the process, a cold case from her parents’ archives also comes into play. There are sections and subdivisions, rather than traditional chapters. The text utilizes footnotes, varying type fonts, and passages of script-like dialogue.

   This organized chaos accurately maps Isabel’s character — as an investigator, she’s trained to record everything, and she does so obsessively, in part because she’s a bit of a basket case. A fantastic academic challenge would be to try to outline the various chunks of the novel; I may yet try to do this.

   Have I mentioned this book is very funny? Although the 14-year-old has disappeared, no kidnap is involved. In the end, it’s not a traditional crime novel at all; it’s a portrait of a very quirky family, as seen by its most messed-up member.

       The Spellman series

    1. The Spellman Files (2007)
    2. Curse of the Spellmans (2008)
    3. Revenge of the Spellmans (2009)

LISA LUTZ Spellman Files

    4. The Spellmans Strike Again (March 2010)


DEAR MURDERER. General Films, UK, 1947; Universal, US, 1948. Eric Portman, Greta Gynt, Dennis Price, Jack Warner, Maxwell Reed, Hazel Court, Jane Hylton. Director: Arthur Crabtree.

   By one of those fruity coincidences that happen only in real life, I followed up Othello [with my comments posted here] with two movies about cuckolds driven to murder.


   The first of these, Dear Murderer, offers Eric Portman as a clever but self-deluded husband out to win back his wife’s affections by murdering her seducer — and getting the victim to help him plan the crrime.

   What follows is a twisty-turny cat-and-mouse game between the killer, his victim, his wife and the police, done with wit and sophistication in the vein of Dial M for Murder, which it pre-dated by five years.

   To say any more about the story would give away secrets, but I should mention that the writing, playing and direction are all first-rate.

   Based on a play by St John Legh Clowes, who adapted No Orchids for Miss Blandish for the screen, and scandalized England in the process, Murderer moves along beautifully, with a twist in the story every ten minutes or so, but it’s the acting that really gets attention: Eric Portman and Dennis Price play killer and victim as if they’d just stepped out of an Oscar Wilde comedy, with civilized manners that border on savagery.


   Maxwell Reed and Hazel Court offer a nice counterpoint as innocent lovers caught up in all this, and the real standout is Greta Gynt as a disputed-wife-cum-femme-fatale.

   Writer Clowes and actress Gynt take a standard noir figure and create a portrait, not so much evil as sinfully self-indulgent: delightfully annoyed at a plot that interrupts her own pleasure, and rather fetchingly flattered by the notion that her husband would kill for her.

   A compelling turn in a film I recommend highly.


ROBERT GREER – The Devil’s Hatband. Frog Books, trade paperback, September 2004. Originally published by Mysterious Press, hardcover: March 1996; paperback: March 1997.


   CJ Floyd, a Denver African-American bail bondsman, is also a bounty hunter who goes after bondskippers, but the job he takes on in this first of a series is something quite different, the search for the missing daughter of a black federal judge.

   According to two men to who show up in CJ’s office, Brenda Mathison had joined the Grand River Tribe, a splinter group of what the two men call a “loony” environmental organization, PlanetFirst, then disappeared with a document that belonged to the men’s employer, Carson Technologies, a veterinary research organization.

   Something seems fishy to CJ, but with a sizable bonus promised if she’s found and the document returned within 30 days, he’s willing to take on the job.

   When CJ heads into the back country where Brenda was last known to be living, he finds that somebody else has already found her, a sheriff who’s discovered her body.


   As CJ continues his investigation of what has become an even more sensitive case, he learns that the Grand River Tribe is planning to destroy the Western cattle industry, and the connection with on Technologies involves a deadly virus that can wipe out not only a good portion of the cattle industry but untold numbers of people as well.

   This tense techno-thriller shifts back and forth between the search for the murderer or murderers of Brenda and an attempt to thwart the terrorist attack, CJ’s business in Denver, his ties to the black community, his uneasy alliance with the other bail bondsmen, and a threat posed by a local gangleader who has it in for him.

   CJ is also a collector, most notably of vintage license plates (hence, I suppose, the introduction by bookman and mystery writer Dunning for the Frog edition), and the narrative pace moves at times with gut-wrenching speed, then slows down for a more leisurely take on aspects of CJ’s life that have no direct connection with the Mathison case.

   CJ Floyd is one of the best-drawn and most interesting fictional characters I’ve come across recently, one that I hope to spend more time with in the future.

       The CJ Floyd series —

1. The Devil’s Hatband (1996)
2. The Devil’s Red Nickel (1997)


3. The Devil’s Backbone (1998)
4. Resurrecting Langston Blue (2005)


5. The Fourth Perspective (2006)
6. The Mongoose Deception (2007)


7. Blackbird, Farewell (2008)


R. D. [RODNEY] WINGFIELD – Frost at Christmas. PaperJacks, Canada, paperback original, 1984; 2nd printing, 1987. Constable, UK, hardcover, 1989. Bantam, US, pb, 1995.

R. D. WINGFIELD Jack Frost

   For a lover of detective stories I have to admit that I haven’t kept up with present day (or, at any rate, fairly recent) authors. This is not a plan, but a function of a slow reading rate and other things demanding attention.

   I have confessed several times to a close friend about not reading Wingfield, and he has always told me that I should. Of course I have watched and enjoyed all the episodes of the TV series but was aware that that series was not favoured by the author himself.

   I actually bought this paperback edition for 10 cents at Haslam’s bookstore in St Petersburg, Florida, on a visit in the early 1990s and finally I’ve read it.

R. D. WINGFIELD Jack Frost

   When the smoothly efficient Inspector Allen is taken ill, Frost has to take on the search for a missing 8-year-old girl, and his investigation keeps blundering into other cases, including a 32-year-old case of the murder of a bank worker and a missing £20.000.

   The story is told is short pithy passages and often from the viewpoint of Detective Constable Clive Barnard, the Chief Constable’s nephew who had been assigned to Denton C.I.D. for his first appointment and was accompanying Frost in his investigations.

   I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book for a while and the first 100 pages shot by. After that, familiarity maybe set in for a while, but I still happily turned the pages, though without quite the same eagerness, until the end, 184 pages later. Still, overall it was an enjoyable read, and I will look out for a cheap copy of the second in the series, A Touch of Frost.

R. D. WINGFIELD Jack Frost

      The Detective Inspector Jack Edward Frost series —

    Frost at Christmas (1984)
    A Touch of Frost (1987)
    Night Frost (1992)
    Hard Frost (1995)
    Winter Frost (1999)
    A Killing Frost (2008)

Capsule Reviews by ALLEN J. HUBIN:

   Commentary on books I’ve covered in the New York Times Book Review.   [Reprinted from The Armchair Detective, Vol. 1, No. 4, July 1968.]

    Previously on this blog:
Part 1
— Charlotte Armstrong through Jonathan Burke.
Part 2 — Victor Canning through Manning Coles.
Part 3 — Stephen Coulter through Thomas B. Dewey.

CHARLES DRUMMOND – Death at the Furlong Post. Walker, US, hardcover, 1968. Victor Gollancz, UK, hc, 1967. A couple of the most unstereotyped policemen (English) in mystery fiction are featured in this most promising of first novels. [Series character: One of the two policemen is Sergeant Bob Reed.]


FIELDEN FARRINGTON – A Little Game. Walker, US, hardcover, 1968. Popular Library, pb, 1969. Macmillan, UK, hc, 1968. TV movie: Universal, 1971 (Diane Baker, Ed Nelson, Howard Duff). A brooding, irresistibly suspenseful tale of black, ruthless malevolence peering out of the eyes of a 13 year old boy. [The first of two crime novels by this author.]


LUCILLE FLETCHER -The Girl in Cabin B54. Random House, US, hardcover, 1968. Dell, pb, 1969. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hc, 1969. A whale of a chiller about a transatlantic passenger whose extrasensory abilities reveal far too much about a previous occupant of her cabin.


NICHOLAS FREELING – Strike Out Where Not Applicable. Harper & Row, US, hardcover, 1968. Ballantine, pb, 1969; Penguin, pb, 1975. Victor Gollancz, UK, hc, 1967. Few but Freeling have the ability to turn a novel consisting largely of conversation into a fascinating reading experience. Here Inspector Van der Valk tackles a bludgeoning death in the small Dutch town of Lisse to which he’s been transferred.


WILLIAM GARNER – The Deep, Deep Freeze. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, US, hardcover, 1968. Berkley, pb, 1969. Collins Crime Club, UK, hc, 1968. An absorbing and sure-handed blending of a host of diverse elements into a very satisfying novel of intrigue. [Series character: Michael Jagger.]


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