February 2012


SIMON BRETT – A Series of Murders. Scribner’s, US, hardcover, 1989; Warner, paperback, 1990. First published in the UK: Gollancz, hardcover, 1989.

SIMON BRETT A Series of Murders

   Chronically under-employed actor Charles Paris seems to have finally landed on his feet. He’s got the part of dim-witted Sgt. Clump in a six-part series based on the “Golden Age” Mystery Novels of W.T. Wintergreen, and if all goes well, he may suddenly become a celebrity.

   Only All isn’t going Well: The Lead Actor can only play himself; Sippy Stokes, the girl playing his daughter, was hired because she slept with the Director; and Wintergreen keeps hanging around the set complaining about the changes they’re making in her books.

   Then Charles discovers the body of Sippy Stokes in the prop room, buried under a shelf full of props. Everyone else seems satisfied it was an accident, but when he notices a detail in a scene filmed around the time of Sippy’s demise, Charles begins to nose around.

   I wouldn’t rate this one as highly as several others in the series, chiefly because it isn’t hard to figure out the Murderer, but Series of Murders is still worth a look for the details about how a TV series is produced in England, as well as for the humor that always permeates a Charles Paris case.

IT’S ABOUT CRIME, by Marvin Lachman


   What more painless way is there to learn about another culture than to read Tony Hllierman’s Navajo series. I suggest you start with the first book in the Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn series, The Blessing Way (1970).

   This was Hillerman’s first mystery, though it’s not clear whether when he wrote it he intended it to be the first of a series. It is largely a thriller, with Leaphorn off stage during much of the action, about a pair of anthropologists being stalked in the desert and mountains of the Navajo Reservation in Northeast Arizona and Northwest New Mexico. Its pluses are its authenticity about Navajo ways and an exciting climax.


   Before writing another Leaphorn book, Hillerman wrote a non-series mystery, The Fly on the Wall (1971), which is even better than the Navajo books I’ve read. Written a couple of years before Watergate, he made use of his own newspaper background to tell how an investigative reporter tries to solve a mystery involving murder and corruption in a Midwestern state capitol. It barely lost out to Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal for that year’s Edgar.

   Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) deservedly did win an Edgar. While having Leaphorn solve three brutal murders, Hillerman gives us many insights into the Navajos and their neighboring tribe, the Zuñis, especially the rite of the Shalako dancers, the culmination of their ceremonial year.

   Again, the ending is suspenseful, but along the way there is more real detection, with Leaphorn making deductions from physical clues like a Native-Born Sherlock Holmes.

– Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.

GEORGE C. CHESBRO – The Language of Cannibals. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1990; paperback, March 1991.

GEORGE C, CHESBRO Languange of Cannibals

   [At the time this review was written, it was in the context of mysteries and crime fiction based on the politics in the US in the 1960s.] For a while I thought this was a book that might have been among them. But Chesbro certainly doesn’t pull any punches in his work, and the reader gradually discovers that his political view of the world, as expressed in The Language of Cannibals, includes an overwhelming disgust with right-wing conservatives of all forms, no matter what era it occurred, going back to the end of World War II.

   A friend of Mongo, criminology professor and a high-powered investigator Dr. Robert Frederickson, has died. He was an FBI agent whose demotion within the agency had forced him into a surveillance on a small community of pacifists a short way north of New York City. The death is apparently a boating accident, but the dead man had his own reasons for staying away from the water. Mongo suspects there may be more to the story.

   Headquartered in Cairn NY is more than the Community of Conciliation. Newly arrived, and taking over the town, is the famed ultra-conservative demagogue, Elysius Culhane. What Mongo doesn’t know is that a “death squad,” designed to eliminate undesirable members of society, is also active in Cairn. And in counterbalance to the presence of equally famed pacifist folksinger Mary Tree is the KGB, or various members thereof.

   I remember that Hugh Pentecost (or more likely his alter ego Judson Phillips) used to write crime fiction like this, mixed with the high voltage wires of political extremism, but I don’t think he ever had the bass, treble and volume knobs turned up as high as this, all at the same time.

   Reading The Language of Cannibals might be an enjoyable ride, but only if you’re of the same mind as the author. In essence, though, it’s only a two-dimensional portrait that’s presented here. It’s the science fictional concept of parallel worlds that’s at work — or is it out-and-out fantasy? — combined with detective fiction, and while the detective story survives, I’m not sure that my sense of wonder does. My eyeballs are still tingling.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 31,
       May 1991 (with revisions).

Allen J. Hubin

ROBERT BARNARD Skeleton in the Grass

ROBERT BARNARD – The Skeleton in the Grass. Scribner’s, US, hardcover, 1988; Dell, paperback, 1989. First published in the UK by Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1987.

   Robert Barnard’s The Skeleton in the Grass has not the witty bite of some of his work. But it is a brilliantly observant picture of a pre-war [1936] English village, of the social classes and their distinctions and varying consciousnesses of war and peace. It is, in fact, a masterpiece.

   Dennis Hallam, scholar, book reviewer, a man who cares, who feels deeply, sits atop the social structure with his family, though he rejects such class notions and his pacifist views are not welcome in all quarters. Especially now, as someone (prodded, presumably, by the fascist Major Coffey) is leaving little symbols of cowardice around the Hallam estate.

   As tempers rise, could murder result? In so peace-loving a neighborhood? This is a novel not on any account to be missed.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.



THE BAT WHISPERS. United Artists, 1930. Chester Morris, Chance Ward, Una Merkel, Richard Tucker, Wilson Benge, Maude Eburne. Based on the play by Avery Hopwood & Mary Roberts Rinehart. Director: Roland West.

   This, if memory serves, is the film that inspired Bob Kane to create Batman, and I was much struck by the similarities between it and the Tim Burton film Batman with Michael Keaton: The Bat Whispers offers deliberately cartoonish sets, which the camera sweeps across like a hurtling winged thing; a nocturnal protagonist lurking about rooftops casting bat-like shadows; and a doppleganger relationship between a neurotic detective and a mad master criminal, who gets the last laugh in an eerie fadeout.

   Fine stuff, this, done with style and obvious relish, and a pleasure to watch.


   Unfortunately, Director Roland West (who was implicated in the death of his mistress Thelma Todd a few years later) occasionally has to pay attention to the Mary Roberts Rinehart play this was based on, at which times the action pretty much grinds to a halt while characters stand around and explicate.

   Also to its detriment, The Bat Whispers features Three (count ’em) Three “comedy” relief characters, each funnier than the next and all of them put together about as amusing as Hepatitis. Definitely a flawed film, then, but also quite engaging at times, with the Batman parallels an added interest.


   I should also make note of Chester Morris’s intriguing performance as the slightly-off-kilter Detective. No sane-on-the-surface madman, this, but a character whose carefully limned ticks get eerily unsettling very quickly. There’s a scene where he’s laying down the law to red herring Gustave Von Seyfertitz that drips with restrained menace.

   Chester Morris never really hit the Big Time, despite a couple of chances, ended up his career in things like The She Beast (’57) and is little remembered today, but after this and Three Godfathers (’36) I’ll be seeking out his films a bit more carefully.


PETER CAMPION – Diamonds Worth a Death or Two. Arco, UK, hardcover, 1955. No US edition.

   Peter Campion has two titles included in the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin. The other one is Model for Murder, also published by Arco, and also in 1955. Whether British private eye Phillip Mayhew is in both books, I do not know, but (of course) he’s definitely in Diamonds Worth a Death or Two (else I wouldn’t have brought him up).

   His partner in the PI agency he’s in is Harry Green, but we don’t get to meet him, primarily because his body is found floating in the Thames on page nine. Mayhew and Green didn’t especially get along, but even though the police urge Mayhew (strongly) to keep his nose out of their business, there are certain standards that a private eye has to maintain. (We’ve heard that before.)

   Green was last seen in a notorious night club talking to another gent whom Mayhew soon also finds dead, but he doesn’t get any real traction on the case until he ties it in with a diamond necklace mysteriously stolen on a train somewhere between Point A and London. The word “mysteriously” is used advisedly, as the necklace is not on the train and the passengers are searched.

   This is one of those detective novels in which the leading character does not tell the story himself, nor does he have an assistant to bounce ideas off of. He does occasionally tell people that he has some ideas that are working out, but it’s left to the reader to follow the clues on his (or her) own as they occur.

   I didn’t do a very good job, I’m sorry to report, and I apologize for letting all of you down. It all makes sense in the end, but I was rather confused most of the way through. I did like the “gather all of the suspects in one room” aspect at the end, and I had no idea the killer was who he (or she) was. Nicely done.

   If Mayhew never made another appearance, he made the most out of this one. Whether or not he gets the wealthy young woman from whom the necklace was stolen, I leave to you to discover on your own. I won’t reveal all. Never have, never will.

William F. Deeck

H. W. RODEN – One Angel Less. William Morrow & Co., hardcover, 1945. Detective Book Club, hardcover reprint, 3-in-1 edition, June 1945. Dell 247, mapback edition, 1948.

H. W. RODEN One Angel Less

   Sid Ames, private Investigator, is hired to check up on a woman who is in a private hospital. Her husband is not allowed to visit her and wants to know what is going on.

   For the best of motives — he needs the money — Sid agrees to investigate even though he loathes small towns, in one of which this hospital is located. And he has good reason to dislike this small town since its officials turn out to be corrupt.

   One Angel Less is the standard tough-guy novel, with the females getting in each other’s way while they try to get at Sid. He is beaten up and yet awakes the next morning in surprisingly good condition. He undergoes another beating along with dehydration during an interrogation at the police station but escapes shortly thereafter by leaping out a window and running pell mell. Oddly, a display of coffins outside his hotel gives him the willies.

   For those who don’t mind novels the last chapter of which the villain has the drop on our hero and reveals all, omitting no detail however slight, and then is shot dead by our hero, who can barely use the hand holding the gun, surprising no one but the bad guy. Talky villains always come to no good end.

   Even Ike and Mike, Sid’s assistants, a delightful pair particularly in their guise of undertakers, can’t keep this one from being adjudged “Read if there’s nothing else available.”

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.

Editorial Comment: Bill’s review of You Only Hang Once, another mystery by H. W. Roden, was posted earlier on this blog. Check it out here. (He didn’t much care for that one, either.) Private eye Sid Ames appeared in a total of four novels. A complete list follows the previous review.

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