JAMES R. McCAHERY – Grave Undertaking. Knightsbridge Bestseller Mystery #12, paperback original; 1st printing, 1990.
This book is bound to be a Collector’s Item, simply because it’s going to be so hard to find. Maybe things were different in your part of the country, but in the central part of Connecticut where I live, it never went on sale, and I know, because I was looking for it. Knightsbridge is a small struggling publisher, and they just didn’t have the oomph to push an author whose first book this is.
The other question is, is the book worth looking for? I think it is, even though it has some problems, but it has some pluses too, the primary one being its lead detective, Mrs. Lavina London, an ex-radio actress in her 70s who finds that even at her age, one can still have her wits about her. Occasional bits of old radio shows are dropped here and there, but — you may be interested to know — they’re nowhere nearly as profuse and possibly underfoot as the mentioning of old mystery writers and their works are in Carolyn Hart’s books.
The plot as to do with graveyards, ha ha, as you would probably have already gathered from the title. The first victim is a wealthy funeral home director who hasn’t made as many friends in this world as he thought he had.
Besides the fact that I learned more about funeral directors, cemetery owners, and florists than I really wanted to — there is more backstabbing possible between funeral directors, cemetery owners, and florists than I ever dreamed there could be — I thought the book itself was rather uneven. It starts well, begins to fade in the middle (as many books do), picks up again to what seems will be a grand finale — and collapses in a final confrontation with the killer that seems to go on forever, although it’s gone on for only 18 pages when the killer says to Lavina: “Well, enough of this chit-chat, Mrs. L. … I don’t want to hang around here too long.”
I also thought for a while that the author Jim McCahery hadn’t played fair with us, but after some consideration I decided that a reasonable amount of clues were there after all. (I probably wasn’t paying attention.) I’d still have trimmed the novel down some, if I’d had any say, but I also say that if you care for “little old lady” fiction at all, you should make a point of picking this one up, if and when you ever find a copy.
— Reprinted from Mystery*File 28,
February 1991 (slightly revised).
[UPDATE] 05-31-12. Offhand, I don’t know how long Knightsbridge, the publisher of Grave Undertaking, was able to stay around, but I’ll look into it. I don’t think it was more than a couple of years. It was Kensington/Zebra who published Jim’s second book, What Evil Lurks, in 1995.
The latter was also Lavina London’s second appearance, but if there was to be a third, it didn’t happen. Jim McCahery died in 1995, at the far too young age of 61. Although we met only twice, we were friends by mail and through an outfit called DAPA-Em, which until it recently disbanded, published stapled-together compilations of each members’ fanzines every two months for something like 35 years.
We’ve gone digital instead. Many former members leave comments on this blog and/or have their own. Or contribute here from pages of old mailings, with Walter Albert, Dan Stumpf, Marv Lachman, Geoff Bradley and Stan Burns as prime examples.
I possibly exaggerated the scarcity of Grave Undertaking, as there are 24 copies offered for sale on ABE, and considerably more of the second. I hadn’t known until looking just now that the second was published in hardcover before it appeared in paperback. I’m happy to know that.
DEAR DETECTIVE. Made for TV movie. CBS, 28 March 1979. Two hours. Roland Kibbee & Dean Hargrove Production in association with Viacom. Cast: Brenda Vaccaro, Arlen Dean Snyder, Jack Gingas, M. Emmett Walsh, Michael McRae, Jet Yardum, Corinne Conley, Lesley Woods, Ron Silver, John Dennis Johnston. Music by Dick & Dean DeBenedictis. Written and produced by Roland Kibbee & Dean Hargrove. Director: Dean Hargrove.
Dear Detective is a television cozy. Detective Kate Hudson is brilliant at her job, wonderful as a mother, yet now faces a real challenge – a new boyfriend. Brenda Vaccaro is delightful as the likeable detective.
The mystery features a serial killer who stabs Councilmen to death while they are standing in the middle of a crowd. The mystery is the most interesting part of the TV-movie, but its overwhelmed by the need to establish all the characters in the three separate worlds of Kate Hudson.
It’s 1979, and a female detective is not always welcomed, but this is not Prime Suspect. Kate ignores the negative comments, lets the detectives she commands pamper her, accepts she can answer more of the questions on the Commander’s test than her cowardly Captain (M. Emmett Walsh), and is always one step ahead of everyone else.
The romance and personal sides of the story are too often unbearably cute. Kate and her new boyfriend, College Professor of Greek Literature Richard Weyland (Arlen Dean Snyder) meet when he is riding his Moped and she knocks him down with her car.
Home life features a daughter in fourth grade at a Catholic school (Jet Yardum), an understanding mother (Lesley Woods), and a wacky aunt (Corinne Conley). Kate has to phone her ex-husband so he could tell his daughter why he won’t be at her birthday party.
The cozy mystery has no suspects, only a trail of victims with one thing in common until Kate discovers another link. Clues are few and ultimately only lead to where the killer can be found. We learn who done it only when the killer attacks idiot and Kate’s rival, Detective Brock (Michael McRae). Of course, Kate knows there is trouble and arrives to save the day in a stupid-funny car chase that predates OJ.
A very short clip from one of the one-hour episodes:
Writers and producers Roland Kibbee and Dean Hargrove (who also directed) are familiar names to NBC Mystery of the Week fans for their work in Madigan (1972), Columbo (1973-75), and McCoy (1975) as well as TV Movies The Big Rip-Off (1975) and Return of the World’s Greatest Detective (1976). Kibbee died in 1984, while Hargrove continued with such series as Matlock and the Hallmark Channel mysteries, Jane Doe, McBride, and Murder 101.
The show was based on the French film Dear Inspector, aka Dear Detective (1978), starring Annie Girardot and Philippe Noiret and directed by Philippe DeBroca. Oddly, the movie was not mentioned in the credits, instead the closing credits had: “suggested by characters created by Jean Paul Rouland and Claude Oliver” and “based on a story by Philipe DeBroca and Michel Audiard”.
This TV-Movie was not the entire pilot for the series. Networks have been trying to find better ways to find the next hit series since television networks began. After the success of the mini-series Dallas in April 1978 lead to the hit weekly series, CBS decided to try again with four mini-series pilots, Married: First Year (four episodes), Miss Winslow & Son (six episodes), Time Express (four episodes) and Dear Detective (one TV Movie and three hour-long episode).
From Broadcasting (April 9, 1979): “We think it’s a good idea to test shows in the spring for possible fall airing.” Mr. Grant (Bud Grant, CBS Vice President of Programming) said, “We may pay more per episode in a limited run, but this way we give the public an opportunity to participate in the show’s development.”
Despite a weak lead in from Miss Winslow & Son (24 share), this TV Movie had a 32 share, but still fell behind ABC reruns Charlie’s Angels (43 share) and Vegas (37 share) (Broadcasting, April 9, 1979).
The next week Dear Detective first hour-long episode would drop to a 26 share. (Broadcasting, April 16, 1979). The mini-series pilot finished in the season’s (September 11, 1978 through April 15, 1979) final ratings 44th out of 114 series with a 30 share (tied with Incredible Hulk and Hawaii Five-O) (Broadcasting, June 18, 1979).
According to TVTango.com, the hour-long episodes were opposite ABC’s first run series Mackenzies of Paradise Cove and NBC’s rerun of Wheels.
I actually enjoyed Dear Detective, mainly because of Vaccaro and her character. But like most cozy mysteries, there was too much cute romance and character comedy, and not enough mystery in this two-hour movie. I remain curious about the three one-hour episodes and if any of the mysteries were able to overcome the clutter of Kate Hudson’s life.
While this TV-Movie is available on pre-recorded VHS and in collector-to-collector format, the three one-hour episodes appear to be lost and forgotten.
PATRICK LEE – Deep Sky. Harper, paperback original, January 2012.
Even though everyone makes up their own, there are certain rules that readers of fiction must live by, and #4 in the spiral notebook that I always carry with me (figuratively speaking) goes something like this:
Never read the third book in a trilogy without reading the first two first.
The proof of a rule always comes in disregarding it, as I did this time, and it will be a long time before I do so again.
Preceding Deep Sky in the author’s “Breach” trilogy are The Breach (December 2009) and Ghost Country (December 2010), and what we have in this, the third book has a a wind-up whizz-bang opening – the roof comes off the top of an ordinary home in the suburbs, a Sparrowhawk missile is fired, destroying the White House and most of its occupants, including the President – followed by an only slightly less dramatic bunker-busting bomb taking out half of the heavily guarded structure containing The Breach, a la Marvel comics – and an ending that veers so far off into sci-fi La-La Land that even the most fervent enthusiast’s eyes will glaze over.
I know. Mine did.
The Breach, as long as you are asking, is some sort of super-secret connection between our world – a wormhole, perhaps – and another, located somewhere else in the galaxy or beyond at some point in time in the future, perhaps. No one knows. All they know is that mysterious artifacts keep slipping through, some useful, others having no discernible purpose.
Whoever ordered the destruction of the White House and the killing of the President is unknown, but the Vice President, hastily sworn in, is definitely on the side of the bad guys. On the other are Travis Chase, head of Tangent, and his lover, Paige Campbell, whose father was one of the founders of Tangent. Both survive the bunker-bomb blast, and with the use of the devices spewed out by the Breach, begin a book-long investigation into the tragedies and who’s behind them, an investigation conducted on the run, with all of the forces of the US Government acting against them, knowingly or not.
The first half of the book is a lot of fun, even though the standalone reader (me) has to assume a lot about the events that have previously taken place. But when events in the previous books are suddenly needed (pulled out of the air) to make sense of this one, the fun ceases and the rest of the book (with 150 pages to go) is a mish-mash of techno-babble, super-sized futuristic technology and carloads of information dumped on the reader with no room to yell out for help. The air is sucked out of the book.
That the leading characters are stick figures goes with saying. (Perhaps we were to have learned all we needed to know about them in the first two books.) This is a techno-thriller, after all, not Moby Dick. The author has a a grand imagination. It’s too bad he couldn’t pull it off, not even in the 150 pages that were left to pull it off in.
This is a Big Scale book — there’s no doubt about that — but when a Big Scale book isn’t given enough space to answer all the questions, nor to fill in the holes in the plot, then it’s no better than a Small Scale book without any questions. (I’m thinking of halves of Ace Doubles from the 1950s and 60s here.)
PostScript: I classified this as Science Fiction, correctly, I believe, but you’re much more likely to find this book in the section where your local store keeps the Tom Clancy thrillers.
THE COUNTERFEITERS. Conn Pictures, 1948. John Sutton, Doris Merrick, Hugh Beaumont, Lon Chaney Jr., George O’Hanlon, Robert Kent, Herbert Rawlinson, with Joi Lansing, Scott Brady (as Gerard Gilbert). Producer: Maurice Conn (also original story). Director: Sam Newfield (as Peter Stewart).
The nominal star of this minor B crime drama is John Sutton, who plays the part of a Scotland Yard policeman who comes to the US hoping to track down the source of a large supply of counterfeit money that’s flooding his country. Sutton had a long career in both the movies and TV, starting in 1936 on through 1961.
But I’m sure that the name that caught your eye first in the credits was that of Hugh Beaumont, and believe it or not, he’s the bad guy in this one, the head of the gang of crooks the fellow from overseas is after.
And “Beaver’s Dad” is as tough as they come. If it weren’t for the intervention of his girl friend (Doris Merrick) who’s also a member of his gang, Inspector Jeff MacAllister would be as dead as the proverbial doornail as soon as he walks off his plane.
Margo Talbot (Merrick) seems to be as tough as Philip Drake (that’s Beaumont), who owns the plates that are producing the phoney moolah, but it’s obvious she’s working another angle. The only question is what that angle might be.
Lon Chaney Jr and George O’Hanlon are in the movie a good percentage of the time, all in comedy relief, but unlike some comedy relievers, they’re actually funny.
At seventy minutes, The Counterfeiters is longer than most B-movies were at the time, and with no time wasted, either. The ten extra minutes or so allows time for the plot to breathe, with a couple of good twists to boot. The story is also fairly clued, and in fact it’s relatively easy to catch on to what’s going on, but it would help if you’re paying attention.
MAX ALLAN COLLINS – Kill Your Darlings. Walker, hardcover, 1984. Tor, paperback, 1988.
The first mystery novel set at a Bouchercon, Max Allan Collins’s Kill Your Darlings takes place in Chicago, where Bouchercon was held in 1984, though Collins wrote the book before that event.
It’s an enormously enjoyable tale, well plotted and with lots of insights into a mystery convention and publishing, though mostly from a writer’s viewpoint. (Fans do not loom large in this book.) The plot device, an unknown Hammett manuscript, is an inspired idea.
Despite Collins’s disclaimer that the victim, an old-time mystery writer, is a composite, he reminded me of someone in particular. If you ask me at the next Bouchercon, I’ll tell you who. Until then, attend a Bouchercon vicariously with Max as your guide.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989 (very slightly revised).
Bibliographic Data: The detective who solves the case in Kill Your Darlings is “Mallory,” a former cop who became a mystery writer living in Iowa.
The Mallory series —
The Baby Blue Rip-Off. Walker, 1983.
No Cure for Death. Walker, 1983.
Kill Your Darlings. Walker, 1984.
A Shroud for Aquarius. Walker, 1985.
Nice Weekend for a Murder. Walker, 1986.
ERIC WRIGHT – Death By Degrees. Charlie Salter #10. Scribner’s, US, hardcover, 1993. Worldwide, US, paperback, 1995. Doubleday, Canada, hardcover, 1993. Bantam Seal, Canada, paperback (shown).
In Charlie Salter, Wright has created one of the more credible and likable policemen of modern detective fiction. I’m delighted — though somewhat surprised — that the books haven’t been driven off the shelves by the plethora of Big Cop and serial killer books that have appeared of late.
Charlie’s father has fallen and suffered a head injury, and probably had a stroke as well. Charlie is somewhat surprised to find himself distraught to the point of being unable to function; his relationship with the old man had not been close.
To take his mind off his troubles, and a report he’s working on that has been eating him alive, he volunteers to investigate a killing at a local non-degree college. At first thought to be a cut-and-dried robbery, its status is now in doubt because of a series of anonymous notes pointing toward involvement of some university personnel.
In between all night stays at the hospital, Charlie begins to snuffle around in the halls academe, and introduce himself to the intrigues of academic bureaucracy.
For me, the Salter books have a number of strong points, Charlie and his family — his wife, their two sons, his irascible father and his common-law wife — have all been developed over the course of the series into fully fleshed-out human beings, in whom the reader can be interested, and for whom it is possible to care.
There is real police work, accomplished without violence or pyrotechnics. And Wright writes well. It’s an excellent series.
— Reprinted from Ah, Sweet Mysteries #8, July 1993.
Editorial Comment: I concur, as my review of The Night the Gods Smiled, the first of the Charlie Salter series, should tell you. I won’t repeat it here, but following the review is a complete bibliography of all of Eric Wright’s crime fiction.
“Murder in Mesopotamia.” An episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. ITV, UK, 8 July 2001. (Season 8, Episode 2.) David Suchet (Hercule Poirot), Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings), Ron Berglas, Barbara Barnes, Dinah Stabb, Georgina Sowerby, Jeremy Turner-Welch, Pandora Clifford, Christopher Hunter, Christopher Bowen, Iain Mitchell. Based on the novel by Agatha Christie (1936). Dramatized by Clive Exton. Director: Tom Clegg.
In this film Agatha Christie’s famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is in what is known as Iraq today, visiting an archaeological dig, and so is his good friend Captain Hastings, although he was not in the novel. In the book the story was largely told from the point of view of Nurse Leatheran (Georgina Sowerby), but in this made-for-TV adaptation her role has been cut down considerably.
There are a few other relatively minor changes and enhancements, but for the better, I can’t swear to it. The nurse’s patient, the new wife of the expedition’s leader, is the primary victim.
She is found dead in her room beside her bed, having been hit in the head by the old stand-by, a blunt instrument. Strangely, though, the window is locked and the only access to her room was a door that was under watch at all times.
The exterior scenes were filmed in Tunisia, a very worthy stand-in for that other war-torn part of the world, and are beautifully done, if not out-and-out stunning. Suchet, as usual, is the pitch perfect Poirot, and all of the other players play their roles with distinction.
The problem is, and I really do hate to say that there are problems, but for a film that is less than two hours long, there are simply too many characters involved. There were a couple of them I did not even recognize in the final “let’s gather all of the suspects together and I will name the killer” scene.
A second viewing would also help in putting together the various scenes that took place both before and after the murder, many of them too brief to make sense at the time – but of course they are needed to fill in the details as Poirot begins his final re-creation of the crime before his enraptured audience.
The puzzle of the “locked room” is very cleverly done, however, which makes watching this movie worthwhile, even in the face of a motive (and how it came about) that seems quite unbelievable to me. Perhaps Agatha Christie made a better job of it in the book, but checking Robert Barnard in A Talent to Deceive, he agrees with me: “Marred by an ending which goes beyond the improbable to the inconceivable.”
This episode is available on DVD, and at the moment, it can be seen in several parts on YouTube.
ELLERY QUEEN – Calamity Town. Little Brown, hardcover, 1942. Pocket 283, paperback, 1945. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and soft.
When I first started reading Mysteries, back in the mid-60s, I pretty much devoured the earlier titles of the acknowledged “masters” of the Classic Detective Story (except for Erle Stanley Gardner, whom I ignored until the late 70s) so I probably first read this about a quarter-century ago. I turned to it again, just recently, because it was the only Ellery Queen selected by H. R. F. Keating in his 100 Best Books of Crime and Mystery.
Ellery “Smith” comes to the New England town of Wrightsville to work on his new novel, and stays — due to Wartime housing shortages — in a house built by Mr. Wright for his daughter Nora, when she was going to be married … only just before the Wedding, her fiance, one Jim Haight, disappeared.
Shortly after Ellery takes up residence, however, the missing Haight returns, and it isn’t long before he and Nora are re-betrothed and then married. Ellery gives up the house, but as he and Nora’s sister are moving some of Jim’s things in, they discover three letters, dated for the forthcoming Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, in which he describes Nora’s illness and death.
Sure enough, on Thanksgiving and Christmas Nora is ill, but come New Year’s Day, it’s someone completely else who buys the farm, a victim of Arsenic poisoning.
Hard to say whether I figured out the solution of this one or just remembered it from my Salad Days, since the idea has been used since. The characters are credible, if not terribly deep, and the prose serviceable. Not as memorable as the three Queen novels on my list, but pretty good nonetheless.
Editorial Comment: The top image is that of the hardcover First Edition. The lower one is one of the later Pocket reprints. I chose it because of the rare split-screen effect, one that I don’t believe was used very often by paperback publishers, then or now.
THE BIG BROADCAST (Paramount, 1932) should have been revived in the 60s for the benefit of the Drug Culture. Its spacey, cartoonish moments impart the look and feel of a Max Fleischer cartoon to this live-action flick, including such delights as a cat, edited to move in rhythm to a swinging pendulum, who oozes under a door; a clock that grows a literal face; a radio speaker that turns into a crooning skull; Cab Calloway (who did music for a couple of Betty Boops) doing a drug-song complete with pantomime coke-snorting; and a covey of frenzied female fans who, upon spotting their idol (Bing Crosby) form a football line and rush him! As I say, pretty spacey. There’s also Burns and Allen (briefly) and some very enterprising sight gags.
THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1936 (Paramount — need I add the year?) features much less interesting material, but a likeably zany plot, with Jack Oakie, the year before Super Sleuth, improbably moustached, playing Lochinvar, the Great Lover of the Airwaves, abducted to the island kingdom of a Russian (I think) Countess, along with an invention called “The Radio Eye” which picks up events (primarily musical and comedy spots by a variety of performers) around the world. Inventors Burns & Allen(!) are hot on the trail of their creation, and Oakie has to contend with the lethal rivalry of C. Henry Gordon and Akim Tamiroff for the Countess’s affections. Very enjoyable.
Oakie, incidentally, was a mildly prominent star in the early 30s, who for some reason went out of style, though his persona was adopted by Bob Hope and (later) Jack Carson. Hope, Carson and Oakie always played cowards who fancied themselves Men of Action, Nerds who imagined they were Great Lovers, consistently unable to understand why everyone on Earth doesn’t love them.
With this in mind, Oakie was a Natural to play Mussolini in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and he did a fine job of it in his last great part. He can still be seen in small parts as late as The Wonderful Country, but the Golden Days were behind him.
Bob Hope shared most of Oakie’s persona, but where Oakie was the eternal Cheese, Hope was the inveterate Schnook, with a hungry vulnerability that Oakie never sought. He also looked slightly more like a Leading Man.
I particularly like Hope’s “Road” pictures, where he and Crosby send up Adventure Flicks with gay abandon. Road To Zanzibar for example, has a highly enjoyable fight between Hope and a Killer Ape, where both combatants use the corniest old wrestling Routines imaginable: Airplane spins, Body Slams, leg-holds, beating the ground in mock-agony, etc. etc.
THE BIG BROADCAST. Paramount, 1932. Bing Crosby, Stuart Erwin, Leila Hyams, Sharon Lynn, George Burns & Gracie Allen, The Mills Brothers. Director: Frank Tuttle.
THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1936. Paramount, 1935. Jack Oakie, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Lyda Roberti, Wendy Barrie. Director: Norman Taurog.
I’ve owned the Dell mapback edition of this book since I first became aware of the series, which is perhaps some 40 years ago. I’ve also been fascinated by the title, which I’m sure is unique in the annals of crime and detective fiction, but what I can’t explain to you (or anyone else, for that matter) why I never sat down to read the book until now.
Which I have, at last, but — I have to confess — I was disappointed. Not at first, though, not at all. I enjoyed the first fifty pages so much that I found inexpensive copies of the other two books in the series (see below) and ordered them online. All three books take place in Alaska, and the hero of record is a mild-mannered grocer in Fairbanks named F. Millard Smyth.
Or at least he’s a grocer in this one. The other two books are still en route, and I can’t swear to anything I don’t know for sure. After being visited by the previous owner of his store – F. Millard has fallen behind on his payments – he makes his nightly visit to his warehouse next door to stoke up the stove to keep his stock from freezing.
The building used to be an old dance hall, and F. Millard (which is how the author refers to him also) is treated to a ghostly dance by what appears to be a beautiful young woman on the balcony. The lights go out, and the F. Millard flees. In the morning, though, when he returns, he finds the body of the man to whom he owes the money he cannot repay, Tom Blaine.
The marshal’s deputy thinks he has the case solved right away, but when Jeff Peters, the marshal himself, returns, he demurs. It seems as though everybody who lives on the same short road as Smyth may have a motive – and opportunity, once their alibis are checked more closely.
As I say, it’s a fine beginning, but F. Millard Smyth, though he’s a devoted reader of Flatfoot magazine, is no great shakes of a detective, and if Jeff Peters is an improvement (and he is), the author of this pale imitation of a detective puzzle can’t seem to show it.
All of the possible suspects have known each other for a long time, and have been married to each other (some of them), or in love with each other (a different set than that of the previous category) and/or have cheated each other out of mining claims or furs or possibly some other tangible goods that I skimmed over. Strangely enough, the entire population of Fairbanks seems to live on this one short, dead-end street.
The biggest disappointment comes, however, with the ending, as the killer traps Smyth in his store, believing him to be coming too close to the truth (we know better), and proceeds to explain in detail how everything came about and why.
The recitation is long and complicated and takes up fifteen pages, before the marshal shows up and utilizes the last ten pages to clean up all the loose ends.
The F. Millard Smith series —
Murder Breaks Trail. Farrar, 1943.
Doom in the Midnight Sun. Farrar, 1944.
Murder Wears Mukluks. Farrar, 1945.