February 2013


THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


BILL S. BALLINGER The Tooth and the Nail

BILL S. BALLINGER – The Tooth and the Nail. Harper, hardcover, 1955. Signet #1319, 1956; cover by Robert Maguire.

   A damsel in mild distress captures the attention of Lew Mountain, professional magician, and he comes gallantly to her rescue. She arrives in New York with a hatbox, an exceptionally heavy small satchel, and no dollar to pay the cab driver. Soon she joins Mountain’s act and marries him.

   Inevitably, given the folly of the female in distress, tragedy ensues. Mountain then — and I give away nothing here, repeating only what the author says in the prologue — avenges murder, commits murder, and is murdered in the attempt.

   While I can’t wax as enthusiastic as some reviewers have over this novel, it definitely is an enjoyable reading experience.

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 1992.


J. ALLAN DUNN The Girl of Ghost Mountain

J. ALLAN DUNN – The Girl of Ghost Mountain. Small Maynard Co., hardcover, 1921. Serialized in Western Story Magazine in four parts, beginning with the 16 September 1920 issue; reprinted (I believe) as “The Ghost Mountain Girl” in Far West Stories, beginning with the July 1929 issue. Also currently available in various POD and ebook/online versions.

   Although I’ve billed this as a western novel in the heading for this review, The Girl of Ghost Mountain is much more a romance novel that takes place in the West. The date is never quite specified, but at the time it was written, it had to be the contemporaneous West.

   Prohibition is mentioned, for example, and the occasional automobile shows up or is made reference to. But there are plenty of cattle and horses too, so don’t be at all concerned in that regard. It’s still the West, although perhaps not the Frontier West.

J. ALLAN DUNN The Girl of Ghost Mountain

   Pete Sheridan is the new owner of the Circle S ranch, fresh from the east but acclimating to the west in fine fashion, while “Red” Jackson is his right hand man. They make a good team together, facing down bad guys with precision and aplomb, but they’re no match at all to the charms of the two ladies (one slimsy, the other near Amazonian) who settle in a hidden valley behind a waterfall up in the foothills of Ghost Mountain.

   The first two thirds of the book is the more interesting, as Red and Sherdian settle the hash of the main villain, a fellow named Hollister, an evil one through and through. Once he’s been vanquished and for good, with another 90 pages still to go, a stoic and enigmatic Chinese gentleman who’s been serving as their cook leads the pair to a cache of hidden gold.

   The path is not without its perils, but they are all easily overcome, as we (the reader) know at once will happen, including the prospects in the end (without giving anything at all away, I’m sure) of a double wedding soon in the offing.

   All things considered, while I enjoyed reading this one, something that kept niggling my mind is that a story entitled “The Ghost of Girl Mountain” might have had even greater possibilities, even though it’s obviously not the one Dunn intended. Sit back and think about it.

FREDERICK NEBEL – East of Singapore. Black Dog Books, chapbook, 2004. First published in Action Stories, July 1926, under the title “Somewhere East of Singapore.”

FREDERICK NEBEL East of Singapore

   Back before Tom Roberts and his associates at Black Dog Books were publishing their current array of perfect-bound paperbacks – all of which if you are a pulp fiction fan of all forms and varieties, I highly recommend to you – they produced a short series of tall saddle-stapled chapbooks, of which this is one.

   I don’t know what the print run might have been for these early examples of their production art, but I imagine it was small. The number of pulp collectors who might have purchased this particular one, to pick a prime example, is not very large, and I suspect that those who did buy one have kept them. At any rate, when I checked yesterday, there was not a single copy being offered for sale on the Internet.

   The original price was $10, and perhaps back in 2004, that was relatively steep for a 68 page paperback. Still, considering how long it would take you to find a copy of Action Stories from any month in 1926, and how much you’d probably have to fork over for it, the ten bucks outlay might seem OK after all.

   And if you were to get your hands on one, what then? You may ask. A mixed bag, if you were to ask me. Nebel’s prose is clear and descriptive and often a joy too read. Picking the book open and choosing a passage (from page 5, taking place in the streets of Singapore):

   Berk chuckled. He left the sailor quarter behind and soon found himself on the wide street of the bazaars – squat, solid buildings with the upper stories extending over the walk and forming a continuous shed. And red lanterns, and grotesque Chinese inscriptions in black on flaming red paper. Spicy odors of food from a restaurant reminded Berk that he was hungry. But he was broke, and so…

   And from page 28, as Jack Berk and his companion Marty Young, white men both, and young and daring, make their way through the Borneo jungle, searching for a treasure lode of buried jewels, on behalf of a beautiful girl:

   Yes, the outlaw Kyan band was slinking through the undergrowth in search of human heads. Ten in all, led by a ferocious fellow who wore pheasant feathers in his hair, a breech clout of bark-cloth and a sleeveless, vest-like garment of leopard’s skin. He was grotesquely tattooed and wore a string of boar’s teeth around his neck. His oblong shield was trimmed with tufts of human hair. He carried a spear with a beaten metal point and also a sampitan, or blow-pipe.

   That I mentioned that Berk and Young are white is important. The natives are “heathen rascals” (page 9) and from page 12: “A reckless disregard of odds has ever been the bright badge of those white men who have ventured among strange peoples and lifted the white man head and shoulders above his duskier brothers.”

   Please don’t forget that this was written in 1926. Fiction can often tell us more about ourselves than any history book ever could. The real flaw in this story is that it is all action, the outcome is foreordained from the beginning, and the final few chapters can be skimmed through with no fear of missing anything important. But if fast and furious jungle action is your wish, along with immersing yourself in the allure of the mysterious Far East, then this adventure caper has both, and in depth.

CORNELIA PENFIELD – After the Deacon Was Murdered. G. P. Putnam’s Sons; hardcover, 1933.

CORNELIA PENFIELD After the Deacon Was Murdered

   After the Deacon Was Murdered is the first of two mysteries written by this little known Connecticut author, and as such, is it (you may be wondering) forgotten gem? An honest answer has to be, “Almost, but not quite.” Forgotten, it is true, but while it has some weaknesses (and one near-fatal one), there are some very good moments to be found by plunging right in as well.

   Finding the murder victim, Jarius Hanford, in the small town of Deptford Center (near New Haven) is Geoffrey Hamilton, who is not vacationing there, but rather recovering from a nervous breakdown suffered the previous fall.

   Dashing down to the town center to report his discovery, the only person in the Town Hall is Jane Trimble, a genealogist by profession, working over some old records. The dead man is her uncle, but she receives the news with a surprising lack of distress. From page 7: “I’m not the least bit hysterical and I live among too many vital statistics to be easily upset by one more or less.”

   Nor is Miss Trimble the only interesting person in town. There is Grandpa Banks: “…eighty-five my next birthday, but sound as a dollar. Yessir!” As well as Judge Whitaker: “… without whom no one, it seemed, could take any initiative in the village,” Hamilton despairs to himself, amidst “the general footlessness of the whole conduct of the case!” And then Jane’s negro butler, Cæsar, who when asked if had heard of the deacon’s death, replies: “Yas’m. No’m. Why, the po’ old man. Howcome yo’ ask me about it, Miss Janey?”

   The investigation expands beyond the townspeople and the village folk, however. There is a gang of organized criminals working in the area — one of them is Big Slim Blivinsky — plus a fugitive from a mental institution, and a misguided newspaper reporter named Parsons who gets Hamilton even more involved than he’d intended.

   This is the sort of detective story, very popular at one time, in which an assortment of ever stranger things just keeps growing and growing, until you think that the author has no way out. But she does, more credit to her, and with more than a gentle hint that she’s gently spoofing some of the various conventions of the genre in several different way — including a last page refutation of Jane Trimble’s statement that “this has been one murder mystery with no love interest, thank Heaven!”

   Let’s back up a little. On page 137, Hamilton is talking to Dr. Newcomb about his health:

   “So far, a little murder mystery seems to have agreed with me.”

   “Perhaps. We all enjoy fiction too much not to appreciate a few thrills in real life. I confess I like to sit back with a good detective story – Edgar Wallace, Dorothy Sayers, Earl Derr Biggers or this new chap – what’s his name – Michael Scott. Like his stuff?”

   “Fairly well. I haven’t been reading much of the sort lately.”

   There is also a map, and it’s important to the solution of the case, as well as a good timetable and the establishment of solid alibis – or perhaps not. All in all, there’s an abundance of good stuff, but there’s a key aspect that’s missing, and that’s a strange unreasonable lack of curiosity at the proper time. Curious things happen, and no one – including (or maybe especially) Hamilton – asks the overtly obvious question, what’s going on?

   One case in point – and I hope I’ve made this interesting enough that you’re still with me – on page 78 Hamilton is going to bed after an exhausting day, and he finds fresh blood on his shoe. “It was stained and wet – wet with clotted blood, still fresh enough to show color on his finger.” And … he gets under the sheets and goes to sleep.

   The middle, then, is somewhat of a muddle, as you undoubtedly have gathered. It’s worth persevering, though, since the ending shows flashes of brilliance – and I have the strongest feeling that if you were to start over, from beginning to end, the whole accumulation of small hidden mysteries would all fit into place and make perfect sense after all.

   But the solution was agreeable enough, and the characters engaging enough, that after thinking about for a while, I finally decided discretion might be the wisest thing to hang on to here, and that the proverbial bird in the hand is not worth looking out for trouble when you needn’t.

   In other words, trying to be as clear as I can, if you can forgive the spots where the going is the weakest, you may find yourself enjoying this as much as I did.

   Maybe it’s because the whole affair takes place locally, a mere 70 years ago, and that always helps. But if you read only private eye and noirish pulp fiction, the chances are 80-20 that you should not even begin to take me up on this as a recommendation, no matter how well-intended I mean it to be.

— February 2004


NOTE:   My review of After the Widow Changed Her Mind, Mrs. Penfield’s second mystery novel, will be posted here soon.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


MAX ALLAN COLLINS - A Killing in Comics

MAX ALLAN COLLINS – A Killing in Comics. Berkley, trade paperback, May 2007. Illustrations by Terry Beatty.

   Another of Collins’ historical crime novels, this one is set in New York in 1948 in the world of comic book publishing. As usual, Collins has researched the period and subject (giving particular credit to Gerald Jones’ Men of Tomorrow).

   A number of pioneers in the field are present in disguise, with Superman and his creators Joe Siegel and Jerry Schuster recast as Wonder Guy and Harry Spiegel and Moe Shulman. The narrator is Jack Starr, stepson of Maggie Starr, who’s running Jack’s late father’s newspaper syndicate, distributor of the Wonder Guy strip. When a rival publisher is murdered, Jack conducts an unofficial investigation, with the author vividly evoking the colorful world of the comics and their creators.

TWELVE IMPORTANT ACADEMIC ESSAYS ON CRIME FICTION
by Josef Hoffmann


   When I drew up my rcent list of the “Twelve Best Essays on Crime Fiction,” I restricted it to literary essays. This is clear from the fact that almost all the essayists on that list have also written crime stories. I am now complementing that with a list of essays by academics.

   What characterises an academic essay? The knowledge presented, the content of the message, is more important than the formal beauty of the writing. It is not so much a matter of the essay providing reading pleasure, as of it stating the truth by putting forward a differentiated and critical analysis of crime fiction texts.

   The theses have to be defended by means of stringent arguments and text references. The sources of the knowledge should be referred to, preferably in the form of precise data in footnotes. The author of the essay must be familiar with scholarly methods. As a rule, he or she will already have recognised status in the academic field, for example, as a university professor. An important academic essay will be cited and discussed in academic writings and act as a stimulus for other essays on the topic, etc.

   In the following list I have only essays that appeared in print. For this reason an essay like “The Amateur Detective Just Won’t Do: Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction” published by Curtis Evans in his blog, The Passing Tramp, cannot be included. Online essays would require a list of their own.

   Now to the announced list, presented alphabetically by author:

Alewyn, Richard: “The Origin of the Detective Novel” in The Poetics of Murder, ed. by Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

   Alewyn puts forward the provocative thesis that the detective story had its roots not in the rationalist 19th century but in Romanticism and Gothic novels that revere the mystical and irrational.

Barzun, Jacques / Taylor, Wendell Hertig: Introductory in A Catalogue of Crime, Harper & Row, revised and enlarge edition 1989.

   In their introductory essay the authors make a knowledgeable and trenchant case for the refined literary art of detection in the tradition of the classical whodunit.

Deleuze, Gilles: “The Philosophy of Crime Novels” in Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974, Semiotext(e) Foreign Agent Series 2004.

   In this essay the famous French philosopher deals mainly with the difference between the traditional detective story and the crime novels of the legendary série noire, and at the same time makes interesting reading recommendations, such as James Gunn’s Deadlier Than the Male.

Eco, Umberto: “Narrative Structures in Fleming” in The Poetics of Murder, ed. by Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

   Eco came from scholarship to novel writing, including The Name of the Rose. Many of his essays are widely read and very well known, like this one about the James Bond stories.

Jameson, Fredric: “On Raymond Chandler” in The Poetics of Murder, ed. by Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

   Jameson, a literary expert above all on postmodern cultural phenomena, is also a considerable Chandler connoisseur. A more recent essay on Chandler is contained in the essay collection Shades of Noir, ed. by Joan Copjec, Verso 1993: “The Synoptic Chandler.”

Knight, Stephen: “The Golden Age” in The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, ed. by Martin Priestman, Cambridge University Press 2003.

   Knight, who is renowned for his history of Crime Fiction, 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity (2003), provides a balanced and in part critical survey of the golden age of whodunit fiction.

Lacan, Jacques: Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” in The Poetics of Murder, ed. by Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

   The typical detective-story reader will probably be disappointed by the essay or even hate it, as he or she may get the impression that Lacan projects his concept of psychoanalysis on Poe’s story, thus monopolising it for his own purposes. Nevertheless, Lacan’s essay is one of the most frequently cited and discussed essays on Poe’s detective story; a separate volume is devoted to it: The Purloined Poe, ed. by John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, Johns Hopkins University Press 1988.

Marcus, Steven: Introduction, in Dashiell Hammett: The Continental Op, Picador 1984.

   This essay is surely the most influential ever written on Hammett. The Columbia University professor shows that academic scholarship and literary form can go hand in hand.

Reddy, Mauren T.: “Women detectives” in The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, ed. by Martin Priestman, Cambridge University Press 2003.

   The essay offers a critical survey of the most important women detective writers, from Ann Radcliffe’s precursor figure Emily, to Kathy Reichs’ Dr. Tempe Brennan.

Sebeok, Thomas A. / Seboek-Umiker, Jean: “You Know My Method: A Juxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes” in The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce, ed. by Umberto Eco / Thomas A. Sebeok, Indiana University Press 1983.

   The surprising result of this comparison between the investigative methods of Peirce and Holmes is their great similarity.

Shklovsky, Viktor: “Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery Story” in Theory of Prose, Dalkey Archive Press 1991.

   Shklovsky is an outstanding representative of the Russian formalist school, which had a considerable influence on modern literary studies. His collection of essays dated 1925 contains the above-mentioned essay on Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes stories, which can only described as “ground-breaking.”.

Sturak, Thomas: “Horace McCoy’s Objective Lyricism” in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, ed. by David Madden, Southern Illinois University Press, 3rd printing 1977.

   A meticulous analysis, based on Sturak’s dissertation, of the specific literary achievement of an underestimated author.

   Some readers may find this list is missing academics who have rendered great service to the study of crime literature, like Francis M. Nevins, Lee Horsley, Robert Polito, Sally R. Munt, Dennis Porter, Kathleen Gregory Klein, Martin Priestman, Jochen Vogt and many more.

   For anyone looking to access the wide-ranging field of the academic essay on crime literature, I would suggest the highly representative essay collection The Poetics of Murder, which is also recommended by the British Queen of Crime, P.D. James in her book on crime fiction.

                  — Translated by Pauline Cumbers.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


JESSIE DOUGLAS KERRUISH – The Undying Monster. Heath Cranton, UK, hardcover, 1922. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1936. Reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, June 1946. Award A351S, paperback, 1968. Lulu Press, POD softcover, 2013.

THE UNDYING MONSTER

THE UNDYING MONSTER. 20th Century Fox, 1942. James Ellison, Heather Angel, John Howard, Bramwell Fletcher, Heather Thatcher, Aubrey Mather. Director: John Brahm.

   The Undying Monster by Jessie Douglas Kerruish was first published in England in 1922 and is considered by some a classic tale of lycanthropy. I considered it a wanton squandering of my precious youth, but there you are. Thinking back, there were probably some inventive bits in the tale, but for me they were ruined by…. But I can’t yet tell you why. Read on:

   Undying starts out promisingly with a family curse, murder in the moonlight and all sorts of delicious Victorian nastiness. It seems that the Hammand family (local gentry with an imposing manor house and a coat of arms that goes back to the Flood) is periodically stalked from time to time by a horrendous but unseen thing that rips some of them limb from limb and scares others into gibbering madness.

   Good so far. But when Oliver Hammand, latest in line to inherit the family unpleasantness, encounters the thing in the dark, he gets off with a few bites and a case of amnesia while his companion is mauled to near death and his loyal dog is spread all over the countryside. Naturally concerned, Oliver’s sister calls in female paranormal investigator Luna Bartendale, and that’s when things get gummy.

THE UNDYING MONSTER

   Luna Bartendale is probably the most irritating character ever consigned to printed page. She hasn’t been on the case for more than a few paragraphs before she’s saying things like, “I have some theories but I won’t discuss them until….” and then “This confirms what I was thinking but before I say more I must…..” followed by “I know why, but I can’t reveal it to you yet,” and “There’s a very good reason why I can’t tell it to you.”

   Now I got nothing, against foreshadowing, but a man gets tired of that kind of talk all the time. No one likes the guy who says “I told you so,” but even worse is one who says “I could tell you so — if I felt like it,” and Luna Bartendale, for all her groundbreaking appearance as fiction’s first female paranormal detective, says very little else. By the time the plot reached the point where Good and Evil were locked in what should have been a horrific struggle, I was hoping merely that the superannuated boogeyman of the title would gobble her up but (SPOILER ALERT!) no such luck.

   All the sadder then that there are glimmerings of a good story here. So good in fact that 20th Century Fox made a movie of it in 1942 — kind of. Writer Lillie Hayward and Michael Jacoby replaced the annoying Ms Bartendale with cowboy star James Ellison playing a Scotland Yard investigator — and doing it surprisingly well.

THE UNDYING MONSTER

   He’s aided by Heather Thatcher as a plucky distaff-Watson, but his attentions are focused primarily on Heather Angel as the distraught sister of poor Oliver Hammond (They changed the spelling for reasons best known to themselves.) played by John Howard, who had already been paired with Miss Angel in the Bulldog Drummond series over at Paramount.

   Undying Monster is a stylish affair, thanks largely to director John Brahm, who brought similar gothic elegance to The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945) and cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who will be remembered for The Wild Bunch. Together they impart an atmosphere not unlike the Sherlock Holmes series over at Universal, with evocative fog, looming shadows, and a general sense of mystery — rudely dissipated when we finally see the rather unprepossessing monster.

   And I should add a bit of trivia beloved of bad-movie buffs: the opening shot of Undying Monster is repeated exactly in a later, cheaper Monogram film, Face of Marble (1946). Understandable, since Michael Jacoby, who toiled at or near Hollywood’s bottom rung for his whole career, worked on both films. But one wonders with what weary desperation poor Jacoby found himself re-typing his own work in such reduced circumstances.

THE UNDYING MONSTER

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Another baffling Ellery Queen mystery! One of the most fascinating letters from Manfred B. Lee to Fred Dannay that Joseph Goodrich didn’t include in his book BLOOD RELATIONS is dated November 3, 1958. More precisely, it’s dated “Nov. 3” with the year added in brackets, presumably by Goodrich.

   Right at the start Manny tells Fred: “The novel will not be ready on Dec. 1. Its status is as follows: About 2/3 of the rough draft was done quite a while ago, but I found large sections of it unsatisfactory…and began doing them over.” Then he starts describing the health problems that have kept him from finishing this novel.

   Which novel is he talking about? It can’t be THE FINISHING STROKE, which was published very early in 1958. But Manny never wrote another novel from a Dannay synopsis until the late Sixties when he overcame the writer’s block that had handicapped him for almost a decade.

   Is it possible that the bracketed date is a mistake, that the letter was actually written a year or two earlier? No! About halfway through the document Manny talks about the live 60-minute Ellery Queen TV series, then starring George Nader. That series was broadcast only during the 1958-59 season. Manny even mentions that the episode shown the previous Friday was based on perhaps the finest of all Queen novels, CAT OF MANY TAILS (1949). We know that the air date of that episode was October 31, 1958, and Manny even mentions that it was shown on Halloween night. There’s not a chance in a trillion that this letter was written at any time other than what its dateline says.

   What then are we left with? With the distinct possibility that there exists somewhere an “unknown” Ellery Queen novel, perhaps finished, perhaps unfinished. If so, what a find!

   There are other possibilities, but they seem most unlikely. One that I considered and quickly rejected is that the book Manny was working on late in 1958 was published in 1963 as THE PLAYER ON THE OTHER SIDE. If Manny became afflicted with writer’s block soon after writing this letter, Fred might have let his synopsis sit for a few years and then given it to Theodore Sturgeon, who expanded the outline into that novel.

   What rules out that theory? Since we know that Manny was working on the book “quite a while” before November 1958, Fred’s synopsis must have been completed earlier. But the outline for THE PLAYER ON THE OTHER SIDE can’t possibly predate the release of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), to which the plot of PLAYER owes so much. Even assuming that the influence on PLAYER comes not from the movie but from Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name (1959), the time element still eliminates PLAYER as the outline Fred prepared a year before Bloch’s book was published.

   Let’s explore another possibility. Might Fred have eventually decided that the novel Manny was working on in 1958 — and may or may not have finished — should be cut down to novelet length? There’s one Queen novelet which just might fit the time frame: “The Death of Don Juan,” which was first published in Argosy, May 1962, and is collected in QUEENS FULL (1965). I can find no positive evidence in support of this theory but nothing against it either.

   When speculation fails, search for facts. I recently emailed Fred’s son Richard Dannay, asking if he had ever seen a manuscript that fit the vague description in Manny’s letter. (If only he had left a hint or two as to what the plot was about!) Richard said no but admitted the possibility that he and his brother Douglas had overlooked something while sorting through their father’s huge accumulation of manuscripts and papers. There the trail ends — unless some intrepid literary sleuth spends months combing through every paper in the Dannay archives at Columbia University. Any volunteers?

***

   For three months I’ve resisted offering another assortment of quotations from the one and only Mike Avallone, but I can’t hold back any longer. Here come some more cubic zirconia from the Ed Word of the written wood, all from THE SECOND SECRET (1966, as by Edwina Noone), the same epic from which I culled quotations back in November. With the iron self-control of the Spartan boy who hid the fox under his tunic I shall limit myself to six new ones.

   The biggest conflagration she had ever seen were the playful bonfires set by the children of Englishtown on holidays. (20-21)

   The poor Freneaus. For all their wealth and position, they certainly had not had a barrel of skittles. (22)

   A peach that hung in their midst for years had been abruptly plucked from the communal tree and now no one knew what was in store for her. (46)

   She stood on the boarded sidewalks of the town, staring after the carriage, a bouquet of tulips sprayed over her worn fingers. (46)

   As close as Clara was now, both physically and relationally, she was as distant and remote as the stars… The gossamer veil, netting Clara Freneau’s wantonly darkish face was insufficient to completely mask the hostility of the woman. (47)

   “It was such a beautiful ceremony. Thank you for being bridesmaid.”
   “You’re welcome, my dear… You may thank my late father’s sword also since it served as your best man.” (47)

   Thank you, Mr. Sword. And thanks also to Mike Avallone, whose wacko way with words can lift me out of the blackest moods.

MARK TERRY – Dirty Deeds. High Country Publishers, trade paperback, 2004.

MARK TERRY Dirty Deeds

   If this is the first of a series, which is the way it reads to me, I think it should be a good one — the series, I mean. Dirty Deeds is a nicely developed combination of the hard-boiled private eye novel with well-honed computer geekiness, with super-rich Meg Malloy as the leading protagonist – she was in on the construction of the World Wide Web, and as a result she’s now independently wealthy.

   She’s also a high-paid computer consultant in the suburban Detroit area, but when Reverend James Walker learns that one of the jobs her ex-husband had was as a private investigator, he thinks that perhaps she can be of some additional assistance to him.

   (Of course her ex-husband is also an ex-systems analyst, an ex-teacher, and ex-website designer, among other things, and Meg says that the only one he’s ever been good at is ex-husband.)

   Reverend James is a TV evangelist, and he seems to have neglected his daughter, who is in trouble. Evidence: a video tape of either her rape or an example of what she is doing now for a living.

   When Meg finds herself in over her head – just a little (page 61) – coming to her aid is Jack Bear, from up Traverse City way, of Chippewa blood, and a man with a mysterious past. He’s vouched for by Meg’s (female) cousin, and the story this engenders is revealed only piecemeal, one morsel at a time.

   And the FBI and the Secret Service are somehow mixed in to whatever business Meg finds she’s stumbled into. Dirty deeds are Jack Bear’s specialties, the grey areas the police don’t always get into, and as the AC/DC song lyric says, done dirt cheap.

   The pace is fast, only a little ragged at times, and at only 192 pages – the old paperback standard! – the book goes quickly. The greatest weakness I found is that there’s not a lot of depth to the plot. It’s solid, a little rough around the edges, perhaps, but it’s also straightforward, and there doesn’t seem to be enough juice to make the story stand out more than it does.

   The characters are well-developed, though and as time goes on, I certainly wouldn’t object to seeing more of them. It looks like Meg Malloy and Jack Bear could have a future together, doing what they do, and I certainly hope it works out that way.

— January 2004


[UPDATE] 02-03-13.   While Mark Terry has followed this book with six adventures of Derek Stillwater, a troubleshooter for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, this, alas, is the only known case to have been tackled by the crack team-up of Meg Malloy and Jack Bear.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


LYNTON LAMB Death of a Dissenter

LYNTON LAMB – Death of a Dissenter. Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1969. No US edition.

   Old Silas Finch doesn’t like the church bells ringing in the English village of Fleury Feverel, or anything or anyone else for that matter. He defiles the cricket field, threatens his neighbors, lets the air out of bicycle tires, and is accused of molesting a quite molestable young woman. So it is nothing of a surprise that he ends up dead, but quite astonishing that he dies in the church ringing chamber, where someone has apparently bashed him in the head with a bench.

   As the evidence accumulates, Detective Chief Superintendent Quill and Detective Inspector Bruce are somewhat dumbfounded to find that the facts point in only one direction: toward the rector of the parish, Frank Fenwick, an inveterate truth teller who says he didn’t do it.

   Fortunately for a U.S. reader, the cricketing is brief since, at least to me, it was quite incomprehensible. Also a problem is the local dialect, which is almost as impenetrable as the cricket and there’s more of it. To make up for that there is a great deal of humor, some fine writing, a solid investigation, information on campanology, and an unusual solution, which I guess is possible. All in all, a nearly first-class first novel, particularly if you understand cricket and the local dialect.

   By the way, could there really be such a thing as a Surveyor of Ecclesiastical Dilapidations?

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 1992.


         The Supt. Quill & Insp. Charles Glover series —

Death of a Dissenter. Gollancz 1969.
Worse Than Death. Gollancz 1971.
Picture Frame. Gollancz 1972.
Man in a Mist. Gollancz 1974.

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