TWELVE ANTHOLOGIES OF
HARD-BOILED & NOIR STORIES:
A List by Josef Hoffmann
The selected anthologies contain mostly short stories from Black Mask and similar pulp magazines. Several stories are newer. The books are especially recommended to readers who want to get a representative overview of this kind of crime fiction without investing the time, money and labour to obtain the original magazines.
These books are also of interest for collectors who want to take care of their gems and prefer to read the old texts in new books. But my list is not complete. More such anthologies have been published than I have selected.
Adrian, Jack & Pronzini, Bill – Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, Oxford University Press, 1995.
This is a de luxe edition of an anthology, not only concerning the contents but also the quality of the paper and the book cover. The long and brilliant introduction tries to define hard-boiled crime fiction. Then follow 36 stories from the 1920s to the 1990s. There are the big stars like Hammett, Chandler, W. R. Burnett, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson etc., but also forgotten writers like William Cole, Benjamin Appel, Jonathan Craig, Helen Nielsen and others.
Among the contemporary authors you find Elmore Leonard, Margaret Maron, James Ellroy, Andrew Vachss, Faye Kellerman. One of the finest stories is contributed by James M. Reasoner, a story in a slightly depressive mood. Every story is introduced by an informative note, so the book is also a reference work. As far as I can remember it was nominated for an Edgar award, which is no surprise for any reader of this anthology.
Ellroy, James & Penzler, Otto – The Best American Noir of the Century, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
This book of 731 pages contains more stories of contemporary writers than of old ones. There is no text of Hammett, Chandler, Horace McCoy and Paul Cain. But there are stories by MacKinlay Kantor (“Gun Crazy”), Dorothy B. Hughes, David Goodis, Charles Beaumont (“The Hunger”), Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith and others.
Among contemporary writers you find James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, James Crumley, Jeffery Deaver, Joyce Carol Oates, Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane, Andrew Klavan, Elmore Leonard, Ed Gorman and other writers which are not so well-known. The most recent story was published in 2007: “Missing the Morning Bus,” by Lorenzo Carcaterra. The book starts with a short foreword by Penzler and an even shorter introduction by Ellroy. Informative notes on the authors are added to each story. It is good value for your money.
Goulart, Ron – The Hardboiled Dicks. An Anthology of Detective Fiction from the American Pulp Magazines, T. V. Boardman 1967.
Goulart’s book contains stories by Norbert Davis, John K. Butler, Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Frank Gruber, Richard Sale, Lester Dent and Erle Stanley Gardner. Four were published in Black Mask, the rest in other pulp magazines.
Goulart’s introduction and his introducing notes for each story are rather short, also the informal reading list at the end of the book. As a hardcover edition of the Boardman’s “American Bloodhound” series with a jacket design by the legendary Denis McLoughlin, this book is a much-sought collector’s item.
Jakubowski, Maxim – The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, Robinson 1996.
Jakubowski is not only an editor of crime fiction but also a writer of erotic crime novels and the owner of the London bookshop Murder One, which unfortunately does not exist anymore. Jakubowski’s anthology is different from other pulp collections on my list because he presents above all short fiction of Gold Medal Book authors like Charles Williams, John D. MacDonald, Gil Brewer, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Day Keene, Bruno Fischer etc. and also more recent stories by Charles Willeford, Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins, Bill Pronzini, John Lutz, Joe Gores, Harlan Ellison, Donald E. Westlake etc. You see this book’s understanding of pulp fiction is rather broad.
After the success of the this anthology Jakubowski edited a volume with a similar receipt. There are some stories of the old pulp magazines of the Black Mask days by Gardner, Whitfield, Gruber, Steve Fisher, Norbert Davis etc. mixed with newer material by Michael Guinzburg, Mark Timlin, Marcia Muller, Joe R. Lansdale, Ed Gorman etc. This second anthology is The Mammoth Book of Pulp Action, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001, in the US.
Kittredge, William & Krauzer, Steven M. – The Great American Detective: 15 Stories Starring America’s Most Celebrated Private Eyes, New American Library, 1978.
This is the only anthology on my list which does not contain exclusive hard-boiled and noir stories. One of the two Black Mask stories is a detective tale about Race Williams by Carroll John Daly. Other hard-boiled stories feature Sam Spade (Hammett), Philip Marlowe (Chandler), Dan Turner (Rober Leslie Bellem), Michael Shayne (Brett Halliday), Lew Archer (Ross Macdonald) and Mack Bolan, the Executioner (Don Pendleton).
The second Black Mask story is contributed by Cornell Woolrich: “Angel Face.” But you find also tales of famous detectives like Nick Carter, The Shadow, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason and others which are not hard-boiled. The book has a very interesting introduction of 24 pages by the editors, contains short notes before each story and some suggestions for further reading in the final chapter.
Nolan, William F. – The Black Mask Boys: Masters in the Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction, The Mysterious Press, 1987.
The book begins with a short history of Black Mask magazine. Then comes the first hard-boiled detective tale ever printed: “Three Gun Terry,” by Carroll John Daily. It is followed by the most bloodthirsty story which Hammett has ever written: “Bodies Piled Up.”
The other stories are also written by big names: Erle Stanley Gardner, Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Nebel, Horace McCoy, Paul Cain and Raymond Chandler. Each story is combined with a lot of information about the author and his writing for Black Mask. At the end is a checklist of mystery-detective-crime pulp magazines.
Penzler, Otto – The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. Vintage Books, 2010.
This voluminous book has 1116 pages. Containing 53 stories this anthology “is the biggest and most comprehensive collection of pulp crime fiction ever published,” writes Penzler in his foreword. The introduction is by Keith Alan Deutsch, copyright owner of Black Mask Magazine.
The collection includes the original version of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Lester Dent’s story “Luck” is in print for the first time. Besides the “usual suspects” there is a lot of reading material you would not expect: stories by Stewart Sterling, Talmadge Powell, Charles G. Booth, Richard Sale, Katherine Brocklebank, Thomas Walsh, Dwight V. Babcock, Cleve F. Adams, Day Keene, W. T. Ballard, Hugh B. Cave, C. M. Kornbluth, Cornell Woolrich and many others. There are also several names I have never heard of. All in all very good value for the price of $25.00.
Penzler, Otto – Pulp Fiction: The Dames, Quercus 2008.
This is one of three anthologies of pulp fiction edited by Penzler in 2008. The other two books concern “Villains” and “Crimefighters.” The “Dames” anthology is for me the most interesting book. It is introduced by crime writer Laura Lippman.
Besides the star authors Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich one can read fine pulp stories by writers like Eric Taylor, Randolph Barr, Robert Reeves, Roger Torrey, Eugene Thomas, T. T. Flynn and some really unknown pulp fiction writers, altogether 23 stories. At the beginning of every story is a short note about the author and his text. So you get a lot of information about pulp fiction. There is also a comic strip “Sally The Sleuth” by Adolphe Barreaux.
Pronzini, Bill – The Arbor House Treasury of Detective and Mystery Stories from the Great Pulps, Arbor House, 1983.
The anthology contains 15 stories and an informative introduction about the history of the pulps. Besides the big names like Hammett, Horace McCoy, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich, John D. MacDonald (twice) etc. there are stories by rather unknown writers like Dane Gregory, D. L. Champion.
A highlight is “Holocaust House,” by Norbert Davis, the first story about private eye Doan and his dog Carstairs. Each story is combined with an informative note. So the reader can learn a lot about pulps.
Ruhm, Herbert – The Hard-Boiled Detective. Stories from Black Mask Magazine 1920-1951, Vintage Books, 1977.
The book contains 14 stories and a lucid introduction of 28 pages. Besides the big names there are tales by not so well-known or meanwhile forgotten writers as Norbert Davis, Lester Dent, George Harmon Coxe, Merle Constiner, Curt Hamlin, Paul W. Fairman, Bruno Fischer and the humorous William Brandon.
Shaw, Joseph T. – The Hard-Boiled Omnibus: Early Stories from Black Mask, Simon & Schuster, 1946; Pocket Books, 1952.
The book is introduced by the legendary Black Mask editor Shaw himself, the man who shaped the magazine’s hard-boiled style more than any other editor. Especially he promoted Hammett and encouraged other writers to follow his literary model.
The hardcover edition contains 15 stories, the paperback only 12. Besides well-known stories by Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Dent and Norbert Davis’s “Red Goose,” there are rather unknown tales by Reuben Jennings Shay, Ed Lybeck, Roger Torrey, Theodore Tinsley and others. A historical milestone.
Weinberg, Robert E., Dziemianowicz, Stefan & Greenberg, Martin H. – Tough Guys & Dangerous Dames, Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.
The 24 pulp stories comprehend well-known authors like Chandler, Whitfield, Dent, Gardner, Paul Cain, John D. MacDonald as well as forgotten or unknown writers like Fred MacIsaac, Paul Chadwick, Donald Wandrei and others. The story by Norbert Davis, “Murder in the Red,” is not often reprinted.
Unusual for an anthology of this kind are also names like Fritz Leiber, Leigh Brackett and Robert Bloch. The reader gets some useful information about the contributors from the introduction by Dziemianowicz.
JERICHO. CBS, 1966-67. MGM/Arena Productions. Created by William Link and Richard Levinson in association with Merwin A. Bloch. Cast: Don Francks as Franklin Sheppard, John Leyton as Nicholas Gage, and Marino Mase as Jean-Gaston Andre. Executive Producer: Norman Felton. Supervising Producer: David Victor. Produced by Stanley Niss (pilot episode produced by David Victor). Theme by Jerry Goldsmith.
JERICHO was set in war-torn Europe during World War II. It told the adventures of three men. American Captain Franklin Sheppard was the leader and an expert on explosives. British Royal Navy Lieutenant Nicholas Gage was a former circus performer and expert in getting in and out of tough situations. Free French Lieutenant Jean-Gaston Andre specialized in weapons, ancient and modern. Together they fought the Nazis behind enemy lines as a group, code named Jericho.
I watched this series at Warner Archives Instant (free two week trial membership) here.
Considering the talent behind this series I was very disappointed. The series first reminded me of another CBS series premiering that fall, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE for its premise and soundtrack. However, JERICHO took on the style of the two other MGM and Norman Felton’s Arena Productions, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E.
The theme and opening featured a narrator (no on air credit) introducing the characters over the actor names with clips of each in action. The story then began with the narrator giving the date, location and Jericho’s mission.
Today, a major reason to watch this series is who created it. William Link and Richard Levinson would become two of television’s greatest creators of TV series with such series as COLUMBO, ELLERY QUEEN, and MURDER SHE WROTE. But JERICHO was before they joined Universal Studios. Link has discussed how little control they had over their freelance scripts such as their pilot script for MANNIX (in the commentary on MANNIX season one DVD).
The pilot script for JERICHO would air as episode three “Upbeat and Underground.” From the credits it can be assumed Dean Hargrove (MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) rewrote some of the script. Paris 1942, the Nazis plan to force the French National Symphony Orchestra to play Wagner on Bastille Day, so Jericho smuggles the entire orchestra (one hundred people) under Nazis guard in occupied Paris to London. If only Jericho had been available for THE GREAT ESCAPE (John Layton was in the 1963 film but sadly did not play his Jericho hero).
And who was fellow JERICHO creator Merwin Bloch? Bloch’s greatest success would come later as one of the most influential and successful producers of movie trailers. He would also produced the 70s cult film comedy THE TELEPHONE BOOK. At this time he was just starting out from advertising and had wrote one episode of BLUE LIGHT (which I reviewed here ). According to his IMDb bio, Bloch would supply many of JERICHO’s plots. At least one JERICHO plot was obviously inspired by BLUE LIGHT, in “Panic in the Piazza” Jericho was assigned to blow up a heavily guarded Nazi headquarters buried deep underground.
JERICHO’s production values for a network show were embarrassing, from inept reusing of a few studio lot exterior sets to the too many times when you wondered if anyone was paying attention or cared.
In the episode “Long Walk Across a Short Street,” action took place at night and in an area where all power was out, yet the streets where bathed in sunlight and the interiors brightly lit. The only way we knew it was dark was when the characters told us. Surprisingly, the director was the talented Richard C. Sarafian (VANISHING POINT, 1971), and the director of photography was the experienced, Emmy award winner and innovator Lester Shorr. Both of these men would have known better, leaving one to wonder how such amateur mistakes could have happened.
The scripts, because of its YA take on the plots, had problems maintaining the proper balance of believability, humor, action and suspense. For me the most successful was writer Jackson Gillis (MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) in “Have Traitor, Will Travel.” A French General and known spy is fed false information. Jericho escorts him to the front hoping to get captured, but encounter problems when the local underground rescues them. The story’s surprising twists had a darkness to them that kept the absurdity from overwhelming the drama.
The soundtrack was a cross between MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. The “Film Score Monthly” review of the record featuring the soundtrack to JERICHO (and THE GHOSTBREAKER), noted that the theme used by JERICHO was scored by Jerry Goldsmith (MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) from the second episode, and the pilot music score (and unused theme) was done by Lilo Schifrin.
Schifrin would find a place for some of the rejected music in his next series, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. JERICHO, especially episodes scored by Richard Shores (MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), often had scenes with background music familiar to viewers of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. While one of the more noticeable MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. influences was the sound used with the graphic break for jump cuts.
This YouTube clip is from a promo sent to local stations. It is terrible visually and features a different narrator, but illustrates my point about the soundtrack (around 2:05 on the clip):
Perhaps the oddest element of JERICHO was Norman Felton producing CBS’s JERICHO while under exclusive contract to NBC. “Broadcasting” reported the story in issues December 27, 1965 and January 10, 1965. Norman Felton was one of MGM’s most successful producers until NBC signed Felton to an exclusive contract. Felton’s obligations to MGM would end June 30, 1966, but there were exceptions. Felton would continue to produce the show if either of Arena Production’s pilots for CBS went series. JERICHO did. Thus a NBC producer and company (Arena) produced a prime time series for CBS.
Don Francks’ (HEMLOCK GROVES) performance was the best of the three regulars but lacked a dramatic depth to counter the silliness of the stories leaving him at times bordering on camp such as in “Wall To Wall Kaput” where he posed as a worker wallpapering the office where the top-secret papers were kept. John Leyton had been a British pop star and appeared in films (VON RYAN’S EXPRESS -1965), but by JERICHO his career was in decline. Marino Mase went from starring in films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s LES CARABINERS (1963) to minor roles in films such as GODFATHER 3 (1990).
Fans of actors will enjoy spotting such people as Barbara Anderson, John Drew Barrymore, Billy Barty, Tom Bosley, John Dehner, James Doohan, Marianna Hill, Walter Koenig, Mark Lenard, Jay North, Michael Rennie, Mark Richman, Gia Scala, Malachi Throne, and Ian Wolfe.
The series featured one minor recurring character, Jericho’s contact Mallory played in the pilot by Ben Wright and in two episodes by John Orchard.
The ratings were never good. The hour-long JERICHO aired in color on Thursday night at 7:30-8:30PM opposite of the popular BATMAN and F-TROOP on ABC and DANIEL BOONE on NBC (which usually finished second in the time slot).
The November 28, 1966 issue of “Broadcasting” reported CBS had cancelled JERICHO, saying the series would remain on until mid-January.
There was a tie-in original paperback by Bruce Cassiday titled Code Name: Jericho – Operation Gold Kill (Award, 1967).
JAMES Z. ALNER – The Capital Murder. Knopf, hardcover, 1932.
Gathered at the Serpentine Club — considering the plot, one wonders whether the author named the club playfully — five men of various talents and one nonentity who chronicles the investigation are discussing crime. They are Trevor Stoke, an epidemiologist; Henry Selden, one of the three commissioners of Washington, D.C., where the novel takes place; Lieut. Runy O’Mara, U.S. Navy; Dr. Basil Ragland, eminent psychiatrist about whom more later; and Lance Starr-Smith, the famous architect.
An odd event occurs during their discussion, and then Commissioner Selden is told that a woman some of them knew had died shortly before under suspicious circumstances. Stoke discovers how and who, none of it coming as any surprise to the reader, who in addition has been anesthetized by the many unlikelihoods that take place.
The author was acquainted with various famous fictional detectives of the time. It’s a pity he didn’t learn from their creators how to write better. Oh, there are a couple of good similes — “Empty as a dime-novel detective’s head” and “Open as a Congressman’s mouth” — but that’s about it. Unfortunate also is the 1930’s view of blacks, about whom the “eminent psychiatrist” says:
The crime was carefully planned. A negro does not do that. When a negro commits murder, as unfortunately does happen, it is either in a drunken frenzy or in an impulsive brawl. A mulatto might plan a homicide, but more likely against one of this own race, if he did it at all.
— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter 1991.
Bibliographic Note: This was the author’s only published work of crime fiction.
CAUGHT. MGM, 1949. James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Ryan. Very loosely based on the novelWild Calendar by Libbie Block. Director: Max Ophüls.
Speaking of endings, as I was when discussedKiss Me Deadly a short while ago, something similar happened six years earlier — intentionally, this time — with the ending of the MGM film Caught, where we see one ending, a richly satisfying one in which (WARNING!) Barbara Bel Geddes murders her abusive husband Robert Ryan, but we hear — in a jarring, dubbed-over tone — another one in which the characters talk about how she saved his life at the last minute. (END OF WARNING.)
Obviously there was some last-minute fudging by the studio heads at MGM, to appease the censors and give audiences a happy ending, even if it meant throwing out the whole point of the story. Yet in spite of what we hear the characters say, the evidence of our eyes remains.
I guess actions — even images of actions — speak louder than words.
Editorial Comment: Based on Mike Grost’s review of the film, which you can find here, I’ve changed the category in which I placed the movie from “Crime Film” to “Romantic Drama,” in spite of the fact that other experts often consider Caught to be film noir.
FOUR HOURS TO KILL. Paramount, 1935. Richard Barthelmess, Gertrude Michael, Ray Milland, Helen Mack, Dorothy Tree, Henry Travers, Roscoe Karns. Director: Mitchell Leisen. Shown at Cinefest 19, Syracuse NY, March 1999.
A sort of Grand Hotel that’s set in a theater, and with a good cast rather than the constellation of stars in the MGM film. Leisen, one of the interesting stylists of the period, concentrates on keeping the interlocking plot lines moving smoothly, which he does more than capably.
Barthelmess (one of the most popular of silent film stars, here in the twilight of his career) is attending a play handcuffed to a cop who’s killing time waiting for the next train to take Barthelmess back to the prison he’s escaped from.
Roscoe Karns, usually the quintessential wisecracking reporter, plays an expectant father who keeps making phone calls to the hospital where his wife is in labor. (It’s not clear why he’s at the theater rather than the hospital, but given his manic behavior, somebody probably didn’t want him around to upset his wife.)
Ray Milland, in an early role, is a smooth gigolo rendezvousing with his elegant girl friend (Gertrude Michael), stepping out on her rich husband, and willing to save his hide by letting an usher be arrested for a theft for which Michael is unwilling to press charges. The pot is already boiling when Barthelmess escapes but hangs around waiting for the arrival of the man he broke out of prison to kill.
“The Monster of Comus Towers.” From the Ironside TV series. Season 1, Episode 10 (of 196 total). First telecast: 16 November 1967. Regular cast: Raymond Burr (Ironside), Don Galloway (Det. Sgt. Ed Brown), Barbara Anderson (Officer Eve Whitfield), and Don Mitchell (Mark Sanger). Guest cast: Warren Stevens, David Hartman, Joan Huntington, Michael Forest, Donald Buka, Kevin Hagen, Evi Marandi, Renzo Cesana, Harper Flaherty. Teleplay: A. J. Russell and Stanford Whitmore. Story: A. J. Russell. Director: Don Weis (58 Ironside episodes to his credit).
Most long-running crime dramas seem to find it impossible to produce genuine whodunnits on a regular basis (it does require thinking a lot), so the majority of them work on the Encyclopedia Brown level of complexity.
This particular episode, however, is something of an exception to the general rule.
A collection of one-of-a-kind art masterpieces valued at $20 million is being displayed on an upper floor of Comus Towers, headquarters of a computer firm. With alarms still sounding, security guards rush to the art exhibit only to find another guard with a knife sticking out of him and the head of security lying on the floor nearby, unconscious and wounded.
The 6-foot-long, 40-pound centerpiece of a triptych has apparently been spirited out of the high-rise through a smashed plate glass window by someone who can either fly in gale force winds or shinny up the side of a tall building while wearing tennis shoes.
When Ironside & Co. are called in, the chief has no shortage of suspects, some more obvious than others: the wealthy owner of Comus Towers, the self-assured head of security (no one is above suspicion to Ironside), the bespectacled art insurance expert, the cool female employee of the firm, the two-timing ex-con she’s having an affair with, the Italian sponsor of the art exhibit who’s hard up for money, and his abnormally nervous young wife.
The sponsor, however, soon eliminates himself from the suspect list by literally dropping dead from cyanide poisoning, leaving Ironside with two murders to solve.
In Golden Age detective fiction style, the chief gets proactive, gathers all the remaining suspects together, and sets a trap according to the old adage of divide and conquer.
You can watch “The Monster of Comus Towers” along with lots of annoying commercials on Hulu here.
DICK FRANCIS – Whip Hand. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1979. Pocket, paperback, 1981. Reprinted many times since, in both hardcover and soft.
Thanks to some exposure on public television’s recent venture into mystery drama, this the latest of Dick Francis’ novels on racetrack chicanery has been flirting in recent weeks with the lower extremities of various best-seller lists.
Mystery fans may not be so pleased with this state of affairs once they realize that Harper & Row have been pushing it as straight fiction, not what it actually is — a straightforward private eye detective thriller. But of course, as everyone knows, private eye stories just don’t sell.
Sid Halley, the jockey who lost a hand in a previous Francis adventure, has had some success recently as a PI dealing largely in horsey matters, perhaps too much so for his own good. When the villains see him coming, they think they know what it will take to scare him off.
And they’re not so very far from wrong. Halley has to come to some strong grips with himself before he can start tackling the end of the case. But because of all the soul-searching, perhaps, the pace seems to plod more than it has in much of Francis’s previous works. The violence seems to be too calculated and perfunctory, and in spite of the odds, Sid Halley comes up smelling of roses, just as expected.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 4, No. 4, July-August 1980 (somewhat revised). This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.
JIM O’MARA – Wall of Guns. Dutton, hardcover, 1950. Pocket #816, paperback, June 1951. Signet, paperback, 2002.
I almost started this review by saying that Jim O’Mara’s Wall of Guns is Western writing at its finest. On second think, that honorific is better suited to books like The Big Sky, Saint Johnson and True Grit. Perhaps it’s more apt to say Wall is Western writing at its most enjoyable.
Frank Landry drifts down from Montana to the Rio Grande to find out who killed his brother and stole their ranch, eventually ending up in Broken Wheel, Texas, a town like something from Red Harvest, with sundry factions in a range war at each other’s throats, various hombrae and varmints crossing and double-crossing one another, and a general feel of violent malfeasance roaming the plains.
Landry’s fit for it, though, being one of those Western hero-types who never loses a gun-or-fist fight, thinks faster and smarter than any sidewinder, and draws the women-folk to him like kids to Christmas.
And we’re still in the first chapter when he meets up with Mary Wayne, purty as prairie flower, whose dad is a local rancher being squeezed out by a bunch of cattle thievin’ no-goods over on the next range, and whose weak-willed brother has fallen under the spell of one Carolina Steele, the local cattle queen and de facto head of the rustlers.
From this clichéd start, and with those boiler plate protagonists, Wall of Guns could have been a very ordinary western, no better or worse than most. But O’Mara has a smooth, vivid way of evoking the landscape, a good hand with action, and he peoples his story with a supporting cast far from the usual stock types. A dumb goon-type shows a surprising, gentle loyalty to his spineless boss, one of the good guys goes wrong when Landry’s girl dumps him, people make dumb mistakes now and then, and show surprising insight at other times — it’s as if a spear carrier in Aida suddenly dropped his lance and burst into an aria.
There’s a remarkable moment late in the book where one of the bad guys starts thinking about how he took the wrong road, and wonders if it’s too late to retrace his steps. At which point the good guys catch up with him and
“Ed,” he smiled his crooked, thin smile, “What if I were to tell you that this moment has nothing to do with cows or land or money? That it is merely a matter of two roads?”
“You can’t talk your way out of this,” Ardoin said, low and thick, “It’s too late.”
“Precisely,” said Kirby Steele. And then he went for his gun. It was a gesture and nothing more.
Characters like that, propelling a violent, fast-moving story, lift Wall of Guns well out of the usual rut and make it one to look for. And remember.
JACK FREDRICKSON – The Dead Caller from Chicago. St.Martin’s Minotaur Books, hardcover, April 2013.
Genre: Mystery. Leading character: Dek Elstrom, 4th in series. Setting: Chicago.
First Sentence: It was March, well past midnight, and it was cold.
Free-lance investigator Dek Elstrom is still trying to fight his local city hall to regain zoning rights to the tower — no castle, just a tower — in which he lives, but strange things start occurring. A large hole is dug for a new McMansion in a block of bungalows, a phone call from someone thought to be dead, and Dek’s best friend and loved ones suddenly disappearing. Dek is on the trail of answers and trying to stay alive.
I have two admissions from the very start; 1) I have loved this series but, 2) this is not my favorite book of the series.
Among Fredrickson’s strengths is his ability to create a vivid atmosphere from the very beginning. He has a great eye for detail and conveys it in a way that you are part of the scene. You feel the cold, you experience the turbulence of the boat ride and the
driving rain; the tension becomes real and the atmosphere, threatening.
He also has an excellent ear for dialogue, whether in the narrative or between characters. It’s clear, it has the right edge to it and just enough dry humor.
The main characters are impossible to resist; Dek, who is trying hard to rebuild his life and his wonderful brilliant, completely devoid of any fashion-sense friend Leo are
interesting and people about whom you want to know more. A few characters, however, feel as though they have become a bit of a joke that has gone on too long.
The weakest element, I felt, was actually the plot. It seemed we didn’t really knowwhat was going on until nearly half-way through the story. Sometimes, this can work. In this case, it was only the question of Leo and an act of faith that draws you on.
The Dead Caller From Chicago is still a good read. If anything, I feel my frustration is in feeling that Mr. Fredrickson is capable of doing so much more. I’m waiting….
The Dek Ekstrom mysteries —
1. A Safe Place for Dying (2006)
2. Honestly Dearest, You’re Dead (2008)
3. Hunting Sweetie Rose (2012)
4. The Dead Caller of Chicago (2013)
MIKE FREDMAN – You Can Always Blame the Rain. St. Martins, US, hardcover, 1980. First published in the U.K. by Paul Elek, hardcover, 1978.
If Harry Stoner [the PI hero of The Lime Pit, reviewed here not too long ago] can be considered a member of the knighthood for his willingness to rescue damsels in distress, so also should Willie Halliday, the British private eye making his American debut in You Can Always Blame the Rain.
That both Fredman and Halliday are English may or may not have a great deal to do with it, but the action here is noticeably more refined than much of anything found in Jonathan Valin’s deliberately shocking expose of false Midwestern piety.
But, needless to say — or I wouldn’t have started this review the way I have — there are similarities. There are pictures, and one of the daughters that Halliday is hired to protect is nude in them — but that is all we are told about them. There are also some references to Moroccan white slave traffic, but perhaps thankfully we are spared any further details.
Willie Halliday is a vegetarian, by the way, and he neither smokes nor drinks, He is well-versed in the history of Eastern religions, seems to have a good deal of money on his own, and none of the girls he attracts, including his new secretary, ends up in bed with him.
His first case is entertaining fun, in a quiet, genteel sort of way, but especially in comparison to a book like that of Valin’s, hard-boiled detective buffs are going to end up wondering just what scandal it is that he’s saving the girls from.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 4, No. 4, July-August 1980 (somewhat revised). This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.
NOTE: There was a second case in which Willie Haliday is known to have been involved, that one being Kisses Leave No Fingerprints (1979/1980), but nothing has been heard of him since.