Wed 15 Feb 2017
by Bill Pronzini
LAWRENCE G. BLOCHMAN – Diagnosis: Homicide. J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, 1950. Pocket Book #793, paperback, 1951. Television: CBS, 1960, nine-episode summer replacement series, with Patrick O’Neal (Dr. Coffee), Phyllis Newman (Doris Hudson), Cal Bellini (Dr. Mookerji), Chester Morris (Max Ritter).
Although most of his work is (regrettably) long out of print and he is little known among modern readers, Lawrence G. Blochman was an innovative and popular writer for more than four decades. His early novels and short stories had foreign settings, primarily India, where he spent several years in the 1920s as a newspaperman.
Bombay Mail (1934), his first and probably most accomplished novel, is set on board an Indian train; features one of his many series characters, Inspector Leonidas Prike of the British CID; and is one of the best of that intriguing subgenre, the railway mystery. Two other Prike novels, Bengal Fire (1937) and Red Snow at Darjeeling (1938), are also good, as is Blow-Down (1939), a non-series suspense/adventure novel set in a sleepy Central American banana port.
Blochman’s most notable creations, however, are his numerous short stories (for such magazines as Collier’s and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine) and one novel featuring Dr. Daniel Webster Coffee, pathologist of the Pasteur Hospital in mythical Northbank, New York. Coffee was the first pathologist detective in crime fiction, the forefather of TV’s Quincy, and his cases have a uniform sense of realism as a result of Blochman’s interest and research in forensic medicine. Diagnosis: Homicide, the first of two Dr. Coffee collections, is of sufficient import that Ellery Queen included it as the lO6th and final entry on his Queen’s Quorum list of most important volumes of detective short stories.
The eight novelettes in this book are what might be called “forensic procedurals.” Coffee’s chief criminological weapons, as Ellery Queen has pointed out, are modern (circa 1950) laboratory procedures in pathology, chemistry, serology, microscopy, and toxicology.
With these — and the help of his assistant, Dr. Motilal Mookerji, on scholarship from Calcutta Medical College, and police lieutenant Max Ritter — the good doctor solves such baffling cases as the death of a woman after an apparently simple appendectomy (“But the Patient Died”); the strange case of a woman who hears a baby crying in the night, even though there is no baby in her house (“The Phantom Cry-Baby”); and the murder of a doctor to cover up one of the oddest rackets in medical (and criminous) history (“Brood of Evil”).
The second Dr. Coffee collection, Clues for Dr. Coffee (1964), is likewise excellent and worth seeking out. Somewhat less successful is the only novel featuring the pathologist and his sidekicks, Recipe for Homicide (1952); Coffee’s talents, as Blochman himself seems to have realized, are better suited to the short-story form.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.