ROBERT B. PARKER – Night and Day. Jesse Stone #8. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 2009. Berkley, paperback reprint; 1st printing, February 2010.

   I’ve read about a third of Parker’s Spenser books, one of his with female PI Sunny Randall, but this is my first encounter with Jesse Stone, long time police chief of a small town called Paradise, somewhere not too far out from Boston. This one’s number eight of nine of Stone’s adventures Parker write before his death in 2010, although other hands have since taken over, with ten more having since appeared (more than Parker himself wrote!).

   The emphasis in Night and Day is that of sexual adventure, or misadventure to be more accurate, starting with a high school principal who is caught checking her female students’ (eighth graders) underwear before a school dance. It also seems that the women in Paradise are being stalked by a peeping tom before he escalates his nightly rounds to daytime home invasions in which he forces the women to strip while he takes their photos.

   And as they say, wait, wait, there’s more. A young girl comes in to complain that her parents are members of a very active group of swingers. All of this comes at the same time that Jesse’s ex-wife, with whom he still has close relations, leaves for a job in New York City with what we might call a very close mentor.

   The book is filled with many many pages of Parker’s trademarked witty dialogue, but I have to tell you I was expecting more. The paragraph above is all there is. It is tough to recommend a book, one purporting to be a mystery novel, when the stakes are as small as this, so guess what. I won’t.

DEATH IN PARADISE “Beyond the Shining Sea: Parts One and Two.” BBC, UK. 07 & 14 February 2019. (Season 8, Episodes 5 & 6). Ardal O’Hanlon, Joséphine Jobert, Tobi Bakare, Shyko Amos, with Leemore Marrett Jr., Zackary Momoh, Nicôle Lecky, Indra Ové. Screenwriters: Sally Abbott (Part One), Roger Enstone (Part Two). Director: Jermain Julien.

   As you may recall, I unwittingly started watching this series with season eight, and I’ve continued on with it. There are now but two more to so, and then I will go back and do things properly and start way back at the beginning, with season one.

   I have, however, enjoyed all of them I have seen, and ranking them, after the first one of the season, these two come in a close second and third. It certainly helped that both episodes are based on the solution of “impossible crimes,” if not the small subset of that particular genre called “locked room mysteries.” In the first episode a young woman, a festival queen, is found stabbed to death after setting off in a small boat and around a headland then coming to shore where the villagers are eagerly waiting for her. Somewhere in that three minutes of time, while she was out of sight, she was murdered.

   There were no other boats in the area, and any swimmers or divers would have left wet footprints in the boat, and there are none. The solution is quite clever and is worked out perfectly, but after the killer is caught and confesses, there is more to the story. One prominent player is murdered and another seriously injured.

   The assailant can only be one of three people living on a rich man’s getaway island, but there is no boat on the island and there was no time for any of them to swim to shore, where the shootings took place, and return. The solution is a bit more contrived this time around, but it’s still quite adequately accomplished.

   It is only at the end of story that the viewer (me) realizes that what these two episodes were really designed to do was to pave the way for one of the players to make a dramatic exit from the series. This caught me by surprise. Personnel changes in a series as dramatic as this one don’t usually happen with two more episodes to go.




C. DALY KING – Obelists Fly High. [Lt. Michael Lord & Dr. L. Rees Pons #3. Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, US, hardcover, 1935. Dover, trade paperback, 1986, 2015. Published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1935.

   A re-read of a book I probably bought when it was first reprinted. In this case, I didn’t remember anything about it, so it was like reading it for the first time.

   Dr. Amos Cutter, a prominent surgeon and brother of the Secretary of State goes to the Police after receiving a letter saying he will be murdered on the following day at noon central time. Cutter is going to Reno, where his sister is getting a divorce and his brother is in the hospital in need of an operation that Cutter is one of the few surgeons who can perform.

   The Commissioner assigns Capt. Michael Lord to protect Cutter as they fly across country with Cutter’s nieces: the beautiful Fonda Mann, who is fond of men and her sister Isa who is a lesbian. (Note that King wasn’t very subtle with his names). Also along is Cutter’s assistant Hood Tinkham. Among the passengers is Lord’s friend, psychologist Dr. L. Rees Pons, who is going to Hollywood to provide psychological background for a script involving two women in love with each other (obviously pre-Code.)

   There’s also author Hugh L. Craven, who is a friend of the girl’s father, a former British spy during the Great War and a believer in the theories of Charles Fort. (ASIDE: Some 30 or so years back I came across a one volume edition of Fort’s books and read it. Some of the stuff is pretty interesting in a Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not sort of way. Other stuff is just damn silly.) Anyway, at noon central time as they’re flying over the mid-west, Cutter dies, and it’s up to Lord to find the killer before the plane reaches Reno.

   Of all the Dover reprints I’ve read this is probably the most poorly written. Characters and dialogue are mediocre at best and there’s an elaborate timetable provided that I couldn’t bother going through. However, King manages to pull off a big surprise midway through the book and then tops that in the final few pages. He also provides at the end a list of clues with the page and the line on that page where they were given so that the reader can go back and verify them.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #40, September 2005.


Editorial Notes: Quoting from Martin Edwards’ blog and a review he wrote of Obelists en Route:

   “‘Obelist’ was a word that King made up. He defined it in Obelists at Sea as ‘a person of little or no value’ and then re-defined it in Obelists en Route as ‘one who harbours suspicion’. Why on earth you would invent a word, use it in your book titles, and then change your mind about what it means?”

   Another online review can be found here at the Invisible Event blog. (He gives it Zero stars.)


      The Obelists series —

Obelists at Sea. Knopf 1933.
Obelists en Route. Collins 1934. No US publication.
Obelists Fly High. H. Smith 1935.
Careless Corpse. Collins 1937. No US publication.
Arrogant Alibi. Appleton 1939

   Lt. Lord makes a solo appearance in Bermuda Burial (Funk, 1941)

NANCY SPRINGER “Milk of Human Blindness.” Mr. Jefferson #1. First published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, September 1996. Probably never reprinted.

   There can’t be a lot of business in Lancaster PA – the heart of Amish country – to keep a private eye in business, so it could very well be that this particular story was not only the first but also the last recorded case for Mr. Jefferson, as his client in this tale calls him. If so, that’s a shame, because as an introduction, it works fine, but it also leaves the reader (me) wanting more.

   Jefferson, by the way, is black, and he has kind of a sour outlook on life, with most of it taken up by doing repo and process serving. His client in this case is a young girl named Sarah, maybe eleven, twelve years old, and having found $200 on the street, she wants Jefferson to find out who her real parents are. Unfortunately when she discovers who lost the money (not drug money, as she thought), she needs the money back.

   And she agrees to go to work for Jefferson, to pay off her bill. And Jefferson, on his part, finds that yes, indeed, he needs the help, being as he is, not nearly as up to date in the new world of computers as he should be. By the story’s end and between the two of them, they have solved her case, and they’re ready for another. I hope there was one, but alas perhaps not.

PostScript: Nancy Springer is far better known as a fantasy writer, with several novels to her credit, but she also has written a long series of young adult mysteries about Enola Holmes, the fourteen-year-old sister of the far better known Sherlock Holmes, some twenty years older. A movie adaption of one the books is said to be currently in production.



BIG JAKE. Batjac/CinemaCenter Films, 1971. John Wayne, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Hara, Patrick Wayne, Christopher Mitchum, Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey Jr, Hank Worden, Glenn Corbett, Jim Davis, and John Agar. Narrated by George Fenneman. Written by Harry & Rita Fink. Directed by George Sherman.

   George Sherman’s final feature film makes an altogether fitting end for a career that stretched back to the Three Mesquiteers: just as silly, just as vigorous and just as much fun.

   That’s not to say Big Jake is a very good movie – it ain’t. The first half is barely tolerable, what with “trendy” borrowings from Butch Cassidy and a story that slows to a grind in order to bring on the Duke and show us how tough he us. Duke’s acting here is painfully self-indulgent, and despite plenty of dramatic potential (an estranged father must work with his two sons to rescue his kidnapped grandchild) the screenplay goes out of its way to avoid anything like emotional conflict.

   But that’s just the first half. Once Duke and his party reach the rendezvous point, where Richard Boone waits with a small army of bad guys, Big Jake turns into a real scrapper. I particularly enjoyed the diminuendo effect of the final set-to, so let me see if I can explain that.

   In Laurel & Hardy Movies, action moves to a crescendo. The boys start out spilling coffee on someone and end up demolishing his car in a series of comic escalations. But Big Jake’s climactic battle opens with phalanxes of warriors, armed with shotguns, machetes, high-powered rifles and a semi-automatic pistol, then grinds them down till by the ending, the combatants are throwing lanterns and popping derringers at each other.

   Add to this that in Richard Boone, John Wayne finds an adversary worthy of him, and you get a movie that is, finally, enjoyable on the level of the old Republic B-Westerns. No more, but certainly no less.


STUART KAMINSKY – Never Cross a Vampire. Toby Peters #5. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1980. Mysterious Press, paperback, 1984, 1995.   ibooks, paperback, 2000.

   As a flight into the past, Stuart Kaminsky’s series of adventures starring Hollywood private eye Toby Peters has come now to be a regularly scheduled event. As in his previous four cases, this affair, which introduces both Bela Legosi and aspiring screenwriter William Faulkner as clients, is fairly dripping with nostalgia. With a capital N.

   The time is January 1942, just as the US was gearing up for its mammoth forthcoming war effort, and every so often we are obliged to sit down and listen to Peters recite his breakfast menu, brand name by brand name, and to read his newspaper along with him, item by item.

   This litany of places, names, and events, while marginally interesting, becomes very much suspect, however, the moment Peters mentions having listened to a program on the popular radio series Suspense. As it so happens, the first program in the series, which lasted until 1962, or some twenty years, was not broadcast until June 17, 1942, or not until six months after the events related here.

   Kaminsky has put more effort than usual into the plot this time, which includes, very briefly, a locked room murder, but sloppy and inaccurate time-tabling – not month and year this time, but the time of day – makes it a little difficult to do more than guess who done it.

Rating: C

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 1, January-February 1981.

      The Toby Peters series (with a tip of the topper to his page on the Thrilling Detective website) —


Bullet for a Star (1977; Errol Flynn).
Murder on the Yellow Brick Road (1977; Judy Garland).
You Bet Your Life (1978; Marx Brothers).
The Howard Hughes Affair (1979; Howard Hughes).
Never Cross a Vampire (1980; Bela Lugosi).
High Midnight (1981; Gary Cooper).
Catch a Falling Clown (1982; Emmett Kelly).
He Done Her Wrong (1983; Mae West).
The Fala Factor (1984; Eleanor Roosevelt).
Down for the Count (1985; Joe Louis).
The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance (1986; John Wayne).
Smart Moves (1986; Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson).
Think Fast, Mr. Peters (1988; Peter Lorre).
Buried Caesars (1989; General MacArthur).
Poor Butterfly (1990; Leopold Stokowski).
The Melting Clock (1991; Salvador Dali).
The Devil Met a Lady (1993; Bette Davis).
Tomorrow Is Another Day (1995; Clark Gable).
Dancing in the Dark (1996; Fred Astaire).
A Fatal Glass of Beer (1997; W.C. Fields).
A Few Minutes Past Midnight (2001; Charlie Chaplin).
To Catch a Spy (2002; Cary Grant)
Mildred Pierced (2003, Joan Crawford)
Now You See It (2004; Harry Blackstone).


“The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance (1984, The Eyes Have It)
“Busted Blossoms” (1986, Mean Streets)
“Long Odds” (2002, Murder on the Ropes)
“Denbow” (2009, Sex, Lies and Private Eyes)



MADONNA OF THE DESERT. Republic Pictures, 1948. Lynne Roberts, Donald Barry, Don Castle, Sheldon Leonard, Paul Hurst, Roy Barcroft. Screenplay: Albert Demond. Story: Frank Wisbar. Directed by George Blair. Currently available on YouTube.

   This low budget film about crime and faith and retribution is almost the stuff of a good movie. Anyway it would be a good movie with just a touch here and there and a better director, cast, and budget.

   Nick Julian (Sheldon Leonard) is a slick dealer in dubious art who cheats and if necessary, steals the art he needs. He’s recently discovered that Joe Salinas (Don Castle) a New Mexico rancher owns a fabulous Madonna statue believed to be a product of the Renaissance brought here by his Conquistador ancestors.

   Nick wants the statue and will get it anyway he can, and after a trip to New Mexico ends in a failure to buy the statue cheap he decides to steal it, but not by main force. Instead he has his forger make an expensive copy and will have tough but slick Monica Dale (Lynne Roberts) work her way into the arms of veteran Salinas and switch the statues.

   If you think you know where this is going, you have obviously seen this plot unreel a few hundred times in books, films, and television episodes.

   Monica arrives and goes to work, while Nick and his hired thug Buck (Roy Barcroft) wait nearby in a cabin. When she tries to make the switch at a wedding where Joe has loaned the statue out, the altar bursts into flame and Monica’s dress catches fire. But the Madonna does not burn and miraculously Monica is not burned.

   About this time, Tony French (Donald Barry) shows up, a bitter con just out of prison who has found out about Nick’s plans. His appearance complicates things for Monica who is suffering doubts and a major change of heart and falling for Joe despite his foreman Pete (Paul Hurst) being suspicious.

   You can figure out from here than Nick and Tony will cancel each other out, and there will be a happy ending after a little gunplay. Joe even turns out to be less of a sap than you think.

   This is just barely a medium time passer so long as you aren’t actually paying to see it. Leonard and Barry could do this in their sleep, and don’t, but it’s a near thing. Roberts isn’t quite up to the lead here, or is betrayed by the direction and having no one better than Don Castle to play off of in her best scenes. In any case she falls flat both as a bad girl and a reformed bad girl, and has little to work with anyway.

   Castle is a nice looking guy, but he delivers his lines like he was in a high school play. That’s enough to kill the big emotional scenes where he talks about the Madonna saving him after he was crippled and in a wheelchair when he came back from the war. I’ve heard car insurance pitches delivered with more emotional impact. Roberts tries hard but must have been fighting a yawn the whole time.

   This kind of story requires more than just a flat presentation. Add some moody photography, a couple of leads with a modicum of charisma, and a push here and there to the corn, and it would work. This one is too cheap to even manage an inspirational musical score. There’s not even a closeup of the Madonna using effective lighting, just as well as it looks like a plastic replica from a Vatican souvenir shop.

   I’ve seen episodes of half hour syndicated television series from the Fifties filmed more imaginatively.

   It’s almost a good enough plot to work, almost a decent little movie. Unfortunately pros like Leonard, Barry, and Hurst can’t save it from Castle’s bland hero or Roberts miscast bad girl, and even a charismatic pair of leads would have trouble with this direction and unimaginative production.

   I will give it this, though. Barry puts some real energy into his scenes, and if the movie had concentrated on his character it might have been a solid little B crime drama. It doesn’t, and it isn’t, and nothing relieves the flat-footed production.


BLACK TIE AFFAIR. 29 May 1993. NBC, 30m. Bradley Whitford (PI Dave Brodsky), Kate Capshaw, John Calvin, Bruce McGill, Alison Elliott. Written & directed by Jay Tarses.

   Somebody thought the idea behind this show was a good one, at least at the beginning. A comedy spoof of a PI show? They must have thought laughs galore. And so not only did it make it onto the air, but it lasted all of five episodes before they decided that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

   Thirteen were on the schedule, with the story to be played out over the run. I’ve just watched the first one on YouTube, and as long as it stays there, you can, too. In it PI Dave Brodsky is hired to follow a husband whom his wife – and his client – thinks he is having an affair with another woman, and she wants him followed. Disguised as a bellhop at a convention in which the husband is to be given a Man of the Year award, Brodsky finds a woman dead in the room in which the liaison is to take place – but the dead woman, surprisingly enough, apparently is not the woman he planned to liaison with.

   End of installment one. Besides the fact that it is barely in focus, you don’t need to watch the embedded video if you don’t want to. There are some amusing lines, but everything is so overplayed, it’s not funny. Not even a laugh track would have helped. What’s most surprising is that it lasted five weeks.

PostScript: Every reference to the show I’ve found online (not many) is eager to point out that the working title for the series while it was in production was Smoldering Lust. Ha! False advertising there.

NICHOLAS WILDE – Death Knell. Henry Holt & Co., hardcover, 1991. Published previously in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1990.

   The two protagonists in this fairly good locked room mystery are a pair of 14-year-old boys, good friends who, in spite of some very spooky conditions, decide to solve a murder of an old man in a securely sealed church crypt on a cold snowy night in rural England. Could it have been suicide? The only keys to the murder scene are lying next to the body, and the only door is blocked by a massively huge stone that has been moved from its place in the center of the crypt.

   As the author of this tale, Nicholas Wilde depends greatly on atmosphere: there is an old legend that the old abandoned church is haunted, its bell rings at various times with no one around, and most of the in-person investigation has to be done in the dark and/or bad weather. It helps that the two investigators are young boys: they have to talk to each other constantly to keep their courage up, adding to the sense of dread they have to overcome.

   The solution to the mystery is extremely cleverly done, and as usual, it takes several pages for the boys to explain how they figured it out. If I were the editor, though, I’d have asked the author for clearer explanations of what was going on during several crucial passages. It is not at all clear at times as to what is happening. I think Wilde was trying to finesse his way through those spots, and relying far too much on the boys’ somewhat panicky point of view of the events as they happened.

   The problem here with that approach is that he really didn’t have to. The plot is solid enough that he didn’t have to be so mysterious. Wilde could have been as clear as day in describing the scenes in question, and the story would have been just as mystifying. Maybe even more so.

by Francis M. Nevins


   Perhaps I’ve written a bit much lately about Lawrence Block. Perhaps it’s time to return to another of this column’s favorite subjects, classic Golden Age detective fiction. Are you with me?


   I’ve been reading John Rhode off-and-on since I was a teen, and found that his pre-WWII Dr. Priestley novels were far superior to those that postdate the War. I’ve rarely read one as early as PINEHURST (1930; US title DR. PRIESTLEY INVESTIGATES), one of the early novels in the long-running series. Unlike the later entries, this one offers substantially fewer characters, and that professorial old curmudgeon has a bigger and more active role than he assumes in his postwar outings.

   We open on a rainy foggy November night as young Tom Awdrey, much the worse for liquor, drives erratically into the port city of Lenhaven and is stopped by two constables, who haul him into the police station and book him on a drunk driving charge, only to find a dead body, apparently run over by Awdrey’s car, in the dickey (what we’d the call the rumbleseat) of his two-seater. As chance would have it, Superintendent King is at the station chatting with an old friend, Chief Inspector Hanslet of Scotland Yard, who sits in on the next morning’s interrogation.

   Awdrey denies the existence of a body in his car and insists that what was in the dickey was a bust, a plaster cast of a sculpture called “The Slave-Trader” which he was bringing to its creator, a well-known sculptor who spends winters in Lenhaven. That cast is nowhere to be found. Awdrey also claims that he picked up a passenger not far from the town and dropped him off at a gate near an out-of-the-way pub called The Smelters’ Arms.

   Hanslet visits the pub and learns from the landlord that the gate leads to Pinehurst, a huge and all-but-ruined old house presently owned by a strange old man named Coningsworth who lives there in total isolation with his wife and daughter and sister-in-law and a gardener, a yacht of sorts anchored nearby in the mud of the River Drew and connected with land by a gangway.

   Coningsworth apparently spends his evenings prowling around the grounds with a rifle, and on one occasion started shooting unaccountably into the darkness. His daughter tells Superintendent King that someone had fired shots into the house a few nights earlier while the family were at dinner, and the gardener reveals that someone had dug a huge hole in the kitchen garden’s lily-of-the-valley bed. On Hanslet’s return to London he visits Dr. Priestley and gives him an account of the case. Priestley theorizes that there’s something valuable hidden in or around Pinehurst, and that somebody is after it.

   A few days later he and his secretary Harold Merefield revisit Lenhaven, which the Professor had first seen in an earlier Rhode novel, THE HOUSE ON TOLLARD RIDGE (1929). That night there’s a burglary at Pinehurst with nothing taken but a hundredweight of brass door-fittings and nothing left behind but some fingerprints that prove the criminal is missing the middle finger of his right hand. Investigating Coningsworth’s bedroom, Priestley and King find a huge assortment of firearms and what seems to be a homemade burglar alarm.

   Eventually, and thanks to Priestley’s acumen, the sleuths learn that before Coningsworth was run over he was poisoned by something called convalleramin which I suspect Rhode made up out of (dare I say it?) whole cloth. Late in the proceedings a roughneck sailor takes center stage and tells the investigators the backstory, which involves the hijacking of rum-running vessels off the Atlantic coast. Prohibition, remember, was still in force in the U.S. at the time.

   PINEHURST is not without its flaws: the double life of one of the main characters takes a bit of believing, and Rhode for no earthly reason reveals the identity of the murderer in THE HOUSE ON TOLLARD RIDGE. On the plus side, although Priestley freely admits that he has “nothing tangible with which to support” some of his numerous deductions, most of them strike me as better grounded and less speculative than a lot of his conclusions in other novels. That virtue, together with a climax featuring more physical action than we’re accustomed to see in Dr. Priestley novels and some vivid descriptions of the area, lead me to recommend this one as somewhat above average for Rhode.


   Does the name E. C. R. Lorac ring a bell? The U.S. publisher of the earliest novels to appear under that byline referred to the author as Mr. Lorac but in fact “he” was a woman, Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958), who wrote 48 detective novels as Lorac and another 23 as Carol Carnac. Seven of the early Loracs were published on this side of the pond by Macaulay but most of her novels didn’t come out over here until after World War II when as both Lorac and Carnac she became a fixture in the Doubleday Crime Club stable.

   Her best-known series character was Scotland Yard sleuth Robert Macdonald, who figures in every one of the four dozen Loracs but, as far as I can tell, is not characterized at all beyond the fact that he’s a Scot. In the entry on Rivett in 20th CENTURY CRIME AND MYSTERY WRITERS (3rd edition 1991), Mary Ann Grochowski describes Macdonald as “physically active, lean, tall, with a penchant for walking the English countryside though a most expert driver when the occasion demands one.”

   THE CASE OF COLONEL MARCHAND (1933) was her fifth novel published in England and third in the U.S., two of the first quintet having never made it across the Atlantic. Detective Chief Inspector Macdonald is called in to investigate the poisoning murder of a wealthy 55-year-old womanizer and patron of the arts while having tea in his elegant Grosvenor Square drawing room with a lovely young lady, identity unknown, who apparently walked out of the house with her music case and some valuable jewelry after her host dropped dead.

   Everyone else in the house at the time of the poisoning worked for Marchand—his secretary Richard Lambert, the lordly butler Gibbs, the racing-buff chauffeur Fenton, the young footman Dicks—and all of them except a couple of anonymous menials seem to be concealing something. When the remains of the tea and of the cakes and sandwiches that were served with it are found innocent of poison, and when the substance that killed Marchand is identified as potassium cyanide, which is a solid not a liquid, Macdonald broadens the circle of suspects to include people who weren’t in the colonel’s house at the time of his death, particularly his solicitor John Dillon and his nephew Derrick.

   A few days after the murder the mystery woman comes forward and reveals that Marchand was, as we say nowadays, hitting on her, and claims that when she walked out he was alive and well. Macdonald drives her back to her home, a studio in Gower Street mainly inhabited by artistic types, and sees leaving the building none other than Marchand’s nephew, a clear indication that he knows either the young woman or one of the other tenants. Investigating these, he discovers—although Lorac doesn’t tell us this immediately—that one of the others, not an artist but an analytical chemist, is the spitting image of the dead colonel’s nephew. The mystification builds to an action climax in the burial ground of an old London church.

   I haven’t read enough Lorac to rank MARCHAND among the Macdonald novels but, thanks not only to the plot but to the echoes of World War I and the Depression and the details of painting and sculpture and music and interior decoration, it did sustain my interest throughout. The murderer however is the most stereotypical culprit imaginable, and the clue that leads Macdonald to the poisoner strikes me as an extremely slender reed on which to build a structure of incrimination. Barzun and Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME (2nd edition 1989) have nothing to say about this one but tell us that only two of Rivett’s novels are “first-quality performances” and then name only one of them, MURDER BY MATCHLIGHT (1946), which I happen to have. Maybe it’s worth a look.


   Did anyone guess? After these excursions we return to perhaps the least likely suspect when it comes to Golden Age detective novels. Yes, Lawrence Block again. And for good reason.

   There were no more Matthew Scudder novels for three years after A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN but in his next appearance he might almost have been a different character. Few if any would use the word noir to describe EVEN THE WICKED (1997), in which Block abandons the sense of existential menace and the laser focus on suffering and death to try his hand at something closer to, believe it or not, our old amigo the Golden Age detective novel, complete with references to those masters of the locked room John Dickson Carr and Edward D. Hoch. One character even calls Scudder Monsieur Poirot!

   The major storyline involves someone signing himself The People’s Will who has taken to writing letters to a New York Daily News columnist, predicting and then bringing about the violent death of various evildoers. First to be killed is a rapist and murderer of children whom, along with his female accomplice, Scudder describes as “animals—a label we affix, curiously enough, to those members of our own species who behave in a manner unimaginable in many of the lower animals.” The woman had the decency to kill herself; the man, like a certain infamous murder defendant about two years before this novel’s publication, was acquitted thanks to having a fictional counterpart of Johnnie Cockroach as his lawyer.

   Next to bite the dust is a Mafia kingpin “who had survived innumerable attempts to put him behind bars,” followed by an anti-abortion fanatic whose rhetoric was responsible for a clinic bombing and the assassination of a doctor and nurse. The subject of the fourth death prediction is a violent Jew-hating black radical, although Will (as he’s come to be known) is saved from following through on this prophecy when his target is beheaded with a ceremonial ax inside his walled compound by one of his entourage.

   Then comes a fifth letter, targeting the lawyer who got the child-murderer acquitted, and this (pardon the expression) man calls in Scudder, who arranges round-the-clock protection for him with the large agency he occasionally does per diem work for. Despite a phalanx of bodyguards and a Kevlar vest, the attorney is killed anyway, in his luxury apartment, by cyanide added to a bottle of single-malt whiskey under impossible circumstances. (This accounts for the references to Carr and Hoch.)

   In due course Scudder figures out the truth behind all five deaths but there’s a problem, not for him but for his creator: as of this point the book is nowhere near long enough. Block deals with the problem by involving Scudder with another murder, this one occurring before the locked-room poisoning, its victim a former drug addict visibly dying of AIDS with which he was infected by needle-sharing but shot to death in the vest-pocket park across the street from his Greenwich Village apartment by a killer who took pains to verify his victim’s identity before pulling the trigger.

   This crime doesn’t fit Will’s MO but arguably was a sort of practice run by the serial killer. After learning a great deal about life insurance (did you know murder is considered an accidental death, triggering a policy’s double indemnity clause?) and the so-called viatical arrangements that were common when AIDS was rampant and fatal, Scudder cracks this case too, encountering that utter rara avis in Block, a somewhat sympathetic murderer.

   But the book still isn’t long enough, which is why at the beginning of Chapter 18 a second Will pops up, mailing new threats to the same tabloid columnist the first Will corresponded with. This aspect of the novel is then suspended until the beginning of Chapter 24 when Scudder returns from Ohio, having cleaned up the viatical case, and learns that there’s been a new victim, a vicious New York Times theater critic. (Anyone remember John Simon?)

   Scudder solves this murder too, pulling off what is known in hockey as the hat trick. But what a difference from earlier books in the same series! EVEN THE WICKED is so cerebral it’s hard to believe it’s a Scudder novel, and so disunified one could almost believe Block shoehorned into the works two short stories, unrelated to each other or to the main plot, in order to wind up with 328 pages. I suspect he was trying his damndest to escape from what for all its intensity had become something of a formula for him, but I for one wish he’d stayed closer to home and so, I believe, do many of his readers.

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