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


   In the years I’ve written these columns, death has overtaken a number of mystery-writing colleagues to whom I’ve said goodbye here. Till this month, all of them have been older than I. Now it falls to me to commemorate one who was more than five years younger. That is scary.

   On August 14, in Pompano Beach, Florida, a man who ranked with the finest private-eye writers of his time, and was a friend of mine for more than twenty-five years, shot himself to death. Jeremiah Healy was 66.

   The last time I saw him was in the fall of 2011, at the St. Louis Bouchercon. He looked fantastic, a trim handsome dude with thick gray hair and mustache and a beautiful girlfriend and (in his own words) the body of a 19-year-old paratrooper. He brought to mind a character in a radio soap opera my mother listened to when I was a small child, a fellow who, whenever asked how he was doing, would reply “Sittin’ on top o’ the world.”

   Why Jerry took his own life I won’t discuss except to say that, unknown to me, he’d been battling prostate cancer and clinical depression and alcoholism and perhaps other dark forces for years. In the magnificent words of Pope Francis, who am I to judge him?

   Like me, he was a law professor. When his career as a crime novelist began, he and I were the only mystery writers who had come to the genre from legal academia. In PI fiction it was the age of Robert B. Parker and of regionalism. Like Parker’s Spenser, Healy’s PI John Francis Cuddy was a jogger and amateur chef who lived and worked in Boston, a city he knew well and described almost like a human character.

   Parker I suppose was the Hertz of the area’s mystery writers and Healy the Avis, but for a variety of reasons — two of them no doubt because we shared the same day job and got to be friends — I always preferred Jerry‘s books over Parker’s. Spenser was single and Cuddy a widower who often visited his wife’s gravesite, and spoke to her, and was, or thought he was, answered.

   (Several widowers in movies directed by John Ford also spoke to their wives but never had dialogue with them. I once asked Jerry if he’d gotten the idea from Ford but he said he hadn’t.)

   One of Parker’s lasting innovations was to put his protagonist in a monogamous relationship with one woman, and as the death of Cuddy’s wife faded in time he followed in Spenser’s footsteps with Susan Silverman by getting monogamously involved with a female prosecutor.

   Healy’s first novel, Blunt Darts (1984), struck me as very good but perhaps too much in the shadow of Ross Macdonald. The New York Times called it one of the seven best mysteries of its year. His second, The Staked Goat (1986), I thought one of the finest PI novels I’d ever read. Almost thirty years after its publication I still say it belongs on any sensible short list of the great books of the genre since the death of Lew Archer’s creator.

***

   Number four in the series, Swan Dive (1988), begins with Cuddy obliging a lawyer friend by agreeing to bodyguard Hanna Marsh, who has left her sadistic husband and is seeking both a divorce and the luxurious marital home.

   Roy Marsh, not only a wife-beater and womanizer but a cocaine dealer on the side, tries to persuade Hanna to drop the suit by disembowelling their daughter’s cat. Cuddy goes outside the law to teach Roy a lesson in litigation etiquette, but a few nights later when Roy and a hooker are murdered in a fleabag hotel, all the evidence points to Cuddy, who is menaced not only by the police but by Roy’s coke-dealing compadres hunting for a missing shipment of their stock in trade.

   Healy carefully balances whodunit and mean-streets elements, skillfully draws characters (many of whom speak Ethnic English, a trademark in this series), gives us the usual sharply observed tour of metro Boston, and even imparts some movement to Cuddy’s long-stalled relationship with the lovely assistant D.A. whom at this point in the saga he refuses to sleep with out of loyalty to his dead wife.

   Yesterday’s News (1989) brings Cuddy to the decaying port city of Nasharbor, where a woman reporter on the local paper supposedly committed suicide less than twelve hours after hiring him to look into the murder of one of her confidential sources, a petty porn merchant claiming inside knowledge of police corruption.

   It’s a briskly paced and tightly constructed novel, bringing to life a number of social and professional environments, with richly varied characters and relationships and sleazoid dialogue in the manner of George V. Higgins punctuated by short bursts of action.

***

   You could never have guessed from Jerry’s first five novels that he was a law professor or even the holder of a law degree. It was only with Cuddy’s sixth full-length case that his creator’s two careers came together.

   The title of Right to Die (1991) perfectly captures its theme. Cuddy is brought to the not totally fictitious Massachusetts Bay Law School to investigate a string of obscene anonymous notes to Maisy Andrus, a fiery law prof who not only publicly advocates legalized euthanasia but admits that she euthanized her dying first husband, a wealthy Spanish doctor, and got away with it. (Why she wasn’t extradited to Spain to stand trial, and even got to keep all the property her husband left her, are questions I fear are never adequately answered.)

   In the first 150 pages more notes keep popping up and Cuddy goes around interviewing various people with ideological or personal reasons for hating Andrus’ guts, among them a black female minister, a Catholic pro-life fanatic, a Jewish doctor and a neo-Nazi skinhead. The suspects are well drawn and each of them mounts a soapbox on which to orate on issues of life and death.

   Things heat up in later chapters, but the climax leaves more nagging questions unanswered. And anyone who can swallow Healy’s biggest credibility sandwich, which consists of our middle-aged PI finishing the 26-mile Boston Marathon four days after getting out of Massachusetts General Hospital with a slug in the hip, is a veritable Dagwood.

   Jerry told me that a doctor at Harvard Medical School vouched for the possibility, saying that a bullet would have done Cuddy less harm than the flu, but I still don’t buy it.

   Chapter 5 of Right to Die ought to be required reading even for those in legal education who don’t enjoy mysteries. Cuddy, a Vietnam veteran and law-school dropout, visits Andrus’ Ethics and Society class and is exposed once again to that bete noir of jurisprudence, the so-called Socratic Method.

   Maisy Andrus’ classroom style, says Cuddy, “reminded me of a black Special Forces captain in basic training who ran the TTIS, the Tactical Training of the Individual Soldier, the most miserable obstacle course I ever experienced.”

   For the next several pages we see the Method in action: Kingsfieldesque bullying, rapid-fire cross-examination of hapless students, hypotheticals straight out of the classic police torture scene from Dirty Harry. Later in Andrus’ office she justifies the Method and her dispassionate use of it. Cuddy dissents.

   “I think torture is a serious matter. I think you do your students a disservice by abstracting it and then making it seem they have no way out of an intellectual puzzle.”

   “Have you ever witnessed torture, Mr. Cuddy?”

   I thought back to the basement of the National Police substation in Saigon. Suspected Viet Cong subjected to bamboo switches, lit cigarettes, telephone crank boxes, and wires. Walls seeping dampness, the mixed stench of body wastes and disinfectants, the screams….

   “Mr. Cuddy?”

   “No, Professor, I’ve never seen torture.”

   The sequence has nothing to do with the plot, but some of the best scenes in Healy’s previous books and especially in The Staked Goat aren’t tied to a storyline either. Standing on its own, this chapter is at once the most even-handed and the most riveting evocation of Socratic Method that I’ve ever encountered in a novel. And yes, that specifically includes The Paper Chase, to which we owe the legendary Professor Kingsfield.

***

   Shallow Graves (1992) comes closer to joining the PI novel and the classic detective tale than any other Healy book I’ve read. The insurance company which once bounced Cuddy for refusing to approve a phony claim hires him back as a freelance to look into the strangulation of Mau Tim Dani, an exotic and rising young fashion model of Sicilian and Vietnamese descent, whose life had been insured by her financially shaky agency for half a million dollars.

   The trouble starts when Cuddy discovers that the dead woman’s Sicilian side, her father and his kin, are Mafia; indeed that her granddad is the Godfather of metro Boston. Healy neatly divides our suspicions among a small cast of characters, offers portraits of the worlds of modeling, advertising and organized crime, and holds tension high despite an almost complete absence of violence.

   He keeps descriptions to a minimum and relies on long Q&A sequences not only to convey plot points but, as is his wont, to showcase several varieties of ethnically flavored English, from Vietnamese to Japanese to Sicilian to black. Anyone who beats Cuddy to the killer’s identity will have done better than I.

   Foursome (1993) takes Cuddy north to rural Maine, where three of the title’s quartet have been slaughtered in their lakeside retreat (very much like Jerry’s own, which I once had the pleasure of visiting) by a crossbow-wielding killer, with Cuddy’s client, the sole survivor of the four, having been charged with triple murder.

   Trying to flush out a credible alternate suspect, Cuddy finds several Mainers and even more folks back in metro Boston who might have wanted one, some or all of the foursome out of the way.

   This time I spotted the culprit long before Cuddy, mainly because I had come to know intimately how Jerry thought and worked. But he paints in vivid colors the pristine beauty of Maine and the big city’s mean streets and suburbs, skillfully characterizes a huge variety of people through Cuddy’s Q&A with them, and breaks up the interrogations with spurts of raw violence, making this longest of Healy’s novels to that point by all odds one of his best.

***

   There’s hardly need to go on, and besides I’m running out of space. Jerry’s legacy to readers consists of 13 Cuddy novels, two collections of Cuddy short stories, three legal thrillers about Boston attorney Mairead O’Claire, and two stand-alone novels.

   His legacy to those who were lucky enough to know him and be his friends is priceless. The countless Web comments on his death share a single leitmotif: what a kind, generous, giving man he was, how supportive and helpful to newer writers. He wasn’t Jewish, but if ever there were a living embodiment of the word mensch it was Jerry Healy. God, what a loss.

THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


MELISA C. MICHAELS – Through the Eyes of the Dead. Walker, hardcover, 1988. Worldwide Library, reprint paperback, 2000.

   Science-fiction writer Melisa C. Michaels turns to our field with Through the Eyes of the Dead. Aileen Douglass and her partner Sharon Atwood run a private detecting agency in Berkeley. Business isn’t good — it rarely is in this business, with so many PI’s around — and it’s not helped when their only client gets himself killed.

   William MacMurray just wanted his wife found, with hope for a loving reunion; strange that this fond desire should get him shot. Meanwhile, Aileen surprises someone trying to hot-wire her car. Her glands — certainly not her brain — seem to take over, and she invites the would-be car thief, a gypsy, into her home. Soon she’s helping him rescue a sister, bullets are flying, and things are not at all what they seem.

   Pleasant.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Notes:   Melisa C. Michaels’ contributions to the world of science fiction can be found here. This was the only appearance of PI’s Douglass and Atwood, but another female PI named Rosie Lavine appeared in two of her fantasy novels, both involving malevolent elves. Titles: Cold Iron (Roc, 1997) and Sister to the Rain (Roc, 1998). One source indicates that Lavine has a partner named Shannon Arthur, and that their PI agency is based in San Francisco. Douglass and Atwood are included on the Thrilling Detective website; Rosie Lavine is not.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE PUBLIC DEFENDER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1931. Richard Dix, Shirley Grey, Purnell Pratt, Ruth Weston, Edmund Breese, Frank Sheridan, Alan Roscoe, Boris Karloff, Paul Hurst. Based on the novel The Splendid Crime by George Goodchild (1930). Director: J. Walter Ruben.

   The Public Defender is a good, albeit somewhat simplistic crime film starring Richard Dix and Boris Karloff. The film benefits from rapid spitfire pacing, a believable protagonist, and its skillful utilization of humor to keep the overall mood light and fun. Directed by J. Walter Ruben, the movie definitely has its moments and its charms. But it doesn’t have all that much depth, either in terms of characterization or plot.

   The film follows Pike Winslow (Dix), a wealthy playboy who, under the alias, “The Reckoner,” seeks to absolve an innocent man of criminal charges against him. Joining him in his task are two men, The Professor (Boris Karloff), the brains, and Doc (Paul Hurst), the muscle. They are crime-fighting triumvirate that, unlike the bumbling cops, actually gets stuff done. Too bad then we never learn actually why these men have decided to become vigilantes.

   After Winslow learns that the father of his love interest, Barbara Gerry (Shirley Grey) has been unjustly imprisoned for a financial crime, he decides to seek out incriminating evidence that will both absolve Gerry and demonstrate who the real culprits are.

   Gerry’s attorney lets on that he knows what Winslow is up to. But he not deterred. As “The Reckoner,” Winslow puts fear into the hearts of the real criminals by … leaving them business cards with the scales of justice on them. It’s all good innocent fun, in a way. Although he’s a playboy superhero of sorts, Winslow’s a cheerful guy and definitely not a broody, morbid Bruce Wayne sort of guy. Truth be told, though, Batman’s costume is a thousand times cooler than that of The Reckoner. Plus, Batman had much better gadgets.

   Although Dix got top billing and was undoubtedly the star and box office attraction, Karloff has quite a presence in this one. He’s a poetry-quoting scholar who’s also evidently skilled in nighttime capers. Look for the fun scene with him using a flashlight to distract one of the criminal’s hired guns.

   All told, The Public Defender is a fun little crime film with a solid lead performance by Dix and some great Karloff moments. But it’s just not all much more than that.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


JOHN VAN DER ZEE – Stateline. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, hardcover, 1976. Pyramid, 1977.

   Similar in vein to Murder Plan, by John Bingham (reviewed here) is Stateline, by John van der Zee, which seems very 70s in parts (the heroine’s name is Rain, for instance) but come to think of it, a lot of 70s stuff seems rather 70s at times.

   The plot depends on the Police overlooking a rather obvious clue, and ignoring a bit of procedure that was SOP when I started Police Work in ’72, but the remarkable thing is that the characters and story are strong enough to hold the tale together despite this.

   Ferrell is a retired cop, working Security at a chintzy casino in Stateline, Nevada, and suffering from a near-terminal case of low self-esteem. One morning he’s handed an unusual Bad Check case: the author of the rubber has not skipped out, as most do, but is waiting around in his hotel room to be arrested.

   Ferrell tries to talk him into a settlement, but the man — who neither admits nor denies his guilt – refuses and is duly incarcerated pending trial. Ferrell warns his bosses that this may all be leading up to something tricky, but he can’t think what, and they press charges anyway — and when the plot explodes, they duly elect Ferrell as their scapegoat.

   As I say, there are holes here big as a roulette wheel, but there are also some very nice touches of characterization and a few telling incidents related with some skill: an early off-the-cuff detail of gamblers and tourists stepping over a heart-attack victim on their way to the tables, for instance, or scenes of Ferrell’s co-workers nervously shunning him as the corporate ax prepares to fall.

   All this, tied in with a plot that keeps moving to a neat, low-key wrap-up, make this one quite enjoyable.

Bibliographic Note:   John van der Zee (1936-   ) has one other title listed in Hubin, that being Blood Brotherhood (Harcourt, 1970). Says Kirkus of this earlier book, in part: “Somehow Mr. van der Zee [...] contrives to put forth this tale about the portentous murder of an Establishment-bucking labor leader as not only remotely possible but current.”

SANTA FE TRAIL. Warner Brothers, 1940. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan, Alan Hale, William Lundigan, Van Heflin, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams. Director: Michael Curtiz.

   I’m sorry to tell you this, but there is no scene in this movie that takes place any closer to Santa Fe than Kansas. If I had gone to see this movie back in 1940, I might have wanted my money back. But with dashing Errol Flynn in it, plus the beautiful Olivia de Haviland, I doubt that too many at the time actually did.

   And for the most part, audiences in 1940 got their money’s worth. The aforementioned Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart, the boyishly handsome “aw, shucks” kind of guy Ronald Reagan as George Custer, good buddies who graduated together from West Point, and sent on their first assignment in tandem to protect the construction of a yet-to-be-built railroad line from Kansas to Santa Fe. (OK, yes, so there you go.)

   Problem: pre-Civil War Kansas was a powder keg of violence, mostly instigated by John Brown, the religious anti-slavery abolitionist played to perfection by jut-bearded and wild-eyed Raymond Massey, abetted by equally obsessed Van Heflin. For my money, it is Massey who walks away with star honors for this film.

   The movie ends with John Brown’s defeat at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia, about as far away from New Mexico as you can imagine, with some romantic moments in between all of the spying, marauding and fighting, with both Custer and Stewart vying for the hand of “Kit Carson” Holliday, played by Olivia de Haviland.

   Funny thing is, though, that Jeb Stewart and George Custer, although they both attended West Point, they did so seven years apart, and in real life they never met at all, nor did Stewart marry anyone by the name of Kit Carson Holliday. I could go on with a long list of similar flaws, and if you check out the IMDb page for the movie, I’m sure you’ll find that several other viewers already have.

   Santa Fe Trail is a fun movie to watch, but if I were a history professor back in 1940, I’d not only want my money back, but I’d sue. How you do get kids to learn what really happened, when movies like this one subvert all of the hard work you’re trying to do?

RHYS BOWEN – The Twelve Clues of Christmas. Berkley, hardcover, November 2012; paperback, November 2013.

   Lady Georgianna Rannoch, who tells the story, is 34th (or 35th; sources differ) in line to the throne of England, but due to various misfortunes, none of her own doing, she is dependent on the good will of others, especially at the beginning of Clues that of her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Rannoch, commonly known as Fig, as to her overall welfare and a roof over her head.

   Determined not to spend Christmas at the ancestral (and austere) Rannoch castle where she is not particularly welcome, Georgie answers an ad in a magazine to act as a social director for a lengthy Christmas house party in Devonshire. Her application is accepted almost at once, and it is goodbye to winter in gloomy Scotland even more quickly.

   Turns out, as it so often does in fiction if not real life, that her mother, a flighty lady and a sometimes actress who abandoned Georgie at very young age, is staying in a nearby cottage with none other than Noel Coward. (There is no ill feeling between Georgie and her mother. The former has learned to accept her for who she is.) And as it also turns out, Georgie’s good friend, the adventurous Mr. Darcy O’Mara, is on hand as well.

   As in cozy mystery fiction of which this is a fine example, Georgie’s personal life, family relationships and the like take up a sizable percentage of the story. There is a murder involved, or in fact a whole series of them. Or perhaps I should take that back. There is a whole series of strange deaths that occur, all of which appear accidental, nor is there any apparent connection between them.

   We, the reader, know better. It is a murderous scheme on the part of someone, a plan worthy of a villain in an Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen detective story, but without a detective on hand to solve it. With the local police inspector barely up to the job, it is up to the purely amateur efforts of Lady Georgianna, and the sometimes assistance of Darcy, to come up with killer or killers.

   The Twelve Clues of Christmas is fun to read, and is chock full of various Christmas customs of England in the 1930s, but the detective plot certainly could have been filled out more. It’s clever to begin with, but the details become more and more sketchy as time goes on. In fact, the connection between the deaths is discovered with more than 70 pages to go, leaving only Georgie’s kidnapping (and a couple of gruesome deaths) to fill in most of the rest of the novel.

      The Royal Spyness series –

1. Her Royal Spyness (2007)

2. A Royal Pain (2008)
3. Royal Flush (2009)
4. Royal Blood (2010)

5. Naughty In Nice (2011)
5.5. Masked Ball at Broxley Manor (novella, 2012)
6. The Twelve Clues of Christmas (2012)
7. Heirs and Graces (2013)

8. Queen of Hearts (2014)

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


LEWIS PADGETT [HENRY KUTTNER] – The Brass Ring. Duell, Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1946; Bantam Books #107, paperback, 1947, as Murder in Brass.

   A year earlier, Seth Colman had stopped participating actively in his detective agency. Although he was good at investigating, he had begun to hate the work. Despite his best efforts to avoid it, however, his wife, Eve, who has apparently seen too many Powell/Loy movies, gets him involved in trying to find a lunatic. As soon as Colman arrives on the scene in Westchester County, N.Y., the lunatic — or someone — commits murder.

   Not only does Eve show up to view, not necessarily take part in, the proceedings, but Colman is saddled with the assistance of Art Bednarian, who is interested in money only because it can buy booze and broads. Bednarian possibly possesses some form of telepathy, having been known to have spotted murderers through their “smell.” However, he also suspects females of varying crimes when they turn down his kind offers to take them to bed.

   Colman is a fascinating character, whose depths Padgett plumbs well. The ending is definitely not upbeat.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   According to both Hubin and Wikipedia, Lewis Padgett was the joint pseudonym of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, a husband and wife team who are much more well-known as science fiction and fantasy authors. Under the Padgett byline they also wrote The Day He Died (Duell, 1947).

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