DAY KEENE – Sleep with the Devil. Lion #204, paperback original, April 1954. Berkley D2024, paperback, 1960. Macfadden 50-414, paperback, 1968. Stark House Press, trade paperback, 3-in-1 edition with Wake Up to Murder and Joy House, April 2017.

   If you’re any kind of fan of noir fiction at all, you’re going to know exactly what kind of story this is as soon as you start reading it. In New York City, the protagonist of this story is known as Les Ferron; in the small upstate town of New Hope, he’s known as Paul Perrish.

   In Manhattan Ferron is the enforcer for a ex-cop now in the loan shark business; in New Hope, he’s a church-going Bible salesman who’s gotten himself engaged to the daughter of the patriarch of the town. What he has in mind is to kill his boss, dump the thousands of dollars stashed in his safe into a suitcase, let Les Ferron disappear, head out of town and marry the daughter, have fun with her for a while, and then abscond with whatever proceeds he can make off with from the father.

   As a reader of this kind of story many times before, you know that even though this sounds like a very good plan of action, something’s going to go wrong. What you don’t know is how and when, but when it does, boy howdy, does it ever.

   Potential problems develop along the way. The girl in New Hope has a former young swain who is very jealous, and in New York Ferron has a girl friend who would do anything for him (see the title) but is also not at all inclined to give him up lightly.

   In terms of the tale Keene tells, it’s a good one, but I think perhaps he let it develop a little too slowly. The real action doesn’t begin until about 100 pages of 130 in the Stark House edition. But as I suggested earlier, when things start falling apart for Ferron/Perrish, it’s like a force of nature that once started is impossible to stop.

   Culminating, I feel obliged to add, in two final paragraphs which will be among the most devastating you will ever read in all of noir fiction. I guarantee it.


DENNIS WHEATLEY – They Used Dark Forces. Gregory Sallust #10. Hutchinson, UK, hardcover, 1964. Arrow, UK, paperback, 1966. Hutchinson, US, hardcover, 1978.

   Dennis Wheatley, who rightfully bragged that when they spoke of sixty million of his books worldwide they meant sales and not in print, once said he never knew a bestselling writer who knew the meaning of syntax, and often seemed on a one man crusade to prove just that.

   Now before all you Wheatley fans get upset, you would be hard put to be a greater fan of his work than me. At his best (The Devil Rides Out, The Haunting of Toby Jugg, The Ka of Gifford Hillary, The Sword of Fate) he was a grand storyteller and even at his worst (Star of Ill-Omen, in which Martians team up with Commies to blow up London with atomic weapons after much nude John Cartering on Mars and in space by his ruthless secret agent hero) he can be great fun.

   Like the novels of his hero Alexandre Duma pere, his books are a mix of history, cloak and dagger, melodrama, romance, a bit of sex, much swashbuckling, and the outre and outright supernatural. Unlike Dumas, though, he never quite managed the art of blending the history into the story entirely naturally, so in any Wheatley novel with a historical setting the reader has to contend with what was once described as vast chunks of undigested history.

   His best loved works were his supernatural novels which he often mixed with espionage, sometimes to fine effect (The Satanist). After that came his historical spy novels (either featuring modern agent Gregory Sallust or 18th and early 19th Century British Prime Minister William Pitt’s own agent, Roger Brook).

   Sallust began as a journalist in a science fiction novel (Wheatley wrote several including They Found Atlantis and The Man Who Missed the War), Black August about an attempted Communist overthrow of England using a tactic not unlike the 1926 General Strike, then followed that up as something of an outlaw hero battling smugglers in Contraband, but it was the war that gave the Sallust series its real impetus, and through books like Faked Passport and Come into My Parlour, which put our hero in various historical contexts and settings throughout the war on missions for Sir Pellinor Gwayne-Cust, M to his early Bond, usually involving Sallust’s Austrian Baroness lover Erika.

   Late in his career Wheatley decided to blend his two interests, historical espionage and the occult, and produced his best Roger Brook novel, The Dark Secret of Josephine (in which Brook uncovers the West Indies-born first wife of Napolean’s ties to voodoo), and having already involved Sallust in two post-war outings, one dealing with a lost kingdom and the other voodoo and spies in Brazil, produced They Used Dark Forces, in which Sallust finds himself aligned with a Satanist behind the lines in World War Two occupied Europe.

   I wish I could report Forces was a great entry into either the occult or the Sallust adventures, but it honestly is not. Sallust is a bit more ruthless than before (though he was always pretty bloody-minded with his Satanic widow’s peak and saturnine scar over one eye), and the sex is certainly more pronounced, if at best, mildly titillating (and probably only to Wheatley’s youngest fans) even though there is some fairly kinky business going on including an incestuous Black Mass witnessed by Erika, but this time around the heroes are using the dark forces of the title, and it doesn’t have the same impact as when they are opposed by occult powers.

   Frankly it is all reported so flatly that any reader would have to be pretty hard up to read it for its erotic value. Sadly that is true for most of the action too, though mid-way through it picks up a good deal in terms of action, pace, and suspense.

   Things feel a bit leisurely up to that point and a bit hurried from then on.

   Basically Sallust and a White Russian ally are sent behind enemy lines to spy on the rocket base at Peenemunde, and their contact turns out to be the daughter of a Jewish Kabbalist and Satan worshiper who is living in Germany under a Turkish name and passport on the estate of his widowed daughter’s late SS husband. When Sallust is badly injured during the destruction of the rocket facility he falls under the unfortunate influence of this Dr. Malacou, and allows himself to be hypnotized.

   A fairly tense and prolonged battle of wills between the ill hero and the Satanist follows as the two learn how to communicate psychically during the months of Sallust’s recovery. Eventually Sallust does recover and manages to break the man’s hold and escapes back to England in time to take part in preparation for D-Day (the most interesting part of the book since Wheatley himself was deeply involved in the deceptions around the invasion and coincidentally once joined Ian Fleming to interview the Beast himself, Alister Crowley). Wheatley and fellow thriller writer Hugh Clevely (Maxwell Archer, Gang-Smasher, and Sexton Blake) even have a bit of a walk on.

   But D-Day past, a new threat, the V-2 rocket, appears, and Sallust still psychically linked to the Kabbalist, discovers the man is now in Poland where the Poles have captured one of the fallen rockets and a Polish engineer has discovered how they work (that part minus Sallust and the Kabbalist being true), so Sallust, who has sworn never to return to Occupied Europe again after his ordeal, finds himself flying in as a psychic guide to the RAF flight picking up the Polish engineer, and again thrust into dire circumstances as he fulfills the Kabbalist’s prophecy that he will save his life only to be caught behind the lines again with no papers and money, speaking no Polish, with his only chance of escape to make his way to Berlin posing as a German.

   And that’s only a little more than midway through the book.

   Before it is over, Sallust and Malacou will be imprisoned in a German camp; rescued by none other than Goering; Sallust will be reunited with Sabine, the beautiful wife of an SS officer, with whom he had a passionate and guilty affair ; reunited with his own beloved Erika, an Austrian Baroness married to a despicable German scientist, and her husband: and survive the Soviet invasion of Berlin to witness Hitler’s death in the Bunker before the Kabbalist makes the ultimate sacrifice for the British agent.

   That’s a lot even for a 500 plus page Wheatley novel. He usually satisfies himself with only a few months or weeks, here he covers everything from the invasion of Sicily to the end of the War, 1943 to 1945.

   In the end Wheatley wins you over — or wears you out, at times it is hard to say which — and despite the passages of dry reporting on the war (which are at least interesting if somewhat colored), I enjoyed They Used Dark Forces. It is not in the top rank of Wheatley’s work, but Malacou is an interesting figure, and the relationship between he and Sallust is complex to say the least. Certainly the most surprising fact of the book is that it is the hero using the dark forces of the title and not the Nazis, and Wheatley’s obvious mixed feelings about his own plot and his hero’s Satanist ally

   If you like Wheatley you will probably enjoy it. If you are unfamiliar with his work this is not a good entry point, but if you want a somewhat dry history lesson interrupted by a bit of kinky sex and random violence, this should be ideal. In many ways Wheatley appears to be the model for some of the more prolix thriller writers of today, pick your own names.

   Maybe he wasn’t so far off with that syntax crack.

K. G. McABEE “Dyed to Death.” Black Orchid Novella Award winner, 2015. Published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, July-August 2015.

   I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think that the winners of the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by The Wolfe Pack (The Official Nero Wolfe Society), would all fall into the same general pattern of story telling as this one. That is to say, there is a crime to be solved, a detective to do it, with the story narrated by his (or her) assistant on the case.

   The setting in “Dyed to Death” is sometime in the 1920s, somewhere in the South, and dead is a mischievous minx who in her short life was a flirt (if not outright hussy) who enjoyed the hold she easily could have on any man she wanted. When her body is found, dyed purple, downstream from the local fabric and clothing mill, it is up to village constable Guy Henson to find out who did it.

   Assisting him by tagging along as he investiages and taking constant notes as he interviews possible suspects is a young teenage boy by the name of Sam Nicholson, whose chief qualification for the job is his love of reading stories in magazines such as Black Mask and being a big fan of such authors as Dashiell Hammett, Sax Rohmer and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

   As is the case in many of Rex Stout’s own stories, it isn’t the mystery itself that will be remembered most when the mystery is solved, it’s the overall ambience and the camaraderie between the two leading characters that is most likely to stay with you. This story also takes place in a time when accidents in the local mill were common, and shrugged off, even fatal ones. And when dumping purple dye into the local river as common waste was also far from a rarity.

   Unfortunately, while this tale seems to cry out for another in a series, it hasn’t happened, at least not yet. In fact this seems to be K. G.McAbee’s only major work in the realm of crime fiction. According to one online source, she’s primarily a writer of science fiction, horror, gothic, steampunk, and fantasy. But no mistake about it, this one major venture of hers into detective fiction is a good one.


WILD BILL. United Artists, 1995. Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, Keith Carradine, David Arquette, Christina Applegate, Bruce Dern. Director: Walter Hill.

   It’s not exactly as if Will Bill Hickok was an unfamiliar figure in history or that his story hadn’t been told before. So one reason why Walter Hill’s frustratingly uneven, yet compelling Wild Bill bombed at the box office might have been that it was a case of the public being generally uninterested in yet another cinematic study of an Old West dime novel legend.

   Another may have been that the film isn’t exactly a Western. It’s more of a character study, one that was based in part on playwright Thomas Babe’s “Fathers and Sons” (1978). This gives the film, especially in the last half hour, a stagey feeling. What begins as an action film with Wild Bill (Jeff Bridges) blowing away men who dare touch his hat ends on an elegiac note, reflective and somber with lots of subtext buried in Wild Bill’s recollection of his legendary status.

   Indeed, Wild Bill works best when its focus is on Wild Bill’s burden. He realizes that his fame is based on his prowess for killing and little else. What does this do to a man’s psyche? If Hill’s film is any indication, he takes comfort in drink and opium.

   Although Wild Bill didn’t deserve to fade away at the box office, it’s not as though the movie isn’t without its noticeable flaws. There are moments when the cinematography gets too ambitious and ends up looking artificial. Three fine character actors familiar to genre fans – Bruce Dern, Keith Carradine, and Marjoe Gortner – appear in the film, but for such limited running time that the viewer ends up feeling a little bit cheated. And Ellen Barkin seems out of place as Calamity Jane. And John Hurt, as Wild Bill’s friend Charley Prince, seems bored.

   But don’t let this stop you from watching this ambitious, downright quirky, biopic about a man’s last days. It’s not a great film, but it’s one that deserves a wider audience and is ripe for rediscovery.

My latest book sales list to go online contains a large number of Men’s Adventure paperbacks, which I’ve always stored separately from the mystery and detective ones. Lots of adventures of The Penetrator, The Butcher, Soldier of Fortune, Death Merchant, the Able Team and many others, some very short lived.

Check them out here: Men’s Adventure Paperbacks


CALEB CARR – The Alienist. Laszlo Kreizler #1. Random House, hardcover, 1994. Bantam, paperback, 1995. TV adaptation: A ten-episode series premiered on TNT on January 22, 2018, with Daniel Brühl as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, Luke Evans as John Moore, and Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard.

   The time is 1896, the place, New York City, at a time when Theodore Roosevelt, president (1895-1897) of the Board of Commissioners of New York City’s Police Department, is attempting to rid the Department of its corruption and inefficient antiquated methods, and open it up to “modern” ideas and procedures.

   Roosevelt’s struggle with the law enforcement establishment are mirrored in the attempts of his friend, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist (or alienist) to reform a profession opposed to believing that psychopaths are “produced by extreme childhood environments and experiences and [are] unaffected by any true pathology. Judged in context, the actions of such patients could be understood and even predicted (unlike those of the truly mad).” Or as the reporter-narrator puts it, “[we] set out on the trail of a murderous monster and ended up face to face with a frightened child.”

   Kreizler and Roosevelt are seen as threatening not only the beliefs of a profession but society itself. Thus, Kreizler and his team, hastily formed to discover the sadist who is killing and mutilating boy prostitutes, must operate secretly, and independently of the police.

   Carr has some of the ability to bring to life a historical period but does not quite seem to make the period as immediate as the present. His portrait of a period has more of the appearance of a brilliantly realized oil painting. It’s no less effective, perhaps, but it lacks the evocative power of cinematic realism. In one, the tableau moves; in the other, it glows with something of a romantic sheen.

   Carr doesn’t escape what might have become the conventions of the serial murder novel; in particular, the use of another murderer to shed some light on the mind of the subject of present investigation. As in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, the investigator visits the incarcerated “specialist.” This time, it’s one Jesse Pomerpy, described in a manner that has something of the gothic flavor of the Hannibal Lector descriptions: “Pomeroy was wearing a heavy set of shackles on his wrists, and an iron ‘collar cap’ rested on his shoulders and surrounded his head. This latter device , a grotesque punishment for particularly unruly prisoners, was a two-foot0high barred cage. Despite both the shackles and the collar cap, however, Jesse had book in his hand and was quietly reading.”

   The Alienist is in the fourth spot this week on the NY Times bestseller list. There are apparently a lot of reders whose “escape” reading is hardly an opening onto a panorama scarcely less horrific than the one depicted in the daily newspaper and on TV. Highly recommended, if you can stomach the graphic desciptions of mutilated bodies and irruptions of violence.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #102, August 1994 (very slightly revised).



LES INTRIGANTES. L’Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique / Memnon Films, France, 1954. Also released as The Plotters and The Scheming Women. Raymond Rouleau, Jeanne Moreau, Raymond Pellegrin, Etchika Choureau, and Paul Demange. Written and directed by Henri Decoin, from a novel by Jacques Robert.

   A fitting title for an intriguing not-quite-murder mystery that manages to quote from Alfred Hitchcock without slavishly imitating him. Set in a Theatre (like Stage Fright, and with a plucky young girl determined to prove her lover innocent) the story benefits from a marvelous sense of place, and a cast of vividly evoked actors, dancers, writers, wives etc., adding character and color to the proceedings.

   The hook here is that we never see the actual killing, and in a visual medium like film, this is important. Thus we never know if the hero (Raymond Rouleau) is guilty or not, but he seems like a nice guy, even when the evidence starts mounting against him.

   The killing itself involves the co-owner of the theatre where Rouleau is the other co-owner, falling from a catwalk. The only other person there at the time was Rouleau, who was on the catwalk with him. A bit suspicious that, but the Police haven’t got a case until Rouleau’s secretary (a fine beady-eyed portrayal by Raymond Pellegrin) says he was there and saw the co-owner get pushed. Also about this time, documents surface showing that the dead man was thinking of pulling out financial support, but with his death, Rouleau inherits everything.

   So the story becomes not an attempt to prove Rouleau innocent, but to prove him not guilty. Which pits the plucky young girl who loves Rouleau against a lot of sophisticated and complex characters who would profit if he’s convicted — including Jeanne Moreau, looking very Dietrich-esque as his unfaithful wife.

   There’s some strong writing and acting here, and there’s a cute in-joke: a little guy who keeps popping up wanting to talk to Rouleau and always just missing him. About the 3rd or 4th time he showed up, I figured he had some important clue to the whole thing, but everybody just maddeningly ignores him till the end — when there’s a surprise that gave me a hearty chuckle.

   This isn’t easy to find, but those who can get a copy will discover an enjoyable and original little film to remember.

PATRICIA WENTWORTH – The Blind Side. Inspector Ernest Lamb #1. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1939. J. B. Lippincott, US, hardcover, 1939. Popular Library #66, US, 1945 (?). Warner, US, paperback, 1991. Dean Street Press, UK, trade paperback, 2016.

   Inspector Lamb showed up in three of Patricia Wentworth’s over 60 works of detective fiction, but based on this first one, to call him a series character, as all the mystery reference sources do, is stretching it quite a bit. All he does in The Blind Side is be there as someone representing the police end of things. Otherwise he’s a complete nonentity. He really doesn’t do any investigating. Perhaps he had more to do in the other two. This one’s pretty much an “in family” case of deduction.

   Dead is an obnoxious middle tenant on one floor of the building he owns. My use of the word obnoxious is based on the fact that as the book opens he about to evict a maiden aunt who has lived in the flat next door for many years and has nowhere else to go.

   He is also an exceptional cad with women, and the gentlemen who he steals them from aren’t at all happy about it. So when he ends up dead, we the reader are not at all surprised. Mucking the investigation up is the fact that everyone who had a motive seems to have been in his apartment that night, one sleepwalking (she says) and having the bloody bare feet to show for it, and another (one of the jilted suitors) on a drunken binge after threatening murder the entire evening before.

   I’m not sure how fair the play is in this novel. I don’t think it’s as tightly written as any of Christie’s around this same time period, but with all of the time tables, family charts, alibis, and false trails, I certainly had a lot of fun with it.


CROSSTRAP. Screen Entertainment Company/ Unifilms, UK, 1962. Laurence Payne, Bill Nagy Jill Adams, Zena Marshall, Gary Cockerell. Screenplay by Philip Wrestler, based on the novel The Last Seven Hours by John Newton Chance. Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis.

   This no-budget British suspense film has its moments and is based on a novel by popular British writer John Newton Chance (aka SF author John Lymington, among others).

   Geoff and Sally (Greg Cockerll and Jill Adams) are a mystery writer and his bride off on a holiday to a remote little spot so they can have time alone and he can finish his book, but no sooner have they arrived than they find a body, and a gangster (Bill Nagy) who won’t let them go.

   Soon the boss, Duke (Laurence Payne) arrives with French girlfriend Reva (Zena Marshall) and two others in tow. They’ve just pulled a jewel heist in London and killed a policeman, and meanwhile they are awaiting the plane due to land at a nearby airfield and fly them out to France.

   There are complications though, like the dead man, and who killed him, and did he betray Duke and the gang? Was it a rival gang that Duke fears has followed them? Then there is Duke himself, a psycho if there ever was one, who has eyes for Sally and would like to see Geoff dead to clear the way.

   None of which makes Reva happy, and since she is key to their getaway in France that matters.

   Pretty soon the rival gang arrives and a siege begins, Duke tries to use Geoff as a goat to get him killed, but only succeeds in getting him captured, and as the time nears for the plane the gang can’t afford to stay penned down and must make a break for it.

   It builds to a fairly exciting finish, with Duke getting his just reward from Reva and Geoff and Sally escaping by the skin of their teeth.

   In a forgiving mood Crosstrap kills a bit over an hour pretty well. Payne, himself a successful mystery writer and television’s Sexton Blake, is the main attraction acting-wise and seems to be having fun as Duke. Adams and Marshall are nice to look at and neither embarrasses themselves in their performances. Nagy, you may not know by name, but will recognize if you have seen many Brit films of the period, the same for most of the rest of the cast.

   Of Cockerll, let us be generous and say he is adequate.

   Currently this is available on Amazon Video. I can only say I’ve spent worse hours.


JOHN SANDFORD – Night Prey. Lucas Davenport #6. Putnam, hardcover, 1994. Berkley, paperback, 1995.

   Sandford is really John Camp (or is it vice versa?) under which name he wrote two books about a computer whiz/criminal which I liked a lot — The Fool’s Run and The Empress File. I guess he’s doing too well with the “Prey” series to do any more of those, though. Pity — they were a lot better, to my taste.

   Lucas Davenport is back with the Minneapolis PD, this time as a Deputy Chief in charge of special projects, To no one’s surprise, including Lucas’s and ours, his next project turns out to be a serial killer. An abrasive lady state cop has come to Davenport’s chief with a file that indicates one is loose in the Twin Cities area, and that his timetable is shortening.

   Davenport’s chief doesn’t feel she can afford to ignore the possibility, and assigns him and a task force to work with the woman on the case. Sure enough, more blood is spilled, and then more.

   Would someone tell me why I used up a precious hour or two reading this? Please? I know I don’t like serial killer books, particularly those which alternate viewpoints with the killer and the pursuer, and I knew that was what this was and read it anyway.

   Sandford’s strengths are his often chilling portraits of serial killers, his strong central character of Lucas Davenport, and his excellent storytelling ability. All are in full evidence here. If I were going to read any more s.k.’s, these would be on my shelf right alongside Thomas Harris. But I’m not, I swear. Stop me before I do it again, somebody.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, August 1994.

Bibliographic Updates:   John Sandford’s real name is John Camp. He wrote his first two books, the ones Barry mentions, under his own name, although they were both reprinted later as by Sandford. The computer whiz in those books was a fellow named Joe Kidd. There have been two later books in the series, published as by Sandford.

   As of this year and the publication of Twisted Prey there will be 28 books in the Lucas Davenport series, and ten more with Virgil Flowers, who is a member of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and who reports to Lucas Davenport.

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