RICHARD RAYNER – The Devil’s Wind. HarperCollins; hardcover, February 2005. Harper Perennial, paperback, January 2006.

   Richard Rayner, the author of The Devil’s Wind, was born in England, but now lives in Los Angeles, and as in the case of a certain other author (named Chandler, although born in Chicago), it may take someone on the other side of the Atlantic to come to this country to tell us, and show us, what we’re really like.

   Or what we were in the past, as this book does, taking us back to 1956, the time of HUAC; the atom bomb tests in Nevada and the concomitant growth of Las Vegas; Jimmy Hoffa; inherent racism; and jazz. All essential ingredients of a top-notch noirish thriller (filmed in glorious black-and-white?) based on identities: hidden identities, newly created identities; and revenge: subtle and not-so-subtle, and bullets to match.

   And jazz. On pages 193-194, wealthy up-and-coming architect – about to become the new Senator for the state of Nevada – Maurice Valentine (not the name he was born under) is listening to the only record a young black musician ever made:

   I didn’t know what to expect. In the war, like everyone else, I’d danced to Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Count Basie; I’d lain on my bunk, smoking, dreaming, while Bing Crosby or Billie Holliday or Frank Sinatra sang on the radio. I understood, in a general way, that after a war a revolution had occurred in jazz, that the swing of the music had turned itself inside out, with bop, bebop, hard bop. I knew, even, of a further development – West Coast jazz, cool jazz. Especially liking the sound of those concepts, I’d sped to a Hollywood music store and bought myself a couple of Art Pepper records. The guy had style. He wore fine duds, was handsome, white. He played each solo like it was a seduction. That, I could relate to. And of course jazz bands were always playing in the Vegas show rooms. I was no ignoramus on the subject, in other words; nor was I an expert. But nothing had quite prepared me for what I was about to hear.

   It was a quintet: the piano came in first, with bass, drums, and trumpet following behind, and I knew at once this wasn’t the hard stuff; the Dizzy Gillespie kind of jazz; nor was it California cool, man. The tune was a standard, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and when Wardell Lane entered with his first solo I swear it was like being washed in the purest, freshest water I’d ever known. That horn floated with a sweet clarity that cleansed my blood and eased my bones. Okay, I was exhausted, drugged with fatigue. But I don’t want to underplay the feeling of the moment. The whole room glowed, and Konstantin stood there with a huge grin.

    “You see now? You understand?” he said. “Listen. He’s almost on the edge, as if he were in danger of falling over.”

   But somehow Wardell never did.

   The woman. Mallory Walker is a rich man’s daughter and a would-be architect, a field which in the 1950s in which there were very few openings for women. Valentine is married but eminently capable of being seduced, and he finds himself captivated. From page 8:

    My first impressions were of a cool hand and a firm, bony handshake. A slender figure in blue linen and flat heels. A lean face with hair cropped short and bleached blond, almost silvery in color. Full lips, nose slightly upturned. An impression of impudence, of life. Her eyes were a pale gray-green, and powerful, of startling clarity; she looked at me as if she knew my every secret.

    “Pleased to meet you,” she said, as simply as that. Her voice was clear and clipped, with no identifiable accent.

   She is a force, a whirlwind, someone who knew her well says on page 256. Clever and proud and ruthless and beautiful, Maurice says earlier on page 40. There is also the hot wind that blows across the Nevada desert. The natural wind. There is also the unnatural wind that arises after the flash and colossal boom of the mushroom clouds that can be seen from the top floor of Las Vegas hotels, the wind that causes disasters in more ways than one.

   I also have to tell you about one of the notes I wrote to myself while reading and absorbing everything that was happening as quickly as I could. I suddenly sat up and told myself, less than half way through, and I quote, “I have absolutely no idea where this book is going.”

   Is that adequate as a one-line review? I’d like to think so. I do think so. It’s quite a ride. If anyone were to make a movie of The Devil’s Wind, as written, I’d go to see it in a minute, black-and-white or not.

— January 2005.


Bibliographic Notes:   This was the last of four novels written by author Richard Rayner. No movie was made of The Devil’s Wind, but an autobiographical work he wrote entitled L. A. Without a Map (1988), a travelogue of sorts, was made into film of the same title starring Johnny Depp in 1998.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE DETECTIVE. 20th Century Fox, 1968. Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, Horace McMahon, Lloyd Bochner, William Windom, Tony Musante, Al Freeman Jr. Screenplay by Abby Mann, based on the novel by Roderick Thorp. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Frank Sinatra puts in a terrific performance as Joe Leland, a hard-nosed, tough New York City detective who lives his life according to his own sense of personal honor. He’s very much the white knight in a corrupt society, one plagued with drug abuse, poverty, and greed. The Detective is an unusually gritty, almost noir, film that isn’t particularly well directed, but is nevertheless worth a look.

   When Leland is tasked with solving a brutal murder of man known to be a homosexual, he must not only race against time to solve the crime if he is to get his promotion, he also needs to be cognizant of the sensitive nature of the case (this is 1968, not 2017). He later learns, however, that the man he sent to the chair for the heinous crime wasn’t the guilty party and that his latest case – the apparent suicide of a businessman at a racetrack – is related to the aforementioned murder. It’s a solid plot that, despite some poor editing choices, all comes together in the end.

   The plot also delves deep his personal life. Although he’s a good cop, all is not well at home for Leland. He’s married, but separated. Understandably so, given that his wife, a sociology professor (Lee Remick) is essentially a sex addict and has repeatedly cheated on him. Leland doesn’t much care that she’s going to see a psychiatrist or that she knows she needs to work through her issues. A cheating wife to him is against his personal code of how things are supposed to be between a husband and his wife. So it’s splitsville for the two of them.

   Fortunately, he’s got a buddy in fellow cop, the very Jewish Dave Schoenstein (Jack Klugman) who provides the emotional support he seems to need, but would never ask for. It’s Sinatra and Klugman, along with Ralph Meeker, who portrays a sleazy and corrupt cop, who are really what make the film work.

   Because what doesn’t work in The Detective – and I can’t be emphatic enough on this – is its reliance on flashbacks to tell the story of how Leland and his wife met and how their marriage fell apart. In fact, it may be the single worst use of flashbacks I’ve seen in a movie. Indeed, not ten minutes into the movie, right after the scene in which Leland discovers the mutilated body of the gay socialite, does the film shift to a nearly twenty minute flashback that has nothing to do with the crime. I almost wanted to stop watching. I’m glad I didn’t because the second hour of the movie, the one without flashbacks, is unquestionably superior to the first.

W. J. BURLEY – Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death. Supt. Charles Wycliffe #16. Victor Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1988. Corgi, UK, paperback, 1991. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1991. TV movie: Pilot episode of Wycliffe, ITV, UK, 7 August 1993.

   To me this would have been an unlikely choice to begin a possible TV series with, as the story runs slowly (but deep) and does not seem to have much dramatic potential. But perhaps it is typical of the stories in the books, of which there were twenty.

   Dead is the owner of a bookstore in a small town in Cornwall. Living in the house attached are several members of his immediate family, with one brother and in son living in a small house some not far distance away.

   For many years they have maintained a solid front to the world, but the past now seems to be catching up to them and revealing their secrets, at least to the patient mind of Supt. Wycliffe. The dead man’s wife had abandoned her family some years ago, and the death of his mother, so many years later, seems now to have been the catalyst for the murder.

   Unfortunately the list of possible suspects is small. It is clear that someone in the family is responsible, but it takes all of Wycliffe’s expertise in probing into a thick wall of resistance before he can make any headway into the case. Even so, when he finally knows who the killer is, he has no proof, and at least one member of the family will lie, rather than have the truth come out.

   It is a strange way to have a detective novel end, but even so, Wycliffe seems to see that in a way justice is done. He spends a lot of time thinking in this case, walking and contemplating, juggling the facts around and around in his head until at length he is satisfied he knows the truth. I’m happy with the ending, but I wish I could promise you that you’d feel the same way I do about it.

TICKET TO A CRIME. Beacon Productions, 1934. Ralph Graves (PI Clay Holt), Lola Lane, Lois Wilson, James Burke, Charles Ray, Edward Earle, Hy Hoover, John Elliott. Based on the story of the same title by Carroll John Daly (Dime Detective Magazine, Oct 1 1934). Director: Lewis D. Collins.

   According to IMDb, this is the only movie based on the work of one of the most popular pulp fiction writers of his day, Carroll John Daly. He was a pioneer in the rough and tough PI genre, but his crude writing style has relegated him to an all-but-unknown status except to fans of the field.

   Daly’s most famous character was probably a gun-slinging private eye named Race Williams. Equally violent was a hardboiled police cop by the name of Satan Hall, who in his many adventures racked up nearly as many bodies as Williams. PI Clay Holt, the featured protagonist of this movie as well as the story it was based on, had only six recorded cases, four of them for Dime Detective.

   I’ve not read any of his adventures, but I can tell you this. The movie is not very good. Not if you want anything resembling an actual detective or mystery story. The plot has something to do with some diamonds that are worth $50,000, but beyond that, I cannot tell you more.

   Most of the just over 60 minutes worth of running time are taken up by (1) Holt suddenly coming to realize that his secretary (Lola Lane), who he hasn’t paid in six weeks, is actually beautiful once she takes her glasses off and dresses up for a gala party he invites her to by default (all of the other entries in his little black book turn him down).

   And (2) the humorously antagonistic byplay between Holt and his former buddy on the police force, Detective Lt. John Aloysius McGinnis (James Burke). Without either (1) or (2), there’d be absolutely nothing to see here. Even so, the movie seems to be far far longer than its actual running time.

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


MICHAEL CONNELLY – The Wrong Side of Goodbye. Harry Bosch #19. Little Brown, hardcover, November 2016. Grand Central, softcover, May 2017. Vision, mass market paperback, October 2017.

   First Sentence: They charged from the cover of the elephant grass toward the LZ, five of them swarming the slick on both sides, one among them yelling, “Go! Go! Go!”—as if each man needed to be prodded and reminded that these were the most dangerous seconds of their lives.

   Harry Bosch is on leave from the LAPD but has been taken on as a volunteer reserve officer investigating the cold case of a serial rapist for the San Fernando PD. However, working as a private investigator, Bosch has also been hired by an elderly billionaire to find any heirs he may have from when he was a college student. The man’s company very much wants Harry to fail.

   It is interesting that we open with a reminder of the terrible cost of war. Any war. All wars.

   Connelly has such a clear and distinctive voice, part of which is the ever-present sarcastic humour— “You can come back now.” “Good. Any longer and I was going to jump.” She didn’t smile. … “It’s impact-resistant glass,” she said. “It can take the force of a category-five hurricane.” “Good to know,” Bosch said. “And I was only joking.”

   It’s good that we learn the backstory of Bosch’s situation with the LAPD. One thing one never needs worry about is learning the history and/or backstory of people and places. Connelly is very good and providing those, often with an interesting perspective— “Working cold cases had made Bosch proficient in time travel.” –However, one does rather wonder what is the normal rate of an officer clearing murder cases.

   Another of Connelly’s many skills is outlining police procedures, and describing the impact budget reductions has on solving crimes. This is not only informative, but adds a strong element of realism. Even so, Bosch is a character who likes to do things very much his own way.

   It is nice to have Bosch’s half-brother, Mickey Haller, brought into the story. However, there are a lot of coincidences, and the interactions with Bosch’s daughter seemed random and didn’t really add anything to the story. Another rather irritating factor is the constant relating of driving directions, rather as if listing to a GPS. As they are related very factually, they really don’t provide a true sense of place and feel like filler.

   The plot is well done. Connelly balances the two story threads very well. There are good twists, red herrings, and “ah-ha!” moments. The buildup of suspense nicely done, as is the exposure of the killer.

   The Wrong Side of Goodbye is classic Connelly. It’s a satisfying read fans will enjoy.

ROBERT BLOCH “The Cloak.” First published in Unknown, May 1939. First collected in The Opener of the Way (Arkham House, hardcover, 1945). Reprinted many times, including: Dracula’s Guest and Other Stories, edited by Victor Ghidalia (Xerox, paperback, 1972); Magic for Sale, edited by Avram Davidson (Ace, paperback, 1983); Vamps: An Anthology of Female Vampire Stories, edited by Martin H. Greenberg (Daw, paperback, 1987); American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub (Library of America, hardcover, 2008). Film: Adapted as Part Four of The House That Dripped Blood (Amicus, 1971; reviewed here ).

   The list of places above where this small but obviously effective short story has appeared only scratches the surface, but what’s especially rewarding is seeing it progress from the pages of a 20 cent pulp magazine to a $35 hardcover from the prestigious Library of America.

   It’s one of those stories that begins, more or less, in one of those strange out-of-the-way shops that dot the side streets of the poorer sections of large cities, open for a while and perhaps only to pre-selected customers, only to disappear as mysteriously as they appeared, or to go up in flames, the owners vanished or even destroyed along with it.

   It is Halloween and a man named Henderson is looking for a costume. The shop owner in this case offers him the cloak — not a cloak, but the cloak — and once Henderson puts it one, he is a new man — or is he?

   What he definitely is is the center of attention at the party he attends that night. He is attracted to the neck of his fat host. Most positively attracted to him is a girl dressed as an angel — or is she?

   Told in Robert Bloch’s invariably easy to read writing style, the reader is always one step ahead of the main protagonist, until, that is, he meets the girl above, named Sheila, and once she is met, you are not exactly sure which way the rest of the tale is going to go. You think you do, but you’re not quite sure. Exactly where you should be at this stage of a story well told.

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


   If ever there were two stalwarts of the English detective novel during the so-called Golden Age, their names were Christopher Bush, whom I talked about last month, and John Rhode (1884-1964). Rhode like Bush was at his best during the Thirties and, for my taste anyway, became all but unreadable soon after World War II. Bush’s wartime novels have never been published in the States but Rhode’s continued to appear over here during the war years, and I happen to have a number of them. Shall we take a dekko at a few?

***

   DEAD ON THE TRACK (1943) begins with the discovery of a man’s body, mutilated beyond recognition, beside the railroad tracks between the villages of Bockingfold and Filmerham. Apparently the man was dragged to his death by a passing goods train (what we call a freight train), but an autopsy reveals a bullet in the victim’s head. Clothing fragments and other evidence identify him as Alexander Gargrave, a prosperous solicitor from the county town (what we call the county seat) of Wensford.

    Gargrave apparently came by train to the Bockingfold area in response to a letter from his old friend John Cardeston, who denies having written the letter. Evidence builds up against Cardeston and he’s soon found in his home shot to death, apparently a suicide. Ballistic evidence proving that the gun used on him was the same weapon that shot Gargrave strongly suggests that he killed himself out of fear he’d soon be arrested for his friend’s murder.

   Superintendent Hanslet, retired from Scotland Yard but called back to duty because of the wartime shortage of policemen, is summoned to investigate and eventually describes the case to Dr. Priestley, who quickly deciphers the two coded documents involved in the case—one of them apparently taken from a volume of old sermons!—and later identifies the double murderer.

   This is unmistakably a wartime whodunit. Priestley refuses to leave his home in Westbourne Terrace even though several of his neighbors have been bombed out. The blackout forces Hanslet and his local counterpart to drive by night without lights through a howling storm. Food shortages make all too plausible Cardeston’s last meal, which is called vegetable goose and consists of “parsnips and lentils with apple sauce.”

   In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle (2 May 1943) Anthony Boucher passed over these period details, which eighty-odd years later constitute one of the book’s fascinations, and concentrated on the cerebral aspects. “Devotees of ultra-British detection will find a pleasantly solid job (despite dubious statements on ballistics); others beware.”

   Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME (revised edition 1989) say only that “[t]he tale is not helped by an unlikely piece of practical joking.” Something of a slip here: what they’re referring to is not a practical joke but the coding of a new chemical formula potentially worth a fortune and its division into two parts, one of which the discoverer bequeathed to each of the murder victims.

***

   MEN DIE AT CYPRUS LODGE (1943, US 1944) deals with a house in the village of Troutwich which has been the scene of two deaths — first a prosperous pig butcher in 1897 who may have been poisoned, then a homeopathic doctor just before the outbreak of war who was definitely poisoned. Thanks to weird noises emanating from the house, it has come to be viewed as haunted.

   Then in 1943 it claims its third victim, a local squire and amateur of the occult who’s determined to find out the truth behind Cyprus Lodge but gets scratched with a Rube Goldberg booby-trap device behind a secret panel which is coated with the poison Rhode variously calls aconitine and aconite: the same poison which killed the second victim and perhaps also the first.

   Troutwich of course is not within the jurisdiction of Scotland Yard, but the Yard’s Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, temporarily attached to the special investigation branch of the War Office, has been frequenting the village, trying to find out who is collating scraps of information from the nearby military camp and passing them on to Germany, and he takes an unofficial hand in the case, which of course means that it comes up during one of his Saturday night dinners in Dr. Priestley’s house, which still hasn’t been bombed.

   In due course the brother of the squire who was victim number three (if you include the Victorian pig butcher) is himself murdered, not inside Cyprus Lodge but in the alley on which its back door opens, and the cause of death once again is aconite or aconitine. Near trail’s end Priestley explains everything satisfactorily except why the fatal poison has two names.

   This too is definitely a wartime book: a nightly fire watch is kept at Troutwich town hall, and “a depressing array of austerity confections” is displayed in the window of the local tea-shop. “They say that beer’s not rationed,” a publican tells Waghorn, “but in a way it is. My brewers only allow me so much every week, enough for my regular customers and no more. And if the troops [from the adjacent military camp] drink it up, why the others grumble, and small blame to them.”

   There’s even an air raid on the camp — although it’s a one-plane attack described to Waghorn after the event—and a bit of action at the climax as Waghorn collars the enemy spy, whose activities, as you might have suspected, are connected with the murders.

   The wartime ambience is one of the high points of the novel, but Boucher’s review for the Chronicle (11 June 1944) once again passed over that aspect and concentrated on the detection. “At his best, nobody can top Rhode for ingenious murder gadgets and few can top him for meticulous unraveling; he’s very close to his best in this one.”

   Barzun & Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME are somewhat less enthusiastic, with Taylor calling the book “a bumbling business” although Barzun thought more highly of it. Both seemed to agree, however, that the gimmick for creating the fake supernatural manifestations was “unconvincing.”

***

   Either Rhode or his English publisher had a tendency to come up with amazingly dishwater titles for some of the Dr. Priestley books. Can you imagine detective novels called VEGETABLE DUCK, THE TELEPHONE CALL or DR. GOODWOOD’S LOCUM? Fortunately for Americans, Rhode’s U.S. publisher changed each of these to more appropriate titles, respectively TOO MANY SUSPECTS, SHADOW OF AN ALIBI and THE AFFAIR OF THE SUBSTITUTE DOCTOR.

   I happen to have a first edition of TOO MANY SUSPECTS (1945), which begins with Mr. Charles Fransham returning to his luxurious flat in London’s Battersea district to find his wife Letitia dead of poisoning. Jimmy Waghorn, back at Scotland Yard as in peacetime, quickly determines that the poison must have been administered in the dinner Mrs. Fransham ate alone, since her husband got a mysterious phone call that took him out of the flat just before mealtime.

   The main course, which both the Franshams would have shared had it not been for that phone call, was a dish apparently common in England but unheard of over here, something called vegetable duck– not to be confused with vegetable goose! –which consists of “a marrow, not too big, stuffed with minced meat [in this case the remains of a leg of mutton] and herbs, and baked whole.”

   The prime suspect of course is Mr. Fransham, who as chance or otherwise would have it was also the prime suspect in the death of Letitia’s wealthy brother back in 1935. Could he have slipped poison into that marrow before their cook served it? He had plenty of motive, for Letitia had saved a great deal of money and died intestate, which means the money is now his.

   Waghorn spends much of the novel meticulously investigating every aspect of the poisoning, with the usual kibitzing by Dr. Priestley after the customary Saturday night dinner at his house. Eventually it becomes apparent that the poisoned marrow came from the village of Newton Soham, about 70 miles from London and the home of Fransham’s son by his first marriage.

   About 60 pages from the endpoint Charles himself is shot to death in the woods while visiting his son, who inherits the role of prime suspect in the poisoning of Letitia besides being under suspicion in the death of his father. Eventually, after more kibitzing by Dr. Priestley, Waghorn makes an arrest—for, of all things, the theft of a marrow! — and the culprit obligingly confesses every detail of a hugely complex scheme.

   TOO MANY SUSPECTS is one of the finest Rhode novels I’ve read, and I’m delighted to be the owner of a nice first edition. One aspect of it, however, does make me scratch my head. The book was written and published near the end of World War II, and there are a few war references: one character was killed in the Blitz and a couple of others mention that they served as air raid wardens.

   As we know from the journalism of George Orwell and many other sources, England in fact was plagued by rationing and shortages for years after the war, but you’d never guess it from this novel, in which trains run on time, consumer goods flow freely and no one seems to be suffering privations. Take for instance Letitia Fransham’s last meal, which “had consisted of cold salmon and cucumber, vegetable duck with potatoes and gravy, and cheese.” What a real-life Londoner in 1945 wouldn’t have given for such a feast!

***

   I’ve read many a Dr. Priestley novel over the decades, but the ones I’ve tried to cover here are Rhodes not taken before I started this column. Three is enough. If nothing else, they show what Tony Boucher meant when he described mysteries as (in Hamlet’s words to Polonius about the players) the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time. It’s hard to imagine any other type of fiction with the potential to reveal so vividly the way we lived then.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE MAN WITH TWO FACES. Warner Brothers, 1934. Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor, Louis Calhern, Ricardo Cortez, Mae Clarke, David Laundau. Screenplay by Tom Reed & Niven Busch, based on the play The Dark Tower, by George S. Kauffman and Alexander Woolcott. Directed by Archie Mayo.

  THE DARK TOWER. Warner Brothers, UK, 1943. Ben Lyon, Anne Crawford, David Farrar and Herbert Lom. Written by Reginald Purdell and Brock Williams, from the play The Dark Tower, by George S. Kauffman and Alexander Woolcott. Directed by John Harlow.

   Two films based on the same play, and that’s about the only resemblance I can find between them.

   Man with Two Faces features Edward G. Robinson as a pleasantly hammy Broadway actor/director whose sister (Mary Astor) comes under the eerie spell of a palpable con man and Absolute Bounder, played by Louis Calhern. When Calhern threatens to ruin Astor’s life, Eddie decides to kill him and plans to get away with it by doing the deed disguised as a colorful and totally fictitious character based on his theatrical experience.

   The Dark Tower offers Ben Lyon as the American manager of a traveling circus in England who thinks it might be good publicity to put his pretty aerialist under the spell of a seedy hypnotist (played by Herbert Lom with equal parts Charles Boyer and Peter Lorre.) As the spell deepens and grows destructive, Ben realizes he has to put a stop to it … but can’t.

   Archie Mayo’s direction of Man is nothing to write home to Mom about, but it’s more than saved by the Kauffman-Woollcott script and the appropriately over-the-top playing of its leads.

   Louis Calhern is particularly memorable as The Nasty, and the script gives him all sorts of interesting bits. I especially liked the way he carried two rats around with him in a little cage, for the thrill having them at his mercy and because he enjoys seeing the servants scramble to clean out their cage and bring them fresh cheese. There’s also a neat turn by David Landau as a deceptively lackadaisical homicide cop. In all, a film well worth the time.

   Tower takes a bit longer to get things going, and once started, writers Burdell & Williams tend to dawdle a bit, but it fills the time with excellent turns by the supporting staff (I particularly liked Frederick Burtwell and Elsie Wagstaff as a pompous ringmaster and his knowing wife) and offers glistening photography by Otto Heller, who went on to Richard III and The Ipcress File. And the editor here was none other than Terence Fisher, who would helm the horror films that put Hammer Studios on the cinematic map.

   In all, two quite enjoyable films, but for me the best part was seeing how far apart the writers could bend the same material.

STEPHEN MARLOWE – Homicide Is My Game. Gold Medal #880, paperback original; 1st printing, May 1959.

   After first appearing in a couple of nondescript titles – The Second Longest Night (Gold Medal #523, October 1955) and Mecca for Murder (Gold Medal #575, May 1956) – Stephen Marlowe’s private eye Chester Drum began showing up in two sequences of titles. The first group was perfectly designed to catch the eye of an adolescent teenager. Ask me how I know? I graduated from high school in 1959, I was one, and I had them all:

Trouble Is My Name. Gold Medal 627, January 1957.
Murder Is My Dish. Gold Medal 658, March 1957.
Killers Are My Meat. Gold Medal 693, August 1957.
Violence Is My Business. Gold Medal 769, May 1958.
Terror Is My Trade. Gold Medal 813, October 1958.
Homicide Is My Game. Gold Medal 880, May 1959.
Danger Is My Line. Gold Medal 947, January 1960.
Death Is My Comrade. Gold Medal 986, April 1960.
Peril Is My Pay. Gold Medal 1018, July 1960.
Manhunt Is My Mission. Gold Medal s1116, May 1961.
Jeopardy Is My Job. Gold Medal s1214, May 1962.

   Somewhere along the line Drum’s assignments began to take him more and more outside of the US, finding him working as a foreign agent in one guise or another. But the string of cases up above was interrupted briefly by a tour de force of considerable magnitude, Double in Trouble (Gold Medal d926, September 1959), co-authored by Richard S. Prather, in which Drum teams up with the former’s PI character, Shell Scott. Is this the first crossover/team-up between two series characters by separate authors in the same book? Let me know.

   After a book entitled Francesca (Gold Medal k1285, March 1963), Drum began a new sequence of patterned titles in which (I believe) he worked only as an overseas operative. (This is not a new concept. While there were probably many others, Charles L. Leonard’s Paul Kilgerrin was also a private eye who also often did foreign intrigue duty. As you will recall, I read and reviewed one of his adventures, chronicled in a book called Sinister Shelter, not too long ago.)

Drum Beat – Berlin. Gold Medal k1420, 1964.
Drum Beat – Dominique. Gold Medal k1508, 1965.
Drum Beat – Madrid. Gold Medal d1686, 1966.
Drum Beat – Erica. Gold Medal d1796, 1967.
Drum Beat – Marianne. Gold Medal d1909, 1968.

   In the 1960s I was in college, and so I no longer was as able to keep track of the monthly Gold Medal titles as closely as I did in high school. Other than James Bond, I also gradually decided that wasn’t all that interested in spy stuff, and so I filled most of the Drum Beat’s into my collection later.

   Do I remember most of the stories, the plot lines? Not really. I can pick almost any book that I read for the first time more than 45 years ago, and do you know what? It’s a brand new book. It’s as if I’ve never looked inside before.

   Do books like this stand up? Sometimes. Sometimes not. Sometimes only in part. And this one’s a pretty good example.

   Take the first couple of paragraphs. What could set the stage better than this?

   If a jagged streak of lightning hadn’t illuminated the night just as I drove past, I never would have laid eyes on her.

   She was jogging along the shoulder of the road through the rain, running the way a girl runs – her hands out and flapping like wings, her knees thrusting high in tight jeans, her feet kicking up gouts of muddy rain water. For a moment she was etched clearly against the night, then the thunder cracked and rolled, and the darkness swallowed her.

   On one hand, this is pretty good. It sucks the reader right in. On the other hand, I’m now at an age where – this isn’t the only book that I’ve read that opens in very much the same way, is it?

   The girl is running to get help for her brother. The two of them had been in a car that was forced off the road by another. Two men jumped out and began beating her brother up. Suffering from cerebral palsy, he was not able to defend himself. Luckily for Anita and Donny Fortune, the car that stops for her was being driven by a private detective, Chester Drum.

   It is difficult to think of a sex-crazed teen-aged girl as being a relic, but as a relic of the days of 1950s and 60s paperback originals, that’s exactly what Anita Fortune is. From page 15:

   Instead of answering, she blinked a final tear out of each eye, stared at me very solemnly and tried to smile. “You’re terrific,” she said. “I never knew – well, I never knew that an older man could be so understanding and all. You don’t even know who we are. “You don’t even know one little thing about us.”

   The next thing I knew she had flung her arms around my neck and was rubbing against me. Her lips came so close they went out of focus. I turned my head so they landed on my cheek. What she’d had in mind wasn’t the kind of kiss she’d give to an uncle, but I had fifteen years on her, so I broke it up in a hurry. To top it all off, she had stirred me. She must have seen that in my face, for she said, “I never knew an older man would be so shy, either.”

   Whew. I read that, and I’m seventeen years old again myself. Unfortunately I never met any Anita Fortune’s when I was. If there were any around, maybe they were all looking for older men.

   The brother Donny Fortune is a professional photographer, and (a) he seems to have something on somebody, and (b) he is trying to break up a secret deal and coverup that is going on in the town of Jefferson Courthouse, Virginia, just outside of Washington DC. Drum’s assistance to Donny’s sister gets him mixed up, as he says, “in it up to my crewcut.”

   One of the town’s more notable citizens, the owner of the local supermarket, as it had been discovered, had taken movies and pictures of unsuspecting teen-aged girls doing immoral things at the parties he commonly threw for girls working for him, taken, it is claimed, for his later viewing and enjoyment. (Anita was one of the girls.)

   To spare innocent young girls the trauma of a trial, arrangements were made, with the connivance of the D.A.’s office and a US Senator, to send Linus Piper to Brazil. Don Sparrow was against the deal, however, for reasons no one knows, and when he later is found murdered, but Piper already in another country, with no possibility of extradition, there is no one to turn to but Drum, as a private citizen, to go down to Brasilia and do what he does best.

   Take a deep breath. And of course he does. There is a lot of story in this slim novel (144 pages of small print), largely consisting of Drum fighting against the establishment, but you now have the essentials. And yet. Perhaps I should mention the march on the mansion by a mob of native Brazilians carrying torches, angered by the presence of a “sex deviate” in their midst. That’s a scene that might come back to mind every once in a while. Perhaps I should mention what was really in the photograph that Don Sparrow had, but I won’t, but by today’s standards, it is rather tame.

   How Sparrow got the photo is a major question (in my mind) that is simply shrugged off. Why he was so incensed by it, well, perhaps you had to be there, back in the late 1950s, when life and the times were quite different from the way things are now. Luckily we still have handy little time capsules around, like this one.

— September 2005

JAMES MICHAEL ULLMAN – Good Night, Irene. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1965. Pocket 50530, paperback, April 1967. Published in the UK as Full Coverage by Cassell, hardcover, 1966.

   While Ullman wrote four books that were mysteries, all during the 1960s, his work seems to have escaped notice in all the standard reference sources. According to Hubin, however, he was a Chicago newspaperman, which should also be obvious once you’ve read this book.

   There’s nothing here that’s all that remarkable, though. When a young, cocky reporter turns away a woman with a scandal to tell, he ends up fired when she’s murdered before the day is through. The background is filled in nicely enough, but the story itself is told in fits and starts.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #23,, July 1990 (very slightly revised).

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