STEPHEN MARLOWE – Model for Murder. Graphic #94, paperback original; 1st printing, 1955. Berkley D2023, paperback, date? Armchair Fiction, paperback, 2014. Wildside Press, trade paperback, 2015.

   While Graphic was a relatively minor player in the mix of paperback publishers that sprung forth in the 1950s, especially when it came to semi-hardboiled mysteries, every once in a while one can catch your eye more than the others. Such a one is Model for Murder.

   It begins with the book’s main protagonist being released and hooking up with an old friend (female) on his first night (and overnight) on the outside. It gets complicated from here. Chase was innocent of the charges (financial finagling) that sent him up. He took the rap for his well-heeled brother, who sends him a check for $100,000 for services rendered. While he was in stir, though, the brother married the woman Chase was in love with.

   And in the same meantime the previously mentioned lady friend Chase quickly catches up with has a problem. She works for a professor who has compiled data (voluntary but coded) on the elite of Manhattan that was “out Kinseys Kinsey”), and for a lark, she has stolen it. Paying for the crime is her roommate, whom she and Chase find dead and the data missing. Presumably it is now in the hands of someone with blackmail on his mind.

   Meanwhile Chase’s brother is also in blackmail trouble, this time in the form of his wife (who was the love of Chase’s life before he went up the river). Coincidence? Well, maybe, but you probably know how things like this go in book like this.

   Or, in other words, there is a lot of plot crammed into the 190 pages of Model for Murder, and while Stephen Marlowe (born Milton Lesser) was just starting out as mystery writer – as Lesser he was no more than a prolific writer of mostly mediocre science fiction – every so often he has a turn of phrase that a certain Mr. Chandler might have been proud of. And as far as plot goes, this barely scratches the surface. Sleazy photos, dysfunctional families, hired goons, a veritable Amazon of a bodyguard, more bodies, and a slick private eye — you name it.

   And in case you don’t know, Stephen Marlowe – and you needn’t wonder how he chose that name – went on to have a decent career writing the PI/secret agent Chester Drum series for Gold Medal, as well as some even more serious fiction later on.



NIGHTMARE. Universal, 1942. Diana Barrymore, Brian Donlevy, Henry Daniell, Arthur Shields, Gavin Muir, Ian Wolfe, Hans Conried, and John Abbott. Screenplay by Dwight Taylor, from a story by Philip MacDonald. Directed by Tim Whelan. Currently available here on YouTube.

   A fast-moving “B+” from Universal.

   Brian Donlevy headlines as an American in London who finds himself blitzed out of his gambling club (This is 1942, remember.) leaving him homeless and penniless, with nothing but the tuxedo he stands in. In a fit of casual desperation, he breaks into an empty-looking town house, only to find it occupied by Diana Barrymore, and, to a lesser extent, by her estranged husband Henry Daniell, who sits slumped over his desk with a knife in his back.

   Diana asks him to help dispose of the corpse and he agrees, which leads to a whole mess of complications involving the Police, Nazi Saboteurs, attack dogs, and Ms Barrymore, who may not be what she seems.

   This was made concurrently with Universal’s updated Sherlock Holmes series (It was released two months after Voice of Terror) and shares some of the regular players, sets, and background music, albeit in service of a higher budget. Henry Daniell, then a contract player at Universal, doesn’t get much to do, playing a corpse except for a short flashback, but Hans Conried makes the most of a nearly wordless bit part as a Nazi Goon.

   Overall, Nightmare is nothing really special, but Director Whelan moves Dwight Taylor’s screenplay along with a snappy pace that makes up for the lack of any discernible style, and the players take it seriously even when the viewer (this viewer anyway) can’t.


CARTER DICKSON – The Skeleton in the Clock.  Sir Henry Merrivale #18. Morrow, hardcover, 1948. Dell #481, paperback, 1951. Berkley X1479, paperback, 1967. Belmont, paperback, 1973. Leisure, paperback, 1977.  Bantam, paperback, 1982.

   Three postcards send Sir Henry Merrivale off to Fleet House to solve a twenty year old mystery. When Martin Drake’s search for a girl met briefly during the war comes to an end, he discovers her already engaged, and his attempts to break up the marriage bring about the murderer’s wrath.

   One night is spent in the condemned cell of local prison looking for ghosts, and a mutilated body is found the next morning. In addition, the final capture takes place in a house of mirrors belonging to a traveling fair, so there can be no complaints about adequate background.

   However, there is a bit too many interrupted explanations (taken care of later after they are forgotten) and a bit too great a fatalistic attitude by some characters as they refuse to question unlikely business and to press unanswered questions. One obvious mistake (page 146 of the Berkley paperback) does not confuse anything, but the last 28 pages are needed to explain all.

   The “locked room” is satisfactorily done, and is actually underplayed this time. As it turns out, the clock containing the skeleton might also be considered the family closet.

Rating: ***

– Dec 1967/ Jan 1968

CLIFFORD RAYMOND – The Men on the Dead Man’s Chest. Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1930.

   Most mystery fans surely know what a tontine is by now, but if not, what it is is a special kind of annuity that provides for a certain regular amount to be shared among several beneficiaries over a period of time, but with the principal held in trust for the final survivor.

   The implications are obvious, are they not? In fact, revenge can be made to reach from beyond the grave, as six former friends of an unsavory gentleman named Turner quickly discover.

   According to Who Done It?, this was the last 1nystery novel that Clifford Raymond wrote. While he did write three earlier during the period 1917-21, the influence of the new Black Mask style on his later work is obvious. The Chicago police lieutenant named Stanton who investigates the curious string of deaths caused by Turner’s will is cool and crisp, and incisively sardonic without ever actually being hard-boiled. This is the Chicago of prohibition and Al Capone, and the reader is never allowed to forget it.

   Numerous footnotes give an unusual air of documentary authenticity to the whole affair, but I have to confess that I didn’t understand the last one at all. The last page of a book is an awfully strange place to completely unexplain what until then had seemed a fairly straightforward tale of over-stimulated greed.

   Nevertheless, the. combination of tough gangster fiction with a hint of underlying amusement makes the author’s final bow decidedly above average. The episode of the Vermont lawyer in itself makes this book worth hunting down. Why Raymond never wrote another mystery someone else will have to say.

Rating: B

– Slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, September/October 1978.

UPDATE: The last line may not be entirely true. One additional title is now listed in Hubin with a dash, suggesting that it is marginally criminous, that being Our Very Best People (Bobbs-Merrill, 1931).



TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN. United Artists, 1958. Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Eugene Martin, Ned Young. Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo (fronted by Ben L. Perry). Director: Joseph H. Lewis.

   I watched Lewis’s Terror in a Texas Town again the other day, a film I have reviewed before. It’s a splendidly cheap thing, with Sterling Hayden as a Swedish whaler coming to help out his Dad on the besieged Ranch they bought, Sebastian Cabot as the dress heavy, and blacklisted Ned Young as the Ultimate Hired Gun, who looks like they coined the term”walking dead” just for him: He’s overweight, over-age, over-indulged, and with every gesture he conveys the feel of a deadly working stiff who long ago forgot what he’s doing all this for.

   Lots of fine camera work, surprising characterization, and a few scenes that stay in the mind a long time, such as Young begging Hayden to take a few Steps closer so their final gunfight will be fairer — to Hayden.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #76, March 1996.




PETER BOWEN – Wolf, No Wolf. Gabriel Du Pré #3. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1996; paperback, 1997.

   Bowen is also the author of the three-book Yellowstone Kelly series. Du Pré is a Metís breed, a descendant of the voyageurs, who works as a cattle inspector in Montana and lives with an Indian woman.

   Trouble has come to Gabriel Du Pré’s Montana, trouble in the form of eco-terrorists who want the cattle lands taken away from the ranchers, and wolves reintroduced to the country. When two of the terrorists are shot after cutting fences and killing cattle, the FBI is called in, and a tense situation gets tenser in a hurry.

   There are more killings, and Gabriel knows that the killers are almost certainly among his friends or acquaintances. And then the worst blizzard in memory sets in over the countryside, and survival becomes even more of a problem.

   This is the second book I read within a week that has the Western cattlegrower’s/bunny-hugger’s conflict as a plot hook. It’s a complex and emotionally charged issue, and I don’t believe you can read this without giving it some serious thought.

   I like this series a lot, but not for reasons that would necessarily translate into liking by anyone else. Bowen isn’t a tight, meticulous plotter, nor are his characters always strictly believable, nor will his idiosyncratic prose be to everyone’s taste. It’s to mine, however, and I like his sometimes larger-than-life characters, and I like his depiction of the people and culture of Montana cattle country.

   I could do with a little less of his Indian mystic, but that’s my only real cavil. I can’t see anyone being neutral about these; you’ll either like them considerably, as I do, or you won’t care for them at all.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #24, March 1996.


      The Gabriel Du Pré series

1. Coyote Wind (1994)
2. Specimen Song (1995)
3. Wolf, No Wolf (1996)
4. Notches (1997)
5. Thunder Horse (1998)
6. Long Son (1999)
7. The Stick Game (2000)
8. Cruzatte and Maria (2001)
9. Ash Child (2002)
10. Badlands (2003)
11. The Tumbler (2004)
12. Stewball (2005)
13. Nails (2006)
14. Bitter Creek (2015)
15. Solus (2018)

 LUKE AND THE TENDERFOOT “The Boston Kid.” Ziv Productions, unsold pilot, 1955. Edgar Buchanan, Carleton Carpenter. Guest Cast: Nancy Hadley, Lee Van Cleef, Dabbs Greer, Michael Landon, Leonard Nimoy, Jim Bannon. Producer/screenwriter: Steve Fisher. Director: Montgomery Pittman. Currently available on YouTube here.

   In this early 30 minute black-and-white western pilot, Edgar Buchanan plays Luke Herkimer, a bewhiskered itinerant peddler slash con man in the Old West, and if you can picture Edgar Buchanan in such a role, you probably will not be surprised if I were to tell you that he’s not all that good as either of the two.

   As he pulls into the nest town on his travels he meets a naive young man named Pete Quinn (Carleton Carpenter) stepping off a stage, straight from the East and wearing straight from the East clothes, which makes him the center of laughter from a gang of school kids as well as a bunch of local rowdies. You know, the kind of rowdies who are always hanging around small western towns in the movies being, well, rowdy.

   Before he knows it, Pete has been persuaded by Luke to fight three of the rowdies in a boxing match, posing as the “Boston Kid.” Pete’s resemblance to a notorious boxer is nil, zilch, none, and much hilarity ensues.

   In spite it all, though, Luke and Pete decide to patch things up and become partners of some sort, tin pans clanging as their wagon heads on out of sight.

   Enjoyable enough, you might say, but there’s certainly not enough meat on this to build a series on. There was a second episode made, one entitled “The John Wesley Hardin Story,” that one source says was actually aired by CBS in 1963. Most of the fun in watching this one comes from looking for members of the cast whose faces you can still recognize today. Well, mostly so. For some reason I never placed Leonard Nimoy in this one by his face. I will have to watch it again.

   But to be honest, though, not right away.



Note: Thanks to Mike Grost and his occasional email newsletter for tipping me off to this one.

JACK VANCE “Phalid’s Fate.” Novelette. First appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1946. First collected in The Dark Side of the Moon (Underwood-Miller, hardcover, 1986).

   As a strike against the enemy in the ongoing Earth-Phalid war, Ryan Wratch agrees to have his mind transferred to that of a Phalid that has been captured. Ryan’s own body had been all but destroyed in a Phalid attack, his brothers having been killed in the same incident. The Phalids are insect-like creatures with long black carapaces, oddly jointed legs, and rubbery tentacles with mottled gray undersides, hardly human looking at all.

   The plan is to have Ryan rescued in space by the Phalid, then taken to their hitherto unknown home planet, where he can act against them from the inside. The plan succeeds exceedingly well, and if you don’t realize that there has to be a beautiful female captive that also needs rescuing, you haven’t read all that many space opera stories like this one.

   And that is exactly what this story is. Out-and-out space opera. And I enjoyed it immensely. This was only the third published story in Vance’s long career, and it’s hardly representative of the kinds of story he became famous for. You can tell that he was a writer, though, even at this early stage, or that he was going to be one, especially in passages in which he is describing the Phalids’ home planet, in what I’m going to refer to as what became his well-established baroque style.



CAMERON KAY – Thieves Fall Out. Gold Medal #311, paperback original, 1953. Hardcase Crime, paperback, April 2016.

   The bright Cairo noon dazzled his eyes. Shimmering waves of heat made the modern buildings across the wide street quiver as though they were fashioned of gray rubber… It must have been a rough night, he thought, moving toward a booth where a grizzled, bearded villain was selling cigarettes.

   It was when he came to pay for the cigarettes that he discovered he had been robbed.

   If you ever wondered what a Casablanca-style Fawcett Gold Medal original (GM 311) novel by Gore Vidal might read like, Thieves Fall Out is your chance to find out.

   The hero, who we meet when he wakes up in what appears to be a whorehouse (never stated), having been drugged and robbed on his first night in Cairo is Pete Wells, ex-roughneck, combat veteran, and recently deck hand on a freighter to pay his passage to Cairo, where he feels something will come his way because things are happening in post-war Cairo.

   Like him getting rolled his first night ashore.

   The American Consul is no help with his plight, but does find him a half decent room in a clean hotel and it is there he meets the bald, pink Englishman Hastings (An honest open face… with a grin concealing a larcenous soul…) who takes him to meet Countess Hèléne de Rastinac (“I always feel like spy when I sit in this room…”), a beautiful woman who has an offer for him. It seems there is a certain relic that needs to be transported out of Cairo, not entirely legally, but it’s only a minor crime, and Wells could earn enough to help him out of his dilemma and then some by taking on the simple job.

   Of course, nothing could possible go wrong…

   It has to be pointed out that the world of thriller fiction would be seriously diminished if the protagonists had the common sense of a poodle.

   Vidal was one of the enfant terrible of the literary scene. His work was almost always brilliant and often shocking to be shocking, spinning dizzyingly from the serious literary fictions like his war novel Williwaw and his controversial The City and the Pillar; to broad social satire like Myra Breckenridge written to shock for the sake of shocking; well-written historical novels like Julian, Burr , 1876, and Lincoln, prize winning plays like The Best Man; and as Edgar Box, a trio of sophisticated mystery novels modeled loosely on Mickey Spillane’s formula as Vidal saw it, featuring Public Relations man Peter Cutler Sargeant.

   In addition he twice sought public office, became a political commentator, was outspoken about his sexuality and sex in general, and famously feuded with both William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, both of which threatened him with violence and different points. His interests were catholic and you might find him waxing eloquent about American politics one day and writing nostalgically about Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan in Esquire the next.

   His long public career was marked by deliberate provocations of just about any sensibility he could manage as well as fascinating insights into the famous and infamous including his childhood friendship with Amelia Earhart. He was related to both Al Gore and John Dickson Carr among numerous other figures in American history, and impressed with almost none of them.

   It’s little wonder one his best books was narrated by the infamous Vice President Aaron Burr who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel and barely escaped with his neck in one of the most infamous plots in American history.

   For much of the 20th Century following WW 2 it was simply impossible to avoid Gore Vidal even if you wanted to in American politics, culture, or letters.

   For Pete Wells, his foray into foreign adventure starts with a bit of smuggling in a country where smuggling relics was virtually a national sport to revolution, arms trafficking, assassination, no little sex (though no more so than any other books of its kind), Nazi war criminals (there may have been a law at this point certain kinds of thrillers must have at least one), and just about any other trope of the novel of international intrigue and adventure of its time for good and ill.

   At its best, like the evocative opening, it is immediate and puts you down in the middle of the action with almost cinematic grace. At its worst, it gets a bit lost at times in the attempts to evoke place and time and the characters, at least the two main ones, remain a bit too much Central Casting for the author’s own good, as if having got them in position, his literary instinct was at odds with the needs of an adventure story.

   You can almost feel Vidal the literary figure being reined in by Vidal the pseudonymous writer looking for a paycheck and trying to color in the lines.

   For the most part he does it pretty well.

Like Graham Greene’s long lost novel Name of the Action, Vidal kept it out of print in his lifetime. Like the Greene novel it is nowhere near that bad, but it does read as if it may have been written quickly for money, not exactly a flaw in the eyes of collectors of Gold Medal originals, whose very charm is sometimes that exact feeling of immediacy and energy.

   Nor is Vidal alone in his sojourn into the original paperback with Gold Medal. Robert Wilder, Mackinley Kantor, Eric Hatch, Cornell Woolrich, and Vivian Connell alll ventured there as well, and not all only for a quick buck.

   He waited until there was neither light nor sound; then he looked out into the square. It was deserted except for four huddled shapes. He tried not to look at them as he quickly crossed the courtyard, but one brief glimpse showed him they had been beheaded.

   He plunged once more into the maze of streets, all deserted now. Not even lamplight shone in the narrow windows. The wooden balconies were empty. The passage of the mob had frightened even its own kind, and the people hid behind shutters in darkened rooms.

   Evocative stuff, and the best of this not-bad thriller by a major literary figure slumming, but not embarrassing himself or his readers, and much more authentic than you might expect from the source.

   My good friend Richard Meli has just sent me images of two pieces of art for which he’d like to know the artist. Perhaps someone seeing this can help identify her or him:





   There is some resemblance in style to the artist who did this cover for the British edition of the book The Bang Bang Birds, by Adam Diment:

Next Page »