DOROTHY BAKER – Young Man with a Horn.  Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1938.  Reprinted many times. Basis for the 1950 film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day.

   Fictionalized biography of jazz trumpet player Bix Beiderbecke (named Rick Martin in the novel).

   Rick Martin was an orphan who spent his teens and the teens of the 20th century at a black jazz club in Los Angeles.

   There he learned the two styles of jazz: “Memphis style and New Orleans style. The difference between the two is something like the difference between the two styles of chow mein: in one you get the noodles and the sauce served separately, and in the other sauce and noodles are mixed before they are served.”

   He snuck into a church to practice on their piano and “pecked at those keys like a chicken going for corn….making music was on him like a leech……You don’t learn it, you make it…..his eyes were as hard and bright as copper in the sun.”

   He got really good at the horn. A player just starting out has to fit in with the rest of the players. “There are various ways of showing off, and one of them is not to show off.” But “when that thin blond boy stood up in his place and tore off sixteen bars in his own free style, filling in the blank that was allotted to him on the score, it was surprise forever, like seeing an airplane take off from the deck of a good solid ship. To hell, please, with the law of gravity.”

   “At one they quit for the night, and he was always just hitting his stride, so he went somewhere else. He lived his life after hours. After his good work was done he did better work.”

   And then he met a girl. “She looked like an English girl about to go out for a day’s shooting, but she was American, and I don’t think it was very clear to her then what she was out to do……The earth was turning well off center, so that time was forever and not made of minutes. The real world (the street lights, the flask, Rick’s trumpet case) was as vague as the sound of tires whirling through water beneath them, but even then it seemed that the mind could slice like a knife through all the knots of syntax to make anything…..You can’t know anything unless you’ve got the kind of hands that can feel it, unless you’ve got the kind of eyes that never see the outside of anything, just cut straight down under…..He’d never known a really complicated woman, the kind who knows how to strip the nerves and kick the will around, the kind whose voice can say anything. he couldn’t let himself look at her; the sight of her twisted him…..She was born cagey. And yet she signed the marriage license legibly and with a steady hand, and when, under oath, she said ‘I do,’ almost anyone would have thought she did. They were crazy about each other, and crazy.”

   He kept playing and drinking and sleeping as little as possible so he could stay up all night playing the clubs. It “burns a man to tear music out of himself for a long time; it dries him out, leaves salt in his mouth, dust in his throat.”

   He hears a note in his mind that he tries to hit on a record. But he missed it and ruined the record. The first time he’d ever failed. “I don’t know what the hell that boy thinks a trumpet will do. That note he was going for, that thing he was trying for — there isn’t any such thing. Not on a horn.”

   After that, he quit his band. “He stayed in the joints with his own kind, the incurables, the boys who felt the itch to discover something…..[booze] gave him a way out, a means of pushing out beyond the actual, banal here-and-now, …stretched tight to play the way he wanted to.“

   And he pushed his frail body til his “eyes flicked…They…burned like lighted rum.”

   And he burnt himself out.

   But maybe it’s not a tragedy. “The good thing, finally, is to lead a devoted life, even if it swings around and strikes you in the face.”


   The writing is impressionistic, vague, syncopated and smudged. There’s no judgment. Just a life of a jazz trumpet player. Neither comic nor tragic. It just is. Like a jazz trumpet. If there’s tragedy, it’s the tragedy of Icarus, wings melted by the sun. I’m with Baker on this one: “To hell, please, with the law of gravity.”

   I liked it. But I would’ve liked it more had I not just started reading Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues — which reads like mainlined Bix Beiderbecke to the brain. Young Man with a Horn is more Seurat, dotting the landscape with seemingly abstract colors from up close, forming images into view from a distance. It’s subtle and tasty. But it ain’t Bix. It ain’t dangerous. It won’t explode in your hands and die on the vine. Which is fine. They can’t all do that.

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
“Disguise for Murder”
by Matthew R. Bradley


   Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe collection Curtains for Three (1951) contains the now-standard three novellas published in The American Magazine: “The Gun with Wings” (December 1949), “Bullet for One” (July 1948), and “Disguise for Murder” (as “The Twisted Scarf,” September 1950).

   “The Gun with Wings” was not near the body of opera singer Alberto Mion — or so say his wife, Peggy, and would-be successor, Fred Weppler, who didn’t tell the police it only appeared later beside the supposed suicide. They want Wolfe to dispel the shadow of murder over their intended union; Archie has “occasionally let Lily Rowan share her pair of opera seats with me” so he recognizes a suspect, baritone Gifford James.

   Continuing the ballistics theme, the “Bullet for One” knocks industrial designer Sigmund Keyes out of his saddle in Central Park; five of the suspects collectively hire Wolfe, some of them hoping he’ll nail the sixth, yet before long, all but one of the sextet is arrested for one reason or another.

   In “Disguise for Murder,” the brownstone hosts “no such throng as that within [Archie’s] memory”: at the suggestion of Bill McNab, garden editor of the Gazette, Wolfe has invited the Manhattan Flower Club to see his orchids. Fritz and Saul are manning the door while Archie — who regrets having agreed to help mingle — is taking a breather in the office, where he is joined by a panicked young woman, Cynthia Brown.

   Con artists Cynthia and her “brother,” Col. Percy Brown, were brought by Mimi Orwin, their prospective mark, a wealthy widow hooked in Florida and accompanied by her son, Eugene. Cynthia was terrified when upstairs she recognized, and was recognized by, the unidentified man she’d seen entering Doris Hatten’s apartment, whom she believed was “keeping” her friend there — and strangled her with her own scarf immediately afterward, a crime that has baffled Cramer for five months.

   Promising to bring Wolfe down to hear her out, Archie returns to the plant rooms to keep a special eye on the men, including one who grabs a flower pot in an oddly menacing way, revealed as an actor, Malcolm Vedder.

   The crowd has thinned to a trickle when the wife of Homer N. Carlisle, executive VP of the North American Foods Co., peeks into the office for a look at Wolfe’s famous three-foot-wide globe and finds Cynthia, strangled with, per Doc Vollmer, something like…a scarf.

   Cramer grills the remaining visitors, held there by Fritz and Saul, but both he and Wolfe decline psychiatrist Nicholson Morley’s offer to question all men among the 219 guests, dutifully recorded by Saul, and try to identify the killer. In a spiteful, ill-advised move, Cramer insists on sealing the office as a crime scene; otherwise “Wolfe might have called his attention to a certain fact as soon as [he] saw it himself,” saving a lot of trouble.

   Gleaned from Archie’s report but overlooked by him and Cramer, that fact leads Wolfe to a dangerous test of his theory: he sends a blackmail note to one suspect, who calls with an unfamiliar voice to make an appointment with Archie via an elaborate runaround and two cut-outs. Tied to a chair by those he dubs W-J (wrestler-jockey, for his mismatched torso and legs) and Skinny, he is at the mercy of the killer, at first unrecognizable.

   But bribery turns the flunkies, and “he” is revealed as the cross-dressing wife of Doris’s sugar daddy, Carlisle; in the plant rooms, the men had all doffed their hats, yet Cynthia recognized the killer specifically because of the hat, assuming it to be a man, as she had at the apartment.

   A first-season episode of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, “Disguise for Murder” (6/17/01) was one of four collaborations between director John L’Ecuyer and writer Sharon Elizabeth Doyle. As with the following consecutive pair, “Door to Death” (6/4/01) and “Christmas Party” (7/1/01), this and “Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Moe” (6/3/01), while based on widely spaced novellas, were linked by Doyle with original material for international broadcast and DVD as the respective faux telefilms Wolfe Goes Out and Wolfe Stays In. Here, her connective tissue is the often-invoked Thursday-night poker game played by Lon (Saul Rubinek), Orrie (Trent McMullen), Saul (Conrad Dunn), and Archie (Timothy Hutton).

   When Archie relates a postscript to “Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Moe,” Fritz (Colin Fox) asks them to quit early to prepare for the onslaught, during which Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) and Archie struggle to keep smiling. The body of Doris (Tramara Burford) is seen briefly in flashback, and after Archie encounters Percy (Nicholas Campbell), Mimi (Nancy Beatty), Eugene (Phillip [sic] Craig), and Vedder (Beau Starr), that of Cynthia (Kathryn Zenna) is found by Mrs. Carlisle (Debra Monk). Repertory player Ken Kramer makes a second and final appearance as Vollmer — later played by Joe Flaherty in “The Silent Speaker” (7/14 & 21/02) — summoned as Homer (Aron Tager) blusters at the indignity of being detained.

   As usual, the regulars are superb, e.g, Fritz bringing down Percy as he attempts to leave; Wolfe bellowing, “The police shall receive no sandwiches!”; Saul coolly standing by his legendary memory; Cramer’s (Bill Smitrovich) glee as he has Lt. Rowcliff (an uncredited Bill MacDonald) seal Wolfe’s office.

   The interrogations are intercut into a montage à la “Over My Dead Body” (7/8 & 15/01). A burgundy jacket and long hair visualize the odd persona of Morley (Richard Waugh), while the need for viewers to see and hear what had been simply described on the page causes the phone call to telegraph the killer’s gender a little more clearly before Skinny (Boyd Banks) and W.J. (James Tolkan) confront Archie.

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: Murder by the Book

Edition cited —

      Curtains for Three: Bantam (1970)

Online source



GEORGE V. HIGGINS – Sandra Nichols Found Dead. Jerry Kennedy #4. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1996; paperback, 1997.

   I had quit reading Higgins some time ago, prior to receiving this one. It seemed the books were all dialogue — his trademark, of course — and it didn’t enthrall me enough to wade through it trying to piece together a story. Talk, talk, talk, bore, bore, bore. This one looked like it might have a plot, so I thought I’d give old George another try.

   Well-known criminal attorney Jerry Kennedy is in an uncomfortable position. He’s forced into handling a civil case by a judge who’s supposed to be his friend, and not only that, but acting as a prosecutor. A woman has been found dead, murdered, and though there isn’t enough evidence for the DA to indict anyone, there may be enough for the woman’s children to file a Wrongful Death suit, and reap huge financial gains therefrom. Kennedy’s not too keen on the whole thing, but he really doesn’t have a lot of choice.

   I don’t want to use the space or the time to expound on why it’s so, but the fact is that the only rational reason to read Higgins is that you love to hear his characters talk. There’s always some story (and maybe a little more here than usual), but never enough to carry a book.  He made his reputation with dialog, monologues, and speech patterns, and that’s basically that’s all there is.

   Every new character is introduced with three or four pages of monologue from someone, and that’s Higgins’ form of characterization, and that’s Higgins’ way of telling a story. It’ s obviously good enough for a lot of people; me, I get irritated at best and at worst and more often, bored.

   This was a case of “at best,” and I just got occasionally irritated. I really don’t think he’s that much better at authentic speech patterns and realistic dialog than a number of others, either. *Grump.*

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #25, May 1996.

NANCY RUTLEDGE – The Preying Mantis. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1947.

   Curt Trevor gets a strange call from his younger cousin in New York, then [gets] word the next day Doug had been killed in a traffic accident. Arriving for the funeral is a surprise: Doug’s widow. They had been married [only] the day before his death, and she is blind.

   Doug’s fiancee also finds the woman quite a surprise. Not the least of the surprises in this story is how violent – not to say vicious – it turns out to be, with the control of the United States at stake. [The story] has the sense not to tie up all of the loose ends, too.

– Reprinted from Mystery.File.6, June 1980.


[Bibliographic Update.] Nancy Rutledge (1901-1976) wrote ten mysteries from 1944-1960 under her own name, and one as by Leigh Bryson in 1947, with Preying Mantis as her third.

THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Lloyd Nolan (Mike Shayne), Marjorie Weaver, Helene Reynolds, Henry Wilcoxon, Richard Derr, Paul Harvey, Billy Bevan, Olin Howlin, Jeff Corey, Charles Irwin (as The Great Merlini; uncredited). Based on the character created by Brett Halliday and the novel No Coffin for the Corpse by Clayton Rawson. Director: Herbert I. Leeds. Currently streaming on YouTube here.

   This was the fifth of seven Michael Shayne movies starring Lloyd Nolan that were produced by Fox between 1940 and 1942, and to tell you the truth, right up front, this isn’t one of he better ones. To start with, to me, while he was a very fine actor, Lloyd Nolan is about 180 degrees the reverse of what Brett Halliday’s Miami- and New Orleans-based PI Michael Shayne should look and sound like.

   That’s a handicap for all seven films to overcome, right from the start. But playing it to the extreme for comedy effect, as they do in this one is, to my mind, all but sacrilegious.

   On the other hand, though, there are others in these early Nolan films which not bad. (Sleepers West is one I can easily recommend, but it is difficult to make a bad movie that takes place on a train.)

   There is no train in this one, only a silly plot about a man (supposedly) coming back to life after being accidentally killed in an old manor house (one of those), then surreptitiously buried at the dead of night in a shallow grave.

   Shayne is hired by the daughter of the man who owns the house after she is awakened at night by an intruder and a shot is fired at her. To explain his presence she introduces him as her newly obtained husband.

   That the real husband shows up later, to much confusion and hilarity, needs not be mentioned.

   Meanwhile the local cop, the kind of country lunkhead who seems to always show up in movies such as this, is obviously in way over his head, giving Mike Shayne all the room he needs to solve the case, which he explains in the end in great detail. When asked how he found out all the facts be brings up, he says, well, like a good magician, a good detective never reveals his secrets. Pfui!

   A movie only for fans of comedy films, not hard-boiled detective movies. (And look, I didn’t even bring up the secret laboratory in the basement, much less the villain whose eyes seem to glow in the dark.)

THIRTEEN WOMEN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1932. Irene Dunne, Ricardo Cortez, Jill Esmond, Myrna Loy, Mary Duncan, Kay Johnson, Florence Eldridge, C. Henry Gordon, Based on the novel by Tiffany Thayer. Directed by George Archainbaud.

   Rejected by the other girls in a sorority during her seminary days, a half-caste Hindu woman plots a murderous revenge. Using a series of forged horoscopes and a mysterious hypnotic power (plus the power of suggestion), her plot nearly succeeds.

   Not nearly as bloody as today’s thrillers (but certainly in the same vein), what does this movie in is not so much its overly developed sense of melodrama, but the minor gaps in logic. Myrna Loy is simply fine as the villainess, however. No one else comes close.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.




HARRY CREWS – Naked in Garden Hills. William Morrow, hardcover, 1969. Dell, paperback, January 1970.

   Fat Man’s dad was an imbecile. They lived in a decrepit shack on two acres of dead dirt in the fraudulently named Garden Hills. So when the phosphate magnate came to town, buying up all the hillbilly land, everybody sold but dad. And dad refused every offer that came — til he got a contract. And he signed the contract. For fifty grand for every year the phosphate mine mined.

   Dad was still dumb, though. He builds a castle in the phosphate mill town, and runs around nude all over, screaming about wanting to get turned into phosphate, til one day he jumps in the grinder and his wish comes true.

   So now Fat Man’s got all this money. But he’s got nuthin’ to do. Except eat.

   So he eats. But then he gets so he can’t move so good. He’s five feet tall and five hundred pounds. He can’t move.

   So he hires this midget named Jester. Jester was a jockey til his horse committed suicide by running full speed into a brick wall. Ending Jester’s racing career.

   Jester’d been riding a rocking horse in a full jockey suit atop a dunk tank at the freak fair. Jester became conjugally entwined with the peep show gal who smoked cigarettes from her hoohaa.

   So Jester and his smoky lass came to town to serve the Fat Man.

   Jester acquires a sickly, stickly farm horse, to whom he likes to converse.

   “What do you talk about?”

   “You know about orange groves?”

   “Of course I do, you jockey.”

   “This orange grove is about five acres big, full of little stunty, ragged trees eat up with weeds. And them trees got fruit, juicy as baseballs. But what this man does is he buys great big oranges big as my head, buys’m in California and gets’m brought in on a airplane and puts them out in front of them stunty trees. People coming down the pike caint buy’m fast enough. He’s famous as the Lord. They say he grows the sweetest fruit in America. Weren’t long before he put in melons, plums, grapefruits, even grapes. All off them five acres of stunty trees…… And that’s what we talk about……the horse and me. You see?”

   Jester dresses and feeds and bathes the Fat Man.

   Then the phosphate runs out and the money stops.

   And the town starts to go bankrupt, like every spent mining town. And the people start to leave.

   Fat Man doesn’t wanna move. So he subsidizes the town — the twelve families that remain in this town bereft of commerce, on untillable land.

   And then his bread begins to wane. And now the town’s Phosphate Queen’s (that’s the local beauty pageant) been to NYC and come back from her strip-clubbing with an idea that may save the town of Garden Hills. You see, when Dolly the Phosphate Queen came to NYC, she had no money. She just figured she could trade her body for wealth. So she took off her clothes in downtown Manhattan but nobody cared, no one said a word, no one wanted her, no one took her. But then she got in a cage at a Go Go club and took her clothes off there, and folks couldn’t stick cash in her garter fast enough.

   So she figured all they had to do was have a big ole sign on the highway advertising a freakish go-go, and people will come from miles around just to see what’s what. Like Dolly points out, roadside zoos are just putting cows and deer and raccoons and possum and horses and rabbits and chickens in cages and making people pay to see ‘em labelled in a cage. These are the same animals that the same travelers have been seeing for free on the side of the road the entire trip. But no. That’s not how we like to see things. We’d pay to see ‘em up close, labelled, in a cage.

   So she’s got her go go girls in cages, with her pickins from the townies. And she’s got the jockey riding the smoking vagina.

   But what she really needs is the Fat Man.

   And so she starves him out. She pesters him til he finances her plan to save the town, ignorant of her conniving.

   So she spends the Fat Man’s very last cent converting the phosphate factory into a giant off-highway Go Go Club and Freak Show. Painted red.

   And then the food stops coming to the Fat Man, and the Jockey quits helping him and the Fat Man is all alone in his house, no one to dress him, no one to cook for him, no one to bathe him.

   And they barbeque a barbeque and stick the prime rib in the Fat Man’s cage.

   And wait.


   Redneck southern swamplands. You’ve seen it before if you’ve read Harry Crews before. Trailer trash freaks behaving freakishly. My only other reads of Harry Crews have been The Gospel Singer and Feast of Snakes. I’d put this one on a par with those, if less dark and perhaps more of a parable. But I couldn’t tell you what the parable is. It just feels like there’s some symbolism here and that Harry Crews doesn’t know what it is either. Each of these three novels have bizarre occurrences of biblical proportions involving snakes, gospel singers, and circus freaks.

   But what I personally enjoy about these parables is that they have no moral. Nor morals. Noir morals. And confusion prevails. Which suits me.

   I would say ‘if it sounds like your thing, it probably is, and if it sounds like it’s not, it’s not.’ But the point is moot. The book has never been reprinted (*), and it’s selling for hundreds of dollars a copy. It’s not available online anywhere either.

   The only way I was able to read it was thanks to the good folks at the New York Public Library system who have a single copy that they will scan for you if you ask nicely. For 20 pages at a time.

   It was worth it.


(*) [UPDATE.] See comment #2.



COLIN WATSON – Lonelyheart 4122. Inspector Purbright/Flaxborough #4. Eyre & Spottiswoode, UK, hardcover, 1967. Putnam, US, hardcover, 1967. Berkley, US, paperback, 1968. Academy Chicago, US, paperback, 1983. TV movie: ABC, 1972, as The Crooked Hearts (with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Rosalind Russell, Ross Martin). Two-part TV episodes: BBC, UK, episodes 2 and 3 of Murder Most English: A Flaxborough Chronicle (May 8 & 15, 1977) with Anton Rogers as DI Purbright and Brenda Bruce as Lucilla Teatime.

   This fourth novel in the Flaxborough chronicle marks the arrival in Purbright country of the trim, handsome, and fiftyish Miss Lucilla Teatime, the loveable but nefarious con artist who literally gets away with murder.

   Two ladies seem to have vanished, spinster Martha Reckitt and widowed Mrs. Lilian Bannister. Detective Inspector Purbright, “an expert on female psychology,” according to Chief Constable Harcourt Chubb, feels that a marriage offer is at the bottom of each of the eases in question since both women had “ready money” and matrimonial availability.

   Miss Teatime and Purbright’s roads converge at Handclasp House, a supposed matrimonial agency run by the Staunches and obviously at the core. of the mysterious disappearances. Purbright’s attempt to put Miss Teatime under surveillance aborts when this slippery eel eludes Sgt. Love. Miss Teatime on her own is out to outcon the original con artist, and Purbright in turn must. try to outfox this very foxy lady.

   It’s a double game of cat and mouse, cleverly contrived and hilariously executed, no less than we have come to expect of Colin Watson in this delightful series.

– Reprinted from The Poisoned Pen, Volume 2, Number 4 (July-August 1979).

THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT. Columbia Pictures, 1939. Warren William (Michael Lanyard), Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth, Virginia Weidler, Ralph Morgan, Tom Dugan, Don Beddoe. Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, based upon a story by Louis Joseph Vance. Directed by Peter Godfrey.

   This was the first in a series of nine films that Warren William starred in as the reformed safe-cracker widely known as The Lone Wolf. There were eleven before this one, including six from the silent era. I don’t know how consistent these movies were in terms of continuity, but this one starts off with Michael Lanyard “burdened” down with a daughter (possibly adopted), played most energetically by as extremely tomboyish Virginia Weidler. (*)

   You may have also noticed the presence of both Ida Lupino (as an extremely jealous and overly clingy girl friend) and Rita Hayworth (as a villainess I’d love to have seen more of). Both were in the early stages of their respective careers. Who knew, back in 1939, how famous the two of them would turn out to be?

   Warren William plays his role in the most urbane and cultured way possible, and of course his usual demeanor on the screen, as he deals with the considerable domestic uproars he faces in this film as easily as he does with the spies he is hunting, per the title.

   At this late date the plot doesn’t amount to much: spies trying to obtain some secrete military plans. One way of doing so, they hope, is to frame Lanyard into working for them by leaving one of his signature cigarettes at the scene of another crime.

   There is more emphasis on the comedy this time around than there is an actual mystery, including the aforementioned domestic uproars, a hapless butler, and a couple of hardworking but dumb cops. All in fun, of course, and a good time is had by all.

   Including me.

(*) I note for the record that there was a silent film from 1919 entitled The Lone Wolf’s Daughter. Any connection? I have no idea.  I await enlightenment.

IF SCIENCE FICTION, May 1967. Editor: Frederik Pohl. Cover art: Jack Gaughan. Overall rating: ***½ stars.

KEITH LAUMER “Spaceman!” Serial, part 1 of 3. To be reviewed after the July issue.

TERRY CARR “The Robots Are Here.” Novelette. Robots from the future are busily blocking alternate time tracks in the interest of man. Pleasant, but short and hence inconsequential. (3)

CHARLES W. RUNYON “The Youth Addicts.” Novelette. An attempt to enter the dream memories of a friend’s wife ends in a very strange love triangle., Derivative, but a slightly new twist. (4)

H. H. HOLLIS. Novelette. “The Long, Slow Orbits.” Novelette. A man and woman operate an “underground railroad” for maltreated cyborgs, or “coggers.” Analog to Black situation clear but not pushed. Can anyone be imprisoned in a Klein bottle? (3)

B. K. FILER “The Hole.” First story. Fossils are being destroyed – to hide the secret of the formation of intelligent life on Earth. (4)

A. BERTRAM CHANDLER. “The Road to the Rim.” Serial, Part 2 of 2. To be reported on soon.

– March 1968

Next Page »