by Francis M. Nevins


   What I’m about to describe sounds like a coincidence worthy of Harry Stephen Keeler, but it really happened. During the year 1928 two young men of New York, working in the advertising and publicity fields, spent most of their evenings, weekends and vacation time collaborating on a detective novel for submission to a writing contest with a $7,500 prize.

   Their names were Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, and the byline they used for their novel was Ellery Queen. They won the contest (only to lose it again, but that’s another story) and eventually became world-famous under that byline.

   Many of their subsequent novels and stories centered around a cryptic message left by the murder victim.

   Now comes the hard-to-believe part. During that same year 1928 a book was published which consisted of three long stories plus a framing story. The first of the long stories, “The Giant Moth,” was also about two young men in the advertising business who had written a detective novel for a prize competition.

   On the eve of the announcement of the winner, one of the two—a fellow named Wilk Casperson who’s desperate to win and use his share of the money to set up housekeeping with the daughter of a wealthy stockbroker—goes to a masquerade ball at the mansion of his girlfriend’s father dressed as, you guessed it, a giant moth, and quickly becomes involved in a murder whose victim apparently left behind him, you guessed it again, a dying message.

   Who wrote this story? The King of Koinkydink. The nuttiest filbert of them all. In his middle twenties, after a few years of turning out fairly ordinary short stories, usually with O. Henry twist endings, Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) became more ambitious and, beginning in 1914, concentrated on much longer tales. Usually works of such length are called short novels, novelettes, novelets or novellas. Harry liked to call them novellos, probably with the accent on the first syllable.

   â€œThe Giant Moth” first appeared in Top-Notch, 1 June 1918, at about 35,000 words. Ten years later and at least 20,000 words longer, it became the tale of the first prisoner in Keeler’s SING SING NIGHTS (Dutton, 1928).

   Fast forward almost a century and it still stands up as a beautiful example of the kind of plot only Keeler could devise. With two characters dressed as moths attending the same masquerade ball at different times, two supplies of disappearing ink, a Chinese gangster who like-a to speak-a in de Italian dialecto, a missing diamond necklace, a murdered lepidopterist, an enigmatic Japanese servant, and a secret map giving away the defenses of the Panama Canal, the story has enough wackadoodle elements for three times its length, but let’s focus on the dying message.

   Paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the back, and with no pen or pencil within reach, the mothologist in his last moments apparently made use of what he did have available—some strips of tissue paper and rubber type used to make out classification cards for his specimens—to leave the following message:





   Ushi is the name of the moth maven’s servant, who has vanished. No reader in a million years could figure out the real meaning of that message and no writer other than Keeler could have dreamed up the gimmick. Whether Fred Dannay or Manny Lee ever heard of the tale remains unknown.


   The Ellery Queen novels and stories proved to be so popular in the 1930s that at the end of the decade a network radio series about the character was launched, with Hugh Marlowe (1911-1982) as EQ. The prime mover behind the series was George Zachary (1911-1964), who served as producer and director from its debut on CBS as an hour-long program (18 June 1939) till its departure in 30-minute form on 22 September 1940.

   In January 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor, the series returned on the NBC Red Network, with Carleton Young (1907-1971) as Ellery. Zachary continued as producer but was replaced in his other capacity by two men from the Ruthrauff & Ryan advertising agency’s stable of directors working in alternation, Bruce Kamman and the man we are to follow.

   Knowles Entrikin (1880-1956) is almost completely forgotten today, but in his time he was fairly well-known on the stage as a producer, playwright and director before he entered radio. Perhaps his main claim to fame in that medium was that in 1934, as director of the CBS educational series American School of the Air (1930-48), he hired a brash 19-year-old named Orson Welles for his first audio acting job.

   I know of only one reference to Entrikin’s work on the EQ series, an unpublished letter of 22 November 1942 from Manny to Fred, discussing the program’s most recent episode (“The Bald-Headed Ghost,” 19/21 November):

   To me it was a shocking job of production. It sounded so bad that for a time I was almost inclined to the naturally impossible theory that Entrikin had done it that way….[I]t all made me sick, and apprehensive…. How he messed up that scene in the wife’s bedroom!….We can give them the best scripts in radio but if they crap all over them, as they did on this one, who’ll know it?

   I take it that the last words mean: Who will know you and I aren’t to blame?

   Entrikin seems to have remained with the EQ series from its return to the air in January 1942 until fourteen months later when Ruthrauff & Ryan assigned him to a project on the West Coast. He’s included here because, like Harry Stephen Keeler, he brushed against Fred Dannay and Manny Lee.


   Finally we come to another man, infinitely better known than Entrikin, who was thought to have brushed against Fred and Manny but actually didn’t. I refer to none other than John Wayne. During the WWII years the Queen radio series featured Hollywood personalities and some unknowns, many of them in the military, as guest armchair detectives.

   My book THE SOUND OF DETECTION: ELLERY QUEEN’S ADVENTURES IN RADIO (2002) included an episode-by-episode list of those guests, based on research in old studio files by Martin Grams, Jr. Much of what Marty found in those files consisted only of guests’ first initials and last names. For “The Fire Bug” (22/24 July 1943) and “The Fallen Gladiator” (16/18 September 1943) one of those guests was a certain J. Wayne.

   Knowing that the Duke didn’t serve in the war, both Marty and I—and before us John Dunning in the entry on the Queen series in ON THE AIR: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OLD TIME RADIO (Oxford University Press, 1998)— assumed that this was he. Later research revealed that “J.” was an ordinary Joe by the name of Jerry Wayne.

   All things considered, I still think the mistake we made was reasonable. But I do wonder how many readers of THE SOUND OF DETECTION racked their brains trying to imagine the Duke playing supersleuth. If any of them happen to read this column, my deepest apologies.

   Ron Goulart died this morning, the day after his 89th birthday. As I understand it, he’d been in an assisted living facility for the last month or so. Although he’d been in poor health and we hadn’t gotten together in several years, I’m happy to say that he was a friend of mine.

   Back in the 1970s through the early 90s (I’m guessing) I used to meet him every month or so at the local comic book show, where we discovered early on that we had a lot of interests in common: mysteries, science fiction, comic books and above all, pulp magazines.

   It was, in fact, his book The Hardboiled Dicks, a collection of stories from the detective pulps, that changed my life around, and for the better. What’s more I know I’m not the only one. Many other collectors of those old magazine have told me the very same thing.

   I’ve taken the list below from Wikipedia, and it’s not complete, but it’s a huge part of what I’ll remember him by. But the funny thing is most what I remember him by right now is the day I helped him use a metal hanger to help him get into his car he’d locked himself out of.

   Goodbye, Ron. I miss you.


The Hardboiled Dicks: An Anthology and Study of Pulp Detective Fiction (1967)
Assault on Childhood (1970)
Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines (1972)
The Adventurous Decade: Comic Strips In the Thirties (Crown Publishers, 1975) ISBN 9780870002526
Comic Book Culture: An Illustrated History (1980)
The Dime Detectives (1982)
The Great Comic Book Artists (St. Martin’s Press, 1986) ISBN 978-0312345570
Focus on Jack Cole (1986)
Ron Goulart’s Great History of Comic Books: the Definitive Illustrated History from the 1890s to the 1980s (Contemporary Books, 1986) ISBN 978-0809250455
(editor) The Encyclopedia of American Comics: From 1897 to the Present (Facts on File, 1991) ISBN 978-0816018529
The Comic Book Reader’s Companion: an A-Z Guide to Everyone’s Favorite Art Form (Harper Perennial, 1993) ISBN 9780062731173
Masked Marvels and Jungle Queens: Great Comic Book Covers of the ’40s (1993)
The Funnies: 100 Years of American Comic Strips (Adams Media Corp, 1995) ISBN 9781558505391
Comic Book Encyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to Characters, Graphic Novels, Writers, and Artists in the Comic Book Universe (Harper Collins, 2004) ISBN 978-0060538163
Good Girl Art (2006)
Good Girl Art Around the World (2008)
Alex Raymond: An Artistic Journey: Adventure, Intrigue, and Romance (2016

Non-series novels

Clockwork Pirates (1971)
Ghost Breaker (1971)
Wildsmith (1972)
The Tin Angel (1973)
The Hellhound Project (1975)
When the Waker Sleeps (1975)
The Enormous Hourglass (1976)
The Emperor of the Last Days (1977)
Nemo (1977)
Challengers of the Unknown (1977)
The Island of Dr Moreau (1977) (writing as Joseph Silva)
Capricorn One (1978)
Cowboy Heaven (1979)
Holocaust for Hire (1979) (writing as Joseph Silva)
Skyrocket Steele (1980)
The Robot in the Closet (1981)
The Tremendous Adventures of Bernie Wine (1981)
Upside Downside (1981)
The Great British Detective (1982)
Hellquad (1984)
Suicide, Inc. (1985)
A Graveyard of My Own (1985)
The Tijuana Bible (1989)
Even the Butler Was Poor (1990)
Now He Thinks He’s Dead (1992)
Murder on the Aisle (1996)

Novel series

Flash Gordon (Alex Raymond’s original story)

The Lion Men of Mongo (1974)(‘adapted by’ Con Steffanson)
The Space Circus (1974)(‘adapted by’ Con Steffanson)
The Plague of Sound (1974)(‘adapted by’ Con Steffanson)
The Time Trap of Ming XIII (1974)(‘adapted by’ Con Steffanson)
The Witch Queen of Mongo (1974)(‘adapted by’ Carson Bingham)
The War of the Cybernauts (1975)(‘adapted by’ Carson Bingham)

The Phantom (writing as Frank S Shawn)

The Golden Circle (1973)
The Hydra Monster (1973)
The Mystery of the Sea Horse (1973)
The Veiled Lady (1973)
The Swamp Rats (1974)
The Goggle-Eyed Pirates (1974)


Bloodstalk (1975)
On Alien Wings (1975)
Deadwalk (1976)
Blood Wedding (1976)
Deathgame (1976)
Snakegod (1976)
Vampirella (1976)


The Man from Atlantis (1974) (as Kenneth Robeson)
Red Moon (1974) (as Kenneth Robeson)
The Purple Zombie (1974) (as Kenneth Robeson)
Dr. Time (1974) (as Kenneth Robeson)
The Nightwitch Devil (1974) (as Kenneth Robeson)
Black Chariots (1974) (as Kenneth Robeson)
The Cartoon Crimes (1974) (as Kenneth Robeson)
The Death Machine (1975) (as Kenneth Robeson)
The Blood Countess (1975) (as Kenneth Robeson)
The Glass Man (1975) (as Kenneth Robeson)
The Iron Skull (1975) (as Kenneth Robeson)
Demon Island (1975) (as Kenneth Robeson)

Barnum System

The Fire-Eater (1970)
Clockwork Pirates (1971)
Shaggy Planet (1973)
Spacehawk, Inc. (1974)
The Wicked Cyborg (1978)
Dr. Scofflaw (1979)

Barnum System – Jack Summer

Death Cell (1971)
Plunder (1972)
A Whiff of Madness (1976)
Galaxy Jane (1986)

Barnum System – Ben Jolson

The Sword Swallower (1968)
Flux (1974)

Barnum System – Star Hawks

Empire 99 (1980)
The Cyborg King (1981)

Barnum System – The Exchameleon

Daredevils, LTD. (1987)
Starpirate’s Brain (1987)
Everybody Comes to Cosmo’s (1988)

Jack Conger

A Talent for the Invisible (1973)
The Panchronicon Plot (1977)
Hello, Lemuria, Hello (1979)

Odd Jobs, Inc.

Calling Dr. Patchwork (1978)
Hail Hibbler (1980)
Big Bang (1982)
Brainz, Inc. (1985)

Fragmented America

After Things Fell Apart (1970)
Gadget Man (1971)
Hawkshaw (1972)
When the Waker Sleeps (1975)
Crackpot (1977)
Brinkman (1981)


Quest of the Gypsy (1976)
Eye of the Vulture (1977)

Marvel Novel Series (as Joseph Silva; with Len Wein and Marv Wolfman)

Incredible Hulk: Stalker from the Stars (1977)
Captain America: Holocaust for Hire (1979)

Harry Challenge

The Prisoner of Blackwood Castle (1984)
The Curse of the Obelisk (1987)

Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx, Master Detective (1998)
Groucho Marx, Private Eye (1999)
Elementary, My Dear Groucho (1999)
Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders (2001)
Groucho Marx, Secret Agent (2002)
Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle (2005)

Short fiction


Broke Down Engine: And Other Troubles with Machines (1971)
The Chameleon Corps: And Other Shape Changers (1972)
What’s Become of Screwloose?: And Other Inquiries (1972)
Odd Job 101: And Other Future Crimes And Intrigues (1974)
Nutzenbolts: And More Troubles with Machines (1975)
Skyrocket Steele Conquers the Universe: And Other Media Tales (1990)
Adam and Eve On a Raft: Mystery Stories (Crippen & Landru, 2001)[11]


“Ella Speed”, Fantastic, April 1960
“Subject to Change” Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1960
Harry Challenge Series
The Secret of the Black Chateau – Espionage Magazine, February 1985
Monster of the Maze – Espionage Magazine, February 1986
The Phantom Highwayman – The Ultimate Halloween, edited by Marvin Kaye (2001)
The Woman in the Mist – The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December, 2002
The Incredible Steam Man – The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May, 2003
The Secret of the Scarab – The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April, 2005
The Problem of the Missing Werewolf – H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror #4, (Spring / Summer 2007)
The Mystery of the Missing Automaton – Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #1, (Winter 2008)
The Mystery of the Flying Man – Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #2, (Spring 2009)
The Secret of the City of Gold – The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January / February 2012
The Somerset Wonder –

by Francis M. Nevins


   In 1946, soon after the end of World War II, the editors of the high-paying Esquire decided to launch a series of short detective stories and invited several authors to create a new character for possible publication in the magazine. Among those solicited was that incomparable filbert Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), who strung together an outrageous plot about a barking clock and an astigmatic witness and dreamed up a 7½-foot-tall mathematically-educated hick from the sticks as his new detective.

   Reasonably enough, Esquire rejected the story. Who won the prize that Keeler lost? A guy who happened to have the same first and last initials as our Harry. The subject of this column.


   About the life of Henry Kane very little has surfaced. He was born in New York City on 18 May 1908 as Henry Cohen and apparently graduated from one of the city’s several law schools in the 1930s. How long he practiced law is unknown, but it does seem clear that he preferred writing to legal work.

   Whether he served in World War II is also unknown. At the time of Esquire’s hunt for a new series character he seems to have published nothing, and what the editors saw in him is likewise a mystery. The character he created for the magazine was Peter Chambers, a tough but sophisticated Manhattan private richard (as he prefers to call himself) whose first appearance in short-story form was “A Glass of Milk” (Esquire, February 1947).

   It was also early in 1947 that Chambers debuted as protagonist of a hardcover novel. Whether the early short stories preceded or followed A HALO FOR NOBODY (Simon & Schuster, 1947) is anyone’s guess: my own is that at least the first couple of them came first. Kane stayed with S&S for a few years, then migrated to the field of paperback originals where he flourished during the Fifties and Sixties, having Chambers narrate his own cases in a wackadoodle style which his admirers have dubbed High Kanese.

   It’s likely that Chambers was the uncredited inspiration for the hit TV series PETER GUNN (NBC, 1958-61), for which the tie-in novel (PETER GUNN, Dell pb #B155, 1960) was written by, you guessed it, Henry Kane. Later in the swinging Sixties Kane reconfigured his character as protagonist in a series of X-rated paperbacks for Lancer (1969-72).

   During the final phase of his career he turned out a number of stand-alone hardcover thrillers, some under his own byline, others as by Anthony McCall, Kenneth R. McKay, Mario J. Sagola (a name probably meant to evoke the Godfather saga) and Katherine Stapleton. He died in his home at Lido Beach, Long Island on 10 October 1988.


   A HALO FOR NOBODY opens with a report by Chambers to his friendly enemy NYPD Lieutenant Louis Parker, and of course to us: he was walking down Park Avenue in the lower Eighties on the way to an appointment with a potential client when, a block or so ahead of him, he witnessed an attempted kidnapping and the murder of a woman, who turns out to be the potential client’s wife.

   Being armed at the time — which establishes, I suppose, his machismo — he fired several shots into the back of the taxi in which the criminals were escaping. The taxi is later found in Central Park with two dead men in it: the driver and a known hoodlum.

   Soon afterwards, Chambers is hired by the dead woman’s husband not to solve the murder of his wife, whom he hated, but to find out why someone is trying to blackmail him when he knows he’s done nothing blackmail-worthy. It would take several pages of summary to penetrate deeper into Kane’s Chandleresque plot labyrinth and I doubt it would benefit anyone to read them.

   When A HALO FOR NOBODY was published in 1947, Kane was touted by Simon & Schuster as “a worthy successor to Dashiell Hammett.” Talk about ridiculous! The main connection between the two is that Kane, like so many others, borrowed from Hammett the climax of THE MALTESE FALCON.

   To Raymond Chandler he owed a bit more, including some elements of his protagonist — even the names have the same cadence, Philip Marlowe and Peter Chambers — and the all-but-incomprehensible labyrinthine plot, although he does keep to a reasonable minimum the vivid figures of speech in which Chandler indulged perhaps too often.

   The stylistic feature of HALO that jumps out at the reader is Kane’s habit of converting several short sentences into a single long one by the repeated use of the most common conjunction in the language. Here’s an example from a nightclub scene.

   Blue smoke curled and wavered and curtained the ceiling and the girl rocked at the microphone and her eyes were closed and her dark eyelids glistened and she sang slowly in a deep, hushed voice, throbbingly, against the wash of subdued conversation.

   I have a vague recollection that this trope started with Hemingway but I doubt that Papa used it to anywhere near the same extent as Kane.

   Anyone writing a dissertation on political incorrectness in PI fiction will go no farther than Chapter Four when Chambers encounters a gay ex-gangster and calls him, to his face, “a fairy, a phony, a queerie, a pervert.” Any such reader will miss perhaps the most memorable scene in HALO, the gunpoint tête-à-tête between Chambers and the most cold-blooded of the novel’s three murderers, who is also perhaps the most philosophical killer in the entire Kane Kanon:

   â€œChambers, a long time ago I learned it was dog eat dog. A human life means nothing; your own life, conversely, means everything. We are taught differently. Comes a war — how quickly they attempt to reteach us. You have no personal grievance against the soldier of the enemy — -but you kill him, unfeelingly. A human life, in the vast perspective, means nothing; but protect yourself. With yourself, there is no perspective.”

   At the end of the scene a slightly wounded Chambers faints, vomits several times, finds a bottle and guzzles nonstop for five minutes. He then segues into the MALTESE FALCON climax from which, unlike Sam Spade, he emerges with five bullets in his stomach. From his hospital bed he identifies the third and final of the book’s murderers. That too, I suppose, is machismo.

   In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle (16 February 1947) Anthony Boucher wisely made no attempt to summarize the plot of HALO but limited himself to describing Chambers as “a private eye who thrives on drink, wenching and coincidences” and the book itself as a “[r]easonably good toughie, at once more literate and more confusing than most….” I cannot better that description.


   The second Chambers novel, ARMCHAIR IN HELL (1948), is similar to HALO in opening with three corpses. It’s after midnight when our private richard is ungently pulled out of an alcoholic haze by one of his most lucrative clients, a wealthy gambler known as Ziggy who’s found a naked woman with her throat slit in his house on West 76th Street.

   At the house Chambers and Ziggy find two additional corpses: a henchman of the gambler’s and a prominent art dealer. Chambers has his client steal a car, take the bodies and dump them near the river, then joins Ziggy for a 4:00 A.M. conference over cheesecake and coffee and learns that the gambler had been promised $500,000 to act as go-between in the transfer of some priceless tapestries that had been taken out of France by the Nazis during World War II.

   Those tapestries are Kane’s version of what Hammett called the black bird and Hitchcock the McGuffin. Like any McGuffin worthy of the name, this one is being sought by an assortment of questionable characters, including a blonde sexpot, a brunette sexpot, an art critic (whom Chambers describes as “a California elf”), an oddball Frenchman, a pool shark, a ballroom manager, and a sinister dwarf with a huge moronic goon who, in a scene reminiscent of the beating of Ned Beaumont in Hammett’s THE GLASS KEY, marks Chambers up with a set of brass knuckles.

   The climax calls to mind the conference among all the parties near the end of THE MALTESE FALCON, with Chambers pulling the strings so that the murderer is gunned down in front of witnesses by one of the other contenders for the tapestries.

   Our friend the student of political incorrectness will find short rations in this one, mainly the scene where Chambers asks about another character’s sexual preference or, as he phrases it, whether the man is “a nancy…. A fruit, a milky way, a buttercup.” Any such student who stopped there would miss perhaps the most interesting moment in the book, a sort of meta-scene where Chambers describes not only himself but almost every PI who came into the genre in Chandler’s shadow.

   He “has no wife, or sleep, or food, or rest. He drinks, drinks more, and more; flirts with women, blondes mostly, who talk hard but act soft, then he drinks more, then, somewhere in the middle, he gets dreadfully beaten about, then he drinks more, then he says a few dirty words, then he stumbles around, punch-drunk-like, but he is very smart and adds up a lot of two’s and two’s, and then the case gets solved….”


   Later that year Simon & Schuster published REPORT FOR A CORPSE (1948), a collection of Kane’s first six short stories, all from Esquire. Whereas in his book-length cases Chambers had been a member of a PI firm complete with senior partner, an old-maidish secretary and at least three legpersons, in these shorter tales he’s a lone wolf with only the secretary Miranda Foxworth carried over from the novels.

   For some unaccountable reason the stories in book form are not printed in chronological sequence but I shall cover them in Esquire’s order.

   â€œA Glass of Milk” (February 1947) opens on a Sunday afternoon as Chambers enters an elegant Madison Avenue drinking place, spies a beautiful blonde at the end of the bar nursing a glass of milk and orders another: obviously a prearranged signal. The blonde leaves and Chambers follows her to her apartment where she makes him a real drink, tells him she’s changed her mind about hiring him, and gives him fifty dollars for his time and trouble.

   That evening he’s visited by his friendly enemy Lieutenant Parker, telling him that the woman has been found dead, with her face mashed in, and Chambers’ prints all over the hotel suite. Chambers explains about the assignation at the bar but the apartment staff insist she never went anywhere that day and the bartender says he never served any blonde a glass of milk.

   Instantly we’re reminded of the situation in Cornell Woolrich’s iconic novel PHANTOM LADY (1942), with Chambers taking the part of the man who’s wrongly accused of his wife’s murder while he was in a bar with a woman no one else saw. Kane’s version of the story makes more sense than Woolrich’s but then he didn’t have to reach book length.

   Criminal lawyer Sonny Evans, who was an offstage character in A HALO FOR NOBODY, has a scene in “A Matter of Motive” (March 1947). It’s at his recommendation that Chambers is hired when a drugstore owner is charged with the murder of one of his clerks, who was blackmailing him over his sideline as a narcotics dealer, and with whom he had an appointment around the time of the killing.

   The next most likely suspect is the dead man’s nightclub-singer fiancée, who was also the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. Chambers searches the scene of the murder and finds a letter indicating that the dead man was having an affair with his blackmail victim’s wife and was about to break it off. With two female suspects, both of whom admit they were near the crime scene at the crucial time, plus of course his client, who also had motive and opportunity, Chambers figures out who done it in a manner reasonably fair to the reader.

   You’d never guess from the flippant title of “Kudos for the Kid” (May 1947) that it’s quite close to a traditional detective tale, with Chambers addressing his friendly enemy as “my dear Parker” and the lieutenant in turn griping about the PI’s Sherlock Holmes act.

   Chambers happens to stop at a Fifth Avenue candy store to ogle a beautiful blonde staring into the shop window and is immediately invited to accompany her to an apartment hotel. What sounds like an invitation to bedplay quickly turns out otherwise: the blonde had lost a valuable emerald earring at a dance and was waiting for the person who had advertised in the newspaper, asking whoever lost the earring to meet him in front of the candy store, prove ownership of the jewel and take it back.

   Matters are straightened out in the hotel’s tower suite but before leaving Chambers discovers the blonde’s wealthy father dead of two bullet wounds in the stomach. Parker and the police doctor call it suicide but Chambers insists that suicides don’t shoot themselves in the stomach and instantly deduces the murderer (who appears onstage for exactly four paragraphs), then pulls a huge bluff to make the culprit confess.

   In the collection’s title story, “Report for a Corpse” (July 1947), a wealthy old woman hires Chambers to find out how her unfaithful husband, whom she’s refused to divorce (at a time when the only ground for divorce under New York law was adultery), plans to kill her. Shadowing the errant husband, Chambers discovers that he’s surreptitiously collected a huge supply of barbiturates.

   Visiting his client’s stately home to report to her, he gets to meet the couple’s lovely adopted daughter and apparently has a quickie with her. Soon afterwards the older woman is found dead of an overdose of, you guessed it, barbiturates. Chambers fakes an alibi for the husband and then pins the crime on — well, I’d be a toad if I said more.

   With five violent deaths and a plot rooted in events of a dozen years earlier, “The Shoe Fits” (July 1947) leads one to suspect that Kane had begun it as a novel and then, changing his mind, had boiled it down to the length of his other Esquire tales. In Hollywood to act as a $750-a-week technical adviser on a PI epic — perhaps a follow-up to THE BIG SLEEP? — Chambers is offered a bonus by the producer and director of the movie to bodyguard a Nevada casino owner who’s deeply in debt to the Mob and likely to be killed for welshing.

   The guy is murdered before Chambers can take on the job but our sleuth suspects that it wasn’t a Mob hit, follows the trail back to New York and three deaths that took place years before, returns to Hollywood and wraps things up as usual. One of the central clues is gibberish except to dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers and another stands out like W.C. Fields’ nose to anyone who remembers a little high-school German.

   In “Suicide Is Scandalous” (June 1948) Chambers’ client is another old lady and his job is to prove that one of her stepdaughters, an unaccountably wealthy woman who according to the evidence shot herself to death in her Park Avenue apartment on a Sunday morning, was actually a murder victim.

   If in fact she was murdered, the prime suspects would be the client herself and her other stepdaughter, each of whom inherits half under the dead woman’s will. With the bullet in her head clearly fired from her own gun and with a suicide note in her own handwriting found beside her body, Chambers seems to be up against a stone wall.

   But with the help of a penmanship clue borrowed from A HALO FOR NOBODY, and after a fistfight with the murderer, he breaks down the wall and earns his fee.


   Kane’s Esquire appearances were not limited to short stories. The magazine had published a condensed version of ARMCHAIR IN HELL (January 1948) and also ran condensations of his third, fourth and fifth novels, which I’ll discuss in another column, plus a single stand-alone short story, never collected (“Lost Epilogue,” October 1948).

   During the 1950s Kane’s novels were all paperback originals, his short stories appeared usually in Manhunt, and he perfected the oddball narrative style known to his admirers as High Kanese. Perhaps I’ll explore these later too.

by Francis M. Nevins


   The first three of the six Maigret novels that Georges Simenon wrote in France while that country was under Nazi occupation were published, as we saw two months ago, in the 528-page omnibus volume MAIGRET REVIENT (Gallimard, 1942). Simenon and his family had moved back to Fontenay-le-Comte from Nieul-sur-Mer before he wrote the earliest of the later trio, SIGNÉ PICPUS, in the summer of 1941. A translation by Geoffrey Sainsbury was issued in England (as TO ANY LENGTHS, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1950, Penguin pb #1225, 1958) but only came to American shores in an edition published a few days before Simenon’s death (MAIGRET AND THE FORTUNETELLER, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1989).

   We open on a fiercely hot August evening when Maigret is visited in his office on the Quai des Orfèvres by Joseph Mascouvin, a dull unobtrusive clerk in a firm of estate agents. He claims that he embezzled a thousand-franc note from office funds and then, plagued by second thoughts, dropped into a café for a drink, asked for pen and paper—apparently a common request in French cafés—-and started to write a note of confession to his employers, only to discover on a sheet of blotting paper the reverse image of a message which, using his eyeglasses for a mirror, he was able to read: “Tomorrow afternoon on the stroke of five I am going to kill the fortuneteller.”

   Giving the novel its title, the message is signed Picpus. Maigret takes this bizarre story seriously and has the police keep an eye on the 82 known fortune-tellers in Paris. But at a few minutes after five the next afternoon, a report comes into the Police Judiciaire that a clairvoyant who had flown under the official radar has been found stabbed to death in her apartment.

   Maigret visits the crime scene and finds the door to the kitchen of the apartment locked with no key in sight. When it’s opened by a locksmith, a strange old man is found among the pots and pans. He claims that he was visiting Mlle. Jeanne when suddenly she had heard someone coming and locked him in. Maigret takes the bewildered and frightened old man back to the apartment he shares with his wife and daughter but soon senses something wrong: it seems that the old man, a retired ship’s doctor named Le Cloaguen, is kept locked in his cell-like bedroom, given only enough food to keep him alive, and is not allowed any money when he goes out although the family is living on an annuity of 200,000 francs a year.

   Then Mascouvin suddenly leaps into the Seine and comes near killing himself. Maigret patiently explores the situation—at one point spending a Sunday afternoon at a riverside inn very similar to the one he stayed at in LA GUINGUETTE À DEUX SOUS (1932; translated as GUINGUETTE BY THE SEINE)—and eventually exposes a colossal fraud scheme and a ring of blackmailers. With plenty of Paris atmosphere and a plot more complex than usual (although the astute reader may well intuit at least the fraud part of the plot along with Maigret), this is one of the wartime gems.

   Sainsbury’s translation features a number of noticeable Anglicisms: Maigret wears braces rather than suspenders, and at one point there is fear that a juge d’instruction will kick up a shindy. But I was distracted much more by Sainsbury’s strange habit of italicizing all street names, for no better reason than that they’re French. Are the British locutions and italics preserved in the U.S. edition? Je ne sais pas.


   During the winter of 1941-42 Simenon wrote what we might call the first Maigret novelet. “Menaces de mort” was published as a six-part serial in the weekly Révolution National (8 March-12 April 1942) but until very recently was available in English only on the Web. (It’s now the title story in a new Simenon collection, DEATH THREATS AND OTHER STORIES, Penguin 2021.)

   Like SIGNÉ PICPUS it begins with a threatening note, this one without even a fanciful signature. Constructed out of words from various newspapers, it was delivered to the head of a rag-and-scrap company, predicting that he’ll die on the coming Sunday before 6:00 p.m. Being blessed with thirty million francs and excellent political connections, Emile Grosbois prevails on the Police Judiciaire to supply him with a bodyguard, and Maigret is assigned to accompany the junk dealer to the weekend retreat on the Seine, near Coudray, which he shares with his twin brother, his widowed sister and her son and daughter.

   Calling the Grosbois family dysfunctional would be like calling King Kong a cute little monk. Maigret arrives at Coudray by train on the Saturday afternoon and witnesses roughly 24 hours of vicious infighting among the family members, who uniformly leave him disgusted, but nothing violent happens—until just before 6:00 on Sunday when Emile suddenly keels over on his terrace.

   Maigret recognizes that he’s been poisoned, saves his life by making him vomit, and the story ends, except for a Monday morning recap when the Commissaire explains everything to his boss: “It’s nice to save people but it would be better if they deserved it.” His claim that he knew the truth about the death threat since the get-go must rank as just about the most ridiculous thing he ever said.

   We don’t know whether it was Simenon’s decision to leave this farrago of silliness out of all subsequent French collections of his stories and, until recently, to exclude it from the English language completely, but if so it was a wise move. Luckily it didn’t discourage him from writing more and much better Maigrets of the same length after the war.


   Intent on providing his infant son Marc with a better climate, Simenon had moved his family again, this time to the village of La Faute sur Mer, before May 1942 when the next Maigret was written. FÉLICIE EST LÀ (translated as MAIGRET AND THE TOY VILLAGE, Hamish Hamilton 1978, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1979) is lighter in tone than almost any other Maigret, and Simenon liked to cite it as an illustration of his skill as a humorist.

   If he arranged the details of character and setting in “Menaces de Mort” so as to evoke our repugnance, in FÉLICIE he goes to the opposite extreme to make us feel at peace: sunlight, the pleasant odor of flowers, pink brick cottages, twittering birds, le tout monde or, as a Yank might say, the whole nine yards.

   Maigret visits a new housing development outside of Paris, looking into the murder of Lapie, a one-legged retired bookkeeper living on a pension, who was shot to death in the bedroom of his pleasant cottage on a spring morning. Sharing the cottage with him was his 24-year-old servant girl Félicie, “a caricature of a woman out of a storybook….” Maigret describes her as ”thin as a stick, with a pointed nose and a forehead like a nanny goat’s, always decked out in all the colors of the rainbow….”

   She seems to live in a fantasy world, imagining herself alternately as Lapie’s mistress, his illegitimate daughter, a princess incognito, and the heroine of one of those cheap French romance novels Simenon had turned out at dizzying speed back in his early twenties. This weird woman gives Maigret no end of trouble as he hunts for clues, to the point of hiding the murder weapon and slipping off to Paris where she plants it on a stranger in the Métro. (Simenon serves up a huge credibility croissant when he has Maigret and Félicie stop for lunch at the same Paris restaurant where the man on whom she planted the weapon is eating.)

   The murderer never comes onstage for even a moment, and whatever humor the French may have found in these pages—like the Breton accent of a character who says maisong and mossieu, the mano a mano between Maigret and a live lobster, and most of all the interplay between the Commissaire and Félicie—is not likely to make coffee spill out the noses of us Yanks. But Simenon does a fine job creating a rich light atmosphere that generates a sense that the world is an okay place.


   It’s hard to believe the number of moves Simenon and his family were able to make during the years of war and occupation, but we must remember that the author was a wealthy and influential figure even under the Nazis, and that movies based on Maigret novels, starring Albert Préjean as the Commissaire, were being released regularly during the Occupation.

   By early 1943 they had moved from Fontenay to a rented villa in Saint-Mesmin-le-Vieux, about 40 kilometers away. There he spent February and early March writing the sixth and final Maigret novel of the war years, L’INSPECTEUR CADAVRE (translated as MAIGRET’S RIVAL, Hamish Hamilton 1979, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980). The title is the nickname of lugubrious Justin Cavre, a former member of Maigret’s squad who now works as a private detective.

   The Commissaire’s role from first page to last is wholly unofficial as, at the behest of a juge d’instruction, he travels on a dark January day to the marshy little village of Saint-Aubin, in the Vendée 22 kilometers from Fontenay, to look into the death of a young man who was supposedly run over by a train. There have been rumors and anonymous letters claiming that the youth was murdered by Etienne Naud, a local bigwig who happens to be the brother-in-law of a certain juge d’instruction.

   On the train to the village Maigret encounters Cavre and begins to suspect that the ex-cop has been hired on the same case. As usual, the Commissaire sets out to absorb the local environment, checking out rumors that are roundly denied throughout the village—that the dead youth’s bloody cap had been found near the Nauds’ house and that his widowed mother had come into a large sum of money—and trying to process the confession to him by the Nauds’ 20-year-old daughter that she’s three months pregnant by the dead boy.

   After the climactic confrontation scene Maigret returns to Paris with the murder not only officially unsolved but not even recognized as a murder. The plot is rather sloppy, as interested readers may explore by clicking here, but the atmosphere—darkness, ice, mud and cynicism in roughly equal parts—is superbly created.


   The three novels I’ve discussed here were first published in France, along with a number of stand-alone short stories, in a huge omnibus volume simply titled SIGNÉ PICPUS (Gallimard, 1944). American readers didn’t get to see these novels in their own language until generations later. The three mark the end of Maigret’s so-called middle period, followed by a sort of sabbatical during which Simenon wrote no more about the Commissaire until after the war when, fearing that he’d be punished in France for having been too cozy with the Nazis, he emigrated to North America.

by Francis M. Nevins


   Except for Hammett and Howard Fast I don’t believe I’ve ever written about a writer who was a member of the Communist party. Unlike Hammett and Fast, the subject of this month’s column escaped the HUAC-McCarthy purge, and possible jail time, but only by dying young. His legacy includes a huge pile of non-fiction issued by various labor organizations and the Communist-run International Publishers and, perhaps more relevant to readers of this column, three crime novels.

   For those interested in his life, the place to begin is Harry Carlisle’s introduction to our subject’s posthumously published journalism collection On the Drumhead (1948), which has been digitized and is accessible online. Paul William Ryan was born in San Francisco on 6 July 1906 to Irish-American parents who apparently were not well fixed. “My family kept alive by running rooming houses,” he said near the end of his brief life.

   He left school at age 15 to enter the work force, initially, so he claimed, as manager of a pool hall. In his twenties and thirties he held down a variety of jobs on ships, in bookstores and elsewhere, but his main occupation was journalism. Under the byline of Mike Quin he wrote an estimated million words a year for all sorts of labor union periodicals and for newspapers like the Daily People’s World, a West Coast paper run by the Communist Party. After the USSR signed a non-aggression treaty with Hitler, who a few months later attacked Great Britain and other countries, he formed a committee to agitate for keeping the U.S. from joining the war on the Brits’ side, a committee that quickly dissolved after Hitler broke his treaty and invaded the Soviet Union.

   In 1944 he married the former Mary King O’Donnell and the couple soon had a daughter whom they named Colin Michaela. Shortly after the end of World War II, under the new byline of Robert Finnegan, he turned out three well-received whodunits starring newsman Dan Banion. The series abruptly ended with his death.

   There’s nothing overtly Communist in the Banion novels but, like many a 1940s movie, they tend to paint the have-not characters in virtuous colors and the haves as, pardon the expression, toads. The style is readable but, like Hammett’s, unadorned, with the vivid figures of speech we associate with Chandler noticeably absent. If the trilogy had made it to Hollywood, perhaps the ideal star to have played Banion would have been John Garfield, and any number of actors who were blacklisted in the Fifties would have fit well in other parts.


   From early on there are hints that the first of the trio, The Lying Ladies (1946), takes place not shortly after World War II, as its publication date would suggest, but rather back in the Depression-wracked and socially conscious 1930s. When later in the novel some of the characters listen to a radio broadcast announcing the “peace in our time” agreement between Hitler and Britain’s prime minister Neville Chamberlain, we know that the precise time is late September 1938.

   The geographic setting is somewhere in the undifferentiated Midwest — Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, take your pick. We open as a penniless young tramp with a bent for poetry approaches a prosperous-looking suburban house in search of a meal, is invited inside by a vicious-looking woman and, after being fed, is asked to move some furniture in an upstairs bedroom where he’s promptly conked on the head. He wakes up the next morning in a farmer’s pasture, minus his cap, liquor-soaked and with money, jewelry and a bloody clasp knife in his pockets.

   It’s no surprise when he’s quickly arrested for the murder of the housemaid who was found stabbed to death in the bedroom in which he claims he was knocked out. From the viewpoint of the reactionary local papers it’s a perfect case to attack soft-on-bums policies. Banion, a reporter in the area’s big city, is sent out to exploit the situation politically but, being a man of good will and friend to those who have no friend, he quickly becomes convinced that the young vagrant has been framed.

   The jailed youth’s description of the woman who fed him leads to the madam of the local brothel, which survives by paying off the proper officials, and to a hooker with a heart of gold who sets out with Banion and a compassionate farmer (who could easily have been one of John Steinbeck’s Okies) to clear the young man. Besides the stripped-down prose there’s another feature that recalls Hammett, namely the Thin Man-style sex banter, in which Banion engages not only with his lovely wife Ethel but with just about every attractive woman he meets during the case.

   Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle (31 March 1946) called Finnegan’s debut a “[l]ong full-bodied story, rich in well-sketched characters and vigorous action,” and described Banion as “having a sense of social responsibility unique in the field.”


   The Bandaged Nude (1946) was published in the same year as The Lying Ladies but was obviously written not long before publication, as witness its setting in post-WWII San Francisco with its housing shortage, rampant inflation and, most striking of all, a specifically postwar malaise, expressed in several ways including some poems written by various characters. Banion has seen combat but Ethel has died while he was in the army and, even though he’s gotten a job as reporter on one of the city’s papers, like so many protagonists of noir novels and movies he’s at an existential loose end.

   One morning, while happening to drop in at the Hall of Justice, he’s invited to take a look at a recently discovered dead man, found with a weird green stain on his lips in a crate of ruined spaghetti about to be incinerated. He recognizes the body as that of a young vet and former artist with the Harry Stephen Keelerish name of Kenton Kipper whom he’d encountered in a saloon the previous night, trying to find out what had happened to one of his works, the nude painting of the title, which used to hang over the bar.

   For no good reason — or as Tony Boucher described it, “prompted…by an odd sense of human fellowship” — Banion doesn’t identify the dead man but sets out on his own to avenge him. That green stain on his lips is soon discovered to come from a rare poison called leumatine which, turning up no hits on Google, I assume Finnegan concocted ex nihilo. Banion quickly learns that not just the nude but every one of the paintings Kipper sold before going into the army have been bought by a mysterious character who goes by a different name for each transaction.

   Easing himself into San Francisco’s rather bohemian arts community, Banion interacts with a number of characters in Kipper’s life including his ex-wife (a Film Noir Woman of the first water), her estranged second husband, an obese homosexual art dealer and a sleazy PI. Eventually there are two more leumatine murders, one of them in Banion’s presence, and he himself narrowly misses becoming a fourth victim.

   Between poisonings comes a lot of pursuit through the city, so much so that readers from outside the Bay Area could have profited if a San Francisco street map had accompanied the book. About two-thirds of the way through the novel one may begin to suspect who’s guilty, but few will stop reading until after the climactic fistfight between that person and Banion. Finnegan, said Boucher in his review, “has something affirmative and warming to say about people, and he says it here even better than before….”

   That review was published in the Chronicle for 30 March 1947. In May of that year Finnegan was diagnosed with cancer and told he had two months to live. The doctors were not far off: he died on 14 August, age 41. His third and final novel was published the following year.


   By far the bloodiest of the trilogy, Many a Monster (1948) has been described as one of the first serial-killer novels, although I disagree with the label because all the murders turn out to be connected. We open with the escape of a disturbed WWII vet on his way to an institution for the criminally insane after being convicted of the murder and dismemberment of three young women. (I know he couldn’t have been going to such an institution unless he’d been found not guilty by reason of insanity, but Finnegan is not a lawyer.)

   Banion is assigned by his city editor to check out all the people closest to the fugitive: his sister, his ex-wife, his present girlfriend, a Marine buddy, and others. After the brutal murder of the sister he begins to question the escapee’s guilt. His doubts lead him to quit his job, but he carries on as the murders continue, even after a white supremacist gang captures and beats him and comes close to ripping out his fingernails with pliers.

   The solution is surprising but is pulled out of a hat, as it were, and leaves a few key questions unanswered. With a total of fifteen fatalities — four before Page 1, another quartet during the course of the novel and seven neo-Nazis gunned down by Banion himself, who also disposes of their Fuhrer in a brutal fistfight — one might almost think our author was setting out to become the left-wing Mickey Spillane if one didn’t know that the first Mike Hammer novel, I, the Jury (1947), came out only shortly before Finnegan’s death.


   His death, wrote Boucher in the Chronicle, “meant the loss to the mystery field of one of its most up-and-coming new practitioners…. [M]ay he rest in peace.” (31 August 1947).

   It’s tempting to speculate on what would have happened to Finnegan had he lived to, say, the biblical three score years and ten. Would he have been imprisoned like Hammett and Fast? Impossible to say. Would he have quit writing as Hammett had done long before he was locked up? Most unlikely. Like Fast, would he have turned out twenty-odd mystery novels in his late years? Perhaps. If so, he might easily have earned for himself a few sentences or a paragraph in the history of our genre instead of a footnote. But a rich and fascinating footnote, yes?

by Francis M. Nevins


   In a column from a few years back I discussed the Maigret short stories that Georges Simenon wrote in the late 1930s, the years just before the outbreak of World War II. There were very few such stories during the war years but, sandwiched between several non-series books, we find a total of six Maigret novels, which are all worth some attention.

   We have to keep in mind, of course, that Simenon wrote them in France when that country was first threatened and then occupied by the Nazis. It was an unwritten rule during these years that every novel, story and film had to be set, explicitly or by implication, back in the tranquil Thirties. (For the impact of this rule on the French film industry, which was totally controlled by Germany during the occupation years, I refer you to my friend Tony Williams’ 2018 essay “The Silence of the Noir” in FILM NOIR PROTOTYPES: ORIGINS OF THE MOVEMENT, ed. Alain Silver & James Ursini.) This is certainly true of Simenon’s wartime fiction, whether stand–alone novels or Maigrets.


   A few months into 1939, Simenon and his then wife and their newborn son moved to Nieul-sur-Mer, a village about six kilometers from the seaport city of La Rochelle. That was the family’s home at the time Hitler invaded his neighbors and it was there that he wrote the final two Maigret short stories. (All the later Maigrets at less than novel length are too long to be described as short stories.) Both tales first appeared in the weekly Sept Jours and were collected after the war in MAIGRET ET LES PETITS COCHONS SANS QUEUE (Presses de la Cité, 1950).

   â€œL’homme dans le rue” (Sept Jours, 15 & 22 December 1940, as “Le prisonnier dans la rue”) is a tale of pure atmosphere, with a plot all but non-existent. On a freezing Sunday night a well-to-do physician is shot to death in the Bois de Boulogne. A few days later Maigret has an announcement published in the newspapers that an arrest has been made and that a reconstruction of the crime will take place early the next morning.

   With the arrestee played by a small-time criminal known as P’tit Louis (perhaps the same Louis who appears in several other Simenons and perhaps not), the reconstruction is held, with Maigret’s men planted all over the Bois to check out anyone who seems unduly interested.

   Attention quickly focuses on one man and the chase begins, “a chase which was to go on for five days and five nights, through a city that was unaware of it, among hurrying pedestrians, from bar to bar, from bistro to bistro, Maigret and his detectives taking it in turns pursuing this solitary man and becoming, in the end, as exhausted as their quarry.”

   After Maigret plants another story in the papers, this one completely false, the man gives up and confesses — -no, he is not the murderer — and the story ends. It first appeared in English as “Inspector Maigret Pursues” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1967), and was collected under its original title “The Man in the Street” in MAIGRET’S CHRISTMAS (Hamish Hamilton 1976, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1977). In English, by the way, P’tit Louis becomes Louis the Kid.

   If nothing else, “Vente à la Bougie” (Sept Jours, 20 & 27 April 1941) is a sterling example of unity of time and place, consisting of a single scene in a single setting, an isolated country inn in the middle of the marshes of the Vendée, although describing the tale requires me to break those unities.

   On the evening before a local farm is to be auctioned off on a cash-only basis, apparently for non-payment of debts and taxes, two wealthy peasants come to the inn with large sums of money for the bidding. Near midnight one of these men is found in his room with his skull fractured, his mattress on fire and his well-stuffed wallet missing.

   Maigret, presently head of the crime squad in Nantes (a position he never held except in this story), comes alone, believe it or not, to investigate. There are seven suspects: the innkeeper (who happens to be an ex-convict), his fat paramour, a teen-age servant girl, the farmer who was about to lose his property, the other potential buyer, and two locals.

   Recognizing that the case depends on why the mattress was set on fire, Maigret makes the seven re-enact their moves on the fatal evening over and over. As usual in Simenon, the reader has no chance to beat the Commissaire to the solution, which involves an insurance policy of a sort that, if it ever existed, must have been unique to France: the insured is paid off if he lives to age 50!

   The tale appeared in English as “Inspector Maigret Directs” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March 1967) and, like the one before it, was collected in MAIGRET’S CHRISTMAS. In case you were wondering, “Vente à la Bougie” literally means sale by candlelight, which has somehow, don’t ask me how, come to mean an auction.


   In December 1939 Simenon wrote the earliest of the six wartime Maigret novels, LES CAVES DU MAJESTIC, which wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1978 (as MAIGRET AND THE HOTEL MAJESTIC). The title seems to be a tip of the beret to Simenon’s friend and admirer André Gide (1869-1951) and his 1914 novel (which he refused to call a novel) LES CAVES DU VATICAN.

   The basement of this luxe Paris hotel (which, according to, a gem of a website if ever there was one, was modeled on the Claridge in the same city) has more to do with Simenon’s plot than the caverns underneath the Vatican with Gide’s, but in neither work are the caves central as those beneath the Paris Opera House are in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

   The Maigret novel opens early one morning as a breakfast chef at the Majestic discovers the strangled body of a wealthy American woman in a basement locker and soon finds himself the prime suspect. Maigret discovers — Simenon doesn’t bother to tell us how — that the woman was French by birth and had been a semi-pro hooker in Cannes before she met an American millionaire and tricked him into marriage. In time the plot morphs from sexual to financial intrigue, and at the climax Maigret uncharacteristically punches the murderer in the nose.

   Here and elsewhere in middle-period Maigret, Simenon seems to stress plot more than earlier or later, although Ellery Queen-style fair play is still not his cup of café au lait. Writing at white heat as he did, he slips here and there; for example, a police report in Chapter One gives the age of the dead woman’s maid as 42, but when Maigret gets to meet her much later in the book she’s described as an old lady.

   What makes LES CAVES rough going in spots for American readers is that either the translator or the publisher was very careless with punctuation, sometimes forgetting to insert a new set of quote marks to indicate a new speaker, at other times inserting new marks although the speaker hasn’t changed.

   And one tends to get heartily sick of hearing Maigret ask “What’s he (or she) saying?” whenever a character speaks English and of hearing American characters ask the same question whenever Maigret or someone else speaks French.

   Still and all, I liked this book. After reading tons of Simenons in which Maigret simply absorbs people and atmospheres and at the appropriate moment tells us who did what, it’s a pleasure to find one in which he acts a bit more like a detective.


   A month later, in January 1940, Simenon wrote LA MAISON DU JUGE (translated as MAIGRET IN EXILE, 1978). Thanks to a shake-up at the Police Judiciaire, Maigret has been transferred to Luçon, in the Vendée. After vegetating there for a few months he is visited by an old woman from the village of l’Aiguillon, some six kilometers from Luçon, a tiny place where the main occupation is mussel-gathering.

   Her husband, a retired customs inspector who had met Maigret in the past, has sent her to tell him that a few days earlier, while on a ladder pruning one of his fruit trees, he had seen a dead body on the floor of a second-story room in the house back-to-back with his own, a house owned by a retired judge named Forlacroix. The body is now no longer where it was, and the suspicion is that the judge is going to drag it out and toss it into the sea as soon as the tide is high enough.

   Maigret comes to l’Aiguillon, joins the old customs inspector’s surveillance, and watches the judge setting out to do precisely what it was suspected he was about to do. Thus begins the investigation, not only of the judge but of his mentally disturbed daughter, his violent-tempered estranged son, and a tough local mussel-gatherer who was sneaking visits to the house for sex with the daughter.

   As usual, Maigret reaches the truth by intuition, coming close to making us doubt he’s a detective. Even though the bedroom of the judge’s daughter adjoins the room where the corpse was first seen, he never bothers to interrogate her: one conversation with her would have ended the book then and there.

   Simenon even allows the judge to exit the scene halfway through the novel by confessing to a 20-year-old murder and having himself put in prison, without any formalities, any trial, rien ne va plus. I find it hard to believe that under French law at the time this was, shall we say, kosher.

   The vividly evoked atmosphere that we usually find in Simenon is conspicuous by its thinness. The English translation has flaws of its own, playing so fast and loose with French accent marks that the cedilla under the c in Luçon, which signifies that the letter is pronounced soft as in Lucy rather than hard as in lucky, is perhaps best described as now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t. By any measure this is certainly one of the lesser Maigrets.


   That Simenon managed to do any writing at all during the tumultuous year 1940 is something of a miracle. Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in May. Simenon, a Belgian citizen though residing in France for more than fifteen years, expected to be drafted.

   He went by train to Paris but, on consulting with the Belgian embassy, he was directed to serve as unofficial high commissioner for the thousands of Belgian refugees pouring into his part of France. He tackled this job with the manic energy he devoted to writing. When did he eat? When did he sleep? his colleagues wondered.

   After three hectic months he closed the reception center he had created and returned to Nieul and his career. A few months later he and his family moved further inland to Fontenay-le-Comte, not far from Luçon where Maigret had been stationed in LA MAISON DU JUGE. He rented part of a huge château recently vacated by the Nazis and, in December, resurrected his signature character.

   In CÉCILE EST MORTE (translated as MAIGRET AND THE SPINSTER, Hamish Hamilton 1977, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1977) Maigret is back in Paris and in his office on the Quai des Orfèvres, working on a case involving a Polish gang that seems to date this novel contemporaneously with the 1938 short story translated as “Stan the Killer.”

   During this period he’s been visited several times by a dowdy and sheeplike young woman with the complaint that someone has been sneaking by night into the fifth-floor apartment she shares with her widowed and near-bedridden aunt: someone who disturbs various items of furniture but never takes anything.

   As the novel begins she’s waiting for Maigret on yet another morning, but by the time he arrives and is ready to see her she’s vanished, leaving behind a frantic note. Alarmed, he visits the woman’s apartment building and finds her aunt, who in fact owned the building, strangled to death. Later that day the missing niece is also found dead, in a broom closet in the Palais du Justice building, which is connected with the Police Judiciaire by a glass door.

   Among the most likely suspects in the aunt’s murder are a penniless nephew whose wife is about to give birth and a disbarred lawyer suspected of child molestation who occupies the apartment just below the dead woman’s. Maigret soon learns that Aunt Juliette was a miser who kept a fortune in thousand-franc notes hidden in her apartment, that she treated her niece Cécile as more or less a slave, and that, at the behest of her ex-lawyer tenant, she had become whole or part owner of several brothels.

   As the case proceeds, Maigret’s superior asks him to let a visiting Pennsylvania criminologist tag along with him on the investigation. The Yank adds nothing to the plot but helps expand the book to its proper length. Maigret is given a chance to explain his methods — which boil down to the simple sentence “I feel things” — and also to introduce the American to French cuisine, like cèpes à la bordelaise and coq au vin, washed down with Beaujolais and, later, with coffee and Armagnac. (Cèpes are wild mushrooms, also known as porcini.)

   The book ends with the truth discovered (although one discovery generates a thorny legal issue in which Simenon has no interest but which those who dote on such matters and don’t mind having part of the plot spoiled for them can find discussed by clicking here) and the Parisian and the Philadelphian getting tipsy together. Thanks to its rich atmosphere and vivid character sketches, CÉCILE ranks very high among the cases of Europe’s most famous detective.


   These first three wartime Maigrets were not published separately like all the previous books in the series but in a single 528-page omnibus, MAIGRET REVIENT (1942). They appeared in the U.S. in individual volumes decades later.

   Between 1941 and 1943 Simenon wrote three more book-length Maigrets, which appeared in France in an even larger omnibus volume, plus one short novel about the Commissaire which is accessible in English only on the Web. These we’ll save for another column.

by Francis M. Nevins


   Does anybody still read F. Van Wyck Mason? I began buying his books in my teens and accumulated a generous assortment of them over time but read very few if any until recent years. His first name was Francis, his middle name was pronounced Van Wyke, and he was born in Boston in 1897, although some print and Web sources give the year as 1901, which strikes me as wrong because that would have made him 15 or 16 at the time the U.S. entered World War I, in which he is said to have served.

   He spent most of his early years in Berlin and Paris, where his grandfather was U.S. Consul General, and didn’t learn English until he was in his teens. After graduating from Harvard in 1924 he started his own importing business and traveled the world purchasing antique rugs and other objets d’art. As a fiction writer he debuted in 1928, appearing in many pulps but most often in Argosy, which published several of his historical adventure serials with titles like CAPTAIN NEMESIS, CAPTAIN JUDAS, CAPTAIN RENEGADE, CAPTAIN REDSPURS and CAPTAIN LONG KNIFE.

   As these titles unsubtly suggest, he was a military kind of guy, serving in Squadron A of the New York National Guard and later in the Maryland National Guard. He was also something of an athlete, his favorite sport being polo, a subject which crops up in many of his novels and stories. During World War II he put his writing career on hold and returned to the military, rising to the rank of Colonel and the position of chief historian on General Eisenhower’s staff.

   After the war he returned to fiction writing and eventually moved to Bermuda, where in 1978 he drowned. He was probably best known for a string of gargantuan historical adventure novels, beginning with THREE HARBOURS (1938), STARS ON THE SEA (1940) and RIVERS OF GLORY (1942), but here we are interested in his early crime fiction — not on its merits but because, as we’ll see shortly, it had a huge influence on one of the giants of the genre.


   His first novel, SEEDS OF MURDER (1930), introduces his series character Captain Hugh North, an officer in Army Intelligence but never seen in uniform and obviously intended as an American Sherlock Holmes. Appropriately enough, he has a Watson who, like the original, happens to be a medical man, a doctor named Walter Allan.

   North is visiting with Allan at Hempstead, Long Island, when both men are invited to dinner at the palatial home of Royal Delancey, a former Philippine plantation owner who made a fortune during World War I and afterwards, back in the U.S., bought into a firm of stockbrokers. Delancey’s version of Toad Hall is hit by a savage storm before dinner can be served. Then one of his house guests, who is also his brokerage partner, is found dead in his bathroom, seemingly having strangled himself with a strong chain.

   But why was his apparent suicide note written on a piece of paper a quarter-inch shorter than the other sheets on his desk, and how could he have reached the hook on which the chain was hung by standing on a wire-and-enamel wastebasket too flimsy to support his weight?

   Even stranger, why were three mysterious seeds found on the bathroom floor, arranged in a precise triangle? North keeps his counsel and doesn’t dispute the police verdict of suicide, but before dawn the next morning Delancey himself is stabbed to death with an exotic dagger in his bedroom, and three more of those triangularly arranged seeds are lying beneath his chair.

   Among the suspects are Delancey’s mistress, his abused young wife and her brother (both of whom are near broke after having entrusted him with their money), a former neighbor who had also lost heavily by investing with Delancey, and a sinister Filipino butler who perpetrates lines like “‘Scuse if I speak slow. Me no spik English ver’ well.”

   At times the novel veers close to silent-movie melodrama, especially at the action climax where North disguises himself as a gypsy and sets a trap for the murderer in front of a disused Russian Orthodox church. But, unlike most of the subsequent books in the long series, this one is a genuine detective novel, rife with complexities, clues, conundrums, the works.

   Mason seems to know his Philippine background but ridiculous is the best word for his notion of an inquest, held in the Delancey living room and culminating with the coroner’s jury indicting two suspects. The novel isn’t as scrupulously fair as, say, an early Ellery Queen, and its politically incorrect portrayal of Filipinos and gypsies — oops, my bad, we’re required today to call them Roma — make it an unlikely candidate for revival in the 21st century.


   THE VESPER SERVICE MURDERS (1931) begins much as SEEDS OF MURDER did, with North on vacation and staying with his Watson at the palatial home of a nabob, but the prosperous Massachusetts mill town they’re visiting may perhaps owe something to the Poisonville of Hammett’s RED HARVEST (1929), crooked politicians, fat sloppy cops and all.

   The city’s corrupt mayor is running for re-election against a Reform candidate who’s backed by North’s host, a wealthy old judge, and who’s courting his sponsor’s lovely daughter. After a tense conversation involving the judge, the rival candidates for mayor and a local businessman who’s also interested in the judge’s daughter, the mansion is visited by an old Army buddy of North’s, now a detective hired by the judge to investigate the current administration.

   Within minutes after the conference has broken up comes a double murder, with the investigator shot dead on the drive outside the mansion and the mayor on the grounds close by, while the judge is conked on the head in his study and the mysterious message given him by his detective burned. The mayor leaves North with one of the reasons this book is historically important: a dying message.

   The next morning, after another weird coroner’s inquest, held in the mansion and presided over by the state police, a bomb goes off in the house. North sends the injured judge and his daughter to their summer place in the forest a few hours away and continues to investigate, soon getting on the track of a mystery man known as Vesper who apparently controls the city.

   Fearing for the judge’s life, North and Allan go by train to the hamlet of Deer Lake Junction, only to find the whole area menaced by a forest fire. And so on and on until the climactic shoot-out between North and Vesper, punctuated by lightning flashes and thunderclaps. Mason slathers on the melodrama with a trowel, displays his ignorance of German by adding umlauts to words like Oberleutnant and Sturm, and still labors under the SEEDS OF MURDER delusion that a coroner’s jury can indict someone for murder. On the other hand, he evokes the stifling heat vividly and handles two central clues with great subtlety.

   No one would call VESPER SERVICE a classic but, as I said before, it’s of considerable historical value for the influence it exerted on one (or perhaps two) of the finest detective novelists of the Golden Age. Fred Dannay (1905-1982), who customarily did the plotting for the novels he and his cousin Manfred B. Lee (1905-1971) wrote under the byline of Ellery Queen, is known to have gotten many of his ideas from other novels, notably Conan Doyle’s THE VALLEY OF FEAR (1914), whose main plot device he adapted again and again in the early Queen books (1929-35).

   Quite clearly he also drew on THE VESPER SERVICE MURDERS, which contains at least four elements familiar from the EQ canon. First and foremost is the one I mentioned before, the dying message theme, which the cousins first used in THE TRAGEDY OF X (1932, as by Barnaby Ross) and continued to employ for decades. Next comes the motif of color blindness, which recurs in Queen again and again (although Fred and Manny, who both smoked heavily as young men, never claimed as does the oculist in VESPER SERVICE that the disease can be caused by excessive tobacco).

   Then come the clue of the train conductor’s ticket punch, which is central to THE TRAGEDY OF X, and the forest fire, which dominates THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY (1933). Except perhaps for THE VALLEY OF FEAR, I suspect there’s no other book to which Queen is so indebted as THE VESPER SERVICE MURDERS.


   Around this time it must have dawned on Mason that he couldn’t indefinitely continue the North series in its original configuration. After all, his protagonist was supposed to be a captain in the Army, and so far he’d had nothing but civilian detective cases with few military aspects.

   His creator made some stabs at addressing this problem in the third North novel, THE FORT TERROR MURDERS (1931), dropping Dr. Allan down the memory hole and swapping the stateside settings of the first two Norths for a more exotic locale. We are on the Philippine island of Luzon, and North, stationed in Manila, visits the isolated military outpost of Fort Espanto to play polo, although if he came with a team we see neither hide nor hair of any other player on his side.

   At a dinner party hosted by the post’s commanding officer, North hears stories about a fabulous treasure hidden by Jesuit priests (who were expelled by the Spanish in 1767) somewhere in the monastery over which the original Fort Espanto was later built. The party is interrupted by a young Spaniard who announces that the treasure has been found.

   North accompanies the colonel, his aide, several other officers and the four women in the dinner party as they go out in near pitch darkness to search the long deserted original fort. It should come as no surprise to any reader when the Spaniard is stabbed to death and the lieutenant who was working with him vanishes.

   The next day brings another murder along with various incidents like North finding a cobra in his desk drawer. But the main intellectual thrust of the novel is not so much solving the murders as cracking the code leading to the treasure, a complex cipher devised by a diabolically clever Jesuit in the 1760s and involving a pair of unusual rosaries, the Latin text of the Our Father and the positions of two stars.

   The reader of course is given no chance either to penetrate the code or to figure out who killed whom. On the plus side, the Philippine atmosphere seems to ring true and Mason doesn’t spare us the white racism: “These islands would be a great place if there weren’t any Filipinos on them,” North is told by a fellow officer.

   But the multitudinous lieutenants and captains in the cast are a bit hard to tell apart and an inordinate number of them seem to be living in the post commander’s lavish house. For better or worse, FORT TERROR makes clear that the original version of North as a sort of soldierly American Holmes had become history.

   In later novels Captain Hugh tackled various problems of international intrigue in exotic locales and did so well that he was promoted to Major and then to Colonel, nimbly leapfrogging over the intervening rank of Lieutenant Colonel. These books converted him from a Holmes-like figure to something of a prototype for James Bond and perhaps for James Atlee Phillips’ American secret agent Joe Gall. Will I tackle any of them in later columns? Dunno.


GREGORY BEAN – No Comfort in Victory. Harry Starbranch #1. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1995; paperback, 1996.

   Well, if one of your old standbys lets you down [referring to Sue Grafton’s “L” Is for Lawless, reviewed here],  why not try a new character and a first novel? Bean was born and raised in Wyoming, currenty lives in New Jersey, and has been a newspaper reporter and editor for the last fifteen years. Excelsior …

   Harry Starbranch is an ex-Denver cop, police chief of a small town in Wyoming, acting as County Sheriff out of Laramie and running for the office. A brutal rape and murder at a nearby ranch with the raper murdered there also sets off a chain of events that involves cattle rustling, vigilantism, and a number of other bloody deaths.

   Well, this wasn’t bad. It was a little slow in spots, and I think the problem may have been that at 350 pages it was about 75 too long. Bean has a nice, easy prose style, and is good at both straight narrative and at describing the Wyoming countryside. His characters were well done, too, though a couple seemed a bit more unlikable than necessary.

   Starbranch himself has potential, I think, and it will be interesting to see what Bean does with him. This isn’t the kind of maiden voyage that calls for predictions of stardom, but assuming that he improves as he goes along, I think Bean will do well.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #21, August-September 1995


      The Harry Starbranch series

1. No Comfort in Victory (1995)
2. Long Shadows in Victory (1996)
3. A Death in Victory (1997)
4. Grave Victory (1998)

by Francis M. Nevins


   There’s a general rule to which the most conspicuous exception in our genre is Agatha Christie: an author’s work dies with the author. Certainly Aaron Marc Stein’s has. Over a period of almost half a century he wrote a total of 114 novels, all but three of them whodunits, and at the peak of his career he was praised by Anthony Boucher of the New York Times Book Review as the most reliable professional detective novelist in America.

   Try to find any of his books now. I began reading Aaron in my teens and got to meet him when he was in his early seventies. We remained friends for the rest of his life. Isn’t it time that I try to resurrect him?

   He was the consummate New Yorker, born there on 15 November 1906, and for his college education went no farther than Princeton University, across the Hudson in New Jersey, from which he graduated in 1927, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. His first publisher was Covici Friede and his first novels, SPIRALS (1930) and HER BODY SPEAKS (1931), were of the avant-garde type and saw print thanks to endorsements from Theodore Dreiser.

   He then adopted the pseudonym of George Bagby for a long-forgotten romance novel, BACHELOR’S WIFE (1932). By this time he’d become interested in mystery fiction and, still using the Bagby byline, began writing what turned out to be a 48-book series of whodunits featuring Inspector Schmidt, a Manhattan police detective who is characterized mainly by taking off his shoes whenever possible, to ease the sore feet he developed in his early years as a beat cop.

   The first three Schmidts were published by Covici Friede, with either Aaron or his editor opting to use Bagby as both the byline on the novels and the Watson figure. Bagby the character is not a cop but a professional writer commissioned to turn Schmidt’s cases into fiction. He calls himself Schmidty’s ghost writer but, since he not the Inspector is presented as the author, it’s more accurate to describe him as Schmidty’s chronicler, just as S.S. Van Dine, still a name to reckon with in the first half of the 1930s, was the chronicler of his detective hero, although Bagby is much more vivid than his unheard and invisible counterpart in the Philo Vance novels.


   The fourth Schmidt, which is the earliest I have on my shelves, was the first of dozens of Aaron’s novels published over the next near half-century by Doubleday Crime Club. With the income from his early books rather paltry, he prudently kept the day job he’d held since shortly after graduating from Princeton, as a reporter for the New York Evening Post.

   Eventually he became the paper’s radio critic, learned a huge amount about the inner workings of a broadcasting system, and put his knowledge to use in MURDER ON THE NOSE (1938). Schmidty and Bagby are implausibly first on the scene when the report comes in of what might almost be a John Dickson Carr impossible-crime situation: At the end of his signature tune “I Telegraph My Love to You,” and simultaneous with the sound of a clashing cymbal from the small orchestra backing him up, radio crooner Roddy James has been shot to death by an invisible assassin with an invisible gun in a broadcast studio full of people who saw nothing and heard nothing.

   It soon develops that everyone on the scene — the musicians, the announcer, the sound control engineer, the sponsor — had opportunity to commit the murder, but no one seems to have a motive, and the only real mystery besides the obvious one of how-was-it-done concerns why the program’s sponsor, a manufacturer of toothache remedies, insisted on James as the program’s singer when he was unpopular, technically inept, and did nothing to promote the sponsor’s product.

   Eventually there’s a second murder, a poisoning in a jazz club, and then a third, which bears a cousinly resemblance to the first, the victim this time being shut inside the broadcast system’s transmitter and electrocuted. With Schmidt we learn a great deal about the inner workings of 1930s radio before the solution, which is perhaps a bit too technical but indicates that Aaron must have done a prodigious amount of research into the nuts and bolts of broadcasting.

   There are far too many said substitutes, the most overused of the lot being “murmured,” and a few incidental details, like the group of female gospel singers from Harlem who keep turning up at murders, are treated in a manner that might offend some 21st-century political correctness freaks. But I must say I enjoyed the book and am delighted to have had Aaron sign my copy more than forty years ago.


   Before his next novel appeared, Aaron started working as a staff writer on Time magazine but he waited a few years to make use of that background. For the sixth Schmidt, THE CORPSE WITH THE PURPLE THIGHS (1939), he tapped into memories of his tenth reunion at Princeton in 1937, which I can’t believe was as chaotic or liquor-soaked as its fictional counterpart.

   Although neither the town of Princeton nor its university is mentioned specifically, Bagby tells us that he is of the class of 1927, which Aaron was too. Having traveled by train to the nameless town from whose nameless university he’d graduated ten years earlier, and wearing the pirate costume that is the uniform for the class of ‘27, George makes for the firehouse that is serving as headquarters for the alumni of his year. (Alumni is precisely the right word here since all the grads are men. Princeton didn’t go co-ed until the late 1960s.)

   After some imbibing and a crap game he leaves the firehouse and, in the alley alongside the building, stumbles in the dark over what he first assumes is a drunk sleeping it off but quickly discovers is a corpse. He calls the local police, then returns to the alley with a fellow member of the class of ‘27 who’s a doctor. Voila! No corpse.

   The Inspector drives down, arriving late that night, and tells Bagby that someone tried to run his car off the road after he’d stopped for directions at a local roadhouse, which happens to be run by a scar-faced mobster. Schmidty immediately takes over the local police department and soon gets to meet several of Bagby’s classmates including that doctor, a football hero known as Stinker, a congenital drunk known as Zipper, and a guy with a movie camera who’s determined to get every member of the class into his film.

   Complications keep piling up during the long Friday night and, thanks to a total of three murders (the same total as in MURDER ON THE NOSE), nobody gets much sleep. Soon after the traditional Saturday morning parade of the various classes of grads, Schmidty pulls the proverbial rabbit out of the hat and, with total unfairness to the reader, collars the killer.

   Bagby’s summary of everything that happened consumes several pages and leaves us wondering why the culprit made such a microscopically detailed confession. Frankly, I found this exploit rather uninvolving. Could Aaron have made a mistake taking Schmidty out of the big city? I didn’t try to count the number of lines of dialogue that the characters murmur but it must be huge.


   We’re back in Manhattan with the next Schmidt novel, THE CORPSE WORE A WIG (1940). Like the previous books I’ve discussed here, this one features three murders, a very tight time frame, and countless lines of dialogue that their speakers murmur. (On one page that verb appears three times in ten short paragraphs.)

   We also find what in later years was to become one of Aaron’s trademarks, a host of long long sentences worthy of Hegel or Faulkner. Here’s a typical example from early in Chapter One.

   Just as my long career as Schmidty’s ghost has convinced me I cannot hope to rival his capacity for unraveling the tangled threads of a crime into its logical components and reassembling these into the inevitable web of the crime’s true texture, just so I do flatter myself that I have profited from this association with Schmidty at least to the extent of being able to confront a simple point of evidence with an open mind and read it for what it is worth.


   The plot begins when a medical examiner doing a routine autopsy on another doctor, who seems to have died of natural causes, calls in Schmidty upon discovering that, as per the title, the cadaver was wearing a hairpiece — and beneath it a bullet hole which, on its way into the top of his skull, penetrated a perfectly fine head of hair identical to the wig.

   With Bagby in tow as usual, the Inspector visits the dead man’s office and residence, on the ground floor of an East 77th Street apartment building, and soon discovers that the doctor had only seven patients and wanted no more.

   Questioning his nurse and her artist boyfriend reveals that the doctor had taken up the hobby of etching, and that a great deal of the cyanide he’d been using in his hobby is missing. During the Q&A two visitors come knocking, a former criminal turned theatrical wigmaker and a clearly but subtly gay hairdresser who prefers to be called a scalp specialist.

   It soon develops that the doctor derived most of his income from operating a private medical service for injured criminals. Later that day the wigmaker and an employee of the hairdresser are found poisoned, giving us the requisite three bodies. Before midnight Schmidty has solved all three crimes, although Aaron denies us any chance to anticipate the solution and reveals the little-known fact that triggered Schmidt’s suspicions only in the last paragraph.

   Nevertheless I sort of liked the book, mainly because of some interesting situations — would a woman try to create an alibi by tethering herself to a permanent-wave machine that burned her hair and scorched her scalp? — and the glimpses of offtrail environments like the wigmaking and hairdressing emporiums. But purely as a detective novel it’s nothing special.


   The eighth in the series, RED IS FOR KILLING (1941), differs from earlier Bagby novels in several respects. There’s only one murder — supplemented by two near-fatal assaults, one of them on Bagby himself — the time span covers two whole days and nights, and Aaron seems to have cured himself of the Faulkner sentence syndrome and murmuritis.

   He also made such use of his stint at Time magazine, which he portrayed (whether fairly or not I have no idea) as a zoo full of screwballs writing their journalism in a wacko parody of normal English, that he would surely have been fired if he hadn’t already resigned to become a professional novelist.

   Schmidt and Bagby visit the offices of the upstart newsmagazine Tidings, on the top three floors of the same skyscraper that houses the Coast to Coast Broadcasting Network from MURDER ON THE NOSE, when the body of its newest employee, the sharp point of a letter spike buried in the back of his neck, is found in one room of the magazine’s offices, a special library devoted to the collapse of an automotive empire.

   His aching feet encased in comfortable slippers, Schmidty comes to suspect that the more he learns about the dead man and why he was hired the more likely he’ll find the murderer, and starts questioning several of the Tidings brass — a can of mixed nuts of the first water — and a few outsiders including an obnoxious gossip columnist, a politically ambitious plutocrat and the widow of one of the men involved in that business collapse.

   Readers are apt to figure out the late Harold Quimby’s real identity sooner than Schmidt does but have no chance of solving the murder puzzle ahead of the Inspector since Aaron as usual has no interest in playing fair. But his vivid if perhaps biased evocation of the newsmagazine environment, foreshadowing his explorations of various Manhattan milieus in later novels, helps make RED IS FOR KILLING one of his better early efforts.


   Those efforts consist of nine Bagbys plus the first four whodunits published under his own name, which featured the archaeologist/amateur detective team of Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt.

   What put an end to his first period was Pearl Harbor. He joined the Office of War Information and later the Army, in which he served as a cryptographer. On his return to civilian life he went back to writing full-time and continued to do so until his death forty years later.

   It was the novels he wrote in the late Forties and Fifties that led Anthony Boucher to call him the most reliable American practitioner of his genre. In later columns I hope to explore some of them.

NOTE: I first read this book in 2006, and this review was first posted in June 2009. I’ve just read the book again, but instead of writing a new review, I’ve decided to re-post this old one.

DAVID DODGE – Shear the Black Sheep.   Popular Library 202, paperback reprint; no date stated, but circa 1949. Hardcover edition: The Macmillan Co., 1942. Magazine appearance: Cosmopolitan, July 1942.

   After I finished reading this, the second murder mystery adventure of accountant detective Jim “Whit” Whitney, I went researching as I usually do, and it didn’t come as any surprise to learn (from a website devoted to David Dodge) that Dodge was also a CPA by profession, and that he started writing mystery fiction only on a dare from his wife.

   Although Dodge went on to another series (one with private eye Al Colby) and after that several standalones, there were only four books in the Whit Whitney series, to wit:

Death and Taxes. Macmilllan, hc, 1941. Popular Library 168, pb, 1949.


Shear the Black Sheep. Macmillan, hc, 1942. Popular Library 202, pb, 1949.

Bullets for the Bridegroom. Macmillan, hc, 1944. Popular Library 252, pb, 1950.


It Ain’t Hay. Simon & Schuster, hc, 1946. Dell 270, pb, mapback edition, 1949.


   You can find much more detailed entries for each of these books at the David Dodge website, which includes a complete bibliography of all of his other books, both fiction and non-fiction. Not to mention his plays, his magazine stories, the articles he wrote and all of the radio, TV and movie adaptations of his work, the most well-known of which is To Catch a Thief, the Cary Grant and Grace Kelly film from 1955. Comprehensive is an understatement, and it’s definitely worth looking into, just to see a bibliography done right.

   As for Whit Whitney, his home base is San Francisco, but in Shear the Black Sheep he is talked into taking a case in Los Angeles over the New Year’s Eve holiday weekend. Against his better judgment, he agrees to check into the activities of a client’s son, who seems to be spending too much of his father’s money in the business they’re in. They’re a wool brokerage firm — hence the title. The son has also left his wife and new-born baby. Is there another woman?


   Assisting Whitney — or making her way down to LA on her own to spend the holiday with him, or as much of it as there is left after Whit’s investigative duties are over– is Kitty MacLeod, “the best-looking girl in San Francisco, and pretty clever as well,” as she’s described on page 12.

   I’ve not read the first book in the series, and make no doubt about it, I will, but in that book (according the short recap on just about the same page) Whit’s former partner was murdered and at the time, Kitty was his wife.

   It’s now six months later, and Whit and Kitty have become very close. Whit is beginning to worry that some of his colleagues are starting to talk. There had even been some talk at the time that Whit had had something to do with Kitty’s ex’s departure from life, and getting out of the jam at the time seems to be the gist of the story in Death and Taxes.

   But that was then, and this is now. There is indeed a woman involved, as suspected — getting back to the case that Whit was hired to do — and the woman leads to a hotel room, and in the hotel room are … gamblers. A crooked card game, and the black sheep is getting sheared.

   It is all sort of a light-hearted tale, in a way, but then a murder occurs, and a screwy case gets even screwier — in a hard-boiled kind of fashion. Let me quote from page 160. Whit is talking to his client, who speaks first:

    “I don’t think it’s wise to interfere with the police, Whitney.”

   “I won’t interfere with them. I’d cooperate with them except that they’ve told me to keep out of it. I want you to know how I feel, Mr. Clayton. You hired me to find out what Bob was doing with your money, and to stop it. I found out what was going on, but I thought the best way to stop it was to let these crooks get out on a limb, and then saw it off behind them. I thought I could protect your money and show Bob what was happening at the same time. I guessed wrong. I don’t know who killed […] or why he was killed, and I don’t think I’m responsible for his death, but I’m in a bad spot and I’d like to bail out of it by myself — for my own satisfaction. The police needn’t know what I’m doing. I don’t have to tell you that I don’t want to be paid for it, but if you haven’t any objection, I’ll try to find out who killed […] and get your money back.”


   Here are a few lines from page 170, at which point things are not going so well:

    He got off the bed and prowled thoughtfully around the room in his stocking feet, still holding the beer glass. What would Sherlock Holmes do with a case like this? Probably give himself a needleful in the arm — Whit drained his beer glass — and deduce the hell out of the case.

   Whit tried deduction.

   Those were the days when mystery thrillers were also detective novels. After a long paragraph in which Whit tries out his best logic on the tangled threads of the plot, and who was where and when and why:

    It was a pretty wormy syllogism. As a deducer Whit knew he was a lemon when it came to logic, and he was an extra-sour lemon because he didn’t know enough about Bob Clayton to figure out what he might do in a given set of circumstances. Such as having a pair of football tickets to dispose of, for example. Ruth Martin might have known where they went, but didn’t, ditto Mrs. Clayton, ditto John Clayton. Jack Morgan was the next one to try.

   What’s interesting is that Kitty has more to do with solving the case than Whit does. Things happen rather quickly at the end, and if all of the loose ends are (or are not) all tied up, no one other than I seems to think it matters, as long as the killer is caught — who was not someone I suspected, or did I? I probably suspected everyone at one point or another.

   I also wonder if what happens on the last page has anything to do with the title of Whit Whitney’s next adventure in crime-solving. Read it, I must. And I will.

— March 2006.

[UPDATE #1] 06-24-09.   That’s a promise to myself that I haven’t kept yet, alas, and re-reading this review (and looking at those paperback covers) gives me all the resolve I need to follow through. You can count on that and take it to the bank. Non-negotiable.

[UPDATE #2] 06-29-21. Looks like I can’t keep promises very well, even those I make to myself. This is still the only book in the series I’ve read. I have just given myself a good talking to.

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