Authors


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

   

   In memory of Alex Trebek we begin with a Jeopardy!-style clue. This iconic suspense writer appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine 70-plus times, and now more than half a century after his death he’s in the magazine again. The question of course is: “Who is Cornell Woolrich?”

   Beginning with Volume 1 Number 1 (Fall 1941) he had a total of 75 stories in EQMM (or, depending on whether you count once or twice the tale published in two parts in two consecutive issues, 76). I will add a complete list of his originals and reprints in the magazine at the end of this column. Recently, with the publication of the January-February 2021 issue, the number has risen to 76 (or 77). There’s a story behind how this new story was unearthed, and it falls to me to tell it here.

   Woolrich was a native New Yorker, born in 1903, to parents whose marriage came apart soon after they moved to Mexico where his father lived. He grew up there with his father, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich (1878-1948), but after he reached high-school age and returned to Manhattan to live with his mother and maternal grandfather, he never saw Genaro again.

   His earliest novels and stories, beginning in 1926, were not in our genre but somewhat closer (well, maybe not all that close) to the work of the young literary idol of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1934 he began a 15-year period of white-hot creativity as the master of suspense, the Hitchcock of the written word. During the middle 1950s, with those years behind him, he set out to return to mainstream fiction with a series of stories about the birth, adolescence, maturity, old age and death of a New York hotel from its opening night in 1896 till the eve of its demolition in 1957.

   Before these tales were published in book form as Hotel Room (Random House, 1958), the editors decided that each chapter in the collection except the first and last, which constitute a framing story, should have some link with an historic event: the end of World War I, the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, the stock-market collapse.

   This decision required the removal of the tales without such a connection. One of these, “The Penny-a-Worder,” was bought by EQMM founding editor Fred Dannay and published in the magazine’s September 1958 issue, the first of a dozen Woolrich originals in the magazine between then and 1970, two years after Woolrich’s death. Were there other such stories? And if so, what happened to them?

   Woolrich’s will left all his literary rights in trust to Columbia University, where he had gone as an undergraduate in the Twenties (although he quit in his junior year when his first novel sold), and Columbia is also the repository of his papers. In March 2019 I was invited to come east and give a talk at the university’s second annual Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival, which was devoted to the many movies based on Woolrich. (You can find my presentation below.)

      

   During the several days of the program, the Columbia library presented an exhibit of Woolrich papers, of which I was treated to a private viewing while I was in New York. Most of what was on display I had seen before, but two manuscripts were new to me.

   As chance would have it, however, I remembered something about one of them. Several years ago Otto Penzler told me that he’d been offered a heretofore unknown Woolrich story, apparently one intended for but excised from Hotel Room. He remembered its first words and quoted them to me: “She came to the hotel alone….” He had not bought the document and didn’t know what had happened to it. Now in 2019 I was staring at the typescript of a story with the exact same first words.

   After returning to St. Louis I asked the professor who had invited me to Columbia if he could possibly arrange for me to be sent a copy of that story. He did, and I liked it very much. And, thanks to the evolution of our genre “from the detective story to the crime novel” over the 60-odd years since Woolrich had written what I now held in my hands.

   I thought it might interest Janet Hutchings, the present editor of EQMM, and emailed her a copy made from mine. Learning that she too liked it very much, I put her in touch with the agent for the Woolrich estate and a deal was made. If you have the first issue of the magazine for this year, you have the story — not under Woolrich’s awkward original title, “The Fiancée Without a Future,” but as “The Dark Oblivion.” Quite an improvement, yes?

   A question may have crossed your mind as you were reading the last paragraph: What about that other Woolrich story in the exhibit? Well, I managed to obtain a copy of that one too, but it was hardly worth the effort. “The Fault-Finder” is not only a poor story — one of many such dating from Woolrich’s last years — but it isn’t crime fiction even in the broadest sense of that term.

   Since no one is ever likely to see this 13-page story, I have no qualms about describing it. The year is 1915, and a husband and wife are in the St. Anselm Hotel, preparing to set out on a vacation cruise across the Atlantic. (Woolrich doesn’t bother to mention that in fact all Europe was at war that year.)

   The woman keeps insulting and belittling her poor henpecked husband. Finally he goes out to a tavern across the street to drown his sorrows and stays there too long so that their ship has already left New York Harbor by the time he returns to the hotel. Furiously she orders him to call up the steamship line and demand their money back. Klutz to the last, the husband can’t remember the name of the ship they were to sail on.

   His wife berates him as an incompetent imbecile and tells him that they were booked on — have you guessed it? — the Lusitania. End of story. It’s perfectly consistent with the central insight of noir — in Hammett’s words, that we live while blind chance spares us — but that doesn’t qualify it as crime fiction or improve it as a story.

   Woolrich may have written these tales a little before the publication of Hotel Room or he may have written them a few years later, in the very early 1960s. What suggests this second possibility is that, along with copies of the stories themselves, Columbia had sent me a sort of cover sheet in Woolrich’s handwriting, the table of contents for a new and expanded version of Hotel Room, with the title of the book changed to Nine Nights in a New York Hotel and each story in the 1958 version re-titled also. The most fascinating aspect of this sheet of paper is at the top: Woolrich writes his own name as the author, just as it was in the 1958 version, then crosses it out and substitutes his well-known pseudonym William Irish! Why did he do that? I think I can explain.

   After the breakup of his marriage to Woolrich’s mother, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich had had liaisons with many women, the last and longest being with Esperanza Piñon Brangas. Their daughter Alma was born in Nogales, Sonora on 17 June 1938 and, as far as I know, is still alive.

   “I learned I had a brother who was a writer when I was fourteen,” Alma said in a telephone interview in Spanish with the Argentine author Juan José Delaney. In 1961 Alma came up from Oaxaca to New Jersey to visit her father’s half-nephew Carlos Burlingham (1925-2004) and his family, staying with them for more than a year.

   Carlos wrote to Woolrich via his publisher, expecting that the son of his Tio Genaro would want to meet the half-sister he’d never seen. He received in reply a telegram from Woolrich’s attorney, of which Carlos gave me a copy. “He flatly refused to accept the fact” that he had a half-sister, Carlos told me, and the attorney insisted that Genaro had remained faithful to Woolrich’s mother throughout his life.

   Once settled in New Jersey, Alma crossed the Hudson to New York in hopes of meeting her famous half-brother. “But he wouldn’t receive me…. I remember that he sent out his secretary saying that he didn’t want to see me.” Woolrich never had a secretary. Juan José Delaney told me that the word Alma had used in their phone interview was secretario.

   It was a man who had turned her away from Woolrich’s door. That man had to have been Woolrich himself. I can’t prove it but I know it. How could anyone have resisted the temptation to sneak a peek at his only living relative without revealing himself? If he had died without a will, his half-sister who speaks little or no English would have inherited all his copyrights by intestate succession.

   To me that explains why on 6 March 1961 he signed a document leaving his rights and everything else he owned in trust to Columbia University. It also explains why, later in 1961, he legally changed his name to William Irish: it was a way of spitting in the face of his long-dead father. The table of contents page for that anticipated new edition of Hotel Room, with its conspicuous name change at the top of the sheet, almost certainly dates from around this time. That new edition of course never materialized, and the tale he called “The Fiancée Without a Future” never saw print until the beginning of this year.

   Now that you know the stories behind that story, I hope that, if you haven’t already read “The Dark Oblivion“ in the January-February EQMM, you soon will.
   
   

CORNELL WOOLRICH Stories in EQMM, along with original appearances:

Fal 1941 Dime a Dance (Black Mask, Feb 1938)
Sep 1943 After-Dinner Story (Black Mask, Jan 1938)
Sep 1944 The Fingernail (”The Customer’s Always Right,” Detective Tales, Jul 1941)
Mar 1945 The Mathematics of Murder (“What the Well Dressed Corpse Will Wear,” Dime Detective, Mar 1944)
May 1945 Leg Man (Dime Detective, Aug 1943)
Feb 1946 The Earring (“The Death Stone,” Detective Fiction Weekly, Feb 1943)
Jul 1946 If the Dead Could Talk (Black Mask, Feb 1943)
Dec 1946 Angel Face (“Face Work,” Black Mask, Oct 1937)
Feb 1947 You Take Ballistics (Double Detective, Jan 1938)
Apr 1947 Steps Going Up (“Men Must Die,” Black Mask, Aug 1939)
Feb 1948 That’s Your Own Funeral (“Your Own Funeral,” Argosy, 19 Jun 1937)
Aug 1948 The Night Reveals (Story, Apr 1936)
Nov 1948 Johnny on the Spot (Detective Fiction Weekly, 2 May 1936)
Dec 1948 The Body in Grant’s Tomb (Dime Detective, Jan 1943)
Mar 1949 Speak to Me of Death (Argosy, 27 Feb 1937)
Apr 1949 Somebody on the Phone (Detective Fiction Weekly, 31 Jul 1937)
May 1949 Momentum (“Murder Always Gathers Momentum,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 14 Dec 1940)
Jul 1949 Collared (Black Mask, Oct 1939)
Oct 1949 Blind Date (“The Corpse and the Kid,” Dime Detective, Sep 1935)
Dec 1949 Mystery in Room 913 (Detective Fiction Weekly, 4 Jun 1938)
Mar 1950 The Humming Bird Comes Home (Pocket Detective, Mar 1937)
Jun 1950 The Night I Died (Detective Fiction Weekly, 8 Aug 1936)
Sep 1950 Cab, Mister? (Black Mask, Nov 1937)
Dec 1950 The Heavy Sugar (Pocket Detective, Jan 1937)
Mar 1951 Through a Dead Man’s Eye (Black Mask, Dec 1939)
Jul 1951 Death in Round Three (Pocket Detective, Apr 1937)
Sep 1951 Charlie Won’t Be Home Tonight (Dime Detective, Jul 1939)
Nov 1951 All at Once, No Alice (Argosy, 2 Mar 1940)
Mar 1953 Goodbye, New York (Story, Oct 1937)
May 1953 Dormant Account (Black Mask, May 1942)
Jul 1953 Cinderella and the Mob (Argosy, 23 Jun 1940)
Sep 1953 The Loophole (“Three Kills for One,” Black Mask, Jul 1942)
Mar 1954 The Last Bus Home (“Of Time and Murder,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 15 Mar 1941)
Jun 1954 Dead Shot (“Picture Frame,” Black Mask, Jul 1944)
Oct 1954 Debt of Honor (“I.O.U.—One Life,” Double Detective, Nov 1938)
Dec 1954 Something That Happened in Our House (“Murder at Mother’s Knee,” Dime Detective, October 1941)
Feb 1955 Meet Me by the Mannequin (Dime Detective, June 1940)
Mar 1955 Invitation to Sudden Death (“Blue Is for Bravery,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 27 Feb 1937)
Jun 1955 Death at the Burlesque (“The Fatal Footlights,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 14 June 1941)
Sep 1955 The Most Exciting Show in Town (“Double Feature,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 16 May 1936)
Dec 1955 One Night To Be Dead Sure Of (“The Living Lie Down with the Dead,” Dime Detective, Apr 1936)
May 1956 The Absent-Minded Murder (“Cool, Calm and Detected,” Black Mask, Apr 1941)
Sep 1956 The Ice Pick Murders (“Death in Duplicate,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 17 Feb 1940)
Jan 1957 Wait for Me Downstairs (“Finger of Doom,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 22 Jun 1940)
Feb 1958 Endicott’s Girl (Detective Fiction Weekly, 19 Feb 1938)
Mar 1958 Don’t Bet on Murder (“You Bet Your Life,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 25 Sep 1937)
Jun 1958 Hurting Much? (“Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 4 Aug 1934)
Sep 1958 The Penny-a-Worder (original)
Feb 1959 The Inside Story (“Murder Story,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 11 Sep 1937)
Mar 1959 Blonde Beauty Slain (original)
Sep 1959 Dead Roses (“The Death Rose,” Baffling Detective Mysteries, Mar 1943)
Jun 1961 Hot Water (Argosy, 28 Dec 1935)
Oct 1961 The Singing Hat (“The Counterfeit Hat,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 18 Feb 1939)
Jan 1962 Money Talks (original)
Apr 1962 One Drop of Blood (original)
Feb 1963 The Cape Triangular (Detective Fiction Weekly, 16 Apr 1938)
Jul 1963 I’ll Never Play Detective Again (Black Mask, May 1937)
Mar 1964 Working Is for Fools (original; radio-play version of “Dilemma of the Dead Lady,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 4 Jul 1936)
Apr 1964 Steps…Coming Near (original)
Jun 1964 When Love Turns (original)
Oct 1964 Adventures of a Fountain Pen (“Dipped in Blood,” Street & Smith’s Detective Story, Apr 1945)
Dec 1964 Murder After Death (original) Dec 1965 Just Enough to Cover a Thumbnail (“C-Jag,” Black Mask, Oct 1940)
Jul 1966 It Only Takes a Minute to Die (original)
Dec 1966 All It Takes Is Brains (“Crime on St. Catherine Street,” Argosy, 25 Jan 1936)
Apr 1967 The Talking Eyes (“The Case of the Talking Eyes,” Dime Detective, Sep 1939)
Jun 1967 Divorce—New York Style: I (original)
Jul 1967 Divorce—New York Style: II (original)
May 1968 For the Rest of Her Life (original)
Feb 1969 Rear Window (“It Had To Be Murder,” Dime Detective, Feb 1942)
Dec 1970 New York Blues (original)
Apr 1972 Only One Grain More (“The Detective’s Dilemma,” Detective Fiction Weekly, 26 Oct 1940)
Sep 1972 The Lie (Detective Fiction Weekly, 9 Oct 1937)
Jul 1975 Mystery in the Statue of Liberty (“Red Liberty,” Dime Detective, 1 Jul 1935)
Oct 1978 Death Between Dances (Shadow Mystery Magazine, Dec 1947-Jan 1948)
Jun 1983 The Phantom of the Subway (“You Pays Your Nickel,” Argosy, 22 Aug 1936)

   If you’re as big a fan of obscure mystery writers and characters as I am, you’re going to enjoy this immensely.

BLACKIE SAVOY

   Over the past twenty years David Vineyard has been tracking down information about a man who certainly qualifies as all but totally forgotten, Australian thriller writer Paul Savoy and his primary series character Blackie Savoy. Tidbit by tidbit, piece by piece, David has also painstakingly put together a bibliography of perhaps the most difficult set of books to find in all of mystery fiction.

   Over the past several weeks, David and I have compiled all of this information into a single article and posted it on the primary Mystery*File website. (Follow the link.)

   The article is far too long to have been posted it here on the blog. Cover images have been included, but the books, both hardcover and paperback, are so scarce that many of the scans are in far poorer condition than I’d have preferred. Nonetheless, working on the principle that something is better than nothing, I’ve included everything that David has been able to send me.

   The article plus the bibliography, which includes adaptations of Savoy’s work into a single film, Blackie Savoy Gets His (Centaur Studios, 1935), comic strips, radio shows, and a four-year syndicated program on Australian TV that seems to have slipped the memories of almost everyone, is, we believe, all that is known about the author.

   Obviously if anyone can supply any more information, including specific publishing dates, reprint editions, and any covers that David has not come across on his own, would be extremely welcome.

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

   

   Around 5:30 A.M. on Saturday, January 9, I lost one of my closest friends in the mystery field. John Lutz was the first writer I met after moving to St. Louis in the early 1970s. At that time, when he was in his early thirties and I in my late twenties, he was known only for his short stories in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock and other genre magazines. We grew as writers together, our first hardcover novels coming out a year apart.

    Either more prudent or more cowardly than John, I kept my day job. He chose to write full-time, and soon became very well known indeed, perhaps more for the novel that was turned into the movie SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992) than for any other book. He continued to write until about two years ago when Parkinson’s and other health issues ended his long career.

***

   He was a native Texan, born in Dallas on September 11, 1939. When he was four his photographer father moved the family to St. Louis. Soon after the end of World War II the elder Lutz opened a tavern which he continued to own and operate for more than twenty years. John graduated from Southwest High School in 1957 and, having not the foggiest notion what he wanted to do with his life, found a job as a movie theater usher. The following year, at age 19, he married Barbara Jean Bradley, who worked at the same theater. The marriage lasted more than sixty years.

   A young man who becomes a husband and father before he’s old enough to vote, and who has to support the family putting in long hours at low-level jobs, will rarely have the energy to read for enjoyment, let alone to write, during what little free time he has. John Lutz did. In the early 1960s he was working on various night shifts as a civilian switchboard operator for the St. Louis Police Department, a forklift operator, and a warehouseman for a grocery chain.

   By daylight he was reading voraciously — among his favorites at the time were John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, John Collier, Gerald Kersh and Roald Dahl — and pounding out dozens of his own short stories at warp speed, sometimes not even bothering to make a carbon. When or if he slept remains a mystery. “It looked easy,” he said, “so I tried it and found out it wasn’t.”

   None of his stories sold but that, he said after making the grade, was “part of the learning process.” Dozens of rejection slips in a row have aborted countless potential writing careers but John refused to get discouraged. “I saw I could improve, so I kept at it.” After a while the editors who turned down his material began to write supportive comments in their sorry-we-can’t-use-this letters. “That’s a good sign. I’d know I was close to a sale then.”

   Most of his stories were mysteries because he liked to read them and thought they were relatively easy to sell. One frabjous day in early 1966 he opened his mail and out popped a contract. He was still working the night shift at a grocery warehouse when his first story came out. “Thieves’ Honor” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 1966) opened the door for him, and acceptances soon began pouring in. Six of his tales appeared in 1967, ten in ‘68, five more in ‘69. Within a few years of his unheralded entry into the genre he was being published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, the science-fiction periodical Galaxy, the Diners Club magazine Signature, men’s mags like Knight and Swank and Cavalier.

   But the majority of his stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and many of those are among his finest. In 1975, his tenth year in the field, eighteen new Lutz tales were published including five (under his own name and four pseudonyms) in a single issue of a single magazine. Now that’s productivity!

   Even after 1971 when his first novel was published, John prudently held onto his job as night warehouseman. Eventually he found a better-paying position as a truck driver. In 1973, after being laid off from that job, he decided to take a crack at full-time writing. Two years later he and his wife Barbara and their three children and their dog moved across St. Louis County to a stucco house on a wooded corner lot in suburban Webster Groves, where they lived for the next thirty-odd years.

***

   There are no series characters in most of his short stories but there are what one might call series elements. The two that are identified with him are husbands seeking a method of wife-disposal and off-the-wall business organizations. Occasionally, like the creator of two different series detectives who has his sleuths work together on a particular case, he used both signature elements in a single story, for example “Fractions” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, June 1972), which is about a company that manipulates unwanted spouses into cheating.

   John could create a new business as easily as a rabbit can create another rabbit, but most of his imaginary entities share a common factor. Beneath the impressive facade and the smiles and the handshakes they’re out to take us. He was never all that fond of the self-congratulatory social Darwinism known as the free enterprise system, and even when dealing with businesses that exist in reality he combined a healthy cynicism with imaginative bizarrerie and came up with dandy items like “Mail Order” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, April 1975) and “Understanding Electricity” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, August 1975), which read as if Kafka had come back from the grave to collaborate with Ralph Nader.

   Not all his stories were of this sort, but the best do tend to stem from wildly distinctive premises, like “The Real Shape of the Coast” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1971) with its lunatic detective trying to solve a murder in the asylum, or “Dead Man” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, March 1974) where we share the last hours of a tycoon locked inside a walk-in vault with a few hours’ air supply as he gropes desperately for a clue to the identity of his own murderer.

   His first decade as a writer also saw the publication of his first two novels. THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER (1971) is a paperback about a fugitive couple being stalked across the Midwest by the police but mainly by their own lies and self-deceptions and fears. BUYER BEWARE (1976) introduced St. Louis PI Alo Nudger, whose trademark is a nervous stomach and whose specialty is the legal counter-kidnaping of children kidnaped by non-custodial parents.

   Then came four breakthrough books that established him as a writer to contend with. BONEGRINDER (1977) is a bit like JAWS out of water, pitting a rural sheriff against a Bigfoot-like monster terrorizing a small town in the Ozarks. LAZARUS MAN (1979) is a Watergate-era political thriller in which the G. Gordon Liddy figure gets out of prison determined to kill the Nixon figure and his cronies one by one, only to find that they’re just as bent on killing him.

   JERICHO MAN (1980) is the first but far from the last novel in which John mined the Lawrence Sanders vein of urban violence, with a tough NYPD captain and a young architect battling the madman who planted dynamite in the foundations of several high-rises when they were under construction. In THE SHADOW MAN (1981) a U.S. Senator is stalked through the Manhattan nightscape by what seems to be a psychotic political assassin with the power to be in several places at once.

   John never stopped writing short stories even when he was turning out a novel a year, but his magazine appearances became rarer. A few of his tales from this period featured series characters like Nudger or BONEGRINDER’s Sheriff Billy Wintone, and an occasional non-series story furnished raw material for a later novel, like “The Other Runner” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1978), the source for one of the scariest of the murders in LAZARUS MAN a year later.

   But stories like “Pure Rotten” (Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, August 1977) and “Dear Dorie” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, September 16, 1981) are as crazy as any he dreamed up in his early days, and “High Stakes” (The Saint Mystery Magazine, June 1984) is one of the most terrifying short stories of suspense since the death of Cornell Woolrich.

   The Edgar that Mystery Writers of America awarded him for the Nudger story “Ride the Lightning” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, January 1985), was an honor well deserved and long overdue.

   In THE EYE (1984) John and co-author Bill Pronzini revisited Lawrence Sanders country and came up with a powerful noir thriller. A wealthy madman living in a Jersey Palisades highrise keeps his balcony telescope trained on the residents of a single block of Manhattan’s West 98th Street. His name is God, and those who violate his commandments he kills.

   Assigned to the series of West 98th Street murders is plainclothesman E.L. Oxman, a diligent plodder trapped in a cancerous marriage and desperate for affection on almost any terms. When he takes up with the promiscuous young artist who lives on the murder-plagued block, they both unwittingly nominate themselves as God’s next targets.

   Next John revived Alo Nudger but in a somewhat reconfigured version. The character’s ill-advised first name is almost never mentioned, he no longer specializes in the legal kidnaping of children (or anything else), the narration has shifted from first to third person, and the protagonist’s symbiotic relationship with his city has become almost as strong as Spenser’s with Boston or Philip Marlowe’s with L.A.

   The new Nudger comes close to being a total loser, plagued by overdue bills and deadbeat clients and a bloodsucking ex-wife and shoddy consumer goods and that old nervous stomach and most of all by his near-paralyzing unaggressiveness and compassion.

   His office is above a doughnut shop in a dreary suburb of north St. Louis County. He drives a dented old Volkswagen Beetle that he has trouble finding whenever he parks in a shopping center lot and which tends to die on him for lack of maintenance when he uses it to chase or shadow someone.

   He shares the world of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp: whatever can go wrong for him, will. In NIGHTLINES (1984) Nudger encounters a suicidal woman whose life is even more messed up than his own while hunting the slasher who’s been using the phone company’s private equipment-testing lines to make blind dates with his female victims.

   RIDE THE LIGHTNING (1987), expanded from his Edgar-winning short story, puts Nudger in a hopeless race against the clock to save a petty criminal from being electrocuted for one crime he may not have committed. The tenth and final novel in the series was OOPS! (1998) which, I immodestly point out, was dedicated to me.

   One Nudger book a year left John ample time to launch a second private eye series, this one set in central Florida and featuring a character for whom the perfect movie incarnation would have been Robert Duvall. Fred Carver is a balding fortyish ex-cop whose police career ended when he was kneecapped by a Latino street punk. Vegetating in the beachfront bungalow he bought with his disability pay, Carver is pushed into PI work by friends on the force who want him to stop pitying himself and get on with his life.

   In TROPICAL HEAT (1986) Carver is hired by a lovely realtor to find her lover, who in the middle of a solitary continental breakfast on her terrace either walked out on her for no reason, or jumped off a cliff into the ocean, or was pushed off. The search leads to a condominium time-sharing scam, a drug deal (in Florida what else?), an underwater duel with a knife-wielding Marielito, an airboat chase through the Everglades, and an emotional entanglement which neither Carver nor his client is equipped to handle.

   The plot is of the bare-bones variety but the meat on those bones is prime noir, saturated with vivid descriptions of the Florida heat. All the subsequent Carver novels had one-word titles: SCORCHER, KISS, FLAME, BLOODFIRE, HOT, SPARK, TORCH, BURN, and finally LIGHTNING (1996). For me the finest of the lot is KISS (1988), one of the most disturbing and downbeat of all PI novels.

   Interspersed among his PI books are about sixty short stories published in anthologies of original fiction plus several stand-alone thrillers. SWF SEEKS SAME (1990) is a prime specimen of noir contemporaine in which a young woman in New York advertises for someone to share an apartment with and winds up with the roommate from hell.

   This became by far the best known Lutz novel when it was filmed by director Barbet Schroeder as SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992), starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

   His novels of the 21st century are about twice as long as any of his previous books and, beginning with THE NIGHT CALLER (2001), noir fiction’s favorite word was in the titles of the first half-dozen. Later books followed the lead of JERICHO MAN and THE EYE, concentrating on protracted duels between big-city cop Frank Quinn and various sociopaths.

   In their golden years the Lutzes were living in a lovely house in the affluent suburb of Des Peres that was large enough to accommodate frequent visits from children and grandkids. Their winters were spent in Sarasota and they loved to visit New York for a concentrated week or two of theatergoing.

   John continued to write up a storm, filling his pages with the doings of lovers and losers, butchers and victims, fools and clowns, hunters and prey. His final novel was THE HAVANA GAME (2019).

***

   Over the decades we interacted often. In my second novel, CORRUPT AND ENSNARE (1978), as The Honorable Jon Lutz he was elevated to the rank of justice on a nameless state’s supreme court, and in my short story “The Spark” he became Lon Judson, an author notorious for his stories about husbands killing their wives.

   My fourth novel, THE NINETY MILLION DOLLAR MOUSE (1987), was dedicated to him, and a year later I edited BETTER MOUSETRAPS (1988), his first collection of short stories.

   John and Barb and my late wife Patty and I enjoyed many dinners together at a number of restaurants, of which I most fondly remember the dining room of the Hotel Daniele, right near the line separating St. Louis city from the county seat of Clayton, a restaurant I renamed The Auberge and cannibalized for the fine-dining scene in BENEFICIARIES’ REQUIEM (2000).

   The last time I saw him was in March 2020, shortly before Covid-19 dominated the world. He said nothing, needed a walker to get around, had lost a lot of weight, but he could still function. That soon changed. He deteriorated over the rest of last year and died a little more than a week into this one.

   The only other writers with whom I had such a close and rich relationship were Fred Dannay and Ed Hoch, both of them now long dead. Is it any wonder that as the years pass I feel empty and alone more and more often?

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

   

   After completing five novels about William Crane, Latimer took a break from crime fiction and made an attempt to go mainstream. The result was DARK MEMORY (1940), his last hardcover book to appear in the U.S. for fifteen years, offering us what John Fraser in a Mystery*File essay many years ago called “a Hemingwayesque African safari novel” with “no mystery/thriller/crime fiction aspects to it at all….”

   Then Latimer returned to the PI genre, but carelessly and in great haste and with trimmings American publishers seem to have found repulsive. SOLOMON’S VINEYARD (1941) was issued and apparently sold quite well in Blitzkrieg-battered England but on this side of the pond was available for decades only under a different title and in bowdlerized form. I am lucky enough to have copies of both the censored and the uncensored versions and therefore am in a position to compare them in detail.

   First however I need to describe what happens in VINEYARD, in which Latimer’s obvious goal was to incorporate as many elements from Dashiell Hammett as was humanly possible. Our first-person narrator, St. Louis-based PI Karl Craven, is both fat and tough like Hammett’s Continental Op, although Craven tells us flat out that he cares about nothing but eating, boozing, fighting and sex, while the Op’s only passion is detective work.

   If VINEYARD had made it to the movies he might have been played very effectively by William Conrad as he looked when he portrayed one of the killers in THE KILLERS (1946). Paulton, the Missouri city at which Craven steps off the train as the book begins, is clearly modeled on Poisonville from RED HARVEST, complete with ubiquitous gangsters and corrupt officials and even a sloppy cop in the first chapter.

   Several characters, such as fat Chief Piper and the good-hearted hooker Carmel Todd and her tubercular half-brother, come straight out of HARVEST where their names were Chief Noonan (another fat man), Dinah Brand and Whisper Thaler. Events in both novels are (dare I say it?) triggered by the killing of the son of the town’s richest man (Donald Willsson in HARVEST, Caryle Waterman in VINEYARD), although the latter’s death is not a deliberate murder. Like the Op in HARVEST, Craven spends a good part of VINEYARD manipulating the gangster factions in the town so that they wind up killing each other off.

   But Latimer doesn’t neglect the other Hammett novels. Deeply involved in the sleazy affairs of the community is a bizarre religious cult such as the one the Op tackled in THE DAIN CURSE, and Craven’s mission in Paulton is to get a young woman out of the Temple’s clutches just as the Op tried to do in DAIN. He was preceded on this mission by his partner, who was shot to death not long before Craven’s arrival, and as we all know from THE MALTESE FALCON, when a PI’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.

   It’s not clear whether Latimer borrowed anything from THE GLASS KEY, but Craven does get punched around several times although, unlike Ned Beaumont, he gives back at least as many blows as he receives. From THE THIN MAN nothing seems to have been lifted, perhaps because Latimer had taken his fill from that final Hammett novel in RED GARDENIAS.

   Soon after the war a modified version of VINEYARD was published in Mystery Book Magazine (August 1946) and, a few years later, as a paperback original (Popular Library, pb #301, 1950). Both versions had a new title, THE FIFTH GRAVE, and differed from VINEYARD in several ways, which deserve some exploring:

   (1) The most defensible alteration corrects some gaffes. Three of the minor characters in VINEYARD — the hotel porter, the salesman who gets into a fight with Craven in the hotel bar, and the good-hearted whore’s half-brother — -are all named Charley. In the U.S. version the salesman is rechristened Teddy and the half-brother Donnie. (The corrupt police chief in VINEYARD is named Piper and one of the gangsters killed in a shootout is called Piper Sommes, but the American editors missed this overlap and left both names intact.)

   An especially huge gaffe takes place in Chapter 15 when Craven searches the temple’s treasure vault and finds more than $50,000 in cash including, I am not making this up, thirty $600 bills. In THE FIFTH GRAVE this becomes thirty-one $500 bills. Both versions tell us that a total of $52,100 was found but if you add up the figures in VINEYARD — 25 $1,000 bills, 30 $600, 27 $200, 62 $100 — the sum total is $54,600. It seems that Latimer was writing so fast he couldn’t even get the math right. At least the American editors could add properly.

   (2) The dates on the five gravestones Craven discovers in Chapter 15 of VINEYARD are given as 1937 through 1940, the year the events take place. In the U.S. version, supposedly set when the tale was published in Mystery Book, the years are updated to between 1942 and ‘46. For the same reason the poster Craven notices early in Chapter 17, advertising the Clark Gable movie SAN FRANCISCO (1936), is eliminated.

   (3) Early in VINEYARD Craven sends the hotel porter for magazines, specifying: “Film Fun and some of those others with photographs of half-naked babes, and Black Mask.” In Mystery Book, whose editors weren’t interested in plugging other publications, this becomes “Movie magazines and a pulp detective.” The phrase about the half-naked babes remains untouched.

   (4) But elsewhere the sexual innuendo is toned down. Compare these sentences from the first pages of the two versions:

   1941: “From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed….She had gold-blonde hair, and curves, and breasts the size of Cuban pine-apples.”

   Mystery Book and Popular Library: “From the way she looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be a hot dame…. She had gold-blonde hair, and plenty of curves.”

   For a much more drastic bowdlerization, take a look at the rough-sex scene in Chapter 9. The “she” is the woman from the first paragraphs, who’s known as the Princess. Everything that was dropped when VINEYARD was published in the U.S. I’ve put in caps:

   She slapped me….She hit my arms and my chest. I tried to hold her.

   “HIT ME!” SHE SAID.

   It was GODDAM queer….She struck my chest.

   SHE SAID: “HIT ME.”

   I hit her easy on the ribs. “That’s right! That’s right!” She hit me a couple of hard blows. Her eyes were wild. She hit me a hard punch on the neck. I hit her in the belly…. She kept coming in, punching hard.

   I GAVE HER ONE OVER THE KIDNEYS. SHE GRUNTED AND CLENCHED WITH ME. SHE BIT MY ARM UNTIL THE BLOOD CAME. I SLAPPED HER. SHE PUT HER KNEE IN MY GROIN. IT HURT. I LOST MY BALANCE, GRABBED FOR HER, AND WE BOTH WENT DOWN. WE ROLLED AROUND ON THE DIRTY FLOOR OF THE SHACK, BOTH PANTING…. I GOT OVER HER, HOLDING HER DOWN ON THE FLOOR…. She bit my arm again and I slugged her in the ribs. … My hand caught in the scarlet shirt. The silk tore to her navel.

   “Yes,” she said.

   I GOT THE IDEA. I RIPPED THE SHIRT OFF HER, SHE FIGHTING ALL THE TIME AND LIKING IT. I RIPPED AT HER CLOTHES, NOT CARING HOW MUCH I HURT HER. SHE SQUIRMED ON THE DIRTY FLOOR, PANTING. THERE WAS BLOOD ON HER MOUTH…. IT TASTED SWEET. SUDDENLY SHE STOPPED MOVING.

   “Now,” she said. “NOW, GODDAM YOU! Now!”

   

   (5) You noticed, I’m sure, that among the items eliminated from the quoted passages were two “goddams.” Other words that might offend American readers’ religious sensibilities were also omitted here and there. For example, in Chapter 6 Craven tells us: “Jesus, I was tired!” Three guesses which word was dropped by Mystery Book and Popular Library.

   (6) Finally and most significantly, at least for us in the 21st century, the U.S. versions deep-six Craven’s frequent habit of using our least favorite six-letter word, or its first three letters as a diminutive. This form of censorship is defensible, I suppose. But, keeping in mind that VINEYARD is narrated in first person, and that Craven seems the kind of guy who would frequently use these words, to me at least it’s also questionable. In any event it was done and we can’t undo it.

   Despite changes the basic story in both versions remains the same. No attempt was made to plug the numerous holes in the plot, so that we never learn why the Princess won’t let Craven kiss her on the mouth, or what his murdered partner’s American Legion button was doing in the temple’s treasure vault.

   Whichever version you read is a tribute to Latimer’s carelessness and haste. The Popular Library paperback came out alongside the first wave of Mickey Spillane novels but if the 1941 version had found a U.S. publisher back then, Mike Hammer might not have seemed so shocking after the war.

***

   

   During the run-up to Pearl Harbor Latimer moved to southern California and began concentrating on B movie work including THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT (1939, starring Warren William) and PHANTOM RAIDERS (1940, with Walter Pidgeon as Nick Carter). After graduating to A pictures and completing the screenplay for the 1942 remake of Hammett’s THE GLASS KEY he enlisted in the Navy, returning to Hollywood and script writing after the war.

   Ten of his screenplays were for director John Farrow (1904-1963), with whom he seemed to have a special affinity. The first two established both Farrow’s and Latimer’s credentials in film noir. THE BIG CLOCK (1948) was an excellent noir about the editor of a Time-like true crime magazine (Ray Milland) who discovers that the murder he’s investigating was committed by his media-tycoon boss (Charles Laughton).

   NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948) differed radically (due in large part, I suspect, to the devoutly Catholic director) from the 1945 Cornell Woolrich novel of the same name on which it was based, with Edward G. Robinson transformed from Woolrich’s haunted prophet to a sort of Jesus figure who goes to his death to save his quasi-daughter (Gail Russell).

   Either before joining the Navy or soon after his discharge, Latimer had moved to La Jolla, California, a genteel suburb of San Diego. Late in 1946 that town became the home of the reigning monarch of his and Latimer’s common genre, Raymond Chandler. The two veterans of PI fiction and the Hollywood studios became friends. Latimer, said his more celebrated and also more reclusive colleague in crime, “knows everybody and likes everybody….” He was one of the few people who attended the funeral service for Chandler’s wife, who died in December 1954.

   At the tail end of his screenplay-writing years Latimer published two stand-alone crime novels — SINNERS AND SHROUDS (1955) and BLACK IS THE FASHION FOR DYING (1959) — but these are not in the PI genre and won’t be considered here. During his final period as a writer he concentrated on television, turning out 32 scripts for the PERRY MASON series. Among those based on Gardner novels, I especially recommend “The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll” (24 January 1959); among the originals, “The Case of the Capricious Corpse” (4 October 1962).

   As far as I can tell, his final TV script was “The Greenhouse Jungle” for COLUMBO (15 October 1972). He died of lung cancer on 23 June 1983, a few years after my almost conversation with him. He’s been dead almost forty years now but for my money, he and Raoul Whitfield, whom I discussed in previous columns, still rank as the most interesting PI writers between Hammett and Chandler.

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

   

   We never met but once we came close to having a conversation. It was the late Seventies, and I was in La Jolla to attend the annual meeting of the University of California library board on which I served. He lived in the same town, and I was given his phone number and tried to call him one evening. His wife answered, saying he literally couldn’t talk with me: he’d just gotten out of the hospital after surgery for throat cancer. That was as close as I came to contact with Jonathan Latimer.

   If you watched PERRY MASON regularly during its first-run years on TV (1957-66) you saw his name in the credits again and again. Erle Stanley Gardner is said to have called him the only writer who really mastered the art of writing MASON scripts. Between the second of the show’s ten seasons (1958-59) and its last (1965-66) he wrote a total of 32 hour-long scripts for the series: 25 originals, 6 adaptations of Gardner novels and, I kid you not, one script based on a short story by Hugh Pentecost. But that was the tail end of his career. Our main concern here is with his beginning.

   He was born in Chicago on 23 October 1906 and named Jonathan after his great-great-grandfather, who had served on George Washington’s staff during the Revolutionary War. After graduating from Knox College (Galesburg, Illinois) in 1929 he returned to Chicago and worked as a crime reporter for the Herald-Examiner and the Tribune, meeting several celebrity gangsters while on the job. He was in his late twenties when he began writing novels, the first six published by Doubleday Crime Club, five of them featuring a private detective and somewhat under the influence of the overwhelmingly dominant author of that genre during the 1930s, Dashiell Hammett. The first of these was MURDER IN THE MADHOUSE (1935).

***

   It opens inside an ambulance with a guy named William Crane in handcuffs and being transported through upstate New York to a private sanitarium for well-to-do mental cases. No sooner has he arrived than he seems to establish why he’s there by claiming to be a famous detective, no less in fact than C. Auguste Dupin.

   The kicker is that he really is a detective, a PI hired to infiltrate the sanitarium and look into the claim of one of its residents, a dotty old lady who loves to knit, that a box containing negotiable bonds worth $400,000 — a huge amount back in the days when gasoline cost 11 cents a gallon — has vanished from her room. (If you’re wondering why she kept that fortune unprotected, well, didn’t I tell you she was dotty?)

   The inmates of this nameless loony bin, whom Crane quickly meets and begins to interact with, include a fellow who thinks he’s Abraham Lincoln, a wolf man who prowls around the grounds on all fours, another guy who hasn’t spoken a word in four years, and several more, perhaps a few too many. The doctors in charge are at each other’s throats, most of the nurses are predatory sexpots in starched whites, and the staff is mainly composed of weirdoes like the religious maniac who acts as night watchman.

   As per the title, there is a murder in the madhouse, four of them in fact. The local law enforcement people are idiots, but there are genuine clues to follow and Crane does a neat job of reasoning in between hearty slugs of the local applejack.

   Like Hammett’s Continental Op, Crane is not a lone wolf but works for a big agency, its head being an unseen character known as the Colonel (later expanded to Colonel Black). Unlike the Op, he doesn’t narrate his own cases. But Latimer’s style consists mainly of simple declarative sentences such as we find in Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON and THE GLASS KEY. And Crane, like Nick Charles in THE THIN MAN, drinks gallons of booze.

   What Latimer contributes to these established ingredients is a sardonic gallows humor whose like is not found in Hammett. We don’t find a great deal of this in MURDER IN THE MADHOUSE but it soon becomes prominent.

***

   Like Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON and Ned Beaumont in THE GLASS KEY, Crane was onstage at every moment of MADHOUSE, but his next case features several scenes without him. In HEADED FOR A HEARSE (1935) he’s still based in New York but spends almost all of his time in Chicago, racing against the clock to save an innocent man from the electric chair. Joan Westland was found shot to death in her locked apartment, to which only she and her estranged stockbroker husband Robert had keys.

   There’s no murder weapon on the scene but ballistics tests establish that the fatal bullet came from a rare British pistol of World War I vintage. Robert owned such a pistol, which has mysteriously vanished. The people in the apartment below Joan’s testify that they heard a shot at a time when by his own admission Robert was visiting her.

   He’s convicted and sentenced to death, but shortly before his execution he receives a note, apparently from a criminal prowling in Joan’s apartment building at the time of the murder, who claims he can prove Robert’s innocence. With less than a week before his date with the chair, Robert brings in a sleazy criminal lawyer named Finklestein, who in turn brings in Crane.

   As in MURDER IN THE MADHOUSE, our PI spends many hours guzzling the sauce as more bodies pile up but somehow manages to get sober for the denouement two hours before Westland is to be fried. The plotting is tight and the solution to the locked-room puzzle pretty simple by John Dickson Carr standards but rather ingenious, although the tie-buying clue and the telephone-call gimmick still leave me scratching my head.

   The most powerful scenes take place in the death house at the beginning and end of the novel. In Chapter XI comes a pure specimen of Latimer’s gallows humor as we get a description of a Bascom Wonder Funeral, “including a handsome Lincoln hearse, three automobile loads of mourners (we can augment your mourners if you desire), the use of our private chapel with the $8000 Barton organ and the Golden Isle Quartette,” plus “a choice of five distinctive caskets.” All for the low low price of $217!

   Those not at home in the geography of the Windy City can have a lot of fun with a map tracking Crane’s taxicab journeys back and forth across the Chicago River from Point A to Point B in search of the vanished pistol. But I must warn potential readers that, its merits as a whodunit to one side, HEARSE is a generous anthology of political incorrectness, with epithets taboo in the 21st century strewn all over the landscape: Heeb, sheeny, Chink, dago, even the six-letter word which I’d be screamed at as a racist if I repeated.

   All this is okay when coming from the mouths of characters of the Archie Bunker ilk but not so okay in the early pages of Chapter IX when it seeps into the third-person narrative. Small wonder that HEARSE didn’t appear in paperback until more than twenty years after its hardcover publication and then, like another Latimer novel we’ll discuss eventually, only in bowdlerized form (Dell pb #D1896, 1957).

   Two years after its publication HEARSE became the basis of the first in Universal Pictures’ 8-film Crime Club series. THE WESTLAND CASE (1937) was directed by industry old-timer Christy Cabanne (1888-1950) from a screenplay by Robertson White. Preston Foster played Crane, with Frank Jenks as his sidekick Doc Williams.

   I can’t recall ever seeing this picture but from what I’ve read on the Web (including Dan Stumpf’s review for Mystery*File) it seems to have followed Latimer’s plot fairly closely, although I’m willing to bet that none of the racial and ethnic epithets with which the novel abounds survived into the movie.

***

   In his first two books Latimer tried his hand at the whodunit laced with gallows humor but the next one was his masterpiece in that vein. In THE LADY IN THE MORGUE (1936) New York is still Crane’s base but while temporarily in Chicago he receives a wire from his boss, Colonel Black, directing him to hang out at the Cook County morgue and try to identify the body of an attractive blonde who apparently hanged herself in her cheap hotel room right after taking a bath and disposing of all her shoes. (As we learn later, the firm has been hired by members of a wealthy family who are afraid the dead woman might be the clan’s rebel daughter.)

   But the body is stolen from the morgue during the wee hours and the night attendant bludgeoned to death. The hunt for the missing corpse soon leads to the murder of an undertaker and a wave of wacky-gruesome incidents as Crane and his sidekicks Doc Williams and Tom O’Malley encounter a pair of feuding gangsters, a gaggle of luscious blondes, and an alcoholic bulldog in whose company they conduct a midnight search of a cemetery for another (or is it the same?) vanished female body.

   Crane finds little time to sleep but plenty to guzzle  — including a slug of embalming fluid unaccountably kept in a bottle of Dewar’s Scotch — as he and his buddies lurch from one cockeyed venue to another, perhaps the most vivid being the dime-a-dance joint where all the girls dance in their underwear and the morgue where Crane wraps himself in a sheet and, posing as an embalmed corpse, waits for the murderer.

   The solution is chaotic and what passes for reasoning leaves much to be desired, but what a madcap epic! In his entry on Latimer in 20th CENTURY CRIME AND MYSTERY WRITERS (3rd ed. 1991) Art Scott calls it “a genuine mystery classic….grotesque and hilarious at the same time, a masterpiece of black comedy.”

   That may be too thick a coat of encomium, but if you’re going to read any Latimer at all it’s gotta be THE LADY IN THE MORGUE. Note for the triviac: In the first edition the drug best known as pot is rendered as marahuana, a spelling I’ve never seen before, but in Crime Club’s hardcover reprint of 1953 it’s changed to the form we all know and love.

   Under the novel’s title but without much resemblance to its anarchic plot, THE LADY IN THE MORGUE (1938) became the third entry in Universal’s series of Crime Club movies, with Preston Foster returning as Crane. This one was directed by Otis Garrett, who had served as film editor on THE WESTLAND CASE, with screenplay by Eric Taylor and Robertson White.

   A copy of the movie accessible on YouTube shows us that the man claiming to be the vanished corpse’s brother was portrayed by Gordon Elliott, who later in 1938 started going by Bill or Wild Bill Elliott and, under these monickers, quickly become a notable star of B Western flicks.

***

   No novel under Latimer’s byline appeared in the year after MORGUE but a novel by Latimer did. THE SEARCH FOR MY GREAT-UNCLE’S HEAD (1937) was published as by Peter Coffin, who also serves as first-person narrator (Peter Nebuchadnezzar Coffin, to give him his full name). Anyone who had read an earlier Latimer novel was unlikely to have been fooled by the new byline since the detection is done by none other than Colonel Black from the Crane series.

   In his ENCYCLOPEDIA MYSTERIOSA (1994) William L. DeAndrea called it “a weird hybrid of country house cozy and hard-boiled effects.” That’s good enough for me. Sometime soon I’ll explore Latimer’s three final PI novels — two about Crane, the third not.

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

   
   I had already decided that the subject of this column would be Erle Stanley Gardner when I learned about the new incarnation of Perry Mason in an 8-part mini-series on HBO. I don’t have cable or satellite but from conversations with a few friends who do, plus the write-up in the New York Times and in the June/July issue of the AARP magazine, I get the distinct impression that poor old ESG is whirling in his grave.

   It’s the early 1930s and Mason (Matthew Rhys) is a World War I veteran, an alcoholic, and suffering from what we now call PTSD. He’s not (or at least not yet) a lawyer but a sleazy private eye working for and studying law under an established criminal attorney. In effect he’s morphed into a squalid avatar of Paul Drake. When his mentor dies just before he’s to try a big murder case, Mason completes his apprenticeship, sits for and passes the bar, and takes over the defense.

   Sound crazy? But the premise does touch base with Gardner more than you might think. ESG never went to law school but apprenticed himself until he felt he was ready to take the bar. The new Mason’s mentor (John Lithgow) is named E.B. Jonathan, which is precisely the name of the crusty and ethically challenged lawyer who served as mentor to Pete Wennick in a short-lived series Gardner wrote for Black Mask in the late Thirties.

   The portrait of Mason’s city seems to come straight out of the city, modeled on Poisonville in Hammett’s RED HARVEST, where Ken Corning practiced in another of Gardner’s Black Mask series: crooked cops, corrupt pols, the whole nine yards. Perhaps I’ll catch up with this version of Mason someday.

***

   

   Gardner and I go back a long way. I discovered him in my teens, and over the generations I’ve read all of the Mason novels, some of them three or four times, and most of the A.A. Fairs, very few of them more than once. Not re-reading the exploits of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, at least the early ones, may have been a mistake. Last year I discussed THE BIGGER THEY COME (1939), with which the long-running series kicked off, and THE KNIFE SLIPPED, which was probably also written in 1939 but didn’t get published until just a few years ago.

   In TURN ON THE HEAT (1940), which until recently was considered second in the series, we learn what we would have learned from THE KNIFE SLIPPED had it not been rejected 80-odd years ago: that Donald was not just suspended for a year from the California bar for dreaming up a legal way to commit murder, as he’d told Bertha in THE BIGGER THEY COME, but permanently kicked out of the profession.

   In any event he’s working for Cool as a PI but not yet her partner when the firm is hired by a man calling himself Smith. The job is to locate a young doctor’s wife who, after the failure of her marriage, had vanished almost twenty years earlier (meaning soon after the end of World War I) from the then thriving small town of Oakview, several hours’ drive from LA.

   The young doctor had also vanished, apparently along with his attractive nurse, but Smith insists he has no interest in either of them. Donald drives to Oakview to research public records and the back files of the local newspaper, where he learns from the editor’s niece, a bright young lady desperate to leave the now dying town, that he’s the third person to be hunting for information on the vanished couple.

   At the end of his first day on the job he’s given a black eye and run out of town by a tough guy who might be a cop. Undeterred, Donald soon learns that the elusive doctor has changed his name and set up practice in thriving Santa Carlotta, which is much closer to LA and seems to be Gardner’s name for Santa Barbara. A few days later a telegram from the Oakview editor’s niece tells him that the doctor’s wife has come back and, posing as a reporter for the paper, he revisits the town to interview the now middle-aged woman.

   Another lead takes him to the second of his two predecessors on the trail of the doctor’s wife. Soon he reaches the core of the mystery: the doctor is now running for mayor of Santa Carlotta and the corrupt politicos in office are trying to create a scandal around him. Eventually there’s a murder, and it seems that, like so many characters in Perry Mason novels, both the medico and the ambitious newspaper gal discovered the body and kept mum about it. As Mason would have done but without benefit of legal gimmicks, Donald sets out to clear the innocent.

   Considering the family resemblances between Gardner and Fair novels, it’s amazing that it took years before the two authors were recognized as one. As in so many Mason cases, a few questions remain unanswered at the end of GOLD COMES IN BRICKS. How did the bent cop Harbet learn of Donald’s involvement so quickly? Why was the photograph of a character who never appears in the book removed from the dead woman’s apartment? But Gardner keeps things moving at warp speed, creates a network of deceptions within deceptions (including a couple of scenes where Donald scams Bertha), and even offers a dollop of fair-play detection. If you wonder why some readers prefer the C&Ls over the Perry Masons, read this novel.

***

   

   GOLD COMES IN BRICKS (1940) resembles the earlier C&Ls in that the murder is a relatively trivial event buried under a mountain of scams. Passing himself off as, of all things, a physical fitness instructor, Donald enters the household of prosperous businessman Henry Ashbury, who’s hired the firm to investigate a pair of $10,000 checks to cash recently signed by his daughter Alta, and quickly learns that her father’s suspicions are on the mark: she’s been paying gambler Jed Ringold to get back some stolen love letters written to her by a married man about to go on trial for the murder of his wife—letters which the man’s sleazy defense attorney is desperate not to let fall into the hands of the prosecution.

   All hell breaks loose when Ringold is shot to death in his hotel room a few minutes after being given a third check by Alta. Donald, spying on the situation from the room next door, takes the check out of Ringold’s pocket before slipping away. For a few chapters his maneuvers to protect himself and Alta and confuse the witnesses who saw him on the scene take a back seat as he heads for northern California to look into a scheme to sell stock in a gold-dredging venture and, with the help of a tough old prospector who might be a Gardner self-portrait, launches a plot to scam the scammers.

   The frantic pace and abundant insights into securities fraud and gold-claim salting hold our attention despite having little to do with the murder. Donald falls in love as usual but this time does not get beaten up. As customary in these early outings, it’s his show all the way. Bertha curses and grouses about money but doesn’t contribute a great deal. So much for the claim that the C&Ls are variations on what Rex Stout had initiated five years before THE BIGGER THEY COME. Perhaps Donald is a bit like Archie Goodwin (although he could never take orders or narrate as engagingly as Archie does), but at the thought of Bertha as another Nero Wolfe, the mind turns cartwheels.

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

   

   I am satisfied that Lawrence Block, who turns 82 this year, is the finest living writer of private-eye novels, and that his protagonist Matthew Scudder is the late 20th-early 21st century counterpart of Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. In previous columns I’ve explored the earlier Scudder novels, going back to his debut in 1976. This month we take the character to near the end of the century which first saw him come to life on the page.

***

   If A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD (1990) and A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE (1991) were the most powerful novels in the series to date, one of the main reasons was that they pitted Scudder against genuinely satanic adversaries. So does the next book in the series. A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (1992) opens with a scene presented in third person, and for a few minutes we wonder if we’re reading about the unlicensed PI we’ve come to know so well. But Matt and first-person narration return after two pages, and the rest of Chapter 1 alternates between the two modes. It’s as if Block were determined to make the third-person scenes more vivid and, yes, more graphic than they could possibly have been in the form of dialogue between Scudder and others.

   The tale these scenes tell is of the kidnaping of 24-year-old Francine Khoury from the street outside the ethnic market in Brooklyn where she’d been shopping. Her husband Kenan, a prosperous narcotics trafficker, receives phone calls from the abductors demanding a million dollars for her return. They settle on $400,000. After the ransom is paid, Khoury gets another call, telling him his wife is in the trunk of a Ford Tempo parked illegally at a fire hydrant around the corner. He and his brother Peter check and find her: cut up into cutlets and wrapped in plastic bags.

   Peter, who isn’t in the drug trade but is a recovering junkie and alcoholic, recommends that Kenan hire Scudder. Once committed to the case, and thanks to his police contact Joe Durkin, Matt learns that Francine wasn’t the first woman to be mutilated and murdered by criminals using the same modus operandi. Eventually he finds one young woman who escaped alive, although only after the perps performed an obscene parody of the novel and movie SOPHIE’S CHOICE, making her decide which of her breasts they should cut off. With the help of two teen-age computer hackers brought to him by his young black buddy TJ, he obtains the numbers of the various pay phones on which the murderers called Kenan Khoury.

   Then comes another kidnaping, the victim this time being the adolescent daughter of a Russian drug dealer, and the inevitable race to save her from sexual violation, mutilation and death. The first part of the climax, packed with tension but without a moment of onstage violence, takes place near midnight in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, site of the exchange of the girl for a million dollars; the second, at the serial killers’ house.

   In A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD Scudder killed a psychopathic monster in cold blood but, unwilling to make a habit of the practice, declines to take part in Khoury’s vengeance, which is best described by one of the Latin phrases tossed around earlier in the novel by an attorney recalling the legalisms in that language that he learned in law school. The phrase: lex talionis. Later Khoury describes the scene for Scudder — so graphically it makes him vomit. As might many readers.

***

   Block apparently realized that if all subsequent Scudders involved combat against satanic adversaries they’d soon become indistinguishable. In the next book in the series he tried another experiment in minimalism. The basic story of THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (1993) occupies at most 25% of the novel’s 316 pages, the murderer never appearing onstage for a moment and not even his name mentioned until page 292.

   Scudder and Elaine casually meet Glenn Holtzmann, a yuppie lawyer working at a large-print publishing house, and his pregnant wife Lisa. For some reason, or perhaps just on cop instinct, Scudder is turned off by the man. Lisa loses the baby, and one evening about two months later her husband is shot to death with four bullets, three in the body and the fourth in the back of the neck as a coup de grâce, while standing in front of a pay phone — not inside a booth, they don’t exist anymore — on Eleventh Avenue almost within sight of the high-rise condo on West 57th Street where he and Lisa lived.

   Within 24 hours a near-homeless street person and Vietnam veteran is arrested for the murder, the shell casings from the four bullets found inside his stinking Army jacket. He doesn’t remember whether he committed the crime or not. His younger brother, another recovering alcoholic, hires Scudder to make sure of the facts one way or the other. The job brings Matt in close contact with Lisa, who calls on him for help when she finds a strongbox containing several hundred thousand dollars on a closet shelf, and it soon becomes apparent that Glenn Holtzmann was obtaining huge amounts of cash from a mysterious source.

   In the course of the investigation Scudder and Lisa begin an affair. There’s not a moment of violence or menace in this novel except for a brief interlude when Scudder takes on another case, this one pitting him against a sadistic psycho whose ilk we’ve seen in other Block novels. Several interesting chapters follow Scudder as he methodically probes Holtzmann’s past, but in the end the truth is revealed to him by a transsexual hooker and Scudder and Elaine move in together while Matt seems poised to continue his affair with Lisa.

   This is one of those Block novels you read not so much for the story as for the extraneous incidents surrounding the story, my favorite being the one on page 97 where Scudder recounts a mob hit in which four innocent people sitting at a table on one side of a restaurant were blown away and the four intended targets on the other side were left untouched. “The shooter, it turned out, was dyslexic, and turned left when he should have turned right.” Moral? “Everybody makes miskates.” Or, as Hammett put it unforgettably, we live while blind chance spares us. This incident, like several but not all the others, is thematically related to the core story: I won’t say how.

   Like other Scudder novels, THE DEVIL KNOWS features guest appearances by the usual regulars: Mick Ballou, TJ, Matt’s former lover the sculptor Jan Keane, his AA sponsor Jim Faber, the cop Joe Durkin, the black albino Danny Boy Bell. One of these doesn’t make it to the last page, and though Block doesn’t intend the death to be a surprise, on general principles I won’t say who. I do get the impression that for a while Block seriously considered making Ballou the murderer and writing him out of the series, but if so, clearly he had second thoughts. I prefer the Scudders with a stronger story and a satanic adversary but, like millions of others, I can’t stop reading these books.

***

   If Block was bothered by the lack of sufficient core story in THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, he solved the problem in the next Scudder, A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN (1994), by pitting his protagonist against another serial killer, although this one is not a sadist but something of a philosopher. One of the current members of a 31-man club which may have been founded centuries ago, and whose only purpose is to meet for dinner every year on the first Thursday in May and and commemorate the members who have died since the birth of the club’s present incarnation in 1961, comes to Scudder when it dawns on him that there are only fourteen members still alive.

   To put it another way, there have been an unusual number of member deaths in the past 30-odd years: some unsuspicious, like that of the young man who was killed in Vietnam in 1966; some clearly from natural causes, others apparent accidents or suicides, four clearly murders. This premise requires that many of the characters, being dead, never appear onstage, but Block with superb skill makes them all but come back to life as Scudder investigates how they died—and whether a member of the club has been devoting years of his life to killing off his fellow members. (No, this is not a tontine, where the last man standing gains millions, nor is it a trust as in my novel BENEFICIARIES’ REQUIEM where every death in the family increases the share of the survivors. If there is a serial killer, he can’t be motivated by money.)

   Eventually, and largely by trial and error, Scudder identifies his adversary, with whom he’s had a most unusual relationship before this moment, and the game of cat and mouse takes a new turn. Some of the murders have been exceptionally brutal, particularly one whose details Scudder learns from his NYPD friend Joe Durkin: the wife of a murdered club member who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time “was garroted with a strip of wire. Her head turned purple and swelled up like a volleyball….She had a fireplace poker thrust up her vagina and well into the abdomen.”

   When one of the club members (a controversial criminal defense lawyer notorious for getting guilty monsters acquitted) assures Scudder that the legal system will never be able to bring the killer to justice, the only option left on the table is extra-legal vengeance. In this case vengeance takes a unique and not too plausible form, but at least it circumvents the Mike Hammer type of justice we found in novels like A TICKET TO THE BONEYARD.

   On the personal side, Scudder is still a sober alcoholic regularly attending AA meetings, living with Elaine and sleeping now and then with Lisa. The usual regulars make their expected appearances, not only Joe Durkin but Mick Ballou and TJ and Scudder’s AA sponsor Jim Faber. Also appearing, and in a major role, is one we have seen in Block novels many times before: Mister Death. Even before the first word of the book, we get to read William Dunbar’s poem “Lament for the Makaris” with its incessant refrain Timor mortis conturbat me (fear of death terrifies me). The theme is reinforced by the huge number and variety of deaths we encounter (although there’s hardly a moment of onstage violence in the entire book) and dialogue about death. “Cancer, heart attacks, all those little time bombs in your blood vessels. Those are the things that scare you.”

   The speaker will die violently a few chapters after he says this. Scudder: “[M]an is the only animal that knows he’ll die someday. He’s also the only animal that drinks.” Mick Ballou: “But do you think there’s a connection?” Scudder: “I know there is.” Like so many other novels in this powerful series, A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN makes it understandable that so many are now calling all PI fiction noir.

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

   

   Does anyone still read Christopher Bush, or even remember him?

   Dean Street Press, a small English publishing house, is determined to make sure that both questions are answered Yes by setting out to reprint every single one of Bush’s detective novels, each with a superb general introduction by Curtis Evans based on information from Bush’s grandniece. The introduction is comprehensive enough that I need do no more than hit a few high spots here.

   Most print sources give the year of Bush’s birth as 1888, but according to Evans, he was born to farm-laborer parents in Norfolk, East Anglia, on Christmas Day of 1885 and given the rather odd name of Charlie Christmas Bush. Early in the 20th century he obtained a job as instructor at Wood Green School, a co-ed institution in Oxfordshire. He served in World War I, being stationed for one year in the Middle East, and returned to his schoolmaster position when the war was over, retiring in 1931 to write full-time.

   Between 1926 and 1968 he turned out a total of 63 detective novels, most of them published in the U.S. as well as England, many of them centering around a “perfect alibi” gimmick, all featuring a character named Ludovic Travers. He died at age 87, in September 1973.

   In THE PLUMLEY INHERITANCE, published in 1926 but set in 1919, Travers is a relatively minor character, an invalided war veteran serving as private secretary to wealthy financial wizard Henry Plumley, who kills himself after making a cryptic speech. The hero of this debut novel is Geoffrey Wrentham, a Bulldog Drummond type who enlists Travers in the search for Plumley’s missing money.

   In Bush’s second novel, THE PERFECT MURDER CASE (1929), Travers has come up in the world. “After an exceptionally brilliant career at Cambridge he had written that perfectly amazing Economics of a Spendthrift, a work not only stupendous in its erudition but from the charm of its style a delight in itself. Then had come World Markets, now a textbook in the schools, and finally with The Stockbroker’s Breviary a return to the whimsical style of his best known work.”

   Thanks to inherited money and huge royalties he doesn’t need to work, but he’s taken a position as head of the financial department of Durangos Limited, a firm of “expert consulting and publicity agents for the world in general….” Funnily enough, Durango House also boasts a Detective Department, headed by John Franklin, who in Bush’s next several novels is something of a co-protagonist with Travers as they team with Scotland Yard Superintendent George Wharton to solve various bizarre murders. By 1934 Durangos has vanished and Travers has morphed into a wealthy dilettante and amateur sleuth.

   I first discovered Bush sometime in the latter half of the 1950s. I was in my late teens at the time and spent most of my leisure hours haunting the shelves in the mystery section of the public library in Roselle, New Jersey. The only Bush novels the library had were the relatively recent ones, dating from the late Forties and the Fifties, all narrated by Travers who has launched his own private detective agency after World War II, all dull as dishwater. After four or five tries I gave up on both author and character. At that time I had no idea that the earliest Bush novels dated back to the late 1920s and, until the outbreak of war, had been without a first-person narrator.

   A few years later, thanks to various secondhand bookstores, I discovered some of those novels and began buying and reading them—and found them much more satisfying than the pedestrian products of the postwar years. One of them, THE CASE OF THE MISSING MINUTES (1937; US title EIGHT O’CLOCK ALIBI), struck me decades ago and still strikes me now as one of the finest detective novels of England’s Golden Age. But I’ve read many more from that period than I’ve discussed in this column, and recently I decided to re-read a few of them and see how they stood up today.

***

   Beginning in 1932, the titles of all the Bush novels began with THE CASE OF, but his American publishers, perhaps fearing confusion with the Perry Mason novels which had been launched in 1933, changed most of the titles, so that THE CASE OF THE THREE STRANGE FACES (1933) became THE CRANK IN THE CORNER and THE CASE OF THE 100% ALIBIS (1934) crossed the pond as THE KITCHEN CAKE MURDER. For some unknown reason the English titles remained intact on a few, including THE CASE OF THE CHINESE GONG (1935) and THE CASE OF THE TUDOR QUEEN (1938). I’ve reviewed both of those in an earlier column so let’s move on to another pair.

   In THE CASE OF THE DEAD SHEPHERD (1934; US title THE TEA TRAY MURDERS) Travers happens to be visiting Wharton in his Scotland Yard office when the walrus-mustached Superintendent invites the bespectacled amateur of crime to come along and help him investigate a murder at Woodgate Hill County School, an educational institution for boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 18, located in one of London’s outer burbs.

   History master Charles Tennant has been found dead in the Masters’ Common Room, apparently of oxalic acid poisoning, his hand clutching a huge 1910-era catalogue of chemical apparatus. (No, this is not an Ellery Queen-style dying message, and its meaning is impossible to figure out until Bush gets good and ready to tell us.) The headmaster, Mr. Twirt, is strangely absent from the school even though he had arranged a meeting with several people including a constable at four o’clock.

   His absence is soon accounted for when he’s found murdered too, in the shrubbery outside the school, apparently by a heavy sledgehammer lying nearby. “[A] miserable specimen of a man” Travers calls him, based on nothing but the look of his dead body. It quickly becomes apparent that Travers’ opinion of Twirt is shared by virtually everyone at the school:

   “He was humbug personified,” says his colleague Maitland Castle. “I generally alluded to him as the bastard.” Later Castle calls his former boss “a loose talker, a liar, and generally unscrupulous” and “an egomaniac….[W]hen people ventured to protest he’d say he had a disloyal staff, and threaten them with the sack.” (Sound like anyone we see every day in the news?) He was “the most loathsome little swine I’ve ever met….[I]n his love for himself, he was the most devoted of men….It was consoling to think of Twirt as dead, it didn’t matter a damn how.” As for the women instructors, “[h]e used to bully them unmercifully.”

   All the other present and former school personnel that Travers and Wharton interview pay similar compliments to their erstwhile boss. Mr. Godman: “When Twirt got his knife into anybody, he was absolutely unscrupulous in making that person’s life hell….He was the filthiest little squirt I ever ran across.” Miss Holl: “He was the dirtiest little rat.” Mr. Furrow: “The man was a public danger….He’d driven more than one of us to the edge of a breakdown.” Mr. Lustiford: “If ever there was a poisonous swine, it was he.”

   It’s a wonder that no one refers to him as a toad, but then the English have always had a soft spot in their hearts for the inoffensive and sweetly singing little critter known to biologists as Bufo bufo. The crimes are solved not by rational deduction but rather by a series of inspired hunches, culminating in Travers’ attending an outdoor performance of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM where a few Shakespearean lines turn on the light bulb in his head, so to speak, and enable him to reach the ultimate solution.

   Twirt’s murderer is rather easily guessable, and one or two maps of the grounds around the school would have been helpful supplements to the two diagrams of the building’s innards that Bush provides. But DEAD SHEPHERD is one of the better Bushes I’ve read, and one of the most personal. His portrait of the County School and its denizens—or should I say inmates?—leaves no room for doubt as to how he would have described his schoolmaster years. In a word, hellish.

***

         Remember remember the fifth of November
         For gunpowder treason and plot.
         We see no reason why gunpowder treason
         Should ever be forgot.

   This is one version of the first lines of a poem dating back to around 1870. The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy in 1605 among a number of Catholic terrorists, the best known of whom was Guy Fawkes, to blow up the Houses of Parliament during an address to that body by the Protestant King James I. The plot failed and Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered (although he escaped that grisly fate by falling off the scaffold and breaking his neck), and the Brits have memorialized the plot every November 5 by lighting bonfires all over the countryside.

   If you aren’t familiar with that event in English history you’ll be lost in Bush’s THE CASE OF THE BONFIRE BODY (1936; US title THE BODY IN THE BONFIRE), which begins with what turn out to be multiple coincidences and climaxes with more of the same.

   On a foggy November 4 afternoon, Travers is driving back to London after attending an auction. As he’s passing the outer suburb of Garrod’s Heath he sees a man running wildly beside the road and pulls over. Rev. Giles Ropeling, who’s also the local scoutmaster, has a gruesome story to tell. He and two scouts were rebuilding the amateurish bonfire they had prepared for Guy Fawkes Day when they discovered inside the bonfire structure a man’s body, naked and with its head and hands cut off.

   Travers hangs around until the local police arrive, then continues on to London. Later, in Wharton’s office at Scotland Yard, he shows the Superintendent what he picked up at the auction, a rare silver coin known as the Limerick Crown which is worth about £60, a small fortune back in the Thirties. On the way home he sees a beggar selling matchbooks outside the old Piccadilly underground station and gives him what he thinks is a half-crown but just might be the rare coin he’d bought earlier that day, which he can’t find when he gets home.

   Soon after he’s back in his flat he gets a phone call from Wharton, inviting him to come along and help investigate the stabbing murder of a doctor. Would you believe that all three of these incidents turn out to be interconnected?

   At the denouement Travers exposes another round-robin of coincidence: the murderer “knew the old story that if a man stands all his life in Piccadilly Circus, sooner or later the man he’s looking for will pass by under his nose.” In this case the murderer was looking for two men. Would you believe they both passed by under his nose, and that he recognized both of them even though he hadn’t seen either man for roughly ten years?

   Much of the novel is taken up by dueling speculations on the part of Travers and Wharton—speculations which have nothing in common except a lack of factual basis. But the final chapters feature more physical action than one usually finds in Golden Age detective novels, and despite the orgy of coincidences I found it an absorbing read, full of alibi gimmicks devised by Bush with fiendish delight.

***

   Thanks to Curtis Evans and Dean Street Press, anyone interested in English detective novels of the Golden Age can learn a great deal about Bush’s life and read all 63 of his novels. Personally, I’ve read enough for a while. No one — well, almost no one — would call Bush one of the greatest names of that noble era but he does deserve to be remembered, and at least a few of his books to be read.

NOTE: This review from the past was first posted on this blog on August 11, 2009. I’ve been prompted to reprint it because the previous review, also a repost, was of the movie Murder on the Campus, which was based on another book by Whitman Chambers, also a locked room mystery.

       —

WHITMAN CHAMBERS – Dead Men Leave No Fingerprints. Stanton Lake #1 (and only appearance). Doubleday, hardcover, 1935. Hardcover reprint: Caxton House, 1939. Paperback reprint: Detective Novel Classic #28, circa 1943.

WHITMAN CHAMBERS Dead Men Leave No Fingerprints.

   Late last year I made a major purchase of over 200 of old mystery digest paperbacks like this, most of them being published in the 1940s. Most of them also are abridged, cut “to speed the story,” and if so they’re not very desirable from a reading standpoint, but the often lurid covers can still make them very much collectible. This one, with no indication otherwise, is the full, uncondensed version.

   And it provides a relatively inexpensive way to read a mystery writer about whom I know nothing more than a list of the books he wrote. With no characters ever appearing more than one book, Chambers never made a name for himself the easy way. His first mystery appeared in 1928, and he seemed to hit his stride with nine books from Doubleday (not all under the Crime Club imprint, as I recall) between 1934 and 1941.

   A few more novels appeared through the war years, then one paperback original from Pyramid after the war ended, followed by two more paperback originals from the relatively schlocky Monarch line in 1959 and 1960.

   I mentioned the lack of a continuing series character. If Chambers would have decided to go with one, you’d think it would have to be the leading player in this book, a private detective named Stanton Lake. Most of the action takes place at a beach hideaway near Dipsea, 16 miles north of San Francisco, as Lake tries to help a beautiful Danish movie star stay out of trouble with the moral-turpitude clause of her contract.

   Hilda Haan — that’s her name — had a stand-in leave the country under her name while she went for a quiet sojourn in the country with one Theodore Raybourne. It was intended to be a love nest for two, but now that she wants out, Theodore’s family has moved in, and she needs Lake’s help.

   In he goes as well, and soon after, murder follows, in a house with all of the entrances locked from the inside. It was not a fool-proof job of locking, but it is still almost assuredly an inside job.

WHITMAN CHAMBERS Dead Men Leave No Fingerprints.

   The biggest obstacle to cracking the case is not the locked room aspect, however. It’s the fact that the only fingerprints on the murder weapon are those of a dead man, a convict who died in prison without ever being released.

   A second murder is even more puzzling, occurring in a totally sealed room. An immediate solution presents itself, but to add to the growing bewilderment, it also does not hold up to close inspection. Chambers had fun with this one, I think, even though this is not a major entry in the list of Locked Room Mysteries:

   Here’s a quote to show you what I mean about the fun part. From page 89:

    “I know what you’re thinking,” Lake said quickly. “If Dr. Pageot killed this woman, he must have also killed [name omitted]. It would be too much of a coincidence to have two murderers strike at this one family within twelve hours. And if Pageot is guilty, that leaves John Royal [the dead convict] out — the fingerprints, the unlocked side door, the empty grave, and all the rest notwithstanding.”

    “I was,” the sheriff admitted, “thinkin’ something like that.”

    “Let it pass,” Lake advised. “Keep your mind open until all the evidence is in. It is not impossible that John Royal killed [..] and that Pageot killed [..], however incredible it appears on the surface. Just remember that we are still on the surface. We may have a long way to go before we are on the bottom, and” — he smiled calmly — “we may already be there and don’t know it….”

   While the murder method may be a bit far-fetched (and Chambers makes it sound as though it just might work, maybe), the motive(s) is/are — well, let’s just say “interesting” is the key word, without saying how likely it (or they) may be.

   I apologize for deliberately trying to be vague here. Lake sweats this one out, doggedly serving his client’s interests all the way through, and being rewarded mightily in the end for his efforts.

   Is this one worth reprinting? It’s a minor find, not a major one, pulpishly told, a little bit goofy, in all honesty, and flawed no doubt by investigative practices no longer found acceptable today (page 91) and by the stereotypical representation of a Chinese servant who not so incidentally has an important role to play in the tale.

   Is it worth reading, though? Assuming that you’ve read (and understood and/or let pass by) all of the qualifying statements made in the preceding paragraph, a definite “yes” to this one.

— January 2004

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

   

   A few weeks ago I received an email from bookseller Lynn Munroe, asking me a question about the uncollected short stories of Cornell Woolrich. The result was that I got interested in how many uncollected stories there were and how many might be worth collecting. It will take more than one column to explore these questions but let’s start here.

***

   For the first two years in which Woolrich published crime-suspense stories, the number of uncollected tales is zero. Why? Because I brought together all three of the tales that first came out in 1934 and all ten of those that appeared in ‘35 in the collection DARKNESS AT DAWN (1985). Woolrich’s output grew exponentially in 1936: a total of 26 crime stories, earning him a total of $4,300, which was a respectable annual salary back then.

   Some of them—for example “The Night Reveals” (Story, April 1936), “Johnny on the Spot” (Detective Fiction Weekly, May 2, 1936), “The Night I Died” (from the same magazine’s August 8 issue) and “You Pays Your Nickel” (Argosy, August 22, 1936), which is usually reprinted as “Subway”—rank among his most powerful short stories. Others from that year—including, I fear, most of the dozen that remain uncollected—are pretty terrible.

   The year kicked off with one of the worst tales he ever perpetrated; perhaps the worst of his career. The mild success of the Popular Publications pulp chain with weird-menace magazines like Dime Mystery inspired rival entrepreneur Ned Pines of Thrilling Publications to launch a competing monthly called Thrilling Mystery, which debuted in October 1935 under editorial director Leo Margulies (1900-1975).

   During its 50 issues the magazine offered a parade of strange cults, diabolic rituals, gruesome murders, sadistic villains, slavering beasts and (of course) beautiful young women shivering in peril. Woolrich dipped his toes into these weird waters just once. Like the 1935 classic “Dark Melody of Madness” (better known as “Papa Benjamin”) and the 1937 classic “Graves for the Living,” “Baal’s Daughter” (Thrilling Mystery, January 1936) is about hapless innocents falling into the clutches of repulsive religions.

   But this version of the story is so sloppily and luridly written, so overloaded with stupid inconsistencies and grotesque twaddle, that to claw one’s way through its pages is an act of masochism. Narrator Bob Collins visits his psychiatrist friend Dr. Dessaw to ask for help in freeing his fiancée Gloria’s dotty aunt from a Westchester cult.

   As Woolrich Coincidence would have it, the head of the cult is Dessaw, who drugs Bob and spirits him to the religion’s headquarters mansion on the banks of the Hudson, where in rapid order our hero is stripped to his shorts, flogged by a tongueless black giant, menaced by a man-eating panther, tortured with boiling oil injected into his veins, forced to kneel before a woman calling herself the reincarnated goddess Ishtar, forced to help lure Gloria to the mansion for ritual sex with with the god Baal who of course is Dr. Dessaw, and so on and on long past our endurance.

   The narrative throbs with clunkers like “The fiend on the throne stood up and turned to me as I quivered there, ashen-faced” and “I was prone there, at the mercy of the he-devil and the she-devil….” How desperate must Woolrich have been to have cranked out this garbage?

***

   Of the dozen uncollected Woolrich stories from 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly was the original home of seven, including two that might well deserve collection. Not, though, the first pair we consider here. “Blood in Your Eye” from the March 21 issue is an insanely bad cop story set in an anonymous city on which Woolrich sticks the label Los Angeles.

   Mitchell, a rambunctious young homicide dick, is the only one who sees the truth when a murder victim is found in a rooming house with the image of his killer apparently imprinted on his eyes. Instead of sharing his insight, Mitchell throws down his badge in disgust at his colleagues’ willingness to believe medieval superstition and goes out to solve the crime lone-wolf style.

   The hunt takes him to two venues that Woolrich was to use over and over, a manicurist’s booth and a dance hall. For this one you have to accept that neither a roomful of cops nor the medical examiner can tell the difference between genuine and glass eyes, but the climax is violent and the central gimmick Guignol-gruesome.

   Just two weeks later, in the magazine’s April 4 issue, came “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” which Woolrich submitted as “Death in Three-Quarter Time.” In a lifetime of reading whodunits I’ve never come across an alibi gimmick as wacko as this one. Homicide cop Dennis Small happens to be in the Curfew Club on the night when the specialty dancer Emilio is shot to death in his dressing room just a few minutes after he and his partner Lolita have finished performing a bizarre new number.

   All the evidence points to chorus line dancer Mary Jackson, for whom Emilio was about to dump Lolita. This tale too is never likely to be reprinted or collected so I might as well give away the solution: Lolita herself killed Emilio before the dance, then rigged herself in a crazy costume and went out into the spotlight and convinced a clubful of people that she was both herself and her partner! The story becomes interesting only in the final scenes when Woolrich makes us empathize with her for two crucial noir reasons: she had lost her love and she’s about to die.

   For the next uncollected story we jump into the summer months. “Nine Lives” from the June 20 number is set in the waterfront district around New York’s South Street. Demon newshawk Wheeler stumbles onto the story of an old bum who’s been treated by three sinister strangers to booze, food, clothes, and to an insurance policy on his life. The best scene finds Wheeler bound, gagged and left for dead at the bottom of an old-fashioned bathtub filling with water, but even in this serial-like incident there’s nothing terribly urgent.

   Later that summer, in the August 15 issue, came “Murder on My Mind,” the earliest appearance in Woolrich and perhaps the earliest in crime fiction of a plotline which was a staple of film noir classics like SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946, directed by Joseph H. Lewis) but ultimately goes back to the Greek tragedy OEDIPUS TYRANNUS.

   Marquis, the detective narrator, is assigned with his partner Beecher to the brutal murder of a harmless cigar-store clerk, but as the investigation goes forward, countless tiny details push Marquis and the reader closer and closer to becoming convinced that the murderer is Marquis himself.

   This tale has never been reprinted or collected as it first appeared but a heavily revised and less crudely written version was included as “Morning After Murder” in the paperback collection BLUEBEARD’S SEVENTH WIFE (Popular Library pb #473, 1952, as by William Irish).

   The trademark Woolrich combination of breathless urgency and plot flubs permeates the long story which he submitted as “Right in the Middle of New York,” but it’s so packed with action and tension that one barely notices that nothing in it makes sense, not even the published title, since no murder is committed at all in “Murder in the Middle of New York” from the September 26 issue.

   Tony Shugrue, a relatively honest protégé of mobster Chuck Morgan, is set up by his mentor with phony references and gets hired by wealthy Cole Harrison as chauffeur for his beautiful and spoiled daughter Evelyn. Unaware that he’s married, Evelyn makes several passes at her driver, and for a while we’re reminded of the romance between another flighty heiress and her chauffeur in Woolrich’s 1927 pre-crime novel CHILDREN OF THE RITZ.

   Finally Tony realizes that Morgan plans to kidnap Evelyn, hold her for ransom, kill her and leave him to take the fall. From this point on the story morphs into a wild roller-coaster ride crammed with thrills, anguish and suspense as Tony fights to save himself and his wife and Evelyn from the gang. Some of the dialogue creaks—“‘Rats!” he hissed viciously through his teeth. ‘Lower than rats, even!’”—and the crucial scene requires Tony literally not to recognize his wife at close quarters.

   But the irresistible Woolrich urgency sweeps away all nitpicking into the ash heap and suggests that this one of the uncollected dozen may deserve being revived.

   I feel the same way about “Afternoon of a Phony” from the November 14 issue—so much so that it was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (June 2012) at my recommendation and with a new introduction by me.

   The story is something of a departure for Woolrich, a charming, clever and bizarre whodunit where the detective role is played by a con man. Clip Rogers steps off the train at the Jersey seaside resort of Wildmore and is instantly mistaken by the brainless local cops for Griswold, the supersleuth from Trenton, whom they’d sent for to help solve the bludgeon murder of a woman in one of the town’s vacation hotels.

   What complicates the case beyond the local yokels’ power to unravel is that the woman’s eight-year-old son, who witnessed the crime in the middle of the night but is too young to understand its meaning, has identified as the murderer a man with a perfect alibi. Rogers exposes the real killer rather neatly, but the story becomes distinctively a Woolrich tale only afterward when, as in “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” a criminal motivated by lost love takes center stage and, for a page or two, becomes a deeply sympathetic character. His comment that the impostor Rogers is more humane than any cop he’d ever met is evidence that when Woolrich drew genuine cops as brutal thugs he wasn’t doing it inadvertently.

   His final 1936 appearance in Detective Fiction Weekly was one of his weakest, but for anyone with a little knowledge of law, it’s a coffee-out-the-nose classic. The year’s last issue, dated December 26, included “The Two Deaths of Barney Slabaugh,” in which Woolrich dusted off his favorite James M. Cain plot twist, backdated it forty years, and threw in so much of the tinny insult humor and gangster stereotypes from the current James Cagney movies that the illusion we’re in the New York of the 1890s isn’t sustained for a microsecond.

   Manhattan racket boss Emerald Eddie Danberry is persuaded by his shyster lawyer Horace Lipscomb that the proper way to kill rival mobster Barney Slabaugh is to take the man prisoner, frame himself for Barney’s murder beforehand, and get himself acquitted in court. Then, Lipscomb explains—foreshadowing an infamous recent comment by Donald Trump?—even if Danberry were to murder him in full view of a thousand people he could never be prosecuted for it.

   Danberry asks for the name of this marvelous rule of law. Lipscomb replies: Why, it’s the Statute of Limitations! (Cue the coffee.) Fighting DA Barry McCoy, one of the city’s few uncorrupt officials, tries to snooker the plot, and fate works another Cain trick to help him out in this super-pulpy tale, which is full of police brutality, casual racism and enough Woolrich-style wisecracks to sink an aircraft carrier.

***

   So much for eight out of the dozen, and quite enough for one column. I’ll finish the tabulation next month. With perhaps a bonus thrown in to boot.

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