by Francis M. Nevins


   It began, I suppose, with Lord Peter Wimsey. Early in the Golden Age of English detective fiction between the World Wars, Dorothy L. Sayers’ first Wimsey novels created the sub-branch of the genre whose hallmarks were donnish wit, literary allusions and a contemporary sensibility. Near the end of the period in which this type of whodunit flourished, the mantle passed from women authors like Sayers to men, notably Nicholas Blake, Michael Innes and, a few years later, in the middle of World War II, Edmund Crispin.

   All three names were pseudonyms, the mystery-writing bylines of gentlemen with other careers. Blake, the one we are following today, was equally well known as C. (for Cecil) Day-Lewis (1904-1972), who along with his friends W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender was ranked among the foremost young poets of the post-WWI generation. Lovers of that form of literature remember him as England’s Poet Laureate from 1968 until his death, and for movie buffs he’s perhaps best known as the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

   I can’t remember when I began reading Nicholas Blake novels or even whether it was before or after we read the Day-Lewis translation of the Aeneid in high school. In any event it was generations ago. Recently I decided to revisit Blake and see how his work stands up today.


   His debut novel, A QUESTION OF PROOF (1935), opens at Sudeley Hall, a preparatory school of the sort in which Day-Lewis spent several years as an instructor. Of the eighty-odd boys that it houses, the richest and most despised is Algernon Wyvern-Wemyss. His classmates refer to him as a squit and a worm, and if THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS hadn’t taught Brits to love the sweetly singing little amphibian known to biologists as Bufo bufo, no doubt they would have called him a toad.

   On the end-of-term day when the inmates’ parents are invited to the school for fun and games, this young fiend is found strangled to death inside a hollow haystack which a few hours earlier had been the scene of a passionate rendezvous between one of the school’s instructors and the lovely young wife of its pedantic and tyrannical headmaster, who is also the dead boy’s uncle and only living relative.

   Could the lovers have been caught in the act by the kid, and could one or both of them have strangled him to keep his mouth shut? There are of course more than two suspects, including some other instructors and the headmaster, who inherits most of his swinish nephew’s money. (With his complete lack of interest in law, Blake does nothing to explain how this came about.)

   But the young man who visited the haystack is so deeply under suspicion that he sends to London for his old Oxford friend Nigel Strangeways, a Holmes-like consulting detective.

   At first Nigel comes across as something of a silly-ass character, demanding endless cups of tea, singing an aria from Handel’s ISRAEL IN EGYPT during a wild auto chase (the first of many physical action scenes in Blake novels), submitting to a schoolboy secret society’s initiation rite that involves, among other things, putting a chalk mustache on the statue of a “nimph” in the village square.

   But most of the time he plays his detective role well, preferring psychological to physical clues (of which there are none), recognizing that one unanswered question—why was the dead boy not seen by anyone in the hour or so before his death?—is the key to his murder.

   When a second murder takes place, a stabbing with an improvised stiletto during a cricket game between the students and their fathers, he concludes that the answer to another question—how was the stiletto made to disappear?—will solve both this crime and the earlier one. For Yanks there may be a bit too much schoolboy and cricket jargon but on the whole this is an excellent debut novel, deserving all the accolades it has garnered since its first publication.


   The title of the second Strangeways exploit and much of its plot are taken from an obscure (except to specialists) Jacobean melodrama. THOU SHELL OF DEATH (1936) is a quotation from Cyril Tourneur’s THE REVENGER’S TRAGEDY (1607), a play which becomes increasingly relevant as we progress through the book.

   On a recommendation from his uncle, an Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, Nigel travels to rural Somerset a few days before Christmas to investigate three threatening letters that have been sent at the rate of one a month to Fergus O’Brien, a World War I air ace who, somewhat like Lawrence of Arabia, has retired to the countryside.

   The most recent letter prophesies that O’Brien will die on the day after Christmas, also known as Boxing Day and the Feast of Stephen, the day on which good king Wenceslas in the carol went out. The reclusive war hero is uncharacteristically hosting a house party over the holidays, a party consisting of a woman explorer whose life he had saved in Africa, her financially desperate brother, a shady roadhouse proprietor, O’Brien’s discarded mistress, and an old Oxford don who had been one of Nigel’s professors.

   Sure enough, O’Brien is found shot to death on Boxing Day morning, and over the next few days there’s another death, this one by poison inserted in a peanut, and a near-fatal bludgeoning. Many chapters are filled with complex alternative theories of the crimes, propounded by Nigel and a Somerset officer and Inspector Blount of Scotland Yard, but the reasoning remains on a speculative level until Nigel travels to rural Ireland in search of O’Brien’s mysterious pre-war past.

   SHELL is more of a full-blooded detective novel than A QUESTION OF PROOF, with a particularly brilliant “player on the other side” (although how this adversary came to know so much about the works of Cyril Tourneur remains unexplained) and abundant quotations and allusions ranging from the tale of Hercules and Cacus and the epistles of St. Paul through Shakespeare (and of course Tourneur) and finally a few of Day-Lewis’s contemporaries.

   Nigel no longer guzzles tea by the potful as he did in his first outing but at one point, having missed his dinner, he snarfs a gargantuan impromptu meal—a pound or so of cold beef, ten potatoes, half a loaf of bread and most of an apple pie—-and later, just as in A QUESTION OF PROOF, he breaks into song during a wild auto chase.

   American readers might be put off by the number of minor characters who speak in regional or ethnic dialects as if they were in a Harry Stephen Keeler novel, but at least the accents are more authentic than the ones HSK dreamed up. (*)


   The poisoned peanut in the second Blake novel is (dare I say it?) a mere bag of shells compared with the murder method in the third. There were signs in that second book that Nigel was beginning to fall in love with Georgia the daredevil explorer. At the start of THERE’S TROUBLE BREWING (1937) they’re married. Nigel is still a consulting detective but has developed a sideline as an authority on poetry, and on the basis of his book on the subject he’s invited to deliver a lecture before the Literary Society in the Dorsetshire town of Maiden Astbury.

   The Big Daddy of the place is the owner of the local brewery, whom, if I weren’t so fond of Bufo bufo, I’d describe as a toad of the first water. He bullies his wife and all but cuts her out of his will (which I don’t think possible under either English or American law, but we’ve seen before that Blake has zero interest in legal issues).

   He also sexually harasses young women, requires his laborers to work inhuman schedules, makes life hell for his socially conscious younger brother, blackmails into silence the local doctor who has documented the brewery’s unsafe working conditions. He even beats his fox terrier! It’s because of this dog, who was found two weeks earlier in one of the brewery’s pressure vats, literally boiled to death, that the Big Daddy character prevails on Nigel to stay in Maiden Astbury for a while and investigate the animal’s murder.

   Nigel spends the next day touring the beer factory and interviewing its principals but his detection is interrupted by the discovery inside the same pressure vat of a human skeleton, apparently that of Big Daddy, although Nigel and the local police inspector seem to be familiar with Conan Doyle’s THE VALLEY OF FEAR and the early Ellery Queen novels since they seriously consider the possibility that the boiled corpse is someone else.

   Suspicion spreads among various characters and several highly speculative alternate theories of the crime are articulated. In due course come two more murders and a midnight climax in the eerie brewery that may remind some readers of a 1930s cliffhanger serial, although Blake is careful to keep Nigel from acting like a serial hero.

   With each chapter prefaced by a literary quotation—from Shakespeare and Bacon and Ben Jonson through 19th-century figures like Byron and Coleridge and Dickens to the poet A.E. Housman, who had died in 1936—this is a fine example of the kind of detective novel whose earliest protagonist was Lord Peter Wimsey.


   Blake’s fourth novel was the only book of his that became the basis of a feature-length film by a prestigious director. I’ll discuss both the book and the movie when I return to Blake later this year. His fifth novel was almost made into a movie by another prestigious director—or more precisely by a young man who quickly became one of the most prestigious directors of all time. When I take up Blake again I’ll tell that story too.

by Francis M. Nevins


   Several months ago I wrote a column discussing some of the pre-World War II Inspector Schmidt novels written by Aaron Marc Stein under the byline of George Bagby. The last of these, which I don’t have and for that reason didn’t discuss, was MURDER CALLING “50″ (1942). Aaron spent the years after Pearl Harbor first in the Office of War Information, then in the Army where he served as a cryptographer. His military specialty plays a large role in the first postwar Bagby novel.

   DEAD ON ARRIVAL (1946) was published five or six months after the end of the war but is set and may have been written in its early years, with references to blackouts and the rubber shortage and all the male characters of military age waiting to be called into the service. For a novel the unities of time and place are extreme, with the action covering about twelve hours—between late on a Sunday afternoon in 1942 or ‘43 and before dawn the next morning—and mainly confined to a single building, an old brownstone worthy of Charles Addams in Manhattan’s East Fifties, occupied by a hyper-eccentric old cripple and his two all-but-deaf servants, who happen to be judo experts, with a female antique dealer and a young engineer living in the house next door.

   Schmitty and Bagby happen to be in Bellevue Hospital on business when a hysterical Western Union messenger boy is admitted, claiming he found a dead body in the house where he delivered a telegram. This makes Schmidt the first cop to arrive on the scene, and the crime quickly proves bizarre enough: a corpse with a broken neck and a pair of panties found inside his suit who is soon identified as the only living relative of the house’s owner, a wheelchair-bound old man with a long long beard in which he keeps various objects like chessmen.

   The panties prove to belong to the antique dealer next door, and both she and the young engineer living in the same building turn out to have a habit of visiting the house where the murder happened by climbing from the fire-escape balcony of the one brownstone onto that of the other. Before the end of the book’s twelve-hour time span there are three more murders.

   The synthetic rubber process that ultimately motivated the killings isn’t even mentioned till the seventh of the book’s ten chapters, and the cast is so small that the Least Likely Suspect is rather easy to spot even though Bagby can hardly be said to play fair with the reader. The long message in cipher which Schmidt discovers during the night leads to a fascinating lesson in cryptography even though it implausibly requires both Bagby and the guy who fashioned the message to be experts in that arcane science. Aaron’s addiction to super-lengthy sentences remains intact from the pre-war years, as witness this one example among many.

   Every move the inspector made in that investigation, he found himself hampered not by a lack of material on which he might work but by the way he was jostled and harried by clues and leads and suspects, all vying for his attention, all pressing their strong, if tacit, claims to guilt, all apparently of equal weight, but each existing as though it were the sole occupant of its own special vacuum, giving the bow to no other clues, betraying no connection with anything else relevant or irrelevant.

   These literary Dagwood sandwiches may not be to everyone’s taste but they’re okay by me and were also acceptable to Anthony Boucher, whose review for the San Francisco Chronicle (10 February 1946) simply capsulized the plot and welcomed Schmitty back into action “with a huzzah.” As who didn’t?


   Tony was especially fond of those whodunits that offered what he called a dividend, by which he meant a trove of reliable information on some off-trail subject. In DEAD ON ARRIVAL the subject was cryptography but the dividend had little to do with the plot. In the next Bagby novel the integration between those elements is near perfect. THE ORIGINAL CARCASE (1946) shares with its predecessor a very tight time frame, with events kicking off on the evening of Wednesday, September 4, about a year after the end of the war, and winding up less than 24 hours later.

   As in DEAD ON ARRIVAL, Schmitty is the first cop on the scene. He’s in Bagby’s apartment—a building with twin towers in whose upper stories are units with terraces—when the two men hear a horrible scream coming from the only terrace apartment in the tower opposite Bagby’s that is ablaze with light. In a few minutes they’ve discovered the cause of the scream: a young bride and her husband, returning from their honeymoon, were greeted by the bride’s friends and relatives (not the groom’s) with a surprise party which was cut short when the bride opened the cupboard doors of one of the wedding presents, a 7-foot-long Sheraton mahogany sideboard, and found a dead body inside.

   No one can identify the strangled corpse but Schmitty soon begins to wonder whether the murder has any connection with the social backgrounds of the newlyweds, the bride coming from an upper-crust family and her husband the younger brother of a notorious Prohibition-era gangster who, in a time of severe housing shortage, secured the apartment for them. During the small hours, after the police have left and the unit is deserted, someone manages to sneak in and throw the sideboard off the terrace into the street, smashing it to smithereens.

   Later in the night comes, as usual in Bagby, a second murder, the victim this time being a key employee of the antique dealer who provided the sideboard. Tony Boucher’s description of the novel in the Chronicle (20 October 1946) was nothing short of ecstatic. “To the average reader a delightfully told story; to the mystery technician a model of precisely how to integrate a love motif, an absorbing dividend and a perfectly plotted problem.”


   Just as THE ORIGINAL CARCASE shows us that Aaron must have spent a good deal of his spare time prowling around antique shops, the next Bagby novel indicates that he was equally fond of sports events. THE TWIN KILLING (1947) opens on a steamy summer night with Schmitty investigating the barber-shop murder of a big-time gambler with a habit of getting himself shaved and spruced up in that shop after it was closed to the public.

   According to the evidence the Inspector painstakingly accumulates in the first and most interesting chapters, the murderer might have come straight out of an Ellery Queen novel. First he broke into the gambler’s apartment and stole his .45 and a pair of his shoes, then he bought a ticket at a flea-pit theater which was showing a war flick with lots of shooting, changed into the stolen shoes, left the theater by the balcony fire door, crossed over to the roof of the adjacent barber shop, shot the gambler with the .45 through the shop’s open skylight during the movie’s loudest combat scene, crossed back to the theater, changed back into his own shoes and split.

   It’s only after this reconstruction that baseball enters the picture in the form of the dead man’s connections with four players, two old hands at the game and a pair of promising rookies. Aaron never mentions the name of the team nor what stadium they play in, but Schmidt and Bagby while on the case get to attend three games, the last of which provides the setting for what is all but inevitable in a Stein novel, a second murder, with all the suspects from the first murder conveniently in the ballpark.

   I wouldn’t call this one fair to the reader, but the baseball environment and players are vividly rendered—thanks perhaps to iconic sportscaster Red Barber, to whom the book is dedicated—and all in all Tony Boucher’s comment in the Chronicle (6 April 1947) can’t be improved on: “A trifle loose in solution but as fresh, lively and agreeable a sports whodunit as has turned up in years.”

by Francis M. Nevins


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

by Francis M. Nevins


   Back when first Hammett, then Chandler, then Spillane were the dominant figures in their field, the standard term for the kind of novels they wrote was hard-boiled. Today we rarely if ever see that word. The standard term has become noir, which in the past was used to describe the work of Cornell Woolrich and a few others like him who even in a pea-soup fog couldn’t be mistaken for Dash, Ray and the Mick.

   One evening when I was doing a guest presentation at Washington University, the young professor who had invited me insisted that there were two kinds of noir, hard and soft, with the former represented by people like Hammett and Chandler, the latter primarily by Woolrich. I’m not at all sure that noir is the right word for most PI novels but it certainly is for those of the foremost living practitioner in that field, Lawrence Block. As witness his final contribution to that type of novel in the 20th century.


   One of the strongest arguments for identifying Hammett with noir is the parable of the falling beams in THE MALTESE FALCON with its pervasive motif that we live while blind chance spares us. That would have been a fitting title for the fourteenth of Block’s novels about Matthew Scudder, EVERYBODY DIES (1998), which is also a perfect title since in this powerful book it’s almost literally true.

   Now happily married and sober and a licensed PI, Scudder is asked by his unlikely best friend, stone killer Mick Ballou, to help dispose of the bodies of two of Ballou’s minions, shot to death in a New Jersey storage shed where Mick had been stashing a huge shipment of stolen whiskey. Soon after the corpses are buried on Ballou’s upstate New York farm,

   Scudder is stopped on the street and beaten by two lowlifes who warn him to stay out of the situation, which he intended to do anyway. On reporting the incident he learns that Ballou has come to suspect that an unseen enemy is out to destroy him, and without any desire to get involved our PI finds himself in the middle of a savage war.

   That’s just about all the plot there is in EVERYBODY DIES, a succession of ultra-violent bloodlettings almost in the manner of James Ellroy, with a pile of casualties best described as collateral damage, two of them recurring characters in the series, people Scudder cared about deeply.

   Interspersed with the carnage are reflections on death, with one chapter consisting of dozens of variations on the theme Hammett expressed in seven words of one syllable each, and dark allusions to religion, including a reference to pedophile priests. Scudder’s illegal activities in this one threaten to cost him his license.


   The next novel in the series, HOPE TO DIE (2001), is set and was apparently written during the late summer of 2000, a few months before the Bush-Gore election, almost a year before 9/11.

   Scudder is now 62, perhaps a bit too old for the hard action of books like EVERYBODY DIES. He’s surrendered his PI license but is still sober and married to the ex-call girl Elaine and rather well off financially, making large contributions to arts causes like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. One evening after a complimentary dinner and concert for donors, another couple who attended, a prosperous attorney and his wife whom Scudder and Elaine never met, are brutally murdered on returning to their brownstone on 74th Street.

   Several days later two more bodies are discovered, this time in Brooklyn, and the police conclude that these men perpetrated the first double murder, after which one killed the other and then himself. But there remain a couple of loose ends: How did the perps get into the brownstone and how did they know the code that would turn off the house’s alarm system?

   After what seem too many pages devoted to domestic drama — Scudder’s ex-wife dies suddenly and he discovers one of his grown sons has gotten himself in trouble — we return to business when the murdered woman’s niece, a grad student at Columbia, asks Scudder to look into her suspicion that the couple’s daughter, who lived with them and inherits the brownstone and everything else, was behind the double murder. When Scudder goes to interrogate the daughter, she in turn hires him to investigate the murder of her parents.

   It’s at this point that something happens which is unique in a Scudder novel: we switch from the detective’s first-person viewpoint to that of the murderer, a viewpoint that we get to share in several chapters to come including the last. What he learns leads him to commit another murder, but not before the victim leaves Scudder a phone message that sets him on the trail.

   Eventually there are seven more deaths. Scudder and the police hope the serial killer himself is among the final casualties but, thanks to the last chapter, which returns us to the perp’s point of view, we know better.

   Perhaps that chapter means only that the monster has escaped and is free to kill again, but Block leaves open the possibility, and I would say the probability, of a sequel. He even hints at the madman’s next targets when the perp takes Scudder’s card from the fifth (or is it the sixth?) victim. And might those chapters of domestic drama not be irrelevant after all? Might the future targets include Scudder’s family?

   It’s also possible that a sequel, if any, might explain what seems to be a colossal blunder on Block’s part. The weapon in the first four murders described in HOPE TO DIE belonged to a psychiatrist named Nadler, who claims, and reported to the police at the time, that it was stolen during a burglary. Then, on page 246, Scudder and the police decide that Dr. Nadler must be innocent of the quadruple killing because, as he can prove, he’d been vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard for the past eight days.

   But in fact this proves less than nothing: the murders clearly took place much longer than eight days before page 246! In addition, Scudder had had a face-to-face interview with the shrink less than eight days before that pesky page. Doesn’t this demolish Nadler’s alibi? In the immortal words of Sportin’ Life from Gershwin’s PORGY AND BESS, it ain’t necessarily so.

   Perhaps it would all become clear if there were to be a sequel. But it was only after a long hiatus that the next Scudder novel appeared.


   It’s not billed as a sequel, but whoever reads it without having read HOPE TO DIE has to absorb some tightly compressed summaries of what happened in the earlier novel. ALL THE FLOWERS ARE DYING (2005) takes place a few years after 9/11, “our watershed; everything in our lives is before or after that date.” Scudder is at least 65 years old and more or less retired, Elaine still runs her art shop.

   In the early chapters we learn nothing important except that Monica, Elaine’s best girlfriend, has become involved with a mystery man. At this point we move to third-person narration and Greensville, Virginia, where a psychologist calling himself Arne Bodinson has gotten permission to interview Preston Applewhite, who is about to be given a lethal injection after being convicted of the brutal rape and murder of three teen-age boys.

   The next several chapters are devoted to the conversations between these two men and Applewhite’s execution. Meanwhile in New York, a woman Scudder knows from AA has hired him to investigate her current lover, who is also something of a mystery man. Eventually it becomes clear that the viewpoint character of the third-person chapters is the serial killer from HOPE TO DIE, and that he raped and murdered those three boys and framed Applewhite for the crimes.

   We are also told that this sociopath has unfinished business in New York, and start wondering whether he could be the same man Scudder has just been asked to investigate. In due course Elaine’s girlfriend is sadistically murdered, and it becomes increasingly certain that the murderer in another identity has invaded the lives of the Scudders and is out to kill them horribly too.

   Like HOPE TO DIE, this sequel abounds in technology, forensics, violence and brutal sex, but Block lightens the mood a trifle with a number of jokes, most of the quips more or less sexual including one taken from SEINFELD.

   The sociopath is probably Block’s most powerful attempt to create a demonic character in a godless world. He’s gifted with uncanny intuitive certainties that always turn out right (as are Scudder and Elaine), and we never learn his name or the source of the money he needs to maintain his various identities and perform his obscene acts.

   The novel is steeped in thoughts about death. “I think [life] ends…like a movie after the last reel runs out,” says Applewhite not long before his execution. “I think the rest of the world goes on, the same as it does when anybody else dies…. It’s hard at first to accept the notion that you’re not going to exist anymore, but it gets a little easier when you think of all the centuries, all the millennia, when you hadn’t yet been born and the world got along just fine without you.” And here are Elaine’s reflections after her friend Monica’s pain-wracked death.

   â€œPeople die all the time….It’s what happens. The longer you live the more people you lose. That’s how the world works….[Monica is] in the past tense now, isn’t she? She’s part of the past, she’s gone forever from the present and the future….I can’t stand that she’s gone….But I’ll get used to it. That’s what life is, getting used to people dying.”

   She and Scudder get their revenge, if you want to call it that, in a fight to the death with the serial killer, which is as graphic as anything in a Peckinpah or Tarantino film. The scene is so powerful that we almost suspend our disbelief that a man in his late sixties with a knife being twisted in his guts could take on this sociopath who, though wounded, is at least a quarter century younger.

   I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that at one point Block intended to end the book with Scudder and his adversary killing each other in the struggle, but changed his mind and added the final chapter, whose last line of dialogue is a joke, borrowed from the last line, the one delivered by Joe E. Brown, in the iconic Marilyn Monroe-Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis sex comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).

   Scudder is still alive (though he’s come closer to death than in any previous novel), but in a very real sense the series winds up with ALL THE FLOWERS ARE DYING, and the rest is endnotes. Which we’ll explore later this year.

by Francis M. Nevins


   Happy New Year! Over the nearly two decades I’ve been writing these columns, I’ve always tried to make sure I knew what I was talking about. This time I know very little about my subject, but no one else seems to know more.

   Recently I found myself getting interested in an over sixty year old TV detective series which, when it was running, I never watched. Nor, it seems, did the overwhelming majority of Americans. THE INVESTIGATORS aired on CBS from early October till late December of 1961, a total of thirteen 60-minute episodes. James Franciscus, James Philbrook and Mary Murphy starred as three detectives specializing in insurance cases. Most episodes featured one well-known movie star — Claire Trevor, Miriam Hopkins, Jane Wyman and Mickey Rooney, just to name four.

   The Internet Movie Database provides cast lists for each episode but no plot summaries, which I dug out from my TV Guide collection. What mainly sparked my interest was that, according to the IMDb, every one of the thirteen hour-long episodes was directed by the same man, whom I happened to know well and who in fact was the subject of one of my books.

   The director in question was Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000), on whose boat the Buena Vista I taped the conversations that became the raw material for the only book about him published in his lifetime. In 1937, after a few years as a film editor, Joe had become a director and made some superb 60-minute Westerns, usually starring Bill Elliott, Charles Starrett or Johnny Mack Brown, each of them brimming with visual excitement; pictures that earned him the moniker of “Wagon Wheel Joe,” thanks to his habit of shooting scenes through the spokes of guess what.

   After World War II he became involved with what would soon become known as film noir, helming pictures like MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946) and, best known of all, the classics GUN CRAZY (1949) and THE BIG COMBO (1955).

   In the early 1950s he suffered a major heart attack and was unable to work for a year. Near the end of that decade he moved from the big screen to the small, signing a generous long-term contract with Four Star, one of the top TV series production companies, whose executives wanted him to concentrate on THE RIFLEMAN (ABC, 1958-63), the iconic Western series created by Sam Peckinpah and starring Chuck Connors.

   â€œThey wanted me to direct every show in the series. I said ‘Hell no, I won’t do that!’” The compromise they reached was that he’d work one week a month preparing and shooting an episode of THE RIFLEMAN or some other Four Star series. The rest of the time he’d relax on his boat. Under this arrangement he helmed 51 RIFLEMAN episodes over five years, plus two segments of THE DETECTIVES (ABC, 1958-61; NBC, 1961-62), a cop show starring Robert Taylor, and one story for Four Star’s anthology series ALCOA THEATRE.

   There’s no question that, on loan-out from Four Star, he did some work on THE INVESTIGATORS. “I wanted to do a close-up shot of [James] Franciscus’s hands,” Joe told me, “and I couldn’t do it because of the awful way his fingernails looked. He was a nail-biter.” But would he have agreed to direct an hour-long episode every week when just three years earlier his heart attack had led him to refuse to do more than one 30-minute show a month? In the immortal words of Eliza Doolittle, not bloody likely.

   If only we could check the credits on the 13 episodes of THE INVESTIGATORS, we’d know who directed them, but we can’t. Apparently the only segment that survives is “The Oracle” (12 October 1961), guest-starring Lee Marvin as a religious cult leader, which exists only in a truncated form, minus credits.

   But from what I’ve dug up it seems to have been an interesting little series. Its main claim to historical importance is that one of the three protagonists, played by Mary Murphy, was apparently the first licensed female PI character to star in a TV series.

   For devotees of Cornell Woolrich a further attraction is that two episodes seem to be rooted in the work of that dark angel of suspense. In “I Thee Kill” (26 October 1961) the investigators set out to clear a man (Mickey Rooney) who was in the crowd outside a church when the fellow who was about to marry the suspect’s girlfriend was shot dead. Doesn’t that sound just a bit like a variant on Woolrich’s THE BRIDE WORE BLACK?

   More clearly borrowed from a Woolrich premise is “Death Leaves a Tip” (30 November 1961), in which Franciscus and Murphy recruit a shy young waitress to serve as bait to trap a serial killer who’s preying on members of her profession. Unmistakably this is Woolrich’s 1938 classic “Dime a Dance,” also known as “The Dancing Detective,” with a different female job specialty. The guest star in this one was Jane Wyman, one of whose earliest credited movie roles was as the female lead in THE SPY RING (1938), an espionage drama directed by (can you guess?) Joseph H. Lewis, but this is hardly evidence that Joe helmed her episode of THE INVESTIGATORS.

   I touched base with an old friend who has one of the world’s largest collections of TV episodes from the Fifties and Sixties on video and he told me he had never even heard of THE INVESTIGATORS. I exchanged emails with a man whose biography of Joe Lewis will probably be published this year and he knew nothing more about the series than I did. Dead end. Game over. Case closed.


   I had hoped that this column would take me on a voyage of discovery that I could share, but the ship seems to have gotten itself grounded. Luckily I made another discovery late last year, and this is a genuine find. While fumbling around YouTube I came across a composition by my beloved Bernard Herrmann that I’d never heard before, a very early piece written when he was around 22 and never published or performed until after his death.

   What’s most fascinating about his Sinfonietta for String Orchestra (1936) is that it sounds very much as if it were a 15-minute excerpt from his score for PSYCHO, a quarter century later, that Hitchcock never used. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: No one does ominous like Herrmann does ominous. Check out the Sinfonietta and hear for yourself:

by Francis M. Nevins


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

by Francis M. Nevins


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

by Francis M. Nevins


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

by Francis M. Nevins


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

by Francis M. Nevins


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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