Columns


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

   

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

   

   With very little to occupy my time during the pandemic I started to ask myself a less than burning question: What was the worst TV detective series of your childhood? Well, after a few seconds of thought I concluded that there were three that tie for bottom rung of the ladder.

***

All three date from the same period, the very early 1950s when my parents and millions of other Americans were buying their first sets, so I’ll ignore strict chronology and begin with the one whose roots go back farthest in time. CRAIG KENNEDY, CRIMINOLOGIST was based on the scientific supersleuth character created early in the 20th century by Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936).

   There were several Kennedy movies, the last being a cheapjack 15-chapter cliffhanger serial, THE CLUTCHING HAND (Stage & Screen, 1936), which starred Jack Mulhall and Rex Lease as Kennedy and his newsman sidekick Walter Jameson. Fifteen years after that picture and after Reeve’s death, its producer, Louis Weiss (1890-1963), decided to dip his toes into the waters of TV with an equally cheapjack Kennedy series, starring Donald Woods as the scientific guru and Lewis Wilson, the screen’s first Batman, as Jameson

   The first 13 episodes were apparently shot in late 1950 and ‘51, most if not all of them scripted in whole or with a collaborator by B movie veteran Ande Lamb and directed by Harry Fraser (1889-1974), a bottom-of-the-barrel hack if ever there was one. The entire baker’s dozen featured overlapping casts including such long-forgotten thespians as Bob Curtis, Tom Hubbard, William Justine and Stanley Waxman, supplemented by some actors familiar to watchers of Forties B movies and Fifties TV—Ted Adams, Lane Bradford, Stephen Chase, Milburn Morante, Glenn Strange—plus a few who made their mark in TV later, like Phyllis Coates (the small screen’s first Lois Lane) and Jack Kruschen.

   Featured in several casts was none other than Jack Mulhall (1887-1979), who had played Kennedy in that 1936 serial but at several years over sixty was obviously too old for the part in the TV series. In what was apparently the pilot episode, “The Golden Dagger” (1950), the star of the next in our triad of terrible series, Ralph Byrd, played a character known as —remember that name, B western fans?—Rocky Lane. Most if not all of the second set of 13 episodes were directed by the producer’s son Adrian Weiss (1918-2001) and also scripted by Ande Lamb.

   In England at least nine so-called movies, each consisting of two series episodes, were released theatrically by Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors Ltd. “It is to be hoped,” said the British Film Institute’s monthly bulletin, commenting on a member of the ennead, “that even the least discriminating film-goer has the intuition to avoid seeing films as remarkably badly made as this one.” Those masochistic enough to want to sample the series for themselves may check out a few clips and at least one complete episode, “The Case of Fleming Lewis” (1951), on YouTube.

***

DICK TRACY, the second of our terrible trio, also goes back a long way, specifically to the comic-strip cop created in 1931 by Chester Gould. Ralph Byrd (1909-1952) was best known in Hollywood for having portrayed the square-jawed sleuth in four classic Republic serials (1937-41) and two RKO features dating from 1947.

   Three years later, when the TV series was launched, he was the obvious choice for the part. The role of his comic-strip sidekick Sam Catchem went to Runyonesque character actor Joe Devlin. Several other characters from the strip—Tess Trueheart, Junior, Diet Smith, B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie—appeared off and on in various episodes.

   Accurate information about the TV Tracy is hard to come by. A number of websites and even Garyn G. Roberts’ DICK TRACY AND AMERICAN CULTURE: MORALITY AND MYTHOLOGY, TEXT AND CONTEXT (McFarland, 2003) claim that the series consisted of 26 episodes whereas in fact there were 39. The first episodes were broadcast on the ABC network in the fall of 1950 but the series soon switched to a syndicated basis. My best guess is that it began with 26 segments, several of them in two installments, one in four, one in five.

   Most of them were scripted by original series producer P.K. Palmer and directed by either of two men, one a nonentity, the other a Hollywood household name. Willard H. Sheldon (1906-1998) was a career assistant director who aside from his TRACY episodes helmed almost nothing else.

   His major contribution, if that’s the word, was “Dick Tracy and the Brain,” a 5-part story in which Tracy pursues an underworld genius (Lyle Talbot) whose real name, true to Chester Gould’s nomenclatural principles, is B.R. Ayne. On the other hand, B. Reeves Eason (1886-1956) had directed some of the most spectacular action footage in film history: the chariot race in the silent BEN-HUR (1926), the climactic CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936), the Burning of Atlanta sequence in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). Even with the rock-bottom budgets and laughable working conditions on TRACY, we might have hoped for more from him. Hard cheese.

   The four-part “Dick Tracy and the Mole,” pitting Byrd against grizzled old B Western sidekick Raymond Hatton in the part of a master criminal who can’t stand light and roosts underground, is next to unwatchable. The two-parter ”Dick Tracy and Flattop,” in which Byrd’s adversary is a hit man hired to kill him by crime kingpin Namgib (another name in the Chester Gould tradition), is no improvement.

   If nothing else, Eason’s TRACY episodes, apparently the only TV work he was ever credited with, confirms the wisdom of Sherlock Holmes’s famous dictum “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

   Later segments including most if not all of the final 13 tended to be complete in 30 minutes. The scripts, written by established pulp crime writers like Robert Leslie Bellem, Dwight Babcock and Todhunter Ballard, included some character names squarely in the Gould tradition, like the murderer Phil Graves in “The Case of the Dangerous Dollars.”

   The directors of these episodes tended to have roots in B Westerns, foremost among them Thomas Carr (1907-1997), who helmed three two-parters and at least five singletons. I got to know Tommy and tape extensively with him when he was in his eighties but I either didn’t know or had forgotten how heavily he’d been involved with TRACY in the dawn years of TV and didn’t ask him to reminisce about the series. (That sound you just heard was a swift kick in the rear, administered to me by me.)

   Watching Tommy’s surviving episodes, I sense him struggling to inject a minim of visual quality under impossible circumstances. “Shaky’s Secret Treasure” is unique in that, thanks to the meticulous records kept by actor Dabbs Greer, who played Shaky, we know precisely when Tommy filmed it: on January 22 and 23, 1952, which means it was one of the final 13 segments. Greer’s salary, in case anyone’s interested, was $75 a day.

   The series ran regularly on various local stations at least through the mid-Fifties, and a number of episodes—the 4-part “Mole,” the 2-part “B.B. Eyes” and at least four stand-alone segments—can be seen on YouTube. Ralph Byrd didn’t last anywhere near that long. While on vacation soon after TRACY wrapped, he died of a heart attack, on 18 August 1952, at age 43. Like Basil Rathbone with Holmes and Bogart with Sam Spade, he’s remembered long after his death for the character he incarnated.

***

   Dating from the same time frame as KENNEDY and TRACY was FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE, a 39-episode series produced by small-screen pioneer Jerry Fairbanks (1904-1995), first broadcast on the short-lived Dumont network in 1951 and rerun times without number on local stations throughout the rest of the Fifties.

   Alone among our trio, this one didn’t have a pedigree. The title came from a pulp true-crime magazine but its protagonist, café-society columnist and amateur detective David Chase—described as a sleuth with “an eye for the ladies, a nose for news, and a sixth sense for danger”—was created especially for TV.

   “Presenting an unusual story of love and mystery!” the unseen announcer would purr in dulcet tones at the start of each episode. His introduction concluded with: “And now for another thrilling adventure as we accompany David Chase and watch him match wits with those who would take the law into their own hands.”

   Starring as Chase was one-time matinee idol Edmund Lowe (1892-1971), a name familiar to moviegoers for a third of a century before his entry into television. During the 1920s he specialized in suave romantic roles complete with waxed mustache, but the biggest boost in his film career came when director Raoul Walsh cast him opposite Victor McLaglen in WHAT PRICE GLORY? (Fox, 1926), first of the Captain Flagg-Sergeant Quirt military comedies.

   His foremost contribution to the detective film came ten years later when he portrayed Philo Vance in THE GARDEN MURDER CASE (MGM, 1936), but he also played a New York plainclothesman of the 1890s opposite Mae West in EVERY DAY’S A HOLIDAY (Paramount, 1938).

   By the early 1950s Lowe had begun to show his age, and in FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE he looked all too convincingly like a man of almost sixty who’s determined to pass himself off as 25 years younger. In many an episode he’d romance the woman in the case, rattle off a few deductions—once he reasoned that a letter supposedly from an Englishwoman was a forgery because the writer used the U.S. spelling “check” rather than the British “cheque”—and then collar the villain personally after a pistol battle or fistfight underscored by Lee Zahler’s background music for Mascot and early Republic serials.

   Supporting Lowe were Paula Drew as Chase’s fashion-designer girlfriend and crusty George Pembroke as the inevitable stupid cop. Appearing in individual episodes were such stalwarts of TV’s pioneer days as Joe Besser, Rand Brooks, Maurice Cass, Jorja Curtright, Jonathan Hale, Frank Jenks and Lyle Talbot.

   As with KENNEDY and TRACY, filming was 99% indoors, on some of the cheapest sets ever seen by the televiewer’s eye except perhaps for those used by the other members of our trio.

   The director of every episode I’ve seen recently was Fairbanks’ production supervisor Arnold Wester (1907-1976), who is not known to have directed anything else afterward. And just as well: apparently his idea of directing was to make sure the camera was pointed at the actors and leave the set.

   Many scripts were by veterans of pulp detective magazines and radio like Robert Leslie Bellem (also, as we’ve seen, a TRACY veteran) and Irvin Ashkenazy, with an occasional contribution by Curt Siodmak, author of the classic horror novel DONOVAN’S BRAIN.

   At least nine episodes of the series are accessible on YouTube. The rest seem to have vanished but their gimmicks can often be deduced from the brief descriptions in crumbling issues of TV Guide.

   In “The Case of the Perfect Secretary” Chase tries to find out why Dr. Owens, the inventor of a synthetic cortisone, didn’t show up for a scheduled lecture. He finds Owens’ laboratory deserted and later discovers that the doctor has been murdered, the letter M imprinted on his forehead. It takes no Charlie Chan to figure out that the M is most likely a W.

   “Honey for Your Tea” finds Chase looking into the claim of a young actress that her fiancé was brutally murdered by her dramatic coach (Maurice Cass), a gnarled and crippled old man whose hobby is beekeeping. Anyone want to bet that this isn’t the old bee-venom poisoning shtick?

   In “The Other Face” Chase investigates the death of a handsome actor who “accidentally” fell from his penthouse terrace shortly after telling his psychiatrist of his desire to fall through space. If the murder victim didn’t turn out to be not the actor but his look-alike understudy, toads fly.

   Other episodes seem to have more intriguing storylines. In “Napoleon’s Obituary” a man named for Bonaparte dies the day after asking Chase to write his death notice, and the trail leads our sleuth to a house whose inhabitants are all named after historic figures.

   In “Ringside Seat for Murder” Chase witnesses a bizarre murder during a wrestling match where one of the athletes (using the term loosely) is stabbed in the back with a poisoned dart while pinned to the mat by his opponent.

   FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE never pretended to be a classic, but for all its clichés and Grade ZZZ production values it was, like KENNEDY and TRACY, a pioneering effort in tele-detection that deserves perhaps a wee bit more than to be totally forgotten.

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

   

   After completing his first three novels as by A.A. Fair about the PI team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam — actually his first four novels, with THE KNIFE SLIPPED remaining unpublished until more than forty years after his death — Erle Stanley Gardner felt the need to reconfigure his odd couple. This is why, between GOLD COMES IN BRICKS (1940) and the next book in the series, Bertha was hit simultaneously with the flu and pneumonia and spent quite a bit of time in a Salt Lake City sanitarium where she lost about 100 pounds, although at between 150 and 160 she’d hardly be mistaken for a sylph.

   At the beginning of SPILL THE JACKPOT! (1941), which takes place and was apparently written shortly after the 1940 presidential election which gave FDR his third term, a not yet reconfigured Donald is about to take her home by plane, with a brief stopover in Las Vegas so that he can confer with the firm’s newest client. Ad agency owner Arthur Whitewell has retained Bertha’s outfit to locate the young woman his son Philip was about to marry, who vanished shortly before the wedding after receiving a mysterious letter from a woman in Vegas named Helen Framley.

   Donald finds Helen’s apartment quickly enough but she isn’t home and he decides to kill a little time at a nearby casino. In something of a Keeler Koinkydink, the woman playing the slot machine next to him is, you guessed it, Helen — and both she and the tough guy on the other side of her have gimmicked their machines so that they produce one jackpot after another. An attendant on the watch for just such trickery accuses the two of them and Donald too.

   The tough guy and Helen manage to escape, but Donald is knocked down and arrested. He clears himself by proving his identity and agrees not to sue the casino in return for some co-operation. The attendant who socked Donald, a punch-drunk ex-boxer who if there had been a movie based on this book would probably have been played by Mike Mazurki, takes a huge liking to the little guy and offers to teach him some tricks of the pugilism trade, an offer which, as we’ll see, opens the door to Donald’s reconfiguration.

   That evening Donald boards the night train to Los Angeles, but in the wee hours he’s hauled out of his sleeping compartment by the police and taken back forcibly to Las Vegas where Helen’s accomplice has been found shot to death in her apartment. Donald was at the railroad station at the time, waiting for his train, but can’t prove it, and soon he and Helen and the ex-pug go on the run.

   The plot this time is less involuted than most of Gardner’s, and suffers here and there from careless plotting; Donald, for example, locates the vanished bride-to-be only because she’s going by a name no rational person in her position would have used. Without slowing the pace, Gardner punctuates the novel with side excursions, in the first of which we learn perhaps more than we want to know about the gimmicking of slot machines.

   But the later excursions are much more rewarding. I especially liked the sequence where Donald and Helen and the ex-pug Louie Hazen, on the run from the police, camp out on the desert as their creator loved to do most of his life. “There has never been anything quite as soul-satisfying, quite as filled with the promise of life, as the smell of coffee out in the open when the fresh air has done its work and you realize that you’re ravenously hungry.”

   I also enjoyed the later scenes where the three hole up in a one-cabin wilderness motel — with how many bedrooms remains murky — and Louie teaches Donald to be a boxer. Gardner, you may remember, fought in a number of unlicensed matches in his salad days. At the climax Donald finds a confession letter from the murderer (who actually killed in self-defense), lets that person go free and frames one of the other characters who is much more of (forgive me, all you critters who bear the noble name of Bufo bufo) a toad, although the frame would fall flat on its kiester unless Donald and the dead guy happen to be of the same blood type. I challenge anyone to find an ending so cynical in a Perry Mason novel.

***

   From its title you might guess that gambling would also figure prominently in DOUBLE OR QUITS (1941). But the first word in the title of the fifth (or, if you count THE KNIFE SLIPPED, the sixth) Cool & Lam exploit actually refers to that old standby of crime fiction, double indemnity — and to the legal difference between accidental death, which doesn’t pay double the face amount of a life insurance policy, and death by accidental means, which does.

   On a fishing excursion Donald and Bertha meet a prosperous doctor who immediately hires the firm to investigate the theft of his wife’s jewels from a wall safe in his study to which he alone knew the combination — or so he thought — and the simultaneous disappearance of his wife’s secretary.

   Donald spends that evening at the doctor’s house meeting his family, which includes a niece and nephew of the wife who are living with their aunt and uncle. Later the doctor goes out to make a couple of house calls, leaving Donald in his study. Close to midnight, during a Santa Ana windstorm, Donald finds him dead in his garage, apparently a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning while tinkering with his car, whose motor is running and whose glove compartment contains a valuable ring belonging to his wife plus the cases for all the stolen jewelry.

   Unfortunately for the widow, who’s the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, if the situation is what it seems his death was accidental but not by accidental means. Result: no double indemnity.

   The complications keep piling up along with suspicious characters like the vanished secretary’s roommate, the niece’s ex-husband and her lawyer, a sinister chauffeur and a suave oil speculator. Eventually Donald sets up a test in the garage, trying to establish that the Santa Ana winds might have slammed down the overhead door, which would constitute accidental means and require the insurance company to pay double.

   But everything goes wrong and Donald winds up in a fistfight with the insurance adjuster in which, thanks to Louie Hazen’s training in SPILL THE JACKPOT!, he acquits himself handily. He also makes out very well in his employment situation, literally quitting the firm in mid-case until Bertha promotes him to full partner.

   Back on the job he finds another body, this one clearly a murder victim, strangled with string from a girdle tightened around the neck by, I am not making this up, a potato masher. DOUBLE OR QUITS earned a rave from Barzun & Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME (2nd ed. 1989): “One of the best of the A.A. Fair stories. It is witty, reasonably simple, and brilliantly told….”

   Personally I found it no more witty or brilliantly narrated than any other book in the long-running series, with a plot not simple but all too complicated, characters with confusingly similar names (would you believe Timken, Timley and Harmley?), and at least one crucial fact — that the two doctors in the cast live within walking distance of each other — kept concealed from us until too late. But it’s readable enough and plays at least partially fair, so let’s give it one thumb up.

***

   Between DOUBLE OR QUITS and the next C&L novel, Pearl Harbor was attacked, the U.S. went to war, and every mystery writer with a male series character below middle age had to face the question Why is my man not in uniform? Gardner didn’t have to worry about Perry Mason, whose age was never given and whom most readers probably thought of as in his forties, but with Donald Lam, who had been established as in his late twenties, it was a different story.

   OWLS DON’T BLINK (1942), which takes place a few months after Pearl Harbor, opens in medias res and in the middle of the night with Donald in New Orleans trying to track down yet another vanished woman, whose apartment in the French Quarter he’s rented for a week.

   In the morning Bertha arrives in town by train along with the firm’s latest client, a New York lawyer who had hired these Los Angeles PIs to find a vanished woman in New Orleans but refuses to explain why he wants to find her. Donald locates the woman easily enough but soon discovers that she was using another woman’s name
and winds up in the middle of a Machiavellian legal maneuver to invalidate a wealthy Californian’s divorce on the ground that it wasn’t his estranged wife but another woman who was served with process.

   Then the lawyer who dreamed up the scheme is shot to death in the present apartment of the woman Donald was looking for, and the trail of the woman she was impersonating leads him first to Shreveport and then back to L.A.

   The plot has a little bit of everything: scams within scams, gun switching, legal issues, a consignment of silk stockings that exists only in Donald’s imagination, ju-jitsu, and a love song to that classic New Orleans dish, oysters Rockefeller. “The shells are placed in rock salt. There’s a little touch of garlic and a special sauce….And then they’re baked, right in their shells.”

   It’s such a rich assortment of ingredients that few will object to the Keeler Koinkydink that everything hinges on the two women in the dead man’s life living across an apartment-house corridor from each other.

   During the middle stretches Donald discovers that Bertha has surreptitiously started a second business and wangled a contract to build military housing, apparently to keep him from being drafted on the ground that he works in a defense industry, and angrily retaliates, after solving the case, by enlisting in the Navy.

   That decision brings the first sequence of C&L adventures to an abrupt end. How Gardner managed to continue the series while his male hero was in Navy whites must be saved till later this year.
   

   

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CORNELL WOOLRICH Stories in EQMM, along with original appearances:

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

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

   

   More than half a century ago a young man happened to notice a curious fact about two English detective novelists of the Golden Age and ran with it. The authors were John Rhode and Miles Burton and the young man was me. The curious fact was that, whenever anyone in a book by either writer was asked a question, we were always told that he or she “replied.” Both authors were prolific, and that simple word must have appeared in their complete works thousands of times. It was clear, to me at any rate, that the same man was behind both bylines.

   Today the identity of Rhode and Burton, whose real name was Cecil J. C. Street (1884-1965), is acknowledged in a host of reference books and on countless websites. Over the generations since I caught on to the fact, I’ve read a fair amount of Rhode, who was quite well known in the U.S., but precious little of Burton, who wasn’t. Late last year I decided it was time to revisit Burton and soon concluded that his personal golden age, like Rhode’s, was the 1930s. Shall we check him out?

***

   THE MILK-CHURN MURDER (1935; U.S. title THE CLUE OF THE SILVER BRUSH, 1936) was the twelfth novel under the Burton byline, the fourth to appear over here, and the first to be published by Doubleday Crime Club, which remained his American publisher as long as he had one. Just as all but a handful of the Rhode books feature that scientific curmudgeon Dr. Priestley, the protagonists of the vast majority of Burtons are wealthy amateur of crime Desmond Merrion and his Scotland Yard buddy Inspector Arnold.

   Merrion’s forte, unlike Priestley’s, is the spinning of elaborate theories of the crime he’s investigating based on a tiny number of evidentiary hints, and he spins like a manic spider in MILK-CHURN. We open with a vivid portrayal of dairy farming in the rural west of England and soon segue into the discovery of a headless and dismembered body inside a huge milk can. (The original title leads me to suspect that in the English edition the can was called a churn, a word that never appears in the American text, which was apparently altered in other ways too, for example the conversion of distances from meters to miles.)

   The can also contains several other objects — a worn leather wallet stamped with the initials ALS, the frame of a pair of lens-less spectacles bearing the same initials, a hotel-room key, a railway timetable — and, in one of his imaginative leaps, Merrion concludes that some of the clues were meant to mislead the police and others to help them find the murderer. In due course there’s a second gruesome death, the victim being a woman who was stripped naked and thrust face first into the fireplace in Merrion’s flat, and then a third, the apparent suicide-by-hanging of the murderer.

   In the final chapters comes something we almost never find in Rhode or Burton, an all-out action sequence. As Merrion and Arnold chase their quarry across a pitch-dark railway shunting yard filled with moving freight train cars, we might almost believe we’ve stumbled into a cop movie of fifty or sixty years later, perhaps starring Clint Eastwood.

***

   THE PLATINUM CAT (1938) takes place at a time when the threat of a second World War hung heavily over the British Isles. A fire breaks out at 3:00 A.M., destroying an abandoned farm cottage in the Weald of Kent, and beneath the debris is discovered a man’s body, burned beyond recognition. The initials on a pair of cuff links strongly suggest that the dead man was an official of the Ministry of Defence, one of the three men with access to the secret plans to be activated in case of an air raid on London.

   But what was he doing in the Kentish countryside in the middle of the night, and why was he carrying the titular cat figure which was found on his body? Was he about to sell those secret plans to a foreign agent, or was he murdered by a jealous rival for the woman in his life? And what accounts for the allusions to Norse mythology with which the clues are studded?

   As in THE MILK-CHURN MURDER there’s plenty of speculative theorizing between Merrion and Arnold, with Merrion again displaying his knack for coming up with wildly imaginative theories based on a few shreds of evidence. This time however he fails to discover the truth, although a sort of justice is done and England’s secrets are preserved. One of the book’s unusual aspects is the identity of the adversary country.

   In a novel set in 1937, when war with Hitler’s Third Reich was widely believed to be inevitable — as witness, for example, William L. Shirer’s BERLIN DIARY (1941) and the final chapters of the first volume of Norman Sherry’s GRAHAM GREENE: A BIOGRAPHY (1989) — Hitler is never mentioned and the perpetrator of the espionage against England is, as you might have guessed, the Soviet Union. I can’t resist indulging in a Merrionesque speculation: might Rhode/Burton’s books have been published in Germany but not in the U.S.S.R.?

***

   The next Burton on my shelves dates from the thick of the war and is more interesting as a picture of an English small town in wartime than as a detective novel. In MURDER, M. D. (1943; U.S. title WHO KILLED THE DOCTOR?) nothing much happens for quite a while beyond the introduction of various village characters. The local doctor has joined the military and his replacement or locum (which comes from the Latin locum tenens) is a native Austrian who is more competent professionally than his predecessor but has a talent for antagonizing everyone he meets and is widely suspected of being a spy.

   In Chapter 3 this intruder into village life is found dead at the gravel-covered bottom of a small quarry with the back of his head bashed in. Everyone treats the death as an accidental fall while the doctor was out birdwatching; everyone, that is, but the local squire, Sir Mark Corringham, who asks visiting Captain Merrion to look into the matter. A few subtle clues convince Merrion that the doctor was murdered but he doesn’t share his conclusions with the authorities and nothing else happens until the arrival of the locum’s replacement, who turns out to be an attractive woman.

   This lady takes over the practice and charms the community but is herself murdered by head-bashing after a few months, and Scotland Yard is summoned in the person of Merrion’s old compadre Inspector Arnold. Eventually Merrion has an inspiration and sets a trap.

   The detection, when it finally comes, is reasonably interesting — although a map of the area and a timetable of everyone’s movements would have been helpful — but many modern readers might be more fascinated by the details of wartime existence: the blackouts, the rationing points, the hearing before what we would call a municipal court where Sir Mark in his capacity as justice of the peace fines a grocer five guineas and costs for “selling a vegetable-marrow at a penny above the controlled price,” the need for locals to go out into the woods and shoot pheasants, quail and rabbits if they want dinner.

***

   During the war years the mystery critic for the San Francisco Chronicle was Anthony Boucher, who usually had a kind word for the John Rhode novels that crossed his desk but reserved some of his snarkiest remarks for Burton, unaware that the two authors were one. On THIS UNDESIRABLE RESIDENCE (1942; U.S. title DEATH AT ASH HOUSE) he said: “Inspector Arnold plods through the problem of the bashed secretary and at last catches up with the reader. Relentlessly painstaking — -and giving.” MURDER, M. D./WHO KILLED THE DOCTOR? he dismissed as infuriatingly snobbish and “[a]mmunition for Anglophobes.”

   In his review of FOUR-PLY YARN (1944; U.S. title THE SHADOW ON THE CLIFF) he described Merrion’s specialty as “clearing the aristocracy and proving that crime is a property of commoners.” Of NOT A LEG TO STAND ON (1945) he conceded that the “[s]omewhat ingenious puzzle lifts this above the dismal run of Burton novels.” Least of all did he like EARLY MORNING MURDER (1945; U.S. title ACCIDENTS DO HAPPEN, 1946), which he called “dull, endless and snobbish” and featuring “the most incompetent detection…of the past decade….”

   The last four Burtons published in this country came out in the interim between Boucher’s departure from the Chronicle and the beginning of his legendary tenure as mystery critic of the New York Times. His comments leave me with little interest in exploring any of these books. If you’re determined to read Burton, my advice is to stick to his novels of the Thirties. If you can find any.

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

   

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “HIT ME!” SHE SAID.

   It was GODDAM queer….She struck my chest.

   SHE SAID: “HIT ME.”

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

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

   “Yes,” she said.

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

***

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

   THE DEAD DON’T CARE (1938) made considerably more money for Latimer than his first three Crane novels, thanks to being bought by the high-paying Collier’s magazine and published as a 10-part serial (“A Queen’s Ransom,” 14 December 1937 – 5 February 1938). Which perhaps explains why this fourth book in the series isn’t anywhere near so grotesque and bizarre as THE LADY IN THE MORGUE.

   The setting is Florida, within driving distance of Miami and Key West, and we open with Crane and his sidekick Tom O’Malley approaching a resplendent mansion, their firm having been hired by the bank that serves as trustee of the fabulous Essex estate to investigate a series of “pay-$50,000-or-else” notes signed The Eye and delivered to playboy Penn Essex under impossible circumstances. Putting up at the family’s palatial shack, they find already in residence an assortment of characters, perhaps as in previous Crane novels a few too many, but nothing radical happens until Penn’s younger sister Camelia is kidnapped at gunpoint in front of a Miami gambling casino to which Penn is in hock for close to $25,000.

   Thereafter the tenor of the notes from The Eye switches to “pay us fifty grand or we kill her.” Then the weirdest of the house guests, a woman who claims to be descended from a Mayan high priest, is poisoned in the middle of the night in her own locked bedroom with no one else inside except Crane, who’s sleeping off a sexual encounter with her. Our sleuth’s guzzling capacity is insatiable as usual but a few chapters before the end of the book he manages to supervise a traditional gathering-of-suspects at which by a sort of reasoning process he names the murderer.

   But Camelia Essex remains in kidnapers’ hands, and the final chapters are devoted to a violent seaborne action sequence in which Crane takes part but is certainly no superhero.

   Much of the narrative consists of simple declarative sentences as in Hammett but there’s also a fair amount of vividly colorful descriptive prose of the sort we never find either in Hammett or in earlier Latimer novels, starting with the first sentence: “Sunset splashed gold paint on the windows of the white marble house, brought out apricots and pinks and salmons in the flowering azaleas.” Early in Chapter XVI we find the following passage:

   The clouds were splendid. They towered high above the horizon, giving the effect of a city on fire. Heliotrope smudged their bases, but the towerlike peaks were bright with scarlets, roses, salmons and oranges. Above, the sky was sapphire.

   “Pretty gaudy,” Crane said. “It looks like Sam Goldwyn had a hand in it.”

   Even more unlike Hammett are the occasional wildly funny moments, like the one in Chapter III where Crane, several sheets to the wind, makes bold to correct O’Malley’s grammar.

   “No. You do not use ‘trun.’ We are not going to be ‘trun’ to the alligators.”

   “You’re tellin’ me?”

   “If you have to use ‘trun,’ use it this way: he fell like a trun of bicks.”

   “You mean a trun of bricks.”

   “Or a one-trun tuck.”

   Less amusing is dat ole debbil n word, which crawls out of the woodwork once or twice in the final chapters.

   The most memorable sequence in the book comes in Chapter XIII when Crane wakes up in the wee hours, in the mood for another round of amour, and begins sexually teasing the naked woman in bed next to him, then after a while discovers to his horror that she’s dead. A later scene takes place in Key West, where Ernest Hemingway famously had one of his homes, and in Crane’s company we visit Sloppy Joe’s, the bar where Papa hung out.

   We never get to see the great author, of course, but from a conversation between Crane and some professional anglers we glean a few anecdotes about his fishing habits. One of the four kidnappers involved in the final action sequence happens to be known as Toad, which makes him the third crime-fiction character I’ve encountered — the others being Joseph P. Toad in Chandler’s THE LITTLE SISTER and Capitaine Crapaud in one of Gerald Kersh’s Karmesin stories — to sport the name of the sweetly singing little critter known to biologists as Bufo bufo.

   Like the two Crane novels before it, THE DEAD DON’T CARE was adapted into a Crime Club series movie, but under a different title, THE LAST WARNING (1938), which was directed by Albert S. Rogell from a screenplay by Edmund Hartmann. Preston Foster and Frank Jenks were back as Crane and his sidekick Doc Williams who, as we’ve seen, had very little to do in the novel and was replaced by Crane’s other sidekick Tom O’Malley.

   The names of the characters were de-exoticized: Imago Paraguay became Carla Rodriguez, Count Paul di Gregario was reduced to Paul Gomez, and the first names of the siblings Penn and Camelia Essex were toned down to John and Linda. I don’t recall ever having seen the movie but from the descriptions on the Web it seems to have followed at least the broad outlines of the novel, although I’d bet money that what I called the most memorable scene in the book, if filmed at all, was trun on the cutting-room floor.

***

   

   The fifth and final Crane novel is quite different from the others. For one thing, we’re never told where the events take place except that it must be somewhere in the upper Midwest. For another, a good bit of the narrative is so bland it reads like stage directions. (A walks out by the front door. B enters by the French window.) I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Latimer first planned the work as an original screenplay for the Crane movie series, then changed his mind or had it changed for him and reconfigured it as a novel. In any event RED GARDENIAS (1939) did well for him since it too first appeared as a serial in Collier’s (10 June – 5 August 1939).

   If it were originally intended as a screenplay, clearly the primary influence on it was the first couple of sequels to THE THIN MAN (1934). Ann Fortune, Colonel Black’s niece, plays Nora to Crane’s Nick and engages in dialogue with him that’s sort of reminiscent of the exchanges between William Powell and Myrna Loy in those movies. A multi-millioned manufacturer of refrigerators and washing machines has retained the firm to investigate the suspicious death of his nephew, who was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his sedan nine months earlier, with the scent of the titular gardenias on his clothing, and later the similar death of his son, who was likewise found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage about a month before the book opens.

   Posing as a new hire in the manufacturer’s advertising department and with Ann in tow passing as his wife, Crane moves into the dead nephew’s house and, in the middle of his first night, surprises a burglar who turns out to be his client’s other son. Over the next few days he encounters other members of the family circle: the dead son’s widow, the dead nephew’s ex-wife, a second nephew who is a lawyer and represented the ex-wife in the divorce proceedings against his brother, a tennis-loving doctor who runs the local hospital, a gangster’s moll who was playing around with the dead nephew, the list goes on and on for perhaps, as in other Crane novels, a little too long.

   Eventually there’s a third carbon monoxide poisoning in the family, followed by a suspenseful duck hunt, a shoot-out in an isolated farmhouse and, after perhaps too many complications, the exposure of a poorly concealed Least Likely Suspect. Among the plot problems is the fact that there’s never a scintilla of official suspicion about so many similar deaths in the same family, and you must pull down those raised eyebrows and stifle that giggle when you come to the ridiculous hospital action scene in Chapter 18.

   In addition, you have to hold your nose when in Chapter 8 a black nightclub singer is gratuitously referred to (in the narrative, not by a racist character) as a jigaboo. Crane as usual guzzles up a storm, imbibing everything from Scotch and soda to champagne and laudanum. Between drinks he asks all sorts of questions about the murders and in general acts like anything but a newly hired advertising copywriter, yet no one ever suspects he’s not what he claims to be. The last line hints that he and Ann Fortune will soon get married, but if Latimer had any plans for other Nick-and-Nora-type books they came to nothing and Crane never appeared in print again.

***

   
   It was the end for William Crane but not quite the end for Latimer’s involvement with the PI novel. In late 1940 or early ‘41 he made one final venture into the field, far from his best work but certainly the most controversial and therefore requiring a fair amount of space to discuss. For this reason the book known originally as SOLOMON’s VINEYARD and later as THE FIFTH GRAVE will be saved for next year. Happy holidays!

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

   

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

   

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

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

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

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