April 2008

   Just uploaded this evening, about 15 minutes ago, with no links or cover images added yet, is Part 26 of the ongoing online Addenda to the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin.

   Most of the entries seem to consist of newly discovered settings, but there are (as always) a sizable handful of new authors, titles and series characters as well.

   Any of the annotations which I do, I’ll be posting here also, as usual. More later, in other words!

   Another copy of COMPLETE DETECTIVE NOVEL MAGAZINE from my collection. See this previous post for more information about the project this is a part of.


July 1931. Number 37. Total pages: 144, not including covers. Cover artist (signed): Parkhurst. Cover price: 25¢.

      * 8 * Virginia Anne Rath * The Murders at Hillside * novel * illustrated by Parkhurst

      * 105 * Jonathan Eddy * A Vacant Lieutenancy * short story

      * 113 * Karl Nemmel * The Human Vampire * fact article

      * 118 * Leonard A. Hopkins * Jake Gets a Break * short story

      * 122 * Eddy Orcutt * Shots from Nowhere * short story (impossible crime)

      * 134 * Mark Mellen * Ivory O’Toole, Wise Hombre * short story

      * 142 * U. V. Wilcox * Police Problems * true crime feature

Comments: While Virginia Rath went on to have a long career writing hardcover mysteries, this early novel appears to have never been published in book form. Neither of her two primary series characters, Sheriff Rocky Allan or Michael Dundas appears in “The Murders at Hillside.” For more on Mrs. Rath, see her profile here as one of the authors who wrote for Ziff-Davis’s line of Fingerprint Mysteries.

   The blurb on the first page of “The Murders at Hillside” reads as follows: “Death strikes in the night and a gay house party becomes the scene of a series of baffling crimes. From the first murder to the startling solution of the last you will follow breathlessly this brand new book-length novel, complete in this issue.” It is not clear, but I believe the story takes place in the West Coast, probably California.

   Not a “cozy” as the term is used in today’s terminology, but most definitely neither a typical pulp story of gangsters and cops. What this novel is instead is one of those traditional murder mysteries very common in the 1930s, not only in England (manor houses and all), but in the US as well. Also note that the author was only 26 when she wrote it.

   From Crime Fiction IV:

RATH, VIRGINIA (Anne McVay) (1905-1950); see pseudonym Theo Durrant

* Death at Dayton’s Folly (n.) Doubleday 1935 [Sheriff Rocky Allan; California]
* Murder on the Day of Judgment (n.) Doubleday 1936 [Sheriff Rocky Allan; California]
* Ferryman, Carry Him Across! (n.) Doubleday 1936 [Sheriff Rocky Allan; California; Academia]
* The Anger of the Bells (n.) Doubleday 1937 [Sheriff Rocky Allan; California]

VIRGINIA RATH The Anger of the Bells

* An Excellent Night for Murder (n.) Doubleday 1937 [Sheriff Rocky Allan; California]
* The Dark Cavalier (n.) Doubleday 1938 [Michael Dundas; San Francisco, CA]
* Murder with a Theme Song (n.) Doubleday 1939 [Sheriff Rocky Allan; Michael Dundas; California]
* Death of a Lucky Lady (n.) Doubleday 1940 [Michael Dundas; San Francisco, CA]
* Death Breaks the Ring (n.) Doubleday 1941 [Michael Dundas; California]

VIRGINIA RATH Death Breaks the Ring

* Epitaph for Lydia (n.) Doubleday 1942 [Michael Dundas; San Francisco, CA]
* Posted for Murder (n.) Doubleday 1942 [Michael Dundas; San Francisco, CA]
* A Dirge for Her (n.) Ziff-Davis 1947 [Michael Dundas; San Francisco, CA]
* A Shroud for Rowena (n.) Ziff-Davis 1947 [Michael Dundas; San Francisco, CA]

DURRANT, THEO; pseudonym of William A. P. White, Terry Adler, Eunice Mays Boyd, Florence Ostern Faulkner, Allen Hymson, Cary Lucas, Dana Lyon, Lenore Glen Offord, Virginia Rath, Richard Shattuck, Darwin L. Teilhet & William Worley.

      * The Marble Forest (n.) Knopf 1951 [California]
      * The Big Fear (n.) Popular Library 1953; See: The Marble Forest (Knopf 1951)

ROBERT CRANE – The Sergeant and the Queen.

Pyramid R-1012; paperback original. First printing: May 1964.

   Some information about the author first, shall we? He’s not a name known to me, nor is this a book I bought in 1964, even though I bought a lot of Pyramid’s back then. But from Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, comes the following:

CRANE, ROBERT; pseudonym of Con Sellers, (1922-1992); other pseudonyms Ric Arana & Ladd E. Linsley.

      Sgt. Corbin’s War. Pyramid, 1964. [Ben Corbin; Korea]
      # The Sergeant and the Queen. Pyramid, 1964. [Ben Corbin; Korea]
      Operation Vengeance. Pyramid, 1965. [Ben Corbin; Tokyo]
      Strikeback! Pyramid, 1965. [Korea]
      # The Paradise Trap. Pyramid, 1967. [Ben Corbin; Hawaii]

ROBERT CRANE Paradise Trap

      # Tongue of Treason. Pyramid, 1967. [Ben Corbin; California]
      Time Running Out. Papillon, 1974. [Ben Corbin; Tokyo]
      Out of Time. Decade, 1980; reprint of Time Running Out (Papillon 1974).

SELLERS, CON(nie Leslie, Jr.) (1922-1992); see pseudonyms Ric Arana, Robert Crane & Ladd E. Linsley.

      The Algerian Incident. Powell, 1970. [Algeria]

CON SELLERS The Algerian Incident.

ARANA, RIC; pseudonym of Con Sellers, (1922-1992); other pseudonyms Robert Crane & Ladd E. Linsley.

      The Silent Seducers. Challenge, 1967.
      Big Dano. Powell, 1969. [California]

LINSLEY, LADD E.; pseudonym of Con Sellers, (1922-1992); other pseudonyms Ric Arana & Robert Crane.

      Widow for Hire. Powell, 1969.

   The books I own are the ones with indicated with a #. I thought I had a large paperback collection, and I am not greatly impressed at how low the percentage is of these that I have. There is obviously some work to be done by me as far as Mr. Sellers’ books are considered. (I also do not recall ever have seen a book published by Decade. This is something else that will have to be looked into.)

   From Contemporary Authors comes a partial list of more fiction (I think), but none of them crime related. These, unless indicated otherwise, are under his own name:

F.S.C.: The Shocking Story of a Probable America, Novel Books, 1963.
Too Late the Hero, Pyramid Books, 1970.
Dallas (novel adapted from the TV series), Dell, 1978. (Under the pseudonym of Lee Raintree.)


Bed of Strangers, Dell, 1978. (With Anthony Wilson)
Marilee, Pocket Books, 1978.
Sweet Caroline, Pocket Books, 1979.
The Last Flower, Pocket Books, 1979.
Since You’ve Been Gone, Jove Books, 1980.
Keepers of the House, Pocket Books, 1983.

CON SELLERS Keepers of the House.

This Promised Earth, Bantam, 1985.
The Black Magnolia, Bantam, 1986.
Trouble in Mind, Bantam, 1986.
Mansei!, Bantam, 1987.
Those Frightened Years, Bantam, 1988.
Brothers in Battle, Pocket Books, 1989.
“Men at Arms” series, four books, Pocket Books, 1991-1992.

   CA also says: “Con Sellers was a prolific writer who produced over 100 novels under a wide range of pseudonyms, including Robert Crane and Lee Raintree. His subjects ranged from pornography to romance, science fiction to war.”

   Mr. Sellers is also quoted thusly: “The most important step in my career was finding my agent, Jane Rotrosen Berkey. Until she took me in hand, I had never gotten more than $3,000 advance; now we talk $100,000.”

   Nice work, and not bad, considering he started with Novel Books, the lowest of the lows, but if his work sold, which it appears it did, he was worth every cent of it. Before turning to writing, using the GI bill as a stepping stone, he was in the military with the U.S. Army from 1940 to 1956; earned more than forty awards, including French Croix de Guerre with Palm, Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge with Star, and Purple Heart.

   I thought Sellers’s army service was worth a mention, if only because The Sergeant and the Queen could have been written only by someone in the army, someone who’s been there, knows what it’s like to give orders, take orders, and what it’s like to fight along those who are not ready to be there — kids in a man’s army. This latter theme resonates clearly throughout the book.

ROBERT CRANE Sgt and the Queen.

   The plot of which is rather slim, to say the least. A word first about Ben Corbin, though. I’ve not read the first book he was in, obviously, since I don’t have a copy, but there’s little need to, since his life story is thoroughly gone over in this one. Born in Korea, the son of a fire-and-brimstone Christian minister to that country, Ben Corbin turned instead to the military rather than religion for his own life’s work. Marrying a Korean woman was also what helped turn his life around, transforming him into one of that country’s greatest heroes — with most of his feats accomplished while deeply undercover — a man of legendary fighting abilities, and all aimed to the good of his adopted land.

   The plan in The Sergeant and the Queen, on the part of Corbin and a handful of others, is to bring in the granddaughter of the last empress of Korea to unite the country, a land torn through the middle after the conflict involving China and the UN, and still very much on edge. What the conspirators do not plan on, however, is how greatly attractive Helen Min finds Ben Corbin to be, and even though he is happily married, how little he is able to resist.

   Corbin fights many personal battles in this book, and whenever he does, the book’s forward motion slows to a near crawl. Those who bought this book in 1964 for the action will have found it — when aroused, Ben Corbin is a veritable one-man army, there’s no denying that. But I wonder what they made of the book’s true strength, the portrayal of a man fighting himself, the memories of his father, and a woman who seems to have her way with him, much of it through his own badly conflicted thoughts and emotions.

   A surprising book, in other words, and one not at all what I expected. A minor if not negligible book in the overall scheme of things, but on its own terms? Five stars out of five.

   Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting the covers and contents of all of the issues of a pulp called COMPLETE DETECTIVE NOVEL MAGAZINE that are in my collection. This is in conjunction with a far more reaching project called the Crime Fiction Index, which is being compiled under the direction of Phil Stephensen-Payne.

   Its intent is to index all of the crime fiction magazines ever published in English, expanding upon two previous such checklists, now both long out of print:

      1. Mystery, Detective, and Espionage Fiction: A Checklist of Fiction in U.S. Pulp Magazines, 1915-1974, compiled by Michael L. Cook and Stephen T. Miller.

      2. Monthly Murders: A Checklist and Chronological Listing Of Fiction In The Digest-Size Mystery Magazines In The United States And England, compiled by Michael L. Cook.

   Follow the link above for more information.

   As for COMPLETE DETECTIVE NOVEL MAGAZINE, Phil also has a checklist of all the issues, most with covers, online here.

   Some of the data is has for the magazine is missing or incomplete, nor does he have all the covers. As I have quite a few of the run, I’ve been promising to give him an assist on these for quite a while. To motivate me – sharp sticks haven’t seemed to work – I’ve decided to post the information here on the M*F blog before sending it along to Phil.

   There will be quite a bit of information that will duplicate his, but even if so it will serve as a check, and while he has quite a few of the covers, some I imagine will be upgrades, as the copies I have are in rather nice condition.

   As the title suggests, each issue contained a full-length novel, along with whatever short stories or other features were needed to fill out the magazine. I’ve estimated the content of the “The Lennox Murder” in the issue below to be 98,000 words, so I feel justified, as did the editors of the magazine, to call the lead story a novel.

   Some of these novels in CDNM can be found in hardcover form. Whether the pulp magazine versions were published before or after the hardcover appeared, I’m not sure, as I don’t have any of these in my collection. As far as I know, the novels in the issues I have were never published anywhere else, although some of the author’s other work may indeed have been. I’ll try to point out instances like this as I go along.

   But what this means to readers and collectors of 1920s and 1930s detective fiction, here’s a source of crime novels you may not have heard about before. Since they appeared in magazine form only, they aren’t included in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, for example, which cites only book appearances, although in either hardcover or paperback form.

   I won’t be presenting these in any particular order. I’m not organized well enough to do that. If I were to wait until anything like that happened, I would never get anything done.


September 1929. Number 15. Total pages: 144, not including covers. Cover price: 25¢.

      * 4 * Madelon St. Dennis * The Lennox Murder Case * novel * illustrated by J. Fleming Gould

      * 110 * Harry Van Demark * “The World’s Most Dangerous Woman” * true crime feature

      * 114 * Henry Leverage * The Prize Sucker * short story

      * 118 * Harold de Polo * “Tough Guy” Mahoney * short story

      * 125 * Mark Mellen & John Forbes * Held for Ransom * short story

      * 140 * Anonymous * Headquarters, Where the Readers Get Together * letter column

   Comment: The leading character is a female private eye named Tam O’Brien. The daughter of Ex-Chief of Detectives Rance O’Brien, she’s better known as Tam o’ Shanter, Inquirer. Female PI’s were still fairly scarce in 1929, and I don’t believe I’ve seen her name come up before. Historians of the genre are going to have to add her name to the short list of early ones. (On page 66 there is some discussion of some of the previous cases she’s handled, and they’ll probably come up again, as I start posting some of the earlier issues of CDMN.)

   From Crime Fiction IV:


       * The Death Kiss (Fiction League, 1932, hc) [Sydney Treherne; New York City, NY] Film: World Wide, 1933 (scw: Barry Barringer, Gordon Kahn; dir: Edward L. Marin).

       * The Perfumed Lure (Clode, 1932, hc) [Sydney Treherne; New York City, NY]

JONATHAN STAGGE – Death, My Darling Daughters.

Unicorn Book Club; hardcover reprint, June 1946. Hardcover first edition: Doubleday Crime Club, 1945. UK hardcover: Michael Joseph, as Death and the Dear Girls, 1946. Digest paperback reprint: Bestseller Mystery #B164; no date stated but circa 1953.


   Most of my time this week has been spent on doing my taxes, which are now done, at last. In the meantime, I’ve posted some old reviews to keep you from stopping by and seeing nothing new. I haven’t chosen the last two at random, though. I had a small design in mind, with no further explanation. I’ll let you put two and two together on your own.

   Jonathan Stagge was the author of nine mysteries published under Doubleday’s Crime Club imprint between 1937 and 1949. Each of these book featuring a country doctor by the name of Dr. Hugh Westlake as their leading sleuth. A widower, he lived with his daughter Dawn, who had only incidental roles in the cases he solved — I think. Maybe I’m wrong on that, as I’ve only read two or three of them, and none toward the end of the series, where she may have not appeared at all. And in some of the earlier ones, read a long time ago, she may have had more a part to play than she does in Death, My Darling Daughters.

   If you’ve been following me as I’ve gone along, however, you won’t be surprised to learn that Jonathan Stagge was a pen name and not a real person. He was instead the writing combo of Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, who also wrote at various times as Patrick Quentin and Q. Patrick. (Later on in his career, Wheeler co-wrote a play with Stephen Sondheim called Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I didn’t know that, until just now.)

   It’s not clear how old Dawn is when the book at hand begins. Westlake calls her “my young daughter,” and mentions that he had moved with her to the small Massachusetts town of Kenmore after his wife’s death ten years earlier. Dawn is therefore old enough to be left alone in their home for long periods of time, but young enough to naively point out (and strongly suggest) women who might make good wives for him.

   New in town, or rather newly back in town, is the family descended of one of Kenmore’s more famous citizens, Benjamin Hilton, who at one time was the Vice President of United States. (One of the more obscure ones, you may be sure.) Dawn is the reason that Dr. Westlake gets to meet the family, a mother and two daughters, all rather standoffish from the rest of the town’s inhabitants, but it’s the death of their aged nanny that gets him involved with their problems in his other capacity of town coroner.


   And when the other branches of the family come to visit, both headed by famous research doctors, it is Inspector Cobb, whom Westlake has assisted before, who asks him to stay underfoot and see what he can learn. They suspect murder, but the local D.A. is wisely afraid of annoying such important people.

   And when a second death occurs, they know they’re right, and the D.A. wrong. There is a sense of slyly malicious humor involved in Stagge’s telling of the tale, but even though this is nearly the equivalent of English manor house mystery, with only a very few suspects living together under one roof, the fact is that the people are all very unlikeable. (Some more than others.)

   It slows the reading down, this small fact does, but it is important. The daughters, both in their late teens or early 20s, have been sexually repressed by their mother, in the good old Puritan tradition. Nor are their aunts of much assistance, both rather weak and futile creatures. The two men in the family are greedy and overbearing, along with any other faults that you think might apply to the stuffy male aristocracy of New England.

   Dr. Westlake has the very desirable trait of allowing nearly perfect strangers tell him their life histories, which certainly eases the way when his sleuthing hat is on. Nonetheless, as the book begins to close, and you (the reader) are starting to wonder if there is any real puzzle to be solved, the answer I’m going to be ambiguous and say only that persevering to the end usually pays off.

   Overall? There are some dull spots in the reading — and looking back, I can’t see any way the author could have avoided them, or not easily — but there’s enough solid substance here to give the book a thumbs up. But two of them? I’ve thought it over, and the answer is no, as much I’d like to, I just can’t do it.

[ADDED LATER.] Using Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV as a guide, here’s a list of all the Jonathan Stagge books, in chronological order:

      The Dogs Do Bark. Doubleday 1937 [Dr. Hugh Westlake; Pennsylvania]
      Murder by Prescription. Doubleday 1938 [Dr. Hugh Westlake; Pennsylvania]
      The Stars Spell Death. Doubleday 1939 [Dr. Hugh Westlake; Pennsylvania]
      Turn of the Table. Doubleday 1940 [Dr. Hugh Westlake; Pennsylvania]


      The Yellow Taxi. Doubleday 1942 [Dr. Hugh Westlake; Pennsylvania]
      The Scarlet Circle. Doubleday 1943 [Dr. Hugh Westlake; New England]


      Death, My Darling Daughters. Doubleday 1945 [Dr. Hugh Westlake; Massachusetts]
      Death’s Old Sweet Song. Doubleday 1946 [Dr. Hugh Westlake; Massachusetts]
      The Three Fears. Doubleday 1949 [Dr. Hugh Westlake; Massachusetts]

Q. PATRICK – Return to the Scene.

Books, Inc.; hardcover reprint, March 1944. First edition: Simon & Schuster/Inner Sanctum, 1941. Paperback reprint: Popular Library #47, ca. 1945. Serialized previously in The American Weekly as “The Green Diary.”

American Weekly

   I don’t know how long this website will stay up, but it presently contains loads and loads of the beautiful (if not exquisite) artwork that filled the covers of The American Weekly in its heyday. While the examples are all from 1918-1943, the magazine, a Sunday newspaper supplement for the Hearst chain, continued on through the years until the title changed to Pictorial Living in 1963, then folded for good in 1966. (Information obtained from Phil Stephensen-Payne’s magnificent Magazine Data File website.)

   Which is not relevant to anything more than the fact that this novel by Q. Patrick first appeared there, nothing more, but you really ought to see those covers.

   (I couldn’t resist. The one shown here is from 1941, the artist Joe Little, and as you see, one of the authors who had a story in that issue was Max Brand.)

   As for Q. Patrick, there is no way I am going to try to completely untangle the web of real names that lie behind that pen name and that of Patrick Quentin (and Jonathan Stagge). Suffice it to say that Return to the Scene was the result of the primary two collaborators who used that pseudonym, Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler. On other Q. Patrick titles, Webb had as partners, at various times, Martha Mott Kelley and Mary Louise Aswell — pairwise, mind you, not in triple tandem.

   It is interesting to note that Mary Aswell’s two efforts with Webb took place in 1933 (S. S. Murder) and 1935 (The Grindle Nightmare), and her single solo effort did not appear until 1957 (Far to Go).

   As for Patrick Quentin (and Jonathan Stagge), we’ll leave any discussion of who they were (and when) for another time, but as well known as practitioners of the Golden Age variety of detection, none of the various aliases, nor their books, are very well known today.

   Nor of course is Quentin/Patrick alone in this category. The rise and fall in popularity of various authors over the years is a subject that is likely to come up often in these pages in the days to come. Why, for example, are Agatha Christie’s books so timeless, and Borders has nothing on the shelves by Ellery Queen or Erle Stanley Gardner, and only a handful of titles by Rex Stout? John D. MacDonald’s books may be in print, but only from Amazon. I’ve not seen them on any actual bookstore shelves, new, in quite a while.

   Not that answers are likely to be very forthcoming and/or definitive, but the question at least will be something that will turn up in one of these review/commentaries every once in a while.

   Case in point. Return to the Scene, by Q. Patrick. Is it a book very likely to be published today? Answer, possibly, but not by a major publisher. Maybe by a small independent publisher like the Rue Morgue Press, which specializes in reprinting classic (and obscure) mysteries from the Golden Age, of which Return to the Scene is obviously one — and if you have gotten this far into this (which eventually will turn into a review), you really should be supporting them, and if you aren’t, then shame on you — or one of those publishers that specializes in large print editions for libraries, under the obvious assumption that only older people who can’t see so well any more will have any interest in reading them any more.

Q. PATRICK Return to the Scene

   It starts out like a romance novel — this is now the review — with Kay Winyard rushing to back to Bermuda to stop her niece from marrying the man she once thought she was in love with, before she discovered what kind of man he was and walked out on him. And in her purse is her weapon, a diary. A very revealing diary written by the woman who did marry him, in spite of Kay’s warning, and who subsequently killed herself because of him.

   It very quickly becomes instead a murder mystery, however, and there is no surprise to learn who the victim is. The rich, the powerful Ivor Drake, who is soon also very dead. And with a huge house of possible suspects, all of whom (it is also quickly discovered) had reasons to wish him that way.

   The police investigate, and for one reason or another, no one tells them the truth. Alibis are created out of happenstance and convenience. Every one has their own package of facts that they do not wish to be known, and webs of intrigue and would-be (and only reluctantly admitted) love affairs make learning the complete truth next to impossible even for Kay, who is an insider, much less Major Clifford, the ultimate outsider.

   Here’s a long quote from pages 116-117. It begins with Terry talking to his sister, Elaine. Elaine is the girl whose marriage Kay came back to Bermuda to stop:

    “And I’ll go on telling that story to the police. You know I’ll do everything for you. But it can’t be this way between us. I’ve got to know what you were doing tonight.” He paused and then said in a tight, husky voice: “I can’t go on like this, wondering if you killed Ivor, not being sure.”

Q. PATRICK Return to the Scene

    “Killed Ivor!” Elaine have a sharp little laugh that was like a sob. “You and Kay! Why do you keep on saying that I killed him? Why would I have wanted to kill him? You don’t even know if he was murdered. It’s just Major Clifford, something crazy he said. It isn’t true. It’s all a terrible nightmare and we’re going to come out of it.”

    “It isn’t a nightmare, Elaine. It’s real. And there’s no hope for us unless we tell each other the truth.”

    “But what can I tell you when — when I don’t know anything?”

    Brother and sister were staring at each other with a cold, desperate intensity.

   Alliances are built, along with the stories the players tell the police, then collapse, and bit by bit the truth gets put together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Delicious! There are clues aplenty, and the alibis so spontaneously constructed eventually cannot stand up under the pressure, and they begin to fall apart. Not one of the alibis, as it happens, is any good.

   The ending is disappointing, a little, but this (it seems to me) is what almost always happens. The explanation is so mundane, so unworthy, so why-didn’t-I-think-of that, but only, you realize, in comparison to the mystery itself.

   Another problem is that when the victim is so dastardly as this one is, one hates to see anyone found guilty of the crime, although of course someone must be, and in the end, all of the pieces fit together. (At least without a careful re-reading, all the way through, they do.)

   Not a classic, but in the Golden Age, even the non-classics came close.

— October 2005

PostScript: A preliminary checklist of titles in the Books, Inc., line of Midnite Mysteries, of which this book is one, can be found by following the link provided.

RICHARD BURKE – The Frightened Pigeon.

Unicorn Mystery Book Club; hardcover reprint, June 1946. First Edition: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1944. Paperback reprint: Dell 204, mapback edition, 1947.

   Back when Victor Berch, Bill Pronzini and I did our annotated bibliography of the Ziff Davis line of Fingerprint Mysteries , we included a short profile of Richard Burke, which of course you should go read. Many of his books, we said, involved a Broadway private detective named Quinny Hite, but as it happens, this is not one of them. In fact The Frightened Pigeon takes the reader to another part of the world and (one imagines) another kind of mystery altogether.

   But first a word on the covers that are shown below, though, before getting down to details. This is, of course, the Dell mapback edition, not either of the other two, and in case you can’t make out the details, the map on the back is that of the city of Marseilles, which is where the last eighty percent of the story takes place.

RICHARD BURKE The Frightened Pigeon                           RICHARD BURKE The Frightened Pigeon

   The setting of the first fifty pages is Paris, 1942, with the Germans solidly in control of the city. An American dancer named Valerie Bright is still there, however – the pigeon of the title – and very determined to stay non-political. From page 8, of the Unicorn edition:

    “Of course after the Axis had decided to include the United States in the war, she had regarded them as enemies, but there wasn’t anything personal about her feeling.”

   Her close male friend, Charles John Dillon, nicknamed “Ching,” is working closely with the French underground, however, and events, beginning with a stolen German diary, bound to be embarrassing if it falls into the wrong hands – as, for example, into Ching’s hands – soon make the light-hearted Val realize how dirty – and dangerous – war really is, not knowing what will happen next nor whom your friends really are. By page 40, she is one frightened pigeon indeed, as off to Marseilles they and a small group of displaced others go, hoping to find a way out of France and its closed borders.

   The diary appears and disappears with amazing regularity. It is, in fact, amazing, how much mileage an author (Burke) can make of one small important object. Otherwise here is a novel one can learn a large amount from – supposing, that is, that one has never been in a place controlled by Nazi-like enemies one is trying his or her best to avoid – both in term of locale (well-described) and people, especially those like Valerie, whose mind is soon brought down to earth in satisfying (but not very surprising) fashion, but also the large number of others who find themselves caught up in events far beyond their say.

   Don’t get me wrong. This is by no means a major work. It’s no more than ordinary at best, in the overall scheme of things, but what it does have is atmosphere, and plenty of it.

— September 2006

NGAIO MARSH – Spinsters in Jeopardy

St. Martin’s, paperback reprint; 1st printing, November 1998. First edition (UK): Collins Crime Club, 1954. First edition (US): Little, Brown & Co., 1953. Digest paperback: Mercury Press, 1955, as The Bride of Death (abridged). Other paperback reprints: Berkley, 1961, and Jove, 1980, each with several followup printings.

MARSH Spinsters in Jeopardy

   Among the list of mystery authors who are considered as being among the best at what they did or currently do, Ngaio Marsh is the one I’ve perhaps most neglected. Before reading Spinsters in Jeopardy over these past few evenings, I have to confess that I’d read no more than two of her mystery novels, totaling 32 in all, not a very high percentage. In all 32 of her mysteries was Inspector (later Superintendent) Roderick Alleyn, whose career at Scotland Yard lasted from 1934 (A Man Lay Dead) to 1982 (Light Thickens), quite a long time in anyone’s book.

   This particular edition, the one recently published by St. Martin’s, was part of quite a publishing feat, and they should be commended for it. Back in the late 90s, St. Martin’s put out all 32 novels with uniform covers and in chronological order. (If only someone would do they same for other authors I (or you) could think of, but as far as I’m concerned, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books come to mind first, now that Bantam seems to have let them drop.)

MARSH Spinsters in Jeopardy

   But to return to Ngaio Marsh and me, I don’t know why it is that I’ve not read her work any more often than I have. I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie, for example, and Marsh seems to have been Christie with personality, someone may have said, or if they didn’t, maybe they should have. For me, Marsh has been one of those authors whose work has always been available, so perhaps there hasn’t been any urgency in picking one of her books up to read.

   Unfortunately, Spinsters in Jeopardy wasn’t the first one I should have picked up to read in quite a while, since I don’t believe that it’s in any way typical of Marsh’s other mysteries. It’s a thriller, first of all, and not a detective story, even though Inspector Alleyn is in it, and so’s his wife, the former Agatha Troy, the famous artist he’d met and wooed in previous adventures, along with their precocious six-year-old son Ricky.

   All three are in France, in part on a vacation trip to meet Troy’s cousin, whom she’s never met; and in part business, as Alleyn has been assigned an undercover liaison job with the French authorities trying to crack down on a narcotics gang operating in the very same area.

MARSH Spinsters in Jeopardy

   A bad idea — using his family as cover on a criminal assignment, that is. Alleyn is required to assist on an emrgency appendectomy operation for a woman who had been on the same train they were on, in the heart of the enemy’s strong stronghold, the Château de la Chévre d’Argent. Ricky is kidnapped and luckily found, but a book in which not only drugs but a vicious religio-erotic racket is the central focus is probably not a book for a young lad to be in anyway.

   Ngaio Marsh does manage to make the scenes in which Ricky appears as light-hearted as possible, mitigating against that particular discomfort, but the rest of the occult-based plot, with its mystical (and apparently) deadly rituals, is not one that’s designed to lead to any sense of ease on the reader’s part. Not that there’s anything wrong with mystical rituals, of course, but there didn’t seem to be any need to witness them as far as Alleyn does, which is to nearly their conclusion. Not in a detective mystery, which once again I remind you, this one was not, except at the very end, when it was all but too late.

   As a thriller, there are simply too many coincidences to contemplate, and the villains, as successful as they are, are simply too dumb to survive, especially once Alleyn’s ire is fully aroused and he’s well on their trail. All in all, although not without some interest, this is not one of Marsh’s best books, I’m sure.

MARSH Spinsters in Jeopardy

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