October 2008


by Francis M. Nevins

   They died just a few months apart, forty years ago this year, and each is still considered the gold standard in his domain, Anthony Boucher in commentary on mystery fiction, Cornell Woolrich in nightmarish suspense. What did Boucher make of Woolrich and his work? I hope to address that question here.


ANTHONY BOUCHER Seven of Calvary

   Boucher’s first detective novel, The Case of the Seven of Calvary, came out in 1937; his last two, The Case of the Seven Sneezes and Rocket to the Morgue (as by H.H. Holmes), in 1942. Late in October of that year he took over as mystery critic of the San Francisco Chronicle from Edward Dermot Doyle, who had joined the military after Pearl Harbor.

   By then Woolrich had published well over a hundred crime-suspense stories in the leading pulp magazines plus his first four suspense novels: The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), Black Alibi (1942), and Phantom Lady (1942, as by William Irish).

   Boucher was clearly familiar with Woolrich’s work before he reviewed The Black Angel, of which he said: “Even Mr. Woolrich has never written a tenser, more jolting novel….” (21 February 1943). Ten months later he described the book as a classic of the ‘school of pure terror’ and listed it among the year’s best crime novels (26 December 1943).


   Reviewing Deadline at Dawn, the second novel to appear under the William Irish byline, Boucher called it Woolrich’s “most contrived and least believable story yet, and still magically exciting almost against one’s judgment.” (5 March 1944).

   That summer he was equally ambivalent about Woolrich’s The Black Path of Fear, much of which is set in Havana. “The consciously colorful atmosphere robs this of some of the impact Woolrich can get from drab American cities, but it’s nonetheless exciting.” He was bothered however by what he called the novel’s “frank glorification of revenge-killing.” (18 June 1944)

   Woolrich published two more novels during Boucher’s years on the Chronicle. For some unknown reason he didn’t review Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945, as by George Hopley). He did write up Waltz into Darkness (1947, as by William Irish) but I couldn’t establish that his review was ever published and therefore left it out of The Anthony Boucher Chronicles, my collection of his journalism for that paper.

   The carbon copy survives and is among his papers preserved at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Waltz has never been one of my favorite Woolrich novels and I gather it wasn’t one of Boucher’s either. He described its protagonist Louis Durand as an “ordinarily decent man who, sexually obsessed by an unprincipled woman, sinks ever deeper into crime and destruction” but contended that Woolrich gave this theme a rather “conventional treatment, romantically betrapped and ‘redeemed’ by a sentimental conclusion.”

CORNELL WOOLRICH Waltz Into Darkness

   On the other hand, he said, Woolrich’s “familiar skill is highly in evidence here – he can still make suspense all but unbearable, and invest the everyday with sinister terror. You won’t soon forget the scene of the real estate agent showing a prospect over the house – with the grave not yet tamped down.”

   In the last analysis however he wrote off Waltz into Darkness as “a Class A production in glorious Technicolor with a glamorous cast – as it will doubtless (and deservedly) become.” In fact Waltz was one of only three Woolrich novels of the Forties not to be adapted into a movie – in any event not until shortly after both Boucher and Woolrich died, when it became the basis of Francois Truffaut’s intriguing if not terribly Woolrichian La Sirene De Mississippi (1968), with exactly the kind of glamorous stars Boucher had predicted (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve) in the leading roles.

   Woolrich’s last major novels, I Married a Dead Man (as by William Irish) and Rendezvous in Black, were published in 1948. By then Edward Dermot Doyle had returned to civilian life and reclaimed his slot on the Chronicle. Since Boucher hadn’t yet made his connection with the New York Times, those novels were reviewed there by others.

   Boucher did however mention Rendezvous in the first of his short-lived “Speaking of Crime” columns for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, calling it “pure black magic… – and if it’s a rewrite of his first book-form mystery story [The Bride Wore Black], who’s complaining?” (February 1949)

   Of the first three Woolrich novels published after Boucher began writing for the Times, he ignored Savage Bride (1950), a paperback original and the only one of the trio to come out under Woolrich’s own name, while another reviewer wrote up Strangler’s Serenade (1951, as by William Irish). But Boucher had much to say about Fright (1950, as by George Hopley):


    “No one could read a dozen pages … without recognizing the authentic Woolrich mastery of the terror of the everyday-gone-wrong; nor could one read all 245 pages without also recognizing the equally authentic Woolrich falsification of plot for the sake of a facile irony, with a few unexplained coincidences left over. Though this flaw constantly arises infuriatingly to prevent consideration of Woolrich as a serious novelist, there is no one mystery story writer more adept at suggesting the small uncertain terrors of life and the evil latent in drab characters. This 1915 period piece concerns a clerk goaded into murder on the morning of his wedding and forced deeper and deeper into self-destruction by his obsession to destroy the things that imperil him.” (12 February 1950)

   The last genuine novel Woolrich completed and published during his lifetime was the paperback original Death Is My Dancing Partner (1959), a disaster which Boucher mercifully never mentioned. The following year saw publication of The Best of William Irish, an omnibus volume reviving the novels Phantom Lady and Deadline at Dawn and the collection After-Dinner Story.

   Boucher was enthusiastic as only Boucher could be. “Although the complete ‘Best’ of Irish-Woolrich would run to at least three more volumes of this size, these will do as terrifying plunges into the vertiginous world of nightmare below the surface of everyday life.” (13 March 1960).


   The last Woolrich suspense novel that Boucher discussed was the first in point of time. The 1964 paperback reissue of The Bride Wore Black (1940) begins with an introduction in which the foremost mystery critic of his time (or since) summed up the achievements of the genre’s master of suspense. “He is personally something of a recluse and a mystery. No one in the profession knows him intimately, and everyone who knows him at all takes on a slightly dazed look when his name is mentioned.”

   Boucher refused on principle to summarize Bride’s plot but called it “my favorite among his book-length stories … purest essence of Woolrich, sounding like no one else in the business.”

   Coming soon:




Pocket, paperback reprint; 1st printing, November 1987. Hardcover edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, October 1986.

   I can sum up one impression of this book in one short sentence: More, I think, about funeral homes than I wanted to know.

   This was the third appearance of Jenny Cain, Nancy Pickard’s first series character, and the first to be published in hardcover, the previous two being paperback originals from Avon. For the record, here’s a list of all of Jenny’s full-length cases. (There are no short stories about her, as far as I’ve been able to discover.)

      Generous Death. Avon, pb, 1984.


      Say No to Murder. Avon, pb 1985. Winner of the first Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original Mystery.
      No Body. Scribner, 1986. Nominated for an Anthony.
      Marriage Is Murder. Scribner, 1987. Winner of the Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel.
      Dead Crazy. Scribner, 1988. Nominated for both the Agatha and Anthony awards.
      Bum Steer. Pocket, 1990. Winner of the Agatha Award for Best Mystery Novel.
      I. O. U.  Pocket, 1991. Edgar Nominee for Best Mystery Novel, Agatha Winner for Best Mystery Novel, Macavity Winner for Best Mystery Novel.
      But I Wouldn’t Want to Die There. Pocket, 1993.
      Confession. Pocket, 1994.
      Twilight. Pocket, 1995. Nominated for an Agatha Award.


   I may have missed some of the nominations the books in the series have gathered, but even so, it’s an impressive list.

   The title of Twilight suggests that it may be the last in the series. Given that 13 years have gone by since it came out and Pickard has begun another series in the meantime (one featuring true-crime author Marie Lightfoot), Jenny may have packed up her sleuthing duties for good.


   Jenny is the director of the Port Frederick Civic Foundation, which means that she knows all the important people in a small town. Also helping to explain why he has such success in getting involved (and solving) crimes of murder is the fact that she lives with Detective Geof Bushfield of the local police department. (I don’t believe it was ever stated in No Body, but Port Frederick is in Massachusetts. While reading it, I was under the slight assumption that it was in Maryland.)

   No Body is strong on humor, but other books in the series become gradually darker, or so I’ve been led to believe. Nonetheless, I think the Jenny Cain books fall in the forefront of the cozy, malice domestic movement in which amateur detectives, most of them women, have gradually taken over the non-thriller portion of the mystery publishing world today, filled as it is with quilters, herbalists, catsitters, wedding planners and so on.

   One of Jenny’s problems to solve at this book is that of 133 missing bodies in a 19th century and now closed cemetery. But while investigating the archives of the Harbor Lights Funeral Home, a more serious current crime is committed — the body of a dead man’s secret lover is found in his cover just before it’s put to earth.


   Many of the secondary characters presumably appeared in the first two books in the series. They seem familiar enough to the author that she doesn’t feel the need to overly describe them or get them involved. For the most part they stay in the background, allowing a full focus to be placed on solving the murder. Good news, as I far as I am concerned.

   Geof is called out of town for most of the book, in fact, allowing Jenny nearly free rein in tackling the case, not always successfully, adding immensely to the comic effect. The ending is quite a spine-tingler — caused by Jenny’s not quite thinking things through — but the story becomes quite a page-turner at the conclusion, there’s no doubt about that at all.

[FOLLOW-UP.]  Who would I pick to play Jenny Cain in the movies? Maybe a younger Shirley MacLaine. As for Lew Riss, the disheveled dope-smoking local reporter with dreams of a Pulitizer (and a hopeful but unrequited yearning for Jenny), perhaps Richard Dreyfuss would do.

   In the process of cataloging my collection of western paperbacks, I’ve been putting together checklists of various authors to help let me know which ones I have and which ones I’m missing.

   I’ve done such lists for Gordon Shirreffs and Tom West, although neither one is online yet. I’ve just completed one for Doyle Trent, and I’ve just finished setting up the webpage for it. (I’ll add the other two later this month when I’m not quite so busy, and work on additional ones as time allows.)

   If you’d care to take a look, you can find Trent’s page here. It’s a work in progress. Additions and correction are most certainly welcome.

   Needless to say, I’ve added as many covers as I’ve had access to. (Even though I may have a book, it does not mean that it’s accessible.) Here are a couple of them:


JAMES DALTON – City of Shadows.

Forge; paperback reprint, May 2002. Hardcover 1st edition: Forge, 2000.

JAMES DALTON City of Shadows

   Historical mysteries are all the rage, and this qualifies as such, I think, in both of the possible ways, but only just barely. The late 1960s and early 70s were not that long ago. The era is certainly within my lifetime, if not my children’s (in any sense that they knew what was going on). And the crime, or at least the major one, was the one called a “third-rate burglary,” at least by some at the time.

   Watergate, that is, and all of the incidentals surrounding that particularly tumultuous moment in the country’s history. Beginning before then, and continuing on, woven solidly into the background of this hefty novel, was Viet Nam and the anti-war protests; Kent State; the assassination of Martin Luther King; Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters; Richard Nixon; Henry Kissinger; Howard Hughes; JFK’s failed attempt to take out Fidel Castro; Spiro Agnew; the Saturday night massacre; Patty Hearst; and … I’ll leave some surprises.

   That’s the setting. Three main characters take up the rest of the space: DC police office John Quinn, and a bit of a loose cannon on the job; National Security Council aide and former Marine officer Nathan Holloway, whose loyalty is tested as never before; and Senate assistant Vaughn Conner, whose stint on the Watergate committee starts to open doors that certain other parties desperately need to keep closed.

   Their paths, painstakingly drawn, slowly converge. Quinn’s lover, a one-time call girl, and another young dead girl in the same line of work seem to be the key, the reason why these “certain other parties” have their interest aroused.

   The opening chapters are told in an onrushing, cinematic, hard-boiled style that’s very effective, but it seems to dissipate as the need to work with the facts on record, the events of the time, starts to take over. The plot is set into place in a long interconnected process that takes a while to develop, yet the story itself is accompanied with a sense of urgency that prevails for a while only to lose (surprisingly) a large chunk of its coherency and focus at the end.

   When it comes down to it, those were terribly dangerous days. No matter how the events of Watergate are embellished, with new theories or other fictional fabrications, these enhancements are still overpowered by the facts on record, as they’re known so far. Dalton (not his real name) gives it his best shot, and even though he may have hit on something here, I think he tries too hard, loses control, and comes up a notch or two short.

— June 2002 (slightly revised)


[UPDATE.] 10-04-08. I didn’t know this when I wrote the review, and I don’t believe it was common knowledge at the time, or I’d have mentioned in the review. But “James Dalton” turns out to have been James Grady, whose career began in spectacular fashion with Six Days of the Condor in 1974 and Shadow of the Condor in 1975.

   This seems to be the only book he wrote under this pen name. I’ve found nothing that would suggest otherwise.


ARTHUR GRIFFITHS – The Rome Express.


John Milne, UK, hardcover, 1896. L. C. Page, US, hardcover, 1907. Reprint hardcover: Arno Press, 1976. Included in The Penguin Book of Victorian Villainies, 1991. Frontispiece by Arthur O. Scott.

   I must admit, so put away the big clubs, I was not too thrilled with The Rome Express. It started off in such cracking good style too, with an overnight murder on a cross continental train and six passengers and a train porter under suspicion of stabbing the victim while the express was flying along the rails.

   Ahah, you cry, what an excellent set-up! And so it is.


   The train arrives in Paris and the seven persons mentioned are sequestered for questioning. And who are these suspects comes the question from the back row. Well, there’s General Sir Charles Collingham and his clerical brother the Revd Silas Collingham.

   A couple of Frenchmen, Anatole Lafolay, who works in the precious gem line, and commission agent Jules Devaux, Italian policeman Natale Ripaldi, English-born Contessa di Castagneto, and the Dutch porter Ludwig Groote make up the international bunch being grilled by the French authorities.

   The victim is an absconding Italian banker, Francis A. Quadling, and certain evidence in his compartment suggests a woman visitor. This and other clues point to the countess as the culprit, but is she the guilty party?


   Alas, once the circumstances of the murder are described, they provide the reader with the necessary hint that All Is Not What It Seems although there is still a bit of sleuthing to do to find out what happened and who was involved. My objection is that so little is made of the other characters involved.

   To think of the motives that could be introduced to muddy the international waters! The two Frenchmen could have been defrauded by the dead man, the countess might have been blackmailed by him, perhaps he was bribing the Italian policemen and threatened to tell his superiors when he tried to arrest him on the train. The Dutch porter presents problems but then the one who appears most innocent often turns out to be the person responsible. Perhaps the absconding cad ruined the Dutchman’s daughter!

   I thought it a pity so much suspicion is focussed on the countess that other excellent possibilities are overlooked, particularly as this is a relatively short piece of fiction and there would have been room for a subplot or two. Even so, I liked the intriguing set up — I wonder what Christie fans would make of it! — so I shall probably try another Griffiths and see if I am happier with it!

      Online etext.

         Mary R


PETER DICKINSON – The Lively Dead.

Pantheon, paperback reprint; 1982. Hardcover editions: [UK] Hodder & Stoughton, 1975; [US] Pantheon, 1975. Other paperback editions: Avon 33811, US, August 1977; Mysterious Press/Arrow, UK, 1988 (shown).


   Here’s another author about whom I can say I never read one of his books until now. In crime fiction circles he’s probably best known for his Superintendent Pibble novels, of which there were six, published between 1969 and 1976, but of which, even though it’s of the right time period, this however is not one.

   Dickinson, by the way, was born in 1927 and is still active as a writer. You can find his biography online here, and a link at the bottom of that page will take you to a complete bibliography, so if you’re interested, there’s no need for me to reproduce it as part of this review. His most recent work as been poetry and books for young adults, the latter usually having a strong fantasy component.

   As for The Lively Dead, there is a lot I can tell you about it – and some I can’t, and if I can, I’ll let you later why. We meet the primary protagonist, Lydia Timms (we later learn she is Lady Lydia) attacking a joist with a crowbar and inspecting the wood for rot in the basement of the London boarding house she and her husband live in and own, then rushing up the stair to fix the duplicating machine that the ineffectual old men of the exiled Lavonian government have in their rooms and offices in the upper two floors (grandfathered in when the Timmses arrived).

   Richard, her husband, has had a recent breakdown but is now on the road to recovery and is studying furiously for his law exams; her small son Dickie is autistic, but is a marvel with recreating battles with small toys and other paraphernalia. He also knows Morse code better than he can read.

   Recently dead is Mrs Newberry, who also lived in the building and was the cleaner for Mr Obb and the others on the top floors. Mrs Newbury’s notorious daughter (and only heir) Procne is currently in jail for what we easily perceive as being high-level prostitution reasons. At any rate, there is continued interest in her (and her well-being) from several sides, not all of which make themselves known right away.

   Mrs Newberry is the key to everything, as it happens. Even though given a proper burial at some time during the events of the first two chapters, she turns up again circa page 110, when a body is found in the Timms’s back yard. It is Mrs Newberry.


   Superintendent Austen investigates, and in his arrogant fashion (thinks Lydia) manages to antagonize her so greatly that she will not (she says can not) answer his questions.

   It is up to her, then, to solve the case, as greatly muddled as it more and more becomes, at considerable risk to herself and Dickie. Somehow or another there is yet another malice-supplying factor that enters in. I do not believe that at the end I had indeed straightened them all out.

   What carries the day, if the detection is weak, is the beautiful, humorous and picturesque writing. Picking a page at random, and spotting a portion with the delightful Dickie in it (he is seven), here’s an example. It’s taken out of context, of course, but this is Lydia and Dickie as they are checking out Mrs Newberry’s room on page 61:

    … The strange smell seemed strongest in the corner by the wardrobe.

    “Are you smelling for treasure?” said Dickie.

    “I don’t know. Come here and see what you think.”

    At once he was on his hands and knees beside her, sniffing like a snuff-addict, rump taut.

    “Dead man’s chest,” he said in a puzzled voice.

    (One of Richard’s family traditions was that children with colds must have their chests rubbed with Vick. During the process the adult who was rubbing had to sing the pirates’ catch from Treasure Island. This mightn’t help the child to get better, but it was the Right Thing to do.)

    “Yes, it does smell a bit like that,” said Lydia. “It seems stronger higher up. Oh, look!”

   Neither Lydia nor Superintendent seem to have ever made another appearance, unfortunately in regard to the former, never so much concerning the latter. Will I read another book by Peter Dickinson? Indeed, yes, I will.

J. R. RIPLEY – Lost in Austin

Worldwide, paperback reprint; 1st printing, April 2002. Hardcover edition: Longwind, May 2001.

RIPLEY Lost in Austin

   If you’re interested in the down-and-dirty behind-the-scenes aspects of the country music business, then this is the mystery for you. If not, if you’re more interested in a detective story, this second adventure of rhythm guitarist Tony Kozol will have you scratching your head, looking for more. Taken on by the Clint Cash band when a broken arm forces his predecessor to the sidelines, Tony soon finds himself once again in the starring role on a murder scene. (An earlier appearance was in Skulls of Sedona, also in paperback from Worldwide.)

   The dead man is a roadie, a member of Clint Cash’s crew, but the story really begins with a wild-eyed young Mexican trying to find his sister, and he claims the murder victim was the person who allowed her to go backstage. No one else, by the way, says they ever saw her.

   What with the non-stop partying going on — mostly booze — and the nonchalant after-hours sexual dalliances, even though Tony finds that the detective in charge is an old college buddy named Izzie Ibanez, it takes a while for any serious questions to be asked. (In a note I jotted down for myself, I can say with some certainty that this point in time occurred on page 184. There are 253 pages in all.)

   So, light and frothy is the order of the day, with a huge helping of inept police work on the side. (On something of a positive note, some of the more touristy attractions of the city of Austin are carefully pointed out.) It’s a readable combination, but all in all, for devout mystery fans, there’s little here to sink your teeth into.

— May 2002 (slightly revised)

[UPDATE] 10-01-08.   Since this review was written, I’ve discovered that J. R. Ripley is the pen name of pop rock musician Glenn Meganck. This is not surprising, since the music business was so authentically portrayed in Lost in Austin. A second series under the Ripley byline is totally different. It takes place in St. Barthelemy in the French West Indies, and features Charles Trenet, an inexperienced police officer newly transferred from the Gendarmerie Nationale.


   The TONY KOZOL mysteries:

Stiff in the Freezer. Beachfront, hc, 1998.
Skulls of Sedona. Beachfront, trade pb, 1999. Worldwide, pb, 2001
Lost in Austin. Longwind, hc, 2001. Worldwide, pb, 2002.
The Body from Ipanema. Longwind, hc, 2002. Worldwide, pb, 2003.
Bum Rap in Branson. Beachfront, hc, 2004.

RIPLEY Bum Rap in Branson


Murder in St. Barts. Beachfront, hc, 2003.
Death of a Cheat. Beachfront, hc, 2006.

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