October 2009

by Francis M. Nevins

   The news was no surprise. His wife had prepared me several days earlier: “His heart and kidneys are failing. We have brought him home from the hospital… I think he won’t live much longer.”

Ray Browne

   He was 87 when on Thursday, October 22, he died. You may never have heard of Ray Browne, but I had known him for forty years and he wonderfully shaped my life and that of every other mystery writer of the last four decades who sported academic credentials.

   To begin explaining what he accomplished for us I must go back 75 years. A brilliant young man named William Anthony Parker White had completed his academic work and was more than eminently qualified to become a professor at any university in the country, but he chose not to.

   Why? One main reason, as his widow explained long after his all too early death, was “that he was surrounded by people who took no interest in contemporary popular literature, but at the same time were trying to research the popular literature of a few centuries back.”

   Instead he decided to become a professional writer. And, because there were already 75 authors named William White, he chose to adopt a pen name: Anthony Boucher.

   Academic contempt for anything contemporary and popular was still alive and well thirty years later. In my college years, which roughly corresponded with JFK’s presidency, there wasn’t a single “popular culture” course in the entire curriculum.

   I vividly recall one of my professors bewailing the fact that William Faulkner was forced by a Philistine reading public to support himself by writing for (**yucch!**) the movies. Carolyn Heilbrun, a young professor of English at Columbia University, had begun writing mystery novels but had to do it under a pseudonym (Amanda Cross) because, as she explained years later, she would never have gotten tenure if her colleagues had known of her sideline.

Ray Browne

   This was the academic environment when Ray Browne came into the picture. With a Ph.D. in English and Folklore and twenty years of university teaching under his belt, he moved from Purdue to Ohio’s Bowling Green State University and, with the support of the administration, launched the movement that made it academically respectable to teach and study popular culture (a term it’s said he invented).

   If aging memory serves me, I met him in 1969. We hit it off immediately. He invited me to write for the Journal of Popular Culture, which he had launched at Bowling Green two years earlier, and after he founded the Popular Culture Association, he encouraged me to attend annual meetings. (Both my first presentation for the PCA and much of my writing for the JPC dealt with a writer I was entranced by then and still am today: that great mad genius of 20th century American fiction, Harry Stephen Keeler.)

   Knowing that countless colleges around the country were beginning to offer courses on mystery fiction, and that I knew a bit about the subject, he asked me to put together a book of readings for publication by Bowling Green University Popular Press. The result was The Mystery Writer’s Art (1970), which remained in print for well over 20 years, long after I thought it had outlived its usefulness.

A few years later the same press published Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective (1974), for which I received an Edgar. By that time I was a professor myself, having accepted a position at St. Louis University School of Law which I kept until retiring 34 years later.

   I had also begun writing mysteries of my own but, thanks to the influence of Ray Browne and a handful of like-minded colleagues of his who had made popular culture respectable, I didn’t have to use a pen name.

Stuart Kaminsky

   It was also thanks to Ray and his cohorts that universities began hiring professors to teach courses on movies, science fiction, mysteries and countless other “popular culture” subjects. One of those young academics was Stuart Kaminsky, who was born in 1934 and grew up in Chicago.

   Drafted into the Army, he served as a medic in France and developed Hepatitis C, which plagued him for the rest of his life. After completing graduate work he began teaching film and film history at Chicago’s Northwestern University.

   His early books dealt with directors like John Huston and Don Siegel. In 1977 he published Bullet for a Star, the first of two dozen novels set in Hollywood’s golden years and starring PI Toby Peters.

   Need I mention that, thanks to Ray Browne and company, he too never needed a pseudonym?

   I can’t remember where I first met Stu, but we did a lot of Bouchercons and Midwest MWA programs together. My most vivid memories of him come from the summer of 1986 when we were both among the guests at an international festival on Italy’s Adriatic coast.

   It was in Stu’s hotel room that I met the great French director Claude Chabrol, and the three of us were among the festival guests who, a day or two later when none of us were on duty, piled into a couple of vans and were taken to San Remo for a tour of the castle of Cagliostro.

   On the way back we stopped at a country inn whose kitchen staff, with no prior notice (this was before the cellphone era), put together perhaps the finest lunch I’ve ever eaten. One course after another without end, as if we’d all died and gone to culinary heaven — Mamma Mia!

Stuart Kaminsky

   A few years after our Italian junket, Mystery Writers of America awarded the Edgar for best mystery novel of 1988 to A Cold Red Sunrise, Stu’s fifth Rostnikov book. Soon afterwards he left Northwestern and took a position at Florida State University, where on top of teaching and administrative duties he began a third series, this one about sixtyish Chicago PI Abe Lieberman.

   In 1994 he left academia to write full-time, as if he hadn’t been doing more than that while still holding his day job. A few years later, while serving a term as president of MWA, he created Florida process server Lew Fonesca and started his fourth and final series. MWA named him a Grand Master in 2006.

   Early in 2009 he moved from Sarasota to University City, Missouri, where I hang my own hats, to await the liver transplant which his half-century-old hepatitis had made necessary, but 36 hours after arriving he suffered a stroke which disqualified him for the transplant. He died in a St. Louis hospital on October 9, at age 75.

   Thanks to the success of Ray Browne and his colleagues at bringing contemporary popular culture into higher education, any number of us — Stu and I and Jeremiah Healy and Bill Crider, just to name four off the top of my head — have been able openly to lead double lives as professors and mystery writers. Who could have dreamed of that back in the presidency of JFK?

   They gave so much while they were with us. Now let them rest.

A DANDY IN ASPIC. Columbia Pictures, UK/US, 1968. Laurence Harvey, Tom Courtenay, Mia Farrow, Harry Andrews, Peter Cook, Lionel Stander, Per Oscarsson. Original music: Quincy Jones. Screenwriter: Derek Marlowe, based on his novel of the same name. Directors: Anthony Mann, Laurence Harvey (the latter uncredited).


   A troubled production usually means a troubled if not bad movie, and A Dandy in Aspic is not much of an exception, if it’s one at all. Its director, Anthony Mann, died during the filming of this movie, and Laurence Harvey, to save the film, took over. (I’ve not been able to learn exactly what percentage Harvey did, but presumably it was all of the location shooting — in and around Berlin, Germany — and of course putting the film together at the end.)

   Anthony Mann’s death also put the film way over schedule, which kept Mia Farrow overseas away from her then husband, Frank Sinatra, which strained their marriage to its final breaking point, or so I’m told. (That he was 30 years old than she was may have also had something to do with it.)

   None of which does a viewer have to know to decide on his or her own that a movie just isn’t cutting it. It’s the tale of a Russian spy (a dashing but dour fellow named Eberlin, aka Laurence Harvey) who’s dug himself into the British spy service so well that no one knows that he’s also been busily assassinating some of their best operatives. They have his name, Krasnevin, but no more than that, and the task that Eberlin is asked to do is to eliminate him — or that is to say, himself.

   It is difficult at first to understand all of this, and thank goodness for movies on tape or DVD where you can back up every once in a while. But this is one of those spy films in which the plot is deliberately kept murky so as to make a point about the dirty nature of the spy business, but which also helps make sure that the viewers are puzzled as well. (Avoiding this small difficulty is the narrow path that spy books and espionage movies must travel, without a lot of leeway. Only the best seem to do it well.)


   My problem is that Russian names all sound alike to me — a deficiency on my part and no one’s fault but my own — and worse, many of the other mostly dour actors look very much alike. (Harvey is the only one who’s also dashing, but some of the chaps on the British side are rather overweight and somewhat humorous in that regard — but they’re suits only and otherwise pretty much indistinguishable.)

   Getting back to Eberlin, he’s indeed dashing enough to attract the attention of a free lance photographer named Caroline, delightfully played by an innocently wide-eyed Mia Farrow.

   In fact, Miss Farrow is the only source of light and utter joyousness in the entire movie. The rest is a deep study in emotions and deceptions — Eberlin’s only real wish is to return to his native Russia, but naturally he’s too useful to the Russians where he is — and of course the seriousness of the trap he finds himself in.

   A musical score by the likes of a Quincy Jones is usually a plus for most movies, but in this case, it is not so. A good rule of thumb to go by is that if you notice the music, the movie is not completely capturing your attention, and so it is here. While the score is modern enough, for the late 60s, it’s also gimmicky and predictable.

   For me at least, to sum things up, while this movie had its moments, enough so that to suggest watching it may be a worthy way to spend an evening, given the judicious use of the rewind button. And yet. There is also the ending, which I see I haven’t mentioned so far, one that comes as both a surprise and inevitable, as is true in most serious spy and espionage movies, but in this case, it is one, sad to say, that you will remember no more than five minutes after you have turned off the TV.


JONATHAN VALIN – Final Notice. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1980. Paperback reprints: Avon, 1982; Dell, 1994. TV movie: USA, 1989 (with Gil Gerard, Steve Landsberg, Melody Anderson).

   I’m a little behind. This is the second adventure of private eye Harry Stoner — it’s just now in paperback — and the third is already out, begging to be read.


   The metaphor is apt. If anything, I found this one even more readable than The Lime Pit, which started to get more and more funny-tasting the deeper Stoner began to dig into the corruption surrounding the city of Cincinnati.

   There is more of the same in this one, plus lots of gore. Stoner is called in when a psychopath starts slashing up nudes in a library’s collection of art books. He thinks it’s only a prelude to the real thing.

   At his side in tackling this case is a library security guard named Kate Davis, who is both female and liberated. She makes Stoner feels old and tired at thirty-seven, old-fashioned and chauvinistic. Kate is of a younger generation, and falling in love with her leaves Stoner feeling slightly bewildered. He is also pleased.

   Valin has a fine feeling for what makes people what they are — not just the killer, but everyone. The constant attempts to psychoanalyze the killer could have been downplayed a little, and Valin doesn’t quite catch the same edge that exists between human relationships that Robert B. Parker usually does, but as a mixture of character study and action adventure, it is seldom done any better than this.

   The fast and furious climax works out almost the way you’d expect it to, but the twist that comes with it just might catch you leaning the wrong way.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 2, March/April 1982
            (slightly revised).


[UPDATE] 10-27-09. Jonathan Valin wrote eleven Harry Stoner books over a period of 15 years, which is a pretty good run, but one I think should have been longer. I confess, though, that while I have all of the books in the series, I’ve never gotten around to the later ones. (I believe I’ve read all of the first seven.)

   But as to why the series ended, the usual guesses are as valid here as they are for many other authors. Sales may have fallen and/or Valin simply ran out of things to say about the character.

   Until I discovered it again just now, I’d totally forgotten that there was a TV movie based on this book. What’s strange is that I simply don’t remember if I watched it at the time or not. It’s not available on DVD, as far as I’ve been able to tell, so I just bought it as an out-of-print video tape. The reviews on IMDB (only 2 of them) aren’t very positive. The big complaint is that it was filmed in Toronto, not Cincinnati!

       The Harry Stoner series

    1. The Lime Pit (1980)
    2. Final Notice (1980)
    3. Dead Letter (1981)


    4. Day of Wrath (1982)
    5. Natural Causes (1983)
    6. Life’s Work (1986)
    7. Fire Lake (1987)


    8. Extenuating Circumstances (1989)
    9. Second Chance (1991)
   10. The Music Lovers (1993)
   11. Missing (1995)


A Review by MIKE TOONEY:

OTTO PENZLER, Editor — Whodunit? Houdini? Thirteen Tales of Magic, Murder, Mystery. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1976.

   This is an anthology of thirteen mystery stories dealing with the common theme of magic; yet this is not a book of fantasy. While magic is central to each story, the solutions (with one exception) are as down-to-earth as one could hope for (the exception, by John Collier, of course being sui generis).

OTTO PENZLER Whodunit Houdini

   Despite the title, Harry Houdini never does appear in propria persona; but his spirit seems to thread its way through this anthology, especially in “One Night in Paris” in which Houdin/Houdini lore becomes a large part of the rationale for the story’s sometimes feverish action and resolution.

   The authors in Whodunit? Houdini? include Clayton Rawson, Carter Dickson, Frederick Irving Anderson, William Irish, Walter B. Gibson, Stanley Ellin, and Erle Stanley Gardner: an impressive representation of some of pulp fiction’s greatest practitioners. For that reason alone the book is worth seeking out.

   Otto Penzler tells us, “The magicians in this book take many forms …. Here, some of the world’s greatest writers have entered the many worlds of magic: the bright, happy world of exciting stage shows, the darker world of crime and murder, and the velvet black world of unrelenting terror. Some of these thirteen tales deal with the question of whodunit. But, as with all magicians and magic acts, the deeper question is howdunit. Sometimes, the answer seems impossible. But don’t look too hard. You might not want to know.”

   For each of the stories below, a short excerpt has been taken from Otto Penzler’s introduction, followed by some brief comments by myself:

1. “From Another World” (1948) by Clayton Rawson (1906-1971)

    “Rawson presented the problem in ‘From Another World’ to John Dickson Carr, who solved it and recorded his solution in a novel, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. Rawson’s solution is entirely different.”

Comment: A locked-room murder solved by the Great Merlini. A very rich man dies in a sealed (literally) room, stabbed with a disappearing knife that was never handled by the only other person known to be present; seashells suddenly appear from nowhere; and auditory impressions assume the greatest significance.

2. “In the House of Suddhoo” (1886) by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

    “‘In the House of Suddhoo’ is the oldest story in this book, but it could have been written yesterday.”

Comment: A confidence trick, Indian-style, with the “mark” an anxious, feeble old man; “The magic that is always demanding gifts is no true magic.” With a little rearranging of the story’s elements, John Dickson Carr could have made an entire novel of this vignette.

3. “Rope Enough” (1941) by John Collier (1901-1980)

    In “the Indian rope trick … an apparently ordinary rope rises vertically in the air and remains in that position. In ‘Rope Enough,’ the reader will discover what is beyond the top end of the rope.”

Comment: You’ll either love or hate this one; with John Collier, there’s usually no middle ground.

4. “The New Invisible Man” (1940) by Carter Dickson (1906-1977)

    In this story, “Colonel March, the head of Scotland Yard’s aptly-named Department of Queer Complaints, calmly hears an account of a murder committed by a pistol fired by a glove — an empty glove unattached to an arm in an otherwise unoccupied room.”

Comment: It looks like murder, but where’s the body? Colonel March solves it in no time flat; think Rear Window without the grue.

5. “Blind Man’s Buff” (1914) by Frederick Irving Anderson (1877-1947)

   This story features “the American counterpart” of A. J. Raffles, the Infallible Godahl, who “… is such a brilliant thief that he has never been suspected of a crime. The intellectual superior of any potential adversary on the side of the law, his nefarious endeavors are inevitably successful. They cannot fail, because Godahl’s massive brain has foreseen every possibility, anticipated every difficulty, and discovered a solution to every problem.”

Comment: Godahl outwits everybody and shows that Barnum’s dictum about one being born every minute was low by a factor of fifty — no, make that fifty-ONE.

6. “The Lord of Time” (1946) by Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950)

    This “… is a story about Cagliostro, who was a master magician. Or was he? It is surely a crime story, because a brutal murder is committed. Or is it? At least a clever con job is pulled off. Or is it?”

Comment: The author of The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche, and Captain Blood offers a tale about one of history’s greatest con men; it’s told in that pseudo-archaic style appropriate to the time and place of the story. If nothing else, it’s a pleasurable read.

7. “Papa Benjamin” (1935) by William Irish (1903-1968)

“Black magic is one of the oldest forms of magic, of apparently supernatural force. It is easy to ridicule it, to disbelieve it, to laugh at it (if you dare). Yet whole nations have believed in its power for centuries. Why?”

Comment: “William Irish,” of course, was a nom de plume of Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich, who often wrote with the Cornell Woolrich byline. You might have read this one under its original title, “Dark Melody of Madness”; but whatever it’s called, the narrative’s compelling power derives unmistakably from its atmosphere, gloomy and oppressive and all-enveloping — an achievement comparable to the best efforts of another writer to whom Woolrich, personally and professionally, bears some resemblance, Edgar Allan Poe. You probably won’t forget this story for a long time, if ever.

8. “Juliet and the Magician” (1953/1958) by Manuel Peyrou (1902-1974)

    “When the great writers of mystery and detective stories are discussed, the names that head the list of immortals are almost exclusively English and American, as if writers from other nations eschewed the genre. Well, to be truthful, both quantitatively and qualitatively, they lag far behind the English-language authors. Of course there are exceptions, but not enough to notice. Among writers in Spanish … are Jorge Luis Borges” and “his close friend, Manuel Peyrou ….”

Comment: A murder on-stage during a magician’s act — with it, the killer hopes to rid himself of a vexatious persoon and establish an unbreakable alibi at the same time; but some clever armchair (actually, barstool) deductions by an onlooker severely curtail what had seemed, in all honesty, to be a most unpromising career.

9. “The Mad Magician” (1938) by “Maxwell Grant” (1931-1967)

    This story from Crime Busters magazine features “… Norgil the Magician. The suave, handsome, and mustached conjurer appeared in a series of stories that never approached the success of the Shadow tales, but consistently ranked among the magazine’s most popular features …. Filled with action and colloquial speech, it is typical of the Norgil stories and, in fact, of most pulp fiction. Its background of magic is absolutely authentic ….”

Comment: Norgil the Magician solves two crimes at once with the assistance of his pretty protégé Miriam and a very curious cat, despite a tricky Japanese Box and a murderous mummy case; not a fair-play mystery, but nevertheless diverting.

10. “One Night in Paris” (1955) by Walter B. Gibson (1897-1985)

    “The Great Gerard fights crime in two stories,” both of which were penned by Walter Gibson who “… produced more than a million words a year for fifteen years. He wrote more than 300 novels, 283 about a single character — one of the most important heroes ever to stride majestically across the pages of a popular publication: The Shadow. The ‘Maxwell Grant’ byline under which the stories appeared was a Street and Smith ‘house name’ used by Gibson (and occasionally a few other writers) during the 1930s and 1940s. The only other pulp hero created by Gibson (‘Grant’) is Norgil the Magician, who appears in the previous story.”

Comment: Someone commits a locked-room murder and tries to pin it on the Great Gerard: BIG mistake, because as a trained magician he knows how to avoid traps as well as set them. The next time you’re in Paris at the Cabaret de la Mort (“Soiree Fantastique”), between La danse des squelettes and the cotelette de loup garou, watch out for the man with the mitraillette

11. “The Shadow” (1931) by Ben Hecht (1894-1964)

    Hecht is best-known for his plays and movies (Gunga Din, Notorious, Spellbound, Kiss of Death) but “… his stories inexplicably lack the popularity of less talented writers of the same period,” among them being “‘The Shadow,’ a strange tale of retribution involving the Marvelous Sarastro ….”

Comment: An unrelievedly grim story of doom and irony that for some reason reminds me most of Poe’s “William Wilson.”

12. “The Moment of Decision” (1955) by Stanley Ellin (1916-1986)

    “In some ways the ultimate detective story is the riddle story — the puzzle without a solution, the winding road that leads nowhere. In these tales of uncertain endings, there is only one detective who can offer an answer to the problem: you …. this brilliant riddle story is … unforgettable and hauntingly terrifying …. Read this …. Then make YOUR decision.”

Comment: A clever variation of Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?” — Penzler tells us this story was televised in 1961 with Fred Astaire in a non-singing, non-dancing dramatic role.

13. “The Hand is Quicker than the Eye” (1939) by Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970)

    Unlike Gardner’s other literary creations (e.g., Perry Mason), “Lester Leith is a different kettle of herring. He is on the opposite side of the legal coin, a confidence man of the first rank. He appeared in about seventy-five adventures, beginning in 1929 and extending through the vital days of the pulps. He solves crimes merely by reading newspaper accounts of them, then proves to the thieves that crime does not pay by ‘liberating’ their ill-gotten gains. There is little fear of legal retribution because his victims are not likely to press charges. Leith turns the swag over to charity — minus 20 percent for ‘costs of collection.'”

    The crime has everything to challenge the imagination of the investigator: Oriental background, fabulous pearls, a mysterious disappearance …

Comment: Lester Leith turns to magic to recover a stolen necklace and succeeds right under the noses of the criminals and the police. The story is fast-paced and quite entertaining; its original title was “Lester Leith, Magician.”


M. K. WREN – Wake Up, Darlin’ Corey. Doubleday, hardcover, 1984. Paperback reprint: Ballantine, 1990.

M. K. WREN Conan Flagg

   When Corey Benbow, half owner of a kite making business, meets a tragic fate in a late night accident on the ruggedly beautiful Oregon coast, Conan Flagg is neither surprised nor fooled. He knows murder when he sees it.

   Flagg was the first series creation of Pacific Coast novelist Wren, who has also written a science fiction trilogy, mainstream fiction, and a second series about Neely Jones, a small town law officer in the same Oregon coastal setting she long lived in.

   Flagg is something of a paragon of virtues and skills, a sort of liberal Northwest Coast take on Travis McGee. He’s the scion of a wealthy ranching family, owner and proprietor of the Holiday Beach Bookstore, and a licensed private investigator.

   He is also darkly handsome with striking, almost oriental eyes, thanks to a mixed blood heritage. He lives by himself, of his own choice, in a fabulous house on the beach, and is frequently drawn into other people’s troubles, bringing the skills he learned in military intelligence in Cold War Berlin to bear.

   Beautiful Corey Benbow had enemies– mostly the family of Benbow patriarch Gabe Benbow, her father-in-law. Corey is the mother of the son the Benbows want to carry on the family name and heritage, and worse, a thorn in the side of their plans to sell a wildlife refuge known as the Spit as a housing development.

   There’s not much doubt her killer is one of the six Benbows present on the night of her accident, when she left after a confrontation about the fate of the Spit. The only question is which of the six Benbows killed her.

   Although he’s a far cry from Travis McGee, in many ways Flagg has a tendency to use the same high handed tactics and doesn’t mind bending or even breaking laws in the name of justice — or vengeance.

M. K. WREN Conan Flagg

   To be honest, I’ve liked other entries in this series better than this one. The big confrontation at the end seems contrived and rings false, and Flagg comes across as the most self-satisfied and smug sleuth since the heyday of Philo Vance in his righteous wrath. An act of God at the end that was probably meant as irony simply seems heavy handed and pasted on to bring a satisfactory ending to the proceedings.

   It may be the McGee-like justice figures work better in the first person where we are privy to all their thoughts and feelings. With a third person narration, such as Wren uses, the added distance from the protagonist is enough that you may find yourself asking how he is much better than the bad guys, other than his motives.

   Flagg reveals the killer with a particularly nasty bit of business that Vance or McGee would likely have drawn the line at, and one even Mike Hammer might have found a bit outside the bounds.

   That said, Wren is a fine writer. The Oregon setting is handsomely presented and if Flagg is at times a bit full of himself, he is presented as a well developed creation. The motives and plot elements are well handled, and only the denouement is a disappointment, a bit contrived, melodramatic, and frankly preposterous.

   Put it this way: you wouldn’t have accepted it as the ending of seventies television mystery series, much less in a novel.

   Darlin’ Corey is a minor entry in the Conan Flagg series. It’s worth reading, but only if you have read some of the others first and gained some affection for the writer and the series. Don’t skip this one by any means, but don’t let it be your introduction to Wren or Flagg either. She has done much better and so has he.

   Note: The title is taken from the 1941 song “Darlin’ Corey” by John A. and Alan Lomax:

The first time I saw darlin’ Corey
She was standin’ in the door
Her shoes and stockin’s in her hand
And her feet all over the floor

        The Conan Flagg series —

    Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat. Doubleday 1973.

M. K. WREN Conan Flagg

    A Multitude of Sins. Doubleday 1975.
    Oh, Bury Me Not. Doubleday 1976.
    Nothing’s Certain But Death. Doubleday 1978.
    Seasons of Death. Doubleday 1981.
    Wake Up, Darlin’ Corey. Doubleday 1984.
    Dead Matter. Ballantine 1993.

M. K. WREN Conan Flagg

    King of the Mountain. Ballantine 1995.

M. K. WREN Conan Flagg



GRAHAM GREENE – The Confidential Agent. William Heinemann, UK, hardcover, 1939. Viking Press, US, hc, 1939. Reprinted many times since, in both hardcover and soft, including Bantam #971, pb, 1952.

   Graham Greene wrote The Confidential Agent pretty much off the top of his head in 1938 as the Spanish Civil War slouched toward its depressing end, which may be why this tale of a hunted man on a secret mission for a government that doesn’t trust him never names names.

   The country — in the midst of civil war and desperate to buy supplies before the rebels get them — is only referred to obliquely and the major players are simply given initials with no hint of national flavor. But there weren’t that many countries struggling through civil war just then, and readers of the time probably saw right through it.

   All of the action is set the in the giddy atmosphere of pre-war England anyway, and Greene evokes the feel of a nation teetering at the brink of war (as he did in This Gun for Hire) with a fine mix of dread and excitement, like a child standing in line for a roller coaster that will tragically malfunction.


   The story, with D, a professor-turned-agent hounded through the countryside by a rival agent, betrayed by his contacts in England, and befriended by a spoiled heiress and a romantic teenager offers very little of what one thinks of as action, but moves quickly along nonetheless, helped considerably by Greene’s obvious affection for his shabby cast and their personal quirks.

   Plot twists rise from the characters themselves, rather than from the dictates of plot, and the resolution, as usual with Greene, comes about when some of these characters manage to rise above their petty concerns and look about them.

   Thus, the tension arises not so much between one side versus another (though there’s plenty of that) but between the universal conflict of self-interest and altruism. It’s an interesting approach for a thriller, and Greene brings it off with the skill that made him a major player in the genre.


CONFIDENTIAL AGENT. Warner Brothers, 1945. Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Victor Francen, Wanda Hendrix, George Coulouris, Peter Lorre, Katina Paxinou. Screenwriter-producer: Robert Buckner. Director: Herman Shumlin.


   Confidential Agent was filmed by the Warners in 1945, by which time all the wraps were off: Spain is clearly designated as the source of intrigue, and French Charles Boyer, German Peter Lorre, Belgian Victor Franken and Greek Katina Paxinou all play Spaniards; at least they’re more convincing than Lauren Bacall as a British socialite.

   That’s right, Brooklyn-born Bacall (aka Bette Perske) plays the daughter of an English “honorable” and nothing in the screenplay makes any attempt at explaining her flat American accent.

   Normally, faced with incongruity of this magnitude, the writers throw in something about being raised by an aunt in Canada or something, but not here. Nope, that’s just the way she talks and let’s get on with the show.

   And despite the Hollywood absurdities, the show ain’t bad at all.


   Director Herman Shumlin was primarily a stage director (with only one other film, the very stagy Watch on the Rhine to his credit) and not terribly sharp at conveying action or keeping up the pace, but he’s very good with the actors.

   Lorre and Paxinou make a terrific pair of nasties in the Lorre/ Greensteet tradition, playing off each other quite nicely, and though Bacall, in her second film, seems a bit cautious away from Howard Hawks and husband Bogart, she manages some real chemistry up against a very steely Boyer.

   Shumlin is also wise enough to get out of the way and let veteran photographer James Wong Howe fill the screen with images of poetic loneliness, evoking Greene’s themes of isolation, backed up by the lush music of Franz Waxman, one of the defining composers of the ’40s.


   Writer/producer Robert Buckner, a studio stand-by with Dodge City and From Hell to Texas to his credit, tightens Greene’s tale neatly, eliminating bits of the book that really go nowhere, while keeping true to the letter and spirit of the thing.

   He also adds a couple neat twists of his own, including a come-uppance for nasty Katina Paxinou that I won’t spoil for you, and a wonderful bit where Boyer prepares to kill Lorre for selling him out:

   Lorre grovels as only he can, trying to justify his treachery on the grounds of ill health, pleading, “I have a bad heart! The doctor said I had six months to live!” to which Boyer quietly replies, “He was wrong.”

   Gotta love it.

V. C. CLINTON-BADDELEY – Only a Matter of Time.

Dell, paperback reprint; 1st printing, July 1981; Murder Ink Mystery #23. Hardcover edition: William Morrow, 1970. Prior UK edition: Victor Gollancz, hc, 1969; pb reprint: Arrow, 1974.


   Not knowing very much about the author, and assuming that perhaps that you don’t either, I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing the autobiographical blurb that was included at the end of this book:

V. C. Clinton-Baddeley was born in Devon, England. He received an M.A. in history from Jesus College, Cambridge. For a time he was editor of the modern history section of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but soon turned to theatre and acting and then to radio, where he worked with W. B. Yeats as his poetry reader. His previous writings include works of literary and theatre research, pantomimes, operettas, and plays.

   This explains a lot, and I’ll get to that in a moment. His full name, according to the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, was V(ictor Vaughan Reynolds Geraint) C(linton) Clinton-Baddeley, 1900-1970, and his mystery writing career consisted of five detective stories that came out between 1967 and 1972, all featuring Dr. R. V. Davie as his continuing series character. (I’ll list the five books at the end of this review.)


   But what struck me when I was reading Only a Matter of Time was how erudite both the author and his sleuth were, and the brief biographical notes above only confirmed my thoughts. Not in a snobbish way, though. Not at all. The author has a dry if not wry sense of humor that had me smiling if not laughing throughout.

   The novel takes place in a small town called King’s Lacy during a week in the summer when a week-long classical music festival is going on.

   The town also has a multitude of antique and small curio shops, and every so often the murder investigation stops and we (the reader) are treated to a knowledgeable discussion involving something to do with the fine arts. Either major or minor tidbits of information, it doesn’t matter, they’re still a treat.

   There is a slow, leisurely pace to this novel. I mentioned a murder investigation, but the first death is not known until the book is half over, although the victim had disappeared some time before that. Dr. Davie cooperates with the police, but since the second victim was known to him, that is his only rationale for continuing to stay involved.


   As the title suggests, you might be wise to keep close tabs on the timing of events, including watches that stop or run erratically and a church bell that does not chime overnight.

   One definition of a cozy mystery is perhaps one in which no commotion occurs when the murder does, and if so, that makes Only a Matter of Time the perfect example of a cozy mystery. The festival is not canceled, the show goes on, and Dr. Davie continues to take his afternoon nap, right on schedule.

   Overall, then? If you don’t mind leisurely, discursive detective novels with plenty of clues and false leads, this is the perfect one for you to try on for size the next time you’re looking for a book precisely like this one to read.

V. C. CLINTON-BADDELEY. Dr. Davie in all. First UK editions only:

      Death’s Bright Dart (n.) Gollancz 1967.


      My Foe Outstretch�d Beneath the Tree (n.) Gollancz 1968.


      Only a Matter of Time (n.) Gollancz 1969.
      No Case for the Police (n.) Gollancz 1970.
      To Study a Long Silence (n.) Gollancz 1972.


MICHAEL CONNELLY – The Overlook. Little Brown & Co, hardcover; first edition, May 2007. Paperback reprint: Vision, January 2008.


   This was originally published as a serial in the New York Times Sunday Magazine with a final chapter added later which I guess accounts for the three years of copyright in the paperback edition (2006, 2007 and 2008). And perhaps for the book being under 300 pages, a rarity nowadays.

   Harry Bosch has recently joined the Homicide Squad at LAPD, and his first case is the murder of Dr. Stanley Kent whose body is found at the Overlook in Hollywood hills. Soon Bosch’s old flame, FBI agent Rachel Walling turns up. She’s a member of the FBI’s Tactical Intelligence Unit and is there because Dr. Kent had access to dangerous radioactive substances which could be used by terrorists.

   Sure enough, it turns out Dr. Kent had removed one hospital’s complete supply of Cesium after receiving a photo showing his nude wife hogtied and gagged in their bedroom with the threat of killing her unless he complied.

   The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are more interested in recovering the stolen Cesium, but Bosch’s main concern is solving the murder and he won’t allow anyone to push him aside no matter how many capital letters are in their name.

   As usual, with Connelly, the story was very well written and the characterization can’t be faulted. What can be faulted is the plotting. Pretty much from the get-go I knew which way the story was heading even if I didn’t know everything about the solution. Too bad his plotting isn’t the equal of his writing.


WHIT HARRISON – Strip the Town Naked. Beacon B-350, paperback original, 1960.

WHIT HARRISON Strip the Town Naked

   Whit Harrison is a pseudonym of the prolific Harry Whittington. I’ve read and enjoyed a few books by him, and I read a recommendation for this title a while back, where and by whom now forgotten. It’s another of those books that I bought intending to read soon that has been staring accusingly at me from the to-be-read-soon for far too long.

   This is a typical Whittington (or what, with my limited exposure to him, I take to be a typical Whittington) in that a man falsely imprisoned has returned on his release from jail to his small home town to find the real crook.

   Vic Radford had been one of two partners in an investment company when $92,000 had been stolen from the company safe. Only he and his partner had known the money was there and his partner had an alibi. Radford’s return causes ripples in a town where everybody knows each other, and reignites tensions and not a few passions.

   It took a while to get into the book, but the pace of the story eventually took hold, and I raced to the conclusion.

   It’s really just a potboiler written to the Whittington formula that gives an enjoyable couple of hours. One complaint is that Vic has too many sexual encounters in the two days or so that it takes to clear up the case. All the women that we meet in the town are not only available but more than willing, including his wife, whose masochistic tendencies Radford is happy to oblige.

by Marvin Lachman


CORNELL WOOLRICH – The Bride Wore Black. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1940. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft, including: Pocket #271, 2nd printing 1945; Pyramid #80, 1953, as Beware the Lady; Dell D186, 1957, Great Mystery Library #1; Ace G-699; Collier, 1964; Raven House, 1981; Ballantine, July 1984.

Film: Films du Carosse, 1968, as La mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black). Co-screenwriter & director: Francois Truffaut.

   The Bride Wore Black is Cornell Woolich’s first novel and has been reprinted by about half a dozen different paperback houses. If you’ve never read Woolrich, it is a splendid introduction and [when this review was first written] a recent edition from Ballantine may still be available.


   While it is not Woolrich at his very best (for that, you’d have to read pulp novelets like “Goodbye, New York” or later books like Rendezvous in Black, also reprinted by Ballantine), it is very good indeed.

   Woolrich is best known for his heart-stopping suspense, emotional prose, and use of outrageous coincidences. In The Bride Wore Black, we have his usual narrative drive, but the language is a bit more objective than it sometimes is, and the result is a bit less reader involvement than is needed.

   The coincidences are there, in spades, and that makes suspending disbelief a bit tougher than usual. Still, only someone who’s read the best Woolrich would dare to cavil at this book, so don’t miss it if you’ve never read it.

– Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 3, May/June 1987
         (very slightly revised).

Editorial Comment:   As soon as I’m able, I’ll be posting the three reviews of Woolrich novels that Mike Nevins did for 1001 Midnights, one a day, perhaps, beginning tomorrow. The three: The Bride Wore Black, The Black Curtain, and The Black Angel.

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