September 2012

LOUIS TRIMBLE – Fit to Kill. Phoenix Press, hardcover, 1941.


   Trimble’s first book, or at least his first mystery — it’s possible that in his early days he started as a western writer — and the first appearance of dilettante detective Gerry Storm. And unless Al Hubin messed up, it seems to have been his only case worth mentioning. It’s the only book’s he’s appeared in.

   The book starts well, and ends well. The middle is not worth reading. I haven’t gotten around to writing my own first detective novel yet, but I’m convinced that that’s where the biggest hurdle lies. How do you make the process of investigating a murder interesting: finding clues, interrogating suspects, provide a little action and lively banter between the main characters, and keep the reader interested, all at the same time?

   This one lets us down on almost all of the above, but on the plus side, what Fit to Kill is, I am happy to say, is a locked room mystery. While there is a small gap in a partially opened window as a means for a murderer to have committed the crime, the flower box in the window has not been disturbed. More: the dead man was not shot or poisoned, but done in with the inevitable blunt instrument, more than 10 feet away from the window, and no sign of the weapon.

   The dead man, by the way, was a truly obnoxious creature — hence the title — and there is no dearth of suspects. Storm follows in the well-worn footsteps of Philo Vance and the early copy-cattish Ellery Queen. Nothing I’ve said, however, is enough for me to give this book more than a lukewarm recommendation. By 1941 maybe the Vancian charm was gone, or maybe Trimble was no S. S. Van Dine.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 36,
     (slightly revised).

[UPDATE] 09-13-12.   Toward the end of his career, Trimble seemed to de-emphasize mysteries in favor of either science fiction and westerns. According to Al Hubin, though, he wrote nearly thirty mystery novels between 1941 and 1970, including several as by Stuart Brock and Gerry Travis.

   The vast majority of these were written for Phoenix Press or Mystery House, both lending-library publishers of no great distinction, or as paperback originals for Ace, including quite a few Ace Doubles. By the 1950s, Trimble’s mystery fiction had become much more hard-boiled in nature; based on the ones I’ve read, which in truth are not many, he was never a terrible writer, but he certainly never made it to the big time, either. Other than the fact that I wrote this review, I don’t remember Fit to Kill at all. You now know as much about it as I do.

   I discovered two copies for sale just now on The cover of the one seen above is a facsimile, but it’s the cheaper of the two, with an asking price of $175.


THE HOUSE OF THE ARROW. Associated British Pictures, UK, 1953. Oskar Homolka (Inspector Hanaud), Robert Urquhart, Yvonne Furneaux, Josephine Griffin, Harold Kasket, Pierre Lefevre, Pierre Chaminade. Based on the novel by A. E. W. Mason (Hodder, 1924). Director: Michael Anderson.

   This is the third of three adaptations of Mason’s classic detective novel to the screen. The other two (1930 and 1940, respectively) are said not to exist. (If this is not true, I’d like to be corrected on this statement.) I first read the book a long time ago – a Modern Library Giant that contained two other works I also consider classics: Trent’s Last Case and Before the Fact – but alas, never since. (It has since been reprinted in an easy to obtain paperback published by Carroll & Graf in 1984.)

   In any case, while I’d like to be able to contrast the book with the film, I cannot. My memory does not go back nearly that far, almost 60 years ago. So I must encourage you to take the comments that follow with as large a grain of salt that you can muster, but they are, I assure you, well intentioned and (I hope) worthy of further discussion.


   As good as this movie is – and it is very good – I think what it displays is that no one can make a movie based on a work of detective fiction and have it work as well as it did in printed form. Movies and episodes of various TV series have been made that are excellent detective puzzlers, so it can be done.

   I’d include the Jim Hutton season of Ellery Queen shows in the latter category, and many of the Murder, She Wrote series. You can name your own movies, including those made for TV, but I doubt that many of the ones you might bring up were based on printed novels or even short stories, if any at all, and if they were, I’m willing to wager that the original printed version was better.

   I’m talking fair play detective fiction, mind you, not suspense thrillers, or noir fiction. Some of the Suchet versions of Poirot stories follow the originals closely, but are they better? I’ve been watching the first season of the Perry Mason television series, for example, and most of the shows I’ve watched are simply awful, with gaps in continuity and logic that are simply bewildering. Maybe they existed in Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, too, and I’m willing to concede that maybe they were. I’m almost afraid to go back and see for myself.


   Perhaps it’s that the pure puzzle category of detective fiction doesn’t translate well to film, or that film people simply don’t know how to do it. They have to jazz up Miss Marple and even Hercule Poirot so much, even to changing the endings (is that really so?), that they could change the names of all the characters and no one would have any ideas where the stories came from.

   I think (but as I suggested above, I am not sure) that the producers of this cinematic version of The House of the Arrow intended to follow the story line of the book as closely as possible. I’ll assume that to be the case.


   There are plenty of false trails for this to be true, although only a small number of suspects, a French manor house where the murder takes place (if it was indeed murder) so intricately filled with connecting rooms and corridors that Inspector Hanaud of the French Surete must carry floor plans of the building around with him as he goes, a mysterious poison brought back to France from South America (I believe) on an antique arrowhead, and a detective (the aforementioned Hanaud) who is the epitome of Golden Age detectives: jaunty, pugnacious, all-knowing, and positively beaming with delight to be confronted with a case that’s up the challenge of his abilities, of which he can assure you, are second to none.


   And Oskar Homulka is positively the right actor for the job. Not particularly handsome, his flair for the dramatic, as well as the comic jest at just the right time, is right on, every moment of the film. The black-and-white photography is superb, near noir-like in the angles that are taken and the mood that is invoked. Dead is an old woman, presumably of natural causes, but some anonymous letters and a disgruntled would-be heir cause suspicion to be aroused.

   But I confess, it took me two viewings to follow the story, and while I know who and why, I’m still not sure exactly sure how the many details that put who, why and how fit together in a nicely satisfying whole. Nor is this is not a fair play mystery, one in which you say to yourself “Of course,” and slap yourself on the head with a “Doh” when all is revealed. The book may be equally at fault in this regard. If any of you reading this have read the book more recently than I, or have better memories, can say yea or nay in this regard, please do.

   A very enjoyable movie, nonetheless, in spite of this long and perhaps rambling preamble, with lots of thoughts and no complete answers on my part, I’m afraid, but if you’ve read this far, you really ought to see this movie, if it ever comes your way.


William F. Deeck

JOHN M. ESHLEMAN – The Long Window. Ives Washburn, hardcover, 1953. Mercury Mystery #206, digest paperback, n.d. [1955], as Death of a Cheat.


     ●   The Long Chase. Ives Washburn, hardcover, 1954. Mercury Mystery #201, n.d. [1954], digest paperback, two-page introduction by Anthony Boucher, as The Deadly Chase.

   When Lucy Storm is found strangled in her bedroom after a party in The Long Window, Police Lieutenant Larry Koharik of an anonymous city next to Berkeley, Calif., directs the investigation. Since the partygoers have alibis, the obvious suspects are the husband, who may have killed her because of jealousy, and the black houseboy, who apparently was angry with her for disrupting his plans to return to school.

   Despite the fact that Koharik once dated Lucy and knows at least one of the suspects, he continues as head of the investigation. Don’t policemen ever recuse themselves when there might be a conflict of interest, or is that fit only for judges and potential jurors and some lawyers?

   While not a great deal is learned about Koharik of a personal nature — quite often in first-person narration these details aren’t provided — it is revealed that he is thirty-three years old and married to a woman who loves, and thus puts up with, him.

   Though the investigation is a bit unorthodox, with Koharik socializing with the people who partied at Lucy Storm’s house, it is a good one. Oh, there’s at least one hole in the explanation, the murderer oddly is quite bloodthirsty and then reluctant to kill, and a suspect hides where he and Koharik had been just a few days before.

   But none of that is noticed in the reading, for the author carries all before him with splendid prose, solid suspects, and an attractive protagonist. In addition, not that anything extra was needed, there’s a great bit about lie detectors when all the suspects — but you should read it for yourselves.


   In The Long Chase, Koharik and his wife are at a society party, meet the rich and noble Senor Diego Castillo, furnish him with a ride, and watch him be shot for the third and fatal time. Then Koharik discovers that Castillo was neither rich nor noble and had a fair number of enemies.

   Let me step aside here for a moment and quote a master reviewer, Anthony Boucher, from his introduction to this novel:

    Koharik is clearly destined for a niche of his own among the very few sympathetic and believable cops of tough-realistic fiction. And he has a worthy case to work on in this book — a case that involves criminal factors (gambling, pandering) that might happen anywhere, and social factors that could happen only in the American West, from the peculiarly Californian meaning of being a daughter of the Dons to the unique practices (as sincerely devout as they seem anti-social) of schismatic Mormons exiled from Utah as heretics. It’s a case that builds, like good Hammett, out of quiet personal tension into violent overt action, culminating in an outburst of wholesale carnage which is as underplayed and as effective as anything in that line since Red Harvest.

   Boucher goes on to hope that there would be more cases for Lieutenant Koharik. Unfortunately, there were no others. Thus we will be vouchsafed no additional observations from Koharik such as the following:

   Talking to the chief is something that sends goose pimples up and down his back. I think the reason he’s a captain is because the chief knows it and likes it that way. There are never any arguments from that kind of captain if you’re a chief. The reason I’m a lieutenant is because that kind of captain needs somebody around who can do the work that he can’t.

   For reasons only a publisher would understand — I sure don’t — Mercury Publications chose to publish Eshleman’s second novel featuring Lieutenant Koharik before it published the first one.

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 1992.


TOM W. BLACKBURN – Short Grass. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1947. Paperback reprints include: Bantam 207, November 1948; Bantam 1164, September 1953, Dell 7980, April 1973; Dell 17980, June 1979.

   For no good reason I can think of, Tom Blackburn (1913–1992) is not included in the second edition of 20th Century Western Writers, and he should be. I am surprised that he is not. He was a prolific writer of westerns for the pulps, hardcovers, paperbacks, movies and a number of 50s and 60s TV series. His career began perhaps with “Wagontongue’s Last Town-Tamer” which appears in Star Western, February 1940, his earliest entry in the online FictionMags Index.

   His wikipedia entry appears here, where you will learn that he may be best remembered as the person who wrote the lyrics to “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” Among several other TV series he wrote for are Maverick, Bronco, and Daniel Boone. It’s quite a résumé.


   And as a western, Short Grass is quite a novel, impressive in both its exposition and impact, with (in my opinion) as much emphasis on “novel” as “western,” and perhaps more. It starts out in flurry of action, and it barely ever lets up – perhaps only in the middle, with an ending that if properly filmed, would be a humdinger of a movie. (I’ll get back to this shortly.)

   Steve Llewellyn is the primary protagonist, a wandering cowpoke – if not gunman, a drifter whose past we never learn much about – and an innocent bystander, if you will, who gets caught up in a shooting incident in a saloon between two other fellows. He’s wounded and – we’ve read this before – is soon found by a woman who takes him home to recover.


   Things happen fast in this book. Other westerns may draw the next step out for any number of chapters, but Steve doesn’t wait nearly that long. He kisses Sharon Lynch on page 36, and in the Dell paperback I read, there still are almost 200 pages yet to come. The course of romance does not come easily, though. Steve believes in the use of his gun. Sharon does not. She does believe violence is the solution to anything. Not a good combination, and once she sees what Steve is capable of, she rejects him, and they part.

   As a synopsis, this is too short and far too easy. The two are adults, and their behavior, their thoughts, their actions, their problems, are those of adults. When they meet later, in Kansas, not Texas, five years have passed, Steve has become a homesteader, Sharon has remarried (to a man too weak for her) and the local marshal (Ord Keown) has an eye on her.


   Besides the complications a love triangle (well, yes, a quadrangle) can bring, the past that both Steve and Sharon have fled comes back to haunt them again in the form of rancher Hal Fenton. The latter is someone would not mind gaining some revenge as well as some open range for his cattle he and his men have brought up for market from Texas.

   This is a tale with several twists and turns in it, surprisingly so, but it is the people involved that make the story so memorable. These are real people with real problems, and this being a western, only violence, sudden death and a fast and bloody shootout at the end can salvage any hope for them – the ones who survive, that is.

   I suggested earlier that this movie would make a humdinger of a movie. I have not seen it yet, but I have it on order. The film that was made of this book is entitled Short Grass (Allied Artists, 1950), and the screenplay was written by none other than Mr. Blackburn himself. The names of the characters are the same, and the plot summary on IMDB suggests that very few changes were made. Rod Cameron stars as Llewellyn, Cathy Downs as Sharon Lynch, Johnny Mack Brown as Sheriff Ord Keown, with Morris Ankrum as Hal Fenton. I’ll report on my findings later. With stars like these, I’m hoping for the best.


DOG AND CAT. ABC / Paramount / Largo Productions, 1977; 74 minutes. Cast: Lou Antonio, Kim Basinger, Matt Clark, Charles Cioffi, Richard Lynch, Dale Robinette and Janit Baldwin. Created by Walter Hill. Teleplay by Owen Morgan, Henry Rosenbaum and Heywood Gould. Story by Owen Morgan.Executive Producer: Lawrence Gordon. Producer: Robert Singer. Director: Bob Kelljan.

DOG AND CAT Kim Basinger

   This TV Movie pilot would lead to the ABC series Dog and Cat that would run for six episodes on Saturdays at 10-11 pm from March 5, 1977 through May 14, 1977.

   An underage ex-porn star (Janit Baldwin) who has found Jesus wants to help “the pigs” get the man behind her former career. Detective Sergeant Jack Ramsey (Lou Antonio) and his partner Earl (Richard Forbes) meet with her and set up a trap for the bad guy.

   While waiting for the bad guy to show up and meet the girl, Ramsey is at a pay phone checking in when a creepy guy (Richard Lynch) enters the diner, exchanges glances with girl, walks up to Earl and shoots him. In the confusion the shooter escapes and the girl disappears.

   Ramsey’s boss, Lieutenant Kipling (Matt Clark) arrives at the scene as Earl is being rushed to the hospital, unconscious but still alive. He finds a sad Ramsey sitting on the curb. He reacts as if Ramsey was a hotheaded cop about to go rogue and sends him home to cool down.

   At first, I wondered if Antonio was playing the part wrong, focusing on inner emotions rather visually displaying his anger, but then the script has him going home to walk his dog. Ramsey stops at a phone booth to call the hospital to check on his beloved partner. When he learns his partner has died he is emotionally distressed without any visual sides of anger. He takes his dog home and lies down on his couch. Dirty Harry, he ain’t.

DOG AND CAT Kim Basinger

   The next day the Lieutenant warns Ramsey against going out on his own hunting the killer. Kipling is convinced (for reasons not apparent to us) he should force Ramsey to take two weeks off, but instead gives him a new partner familiar with the skin trade and sends him out to hunt for the killer.

   Ramsey is angry to discover his new partner is a young beautiful woman (Kim Basinger). He claims “Dog and Cat” partnerships (male cop/female cop) never work. After some lame sexist dialog, Ramsey gets into her car, a cute VW Bug with a Porsche engine.

   While Antonio’s acting seems not to fit the character, Basinger does no better as Officer J. Z. Kane. Basinger looks overwhelmed in this film, her Southern accent keeps going in and out. She isn’t even convincing with the sexy part of her character. This is Kim Basinger here, sexy should be a given.

   Of course, the two are like cats and dogs, complete opposite from body parts to taste in music. They constantly argue except when danger threatens then they work as a team, each having the others back.

   While looking for the girl, they question the man who had helped the girl get into a Mission and find Jesus. After our favorite Dog and Cat leave, the man is worried Officer Kane will remember him hanging around a porno theatre (she had spent time undercover as the cashier). So he sends his lackey out to “take care of her.”

DOG AND CAT Kim Basinger

   Meanwhile, the cop killer named Shirley is also looking for the girl and kills again to cover his trail. Richard Lynch does what he can with his role as plot device, but the writers don’t bother to develop the character.

   This script focuses less on making sense and more on its quota of car chases, gunfights, gratuitous women in bikinis, and predictable arguments between the two cops until it’s off to chase the bad guy.

   After Ramsey and Kane catch the bad guy behind it all, they then focused on catching the cop killer. And of course, our two cops take the killer on alone without backups because this kind of TV show can never have too many pointless chases and gunfights.

   For a TV movie pilot, nothing worked. The story was unbelievable and unnecessarily complex. The writing and acting did not play well together, with the characters behavior inconsistent with the script. There was no chemistry between Antonio and Basinger.

   The movie ends with the two discussing their future, as if we cared. He suggests dinner but end the partnership. She agrees, but warns him she will never get involved with a man with a badge. He cancels dinner and both agree to stay partners as cops with no romantic involvement. Reportedly, Ramsey and Kane kept their relationship platonic during the series.

   The 1976-77 season ended with ABC the top rated network. Four ABC series finished in the top five and seven in the top ten. ABC’s Dog and Cat finished 50th out of 102 series.

   Networks were trying the idea of a third season that started in March. New series would be tested. Some such as Three’s Company, Man from Atlantis, and Eight Is Enough were a success, while most such as Kingston: Confidential (with Raymond Burr), Future Cop (human cop/android cop) and Dog and Cat failed and quickly vanished to be forgot


DOROTHY L. SAYERS – The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Ernest Benn, UK, hardcover, 1928. Payson & Clarke, US, hardcover, 1928. Reprinted extensively in both hardcover and paperback.

    “Today is perhaps also a suitable occasion to recall a classic detective story which not only opens on Armistice, or Remembrance Day, but in which the coincidence of events on that particular day is absolutely crucial to the story. The book in question is The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, by Dorothy L. Sayers.”

— Martin Edwards, “Do You Write Under Your Own Name”


    “The story of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club breaks into two halves, with each half functioning as a more or less independent novella. The first and better half, consisting of Chapters 1-12 and the start of the succeeding chapter, contains a real puzzle plot. The first half is also rich in genuine detection.

    “In fact, nearly 100% of this section consists of following Wimsey on his detective efforts. Wimsey’s detective work shows the influence of Sayers’ ancestors in the realist school. … Sayers uses formal, abstract, non-naturalistic chapter titles in this book, in this case based on Bridge hands. Such a technique will become common in later Golden Age writers, especially Ngaio Marsh.”

— Mike Grost


    “The Bellona Club is a men’s club. One of the members is discovered to have passed away, apparently while sitting in his chair reading a newspaper. Since the General is known to have a heart condition, it doesn’t appear to be very much out of the ordinary. But when attendants move him, they discover that, although rigor mortis has set in and he is stiff as a board, his knee joint hinges easily. This decidedly suspicious condition indicates that the body was forced sometime after rigor mortis began.

    “Lord Peter is called upon to investigate and unearths some startling facts. The General’s sister, it seems, died on the same day at precisely 11 a.m. — and she has a will with the following clause: If the General predeceases her, her entire (and considerable) estate goes to one party; if she dies first, then the estate goes to another. It is clearly established when the sister died — but did the General die before her or after her?”

— Drew R. Thomas


From The Saturday Review, 27 October 1928:

    “THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB. By Dorothy Sayers. S. Payson & Clarke. 1928. $2.00.

    “This should have been a pretty good detective story. Its crimes, and the motives out of which they spring, are comparatively reasonable. General Fentiman, grandfather — not uncle, as the jacket-blurb-writer wrongly guessed — of Major Robert and Captain George Fentiman, was found dead in a smoking-room chair at the club. He had been dead for some hours. His wealthier sister died the same morning. Because of her will it was important to learn which had died first. Later it developed that dirty work, even murder, had been done; but this development comes too late. That’s what’s the matter with The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. All its developments come just a little too late to knock the reader off his chair: he is given plenty of time to foresee most of the book’s twists and turns, and he needs no great nimbleness to keep anywhere from one to six chapters ahead of the story.”


    “[Ian] Carmichael’s Wimsey is ever the aristocrat, here ready to quote W. S. Gilbert and W. Shakespeare (though not nearly as frequently as Rumpole will quote his favorite poets), even though he must apologize now and then for being over the heads of some of his less well-educated acquaintances. In this story the grinding poverty of one of the interested parties is shown in striking contrast to Wimsey’s luxurious accommodations and ability to be very generous with his money (which after all was never earned by any workaday sweat of his brow).”

— Frank Behrens, IMDb, Review of the 1972-3 TV miniseries

    “Another fine piece of detection by an expert, with usual great dialogue, characterization and humor. It’s a shame Dorothy stopped writing so soon.”

— Xavier Lechard

    “However, despite the brilliant evocation of
the stodgy Bellona Club and the contrasting Bohemian London, and the good characterisation … the book is ultimately a disappointment …”

— Nick Fuller


    “… The Unpleasantness became my favorite of the series so far. I liked the plot, the elaborate crime and twists, but above all I liked the portrait of post-war England, in particular the experiences of the soldiers who returned. Together with the first decade of the 20th century, my favorite historical period is the Interwar. The Innocence and the end of it.”

— “The Sleepless Reader”

    “This is a book in two parts, perhaps not intentionally so, but that is how it reads. I read the first half with very little interest, almost with hostility. The clues seemed as subtle as neon lights in the Club, they pointed in only one direction, and the storyline plodded steadily towards it. I felt an antipathy to the tone of the book. I disliked the way the younger characters were unpleasantly cynical and condescending, not only to their elders but to anyone different to themselves. And I didn’t take to the flippant, wealthy Lord Wimsey. His investigations seem unhampered by the constraints of time and money. In this story he alone is right, and he is always right. His every conjecture is spot on, like a man getting heads with every throw.

    “And then somewhere towards the middle of the book, you turn a page and find the story suddenly springs to life.”

— Karyn Reeves


THE SAINT’S VACATION. RKO Radio Pictures, US/UK, 1941. Hugh Sinclair, Sally Gray, Arthur Macrae, Cecil Parker, Leueen Macgrath, John Warwick. Based on the novel Getaway (1932), by Leslie Charteris (also a co-screenwriter). Director: Leslie Fenton.

   Whenever a series character such as Simon Templar, known more familiarly as The Saint, decides to go on a vacation trip, say to Europe, you can bet your last bottom dollar that as soon as he and his companions check into their hotel, their paths will cross those of some evil ones.


   Nazis, in this case, or so one suspects, as I do not believe they were ever identified as such – as well as an adventure involving several deaths and a mysterious music box that is the key to something – that something never revealed, of course, until way at the end of the movie, which by that time, we may not care any more.

   Luckily the movie is just over 60 minutes long, as very little of what happens makes any logical sense, but as they say in France, it’s fun while it lasts. The was the first of two chances that British actor Hugh Sinclair had to impersonate The Saint, and if you’d like to know my impression, I think he was far too stiff and formal to be what I think of as the dashing and debonair hero I remember from the books.

   Patricia Holm, Simon’s close companion who was in the book Getaway, does not show up in this filmed version. She’s replaced instead by a reporter named Mary Langdon who is played by husky-voiced Sally Gray, of whose vivacious performance I heartily approved – feminine but just brash enough to be a fitting replacement for Miss Holm, although in the movies it is a strictly separate bedrooms kind of arrangement. In the books you’re never quite sure, but somehow you just know.


Reviews by L. J. Roberts

BARBARA CLEVERLY – Not My Blood. Soho Crime, hardcover, August 2012.

Genre:   Historical / Police procedural. Leading character:   Joe Sandilands, 10th in series. Setting:   England; 1933.


First Sentence:   Carrying more than a hint of snow, a southwesterly wind gusted up from the Channel, spattering the school’s plate glass windows with sleety drops.

   A phone call from a young boy named Jackie Drummond has Joe Sandilands traveling to a boarding school in Sussex where a teacher has been murdered. The case raises a number of questions for Joe. His suspicions aroused, can the boy actually be his illegitimate son? Why is Dorcus Joliffe, the daughter of close friends, who had recently been avoiding Joe, suddenly insistent on helping him with this case?

   However, the main question is what has happened to a surprising number of missing boys, each from a wealthy family. With Dorcus to aid him, Sandilands is headed to school, looking for answers.

   Barbara Cleverly really knows how to captivate her readers from the very first page. Her excellent descriptions of period, place and weather create the atmosphere and bring us straight into the story. It is fascinating to see this period of history between the wars when women are becoming police officers and education reform in public schools is beginning.

   The characters are charismatic and real: Joe, his sister Lydia, Jackie, ever-clever aide de camp Alfred, and Dorcus who is now grown and has a degree in psychology. These are people you come to know by Cleverly providing enough history that new readers don’t feel lost and with whom fans of the series have become friends.

   I am not normally a fan of relationships between two principle characters, but Ms. Cleverly makes it work and faithful readers will see things progress as they may have hoped it would so do.

   Dialogue makes such a difference and here, it is excellent and reflective of the period and class. Ms. Cleverly’s writing is wonderfully literate and she expects the reader to be the same. At the same time, she isn’t trying to embarrass or be over the head of the reader. The meaning is always clear from the context: “If anyone’s been setting himself up as some sort of a psychopompos, a guide to the souls to the Land of the Dead — a Hermes, or even a playful Peter Pan — we’ll have him.”

   The intrigue and subterfuge is masterfully created, yet clever plotting and occasional humor keep things from becoming overly grim. This is a time when science is evolving. The motive is horrific but not inconceivable, and that makes it the more terrible still.

   Not My Blood is an excellent traditional police procedural driven by intelligent dialogue and charismatic characters and where the case is solved by following the clues and having a good working relationship with the other branches involved. It also has a wonderful, lovely ending. This is a very good series which should be read in order.

Rating: Very Good Plus.

Editorial Comment:   LJ’s review of Strange Images of Death, the 8th in the Sandilands series, may be found here on this blog. Following the review is a list of the first eight in the series. Missing is The Blood Royal (2011), number nine.

by Francis M. Nevins

   I happened to be in New Jersey during the week in the middle of last month when an event took place in Manhattan which, had I known about it, would have led me to cross the Hudson and attend, and maybe get asked questions I couldn’t have answered on the spot.

   On Thursday, August 16, as part of its ongoing series of French crime thrillers, the Museum of Modern Art ran the little-known 1939 film Pièges (Traps), starring Maurice Chevalier and directed by Robert Siodmak (1900-1973). Born in Dresden to Jewish parents, Siodmak wisely left Germany for France soon after Hitler came to power and, after completing Pièges, left France for a new life in Hollywood as a specialist in what became known as film noir.

   Our interest here is in the skein of connections between Pièges, its director, and the most powerful of all noir authors, Cornell Woolrich.

   First, the film’s springboard situation. After several young Parisian women mysteriously disappear, the police suspect that their adversary is a serial killer who finds his prey by placing newspaper ads seeking single young women. The cop in charge of the cases enlists the lovely taxi-dancer who roomed with the latest victim to go undercover, answer some of those ads, and serve as bait for a trap.

   Sound familiar? To my ears the echoes of Woolrich’s pulp classic “Dime a Dance” (Black Mask, February 1938; first collected in The Dancing Detective, 1946, as by William Irish) are as loud as the roar of the sea, although to the best of my knowledge no one has commented upon the resemblance in print or on the Web.


   Introducing Pièges to the MoMA audience, curator Laurence Kardish mentioned that the print, with new English subtitles, had arrived from France just two hours earlier. If the film had ever been shown in the U.S. before, it came and went in a blink.

   Among the huge audience listening to Kardish was noir connoisseur Kurt Brokaw, who in an email (not to me) described “the first meandering hour” of the film as “more florid melodrama than noir… Chevalier sings and mugs and mopes around and is such a pain. The femme Marie Dea is good, but the picture seems to run forever.”

   Eventually, Brokaw pointed out, the film assumes a noir look and feel — and takes on a strong resemblance to Woolrich’s classic suspense novel Phantom Lady.

   The problem here, as most Woolrich lovers know, is that that novel first appeared in hardcover in 1942, three years after Pièges. As they say in the cafés of Montmartre, was ist hier los? Could Woolrich have lifted Phantom Lady’s plot from a French film that had lifted its springboard situation from a Woolrich story?

   When Brokaw’s correspondent invited me to weigh in on the issue, I replied that the original version of Phantom Lady was Woolrich’s short novel “Those Who Kill” (Detective Fiction Weekly, March 4, 1939).


   The pub date would make it seem more likely that Pièges borrowed from Woolrich than the opposite. And when you factor into the equation that “Those Who Kill” takes place in France–!

   At this point our conversation was joined by West Coast noir maven Eddie Muller, who told us that the Pièges/Phantom Lady connection was not a new discovery but had been discussed by Deborah Alpi in her 1998 book on Siodmak.

   According to Alpi, the French film was based on the trial and conviction of a young German intellectual named Eugen Weidmann, who had murdered several women traveling in France.

   Time out for a sidebar. Weidmann was the last criminal in France to be publicly guillotined. The execution took place in 1939, the same year Siodmak made Pièges, the same year Woolrich wrote his classic “Men Must Die” (Black Mask, August 1939; usually reprinted as “Guillotine”), which is about a French criminal desperately trying to avoid his date with the headsman. Coincidence, or had Woolrich been reading about the beheading of Weidmann?

   As if our skein weren’t tangled enough already, there is one final knot. When Phantom Lady was itself filmed, in 1944, would anyone care to guess who got the job directing the picture? Yes, it was Robert Siodmak.

   However we interpret this sequence of events, we seem to be stuck with some coincidences worthy of Woolrich himself, and maybe even of Harry Stephen Keeler. Someday I’ll track down Alpi’s book, and also a DVD of Pièges if there is one.


   Anyone who sampled Boston Blackie on YouTube after reading my last column doesn’t need to be told that it was hardly a detective program at all but much more like an action-packed Western series set in the present, i.e. the early 1950s.

   Also accessible on YouTube is another series of the same vintage which is closer to the detective genre and even features reasoning of sorts, but I didn’t care for it 60 years ago and still don’t today.

   The 39-episode Front Page Detective was produced by small-screen pioneer Jerry Fairbanks (1904-1995), first broadcast on the short-lived Dumont network in 1951 and rerun times without number on local stations throughout the rest of the Fifties.


   The title came from a pulp true-crime magazine but its protagonist, café-society columnist and amateur detective David Chase — described as a sleuth with “an eye for the ladies, a nose for news, and a sixth sense for danger” — was created especially for TV.

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

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

   Lowe’s foremost contribution to the detective film came ten years later when he portrayed Philo Vance in The Garden Murder Case (MGM, 1936), but he also played a New York plainclothesman of the 1890s opposite Mae West in Every Day’s a Holiday (Paramount, 1938).

   By the early 1950s Lowe had begun to show his age, and in Front Page Detective he looked all too convincingly like a man of almost sixty who’s determined to pass himself off as 25 years younger.


   In many an episode he’d romance the woman in the case, rattle off a few deductions — once he reasoned that a letter supposedly from an Englishwoman was a forgery because the writer used the U.S. spelling “check” rather than the British “cheque” — and then collar the villain personally after a pistol battle or fistfight underscored by Lee Zahler’s background music for Mascot and early Republic serials.

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

   Filming was 99% indoors, on some of the cheapest sets ever seen by the televiewer’s eye. The director of every episode I’ve seen recently was Arnold Wester, whose name crops up almost nowhere else in TV history, hinting that it may have been an alias for producer Jerry Fairbanks.

   Whoever he was, his idea of directing was to point the camera at the actors and leave the room. Many scripts were by veterans of pulp detective magazines and radio like Robert Leslie Bellem and Irvin Ashkenazy, with an occasional contribution by Curt Siodmak, the younger brother of director Robert Siodmak — do I connect the items in this column or what? — and author of the classic horror novel Donovan’s Brain.

   Three episodes of the series — “Murder Rides the Night Train,” “Seven Seas to Danger” and “Alibi for Suicide” — are accessible on YouTube, and a few others can be found on various DVD sets in the bins of dollar stores.

   Most seem to have vanished but their gimmicks can often be deduced from the brief descriptions in crumbling issues of TV Guide. In “The Case of the Perfect Secretary” Chase tries to find out why Dr. Owens, the inventor of a synthetic cortisone, didn’t show up for a scheduled lecture. He finds Owens’ laboratory deserted and later discovers that the doctor has been murdered, the letter M imprinted on his forehead. It takes no Charlie Chan to figure out that the M is most likely a W.

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

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

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

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

   Front Page Detective never pretended to be a classic, but for all its cliches and Grade ZZZ production values it was a pioneering effort in tele-detection that deserves perhaps a wee bit more than to be totally forgotten.



CLAYTON RAWSON, writing as Stuart Towne – Death from Nowhere: Don Diavolo Mysteries. Mysterious Press, ebook, two novellas, May 2012.

— The Magical Mysteries of Don Diavolo. Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, hardcover, March 2005.

    “Overall, I really enjoyed Death from Nowhere. The stories are creative and imaginative, and although there are flaws, the book still manages to be quite enjoyable.”

— Patrick, Review of Death from Nowhere, “At the Scene of the Crime.”

      See also:


    “Nicolas Alexander Houdin, alias Don Diavolo, is a crime fighting stage magician detective who routinely faces seemingly supernatural horror and mystery in all four of these circa 1940 stories. Despite his Latin-esque name, the 30-something vaudeville conjurer is blond and wiry with a lithe and powerful physique, the endurance of 6 men, and capable of lightning fast thought and action. He often wears a scarlet suit of impeccably cut clothing, and may sometimes adopt the clothing over far and near Eastern illusionists in his stage and public acts.

    “Don Diavolo finds himself routinely dragged into adventures in crime-fighting, often at the instigation of his suspicious nemesis, Inspector Church of NYC’s Homicide Division. Rather than using hand waving and spooky mysticism to fix things right and routinely clear his sullied name, Don Diavolo solves these baffling mysteries using modern techniques of science and psychology, along with a healthy dose of vaudeville drama and stage hocus pocus.”

— Review of The Magical Mysteries of Don Diavolo, “Age of Menace.”


    “Rawson wrote four novellas in 1940 about magician-sleuth Don Diavolo. They have recently been collected in book form as The Magical Mysteries of Don Diavolo. The first three Don Diavolo stories are Rawson’s richest impossible crime tales… The Don Diavolo stories often feature dying messages, a kind of mystery puzzle that rarely appears in impossible crime tales. Rawson is throwing every possible mystery idea into these tales.”

— Mike Grost

    “Don Diavolo is the fabulous Scarlet Wizard, a magician detective created by author and illustrator Clayton Rawson (1906-1971) writing under the pen-name Stuart Towne. Himself a magician as well as writer, Rawson is mainly remembered today for his magician detective, the Great Merlini, but not to be ignored are the four short novels he wrote about Don Diavolo.”

— “The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box.”


From The Saturday Review, 27 May 1939, “The Criminal Record”:

    “Title and Author: THE FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING – Clayton Rawson (Putnam: $2.00)

    “Crime, Place, Sleuth: Poisoned corpse of agoraphobic heiress found in East River island mansion beneath sole-marked ceiling. Merlini unmagicks three incredible killings.

    “Summing Up: Encyclopedically fascinating, with amazing bits about sunken treasure, catalepsy, ‘the bends,’ assorted poisons — also gun-play and sky-high suspense.

    “Verdict: Immense!”


From The Saturday Review, 16 July 1938, “The Criminal Record”:

    “Title and Author: DEATH FROM A TOP HAT – Clayton Rawson (Putnam: $2.00)

    “Crime, Place, Sleuth: Occultist found slain in pentagon: death deals card-trickster Black Lady. Merlini, ex-magician, helps cops fathom riddle.

    “Summing Up: Amazingly good dope on magicians and their art, keen foolery, extra-tricky plot, and conclusion that lifts the roof.

    “Verdict: Dazzling.”

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