June 2013


JONATHAN VALIN – The Lime Pit. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1980. Avon, paperback, 1981. Dell, paperback, 1994.

   Somehow Sherlock Holmes is seldom if ever thought of as a private detective. He seems instead to be intellectually above all that, while of course in reality he was never averse to receiving a fee for his services. And so the fact remains that investigators-for-hire have been around for nearly as long as there’s been mystery fiction. It wasn’t until Dashiell Hammett came along, however, with his Sam Spade, the Continental Op and other detectives, that the private eye story was brought down to street level where it belongs, so to speak.

   In degrees of depravity and perversity, here is a book tougher and rougher than any of Hammett’s, by far, but of course you do have to realize that this is several generations of consciousness-raising later. Some of the scenes that occur in the course of Harry Stoner’s search for a missing girl would undoubtedly make a Marquis de Sade at least momentarily queasy.


   Nor is Valin the new Raymond Chandler — the first chapter in particular seems desperately overwritten — but as a more than capable wordsmith he learns quickly. Once begun it’s easy to find yourself vicariously trapped in the grimier depths of Cincinnati’s dingier sections, uncovering with private eye Stoner a hidden underground world of predatory sex and bloodseeking violence.

   Stoner is hired by a dirty old man whose 16-year-old living companion has run away. He has pictures of her, of the kind not sold under counters, but in back rooms only. Harry fears the worst.


   As a rescuer, Stoner is deliberately not cast in the Travis McGee philosophy/fantasy mold. The job is hopeless, and he knows it, yet he’s idealist enough to continue hunting for those responsible for whatever’s happened to Cindy Ann. His romantic liaison with a waitress named Jo is enjoyable, but it is not likely to continue with the success that Robert Parker’s Spenser has found with Susan Silverman.

   The key intended here instead is realism. The activities taking place in The Lime Pit may not always be wholly appetizing, but they are morbidly fascinating. And while Harry Stoner may be the consummate iconoclast in many regards, he’s still a superb example of the closest thing we have today to a knight in shining armor.

Rating:  A minus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 4, No. 4, July-August 1980 (slightly revised). This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.

Editorial Comment:   My review of Final Notice, which you can find here on this blog, includes more discussion of the author and a complete list of the Harry Stoner books, of which The Lime Pit was the first.


MISS FANE’S BABY IS STOLEN. Paramount, 1934. Dorothea Wieck, Alice Brady, Baby Leroy, Burton Churchill, William Frawley, Alan Hale, Spanky McFarland, Dorothy Burgess. Based on the story “Kidnapt” by Rupert Hughes, Cosmopolitan, 10 November 1933. Director: Alexander Hall. Shown at Cinefest 19, Syracuse NY, March 1999.

   German actress Wieck plays a film star whose infant son stolen by surly Hale, nervous LaRue and bored Burgess. Brady plays the spunky farm wife who retrieves the child and escapes the band of inept crooks in as improbable a car chase as you will ever see this side of the Keystone Kops. A minor diversion that was the initial screening of the convention.

ELLIS PETERS – One Corpse Too Many. Morrow, US, hardcover, 1980. First published by Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1979. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1981; several other reprint editions, in both hardcover and soft.

ELLIS PETERS One Corpse Too Many

   For a fine literate change of pace from your standard big city police procedural or private eye yarn, you could do worse than to try this, the latest mystery adventure to be tackled and solved by the 12th century’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, Brother Cadfael of Shrewsbury Abbey.

   Stop and think about it. One of the prime requirements of the detective story is that of bringing the murderer to justice, before both God and man. In the year 1138 who else would there be but a devoutly dedicated monk to carry out such a task?

   Assigned to burial detail after King Stephen’s successful siege of the rebellious Castle Foregate, Cadfael discovers that he cannot account for an extra body among those of ninety-four other condemned prisoners. Without a little urging on his part, it couldn’t be made clearer that the distinction between a murder and an execution would have otherwise escaped the minds of those in power completely.

   The plot is thicker than it seems, romance is determined to bloom even under the worst of conditions, and Cadfael is a solid man of the earth who realizes that God’s will may not always be done as honest men would see fit. He makes an ideal detective.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 4, No. 4, July-August 1980 (slightly revised).

PostScript.   One Corpse Too Many was the second of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, the first being A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977/78). In an interview conducted by Ellen Nehr in 1991, Ellis Peters revealed that the first book was intended to be a one off, not the beginning of a series that turned out to be 13 books long.


THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING. Columbia, 1935. Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur, Arthur Hohl, James Donlan, Arthur Byron, Wallace Ford, Donald Meek, Etienne Girardot. Director: John Ford.


   I waited a long time for The Whole Town’s Talking to come out on Video, and then it reminded me of my experiences with Spillane and James Hadley Chase: I wanted to like it a lot, but found myself disappointed,

   The Whole Town’s Talking (not to be confused with People Will Talk or The Talk of the Town) has some impressive credentials indeed: A Gangster/Comedy film with Edward G. Robinson and Jean Arthur, based on a story by W. R. Burnett and directed by none other than John Ford, not shown on television in years, so you can imagine how I looked forward to it.

   Turns out, though, to be an unimaginative little comedy, revolving around a meek clerk, played by Robinson, who resembles a Dillinger-like desperado, also played by Robinson, and the supposedly comic complications this has on his life. There’s a lot of Capra-esque business about poor little Edward G, abused by uncaring bosses and local politicos, and the presence of Jean Arthur pushes it even further into Capra territory.

   The film also features on performances by two supreme milquetoasts of the cinema, Etienne Girardot and Donald Meek, who actually share an all-too-short scene together. Unfortunately, the whole thing revolves around a character who never seems to do very much; the story just sort of moves — slowly — along without him… and without engendering too much interest.


LESLEY ANDRESS – Caper. Putnam, hardcover, 1980. Pocket, paperback, December 1980. Also published as by Lawrence Sanders: Berkley, paperback, 1987.


   Her publisher unhappy about her recent lack-lustre production of mystery thrillers, Jannie Shean, also known as Chuck Thorndyke, Mike Cantrell, and yes, God help us, Brick Wall, among others, faces a crisis in her career. Her books need more reality, she is told. Others tell her they need what you usually don’t find happening in real life. Tidy endings, she is advised. No loose ends.

   In the pursuit and name of reality, she plans her own crime. A jewel heist, complete with a new blonde identity and a crew of several more-than-willing recruits. Events take a sudden expected twist, however, and she’s trapped into pulling it off. The mob gets involved, a dullish sort of book finally becomes exciting, and the chase is on.

   Some moralizing about the freedom of amorality and the forced awareness of a life on the run does not cloud the fact that crime is a serious business, and one not entirely suited nor meant for amateurs. No tidy endings here. By book’s end, the story has gone downhill badly. Running out of gas (figuratively) may be the ultimate realism, perhaps, but I’ve somehow never found it particularly satisfying.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 4, No. 4, July-August 1980 (slightly revised).

[UPDATE] 06-02-13.   It was not known at the time I wrote this review that Andress was a pen name of Lawrence Sanders. (Note the anagram of his last name!) It was the only book he wrote under this nom-de-plume. Sanders was an extremely popular author in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, but every library sale I’ve gone to in recent years seems to have had tons of his books on the tables and still unsold at sale’s end.

William F. Deeck

MURRAY THOMAS – Buzzards Pick the Bones. Longmans Green, UK, hardcover, 1932.

   Five years earlier Tom Carr, on holiday in Wales and walking the Cader Idris range, had come upon a man apparently deranged. One year after that he had been told that a skeleton had been discovered at the point he had encountered the man. Now he has read that another skeleton has been found at the same spot. Neither of the skeletons has been identified.

   With the hope of getting more information about the skeletons, Carr and his friend Stephen go to Wales. In so doing they are probably responsible for yet another corpse, this one freshly made.

   A fairly interesting beginning, with some fine writing about the Welsh mountains, but the murderer, though not his motive, is evident early on and Carr’s falling in love slows down what was never a fast pace. The main saving grace to be found is Rumbold, Carr’s valet, who is not the detective in the novel but definitely could have been. As Rumbold puts it:

    Well, sir, … a detective, when he has collected a proficiency of fax in a case, arranges them this way and that and forms a theory that explains everything. And a valet, sir, collects fax about his master gradually and forms a theory that explains his master to him, and, if I may venture to say so, it is possible for the discreet and intelligent valet to fulminate valuable theories of human nature too. Valets are students of human nature, sir — as one might say, hanthropologists.

   Stephen, who is a poet, theorizes that when historians seek England’s mentality in the early 20th century they will turn to Edgar Wallace and the “fourpenny bloods — the Sexton Blakes and the like.” While I would dispute that, there is something to another of his contentions: “Death is the preoccupation of great minds, a death its relaxation — when served up in stories of detection and mystery.”

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter 1991.

      The Inspector Wilkins series —

Buzzards Pick the Bones. Longmans, UK, 1932.
Inspector Wilkins Sees Red. Jenkins, UK, 1934.
Inspector Wilkins Reads the Proofs. Jenkins, UK, 1935.

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