November 2016



JANE HADDAM – Murder Superior. Gregor Demarkian #8. Bantam, paperback original, 1993.

   I feel sort of like I shouldn’t like this series, but however unaccountably, I do. Gregor Demarkian, the retired head of the FBI’s serial killer unit, now known due to his success in several cases he has been drawn into and much to his dismay as the “Armenian Hercule Poirot,” is a character I enjoy.

   A group of nuns are having a convention in Philadelphia, among them a number whom Demarkian had met in a previous case. A reception and buffet dinner includes among its invitees not only Demarkian and several members of Philadelphia’s Main Line, but a controversial local radio show host and the head of a local construction firm who is donating a good deal of labor to one of the nuns’ construction projects.

   There are a lot of animosities floating around amid both the nuns and the secular groups, but everyone is surprised when one of the best-liked nuns drops dead at the banquet, poisoned. The situation is complicated by one of the most over-done incompetent cops I’ve come across.

   This is a typical Demarkian tale, with a longish introduction that sets the stage before bringing Demarkian to the fore to puzzle things out when the crime occurs. There have been those who called these stories boringly slow, but I prefer to think of them as leisurely paced. We’d all agree that they aren’t really exciting. They’re cozies, but they are well done, and I like the characters. Haddam is a competent writer, though not at all flashy. What can I say? I like ’em.

   It’s interesting that after a couple of hardcovers in what was a paperback original series, we’re back to a paperback original. I don’t believe these could carry a hardcover price.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #7, May 1993.

Bibliographic Note:   There are now 29 books in the Gregor Demarkian series, certainly one of the longer lasting ones of recent years. The most recent one, Fighting Chance, appeared in 2014.

GEORGE BAXT – A Parade of Cockeyed Creatures, or Did Someone Murder Our Wandering Boy? Random House, hardcover, 1967. International Polygonics, paperback; 1st printing, December 1986.

   This is the first of three appearances of the crime-solving team of New York City cop Max Van Larsen and Jewish high school teacher Sylvia Plotkin, not that the latter has much to do in this one, their having just met and all, but she in love with him at first sight, and by book’s end she is promising him a home-cooked meal, complete with chicken soup.

   He accepts, gladly. He is attracted too. There’s only one problem. He hates chicken soup.

   But, as I say, they have two more mysteries to solve together: “I!” Said the Demon (Random House, 1969) and Satan Is a Woman (IPL, 1987), so the chemistry they have together is obviously more than of the minor league variety.

   Max works for the Missing Persons Bureau, and Parade opens with a married couple coming in to have the police look for their son, who has been missing for five days. Why have they waited five days, Max asks. They equivocate. It is obvious that there are huge differences between the couple and their son, no to mention between husband and wife as well.

   Max is having his own problems. His wife and son have just died in a fiery automobile accident, and he wonders why he can’t find it within himself to mourn them. It’s that kind of book, brightly and wickedly humorous on the surface, but underneath, full of sorrow, and all the while mocking the foibles of the world, and the people in it — the “cockeyed creatures” of the title, most of them buoyantly over the top. Manhattan in the late 60s — the time of drugs, free love, and the peace movement — was the place to find characters such as the ones you will find in this book, and there are dozens of them.

   Another contradiction: the book is compulsively readable, but after a while the characters prove to be shallow and dull, and the mystery is weak. I probably won’t read another.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

CANADIAN PACIFIC. 20th Century Fox, 1949. Randolph Scott, Jane Wyatt, J. Carrol Naish, Victor Jory, Nancy Olson. Director Edward L. Marin.

   Directed by the prolific Edwin L. Marin, Canadian Pacific opens in semi-documentary form with the recounting of the political struggles involved in constructing the Canadian Pacific Railway. Then the movie quickly shifts into a rather mediocre frontier melodrama before settling into its natural rhythm. It ends up a slightly above average and surprisingly enjoyable, late 1940s shoot ’em up.

   It goes without saying that absent Randolph Scott’s formidable screen presence, this rather staid Western wouldn’t have had much of a shelf life. But with Scott’s trademark grit and wit, combined with on screen character’s repartee with a sidekick portrayed by J. Carrol Naish, the film eventually grows upon the viewer. Dimitri Tiomkin’s rousing epic-like score likewise lends itself well to the film, providing it with momentum during some altogether formulaic scenes.

   The plot. Scott portrays Tom Andrews, a surveyor who also doubles as a security guard for the railroad. After discovering a pass that would allow the railroad to continue all the way to the Pacific, Andrews quits the railroad life and returns to Calgary to visit his fiancée, the lovely Cecile Gautier (Nancy Olson). It’s there that he learns to what depths trading post owner Dirk Rourke (Victor Jory) is willing to sink in order to prevent the construction of the railroad through Alberta. Forced to choose between Cecile and the railroad, Andrews opts for the latter and heads back to help his former employer fend off Rourke and his Indian allies.

   Aiding him in his efforts is Dynamite Dawson (Naish), a sidekick that could have just as easily been portrayed by Gabby Hayes. Andrews also has female help. After Andrews is injured in a dynamite explosion, Dr. Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt) ends up tending to him. A physician who soon becomes romantically involved with her recovering patient, Cabot also has strident pacifist views and is charming enough to temporarily convince Andrews not to wear his gun belt.

   But sometimes, good guys need a gun. Tom Andrews is no exception. So once again, Andrews is forced to choose between a woman and his loyalty to the railroad. Soon enough, Cecile is back by his side and they’re fighting Rourke and marauding Indian bucks. As melodrama gives way to action, Canadian Pacific revs up for a bit before winding down into a happy Hollywood bury-the-hatchet ending.

PETER CORRIS – Matrimonial Causes. Dell, 1st US printing, August 1994. First published in Australia by Bantam, paperback, 1993.

   In order of publication, this is the 13th of what is now a series of 41 novels and short story collections about a Sydney-based private eye named Cliff Hardy. It makes sense, in a way, that it was the first Hardy book to appear in the US, since — virtue of a story within a story — it is the tale of Hardy’s first case, and how he barely survived it.

   Why it doesn’t make sense that Dell would go with this one first is that the story just isn’t all that interesting, involving as it does how the high and mighty in Australia can get around the legal rules defining who can get divorces there without causing a lot of notoriety. And notoriety is exactly what these same high and mighty do not want, not when possible knighthoods lie in the balance.

   Hardy seems like your typical PI in most other ways, though: fighting through a marriage of his own on the brink of a breakup, a cheap mostly unfurnished office in a iffy part of town, and a singular lack of clients. He also, in this case, has not yet made the contacts he should have, either in the underworld or the police force. Especially the police force, a key element in Matrimonial Causes, and Hardy, telling the story later, says it’s a lesson he never forgot.

   To sum up, then. Cliff Hardy himself seems like an interesting character, a little stereotyped, perhaps, but solid enough for another go-round. The story he narrates this time, though, is far too bland for my liking.

Music by a short-lived group from the New York City area in the brassy Blood Sweat & Tears jazz-rock vein. Their self-titled first album from 1970 was also their last. Crank up the volume on this one.

William F. Deeck

M. E. CHABER – As Old As Cain. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1954. Paperback Library, paperback, 1971. Also reprinted as Take One for Murder: Bestseller #202, digest-sized paperback, 1957.

   After a fairly preposterous beginning — the FBI insists that Milo March fly from Denver to New York immediately after his wedding for a reason totally nonsensical — this novel settles down to not a first-class but certainly a high second-class level.

   An insurance investigator, March, his marriage unconsummated, is sent to Athens, Ohio, to check out security arrangements for the props to a movie not in much progress, West to the Hocking. It is to be a historical film, dealing primarily with the life of Hiram Hanna, who settled in the Ohio Territory in 1797. The props, many quite valuable monetarily and historically, were in the hands of Hanna’s descendants until they lent them to a museum the motion picture company set up.

   In Athens are the female star, not much, the male star, even less, the director, who would like to make a movie without people, the researcher and the screen writer. Only the latter is a suspect among the Hollywood contingent when a man guarding the antiques is killed with a historical poker and the murderer makes off with some of the more valuable items and one of little value.

   Imitating a private eye when people insist on it and cracking wise — some of them quite good — March beds down with the female star in a most ungentlemanly fashion and meanwhile pines for his recent bride. Oh yes, he also investigates the murder and the theft, and the reader discovers why his talents are in great demand among insurance companies.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter 1991/2, “Murder on Screen.”

NGAIO MARSH – Night at the Vulcan. Little Brown, US, hardcover, 1951. First published in the UK as Opening Night (Collins, 1951). Reprinted many times in both hardcover and paperback.

   It wasn’t until I’d finished this book and had done some research on it that I discovered that it was the sequel to the short story “I Can Find My Way Out” (EQMM, August 1946) in which a murder was committed in the same theater in a very similar fashion, with several of the same characters investigating, including Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. One difference, however, is that in the earlier story the theater is called the Jupiter. In the novel, it is the Vulcan, as the American title has it, the building having been modernized in the meantime.

   Marsh’s love for the theater comes through loud and clear in this book. (Nor of course is it the only one of her detective stories to take place with a theatrical setting.) Alleyn does not even make an appearance until page 147 of the paperback edition I read. Before that there is a long and wholly engrossing prelude to the tale as we follow the plight of a young girl and would-be actress from New Zealand looking for a job in London with barely a shilling to her name.

   It’s a rag to riches story for her, beginning with being chosen by chance to be a dresser for the female star of a new play about to open, then to understudy to a female player who’s in the role only by her uncle’s insistence, and finally to playing the role herself on opening night. Overwhelming in the sudden change in fortune for her, yes, but the ride is also very exhilarating.

   It’s too bad, then that she doesn’t get to enjoy it. Dead (suicide?) is the uncle, a tosspot no longer able to hold his own, and cuckolded husband of the female star Martyn Tarne was hired to be dresser for. The backstage drama that precedes this very momentous opening night, thus upstaged by the murder, is actually the stronger portion of the novel. The killer — it is not suicide — is obvious, but the motive is not, nor is it (regrettably) one that the reader has a way of knowing until Alleyn explains all at the end

   Net result: quite enjoyable, but with a small caveat regarding the detective end of things.


SIMON RAVEN – The Sabre Squadron. Anthony Blond, UK, hardcover, 1966. Harper & Row, US, 1967. Reprinted several times, including Panther, UK, paperback, 1967; Beaufort, US, hardcover, 1987.

   It was said of Simon Raven “he had the mind of a cad but the pen of an angel,” a statement that explains why much of his work has the wicked appeal of really juicy gossip; nasty, bawdy, cruel, but impossible not to listen to. If you can imagine Christopher Hitchens rudely crossed with Kingsley Amis and Gore Vidal you at least approach Raven’s unique voice.

   In the period following the Second World War he produced a series of ten novels known as the Alms for Oblivion sequence that have been compared to Anthony Powell, C.P. Snow, and Evelyn Waugh, and yet have their own wicked glories. Many of these books and his other works touch on elements of crime, suspense, intrigue, and murder, and The Sabre Squadron, from the Alms sequence is a glimpse at the icy hell beneath the glamour of the world of James Bond:

   The Sabre Squadron follows the fate of Daniel Mond, a mathematician in post-war England sent to Gottingen in Germany in 1952 to work on the Dortmund papers, the work of a brilliant mathematician whose work was ignored by the Nazis in favor of their atomic and rocket research, but which now has been found to have some value. “…it’s hard to see why he behaved as he did (Daniel writes of a colleague’s reaction to learning Daniel will be working on the Dortmund Papers); he went on at me as if I were practicing Black Magic or hunting for the Philosopher’s Stone.”

   From the beginning Mond finds that there is more to Dortmund’s work than he might suppose:

    … for weeks now there had been something —he could not quite say what — something sly, something treacherous about the behavior of the symbols and series to which he would shortly return; that there was something which included his loneliness and the threat posed by his symbols and yet transcended these, something which, as he sat warm and well fed on the sunny terrace above Gottingen, seemed suddenly to settle about him like air from a tomb.

   Mond, a British Jew, has been a lonely scholarly type for most of his life, but shortly he will find himself adopted by the officers of the 49th, Earl Hamilton’s Light Dragoons with whom he is barracked, among them the charming Major Fielding Grey, the hero of the first novel in the Alms sequence, and recurring character in all ten books and the late First Born of Egypt series, a bi-sexual hedonist who frequently leaves chaos and charm in his wake.

   But Mond finds nothing but good will and amusement among the Dragoons, the first real fellowship and feeling of belonging in his life. And he finds he needs it now more than ever because there is something dangerous about the work Dortmund has done; sinister and deadly secrets:

    “Nature’s stability could be infiltrated, it’s basic and binding nature corrupted. There would not be bigger and better explosions … there would be dissolution.”

   Eventually Mond enlists his new friends to smuggle him out of Germany to escape the implications of his work, a nightmarish farce that nearly ends in his death. Mond is about to discover some unhappy truths and be left with only one choice if he is to be true to his new friendships, his honor, and the God he doesn’t believe in.

   At his best, Raven has the ability to be wonderfully vulgar without ever descending to the mere common, equally at home in a boardroom or a brothel, and equally observant of the social mores of both, observing with a scalpel like eye in as chilly a novel of international intrigue as you will ever read.

   Raven wrote at least one mystery (The Feathers of Death), a spy novel (Brother Cain), and several horror novels (Doctor Scarlett or Incense for the Damned, and September Castle). His work is wicked and amusing, shocking, and unsparing of anyone. In his later years he had another career as a memoirist and travel writer revealing how much of his Fielding Grey was biographical — at least in his nature. Here he reveals a glimpse of hell that you will never forget. He is a most remarkable writer, for the razor wrapped in velvet nature of his prose, and the revelations in his work of himself and his society..

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