March 2017


JON KATZ – Family Stalker. Kit Deleeuw #2, Doubleday, hardcover, 1994. Bantam, paperback, 1995.

   I didn’t expect to like this. I had it pegged as a suburban cozy from the title of his first novel, Death by Station Wagon, and the fact that the lead was a PI with an office in a mall, f’chrissake.

   Kit Deleeuw is a refugee from the Wall Street of the 80s, an innocent worker in a firm not so innocent, but nevertheless hounded out of the profession and now working as a private investigator in a New Jersey suburb. His wife works in New York as a social worker while working on her degree in psychology, and he does as many of the parenting and housely chores as she, if not more.

   He is hired by a lady lawyer in his town to investigate a woman that she says is deliberately trying to destroy her family. He doesn’t like divorce work, but that’s not what the woman wants; she just wants to find out why this person is doing what she’s doing. He takes the case, but has barely begun when the lawyer’s husband is murdered. and she seems to be the only suspect. The woman he is investigating has disappeared, and the facets of her character that come to light are puzzling and contradictory. Then there’s another murder.

   I was wrong; it’s not a cozy. It’s really sort of grim, even though Katz uses a lot of words describing suburban life, raising kids, and the characters of Kit and his wife. Oddly enough, I enjoyed reading it all. The things he had to say struck me as interesting and apt, ad while there’s no question that they slowed the story down, I didn’t think they did unduly. I liked his prose, and thought he handled the first person narration well.

   Deleeuw struck me as a reasonably believable character, and not at all typical of either the hardboiled private detective or the cozy sleuth. I found the other characters realistic enough with a few minor exceptions, and though the mystery itself was nothing exceptional, neither was it offensive

   All in all, a pleasant surprise. Maybe that’ll teach me not to pre-judge.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #11, January 1994.

      The “Suburban Detective” series —

1. Death by Station Wagon (1993)

2. The Family Stalker (1994)
3. The Last Housewife (1995)
4. The Fathers’ Club (1996)
5. Death Row (1998)

MURDER BY DEATH. Columbia Pictures, 1976. Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco (Milo Perrier), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood. Title drawings by Charles Addams. Screenplay: Neil Simon. Director: Robert Moore.

   It was a dark and stormy night. Five of the world’s greatest detectives have been summoned, and collectively they’re given a million dollar challenge: solve a murder about to happen, or face the fact that their host, Mr. Lionel Twain, is actually the world’s greatest criminologist.

   For about 20 minutes this is an absolutely devastating parody of Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Nick & Nora Charles, Miss Marple and M. Hercule Poirot, full of puns, one-liners and sight gags — about one a minute as a conservative estimate. Guinness as the blind butler, Bensonmum, is nothing but terrific.

   It’s tough to maintain a pace like this, however, as bits and pieces do not a story make, and the last hour simply runs out of witty things to say. The cinematic version of the traditional detective story is an awfully easy target to play around with, but in my opinion, Neil Simon, giving it all he had, wound up and missed.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.

HELEN McCLOY – Do Not Disturb. William Morrow, hardcover, 1943. Tower Books, hardcover reprint, 1945. Dell #261, paperback [mapback edition]; no date stated [1948].

   When Edith Talbot knocks on the door of the hotel room in which she hears someone frantically sobbing, she can’t imagine what kind of trouble she’s about to get into. The very next day she finds a dead man in her room, and she flees, thinking shes been framed for murder, and that the police are behind it.

   This may sound like an awfully weak premise upon which to base a book, but keep in mind that this was wartime, and everyone’s nerves were on edge. I’d never thought of Helen McCloy as a fine writer before, but after the detailed paces she puts poor Mrs. Talbot through, I’m a believer.

   The story’s dated and flawed by three huge coincidences, but if you’re in the right kind of mood for it, this crisp little detective thriller still has what it takes to make an impact today.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, with revisions.

LINDA BARNES – Steel Guitar. Carlotta Carlyle #4. Delacorte Press, hardcover, 1991. Dell, paperback; 1st printing, January 1993.

   In case you haven’t come across any of her cases before, Carlotta Carlyle is a tall red-headed female PI who drives a cab in her spare time (and to make a living) in the Boston area. Whether she ever met a gent named Spenser, I don’t know. I don’t really think so, but it’s fun to wonder whether or not they’d get along.

   A lot of Carlotta’s past comes to the forefront of this one, as a blues singer named Dee Willis who’s now on the verge of becoming a huge success comes back into her life. They met in the folksinger days of their youth. Dee had a voice and a dream. Carlotta decided to pursue other goals, especially when Dee went off with her ex-husband, Cal.

   It turns out, though, that Dee now needs Carlotta. She is being blackmailed for allegedly stealing the songs that made her famous, and she hires Carlotta to find the person behind it. When the bass player (female) in Dee’s band is found dead, thoughg, the stakes, Carlotta realizes, are suddenly a whole lot higher.

   The show business portion of the plot seems authentic, especially when it comes down to old jealousies and friendships. Not as interesting is the real nuts and bolts of the motive, which is always present when there’s big money to be had.

   Carlotta Carlyle’s career lasted for a total of twelve books. She wouldn’t have lasted as long if author Barnes hadn’t always had something to say, and the bittersweet ending added to this one gives it quite a poignancy that few PI novels ever come close to achieving.

      The Carlotta Carlyle series —

A Trouble of Fools (1987)

Snake Tattoo (1989)
Coyote (1990)
Steel Guitar (1991)
Snapshot (1993)

Hardware (1995)
Cold Case (1997)
Flashpoint (1999)

The Big Dig (2000)
Deep Pockets (2004)
Heart of the World (2006)
Lie Down with the Devil (2009)

This track is from the unedited 10″ LP version of Jazz at Oberlin. Recorded March 1953.


Dave Brubeck – piano
Paul Desmond – alto saxophone
Lloyd Davis – drums
Ron Crotty – bass


A KILLER WALKS. Grand National Pictures, British, 1952. Laurence Harvey, Laurence Naismith, Susan Shaw and no one else familiar to US viewers. Screenplay by Ronald Drake, from the play Gathering Storm by Gordon Glennon, based on the novel Envy My Simplicity by Reyner Barton. Directed by Ronald Drake.

   You probably never heard of this quota quickie, but if you come across it, you should give it a try. It offers all the usual flaws of a British-made-to-order cheapie: tinny sound, canned music and jaggy editing because they didn’t shoot enough film to cover things properly, but A Killer Walks has more redeeming qualities than any movie really needs.

   For one thing, it’s based on a play and a novel, which means (1) they had to pay someone for the rights, (2) the action is confined to a few simple sets, perfectly suited to economy measures, and (3) the characters and dialogue are handled rather neatly, and in this case by an able cast.

   Laurence Harvey stars as a man who has spent his life working on his grandmother’s farm, and resented every minute of it. Now I don’t know about you, but when I see him on the screen I find it hard to believe Laurence Harvey ever did an honest day’s work in his life, much less tilled the soil, but fortunately the makers of this thing keep him dressed in suit and tie, always just about to go out for a night on the town with his expensive girlfriend, so we don’t have to deal with the sight of him getting his hands dirty in gumboots & dungarees, which would have made the whole thing unbelievable.

   In fact, it quickly develops that Harvey doesn’t like farm labor any more than you’d think he would, and he’s about had it with having to take wages from his grandmother (Ethel Edwards) at a farm he stands to inherit whenever the old bat kicks off. He’s also losing patience with his younger brother (Trader Faulkner) who has some mental problems that seem to have got him into some vaguely-hinted trouble in the past.

   In due course the plot heads where we knew it would, with Larry murdering Gran and pinning it on his little brother, but Killer Walks gets there gracefully, gradually working up to the thing with evocative characterizations from Edwards and Faulkner. As for Harvey, there’s an excellent bit where he tells his brother that old people don’t really want to live anymore, skillfully written, and delivered with baleful relish delightful to behold.

   When the murder comes, it arrives with a bit of polish, probably the work of co-photographer Jack Asher, who defined the look of Hammer’s horror films a few years later with his stylish visuals. In this case he does it on the cheap, with a few odd angles and superimpositions that lend a nightmare feel to the homicide we knew was coming all along.

   The fun in these things, however, is always in watching things unravel; I mentioned somewhere before that we read detective stories to see things come together and crime films to see things fall apart, and in this case they do so in one brilliant scene between the two Laurences (Naismith & Harvey) perfectly written and performed. Suffice it to say that “a killer walks” is the title, not the coda, and things wrap up very neatly indeed.


LORD DUNSANY “The Strange Drug of Dr. Caber.” Included in The Fourth Book of Jorkens (Jarrolds, UK, hardcover, 1947; Arkham House, US, hardcover, 1948). Reprinted many times including Alfred Hitchcock’s Sinister Spies [edited by Robert Arthur], Random House, hardcover, 1966.)

   There is a long tradition of tall tales being told being told by a single narrator in a gentleman’s club or bar. These include, among others, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s Tales from Gavagan’s Bar, Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart and Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers and Union Club mysteries.

   The story in this particular entry in the category is but one of over 150 short stories written by Irish author Lord Dunsany, beginning in 1925, in which the leading character is a chap called Jorkens. “The Strange Drug of Dr. Caber.” is a (very) short fictional work is as much a puzzle as it is a crime or spy story.

   The tale begins in the Billiards Club where the unnamed narrator and others become involved in a debate as to whether pulling off a murder is easy or difficult. There is about to be an emerging consensus “that murder cannot successfully be committed,” when Jorkens. one of those present, begins to relate the story of one Dr. Caber.

   It is Dr. Caber’s tale that is thus presented for the remainder of the story. And it’s a clever one, perhaps more of a vignette than a short story, but nevertheless one I found to be a compelling read. In 1938, a group of likely British secret agents approached Dr. Caber in order to obtain his services for a most delicate project: kill “Norman Smith,” the pseudonym for a German spy in England.

   Caber reluctantly takes on the project and assures the men that he is going to be able to have “Smith” killed. But he will not mess with the enemy agent’s vicious huge Alsatian dog and he won’t utilize poison. He will merely have Smith pricked with a syringe and lead the man to believe he has been poisoned. As it turns out, Smith ends up dead soon enough.

   How Dr. Caber pulls this off and the role the Alsatian plays in the affair is the key to unlocking the puzzle.

From the double CD set At the Half Note Cafe, recorded in 1960.

Donald Byrd – trumpet,
Pepper Adams – baritone saxophone
Duke Pearson – piano
Laymon Jackson – bass
Lex Humphries – drums

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

JOE HALDEMAN – The Forever War. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1970. Ballantine/Del Rey, paperback, 1976. Avon, paperback, 1991 (includes material excluded from earlier editions). AvoNova, paperback, 1997 (author’s definitive edition). Sections were originally published in Analog SF as four shorter works; “Hero”, “We Are Very Happy Here”, “This Best of All Possible Worlds”, and “End Game.” “You Can Never Go Back” was published in Amazing Stories and eventually became part of the paperback version of the novel.

   William Mandella, the child of hippie parents, gets caught up in events way beyond his control. Just before a battle he pauses to reflect:

   Then what the hell are you, we, am I answered the other side [of my mind]. A peace-loving vacuum-welding specialist cum physics teacher snatched up by the Elite Conscription Act and reprogrammed to be a killing machine. You, I have killed and liked it.

   Like all draftees, William didn’t ask for this, but now that he’s in it he knows it’s kill or be killed. Such is the way with all wars. High-flown rhetoric about “why we fight” sells newspapers, but when you get right down to it, you fight for your life and your buddies’ lives—and not necessarily in that order.

   From all reports, an alien race known as the Taurans (what they call themselves is anybody’s guess) have attacked an Earth transport without provocation and a state of war now exists. So it should be a simple matter to track the Taurans to where they live and reduce them to less than nothing with tachyon bombs, right? Not quite. It was recognized centuries ago that infantry is the queen of battle, meaning that no matter how many ships and planes and bombs you throw at them, sooner or later somebody has to occupy and hold the enemy’s terrain.

   Enter William Mandella, reluctant hero. The Forever War chronicles Mandella’s wartime experiences from raw recruit to company commander, his battles (which are never glorious), his love for Marygay (which is marked with pain and keen loss), his injuries (which include mutilation), and his reactions to the changes wrought by time on the culture he left behind—for, while he and Marygay struggle to survive, back on distant Earth, things are getting stranger . . . and stranger . . . and stranger . . . .

   The best writers—SF authors among them—are able to transport the reader to a time and place and culture that either once existed or exists only in their imagination. Haldeman succeeds by limiting us to Mandella’s perception of events; William’s wry and laconic narration convinces us of the plausibility of the advanced technology he dazzles us with even as we realize with our logical faculties how unlikely all of this is.

   There’s high-tech aplenty in The Forever War: tachyon drives allowing high-speed movement through normal space at velocities nearing the speed of light; interstellar travel through “collapsars” (collapsed stars, which have since been commonly termed “black holes,” permitting instantaneous passage through what are now called “wormholes” connecting to other collapsars); battlesuits that recycle everything, making it possible for troopers to stay in them for weeks (not really a pleasant prospect, just ask Mandella); stasis fields that dampen electronic systems, thus necessitating fighting with bows and arrows and swords (!); and acceleration pods that make it possible for the frail human body to withstand upwards of twenty-five gees — of course, you’re totally incapacitated and in a near-coma, but at least you won’t wind up looking like a bowl of salsa that’s been slammed into a wall. And let’s not forget Heaven, which William and Marygay get to without dying.

   Since the tachyon drive permits near-light-speed travel, Haldeman makes the most of Einstein’s relativity theory, hanging two important plot points on it—which we won’t reveal. But think about this: As you may recall from that physics class you might also have slept through, Saint Albert tells us that the faster you go, the slower time passes for you, while in the outside universe time passes at its normal rate.

   The spaceships in The Forever War travel from collapsar to collapsar at relativistic speeds, taking weeks, months, or even years in transit; but once they enter the collapsar they exit at the other end in the smallest fraction of a second—in one instance jumping 140,000 light-years in the blink of an eye. This implies that the folks on the ship seem to age more slowly than the people back on Earth—and that means kids like William Mandella grow older just a few years at a time while centuries are passing back home. Imagine Christopher Columbus returning to Spain this afternoon and you’ll get an inkling of what Haldeman is up to.

   The Forever War was awarded a Nebula (voted by writers and editors) and a Hugo (voted by fans) back in 1976. We believe it was as much a zeitgeist vote — most Americans were fed up with the conflict in Vietnam, a kind of “forever war” that never seemed to end — as an acknowledgement of the quality of the writing, which is nevertheless quite high for the usual “hard science fiction” novel.

   The Forever War invites comparison with Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Many believe Haldeman was writing a rebuttal to Heinlein’s book, but Haldeman is reputed to have denied it; so the jury’s still out on that.

   Joe Haldeman, a Vietnam War draftee and Purple Heart recipient, is still producing fiction.

SHELLEY SINGER – Suicide King. Jake Samson & Rosie Vicente #5. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1988. Worldwide Library, paperback; 1st printing, January 1990.

   Jake Samson is a non-licensed PI who lives in Oakland CA, His partner, Rosie Vicente, is a carpenter and is a tenant in the guest half of his house. They solved five cases together for St. Martin’s in the 80s, then one last one in 1999 for a small independent press. (I didn’t know about that one until now.)

   Suicide King has to do with the purported suicide of a would-be candidate for governor of California. I say would-be because he was looking to gain the nomination from the Vivo party, an offshoot of the Greens, and what chance does a third party have, even in California?

   But although the police are satisfied, most of his friends are not, and so Jake is hired. Shelley Smith is a good writer with a nice way with words, but keeping me interested in third party politics is a tough task for any author to accomplish. I found the book more enjoyable when Jake and Rosie are interviewing people; when it came down to talking about motive, it was politics all the way, and I found myself lagging far behind.

       The Jake Samson / Rosie Vicente series —

Samson’s Deal (1983)
Free Draw (1984)
Full House (1986)
Spit in the Ocean (1987)
Suicide King (1988)
Royal Flush (1999) .

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