September 2018


HARRY STEPHEN KEELER – The Riddle of the Yellow Zuri. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1930.

   Keeler is almost as retrograde as Edgar Wallace, say, but somehow much more enjoyable. His books are the Yard Sale of Mystery Plots, with everything and the kitchen sink tossed out in chaotic profusion. This one is wilder than most — even most Keeler — hanging on coincidences too improbable for normal readers to imagine, let along believe.

   In fact, the Jacket Blurb reads in part: “The grand climax is an absolute surprise, and no reader will be able to say, ‘I knew it from the beginning.'” You can say that again. I read the ending, and I still don’t expect it!

   As for Style, Keeler’s is all his own, a prose pattern literally so bad it’s good. I was no further than the second paragraph before I ran upon the following sentence:

   Just why the mind of Clifford Clark, mining engineer and agent for the newly created United States Government Department bearing the ponderous name of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of Fraudulent Mining Stocks, should revert, the fine mornings of all mornings, to the little smoke-grey structures of East India Dock Road, was not clear to him; but it may have been a peculiar prescience due to the fact that he was shortly to receive a visitor whose business, strange and unexplainable, was to bring back nothing else than the vivid pictures of swarthy, beturbaned Indian sailors swaggering up Amoy Place and Limehouse Crescent itself as their ships moored to the East India Docks of England’s great city across the seas.

   As the sentence goes, so goes the book. Simplistic, awkward, exotic, implausible, but suffused with a child-like innocence that I find addictive … in small doses.

   The plot, if I divine correctly, encompasses two or three Stock swindles, a death-trap Safe, coded messages, a bizarre Will complete with missing heir, sacred Chinese rings, superstitious Italians, Black Comedians, Circus Folk, and the Yellow Zuri, a not-very-rare India Snake for which a fabulous reward is offered.

   Whew! Keeler should’ve won a Pulitzer just for stringing it all together!

RICOCHET. HBO/Cinema Plus, 1991. Denzel Washington, John Lithgow, Ice T, Kevin Pollak, Lindsay Wagner. Director: Russell Mulcahy.

   This movie was made, I believe, before Denzel Washington became a well-known box office draw, and the movie did not do very well financially. (For what it’s worth, it came out a few months before Cape Fear, which had a very similar story line.)

   Washington plays Nick Styles, who at the beginning of the movie is a night school law student moonlighting as a beat patrolman. He’s propelled to fame overnight when his capture of a sadistic killer named Earl Talbot Blake (John Lithgow) is caught on video tape by a happenstance onlooker. Seven years later he is happily married, has two children, and careerwise is an Assistant District Attorney. More than that, he is considered by many to be a political star in the making.

   Blake, in the meantime, is seething his life away in prison, plotting his revenge and cracking up visually, minute by minute. Once escaped but assumed to be dead, his goal is not to to kill Styles — too easy! — but to tear his life apart and utterly humiliate him. Using the power of the media, he nearly succeeds, brutally killing Styles’ friends, and in particular using a videotape showing Styles having sex with a prostitute, his mind addled with drugs, and adding faked dialogue.

   When Styles realizes how greatly his family is in danger, enough is enough, the lid really comes off. The final fiery confrontation between the two enemies is shown on live TV, of course, making this film an early example of how the media is increasingly making successes of some people’s lives and breaking others. Or in Styles’ case, first his meteoric rise to fame, then his downfall, before final redemption. Three acts, all caught on tape and live TV as well as newspaper headlines.

   Outwardly, other than that, what this is is an above average action thriller, made better than it really is by a top notch cast, all of whom know exactly what they’re doing. (It was good to see Lindsay Wagner again as Styles’ boss, and the always recognizable John Amos as his father.)

THE DEVIL-DOLL. MGM, 1936. Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton. Based on the novel Burn Witch Burn by Abraham Merritt. Director: Tod Browning.

   After serving 17 years in a French prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a former banker escapes. With him is a scientist who has a formula for shrinking everything, including living creatures, to a sixth of their size.

   There is a small problem, however. Brain matter in humans is reduced as well, and anyone shrunken in size by the formula becomes a slave to the mental powers of those using it. This, of course, is a fine way to extract revenge upon those who have done you wrong.

   The special effects are spectacular, but in truth all they can do is make this old-fashioned melodrama just barely digestible.

— Reprinted and slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


DAVID DANIEL – The Heaven Stone. Alex Rasmssen #1. St Martin’s, hardcover, 1994. No paperback edition.

   This is Daniel’s first novel, and it won the PWA/St. Martin’s Best first PI Novel Award for 1993. It’s blurbed by Jerry Healy and Les Roberts, and Les, at least, honestly liked it.

   Alex Rasmussen is a PI in Lowell, Massachusetts, an ex-cop who left the force under a cloud. He’s hired by a social worker to look into the murder of one of her clients, a Cambodian the police think was involved with the drug trade. She’s convinced he wasn’t, and wants Rasmussen to prove her right.

   He doubts he can help her, but as an old friend on the force sent her to him, he agrees to see what he can find out. In the end, it’s more than he wants to know.

   I can see how this won the St. Martin’s contest. It’s better than most first novels, as good as a lot of PI fiction being written these days, and better than some. Daniels writes smooth prose and has an engaging lead, a certified old-style PI — pure of heart, empty of wallet, full of wisecracks. What’s not to like?

   Well, the plot wasn’t anything special, and there was some foolishness with the police that an editor should have caught, if there was any such thing as an editor any more … but I guess the main problem was that it’s the same old recipe, and the ingredients weren’t special enough to make the end product anything really out of the ordinary.

   If Healy or Roberts had written it, I imagine I’d say “decent, but he can do better.” Maybe Daniel can, too.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #17, January 1995.

      The Alex Rasmussen series —

1. The Heaven Stone. October 1994.
2. The Skelly Man. September 1995.
3. Goofy Foot. February 2004.
4. The Marble Kite. April 2005.

A. A. FAIR – You Can Die Laughing. Donald Lam & Bertha Cool #16. William Morrow, hardcover, 1957. Pocket, paperback; April 1961; reprinted several times.

   I was attracted to read this in part by the cover, which puzzled me. The book was first published in 1957, but the cover of this the 5th Pocket reprinting makes it appear that it takes place in the 1920s. It’s eye catching, all right, but otherwise I have no idea why they thought it was appropriate to use.

   It is also labeled as #2, but that has to do with Pocket’s particular publishing sequence for the series at the time. It had nothing to do with the actual chronological order. (And as an aside in that regard, other than maybe the first two or three, in which the characters of PI’s Donald Lam and Bertha Cool were first fleshed out, the books can be read in any order in which you happen to pick them up.)

   Unfortunately I have little to say that’s positive about the book itself. A would-be client backs out of the case he hires the Cool & Lam agency for, and Donald Lam takes enough offense to continue working on it. He doesn’t tell Bertha, since it’s on the partnership’s dime, not his own, and she is notoriously tight with even pennies.

   There is a lot of rigmarole on Gardner’s part about an isolated property in the middle of nowhere and who it belongs to after the original owner dies. Of some curiosity is a nosy neighbor’s concern that the wife of a couple living next door to her has been murdered, only to have her show up alive and well after Donald brings the police into it, but …

   … that’s it. There’s a lot of busy work on Gardner’s work to make the tale interesting, but the twist or two in it that I was expecting never materialized. You don’t read Gardner for his fleshed-out characters, for there seldom are any. You read Gardner for his intricate, complicated plots. I was disappointed with this one.

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

(Give Me That) OLD-TIME DETECTION. Issue #48. Summer 2018. Editor: Arthur Vidro. 36 pages. Published three times a year: Spring, Summer, and Autumn. Sample copy: $6.00 in the U.S.; $10.00 anywhere else.

   The first item in this issue of OLD-TIME DETECTION is J. Randolph Cox’s thorough account of the life and literary times of Arthur B. Reeve, the creator of a sleuth whose renown easily rivaled that of Sherlock Holmes. “The twenty-six books about scientific detective Craig Kennedy,” Cox tells us, “were once among the most popular detective stories by an American writer, with sales of two million copies in the United States alone.” Unlike the Sage of Baker Street, however, Kennedy’s fame proved ephemeral: “The very reason for Reeve’s popularity in the years before World War I, his topicality, dates the stories and makes him a largely forgotten author.”

   When Michael Dirda, in “Going Rogue,” waxes nostalgic about master-thief John Robie, the cat burglar in Hitchcock’s movie TO CATCH A THIEF, it leads him into a discussion of those other successful gentleman thieves who could be regarded as Robie’s “ancestors”: Grant Allen’s Colonel Clay (named Clay “because he appears to possess an india-rubber face, and he can mould it like clay in the hands of the potter”), Guy Boothby’s Simon Carne (whom “no one ever suspects”), E. W. Hornung’s A. J. Raffles (“less a social leveler than a disappointingly unimaginative opportunist”), and Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin (executor of “carefully planned capers”). In Dirda’s view, these rogues represent “a better time when great criminals could be rapscallions rather than mass murderers.”

   Charles Shibuk’s 1970 piece lauds “the continuing and meritorious situation of paperback reprinting of material that is worthy of your attention” (remember, this was long before the Internet appeared) and narrows in on such major and minor masterpieces as TRENT’S LAST CASE (“an epochal novel”), THE RASP (“a good example of [Philip] MacDonald’s variable talent”), THE GREEK COFFIN MYSTERY (“I’ve always thought that 1932 was a momentous year”), A TASTE FOR HONEY (“completely off-trail and unpredictable”), LAURA (“a dazzling masterpiece”), A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED (“one of her [Miss Jane Marple’s] better investigations”), DEATH AND THE JOYFUL WOMAN (“a completely individual piece of work”), DEAD WATER (“a splendid example of [Ngaio] Marsh’s skills in writing”), NERVE (“up to his [Dick Francis’s] usual rigorous standard”), and finally NERO WOLFE OF WEST THIRTY-FIFTH STREET (“a real treat for Nero Wolfe—Archie Goodwin fans”).

   This issue’s fiction selection should be practically unknown to most readers, “The Faulty Stroke” (1953) by Freeman Wills Crofts, a short short story first published in a newspaper and recently “unearthed by Tony Medawar.”

   Following that is an article version of a speech by that selfsame Tony Medawar, “The ABC of A.B.C.,” a scholarly (but not boring) treatment of the careers of not only Anthony Berkeley but also Berkeley’s series sleuth Roger Sheringham (“there is much of Philip Trent about him”), as well as his later “psychological detective stories” published under the “Francis Iles” byline. Medawar’s reading of Berkeley shows how he was determined to “challenge some of the generally accepted tropes of the detective story”: “While other luminaries wrought their magic consistently — Agatha Christie in making the most likely suspect the least likely suspect, and John Dickson Carr in making the impossible possible — Tony Cox delighted in finding different ways to structure the crime story.”

   Jon L. Breen’s farewell “Murder in Print” review column from 1983 is reproduced, emphasizing how much the mystery scene had (and had not) changed over the past decade (“The classical school, allegedly on its last legs for years, has weathered the storm and continues to be strong”).

   In the “Christie Corner,” the world’s foremost living expert on Agatha Christie’s works, Dr. John Curran, reacts to a recent BBC-TV “adaptation” of ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, blowing it out of the water (“This appalling and illogical travesty would not have been found in Agatha Christie’s wastepaper basket”); the threat of yet another version of THE ABC MURDERS (“already the signs are ominous”); a stage version of THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE (more “ominous talk of ‘Miss Marple for a new generation'”); the recent resurfacing of one of Agatha’s earliest stories, “The Wife of Kenite” (“the closing scene will stay with you for a long time”); and Christie Mystery Day, organized by Dr. Curran to make up for the abbreviated Agatha Christie birthday festivities.

   Finally, the Mini-Reviews section includes overviews of Woolrich’s FRIGHT by Trudi Harrov, Hoch’s ALL BUT IMPOSSIBLE by Arthur Vidro, Stern’s BEHIND A MASK—THE UNKNOWN THRILLERS OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT by Amnon Kabatchnik, Kemelman’s ONE FINE DAY THE RABBI BOUGHT A CROSS by Arthur Vidro, and Boucher’s THE CASE OF THE SOLID KEY by Ruth Ordivar.

   Toss in Charles Shibuk’s “101 of the Best Mystery Novels of All Time: A Preliminary List” and the readers’ perceptive comments and you have another fine issue of OLD-TIME DETECTION.

   *** For a subscription to OLD-TIME DETECTION, contact the editor at: Arthur Vidro, Old-Time Detection, 2 Ellery Street, Claremont, New Hampshire 03743 or

FRANK CASTLE – Murder in Red. Gold Medal #709, paperback original; 1st printing, October 1957.

   “Red” in the sense of Communist infiltration and intrigue, and unexpectedly so, since the blurb on the front cover doesn’t even hint at it — “They gave him only one choice: his girl’s life in exchange for his” — unless you can read something into that that I don’t see.

   It opens with an agent from behind the Iron Curtain — East Berlin, to be precise — making arrangements to cross the border from Mexico into New Mexico. What his mission is, he does not know. That he will learn only when the time comes. What he also was not told before hand is that a female companion will be assigned to him, an American, we learn right along with him, with a grudge against her country.

   Their journey is filled with the inevitable snags and interruptions that occur in books such as this. The stakes are high — something to do with a new project the Americans are working on, possibly involving ICBMs and/or other gadgetry. It’s still not a very exciting story, and truth be told, it’s a very minor one.

   The only thing that will keep most readers going, I think, is that every so often, Curt Weber’s memory starts to play tricks on him — there are things he should remember, he realizes, but can’t. I knew what that meant right away, and you probably already know as well.

Bibliographic Notes:  Frank Castle wrote five other mysteries for Gold Medal between 1954 and 1957. He also wrote a novelization of the Hawaiian Eye TV series for Dell in 1962. He also did a number of westerns for Gold Medal. How many I do not know, but it’s quite possible he wrote more of those than he did mysteries.


SHED NO TEARS. Eagle-Lion, 1948. Wallace Ford, June Vincent, Mark Roberts, Dick Hogan, Elena Verdugo, Johnstone White. Screenplay by Brown Holmes and Virginia Cook, based on the novel by Don Martin. Directed by Jean Yarbrough.

   I gotta find out more about this Don Martin. I first encountered his work as one of the writers of a thoughtful B-Western Arrow in the Dust, and now it seems he was the author of the source novel for this superior B-Noir. But just try Googling “Don Martin” and see if you get any further than I did.

   Tears opens fast, with Wallace Ford faking his own death in a hotel fire, conniving with his young and sexy wife (June Vincent) to disappear until she collects the insurance money,then boarding a bus to DC — whereupon she meets with her boyfriend and starts making plans to skip to Mexico, all this in about ten minutes of a seventy-minute movie.

   The next hour isn’t quite as fast, but it takes some agreeable twists and turns as Wally chomps at the bit waiting to hear from his faithless wife, while his son (Dick Hogan, who would go on to star in the first few seconds of Hitchcock’s Rope later that same year) gets the idea Dad was murdered, and his girlfriend puts him in touch with a Private Eye.

   And it’s here where Shed No Tears gets truly memorable. Johnstone White’s portrayal of PI Huntington Stewart is one of those B-Movie moments when a capable actor finds himself in a great part: venal, effeminate, treacherous and smooth, Stewart is one of the finest characterizations in all of noir, and his machinations as he tries to play both ends for profit make the whole thing unforgettable.

   Mr. White never got a part that good again, and June Vincent, so promising in Black Angel (1946) spent the rest of her career in B-movies and Television. Damn shame. Tears never completely transcends its B-movie roots — Jean Yarbrough’s flat-footed direction and Eagle-Lion’s penurious purse guarantee that — but it has that spark of originality that makes it worth seeing.

MICHAEL AVALLONE – Mannix. Mannix #1. Popular Library, paperback original; 1968.

   From what I have read on the Internet, it was too early for Avallone to have seen any episodes of the TV show Mannix when he wrote this book. It’s an original novel, not based on any of the episodes that aired, but definitely based on the first season’s characters and premise.

   To wit: As an investigator for Intertect Limited, Mannix is the odd man out. Intertect is all about computers, punch cards and efficiency, Mannix is strictly a non-conformist in that regard. He works on instinct and knowing people, and his is the most cluttered desk in the Intertect office.

   This of course leads to a lot of conflict between him and his boss, Lou Wickersham (he was Lew in the series itself). The only reason he keeps his job is that he is Intertect’s best operative, a fact that Mannix keeps reminding Wickersham of.

   The book is only 128 pages long, so the story itself is a throwaway. A young woman, impossibly beautiful and prone to sunbathing in the nude, is also impossibly rich — three billion dollars worth. She is also bored, and when she is offered a chance (she thinks) to work for the CIS, she jumps for it without a second thought.

   Little does she know that her contact works for the other side, and it is up to Mannix to rescue her from the trap she falls into. That she also falls in love with Mannix is a given.

   The four other books in the series (see below) are based, I believe, on actual episodes of the TV series. Under the circumstances, you cannot fault Michael Avallone for not having a very good grasp if the character, only the surface elements.

   And viewers at home must have liked Mannix the character a lot more than the computer world premise, since the latter had been dumped by the time the second season began, and the series went on for a total of eight seasons.

        The remaining Mannix novels —

Mannix #1: The Faces of Murder (1975, by J.T. MacCargo)
Mannix #2: A Fine Day For Dying (1975, by J.T. MacCargo [Peter Rabe])
Mannix #3: A Walk on the Blind Side (1975, by J.T. MacCargo)
Mannix #4: Round Trip to Nowhere (1975, by J.T. MacCargo [Peter Rabe])

ROBERT EVERSZ – The Bottom Line Is Murder. Paul Marston & Angel Cantini #1. Viking, hardcover, 1988. Penguin paperback, 1989.

   Paul Marston is described on the back cover as a “wisecracking free-lance corporate investigator,” which sums him up rather well. Along the way in this, his first recorded adventure, he picks up an assistant, a championship boxer (female) named Angel Cantini. She has no other qualifications for the position other than her asking for the job soon after they first meet, and he agrees.

   The set-up for the case is marred by some awkward first person exposition that’s used to introduce Marston to us as a character, then by a series of events that challenge the laws of probability: that is to say, a small private plane comes down in the hills of Los Angeles County; that Marston is close enough not only to see it, but to walk around the scene of the accident without being challenged; only to find that he had worked for the dead man several years ago as a security consultant for the company he was in charge of.

   It seems that the dead man was about to close a big deal involving that same firm, but not all of the members of the family who own it were in favor. Marston decides to stick his own oar in, and thus this mostly medium-boiled tale begins.

   The writing seems to improve as time goes on, but there is no real chemistry involved in Marston’s relationship with his new partner (things move fast). It’s an all-too-familiar case of telling and not showing. The book is also too long. The pages between 172 and the end of the book (page 272) could almost have been eliminated, save of course the final wrap-up.

   The couple had a second book adventure entitled False Profit (Viking, 1990), but if ever I come across it, I believe I’ll pass.

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