September 2019

CHARLAINE HARRIS “Small Chances.” Short story. Anne DeWitt #3. First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September/October 2016. Collected in Small Kingdoms and Other Stories (Subterranean, hardcover, May 2019); and JABberwocky Literary Agency, paperback, 2019).

   Chatelaine Harris is best known now as the author of the Sookie Stackhouse series upon which the HBO television series True Blood is based. Sookie is a telepathic waitress who works in a Northern Louisiana bar and solves mysteries involving werewolves, vampires and the like.

   I’ve never read the book or watched the TV series, but my sense is tht the stories are a lot darker in tone than the two series Harris began her career with: (1) the Aurora Teagarden series, featuring a librarian who likes solves crimes as well, and (2) the Lily Bard books, about a cleaning lady detective based in rural Arkansas. (Correction: See comment #1.)

   The success of the Sookie Stackhouse books has made it possible for Harris to write anything she wants and have her many fans clamoring for more, so she has and they do. Included among these other efforts are four stories about a high school principal now named Anne DeWitt. Due to a fatal incident at a training course she was taking, the people in charge have forced her out of the program, changed her name, and started her off in a new career.

   In which to get ahead, one or two convenient deaths have already occurred. Always in the interest in the children in her school, mind you, but neither does anyone want to get in her way as she moves her way up in her new profession.

   “Small Chances” begins with a man stopping at her office and announcing himself as her first husband. Anne knows something is wrong immediately She’s never been married. So who is Tom Wilson and what does he want? Or perhaps the question is, who sent him?

   This is dark comedy at its finest. This is the only one of the four stories I’ve read, and I don’t know if there’s much potential for a fifth one, or even a novel, but in this one small dose so far, I found this short tale divertingly wicked and a lot of fun to read.

        The Anne DeWitt series —

“Small Kingdoms.” EQMM, Nov 2013
“Sarah Smiles.” EQMM, Sep/Oct 2014
“Small Chances.” EQMM, Sept/Oct 2016
“Small Signs.” EQMM, Nov/Dec 2017


SWING YOUR LADY. Warner Brothers, 1938. Humphrey Bogart, Frank McHugh, Louise Fazenda, Nat Pendleton, Penny Singleton, Allen Jenkins, the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, Ronald Reagan, and Daniel Boone Savage. Screenplay by Joseph Schenk and Maurice Leo, from the play by Kenyon Nicholson and Charles Robinson. Directed by Ray Enright.

   A film that once seen is never forgotten—no matter how hard I try.

   At this stage in his career, Humphrey Bogart had been with Warners for two years and seven films, with noteworthy performances in three of them: THE PETRIFIED FOREST, BLACK LEGION and DEAD END. The star quality was definitely there, but somebody kept shunting him off into nothing parts in big films like VIRGINIA CITY and DARK VICTORY, or leads in things like SWING YOUR LADY.

   Bogart plays a seedy fight promoter, sort of like Adolphe Menjou in GOLDEN BOY, minus Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden. What he’s got is Penny “Blondie” Singleton and lunk-headed wrestler Nat Pendleton, touring the sticks trying to drum up a fight that will draw a crowd and get him noticed.

   Bogie eventually sets up a match between his boy and the local blacksmith (Louise Fazenda) but has to resort to chicanery, first to keep Nat from finding out he has to wrestle a woman, then to break up a romance when they meet and fall in love.

   Help of sorts comes in the form of Fazenda’s rejected beau Noah (Daniel Boone Savage, a professional wrestler using his Hillbilly Bruiser persona here in his only screen appearance.) Bogie arranges for him to fight Pendleton, then true to sleazy form, tells Louise that Nat already has a wife and four kids, then orders Nat to throw the match because the Winner is supposed to marry Ms Fazenda.

   Did you get all that? And did it put you on tenterhooks, wondering how it all comes out?

   Me neither.

   Obviously this is not a film for Bogart fans or those with a taste for sophisticated comedy. SWING YOUR LADY was sold as a Hillbilly Musical, and the story, such as it is, stops for long stretches to showcase the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, who seem to spend all their time singing on the porch at the General Store while Bogie hustles and everyone else tells hillbilly jokes.

   Easy as it is to dump on LADY, I should add that some of the musical interludes aren’t bad at all.

   Penny Singleton (having just changed her name from Dorothy McNulty) had a real talent for dancing — in a showy, Gene Kelley style — and she shows it off here in a couple of novelty numbers choreographed by Bobby Connolly, who worked on the dances in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

   As for the Weavers Brothers and Elviry… well, taken in the proper spirit, one can view them as authentic folk artists leaving a filmed record of their art.

   It helps. But not enough to redeem a movie that belittles its characters and demeans itself. Or as Bogart himself put it, “If you want to see the worst picture I ever made, get them to screen SWING YOUR LADY.”

RON GOULART – The Wiseman Originals. Rudy Navarro #1. Walker, hardcover, 1989.

   Rudy Navarro is a PI, I guess you’d say, working for an agency called the Ajax Novelty Company. (No kidding.) In this case he once again needs the help of Jack Briggs, a former advertising art director, ten times over, and an expert on the works of Wiseman, a German artist of the 20s and 30s who died in Dachau.

   But some of his drawings, which were confiscated by the Nazis and had been missing since the end of WW II, have suddenly turned up at a Florida comic book convention, and Navarro’s client is not the only one who wants the rest of them. Not much mystery, but lots of humor, always a definite part of Goulart’s repertoire. The resulting story reminded me of a vulgar Craig Rice and had me laughing all the way.

   BTW: It was someone else who said it, but can you think of a commercial operation, other than a comic book shop, i which the proprietor dresses worse than the average customer? Ron Goulart, who goes to some of the same comic book conventions that I do, doesn’t miss on this one, either. This takes into consideration, and quoting the lady watching the store on page 58, “You ought to see the assholes who come in to buy this crap.”

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #15, September 1989, considerably revised and expanded upon.

Bibliographic Update:  This appears to have been Rudy Navarro’s only recorded case.


(Give Me That) OLD-TIME DETECTION. Summer 2019. Issue #51. Editor: Arthur Vidro. Old-Time Detection Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd. 36 pages (including covers). Cover image: Whodunit? Houdini?

   ONCE AGAIN Arthur Vidro has brought forth a publication worth your attention, with a satisfying variety of articles about Golden Age of Detection (GAD) authors and their works, some from yesteryear and some contemporary. In case you haven’t noticed it, the GAD “renaissance” continues apace, and every issue of Old-Time Detection (OTD) serves as a fine compendium of information for both the experienced GADer (yes, it’s now a word) and the newcomer to this era of the “mystery” genre.

   If you’re a Edward D. Hoch fan like us, you’ll appreciate a new series in OTD, “The Non-Fiction World of Ed Hoch,” featuring “a run of reprint pieces penned by” the latter-day master of the impossible crime short story, compiled by Dan Magnuson, Charles Shibuk, and Marvin Lachman. Hoch’s knowledge of the “mystery” field was practically unbounded, and what he had to say about it is always worth your notice.

   Between the two World Wars the “mystery” story underwent a sea change from genteel drawing room bafflers to the hardboiled outlook, signaling the “death” of the formal whodunit as it was then known—or so people have been told. Jon L. Breen begs to differ; in “Whodunit? We’ll Never Tell but the Mystery Novel Is Alive and Well” he gives us just the facts, ma’am.

   J. Randolph Cox focuses the Author Spotlight on Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph), known to most readers for her wild and woolly mysteries featuring lawyer John J. Malone, saloon owner Jake Justus, and Justus’s wealthy and beautiful wife Helene. Rice took the relatively understated screwball social dynamics of Hammett’s The Thin Man and pushed them to the limit: “In a genre in which death can be a game of men walking down mean streets unafraid to meet their doom,” writes Cox, “she wrote of men whose fearlessness came from a bottle—from several bottles, in fact—and made it seem comical.” However, “The drinking which she made amusing in print was not amusing in her own life.”

   Thanks to a veritable explosion of paperback reprints of classic detective and mystery stories in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as the works of newer authors, the world of GAD-style fiction was kept from total extinction in the face of the hardboiled onslaught, as Charles Shibuk told us in his Armchair Detective reviews of the period.

   Among the writers who enjoyed this attention from the publishers: Margery Allingham (“I’m convinced that Allingham’s best shorts are of greater value than her novels”), Eric Ambler (“The decline of this writer’s skills during the 1960s has been sad to contemplate . . .”), Nicholas Blake (“Here is another writer whose recent efforts are best left unmentioned, with one notable exception . . .”), John Dickson Carr (“This author’s best work was published between 1935 and 1938 . . .”), Agatha Christie (“If you have not read it, do not on any account miss Cards on the Table“), S. H. Courtier (“. . . obviously the logical successor to the late Arthur W. Upfield”), Amanda Cross (“. . . has only produced three novels in seven years . . .”), Andrew Garve (“. . . prolific and usually reliable . . .”), Frank Gruber, Ngaio Marsh (“Like fine wine, this author improves with age”), Stuart Palmer (“. . . his work was highly competent and always entertaining”), Ellery Queen (“. . . The Spanish Cape Mystery, which represents the last chapter in Queen’s first and best period”), Julian Symons (“Recent work has shown an attempt to return to form . . .”), Josephine Tey (“. . . I don’t think this is ultimately the stuff of which detective stories are really made”), and Raoul Whitfield (“. . . here is a rare opportunity to examine the work of an unjustly forgotten contemporary of Dashiell Hammett”).

   Next, Marvin Lachman offers an affectionate memento of Lianne Carlin who, as a fanzine editor-publisher, was one of the major forces responsible for nurturing mystery fandom and keeping interest in the genre alive and well.

   Dr. John Curran covers the world of Agatha Christie as no one else can: a seldom-seen and different play version of Towards Zero from 1945 (“The plot of both stage versions is, essentially, the same as the novel, as twisty a plot as any that Christie every devised”); Tony Medawar’s impending Murder She Said; The Agatha Christie Festival (“. . . in keeping with the last few years, is disappointing”); and Christie Mystery Day (“. . . no one knows what to expect until it begins”).

   In “Zero Nero . . . Well, Almost”, George H. Madison offers a good summary of the finer points of Rex Stout’s popular series (46 books!) but ruefully explains why “our Nero will not be revived on screen this generation.”

   As we mentioned earlier, a new feature of OTD reprises “feature articles and introductions written by Edward D. Hoch,” the first one being his preamble to the Index to Crime and Mystery Anthologies from 1990. “Here is a book,” says Hoch, “to make an addict out of any reader of short fiction.”

   Amnon Kabatchnik’s summary article about Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin promises to tell us about “Lupin on Stage, the Screen, and Television,” and delivers nicely. It’s ironic that Leblanc, however, fell into the same trap that the creator of Sherlock Holmes did: “After the unexpected blockbuster popularity of Lupin, he found, as Conan Doyle had before him, that the public wanted him to produce stories and novels only about his most famous character and nothing else.”

   The fiction offering in this issue is William Brittain’s “The Last Word” (EQMM, June 1968), with the author using the “James Knox” alias to signal that it won’t be one of his popular Mr. Strang adventures.

   One of the best anthologies from the ’70s is Whodunit? Houdini? Thirteen Tales of Magic, Murder, Mystery (1976), which, despite its title, is not a collection of fantasy stories but mystery and detective adventures by Clayton Rawson, Rudyard Kipling, John Collier, Carter Dickson, Manuel Peyrou, Frederick Irving Anderson, Rafael Sabatini, William Irish, Walter B. Gibson, Ben Hecht, Stanley Ellin, and Erle Stanley Gardner, seasoned authors who knew how to write engrossing fiction.

   Perceptive as always, in “Allure of Classic Whodunits” Michael Dirda tells us about the “distinct sense of well-being and contentment” he feels at what modern critics would regard as a defect, the artificiality that has become a “welcome attraction in many vintage who-and-howdunits,” stories which “deliberately leave out the messiness of real life, of real emotions, thus allowing the reader to mentally just amble along, mildly intrigued, feeling comfortable and even, yes, cozy,” putting the reader “a long way from deranged fantatics armed with semiautomatic weapons,” and, thus, engaging the mind rather the emotions, which is where the detective story had its beginnings (thanks, Edgar).

   To wrap up this issue there are letters to the editor and a puzzle page that isn’t as easy as some. If you don’t already have a subscription to Old-Time Detection, here’s how to get one: It’s published three times a year: spring, summer, and autumn. A sample copy is $6.00 in the U.S. and $10.00 anywhere else. A one-year subscription in the U.S. is $18.00 ($15.00 for Mensans) and overseas is $40.00 (or 25 pounds sterling or 30 euros). You can pay by check; make it payable to Arthur Vidro; or you can use cash from any nation, or U.S. postage stamps, or PayPal. The mailing address: Arthur Vidro, editor, Old-Time Detection, 2 Ellery Street, Claremont, New Hampshire 03743. Arthur’s Web address is

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

DELIA OWENS – Where the Crawdad Sings. Author’s first book. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, August 2018.

First Sentence: Marsh is not swamp.

   Kya Clark, aka Marsh Girl, virtually raised herself. Her ability to watch and learn, and to depend on her North Carolina marsh allowed her to survive. When the handsome son of a prominent family is found dead, Kya is accused of his murder. But was it an accident? Did she kill him? Only with the help of others might Kya survive this, too.

   An author who paints pictures with words is one to be savored. Owens does just that and does it beautifully. There is a strong, lyrical quality to the writing— “Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”

   The author does employ devices that one may find annoying: multiple POVs and time fluctuations. Give it a chance, however. Before long, one may find oneself thoroughly captivated and willing to overlook those things. Instead, one becomes immersed in a wonderful story filled with interesting characters, a setting which engages all the senses and emotions, and a desire for some real Southern cooking— “The aroma of sausage and biscuits, boiled turnip greens, and fried chicken thankfully overtook the high smell of fish barrels lining the dock. … Behind the counter, owner-cook Jim Bo Sweeny darted from flipping crab cakes on the griddle to stirring a pot of creamed corn on the burner to poking chicken thighs in the deep fryer…”

   Owens’ descriptions are magnetic. She knows how to engage the reader— “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” It is not all description. The author creates interesting, strong secondary characters, including Jumpin’, his wife Mabel, and particularly Tate—”His dad had told him many times that the definition of a real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul, and does what’s necessary to defend a woman.” One also learns the meaning of the title, and celebrate Kya’s successes— “I wadn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.” Wouldn’t one love to remember when one had made that discovery?

   Although there is a slight sense of fantasy about the plot, one can’t help but be entranced by Kya’s strength, courage, and perseverance— “I have to do life alone. But I knew this.” But it’s not all misty light. Owen’s takes us into Kya’s feelings of being confined and through the trial, which was well done.

   The book isn’t perfect. The actions of one character don’t always ring true, and one may start to feel a bit manipulated. However, there is no question but that one’s emotions become completely engaged to the point of possibly shedding tears at the finale; not a sad cry, but a lovely-ending cry.

    Where the Crawdads Sing is a very good book. It may not be the best book ever written or that one has ever read, but it is one of those rare books which will stay with one a long time. It will be interesting to see what Owens writes next.

Rating: Very Good.

       This is music that speaks for itself:

DAVID WILLIAMS – Wedding Treasure. Mark Treasure #8. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1985. St. Martin’s, US, hardcover, 1985. Avon, US, paperback, 1987.

   Mark Treasure is a London-based investment banker, but over the years, he and his actress wife Molly found themselves involved in 17 cases of murder that needed solving. In Wedding Treasure it is the death of a would-be bride’s father, a loutish cad of a man, who is murdered, apparently by being hit in the head by an errant golf ball.

   The killer’s intention was to have his victim’s death put down as a most unfortunate accident, but as Treasure quickly realizes, no golf ball in the ordinary course of events can do as much damage as this one is supposed to have done. There is no shortage of suspects. If the dead man had formally objected to the wedding, the bride would have had to wait ten more years before she could collect a sizable inheritance.

   It does not help that the groom-to-be is a little too slick to be the person he pretends to be. There are a lot of characters in the story, some more important than others, and as I said earlier, there are more than enough motives to go around.

   The telling is both bright and witty, in the finest British tradition, and many, many mostly obvious red herrings. The ending, unfortunately, is the weakest part of the book. I had to skip over all of the financial matters; all I wanted and needed was whodunit, not necessarily why. That’s what detectives who are also financial bankers are for, and Mark Treasure fits the bill perfectly


ANDREW VACHSS – Down in the Zero. Burke #7. Knopf, hardcover, 1994. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, paperback, 1995.

   Vachss’s tales of the alienated and disconnected Burke and his group of misfit and off-center allies are very much a specialized taste, I think. I’ve liked them anywhere from somewhat to considerably over the course of the series.

   Burke is locked into a spiral of depression that threatens to take him down into the “Zero. or oblivion. He killed a child, and it may destroy him. Then a young man appears who is afraid that a mounting number of suicides among his rich acquaintances may hide a common dark secret, and asks Burke to help him.

   Burke wouldn’t, but the young man plays a trump — his mother told him to seek out Burke if he ever felt threatened, and to remind him of a favor he owed her. It’s an invoice a long time in the presenting, but Burke feels he must honor it.

   Vachss’s fiction has always struck me as a curious mixture of the romantic and the perverse. Sexual deviance, child abuse, and bloody violence exist side by side with relationships among the characters that are oddly idealized and romanticized. There’s little real about the stories, either, which are very grim fairy tales.

   In this one there are strong echoes of Robert Parker’s Early Autumn, on that Burke transforms a fearful wimp of a young man into a macho budding race-driver in an astonishingly period of time. The plot is half-assed and half-hearted, and this is another case, I’m afraid, of an author just going through the motions with a successful series. There’s not a great deal here even for confirmed Vachss-ites, and even less for anyone else.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #18, February-March 1995.

    Vocalist: Sarah Peterson

   L. M. MONTGOMERY “The House Party at Smoky Island.” Short story. First published in Weird Tales, August 1935. Reprinted in Startling Mystery Stories, Fall 1968, and Visions from the Edge: An Anthology of Atlantic Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (Pottersfield Press, trade paperback, 1981). First collected in Among the Shadows (Bantam Starfire, paperback, 1991).

   Whenever I read a ghost story — which isn’t often, but on occasion I do — I want a story that gives me shivers and goosebumps. No gross out gruesome stuff for me. There’s an obvious difference between chills and shock and disgust. You know where the line is as well as I do, and “The House Party at Smoky Island” stays completely on the right side of it.

   It helps, though, when a tale takes place on an island somewhere in the isolated wilderness– of central Ontario, for example, and Lake Muskoka in particular. The manor house in full of people, but it has rained all week, and by Saturday night the guests have been on each other’s nerves for far too long.

   One of the married couples is especially on edge. She has become more and more obsessed with the thought that he killed his first wife. She does not know this for a fact. She only suspects it. As Saturday night arrives, with the wind howling and the rain pouring down, there is a call for each of the members of the house party to tell the rest of the company a ghost story, which only builds up to what happens next.

   And that’s all I can tell you without telling you the whole story, but if ever a ghost story can give you a brief shiver or shill at exactly the right moment, this one will.

   You may have recognized the author’s name, or you think you may have, and if so, you are correct. This is the same L. M. Montgomery who wrote Anne of Green Gables and all of its sequels, plus many other stories meant for children. She is one of Canada’s most well-known and beloved authors, and this is a rarity: the only story she wrote for the pulp magazines.

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