January 2020

   An eight-episode adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds was shown in France last year. The series will make its first appearance in the US next month (February 16th) on Epix.

   The show stars Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern, Léa Drucker, Natasha Little, Daisy Edgar Jones, Stéphane Caillard, Adel Bencherif, and Guillaume Gouix.

ALLEN K. YOUNG “Reflection on Murder.” Short story. Professor Posenby #2. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1968. Presumably never reprinted.

   The tenth rule of Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction says that “twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.” This second of several stories Alan K. Young wrote about retired poetry and code expert Professor Ponsby (no first name known) takes this rule head on and makes an excellent story out of it.

   It doesn’t in any way break the rule, since the fact that Tom and Barnaby Varden are twins is stated up front with no denying it. There is also no denying that one of them murdered their uncle, but which one? Almost no one can tell them apart, so eye witnesses to the fact that one was seen leaving the house at the time of murder are of no value.

   What’s more, the other brother was seen at a boxing match the next town over at the time of the murder, gives one of the two an unshakeable alibi. But which one was which?

   Totally sure that no jury would ever convict either one “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” they boastfully send the following poem to the harried police chief, who comes to Ponsby with it. I hope you can read it:


   I believe I have read another story with exactly the premise, but without the poem, and yet, if so, I do not remember where I read it or who wrote it. You may be able to figure it out — all the clues are there — but I am chagrined to say I didn’t. This is a puzzle story only, with only a cursory attempt at characterization, but as such it’s exceedingly well done. It’s like admiring a solidly constructed crossword puzzle at the end of the week in the New York Times. I enjoyed it immensely.

   It probably won’t ever happen, but Young wrote enough Ponsby stories to put together a very decent collection. I’d buy it!

NOTE: Alan K. Young’s papers regarding his short story writing are stored at Columbia University. A short desription of the collection says that the author “is a former junior-college English instructor, with a B. A. in English from Harvard and an M. A. in the same subject from the University of California.”

       The Professor Ponsonby series —

Letter from Mindoro (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Mar 1968
Reflection on Murder (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Oct 1968
The Secret of the Golden Tile (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jun 1969
Ponsonby and the Shakespeare Sonnet (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Oct 1969
Ponsonby and the Dying Words (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Aug 1970
Ponsonby and the Classic Cipher (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Dec 1971
Child’s Play (vi) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jan 1972
Ponsonby and the Ransom Note (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jun 1972
To See Death Coming (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Apr 1973
Truth Will Out (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jun 1974
Incident on a Bus (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Feb 1975


PostScript:   Since most you are not likely to ever read this story, I will give you a big hint as to the solution in Comment 1. Don’t read it until you’ve either given up or you want to know if the answer you’ve come up with is correct or not.

Added later: A full explanation is given in Comment #2.


REX BURNS – Blood Line. Gabe Wager #10. Walker, hardcover, 1995. No paperback edition.

   And yet another hardboiled writer moves down publishers’ economic row. Walker is picking up some good writers, and I hope it pays off for them. Buns’ stories of the Denver policeman have gotten a good bit of critical acclaim,but evidently not the requisite sales.

   Gabe Wager has a 13 year-old black male dead in what looks like a gang killing, and a young cousin a victim of what he’s afraid is the same disease. To add to his problems, a convicted felon that he shot in self-defense has filed a civil suit against him from prison. Life’s never simple in the big city, especially for a Hispanic cop.

   This seems to me to be of a piece with Burns’ earlier Wager books — a good solid police novel. He does a nice job of blending characterization with the procedural, and of working in the Denver background. Wager has become a well-developed character over the course of the series. Denver must be a lot different than Dallas, though, if a police sergeant could have even a close friendship that was common knowledge with a lady councilperson.

   I think Burns does about as good a job as anyone of writing “small” nitty-gritty police novels, and I’m glad that someone will still buy them.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #19, May 1995.

       The Gabe Wager series —

1. The Alvarez Journal (1975)
2. The Farnsworth Score (1977)
3. Speak for the Dead (1978)
4. Angle of Attack (1979)
5. The Avenging Angel (1983)
6. Strip Search (1984)
7. Ground Money (1986)
8. The Killing Zone (1988)
9. Endangered Species (1993)
10. Blood Line (1995)
11. The Leaning Land (1997)


P. G. WODEHOUSE – Psmith, Journalist. Adam & Charles Black, UK. hardcover, 1915. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1915. Reprinted several times, in both hardcover and paperback.

   Wodehouse is generally praised, and rightly so, for raising Light Fiction to the plane of High Art. The problem with analyzing his work is that there is nothing — or almost nothing — to seriously compare it to. As one critic put it, Authors who write the stuff that Wodehouse does don’t write it as well, and those who write as well as he don’t write the stuff that Wodehouse does.

   Stylistically, he is very much on a level with Henry James or James Joyce. Thematically, he seems at first much closer to Barbara Cartland and/or the Marx Brothers. If there is a philosophic underpinning to his work (and I think there is) it is simply a profound sense of laissez-faire. His characters go about trying to enjoy life with an almost Zen-like devotion, and even the most dull and stupid of them have a charming tale to tell, no less than the trees and the stars.

   In much the same way, the airy, almost superficial, lightness of Wodehouse’s prose masks a Proustian depth, dropping literary allusions with an ease that never seems the least bit affected (Van Dine could have picked up a tip here) and working in even the farthest-flung reference with seamless grace. Look up the passage in Service with a Smile where Gally compares the sabotage of a Boy-Scout tent with the murder of Becket, and you’ll see what I mean.

   All this would be quite enough in a mere novelist, but Wodehouse was a humorist as well. While analyses of Humor are generally as flat as Stop Signs and much less colorful, some mention should be made here as to the Wodehouse Technique, which is to play against his own style. He loves to set up a staid rhythm, smooth as an ornamental pond, then drop the Cosmic Clanger into it with a burst of hyperbole or some off-the-wall metaphor.

   Thus, a character abruptly jilted by his fiancée, “looked rather as if he had been smacked across the bridge of the nose with a wet fish,” or “was reminded of the moment when, boxing in college, he had inadvertently placed his chin in the exact spot occupied by his opponent’s right fist,” or “made a noise somewhat like an elephant pulling his foot from a mud-hole in a Burmese teak forest.”

   Of course, such situations always form the mainsprings of Wodehouse’s plots, since, as Bertie Wooster puts it, “A sensitive chap always feels a pang of distress at seeing the ship of love come a stinker on the rocks,” but there is invariably a helpful soul or two around to help straighten things out with such good advice as the following formula to win back a lost love: “Simply clasp her in your arms, waggle her about a bit, and cry ‘My woman! My woman!'”

   Well, five paragraphs into the article now, and the thoughtful reader is probably asking himself “What the Hell has all this got to do with Mystery Fiction?” Well, keep your pants on. Now at last we wend our way towards Wodehouse’s crime novel, Psmith, Journalist.

   Most people know Wodehouse for his humorous romances, set in a tirelessly timeless England. He started out, however as a writer for children and young adults, primarily of mild and fanciful adventure stories. Psmith, Journalist is a transitional novel, written just as Wodehouse was beginning to humorize his style and gear his plots more towards adults. As such, it is quite interesting, but Penguin, who keep it in print, should be publicly reprimanded for reprinting it in a series with more traditional Wodehouse works, with never a word of warning to the unwary laugh-seeker.

   For Psmith, Journalist is very much a novel of its time, set in a corrupt, squalid, and often violent New York City. The story is of one Billy Windsor, the assistant editor of Cosy Moments, a kiddie-oriented weekly magazine who, finding himself placed temporarily in charge, decides to turn it into a muckraking scandal sheet along the lines of The National Enquirer. (An idea Wodehouse would later use to great humorous effect for the opening paragraphs of Heavy Weather.)

   Aided by the urbane and ubiquitous Psmith (the P is silent), Billy is soon promoting up-and-coming prizefighters, running afoul of venal slumlords, and dodging ruffians’ bullets in the darkened alleyways of the City of Night.

   The wonder is not that Wodehouse does this at all, but that he does it so well. Although some of the set-pieces have a rather contrived feel about them (see the cover illustration of Psmith holding off small-time thug on a rooftop) and although his dialogue at this time was still a bit primitive, the descriptions have a sardonic economy to them that recalls — and anticipates — Hammett and Chandler. Chandler, in fact, went to the same college in England as Wodehouse, but a few years later. One wonders who taught Elements of Composition there. Compare out this moment from Farewell My Lovely:

   He swung the fist very hard and short, with a sudden outward jerk of the elbow and hit the big man on the side of the jaw. A soft sigh went around the room.

   It was a good punch. The shoulder dropped and the body swung behind it. There was a lot of weight in that punch and the man who landed it had had plenty of practice. The big man didn’t move his head more than an inch.

   He didn’t try to block the punch. He took it, shook himself lightly, made a quiet sound in his throat and took hold of the bouncer by the throat… “Guys,” the big man said, “has got wrong ideas about when to get tough.”

   With this from Psmith, Journalist

   Suddenly his opponent’s long left shot out. The Kid, who had been strolling forward, received it under the chin, and continued to stroll forward as if nothing of note had happened. He gave the impression of being aware that Mr Wolmann had committed a breach of good taste and of being resolved to pass it off with ready tact.

   The Cyclone, having executed a backward leap, a forward leap, and a feint, landed heavily with both hands. The Kid’s genial smile did not even quiver, but he continued to move forward. His opponent’s left flashed out again, but this time, instead of ignoring the matter, the Kid replied with a heavy right swing: and Mr Wolmann. leaping back, found himself against the ropes. By the time he had got out of that uncongenial position, two more of the Kid’s swings had found their mark. Mr Wolmann, somewhat perturbed, scuttered out into the middle of the ring, the Kid following in his self-contained, solid way.

   Finally, a bit of Wodehousian philosophy, this from the letters reprinted in Author! Author! As the master humorist neared Ninety, he reflected:

   “I had always supposed that my contemporaries might pass on, but that I myself would remain more or less immortal. Of late, however, it begins to dawn on me that I, too, must ere long hand in my dinner pail; I can’t say I much care for the arrangement, but there it is.”

BLANDINGS. “Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey.” BBC One, 30 minutes, 13 January 2013. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Timothy Spall (Clarence Threepwood, 9th Earl of Emsworth), Jennifer Saunders (Lady Constance Keeble), Jack Farthing (The Hon. Frederick Threepwood), Mark Williams (Sebastian Beach). Guest Cast: Alice Orr-Ewing, Brendan Patricks, James Norton. Screenplay by Guy Andrews, based on the story of the same title by P. G. Wodehouse, which first appeared in the US in the 09 July 1927 issue of Liberty, and in the United Kingdom in the August 1927 Strand.; included the collection Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935) Director: Paul Seed.

   Even in the short running time of only 30 minutes there are two subplots pulled off to perfection in this, the opening episode of a two season run of this recent British TV series. In print, Blandings Castle was the setting for eleven novels and nine short stories. Although in my younger years I was an avid reader of P. G. Wodehouse, I don’t remember specifics of many of them. Jeeves, yes, but Blandings, no.

   So I came to the TV version with the equivalent of a blank slate, with neither preconceptions to be dashed, nor with hopes to be wished for, but oh so seldom confirmed. Let me state from the start, though, so as to not keep you in any kind of doubt, that I enjoyed this one immensely.

   In this opening salvo the most appropriately potty Lord Emsworth has two problems on his hands. First, his prize pig Empress of Blandings, has stopping eating. By no coincidence, Emsworth’s pigman, Wellbeloved, is confined for the next two weeks in prison. And this just before the 87th annual Shropshire Agricultural Show.

   This small problem may be solvable, when Jimmy Belford, fresh from the American West and Emsworth’s niece’s choice of wedding material, against Emsworth’s sister Constance’s express wishes, demonstrates an universal pig call that will save the day.

   Complicated? Yes. Funny? Another definite yes. And beautifully photographed as well, filmed on location at Crom Castle in Northern Ireland. I made it through only two episodes of Downton Abbey, at which point I decided that this oh-so elegant soap opera (but still soap opera) was not for me. With my sense of humor obviously showing, my antidote of choice, as I’ve just discovered, is Blandings, and by a huge margin. The thirty minutes simply flew by.

THE INNER CIRCLE. Republic Pictures, 1946. Adele Mara, Warren Douglas (as PI Johnny Strange), William Frawley, Ricardo Cortez, Virginia Christine, Will Wright. Screenplay by Dorrell McGowan & Stuart E. McGowan, based on a radio script by Leonard St. Clair & Lawrence Taylor. Director: Phil Ford.

   When the story begins, private eye Johnny Strange (whose one-man firm is called Action Incorporated) is darning the toe of his sock while at the same time calling a local newspaper to place an ad: “Wanted: secretary to human dynamo. Exclamation point. Must be blonde, beautiful, between 22 and 28, unmarried, with a skin you love to touch and a heart you can’t.”

   In walks Adela Mara as a beautiful bombshell named Gerry Smith, and takes the job, hanging up the phone and telling Johnny she has all of the qualifications. She does indeed qualify, except for perhaps that last requirement, however, the one about the skin and the heart: “Try both, brother, just try.” While she is finishing up the knitting job for him, a call from a client comes in.

   When Johnny meets her, without even a hint of what he’s being hired for, she’s dressed mysteriously all in black with a veil concealing her face. She leads him to a home where they find a dead man’s body, whereupon she knocks him on the head and leaves.

   Obviously she’s trying to frame him for the murder, but why? It isn’t as if the dead man, whose has his own radio gossip show, didn’t have plenty of real enemies who wouldn’t mind seeing him no longer around.

   Pure pulp fiction, in other words, and I haven’t even begun going into all pf the details I could to to reinforce that statement. (The screenplay was based on a radio script, but for what program, I have no idea.) There a lot of friendly banter between strange Strange and his new secretary, who comes along just in time to provide him an “self-defense” reason for killing the man.

   Johnny Strange — a rather naive individual, especially for one alleged to be a brash dynamo of a PI — is confused, and who could blame him? Much pleasurable silliness ensues, including a live reenactment of the crime over the radio, with all of the possible suspects playing their own roles. Whatever it takes to solve a crime, that’s what you have to do. (But this ending really is quite unique.)

NOTE:   The original running time was 65 minutes. The only print that seems to have survived is less than an hour long. There is an obvious break in the action about half way through, but it’s easy enough to fill in what’s missing.

STANLEY ELLIN – The Luxembourg Run. Random House, hardcover, 1977. Ballantine, paperback, 1979.

   When a mystery writer takes the extra time to fill in the background of his characters, the result is too often uninteresting or turns out to be of little or no use to the plot. Not so when a storyteller like Stanley Ellin. The life of of David Hanna Shaw, a college dropout who becomes Amsterdam’s :King of the Hippies: before tuning to a trans-European career of currency smuggling, is fascinating from beginning to end.

   In The Luxembourg Run his turnabout task of avenging the death of his girl friend Anneke at the hands of hijackers who forcefully relieve him of a million dollar consignment is nearly a foregone conclusion — how could it be otherwise after he inherits ten million dollars of his own from a wealthy grandfather? Still it’s not all roses, not at all, and just as Ellin obviously believes in his characters, so will the reader.

–Somewhat revised from its first appearance in The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 3, May 1978.

Definitely not to be confused with Linda Hamilton’s character in the Terminator movie series:

CARTER DICKSON “Blind Man’s Hood.” Short story. First published in The Sketch, UK, Christmas 1937. Collected in The Department of Queer Complaints (Morrow, 1940). Reprinted in Best Ghost Stories (edited by Anne Ridler, Faber and Faber, 1945), The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries (edited by Otto Penzler, Black Lizard, 2014) and The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (edited by Martin Edwards, British Library, 2018). Also reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1966, as “To Wake the Dead,” as by John Dickson Carr.

   And with all of those credentials on this story’s résumé, I’m sure I missed some, but this is one story that deserves all of them. Personally, I usually feel that tales in which the real story is told to listeners in the present as already having taken place in the place are awkward and forced, but not this time.

   A young married couple visiting a manor home on Christmas Eve find the front door open, all the lights on, a fire igoing, but otherwise the house is empty. Finally a young girl appears, perhaps a governess or a secretary, who then explains why the family themselves are not at home. They are, in fact, deliberately staying away. It seems that a murder had once taken place in the house, one that had never been solved.

   The woman who had died was found alone in the house, with all of the doors and windows locked. There were also no footprints in the snow surrounding the house, other than those made by the man who had walked up to it while under full observation.

   The house is spooky, and the story the girl tells is spookier still. This also a ghost story, but the the solution to the crime has nothing to do with the supernatural. I do not think that anyone but John Dickson Carr could have conjured up a story such as this one, a tale that combines the two so well — a logical puzzle and a more than a wisp of the eerie — and yet keeps the two parts completely separated.

   This one was an absolute pleasure to read. (I read the story in EQMM. I wish I owned the original Morrow hardcover edition!)

Coming to Netflix in March:

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