October 2022



RICK DeMARINIS – A Clod of Wayward Marl. Dennis McMillan, hardcover, 2001. Introduction By James Crumley.

   Guido Tarkenen is a crime writer. He writes what his agent calls ‘trash for cash’. But he does alright. He’s having a bit of writer’s block lately, though. So to pay the bills he takes a job as ‘visiting writer in residence’ in the English department at La Siberia Tech (apparently a nod to University of Texas–El Paso). The remaindered hardcover edition I read had a beautiful gold embossed La Siberia Tech emblem on its cover page.

   The students are terrible, and he hates the job. But he needs it while he comes up with an idea for his next book. So he drinks a lot to make it through the day, filling his office fridge with bottles of Tsingtao bought by the case.

   His wife just left him, contributing to the general malaise. But there’s a decent looking older student, Doris, that he hooks up with, to assuage his bruised and shattered libido.

   Doris’s hubbie owns a tech company affiliated with the university. Some of the professors, working with the company, have invented these amazing virtual reality body suits that you can wear and make your dreams real. He and Doris have amazing VR sex on the wings of a jet as it flies thru the skies, the passengers’ mouths agape to see such sport.

   Thing is, this VR invention is going to be HUGE. And professor inventions are, by contract, owned by La Siberia Tech unless in the public domain.

   So a multinational tech company based in Singapore decides to buy La Siberia Tech to get the patents to the VR technology and make a fortune.

   They’ve decided to scrap accreditation and get rid of the English department—replacing it with a Department of Dream Architecture to serve Cybertopia:

The World is Your Oyster!

   “Interact with the world as you never would have dreamed possible! Want to know what it feels like to fly into outer space? Want to feel moon dust under your feet? Would you like to speak, face to face, with famous figures in history? Imagine yourself taking tea with Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, or, in our era, Gandhi, Einstein, or Marilyn Monroe! Do your tastes lean toward the dark side? Imagine confronting a mugger, disarming him, and giving him the beating of his life! Think how it must feel to electrocute, hang, or lethally inject a murderer! Perhaps, because you have always wanted to know what really goes on in the mind of a criminal, you might even temporarily adopt his psyche. How does one bring oneself to do heinous deeds? Where does the impulse come from to commit murder, torture, rape, cannibalism? In the private confines of Cybertopia, you can discover this terra incognita first-hand. Of course, you may just want to create your own world, safe and secure from all the woes and terrors of contemporary society. Be the king or queen of your own country, then populate it with adoring subjects! Would you ever want to disengage from such a paradise? Cybertopia can give you all this, and much more. Its possibilities are limited only by your imagination. And in that regard, our machines will come with software designed by “Dream Architects”—writers and artists—who will create worlds and situations within those worlds that all but the most jaded will find exciting and rewarding.”

   Guido becomes more and more unsure if the experiences he’s having are real or whether he’s still got the VR suit on. The reader has the same Philip K. Dickensian disorientation.

   Many of the professors don’t like the idea of scrapping liberal arts and accreditation, so they plot to sabotage the corporate takeover by putting their research into the public domain before the deal is done.

   But this VR technology is projected to be a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. And the tech multinational will stop at nothing to keep the intellectual property in their hands—even murder.

   Guido, sodden with drink, gets sucked into a role as de facto detective when the professorial murders get too close for comfort. He sloppily traverses this minefield to hilarious satisfaction.

   If you’re a fan of Crumley, this is a must read. I immediately went out and bought a bunch more of Demarinis and other Dennis McMillan stuff I hadn’t heard of before. A Clod of Wayward Marl is really great. It gave me hope that there’s other great relatively recent stuff out there bringing the hardboiled imagination into the 21st century. That there’s a way to think and live in the contemporary world that traverses the general shitty-ness with anarchic aplomb and joy. My favorite thing I’ve read in as long as I can remember.



JACK WEBB – The Gilded Witch. Father Shanley & Det. Sgt. Sammy Golden #9. Regency Books, paperback original, 1963.

   My first meeting with Father Joseph Shanley and Detective Sergeant Sammy Golden, and I must admit that I’m quite impressed. Both detectives are interesting and thoughtful men and the problem they face is the death of Gil Barta, author of a blockbuster novel that has drawn perhaps too vivid a picture of the local township.

   More deaths follow, Golden travels to Phoenix in search of Barta’s past life and Father Shanley goes down with a virus infection. The lady of the title turns out to be Betty Ames Angelo, and it is her connection with Barta and his past that eventually helps unlock the mystery.  Golden is quite smitten with the lady but there is more to her than meets the eye.

   Another good novel and yet another failure in the Adey clear-out-the-shelves campaign.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 4, Number 3 (June 1981).

ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION – January 1954. Editor: John W. Campbell, Jr. Cover by H. R. Van Dongen [the magazine’s first specific Christmas cover]. Overall rating: ***

EVERETT B. COLE “Exile.” Short novel. A student of Archaeological Synthesis on an observational trip is stranded on a backward planet. Without means of transportation or communication, his attempts to get home must not disturb the local culture. Terribly muddy and often depending on glibness, the story would have improved tremendously if it had a point to be made. **

FRANK M. ROBINSON “The Lonely Man.” The death of a man living alne in a hotel room is investigated by a policeman who discovers he has blue blood. (3)

H. BEAM PIPER & JOHN J. McGUIRE “The Return.” Novelette. After the Bomb, a group of people with a strange religion is found. Abundant clues to the sacred Books make this a worthy addition to the Holmesian saga. (4)

ALGIS BUDRYS “A.I.D.” Anti-Interrogation Device. An organic servomechanism which satisfies the specification of both sides, but only Earth has it. The ending is a letdown, but is satisfactory upon reconsideration. (3)

RALPH WILLIAMS “Bertha.” Novelette. A somewhat unlikely premise: an undiscovered artificial satellite which welcomes Earth’s first astronauts. Exciting in spite of occasional lapses in scientific background. Hindsight. (4)

–January-February 1968

TOM MEAD – Death and the Conjurer. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 2022.

   This homage to John Dickson Carr (and co-dedicated to the acknowledged master of the locked room, impossible mystery) takes place in 1930s London, right in the heart of the so-called Golden Age of Detection, and if it doesn’t quite measure up to the best of the mysteries written at the time, it’s an attempt well worthy of your attention.

   If you’re a fan of the form, that is. Aficionados of private eye stories and/or grim noir or more hardboiled fare need not read any further. (Though of course you may.)

   There are in all three impossible crimes in this tale: (1) the death of a noted emigre psychiatrist in his London home office, locked on the inside of course; (2) the theft of a valuable painting during a party during a party where all attendees are searched or closely watched; and (3) the murder of someone in an elevator with no access to it except by a watched door.

   In what follows I won’t go into details. I’ll try to be as general as I can while at the same time describing what I thought were shortcomings, some more serious than others. May I say first, though, that I found the book well-written, with both good characters and even better dialogue. I really wish I could say the same about what’s – dare I say – even more important in a detective story, the plot itself.

   To wit. The first chapter begins at a theater where a new play is about to open. Acting as a consultant is Joseph Spector, an illusionist of some note (part of the play’s apparatus is a trap door which is to be used for especial effect). But. Much of the focus is on an actress who is looking for a missing earring. The actress is mentioned only once more, and the earring never again.

   Much later on, a Challenge to the Reader is provided. (This is a Good Thing.) I failed, but there’s no surprise there. I had no more success at it than I’ve had with any of Ellery Queen’s, to take the most obvious example. But. I found Spector’s followup explanation to be, in a single word, glib. Allow me to explain further. Tom Mead provides footnotes during the lengthy explanation to all three impossible events, each referring to the page where such and such previous observation or factual description was made.

   All very well and good. Excellent, in fact. But. None of the footnotes led to an observation or description was “clueworthy,” a word invented by my brother to describe a fact that yes, it was there, and it came up earlier, but there was no way a detective could take that fact and connect it up to the solution he was in the end expounding upon. He was too glib. Too much “this happened, then this, and he did this.”

   There was not enough explanation as to what his deductions were, where, when and how. I think this important. (It is also extremely difficult to do.)

   Continuing. You cannot in a locked room mystery leave the setting so carefully and yet so vaguely described, both inside the room and out, so as to make impossible to visualize where the killer was where and how. (A map would have been exceedingly useful.)

   Saying more would be boring to those who haven’t yet read the book, and of course I’d be totally at risk of spoiling it completely. For those of you who have, I hope it’s enough so I’m clear as to what I am saying.

   If you’re a fan of Locked Room mysteries, you should still read this one. Few authors even try to write more than the minimum of “fair play” in their detective stories any more. This is far better than that. What I consider shortcomings may not even bother you. It’s a good attempt. If Tom Mead writes another, I will read it, and gladly.

NOTE: Credit where credit is due. Much of this review was shaped by a long conversation my brother Merwin and I had about the book in Michigan together last weekend.



  GONE ARE THE DAYS. Lionsgate, 2018. Lance Henricksen, Tom Berenger, Billy Lush, Meg Steedle, Steve Railsback and Danny Trejo. Written by Gregory M. Tucker. Directed by Mark Landre Gould.

   A metaphysical western. And not bad at all.

   Lance Henricksen, looking appropriately mummified, plays Taylon, a dying — or possibly already dead — outlaw on a journey to Durango, accompanied by a black-clad former cohort who keeps vanishing at odd moments.

   The ostensible reason for the journey is that old chestnut, the One Last Bank Job, but it turns out Taylon has another motive for going, involving another old chestnut, the daughter he hasn’t seen in years.

   This could have turned out very ordinary, but Writer Tucker and director Gould put a unique spin on it all; there are no answers awaiting Taylon, only more mystery. No dignity in death or aging, only fresh indignities, as he finds that it’s certain we can take nothing out of this world when we go.

   All of which contrasts very effectively with Tom Berenger as an aging but robust ex-partner of Taylon’s, an outlaw turned lawman who finds himself up against an old buddy (another stock situation well-handled) and meets it with grim irony.

   Gone Are the Days  dances at the edge of self-importance like a drunk on roller skates, but manages to remain merely thoughtful — and easy to watch.




PAUL E. WALSH – The Murder Room. Paul Damien #1. Avon #767, paperback original, 1957.

   Paul E. Walsh appears to have written only three detective novels, beginning with KKK (Avon, 1956) and ending with Murder in Baracoa   (Avon, 1958).

   The Murder Room is a low-keyed first-person affair featuring private eye Paul Damian, a former insurance investigator now in business for himself with two other operatives. He is hired here by Mrs. Clarence Standish whose brownstone in Brooklyn Heights has witnessed the death of a hood working for racketeer Vincent Manola.

   She expressly wants him to protect her younger daughter Laura who has been keeping some shady company of late, but it’s her older daughter Iris whom Damian finds more interesting. The Standish chauffeur is found dead in short time as well. and. it all looks very much like a mob affair with the Standish clan as innocent bystanders until the locked family beach home becomes the sight for some interesting activity of its own.

   The role of the “murder room” is kept nicely hidden until the denouement even though ghosts from the past are fairly obvious all along. Damian is just a bit too intuitive and the wrap-up a bit too brusque and pat to be completely satisfying, but the author does have a pleasant style and sets an otherwise nice pace.

   Perhaps you will enjoy, as I did, the nice nostalgic glimpse of the changing face of Brooklyn and sections of Long Island in the late 50’s. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate reading the other two novels after this one.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 4, Number 3 (June 1981).

PETER LOVESEY – Swing, Swing Together. Sgt. Cribb & Constable  Thackery #7. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1976. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1976. Penguin Books, US, paperback, 1978. TV Adaptation: Cribb, 20 April 1980 (Series 1, Episode 2).

   For some reason, I’ve never until now attempted any of Lovesey’s tales of  mystery taking place Victorian England. I’m not sure why. Too much exotic background to detract from the mystery?  Maybe. At any rate they never tempted me.

   I was wrong, I admit it.

   On a dare, a schoolgirl goes midnight bathing in  the Thames, naked. Not only does she have to be rescued downstream by a policeman, but she is also caught: up in a manhunt for three murderers. Nothing surely to help her reputation!

   But she proves herself a most remarkable heroine in helping Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray solve the case, built incidentally about a certain .Jack the Ripper. Told with happy good humor, slightly naughty at times. Lovesey doesn’t let the mystery detract from the background, b it blends the two into a wholly delightful concoction.

Rating:  A

– Slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, January 1977 (Vol. 1, No. 1)


      The Cribb/Thackeray series

Wobble to Death. Macmillan 1970.
The Detective Wore Silk Drawers. Macmillan 1971.
Abracadaver. Macmillan 1972.
Mad Hatter’s Holiday. Macmillan 1973.
Invitation to a Dynamite Party. Macmillan 1974.
A Case of Spirits. Macmillan 1975.
Swing, Swing Together. Macmillan 1976.
Waxwork. Macmillan 1978.



W. C. HEINZ – The Professional. Harper & Brothers, hardcover, 1958. Berkley BG-197, paperback, 1959. Reprinted many times.

   A linear, lucid story of a professional boxer as he prepares for a middleweight title match. The prose, spare and clean. The result, wistful.

   Eddie Brown has been preparing for this fight his whole career. He’s 29. He treats his body as the well- honed instrument it is. He eats right. Only drinks hot tea. Only eats dry toast and poached eggs. Runs five miles a day.

   The narrator is a magazine writer commissioned to profile a boxer training for a title match. He embeds himself in camp for a month, all the way up through the fight.

   Eddie’s trainer, Doc Carroll, has been crafting boxers for 43 years. In all this time, he’s only had ten boxers. He takes one at a time, teaches him everything he knows, and brings him up slow. This is his first title fight.

   Doc never wanted a title fight before because as soon as you get the title, the trainer loses the boxer. The boxer loses control of their destiny. Special interests control you. You’re a commodity. You can no longer pick your own fights, make your own schedule, be your own man.

   But with the advent of televised fights, you can’t make it anymore as a professional boxer going town to town. Nobody goes to the fights anymore. Fans can see them for free from the comfort of their home.

   Doc trains his guys to go at the other guy’s strength. To neutralize their punch and go with it. To win on the counter-punch. It takes the will to fight from your opponent when you can take their best and hurt them for trying. You can see it in their eyes, like a stuck bull. But nobody wants to see it. Folks only want to see the windup, the big punch and the knockout.

   The fans only get the hype and flair. The media caters to the fans. And the so-called boxers, the so-called champions of the world — they play to the T.V. And the trainers? They don’t give a crap. They don’t know a damn thing about boxing. They just buy boxers in bulk and play it as it lays.

   Doc’s the last of his breed. And Eddie’s the best boxer he’s ever had. Eddie’s done everything right. Doted on Doc’s every word. And here’s their big chance. Their last, best and only chance to show the world how boxing is supposed to be. The purity of the sport.

   You can guess how it ends.


   Ernest Hemingway called it ‘the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter.’

   The prose is very Hemingway. Which, to me, is a good thing. The story is well told, holds you, and doesn’t let you go. Until the end. And then you’re on your own. Like Eddie Brown, like Doc Carroll. Like the writer of the story that’s no longer of interest to any publisher. Here it is.

I’m leaving within the hour for a long holiday weekend in Michigan, where my sister lives. Joining us will be my brother, plus husbands wives children and various grandchildren (only one, not mine). It will be a full house! Back in this chair on Tuesday.



CLYDE B. CLASON – The Purple Parrot. Theocritus Lucius Westbrough #4. The Crime Club, Doubleday Doran & Co., hardcover, 1937. Rue Morgue Press, trade paperback,  2011.

   There were a large number .of competent practitioners of the fair play detective novel from the late 1920s to the early 1940s who are often ignored, or only vaguely treated, by reference works, yet whose books are eagerly sought by collectors. Among these nearly forgotten writers are Dornford Yates, A. E. Fielding, Darwin L. Teilhet, Clifford Knight, Milton M. Propper, Timothy Fuller, Max Afford, and Clyde B. Clason.  Indeed, almost all of my correspondents have a favorite unknown writer from the period. Surprisingly little investigation has gone on into many of these authors.

   Mike Nevins rescued Milton Fropper from oblivion in a TAD article, and I’m slowly revising my article on Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet. But — to get to the point of this review — no one.seems to know much about Clyde B. Clason. Bob Adey, who praises Clason’s “memorable” detective Theocritus Lucius Wesborough in Locked Room Murders, remarks that Clason is “unjustly shrouded in obscurity.”

   I must admit that after reading Clason’ s second book, The Death Angel, I was hot persuaded that the obscurity was µnjustified. The Death Angel is not notable for setting, characterization or cleverness of the mystery — which is solved by a device I hate: [WARNING] having most of the crimes and mysterious events committed by different people acting independently. (Other writers during the Golden Age fell into this trap, most notably Anthony Boucher in The Case of the Seven of Calvary, which is otherwise quite well told.)

   My second try at Clason, The Purple Parrot, has made me revise my opinion of his work. The story has many of the elements of the Golden Age: a narrator in love with the heroine, who is a prime suspect; a cruel grandfather, who is murdered just before signing a new will; a shady butler; hints of mysterious people from the victim’s past; an artifact — in this case, the parrot itself — which seems to have no value, yet is stolen; and slow-witted policemen in awe of the. eccentric detective, a professor of Roman history.

   Having all this together makes for .good reading, especially since Clason also provides some eccentric book collectors whose bibliophilia is a possible motive for the crime. Moreover, Clason shows considerable powers of construction and exposition, carefully and steadily developing the plot.

   The crime turns out to have been committed in a locked — or at least guarded — room, and Clason eventually produces two satisfactory explanations of the apparent impossibility. (Oddly enough the rejected explanation is much more ingenious than the eventual solution.)

   In short, except for one whopping coincidence, The Purple Parrot is a fine example of the 1930s detective novel.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 4, Number 3 (June 1981).

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