February 2023

ALFRED HITCHCOCK, Editor – Murderer’s Row. Dell, paperback, first printing, May 1975; reprinted January 1980.

   There perhaps is not a lot to be said for reviewing one of  these anthologies from the Hitchcock magazine. You read and enjoy this kind of story, or you don’t, and the collections seem only to sift out no more than the worst clinkers.

   Nor is there anything outstanding this time either. The best of the lot is “The Artificial Liar,” by William Brittain, on how to program a liar, with the intriguing possibility that it just may work. Fletcher Flora has a good private eye yarn, as Percy Hand proves himself to another client in “For Money Received.” Richard Deming tells a good cop story, “Nice Guy.” Intriguing is Rog Phillips’ “The Hypothetical Arsonist,” which deals with a firm calling itself Justice, Incorporated, but he flubs the story miserably.

   Other stories by the usual AHMM regulars: Frank Sisk, Henry Slesar, Theodore Mathieson, Ed Lacy, Edward D. Hoch, Richard Hardwick, C. B. Gilford,  David A. Heller, Richard O. Lewis, and Arthur Porges. Solid writing. strong openings, endings that don’t surprise quite as much as they should. It is a fine choice to help fill the nooks and crannies of an omnivorous mystery reader’s day.

Overall rating:   C plus.

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



Introduction by Alfred Hitchcock (ghost written)
Nice Guy by Richard Deming
The Bridge in Briganza by Frank Sisk
Thicker Than Water by Henry Slesar
The Artificial Liar by William Brittain
For Money Received novelette by Fletcher Flora
The Compleat Secretary by Theodore Mathieson
The Hypothetical Arsonist by Rog Phillips
Who Will Miss Arthur? by Ed Lacy
Arbiter of Uncertainties by Edward Hoch
Slow Motion Murder novelette by Richard Hardwick
Never Marry a Witch by C.B. Gilford
The Second Thief by David A. Heller
The Nice Young Man by Richard O. Lewis
A Message for Aunt Lucy by Arthur Porges

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Ellen Nehr & Bill Pronzini


MICHAEL DELVING – The Devil Finds Work.  Dave Cannon #2. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1969. Belmont, paperback, 1971.

   Of the six bibliomysteries Michael Delving (Jay Williams) wrote about the adventures, in England, of the two American partners of a Connecticut-based rare-book and manuscript firm, The Devil Finds Work is the only one featuring both Dave Cannon and Bob Eddison.

   In the small town of Bartonbury, the two dealers are offered a collection of material belonging to Tristram Vail, a notorious Satanist who was once called “the wickedest man in the world.” They also find themselves caught up in the investigation of the theft of a silver cup from a desecrated church. When Vail’s secretary. Richard Foss, is found dead during another attempt to rob the church, Chief Inspector Codd — whom Delving introduced in the first Cannon/Eddison adventure, Smiling the Boy Fell Dead (1966) —  is called in from Scotland Yard to investigate.

   The odd activities of Vail’s ambiguous friend Anthony Gaunt play a role in the mystery. As does Bob (who is a full-blooded Cherokee from Oklahoma) being challenged by the local pub’s darts champion to a match in which Bob will use a bow and arrow and lined target, and the other player will use a regulation dart board with appropriate adjustments made for distance.

   Another plot thread is Bob’s romantic interest in Jill Roseblade, the niece of an eccentric woman named Miss Trout, who owns a valuable Book of Hours coveted by the two partners. It is Codd, with help from Dave and Bob, who finally sorts out the disparate elements and solves the mystery.

   Each of the characters in The Devil Finds Work is fully developed (Bob is especially well drawn), and the narrative is packed with vivid descriptions of village life, the English countryside and architecture, and various works of art. Delving was also a master at conveying the differences and similarities between the English and American ways of life. (Anthony Boucher said of him: “I can’t think of anyone since John Dickson Carr who has better handled England-from-an-American-viewpoint.”)  And his knowledge of rare books and art is that of both an expert and connoisseur.

   The other five books in the series are equally fine, in particular Die Like a Man (1970), in which Dave, traveling in Wales, is offered an ancient wooden bowl its owner claims is the Holy Grail; and A Shadow of Himself (1972), which is concerned with a seventeenth-century Dutch painting and in which Delving divulges the outcome of the romance between Bob and Jill. Because of such personal elements that carry over from book to book, a sequential reading of the series is recommended.

Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.



THE NARROW MARGIN. RKO, 1952. Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Queenie Leonard, David Clarke, Paul Maxey. Directed by Richard Fleischer; written by Earl Fenton, Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, 1953.

   Narrow Margin is a film that will surprise and delight the viewer who comes to it without expecting too much. Like Fleischer’s other noir classic, Violent Saturday, it’s taut, professional, and engaging without being as riveting or moving as a film like Out of the Past or Detour.

   I place that caveat up front because it’s easy for a film buff to come to this movie with great expectations. Director Richard Fleischer showed a lot of promise early in his career and The Narrow Margin was one of his most promising efforts. Then, too, the script is coauthored by Martin Goldsmith, whose novel and screenplay for Detour formed the basis of one of the undisputed classics of the film noir.

   In fact there are a few echoes of that earlier work in this one, particularly in the relationship between Charles McGraw as a down-at-the-heels cop on the verge of corruption and Marie Windsor as the shrill, shrewish, shrike o! a Gangster’s Widow whom he is assigned to escort by train to testify at a trial. Both Goldsm1th and Fleischer steer clear of the deeper possibilities inherent in the story, though, and concentrate instead on the superficial aspects of McGraw’s mission.

   Fortunately, having decided to be superficial, they proceed to be stylish as well. The script, terse and occasionally witty, serves the plot and actors very nicely indeed,  and the camerawork, roving up and down the narrow corridors and in and out of the cramped compartments of the train where most of the action is set, earns top marks for graceful planning.

   The choreography here comes across with subtle dexterity as well: As the characters move about, they alternate between clumsy struggles against their restricted environment and a smooth, natural flow inside it, impressive and suspenseful either way. And one particularly nasty fight inside a traveling compartment not only predates the Sean Connery/Robert Shaw set-to in From Russia with Love, but also excels it.

   And now a word about the Cast.

   It attains the remarkable felicity that seems reserved only for B-Movies, where there are no Stars to tailor scripts for. The Narrow Margin like Mask of Dimitrios or And Then There Were None, is a film where the Character Actors have taken over,. and it is also one· of those rare occasions where they have decent material to work with.

   As the brassy widow central to the plot, Marie Windsor caps off a career of playing schemers, gold-diggers and ladies of negotiable virtue. To paraphrase the joke, one watches her in this film and gets the feeling that you could go to the dictionary, look up “sleazey” and find her picture.

   An unknown actor named Paul Maxey does a very nice turn as an enigmatic, grossly obese Railroad Cop (and the camera makes the most of him navigating his bulk relentlessly through the dwarfed corridors) but the truly outstanding role goes to Charles McGraw as the cop, distrusted by his superiors, blamed for the death of his partner, and sorely tempted by the bribes of his adversaries.

   Charles McGraw spent his life doing small parts in B-Movies and smaller parts in A-Films. Fans with good memories might recall him as the kindly doctor in The Wonderful Country or the inept comic chauffeur in Once More My Darling, but his major claim to fame was as one of the two assassins (William Conrad was the other) in the 1946 film of The Killers.

   Possessed of extraordinarily beady eyes for a mammal and the raspiest voice since Lionel Stander, McGraw always looked just a little too tough to play a hero, as if any bad guys who came up against him just obviously wouldn’t have a chance.

   By the time of The Narrow Margin,  however, he had already been hopelessly typecast as the Muscle Heavy in dozens of westerns, costumers and gangster pies, all of which add a pleasant tension to his character when he wrestles with the temptation to either sell out his traveling companion or simply strangle her to shut her up. It’s one of those engagingly off-beat performances in a quirkily enjoyable film that seem to have happened only (and all too rarely) in B-pictures.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #37, January 1988.




EARL DERR BIGGERS – The Chinese Parrot. Charlie Chan #2. Bobbs Merrill, hardcover, 1926. Reprinted many time, both in hardcover and paperback. Film: TCF, 1934, as Charlie Chan’s Courage,

   The Charlie Chan stories are classics of detective fiction. However, classics of the past are not always to be read with enjoyment in the present. I reread The Chinese Parrot to see how well it holds its own with modern mysteries. My verdict is that it does so very well.

   The many details which are of its own time add to the interest rather than detracting from it: the use of the telegraph, the “flivvers,” the ubiquitous Chinese “boys” as servants. The story is one of murder — surmised rather than known, an atmosphere of something wrong rather than a crime to be unraveled.

   It progresses as theory after theory put forth by young Bob Eden is proven wrong by Charlie Chan’s detective work. It is most unbelievable when Bob continues to bend to Charlie’s plea not to hand over the pearl necklace which he is supposed to deliver.

   Evidence of anything wrong at the Madden ranch is slim indeed; I have trouble believing that any impatient young man would procrastinate so on only the word of a Hawaiian detective he has never known before.

   However, it is necessary to the story that he delay, so delay he does.And delay at last brings the story to a smashing conclusion. Dated? Yes, of course. Outdated? Never.

– Reprinted from The Poisoned Pen, Volume 4, Number 5/6 (December 1981).


IRA WOLFERT – Tucker’s People. L.B. Fischer, hardcover, 1943. Bantam Giant A798, paperback 1950, as The Underworld. University of Illinois Press, softcover, 1997. Film: Basis for Force of Evil, directed by Abraham Polonsky and starring John Garfield.

   Wolfert was a NYC reporter who covered Dutch Schultz. Schultz got big in bootlegging. After repeal he needed a new racket. Numbers seemed like a good bet. In the numbers racket, you pick three numbers. If your 3 number combo hits, you win 600 to 1 on your bet. In 1931, Thanksgiving landed on November 25. 2 + 5 = 7. As a result, numerous numbers players could be predicted to bet on some variation of 2/5/7 on Thanksgiving.

   There were scores of independent numbers bankers in Harlem. Dutch figured out a way to fix the numbers coming out that Thanksgiving: 527. This bankrupted Harlem’s numbers bankers. Dutch came to the ‘rescue’ of the bankers, offering to pay off all the winners in exchange for the bankers joining Dutch’s Bank. In this manner Dutch was able to take over and consolidate the Harlem numbers racket, ‘earning’ upwards of $20 million a year.

   With that kind of money rolling in, Dutch bought the boss at Tammany Hall: Jimmy Hines. Hines fixed the cops, raided the numbers banks that refused to cave, and looked the other way on the concomitant sleaze and violence accompanying the racket.

   Then came along reformer DA Thomas E. Dewey. Dewey couldn’t be bought and he came after Dutch. This tied Dutch’s hands, giving opportunity to competing mobster Lucky Luciano to step up, step in, and take over. By force. And Dutch was slain.

   Wolfert took this story, changed the names, and wove it into a fictionalized account: Tucker’s People.

   It takes the major players: a numbers banker, an enforcer, a nerdy, nervy numbers accountant, and Dutch’s stand-in (Tucker), and attempts to weave a symphony out of these discordant instruments of the 30’s mobster soundscape.

   My copy of the book ran over 500 pages. And it surely felt like it. The prose was leaden and preachy. While the idea for the book was grand, it felt like Wolfert let grand ideological purposes get in the way of a good story. Wolfert appears to have wanted to make the story of Dutch Schultz into a morality play about how monopolies destroy the little guy — first by taking him over financially, then taking his soul. And when the little guy is no longer useful, flushing him down the drain.

   I have nothing against morality plays. But nothing destroys a good story like didacticism. If Wolfert was a better writer, he might’ve been able to make it work. Similar grand efforts have been successful. Like Robert Deane Pharr’s Book of Numbers and Vern E. Smith’s The Jones Men. Sadly, this one doesn’t join them.

   Made into the film Force of Evil in 1948, starring John Garfield:

ANTHONY BOUCHER – The Case of the Solid Key. Fergus O’Breen #3. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1943. Popular Library #59, paperback, 1945. Pyramid X-1733, paperback, 1968.

   A chance meeting in a Hollywood restaurant between Norman Harker, a would-be playwright fresh from Oklahoma, and Sarah Plunk, an actress of Carruthers Little Theater, involves them both in blackmail, attempted fraud, and murder.

   Fergus O’Breen is the detective, with Harker as his Watson and the assistance of Lieutenant Jackson of the LA police. Originally hired to investigate Carruthers, Fergus connects him an unsolved fifteen year old murder case and convinces an insurance company to allow him to investigate the death. “Probably the only case on record where a killer thanked the detective who spotted him.”

   The writer of the back cover blurb [of the Pyramid edition] obviously has not read the book. Lewis Jordan was not a blackmailer, did not die, and nobody wanted the killer not to be found. It was a locked room murder made to look like an accident, and everyone but Fergus would have accepted it.

   The [introductory description] inside the front cover is not much better – it gives away the first twist of the double-twist ending. Mr. Boucher should sue this publisher. The solid key is the key to the locked room, and not even Carr could have done it better. Occasionally the characters act strangely, but everything has its explanation. Quiet wit is unobtrusive and adds a great deal to the general Hollywood background.

   Amusing note: A description of the [totally fictional] pulp magazine Dread Stories is included.

Rating: ****½

– March 1968

RAILROADED! PRC, 1947. John Ireland, Sheila Ryan, Hugh Beaumont, Jane Randolph. Screenplay by John C. Higgins, based on an original story by Gertrude Walker. Director: Anthony Mann.

   A cop breaks in on a holdup in a beauty parlor, is killed for his trouble, and the murder is blamed on the kid who drives the truck used for the getaway. The boy has no alibi, and when the evidence builds up against him, only his sister and mother believe his story.

   Not a bad beginning, but the plot jumps the track when John Ireland, who plays the killer, makes a play for the sister – why, I have no idea. (The slugfest fight scene between the sister and Ireland’s girl friend is worth the price of admission, though.)

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.



NOTE: For a longer and a much more insightful review of the film, check out Jonathan’s take on it here.

THE NEW PERRY MASON. “The Case of the Wistful Widower.” CBS, 07 October 1973 (Season 1, Episode 4.) Monte Markham (Perry Mason), Harry Guardino (Hamilton Burger), Sharon Acker (Della Street), Albert Stratton (Paul Drake), Dane Clark (Lt. Arthur Tragg). Guest Cast: Jacqueline Scott, Bruce Kirby, Donnelly Rhodes. Screenplay: Ernie Frankel & Orville H. Hampton), based on the characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner. Director: Leo Penn. Currently available on YouTube.

   When a milquetoast of a middle-aged yacht broker discovers that the girl he is about to marry has apparently absconded with $30,000 in cash meant to complete a sales transaction, he is convinced by a fast talking new acquaintance to switch identities with him. Duh. What he doesn’t know is that a hit man is on the trail of this so-called friend, and wow, does the case take off from there.

   There is a blown-up car with a body inside, a scattering of ashes over the sea, a stash of counterfeit money, or is it, a kidnapping at gun point, and yes, of course, a murder, and Perry’s client goes on trial for the deed.

   Even Perry Mason, whom he finally goes to for help, calls this the most confusing case he’s ever had. I gave up about half way through and decided to simply go along for a ride. It may even be more complicated than any of Erle Stanley Gardner’s own, and that’s saying a lot.

   This new series followed seven years after the original one ended, the one starring Raymond Burr, and it may have been a case of far too soon. These new upstarts couldn’t hope to compete with memories of the original cast, and the new series was cancelled halfway through a single season. Monte Markham was OK, but he was no Raymond Burr, and neither the new Della nor the all-but-invisible Paul Drake make any impression at all.



DONALD E. WESTLAKE – Dancing Aztecs. Evans, hardcover, 1976.  Fawcett Crest, paperback, 1977. Mysterious Press, paperback, 1989.

   Good humorous crime stories ere very few and far between, and this has to be one of the best of them. The plot concerns a stolen golden statue (of a dancing Aztec) which somehow gets mixed in with a consignment of copies. The sixteen statues are given out to the members of a civil rig11ts group, and then various crooks and con men and gold diggers (some of them from within the ranks of the civil rights group itself) spend the rest of the book trying to find out which one is the real thing.

   It’s witty and funny and beautifully observed. Ilf and Petrov did a similar thing with chairs but it couldn’t have been any better than this. Simply crying out for a movie version — but perhaps somebody’s already done (or doing) it!

– Reprinted from The Poisoned Pen, Volume 4, Number 4 (August 1981).


LAURENCE SHAMES – Tropical Depression. Hyperion, hardcover, 1996.

   Shames ls one of the few down-and-dirty Florida writers I’ve enjoyed at all, and it took two books before I gave him even that much. The last two featured a family of gangsters named Goldman, but other than a walk-on by one of them at the beginning, they’re not in this one.

   Murray Zemelman, a lingerie mogul from Jersey known as “the Bra King,” gets depressed, pops a Prozac, and heads for Key West, Florida-leaving behind the bra business and a mid-life-crisis second wife. Not so coincidentally, his first wife is in Florida. Murray .meets a retired Mafioso, a Native American who’s the last surviving member of his tribe, and a shady Florida politician (redundancy?), and before you know it is involved in a scheme to help the N. A. Old Murray’s decisions haven’t been so good beginning with the one to leave his first wife, though, and matters don’t go quite as he planned.

   Take one thoroughly Jewish garment-maker, add a couple of Italian gangsters and a generic Florida politician, and then stir in a down-and-out Indian… Shames writes a brand of fiction that’s hard for me to describe. It certainly isn’t farce, though some of the strokes are broad; it’s occasionally amusing, but not really light-hearted; and it’s serious  and rough-edged without being grim.

   There — does that help? Well, maybe not, but I liked the book anyway. He does really good characters and ethic dialogue; some of the characters are small masterpieces, really. Maybe a little less manic Hiassen, or a bit softer Leonard?

   Hell, I don’t know. Try it.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #25, May 1996.

       The “Key West Capers”

1. Florida Straits (1992)
2. Scavenger Reef (1994)
3. Sunburn (1995)
4. Tropical Depression (1996)
5. Virgin Heat (1997)
6. Mangrove Squeeze (1998)
7. Welcome to Paradise (1999)
8. The Naked Detective (2000)
9. Shot on Location (2013)
10. Tropical Swap (2014)
10.5 Chickens (2015)
11. Key West Luck (2015)
12. One Strange Date (2017)
13. One Big Joke (2017)
14. Nacho Unleashed (2019)
15. The Paradise Gig (2020)
16. Key West Normal (2021)
17. Relative Humidity (2023)

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