by Francis M. Nevins

   Feeling tired and lazy in these dog days of early autumn, I began asking myself whether I could cobble together a respectable column from the mystery reviews I wrote for my eyes only back in the Sixties and Seventies. To provide a soupcon of unity I decided early on to limit myself to U.S. writers and to novels I wasn’t terribly happy with. Shall we see how the experiment came out?


   Baynard Kendrick’s Blind Allies (Morrow, 1954) begins promisingly as a seedy character who claims to be but obviously is not the son of an oil tycoon retains blind detective Captain Duncan Maclain to go to his dad’s mansion at 3:00 A.M. and open a safe whose combination is in Braille.

   May I jump to the first murder? The lights go out in the old dark house, all the suspects run around like buffoons, the lights go on and voila! a body. Back in 1968 I couldn’t find a single kind word for this disaster of a book, which struck me as wretchedly organized and plotted and written, stuffed with implausibilities and contradictions, padded beyond endurance, and resolved by blatant guesswork.

   My reaction would probably be the same were I to re-read it today, but if you’ve tackled this or any other book discussed here more recently than I and think I was too harsh, please say so.


   In recent decades dozens of female private eye novelists have flourished, most if not all of them writing about female private eyes. But back when Chandler ruled the genre the only woman in the field was M. V. (Mary Violet) Heberden (1906-1965). She seems to have been heavily influenced by Brett Halliday, and her PI Desmond Shannon is best described as Mike Shayne seen through a woman’s eyes.

   His problem in The Lobster Pick Murder (Doubleday, 1941) is to find out who stuck the pick into the sadistic plastic surgeon’s medulla oblongata. Nothing about this exercise — plot, prose, characterizations, upper-crust Long Island setting, theatrical milie — rises above the drearily competent, and most readers will identify the perp about 200 pages before Shannon. Some of the later Heberdens I’ve read are much better but they’re not on the table this month.


FRAZER Find Eileen Hardin

   The writer who was born Milton Lesser (1908-2008) and is best known as Stephen Marlowe, creator of globe-trotting PI Chester Drum, also used other bylines. Roughly 90% of his Find Eileen Hardin — Alive! (Avon #T-343, PBO, 1959), signed as by Andrew Frazer, is the mixture as before.

   Private dick and former football hero Duncan Pride returns to his alma mater when his old girlfriend, now married to his old coach, begs him to help find the coach’s missing teen-age daughter, who’s rumored to have become a call girl. The search brings him up against criminal enterprises like prostitution, abortion (remember this was a dozen years before Roe v. Wade), the enticing of innocent virgins into a life of sin and the fixing of college athletic events, not to mention murder.

   Frazer does give us a few reasonably vivid scenes at a deserted oyster cannery and the old Idlewild air terminal, but the book is too long and full of cliches, much of the motivation would not be out of place in a soap opera, and the sniggering attitude towards sex is a turn-off.


   The success of Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie and countless others disproves the thesis that sexism forced all or most women mystery writers of the pre-feminist era to adopt male bylines. But it was common practice for women writing the sorts of mysteries generally associated with men, like M.V. Heberden with her PI series, and also like DeLoris Stanton Forbes (1923- ), whose novels about police detectives Knute Severson and Lawrence Benedict appeared under the name Tobias Wells.

   Dead by the Light of the Moon (Doubleday, 1967) is a readable but uncompelling semi-procedural about the murder and de-breasting of an old woman in a Boston apartment building during the great East Coast blackout of 1965. Wells has just finished spreading suspicion evenly among various fellow tenants of the victim when suddenly and arbitrarily the guilty party confesses. Sure, real-life crimes often end this way, but a fiction writer must do better.


KOEHLER Hooded Vulture Murders

   The novels of Robert Portner Koehler (1905-1988) were published almost without exception by a house at the absolute bottom of the literary food chain, although it does hold the distinction of having been the last U.S. publisher of that great wack of American literature, Harry Stephen Keeler.

   Koehler’s The Hooded Vulture Murders (Phoenix Press, 1947) deals with two hapless California PIs who stumble upon the murder of a blackmailing journalist while driving through southern Mexico on the uncompleted Pan American Highway. Naturally the bumbling native officials welcome with open arms the intrusion of these brilliant Anglo sleuths, although readers may wish the boys had stayed home.

   Koehler paints local color vividly enough but the book is ineptly plotted, woefully written, pathetically characterized, laughably clued, and all in all a pretty lame excuse for a whodunit.


   Enough for one month. It took more time and work than I expected to unstiffen the language of these ancient jottings without changing anything substantive. But it’s good to know that I have enough material in the archives for a few more columns if I get to feeling tired and lazy again.