AARON MARC STEIN – Hangman’s Row. Doubleday/Crime Club, hardcover, 1982. $10.95.

LESLEY EGAN – Random Death. Doubleday/Crime Club, hardcover, 1982. $10.95.

BERNARD ST. JAMES – The Seven Dreamers. Doubleday/Crime Club, hardcover, 1982. $10.95.

   One of the best days of the month, as far as I’m concerned, is the day that the latest selection of review copies from Doubleday’s Crime Club comes in. Now, as most of you already probably know, this is no book club in the ordinary sense of the term. The Crime Club has no dues (save the ever-increasing price of the books), no membership rolls or requirements of any kind, no free enticement offers — only books. Since 1928 or so, they’ve been publishing mysteries and detective stories,at the rate of three or four a month — and there’s no let-up in sight.

   Generally speaking, the books published by the Crime Club are prime examples of what’s called “category publishing,” aimed at a pre-set market. Most of them are gobbled up directly by libraries. Few show up anywhere else but the specialized mystery bookshop. There are few that reach the heights of ever being considered for an award of any kind, but there are few that are out-and-out losers, either.

   I’m writing this in March, and last month’s selections would have to be considered as pretty typical of what the Crime Club is producing today. There are two books by authors who have become long-time favorites, and one by a relative newcomer.

   Aaron Marc Stein, for example, has been writing books, under three different names, for over forty-five years. He never seems to get much notice for his labors, but he can always be depended upon to tell a good, solid story. As Stein, writing about free-lance engineering expert Matt Erridge, his books tend more toward adventure than detection. As rumor has it, this is the way the publishers like it. Book after book, Erridge stumbles across mystery after mystery, and without half trying.

   In Hangman’s Row Erridge is in Amsterdam, helping a girl he first meets in the Van Gogh museum. Her boyfriend, it seems, is a decent artist himself. He is also a vociferous spokesman for various liberal causes, and he is in trouble with the police. An artistic array of protest effigies has been spoiled by the addition of a real body to the collection.

   Although no more than a minor work at best, the story is enhanced considerably by the expertise Stein displays in local geography and customs. This is like a visit with an old friend — totally relaxed and comfortable leisure-time reading.

Rating: C plus

   Leslie Egan, on the other hand, usually has a lot more axes to grind in her books. Like Stein, she has been writing for many years now, and under several different pseudonyms. Her severest critics make much of her open support for various right-wing causes, and in one way or another her mystery novels, most of them police procedurals, usually reflect that same conservative point of view.

   Random Death is one of her stories of the Glendale police force. All of the detectives are featured, but the cases of Vic Varallo and Delia Riordan are the ones followed most closely. The use of a policewoman as a main protagonist does not imply any feeling or support for ERA on Egan’s part, however. Ms. Riordan deeply regrets her choice of career as it’s worked out — no husband, no family, none of the things it is “most important for a woman to have.”

   Whether you agree or disagree, what makes Egan’s books so alive is the strength of her convictions. As a suburb of Los Angeles, Glendale now seems to be under constant siege by criminal elements. Egan is simply unmatchable in terms of providing a voice of sympathy for the victims. Are the courts listening?

Rating: B plus

   As for the third book of the month, its author, Bernard St. James, has written one earlier novel featuring Chief Inspector Blanc of the Paris police. As yet, however, I’d be surprised if either author or character were other than a brand new name to anyone but the most fervent mystery fancier.

   The time is sometime in the early to mid-1800’s, making The Seven Dreamers almost as much a historical novel as it is a detective story. Someone — a mesmerist, Blanc quickly deduces — has slit the throats of everyone attending a small dinner party, while they were all sound asleep. Blanc’s problem is not so much to discover who the guilty party is as it is to uncover the link between the victims which gives the culprit his motive.

   And here’s where the history lesson comes in. As a mystery novel, The Seven Dreamers seems badly paced and badly padded. As historical fiction, it ends with a note of lofty idealism, viewed with a necessary bit of perspective. The success of the book, it would follow, would depend greatly on how strongly you are in agreement.

Rating: B minus

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 3, May-June 1982 (slightly revised).