Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
“Poison à la Carte”
by Matthew R. Bradley


   As with Murder by the Book (1951), the Nero Wolfe novel Plot It Yourself (1959) gets a metafictional spin from Rex Stout, who’d served as the president of Vanguard Press; the Authors Guild, lobbying for copyright-law reform; and the Mystery Writers of America, receiving their Grand Master Award that year. The National Association of Authors and Dramatists (NAAD) and Book Publishers of America (BPA) hire Wolfe due to a rash of “plagiarism upside down,” with successful works alleged to be copied from unpublished material planted ex post facto. The ’teers are reinforced by Dol Bonner and her assistant, Sally Colt (inexplicably renamed Corbett, with Stout’s typical disregard for consistency).

   We learn that Wolfe’s letter-opener “was a knife with a horn handle that had been thrown at him in [The Black Mountain (1954)], in the cellar of an old border fort in Albania, by a man named Bua.” Three at Wolfe’s Door (1960) is unique, since only “Method Three for Murder” was previously published (serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, January 30-February 13, 1960); “Poison à la Carte” and “The Rodeo Murder” debut there. “Method” opens as Archie leaves the brownstone on one of the 30 or 40 times he has been fired or, as he has here, quit over the years, and on the steps meets his first solo client, Mira Holt, who found a woman stabbed to death in the borrowed taxicab she was driving…illegally.

   Per Archie, the methods for answering police questions are to “Button your lip….Tell the truth straight through….[or] Tell a simple basic lie with no trimmings, and stick to it.” A sensible Wolfe offers to split Mira’s $50 fee: “You have helped me with many problems; surely I can help you with one. I am not being quixotic. I do not accept your headstrong decision that our long association has ended, but even if it has, your repute is inextricably involved with mine. [She] is in a pickle. I have never tried to do a job without your help; why should you try to do one without mine?” In “Rodeo,” they investigate a murder that is perpetrated during a party and roping contest at Lily Rowan’s Park Avenue penthouse.

   “Poison” finds Fritz asked by millionaire orchid fancier Lewis Hewitt to cook the annual dinner for the Ten for Aristology, his group “pursuing the ideal of perfection in food and drink,” to be served (unknown to Wolfe) by “twelve young women, one for each guest,” at the home of shipping magnate Benjamin Schriver. With Rusterman’s maítre d’hôtel, Felix Courbet—aka Felix Martin from The Black Mountain?—and chef Zoltan Mahany lending a hand, Archie busies himself trying to get the phone numbers of the “Hebes.” He meets Nora Jaret, Carol Annis, Fern Faber, Peggy Choate, and Helen Iacono before the dinner, spoiled when theatrical angel Vincent Pyle’s blinis are doctored with arsenic.

   A complex set of circumstances muddled the serving, with Fern returning from the “can” to find no plate, and the other four plus Lucy Morgan serving guests different from those to whom they had been assigned, while nobody seems able—or willing—to identify who gave Pyle the fatal dish. After the usual tirade from Cramer, Helen visits Wolfe to admit stabbing Pyle in self-defense several months earlier; to keep this from coming out, to the detriment of her career, she offers to expedite the investigation and seek a motive among the others. Wolfe suggests doing so en masse with Archie present, so they convene at the apartment shared by Peggy and Nora, a gathering eavesdropped upon by Purley Stebbins.

   Arrested for obstructing justice on the verge of relocating the party to the brownstone, he tells Purley—tipped off by Nora—that Fritz is Wolfe’s client, and is grilled by Rowcliff. The next day, Fritz joins Felix and Zoltan in offering to hire him formally for the good of the restaurant’s reputation, an appeal met with an astonished “Pfui….I am solely to blame for this mess, but you offer to pay me to clean it up.” He has Zoltan call each of the five, claiming to have withheld the fact that he saw her go back for a second plate, and asking to meet at a table with a mike hidden in a bowl of artificial flowers in Piotti’s restaurant, also used for precisely the same purpose in Gambit (1962), as Archie and Purley listen in.

   As with the Grand Central rendezvous in “Christmas Party” (1957), it’s largely a question of who accepts, in this case Carol, who responds to Zoltan’s “admiration” by stating that the master of the casting couch had promised to marry her…and trying to poison Zoltan’s spaghetti anchovy. Brought in by Cramer en route to jail, she admits nothing; per Wolfe, “You took such prodigious risks that it is hard to believe in your sanity…if you are mad you are also ruthless and malevolent.” Given a novella’s constraints, Stout identifies all twelve of neither the guests—including actor Adrian Dart, corporation lawyer Harvey M. Leacraft, and Emil Kreis, Chairman of the Board of Codex Press—nor the actress servers.

   A second-season episode of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, “Poison à la Carte” (5/26/02) was the fourth and final series adaptation by William Rabkin and Lee Goldberg; also broadcast in a double-length international version, it was directed by George Bloomfield, the uncle of Maury Chaykin, who starred as Wolfe. Cast members Michelle Nolden (as Helen) and Lindy Booth (Peggy) were also seen in, respectively, Season 1’s “The Doorbell Rang” (4/22/01) and Season 2’s “Before I Die” (6/16/02). The Server Girls include repertory players Shannon Jobe and Lorca Moore, as well as an early appearance by Stockholm-born Malin Akerman, whose breakthrough role was Silk Spectre II in Watchmen (2009).

   Pyle (Domenic Cuzzocrea) ruffles feathers by dismissing a centerpiece of pricey orchids donated by Wolfe and praised by Hewitt (David Hemblen in his recurring role): “I don’t care for flowers with spots and streaks. They’re messy.” The courses provided by Fritz (Colin Fox), Zoltan (Hrant Alianak), and Felix (Carlo Rota) are lovingly depicted, while Rabkin and Goldberg create dialogue to flesh out such characters as Dart (James Tolkan). Now the host instead of Shriver (sic; Jack Newman), Hewitt tells Wolfe that a dying Pyle keeps repeating “Jack in the Pulpit,” the title of a flop he had backed; Peggy insists that, finding her assigned guest already served, she instead gave his blinis and caviar to Wolfe.

   Assigned to Hewitt, already served by Lucy (Dina Barrington), Fern (Hayley Verlyn) lost the game of musical chairs after fixing her hair and delivered none, meaning that she is in the clear and someone else—clearly the murderer—had double-dipped. Wolfe asks Kreis (David Schurmann), Leacroft (sic; Gary Reineke), and the others to envision the scene, in the hope of recalling who had served Pyle, but to no avail. Cramer (Bill Smitrovich) says a paper spill was found bearing traces of arsenic and the fingerprints of Zoltan, who states that he saw it on the floor and put it in the trash; returning with Archie (Timothy Hutton) from their all-nighter, Wolfe does the unthinkable and skips his 9:00 A.M. orchid session.

   Helen had been seeking a role in Jack in the Pulpit when Pyle tried to have his way with her, and is quite happy, once they have a nominee, to tell the police she saw her go back for a second plate. At the “party” with Carol (Emily Hampshire), Nora (Sarain Boylan), et alia, broken up by Purley (R.D. Reid), Archie uses the seating chart and twelve slips of paper to go through the various permutations. Wolfe wisely warns Cramer of the planned unmasking—with him and Rusterman’s respectively replacing Purley and Piotti’s—since Helen calls the D.A. right after hanging up on Zoltan; Fritz forgives the injury Carol did to him, and the episode adds a nice coda of him and Wolfe silently sharing wine and beer.

         — Copyright © 2024 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: Too Many Clients- –

Editions cited

         Plot It Yourself: Bantam (1960)
         3 [sic] at Wolfe’s Door in Seven Complete Nero Wolfe Novels: Avenel (1983)

Online source:

Reviewed by TONY BAER:


JOHN McPARTLAND – The Wild Party. Gold Medal #596, paperback original; 1st printing, 1956. MacFadden 60-367, paperback, date?  Film: United Artists, 1956.

   Tom Kupfen is a hulking psychopath. Former football player. Hell with the ladies who love a sweaty bull.

   Gorgeous debutante Erica London is out on the town with her fiancé, Lieutenant Arthur Mitchell, fighter pilot. They decide to go slumming with the lowdown miscreant jazz musicians living hand to bop.

   Erica falls for psycho Tom. For just a moment. But the moment is long enough for Tom to dream dreams of what a rich foxy lady like Erica could do for him. And he for her. He won’t let go. He kicks her fiancé’s ass. And the only out is death.

   Forgettable. Made into a 1956 film with Anthony Quinn as the bad guy.


THE ADVENTURES OF THE ABBOTTS – The Man in the Green Nile Suit. NBC, 29 May 1955. Claudia Morgan & Mandel Kramer as Pat & Jean Abbott. Based on the characters created by Frances Crane.

   Married couples, one of whom is a famous detective, should never take second honeymoons, as this episode of The Abbotts well demonstrates. About to embark on a cruise in the West Indies, they stay overnight in a cabin where they find in the bathroom … a dead body. The captain of the ship insists on taking over, a task Pat Abbott is well willing to step away from

   But not for long. Once on the ship more intrigue breaks out. One man, a Frenchman, quietly suggests to the Abbotts that another man on board is a collaborator and that he wishes him dead. Soon enough, you guessed it. It’s a good thing the Abbotts are on board. The captain would hardly be up to the job.

   You may have already jumped to a conclusion that there is a connection between the two deaths, and luckily for your own safety, you would be correct. It’s one of those things it is difficult to avoid on old radio shows when there is only 30 minutes available to the writer and with no visual effects that can be used to distract the viewer of a contemporaneous television show.

   It is difficult for me to reveal events I read, watch, or listen to whenever I wrote up a report like this, but there is a twist I didn’t see (hear) coming, and that is a good thing, but I’m not so sure it would have worked as well on television as it does on radio.

   I had to go back and listen to the previous scene again, and yes, the script writer wrote it perfectly right — and the player in the role played it just exactly as it should have been done.

   Chagrined I was, that I missed it.

   But you can listen for yourself. Follow the link below and do some scrolling. Quite a few other episodes can also be sampled.  I can’t promise you that there is more than a surface resemblance between Frances Crane’s characters and those you’ll find in this and the other episodes you’ll discover there, but you may find them as amusing as I did this one, co-winky-dink and all.

MAX ALLAN COLLINS “Marble Mildred.” Nathan “Nate” Heller. First appeared in An Eye for Justice, edited by Robert J. Randisi (Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1988: A PWA Anthology). Collected in Dying in the Post-War World: A Nathan Heller Casebook, (Foul Play Press, hardcover, 1991).

   Running a one-man PI office in 1936 post-Depression Chicago, Nate Heller is hired by a woman who thinks her husband is cheating on her. It turns out that she’s wrong. In spite of following the man for several days, he manages to find incriminating at all. In truth he discovers that the story is quite opposite. His client has been lying to him, and quite badly.

   But when the non-erring husband is found with several bullet holes in him and close to dying, which he eventually does, it is Heller’s client who is suspected. Is he expected to clear her? Especially when, hired by a public defender, his efforts on her behalf just manage to uncover an even deeper – and sadder – story.

   Heller’s career over the years – and seventeen novels and four short story collections — has gotten him involved with people such as Charles Lindbergh, John Dillinger, Amelia Earhart, the Kennedys, and more. He may even, so rumors say, have gone to bed with Marilyn Monroe.

   So it comes as no surprise to read a short note at the end of this one that it too is based on a true story, with most but not all of the names changed. Collins is a very good writer. There’s no doubt about that. It’s just that the case itself is not very interesting. I can’t put my finger on it in order to tell you why. Maybe it’s as simple as this: the case it’s based on just didn’t have a lot of story value in it to begin with.

Remembering The Great Merlini:
An Interview with Clayton Rawson Jr.
by G. Connor Salter.


   Clayton Rawson (1906-1971) was a key member of the American mystery fiction community for over four decades. His best-known work combined his interest in magic with mystery, particularly in stories about amateur detective The Great Merlini — a name Rawson used himself at magic shows.

   His son, Clayton Rawson Jr., has carried on The Great Merlini legacy in various ways. In a March 2024 virtual event for Rendever Live, he showed some of his father’s magic tricks and observed that his siblings have said, “it’s like my father talking to them” when he performs. He has also shared samples of his father’s books and artwork, and shared memories in Something Is Going to Happen

   I connected with Clayton in March 2024, asking about his father’s friendships with writers John Dickson Carr and William Lindsay Gresham. Our conversation developed into an interview, during which he shared well-known and obscure details about his exceptional father.

What can you tell us about your father’s early life?

   Clayton Rawson grew up in Elyria, Ohio, and had a younger brother and two younger sisters. Magic was a passion from an early age but he also began to draw cartoons, and learned how to twirl a lariat. He produced some trick photographs that I have: juggling seven balls in the air, watching himself beat himself playing checkers, and a photo of him as a headless boy illusion.

   One of his early magic tricks (some called it a prank) was to put a large barrel on top of the school’s flag pole. He didn’t tell me how he did it… I had to figure it out. He was disappointed that I didn’t do it at my high school.

   The most detail about his life is covered in a biography that my brother, Hugh Rawson, wrote for one of the many reprints of our father’s mysteries: The Magical Mysteries of Don Diavolo, edited by Garyn Roberts, published by George Vanderburgh’s The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box in 2004.

When did he meet your mother?

   My parents met at Ohio State University during the Roaring Twenties. We have a collection of letters he wrote to her and a series of letters that feature cartoons of cats. The story is about a forlorn cat hoping his cat sweetheart will write back more often.

What was your father’s earliest published work that you can track down?

   At OSU, he was the Editor-In-Chief of the Sun Dial, a college humor magazine. I have just in the past year been in contact with OSU and they were kind enough to scan and send a copy of his last Sun Dial — June 1928. He drew the cover and wrote a mystery story — the first mystery of his that we have — as well as a number of other articles and book reviews.

When did your father become interested in magic?

   Hugh said it pretty well: “At about age twelve he saw an ad in The American Boy: ‘100 magic tricks for 10¢.’ He invested the dime and was never the same again.” (The Mysteries of Don Diavolo, p. vii.)

What were some of his accomplishments as a performing magician?

   While he loved performing for friends and family and other magicians, he never performed on stage professionally. He invented many magic tricks and was a regular contributor to magic magazines and newsletters: The Phoenix, The Jinx, and Hugard’s Magic Monthly.

   He co-produced The Society of American Magicians Annual Magic Show in 1965 and performed a version of his “Little Wonder Jim Dandy” routine … a trick involving eight volunteers and a Rube Goldberg style of sets, props, and a deck of playing cards.

   He first performed his floating lady levitation on the stage he built in our family’s backyard. It was revolutionary. He always wanted to perform it on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. In the 1960s, Orson Welles was Johnny’s permanent guest host. I never knew that my father knew Orson Welles and only found out when I answered the phone and took a message.

   “Who is this?”

   “Orson Welles…”

   Orson had been a member of the Witchdoctors Club.

   Orson could not get him on the Tonight Show, but a few years later, Walter Gibson got the floating lady booked on the Dick Cavett Show. But they didn’t need a magician or a floating lady, just the gimmick. Tony Curtis levitated Dick Cavett, and my father and I were behind the curtain making it happen.

What can you tell us about the Witchdoctor’s Club?

   The best description of the Witch Doctors Club (or sometimes Witchdoctors Club) is in an article I contributed to about the group on the site Magicpedia: “Membership was by invitation only and the sole purpose was lunch.” And showing off sleight of-hand-tricks.

   I only went to one of the lunches as they were in Manhattan on weekdays when I was in school. But I met most of the magicians at the summer picnics in Mamaroneck. I wish I had a list of the members of the Witchdoctors Club… as I wish I had more photos of them performing at the picnics.

What were some of his accomplishments as an illustrator?

   He drew covers and cartoons for The Chicagoan, a magazine modeled after The New Yorker. He drew advertising art for newspapers. In 1930, he did a Christmas Cover for the Kiwanis Club Magazine Cover, which I later found on eBay. He illustrated a children’s book, The Little Brown Bear by Alice E Radford, published by Rand McNally & Company in 1938.

   From 1930-1931, he drew more than a dozen two-page cartoons for College Life Magazine featuring a very risqué character named Dotty and her girl friends wearing skimpy clothes or nothing at all: “Dotty’s Diary,” “Dotty Joins the Swim Team,” “Dotty Goes to Hollywood,” and “Dotty Goes Nudist.”

   In New York City, he drew illustrations for advertising in newspapers and magazines: Bordens, Kleenex, and many other clients. He also drew book jacket covers, notably for Agatha Christie’s Murder of the Calais Coach, which was later retitled Murder on the Orient Express.

   He drew the cover and the inside art for his first mystery novel, Death From a Top Hat. He also drew the crime scene maps for the Dell Map Back paperback editions of the four Merlini Mysteries. Very unusual for the author to be the artist, as well.

How did he begin writing mystery stories?

   The Sun Dial has what may be his first mystery story — and, being in a humor magazine, it has a funny twist at the end. After a series of murders, each witness becomes a suspect but also becomes the next victim, and so on and so on until the final murder… the murderer is the author of the story, who decides it’s time to go to bed.

   My father always loved mysteries. In the mid-1930s, he decided to write one and would read the fresh off-the-typewriter chapters to friends. For his third mystery, The Headless Lady, he joined the Russell Bros Circus and appeared as the Side Show Magician for about a week and a half.

   He collected the ambiance, language, jargon, and slang of the circus for his book. We have another collection of his letters and postcards written to my mother and telling about life on the circus lot.

Death from a Top Hat introduced your father’s most famous character, The Great Merlini. Do we know if any particular characters or people inspired this character?

   My father’s research of magicians and his own love of magic. As you will read in my brothers’ bio of our father, that’s very true: “In New York in the early 1930s, Rawson began to build a reputation for himself as an uncommonly original magician, one who invented new tricks and gave fresh twists to old ones” (p. vii).

   My father’s short bio of The Great Merlini was published in The Jinx.

What can you tell us about his involvement with the Mystery Writers of America (MWA)?

   He was a founder of the MWA and came up with their motto: “Crime doesn’t pay… enough.” He also suggested the name of the Club’s newsletter, “The Third Degree,” suggested they have an annual dinner at which the best mysteries of the year would be awarded an Edgar, a statuette of Poe.

   In the early days of the MWA dinners, he wrote, produced, and acted in entertaining skits. He was awarded both an MWA Edgar and Raven for his contributions to the organization. His four Merlini Mysteries were published before the MWA was formed.

What was his involvement with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM)?

   Over the years, he contributed 12 Merlini mystery short stories to EQMM. In 1968, he became the Managing Editor. My father was very familiar with most of the authors who contributed to EQMM. He knew Fred Dannay and Manny Lee, the authors of Ellery Queen stories, and was a close friend of Dannay.

   He wrote most of his stories for EQMM in the 40s and 50s and his last, written to win a bet that he couldn’t write one, in 1971.

One interesting moments in Death from a Top Hat features The Great Merlini talking in detail about John Dickson Carr’s novel, The Three Coffins, where Dr. Gideon Fell gives a lecture on locked-room dilemmas. I understand that your father and Carr became friends when they lived near each other in Mamaroneck, New York. Can you tell us anything about that relationship?

   My father first corresponded with Carr after Death From A Top Hat was published. Rawson and Carr began a “lock room mystery” competition, trying to out-mystify each other and their readers. The Carrs and the Rawsons had a long-time friendship, even with distance — the Carrs moved back and forth from Mamaroneck and London and Tangiers. Both my father and my mother enjoyed their company, and they were my godparents. My parents and the Carrs took short summer trips together twice with me as the chauffeur, to Fort Ticonderoga and Sturbridge Village, in the late 60s.

   Both Clayton and John loved theatrics and produced skits for the MWA dinners. I remember stories of a Halloween party the Carrs had that included a “House of Horrors” in their attic.

Another interesting writing friendship is that your father and Carr were both friends with crime writer William Lindsay Gresham — another member of the Witchdoctors Club. Anything you can tell us about your father’s friendship with Gresham?

   I’m not sure when my parents first met Bill, but it was before Joy Davidman left him for C.S. Lewis. I was too young to know her, but I do remember Renee and the two children she and Bill raised together, but I don’t remember much about them.

   The next two photographs show Bill Gresham assisting my father as The Great Merlini in a levitating act with my sister Sarah.

   When the Greshams would visit us in Mamaroneck, or I’d go with my parents to their apartment in New Rochelle, I was in my early teens and probably spent the time playing games with Rosemary and her brother, Bob. Nothing much sticks out except the time I missed Bill’s Fire Eating Act when he did it one summer evening on Merlini’s outdoor stage in the rain.

   I also don’t have the disappearing bird cage that Bill left my father in his will. After my father died, my mother sold our house and had an open house sale of miscellaneous things. I had put the bird cage apart from the for-sale items but arrived late and somehow it was sold.

Who are some other writers he was friends with?

   He knew Robert L. Fish and the others who founded the MWA. Every summer, the Mystery Writers were invited to a picnic in our backyard, on a different weekend than the Witchdoctors. Some of the magicians were members of both the Witchdoctors and the MWA.

   In addition to the MWA crowd, one of my parents’ closest friends was Martin Gardner and his wife. He was the longtime contributor of the Mathematical Puzzle Column in Scientific American. My parents knew Martin when he was just starting out and working at Humpty Dumpty’s Magazine.

   Another writer friend was Hartzell Spence. Hartzell was the co-author of Fred Bradney’s book about his life in the circus — The Big Top: My Forty Years with the Greatest Show on Earth — an autobiographical book Hartzel wrote that was made into a movie, One Foot In Heaven, and many other books and magazine articles. Hartzell also coined the phrase “pinup girl” when he was an editor for Yank, the Army Weekly in WWII.

   For a number of years, my father was the mystery book editor for Simon and Schuster and got to know many more authors that way.

One interesting feature of your father’s first mystery novel, Death from a Top Hat, is that your father doesn’t just show magic tricks or characters discussing how those tricks are done; he has annotations referring to history books about magic. How deeply did he study the history of magic?

   He was a collector of magic books and knew the history of magic very well. I remember hearing him talk with others, including Bill Gresham, about famous magicians and their acts. A longtime member of the Society of American Magicians, he had friendships with the biggest names in magic from the 1930s into the 60s, and many of them performed on our backyard stage. Dai Vernon, John Mulholland, Harry Blackstone Jr., Milbourne Christopher, The Amazing Randi, Tony Slydini, Harry Lorayne, and plenty of others.

What are some nonfiction books he wrote about magic?

   The Golden Book of Magic and How To Entertain Children With Magic You Can Do are the two instructional books he wrote. I had one copy of the Golden Book and had nieces who all wanted copies. When eBay came along, I was able to buy many copies and give them away to relatives and friends who had children. I probably gave away 50 copies.

   He illustrated Al Bakers’ book Pet Secrets, and he was the co-author of books on gambling with magician and card manipulation expert John Scarne: Scarne on Dice and Scarne’s Complete Guide to Gambling.

Did your father write any work under pseudonyms?

   He worked under two names. He wrote the four Merlini Mysteries between 1937 and 1941. Stuart Towne was his pseudonym for stories about Don Diavolo, the Scarlet Wizard, and Mr. Mystery. They appeared in pulp magazines, Red Star Mysteries and Detective Fiction. The Don Diavolo stories appeared in the early 1940s.

Any idea why he decided to write another series as Stuart Towne?

   He used the pseudonym because he was under contract for the Merlini character and many too many ideas for just one magician/detective. The Don Diavolo stories were collected into one volume, Death Out Of Thin Air.

What would you say set your father’s approach to mystery stories apart from earlier writers?

   My father said that detectives solving most mysteries depend on following up on clues a la Sherlock Holmes. But my father also knew that most criminals had probably read Sherlock Holmes and knew how he used deductive reasoning — finding clues that are left by the perpetrator.

   The Great Merlini figured the criminals would leave false clues to confound the detectives. So, the Great Merlini used inductive reasoning — figuring how he would have committed the crime. Magic and Crime share one thing: deception. Merlini solves the locked room mysteries in this manner.

Is it true that your father sometimes used the Great Merlini as his stage name when he performed magic shows?

   Yes, he was always introduced as The Great Merlini. And The Golden Book of Magic was credited as authored by The Great Merlini.

How did his writing career develop as he became a family man?

   Most of his creative writing was done before I was born, and when the rest of his children were young. As we grew older, he had to get a “steady job” in publishing.

   At The Unicorn Press, he edited a magazine for their Mystery Book of the Month Club. He was the Picture Editor for the Funk & Wagnalls Yearbook for many years, then the Mystery Book Editor for Simon and Schuster and the Managing Editor of EQMM. During this time, he worked with Scarne on the two books I mentioned earlier.

   He also wrote the Complete Play Production Handbook with Carl and Dorthy Allensworth, neighbors of ours in Mamaroneck. The Allensworths were both involved in producing plays for our community. Carl Allensworth also wrote plays produced on Broadway.
As a mystery book editor at S&S and EQMM and his long membership of the MWA, he continued to have many mystery writer friends who attended the summer picnic in Mamaroneck.

On a more personal note, what was it like having a father who wrote for a living?

   When I was growing up in the 60s, he was working as an art director and editor. This was the time when he wrote the two books on magic, the book with the Allensworths, and ghostwrote Scarne’s Complete Guide to Gambling.

   There were times when my sisters and I were told not to bother him because he was writing. This was usually in the summer in the 50s and early 60s when he was working on the side porch before he had air conditioning in the attic, where he had his desk, typewriter, library, and magic equipment.

   A most memorable event was when my father came down from the attic and said he was quitting and couldn’t complete Scarne’s Complete Guide to Games. He got stumped and frustrated fiddling out and writing rules for playing Ma Jong.

   The last years of his life were not very good. He became, at times, extremely manic depressive, and it was seasonal. In the summer, he was full of energy and ideas. In the winter, he slept a lot and was not very happy. In 1969, he had a series of strokes and died a few years later.

   My father accomplished a great deal as an author, illustrator, and editor. The one thing he always wanted to do was produce a Broadway musical. He came up with the idea for one and even had a friend write a scene and lyrics to a song, for a “Fu ManChusical.”

Have you or any of your siblings pursued writing as a career?

   My brother Hugh began a long career as a writer with his first books, The Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Double Talk and Wicked Words. He and his wife, Margaret Miner, wrote a series of books of collected quotations.

   After graduating from NYU, I worked my way up in the film/video/TV business and had to keep up with the changes in technology… film to videotape to digital media. I was an editor, cameraman, writer, and producer of industrial films, TV pilots, and entertainment specials. My career developed after his death. He did see one of my first films but never gave me any advice on writing. He did tell my sister something that I’ve kept in mind: “Write like Hemingway.” Short sentences.

   My last job before retiring was as Director of Development and Executive Producer of Non-Political Specials for Fox News Channel. I created, wrote, and supervised the production of 90 hours of news documentary specials… many marking the anniversaries of major events in American History. For example, the thirtieth anniversaries of Apollos 8, 11, 13, and 17. I also worked on specials about D-Day, Pearl Harbor, 911, JFK Assassination, Boston Marathon Bombing. When I got my first on-screen credit, I was able to say to my mother, “See, I was doing my homework.”

   My sisters both had a variety of careers. Joanna was first a potter and then a real estate salesperson. Sarah was an assistant at Sanford University and then for an internet startup. She became a potter after retiring a few years ago. Both have children and grandchildren.

Any writings by your father that haven’t been collected?

   The most complete collection was published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box in 2006. In three volumes, it includes the pulp magazine stories about Don Diavolo and Mr. Mystery (volume 1), and all of the Merlini novels and short stories (volumes two and three).

Any upcoming projects — books being reissued, new anthologies — you can tell us about?

   Currently, annotated editions of the four Merlini Mysteries are in the works. Neil Tobin, a magician and mentalist, came up with the idea and sold it to Vanishing Inc. for publication. Neil and I are communicating about it: I’ve checked things for him and scanned images from the first editions of the books for him.

What are some places people can find more information about your father — a biography, videos, things like that?

   The magazine Genii’s May 2001 issue featured him with a cover story and a wonderful article by Michael Canick about his life and career. That issue of Genii also reprinted articles my father wrote for the magazine many years previous.

   — Copyright © 2024 by G. Connor Salter. The photo images above and the videos below have been used with the kind permission of Clayton Rawson, Jr.

   Rawson has produced an image archive of his father’s artwork and books, The Great Merlini Scrapbook,

 and a short video about his father’s Dotty illustrations.

Both videos are available on YouTube. His upcoming work will include discussing his father and magic on Jeff McBride’s Magic & Mystery School Monday Classroom

About the Interviewer: G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor living in Colorado. He has contributed over 1,300 articles to various publications, including Mythlore, The Tolkienist, and Fellowship & Fairydust.

THE UPTURNED GLASS. General Film Distributors, UK, 1947. Universal-International, US, 1947. James Mason, Rosamund John, Pamela Mason (as Pamela Kellino), Ann Stephens, Brefni O’Rorke. Screenplay: John Monaghan and Pamela Kellino, based on a story by the former. . Director: Lawrence Huntington. Currently streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of their “gothic noir” collection.

   Dr. Michael Joyce, played quite earnestly and effectively by James Mason in one of his last few films he made in the UK, is not only a noted brain surgeon, but he often gives lectures at the university as an expert in criminology. It is in the latter role that the movie begins. The theme for his presentation is that murders can be done for rational reasons by people who are quite sane. To demonstrate the point, he tells the students of just such an instance.

   It quickly becomes apparent to the viewers that the killer in the story he tells is himself, related almost entirely in flashback. It’s an unusual structure for telling a tale, narrating as he does how it all came about, with himself playing the primary character. After he saves a young girl from going blind, he finds himself falling in love with the child’s mother, whose husband’s job keeps him long distances from home for long periods of time.

   Realizing the probable folly of their ways, they break off the affair. Soon thereafter, however, the woman in the case is found dead, having jumped to her death (possibly an accident) from a second floor window to a brick courtyard below. Joyce has another thought. Could she have been pushed? And could the pusher be the dead woman’s sister-in-law? And if so, should Joyce take matters into his own hands?

   All of the above takes up perhaps the first two-thirds of the movie, which while academically interesting is also as slow as molasses on a chily day. But with thirty minutes to go, the story suddenly shifts, catching the unwary viewer by surprise (me), and the noir nature of tale clicks in.

   It’s almost good enough to make the first hour or so worth the wait. I’m still thinking about that. If it hadn’t been James Mason in the part, twenty minutes would have more than enough time to start thinking about finding something else to do.

   And in any case, the ending does make a good fit with the beginning. Go back and read the first paragraph of this review again.

   Various reviewers on IMDb have tried to explain the title, with varying but probably futile success. The movie began its life as a story about the Bronte sisters, but when they decided it wasn’t working, they scrapped the whole thing and rewrote it from scratch, keeping only the title.




KURT STEEL – Murder for What? Hank Hyer #2. Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1936. Select Publications, digest-sized paperback, 1943. Also published, perhaps in abridged form, in Detective Mystery Novel, Fall 1948.

   McRae cultivated an English accent… it was like gold leaf on a slot machine.

   McRae is a gambler who is in a poker game with Hank Hyer when the subject of Kip Shannon comes up. Hyer, a NY based Private Eye in the Sam Spade/Michael Shayne tradition hasn’t got much use for Shannon, who married Broadway star and Hyer friend Lilith. It seems Shannon is back in New York and wanted for questioning in the murder of a policeman in his cabin upstate, though another man has been arrested for the crime. Nonetheless McRae seems unusually interested.

   Shannon is pretty much a washout, playing around on Lilith and blowing a career as a screenwriter in Hollywood before getting involved in some shady business with some shady people while wandering around the Pacific and Taos, New Mexico (already a well known artists retreat in 1936).

   “I’d be tickled to help keep Ken Shannon in a jam as long as it wouldn’t hurt Lilith. But nothing’d give my conscience more rheumatism than to lift him out of one.”

   But Hank barely makes it out the doorway with his winnings (hanging on to the money in his wallet is a running theme here) when reporter Corey Hilton shows up, the third wheel in the Shannon/Lilith relationship, dragging Hank to his apartment where Shannon is hiding out.

   “Corey picked Shannon for a roommate and Lilith picked him for a husband, neither of ’em took a sanity test.”


   Hank can avoid anything but trouble and for Lilith’s sake agrees to help Shannon against his better judgment, and barely gets out of Hilton’s door before he his sapped and kidnapped by two hoods mistaking him for Shannon.

   His “ride” is interrupted when the weather causes the car to wreck, and an annoyed Hank with a broken wrist finds himself near where Shannon is wanted by the police just south of Woodstock and does some investigating when Lilith shows up and on the train back both of them find themselves ducking the hoods that kidnapped Hank and followed Lilith looking for Kip.

   And what does sexy blonde siren Mrs. Venice Malinkell, one of the great femme fatale’s in the genre, friend of the gambler McRae, have to do with it all and what does she want when she shows up with a gun at Hank’s apartment where Shannon has been hiding out?

   Then too, why did Shannon’s father hire Hank to investigate Kip anonymously through a shady cousin

   Then Kip Shannon shows up in Hank’s apartment murdered…

   Kurt Steel, Rudolph Hornaday Kagey, wrote nine fast moving Hank Hyer novels about the tough, tight with a dollar, New York PI much in the style of Brett Halliday and Cleve Adams (though Hyer is more likable than any Adams protagonist). The books did well and were often reprinted in the pulps (as this one was in Detective Novels). They are fast paced and well written with Hyer one of the more believable private eyes with a nice balance of action, plot, and colorful characters.

   Hyer debuted in 1936, this was his second entry, and had a good decade long run before Kagey died in 1946 at forty-two bringing the Hyer saga to an end just as the paperback era was starting.

   As in any of the Hyer novels Hank finds things getting complicated as the case develops with multiple murders (Shannon’s father), gangsters, the Feds, and a fortune in counterfeit money and plates involved before Hank and a state patrolman storm Shannon’s snowbound cabin filled with heavily armed hoods and shoot it out with blazing tommy-guns and Hank wraps it all up neatly back in his apartment in New York nailing the murderer behind it all.

   Steel writes well and has the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, tight plotting, and colorful characters of the genre down to a science. Along with Richard Reeves’ Cellini Smith, he is probably one of the last great eyes of the era deserving to be resurrected and rediscovered and less well known because he didn’t have a presence in the major detective pulps.. My favorite of the Hyer novels is Judas Incorporated from 1939, perhaps the only one to appear from a major paperback publisher (Dell).

   Murder for What? is a surprisingly good second effort that reads as if it were written by a veteran of the genre. I give it the highest recommendation for any lover of the classic hard-boiled novel of the period.

         The Hank Hyer series

Murder of a Dead Man (n.) Bobbs 1935
Murder for What? (n.) Bobbs 1936
Murder Goes to College (n.) Bobbs 1936 [
Murder in G-Sharp (n.) Bobbs 1937
Crooked Shadow (n.) Little 1939
Judas, Incorporated (n.) Little 1939
Dead of Night (n.) Little 1940
Madman’s Buff (n.) Little 1941
Ambush House (n.) Harcourt 1943

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Ellen Nehr


MARGARET ERSKINE – Give Up the Ghost. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1949. Mercury Mystery #163, digest paperback, 1953. Ace, paperback, 1970s? [published as part of Ace’s line of Gothic paperbacks].

   Margaret Erskine wrote the same book about Scotland Yard inspector Septimus Finch twenty-one times. In each one Finch is described as having a nondescript face and a proclivity for dressing all in gray. This repetition doesn’t enhance the inspector’s limited charms, although it could be argued that his stolidity and matter-of-factness are positive character traits.

   In Give Up the Ghost, crude and rather nasty drawings have been sent to the Camborough constabulary, but have been more or less ignored until the elderly housekeeper of the pompous Pleydon family is found murdered with another drawing pinned to her body. None of the Pleydons can suggest any reason for their household’s being singled out, yet several days later another woman connected with them is killed, another drawing near her body. A band of vigilantes is formed to prowl the streets.

   Meanwhile Finch, in spite of the Pleydons’ interference, investigates the family’s history and discovers their convoluted, almost forgotten web of financial skulduggery — just in time to prevent further murders. There arc moments of humor amid the gore, such as when Finch installs young Constable Roark in the Pleydon household as a butler.

   Erskine — who has stated that writing thrillers was a revolt against her highbrow family — specializes in eccentric British families with long-held secrets, social pretensions, and heads of household who possess streaks of cunning.

   As a Scotland Yard officer. Finch solves crimes in Sussex, several seaside towns, and provincial villages. He remains as colorless through his last case, The House on Hook Street (1977), as he was in his first adventure, The Limping Man (1939). Erskine’s novels are definitely an acquired taste.

   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.

ROBERT SILVERBERG – Thorns. Ballantine U669, paperback original, 1st printing, August 1967; cover by Robert Foster. Walker, hardcover, 1969. Bantam, paperback, 1983. Nominated in 1968 for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel of 1967.

   A manipulated love affair, between Minner Burris, starman disfigured by aliens, and Lona Kelvin, virgin but mother of one hundred children, Mutual sympathy was the original reason for their attraction. But their obvious differences were bound to lead to the emotional conflict that Duncan Chalk, dealer in public entertainment, could feed on.

   Tries a bit too hard to be literary, and what story there is suffers. Message abounds. People with power tend to make themselves into gods; aliens remake a human body without explanation, doctors take the product of a young girl’s ovaries without regard to her feelings, and of course Chalk, who lives on stolen emotions.

   And thorns? “They stick you.” (page 83). “To be alive … to feel pain – how important that is.” (page 222).

Rating: ****

— July 1968.


PHILIP KETCHUM – Death in the Library. Timothy Y. Crowell, hardcover, 1937. Dell #1, paperback, 1943.

   This has some historical importance, to collectors anyway, since it was the first of what came to be the Dell Mapbacks. Curiously enough, though, it doesn’t have a Map on the Back, but a blurb announcing this as the first in a series of Mysteries selected by the editors of America’s Foremost Detective Magazines. Pity, because this one could have used a map — this one could have used all the help it could get.

   Steven Barth, Denver PI, returns to his home town because he senses from a recent letter that something is troubling the man who raised him. When he gets there, he discovers (WARNING!) the latter’s body, complete with suicide note and gun-in-hand. Not long after, he concludes (WARNING!) the death was really Murder and (WARNING!) the Police suspect him of it.

   Not bad, really, aside from the plot, characterization and dialogue, but it’s hard to believe that this is the best that America’s Foremost etc. could come up with:

   Not a credible character nor a fresh twist in the whole thing. Those with an allergy to cardboard should avoid this at all costs.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #46, August 1990.

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