Search Results for 'Anthony Abbot'



ANTHONY ABBOT – About the Murder of a Startled Lady. Thatcher Colt #5. Farrar, hardcover, 1935. Avon Murder Mystery Monthly #25, digest paperback, 1944.

   Thatcher Colt, Police Commissioner of NYC, District Attorney Doughterty, and Colt secretary Tony Abbot (an actual character unlike Philo Vance’s Van Dine) are strolling casually back to their offices when a policeman shows up looking for the Commissioner. It seems the police have just busted a phony church and spiritualist scam, and the husband and wife mediums, the Reverend and Mrs. Lynn, made their phone call to call in a professor who insists they are the real thing, and something more.

   “I know it sounds screwy, Mr. Commissioner, but Professor Gilman told me to tell you that the Lynns were positively genuine mediums and could really and truly talk with the remains of the dead.”

   “Was that all?”

   “That was all —   except a lot of hooey about how the Lynns could tell you about a murder.”

   “About a what?” barked Dougherty. Until now he had been totally indifferent, stamping large, cold feet.

   “Mrs. Lynn, the female of the mediums, is supposed to have got a message from what she calls her spirit guy—”

   “Spirit guide!” corrected Dougherty.

   “And the spirit guy brought in a girl that had been murdered and the body buried—”

   That leads to an impromptu seance with the attractive Mrs. Eve Lynn, the medium, who contacts the victim, Madeline, who tells Colt where to find her body.

   And it turns out there is a body, a woman, a woman whose body has been at the bottom of the ocean off Shadow Island, in two hundred pieces, with a bullet in her skull.

   “It’s as plain as plain can be. Look at them — the bones of a petite woman, quite young, I should judge — not more than twenty-five at the outside, nearer twenty in my unexpert opinion. She probably weighed a little over a hundred pounds — there was a very slight curvature of her spine which makes her height a little uncertain — she was about five feet, four inches tall. She was probably from a good station in life. The hole in her skull was caused by a bullet and she died around May first.”

   “The time the medium said.”

   “Just about,” assented Colt imperturbably.

   A fair enough start for just about any mystery, and shortly they uncover the name of the victim, Madeline Swift, a solid motive, a connection of Tammany Hall (and the DA is up for reelection and owes his position to Tammany Hall), and a suspect who couldn’t look more guilty but Colt isn’t so sure.

   Anthony Abbot was noted writer Fulton Oursler (The Greatest Story Ever Told), father of pulp and mystery writer Will Oursler, and a noted literary figure of his day who famously chose his pseudonym because of its alphabetical advantages.

   His Thatcher Colt mystery novels were in the S. S. Van Dine tradition, but like Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout, he often outdid the creator of Philo Vance with Colt, based on Theodore Roosevelt, himself a former NYC Police Commissioner, being at once more believable, having a great sense of humor, and his position as Police Commissioner giving him more realistic entry into the murders he investigated.

   Most of the Colt novels are interspersed with actual touches of police procedure, here the reconstruction of the victims face from her skull, and Colt able to command his army of police and contacts around the country without the need for a DA Markham or Sgt. Heath or for that matter a policeman father.

   The books eventually came to the screen with Adolph Menjou surprisingly well cast as Colt and later Sidney Blackmer, who often played Theodore Roosevelt in films, ideal despite a much lower budget.

   Though the books never achieved the success of Van Dine, they hold up better over all, and Abbot at least never introduces the killer in the same chapter on the same page and paragraph in every book as Van Dine was apt to do.

   Though as static and talky as any mystery in the Van Dine tradition Abbot keeps things moving at a decent pace, and throws enough curves and red herrings to delight even the most hardened aficionado of the form.

   Who killed Madeline Swift, the startled lady of the title (based on the expression of the reconstructed face)? Was it the boyfriend, his forceful sister who disapproved of Madeline and her brother, the fanatic mediums using Madeline’s death to prove they are real, the Tammany Hall politician who may have been too interested in a girl the same age as his daughter, someone else?

   â€œI don’t like to look the realities of this affair in the face. They’re too horrible. I don’t like to look at them. But I’ve got to. Right now.”

   The red light of the traffic lamp spilled a hellish glow over the face of Thatcher Colt. In the crimson glow his eyes gleamed demoniacally.

   “Right now!” he repeated. “Here’s the horrible part, Tony — I know who killed Madeline Swift now — but I can’t prove it!”

   But prove it he will in an operating theater of a major hospital with a doozy of a final gathering of the suspects.

   These aren’t without many of the flaws of the Van Dine school, and colorful as Colt’s model may be he doesn’t always live up to him, his portrayal in many ways a collection of traits rather than personality (his sartorial splendor making Menjou a natural to play the part).

   This is mystery fiction as a game, dated in many ways, but also surprisingly modern in others (the Van Dine school was often socially conscious racially and ethnically in ways unusual for the period). I personally tend to prefer the Brits from this era to most of the Americans in the Van Dine school (Ellery Queen outgrew the Philo Vance business and Rex Stout had Archie’s hardboiled voice to appreciably change things up) including Abbot, but Colt is perhaps the most human of the Van Dine sleuths until Ellery’s humanization.

   Not that he is never high-handed, most of the great detectives on either side of the pond are high handed, but with Colt it seems to arise from the needs of the case and his position as Police Commissioner. He is the most likable of the Van Dine sleuths, as well as one of the smartest.

   There are a number of good entries in the Colt series, and they are worth reading if you like the form, Oursler is a capable writer, and not above a little theatrics to spice up the mix, and unlike Vance, no kick in the pants is needed.


ANTHONY ABBOT – About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women. Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1937. No paperback edition.

   A writer who was once tremendously popular, Anthony Abbot, is no longer read today. That is unfortunate because a recent reading (or in some cases rereading) of his books, published between 1930 and 1943, shows them to be still quite readable. In addition to a nostalgic look at New York in the past, there are plots far more imaginative than many conceived today.

   The general caliber of writing is not good, but there are some touches that are surprisingly effective. For example, in the book reviewed below, Abbot describes a police lab, drawing an analogy to the medieval attempts to turn baser metals into gold. “Here, instead, men sought to turn human flesh and blood into grand jury indictments.”

   Abbot, the pseudonym of Fulton Oursler, author of the best seller The Greatest Story Ever Told, is usually lumped with another pseudonymous writer, his contemporary, S. S. Van Dine. There are definite similarities, although Oursler eschewed the erudition and footnotes which caused Ogden Nash to threaten to kick Van Dine’s creation [Philo Vance in the pants]. Abbot’s Thatcher Colt, like Philo Vance, is larger than life, but he is easier to take. Both authors have “Watsons” whose names are the author’s pseudonyms and who record the adventures of their employers. Each series has a somewhat dense District Attorney.

   Another similarity is the use of real murder cases for many of the novels. There was a time when mystery novelists like Van Dine, Patrick Quentin, Anthony Boucher, John Dickson arr, and Abbot were very knowledgeable about the great true crimes of the past. In the first Thatcher Colt book, Abbot has the detective, who owns a library of 15,000 true crime books, ask, Ïf our criminals plagiarize from the past, why not our detectives?

   Much has been written about Abbot’s second mystery, About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress (1932) and its basis in the Hall-Mills case of 1922. I do not recall anyone pointing out that a lesser-known Abbot, About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (1937) is based on the William Desmond Taylor case, subject of two recent popular nonfiction books, though it clearly is.

   Man Afraid of Women has Thatcher Colt due to get married in a few days and frustrated by such problems as auto deaths, lack of adequate gun control, and pervasiveness of drugs in New York City. There is also a reference to air pollution. (Sound familiar?) Of historical interest is the attitude of the characters toward blacks, an outrageous racism as prevalent as the anti-Semitism found in British novels of the period between the wars.

   Colt’s fiancee sends him the problem of a secretary with a missing boyfriend, and that soon leads to the titular murder victim. The puzzle is a difficult one, and while the solution is not totally satisfactory, there is some real misdirection along the way and an exciting, albeit melodramatic, ending.

   Sometimes the writing is overheated, as when Abbot refers to this case as “the greatest of crime problems.” It’s not, but it’s a good puzzle nonetheless.

   Besides plot surprises, there is some dialogue that we would not expect. Coitus interruptus in a mystery written in the 1930s! Colt’s “Watson,”Anthony Abbot, is upset by Colt’s impending marriage and retirement. He asks his wife, Betty, “Why had a woman come back into the life of the greatest detective of all time?” Abbot’s wife claims he is jealous and sits on his knee. We read, “I spanked her and took her to bed. And then came one of life’s embarrassing moments, for shortly thereafter the telephone rang. Thatcher Colt was at the other end of the wire.”

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1991.

NOTE:   For Mike Nevins’ review of About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress earlier on this blog, go here.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins:

ANTHONY ABBOT – About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress. Covici Friede, US, hardcover, 1931. UK title: The Crime of the Century, Collins, hc, 1931. Also published as: Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress. Popular Library #286, 1950.

ANTHONY ABBOT Clergyman's Mistress

   Fulton Oursler is best remembered as a magazine editor, for Liberty in the 1930s and Reader’s Digest in the late Forties and as the author of the religioso blockbuster The Greatest Story Ever Told (1949). But in younger days he also contributed to the mystery genre, using the by-line Anthony Abbot for eight detective novels starring New York City police commissioner Thatcher Colt.

   The format of the first six is clearly borrowed from S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance series. Each title falls into rigid About the Murder of pattern; Colt is portrayed as wealthy mandarin intellectual; his cases are narrated and signed by his faithful male secretary; his familiars include a stupid district attorney, a crusty medical examiner, and dignified butler; the novels tend to begin with a body found under bizarre circumstances, with strange clues pointing to a host of suspects; the investigation is punctuated by conferences at which, in the spirit of Socratic debate, the detectives offer alternative reconstructions of the crime; and a second murder usually takes place about two-thirds of the way through the book.

   Like those of the young Ellery Queen, Abbot’s variations on the Van Dine framework are better written and characterized and somewhat livelier than the Philo Vance books themselves, although Abbot unfortunately followed Van Dine in declining to play fair with the reader.

ANTHONY ABBOT Clergyman's Mistress

   The second and perhaps best in the Thatcher Colt series was About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress, which like many Van Dine novels was based on a famous true crime. In this version of the Hall-Mills case of the 1920s the bodies of a respected Episcopal minister and of a beautiful singer in his choir are found floating down the East River in a rowboat.

   Colt quickly takes over personal command of the investigation, with a huge assortment of peculiar clues — nine dumbbells, a bloody-pawed cat, Chinese sumach leaf, a bag of dulse — implicating various members of the minister’s and the singer’s households.

   Staying in full control of a stupendously complex plot, Abbot also treats us to vivid glimpses of early-1930s New York and to a sardonic portrait of the WASP clergy.

   Most of the Thatcher Colt novels are cut from the same pattern, including About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930), which launched the series; About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932), with its background of a circus playing Madison Square Garden; and About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935), with its intimations of the occult.

   The last two Anthony Abbot titles, The Creeps (1939) and The Shudders (1943), lack Van Dine elements and are believed to have been ghosted by another writer.

   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.

Editorial Comment: The other writer has been tentatively identified as Oscar Schisgall. See the comment following the previous review.

William F. Deeck

ANTHONY ABBOT – The Shudders. Farrar & Rinehart, US, hardcover, 1943. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, 3-in-1 edition, February 1943. UK title: Deadly Secret: Collins, hc, 1943.

    “The author requests that in discussing The Shudders readers and reviewers do not give away its plot.” An understandable request by Anthony Abbot (who in reality was Fulton Oursler), one must admit, since the plot is asinine.


    Still, a reviewer must mention something about the book, besides declaiming that Anthony Abbot, the narrator and Watson for Thatcher Colt, is an even bigger twit than S.S. Van Dine, the narrator and Watson for Philo Vance, which is a claim many won’t believe until they encounter Abbot the narrator.

    Briefly then — and I hope that Abbot’s shade does not come back to haunt me — Thatcher Colt, New York City Police Commissioner, more detective than administrator, has been responsible for the conviction of a villain who poisoned his boss and mentor and made off with two million never-located dollars.

    The evening he is to be executed, the poisoner asks Colt to visit with him. He warns Colt that an even greater villain — a Dr. Baldwin — who kills for sport and who kills undetectably is lurking about ready to do untold damage.

    The poisoner is executed, with Colt looking on, and then Colt begins an unsuccessful three-year search for Baldwin. One day the former warden of the prison at which the poisoner was executed rushes into Colt’s office to tell him that he has met Dr. Baldwin, that the poisoner’s executioners are dying off, and that the warden is to be next.

    He also has more important information to impart, but he’s too busy talking about side issues to do so, and then he dies — of apparently natural causes.

    Why is Dr. Baldwin seemingly avenging the executed poisoner? It’s all too silly and impossible to narrate, even if the author’s request was to be flouted even more than I have, already.

    Skip this one.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1987.

Editorial Comment:   I’ll post a review by Mike Nevins of Anthony Abbot’s About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress next. At the end of his comments, he points out that the last two Abbot mysteries, The Creeps and The Shudders, are said to have been written by someone else.

    And, yes, it appears to be so, or at least it’s highly conjectured to be true. In Part 7 of the online Addenda to his Revised Crime Fiction IV, Al Hubin names Oscar Schisgall as the probable suspect.

    Which makes me curious, of course. Why should Fulton Oursler have farmed off his series character to someone to write up his last two adventures? If anyone knows or learns more, please elucidate!

From A Reader’s Guide to the American Novel of Detection  (1993) by Marvin Lachman, and posted previously on the Rara Avis Internet group by Tony Baer:

The Shudders, Anthony Abbot

Charlie Chan Carries On, Earl Derr Biggers

Wilders Walk Away & Hardly a Man is still Alive, Herbert Brean

Triple crown, Jon Breen

The Junkyard Dog, Robert Campbell

Hag’s Nook, 3 coffins, crooked hinge, case of the constant suicides, Patrick butler for the defense, the burning court, John Dickson Carr

Kill Your darlings, Max Allan Collins

The James Joyce Murder & death in a Tenured Position, Amanda Cross

The Hands of Healing Murder, Barbara D’Amato

A Gentle Murderer, Dorothy Salisbury Davis

The Judas Window, The reader is Warned, The Gilded Man, She Died a lady, He wouldn’t Kill Patience & Fear is the same, Carter Dickson

Method in Madness & who Rides a Tiger, Doris miles Disney

Old Bones, Aaron Elkins

The horizontal Man, Helen Eustis

The case of the Howling Dog, …the counterfeit eye, ….lame canary, …perjured parrot, …crooked candle, …black eyed blonde, Erle stanley Gardner

What a Body!, Alan Green

The Leavenworth Case, Anna Katherine Green

The Bellamy trial, Frances Noyes Hart

The Devil in the Bush, Matthew head

The Fly on the Wall, Tony Hillerman

9 times 9, Rocket to the Morgue, H.H. Holmes

A Case of Need, Jeffery Hudson

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, Harry Kemelman

Obelists Fly High, C. Daly King

Emily Dickinson Is Dead, Jane Langton

Banking on Death, Accounting for Murder, Murder Makes the Wheels Go Rounds, Murder Against the Grain, When in Greece, Emma Lathen

The Norths Meet Murder, Murder Out of Turn, The Dishonest Murderer, Frances and Richard lockridge

Through a Glass Darkly, Helen mcCloy

Pick Your Victim, Pat McGerr

Rest You Merry, Charlotte MacLeod

Paperback thriller, Lynn Meyer

The Iron Gates, Ask For Me Tomorrow, vanish in an Instant, beast in View, Margaret Millar

Death in the Past, Richard Moore

Murder for Lunch, Haughton Murphy

The 120 Hour clock, Francis Nevins, Jr.

The body in the Belfrey, katherin Hall Page

The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla, stuart Palmer

Remember to Kill Me, Hugh Pentecost

Generous Death & No Body, Nancy Pickard

Unorthodox Practices, Marissa Piesman

The roman Hat Mystery, the French Powder Mystery, The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Egyptian Cross Mystery, The Chinese Orange Mystery, Calamity town, Cat of Many Tails, Ellery Queen

Puzzle for Puppets, Parick Quentin

Death from a Top Hat, Clayton Rawson

The Gold gamble, Herbert resnicow

8 Faces at 3, Craig Rice

Strike Three You’re Dead, Richard Rosen

The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y, Barnaby Ross

The Gray Flannel Shroud, Henry Slesar

Reverend Randollph and the wages of Sin, Charles Merrill Smith

Double Exposure, Jim Stinson

Carolina Skeletons, David Stout

Fer de Lance, The rubber band, too many cooks, some buried Caesar, the silent speaker, in the best families, the black mountain, the doorbell rang, a family affair, rex stout

Rim of the Pit, Hake Talbot

The Cut Direct, Alice Tilton

The Greene Murder Case, SS van Dine



THE SPIDER. 20th Century-Fox, 1945 Richard Conte, Faye Marlowe, Martin Kosleck, Kurt Kreuger, Mantan Moreland, John Harvey, Ann Savage . Screenplay by Jo Eisenger & Scott Darling based on the play by Fulton Oursler (Anthony Abbott) and W. Scott Darling. Directed by Robert Webb.

   Well done if minor film noir from fairly early in the game, opening  with an overhead panning shot in the streets of New Orleans where Lila Neilson (Faye Marlowe) walks toward a dark staircase with a white painted sign that reads “Cain and Conlon – Private Investigators” as she tells us that Cain (Ann Savage), the distaff side of Cain and Conlon, has approached her to tell her that her partner Chris Conlon (Richard Conte) has information about the death of Lila’s sister.

   Conlon’s manservant, Mantan Moreland, directs her to a cafe where Conlon is holding forth with his reporter friends on a dull night. Conlon is an ex-cop, a bit too slick for the taste of his ex-cop buddies and about to run afoul of that reputation for running close to the edge.

   There is a nice touch in the scene where Moreland confronts Lila in the dark hallway outside Cain and Conlon’s office door and when he walks away w,e notice a shadowy figure with a hat pulled low step out of the deeper shadows.

   For a fairly short B-film, the plot is fairly complex, involving a phony psychic called the Spider Woman whose scam was involved in Lila’s sisters death and Ernest, The Great Garrone (Kurt Krueger) her partner and his top man Martin Kosleck, and something Cain has uncovered in documents she is trying to get to Conlon.

   When Cain meets Conlon at his apartment she is killed there, and Conlon, knowing the police will tie him up with red tape accusing him, transports her body to her own apartment to be found.

   Of course when the police discover tha,t he is on the run.

   In fairness, however stupid that seems, it is standard private eye behavior in print and on screen.

   The playlike structure shows, and of course there is a bit of the usual shtick with Moreland as comedy relief (which for once isn’t the best thing in the film), but on the whole this is a decent film noir outing that benefits from the attractive cast and particularly Conte as a slick private detective right out of the pulps.

   Conte would later play Sam Spade in a television adaptation of a Hammett story and while Conlon is no Spade, he is still well within the slick but not as bright as he thinks he is tradition of movie eyes.

   If there is a problem, it’s the casting alone is enough to give away who the culprit is, but considering the quiet menace the film manages to create that is a minor complaint. The details getting to the reveal at the end are done well and involving enough you probably won’t mind.

   The private eye tropes had been around on the rough edges of movies since the early Thirties and films like Private Detective 62 and Mister Dynamite (suggested by stories by Raoul Walsh and Dashiell Hammett respectively), not to mention the Ricardo Cortez Maltese Falcon adaptation, though it is later in the Thirties before the more modern take starts to take form (in Private Detective 62 William Powell is a disgraced diplomatic agent who uses his skills to prey on women cheating on their husbands more than investigates crimes), helped along by the Thin Man films and cemented by John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and the Lloyd Nolan Michael Shayne films. Murder My Sweet and The Big Sleep nailed the final screen image of the private eye for good in terms of the film version of the trope.

   The evolution of the private detective in film from the dumb fat guy with cigar and bowler hat to the slicker version we are familiar with is fairly interesting with some unusual side streets like Nigel Bruce’s Cockney private detective in Murder in the Caribbean. The earliest incarnations were fairly unscrupulous pseudo crooks usually played by the likes of William Powell, Edmond Lowe, or Ricardo Cortez evolving through the Thirties into more acceptable social types like Preston Foster’s Bill Crane, Powell’s Nick Charles, Bogart’s Spade, and Nolan’s Shayne all the way down to Dick Powell and Bogie’s Philip Marlowe. Conte’s Chris Conlon is very much in that transition stage.

   I don’t want to oversell this. It is low budget, cliched (but good cliche). It does the tropes well, the cast is good, and the main disappointment is we don’t get more of Ann Savage’s Flo Cain as a smart female private eye. There was a good concept there that got thrown away in favor of a fairly standard story, however hard I try to review the movie they made and not the one they should have made.

   Film Noir was still in its formative stages at this point and this one captures some of the feel and look surprisingly well for its budget, with several actors who will play a role in the genre as it develops. I don’t know if it is on DVD, but you can find it on YouTube or Internet Archive in a decent print in several formats to watch or download in Community Videos. This one is definitely in Public Domain so there is little worry it violates anyone’s rights.




THE SPIDER. Fox Film Corp., 1931. Edmond Lowe, Lola Moran, El Brendel, John Arledge, George E. Stone, Earl Foxe. Screenplay Barry Conners, Phlip Klein, & Leon Gordon, Albert Lewis, based on a play by Fulton Oursler & Lowell Bretano. Directed by Kenneth MacKenna &William Cameron Menzies.

   Murder in the theater, with Edmond Lowe as Chatrand, the magician sleuth who has to use all his stage skills to clear the name of his young assistant Tommy (John Arledge) when a member of the audience is shot while Chatrand and Tommy are on stage doing their mentalist act.

   Despite being based on a play by Fulton Oursler (Anthony Abbott of the Thatcher Colt mysteries) there isn’t much mystery to this film whose chief interests are Lowe as the fast thinking magician sleuth and the sets and magic acts designed by co-director William Cameron Menzies.

   Menzies, who directed Lowe in the excellent Chandu the Magician (1932), along with a third magic film, Trick or Treat [reviewed by Walter Albert here ] pulls out all the stops for the magic acts and sets, which along with Lowe are the chief interests in this pedestrian mystery.

   The basis for the plot is that Chatrand’s assistant Tommy has amnesia, but hopes having returned to the last place he remembers a face in the audience will awaken his memory during the mentalist act he does with the magician.

   Meanwhile Beverly Lane (Moran) thinks Tommy may be her lost brother and is accompanied by her uncle, John Carrington (Earl Foxe) whose cruelty caused Tommy’s amnesia and has every reason to keep him from returning.

   Sure enough, a shot rings out during the performance just as Tommy spies his uncle, and Carrington is killed in the front row. The police arrive, close the theater, and plan to arrest Tommy, but Chatrand hopes to awaken Tommy’s memory enough to identify the real killer and plays fast and loose buying time so he can stage one last act with Beverly’s help.

   El Brendel is the thoroughly disposable comedy relief which I suggest you fast forward through. He was never funny (he fared somewhat better as a director), and here, teamed with a smart aleck child, it’s not hard to wish the bullet fired into the audience had claimed two other victims. Every scene with him is a complete waste of time.

   But as I said, the real stars here are the sets and the magic acts designed by Menzies. Those and Lowe’s fast thinking magician are the best thing about the film, but the visuals are worth the price of admission at a fast fifty nine minutes. It’s just a shame they couldn’t wrap a better plot around them.


by Francis M. Nevins

   I can’t claim to have read all 70-odd Maigret novels, but I’ve been reading them off-and-on since my teens and I still find many of them fascinating, especially the ones from the Thirties. Unfortunately my French isn’t good enough to allow me to read them as Simenon wrote them, but over the years I’ve sometimes wound up with two different translations of the same book, and a number of them are now being translated yet a third time. Reading two translations side by side is a heady experience, especially if you put on your detective cap and try to figure out what is and what isn’t in the original.

   There were characters a bit like Maigret and characters actually going by that name in a few of the more than 200 pulp novels Simenon wrote under a dozen or so pseudonyms in the 1920s, but the first genuine Maigret was PIETR-LE-LETTON, which was written in 1929 and published by A. Fayard et cie two years later as either the third or the fifth in the monthly Maigret series. In the States, as THE STRANGE CASE OF PETER THE LETT (1933), it was the fourth of six early Maigrets published by the Covici Friede firm.

   I am lucky enough to have a copy of that edition. No translator is credited but various sources in print and online claim that Simenon’s French was first rendered into English by Anthony Abbot. As all lovers of detection know, Abbot was the name under which best-selling novelist Fulton Oursler (1893-1952), following the lead of S. S. Van Dine, both signed and narrated the cases of New York City police commissioner Thatcher Colt, published originally by Covici Friede.

   Many decades ago I read all the Abbot novels and wrote an essay about them which in its final form can be found in my CORNUCOPIA OF CRIME (2010). I had heard the rumor that Oursler had translated the early Maigrets but, since he had died when I was a child, I couldn’t ask him. I did however write his son Will Oursler (1913-1985), who was also a part-time mystery writer both under his own name and as Gale Gallagher and Nick Marino.

   In a letter dated January 4, 1970 — My God! More than 46 years ago! — he replied as follows: “[M]y father did not make the actual translation as he simply was not that fluent in French. It is more probable that most of his effort was in the area of editing and polishing after the translation was done. It is certain that he would not have been capable of translating six Maigret novels.”

   The second translation of PIETR-LE-LETTON, retitled MAIGRET AND THE ENIGMATIC LETT, was by Daphne Woodward, published in 1963 as a Penguin paperback and sold in the U.S. for 65 cents. According to Steve Trussel’s priceless Maigret website, the Woodward version “is much closer to Simenon’s French text, the first being wayward at times.”

   Even without the French text at hand, I’ve found indications that Trussel is right. The novel features an American millionaire staying in the posh Hotel Majestic who is strangely connected with Pietr. The 1933 translation gives his name as Mortimer Livingston, which seems perfectly proper for the character. Daphne Woodward renders the name as Mortimer-Levingston, which is silly but consistent with the young Simenon’s ignorance of all things American.

   This character has a secretary, staying in London but never seen or spoken to. His name in the 1933 translation is Stone, which sounds fine. In Woodward’s rendition he’s called Stones, which is dreadful but again consistent with Simenon’s ignorance. It seems clear that the anonymous original translator went out of his or her way to Americanize various details in the novel that Simenon flubbed. Or was that part of the polishing job by Fulton Oursler?

   Written before Maigret and his world had crystallized in Simenon’s creative mind, PIETR-LE-LETTON is significantly different from almost all the later novels in the series. For one thing, it’s much more violent, with a total of four murders (the work of three different murderers) plus a suicide, committed in Maigret’s presence and with his gun.

   There’s also a great deal more physical action, with Maigret racing from Paris to the Normandy fishing port of F camp and out over the rocks along the muddy seacoast after his chief adversary despite being half-frozen and having been shot in the chest! But there’s a genuine battle of nerves between Maigret and his quarry, more intense and existential than their counterparts in many later books in the series, and the evocation of atmosphere which was Simenon’s trademark is as powerful as in the finest films noir. In either translation this debut novel is a gem.


   In 2014 Penguin Classics released yet another translation, this one by David Bellos and bearing the title PETER THE LATVIAN. Did some political correctness guru decide that Lett was a demeaning term like Polack? And what did Bellos make of passages like the beginning of Chapter 13? In Woodward’s version: “Every race has its own smell, loathed by other races…. In Anna Gorskin’s room you could cut it with a knife…. Flaccid sausages of a repulsive shade of pink, thickly speckled with garlic. A plate with some fried fish floating in a sour liquid.”

   There’s nothing like that first sentence in the 1933 rendition, perhaps because Fulton Oursler cut it out, but we do get to see and smell the “horrible pink sausages, flabby to the touch and filled with garlic” and “a platter containing the remains of a fried fish swimming in a sour-smelling sauce….” Need I mention that this scene takes place in the rue du Roi-de-Sicile, in Paris’s Jewish ghetto?


   While fine-tuning this month’s column I discovered that there really was, or at least might have been, a Latvian criminal named Pietr. He was known as Peter the Painter and his real name may have been Pietr Piatkow, or perhaps Gederts Eliass or Janis Zhaklis. He seems to have emigrated from East Europe to London where he joined an ethnic gang that stole in order to fund their radical political activities.

   He is believed to have taken part in the infamous Siege of Sidney Street which inspired the climax of Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), although a brief sketch in England’s Dictionary of National Biography warns us that “None of the … biographical ‘facts’ about him … is altogether reliable.”

   Whether Simenon had ever heard of this man remains unknown, but in any event the fictional Pietr the Lett is not a leftist radical, does not commit crimes of violence and turns out not even to be Latvian. Which raises another mystery: Why did Simenon call the guy Pietr the Lett? Pietr the Estonian — or the Esty? — would have sounded ridiculous even in French, but there’s absolutely no reason in the novel why he couldn’t have been a genuine Latvian. Ah well, c’est la vie.


   Train murders were something of a Simenon specialty. Of course, when such a crime takes place in a Maigret, it’s bound to lose intensity and vividness simply because we can’t be there to witness it. This is certainly true of the first murder in PIETR-LE-LETTON, and it’s also true of a Maigret short story dating from about seven years later.

   We learn from Steve Trussel’s website that “Jeumont, 51 minutes d’arrêt!” was written in October 1936 and, along with more than a dozen other shorts from the same period, was first collected in France as LES NOUVELLES ENQU TES DE MAIGRET (1944). It was never included in any collection of Maigret shorts published in English but did appear in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 1966, as “Inspector Maigret Deduces,” with no translator credit and with an unaccountable 1961 copyright date.

   (The FictionMags Index explains the date — the story’s first appearance in English was in the UK edition of Argosy for October 1961—and identifies the translator as one J.E. Malcolm.)

   As in PIETR-LE-LETTON, Maigret tackles a murder on a train, this one bound from Warsaw to Berlin to Liège in Belgium (Simenon’s birthplace) to Erquelinnes (on the Belgian side of the border with France) to Jeumont (just across the line on the French side) and on to Paris, except that one of the six passengers in a particular compartment is found dead in his seat at Jeumont. The dead man is a wealthy German banker named Otto Bauer.

   Called in by his railroad-detective nephew, Maigret gets in touch with his Berlin counterparts and learns that Bauer was forced out of the banking business “after the National Socialist revolution, but gave an undertaking of loyalty to the Government, and has never been disturbed….” and also that he’s “[c]ontributed one million marks to party funds.”

   Clearly, despite his name, Bauer was a Jew, and was desperately trying to escape Nazi Germany with whatever money he could salvage. That element is what makes this tale unique among the Maigret stories of the late Thirties. At least in translation there’s not a word of sympathy for the victim, not a word of disgust for the regime he was fleeing. For Maigret, and for Simenon I fear, it’s just another factor in another case. The murder weapon, by the way, turns out to be a needle, which was also one of the murder weapons in PIETR-LE-LETTON although not the one used in the train killing.


   I wouldn’t venture to guess how many train murders can be found in Simenon’s stand-alone novels, but the most vivid and intense that I can recall takes place in Chapter 2 of LE LOCATAIRE (1934; translated by Stuart Gilbert as THE LODGER in the two-in-one volume ESCAPE IN VAIN, 1943). Elie Nagear, a desperate young Turkish Jew, bludgeons to death a wealthy Dutch entrepreneur with whom he’s sharing a couchette on the night train from Brussels to Paris after it crosses the French border. (In European trains of the Thirties a couchette was a small chamber used as sleeping quarters by two and sometimes four total strangers.) On the run from the police, he takes a train back to Belgium and holes up in a boarding house for foreign students in the city of Charleroi.

   In Chapter 9 there’s a brief conversation between Elie and a fellow roomer. “They were talking in the papers of the difference between French and Belgian law. Well, suppose someone who’s being proceeded against in Belgium by the French police commits a crime in Brussels, or some other Belgian town…. What I mean is, that a man who’s liable to the death penalty in France might happen to commit a crime in Belgium. In that case, it seems to follow that he should first be tried in Belgium, if it’s in that country he’s arrested. And it also follows, doesn’t it, that he should serve his sentence in that country?”

   What Simenon assumes his readers know is that France at this time still had the death penalty while Belgium had abolished it. On May 10, 1933, in Boullay-les-Trous, a village south of Paris, an obese pornographer named Hyacinthe Danse, who was known to Simenon, murdered both his mother and his mistress. Fearing that he’d be caught and guillotined, Danse took the train to Liège in Belgium, where on May 12 he murdered his childhood confessor (and also Simenon’s), a Jesuit priest named Hault, and then turned himself in.

   This case was apparently still pending in Belgium when Simenon wrote LE LOCATAIRE. Sure enough, in December 1934 Danse was convicted of Hault’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, meaning that he couldn’t be extradited to France and stand trial for the other murders until he was dead. Less than two years later, Simenon turned the Danse story into a short Maigret, included as “Death Penalty” in the collection MAIGRET’S PIPE (1977) and discussed in my column for September 2015.

   Which is enough journey to France for one month. Or, as they say on the left bank of the Seine: basta.


THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER. Columbia, 1933. Adolphe Menjou, Greta Nissen, Donald Cook, Dwight Frye, Ruthelma Stevens. Based on the novel About the Murder of the Circus Queen, by Anthony Abbot (Fulton Oursler). Director: Roy William Neill. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   One of the disappointments of the convention. Menjou plays Anthony Abbot’s Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt, vacationing in a small town, where the arrival of a circus and an attempted murder draws him reluctantly into the center of a hastily conducted investigation. But not hastily enough.

   The beginning is promising and Colt’s secretary (Ruthelma Stevens) registers strongly as an attractive, smart companion, but her role is never sufficiently developed and the lame melodrama is capped by an underpowered, restrained performance by Dwight Frye that never ignites. (He’s much livelier in The Vampire Bat [Majestic, 1933], a cheap but entertaining thriller that I watched last night on a cheap video tape. He reprises his Renfield role from Dracula, even using the Renfield laugh.)

Editorial Note:  This move was also reviewed by Dan Stumpf some time ago on this blog. Check it out here.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

THIS IS MY AFFAIR. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Victor McLaglen, Brian Donlevy, Sidney Blackmer, John Carradine, Douglas Fowley, Robert McWade, Frank Conroy, Alan Dinehart, Douglas Wood, Sig Ruman. Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, Allen Rivkin (uncredited: Kube Glasmon, Wallace Sullivan, and Darrel F. Zannuck). Directed by William A. Seiter.

   This film is a nostalgic romantic musical set at the turn of the nineteenth century with a pair of real life lovers in obvious love with each other — no, it’s a tough crime tale about a super gang of bank robbers threatening the safety of the nation’s economy — no, its about a tough young undercover operative who falls in love with the showgirl sister of one of the criminals he is sent to arrest — no, its about corruption at the highest levels of government — no, it’s about Teddy Roosevelt — but it’s also a tough prison drama as the hour counts down to an innocent man’s execution — and it’s a psychological drama as one man tries to break another to reveal the mastermind behind the bank robbing scheme…

   Well, actually it’s all of that, and with that many elements it shouldn’t work, but still they do.

   I first saw this as an adolescent, and again as a young adult, then it was over forty years before I saw it again earlier this week on You Tube, so I was surprised how accurate my memory was about it, and shocked to find it was every bit as good as I remembered it. Not many films manage that. The look, script, performances, careful recreation of the era from familiar names and slang to the very acts performing on stage, all meticulously recreated and still retaining the charm they possessed then and when first released.

   The film opens with a group of nuns and children touring Arlington National Cemetery in contemporary (1937) times. They pause at General Sheridan’s grave, then the next stone reads Lieutenant Richard Perry, who no one has heard of, though as one nun notes he must have done something great for his country.

   The tour walks on, the camera lingers, and slowly fog and clouds take us back to Washington DC in the McKinley administration and a party at the White House where we meet Vice President Sidney Blackmer as the loud and ‘bully’ Teddy Roosevelt (the first of many times to play TR), then young Lt. Richard Perry (Robert Taylor) recently back from the Spanish American War with medals and the praise of his commander Admiral Dewey (Robert McWade).

   Perry barely gets to flirt with a pretty girl, however, before he is called back to a meeting alone with President McKinley (Frank Conroy). It seems a gang of bank robbers in the Midwest have been so successful they threaten the economy and the Secret Service is helpless because of a high level leak in Washington.

   Perry is known to be rebellious, independent, brilliant, and brave. He will be McKinley’s personal operative, communicate only by a special mark on letters he sends, and his status and existence unknown to any other human.

   You can see where this is going.

   Perry goes deep undercover and sets out on his quest to find the man at the top. (Several IMDb reviews missed entirely that McKinley isn’t sending him to catch bank robbers, but a high placed traitor in Washington — the perils of reviewing films before watching them.) The trail leads to Chicago and a new elegant saloon replete with illegal gambling run by Bat (Baptiste) Duryea (Brian Donlevy) and brutal practical joker Jock Ramsay (Victor McLaglen).

   The star of the show is Bat’s half sister Lil Duryea (Stanwyck) who Jock believes is his girl, though she does everything short of throw a drink in his face to discourage him.

   Naturally Jock is none too pleased to see handsome Perry take and interest and despite her best efforts Lil take an interest back.

   If the middle section drags a little, keep in mind Taylor and Stanwyck were about to marry and very much in love and this was designed to take advantage of that publicity to bring in women audiences. We may complain today there are too many musical numbers and the romance goes on a bit, but audiences in 1937 did not. They wanted to see the real life lovers devouring each other with every glance and Taylor and Stanwyck deliver. Especially Stanwyck who does everything but melt when she looks at Taylor.

   Perry soon realizes the key to the bank robberies and Mr. Big is Bat and Jock, and through Lil to them, but he’s is also in love with her by now. Still he penetrates the gang and soon Bat begins to see the advantage of a smart smooth operator over crude Jock with his unfunny practical jokes and card tricks that never work. And his sister loves Perry as well another bonus, because Bat is not without nuances, including genuine affection for Lil.

   Perry manages to get a letter to McKinley, but when the president informs his cabinet and Vice President, the traitor is among them. Perry had planned to resign and get out with Lil, but he is too close to run now.

   The Midwest is too hot, so they plan to hit a bank in Baltimore, but plans go awry when the police spring a trap and Bat is killed. In due order Jock and Perry are caught, tried, and sentenced to death for the man killed in the holdup shoot out. (Justice actually did move faster then — or at least law did.)

   Perry still doesn’t know who the top man is and plans to work on Jock as the date of execution approaches. The following scenes between Taylor and McLaglen are well done as Jock begins to unravel under the pressure. Perry plays Iago to Jock’s Othello who falls apart with fear and anger as the date of his hanging approaches, and the pull never comes to free him. Both men are effective in these scenes.

   It’s an impressive scene when Jock does break with half a dozen policeman in his tight cell struggling to restrain him.

   Now Perry can write the President, and gets warden John Hamilton to send his specially marked letter so he can be freed and the traitor exposed. Which, as any good dramatist would stage it, is the point when news reaches Perry that McKinley has been shot, and dies without waking up.


   Perry’s only hope is to tell Lil the truth and send her to President Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer), but when she finds out he was a policeman and her half brother died because of him, she turns on him and Perry has no where to turn as the hours near for the execution. The warden and the priest come for Ramsay, who has regained enough composure to do card tricks for the priest, and who looks forward to Perry hanging next.

   It isn’t giving that much away that Lil realizes she loves Perry goes to TR, is not believed, then is, then isn’t again until McKinley’s secretary calls a second time to confirm he was instructed to look with specially marked envelopes, but is it in time…

   Of course it is, this is Hollywood, not Stratford-on-Avon. Movie audiences still don’t want to mix too much irony with romance, and killing off Robert Taylor at that point would have killed the box office and word of mouth. These things aren’t film noir, happy endings, if at all possible, are required. Things would soon darken as the war approached, but in 1937 the odds of Taylor and Stanwyck not ending up in clench were microcosmic.

   The film was originally designed for the popular team of Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, then when they were out, Fox borrowed Taylor from MGM, and since he and Stanwyck were soon marrying this was guaranteed box office gold.

   Stanwyck sings her own numbers, and is sprightly, sexy, tough, and — well she’s Barbara Stanwyck and at a point in her career when she made one good or great movie after another. Taylor has some strong scenes in the prison and handles them with skill, his desperation quite real, and his manipulation of Jock has a tough sadistic edge we would not see in him again until the post war era.

   McLaglen chews the scenery with the best of them and yet delivers moments that will recall his Oscar-winning role in John Ford’s The Informer. Donlevy does well with a good bad man, but then he always did. The rest of the cast is capable with Douglas Fowley and John Carradine as henchmen.

   But one actor stands out.

   Sidney Blackmer’s Teddy Roosevelt comes close to stealing the movie every time he is on screen. He is full blooded, bully, enthusiastic, boisterous, loud, and altogether Teddy. He played TR in at least three other movies (uncredited in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill), and on television, and like Raymond Massey’s Lincoln, it is the role he is best remembered by.

   He was still a popular character actor as late as his role in Rosemary’s Baby but he seldom had a part with this much energy. He also played Anthony Abbot’s (Fulton Ousler) Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt in The Panther’s Claw, and Colt was modeled on TR.

   Director William A. Seiter had a good career that began in 1915 and lasted into television (he made the switch in 1955) up to 1965. If not an auteur, he was capable and professional in the manner of a George Sherman or Woody Van Dyke and helmed all sort of films ably, while screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Allen Rivkin went on to better things.

   This is a nostalgic postcard from the past, tinted with sepia and rose colored glasses, the early years of the 20th Century as only Hollywood could do them. You wouldn’t be too surprised if Perry turned out to be Nicholas Carter and this came straight from the Nickel Library and the pen of Frederick Rennasler Dey himself.

   If the film misses a beat I have never noticed it. It is exactly what is means to be, and to expect anything more or damn it for not being anything else is to totally miss the point that it is perfect for what was intended.

   I cannot find it in myself to criticize any film for being exactly what the audience wanted and the director, screenwriters, and producer intended. Doing anything different would have upset the delicate balance that allows this to work, and in 1937 no one wanted to see the film noir version of this story.

   It’s like complaining because there is no CGI in Snow White or Bert Lahr doesn’t look much like a real lion in The Wizard of Oz as far as I’m concerned, it completely misses the point. It is well and good to not like it for what it is, but don’t condemn it for not being what it was never intended to be.

   For what it is, its a wedding cake topper for an attractive young couple when they were at their most beautiful and has just the right mix of romance, comedy, melodrama, and grit to entertain anyone who loves movie movies. It is a perfect example of they don’t make them like that anymore with all the flaws and genius that statement encompasses. Seeing it again after forty years I was astounded at what good taste my fourteen year old self had in liking it and remembering it so well at the time.

   To think they used to give away dishes to get people to come in and see movies this good.