A(BRAHAM) MERRITT – Boni & Liveright, hardcover, 1928.  First published as a five-part serial in Argosy Allstory Weekly between July 2 and July 30, 1927. Reprinted many times, both in hardcover and paperback, including Fantastic Novels Magazine, January 1949.

SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN.  First National, 1929. Thelma Todd, Creighton Hale, Sheldon Lewis. Screenplay by Richard Bee (Benjamin Christensen), based on the novel by Abraham Merritt. Title Cards by William Irish (Cornell Woolrich).  Directed by Benjamin Christensen. First released as a silent film and later as a part-talkie.

   The warning had come to me in many places this last fortnight. I had felt the unseen watchers time and again in the Museum where I had gone to look at the Yunnan jades I had made it possible for rich old Rockbilt to put there with distinct increase to his reputation as a philanthropist; it had come to me in the theater and while riding in the Park; in the brokers’ offices where I myself had watched the money the jades had brought me melt swiftly away in a game which I now ruefully admitted I knew less than nothing about. I had felt it in the streets, and that was to be expected. But I had also felt it at the Club, and that was not to be expected and it bothered me more than anything else.

   The club is the Discoverer’s Club in New York, and the uneasy narrator is James Kirkham, adventurer and explorer, who is about to find himself in an urban nightmare out of the Arabian Nights by way of the Twilight Zone, as in short order he will be confronted by his own double and find himself in a deadly real game with a fortune at stake, his soul in peril, and Satan incarnate spinning the wheel.

   Abraham Merritt is best known as a fantasist and author of scientific romances full of implausible plots, unclad other worldly women, and sensual lush prose pitting his heroes (Merritt heroes always seemed to be falling through mirrors or the equivalent into sensual violent dreams) against strange half worlds and ungodly creations. His best known titles like The Ship of Ishtar, Face in the Abyss, The Moon Pool, and The Metal Monster were highly influential on writers such as Lovecraft, Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith as well as the likes of Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, and many more. Merritt also wrote two famous horror novels where crime and the fantastic mixed in Creep Shadow and Burn Witch Burn (which features a cross dressing vengeance obsessed madman who turns living people into murderous dolls and was made into an MGM film with Lionel Barrymore).

   I won’t kid you that the plot here is ever plausible, but then neither does Merritt. His saving grace as a writer, beyond his graceful style and vivid imagination, was that he plunged headlong into the swirling madness that confronted his heroes and dragged the reader right with them. Merritt, like Dunsany before him, had a true gift at spinning fancies, terrors, and dreamscapes that were by turns gilded fantasy and soul numbing horrors.

   This one is a Gothic nightmare out of the true tradition of Shelley, Lewis, and Mrs. Radcliffe but with a modern pulp sensibility.

   In the dark Kirkham encounters a stranger (“I saw a dark, ascetic face, smooth-shaven, the mouth and eyes kindly and the latter a bit weary, as though from study.”) who engages him in a strange conversation:

   “A beautiful night, sir,” he tossed the match from him. “A night for adventure. And behind us a city in which any adventure is possible.”

   I looked at him more closely. It was an odd remark, considering that I had unquestionably started out that night for adventure…

   “That ferryboat yonder,” he pointed, seemingly unaware of my scrutiny. “It is an argosy of potential adventure. Within it are mute Alexanders, inglorious Caesars and Napoleons, incomplete Jasons each almost able to retrieve some Golden Fleece–yes, and incomplete Helens and Cleopatras, all lacking only one thing to round them out and send them forth to conquer.”

   “Lucky for the world they’re incomplete, then,” I laughed. “How long would it be before all these Napoleons and Caesars and Cleopatras and all the rest of them were at each other’s throats — and the whole world on fire?”

   “Never,” he said, very seriously. “Never, that is, if they were under the control of a will and an intellect greater than the sum total of all their wills and intellects. A mind greater than all of them to plan for all of them, a will more powerful than all their wills to force them to carry out those plans exactly as the greater mind had conceived them.”

   “The result, sir,” I objected, “would seem to me to be not the super-pirates, super-thieves and super-courtesans you have cited, but super-slaves.”

   The curious man is Dr. Consardine and in very short order, he and a beautiful girl who calls herself Eve Walton claim Kirkham is the girl’s mentally unstable sweetheart and virtually kidnap him under the eyes of the police (The game was rigged up against me all the way…), delivering him to a mysterious destination somewhere in Westchester or Long Island (“I saw an immense building that was like some chateau transplanted from the Loire. Lights gleamed brilliantly here and there in wings and turrets.”) where he meets his mysterious host, who knows far more about Kirkham than he should and who finally introduces himself with a strange offer.

  “Since everything upon this earth toward which I direct my will does as that will dictates,” he answered, slowly, “you may call me — Satan!

   “And what I offer you is a chance to rule this world with me — at a price, of course!”

   It turns out Eve Walton and others in the employee of Satan are unwilling pawns in his game, an elaborate and hellish game where each individual must wager his life and free will against a promise of fabulous wealth. There are seven shining footprints of Buddha, three are holy, three doom whoever steps on them. Satan has set up an unholy game in an elaborate temple in which the players risk their souls to attain the three holy footsteps that lead to Nirvana on Earth, wealth, wisdom, love, happiness, health … all things men and women will risk their lives for.

   Kirkham, ever the gambler, has nothing to lose, but he is playing the game for higher stakes than even Satan imagines. As is usually true with Merritt, the conclusion is no disappointment with retribution, madness, drugged slaves, gunfire, explosions, and madness let lose when Satan overplays his hand.

   Seven Footprints to Satan came to the big screen in 1929 under the capable hand of director Benjamin Christensen and with title cards by a young Cornell Woolrich using his William Irish by-line. A well known cast including Thelma Todd and Creighton Hale starred, and the result might have been fascinating because Woolrich certainly knew something about wringing the last ounce of suspense out of purple prose and outlandish nightmare plots — but alas Christensen and the studio decided to make a comedy out of the book in the style of The Cat and the Canary, and the result is a mildly diverting mess that turns out to be a variation on Earl Derr Biggers’ Seven Keys to Baldpate. Without giving that plot away I will only say it is the most annoying in the genre.

   But we have the book, a fine mix of melodrama and terror replete with a satisfying bloody-mindedness where needed, a splendid larger than life villain, clever hero, and enough sheer gall and narrative drive to compel the reader through the unlikely goings on. It is far from Merritt’s best work, but it has its own loony internal logic if you give yourself over to it, and its author writes rings around most of the writers who attempt this kind of fancy.

   There are a few unfortunate, mostly mild, problems as with most books of this period, nothing too awful or offensive, but you have been warned. (Merritt is no Sapper or Sidney Horler, thankfully.) It stands as an Arabian filigree of romance, Gothic horrors, dream like qualities, and fancies that asks only that the reader be willing to surrender to it all, and still has its rewards if you do.

ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. January 1967. Overall rating: 3½ stars.

HUGH PENTECOST “Volcano in the Mind.” Short novel. Dr. John Smith. First appeared in The American Magazine, December 1945, as “Volcano.”

   Dr. John Smith, an unobtrusive psychiatrist-detective, stops a clever murderer who is trying to drive a man to kill his wife, thus disposing of them both. Smith is very perceptive in his quiet way, but the story may be just a little dry. ****½

Bibliographic Update: Dr. John Smith appeared in three novellas in The American Magazine (collected in Memory of Murder, Ziff-Davis, 1947), one short story in EQMM, and two novels.

JULIAN SYMONS “The Santa Claus Club.” Francis Quarles. 1st US publication. Previously published in Suspense, UK, December 1960. A threatening letter typed on one of only 300 possible machines; a club where all dress up like Santa. The grand ’tec tradition? (2)

KENNETH MOORE “Protection.” An outsider wants some of the Orleans Street District action but needs protection. (3)

TALMAGE POWELL “Last Run of the Night.” A bus-driver is a killer. Obvious. (2)

HAROLD R. DANIELS “Deception Day.” A man commits a perfect murder in killing his shrewish wife. It’s too bad that justice, or conscience, had to win out. (4)

MICHAEL HARRISON “The Mystery of the Gilded Cheval-Glass.” A “hitherto unpublished” story of C. Auguste Dupin, who saves an artist from arrest by deciphering a dying ma’s last words. Let’s leave it for Poe enthusiasts. (2)

ROBERT McNEAR “The Salad Maker.” Mystery of the Absurd. That’s the right word. (1)

JAMES HOLDING “The New Zealand Bird Mystery.” The two authors of the Leroy King stories use a small scrap of writing for their deductions in solving a shipboard murder. (3)

BERNARD J. CURRAN “The Mysterious Mr Zora.” First story. Would 94,600 people not notice an extra 10¢ charge on their checking account? (1)

ELLERY QUEEN “Last Man to Die.” Reprinted from This Week, November 3 1963. Also published in the June 2004 issue of EQMM. QBI: Intelligence Department. A butlers’ club forms a tontine, the outcome of which EQ must decide. Not difficult. (3)

MICHAEL GILBERT “A Gathering of Eagles.” Previously published in Argosy (UK) January 1966, as “Heilige Nacht.” Calder and Behrens are called to Bonn to complete a cold-war breakthrough in Intelligence. Fast-moving and exciting. (4)

CHARLOTTE ARMSTRONG “The Cool Ones.” A grandmother’s quick thinking gives her grandson the clue to the location of her kidnappers. (3)

–September 1967


RUPERT PENNY – The Talkative Policeman. Collins Crime Club, UK, hardcover, 1936. Ramble House, US, softcover, 2009.

   Rupert Penny (pseudonym of Ernest Basil Charles Thornett) would have been astonished that his books are occasionally still read almost 50 years after they were published. In the foreword to The Talkative Policeman, Penny writes:

   The detective story is no self-supporting form of literature. It is not, as the works of Blake or Beethoven or Botticelli are, destined for the future equally with the past. By its nature it is for to-day, and possibly for tomorrow; and perhaps its highest hope is to pass by and by from dustbin to dustman, and back again to bin, until, the day after tomorrow it begins to smell too strongly of bloater skins and tea leaves, even for a dustman’s nose, and is allowed to go the inevitable way of all rubbish. The detective shall find his grave at last as surely as the lifeless flesh be theorized upon.

   (My copy does not smell of bloater skins, but it does look like it has spent some time in dustbins.)

   The Talkative Policeman is a puzzle story of the purest sort, unadulterated by characterization (Penny’s characters are indeed “lifeless flesh”), atmospheric setting, or felicitous writing style, Though there are two murders — one of a harmless clergyman, the other of an unknown — the corpses are bloodless, existing only to provide the problem for the detective.

   When the detective’s friend, Tony Purdon, remarks that “one realized that Tatham was really alive once, and not always part of a puzzle,” Chief Inspector Beale responds, “Yes — I know that feeling, I usually try not to encourage it, if you understand.”

   Penny’s adoption of a flat writing style seems to have been conscious , for when he wished he could introduce bits of humor and effective description. Purdon occasionally composes comic verses about the crime. After a suspect irrelevantly asks Sergeant Matthews for his opinion of the Sitwells, Matthews tells Beale, “Well sir, having no idea who the Sitwells might be, I wasn’t sure what’d be best, I said they’d do much better if they forgot they were the Sitwells.”

   But such passages are rarities; Penny seems to have avoided them as mere distractions in a puzzle story.

   Penny cites Ellery Queen as a model in writing a challenge-to-the-reader novel, and includes an “interlude” in which “the intelligent reader, if he has not already done so, should be able to attempt the solution of the problem with every prospect of success.”

   To enjoy The Talkative Policeman,  the reader must accept the book on its own terms: how good a puzzle is it? And on that standard it is a very good book indeed. The book has a map, transcriptions of questions and answers, and even  characteristics of fingerprints. When these are not being compiled, Purdon and Beale consciously attempt to make deductions, sometimes also in the form of a list as “deductions (general)” and “deductions (particular)”.

   Although once or twice their conclusions resemble those of Jack Ritchie’s Henry Turnbuckle, often they scintillate with intellectual excitement. I guessed the identity of the murderer, but I missed most of the clues (for which Penny calls me “a less intelligent reader”).

   In short, The Talkative Policeman does exactly what Penny sets out to do; it challenges “players in the game” who are not “mere idlers, apathetic page-turners torpidly filling up the time.” The reader must pay attention.

   In later books, Penny, while not mininalizing the puzzle, makes some concessions to readers interested in character and action as well as deductions. In Policeman’s Evidence, for example, the first half is told by Tony Purdon in the absence of Beale. The characters are revealed gradually; the humor is more evident; the murder occurs after the story has begun; and the problems — a cryptogram revealing a buried treasure and a locked-room murder — are compelling. After Beale arrives, however, the book is dominated by slow-moving question-and-answer. Oddly, in a TAD review Barzun and Taylor like the second half and find the first, more lively, section old-fashioned. But I’ve commented elsewhere on B & T’s aversion to the ingenious and bizarre.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 6, Number 1 (Spring 1984). Permission granted by Doug Greene.


      The Insp. (Chief Insp.) Edward (Ted) Beale series

The Talkative Policeman. Collins 1936.
Policeman in Armour. Collins 1937.
Policeman’s Holiday. Collins 1937.
The Lucky Policeman. Collins 1938.
Policeman’s Evidence. Collins 1938.
She Had to Have Gas. Collins 1939.
Sweet Poison. Collins 1940.
Sealed-Room Murder. Collins 1941.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts


ANN CLEEVES – The Darkest Evening. Vera Stanhope #9. Minotaur Books, hardcover, September 2020. Setting: England.

First Sentence: Lorna lifted Thomas from his high chair and held him for a moment on her knee.

   DCI Vera Stanhope comes upon a car that has skidded off the road in a snowstorm. There is no driver to be seen, but an infant has been left secured in a child seat. Knowing she can’t leave him there, Vera and the child head for a nearby house, Brockburn, where her father grew up. When a neighbor of the house finds the body of a murdered woman half-covered by the snow, Vera calls up her team to solve the crime, uncovering family secrets along the way.

   Vera is one of the best creations of contemporary mystery fiction. She is older, overweight, rather shabby, completely devoid of maternal instinct, and raised in a way to make her a loner, yet not unaffected by how others view her, and not without insecurities— “She paused for a moment, Cinderella looking in: the fifteen-year-old girl again, excluded.”

   In addition to her descriptions of Vera, Cleeves creates a vivid sense of place— “The sight was like something from a fairy tale. Magical. The flurry of snow had passed and there was moonlight, and a sky flecked with stars.” —and scene— “…pheasant, cooked slowly with red wine and shallots…And a vegetable casserole…Roast potatoes and parsnips and sprouts…A variety of puds, hot and cold.”

   Vera’s relationship with her team is interesting. She knows their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Although she seems to take advantage of them, in knowing what drives them, she is helping them grow and improve individually and as a unit. What makes it work is that they understand what she is doing. They know her, too, with the teammates often bolstering one other.

   Cleeves’ books are as much personality studies as they are mysteries. By focusing on motivation, it becomes clear how the past can influence the present and the future. One cannot help analyzing oneself in the process.

   The plot is excellent. The information on anorexia is well presented and stresses the severity of the disease — which not simply an issue of vanity. There are plenty of questions and red herrings. The question as to who fathered the baby leads to effective supposition. A “ta-dah” moment gives way to real suspense and threat, and a wonderfully English ending.

   The Darkest Evening is another example of Cleeves’ excellent storytelling. The climax is well done and even touching. It’s a mystery one may not figure out before the end when it all makes sense, and the use of Frost’s poem in the title is perfect.

Rating: Excellent.

RIFFRAFF. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Pat O’Brien (PI Dan Hammer), Walter Slezak, Anne Jeffreys, Percy Kilbride, Jerome Cowan. Director: Ted Tetzlaff.

   It’s a question that needs investigating, but while I recognize the truth of that statement, I haven’t yet done so. Here it is, though: Who came first Dan Hammer, or Mike Hammer? Both made their first appearance in 1947, and that’s as far as I personally have gotten. What is not up for doubt is the obvious followup question: Which of the two made the bigger impact on American pop culture history?

   While there are quite a few good things to be said about Dan Hammer, and Riffraff, his only appearance in motion picture form, he’s remembered by almost nobody. Almost all of Riffraff takes place in Panama, where Dan Hammer, as played ever so suavely by movie actor Pat O’Brien, is the to-go-to man about town. He knows the people to see, the ropes to pull, and every so often, it is said that folks in need of help actually pay him for the tips he gives them.

   He may have hit the jackpot this time around, one that may be worth several thousand dollars to him – if only he can find the map to several Peruvian oil wells potentially worth many times that amount. With both Jerome Cowan and Walter Slezak in the picture (pun intended), the competition is fierce. And of course there’s a girl involved. Just whose side is she on?

   Unfortunately, the dialogue, acting and the photography are all individually and collectively better than the plot which is as barebones as that previous paragraph would suggest. In quite unusual fashion, the opening scenes go on for six or seven minutes with no dialogue, an interesting approach in starting a B-movie mystery back in 1947. It is as if those in charge in production were striving for more, and in fact I think they were almost but not quite successful in doing so.

   Unfortunately (for the second time), the romance between Pat O’Brien (48 at the time) and Anne Jeffreys (half his age at 24) falls totally flat, or so it seemed to me. No sparks. He’s middle-aged, a bit paunchy with a receding hairline, and she’s young, blonde and vivacious. Of course she’s leaving Jerome Cowan for him, so maybe there’s a message somewhere there.

   But do watch this movie if you get the chance, especially if you’re a fan of minor league PI’s located in out-of-the-way places. And any movie with Percy Kilbride in it is always worth watching, no matter what kind of old movie you’re a fan of.



(Give Me That) OLD-TIME DETECTION. Spring 2021. Issue #56. Editor: Arthur Vidro. Old-Time Detection Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd. 36 pages (including covers). Cover image: EQMM cover, September 1953.

   The latest issue of Old-Time Detection has, as they say (or as they used to say), hit the stands, and it was certainly worth the wait. Classic detective fiction has found a congenial home in OTD.

   Dr. John Curran, known far and wide as the foremost living expert on Agatha Christie, is up first with his coverage of all things AC-related — Christie on Screen (the sputtering adaptation of Death on the Nile, yet a third version of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, and a questionable Swedish-German production featuring a bisexual Sven Hjerson); Christie on Stage (the return of The Mousetrap to the West End and a dubious public domain adaptation of The Mysterious Affair at Styles); and The Christie Festival, also making a cautious return.

   Michael Dirda is up next with his thorough-going review of Mark Aldridge’s nonfiction Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World (2020). Dirda notes the “tyranny of the contemporary,” a very real phenomenon of the social media age in which Christie’s brilliant sleuth, Doyle’s Holmes, Stout’s Wolfe, and Chesterton’s clergyman don’t receive the high regard they deserve.

   J. Randolph Cox spotlights John Buchan, the thriller writer’s thriller writer of the post-World War I era. Critics are divided on what made Buchan’s fiction so popular; perhaps, as Cox tells us, it was “the matter-of-fact, no-nonsense tone of Buchan’s style, [which] explains the high degree of plausibility surrounding even the most improbable events. The reader is drawn into the vortex of the situation along with the hero, neither one aware of what will happen next.” You can’t ask more of that from any thriller.

   When it comes to analyzing detective fiction, no one was more qualified than the late Edward D. Hoch, the ne plus ultra of short mystery writers. Here he takes on Ellery Queen’s novel output at some length and concludes how important EQ’s long fiction was: “Ellery Queen’s novels, and the changing character of Ellery himself, reflected the evolution of the American mystery from 1929 to 1971.”

   This issue’s piece of fiction is the extremely rare “The EQMM Cover Murders,” which saw publication only once before. The author, Marvin Lachman, has added an explanatory introduction about what some might dismiss as a piece of juvenilia — but shouldn’t — because it’s an excellent character study of a misanthropist who decides to exact revenge on the world only to discover the truth of Emerson’s dictum about foolish consistencies and hobgoblins. There’s a nifty twist ending worthy of O. Henry.

   While Ed Hoch dealt with Ellery Queen’s novels, Stephen Thompson launches into EQ’s short fiction, specifically in this installment the stories in his/their first collection, The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934). Thompson can’t help but noting how Queen’s early tales have “in miniature, the same inventiveness displayed in the early novels: the bizarre situations, the brilliant deductions, and the startling solutions.” This column is the first of a series covering EQ’s seventy-seven short stories.

   As for EQ’s latter day novel The Finishing Stroke (1958), not only does Ted Hertel tell us why it’s his favorite but editor Vidro also appends a letter from a very well-known detective fictioneer to Ellery Queen, calling it “the best story you have ever done.”

   Next come Jon L. Breen’s short but pithy reviews of Ted Wood’s Dead in the Water and Don Flynn’s Murder Isn’t Enough (both from 1983), followed by Charles Shibuk’s 1971 reviews of contemporary paperback reprints. Concerning the latter, how many of these titles do you recognize? Christie’s Appointment with Death, Collins’s Night of the Toads, Francis’s Enquiry, Garve’s Boomerang, Gilbert’s The Family Tomb, Harrington’s The Last Known Address, Kendrick’s The Last Express, Macdonald’s The Dark Tunnel and Trouble Follows Me, Marsh’s Killer Dolphin, Sayers’s Clouds of Witness and The Documents in the Case, Symons’s Bland Beginning, and Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes and To Love and Be Wise.

   And, as usual, the issue finishes up with readers’ reactions and a puzzle page. If you’re one of those rare types who are au courant with old-time radio you shouldn’t have a problem with the puzzle, but if, like me, you aren’t . . . .

   If you’d like to subscribe to Old-Time Detection:

Published three times a year: spring, summer, and autumn. – Sample copy: $6.00 in U.S.; $10.00 anywhere else. – One-year U.S.: $18.00 ($15.00 for Mensans). – One-year overseas: $40.00 (or 25 pounds sterling or 30 euros). – Payment: Checks payable to Arthur Vidro, or cash from any nation, or U.S. postage stamps or PayPal. – Mailing address: Arthur Vidro, editor, Old-Time Detection, 2 Ellery Street, Claremont, New Hampshire 03743.

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PETER RABE – Bring Me Another Corpse. Gold Medal #864, paperback original; 1st printing, March 1959. Included in Daniel Port Omnibus 2: The Cut of the Whip / Bring Me Another Corpse / Time Enough to Die, Stark House Press, trade paperback, 2015.

   Some time ago — I think it was last issue, as a matter of fact — I said that I didn’t read crime stories any more, Or something to that effect, That was last issue, though, this is now, and here is a Peter Rabe crime story, There never was a better man to write about the mob, about gangsters and hoodlums, than Peter Rabe.

   This is also a Daniel Port suspense thriller, or so says the cover, Besides stories like Benny Muscles In and Kill the Boss Goodbye, Rabe also did a series about the adventures of a former syndicate man named Daniel Port, and unfortunately this is the first one I’ve read of them. In other words, I can’t tell you very much about the earlier ones, but this is a good one, and I’m going to recommend the others to you, sight unseen.

   It’s a crime story all the way, but (of course) there’s a mystery involved as well, and it’s going to take some filling in.of some background before I can tell you what it is, When Port left the syndicate, he carefully stored away some papers that, when he died, would go straight to the police, Since then, Callo’s men have left him strictly alone.

   Why then, beginning with Chapter One, has a hit man been hired to bump him off? Port doesn’t know, nor does the FBI, who are also interested in Port’s predicament. In fact, they are interested enough to get Port to impersonate another notorious killer and (get this) to offer his services to assassinate himself, the original having been lured off to France, where he’s cooling his heels in a French jail.

   The idea, of course, being to infiltrate the mob from the inside, to discover just why the idea of bumping Port off has come up again.

   It should be obvious, if you were to think about it, but it takes Port 50 pages or so before he finds exactly what is going on. The mystery then, to get back to that, is to discover who the head man behind the assassination plot actually is. No matter how many underlings are disposed of, if the big cheese isn’t nabbed as well, it’s back to square one.

   Rabe’s writing is tough and lean and moody, and somehow — I’m not sure just how — it reminds me of what the result might read like if Cornell Woolrich had ever written a mobster story. The ending is a bit of a letdown, though, in that while Rabe had a decent surprise for the reader with only 15 pages to go —  a totally logical one, I’m happy to say, and since it hadn’t occurred to me, I liked it all the more — I came up with an even greater twist that didn’t occur to Rabe at all.

   Maybe it wasn’t logical, but I had some other agency involved altogether in getting Port mixed up in a scrape like this.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File 26, December 1990.


A GOOD WOMAN. Lions Gate, 2004. Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Milena Vukotic, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Mark Umbers. Screenplay by Howard Himelstein, loosely based on Lady Windermere’s Fan,   by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Mike Barker.

   Whothehell did they ever think was gonna go see a movie called A Good Woman?

   A pity, that title, because this is an excellent, film: moving, witty and romantic, even as it runs over Wilde’s play with a mulching mower.


   For starters, writer Howard Himelstein moves the action from London to Italy, the scenic towns near Naples, a visual treat beautifully exploited by director Mike Barker. Then he turns Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) and the Windermeres (Johansson & Umbers) into Americans, the latter two vacationing in luxury, the former penniless and on the prowl.

   From there, Himelstein touches on the play in fits and starts, tossing in Wildean epigrams of his own composing, opening out the action, and rearranging scenes while flirting with the original story line: Mr. Windemere seems to be having an affair with the predatory Mrs. Erlynne, and when Mrs. Windermere finds out, she flees to the amorous Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore) leading to a tense confrontation on his yacht, where Truth rears its ugly head and promptly ducks back down again when Love shows up.

   All this would be plenty enough for an enjoyable movie, but again, Himelstein gives us more: two wonderfully thought out and affecting scenes (not in the play) that Ms Hunt caries off movingly, just by hiding her emotions, so we can read our own feelings into the thing.

   All of which got fed to the lions. The critics sneered, turned thumbs down, and audiences turned the attention to the cinematic gladiators and chariot races on other screens at the multiplex. Too bad. They missed a fine movie.




STUART KAMINSKYMurder on the Yellow Brick Road. Toby Peters #2.  St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1977. Penguin, paperback, 1979.

   This is the second in Stuart Kaminsky’s historical series starring his 1940s Hollywood private investigator, Toby Peters (a.k.a. Tobias Leo Pevsner), who made his own debut last year in Bullet for a Star. This second entry is by far superior to the first.

   Once again, Hollywood stars join the fun in both major and minor roles. In this vehicle Toby ls summoned from the Warner Brothers lot (where he helped Errol Flynn in Bullet) to M.G.M. by an urgent call from Judy Garland, who has just discovered the body of a murdered Munchkin on the still-standing publicity set of Munchkin City from The Wizard of Oz, released more than a year earlier.

   Peters is hired by Louis B. Mayer himself to keep the investigation quiet and protect Judy, whose own safety seems at stake. Toby’s interview with the “little” suspect arrested in connection with the murder convinces him of his innocence. Peters, of course, whose wife has already walked out on him and who shares office space with a dentist, is a progeny of the classic Hammett/Chandler tradition. (“My nose is mashed against my dark face from two punches too many. At 44 I’ve a few grey hairs in my short sideburns, and my smile looks like a cynical sneer even when I’m having a good time, but there are a lot around town just as tough and just as cheap. I fit a type, and in my business I was willing to play it up rather than try to cover.”)

   And again: “I was doing what private detectives are supposed to do.  I was walking the mean streets. I was acting like a damn fool.” Indeed, Raymond Chandler also has a bit part as himself in the novel. He spots Toby while doing research on flophouses and decides to shadow him, but is waylaid for his efforts. Since Toby is the first real detective he has ever met, our investigator lets him tag along on the case so he can drink in some local color and dialogue first hand. A second fatal stabbing, a defenestration, and two attempts on Toby’s life all ensue before the climax, in which even Judy has a hand (or an elbow, to be more exact).

   Murder on the Yellow Brick Road is a well-paced and very neat yarn, indeed, even if it doesn’t require a wizard to spot the culprit. The dialogue is crisp and lively, especially between Toby and his antagonistic brother LAPD Lieutenant Philip Pevsner, whose boiling point is nil whenever he runs up against his younger brother.

   Add Clark Gable in a minor role as a prospective witness and several other M.G.M. stars in walk-through parts, and it all adds up to quite a pleasant stroll down memory lane as well. Unfortunately, there was a very careless printing job by St. Martin’s Press on the first edition which will hopefully be corrected in subsequent printings, including that scheduled for the Mystery Guild.

   Kaminsky’s third work is already in progress and will involve Toby Peters with the Marx Brothers.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 1, Number 3, May 1978).


Editorial Notes: The title of that next book in the series was You Bet Your Life (1978). There were in all 24 books in the series before it ended.

   Jim McCahery was an early member of DAPA-Em whom I met once in a party held at Jeff and Jackie Meyerson’s home. A lot of mystery fans who had met only by zine exchanges met in person for the first time there. I asked Jeff today and he told me that Jim had been a teacher at Xavier High School in Manhattan and had just retired at 60 when he died of a heart attack.

   His ambition in retirement was to become a full time writer. Before he passed away, he had written two mysteries:

McCAHERY, JAMES (R.) (1934-1995)
      Grave Undertaking (Knightsbridge, 1990, pb) [Lavina London; New York]
      What Evil Lurks (Kensington, 1995, hc) [Lavina London; New York City, NY]

   Lavina London is described online as a “spry and savvy septuagenarian sleuth … a retired radio actress.” I enjoyed reading both books.

MANNING COLES “Handcuffs Don’t Hold Ghosts.” Novelette. Tommy Hambledon. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 1946. Collected in Nothing to Declare (Doubleday, 1960). Reprinted in The Saint Mystery Magazine, January 1964. Also reprinted in Great Spy Novels and Stories, edited by Roger Elwood & Sam Moscowitz (Pyramid, paperback, August 1965).

   I don’t remember the title, but one of intrepid British agent Tommy Hambledon’s adventures was one of the first “grown up” mysteries I remember reading. (It was in one of the Detective Book Club’s 3-in-1 volumes I checked out of the local library, circa 1956.) It was a strange exciting affair, and all I remember of it was its very remarkable ending, one that came as a complete surprise to me, having (I think) something to do with an identity kept secret all through the book.

   I’ve been a fan ever since.

   As time went on, I began to appreciate the serio-comic approach the Coles’ took to spy fiction all the more. Hambledon’s adventures are deadly serious, but sometimes he does get into the darnedest situations!

   “Handcuffs Don’t Hold Ghosts” starts out in truly superb fashion, which means it can only go down from there, but there’s a last couple of paragraphs that completely makes up for any sag that comes in the middle section. Hambledon and his good friend Chief Inspector Bagshot are listening to the radio, logs on the fire, and in particular a presentation by the BBC being a live production of two psychic investigators looking for ghosts in an old *haunted* mansion. First, under very spooky situations, one of the investigators disappears, then the other, following by the announcer, then the two radio technicians who come in to see what’s going on. All on live radio.


   Turns out that Tommy knows the owner of the house, and the next day he and Bagshot go in person to investigate. Tommy also knows more about the old fellow than he lets on, so there’s no attempt to make this a fair play mystery. It’s more of a thriller than a detective story, but as I said there up above, the last couple of paragraphs more than make up for any letdown after that totally fabulous opening.

   What’s really going on, I can’t tell you, but I may as well give you a hint, along with the obligatory [WARNING!]. The story first appeared in 1946, soon after the war ended, and people in Britain especially were still wondering what was happening to all of the Nazis, especially those at the top echelon, some of whom were captured and others were not.

   If that’s too much of a hint, I apologize.

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