Apr 182012
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


LAWRENCE LARIAR

  LAWRENCE LARIAR – Death Paints the Picture. Phoenix Press, hardcover, 1943. Crime Novel Selection, nn [#6], digest-sized paperback, as Death Is the Host, no date [1943].

   A cartoonist himself, Lariar has as his detective Homer Bull, quite overweight and mastermind of the daily comic strip “True Stories of Crime.” Bull writes the strip while his assistant, Ham MacAndrews, does the cartooning. Ham also narrates Bull’s investigations. “‘Great jumping ginch!’ I blatted” is an example of MacAndrews’s speech which leads one to hope he draws better than he speaks.

LAWRENCE LARIAR

   Because his man Shtunk was on a binge, Bull misses the invitation to weekend with Hugh Shipley, famed illustrator for the weekly magazines. It is an ill-assorted group that includes Bull’s ex-wife, a gossip columnist, and a tobacco mogul.

   If Bull had attended, he might have been able to prevent Shipley’s alleged suicide, alleged because Bull, who shows up afterwards, is convinced Shipley was murdered, despite the room having been locked with no way for any murderer to have escaped.

   Another murder made to look like suicide, though it doesn’t fool Bull, takes place before Bull figures out who and how. Probably because I have perverse tastes, I enjoyed the book.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.


BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTES:

       The Homer Bull series –

Death Paints the Picture. Phoenix Press, 1943.
He Died Laughing. Phoenix Press, 1943.

LAWRENCE LARIAR

The Man with the Lumpy Nose. Dodd Mead, 1944.
The Girl with the Frightened Eyes. Dodd Mead, 1945.

   Lawrence Lariar has his own page on Wikipedia. Here’s the first paragraph:

    “Lawrence Lariar (December 25, 1908 – October 12, 1981) was an American novelist, cartoonist and cartoon editor, notable for his ‘Best Cartoons of the Year’ series of cartoon collections. He wrote crime novels, sometimes using the pseudonyms Michael Stark, Adam Knight and Marston la France.”

   He wrote nine mystery novels under his own name; nine as Adam Knight, including eight adventures of PI Steve Conacher and one with female PI Sugar Shannon; two paperback originals as by Michael Lawrence, both cases for PI Johnny Amsterdam; and one book as by Michael Stark.

   If he wrote the one mystery credited to Marston La France, it is news to Al Hubin. (Marston La France was a long-time professor and academic dean at Carleton University in Ottawa. The mystery he authored, Miami Murder-Go-Round, was copyrighted in his name. It features yet another PI, Rick Larkan.)

 Posted by at 8:16 pm
Apr 172012
 

ROBERT SKINNER – Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting. Poisoned Pen Press, hardcover, 1999; trade paperback, 2000. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, 3-in-1 edition.

   At the present time there are six books in Robert Skinner’s series of Wesley Farrell adventures, of which this is the third:

Skin Deep, Blood Red (Kensington, 1997) [Nominated for the Anthony Award for Best First Novel.]

ROBERT SKINNER Wesley Farrell

Cat-Eyed Trouble (Kensington, 1998)
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (Poisoned Pen, 1999)
Blood to Drink (Poisoned Pen, 2000)

ROBERT SKINNER Wesley Farrell

Pale Shadow (Poisoned Pen, 2001)
The Righteous Cut (Poisoned Pen, 2002)

   Wesley Farrell is a mixed-blood Creole by birth, but at the time of this book, which is 1938, he’d been living in New Orleans as a white man for over 25 years. He’s a legend of a man — a night club owner whom everyone in the city seems to know and will defer to, rather than get on the wrong side of him. Nonetheless (and inevitably) it’s strictly his reputation that gets him into trouble this time.

ROBERT SKINNER Wesley Farrell

   There are several threads of the widely rambling plot. The major one centers on the deaths or mysterious disappearances of prominent members of the aforementioned black community. Less important, or so it seems, is the request that Carol Donovan (*), the beautiful black owner of The Original Southport Club, makes of Farrell. She needs his help in fighting a tough thug named Archie Badeaux who has been making threats against her.

   A stash of stolen money that has gone missing is also involved, and when Ernie LeDoux gets out of prison and starts looking for it, a brand new series of events is pushed into motion. And there’s more. It takes well over 300 pages of fine action-oriented fiction to cover it all.

   Great characters and great atmosphere combine to make Gone A-Hunting very enjoyable reading. Back in 1938, and particularly in the South, there was an entire black community whose activities never made the white newspapers, and they certainly weren’t recorded in the white history books.

   A separate black squad of the detectives in the police department, black bankers and real estate agents — an entirely separate (but not equal) citizenry — which you notice most when you are reminded, as Skinner does, that trains, for example, had separate cars for blacks.

ROBERT SKINNER Wesley Farrell

   Most of the threads of plot come together at the end, but not all. In all truthfulness they’re spread too thin to have the depth that would make this an absolute knockout of a novel. Sometimes the longer the book, the weaker the punch. The clues which the detection depends upon are suspect as well — what kind of witless killer would vomit at each of his scenes of the crime, and fail to clean up his mess afterward?

   But there are more adventures to come, and a couple of priors to catch up with also. I came in at the middle, and now with two different ways to go, I fully intend to.

– September 2003


(*) PostScript:   Here’s a quote that here, just now, at the last minute, I decided to leave you with. From page 21:

   A beautiful Negro woman of about thirty came through the doors of the Café Tristesse [Farrell's place] like she owned the joint. She was about five-and-a-half feet tall, with skin so pale brown it was no darker than a suntan, shoulder-length black hair, and eyes like obsidian. The only makeup on her fine-featured face was lip rouge the color of ripe plums. Dressed in a pale yellow dress, yellow sling-back pumps, and a yellow hat that was like gold ornamentation on a queen, she was enough to make a Baptist minister drink swamp water, crawl inside a hollow log, and bay at the moon.

   Maybe Halle Berry could play the part? I was leaning toward a younger Richard Roundtree as Farrell, back when he played Shaft in the movies. When I mentioned this to another reader of the series (female), she immediately reminded me that Farrell is passing for white, and Roundtree is therefore too dark.

   She then suggested Giancarlo Esposito, who appears on some television show I don’t watch. I obviously have to think this over some more.

 Posted by at 10:36 pm
Apr 152012
 

HELD FOR RANSOM

HELD FOR RANSOM. Grand National Pictures, 1938. Blanche Mehaffey, Grant Withers, Bruce Warren, Jack Mulhall, Kenneth Harlan, Walter McGrail, Robert McKenzie. Director: Clarence Bricker.

   Kidnapping is a federal crime, so it stands to reason that Betty Mason (Blanche Mehaffey) is working as a federal agent when she goes undercover to tackle this case. The ransom has been paid, but the victim has not been released. The police suspect the man’s nephew (Grant Withers) as part of an inside job, but Betty is wise enough to keep all her options open.

   I say “it stands to reason” in that opening paragraph, because the storyline of this film is plagued by some of the worst continuity and opening expository material I can think of, poverty row B-film or not. Events happen without explanation to characters who are not introduced, until later. I gave up once and started the film again, which helped a little.

   Once beyond the first 15 minutes or so, it settles down into a fairly enjoyable detective yarn. The lack of money behind the film’s production is an obvious drawback, but there are two good reasons why I can recommend Held for Ransom to you, with only the reservations I’ve stated so far.

HELD FOR RANSOM

   The first is the on-location shooting, that of an authentic mountain resort area around a lake somewhere near San Bernardino (Cedar Lake, IMDB says). It reminded me of several motor trips my family and I took when I was a kid, though we never made to California until the mid-1960s. The old general store with the ubiquitous candy bar ads plastered here and there brought back a lot of memories.

   The other reason — and this is the primary one — is the role of Blanche Mehaffey as a tough-as-she-needs-to-be policewoman, as handy with a gun as climbing out a window on bedsheets tied together and rowing across the lake at midnight. Crime action movies in 1938 like this one did not often have a female in the lead, not without a comedy sidekick or boy friend. This one doesn’t, and it’s all the better for it.

   The curly-haired and good-looking Mehaffey had a long career in silent films, beginning in 1923, but she seems to have made the into the sound era with no difficulties. Unfortunately she made only one more movie after this one, retiring from Hollywood when she was still only 31.

HELD FOR RANSOM

 Posted by at 3:11 am
Apr 102012
 

IRVING WEINMAN – Virgil’s Ghost. Fawcett Gold Medal, reprint paperback, January 1991. First published by Columbine, hardcover, 1990.

IRVING WEINMAN Lenny Schwartz

   Lenny Schwartz, the hero of Weinman’s two previous mystery novels, turns PI in this one. Years of guilt as a homicide policeman have taken their toll. (I haven’t read the first two, so that is all I know, but as you will see, if you read on, neither am I about to.)

   Lenny’s wife is upset by this decision for some reason, but maybe mostly because he didn’t tell her. Not, that is, until the night before he is to move into his new office. She kicks him out, saying that he is welcome home only on weekends, the next few of which they spend making love and feeling guilty afterward.

   So Lenny’s first case is important to him, more important than he knows. The parents of a mathematician whose mutilated body was recently found in the East River want him to prove that the coroner’s report was wrong, that their son did not die of AIDS. They feel guilty about this, but they are determined to pursue this course of action.

   Mixed in with all this guilt is a load of ethic humor (mostly Jewish), and fifty pages was as far as I went. Lenny’s new assistant is named Abrasha Addison (formerly Yarmolinksy), but at one time his real name was Abraham Resnick, and he can get a deal for you. When Lenny’s office/apartment is trashed by a firebomb, Abrasha is on the spot with a suitcase of clothes for Lenny. “What you think? Just your sizes, Lenny. No? Look, is first drawer quality. Bloomie’s Abe Strauss, good stuff, Huh?”

   The murder is serious, however. Pornography is hinted at. Snuff films. According to the back cover, perversion, conspiracy, and cover-ups are involved. Seamy sex clubs and drugs. Government agencies. Russkies. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency. Heaven help us. Can’t anyone write a plain old PI story any more?

   Anyway, I didn’t read most of this, but eight different newspapers and review services are liberally quoted on both covers, and they all read it and liked it, and you may, too. One of them even suggests that thus “great new literate sleuth” is “the American version of Adam Dalgleish.” I wouldn’t go that far, based on what I read, but I’d have to admit that I no longer read P. D. James either, and a lot of people do.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 28,
       February 1991 (slightly revised).


       The Lenny Schwartz series

Tailor’s Dummy. Atheneum, 1986.

IRVING WEINMAN Lenny Schwartz

Hampton Heat. Atheneum, 1988.

IRVING WEINMAN Lenny Schwartz

Virgil’s Ghost. Columbine, 1990.
Easy Way Down. Columbine, 1991.

IRVING WEINMAN Lenny Schwartz


[UPDATE] 04-09-12.   One never knows for sure, but there’s a good possibility I would find something to reverse my opinion of this book, were I to read it now. Something as simple as my mood at the time may be different, or some eleven years later, certain overall ways I view things may have changed. On the other hand, I have not read P. D. James since I wrote this review, so perhaps not.

 Posted by at 12:33 am
Apr 082012
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


R. L. GOLDMAN – Death Plays Solitaire. Coward-McCann, hardcover, 1939. Green Dragon #10, digest-sized paperback, no date stated [1944], condensed.

R. L. GOLDMAN Rufus Reed

   While it will not endear me to the doubtless many fans of Asaph Clume and Rufus Reed, “impulsive redheaded reporter,” I must confess I am glad I read the “condensed” version of this novel since its tediousness is staggering even in the abbreviated version.

   For example: “I’m supposed to be a political commentator, and I do a daily column, ‘Round-Up,’ which I sign ‘Rufus Reed’ because that’s my name.”

   A former police reporter, Reed has been assigned by Clume, his boss, to cover the execution of Dan Hillyard for murder during a bank robbery from which the money has never been recovered. On his last night Hillyard gives the deck of cards with which he has been playing solitaire to his wife.

   In turn, she gives the cards to Hillyard’s lawyer, who is murdered shortly afterwards. He, too, had been playing solitaire, something he had never done before, and the deck of cards has been taken by the murderer. Other deaths follow, and Reed himself faces torture and death. As Reed does the leg work, Clume does the thinking, such as it is.

   Not well written even for the times, a very thin plot, an evident but clueless murderer. Still, one waits, not breathlessly, to read The Snatch, in which, according to Green Dragon, “A slipping male movie idol is the victim-and there are more than enough suspects with motives. Irrepressible Rufus Reed, red-haired reporter figures out whodunit just in time for a smashing, surprise ending that’ll leave you worrying about ethics for quite a while.”

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.


       The Asaph Clume & Rufus Reed series —

The Murder of Harvey Blake. Skeffington, 1931.
Murder Without Motive. Coward, 1938.

R. L. GOLDMAN Rufus Reed

Death Plays Solitaire. Coward, 1939.
The Snatch. Coward, 1940.
Murder Behind the Mike. Coward, 1942.

R. L. GOLDMAN Rufus Reed

The Purple Shells. Ziff-Davis, 1947.

R. L. GOLDMAN Rufus Reed


Editorial Comment:   R. L. Goldman also wrote three non-series mysteries not included in the list above. Some biographical information about him can be found in the Ziff-Davis “Fingerprint Mystery” checklist compiled by Victor Berch, Bill Pronzini and myself.

 Posted by at 6:58 am
Apr 062012
 
IT’S ABOUT CRIME, by Marvin Lachman

FREDRICK D. HUEBNER Judgment by Fire

FREDRICK D. HUEBNER – Judgment by Fire. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback original, 1988.

   I was not surprised after reading Fredrick D. Huebner’s Judgment by Fire, a paperback original from Gold Medal, to learn that the author is an attorney.

   Even if my son weren’t a lawyer, I would disagree with the character in Shakespeare who said, “First, kill all the lawyers.” Writers in that profession, e.g., Huebner, Healey, Nevins, and Hensley are too good at integrating the law into their mystery plots.

   At times, Huebner’s well-described courtroom scenes (even the motions made are suspenseful) threaten to overwhelm his rather meager plot. The book reaches its peak midway with a murder-arson trial and then is anticlimactic.

   Still, on balance, this is a worthwhile mystery with a good description of the Seattle area, especially its perennial rain.

– Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.


       The Matt Riordan mystery series –

1. The Joshua Sequence (1986)
2. The Black Rose (1987)
3. Judgement By Fire (1988)
4. Picture Postcard (1990)
5. Methods of Execution (1994)

FREDRICK D. HUEBNER Judgment by Fire

 Posted by at 11:15 pm
Mar 302012
 
THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


REX BURNS – The Killing Zone. Viking, hardcover, 1988. Penguin, paperback, 1989.

REX BURNS Gabe Wager

   Rex Burns’ latest about Denver homicide detective Gabe Wager is The Killing Zone. I’ve muttered before about Wager, a gloomy, morose, irascible chap with a recently acquired payload of guilt to boot.

   But this one has a strong contemporary plot, with good suspense and character dynamics, and I was well swept along with the flow. A kid finds the city’s latest corpse in a vacant lot. It’s Horace Green, city councilman, black, hero and defender of the black community. Now wearing a bullet hole in the back of his head.

   Racial motives spring to mind, and the city gathers itself for explosion. Wager’s boss wants him to look only in one white place for a killer, for a tension-defusing solution. Wager, who rarely takes orders from anyone and routinely works sixteen-hour days, will look everywhere.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.


      The Gabe Wager series

1. The Alvarez Journal (1975)

REX BURNS Gabe Wager

2. The Farnsworth Score (1977)

REX BURNS Gabe Wager

3. Speak for the Dead (1978)

REX BURNS Gabe Wager

4. Angle of Attack (1979)
5. The Avenging Angel (1983)
6. Strip Search (1984)
7. Ground Money (1986)
8. The Killing Zone (1988)
9. Endangered Species (1993)
10. Blood Line (1995)

REX BURNS Gabe Wager

11. The Leaning Land (1997)

   Rex Burns also wrote four books with PI Devlin Kirk as the lead detective. All 15 books have recently been published as ebooks by Mysterious Press.

 Posted by at 11:55 am
Mar 242012
 
IT’S ABOUT CRIME, by Marvin Lachman

GAYLORD DOLD – Bonepile. Ivy, paperback original, 1988.

GAYLORD DOLD Mitch Roberts

   Bonepile by Gaylord Dold, the third Mitch Roberts novel, is more ambitious than the Rafferty book by W. Glenn Duncan (reviewed here ) but ultimately less satisfying.

   Dold is another writer to be commended for moving the private eyes’ mean streets from New York and Los Angeles to more unusual locales. In this case it is a rural farming community in Kansas where Roberts, on vacation from Wichita (“…the world’s largest small town”), has gone to recuperate. One can feel the heat and wind blowing off the plains, imagine walking through the park in the middle of town, and understand the people, including their worship of the St. Louis Cardinals.

   The book is set in 1956, but Roberts in true Lew Archer fashion permits guilt to cause him to try to solve a 1940′s murder. Unfortunately, Dold, like Archer’s creator, suffers from a severe case of a disease I believe I was first to diagnose and name: “metaphoritis.”

   Its primary symptom is overwriting, with swelling of metaphors, those necessary usages which transform ordinary into very good writing. When poorly used, as in Bonepile, we get such lines as “Night grew in me like a tumor” and “The tree itself creaked as if its heart were broken.”

   Sometimes, in an effort to be imaginative, Dold is merely anatomically unsound as he writes, “Sweat filled my mind and overflowed.” I suspect that the reason for all the overwriting and padding is that this time around he had too slim a plot and, based on the unsatisfactory ending, didn’t know how to conclude his book.

   Yet I perceive real writing talent here, and Dr. Lachman suspects this case of metaphoritis will not be fatal.

– Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.

      The Mitch Roberts series –

Hot Summer, Cold Murder. Avon, pb, 1987.

GAYLORD DOLD Mitch Roberts

Snake Eyes. Ivy, pb, 1987.
Bonepile. Ivy, pb, 1988.
Cold Cash. Ivy, pb, 1988.
Muscle and Blood. Ivy, pb, 1989.

GAYLORD DOLD Mitch Roberts

Disheveled City. Ivy, pb, 1990.
A Penny for the Old Guy. St. Martin’s, hc, 1991.

GAYLORD DOLD Mitch Roberts

Rude Boys. St. Martin’s, hc, 1992.
The World Beat. St. Martin’s, hc, 1993.
Samedi’s Knapsack. St. Martin’s, hc, 2001.

 Posted by at 3:11 am
Mar 222012
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


CORTLAND FITZSIMMONS – The Evil Men Do. Stokes, hardcover, 1941.

CORTLAND FITZSIMMONS Ethel Waters

   Having turned down several lucrative offers to go to Hollywood and do screen writing, mystery writer Ethel Thomas finally accepts as a ploy to help out her niece, an aspiring movie actress.

   The niece’s fiance, fighting for her honor, has apparently killed a man. It’s obvious that the “killing” is but a variation of the old badger game, but these two youngsters get themselves involved with a blackmailer who runs a gambling club. Naturally, he is soon bumped off. The niece, the fiance, the niece’s mother, and Thomas are unlikely suspects.

   Since the idea should be a winner from the start, there ought to be a law that authors writing about septuagenarian lady mystery writers who also detect produce at least a halfway decent novel. If there were such a law, Fitzsimmons would be given twenty years without the option.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.


      The Ethel Thomas series —

The Whispering Window. Stokes, 1936.
The Moving Finger. Stokes, 1937.

CORTLAND FITZSIMMONS Ethel Waters

Mystery at Hidden Harbor. Stokes, 1938.
The Evil Men Do. Stokes, 1941.

Editorial Comment:   In a crime fiction writing career that extended from 1930 to 1943, Cortland Fitzsimmons wrote or co-authored another thirteen novels, two of which featured Arthur Martinson as the leading character, and two with Percy Peacock. I know nothing about either of the two, but Bill Deeck’s review of the author’s book The Girl in the Cage, displays an equal lack of enthusiasm for his work:   “…reading Fitzsimmons is like watching grease congeal.”

 Posted by at 7:07 pm
Mar 212012
 

SUSAN MOODY – Penny Dreadful. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback; 1st US printing, August 1986. First published in the UK: Macmillan, hardcover, 1984.

SUSAN MOODY Penny Wanawake

   The Penny in the title refers to Penny Wanawake, girl photographer, whose sleuthing activities place her as as nearly the perfect opposite of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple as can be imagined. While she is British, Penny is tall, young, black (corn-row braided hairdo), a sophisticated world traveler, and while a possessor of one live-in lover at home, she is not adverse to having others when she’s not.

   But returning to the title of this one, it’s at least a double, if not triple, play on words. The dead man in the affair is a writer of cheap blood-and-thunder pulp fiction, supplementing his day job as a schoolmaster at an exclusive boys’ school in Canterbury. Penny dreadfuls, in other words. He’s a dreadful man, too, since his books incorporate much of the scandalous activities his roving eyes have uncovered.

   And so no one really minds when he’s found dead. The police think the cause of death was a heart attack. Snooping in the kitchen, Penny finds the smell of gin in the sink, and she wonders if somebody had added something to it before disposing of it. Her interest in the case is not that of bringing a killer to justice, but more of an intellectual exercise in discovering the truth.

SUSAN MOODY Penny Wanawake

   There are any number of suspects. Adding to the thrill of the chase is the competition Penny is provided by the visiting policeman from Detroit she is currently sharing living quarters with. On the other hand, though, what Penny Wanawake doesn’t have is a “Watson” to bounce theories off of, and to be bedazzled by her investigative techniques and abilities and so on.

   We (the reader) follow her activities through the story from nearly beginning to end, and are usually given access to her thoughts, except (of course) when it really matters. Thus when it comes time for revealing the killer, we find that she had eliminated many possibilities lone before, although there was little in what she said or did that would have allowed us to come to the same conclusions.

   Nonetheless, while the story might have moved a bit too slowly for me, I did enjoy Penny Dreadful as a detective puzzle, one populated by people I could see as individuals. Susan Moody has wicked sense of humor, too, maybe even a bit sharper than mine. I could probably quote you parts I liked all day long, but here’s a paragraph I thought you might like. It’ll tell you, at least, what I’m talking about. From pages 141-142:

   She turned toward the Wellington Dock. On the other side of a stretch of water, the stone-built Customs house squatted like a garden gnome. There was a white-capped figure up in the glass observation room, staring keenly out to sea in case someone was trying to invade the country. There were several yachts making their way slowly out into the Channel. Words like ‘spanking’ and ‘jaunty’ and ‘marlin-spike’ came to mind. The wheel’s kick and the wind’s song. All that nautical jazz. It was enough to make even a Swiss banker break into a hornpipe.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 31,
       May 1991 (slightly revised).


      The Penny Wanawake series –

Penny Black. Macmillan, 1984.
Penny Dreadful. Macmillan, 1984.
Penny Post. Macmillan, 1985.
Penny Royal. Macmillan, 1986.
Penny Wise. Joseph, 1988.

SUSAN MOODY Penny Wanawake

Penny Pinching. Joseph, 1989.
Penny Saving, Joseph, 1990.    No US edition.

   All but the last were published by Gold Medal in the US as paperback originals.

   After ending the Penny Wanawake series, author Susan Moody began another, this one featuring professional bridge player, Cassandra Swann. Six of the latter’s adventures were recorded between 1993 and 1999, four of them appearing here in the US.

 Posted by at 6:36 pm

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