Jan 282015
The residents on the lower floors of the Cressingham Apartments have no idea what's going on above them.  Catering to the needs of the exclusive, the reclusive and the unobtrusive this tower of an apartment building is known to be the home of some of Montreal's most wealthy snobs.  All night long men are seen entering the Cressingham in groups and sometimes paired up with attractive women in tailor made outfits.  They pass the doorman, the telephone operator and porter heading for the self service elevator that will take them to the upper floors for an evening of private entertainment.  It's one of the most well kept secrets in Montreal -- a privately run prostitution enterprise free from the control of mobsters or police graft. Mike Garfin's latest case in Blondes Are My Trouble (1954) lands him smack in the middle of a mess that leads to the busy bedrooms of this elite den of iniquity.

At the start of this second novel in a brief series featuring Montreal's tough guy private eye Mike has reluctantly accepted Trudi Hess as his client.  She's being followed by a mysterious well-dressed blond man and wants to know who he is. Garfin learns that Trudi is a dressmaker who had a shop catering to clients with refined tastes and is a recent immigrant from Germany. Currently she devotes her time at an employment agency specializing in finding jobs for immigrants. When pressed for more details Trudi clams up though she's more than willing to accept Garfin's advances when he grabs her in his arms and kisses her wildly.

This is not just a gratuitous pass or an example of the hero's uncontrollable libido you usually find in a private eye novel of this era.  Garfin doesn't take advantage of his attractive female clients.  He has a hunch about Trudi's real line of work from the way she poses, the way she talks, the extreme mood changes that flip on and off like hot and cold water faucets. So he makes a pass at her and her over eager reaction is a sure indicator that his hunch is right. This is Garfin's kind of detective work. A few chapters later he'll being doing some more detecting in Trudi's apartment in the Cressingham.

Prior to Trudi's arrival Garfin was preparing for a one night only job as security man at an elaborate birthday bash for one of Montreal's debutantes.  He's been hired by Mrs. Alverton, society matron who has her eyes on the father of the Elizabeth Endicott. She is using the party as an excuse to get her hands on the rich father.  Garfin is there to guard the treasure trove of expensive birthday gifts that Elizabeth is bound to receive when the posh guests arrive. He shows up in black tie and tails looking handsome and impressive, receives his instructions to mingle with the guests. Mrs. Alverton even encourages him to dance with any of the women if he feels so inclined. To Garfin it all seems a little too relaxed for a security gig.

As the party gets under way, the young women twirl their way across the dance floor Mike can't help but notice one particular girl whose clothing makes her stand out -- not in a good way -- from the rest of the girls in their gowns and finery.  This girl is trying to push away the pawing hands of an obese middle-aged man and isn't succeeding.  Mike steps in, gives the older guy a lecture and a shove or two and rescues the girl from a possible ravishing.  Once alone with Mike the girl pleads with him to take her away from the party and to the police.  He's puzzled and conflicted.  While he wants to help her and can't really abandon his job and risk losing his pay for the night. He has to leave her momentarily in trying to sort out his dilemma and when he returns he sees he being pushed into a sedan that speeds away. Thinking quickly he borrows a car rather forcefully from a guest and races after the sedan where it pulls into a truck stop cafe. It doesn't end well when the girl is found crushed beneath the tires of an eighteen-wheeler.

The two stories -- Garfin's pursuit of the mysterious stalker after Trudi Hess and the seeming accidental death of the girl at the truck stop -- eventually merge in the hallways of the Cressingham, a hotbed of vice and violence in Montreal.  Along the way we meet a few characters previously introduced in Hot Freeze.  There is the French Canadian Captain Masson who refuses to learn English and who has little patience for Garfin's habit of stumbling over dead bodies. More importantly we get to spend a lot more time getting to know the intimate relationship between Mike and his girlfriend Tess whose line of work comes in very handy during this seedy case.

Though Mike Garfin first appears to be your typical wise guy private eye as the reader delves further into this second adventure in Montreal's dark underbelly we see Garfin is far from your run-of the mill gumshoe, in fact he's something of an intellectual.  Once again we are reminded he would rather listen to classical records at home rather than rock and roll.  And he goes out of his way to show off his arcane knowledge of the Praguerie when one of the suspects claims he is visiting Montreal form his home base of Manhattan in order to finish a thesis on this aspect of medieval French history. I never heard of the Praguerie and I consider myself college educated.  It was kind of jaw dropping having a private eye lecture me on Charles VII, the Hundred years' War and the revolt of French nobility modeling themselves on Bohemian aristocrats.

1st US hardcover edition
with Brett's original title
Similarly there is an atypical emphasis on women's clothing and wardrobe throughout the story. Frequent references to the way women dress, their make up, and how clothes enhance their figures are not there solely for salacious appetites.  Garfin's keen eye for the way a lady looks helps him connect the dots in the case, or more accurately helps him connect Trudi Hess' past to the well dressed women in the Cressingham.  The reader would do well to pay close attention to Garfin anytime he starts talking about clothes.  One particular observation he makes early in the book could lead the read to discover a surprising connection, one of the biggest shocks in the twisty and incredibly violent finale.

For a story essentially about high priced hookers this is a bloody and brutal tale. The original title of the book is The Darker Traffic. Less appealing for a private eye novel but so much more fitting as an expression of Brett's visceral feelings about this seamy world. In one of the review blurbs on my paperback edition Brett is compared to Mickey Spillane and Garfin to his namesake Mike Hammer and rightly so. I don't recall Hot Freeze being such a free-for-all when it came to fistfights, beatings and bullets. The story is one of the earliest novels daring enough to expose the greed and corruption of the soulless people using and abusing women as commodities. The surprising villains of the piece stop at nothing when Garfin tries to upset their cushy business in the flesh trade. What begins as a formulaic lecture by Garfin accusing the bad guys of amorality turns into a literal explosion of revenge and last minute trigger pulling.  There is little empathy spared for those who have exploited women so miserably and cruelly. It's clear how Brett feels about what one time was thought of as a victimless crime.  Once you finish reading this depiction of the effects of prostitution on the women involved you may come to see how poor a euphemism and misnomer is the phrase "victimless crime."

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Reading Challenge update: G6 "Book with a professional detective" on the Golden Age card.
 Posted by at 7:30 am
Jan 102015
This e-book collection brings together a second trio of complete novels from Wayne D. Dundee's Joe Hannibal series, some of the finest private eye novels you'll ever find. If you haven't made Joe's acquaintance yet, I strongly recommend that you pick up both collections. I guarantee you'll be entertained. (And as for that cover...yowza. I'm not talking about my blurb, either.)
Jan 082015
Periodically, I get very interesting email from readers of this blog.  Some like to discuss their latest find in a rare or used book shop.  Some ask me questions on where they can find books outside of the vast shopping mall we call the internet.  Some just pass on compliments and "keep up the good work" kinds of messages.  But then I get comments left on older posts that while definitely discussing vintage crime fiction are so intriguing or vital they deserve a post all their own.  Also, since these comments appear on posts from years ago chances are not many of you current readers will ever see them.  And so I decide to share them this way. Leading us to this tidbit of news...

Peter Quinones has a blog he calls Postmodern Deconstruction Madhouse, an academic in-joke if there ever was one.  Here he shares with readers a variety of essays and presentations he has made or plans to make at American Library Association conferences.  He has discussed Shakespeare's Macbeth, Saul Bellow, John Updike and most recently and at length the work of Ross Macdonald.

He has come up with a checklist of recurring themes, motifs and conceits in the Lew Archer novels and in his reading he applies them as they occur (or don't) and writes up his impressions.  So far he has covered The Moving Target (Archer's debut in print), The Drowning Pool, Black Money and most recently The Way Some People Die which inspired the title of this post.  Quinones considers this last book he's reviewed the best of the Archer novels. Bet he hasn't read The Chill or The Galton Case yet.

We always seem to be talking about detective novel tropes on the vintage mystery blogs whether we use the literary term or not.  And I know that I'm always looking for writers who subvert those tropes of the traditional detective novel and private eye novel. Those are the crime fiction writers who most appeal to me, whether they are firmly rooted in the past and were trying to reinvent the genre or are contemporary writers blazing new trails. But for anyone interested in this type of literary criticism in detective fiction I highly recommend you trot off to Peter's blog and read his essays.  I enjoyed them a lot.
 Posted by at 2:47 pm
Jan 052015
Fernanda, by Victor B. Miller November, 1976  Pocket Books With a cover and slugline that could come off a lurid men’s detective magazine (“She taunted the twisted rapist to trap and silence him forever!”), Fernanda is a PBO suspense thriller which is narrated by our heroine, New York City private eye Fernanda (no last name given). At 157 pages of big print, Fernanda itself is pretty
Jan 022015
For my first Forgotten Book of the new year, we've got another old favorite author of mine whose work I've been reading since high school. Frank Kane has come in for a good deal of criticism over the years because of the formulaic nature of his books and his tendency to cannibalize his earlier work, but for some reason his private eye yarns nearly always resonate well with me. They're
Dec 172014
For more than three decades, Joe Hannibal has stood tall on the fictional PI landscape. The Hannibal books and stories have been translated into several languages and have been nominated for an Edgar, an Anthony, and a total of six Shamus Awards.  Almost from the outset, Hannibal was dubbed "the blue collar PI" due in equal parts to the series' initial smaller-city setting of Rockford,
Dec 042014

As any reader of this blog is aware, I have been taking part in the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge at Bev's terrific My Reader's Block blog. The idea was to read books that would - in Bingo fashion - make up horizontal or vertical lines on the challenge image - this one:

Vintage Golden Card 001

This Golden card was to be filled with mysteries published before 1960. There was also a Silver card for mysteries published between 1960 and 1980. I chose to concentrate on the Golden card.

Of course, we were also challenged to try filling in the ENTIRE card. And I'm pleased to say that this is exactly what I have done. For those who either want to check my honesty or - perhaps on a brighter note - read my reviews, here are links to all of them. I am listing them by row from top to bottom, in order going across left and right.

Row 1:

Row 2:

Row 3:

Row 4:

Row 5:

Row 6:

That's 36 books, 36 reviews, 36 squares covered. Whew. And now, time to get ready for Bev's 2015 challenge - same idea, different categories. Where to start, where to start...

Nov 282014
Robert "Mongo" Fredrickson is a criminology professor at a New York university who also dabbles in sideline work as a private eye. In his second adventure a missing persons case leads him to the drowning death of another private eye, the revelation of an underground of Iranian secret police living in the US and a rebel organization led by an outspoken Iranian college student living in the US. If this sounds more like a spy novel than a detective novel you get a gold star. It is. But it's an exciting and well told spy story uncovering the often misunderstood world of 1970s Iranian culture and politics.

The Mongo books are probably the most cultish of all contemporary crime novels from the late 1970s-mid 1980s era. Never really big sellers when first published they were nevertheless admired and read by an enduring fan base who appreciated the books for their fascinating blend of occult, supernatural and science fiction elements built around the structure of a traditional hardboiled private eye novel. Chesbro was the first to do this with a series character and his books continue to be more interesting and original than any of the crop of paranormal mysteries and "urban fantasy" we are now inundated with. I haven't mentioned the most intriguing aspect of Mongo himself because by now the you can read about him all over the internet. He even has his own tribute website called DangerousDwarf.com. You see Mongo the Magnificent, as he was once known, is a ex-acrobatic dwarf who performed in the internationally renowned Statler Circus.

City of Whispering Stone (1978) refers to Persepolis, the ancient capital of Persia, where amid the ruins of that former glorious city the climax of the book takes place. But we start first in New York when Mongo's former employer Phil Statler asks for the criminologist's help in locating the circus' missing strongman, Hassan Khordad. Mongo reluctantly takes on the case and then asks his brother Garth, a Manhattan cop, to check the files of missing persons. Garth in turn asks Mongo if he happens to know a private eye names John Simpson. Mongo denies knowing him but wonders why Garth mentions him at all. Turns out the other P.I. has turned up dead under mysterious circumstances. It may be murder.

Dutch edition (Spectrum, 1981)
Of course Mongo will soon learn that Simpson and Khordad are amazingly linked through a second disappearance -- that of Iranian student Mehdi Zahedi, a key figure in anti-Shah politics who is raising awareness on US soil of the corrupt police state in his native country. Mongo's search for Khordad becomes a search for Zahedi and when a violent near fatal confrontation in a Persian antique store lands Mongo in the hospital and leads to the death of an innocent friend he is determined to find the answers to what increasingly appears to be a worldwide conspiracy.

This espionage plot is atypical of the Mongo books and I was slightly disappointed that there was nary a hint of the weird and the eerie events that populate the other books in the series. No signs of psychic phenomena like telekinesis and telepathic healing as in Shadow of a Broken Man (1977), no grimoire or black magic addicted professor as in An Affair of Sorcerers (1979) . But this was after all the very first book written in the series, though it was the second to be published. Chesbro was still trying to find his way around the character and playing with unusual themes. The series doesn't really take off into the stratosphere of weird and outre until the fourth book Beasts of Valhalla (1985), often called the absolute best book in the series.

City of Whispering Stone seems to be a very personal book that Chesbro needed to write in order to move on and make Mongo the thoroughly original character beset with all manner of strange and weird. He dedicates to the book to Ori "who loves the land so much". I can only think that this book exists so that Chesbro could dispel the mythology and cut through all the propaganda about Iran that we were being fed via US news reports on an almost daily basis back in the late 1970s. Clearly he had some dear friends who were Iranian who helped him with the background.

Those interested in learning more about George C Chesbro, who sadly died back in 2008, ought to visit the excellent tribute website Dangerous Dwarf where you will find full bibliographies of all the Mongo books and other crime novels Chesbro wrote, a gallery of book covers, a page full of links leading to author interviews on the web, and other interesting tidbits about the writer and his work. There are stories on the internet reporting that Peter Dinklage will soon be appearing as Mongo in an HBO produced mini series. I can't imagine anyone more suited to play the part and I'm hoping that the movie will be made and aired soon.

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Reading Challenge update:  This book fulfills space S5 "Academic mystery" (students and professors galore in this one) on the Silver Age Bingo card.
 Posted by at 4:36 pm
Nov 012014
Multiple murder, Devil worship, and a missing fortune in mob money...it's just another day in Las Vegas for private investigator John Weller.  When Weller, a history buff and former homicide detective who has retired from the police force because he lost a leg to a shotgun blast in the line of duty, is hired by the public defender's office, the case he's supposed to look into seems open and
Oct 272014

Philip Marlowe is not the sort of private eye to flinch or shy away from troublesome clients. When he gets a phone call from a young woman who thinks she wants to hire him - although she doesn't approve of his drinking or smoking and doesn't think he's a gentleman - he hangs up the phone on her. That, he muses, was a mistake: "It was a step in the right direction, but it didn't go far enogh. I ought to have locked the door and hid under the desk." Instead, he finds himself drawn into a dark and violent search through the glitz of Hollywood in the late 1940s. You'll find the story in Raymond Chandler's 1949 novel, The Little Sister, and believe me, Marlowe should have followed his instincts. The Little Sister is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

The woman who telephoned Marlowe about hiring him turns up at his office and does, in fact, hire him. Her name is Orfamay Quest, she has come to Los Angeles from her home in Manhattan, Kansas, and she wants Marlowe to find her younger brother, who left home to take a job in Los Angeles but who has failed to communicate with his family. The trail leads Marlowe to Hollywood and the definitely tarnished glamor of the movie industry.

Sound pretty straightforward? Well, no. This is Raymond Chandler, after all, and it isn't long before the bodies are piling up, Marlowe is finding that just about everyone has secrets to hide and is lying to him, and his client is turning out to be...well, let's just say, difficult. The plot is complex, with a fair number of twists and turns, violent and very dark indeed.

All of that is redeemed, for me, by Chandler's clever writing; he can come up with one-line descriptions that make any writer jealous. Of one Hollywood actress, for example, he says, “She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.” Or consider this description of a night-time drive through Los Angeles and Studio City:

"I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad."

My edition of The Little Sister quotes a New Yorker magazine review that says Chandler wrote as if pain hurt and life mattered. Readers looking for a happily-ever-after ending won’t find it here; in this world, everyone and everything is damaged. But they will find an intense but ultimately pleasurable reading experience.

The Challenge

As part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for one book with a size in the title. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.