Mar 222015
 

For over 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, Illinois,

Mar 192015
 

Radio actress Dawn Ferris wants to hire Gale Gallagher to find out if a recently kidnapped girl is the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1933, fourteen years prior to the action of I Found Him Dead (1947). Dawn’s ex-husband, however, seems to be blackmailing her now that her successful career on radio has established her reputation and made her a household name.  Prior to radio she and Eddie Wells were a dancing act on the a vaudeville circuit.  Eddie has a shady past and a long trail of aliases and debts he has run away from. Gale is used to Eddie’s type, her business is not really private investigation but skip tracing. She is unwilling to accept the case that might be connected to the high profile kidnapping and therefore an obvious police matter. Dawn then reaches into her purse and plunks down two crisp one thousand dollar bills. Gale suddenly has an offer she can’t refuse.

Gale heads off to Eddie’s apartment first hoping that she can find proof that he engineered the kidnapping and hand the case over to the police. But she finds someone got to Eddie Wells first and put a bullet in his forehead.  As careful as she tried to be she was spotted by three people entering the apartment and now she tries to leave unseen as fast as possible.

Over the course of the novel we learn quite a bit about Gale’s childhood and her father who was a policeman. We are told that her mother died when she was a baby and that her father raised Gale as a single father. He wanted a son but Gale turned out to be his only child. She often resented being treated as a boy and being groomed to follow in her father’s footsteps. Though she came very close she ultimately decided not to enter the Police Academy. Now in her odd line of work she continues to draw on everything her father taught her. Having a cop for a father comes in very handy as well as her father’s best friend, also a policeman, happens to be her best contact with the law. 

The case will lead her to the home of the wealthy Alexanders, parents of the kidnapped girl, as well as to a disreputable physician named Dr. Alois Wurber whose clinic may be a front for an illegal adoption outfit. Rounding out the cast are Montgomery Baxter, the Alexander’s unctuous family lawyer, given to bursts of melodrama that seem like a cover for something very shady and John Bartley Crane, a children’s portrait artist whose charm and good looks create an unexpected distraction to Gale’s work.  Throw in another gruesome murder in a very seedy location coupled with an Ellery Queen-like dying message and you have the makings for a nifty noirish private eye novel with a very intriguing background.

The mysterious author/detective as
she appears on the rear dust jacket

“Gale Gallagher” was the pseudonym of Will Oursler (son of mystery writer, journalist and novelist Fulton Oursler) and Margaret Scott. They created Gale Gallagher who ostensibly writes her own adventures in response to the flurry of Philip Marlowe knock-off books that were appearing in the 1940s.  I Found Him Dead was successful enough to spawn a sequel Chord in Crimson (1949), but after that Gale Gallagher disappeared from the world of female private eyes.

Her place in crime fiction history is overshadowed by later more well known women private detectives. Though several female private detective characters appeared in pulp magazines throughout the 1930s, Gale Gallagher was most definitely one of the earliest to be closely modeled on a typical tough guy private eye.  I Found Him Dead has a cool urban feel to the story.  Gale is as steely and calculated as her male counterparts. Quick witted and sharp tongued she’s just as quick with her pistol all the while keeping a keen eye on her whiskey bottle.  I hesitate to call this hardboiled but it sure comes the closest of any of the female eyes I’ve read from this early period. This is a debut worth discovering both as a pioneer work in the subgenre of fictional women private investigators and as damn good mystery novel.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space N5 – “Author uses a pseudonym”

 Posted by at 4:48 am
Mar 092015
 

Spy And Die, by Martin Meyers
January, 1976  Popular Library

The most slovenly, lazy, non-compelling protagonist in private eye fiction returns in Spy And Die, the second volume of the forgotten Hardy series. Once again author Martin Meyers spins out a listless tale in which hardly anything happens, other than our “hero” Patrick Hardy stuffing his face and watching old movies on tv.

It

Feb 262015
 

As I look back on the books I’ve reviewed over the past nearly-eight years on the Classic Mysteries podcast, I find, according to the Backlist page, that I have reviewed more than 20 of Rex Stout’s books, most of them featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Over at the Wolfe Pack’s group page on Facebook this week, there has been some discussion about which Nero Wolfe books are personal favorites. I must admit that my favorite still is The Doorbell Rang, written in 1965, at a time when there was still an air of “The Untouchables” around the FBI and its leader, J. Edgar Hoover. Some disillusionment was beginning to set in, however – and nowhere is that more clear than in The Doorbell Rang.

My podcast review, written before this blog was in place, summarized the book this way:

Here’s the situation: a very wealthy woman comes to Wolfe’s office on West 35th Street in New York. She has read an unflattering book about the FBI, and has bought ten thousand copies of it and sent them to friends, government officials, and others whom she believed should read the book. As a result, she says, she has been harassed by the FBI. She believes they have tapped her telephone, spied on her movements, and generally made her life miserable. She wants to hire Wolfe to stop the FBI.

It takes some persuading. Neither Wolfe nor his assistant, Archie Goodwin, is a fool. They know that if they do get involved, the FBI will shift its harassment to them. They could wind up losing their licenses as private detectives.

But Wolfe’s ego – and Archie’s too – make them accept the case, even though Wolfe doesn’t have any immediate answer to the question: how do you persuade the entire FBI organization – not to mention its boss – to stop doing what they won’t even admit they are doing…

And so battle is joined. Wolfe comes up with a plan, all right, and it’s one of the most delightful, daring and ingenious charades he has ever created. Along the way to finding an answer to his problem, he solves a murder which the New York City police have, in effect, been told by the FBI not to solve. It’s not often that Wolfe finds his old nemesis, New York City homicide detective Inspector Cramer, cheering him on…but that’s one of the many odd developments in this case.

It required a fair amount of courage for Rex Stout to write this one. It’s by no means typical of the rest of Nero Wolfe’s cases, most of which are great murder mysteries. In this one, the murder is secondary to the battle between Nero Wolfe and the FBI – and what a marvelous solution it is.

And this book has one of the best closing lines of any of Rex Stout’s books…

If you haven’t read this one yet, go get it and enjoy it. 

Feb 222015
 

It was only because of a trick that Nero Wolfe was persuaded to get involved in the case of Molly Lauck. That unfortunate young woman, a fashion model, had made the mistake of opening a brown box of candy and taking a piece – a piece which turned out to have been laced with cyanide. The police really had nothing to go on. But a young man named Llewellyn Frost managed to get a number of prominent orchid growers to sign a letter begging Nero Wolfe to get involved in the case. And so he did. And he discovered that in addition to that brown box of deadly chocolate, the case would hinge on another box – a mysterious – and missing – red box, whose contents, although still unknown, could move someone to murder. It happens in The Red Box, by Rex Stout, originally published in 1937 and only the fourth recorded case for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The Red Box is the subject of today’s audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.

It doesn’t take Wolfe long to begin to suspect that the wrong victim may have died by eating that poisoned candy. For that matter, it really doesn’t take him long to determine the probable culprit – but there is, as he says repeatedly, no proof. There will be more deaths before Wolfe (with the active help, for once, of Inspector Cramer of Homicide) stages one of his most daring office confrontation scenes in order to solve the mystery of the red box and its contents.

As always, the story is narrated by the irrepressible Archie Goodwin, which guarantees a fast, funny delivery, full of wisecracks, with plenty of first rate quotes from Nero Wolfe as well, who is, as always, irascible and sharp. At one point, for example, while talking to a wealthy client, he observes, “Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth.” Stout really was a marvelous writer; I don’t think most readers would put up with Wolfe’s mammoth ego for very long if it weren’t for Archie’s narration.

At the moment, The Red Box appears to be in print as part of a paperback collection which also contains Stout’s The Rubber Band. It’s also available in e-book format. It is very much worth your reading time.

The 2015 Bingo Challenge

This week, we’re back to another entry in the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge being presented by Bev Hankins at her marvelous “My Reader’s Block” blog. The Bingo card has 36 squares to be filled by reading a book appropriate to each square’s instructions. The Red Box is my entry for the first square – top row, left-hand column ‘ calling for a color in the title or cover color.

Vintage Golden Card 2015

Feb 202015
 

Norman Pink is not your average private detective. He’s not chasing after shapely women clients, sneaking pulls on a whiskey bottle hidden in his desk drawer or stumbling into a fistfight every ten pages or so. More likely he’s stumbling over the rocky terrain of the English countryside, puffing on his asthma cigarettes, and making excuses for not being home to his very tolerant wife. On occasion he’ll indulge in his never-ending work in progress — a short story parody of Doyle’s Great Detective who he has dubbed Sherbolt Houses (his partner is Dr. Tylersdad and housekeeper Mrs. Thames).  It’s pure silliness and Norman knows it will probably never be published. Norman is in his mid sixties, a semi-retired ex-policeman, and happily married to a Beth who affectionately calls him Dad. Employed by Peerless Private Inquiry Agents, Ltd, Pink is passing his semi-retired life doing routine work mostly consisting of dreary and sordid divorce cases. But he has an obsession and it is this obsession that serves as the foundation of his first adventure in The Girl Nobody Knows (1965) by Mark McShane.

Years ago he was one of many who witnessed a horrific train wreck. Among the many victims was a young girl Norman had been watching prior to the crash. True to his policeman’s instincts he had been wondering who she was, where she was going and why a 12 year old was on a train platform unaccompanied by any adult. When her body remains unclaimed after several days Norman saves her the ignominy of a potter’s field burial by paying for her funeral and having a gravestone marking the site with “The Girl Nobody Knows” followed by the number 27 signifying her death statistic in the train wreck.

For the past twelve years Norman has been visiting the cemetery on the anniversary of the train wreck always alone, always seemingly the only person who cares about this anonymous girl. Until the day that opens this book when he chances upon another visitor at the girl’s grave site. It’s a woman dressed all in brown who seems oblivious to Norman’s presence a few feet away. He approaches and gets close enough to see her face but she rushes away. In that brief moment Norman’s policeman’s training registers the woman’s most telling feature — she has one blue eye and one brown eye.

And so he begins his search for the drably dressed woman with an optical abnormality. With the aid of personal ads, clever role playing and some phone calls to eye doctors he comes up with a list of suitable women from which he begins the painstaking process of elimination until he quite by chance stumbles upon the cemetery visitor. Much to his surprise the woman played a small part in a case he had as a policeman many years ago. And slowly that case proves to be linked to the “Girl Nobody Knows.”

This first outing is a real page turner. Pink is one of the most unusual private detectives I’ve ever encountered and his concern for the dead girl is at times heart wrenching. One night after a long night of searching and questioning Beth asks him, “You don’t care too much, do you?” He asks what she means. “That we never had children.” “I never even think about it,” he assures here. They clasp hands and turn their attention to the TV. But the reader knows better. Norman has created an identity for the girl in the anonymous grave calling her Violette in honor of the color of the dress he last saw her wearing and imagines all sorts of possibilities for what her life was and could have been. He is determined to learn who she is so both he and the girl can finally have some peace.

Norman’s second outing Night’s Evil (1966) is as far removed in tone and subject matter as his first adventure. The story starts with a typical private eye opening: a wife wants to learn the truth about her husband’s death. Elaine Bland hires Norman to find out why her husband Otis was visiting a carnival where he ended up stabbed to death. Strangely, she doesn’t care who killed him. She want to know if he had been seeing another woman. She had suspicions about him for months and his violent end seems fitting to her. She only wants her suspicions proven or disproved. Norman first has to track down the location of the traveling carnival and then infiltrate the tightly knit world of its performers and employees.  Secretly he is also interested in finding out the identity of the murderer but he keeps that as close to himself as he did his relationship with Violette in the first book.

The group of primary suspects at the hyperbolically named Blegg’s International Shows is quite a motley crew. From the belligerent owner Alfred Bleggs who has a lot of shady business deals he would rather not be discovered to the lonely dwarf Scurly Steeves, an ex-performer who has become the carnival’s self-described PR agent, a job that is really no more than a sign painter and poster hanger. Scurly is secretly in love with the sexy young Molly, step-daughter to one of the amusement ride operators who has a dark secret all her own. She spends most of her time practicing knife throwing and earning a few extra shillings taking photographs of the customers then developing them in her makeshift photo lab in her family’s tent.

There’s also Charles Meek who shows up looking for work and a mystery woman named Carla.  Meek we soon learn is a former physician. Norman is curious why a well-to-do doctor would give up his career for the life of a carnival handyman who does nothing but fix faulty wiring and mend broken electrical sockets. Meek isn’t talking. Carla seems to be the reason he stays on at the carnival yet no one has heard of the woman, let alone seen her. Like all the others Meek has a terrible secret, perhaps the scariest part of the book is when Norman learns the truth about this very mysterious man.

Rounding out the crew is Rosa, the gypsy fortune teller who seems to have a genuine knack for seeing into the future. Her visions of a hellish doom will have an eerie resonance in the cinematically rendered climax.

Because this story is confined to a small group of suspects who rarely leave the grounds of the carnival I found it less engaging than The Girl Nobody Knows. McShane creates some mystery in slowly revealing the secret lives of these troubled people but the overall mystery of who killed Otis Bland never seems to have any urgency or importance. Norman is more intrigued by the odd behavior of Charles Meek, the constant lying of the others and the shifty business practices of Bleggs. It’s only in the final thirty or so pages that the book becomes exciting. McShane abandons his wishy-washy psychological suspense and transforms the story into a Grand Guignol revenge scheme gone haywire. The solution to the murder comes quite by accident amid a flurry of flying knives, smoke and fire, and hysterics from a trio of characters.

1st US Edition, Doubleday Crime Club (1966)

The final novel in this trilogy is The Way to Nowhere. It’s pretty darn scarce. It was not published in the US making it all that more hard to find. My attempt to find an affordable copy failed miserably.  I have no idea what the book is about as I also failed to find any newspaper or magazine reviews of the book.  Maybe one of you lucky enough to live in the UK or Canada might find it in a local library.

The first book is definitely worth reading. If you like Norman enough you may want to move onto the second title to see a new side of him. Both titles were published in the US and UK and both received paperback reprints in the US. If nothing else Night’s Evil gives you a few more silly paragraphs from Norman’s ongoing Sherbolt Houses story.  That at least will bring you a smile or a chuckle or two. It certainly made Norman laugh.

The Norman Pink Trilogy
The Girl Nobody Knows (1965)
Night’s Evil (1966)
The Way to Nowhere (1967)

*   *   *
 

Reading Challenge Update: Silver Age Bingo space S6 “Book with professional detective” and
Silver Age Bingo space I5 “Book with spooky title”

 Posted by at 6:04 am
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