ROBERT GILLESPIE – The Crossword Mystery. Raven House, paperback original, 1980.
As I understand it, the first four Raven House titles (this is #3) were sent out as advance samples to at least some, if not all, of the subscribers to Harlequin’s line of romance titles. I don’t know if the story is true, but if it is, I wonder what those women thought of this book. As the title indicates, it’s purely a puzzle story, but the language used is often surprisingly crude and foul — of the four letter variety.
There’s also one pretty good sex scene, and one fairly brutal, which is not so good. This does not count the murder of Mary Cross, Rocky Caputo’s predecessor as the crossword editor of the New York Herald-Courier. Means of death: starvation in a locked room, complicated by cirrhosis of the liver.
The puzzle itself — a message in cryptograms, only later as a crossword — is major league, but as we all know, cleverness alone does not a novel make. Gillespie shows promise, but he needs more seasoning. Overall, I’d say Triple A ball in the minors, at best, and if you can’t stand crossword puzzles at all, you can probably skip this one.
[UPDATE] 12-26-14. This appears to have been Rocky Caputo’s only recorded brush with murder. It was the author’s first book; Hubin records seven additional titles to his credit, five of them with a series character named Ralph Simmons, a retired advertising director of the same newspaper that Caputo worked for.
It would have been clear –or at least clearer — to readers of this review back in 1981 that Raven House was an attempt by Harlequin Books to create a line of paperback mysteries. The imprint didn’t last long, and sometime I’d like to take a longer look into what kinds of mysteries they published and some of the highlights of the series. There is not room in this small footnote to do so now, however. For now, it may suffice to give you this link to this New York Times article that appeared soon after Raven House began.
Books: Mr. Bad Taste and Trouble Himself: Robert Mitchum
by Robert Ward
For the entire piece go to http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/19/the-stacks-mr-bad-taste-and-trouble-himself-robert-mitchum.html
Discover a new detective series for $2.99! Click on the cover image to find out more about She’s Leaving Home—you’ve got just enough time to read it before Shaw’s sequel, The Kings of London, comes out at the end of January.
"This outstanding novel is a reminder of the multiple joys of [a] police procedural with quirky characters, crisp dialog, and, in this case, a healthy dose of period detail." —Library Journal (starred)
by James L. Traylor
W. T. BALLARD – Say Yes to Murder. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1942. Penguin #566, paperback, 1945. Also reprinted as The Demise of a Louse, as by John Shepherd, Belmont, paperback, 1962.
W. T. Ballard was one of Joe Shaw’s second wave of Black Mask boys. His first Black Mask story, “A Little Different,” appeared in September 1933. It featured Bill Lennox, troubleshooter for the fictitious General Consolidated Studios. (Ballard himself had worked for First National Studios in the early 1930s.)
Lennox was one of the most popular series characters in Black Mask, and appeared in twenty-seven stories between 1933 and 1942. He’s not a PI exactly, but he has that same hard-boiled ethos; his exploits have an appealing under-stated sense of immediacy.
After writing short stories for about ten years, Ballard published Say Yes to Murder, the first of four Bill Lennox novels, and set the standard for the Hollywood murder mystery. Ballard’s gift for this type of story is his careful depiction of scene and his emphasis on character in a subgenre that usually does not rely on such realism.
Ballard invented a cast of characters that later became almost cliches of the movie industry. Sol Spurck, the crusty head of General Consolidated Studios; Nancy Hobbs, Lennox’s long-suffering girlfriend; and cops named Spellman and Stobert who are not quite as condescending toward Lennox as the typical cops of the hard-boiled detective novel.
In Say Yes to Murder, Lennox investigates the murder of Leon Heyworth, a drunken actor whom Lennox finds stabbed and lying under the bed of actress Jean Jeffries, granddaughter of Lennox’s old friend Mary Morris. Faithful to Spurck and the studio, Lennox, with the help of Jake Hertz, a studio minion, and an empty piano box, moves the body from Jean’s apartment, attempting to keep Mary Morris’s name out of the papers.
Along with a superior sense of timing and scene, Ballard’s novel shows great intricacy in plotting. Here the vital clue to the solution of the mystery is identity. An the characters are in show business, with consequent multiple personas. Lennox’s primary task is wading through the maze of personalities. Ballard presents the murder as a problem of separating illusion from reality, a method quite effective in focusing Hollywood’s artificiality.
Noted critic James Sandoe praised Lennox because “he doesn’t have to flex his biceps to prove that he’s strong.” Say Yes to Murder is a consistently rewarding hard-boiled novel.
The other three Bill Lennox novels are also excellent Murder Can’t Stop (1946), Dealing Out Death (1948), and the paperback original Lights, Camera, Murder (1960, as by John Shepherd). Ballard was a close friend of fellow pulp writer Norbert Davis and coauthored one novel with him, Murder Picks the Jury (1947), under the joint pseudonym Harrison Hunt.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.
NOTE: Previously reviewed on this blog are:
As I'm featuring another Mary Roberts Rinehart Book, The Album, this week, I thought it might be fun to look back at another of her books - one which I think was more tightly written and, overall, more entertaining.
Rinehart wrote The Man in Lower Ten in 1909 - her second book, after The Circular Staircase. It's the story of a memorable and deadly train trip. Our narrator is a lawyer named Lawrence Blakely, who sets out by train from Washington to Pittsburgh, where he is to take a deposition in a forgery case. He is carrying some critical evidence in the case along with him. After taking that deposition, he gets on a train to return home, and he is assigned to the berth numbered “lower ten” in the Pullman car.
Through a series of odd events, however, he does not sleep in that berth. Someone else is sleeping there when Blakely arrives to go to bed, and the lawyer – unhappily – moves to another berth. When he wakes up, however, he finds that he is in yet another wrong berth, all his papers including the evidence (and his clothes as well) have been stolen – and the man who had been sleeping in lower ten has been murdered. Then, the train is wrecked in a disastrous crash which kills all but a handful of people – among whom, of course, is our narrator.
From there on, the book becomes a thriller, with Blakely staying a step or two ahead of what seems to be a curiously unhurried police investigation. He falls in love with the daughter of the man he had gone to depose – a woman who appears to have a number of secrets of her own. And there will be a healthy share of odd, dangerous and sometimes deadly adventures before everything gets sorted out at the end.
I reviewed The Man in Lower Ten a couple of years ago. It's a lively and thoroughly enjoyable book. Because it is more than a century old, there are a lot of versions floating around. The one I've linked to above is an inexpensive Kindle and/or paperback edition with a new intro by Otto Penzler; I know that there are free electronic versions around as well. I do think it's worth another look.