Death Lit

by Don Herron


Since Pete Cannon took over the reins as genre editor at Publishers Weekly in 2000, I’ve been knocking out steady reviews — at one point early on covering a new crime novel each and every week. Over the decades I’ve done sporadic reviewing for other publications — I suppose the pieces I wrote for Necrofile: The Review of Horror Fiction are my favorites of the lot. But to date, I’ve only done two more or less regular review columns, each venture lasting a few months. I admit I like the idea of writing a column more than sitting down to produce one every couple of months.

The first column came about when Brad Wieners, editing for The Bay Guardian in San Francisco, asked me to come on board as the mystery and horror columnist for their literary supplement. Almost as soon as I started, though, Brad was off to greener pastures and I got stuck with less sympathetic editors, with someone somewhere in the process who had an uncanny knack for turning funny lines flat. I should have known it wouldn’t work out when my choice for the title of the column, “Death Lit,” was changed to “Death Wish.” Oh well. The columns below use my original wording, of course, and feature two previously unpublished installments — the one where I do longer coverage of Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil is especially interesting, I think, given the way her career arc has turned toward religion this year. The last column was paid for but not printed, as the Guardian and I parted ways — I was suitably humbled for a few minutes.

The next column came about as Linda Landrigan took over editing chores on Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and initially lined up rotating reviewers to do the regular “Booked and Printed” feature. Fun while it lasted — though at AHMM I didn’t get to fling around short guttural verbs with abandon as in the Guardian.

The Bay Guardian, 1995–96

[from Lit., the literary magazine supplement to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 1995]

Stiff Critique

All right. Mystery and horror. The sexy genres. . . . What say we kick this column off with some local action?

I was surprised to discover a current mystery series that presents a San Francisco I recognize, but which takes place in the Rome of Julius Caesar and Cicero. Steven Saylor of Berkeley (out of Texas and the Castro) has been publishing his “Roman Sub Rosa” saga, following the investigations of the sleuth Gordianus the Finder through Roman Blood, Arms of Nemesis, Catilina’s Riddle and, just out, The Venus Throw (St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages, $22.95). Usually I begin and end novels that offer historical figures with total disbelief, but Saylor’s picture of Cicero as lawyer and politician in these books won me over. The poet Catallus comes on scene for the first time in The Venus Throw — I do believe this jerk is a friend of mine. I guess I’ve stumbled across a real writer here.

The Venus Throw concerns the murder of Dio, an ambassador from Egypt, and the legal battle to convict his apparent killer. Most things apparent are suspect, though, because Saylor works in the classical puzzle school of murder mystery, with red herrings, perfectly dropped clues, plot like a clockwork mechanism ticking toward an inevitable solution, which I sure as hell couldn’t figure out. Try to work your way through the web of sex, political intrigue, sado-masochism and women’s mystery cults that form the backdrop for the action and see if you can tell me whodunit. I don’t think so. This book is first-rate.

Worth noting in this series are the homoerotic sub-plots, which make ancient Rome sound exotic to the general reader but translate into part of the San Francisco scene for me. The Venus Throw features a Roman bath romp, which recalls the gay erotica Saylor has written under the pen name “Aaron Travis.” Most of the Travis oeuvre, by the way, including the Roman period Slaves of the Empire, is in print from Badboy Books.

On the racks the first of May you’ll find A Stiff Critique (Berkley Prime Crime, 272 pages, $4.99), the sixth paperback original from Mill Valley’s Jacqueline Girdner. A cultural anthropologist of crime, laughing-gas variety, Girdner looks not to the past but to her surrounding hot-tubbed-up Marin County scene and its unusual suspects. Book after book her amateur sleuth Kate Jaspar leaves home, just minding her own business, only to come across someone who has been homicidally impaired. This outing the corpse appears at a writer’s workshop Kate innocently attends, and if I were Marin law, I’d put around-the-clock surveillance on her. Girdner brushes up to the big issues behind the desire to write, the anger or anguish that might push a writer to kill a critic (hey, wait a minute. . . ), but mostly she shoots for lightweight and funny. A sequence about “Mafia poetry,” in fact, is hysterical.

As an amateur, not a cop, Kate does have trouble landing the perp, which strikes me as more realistic than not. As if you and your pals decided to solve a murder. That was okay, but Kate’s eating habits gnawed at me. Don’t get me wrong, Eating is an honorable tradition in Bay Area detective fiction — Sam Spade consumes three squares a day in The Maltese Falcon. But Kate Jasper spends almost half this book eating vegetables. Veggie breakfast, veggie lunch. Veg snacks. Veg recipes! When I finished this novel, I really needed a big juicy hamburger.

Gloria White’s new paperback Charged with Guilt (Dell, 335 pages, $4.99) is her third mystery featuring Ronnie Ventana, San Francisco private eye and security specialist — fast-paced, breezy, the characters don’t spend a lot of time eating, but Anchor Steam beer cameos as totemic beverage. Ronnie’s trip is that her parents were the infamous Ventana cat burglars. I’ve often wished that my parents had been cat burglars or something, but now I’ve changed my mind. Ronnie gets suckered into a security-test break-in at a Presidio Heights mansion. Upstairs an electrocuted senator floats in a tub. The only witness may be his mentally retarded grandson. Police nab her. The D.A. tags her as prime suspect. I’d be a little worried, but Ronnie just goes after the real killer, ignoring advice from her lawyer, kidnapping the witness. . . . Spunky, or dumb as a stick, I wasn’t sure until she took a few chapters to grasp the idea of twins. For this kind of read, brainless isn’t necessarily bad — sometimes dumb detectives have more fun. John D. MacDonald’s very popular paperback hero Travis Magee wasn’t exactly Einstein, either.

On April 4th the Bay Area lost one of its finest horror writers when Stan McNail died, age 77, in his Berkeley apartment. He came to San Francisco from his native Illinois in 1953, and is best known locally for founding The Galley Sail Review, a poetry quarterly, five years later. At one time he even acted as poetry editor for The Bay Guardian. I’m one of the admirers of his many horror poems, little masterpieces of macabre atmosphere. I think they are as good of their kind as are the ghost stories of M. R. James. You’ll find them collected in Footsteps in the Attic, Something Breathing, and At Tea in the Mortuary, whose title poem offers a tea party where the deceased describe their gruesome, violent deaths. “Then Rose spoke up with a strident voice,/ “I suffered too, for I died by choice,”/ And showed us the bruises from the noose/ On her twisted neck, where the flesh hung loose.” The narrator — vintage McNail — ends with:

With nothing to show and nothing to tell,
I squirmed with shame when a silence fell
And they turned to me. I felt so cheap
To confess I had simply died in my sleep.

[from Lit., The San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 1995]

South State Blues

I wouldn’t recognize a Jacaranda tree if I saw one, but that’s my favorite symbol for the hard-boiled Southern California mystery, that kinder, gentler guy thang Raymond Chandler wrought from the ultra-tough Hammett original. Your detective can still drink, but knows it’s no good, and man, does he ever feel bad about the pitiful state of the world. Sometimes the scent of Jacaranda makes it better, sometimes worse.

With The Last Coyote (Little, Brown, $22.95, 400 pages), Michael Connelly gets my vote as one of the best new writers prowling that old Chandler turf. His hero is LAPD homicide detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, who debuted in the Edgar Award-winning The Black Echo, and returned in The Black Ice and The Concrete Blonde. Trust me, you get used to the name real fast.

From page one of The Last Coyote, Harry Bosch has troubles. His house has been red-tagged for demolition after the Northridge. He’s on suspension, required to attend regular sessions with a therapist who cracks his shell, getting him to look at all those suppressed emotions LA cops lug around like backup pistols. What comes up for Bosch is the desire to track down his mother’s killer. You know you’re in for a mean week when you decide to find out who strangled your mom, a streetwalker found dead in an alley more than thirty years ago.

Connelly, a former crime reporter for the L.A. Times, makes the investigation sound real enough. He’s got funny lines and handles the poetic heritage Chandler left to LA mystery writers quite well. What is this kind of novel for, if not to canvas LA and its inhabitants, to take another cruise down that boulevard of broken dreams? If you’re in the mood, this one should do it.

A flash flood in the desert uncovers the corpses of seven children, hidden in shallow graves. The media calls them The Innocents (Walker, $19.95, 244 pages). Richard Barre’s first novel puts LA private eye Wil Hardesty, Vietnam vet and surfer dude, on the case. Barre does the generic SoCal detective gig, with car chases and shootouts, but moves it past an increasingly horrific backdrop of religion-gone-wrong, from Catholicism to Santeria, and beliefs darker than Santeria. Child-smuggling. People into cutting throats. While nowhere near as polished as The Last Coyote, I liked this book about as well as Connelly’s first, The Black Echo. A writer to watch.

Henry Garfield, great-great-grandson of President James A. Garfield, is another first-timer, with a rural San Diego County werewolf mystery. I’m glad to see at least one presidential descendant doing something worthwhile. Moondog (St. Martin’s Press, $21.00, 270 pages) is the most mellow werewolf novel I’ve ever read. Yeah, folk get mauled, but not violently enough for my tastes. Garfield hooked me with believable characters, an offbeat locale, and one of the things I like best in a writer, a deft touch with deadpan humor:

“Unfortunately, I have some firsthand knowledge on the subject.”

Gunn stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“I had a girlfriend once who turned out to be a werewolf.”

“Jesus,” I said. “What did you do?”

“Well, when I found out, I dumped her, of course… I was lucky to get out of that relationship alive.”

Worth reading even if you don’t like lycanthropy.

Rude Rides Again

After contemplating the existential void for a few years, Dennis McMillan is returning to publishing. His first series of books included rare Arthur W. Upfield, some Charles Willeford, the extensive set of Fredric Brown in the Pulps. Fine stuff. And the personal legend became as interesting as the books. Moving from one side of the country about every eight months. Stopping with booksellers, his dog knocks up their dog. Slamming back brews with travel writer John Williams for a few pages of Into the Badlands, in which Williams tours America in search of noir. Hey, buy me a beer and I’ll tell you how James (The Last Good Kiss) Crumley ended a thirteen day bender after hitting McMillan’s I’m-leaving-Missoula party.

Now it’s time for The Second Coming, with a limited edition of Jon Jackson’s Dead Folk first up, even plans for graphic novels. Inquire with SASE to Dennis McMillan Publication 2421E. Speedway, Tucson, AZ 85719 or e-mail 102102.124@compuserve. The guy has definitive tastes for the fiction he calls “rude.” You know, a flat stretch of highway. The lonely diner rank with the smell of rancid vinyl. Tongue scorched by bad coffee, a .38 cool against the skin under your belt. Nowhere to go. But fuck it. Not a thing to lose. We all get that feeling, right? McMillan’s back to scratch the itch.

[previously unpublished, original draft cannibalized for October 1995 column]

Dead Hubbies & the Devil

Sure, I was thinking about sitting down and finally plowing through Milton, but then I heard a voice say, mon, it’s 1995, read the new Anne Rice instead. Memnoch the Devil (Knopf, $25.00, 366 pages) is supposed to be the last of The Vampire Chronicles, and it’s got Purgatory, God, the Devil. The vampire Lestat meets Jesus Christ. Hey, you remember how in the earlier novels Lestat always told everyone there was no God, no Satanic force? Forget all that.

The Devil needs a sidekick to help him out with a little problem he’s been having with God. Since this is The Vampire Chronicles instead of, oh, The Silver Surfer, he selects a reluctant Lestat — I believe the Silver Surfer met the Devil a long time ago, anyway. Our vampire narrator just wants to hang out in New York, savoring the slow hunt of his next victim, a drug dealer who spends lots of money acquiring icons, aged crucifixes, and the like. The victim’s daughter, a rising televangelist, has attracted Lestat’s attention, too. But she’s so pure, prowling about in the former convent she lives in alone in New Orleans, that he can’t imagine killing her. No way. However, in a new vampiric twist for this series, Lestat does partake of her menstrual blood. Shocking, I suppose, or it may have been when Theodore Sturgeon first did it with his vampire in Some of Your Blood in 1961.

Who knows, maybe Anne Rice is getting back into her old-time religion. Or maybe, since she’s decided to quit the Lestat series, she figured the only possible way to send off her indestructible hero was by throwing the Devil at him. And to give him some last-minute redemption, so people won’t worry about how he’s doing in the Limbo of Abandoned Characters, how about a cross-time meeting with Jesus and a little taste of His Blood, a bit of fangs-on Holy Communion? Then bring down the apocalyptic curtain, shout out The End, brother, by having Dora the televangelist spearhead a Christian revolution that sweeps the globe — though, come to think of it didn’t that already happen in America a couple of years ago?

I confess I probably made it further into Memnoch than I would have into Paradise Lost, and you know that after you bog down in the religious crap that it’s a lot easier to skim for the good parts. I’d be a little more bummed if I believed this was the last Lestat. Yeah, right. Another Vampire Chronicle will be worth millions. Rice clearly has a series jones. And the vampire Lestat is a character who likes to talk. Yap-yap-yap-yap-yap. You’d think the fangs would slow him down a little, but no. He’ll demand more stories to tell.

Word on the street, though, is that there’s no way Rice can top this one. God. The Devil. Must be the last one. To which I say, Has Lestat been to Mars yet? Has he met Sherlock Holmes? Dracula? See. Lots of plots left.

Welsh writer Katherine John’s first mystery appeared in the UK in 1989, and just got picked up in the States. Without Trace (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95, 430 pages) is so gruesome it as easily could have been packaged as horror. Tim and Daisy Sherringham are doctors with the National Health Service, and haven’t been married that many months when Tim disappears. The question for the reader is, did Tim stop en route to the hospital at 4 a.m. to pick up the person standing by the motorway in full clown regalia? The clown with the blade, partial to removing heads and hands?

Without Trace reminds me of those great, tripped-out Edwardian writers like M. P. Shiel. The plot sometimes advances as Daisy has visions, seeing her headless husband crawling into bed. You never know what’s going to happen. Anyone can get it. It’s somewhat talky in the middle, but the ending pays off on the buildup — incredibly bizarre, but that’s exactly what you need. And the scene where the wino reaches into the generator-powered freezer on the derelict pier to get some ice to lick: cold. You want something different, I believe this is it.

Policewoman Marti McAllister in Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Done Wrong (St. Martin’s Press, $20.95, 224 pages) knows her husband, an undercover narcotics officer, is dead, and she’s decided to track down the killer. This one starts strong, with terse realistic descriptions of murder in the midwestern winter. Believable middle-class black characters. Tough cop attitudes. But, the ending, without a single killer clown as a warning, got way out there. I was grumbling about it, and my wife said, “That was a good one.” “But…” “It was good.” “It made sense?” “She had lots of clues.”

Well, hey, there you go.

[from Lit., The San Francisco Bay Guardian, October 1995]

Series Agonistes

Sure, I was thinking about finally plowing through Milton, but a voice said, mon, it’s 1995, read the new Anne Rice instead. Memnoch the Devil (Knopf, $25.00, 366 pages) has Purgatory, God, the Devil, and it’s supposed to be the last of The Vampire Chronicles. Hey, you remember how in the earlier novels the vampire Lestat kept telling everyone there was no God, no Satanic force? Forget all that.

The Devil enlists Lestat as a sidekick to deal with this little problem he’s been having with God. If you want to write THE END on your series in big letters, this plot is suitably apocalyptic, but deus ex machina is an easy out. Rice’s invention seems a bit tired, with the only new vampiric twist for the Chronicles coming when Lestat partakes of menstrual blood (shocking, I suppose, or it may have been when Theodore Sturgeon first did it with his vamp in Some of Your Blood in 1961). And the scene where Lestat meets Jesus Christ and has a redemptive moment of fangs-on Holy Communion — maybe I went to the wrong church as a kid. But I confess I probably made it further into Memnoch than I would have into Paradise Lost, and you just know Anne Rice is easier to skim for the good parts.

I’d be a little more bummed if I believed this was the last Lestat. Yeah, right. Clearly, Rice has a series jones, and another Vampire Chronicle will be worth millions. And Lestat is a character who likes to talk. Yap-yap-yap. He’ll demand more stories to tell. So what if he just tangles with the Devil. Has he met Sherlock Holmes yet? Dracula? See. Lots of plots left.

Word on the street was that Sue Grafton seemed to be getting bored with the Private Eye/murder mystery formula in the last couple of Kinsey Millhone books. In “L” is for Lawless (Henry Holt, $24.00, 302 pages) she chucks the murder plot in favor of something kind of like Nancy Drew on acid. Technically, I suppose her series running from A to Z would have been more impressive if Grafton had worked turns on murder each time, but then, why bother if you’re not going to have fun?

Lawless is a fun read, a romp as halfway marker, and a good indicator that Grafton will be able to keep Millhone fresh all the way to the finish line. Instead of de-commissioning her curiosity for a vacation, Kinsey gets talked into offering some pro bono advice to a neighbor. Which leads to a treasure hunt for loot stolen from a bank in Kentucky decades ago. Arson. Maid service. Guns. Southern home cooking. Lightweight, and I liked it.

Welsh writer Katherine John’s first mystery featuring Inspector Trevor Joseph appeared in the UK in 1989, and just got picked up in the States. Without Trace (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95, 430 pages) is so gruesome it as easily could have been packaged as horror. Tim and Daisy Sherringham are doctors with the National Health Service, and haven’t been married that many months when Tim disappears. The question for the reader is, did Tim stop en route to the hospital at 4 a.m. to pick up the person standing by the motorway in full clown regalia? The clown with the blade, partial to removing heads and hands?

Without Trace reminds me of those great, tripped-out Edwardian writers like M. P. Shiel. The plot sometimes advances as Daisy has visions, seeing her headless husband crawling into their bed. You never know what’s going to happen. Anyone can get it. It’s somewhat talky in the middle, but the ending pays off on the buildup. Incredibly bizarre. (Now I’m waiting, amazed, for the next one, because I was sure Inspector Joseph was toast when the clown whacked him in the head with the nail-studded board.)

Gregory Bean’s first mystery No Comfort in Victory (St. Martin’s Press, $23.95, 365 pages) introduces Sheriff Harry Starbranch of Wyoming. A solid debut, it feels like the fifth or sixth novel in a satisfying series, complete with detailed backstory, a large supporting cast, and fine use of the region. The crime is modern-day cattle rustling, with the incidental rape and murder of a rancher’s daughter who stumbles onto the scene. Bean describes gory details more explicitly than the squeamish will enjoy, and the language, Real West, is rough, so prudes beware. All other fans of open range mysteries, saddle up.

Laurie R. King of Watsonville has two series cooking, one with a lesbian SFPD homicide inspector, the other with amateur sleuth Mary Russell, who teamed up with the retired Sherlock Holmes in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In the second Mary Russell mystery, A Monstrous Regiment of Women (St. Martin’s Press, $22.95, 336 pages), she investigates murders circa 1920 in the feminist religious sect The New Temple of God. A little too retro for my tastes, and I still prefer Holmes paired with Watson. But Holmes is an Immortal, sprung from series fiction, and who knows how many partners he’ll have in how many more series? He’s a character who likes to talk.

[from Lit., The San Francisco Bay Guardian, December 1995]

Crime for Christmas

Recommending mystery titles for gifts can get you into real trouble. Folk who love those polite cozy puzzlers usually hate tough-guy stuff. Suggest something easy from the best-seller lists, then you’re haunted by the truism that by the time writers crack the top ten, the edge they had early on, the reason you liked them and talked them up, that edge is fading fast. If you say, just go out and buy all of Dashiell Hammett, people complain, “Dude, that’s what you’ve been saying for twenty years.”

The genre is so large, I’m sure you can track down a mystery to please every taste. You can even find one that takes place in your neighborhood. I’m serious. But if you’re shoved up against Christmas and need a book that is in the stores now, I’ve been reading for variety, so take your pick:

Blue Lonesome (Walker, $21.95, 215 pages) is being touted as the masterpiece from Bill Pronzini, a local author with almost fifty novels to his credit. His accountant hero, a lonely guy, fixates on a lonely woman who moves into his neighborhood, the kind of lonely Outer Sunset (48th and Taraval collectors need this one). She commits suicide, and he decides to go to the small town in Nevada where she came from to find out why: “There were too many questions, too many puzzling elements; they presented the same sort of challenge as a knotty tax problem. . . .” Er, I guess this one is targeted for the more sedate mystery reader. It’s got a little bit of Laura, some Bad Day at Black Rock, and a lot of all those western movies where the tenderfoot comes to town and makes like a hard-on. But this guy is such a wimp, he mostly defers to his new girlfriend, who does the driving and shooting (feminist collectors take note). The Horrible Secret behind it all is the one every crime writers has been using the last few years (if you’ve read more than three recent mysteries, I need say no more). Frankly, I expect more originality out of a masterpiece, and how can you call your book Blue Lonesome and close with a Hollywood-style happy ending? Weenie noir — but real noir depresses some people.

Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones (Soho Press trade paperback, $11.00, 234 pages) is a jungle gothic. Originally published in 1952, it won the first Edgar Allan Poe Award as best mystery, back when they began giving them out. A young woman travels to Papua New Guinea to find out why her husband committed suicide, and the Horrible Secret is still pretty horrible, more than forty years later. Rich in sensory detail and presence of place, this novel reads more like V. S. Naipaul than V. I. Warshawski, which is a good thing.

Dean Ing’s Spooker (Tor/Forge, $23.95, 320 pages) lured me in with the punning title. A spooker is the cash stash a spy keeps ready in case his cover is blown, and in this case comments on the creepy psychos who specialize in spooking agents and killing them for the loot. Normally, I’m not much for spy novels, but after thirty-odd pages with lots of initials (KGB, CIA, etc.) Ing settles down to an Elmore Leonard-style narrative, jumping between characters. The bad guys are sick, sick, sick (that’s good), the good guy is a little too John Wayne (that’s bad). But the ending pulls way back from John Wayne and Hollywood, into the random, the senseless, the real. Felt like authentic noir to me.

Watch Me (St. Martin’s Press, $22.95, 354 pages), a first novel by A. J. Holt, is the best serial killer novel I’ve read since The Silence of the Lambs. It doesn’t have the depths of character that Thomas Harris reached, but the surface gloss is as bright, the suspense tight, the going gruesome. FBI computer specialist Janet Fletcher taps into a net created by and for serial killers — lots of serial killers. From the Iceman to the mummification fiend, from the sick fuck who hates cats to — well, if you dig the form, this one’s got the action.

Death Stalks the Night (Fedogan & Bremer, $29.00, 590 pages) is a collection of 1930s shudder-pulp and weird-menace tales by Hugh B. Cave. I like lots of pulp fiction, but the weird menace tale has never moved me. Very much a ’30s version of lesser slasher films (demented fiends, remote settings, half-naked and often dead women), I consider this stuff the bottom of the barrel. If you go for it, though, I guess this well-made, big book would make a perfect gift. Some of my pals actually like this shit.

Top-rate pulp can be found in Max Brand’s Murder Me! (St. Martin’s Press, $20.95, 223 pages), a fast-paced, funny, hard-boiled mystery from 1935, now published in book form. Read this one and you’ll understand why the pulps paid Brand 5 cents a word, but wouldn’t give some of the other writers a whole penny.

And if you’re a fan of modern women’s mysteries, pick up Murder in Scorpio (St. Martin’s Press, $21.95, 237 pages). Martha G. Lawrence’s first novel introduces private eye Elizabeth Chase of Escondido and environs, who happens to be psychic. In the crowded field of women writers with women P.I.s, this one stands out. Smooth. Funny. The parapsychology is low-key. The murder plot about as down-to-earth as you get.

Have a killer Christmas.

[previously unpublished, aimed toward Lit. circa March 1996]

Time and Other Burials

If you’re a fan of H. P. Lovecraft and other writers who portray terror emerging from unknown depths of cryptic and unbounded outer space, breaking through from unsuspected dimensions, sweeping in across kalpas on the frantic wings of super-time, Howard Wandrei’s Time Burial (Fedogan & Bremer, $29.00, 366 pages) is a book you need. And need bad.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Howard Wandrei. That’s good. Nothing like tumbling to a hot writer you never knew existed: all those unread stories, all the details of a new tormented life and career to brood over. His older brother, Donald Wandrei, is better known; he helped start Arkham House in 1939 to put Lovecraft’s stories into hardcovers, and had a few books appear.

Both Wandreis contributed to horror, science fiction, and hard-boiled mystery pulps, but Howard wrote mostly under pennames. He once said, “I collect pseudonyms.” Even if you have some of those 1930s and 40s pulps, you might not know which stories are his. And only a handful have been reprinted in anthologies since his death in 1956.

Time Burial is the first collection from that untapped trove, twenty tales, plus photos and a long introduction which has info even I didn’t know (and twenty years ago I was hearing all about cosmic horror from Donald Wandrei in his sanctum sanctorum, that brush-crowded house in St. Paul, whose shades have been lowered for decades). There’s also a taste of Howard Wandrei’s bizarre artwork; the dustjacket is a stunning example. In 1934 Lovecraft stated that the younger Wandrei “has gone farther in his art than have any of the rest of us in our writing.”

Wandrei routinely combined hard-boiled crime and horror. In “The Black Farm” a fleeing gangster meets a hungry invisible blob the wary farmholder calls Mr. Zero — I bet Wandrei could have written From Dusk to Dawn. “Macklin’s Little Friend” is a tentacle-thing attached to Mr. Macklin’s head. When he has a doctor remove it, the resulting gross-out action holds its own with the face-hugger attack in Aliens.

I expected that sort of thing, but Wandrei’s brilliant cameo-like asides were a pleasant surprise, as in “His wife was lying supine, exquisite as the day he married her, in the deep sleep of drunkenness.” Or:

Having broken the lock of his grandfather’s trunk as a lad, in the attic of the family home in the Ukraine, the count had found an archaic work on magic, written on parchment in classical Latin. The count, being a prodigy, had digested a third of the book when his aunt came up to see what he was doing. He promptly hypnotized her and dispatched her to the kitchen to make him a plate of sandwiches to eat while reading.

If Frank M. Robinson isn’t a local icon, he’s real close: speechwriter for Harvey Milk; Towering Inferno, the ne plus ultra San Francisco disaster movie, based on one of his books. His new espionage novel, Death of a Marionette (Forge, $22.95, 320 pages), co-authored with Paul Hull, is a gritty, bleak read. Maybe it felt depressing because I was reading it by candlelight during a blackout in the big December storms. But when your hero returns to action after being gutted some months before in an alley in Brussels, where the rain just keeps coming down, color your novel gray. Having the spy named Morley doesn’t cheer it up much, either.

Bright flashes of color occur when Morley encounters a theatrical troupe and a puppeteer who manipulates life size marionettes. But is he being used to smuggle in terrorists who want to do an Oklahoma City on a summit conference? Will Morley figure out who gutted and left him for dead? Will the rain ever end?

If you crave a lighter read, Karen Hanson Stuyck’s first mystery Cry for Help (Berkley Prime Crime, $4.99, 220 pages) is a good one. Normally I’m not keen on the modern women’s crime novel of the ex-husband/new-boyfriend/kid-in-trouble/job-description variety, but heroine Liz James could be me — you know, in other circumstances. A suicide slowly begins to look like murder. A fine debut.


I heard Gordon DeMarco died last September, age fifty. In the sixties Gordon was on the lines with SDS at SF State, serious leftwing, and used a radical political backdrop — the Big Strike of 1934, the integration of baseball, the HUAC hearings — in his series featuring San Francisco private eye Riley Kovachs: October Heat, The Canvas Prison and Frisco Blues. I enjoyed his play with language, with my favorite line being “The ashtray at his elbow had more butts in it than the chorus line at Radio City Music Hall.” That was one crowded ashtray.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine

All columns appeared under the banner of “Booked and Printed”

[from AHMM, February 2003, on newsstands December 2002]

Street Money

By Bill Kent

Thomas Dunne Books


From the moment when Edgar Allan Poe imagined murder victims found inside that mysteriously locked room in the Rue Morgue, Paris, the mean streets of cities have served as a perfect arena for crime writers. Sure, most of us know you could get killed almost anytime, even in the most innocent of settings, but it is hard to shake the feeling that a city, any city, is a particularly dangerous place indeed.

Take Philly, for instance, where the political fix-it-man Benny Cosicki goes about “getting himself dead” in the opening novel in Bill Kent’s lively new series. Philly has history going back to the Revolutionary War and before. With neighborhoods blighted by the closing of factories, the more affluent have fled to the suburbs and now face the morning commute in “to smog-stained concrete, potholed asphalt, broken-down storefronts on streets where weird people stood on the corner and shouted obscenities at the traffic.” It’s the kind of place where a bad guy can state with confidence, “Ms. Cosicki, this is a city. Everyone watches. No one does a thing.”

Andrea “Andy” Cosicki, however, does not intend to let the death of her father go uninvestigated. Shortly before he met his suspicious end, Benny used his connections to get her a job with the Philadelphia Press, where she gets stuck writing the “Mr. Action” column under the supervision of N. S. Ladderback. Unexpectedly, she finds Ladderback an ally in the off-hours sleuthing. The spunky, athletic cub reporter and the aged veteran who has spent decades writing the obit column make a fascinating odd couple, especially as Ladderback’s eccentricities are revealed — he suffers from agoraphobia, and learned forensic science from his parents, who were medical examiners. This pairing seems to have that potential magical chemistry mystery fans keep hoping for, like the day Archie Goodwin met Nero Wolfe.

An award-winning correspondent for the New York Times, Kent (Under the Boardwalk, On a Blanket with My Baby) has a lot of fun with the newspaper milieu, and obviously he has his city tagged. The solution to the crime is solidly rooted in the place and people, where “maybe you really did make a mistake that you could’ve avoided, but it is also possible that there were real reasons, people, money, or others things involved.” His opening section is a full-tilt poetic tribute to Philadelphia, which I enjoyed. But then I once dated a woman who had one of those “absolutely perfect South Philly kaplink-kaplonk” accents, and think hearing about “the kind of places that catered to the people who catered to the people who like very much to be catered to” is kind of sexy. For readers who can’t take much of that sort of thing, rest assured Kent soon gets down to business. You can’t help but hope that Andy Cosicki will say “Yes’ immediately the next time Ladderback demands of her, “Do you want another assignment?”

The Sniper’s Wife

By Archer Mayor

Mysterious Press


With his Joe Gunther mysteries set in Vermont, Archer Mayor is one of the most popular writers working the homicide scene outside Big Town, USA, but lately he’s feeling the need for a little more room to swing his cat around. Recent novels have put Gunther in charge of a statewide agency, instead of merely policing about Brattleboro, and this time the action moves completely uptown to the streets of New York. As if sensing that his loyal audience might be a bit suspicious of this radical change of scene, Mayor treats The Sniper’s Wife almost as a spin-off, using the loose cannon on the force, Willy Kunkle, as the main protagonist. When NYPD calls to tell him his ex-wife has been found dead from a drug overdose (inside a locked room — shades of Poe!), he suffers renewed guilt over the fact that his marriage split up because of his drinking, and that time he hit her. Certain there’s more to her death than appears on the surface, Willy, who picked up the code name Sniper in Nam, tears up Manhattan looking for clues. Soon Joe and series regular Sammie Martens travel south to serve as backup. The Sniper never gets as Medieval on the bad guys as you might expect, though, because Mayor is a quieter writer than that. As most, the action goes Late Renaissance, and it takes Gunther’s deductive reasoning to unravel that locked room puzzle.

Not Quite Kosher

By Stuart Kaminsky



After a botched jewelry store heist which has left a dying man behind him, and his associate mortally wounded, Wychovski figures his best hope for escape is heading for Chicago. “He would take his chances in the street. This was a big goddamn city, the toddling town. Big, bad, millions of people.” Unfortunately, he’s going to cross paths with homicide detective Abe Lieberman, who has a couple of other murders on his plate as well in this, his seventh outing. A veteran author of several series, including the Toby Peters Hollywood mysteries, Kaminsky has reached a masterful level at noodling these novels along, giving the day-to-day incidents in the life of Abe and his partner Bill Hanrahan equal weight and interest to the crimes under investigation. Hanrahan plans a sudden marriage, even though his rival for the woman’s hand is head of an Asian crime syndicate who is quite likely to order serious trouble. Abe, among other worries, is concerned about paying the astronomical costs for his grandson’s upcoming bar mitzvah, plus the committee at his synagogue has decided that he is the perfect person to phone his namesake Senator Joseph Lieberman about speaking at a fund-raiser “”I didn’t even vote for him,” Abe confessed. . . . “I voted Libertarian.”” Not Quite Kosher is tough enough to convince a reader that Chi has some authentic mean streets and gentle enough to appeal to a wider mystery-loving audience. Every page is a pleasure to read.

[from AHMM, March 2003, on newsstands January 2003]

Tough guy writing thrives, as an up-and-coming generation of authors muscle in on the hard-boiled and noir genres and work them into fresh shapes. Eddie Muller is one of the smoothest operators of this new crew with his mysteries about the boxing reporter Billy Nichols. Host of the annual film noir festival at The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, Muller has done several non-fiction books on that subject, such as the recent The Art of Noir from Overlook Press, surveying lobby posters from that classic era of cinema. But he practically grew up with the Nichols novels, since they are based on his father, the senior Eddie Muller, who had one job in his entire adult life — writing about the pugilistic arts for 52 years for the San Francisco Examiner.

Muller introduced Billy Nichols in The Distance (2002), drawing an enthusiastic endorsement from The Ring, boxing’s journal of record, so you know the entire sports dodge is solid. Hitchcock readers, however, may be more intrigued to know that I was talking with a mystery reading club, seven or eight women who do a crime novel every month, and they too loved the book. One crime clubber told me, “I never thought I’d ever read a book about boxing, much less enjoy it, but this one was really fun.”

Just out, the second novel in the series, Shadow Boxer (Scribner, $24), picks up the action immediately on the heels of the first. The setting is San Francisco, 1948, and Billy, boxing columnist for the Inquirer, has squeaked past jail (really, he shouldn’t have had the idea of burying that dead body in Golden Gate Park) and is breathing easy. But then the luckless sap nabbed for the crimes tells him there is more behind the murders than has yet come out, and he’s going to squeal on the witness stand. Virginia Wagner, the mysterious woman briefly encountered in The Distance, suddenly reappears, driving a fast car and packing a pistol. Some racket working under the name of the “Mount Davidson Trust” may be behind it all, and Billy knows he’s going to have to ride it out again or risk losing his freedom.

A little weasel (but a loveable little weasel), Billy wants to contain news leaks and spin any revelations, and scrambles for footing as he races from covering a Golden Gloves tourney to Pacific Heights mansions, from an abortionist’s lab to the hills of Sonoma County. Real-life characters such as the flamboyant lawyer Jake Ehrlich figure in the case, and the Shah of Iran even pulls a cameo (though Billy admits “I couldn’t point to Iran on a map if you spotted me five continents.”). The pace is fast, jazzy, with a touch of pulp (“she tossed the remnants of the tar-bar.”). As Billy’s jealous wife Ida tries to figure out what he is up to, Muller even manages to evoke vintage moments out of I Love Lucy and bring it off. And of course he touches on the noir mood more than once, as Billy thinks, “I’ve always felt memories had tangible weight. They’re what the dead leave you to carry.”

Jimmy Bench-Press (Carroll & Graf, $24) is a fine follow-up to Charlie Stella’s first crime novel, Eddie’s World (2001), but unlike Muller’s Shadow Boxer it isn’t a novel I can recommend across the board to just any mystery reader. For this one you need a thick hide and a strong stomach, like Jimmy Mangino, the title character, who can bench-press 400 lbs. after years of working out in the pen. He’s back outside now, in his old New Jersey-New York stomping grounds, trying to get in good with the local syndicate. When one of the Mafioso asks him about a lack of sex behind bars, Jimmy sets him straight: “Tranchatta made a face. “Please,” he said. “I just ate.”” Stella writes in the ultra-tough school where nothing good is about to happen to anybody, unless dumb luck intervenes. The prose is completely lean, reminiscent of the French noir master Jean-Patrick Manchette’s tight behaviorist style: “A tall man with broad shoulders threw measured uppercut punches into the belly of a bloody man.” The cast is large and unlikable, from Mangino and his fellow goons, including Russian and Korean gangsters trying to establish some turf, to Organized Crime cops Alex Pavlik and John DeNafria, with miscellaneous maimed bystanders. The action centers around Mangino wrecking havoc, as he is sent out to collect some loans that are overdue and on his own dime strong-arms his way into a porn operation. For those who enjoy unrelentingly hard-boiled novels ripe with lowlife, Stella delivers.

Jason Starr works more in the traditional noir vein, and he’s so good at it I’ve decided the last thing on earth I’d want to be is the doomed protagonist in one of his novels. Tough Luck (Vintage/Black Lizard; $12.00) is his second trade paperback original after last year’s Hard Feelings, released in this format in just recognition of Starr as one of the best followers in the footsteps of Jim Thompson, the bleak king of paperback noir. Here we find Micky Prada, a nice young guy working in a fish market in Brooklyn, whose life may not be great but, hey, he’s got money saved so he can go to college and better himself. Then Angelo Santoro starts coming in, encouraging Mickey to place a few sports bets for him. Since Santoro seems to be a Made Guy, our hero doesn’t feel he can refuse the offer, and he sinks rapidly into debt as Santoro ignores his losses. Desperate for a way out of the situation, Micky gets in on a house burglary for some quick cash. The wrong-side-of-the-bridge New York scene is perfectly wrought, with OTB parlors and bowling alleys (you know Micky is headed for trouble when his burglary crew is also his bowling team). Deftly, Starr turns this one more into a black comedy than the regulation crime caper one might expect — he’s not churning out the same old same, he’s keeping it fresh, and fresh is very good.

[from AHMM, September 2003, on newsstands June 2003]

The world of great literature is a living place, ready when you are to step into and enjoy. You can visit homes and haunts, maybe travel to The Parsonage where the Brontës lived, next to the raven-haunted graveyard looking down on the narrow winding lanes of Haworth in England. Or perhaps tour Beauty Ranch in California’s wine country, where Jack London spent his last years — just two among hundreds of literary sites open to the public. The best books by such standard writers are available in numerous editions, always in print, whenever you get around to taking the plunge. And if you want a really wild ride, the Detective Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde will toss you, laughing, headfirst into the classics.

Introduced in The Eyre Affair (2002), Next works for Special Ops in the Literary Detectives division in an alternate world version of England, dominated by the Goliath Corporation, where Chronoguards police Time and vampire hunters track down blood-suckers. It is the mid-1980s, but vacuum tubes shoot people about the globe and zeppelins rule the air. Bioengineering has recreated neanderthals and the curious can watch the semi-annual mammoth migration. Even Next has a pet Dodo named Pickwick, although she like everyone else is stuck watching such surreal and unbelievably bland telly programs as Name That Fruit! In her first outing, Next trapped the villainous Jack Schitt in the gloomy stanzas of Poe’s The Raven, and also managed to improve the ending of Jane Eyre so that it is no longer so darn depressing. Yes, that’s right — these folk can travel through time and literally enter a supra-real world of literature.

Lost in a Good Book (Viking, $24.95) carries on the action. The Powers That Be at Goliath want Next to liberate Schitt from his Poe-itcal prison, and to coerce her into the deed they have eradicated her husband from Time. He’s gone, memories of his very life are fading, and if our heroine wants him reactualized, she needs to do some deep text literary detective work. Diving in and out of Dickens and Austen, Kafka and Carroll, training under Miss Havisham and chatting with that wide-lipped Cat from Alice, Next races through her crazy and delightful universe, from one hilarious encounter to another. Since anything is possible, you can’t give Fforde too many points for his plotting skills (unlike, say, J. K. Rowling in her equally fantastical Harry Potter books, as tightly clued as any crime fiction). He’s more like Monty Python or Douglas Adams, master of sudden invention, coming up with something amusing in each and every chapter, and seems poised to hurl Next through many more fun adventures.

Amateur sleuth Karen Pelletier enters the closed stacks of the college library in her fifth case and has the sort of feeling you can get from the Thursday Next novels. “I had a sudden eerie sense of disconnection from the present, as if we had somehow escaped the confines of time and matter and entered simultaneously into all the worlds pressed in ink and bound into these volumes, as if we had penetrated the collective consciousness of brains long since reduced to scattered molecules of insensate matter.” The Maltese Manuscript (Poisoned Pen, $24.95) by Joanne Dobson offers her English professor investigator the puzzles of a convoluted biblio-mystery. Many rare books are missing from the library, and it’s discovered that even the priceless hand-corrected typescript of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon has been stolen. Soon a body is discovered in the stacks. Into this scenario of bibliomania gone berserk, Dobson adds the presence of a bestselling female Private Eye writer, Sunnye Hardcastle, author of the “Kit Danger” series, ready to help out on the case. Plus a conference on crime fiction and a mysteriously missing student. Light, funny, if lacking urgency, this novel in passing provides a nice overview of the literary history of mysteries, though I should note that the typescript of Hammett’s most famous book is not known to exist. Also, given that the cover from the 1930 Knopf first edition of The Maltese Falcon has been reused here, I feel it is incumbent on me as the Grand Poobah of the Hammett Cult in San Francisco to warn hard-boiled fans that there’s not a glimmer of Hammett between these boards.  It’s soft-boiled all the way.

If you are a devotee of Dante, however, don’t miss The Dante Club (Random House, $24.95) by Matthew Pearl, which is about as deeply connected with a writer and his work as a novel can get. After the Civil War a circle of friends assemble to assist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in doing the first American translation of The Divine Comedy, when suddenly bizarre ritualistic murders begin to occur, based on horrific descriptions from Dante’s tour of Hell. The publisher J. T. Fields and the poets James Russell Lowell and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes investigate (any excuse is a good excuse for mystery fans to hear that great phrase, “my dear Holmes,” again). Pearl edited a recent Modern Library edition of Dante’s Inferno from the Longfellow translation, and has this plot and cast of characters burned onto the page. A brilliant idea, wonderfully executed, with the era and Harvard setting brought to life.

If Hammett is now classic and Dante is a Classic, Samuel L. Clemens falls somewhere in between. I would never have expected to ever have to say this, but the new mystery by Mark Twain is a complete dog. A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage (Norton, $16.95) was written in 1876 but not released until 2001, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Twain had this odd idea that he’d sketch out a weird crime story with Jules Verne as the bad guy and have other writers, such as Henry James, continue the action. Take my word for it: terrible. But then old Mark did Tom Sawyer before he started it and Huck Finn after he finished. Two out of three, we all know that’s not bad.

[from AHMM, April 2004, on newsstands February 2004]

As long as I can remember, I’ve been hearing about the death of the short story. Certainly the marketplace has changed, with our own Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine being the only crime fiction publications to survive from their origins in the digest era of the 1950s. Some folk consider the digests a later “Silver Age” of the short story, with the Golden Age to be found in the huge numbers of pulp and slick paper fiction magazines of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. But if the short story indeed is dead, I’m here to tell you it’s got a very healthy Evil Twin out there, messing around.

The easiest way to figure it, the theme anthology is stepping into the evolutionary niche left vacant by the demise of regular newsstand magazines. If you assemble the many “Cat Crime” anthologies, for example, and simply reformat them you’ll find yourself with a solid run of a pulp — Feline Felonies, let’s call it, if that title hasn’t been snapped up already.

Even gambling as a theme has racked up a few books, with Robert J. Randisi’s paperback anthology High Stakes (Signet, $5.99) the most recent. Appropriately published to premiere at the Bouchercon held in Las Vegas in October 2003, this book features eight stories, six brand new, covering many different facets of gambling in a satisfying mix of narrative voices and styles. Randisi’s “Henry and the Idiots” riffs on winning streaks and a husband escaping his domineering wife, while Jonathon King’s “Snake Eyes’ takes us back to Florida in the twenties in a neo-pulp action yarn about looting a gaming hall. Leslie Glass in “For Sale” features her series detective April Woo of the NYPD caught up in a mess when her mother apparently loses her house in a round of dominoes. “Sex and Bingo” by Elaine Viets puts Helen Hawthorne, her On-the-Lam heroine, up against a mystery on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Judith Van Gieson’s “Lucky Eight” stops in on Indian casinos, with a clever twist, and Jeff Abbott’s “Bet on Red” follows an enforcer in Vegas — “But see, that’s all Vegas is about. The potential of every single moment.” Reprints include Donald Westlake’s “Breathe Deep,” the nastiest story in the collection, and “Let’s Get Lost” by Lawrence Block.

Block also serves as editor for the most recent hardcover anthology from the Mystery Writers of America, another steady venue for the short story. Blood on Their Hands (Berkley Prime Crime, $23.95) features nineteen tales, all new, on the theme of what happens when someone is pushed to the limit, from Jeremiah Healy, Brendan DuBois, G. Miki Hayden, Noreen Ayres and other current members of the MWA. You’ll never convince me that no one is writing short stories anymore, and if you want a great argument against the idea that the short story is dead, consider Block’s own collection Enough Rope, issued by William Morrow in 2002. At almost 900 pages, it doesn’t even gather every short story he’s ever written, but does include a dozen tales never before published! A genuine one-man monument to the form.

Another monument in the making is appearing year by year from Crippen & Landru, a small press devoted exclusively to publishing the criminous short story. Since the first collection in 1995, The McCone Files by Marcia Muller, Crippen & Landru has released dozens of titles. For collectors they issue signed limited hardcovers, but for the average reader they do most of their print run in trade paperback. A specialty feature hidden in the art on many of the covers is a hangman’s noose and gallows, so not only are they busy, with new books coming out all the time, but they’re having fun, too.

Among recent releases is Jeremiah Healy’s CuddyPlus One (Crippen & Landru, $18.00), a follow-up volume to The Concise Cuddy published by C&L in 1998. Gathering more short crime fiction featuring Boston private eye John Francis Cuddy, introduced in the novel Blunt Darts in 1984, this title provides entertaining, conversational and fully contemporary detection. “Rest Stop,” the first of thirteen stories about the PI, originally appeared in AHMM in 1992 — Cuddy witnesses a child abduction at a roadside stop and pursues the kidnappers, only to end up captured. In keeping with my ideas of how short stories are working their way into new niches, four more of these tales first appeared in EQMM, but the majority hail from theme anthologies. The “Plus One” from the title, by the way, is a fourteenth story about lawyer Mairead O’Clare, which Healy wrote under the penname “Terry Devane” for the anthology Women Before the Bench.

Liza Cody’s The Lucky Dip and Other Stories (C&L, $17.00) probably has more kinship with Raymond Carver than the usual crime puzzle, and features quirky, dark tales — an excellent collection. Creator of Anna Lee, a character introduced in the novel Dupe and featured in an A&E series, Cody gathers seventeen stories in all, with two written specifically for this book and another previously only heard as broadcast on the BBC. The title story, about a street kid surviving on the mean streets of London, won the Anthony Award for best short story of the year in 1993.

If you prefer more traditional crime fiction, Crippen & Landru has a “Lost Classic Series,” of which Helen McCloy’s The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing (C&L, $17.00) is the latest entry. McCloy premiered her sleuth in the novel Dance of Death in 1938 and wrote ten short stories about his adventures over the years, all collected here. For puzzle fans or those who enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere of the classic detective tale, these are top notch. How can you beat Willing (and I admit I never can figure out these things) stepping into the mystery of “The Singing Diamonds’ and saying, “There were just two things. First, all those who died had asthma, except the pilot, Sanders, and — this is a curious detail — he had a fiancé who had asthma. Second: three of the six — Amherst, MacDonald, and Mrs. Kusak — had a box of candied ginger in the house.”

While it might seem that Crippen & Landru is cornering the market on the mystery short story, the field is more than wide enough for some competition. Five Star Mysteries did several story collections before deciding to concentrate on novels. The hardcover Quarry’s Greatest Hits (Five Star, $25.95) collects some of the exploits of Max Allan Collins’s hit man anti-hero, but with an interesting twist. Collins hasn’t done that much short fiction featuring Quarry, so three shorter works surround the novel Primary Target, which has been out-of-print for years.

Wit’s End Publishing is another new venture, and they’ve done fans of the wonderful crime writer Charles Willeford a real favor by releasing The Second Half of the Double Feature (Wit’s End, $17.95) as a trade paperback. Essentially, this title collects the contents of the Dennis McMillan limited edition, Everybody’s Metamorphosis, long out of print and very pricey, and also includes seven stories never previously published. Willeford, of course, is one of my absolute favorite writers, and has become a cult favorite since his death in 1988. Worth noting is that two of these stories, “Some Lucky License” and “Citizen’s Arrest,” first saw print in AHMM in the sixties, when it was based in Florida and Willeford was working as an associate editor, so it gets a personal plug, from one Hitchcock contributor to another.

[from AHMM, June 2004, on newsstands April 2004]

Long a source for critical studies of the mystery field and the occasional biography of a crime writer, university presses more and more in recent years have begun publishing the actual literature of detection. In particular, they are emerging as an intriguing niche market, able to keep books in print that the major presses in New York might allow to lapse. Since mysteries always have offered portraits of their locales and distinctive regional personalities, some university presses even issue crime novels as part of their contribution to the regional culture.

Evidence of this development is the reprint in trade paper of the cases of private investigator Joshua Croft from the University of New Mexico Press. The author, Walter Satterthwait, resides in Santa Fe, and sets his scene there. So far, this university press has done four Croft novels, with The Hanged Man (2003) the most recent, available again a decade after the first edition of 1993 from St. Martin’s Press.

The University of Arizona Press is going a step farther and issuing brand new mysteries set in the Southwest. Their trade paperback Deception on All Accounts ($14.95) is a first novel by Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, laid in the Cherokee country of modern Oklahoma. Drawing on her Cherokee birthright and a career in banking, Hoklotubbe introduces bank employee Sadie Walela, who comes to work one morning to find an armed, masked bandit waiting inside the building. A co-worker is shot to death in the ensuing robbery, and Sadie finds herself suspected of being an inside link to the crime. Lawman Charlie McCord takes her side, prompting one skeptical Fed to sneer, “Well, well, well. If it isn’t our Indian banker woman and her sidekick, the Lone Ranger.” The investigation plays out well enough, with a couple of twists, but as usual for a first mystery doesn’t have all the oomph one might wish for (but think of Tony Hillerman in The Blessing Way, good but by no means the masterpiece level he’d hit a couple of books later with Listening Woman). The best parts of this one are the quiet glimpses into local life, as when Sadie explains, “Unitelvladi digalvnv. . . Cherokee words for grape dumpling. Blue dumplings are the same thing as grape dumplings, a traditional Cherokee dish made out of grapes — possum grapes.” Hoklotubbe has the scene down, and now only needs to figure out some more cases for her heroine to sleuth her way through.

University Press of New England just launched “Hardscrabble Crime” in March, 2004 with Snap Hook ($24.95) by John R. Corrigan, a companion line to their list of general fiction set in the hardscrabble states of New England. Jack Austin is a native of Maine, a pro golfer who plays on the PGA tour. Introduced in Cut Shot (2001), Jack is worried about making the cut in the game even as he tries out a rookie caddie, an inner city teen who suffers from dyslexia, as he does. The crime that pops up is the kidnapping of the infant of a tour official by Russian mobsters, but Corrigan holds way back on the rough stuff — even the inner city teen isn’t all that troubled. When I think of sports mysteries, I think of Dick Francis (who doesn’t?) and a touch of Francis-like sadism would have jumped this one up for me. But then I’ve never played golf, and Corrigan might have the ingredients just right for his target audience, with more personal life than crime, and lots and lots of putting.

In 1998 Duke University Press issued Catherine Ross Nickerson’s critical study, The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, and follows up with generous trade paper reprints of this pioneer crime writing, with introductions by Nickerson. Anna Katherine Green, famous for her mystery The Leavenworth Case, the bestselling novel of 1878, has two novels under one cover — That Affair Next Door and Lost Man’s Lane ($21.95) — while the lesser known Metta Fuller Victor appears again with The Dead Letter and The Figure Eight ($21.95). I’d always heard that The Leavenworth Case was the first full novel of detection to appear in America, but apparently Victor’s The Dead Letter from 1866 scoops it by a dozen years. As long as novels have been published, of course, women authors always have been among the top sellers, a fact that sometimes seems to be forgotten. It’s good to see an academic press bringing this material back to life, but allow me to note that while until recently the Academy in general may have been concentrating heavily on male writers (Hemingway, Faulkner, those guys), us genre readers have enjoyed writing by women all along. The first paperback science fiction novel I bought as a teenager was by Andre Norton, née Alice Mary Norton, and who wouldn’t admit that Leigh Brackett is one of the best hard-boiled writers?

The Feminist Press at the City University of New York is giving a fresh reading and feminist presentation to Dorothy B. Hughes’ classic 1947 noir novel In a Lonely Place ($14.95 in trade paper), part of their new “Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp” series. Man, I can’t argue with that, not after the line by Laurel Gray, “If you don’t take your hands off me, you won’t be any good to any woman any more.” But you don’t really need the feminist tact to make this one worth reading. Hughes perfectly captures the noir mood of Los Angeles by night, and her portrayal of Dix Steele, serial rapist and murderer, is especially compelling in light of all the recent studies of serial killers. In those days, they didn’t yet call them “serial killers.” But Hughes comes very close, in the lines “‘. . .maybe Brucie was one of a series, like our series. . . .'” He asked only one question. “‘Was she one of a series?'” A great book, whatever the reason for reading it.

I might quibble, though, with calling Dorothy B. Hughes “pulp.” In a Lonely Place originally appeared in hardcover from Duell Sloan Pearce, not in a pulp venue, and Hughes began literary life as a poet — the Feminist Press afterword by Lisa Maria Hogeland notes that she was a Yale Younger Poet in 1931. A distinctly literary writer, for many years the mystery critic for the L. A. Times, Hughes isn’t true pulp.

For real pulp, try stories published in the pulp magazines. Crippen & Landru have kicked off a series of trade paperbacks entitled “Tales from the Black Mask Morgue” with Jo Gar’s Casebook ($20.00) by Raoul Whitfield. These are the genuine article, tales pulled from the wood pulp pages of The Black Mask from the 1930s. Whitfield, writing under the penname Ramon DeColta, set his detective Jo Gar out on a nice variety of cases in and about Manila, and for any fan of that hard-boiled era, they make for a good read. They do not approach the level of Hammett’s series of short stories about the Continental Op, my Gold Standard for judging pulp detection, but I have no hesitation in recommending them.

The name Hugh B. Cave (still active in his nineties!) is synonymous with pulp, perhaps most famous for his horror and weird menace fiction, collected in Murgunstrumm and Others (1977) and Death Stalks the Night (1995). I freely admit that I cannot stand those stories. Every critical nerve I have rebels when I dip into them, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that I really like his detective fiction. Crippen & Landru have collected all ten stories Cave sold to Black Mask under the title Long Live the Dead ($16.00), popular enough to already demand a second printing. In “Curtain Call” appear the lines, “I may have been born without brains, but the Lord granted me a fair pair of dukes, and at in-fighting I’m remarkable. In a phone booth I could probably lick Joe Louis.” That’s the kind of antic moment you get out of the best pulp. Come into My Parlor (Crippen & Landru, $17.00) assembles eleven tales Cave sold to Detective Fiction Weekly, but the most fun per page appears in the hardback from 2000, Bottled in Blonde ($29.00), from another press, Fedogan & Bremer. Cave did nine stories about his drunken detective Peter Kane for the pulp Dime Detective — for pure entertainment, they do the job.

In 2000 Fedogan & Bremer also released Donald Wandrei’s Frost ($29.00), collecting eight adventures of the deadly Professor I. V. Frost from Clues Detective, including “Bride of the Rats.” Wandrei was a friend of mine back in the 1970s, but at that time I hadn’t seen this series, among the hottest pulp writing I’ve ever read. No holds barred, a cross between Sherlock Holmes and some pulp avenger like The Shadow or The Spider, with pistol-carrying feminist sidekick Jean Moray, this is the one book I cannot recommend enough — if you want authentic pulp action.

copyright © 1995, 1996, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 Don Herron