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The Jury Box

 By Jon L. Breen

The differing emphases of two publishers—Hard Case Crime (hardboiled and noir fiction in the mode of mid-twentieth-century paperback originals) and Coachwhip Publications (classical puzzles from the Golden Age 1930s and earlier)—are illustrated in vintage novels that have in common a Mexican setting but little else.

Todd Downing’s Murder on Tour (Coachwhip, $12.95), the 1933 debut of U.S. Customs Agent Hugh Rennert, about the search for a murderer among a party of American tourists, is focused on history, culture, and scenery. The author himself led tours in Mexico and his affinity for the country and its people included a sympathetic understanding of the Day of the Dead and a concern over the looting of antiquities by American smugglers. There was even better to come from Downing, but his first mystery is expertly written, plotted, and peopled.

By contrast, Lawrence Block’s Borderline (Hard Case, $9.95), first published pseudonymously in 1962, offers a tour of Juarez commercial vice: sex, gambling, marijuana. A sadistic killer of young women provides the crime angle, and the story builds to a sudden and effective shock ending. It’s smoothly written like all Block’s work and interesting as an early example of his development, but three accompanying shorter tales, not tied to the soft-core market’s formulaic requirements, prove more rewarding. The P.I. novella “Stag Party Girl,” about New York’s Ed London, includes scenes for Bogey and Bacall and a victim who was “sleeping with two parties, Democrats and Republicans.”

Hard Case has also reprinted the eight novels Michael Crichton wrote between 1966 and 1972, mostly paperback originals, under the pseudonym John Lange. The second of these, 1967’s Scratch One ($9.95), concerns a smart-ass American lawyer who’s in Nice to buy a villa for a client and somehow is mistaken for a secret agent. The espionage travelogue that follows, with elements of ambiguous romance and potentially deadly farce, includes a visit to the Cannes Film Festival and an action climax at the Monaco Grand Prix, with cinematic touches recalling Bond and Hitchcock. Crichton was a fine storyteller from the start, and the reader senses how much fun the Harvard medical student must have had writing it.

Coachwhip offers many little-known treasures for lovers of traditional detective fiction. 

Wall Street insider Willoughby Sharp’s 1934 novel Murder of the Honest Broker ($13.95) concerns a semi-impossible poisoning on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, investigated by the NYPD’s Inspector Bullock. The plot is a good one, the writing enjoyable and frequently humorous, the period financial background detailed and fascinating. Anita Blackmon’s Murder à la Richelieu ($13.95) concerns murder in a residential hotel in a city resembling Little Rock, Arkansas, told by elderly spinster Adelaide Adams, better company in fiction than she probably would be in life. (Sample observation: “I have heard it said that the way to live forever is to get an incurable disease and take good care of it.”) The conventions of the “had-I-but-known” school of mystery fiction are gently kidded, and there’s a solid whodunit plot. Sharp and Blackmon each wrote only one other mystery novel—both also available from Coachwhip. Like the Todd Downing works, the books offer extensive biographical/critical pieces on the authors by Curtis Evans. Nonfiction specialist Stanley Vestal wrote only one mystery novel, The Wine Room Murder (1935, $13.95), featuring Philo Vance-ish amateur sleuth George Congreve, who applies his approach to fine wine to life and detective work. The complicated comings and goings include one good linguistic clue. No classic, but interesting on the French wine industry.

In the issue of January 1995, I recommended George Pelecanos’s Shoedog (1994), about the robbery of two Washington, D.C. liquor stores, as a prime candidate for a latter-day film noir, provided the filmmakers “resist the temptation to step up the action and violence and concentrate on the gallery of well-drawn characters.” Now there is a feature film in production and Shoedog has been reissued with three other Pelecanos titles (Back Bay Books, $15 each): Drama City (2005), The Sweet Forever (1998), and King Suckerman (1997). The latter, named for a fictitious blaxploitation movie (“the one about the pimp”), is set in 1976, with a climax during Washington’s Bicentennial celebration. Most of the music references and some of the movie allusions meant nothing to me, and generally stories about drug dealers and small-time crooks are my least favorite type. But this is a great crime novel, uncompromising in its realism with an extraordinary depth of characterization and underlying morality. The closest comparison is the work of Walter Mosley.

A new publishing imprint, Brash Books, has some landmark titles in its initial list (each $15.99 trade paper, $4.99 e-book). Maxine O’Callaghan’s Death is Forever (1980) and Run from Nightmare (1982) are the first two novels about Delilah West, a realistic female P.I. who was on the scene before Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, and even (counting short stories) Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone. Dick Lochte’s Sleeping Dog (1986) introduced one of the great odd-couple detecting teams: P.I. Leo Bloodworth and teenager Serendipity Dahlquist. It won a Nero Wolfe Award and was voted one of the 100 favorite novels of the 20th century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

John Pugmire, whom EQMM readers know for his translations of French author Paul Halter’s work, has unearthed a buried treasure from the past, Henry Cauvin’s The Killing Needle (Locked Room International, $15.99 paper, $7.99 e-book), first published in France in 1871 under the title Maximilien Heller, after the eccentric detective, and later as l’Aiguille qui tue.

French historians have assumed that Heller inspired Conan Doyle in the creation of Sherlock Holmes, and Pugmire’s introduction lays out a persuasive case. Heller is an eccentric deductive genius knowledgeable about chemistry and forensic science, a master of disguise, and a drug taker. A doctor and friend narrates his case. And yes, Doyle read French. The novel preceded both Israel Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery and Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room as a locked-room mystery, and it pioneered a category of solution later discussed by John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson, as Pugmire explains in an afterword.

Unlike most past writers, Agatha Christie is always in print. The 75th anniversary edition of And Then There Were None (Morrow, $16.99) is a handsome deckle-edged trade paperback with French flaps (the paperback version of hardcover jacket flaps), a biographical note on Christie, a paragraph from her autobiography about the writing of the 1940 novel, and the full content of the nursery rhyme at the center of the plot, now concerning (for political correctness) ten little soldier boys.

Other old books are bravely sent forth without any concern for present-day ethnic sensitivities. All you need to know about Sax Rohmer’s way-over-the-top 1936 thriller President Fu Manchu (Titan, $9.95) is found in the blurb of a 1970s Pyramid reprint: “With his vast army of slaves and zombies infiltrating every facet of American life, the evil doctor had incorporated a new and deadly weapon into his ever expanding arsenal: Political Rhetoric.” Accompanying is “The Blue Monkey,” one of the few short stories about Nayland Smith without his longtime Yellow Peril nemesis, introduced by William Patrick Maynard.


 © 2014 Jon L. Breen

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