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The Jury Box

 By Jon L. Breen

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding demonstrates why she was Raymond Chandler’s favorite suspense writer in the pairing of Kill Joy (1942) and The Virgin Huntress (1951) (Stark House, $19.95), with an introduction by Jake Hinkson. They illustrate her versatility in plotting and viewpoint and her intense narrative impetus. The first, in common with her 1947 classic The Blank Wall, features a somewhat naive and sheltered woman (a much younger one in this case) trying to deal appropriately with extraordinary circumstances. The second, which begins during the celebration of V-J Day, has a male central character, a frighteningly well-drawn murderous psychopath. Among her many virtues, Holding is an observant guide to 1940s America.

Bruno Fischer’s The Bleeding Scissors (1948) and The Evil Days (1973) are paired in another Stark House volume ($19.95), introduced by Gary Lovisi. The first, concerning a man searching for his vanished wife and sister-in-law in the New York theatrical community, maintains suspense throughout and has some memorably complex and surprising secondary characters. The second, with a knowledgeable background of the publishing world, is its author’s last novel and probably his best. Fischer, who had a long career in pulps, hardcovers, and paperback originals, is a solid pro worthy of rediscovery.

Bill Pronzini introduces a Stark House threesome by Fletcher Flora, Leave Her to Hell (1958)/Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart (1958)/Take Me Home (1959) ($21.95). The lead title has one drawback (heavy padding suggesting the Manhunt magazine version may be better) but more virtues: a distinctive first-person P.I., Percy Hand; a good plot with fairly clued solution, and above all the author’s love of language. Consider the poetic rhythm of this sentence about a business with upscale restaurant, quasi-Parisian dive, and casino on separate floors: “The basement never climbed the stairs, nor did the upper floors descend.” Or this gem of dialogue explaining to one character why another needs to kill him: “because you don’t know enough about something you know too much about.”

Was any crime novel subjected by its author to as many published revisions as James Hadley Chase’s gangster epic No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939)?  The 2010 Bruin Books edition purported to combine the best features of two of the later versions. Stark House returns to the original text, and pairs it in a single volume ($19.95) with Twelve Chinamen and a Woman (originally published in 1941 under an even less politically correct title). Added features are an excellent essay on Blandish’s publishing and media history by John Fraser and a Chase bibliography.

A more recent title with multiple incarnations is Max Allan Collins’s Road to Perdition, first a 1998 graphic novel, then an outstanding film directed by Sam Mendes, then Collins’s 2002 novelization from the script by David Self. The latter, which was cut against the author’s wishes by some 30,000 words to excise material not in the film, is now available in a complete edition (Brash Books, $12.99) which Collins notes “draws equally on the graphic novel.” The publisher will also reprint the two sequels, Road to Purgatory (2004) and Road to Paradise (2005). Hard Case Crime has reprinted (with new covers by the celebrated Robert McGinnis) Collins’s early books about killer-for-hire Quarry ($9.95 each), all with new afterwords by the author: Quarry (1976 originally as The Broker), Quarry’s List (1976 as The Broker’s Wife), Quarry’s Deal (1976 as The Dealer), and Quarry’s Cut (1977 as The Slasher). Reviewing the latter in this space in January 1978, I pronounced Collins a good bet for future glory, one of my better prophecies. Collins was good from the start, not just for tough talk and darkly jokey narrative but for mastery of mystery structure.

Michael Kurland’s two novels about Alexander Brass, 1930s New York newspaper columnist, as told by his assistant Morgan DeWitt, rank high among the many efforts to recapture the flavor of the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin relationship. Too Soon Dead (1997) and The Girls in the High-Heeled Shoes (1998) (Titan Books, $12.95 each) feature great Broadway atmosphere and period allusions, plus occasional guest appearances by historical celebrities. New cases would be most welcome.

Based on the self-contained novel that fills the first 141 of its 1,300-plus pages, Eugène Sue’s 1843-44 serial The Mysteries of Paris (Penguin Classics, $30), newly translated from the French by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg, is not only a historical crime-fiction landmark but also enjoyable reading, with involving characters, surprising plot twists, and vivid descriptions of people and places. Unfamiliar allusions and underworld terminology are explained by Sue’s own footnotes and those of the translators.

Penguin’s welcome new translations of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels ($12 each) can confuse readers when they don’t identify titles of previous English editions. Félicie, translated by David Coward, has been published as Maigret and the Toy Village; Inspector Cadaver, translated by Will Hobson, as Maigret’s Rival; and Maigret Gets Angry, translated by Ros Schwartz, as Maigret in Retirement, not to be confused with the similarly titled Maigret Loses His Temper.

Proving that the police procedural was not a 1940s or 1950s innovation as sometimes claimed, Basil Thomson’s Richardson’s First Case (Dean Street, $15.99), introduced by Martin Edwards, is a full-fledged 1933 example. PC Richardson, who through the course of his series would rise through the hierarchy of Scotland Yard, makes crucial contributions to the case, but the viewpoint shifts among a team of competent professionals. The plot is nicely complicated, the telling straightforward, and the cops as dedicated and incorruptible as Joe Friday. The author, a former head of the Yard’s CID, definitively debunks the fiction writer’s overconfidence in fingerprint evidence. Another Yard cop who rose through the ranks was Bobby Owen in a long series of novels by E.R. Punshon. In 1938’s Comes a Stranger (Dean Street, $15.99), murder strikes a celebrated private library. With complex plot, memorable murderer, action climax, and satisfactory summing-up, this is one of the best bibliomysteries I’ve ever read. The publisher has many other titles from this series, with introductions by Curtis Evans.

Many worthy but forgotten authors benefit from Evans’s scholarship. Among the dozen Annie Haynes titles offered by Dean Street are a pair from 1929 ($15.99 each) featuring the Yard’s Inspector Stoddart: Who Killed Charmian Karslake?, about the murder of an American actress attending a ball at an English country house, and The Crime at Tattenham Corner, in which the Derby favorite must be scratched because of his owner’s murder. Both are first-rate in style, characterization, and reader misdirection, showing why Haynes was almost as celebrated in 1920s Britain as Agatha Christie. Robin Forsythe’s painter and amateur sleuth Algernon Vereker appeared in five novels from Dean Street at $15.99 each. The first, Missing or Murdered (1929), is cleverly plotted with witty prose and dialogue, but the second, The Polo Ground Mystery (1932), is vastly better, with much humorous byplay between Vereker and his police connection, and a puzzle with Queenian multiple solutions and Gardneresque gun-switching. Clifford Orr’s two complexly plotted novels, The Dartmouth Murders (1929) and The Wailing Rock Murders (1932), are gathered in a single volume (Coachwhip, $14.95), the second especially notable as an early psychological puzzle.


 © 2016 Jon L. Breen


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