By Steve Steinbock
An embarrassment of riches continues in both short-story collections and classic reprints. First, the shorts.
**** Patrick Quentin: The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, Crippen & Landru, $20. The team of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler wrote of Broadway producer Peter Duluth from A Puzzle for Fools (1936) into the early 1950s. Two novellas, “Death Rides the Ski-Tow” and “Murder with Flowers” (later expanded into 1944’s Puzzle for Puppets), formal puzzles with dizzying pace, witty byplay between Peter and wife Iris, and Hitchcockian structural touches, are joined by the only two Duluth short stories, Curtis Evans’s introduction, a Webb anecdote by Mauro Boncompagni, and Joanna Gondris’s memories of her great-uncle Wheeler, later a prominent playwright and librettist for Stephen Sondheim musicals.
**** P.D. James: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, Knopf, $24. This small collection of four masterfully crafted tales, two about series cop Adam Dalgliesh, make the reader long for a full gathering of James’s dozen or more short stories. A foreword by Val McDermid is followed by a James preface. For original dates and sources, not in the book, see R.T. Raichev’s February 12, 2016 contribution to the EQMM blogsite Something is Going to Happen, which describes and rates eleven James shorts, three of them in this volume.
**** Lawrence Block: Catch and Release, CreateSpace, $17.99; Kindle e-book $4.99. First published in 2013 as a Subterranean Press hardcover, these seventeen stories (six from EQMM, seven from original anthologies) showcase the mostly twenty-first-century work of one of crime fiction’s finest and longest-active writers. When Block writes of sports and games (poker, tennis, fishing, golf), they are knowledgeably detailed and central to the plot and theme, not just colorful backdrops. Given the demanding self-contained-anthology format of the novellas “Speaking of Greed” and “Speaking of Lust,” which comprise about forty percent of the book, it’s sad but understandable Block never managed the other five deadly sins.
**** Frederick Irving Anderson: The Purple Flame and Other Detective Stories, edited and introduced by Benjamin J. Fisher, Crippen & Landru Publishers, $29.50 hardcover, $19 trade paper.
Twelve of these fifteen stories, ranging in publication date from 1912 to a posthumous appearance in a 1951 issue of EQMM, feature the complementary sleuthing team of celebrated manhunter Deputy Parr and “extinct author” Oliver Armiston, who had to stop writing because his plots were too successfully adapted by criminals. Demanding a careful reading, Anderson offers eloquent prose, inventive plots, and a rich picture of his time and place, New York in the 1920s and 1930s. The cutting-edge marvels of the day are evoked with a sense of immediacy and wonder.
*** Dave Zeltserman: The Julius Katz Collection, CreateSpace, $15.99, e-book $4.99. Of all the attempts to replicate the writing and plotting style of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories, has anyone managed it quite so successfully as Zeltserman? Julius Katz isn’t fat, leaves his house, and is fond of women, but is still Wolfean in speech, detecting methods, and resistance to work. In an inspired science fictional twist, narrator Archie is not a man but a computer in a tiepin. Included are the first six short stories in the series, all from EQMM, through “Julius Accused” (June 2014), plus the previously unpublished theatrical novella, “Julius Katz and the Case of a Sliced Ham.” The late Ed Gorman contributes a foreword.
*** B.K. Stevens: Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, Wildside, $14.99; e-book $3.03. Eleven stories, most from AHMM, are divided between series sleuths and one-shots. Best of the detective stories is one of a pair about Leah Abrams, scholarly researcher in workplace relationship dynamics: “Death in Rehab,” generously clued, rich in subtle humor and satire. All the author’s stories are inventively constructed and pleasingly written.
*** Lee Child: No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories, Delacorte, $27. It’s tough to get the full Reacher experience—violent action, social observation, Sherlockian deduction—without the elbow room of a full-length novel, but some of these dozen come close, especially the original novella “Too Much Time,” and all show the hand of a gifted storyteller.
*** Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins: A Long Time Dead: A Mike Hammer Casebook, Open Road/MysteriousPress.com, $14.99; e-book $9.99. The eight entries in the first Hammer short-story collection stem from ideas or fragments by Spillane, completed by Collins. Fans of either writer will find something to enjoy. Even detractors like me have admired Spillane’s knack for downbeat atmospheric description. Challenge to the reader: Is the following sentence authentic Spillane or dead-on Collins pastiche? “The waterfront bouquet greeted me, salt air, grease, oil, sweat and dead fish drifting like a ghost with body odor.”
*** Richard Deming: The Richard Deming Mystery MEGAPACK, Wildside, $.99. One of the most reliable entertainers in the pulp to digest and hardcover to paperback period can be sampled in fifteen stories (1950-1979) that start and end on high notes: “The Art of Deduction,” an air-travel mystery with a satire of Holmesian methods, and “A Good Friend,” domestic noir with a nicely prepared windup. A second group is now available at the same price.
*** Fletcher Flora: The First Golden Age of Mystery and Crime MEGAPACK, Wildside, $.99. Twenty-six stories (1952-1968) showcase a highly variable but increasingly ambitious writer with a love of language and a gift for tricky plotting. If you want to pin down what noir is, the second through fourth entries will provide a working definition. There’s also pure detection, domestic homicide, and subtle, enigmatic character studies.
** Nathan Walpow: Push Comes to Shove: Seven Stories and a Novella, Large Hadron, $5.99; e-book $2.99. Lee Child’s foreword makes heavy claims for Walpow (“the best writer you never heard of”!), and two of the stories somewhat justify them: “A Good Day’s Work,” set in the retirement community Leisure World; and the title piece, a pro wrestling horror story, which works even better as the novella “Push,” also included. The other five stories are negligible.
Now the revivals. Hard Case Crime has another Lawrence Block discovery: his first crime novel, Sinner Man ($22.99 hardcover, $12.95 trade paper), written in the late 1950s but not published (and without the author’s knowledge) until 1968 as Savage Lover under the house name Sheldon Lord. An unusual variation on the mobster’s-rise-and-fall story, it has moments of great intensity and is deserving of revival. Block’s afterword tells the story of its rediscovery. Also from Hard Case is Snatch ($19.95), two comic novels by Gregory Mcdonald involving normally grim subject matter: the kidnapping of eight-year-old boys. I reviewed Who Took Toby Rinaldi? (here under its British title Snatched) favorably in these pages back in December 1980, and I found Safekeeping (1985) even better, a Dickensian mixture of suspense, slapstick, satire, and social commentary about a titled English orphan sent to America to escape the dangers of World War II Britain. Best-known for Fletch, Mcdonald was one of the best criminous humorists.
Three specimens from the Golden Age of Detection feature unusual backgrounds: Two are British, John Rhode’s 1935 Dr. Priestley case Murder at the Motor Show (UK title Mystery at Olympia) (NightHawk, e-book, $1.99) and Molly Thynne’s 1932 Death in the Dentist’s Chair (Dean Street, $15.99; e-book $2.99), introduced by Curtis Evans; the third is American, Rufus King’s Murder by Latitude (Wildside, $14.99; e-book $3.99), a 1930 case for Lt. Valcour, set on a passenger-carrying cargo ship. Thynne was the least prolific of the three and has fallen furthest into undeserved obscurity. She featured (in common with Rhode) a highly competent police detective who wisely reports to and collaborates with an elderly gifted amateur, in her case Dr. Constantine. She was a better writer in literary terms than Rhode—the atmospheric description of a cop on his beat in a heavy London fog is especially good—and a highly capable puzzle spinner. The American classicist King, at least this time around, is the most impressive of the trio, with quality prose and characterization as well as an ornate fairly clued mystery.
One of the greatest American mystery writers has been saved from temporary neglect. Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith (Syndicate/Soho, $17.99 paper; $24.95 Kindle e-book collection) is the first of six projected omnibus volumes of Margaret Millar’s works, including an introduction by Tom Nolan. At least two of the five novels included are among her best, Beast in View (1955) and The Listening Walls (1959). One caveat: The print of the trade-paper edition is dauntingly small, making the e-book version (more expensive for a reason) a better bet.