Apr 132014
On the inside of the DJ front flap Murder in Black Letter (1960) is billed as "A New Trygve Yamamura mystery." Yamamura, a Norwegian-Japanese-American private eye, is a unique character in crime fiction. He has a splendid collection of samurai swords (the main interest in his award winning debut Perish by the Sword, 1959), he enjoys fencing and judo, and spends much of his time engaging in intellectual conversations with his mostly academically employed friends. But here’s the thing. Yamamura is hardly in the book at all. In fact, he doesn’t even solve the case. He's the most minor of characters in his second book, but he's billed as the lead on the dust jacket. If you’re going to create a series character at least do him the service of having him solve the case even if he’s only going to have a limited amount of stage time. Anderson seems to have grown tired of Yamamura in only his second appearance. Too strange.

That’s strike one.

The story has a great plot element about a missing manuscript dating back to the Italian Renaissance. The murder victim, Bruce Lombardi, had been working on translating the text and had discovered all sorts of ties to witchcraft and black magic and the death cult of the Borgias. Does the motive behind the murder have anything to do with this intriguing, possibly dangerous manuscript? No. It’s all incidental background.

That’s strike two.

The book is narrated by Robert Kintyre, professor of Renaissance history and expert on Machiavelli. When his graduate student/teaching assistant is found brutally murdered and bearing wounds that indicate gruesome torture Kintyre turns sleuth and does his best to get to the bottom of the puzzling crime. But in his amateurish imitation of a badass crimefighter he endangers the lives of others and is directly responsible for a second murder that seems gratuitous and senseless even within the confines of this insular academic community. Kintyre keeps thinking he should tell the police what he knows but suffers from the Hamlet syndrome of deliberating and meditating too much on his thoughts and never acting on them. I have no problem telling you that the villains turn out to be involved in a drug operation and the real culprit had hired a bunch of thugs to do all his dirty work. Shades of pulp fiction master criminals? No, instead it’s wholly contrived for the sake of a twist in the final pages.

And speaking of the final pages. The ending is rushed and absurdly over the top with a fight in a rocky seacoast. Hero and villain plunging from a cliff into the turbulent ocean and grappling with a revolver while trying not to drown. Kintyre manages to judo chop the gun out of the villain’s hands and subdue the bad guy. All of this in the ocean! The final sentence in the book is a single word. “Enough.” I’ll say!

That’s strike three. And strike four, five and six, too. You’re out, Anderson. Really out.

The book has a protracted storyline with a few tangential subplots that are dropped almost as quickly as they are introduced, preposterous motivations from nearly everyone involved, and plenty of action scenes featuring judo (chop, chop) for martial arts freaks. But it’s all a bore. All too reminiscent of too many books and TV shows of this era. It’s all been done before with more excitement and vigor by veteran crime fiction writers more skilled than Poul Anderson, primarily a science fiction writer. His attempt to capitalize on popular crime fiction themes (drug lords and sadistic professional criminals as villains) is ineptly handled. The intersection of a primarily academic setting populated with professors, their office and research assistants, and graduate students with a seedy underworld of professional criminals just doesn’t work. I can usually allow for wild leaps in my suspension of disbelief. This time I didn’t believe it for a minute.

* * *

Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card, space G5: "Academic Mystery"
 Posted by at 3:30 am
Mar 292014
"My name is James Hazell and I'm the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell button."

That's the great opening sentence to Hazell Plays Solomon (1974). The narrative voice of James Hazell only gets better as the story progresses in his debut appearance. True, at first he seems to be one more cookie cutter cynical private eye. He’s an ex-cop, he’s a callous S.O.B., he’s a recovering alcoholic who has to duck into a movie matinee and stuff junk food in his mouth in order to overcome the D.T.s and an urge to down a bottle of whiskey, and he has no qualms about shagging his client if she has a great body, sexy legs, and a couple of choice kneecaps. (Yes, I said kneecaps. For some reason this private eye is obsessed with feminine patellae.) He seems to be the consummate 1970s asshole private eye for much of the book. Yet you can’t help but read on. And the payoff is worth it. For this ultimate jerk undergoes quite a transformation by the final page.

This private eye is way out of his league in his first case. It involves the ultimate horror of all mothers – the careless mix-up of two babies in a maternity ward. The lawyer Hazell is working for has a wealthy client who wants proof that her baby is being raised by a couple living in a council flat (that’s a housing project for us Americans) in one of London’s worst poverty ridden neighborhoods.

The self-deprecating sardonic tone is sometimes witty sometimes crass but never boring. You learn an awful lot of Cockney rhyming slang. So much so that I longed for a glossary at the rear of the book to help me decode much of what was being said by the characters. However, the real success of the book is in the unexpectedly complex women characters. They have a lot to teach Hazell.

From Georgina Gunning , the desperate ex-pat mother yearning for the return of her real daughter to Toni Abrey the self-confessed failure of a mother who sees in Hazell an opportunity for extramarital excitement. Hazell gets an education in what it means to be a mother and, to him, the inexplicable bond between parent and child. Furthermore he gets more lecturing from his mother who sees the baby switching as a nightmare come true and his boss at the fly by night detective e agency Dot Wilmington even calls him a moral imbecile for not seeing how traumatic the difficult resolution will be both mothers. Hazell can only make half-assed jokes about ripping the six year-old girl in half just as Solomon threatened to do when he was confronted with two mothers fighting over a child in the Old Testament parable.

The key woman in the plot, however, is Kathleen Drummond. She is remembered by Mrs. Gunning as a cantankerous and drunken maternity nurse in charge of the two mothers six years ago at St. Margaret’s Hospital. When Hazell tracks down Drummond to her hovel of an apartment he finds the former nurse has become a paranoid, delusional wronged woman. In his interview he learns the secret of her supposed alcoholism and her nasty mood swings. Ironically, it is this interview of a broken pathetic woman who could easily have become yet another target for his sardonic humor who first elicits genuine emotion from Hazell. Despite all her pain and all her shame he observes in Kathleen Drummond a powerful presence. “There was something almost ominous about the grim way she held onto her dignity.” He goes on to wonder about how she had been treated all her life, how she had been misunderstood and unfairly labeled by her patients, co-workers, and neighbors and comes to a startling realization. “There in that strange dark room I felt more about another human being than I have ever done, before or since.” This scene redeemed the private eye and makes the book near brilliant.

I will be on the lookout for the other two books in this very brief series. There's no greater reward when a book surprises the reader on multiple levels; there are plenty in store here -- in plot, character, and humor with the ultimate being the metamorphosis of James Hazell from callous wiseguy to fully realized human being. This book comes highly recommended.

James Hazell Private Eye Series
Hazell Plays Solomon (1974)
Hazell and the Three-Card Trick (1975)
Hazell and the Menacing Jester (1976)
* * *

Reading Challenge update: Silver Age bingo card – L4: “Book with a Man in the Title”
 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Feb 032014

The young woman standing on the cold stone step had no idea who she was, or where she was. The other young woman, the one at the bottom of the stairs, was dead - murdered. And the young woman on the stairs was trapped in a nightmare world of amnesia. She needed help, and she needed it badly. Fortunately for her...there was Miss Silver.

That 's the situation we face at the very start of Patricia Wentworth's last novel, The Girl in the Cellar, which is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, which you can hear in its entirety by clicking here

The Girl in the Cellar was published in 1961, the year Patricia Wentworth died, and it is the last of some 32 books to feature Miss Maud Silver, the private enquiry agent whose little-old-lady appearance can be dangerously deceptive to evildoers. Miss Silver began life as a governess, bringing up other people's children. When she retired and became a private investigator, she brought her no-nonsense attitude with her.

I have read a fair number of the Miss Sliver mysteries, and I think The Girl in the Cellar is one of the better ones. Its dramatic opening is remarkably powerful: we are introduced to this young woman standing on the basement steps in a house that may or may not be deserted. She is suffering from amnesia - she cannot even remember her own name, or where she is, or what she is doing there. She only knows that there is the dead body of another woman at the bottom of the steps.

She manages to get out of the house, and she gets onto the first bus passing by. And that's where her luck begins to change, because she runs into Miss Silver, who sees that the young woman obviously is suffering from shock and needs help. 

It will take quite a while before the young woman is able to remember who she is and start to make sense out of the things going on around her. And, as that knowledge comes back to her, she will also realize that knowledge can be a very dangerous thing...

A lot of the Miss Silver books strike me as being fairly formulaic - you have the same character-types in book after book. There is usually a Damsel in Distress, there's a Misunderstood Young Man, there are Friends/Relatives Who Should Know Better, and so forth. In this case, however, the peril facing the heroine is pretty unique, and Wentworth really does a fine job in showing us the helpless terror that burdens the amnesia victim. It's not so much a whodunit - it's pretty clear most of the way through the book who the villain is - but the true relationships among the characters, and the identity of the girl in the cellar - of both girls in the cellar - are well concealed and allowed to play out suspensefully. And Miss Silver is a delight, as always.

The Girl in the Cellar is another entry in the Vintage Mystery Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog. As it was published after 1960, I am intering in in the Silver category, "a book by an author you've read before." 

Jan 272014

Someone has murdered the master - the master chess player, that is. Paul Jerin was playing a dozen games of chess blindfolded, against twelve different opponents simultaneously, when someone gave him a cup of hot chocolate quite liberally laced with poison. As far as the police were concerned, it was a simple case - the only person who could have done it was Matthew Blount, the man who gave Jerin the hot chocolate and who immediately washed out the cup afterwards. Blount's daughter wasn't buying it - and she came to Nero Wolfe to persuade him to find the evidence that would clear her father.

In a nutshell, that's what you'll find in Gambit, by Rex Stout. The 1962 mystery featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

The word "gambit" is a technical term in chess, referring to an opening move by a player in which a pawn or other chess piece is sacrificed to gain a strategic advantage. It becomes a central image in the book, as Nero Wolve and his right-hand assistant, Archie Goodwin, try to determine who killed Paul Jerin and why. They must, of course, come up with an answer that satisfies the police - and they quickly discover that they are working on a case in which they simply haven't a shred of evidence, even after they answer the questions of who and why.

That's all I'll say about the plot - but I will also recommend this story because it has what I think is probably the finest opening scene of any of the Nero Wolfe novels. We are treated to the spectacle of Nero Wolfe, sitting in his office, tearing pages out of the then-new, third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged. The book outraged Wolfe's sense of what he considered to be proper English usage, by, for instance, using "imply" and "infer" interchangeably, and his response is quite visceral. It's a marvelous scene. The book also ends with what Archie calls "one of the best charades Wolfe has ever staged," as he sets up a gambit of his own to catch the killer.

Gambit, unfortunately, appears to be out of print again, although the link above will take you to a version for the Kindle; I also see that Amazon's web of used book dealers seem to have a number of reasonably priced copies. It's worth going to the trouble to get it - it's a clever plot, and if you find yourself arriving, along with Wolfe and Archie, at the correct identity of the killer, you will still face...but why spoil it? I do think you'll enjoy it.

One more thing: Gambit will be my first entry this year in Bev Hankins's newest vintage mystery reading challenge over at the My Reader's Block blog - you can read all about it at the link, but it's a challenge involving matching books to categories. Players can choose "Golden" (pre-1960) or "Silver" (1960-1980) bingo cards. Gambit fits nicely on the Silver card as "a book with a detective team." It's going to be an interesting year.


UPDATED to fix broken link

Jan 222014

I have written here about the new mystery featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, written by Robert Goldsborough, called "Murder in the Ball Park," which will be published officially next week.

Over at The Rap Sheet blog, Jeff Pierce has published an interview which he conducted via email with Goldsborough, talking about the new book and also about some of Goldsborough's books which are not continuations of the Nero Wolfe series, featuring a Chicago police reporter named Snap Malek. It's an interesting interview, and I think you'll enjoy reading it. Among other points, Goldsborough says that his favorite among the original Nero Wolfe books is The League of Frightened Men, a book which is also among my favorites - I think it's one of the best of the very early books in the series.

By the way, The Rap Sheet ought to be on your regular checklist for staying up with news from the broader world of mystery fiction. 

Dec 132013
 Michel Garfin is the man to go to in Montreal if you have a particularly nasty family secret you need to keep quiet. But call him Mike.  Only the Chief of Police calls him Michel and only because he doesn't speak any English.  Oh, and while we're talking about his name its GAR-fin, pronounced just like its spelled, not Gar-FAN as if it were French. He's Irish/French Canadian and though he's bilingual and lived in Montreal most his life where he was once on the Royal Mounted Police Force he could have stepped out of an office in Hammet's San Francisco or Chandler's L.A.  Hot Freeze (1954) marks Mike Garfin's first appearance out of three crime novels.

Montreal is a frigid violent world of illegal casinos luring gamblers to the barbotte and fan tan tables, brothels where the prostitutes serve as both companions and informers, and home to a wealthy dysfunctional family that would be all too familiar to Lew Archer or Philip Marlowe. The sexual imbroglio in the Astley/Remington household may call to mind the tawdriness of The Big Sleep or the family secrets that dominate Ross Macdonald's novels. But its the omnipresent near paranormal influence of the wintry weather in Montreal becoming a formidable additional character almost as brutal as the human villains that reminds the reader he this is far from the mean streets of California.

Mike is hired by Mrs. Remington to find out how her son Gerald is obtaining such a large amount of money.  he receives an allowance but he's becoming ostentatious in his spending and she is suspicious of how Gerald is getting the money. Mike soon learns that there are actually two families in the Remington home and that Mrs. Remington was previously married. Gerald and his sister Geraldine provide us the earliest examples of the unbridled sexuality that pervades the book.

Gerald is yet another of the handsome indiscriminate gay men, always flirting, always alluding, that one finds in 1950s private eye novels. Its his sex life that triggers the blackmail flag in Mike's mind as the possible source of the extra money. Geraldine is clearly a Carmen Sternwood  knock-off but her insatiable taste for men will eventually unearth a surprising facet to her character that will all but erase any reminders of Chandler's teenage nympho. Then there's Marian, Mrs Remington's stepdaughter, who makes all too clear that she despises all of the Astleys and resents them living in her home.

Originally Mike plans to tail Gerald, find out his habits and bring the case to a quick close. Mike is sure that Gerald is blackmailing some wealthy influential man who can't risk having his sexual predilections uncovered. But Gerald surprises Mike by inviting him along to a barbotte casino and all thoughts of blackmail are almost entirely put out of Mike's mind when he sees how incredibly lucky Gerald is at the gaming tables.

Enter Tom Littleton, Mike's one time partner in the Mounties when they were both cops back in Winnipeg.  Littleton is undercover as part of a narcotics investigation and he urges Mike to keep him that way but not mentioning his name. Mike in order to save his hide however, lies about working with the RCMP and lets Littleton's name. When he returns later that night to find Littleton dead in the courtyard of his apartment building he is devastated. Up to this point Mike was all tough guy like many of the eyes of his day, but now we see a new side. A crowd of gawkers gather round the fence when Littleton''s body is being taken away and Mike overhears them gossiping about another dead drunk who froze himself to death.
I kept my mouth shut, not answering any questions. I climbed into the back of the wagon when they were ready to go and sat near the bunched up thing that had been Tom. Grown men, they say, don't have such emotions. Grown men do. I sat with the tips of my fingers touching his frozen head and vowed to do slow murder to avenge this one.
The addition of this fraternal love between former police partners at times is heartbreaking.  Mike is overcome with emotion several times during the novel. He suspects an insidious murder method and when it is confirmed that drugs are involved it only fuels his vengeful drive.

Brett toys with Chandleresque prose but makes it all his own as Montreal and Canadian culture dominate the proceedings. Hot Freeze is one of the better examples of a private eye novel that will appeal to a variety of crime fiction tastes. Enough tough guy manner and sex to satisfy the hardboiled crowd, real crimes committed for believable reasons for those who crave documentary style realism, quirky characters of truly original molds (including an acrobat dwarf with a sadistic side!), and good investigating with a few examples of well placed clues for the detective novel fans. Above all there is an humanizing emotional undercurrent that controls every behavior in the violent and corrupt world of a bitter and savage Montreal.
 Posted by at 3:35 pm
Dec 072013

The annual Black Orchid Weekend of the Wolfe Pack in New York City is well under way. It began last night with a book discussion of the novella "Murder is Corny" from the collection Three Witnesses, accompanied by a first rate dinner at Playwright's Tavern. We also viewed the A&E production adapted from "Murder is Corny," starring Maury Chaikin as Nero Wolfe and Tim Hutton as Archie Goodwin - a production which, we all pretty much agreed, was superior to the original novella. That excellent TV series is sorely missed today.

Tonight (Saturday night) will be the 36th annual Black Orchid Banquet, preceded this afternoon by "The Assembly," a gathering where Wolfeian scholars and members of Rex Stout's family gather to discuss various Wolfe-related subjects. At tonight's dinner, the featured speaker will be Robert Goldsborough, the author of several "continuations" of Nero Wolfe novels, including the very good prequel to the series, called Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. These events are usually great fun, and a fine excuse to break out the formal evening wear.

At the banquet, the annual Nero Award for the best American mystery fiction will be presented, along with the Black Orchid Novella Award, given in conjunction with Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I hope to see at least some of you there.

The weekend concludes on Sunday with a brunch - just another chance for the group to sit around and talk with each other. If you didn't make this year's events...start planning for 2014 - the first full weekend of December.

Nov 222013
I've read quite a bit about the Tokey Wedge series over the years, but I've never sampled any adventures of the diminutive private eye until now. THE THIRD SEDUCTION was published in 1964 by Novel Books (the same company that published Ennis Willie's Sand series and a number of Orrie Hitt's best novels). It's possible it's a retitled reprint of an earlier book in the series, since Novel Books was notorious for doing that.

Tokey Wedge is five-six, a hundred and forty-five pounds, and looks a little like a smaller version of Shell Scott (not a coincidence, clearly). Despite being smaller than most paperback heroes, he's plenty tough and doesn't hesitate to take on hoodlums and killers a lot bigger than he is. Like most fictional private eyes of the era, he has a long-suffering friend on the police force, and his on-again, off-again girlfriend is a beautiful blond reporter.

As THE THIRD SEDUCTION opens, Tokey is trying to date a beautiful stripper. Wouldn't you know it, no sooner does she agree to go out with him than they're kidnapped by a .45-toting goon who tries to murder them. Tokey manages to get himself and the stripper out of this fix, of course, and then the question becomes which one of them the killer was really after.

From there the plot quickly turns into a complicated mix of revolution on an island nation in the Caribbean (in the words of Woody Allen, a fictional but real-sounding country), a looted treasury, feuding beautiful sisters, torture, attempt after attempt on Tokey's life, and finally imprisonment in the mansion of the evil mastermind, complete with a death trap like something out of a James Bond movie. In the midst of all that hectic action, Tokey manages to find time to take several beautiful women to bed, of course.

So, does it all make sense? Well, sort of, although there's a definite feeling that the author was just making it up as he went along. I don't think anybody read these novels for their well-constructed plots, though. They were read for the sex (which like most so-called sexy books from the Fifties and early Sixties is really pretty mild, consisting of leering innuendo more than anything else), the action, and the wise-cracking comedy. Tokey Wedge seems to have been influenced more by Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott novels than anything else, although there's some Dan Turner and Mike Hammer in there, too. Based on an admittedly limited sample, this one book, I'd say Tokey was aimed at readers who found Prather, Bellem, and Spillane just too sober and restrained.

For a long time, the identity of the author, Jack Lynn, wasn't known, but Steve Mertz has done some sleuthing and turned up strong evidence that Lynn was really Max van derVeer, an author who published several stories in MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE during the Sixties. I seem to remember reading that he may have ghosted some of the Shayne stories in MSMM, too, but I could be wrong about that. I know he was living in Corpus Christi, Texas when he passed away in 1979. There's no telling what other books he may have written under pseudonyms.

I had a good time reading THE THIRD SEDUCTION, but it's definitely politically incorrect and anybody considering reading it or any of the other Tokey Wedge books needs to bear that in mind. It doesn't rise anywhere near the level of the books that inspired it, but it's still entertaining and a nice time warp back to a goofier, more innocent era in paperback fiction.

Nov 142013

Cut, by Jerry Bronson
July, 1976  Pinnacle Books

Proving once again that the best trash is ‘70s trash, Cut pulls no punches in its sordid tale of an asthmatic private eye, a missing socialite, a hippie cult, and the sick world of snuff films. “Jerry Bronson” was actually the pseudonym of two British authors, which Justin Marriott explains below, and after reading this novel I’ll need to reassess my lazy opinion of UK pulp as “prudish!”

But then, nothing about Cut comes off as British, save for one slightly jarring bit where Frank Reagan, our Dirty Harry-esque former cop turned private eye, uses the distincly British curse “bloody.” Otherwise the novel is as lurid as one could wish a trashy ‘70s novel to be, opening with the graphically-detailed filming of a porn scene that, unbeknownst to its drugged-out starlet, is actually a snuff film…and her ensuing on-screen murder goes on for a few pages, the authors going out of their way to push buttons. And they succeed – I’ve read some sick shit, and this opening chapter of Cut is pretty damn sick!!

The opening chapter also introduces the villain of the tale, namely Priest, a muscle-bound and bald “guru” of sorts who wears denim suits and white gloves of kid leather; Priest also fancies himself a director and shoots snuff films on stolen equipment, usually murdering the people he steals it from. In this scene we witness one of his snuff films in full, as the novel opens from the perspective of Reena, the starlet who thinks she’s shooting just another porn scene.

As mentioned the explicit detail in this sequence alone places Cut outside the realm of most other ‘70s pulp, but then it gets super sick as the masked and caped mystery man who’s humping Reena pulls out a dagger at the moment of truth and stabs her in the throat…and then continues to mutilate her face in excruciating detail for a few pages. The mystery man’s identity is easily figured out as the novel progresses, but this first chapter really sets him up as one sick bastard.

After this charming opening we are introduced to the “hero” of the tale, the aforementioned Frank Reagan (his last name elicits a few Ronald Reagan jokes in the text), a former Las Vegas cop who was kicked off the force after blowing away a drug dealer who sold Reagan’s former-junkie wife some heroin, heroin which she OD’d on. Now working as a P.I. in San Francisco, Reagan is as mentioned asthmatic and as bitter and cynical as you’d expect a private eye to be.

With its jaded, ball-busting private eye protagonist, snuff film plot, over-the-top tone, and super-lurid vibe, Cut is everything LA Morse’s The Big Enchilada wanted to be. However unlike that later novel Cut is told in third person and, despite the seriously dark humor that runs throughout, it never devolves into satire or spoofery. Also, at 146 pages of big print, it’s half the length – indeed it’s shorter than the average volume of The Penetrator – which is also to its strength.

Reagan’s contacted by the wealthy and beautiful Lorraine Hamilton, who lives in opulence in Los Angeles. A veritable man-eater, Lorraine sets her sights on Reagan as soon as he enters her palatial home. After getting the details of the job out of the way – Lorraine wants Reagan to find her sister, Lee, an 18 year-old nympho who’s run off into the hills around LA to join some hippie cult – Lorraine promptly gets down to the business of having sex with Reagan.

As expected for a pulp P.I., Reagan’s method of “investigation” is basically to harrass and beat up people. He drives up to one of the communes in the hills and does precisely that, throwing around tranced-out hippies who have no idea who Lee is. Eventually he gets wind of Priest’s cult; larger and more mysterious than the others, it’s located among the same hills, the cultists having taken over abandoned studio sets from the golden days of Hollywood.

Anyone hoping for a deeper glimpse into who Priest is and an explanation for why he holds people in such thrall will be let down – I mentioned ealrier that the short length of Cut is a good thing, but that’s at least so far as its overall impact goes. One thing it lacks is much explanation for what we are witnessing, or much depth. But anyway like a muscular Charlie Manson Priest rules an obedient flock, and shortly after barging onto the cult’s property Reagan is escorted by Priest himself to Lee’s shack, Priest proving to Reagan that the girl is here of her own will.

Guess what, this leads to yet another sex scene, Lee throwing herself at Reagan. Again, the novel is very similar to The Big Enchilada, with its protagonist scoring with practically every woman he meets. Here at the commune Reagan runs afoul of a few of Priest’s stooges, thus setting the scene for the later action sequences, including one enjoyably arbitrary bit where Reagan drives back up to the commune in the middle of the night for the express purpose of murdering a few of them!

The novel rushes headlong for its conclusion as we are quickly introdued to Douglas Q. Wilde, a Boris Karloff/Vincent Price-type horror actor with delusions of grandeur who is known for portraying insane men who get off on murdering women. (Even the “subtle” material is obtuse in Cut!) Wilde happens to be at a party Lorraine is hosting, and Reagan instantly suspects something about the guy. Meanwhile Lorraine doesn’t believe that her sister is really a willing Priest devotee, and insists that Reagan bring her back, regardless of what the girl says.

The authors are also good at setting up action scenes. When Reagan finds himself being tailed by two of Priest’s goons the next day, he veers off into Disneyland, and the ensuing action sequence suspensefully plays out among the rides and attractions. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride is the setting for one memorable scene, where Reagan jumps out among the model pirates and blows away one of his pursuers as he rides by in a boat.

Like Dirty Harry Reagan carries a .44 Magnum, though sometimes it’s a .45, and sometimes it’s an automatic…that is, when it isn’t a revolver. And yes, he just has the one gun! So it’s safe to say the authors forgot to compare notes when it came to Reagan’s gun. Strangely enough they don’t play up too much on the gun-battle gore, with Reagan apparently doling out clean and nonmessy kills, which must be pretty hard to do with a .44 Magnum.

Before it’s all over we get another detailed snuff film sequence, this time “starring” a character we know. And unlike Morse’s parodic character Sam Hunter, Reagan is actually fazed by what he sees, to such a point that Priest gets a drop on him while he’s watching the flick. This leads to a suitably apocalyptic finale, one that leaves Reagan further unsettled. In fact it’s strange that there was no sequel to Cut, as the authors leave a lot of potential for further lurid adventures with Reagan.

As for the authors and more background info on Cut, here’s what Justin Marriott has to say:

Jerry Bronson was Laurence James and John Harvey. The late Laurence James is my hero, ex-editor at NEL whose final days were spent on Deathlands as Jerry Axler. When the original author of the first Deathlands story faced a few personal issues which resulted in him supposedly turning in a manuscript consisting of several hundred pages of dialogue between the two lead characters crouching in an armoured tank, it was Laurence that Gold Eagle turned to. No doubt due to the connection between GE editor Mark Howell and Laurence -- they worked together at New English Library in London during the early 1970s.

John Harvey is the best-selling and politically aware crime author. I asked Harvey about the book, and his version was Laurence did the kinky bits and he did the PI bits. From what I know of Laurence, that would definitely have been the case. Apparently he always had the latest scandalous gossip and sometimes photos of various dignitaries and celebrities up to no good. His Hells Angels books as Mick Norman for New English Library are my favoutite all-time books - subversive and hugely entertaining.

Cut was written for the American market. The link here was Andy Ettinger at Pinnacle who reprinted a number of Laurence's UK books at Pinnacle, and those of his colleagues. Examples include the Edge westerns by George G Gilman (Terry Harknett was the author but Laurence was key in their development), The Killers by Klauz Netzen (Nettson in the US), The Gladiators by Andrew Quiller (the pun only works with the English series which was called The Eagles. Aquilla meaning Roman for eagle), The Vikings as Neil Langholm, and Simon Rack as Laurence James.

There's no way Cut would have been printed in the UK in the 1970s. I think the stilted and restrained approach of UK pulp authors reflected the standards of the time and our strict censorship laws. Hardcore only became legally available here in the 1990s and is still only available through licenced sex shops. In the 1980s the video distributor of The Evil Dead was given a jail sentence and the likes of The Exorcist weren't available on DVD until the late 1990s. At one point the word Chainsaw was banned, so that terrible film with Gunnar Hansen was renamed Hollywood Hookers. Nunchaka scenes were also banned in the 90s, which meant Enter the Dragon couldn't be seen uncut and the video cover was doctored to show Lee holding what appeared to be a large baguette! (At one point, an uncut version was accidentally shown on terrestial TV and was the source of bootlegs for many years.) Bizarre I know - we Brits are totally obsessed with sex and violence yet at the same time totally repressed and hung-up.

I think Cut shows what they could write with the brakes off!
Sep 172013

Hattie Annis, Nero Wolfe's client in "Counterfeit for Murder," one of the novellas in Homicide Trinity, is a fascinating character. As I mentioned in my review of that book, Hattie Annis narrowly escapes with her life when somebody tries to run her down with a stolen car.

She's lucky. In the original version of the story, Rex Stout actually had allowed Hattie Annis to die under the wheels of that hit-and-run car; by the seventh page of the story, she was out of it. According to John J. McAleer, Stout's biographer, while it was very unusual for Rex Stout to rewrite at all, that first version of the story really was inferior to the final version - largely because of the fascinating character of Hattie Annis. That first version was published after Stout's death as "Assault on a Brownstone," which appeared in the collection Death Times Three, along with McAleer's introduction.

All of which leaves open the question of why Rex Stout chose to rewrite this story. McAleer says he asked the author, but Stout replied, "There must be a reason, but I have forgotten what it was." Most of us who have read both versions are just grateful that he did change it.

Switch to our mobile site