Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg: Acts of Mercy (1977)

It’s the early summer of an American election year. Nicholas Augustine, the unpopular President of the United States, appears to have no chance of getting a second term in office. The leaders of his party are demanding that he not run again in November, a demand he angrily brushes off. He knows he can win, and he has a loyal coterie of insiders still backing him up: First Lady Claire Augustine, senior adviser Maxwell Harper, Secret Service agent Christopher Justice. White House press secretary Austin Briggs is not as loyal, though. When Briggs leaks information he knows will make the President look bad, someone who will literally do anything for Augustine decides that the traitor has to die…

Bill Pronzini is best known as the author of the Nameless Detective series (and a pretty handy guy with a locked room). Barry N. Malzberg is best known as an author of science fiction. Together they wrote a couple of multiple-viewpoint thrillers (this one and 1976’s The Running of Beasts) where there is a killer at large, a killer with a sick mind whose thoughts we are made privy to — without being told until the end which of the characters it actually is. 

I’m not sure I would call Acts of Mercy a fair-play whodunit – I go back and forth on whether some of the misdirection crosses the same kind of line a few John Dickson Carr books do – but it’s a story with some wonderful twists and turns before we get to the final revelation, a revelation which had me going back and rereading parts of the book to see how fairly (at least for the most part) I’d been fooled. As with my earlier review of The Beast Must Die, I’m only giving the story up to a certain point to avoid spoiling any of the surprises. 

A word about The Running of Beasts. It’s one of those books where you don’t want to peek at the final page because the very last line casts things in a new light (is there a list of such books anywhere?). I remember once, several years after I’d read it, perusing a copy in a used-book store where that crucial last line had been added with, I kid you not, a rubber stamp – I guess the line had been left out inadvertently and someone noticed before the copies were shipped! Has anyone else out there seen a copy of this edition?

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Columbo: Season One

A post about Francis Iles’ Trial and Error on Mysteries Ahoy led to a conversation in the comments about the Columbo TV series (that’s blogging), and it inspired me to start an occasional series of mini-reviews of his cases. Columbo solved dozens of intricately-plotted murders in the course of his career, and in terms of quality his canon can stand alongside that of many a book detective. While there of course are some poor entries, I think it’s fair to say Columbo constitutes the finest series of inverted-detective stories ever written.

Because not everyone reading this will have seen every episode, I’m going to avoid spoilers, although I will give away things that happen prior to the murder (usually that’s the first 20 minutes or so of a 75-minute episode). On the other hand, for my money a Columbo stands or falls on the ending, so when I have something to criticize, while I won’t give away specifics, I will say things like “saw that coming” or “Columbo’s proof doesn’t really prove anything”. 

One more thing: while I’m criticizing the mysteries and not the performances, there is one note that I could give for practically every episode, and certainly for every one in this entry: Falk does a good job, the guest star playing the murderer does a good job, and the actors playing the victims and other subsidiary characters range from good to outstanding.

Before the series proper, there were two Columbo movies: “Prescription: Murder” was done in 1968 as a stand-alone, and “Ransom for a Dead Man” in 1971 as a pilot episode for the series. The rest of these cases make up Season 1, broadcast during the 1971-72 TV season.

“Prescription: Murder” by Richard Levinson and William Link. Psychiatrist Dr. Ray Fleming (Gene Barry) comes up with an ingenious alibi for the murder of his wife; Lieutenant Columbo of Homicide comes up with a way of breaking it that a four-year-old could see through. 

Lots of good catch-me-if-you-can dialogue between our anti-hero and his antagonist; Barry is wonderfully smug and superior; in fact, just about everything is good except that ending.

“Ransom for a Dead Man” by Dean Hargrove, based on a story by Richard Levinson and William Link. Lawyer Leslie Williams (Lee Grant) has had enough of her husband/law partner opposing her unscrupulous ways, so she kills him and makes it look like a kidnapping for ransom. The FBI agent in charge of investigating the “kidnapping” treats the LAPD cop from Homicide like a minor nuisance, but when the body turns up and it’s now a murder being investigated, it’s Columbo’s cue to take over.

Columbo devises a trap that can’t necessarily be smelled a mile off, but it didn’t really dazzle me – I guess it didn’t make me slap my forehead and say, “Of course! If Columbo did X, Leslie was sure to do Y!” On the other hand, if she hadn’t fallen for the trap, at least he would have been no worse off than before.

“Murder by the Book” by Steven Bochco. The mystery-writing team of Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) and James Ferris (Martin Milner) is something of a fraud: Jim writes the books and Ken contributes nothing beyond giving interviews and signing autographs. And taking half the money.  When Jim declares he wants to put an end to the arrangement, Ken kills him to collect on the insurance policy they have on each other. 

This is widely considered the best episode of the series. As far as I’m concerned, there are so many good things about it, and yet… Of course, the director is a youngster named Steven Spielberg, and he – and cinematographer Russell Metty – make it a treat to watch, a cut visually above most episodes. And it has Jack Cassidy, the polar opposite of Peter Falk, doing a wonderfully cocky and condescending job as the murderer.

And I want to say a special word about Ken’s alibi. What I like about it is that most faked alibis either aim at making the police think the murder was committed at the wrong time, or that the murderer was in the wrong place when the murder happened. Here, the killer doesn’t try the former and is honest about the latter, and yet makes it appear he was nowhere near when Jim met his end. 

So what’s keeping me from giving this episode top marks? Well, I’ll just say that for all the drama of the final confrontation, Columbo’s “proof” doesn’t actually prove anything. On the other hand, it’s a delicious moment when Ken breaks down and confesses; all the pomposity we’ve seen over the last 75 minutes completely disappears for a revealing moment to show the man behind the false front.

I also had a hard time believing that even a mild-mannered guy like Jim would stand for letting someone else take half the money for doing practically none of the work.

So: a good, entertaining episode, but not one of the all-time greats.

One final note: Jim’s series detective is an elderly lady named Mrs. Melville. In real life, there haven’t been that many male writers with female series characters; the only one who comes to my mind readily is Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers.

“Death Lends a Hand” by Richard Levinson and William Link. Brimmer (no first name is given) (Robert Culp) is the head of a huge private-investigation firm, and not above blackmailing people for information. When one prospective victim (Patricia Crowley) refuses to cooperate with him, the hot-tempered P.I. lashes out in rage, kills her, and has to improvise a way to get away with it.

A lot of people say Jack Cassidy was the best Columbo murderer, but I’d go with Culp, if only because the three killers he played were all very different characters, while Cassidy’s were basically the same guy with three different occupations.

This Columbo is different from most of the others in that we’re not dealing with a carefully-planned, premeditated murder, but an impulsive killing that the perp has to cover up as best he can. So there’s less of the intellectual joy we get when we see Columbo pick apart a seemingly perfect crime.

And the ending… is there anyone out there who was surprised? Anyone? Bueller? (Not Bueller. He was too damn shrewd to be fooled by anything this obvious.) It’s interesting that the only two Columbos written by his creators both got into trouble with the ending. And would any self-respecting blackmailer have told a husband his wife was faithful before he was sure the wife would submit to his extortion?

On the other hand, I do love the sequence where we’re following Brimmer hatching his coverup scheme once he’s committed his manslaughter.

“Dead Weight” by John T. Dugan. Retired general Martin Hollister (Eddie Albert) has a lucrative contracting business, made even more lucrative thanks to padded invoices and kickbacks. When the government launches an investigation, Hollister has to shut the mouth of a panicky accomplice before he can put them both in prison.

Eddie Albert, best known for his comic turn on Green Acres, plays a terrific bad guy here, as he would do several years later in the Burt Reynolds movie The Longest Yard. And Suzanne Pleshette, as a woman who accidentally witnesses the murder, does a great job too. But the way Hollister hides the body is too corny for words, and the final denouement is just a rewrite of the ending of one of the all-time classic mystery stories – I won’t say which one.

“Suitable for Framing” by Jackson Gillis. Art critic Dale Kingston (Ross Martin) kills his uncle, who owns a valuable collection of paintings. Dale’s not the heir, so what is his motive? Well, that’s the really evil part…

This is the first Columbo to have a really first-rate ending. My only criticism is that Ross Martin lacks the charm of a Gene Barry or Jack Cassidy, and as a consequence his back-of-me-hand treatment of Columbo becomes rather irritating to watch. On the other hand, the fact that we come to dislike him so much makes the last few minutes, when he starts to panic as he realizes Columbo’s got him, a lot of fun to watch.

“Lady in Waiting” by Steven Bochco, based on a story by Barney Slater. Beth Chadwick (Susan Clark) is constantly under the thumb of her tycoon brother Bryce (Richard Anderson), but when he forbids her from marrying the man of her choice, lawyer Peter Hamilton (Leslie Nielsen), she decides enough is enough. 

The perfect crime is okay, the solution is okay, the performances are okay (although it’s always strange to see Leslie Nielsen in a part where he’s not mugging and taking pratfalls), adding up to a Columbo that is really… okay.

“Short Fuse” by Jackson Gillis, based on a story by Lester Pine & Tina Pine and Jackson Gillis. Research scientist Roger Stanford (Roddy McDowall) kills his uncle, D.L. Buckner (James Gregory) so he can gain control of the chemical company D.L. owns. The murder lacks ingenuity, and the trap Columbo sets at the end? It makes “Prescription: Murder” and “Death Lends a Hand” look like Agatha Christie at her trickiest. Supporting player William Windom looks positively embarrassed as Columbo brings Roger in, and believe me, I’m sympathetic. 

“Blueprint for Murder” by Steven Bochco, based on a story by William Kelley. Architect Elliot Markham (Patrick O’Neal) has a cash cow for his costly projects in the person of Goldie Williamson (Janis Paige), but it’s her husband Beau (Forrest Tucker) who actually holds the purse strings. When Beau tells Elliott he’ll have to find a new source of funding, well, Beau has to go.

While – as usual – we know from the start who the murderer is, this is the first Columbo where we’re not in on the plan in its entirety; it’s up to both our hero and us to figure out where the heck Elliot put Beau’s body after the murder. And the answer is an ingenious one, leading to one of the best endings of the first season. The episode also has the best use of Gil Melle’s Columbo theme, which sadly was never re-used in later seasons. If it had been, it might be as closely associated with Columbo today as the Pink Panther theme is with Inspector Clouseau. 

Some people say Season 1 of Columbo was the best, but I think there were a couple others where the average was better. But those are seasons for other posts.

The Critics Rave: Book Review Digest

Since 1905, H.W. Wilson and Co. has published Book Review Digest, an annual volume of excerpts from reviews of important books that came out that year (with issue and page references to the complete reviews). And at least during the Golden Age, they didn’t turn their noses up at detective stories. They certainly didn’t cover every mystery published, but they did get in all the big names and a surprisingly large number of smaller ones. If you’re reading an old mystery and are curious to know what contemporaneous reviewers thought of it, Book Review Digest is a valuable resource.

Some of the excerpts contain what might constitute minor spoilers, depending on how little you want to know going in (no murderers identified, but things like “there is a beauty of a twist halfway through”), so you probably won’t want to look up the reviews of a particular book till after you’ve read it. 

If you really want to dig deep, there are also numerous references to reviews that were not excerpted in the volume.

Here’s what the 1949 edition has to say about two books published that year, omitting the excerpts that might spoil something…

Carter Dickson’s man-dives-into-a-swimming-pool-and-vanishes novel, A Graveyard to Let:

“It’s all nonsense, played as such, boldly and with smack. I like it.” – James Sandoe, Chicago Sun

“Another eminently satisfactory Carter Dickson, faithful to the ‘impossible crime’ formula, and just as rewarding as all the rest of them.” – New York Herald Tribune

“The novel is a weak and padded one, full of episodes, both comic and lurid, quite unrelated to the plot, and based on motivations which pass the understanding of at least this reviewer. The effect is somewhat as though an ingenious short-story device has been forcibly distended to novel length. Jove, even when nodding, can produce a certain amount of thunder; but those who respect Mr. Dickson as deeply as I do will find here only a muffled echo.” – Anthony Boucher, New York Times

“Fast, intricate and funny.” – New Yorker

(For my money, Boucher wan’t completely wrong, but I still like the book a whole lot better than he did.)

Ellery Queen’s serial-killer novel, Cat of Many Tails

“Whether any series of crimes could so terrorize a city seems questionable. If you take his premise for granted, however, Mr. Queen makes a lively story out of what might happen under such circumstances.” – New York Herald Tribune Weekly

“What you will most remember the novel for is its ‘descriptive passages’ and ’atmospheric preoccupations.’ If the human characters still betray a touch of the bloodlessness of the Van Dine era, the actual protagonist of the novel, the City of New York, comes magnificently to life.” Anthony Boucher, New York Times

“This is an extraordinary treatment of a baffling series of homicides… The chase that finally leads to the identity of the criminal not only keeps the reader on edge, but is told with an éclat that may make this a classic of the genre.” D.F.M., Springfield Republican

Leo Bruce: Furious Old Women (1960)

The English village of Gladhurst is not a hot spot for crime, but as in every small town, hatreds exist that can surface at any time and explode into violence. The local police are satisfied that the murder of nasty Millicent Griggs was a random robbery, but her sister is convinced it was the work of one of her the enemies she’d made over the years. She asks Carolus Deene, amateur detective, to look into the case…

Leo Bruce (pseudonym of Rupert Croft-Cooke) is best known as the author of Case for Three Detectives, the locked-room mystery where his series character Sergeant Beef solves the case while parody versions of Wimsey, Poirot and Father Brown all come up with wrong solutions. It’s an excellent book, but Bruce wrote over 30 mystery novels in his career, and the ones I’ve read have all been good, solid entertainments that deserve to be better remembered. Furious Old Women is a pretty typical example.

Bruce’s strengths and weaknesses are both on display here. The solution to the mystery is surprising and well-clued (Bruce was very strong on being fair to the reader who approached one of his books as a puzzle, sometimes even delivering an Ellery Queen-style challenge just before the denouement). Carolus – who starred in 24 of Bruce’s books – is a low-key but likeable series detective. And if a lot of the action consists of Carolus interviewing suspects, the interviews are entertainingly written. Also, there are enough fresh developments to keep the books from becoming too Ngaio Marsh-like with regard to story structure.

I also like that a typical Deene novel is only around 60,000 words – Bruce doesn’t have to pad his plot to get his book up to some artificial target length before he can get to the solution.

On the minus side… the Sergeant Beef novels (written from 1937 to 1952) are often laugh-out-loud funny; Lionel Townsend, Beef’s Watson, is a narrator who constantly underestimates his principal and has no idea how wonderfully unlikable he is to boot. But the humour in the Deene novels (1955-74) is a lot more hit-and-miss. Here, it’s supplied by the Police Officer Slatt, whose shtick is insisting that people use correct terminology (“officer” instead of “constable,” that kind of thing.) A little of him goes a long way. Bruce, like John Dickson Carr, seems to have been one of those writers whose ability to be funny declined over the years.

As well, while the characterizations of the various suspects are good enough to keep my interest as I read a Bruce book, there are a lot more characters from Carr and Queen whom I remember long after finishing the book. Actually, I find Agatha Christie somewhat lacking in the same department.

There are plenty of Beef and Deene books available on Kindle, and nearly all of them are models of fair-play deduction. If you like Golden Age mysteries and haven’t read Bruce yet, I think you’re in for a pleasant surprise.

More about The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes

In my previous entry on Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr’s collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, I mentioned that Carr only contributed to the first six out of twelve, and wrote: “The unsigned preface…  says that this was because Carr suffered ‘a brief illness’; I’d always assumed this was code for creative differences or incompatible personalities, but apparently Carr really was undergoing health problems at this time, so maybe there was no dissimulation here.”

I have been reading a book titled From Holmes to Sherlock by Mattias Boström. It’s a history of the Sherlock Holmes franchise published by Mysterious Press in 2017. The author had access to Adrian Conan Doyle’s correspondence and provides more detailed information on the events surrounding the creation of Exploits. Here are the essentials in timeline form:

Early 1940s: Carr, working as a writer for the BBC, meets Adrian, predicts a postwar boom in sales of Holmes stories, and advises him to get all his ducks in order regarding foreign publication rights.

1946: Adrian hires Carr to write an authorized biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. 

1947: During the writing of the biography, the two discuss the possibility of writing new Holmes stories, but nothing comes of it. The book is published and Adrian is very happy with it. 

Over the next few years, the two remain friendly.

1951: Facing financial difficulties, Adrian decides that writing new Holmes stories would be a good way to fix the situation. He talks to Carr about it again and the two decide to write the stories together. 

1951-52: The writing process begins. After collaborating fully on the first two, Carr and Adrian agree to write stories individually; each writes two more. Adrian becomes increasingly disenchanted with Carr, who is not writing his stories at anything near the rate Adrian wants. (Carr is also working on his own books, and a radio series for the BBC, and in addition he is in poor health after two unsuccessful eye operations.)

1953: Carr goes on a two-month bender. By the end, his weight has dropped to under 110 pounds. Adrian decides to write the last six stories himself. Adrian has enough self-awareness to know he’s no good at thinking up original plots and asks his brother Denis if he has any story ideas. In the end, his six solo stories are all heavily imitative of various canonical Holmes stories.

1954: The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes is published.

So I think it’s confirmed that Carr’s withdrawal from the project was due to both ill health and personal differences with Adrian. 

Adrian had a hostile relationship with organized Holmes fandom in the U.S. When Exploits was published, the Baker Street Journal published a review saying a better title would have been “Sherlock Holmes Exploited” and quoted two lines from the original canon: “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms” and “A child has done this horrid thing.” I think the review was motivated more by personal animus than the quality of the book; even the six Adrian-alone stories aren’t as bad as all that!

Anthony Boucher: Nine Times Nine (1940)

The place: Los Angeles. The time: 1940. Matt Duncan, badly in need of a job, accepts one from Wolfe Harrigan, a writer who specializes in debunking fraudulent religions (and whose life Matt has just saved). Harrigan’s latest target is the Temple of Light, led by a mysterious figure known as Ahasver. When Matt attends a service at the temple, Ahasver places a very public curse on Wolfe, who laughs it off…

John Dickson Carr, to whom Nine Times Nine is dedicated, clearly had a heavy influence on the book. It’s a locked-room mystery, and the “locked-room lecture” from The Three Coffins is mentioned extensively in one chapter as two characters try to figure out how the impossible crime was committed. As well, Duncan is a stalwart young fellow, good with his fists, smart but not smart enough to solve the mystery… in short, a typical Carr juvenile lead.

On the other hand, the actual crime-solvers, Lieutenant Terence Marshall of the LAPD and Sister Ursula of the Order of St. Martha of Bethany, aren’t exactly the larger-than-life detectives Carr specialized in at this time – they come across more as people you might actually meet, even if they’re on the eccentric side. And the “crazy L.A.” milieu and the heavily Catholic atmosphere are not things you’ll find in a Carr book.

So how does it stack up as a mystery? Well, the locked-room puzzle is, how shall I say it, not really of Carrian quality. Without giving anything away, the method used is the sort of thing that I had trouble believing would work even while I was reading the explanation for the first time. There’s also a dying message, which I’m afraid is even further down from Ellery Queen’s standards than the impossibility is from Carr’s. And the various other clues didn’t exactly make me slap my forehead when they were explained.

There’s a lot to like in Nine Times Nine – the story moves right along, there are a lot of good characters I haven’t mentioned, and Lieutenant Marshall’s personal history and home life are fun to read about… but as a mystery, it’s just okay.

Anthony Boucher was a well-known mystery critic (Bouchercon is named after him) who published seven mystery novels in the 30s and 40s before moving on to other things. None of the seven is a masterpiece, but most are a lot of fun to read.

John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle: The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1954)

In the early 1950s, John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle decided to collaborate on a series of twelve original stories about Sherlock Holmes. There must have been some bumps in the road, because while Carr and Doyle wrote the first six together, the last six were by Doyle alone. The unsigned preface to The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes says that this was because Carr suffered “a brief illness”; I’d always assumed this was code for creative differences or incompatible personalities, but apparently Carr really was undergoing health problems at this time, so maybe there was no dissimulation here.

The preface says that the first two stories in the collection were full collaborations; the third and fourth were almost entirely by Carr alone; and the fifth and sixth were almost entirely by Doyle alone. As the fifth involves a gimmick Carr had used before, and the sixth is a classic locked-room mystery, I’m not sure this is accurate, unless Carr just supplied the basic ideas and Doyle took it from there. 

The stories are based on the passing references in the original Holmes stories to untold tales, but they don’t always completely match up. For example, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson mentions “the atrocious conduct of Colonel Upwood in connection with the famous card scandal of the Nonpareil Club”; in this collection, there’s a story about the scandal, but there’s no Colonel Upwood. This might not bother everyone, but it bothers me.

That said: how do the six stories Carr worked on measure up?

“The Adventure of the Seven Clocks”: Of the six, this one is the most similar to a genuine Conan Doyle story, for both good and bad: the situation Holmes is called on to investigate is an unusual one, but the ending isn’t much more surprising than the one in “A Case of Identity”.

“The Adventure of the Gold Hunter”: The plot of this one was recycled from a Carr radio play. No bad thing; there’s no way Carr could have known his old scripts would be published in book form someday.  In one respect, the story may be a little too Doyle-ish, in that Holmes comes across a physical clue that he does not tell Watson about until after the murderer is unmasked. Still, he does give us a pointer in that direction beforehand, and the other clues are fair.

“The Adventure of the Wax Gamblers”: When this book was published, the last of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies was less than a decade old. I get the feeling that Carr and/or Doyle wanted to remind (or show) the readers that the Watson of the stories wasn’t the doddering old buffer Nigel Bruce had implanted in the public mind, so they gave him an action scene in this story. I think they may have been overdoing it a bit. However, the puzzle is a clever one.

“The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle”: I’ve read several attempts to write up the case of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world; this one is the best. It even gives a reason why Watson claimed it was an unsolved case when Holmes actually did solve it straight off. One clue will likely be inaccessible to contemporary readers, but I think a sufficiently careful reader could figure things out even so. 

“The Adventure of the Black Baronet”: Another recycled Carr gimmick, this one from an earlier short story. Not bad, but the gimmick itself has never dazzled me in any of the forms I’ve seen it in. I guess I can never shake the feeling that everything would have had to go just so for it to work – and still give the murderer a hope of getting away with it.

“The Adventure of the Sealed Room”: the best of the six. The impossible crime is a good one, better than the one in Highgate Miracle (although one easily-imaginable event, which didn’t actually happen, would have spoiled the murderer’s plan right away). This one might be better known if it had been written as a Dr. Fell or H.M. story, which could easily have been the case.

A general observation about the last six stories: most of them strike me as rewrites of earlier stories. I won’t say which new stories remind me of which old ones, but I don’t think originality was one of Adrian Conan Doyle’s strong suits. On the other hand, they recreate the atmosphere of the original stories better than the first six.

Carr completists should definitely read the first half of this book. People who like Holmes pastiches? Well… better is available elsewhere.