Category: Book Review

Book Review: The Corpse Came Calling

In the opening chapter of The Corpse Came Calling, a private detective acquaintance of Michael Shayne stumbles into the office where he and his wife are bantering and collapses dead after calling ahead and saying he wanted to stay Shayne. Shayne collects $200 from the dead man’s wallet as well as taking a piece of cardboard off him before heading upstairs to his apartment and pretending that his wife Phyllis was in the office alone when the dead man arrived where he encounters a beautiful blonde with a simple request: ,murder her fugitive ex-con husband.

While Shayne is used to playing fast and loose with the law, he could pay a much bigger price as his wife Phyllis ends up in jeopardy and his antics are of even more concern when a man from the FBI comes around alleging the murdered PI was a traitor and tied up with the theft of defense secrets. This is a particularly sensitive time as America had just entered World War II.

I did spend quite a bit of this book doubting Shayne. Even his newspaperman buddy Tim Rourke turns on him at one point when he sees what Shayne appears to be doing. At the best of time, Shayne’s methods are dicey but will he really carry on in such a reckless fashion with his country at war? I also have to say there was one scene I absolutely hated where Mike and Phyllis were held in their apartment by thugs and Phyllis was the recipient of rapte threats that were uncomfortably direct, particularly for the era the book was written in.

Despite these moments, the book is a solid entry in Shayne’s adventures with a lot of big twists and surprises that really showcase the strength of this series. The book may try the reader’s patience in the early chapters but really does pay off nicely in the end.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5′

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Book Review: Crimson Lady/Sidewalk Empire

Larry Kent began his career in the I Hate Crime radio series, and a series of short pulpy tie-in novels were launched. The tie-in novels continued until the end of the radio show and were then resurrected with more than 400 being published through the 1960s and 70s into the early 1980s. Several of these novels have been reprinted in two-novel collections by Bold Venture Press. This reprint included Crimson Lady and Sidewalk Empire.

In Crimson Lady, Valerie Nash, a beautiful ex-flame of Larry’s, comes to him for help because men who are interested in her are winding up dead and she’s having premonitions about it because of her ESP. Larry runs into a few dead-ends but is encouraged to carry on by one of New York City’s most iconic homicide detectives, a man reverently known as “The Murder Man.”

There are some good aspects of the first novel. The opening scene and its misdirection add some interest to the story. Larry’s relationship with Valerie is a little less shallow than what would be heard on the radio program.

That said, my patience with this story was really tried in the slow early chapters. But Larry solves the case early, and then has to prove it, and protect Valerie Nash. This leads to some really tense and suspenseful moments.

The book is not good. It deals with ESP, incredibly improbable criminal pseudo-psychology and, of course (reflective of the era), mentally unstable Vietnam vets. But if you can overlook the nonsense, it’s a fair story.

In Sidewalk Empire, a beautiful ex-flame of Larry’s (notice a pattern here?), a soap opera producer, calls Larry in because someone is blackmailing her with photos of her wild drug and partying days. Larry is able to figure out that she’s being blackmailed along with other wealthy clients of an unlicensed hypnotherapist.

The first chapter sees Larry’s investigation going nowhere. In the second chapter, a leprechaun appears and gives Larry a subtle clue that renews his investigation. I made an attempt at a YouTube short. The leprechaun wasn’t the only problem with the book. The dialogue was bad, the plot was ludicrous, and the characters behaved in bizarre and foolish ways. Attempts to make Larry look like an amazing lady’s man have never been less effective or compelling than in Sidewalk Empire.

The main asset of this collection I can see is a sort of “so bad, it’s good” vibe. While The Crimson Lady isn’t nearly as bad, both stories are full of over-the-top and out-of-left-field, and poorly-executed moments that will leave many readers scratching their head. If someone decided to produce movies just for the purpose of being roasted on Mystery Science Theater 3000, faithful adaptations of Larry Kent novels would work. MST3K alum Michael Nelson might be able to do something with this reprint on his book-roasting podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back.

Beyond that, it’s tough to recommend this reprint to anyone, unless you’re really a huge fan of the radio series and are curious about the novels. While there are some good moments and the short length prevents the stories from becoming too tedious, these are ultimately unsatisfying works that annoy far more than entertain.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Book Review: A Man Called Spade And Other Stories

The vintage Dell Paperback edition of A Man Called Spade begins with an introduction by Ellery Queen (pseudonym of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee) praising Hammett as a mystery writer, and Spade as a character. The stage is set for five stories, three featuring Sam Spade, and two others included as these three weren’t long enough to make up a book.

The titular story, “A Man Called Spade,” sees Sam go to an apartment in response to a phone call asking for his help. Sam arrives to find his potential client murdered.

It’d be too much to expect this to be another Maltese Falcon, but “A Man Called Spade” is practically a second-rate mystery story. It’s nearly 50 pages long and finds Spade and Lieutenant Dundy walking around a single location questioning a bunch of unremarkable and forgettable characters about what they know.

Sam gets a few decent lines and the solution’s not half bad. But 90% of the story is spent on a very long questioning scene. It’s a dull story that’s practically lifeless.

“They Can Only Hang You Once” finds Spade arriving at a house to find his man murdered. In this case, Sam was at least out on a case when it happened and pretending to be someone else. Once again, he’s teamed up with Dundy in walking around the various suspects. This one is a much pacier story. At only 22 pages, while not an ideal Sam Spade vehicle, it’s better for not dragging on.

In “Too Many Have Lived,” Sam is hired to track down a failed poet who turns up dead and then has to solve his murder. This is a very good hard-boiled private detective story with a good mix of shady characters, red herrings, and an engaging case. Again, it’s no Maltese Falcon, but it’s a fun little read.

In “The Assistant Murderer,” the focus shifts to disgraced ex-cop turned private eye Alex Rush, who is ugly (as Hammett tells us multiple times) and he’s called in by a man who thinks a beautiful former employee is in trouble. Rush finds himself caught in a twisting, turning world of murder, corrupt characters, and unreliable stories left and right. This is a really engaging story. It would have been nice had Rush come closer to the truth on his own rather than having the character spill it to him, but there’s something to be said for being able to apply the right pressure to the guilty party.

“His Brother’s Keeper” follows a young naive boxer in the ring who’s in a very dark and dangerous situation without even knowing it. Hammett makes the boxer his first-person point of view character. This is a departure from most other stories that are told from the point of view of street-smart detectives. It’s a decent story and an interesting experiment in Hammett’s range.

Overall, most of these stories were actually quite good although the titular story bogs things down and takes up more than a quarter of the book. Still, I’m glad I read the collection. “Too Many Have Lived” and “The Assistant Murderer” were both superb stories and the other two were decent enough.

Rating 3.75 out of 5

This collection is out of print. But another collection containing these stories plus two others is available in Paperback and for the Kindle.(affiliate link)

Book Review: The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade

Martin Grams’ The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade is the definitive guide to the Sam Spade radio series which became a post-War phenomenon that captured the public imagination and became the most-remembered of the hard-boiled private eyes before being brought to a premature end by anti-Communist investigations in the 1950s.

There’s quite a bit to Grams’ book. It includes a good summary of Spade’s literary appearances, the history of the radio program, and its actors and creative team, along with behind-the-scenes insights. This portion of the book takes up about 100 pages. This is typical for books on old-time radio programs where information about program production details was not nearly as plentiful in the 1940s as it is for modern programs, and stars of radio gave relatively few interviews. Still, what it lacks in quantity of information, Grams more than makes up for with quality. Grams has reviewed all the Sam Spade radio scripts, including many lost episodes. The book is peppered with scenes from the series’ catalog. This is very helpful for a series that remains quite popular despite eighty percent of the episodes being missing.

Grams also captures other details that you won’t find by researching the series on the Internet. For example, he details what exactly Sam Spade Star Howard Duff was accused of in the Red Channels anti-communist book.

Then the book also includes an episode with plot summaries for each of the series’ episodes. This is an incredible resource for Sam Spade fans who wonder what happened in all those lost episodes. While the log doesn’t quite have the detail of John Abbott’s The Who is Johnny Dollar Matter, Grams provides a good summary of the plot of each episode and calls out trivia about noteworthy episodes.

The book is not done, however. It delves into William Spier’s papers for some items of historical interest. There’s a one-and-a-half-page script for a promo for a never-produced series in which Sam introduces the world to his cousin Babe Lincoln and sets the stage for her mystery-solving adventures. Then we’re treated to an essay by producer/director William Spier on how he worked and managed his creative team.

Then the book throws in an unused audition script, “The Persian”, for good measure. It’s not a great script and is a bit derivative (thus why it was unused) but it’s not bad reading and makes for a nice bonus and item of historical interest.

The book’s only weakness is a couple of minor editing issues that won’t detract from the enjoyment of most readers.

Overall The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade is a solid, thoroughly researched book that’s obviously written with a lot of affection for the series. If you’re a fan who is left wanting more after listening to the surviving episodes, this is a book you’re sure to enjoy.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade is available on the author’s website.

Book Review: Dead Man’s Diary and a Taste for Cognac

Dead Man’s Diary and a Taste for Cognac collect two separate novellas featuring Britt Halliday’s private detective Michael Shayne. These sorts of collections were a fun aspect of mystery fiction up until the 1960s. Whether it was Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, or Philip Marlowe, it was great to see how a detective worked both in very involved mysteries or somewhat simpler short stories or novellas. So I was really eager to see how Michael Shayne performed in short stories.

In “Dead Man’s Diary”,  a wealthy man dies on a life raft at sea. A relative dies on land around the same time. Based on their respective wills, millions of dollars are at stake, depending on who died first. A man on the raft with the first man had tended the dead man and had kept a meticulous diary. He would be able to honestly establish who died first. However, the diarist is found dead and his journal is missing.

I was somewhat familiar with this story, as it was the basis for the 1950s Michael Shayne TV pilot. The story is better developed in the novella. There’s a lot going on to make this a really engaging story but not so much that it becomes overwhelming. It’s a very solidly plotted case with a solution that does take you by surprise but makes a lot of sense in retrospect.

In “A Taste for Cognac”, World War II is going on. Some men have to sacrifice their lives. Michael Shayne has to deal with domestic sacrifices, like the crummy excuse for cognac available, due to France being occupied by the Nazis, and the limited supplies of raw materials. However, Shayne stumbles into a former-speakeasy-turned-legitimate-bar and gets some good stuff, pre-War stuff that must have been smuggled in during Prohibition. Shayne sets out to discover where it came from, which inevitably leads to a mystery, murder, and a trail of bodies.

As a story, it’s not a bad little caper. But it’s not particularly memorable. It’s easily the lesser of the two stories, devolving more into hijinks than an engaging mystery.

It’s interesting to note that the first story in the book actually happens chronologically later. This is a creative decision that goes back to the original editions of this book, because “Dead Man’s Diary” is both a better story and a better title.

Overall, if you enjoy Michael Shayne novels or you like short fiction that leans to the hard-boiled side, this is worthwhile read.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Book Review: Deadly Image

Casey notices an old friend who manages his small investment getting uncharacteristically roaring drunk at a bar. The man’s wife asks for a ride home and Casey is asked to hold some film for another photographer, film that is going to be more than a bit dangerous for him. Before he knows it, the veteran crime photographer has a web of murder and blackmail to untangle.

This novel, featuring the character of Jack Casey, was published in 1962, well after the character’s heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet the writing of George Harmon Coxe, who’d written another photographer mystery series in the intervening years, remained exactly the same. In fact if you were to level a criticism of the book, it would be that it doesn’t feel like a book from 1962, with very few clues to its more recent vintage. The big one is that Casey has a small investment portfolio. It’s hard to imagine a hard boiled character in the 1930s investing in the stock market given how skittish people were after the Crash.

Beyond that, it’s a very well-written mystery with a lot of elements to it, more than you would expect for a book of its relatively short length. However, it’s easy to follow and the clues are all there if you’re paying attention. Casey remains the same honorable and decent guy he always was, and the story holds your attention throughout.

After reading three of his books, my opinion of Coxe as a writer is that he’s not one of those brilliant must-read writers of the classics of detective fiction like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. However, Coxe was talented and wrote diverting smart mysteries that are worth a look. I put him in the same category as Britt Halliday and plan on visiting some of his other works.

This was a fun book and it won’t be the last time, I read one of Coxe’s novels.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Book Review: The Glass Key

The Glass Key was a 1931 novel by Dashiell Hammett (best known for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.) The story follows Ned Beaumont, a gambler and the chief lieutenant and best friend of town’s corrupt political boss Paul Madvig. Madvig has been calling the shots in his town for many years but now is facing challenges. Madvig plans to endorse a Senator who had been previously been Independent of him but figures he can only survive with Madvig’s support. However, everything gets complicated when the Senator’s son is murdered and signs point to Madvig as the culprit.

The mystery in the story is one of the better plots from Hammett. The clues are well-placed. A fair play purist can go through the book and find everything laid out but not in a way that’s very obvious. It’s well-plot and well-paced, making for a solid reading experience.

As a protagonist, Beaumont is actually very interesting. He’s neither a policeman or a professional detective, but he thinks on his feet, is bright, and generally makes smart moves throughout the book. He is, at best, a morally gray character who works in the furtherance of a corrupt political machine. Yet, he has a couple of virtues that do make him appealing. Chief among them is his personal loyalty.

We”re told that Madvig had help Beaumont out of the gutter when he’d come to town and Beaumont has never forgotten that. He tries to help Madvig often in spite of the political bosses instinct.The Glass Key portrays Madvig as a political boss in decline. It’s not that Madvig doesn’t possess political capital, but rather that it’s dwindling. Beaumont spots mistakes and pitfalls of Madvig’s attempts to maintain his power and tries to warn him. When Madvig refuses to pay attention, Beaumont decides to clear out of town. However, he refuses to provide information to a rival political boss that could be used against Madvig even though it leads to Beaumont being beaten and hospitalized.

Beaumont decides to staon on to clear up the murder of the Senator’s son but finds Madvig as an impediment to resolving the issue. Is Madvig really behind the killing? The book really toys with us right until the last few chapters and a surprising reveal.

The book’s only weakness is that the characters are almost completely unremarkable beyond Beaumont and Madvig. There’s no Casper Gutman or Joel Cairo in this book. Just a pretty run-of-the-mill bunch of underworld characters, society people, and non-descript political figures.

Beyond that weakness, this book is a gem of a mystery and well worth reading for fans of hard boiled fiction.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

 

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