Category: Book Review

Book Review: The “Lost” Sam Spade Radio Scripts

Sam Spade, “The Greatest Private Detective of Them All”, thrilled listeners for the five years he was on the air.  Most of that time, the character was played by Howard Duff. However, around 80% of Duff’s episodes are missing, along with one episode from his successor in the role, Stephen Dunne. After listening to every Sam Spade episode in circulation, if you find yourself hungry for more, you’re not alone.

While it’s not the same thing as uncovering more lost recordings of the series, The “Lost” Sam Spade Scripts, edited by Martin Grams, is the next big thing. Eschewing any superstition, Grams offers up a baker’s dozen of scripts for The Adventures of Sam Spade as written for broadcast, including commercial messages and the parts read by announcers, in this book from Bear Manor Media. 

Grams has selected a variety of stories, including one which sees Sam on jury duty, and the somewhat gimmicky but fun “Caper with Ten Clues”One of the scripts is the only missing episode from Dunne’s 24-episode run as Spade, which was also a Christmas episode. As such, it serves not only to complete the Dunne era, but also to give us a taste of what a Sam Spade Christmas episode sounded like.

What does stand out is the brilliant writing of the scripts. Grams chose the thirteen episodes to exclude subpar outings, but those were few and far between among circulating episodes anyway. The scripts highlight the snappy, hard-boiled dialogue; the smart, efficient storytelling; and the genuinely clever humor that make Sam Spade such a favorite of mystery enthusiasts to this day. While we don’t get Duff or Lurene Tuttle (who played Sam’s secretary Effie Perine throughout the series’ run) performing the script, I easily imagine their voices reading them.

The only story that I was a bit iffy about being included was “The Inside Story on Kid Spade”, which was a recycled script from Suspense, turned into a flashback to Spade having an early career as a boxer. It’s not a bad script, but it doesn’t feel like a Sam Spade episode or even a probable backstory for the character. But Grams makes his fair case for its inclusion, and I can’t rightly say that another story that was available to Grams would have been a better choice.

All in all, the book is a must-buy for fans of Sam Spade. It gives readers a chance to delight in thirteen stories of one of America’s most iconic private eyes that haven’t been available to the public in more than 70 years.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Labours of Hercules

A version of this review as posted in 2011

One of my favorite Agatha Christie works is a short story collection called The Labours of Hercules, which was published in 1947.

So I decided to take a listen to this classic with not one, but twelve great Poirot mysteries as read by Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings from the ITV Series).

Poirot’s quest is begun due to an obnoxious guest who mocks Poirot’s name, and the amazing fact that Poirot knows little of the Greek classics given that he was named Hercules and his brother Achilles. Egged on by the professor, Poriot decides to read the classics, and is shocked by the lack of morality of the Greek gods and that his namesake was all muscle and no brain. Right then and there, Poirot vows to give the modern world something that’s truly admirable: his own labours of Hercules.  Poirot resolves to take 12 cases and no more, with each case corresponding to a labour of Hercules.

What follows is twelve well-crafted and fun thrillers.  Christie works elements of the Greek classics in a charming but unobtrusive way. One of the most amusing is in “The Apples of Hesperides.” In the original tale, Hercules received the help of Atlas; in Poirot’s version, he received the help of Harry Atlas, a local gambler. “The Capture of Cerberus” in Hercules’ story featured Hercules going to the underworld; in Poirot’s version, he goes to a Hell-themed nightclub.

My favoritie stories in the collection were:

  • “The Erymanthian Boar”: Poirot is retained by the Swiss to find a killer in a Swiss hotel which has an unusually high number of occupants for that time of year.
  • “The Horses of Diomedes”: At the request of a doctor friend, Poirot looks into the distribution of heroin that is apparently corrupting the daughters of an Indian Army veteran. A very solid and early story on the drug trade.
  • “The Arcadian Deer”: This story finds the great Hercules Poirot undertaking a commission for a garage mechanic to find a lost love. A very beautiful and sweet story.
  • “The Apples of Hesperides”: Poirot undertakes to find a golden goblet that was stolen from a rich man before he could take possession after winning it at an auction. Some great twists, including the character of Harry Atlas.
  • “The Capture of Cerebus”:  The last and probably best story in the collection, as Poirot renews an old acquaintance with a supposedly reformed female jewel thief who is running a nightclub called Hell. But the police suspect the den (in addition to being somewhat tacky) is also the center of the drug trade.

I could go on. There were so many great stories to love in this book. The character of Miss Carnaby, who appears in two stories, is a real treat.

All the stories were enjoyable in their own way, but if I had to pick two lesser ones, I’d choose “The Augean Stables” and “The Stymphalean Birds.”

Poirot’s analog to the “Augean Stables” is to clean up a political scandal that threatens to bring down the Prime Minister, whom Poirot admires because a respected friend told him the Prime Minister was a “sound man.”  What makes this story particularly odd is how Poirot cleans up the problem. The plot could very well have been the inspiration for the novel American Hero and the movie Wag the Dog.  It suggests that the world is fortunate that Poriot didn’t take up political consulting instead of detection.

The solution to “The Stymphalean Birds” seems a little too simple. Poirot becomes involved in this case when a young English politician approaches him with his problem while visiting Europe.  The truth is, I could have told the poor unfortunate guy what was going on.

However, even the weaker stories were fun. While Agatha Christie began to tire of Poirot by the 1930s, that fatigue doesn’t show in this great collection. This really has the feel of something the author enjoyed writing which gives the readers great joy as well.

When I first reviewed this book, I didn’t think the book would ever be adapted. It was adapted, sort of, although not faithfully. The telefilm version (review here) was a darker, more compressed mystery with dark undertones that foreshadow Poirot’s dark turn in Curtain. If you were put off by that, be assured the book is a much lighter and fun read.

On the positive side, Hugh Fraser does a great job narrating the audiobook version, with a wide variety of voices for different characters, so it’s close to a one-man dramatization. I heartily recommend the audiobook version for that reason. It’s probably the closest we’ll get to an adaptation. The odds of getting a faithful adaptation of these stories are small given the trends in entertainment today.

However you choose to read it, The Labours of Hercules is a wonderful collection of mysteries that will be no labor at all to read.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars.


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Father Brown’s Not Buying It: A Review of the Incredulity of Father Brown

A version of this article was posted in 2011.

Twelve years after his second Father Brown book, G.K. Chesterton brought readers a new collection in 1926 entitled, The Incredulity of Father Brown.

While the previous titles, The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown had very little with the theme of the stories, Incredulity is a key theme of each story in this collection.

In each story, an event happens to which a miraculous supernatural explanation is offered. Father Brown by and by doesn’t buy into the supernatural solution, but finds a natural, but often amazing solution to the case. Of course, in each case, the people expect Father Brown to go along with a supernatural solution as he’s a priest and all. However, the book makes the point that being religious and being  superstitious are not the same thing.

In “The Curse of the Golden Cross,” Brown explains his belief in “common sense as he understands it:

It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

Father Brown applies such incisive common sense to eight problems, with all but one of them involving murder. One thing that makes these stories different is that the goal of the story is not catching the murderer. In the vast majority of cases, the suspect is not caught. The story is about the puzzle and how Father Brown solves it. In one case, “The Oracle of the Dog,” Brown stays one hundred miles away from the scene of the crime and solves it secondhand.

The best story in the book is, “The Arrow of Heaven” which involves the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire in a high tower with an arrow when it was impossible for anyone to be able to shoot it that distance.

“The Miracle of the Moon Crescent” is a fascinating story that has three religious skeptics contemptuously dismiss Father Brown but they begin to think a supernatural cause may be involved in the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire when the police fail to turn up any satisfactory solution.

“The Doom of the Darnaways”  may be one of the most profound stories in the collection. Father Brown encounters a young man whose family is said to be subject to a curse that leads inevitably to murder and suicide. An expert on genetics declares the curse is nonsense, but that heredity indicates the same type of fate. Here Chesterton illustrated that it’s possible for both superstition and science to develop a fatalism about human life and destiny that excludes free and leads people to helplessness and despair. The story has a well-told murder mystery, though I don’t know why Father Brown put off the solution.

There’s not really a story I didn’t like in the collection, although I do think, “Oracle of the Dog” may have a little too much literary criticism and not enough story. All in all, The Incredulity of Father Brown is a truly wonderful collection of stories about the original clerical detective.

The Incredulity of Father Brown entered the public domain in the United States on January 1, 2022 and is available on Project Gutenberg Australia

Book Review: The Shadow: The Chinese Disks and Malmordo

While TV, film, and comic adaptations generally reign over their radio counterparts, The Shadow is one character who is (pardon the pun) overshadowed by the radio interpretation of the character, even though his appearance in pulp magazines predated it. The book version of the Shadow was a Mastermind, perhaps the most powerful of the mystery men who dominated the pulps in the era before the coming of the superhero.

Nostalgia Ventures had reprint rights to the Shadow novels in the 2000s. Just as they did with Doc Savage, they reprinted two pulp novels in each volume. I acquired the second volume in a sale a few years back. This volume collects two Shadow stories twelve years apart: The Chinese Disks and Malmordo.

In The Chinese Disks, a gang under returning Shadow foe Diamond Jim Farwell is using disks with Chinese characters on them as identification for members of his gang, while he plans a large heist. In Malmordo, a giant, rat-like monster-man known as Malmordo arrives in New York City on a boat from post-War Europe.

Both of these short pulp novels showcase the pulp Shadow stories at their best. The Shadow is not a lone wolf in his pulp iteration. He’s the Master of Men, and as such, he’s accumulated a large number of operatives, whom he calls on to do his bidding. In The Chinese Disks, these operatives are being gathered, and in Malmordo, they’re used to full effect to investigate a terrifying foe. While the Shadow’s lieutenants lack the color of fellow Street and Smith pulp hero Doc Savage, the Shadow’s men are perfectly suited for the more grounded stories of crime and ultimate punishment by the Shadow.

Overall, both novels have a lot going for them, with a good amount of mystery, atmosphere, and suspense. While this reprint is no longer available for retail sale, it’s certainly a worthy read if you can find it used or in a library. This is a great illustration of how the Shadow was not just a mainstay of radio during its Golden Age but also of pulp magazines.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

What Makes Death on the Nile a Masterpiece

A version of this article appeared in 2017.

There are many good pieces of detective fiction out there. You read the book, you watch the movie, and it’s a good time.

Then there are stories that are a cut above. You read the book, and you want to watch the adaptations or vice versa. The story’s so enchanting, the characters so compelling, and the themes so powerful that you just can’t get enough of it.

One such story for me is Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. I watched the two filmed adaptations, I listened to the audio drama by the BBC, and then I read the book.

Knowing the ending and who did it didn’t “spoil the novel,” it allowed me to read it in a different way. Rather than focusing on whodunit, I could look for the subtle hints in structure and plot that pointed to the murder, and enjoy the atmosphere and find the themes that really make the book a masterpiece by the mistress of the genre, Agatha Christie.

Fair warning: I will be discussing the ending, so if you don’t know how it ends, I would recommend not reading any further until you’ve experienced the story. If you don’t want to read the novel, I’d recommend checking out the BBC Radio 4 version for accuracy, or, for pure entertainment value, the 1978 film version with Peter Ustinov is a delight.

1) The mystery is brilliantly conceived and executed.

A detective novel can be more than a good mystery, but it also has to be a good mystery to be a good novel. Otherwise, it’s a bait-and-switch.

Death on Nile is definitely a brilliantly plotted story. There are plenty of clues, as well as red herrings. The actual solution is one that is easily missed because Poirot makes a statement that seems to rule out the actual solution. But both Poirot and the reader make a mistaken assumption of something we didn’t actually see.

The book can trick readers, but it still plays fair in doing so. The solution really only surprises the reader (and to a degree Poirot) because of an incorrect but understandable conclusion. It’s a wonderfully written chase.

2) Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is a complicated tragic character.

Every murder mystery requires a corpse. In some stories, that’s pretty much all the victim is. However, the main victim is Linnet Ridgeway Doyle – and later Doyle is far more than that.

One big advantage of reading the book over the adaptations of it is that you get a better sense of who Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is. It’s easy to define her as simply being a rich woman who could have married any man she wanted but instead stole the fiancé of her good friend Jacqueline De Bellefort.

Yet, if you read the book, you get a sense that while this was something Linnet did, it wasn’t the totality of who she was. She was diligent in business and responsible in the way she took care of and tried to help those who were dependent on her. Her friend describes her as a “beneficent tyrant.” She was very much like the best of the gentry of a prior era.

However, Linnet is fundamentally destroyed by her own pride, even before she makes the decision to snatch Simon Doyle away from her poorer friend Jacqueline. She’s wooed by the Lord Windlesham, who really is fond of her. However, she rejects his advances because they both have country places, his having been in the family for centuries and hers she built herself. She fears going from being the Queen to being the Queen Consort. She never alleges that Lord Windlesham doesn’t love her. Part of her attraction to Simon Doyle is not only his looks but the fact he is poor and that she can dominate the relationship easily.

Her decision to go specifically after her good friend’s beau despite knowing how little her friend has and how much he means to her is her truly selfish moment. Poirot condemns it, drawing the parallel between her decision and that of King David’s decision to sleep with Bathsheba in the biblical book of II Samuel, and the parable the prophet Nathan told to David in response, about a man with many sheep stealing the only sheep of a poor shepherd. Poirot refuses to work for her, but he does try to stop what’s coming by approaching Jacqueline De Bellefort.

As the book’s events unfold, Linnet pays the price for her actions. Her ex-friend stalks her and her husband, reminding her of her guilt, and on her final voyage, she finds herself “surrounded by enemies” as she puts it. As we learn later, while her husband Simon pretends to adore her, it’s all a ruse. He resents her and only marries her so he can murder her and take her money. In the end, she’s killed while she sleeps by the man who she thought loved her. At the end of her book, her murder is the talk of the town at the ship’s port of call, but then is subsumed in other news and gossip of the day as she’s quickly forgotten, along with her wealth, charm, and beauty.

3) Poirot tries to use his powers to prevent a murder.

This book raises a fair question for Poirot. If your powers of deduction and observation are so great, why do you only use them to catch murderers rather than prevent murders? The nature of Poirot’s adventures is that he’s usually already present when the murder occurs. Aren’t there warning signs?

Yes, there are, and Poirot spots them and tries to head off the murder before it happens. His plea to Jacqueline De Bellefort to turn back and not let evil enter her heart is truly a memorable moment where Poirot makes every effort to dissuade the young woman from the path he sees her on but to no avail.

The book shows that Poirot’s gift and experience may give him an inkling that something bad is going to happen, but it doesn’t make him a psychic who knows every detail of a person’s life and what’s already been planned. Nero Wolfe often said that there was no way he could prevent murder, and this book shows why he made that assertion. Poirot has no clue the degree to which the conspiracy had already been developed, nor how it would be carried out. He only sees the public face. He tries to intervene. He does all he can, but it isn’t enough.

4) The book explores the perils of love.

Romantic love is exalted throughout literature. It’s a virtue in and of itself. Hercule Poirot recognizes the danger in this valorization of romantic love. When he sees Simon and Jacqueline speaking to each other before Simon goes over to Linnet, he observes that Jacqueline cares too much for Simon and that such care is “not safe”.

At first, it appears that this danger lies in her obsessive following of Simon and Linnet around during their honeymoon. But at the end of the story, it’s revealed that when Linnet became interested in Simon,Simon was irritated by her efforts, but he thought of the idea of marrying Linnet, murdering her within the year, and then marrying Jacqueline and living off her money. Jacqueline goes along with the scheme because she knows Simon will get caught if he attempts the murder on his own, because he doesn’t have the brains for it.

This shows Jacqueline cares more for Simon than he does for her, because he comes up with and pursues such an unnatural scheme. It also shows Simon isn’t worth that level of devotion. I’m not sure whether Christie was going for this, but Simon becomes the male answer to the Femme Fatale: a good-looking guy who attracts the ladies and leads them to ruin.

It also shows the dangers of love when it overrides everything. When it’s freed from ethics, morals, and even self-respect, romantic love can become poisonous.

In Jacqueline’s case, she kills three people (including Simon, to save him from facing prosecution in a third world country) before killing herself.

Christie tries to balance the scales in a very unusual way on the whole issue of love. The most bizarre part of Death on the Nile is that two couples get together and get engaged. The Karnak, a ship that has three murders occur on board, becomes a love boat.

The romances, while not particularly realistic, serve as a counterbalance to the unhealthy main relationships, as they have a redemptive quality to them. Tim Allerton forsakes his thieving ways to marry Rosalie, whose alcoholic mother was the victim in one of the murders. The other romance is surprising. Ferguson has been trying to court Cornelia Robson, an honest and straightforward woman, in the most obnoxious way possible. He’s a self-styled communist and social radical, of whom her wealthy cousin, with whom she’s traveling, would not approve. Poirot discovers that Ferguson is actually a wealthy aristocrat, which would earn the cousin’s approval. With Ferguson’s true identity revealed, Cornelia agrees to marry Dr. Besner instead, because she likes him and finds his profession interesting. It’s such a wonderful twist that Cornelia remains true to her character as an honest and forthright person who pursues what she wants rather than falling for the wealthy guy who she thought was a low-born vulgar man just because he turned out to be a wealthy vulgar man.

Sadly, the screen adaptations have messed with these romances, including eliminating Cornelia’s character entirely from the 1978 film.

Overall, Death on the Nile can be enjoyed as just the great mystery novel it is, but there are also some great depths to the story for those who want to find them.

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Book Review: The Golden Box

In the Golden Box (1942) by Frances Crane, Jean Holly returns to her small town to care for an ailing relative.The town matriarch dies, and then it appears that a servant has hanged herself, although some think foul play is involved. As it so happens, a detective friend named Pat Abbott comes down to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.

The book is officially listed as the second in the Pat and Jean Abbott mysteries, although that’s a bit of a misnomer, as they’re not married in this book. However, it’s the earliest available book featuring the two I could find.

The book has one glaring problem – for most of its length, it’s very boring. The characters and locale are mostly just there, functional, and nondistinct.The dialogue is much the same, and it makes for a monotonous and tiresome read. Even the relationship between Jean and Pat isn’t all that interesting, and there’s no real hint of a romantic spark between the future married couple. I found myself thinking I’d rather read another Larry Kent book than this. Yes, the book I reviewed was a bad book, but at least it was bad in an interesting way. This book could have been livened up an exposition leprechaun popping up out of nowhere to cut a few dozen pages from this book.

The book does have a few good points. The mystery is slow getting started but is actually fairly good. Jean does have a few moments where her personality shines through, such as when she complains about how unattractive men who do the dishes are (hey, it was the 1940s), and Jean as narrator shares her thoughts on the mystery and helps to stimulate the reader’s interest as well.

Still, The Golden Box is a bit of a slog to get through. That said, I’m not entirely writing off the possibility of reading another novel in the series. This one feels a bit atypical. Jean being at home with her own extended family puts her clearly on the inside with all of the murder suspects and supporting characters, knowing them and integrating back into that world.It’s an awkward position for a secondary character/narrator in a mystery novel. I’d be curious how the characters would play in a less pedestrian setting, and after they’re married.

The Pat and Jean Abbott Mystery series went on for more than 20 novels and while none are classics, it’s hard to believe they were all this dull.

Rating: 2.25 out of 5


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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Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

A version of this review was posted in 2012.

The Hound of the Baskervilles marked Sherlock Holmes return to literature after he was killed off by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “The Final Problem” eight years previously. Doyle had not yet brought Holmes back to life. This story was set prior to “The Final Problem.”

Sir Henry Baskerville is the heir of his late uncle Charle’s Estate. However, his uncle passed away under mysterious circumstances and one of Sir Charles’ friends, Dr. James Mortimer comes to Holmes to ask for assistance. Local legend is that Sir Charles was killed by a ghostly hound that haunts the moor to avenge the sins of one of the Baskerville ancestors. Mortimer confides to Holmes that he found a hound’s footprint at the scene of the death.

Intrigued, Holmes takes the case, and the case gets more interesting when Holmes spots a man following them in London and someone steals one of Sir Henry’s boots. Surprisingly, Holmes doesn’t go to Dartmoor, but sends Watson to investigate and report his finding to Holmes.

Watson finds strange goings-on: suspicious-acting servants, a dangerous convict on the moor, and of course, the legend of the hound.

This remains the most oft retold Holmes story and a pioneering mystery story that has been ripped off repeatedly over the years. While it’s a Holmes story, with Holmes absent from the main action for about half the book, it gives Watson a chance to shine and show his intelligence and resourcefulness.

Despite its popularity, I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Sign of Four. However, this is a matter of taste. The Sign of Four was an action-packed thriller while Hound of the Baskervilles relied much more on a build-up of suspense. This one builds slowly and in a less skillful hand, it would have been easy for The Hound of the Baskervilles to become boring, but Doyle sensibly used Watson’s reports to Holmes and Watson’s diary entries to avoid bogging the story.

Overall, the Hound of the Baskervilles deserves its reputation as a true detective fiction classic.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.00

Book Review: Back on Murder

Editor’s Note: A version of this review was posted in 2013.

For Roland March, it’s pretty simple, either he’s going back (to being homicide detective) or he’s going out (as in completely out of the Houston PD) March made headlines seven years before when he solved a sensational murder, but the high expectations caused by the publicity of the case combined with a personal tragedy led to a decline in his work where he’s on one dead-end assignment after another, most regularly working a sting where police capture stupid wanted felons lured into the open with the promise of winning a free car contest.

March makes some keen observations at scene of the murder of an inner-city drug dealer. March believes that the murder is tied into a nationally covered disappearance of a teenage girl. He goes against orders to look into the angle and gets yanked off the case and on to the task force looking into the disappearance, another dead end. Can March somehow parlay his hunches, uncover the secrets of a group of crooked cops, and stay alive so that his career and life get back on track.

The writing is top notch. March is a fantastic character with his own set of inner demons. March’s narration varies from hard-boiled wry cop sarcasm to poignancy, to vivid and powerful word images that paint as clear a picture of 21st Century Houston as Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe’s stories did of 1940s Los Angeles. The character does change as the story goes on. He becomes more of a team player. At the beginning of the book, his focus is really on him: The quest to get back into Homicide. As his focus shifts to the case at hand, actually getting his man leads to real cooperation.

The mystery is a clever tangled web of intrigue that intersects with crooked cops, with honest efforts to help others, and an old rival of March’s that won’t go away. Really, everything ties together in the end and the clues are solidly laid out.

The last quarter and the last sixth of the book in particular do suffer a bit of a slowdown with more fizzle than sizzle. Bertrand made the dubious decision to fill in a bunch of back story details towards the end of the book as we were closing in on the killers and a hurricane kills not one by two birds for our hero. These are minor issues given how good the rest of the book was.

Overall, I enjoyed the book immensely and will be watching for the next book in the series.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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