Category: Book Review

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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