The Jury Box

by Jon L. Breen

Different as they were as writers, few would deny that Georges Simenon and Donald E. Westlake each deserve a place in the crime-fiction pantheon. Two recent reprints demonstrate why.

In Simenon’s classic 1938 novel The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (Penguin, $13), new translation by Sian Reynolds, the about-the-author blurb states that Simenon had retired Inspector Maigret “in order to make a name for himself as a literary writer and not just a creator of genre fiction.” Earlier, he had told his publishers, “Let’s put Maigret on the shelf. I don’t need handrails anymore.” The title character of The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is Kees Popinga, respected employee of a Dutch shipping firm, a solid citizen until the news of his firm’s bankruptcy precipitates a decision to desert his family and explore outside the limits of his boring life. While claiming to himself he is not insane—the reader must judge—he becomes a fugitive murder suspect. His police nemesis stays almost completely offstage, viewed in newspaper accounts and Popinga’s own imagination. The book is both a crime and suspense novel and an insightful psychological case study. (Maigret would not stay on the shelf. Simenon fed his iconic character’s legend, publishing in 1951 Maigret’s Memoirs [Penguin, $12], new translation by Howard Curtis, with himself a character as viewed by his creation.)

A first-rate 1974 specimen of Westlake’s comic caper specialty, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (Hard Case Crime, $9.95) concerns an essentially law-abiding citizen who is also a compulsive practical joker. (Life played one on him: His German surname, with one K changed to a C and an umlaut over one vowel removed, becomes an obscenity in English.) When one of his pranks goes wrong, he winds up in prison where he becomes reluctantly involved in a plot by fellow inmates to rob a couple of neighboring banks while still guests of the state. How this is or isn’t achieved, with all the farcical complications attending it, should give the reader as much pleasure as one imagines it gave the author writing it.

Hard Case also offers a previously unpublished Westlake novel, Forever and a Death ($22.99), which sprang from a treatment for a never-realized 1990s James Bond film. (See Jeff Kleeman’s afterword.) My wife, who reveres both Westlake and Bond, declares this book reliably entertaining while not in league with one of Westlake’s comedic capers.   

In 2016, Hard Case published the first edition of The Knife Slipped ($9.95), intended as the second Donald Lam/Bertha Cool mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair. When that attempt was surprisingly rejected by his publisher, Gardner came up with 1940’s Turn on the Heat ($9.95), a better book that wisely corrected course, which in the rejected novel had veered away from Donald and toward Bertha as a sort of female Nero Wolfe.

The Broken Angel/Backfire and Other Stories (Stark House, $19.95), with an introduction by Bill Pronzini, includes both the beginning and end of the brief life in print of Floyd Mahannah (1911-1976), which began with his June 1949 EQMM first story “Ask Maria” and ended with the last of his five novels, The Broken Angel (1957). The novel is a solid example of 1950s noir, deviously plotted and efficiently written with a young Nevada newspaper editor as doomed antihero and an appropriately ambiguous female lead in the vanished secretary he seeks to track down. Mahannah might have done great things had alcohol not short-circuited his writing career.

Also from Stark House is The Body Looks Familiar/The Late Mrs. Five ($19.95), novels from 1958 and 1960 respectively, by Richard Wormser (1908-1977), whose career ranged from Nick Carter novels in the 1930s pulps to one of the first Edgar winners for paperback mysteries, The Invader (1972). If there had been a paperback Edgar when it was published, The Body Looks Familiar would have been a sure contender, a powerful noir specimen with an appropriate dark irony in its dramatic conclusion. The late Bill Crider wrote the introduction.

Stark House’s revival of Raymond Chandler’s favorite suspense writer and one of the top dozen or so American authors of mystery fiction, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1889-1955), is now up to seven two-novels-to-a-volume entries. For the latest pairing, Widow’s Mite/Who’s Afraid ($19.95), publisher Gregory Shepard has revised and expanded the introduction he wrote in 2003 for the series’ first volume, one of the best short summaries of a remarkable writing career.

Golden Age puzzles continue to be revived by a variety of specialist publishers. Dean Street Press offers the complete works of the very prolific Christopher Bush, with introductions by Curtis Evans, including 1931’s Dancing Death ($15.99, e-book $2.99), possibly the ultimate snowbound-house-party mystery. Also determined to bring forgotten classical writers back to life are Coachwhip, Ramble House, and the British Library Crime Classics series, distributed in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen, many with introductions by mystery writer and scholar Martin Edwards. Les Blatt’s Classic Detection podcast is an excellent source of tips on current releases.

New short-story collections will be covered more briefly than usual. But all have had the approval of editors past or present of EQMM and/or its stablemate Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Edward D. Hoch’s All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (Crippen & Landru, $19 trade paper, $45 limited edition hardcover) is the fourth collection about the impossible-crime-solving small-town doctor, with a fifth and final volume promised for the future. Publisher Douglas G. Greene recounts his experiences with Ed Hoch, who died in 2008, a friend to all in the mystery field. Though only the first five of 18 stories in Anthony Gilbert’s Sequel to Murder: The Cases of Arthur Crook and Other Mysteries, edited by John Cooper (C&L, $29.00 hardcover, $19 trade paper) feature the long-running English solicitor, they comprise over half of the book. The career of Gilbert (pseudonym of Lucy Beatrice Malleson) extended from the 1920s to the 1970s. Editor Cooper’s selection represents all six decades.

Kathy Lynn Emerson’s Different Times, Different Crimes (Wildside, $14.99) presents 13 tales, four from AHMM and several new, most but not all with historical settings. Sixteenth-century English gentlewoman Susanna, Lady Appleton, of the Face Down series appears in two of these stories. Three of the 13 stories about a Greek immigrant family in 1970s Brooklyn in Tom Tolnay’s Profane Feasts (Scarlet Leaf, $19.99) first appeared in EQMM.

The first five stories in The Viola Brothers Shore Mystery Megapack (Wildside, $.99 e-book) originally appeared in EQ-edited magazines, the first in the legendary but short-lived early-30s pulp Mystery League, the others in EQMM.

Previously published collections in new editions include Terence Faherty’s The Hollywood Op (Perfect Crime, $13), eight stories about 1940s private eye Scott Elliott first collected in 2010; and Peter Robinson’s Not Safe After Dark and Other Stories (Morrow, $15.99), recipient of a four-star rating in this space (August 1999) when published in 1998 by Crippen & Landru. The original dozen are augmented by eight additional stories, some new to U.S. publication.

For scholars, a major volume of the past year was Dashiell Hammett’s The Big Book of the Continental Op (Vintage/Black Lizard, $25), edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett. All the cases of the Continental Detective Agency’s ace investigator (28 stories plus two serialized novels), first published between 1923 and 1929, almost all in Black Mask, appear chronologically in their original magazine versions, not as edited for reprint in EQMM or for book publication. There is also an unfinished and previously unpublished tale, “Three Dimes.”

The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside, $29.99 hardcover, $12.99 trade paper), edited by Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews, will delight fans of this magazine’s namesake editor and his/their same-named detective with pastiches, parodies, and fictional homages by such writers as Francis M. Nevins, Edward D. Hoch, J.N. Williamson, Lawrence Block, James Holding, William Brittain, and both editors.

Copyright © 2018 Jon L. Breen

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