Second to None
For the last year, politics has been an ugly business in the United States, as partisan games playing took the place of legislative action in Washington, DC. But, in fact, there has always been a cutthroat component to running for and holding high elected office. Certainly Nancy Pickard, author of the Jenny Cain mysteries, understood that when she was planning out The First Lady Murders. It's a compilation of 20 tales that find presidential wives (and a few other women of the White House) in both compromising and conspiratorial positions.
Fewer than half of America's first ladies are represented here, with some (Edith Wilson, Dolley Madison, and Mary Todd Lincoln) appearing more than once. However, you get a good sense from reading these stories of the pride and isolation -- as well as the defensive anger -- that presidential spouses have felt over the last two centuries. In "The Secret President," for instance, Barbara Paul imagines Woodrow Wilson's wife confronting an anarchistic journalist whom she suspects was responsible for causing the stroke that paralyzed her husband during his second term in office -- and left her to keep the government's executive branch running. Later, in Gillian Roberts' "Good-bye, Dolley," one of this anthology's liveliest entries, we find James Madison's missus taking advantage of the British invading and burning the U.S. capital in 1814 to eliminate a rumormongering rival...and save Gilbert Stuart's famous portrait of George Washington in the bargain. "Blood in Buzzard's Bay; or, Sweets to the Sweet" has author P.M. Carlson implicating her familiar 19th-century actress Bridget Mooney in a plot to kidnap Grover Cleveland's infant daughter, after whom the Baby Ruth candy bar was named. While, in "You Run," Sarah Shankman posits a feisty Pat Nixon in her post-Watergate days, rebuffing an apparent blackmail attempt by that White House secrets leaker well known to history only as "Deep Throat."
Some of these yarns, such as Richard Timothy Conroy's "A Tale of Two Sisters" (about Julia Gardiner Tyler's investigation of an attempt on President John Tyler's life) come nicely packed with historical details about political maneuverings. Others seek merely to fill gaps in the known lives of presidents or their families. (An instance of the latter is Pamela J. Fesler's "Lost at Sea," which suggests a plausible -- and intriguing -- explanation for the brief disappearance of Lou Henry Hoover from her husband's inauguration in 1929.) A few, like Carole Nelson Douglas' "Alice Holds the Cards" (which has Theodore Roosevelt's strong-willed daughter Alice tasting life as a spy) are played for sheer fun.
The First Lady Murders is a winning companion to Mr. President, Private Eye (1988), a sadly out-of-print collection edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Francis M. Nevins, Jr. It's only regrettable that this new book doesn't include stories built around, say, Florence Kling Harding, who was rumored to have poisoned her husband in 1923. Nor is there a tale here with the influential Eleanor Roosevelt in its leading role. And we'll just have to wait for a follow-up volume to see whether some wily writer will finally give Hillary Rodham Clinton the satisfaction of doing away with a certain overweening, right-wing special prosecutor -- at least fictionally.
I Think Icon, I Think Icon
Michael Pearce is a connoisseur of arcane and rather anarchical historical settings. His best-known series (which includes 1997's The Last Cut) features the often-comic investigations of Cadwallader Owen, the Mamur Zapt, or head of the secret police, in British-ruled Cairo at the beginning of the 20th century. A second series, employing Tsarist Russia as a backdrop, debuted last year with Dmitri and the Milk-Drinkers and continues with Dmitri and the One-Legged Lady, a novel that offers as much curious cultural history as it does engaging mystery.
It's the 1890s, and Dmitri Kameron, an ambitious young lawyer of Scottish-Russian descent who works among the poorer small towns south of Moscow, is asked to help find a missing icon -- a religious painting, showing a one-legged woman, that farmers of the region are convinced holds favorable powers. Dmitri has scant interest in religion (he denigrates it as one of the traditions responsible for foiling western-style progress in Russia) and he sees icons as little more than historical relics. He suspects that the painting wasn't stolen at all, but was somehow peddled to an art collector. Yet he's unable to get out from under the case, especially after a minacious representative of the tsar's Corps of Gendarmes ("the specialist branch of the Ministry of the Interior which dealt with political offenses") becomes convinced that the painting's disappearance is part of a sinister scheme to incite anti-government rioting among farmers made desperate by a recent famine. It falls to Dmitri not only to locate the fugitive icon, but to stop a raid on the countryside by the tsar's "peacekeeping" Cossacks.
British author Pearce, who was trained by military intelligence as a Russian interpreter during the Cold War and has since expanded his interest in Russian history, uses his Dmitri stories in part to explore the idea that democratic institutions and an independent legal system might have arisen under Tsar Nicholas II, had communists not cut short his reign in a hail of bullets. However, the main thrust of these books is playful, not political. He infests them with delightful caricatures of backwoods bureaucrats and overbearing agents of the tsar, superstitious peasants and blundering con men. Dmitri serves as the (frequently exasperated) observer in a country fraught with confusion and corruption, all portrayed by Pearce with maximum attention to ludicrousness.
It may take a few chapters of Dmitri and the One-Legged Lady before you feel even relatively familiar with Pearce's vast cast and fall in tune with his rapid-fire delivery of dialogue. But by then, you'll be hooked. Pearce is one of today's most underappreciated writers of historical mysteries.
Jeremiah Healy had the misfortune to introduce his Boston private eye, John Francis Cuddy, in 1984 -- just at the time when another Beantown sleuth, Robert B. Parker's Spenser, was reaching the height of his popularity. So if critics at the time seemed a bit dismissive of Healy's first novel, Blunt Darts, it was understandable. They figured that this law professor with literary ambitions was simply trying to capitalize on Parker's success. And maybe he was. A little. But over the least 15 years (and 11 more star turns in books, most recently in The Only Good Lawyer, 1998), Cuddy has proved to be a unique character, an intelligent Vietnam vet and widower with a tough shell covering a most humane core.
The Concise Cuddy contains 17 short stories, written for both mystery magazines and book-length anthologies, that find Healy's detective working cases from Maine all the way down to Florida. They're rather understated adventures, heavier on cogitation and plodding pursuit of clues than page-turning action. In "Till Tuesday," for instance, Cuddy is hired to locate a prominent architect's mistress, whose disappearance and a recent termination of contact with the designer's son might well be related. Meanwhile, "The Bagged Man" (nominated for the Private Eye Writers of America's Shamus Award in 1993) has Cuddy investigating the case of a homeless gent called "The Ain't," who wore a paper bag over his noggin and burned to death soon after he'd started picketing a shelter that had lost part of its endowment to bad investments. A second (and less believable) tale, "Summary Judgment," also involves a homeless man, only this time it's one accused of murdering an elderly heiress who supposedly offered him $100,000 to save her dog from an ice-choked pond. Perhaps my favorite story here is "Battered Spouse" (another Shamus nominee) about a promiscuous sporting goods salesman who appears to have died in a hit-and-run accident with an anonymous car on a quiet country road. It's ending offers a bit of unanticipated but very satisfying justice.
If Healy ever hoped to become as widely popular as Parker, he has not achieved that -- perhaps because John Cuddy isn't such an attractively heroic character as Spenser. He's more like the average American male, somebody who does better leading with his wits than his fists, a guy who's trying to live within the often confusing rules and mores of modern society. The Concise Cuddy provides a pleasant introduction to the sleuth, if you haven't already made his acquaintance. For a more complete understanding of his talents and philosophies, look for Rescue (1995), Invasion of Privacy (1996), or the next Cuddy outing, Spiral, due from Pocket Books in early autumn.
Beware, Young Conqueror
"I did not destroy Thebes," insists Alexander of Macedon (the future Alexander the Great) as he gazes upon the smoldering ruins of the rebellious Greek city-state to which his army has laid waste in 331 B.C. "The gods did!" Regardless of precisely where credit lies, Alexander certainly hopes to benefit from Thebes' destruction, part of his campaign to unify Greece under his rule and fortify it against invasion from rival Persia. But, in A Murder in Thebes, his dreams of gods-given empire look to be on shaky ground. Not only has one of his most trusted officers perished in a suspicious fall, but Alexander appears unable to secure the Theban treasure he most covets: the legendary Iron Crown of Oedipus.
Coming once more to Alexander's rescue are his perceptive Jewish-Egyptian clerks, the twins Miriam and Simeon Bartimaeus (who first appeared in Apostolou's A Murder in Macedon, 1997). But what they uncover -- stories about the limping ghost of King Oedipus haunting the Theban citadel, duplicity at the local shrine where Oedipus' crown has been kept, rumors of spies and traitors -- hardly brings satisfaction to Alexander. Or peace to the decimated city, where even the strongest warriors aren't safe from murderers in the night. If Miriam and Simeon can't figure out who is behind these homicides and the sudden theft of Oedipus' crown, Alexander's latest military victory may crumble into disaster.
Apostolou (one of several pseudonyms employed by the prolific British historical mystery writer Paul Doherty) blends fact and mythology here in liberal -- and sometimes confusing -- proportions. Yet this novel's often bloody plot is inarguably engaging, and the author's historical asides (including remarks about Macedonian officers liking to dress up as women and cavort bisexually) make me wonder what other extraordinary facets of life in the ancient world weren't shared with me in school. I only wish that Apostolou had brought a similar level of attention to developing the characters in A Murder in Thebes. While some of its secondary figures are memorable, including Alexander's foppish master of spies, Hecaetus ("a human viper who could curl and twist his way through the court"), detectives Miriam and Simeon are virtual ciphers, and Alexander shows about as much depth as one of the shields his men tote into battle.
The Great Unknown
Avram Davidson's name is hardly of the household variety, even among people who consider themselves well read in this genre. Yet during his 70 years (1923-1993), this New Yorker penned dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories, and picked up ample awards for his creative labors. Many of his works were science fiction or fantasy, but Davidson was also a frequent contributor to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and other crime fiction periodicals. He even ghosted two novels -- And on the Eighth Day (1964) and The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965) -- for those prolific cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who wrote under the pseudonym "Ellery Queen."
For The Investigations of Avram Davidson, the late author's onetime wife Grania Davis and his novelist friend Richard Lupoff have culled 13 of Davidson's short and often ingenious mysteries -- a baker's dozen of exhibits that argue for his inclusion among the 20th century's most distinctive crime writers. Certainly one of the best of these tales is the first: "The Necessity of His Condition" (1957). Set before America's Civil War, it recounts how (to the reader's delight) a slick-dealing slave trader is brought down by the very system of racial injustice that he'd exploited for so many years. Elsewhere in the collection, "Murder is Murder" (1973) finds a greedy young man defeated by his own plan to off a well-to-do cousin. While in "The Importance of Trifles" (1969), Davidson dips into history to explore serial slayings ultimately solved by Jacob Hays, the real-life High Constable of New York City during President Andrew Jackson's era. Several other of the yarns presented here are likewise set in old New York, each one plump with arcane atmospheric details. (Davidson's extraordinary description of the city's South Street dockyards in "The Importance of Trifles" will inevitably bring the sharp "reek of salt-fish" to your nose and the rumble of "cursing carters" directly to your eardrums.) It makes one wish that the author had found either the self-discipline or the editorial encouragement he needed to devise an entire series of historical Manhattan murder mysteries.
While many writers think the short-story form overly restrictive, Davidson evidently found pleasure in the quiet alchemy of concocting unforgettable twists within what others may have seen as simplistic plot ideas. For instance, "Thou Still Unravished Bride" (1958) -- which was adapted for the long-ago Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series -- starts out with the notion of a woman vanishing on her wedding day, but quickly becomes more frightful and finally more sinister than one would have imagined. Along with Davidson's formality of style and his playful dexterity with parenthetical phrases, it is his ability to surprise you with sly and misdirective elaborations of a tale that is most in evidence -- and most rewarding -- in this volume.
Dead on Arrival
There's just no sugar-coated way to say this: In Murderously Incorrect, playwright and screenwriter Henry F. Mazel offers a detective yarn so transparently and unoriginally plotted, that it makes even pre-World War II pulp fiction look Fitzgeraldian by comparison.
The story begins when Katharine Raines, a mid-30s university professor and media advisor to US senatorial candidate Delaney Lynch, hires Manhattan private eye Alex Rada to look for her missing "graduate assistant," Susan Blake. As everybody except Rada realizes right off the bat, Raines is lying -- Blake isn't her assistant, she's her lover, and Raines wants her located lest she somehow become a liability to the Lynch campaign. But before Rada can find her, Blake is brutally murdered. This is followed by a series of hackneyed episodes: Rada beating up on Blake's supposed boyfriend; shots being mysteriously blasted through Raines' apartment door; and Rada falling in love with his client (who tries to fend him off by telling him that he's an idiot, "but just a little one").
If Murderously Incorrect was a TV movie instead of a novel, one might have forgiven its most unbelievable scenes (such as a highway attack on Rada, committed far too early in the story to have sufficient motivation) and ignored its embarrassingly unnuanced secondary characters (the malevolent chauffeur/bodyguard, the power-hungry politician's spouse, the cornpone-talkin' Texas congressman). But the slower pace of books requires some attention to a story's logic and an emphasis on developing players who have more going for them than pouty lips or a withering stare. The only figure here who's halfway interesting is Alex Rada. And that's mostly because he's a wacko, one of those people who still believes that Marxism is a threat to humanity. Rada idolizes "no-nonsense men" (like Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet) who keep "the world safe from the punks and pinkos, the weak sisters, the snivelers, and the dupes and dime-a-dozen do-gooders of the Communist conspiracy." He's an old-fashioned fictional gumshoe who takes on philandering spouse cases and process-serving jobs, acts on "instinct" as much as reason, and is barely able to speak without sarcasm.
It's interesting for a while to tag along with such an anachronism. However, Loren D. Estleman (The Witchfinder), who also seeks new life in the formulas of classic hard-boiled detective fiction, is far more skilled at delivering it than Mazel. Murderously Incorrect has its funny moments (including one scene in which an incensed restaurant cook takes a meat cleaver to the table of celebrants singing a horribly off-key version of "The Birthday Song"). For the most part, though, this is a well-intentioned but sadly unimaginative work.
City of Brotherly Abuse
"We didn't have a horde of Ds [detectives] back then," explains Wilton McCleary, a Civil War veteran-turned-police investigator who works the gaslit streets of 1874 Philadelphia in The Killing Breed. "Eight was just enough to take care of the few serious crimes we had. Despite that, most of the time the dicks were doing nothing but pinching dips and rousting tramps. That was what the citizens wanted. They wanted their property protected and their streets clean of refuse. Human refuse, that is. Burglary was about as serious as murder."
However, the Quaker City is becoming a whole lot less predictable -- and more threatening -- in this first novel by Mark Graham (whose own great-great-great-grandfather was a Philly constable). His man McCleary, a savvy but "queer kind of copper" with a view of life hardened by his wartime incarceration at Georgia's infamous Andersonville Prison, has his hands full with two cases: first, the theft of a politician's dog renowned for its skill at savaging rats in a "sporting" pit; and second, the kidnapping of a local businessman's five-year-old son. Slowly, the two investigations intersect, leading McCleary into a drama that features riverside gunplay, political treachery, a young wife's shame, and a dangerously misbehaved boy. Oh, and there is also some oddly compelling and rarely portrayed action around a ratting pit, as men wager on the time it will take a dog to kill 100 albino vermin ("Albinos were bred for the sole purpose of better showing their own spilled blood").
It may take a while for non-Philadelphians to become familiar with the environs covered in this book -- especially since author Graham ignores most of the city's familiar Colonial locations. But his re-creation of mid-19th-century power struggles, unpleasant urban odors, and arcane back-alley slang ("So I mowed this bleak molly right there in the panny with her old man upstairs") should not be undervalued. Although some characters in The Killing Breed are a bit narrowly conceived, and the dialogue doesn't always show a practiced wordsmith's ease, Graham knows how to create a seductive, fast-paced police procedural plot. If he can keep the savvy but incautious McCleary from getting shot in the back, garroted, or clubbed to death along one of Old Philadelphia's increasingly violent thoroughfares, then this series should enjoy a long and popular run.
More Prior Offenses... or back to