Showing posts with label Donald E. Westlake. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Donald E. Westlake. Show all posts

31 July 2019

Today in Mystery History: July 31


by Robert Lopresti

This is the third installment in my occasional stroll through the calendar.  Enjoy.

July 31, 1904.  David Dresser was born on this date.  You probably remember him as Brett Halliday, the creator of Miami private eye Mike Shayne.  His first novel was rejected more than 20 times, but he went on to write 30 books, which were adapted for radio, TV, and a series of movies.  He stopped writing in 1958 but authors labelled "Brett Halliday" went on to write many more books about Shayne.  Until I was researching this I had no idea that the excellent movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was inspired by one of his books.

July 31, 1930.  The Detective Story Magazine Hour began broadcasting on radio today. This is mainly significant because of the show's announcer, a sinister presence played by an actor whose identity was kept firmly hidden.  He was known only as The Shadow and proved so popular that he spawned his own show, a magazine, and tons of novels written by Walter B. Gibson.  Bwaa ha ha!

July 31, 1940.  The British magazine The Sketch published "The Case of the Drunken Socrates" on this date.  It was part of a series of stories about a Czech refugee detective which Eric Ambler wrote while waiting to be drafted into the army. (Notice the title of the book that collected the tales.)  Of course, Ambler was much better known for his espionage thrillers.

July 31, 1948.  The issue of Saturday Evening Post with this date featured the first installment of The D.A. Takes A Chance, the next to last novel Erle Stanley Gardner wrote about district attorney Doug Selby.  Alas, the prosecutor was never as popular as that other lawyer Gardner created, the defense attorney whose clients always turned out to be innocent.

July 31, 1951.  On this date Mr. and Mrs. Rackell came to Nero Wolfe to seek the murderer of their nephew.  "Home to Roost" is probably the high point of Rex Stout's literary attacks on American Communists.  You can find it in his collection Triple Jeopardy.


July 31, 1975.  On this date the movie Bank Shot was released.  It starred George C. Scott in the unlikely role of Donald E. Westlake's hapless burglar John Dortmunder.  (Okay, his name was changed to protect the guilty.)    

 July 31, 1986.  Stanley Ellin died on this date.  He was one of the greatest author's of mystery short stories ever.  If you don't believe me, try "The Specialty of the House," "The Payoff," or "You Can't be a Little Girl All Your Life."

July 31, 2001. This date saw the publication of Nightmare in Shining Armor, part of Tamar Myers' series about a shop called the Den of Antiquity.  I haven't read it, but I'm guessing it's a cozy.

03 July 2019

Rushing Mount Rushmore


by Robert Lopresti

An author out standing in his field
If you have time for only one blog in your busy life obviously it should be SleuthSayers.  But if you can fit in more, you might want to consider Something Is Going To Happen, the blog of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.*

They recently featured an interesting piece by Dave Zeltserman in which he described his "personal Mount Rushmore of crime fiction writers."

It's a fun concept.  Can you reduce the pantheon of the greats down to four?

I'm not going to reveal Mr. Z's choices, because you should definitely go read his piece for yourself, but I will list my own and invite you to do the same in the comments.  You will find that I overlap with his, but we are not identical.

My monument is arranged in the order I discovered the writers.

Rex Stout.  The first adult mystery writer I found after Conan Doyle.  He was the pusher who got me hooked.  Stout is all about character and voice.

Especially voice.

Nero Wolfe: "Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth."

Archie Goodwin: “When the day finally comes that I tie Wolfe to a stake and shoot him, one of the fundamental reasons will be his theory that the less I know the more I can help, or to put it another way, that everything inside my head shows on my face. It only makes it worse that he doesn’t really believe it.

Occasionally Stout has moments of plotting excellence (e.g. Too Many Cooks) but more often Wolfe and Archie have to carry him over bumps in the road.

Donald E. Westlake.  I first read his story "Come Back, Come Back," in one of those Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks.  It was a dead serious story about a cop suffering from a possibly fatal heart condition trying to convince a wealthy, perfectly healthy business executive not to commit suicide.

In high school I discovered his early comic classics, what David Bratman  called "the nephew books," in which some luckless schmuck finds himself in deep doodoo (The Spy in the Ointment, God Save the Mark, etc.)  By the time Dortmunder tried (and tried and tried...) to steal The Hot Rock I was hooked.   Westlake was the master of chaos, crisply described.  Movies based on his books usually failed because they couldn't capture his narrative tone.


Dashiell Hammett.  I confess I am not a fan of most of his novels (the exception being you-know-what).  But the Continental Op is everything the private eye story wants to be.  And could that man write an ending!  I'd give several toes to write a last paragraph as good as the one in "The Gutting of Couffignal."

Stanley Ellin.  Like Hammett, he had one great novel.  Stronghold is about a young man who grew up bitter on the outskirts of a community of modern Quakers (Ellin was one).  As a full-fledged adult psycho he brings back a gang to kidnap all of their women, yearning for either ransom or a bloody shootout with the cops.  But the Quakers won't cooperate with violence, even by calling the police.

Ellin's genius was for the short story.  "You Can't Be A Little Girl All Your Life" was a story about rape a decade before its time.  "The Question" is a quiet reflection by an executioner that turns into a stunning social comment.  And "The Payoff," well, the ending is just a punch in the gut.

So, while I brush away the stone scraps and clean off my carving tools: Who would you put on your mountain, and why?

*Also, Trace Evidence, from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.