The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938) (#005 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #005

$(KGrHqZ,!oQF!K6tt)S5BQK)+QwFlQ~~60_35The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938)


S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) was, in the late 1920s, one of the best-selling authors in the United States.  In 1939, he died “of a heart condition exacerbated by excessive drinking”. He published 12 mysteries between 1926 and 1939 that featured Philo Vance, a foppish aesthete and amateur detective, and was also a well-known writer on such topics as Nietzsche and aesthetic philosophy. Many of his books were made into films and he also wrote a dozen mystery “short subjects” for the screen. His best-known biography, Alias S. S. Van Dine, says that he got started writing mysteries when he was confined to bed recovering from a cocaine addiction.  His life and work are interesting and complex, and summarizing it in a single paragraph cannot do it justice: I recommend the biography, and the Wikipedia entry for both Van Dine and Philo Vance.

Publication Data:

This is the second-last of 12 novels, from 1938, and was the last novel published in the author’s lifetime. The Winter Murder Case, released posthumously, was conceived as the basis of a movie featuring Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie.  It seems unarguable that this book was conceived and produced with a similar motive in mind, as a vehicle for popular radio star Gracie Allen, who was known for publicity stunts.  The film version was released in 1939, a year before Allen ran for president of the U.S. and received 42,000 votes.

The first edition is from Scribner’s in 1938; first UK is from Cassell, also in 1938.  First paper is the edition you see above, released as The Smell of Murder by Bantam, 1950, #756. To my knowledge this is the only time that a Van Dine novel was issued under any other title. (Philo Vance books follow a pattern of titles: The (six-letter word) Murder Case, and I gather that originally this title was meant to be merely Gracie.)  Other editions exist, including a paperback from Otto Penzler’s line, and the entire text of the novel is online from Project Gutenberg.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Philo Vance and his associate S. S. Van Dine, chronicler of his exploits, are assisting District Attorney Markham with a case focused on gangster Benny the Buzzard. Vance and Van Dine are out in the country when they encounter a young woman (Gracie Allen) employed by a perfume company, the In-O-Scent Corporation, as assistant to George Burns, here represented as a perfumier. Ms. Allen is what would today be known as a ditz; her conversation is replete with non-sequiturs and she is surrounded by a general air of goofiness. Vance apparently finds her charming. The action soon focuses on a nightclub called the Domdaniel where not only do a group of gangsters hang out — I almost called them a coterie, which gives you an idea of how Van Dine’s language rubs off on the reader — but Gracie’s brother is employed as a dishwasher. (It is not likely that the brother’s character in the book is meant to have anything to do with Allen’s real-life brother, but it is worth noting that in 1932/33, the Burns/Allen radio appearances contained a year-long search for Allen’s supposedly missing brother as a publicity stunt.  Contemporary audiences would be likely to have this more at the top of their minds some five or six years later.)

The activities of the gangsters, escaped convicts, etc., are focused on the Domdaniel nightclub and the first dead body is identified as that of Allen’s brother. There is a character involved with the gangsters, a Mr. Owen, who stands out because of his anguished and rather Nietzschean philosophy (the author’s first success was with a volume called What Nietzsche Taught, and the action grinds to a halt whenever Owen and Vance begin to chat) and the rather muddled plot concerns a secret entrance to the nightclub’s office, an escaped convict, and various manoeuvrings concerning a poisoned cigarette that smells of “jonquille”.

After some tedious gangster-focused material (the author apparently knew nothing about real gangsters) that is periodically interrupted by Gracie Allen saying cute and silly things, Vance solves the crime and arranges that an associated reward should go to Allen; Burns proposes to Allen in the final pages.  Vance also encourages the murderer to commit suicide, a Nietzschean echo of an earlier book, The Bishop Murder Case.

As noted, there is a filmed version of this novel which was released in 1939. Gracie Allen receives first billing over Warren William’s efforts as Philo Vance (referred to by Gracie as “Fido”) and many poor-quality prints exist of this film if you’re interested in seeing it. The film ignores most of the more complex material of the book and instead is a starring vehicle for Gracie, including an opportunity for her to sing a novelty song (“Snug as a Bug in a Rug”) where she runs the first lines of many popular songs together, apparently mistaking the link between tune and lyrics.

tumblr_llemg8HRrr1qceuzao1_500Why is this so awful?

I haven’t got a copy of Alias S. S. Van Dine handy but my recollection is that like many authors who strike it big, the author established spending habits early in his career that required labour to sustain. In 1932/33, for instance, he churned out a dozen short mystery stories that served as the basis for a series of short films (about 20 minutes) starring Donald Meek as Dr. Crabtree, Criminologist. As we progress along his career towards his death in ’39, though, his earning options grew fewer. He was no longer turning out four Philo Vance novels in three years as he did between 1933 and 1935; he released his last “true” Vance novel in 1936, The Kidnap Murder Case, and there were two years before the release of this piece of work.  In fact he was casting about for money, I think. He did have income coming in from filmed versions of his work; again, about one a year. But he had a very expensive penthouse in Manhattan and a dilettante’s lifestyle to support, one not unlike that of Philo Vance.

Part of the reason why his income was decreasing was because his work was, not to put too fine a point on it, getting worse and worse. There is an often-quoted line by Julian Symons in his history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder, which runs “The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case.” And this book is his eleventh.

To the modern eye, frequently, there is little to choose between Philo Vance at his best and worst. Such tricks as having an alibi established by a specially-made phonograph record were inventive in 1927 but vieux jeu today. Certainly, connoisseurs of the locked room mystery appreciate the door-closing mechanism in The Kennel Murder Case as well as the Benson, and there is inventiveness and intelligence behind quite a bit of all of the first six novels. It has been said that The Bishop Murder Case is an early and essential precursor of the modern serial killer novel, but written at a time when the concept of a serial killer did not yet exist.

What is really hard to take, though, is the pompous nitwit who is at the centre of it all, Philo Vance. This is the detective about whom Ogden Nash wrote “Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pance.”  Wikipedia has a full article on him that goes into great detail, but I can find no better commentator than Dashiell Hammett reviewing the first Vance novel:

“This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory; he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong.”

Yes, it’s unfair to judge the mysteries of yesteryear by the standards of today. Yes, literary styles were different then. And yes, mysteries were in their infancy and one cannot expect the same level of sophistication as available to a modern writer who has the inventiveness and trickery of a century upon which to draw. But honestly, Van Dine was not much of a writer. Philo Vance is a ghastly annoyance with whom you must deal if one wants to try one’s hands against his clever plots (or his stupid ones since, for instance, Greene’s murderer is pretty much the only suspect left alive at the end). And judging by the alacrity with which the filmed versions calmed down Vance’s pomposity, I think most people would agree that one reads Van Dine to get past Vance for the intricacy of the solutions.

So we have a trajectory of an author whose best-selling days are behind him and who is scraping around trying to find well-paid work in Hollywood. And we have the beginnings of something that is a much more common and well-developed phenomenon in this day and age — product placement.  And when they collide, this is the result.

445467522The movie industry was just waking up to the possibilities of tie-in materials. At about the same time, Whitman Publishing did a series of novels for young people with names like Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx and Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. Whitman later went on to publish many series familiar to children in the 1950s and 1960s, with cheap pictorial board covers and names like Walt Disney’s Annette and the Mystery at Moonstone Bay; not much in the way of change, merely new faces.

This volume is something quite special, at least I think it is. You’ll note that Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx contains no author’s name upon the jacket; the author was more or less irrelevant to the experience. But a merger of Philo Vance and Gracie Allen is a cross-over perhaps not quite as impressive as, say, Spiderman versus Superman, but an amalgamation of two media platforms nevertheless, and this is unusual for such an early time as 1938. This is not an age where the crossover is common, either by shuffling two icons together into a story or taking a single franchise into a quite different platform. Its examples are unusual and worth noticing.

gracie-allen-murder-case-smUltimately, that’s why this belongs in my Die Before You Read section; it’s a very early example of the crossover novel, and it fails more thoroughly than any other in my recollection. Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island, let’s face it, was a piece of disposable trash aimed at pre-teen girls. It might even be an early example of slash fiction, albeit the authorized version. It doesn’t really matter if the novel had any literary quality because it didn’t need to, and thus its author remained mercifully anonymous. But when you take a well-known intellectual like Willard Huntington Wright and put his writing talents at the service of a radio comedienne, well, you already have a brand mismatch. Vance is known for being smart, Gracie’s known for being dumb. Putting the two together in a single novel is a waste of talent; his fans won’t appreciate her, and vice versa. And all the attempts to try to make it work — don’t work.

And so the book is excruciating. Since everything in the plot has to be engineered to keep Gracie in the scene as much as possible, allowing her to exhibit multiple virtues but giving her absolutely no vices, the plot becomes merely ridiculous. Everything — logic, common sense, characterization, human qualities — is sacrificed to the need to show off Gracie Allen. You’ll notice in the plot outline above, I haven’t really said very much about the plot. That’s mostly because very little of it makes much sense. It’s easy to tell that the writer intended this as the basis of a screenplay (I think of this as a “reverse novelization”) because there aren’t all that many locations used; the Domdaniel nightclub recurs again and again, and other obviously interesting locations like, for instance, George Burns’s perfume factory are ignored because they would be expensive to shoot. For the rest of it, well, there are gangsters, and Van Dine had no ear for how gangsters talk or who they are. They are merely physical descriptions with labels like “chanteuse”, “boss”, “underling”.  And there is a silly murder method based on a poisoned cigarette. And there is Gracie Allen making silly jokes and non-sequiturs, and Vance having a quite unnecessary fondness for her on first sight. Nothing makes sense and nothing rings true.

In short, this is tawdry and meretricious and altogether unfortunate. It really makes one think that, like so many other authors, Van Dine should have quit mysteries before releasing his last few, or perhaps that he should merely have settled for the screenplay income and not released this as a novel also. After his death, his estate felt more free to tamper with the asinine character at the base of all this, and the 1940s brought a considerably more ordinary Vance to prominence in radio for many years.  There was a market for a detective brand named Philo Vance, it just wasn’t the one the character’s creator had much to do with.  But the author was busily ruining his own brand before he died, and it was rehabilitated by others. If modern television is looking for competition for Sherlock Holmes in his various incarnations, this is one brand that could, I believe, be rehabilitated successfully. Just not by doing cross-over stuff with it.

There is a further reason why this volume in particular rather than, say, the 12th in the series (the Sonja Henie vehicle) I have pinpointed for my Die Before You Read series, a specific defect of literary quality unique to this volume.  It’s because of what Colin Watson calls, in Snobbery With Violence, the Silly Ass quality.

Philo Vance and Peter Wimsey and Reggie Fortune and Albert Campion and even Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham all qualify as the Silly Ass detective (but only Vance is American, which tells you something).  Watson describes it as:

“[A] young man in smart clothes, sickly grin and monocle, whose vocabulary was as limited as his means and expectations were supposed to be substantial. He was generally depicted as having difficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him. When making his own laboured but idiotically affable contribution to dialogue, he would … address his companion as ‘old bean’.”

A well-known type in the early history of detective fiction. But two things occurred to me in considering the Silly Ass character type in relation to this particular novel. The first is that, in order to work, the Silly Ass has to be surrounded by characters who are not actually Silly Asses, in order for the Silly Ass’s mannerisms to be more attention-getting.  For every Peter Wimsey there needs to be a Charles Parker against whose backdrop he can glitter.

And the second is that, in every reasonable sense, Gracie Allen has assumed the mantle of the Silly Ass. Read the above quote again with that in mind.  “[D]ifficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him”? Exactly. The Silly Ass was pretty much over when Philo Vance worked it to death, and other comic talents mined its base metal for new alloys.  Like Gracie Allen, who transmogrified it into the Ditzy Young Woman.

But, as I noted in point one — the one thing you need if you have a Silly Ass is a Not-Silly-Ass.  In fact, the one thing you do not need is the modernized version of your own protagonist as Ditzy Young Woman.  There is no staid presence against whom they can play, and so they merely try to out-amuse each other until the piece of fiction is over.  This is not very enjoyable to consider in the abstract, since there is no opportunity for the interrelationship to contribute to any plot structure, and in this concrete case it’s simply boring and silly, like two seven-year-olds shrieking “Look at me! Look at me!”.

If you actually want to read a Philo Vance novel after this, I’d recommend The Bishop Murder Case, which as noted above is actually a proto-serial killer novel at a time when the phrase didn’t exist. The ‘Canary’ Murder Case — yes, there is a single quote mark surrounding the word “Canary” and yes, that is how the book’s title is represented if you’re a purist — is also interesting for its very early puzzle-mystery contributions to the construction of an alibi. And if you want to see one of the films, The Kennel Murder Case is considered the best, but I actually also highly recommend The Bishop Murder Case because Basil Rathbone’s only outing as Philo Vance is not to be missed.

Notes For the Collector: has a Very Good copy of the first edition for $500, which seems a bit high to me: other similar copies are listed from $235 to $350, and less crisp copies from around $90 up.  The only copy on Abe of the first paper edition shown at the top of this review is listed at $20.  My own copy is in much better condition than the one shown; I would say it’s VG+ and I might price it for retail sale at $20 to $25.  I always think the variorum title is worth having, especially since Van Dine is so rigorous about naming his books.

Since the text of the novel is freely available for the interested reader, this novel is certainly not scarce. A poor book in a well-known series is often scarce, but this book is also available in print-on-demand format. Unlike most of my Die Before You Read series, various copies of this book might appeal to collectors interested in Burns and Allen, Philo Vance completists, and even collectors of Bantam paperbacks. It’s not easy to find a crisp one of these and although the cover illustration doesn’t appear to be Gracie Allen, this would qualify as a movie tie-in to some collectors.

pic1583568_mdA DVD copy of the film version is available on Amazon for $22 as of this writing; I have never seen it screened on television. I was fascinated to learn that as a tie-in to the tie-in of the filmed version, Milton Bradley released a board game that looks to be a cousin of Clue. I’ve never seen this object in real life and I suspect that if you like this sort of thing, this particular item would be VERY collectible if it was accompanied by the novel and film.

Knave of Hearts, as by Dell Shannon (1962) (#003 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #003

Knave of Hearts, as by Dell Shannon (1962)


Linington“Dell Shannon” was the principal pseudonym of Barbara Linington (left), who also wrote as Elizabeth Linington, Egan O’Neill, Anne Blaisdell, and Lesley Egan. Many early hardcover editions of her books made much of the fact that she was a proud member of the John Birch Society, which Wikipedia describes as “radical right-wing” and “a fringe element of the conservative movement” which was actually denounced by William F. Buckley as being “far removed from common sense”. In my opinion, Ms. Linington was a ghastly racist whose political views were a little to the right of Attila the Hun and who used her books as a vehicle for her far-right politics. She was also known as the “Queen of the Procedurals” — I am unable to determine who gave her this title, or precisely why, but it seems to be based on the fact that she was the most prolific female writer working in the genre of the police procedural mystery novel. My contention will be that she merely appropriated the form without understanding its roots, but that will be seen below.

Publication Data:

$T2eC16J,!)0E9s37FbcFBRjGk444nw~~60_3This is the fourth volume in a series documenting the adventures of Lieutenant Luis Mendoza of the LA police department. The first edition is from William Morrow in 1962; first UK edition appears to be from Oldbourne, 1963. A number of paperback editions and book club editions exist. It is ordinarily my practice to display the edition which I have in my hands but the entire internet doesn’t appear to contain a photograph of the 1984 paperback from Mysterious Press; my edition has a tasteful and vaguely Art Deco cover that is part of a uniform edition of a handful of Shannon’s novels. As a placeholder I have given you an image of the first edition but I’ve allowed pride of place to the thin-lipped and censorious face of the author herself, above.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Lieutenant Luis Mendoza leads a team of detectives working in the Los Angeles homicide squad of 1962. The story begins with a scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend, beautiful red-headed Alison Weir, who owns and runs a charm school. We soon learn that although the police made an excellent case against Allan Haines for the rape and murder of Mary Ellen Wood, and he was tried and executed, his alibi witness came forward some months later and exonerated him.  And since the newspapers are leading an outcry against this error, the detectives must work extra-hard to find the killer.

We learn a little bit about the personal lives of some of the team of detectives as they plod through a routine which is hinted at, but not really described in detail — too boring, one supposes. Mendoza is famous for his poker-playing, his inherited millions, his Abyssinian cats, his beautiful wardrobe, his Facel-Vega sports car and his hunches about how to solve murder cases; this last is a good thing since he seems to do very little actual work. After dithering around for most of the novel getting nowhere, an out-of-town policeman walks in and hands them the solution to the identity of the real rapist/murderer, who is just about to murder, you guessed it, Alison Weir. In what is meant to be an exciting finish, Mendoza ruins his sports car in the process of racing to the crime scene to save her in the nick of time and, one supposes, reconcile with her, since the many further books in the series detail their idyllic married life.

This book was nominated for an Edgar award for Best Novel. As you will soon discover, I suspect this may have been in a parallel universe.

Why is this so awful?

The police procedural is a sub-genre of the mystery novel that consists primarily of a group of police officers who work as a team, doing everything that they do in order to solve crimes. We see good officers and bad officers doing both smart and stupid things, following hot leads and trails that peter out. The officers’ work is never done and they are usually working on multiple cases at the same time; occasionally these cases are less than serious. Sometimes cases remain unsolved. Most such novels describe a number of cases that are in various stages of closure. This is meant to give the reader the flavour of what police work is really like. The best-known practitioner of this school is Ed McBain, whose many novels of the 87th Precinct in a fictional city not unlike NYC have delighted generations of readers.

This novel and its companions in the series are meant to be procedurals, and the author as noted above is known as the Queen of the Procedurals (for some reason, procedurals are very, very rarely written by women or for them, it seems). In fact, these novels are more like romances than procedurals. The author appears to know virtually nothing about how police officers actually behave or work in real life — but then, as soon becomes clear, she appears to know virtually nothing about how human beings actually behave in real life, so this ignorance of procedure is unsurprising.  Frankly, it seems as though at some point many years ago, she spent a couple of days hanging around a police station, listening credulously to bullshitters telling her exaggerated tales of their own excellence, and parlayed that into a long-term career.

What we are presented with, in fact, is a right-wing nitwit’s fantasy about how police should work, unsullied by little things like the rules of court, evidence, and common sense. I realize that it is usually an error to ascribe the social values of 2013 to a novel published in 1962, but the attitudes and mores displayed here as if they were normal and sensible are so disgusting and so disgraceful, so anti-law, that I cannot believe that the citizens of 1962 would not have risen up and replaced their police force to a man had they acted or thought like this.

For instance, an early example from Chapter 5 (page 66 in my edition). The hero — the hero! — says:

“There’ve been thirty-odd cases of rape and attempted rape through headquarters this eighteen months, and in all but seven or eight of them the woman was at least partly to blame, for voluntarily putting herself in danger. And I’m not counting the statutory cases, where it’s legally rape because the girl’s under age — I mean the real thing, sex by force. Thirteen of those cases ended in homicide. Of those thirteen women, six can be called — mmh — respectable. The others had asked for it, just like those where it didn’t end in murder — hanging around bars alone, picking up strangers, or they lived or worked or visited in the back alleys of bad districts.”

The corollary, of course, is that because the rapist in this particular case is not a badly-dressed drooling degenerate, or a Negro — the two are pretty much equivalent to this author in later cases — the police are baffled and the public is outraged. Later on (page 75), Mendoza says, in conversation with his second-in-command, “… can any man say there hasn’t been a time he didn’t have the impulse to violence with a woman — to let her know he’s a male creature? Or with some men, to repay her for being female? Tell the truth to yourself if not to me.” Sergeant Hackett replies, “Like they say, touché.  It’s a thing in us, if we’re men at all.”  The incredible part is that of course this is being written by a woman about an imaginary police officer, whose job seems not to be to serve and protect but rather to sit around in his office and make moral judgments. Wikipedia and other sources are silent as to whether Linington ever married or had children or anything approaching a relationship with a normal human, but I’m suspecting not. Nor, I suspect, was she ever the victim of a crime that she felt to be “her fault”.

The police procedure in this novel is nearly non-existent. Unlike the classic procedural, the entire police force seems to work on a single case here. Officers apparently decide what to do by divine inspiration and then go and do it — very rarely are they actually directed, they are merely said to be directed. It seems as though the author feels as though the routines of police work are far too boring to be dwelt upon, even though this is actually the basis of the procedural. The police specifically deprecate “head doctors” as having useless opinions in cases like these. My instinct is to suggest that this is because any psychiatrist worth his salt would lock up half these policemen as being misogynistic psychos after a few minutes of conversation. (Immediately after opining that head doctors are useless, Mendoza muses about the blonde with whom he apparently had casual sex  the night before.  She is nameless. “A silly female. Just, in effect, a female — compliant — and obtuse. Nobody to talk to, to enjoy being with, just for herself. You might say, on a par with the waitress who fetched you a meal when you were hungry. That kind of thing.” One wonders why the female readers of 1962 did not rise up en masse and insert these volumes into the author’s vagina sideways.) And in fact, the boring police work is depicted as being just as useless as actually, you know, bothering to research it for the edification of the reader. Instead, Mendoza is constantly said to have “instincts” that have led him to promotion over his fellows. And the out-of-town police officer who comes in while on vacation in LA and identifies the killer does so because he had a “feeling” that this individual killed a girl in his home town. How can someone be Queen of the Procedurals who doesn’t know much about police work and doesn’t think it’s worthwhile anyway? Bah, it’s all rubbish. These police officers threaten reporters with violence for reporting the truth and having an anti-police attitude — Mendoza punches one and there are no consequences. They bemoan the interference of the ignorant public and the counterproductive justice system, all of whom collude to prevent the police from administering the rough justice that they alone know how to dish out, to anyone whom they decide is guilty. And these men are the HEROES of this novel.

The other disgraceful part of this novel is the author’s attitude towards her fellow human beings.  And here, I have to say, she constantly works the same trick. Essentially she selects a minority whom she dislikes — and believe me, that’s all of them, because this lady only likes upper-class well-spoken well-dressed white people who are God-fearing, obedient and Republican — and creates a character who is NOT as bad as she implies the rest are.  Mendoza, for instance, is probably Mexican (his internal monologue appears to imply that his grandmother pretends to be descended from the pure-blooded Castilian settlers of long ago, in order to raise her social class) but he is wealthy, well-dressed, a professional, etc.  And so when other characters imply that he is a “dirty Mex”, because this is a perfectly natural attitude for a member of the white middle-class hoi polloi, Mendoza allows himself to reflect on how misguided they are. Similarly, in later books in this series, there is a kind, sensible, family man who is, as they were called back then, a Negro police officer. This gentleman doesn’t raise a finger to stop his fellow officers from bullying and occasionally beating other Negroes, and occasionally allows himself a God-fearing regret that they don’t know better than to have too many children, but he himself is the kind of Negro whom whites should respect and pat on his woolly little head. Grr. Certain types of people are irredeemable; I think the author is incapable of believing that a Communist or a homosexual could ever be a “good person”, and all such in her books have metaphorical horns and tails. The lower classes are all lazy scum who breed too frequently all except the occasional one who works her way out of poverty by dint of keeping her skirts long and her knees together and her nose to the grindstone. (Alison Weir’s comments about the girls from whom she takes money to teach them manners are absolutely outrageous. She seems to believe that, without her gentling influence, they would all be makeup-caked whores teetering around on four-inch heels having sex with anyone who asked.)

There’s a moment in this novel that made my blood boil. Chapter 14, page 193 in my edition, Mendoza is having a difficult time solving the case by intuition, and police work isn’t helping, so he decides to go out and get drunk at lunch.  Yes, seriously.  He goes to a restaurant where he is known, and a kindly black waiter who notes that he’s drinking much more than usual and not touching his food generously offers to make him food more to his taste, and suggests that he cut back on the drinking.  To which Mendoza replies, and I quote, “Hell and damnation … are you trying to wet-nurse me, boy? If I don’t get served here, there’s a bar three doors down.” Boy, indeed. What a disgrace to the badge.

Of particular note in this volume is the author’s attitude towards women — this book is, in a sense, about women, because the “psycho killer” at the heart of it all has been driven off the deep end by finding out that the woman he loves is a slut.  (It’s hard to say exactly why, but I suspect she indicates that she is willing to have sex before marriage with him, so he strangles her and all other women whom he decides are sluts.) One character, the slatternly Madge Parrott, is a case in point. Her best friend and fellow slut — sorry, waitress of easy virtue/roommate — was killed by the killer because she was willing to have sex with him, it seems.  They used to laugh at him for being unsophisticated and thinking that they were virgins. Madge is entirely willing to cooperate with the police, of course, but makes no bones that she would fuck the bejeezus out of Mendoza or any other nice guy if it got her a wedding ring and a ticket out of waitress-dom. In the meantime she will insist upon being plied with daiquiris before she gives out information, and you know that’s the sign of a bad girl. A middle-aged women who is driven by economic necessity to rent rooms in her house is presented as a fool. There are no women police officers in the homicide squad, of course. (Later in the series one is added and it turns out that the men are too timid to suggest that she type their reports, which is precisely why she’s there.  In fact, she longs to BE their secretary and is sad that they reject her typing skills.)

And Alison herself rejects most ordinary men because she has been spoiled by the ultra-macho Mendoza; it’s only when she decides to subordinate her red-headed wilfulness to his masculine superiority that he can save her life and end the book.  In the meantime, she accepts a date with a polite nonentity (the killer, of course) because she is single, and heaven forbid she should stay home on a Saturday night alone. So she spends a weeknight  redoing her nails in copper to match her new skirt, so as to please a man about whom she doesn’t care a scrap. The book is full of such nonsense.

Other than ridiculous characterization, a complete ignorance of police procedure and a plot that is based on coincidence, the other dire aspect of this novel is the writing style. And here, other than a reliance upon cliches about race, class and gender that are horrific to the modern eye, there are two main issues that grate tremendously upon the reader’s ear.

The first is that Mendoza, in order to give him a character beyond the trappings of his money, cars, cats and lack of integrity, constantly speaks in Spanish words and phrases. This rather feels, to quote Dashiell Hammett describing Philo Vance, “like a high-school girl who had been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary.” It is constant and unrelenting, and I found it very hard to take. At the end of the novel, when Mendoza is racing across town insanely in order to save Alison from first the fate worse than death and then death, he seems to lose the ability to speak English at all. This book is putatively written for an English-speaking reader, and much like Dorothy L. Sayers including a dozen pages entirely in French with no translation in Clouds of Witness and expecting the reader to get the point, it is incredibly annoying. I don’t know what the Spanish is for “Go fuck yourself, you bigoted hag,” but I would have liked to scream it into the writer’s ear.

My long-time loathing of Linington’s writing began in my early teens when I became aware of a stylistic tic of hers that drove me crazy. It’s connected with the word “the”, misused in place of “a” or “an”. She puts this idiosyncratic use of the word into the mouths of all sorts of different characters as if it were common parlance for everyone, and it drives me crazy.  For instance, and I found this almost by opening the book at random: “… the most respectable high-minded women, nine times out of ten they’ll feel the animal attraction to the big male brute, never mind if he’s the plumber or the garage mechanic or whatever …” (page 69 of my edition).  What’s wrong with “an animal attraction to a big male brute”, etc., just like the rest of the world says it? And it’s so constant and consistent, in all her novels regardless of the pseudonym she’s using, that it’s like a signature. For me, it’s like a sore tooth that she keeps biting in my mouth.

It is astonishing to me at this remove that this writer was so popular in the 60s that she published dozens of novels under a handful of names. But I take a great deal of pleasure in the fact that her work is almost completely out of print today, mostly because she is racist, sexist, misogynist, a terrible prose stylist and completely ignorant of the requirements of the form in which she was working. I hope I have persuaded you to avoid her work completely in the future.

Notes For the Collector: offers an inscribed and signed 1st edition from a UK bookseller for the unusual price of $102.48. A Good first in jacket will set you back as much as $40 or $50, and a reading copy in paperback might cost you $5. There are no noteworthy editions, to my mind, and even the paperbacks do not have the cheerful vulgarity that marked so many of their fellows during this period. Many, many book club editions exist — she was a profilic contributor to their lists — and since these editions are nearly worthless, you should have to pay nearly nothing for them. If you truly feel you must read these books, I recommend you pay as little as possible for them.

As I have commented elsewhere, good books by good writers hold their value and even increase. Therefore, on that logical basis, someone would have to pay me to accept a copy of this book. I seem to have paid $2.50 for mine, which means I’ve wasted $2.50 that no one will ever give me back.

The Truth About Murder (1946)

$(KGrHqN,!g0E-8sG8DnfBP2LgKe3rQ~~60_35Title: The Truth About Murder

Author: Original screenplay by Lawrence Kimble, Hilda Gordon, and Eric Taylor.  My contention is, see below, that this also contains uncredited contributions by Jonathan Latimer.

Other Data:  April, 1946.  Directed by Lew Landers. Cast: Bonita Granville as Christine Allen.  Morgan Conway as District Attorney Lester Ashton.  Edward Norris as “William Ames Crane”, aka Bill Crane. (emphasis mine)

About this film: As is frequent for films which pique my interest, this went by on TCM the other day and I captured it upon my PVR for later review.  I’m glad I did; I think I’ve made a little bit of a discovery unknown to more learned experts than myself.  I’ll tell you more about the actual movie later on, but for the moment I’d like to focus on Jonathan Latimer.

Jonathan Latimer was a writer of pulp fiction and A- and B-movie screenplays who wrote a wide gamut of screenplays.  Some of his output is considered in the very top class, such as The Glass Key (1942), The Big Clock (1948) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), based on novels by Dashiell Hammett, Kenneth Fearing and Cornell Woolrich, respectively.  Others are more in the B category — 1939’s The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt and 1953’s Plunder of the Sun, for instance.  Later in his career he switched to TV and wrote 31 episodes of Perry Mason and one of my favourite Columbo episodes, “The Greenhouse Jungle”.

But for mystery readers, those of us who pick up actual books now and then, Latimer is best known for five novels starring alcoholic PI Bill Crane.  These include Headed for a Hearse (filmed in 1937 as The Westland Case), The Dead Don’t Care (filmed in 1938 as The Last Warning), and The Lady in the Morgue (book from 1936, film from 1938) — all of which starred Preston Foster as Bill Crane.  As Wikipedia ably puts it, the Bill Crane series “introduced his typical blend of hardboiled crime fiction and elements of screwball comedy”.  I agree with this assessment.  I particularly enjoyed The Lady in the Morgue, book and movie, for precisely this unusual combination.  Crane is constantly drinking, drunk, or sobering up, to the great detriment of his private eye work.  It’s strange to consider from the great distance of 2013, but my belief is that Crane’s drinking was not portrayed as being a problem for the amusement of his contemporary readers; he wasn’t presented as an “alky” or a “dipsomaniac”, he was simply a hard-drinking guy who liked his booze.  Much like The Thin Man, or Jake & Helene Justus.  Crane, however, had the occasional blackout and never seemed like a happy drunk, merely a constant one.

Simple research through Wikipedia and IMDB gives two facts.  One is that Latimer served in the armed forces during WWII and second is that he was occasionally uncredited for his work on movies like Whistling in Dixie, a 1942 Red Skelton vehicle.

Now back to The Truth About Murder.

Bonita Granville, who was successful in four outings as teenage detective Nancy Drew ten years or so previously, here plays a “woman lawyer” — a rare bird in this period — who works with district attorney Morgan Conway.  Morgan wants to marry her and keep her homebound and pregnant; she wants to experience the practice of law to its fullest, so resigns and goes into partnership with her hard-drinking lawyer buddy, Bill Crane.  (Aha!)  Bill’s wife is in love with someone else, but she won’t leave Bill for the man she loves while Bill’s self-esteem is in shreds.  The wife is killed, Bill is arrested, and Bonita and Morgan solve the mystery.  The finale, well foreshadowed, is quite interesting, with Bonita extracting some key information from the victim’s boyfriend, whom she has hooked up to a lie detector.

All in all, a fairly intelligent B mystery with some nice moments; I agree with the IMDB commenters who suggest that it’s not too tough to figure out the identity of the killer (who is one of a very limited cast of characters and about the only one with a motive).  It’s hard to say whether present-day feminists will approve or disapprove of the way “woman lawyers” are presented, but I feel certain it will interest them to see it.

I have to think that Latimer worked on this film, possibly contributing the Bill Crane character to an early draft.  The overlaps are just too clear.  He occasionally went uncredited for his work and, upon his return from WWII, he was perhaps wanting to re-establish his career. I’m pleased to say that this doesn’t seem to have occurred to other Latimer specialists, at least not according to my Internet research, so maybe, just maybe, I’ve made a tiny discovery.

Notes For the Collector: I’ve seen comments that suggest that this film has not been available on DVD, but has been shown a couple of times on TCM in my recent experience.   It’s not available via Amazon or TCM’s shop at the time of writing.  I understand that TCM is moving into a policy of making its lesser-known films available on DVD so this might be more available in the near future; at the moment, I wouldn’t call this “scarce” but a little bit hard to get, perhaps.  TCM’s recent screening was crisp and clear.

After The Thin Man (1936)


After The Thin Man

Author: Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett, who also has story credit here.  Screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who wrote the first one.
Other Data:  December 25, 1936, according to IMDB.  Directed by W.S. Van Dyke.

Cast: William Powell and Myrna Loy as The Thin Man and wife, Nick and Nora Charles.  Elissa Landi as Nora’s cousin Selma Landis, and a young Jimmy Stewart as her Romeo.  The incomparable Jessie Ralph as Aunt Katherine, who could freeze an army with her gimlet eye, and, as always, a host of recognizable minor players like George Zucco and Sam Levene.  And one Dorothy McNulty as nightclub singer Polly Byrnes, about whom more below.

About this film:

Happy new year!!  Which is, as it happens, important.  I am writing this on New Year’s Day and TCM cleverly showed this last night as one of a cluster of films that contain a New Year’s Eve party.  In this interesting mystery, the fact that it is New Year’s Eve is more important than in the other films of the evening — it’s a clue, or part of one.  And it would be necessary to the plot to be aware that January 1 is an American national holiday.

Of course, having just discussed The Thin Man Goes Home the other day, I was sensitized to Thin Man films and PVRd this one for later, but ended up watching it live.  I’ve seen this film a handful of times and came to this viewing with the intention of checking my perception that there was something fishy about the details of the mystery’s solution that made it a bit of a sell, so I had a notepad beside me.

As I mentioned in my immediately previous review of the other film, this is one of the “family” mysteries.  The first leisurely minutes of this film are devoted to character development and making the viewer chuckle; we only start to meet the family about half-an-hour into the action. I will try to discuss this without giving away the answer, but I was watching for a specific line that happens at the 0:30 mark. For those familiar with the plot, or for those who are prepared to spoil their enjoyment if they haven’t seen the film yet, I will say that if you listen very carefully to a line that contains the phrase “given a few days to think about it”, you will come to the same conclusion as I; although the solution sounds plausible, there is a different way in which events could logically have been arranged so as to vitiate the chain of logic through which Nick runs at the end of the film, and this line is the key to it.  The sequence of events doesn’t have to be as abbreviated as Nick suggests, and the key point about New Year’s Day isn’t so perfectly conclusive as he asserts.

In an interesting segue, literally a minute later at 0:31, a nightclub singer swings into a lively tune called “Blow That Horn” at the beginnings of the New Year’s Eve party sequence.  This is a classic mystery technique; if you’re looking to make people forget that they’ve just heard something, cut to a scene with lots of action and noise and give them things to distract them.

The nightclub appears to be some weird combination of a Chinese restaurant that has a full-on floor show. The blowsy brunette singer is listed in the credits as Dorothy McNulty, and I remarked, as I have upon previous viewings, that she dances well and enthusiastically, and has an earthy vitality and charm about her, although perhaps not the greatest singing voice, such that I would have expected to see more of a film career for her.  The actress takes her role and tears into it with both hands, in much the same vein as Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria.  (And she utters what I think is the best line in the entire six-film Thin Man series, about which more deservedly later.) She has an interesting speaking voice with a bit of brass to it that is ideal for the low-class “chantootsie” whom she’s playing and, I have to allow in retrospect, had a tinge of familiarity about it.  But I wasn’t really familiar with anything that she’d done before or since.  Ah, though, the wonders of the internet provided information immediately — after two more undistinguished films, in 1938 she began to be credited as “Penny Singleton”.  Oh, my, God.  This is not only the woman who played Blondie Bumstead in a double handful of Blondie movies, this is the voice of Jane Jetson.  I was in fanboi heaven.

Near the end of the movie, as noted above, she utters a truly, truly classic line.  All the dialogue in this movie is good, some of it is fine and occasionally it is superb.  My second-favourite line of the series is Nora to Nick in #1, after returning from a wild goose chase upon which she was sent involuntarily by Nick.  “How did you enjoy Grant’s Tomb, baby?” “It was lovely. (pause) I’m having one made for you.” (baleful glare)  But Penny Singleton gets the prize for this lovely sequence at 1:47 (during the final blow-off; yes, this is a long film for the day).  Nick asked her to spell the word “married”, and she comes up with “M-A-R-R-Y-E-D”.  “You see?” says Nick.  “An illiterate person would have written this note differently.”  “Whaddaya mean, illiterate?  My father and mother were married right here in the city hall!”

Speaking of the blow-off, which starts at about 1:40, there is one additional small problem and one big one.  Again, no details, but a clue that depends upon a physical feature of a corpse should be in a movie that is capable of showing us that corpse’s face long enough that we can confirm for ourselves what we see.  (And this is not a movie that refused to take chances with what it shows us.  Believe it or not, it is not common to be able to see a dog’s penis in films of this era; Asta, in an extended comedic sequence with “Mrs. Asta”, shows us fairly clearly that he is indeed male — and very, very clever and obedient.)  If we did see the corpse’s face in a quarter of a second as it tumbled out of a laundry basket, I seem to have missed it. So that was a bit annoying.

The big problem, though, is that the ending depends upon the murderer having been secretly insane for most of the film.  The actor/actress concerned gets to foam at the mouth for a few moments with a good deal of accuracy, and give us as best s/he can a full-on nutbar performance, but I am rarely convinced by such sudden revelations and this is no exception.  Upon first viewing, of course, this is fine.  But the actor/actress in question puts across his/her history (up to the revelation of a long-standing case of virulent insanity) with a good deal of sincerity and acting talent. In short, I believed that this character’s actions in the plot were motivated, as they seemed to be, by his/her stated motives.  More to the point, s/he did not act outside them — there is a good deal of clever writing involved in putting this across, and there is one major plot point that is beautifully reversed at the end (the final location of the gun) that is a pleasure to see how beautifully it was buried earlier.  But all things considered, this is a real character who is seen to do what you think s/he would do in the circumstances, and it’s a bit of a sell to have that character’s motivations change completely due to a case of “instant insanity”.  At one point, a psychiatrist (George Zucco, in a small role that he makes his own) says contemptuously that the murderer is crazy.  In the final moments of the film, he is hilariously shocked to realize that he’s been correct.  But a psychiatrist who specializes in such matters was completely shocked at this character’s insanity — it really, really does come quite out of the blue, and is rather hokey.

But then, I take it that the audience for this — remember, it came out on Christmas Day, so audiences would be seeing it in the lead-up to, yes, New Year’s Eve parties — was more interested in the broad streak of gentle humour that runs through the film.  (At one point, Powell appears to crack up an extra playing one of his uncles-in-law, and I imagine the contemporary audience would have made more of the radio reference than I did.) This movie invests its time wisely in building rounded characters and then making you laugh by how they react to circumstances way, way beyond their control.  There are showgirls in scanty costumes, at least three musical numbers (I’m counting the “specialty solo” at Nick and Nora’s impromptu welcome-home party) and the antics of Asta, the smartest dog in the movies.  I suspect that the number of people who would have been sitting in the audience trying to figure out the mystery would have been small indeed, and that is probably as it should be.

Although there is some excellent dialogue and plotting in this film, I could only give it a high B-plus; it is not as good as the first film or some of the other sequels, but it is a first-rate second-rate movie.  I cannot help but feel that a little bit of work would have made the mystery air-tight in its small details, but a lot of work would have been required to change the unsatisfying “he was crazy all the time and hiding it beautifully” ending.

But it was nice to have a New Year’s Eve party about which to write on New Year’s Day!!

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film are readily available and I believe, without troubling to confirm it, that the original trailer is available via as being in the public domain.  As I noted above, Turner Classic Movies showed it recently and re-runs it perhaps once a year.  There is a boxed set of all six Thin Man films and I recommend it to your attention; all six are worth your time and the first in the series is a masterpiece.

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

thin_manTitle: The Thin Man Goes Home

Author: Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett.  Original story by Robert Riskin and Harry Kurnitz (an interesting detective novelist in his own right); screenplay by Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor.

Other Data:  1945 — January, according to IMDB.  Directed by Richard Thorpe.

Cast: William Powell and Myrna Loy as The Thin Man and wife, Nick and Nora Charles.  Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport as Nick’s parents and the wonderful Anita Bolster as their maid, Hilda.  A wonderful supporting cast including Gloria DeHaven (as a gushy young ingenue who is imitating Katherine Hepburn) and Anne Revere (as “Crazy Mary”) and a host of other well-known background faces of the 1940s like Donald Meek.

About this film:

First of all, I have to credit a much more insightful (and productive) blogger than myself, William I. Lengeman III at Traditional Mysteries, whose attention to this film sparked my own.  I recommend you read what he has to say beginning at — and, if you are interested in my favourite topics, you’ll enjoy his entire blog.

I  saw this film earlier this month on TCM and enjoyed it all over again; it’s always been a favourite, and I hope you will seek it out because I think you will enjoy it. I think it stands out even in this excellent series because of the nature of the crucial clue; I won’t say anything that will spoil anyone’s enjoyment, but it is based on something that doesn’t happen but should have. The “negative” clue is decidedly uncommon in filmed mysteries, which tend to want to show you things. In detective-fiction terms, this is head and shoulders above most other offerings of the period; a fair-play puzzle mystery but an extremely difficult one to solve upon the first go-round.

It is common to remark that the series “went downhill” after the first. I’ll suggest instead that the series veered sideways and became less hard-boiled so as to suit the audience’s appetite for continuing characters. Certainly nothing stops the charming byplay between Nick and Nora in any of the films, and although the quality of the puzzle varies all six films have a puzzle at their core. The only thing I know for sure that stops after the first film is that Nick gives up calling women “baby” out of the corner of his mouth.

I agree with Mr. Lengeman that the emphasis here is on the “down home”; this bucolic mystery echoes at least two other entries in the series that feature Nora’s family affairs, so he may have put his finger on the unifying factor that causes people to think that the second through sixth films are somehow different/inferior. The Nora of the first film who has a “lulu” of an evening gown and, as a policeman remarks, “has hair on her chest” is not the Nora of this film, a wife in an apron who helps her mother-in-law serve dinner and gets turned over her husband’s knee for a comedy spanking.  Similarly, this is a kinder, gentler Nick — who doesn’t get all that peeved even when his parents are the possible targets of a nearby sniper.  There is a sub-plot about industrial espionage which serves as the springboard for most of the charming character work for Nick and Nora.  There is a priceless sequence where Nora is trailing a suspect and in turn being trailed by someone else; the parade goes through a poolroom filled with “wolves”.  Another moment where she is entrapped with a collapsible lawn chair, and a sequence later in the film when she is forced to jitterbug with an energetic sailor, contribute greatly to the gentle humour of the film.

There is a piece of this film that seems jarring to me, but in an odd way.  The character of “Crazy Mary” is just too good; it’s as if she wandered in from a more realistic film.  Anne Revere appears to be make-up free and the character has a raw energy that is based on a tragic incident in her past that makes us both pity her and be afraid of her.  The rest of the movie doesn’t hit this level of realism and at the other end of the believability spectrum, Anita Bolster does a wonderful job as Hilda, the comedic spinster maid (a la ZaSu Pitts or Edna May Oliver) who is hilarious but quite, quite unrealistic.  Anne Revere, on the other hand, might well have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this brief portrayal, which has depth and intelligence.  She actually did win in 1944 for National Velvet and was nominated in 1943 and 1947 before having her career ruined in the McCarthy era.

My honest opinion is that this is the last superior entry in the series; it’s all downhill from here, and the sixth is probably the worst. But this film is absolutely worth your time and, if you haven’t previously seen it, I urge you to give it a careful viewing and really do try to figure out whodunnit and why you should know that.  It will increase your delight and chagrin at the surprise ending.

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film are readily available and I believe, without troubling to confirm it, that the original trailer is available via as being in the public domain.  As I noted above, Turner Classic Movies showed it recently and re-runs it perhaps once a year. There is a boxed set of all six Thin Man films and I recommend it to your attention; all six are worth your time and the first in the series is a masterpiece.

Nathan Aldyne

From time to time I post about a particular writer, more or less as something crosses my path. Last weekend I was at a street fair in my city’s “gaybourhood” and came across some used books for sale from the gay community centre’s library. I noticed three by an author whom I’d enjoyed in the past and picked them up.  For a buck a paperback, why not?

There were only four books in the Valentine and Clarisse series of mysteries. They are, probably in the wrong chronological order, Vermilion, Slate, Canary and Cobalt, and all four were published in the early 1980s. They are “gay mysteries”; Valentine is a handsome young gay man and Clarisse is his best girlfriend, and together they solve mysteries concerning gay people against a background of gay establishments, trophes, etc.  Their principal virtue is that they are funny. Well, okay, they’re not fall down laughing tears streaming from the eyes wet yourself funny, but they are lighthearted and zany, if I can use that fine old word. They remind me of  the Thin Man movies (not the book, particularly) about Nick and Nora Charles, originated by Dashiell Hammett, and the subsequent “lighthearted mystery comedy about zany married couple” sub-genre of mysteries exemplified by relatively little-known writers like Kelley Roos (Jeff and Haila Troy), Frances Crane (the Abbotts) and the Lockridges (Mr. and Mrs. North) and a bunch of movies and radio programs.

As mysteries per se, the books are — meh. The back cover of a paperback edition of one of the volumes features a review by “Newgate Callendar” from the New York Times.  I’m not sure why the publishers felt they should include all of this review, since it was moderately unfavourable. Nevertheless I agree with “Callendar” that one or two of the actions in the books are motivated by nothing more than a desire to keep things moving in an amusing way and not based on logic or sense.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine any logical motive for some of the things that happen, and some of the motivations that characters evince are — hard to understand and hard to believe.  But they are generally funny. The protagonists are charming, the backgrounds are authentic, the characterizations are amusing, the plots are witty, if illogical.

The thing about these mysteries that interested me in the 30-year interval since their publication is that they are, however inadvertently, a portrait of American gay society immediately before AIDS.  In what I believe is the last of the four, it is mentioned that a social event is being held as a charity fund-raiser for an AIDS charity.  As far as I know, that’s the only mention of AIDS, which actually killed both the gay men who were writing as “Nathan Aldyne” (and probably why the series stopped, although one died in ’87 and the other in the late 90s). I lived through that period as an actively gay man, and it is sometimes difficult to explain to people of a younger generation that, yes, it was possible to have sex as often and as randomly as we did. That bars and steambaths and the like were cornucopias of sexuality, freely available and generously given.  (At one point in one novel, a young man has sex with someone whom he finds relatively unattractive because he feels it is expected of him, as kind of an “end to the evening” thing.) Gay men looked and acted in the ways that are shown in these novels, and were motivated by the things by which they are shown to be motivated. It’s not an enormously important social document, but to me it was an interesting one.

The first editions are ferociously expensive; even the 1980s paperbacks are pricey.  But a gay press republished the books in trade editions more recently, and you will find these relatively easy to acquire, and inexpensively so. If you are interested in the social fabric of gay society immediately before it was ruined by AIDS, these will be a worthwhile read.