Category Archives: Barry Ergang

THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT (1947) by Fredric Brown

I’m tempted to call this novel mystery fiction’s version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s not a wholly accurate description, and I’m sure there are a lot of folks who’d take me to task for it, but The Fabulous Clipjoint may be the closest thing in spirit — though without the comedy — to Mark Twain’s masterwork that the genre has.

At eighteen, Ed Hunter is older than Huck and a good deal more worldly. When his father is beaten to death, the apparent victim of a random mugging, he wants answers but knows he‘s out of his depth when it comes to getting them. He therefore enlists the help of his father’s brother Ambrose, a carnival barker savvy in the ways of the mean streets. In teaming up with Uncle Am to solve what they eventually determine is a deliberate murder rather than an impersonal mugging, Ed undertakes his own Huck-like voyages of discovery through the streets of Chicago and thus performs his rite of passage.

The characters, with perhaps one or two exceptions, are neither all good nor all bad. Most exhibit morally gray behaviors and attitudes. The story itself is as “naturalistic” as any I’ve ever read in the genre, a superb example of the kind Raymond Chandler alluded to when he wrote about Dashiell Hammett (and by extension other good pulp writers) giving “murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Anthony Boucher called it “a singularly effective job of portraying people as they are and murder as it is — a solidly compelling story.” But while it contains its share of dark moments and situations, and has a strong sense of place, Brown’s style — though eminently readable — is relatively pedestrian, lacks the brooding lyricism that infuses, for instance, a David Goodis novel.

The Fabulous Clipjoint has been marginalized as a minor classic for many years. Recently, an article by Dick Adler argued for the elevation of its stature. Read it for yourself to decide if Fredric Brown merits being ranked with Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and Jim Thompson.

©2009 Barry Ergang

Derringer Award-winner Barry Ergang’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. Visit his website: Some of his work is available at Amazon and at Smashwords.

THE JUGGER (1965) by Richard Stark

The late Donald E. Westlake was a versatile writer whose output ranged over a number of  fields. But it is crime fiction for which he is most famous, for which he was deservedly acknowledged by the Mystery Writers of America as a Grand Master, and in which  he wrote under his own name and under a variety of pseudonyms. Under his own name he will always be remembered as one of the greatest exponents of the comic crime novel with titles that include The Hot Rock, God Save the Mark, I Gave at the Office, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, and Two Much.

As Richard Stark, probably his best-known pseudonym, he produced a very successful series of ultra-hardboiled novels, several of which were filmed—see The Thrilling Detective website for more information. The books starred Parker, a professional thief: “Once or twice a year, Parker was in on an institutional robbery…It wasn’t out of humanity that he limited himself to organizations, it was just that organizations had more money than individuals….

“Parker wasn’t a single-o. He always worked with a pickup group gathered for that single specific job. Every man was a specialist, and Parker’s specialties were two; planning and violence. Other men were specialists in opening safes or scaling walls or making up blueprints from nothing more than observation, but Parker was a specialist at planning an operation so it run smoothly, and at stopping any outsider who might be thinking of lousing things up.”

The premise of The Jugger, the sixth book in a series which does not necessarily have to be read in order, is fairly simple. Joe Sheer is a jugger, a safecracker, living in the small town of Sagamore, Nebraska under the name Joseph Shardin. Now retired, he sometimes acts as an intermediary between Parker and others in his particular line of work. He writes to Parker who, when not pulling heists, lives in Miami under the name Charles Willis, an identity he has painstakingly constructed over a period of years. Sheer’s first letter indicates that he’s in some kind of trouble, that he’ll handle it, but that Parker shouldn’t try to contact him until the matter is settled. A month later a second letter arrives, this one asking for Parker’s help. Parker packs a bag and, as Charles Willis, goes to Sagamore. He does so not out of loyalty or friendship toward Sheer—there is nothing noble about him; he does so for the sake of self-preservation. “Joe Sheer could crucify Parker, he could nail him to the wall with a hundred nails…He knew him by his old face…He knew Parker’s cover name, he knew twenty or twenty-five jobs Parker had been connected with, he knew enough about Parker to skin him alive.”

Simple premise, right? All Parker has to do is find out what kind of jam Sheer is in and either help him out of it or kill him to protect himself. But not long after he arrives in Sagamore, things quickly become complicated. Sheer is dead, but nobody will level with Parker about how he died. A man named Tiftus, who “claimed to be a lock man” whom “Parker had never worked with…because he was too unreliable” shows up at Parker’s hotel room, wanting to partner to find something valuable he’s certain Sheer had hidden somewhere.

Parker goes to Sheer’s house to look around for himself and is knocked unconscious by someone wearing a burlap bag for a mask. Not long afterward, Tiftus is found dead—in Parker’s hotel room. Now Parker must deal with the corrupt Captain Younger, local head of the police department, and the honest, earnest state police investigator Regan—while trying to tie up loose ends, absolve himself of a connection to Tiftus’s murder, find the actual killer, and ditch an unwanted new associate.

To say anything more would be to spoil the excitement in this taut short novel. The Jugger is as hardboiled as anything Mickey Spillane ever wrote, but without the posturing. Parker is cold, efficient, and ruthless, the complete anti-hero. He lets nothing and no one stand in his way when he’s trying to accomplish something. Even readers who think they’re inured to fictional criminal activities might be surprised by  some of Parker’s. Although he’s repellent to anyone with moral sensibilities, he’s so intriguing that readers who go for noir fiction will want to follow his adventures, a testament to Westlake’s authorial skill.

As the quoted passages demonstrate, the author doesn’t waste words, doesn’t indulge in the kind of verbal pyrotechnics that can dilute and obstruct a narrative. Thus, the story’s relentless pace infuses it with a raw power. The no-nonsense style reflects Parker’s no-nonsense approach. A further testament to the author’s skill is his ability to portray breathing, individualized characters—this despite the fact that the reader is given background information only about Parker and Captain Younger.

The Jugger will not appeal to readers who only like stories about heroes with noble codes of honor and conduct, nor will it appeal to readers who dislike onstage violence. Fans of rapid-fire hardboiled fiction will greatly enjoy and possibly even love it. To them I highly recommend it.


As I have acknowledged in an essay and in other book reviews, I’m a sucker for impossible crime stories. When, years back, International Polygonics, Ltd. reissued the four novels by Clayton Rawson that starred The Great Merlini, crime-solving magician, I snapped them up. Although I felt the first one, Death From a Top Hat, piled on a few too many seemingly impossible situations, as though the author were afraid he’d never write and sell another book and had to demonstrate his entire repertoire of cleverness in this one, I read—and enjoyed even more—its three successors. I also read and liked three Merlini short stories in anthologies I acquired that were focused on locked-room mysteries. When I discovered that The Mysterious Press had reissued The Great Merlini, which collects all twelve of Rawson’s short stories about him, I snatched up the Kindle edition. The stories are as follows.

Zelda the Snake Charmer has been strangled in her room—a room on the eighth floor whose “only window is locked on the inside.” There’s only one way in and out, and that’s been under observation by a group of other circus performers who are shooting craps in the corridor outside. A frustrated Inspector Gavigan and Sergeant Brady aren’t lacking for suspects when they relate the events to Merlini, who solves the case when he picks up on “The Clue of the Tattooed Man.”

“Everybody,” Gavigan growled, “tried to get in. And you want me to believe nobody ever went out—that Lasko’s murderer vanished into thin air like a soap bubble.” The exasperated inspector is once again faced with a seemingly impossible murder and a group of four suspects when the body of theatrical producer Jorge Lasko is found in a room with a French window locked from the inside. Private detective Dan Foyle arrived on the premises just before the two shots were fired, ran to the room, but saw nobody leave. Actress Dorothy Dawn was out on the sundeck and swears nobody exited the room via the window. Merlini seizes on “The Clue of the Broken Legs” to solve the case.

 In “The Clue of the Missing Motive,” Merlini tells Gavigan and Lieutenant Malloy, when they show up at his home: “A man gets killed at dusk last evening just across the street in the park—a hundred feet or so from my front door. Scores of people there, as usual, and one man actually saw the victim as he fell. Yet no one saw the murderer or heard the shot. I’m a magician. So I suspected you might suspect me.” The real suspects, however, live next door, and all have motives for wanting one another dead. But what’s the motive for killing the man from Oklahoma who actually died? Merlini, of course, figures it out as soon as the policemen provide him with the necessary details.

In one of the longer, more atmospheric, and much better-developed stories in the book, which I first read years ago in the anthology edited by Edward D. Hoch titled All But Impossible!, Merlini’s journalist friend Ross Harte visits the magician before cabbing to Andrew Drake’s mansion to interview Drake for a magazine article. A man of wide-ranging interests who says, “Put in enough money and you can accomplish anything,” Drake’s latest obsession is extrasensory perception and psychokinesis: “Unleash the power of the human mind and solve all our problems.” When he arrives, Harte meets a clearly agitated Dr. Garrett, Drake’s physician, on the doorstep. The two are admitted by Drake’s daughter Elinor, who tells them her father is in his study. Dr. Garrett tries the door, then pounds on it and begs Drake to open it. When that proves futile, he and Harte break it down. The scene inside is a bizarre one, not only because of Drake’s dead body, but also in part because of the unconscious psychic medium Rosa Rhys, who is clad in a skimpy bathing suit despite it being a bitterly cold January day. Gavigan and Merlini are summoned, and Merlini must determine whether this locked-room murder was committed by a human or someone “From Another World.”

Anthologized in Death Locked In, edited by Douglas G. Greene and Robert C.S. Adey, where I first read it, “Off the Face of the Earth” begins with the saturnine Gavigan telling Merlini and Ross Harte about the mysterious disappearance of chorus girl Helen Hope. At a Park Avenue party she met Bela Zyyzk, who claims to be a visitor from Antares and a mind-reader. In front of witnesses, Zyyzk told Helen Hope she’d vanish off the face of the earth in three days—and she did. The D.A. requested of Judge Keeler that Zyyzk be held as a material witness, and Keeler granted the request. Then Zyyzk prophesied that Keeler, too, would vanish into the “Outer Darkness.” Keeler is of special interest to the police because he’s known to be on the take from the Castelli mob, and has been under twenty-four-hour surveillance. Learning that the judge has been to the safety deposit vault in his bank, has emerged carrying a suitcase, and has gone to Grand Central Station, Gavigan orders a subordinate to keep an eye on him and to “grab him the minute he tries to go through a gate.” When Gavigan, Merlini and Harte get to the station themselves, they learn that a dazed Lieutenant Malloy and Sergeant Hicks had indeed been constantly watching Keeler. They had taken up positions opposite one another on either side of a line of phone booths. They saw Keeler go into one. When they looked in the booth a few minutes later, it was empty, Keeler apparently having vanished into thin air. It requires a magician like Merlini to explain this conundrum.

“Merlini and the Lie Detector” is a lightweight, negligible story that is neither fairly-clued nor one containing an impossible crime. Merlini must determine which of two suspects murdered Carl Todd. His method of doing so relies on a convenient oversight by the culprit, one that if avoided would have conceivably prevented arrest.

When Gavigan introduces Merlini to George Hurley, the chief of the Customs Service, the latter tells the magician: “I want to know how you would go about making nearly half a million dollars disappear.” The suspected thief is another magician, a skilled card manipulator named Pierre Aldo. The authorities can only hold him for twenty-four hours, and thorough searches of his clothing and premises have turned up nothing. Merlini is on—and up against—the clock in “Merlini and the Vanished Diamonds.”

Another relatively brief story in which Gavigan and another official, in this case F.B.I. agent Fred Ryan, present the magician with an impossible situation, “Merlini and the Sound Effects Murder” deals with the death of sound effects engineer Jerome Kirk. Having spent quite a number of years in the retail audio business, I question a crucial aspect of the story’s solution. I haven’t the technical expertise to say it’s definitively possible or impossible, but if the former, I’m not sure it’s so easily accomplished. To elaborate further would require a spoiler.

“Nothing Is Impossible” reads the sign behind the counter in Merlini’s Magic Shop, where the magician-cum-sleuth sells (and creates, when necessary) items for professional magicians to use in their acts. It is also the title of the next story in this collection, and another one I originally read in an anthology: The Locked Room Reader, edited by Hans Stefan Santesson. This one concerns retired aviation pioneer Albert North, who has handed the reigns of his company to his son-in-law, Charles Kane. Needing a hobby to keep himself busy and engaged, North became fascinated by the idea of extra-terrestrial beings visiting Earth in flying saucers, and has since become “an unoffical clearing house for saucer information,” as Ross Harte explains to Merlini. When North is found shot to death in his study, which is locked from the inside, and Charles Kane is found unconscious and naked—his “shirt was inside the coat, neatly buttoned,  the Countess Mara tie still in place, still tied in a neat Windsor knot.” His underwear is inside the top clothes and his socks are inside his shoes. “Kane says his clothes were removed while he was unconscious,” Merlini tells Homicide’s Lieutenant Doran. “They would appear to have passed through his body in the process.” The appearance of what are apparently alien hieroglyphics burned into the plaster wall, and the absence of the gun that killed North, add to the puzzling circumstances, as do the four-inch-long, three-toed footprints in the dust atop some filing cabinets. Merlini has to figure out if E.T. committed murder and then beamed up to the mother ship, or whether a human culprit killed North, then miraculously vanished from a locked room. He also has to explain some of the aforementioned bizarre discoveries.

In “Miracles—All in the Day’s Work,” Merlini must accompany an insistent Lieutenant Doran, acting on the orders of Inspector Gavigan, to the Chancellor Building. Why the urgency? “What we got is a murderer who just vanished into thin air —sixty-four stories up.” Three witnesses, one of whom is Inspector Gavigan, in the reception area of the Hi-Fly Rod & Reel Company, hear Courtney answer the phone in his office a while after a man in a Panama hat went in to see him. But after his secretary rings him several times and he doesn’t answer, she opens the door and finds him slumped over his desk with a knife in his back. There is no sign of the man in the Panama hat, and he couldn’t have gotten out the window even if he were a kind of human fly because the building has no ledges.

Lester Lee is a well-known Broadway gossip columnist. He’s also  a blackmailer. When he’s shot to death, George J. Boyle isn’t sorry, but he is enraged. Boyle is the producer of the show “Magic and Music,” and one of its stars, Inez Latour, has been hauled in for questioning by the police just prior to opening night. Another star is The Great Merlini. Boyle knows of his connections to the police and insists that Merlini become involved and get Inez Latour back in time for opening night. The magician, using his connections to the Homicide Department, discovers that much of the evidence is photographic and demonstrates that what you see is not always what’s reality in “Merlini and the Photographic Clues.”

The collection ends with another story narrated in the first-person by Ross Harte. The action occurs at Pancakes Unlimited, where Harte is having dinner with his friend Hammett Wilde, a private investigator. Wilde is keeping an eye on Carl Hassleblad, the producer of an underground film that unexpectedly became a hit, at the request of Hassleblad’s wife. The producer is dining with an actress who goes by the name Anna Love, and a writer named Larry Allen. Both are demanding more money for an upcoming film, and Hassleblad is balking at the idea when he suddenly bolts for the men’s room. Wilde follows him, then returns abruptly a moment later to enter a phone booth and call for an ambulance and squad car. Hassleblad has been poisoned. Who could have done it, and how? The restaurant isn’t far from Merlini’s home, and Wilde says he has “a hunch that a magician may come in handy.” It goes without saying that he does, and ultimately solves “The World’s Smallest Locked Room.”

I said at the outset that I’m extremely fond of impossible crime stories. Unfortunately, other than the three I’ve read previously in anthologies, I find the stories in this collection to be largely disappointing. Several of the shorter ones are reminiscent of the old Minute- and Five-Minute Mysteries—i.e., intellectual exercises of a supremely mechanical nature that have little or no interest in engaging the reader via other elements of storytelling. Clayton Rawson was a friend of impossible crime master John Dickson Carr, who has often been criticized for superficial characterizations. Compared with Rawson, he’s Dostoyevsky. Rawson’s style is plain and straightforward, but lacks the color, vigor, and atmosphere that, to my mind, tales of “miracle” crimes deserve.

As mentioned earlier, I read the Kindle edition. Although it wants some better editing, its typos and punctuation errors are relatively few. Its most glaring error, however, is the illustration of a three-toed footprint that belongs in “Nothing is Impossible” but appears in “Merlini and the Photographic Clues.”

All things considered, I can only recommend The Great Merlini to mystery fans for whom puzzle is pre-eminent, who are not especially interested in character and atmosphere, and who are completists with regard to specific authors or types of stories. Other readers need to look elsewhere.

© Barry Ergang 2013

Derringer Award-winner Barry Ergang’s own impossible crime novelette, “The Play of Light and Shadow,” is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Review: THE DEMON OF DARTMOOR (1993) by Paul Halter

Over a period of several years, mysterious deaths have occurred in the English village of Stapleford—deaths apparently caused by an invisible man. Three of them involving teenaged girls occurred on Wish Tor, “the favorite spot for local lovers….A massive granite spur, at the foot of which a rushing stream splashed noisily against the rocks on its way to the village a mile below, some found its shape reminiscent of the Sphinx.” The fourth occurred in Trerice Manor when the woman of the house was pushed down a flight of stairs by an invisible entity. Witnesses to a couple of the events on Wish Tor saw the victims thrust out their arms, as if they’d been shoved from behind, to try to prevent themselves from falling a moment before they plunged to their deaths into the stream far below. At midnight on the day after Eliza Gold vanished, Basil Hawkins beheld a headless horseman ride into the sky.

Spring forward several chapters and a few years later to the story’s present, the mid-1930s. Actor and playwright Nigel Manson has a hit on his hands with the play he’s written and co-stars in with Nathalie Marvel, a comedy titled The Invisible Man, inspired by his past visit to Stapleford and, in particular, by a visit to Trerice Manor where he heard the story of the village’s invisible killer. Nigel surprises his wife Helen with the news that he has purchased and renovated Trerice Manor, and that they will be spending a couple of weeks there. Joining them the first weekend, he tells her, are Nathalie Marvel and Frank Holloway, the man who promoted Nathalie to stardom.

When the invisible murderer strikes yet again, claiming another victim in front of several witnesses, chief constable Superintendent Weston requests help from an old friend, the head of  Scotland Yard, who in turn assigns Inspector Archibald Hurst to investigate the crime. “He had a knack—all his colleagues were unanimous on this point—for being stuck with all the most complex cases.” Hurst calls upon his friend Dr. Alan Twist, criminologist, who “often lent a hand in the investigations,” to accompany him to Stapleford.

The solutions to a couple of the murders struck me as a bit of a stretch, although they weren’t entirely implausible.

Thanks to John Pugmire’s translations, I’ve now read four of Paul Halter’s exceptional novels—two starring Alan Twist, two starring Owen Burns—and a collection of his short stories. I am certain the great John Dickson Carr, were he alive and thus able to read Halter, would not only admire him but also conceivably envy him for his inventiveness in concocting and solving seemingly impossible crimes. Halter’s oeuvre is invariably compared to Carr’s, and this is as it should be because Halter has readily admitted in interviews that impossible crime stories are his favorite kinds of detective stories and that Carr was his inspiration.

But there are significant differences between the two. Carr’s prose was richer—lusher, if you will—undoubtedly a product of the era in which he was raised, and influenced by the stories he read growing up. Halter’s narrative style is much leaner, and he has a fondness for using dialogue as much as possible to advance the story. Although Halter succeeds in creating an eerie or sinister atmosphere when one is called for, he’s no match for Carr, who was probably as good at atmospherics as anyone who has ever written. Carr has sometimes been criticized for weak characterization, but in that aspect he is definitely superior to Halter. The latter’s characters often have traits or interests that are vital to the story, but otherwise they are rendered in the sketchiest manner imaginable. Halter is more  purely concerned with the puzzle elements in his work than any other mystery writer I can think of, and some of the puzzles he devises are very original.

My criticisms of Halter’s weaker qualities are not intended to dissuade readers. I have enjoyed every one of the novels and stories of his I’ve read, and I look forward to reading more of them if Mr. Pugmire continues to translate them. His work is eminently worth the time of any fan of Golden Age-style impossible crime stories, and should in fact be considered essential reading. And with that, The Demon of Dartmoor is strongly recommended.

For much, much more about Paul Halter and his work, see and