Friday, February 01, 2013

Forgotten Books: Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, May 1968



I think I can fudge enough to call a digest magazine a book. It's approximately 50,000 words of fiction, after all. And while I was looking for something else the other day, I came across a stack of old issues of MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE that a friend sent to me. The urge to read some of them hit me, so here are my comments on the first one I got to.

As usual, the May 1968 issue of MSMM leads off with a "short novel" featuring Miami private eye Mike Shayne. This is actually a 20,000 word novella (although I think this one might be closer to 25K). "The Baby Doll Murder", which is a good title, by the way, is almost certainly by Dennis Lynds writing under the house-name Brett Halliday. Lynds wrote nearly all the Shayne novellas from 1963 to 1970, making him the most prolific "Brett Halliday" of all time. Coming up with that many mystery plots, month after month, year after year, is an amazing achievement. I had a pretty good continuous run as Brett Halliday, too, but only for two and a half years, and by the end of that stretch my brain was running on fumes, let me tell you. (Of course, I've written 76 full-length novels in the past 60 months, which will also wear out your brain, but at least I've switching back and forth between a lot of different Western series, not to mention some thrillers and mysteries, too.)

Anyway, "The Baby Doll Murder" finds Shayne investigating a murder that took place a year earlier. A beautiful blond model who was famous for a series of ads for baby doll pajamas was found bludgeoned to death with a candlestick, and the police never solved the crime. But then a young man comes forward out of the blue to confess to the killing, and his father, believing that confession to be false, hires Shayne to find the real killer. Shayne doesn't know at first whether the kid is lying, but an attempt on his life when he starts poking around in the case convinces him that somebody is trying to hide something.

And of course that's true, as Lynds twists the plot this way and that with his usual skill. Shayne's secretary Lucy Hamilton, his reporter buddy Tim Rourke, and Miami chief of police Will Gentry don't have much to do in this one, but Shayne gets in some nice sparring with his old nemesis, Miami Beach chief of detectives Peter Painter. Eventually Shayne uncovers the truth, but not before wading through a number of nicely done red herrings. The actual solution is a little weak, but it's a product of its era.

The back-up stories in MSMM were usually pretty good. The first one in this issue, "Tell Tale" by George Bellefontaine, is a little bit of an odd fit for a hardboiled crime digest since it's a domestic drama about the trouble a woman gets into by gossiping, but it's well-written and fairly effective.

"Arizona 'Ma' Barker – The Devil's Daughter" is one of a series of true crime yarns by David Mazroff that ran in MSMM for quite a while. It's pretty long, probably 10,000 words, a well-researched tale of Depression-era crime that's lightly but luridly fictionalized, as Mazroff comes up with thoughts and dialogue for the historical characters he's writing about. It works well, and the story is very entertaining. I'm looking forward to reading more of these.

Next up is a relatively early novelette by Bill Pronzini, "The Bomb Expert", which is about a hired killer who goes beyond his assignment. It's cleverly plotted and well-written, as you'd expect.

"The Obvious Way Out" by Richard O. Lewis is about a tyrannical college professor and an unexpected confrontation with some students. This one is okay, but that's as far as I'd go.

"The Stubble of Beard" by Dan Ross is one of a series about Mei Wong a Chinese art dealer in Bombay who serves as an amateur sleuth, helping out his friend Inspector Bannerjee. The Mr. Wong series ran for nearly twenty years in various mystery digests. I've read a number of them. They're mild little puzzle stories, usually entertaining, as this one is. Ross is an interesting author. A Canadian, he started out as an actor and playwright and wound up writing more than 300 books, most of them Gothics and historical romances under the names Marilyn Ross, Clarissa Ross, and a few other pseudonyms. He also wrote the long-running series of paperback tie-in novels based on the TV show DARK SHADOWS. He didn't follow the show's continuity, however, deciding instead to go off on his own storylines with the characters, creating a sort of alternate universe DARK SHADOWS. I can't imagine a tie-in author being allowed to get away with that today. I read some of the DARK SHADOWS novels back when I was in high school, when the show was still on the air in its original run, and I remember thinking they were pretty good.

The issue wraps up with "Peabody's Obsession", a tale about an art theft by Hal Ellson, an author I usually like. I didn't think much of this story, though.

MSMM was probably past its prime in 1968, although it ran for a long time after that (and I'd like to think it was pretty good during the era I wrote for it). I think the magazine peaked in the stretch from 1960 to '65, when nearly every issue was full of good hardboiled private eye action. But it was still a solidly entertaining magazine in '68, and this issue is a good example of that. Actually, almost any issue from the Fifties and Sixties is well worth reading, if you're lucky enough to come across any. (By the way, the scan accompanying this post is of the actual copy I read. The cover's a little grimy, but hey, that just gives it character.)

9 comments:

Bill Crider said...

76 novels in 60 months? No wonder you're my hero.

Todd Mason said...

You still need to CHECK NAME on the author of "Tell Tale"...

It does seem, James, that you're in the running for among the most prolific of writers, particularly in the post-pulp era...even Silverberg and Malzberg and all tip their hats to John Creasey and Simenon, but I'd've guessed that diversity helps keeping the hand on the plow less taxing.

Almost all my MSMMs are from the '70s and '80s...I wonder if the collapsing fortunes of MANHUNT and the disappearance of its imitators in that early '60s period contributed to MSMM's best period, by your reckoning...MSMM might not've paid well (compared to EQMM and AHMM), but perhaps unlike the new owners of MANHUNT, they paid what they paid when they said they would...I've mentioned before I always liked the grittiness of MSMM compared to the other two digests in the late '70s, though AHMM in that era was a bit less restricted than EQMM, and liked Fritch's MSMM even more in some ways...

James Reasoner said...

Todd,
Ha! That slipped by me, all right. Writing the post without the magazine right by me. And it's upstairs at the moment, but I'll fix that and update.

When I started writing for MSMM, payments were very prompt. Cylvia Kleinman still owned it then. It wasn't until after she sold it that getting paid got to be a problem. Although I've been told that when Leo Margulies was still alive he could be very slow with payments and was often far behind on paying Dennis Lynds for the Shayne novellas.

Todd Mason said...

That's unfortunate...I thought I remembered that the "new" MANHUNT of the '60s was paying low and slow, but didn't realize that Leo Margulies was dilatory as well...

James Reasoner said...

The author of "Tell Tale" is George Bellefontaine, a name I don't recall running across before. I've fixed the reference in the post. I often make notes to myself within the posts as I'm writing them, then delete them later. I think this is the first one I've let slip through. It was the middle of the night when I scheduled it, and I didn't proofread closely enough. Gave me a nice chuckle this morning, though.

James Reasoner said...

Bill,
I was a little surprised by that total. The 60 months represents the five years since the house burned down. I knew I'd written a lot since then but didn't think it was quite that much.

RJR said...

James, you really made me miss the old MSMMs I used to have, especially during the time I was trying to become a Pronzini completist. Another day I'll list my favorite writers from MSMM.

RJR

RJR said...

Some of my faves were Frank Sisk, Gary Brandner, Edward Y. Breeze, Jack Ritchie, Pronzini, Reasoner, Joe Lansdale, Ernest Savage . . . wow, there are so many more . . .

RJR

jjaymitchel@hotmail.com said...

Recently, Jeff Lindsey of Dexter fame,has written stories that deviate way from the TV series (or is that the other way around?) Characters are killed off or still active, though in a limited capacity, in the book series, compared to what happened on Showtime!