Category Archives: Reviews

A.B. Shiffrin’s Cover Story

Suspense Magazine #1 Spring 1951

Stories from Suspense Magazine #1 Spring 1951

The opening scene of this story, depicted on the cover of Suspense Magazine #1, shows a naked woman, laying on her bed with her throat cut. “A Most Amazing Murder” by A.B. Shiffrin is a serviceable yarn, told first person by the detective who solves the murder.

A. (Abraham) B. Shiffrin was most famous for his broadway plays (Love on Leave, Angel in the Pawnshop, I Like It Here, Twilight Walk and Black-Eyed Susan); several were later produced for television. He also wrote novels (The Other Cheek, Blind Men, Told Out of School, Glitter, Mr. Pirate, and Return at Sunset) and has numerous short stories to his credit.

Here’s the opening paragraph to “Murder”:
“Never was the obvious so baffling. At least, not in my own experience. I was the cop in charge of the crazy case, so I can tell you all about it.”

Manhunt Dec. 1953

Manhunt: the gold standard of hardboiled crime fiction digests. One look at the line-up for this issue tells you why. David Goodis opens with “Black Pudding,” the dark, sweet, just dessert of revenge. That’s Ken and Tillie on the cover, painted by Frank Uppwall. Pretty girl, but then you’re looking at her good side. Ken’s first impression: “It was a female voice, sort of a cracked whisper. It had a touch of asthma in it, some alcohol, and something else that had no connection with health or happiness.” He’s fresh out of San Quentin, with plans for a fresh start in Philly that turn dire when his past suddenly flashes a five-inch blade in the dark.

The premise of Richard Marsten’s “Switch Ending” is remarkably similar to “Black Pudding.” How long does it take an ex-con’s old cronies to make trouble once he’s back on the streets? It this case, Danny joins the trouble in progress and attempts to set things right. But he’s living in a dark, noir world, and the best he can manage is to trade one evil for another.

“Killing on Seventh Street” by Charles Beckman, Jr. is a psychological thriller. A regular Joe kills a robber/rapist and struggles with how the violent act has changed him. “But, that evening, he was behind the garage, sharpening the lawn mower, when the neighborhood dog came running over, barking. Clifford reached for the animal and things dissolved in a haze. When it cleared, the dog was a limp form, its broken neck clenched in this hands.”

“Murder Marches On” by Craig Rice features series character John J. Malone. In this adventure the slight lawyer must simply liaise a list of names from a witness to the authorities, as said witness prefers to remain anonymous. Perhaps for the sake of its drama, the exchange takes place in a parade with Malone dressed for the part. At the designated moment chaos erupts and the list holder is murdered. Malone is left with five pages to ensure he’s not the next victim, solve the murder, find the list and collect his fee from his now deceased client. Fortunately, he’s in good hands with Rice.

Things turn considerably darker in “Sucker” by Hunt Collins. Arrested for the rape and murder of his babysitter, Harley appeals to his friend and lawyer, Dave, to help clear him. At the trial the prosecutor’s case, built on a chain of circumstantial evidence, is riddled with doubts by the time Dave finishes. Trouble is, so is Dave.

“Portrait of a Killer” was a regular true crime feature written for Manhunt most often by Dan Sontup. The series began in August 1953 and ran twenty-four issues, ending in July 1955. This issue devotes three pages to Portrait #7, Tillie Gburek, a serial killer who started out poisoning neighborhood dogs and then moved up to a succession of husbands.

The “The Wife of Riley” by Evan Hunter, concerns the disappearance of Riley’s wife at a seashore resort. The place is run by an untoward dude, rife with hidden agendas. “His skin was bad and his eyes were puffed with sleep, and he looked like the kind of guy you could rouse out of any doorway in the Bowery.” Tension mounts as Riley strips away the resort’s façade of normalcy to learn the where and why of his wife’s sudden vanishing act.

Scott Jordan was a series character created by Harold Q. Masur. The lawyer/sleuth takes on a new client in the “Richest Man in the Morgue.” It’s one of several Jordan stories for Manhunt, later collected in The Name is Jordan (1962). “Morgue” is a top-notch yarn with some terrific writing. Here’s one of Masur’s punchy asides: “They thought Hitler was nothing but a windbag too, until he gave the world twenty-four hours to get out.”

Some of Manhunt’s stories are so dark, they could easily have run in a horror magazine. For example, “The Quiet Room” by Jonathan Craig features a dirty cop and his dirty partner. She beats up underage prostitutes in the soundproof room at the precinct to learn the names of the girl’s johns. Then he blackmails the johns to keep their criminal activity off the record. Things end badly.

“The Coyote” by David Chandler features a father who forces his son to “be a man” by killing a coyote. It’s brutal and torturous, and unfortunately, an accurate portrayal of doctrine over common sense.

Roy Carroll’s characters face personal and social atrocity in “Wife Beater.” Officer Tom Rivas grew up in a house where dad beat mom. Perhaps Cherry Szykora did too. Both wrestle with their pasts as they try to rectify their present.

“The Icepick Artists” by Frank Kane is listed on the contents page as a novelette. It is, but it’s also the first part of a longer saga that involves the death of a PI employed by Seaway Indemnity. The firm hires Johnny Liddell to investigate. He solves the murder, but the larger criminal mastermind waits for readers and Liddell in a follow-up adventure in the January 1954 edition.

“Crime Cavalcade” presents a rapid-fire succession of short true crime stories in newspaper style. The feature ran from May 1953 through December 1955, handled by Vincent H. Gaddis. Here’s a example: “As a gag to illustrate low salaries, Bruce Shanks, cartoonist for the Evening News in Buffalo, N.Y., pictured a policeman baby-sitting to supplement his regular salary. However some of the paper’s readers didn’t get the point. Half a dozen parents telephoned police headquarters that night seeking baby sitters.”

The issue’s final yarn, “The Insecure” by R. Van Taylor was billed as “. . . one of the most unusual ideas ever to appear in Manhunt.” It’s more like something out of the Twilight Zone than a traditional crime anthology, but once you’re tuned in to its unreliable narrator, its an entertaining twist on the expected.

If this edition is any indication, it’s small wonder Manhunt remains the premier title for fans and collectors of hardboiled crime fiction digests.

This review originally appeared in The Digest Enthusiast #3 January 2016.

Children’s Digest Spring 1972

Children’s Digest relied heavily on re-presenting material from earlier sources. Considering its audience, some of its sentiments are more alarming than those in magazines of its era intended for adults. For example, in the lead story, “The Railway Children” by E. Nesbit, a young girl faints as she and two other children attempt to flag down a train headed for an unseen, deadly wreck. After she recovers, her sibling’s reaction: “And presently, when she stopped crying, they were able to laugh at her for being such a coward as to faint.”

I purchased this particular issue as a sample due to Jerry Robinson’s cover feature “From Cave Drawing to Comic Strip” which presents a brief history of the form. It’s a competent overview and includes
 a good assortment of comic strip character illustrations, clearly simplified for its intended audience.

The issue’s best feature is part four of “King Ottokar’s Sceptre,” from “The Adventures of Tintin,” which ran in CD from 1966 thru 1979. Perhaps other issues gave readers more, but this one reprints only two pages of comics in black-and-white. Maybe it’s because they’re accompanied by eight pages of “history” about the fictitious country 
of Syldavia, with some beautiful supporting artwork by Hergé.

In all, the issue reprints six short stories that run from four to seventeen pages in length. All include good quality illustrations, some in a more detailed classic illustration style and some with a modern 1970s look. Nearly all take advantage of the magazine’s two color printing.

In addition to Robinson’s article on comic strips, three other articles appear: “Was There Ever Such a Bird as a Dodo?,” “Water Snails” and “Take Off With Books.” The latter being two pages of reviews of children’s books.

I imagine the balance, the “fun and activities” pages, were favorites among subscribers. They feature an assortment of puzzles, jokes, a pancake recipe (inspired by Winnie-the-Pooh), and puzzle solutions.

Children’s Digest was “famously” printed on “eye ease” ever-so-slightly tinted paper. “This light green paper is easier on the eyes than white or any other tinted paper.”

Re-presented from The Digest Enthusiast book three, January 2016

A Blonde for Murder

Atlas Mystery digest

Late in the 1940s, a series of five Atlas Mystery digest paperbacks were launched. Their covers and back covers display the Atlas globe, but inside Vital Publications, Inc. is listed as the publisher. And in the case of A Blonde for Murder, the story is copyright Current Detective Stories, Inc., a publishing outfit owned by Martin Goodman.

The second in the short-lived series was A Blonde for Murder, written by famed Shadow author, Walter B. Gibson. The story features his magician character Johnny Ardini, who is highlighted as simply “Ardini” in the cover blurb and throughout most of the novel. The artwork, attributed to artist Peter Driben, shows the story’s mysterious blonde murder suspect about to be apprehended.

Gibson also wrote the final book in the Atlas Mystery series, Looks that Kill! featuring Valdor, a master mind reader. Both novels were available in reprint editions from Fiction House Press (through CreateSpace), but I didn’t find them in a recent check of their website—however, both are available from Amazon. The original Atlas Mystery editions can be found through secondary markets.

Excerpt from the review in TDE3.

Exploring the Unknown #30

Exploring the Unknown #30 July 1965

Exploring the Unknown #30 July 1965

I’ve been sampling several Fortean digests as follow-ons to a couple of issues of Fate from 2008. The first was Search #21, edited by Ray Palmer, who along with Curtis Fuller, were the originators of Fate.

Most recently was Exploring the Unknown #30, and next is Beyond #1. Exploring the Unknown (EXTU) was one of several titles edited by Robert A.W. Lowndes (RAWL) for Health Knowledge, Inc. during the 1960s.

Religion and belief are often foreground or background in these Fortean titles. Sections like “My Proof of Survival,” a regular in Fate feature readers’ accounts of their ghostly or near-death experiences offering “proof” of the afterlife and divinity.

From reading EXTU it seems RAWL was a religious man, at the very least one who spent considerable time and effort exploring theology and the BIG questions. EXTU #30 features the second of his three-part essay on Frank Robinson who brought the world “the new psychological religion: ‘Psychiana’.” He also wrote an extended review of Leave Your Nets by Joel S. Goldsmith. “[It] is a relatively small book—150 pages—with a tremendously big opportunity within its small compass for understanding Who and What God is and where God can be found. You read it at the risk of being changed if you respond to it.”

If the series follows suit with this issue, EXTU delves into the unexplained with a more serious, studious approach than other Fortean titles I’ve read. Articles like Edward D. Hoch’s “The Secret of Stonehenge” and the cover story “You Are an Esper” by Jerryl L. Keane, Ph.D. and “The Time Element of Dreams” by G.D. Kaye are heavy on research and lighter on speculation than your average other worldly reports, of which Beyond occupies the other extreme.

But it also includes articles skewed toward the unbelievable like Harry Walters’ “Mystery of the Fake Spirit Phone” and cosmic pontifications like Paul Brock’s “The Coming Mass Exodus to Other Worlds;” so there’s something for a variety of interests.

The digest magazine EXTU ran for over a decade and published nearly 60 issues, so it must have been doing something right. I’d certainly like to read more issues after sampling this one.

Jeff Canja’s Popular Fiction Periodicals

Popular Fiction Periodicals by Jeff Canja

Popular Fiction Periodicals by Jeff Canja

Excerpt from the review in The Digest Enthusiast #3:

“Bookseller Jeff Canja is well known to collectors of paperback books and periodicals. His monthly Modern Age Books catalogs are so much fun to peruse, they’re practically collectables themselves. His visual approach, a zine/catalog hybrid, with page-after-page of cover repros, is always a pleasure to find in your mailbox.

“With years of experience immersed in collectables it’s no surprise Canja is also the author of two pivotal reference books on his areas of expertise, one for paperbacks and another for magazines. His Popular Fiction Periodicals: A Collectors’ Guide to Vintage Pulps, Digests, and Magazines debuted
in 2005 and a second edition was published in 2009. The book was a finalist in the History: Media/ Entertainment category of the International Book Awards in 2012.”

It’s one of my favorite guides and highly recommended. You can find it in secondary markets or send an inquiry to Modern Age Books.

Fate #727: Voodoo, zombies & monsters

Fate #727 2015

Fate #727 2015

Of all of today’s newsstand digests, Fate magazine is probably the one most difficult to find in the wild. With issue 725 editor Phyllis Galde announced “Because our printing schedule has been somewhat irregular, and the calendar date does not match the current publication, we will now refer to Fate by the sequential number on the front.” In other words, no more dates—months or years on the cover or elsewhere. That doesn’t help distribution or newsstands, so if you’re anxious to support Fate you should subscribe like the majority of the magazine’s readers. They offer a variety of subscription options including one bypasses the mailing label and comes in an envelope.

There were three issues in 2015, which placed Fate #727 as a mid-year arrival. Here’s an excerpt from our review in TDE3:

“With its best cover in recent memory and its headline story: Marie Laveau, Voodoo High Priestess, Fate #727 provides a powerful first impression. In “I See by the Papers,” the Fate Staff provides the inside story on the cover painting. It’s a 1977 oil on wood by Charles Massicot Gandolfo, who founded the Voodoo Museum in 1972 and had to rely on first-hand impressions to create his portrait of Laveau (1801–1881) as no known photographs or verified portraits exist.

Brad Steiger’s report begins with a Voodoo Head Washing Ceremony conducted by Mambo Sallie Anne Glassman, one of the most active Voodoo practitioners in the United States today. It’s there, at the New Orleans Healing Center, that a new shrine created by Ricardo Pustanio, was installed to pay tribute to the reigning Voodoo priestess of the nineteenth century, Marie Laveau. Laveau who succeeded Mama Sanite Dede in about 1830, as High Priestess. The article touches on several fascinating events in the Voodoo Queen’s life, but at just five pages, I can’t help wishing there were far more.”

If you’d like to sample Fate they offer a free e-issue and full years (12 issues) from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s at $4 to $5 a copy.

Kristen Valentine’s Betty Fedora

Betty Fedora #2

Betty Fedora #2

Betty Fedora is a relatively new crime fiction digest edited and published by Kristen Valentine, who told TDE about her magazine’s origins: “…the other crime fiction magazines out there, while very good, feature stories that are heavy in the noir tradition: men getting in fights, femme fatales, and that’s it. I wanted to explore stories featuring female characters as a starting point.”

There are two editions out in print and digital, available here. We reviewed book two in TDE3. Here’s an excerpt about one of its gems:

“An Hawaiian attorney’s defense of a Hilo drug dealer threatens to sink her career in ‘Luxury to Die For’ by Albert Tucher. It’s a terrific balance of plot and story, with enough action to speed the read, enough depth to enliven the cast, and enough tropical cites to put us right there on the breach. The issue’s highlight. Tucher is the creator of the series character, Diana Andrews, a prostitute who appears in forty stories, with three novels forthcoming.”

At 5” x 8” Betty Fedora makes one beautiful package. Her classic 144-page figure pays tribute to the best of her forerunners. But she’s cast her own style—and sister, it’s one you won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.

Beyond: The Curse of the Dagsburg Diamonds

A chapel tower, similar to the only remains still above ground of the razed Dagsburg Castle.

A chapel tower, similar to the only remains still above ground of the razed Dagsburg Castle.

As Tom Brinkmann wrote in his article in TDE3, “The digest Beyond: Documented Truth About the Strange Phenomena of Our Times was more Fortean in its concerns than Borderline and, quite frankly, it was an inferior imitation of Fate.”

Even in its debut edition, some of Beyond’s articles crossed over to the realm of sensationalism. For example, the downed pilot who walked four miles across the surface of the ocean to reach land. Others, at least seemed based on fact or recorded folklore. Case in point, Steven Albert’s “The Curse of the Black Prince.”

Reportedly in the 17th Century, “The Black Prince” holed up in Dagsburg castle, held untold riches he’d plundered in war or robbed from citizens in surrounding areas, including nearby Dabo. When finally brought to justice, his captors tortured him as he had done to so many others, and with his dying words gasped, “I curse those who lay hands on my treasure! May they die in agony and may I return to wrench the treasure from their hands!”

The castle was razed and shortly thereafter the legend of the Dagsburg Diamonds began. “In the next three hundred and fifty years, 16 people were to die, all of them immediately following a futile search for the fabulous fortune that lay hidden beneath the ruins of Dagsburg castle.”

Flash forward to current times (few actual dates are included), and we learn that treasure-seeker Henri Gemillion, has located the jewels during his excavation of the ruins—no small feat for an 82-year-old man. Unable to find anyone willing to transport the cursed diamonds to a bank in Paris, Gemillion loads them into his custom-made Ferrari, along with his 27-year-old fiancé, Georgette Doreau and races through the forest of Dabo in the valley between the Vosges mountains and the plateau of Lorraine, toward Paris.

As you probably already know, “The Black Prince” suddenly appears on the road. Gemillion serves off the road and crashes into a grove of trees. The Ferrari immediately bursts into flames. Doreau is mercifully thrown from the vehicle before the crash and lands “onto a soft cushion of pine needles.”

Gemillion is dead. The diamonds, secured in the glovebox of the car are never found, believed to have been burned to ash in the intense heat. Doreau is rushed to hospital where she eventually recovers.

Several online searches for “The Black Prince,” Dagsburg castle, Dagsburg diamonds, Henri Gemillion or Georgette Doreau failed to return any useful verification of these facts, which can only mean the curse is even more powerful than first understood!

Big Fiction #7

Big Fiction #7

Big Fiction #7

“When you hold an issue of Big Fiction, you get the sense you’re holding an objet d’art—the cover, the text-block, the typeface, the printing, and, of course, the great fiction contained within. For me, Big Fiction touches much more than my imagination, reading becomes a more active, mindful experience.”

Excerpt from D. Blake Werts’ review in TDE2.