Ellery Queen and Cornell Woolrich, the subjects of Nevins’s two Edgar-winning critical biographies, are the presiding spirits of this collection of 14 reprints (1973–2002).
Broadly speaking, Nevins’s Woolrich is better than his Queen. Although neither the Woolrichesque “The Last Passenger,” about a bus rider who fears she’s being stalked by a serial killer, nor the equally dark Raymond Chandler pastiche “Consultation in the Dark” ever achieves the intensity of their originals, they’re both worthy imitations. Formal detective stories like “The Kumquats Affair” (a case for Loren Mensing: Into the Same River Twice, 1996, etc.) and “Bagworms” (an adventure for Nevins’s series con artist Milo Turner) feature fact-based legal scams more interesting than the murder mysteries they provoke. Best of all, though least characteristic of Nevins’s longer work, are the stories that mix Queen’s ratiocination, Woolrich’s sense of looming menace, and a dollop of black humor. If the murderous games in “Funeral Music” seem merely playful, the face-off in “Counterplot” between a man and a woman who keep pulling new identities from their hats crackles with tension; “Bad Bargain,” whose hero labors to talk his wife’s hit man out of killing him, snaps shut as satisfyingly as a mousetrap; and the title story, in which a hopeful heir plots to murder a distant relative before his victim can be convicted of killing his own wife, is Nevins’s most successful combination of clever and ghoulish.
Skip the soft-boiled stories; try them hard-boiled or over-easy.