NEXT STOP, THE MORGUE by Bevis Winter (the fourth Steve Craig thriller)

Next Stop–The Morgue is the fourth (of 9) Steve Craig private-eye thriller, published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd. in 1956.

The blurb on the jacket reads:

Craig is hired by an uncommunicative character to keep an eye on his daughter.
The girl turns out not to be the man’s daughter, but she certainly bears watching.
Then Craig’s client dies in peculiar circumstances.
It looks like murder to Craig, and from half a dozen suspects with
ready-made motives he begins to comb the facts. But it is not all hard graft.
The girls in the case are shapely and disposed to be clinging; and Steve,
ever-ready to mix business with pleasure, does little to discourage them.
Kitty, knowing the symptoms, first purrs warningly and then shows her
manicured claws. Money, vice and scandal spice this story which starts
with the suspected murder of a mystery-man and ends with
the death of an alluring nymphomaniac
.”

Well, that blurb isn’t entirely accurate. Kitty certainly doesn’t sharpen her claws on any competition. She scarcely shows sexual interest in Craig. And I’d hardly call the alluring girl a nympho, though she certainly utilizes her feminine abilities to get her way. The rest of the blurb concisely gives you the low-down, but leaves out a whole bunch at the same time. And I plan on doing the same, in case someone plans on obtaining a copy to read. But who cares when they are drooling over that luscious red-head doll-baby on the dustjacket? Without further ado, let’s provide some additional plot-fodder.

NEXT STOP THE MORGUE cover

The story opens with an exhausted Steve Craig at home, tired and hungry. The doorbell rings. He opens it. An older gentleman (Daneston) enters, and hires Steve Craig to follow his daughter (Constance) discreetly. Steve accepts the assignment for $500 cash. Departing, Daneston enters the elevator and a young, lovely lady steps onto Steve’s floor. She seems to be searching for the right door, when Steve offers assistance. He’s convinced she is looking for someone named Dickerson (must be a neighbor, introduced in a prior novel) but she wants him!

Seems she has a problem with some guy blackmailing her, and she wants a strong man to make sure he leaves her alone after she pays. Steve ends up hijacked by Marcia Van Bergen and driven to her house-party. There is no blackmailer. Firing his ire further is the discovery that his own secretary (Kitty) aided in the deceit. Irritated, tired, and still hungry, Kitty placates his mood by insisting he stay for the party and enjoy the complimentary food.

Steve relents, and eventually is introduced to the younger sister (Betty) for whom the party is hosted. Left alone with her for a moment, he makes small-talk and offers to dance with her, only to rebuffed. Thinking she is a snob, he is later informed that she is actually paralyzed from the waist down.

Embarrassed, Steve seeks to apologize for his ignorance, only to stumble upon her outside in the dark, talking to a strong man named Marcus. Calling to her in the dark, he finds himself physically assaulted by this behemoth of a brute and knocked unconscious. Waking ten minutes later, he borrows a Caddy and returns home, to sleep and recuperate.

The next day, Steve assumes his role trailing Daneston’s daughter (Constance) all over town. She eventually leads him to a young man (Mike Larkman) involved in an aquatic job, something along the line of the famous Billy Rose’s Aquacade, which involves swimming, music, and dance. He’s young, fit, and good-looking.

Departing, her vehicular meanderings finally lands him at a remote, rural barn. He abandons his wheels and hikes on foot. Entering stealthily, he hears voices on the next level. Climbing a ladder, he sees Constance stroking and caressing a huge beast of a man. He appears to be an imbecile (and, yes, he is). To his disgust he watches as she kisses him. Ironically, he notices she is equally repulsed. She appears to be gearing him up for something awful, trying to increase his anger at someone. But who? Why? To what purpose? He slowly eases himself back down the ladder when it becomes apparent that Constance intends to leave, but Steve makes too much noise. They hear him and he hauls butt, only to be pursued by the behemoth, who turns out to be Marcus, the same man who assaulted him at the party!

Having lost track of his car in the dark, he’s overtaken but manages to escape. Next day, he goes to report to Daneston and finds him arguing with a young man wielding a gun. Entering, he breaks up the confrontation and goes so far as to disarm the hoodlum, who appears to be blackmailing Daneston to the tune of thousands of dollars.

Getting rid of him, Steve tells Daneston that Constance isn’t his daughter, that she’s actually Daneston’s much, much, MUCH younger wife! She’s 34 years younger. And was formerly his secretary for a good while. Not divulging his knowledge up to then of Constance’s moves, he stays on the job and follows her the next day to a remote cabin and finds Constance and aqua-boy Larkman having sex. Disgusted, Steve realizes the case is essentially done. He detests divorce case investigations. He wants out.

Next day, he calls Daneston, deciding to hand back what remains of the unspent $500 and quit the assignment, only to learn Daneston swan-dived off his balcony and went splat. Visiting the apartment, he walks in and speaks with the police and family doctor. Steve’s convinced that someone tossed Daneston over the balcony, and that while Daneston’s medication does make him drowsy, wasn’t sufficient for the mishap. Plus, Constance, the widow, is feigning to be distraught; Steve walks into her bedroom and finds her on the bed, with the doctor leaning over her, making out! That’s now her ex-husband, Larkman, Marcus, and the “good” family doctor she’s locked lips with. Good grief.

More things don’t add up (would hardly be a detective novel if they did) and he wants to know more about Marcus, the imbecile. Constance was winding Marcus up for something. Murder? He could have tossed Daneston over the balcony. But, why? Clearly Constance inherits, plus life insurance, etc.¬† But what does Marcus get out it? Her? Maybe he thinks so, but no way in hell is she keeping that date!

Next day, Steve decides to visit Betty, the paralyzed girl. He learns that Betty and Marcus scarcely know each other. Marcus works at a farm run by an elderly couple. She, being crippled, tries to relate to the introverted, quiet Marcus. Eventually they hit it off, and Steve learns that Marcus has taken Betty for rides in his beat-up delivery truck, etc. Nothing more, nothing less. Betty insists that Marcus is not capable of violence, except in a protective manner. Then why assault Steve that night at the party? Betty informs him that her sister does not approve of Betty mixing with Marcus, and he was worried Steve had seen too much.

Not convinced, Steve trips out to the barn at night, to discover a corpse tossed against a fence. Turning on his flashlight, he gazes upon the beaten and throttled Constance. Looks like Marcus lost control and strangled her to death after learning she wouldn’t keep her promise. Steve hears a scream and finds Marcus hauling another woman into the barn. Steve recognizes his own secretary, Kitty, as the victim! She came out there not wanting Steve to handle the beast alone, and, against his orders, she made the drive, but instead came upon Marcus in the dark. Steve eventually gets Kitty free of Marcus and ties him up to the sturdy ladder. Then he phones the police from the elderly couple’s home.

Betty learns of the arrest and arrives at the police station with a lawyer. They talk to the jailed Marcus and eventually gather that Marcus, just like Steve, accidentally came upon the corpse of Constance. In fear, he retreated, then heard a noise, and saw Kitty approaching. Fearing for her life, he grabbed her, smothered her mouth, and was secreting her into the barn for her own safety, fearing the murderer was still on the premises, especially since he saw Steve’s flashlight beam and believed Steve to be the culprit.

The police chief releases Marcus with the aid of additional facts. Constance had flesh under her nails from clawing her assailant. Marcus was scratch-free. Steve is annoyed at the embarrassment of having accused an innocent man of murder. We learn that Marcus was Daneston’s imbecile son, from his first marriage. That wife went insane and died in an asylum. Not wanting the son, he gave the boy to his late wife’s parents! Hence the elderly couple at the farm raising him.

There remains one last mission. Arrest the person that murdered Constance. That leaves only one person with a motive: aqua-boy Mike Larkman.

Steve revisits that isolated decrepit cabin and finds Larkman inside sitting against the wall, with not a care in the world. He confesses that his jealousy of Constance’s constant flirting with men incensed him. He even went so far as to catch her smooching Marcus! Confronting her outside the barn, the fiery Constance sent him into an insane frenzy. By the time they were finished arguing and pushing one another around, she was dead. Mortified at what he had done, he vacated.

Steve discovers that Larkman has overdosed on the late Daneston’s medication. Larkman is rapidly going from drowsy to unconscious. Lifting the dead-weight upon his shoulders, Steve hauls him out of the cabin and carries him to his car, then speeds to a ward six miles away. Instructing the doc what med the man overdosed on, they get to work pumping his stomach…so that he may live to die, properly, by execution.

A fun novel from start to finish, one I scarcely had the ability to set aside. Each concluding chapter begged me to read the next, and given that I tend to read at night, you can bet I lost hours of sleep each night. But, hey! how about a little bit of background on the author…

Following the conclusion of World War Two, Bevis Winter found work editing and publishing Stag, a humorous magazine, from 1946-1948. Between those years, he contributed articles and short stories to Stag and other publications, honing his literary skills. Following the publication in 1947 of Sad Laughter, a collection containing some of his humorous short stories, Bevis sold in 1948 his first thriller Redheads Are Poison, followed in 1949 with his second thriller, Make Mine Murder (blogged back in 2016).

An avalanche of novels flowed from his typewriter from 1950-1954, mostly under his alias: Al Bocca. With the mushroom-publishers going out of business due to harsh English fines, censorship, bannings, and jail sentences, Winter rapidly found work writing under his own name for the respectable publisher Herbert Jenkins, supplying them with nine Steve Craig thrillers. These have been translated worldwide into a variety of foreign languages. And much to my own personal delight, the late 2022 issue of Paperback Parade published by crime-collecting afficionado Gary Lovisi features a bibliography on Bevis Winter! And if you wish to read this novel, good luck! Some lucky person(s) purchased the few copies that were on ABE. Maybe they had an inside track to the Winter bibliography.

NEXT STOP, THE MORGUE by Bevis Winter (the fourth Steve Craig thriller)

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