FUNERAL HOMES & UNDERTAKERS - A Mystery Checklist, by Steve Lewis et al.
Mortician: This is him, Edward O’Leary. Recognize him?
Maddie Hayes: I don’t know, we never knew him.
Mortician: Then what did you want to look at the body for?
Maddie Hayes: What did we want to look at the body for?
David Addison: We’re private detectives. It’s what we do.
Mortician: You wanna look at any others while you’re here?
Maddie Hayes: No thanks. Our limit is one stiff per day.
In recently writing a review of A Business of Bodies, by Stanton Forbes (Doubleday Crime Club, hc, 1966), I wondered in passing if that particular book was the first mystery novel to take place in and around a funeral home. Perhaps yes, but it doesn’t seem too likely, given the obvious opportunity for a detective story to begin in a mortuary. In fact, there are a couple of possibilities that need checking into as soon as possible.
As far as short stories are concerned, the pulp magazines must have contained quite a few that would qualify. Surprisingly enough, one of two such series of tales has been reprinted within the last year or so, and in hardcover yet. You’ll find it in the list below, along with one one-shot undertaker detective.
There have also been several recent series of detective novels in which undertakers have been the primary sleuths. (If there is a difference between an undertaker and a mortician, I have not researched that, and if there is, and if I’ve wrongly identified any of the series characters below, please let me know.)
Additions and/or correction to this checklist are welcome at any time.
UPDATE: Bill Pronzini has submitted a number of novels that qualify while at the same time disqualifying one that I had thought would fit right in. Entries supplied by Bill are denoted by (BP).
Ian Covell (IC) suggested a recent series by Rebecca Tope. It’s now included. So is a book by Sean Doolittle suggested by Graham Powell (GP) of BleekerBooks.com. Jim Felton (JF) nominated two books by Robert Martin, and I seconded the motion.
PERLEY POORE SHEEHAN wrote a series of pulp magazine tales about Dr. Coffin, a Hollywood undertaker who faked his own death and solved crimes as the “living dead man” for the Federal Secret Service. Assisting him were Captain Hughes of the FSS and a “squat, long-armed hunchback named Shorty.” (Thanks to Mark Halegua for pointing this pulp hero character out to me and to Monte Herridge for coming up with the titles and dates. The details of Dr. Coffin’s crime-fighting career came from Jess Nevins’ pulp and adventure hero website, which if you visit, you may stay for hours.)
Doctor Coffin, The Living Dead Man (Thrilling Detective, June 1932)
The Murdered Wide (Thrilling Detective, July 1932
Dead Man Blues (Thrilling Detective, Aug 1932)
Seven Seconds to Die (Thrilling Detective, Sept 1932)
Horror House (Thrilling Detective, Oct 1932)
Hollywood Ghost (Thrilling Detective, Nov 1932)
Crime Canyon (Thrilling Detective, Dec 1932)
Sudden Death (Thrilling Detective, Jan 1933)
The Black Ram (Thrilling Detective, Feb 1933)
The Chinese Alibi (Thrilling Detective, March 1933)
Skullface (Thrilling Detective, April 1933)
Manhattan Monster (Thrilling Detective, May 1933)
Midnight Justice (Thrilling Detective, June 1933)
The Chicken King (Thrilling Detective, Aug 1933)
Small Town Stuff (Thrilling Detective, Sept 1933)
J. PAUL SUTER - The Memoirs of Horatio Humberton: The Necrologist Detective (Battered Silicon Box, hc, 2004) Humberton was a mortician by day and solved crimes at night, often those with more than a touch of the supernatural.
The Angel of the Damned (Dime Detective, July 1932)The next grouping of pulp yarns were all uncovered by Monte Herridge:
Eyes of the Dead (Dime Detective, Sept 1932)
The Werewolf Horrors (Dime Detective, Feb 1933)
The Mill of Horror (Dime Detective, Aug 15, 1933)
Seconds of Doom (Dime Detective, Sept 1, 1933)
Shoes for the Dead (Dime Detective, Feb 1, 1934)
Post Mortem (Dime Detective, April 1, 1934)
Dead and Buried (Dime Detective, Aug 15, 1934)
The Hairy Death (Dime Detective, Oct 15, 1934)
The Corpse the Cat Dragged In (Dime Detective, Jan 1937)
EDWARD PARISH WARE -
“The Seven Coffins” (Detective Fiction Weekly, February 17, 1934). This story is part of the Tug Norton detective series. Norton’s agency is hired to guard six empty coffins in a deceased millionaire’s mansion, but the mystery of the seventh coffin causes murder. The mortician and his assistant are involved, and one scene takes place at the funeral home.
H. W. GUERNSEY -
“So Long, Gus!” (Detective Fiction Weekly, September 28, 1935. Mortician Naham Ambrose loads up a coffin in his undertaking parlor’s hearse and heads out of town. However, he is transporting a very much alive dangerous criminal named Gus Mallard in the hearse. He is hiding in the coffin, armed with a submachine gun.
FREDERICK C. DAVIS -
“The Undertaker Sleeps By Day” (Detective Fiction Weekly, Jan 27, 1940). A prominent Central City funeral home is involved in illegal activities, unearthed (um) by a reporter who discovers that the deaths of men who want new identities are faked, with bodies designated for potter’s field being buried under their names. The funeral home director is deeply involved.
BENNETT BARLAY -
As Bennett Barlay, pulp and mystery writer Kendall Foster Crossen wrote a series of pulp stories in Detective Fiction Weekly about a mortician detective who was aptly named Mortimer Death. For a complete listing and a more extensive overview of the series by Monte Herridge, go here.
CARL NESSLER -
“Coffin Fodder" (10-Story Detective, July 1943). In this tale, an undertaker murders a man in his funeral home workshop but makes a serious mistake which causes his arrest by the police.
G. T. FLEMING-ROBERTS -
“The Fat Undertaker” (Thrilling Detective, February 1944). The undertaker’s name is Dicken Cook, who was not a series character, though according to Monte, he might have been a good one. The story blurb reads: “Benign, two-hundred-and-seventy-pound Dicken Cook investigates the sudden death of Doc Pontius and proves to Hoxley Corners that you can’t embalm murder!”
E. C. MARSHALL -
“The High-Powered Corpse” (Ten Detective Aces, June 1946). Detective Tom Ching of the Chinatown Squad investigates a robbery perpetrated by the undertakers at a Chinese funeral parlor. You can read this one online in its entirety by going here. (Adobe Reader required.)
HUNT COLLINS -
“Dead Freight” (Famous Detective Stories, February 1952). Private eye Guthrie Lamb is hired by a mortician to find a body in a coffin stolen from his funeral home. In all likelihood, this obscure detective would remain hidden away in the musty archives of collectors’ closets, except for the well-known fact that “Hunt Collins” was one of author Ed McBain’s several pseudonyms, which makes both the story and the magazine immediately collectible.
But even more importantly, as Richard Moore has discovered and pointed out, is that Guthrie Lamb showed up again a second time in McBain’s Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear (Warner, 1996), almost 45 years later. If he made any other appearances in the meantime, no one seems to know about it.
Murders in the Mortuary. Putnam, 1936. About a master criminal known as the Verger, who “buries the bodies of his victims secretly at night in a country churchyard with full ritual, including tombstone and epitaph,” and “a diabolical secret that lies hidden in an undertaker’s private chapel.” (BP)
Just a Corpse at Twilight. Dodd Mead, 1955. This case for PI Jim Bennett takes place in part in the Tweed Funeral Home, and the mortician is a key character. Everyone has conspired to hide the true cause of death by preventing the autopsy of a man whose death Bennett is investigating for the state workers compensation bureau. (JF)
A Coffin for Two. Curtis, paperback original, 1972. Also a Jim Bennett novel. The Bleekman Funeral Home and its director come into play to a lesser degree than in the previous one, but the setting is needed because of dead bodies and opened burials, etc. (JF)
The Man in My Grave. Rinehart, 1956. A ghoulish Burke and Hare racket revolving around the Rocky Knoll Funeral Parlor and Rocky Knoll Cemetery in rural Illinois. (BP)
For Love of Imabelle. Gold Medal, 1957. Also published as A Rage in Harlem (Avon, 1965). When Jackson (played by Forest Whitaker in the film) steals money from his employer, the famed undertaker, H. Exodous Clay, he finds himself in a spot deeper than he could have possibly imagined. Series characters Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones are Harlem policemen who have only minor appearances in this comic novel. (SL)
RICHARD S. PRATHER
Dig That Crazy Grave. Gold Medal, pb original, 1961. Shell Scott and screwball goings-on at the Rand Brothers Mortuary in L.A., plus “a babe with a shape to make corpses kick open caskets.” (BP)
A Business of Bodies. Doubleday Crime Club, 1966. Besides being a detective mystery, this is also a “coming of age” novel, with high school grad Bill Beresford taking a summer job at the Greeley Howe Funeral Home before heading off to college in the fall. (SL)
DONALD E. WESTLAKE
The Busy Body. Random House, 1966. His classic comedy about grave-robbing and mortuary shenanigans. (BP)
Honor Thy Godfather. Stein & Day, 1973. Concerns the “ornate Scatologgia Funeral Home, which specializes in packing away ex-members of the mob,” and such else as exhumations, stolen coffins, and “the world’s greatest embalmer.” (BP)
LINDA AMEY - Series character: Blair Emerson, a funeral director in Austin, Texas, whose personal problems, centered around her obsessive-compulsive daughter, kidnapped as a child and returned eleven years later, are at the center of the three novels in which she has appeared.
Bury Her Sweetly (Lion Publishing, trade pb, 1992)
At Dead of Night (Bantam, pb, 1995)
The Stain of Guilt (iUniverse, trade pb, 2004)
LEO AXLER - Series character: Bill Hawley (undertaker). Described as a former alcoholic with a quick-trigger temper. Larry Fizner is an ex-cop PI who assists him. Setting: Cleveland, Ohio.
Final Viewing (Berkley, pb, June 1994)
Double Plot (Berkley, pb, October 1994)
Grave Matters (Berkley, pb, February 1995) Hawley gets an apprentice PI license in this book.
Separated at Death (Berkley, pb, April 1996)
Biggie and the Mangled Mortician. St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Biggie Weatherford of Job’s Crossing, Texas, along with her narrator/grandson J. R., investigates the death of the new mortician in town.
TIM COCKEY - Series character: Hitchcock Sewell (undertaker). The titles of the books in this series should be a clue as to the wisecracking nature of their protagonist, divorced, in his 30s and attractive to the opposite sex. Setting: Baltimore.
The Hearse You Came in On (Hyperion, hc, Mar 2000; pb, Feb 2001)
Hearse of a Different Color (Hyperion, hc, Feb 2001; pb, Feb 2002)
The Hearse Case Scenario (Hyperion, hc, Feb 2002; pb, Feb 2003)
Murder in the Hearse Degree (Hyperion, hc, Feb 2003; pb, July 2004)
Backstabber (Hyperion, hc, July 2004; pb, July 2005)
REBECCA TOPE - Series character: Drew Slocombe, a former nurse who in the first book becomes an undertaker trainee in the English village of Bradbourne. In the second book he opens his own “alternative” cemetery. (IC)
Dark Undertakings (Piatkus-UK, 1999; St.Martin’s-US, 2001)
Grave Concerns (Piatkus-UK, 2000; St. Martin’s-US, 2002)
The Sting of Death (Allison & Busby-UK; St. Martin’s-US, 2004) Det. Sgt. Den Cooper also appears in this book.
Dirt. Uglytown, trade paperback, 2001; 2nd edition, March 2005. When a group of protestors interrupts a funeral that Quince Bishop is attending, he chases down and nearly captures the leader, gets involves with the young woman who runs a legitimate cadaver’s rights group, and complications ensue. (GP)
ANNE MORGELLYN - Series character: Louise Moon, a mortuary technician at The Charitable Hospital of St. Roche Without the Walls in London, England. The books are described on Amazon as psychological chillers. From reading further details, I would not disagree. (SL)
Disremembering Eddy (Bewrite Books, trade paperback, 2002)
Removing Edith Mary (Bewrite Books, trade paperback, 2004)
TV series. (USA, 2003). This checklist has deliberately avoided stories which take place in and around morgues and characters who are medical examiners and forensic experts. But in this made-for-cable series, Katie Owen (Amy Carlson) is described as a local mortician who teams up with Federal Marshall Jared Stone (Tom Berenger) and ex-Pinkerton Agent Larimer Finch (Peter O’Meara) to fight crime the modern way in late 1800’s Colorado. Nine episodes were shown in all, and I’m sorry I missed them. (SL)
MARK de CASTRIQUE - Series character: Barry Clayton (undertaker). Clayton is a former Charlotte policeman who now manages the family funeral home in Gainesville, NC. Local police chief Tommy Lee Wadkins helps him keep up his interest in solving crimes.
Dangerous Undertaking (Poisoned Pen Press, hc, June 2003; Ibooks, pb, June 2004)
Grave Undertaking (Poisoned Pen Press, hc, May 2004; trade pb, Feb 2006)
Foolish Undertaking (Poisoned Pen Press, hc, Feb 2006)
BARBARA NADEL - Possible series character: Francis Hancock works as an undertaker in the 1940 bomb-stricken London Borough of West Ham.
Last Rights (Headline, UK hardcover, 2005). When a man Hancock meets in an air raid shelter is brought to his place of business two days later, very much dead, he suspects foul play has been done. (SL)
Possible entries, based on their titles only. (Note that Cockey was not the first with a punnish turn of mind.)
MERLE CONSTINER - Hearse of a Different Color (Phoenix Press, hc, 1952).
No. Has nothing to do with either with either funeral homes or undertakers. Its protagonist is a semanticist interested in backwoods Tennessee colloquialisms. (BP)
M. E. CHABER - A Hearse of Another Color (Rinehart & Co., hc, 1958). Story line unknown.
TONY KENDRICK - The Only Good Body’s a Dead One (Simon & Schuster, hc, 1971). Story line unknown. (IC)
And in the Western genre, there’s LEE FLOREN’s series about “Funeral” O'Neill, a frontier Montana undertaker who doubles as a Paladin-type gunfighter. A representative title is Rifles on the Rimrock (Arcadia House, 1952), a.k.a. Rifle Law (Berkley, 1959). (BP)
As GEORGE G. GILMAN, Terry Harknett wrote a series of western paperback originals called “The Undertaker.” (IC)
1. Black as Death (NEL, 1981; Pinnacle, 1985)
2. Destined to Die (NEL, 1981)
3. Funeral by the Sea (NEL, 1981)
4. Three Graves to a Showdown (NEL, 1982)
5. Back from the Dead (NEL, 1982)
6. Death in the Desert (NEL, 1982)
Note: Purely as a frame of reference, the HBO television series SIX FEET UNDER began in June 2001.
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