The Best of Jake Winkman, by Don Von Elsner

Title: The Best of Jake Winkman

Author: Don Von Elsner

Publication Data:  A collection of short stories originally published in magazines (probably Popular Bridge Magazine) with two stories as first published here, according to the foreword.    This edition: 1981, first edition, trade paperback format, Max Hardy.   ISBN 0939460165.

About this book:

This book has an extremely limited audience; people who like mystery short stories who are also reasonably skilled players of duplicate bridge.  All five of us enjoyed this book, I’m sure.  It’s a fairly safe bet that you will not.

Jake Winkman, according to the publisher’s foreword, is “Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, Omar Sharif, and your own favorite International bridge star, all rolled into one”.  Well, no, he’s not; not even close.  He is the protagonist of three cheesy novels (paperback originals) from the 1960s and three collections of short stories that were usually published in magazines written for bridge players.  Bridge players do not have high standards when it comes to fiction that contains lots of bridge, it seems; Von Elsner is a lousy writer. Mr. Winkman is a professional bridge player and part-time international espionage agent.  Yes, he is. This was a period of time that produced both James Bond and Matt Helm and a host of imitators, and Jake Winkman is the bottom of that particular barrel.

He is not even remotely anything like Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason.  He is something like Omar Sharif in that both play bridge at the international tournament level, and both have the reputation of having sex with a lot of women.  Omar Sharif, however, has class.  (From reading his autobiography, I can tell you that he was not as much of a cocksman as people think, but he certainly has class.) Since Von Elsner obviously has no experience of sex outside marriage, Jake Winkman is — well, his antics are roughly what a 13-year-old boy might imagine a smooth-talking guy would do and say in order to get a woman into bed.  And since these novels were written in the 1960s, there are no “dirty parts”; the sex is implied.  Lots of “filmy negligees” and “swelling breasts” and stuff.

The bridge is not too bad, though.  If you are not an aficionado of bridge literature or even duplicate bridge, you will not find this book of any interest at all; Von Elsner cannot write realistic characters, plots or dialogue.  (His other series, about a spy named David Canning, is even worse — more fake sex, more ridiculous espionage, less redeeming bridge.)  He can, however, write about bridge hands in an entertaining and instructive way.  The problem is that there are too few of them sprinkled through the stories.

In fact, the stories divide into two groups; poorly-plotted stories where a knowledge of bridge is required in order to understand the denouement, and stories that dispense entirely with plot, character and dialogue and pretty much just talk about bridge.  (These are listed in the table of contents as “system stories”.)  Unfortunately bridge bidding has moved on considerably in the 50 intervening years since first publication and the reader will not find as much to astound in the explanation of, say, reverses, which were once esoteric and are now vieux jeu.  I have to admit that Von Elsner has the knack of illustrating the play of the hand in an interesting way but again, there is not enough of this to make it worthwhile to plough through the stodge, poor writing and filmy negligees.  The first story is the best, in which Winkman proves at a trial that a doctor friend of his still has all his marbles by demonstrating that he can analyze bridge hands.  This is fairly unbelievable, but the rest of the stories are so nonsensical as to make this one reasonable by comparison.

If you know someone who has about 100 masterpoints in the ACBL, this will perhaps make them one of the very, very few people who will bother to finish this book.  Consider yourself warned.

Notes For the Collector:

Max Hardy was at one time an assiduous publisher of books about bridge.  These are mostly textbooks aimed at a very specialized market, which I can describe generally as the intermediate bridge player.  (They’re too difficult for beginners and written by the experts.)  However, there is a small category of fiction about bridge.  Some of this is written by good writers like Victor Mollo and David Bird; good writers are not the ones published by Max Hardy, by and large.

Collectors of this sort of literature will find over time that while Mr. Hardy’s enthusiasm for bridge books brought a lot of books into print, his lack of knowledge about the mechanics of publishing a book meant that half his efforts fell apart as soon as you finished reading them.  The type is ugly and amateurish, the layout is misguided and awkward, and there are particular problems with all Max Hardy books with cover stock and, particularly, binding and glue.  Thus, like comic books and early paperbacks, the value of an intact book increases through no fault of the publisher; anything that survives intact is worthwhile.  The cover price is $5.95. I paid $9 for my copy of this, probably at a dealer’s table at a bridge tournament; I seem to have overpaid, since offers 10 copies, the most of expensive of which is $8 plus shipping.  My copy is perfectly bound and glued, though, which makes it something of a rarity.

And, honestly, have you ever seen such ugly amateurish cover art in your entire life?  It’s cited as being by one “Jon McDonald”, which means it is not by the high-school-aged daughter of the publisher, much to my surprise.  At least today’s self-publishers usually have the good sense to avoid such distasteful covers.  Its very ugliness may actually give it some future camp value.



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