Steve

Aug 192014
 
THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


M. R. D. MEEK – A Mouthful of Sand. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1989. Worldwide, paperback, 1990. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1988.

   I quite like M.R.D. Meek’s stories about Lennox Kemp, and A Mouthful of Sand is no exception. Kemp, a lawyer, was barred from practice when he took money to pay his wife’s gambling debts. She disappeared along with his reputation, and he served a lonely six years’ penance as a private investigator.

   Now he’s back in the law, doing very well, having a relationship (albeit uneasy) with Penelope Marsden. His life is coming back together; perhaps he will marry Penelope and banish the loneliness he fears so much.

   Here a tycoon asks him for a written opinion on the state of British marriage law. Lennox complies, then [leaves] to go on vacation to Cornwall, coincidentally to the coastal town where the tycoon’s wife has gone to recover from severe depression. But her condition worsens, and the battered head of a man is found on the beach. Soon Kemp finds himself ensnared — heart and mind.

   Very effective storytelling, full of subtleties and dense with expressive language.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes: Since Lennox Kemp is a Private Eye, there’s no place better to look for information about than the Thrilling Detective website. There Kevin Burton Smith says, in part: “… while waiting to be reinstated (the events leading up to his disbarment are related in the first book in the series), he earns his daily bread as an op for the London-based McCready’s Detective Agency. But he is eventually reinstated, and this spare yet often elegant series, full of rich characterization, and sharp writing, continues, with Kemp as a particular hands-on type of attornney, part Perry Mason and part Lew Archer.”

   His creator was in real life Margaret Reid Duncan Meek (1918-2009), a retired lawyer.

       The Lennox Kemp series —

With Flowers That Fell (1983)

The Sitting Ducks (1984)
Hang the Consequences (1984)
The Split Second (1985)
In Remembrance of Rose (1986)

A Worm of Doubt (1987)
A Mouthful of Sand (1988)
A Loose Connection (1989)
This Blessed Plot (1990)
Touch and Go (1992)

Postscript to Murder (1996)
If You Go Down to the Woods (2001)
The Vanishing Point (2003)
Kemp’s Last Case (2004)

 Posted by at 11:58 pm
Aug 192014
 

L. P. HOLMES – Destiny Range. Leisure, paperback, March 2009. First book publication: Greenberg, hardcover, 1936. First appeared in Five-Novels Monthly, May 1932; reprinted in Popular Western, October 1951.

   Dex Sublette, foreman of the Pinon Ranch, and all of the cowhands working for him are surprised to learn that the retired owner has sold the spread to a woman — and a Russian princess, to boot. They do not take the news with delight:

    “I thought I had hard luck when a bronc kicked in two ribs for me,” Shorty groaned. “But I didn’t know what hard luck was. A Russian Princess for a boss! Holy cow! If that ain’t awful! I’ll bet she’ll be a string-necked old battle-axe, soured on the world — and the male sex in particular. I’ll bet she’ll take an unholy delight in raw-hiding us to a fare-ye-well. I’ll bet–”

   Shorty couldn’t be more wrong. The young lady is Sonia Stephanovich, or at least it used to be. She now wishes to be called Sonia Stephens. Having fled the Russian Revolution with only a maid and a few belongings, she now hopes to build a new life in this section of the American West she once visited as a child.

   As for being a string-necked old battle-axe:

    Her face was a delicate oval, slightly high of cheekbone. Her skin was a dusky, smooth ivory. Her lips were bewitching. The lower one was particularly full and rich and crimson, and it gave to her expression an elfin impudence which was a delight. Here and there, from beneath the edges of her hat, a few threads of black, silken haur showed. She made an absorbing, stirring picture as she stood there, half defiantly, half appealingly.

   And of course all of the men on the ranch who now call her boss are smitten, but no more than Dex Sublette himself. The story that follows is as much a romance as it is a western novel, with all of the ups and downs and pitfalls that are bound to arise when two human beings of opposite sexes and opposite ways of life meet and are attracted to each other.

   Until, that is, page 150 or so, of a 240 page story, when Dex learns that Sonia has been kidnapped and all hell breaks loose. Not everyone survives the battle between good guys and bad, but does true love prevail? I’ll bet you already know the answer to that.

   To be honest, though, in spite of all the heroics, flying bullets and tragic deaths that occur in the last third of the book, I enjoyed the on again, off again romance in the first part of the book quite a lot more, as contrived and as (dare I say it?) corny as it reads to a modern day reader.

 Posted by at 12:59 am
Aug 182014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


HENRI WEINER – Crime on the Cuff. William Morrow, hardcover, 1936.

   Cartoonists who are detectives are rare. Also infrequent are one-armed detectives. In this novel, John Brass combines the two as he investigates a dual kidnapping plus murder on his doorstep. Meant to be amusing and exciting, the novel fails on both scores.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   This is the one of two mystery novels by author Stephen Longstreet (1907-20020, published under this name. The other is The Case of the Severed Skull, a paperback reprint of Death Walks on Cat Feet (1938), published in hardcover as by Paul Haggard.

   Also in the late 30s Longstreet wrote three other works of crime fiction as by Haggard, all three with a series character named Mike Warlock, about whom I know nothing, in spite of the interesting sounding name.

   As a literary novelist and playwright, Stephen Longstreet turns out to be significant enough to have a Wikipedia page of his own, and as a screenwriter, even more credits on IMDb. Says the biography page for him there: “Studied in Paris and at Rutgers and Harvard Universities, graduating from the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (Parsons) in 1929. [...] Writer, cartoonist, and painter. He published over one hundred novels and five books on jazz, illustrated with his own drawings and watercolors.”

 Posted by at 11:09 pm
Aug 182014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE BIG STEAL. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949. Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix, Patric Knowles, Ramon Novarro, Don Alvarado, John Qualen. Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes) & Gerald Drayson Adams, based on the story “The Road to Carmichael’s” by Richard Wormser (The Saturday Evening Post, 19 September 1942). Director: Don Siegel.

   The Big Steal is an action-packed crime film starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, the duo best known for their work together in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. Although it’s not as nearly as artistic as the better-known Tourneur film, The Big Steal is very much a solid piece of filmmaking. It benefits from not only from its strong cast, but also by its excellent pacing.

   Directed by Don Siegel, whose great crime film, The Lineup, I reviewed here, The Big Steal defies easy categorization. It’s not so much a film noir as it is a hard-boiled crime film, replete with terse dialogue, witty and sarcastic banter between the two leads. Shifting allegiances also figure prominently. Plus, there’s a thrilling car chase sequence that predates Anthony Mann’s well-known car chase through a visually claustrophobic Manhattan in Side Street.

   There’s something of light comedic aspect to The Big Steal, making it a bit less hard-boiled and more of a good old-fashioned, south of the border caper. Did I mention there’s a shootout between Mitchum’s character and some Mexican hired thugs that’s more reminiscent of a Western than anything out of what’s typically thought of as film noir?

   The plot basics are as follows. Duke Halliday (Mitchum) arrives in Mexico in pursuit of Army payroll cash that he alleges was stolen by Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles). He teams up with Joan Graham (Greer), who was cheated out of a comparatively meager sum of cash by Fiske, with whom she was having some sort of romantic liaison back in the States.

   The two attempt to track down Fiske, all the while being pursued by the haplessly ineffectually U.S. Army Captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix). Adding to the cat-and-mouse aspect is a Mexican law enforcement officer by the name of Ortega (Ramon Novarro) who is eager to let Halliday and Graham lead him to Fiske. All the while, Ortega has time to practice his English and ogle pretty Mexican girls poolside. John Qualen rounds out the cast as Seton, the film’s quirky, art collecting arch-villain.

   With the notable exception of the final showdown, The Big Steal isn’t a particularly moody film. It’s not much of a psychological study, either. It’s simply a significantly above average late 1940s crime film with a coterie of colorful characters, all chasing one another up and down Mexican streets. It may not be one of Mitchum’s iconic roles, but he’s really quite good here.

   There’s one scene in which he sits backward in a chair, smirking at his rival. It’s a pretty much perfect moment in a film that overall works very well. As for Greer, she’s no femme fatale in this. She’s just a gal along for the ride. All told, it’s a pretty entertaining one.

 Posted by at 3:11 am
Aug 172014
 
IT’S ABOUT CRIME
by Marv Lachman

R. AUSTIN FREEMAN – The Eye of Osiris. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1911. First US edition: Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1912. Reprinted many times, including Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1986.

   Carroll & Graf has logically followed its publication of R. Austin Freeman’s first Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Red Thumb Mark, with the second in that series, The Eye of Osiris. (There is an as yet unreprinted collection of short stories, John Thorndyke’s Cases, which is sandwiched in the Freeman chronology by these novels.)

   In Osiris the detective’s Watson (a doctor named Jarvis) is relegated to the sidelines, and another young-doctor-in-love narrates. We get such wonderful corny passages as “Reverently I folded her in my arms, gathered her to the heart that worshiped her utterly. Henceforth no sorrows could hurt us, no misfortune vex, for we should walk hand in hand on our earthly pilgrimage and find the way all too short,” and “…the light of her love went with me and turned the dull street into a path of glory.”

   Not to worry. These sections of purple prose do not detract (they actually provide comic relief) from a well-plotted mystery about the disappearance, in the heart of London, of a noted Egyptologist. Freeman combines a considerable narrative gift with detailed knowledge of medicine (skeleton bones keep popping up all over England) and many aspects of the law.

   There are two legal proceedings which are described with delicious satire. I found myself laughing aloud, though this is not the reaction I expected in approaching R Austin Freeman. The solution is ingenious, though it helps if you’ve been to medical school if you want to compete with Dr. Thorndyke in arriving at it.

   Unfortunately, the denouement is dragged out too long, contributing to this book being a whopping 344 pages.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.

 Posted by at 9:32 pm
Aug 172014
 
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


TRUE CONFESSION. 1937. Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, John Barrymore, Una Merkel, Porter Hall, Edgar Kennedy, Lynne Overman, Fritz Feld, Tom Dugan, John T. Murray, Hattie MacDaniel. Director: Wesley Ruggles.

   Honest lawyer Ken Bartlett (MacMurray) won’t represent anyone unless he thinks they are genuinely innocent, and as a result he and wife Helen (Lombard) are struggling. Since opposites attract in film as well as life, Lombard is a compulsive liar and writes fiction that doesn’t sell because as friend Merkel says, “all the people you write about are crazy.”

   Desperate for work Lombard takes a job as personal assistant to a wealthy man (John T. Murray) with plans to hide the job from her husband despite warnings from Merkel about her best qualification being something other than shorthand.

         Lombard: Where does the secretary usually do most of her work?

         Butler Fritz Feld: Hah!

   Sure enough boss gets a bit handsy, Lombard resists and hits him , and then when she goes back with Merkel in tow for her hat, the police led by Edgar Kennedy show up, and Mr. Arnold’s body is shot dead in his home office. Good thing she is married to a lawyer, but he only defends the innocent, and he’s not so sure she’s among them.

   This was the fourth and final outing for Lombard and MacMurray, and by this point they were a smooth team with another even better screwball comedy, the mystery The Princess Comes Across, under their belts. Here a mustache-bearing MacMurray is more than a little peeved with her, but still can’t live without her or with her.

   Ironically John Barrymore, top billed not that many years before in Twentieth Century, is third billed here and well towards the end of his career.

   Lombard is delightful with a fine scene when she gets caught up in Edgar Kennedy’s theory of why she did it, and then when she finds Kennedy doesn’t want an easy case, her too fertile mind leaps to his aid, and she confesses more or less just to entertain him. Whenever her tongue wanders into her right cheek there is trouble afoot.

   When her gun shows up in her apartment she is headed for a cell, and an angry MacMurray still can’t stay mad when he is near her, his stern lectures always ending in a clench even in a cell. But when he finds out she didn’t do it, his whole strategy is shot, since he can’t claim self-defense, and Lombard sees it as a chance for him to get headlines and business — even with her neck on the line, so she tells MacMurray she shot the man in self-defense even though she didn’t.

   Enter John Barrymore blowing balloons and popping them in a saloon to the annoyance of owner Lynne Overman. Barrymore lays claim to being a great criminologist as a “student of life,” and after reading about the case, he is off to the courtroom where he is a regular in his white Chaplinesque suit (clearly his character is modeled on Chaplin’s little tramp even miming the walk and the cane twirl).

   Things look bad. Prosecutor Porter Hall seems to have a perfect case for first degree murder against her, so her confession doesn’t look half so promising for her husband’s career. As Barrymore tells Merkel, “She’ll fry.”

   Barrymore shows up to talk to Lombard in her cell and frightens her to death describing how she will look “fried,” leaving her more than a little scared as reality sets in so she retracts her confession — again, but now MacMurray only wants to win the “honest way.” She’s stuck with her lie, only now she realizes she could end up in the chair.

   Watch for the scene where she and MacMurray recreate the crime in court a bit too strenuously with the less than cooperative aid of a prop door that won’t open while Barrymore lets air out of one of his balloons as commentary.

   By now even the jury is lost and find her not guilty out of sheer confusion. And there’s more to come…

   This is a fast, often zany, and at times delirious screwball comedy. It really isn’t a mystery despite the murder, and MacMurray has a point that it a lot of happiness to come from someone’s murder, but no one seems to mind as much as he does.

   Lombard rides again, unrepentant to the end, the last shot of her, as MacMurray slings her over his shoulder to try and teach her the error of her ways again, is tongue literally in cheek.

   This may not rank with It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, or Nothing Sacred, but that said, it is fresh, funny, and thanks to Lombard, sometimes take flight as only the best of screwball comedy can. In any case a Lombard film I’ve never seen before is always worth watching.

 Posted by at 3:00 am
Aug 162014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE TEXAS RANGERS. Paramount Pictures, 1936. Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie, Jean Parker, Lloyd Nolan, Edward Ellis, George “Gabby” Hayes. Director: King Vidor.

   The Texas Rangers is a quite fun, if sometimes predictable, 1930s Western. Directed by King Vidor and starring Fred MacMurray, the movie benefits from an overall solid cast, some great scenery, a devious villain, and enough personal conflicts between the characters to keep you engaged with the story throughout the film’s running time of a little over ninety minutes.

   While The Texas Rangers is not the type of film you watch for the cinematography or to explore frontier psychology, it is worth viewing for its good direction, plot twists, and some rugged, well choreographed, frontier action. There’s an especially harrowing sequence involved Indians rolling boulders down a hill in order to maim and murder some Rangers that is really something to behold.

   The movie begins, like many a Western, with bandits holding up a stagecoach driven by a semi-comical character by the name of Wahoo Jones (Jack Oakie). Soon enough, it turns out that Wahoo is in cahoots with the bandits, his friends Jim Hawkins (MacMurray) and Sam McGee (Lloyd Nolan). After the robbery, the men decide to part ways. McGree heads off to seek his Mexican girlfriend. Wahoo and Jim decide to stick together, eventually joining the Texas Rangers.

   But the three men will be reunited soon enough. Out on patrol for cattle rustlers, Jim and Wahoo, now both Texas Rangers, find out that their old friend Sam is now living in their small part of the world. A plan is hatched, with the men deciding that they’ll work together on a criminal scheme, utilizing inside information that Jim can obtain now that he’s a lawman.

   And as might be expected from a movie such as this, Jim eventually has a change of heart about his criminal ways, setting the stage for a confrontation with Sam (Nolan). Unlike some other Westerns I’ve watched recently, in this one at least, the protagonist’s change in mindset is gradual, haphazard, and believable. Up to the very end at least, he really doesn’t want to harm his former partner in crime.

   Although MacMurray is quite good in this, it’s Nolan’s character that is more dynamic and interesting. There’s something universal about his being that’s just plain villainous. Sam McGee wouldn’t seem all that out of place in 1930s New York. He just seems a bit more gangster than outlaw. He’s truly ruthless, someone who isn’t above murdering an old friend for the sake of maintaining his criminal ways.

   In conclusion, The Texas Rangers isn’t a particularly deep or introspective film, as much as a well paced, gripping action movie set on the Texas frontier. Its depiction of Native Americans isn’t especially enlightened, but that’s to be expected. And with the exception of Sam McGee, the movie’s main characters can at times come across as somewhat one-dimensional. But that doesn’t stop the film from being an above average Western, one that tells a story about men in a certain time and place, and which tells it very well.

 Posted by at 2:38 am
Aug 152014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


RICHARD STARK – The Jugger. Pocket 50149, paperback original, 1965. Reprinted several times, mostly in softcover.

   A few years ago I re-read one of Richard (Donald E. Westlake) Stark’s old “Parker” novels in the standard “caper” vein, Green Eagle Score, so I recently thought I’d try something a bit different, and selected The Jugger, wondering, as I did, whether Stark’s writing would seem as fine now as it did to the High-School kid I was thirty years ago. My doubts were answered in the first two paragraphs:

   When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page. He put the paper down and looked around the room and everything was clean and ordinary. He walked over and opened the door.

   The little guy standing there was dressed like he was kidding around.

   Right there. Right in your face, but gently, hints of death, something to conceal, and a trace of tough humor. Makes me wish I could write like that.

   The Jugger departs from the usual format of the series to center on Parker’s response when an old associate writes to ask him for help. It develops that the old-timer (the “jugger” of the title, i. e., someone who has done time in “the jug”) has been hounded to death by a venal cop looking for loot stashed away from previous capers. When Parker shows up just days after the jugger’s death, the cop is convinced he must have an inside track on Where’s The Money.

   I remembered this had a fairly perfunctory murder-mystery angle, but I forgot how abruptly Parker wraps it up. I also recalled a pleasantly tricky bit of business toward the end, as Parker makes sure the cop won’t double-cross him, and one other thing: When Parker responds to the jugger’s plea, he is not necessarily going to help him — he’s going to see if the old-timer has gone soft enough to sell out his friends and hence need to be killed.

 Posted by at 4:34 am
Aug 142014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE GIANT CLAW. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Louis Merrill, Edgar Barrier, Robert Shayne. Director: Fred F. Sears.

   It’s not everyday that a hideously looking giant bird from outer space soars through American airspace. Even less frequent, I would guess, would that bird have some form of protective anti-matter barrier allowing it to escape detection by radar.

   But that’s the exactly the case in the Sam Katzman-produced, The Giant Claw, a schlocky creature feature that manages to be silly, enjoyable, predictable, and just a little bit subversive.

   Directed by Fred F. Sears, the story follows Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) and his mathematician girl friend, Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday), as they alternatively butt heads and team up with the U.S. military in an effort to destroy an extraterrestrial flying bird creature that threatens humanity. It’s obviously not a serious movie, but the two lead actors, to their credit, take their parts seriously enough to make it work.

   As far as the creature, it’s indeed a strange looking thing, with bulging eyes and yes, a giant claw. Plus, it’s got an unusual hairstyle that looks more East Village in the 1980s than monster movie in the 1950s.

The bird’s tenacious, though. It’s immune to both conventional and atomic weapons and has little to no patience for rebellious teenagers. And it may have even seen King Kong, given its decision to perch on top of the Empire State Building at one point during the film.

   If you think about it a bit, you come to realize that the film takes a slightly subversive approach to the military brass, which comes across as all too eager to initially disbelieve reports of the bird creature’s existence, then make its very existence classified once they realize that the reports were indeed true. In addition, they come across more than eager to utilize weapons to destroy it. It’s a theme that certainly not unique to The Giant Claw, but one which is fairly well developed for a late 1950s film.

   I wouldn’t dare call The Giant Claw a great movie. In fact, it’s not really even a good movie in the traditional sense. But it’s got something really good going for it — it’s undeniably great escapism, made to entertain rather than to enlighten.

 Posted by at 2:42 am
Aug 132014
 
THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


EDWARD MATHIS – The Burned Woman. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1989. Berkley, paperback, 1990.

   The late Edward Mathis [1927-1988] reportedly left a pile of manuscripts, and, if The Burned Woman is any indication, we have some fine treats in store. Here we travel further down the Dan Roman trail. He’s [a private eye] married to Susie, sixteen years his junior and very successful in TV reporting.

   Those years of age difference, the demands of her job, the crude advances of one of Susie’s celebrity interviewees — these all eat at Dan, and he drives her away. Whereupon, after a meeting with the celebrity, she disappears. Dan is plunged into alcoholic despair, alienating his best friend, “proving” his love for Susie by dallying with a prostitute, flailing randomly about as the weeks pass.

   Could the celebrity be holding Susie somewhere, could Susie’s disappearance be connected with a road accident near the celebrity’s home on the night she disappeared?

   Roman here emerges as a deeply flawed person, but the tale is masterfully plotted and utterly compelling.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.

       The Dan Roman series –

From a High Place (1985)

Dark Streaks and Empty Places (1986)
Natural Prey (1987)
Another Path, Another Dragon (1988)
The Burned Woman (1989)
Out of the Shadows (1990)

September Song (1991)
The Fifth Level (1992)

 Posted by at 10:44 pm