CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. Universal International, 1959. Starring Eric Fleming, Michael Pate, Kathleen Crowley, Bruce Gordon. Written & directed by Edward Dein.
What could have been a campy disaster emerges as an off-beat effort with some memorable moments. Not a complete success, but much better than you’d expect from a Vampire Western.
Things start quickly, with writer/director Dein showing off a fine sense of pace as a young lady dies mysteriously with (you guessed it) bite-marks on her neck — an escaping demon suggested by a shade flapping violently in the bedroom window, in a neat bit of understatement.
From here we move on to some typical Western range-war dramatics, but no range itself, as if the budget couldn’t be stretched to include any wide open spaces. Or maybe Dein just wanted to keep things creepy and claustrophobic in this town-bound gothic.
Whatever the case, the stock characters hang around saloon and offices going through their usual paces, with the Big Rancher pushing on the smaller ones, the Sheriff standing tough in the middle, the hot-head edging towards a showdown, and pious Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) trying to keep everyone above ground and unperforated while casting eyes on the local Rancher’s Daughter (Kathleen Crowley.)
(PARENTHETICAL NOTE: A critic once pointed out that B westerns are rife with ranchers and ranchers’ daughters, but a positive dearth of ranch moms — either life on the prairie was hard on a woman, or else it was just too much bother and expense to hire another actress.)
Things don’t have time to get dull before the mysterious stranger we’ve been expecting all along shows up in a memorable moment, rearing his horse in the moonlight in spooky slow motion. And it’s not long after that till he makes himself known to the locals as a sinister gun-for-hire in a scary shoot-out, which is one of those scenes I said you’d remember.
The ghoulish gunman is played very ably by Michael Pate, an Aussie with a lean-and-thirsty look typed as a bad guy in Hollywood but capable of much broader range. In Curse he comes off as equal parts Cowboy and Creep: lean, graceful, and suggesting a certain complexity of character ably conveyed in a script that paints him more love-lorn than blood-thirsty but nonetheless deadly.
Curse proceeds to ride a tricky trail between the conventions of the horror film and the clichés of the B-western. There’s a bit too much talk at times, but things finish off with a nifty round-up combining the best of both genres: When Preacher and Demon face each other on a dusty street, we pretty much know what’s going to happen — but how it happens, is immensely satisfying for fans of monsters and cowboys.
THE GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY. United Artists, 1959. Joel McCrea (Bat Masterson), Julie Adams, John McIntire, Nancy Gates, Richard Anderson, James Westerfield, Walter Coy, Don Haggerty.
I really wanted to like The Gunfight at Dodge City much more than I did. I’m generally an admirer of Joel McCrea and I find it difficult not to like the lovely Julie Adams. I also quite enjoyed the Jacques Tourneur-directed Wichita starring McCrea as Wyatt Earp, which I reviewed here and believe to be a Western deserving of more critical attention.
Yet despite McCrea’s adequate portrayal of Bat Masterson, Joseph M. Newman’s solid direction, and some beautifully decorated interiors, The Gunfight at Dodge City ended up feeling like a disappointment, a case of what could have been rather than what it is.
McCrea, in a stoic role, portrays legendary lawman Bat Masterson as he transforms himself from a buffalo hunter to the lawman of Dodge City, Kansas. Along the way, however, Masterson makes two mortal enemies, Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson) who seeks revenge for his brother’s death at the hands of Masterson, and Dodge City’s corrupt sheriff, Jim Regan (Don Haggerty). Both are villains without any depth.
Masterson also finds himself torn between two beautiful women, Lily (Nancy Gates), a saloon owner and Pauline Howard (Julia Adams), a preacher’s daughter engaged to Bat’s brother, Ed (Harry Lauter) who ends up being killed by the aforementioned Dave (Anderson).
Masterson also plays mentor to a mentally challenged kid, Billy, who has, to Bat’s mind, an unhealthy fascination with guns and violence. What does help make Masterson’s character a bit more interesting are his friendships with Doc Sam Tremaine (John McIntire) and Reverend Howard (James Westerfield).
As you might suspect, Billy gets himself into a pickle by shooting a lawman and is sentenced to death by hanging. This forces Masterson’s hand. Will he uphold the law or will he revert to his semi- outlaw ways and free the lad from state custody?
If all of this happens to sound like fairly standard Western fare, you’re absolutely correct. That’s what The Gunfight at Dodge City is. There’s a couple of fights, some drunken cowboys shooting in the twilight, a couple of love affairs, brothers with different personalities, a saloon, and a protagonist who kills his rivals and gets the girl. But it’s just not much more than that.
True, there are a couple of great moments, but there’s really not too much in the way of memorable dialogue or excellent acting. McCrea is a very capable actor, but in this one, he just seems at times like he was phoning it in. Bat Masterson looks more bored than tormented. And everyone else was playing their roles better than many actors could have, but it still leaves one with a nagging question: aside from making a movie with Bat Masterson at the center of the action, what was it all for?
JAMES MITCHELL – Dying Day. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1989. First published in the UK by H. Hamilton, hardcover, 1988.
James Mitchell has done a number of crime novels, as himself and as James Munro, and now turns up with a London private eye named Ron Hogget. Hogget finds things for people, though the finding usually involves some fearful activities.
Ron is often fearful — he’s that sort of person — but he usually gets the job done. And he has Dave, a friend who drives a cab, reads Literature, knows everything about guns and self-defense and nothing about fear.
Hogget’s second adventure is Dying Day. [But see below.] Here Tony Palliser, filthy rich now from business that began with airplanes — Dakotas — participating in the Berlin airlift in 1948, calls on Hogget’s services. It’s one of those planes, lost at that time, that Palliser now wants Ron to find.
Why, after all these years? Palliser’s reason is thin, but his money is good so Ron starts. And finds he’s not alone on the search, that the real reason must be quite impressive for all the dying being arranged on its behalf. Including, very likely, his…
A solidly constructed, high-tension story with a well-crafted array of characters.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.
The Ron Hogget series —
Sometimes You Could Die. H. Hamilton, 1985. No US edition.
Dead Ernest. H. Hamilton, 1986. Holt, 1987.
Dying Day. H. Hamilton, 1988. Holt, 1989.
THIS IS MY AFFAIR. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Victor McLaglen, Brian Donlevy, Sidney Blackmer, John Carradine, Douglas Fowley, Robert McWade, Frank Conroy, Alan Dinehart, Douglas Wood, Sig Ruman. Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, Allen Rivkin (uncredited: Kube Glasmon, Wallace Sullivan, and Darrel F. Zannuck). Directed by William A. Seiter.
This film is a nostalgic romantic musical set at the turn of the nineteenth century with a pair of real life lovers in obvious love with each other — no, it’s a tough crime tale about a super gang of bank robbers threatening the safety of the nation’s economy — no, its about a tough young undercover operative who falls in love with the showgirl sister of one of the criminals he is sent to arrest — no, its about corruption at the highest levels of government — no, it’s about Teddy Roosevelt — but it’s also a tough prison drama as the hour counts down to an innocent man’s execution — and it’s a psychological drama as one man tries to break another to reveal the mastermind behind the bank robbing scheme…
Well, actually it’s all of that, and with that many elements it shouldn’t work, but still they do.
I first saw this as an adolescent, and again as a young adult, then it was over forty years before I saw it again earlier this week on You Tube, so I was surprised how accurate my memory was about it, and shocked to find it was every bit as good as I remembered it. Not many films manage that. The look, script, performances, careful recreation of the era from familiar names and slang to the very acts performing on stage, all meticulously recreated and still retaining the charm they possessed then and when first released.
The film opens with a group of nuns and children touring Arlington National Cemetery in contemporary (1937) times. They pause at General Sheridan’s grave, then the next stone reads Lieutenant Richard Perry, who no one has heard of, though as one nun notes he must have done something great for his country.
The tour walks on, the camera lingers, and slowly fog and clouds take us back to Washington DC in the McKinley administration and a party at the White House where we meet Vice President Sidney Blackmer as the loud and ‘bully’ Teddy Roosevelt (the first of many times to play TR), then young Lt. Richard Perry (Robert Taylor) recently back from the Spanish American War with medals and the praise of his commander Admiral Dewey (Robert McWade).
Perry barely gets to flirt with a pretty girl, however, before he is called back to a meeting alone with President McKinley (Frank Conroy). It seems a gang of bank robbers in the Midwest have been so successful they threaten the economy and the Secret Service is helpless because of a high level leak in Washington.
Perry is known to be rebellious, independent, brilliant, and brave. He will be McKinley’s personal operative, communicate only by a special mark on letters he sends, and his status and existence unknown to any other human.
You can see where this is going.
Perry goes deep undercover and sets out on his quest to find the man at the top. (Several IMDb reviews missed entirely that McKinley isn’t sending him to catch bank robbers, but a high placed traitor in Washington — the perils of reviewing films before watching them.) The trail leads to Chicago and a new elegant saloon replete with illegal gambling run by Bat (Baptiste) Duryea (Brian Donlevy) and brutal practical joker Jock Ramsay (Victor McLaglen).
The star of the show is Bat’s half sister Lil Duryea (Stanwyck) who Jock believes is his girl, though she does everything short of throw a drink in his face to discourage him.
Naturally Jock is none too pleased to see handsome Perry take and interest and despite her best efforts Lil take an interest back.
If the middle section drags a little, keep in mind Taylor and Stanwyck were about to marry and very much in love and this was designed to take advantage of that publicity to bring in women audiences. We may complain today there are too many musical numbers and the romance goes on a bit, but audiences in 1937 did not. They wanted to see the real life lovers devouring each other with every glance and Taylor and Stanwyck deliver. Especially Stanwyck who does everything but melt when she looks at Taylor.
Perry soon realizes the key to the bank robberies and Mr. Big is Bat and Jock, and through Lil to them, but he’s is also in love with her by now. Still he penetrates the gang and soon Bat begins to see the advantage of a smart smooth operator over crude Jock with his unfunny practical jokes and card tricks that never work. And his sister loves Perry as well another bonus, because Bat is not without nuances, including genuine affection for Lil.
Perry manages to get a letter to McKinley, but when the president informs his cabinet and Vice President, the traitor is among them. Perry had planned to resign and get out with Lil, but he is too close to run now.
The Midwest is too hot, so they plan to hit a bank in Baltimore, but plans go awry when the police spring a trap and Bat is killed. In due order Jock and Perry are caught, tried, and sentenced to death for the man killed in the holdup shoot out. (Justice actually did move faster then — or at least law did.)
Perry still doesn’t know who the top man is and plans to work on Jock as the date of execution approaches. The following scenes between Taylor and McLaglen are well done as Jock begins to unravel under the pressure. Perry plays Iago to Jock’s Othello who falls apart with fear and anger as the date of his hanging approaches, and the pull never comes to free him. Both men are effective in these scenes.
It’s an impressive scene when Jock does break with half a dozen policeman in his tight cell struggling to restrain him.
Now Perry can write the President, and gets warden John Hamilton to send his specially marked letter so he can be freed and the traitor exposed. Which, as any good dramatist would stage it, is the point when news reaches Perry that McKinley has been shot, and dies without waking up.
Perry’s only hope is to tell Lil the truth and send her to President Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer), but when she finds out he was a policeman and her half brother died because of him, she turns on him and Perry has no where to turn as the hours near for the execution. The warden and the priest come for Ramsay, who has regained enough composure to do card tricks for the priest, and who looks forward to Perry hanging next.
It isn’t giving that much away that Lil realizes she loves Perry goes to TR, is not believed, then is, then isn’t again until McKinley’s secretary calls a second time to confirm he was instructed to look with specially marked envelopes, but is it in time…
Of course it is, this is Hollywood, not Stratford-on-Avon. Movie audiences still don’t want to mix too much irony with romance, and killing off Robert Taylor at that point would have killed the box office and word of mouth. These things aren’t film noir, happy endings, if at all possible, are required. Things would soon darken as the war approached, but in 1937 the odds of Taylor and Stanwyck not ending up in clench were microcosmic.
The film was originally designed for the popular team of Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, then when they were out, Fox borrowed Taylor from MGM, and since he and Stanwyck were soon marrying this was guaranteed box office gold.
Stanwyck sings her own numbers, and is sprightly, sexy, tough, and — well she’s Barbara Stanwyck and at a point in her career when she made one good or great movie after another. Taylor has some strong scenes in the prison and handles them with skill, his desperation quite real, and his manipulation of Jock has a tough sadistic edge we would not see in him again until the post war era.
McLaglen chews the scenery with the best of them and yet delivers moments that will recall his Oscar-winning role in John Ford’s The Informer. Donlevy does well with a good bad man, but then he always did. The rest of the cast is capable with Douglas Fowley and John Carradine as henchmen.
But one actor stands out.
Sidney Blackmer’s Teddy Roosevelt comes close to stealing the movie every time he is on screen. He is full blooded, bully, enthusiastic, boisterous, loud, and altogether Teddy. He played TR in at least three other movies (uncredited in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill), and on television, and like Raymond Massey’s Lincoln, it is the role he is best remembered by.
He was still a popular character actor as late as his role in Rosemary’s Baby but he seldom had a part with this much energy. He also played Anthony Abbot’s (Fulton Ousler) Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt in The Panther’s Claw, and Colt was modeled on TR.
Director William A. Seiter had a good career that began in 1915 and lasted into television (he made the switch in 1955) up to 1965. If not an auteur, he was capable and professional in the manner of a George Sherman or Woody Van Dyke and helmed all sort of films ably, while screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Allen Rivkin went on to better things.
This is a nostalgic postcard from the past, tinted with sepia and rose colored glasses, the early years of the 20th Century as only Hollywood could do them. You wouldn’t be too surprised if Perry turned out to be Nicholas Carter and this came straight from the Nickel Library and the pen of Frederick Rennasler Dey himself.
If the film misses a beat I have never noticed it. It is exactly what is means to be, and to expect anything more or damn it for not being anything else is to totally miss the point that it is perfect for what was intended.
I cannot find it in myself to criticize any film for being exactly what the audience wanted and the director, screenwriters, and producer intended. Doing anything different would have upset the delicate balance that allows this to work, and in 1937 no one wanted to see the film noir version of this story.
It’s like complaining because there is no CGI in Snow White or Bert Lahr doesn’t look much like a real lion in The Wizard of Oz as far as I’m concerned, it completely misses the point. It is well and good to not like it for what it is, but don’t condemn it for not being what it was never intended to be.
For what it is, its a wedding cake topper for an attractive young couple when they were at their most beautiful and has just the right mix of romance, comedy, melodrama, and grit to entertain anyone who loves movie movies. It is a perfect example of they don’t make them like that anymore with all the flaws and genius that statement encompasses. Seeing it again after forty years I was astounded at what good taste my fourteen year old self had in liking it and remembering it so well at the time.
To think they used to give away dishes to get people to come in and see movies this good.
BILL CRIDER – Too Late to Die. Walker, hardcover, 1986. Ivy, paperback, 1989.
Mystery novels with a rural policeman as the leading character are a rare breed. One of the best of them is Too Late to Die by 8111 Crider.
Crider’s hero is Dan Rhodes, Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, and most of the action takes place in and around one of that small county’s smaller spots, Thurston (population 408). The book is true its country locale (with characters like Billy Joe Bryan, the retarded local “Peeping Tom”), but there is an intelligence at work here which gives this work a sophistication not often found in backwoods mysteries.
The local settings ring with such truth that they completely convinced this city slicker who was brought up in The Bronx. I especially liked the scenes at the general store and the debate at the school during Rhodes’ reelection campaign. They all work to strengthen a good detective story.
Anyone familiar with Bill Crider’s work in reference books and fan magazines should not be too surprised that this is one of the best first mysteries of 1986.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986 (slightly revised).
LOST AND FOUND AT YOU TUBE: SHOESTRING
by Michael Shonk
“Mocking Bird.” An episode of SHOESTRING. BBC/BBC1, UK, 19 October 1980. Cast: Trevor Eve as PI Eddie Shoestring, Michael Medwin as Don Satchley, Doran Goodwin as Erica Bayliss and Liz Crowther as Sonia. Guest Cast: Frederick Jaeger, John J. Carney, Patti Love, David Sibley. Created by Richard Harris and Robert Banks Stewart. Written by William Hood. Theme by George Fenton. Directed by Ben Bolt. Produced by Robert Banks Stewart.
SHOESTRING is perhaps as fondly remembered overseas as THE ROCKFORD FILES remains here in the States. And it is easy to see why as both are blessed with clever writing, likeable characters and a talented lead actor.
SHOESTRING is on DVD but has never been released on the American format NTSC region 1 so you will need a multi-format DVD player if you wish to buy the DVD.
While there are more episodes of the series on YouTube, I have chosen a special program, SHAW TAYLOR’S CRIME FILES where British celebrity Shaw Taylor MBE takes a quick look at the series. A complete episode of SHOESTRING from its second season “Mocking Bird” begins around the 3:19 point.
SHOESTRING was still popular when Trevor Eve decided to leave due to his fear of being type-casted. Here is an excerpt from a popular British TV series CULT OF… that looked at various cult TV favorites, in this case THE CULT OF SHOESTRING.
ERIC HEATH – Death Takes a Dive. Hillman-Curl, hardcover, 1938. Mystery Novel of the Month, no number, digest-sized paperback, 1940.
— Murder in the Museum. Hillman-Curl, hardcover, 1939. Mystery Novel of the Month, no number, digest-sized paperback, 1940 .
Attending a Hollywood party at which a man drowns, Winnie Preston, assistant to criminologist Cornelius Clift, Jr., better known as Copey, suspects murder rather than accident in Death Takes a Dive. It turns out that the victim had been attacked and strangled to death at the bottom of the pool. Winnie narrates the investigation, which has no interesting features and is excessively tedious.
On their way to get married in Murder in the Museum, Copey and Winnie stop at the home of Alexander Cameron, an Egyptology enthusiast who was one of Copey’s professors in college. Shortly after they arrive, Cameron is murdered in the museum he had built. Someone inoculated him with a rare Oriental poison.
If the someone who killed Alexander was not Alexander’s son, a physician who is in love with Alexander’s second wife, then we have a locked-room situation. For Copey and Winnie arrive at the museum door immediately after the murder — they have heard it committed over a “Radio Nurse,” an early form of intercom — to find the door locked. When they do get into the museum, they discover Alexander’s corpse, no murderer, and no means for the murderer to have got out of the museum.
Should you be able to accept Copey talking to his betrothed as if she were as dimwitted as the narrators S.S, Van Dine and Anthony Abbot, a Sausalito police chief so broad-minded as to say “Telepathy is almost an accepted thing nowadays,” strange tales of reincarnation, Cameron’s daughter who was scared by a dog, frequently goes about on all fours howling, and tries to kill one of the servants — didn’t provide her with milk bones, probably — and a few other miscellaneous oddities, you may enjoy the second and last novel featuring Copey and Winnie.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.
Note: Murder in the Museum has been reviewed once before on this blog, the earlier time by David Vineyard, some five plus years ago. You may find his comments here.
THE INVISIBLE RAY. Universal Pictures, 1936. [Boris] Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi. Director:
The Invisible Ray is a science fiction/horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as rival scientists. To no one’s surprise, Karloff’s the completely mad one and he’s out for revenge.
And when it comes to B-film genre film tropes, this one’s got even more than just a mad scientist. It’s got forbidden love, cosmic rays from beyond space and time, a Carpathian castle, African tribesmen, a blind old woman, a Parisian Gothic setting, betrayal, revenge, and murder. All in less than ninety minutes. Did I mention it’s one the strangest films I’ve ever seen?
Karloff portrays Dr. Janos Rukh, a creepy looking scientist who lives in his Carpathian home/laboratory with his blind mother (Violet Kemble-Cooper). Rukh has invented a telescope that allows him to see so far into space that he can see Earth’s ancient past.
And one of the things he sees is pretty amazing – a meteor that crashed into Africa some millions of years ago. So Rukh, along with his wife Diana (Frances Drake), rival scientist Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi), Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton), Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford) and his wife, Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi), head out to Africa to find the giant rock and to do some experiments.
Or something. It’s not exactly clear.
What is clear, however, is that Rukh finds the meteor remnants and becomes poisoned by them. He calls his discovery Radium X because the meteor is an element out of this world! He ends up glowing in the dark and develops the ability to kill people with his touch. (Just go with it.) Benet (Lugosi) gives Rukh an antidote and they’re off back to Europe.
But what happens in Africa doesn’t always stay in Africa. Rukh’s wife Diana has fallen in love with one of the expedition members, the boyish Drake. So Rukh stalks around in the Parisian fog and kills some poor sap that happens to look like him (although he really doesn’t) and fakes his own death, allowing his wife to marry Drake. Then he goes on a killing-and-revenge spree. The Stevens couple and Benet are the first to go. Rukh also uses an invisible ray, powered by Radium X, to destroy sculptures.
If it all sounds both convoluted and ridiculous, that’s because it is. The movie tries to pack in tons of science fiction concepts into one movie, making it feel as if it’s really about four different short films in one tidy Karloff and Lugosi package.
But that’s not to say that it’s not entertaining, because in a way it is. It’s just not one of Karloff’s, or Lugosi’s, best movies. Not by a long shot. But if you happen to watch The Invisible Raywith no expectations, preferably after midnight, you might just find yourself relishing the utter ridiculousness of it all.
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
In the years I’ve written these columns, death has overtaken a number of mystery-writing colleagues to whom I’ve said goodbye here. Till this month, all of them have been older than I. Now it falls to me to commemorate one who was more than five years younger. That is scary.
On August 14, in Pompano Beach, Florida, a man who ranked with the finest private-eye writers of his time, and was a friend of mine for more than twenty-five years, shot himself to death. Jeremiah Healy was 66.
The last time I saw him was in the fall of 2011, at the St. Louis Bouchercon. He looked fantastic, a trim handsome dude with thick gray hair and mustache and a beautiful girlfriend and (in his own words) the body of a 19-year-old paratrooper. He brought to mind a character in a radio soap opera my mother listened to when I was a small child, a fellow who, whenever asked how he was doing, would reply “Sittin’ on top o’ the world.”
Why Jerry took his own life I won’t discuss except to say that, unknown to me, he’d been battling prostate cancer and clinical depression and alcoholism and perhaps other dark forces for years. In the magnificent words of Pope Francis, who am I to judge him?
Like me, he was a law professor. When his career as a crime novelist began, he and I were the only mystery writers who had come to the genre from legal academia. In PI fiction it was the age of Robert B. Parker and of regionalism. Like Parker’s Spenser, Healy’s PI John Francis Cuddy was a jogger and amateur chef who lived and worked in Boston, a city he knew well and described almost like a human character.
Parker I suppose was the Hertz of the area’s mystery writers and Healy the Avis, but for a variety of reasons — two of them no doubt because we shared the same day job and got to be friends — I always preferred Jerry‘s books over Parker’s. Spenser was single and Cuddy a widower who often visited his wife’s gravesite, and spoke to her, and was, or thought he was, answered.
(Several widowers in movies directed by John Ford also spoke to their wives but never had dialogue with them. I once asked Jerry if he’d gotten the idea from Ford but he said he hadn’t.)
One of Parker’s lasting innovations was to put his protagonist in a monogamous relationship with one woman, and as the death of Cuddy’s wife faded in time he followed in Spenser’s footsteps with Susan Silverman by getting monogamously involved with a female prosecutor.
Healy’s first novel, Blunt Darts (1984), struck me as very good but perhaps too much in the shadow of Ross Macdonald. The New York Times called it one of the seven best mysteries of its year. His second, The Staked Goat (1986), I thought one of the finest PI novels I’d ever read. Almost thirty years after its publication I still say it belongs on any sensible short list of the great books of the genre since the death of Lew Archer’s creator.
Number four in the series, Swan Dive (1988), begins with Cuddy obliging a lawyer friend by agreeing to bodyguard Hanna Marsh, who has left her sadistic husband and is seeking both a divorce and the luxurious marital home.
Roy Marsh, not only a wife-beater and womanizer but a cocaine dealer on the side, tries to persuade Hanna to drop the suit by disembowelling their daughter’s cat. Cuddy goes outside the law to teach Roy a lesson in litigation etiquette, but a few nights later when Roy and a hooker are murdered in a fleabag hotel, all the evidence points to Cuddy, who is menaced not only by the police but by Roy’s coke-dealing compadres hunting for a missing shipment of their stock in trade.
Healy carefully balances whodunit and mean-streets elements, skillfully draws characters (many of whom speak Ethnic English, a trademark in this series), gives us the usual sharply observed tour of metro Boston, and even imparts some movement to Cuddy’s long-stalled relationship with the lovely assistant D.A. whom at this point in the saga he refuses to sleep with out of loyalty to his dead wife.
Yesterday’s News (1989) brings Cuddy to the decaying port city of Nasharbor, where a woman reporter on the local paper supposedly committed suicide less than twelve hours after hiring him to look into the murder of one of her confidential sources, a petty porn merchant claiming inside knowledge of police corruption.
It’s a briskly paced and tightly constructed novel, bringing to life a number of social and professional environments, with richly varied characters and relationships and sleazoid dialogue in the manner of George V. Higgins punctuated by short bursts of action.
You could never have guessed from Jerry’s first five novels that he was a law professor or even the holder of a law degree. It was only with Cuddy’s sixth full-length case that his creator’s two careers came together.
The title of Right to Die (1991) perfectly captures its theme. Cuddy is brought to the not totally fictitious Massachusetts Bay Law School to investigate a string of obscene anonymous notes to Maisy Andrus, a fiery law prof who not only publicly advocates legalized euthanasia but admits that she euthanized her dying first husband, a wealthy Spanish doctor, and got away with it. (Why she wasn’t extradited to Spain to stand trial, and even got to keep all the property her husband left her, are questions I fear are never adequately answered.)
In the first 150 pages more notes keep popping up and Cuddy goes around interviewing various people with ideological or personal reasons for hating Andrus’ guts, among them a black female minister, a Catholic pro-life fanatic, a Jewish doctor and a neo-Nazi skinhead. The suspects are well drawn and each of them mounts a soapbox on which to orate on issues of life and death.
Things heat up in later chapters, but the climax leaves more nagging questions unanswered. And anyone who can swallow Healy’s biggest credibility sandwich, which consists of our middle-aged PI finishing the 26-mile Boston Marathon four days after getting out of Massachusetts General Hospital with a slug in the hip, is a veritable Dagwood.
Jerry told me that a doctor at Harvard Medical School vouched for the possibility, saying that a bullet would have done Cuddy less harm than the flu, but I still don’t buy it.
Chapter 5 of Right to Die ought to be required reading even for those in legal education who don’t enjoy mysteries. Cuddy, a Vietnam veteran and law-school dropout, visits Andrus’ Ethics and Society class and is exposed once again to that bete noir of jurisprudence, the so-called Socratic Method.
Maisy Andrus’ classroom style, says Cuddy, “reminded me of a black Special Forces captain in basic training who ran the TTIS, the Tactical Training of the Individual Soldier, the most miserable obstacle course I ever experienced.”
For the next several pages we see the Method in action: Kingsfieldesque bullying, rapid-fire cross-examination of hapless students, hypotheticals straight out of the classic police torture scene from Dirty Harry. Later in Andrus’ office she justifies the Method and her dispassionate use of it. Cuddy dissents.
“I think torture is a serious matter. I think you do your students a disservice by abstracting it and then making it seem they have no way out of an intellectual puzzle.”
“Have you ever witnessed torture, Mr. Cuddy?”
I thought back to the basement of the National Police substation in Saigon. Suspected Viet Cong subjected to bamboo switches, lit cigarettes, telephone crank boxes, and wires. Walls seeping dampness, the mixed stench of body wastes and disinfectants, the screams….
“No, Professor, I’ve never seen torture.”
The sequence has nothing to do with the plot, but some of the best scenes in Healy’s previous books and especially in The Staked Goat aren’t tied to a storyline either. Standing on its own, this chapter is at once the most even-handed and the most riveting evocation of Socratic Method that I’ve ever encountered in a novel. And yes, that specifically includes The Paper Chase, to which we owe the legendary Professor Kingsfield.
Shallow Graves (1992) comes closer to joining the PI novel and the classic detective tale than any other Healy book I’ve read. The insurance company which once bounced Cuddy for refusing to approve a phony claim hires him back as a freelance to look into the strangulation of Mau Tim Dani, an exotic and rising young fashion model of Sicilian and Vietnamese descent, whose life had been insured by her financially shaky agency for half a million dollars.
The trouble starts when Cuddy discovers that the dead woman’s Sicilian side, her father and his kin, are Mafia; indeed that her granddad is the Godfather of metro Boston. Healy neatly divides our suspicions among a small cast of characters, offers portraits of the worlds of modeling, advertising and organized crime, and holds tension high despite an almost complete absence of violence.
He keeps descriptions to a minimum and relies on long Q&A sequences not only to convey plot points but, as is his wont, to showcase several varieties of ethnically flavored English, from Vietnamese to Japanese to Sicilian to black. Anyone who beats Cuddy to the killer’s identity will have done better than I.
Foursome (1993) takes Cuddy north to rural Maine, where three of the title’s quartet have been slaughtered in their lakeside retreat (very much like Jerry’s own, which I once had the pleasure of visiting) by a crossbow-wielding killer, with Cuddy’s client, the sole survivor of the four, having been charged with triple murder.
Trying to flush out a credible alternate suspect, Cuddy finds several Mainers and even more folks back in metro Boston who might have wanted one, some or all of the foursome out of the way.
This time I spotted the culprit long before Cuddy, mainly because I had come to know intimately how Jerry thought and worked. But he paints in vivid colors the pristine beauty of Maine and the big city’s mean streets and suburbs, skillfully characterizes a huge variety of people through Cuddy’s Q&A with them, and breaks up the interrogations with spurts of raw violence, making this longest of Healy’s novels to that point by all odds one of his best.
There’s hardly need to go on, and besides I’m running out of space. Jerry’s legacy to readers consists of 13 Cuddy novels, two collections of Cuddy short stories, three legal thrillers about Boston attorney Mairead O’Claire, and two stand-alone novels.
His legacy to those who were lucky enough to know him and be his friends is priceless. The countless Web comments on his death share a single leitmotif: what a kind, generous, giving man he was, how supportive and helpful to newer writers. He wasn’t Jewish, but if ever there were a living embodiment of the word mensch it was Jerry Healy. God, what a loss.
MELISA C. MICHAELS – Through the Eyes of the Dead. Walker, hardcover, 1988. Worldwide Library, reprint paperback, 2000.
Science-fiction writer Melisa C. Michaels turns to our field with Through the Eyes of the Dead. Aileen Douglass and her partner Sharon Atwood run a private detecting agency in Berkeley. Business isn’t good — it rarely is in this business, with so many PI’s around — and it’s not helped when their only client gets himself killed.
William MacMurray just wanted his wife found, with hope for a loving reunion; strange that this fond desire should get him shot. Meanwhile, Aileen surprises someone trying to hot-wire her car. Her glands — certainly not her brain — seem to take over, and she invites the would-be car thief, a gypsy, into her home. Soon she’s helping him rescue a sister, bullets are flying, and things are not at all what they seem.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.
Bibliographic Notes: Melisa C. Michaels’ contributions to the world of science fiction can be found here. This was the only appearance of PI’s Douglass and Atwood, but another female PI named Rosie Lavine appeared in two of her fantasy novels, both involving malevolent elves. Titles: Cold Iron (Roc, 1997) and Sister to the Rain (Roc, 1998). One source indicates that Lavine has a partner named Shannon Arthur, and that their PI agency is based in San Francisco. Douglass and Atwood are included on the Thrilling Detective website; Rosie Lavine is not.