Apr 172015
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

HOWARD ANDREW JONES – The Desert of Souls. Thomas Dunne Books, hardcover. February 2011. St. Martin’s, trade paperback, January 2012.

   Arabian nights and swords and sorcery may not be the usual fodder for this site, but when they are also a detective story and thriller along Conan Doyle lines, then something new is going on.

   If it were possible to modify the word unique in the English language, this one would be “uniquer.”

   The time is the eighth century. The place Baghdad, the Baghdad of legend and myth under the wise rule of the most famous of the fabled cities leaders, Haroun al Rashid, the caliph of the Arabian nights, Ali Baba, Sinbad, Scherezade, the Old Man of the Mountain, the Hashishin, and wine drinking poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam. It is also the ancient Persia of cruel and unpredictable djinn, sorcery, mythical creatures, and imagination.

   This really should not work on any level, but Jones proves a clever storyteller and puts us in the hands of a swashbuckling Watson, in the able Captain Asim — more Archie Goodwin than Watson in most aspects — who keeps the reader grounded like all good Watson’s should, as Hamil the poet tells him: “A good storyteller tailors his story to his audience.”

   And if there is a Watson that means there is a Holmes, in this case the scholar Dagbir, who has a bad habit of speaking truth to power. As might be expected we first meet him in relation to a murder: The case of the murdered parrot.

   The parrot lay on the floor of his cage, one claw stiffly thrust toward the tiny wooden swing suspended above him. The black olive branch clenched in his beak was the definitive sign that Pago was a corpse …

   Pago belongs to Asim’s master Jaffar, the grand vizier (another actual historical figure), and Azim calls upon Dagbir to help distract the distraught Jaffar with a incognito journey into the city. Well disguised Jaffar, Asim, and Dagbir set out of their adventure and visit a seeress in the poorest part of town where they are told Dagbir will be famed as a slayer of monsters, Asim for his tales of Dagbir’s adventures, and Jaffar will lose his head to a woman to high for his station — literally lose his head.

   Leaving the seeress, a bleeding man stumbles into their arms followed by his pursuers which they quickly dispatch, leading to a jeweled tablet that holds the secret of the Atlantis of the sands, the lost city of Ubar.

   Before they can get far though, the tablet is stolen by a Greek spy and Firouz, a fire wizard, and Jaffar dismisses Dagbir assuming that the seeress confused him with the scholar who has been privately treating Jaffar’s neice, Sabirah, who is none to happy with Asim who she blames for Dagbir’s dismissal.

   And we are off for high adventure, low intrigue, and some good detection though this is hardly a detective story, what with djinn and giant talkative feather serpents who guard the secrets of the sands. At stake are not only the lives of Asim, Dagbir, and Dagbir’s love Sabirah, the niece of Jaffar and forbidden to the scholar, but the soul of Baghdad itself, the target of Firouz madness.

   Howard Andrew Jones is a leading expert on Harold Lamb (having edited two volumes of Lamb’s Arabian tales, Swords from the West and Swords of the Desert), whose tales, along with Robert E. Howard, and Talbot Mundy inspired this tale, but Jones wisely chooses a modern voice for his narrator eschewing any labored thee’s, thou’s, and thy’s for a crisp fast moving narrative with a capable and fast thinking narrator who just doesn’t happen to be as clever as Dagbir, but who is an amiable hero on his own, and adds a touch of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes to the mix.

   The result is a clever mix of sword and sorcery staples, historical fiction in the Lamb and Howard style, modern thriller, and an unusual Sherlockian adventure. This is one of those remarkably good-natured books that a few pages in you find yourself wanting to give the benefit of the doubt and simply enjoy.

   I’m reminded of Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody books or Will Thomas historical thrillers in that you just want to relax and enjoy the ride without thinking about it. Books that entertain on that level are too far between these days — I suppose they always were.

   “Cleave close to your friend,” a seeress tells Asim at the end, “He will need you and the world will have need of you both.”

   I certainly hope so. This doesn’t just bend the genres it apes, it ties them in knots and creates something new and original. It’s a flying carpet ride of a novel in glorious Technicolor.

 Posted by at 3:09 am
Apr 162015

CURTAIN AT EIGHT. Majestic Pictures, 1933. C. Aubrey Smith, Dorothy Mackaill, Paul Cavanagh, Sam Hardy, Marion Shilling, Russell Hopton, Natalie Moorhead, Hale Hamilton, Ruthelma Stevens. Screenplay: Edward T. Lowe. Director: E. Mason Hopper.

   This rather wretched murder mystery movie has only one thing going for it: C. Aubrey Smith in a rather unusual role for him, that of Jim Hanvey, the detective character created by Octavus Roy Cohen. Although the credits don’t mention it, but Curtain at Eight, the movie, was based on Cohen’s book The Backstage Mystery (Appleton, 1930), and what the resemblance is, I’d like to say slim to none.

   Unless, that is, there is a monkey in the book — or rather a chimp — although none of the characters in the movie know the difference. If you cant stand chimps in movies any more than I can, avoid this film. I stuck it out, though, so I can’t follow my own advice, then why should you?

   Murdered on the stage as they are celebrating his birthday is actor and notorious womanizer Wylie Thornton (Paul Cavanagh) — one of those scenes when the lights go off and wouldn’t you know it, a shot rings out. There are moe than the usual number of suspects, and before the movie is over, the dopey homicide detective on the case (Sam Hardy) has locked up almost all of them, along with another one who simply wanders in at about the two-thirds mark.

   Thankfully also on the case is Jim Hanvey, played by Aubrey Smith as a tall, lanky, homespun (aw, shucks) sort of guy, with a shank of unruly hair — a far cry from Smith’s usual role as a British officer and a gentleman. His portrayal of Hanvey is also a far cry from that of Guy Kibbee, who was the star of Jim Hanvey, Detective (Republic, 1937). To me, Kibbee sounds as though he’s be more appropriate as the character, as Kevin Burton Smith describes him on his Thrilling Detective website: “…full-time good ol’ boy. He’s fat, slow-moving, [with] fishy eyes…”

   Besides the chimp, Curtain at Eight is plagued by a script that could have used a lot more time to stretch out and introduce the real players in the story, not the chimp and not the dopey guy from homicide. Between the two, the two must take up half of the movie’s sixty minutes running time, or did it only seem that way?

   I’ll bet bits and pieces of the movie came from the book, picked up from here and there and strung together in some hope of a coherent mystery plot, and not succeeding. Maybe even the chimp came from the book, but I hope not.

   As for director E. Mason Hopper, he had a long career making silent films, but he made only one more with sound, the truly abysmal Hong Kong Nights (First Division Pictures, 1935), a spy film in which one of the major stars, the hero’s good buddy and constant sidekick, simply disappears half way through the movie, never to be seen or mentioned again. I watched it a short while ago, and I’m almost embarrassed to say that I did.

   The screenwriter, though, Edward T. Lowe, went to much better things, including worthwhile entries in the Charlie Chan, Bulldog Drummond, and Sherlock Holmes series, not to mention a couple of Universal horror movies in the mid-1940s.

Note:   For Dan Stumpf’s comments on this same film, which I didn’t read until just now myself, go here. We clearly watched the same movie, but he seems to have found more charm in it than I did.

 Posted by at 6:44 pm
Apr 162015

GET CHRISTIE LOVE! ABC, made-for-TV Movie,22 January 1974. Teresa Graves, Harry Guardino, Louise Sorel, Paul Stevens.. Screenplay: George Kirgo, based on the novel The Ledger by Dorothy Uhnak. Director: William A. Graham.

   I don’t have access to my copy of the book, and it’s been far too long for me to remember anything about the novel, but it’s fairly obvious that there’s been some changes made. Uhnak’s series character was the police woman Christie Opara, not Christie Love, and I’m sure she was white, not black. The police work in the book was “real life,” and the police work in the movie was “made for TV,” or in other words, sheer flights of fancy, more often than not.

   Which is not to say that the movie is not entertaining, for it is, and the “gimmick,” the surprise that makes the ending work, is probably the same in both the book and the movie – or why else use the book as the basis for the movie in the first place?

   I should start at the beginning. The villain, Enzo Cortino, is a drug dealer, whose activities are recorded, the police discover, in a ledger that Cortino’s girl friend, Helena Varga, keeps in her possession. Christie Love’s assignment, given to her by Captain Reardon, in pseudo-blustery fashion, is to get the ledger.

   Some general comments follow, more or less in the same order as they struck me while watching the film, which is available on DVD. While Graves had a limited range of acting ability, mostly smart to sassy, she is easy on the eyes and more-or-less convincing in close hand-to-hand (karate-related) combat with various of Cortino’s minions, one of whom goes over the balcony on the losing end of one of rough-house struggles she finds herself in.

   In one of the opening scenes, introducing her to the viewer, she is (of course) posing as a hooker in an attempt to nab a guy who’s been bad to prostitutes. One guy whose overtures she turns down calls her a nigger in frustration. Her retort, as she sashays off: “Nigger lover.” My jaw dropped.

   This was an era (1974) when cops were routinely called “pigs,” and so they are here. As a cultural artifact, this is a gem in the rough. The background music is typical 70s jazz, or what passed for jazz at the time, in suitably ersatz-Mancini fashion. It’s most noticeable during car chases and other moments of great importance.

   Christie’s own mode of transportation is a yellow Volkswagen convertible, and as soon as you realize that that’s her car, you begin to wonder if it will survive the movie. You will have to watch to find out, as critical plot points like this should never be revealed by reviewers in advance.

   The most important plot detail that also surprised me, and for whatever reason, it’s the one that has stuck with me over all the years since I watched this movie the first time, is the semi-love interest between Christie and the interminably shaggy Reardon. She archly refuses his semi-advances until perhaps the closing scene.

   Hints are all we get, but a black and white romance, in 1974? That’s all that we could get. (When did Kirk kiss Lt. Uhara? Sometime in the 60s, I’m sure, but – as I recall – one of the two was possessed by an alien entity, and so it didn’t count.)

   Harry Guardino did not survive the cut and did not appear in the follow-up television series, which lasted only a year, nor as I recall, was there any more hanky-panky between Christie and her superior(s), nor even the hint of any. I have not been able to locate, so far, any of the shows from the TV series on either video or DVD, but I watched them at the time, and strangely enough, I enjoyed them more than Angie Dickinson’s show, whatever it was called.

— July 2004

 Posted by at 2:33 am
Apr 142015
William F. Deeck

EDGAR WALLACE – The Green Archer. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1923. Small, US, hardcover, 1924. Reprint editions include: W. W. Norton, US, hardcover, 1965, revised edition for The Seagull Library of Mystery and Suspense. Serialized in 14 parts in The Detective Magazine, UK, 20 July 1923 through 18 January 1924. Silent film: Pathe, 1926. Sound film: Columbia, 1940 (Victor Jory, Iris Meredith).

   Briefly, which is the kindest way to treat this work, The Daily Globe receives word that the Green Archer of Garre Castle, hanged in 1487, is back again haunting the castle. The castle’s owner, Abe Bellamy, late of Chicago and one of the world’s worst (in more senses than one) villains, wants no investigation of the haunt’s return.

   Bellamy, the author says, never has spent a night away from the castle since he bought it. This is contradicted in the first part of the book, but never mind. The first victim of the Archer, killed by an arrow somewhere in his waistcoat, is a man who had recently had a quarrel with Bellamy. The body is found by Spike Holland, an American reporter who is working for The Daily Globe:

    “Spike knelt down at the dead man’s side and sought for some sign of life…” Sure. Spike turns over to the police a second green arrow that he finds at the scene of the crime, although the author doesn’t tell us how or where he found it. But don’t worry; it has nothing to do with anything.

   James Lamotte Featherstone is the Scotland Yard man — a captain, if the Yard has such things — who investigates Bellamy. He becomes involved after he is hired by a millionaire to keep an eye on his daughter. If that strikes you as odd, you’re definitely not going to enjoy this book, because it is replete with such oddities.

   Bellamy gets his just desserts, but not because of Featherstone, who, you will not be surprised to hear, gets the girl whose body he was guarding. Featherstone is vigorous but lack-witted. The same can be said for the heroine. They deserve each other.

   The purpose of the Seagull Library of Mystery and Suspense was to “restore to print hardcover editions of famous favorites and classics regarded by connoisseurs as indispensable collectors’ items… P.G. Wodehouse once said that nine hundred of every thousand books by Wallace were worth the money. Why did the publishers have to select one of the other hundred to reprint?

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 6, November-December 1987.

 Posted by at 6:04 pm
Apr 142015
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET. Marianne Productions / Seda Spettacoli, Italy, 1971; original title: Quattro Mosche di Velluto Grigio. Paramount Pictures, US, 1972. Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Screenwriter-director:: Dario Argento.

   Dario Argento’s giallo film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, is one strange cinematic experience, one best appreciated after midnight. Alternately creepy and surprisingly funny, the movie stars two American actors, Michael Brandon and cult favorite Mimsy Farmer, as a married Italian couple inexplicably plunged into a nightmarish world of murder and paranoia.

   The movie has both dark humor and a psychedelic, dreamlike quality buttressed by an early 1970s rock soundtrack. It’s as if Hitchcock, Pink Floyd, and an experimental theater company decided to make a thriller.

   The movie wastes little time getting right into the heart of the action. Roberto Tobias (Brandon) is a rock musician who finds himself being followed by a strange man. In an unsettling sequence, Tobias ends confronting the man, killing the lurker with a switchblade knife. Soon after, Tobias and his wife, Nina (Farmer), begin to receive threatening notes in the “I know you killed a man, Roberto,” variety.

   But if it’s not money the anonymous stalker wants, then what is it? And why? And what the hell do four flies to do to with it? I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but let me just say this: those little flies are the big elephants in the room. In the end, it doesn’t make all that much sense. But the journey’s the fun part.

   Look for both John-Pierre Marielle in a captivating and comedic portrayal as a down-on-his-luck, flamboyantly gay private investigator and for Bud Spencer as one of Roberto’s friends.

 Posted by at 1:00 am
Apr 122015

MAX BRAND – The Trail to San Triste. Warner Books; 1st paperback edition, February 1985. Chelsea House, hardcover, 1927. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1983. First serialized in six parts (8 March through 12 April 1924) in Western Story Magazine as “Four without Fear,” as by John Frederick.

   As it so happened I was halfway through this book when the a brief discussion came up in the comments following Dan Stumpf’s review of Milton Lott’s Backtrack; to wit: there is a big difference between Westerns in the traditional and romantic sense and novels about the West.

   You can put Max Brand firmly in the first category, and The Trail to San Triste is a fine example. It’s the story of a young dashing cowboy, nearly a legendary outlaw, who is recruited to go into Mexico and pose as the missing son of the now deceased beloved patron of San Triste. Object: a fortune in gold, silver and rare gems.

   Of course there are complications. First John Jones must convince the townspeople that he is the true heir, then the servants of the family, still living, contend with man (a cousin) running the estate now but not loved, and (without giving too much away) is he, by chance, the real heir and does not know it, or is the real heir still alive? And of course, there is a girl. The girl. The girl of John Jones’ dreams.

   All told with a flair for the romantic, with plenty of gallantry, bravery, and a sense of justice and what’s right in the world and what makes it worth living. Cowboys and Mexican peasants had a tough life, but you wouldn’t know it from reading this book. Even the deaths that occur toward the end of the book have some meaning, redemption being a solid part of it.

   A world such as this never existed, but I enjoyed every minute that I spent visiting it.

 Posted by at 2:12 am
Apr 112015

DOUGLAS PRESTON & LINCOLN CHILD – The Lost Island. Grand Central, hardcover, 2014; paperback, March 2015.

   Between them, the pair of authors Preston and Child have written and co-written a list of titles that fills a page, just before the title page. I’ve always meant to read one, and now I finally have. All things considered, I may not have picked the best one to start with.

   To begin with, while Preston and Child are best known for their series of books about someone called Pendergast, this is the third in a new series featuring an adventurer named Gideon Crew. It doesn’t matter so much that this is the third one; it’s that when this one ends Gideon is ready to continue the adventure right into the fourth one. I always hate that when it happens.

   But even worse is that this gets more and more uninteresting as the book goes on. I hate it even more when that happens. It begins with Gideon stealing a page from the Book of Kells from its state-of-the-art guarded case in Manhattan museum, one of the most audacious ventures I can imagine you can imagine, and it continues on with Gideon’s employer chemically removing the hand-colored print from the page, completely destroying it.

   The madness behind this action? A treasure map, one not leading to gold or other sundry valuables, but a secret with all-but-magical healing powers. And off Gideon goes to find it, discovering as he does so that he is retracing steps taken by others before him in the realm of Greek mythology.

   But with rather ordinary obstacles along the way: treasure-hunting pirates, a shipwreck, a unknown tribe of natives who believe in human sacrifice — each of step the way turning disaster into just coincidentally one step further in the right direction.

   The final obstacle is not so ordinary, but by that time the pedestrian writing and dialogue had me caught in a bind. I’d spent a lot of time getting to that point myself. Should I give up, or try to redeem my input to this point and garner whatever output I could get? I tossed a mental coin and I went on, and while I’m glad I did, I probably made the wrong decision.

   In my opinion, as far as this book is concerned — I certainly can’t vouch for their earlier work — I think Preston and Child are writing for young adults. I’d state that as a fact if it weren’t for all of the bloody deaths that occur, especially toward the end of the book. Of course maybe that’s what young adults are reading these days, instead of the Hardy Boys and their motorcycle and roadster. I have to admit that is something I just don’t know.

 Posted by at 11:50 pm
Apr 112015

THE SKULL. Amicus Productions/Paramount Pictures, 1965. Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green. Based on the short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade,” by Robert Bloch (Weird Tales, September 1945). Director: Freddie Francis.

   A reasonably good job was done in adapting Robert Bloch’s short story to the screen, but at 83 minutes long, it’s about a half hour longer than it needs to be. And for a movie to be scary, it certainly doesn’t bode well when a sizable chunk of it could be cut out with being noticed.

   But it’s always good to see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in a movie together, no doubt about that. This time around, Cushing plays a collector of occult and inhuman items who is offered an absolutely unique item, the skull of the notorious Marquis de Sade, while Lee is it’s previous owner — who most definitely does NOT want it back. He is more than happy it was stolen from him.

   Better, though, than either of these two actors in their respective roles is Patrick Wymark as Marco, the unctuous middleman (or thief) in the sale of the skull to Cushing. His death, a dramatic fall down a stairwell through several panes of colored glass, was for me a highlight of the film. That was the turning point for me. The movie simply ran out of steam from that scene
   On hand are plenty of scary music, flashing lights and moonlight, and a skull mysteriously floating in the air, but none of these are of any avail when the story itself doesn’t make sense. Horror is a state of mind, and there have to be rules that have to followed, even in terms of the supernatural, not so?

   Read the story (follow the link provided). It’s only six pages long, and in those six pages it packs up to 20 or 30 times the punch of this highly acclaimed but in the end not entirely convincing horror film.

 Posted by at 3:02 am
Apr 102015

I love reading Matthew Scudder novels. It’s a ritual to me, like renewing with a badass, self-loathing friend every couple months or so. EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE is a great addition to the series and is almost as satisfying as the masterful A STAB IN THE DARK. Read it for the terrific, unexpected plot twists, the rich, complex and subtle characters, but if you’re a fan of the series, read it for Scudder, first and foremost, who struggles with his demons in a way he hasn’t before and who develops new wrinkles to his personality because of it. EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE is a solid, rewarding detective novel you could as a read alone or as one of the high point in the series. Reading Matthew Scudder never gets old.

Click here to read the review


Apr 092015
Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

MILTON LOTT – Backtrack. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover,, 1965. Berkley F1472, paperback, 1967.

   I mentioned Milton Lott before in these pages (he wrote The Last Hunt, 1954) but I’ve never been able to find out much about him except that he died in 1996 at age 80 after turning out only three books. I haven’t read Dance Back the Buffalo (1959) but based on The Last Hunt and this one, I wish he’d done a lot more.

   Backtrack is a woolly thing, set in Texas around 1879 but darting one way, then another, like a horse that won’t be saddled, never settling down to one theme, but never losing momentum or a sense of purpose either. The narrator is a cowboy (literally, he makes his living herding cattle) who meets up with a very strange and troubled youth in the course of a cattle drive. When the kid (now known as “the Kid”) kills 2 men and lights out, he goes after him to tell him he’s not in trouble with the law — and to sort of look after him, since the kid seems too weird to last long without a keeper.


   The narrator himself (called “Ringo” for a wound he suffered trying to take a dump on a hot pot) has hang-ups of his own. Though he seems gentle enough, he has a reputation as a killer, and suffers from what we now call Repressed Memories: odd flashbacks he can’t put together that warp his judgment at times. And as he follows the kid’s trail, it leads him back to his childhood home and confrontation with his past.

   This would have been enough for a fine Western all by itself, but Lott never loses sight of his narrative peg for very long, and as Ringo struggles with his identity, the Kid picks up a reputation of his own, two gunmen on his trail, and the idea that Ringo is after him to kill him.

   What could have been hopelessly over-complicated at a lesser typewriter flows with natural grace from Lott. Backtrack teems with energy and inventiveness that are a real pleasure to read, evoking the dusty trail, the grinding work of the cowboy, and hair-raising encounters with man & beast, including a medicine show huckster who seems to have stepped out of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.

   There’s a really really clever confrontation between a gunfighter and a sleight-of-hand artist (“I couldn’t see any gun on him, but he didn’t look like he’d take long to find one.”) and a splendid moment when a cowboy dodging a night-stampede climbs a tree for safety and sees his saddle climb the tree too.

   To appreciate that last bit you’ll have to read the book. And I recommend you do.

 Posted by at 6:37 pm