My version of a perfect crime novel, this book incorporated everything that makes a particular book or a series successful.
My version of a perfect crime novel, this book incorporated everything that makes a particular book or a series successful.
BEST OF THE BAD MEN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1951. Robert Ryan, Claire Trevor, Jack Buetel, Robert Preston, Walter Brennan, Bruce Cabot, John Archer, Lawrence Tierney, Barton MacLane, Tom Tyler. Director: William D. Russell.
Set primarily in Missouri and the Cimarron Strip (the Oklahoma Panhandle) in the period following the Civil War, Best of the Bad Men benefits from a notably strong cast, a solid story with excellent pacing, and more than enough suspense to keep a viewer watching until the very end.
The plot follows the conflict between Union officer Jeff Clanton (Robert Ryan) and Matthew Fowler (Robert Preston), a corrupt carpetbagger who has set up a detective agency to guard banks and gold shipments.
In the film’s opening sequence, Clanton proposes a deal with some men affiliated with Quantrill’s Raiders. Among them are Cole and Bob Younger (Bruce Cabot and Jack Buetel), a fictionalized Jesse James (Lawrence Tierney), and a horse thief by the name of Doc Butcher (Walter Brennan). These tired but determined remnants of Quantrill’s Raiders are given the option of foregoing their illegal activities and swearing an allegiance to the Union. In exchange, charges against them will be dropped. The outlaws, seeing no other realistic option available to them, accept the terms of the deal.
But as it turns out, Clanton’s commission in the Army had already expired at the time of the deal, rendering it invalid. Also complicating matters is Fowler, who sees a lucrative financial opportunity for his detective agency should he return the outlaws to face justice. Clanton, who has no truck for this carpetbagger scheming, ends up shooting and killing one of Fowler’s men, leading Fowler and his henchman Joad (Barton MacLane) to use their influence to have Clanton arrested.
This leads to Clanton’s conviction by a kangaroo court. With the assistance of Fowler’s estranged wife, Lily (Claire Trevor), Clanton escapes to Badman’s Territory, the relatively lawless and ungoverned area consisting of what is today the Oklahoman Panhandle. From there, he joins up with the James Gang and the Youngers to wage guerrilla warfare against Fowler and his detective agency. Quantrill’s Raiders ride again!
When an innocent bank teller is shot, however, Clanton begins to show signs of doubt as to the nature of his actions. He’s not really a criminal, as much as he is an unjustly wronged man who wants retribution.
Although Best of the Badmen doesn’t concern itself with particularly deep social or philosophical issues, it does have enough of a subversive and an anti-authoritarian subtext that makes it significantly better than similarly plotted films from the same era. The legal authorities depicted in the film are deeply corrupt, bought and paid for by the highest bidder.
Clanton’s a noble man living in a lawless, unjust and chaotic world. And in contrast to Ryan’s character in Horizons West, which I reviewed here, Clanton (Ryan) has every reason in the world to feel aggrieved. Whether that justifies his teaming up with the James Gang and the Youngers is another story, altogether.
Best of the Badmen, while no classic, is nevertheless a very good Western. Ryan, in particular, is a very strong lead. Walter Brennan fans might also appreciate this film, with the veteran actor’s character, Doc, playing sidekick to Clanton. Theirs is a more mature friendship than the one between wronged lawman Mark Rowley (Randolph Scott) and sidekick Coyote (George “Gabby” Hayes) in the earlier Badman’s Territory (1946). It makes the film worth a look.
WILLIAM MARSHALL – Out of Nowhere. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1988; reprint paperback, 1989.
The thirteenth mad adventure from Hong Kong’s Yellowthread Street Station is Out of Nowhere, by William Marshall. Here as usual Inspector Harry Feiffer and his minions have several wacky puzzles. There is the matter of the rented van, loaded with second-quality plate glass and carrying four persons, which vehicle roars the wrong way down a 3 A.M. freeway for a spectacular collision with a truck. Everything Harry learns about this matter serves to increase his bafflement.
Meanwhile, there’s the Dalmatian which repeatedly attacks an herbal medicine shop, wrecking the premises (mighty dog!) and carrying off selected medications as well as an array of wind chimes. And finally, Inspector O’Yee, manning a line designed for the pacification of telephonically inclined psychopaths, finds he has a ten-year-old child on the other end with a loaded and cocked Luger in his school bag.
Marshall stirs this mix in his typical onomatopoeic fashion. Enjoyable but not the strongest in the series.
The Yellowstreet Station series –
1. Yellowthread Street (1975)
2. The Hatchet Man (1976)
3. Gelignite (1975)
5. Thin Air (1977)
5. Skulduggery (1979)
6. Sci-fi (1981)
7. Perfect End (1981)
8. War Machine (1982)
9. The Far Away Man (1984)
10. Roadshow (1985)
11. Head First (1986)
12. Frogmouth (1987)
13. Out of Nowhere (1988)
14. Inches (1994)
15. Nightmare Syndrome (1997)
16. To the End (1998)
Note: There was also a Yellowthread Street television series in England. Produced by Yorkshire Television, it ran for one season (13 episodes) in 1990. It has not yet been released commercially, but DVDs can be obtained on the collector-to-collector market.
The cover states “A Novel of Sex & Violence”and it’s not false advertising as Block writes about sex and murder with unashamed glee and the grit and style he is known for.
JOHN BUCHAN – Witch Wood. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1927. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1927. Reprinted many times since, in both hardcover and soft.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the virtues of John Buchan as storyteller. thriller writer, scholar, man, and political figure, but as memorable and loved as his ‘shockers’, as he called them, are, his greatest talent perhaps was his gift as a historical novelist, books like Blanket of the Dark, Salute to Adventurers, The Free Fishers, and The Path of the King are among his finest works, and among them lies his foremost achievement, a novel that transcends genre and rises to a rare power, Witch Wood.
Being a Scot, and with a Scot’s sense of the uncanny, Buchan was a natural to deal with the darker side. He was a favorite of Lovecraft and Howard, and his shorter works like “Watcher by the Threshold” and “The Grove of Ashtoreth,” are often anthologized among the best of their kind. Witch Wood is his only novel length flirtation with the uncanny. (Gap in the Curtain is science fictional and largely a parable though uncanny on its own).
Those familiar with Buchan will not be surprised to find Witch Wood was chosen one of 100 Best Supernatural novels ever written, and with good reason, because in it are echoes of Scott and Stevenson as well as Machen, James, and Blackwood. It is no wonder it appealed to Lovecraft and Howard, for something ancient and malevolent lurks in the shadows of the witch wood.
The place is Scotland, the time the late seventeenth century towards the end of the Montrose rebellion when the country side is torn by civil war, and at a time when Scotland was haunted by the iron hand of the Kirk, and the the scent of Satan’s breath as witch hunts, black mass, and hypocrisy walked hand in hand. As Buchan’s minister hero admits: “If the Kirk confines human nature too strictly, it will break out in secret ways, for men and women are born into a terrestrial world, though they have hopes of Heaven.”
This is the way of things in the village of Woodilee where young David Sempil has come to minister the local kirk, a place of superstition, complacency, and distrust of outsiders in a time of violence and cruelty, and Witch Wood is the tale of the young minister and how he came to depart that Kirk: “…right in the heart of Reiverslaw’s best field of turnips was a spring…which the old folk called the Minister’s Well, and mentioned always with a shake of the head or a sigh, for it was there, they said, that the Minister of Woodilee had left the earth for Fairyland.”
Woodilee’s shame is hidden though, hidden in a place where brave men fear to tread and locals avoid, the Black Wood, once called, Melanudrigill.
Almost from the beginning the young minister clashes with the elders of the Kirk. They have narrow interpretations of Scripture and pick and choose what suits them. They are cruel in their piety, proud of their record for burning witches, yet among their number, among the most pious and cruel, lies the agent of the great deceiver himself.
That’s not far off the message of Buchan’s shockers and that moment in The Power House when the “thin veneer of civilization” falls away in the middle of Piccadilly Circus.
It is in the Wood that David first witnesses the devil’s mass when he dares to venture into it on “ … the day they ca’ the Rood-Mass and the morn is the Beltane, and it behoves a’ decent bodies to be indoors at the darkenin’ on Beltane’s Eve.”
And sure enough David stumbles on a black mass and in his rage attacks and is badly beaten. He survives, and now he knows his mission. “I have had my eyes opened and I will not rest till I have rooted this evil thing from Woodilee. I will search out and denounce every malefactor, though he were in my own Kirk Session. I will bring against them the terror of God and the arm of the human law. I will lay bare the evil mysteries of the Wood, though I have to hew down every tree with my own hand. In the strength of the Lord I will thresh this parish as corn is threshed, till I have separated the grain from the chaff and given the chaff to the burning.”
Despite the wrath of an Old Testament prophet, David is, as his name implies, a simple good man. Witch Wood is not the story of a towering figure arraigned against the powers of evil, but of a fallible good man battling for the soul of his Kirk, not against towering Luciferian powers, but ordinary men, corrupt and corrupted, weak and foolish, and afraid: “…you think you can tamper with devilry and yet keep your interest in Christ…I tell you that your covenant is with Death and Hell.”
Yet he is also a simple man who falls in love with Katrine Yester of Calidan, a great lady, and an almost elfin figure he spots by a pool. Their love will change him from a boy raging against evil to a man determined to save as many souls as he can.
Aside from Katrine, one of his few allies is Mark Kerr, cavalier and soldier of Montrose, who David agrees to hide and nurse to health after he is wounded when Montrose is defeated and on the run for the Highlands.
Kerr, who takes the name of Mark Riddel, is a handsome adventurer with a quick blade and little patience with the good folk of Woodilee, but he knows a man when he meets one. He’s a figure right out of Stevenson, and breathes great life into the proceedings by dint of his jaundiced eye and dark humor. Leaving David with a small army of a handful of villagers, an outlaw, and a beautiful almost enchanted woman to fight the powers of darkness, the Kirk Session, and the highest court in the Kirk Aller that all oppose him when he dares to call out wealthy Ephraim Caird of Castlemore, the leader of the coven.
When the village is swept by plague, David, Katrine, and Mark fight to save them, but David is blamed for bringing the plague, and when Katrine dies, he is left more alone than ever, yet from her death he gains a determination to fight. He witnesses a second mass, this time with a more empathic eye for the people mislead by superstition and narrow minds into this blasphemy, and things come to a head when Caird convinces a woman from the coven to confess to witchcraft and be tortured to death to cover himself. “What devil’s prank have you been at?” he cried.—”Answer me, Ephraim Caird.” David is ready to kill to try to save the foolish woman and violence is only averted by the presence of Mark Kerr, and only because she is too far gone to save.
Still, that is the last straw and David summoned before the Kirk Aller, to be tried for daring to defy his own Kirk Session and denying the wealthy Caird. By this point he no longer cares about his ministry, only to save Woodilee from itself and try to save Caird’s soul: “Hell is waiting for some, and maybe this very night,” building to a powerful and dramatic ending when David drives a terrified cowering Caird into the Wood, to the profane altar, to try and save him.
“Say after me, ‘I abhor and reject the Devil and all his works, and I fling myself upon the mercy of God.’ Man, man, it is your immortal soul that trembles above the Pit.”
But a maddened Caird, driven by the baying of the hounds of hell on his heels, breaks away and runs in blind flight. It’s a memorable moment, and you may hear the hounds yourself reading it.
With David and Caird missing, it is Mark Kerr who holds the Kirk Session at sword point to chastise them. Caird is dead: “Go and look for him. You will find him in a bog-hole or a pool in the burn. Bury his body decently, but bury it face downward, so that you speed him on his road,”and Mark has words of his own to preach to the hypocritical ‘Pharisees’ of the Kirk: “A prophet came among you and you knew him not. For the sake of that witless thing that is now going four-foot among the braes you have condemned the innocent blood. He spent his strength for you and you rejected him, he yearned for you and you repelled him, he would have laid down his life for you and you scorned him. He is now beyond the reach of your ingratitude.”
The ironic epilogue reveals how history sided with the Kirk Session and condemns David as the cause of all the problems and a failure in his ministry, though at the very end we are shown two men, one Mark Kerr, buying passage out of Scotland to find a war to fight in.
Witch Wood is one of those books that I would pack for that mythical desert island where book lovers hope to be stranded with their most beloved tomes. It is not an easy book, in fact even if you read it in hardcovers or paperback I suggest you download the annotated version available in e-book form at Roy Glashan’s Books, but it is more than worth the effort.
It is a fine novel, a moving love story, an adventure of the first water, and though there is not one actual supernatural event you can point to in the novel, one of the finest novels of the supernatural ever written. Here the Devil only appears in flawed human form, there are no angels, no miracles occur, all the terrors and darkest fears arise from the human mind and no Dracula, Hyde, sorcerer, demon, or real witch darkens its pages, but the scares here are genuine, the confrontation between good and evil palpable, and you may never look at a dark wood the same again.
Unlike most of today’s writers in the field, Buchan is not a twelve year old boy leaping out to say boo or trying to gross you out in blood and gore. Witch Wood goes to more deeply seated fears. It reminds us of our fragile humanity, our capacity for blinding ourselves, and that a simple good man can be enough to stand against the most powerful of evils even where once “the great wood of Melanudrigill had descended from the heights and flowed in black waves to the village brink.”
Some of the language in Witch Wood will inevitably remind you of J.R.R. Tolkien and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and I think that is no accident. Aside from the ‘hills of Lothien’ and other similar passages, one of the Kirk Session who sins most grievously against David is named Mr. Proudfoot.
I strongly suspect it is no accident, and that David Sempil and Mark Kerr may well be models in some ways for Frodo and Aragorn and Woodilee for the Shire, as much as David Balfour and Alan Breck served as models for them. But read it yourself and see if you agree.
KANSAS PACIFIC. Allied Artists, 1953. Sterling Hayden, Eve Miller, Barton MacLane, Harry Shannon, Tom Fadden, Reed Hadley. Director: Ray Nazarro.
Kansas Pacific is a perfectly watchable, albeit altogether unremarkable, Western set in Kansas on the eve of the Civil War. Directed by the prolific Ray Nazarro, whose The Black Dakotas was reviewed here on this blog, the film stars Sterling Hayden as Captain John Nelson, a U.S. Army engineer. His mission: ensure that the Kansas Pacific Railroad, which the U.S. Army plans to utilize for troop movements to the West, is constructed in a safe and timely manner.
Nelson arrives in Kansas to assist Cal Bruce (Barton MacLane) in building the railroad. Bruce’s daughter, Barbara (Eve Miller) is suspicious of Nelson’s encroaching on her father’s turf. She also wants her father to quit his work and go back East. Naturally, there’s tension between Capt. Nelson (Sterling) and Barbara Bruce (Miller), which eventually culminates in love.
Opposing the two men are the Confederate sympathizer, William Quantrill (Reed Hadley), and his gang of generic thugs. Among them is a guy by the name of Stone, portrayed by Clayton Moore of The Lone Ranger fame. The Confederates aren’t presented as anything other than violent men determined to stop the construction of the railroad. There’s not much nuance here.
Hayden’s character comes across as both gruff and sentimental. He wants very much to earn Barbara Bruce’s respect. On the other hand, he’s a man on a mission and determined to get the railroad built, even if it causes friction between the two of them.
There’s not much in the way of memorable dialogue in Kansas Pacific, but no one watches this type of film for snappy banter. There is, however, a good bit of action, some of it quite explosive. There’s a well-choreographed fight scene, replete with artillery, at the end. There’s also a fairly tense scene in which Capt. Nelson and Quantrill face off in a saloon.
Kansas Pacific is a decent, average Western with about average performances from Hayden and MacLane. The historical context, rather than the acting, may be the most intriguing aspect to the film. Kansas prior to the Civil War is a rich area for writers and filmmakers, and it’s a bit different from the overused Western narrative of a Confederate soldier returning home from the war.
In conclusion, the film’s not bad. It’s just not nearly as interesting as it could have been.
MICHAEL INNES – A Night of Errors. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1947. US paperback reprints include: Berkley F833, 1963; Penguin, 1966; Perennial Library, 1989 (shown). First UK edition: Gollancz, hardcover, 1948.
In A Night of Errors by Michael lanes, the inspector who asks Sir John Appleby’s assistance says, “The whole thing is a nightmare. Three identical brothers creeping around the place with each other’s dead bodies! It’s like a drunken hallucination.”
It’s certainly a hilarious farce, one which owes more than its similarity of title to Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. One character is Romeo Dromio. There is also a thieving butler named Swindle, and Grubb, the gardener who “had long schooled himself in the prime duty of being disgruntled
Besides the civilized dialogue and literary allusions we have come to expect from Innes, there are many plot surprises, as well as a fair and ingenious, if scarcely believable, solution.
Assassin lit as pure entertainment.
ROGUE. DirecTV, Season One (10 episodes), April-May 2013. Thandie Newton, Marton Csokas, Sarah Jeffery, Joshua Sasse, Kavan Smith, Leah Gibson, Jarod Joseph, Ian Tracey, Ian Hart.
I don’t have a hookup with DirecTV, so I had to wait for the series to come out on DVD to be able to watch it, that and a span of a couple of weeks to find the time. For me, it started slowly but gradually caught my attention, and I ended up watching the last two episodes in one evening (last night).
The star of the series is without a doubt Thandie Newton, who plays Grace Travis, a black police officer from the San Jose Police Department who has been working undercover for the Oakland police to get the goods on Jimmy Laszlo (Marton Csokas), a local crime boss controlling the waterfront area. But obsessed with finding out who killed her young son in what was written off as a tragic but accidental drive-by shooting, she finds herself getting deeper and deeper into a complicated plot of greed, revenge, mob killings and more, alienating her own family while getting closer and closer to the man she is supposed to be bringing down.
It takes all ten episodes for the entire story line to work its way through, and naturally there is plenty of violence to go along with it, some of shockingly graphic. And perhaps equally naturally not everyone in the cast survives to the end, some a lot sooner than viewers might expect, including this one. There is also, given the freedom of not being seen on broadcast TV, quite a few almost as graphic sex scenes.
The setting, mostly in around the Oakland waterfront (but probably filmed in Canada) and the seedier sections of that particular town, is beautifully filmed, and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep everyone’s minds constantly in high gear.
The largest downside is the level of the actors’ performances. I found them uneven, to say it mildly, from actor and actor, and even in the case of some of the players, from scene to scene. Some of the dialogue is awkward and clunky, though, and tough to bring off convincingly, so the actors don’t deserve all of the blame.
Thandie Newton carries the show well, however. The character she plays is both tough and vulnerable, and she is placed in any number of situations in which she can show off how she tries to deal with them, and believe me, she gets into quite a few scrapes and narrow escapes. It would be a strenuous role for anyone, especially the vulnerability Newton’s character has to display, as mentioned above, and I think she nails it. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part.
The series deserved a second season, and it got one. It’s playing now but will end its run this week.
With the U.S. southern border so much in the news these days, Hard Case Crime’s reissue of Lawrence Block’s 1962 pulp novel Borderline would definitely seem to be riding the zeitgeist. Set in the early sixties, the book follows a quartet of aimless Americans as they cross the line ‘tween El Paso and Juarez, moving across the border for “excitement,” which they get in spades.