Aug 262014
 
THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


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.

   Pleasant.

— 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.

 Posted by at 2:36 am
Aug 242014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE PUBLIC DEFENDER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1931. Richard Dix, Shirley Grey, Purnell Pratt, Ruth Weston, Edmund Breese, Frank Sheridan, Alan Roscoe, Boris Karloff, Paul Hurst. Based on the novel The Splendid Crime by George Goodchild (1930). Director: J. Walter Ruben.

   The Public Defender is a good, albeit somewhat simplistic crime film starring Richard Dix and Boris Karloff. The film benefits from rapid spitfire pacing, a believable protagonist, and its skillful utilization of humor to keep the overall mood light and fun. Directed by J. Walter Ruben, the movie definitely has its moments and its charms. But it doesn’t have all that much depth, either in terms of characterization or plot.

   The film follows Pike Winslow (Dix), a wealthy playboy who, under the alias, “The Reckoner,” seeks to absolve an innocent man of criminal charges against him. Joining him in his task are two men, The Professor (Boris Karloff), the brains, and Doc (Paul Hurst), the muscle. They are crime-fighting triumvirate that, unlike the bumbling cops, actually gets stuff done. Too bad then we never learn actually why these men have decided to become vigilantes.

   After Winslow learns that the father of his love interest, Barbara Gerry (Shirley Grey) has been unjustly imprisoned for a financial crime, he decides to seek out incriminating evidence that will both absolve Gerry and demonstrate who the real culprits are.

   Gerry’s attorney lets on that he knows what Winslow is up to. But he not deterred. As “The Reckoner,” Winslow puts fear into the hearts of the real criminals by … leaving them business cards with the scales of justice on them. It’s all good innocent fun, in a way. Although he’s a playboy superhero of sorts, Winslow’s a cheerful guy and definitely not a broody, morbid Bruce Wayne sort of guy. Truth be told, though, Batman’s costume is a thousand times cooler than that of The Reckoner. Plus, Batman had much better gadgets.

   Although Dix got top billing and was undoubtedly the star and box office attraction, Karloff has quite a presence in this one. He’s a poetry-quoting scholar who’s also evidently skilled in nighttime capers. Look for the fun scene with him using a flashlight to distract one of the criminal’s hired guns.

   All told, The Public Defender is a fun little crime film with a solid lead performance by Dix and some great Karloff moments. But it’s just not all much more than that.

 Posted by at 11:54 pm
Aug 242014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


JOHN VAN DER ZEE – Stateline. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, hardcover, 1976. Pyramid, 1977.

   Similar in vein to Murder Plan, by John Bingham (reviewed here) is Stateline, by John van der Zee, which seems very 70s in parts (the heroine’s name is Rain, for instance) but come to think of it, a lot of 70s stuff seems rather 70s at times.

   The plot depends on the Police overlooking a rather obvious clue, and ignoring a bit of procedure that was SOP when I started Police Work in ’72, but the remarkable thing is that the characters and story are strong enough to hold the tale together despite this.

   Ferrell is a retired cop, working Security at a chintzy casino in Stateline, Nevada, and suffering from a near-terminal case of low self-esteem. One morning he’s handed an unusual Bad Check case: the author of the rubber has not skipped out, as most do, but is waiting around in his hotel room to be arrested.

   Ferrell tries to talk him into a settlement, but the man — who neither admits nor denies his guilt – refuses and is duly incarcerated pending trial. Ferrell warns his bosses that this may all be leading up to something tricky, but he can’t think what, and they press charges anyway — and when the plot explodes, they duly elect Ferrell as their scapegoat.

   As I say, there are holes here big as a roulette wheel, but there are also some very nice touches of characterization and a few telling incidents related with some skill: an early off-the-cuff detail of gamblers and tourists stepping over a heart-attack victim on their way to the tables, for instance, or scenes of Ferrell’s co-workers nervously shunning him as the corporate ax prepares to fall.

   All this, tied in with a plot that keeps moving to a neat, low-key wrap-up, make this one quite enjoyable.

Bibliographic Note:   John van der Zee (1936-   ) has one other title listed in Hubin, that being Blood Brotherhood (Harcourt, 1970). Says Kirkus of this earlier book, in part: “Somehow Mr. van der Zee [...] contrives to put forth this tale about the portentous murder of an Establishment-bucking labor leader as not only remotely possible but current.”

 Posted by at 7:40 pm
Aug 242014
 

SANTA FE TRAIL. Warner Brothers, 1940. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan, Alan Hale, William Lundigan, Van Heflin, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams. Director: Michael Curtiz.

   I’m sorry to tell you this, but there is no scene in this movie that takes place any closer to Santa Fe than Kansas. If I had gone to see this movie back in 1940, I’d have wanted my money back. But with dashing Errol Flynn in it, plus the beautiful Olivia de Haviland, I doubt that too many at the time actually did.

   And for the most part, audiences in 1940 got their money’s worth. The aforementioned Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart, the boyishly handsome “aw, shucks” kind of guy Ronald Reagan as George Custer, good buddies who graduated together from West Point, and sent on their first assignment in tandem to protect the construction of a yet-to-be-built railroad line from Kansas to Santa Fe. (OK, yes, so there you go.)

   Problem: pre-Civil War Kansas was a powder keg of violence, mostly instigated by John Brown, the religious anti-slavery abolitionist played to perfection by jut-bearded and wild-eyed Raymond Massey, abetted by equally obsessed Van Heflin. For my money, it is Massey who walks away with star honors for this film.

   The movie ends with John Brown’s defeat at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia, about as far away from New Mexico as you can imagine, with some romantic moments in between all of the spying, marauding and fighting, with both Custer and Stewart vying for the hand of “Kit Carson” Holliday, played by Olivia de Haviland.

   Funny thing is, though, that Jeb Stewart and George Custer, although they both attended West Point, they did so seven years apart, and in real life they never met at all, nor did Stewart marry anyone by the name of Kit Carson Holliday. I could go on with a long list of similar flaws, and if you check out the IMDb page for the movie, I’m sure you’ll find that several other viewers already have.

   Santa Fe Trail is a fun movie to watch, but if I were a history professor back in 1940, I’d not only want my money back, but I’d sue. How you do get kids to learn what really happened, when movies like this one subvert all of the hard work you’re trying to do?

 Posted by at 4:45 am
Aug 232014
 

RHYS BOWEN – The Twelve Clues of Christmas. Berkley, hardcover, November 2012; paperback, November 2013.

   Lady Georgianna Rannoch, who tells the story, is 34th (or 35th; sources differ) in line to the throne of England, but die to various misfortunes, none of which are of her own doing, she is dependent on the good will of others, especially at the beginning of Clues that of her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Rannoch, commonly known as Fig, as to her overall welfare and a roof over her head.

   Determined not to spend Christmas at the ancestral (and austere) Rannoch castle where she is not particularly welcome, Georgie answers an ad in a magazine to act as a social director for a lengthy Christmas house party in Devonshire. Her application is accepted almost at once, and it is goodbye to winter in gloomy Scotland even more quickly.

   Turns out, as it so often does in fiction if not real life, that her mother, a flighty lady and a sometimes actress who abandoned Georgie at very young age, is staying in a nearby cottage with none other than Noel Coward. (There is no ill feeling between Georgie and her mother. The former has learned to accept her for who she is.) And as it also turns out, Georgie’s good friend, the adventurous Mr. Darcy O’Mara is on hand as well.

   As in cozy mystery fiction of which this is a fine example, Georgie’s personal life, family relationships and the like take up a sizable percentage of the story. There is a murder involved, or in fact a whole series of them. Or perhaps I should take that back. There is a whole series of strange deaths that occur, all of which appear accidental, nor is there any apparent connection between them.

   We, the reader, know better. It is a murderous scheme on the part of someone, a plan worthy of a villain in an Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen detective story, but without a detective on hand to solve it. With the local police inspector barely up to the job, it is up to the purely amateur efforts of Lady Georgianna, and the sometimes assistance of Darcy, to come up with killer or killers.

   The Twelve Clues of Christmas is fun to read, and is chock full of various Christmas customs of England in the 1930s, but the detective plot certainly could have been filled out more. It’s clever to begin with, but the details become more and more sketchy as time goes on. In fact, the connection between the death is discovered with more than 70 pages to go, leaving only Georgie’s kidnapping (and a couple of gruesome deaths) to fill in most of the rest of the novel.

      The Royal Spyness series –

1. Her Royal Spyness (2007)

2. A Royal Pain (2008)
3. Royal Flush (2009)
4. Royal Blood (2010)

5. Naughty In Nice (2011)
5.5. Masked Ball at Broxley Manor (novella, 2012)
6. The Twelve Clues of Christmas (2012)
7. Heirs and Graces (2013)

8. Queen of Hearts (2014)

 Posted by at 10:12 pm
Aug 222014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


LEWIS PADGETT [HENRY KUTTNER] – The Brass Ring. Duell, Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1946; Bantam Books #107, paperback, 1947, as Murder in Brass.

   A year earlier, Seth Colman had stopped participating actively in his detective agency. Although he was good at investigating, he had begun to hate the work. Despite his best efforts to avoid it, however, his wife, Eve, who has apparently seen too many Powell/Loy movies, gets him involved in trying to find a lunatic. As soon as Colman arrives on the scene in Westchester County, N.Y., the lunatic — or someone — commits murder.

   Not only does Eve show up to view, not necessarily take part in, the proceedings, but Colman is saddled with the assistance of Art Bednarian, who is interested in money only because it can buy booze and broads. Bednarian possibly possesses some form of telepathy, having been known to have spotted murderers through their “smell.” However, he also suspects females of varying crimes when they turn down his kind offers to take them to bed.

   Colman is a fascinating character, whose depths Padgett plumbs well. The ending is definitely not upbeat.

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


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   According to both Hubin and Wikipedia, Lewis Padgett was the joint pseudonym of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, a husband and wife team who are much more well-known as science fiction and fantasy authors. Under the Padgett byline they also wrote The Day He Died (Duell, 1947).

 Posted by at 9:02 pm
Aug 212014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


JOHNNY APOLLO. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Tyrone Power, Dorothy Lamour, Edward Arnold, Lloyd Nolan, Charley Grapewin, Lionel Atwill, Marc Lawrence. Director: Henry Hathaway.

   Johnny Apollo is an crime film that benefits greatly from an exceptional cast, good pacing, and notable proto-noir characteristics. Directed by Henry Hathaway, the film stars a dynamic Tyrone Power as Bob Cain, a somewhat idealist college student who, in order to help get his embezzler father (Edward Arnold) out of state prison, transforms himself into a lightweight gangster named Johnny Apollo. Of no real help to him is his father’s unpalatable lawyer, portrayed by Lionel Atwill.

   The story follows Cain (Power) as he teams up with a crooked and drunken attorney, Emmett Brennan (Charley Grapewin), and a gangster named Mickey Dwyer (Lloyd Nolan), to earn money so he can get his father out of prison. Joining them on their not particularly wild ride through crime is Dwyer’s girl, Lucky (Dorothy Lamour), who begins to loathe Dwyer. She also develops romantic feelings for Johnny Apollo/Bob Cain.

   Things get dicey when Brennan decides to double cross Dwyer. This leads us to an ice pick scene wherein Dwyer kills Brennan, a scene that begins with a staff member in a Turkish/Russian bath utilizing an ice pick. You just know what’s coming next! And if that’s not enough, the staff member leaves his workstation with the pick stuck there alone in the pile of ice. The camera captures it perfectly. Soon enough, Dwyer picks up the ice pick and enters the steam room. You don’t see him kill Brennan, but the callous nature of the crime is implied.

   Dwyer (Nolan) is a brute and a sadist, but he’s also capable of charm and genuine affection. In some ways, he is a more urbane, but crueler, version of Bogart’s character in The Petrified Forest. Bob Cain/Johnny Apollo is clearly the film’s protagonist, but Dwyer is just a bit more interesting of a character. Much as in The Texas Rangers, which I recently reviewed here, Nolan is very good in portraying a villain.

   About those noir characteristics I mentioned earlier. Shadow and lighting are often utilized to convey meaning. When we first see Nolan’s character, he’s standing in a courtroom waiting to be sentenced. His face is haggard and dark, signifying his violent side. Later on, upon being freed from jail and now back in his familiar surroundings with Lucky by his side, his face appears significantly lighter in tone.

   Power’s character’s psychological descent is also conveyed through changes in lighting. When we first see him, he’s college student Bob Cain, not Johnny Apollo. He has a soft face and is resplendent in the sunshine, palling around with his college classmates and posing for a photograph shirtless. After transforming himself into Johnny Apollo, however, he soon gets a black eye in an altercation with one of Dwyer’s former associates.

   Worse still is Johnny Apollo’s appearance upon visiting his father in prison for the first time. We see his darkened face, almost angular like Dwyer’s through bars, foreshadowing what fate awaits him in the near future. In one of the film’s next-to-final, albeit very brief, scenes, set in a darkened prison cell, we see Johnny Apollo without a trace of that soft light in which we first saw cheerful Bob Cain.

   The film’s biggest flaw is in its slightly clumsy method of introducing its characters. The first two people we see in the movie are Bob “Pop” Cain (Arnold) and his lawyer (Atwill). For the next half hour or so, Atwill seems as though he’s going to be a significant figure in the film, but he soon disappears completely.

   The scene in which Dwyer (Nolan) is first introduced, however, is very brief and is immediately followed by a couple of quick scenes in which random, unimportant characters, such Pop Cain’s cellmate are introduced, never really to be seen or heard much from again.

   When we first see Brennan, he’s merely standing by Dwyer’s side at the latter’s sentencing. Although he makes a few facial expressions, he doesn’t have a speaking part in the film until later on. I found this an odd way to introduce a character that the plot will ultimately turn upon. That said, the film’s strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses.

   In conclusion, Johnny Apollo is an eminently watchable and significantly above average crime film. Although the film does have some proto-noir characteristics and a seemingly doomed protagonist, it ends up having a light, happy, and somewhat pat ending.

   But the film does show the dark side of human nature. It also touches upon the question of fate and destiny. Look, in particular, for the black (or dark colored) cat crossing Bob Cain’s path right before he ascends the staircase to Brennan’s office for the very the first time. That tells you something.

 Posted by at 3:34 pm
Aug 202014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE MIGHTY GORGA. American General Pictures, 1969. Starring Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady and Bruce Kimball. Written and directed by David L. Hewitt.

   Required viewing for bad movie buffs, this ranks right up there with Mesa of Lost Women and Robot Monster. Unlike those alternative classics, Mighty Gorga is in color, but that doesn’t help much — you can still see it.

   Anthony Eisley, once a star on network TV (Hawaiian Eye) stars as a circus owner fallen on hard times (not unlike the actor himself) who journeys to Africa in search of Great White Hunter Tonga Jack Adams, who can lead him to a legendary-jungle-monster-cum-boffo-box-office-attraction. Africa in this case appears to be the woods behind somebody’s back yard and the familiar landscape of Bronson Canyon, the perennial location of B westerns, here augmented by the sounds of jungle wildlife on the soundtrack: exotic birds (Bop-ooop-ooop-whaah-whaah-whaah!) lions and elephants, never seen but gamely referred to by the assorted players looking off-screen.

   It turns out Great White Hunter Tonga Jack Adams has been missing since the last safari; not to fear, though: his comely daughter (Megan Timothy) is running things in his absence, despite sabotage from a competing Great White Hunter, played by Scott Brady. Driven to desperate measures, Tony and Megan trek off into the ersatz jungle, guided by Tonga Jack’s treasure map.

   (Incidentally, Brady’s sabotage consists of setting fire to April’s animal compound, which might have been more convincing had the scenes matched up: he sets his fire at night and the characters react to it in the daytime — just a hint of things to come.)

   Writer/Director Hewitt ratchets up the tension(?) by cutting away frequently to scenes of the giant ape Gorga plodding amok through the jungle (?) terrorizing a native village that seems to be built of bamboo screens and 4’X8”plywood sheets, and it’s fitting to put in a word here about the monster: The Mighty Gorga is played mostly by someone in the top half of a really bad gorilla suit, with immobile features and cute button eyes. I say “top half” because we only get to see The Mighty G from the waist up, photographed from low-angles with bushes (standing in for tree-tops) in the foreground to attempt the illusion of height. Nice try.

   Anyway, our trepid explorers finally meet up with Mister G just in time to see him fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a burst of truly deplorable special effects. The T-Rex is represented by a plastic toy resembling a Pez Head, and for the fight scenes The Mighty Gorga is played by a hand puppet (his stunt double?) and his only visible wound is to get a splinter in his finger, which is removed by our plucky heroine, thus earning the monster’s undying gratitude, and there’s a lesson here for all of us, if we only look for it.

   Well, I know you’re all anxious to hear how this all comes out for yourselves, and I won’t spoil the ending for you except to say that Great White Hunter Tonga Jack is reunited with his daughter, they find the lost treasure (which looks like stuff from the clearance bin in the “Everything-for-a-Dollar” store) romance blossoms, the volcano explodes and—damn, I gave away the ending, didn’t I? Oh well, these reviews can’t all be gems of critical insight.

   But to conclude on a cheerier note, I should add that the acting in The Mighty Gorga is mostly better than you’d expect. Anthony Eisley, Kent Taylor and Scot Brady had all seen palmier days, but they trudge through this with admirable resolve and not a hint of embarrassment.

   Megan Timothy, who mostly appeared in Russ Meyer films, does the heroine duties capably, and really the only thespic disappointment is Bruce Kimball (star of several 60s skin-flicks) as the Native Medicine Man; decked out in a sarong and Cleopatra wig, he spends the movie summoning the monster with enthusiasm, but seems unable to get the New Yawk out of his voice, resulting in lines like: “Oh, Mighty Gawga, de infidels have come ta steal yoah treashah!” Immortal stuff for fans of bad filmmaking.

 Posted by at 10:54 pm
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