STEPHEN SOLOMITA – A Good Day to Die. Otto Penzler, hardcover, 1993. No paperback edition.
Solomita has switched publishers, and given us a new lead after five novels featuring the maverick cop Stanley Moodrow. Roland Means is, like Moodrow, an NYC cop. Means is half Native American, and known as “Mean Mr. Means.” An eighteen year veteran, he has been exiled to Ballistics for his past sins, which are legion.
He is offered a chance to get back on the street by assisting a black Captain, Vanessa Bouton, in her search for a serial killer known as “Mr. Thong” for reasons too indelicate to detail in this family journal. The NYPD is going crazy trying to catch him, but Bouton has her own ideas, and has gotten permission to form a two-person task force to try them out.
At the beginning of the book, we see a blind Asian woman abducted by a man and a woman who are obviously psychotic. Can, the reviewer asked breathlessly, these cases be connected?
This reads like vintage Solomita: hard, fast, and mean. There’s a tinge of Andrew Vachss here, too, due to Means’ background as an abused child, and much talk of many serial killers being similarly abused. The viewpoints alternate between Means and the blind captive, and the story moves along nicely.
It’s action-adventure, well written and with enough characterization to keep it from being pure escapism; but barely enough, and not all of it struck me as believable. We’ll probably see more of Means and Bouton, though.
– Reprinted from Ah, Sweet Mysteries #9, September 1993.
[UPDATE] 01-19-15. There were three more books in Solomita’s Stanley Moodrow series, but Barry guessed incorrectly in his final paragraph. For whatever reason, there was never a second Means and Bouton novel. The remainder of Solomita’s output, continuing through 2014 with The Striver, appears to have been standalones.
RICHARD HIMMEL – The Rich and the Damned. Gold Medal s735, paperback original; 1st printing, January 1958.
Of the eight novels Richard Himmel wrote for Gold Medal, five of them recounted the adventures of Johnny Maguire, a hard-nosed Chicago-based lawyer who grew up in a working class, blue collar neighborhood. If we can take The Rich and the Damned as being representative of the earlier books, none of which I’ve read at any time less than 40 years ago, he’s still touchy about his background if anyone brings it up.
I’m not sure how representative this book is, though. It’s the last of the five, and even though the blurb on the front cover says, “Johnny Maguire is back, and once again mixed up with molls, and murder,” there are no molls in this, not a one, and no murder, either. In fact, there not even a crime in this book, even though (from the titles) all of the earlier books had him tackling crime of all kinds from all corners.
The closest that anything that resembles a crime in The Rich and the Dammed takes place is when a hoodlum from Maguire’s youth has him beaten up in a futile attempt to make him reveal the terms of a industrial mogul’s will after he dies.
In therein lies the story. Maguire has been a sometimes bedmate with the dead man’s daughter, but she’s not the only person set to inherit. One son (or stepson) is of the prodigal variety, and has been disowned. The other is a scholarly wimp (my word) who suddenly finds some legs to stand on, thanks to a new lady friend, whose eyes are probably more on the father’s fortune. The other daughter has been sheltered from the world, particularly men and it takes all of Maguire’s will power to resist when she begs him to show her what she has been missing.
The mobster is working on behalf of a competitor trying to take over the company, and the conditions of the will are important. Surprisingly to everyone, the will leaves equal portions of the stock to each of the four, even though it is Rourke, Maguire’s red-headed girl friend, who has ever shown any interest in the company, and in fact it is she who has been running the firm in recent years, having learned the ropes by starting at the bottom.
And Maguire, respected by all four of the beneficiaries of the will, is the one caught in the middle, and it is his working class background that formulates his philosophies toward the problems of the wealthy and well-heeled. Does he take advantage of the situation and make himself one of them, one of the rich and powerful? Or does he stick to his basic roots and let them go on squabbling and their not-so-merry way?
Believe it or not, Richard Himmel was a writer good enough to make all of this interesting, very much so. Johnny Maguire makes a decision, and the book ends. What happens from there, we’ll never know. This is the last anyone has heard anything about Johnny Maguire.
The Johnny Maguire series –
I’ll Find You. Gold Medal, 1950.
The Chinese Keyhole. Gold Medal, 1951.
I Have Gloria Kirby. Gold Medal, 1951.
Two Deaths Must Die. Gold Medal, 1954,
The Rich and the Damned. Gold Medal, 1958.
There is little to be learned about Johnny Maguire on the Internet. I found a review of I’ll Find You on Bill Crider’s blog, and not much else. I don’t think Bill will mind if I quote from his comments, one line only: “Gangsters are involved, and there’s a murder, but this isn’t really a crime novel. In its own twisted way, it’s a love story in the Gold Medal vein, with the emphasis on speed, with lots of raw emotion, with plenty of melodrama.” Given that statement, maybe I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was at the lack of criminal activity in this book also.
As for the author himself, I found an online obituary for Richard Himmel to be very interesting. Besides being a writer, Himmel was for most of his life one of the country’s best known interior designers. Truth, believe it or not, is often stranger than fiction.
RAW DEAL. Eagle-Lion Films, 1948. Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, John Ireland, Raymond Burr. Phototography: John Alton. Director: Anthony Mann.
Claire Trevor, who narrates the film in her husky, bruised voice, helps O’Keefe escape from prison, and they head for the Big Bad Guy (Burr), taking with them O’Keefe’s sympathetic correspondent, Marsha Hunt.
The film’s brutality is still startling, especially a scene in which effete gangster Burr, angry at a girl who has spilled liquor on him, ignites a warming-dish and throws it at her face.
The girl is off-camera but the shock of that gesture, in which almost everything is left to the viewer’s imagination, is still powerful.
O’Keefe is an actor of limited resources, and Hunt is too pert and glossy, but Trevor is very fine as the rejected girl-friend. It’s a film of multiple betrayals, and is less smooth than The Big Combo [reviewed here ], but its very rawness adds to the impact.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 4, July-August 1982.
STOLEN FACE. Hammer Films, UK, 1952. Paul Henreid, Lizabeth Scott, André Morell, Mary Mackenzie, John Wood, Susan Stephen. Director: Terence Fisher.
An English thriller with an unmistakably Gothic sensibility, Hammer Films’ Stolen Face stars Paul Henreid as Dr. Philip Ritter, an eminent but lonely physician, a plastic surgeon who believes that his scalpel will lead him down a path of happiness. Lizabeth Scott, in a dual role, portrays Alice Brent, an American pianist with whom Ritter (Henreid) falls in love and the facially reconstructed Lily Conover (Mary Mackenzie), a recidivist criminal.
Directed by Terence Fisher, Stolen Face is a story of love, loss, and madness. When Ritter he learns Alice has supposedly chosen David (André Morell) over him, he is heartbroken and despondent.
Enter the scalpel. Dr. Ritter is part of an experimental program at a local prison in which he reconstructs the faces of habitual criminals, sociopathic lowlifes. Give them a new face, a prettier face, a less ugly face and maybe, just maybe they won’t resort to a life of crime.
If he can’t have the real Alice (Scott), Dr. Ritter will have a simulacrum. He chooses the grotesquely scarred Lily Conover as his target, for she will benefit from his surgery. But the price is that she will have a stolen face — Alice’s face.
But Dr. Ritter isn’t done just yet. He ups the ante in his Frankenstein game. Not only does he give Lily Conover Alice’s face. He marries her. And let me tell you. It’s a rough marriage, for despite the new outward appearance Lily (now portrayed by Scott) goes back to her old ways, shoplifting, drinking, and chasing men. It’s all enough to put a murderous rage into Dr. Ritter.
The final scenes of the film could be categorized as noir. There’s a train hurdling through the night, a death, and a tragic ending for one of the main characters.
All told, Stolen Face is quirky little British thriller, a journey through a man’s descent into despair. It may be a journey where you pretty much know where you’re going from the outset, but it’s still an enjoyable ride.
Readers in this part of the country [New England] are likely to pick this one up solely because of its title, read a page or two, and then find themselves suddenly hooked and being reeled in by one of the most suspenseful thrillers I’ve read in quite some time.
The background turns out to be only incidental. Audrey and William Roos, the names behind the joint Kelley Roos by-line, are a couple of old pros, however, who know all the tricks in snagging the reader’s attention and, more importantly, in holding it.
A young newlywed returns to the island with her new husband, only to find resentment still blazing on the part of one of the natives, who thinks she got off too easily when she was acquitted for the murder of her first husband.
She hires an old, used-up private eye to help clear her name, and he does a pretty good job of detective work before he’s finished, but too late. Situations where kidnapping is involved always produce a tremendous amount of tension, and here’s no exception.
I don’t want to give away too much, but while a good deal of what follows is predictable enough, you shouldn’t really expect a happy ending. Not completely, that is.
Rating: B plus.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1981. This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.
THE MYSTERY MAN. Monogram, 1935. Robert Armstrong, Maxine Doyle, Henry Kolker, LeRoy Mason, James Burke, Guy Usher. Director: Ray McCarey.
I don’t know about you, but Robert Armstrong is the only name in the list of credits above that I recognized before watching this fairly mediocre crime drama — and even after watching it, for that matter. I didn’t recognize a single face, other than Armstrong’s.
He plays Larry Doyle in this one, one of those brash reporters always at odds with his managing editor, even when he’s given a $50 bonus for the help he gave the police in solving their last case for him. The $50 disappears on a bender with the boys, and he ends up on a train to St. Louis rather than Chicago.
In Chicago he befriends a young girl who is also out of funds, and together they scam a hotel, pawn a gun, watch a robbery taking place (committed by a notorious criminal know as “The Eel”), grab the loot, get blamed for the killing, go back to the pawnbroker who turned them in, and nab the Eel, making headline news. The end.
Problem is, Armstrong was 45 when he made this movie, with a receding hairline, and Maxine Doyle was a mere slip of a lass and only 20 years old, young enough to be his daughter. The romance between the two is as unlikely as the screwy crime story the perpetrators of this movie put together.
But what this still mildly amusing movie does do is remind you of the days (before my time) when a cup of coffee and three doughnuts would cost you 20 cents, and a young lady could have all of 10 cents on her and not be able to pay for it. This is where Larry Doyle comes in.
FRANKLIN BANDY – Deceit and Deadly Lies. Charter, paperback original, 1978.
Kevin Maclnnes is known as the “Lie King.” A specialist with the Psychological Stress Evaluator (lie detector), he makes a living by taking voice readings of people and assessing their truthfulness. For a handsome fee, he will aid any client — governmental or private — in a situation where getting at the truth is paramount; and the fee goes to support his elegant but enigmatic mistress, Vanessa.
One of the subjects Maclnnes is asked to evaluate is brought to him by a New York assistant district attorney; the client is a cabby who claims to have overheard two men talking about an assassination plot, something “really big.” The man apparently is telling the truth, and Maclnnes, spurred by a combination of patriotism (he is a former army officer) and curiosity, aids the authorities by embarking on a search for one of the men described — a search that nearly costs him his lover and his life.
Maclnnes is interesting, and so is his work. In the course of the novel, he aids a businessman in making a low bid on a tract of land (and suffers sleepless nights when the seller kills himself); rigs a voice test in such a way as to prove a battered wife accidentally killed her husband (he knows she is really guilty, and he loses sleep over that, too); helps a wealthy Mexican family find where the killer of their young son has hidden his body; and bugs a bedroom conversation between himself and his mistress to evaluate whether she really loves him.
The uncertain relationship with Vanessa is a thread through the story, as are Maclnnes’s fears about misusing his skills.
For all its merits, this novel could stand to be about 100 pages shorter. It is padded with Harold Robbins-like descriptions of expensive clothing, hotels, gourmet meals, and brand names of liquors and wines.
There is also a gratuitous side trip into Maclnnes’s attempt to cure a temporary bout of impotence with a call girl, which causes us to lose track of the main focus of the narrative — finding out who is to be assassinated and stopping the killers. But on the whole, it’s a good rainy day book for those who like their settings luxurious and their characters sophisticated, if a trifle stereotypical.
This novel won the MWA Edgar for Best Paperback Original of 1978. In addition, Franklin Bandy has written The Blackstock Affair (1980) and The Farewell Party (1980).
Bibliographic Notes: The Blackstock Affair was the second and final recorded adventure of Kevin MacInnes. Bandy, who died in 1987, also wrote a book called The Shannonese Hustle (1978) and as Eugene Franklin (his first and middle names), three books in a series of cases solved by Berkeley Barnes and Larry Howe, about whom I know nothing.
JOHN D. MacDONALD – The Dreadful Lemon Sky. Lippincott, hardcover, 1974. Fawcett Gold Medal Q3285, paperback, 1975. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and soft.
Continuing my reading of the Travis McGee series in order, and at this point rationing them because I like them so much, but there are so few left.
Dreadful Lemon Sky is a solid entry in the series — not one of the best, but very good. By now it seems that MacDonald has basically ditched the whole quasi-PI/”salvage expert” formula: one of McGee’s old girlfriends visits the Busted Flush and asks him to hold a hundred grand in cash for her, and in the event that she never comes back, get it to her younger sister.
She never does come back, and moral Trav sees fit to get to the bottom of the mystery, which is a clever one, knotted up as McGee tales often are in petty local politics and petty characters, both politics and characters fleshed out with an uncommon level of attention and realism for a thriller novel.
There are a few surprises here [SPOILER ALERT] including Trav’s houseboat The Bused Flush getting blown to smithereens (don’t worry, it gets fixed up), and as always MacDonald shows off some really nice writing, such as:
The world looked strange. There were little halos around the edges of every tree and building. I did very deep breathing. It is strange to sleep for five days and five nights and have the world go rolling along without you. Just like it will keep on after you’re dead. The wide busy world of tire balancing, diaper changing, window washing, barn dancing, bike racing, nose picking, and bug swatting will go merrily merrily along. If they were never aware of your presence, they won’t be overwhelmed by your absence.
P. G. WODEHOUSE – A Damsel in Distress. Herbert Jenkins, UK,, hardcover, 1919. George H. Doran Company, US, hardcover, 1919. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft.
A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS. RKO, 1937. Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Reginald Gardiner, Montagu Love, Ray Noble. Written by Wodehouse, Ernest Pagano, S.K. Lauren, William J. Burns and P.J. Wolfson. Music by George Gershwin. Dance Director: Hermes Pan . Directed by George Stevens.
A tale that finds the author at the top of his form, A Damsel in Distress was adapted as a silent film the year it was published, then as a play in 1928, and finally as a lush RKO musical in 1937. The book itself mines all the usual rich veins of Wodehouse: the stately castle presided over by an Earl (Emsworth in all but name — this Earl nurses roses instead of a prize pig.) the standard iron-clad Aunt, cunning servants, young lovers, dithering relations, and a young demi-lord who could stand as Bertie Wooster’s twin brother.
The amazing thing is that Wodehouse could return to the same plots, themes, characters and motifs time and again without ever getting stale. In this case, he takes for his hero a composer of popular musicals, one George Bevan (who coincidentally has the same occupation and initials as Wodehouse’s long-time collaborator, the incurably romantic Guy Bolton), whose life is agreeably upset one day on a London street when a desperate young lady (the Damsel in Distress) jumps in his taxi and begs him to hide her.
From there on, things go as one expects them to: He falls in love; she does too but doesn’t realize it; identities are mistaken, plans laid, plots hatched, things go awry and then get wryed back up again. No surprises here, just laugh-out-loud humor as Wodehouse weaves the tale with his customary understated hyperbole and stream-of-non-sequiturs narration.
I was struck though by how astute and likable our hero turned out to be — characters in Wodehouse tend to be either one or the other, but seldom both to this degree — and I found myself wondering if this were a mark of the author’s affection for his life-long friend, Bevan’s character model.
Be that as it may, I read a biography of Wodehouse once that deplored the RKO film of Damsel in Distress, and Wodehouse himself said he contributed remarkably little to it, but I find it a hard film to deplore or even dislike.
This Damsel is a charming thing, faithful in its fashion to the novel, and where it departs from the text it does so with admirable aplomb; for example, a meeting between the plot-crossed lovers set in a smelly barn in the book is relocated to a fun-fair for splendidly cinematic results. Joan Fontaine seems a pluperfect romantic heroine, and even Burns & Allen enter into the Wodehousian spirit admirably.
I was struck also by the inspiration in re-shaping the romantic Bevan. Someone at RKO must have noticed that they had cast Fred Astaire in the part (rechristened Jerry Halliday for some reason) and hit upon the happy notion to make him not a musical composer but a musical star! One applauds the cutting-edge creativity involved, as this lets them slip in several highly enjoyable dance numbers, including a fine bit with Burns & Allen, who turn out to be talented hoofers themselves.
I don’t know which of the phalanx of writers came up with this idea, but I’m glad whoever it was took the concept by the horns and talked the others around to his way of thinking — just imagine how otherwise this might have turned out had they missed this boat and the character remained a composer; the notion of scenes with Astaire sitting at his desk trying to find a rhyme for “Lady Alyce Marshmorton” simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
Oh, and I wanted to say something about the music by George Gershwin, but once you’ve said “Music by George Gershwin” what more is there?
LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT. Warner Brothers, 1933. Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Tully Marshall, Harold Huber, Dorothy Burgess Directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley
Made on the cusp of the code, this one is almost as tough as it wants to be, with Stanwyck as Nan Taylor, a smart moll who ends up in San Quentin for a bank robbery she aided a hood named Don (Lyle Talbot) in committing.
This is typical women in prison, and exactly what you would expect from Warners in this era. Stanwyck sets up to con radio crusading do-gooder David Slade (Preston Foster) in order to keep out of prison, and he arranges for her pardon to keep her from prison and falls for her (mutually). But when he finds out she was conning him originally the sanctimonious fool refuses to vouch for her, and she is off to prison. Now the idiot realizes he loves her but it’s too late.
Apparently women who look like Stanwyck are disposable in his life.
Foster does what he can with Slade, but among all these colorful types, Clark Gable couldn’t make him anything but a stiff. Casting a tough guy like Foster helps, just not enough.
I should point out I’m editorializing. The film is much kinder to the noble Slade. I personally found him a huge pain in the lower rear anatomy. Dumb and sanctimonious, the perfect hero.
Prison is the usual Grand Hotel collection of types: the Duchess, the grand dame of the place who put ground glass in a rival’s food; the aging madam who ran a ‘beauty parlor’; the cigar smoking butch, the rival who will do anything to keep Stanwyck from Slade; and of course the instant best friend (Dorothy Burgess).
The women’s wing of San Quentin is no cake-walk, but it’s damn glamorous for a prison. There is no shortage of sheer nighties, baby dolls, frilly undies, make up, perms, nylons, suspender belts, and high heels. Save for the ‘butch’ (“Watch out, she likes to wrestle”) there’s not a sensible flat heel in the joint.
Hard hitting realism, Hollywood style.
An embittered Stanwyck helps Don (Talbot) and pal Dutch (Huber) plan an escape, and when Dave visits even slips a note in his pocket for him to mail unwittingly helping. When the escape goes wrong and Don is killed she thinks Dave found the note and betrayed her. She swears to kill him.
When she’s released (short sentences for bank robbery back then) she tracks Dave down to a revival where he is speaking. There she gets him alone and shoots him, but then realizes she loves him and he didn’t betray her. You know how women with guns are. He’s willing to forget the bullet, he loves her, but plainclothes cop Tracy shows up (Tully Marshall, and it’s a full year before Plainclothes Dick appeared in the Chicago Tribune).
“You ought to have that seen to … gunshots can be tricky,” but suspicion or not, Dave finally grows a pair and stands by his woman. Final clench and they live happily ever after producing little jail birds and revivalists — after a proper period of marital bliss of course. Considering Nan, they better wait at least three years, she is clearly a lady they talk about.
Ladies They Talk About is a typical little Warner’s picture from the era, with Stanwyck always good in these tough but vulnerable broad roles. Like her, the movie is smart, quick, sassy, and nice to look at.
The problem is she is alone in this film. There is no one here who can match her. She’s Stanwyck, and at best they are Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot. I like both actors, but matching them up with Stanwyck is like putting Pee Wee Herman in the ring with Ali. They don’t stand a chance in hell. This is a bit lightweight for Warners from this era, not quite one thing or another, and leaves Stanwyck standing center ring alone for most of the movie.
Bette Davis could have at least loaned her George Brent.
That said, if you buy the happy moral ending, no doubt code imposed, I have some land in New Mexico next to the White Sands testing grounds you might want to purchase. Nice place save for the black glass.
Stanwyck’s Nan Taylor is always going to be smarter, classier, and more volatile than her bland do-gooder reformer. Even in a pinafore, gingham, and a pink bow you know Nan will have a flask under her garter and be sneaking cigarettes when Dave isn’t looking. While Dave leads revivals Nan’s going to be nostalgic for bathtub gin, speakeasies, and flash types she used to twirl around her fingers. It’s hard to imagine the pious women of Dave’s revivalist movement are going to welcome an ex-con who matriculated at San Quentin to the fold.
But then, come to think of it, considering the wan, pale, types Dave spends most of his time with, maybe he’s a very lucky man to come home to Nan’s flash and hidden cigarettes. What’s a little bullet now and then compared to love?
At least she won’t be dull, and at a fast sixty nine minutes neither is the movie.