RALPH DENNIS – The Buy Back Blues. (Jim) Hardman #12. Popular Library, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1977.

   In this, the last of the Hardman series, he’s hired in Chapter One to find a waitress’s missing husband, Bob, a bartender by trade. The man turns up dead, but Hardman has already made a connection between him and several break-ins and thefts in homes after parties where he’d worked. The insurance company is interested, and Hardman has a new client.

   I may be wrong — it’s been a while since I’ve read any of the earlier books in the series (over forty years) — but many of the rough edges that Hardman had in his earlier adventures have long since worn away. He’s overweight (“pudgy”), white and balding. Assisting him on all of his cases is Hump Evans, who is black, over six feet six inches tall, and a former star football player.

   There is an elephant in the room whenever this series is discussed. Both this series and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books started in 1974, and even though Dennis had the first seven Hardman books published that year, I don’t think Parker read any of them. Or as Ed Gorman once wrote, mixed race detective duos have been around since at least the days of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

   It has also been noted over the years that Hardman’s appearance (read his description above…) is at some odds with the publisher’s marketing strategy for the series, which makes the books out to be Executioner style men’s adventure paperbacks (…and compare with the cover art in the image provided). Any guy who bought one of them on the basis of the covers had to have been badly disappointed.

   But what Dennis did provide for the series is a drive that keeps the stories constantly moving, even though the stories are otherwise standard enough PI fare, and The Buy Back Blues is no exception. At the end of the book, Hardman and is off-and-on girl friend are back on again, and if the series had to end with Hardman standing at the window of a mountain cabin with Marcy still in bed while he’s watching the mist rising from the valley below, why that’s not a bad ending at all.

   The Jim Hardman & Hump Evans series —

Hardman 1: Atlanta Deathwatch (1974)
Hardman 2: The Charleston Knife’s Back In Town (1974)
Hardman 3: The Golden Girl & All (1974)
Hardman 4: Pimp for the Dead (1974)
Hardman 5: Down Among the Jocks (1974)
Hardman 6: Murder’s Not an Odd Job (1974)
Hardman 7: Working for the Man (1974)
Hardman 8: The Deadly Cotton Heart (1976)
Hardman 9: The One-Dollar Rip-Off (1977)
Hardman 10: Hump’s First Case (1977)
Hardman 11: The Last of the Armageddon Wars (1977)
Hardman 12: The Buy Back Blues (1977)


FRONTIER MARSHAL. 20th Century Fox, 1939. Randolph Scott (Wyatt Earp), Nancy Kelly, Cesar Romero (Doc Halliday), Binnie Barnes, John Carradine, Eddie Foy Jr., Ward Bond, Lon Chaney Jr., Chris-Pin Martin, Joe Sawyer. Based on the book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, by Stuart N. Lake. Director: Allan Dwan.

   There’s something just a little too polished about Twentieth-Century Fox’s Frontier Marshal. The second cinematic adaptation of Stuart N. Lake’s largely fictional biography of Wyatt Earp, the film features the gentlemanly Randolph Scott as the titular character and Cesar Romero as his friend, the gambler/gunman Doc Holliday. Both actors are personal favorites of mine, but neither seem to completely immerse themselves in their given roles.

   If Scott comes across as too refined – this is before he took on a more rugged screen persona in Budd Boetticher’s Westerns – Romero fails to present himself as a man with blood on his hands. This was supposed to be Tombstone, after all! Those criticisms aside, Frontier Marshal is a perfectly enjoyable pre-war feature that benefits strongly from a supporting cast including John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and Ward Bond, all of whom deliver memorable performances.

   Although the film nominally is about famed lawman Wyatt Earp, the central focus of the story is on Doc Holliday, as he struggles to reconcile his past identity as a successful East Coast physician with his current predicament as a man facing the end of his life with anger and regret. The two ladies who vie for Doc’s affection, the sophisticated and urbane Sarah Allen (Nancy Kelly) and the tough and jaded saloon girl Jerry (Binnie Barnes) are essentially peripheral to the film’s core.

   Frontier Marshal is, above all else, a story about friendship, a buddy movie before there were buddy movies. While not half-bad, the film will always be overshadowed by John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1949). And for good reason, as Ford’s reimagining of Tombstone and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral has an elegiac feel that Frontier Marshal simply cannot reach.

MARGARET MILLAR – Fire Will Freeze. Random House, hardcover, 1944. Dell #157, paperback, mapback edition, no date stated [1947]. Signet P3101, paperback, 1967. IPL, paperback, 1987.

   A busload of tourists is on its way to a Canadian ski lodge when suddenly the driver stops, gets out and disappears. The snow is coming down hard, and eventually the passengers decide they must seek shelter, which they do, at an isolated mansion not far away.

   Living in the house are a crazy woman and her nurse, and overnight even stranger things begin to occur, in spite of which the self-absorbed passengers have a rip-roaring time. As a black comedy, this novel is first-rate. As a mystery, perhaps a bit less.

[ADDED LATER.] To be totally fair, there aren’t many writers who could could come up with a satisfactory explanation for everything that happens in the first half of this book.

   As for my comments about “black comedy,” let me quote the following line from page 103 of the Dell edition. The body of the nurse has been discovered frozen solid in a snowbank below a second floor balcony, and they are trying to bring her into the house: “When they reached the front door they had to prop her up so she would go through.”

–Reprinted and slightly revised from Mystery*File #17, November 1989.


HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. Woolner Brothers Pictures, 1967. Ferlin Husky, Joi Lansing, Don Bowman, Merle Haggard, Linda Ho, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and George Barrows as the Gorilla. Written by Duke Yelton. Directed by Jean Yarbrough.

   I followed up SLEEP. MY LOVE [reviewed here] by watching HILLBILLYS (sic) IN A HAUNTED HOUSE something in the manner of a man putting a gun to his head, hoping the culture shock wouldn’t kill me. Indeed, if I may compare-and-contrast, where SLEEP tends to be elegant and thoughtful, HILLBILLYS (sic) is nasty, brutish and short: eighty-eight minutes of forgettable songs, indifferent acting and a script for which the author must surely burn in Hell.

   I liked it quite a lot, actually. Sometimes it’s fun to turn off the Brains, and watching this is as close as one can come without the use of firearms or illegal substances. It was kind of fun, in a depressing way, to see Basil Rathbone, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. all spooking like troupers, playing bad guys in a monster movie one more time, buckling on their sneers, leers and menacing looks for one last waltz with a guy in a gorilla suit — something like the aging lawmen in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY trying to summon up a strength they no longer have, getting by on the vestiges of their legends. Or maybe just three actors in search of a paycheck.

   This was doggedly directed by Jean Yarborough, his last film and a fitting coda for an artist who, in his day, worked with all the big names in bad movies: Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, Rondo Hatton, Bela Lugosi… he even did an unacknowledged mini-adventure series with Mantan Moreland fighting Nazis in the tropics. Check out LAW OF THE JUNGLE or KING OF THE ZOMBIES. Both were directed — along with THE BRUTE MAN, THE DEVIL BAT and others too feeble to mention — by Jean Yarborough.

   Even in his hey-day, Yarborough’s style was nothing very remarkable, and HILLBILLYS (sic) is no better than the indifferent rest of his work, except in the ironic fact of its existence. It’s as if the gods of the B-movies had settled on this as this as the curtain line of a forgotten play, the destiny to which a plodding director must wander, Bogart-like, to his own personal Casablanca. Poetic justice, perhaps. Or maybe just doggerel.


CLIFFORD IRVING – Tom Mix and Pancho Villa: A Romance of the Mexican Revolution. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1982; paperback, 1984.

   After Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show passed through El Paso I learned to twirl a ketch rope, and when I gave up my dream of becoming an actor, I couldn’t decide whether I’d be a Texas Ranger or a champion rodeo rider. My father hoped I’d go into the cold-body business with him, my mother thought insurance would be a nice trade, but I confounded everybody by quitting school at the age of seventeen, tucking my Shakespeare into my bedroll and hightailing it over to the Brazos, where I landed a job as wrangler in a cow camp. I was one of five healthy children, not the brightest and surely not the prettiest, so no one missed me to the point of grief … or else they guessed I was a quitter and would come back in my own sweet time.

   So begins the rip-snorting adventure tale told in the first person by Tom Mix about his early days and his adventures riding side by side with Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa in the days of the Mexican Revolution at the beginning of the 20th Centruy. And it should come as no surprise that this tall tale of a “memoir” should sound authentic since it is penned by the infamous Clifford Irving whose Howard Hughes memoir was one of the great literary hoaxes of all time.

   It hardly needs to be said this “memoir” is no more authentic than most of its subjects popular Westerns, but must be added it is every bit as entertaining as the best of them, as Tom Mix, at trails end, shortly before the tragic accident that ended his legendary (in more senses than one) life sits down to recall the best and happiest time of his checkered career.

   Seeking an old friend in Juarez young Tom falls in with Villa, and soon is hypnotized by the revolutionary:

   “And how many men do you have in your own army, chief?”

   “Five here. That’s counting you and me. Four waiting for me across the river in El Paso. That’s … let’s see …” He counted rapidly on his fingers.

   “That’s nine.”

   “That’s all? I thought you already had an army!”

   “I’ll get one.” “Nine men?” “With nine men, loyal and brave, I can recruit nine thousand more. Then I’ll need horses for them to ride, trains for them to travel on, food for them to eat, rifles for them to shoot and bullets to put into the rifles.”

   A pop-eyed smile lit up his face. “None of this will be very difficult. The people know me. They’ll follow me. Look how easily I convinced you to do it, and you’re a gringo.” His eyes grew a shade more solemn. “I need men like you, Tomás. You’re young, but you’re clever and you want to learn. Moreover, as Candelario said, you’re lucky. Once we have a real army, you’ll have the rank of captain. If I forget, remind me.”

   And young Tom is swept up, and who wouldn’t be, in dreams of revolution and adventure.

   Adventure being the key word. Adventure in the grand and picaresque sense of the word, adventure full of character building, painful realizations, fast horses, flying bullets, dead enemies, lost friends, beautiful senoritas Rosa, Eliza, and one of his own race. Hannah, treachery, Hemingwayesque discussions of passion, revolution, death, and manhood (“If your obligations are the same as your desires, you’re a lucky man. You can be whole.”), all kept moving by colorful and rich portraits of Mexico and the border in those wild days.

   The ending, as our hero rides into a different kind of sunset has a beauty all its own:

   A bloody ball of sun dipped toward the mountains that tumbled about on the horizon in the direction of Sonora.

   To Sonora …

   To Celaya …

   To Torreón, again …

   To Hollywood …

   The desert lay drowned in rich, soft mist. Somewhere, a coyote howled. The dead slept in the slowly cooling earth of Mexico. Goodbye, my love. What the hell, I thought. The defeats are also battles. Goodbye, my youth — and goodbye. Chihuahua. I flicked a rein. The horse turned west. I rode off into the sunset, singing a mournful tune, and became a movie cowboy.

    Tom Mix and Pancho Villa is a big technicolor historical fantasy, all vistas and gun battles, beautiful women, heroic men, and hard riding against a rich backdrop of a time not so very far away. I confess it is one of my favorite books, rich in imagination and vivid action and characters, not, perhaps, as flawed as their real life counterparts, or at least in the same ways, but beautifully painted images as glorious in their own ways as their cinematic adventures.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Universal Pictures, 1940. Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Oscar Homolka, Donald MacBride, Margaret Hamilton, Shemp Howard, Anne Nagel. Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

   This may be the only movie made by a major studio in the 1940s in which the leading lady spends most of her time on the screen totally nude. She even kisses the leading man in the same condition. We can’t see her, of course, but we’ve got imaginations, don’t we?

   This movie is also (slightly less) famous for that noteworthy line, “You know, if women were invisible, life would be much less complicated.” It’s also the funniest movie I’ve seen in ages. If ever this shows up again on your favorite cable station, don’t miss it.

— Reprinted from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

DANA CHAMBERS – She’ll Be Dead by Morning. Jim Steele #3. The Dial Press, hardcover, 1940. Popular Library #238, paperback, no date stated [1950]. Popular Library Eagle EB-5, paperback, 1953.

   The gimmick in this tough guy detective series is that Jim Steele is not a private eye, even though all of his cases, which he seems take on only as favors to friends of friends, are precisely the kinds of cases that PI’s take on.

   In this one he’s “hired” to help a wealthy old man to help his daughter get though the trouble she’s obviously in. He’s recently lost two of his other children to accidents, so Steele has no problem in saying yes at the same time he’s tearing up the blank check he’s offered.

   In other books in the series Steele’s day job is said to be hat of writing radio thrillers, but in this one, he calls himself only a businessman, but no ordinary businessman gets into the kind of scrape that he does in this one.

   Which starts out with a bang. Whatever trouble that Suzy is involved with, there is someone who wants him off the case, and badly. After being shot through the arm Steele is told to get out of town — to take a train to Chicago — and only if he does, will his wife be released. She has been kidnapped and in the hands of the bad guys.

   Steele gets on the train, followed closely by someone obviously assigned to keep an eye on him, but he dumps the guy off the train, follows suit and finds the man dead. He has until the train’s arrival in Chicago, which he will not be on, to find whoever has his wife and rescue her.

   An action-packed adventure story, in other words. It starts well but gets talky and sags in the middle, before ending up on a higher note, but as a full-fledged detective novel, which in my opinion was not one of the author’s stronger points. This is a case of simply going off in too many directions, in other words, but all in all it’s good enough to tell me I ought to find time to read more of the series, most of which I already own. Unaccountably I have allowed them to sit idle for far too long.

       The Jim Steele series —

Some Day I’ll Kill You (n.) Dial 1939
Too Like the Lightning (n.) Dial 1939
She’ll Be Dead by Morning (n.) Dial 1940
The Blonde Died First (n.) Dial 1941
The Frightened Man (n.) Dial 1942
The Last Secret (n.) Dial 1943
The Case of Caroline Animus (n.) Dial 1946


THE 7th DAWN. United Artists, US/UK, 1964. William Holden, Susannah York, Capucine, Tetsurô Tanba, Michael Goodliffe, Allan Cuthbertson. Director: Lewis Gilbert.

   There’s a scene in the latter part of The 7th Dawn in which William Holden, along with two traveling companions, slog their way through the humid Malay jungle in a near futile attempt to reach the city before a prisoner they hope to save is hanged. As they swing their machetes to and fro, hoping to take down trees and brush that obstruct their path, you just sense how trapped these characters feel. Most of all, you feel the slowness of it all, the overpowering sense of how little time seems to be elapsing despite their valiant effort.

   Call me overly critical, but that’s essentially how I felt watching this turgid cinematic adaptation of Australian novelist Michael Keon’s The Durian Tree (1960). Although filmed on location in Malaysia, which admittedly does provide the viewer with some captivating scenery, the film never really makes a solid case for itself. William Holden is the star. He portrays Ferris, an American rubber plantation owner caught up in the power machinations of both sides during the Malay Emergency. He is a one-note character, a committed bachelor and political maverick, loyal to no side but compelled, like so many other characters in novels and movies before and since, to live in exotic non-Western locales.

   When the British detain his long time mistress Dhana (Capucine) for terrorist activities, he’s forced to make decisions that will impact not just his own life and fortune, but also the future of Malaysia and its people as they seek independence from British rule. He soon is forced to reckon his own desire to stay aloof from politics with the knowledge that Ng (Tetsurô Tanb), a comrade in arms from from the Second World War and the fight against the Japanese occupation, is leading the violent, pro-Soviet insurgency against the British. Added to the mix is an unlikely – and frankly unconvincing – platonic May-December romance between Ferris (Holden) and Candace Trumpey (Susannah York), the daughter of the newly appointed British Resident in Malaysia.

   For a movie that appears to have been promoted as both an adventure film and as a romance, The 7th Dawn is a shockingly dull motion picture. While there are a few somewhat exciting moments scattered throughout the film, none of them, save an overwrought scene in which British soldiers torch an insurgent village, are particularly memorable. And that one was cheap, clearly designed to pull the heartstrings of theater audiences and to build a moral equivalency between the British and the Malay communists.

   Perhaps that’s part of what made watching this movie such a slog. When all is said and done, you just don’t feel particularly keen on either the British or the Malay insurgents. Why make a movie with a plot that continually raises the stakes and gives the audience no one to truly root for?

HANK JANSON – Becky. Hank Janson #58(?) Gold Star IL7-70, US, paperback, 1965. Revised from its first publication in the UK as Sinister Rapture (Moring, paperback, 1957).

   Based on its cover, this is a book far different that I’m sure you’d be expecting. It’s #17 in its US Gold Star series, but its one of a much longer line of Hank Janson books published in the UK. [The numbering is questionable since it is one of five published in 1957, but listed alphabetically in Hubin for that year.] Janson is a crime writer for the Chicago Chronicle, a guy with a perpetual leer for the ladies and a lousy nose for a story right under his eyes.

   Among his many other adventures are such titles as A Nympho Named Sylvia, so what you expect in this one (I did) is a glorified sex farce a la Carter Brown, but what you really get is an even greater dose of that old paranoid TV series The Prisoner. The Chicago of this book is unlike any Chicago that ever existed, and the story will absolutely knock you off your feet.

   Let me back up a little, and then maybe I can do something about substantiating this claim. If you don’t have a copy of this book already, you’ll probably have a hard time coming up with one, so if I cover the plot a but more thoroughly than usual, I don’t think it could possibly hurt.

   Hank Janson the author, according to Al Hubin, was a house name used by a number of writers of a whole slew of cheap British thrillers, a scattering of which were published in this country by Gold Star Books, a small and insignificant company [that published 60 to 70 books between that years 1963 to 1965. Also known since this review was first published is that Stephen D. Frances was the author of this one, as now so stated in the current edition of Crime Fiction IV.]

   I haven’t read any of the other ones, but there’s certainly little that happens any where in the first half of the book that’s in any way out of the ordinary. An obvious crackpot comes to Janson’s newspaper office and tries to convince him that he’s come up with a mathematical formula that will nullify the radioactive effects of nuclear fission, but he can’t get anyone in authority to listen to him. In no mood for japery, Janson quickly shoos the old man away.

   Soon after, though, Janson gets a visit from a good-looking girl, one wearing transparent leggings as protection against the never-ending rain in Chicago. (Neither the rain nor the leggings are ever explained, by the way, but no matter.) She is Professor Morgan’s niece, on a visit from Florida, and he has disappeared. The police are not particularly interested.

   When Janson investigates, he gets the same kind of brushoff. He suspects bribery. He also stays overnight with Becky — she’s the niece, and she has this cute sort of pony tail, and with a little prodding, nature just seems to take it course.

   But then he discovers he’s been poking his nose in a bit too far. An organization calls Security shows up. Two quiet-spoken guys who think Janson is becoming a nuisance. Two guys who see Communist agents everywhere, Two guys who would work well with the American Investigation Committee (page 84). Two guys who think Christianity is the state religion (page 86). “Do you love your country,” they ask.

   Janson is fired. Insubordination. No other paper will give him a tumble. He’s booted out of his apartment. The tenancy law is quoted, and he’s given a week’s notice. Someone with more power than Security gives him a visit, someone named Mr. Brown. “There are inner workings of inner workings, matters of utter public importance that are too delicate to be handled by woolly-minded senators… Do you know, Mr. Janson, that the penalty for being a traitor is death?”

   Janson ends up naked in a sealed room with only a bed, toilet facilities and a small door through which meals can be provided. For how long, he doesn’t know. When released, he discovers he still has no story, because — you guessed it — no one will believe him anyway.

   There obviously is a huge parallel here between the dismal days of McCarthyism here in this country in the 1950s, given a quick little twist in the form of an overseas perspective. I’m not sure if it still has a form of social significance any more, or if it was worth all of this space to describe it, but please note that I haven’t even mentioned yet the girl Janson meets on page 90 — an utter misanthrope who is harder than any nails you can imagine and who just about steals him out of the story before it’s even half begun. She’s a stunner, and — this is the truth — I’ve not read a character quite like her is anything I’ve ever read before.

— Slightly revised and expanded from Mystery*File #17, November 1989.

SLEEP, MY LOVE. United Artists, 1948. Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Robert Cummings, George Coulouris and Hazel Brooks. Written by Leo Rosten, St Clair McKelway, Decla Dunning and Cy Endfield. Directed by Douglas Sirk.

   A stylish variation on Gaslight, with Claudette Colbert waking on a train to Boston with no idea how she got there, aided by a too-helpful and rather snoopy stranger (Queenie Smith) and bundled back home in the charming company of Bob Cummings.

   Cut to her New York mansion where we see her presumably distraught husband (Don Ameche) reporting her missing to a somewhat sinister police detective (Raymond Burr), and it’s easy to see she’s “the victim of some diabolical mind control” as they say in the Movies.

   What could have been a simple copycat film emerges as a gripping, humorous, real and very elegant movie, thanks to witty writing, clever acting, and the emotive direction of Douglas Sirk. Sirk always had a feel for décor, but here he evokes Colbert’s mansion-prison into a landscape that seems to determine the fate of the characters in it; people are constantly struggling up and down staircases, perching on furniture, darting from bedroom to bedroom… and there’s a frosted glass door that hides a meaning all its own.

   Ms Colbert in her 40s radiates a mature sensuality, perfectly matched by Don Ameche’s slippery solicitude. Both of them come up against George Coulouris’ obsessive would-be mastermind, and whoever wrote Cummings’ dialogue had a perfect feel for Bob’s bemused charm. His encounters with the bad guys show off a vivid contrast of acting styles that translates into real conflict on the screen.

   But the most arresting screen presence in Sleep, My Love belongs to an actress whose career went nowhere: Hazel Brooks as Daphne, a femme fatale whose merest glance could freeze molten lava. Next to her, the bad girls of Detour and Double Indemnity look like the Flying Nun — even more effective because she never does anything very criminal here, but always looks like she’d rather be pulling the wings off flies.

   In all, this is a superb film, one that should be better-celebrated in the realms of Noir and Romantic Suspense. And one you should seek out for a fine, fun evening.

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