UNDERTOW. Universal International, 1949. Scott Brady, John Russell, Dorothy Hart, Peggy Dow, Bruce Bennett. Director: William Castle

   Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect from Undertow, but having just watched this lesser-known crime film I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it for those who haven’t yet had the occasion to see it. Directed by William Castle, who is better known these days for his work in the schlock horror genre, Undertow is very much in line with the late 1940s “film noir” aesthetic. Set primarily in the urban jungle of Chicago, the movie has gambling, a femme fatale, betrayal, coincidence, a protagonist framed for a crime he didn’t commit, a renegade cop working to clear an innocent man’s name. You get the picture.

   The plot. Without giving too much away, here are the basics: Tony Reagan (Scott Brady) is an ex-GI who used to work for Big Jim, a Chicago mob boss. But Reagan now wants to go straight and work in the legitimate real estate business in Nevada.

   Before he can do that, though, he needs to settle matters with Big Jim and, more importantly, with his fiancée who just happens to be Big Jim’s niece. Before he can do so, Big Jim ends up murdered, and Tony, who is framed for reasons that become clearer over time, is the police department’s primary suspect.

   Although it’s not a classic, Undertow perfectly captures the same sense of post-war urban paranoia and social isolation as do other similar films noir and programmers released in the late 1940s. There’s that creeping sense that, although Tony Reagan has made some bad life choices, what has happened to him could happen to any one of us. This Kafkaesque dread is best exemplified by a stunningly effective scene in which Reagan darts around a concrete and steel Chicago “L” station in the desperate hope that he can outrun the cops who are hot on his trail.

C. H. B. KITCHIN – Death of My Aunt. Hogarth Press (L. & V. Woolf), UK, hardcover, 1929. Harcourt Brace & Co., US, hardcover, 1930. Reprinted many times, including Perennial P682, US, paperback, 1984.

   Universally acclaimed as a classic, including being included in H. R. F. Keating’s Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books, for example, but I fear Death of My Aunt is starting to show its age. I doubt that many of today’s mystery fans will find much of interest, even if they’re into Sherlock Holmes, say, a character with a lot more going for him than young mild-mannered London stockbroker Malcolm Warren.

   For it is he whose aunt dies, unwittingly drinking the poison that kills her right in front of him. Other than the servants, there is no other person in the house save his Uncle Hannibal from a later marriage, so of course Malcolm, who tells his own story, is one of the two primary suspects.

   So of course, being a reader of detective stories, Malcolm takes it upon himself to not rely on the capabilities of the police, but to solve the case himself, complete with a written list of all possible suspects, no matter how far away the live, plus the usual: means, motive and opportunity. Kitchen’s witty sense of humor adds immensely to the proceedings, with the emphasis on tracing the poison and when it could have been brought into the house.

   Dated and relatively sedate, but for me, still a lot of fun to read. Surprisingly, since this case was so personal, Malcolm Warren made three more appearances as a detective: Crime at Christmas (1934), Death of His Uncle (1939) and The Cornish Fox (1949).

J. M. T. MILLER – Weatherby. Ballantine, paperback original; 1st printing, September 1987.

   Artie Weatherby, to be precise. This one’s the first of three recorded adventures, but it’s not quite clear where it takes place. Somewhere in the Southwest is the best I can say. Somewhere in a fairly large city (but with streets I’ve never heard of), but somewhere such that not far out of the city you can find yourself in a desolate “sun-baked, sun-bleached, sun-drenched” misery of a town called Desolado.

   Artie is hired by a young woman to find out where her brother is, and where he is is in Desolado, riding a Harley with a big-bosomed bimbo named Bunny hanging onto him from behind. A local storekeeper suggests that he’s riding with a gang of bikers called the Satan’s Sadists, who may also be heavily involved with heavy drugs across the border activity.

   Not hardly good news. Other characters in this story are the siblings’ father, who is rich, maintains a zoo in his back yard, and who thinks he’s turning into a werewolf. The girl’s fiancé is a well-known plastic surgeon who has been in trouble with various medical boards.

   Not your usual functional family, but nothing seems to faze Weatherby all that much. Not that there’s much to the story. I had it all figured out by page 144, then I skipped to the end of the book to find out if I was correct. I was. I hate it when that happens.

   About Weatherby himself, I seem not to have much to say. Totally generic, in other words, in a semi-macho sort of way. But in passing, I did learn not to trust the judgment of James Ellroy when it comes to touting PI fiction to unwary readers. The blurb on the front cover makes me think he was reading another book altogether.

       The Artie Weatherby series —

Weatherby. Ballantine, 1987.
On a Dead Man’s Chest. Ballantine, 1989.
The Big Lie. Nelson, 1994.

   The author, Janice Marie Tubbs Miller, wrote one other crime novel under these initials and two as Janice Miller.


  INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES. American International Pictures, 1962. Robert Ball, Frankie Ray, Gloria Victor, Delores Reed, Trustin Howard and Mark Ferris. And who the hell are they, anyway? Written by Jonathan Haze, from his original story “Monster from Nicholson Mesa.” Directed by Bruno VeSota.

   I’m of two minds about this film. First, it’s lousy. But on the other hand, it’s cheap, witless and banal.

   So why (I kept asking myself at the time) did I watch it all the way through? Well I guess it had enough redeeming features to keep me going. Not enough to actually redeem it, you understand, but enough to keep me going.

   For those of you who never heard of this bizarre classic, it’s a low-budget farce masquerading as a 1950s monster movie, written and directed by two iconic actors in the genre who don’t act in it. Stars Ball and Ray play a couple of sub-normal Army Privates on an expedition (Led by “Colonel Rank;” that’s the level of wit here.) into a nuclear blast site (The “Nicholson Mesa” of the original title — in those days James H. Nicholson was head of AIP, the chief purveyor of this schlock) to check out a mysterious cave uncovered by the blast.

   The scene shifts to Bronson Canyon, the familiar locale of countless B-westerns, where everyone but our heroes gets captured by aliens, and only these two goofballs are left to save the world. Our trepid heroes soon come up against alien monsters that look eerily like guys wrapped in burlap, commanded by two tall, statuesque beauties (Professor Puna and Doctor Tanga, another Noel Coward touch) who knock the boys about a bit before falling madly in love with them. Ooops! I gave away the ending there, didn’t I? Sorry folks.

   Okay, so it ain’t funny. Nor is it original. Or very well done. But Invasion has a certain off-the-cuff energy to it that the general ineptitude can’t quite smother. Robert Ball and Frankie Ray put a lot of work into their parts; a little talent would have been nice, but I admired their efforts anyway. Gloria Victor and Delores Reed are easy to look at, and their acting is good enough not to distract from their beauty.

   As far as direction goes, Bruno VeSota wisely makes fun of his budget shortfalls, playing around with papier-mâché boulders and the clunkiest monsters ever to blot the screen. There’s a bit with the characters fleeing back and forth across the same set that gets repeated so often (literally a “running gag”) it actually becomes funny. And if Ve Sota and Haze let some scenes run on too long… (Well actually just about every scene runs on too long; I thought they’d never get rid of those Indians!) …well I could forgive it all in the spirit of good fun. Which is about the best way to look at this one.


BARBARA D’AMATO – Hard Women. Cat Marsala #4. Charles Scribner’s, hardcover, 1993. Worldwide Mystery, paperback, 1994.

   This is the fourth of D’Amato’s novels about Chicago freelance journalist Cat Marsala. In previous books she has dealt with the lifestyle of the rich, the world of drugs, and organized lotteries; here she delves into the world of prostitution. As usual, she finds more than she likes or is safe for her.

   Cat has her first television assignment, a short piece on prostitution. A group of Chicago’s city fathers known as the Sinless Seven are making a push to rid the city of streetwalkers, and a local tv station thinks that this is a good time to feature a story on such. Though apprehensive, Cat is glad of the chance, and hits the courtrooms and streets in search of material. A young call girl whom she has interviewed shows up at her apartment, battered, and Cat takes her in for a few days. Then, the girl is found dead on the street in front, murdered.

   D’Amato is a good writer. She manages to pack a wealth of information about prostitutes and their sad, murky world into the story without slowing t down. But then, the story is as much about that world as is a murder mystery. The finding of the killer isn’t exactly an afterthought, but to me it clearly wasn’t as important to D’Amato as what she had to say about prostitution.

   I don’t care much for Cat Marsala as a person. Her attitudes are simply too different from mine for much empathy. It speaks well for D’Amato’s skill at characterization that she came enough alive for me to say that, but it’s hard for me to fully enjoy a book when I can’t like the lead character. Try it, though — if you can like Cat, you’ve got a winner.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #6, March 1993.

      The Cat Marsala series —

1. Hardball (1989)
2. Hard Tack (1991)
3. Hard Luck (1992)
4. Hard Women (1993)
5. Hard Case (1994)
6. Hard Christmas (1995)
7. Hard Bargain (1997)
8. Hard Evidence (1997)
9. Hard Road (2001)

From Wikipedia: “Haymarket Square was a Chicago-based psychedelic rock band in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their [only] album, Magic Lantern, released in 1968, was pressed in an edition of 80 to 100 copies.” Gloria Lambert is the lead vocalist:

JOHN SHANNON – The Concrete River. John Brown Books, hardcover, 1996. Berkley, paperback, February 1998.

   What this book is, or rather what it is not, is your grandfather’s traditional PI novel. One blurb on the back cover makes a comparison to Raymond Chandler. The setting is Los Angeles, true enough, and the comparison is not badly made, but the setting has been updated to modern-day LA (as of twenty years ago, that is), and it is Raymond Chandler as filtered more through Robert Altman’s version than any slavishly imitated copy of Mr. Chandler himself.

   The PI in question, for which this is his first recorded case, is Jack Liffey, a Viet Nam veteran and currently an out of work technical writer, a father of one, but now divorced and far behind on his alimony payments. To supplement his income he has discovered a knack for finding missing children.

   In this case, however, the woman he is asked to find is the Mexican-American mother of a boy he found several months before. He’s asked on the job too late, however. Her body is found washed up in Long Beach; suspicion is that she was dumped into the Los Angeles River somewhere a lot closer to home, and the river did the rest.

   The fact that she was working on behalf a community activist group fighting the conversion of an abandoned rubber plant into an opera house — an amenity for the rich, not the people who live in the area — is the only lead Liffey has to go on. But still. Murder on behalf of an opera house? No. There is more to the story than that, as Liffey soon painfully discovers.

   Shannon’s view of L.A. is near apocalyptic. The city is running on fumes, with rotten infrastructure and bizarre traffic incidents consistently occurring as Liffey makes his way around town in hunt of a wider truth, a search for morality, if you will. His budding romance with an ex-nun also takes up a good portion of the book, which naturally will slow things down for the reader who expects only a pulp fiction mentality on just another PI tale.

   Which, to repeat myself, most definitely The Concrete River is not. One quote may may be enough to tell you whether or not this is a series meant for you:

   Not for the first time, he thought of his marriage as a hat that had blown off while he was looking out over a canyon. He’d made a grab for it at the time, but then it was just gone, dwindling out of sight, leaving a bit of hat feel around his forehead but even that fading fast. It was the kind of thing that could still make you feel guilty about being broke, though.

   In case you were wondering, though, and you’re looking for more, there is a scene later on that shows that when he needs to be, Jack Liffey is also as hard-boiled as they come. Guaranteed.

      The Jack Liffey series —

1. The Concrete River (1996)
2. The Cracked Earth (1999)

3. The Poison Sky (2000)
4. The Orange Curtain (2001)
5. Streets on Fire (2002)
6. City of Strangers (2003)

7. Terminal Island (2004)
8. Dangerous Games (2005)
9. The Dark Streets (2006)
10. The Devils of Bakersfield (2008)

11. Palos Verdes Blue (2009)
12. On The Nickel (2010)
13. A Little Too Much (2010)
14. Chinese Beverly Hills (2014)


DEATH CURSE OF TARTU. Thunderbird International Pictures, 1966. Fred Piñero, Babbette Sherrill, Bill Marcus, Mayra Gómez. Screenwriter-director: William Grefe.

   To say that Death Curse of Tartu was made outside the Hollywood system is an understatement. Not only was this low budget horror film made outside of Hollywood, it was made way outside the State of California. This isn’t a West Coast production or even an independent New York film. This is a Florida production through and through.

   The product of cult film writer-director William Grefe, Death Curse of Tartu is the type of movie specifically tailored for the drive-in impresario attempting to bring in a swath of teenage spectators.

   Filmed in the Florida Everglades, this cheap production features a cast of relative unknowns, some of whom are far better actors than the others. It’s the type of movie that is valuable for the independent spirit behind it rather than for the admittedly low-rent finished product.

   The plot? It’s easily summed up in one sentence. A group of archaeology students and their teacher travel deep in the Everglades, disturb the sacred burial ground of a witch doctor (that would be Tartu), and suffer the consequences for their sacrilegious foolishness.

   If you turned on the movie in the middle, though, you wouldn’t have the faintest idea that these teenagers were being attacked by an Indian witch doctor. That’s because Tartu is able to take the form of wild animals. Pretty creative. Also, it was a great way to save money on special effects and make up.

   But I shouldn’t be so hard on Death Curse of Tartu. There’s spunk in it and some genuine heart behind it, and you do finally get to see Tartu in action. It’s just that there’s a lot of dead time (pun intended) where not much at all happens. And the soundtrack — if it could be called that — is about the most mind-numbing, repetitive thing I’ve encountered lately.

The lead singer for this California-based blues rock group was Lynn Carey, daughter of actor Macdonald Carey. Preserve Wildlife was released in 1972:

William F. Deeck

FRANCES NOYES HART – Hide in the Dark. Doubleday Doran & Co., hardcover, 1929.

   Somewhere in Maryland is Lady Court, an old manor house long uninhabited except for the possible ghost of a murderer. On All-Hallows Eve, 1928, the March Hares — four people born in March and claiming to be mad, in s good sense — hold a gathering of spouses and friends to become acquainted and be reacquainted. There are thirteen altogether, a fitting number, if you don’t count the ghost and the memory of another March Hare who had committed suicide on the grounds ten years earlier.

   Lots of undertones and overtones here as early-day jet-setters — I guess they are ocean-liner-setters — mingle with the not so successful, the jealous, the emotionally deprived. And then, after the apple bobbing, comes the game called “Hide in the Dark” and murder. All the people in the house had access to the means, most had the opportunity, and many had a motive.

   While I didn’t particularly appreciate most of the involved chitchat at the beginning — the list of characters that was provided came in handy here — when the murder occurs, the novel became quite gripping. Forgive the slow beginning; it’s worth struggling through it for the rest of the book.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall 1991, “Holiday Murders.”

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