REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


GILDERSLEEVE’S GHOST. RKO, 1944. Harold Peary, Marion Martin, Richard LeGrand, Frank Reicher, Amelita Ward, Freddie Mercer, Margie Stewart, Emory Parnell, Jack Norton as the Drunk and Charles Gemora as the Gorilla. Screenwriter: Robert E. Kent, based on characters appearing on the long-running radio program, The Great Gildersleeve (1941-1958). Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Some folks think it kinky of me, others merely shrug and roll their eyes, and a few have damned me from the pulpit for it, but I always thought Harold Peary was funny. Just something about that chuckle of his and the trademark hem-and-hawing, always gets a laugh out of me.

   So I’m tempted to give Gildersleeve’s Ghost much more praise than it deserves from a discerning critic like myself. I can’t honestly recommend it to any serious movie buff either. But damitall, this movie has everything: ghosts, an old dark house, a mad doctor with a sinister assistant, an invisible woman, insulting comic relief, and an escaped gorilla. Who — I ask you WHO? — could ask for anything more?

   Peary skips through it with his usual aplomb, and Gordon Douglas, whose career included Rio Conchos, Tony Rome, and Sincerely Yours, directs with the flippancy it deserves. I should also mention writer Robert Kent, who went on to a long and bizarre career with Sam Katzman, writing things like Hootenanny Hoot and The Fastest Guitar Alive.

   As for Gildersleeve’s Ghost, it’s fast, light, and outrageous enough to keep you saying “Whuzza?” even if you don’t find it funny. Catch it if you can.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “At Arm’s Length.” Detective Fiction Weekly, December 9, 1938. Included in the collection The Case of the Crimson Kiss (Morrow, hardcover, 1970).

   The reason I’ve chosen “At Arm’s Length” to talk about is not because it’s one of his better ones, for it isn’t, but because… Well, here’s how the blurb for the story on the contents page puts it:

  “Lester Leith, Perry Mason, Jax Keene (sic), Senor Lobo! Look to your laurels! Jerry Marr, toughest dick in captivity, is on the scene.” (Raise your hand if you know who Jax Keen was.)

   Or in other words, “At Arm’s Length” serves as the introduction of a brand new character in Mr. Gardner’s long list of same — as well as his only appearance. It’s not that it’s a terrible story, for it isn’t, but in 1939 career writing for the pulp magazines was winding down. He was making good money with the Perry Mason books, and the first Donald Lam & Bertha Cool novel also came out in 1939.

   There are overtones of Lester Leith in this tale. Jerry Marr is the kind of guy who reads a pair of unconnected stories in a newspaper, put two and two together and get five — and cash in his pocket. The lead story of the day is that of a murdered society girl, but what catches Jerry Marr’s eye is a story on page four about a man seen sweeping up large tacks on a street nearby.

   Marr is also a semi-hardboiled kind of PI. What his does is, to put it bluntly, blackmail a possible suspect in the murder case into hiring him. Or at least he would be a suspect if Marr told the police what he knows.

   Marr has a girl friend named Lorrain Dell, and not only do you get the idea that he and she are closer than Perry and Della ever were, but he allows her to do some of his legwork for him. This doesn’t work out all that well when he discovers that Lorrain has pushed someone’s buttons too far, and she ends up a captive. Not only that, but Jerry Marr pulls a Mannix, well before Mannix came along, and is knocked on the head at one point in the story by some unknown malefactor into a short oblivion

   It all works out fine, though, almost making Marr’s client-under-duress happy. The key word is almost, because Marr’s primary motivation, as stated above, is cash in hand.

   Reading back the last few paragraphs to myself, I see that I may have made the story sound better than it is. It isn’t, but nor is it terrible, either.

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


CHRIS KNOPF – Tango Down. PI Sam Acquillo #8. The Permanent Press, hardcover, December 2017. Setting: Long island NY (The Hamptons).

First Sentence:   I was trying to maneuver my way across the muddy construction site when Frank Entwhistle ran up to my old Jeep Cherokee and slapped on the windshield.

   Sam Acquillo has been building cabinets for the new home of wealthy New Yorker Victor Bollings. When Bollings’ body is found on the job site, Colombian illegal Ernesto Mazzoti, a finish carpenter and Sam’s friend, is arrested as the obvious suspect. The murder weapon contains Ernesto’s fingerprints, but Sam isn’t buying it. With the help of Jackie Swaitkowski, a defense attorney who, courtesy of billionaire Burton Lewis, takes the cases of those who can’t afford to pay, Sam works to prove Ernesto innocent.

   It is nice when an author starts straight in with the crime. Sam is a great character with a fascinating background and unexpected skills. Just when his machismo starts becoming a bit strong, it is tempered by his caring for others. His lover, Amada, and dog, Eddie Van Halen, round out the character nicely. It is also nice that Knopf’s writing is wonderfully intelligent and that he provides a good sense of Eastern Long Island with its marked contrast between the extremely wealthy, primarily summer people, and the working-class people who live there year-round.

   A well-done metaphor is always a pleasure to read— “Then I used a few other traditional calibrating tools to reset the table saw. … The result was perfect and true, like the heart of a young lover before disappointment upends her soul.”

   The story line of undocumented workers couldn’t be more timely or accurate. That the investigation involves multiple agencies, and a jaunt to the Virgin Islands adds dimensions to the story. So too is that of the issue with which Amanda is dealing which is emotional and adds yet another layer to the plot as well as the characters.

   Tango Down is intelligent, complex, multi-layered, and has a realistic ending. It is also really, really good; it is always surprising that Knopf is not more widely known and read.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.


The Sam Acquillo series —

1. The Last Refuge (2005)

2. Two Time (2005)
3. Head Wounds (2008)
4. Hardstop (2009)

5. Black Swan (2011)
6. Cop Job (2015)
7. Back Lash (2016)
8. Tango Down (2017)

Note:   Attorney Jackie Swaitkowski has her own series of books (so far) as does another of Knopf’s series characters, Arthur Cathcart, “market researcher and occasional finder of missing persons”

K. K. BECK – The Body in the Volvo. Walker, hardcover, 198. Ballantine/Ivy, paperback, August 1989.

    When a young professor at the University of Washington (in what department I don’t think it’s ever said) is unjustly denied tenure. he’s forced to look for work in the real world. Luckily his Uncle Cosmo has just won the lottery, and he helps his nephew out.

   With full custody of his auto-repair shop. It’s hardly the gold mine of opportunity he envisioned, as you can imagine, and when the body of his former department chairman is found on the premises, it turns into outright disaster.

   Not a major work, but one that’s both funny and well-plotted.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.
SELECTED BY DAVID VINETARD:


B. M. BOWER “The Spook Hills Mystery.” Popular Magazine, November 7, 1914. Published in hardcover as The Haunted Hills, Little Brown, 1934, and in paperback by Popular Library, #306, 1951. Also available online here, among other websites.

   “The Spook Hills Mystery” begins rather tritely with the arrival of young Easterner Shelton C. Sherman with a typically cantankerous old hand named Spooky (Gabby Hayes before there was one, “He was not a bad sort, though he was an awful liar when the mood seized him…”) who leads him on about the “ghost” of Spook Hills, but then popular Western writer B(ertha) M(uzzy) Bower, creator of Chip of the Flying U and a long series about that outfit, throws us a curve.

   This, as a beginning, may sound a bit hackneyed. Since the first story was told of the West, innocent young males have arrived in first chapters and have been lied to by seasoned old reprobates of the range, and have attained sophistication by devious paths not always unmarked with violence. But when you stop to consider, life itself is a bit hackneyed.

   At least she noticed, and it is far from the only curve in this tale.

   Sherman, soon to be known as Shep, is greener than the greenest greenhorn who ever lived, and about to join the Sunbeam Outfit (in “that part of Idaho which lies south of the Snake …”) to make a man out of him at the hands of Aleck Burney, who has a way of putting youngsters “on the fence” to make “men” out of them in the time-honored way of obnoxious bullies who are supposed to be makers of men in popular fiction from time immemorial. Never let it be said Ms Bower ever missed a cliché when one was at hand (enter Wallace Beery, or the older John Wayne, making men by breaking their spirit since time began).

   Shep’s parents have sent him West, all pretty 6’ 2” of him: “… to get some width to go with my length: Dad’s an architect. He said he’d have to use me for a straight edge if something wasn’t done pretty soon.”

   The Sunbeam Ranch itself is harbinger of “a keen sensation of disappointment,” otherwise little more than a dirt shack seen over by the giant Burney, who typically tries to establish dominance first thing by a crushing handgrip. Give old Shep this, it hardly bothers him.

   Soon he starts to get the hang of things, and they brighten a bit when he meets Vida, daughter of Sam Williams and niece of Uncle Jake and part of a sheep herding outfit, and that should tell you a bit about where this is going, though it is hardly enough, because that is another of Bower’s curves.

   Bower knew a great deal about life on a ranch, in fact too much for her readers’ own good, since some of her books spend more time on the drudgery and boredom of actually living on and running a ranch than any good Western can take. Realism combined with a certain Polyannaish view and too few doses of adventure and melodrama makes for an uncertain read for many. For all her beautifully described scenery and realistic views of frontier life you can find yourself wishing Max Brand would show up and kick a few doors down. You wish a few of those “Gosh Darn” moments were at least “Gol Dangs.”

   This one is made of sterner material than that though, and soon Shep has gotten a glimpse of Spooky’s Spook, a critter that leaves a footprint like a bear, if a bear was big as an elephant. Of course we all know he can’t leave that alone any more than he will the feud building between the Sunbeamers and the sheep herders.

   And he certainly doesn’t leave bad enough alone, tracking the “thing” to a tunnel where, “The terrible silence was split suddenly by a scream. Human, it sounded, and yet not human, but beastly — horrible. Shelton dropped the candle and clung to the rock beside him. His heart, he thought, stopped absolutely. His very knees buckled under him while he stood there. And then he heard something running, somewhere, even while the cave was playing horribly with the echoes of that scream. Running down that other passage with long leaps, it seemed to him, and the beat of four padded feet upon the rock floor.”

   Where’s Sherlock Holmes when you need him, or for that matter Allan Quatermain? From an Indian woman Shep learns Burney’s father was killed by a “big bear” in Montana, which might explain why Burney objects more to his hunt than his friendship and budding romance with Vida, it also makes it unlikely the sheep killer preying on the Williams herd is Burney. Shep has a mystery to solve.

   Then Uncle Jake is killed in the sheep camp while Burney is away in Pocatella, though the herders don’t believe it, and Vida wants his blood.

   “I find,” replied the coroner, “that the deceased undoubtedly came to his death by having his neck broken by twisting. Four ribs were broken also, evidently by crushing. There are no bullet wounds — the only other marks of violence on the body being some scratches on the scalp behind the ear. These, I judge, were made by finger nails, in gripping the head to twist it.”

   Burney is free. He never made the prints the jury viewed. When the wagon where Vida sleeps is attacked in the night and she hears: “a hoarse scream …. Human—and yet not human—mocking, maniacal, horrible. The most awful sound that Vida had ever heard in her life; a squall, a cry — a shriek she could not find a name for. Her memory flew back to the tales of ghosts and demons that an old Scotch woman had told her years ago. Warlock — that was it! A warlock, such as Maggie MacDonald had told about, that haunted the heath behind the village where strange deaths occurred periodically in the dark of the moon. When men and women were found strangled — and none knew how or why.” And then Vida sees the creature pursuing one of the herders, “the huge figure of a man who came on with
giant strides, leaping clean over what bushes came in his way.”

   And then, and then … Shep drops entirely out of the picture. One of the cowhands, Spider, takes up with Vida, they solve the mystery, and all Shep gets is a letter home, while Spider gets the girl.

   Uh, wow.

   The action is everything you could hope for and Bower handles the atmosphere and building sense of danger and threat with the skill of a pro. Some of the passages describing the country and the setting border on beautiful, and for all the Western lingo, it’s not too trying, to this reader at least. If the rather juvenile saga of the Flying U is all you know of Bower’s Westerns, this one will clear your sinuses, it’s a humdinger.

SNOWBOUND. RKO Radio Pictures, UK, 1948. Universal Pictures, US, 1949. Robert Newton, Dennis Price, Stanley Holloway, Herbert Lom, Marcel Dalio, Mila Parely. Based on the novel The Lonely Skier, by Hammond Innes. (US title: Fire in the Snow. Harper, 1947.) Director: David Macdonald.

   There are some interesting aspects to this post-war spy-adventure film set in the Italian Alps, but unfortunately there are not enough of them for me to give it more than a half-hearted recommendation.

   It may be (a) it follows the book too closely, or (b) not closely enough. Without ever having read the book, I’m inclined to go with (a), as the first half of the film simply meanders here and there far too much, without anything of interest happening. Under the circumstances, of course, you can take my inclination and store it in you sock drawer for the next rainy day when you feel you need one.

   In any case, here’s the basic story line. Robert Newton, now a film director in England, recruits a former soldier under his command (Dennis Price) to go to an isolated ski cottage in the Alps and report back to him everything that he finds going on there.

   And what’s going on is the arrival of several other characters, including one self-described contessa (Mila Parely) who all act in mysterious ways and all of whom seem to know each other, but seem disinclined to admit it. There is also not much doubt that these not nice people. Price’s bumbling inquiries fail to elicit much in the way of information, but on the plus side, he finds himself being more and more attracted to the mysterious contessa.

   Every review I’ve read of the movie comes right out and explains what’s going on, but I’ve decided not to. Suffice it to say that Robert Newton, who doesn’t turn up again after the first ten minutes until the movie is well over halfway over, and not till then does it get out of first gear. Herbert Lom makes for a great villain in the meantime, though — not surprisingly — even though we the viewer have no idea what it is that prompts such glowering looks.

   The finale, when it finally arrives, is a good one, but all in all, it’s not good enough to make up for a weak opening half lasting nearly sixty minutes or so.

LILIAN JACKSON BRAUN – The Cat Who Went Underground. Jim Qwilleran #9. Putnam, hardcover, 1989. Jove, paperback, September 1989.

   I like cats all right, and I’ve even discovered I can put up with them in detective stories. This is the first of the adventures of semi-retired Jim Qwilleran and his two Siamese pets (Koko and Yum Yum) I’ve read, and while I’m not sure I’m totally converted, it was amusing.

   Braun’s style is a combination of breathless exclamation points with a rural folksiness of a northern Michigan sort that also manages not to be condescending. I do wish, however, that she’d allowed more than the last 40 pages for the detective work to take place.

   To wit. While there are lots of hints concerning some sort of mysterious activity that is taking place, sometimes through the astrology columns in the newspaper, sometimes through a fortune-teller friend, Qwilleran does not find the body of the first known murder victim (under the floor of his cabin on the lake) until page 161.

   Until then, what we’re given is a more-or-less hilarious account of the vicissitudes of a city man trying to cope with life in the “wild” — toilets that don’t flush, water heaters that don’t heat, coons in the chimney, and so on. (I guess I’ll probably stay where I am.)

— Reprinted and somewhat revised from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.


Bibliographic Notes:   The first three books in Braun’s “Cat” series were published between 1966 and 1968. There was then a gap of 18 years before the fourth one came out, when the author was 75, and something strange happened. It became an overnight success and sold a ton of copies.

   So successful that there were 25 more, with the last one, The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, appearing in 2007, when Braun was 94. She died in 2011 at the grand old age of 98.

This song comes from Maria McKee’s first solo, self-titled CD from 1989, after two as the lead singer for the early “cowpunk” band Lone Justice.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


HARRY BROWN – The Stars in Their Courses. Knopf, hardcover, 1960; Bantam, paperback, 19??

EL DORADO. Paramount, 1967. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Charlene Holt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Ed Asner, Michele Carey, Christopher George and Olaf Wieghorst. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses, by Harry Brown. Directed by Howard Hawks.

   The other day I re-read The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown, which I hadn’t touched in 30 years, and it spurred me to re-watch a film I haven’t seen in almost as long, El Dorado.

   Stars tells the Trojan War legend reframed as a Western: Arch Eastmere (think Achilles) is a skillful gunfighter with a bad heart and worse luck, who returns to his home town to find that the small ranchers (to whom he owes money) are getting fed up with the local Big Rancher, Percy Randal. When Percy’s younger son rides off with the abused wife of one of the small ranchers, they’re ready to fight. Arch likes the Randals, and was a close friend of Percy’s tough older son Hallock (think Hector) but he owes a debt to the opposition….

   It’s all a bit contrived and pretentious, but somehow fitting. The ancient heroes were to the Greeks as cowboys were to us when I was a kid, and it’s fascinating to see Brown set these leathery westerners to reenacting a legend, with splendid prose, fast action, and characters at once larger than life and all too human.

   This was almost filmed by Howard Hawks as El Dorado — Hawks lost faith in the script half-way through and decided to just re-make Rio Bravo. If you watch Dorado you may notice the earlier scenes shot outdoors tend toward the grim side, but the later parts (done in the studio to save time & money) just earnestly copy Rio Bravo.

   The wonder is that it all works so splendidly. Hawks’ gift for vivid action and his knack of making his actors look like they’re actually talking to each other were never displayed to better effect.

   He’s helped considerably by a remarkable cast. Charlene Holt plays the local shady lady with a tender toughness that becomes really moving at times, and Michele Carey projects an untamed sexuality that smacks up agreeably against James Caan’s virile neophyte. Paul Fix and R.G. Armstrong lend their typecast western authority to the proceedings, and Christopher George recalls the amiable lethality of John Ireland in Red River, as a man who will share drink with someone or gun him down just as easily. Best of all, Arthur Hunnicutt positively shines as the Ultimate Comical Sidekick, a character so funny and bizarre that only he could do it justice.

   And then there are the top-liners: John Wayne and Robert Mitchum playing the heroes of the piece with rueful maturity. Mitchum gets a showy part as the sheriff-turned-drunk, by turns comic and harrowing, and he makes it one of the best performances of a remarkable career. Wayne’s role as Mitchum’s gunfighter-buddy plagued by a debilitating wound is just as fine, his toughness crumbling with startling poignancy that somehow reveals the inner strength.

   Hawks’ skill as a director has been duly celebrated in classics like To Have and Have Not, The Thing from Another World and Bringing Up Baby, but he was never better than in this broken-backed western.

   By the way, El Dorado opens with the title credits over some fine Western paintings. They are the work of artist Olaf Wieghorst, who also plays the Swedish gunsmith with the great line, “He shoot the piano player, and they hang him.”

      

This week’s assortment of pulps up for auction on eBay can be found here:
https://www.ebay.com/sch/lewis-62/m.html?item=273204029542&ssPageName=STRK%3AMESELX%3AIT&rt=nc&_trksid=p2047675.l2562

Not all pulps listed on eBay sell. I’ve put together a list of those you can purchase from me directly, plus ones I’ve quoted to would-be buyers directly and not taken.

Here’s the link:
http://mysteryfile.com/Books/Pulps

Lots of Dime Detective in this online list, plus a scattering of other titles.

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