REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


JOHN WYNDHAM – Out of the Deeps. Ballantine #50, US, paperback, Novemeber 1953. Michael Joseph, UK, hardcover, 1953, as The Kraken Wakes. Reprinted several times under both titles.

   From the front cover:

      *All over the world, great slimy monsters crept out of the seas — to feed on human flesh!

   I think “slimy” is a nice touch; don’t you?

   In any case, this is a fast-moving and fairly gripping tale of one of those idiosyncratic Alien Invasions typical of British Sci-Fi, unfolding over a period of several years and narrated by a journalist of the Clark Kent school: handy at crucial moments, and observant enough to see the implications.

   It all starts conventionally enough as strange objects streak to Earth from somewhere around Jupiter and mostly plunk into the ocean deeps, except for a few that streak across the U.S. and/or Russia and are promptly shot to space-smithereens, since this was at the height (or depth, if you prefer) of the Cold War.

   Some time passes before the Government organizes a research team that includes our narrator and the usual insightful, eccentric) and politically inconvenient) Scientist to see what became of the things, leading to a suspenseful chapter where bathyspheres are dropped, only to have loose cables hauled back up, severed and fused by some awesome heat.

   Things progress from here to worse: depth bombs are dropped, ships disappear, then more ships, and finally whale-size blobs start crawling out on land, discharging “millebrachiate tentacular coelenterates” (big honkin’ jellyfish) to devour the locals.

   There are some really fine pages of pitched battles with the damn things until (SPOILER ALERT!) they put the blighters to rout, And everyone slaps himself on the back for vanquishing the foe…. And then, very slowly, the polar ice caps start to melt — and at this point the whole thing got unbelievable.

   The thing is, there’s a strong subtext in this book of Official dithering and Politicized inaction. Wyndham spreads his story over years, with connecting phrases like “It was not till months later…” or “the following summer…” and that sort of thing. The icecap-melt uses a lot of these, as elected officials all over the world argue over what’s going on and whose fault it is.

   Well, I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to swallow the notion that responsible elected officials, faced with clear evidence of climate change, would mostly just ignore it. There’s even a short bit about New Orleans getting flooded… makes the whole thing unbelievable.

   If you can get past this, however, there’s some good reading here, with large-scale catastrophe, small-scale personal crises, and a real feel for the characters involved. What impressed me most though was that Wyndham brought this whole epic in under two hundred pages. If it were done today, he’d have to spend five volumes detailing pointless subplots and diversions to tell the same damn story. No wonder I miss the fast, sharp writing of yester-pulp!

The first track from an album recorded live in Montreux, 1990:

GEORGE BAGBY – The Original Carcase. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1946. Jonathan Press Mystery J71, digest-sized paperback, abridged, no date stated [1954], as A Body for the Bride.

   Time out for a lesson in the antique furniture business. First of all. the word carcase — a more elegant word for carcass — has the meaning you think it has, but it’s also the large bottom cupboard space found in antique dining-room sideboards. Of course, it’s also true that if certain partitions were removed, there’d be room enough to stuff a corpse for safe-keeping, and so it happens, to the newly-wed neighbors of George Bagby.

   That the husband’s brother is a retired gangster of no little repute, and known for a long time by Bagby’s friend Inspector Schmidt, is also worth pointing out.

   There never was a night like this in the old days, as even the old bootlegger is forced to admit, and as morning arrives, another killing occurs, and things get even goofier for a while. Schmitty is never at a loss for theories, however, and a final round-up of the suspects leads to a climactic solution scene that lasts for all of twenty-five pages.

   Except for an unexplained lapse on the part of one of the characters, which makes him an unwitting accomplice of the real killer, this is really a fine example of how the light touch can liven up the serious business of police work– as long a it’s the events that amuse rather than characters that are utterly wacky.

Rating:   B minus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 4, July 1978.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


PETER ROBINSON – The Hanging Valley. Alan Banks #4. Charles Scribner’s Sons, US, hardcover, 1992. Berkley, US, paperback, 1994. First published in Canada by Viking, hardcover, 1989.

   Robinson’s Yorkshire detective, Chief Inspector Alan Banks, has gotten some pretty good ink from the critics. As a confirmed village mystery lover, I’d place him somewhere in the mid-ranks. Here, a faceless, maggot-ridden corpse is discovered in a tranquil valley. Links are suspected with the disappearance five years earlier of a private detective, still unsolved. The villagers aren’t talking. Eventually, the case takes Banks to Canada in search of the truth.

   I find Banks to be a moderately realistic, moderately engaging character, and Robinson’s writing to be quite good. There’s a very good story of an abused wife mixed in with the mystery, and the characterizations are well done. The ending is distinctly offbeat and unexpected. No raves, but a good solid read if you like village mysteries.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #5, January 1993.


Bibliographic Note:   Including Sleeping in the Ground, scheduled for publication in 2017, there are (or will be) 24 books in Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series.

MAX BRAND – Valley Thieves. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1946. Reprinted many times, including Pocket #668, paperback, January 1950. First serialized in Western Story Magazine, Oct 28–Nov 25, 1933.

   Jim Silver, also known as Silvertip, so called for the small tufts of gray hair up above his temples, comes on the scene relatively late in this tale, but the story’s a doozie from page one on. A newcomer to the West, a bold braggadocio of a man, but likeable for all that, tells a woman who has quickly caught his fancy that he can bring her Jim Silver’s horse for her to ride, but not only that, but the wolf who is the man’s constant companion.

   No one, of course, believes him, but lo and behold, that is exactly what he does. But then disaster happens, as both horse and wolf are stolen from him. It seems that Barry Christian, Silver’s mortal enemy, recently escaped from prison, may have had a hand in it, but no matter who the thief may be, it is essential that both Parade and Frosty must be found and returned to their master.

   When it comes to the Silvertip series, Max Brand was not just writing westerns, he was writing legend. He was writing mythology. Jim Silver is the purest, the most honest man you could ever hope to know, and if he is on your trail, you had best never sleep at night.

   The result, the book at hand, is one with the substance of cotton candy, and as enjoyable. To allow the series to continue, or so my sense of the matter is, the tale ends both a little abruptly and predictably, but until then, it’s a mile a minute through some of well-designed Western prose you’ll ever read, bar none.

       The Silvertip series —

1. Silvertip, 1941.
2. The Man from Mustang, 1942.
3. Silvertip’s Strike, 1942.
4. Silvertip’s Roundup, 1943.
5. Silvertip’s Trap, 1943.
6. The Fighting Four, 1944.
7. Silvertip’s Chase, 1944.
8. Silvertip’s Search, 1945.
9. The Stolen Stallion, 1945.
10. Valley Thieves, 1946.
11. Mountain Riders, 1946.
12. The Valley of Vanishing Men, 1947.
13. The False Rider, 1947.

   This list is tentative and subject to verification. Publication dates are of those of the hardcover editions, not the prior magazine versions.

THE 13th MAN. Monogram Pictures, 1937. Weldon Heyburn, Inez Courtney, Selmer Jackson, Matty Fain, Milburn Stone, Grace Durkin, Robert Homans, Eadie Adams. Director: William Nigh.

   When it comes to the movie The 13th Man, there seems to be a large disconnect between me and the rest of the IMDb film-watching universe. The latter has given this rather turgid mystery melodrama an accumulated 5.9 stars, and I would be hard pressed to give it two.

   The basic premise is not bad. The current District Attorney, with a highly contested election coming up, reminds his radio audience that he has put 12 major crime figures behind bards so far, and on the next day he will be starting indictment proceeding on a 13th major underworld figure in the city. Which well-deserved individual will it be? This is the kind of city where there are any number of candidates.

   But will the D.A. survive till the next morning? You can answer that at once. He dies at ringside that same evening with a curare dart found in his neck. Investigating the case one step ahead of the police are radio reporter Swifty Taylor (Weldon Heyburn) and his secretary (who is secretly in love with him), Julie Walters (Inez Courtney). Swifty, it seems, is not all that swift.

   But from this point on, the story and the no-name cast go absolutely nowhere. It is one of those movies that make your eyeballs ache just watching it, but sometimes an investment of 20 minutes into a movie makes you want to keep watching it, just in case something interesting happens.

   There is one twist that I probably should have seen coming, but I didn’t. I can’t tell you what it is, just in case you decide to ignore these comments of mine. Perhaps the no-name cast has more of a name than I realize, but the only two actors who show any enthusiasm for being in this movie are Milburn Stone (then a mere 33 years old), playing Swifty’s assistant, and considerably more elderly Robert Homans, who often had small roles as policemen in his movie-making career, and so he was once again in this one.

   The real culprit is intended as a surprise, but not quite picking a name from a hat, he (or she) was exactly who I suspected all along.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Karol Kay Hope
:


LINDA BARNES – Bitter Finish. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1983. Fawcett, paperback, 1985. Dell, paperback, 1994.

   Michael Spraggue is falling down a flight of steps, the voice of his stunt instructor screaming at him to use his thighs and hips to break the impact of the sharp cement. As the star of Hollywood’s latest private-eye melodrama, shooting on location in Boston, Spraggue leaves the car chases to the pros, but the light stunts he likes to do himself.

   An independently wealthy ex-private investigator turned actor, he’s quit the business because he’s “mostly dug up dirt everybody would have been better off not knowing.” But an emergency phone call summons him back to California’s Napa Valley, where Kate Holloway, his not quite ex-lover and longtime business partner in the Holloway Hills Winery, is in jail as a material witness to murder.

   Kicking and screaming (he really does hate being a private eye), Michael flies to the rescue. The victim is Holloway Hills’ flamboyant Hungarian winemaker — the second in what the papers are calling the “car trunk murders.” Kate is notorious in the valley — she’s six feet tall, gorgeous, and makes as good a wine as many male vintners — and the not-so-bright deputy sheriff is certain she’s a killer as well. Michael seems to be the only person on the scene smart enough to figure out who stashed those cadavers in the trunks of cars, and the deputy sheriff, of course, won’t talk to him.

   The complicated love situation between Spraggue and Kate is probably the most interesting part of this story, although Barnes does give us a lovely picture of the Napa Valley at harvest time and lots of detail on the wine making industry. The action moves well, the clues are nicely hidden, and the reader isn’t bored — but neither is the reader glued to the edge of his seat.

   Spraggue ends up, predictably, all by his lonesome with a crazed killer in a deserted winery at the end of a rarely traveled road. The writing is light, entertaining, and stylistically sound; and hopefully as Linda Barnes matures as a writer, so will Spraggue and company.

   Michael Spraggue also appears in Dead Heat (1984).

———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Bibliographic Notes:   Spaggue’s first appearance was in Blood Will Have Blood (1982). A fourth and final book in the series was Cities Of The Dead, published in 1986. In 1987 Linda Barnes switched series characters and wrote A Trouble of Fools, the first of twelve novels featuring cab-driving PI Carlotta Carlyle, based in Boston.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


MILDRED PIERCE. Warner Brothers, 1945. Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett, Lee Patrick, Moroni Olsen, Veda Ann Borg. Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall, based on the novel by James M. Cain. Director: Michael Curtiz.

   I recently saw Mildred Pierce and came away just dumbfounded that anyone – even a Movie Critic – could watch this movie and fail to notice the strong, even idiosyncratic, hand of director Michael Curtiz at work. Take the opening: A mildly-surprised-looking Zachary Scott, seen in a mirror, shuddering under the impact of bullets hitting his frame, even as the mirror splinters and shatters, just as he hits the floor and rolls into full close-up before our eyes. In terms of screen time, it’s only a few seconds, but visually, it’s an incredibly complex blend of deft mise-en-scene and seamless editing, knowingly orchestrated by a master of the form.

   Surprisingly enough, Curtiz manages to steer the film from this dizzy beginning through a palpaceous plot of Mother Love, Teenage Lust and Middle-aged Greed without once letting the pace falter. He keeps it right at the hungry edge of violence, like an addict staring at a needle, for nearly two hours’ fast-paced running time, and gets deft performances along the way from the likes of Bruce Bennett, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blythe and — inevitably — Joan Crawford.

   Ah yes, Joan Crawford. In the role that revived her career. The cult of her personality, I fear, has always obscured the virtues of this remarkable film, just as Bogart’s cult “obscured” Casablanca: by shining so much Star Power on it that it ceased to be a film, and became instead a shrine, whence the Faithful are called several times a year to bask their idols in adoration.

   Which offers a clue to Curtiz’ critical neglect: He was so good at enshrining major personalities (including Flynn, Cagney, Bette Davis and even Boris Karloff) that their fans always tended to overlook him — forgetting that gods do not exist until someone builds temples to them – and critics never noticed the consistent stylistic complexity that he lavished on even his minor films. Thus he became an “anonymous” director to folks who just wasn’t looking.

   Getting back to Mildred Pierce, though, it’s a lavish blend of Mystery, Soap Opera and even pre-feminist rhetoric, and though the icons who populate this particular temple have remained somewhat critically unfashionable, the showcase itself deserves a fresh look.

PASSENGER 57. Warner Brothers, 1992. Wesley Snipes, Bruce Payne, Tom Sizemore, Alex Datcher, Bruce Greenwood, Robert Hooks, Elizabeth Hurley. Director: Kevin Hooks.

   I don’t know how you can live as long as I have and still be able to say that this is the first movie starring Wesley Snipes that I have even seen, but it is so. I see from his resume on IMDb that over his career he has made quite a few action thriller movies like this one, and as of 2014, he was still making them, if The Expendables 3 is the kind of movie I think it is.

   This one has to do with a notorious terrorist and a gang of equally vicious followers with the same carefree attitude toward killing that he has. To help rescue their leader from the FBI, they take over a passenger jet that Snipes’ character, a newly promoted chief of security, just happens to be a passenger on.

   I don’t think the movie is as good as those in the “Diehard” series, say, but I enjoyed it. There is a light touch to the movie that makes all of the gunfire, martial arts fighting, explosions and every other means of organized chaos all the more bearable, such as when one elderly female passenger mistakenly takes Snipes’ character to be Arsenio Hall.

   The ladies in the cast are, unfortunately, the weakest links, in my opinion, but all of the men are consummate pros at this sort of thing, especially the primary villain (Bruce Payne), who seems to be having a great time playing pure evil incarnate, and with his glowering presence, taking over every scene he’s in.

   But here’s the question. Would I watch another Wesley Snipes movie? Based on this sample of size one, I see no reason why not.


THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


S. S. VAN DINE – The Kennel Murder Case. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1933. Reprinted many times, including Bantam #60, paperback, 1946. Film: 1933, with William Powell as Vance.

   The circumstances of the death of Archer Coe indicate suicide. He was, after all, in a room locked on the inside, with the revolver with which he was shot still in his hand. Fortunately, Philo Vance is asked to observe the scene, and he claims it was murder — but not caused by the bullet.

   One of the clues is a badly hurt Scottish terrier found in the house. The reader learns a lot about terriers and show dogs as Vance lectures on the animals. At the end, the dog leads, in a manner of speaking, Vance to the murderer.

   In my opinion, Van Dine is undeservedly maligned. What’s wrong with a highbrow mystery containing occasional and intentional amusement and fair, albeit far-fetched, play? That’s what we have here, and I think it’s most enjoyable.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter 1990, “Beastly Murders.”

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