CORNELL WOOLRICH – The Black Path of Fear. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1944. Reprint editions include: Detective Novel Magazine, April 1945; Avon #106, paperback, 1946; Ace H-66, paperback, circa 1968; Ballantine, paperback, 1982.

THE CHASE. United Artists, 1946. Robert Cummings, Michele Morgan, Steve Cochran and Peter Lorre. Screenplay by Philip Yordan, from the novel The Black Path of Fear, by Cornell Woolrich. Directed by Arthur Ripley.

   Woolrich at his pulpiest turned in to film noir at its weirdest. Such a treat!

   As the book opens, Bill Scott and Eve Roman are just arriving in Havana, fleeing from her husband, gangster Eddie Roman. By the end of the first chapter, she will be dead and he’ll be framed for her murder, which is a lot to pack into one chapter, but Woolrich doesn’t skimp on atmosphere or color as the plot rushes on. He writes about a crowded bar in a way that had me tucking my elbows in, and there’s a very atmospheric chase scene from the fugitive’s POV up a darkened stairway, lit only by the flashlights of his pursuers.

   In a typical Woolrichian coincidence, Bill hooks up with a street-smart Cuban Miss named Midnight with a grudge against cops that impels her to help him track down the real killers. And once again we get that superb atmosphere of darkened doorways, twisted streets, and even into the bowels of an opium den, painted in fevered but fast-paced prose. And for a conclusion there’s a knock-down drag-out fight scene, and a bitter, romantic coda Chandler might have envied.

   Black Path was filmed in 1946, and before I go into it, perhaps a word about the film’s creators might be helpful:

   Producer Seymour Nebenzal was a big name in the early German cinema, with films like M and 3-Penny Opera on his resumé . After he fled Germany to the U.S. his films went into a “cheap-but-interesting” period of things like Hitler’s Madman, but he did produce remakes of his German films Mistress of Atlantis and M.

   I have heard passing references to director Arthur Ripley before; UImer referred to him as “a sick man, mentally & physically” and his output was meager, with a few films that had to be finished by other hands. He was apparently a man of ill health and gloomy outlook, who worked most of his early career in comedy for Mack Senett, Harry Langdon and W.C. Fields (he directed Fields’ classic short Barber Shop.)

   After many years as a gag man for Capra and others, Ripley directed Voice in the Wind, The Chase, and part of Siren of Atlantis, then nothing till Robert Mitchum asked him to direct Thunder Road. Damn Strange if you ask me.

   Together Nebenzal and Ripley make The Chase something unique, aided by photographer Franz Planer (who sent on to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) and a choice cast that includes Steve Cochran as an acquisitive gangster and Peter Lorre as his matter-of-fact executioner, who gripes about sending flowers to the funeral of their late competitor (“A hundred and fifty bucks. I don’t care what you say, that’s inflation.”)

   Narrative-wise, The Chase is something else again. It follows the book pretty faithfully for the first half, then Ripley and writer Philip Yordan apparently decided to leave off and make another movie about the same characters. There’s a scene of shocking surprise, followed by a trite “cheat,” and all at once we’re into a movie where Bob Cummings is a disturbed vet with fits of amnesia.

   It’s to the credit of all concerned that this works as well as it does. As I watched, I found myself going from “Aw c’mon!” to “Come on, snap out of it, Bob – and hurry!” as the characters from the first half of the film move toward and away from what looks like predestined fate.

   The Chase can’t be called a complete success, but it has its moments, and I guarantee it’s one of the strangest you’ll ever see.

JOHN BUXTON HILTON – Hangman’s Tide. Inspector Simon Kenworthy #3. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1975. St. Martin’s, US, hardcover, 1975. Charter/Diamond, paperback, US, August 1990.

   It was quite a surprise to see this one out in paperback. Hilton is a fine writer, but it’s always seemed to me that his stories of Inspector Kenworthy of Scotland Yard would be a little too rustic to have much market appeal in this country. Here it is, though, and apparently it’s the first of several.

   This particular one takes place in a backwoods marshy corner of England, where a former school administrator has been murdered in gruesome fashion — she’s been hanged to death on a floating scaffold, the platform of which is designed to sink out from under the feet of the victim as the tide comes slowly in.

   As usually happens in Hilton’s books, the roots of the crime go far back into the past — indirectly, to a period 300 years earlier, since the murder copies the events of an execution that too place three centuries ago — and directly, a generation of two past, when life may have been simple but certainly wasn’tany easier, as an unhappy woman’s diary clearly shows.

   Kenworthy uses a questioning technique that’s often deliberately antagonistic, on the principle that more may be revealed when the answerer is angered than not. He is also deliberately eccentric, known for flouting the rules whenever he sees fit, and invariably equipped with a vivid flair for the dramatic.

   The first third of the book is the best. The middle portion sags badly when Kenworthy departs the scene for a short while, leaving the investigation in the stalwart hands of his assistant, Sgt. Wright, while the ending can easily leave the reader with the uneasy feeling of “Is that all there is?” Nonetheless the characters are fleshed out in fine fashion, and in this case, that’s all it takes to make the book worth reading.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #23,, July 1990 (very slightly revised).

UNDERWORLD BEAUTY. Nikkatsu, Japan, 1958. Original title: Ankokugai no bijo. Michitarô Mizushima, Mari Shiraki, Shinsuke Ashida, Tôru Abe, Hideaki Nitani. Director: Seijun Suzuki.

   Sweaty and more than a little bit sleazy, Underworld Beauty borrows liberally from the American gangster genre, film noir, and the juvenile delinquent film, all the while creating something exciting and new, if not completely coherent.

   Directed by Seijun Suzuki, this compellingly hip Japanese crime film exudes raw energy and sparkles with punctuations of gunfire. It eventually reveals itself to be an offbeat love story with the dark fatalistic humor of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), the sly direction of Sam Fuller, and the aesthetic of a 1950s hot rod exploitation film about rebellious teens and their jazz-infused dance parties.

   Filmed in black and white Cinemascope, Underworld Beauty opens with former convict Miyamoto (Michitarô Mizushima) making his way through the dank Tokyo sewers. He’s down there in the muck to retrieve stolen diamonds that he hid away in a wall below the urban streets prior to his incarceration.

   The film follows Miyamoto, clad in a black jacket and fedora, as he makes a deal with a yazuka crime boss, tries to make amends with his former partner, and begins a love-hate relationship with the latter’s wild sister Akiko Mihara (Mari Shiraki). Through a twist of circumstance, Miyamoto’s former partner ends up swallowing the diamonds, only to die from falling from a roof.

   Akiko’s boyfriend, who works as a designer of mannequins, cuts open the newly deceased and steals the diamonds out of the body. In a whirlwind of cinematic frenzy, the story moves ahead with various deceptions, a double-cross, a kidnapping, and a final dramatic shootout in a steamy furnace room. The acting may be decidedly mediocre, but the energy is infectious.


MARISHA PESSL – Night Film. Random House, hardcover, 2013; trade paperback, 2014.

   Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our beings and shows us what we are. Will you step back and cover your eyes? Or will you have the strength to walk to the edge of the precipice and look out?

   Night Film dares you to look into that precipice, and both the view and the journey are well worth it.

   I’m not easily impressed by so called Meta-fiction. Too often I find the attempt gimmicky and distracting, the writing, characterization, plot, and basics of story-telling lost in a maze of clever ideas that are too much trouble to bother with for the work that it results in.

   In the case of Night Film none of that is true.

   This one is a stunner, both entertaining and fun, and revealing of deeper matters. I am seriously in awe of and envy of Marisha Pessl’s gifts as a writer.

   Dead is Ashley, the daughter of cult film maker Stanislas Cordova (“Everybody has a Cordova story whether they like it or not”) whose dark and violent films reflect something sinister about the man himself. It’s ruled a suicide, but investigative journalist Scott McGrath thinks there is more to the death of the troubled young woman than meets the eye and, with his assistants, Nora and Hopper, begins to delve into the personal history of the reclusive Cordova family and their multiple truths, a journey complicated by McGrath’s own secrets — even those hidden from himself.

   As plots go, this one predates Citizen Kane, but that is the last mundane thing about this inventive and suspenseful literary thriller that spins out in a dozen directions at once from its premise.

   Dazzling is a word that is overused, but this one is just that.

   Replete with photographs, reproductions of websites, even a Wi-Fi interactive Night Film Decoder App for your PC or other device that can be used to access secrets and films triggered by a symbol of a bird on many of the photographic pages. This could all be hugely annoying and ultimately pointless, if the book wasn’t so good; it needs none of that to work.

   That is all icing on a cake that is a delight unadorned. Suspense novel, thriller, detective puzzle, psychological profile, case study in the outre and the weird, study in film history and theory, Night Film will remind you of nothing so much as Theodore Rozack’s brilliant novel Flicker, but as shockingly new now as that book was then.

   The book has everything, including a diabolical curse, and enough twists and turns to give even the most jaded reader of detective novels and thrillers whiplash. Read this one, enjoy it, delight in it. Books this good just don’t come along that often.

I’m posting this from my cell phone. I had the hard drive from my laptop replaced last week which was fine but I’m still trying to get all the associated hardware working in sync again.

I had to take it back to the PC repair shop today since the touchpad was interfering with the mouse, making the cursor jump all over the place. Disabling the touchpad is supposed to be easy. Except on a few select Dell models.

Guess whose model was selected?

No prizes for guessing right.


PORT OF SHADOWS. Les Films Osso, France, 1938. Original title: Le quai des brumes. Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan and Michel Simon. Screenplay by Jacques Prevert, from a novel by Pierre Dumarchais. Directed by Marcel Carné.

   A dark, poetic film that looks forward to film noir and the later novels of David Goodis.

   Jean Gabin, the French Bogart-before-there-was Bogart, plays an army deserter heading for Le Havre, looking to find a ship to flee the country. What he finds are a stray dog that adopts him on the highway into town, and a lot of have-nots willing to share their meager fortunes with him, and discourse Goodis-style on life, love and dreams.

   Also hanging around town are a few local hoods in some kind of scrape with a shady store-keeper and his daughter (Michele Morgan, looking more radiant and lovelier here than in any of her American films) and it’s not long before Gabin and his mutt find themselves in the proverbial thick of things as he tries to understand the tangled relationships and get out of town.

   I’ll say up front that this thing is awfully contrived; characters turn up in unlikely places with no more reason for being there than to move the plot along. But I’ll also say that Director Carné handles it so gracefully one doesn’t want to notice.

   The small-time gangsters are evoked with just the right measure of terse absurdity, their put-on hard-boiled act melting away at Gabin’s genuine toughness, and the winos and poets fill in the background vividly, talking with that awesome redundancy one finds in dark artists like Woolrich, Goodis and Jim Thompson.

   The outcome is as pleasingly phony as the rest of it, but I have to say Carné rings in a moving surprise at the very end. The final image of the little dog walking down a highway to nowhere in particular is one that will stay in my mind long after whole other movies are forgotten.

THORP McCLUSKY “The Crawling Horror.” First published in Weird Tales, November 1936. Reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader #6, 1948, and The Macabre Reader, edited by Donald A. Wollheim (Ace D-353, 1959), among others.

   This strange story is told by a farmer to a local doctor who in turn tells it to us. The farmer has rats in his house and barn, but when they begin to disappear, he gives the credit to his several cats. Then the cats start to vanish. Can his dogs be next?

   He is sitting in front of his fireplace, reaches down to pet his dog and … I’ll quote:

   “It was a slimy sort of stuff, transparent-looking, without any shape to it. It looked as though if you picked it up it would drip right through your fingers. And it was alive — don’t know how I knew that, but I was sure of it even before I looked. It was alive, and a sort of shapeless arm of it lay across the dog’s back, and covered her head. She didn’t move.”

   What do you think? What would you do?

PS. Things get worse from here. This is only the beginning.


PETER BOWEN – Coyote Wind. Gabriel Du Pré #1. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1994; paperback, 1996.

   Bowen is the author of three books about Yellowstone Kelly. This is his first mystery, and the first of a projected series.

   Gabriel Du Pré is a brand inspector in Montana, and a French Indian, a Métis, a descendant of the voyageurs. He’s widowed, with a 14 and a 21-year old daughter, the latter happily married and turning out babies, the former bright and rebellious. He has an ongoing relationship with a 40-year woman with four children whose husband has left her, and he has taste for fiddling and whiskey.

   He’s inveigled by the Sheriff into accompanying a cowboy from a ranch owned by a family of rich Eastern drunkards up into the hills to the site of a newly discovered old plane wreck. He finds skeletons there, and a skull with a bullet hole. The plane turns out to have crashed nearly 40 years ago, and the skull to be part of a legendary local unsolved murder. It will turn more lives than one upside down before all the connections are made and all the old ghosts laid to rest.

   I liked this a lot. I liked the writing. and I liked the characters. Bowen has a distinctive voice,one which matches narrative and story admirably. Du Pré is one of the more original leads to come along in the last few years, and one of the more appealing. Bowen has a love and a feel for the Montana landscape and way of life that is evident on every page, though it never interferes with the story.

   It seems to me a very masculine book, though there are a couple of strong female characters, and I’ll be interested to see if it appeals to women at all. It’s a slender book, but just the right size for the story it has to tell. This is one of the best I’ve read this year.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, August 1994 (slightly revised).

Bibliographic Note:   Barry was certainly correct about Du Pré becoming a continuing character. There are now fourteen in the series, with Bitter Creek being the most recent one, coming out in 2015.

REX STOUT – Please Pass the Guilt. Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin #45. Viking, hardcover, September 1973. Bantam, paperback, October 1974.

   When this book was published, Rex Stout was 87, and it had been four years since Death of a Dude, the previous book in the series. I hate to say it, but like many other mystery writers with long careers, the ones written at the ends of their careers are far from their best.

   In Stout’s case, I have to confess that I never thought the detective end of things was his strong suit. What I remember about the books is hardly ever the endings, but the setups for the stories and the comfortable feeling of settling down in a familiar milieu and enjoying the personalities of the cast of characters, their idiosyncrasies and habits, the wit and the repartee, all wrapped up in another episode of their long crime-solving careers.

   All of the latter is still present, and the case is interesting at the beginning — a bomb goes off in a drawer in a TV executive’s office and kills one of the employees working there. But was the bomb meant for the executive who owned the office, or was it intended for the dead man, and if so, how did the killer know he was going to open that drawer at that particular time?

   But there are no witnesses, no clues, and with all of the combined resources that Wolfe has to hand — namely, Archie, Saul, Fred and Orrie — the investigation goes absolutely nowhere. It goes so badly that Archie has to apologize to the reader for it. There is no flow to the story, the rhythm is off, and while I don’t know if this is different from earlier books, but the paragraphs are often unwieldy long, including large chunks of dialogue.

   Worse, the solution (to me) comes from almost nowhere, with no motivation for the killer. I am willing to stand corrected on this, but even if I missed something, this is a book that is nowhere near Stout at his prime.


MAX BRAND “Werewolf.” Novella. Western Story Magazine, 18 December 1926. Included in Men Beyond the Law (Five Star, hardcover, 1997; Amazon Encore, softcover, 2013). [Thanks to Sai Shankar for coming up with the latter information.]

   ALL day the storm had been gathering behind Chimney Mountain and peering around the edges of that giant with a scowling brow, now and again; and all day there had been strainings of the wind and sounds of dim confusion in the upper air, but not until the evening did the storm break. A broad, yellow-cheeked moon was sailing up the eastern sky when ten thousand wild horses of darkness rushed out from behind Mount Chimney and covered the sky with darkness.

   You don’t get a much more evocative opening than that for a Western novella called “Werewolf,” and the story lives up to both its title and that opening in ways you won’t expect from Max Brand (who did write some fantastic fiction).

   I can honestly say this is the strangest story I have ever read by Brand, and as honestly say it is one of the most satisfying, mixing all those elements of mythology and classical literature with a rousing good adventure story set in the more or less modern West (modern enough for telephones anyway).

   On that bitter night Chris Royal (“There were no political parties in Royal County or in Royal Valley, for instance. There were only the Royal partisans and their opponents.”) walks into Yates Saloon to escape the storm where Cliff Main, gun happy brother of killer Harry Main, is looking for trouble over a girl both like.

   Words are exchanged, and there is the smell of cordite in the air.

   Cliff Main is dead and Chris Royal alive.

   At least until Harry Main comes to avenge his dead brother. Chris doesn’t much fancy his odds against Harry Main. His crossbred hound, Lurcher would have better odds, and Lurcher isn’t much to look at. Being convinced that he’s a coward, like the hound Lurcher, who isn’t much good but is loyal to Chris and loved by him, and that he has no chance against Main, Chris hightails it for the high country.

   Which is where this story turns decidedly weird.

   Because something is trailing Chris, and it isn’t Harry Main … “it was no animal of flesh and blood at all, but a phantom sent to cross his way with a foreboding of doom.”

   He’s not far off.

   An old Indian Chris meets fishing in the river sets the philosophical tone of the tale. He warns Chris that no man can escape his fate, and when they hear the wolf that had trailed Chris the night before he explains it is a werewolf:

   “There are two kinds of werewolves,” said the chief, holding up two fingers of his hand. “The first are the ones which have been men and become wolves. They are only terrible for a short time, and then they become stupid. Then there are others. They are the wolves that cannot become men until they have killed the warrior who has been marked out for them.”

   That old Indian is more than a convenient literary device, I warn you.

   Chris masters his fear after that and returns home to face Harry Main, his preternatural calm in the face of almost certain death almost unnerving the mankiller, but even with Main out of the picture there remains that second kind of werewolf, the one that cannot become a man again until it has killed the warrior marked for it, and in that game a worthless cowardly dog named Lurcher get a chance to redeem himself as his master has.

   It is an odd duck of a story by any measure, part Western revenge story, part tale of redemption of man and dog, part dog story, and part … well you decide, but I will reveal this much, werewolf in this story is both a metaphor and not a metaphor.

   If you ever wondered what Max Brand might have written for Weird Tales, this is the story.

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