Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:


THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. Universal-International, 1957. Grant Williams, Lola Albright, Les Tremayne, Trevor Bardette, Phil Harvey, William Flaherty, Harry Jackson, Richard H. Cutting, Linda Scheley, Dean Cromer, Steve Darrell, William Schallert. Writers: Norman Jolley (screenplay) and Robert M. Fresco (screenplay); Jack Arnold (story) and Robert M. Fresco (story). Director: John Sherwood.

   The Monolith Monsters came near the end of the ’50s Giant Stompers film cycle that basically began with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953; pace, Ray Bradbury) and continued with Them! (1954), Godzilla (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Giant Claw (1957), Beginning of the End (1957; Peter Graves’ salad days), and a host of similar Big Critter films, with most of them escaping from Universal Studios.

   What distinguishes The Monolith Monsters from those other movies isn’t the acting (not much there) or the production values (an obviously low budget, signalling the studio’s lack of faith in the project). No, the best part of this film is the sheer inventiveness of the underlying premise.

   I can think of only one other science fiction movie that dared to bring novel IDEAS to the audience, namely Forbidden Planet (1956). The concept that ordinary, dumb, and inert ROCKS could constitute a threat to anybody comes perilously close to being a joke — but thanks to writers Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco and the straight-faced, earnest underplaying by the actors, the thing works.

   The Monolith Monsters is one of those ambitious little movies that you find yourself wishing had a bigger budget — but then upon reflection you realize that more money would have turned it into an empty special effects extravaganza and ruined everything. Note to anybody considering a remake: Keep it small; it works better that way.

   Grant Williams’ greatest role was his smallest as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), but he did have a regular gig on Hawaiian Eye (1960-63; 49 episodes).

   Most of us baby boomers remember Lola Albright for her 84 appearances as Peter Gunn’s steady (1958-61).

   Les Tremayne, English by birth, did quite well in American radio, TV, and the movies; science fiction fans know him from his small but memorable role in The War of the Worlds (1953).

   Even more ubiquitous in American entertainment from the ’30s through the ’60s was Trevor Bardette, who, as IMDb notes, “took on just about any role offered him,” thus racking up an impressive 239 film and TV credits, including a regular role as Old Man Clanton in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (34 episodes; 1959-61).

   If you’ve never seen Monolith Monsters, watch it first and be kind; then resort to IMDb’s “Goofs” page, where more than one of the movie’s shortcomings is adduced.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Usually I try to have my column finished by the end of each month so it can be posted around the beginning of the next, but having a February column ready by late January proved impossible. Reason One: To my surprise and delight, a book of mine that came out last year, a little trifle called Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law, was nominated for an Edgar by Mystery Writers of America, which meant that first I had to decide whether at my advanced age I wanted to come to New York late in April for the Edgars dinner, and second that I had to find a decent place to stay that wouldn’t cost me a pair of limbs that I still need.

   Reason Two: I was recently asked to write something for the 75th anniversary issue of EQMM, which comes out next year, and have been spending time trying to cobble something together that would be worthy of the occasion. I’m happy to report that the piece is coming along nicely.

   Reason Three: I’m also trying to put the final touches on another book — one that has nothing to do with our genre and wouldn’t be nominated for an Edgar even if pigs started to fly — and last-minute glitches have been gathering on the horizon like Hitchcock’s birds.

   Reason Four: Keep reading.

   Reason Five: I simply couldn’t think of anything relevant to the genre that I wanted to say, so finally I decided to give up the idea of a February column and shoot for March. Bang.

***

   A number of years ago I devoted part of a column to a Stuart Palmer story, now more than 80 years old, which begins at a St. Patrick’s Day parade on which the APRIL sun is shining down. I couldn’t imagine how that howler got past any editor but at least took comfort from the fact that the story never appeared in EQMM and therefore that the gaffe didn’t get by the eagle eye of Fred Dannay, probably the most meticulous editor the genre has ever seen.

   A week or two ago I stumbled upon another Palmer story for which I can’t say the same. “The Riddle of the Green Ice” first appeared in the Chicago Tribune (April 13, 1941) but was reprinted in Volume 1 Number 2 of EQMM (Winter 1941-42) and included in The Riddles of Hildegarde Withers (Jonathan pb #J26, 1947), a paperback collection Fred edited.

   In the first scene the display window of a jewelry store on Manhattan’s 57th Street is smashed and the thief gets away. Palmer specifically tells us that the robbery took place on a “rainy Saturday afternoon”. A few pages later he gives us a scene that occurs on the following Monday, which he solemnly assures us is “four days after the shattering of the jewelers’ window….”

   Yikes! How in the world could an eagle-eyed editor like Fred Dannay have missed that? Palmer’s story also appears in Fred’s collection The Female of the Species (1943), and sure enough the same gaffe pops up in that printing. Double yikes!!

***

   In another column dating back a few years I wrote that of all the authors Anthony Boucher reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle back in the 1940s, Ray Bradbury, who had just died, was probably the last person standing. Recently I learned I was wrong. Surviving Bradbury by several years was Helen Eustis, author of the Edgar-winning novel The Horizontal Man (1946), who died on January 11 of this year at age 98.

   Well, technically perhaps I wasn’t wrong. The book was published during Boucher’s tenure at the Chronicle and he mentioned it a few times, for example when MWA awarded it the best-novel Edgar, but he never actually reviewed it for the paper. I wonder who did. Except for her later novel The Fool Killer (1954), Eustis never wrote anything else in our genre. Our loss.

***

   For anyone like me who began seriously reading mysteries in the Eisenhower era, the name of John Dickson Carr was then and still is one to conjure with. He’s been dead since 1977, but no one has yet come close to taking over his position as the premier practitioner of the locked-room and impossible-crime type of detective novel.

   We never met but I remain eternally grateful to him not only for giving me countless hours of reading pleasure, but also for telling his readers that in a small way I reciprocated. In the last full year of his life he reviewed my first novel for his EQMM column (March 1976) and called it the most attractive mystery he’d read in months.

   Since his death he’s been the subject of at least two major books: Douglas G. Greene’s biography The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995) and S.T. Joshi’s John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study (1990). Now those volumes are about to be joined by a third. James E. Keirans’ The John Dickson Carr Companion will run around 400 pages and include an entry for every novel, short story and published radio play in the canon and just about every important character in any of the above, not to mention sections on such subjects as Carr-related alcoholic beverages, automobiles, weapons, London landmarks and Latin quotations.

   How do I know so much about this as yet unpublished book? Because I’ve been asked by the publisher (Ramble House) to run my aging eyes over the book in pdf form and make any corrections I think it needs. That, amigos, is Reason Four behind the absence of a February column. I don’t know precisely when the Companion will be ready for prime time, but my best guess is a few months from now.

***

   I haven’t finished going over the entire book yet but there’s one Carr-related literary incident that I’m willing to bet Keirans doesn’t mention. To know about it you have to have read the published volume of the correspondence between the Russian emigre novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) and the distinguished literary critic Edmund Wilson (1895-1972). Nabokov — or, as Wilson called him, Volodya — was fond of mystery fiction; Wilson — or, as Nabokov called him, Bunny — hated it.

   In a letter dated December 10, 1943 and addressed to Wilson and his then wife, novelist Mary McCarthy, Nabokov indicates that he’d recently read a whodunit entitled The Judas Window. The title of course is that of the novel published in 1938 under Carr’s pseudonym of Carter Dickson, but Nabokov’s letter seems to indicate that he thought the book had been written by McCarthy.

   “I did not think much of [it], Mary. It is not your best effort…. [T]hat lucky shot through the keyhole is not quite convincing and you ought to have found something better.” How could such a mistake have happened? Wouldn’t the Dickson byline have been on any copy Nabokov might have read? However it happened, you’d expect that either Wilson or McCarthy would quickly have corrected Nabokov’s misapprehension.

   But in fact there’s not another word about the book anywhere in the correspondence, and the editor of the collection of letters, Prof. Simon Karlinsky, was unfamiliar with detective fiction and printed Nabokov’s words without comment. Somehow I wound up with a copy of the first edition of the correspondence (Harper, 1979) and wrote to Prof. Karlinsky with a correction. In the revised and expanded edition (University of California Press, 2001), both Carr and I are acknowledged in footnotes to the Nabokov letter.

NICK CARTER – The Parisian Affair. Ace/Charter paperback original; 1st printing, December 1981.

   I was going through of box of paperbacks the other day, a box I’d had in the garage for quite a while. It was time, I thought, that they should not be in the garage any longer. Some I’d sell on Amazon, was the plan, the others I’d donate to the local library.

   This was one of them, and since I’d recently read and reviewed a Matt Helm adventure (check it out here), I thought I’d delay the fate of this one and basically read it and compare. The two stories were not the same, of course, but what, I thought, might be the similarities, and the differences between the story-telling.

   This Nick Carter tale, to get that out of the way first, has something to do with an assassin, quickly discovered to be female, who is targeting foreign diplomats in Paris, all from underdeveloped countries. Nick’s job: find her.

   Well, this established a difference already. Helm’s job in The Interlopers was to infiltrate a gang of Communists and do spy stuff like exchange passwords and pass notes to each other. The scope of Nick Carter’s assigsnment expands to world disaster proportions, politically speaking, real super-spy stuff.

   Nick has a boss named Hawk whom he says “sir” to, just like Helm does. He meets a girl — actually several of them — but he goes to bed with only two of them, as I recall, and believe it or not — and this surprised me, too — one of them survives long enough to walk off the stage with Nick when the play is over, or that is to say, when the book is done.

   Whether or not this lady shows up in the next book, Chessmaster (January 1982), I do not know. It would be surprised if she does, but I on the other hand was taken aback by the fact that she even made it as far as to the end of this one.

   I think that both Matt Helm and Nick Carter are both playing catch-up in each of their separate adventures, but Helm is much more active in pulling the trigger on the bad guys as he runs across them. The Nick Carter adventure is much closer to a detective story than Helm’s, with at least four women coming into play as the possible assassin, three of them beautiful models. The book does take place in Paris, after all, and it’s a large plus that the author seems to know his way around and describes the streets and cafes very well.

   Which brings me around to naming the author, not that you’re very likely to have heard of him: H. Edward Hunsburger, who wrote only this one Nick Carter novel and one other under his own name, Death Signs (Walker, hardcover, 1987). It’s a detective story in which a deaf man is murdered, and Mattie Shayne, a teacher for the hearing impaired, helps the police with their investigation.

   But I digress. My conclusions? I enjoyed both. The Matt Helm book was better written, I believe, and more realistic, but in some ways, I think the Nick Carter one was more fun to read. Overall, though, I think realism wins out. I’d give Matt Helm a solid “B” and by stretching it a little, Nick Carter gets a “C.”

“RABBIT FOOT.” An episode of Schlitz Playhouse, CBS, 9 July 1954 (Season 3, Episode 45). Stephen McNally, Paul Langton, Harry Shannon. Screenplay: Lawrence L. Goldman. Director: Christian Nyby.

   When the series went into syndication, the Schlitz had to go, so they called it Herald Playhouse, under which guise this episode ended up on a DVD of old television mysteries from Alpha Video.

   What’s remarkable, something that I didn’t realize before, is that Schlitz Playhouse was on CBS for eight years, first at 60 minutes, then 30, then alternating with Lux Playhouse for its final season. If I added up the numbers correctly, there were nearly 350 episodes in all.

   I wonder where that puts it in the ranking of longest-running anthology series? It’s a lot of different sets, different actors, and a brand new script from scratch every week. I know there had to be some comedies and straight dramas in the mix, but I imagine a good percentage of the episodes were crime-oriented, such as this one.

   Everyone involved with this episode had long careers in movies and on TV, with the star, Stephen McNally, probably the most recognizable name today. But Harry Stanton has the almost unique distinction of being the only person involved in the making of both Citizen Kane and High Noon, being in the cast of each. (The other is William H. O’Brien, but he almost doesn’t count, since he was an uncredited member of the cast of each; in fact, almost his entire career was uncredited.)

   I’ll leave you to check out the careers of the others in this particular cast. What caught my eye was the name of the scriptwriter, Lawrence L. Goldman, whose name came up on this blog as the author of Black Fire, one half of an Ace Double paperback that I reviewed here not too long ago.

   I should say something about the story, which has only three sets, the couple of storefronts along the main street of a small southern town, inside the local police station, and a swamp somewhere outside of town, filled with bubbling quagmires and alligators, and when you see that at the beginning, I think you know immediately what the ending is going to be.

   And you’d be right. A bedraggled stranger comes into town with a satchel of stolen bank loot, claiming to be a detective from a couple of towns over who has killed the real robber in the swamp. We the viewer sense something is wrong with the story right away, and with less than 30 minutes of running time, it doesn’t take the police chief and his second-in-command to catch on either. But they need proof, and by means of a lucky rabbit’s foot, prove it they do.

   Not so lucky for the rabbit, of course. As the old saying goes, it never is.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


MICHAEL KORYTA – The Cypress House. Little Brown, hardcove, January 2011; paperback, July 2011.

   They’d been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first dead men.

   When that is the first line, it is difficult not to go to line two, and so it is with this excellent noirish crime novel, that also happens to be a supernatural novel. You will see it compared to Stephen King, but don’t let that scare you away. Koryta is a first class crime novelist who found his niche in writing tough noirish novels that veer into the supernatural with an admirable ease.

   I have avoided the horror genre for the last decade, but Koryta can write. He can also create characters you care about, evil you fear, and choreograph violence like no one else. He’s closer to a cross between John D. MacDonald and Cornell Woolrich than Stephen King.

   The time is during the depression, and WWI veteran Arlen Wagner is drifting to his birthplace with a plan we will soon learn, but on the way there, he sees dead men on the train and with nineteen year old Paul Brickill leaves the train in a small North Florida town.

   Wagner has reason to trust his instincts. Since Belleau Wood, he has been able to see death coming. He has been able to talk to the dead.

   The decision to leave the train at that point wasn’t that good either, though. He has fallen into the fiefdom of Judge Solomon Ward and Sheriff Tolliver and his henchmen deputies. Getting away doesn’t seem likely, so he and Paul find themselves staying at a ramshackle hotel by the ocean owned by beautiful Rebecca Cady.

   They went a mile down this mud track before the trees parted and the road went to something sandier, shells cracking beneath the tires. A moment later the water showed, and a clapboard structure of white that had long since turned to gray. It was a rectangle with a smaller raised upper level, steep roofs all around. At the top of the structure was a small deck with fence rails surrounding it. A widow’s walk. A porch ran the length of the house, and an old wooden sign swung in the wind above: The Cypress House.

   This is not a modern gothic by any means, for all its atmosphere. Wagner is as tough and hard as any Hammett hero, and Koryta’s prose can be as clean and cut. He doesn’t dwell or linger on gore and grue like a sick twelve-year-old. There are real scares here. There are real mysteries, and not the supernatural kind. Rebecca is tough and beautiful, no fainting heroine to be saved, and her developing relationship with Arlen believable.

   Rebecca Cady hates Ward and Tolliver, but is somehow tied to them. As she and Arlen and Paul wait for a coming storm, tensions build between the two men, both attracted to her, and as Arlen pieces together the secrets of Cypress House and the corrupt little county, he is drawn even closer. They used to smuggle whiskey through Cypress House, and once Rebecca’s father was Solomon Ward’s partner, but now Ward holds Rebecca’s convict brother’s life over her head and is in a far more sinister trade.

   The final one hundred pages or so of this book consist of a sustained running battle between Arlen and Ward’s men. It may not be a tour de force, but it is as suspenseful and well written as any I have encountered a long time, and Arlen’s history and gift/curse play into it with little or no strain on the reader.

   The clouds thickened and continued to hide the sun, but the rain held off. It was as if the storm were being kept at bay, and angry about it.

   Like the storm the violence and Arlen Wagner won’t be held at bay for long. Both will break with unexpected violence.

   I can’t emphasize enough that this is and remains a fine crime novel more than a supernatural one. It never veers off message, loses a step, nor forgets where it is going. Kortya is the most sustained and capable crime writing novelist I have encountered in a long time.

   Arlen will fight his battle and confront his personal battle and destiny in a believable manner with the ending so perfect I don’t want to even hint at it.

   Love lingers.

   I won’t explain what that means in Michael Koryta’s The Cypress House, but it does have power. American noir meets American Gothic, and readers of both genres have a win-win. All I can say is this one would make a hell of a noirish crime film, supernatural or not.

   Few modern writers I’ve picked up recently impressed me this much, and on top of all that, I found it remaindered for a buck at a dollar store. I would have happily paid more.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


VIBES. Columbia Pictures, 1988. Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum, Peter Falk, Julian Sands, Googy Gress, Elizabeth Peña. Director: Ken Kwapis.

   Vibes is the cult classic that could have been. A quirky quasi-ensemble cast (check); a mash-up of genres, ranging from romantic comedy to adventure film and fantasy and back again (check); and quite a few memorable, downright repeatedly quotable, moments (check). And for a while, Vibes manages to feel like a hangout film, a movie where you just feel like you’re there, or you’d like to be there, just hanging out, shooting the breeze, with the main characters.

   But it wasn’t to be. Indeed, Vibes really doesn’t seem to have all that much of a critical reputation or a cult following. Which is somewhat of a shame, because it really is a daring, albeit wildly uneven, little comedy-adventure film that is worth watching, if only once. It benefits greatly from the screen presence of both Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk, as well as 1980s pop singer, Cyndi Lauper, in a film role.

   The plot centers around two New York psychics, Nick Deezy (Goldblum) and Sylvia Pickel (Lauper) who travel to Ecuador at the behest of con artist/criminal/man of mystery, Harry Buscofusco (Falk) to allegedly search for a missing man. A search that turns into a hunt for Inca gold. Which transforms into an encounter with a relic from an ancient alien civilization and a source of psychic power. (Try selling that script today: “So tell me what your screenplay’s about.”). There’s also a budding romance between Deezy and Pickel.

   It’s a difficult plot to pull off successfully and, at times, the movie just falls painfully flat. The ending, in particular, is a serious let down. But the journey to the ending, literally and metaphorically, is half the fun. And the cast, particularly Goldblum, seems to be in on the joke. It’s no classic, cult or otherwise, but it’s an enjoyable enough movie to watch, the later into the night the better. And it’s definitely a product of the 1980s, like for sure.

LAWRENCE BLOCK – The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza. Random House, hardcover, 1980. Pocket, paperback, 1982. Reprinted many times since, including Signet, paperback, December 1998.

   The copy I just read was the fairly recent Signet edition from the 1990s, so it took me by surprise the first time Bernie Rhodenbarr, the bookshop owner in Greenwich Villagewho does a little burglary on the side, needed to find a phone booth to make a telephone call in New York City.

   How many generations ago was 1980? Long before Google came along, that’s for sure. Think how much time Bernie could have saved making a whole series of long distance calls, trying to track down information about a rare coin called the 1913 V-Nickel.

   Today, you could look it up. According to web page on the other side of the link, the coin, were you to burgle a home in Manhattan and find one, would be worth three to four million dollars, perhaps more.

   And burgle a home in Manhattan and find one is exactly what Bernie and Carolyn Kaiser, his lesbian friend and oft-times confederate in crime, do. Soon ending up dead is Bernie’s good friend (and neighborhood fence), elderly Abel Crowe. Since the theft matches Bernie’s MO, the police suspect him for not only that killing, but also the death of the wife whose home was robbed. One problem: Bernie and Carolyn were the only the second of three sets of burglars that night.

   Which means there are a lot of characters to keep track of, even more than this brief outline of the story might suggest. But Bernie tells the story in such a light, humorous way, punctuated by witty observations about the city and its inhabitants, that the pages simply fly by in very enjoyable fashion.

   Until that is, page 223 of a 302 page novel, when the shark is jumped or the pooch is tipped or whatever the current vernacular may be. Now this is between only you and me, and it may be only me, but up until that time I got the idea that Bernie and I were buddies, and he was keeping me informed of everything he was seeing and doing.

   But on page 223 he suddenly cuts me out of the picture. He tells Carolyn who he thinks did it. Reluctantly, to be sure. It takes until page 224 before she convinces him to tell her everything. Me, nothing. And here I thought we were friends.

   Of course, I really didn’t want him to tell me, but why Carolyn? I was disappointed.

   It also put a strain on Bernie in the pages that follow. Doing this and that, going here and there, making those phone calls to who knows who, and not being able to tell me what it was that he was doing. It’s not until one of those “gather everybody together in one place” that Bernie reveals the truth and gets the killer (or killers) to confess.

   And of course a book by Spinoza takes its rightful place in the denouement, exactly as the title says it would.

       The Bernie Rhodenbarr novels —

Burglars Can’t Be Choosers (1977)

The Burglar in the Closet (1978)

The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling (1979)
The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza (1980)
The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian (1983)
The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994)
The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart (1995)
The Burglar In The Library (1997).
The Burglar In The Rye (1999)
The Burglar on the Prowl (2004)
The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons (2013)

PostScript:   I do not know what kind of name Rhodenbarr is — Googling it turned up only six full pages of Bernie’s before I gave up. Perhaps Lawrence Block simply made it up. That plus the fact that Bernie tells the story himself makes it difficult to put a face to the character. I do not know who should play him in the TV series I have in mind.

    One thing for sure. It won’t be Whoopi Goldberg.

Next Page »