REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


INNOCENT BYSTANDERS. Stanley Baker, Geraldine Chaplin, Donald Pleasence, Dana Andrews, Sue Lloyd. Screenwriter: James Mitchell, based on his own book, published as by James Munro. Director: Peter Collinson.

   Somewhere, deep in the heart of Innocent Bystanders, there’s a pretty darn good story about international espionage ready to be told. But I’d be kidding you if I told you that the Stanley Baker vehicle, such as it is, resembles anything that could even be remotely considered cohesive, gripping spy movie.

   Clumsily directed and sloppily edited, the film lumbers from dramatic scene to fight scene, all the while giving the viewer very little reason to care about how it’s all going to turn out. That is, until the last thirty minutes or so, when one begins to get the impression that the movie is going to turn into a trenchant look at Great Power politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But, alas, it’s not to be.

   Baker portrays aging British master spy/assassin John Craig, a secret agent whose glory days may well be past. His conniving boss, Loomis (Donald Pleasence) gives him one last chance to prove his mettle. He tasks Craig with finding Kaplan, a Russian Jewish agronomist who escaped a Soviet prison. Apparently, Kaplan has developed a scientific technique that will allow the desert to bloom. So it’s not surprising that the CIA is also interesting in finding him.

   Most of the movie’s running time is devoted to following Craig and his newfound female companion, Miriam Loman (Geraldine Chaplin) who may or may not be an American or Israeli spy, as they travel from New York to Turkey in search of the enigmatic Kaplan. It doesn’t take long for Loman to fall in love with Craig, something I’ll never fully understand. He has neither the charm nor the wit of James Bond and is something of a bore. Still, the plot needed something to keep the viewer somewhat entertained, at least until they are able to locate Kaplan.

   As it turns out, Kaplan has an even bigger problem that the American and British intelligence agencies on his trail. He’s somehow ticked off a secretive group of Russian Jewish dissidents who are now working for the KGB. Or something. It all devolves into nonsense, making this movie a truly oddball feature. It’s one of those movies adapted from a book that probably could have worked, had the script been more coherent and did more to explain the motivations of its myriad characters. But it didn’t.

RICHARD M. BAKER – Death Stops the Bells. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1938.

   This is the third and final case tackled and solved by a middle-aged scholar by the name of Franklin Russell in book form. The earlier entries in the series were Death Stops the Manuscript (Scribners, 1936) and Death Stops the Rehearsal (Scribners, 1937). Russell is by profession a schoolmaster in a small town in Massachusetts, but his true calling is as an amateur detective, and in Death Stops the Bells, he really has his work cut out for him.

   He is on hand for the first death. It takes place in a compound of two homes and two families whose members respectively hate each other. To be correct in that statement, the elder members of each family do. The younger members of both sexes find the opportunity to meet and consort on many an occasion, to the consternation of their respective parents. A third home in the block is owned by a friend of Mr. Russell, who happens to be on hand when whoever is playing the bells in a church tower on the estate stops suddenly, mid-song, then starts playing again, the entire song through.

   To Russell’s fine-tuned ear, however, it is clearly a second player ringing the bells. It is soon discovered that the first player is dead, murdered, it is assumed when the first song stopped. Was it the murderer who started ringing the bells again? And if so, why?

   The writing is old-fashioned and stilted, not at all how you would think a book written in 1938 would sound. The number of suspects is also very limited, which makes the questioning quite tedious, as it goes over the same topics again and again. Even Detective-Sergeant McCoun seems to squirm a lot in his seat as he listens to Mr. Russell interrogate all of the suspects in turn, and then as further events occur, start all over again.

   In other words, a lot of talk is all there is to propel the story forward, and not a lot of action. None, in fact. The solution, when it comes, is, unfortunately, little more than yawn-producing. A mediocre effort, in other words. If Scribners, publishers of the S. S. Van Dine mysteries, were thinking they had another Philo Vance on their hands, they were sadly mistaken.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


EDITH HOWIE – Murder for Christmas. Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1941. No paperback edition.

   An alleged short cut during a blizzard in New York leads Marcia and Peter Holgate, the latter a private detective, to the house of Carter Dravis on Christmas Eve. Dravis is a collector — of wives — and has naturally gathered around him for the holiday family members and acquaintances who bode him no good. At least he’s sensible enough to be scared, but he isn’t scared long because someone inserts a knife in his back.

   Although Howie writes well, she unfortunately not only employs “Had I But Known” but “Had I But Given It Any Thought.” Marcia Holgate, the novel’s narrator, is a blurter, only bothering to think after she has said something dangerous either for herself or for someone else. Concealed evidence, for reasons that perplex me, and a blind eye by Peter Holgate allow the murderer a chance at Marcia, who carries an automatic she calls a revolver and who has never been shown what to do with the safety.

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


Editorial Comment:   My review of Edith Howie’s first book, Murder for Tea, can be found here. Following the review is a complete list of all of the author’s mystery fiction, seven titles in all. For more about the author and another review of Murder for Christmas, her second book, check out what Curt Evans has to say over on his blog.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


STEVE FRAZEE – Desert Guns. Dell 1st Edition A135, paperback original, April 1957. Thorndike Press, hardcover, 1998.

GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS. Warner Brothers, 1961. Clint Walker, Roger Moore, Letícia Román, Robert Middleton, Chill Wills, Gene Evans. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Leonard Freeman, based on the novel Desert Guns by Steve Frazee. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Wind-sculptured into curving smoothness, the ridges of sand rose seven hundred feet toward the sky, Rainbolt saw the wind racing on the delicate spines, laying the sand before it like the manes of running horses.

   No tree or rock or permanency of any kind broke the flowing architecture. There was only sand that for a million years had been gathered here by wind currents sweeping across the great San Luis Valley.

   Steve Frazee is, perhaps, the most underappreciated Western writer to come out of the late pulp era and practice his considerable skills in hardcover and paperback. He had an early success with his novel Many Rivers to Cross, a rollicking story of the taming of a mountain man that became a MGM film with Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker, and Hollywood would call on him more than once, but he never seemed to achieve the place he should have among writers like Louis L’Amour, Will Henry, Elmer Kelton, and the like.

   This despite the fact he also wrote non-Westerns like Sky Block (something of a minor collector’s item), Running Target, and High Cage (these last two both films, the latter as High Hell, with John Derek). He also wrote Whitman big books featuring the likes of Cheyenne, Maverick, and Zorro, often illustrated by renown comic book artist Alex Toth, and thus doubly collectable.

   Desert Guns opens in 1853 with its heroes, young Jim Rainbolt and his mentor and friend Shaun Weymouth, already on the run along the Sangre de Cristos in New Mexico from the hideously disfigured but canny Green River and his constant companion, the sadistic brute Frank McCracken, both of whom are after the Spanish gold the two have found, and plunging us directly into the action at hand.

   Frazee is particularly adept here at capturing the otherworldly feel of the high desert and the haunted atmosphere of the Sangre de Cristos. I’ve spent a good deal of time there over the years, briefly living in Los Alamos, and I can attest to the “weird, whining sort of sound, low and mighty,” that you can hear in a hollow and the sand on “the steep sides of the hollow (that) was running like fine brown snow” the sand playing it’s “unearthly music.”

   In short order Rainbolt and Shaun encounter the Hudsons, father and daughter Gail building a life on a small ranchero, Hudson an arrogant Virginian with little hospitality and less time for a couple of ‘field hands.’”

   With scant help from the arrogant Hudson, the two decide to bury the gold and seek help from Diamasio Gondora the “one man on the Hueferano you can trust.” It’s there they meet the boy Chico, and Gondora’s half Indian daughter Paisano. By now you should be able to smell the triangle that develops between the blonde civilized Gail, the wild half Indian Paisano, and Rainbolt, a further complication to everything.

   The basics of the plot are simple: gold makes men mad and greedy and there are more important things. Along the way there is graphic violence, torture, mayhem,treachery, and redemption. Rainbolt grows from youngster to man and Shaun achieves a sort of mythic status as the ideal man of the West, the last of a breed, more worried that the gold will change his wanderer’s life than about losing it.

   The shifting treacherous sands play a central role both in the plot and thematically. They represent not only shifting loyalties and fortunes, but also inconstant nature, that takes no sides, but sometimes favors one and not the other, and sometimes favors no one.

   Desert Guns is no Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it is an entertaining Western, superbly written, and with more to offer than the simple story it tells. It is Frazee at his best, which is very good indeed, involving you in the fortunes and fate of Rainbolt and Shaun at a much deeper level than most Westerns.

   The film, Gold of the Seven Saints, changes many of the elements of the book, Clint Walker is Rainbolt, but the older and more seasoned of the two, while Roger Moore as Shawn Garrett is an Irishman. Still, it has a fine script co-written by Leigh Brackett, solid direction by Gordon Douglas, and though it is unaccountably a black and white film, location settings capture much of the feel of the book, and fine character actors people it playing to the broader elements with some zest, despite the fact it often seems like an extended episode of a Warner Brothers fifties television Western with so many familiar faces from the small screen.

   I happen to like it much more than many others do, but whatever its virtues it doesn’t rise to the standard of the Frazee novel it is based on. But don’t let that stop you from seeking out Desert Guns. I found a hardcover copy on Amazon for $4, so it isn’t impossible to find.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SHAKES THE CLOWN. IRS Media, 1991. Bobcat Goldthwait, Julie Brown, Blake Clark, Paul Dooley, Kathy Griffin, Florence Henderson, Tom Kenny, Adam Sandler, Scott Herriott, LaWanda Page, Jack Gallagher, Robin Williams. Written & directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.

   I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found Bobcat Goldthwait kind of easy to resist. He’s in the same funny-irritating mould as Sam Kinison and Gilbert Gottfried, only not as funny. Or as likable, for that matter. So I was much surprised to find myself enjoying this pleasantly off-kilter comedy-mystery.

   Goldthwait plays Shakes, an alcoholic Party Clown whose progress of steady decay is suddenly interrupted when he’s framed for murdering his boss and must rally his feeble wits and willpower to avenge his old friend and save his own grease-painted hide.

   Okay, nothing much too new here so far, It’s just the old down-on-his-luck PI story fitted out with big shoes and a shiny red nose. But Goldthwaite adds a soupcon of eccentricity to the proceedings, and — somehow — keeps it deftly balanced just below the surface for the entire film. It starts almost imperceptibly, with lines like: “You know, when we first built this place, there were no Clowns in this neighborhood.”

   Then after Shakes has barely survived a kiddie party, he makes his way to his favorite bar, The Twisted Balloon, where Clowns — in full makeup — sit around drinking, swearing, and talking about getting laid.

   A Villain Clown is introduced (I don’t know who plays him, but he makes Jack Nicholson look like Pinky Lee) with a couple of Rodeo Clowns for Hired Muscle. Clearly now, we are in someplace not quite where we thought we were.

   And so it goes as the story slowly orbits around the edges of the Planet. The Cops all dress like 40s Detectives and talk about Health Food. Clowns drive around in gaudy cars and harass mimes, whom they view somewhat like Blacks view Koreans. Very gradually, the film develops an understated loopiness all its own like a toned-down take on Roger Rabbit. It even has Guest Stars: Robin Williams turns up as a loquacious mime, and I’d swear (it’s hard to tell behind all that makeup) Tom Hanks plays one of the Baddie’s minions!

   Whatever the case, Shakes the Clown emerges as a surprisingly inventive and intelligent piece of film-making, and not a bad Caper Movie either. Catch it.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Newell Dunlap


GAVIN BLACK – A Time for Pirates. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1971. No US paperback edition. First published in the UK by Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1971.

   There is a riot in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — young Malays demonstrating against the Chinese merchants — and Paul Harris is caught in the middle of it. His car is destroyed and he makes his escape on foot, in the process rescuing another stranded European, the young blond wife of a geologist. This geologist, as it turns out, works for an unscrupulous Chinese corporation that Harris suspects of secret oil exploration.

   Harris loves Malaysia, is concerned about the environment and all that, but figures someone is going to develop the oil, so he might as well have a hand in it. With backing from a Japanese firm, he sets about forming a company to beat out the Chinese.

   So begins a very readable and rather involved story of conflicting business and political interests, with money, power, and terrorism used to back the various interests. (Harris himself is subjected to a couple of physical attacks and attempted kidnappings, plus an attempt on his life.) The blonde? Well, she becomes an enigmatic figure, usually appearing whenever a kidnapping is in the offing. This is also a story of races — Malays, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Europeans — coming together, seldom in harmony.

   Gavin Black (a pseudonym of Oswald Wynd) was born in the Orient and most of his novels take place in the Far East — Malaysia and Singapore in particular. Other books featuring Paul Harris include Suddenly, at Singapore (1961), A Wind of Death (1967), and The Golden Cockatrice (1975).

         ———
   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.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


DOCTOR BLOOD’S COFFIN. United Artists, UK/US, 1961. Kieron Moore, Hazel Court, Ian Hunter, Kenneth J. Warren, Gerald Lawson. Ditector: Sidney J. Furie.

   Kieron Moore comes off more as unhinged than diabolical at the eponymous Dr. Blood in Doctor Blood’s Coffin, a modern Gothic thriller with just enough atmosphere and suspense to keep the viewer engaged throughout. Directed by the prolific Canadian director, Sidney J. Furie, this British horror film benefits tremendously from a score composed by Buxton Orr, who also is credited with the soundtrack for the underappreciated science fiction thriller, First Man Into Space (1959) that I reviewed here.

   Set in early 1960s Cornwall, the film borrows heavily from themes Mary Shelley introduced into modern horror literature. Dr. Blood, who returns to his small Cornish village, is a stifled genius. At least that’s how he sees himself. Feeling as if only he could test his theory on living patients, he would be able to break all frontiers in medical knowledge and be able to bring the dead back to life!

   It doesn’t take a scientific genius to know where Dr. Blood’s unholy schemes are headed. Indeed, as the movie progresses, Dr. Blood amps up his narcissism as the concomitant body count rises. The only people who are able to keep him somewhat steady are his father, a local physician (Ian Hunter) and Linda Parker (Hazel Court), the nurse in his father’s employ. She’s a lonely widow who takes a shine toward the younger Dr. Blood. Soon enough, she’s come to suspect that her newfound love isn’t being exactly honest with her.

   Even though at times the movie progresses as a somewhat languid pace, Dr. Blood’s Coffin is best appreciated as a slow boiler. It takes a while to warm up, but once it’s done, Dr. Blood emerges as a truly memorable villain, one whose story is as much a tragic as it is a warning against tampering with Nature. Although there’s no breakout star performance – Moore is a fine actor, but he’s no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee – the movie has solid acting throughout and would be likely appreciated by fans of Hammer’s crime and horror films.

JEROME DOOLITTLE – Body Scissors. Pocket, hardcover, 1990; reprint paperback; 1st printing, November 1991.

   On the cover is a quote from the Washington Post, calling this a “riveting political thriller.” Well, I had some doubts, but I read it anyway. What does the Washington Post know? They may think this book is a political thriller, since that’s what they’re looking for, but just between you and me, what this really is a top-notch PI story instead.

   It’s a little hard to argue the point, since on page 14, even Tom Bethany says he’s not a PI: “…I’m sort of a researcher, sort of a political consultant.” He works primarily for politicians and campaign committees, apparently, looking for leaks, trying to stop leaks before they start, that sort of thing. His home base is Cambridge,near Harvard Yard, and as you may know, Boston politics do get a little nasty at times.

   He’s hired to check out a prospective Secretary of State in this case, however, to avoid another Eagleton affair, and if the work he does isn’t PI work, I’ll tum in my trenchcoat at once. What strikes his eye first is the unsolved death of J. Alden Kellicott’s daughter, a victim of Boston’s once-notorious Combat Zone.

   That, plus some niggling doubts about Kellicott’s character, found by industrious research and a knack on Bethany’s part to get people to start talking. Doolittle, whose first novel this is, certainly doesn’t show it. He’s a whiz at dialogue, and he has a tremendous amount of insight into his characters and the relationships existing between them.

   I quibbled a little about this being a political thriller — but as you can see, the statement’s not that far off base — and the adjective “riveting” is well taken. I’d use the phrase “prose that tingles with anticipation” — it’s that good.

   Unfortunately, Bethany also makes four major errors as the detective in this case. Since Doolittle is ultimately responsible for those as well, maybe I should point them out to you, but of course with the usual [WARNING: Plot Alert!!]. Here they are, my advice to any new PI’s on the block:

   (1) Don’t leave would-be assassins hanging around at loose ends. (2)When you work with guns, don’t forget to check the bottom of the barrel. (3) When you bait a trap, don’t let the cheese stand alone. (4) When the rat takes the bait, don’t leave the cat on guard.

   There you go. No charge for these. Don’t leave home without them. But now I’m being serious: if you’re a PI fan, don’t miss this book.

— This review first appeared in Deadly Pleasures, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1993 .


      The Tom Bethany series

1. Body Scissors (1990)
2. Strangle Hold (1991)

3. Bear Hug (1992)
4. Head Lock (1993)

5. Half Nelson (1994)
6. Kill Story (1995)

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


  FRANK O’ROURKE – Legend in the Dust. Ballantine, hardcover/paperback (#211), 1957; paperback reprint, #421, 1960. Signet D3571, paperback, 1968; Pocket, paperback, 1989.

   An engaging work by an author I always meant to get around to.

   Legend opens in the classic mode: a lone rider enters the scene, as a thousand others did before him, riding into a terrain simmering with repressed tension and impending violence. And as simmering tensions go, the little town of Fort Ellis is on a slow boil; we quickly learn that the lone rider is ex-lawman Pat Glennon and the first man he meets is Buck Atherton, a likeable local boy with a reputation as a killer.

   In fact Buck makes his living mostly working for local capitalists who have exclusive contracts to supply beef to the nearby Army post…. and are getting product by rustling from the local cattle baron. Before many pages are past there’s a pitched battle between the factions with the merchants besieged in a store that gets burned down around them and Buck goes on the run as a wanted man with some scores to settle.

   Attentive readers, if any, will have gathered by now that Legend is loosely based on the saga of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War, and that’s the way I like it: Loose. Dozens, maybe scores, of writers have written the tale as fact or fiction. And they all ultimately have to pick sides, discredit some accounts, endorse others and emerge with historical good guys and bad guys.

   Freed of these restrictions, O’Rourke can make what he wants of the characters, and they emerge as a vibrant, engaging cast. He can also make whatever history he feels like, and though the story stays fairly close to real-life events, it departs whenever dramatically convenient, which makes for better reading.

   I had never tried any O’Rourke before, but this will get me looking for more.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


R. D. WINGFIELD – Frost at Christmas. PaperJacks, Canada, paperback original, 1984. Constable, UK, hardcover, 1989. Bantam, paperback, 1st US printing, 1995.

   When the eight-year-old daughter of a young woman no better than she should be and who collects money for doing it goes missing ten days before Christmas in one of England’s worst winters, the Denton constabulary is organized splendidly for the search. Then misfortune puts Detective Inspector Jack Frost’s fine example of the Peter Principle, in charge. As Frost reflects: “He wasn’t bloody Gideon of the Yard, he was Detective Inspector Jack Frost, G.C., jumped up from being a lousy sergeant to a lousier inspector. He hadn’t asked for promotion.”

   Not an organizer, Frost, to give him credit beyond his due, but a good detective of the old school. At one point, Frost says: “All I want is a suspect. Forget this ‘innocent until proved guilty’ caper. Find your suspect and then prove he or she did it. Saves sodding about with lots of different people.”

   Those who enjoy Jack S. Scott’s Rosher, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel, or even Joyce Porter’s Dover, should appreciate Frost, who has Rosher’s doggedness, Dalziel’s cunning, and Dover’s sloppiness. If this novel had been released by a publisher with better distribution, it could well have been a nominee for best original paperback in 1984. It deserves republishing.

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


Bibliographic Notes:   Five years later, this, the first in the Inspector Frost series, as Bill suggested it should been, was finally published in hardcover in England, then some time after that by Bantam in the US. Bantam also put out the next three in the series, but they seem to have bailed out on the fifth and sixth, which appeared only in the UK.

   After Wingfield’s death in 2007, four more Inspector Frost books were published as by James Henry (James Gurbutt and Henry Sutton), prompted by the popularity of the TV series based on the books, A Touch of Frost (2004-2009), starring David Jason. A full list of the TV episodes may be found here.

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