Reference works / Biographies


   I’ve asked Dick Etulain, the author of the following book to tell us more about it. He’s most graciously agreed:

RICHARD W. ETULAIN – Ernest Haycox and the Western. University of Oklahoma Press, hardcover, illustrated, 2017.

   This book attempts to resurrect writer Ernest Haycox as a major figure in the development of the fictional Western. It is not a biography; Haycox’s son, Ernest Haycox, Jr., does that in his smoothly written book On a Silver Desert: The Life of Ernest Haycox (2003). Nor is it primarily a work of literary criticism. That book is available in Stephen L. Tanner, Ernest Haycox (1996).

   Rather, my book is a work of literary history, tracing Haycox’s literary career from its origins in the early 1920s to his death in 1950.

   Born in 1899 and reared in Oregon, Haycox contributed to high school publications and then to college outlets at Reed College (1919-20) and the University of Oregon (1920-23). By graduation, Haycox had published several stories in pulp magazines. Hoping to establish strong links to fictional outlets in the East, Haycox traveled to New York City, where he met editors important to his career in the 1920s. Meeting Jill Marie Chord (also from Oregon) on the train east, they married in New York City but soon returned west to Portland, which would be the Haycox home for the remainder of his life.

   By the end of the 1920s, Haycox was a steady contributor to many pulp magazines, including such stalwarts as Adventure, Short Stories, and Western Story Magazine. In 1928, he published his first full-length serial, which appeared the next year as Free Grass, his first novel. In the opening 1930s, Haycox made his first appearance in Collier’s and remained a steady contributor for almost twenty years.

   Hoping to move to the top of writers of Westerns, Haycox experimented with several new wrinkles to chosen genre. He created reflective protagonists (“Hamlet heroes”) and dark and light heroines (passionate and reserved women).

   Even more important, he began to turn out historical Westerns, infusing his lively fiction with historical backgrounds such as building the transcontinental railroad, fighting Indians in the Southwest, and settling Oregon. His most notable historical Western was Bugles in the Afternoon (1944), a fictional recreation of Gen. George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

   Immensely successful, Haycox was nonetheless dissatisfied with the restrictions of the Western and entered a period of revolt in the last half-dozen years (1944-50) of his career. Abandoning lucrative serial markets, he set out to write first-rate historical fiction. His best historical novel, The Earthbreakers (1952), appeared two years after his death.

   Talented, ambitious, and driven, Ernest Haycox became a major figure in popular fiction written about the American West. Haycox’s continuing growth, gradual but steady, amply demonstrates an author determined enough to defy popular demands and honest enough to write novels consistent with his changing literary beliefs.

RAH RAH RASPUTIN!
by Dan Stumpf


  RASPUTIN. (Dial Press, 1927) by Felix Yusupov.

  RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS MGM, 1932. John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, Ralph Morgan, Diana Wynyard and Edward Arnold. Written by Charles MacArthur. Directed by Richard Boleslavsky.

  THE NIGHT THEY KILLED RASPUTIN. Cino Del Duca, 1960. Also released as Nights of Rasputin. Edmond Purdom, Gianna Maria Canale and John Drew Barrymore. Written and directed by Pierre Chenal.

  RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK. Hammer, 1966. Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley and Richard Pascoe. Written by Anthony Hinds (as “John Elder”.) Directed by Don Sharp.

  RASPUTIN IN HOLLYWOOD (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1990) by Sir David Napley.

   Prince Felix Yusupov’s RASPUTIN (Dial Press, 1927) is something of a rarity: a biography written by the assassin of its subject. Indeed, the only antecedent I can recall is Pat Garrett’s AUTHENTIC LIFE OF BILLY THE KID, which was largely ghost-written. This may have been ghosted too, for all I know, but it reads with the self-serving simplicity of One Who Was There.

   Maybe some faint controversy still sputters over The Mad Monk, but there’s no denying his role as the 20th century equivalent of the Queen’s Necklace: the catalyst in the fall of a (tottering) monarchy that ushered in a whole new age — and did it with a tawdry stylishness that has all the elements (according to the old joke) of a great novel: Religion, Royalty, Sex and Mystery. No wonder he’s been the subject of a dozen books and movies.

   But this book, as I say, was written by the guy who killed him, and it has its moments. The background on Rasputin is sketchy and one-sided as one expects, but it’s interesting to read Prince Felix, writing ten years after the Russian Revolution, anticipating the imminent fall of the Communist government.

   His take on the Great War and the chaos of Imperial Russian politics is also fascinating, but the book really comes to life when Yusupov gets to his own encounters with Rasputin, and his growing resolve to kill him, then the bloody deed and its aftermath. These chapters have all the impact of a really fine crime story, and if it’s not told with quite the edgy panache of Charles Williams or Jim Thompson, it’s still a fine, riveting read and a fascinating reflection of an age gone by.

   The whole affair was done up with suitable splendor by MGM in 1932; RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS offers a stellar cast, crowds of extras, sumptuous sets and appropriate disregard for history. John Barrymore looks a bit ticked off at not getting to play Rasputin (his brother Lionel gets that plum part), but he puts commensurate enthusiasm into the scene where he poisons, shoots, clubs and drowns his sibling, and the rest of the cast handles things with equal enthusiasm.

   There is some interest in seeing Barrymore Jr in THE NIGHT THEY KILLED RASPUTIN essay the part his daddy had, but that’s the sole attraction of this effort, at least as released here in the US. It may have been more appealing in color, but it showed up here in badly-dubbed B&W. Hence. I cannot fairly judge the acting except to say it sounds like they had two or three voice-over artists doing all the parts, and it ends so abruptly I suspect someone just lost interest. I know I did.

   RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK is rather more spirited but somewhat misses the high-water mark set by Hammer Studios at their best. Blame the by-the-numbers direction by Don Sharp, a confirmed second-stringer, or the penurious production from Hammer, who did this back-to-back with DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, using the same sets and much of the cast. There’s a spirited performance from Christopher Lee, relishing a bravura speaking part for a change, but everyone else seems to act like they’re wasted in Nothing Parts — which they pretty much are.

   And then there’s the book RASPUTIN IN HOLLYWOOD, by noted British author/solicitor Sir David Napley, dealing primarily with the lawsuit Prince and Princess Yusupov brought in British courts against MGM for suggesting in their movie that the princess had an improper encounter with the mad monk.

   This is hardly the stuff of gripping drama, but Napley handles it (mostly) well. There’s some enjoyably concise background on the principals in the story: I never knew the Prince did a drag act in nightclubs, and he was about the least likely person to pick for the job of assassinating a bear of a man like Rasputin; in point of fact, the monk was finished off by others in the plot.

   Be that as it may, the Yusupovs escaped the Bolsheviks, spent all their money, and when the MGM film came out, either gasped in horror at seeing the princess’ name besmirched, or licked their chops seeing the chance for more lucre. Take your pick. Napley remains impartial as he goes on to describe the trial in detail, telling us about the opposing strategies, explaining the strengths and weaknesses and all the hits, runs and errors in a very expensive game.

   It ain’t exactly ANATOMY OF A MURDER, but he keeps it interesting and fun—which is more than I can say for some of those movies.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


MIKE RIPLEY – Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed. HarperCollins, UK, hardcover, May 2017. US edition: September 2017. Foreword by Lee Child.

   Just as there are novels that appear that seemingly had to be written, and characters whose time has come to emerge, there are books about books, even in the genres, that appear and the proper reaction to them is why wasn’t this book always here?

   We can all name texts in the broad genre covered on this blog that were like that going back to ur-texts like Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure and Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Ellery Queen’s Queen’s Quorum; Richard Usborne’s The Clubland Heroes, about the between the war works of Buchan, Yates, Sapper McNeile; Julian Symons’ first critical study of the genre; Ron Goulart’s essays in the anthology The Hard-Boiled Dicks; Kingsley Amis’s A James Bond Dossier; Barzun and Taylor’s A Catalog of Crime; the oft quoted, in these pages, 1001 Midnights by Pronzini and Mueller et al — these are just a few examples.

   Now added to that list is Mike Ripley’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (the title taken from a dismissive remark by Ian Fleming about his own work) a work which wisely narrows its focus to the Golden Age of the modern British Men’s thriller, roughly 1950 to 1980.

   Though Ripley wisely chooses to mark his territory with two hallmarks of that era, 1953’s publication of Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, and the 1970’s publication of prolific Jack Higgins first mega-hit The Eagle Has Landed, the book begins before Fleming and ends with the rise of the American spy novelists such as Robert Ludlum and Charles McCarry.

   Mike Ripley, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the leading historian of the British thriller — I wouldn’t limit him like that, but since that is the subject of this work I will– an astute critic who not only writes about the genre, but who went to the trouble in the recent past of hunting down many of these writers, often thought dead, and bringing some of their work back in print.

   Here he concentrates on writers who came of age as thriller writers in the era covered, so Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Dennis Wheatley, and Peter Cheyney though active in the period, are assigned to an earlier pre-war era, but writers like Hammond Innes and Victor Canning who began writing, but reached their first great success in the 1950’s, are well within the self-imposed limits.

   Along the way Ripley regales the reader with personal anecdotes on writers as diverse as Fleming, Innes, Household, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Gavin Lyall, John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Dick Francis, and many lesser known figures.

   He also manages to discuss their important works, the traditions they arise from, and in some cases created or recreated, as did Fleming, Deighton, Le Carré, Wilbur Smith, and Dick Francis. He is frank in his assessment of their successes and their creative downturns, and the societal and political trends and events surrounding them.

   He is particularly good on writers like MacLean, who while a major figure had always remained a bit of a cypher to me as a person. He also briefly discusses the impact of film on the success of some writers for good and ill.

   At close to 500 pages there is still much that there simply isn’t time to discuss. There is nothing greatly original about the revelation that these writers represent a reaction against, and in some cases a celebration of, the fall of Imperial England and the post war mental rebellion by the British male against post war hardship and Little England mindset.

   What is original and invaluable here is Ripley’s encyclopedic knowledge of and critical evaluation of these writers and works, his style which is at once scholarly and colloquial, and a fine appendix that covers brief biographical and bibliographical material about most of the best-known names to come out of England’s thriller writing stables in that period.

   He even includes multiple covers of books and where needed discusses the importance they played in the books success. It is telling that both Ian Fleming and Len Deighton paid out of their own pocket to assure they got the covers they wanted for hardcover editions of their work.

   Aside from how well it is written and how accessible it is, there are a handful of ways to properly judge books such as this, A: Does the work in question give the informed reader information he did not previously know? B: Does the work lead the reader to discover new writers or old he has missed or rediscover older writers he has forgotten or neglected? C: Is the volume likely to become dogeared and worn from frequent reading and reference?

   Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang does all those things. It is the perfect gift for anyone interested in the too often underappreciated Thriller genre, it offers simple and easily definable definitions for the types of thrillers it discusses, and while there are one or two minor caveats on my part, personal hobby horses unridden, it is for the most part the book I always hoped would be written on the genre, by that rarity, a man who is fully qualified to write it both in terms of knowledge and literary gifts.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


ROSEMARY HERBERT – The Fatal Art of Entertainment: Interviews with Mystery Writers. G. K Hall, hardcover, 1994.

   These are some of the better interviews with authors I’ve seen. Herbert has obviously read the books of each of them and thought about what she read. While she has certain themes she tries to explore with each author, she does quite well when discussing their individual oeuvres. She fawns a bit at times, but that’s probably hard to avoid. Hey, I can fawn with the best of ’em myself.

   The authors included are a mixed bag, and it would be interesting to know how they were selected. They are: Catherine Aird, Robert Barnard, Patricia Cornwell, Jonathan Gash, Sue Grafton, Jeremiah Healy, Reginald Hill, Tony Hillerman, P. D. James, Jane Langton, John Mortimer, Barbara Neely, and Julian Symons.

   They all had interesting things to say, some of course more so than others. It’s a bit pricey ($35) for anyone not really into this sort of thing, but it’s meaty, too. I was impressed with the book, and I’m usually not with interviews.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


ED GORMAN, MARTIN GREENBERG, LARRY SEGRIFF & JON L. BREEN, Editors – The Fine Art of Murder. Carroll & Graf, oversized trade paperback, 1993. Galahad Books, hardcover, 1995

   What can I say about a book that has pieces by: Bill Crider on Texas Authors; Marv Lachman on Rockey Mountain Mysteries; Ellen Nehr on Cat Mysteries, Dog Mysteries, and the Doubleday Crime Club; Walter Albert on Researchers; Bob Napier on Fandom; Janet Rudolph on Conventions and Mystery Weekends; Peggy Albert on Nancy & Jessica; and Steve Stilwell interviewing Al Hubin.

   Well, I can say that I can’t imagine any real mystery fan not finding enough of interest to make the book worth the $17.95 purchase price. Besides the luminaries listed above, there are pieces by such lesser lights as Larry Block, Bill DeAndrea, Harry Keating, Ed Gorman, Max Allan Collins, John D. MacDonald, Vin Packer, Carolyn G. Hart, Bill Pronzini, Margaret Maron and a further cast of dozens.

   Jon Breen contributed the introductory remarks for most of.the`various sections. Many pieces are original, some are reprinted, but all were written by people who know how to write and write well, and did. My own favorite sections were on pulps and paperbacks, but there’s something (and more than one something) for everyone. It’s a browser’s delight that covers just about every aspect of the field, written by a group of people who know their subject.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #11, January 1994.

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


   No sooner did I send off my November column than I learned of another death in October. Norman Sherry, who devoted almost thirty years of his life to researching and writing a 3-volume, 2250-page biography of Graham Greene, died on October 19 at age 91. For Volume One (1989) he received an Edgar from MWA. The New York Review of Books chose Volume Two (1994) as one of the eleven best books of its year. If I have a special fondness for Volume Three (2004), perhaps it’s because I contributed to it a little.

   The story of how he came to be Greene’s biographer has been often told. In 1974, the year he turned 70, the man who was perhaps the finest English novelist of the 20th century — and certainly one of the finest crime and espionage novelists ever — was in the market for a biographer and became interested in Sherry, whose previous life of Joseph Conrad Greene had much admired.

   The two met for lunch at London’s Savile Club but apparently nothing was decided. They met again and, walking across a busy street, Greene was knocked down by a taxi. “You almost lost your subject,” he said to Sherry. “Not half so bad as losing your biographer,” Sherry replied. That bit of quick wit got him the job. It was the beginning of a decades-long hunt with Sherry the literary detective tracking Greene through Mexico, Cuba, Liberia, Vietnam, Haiti, most if not all of the Third World places in which his quarry had set novels.

   The quest was ruinous to Sherry’s health — dysentery, gangrene that cost him fifteen feet of his intestines, the list seems endless — but he carried on. After Greene’s death in 1991 he found himself at odds with his subject’s closest relations, many of whom despise his three volumes. You can find what Greene’s son Francis thought of the books by googling “Graham Greene Norman Sherry,” such as this article from the New York Times, and there are similar critiques elsewhere on the Web.

   But there are also extravagant, near-idolatrous comments by others. My own view is that if you want to understand, or at least come as close as humanly possible to understanding, the brilliant, profoundly devious, sex-obsessed alcoholic who wrote like a dark angel and gave us THIS GUN FOR HIRE, BRIGHTON ROCK, THE CONFIDENTIAL AGENT, THE MINISTRY OF FEAR and so many other novels that have nothing to do with crime or espionage, you can’t do without Sherry’s epic biography.

   But perhaps I’m biased since, as I said above, I contributed a morsel to Volume Three. After such a buildup I’d be a toad if I didn’t share that morsel here with those who haven’t read the biography, so here goes. Back in 1984 and purely by accident I discovered that James Atlee Phillips, better known as Philip Atlee, author of the Joe Gall espionage novels, had moved to St. Louis County where I lived. Jim was reputed to be an interview-shunning curmudgeon but I took a chance, called him and, to my flabbergastment, was invited to come out to his place for dinner.

   After the meal we adjourned to his basement office, and I taped an hour-long conversation with him which was published in Espionage magazine (November 1985). That interview went so well that arrangements were made for me to follow up by interviewing Jim’s younger brother, David Atlee Phillips.

   David, who lived in Bethesda, Maryland, had written a novel and one or two nonfiction books but until his retirement a few years before our meeting most of his time had been spent working for the Central Intelligence Agency in Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Venezuela, rising through the ranks to become one of the foremost practitioners of what is euphemistically called covert action.

   The next time I was on the East Coast I took the Amtrak Metroliner from New York to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station where David met me. We had an excellent lunch at La Mirabelle, a restaurant in McLean, Virginia that was favored by people in the CIA. Over our meal he told me a story which was so good, I insisted on his repeating it when we got to his house and I had my cassette recorder running.

   In the late 1950s, soon after Cuba had become a Communist country under Fidel Castro, David was sent to Havana in deep cover. He was there when Graham Greene came to work with director Carol Reed on the movie OUR MAN IN HAVANA, starring Alec Guinness and based on Greene’s novel of the same name. Much of the picture was shot on the streets of Havana, with David shadowing Greene as they filmed.

   “And at one point Greene said to the director, ‘All right, we should change this line and have him say the following.’ And Alec Guinness said: ‘Fine.’ But then a comandante, a man with a star on his shoulder, a military censor, walked up and said: ‘No, you can’t change that line.’ I’ll never forget the look on Graham Greene’s face when he realized for the first time that there might be some flaws in the new Cuban society,…when his work was suddenly subject to censorship.”

   My interview with David was also published in Espionage (July 1987) and, like my conversation with his brother, can be found in my book CORNUCOPIA OF CRIME (2010), but you won’t find the anecdote I just quoted in the magazine version. Not wanting to see that incident permanently on the cutting room floor, I shared it with Norman Sherry, who included it in Volume Three of the Greene biography. That’s the tidbit I contributed to Norman’s massive project. I still think it was worth saving.

***

   I haven’t read Peter Ackroyd’s ALFRED HITCHCOCK: A BRIEF LIFE but recently read a review in the Times with a passage I particularly liked: “[T]he world of menace [Hitchcock] conjured embodies our deepest, most existential fears. Fears (especially resonant today) that the universe is irrational, that evil lives around the corner, that ordinary life can be ripped apart at any moment by some random unforeseen event.”

    Let’s play Jeopardy! for a minute, shall we? Answer: The author whose work and world are described by those words equally as well as Hitchcock’s. Question: Who is Cornell Woolrich? Second answer: Same as the first but with “composer” substituted for “author.” Question: Who is Bernard Herrmann?

   Hitchcock, Woolrich, Herrmann, so much like Jules and Jim and Catherine in Truffaut’s film: round and round, together bound. When I first started calling Woolrich the Hitchcock of the written word, that was a moment of inspiration if I ever had one.

***

   I received an interesting email recently from a man who had been reading some of the early Woolrich stories collected in my DARKNESS AT DAWN (1985) and had a question about one of them, the 1934 “Walls That Hear You.” That tale, in case you’ve forgotten it, is about a man who discovers that his younger brother has been found with all ten fingers cut off and his tongue severed at the roots.

   Later, in the hospital, we are told that he “shook hands hard” with his brother. How is this possible, my reader asked, when the younger brother’s fingers have been cut off? Could Woolrich have been writing at such white heat that he forgot this? The best reply I could come up with was that we’re supposed to imagine the narrator embracing his kid brother’s fingerless and bandaged hands between his own. Can anyone reading this column come up with anything better?

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


MURRAY FORBES – Hollow Triumph. Ziff-Davis, hardcover, 1946. Reprinted as The Big Fake (Pyramid #97, paperback, 1953).

HOLLOW TRIUMPH. Eagle-Lion, 1948. Re-released as The Scar and The Man Who Murdered Himself. Paul Henried, Joan Bennett, Eduard Franz, Leslie Brooks, Mabel Paige and Jack Webb. Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, based on the novel by Murray Forbes. Directed by Steve Sekely.

   Murray Forbes’ Hollow Triumph has an interesting idea for a book: Henry Mueller is a failed medical student and small-time chiseler with an over-sized ego, fresh out of prison when he discovers he bears an amazing resemblance to Viktor Bartok, a prominent psychologist. Readers of this sort of thing will figure at once that Mueller will kill Bartok and take his place, and that’s pretty much what happens, but Forbes gives it a cute twist: Mueller’s impersonation becomes a greater success than he figured on (the American Dream: if you fail at one thing, re-invent yourself as something else) and as time passes, he wins even greater fortune and honor… and he can’t stand the fact that the murdered man is getting all the credit for his killer’s work: Mueller rubbed out Bartok, but it was Mueller who got erased, and his overweening pride leads him to….

   It’s a clever thought, and somebody should write a book about it someday; Murray Forbes just didn’t seem too interested. Time and again he just tells us about things when he should be showing them. So we get lines like “She felt suspicious,” or “He was scared,” which ain’t exactly deathless prose. There are even points where Forbes seems to lose interest entirely, and instead of story-telling, he resorts to synopsis, resulting in passages like, “He went to New York to receive the honor, then came back and continued work with his patients…”

   I kept reading, but I’m not sure why.

   Fans of Old Time Radio may recall Murray Forbes as an actor on Ma Perkins and other programs, but this was his only novel, and in 1948 the Movies bought it, discarded most of the plot, noired up the rest, and released it under the original title and as The Scar, then as The Man Who Murdered Himself, creating an identity crisis to equal its protagonist’s.

   Joan Bennett is quite good here in a softer role than usual, but Paul Henreid’s acting, like Forbes’ writing, is just perfunctory. On the other hand, there’s fine photography by John Alton, and Daniel Fuchs’ script makes intelligent use of a plot twist that would have been a facile punch-line in lesser hands.

   Triumph/Scar/Murdered starts off with Henried/Mueller getting out of jail and leads quickly into a heist of a gambling joint (not in the book) that goes suspensefully wrong, leaving our antihero on the run from gangsters and hiding out in L.A. Things get tight when he’s spotted by the hoods, but when Mueller makes the switch with Bartok they get even tighter as he finds Bartok has a messy personal life, a grasping girlfriend… and is in debt to the Mob.

   It’s all done in suitably noir style, but without the artistry that distinguishes films like Night and the City or Out of the Past. Director Steve Sekely had his moments (mostly marginal ones in B movies), and he doesn’t spoil this one, but he never gives it the subversive energy that marks the classics of the genre.

   Fortunately Daniel Fuchs’ screenplay provides some unexpected highlights: Even when the leads fail to convince, the minor characters surprise us with quirky moments we weren’t expecting: A garage attendant starts dancing, a dentist turns loquacious, and a lowly scrubwoman proves to be the most perceptive character in the film.

   The marginal virtues aren’t enough to completely redeem The Scar, but I’ll remember it a little longer for them….

KAREN A. ROMANKO – Television’s Female Spies and Crimefighters: 600 Characters and Shows, 1950s to the Present. McFarland, softcover, February 2016.

   The full title of this book is self-explanatory, I’m sure. I’ve only browsed through it myself, so this is not a review, but in my opinion this is a book that every reader of this blog ought be know about, if you don’t already.

   To open the book, author Karen Romanko provides a long and knowledgeable introduction to the overall history of female crimefighters on television, followed in the main portion of the book by a comprehensive alphabetical listing of all relevant TV series and their significant characters, cross-referenced between the two. For example, the TV series Elementary and the character Joan Watson each have their own entries, each mentioning the other in bold face.

   The first entry is Acapulco H.E.A.T., followed by Lydia Adams (Southland); the last two are Roberta Young (Snoops) and The Zoo Gang, a British production that aired in this country on NBC in 1975.

   This is a book that’s easy to get caught up in, following one familiar show to its star and then to others not so familiar, and vice versa for (in my estimation) hours on end.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TREASURE OF RUBY HILLS. Allied Artists, 1955. Zachary Scott, Carole Mathews, Barton MacLane, Dick Foran, Lola Albright, Gordon Jones, Raymond Hatton, Lee Van Cleef. Based on the story “The Rider of the Ruby Hills,” by Louis L’Amour. Director: Frank McDonald.

   For a Western with quite a few excellent character actors, Treasure of Ruby Hills is overall something of a disappointment. Based on a Louis L’Amour story, the movie stars Zachary Scott as a man determined not to follow his deceased father down the rabbit hole of frontier criminality.

   Scott, with menacing eyes and a thick mustache, portrays the enigmatic Ross Haney, a man determined to revenge the death of his friend and business partner at the hands of Frank Emmett (the always enjoyable-to-watch Lee Van Cleef). Haney also seems to have a greater scheme in mind. Although it takes a while for the viewer to learn his overall motivations, one soon learns that Haney’s overall objective is to control the water supply to the town of Soledad, so as to exert power over the thuggish cattle barons who rule the town.

   Sounds simple enough.

   Unfortunately, the film tries to do too much. It introduces far too many characters in a running time of just over seventy minutes. There’s the rancher brother and sister combo. No surprise here: Haney falls in love with the sister and ends up the mortal rival of her would-be fiancé, Alan Doran, portrayed by Dick Foran.

   There are also two rival cattle/land barons, Chalk Reynolds (Barton MacLane) and Walt Payne (Charles Fredericks), both of whom end up with a bellyful of lead thanks to Doran’s scheming. Plus, there’s the marshal; Scott’s other would-be business partner; a wounded man whom Haney tends to; an innkeeper; and a waitress. Add to this some backstories about the characters and you end up with an overall muddled story, one that simply refuses to flow smoothly.

   What Treasure of Ruby Hills does have going for it is, however, is atmosphere. The narrative unfolds in a semi-claustrophobic, self-enclosed universe of suspense and violence. There really are no good guys here, just men morally clad in shades of grey, burdened by the albatross of their past misdeeds and their family history.

   Significantly, there are no children in the film and, if I am not mistaken, apart from horses, no animals either. The movie presents the West as rough and tumble world, where live is cheap and loyalty is a commodity to be bought and sold.

   As much as I like Zachary Scott, Lee Van Cleef, and Barton MacLane, I’d very much hesitate to categorize Treasure of Ruby Hills as a particularly good film. Sad to say, but it’s really just another mediocre mid-1950s Western. But somehow I managed to see it through to the very end, wondering how it’d all turn out and who’d still be alive and kicking once the proverbial dust settled. Take that for what it is, as it surely must mean something.


NOTE:   This movie is available for viewing on Hulu. Follow the link.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


WILLIAM DAVID SPENCER – Mysterium and Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel. UMI Research Press, hardcover, 1989, 344 pp., $49.95. Southern Illinois Press, softcover, 1992.

   Perhaps I should start with a disclaimer: my theology, such as it is — or, sadly more accurately, was — was gained from nuns at a parochial school. Now that I can look back on it with detachment, they were dear ladies but woefully inadequate in their understanding of religion. Any questions not covered in the catechism were met with “Never mind” or disappointed looks or mitigated horror.

   Thus, my understanding of Spencer’s chapter on “Modus Operandi: Mysterium into Mystery” is at best suspect, at worst completely befuddled. But I didn’t get the book so that I could learn theology; I got it to read about clerical detectives and their theology.

   Spencer says — and I have no disagreement with him — that the clerical crime novel may be divided into three classifications. The most general, he says, is any tale that involves the clergy and crime. This type of novel involves “saintly side-kicks” — “as in Jack Webb’s or Thurmin [sic] Warriner’s tales or in a lesser sense in Christopher Leach’s Blood Games or Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s Where the Dark Streets Go.”

   The second division is the novel in which a crime is committed by a cleric. Spencer provides several examples, though not the most unusual one, which I can’t name since to do so would be to give away whodunit.

   Finally, and the focus of this book, are the mysteries solved by the cleric. Part One of Spencer’s treatise is “Rabbis and Robbers,” dealing with two tales from the Apocrypha and with the novels of Harry Kemelman. Although Spencer lists Joseph Telushkin in his “Graph of the Clerical Crime Novel in English,” Rabbi David Winter is not dealt with in this study.

   Part Two is “Priests and Psychopaths,” the Roman Catholic clergy, both ordained and nonordained — in the latter case the various nuns and brothers.

   Part Three is “Ministers and Murders” — yes, as you may have gathered, Spencer does have a thing for alliteration, even when it can be somewhat misleading- representing the various Protestant clergy.

   How well does Spencer sum up the clergy characters and their theology? Quite well, I believe, in those cases in which I have read at least one of the books by an author. The only authors I haven’t read are Barbara Ninde Byfield, whom I hope to get around to shortly, and James L. Johnson, who wrote the Code Name Sebastian Series, a series, after reading Spencer’s descriptions of the novels, I feel I can skip without any loss. (Oh, all right, I merely started The Name of the Rose. Some people, I am informed, have read, enjoyed, and understood it, though I am dubious whether any one person did all three.)

   Keep in mind, of course, that Spencer is not rating the clergy characters as detectives or the novels as detective tales; he is dealing with the books as to how they reflect the characters’ theology or, in one case, the near absence of it.

   Errors? If you get as upset as I do over the misuse of “flaunt” for “flout,” you’d join me in considering that a mistake. Otherwise, except for his curious notion that Eco’s William of Baskerville chewed tobacco in fourteenth-century Europe, Spencer is, as far as I could tell, quite accurate in depicting plot and character.

   Oversights? The only clergy detective not dealt with that I know of is the Reverend Peter Eversleigh, sometimes called the Padre, featured in several of Richard Goyne’s novels. This Protestant clergyman detective seems to have been overlooked by all who have published lists of religious sleuths. Since in the one novel I have read in which the Padre appears there is nothing about theology, perhaps no great loss has been suffered from lack of knowledge about him. The Lipstick Clue (Paul, 1954) is, however, a rather decent novel of detection.

   Is Mysterium and Mysteries a fair value at $49.95? I paid that price, and I feel it was worth it. After all, there is a fair amount of information about clerical detectives as detectives but very little about their theology. Dedicated fans of the Divine Mystery, or Holy Terror, or the clerical crime novel, or whatever you want to call it, probably should own this study. Others should suggest that their public library acquire it.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.


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