Reviews


THE MURDER OF DR. HARRIGAN. Warner Brothers, 1936. Clue Club #6. Ricardo Cortez, Kay Linaker, John Eldredge, Mary Astor, Joseph Crehan. Based on the novel From This Dark Stairway, by Mignon G. Eberhart. Director: Frank McDonald.

   Murder in a hospital has always been a staple of detective fiction, but perhaps even more so in the Golden Age of Detection, and here’s a prime example. Even before Dr. Harrigan’s body in found in a jammed elevator, there are all kinds of signs that this is a hospital to stay out of, no matter how sick you are.

   Doctors light up cigarettes wills-nilly, for example, no matter where they are in the building, patients get up and wander around, including to each other’s rooms. Even worse, the sick man that Dr. Harrigan was going to operate on — and was last seen wheeling down the hall to an operating room — in a suit and tie yet — has completely disappeared. He’s nowhere in the building.

   In the book, the detective of record is Sarah Keate, a nurse who was in seven of Mignon Eberhart’s novels, the last one appearing in 1954. As Sally Keating (Kay Linaker) she doesn’t do any detective work in this movie, though.

   That’s left to the police and her would-be boy friend, Dr. Lambert (Ricardo Cortez) — he seems a lot more interested in marrying her than she is the other way around — and there are plenty of suspects to choose from, whether doctors, other nurses, patients, family members of all of the above, all acting very mysteriously.

   Unfortunately, there’s no particular reason for picking on the actual killer to be the killer. I’m willing to wager that the book was a whole lot better in this regard. You watch the movie for non-stop action and banter, not for niceties of clues and actual detective work.

PostScript:   The TCM website says that “Some of the other titles bearing the Clue Club stamp are The Florentine Dagger (1935), While the Patient Slept (1935), The White Cockatoo (1935), The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936) and The Case of the Black Cat (1936).”

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


DOUG J. SWANSON – Big Town. Jack Flippo #1. HarperCollins, hardcover, February 1994. Harper, paperback, February 1995.

   Jack Flippo is your basic seedy private eye. He wasn’t always, of course. Once he was an Assistant DA, but he screwed that up by following the dictates of an organ on the wrong side of his body. Now he works for an equally seedy lawyer, and makes it from one week to the nest. Barely.

   A woman claiming to be the wife of a local motivational guru comes to the lawyer’s office, and wants a tape and picture of her husband with another woman. She gives him the time and place, and he sets up Flippo to do the dirty work. Flippo hears the girl being abused from the next room, and abandons the script and comes to her aid. Then things get complicated.

   What this isn’t is your modern-day standard PI story. There isn’t a character in the book who isn’t dirty and scuffed, and there’s not an out and out good guy on the scoreboard. The action is an convoluted as a fractured skull, and you lose track of the double-crosses going on.

   It’s a lot more like Cain or some of the Gold Medal boys mixed with Elmore Leonard than like Valin, Lyons, or Healy. He [Swanson] says he hasn’t read the Gold Medal guys, however, and though he’s read Cain, doesn’t regard him as a conscious influence.

   Swanson’s got a decent eye for the down and out, and a pretty good ear for dialogue. He’s got the Dallas geography right, but there isn’t much feel for the city. Some of the characters ring true, and some, including a fairly major player, don’t. I don’t know that I believed all Flippo’s motivations and actions, particularly at the end. Swanson writes a different kind of PI novel, a 50s kind, and I do think he’s got promise.

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


Editorial Note:   My review of Dreamboat, number two in the series — there were only five — appears here. Doug Swanson happened to see it, and he sent me a short note in response. You can find it here.

JAMES H. SCHMITZ – The Universe Against Her. Telzey Amberdon #1. Ace F-314, paperback original; 1st printing, 1964. Although not so stated, this novel is a fix-up consisting of two previously published stories “Novice” (Analog SF, June 1962) and “Undercurrrents” (serialized in Analog SF, May & June 1964). Gregg Press, hardcover, 1981.

   There were in all a dozen or more Telzey Amberdon stories, all first appearing in Analog SF and over the years collected and repackaged in various shapes and forms, most recently by Baen Books. From all accounts they were very popular at the time, often gaining cover story status.

   In this novel consisting of Telzey’s first two adventures, during the course of which she begins to gain knowledge and control of her one-in-a-million telepathic powers, she is only a 15-year-old girl going to law school. In “Novice” she manages to outwit her evil aunt who has plans of taking her pet away from her, a large cat-like animal Telzey has named Tick-Tock.

   What the aunt doesn’t know, nor does Telzey, is that Tick-Tock is the only member of his race of telepathic beings who has remained visible on the planet of his origin, which is where Telzey is visiting her aunt. By communicating with Telzey telepathically, Tick-Tock also awakens her latent powers.

   This is a good story, spoiled a bit by the lack of real motive for the aunt to do what she does, then by an ending in which Telzey fiddles with the aunt’s mind so that she no longer is a bad person. There ought to be law against that, is my thought, but apparently there isn’t.

   There is also not a law against murder for hire, as it turns out in story number two, which in book form continues immediately after the first. In fact, quite the opposite is true and is legally called a “private war.” Once again it is a female relative who is the evil antagonist, except this time it is that of a good friend of Telzey at school, a girl who is about to come into an inheritance worth a lot of money, if she lives that long.

   This one moves slowly, in one sense, since a lot is taking place, but a lot of exposition is used to explain what is happening. The way science fiction is written today, all of the action would be described with much more detail, with lots of dialogue to help move the story along, instead of longish paragraphs that summarize, telling not showing. It’s a good story, but to today’s readers, told in dull fashion.

   Not much is made of Telzey’s age, by the way, nor even the fact that she is female, both facts which were, I think, quite remarkable for the time the stories were written. By the time this book ends, her psionic abilities, seemingly getting a quantum boost whenever needed, are very powerful indeed, but with a strong hint that even more adventure — and danger — lie ahead.

GORDON D. SHIRREFFS – Rio Desperado [+] Voice of the Gun. Ace Double F-152, paperback originals, 1962. Both have been reprinted either separately or in combination with other novels.

   When a cowpoke heads out across the pass to a neighboring valley to avenge the hanging death of his half-brother, events quickly grow out of control, and the young gunfighter whose life he saves three times in two days causes him more problems than he could ever imagine.

   Only 102 pages in length, Rio Desperado feels cut off in its prime. Much of the anticipation that’s aroused by an interesting beginning is erased by an ending that’s far too rushed and confusing to be of any help. Who knows what evil the editor wrought?

   Longer, but again only 120 pages long, Voice of the Gun is a better book than its other half, but only by the smallest of margins. The theme is the same, that of one man facing down almost insurmountable odds, heading into enemy territory to regain or to hold onto what is rightfully his.

   And of course he succeeds, in spite of several subborn, boneheaded mistakes and miscalculations on his part. And in spite of some fast-changing and sometimes surprising alliances and allegiances, the high point occurs when Sloan Sutro gets some additional support from sources it seems he had no right to count one. (In other words, this is a good story, almost in spite of itself.)

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, slightly revised.


Comment:   At one time I was working on a complete bibliography for Gordon Shirreffs, and I thought it was complete enough that I’d put it online. But if I did, I can’t find it now. I’ll have to look into the status of that. Even though these two novels were what I considered minor efforts, Shirreffs was one of the better western writers of his time.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


DAVID WILLIAMS – Treasure By Post. Mark Treasure #15. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1991,. St. Martin’s, US, hardcover, 1992.

   For the delectation of those with taste and perception, here is yet another fine Mark Treasure novel. [Besides solving mysteries, Treasure is a merchant banker in London, England.} In this one he is asked if he would consider being beneficiary of a Church of England convent — not a penniless convent, but one that has assets of around 11 million pounds in trust, all for the benefit of three nuns.

   A recently late, if I may put it that way, beneficiary had been beaten up by yobbos and suffered a fatal heart attack. After Treasure goes to the area and begins to ask questions about the trust, another death occurs and the convent is fired by an arsonist.

   As always, Williams’s characters are top-notch, particularly Sister Mary Maud, the setting superb, the humour (or wit, if you prefer) plentiful and unforced, and the trust and crimes marvellously complex.

   In addition, the philatelists among mystery readers, whose hobby is often neglected in the literature, should find the stamp information fascinating, as should those who use stamps only for dispatching things in the post.

   In addition, I was delighted that Treasure managed to work everything out satisfactorily in the end since, like Canon Stonning, I was in a bit of a muddle.

DAVID WILLIAMS – Planning For Murder. Mark Treasure #16. Collins Crime Club, UK, hardcover, 1992. No US edition.

   On the back of the dust jacket for David Williams’s most recent Mark Treasure novel is a quotation from Mystery & Detective Monthly, a U.S. letterzine, that describes Williams as “the English Emma Lathen,” a claim that is indisputably true.

   This Treasure novel is slightly less amusing than its predecessor, Treasure By Post, which is not a criticism, merely an observation. Even David Williams’ talent, which is considerable, would be hard-pressed to turn politics, planning permission, and economics into constant amusement.

   However, he does make what might seem a tedious subject interesting and understandable, while providing sufficient sly and dry wit, complex crimes, the usual first-class Treasure investigation, a wonderfully insalubrious pub, and a superb comic character in Larkhole. In addition, the title turns out to have a double meaning.

   Williams continues to be an author to be cherished and encouraged by both word and gesture.

— Reprinted from CADS 20, March 1993. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE FUNHOUSE. Universal Pictures, 1981. Elizabeth Berridge, Kevin Conway, William Finley, Cooper Huckabee, Miles Chapin, Sylvia Miles. Directed by Tobe Hooper.

   This stylish, if somewhat mediocre, horror film might as well have been entitled The Good, the Bad, and The Very Ugly. Because let me tell you: the monster in this Tobe Hooper directed feature is not just ugly; he’s very ugly. Hideous actually.

   Unfortunately, aside from the shock value of the creature’s disfigurement and the crisp photography, there’s not all that much that makes Funhouse an overly memorable horror film. That’s not to say that it’s a particularly bad film. It’s just that, overall, the film lacks both the character development and requisite memorable dialogue that could very have made it something that stood out from the pack.

   There were just so very many horror films released in the 1980s, many of which followed the standard plot of a final girl facing off against some sort of evil figure that it’s difficult to consider each one without reference to all the others. Indeed, in this particular regard, the plot of Funhouse doesn’t stray too far from the proverbial straight and narrow. There’s a female protagonist who, against her better judgment, gets caught up in a life-or-death situation and who, despite her meek nature, ends up defeating the evil antagonist. She is, in every respect, the final girl. The one who ends up surviving all the mayhem that transpires throughout the course of the film.

   Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) is a small town girl who lives with her parents and her kid brother. The latter is a prankster and something of a brat, it would appear. Against her better judgment, she ends up going with her friends to the carnival that has recently arrived in town. There, she and her date, as well as another couple, will make the fatal decision to spend the night in the funhouse.

   But, alas, something lurks – and drools – in the funhouse. And it’s not fully human. And it kills. This is essentially the entire plot. One, it should be noted, that doesn’t truly come into fruition until at least thirty or forty minutes into the film.

   Now again, don’t let me make you believe that Funhouse isn’t worth seeing. In many ways, it is. It’s actually, believe it or not, a fun movie, one that thankfully relies far more on atmosphere than gore to convey a general air of creepiness at the carnival.

   Harper, along with Sylvia Miles who portrays a fortuneteller, are strong female characters in a movie filled with overall unpleasant or just plain dull male characters. So the movie’s got a few things going for it. Just not enough to make it one that’s especially compelling, or one that stays in your mind for any length of time after you’ve left the movie theater. If you like horror movies set at carnivals, however, this one’s definitely worth checking out.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


BIG HOUSE, U.S.A. Bel-Air/United Artists, 1955. Ralph Meeker, Broderick Crawford, Lon Chaney Jr, William Talman, Felicia Farr, Reed Hadley and Charles Bronson. Written by John C. Higgins. Directed by Howard W. Koch.

   Despite the title, this isn’t really a prison movie. It’s a film that could have been agreeably subversive, in the manner of Kiss Me Deadly, but instead it settles for being merely unpleasant.

   Ralph Meeker stars as Jerry Barker, who seems at first to be just a guy out for a walk in the woods who stops to help a lost child. But this is Ralph at his nastiest, in a role that makes his Mike Hammer look like Saint Francis by comparison.

   Things get disagreeable pretty quickly, and what seemed at first to be an act of kindness turns into extortion. Ralph almost comes out of those woods with $200,000 and a guilty secret. I won’t go into details, but it was all pretty grim, even for a seasoned old movie-watcher like me.

   I said Ralph “almost” comes out of the woods with the money. Turns out he hid most of it back in the timber (at Royal Gorge National Park, where most of this was filmed) and when he’s picked up he only has a few thousand on him — enough to get nailed for extortion and draw a one-to-five-year sentence; with good behavior he can expect to get out in a few months and go back to claim his loot.

   But things take an interesting turn when Ralph gets thrown in a cell full of cult-movie bad guys: Broderick Crawford, William Talman, Lon Chaney and Charles Bronson. And there’s another fun twist when Ralph’s cell-mates plan to bust out and take him with them… to lead them to his loot.

   Like I say, this could have been enjoyably loathsome — like The Lineup or The Killers (the 1964 remake) with a writer and director attuned to its noir potential. But the folks in charge here decided to go for a Dragnet-style approach; Reed Hadley comes on as an FBI agent, complete with voice-over narration, and everything gets filmed at arm’s-length, in a near-documentary style, but without the sense of gritty realism.

   Even the most harrowing moments — and there are quite a few here — are shot with a detachment that seems almost uncaring. And when everyone gets their comeuppance, we get no sense of things coming together or falling apart. All we get is the sad conviction that with this story hook and those actors, this could have been a lot better.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


  LEIGH BRACKETT – The Tiger Among Us. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1957. Also published as 13 West Street: Bantam J2323, paperback, 1962. Reprinted in the UK as Fear No Evil (Corgi, paperback, 1960).

   This is Leigh Brackett’s best crime novel — a simple, straightforward, consistently gripping, and powerful story of one man’s nightmare encounter with random teenage violence. Walter Sherris, an average family man and a white-collar employee of a company in an Ohio mill town, takes a walk along a dark road one night and is brutally beaten by five young “tigers” out looking for thrills.

   But that is only the beginning of his ordeal. When Sherris is finally released from the hospital, he sets out to do what the police haven’t been able to: learn the identities of his attackers and see justice done. It isn’t long, however, before he is again the hunted — and his family along with him. For the five boys, continuing their random attacks, have gone too far with another of their victims: They are already murderers and stand ready to kill again. Even if Sherris learns to wear the stripes of the tiger himself, even if he survives this second assault, he knows his life will never be the same.

   Fine writing and some genuinely harrowing scenes make The Tiger Among Us one of the best of the spate of Fifties novels dealing with juvenile delinquency. In the forcefulness of its message, in fact, it is second only to Evan Hunter’s mainstream novel The Blackboard Jungle. An effective screen version appeared under the title 13 West Street in 1962, starring Alan Ladd and Rod Steiger.

   Brackett’s other crime novels are An Eye for an Eye (1957) and Silent Partner (1969). She also ghosted a mystery for actor George Sanders, Stranger at Home (1946).

         ———
   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 BARRY GARDNER:


EVAN HUNTER – Criminal Conversations. Warner Books, hardcover, 1994; paperback, 1995. Pocket, paperback, 2002.

   Is there anyone who doesn’t know that Evan Hunter, nee Salvatore Lombino, is also Ed McBain? No, I didn’t think so. This is his first novel under the Hunter byline in 10 years.

   Michael Welles is an Assistant DA heading up an organized crime unit. He has a beautiful wife, Sarah, and an adorable daughter, Molly. Sarah Welles is a fine and dedicated school teacher with an adoring husband, Michael, along with Molly. Andrew Faviola is a bright young man with a gruff old father, Anthony, who is serving five concurrent life sentences. Andrew has an extended family, too. Some people call it the Mafia. Michael wants Andrew — in jail. Andrew wants Sarah — in bed. Andrew’s extended family wants a lot of things, but mainly to get richer and stay out of jail. What we may have here is a set of irreconcilable goals.

   Well, I’d say what Hunter may have here is a winner. There are cops, and robbers, and lovers, and sex, and violence, and even a cute kid. There are a lot of characters, all of whom ring true, and the writing is as expert as you expect out of an old pro like Hunter, and haven’t always gotten of late from his alter ego, McBain.

   You can tell this one is written for a different audience than are the 87th Precinct books the first time you come to a four-page sex scene with lots of dirty talk. It’s a good book of its kind, which I’d call a “big” crime novel, and maybe a very good one. At the very worst it’s an entertaining read.

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

  DESIRE AND HELL AT SUNSET MOTEL. Two Moon Releasing, 1991. Sherilyn Fenn, Whip Hubley, David Hewlett, David Johansen, Kenneth Tobey. Screenwriter-director: Alien Castle.

   An unhappily married couple, a toy salesman and his bored wife, check into a 1950s hotel four miles from Disneyland. He hires a friend to spy on his wife; she asks her lover to kill her husband.

   This was described somewhere as “comedy noir,” but unless you have a high tolerance for ennui, forget it. It’s arch and snooty, and on a low budget in a cheap motel, that won’t even buy you a vanilla phosphate.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.


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