Reviews


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


DOUGLAS PRESTON & LINCOLN CHILD – The Last Island. Gideon Crew #3. Grand Central, hardcover, August 2014; paperback, March 2015.

   Preston and Child are the mega-selling authors of the popular Pendergast series about an eccentric Sherlockian FBI agent in wildly over the top thrillers (ironically the only film based on a Pendergast novel, Relic, left him out) who have a legion of fans including me. They have also written numerous standalone novels together and separately, thrillers with more than a touch of horror and/or science fiction, and more recently ventured out into yet another series featuring former master thief and nuclear physicist Gideon Crew who, as the series opens, has been presented with a death sentence, a rare deformity in his brain that will kill him in two years.

   Approached by Eli Glinn, the wheelchair bound CEO of Effective Engineering Solutions (EES) (who debuted in The Ice Limit, a standalone novel in which Glinn was crippled after recovering a strange meteorite that turned out to be something else entirely), Crew is offered a rare chance for adventure and for reasons of his own, teams up with Glinn and Glinn’s number top operations man Manuel Garza.

   The first two books in the series sold well, but didn’t light any fires, but with The Lost Island, the third book in the five book series, the boys found their voice with their new protagonist, who even with this criminal history and fatal brain deformity is far more normal than Pendergast or his Watson NYC cop Lt. Vincent D’Acosta.

   Lost Island opens with Crew summoned by Glinn almost as soon as the last adventure ends to a rare tour featuring the Book of Kells, and with an assignment to steal a page from that rare book, a particular page know as the Chi Ro page. About the first third of the book is taken up with Crew’s plan to steal the almost impossible to access page from the Morgan Library (Preston worked at the Museum of Natural History and has more than a passing understanding of museum’s in general), where Ireland’s national treasure is on display.

   The details of the heist are interesting, if not particularly riveting, but things get considerably more so when Glinn, once in possession of the page, proceeds to bleach the intricate and priceless designs from the vellum.

   Under the vellum (which plays more of a role later in the book when we discover what it is made from) is an ancient Greek map once found in an Irish monastery where the monks lived to unusual age and were healed of terrible injuries and deformities, apparently by something brought back by the ancient Greeks and rediscovered by the monks that can heal.

   Glinn hopes to heal himself, and offers the same hope to Crew, as well as a promise to use the healing element to help mankind.

   Using experts and EES powerful computers and testing facilities, they determine the island where the healing power comes from is somewhere in the Caribbean and dispatch Crew in a state of the art yacht along with Amy (Amiko) a half Japanese licensed ship’s captain with doctorates in sociology and language.

   Of course Crew and Amy can’t stand each other but have to pretend to be husband and wife to avoid being spotted as treasure hunters, and of course right off the bat they are nailed as treasure hunters by a sadistic pair of the same and involved in a running battle that leaves them shipwrecked near one of the map’s markers.

   And it is here where the book takes off into Clive Cussler/James Rollins country as Amy makes a wild, but correct, leap of logic as to the origin of the map, and they find themselves mixing with dangerous natives on an unexplored island and prisoner of a virtually immortal and tragic hominid straight out of Greek mythology.

   To be fair, I found almost all a bit too slick and simple, as if it was being tossed off rather than truly integrated as in the best of these books. I didn’t buy into it even for the brief length of the novel, and I never felt Preston and Child did either, a problem I noted with the first two Crew books.

   The finale finds Gideon and Amy trying to save the hominid from an obsessed Glinn as the entire island goes up in flames.

   The Gideon Crew series recently ended with book five, The Pharaoh Key (2018), leaving Crew with only a few weeks to live and his fate up in the air, and truthfully I’m not surprised. While the books are entertaining, and like the Pendergast books weave in and out of the various worlds created by the pair in their other books in a shared universe, the central character Gideon Crew just never really clicks. He’s not as eccentric, brilliant, or driven as Pendergast, and since the five books take place in a two year period there isn’t much time for him to be much of a romantic brooder.

   His history is far more interesting than the man himself.

   He doesn’t seem particularly bothered by his doom, and it bothers him physically even less than Ben Gazzara’s similar disease impaired his adventures in the days of Run For Your Life. He references his condition at the beginning and end of every book and once or twice along the way, but honestly he might as well be suffering a bad sinus infection.

   The books are slickly written, well researched, and entertaining, but no real competition for Pendergast much less Cussler and Rollins, despite the fact Preston and Child have written some of the best adventure thrillers of the last couple of decades.

   Of note though for any fans of the team’s standalone novel The Ice Limit (2000), which ended with an unintended cliffhanger, the boys finally tie the loose ends they didn’t think they left up in the fourth Gideon Crew adventure Beyond the Ice Limit (2016), which is a rarity, a series book tying up the plot line of a non-series book that wasn’t supposed to have needed a sequel in the first place, a bit as if Conan Doyle had chosen for Holmes or Challenger to tie up events in Sir Nigel.

   Fans of The Ice Limit, of which I am one, will always appreciate Gideon Crew if only for that.

ROBERT KYLE – Some Like It Cool. Ben Gates #4. Dell First Edition 8100, paperback original; 1st printing, August 1962. Cover art by Robert McGinnis.

   Ben Gates is your one of your typical hard-drinking 1960s PIs with an eye both eyes open for a good-looking woman, even those who might be considered a suspect in whatever case he might be working on at the time. Robert Kyle, the author of the five books he appeared in (Robert Terrall, in the real world) does a nice turn of phrase every once in a while, but this particular case is no more than extraordinarily ordinary.

   That’s probably the fault of the plot, which has to do with a bill pending before the New York State legislature designed to create Off Track Betting. The anti-gambling crowd is against it and so, of course, are the bookies whose jobs would largely be eliminated if the bill were to go through.

   An author of the likes of a Hammett or Chandler might have been able to make this interesting, but Kyle/Terrall was never of those two gentlemen’s caliber, not even with millions of dollars being offered around to make this legislator or that switch sides — not to mention blackmail and then murder.

   But the story is short and sweet enough to keep you reading anyway, and Kyle/Terrall does have a sense of humor about the whole thing, which makes it go down a whole lot more easily. Example: All of the suspects are gathered together a couple of chapters toward the end to help close up the case. Nothing new about that, you say, and you’d be right, but have you ever read about one that takes place in a public ladies’ room? With an unfortunate woman unfortunately trapped in one the stalls the whole time, with Ben Gates asking how often whether or not he’s making everything clear to her.

   Neither have I, until now.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


LES MAUDITS. Ciné Sélection, France, 1947. Released in the US as The Damned (DisCina International ,1948). Marcel Dalio, Henri Vidal, Florence Marley, Fosco Giachetti, Jo Dest and Michel Auclair. Written by Victor Alexander and René Clément. Directed by René Clément.

   You probably don’t know about this film unless you caught it on TCM a year or so ago, and more’s the pity, because it’s what cineastes call A Real Grabber: a story of suspense and survival right up there with Wages of Fear.

   The Damned of the title are a group of high-ranking Nazis, well-connected sympathizers and their bed-warmers, slipping out of Germany via U-boat — ostensibly to carry on the fight from South America, but some have plans that have nothing to do with the Reich.

   When the General’s mistress is injured, Henri Vidal gets into the mix as a doctor kidnapped from a French port and carried off with the rest. Quickly realizing they plan to kill him, Vidal diagnoses a sore throat as a contagious illness to make himself less dispensable, and the result is a claustrophobic drama of manners as the Nazis and their sycophants quarrel and murder, and Vidal schemes to stay alive.

   Writer-Director René Clément paces the whole thing skillfully, alternating the cramped U-Boat conflicts with scenes above decks and on shore before it can get too confining. And he takes time to let his characters develop as he rings in plot devices like the fall of Berlin and the reactions to it. Like:

    “If the Fuhrer were really dead, they’d never let them announce it on the Radio.”

    “So he must be alive because they say he’s dead?”

   In fact, a great deal of the interest here comes from the collapse of Germany and the efforts of the Nazis to dodge falling rubble. In South America they find their bought-and-paid-for friends hard to locate and unwilling to help. When they find a German Tanker ship and refuel, word of the armistice causes a mass desertion. And yet – this is the gripping part — they react with the steely viciousness that got them where they are, leading to some unsettlingly visceral moments. And at the same time, Vidal’s captive Doctor Guilbert keeps plotting his own escape, giving the film a sense of progress and anchoring us to a character we can identify with.

   The result is a film of complexity and tension, with unexpected twists and depth of writing that keeps one watching. Early on I likened this to Wages of Fear for its suspense and sensitivity, and the comparison is apt. This is a classic to watch and remember.


RICHARD ROSEN – Saturday Night Dead. Harvey Blisssberg #3. Viking, hardcover, 1988. Signet, paperback, June 1989.

   In this third adventure of PI (and former major league baseball player) Harvey Blissberg, the death of the producer of a late-night comedy show is designed to give him a smooth transition from sports-related mysteries to the world of show business. It doesn’t work. Compared to earlier entries in the series, it’s definitely not a step up.

   There are a lot of suspects, many of whom Harvey quickly eliminates. In fact, most of the clues point one way, but it still comes as a surprise when Harvey decides who the killer is with nearly 80 pages to go. On page 233 Harvey admits his reasoning was all guesswork.

   Neither exceptionally well told, nor more than merely bland. On the basis of this one, I think Harvey had better go back to playing the outfield.

–Reprinted with some mild revisions from Mystery*File #14, July 1989.


       The Harvey Blissberg series —

Strike Three You’re Dead (1984)
Fadeaway (1986)
Saturday Night Dead (1988)
World Of Hurt (1994)
Dead Ball (2001) .

GHOST TOWN. Bel Air Productions / United Artists, 1956. Kent Taylor, John Smith, Marian Carr, Serena Sande, John Doucette, Joel Ashley, Gilman Rankin, William ‘Bill’ Phillips (the latter uncredited). Director: Allen H. Miner.

   When it comes to westerns made in the 1950s, I find that independently produced black and white movies such as this one are often a lot more fun to watch than some of those filmed in color with big name stars. It may be my own skewed vision of the world, but I think the more personal approach says more to me than do pictures filtered through the eyes of corporate accountants, say.

   This one starts slow, but the story wouldn’t have worked as well as it does without establishing who exactly the characters are and what’s motivating them, beginning with the four passengers in a stagecoach heading west through Indian territory: a young woman from Boston going to meet the man she is going to marry; a Bible-thumping preacher who has nothing but brotherly love for the noble savages; a doctor who spends most of the day taking long swigs from a bottle; and a well-dressed but still shady-looking gentleman of uncertain profession (Kent Taylor).

   Along the way they are joined by the young woman’s fiancé (John Smith) and his crusty old sidekick Crusty (an unbilled Bill Phillips); an Army sergeant and his young son; and eventually a tongueless and disgraced Indian chief and his young mixed-heritage female companion.

   The stagecoach chased by a band of angry Indians, they manage to find refuge in an abandoned town, and that’s when all of their various secrets start to come out. None of these come as a complete surprise to those of us who have seen a lot of western movies, but it’s as smoothly done as it ever was ins bigger productions. There’s lot of action, too, for those who watch westerns only for the action.

   A couple of quibbles. The Indians at first abandon their chase when the stagecoach reaches the town — totally abandoned because of disease, they discover, and so, they assume, the Indians have marked the town as taboo. But for the sake of the story, though, once the fugitives are “safely” holed up inside the local saloon, the Indians show no signs of concern about bringing up the attack again.

   Which, of course, brings out either the best, or the worst, of each of those trapped inside, with very little ammunition to aid them.

   The other question I have is why on earth Bill Phillips gets no screen credit. He’s there primarily for comic relief, true, but he’s on the screen a lot more than some of the others who do get screen credit.


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


RICHARD S. PRATHER – Strip for Murder. Shell Scott #12, Gold Medal #508, paperback original, 1955. Reprinted several times, including Gold Medal s1029, paperback, 1962.

   This was a party that Cholly Knickerbocker, in tomorrow’s Los Angeles Examiner, would describe as “a gathering of the Smart Set,” and if this was the Smart Set, I was glad I belonged to the Stupid Set.

   The twelfth Shell Scott adventure features what may be the perfect setup for the white-haired hero, murder in a nudist colony. Shell takes a case from wealthy Vera Redstone that takes him to Fairview after another detective she hired, a friend of Scott’s has been murdered, and Scott is in for a surprise when he arrives because no one bothered to mention he was going undercover with no cover so to speak.

   He’s in for no small shock when he is met by a very attractive and very nude young woman who casually informs him where he can remove his clothes.

   “What do you mean by telling me to go up there and take off my clothes?”

   She laughed. “Don’t be silly. You didn’t expect to keep them on, did you?”

   “Lady. Miss. Peggy. Are there people up there?”

   “Certainly. About a hundred. All the permanent members of Fairview.”

   “Come on, tell me the truth. Don’t they have their clothes on?”

   “Of course not. How silly!”

   “Where am I?” I cried. “What is this place? What have I got into? Are you … nudists?”

   She winced slightly. “Nobody calls us nudists. We’re naturists. Health culturists. Sunbathers. Stop pulling my leg, Mr. Scott. Surely you—”

   “Level with me now. You’re nudists.”

   She shook her head, then laughed slightly. “Well, I suppose in a sense you could call us nudists, if you must have it that way.”

   “Well,” I said, “I have to go. Really I do. It’s been fun, but I really do—”

   After some initial problems with the concept good old Shell gets in the ah … swing of things, and of course, being Prather, there is more than enough pulchritude, violence, mystery, and mayhem to keep the pages rapidly turning.

   One of the keys to Prather’s long term success was that on top of writing well and being the fastest quip in the West Shell Scott, while no genius, is a pretty good detective who manages to get involved in interesting cases with clever plots and solutions at the same time he stumbles across beautiful naked women, and increasingly finds himself shedding his own clothes — almost a running gag in the series over the years.

   The big influences on Prather were clearly Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer and equally Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective, who could almost be Scott’s libidinous father. Indeed, Prather’s clever idea, which many copied but few got half as right, was to marry the violence and brutality of Mike Hammer to the mindset of the Spicy pulps, particularly Bellem’s surreal Dan Turner.

   Prather wisely played down some of Bellem’s excesses, but he also took advantage of the freedom offered by the paperback revolution. Just a small random sampling gives you the idea.

   Another naked woman happened.

   But simply to say “another naked woman” is like saying Mount Everest is higher than some hills.

   Or

   I was looking squarely at her, and from now on she could get me to do almost any fool thing simply by taking a couple of deep breaths.

   And

   “…I grinned at her and said, “I forgot to tell you. I’m a voyeur. Just a crazy, mixoscopiaed kid.”

   And so Scott quips, dodges bullets, flirts with beautiful women, and eventually ends up jousting in full armor.

   I was sweating more than the armor’s warmth could account for, but I said, “Dropped my lance.”

   I didn’t even know what Sardine’s voice sounded like, but my tones were suitably muffled by the helmet — and the customers had hysterics.

   “Dropped his lance!” one yelled. “Caught him with his lance down!” Husky allowed himself to laugh with them. There was more laughter while I climbed onto the horse, since the damned armor seemed to weigh a ton—besides which, I’m not accustomed to climbing onto horses. I know nothing at all about plenty of things, but especially horses.

   The result was that Scott became what may have been the quintessential fifties and sixties private eye, a big white-haired ex-Marine in a big Cadillac and a tweed sports coat sporting a movie star smile, two lethal fists, and his .38. He was tough, no question of that, but as fast with a quip as he was with his fists, and as a result his adventures were the perfect read for the busy man looking for a smile and a thrill but nothing too challenging.

   Like peanuts, you never knew when you had enough Shell Scott. If Michael Shayne and Johnny Liddell were the ideal generic eyes and Hammer the toughest of the tough, Scott carved his own niche halfway between Hammer and Dan Turner, and skillfully mined it again and again, ringing more variations on the theme that it seemed possible whether Scott was swinging from a Hollywood movie set in a loin cloth being chased by gangsters or hiding behind a hollow rock exchanging shots on the set of an adult film in the desert.

   Strip for Murder wasn’t Prather’s first foray into a touch of the absurdist, but for me it marked the point when Scott’s adventures stopped being standard Private Eye fare and veered off into an altogether more surrealist venue. From this point on, the thin veneer of reality became almost transparent and Scott’s adventures took on their own special cachet in a world as much Pratherland as La La Land.

   After all the hi- and lo-jinks the book ends in a hail of gunfire as appropriate for any Shell Scott adventure. No one can say Prather didn’t choreograph action as well as he did all the tease.

   …dirt geysered inches to the right of my head. I rolled that way, hoping he’d have jerked the gun toward me and that he’d have expected me to move in the opposite direction. Because he had me cold if I didn’t cross him up that little bit. As I rolled I squirmed onto my back, and before I even caught sight of him I squeezed the trigger on the police revolver twice, not aiming at anything but praying that just the sudden violent sound might jar him.

   Maybe that was what did it. His gun cracked again and he missed me, though I felt the hot wind hiss past my cheek. Then I saw him, and I was firing again even before my gun was pointed at him. But it was pointed at (SPOILER)’s body before the gun clicked empty. I hit him twice.

   Once again Shell Scott survives, gets the girl, and solves the mystery all in a manner that despite the sexism is still highly entertaining to read today. Perhaps because Scott doesn’t quite operate in the real world, its a bit easier to ignore how much Prather was a voice of his time. Scott’s world is unique and his adventures take place in only a vague semblance of the private eye world we all know and love. The mean streets in Pratherland are a yellow brick road we gleefully follow to the wizard and we are seldom disappointed with what is behind the emerald curtain.

THE CASE AGAINST BROOKLYN. Columbia Pictures, 1958. Darren McGavin, Maggie Hayes, Warren Stevens, Peggy McCay, Tol Avery, Emile Meyer, Nestor Paiva. based on a True Magazine article “I Broke the Brooklyn Graft Scandal” by crime reporter Ed Reid. Cinematography: Fred Jackman. Director: Paul Wendkos.

   Based on article about massive corruption in the Brooklyn Police Department in the 1950s, The Case Against Brooklyn is a little known but still impressive example of late-in-the-game film noir. Frustrated by his inability to crack down on betting gangs in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the D.A. co-opts the entire graduating class of new police academy cadets to work undercover for him.

   One of these, older than the others, is an ex-Marine named Pete Harris (Darren McGavin), who in search of both glory and a promotion, lets his job take over his life so completely that in the end his obsession has destroyed it as well. Even though happily married at the beginning of the film, in order to work his way into the gang, he romances a new widow (Lil Polombo, played magnificently by Maggie Hayes) so well that she finds herself falling in love with him.

   Although filmed on a low budget, the story doesn’t pull any punches, except perhaps how far Pete is willing to go with his faux romance with Lil. The cast may consist entirely of low profile actors, but they are all professionals, and they know exactly what they are doing. And as in all good noir films, the action is both snappy and violent, and the photography makes good use of interesting angles as well as darkness and the light and the shadows in between. And the ending? Well nigh perfect.

   Nicely done, all around!



Added Later: Here’s Walter Albert’s take on this same movie.

LIA MATERA – The Smart Money. Laura Di Palma #1, Bantam, paperback original, July 1988. Ballantine, paperback, 1993.

   Lia Matera, who has previously created one radical female attorney in the Willa Janssen books, produces another in Laura DiPalma, the successful defender of Wallace Bean, the assassin of two Republican pro-war Senators, and in this book, the first victim.

   The second is the current wife of Laura’s ex-husband, and it all begins with some related plans for revenge. The plot is complicated, but it’s fairly clued. Even more important to the story is the strong vitality of the characters, almost disconcerting.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #14, July 1989.


Bibliographic Notes:   Lia Matera was the author of seven Willa Janssen between 1987 and 1998, plus five with Laura DiPalma in the years 1988 to 1995. That’s 12 in nine years. No wonder back then there it felt like there was another one just out from her. Her most recent work of fiction was a non-series short story in the January-February issue of EQMM.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE GREEN GODDESS. Warner Brothers, 1930. George Arliss, Ralph Forbes, H.B. Warner, Alice Joyce. Director: Alfred E. Green.

   Speaking of surprises, there’s a nifty one at the end of The Green Goddess, a remake of a venerable Silent Film derived from a creaky play by William Archer. Both films starred that shameless old ham George Arliss (whom a critic dubbed “The Man of One Face”) delivering a magnificently fruity performance as the half-mad ruler of some lost city in the remote regions of what C. Aubrey Smith used to call “Injah.”

   This film may be the spiritual progenitor of every “lost city” serial and B-movie ever made. Certainly, all the elements are there, what with the doughty downed flyers (Ralph Forbes and H. B. Warner, back when he had hair) and the woman they both love (Alice Joyce) at the mercy of heathen zealots, playing cat-and-mouse with Arliss amid splendiferous sets and keeping upper lips stiff to the point of Lockjaw. There are hairbreadth escapes, human sacrifices, stylish lust, and everything else kids go to the movies for.

   At Center Stage, though, is the unforgettable Arliss, who — how can I describe it? — manages to ham it up without overacting. He ladles out every line of his drippy dialogue with all the relish of Robert Newton or Tod Slaughter, yet somehow manages to gently kid the whole thing at the same time.

   It’s a performance of enormous gusto and more complexity than you might think, and as a reward for it, Arliss gets to wrap up the film with a Closing Line guaranteed to awaken even the most jaded viewer, Watch it and see.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #44, May 1990.


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


BRIAN GARFIELD – Death Wish. McKay, hardcover, 1972. Fawcett Crest, paperback, August 1974. Mysterious Press, paperback, 1985. Other reprint editions exist. Film: Paramount Pictures, 1974.

   Brian Garfield is a highly versatile writer at any number of story types and forms. He began his career in the western field,where he published dozens of novels, including at least five of outstanding quality. In 1970 he shifted his sights to the contemporary novels with criminous themes that have earned him wide acclaim in this country ans best0seller status in England.

   These, published under his own name and the pseudonym John Ives, cover most of the criminous spectrum: action/adventure, political intrigue, comic farce, historical suspense, espionage, and urban crime. More recently, he has published a nonfiction book on western films, written screenplays, and formed his own Hollywood production company.

   Death Wish is probably Garfield’s most famous (some might say infamous) novel, not so much by its own virtue but as a result of the 1974 film version with Charles Bronson. It is certainly the work that catapulted him into national prominence, at least in part of his violent reaction to the film.

   The plot is simple and gut-wrenching. Paul Benjamin, a happily married cliff dweller on New York’s Upper West Side, receives a call from his son-in-law one hot, ordinary summer afternoon. Three young hoodlums have broken into his apartment (the building was supposedly secure) and brutally beaten his wife and daughter — attacks of such violence that neither woman survives.

   The police are helpless: they have no clear description of the youths, no way to track them down. Paul’s grief, frustration, and rage finally lead him to take action himself — to buy a gun and go hunting the three kids in their world: the deserted alleys and streets and byways of the city after dark. But his mission of vengeance soon assumes a much larger scope: It becomes a vendetta against all the criminals who prey on helpless victims, a one-man vigilante committee bent on destroying as many of the enemy as possible before he himself is caught.

   As the jacket blurb says, this “is the story of a society having a nervous breakdown. It is about something that causes a a secret uneasiness far back in the conscious minds of many people. What would happen to a man who is unable to keep to the narrow line that stands between being a victim or executioner?”

   Garfield does not glorify or advocate vigilantism: his is the story of Paul Benjamin’s descent into hell. The film version, however, does glorify Paul’s actions. Its makers misinterpreted the novel’s ambiguous ending and produced a paean to violence, an ultra-right-wing fantasy that ends with Bronson winking at the camera and silently promising more carnage to come.

   Garfield was so appalled at the film’s distortion of his novel that he ought — unsuccessfully, foe thr most part — to keep t from being shown on national television.

   In a sequel, Death Sentence (1975), Garfield completes Paul’s story, reaffirms the original intent of Death Wish, and makes a strong anti-violence statement. This novel, however, did not have the commercial success of Death Wish ad unfortunately seems to be one of Garfield’s least-known works. This reviewer, at least, accords it considerable respect.

     ———
   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.

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