Reviews


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


GILDERSLEEVE’S GHOST. RKO, 1944. Harold Peary, Marion Martin, Richard LeGrand, Frank Reicher, Amelita Ward, Freddie Mercer, Margie Stewart, Emory Parnell, Jack Norton as the Drunk and Charles Gemora as the Gorilla. Screenwriter: Robert E. Kent, based on characters appearing on the long-running radio program, The Great Gildersleeve (1941-1958). Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Some folks think it kinky of me, others merely shrug and roll their eyes, and a few have damned me from the pulpit for it, but I always thought Harold Peary was funny. Just something about that chuckle of his and the trademark hem-and-hawing, always gets a laugh out of me.

   So I’m tempted to give Gildersleeve’s Ghost much more praise than it deserves from a discerning critic like myself. I can’t honestly recommend it to any serious movie buff either. But damitall, this movie has everything: ghosts, an old dark house, a mad doctor with a sinister assistant, an invisible woman, insulting comic relief, and an escaped gorilla. Who — I ask you WHO? — could ask for anything more?

   Peary skips through it with his usual aplomb, and Gordon Douglas, whose career included Rio Conchos, Tony Rome, and Sincerely Yours, directs with the flippancy it deserves. I should also mention writer Robert Kent, who went on to a long and bizarre career with Sam Katzman, writing things like Hootenanny Hoot and The Fastest Guitar Alive.

   As for Gildersleeve’s Ghost, it’s fast, light, and outrageous enough to keep you saying “Whuzza?” even if you don’t find it funny. Catch it if you can.

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


CHRIS KNOPF – Tango Down. PI Sam Acquillo #8. The Permanent Press, hardcover, December 2017. Setting: Long island NY (The Hamptons).

First Sentence:   I was trying to maneuver my way across the muddy construction site when Frank Entwhistle ran up to my old Jeep Cherokee and slapped on the windshield.

   Sam Acquillo has been building cabinets for the new home of wealthy New Yorker Victor Bollings. When Bollings’ body is found on the job site, Colombian illegal Ernesto Mazzoti, a finish carpenter and Sam’s friend, is arrested as the obvious suspect. The murder weapon contains Ernesto’s fingerprints, but Sam isn’t buying it. With the help of Jackie Swaitkowski, a defense attorney who, courtesy of billionaire Burton Lewis, takes the cases of those who can’t afford to pay, Sam works to prove Ernesto innocent.

   It is nice when an author starts straight in with the crime. Sam is a great character with a fascinating background and unexpected skills. Just when his machismo starts becoming a bit strong, it is tempered by his caring for others. His lover, Amada, and dog, Eddie Van Halen, round out the character nicely. It is also nice that Knopf’s writing is wonderfully intelligent and that he provides a good sense of Eastern Long Island with its marked contrast between the extremely wealthy, primarily summer people, and the working-class people who live there year-round.

   A well-done metaphor is always a pleasure to read— “Then I used a few other traditional calibrating tools to reset the table saw. … The result was perfect and true, like the heart of a young lover before disappointment upends her soul.”

   The story line of undocumented workers couldn’t be more timely or accurate. That the investigation involves multiple agencies, and a jaunt to the Virgin Islands adds dimensions to the story. So too is that of the issue with which Amanda is dealing which is emotional and adds yet another layer to the plot as well as the characters.

   Tango Down is intelligent, complex, multi-layered, and has a realistic ending. It is also really, really good; it is always surprising that Knopf is not more widely known and read.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.


The Sam Acquillo series —

1. The Last Refuge (2005)

2. Two Time (2005)
3. Head Wounds (2008)
4. Hardstop (2009)

5. Black Swan (2011)
6. Cop Job (2015)
7. Back Lash (2016)
8. Tango Down (2017)

Note:   Attorney Jackie Swaitkowski has her own series of books (so far) as does another of Knopf’s series characters, Arthur Cathcart, “market researcher and occasional finder of missing persons”

K. K. BECK – The Body in the Volvo. Walker, hardcover, 198. Ballantine/Ivy, paperback, August 1989.

    When a young professor at the University of Washington (in what department I don’t think it’s ever said) is unjustly denied tenure. he’s forced to look for work in the real world. Luckily his Uncle Cosmo has just won the lottery, and he helps his nephew out.

   With full custody of his auto-repair shop. It’s hardly the gold mine of opportunity he envisioned, as you can imagine, and when the body of his former department chairman is found on the premises, it turns into outright disaster.

   Not a major work, but one that’s both funny and well-plotted.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.

SNOWBOUND. RKO Radio Pictures, UK, 1948. Universal Pictures, US, 1949. Robert Newton, Dennis Price, Stanley Holloway, Herbert Lom, Marcel Dalio, Mila Parely. Based on the novel The Lonely Skier, by Hammond Innes. (US title: Fire in the Snow. Harper, 1947.) Director: David Macdonald.

   There are some interesting aspects to this post-war spy-adventure film set in the Italian Alps, but unfortunately there are not enough of them for me to give it more than a half-hearted recommendation.

   It may be (a) it follows the book too closely, or (b) not closely enough. Without ever having read the book, I’m inclined to go with (a), as the first half of the film simply meanders here and there far too much, without anything of interest happening. Under the circumstances, of course, you can take my inclination and store it in you sock drawer for the next rainy day when you feel you need one.

   In any case, here’s the basic story line. Robert Newton, now a film director in England, recruits a former soldier under his command (Dennis Price) to go to an isolated ski cottage in the Alps and report back to him everything that he finds going on there.

   And what’s going on is the arrival of several other characters, including one self-described contessa (Mila Parely) who all act in mysterious ways and all of whom seem to know each other, but seem disinclined to admit it. There is also not much doubt that these not nice people. Price’s bumbling inquiries fail to elicit much in the way of information, but on the plus side, he finds himself being more and more attracted to the mysterious contessa.

   Every review I’ve read of the movie comes right out and explains what’s going on, but I’ve decided not to. Suffice it to say that Robert Newton, who doesn’t turn up again after the first ten minutes until the movie is well over halfway over, and not till then does it get out of first gear. Herbert Lom makes for a great villain in the meantime, though — not surprisingly — even though we the viewer have no idea what it is that prompts such glowering looks.

   The finale, when it finally arrives, is a good one, but all in all, it’s not good enough to make up for a weak opening half lasting nearly sixty minutes or so.

LILIAN JACKSON BRAUN – The Cat Who Went Underground. Jim Qwilleran #9. Putnam, hardcover, 1989. Jove, paperback, September 1989.

   I like cats all right, and I’ve even discovered I can put up with them in detective stories. This is the first of the adventures of semi-retired Jim Qwilleran and his two Siamese pets (Koko and Yum Yum) I’ve read, and while I’m not sure I’m totally converted, it was amusing.

   Braun’s style is a combination of breathless exclamation points with a rural folksiness of a northern Michigan sort that also manages not to be condescending. I do wish, however, that she’d allowed more than the last 40 pages for the detective work to take place.

   To wit. While there are lots of hints concerning some sort of mysterious activity that is taking place, sometimes through the astrology columns in the newspaper, sometimes through a fortune-teller friend, Qwilleran does not find the body of the first known murder victim (under the floor of his cabin on the lake) until page 161.

   Until then, what we’re given is a more-or-less hilarious account of the vicissitudes of a city man trying to cope with life in the “wild” — toilets that don’t flush, water heaters that don’t heat, coons in the chimney, and so on. (I guess I’ll probably stay where I am.)

— Reprinted and somewhat revised from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.


Bibliographic Notes:   The first three books in Braun’s “Cat” series were published between 1966 and 1968. There was then a gap of 18 years before the fourth one came out, when the author was 75, and something strange happened. It became an overnight success and sold a ton of copies.

   So successful that there were 25 more, with the last one, The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, appearing in 2007, when Braun was 94. She died in 2011 at the grand old age of 98.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


HARRY BROWN – The Stars in Their Courses. Knopf, hardcover, 1960; Bantam, paperback, 19??

EL DORADO. Paramount, 1967. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Charlene Holt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Ed Asner, Michele Carey, Christopher George and Olaf Wieghorst. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses, by Harry Brown. Directed by Howard Hawks.

   The other day I re-read The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown, which I hadn’t touched in 30 years, and it spurred me to re-watch a film I haven’t seen in almost as long, El Dorado.

   Stars tells the Trojan War legend reframed as a Western: Arch Eastmere (think Achilles) is a skillful gunfighter with a bad heart and worse luck, who returns to his home town to find that the small ranchers (to whom he owes money) are getting fed up with the local Big Rancher, Percy Randal. When Percy’s younger son rides off with the abused wife of one of the small ranchers, they’re ready to fight. Arch likes the Randals, and was a close friend of Percy’s tough older son Hallock (think Hector) but he owes a debt to the opposition….

   It’s all a bit contrived and pretentious, but somehow fitting. The ancient heroes were to the Greeks as cowboys were to us when I was a kid, and it’s fascinating to see Brown set these leathery westerners to reenacting a legend, with splendid prose, fast action, and characters at once larger than life and all too human.

   This was almost filmed by Howard Hawks as El Dorado — Hawks lost faith in the script half-way through and decided to just re-make Rio Bravo. If you watch Dorado you may notice the earlier scenes shot outdoors tend toward the grim side, but the later parts (done in the studio to save time & money) just earnestly copy Rio Bravo.

   The wonder is that it all works so splendidly. Hawks’ gift for vivid action and his knack of making his actors look like they’re actually talking to each other were never displayed to better effect.

   He’s helped considerably by a remarkable cast. Charlene Holt plays the local shady lady with a tender toughness that becomes really moving at times, and Michele Carey projects an untamed sexuality that smacks up agreeably against James Caan’s virile neophyte. Paul Fix and R.G. Armstrong lend their typecast western authority to the proceedings, and Christopher George recalls the amiable lethality of John Ireland in Red River, as a man who will share drink with someone or gun him down just as easily. Best of all, Arthur Hunnicutt positively shines as the Ultimate Comical Sidekick, a character so funny and bizarre that only he could do it justice.

   And then there are the top-liners: John Wayne and Robert Mitchum playing the heroes of the piece with rueful maturity. Mitchum gets a showy part as the sheriff-turned-drunk, by turns comic and harrowing, and he makes it one of the best performances of a remarkable career. Wayne’s role as Mitchum’s gunfighter-buddy plagued by a debilitating wound is just as fine, his toughness crumbling with startling poignancy that somehow reveals the inner strength.

   Hawks’ skill as a director has been duly celebrated in classics like To Have and Have Not, The Thing from Another World and Bringing Up Baby, but he was never better than in this broken-backed western.

   By the way, El Dorado opens with the title credits over some fine Western paintings. They are the work of artist Olaf Wieghorst, who also plays the Swedish gunsmith with the great line, “He shoot the piano player, and they hang him.”

      

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


LAWMAN. United Artists, 1971. Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Sheree North, Albert Salmi, Richard Jordan, John McGiver, Ralph Waite. Director: Michael Winner.

   Brutal and cynical, Lawman certainly isn’t a genial Western where the good guy takes on a villainous cattle baron, wins the love of a beautiful girl, and restores the equilibrium of the world to be on the side of justice. Rather, this Michael Winner film is a character study of an aging, brooding lawman so obsessively committed to his personal code of honor that all he is able to do is bring death and misery to all those he encounters.

   Burt Lancaster, in a role that allows little for his personal charm to shine, portrays Jared Maddox. Sporting a black leather vest and a holster, Maddox rides into the town of Sabbath. We learn through a conversation that he has with the town’s marshal Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan) that he has come to Sabbath for a very specific reason.

   Several months ago, cowhands working for the stoical cattle baron Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb) had ridden into a town by the name of Bannock and shot up the place. Although they were drunk and merely looking to blow off steam, an old man died at the hands of one of their bullets. And Maddox intends to bring the men back to Bannock to face trial.

   This sets in motion a series of violent confrontations between Maddox and the wanted men, as well as anyone who dares stand in his way. Maddox is so tied to the cause of “justice” – indeed, to his very identity as a “lawman” – that he’s increasingly blind to how much unnecessary death and misery he is bringing in his refusal to budge even slightly from his personal code.

   In that sense, Lawman stands in the tradition of those tragic Westerns in which a protagonist has outlived his time. Maddox belongs to an earlier era, in which the law was good and the outlaw was bad. Such binary demarcations are outdated in Braddock. Even the “bad” cattle baron seems to have more insight and compassion than Maddox.

   But does this mean we are supposed to not root for Maddox? Or are we supposed to be somewhat detached spectators watching Maddox make one bad decision after another? Unlike Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in Death Wish (1974), a film Winner directed several years after Lawman, we never get to see how or why Maddox was forged into a stone cold killer.

   It’s the absence of a backstory that makes Lawman a far less compelling character study than it could have been. By the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT), when Maddox shoots a man in the back, we finally get the message. Maddox is as much a villain as a hero. And the real lawman in the film, the one we should admire is the quiet, thoughtful Cotton Ryan.

JILL McGOWN – Gone to Her Death. Lloyd & Hill #3. St. Martin’s Press, US, hardcover, 1990. Fawcett, US, paperback, 1991. First published in the UK as Death of a Dancer (Macmillan, hardcover, 1989).

   If you didn’t know anything about England except for what you read in their mystery novels, you would have to conclude that there is only one thing on the minds of everyone who lives there, male or female, day or night, and that is S-E-X.

   The scene is a public boys’ school, and even so, rape, attempted rape, voyeurism, impotence, nymphomania, repressed homosexuality, it’s all here. Even Inspector Lloyd is carrying on an affair with his sergeant, Judy Hill, and she’s still married. Spare me.

Afterthoughts:   I think maybe I should add that McGown does have some sobering things to say about rape, and then secondly, underneath it all is really a pretty fair detective story. There is not a single sympathetic character in the whole book, but if you make it through to the end, you may find that the working out of the mystery is quite satisfactory.

— Reprinted and somewhat revised from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.


Bibliographic Note:   There were 13 books in the Lloyd & Hill series, the last being Unlucky for Some (2004)

PORT OF MISSING GIRLS. Monogram Pictures, 1938. Harry Carey, Judith Allen, Milburn Stone, Betty Compson, Matty Fain, George Cleveland. Director: Karl Brown.

   The nominal star of this minimally interesting movie is Harry Carey, but to my mind why is he still using silent film techniques — dramatic gestures, grotesque grimaces and so on — in 1938? To my mind, Milburn Stone is by far the more natural actor.

   As Della Mason (!!), a night club singer on the lam, accused of killing the manager of the joint where she’s the star attraction, Judith Allen is very pretty, but when the movie was over I couldn’t pick her out of a lineup of other young starlets at the time.

   She ends up on the cargo ship owned by Captain Storm (Carey), and on which Milburn Stone’s character is the radio operator. The kicker is that Storm, due to circumstances in his life, soon revealed, hates women. Stone, on the other hand, is most definitely attracted.

   Forced to leave the runaway singer on land, they find what other reviewers call a brothel. The code has toned the place down a lot. It looks like no brothel I was ever in ever saw depicted on the screen. A dull, bare walls sort of tourist attraction, it’s more a place for couples to stop in on a lark and see where poor women whose lives have fallen in on them are forced to live, or in Della’s case, are singing.

   There is a lot of plot shoved into this hour plus (but just a very small plus) movie. You will be happy to know that it all works out in the end.

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


WENDY HORNSBY – Number 7, Rue Jacob. Maggie MacGowen #11. Perseverance Press; trade paperback; April 2018.

First Sentence:   I rang the bell at Number 7, Rue Jacob a third time.

   What should have been a relaxing, romantic reunion between documentary journalist Maggie MacGowen and her fiancée Jean-Paul Bernard is anything but. Beginning with an urgent call from Jean-Paul for Maggie, using only cash, burner phones and staying off the internet, to join him in Venice where he’d come after nearly being murdered in Greece. Together, they flee across Italy and back to Paris trying to evade cyber-stalkers and the two men trying to kill them all the while not knowing why they are being targeted.

   A cast of characters! How wonderful it is to have a book contain a cast of characters!

   Who, at some point, hasn’t had an experience similar to Maggie being tired, hungry and desperate for a shower. Hornsby conveys the feeling perfectly. However, few of us are so lucky as to be in Paris at the time. It is clear this is not going to be a romantic look at Paris as the mystery and suspense kick off immediately.

   Never read a book set in France when hungry. Even the most simple of meals sounds delectable— “French ham and cheese in a length of baguette with tomato and fresh basil” —and if one has been to France, one knows Hornsby has perfectly captured the French view of Americans— “With a broad American smile, the sort that makes the more restrained French think we might be half wits…” and yet are not put off by us. There are a number of French, and some Italian, phrases used, but even when they are not translated, their meaning is easy to understand through the context.

   Maggie is the woman most of us would love to be. She’s smart, independent, capable, has traveled the world, and is respected in her profession. Her fiancé, Jean-Paul, is someone we are just getting to know. There is a very nice recap of how Maggie and Jean-Paul met.

   That the story pays homage to Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is a bonus and sets the scene for danger and suspense which follows. She balances the tension nicely with scenes of Maggie and Jean-Paul alone, or with members of their families. Hornsby is such a visual writer it is, at times, as though one is watching a film.

   There are a number of fascinating topics interwoven into the story, and the author has clearly done her research. The threat and capabilities of cyber-stalkers is eye-opening. There are a lot of coincidences in the story but, for the most part, they work. It is wonderfully convenient having two protagonists who are so well connected, but it does make sense considering the professions of characters, and it stays true to them.

   There is humor sprinkled throughout. It’s subtle, but it’s there— “Is that blood, sir?” “It is,” he said. “Whether it’s mine or my colleague’s, I can’t say.” “Have you law enforcement or justice department credentials?” “I have a national health card and a membership card for an American store called COSTCO,” he said. “Which I would be happy to lend you if you should want to buy a new television or a gross of frozen buffalo wings.” Although there are hints, the motive and villain are rather a surprise.

    Number 7, Rue Jacob provides danger, food, a hidden door, a bit of romance, and a very satisfying ending.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.


      The Maggie MacGowen series —

1. Telling Lies (1992)
2. Midnight Baby (1993)
3. Bad Intent (1994)
4. 77th Street Requiem (1995)
5. A Hard Light (1997)
6. In the Guise of Mercy (2009)
7. The Paramour’s Daughter (2010)
8. The Hanging (2012)
9. The Color of Light (2014)
10. Disturbing the Dark (2016)
11. Number 7, Rue Jacob (2018)

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