SUDDENLY. United Artists, 1954. Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, Kim Charney, Willis Bouchey, Paul Frees. Screenwriter: Richard Sale. Director: Lewis Allen.

   This, I am sure, was quite the thriller in its day, and anyone can see why. A gang of three killers commandeers a house overlooking the railroad station in the small town of Suddenly. Why? The President of the United Stated is scheduled to transfer trains there that afternoon, and the three men, led by Army vet John Baron (Frank Sinatra), know this and have been hired to kill him.

   In the Benson household are a grandfather, his daughter-in-law, whose husband died in the war, and his young grandson Pidge. Joining them during the siege is the local sheriff (Sterling Hayden), who has had his romantic overtures to Pidge’s mother rejected. Since the death of her husband she has turned pacifist. Pidge is not even allowed to play with guns.

   All the ingredients of the story that are needed are in the paragraph above, save one. We never learn who hired the assassins, nor why. In terms of the story, it’s not really necessary. The point is, rather, that the Bensons’ house is no longer the safe haven it used to be. Can they improvise and use their brains to find a way to survive?

   I may be among a small minority on this, but I don’t believe the movie stands up very well. To me, the suspense is all but nil, with no real sense of urgency, the dialogue is often didactic and forced, and no, I don’t believe that Frank Sinatra was a very good actor. Lots of personality, yes, but unless he was playing an obvious clone of himself, his performances on the big screen have always seemed affected and overdone to me, and Suddenly is no exception.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Case of the Baited Hook. Perry Mason #16. William Morrow & Co., hardcover, 1940. Reprint editions include Pocket #414, paperback, 1947; Ballantine, paperback, February 1986.

   The hook that reels Perry Mason into this case is a two thousand dollar retainer fee, free and clear and one third of a one-thousand dollar bill, the remaining portion to be handed over if and when his client needs his services on behalf of a masked woman who accompanies the man into Mason’s office.

   Not only does Mason accept the ploy, but it also serves extremely well in grabbing the reader’s interest as well — as intended. I’m always a bit amazed at how complicated Gardner’s book were, delving as deeply into esoteric legal and financial matters as they did, such as (this time around) trust funds — always extremely susceptible to embezzlers and imposters alike — and sales of stock that depend on whether the buyer was actually alive or not at the time transfer.

   Once over the expository hump needed to get all of the ground rules squared away, Baited Hook settles comfortably into a standard Perry Mason tale, filled with legal chicanery and juggling evidence around on the ground, including some Mason creates on his own, much to the chagrin of his nemesis in this book, the stalwart Sgt. Holcomb of the Homicide Squad.

   There is also some banter between Mason and Paul Drake about Della Street’s legs but, alas, no big courtroom scene — unless you count a short hearing in which D.A. Hamilton Burger asks Mason to show cause why he shouldn’t be served a warrant for his arrest.

   Good stuff, in other words!

MARLOWE. MGM, 1969. James Garner James Garner (Philip Marlowe), Gayle Hunnicutt, Carroll O’Connor, Rita Moreno, Sharon Farrell (Orfamay Quest), Kenneth Tobey, Bruce Lee. Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on the novel The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler. Director: Paul Bogart.

   From beginning to end, the movie follows the book almost as closely as it could be done, starting with PI Philip Marlowe being hired by a young girl from Kansas to find her brother Orrin, who has come to L.A. to find work. But even though the story’s the same, and (so I’m told) some of the dialogue is the same, something’s missing. This is not the story Raymond Chandler wrote. Not the way I visualized it. It’s difficult to put into words, but if you watch the trailer below, I think you’ll see what I mean. (Hint: Bruce Lee.)

   What the movie is, to my way of thinking, more than anything else, is James Garner starring in an extended episode of The Rockford Files. It’s his story on the screen, not Chandler’s.

   The story does get darker and a lot more noirish as it nears the end, which is slightly different from the book, as I recall, but not so much as it makes any difference. Not that any of these observations make the movie bad, I hasten to add, and if you’re a Garner fan, I think you very well may love this movie. If you’re a Chandler fan, perhaps not as much.

JAMES T. DOYLE – Deadly Resurrection. Dan Cronyn #1. Walker & Co., hardcover, 1987. No paperback edition.

   Why is it, I wonder, that there are so few PIs working the Washington DC area? Besides Dan Cronyn, the hero of this book and his first adventure, I can think of only two or three others. The nation’s capital would seem to be fertile ground for a whole slew of cases for PIs to be swallowed up into.

   Cronyn, whose roots include an ex-radical past, is in trouble from the first line on, when he finds the body of the man blackmailing his female client. A better than average detective story follows, and luckily (though not perhaps for him) Cronyn is the best possible person to solve it.

–Reprinted in revised form from Mystery*File #16, October 1989.

Bibliographic Note:   James T. Doyle wrote one other mystery, that being Epitaph for a Loser (Walker, 1988), but alas, Dan Cronyn did not appear in it.


SIMON HAWKE – The Dracula Caper. Timewars #8. Ace, paperback original, 1988.

   Monsters (werewolves and vampires) created genetically in the future begin turning up in Victorian England. Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells join with the time-traveling Time Commandos to eradicate the plague.

   The novel is prefaced by several pages of a Time Wars Chronology which I read with about as much interest as I read the potted summaries of fiction in standard literary histories.

   This will probably interest the science fiction fan more than the mystery fan, but the crossover fan (like me) may not find this well enough written to engage either side of his dual personality. Maybe if I had read the eight earlier volumes I would have appreciated this more, but dropping in on it, well along in the series, I found it something of a bore.

   Maybe it’s time to re-read Don Sturdy or Bomba the Jungle Boy.

— Reprinted from The French Connection #75, November 1989.

       The Time Wars series –

The Ivanhoe Gambit (1984)
The Timekeeper Conspiracy (1984)
The Pimpernel Plot (1984)
The Zenda Vendetta (1985)
The Nautilus Sanction (1985)
The Khyber Connection (1986)
The Argonaut Affair (1987)
The Dracula Caper (1988)
The Lilliput Legion (1989)
The Hellfire Rebellion (1990)
The Cleopatra Crisis (1990)
The Six-Gun Solution (1991)

EDITORIAL NOTE:   From Wikipedia: “TimeWars is a series of twelve science fiction paperback books created and written by author Simon Hawke beginning in 1984. The story involves the adventures of an organization tasked with protecting history from being changed by time travelers. In the world of the series, many people and events considered fictional are historical, and vice versa; the action of each book in the series weaves in and out of the events of a famous work of literature. For example, in the first book in the series, time travelers contesting the fate of Richard I of England become caught up in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.”

NGAIO MARSH – Enter a Murderer. Inspector Roderick Alleyn #2. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1935. Pocket Books #113, US, paperback, 1941. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and paperback.

   The second Roderick Alleyn detective novel, and the first of many subsequent Ngaio Marsh mysteries to take place in the world of the London theatre. I don’t know the history of such things, so I’m only suggesting this, but could this be the first detective novel in which the victim is killed on stage in front of a live audience by a gun which is supposed to have fake bullets — but doesn’t?

   If not, it has to be one of the first. And in the audience is none other than Inspector Alleyn himself, along with his friend Nigel Bathgate, a journalist whom he met in the first book in the series, A Man Lay Dead (1934). Bathgate has not only provided the tickets, but he stays close to Alleyn throughout the book as an unofficial Watson — until, that is, his friendship with the suspects makes him something of a liability, from Alleyn’s point of view.

   And there are a lot of suspects, and where each of them were when there was an opportunity to switch the bullets is obviously a prime factor in the investigation that follows.

   This early in Alleyn’s career, I don’t believe that Marsh had a very good handle on his character yet. I grant you that in large part we see him through Bathgate’s eyes, but the latter often seems genuinely surprised by some of Alleyn’s reactions to events, both major and minor, as they happen throughout the investigation. And in all honesty I was taken aback myself, just a bit, at a scene in which it seems he has fallen unduly under the spell of the play’s leading lady — and she still a suspect.

   And here’s a curiosity. On page 86 of the Berkley paperback reprint I happened to I read this time, after Alleyn has questioned most of the people on and behind the stage when the shooting took place, he asks one of them to wait a little longer in the wardrobe room. Nothing is heard of the latter from that point on until the inquest takes place several days later, and then never again.

   All in all, in spite of the lapse above, Enter a Murderer remains highly readable, but it’s also nowhere nearly as sharp or knock-your-socks-off clever at the game of fair play detection as Agatha Christie was, back in the mid-30s when the book was written. Of course, no one else was either, then or now.

THE MAN BEHIND THE GUN. Warner Brothers, 1953. Randolph Scott, Patrice Wymore, Dick Wesson, Philip Carey, Lina Romay, Roy Roberts, Morris Ankrum, Katharine Warren, Alan Hale Jr., Douglas Fowley, Robert Cabal. Screenplay: John Twist, based on a story by Robert Buckner. Director: Felix Feist.

   An unusual sort of western, one that place in the burgeoning small town of Los Angeles, circa 1850 or so. The town is a lot more elaborately laid out than most western towns that sit in the middle of a prairie for no great reason to be there. References to Santa Monica to the west, the La Brea tar pits, and the importance of water to the growing community all are intended to add to the historical authenticity, as are references to whether California should enter the Union as a slave state or not, along with the presence of a young bandit named Joaquin Murietta.

   The plot is too complicated to go into (I didn’t understand it) but boiled down to as small a nutshell as I can manage, Randolph Scott (Major Ransome Callicut) comes to town undercover disguised as a schoolteacher (the latter being the result of some quick thinking on his part) to root out a gang of secessionists who also want to control the area’s water supply.

   There are several other major threads to the plot, however, including killings, desperate ruses and several lengthy scenes of singing and dancing in the local saloon, not to mention some ineffectual efforts in the way of comedy by Dick Wesson and Alan Hale Jr.

   There too many twisted threads in this movie’s tale, in other words, taking place mostly in cramped indoor sets. This is made all the more noticeable when at last the director takes the movie outside, for a big shoot-em-up finale. Scott is stiffer than usual in this one, looking far too old (55) for young Patrice Wymore (26), the real new schoolmarm in town. (I forgot to mention the rolling on the floor catfight the latter has with songstress Lina Romay, who also has eyes on Scott).

DONALD WESTLAKE writing as RICHARD STARK – Lemons Never Lie. Alan Grofield [solo] #4. World, hardcover, 1971. Countryman Press, softcover, 1990. Hard Case Crime #22, paperback, July 2006.

   I welcome being corrected if I’m wrong, but I believe that this is the last of four solo adventures of summer stock theatre owner-cum-heist man Alan Grofield. The other books that Richard Stark wrote that he appeared in he played second fiddle to the author’s other primary character, a really hard-boiled fellow by the name of Parker, whom you very well may have heard of before.

   And in Lemons Never Lie, we see that Grofield isn’t averse to a little violence himself, if (but only if) the situation calls for it. The only reason he pulls jobs, almost always in conjunction with others, is to finance his summer theatre, located somewhere in the middle of Indiana, which means of course that it needs a lot of outside financing.

   This one begins with Grofield arriving at the Las Vegas airport, trying a slot machine in the terminal after deplaning — and winning. Three lemons. He naturally takes this as a bad sign, and so right he is.

   He turns down the job he’s offered there, but the guy whose plan it is — a guy named Myers — does not take rejection kindly, and the two knock heads together for the entire rest of the book. It’s not much fun for Grofield, and in the end Myers ends up extremely badly, but it certainly is a lot of fun for the reader.

   Donald Westlake’s way of producing smooth, relaxed prose is on full display here. He was indeed a master of words. The plot doesn’t run all that deep, but I don’t know what kind of on-the-ground research Westlake ever did for the Stark books, but he sure makes it sound as though he’d been taken along on a few heists himself. He’ll probably convince you, too.


DONALD WESTLAKE – Kahawa. Viking, hardcover, 1982. Tor, paperback, 1984. Mysterious Press, hardcover reprint, 1995; paperback, 1996.

   This was originally published in the early 80s, as I’m sure most of you knew but I didn’t. Evidently it sank without a trace then, and now Mysterious is re-publishing it with a new introduction by Westlake.

   Lew Brady, a good, old-fashioned soldier-of-fortune, is stranded in Alaska, reduced to teaching truckers how to fend off union strong-arms. He’s only partly assuaged by the fact that he’s with his lover, a bush pilot.

   Then comes a call from an old mercenary friend who wants him to come to Africa and help steal a train. That’s right, a train. It belongs to Idi Amin, the Uganda strongman, and it’s full of some very pricey coffee. Brandy and his lady pilot hie themselves to the Dark Continent, where they find good and bad guys of all races, and enough excitement to banish boredom forever.

   There are few if any who do caper novels better than Westlake. All the old pro’s skills are in evidence here, if not in quite as polished form as they are today. He created a fascinating cat of characters, with the real-life portrait of Idi Amin hovering chillingly over them all.

   Uganda was a bad, bad place to be in those days, and Westlake brings it to life for you. It’s a thick book, 496 pages, and therein lay my only cavil — it’s hard to maintain the level of intensity a caper novel requires for that length, and I thought that Westlake occasionally failed to do so.

   But it’s still a decent book, by one of the best. If no one made a movie of this, they missed a damned good bet.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #18, February-March 1995.

SECRET SERVICE OF THE AIR. Warner Brothers, 1939. Brass Bancroft #1. Ronald Reagan, John Litel, Ila Rhodes, James Stephenson, Eddie Foy Jr., Rosella Towne. Director: Noel M. Smith.

   I really can’t imagine that anyone who went to see this movie in 1939 could have possibly come away from it saying to his wife or her husband, as the case may be, that that guy’s got what it takes to be President someday! But what they definitely would have gotten was a good look at an amiable, good-looking actor with a lot of personal appeal if not necessarily a wide range of acting ability.

   Although only a small budget affair from Warners, the movie itself did so well that three more in a follow-up series were made. I’ve listed two women in the cast, but you can forget about them, even though one of them plays Brass’s fiancée, showing up only at the beginning and once again right at the end.

   In between this is a guys’ story only, one dealing with a tough gang of hoodlums actively smuggling people across the border by plane into California. (How tough are they? Watch this movie and you’ll find out.)

   As for Brass Bancroft, he’s a pilot recruited by the secret Service to go undercover and find out who he Big Boss is. To this end he is framed on a counterfeiting rap and sentenced to a term in prison. Our star of course does this standing on his head. Figuratively speaking, of course. And in spite of his longtime sidekick’s attempt to help (Eddie Foy, Jr.), he’s pretty good at catching bad guys, too.

   Don’t expect too much from this one, as it doesn’t have a lot to give, but you may find this one as much fun to watch as I did.

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