Reviews


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

   

CHARLES FINCH – An Extravagant Death. Charles Lenox #14. Minotaur Books, hardcover, February 2021; softcover, January 2022. Setting: Newport RI / New York City, 1878.

First Sentence: It was a sunny, icy late morning in February of 1878, and a solitary figure, lost in thought, strode along one of the pale paths winding through St. James’s Park in London.

   British Enquiry Agent, Charles Lennox, solved a case that brought down Scotland Yard with the three top men headed to trial. Prime Minister Disraeli determines it best that Lennox is not in England during the trial and sends him to the United States with the Queen’s Seal on a tour of the East Coast law enforcement agencies. 1878 Newport, Rhode Island: a place of extreme wealth and self-indulgence. A place of new money, and a focus on marrying well. The murder of a young woman of the first diamond doesn’t fit into this scenario. Lennox’s help is requested.

   Finch does an excellent job of providing a summary of Lenox’s background, folding in that of his wife, Lady Jane, in the process. However, it is confusing that the case for which Lennox is being lauded falls into a huge gap: When did Lennox and Jane have a second child? When did Polly and Dallington, Charles’ partners in the agency, get married? And most of all, what was the case that brought down Scotland Yard? Either this reviewer blanked out this information, or Finch and/or his publisher just decided to skip a book and these annoying little details.

   As Lenox gets to know New York, Finch presents the stark contrast between the wealthy and the laboring class very well, demonstrating compassion but not dismissiveness or pity. Lenox’s excitement is tangible as he crosses the border from New York to Connecticut, consulting his little book of maps showing the thirty-eight states, as one learns the origin of the word “shrapnel,” and later the term “I heard it through the grapevine.” Those small bits of information lend richness to the story.

   Just as with the contrast in settings, Finch displays the contrasts in characters and their lives with the working class and merchants of the town, to the very wealthy “cottage” owners such as the Vanderbilts and Mrs. Astor. As is often true, some of the most interesting characters are those of ex-soldier James Clark, and Fergus O’Brian, the Irish valet,

   It is interesting to see Lenox dogged determination and attention to detail as he investigates every aspect and every possible suspect. The details of how and why Lily, the victim, was killed are laid out perfectly and done in a scene of edge-of-seat suspense rather than the more pedestrian style of Christie. The final chapters are heart-warming, especially the requests he makes on behalf of others.

   An Extravagant Death is just shy of being excellent, in part due to a scene at the end. The mystery is well done with some secondary characters nearly stealing the show. It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here.

Rating: Good Plus.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Julie Smith & Bill Pronzini

   

E. V. CUNNINGHAM – Samantha. Masao Masuto #1. William Morrow, hardcover, 1967. Popular Library, paperback [date?]. Also published as: The Case of the Angry Actress. Dell, 1984.

   Samantha was a pathetic Hollywood hopeful who ended up on the casting couch with a succession of unscrupulous men. Even then, she failed to land a part. Eleven years later, the men are being murdered, apparently in revenge. Each of them is now married to a woman who just might be Samantha with a new name. Detective Sergeant Masao Masuto of the Beverly Hills Police Force has his work cut out for him.

   This is the book that introduced Masuto, a Zen Buddhist like his creator, who is actually the prolific Howard Fast writing under a pseudonym. A Nisei who lives in a Culver City cottage with his wife, three children, and his beloved rose garden, Masuto is culturally about as distant from the fast-lane denizens of Beverly Hills as a cop can get. Yet he declines to let them rattle him; he doesn’t envy, despise, or judge them.

   His trademark cool — sometimes masking a very human inner turmoil — is as appealing as his sometimes acerbic wit. The Hollywood crowd, not surprisingly, is mystified by him and his Zen ways; he explains himself with a disarming simplicity that leaves them even more baffled.

   The contrast between the two cultures he moves between is the chief charm of this and the other Masuto mysteries, among them The Case of the One-Penny Orange (1977), The Case of the Russian Diplomat (1978), and The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs (1979).

   Before creating Masuto, Fast published, under the Cunningham name, a number of non-series thrillers utilizing the first names of their female protagonists as titles. Some of these have serious themes: Sylvia (1960), Phyllis (1962). Others are comedic in tone: Penelope (1965), Margie (1966). Most have rather outlandish plots that entertain despite putting a strain on the reader’s credulity.

   Fast’s first crime novel, Fallen Angel (1952), originally published under the pseudonym Walter Ericson, was made into the 1965 film Mirage, with Gregory Peck and Walter Matthau; both novel and film are taut and engrossing but suffer from that same lack of believability.

     ———
   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 DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THERE WAS A YOUNG LADY. Nettlefold Films, 1953. Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray, Sydney Tafler, Bill Owen, Charles Farrell, Robert Adair, Geraldine McEwen, Kenneth Connor, Bill Shire. Screenplay: Lawrence Huntington. Story by Vernon Harris & John Jowett. Director: Lawrence Huntington. Currently available on YouTube.

   David Walsh (Michael Denison) is one of those rather hapless English public school types common to British comedy in the Post-War era, a nice chap, but not really suited to anything practical like the jewelry business he has inherited from his uncle and knows nothing about. Luckily for David his fiancee Elizabeth (Dulcie Gray) not only knows jewelry, but business.

   In fact she has a bright idea to buy the family jewels of a titled old school chum (Bill Shire) of David’s who is in a money bind, and sell them at a tidy profit if she can get past David’s stubborn refusal to use his old chum for business.

   Pushed to the brink by David’s recalcitrance and more than a little annoyed by the obvious crush the sexy receptionist (Geraldine McEwan — yes, Miss Marple) has on him Elizabeth walks out …

   And right into a smash and grab hold up at a nearby jewelry store. When the frightened criminal (Bill Owen) grabs her and drags her to the getaway car she finds herself in the company of a hopeless crew of wanna be mastermind Sydney Tafler, muscle man Charles Farrell who would rather garden, Owen, and none to bright Robert Adair who wants to be a chef.

   Truth is, these boys are so poorly organized Elizabeth takes pity on them and masterminds their escape just to get her ordeal over more quickly, but now they are holding her hostage at a manor house outside London that Farrell’s uncle watches for the owners.

   Luckily Elizabeth is able to slip a note to David on a tip she gives a local (Kenneth Connor) who gives them a lift on his hay cart after they dump the getaway car. Unluckily he doesn’t notice.

   While Elizabeth gradually takes over the gang because she is so much smarter than the rest in the way of this kind of comic crime caper David decides her plan isn’t so bad after all and arranges to buy the collection from his friend putting it in their office safe — the old one because he refused delivery on the new one Elizabeth bought while he was still mad at her — and forgets to call the insurance company when Connor shows up with Elizabeth’s note.

   Meanwhile the efficient Elizabeth, having befriended one of crooks, convinces them to make a killing by holding up the jewelry exchange where she and David have their offices with a promise to free her if the plan works. And wouldn’t you know it they hit the wrong office — hers.

   Other than a really annoying theme song this is a cute minor British comedy of the era, hardly a rival to Ealing Studios or any classics of the form from that time, but enjoyable on a British Damon Runyon note with comic crooks, a hapless hero, and a heroine frustrated by not being taken seriously despite being smarter than everyone around her.

   It’s clever, the characters well developed, and the actors fine. Denison was successful minor lead, Gray a competent actress, and the faces like Tafler, Owen (Compo on the long running British comedy Last of the Summer Wine), Adair, McEwen, and Connor — all familiar faces even if you don’t know the names.

   There is a particularly nice bit as a snide Gray reads a cheap thriller in bed out loud while outside, unknown to her, Denison is doing the exact same things she is narrating. There’s also a nice attempted hold up by the boys in the city that goes awry in exactly the way Elizabeth predicted ironically because of Denison and his titled friend who keep getting in the way while shopping for an engagement ring for the friend.

   There are no big laughs here and only the most minor of physical comedy bits, but it is an entertaining time killer that performs well above its class, and has a nice ironic and charming ending, charm being the operative word for the entire film.

   

BRUNO FISCHER – The Hornets’ Nest. Rick Train #1. Dell #79, mapback edition, [date?]. Cover by Gerald Gregg. Previously published in hardcover by Morrow, 1944. Originally appeared in Mammoth Detective, May 1944, as “Murder Wears a Skirt.”

   While this was newspaper reporter Rick Train’s first appearance in print, he could have just as well have been a private eye with one last case before he’s called up by the army as part of the war effort. Not only is he fairly known as a guy who’s broken or solved several big cases, he’s also noted as a collector of all kinds of guns as well as being a crack shot with all of them.

   With only a week before he reports for duty, he finds himself up to his ears in yet another case of double homicide, beginning with a somewhat forlorn young girl with a story she’d like the Train’s paper to buy. Turning her down because he’s already cleared out his desk, he soon learns that she’s been shot and killed soon after leaving him. He doesn’t have a client, but he is of course committed to finding her killer.

   The case, as it turns out, involves an estate that’s up for grabs, with no less than three claimants for the money. All three have good credentials. The question is which one wants the money more than the others? And all the while Train is trying to answer that particular question, he soon becomes the target of the killer himself, presumably – a woman who seems to be as good with a gun as he is.

   The story is competently told without being anything close to exceptional, with characterization next to nil. As a pulp writer, though, with lots of tales well under his belt, Fischer’s prose is smooth enough to keep this one moving. Until that is, when it comes to the final solution and explanation. Without the reader even noticing, the story turns out to have been more complicated than he or she probably realized: it takes eleven full pages to get through Train’s explanation of everything that had just happened in the previous 180.

   Never mind that. As a detective Train is good enough that I had to wonder why his second and final appearance was only in Kill to Fit, a digest-sized paperback original published by a third-rate company called Five Star Mysteries (1946). (Whether that one also first appeared in pulp magazine under a different name, I do not know.)

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

A CANTERBURY TALE. Archer, UK, 1944. Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, Esmond Knight, H.F. Maltry, and Eliot Makeham. Written & directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger.

   I watched this twice, back to back, just to see if I’d missed something. When I was through, I told the leggy red-head next to me on the couch that I still wasn’t sure how A Canterbury Tale felt about itself.

   “Do movies think about themselves?” she asked.

   Well, every movie has an attitude, even if it’s just give-a-damn, and Canterbury’s attitude is mostly one of a cherished England, rich in heritage and humanity. But there’s also a disturbing sub-text that moves the film, like many another Powell/Pressberger work, from the realm of simple propaganda into the rare class of Weird Movies.

   Made in the fifth year of a World War, confused, diffuse, and at times quite powerful, Canterbury concerns itself with conditions on England’s home front, bizarre crime, and the problems of three ordinary people caught up in it all.

   Price and Sweet play Sergeants — British and American, respectively — and Sim is a Land Girl detailed to work for local JP Thomas Colpepper (Eric Portman) in a village just outside Canterbury. But as the sergeants escort her from the train station to the town hall (It’s night and the village is under Blackout orders.) a shadowy figure darts out of the darkness and… and…. and…..

   Pours glue on the lady’s head. Yeah. Well, I told you there was bizarre crime here. Someone’s been making rather a habit of this sort of thing (Wait till you hear the motive!) picking on young ladies out after dark with soldiers, and Ms Sim is only the latest victim.

   But not a passive one. She and the sergeants pursue the miscreant into the Town Hall, where the local police (“The Glue Man’s at it again!”) search the building and, in a moment worthy of Caligari, discover only Colpepper, the all-powerful JP, seated magisterially in his inner sanctum.

   Of course the locals refuse to believe that a man of Colpepper’s stature could possibly be the Glue Man, so it falls to our intrepid trio to uncover evidence of his guilt and take it to the authorities in Canterbury.

   The ensuing story moves far too slowly, with way too many digressions, but the amateur sleuths carry it along by dint of their sheer charm and inefficiency. And they get their act together just in time for a tense and surprising confrontation in a railway carriage compartment on a train bound for Canterbury.

   And then they reach Canterbury, and all my notions about this movie got blown to pieces.

   It’s a powerful and moving finale, and one that left me considerably upset. Perhaps I shouldn’t look at it from a contemporary perspective, but to my mind pouring glue on ladies’ hair and running off into the night are acts of misogyny and cowardice. I’ll just say A Canterbury Tale doesn’t share my point of view, and leave it at that.

   A final note: this was to all intents and purposes the only film appearance of John Sweet, an amateur actor chosen for his total freshness in the part of the American Sergeant. It was a good choice.

   

RICHARD STARK – The Black Ice Score. Parker #11. Gold Medal #D1949; paperback original, 1968. Cover by Robert McGinnis. Berkley, paperback, 1973; Avon, paperback, 1985. University of Chicago Press, trade paperback, 2010.

   Professional thief non-pereil Parker is caught up in a three-way tangle in The Black Ice Score. The head of a small African country is trying to escape from that country with a good portion of that country’s treasury before he is caught and hanged from the nearest tree, and in that regard he has sent the funds ahead encapsulated in a fortune in diamonds. Faction two wants the diamonds to help maintain the country’s legal government, while faction three wants the jewels to help overthrow the country’s legal government.

   Then there is a scavenger trying to horn in on his own, hoping to enrich himself with some of the leftover spoils. Parker is persuaded to work with faction number two, hiring himself out as advisor only regarding as to how the well-guarded jewels may be stolen from faction number one.

   This is a heist novel, in other words.

   There is, unfortunately, to my mind, little here that deviates from most heist novels. There is the planning, the carrying out of the plan, dealing with what goes wrong with the planning – no plan in a heist novel ever goes off according to plan – and the tidying up at the end.

   Mitigating against the fact that the framework of the overall story line is almost completely etched in stone, is that Stark (aka Donald Westlake) was very nearly the most hard-boiled writers of his era, and Parker is very nearly most hard-boiled of characters. Not a word is wasted throughout the story, including in any of the dialogue.

   A steady diet of Richard Stark stories is not for me, but as spaced out timewise as I read them, they always go down extremely well.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR. – Saving the Queen. Blackford Oakes #1. Doubleday, hardcover, 1976. Warner, paperback, 1977. Avon, paperback, 1981. Cumberland House, softcover, 2005.

   It is almost impossible to write about William F. Buckley and not mention politics, one of the leading Conservative voices of the Twentieth Century, political commentator, gadfly, and droll defender of his point of view. He was closely identified with Conservatism, founding two of it’s most important voices, the magazine National Review and the series Firing Line, but I would argue he found his true gift as a writer of fiction, droll, witty, fanciful, and playful fiction that took advantage of his sophistication and famous vocabulary.

   It can be argued today that his novels, both those about Blackford Oakes and the more mainstream ones, are more relevant than any of his political stances or achievements to the modern world, his brand of Conservatism largely dead and forgotten by all but a few, certainly no longer the mainstream voice of the movement it once was.

   For my tastes the highlight of his gift lay in his series of delightful spy novels featuring handsome Patrician Ivy League spy master Blackford “Blackie” Oakes, whose adventures filled eleven volumes, following the adventures of the CIA agent from 1950 until 1987 and Blackie’s final confrontation with British traitor Kim Philby (Last Call for Blackford Oakes).

   Granted it can be pointed out that the Oakes novels play fast and loose with history rewriting many of the most embarassing failures of the CIA as secret triumphs, thanks to Blackie’s untold version, but taken as the fun they are intended as rather than history it’s cheeky entertainment watching Buckley try to re cast the reality of Sputnik (Who’s On First?), the Hungarian Revolution (The Story of Henri Tod), Cuba (High Jinx), or Kim Philby (Last Call for Blackford Oakes), which he does with unflagging tongue in cheek humor while an endless parade of Presidents, spy masters, and diplomatic figures out of history glide through Buckley’s re=imagining of the Cold War, Allen Dulles, Dean Acheson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, the Kennedy’s, and Ronald Reagan among them.

   That he personally knew most of those figures and had himself served in the CIA informs the books with something like the spirit of the far less political Ian Fleming, the British spy novelist he resembles in terms of storytelling gifts and audacity far more than a more sober Le Carre or cynical Deighton. For their obvious differences the Oakes books are very much the true American answer to Fleming and Bond.

   Saving the Queen opens in the wake of Watergate with the very real Rockefeller Commission looking more closely into the past activities of the CIA and Blackie Oakes due to testify. Over dinner with his friend Anthony Trust, a recurring character in the series, Blackie muses on just how much truth he dare tell the Committee about his first major assignment. To take the Fifth Amendment would mean the end of his career in the CIA.

   There was no comment. Harman, for one, knew nothing about the first assignment. Anthony knew more than he let on, but he didn’t know it all, by any means. And it would greatly have surprised Singer Callaway to discover that not even he, who had been intimately involved in the operation, knew exactly how far the young man had got in, in the course of saving the Queen.

   It is the Post War era and a young Blackford Oakes has been sent to London ostensibly to study the Post War British economy, and for Oakes a painful it’s a reminder of youthful encounter with the British Public School system that left him cynical and bitter. Much of the first third of the book is taken up with his being readied for the mission, briefed, and with flashbacks to his childhood experience.

   If there is a flaw in the book, it is these flashbacks to Oakes’ humiliation in the British Public School system. I can’t help thinking Harry Flashman would of given him the Tom Brown treatment and James Bond, who got kicked out of Eton, would have laughed in his face. I’m not sure Charles Dickens is really the best model for spy fiction.

   Of course there is more to his mission than that. CIA suspects the Russians have high level agents in the United Kingdom maybe even at Buckingham Palace in the court of the beautiful new Queen Caroline I.

   Saving the Queen is the most playful of the Oakes series with Buckley more relaxed here where he isn’t trying to rewrite actual history. In later books Blackie will find his conscience tested by his profession (Stained Glass) and his neck in much tighter nooses (The Story of Henri Tod), but here the adventure is spiced with just a hint of spy spoofery dressed up with Buckley’s considerable wit.

   His friendly enemy Economist John Kenneth Gailbraith was only partially ribbing him when he noted that in fiction Buckley had found his true place.

   Oakes and the beautiful English Queen, more Grace Kelly than Elizabeth, are physically attracted as Blackie begins to sort out the question of the possible Soviet agent at the heart of British royalty, and get his own back a bit over his unpleasant childhood experiences, all coming to a head in a duel at 10,000 feet between a Hunter-Hawker piloted by the Soviet agent and Blackie in an F86 Sabre.

   For all the spirit of Ian Fleming, Buckley is far less hedonistic than his British forerunner. Blackie can be a bit of a prude and it is hard at times to believe in him. Unlike Bond he has a steady girl friend he is usually faithful too and something of a life as an engineer. You can’t imagine him letting down his hair in Romany encampment or a Japanese bath like Bond or enjoying the sexy sound of his car’s exhaust, much less Bond’s exploits with women. Even when Blackie gets his hands dirty there is a sense hand sanitizer is nearby. Blackie is very much a paragon of Yale and Patrician birth, not an “elegant thug” like Bond kicked out of Eton for an unspecified scandal with a serving girl.

   Buckley has removed the Sex and Sadism from the Bond formula, retained the Snobbery, and added Wit and the sting of the political gadfly to create his own formula, Snobbery, Re Written History, and Satire.

   But he is charming company to spend an evening with delving in the backrooms and shadowy corners of the Cold War, imagining oneself an armchair insider in the back corridors of power, and when a relieved Blackie escapes testifying before Congress only to walk away whistling “God Save the Queen,” I think many of you will agree the trip was worth taking, and with varying results he managed to keep it up for eleven more books, with his best after this one probably Who’s On First?.

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

DICK BARTON: SPECIAL AGENT. Southern TV, UK, 1979. Tony Vogel (Dick Barton), Anthony Heaton (Snowey White), James Cosmo (Jock Anderson). Creator/screenwriter: Norman Collins. Other screenwriters: Julian Bond, Clive Exton.

   Back when radio was the most significant medium for home entertainment, fifteen million people would listen nightly to Dick Barton: Special Agent, an action adventure serial replete with cliff-hangers and derring-do, on the Light Programme. It followed the adventures of former commando Captain Richard Barton and his two friends ‘Snowy’ White and ‘Jock’ Anderson as they repelled the plans of various criminal masterminds and somehow escaped the perilous traps that were repeatedly set for them.

   The radio serial ran between 1946 and 1951, usually at 6.45 pm, for fifteen minutes apiece. 711 episodes were made, all written by Geoffrey Webb and Edward J. Mason, and each adhering to the thirteen rules of conduct which decreed that Dick could not use bad language, drink alcohol or use a knife to harm. Apart from the hero’s name and the adventure it evokes, the serial is best remembered for its theme tune, “The Devil’s Gallop,” a rousing and rambunctious slice of genius by composer Charles Williams which makes one want to dash about the room and press against the wall as though hiding from fiendish saboteurs.

   The nanny state killed the show off after five years in the belief that it was damaging to the dear young children. By this time, however, the show was a nationwide phenomenon, spawning a behind-the-scenes book, another volume of short stories and three films from Hammer Studios (at the time, best known for making thrillers, not horrors). The BBC then replaced it with a rustic drama named The Archers, the theme tune of which must have made every red-blooded adventurer used to Barton’s buccaneering wish for another war.

   The late 1970s saw a minor revival for Dick and his friends. A somewhat sparsely written but nonetheless enjoyable book, novelising three of the radio serials, was published in 1977. That same year, filming took place on a televised series of new adventures. Made by Southern Television, a small ITV company, each episode lasted ten minutes (excluding commercials) and shown on Saturdays and Sundays from January to April 1979.

   The 32 episodes starred Tony Vogel as Barton, Anthony Heaton as ‘Snowy’ and James Cosmo as ‘Jock’ and comprised four adventures, each lasting between six and ten parts each. Typically for its time, the serial was shot on video, a format which can make the most expensive television look cheap. Such an impression, in this instance, would be accurate as there were apparently several budgetary issues which undermined the production of the programme.

   This is mostly apparent in the sometimes dodgy direction work, though it can only be imagined that the director was doing his best with the little he had. The location work – usually one of the most costly features of scripted television – is plentiful and the acting is more or less solid throughout. As you would expect from such a short serial, the whole thing runs like the clappers, and the scripts – many by Clive Exton, who would later bring Poirot and Jeeves & Wooster to television – wisely play it straight throughout. There is, of course, the odd bit of wince-inducing dialogue, but all such things can be waved away as attempts at period authenticity.

   The first adventure sees an old bird named Sir Richard Marley call on Barton when his daughter Virginia and son Rex go missing. They have been kidnapped by the dastardly foreigner Melganik, who plans on substituting tobacco with reefer and thus turning the whole of Britain into “drug fiends”. The story lasts ten parts, co-stars future Strictly Come Dancing contestant Fiona Fullerton and memorably includes the old walls-closing-in-with-spikes routine.

   The second adventure, in eight parts, starts a little too similarly as a young girl – this time an old acquaintance of Jock’s – is in danger when her scientist father is kidnapped by the evil Muller. The third serial ties in neatly with the first two and involves a disappearing house, while the last adventure sees the team encounter a couple of menacing, Kray-like gangsters.

   The series is available on DVD and can sometimes be seen nightly on Talking Pictures TV – which is how I saw it. Tony Vogel is outstanding in the part of Barton. He takes it all seriously, remains believable in the period, and can even be tough when he wants to be. The whole thing is basically a children’s show, of course, but it was always going to be and is none the worse for it.

   The only downside is the brevity of the episodes: it may have made more of an impact had it been shown in half-hour instalments, like Doctor Who. As it was, for whatever reason, the show was not a success and was quickly forgotten. The production company itself folded within a couple of years.
Dick Barton did not return again until the late ‘90s and then only on stage in live theatre (perhaps inevitably, as he had already featured in every other medium). With only four cast members, the nine plays were comedy-musicals which parodied the brand, boasted innuendo and were mostly staged at Croydon’s now-closed Warehouse Theatre.

   The last we have so far heard from Dick and his friends is, funnily enough, due to the TV version. The series produced four novelizations and one of them, The Mystery of the Missing Formula, was released in 2010 on CD and read by a thoroughly game Toby Stephens.

   After all these years, I don’t think anyone is quite sure just why a British private detective is walking around calling himself a special agent, but I certainly hope he makes another come-back at some point. Cue music!

   

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins

   

JAMES CRUMLEY – The Last Good Kiss. S. W. Sughrue #1. Random House, hardcover, 1978. Pocket, paperback, 1980. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, paperback, 1988.

   Since the death of Ross Macdonald and on the basis of just three novels, James Crumley has become the foremost living writer of private-eye fiction. Carrying on the Macdonald tradition in which the PI is no longer macho but a man sensitive to human needs, tom by inner pain, and slow to use force, Crumley has moved the genre into the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era.

   His principal setting is not the big city as in Hammett and Chandler, nor the affluent suburbs as in Macdonald, but the wilderness and bleak magnificence of western Montana. His prevailing mood is a wacked out empathy with dopers, dropouts, losers, and loonies, the human wreckage of the institutionalized butchery we call the “real world.” Nobility resides in the land, in wild animals, and in a handful of outcasts-psychotic Viet vets; Indians, hippies; rumdums; and love-seekers-who can’t cope with life.

   Crumley’s detective characters have one foot in either camp. Milo Dragovitch, the protagonist of The Wrong Case (1975) and Dancing Bear (1983), is a cocaine addict and boozer, the child of two suicides, a compulsive womanizer like his wealthy Hemingwayesque father; a man literally marking time until he will tum fifty-two and inherit the family fortune, which his pioneer ancestors legally stole from the Indians.

   Sughrue from The Last Good Kiss has a background as a Nam war criminal and an army spy on domestic dissidents and he’s drinking himself to death by inches. Yet these are two of the purest figures in the history of detective fiction, and the most reverent toward the earth and its creatures.

   Crumley has minimal interest in plot and even less in explanations, but he’s so uncannily skillful with character, language, relationship, and incident that he can afford to throw structure overboard. His books are an accumulation of small, crazy encounters, full of confusion and muddle, disorder and despair, graphic violence and sweetly casual sex, coke snorting and alcohol guzzling, mountain snowscapes and roadside bars.

   When he does have to plot, he· tends to borrow from Raymond Chandler. In The Wrong Case, Milo Dragovitch becomes obsessed by a young woman from Iowa who hires him to find her missing brother, a situation clearly taken from Chandler’s Little Sister (1949). The Last Good Kiss, perhaps the best of Crumley’s novels, traps Sughrue among the tormented members of the family of a hugely successful writer, somewhat as Philip Marlowe was trapped in Chandler’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye (1954).

   In Dancing Bear, which pits Milo Dragovitch against a multinational corporation dumping toxic waste into the groundwater, the detective interviews a rich old client in a plant-filled solarium just like Marlowe in the first chapter of Chandler’s Big Sleep (1939).

   None of these borrowings matter in the least, for Chandler’s tribute to Dashiell Hammett is no less true of Crumley: He writes scenes so that they seem never to have been written before. What one remembers from  The Last Good Kiss is the alcoholic bulldog and the emotionally flayed women and the loneliness and guilt. What is most lasting in Dancing Bear is the moment when Milo Dragovitch finds a time bomb in his car on a wilderness road and tosses it out at the last second into a stream and weeps for the exploded fish that died for him, and dozens of other moments just as powerful.

     ———
   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.
     

Bibliographic Note: As good as this book is, there were only two followup novels with Sugrue, those being The Mexican Tree Duck (Mysterious Press 1993) and Bordersnakes (Dennis McMillan 1996). The latter is a crossover with Milo Milodragovitch, who was in two solo adventures.

REVIEWED BY BOB ADEY:

   

E. H. CLEMENTS – Cherry Harvest. Alister Woodhead #2. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1943.  Messner, US, hardcover, 1944.

   Take a girls’ school in the heart of.the English countryside and place them in high summer during the last war.  Add a well observed selection of children and visiting parents, and three mysterious guests — vague Mr. Carey, quiet Miss Hartland and chatty Mr. Brent. One of them is a spy, and it is the author’s long enduring detective Alister Woodhead  whose job it is to find out which one.

   The book is not notable for its pace and action (though there  is a murder) and its attraction lies in the author’s ability to evoke  the English countryside. Those of you who like the idea of a quiet stroll down a country lane to an unknown destination will enjoy it.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 3, Number 5 (October 1980).

   

      The Alister Woodhead series —

Let Him Die. Hodder 1939
Cherry Harvest. Hodder 1943
Berry Green. Hodder 1945
Weathercock. Hodder 1949
Chair-Lift. Hodder 1955
Discord in the Air. Hodder 1955
The Other Island. Hodder 1956
Back in Daylight. Hodder 1957
Uncommon Cold. Hodder 1958
High Tension. Hodder 1959
Honey for the Marshal. Hodder 1960
A Note of Enchantment. Hodder 1961
Let or Hindrance. Hale 1963
   

Further Bio-Bibliographical Notes: Her initials perhaps helped disguise the fact that the author was female: her full name was Eileen Helen Clements Hunter (1905-1993). Besides the Woodhead series she has five standalone mysteries in Hubin. Only three of her books have been published in the US.

Added Later: I have found one other review of this title online, that on J. F. Norris’s “Pretty Sinister” blog. John goes into a lot more detail and even provides a photo image of the cover. John, I hope you don’t mind my appropriating it for Bob’s review.

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