Reviews


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Crider:


  BRUNO FISCHER – So Wicked My Love. Gold Medal #437, paperback original; 1st printing, 1954. Reprinted twice. A shorter version appeared in Manhunt, November 1953, under the title “Coney Island Incident.”

   Ray Whitehead, the narrator of So Wicked My Love, rejected by his fiancée, gives her ring to a redhead he picks up in Coney Island. He goes to the redhead’s hotel room with her, discovers that she has been involved in an armored car-robbery, and watches her stab a man to death.

   All of this happens in the first twenty pages of the story, and the redhead continues to make life miserable for Ray Whitehead.

   She is one of those wonderfully amoral sexpots of paperback-original fiction that are more easily acquired than gotten rid of. Ray does manage to get rid of the $80,000 that he is stuck with (the loot from the robbery), but the girl keeps turning up at the most inopportune times.

   For example, when Ray’s fiancée realizes that she loves him after all, who should turn up but the redhead, of course –wearing the ring. In fact, the girl becomes something of a millstone to Whitehead, involving him in all sorts of difficulties with her past and present criminal associates.

   Though not as tightly plotted as some of Fischer’s other works (it was expanded from a magazine story), So Wicked My Love is typically fast-paced. The main characters, especially Whitehead, in the role of the innocent man drawn into criminal events, are particularly well done.

   Other Fischer paperbacks of interest are Knee-Deep in Death (1956), Murder in the Raw (1957), and Second-Hand Nude (1961).

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   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.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Crider:


  BRUNO FISCHER – The Silent Dust. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1950. Signet #892,paperback, 1951.

   Bruno Fischer had a great deal of success in both the hardcover and pulp fields; and when the pulps gradually died out, he went on to sell millions of copies of paperback novels. In Paperback Quarterly (Vol. 1, No. 4) Fischer described his “usual manner” of writing as containing “movement and suspense with very little violence,” and as being about “ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”

   The Silent Dust (one of his hardcover mysteries) is narrated by Fischer’s strongest series character, private detective Ben Helm, one of the few successfully characterized married private eyes in fiction. Helm is not cast in the typical mold of the early Fifties private eyes in other ways, either. He is more intellectual than physical, and the major clues in The Silent Dust are literary ones. The book’s title is an allusion to Gray’s “Elegy,” and in the course of the story, other British poets are prominent.

   There are two offstage murders, one of an author and one of her husband, both motivated by a desire to stop publication of the author’s book, entitled A Handful of Ashes. The author, it seems has a nasty habit of portraying her friends and acquaintances in her works, revealing things about them that they wouId rather not have publicized. The suspects include a former gangster, his wife, a fifteen-year-old genius, a chauffeur with a criminal record, and a matinee idol.

   The writing is literate; Helm is compassionate; the story is tight and well told. And no doubt Fischer had writing the excerpts from the dead author’s book.

   Another good Ben Helm book is More Deaths Than One (1947) in which Fischer does a fine job with the difficult multiple first-person-point-of-view technique.

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   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


AARON ELKINS – Make No Bones. Gideon Oliver #7. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1991; paperback, 1994.

   The seven books about forensic anthropologist Dr. Gideon Oliver make up one of the more agreeable of the wave of “specialist” mystery series that have proliferated over th elast several years. While I — and I’m sure Elkins — regret the disfigurement that television visited upon his creation, the books themselves have retained their charms and readability.

   Here Oliver, his wife Julie, and FBI friend John Lau are attending a forensic anthropologists’ conference in Bed Oregon, at the Museum of Natural History there. The bones of a famous anthropologist — as well-hated personally as was respected professionally, and who was killed in an accident at a conference there ten years earlier — are to be installed in a permanent display in the museum.

   First the bones are stolen,. then a ten year.old body is discovered in a shallow grave, and then another `murder occurs. Are all these things. connected? Can the “bone doctor” help piece together the puzzle using his forensic skills? Of course, you silly thing.

   Elkins’ books make no pretense to being great literature, or anything else other than well-crafted light entertainment. If you 1onging for brooding atmosphere, seat-gripping suspense, or intricate psychological portraits of tortured souls, you’re on the wrong pew; often, the books have almost a “cozy” feel. The neighborhood you’re in features good unadorned writing, reasonable plots, characters you cab enjoy, and more often than not a very good sense of place. Oliver’s base is in the Pacific Northwest. Elkins lives there, loves it, and does well by it in his stories.

   Unless your taste in mysteries is limited to the dark and grim, I think you’ll like these. Recommended.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #4, November 1992.



Bibliographic Notes:   Make No Bones was an Agatha Award Best Novel nominee for 1991. There are now 18 books in this series, with the most recent, Switcheroo, having a 2016 publication date. A complete list can be found here, along with all of Elkins’ other books, including three other series and three standalones.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


WAGON MASTER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1950. Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Alan Mowbray, Jane Darwell. Director: John Ford.

   It suffices it to say, I’m not going to be breaking any new ground here with my thoughts upon recently viewing John Ford’s Wagon Master. Considered an excellent film by many, and one of Ford’s personal favorites, the black and white film features Ben Johnson as Travis Blue, a horse trader tasked with leading a Mormon wagon train across perilous terrain and toward the San Juan River in Utah.

   Riding alongside Blue is his friend, Sandy Owens (Harry Carey, Jr.). Leading the Mormons is the gruff, but lovable patriarch, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond). Along the way, the group runs into whimsical fun with a medicine show group; danger in the face of a family outlaw gang; and cross-cultural understanding (and misunderstanding) with Navajos.

   Filmed on location in the American Southwest, Ford’s elegiac tribute to westward pioneers is both a compelling narrative and visual work of genius. The movie isn’t so much filmed as it is photographed, with perfectly framed portraits of the characters making an indelible imprint on the viewer. Add to that the music and the songs, performed by Sons of the Pioneers and you have yourself a classic.

   There are, however, some minor flaws in an otherwise extraordinarily solid work. For instance, the outlaws first appear at the very beginning of the film, only to reappear more than thirty minutes or so later. And there’s a marshal, tasked with hunting the aforementioned criminals, whose role in the film remains somewhat uncertain. But, as I said, minor flaws in an otherwise great Western, one that I suppose many readers of this review have themselves watched time and again.

BRUNO FISCHER – Knee-Deep in Death. Gold Medal #591; paperback original; 1st printing, July 1956. Cover art by Lu Kimmel.

   One of the techniques used by the pulp writers of the 30s and 40s — and earlier and later, for that matter — is to start the story moving by tossing in as many strange and unexplained events as you could and let the main protagonist(s) muddle their way through the rest of the book trying to piece together what happened and put the finger on the guilty party.

   It is a technique that works only when the explanation fits exactly what happened, and if the author can lead the way into that explanation without cramming it all in in one great infodump in the last three or four pages.

   This is what Bruno Fischer, a long-time and very prolific pulp writer himself, does in Knee-Deep in Death, and by golly, he succeeds on both counts. Where he falls down and leaves the reader (me) not completely satisfied is by using a hero-protagonist who’s not very interesting (boring) and while certainly wronged by his wife (rich) who has left him (he insisted that they live on his money, not hers), he comes off as needing to explain things too much (not exactly whiney, but close).

   Coming back to the small town where Manhattan-based TV producer Gabe Bishop’s wife Lucy has returned to live with her mother, he finds her chatting up a fellow in a bar and obviously not very happy to see him (Gabe, that is). Gabe socks him, and it turns out that the guy has a gun. Next thing Gabe knows is that he’s on the scene of a killing, that of an old man in field fleeing an unknown assailant with a (another?) gun, Lucy is nearby — could she be involved? — and so is a good-looking redhead whom Gabe knows is female by grasping into her in the dark.

   Then Lucy’s car in trapped in the mud, and Gabe has to rescue her — see the cover — and do you know what? I don’t think I’m making this very interesting at all. But it is. Something is going on, and besides trying to make up with his wife. Gabe is determined to find out what.

   You will not be surprised to know that he manages to do both. The result is solidly written, not in any sort of prizewinning fashion, and while as often happens the ending is a bit of a letdown, I think (hope) I’ve told you enough to tell you whether you’d enjoy it, too.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SEVEN SINNERS. Gainsborough, UK, 1936. Released in the US as Doomed Cargo. Edmund Lowe, Constance Cummings, Thomy Bourdelle and Felix Aylmer. Written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. Directed by Albert de Courvile.

   There’s a venerable tradition in British thrillers of this period; the hero finds a dead man in his room, notifies the authorities, and either:

   A: He’s accused of murder and on the run from the police and the real killers

      Or:

   B: The body disappears and everyone assumes he’s drunk or crazy… except the real killers.

   In this case it’s “B” and the hero is hard-drinking detective Edmund Lowe, on vacation in Nice (the Pinkertons must pay quite well, it seems) at carnival, compete with sinister masks, dizzying fireworks and a pretty Insurance agent (Miss Cummings) trying to drag him off to Scotland to recover some missing jewels.

   She at length gets our hero on board a Scotland-bound Express but they never do get there because someone wrecks the train and amid the carnage, Lowe sees the body of the man who was murdered in his room (“Where better to hide a leaf than in a forest.”) and the process begins of finding out why he was killed and who might have done it.

   With the aid of a helpful French Police Inspector (Bourdelle) Lowe begins tracking down a killer who is quickly becoming a mass murderer, following up on old photographs, last year’s invitations, bridge tournaments (!) and an obscure death certificate, eventually uncovering a sinister international conspiracy (another tradition of Brit thrillers in those days) headed by a mysterious mastermind with a funny hand (yet another tradition…) who turns out to be a respectable etc. etc.

   Writers Launder and Gilliat handle it all with the energy and wit they brought to thrillers like The Lady Vanishes, Green Man, Night Train to Munich, and director de Courville keeps the pace brisk, emphasizing the repartee between Lowe and Cummings as much as the chases and spectacle. There are three jarring and visceral train wrecks in this movie, and oddly enough the least effective is an actual train wreck lifted from a silent film. The others are achieved with montage and inventive special effects and they contain some splendid visuals.

   Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings play off each other very well in the leads, mastering an anglicized version of the Nick-and-Nora thing quite agreeably, but the writers and director do just as well with the minor characters and bit players with the result that Seven Sinners comes alive with the feel of a dizzying thriller set among very real people.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:


CRACKERJACK. General Film Distributors, UK, 1938. Released in the US as The Man with 100 Faces. Tom Walls, Lili Palmer, Noel Madison, Leon M. Lion, Edmond Breon. Screenplay A.R. Rawlinson; adaptation by Basil Mason Based on the novel by W. B. N. Ferguson Directed by Albert de Courville.

   Crackerjack is a fast-paced British comedy mystery replete with a mysterious monocled gentleman thief (the Crackerjack of the title: “Don’t think because I wear this eyeglass I won’t drop you,” he warns a roomful of criminals he holds at gunpoint), a beautiful Baroness who used to be a spy, and a dancing and singing troupe of airborne hold up-men, complete with two musical numbers. I honestly can’t think what more you could want from a thirties British film.

   The film opens as Sculpie (Noel Madison) and his gang pull a daring daylight robbery of a millionaire diamond merchant on a plane. On board the plane is monocled Jack Drake (Tom Walls), a droll type who calmly decks a Scotland Yard man to save him from Sculpie. When Sculpie and his pals drop the passengers off though and take off with the plane they soon find they have an empty case, no swag, and someone else has the diamonds.

   The someone else is Crackerjack, Jack Drake, who has turned Robin Hood to finance his charitable work when his own fortune dwindled from too many good deeds. He even writes a bestselling book about himself that sets London on its ear, but when the hospital he financed needs money and his bank draft overages press it is time for Crackerjack to strike again, this time in London where his one time inamorata, Baroness Von Halz (Lili Palmer), is visiting and would like nothing more than to see the man who left her waiting in Berlin (not knowing he and his secretary barely escaped the police), but for whom she still has feelings.

   Crackerjack strikes again at an elegant ball (“Today I endow an crib, tomorrow I crack one.”), and again Sculpie and gang hit the same target and come up short, this time killing a man; something Crackerjack won’t tolerate. Meanwhile Baroness Von Halz old friend Golding (Leon M. Lion) tells her he lost a family heirloom to Crackerjack at the ball and asks her aid as a one time German spy in contacting Crackerjack. If he can catch him in the act, maybe he can persuade him to return the heirloom.

   Little does the Baroness know that Golding is the fence for Sculpie’s gang and the trap is a deadly one or that her beloved Jack Drake is Crackerjack. She sets up the meeting with Crackerjack who remains hidden and arranges for him to steal some papers she claims she is being blackmailed with.

   Drake knows it is a setup (“I’ll do anything for you,” he tells the Baroness, “but drop my ‘aitches.”), but he can’t resist heisting all the goodies the gang stole and betraying them to the friendly policeman he saved on the plane, who having recovered most of the loot from the theft of the ball and captured the murderers could care less if Crackerjack gets away.

   Walls, seems an odd choice for hero, and it is more than a bit difficult to imagine that the young and lovely Palmer is head over heels in love with him. For one thing he is middle aged, balding, has a huge beak of a nose, no chin, jowls, and a silly ass upper class English twit manner better suited to Bertie Wooster than Simon Templar — in fact he wouldn’t be a terrible Peter Wimsey — but the film is so good-natured, short, fast paced, and often clever you quickly warm to its hero, or at least don’t mind him too much.

   I know nothing sbout Walls, but assume he was a popular stage or music hall star, since the film seems designed to exploit his persona. Palmer, on the other hand, is young and beautiful, and the scenes with her show her off to great advantage, even if she hasn’t a lot to do but look decorative. Noel Madison was usually cast as American gangsters in British films and plays a variation of that here in a Jack LaRue, Marc Lawrence, Joseph Calleia key.

   Droll, rapid-paced, relatively clever sub-Saintly stuff with a minor league gentleman thief in the Raffles/Lupin/Baron vein, Crackerjack is an attractive, sprightly, witty, little distraction that leaves a much better taste behind than you might expect it to when it starts. It also helps there is no moralizing or preaching here. It isn’t giving anything away to say the hero gets the girl and the swag and flies away with both, nose firmly thumbed to propriety, Hollywood’s Code, and any and all dull moralists watching.

   Considering that it came as a total surprise that I stumbled upon quite by accident, having never heard of the film or the book it is based on I could not be more pleased with the result.

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