Reviews


LAWRENCE BLOCK – The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams. Bernie Rhodenbarr #6. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1994. Onyx, paperback; 1st printing, June 1995.

   When this book came out, there had been a gap of over ten years between this one and the previous entry in Lawrence Block’s “Burglar” series, The Burglar Who Painted like Mondrian, and as I recall at the time, fans were beginning to wonder if there ever would be a new one.

   If anyone knows more of the story than I do, you’re welcome to say more in the comments. For whatever reason Block decided to pick up the story again, I for one am glad he did. This is the funniest detective story I’ve read in a long time. And not only that, there are five more in the series that I have not read, and I’m eager to start catching up.

   By the end of this book, some changes in Bernie’s life have taken place. He has a new cat to help him in the bookstore, his worries about paying the rent are over, and he will have a partner of sorts in his other occupation, and there’s no secret what that is, is there?

   Story lines can get dated, though, and this one starts out with a doozie. No bookseller can be up on the prices he has in stock, not unless he’s a specialist in every area under the sun, and as book opens Bernie gets snookered when he sells a First Edition copy of Sue Grafton’s B Is for Burglar for $100 when it’s worth $500. According to the story. Today you can buy a signed first for $50. If you invested in mystery first editions back in the mid-90s, you’d have almost nothing to show for it today.

   Except (I hope) a lot of good mysteries to read.

   Well, characters in detective stories don’t drive Duesenbergs any more, either. Times change, but even now, book dealers with open shops have to pay the rent, and Bernie is no different. And as a direct result, he is tempted to go back into his former business again. He resists, and he almost succeeds.

   Which is where the set of 1950 Ted Williams cards comes in. It’s a complicated tale, and you’re far better off reading it yourself, but of course they — the cards — are missing. Not only that, but on his first burglaring foray he’s been on in a while, Bernie also finds a dead man with no clothes on in a bathroom that’s sealed up as tight as a drum.

   Coincidences abound in this story, or are they? Everybody and everything is connected to everything and everybody else in this story, and it takes Bernie, with some persuasion, to solve the case, with all of the suspects (and more) gathered together in one room in one of the grandest finales I’ve read all year.

   And, oh, remember Sue Grafton being mentioned a while back? This is the book in which Block has some fun with her, making up titles such as F Is for Stop, T Is for Sympathy, and G Is for Spot. Not to mention Bernie’s good lesbian pet groomer friend Carolyn wondering aloud whether Kinsey Millhone may be of the same sexual orientation, or not. I do not know what Sue Grafton’s reaction may have been.

THE INTERNECINE PROJECT. Allied Artists, 1974. James Coburn, Lee Grant, Harry Andrews, Ian Hendry, Michael Jayston , Christiane Krüger, Keenan Wynn. Screenplay by Barry Levinson & Jonathan Lynn, based on the novel Internecine by Mort W. Elkind. Director: Ken Hughes.

   The dictionary definition of the word “internecine” is “mutually destructive,” and as a description of what this movie is all about, it’s as an appropriate a word as I can think of. Based on the short amount of time I spent watching an interview with screenwriter Jonathan Lynn provided on the DVD of the film, the word is pronounced something like “in TERN neh seen,” and if you let it, it’s a word that will get stuck in your head all day long without being able to find a way to get out.

   Also, before going any further, I’d like to mention that the novel the movie is supposedly based on, the one by Mort Elkind that’s stated in the credits, it doesn’t seem to exist. One of those anomalies of the film-making world that pops up every now and again, I imagine, and I no longer worry about such things.o

   So, where does the “mutual destruction” come in? It seems that what James Coburn, a high profile (and highly photogenic) professor of economics, wants more than anything else, is an appointment to a high government position. Rather than go through an embarrassing set of revelations in any confirmation hearings, he decides to clean up his past. That is to say, four most inconvenient former associates, unknown to each other, in some previous undesirable activities.

   How? By setting each one a final task, that of killing off another one of the four. By an overdose of insulin, by death in a shower (someone must have seen Psycho), by a high tech electronic frequency transmitter, and last but not least, a stout clunk on the head, simple but always effective.

   The timing of these four simultaneous assassinations is crucial, and so the movie plays out like a well-planned “heist” film, one in which if one step goes awry, the whole affair may fall apart quickly and immediately.

   Twists and turns are expected, therefore, but alas, even though James Coburn’s character spends a lot of time pacing as he waits for the phone to ring at appropriate intervals from each of the participants he has sent into motion, there is only one twist that really counts, and you’ll have to wait to the ending for that.

   The photography is very well done, and Lee Grant, who plays a journalist as well as a former romantic interest, is as beautiful as ever. Every once in a while there also seems to be a point at which she is important to the plot, but sadly enough, that point never quite comes. According to what I read on IMDb, a number of people have liked this film, but if you were to ask me, I’d have to tell you I found it a misfire, more often than not.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


NEVADA BARR – A Superior Death. Anna Pigeon #2. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1994. Berkley, paperback, 1995. Avon, paperback, 2002(?). Berkley, paperback, 2003.

   I’ve heard a lot of good reports on Barr’s first novel, Track of the Cat, but for whatever reason have not read it. Barr, like her protagonist, is a Park Ranger, at the lovely Natchez Trace Park in Mississippi.

   Ranger Anna Pigeon has been transferred from the Texas high desert to Isle Royale National Park, a remote island off the coast of Michigan in Lake Superior and known for deepwater dives to wrecked sailing vessels. One of the vessels contains five well-preserved bodies that make it a prime diving attraction. Before long there’s a fresher body to contend with — a recently married diver who conducted diving tours on the lake. In addition, the young wife of an old-salt Park Ranger hasn’t been seen lately, and a New Age-ish couple are hinting to Anna of cannibalism and murder.

   Agh friend asked me when I was about two-thirds through the book how I liked it, and my answer was, “Pretty well, and if she doesn’t screw up the plot like so many of them do these days, I’ll like it a lot.”

   She did, though, bigtime. The eventual key to the plot was one of the most contrived and unlikely I’ve come across in many moons, and it comes to Anna in a blinding flash. Too, there’s the all-too-common situation of the law (including the FBI, this time) idling off-stage while the smart people catch the crooks, and the heroine plunging breathlessly into foolish danger.

   On the plus side, I think Barr writes very good prose, particularly when she’s dealing with nature and the environment, and manages to convey a strong ecological message without it getting in the way of the story. I liked Anna and thought that Barr did a good job with characterization overall. If you don’t share my distaste for reality shat upon, you might like this.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.

      The Anna Pigeon series —

1. Track of the Cat (1993)

2. A Superior Death (1994)
3. Ill Wind (1995)
4. Firestorm (1996)

5. Endangered Species (1997)
6. Blind Descent (1998)
7. Liberty Falling (1999)
8. Deep South (2000)
9. Blood Lure (2001)

10. Hunting Season (2002)
11. Flashback (2003)
12. High Country (2004)
13. Hard Truth (2005)
14. Winter Study (2008)

15. Borderline (2009)
16. Burn (2010)
17. The Rope (2012)
18. Destroyer Angel (2014)

19. Boar Island (2016)

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE ZODIAC KILLER. 1971. Hal Reed, Bob Jones, Ray Lynch, Tom Pittman, Mary Darrington, Frank Sanabek, Ed Quigley, Doodles Weaver (as Doddles Weaver). Director: Tom Hanson.

   This one’s an exercise in pure exploitation. Released in 1971 at the height of the hysteria surrounding the series of unsolved murders in northern California, the eponymous The Zodiac Killer is a low budget attempt to capitalize on the public’s well-founded fears that a brutal murderer might be lurking in their midst. Poorly edited and with acting that ranges from borderline adequate to the downright campy, The Zodiac Killer is not what anyone would call a good film.

   But it is a cultural artifact, to be sure. There’s something very gonzo about late 1960s and 1970s independent filmmaking, a gung ho spirit that sadly is lacking in filmmaking today.

   The tone of the film ranges from sleazy to brutal to hysterically funny, and it takes forever to figure out what the filmmakers actually intended their final product to be. Unless, that is, what they intended is what you see on the screen: a real mishmash that somehow tells a story about who they imagined the Zodiac killer might be.

   And that persona comes in the form of a mailman by the name of Jerry (Hal Reed). Jerry’s not a particularly happy person. His father lives in an insane asylum, and he gets yelled at by old ladies on his mail route – well, one old lady in particular. His only friend seems to be a pathetic, violently erratic truck driver. Somehow – and we never really learn how and why – he snaps and becomes a devotee of a religious cult and then begins his killing spree.

   There are some truly brutal murder scenes in this one, but also some scenes that are so over the top that they’re downright comical. Almost slapstick. A truly bizarre little movie that doesn’t say too much about anything but, if it ends up being screened as a midnight movie, has the potential to be a lost cult classic.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


ERNEST HAYCOX – Alder Gulch. Little Brown, hardcover, 1941. Paperback reprints include: Dell #317, mapback edition, 1949; Bantam A2287, 1961; Paperback Library, 1971; Pinnacle, 1992.

   A superior Western by a master of the form, Alder Gulch starts off in Jack London territory with Jeff Pierce, shanghaied by a brutal sea captain, jumping ship in Portland — or trying to. The captain pulls a gun, Pierce clubs him down and ends up wet and alone, fleeing for his life in a strange city… and wanted for murder.

   In the best pulp tradition, he’s rescued by a beautiful woman of mystery, and they end up making a difficult trek to Virginia City, Montana, then on to Alder Gulch, where Pierce intends to try his luck prospecting.

   About this time I wasn’t expecting much, but Haycox quickly abandons the Pulp traditions (most of them anyway) and sets about writing a genuine story, filled with real-seeming characters, tense situations, lots of action and even a moral dilemma or two.

   Haycox fashions a story that pits the hard-toiling miners of Alder Gulch against the well-entrenched outlaw bands of the area, led by Sheriff Henry Plummer (A real-life character of some controversy. And I should add here that although our hero is named Pierce and he’s been shanghaied, he bears no relation to the Shanghai Pierce of Texas fame.)

   A lot of this plot found its way (unaccredited) into Borden Chase’s screenplay for The Far Country (1954) from the outlaws’ habit of picking off miners trying to leave with their profits to the central character who’d rather go it alone than stand up for law and order with the community. And shame on Chase anyway for stealing so shamelessly. But Haycox blends the tale neatly with grungy details of a miner’s life and the progress-or-decline of characters who grow and change as we watch them, wrapping things up with a satisfying conclusion.

   Now I’m going to pick a fight with you. There’s a scene in Alder Gulch where the hero, having finally joined the vigilantes, finds his good friend mixed up with the outlaws and facing the wrong end of a rope. This is not a new thing in westerns; it goes back at least as far as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) and there may even be ancient Icelandic sagas about former pardners turned owlhoots. It has appeared in a number of books since then (including Lonesome Dove) and it also shows up in A. B. Guthrie’s These Thosand Hills.

   Most of you read my review of Hills and said you never read Guthrie and didn’t think he was worth the trouble, but I’m here to tell you Guthrie took this meme and handled it with originality, tension, and a sure feel for the moral and emotional complexity of the thing. Haycox was good, but Guthrie was brilliant, and I’ll fight any man in the room (at a safe distance, of course) who will read the book and say different.

   And meanwhile, don’t forget Haycox’s Alder Gulch; it’s a winner.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marvin Lachman


ELISABETH SANXAY HOLDING – Net of Cobwebs. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1945. Bantam #26, paperback, 1946 (copies with jackets exist). Detective Book Club, hardcover, 3-in-1 edition. Ace Double G-530, paperback; published back-to-back with Unfinished Crime. Stark House Press, trade paperback, 2004; published with The Death Wish.

   The psychological mystery, along with its first cousin, the film noir, became extremely popular during the mid-1940s. Elizabeth Sanxay Holding had been writing this type of book since the early 1930s, and Anthony Boucher, one of her biggest boosters, was quick to point out her preeminence in this subgenre. Raymond Chandler paid her extravagant praise indeed, saying, “For my money she’s the top suspense writer of them all.” Net of Cobwebs is one of her best books.

   Most of the Holding mysteries involve close family relationships. This is perhaps a carry-over from her early writing days, prior to 1930, when she primarily wrote romantic fiction. Critics Barzun and Taylor disliked the “family wrangling” in her books, but they are in a distinct minority; most fans and critics thought otherwise. In Net of Cobwebs it is his family that is an apparent refuge for Malcolm Drake, a merchant seaman who is recovering from the effects of having had his ship torpedoed.

   He carries the additional burden of guilt regarding the death of one -member. Plagued with nightmares and inability remember, he suffers the further trauma of being the primary murder suspect when a relative who made him her heir is murdered with his medication.

   Though women were generally her protagonists, Holding shows in this book that she has no difficulty in being equally convincing when writing from a male viewpoint, even that of a war veteran. We can accept and identify with Drake as easily as we can with the heroine of another Holding novel using World War II as its background. In The Blank Wall (1947), Lucia Holley seems to to be a typical middle-aged housewife, concerned with writing to her husband overseas and coping with wartime shortages. When a married man “takes up” with her teenage daughter and then is found murdered, Lucia’s life becomes a nightmare. The book, one of her most popular. was filmed in 1949 by Max Ophuls, with Joan Bennett and James Mason, as The Reckless Moment.

         ———
   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.

  BRUNO FISCHER – The Fast Buck. Gold Medal #270, paperback original; 1st printing, November 1952. Cover art by Barye Phillips. Reprinted as Gold Medal s783. paperback, 1958.

   As a rule, not a hard and fast one, I don’t read books about crime and criminals, gangsters and their molls, or hoodlums and crooked cops. I do read “heist” novels, though, and sometimes books about slick-talking con men. I also make exceptions for crime novels from Gold Medal, and I always exclude books by Bruno Fischer, no matter what genre they may fall into

   Case in point, although there was one point at which I admit that was beginning to wonder. I’ll get back to that. Bert Peake is a two-bit hoodlum, his life is going nowhere, and he knows it. Desperate for a fresh break in life, he goes the wrong way and asks a childhood buddy for a job. The old buddy is now on top of the rackets in New York City.

   And Bert does get a job, one that will pay him $5000, although not on any regular payroll. No, what Lumm wants him to do is to kill a guy, target to be named later. That’s the opening, and it may be enough to get a lot of readers through the occasional rough patches tht lie ahead.

   To wit. Now that he’s in the money, he can have a girl move in with him, not an innocent my any means, but a nice girl, one he socks in the face when he loses his temper. At length she forgives him, but I don’t know as she would if she knew he was hanging out with a rich man’s daughter who thinks he is a brute, he proves it, and she is all the more attracted to him because of it.

   Overshadowing these ominous overtones, though, is a mystery to be solved, who does Lumm want to have killed, and why is he encouraging the romance between Peake and the rich man’s daughter?

   This is a complicated story, but at heart it’s also a simple one. Is the love of a good girl enough to pull a heel out of the morass he’s about to fall into? This is a book that doesn’t work on several levels, but Fischer somehow creates enough sympathy for Peake that the story manages to succeed in spite of itself. My opinion only, though, and I may change my mind tomorrow.

KEITH LAUMER – Catastrophe Planet. Berkley F1273, paperback original; 1st printing, August 1966. Included in the collection The Breaking Earth (Tor/Pinnacle, paperback; June 1981) with two non-fiction essays by other authors. Also included in the collection Future Imperfect (Baen, softcover; May 2003).

   This one takes place some 30 years or more in the future from the time it was written, and although it’s definitely a science fiction novel, a good portion of it would make the best James Bond movie never filmed. The reason for the title is that massive plates in the Earth’s surface have begun to shift, causing earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, typhoons and all kinds of similar disaster all over the world.

   In the James Bond role is a guy named Mal Irish to whom all kinds of strange events happen, and he’s just the kind of adventurous guy to go with them. If anything similar were to happen to either you or I, we’d just find the nearest corner and curl up in a ball.

   First he comes across an old sailor trapped in a mostly demolished building who tells him a fantastic story of an expedition to Antarctica where they found a hidden city filled with signs of an ancient civilization. But strange beings nearly wiped out the party; the dying man may have been the last survivor.

   But before dying, the man gives Mal a strange coin, which he takes with him to the island of Miami, which is now one of the last remnants of life going on as before on the planet. In fact there is a coin collectors’ convention going on. He takes the coin in for evaluation, and when he leaves, he finds the coin has been switched on him.

   Mystified, the trail leads him to Crete, and to get there he crosses the Atlantic in a small one-man boat. There by sheer happenstance he meets an old friend, who by chance knows a fisherman who just happens to have been hired to strange two groups of strange men out to sea, where they have jumped overboard and disappeared.

   Have I mentioned the beautiful girl who speaks a strange exotic language but who seems to be the object of a worldwide hunt for her by persons unknown? The trail leads at length back to Antarctica, where things revert to pure science fiction, if not epic fantasy, at last what we have been waiting for, a grand finale replacement for the much more prosaic adventures it took to get there, at least in comparison.

   If you stop to think about it as you go, however, you will realize what a bunch of nonsense this all is. But like a James Bond movie, to continue the parallel, if you can sit back and let Laumer slide you along from location to location, you may find yourself enjoying this all out assault on your senses immensely. Mind-blowing? Yes, absolutely.

   Unfortunately, I made the mistake of stopping and trying to pick up the story line later on. It has its moments, but all in all, as you may have gathered, I think Laumer has done much better work than this. (Note that the later two versions may be expansions of the Berkley novel from 1966, which is the one I read.)

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


JONATHAN STAGGE – The Dogs Do Bark. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1937. Popular Library #350, paperback, 1951. Also published as Murder Gone To Earth (Joseph, UK, hardcover, 1936).

   A question is often raised about whether it is worthwhile to spend time and space reviewing a poor novel. Why bother? Well, if nothing else, to warn prospective readers that they may be in for a disappointment. And a disappointment is what The Dogs Do Bark definitely is in this reviewer’s opinion.

   Here ! must flout our distinguished editor’s admonition not to give anything away in a review. How else describe this book’s weaknesses?

   A headless and armless female body is found during a fox hunt in Massachusetts. Since a female is missing from the area, her father, a religious fanatic, is asked to view the presumably naked torso of the corpse and identifies it, more or less, as his daughter, while throwing in some wild religious quotations to prove his fanaticism. Don’t ask me how this zealot was so familiar with his daughter’s naked body. (And the author certainly didn’t want anybody to ask.)

   After the father has viewed the corpse and identified her, more or less, he is then read a description of the body, presumably another author’s ploy so that the authorities can say that she was not virgo intacta, although not pregnant, and thus must either have been married or immoral. The coroner and the doctor — the latter is the amateur detective in the novel — who had been deputized by the sheriff both seem to think that sexual intercourse is the only way that the hymen can be broken, no doubt a fond delusion during the 1930s.

   Later on in the book we are told that the girl identified as the corpse thought she was pregnant. Do the doctor and the sheriff look at one another with wild or even mild surmise? Of course not. The primary reason for the head and arms being removed from the body does not occur to them, either. If it had — and some thought was given to another female’s disappearance, one who looked much like the corpse — the book would have ended at chapter 3 or 4. And what then would have become of the so-much-per-word story?

   The arms are found in the hunting pack’s kennels, stripped to the bone by the dogs. The head is located later elsewhere, kept by the killer for reasons never made clear. The deputy doctor seems to have only one patient, a hypochondriac, so he has plenty of time to blunder around and nearly get himself killed in a had-I-but-known-or-even-given-it-some-thought fashion. He comes close to being burned to death in an old barn by the murderer, and it would have served him right. Once the corpse is correctly identified, a telegram from another police force points out the killer.

   Recommended only to those who have a mild interest in the U.S. fox hunting scene.

— Reprinted from CADS 4, April 1986. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.


Editorial Comment:   I believe but I am not positive that the doctor Bill refers to in this review is Dr. Hugh Westlake, who appeared in all nine of Jonathan Stagge’s detective novels, of which this is the first. (I do not know who the deputy doctor might be.) Stagge was a pseudonym of Richard Wilson Webb, (1901-1970) & Hugh Callingham Wheeler, (1912-1987), who also collaborated on books as by Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MICHAEL CONNELLY – The Concrete Blonde. Harry Bosch #3. Little Brown, hardcover, 1994. St. martin’s, paperback, 1995. Reprinted many times.

   Connelly won a Best First Novel Edgar for The Black Echo, the first book about LAPD detective and ex-tunnel rat Hieronymus (“Harry”) Bosch, and followed it with a second Bosch tale that I thought was even better. Third time charmed?

   Harry is on trial. He’s being sued by the widow of a man he shot and killed four years ago while attempting to arrest him as a serial killer. Now the civil suit claims he acted imprudently, but there’s worse to come. An anonymous note is delivered to the police claiming that Bosch killed the wrong man, and that the serial killer is alive, well, and in operation — and it directs them to a body to prove it.

   Harry is convinced that the man he killed was guilty, which would mean that there is a copycat killer. But is he right? And if he is, how does the copycat know what he knows about the original killings?

   Meanwhile in the courtroom, the attorney for the plaintiff is making hash of Bosch;s incompetent City Attorney, and she, too, seems to know things she shouldn’t, particularly about the copycat.

   To answer my opening question, yes, I think so. I’ve thought Connelly’s writing powerful from the start but had a few minor reservations about his plotting, particularly in the first book. I have no such problems here. He knows how to tell a story, and this is not a given among today’s crime novelists. Bosch is a strong character, and the supporting cast is drawn in enough depth to fill the roles creditably.

    The Concrete Blonde moves Connelly into the top rank, if you hadn’t already placed him there.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.

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