Reviews


JOSEPH FINDER – Guilty Minds. Nick Heller #3. Dutton, hardcover, 2016; paperback, 2017.

   Nick Heller is, according to the back cover of the softcover edition of this book, “a private spy — an intelligence operative based in Boston who prides himself on uncovering the truth.” His assignment in this case: to find out who’s responsible for a scurrilous story about a Supreme Court justice that’s about to appear in one of those scandal sheet websites that are so widely read around the world today, but most particularly in the DC area.

   The justice is accused of having an ongoing liaison with a call girl in a downtown DC hotel, an accusation that Heller quickly proves to be false. When the call girl is found dead, obviously a suicide, Heller decides to follow up on his own — he doesn’t believe the official verdict — and to find out who’s really behind this ever evolving conspiracy, and why.

   This is PI work in the modern age, no doubt about it. Heller has a staff fully conversant with all kinds of illicit computer spying and other high tech surveillance capability, as well as contacts of all kinds whenever his own staff needs assistance. It does make things a whole easier in one sense, compared with the resources a Philip Marlowe had, or didn’t have — but on the other hand, the villains of the take have equal abilities, and they’re not hesitant about using them.

   I don’t usually tackle books as long as this one — almost 450 pages of small print — but Finder has a very smooth writing technique that allows the reader to gulp in whole paragraphs at a time. Truthfully, though, it’s more of a thriller novel than it is a PI novel, with a lot of firepower bringing the story to a grand slam conclusion in the final few chapters.

   There’s nothing in this one that I’m sure I haven’t read before, but even if so, I didn’t mind at all reading it again.

      The Nick Heller series —

1. Vanished (2009)
2. Buried Secrets (2011)
2.5. Plan B (novells, 2011)
3. Guilty Minds (2016)

   Also of note: “Good and Valuable Consideration: Jack Reacher vs. Nick Heller,” a short story by Lee Child & Joseph Finder included in the ITW (International Thriller Writers) anthology FaceOff (2015).

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE SMILING GHOST. Warner Brothers, 1941. Wayne Morris, Brenda Marshall, Alexis Smith, Willie Best, Alan Hale, David Bruce. Written by Kenneth Gamet and Stuart Palmer. Directed by Lewis Seiler.

   A recent review here of Secret of the Blue Room (1933) got me wondering: Universal used this story again in 1938 (The Missing Guest) and 1944 (Murder in the Blue Room). So how did it turn up at Warners in 1941?

   In all fairness, Ghost takes a wholly different comic approach to the story and introduces characters not found in any blue room — some of them rather well-realized — but when we get to the series of murdered fiancés and the eventual solution, we are on very familiar ground indeed.

   Wayne Morris starts the film as an impecunious engineer looking for any sort of job, who hires on to be engaged to Alexis Smith for a month, unaware that each of her previous fiancés has met a horrible fate. By the time he’s wised up by reporter Brenda Marshall he has narrowly escaped murder at the hands of the eponymous ghoul .

   Okay, never mind the improbability of this guy getting a scientific degree and having two intelligent women fall in love with him. They do it for the sake of the plot, so let’s just get on with the skulking shadows, eyes peering through secret passages, brushes with death and all the rest of it.

   The proceedings are enlivened considerably by subsidiary characters like Charles Halton as an eccentric uncle who collects shrunken heads, and especially by Alan Hale as a detective posing none-too-convincingly as a butler. Lewis Seiler directs without distinction but he keeps things moving, and the rest of the cast are the usual Warners reliables, with everyone pitching in to keep things going efficiently and forgettably.

   But I still can’t figure out how writers Gamet and Palmer passed this off as their own…..

THE SMILING GHOST


Editorial Comment:   Walter Albert has also reviewed this film for this blog, nearly six years ago. Check it out here.

BENNETT FOSTER – Gila City. Five Star, hardcover, 2003. Leisure, paperback; 1st printing, September 2004. A fix-up novel comprised of six stories reprinted from the western pulp magazines; details below.

   To call it a novel is, truthfully, an exaggeration. What this book actually consists of is a series of connected but individual stories from the pulps, each with its own definitive ending. What’s more than a bit strange about this is that the stories did not all come from the same magazine. Chronologically, and in the same orderas they appear in this book, they jumped from title to title, as follows:

        “Mail for Freedom Hill” Dime Western, November 1946.
        “Pilgrim for Boothill’s Glory Hole” Star Western, February 1947.
        “Dandy Bob’s Cold-Deck Cattle Deal” Dime Western, April 1947.
        “The Joke in Hell’s Backyard” Dime Western, July 1947.
        “Gila’s Four-Rod Justice” New Western, December 1947.
        “Duggan Trouble at Salada Wash” Dime Western, March 1948.

   All of the stories take place in the small western town of Gila City, Arizona. It’s within a day’s ride of Tucson, if that helps you place it geographically. Some of the same townspeople appear now and then, as needed, but the villains generally come and go within the time and space of a single story. (More often than not they don’t even survive to the end of the story.)

   The two primary protagonists, on the other hand, are the same throughout: First and foremost, Dandy Bob Roberts, local gambler and sharply dressed gent of sharper than average wit. He is also not averse to doing a little cattle rustling on the side. His natural-born tendency toward illicit ventures always seem to turn around on him, though, often making a small town hero of him. His stature in town seems somehow to keep rising, mostly because of the interference of Old Man Duggan, town drunk, stable hostler and teller of tall tales, and a constant pain in the behind to Dandy Bob.

   For example: When a dude from the East (or pilgrim, as he’s referred to here) happens to come to town looking for a mine to buy, Bob decides to salt the Widow Fennessy’s holdings. Old Man Duggan, having the same idea, unknowingly manages to switch Bob’s high grade ore back to a bag of useless rock. It all works out in the end, though. An inadvertent explosion in the mine exposes a new vein of gold, starting the Widow Fennessy into thinking a lot more favorably of Old Man Duggan as suitable marriage material.

   Which is more plot detail than I’d usually provide, but it should give you the general gist of these gently humorous stories, along with the not idly stated fact that they are gently humorous. Dandy Bob in one story actually becomes the owner of the saloon he’s been plying his trade in all these years, and in another tale Old Man Duggan somehow manages to get himself elected Justice of the Peace, but alas neither position or status is permanent.

   Totally ephemeral, in other words, but also a more than adequate way to spend one’s time while flying cross country on an airplane.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE BOOK OF ELI. Warner Brothers, 2010. Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals. Directors: Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes.

   I’ve become increasingly convinced that Denzel Washington is the auteur of the films that he appears in. That’s not to say that he doesn’t work with talented directors or that his co-stars aren’t often talented actors themselves. It’s just that Washington is able to portray so many different types of characters who find themselves in nearly impossible situations. In that sense, there is a common thread that runs through a lot of Washington movies. He often portrays a loner, a solitary man whose thoughts run deeper than one might expect.

   And you know what? That’s definitely true for his role as the titular character in The Book of Eli. Washington portrays Eli, a man living in post-apocalyptical America. He’s been spending his years walking through the wastelands that were once vital cities and towns, making his way to the West Coast. He’s carrying with him an extremely precious object. One that the audience learns is the last remaining copy of the King James Bible.

   As you might expect from what I just mentioned, the Christian symbolism and allegory is overt in this overall gritty feature. Eli is on a mission. One that he thinks is divinely inspired. And that mission involves his traveling on foot, through tough terrain and in the face of violent marauders, all the way to the West Coast so that he can hand over the Bible to people who will make proper use of it.

   The greatest obstacle to his completing his mission comes in the form of a would-be tyrant by the name of Carnegie (an over the top Gary Oldman) who wants the Bible in order to consolidate his control over a desperate, illiterate populace.

   Fortunately, Eli – a loner at heart – finally allows for companionship in his life, albeit of the platonic variety. Solara (Mila Kunis) is a girl held captive by Carnegie who decides she wants a better life and decides to join Eli on his quest. The two of them face down not only Carnegie and his henchmen, but also a husband and wife whose hospitality toward them may have less to do with kindness than with cannibalism.

   While I thoroughly enjoyed watching Washington’s portrayal of Eli, I ended up feeling that the story, while compelling, was just a little too straightforward. The Christian allegory was strong, and the message that the Bible could be used for good or for evil was loud and clear. But it just wasn’t enough to make me feel as though the movie would not have benefited from a greater degree of moral complexity.

   One final note: the movie, set as it is in a post-nuclear war America, is filmed in earth tones, almost sepia. Sometimes it works well. Other times, the unique color scheme only serves to draw attention away from the action on hand.

W. GLENN DUNCAN – Rafferty: Cannon’s Mouth. Rafferty #5. Gold Medal, paper back original; 1st printing, June 1990.

   There were six books in the Rafferty series, and you can find my comments on the previous entry, Rafferty: Wrong Place, Wrong Time (1989) here. I enjoyed that one, but I did add a caveat that “[b]oth of the cases Rafferty is working on turn out to be very light ones.”

   This one’s even lighter, I’m sorry to say. Rafferty’s home base is Dallas, but except for the location, you can see a lot of similarities between his character and that other more famous PI who worked in the Boston area. I use “worked” in the past tense, because another author is writing up his adventures now, and it’s like spinning the wheels on a car stuck in a snowbank. There’s lots and lots of action, but you get nowhere awfully fast.

   Which is a whole other review altogether, I grant you.

   Here’s the story in this one. While Rafferty’s on a surveillance case that he’s being paid for, he’s accidentally mistaken for a hit man, but when he does a civic duty as a private citizen and warns the cops, all kinds of warning signals go off. Rafferty, quite naturally decides to stay involved, on his own clock.

   There is a lot of the usual banter between Rafferty and the cops and Rafferty and his close lady friend Hilda Gardner, but this time around both it (the banter) and the story seem forced, and the ending, while it fits the story, seems to come out of nowhere. This one’s no more than average, all the way through.

JOHN CROWE – When They Kill Your Wife. Buena Costa County series #5. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1977. No paperback edition.

   As seems true about all the inhabitants of California, the residents of fictional Buena Costa county live in a world of intricately tangled relationships, the kind that too often result in murder. Even though they’d been separated for a year, when Paul Sobers’ wife is killed, he’s compelled to find out why, and a tightly closed corner of the world yields many secrets as he starts digging up the past.

   The result is a tale that’s even more complex and tortuous than the one Ross Macdonald tells, and occasionally the going gets heavy. The ending is not fair to the reader, but while the finale to a detective story sometimes comes as a letdown to the reader, this one’s actually better than any of the preceding parts — a triple-snapper!

Rating:   B

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 6, November 1977 (slightly revised).

       The Buena Costa County series —

Another Way To Die (1972)
A Touch of Darkness (1972)
Bloodwater (1974)
Crooked Shadows (1975)
When They Kill Your Wife (1977)
Close To Death (1979)

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DANCE HALL RACKET. Screen Classics Inc., 1953. Timothy Farrell, Lenny Bruce, Bernie Jones, Honey Bruce and Killer Joe Piro. Written by Lenny Bruce. Produced by George Weiss. Directed by Phil Tucker.

   There’s something sort of fitting about Lenny Bruce dong a tame 1950s skin-flick, but the good news here is that this film is too seldom shown to damage his reputation — which, come to think of it, he did pretty well all by himself. The other good news is that aside from Bruce, Dance Hall Racket is not a waste of anyone’s talent; the talents here assembled are perfectly suited to this sub-nudie effort, and navigate the seedy screen like they were born for it.

   We get Timothy Farrell as Umberto Scali, running a dime-a-dance joint as a front for various & sundry illegalities, such as murder, diamond smuggling and maybe a touch of prostitution; Lenny Bruce and Killer Joe Piro as flunky-hoods; Honey Bruce as a dancer who changes her clothes a lot, and Bernie Jones (formerly of Spike Jones’ ensemble) as a dumb Swede who stops the action every so often to tell excruciatingly bad jokes.

   Dance Hall Racket exists primarily as an excuse to show attractive young ladies in stages of undress, highlighted at various intervals by an actual glimpse of a bare breast (GOSH!) but there’s a sort of tawdry plot here: something about Timothy Farrell buying hot ice and planning to abduct a recently-released con and find out where he stashed the loot.

   We also get an undercover cop worming his way into Farrell’s scene and a neophyte taxi-dancer resisting temptation, but Dance Hall Racket is too disjointed to weave any of these threads together; like I say, it’s an excuse to look at nekkid wimmin, and a pretty feeble one at that, shot on shoe-box sets by a cameraman who looks like he was thinking of something else at the time.

   Getting back to the talented people who made this film, well, Lenny Bruce is legendary, and his wife Honey was played by Valerie Perrine (who got an Oscar nomination) in the biopic Lenny, but the others are almost as fascinating: Producer George Weiss started out with Test Tube Babies in 1948, went on to Glen or Glenda? (1953) and continued on into the 90s making films he should be ashamed of.

   Right after Dance Hall Racket director Phil Tucker tried going “legit” with Robot Monster, a legendary mess in fake 3-D, but was soon back to doing things like Strips Around the World and Bagdad After Midnite. He continued working sporadically in the movies as late as the 1980s.

   My favorite though is Timothy Farrell, here the gang boss, but in real life an L.A. County Sherriff’s bailiff (he appeared as himself the next year in A Star Is Born) who acted in nudie movies and religious shorts on the side. He eventually made County Marshall (despite having one of his films seized in a police raid) but was fired for using his deputies as political activists in 1975, indicating a personality much more interesting than this bizarre little film.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


When The Death Bat Flies: The Detective Stories of NORVELL PAGE. Altus Press, hardcover, softcover, ebook, 2013. Introduction by Will Murray.

   This thick Altus Press edition collects over 800 pages of detective and crime stories by pulp wunderkind Norvell Page, best remembered today for helming the best of the popular adventures of Richard Wentworth, star of the eponymous pulp The Spider. It is accompanied by an informative introduction and biographical look at Page and his career by pulp expert and Doc Savage chronicler Will Murray.

   Page cracked the more highly regarded pulps like Black Mask, Dime Detective, and John Campbell’s Unknown, but by far his greatest output aside from the Spider epic was for the likes of Ten Detective Aces (his Ken Carter series), Detective Tales, Strange Detective Mysteries, and even the spicy pulps. Most of the stories collected here come from Detective Tales.

   Most of the stories are novellas running about seven chapters and around 30,000 words. These novellas feature tough cops, private eyes, amateur criminologists, and the like, and enough gunfire for several small wars. Never let it be said Norvell Page spared bullets even when his language was spare. A few of the novellas venture into weird menace territory, coming out of Strange Detective Mysteries and Strange Detective Adventures.

   If you like rough tough knock ’em sock ’em rock ’em action, relentless pace, breathless escapes, low-slung fast cars and faster women, gun-happy mugs and crafty villains, this book is a bonanza, with sleuths like Don Q. (Quixote) Ryan, big Swede Larsen, Richard Carter. John Stone (whose paralyzed face is mindful of Richard Benson, the Avenger), Aubrei Dunne (two-fisted inventor of countless gadgets, and star of the book’s title story), Bruce Shane (a two-gun man), Flinn McHurd, Walsh Devore, amateur criminologist, Grant Montana out to clear his Private Eye dad who did seven years for a crime he didn’t commit, and more.

   “The explosion of the gun almost blew me out of the bed.”

   “Conroy laughed sharply and his belly-gun blasted upward toward the sound of that voice.”

   “Pardon my rudeness,” she said pleasantly. “Go to Hell.”

   “… he seized a chair and used his impetus to snatch it back over his shoulder. Instantly he whipped it up and it smashed across the chest of Blackie, who was fumbling for a gun.”

   “… But see oh man of the West, how we of the East can die!”

   “It was glorious, Garner thought, to be able to fight against criminals who preyed on the people, to be a defender of innocents like … yes, like the knights of old did!”

   And that’s a random sampling just from page flipping.

   The shorts tend to be crime stories, fast moving, with a lot of impact, but not strong on originality. They are better than filler because Page was incapable of not writing compelling prose, but they wouldn’t make anyone’s best list. For all that they have impact.

   Page is a pulp master, not a great writer, certainly not a great innovator, but a skilled professional with enough personal demons and more than enough drive to make his work both interesting and fun to read. If you only know him from Spider reprints or his two collections of Prester John tales from Unknown, this is an ideal place to see him at work. More collections are coming, and I am particularly hoping to see the Ken Carter stories collected. Meanwhile sit back, pop some popcorn, and kick back. Norvell Page is taking you on a hell of a ride through the wild and woolly pulp jungle.

ALEX SAXON – A Run in Diamonds. Carmody #1. Pocket, paperback original; 1st printing, November 1974. Expanded from the story “The $50,000 Bosom,” Adventure, December 1970. Included in Carmody’s Run (Dark Harvest, hardcover, 1993) as by Bill Pronzini, along with three stories from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine which appeared there also under the author’s own name. This latter book was reprinted by the Detective Book Club in a hardcover 3-in-1 edition.

   In spite of my affection for Bill Pronzini’s nameless private detective, enhanced no end by the latter’s love affair with Black Mask and the other detective pulps he collects, I find Carmody a more original creation, seemingly more free of the cliches of his particular subgenre.

   Carmody is a freelance contract man, providing bodyguards, new identities, black market commodities, what have you. Since his divorce he has moved his theater of operations from San Francisco to Europe and a villa in Majorca, which is where this adventure begins.

   Stolen diamonds are involved, which should be obvious from the front cover on. Somebody wants Carmody out of the way for a while, and a wild goose chase takes him to Amsterdam while dirty business is going on elsewhere. Carmody’s business success relies greatly on his reputation, and any embarrassment he received he must take as a personal matter.

   And revenge he gets. A number of deaths result, though not all at his hand. It’s an earthy, violent tale, just complicated enough to keep you guessing, and suspenseful enough to make one relish every minute of successful retribution to the disrespectful enemy.

   Carmody has previously appeared in a number of shorter stories, in magazines such as Alfred Hitchcock’s, but as far as I know this is his only novel. I sort of wonder if Pronzini had put his own name on it, whether this might have made more of an impression when it came out.

   Here’s the highest compliment I can give a book: this is the kind of tale I would write if I could.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 6, November 1977 (very slightly revised).


DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET. Episode 25, Season 1, of Tatort, Germany, 07 January 1973. Original title: Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße. Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang, Sieghardt Rupp, Anton Diffring, Stephanie Audran, Eric P. Caspar. Screenwriter-director: Sam Fuller. Novelization: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, by Samuel Fuller (Pyramid V3736, paperback original, 1974).

   This is the story of a private eye named Sandy (Glenn Corbett) who comes to Germany on an extremely important case. He’s been hired an United States senator with presidential aspirations to obtain a negative that in the wrong hands could prove to be extremely embarrassing. His partner, who arrived before him, is dead. His objective: find the killer, infiltrate the gang of blackmailers, and save the senator’s hide.

   The killer, as it turns out, is a fellow named Charlie Umlaut. Sandy’s gateway to the gang is a girl named Christa (Christa Lang) who is also the girl in the compromising photograph. She also knows who the leader of the gang is (Anton Diffring), and to gain her confidence, Sandy poses as a rival in the blackmail business. But can Christa herself be trusted, even when propinquity (between herself and Sandy) takes the way of nature and least resistance?

   This was filmed at a low point in Director Sam Fuller’s career. The story had nothing (or very little) to do with the rest of the German series it was filmed as part of. But Fuller had name value, and he was given a a free hand, more or less — given budgetary considerations. The movie (which is what I will call it) is filmed in beautiful colors and fanciful camera angles, and in those two regards, I should consider it a huge success.

   But the story, at least in the longer, restored director’s cut (in the DVD recently released and remastered through the UCLA Archives) becomes repetitious and boring, and the acting is stiff and the dialogue on occasion seemingly ad-libbed. Christa Lang’s awkward body motions, speech patterns and facial expressions can easily become annoying, if you allow them. (She was married to Fuller at the time and until his death.)

   Some reviewers have really disliked this movie. Others call it a work of genius, calling it an inspired collision with (and combination of) Noir and the New Wave. I don’t know as I’d go that far, but Fuller usually knew what he was doing, and while I also don’t know if he did here, maybe he really did. Either that or the movie is a complete failure, and once that is admitted, then perhaps that’s what it was how it was intended, as a complete spoof of the crime genre.

   And maybe this review makes sense too, and maybe it doesn’t.

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