Reviewed by Mark D. Nevins:

LAWRENCE BLOCK – A Ticket to the Boneyard. Morrow, hardcover, 1990. Avon, paperback, 1991.

   After the uneasy settling-in of Out on the Cutting Edge, number seven in the Matt Scudder series, in which Block seemed to be working through what to do with his newly sober protagonist, A Ticket to the Boneyard goes full-throttle adrenaline.

   It’s really nothing like the prior books in the series, and I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing — it may to some extent depend on what comes in the next few books. This novel introduces James Leo Motley, an almost super-villian-like bad guy, and the novel is a brutal game of cat-and-mouse as Motley has promised to destroy Scudder “and all his women.”

   In some ways Out on the Cutting Edge reads a little more like a Travis McGee novel than a Scudder — or maybe that’s just me, because the Scudder series is quickly joining McGee as one of my favorite of all time. While the action is relentless in Boneyard, Block does make time for the introspection and interior monologue that make these books so special. I have to say that at points the violence here was so shocking it almost put me off (I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a book I thought was really good), and in the hands of a lesser writer it wouldn’t have worked. Block really gets the fear going in this one.

   I sometimes like to quote especially effective passages (usually more “literary” ones) in books I enjoy, so here’s one from Boneyard:

    “I slept for around five hours Monday morning and woke up hung over, which didn’t seem fair. I’d slopped down quarts of bad coffee and watered Coke and breathed in acres of secondhand smoke, so I don’t suppose it was out of the ordinary that I wasn’t ready to greet the day like Little Mary Sunshine, but I liked to think I’d given up mornings like this along with the booze. Instead my head ached and my mouth and throat were dry and every minute took three or four minutes to pass.

    “I swallowed some aspirin, showered and shaved, and went downstairs and around the corner for orange juice and coffee. When the aspirin and coffee kicked in I walked a few blocks and bought a paper. I carried it back to the Flame and ordered solid food. By the time it came all the physical symptoms of the hangover were gone. I still felt a profound weariness of the spirit, but I would just have to learn to live with that.”

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

THE WALKING HILLS. Columbia, 1949. Randolph Scott, Ella Raines, William Bishop, John Ireland, Arthur Kennedy, Edgar Buchanan, Josh White and Jerome Courtland. Written by Alan Le May. Directed by John Sturges.

   Any movie where Josh White sings is worth watching, but this one is also an off-beat contemporary western that manages to be leisurely and edgy at the same time.

   In a seedy border town, a few casual acquaintances and complete strangers sit in on a pick-up poker game and catch an off-hand remark that puts them on the trail of a lost treasure in the desert just north of the line. Soon they’ve left the city on horseback and are in the desert to dig out the gold and get rich.

   And of course it just ain’t that simple.

   For one thing, one of the party (William Bishop) is wanted for a murder he never done. And another member (John Ireland) is the PI hired to catch him, now detoured by the lure of wealth. A couple other treasure-seekers have guilty secrets of their own, and Ella Raines, who joined the party to be with her man, apparently ditched Randy years ago to run off with Bishop.

   Complicated enough for you? The wonder is that director Sturges and writer Alan Le May keep it all feeling (and moving) very fast and straightforward, the story unfolding at its own pace as the characters interact with a natural grace that never seems forced.

   Here for the first time that I know of, Randolph Scott seems to be moving toward the complex persona that typified his best films of the 1950s: terse, authoritative and reserved, but with some kind of personal sensitivity just beneath that sun-baked surface.

   Throughout the 1940s, Scott played a lot of very dull parts. He played them well, but they seemed to be nothing but a succession of square-dealing lawmen, hard-working engineers, dedicated soldiers, and even honest lawyers. His good-bad guy in Western Union was a pleasant exception, but his bad-bad guy in The Spoilers was strictly from Sominex till he threw a punch at the Duke.

   It was producer Harry Joe Brown who first saw some deeper potential in Scott, and began developing it in films like this one, Man in the Saddle, Coroner Creek, and finally the films with Budd Boetticher that led up to Ride the High Country.

    Walking Hills gives us this character playing out his part against some breath-taking desert landscapes in a story with admirable pace, tension, and plenty of action.

   And there’s also Josh White singing.

LAWRENCE BLOCK – The Cancelled Czech. Gold Medal d1747; paperback original; 1st printing, 1966. Jove, paperback, 1984. Signet, paperback, 1999. Harper, softcover, 2007.

   The gimmick in the Evan Tanner spy series is that because of a head wound he suffered in the Korean War, Tanner cannot go to sleep. He has used the time that you or I would be sound asleep to read and study and learn about all kinds of handy things, but as gimmicks go, that’s about as far as it does. Maybe it came up more as a device to build a story around in the first book in series, The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep. In this, the second, it’s barely mentioned in passing.

   What this book does have going for it is the title, which is terrific, even if it doesn’t fit the story, but it’s close, and sometimes that’s all that counts. Tanner is recruited by the unnamed head of the unnamed agency he sees to work for (as for why, perhaps again the first book might prove useful) to enter Czechoslovakia (then solidly behind the Iron Curtain) and rescue a leader of the still existent Nazi cause. He is old and sick, but it seems it would be better to try to obtain the secrets he has hidden away somewhere than to have him be summarily tried and executed.

   Well, OK. It would be also nice to have a plan, but Tanner seems to fly by the seat of his pants, more often than not, easing out of one scrape only to fall into another. One thing that could not have been planned is Tanner’s finding Greta, the girl on the cover, and a Nazi as well as a nymphomaniac. Strangely enough she seems to favor Jews as lovers, as well as Tanner, due to the surgery done to a certain part of their male anatomy.

   And as it happens, Greta turns out to have a crucial part of Tanner’s plan to get his target out of the castle of a prison in which he is incarcerated. I think it helps if you catch on earlier than I did that Lawrence Block is not entirely serious about this affair — which I did at this point I assure you — and to tell you the truth, once Greta’s role is over and she’s dumped from the story, the rest of the tale is simply not nearly as interesting.

      The Evan Tanner series –

The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep. Gold Medal, 1966.

The Canceled Czech. Gold Medal, 1966.
Tanner’s Twelve Swingers. Gold Medal, 1967.
Here Comes a Hero. Gold Medal, 1968.
Tanner’s Tiger. Gold Medal, 1968.
Two for Tanner. Gold Medal, 1968.

Me Tanner, You Jane. Macmillan, 1970.
Tanner on Ice. Dutton, 1998.

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

“FIELD OF FIRE.” An episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 7, Episode 13 (161st of 173). First airdate: 10 February 1999. Cast: Avery Brooks (Captain Sisko), Rene Auberjonois (Odo), Nicole deBoer (Lieutenant Ezri Dax), Michael Dorn (Lt. Commander Worf), Colm Meaney (Chief O’Brien), Armin Shimerman (Quark), Alexander Siddig (Doctor Bashir), Nana Visitor (Colonel Kira), Art Chudabala (Lt. Hector Ilario), Marty Rackham (Vulcan), Leigh McCloskey (Joran Belar). Writer: Robert Hewitt Wolfe. Director: Tony Dow.

    “I’m sorry, Lieutenant. There’s nothing more annoying than a corpse with a mind of its own.”

   Lieutenant Dax may not look it, but she’s more than one person. Being a Trill, Dax has had a symbiont implanted in her; for better or worse, the symbiont itself possesses all of the memories and skills of every host into which it has been previously introduced. In Dax’s case this turns out to be for the worse, because one of those predecessors was a murderer …

   An interstellar war is raging and millions are dying. The huge space station Deep Space 9, now occupied by hundreds of Starfleet personnel, is serving as a staging area for operations in the war.

   A young Starfleet lieutenant, one who has distinguished himself in combat, is found dead in his quarters, the victim of a bullet fired from a projectile weapon (an antique by 24th century standards) at point blank range — only there are no “powder burns” on the body, the room was locked from the inside, and no one can think of a motive for the crime.

   Later in a fevered dream, Dax unwillingly calls up the forceful but warped personality of Joran Belar, responsible in a previous life for three murders. Reluctantly, she realizes that Joran’s “skills” as a killer could come in handy in the investigation and agrees to let “him” (i.e., the remains of his persona) guide her.

   Soon enough two more murders, both victims serving with Starfleet, occur in the same fashion as the first. Despite Joran’s urgings to think like a killer, Dax is having no luck in her investigation — until an offhand remark from Joran lets her connect the dots, enabling her to locate the murderer. When that moment comes, Dax will have only a few seconds to decide whether she should kill — as Joran is all but screaming at her to do — or be killed …

   In this particular impossible crime mystery, the HOW is discovered fairly soon (and can only have been pulled off in a science fictional scenario); it’s the WHO and the WHY that have everybody flummoxed. For long-time Star Trek fans, the why and the who just might come as something of a shock.

   Tony Dow, who directed this episode, is probably most famous for being the Beaver’s older brother Wally on Leave It to Beaver (1957-63).

NOTE: A transcript of the show (with SPOILERS) is here.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

THE GOLDEN HORDE. Universal International, 1951. Ann Blyth, David Farrar, George Macready, Henry Brandon, Henry Petrie, Richard Egan, Marvin Miller, Poodles Hanneford, Peggy Castle. Screenplay Gerald Drayson Adams, based on a story by Harold Lamb (a two-part serial in Adventure, 15 May & June 1933). Directed by George Sherman.

   This handsome Technicolor outing from Universal has many virtues in terms of production value, cast, and credits, but none more important than the contribution of Harold Lamb whose bestselling non-fiction covering the Far and Middle East was preceded by decades of entertaining fiction often appearing in the legendary pulp Adventure, and inspiring young Robert E. Howard among others.

   Lamb also wrote numerous screenplays, often for the historical epics of Cecil B. de Mille. This is based on the story of the same name, the last Lamb published in Adventure, and features crusader Nial O’Gordon who here becomes a quite different Sir Guy of Devon. You may find this and the other O’Gordon story (“Keeper of the Gate”) reprinted in Bison Books Swords of the West edited by Howard Andrew Jones (whose Desert of Souls I reviewed here recently) and see how many liberties Lamb took with his own story.

   The time is the early 13th century, and a trio of Crusaders (David Farrar, Richard Egan, and Poodles Hanneford as Friar John) have arrived in Samarkand determined to stop the advance of the Golden Horde led by Genghis Khan (Marvin Miller) and run afoul of their own sexism when they conflict with Princess Shalimar (Ann Blyth) who has altogether more subtle plans to save her city than combat with the greatest warrior and the greatest army in history.

   Further complicating things are the envoys of the great Khan including his son Juchi (Henry Brandon) who are just as stupid and sexist as the Crusaders when it comes to Shalimar’s plan which seems unlikely to work even with the help of shaman Raven (George Macready) pouring oil on the waters. Being Hollywood it is only natural that Shalimar and Sir Guy of Devon (Farrar) are going to clash and fall in love. Complain if you choose about this old cliche, but you had to expect that one.

   There is more than enough action in this relatively short film, but the emphasis on the story of one wise sexy woman outwitting all the men around her, including Genghis Khan, which makes for an unusual plot for the period. And rather than force of arms, Genghis Khan is defeated by a prophecy that he will die if he sets foot in the city. He bypasses Samarkand and poor Shalimar is left with her brave but more than a little thick headed Crusader (maybe it was the helmets) hero for a no doubt rocky happily ever-after, at least until Temujin, aka Timur the Lame, aka Tammerlane, the Khan’s great grandson, shows up.

   This is quick, attractive, fun, and nowhere near as boneheaded as Sir Guy or Juchi, neither of whom can understand why the men of Samarkand would be led by a woman in the first place. The story is more complex and more interesting than the usual restoring the throne from the usurper uncle or whatever in most of these, thanks to Lamb, and Adams. For once the woman in the story is there far more than eye candy and rescue from a fate worse than death.

   It could easily be argued that Princess Shalimar rescues everyone from their own stupidity in this one.

Reviewed by Mark D. Nevins:

RUSSELL ATWOOD – East of A. Ballantine, hardcover, 1999. Fawcett, paperback, 2000.

   In structure and tone, Russell Atwood’s first novel is a wonderful homage to Chandler, relocating and updating his classic PI formula to lower Manhattan in the late 1990’s. Payton Sherwood, the first-person protagonist, is flawed and likable; the prose is good with occasional brilliant turns of phrase or metaphor that make you go back and read over (“he held his thumbs in fists again, so much pressure I thought they’d burst like plums”); and the “mystery” is well constructed, with more than a handful of diverse characters and plot threads coming together in the end.

      The resolution is satisfactory but not altogether satisfying, and that’s probably the way good neo-noir should be. The best thing East of A has going for it, which has little to do with the genre, is the way it captures in palpable and loving detail a time and a place: the East Village at the turn of the last Millennium.

   Given what East Village looks like these days, jumping into that time machine in itself makes the book worth the read, and East of A is a little less mannered or self-consciously literary in this mission than, say, Richard Price’s Lush Life.

   My complaint about East of A is that the whole somehow felt a little less than the sum of its parts: the book was indubitably solid, but didn’t create in me the urgency to read just one more chapter the way that, say, Lawrence Block’s “Scudder” books (which also wonderful capture a NYC long gone) do so amazingly. (Perhaps that’s less a critique of Atwood and a compliment to Block’s understated genius.)

   I’d rate East of A just a half-star lower than Richard Aleas’s “two book trilogy” (if you’ve read Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence — and you should — you know why I call it that), but it deserves its place on the shelf. I am just realizing there’s a second Payton Sherwood title out now, Losers Love Longer, from Hard Case Crime no less, and I will certainly read it.

   (One closing note: I believe Atwood worked at one of my favorite long-gone NYC mystery bookshops, Black Orchid — I don’t think I ever met him, but I sure miss that shop.)

  BRETT HALLIDAY – Fit to Kill. Dell D314; paperback reprint, October 1959. Cover art: Robert McGinnis. First published by Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1958. Also published in several other Dell editions.

   All in all, this one was a disappointment. I think the problem was this. If you’re going to write a Mike Shayne mystery, make sure he shows up in the story before page 61.

   Long, long before. The protagonist in the first sixty pages is Shayne’s good buddy, newspaper reporter Tim Rourke, who is OK as a good buddy, but as the hero of a rip-roaring PI novel, forget it. He is as bland as yesterday’s buttered toast. Even if he’s in some unnamed dictator-run Latin American country and a girl dressed only in négligée and slippers knocks on his door one evening and asks for his help in leaving the country.

   Need I say that she is blonde, young, and one of the “nicest-looking girls Rourke had ever seen.” Of course he helps her, and of course complications arise, and of course Mike Shayne has to come to the rescue, but none of this gets any more interesting than when the girl knocks on the door in the first place.

   The pieces are eventually all there, but nothing comes together as I remember Mike Shayne novels doing — none were ever special, but they were always solid, workmanlike pieces of PI fiction. This one seemed only half-baked, and now I know why.

   This is the first of the ghost-written Mike Shayne novels. All of the earlier ones were written by Davis Dresser under the Brett Halliday pen name, but beginning with this one, Dresser began farming out the books to other writers. This one, for example, was really written by Robert Terrall, who went on to write quite a few of them, but in this, the first one he did, he either had only the essence of the characters or he was trying too hard to make this one different, what with the long delayed entrance of Mike Shayne, the leading character, or he should have been.

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