Reviews by L. J. Roberts

DAVID HOUSEWRIGHT – From the Grave. Rushmore McKenzie #17. Minotaur, hardcover, July 2020.

First Sentence: The young woman who identified herself as a psychic medium moved with almost absentminded confidence among the fifty people who had paid forty dollars each for a seat in the community center lecture hall with the hope that she might help them connect with a dead mother or father, uncle or aunt, a dead child — but no promises.

   From a friend who attended a psychic reading, former cop Rushmore McKenzie learns of a threat placed on his life by the spirit of Leland Hayes. McKenzie killed Hayes after Hayes escaped the scene of an armored car robbery leaving his son Ryan to take the fall. The money was never recovered. Now, more than 21 years later, a highly skeptical McKenzie becomes involved with two psychic mediums to find the money and, due to one of the mediums, to locate a missing woman.

   To add a bit of light to the dark, McKenzie’s partner, Nina owns a jazz club thought to be haunted. Nina’s concern about the influence her late mother had her present actions gives both history and insight into the character.

   Set in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Housewright creates a strong sense of place, even for something as basic as Nina’s condo. The interplay between the two characters is easy and natural— “I like your outfit.” “Really? Last night you couldn’t wait for me to take it off.” —and a particular conversation between them provides good background and an explanation of their relationship. McKenzie’s unpleasant neighbor provides a touch of normalcy. Mackenzie has an inner monologue that is used sparingly and effectively, often with a touch of humor. Housewright has also given him an excellent playlist.

   It is always fun when an author references other authors. Because of the psychic aspect, he also references a number of popular paranormal investigation shows, but it is McKenzie’s skepticism which keeps things grounded, until his skepticism is tested. Learning what goes on in the making of such shows is both interesting and demystifying without taking away from the possibility of actuality.

   The other characters are well presented, with a couple of inside jokes. It is hard to say much about some of them, except that Housewright’s approach to his characters is refreshing. There are several people out to find the missing money. And some are what one might expect.

   As the 17th book in the Rushmore McKenzie series, this book is somewhat lighter and less suspenseful than some. In this time of COVID-19 when many are having trouble concentrating, that’s not a bad thing. Even so, the story does not lack for twists and red herrings.

   From the Grave, at its foundation, is a solid mystery, well-constructed and enjoyable. One may, or may not, accept the paranormal aspect, but it does provide an extra layer of creativity. However, best of all, is the ending that makes one smile.

Rating: A minus.



  STEPHEN KING – Christine. Viking, hardcover, 1983, 526 pages, $16.95. Film: Columbia Pictures, 1983, directed by John Carpenter.

   A haunted car, right… Stephen King expects readers to believe in a 1958 red and white Plymouth Fury that’s haunted no less. Well, yes, he does — and they will. For that is the magic writing quality that makes his talent so special. Stephen King can make even the most ordinary and unlikely object an item of horror.

   In Christine, King attempts to invoke the terror.that permeated ’Salem’s Lot  and the chilling fright of The Shining. The time is 1978, in a suburban community outside of Pittsburgh, On their way home, Dennis Guilder and Arnie Cunningham drive by a parked car — a 1958 Plymouth — with a ‘for sale’ sign in its window. Arnie falls firmly and unquestioningly in love with the car and determines to possess it at all costs, The present owner, Roland Le Bay, tells him the car’s name is Christine.

   With Arnie’s purchase of Christine, no one who knows him remains untouched by the evil force that sits behind the wheel. And Arnie is a loser (“Every high school has to have at least two; it’s like a national law,”) and is frequently tormented by the school bullies. Christine quickly begins to exert an unnatural hold on Arnie, Not only does Arnie exhibit an abnormal affection for his car, but Christine’s rusty old exterior and worn mechanical parts mysteriously begin improving.  Not that Arnie doesn’t spend many hours working on her, but his efforts don’t seem as methodical and orderly as her improvements indicate.

   As Christine nears mint condition, Arnie acquires a girl friend, Leigh Cabot, As their relationship grows, strange and gruesome deaths happen to four bullies who inflicted damage on Christine. The story’s progression charts Christine’s increasingly diabolical hold over Arnie, and her acts of revenge towards anyone who tries to come between her and Arnie.

   Although the horrific events do not fully terrify or render the reader aquiver with fright, there are some tense moments. The final duel between Christine and Dennis and Leigh showcases King’s writing skills superbly as he makes a potentially laughable and unbelievable scene ring with credibility and anxious moments.

   By the time the last page is turned, it’s nearly impossible not to think of the ’58 Plymouth as “she” — as Christine — and not just an old car.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 6, Number 1 (Spring 1984).

THE IRON MISTRESS.  Warner Brothers, 1952. With Alan Ladd, Virginia Mayo, Joseph Calleia, Phyllis Kirk, Douglas Dick, Anthony Caruso, Nedrick Young, and Jay Novello. Screenplay by James R Webb, from the novel by Paul I Wellman. Directed by Gordon Douglas.

   A bit flabby, but it has its moments.

   The flabbiness is due mainly to lapses in James Webb’s script, which takes entirely too much time rolling out the action, cruising along the Upper Crust of New Orleans society, drawing rather labored parallels between the effete rich and backwoodsy Bowie, until one wonders if this is going to be a comedy of manners. Eventually though some action just can’t be avoided and here….

   Well here is Director Gordon Douglas, one of the most proficient action men in the game, with rip-snorters like TONY ROME, THE FIEND WHO WALKED THE WEST, KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE, and RIO CONCHOS on his resumé, and he makes the most of every fist-swinging, gun-smoking, sword-sticking moment in the picture.

   Producer Henry Blanke (Whose credits include THE MALTESE FALCON and TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE) also took care to populate the cast with worthy opponents for Ladd’s Jim Bowie to come up against. Joseph Calliea, Jay Novello, Nedrick Young, and Anthony Caruso all comport themselves with creditable nastiness, and we get a fair share of excitement from scenes like:

   ● A Duel that turns into a massacre when the seconds start firing on the opposing principals;

   ● A knife fight with the Ladd and Anthony Carusos’ left arms strapped together;

   ● A woodland ambush that becomes a prolonged stalk-and-kill;

   ● And best of all, a duel in a darkened room with Bowe’s knife against Nedrick Young’s saber, choreographed by the great Fred Cavens.

   Nedrick young, by the way, is best remembered as the gunman in black who faces off against Sterling Hayden and a harpoon in TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN.

   Moments like this pack real excitement, and on the balance, IRON MISTRESS is well worth your time. But keep a finger on the fast-forward button.


MELODIE JOHNSON HOWE – The Mother Shadow. Claire Conrad & Maggie Hill #1. Viking, hardcover, 1989. Penguin, paperback, 1990.

   The story is told by Maggie Hill, who is not a PI when the story begins, nor if I read it right, not even when it ends. But in between, she does find herself doing a lot of the legwork for Claire Conrad, who is a PI, albeit one of the more eccentric ones you may ever come across in a mystery novel before.

   That includes even a certain Nero Wolfe, who you probably have come across and who I’ll get back to shortly. Claire Conrad is tall, brilliant, dressed all in black – or all in white – depending on which of every alternate day it happens to be. She does not believe in love, she tells Miss Hill, and in fact (she also tells her), she has had all her lady parts removed.

   Maggie, on other hand, is a young, jaded, yet brassy temp worker based in Los Angeles. As the story begins, she has plenty of attitude and is not afraid to show it, but as the story continues, it is clear that she has met her match with Clair Conrad. See above.

   She has been working with a wealthy man helping him catalog his coin collection, but one morning their routine is changed. With a lawyer present, he asks Maggie to type up a codicil to his will, one in which he directs his coin collection to be left to a mysterious Clair Conrad, a name she does not recognize. More importantly, he specifically states that his family – mother, brother, sister – are not to receive any proceeds from it. When done, the lawyer (a TV personality with all the charm of a snake) leaves, and Maggie’s employer goes upstairs and shoots himself.

   What’s more, you guessed it, the codicil, left in Maggie’s possession, has – in the confusion – disappeared, and here is where the mystery begins. One involving a host of family secrets, some of which are quite salacious indeed, and hardly ones to mentioned in polite society. The mystery is solved more by legwork than out-and-out deductivity, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Unfortunately I did not find any of the other players involved in the tale all that interesting, and their problems even less so, for whatever that’s worth.

   At the time the book was published, much was made of the Conrad/Hill relationship as compared with the Wolfe/Goodwin one. While it is of course at once obvious, I’d have to pass on that until I’ve read another one. This is only a first book, after all, and the interaction between the two is an edgy one. They’re still getting to know another.

   This first book was nominated for an Edgar, and a long series was expected, but for unknown reasons, it never developed. There was only one more book featuring the two of them, that being Beauty Dies, published in 1994. After that the slate on the two was closed forever.



UTAH BLAINE. Columbia, 1957. Rory Calhoun, Susan Cummings, Angela Stevens, Paul Langton, Max Baer, George Keymas, Ray Teal and Gene Roth. Screenplay by Robert E Kent, from a novel by Louis L’Amour. Produced by Sam Katzman. Directed by Fred F. Sears.

   A Western brought to you by the producer-director team that gave us The Giant Claw.

   And actually, it’s not bad. The keynote here is action, plentifully supplied in Robert E. Kent’s screenplay, and briskly directed by Fred Sears, an old, old hand at this sort of thing, who moved easily from the Durango Kid series to Sam Katzman’s B unit at Columbia. Sears knew how to make a B-Western: fast pace and plenty of fightin’, and he keeps Utah moving violently along, starting with Blaine (Rory Calhoun) rescuing an old rancher from a lynching, through gunfights, chases, fistfights, and a few seconds of mushy stuff so we can get our popcorn.

   The plot is a standard thing: Big Rancher Ray Teal wants the surrounding spreads and has hired a band of ne’er-do-wells who pose as vigilantes and mete out “justice” to the offending landowners. Enter our Hero, looking a bit threadbare and unkempt after an unprofitable sojourn in Mexico. Rory saves a rancher from a slow hanging, hires on as foreman, and sets about putting things to right.

   But Rory Calhoun was always on the side of Right more as a matter of convenience. In this case, Ray Teal’s hired boys include a fast-gun (Sepulchral George Keymas) who, the script hints, was responsible for putting him in Mexican Jail. Give credit to writer Kent again. He never tells us what went on South of the Border (That would slow down the action.) just drop hints that Rory wasn’t on his best behavior back in them days, and his grudge against Keymas is a matter more of revenge than justice.

   The actors move easily through this familiar territory, and while I can’t say Utah Blaine is anything outstanding, it offers the unpretentious gracefulness true professionals bring to bear on even forgettable projects like this.


SCORPION “Pilot.” CBS, 22 September 2014. Elyes Gabel (Walter O’Brien), Katharine McPhee, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Jadyn Wong, Ari Stidham, Robert Patrick, Riley B. Smith. “Based on the life and case files of Walter O’Brien.” Director: Justin Lin. Currently streaming on Paramount+.

   It is no secret that as a series Scorpion was generated by the huge success of Big Bang Theory, also on the same network. Take a diverse bunch of geeky, high-IQ twenty-somethings, add an ordinary female for them to interact with on a weekly basis, but instead of playing for comedic effect, have them solve all kinds of problems the country if not the entire world is facing.

   We’re introduced to the team in the first episode, all young and all with IQ’s well over 150. None though have much in the way of people skills: a computer genius, a recently graduated Harvard-trained psychiatrist, a gifted mechanical engineer, and a mathematician/statistician. Add a waitress in a diner which becomes the base for the group’s first adventure together. She’s young, no genius, but her very young son is obviously a budding one.

   Their job in this initial episode is to find backup computer code for LAX’s traffic control center. If they fail, planes full of people will soon run out fuel. This they do, but the show is a lot more exciting than watching fingers typing away at keyboards, although there is quite a bit of that, too. A jumbo jet has to fly so low to the ground that a black box can be transferred by hand to a car racing precisely below it at 200 miles per hour. Personally I found that one of more unlikely things I have seen on TV all month, but it was still fun to watch.

   The series was on for four years, so others must have enjoyed the show as much as I generally did this one. None of the characters or their players are all that memorable, but they did everything they needed to in this one. Will I keep watching? The jury’s out on that. Right now, my plate of things to watch is overflowing. I’d say the odds are at least fifty-fifty. Maybe better, but maybe less.


ONE SHOE MAKES IT MURDER. CBS, 06 November 1982. Robert Mitchum as Harold Shillman, Angie Dickinson as Fay Reid, Mel Ferrer as Carl Charnock, José Pérez, John Harkins, Howard Hesseman, Cathie Shirriff. Teleplay by Felix Culver, based on the novel So Little Cause for Caroline, by Eric Bercovici. Director: William Hale.

   Truth be told, Harold Shillman (possibly Schillman; sources vary) is not a PI. He’s an ex-cop from LA, who’s hired to do the kind of job that PI’s do in all of the books I’ve read with PI’s in them. Which is to say, he’s hired by a suspended casino owner in Lake Tahoe to find his wife, who’s gone missing.

   That’s the story he’s told, anyway. If you’ve read as many books with PI’s in them – and yes, I know: you’ve probably read more than I have – you know right away that there’s more to the story. The surprising thing is that right after he’s found her, he sees her falling from one of the top floor windows in the hotel where she was staying.

   Finding her was easy. Maybe too easy. But what the police suspect is that her death was not a suicide, which is what they were supposed to believe, but murder. How do they know? She landed with only one shoe on. The other is still in her room, several feet from the terrace where she supposedly jumped. What woman would walk across a room with only one high-heeled shoe in order to jump out on her own.

   Tagging along with Shillman, played by a world-weary Robert Mitchum at his aging world-weariest, is Angie Dickinson as Fay Reid, who as a twice-married call girl who, as it turns out, is one of the perks of the job. Both she and Shillman have issues behind them, but more than that, it somehow also happens that she knew the dead woman in their mutual past.

   There is a bit of romance involved as well, as well as a light easy tone to the tale that makes the whole affair go down very easily. And who can resist Robert Mitchum playing yet another PI, even though the detective part of the tale is not the primary reason I’m going to ahead and say that if you like PI movies but haven’t seen this one yet, you should.

   No, the real reason you should watch this is Robert Mitchum. No surprise there, I’d say.



HOW DOooo YOU DO!!! PRC, 1945.  Bert (The Mad Russian) Gordon, Harry Von Zell, Cheryl Walker, Ella Mae Morse, Keye Luke, and Claire Windsor (as themselves.) Also Frank Albertson, Charles Middleton, Leslie Denison, and Sidney Marion (as fictional characters.)

   A surprisingly lavish effort from little PRC, with, the overall look of slick professionalism one seldom associates with that hard-scrabble outfit, and a surrealist bent rarely seen from any studio, major or minor.

   The frenetic plot involves Radio Stars Gordon and Von Zell slipping off to vacation incognito to get away from amorous young ladies at the studio. The notion of predatory females in relentless pursuit of these two beggars the imagination, but that’s part of the charm here. Anyway, they ensconce themselves at a luxury resort, only to find the ladies checking in right behind them.

   We pause for a bit of rom-com — comedy is never easy, especially on a low budget, but these two pros very nearly make a go of it — before the lads prepare to skip out… only to find the place under lockdown!

   At which point the perennial PRC penury starts to show. Sheriff Charles Middleton announces that a guest has been found murdered in his room, but we aren’t shown the departed guest or the room, throwing a hue of unreality onto the palette. As the story lurches on, the body disappears, then reappears at the most inopportune times, only to vanish with distressing predictability, but again, Gordon and Von Zell do what they can with the material.

   In fact, there’s a pleasantly off-the-wall sidebar to the story when The Mad Russian calls on his movie-detective friends to solve the murder, and one of them is Keye Luke, who indulges in Chanish aphorisms till someone sighs, “What a ham!”

   To discuss the plot any further would be a pointless disservice to the first-time viewer and to the film itself, which ends in a burst of surprising self-awareness. I’ll just say it showed a creative daring I hadn’t seen since Hellzapoppin.

   There was one element here that nettled my mind: Frank Albertson, playing basically the same callow reporter he essayed in Man-Made Monster   (Universal, 1941) romances Claire Windsor (playing herself) who responds enthusiastically. I kept wondering what would happen if a real person married a fictional character? Would the marriage be legal in all fifty states? And which religion would the children be raised in?

   Well, How DOooo You Do!!!   doesn’t answer these questions, nor many others, but fans of old-time radio, and movie-lovers who can let their critical belt out a notch, will find a lot to like here.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Thomas Baird


EDMUND CRISPIN – The Glimpses of the Moon. Gervase Fen #10 (of 11, including two collections). Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1977, Walker, US, hardcover, 1978.

   Gervase Fen, Oxford professor of English language and literature, who it seems spends more time being detective than don, is the creation of Edmund Crispin, who in actual fact is Robert Bruce Montgomery. Montgomery was an organist, choral-music composer, and wrote background music for many movies. Humorous passages about the plight of composers and musicians appear in some of the Fen adventures in major and minor keys.

   The Fen tales are academic (with Latin quotations and private jokes) but markedly satirical, and sometimes tumble into farce. Julian Symons said that “at his weakest he is flippant, at his best he is witty.”

   Fen is energetic, even frenetic, and when he gets going on the case, the narrative zips right along. If you like humor mixed with your crime, then all nine Gervase Fen novels will be of interest.

   Two collections of short stories have also been praised, but they are not as good as the novels. They are fair but flat, dependent on gimmicks, and Fen doesn’t really have room to operate.

   In The Glimpses of the Moon, Fen is on sabbatical from Oxford to write the book on the postwar British novel, and is not particularly interested in hearing about a two-month old murder that the police had handily solved, getting their man. Fen’s interest in the case is finally piqued when the second dismembered body is discovered and he realizes the head he has been toting about in a potato sack is the wrong one (of three).

   Beneath an apple tree where Fen is perched, the situation comes to a head in the pandemonious collision of a hunt, hunt saboteurs, a motorcycle scramble, a burglar’s getaway, a herd of cattle driven to pasture, a scouting helicopter, and police hurrying to arrest a miscreant. The fun almost pushes the investigation into the back seat.

   Crispin writes excellent set-piece scenes where the characters make exhibitions of themselves, and Glimpses is peopled by a superabundance of eccentrics: A retired cavalry man who loathes horses, a failed foreign correspondent, an anti-popish rector in drag, a gray bureaucrat from the power board, a laconic rustic, a mad-scientist pathologist, a reclusive publican, a horror-movie-music composer, a brooding pig farmer and his nymphomaniac wife, lively and deadly policemen, even an electric power pylon come to life — all set against a background of tranquil village life in peaceful Devon.

JOHN LESCROART – Treasure Hunt. The Hunt Club #2. Dutton, hardcover, 2010. Signet, paperback, January 2011.

   When the book begins, Wyatt Hunt’s PI firm, known as The Hunt Club, is on hard times. His only employee is Mickey Dade, who works for him as his leg man and general all-around assistant. Mickey’s sister Tamara, who used to work as a receptionist for the firm has left Wyatt after the events in The Hunt Club, the first book in the series.

   But when Mickey finds the body of a noted charity director for the city (San Francisco), he comes up with an idea designed to get the firm back on its feet again. Namely, set up a reward for anyone with information that might help the police with their investigation, with Wyatt, Mickey and Tamara acting as a liaison in screening out crank calls from those that might actually be useful leads.

   Complications set in when Mickey finds himself more than attracted to the woman, the dead man’s chauffeur who gradually becomes the number one suspect by the police.

   I’ve not read too many of Lescroart’s novels, but (almost?) all of them take place in San Francisco with several series and overlapping characters. His major character, an attorney by the name of Dismas Hardy, does not appear in this one, but he is mentioned.

   In any case, what this turns out to be is a straightforward detective story, told from various points of view, including many of the suspects, an approach I don’t much care for/ At well over 400 pages, it is also well padded. Besides several repetitions explaining the basic concept of getting the Hunt Club involved, I also skipped over all of the details of meals that are cooked and the restaurants where the characters meet, greet and eat.

   Lescroart’s prose is simple – not too many long complicated words! – but effective. The leading characters don’t have a lot of depth, but in general they do get along together. I think there may be one loose end not tied up at the end, but I was satisfied enough that I haven’t gone back to check.

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