Reviews


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Newell Dunlap


GAVIN BLACK – A Time for Pirates. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1971. No US paperback edition. First published in the UK by Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1971.

   There is a riot in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — young Malays demonstrating against the Chinese merchants — and Paul Harris is caught in the middle of it. His car is destroyed and he makes his escape on foot, in the process rescuing another stranded European, the young blond wife of a geologist. This geologist, as it turns out, works for an unscrupulous Chinese corporation that Harris suspects of secret oil exploration.

   Harris loves Malaysia, is concerned about the environment and all that, but figures someone is going to develop the oil, so he might as well have a hand in it. With backing from a Japanese firm, he sets about forming a company to beat out the Chinese.

   So begins a very readable and rather involved story of conflicting business and political interests, with money, power, and terrorism used to back the various interests. (Harris himself is subjected to a couple of physical attacks and attempted kidnappings, plus an attempt on his life.) The blonde? Well, she becomes an enigmatic figure, usually appearing whenever a kidnapping is in the offing. This is also a story of races — Malays, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Europeans — coming together, seldom in harmony.

   Gavin Black (a pseudonym of Oswald Wynd) was born in the Orient and most of his novels take place in the Far East — Malaysia and Singapore in particular. Other books featuring Paul Harris include Suddenly, at Singapore (1961), A Wind of Death (1967), and The Golden Cockatrice (1975).

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

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


DOCTOR BLOOD’S COFFIN. United Artists, UK/US, 1961. Kieron Moore, Hazel Court, Ian Hunter, Kenneth J. Warren, Gerald Lawson. Ditector: Sidney J. Furie.

   Kieron Moore comes off more as unhinged than diabolical at the eponymous Dr. Blood in Doctor Blood’s Coffin, a modern Gothic thriller with just enough atmosphere and suspense to keep the viewer engaged throughout. Directed by the prolific Canadian director, Sidney J. Furie, this British horror film benefits tremendously from a score composed by Buxton Orr, who also is credited with the soundtrack for the underappreciated science fiction thriller, First Man Into Space (1959) that I reviewed here.

   Set in early 1960s Cornwall, the film borrows heavily from themes Mary Shelley introduced into modern horror literature. Dr. Blood, who returns to his small Cornish village, is a stifled genius. At least that’s how he sees himself. Feeling as if only he could test his theory on living patients, he would be able to break all frontiers in medical knowledge and be able to bring the dead back to life!

   It doesn’t take a scientific genius to know where Dr. Blood’s unholy schemes are headed. Indeed, as the movie progresses, Dr. Blood amps up his narcissism as the concomitant body count rises. The only people who are able to keep him somewhat steady are his father, a local physician (Ian Hunter) and Linda Parker (Hazel Court), the nurse in his father’s employ. She’s a lonely widow who takes a shine toward the younger Dr. Blood. Soon enough, she’s come to suspect that her newfound love isn’t being exactly honest with her.

   Even though at times the movie progresses as a somewhat languid pace, Dr. Blood’s Coffin is best appreciated as a slow boiler. It takes a while to warm up, but once it’s done, Dr. Blood emerges as a truly memorable villain, one whose story is as much a tragic as it is a warning against tampering with Nature. Although there’s no breakout star performance – Moore is a fine actor, but he’s no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee – the movie has solid acting throughout and would be likely appreciated by fans of Hammer’s crime and horror films.

JEROME DOOLITTLE – Body Scissors. Pocket, hardcover, 1990; reprint paperback; 1st printing, November 1991.

   On the cover is a quote from the Washington Post, calling this a “riveting political thriller.” Well, I had some doubts, but I read it anyway. What does the Washington Post know? They may think this book is a political thriller, since that’s what they’re looking for, but just between you and me, what this really is a top-notch PI story instead.

   It’s a little hard to argue the point, since on page 14, even Tom Bethany says he’s not a PI: “…I’m sort of a researcher, sort of a political consultant.” He works primarily for politicians and campaign committees, apparently, looking for leaks, trying to stop leaks before they start, that sort of thing. His home base is Cambridge,near Harvard Yard, and as you may know, Boston politics do get a little nasty at times.

   He’s hired to check out a prospective Secretary of State in this case, however, to avoid another Eagleton affair, and if the work he does isn’t PI work, I’ll tum in my trenchcoat at once. What strikes his eye first is the unsolved death of J. Alden Kellicott’s daughter, a victim of Boston’s once-notorious Combat Zone.

   That, plus some niggling doubts about Kellicott’s character, found by industrious research and a knack on Bethany’s part to get people to start talking. Doolittle, whose first novel this is, certainly doesn’t show it. He’s a whiz at dialogue, and he has a tremendous amount of insight into his characters and the relationships existing between them.

   I quibbled a little about this being a political thriller — but as you can see, the statement’s not that far off base — and the adjective “riveting” is well taken. I’d use the phrase “prose that tingles with anticipation” — it’s that good.

   Unfortunately, Bethany also makes four major errors as the detective in this case. Since Doolittle is ultimately responsible for those as well, maybe I should point them out to you, but of course with the usual [WARNING: Plot Alert!!]. Here they are, my advice to any new PI’s on the block:

   (1) Don’t leave would-be assassins hanging around at loose ends. (2)When you work with guns, don’t forget to check the bottom of the barrel. (3) When you bait a trap, don’t let the cheese stand alone. (4) When the rat takes the bait, don’t leave the cat on guard.

   There you go. No charge for these. Don’t leave home without them. But now I’m being serious: if you’re a PI fan, don’t miss this book.

— This review first appeared in Deadly Pleasures, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1993 .


      The Tom Bethany series

1. Body Scissors (1990)
2. Strangle Hold (1991)

3. Bear Hug (1992)
4. Head Lock (1993)

5. Half Nelson (1994)
6. Kill Story (1995)

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


  FRANK O’ROURKE – Legend in the Dust. Ballantine, hardcover/paperback (#211), 1957; paperback reprint, #421, 1960. Signet D3571, paperback, 1968; Pocket, paperback, 1989.

   An engaging work by an author I always meant to get around to.

   Legend opens in the classic mode: a lone rider enters the scene, as a thousand others did before him, riding into a terrain simmering with repressed tension and impending violence. And as simmering tensions go, the little town of Fort Ellis is on a slow boil; we quickly learn that the lone rider is ex-lawman Pat Glennon and the first man he meets is Buck Atherton, a likeable local boy with a reputation as a killer.

   In fact Buck makes his living mostly working for local capitalists who have exclusive contracts to supply beef to the nearby Army post…. and are getting product by rustling from the local cattle baron. Before many pages are past there’s a pitched battle between the factions with the merchants besieged in a store that gets burned down around them and Buck goes on the run as a wanted man with some scores to settle.

   Attentive readers, if any, will have gathered by now that Legend is loosely based on the saga of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War, and that’s the way I like it: Loose. Dozens, maybe scores, of writers have written the tale as fact or fiction. And they all ultimately have to pick sides, discredit some accounts, endorse others and emerge with historical good guys and bad guys.

   Freed of these restrictions, O’Rourke can make what he wants of the characters, and they emerge as a vibrant, engaging cast. He can also make whatever history he feels like, and though the story stays fairly close to real-life events, it departs whenever dramatically convenient, which makes for better reading.

   I had never tried any O’Rourke before, but this will get me looking for more.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


R. D. WINGFIELD – Frost at Christmas. PaperJacks, Canada, paperback original, 1984. Constable, UK, hardcover, 1989. Bantam, paperback, 1st US printing, 1995.

   When the eight-year-old daughter of a young woman no better than she should be and who collects money for doing it goes missing ten days before Christmas in one of England’s worst winters, the Denton constabulary is organized splendidly for the search. Then misfortune puts Detective Inspector Jack Frost’s fine example of the Peter Principle, in charge. As Frost reflects: “He wasn’t bloody Gideon of the Yard, he was Detective Inspector Jack Frost, G.C., jumped up from being a lousy sergeant to a lousier inspector. He hadn’t asked for promotion.”

   Not an organizer, Frost, to give him credit beyond his due, but a good detective of the old school. At one point, Frost says: “All I want is a suspect. Forget this ‘innocent until proved guilty’ caper. Find your suspect and then prove he or she did it. Saves sodding about with lots of different people.”

   Those who enjoy Jack S. Scott’s Rosher, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel, or even Joyce Porter’s Dover, should appreciate Frost, who has Rosher’s doggedness, Dalziel’s cunning, and Dover’s sloppiness. If this novel had been released by a publisher with better distribution, it could well have been a nominee for best original paperback in 1984. It deserves republishing.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall 1991, “Holiday Murders.”


Bibliographic Notes:   Five years later, this, the first in the Inspector Frost series, as Bill suggested it should been, was finally published in hardcover in England, then some time after that by Bantam in the US. Bantam also put out the next three in the series, but they seem to have bailed out on the fifth and sixth, which appeared only in the UK.

   After Wingfield’s death in 2007, four more Inspector Frost books were published as by James Henry (James Gurbutt and Henry Sutton), prompted by the popularity of the TV series based on the books, A Touch of Frost (2004-2009), starring David Jason. A full list of the TV episodes may be found here.

  REX STOUT – Too Many Clients. Viking Press, hardcover, October 1960. Bantam, paperback; 1st printing, March 1962. Reprinted by Bantam many times. TV adaptation: Season 2, episodes 9 and 10, of A Nero Wolfe Mystery (A&E, June 2 and 9, 2002).

   The title says it all. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin go from a bank account that’s discouragingly low, with an IRS payment coming up soon, to a case that walks in the door and before it’s over, ends up with four different clients having paid Wolfe a retainer for his services.

   It begins with an executive for a plastics company hiring Archie to see if he’s being followed when he visits a certain address, a task so simple that Wolfe need not be involved. Archie agrees, but the arrangement falls through when the client is a no-show. Then the client is found dead outside the building that was his destination, but the death occurred the day before, and it isn’t the man who hired Archie.

   It also turns out that the dead man had an elaborate (and duly well-decorated) love nest in the apartment building he was found murdered outside of, and keeping the place a secret while solving the murder is the job Wolfe takes on, hoping that one of the clients will come through with a very large payment for the work he’s done.

   Rex Stout was hitting on all cylinders when he wrote this one. Both the rapport and the repartee between Wolfe and Archie are terrific, the case is quirky enough to be interesting throughout, and all of the usual secondary characters in the Wolfe saga show up and have their individual roles to play. If I could complain about anything, it would be the fact that Stout doesn’t exactly play fair with the reader, in that a short time before the end of the book Wolfe gives Saul Panzer and Orrie Cather a job to do without telling Archie about it, nor us, therefore, the reader.

   That small quibble aside, this one was a lot of fun to read.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


FINAL EXAM. Motion Picture Marketing / Embassy Pictures, 1981. Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, Ralph Brown, DeAnna Robbins, Sherry Willis-Burch, John Fallon. Written and directed by Jimmy Huston.

   Odd. Amateurish. Creative. Atmospheric. These are just four ways to describe this low-budget “madman on the campus” thriller. Filmed on location in North Carolina, Final Exam features an extremely effective musical score and a cast replete with first-time actors and relative unknowns. All of them, despite their lack of on screen experience, do an admirable job in making this offbeat slasher film something far more memorable than it truthfully deserves to be.

   The plot isn’t particularly difficult to follow. It’s finals week at a small liberal arts college somewhere in the US South and the remaining students on campus are involved in studying and partying. There’s also the jock-filled fraternity that decides it’s a good idea to pull a major prank on campus, one that involves a simulated terrorist attack. This naturally sets up one of the major characters, a nerdy fellow named Radish (Joel Rice) into believing the prank is real, leading him to phone the local sheriff who is less than pleased to learn that the whole thing was a false alarm.

   But what happens next is no prank. Soon enough, a knife-wielding madman shows up on campus and begins his senseless murderous rampage. (I say “senseless” not just as a means of describing psychopathic murders, but also because the film controversially provides no motive for the killer. Whether that makes it more effective or less is up to the viewer to decide.) The main characters – from the jock to the blonde girl having an affair with the chemistry professor – come face to face with the lurking evil in their midst.

   Typical for the genre, there is a studious, morally upright final girl who (spoiler alert) not only kills the killer, but also survives the ordeal. Courtney (Cecil Bagdadi) is filled with self-doubt and is insecure about her future. She doesn’t feel as if she has it easy either in terms of looks or marketable skills. But somehow she finds the internal strength to not only keep on living in the midst of the evil that overtakes the campus, but to also defeat it.

   I’d be exaggerating if I said that there were any deep philosophical themes explored in Final Exam, a movie that’s far more grindhouse than art house. But there are several thematic elements that merit further exploration, such as the effect of fraternity pranks on college campuses, the psychological insecurity of college students soon to embark on their journey into the “real world,” and the randomness of life itself.

   Indeed, Radish is constantly badgering Courtney with seemingly useless observations about how there are psychopaths out there in the world who would do innocent people harm. Taken as a metaphor for the difference between the relative security of a college campus and the dog-eat-dog reality of post-collegiate life, Final Exam deserves a far higher grade than many of the other derivative slasher films that were released in the wake of John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween (1978). And much like Halloween, this film eschews gore and relies more on atmosphere, suspense, and a haunting soundtrack to make an impact on the viewer.

PHOEBE ATWOOD TAYLOR – The Cape Cod Mystery. Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1931. Paperback reprints include: Pyramid R-1124, Green Door Mystery, 1965; Foul Play Press, 1985.

   The Cape Cod Mystery is the first book in a series of 22 Asey Mayo novels and two hardcover collections, each of the latter containing three novellas reprinted from The American Magazine. All of the stories take place in the quintessential area of New England called Cape Cod, and over the years Asey Mayo became the model for the typical New England Yankee handyman, whose knowledge of the world and the people in it made him a natural-born solver of mysteries as well.

   In this first foray into detective work, Asey Mayo tackles the death at unknown hands of a well-known novelist who takes up residence in a small cottage behind the residence of Prudence “Snoodles” Whitsby, who accompanies Asey as he tries to prove the innocence of his employer, Bill Porter, heir to a prosperous automobile company.

   As it turns out, as the pair of sleuths continue to ask questions, they quickly learn that the dead man was someone who had made more enemies than friends over the course of his life. There is, therefore, no shortage of suspects, and it takes quite a while to sort out which of them was where and when.

   It is difficult to believe that Phoebe Atwood Taylor was only 22 years old when she wrote this book. Each and every character is distinctively drawn, even if only in broad strokes, but most impressively, Asey Mayo acts and talks exactly like a man who might not have a formal education but has a ton of both life experience and common sense to base his observations and deductions on.

   The book does get a little talky in the middle, and the ending — following a gathering of all the important players in one room — might be overly dramatic, but it works well enough for me to suggest to you that if you’re a fan of Golden Age mysteries, this is a series you really ought to look into. If you haven’t already.

GEORGE C. CHESBRO – City of Whispering Stone. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1978. Signet, paperback, 1979.

   Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Bob Frederickson, alias Mongo the Magnificent, former circus dwarf with a Ph.D. in criminology, now moonlighting as the world’s shortest private detective!

   This case of the missing Iranian weight-lifter is actually Mongo’s second, and it takes him deep into the web of revolution threatening that ancient oil-rich kingdom as it struggles to make its way into this century. Plenty of bodies pile up, and lots of double (and redoubled) agents, but as in cheap carnival sideshows, the emphasis seems to be more on flash than substance.

   Cotton candy also comes to mind.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 3, No. 1, Jan-Feb 1979.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


AARON ELKINS – Old Scores. Chris Norgren #3. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1993. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback, 1994.

   One thing about Elkins, he picks widely varying specialties for his series characters. Though he;s best known for his “bone doctor” series about Gideon Oliver, the Norgren books seem to be pucking up steam. Chris Norgren is curator at the Seattle Art Museum, and who’d have thought the world of acquisitions would be so hazardous?

   A famous French collector wants to give the museum a Rembrandt — great, hein? Well, maybe. There are a couple of catches: the painting has no provenance, and no scientific tests will be allowed. Chris’s director wants him to go to France and make an accept/reject decision. Chris wants to reject it out of hand, but goes anyway, at the cost of some discombobulation to his already shaky love life. Things are even weirder than expected in France, the situation turns nasty, and murder is done. Well, hell, what did you expect?

   I don’t believe for a minute that any museum would even consider accepting a master painting without provenance and/or testing, but what do I know about museums? Aside from that, this was the kind of entertaining tale I’ve come to expect from Elkins. I like Norgren as a character, and find the artistic background interesting and edifying. Elkins tells a good story, and creates a good set of supporting characters. His stories fall somewhere between cozy and hard-edged, and while I don’t think anyone would call them memorable, they provide an enjoyable read.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #7, May 1993.


      The Chris Norgren series —

1. A Deceptive Clarity (1987)
2. A Glancing Light (1991)
3. Old Scores (1993)

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