Reviews


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE RETURN OF JIMMY VALENTINE. Republic, 1936. Roger Pryor, Charlotte Henry, Robert Warwick, James Burtis, Edgar Kennedy, J. Carroll Naish, Lois Wilson, Wade Boteler, Gayne Whitman. Director: Lewis D. Collins. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   This was one of those fast-moving programmers that play a lot better than many of the “A” films of the time. It immediately caught my interest with the on-screen re-creation of a Jimmy Valentine radio program that quickly becomes a newspaper sponsored “Find Jimmy Valentine” contest.

   Naish is the leader of a gang looking for Valentine to help pull off a bank heist, while Burtis and Kennedy provide some comic relief. Charlotte Henry was a mature Alice in a 1933 version of Carroll’s classic; here, she’s an attractive leading lady, continuing a modestly successful ten-year film career.

   Robert Warwick, a dependable, leading actor, is the legendary cracksman. He also played Jimmy in the silent Alias Jimmy Valentine, a film released in 1915 and directed by Maurice Tourneur

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


AGATHA CHRISTIE The Man in the Brown Suit

AGATHA CHRISTIE – The Man in the Brown Suit. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1924. First published by John Lane/The Bodley Head, UK, hardcover, 1924. Reprinted many times since, in both hardcover and soft. First serialised in the London Evening News under the title Anne the Adventurous, 29 November 1923 to 28 January 1924 (50 installments). TV Movie: CBS, 1988, with Stephanie Zimbalist (Anne Beddingfeld), Rue McClanahan, Tony Randall, Edward Woodward (Sir Eustace Pedler), Ken Howard (Gordon Race).

   While I am tempted to say that this is something of a departure by Christie, that would merely demonstrate my ignorance, as this is one of her earlier works.

   Here she has written a thriller featuring an intelligent, on all but a few occasions, young lady who is seeking adventure. When Anne Beddingfield observes a supposed accidental death at a tube station and suspicious behavior by an alleged doctor, she connects this with a murder the same day. Soon she is spending her meager inheritance for a berth on the Kilmorden Castle, en route to South Africa, in pursuit of the alleged murderer, the Man in the Brown Suit.

   Developments are revealed through the viewpoints of Beddingfield and Sir Eustace Pedler, M.P., both drolly and sillily, if there is such a word. Good fun and, incidentally, a forerunner to…

   But you don’t want to know that, do you? I had that knowledge when I started the novel, and it didn’t spoil the pleasure. Other people may be less complaisant.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1991.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


DOROTHY M. JOHNSON The Hanging Tree

DOROTHY M. JOHNSON – The Hanging Tree and Other Stories. University of Nebraska Press, softcover, 1995, with ten stories. Ballantine 274K, paperback original, 1957, with seven stories. Several later Ballantine printings.

   The Hanging Tree is a collection of ten tales by Dorothy M. Johnson written from 1942-57 and some of the best western fiction I’ve ever read. Johnson could pack movement, character and setting into a very few words without sounding packed, and she knew how to develop a tale with a feel for its implications as well as its actions.

   The result is ten memorable vignettes of which “The Hanging Tree” — a great story by itself — is perhaps the least. I got a lot of pleasure from “Lost Sister,” a cryptic tale of a “rescued” captive, and “The Last Boast,” in which a condemned cowboy looks back on the best-and-worst thing he ever did, and there’s some laugh-out-loud prose in “I Woke Up Wicked.”

   In all, a book to treasure and a writer to seek out again.

Editorial Comment:   For more on the author of this collection, Dorothy M. Johnson, her Wikipedia entry is a good place to start.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


“NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET.” Episode 123 of The Twilight Zone (CBS TV). Original air date: October 11, 1963. Starring William Shatner. Written by Richard Matheson. Directed by Richard Donner.

TWILIGHT ZONE Nightare at 20000 Feet

   Much has undoubtedly been written about “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” an iconic Twilight Zone episode. The show, however, is well worth revisiting, particularly in light of writer Richard Matheson’s passing last year and of director Richard Donner’s recent announcement that he hopes to film a sequel to his 1985 cult classic, The Goonies.

   This 25-minute black & white episode is not merely a vivid small screen representation of psychological torment. It also serves as an excellent reference point for those seeking to connect seemingly disparate elements of twentieth-century science fiction, horror, and popular culture, from airplanes to zombies.

   The plot of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” based on a 1961 Richard Matheson short story of the same name, unfolds as follows. A salesman named Robert Wilson, portrayed with great dramatic effect by a youthful William Shatner in his pre-Star Trek days, spots a bizarre creature — a gremlin — tampering an aircraft’s engine while the plane is in flight.

TWILIGHT ZONE Nightmare at 20000 Feet

   It’s a Twilight Zone episode, so of course there’s a twist. Months earlier, Wilson had experienced a “nervous breakdown” while on an airplane. Now, he is back on a plane for the first time since his stay in a sanitarium. Accompanying him is his wife, played by Christine White. But who is going to believe a man who has suffered from mental illness, especially when he’s the only one who sees the gremlin (Nick Cravat in furry suit that now looks more silly than scary) out on the wing, attempting to tamper with the plane?

   Gremlins, of course, have not been the most prominent of monsters in twentieth-century popular culture. Unlike vampires and demons, which have a long pedigree, the notion of creatures called gremlins likely originated in the 1920s as the figment of British pilots’ collective imaginations. They were prone to mechanical mischief and blamed for tampering with aircraft.

   The best-known literary work about these modernist monsters is Roald Dahl’s children’s book, The Gremlins (1943). Dahl, of course, would go on to write numerous children’s books, screenplays, and short stories.

TWILIGHT ZONE Nightare at 20000 Feet

   Gremlins, of course, had their moment in the sun (pun intended), in the 1984 film, Gremlins. Written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Dante, with Steven Spielberg as the film’s executive producer, Gremlins went on to become an American cult classic.

   In the Twilight Zone episode, the character of Wilson mentions gremlins during the flight and alludes to their role in tinkering with aircraft “during the War.” But the gremlin in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is, in many ways, peripheral to the episode. It’s a human story, one that remains compelling to this day. It touches on the deep-seated human fear of being, or feeling, completely alone in the midst of chaos.

TWILIGHT ZONE Nightare at 20000 Feet

   Sure, Wilson is with his wife, the pilot, and other passengers. But no one believes him. That’s when, of course, he decides to take matters on his own hands. Without giving away how the story ends, I’ll just mention that there’s an easily accessible gun on the airplane and the emergency window gets opened. Matheson’s story is still incredibly fresh. Optimists take note: there’s a redemptive aspect for Shatner’s character at the very end.

   This leads me to the March/April 2014 issue of Famous Monsters, which includes an extensive tribute to the episode’s writer, Richard Matheson. In a compelling passage, Richard Christian Matheson, the author’s son, wrote as follows:

   “My father could almost see to the core of others in a blink, undistracted by their presented selves. With a sleuth’s calm, he listened, and asked polite questions, until they wandered into the light, often relieved to finally be seen. That genuine curiosity didn’t judge, his empathy for human drama boundless. As a writer, his respect for mazes of human psyche deepened his characters, made them real.” (Page 7)

TWILIGHT ZONE Nightare at 20000 Feet

   Although Richard Christian Matheson doesn’t specifically allude to any particular characters, I can see how this characterization of Matheson’s thinking could apply to the aforementioned Robert Wilson. Indeed, one can hardly watch Shatner’s performance without feeling for his character.

   In conclusion, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is more than just a singular episode in the Twilight Zone corpus. It is a cultural artifact in its own right. Aside from Rod Sterling, a legend all his own, the three main men involved in this particular episode’s creation — Shatner, Donner, and Matheson — collectively went on to create a vast body of work that includes some of the best late twentieth-century works in science fiction and popular culture.

   And even though the episode is over fifty years old and the gremlin looks a bit goofy, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is an extremely well-written story and an episode worth watching again, if you haven’t done so recently.

Reference: Famous Monsters #272, March/April 2014.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


JUST OFF BROADWAY. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Lloyd Nolan, Marjorie Weaver, Phil Silvers, Janis Carter, Richard Derr, Joan Valerie, Don Costello. Screenplay by Arnaud d’Usseau, based on the character created by Brett Halliday and an idea by Jo Eisinger; photography by Lucien Andriot. Director: Herbert J. Leeds.

JUST OFF BROADWAY Lloyd Nolan

   Lillian Hubbard (Janis Carter) is on trial for the murder of her fiancee Harley Forsythe, and despite defense attorney John Logan (Richard Derr) it doesn’t look good for her. Luckily for her newswoman Judy Taylor (Marjorie Weaver) and news photog Sam Higgins (Phil Silvers) are looking for a story, and private detective Michael Shayne (Lloyd Nolan) is on the jury.

   It all opens with a bang, a witness, the English butler of a neighbor of Lillian Hubbard who can support her alibi, is murdered in the courtroom by a bearded man with a throwing knife. In the confusion Shayne hides the weapon under the prosecutor’s table. Merely being sequestered isn’t going to stop him from solving a case his own way — especially after he slips his sneezing roommate sleeping pills.

   Though not based on a Brett Halliday novel, that high-handed way with clues is a trademark of Michael Shayne, who never met a piece of evidence he couldn’t improve, suborn, or otherwise play fast and loose with.

   When Shayne goes to retrieve the knife he finds Judy spotted him hiding it and they are teamed in the investigation. They’ve been through this before. Shayne once proposed to her — just to get her out of his hair in another case.

   The only thing he hasn’t figured out is how he is going to get paid.

   Among the suspects are a leggy nightclub singer Rita Darling (Joan Valerie), the owner of the club where she works George Dolphin (Don Costello), and Count Telmachio, a professional knife thrower — not to mention the defense attorney who has long been in love with Lillian Hubbard.

   Judy: Why are you always taking advantage of me?

   Shayne: ’Cause you make it so easy.

   Shayne gets knocked out searching the knife-thrower’s dressing room, then Judy and he follow the phony count where they find him murdered too.

   Shayne: I was stickin’ my nose into something that don’t concern me and almost got it cut off.

JUST OFF BROADWAY Lloyd Nolan

   Historically the Shayne films helped establish many of the tropes of the Hollywood private eye as much as any film or film series, and if only the first one was actually based on a Halliday novel, the others were taken from books by Clayton Rawson, Fred Nebel, Richard Burke, and Raymond Chandler’s The High Window (and a better version than John Brahm’s The Brasher Doubloon).

   So far one collection of Shayne films has been issued by Fox on DVD containing Michael Shayne, Private Detective; Blue White and Perfect; Sleepers West (based on Fred Nebel’s Sleepers East; and The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (based on a Clayton Rawson Great Merlini novel).

   As yet uncollected (and sadly unlikely to be) are Dressed to Kill (based on a Richard Burke Quinny Hite novel), Just Off Broadway, and A Time To Kill (based on Raymond Chandler’s The High Window). Dressed to Kill has shown up on at least one cable channel, but Just Off Broadway and A Time To Kill can only be found on the gray market.

   Judy: John K. Smith? What does the K. stand for, Kluck?

   Shayne: You know I used to be quite a dancer.

   Stepping on Judy’s toe: When was that?

   Shayne: Well, they changed the rules since the Charleston.

   A dolphin brooch found near Telmachio’s body plays a key role in the case, especially when it turns out the jeweler (Francis Pierlot) who made it was once the father-in-law of the murdered man, whose daughter committed suicide over Forsythe’s cheating.

   Meanwhile Shayne is busy ducking Sam Higgins who wants a photo of him to sell proving Shayne has snuck out on the jury giving Silvers plenty of excuses for quick patter and smart talk and Shayne a chance for some quick footwork.

   Sheriff: Were you out of this room tonight?

   Shayne: Who do ya think I am, Superman?

   Shayne manages to outwit Silvers, but he still has to solve the case.

JUST OFF BROADWAY Lloyd Nolan

   This is the least of the Shayne series, which isn’t that much of a knock. It’s rapidly paced and written and if the mystery isn’t exactly a headscratcher, it’s still fun to watch Nolan’s Shayne playing his usual games with the law and even getting a shot at playing Perry Mason when he acts as friend of the court from the jury box and questions the suspects before solving the case.

   Richard Derr is best known for his role in George Pal’s film of the Philip Wylie-Edwin Balmer novel When Worlds Collide and also appeared in the Charlie Chan film Castle in the Desert. (Someone will have to confirm this, but I believe he was actually related to Charlie Chan author Earl Derr Biggers.) Late in his career he played Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, in The Invisible Avenger, minus the slouch hat and cloak, but with the power of invisibility and clouding men’s minds.

   Marjorie Weaver appeared in most of the Shayne films though not always in the same role. She had good rapport with Nolan and their scenes have real zip.

   Shayne does catch the killer and solve the case and ends up in jail for contempt of court for ten days — until Judy talks to the judge — getting him sixty days …

   Better known for his villains (serious as in The Texas Rangers or comic as in The Lemon Drop Kid) and character parts (the doctor in Peyton Place, the father in Susan Slade) and for good cops (G-Men, Somewhere in the Night, Two Smart People, The House on 92nd Street) than as a leading man, Nolan was ideally suited to play Michael Shayne, and his Brooklyn accent mixed with an Irish brogue (throughout the series he’s accompanied by a jaunty Irish tune), mobile face, and well timed double-takes make his version of Michael Shayne the definitive one on screen even if he is nowhere near as dark or tough (or smart) as Halliday’s creation.

   That may be, but for many of us Nolan will always be our Michael Shayne — even if he isn’t quite Brett Halliday’s.

JUST OFF BROADWAY Lloyd Nolan


Note:   Shayne was played by Wally Maher and Jeff Chandler on radio; Hugh Beaumont in a poverty row series following Nolan; and Richard Denning (Mr. and Mrs. North) in a short lived series Michael Shayne, Private Detective that adapted many of the Brett Halliday novels to the small screen as Perry Mason had adapted many of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books. There is supposed to be a pilot film with Mark Stevens as Shayne that is tougher minded and closer to Halliday’s creation, but I’ve never been able to confirm if it was ever aired. Though without Shayne, the Robert Downey/Val Kilmer film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was based on a Halliday novel and one of the episodes of the trilogy film Three Cases of Murder is based on a non-Shayne short by Halliday.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


JEREMIAS GOTTHELF – The Black Spider. New York Review of Books, paperback, 2013. Translated by Susan Bernofsky. First published as in German as “Die schwarze Spinne” in 1842.

JEREMIAS GOTTELF Black Spider

   When I first spotted a new copy of Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider in the science fiction/fantasy section of my favorite Washington D.C. bookstore, I confess that I wasn’t familiar with either the author or the book.

   My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to purchase the novella. I’m glad I did. I read it over the course of several days, scribbling notes to myself on the margins, and I found myself eager to learn more about the life and times of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854), the Swiss pastor and novelist who, under the pen name of Jeremias Gotthelf, wrote one incredibly vivid and didactic horror tale.

   The Black Spider begins with a serene pastoral Swiss setting. A family and their friends have gathered for a child’s baptism. All seems well in the world. Then one member of the baptismal party notices something odd. There’s a black piece of wood in the old house’s window post that’s noticeably short and out of place. People are curious. What is this piece of wood doing there? As the old advertisement used to say, inquiring minds want to know.

   That’s when the action really takes off. The grandfather (unlike in Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, we never learn his proper name) uses the piece of black wood as a jumping off point to tell a haunting tale about a castle, a brutal knight named Hans von Stoffeln of Swabia, oppressed peasants, and woman named Christine of Lindau who tries to outsmart the Devil. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a sinister quasi-sentient demonic arthropod that wreaks all sorts of havoc and mayhem.

   The basics of the story are as follows. Some six hundred years ago, a cruel knight forces his peasants to relocate some beech trees in order to create a shady walk by his castle. They have no idea how they are going to complete such a physically demanding task.

JEREMIAS GOTTELF Black Spider

   Enter a strange character, a huntsman dressed in green, with a red feather in his cap, and a red beard. It’s not too long before the reader learns that this huntsman has the stench of sulfur about him. Soon after, we learn that he’s the Devil. The aforementioned Christine makes an unholy bargain with him, one that would allow the villagers to be freed from the nearly insurmountable burden of planting the trees. The deal is sealed with a kiss on the cheek. But, as with all deals with the Devil, it comes at a steep price. In this case, the Devil wants the villagers to turn over a newborn child before it is baptized.

   Without giving too much of the plot away, suffice it to say that Christine’s choice isn’t the wisest one. Soon, there’s a strange black dot on her face. Sooner still, it morphs into something far more grotesque and spine chilling:

   “But Christine was not lighthearted. The closer the day of the birth approached, the more terrible the burning in her cheek became, and the more the black spot swelled, stretching distinct legs out from its center and sprouting tiny little hairs; shiny points and stripes appeared on its back, the bump became a head, and from it flashed glinting, venomous glances, as if two eyes. Everyone shrieked at the sight of this venomous spider upon Christine’s face, rooted in her face, growing there, and they fled in fear and horror.” (pp. 53-54)

   After that, things get even weirder. The black spider comes to life and brings death. Eventually, a woman captures the spider and plugs it in a hole. There it rests for many years. Then, in an age of impiety and frivolity, the spider gets loose again. Only this time, there’s a man named Christen who, with divine assistance, is able to “thrust the spider into the ancient hole.” (p. 102).

JEREMIAS GOTTELF Black Spider

   Here, the religious message of the work becomes increasingly apparent. Faith and honesty are good; “pride and vainglory” are bad (p. 105). And as far as the aforementioned piece of black wood, it gets incorporated into the frame of a newer house and keeps the black spider imprisoned, where it supposedly remains on the day when the grandfather tells the baptismal party this very creepy story.

   Early nineteenth-century Switzerland doesn’t immediately come to mind when one thinks of either Gothic fiction or what is best described as weird fiction. Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft were all twentieth-century writers and wrote their works in an increasingly secular world. Jeremias Gotthelf, by contrast, was a more devout man who wrote in an age more steeped in faith than the aforementioned purveyors of cosmic horror. His ultimate villain was the Devil, not some strange creature from beyond space and time.

   But then again, there’s the bizarrely sentient black spider. If one reads the work critically, one sees that the author’s description of the spider at times reads less like something out of a fairy tale or a religious novella than it does out of an early twentieth-century pulp magazine:

   “The crowd flew apart, all eyes drawn to the foot to which the hand of the screaming man was pointing. On this foot sat the spider, black and huge, glowering balefully, maliciously all around. The blood froze in their veins, the breath in their breasts, and the sight in their eyes, while the spider calmly, maliciously peered about, and then the man’s foot turned black, and in his body it felt as if fire were hissingly, furiously doing battle with water; fear burst the bonds of horror, and the crowds scattered.” (p. 72)

   The Black Spider may very well be one of the first works of weird fiction ever written. For this reason, it’s well worth reading. But it’s also a good scary tale to read on an overcast day when it’s windy outside, the rain is hitting your windows, and you have some cabin fever. That’s what I did. And I loved every minute of it.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


AUSTIN LEE – Miss Hogg and the Missing Sisters. Jonathan Cape, UK, hardcover, 1961. No US edition.

AUSTIN LEE Miss Hogg

   The elderly ladies who live next door to Alan Johnston, middle-aged author of historical novels, have written a book about the old days in Ireland and are worried about parts of it perhaps being libelous. Thus they seek Johnston’s advice. Before he can read much of the book, his neighbors disappear and the manuscript is the only item taken from his house during a burglary.

   In addition, in the same neighborhood a death, possibly murder, with seemingly no connection to the disappearance or the burglary, has taken place. Johnston consults Miss Hogg, B.A., Private Investigator, and he, she, and Miss Hogg’s friend, Millie, travel to the elderly ladies’ childhood home, with both good and bad results.

   This novel takes place near the end of Miss Hogg’s career as a private investigator — it is the penultimate; the final one is fittingly titled Miss Hogg’s Last Case — and contains little about her as an individual. Her first name is an aberration on her mother’s part, she says, and she prefers to be known as ‘Hogg, tout conn. ” Her given name is revealed, though not by her, as Flora, about which someone remarks, I must say that Miss Hogg did not immediately suggest to one the goddess of the spring.”

   Whether Miss Hogg can be placed in the little-old-lady-detective category, I cannot say since her age is not provided. She is a former schoolteacher, but not as far as I could tell a retired one. Johnston, whose views are more elderly than he, makes for a somewhat amusing narrator.

   On the other hand, Miss Hogg really doesn’t come alive, the plot is minimal, and the murderer and the motive are patent. Nonetheless, while Austin Lee’s name is not going on my list of authors to look for, should I come across another of his Miss Hogg novels serendipitously, I would not hesitate to read it.

   Since Hubin’s bibliography does not mention it and there might be those who would like to know, I’ll note that Austin Lee was a clergyman.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1991.


      The Miss Flora Hogg series

Sheep’s Clothing. Cape, 1955.
Call in Miss Hogg. Cape, 1956.
Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders. Cape, 1956.

AUSTIN LEE Miss Hogg

Miss Hogg and the Squash Club Murder. Cape, 1957.
Miss Hogg and the Dead Dean. Cape, 1958.
Miss Hogg Flies High. Cape, 1958.
Miss Hogg and the Covent Garden Murders. Cape, 1960.

AUSTIN LEE Miss Hogg

Miss Hogg and the Missing Sisters. Cape, 1961.
Miss Hogg’s Last Case. Cape, 1963.

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