Reviews


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


PAUL MALMONT – The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 2006; softcover, June 2007.

   I picked up my copy of this novel, set in the pulp era and featuring as rival protagonists, Walter Gibson and Lester Dent, at the 2006 Pulpcon, where most of the feedback from readers was not encouraging.

   At 370 pages and managing the (I would have thought) almost unimaginable feat of making Gibson relatively unlikable, the novel crams in so many pulp writers and references that it finally collapses under their cumulative weight during an unwieldy and protracted climax.

   Dent’s wife Norma plays a major role in the developing plot and Gibson’s exotic lady friend adds a modicum of spicy but tame sexual nonsense. Otherwise this is for the boys, especially those who want to recapture the thrills and color of the pulps second-hand.

   My advice? If you really want to savor the elusive perfumes of the pulps, try the real thing. There are numerous anthologies and facsimile reprints of the magazines that will let you sample their multi-hued wares and, as cheesy and far-fetched as some of them may be, they have more flavor and drive than anything you will find in the pages of this clearly affectionate but tedious tribute.

Bibliographic Note:   The sequel to this, Paul Malmont’s first novel, was The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown (2011) which features science-fiction authors Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov as its two primary protagonists.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


BURN, WITCH, BURN. Anglo-Amalgamated Films, UK, 1962; American International Pictures, US, 1962. Originally released in the UK as Night of the Eagle. Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls, Colin Gordon, Kathleen Byron. Screenplay by Charles Beaumont & Richard Matheson (and George Baxt uncredited), based on the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber. Director: Sidney Hayers.

   At times Burn, Witch, Burn, aka Night of the Eagle, feels as if it’s an extended and psychedelically revved up episode of The Twilight Zone. I suppose that’s not all that surprising given the fact that Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, both of whom contributed to the famed CBS series, co-wrote the screenplay for this offbeat supernatural horror film. Although filmed in a noticeably flat black and white, making it highly adaptable to television screens in the early 1960s, Burn, Witch, Burn retains a Gothic, strikingly off kilter atmosphere that I found to be quite effective.

   Adapted from Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife (1943), the movie stars Peter Wyngarde as Norman Taylor, a sociology professor at a British medical college who discovers that his wife has taken to witchcraft. This is especially troubling for Taylor as he vehemently denies the existence of the supernatural. After he forces his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair) to part with her magical paraphernalia, things start going really badly for the both of them. Could it be that Tansy was correct that her spells were protecting him from a greater evil in their midst? If so, what does that mean for Taylor’s skepticism, let alone their marriage?

   Alternatively creepy and self-consciously ludicrous, the film also features another character, albeit a decidedly uncredited one: a stone eagle statuette perched on top of the college where Taylor works. Perhaps the less said about that mighty bird the better. Keep in mind that when there are witches afoot in England, inanimate objects don’t always stay inanimate — especially at night.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


DAVID M PIERCE – Angels in Heaven. V Daniel #4. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1992; paperback, 1993.

   I have a moderately well-articulated and consistent set of abstract likes and dislikes in crime fiction, and generally speaking, my reading reflects them rather closely. Evey now and then, though, an idiosyncratic writer comes along whose books when analyzed shouldn’t appeal to me; but do. Kinky Friedman and Amanda Cross are two (if you can find stranger bedfellows than those two, I’d like to hear about them), and David M Pierce is another.

   V (for Victor) Daniel is one of the more atypical California PIs. He’s 6′ 7″, wears loud Hawaiian shirts, is getting uncomfortably close to middle-aged, and operates in the San Fernando valley. Though he wouldn’t use it, some unkind souls might apply the word “seedy.” His morals tend to be rather elastic, and the letter of the law is missing from his alphabet. He’s assisted in his various endeavors when needed by Sara, a young punker who writes memos in blank verse; Benny, a friend who is a master of shady dealings; Ellroy, his rich, indolent landlord; and`a few others.

   In previous books there really has been no central plot, but instead a few unrelated cases that Daniel takes care of in various and odd ways. Here, there is one: Daniel’s best boyhood friend is in a Mexican jail, seriously ill, with no hope for release, and V gets a message from him appealing for help. Help he gets, as Daniel & Co. head for Mexico.

   These aren’t quite like anything else, and certainly aren’t for everyone. The plot isn’t the thing with Pierce’s books; the things are witty prose, very engaging characters, and one of the more flip and irreverent attitudes you’re likely to find. I’ve seen this characterized as both the weakest and the best of the series by different people. Personally I’m inclined toward the former, but I still liked it.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #5, January 1993.

THE CIPHER / ARABESQUE

ALEX GORDON – The Cipher. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1961. Pyramid X1483, paperback, 1966. Film: Arabesque, 1966 (with Gregory Peck & Sophia Loren).

   Some hero: a nervous, clumsy, asthmatic college history professor, unable to hold his own family`together, unable to finish his life-long dream of cracking the cuneiform hieroglyphics of the ancient civilization of a country unnamed. That country still survives today, with a newly-formed government now friendly to the United States. What connection is there with the business code that Philip Hoag is asked to decipher by the uncle of one of his students?

   There are undiscovered gems to be found in stacks of out-of-print mystery fiction, but this isn’t one of them. Still, in a strangely naive way, it generates enough excitement peripherally related to the field of espionage, plus the slightest amount of detection, to warrant not being forgotten completely.

Rating: C plus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 4, July 1978.



Comment: When I wrote this review, long before IMDb came along, I do not believe I knew that this book was the basis for the movie Arabesque, a movie that I found extremely enjoyable, to say the least. Wouldn’t I have said something if I had? For more (much more) on both the book and the movie, read Dan Stumpf’s excellent review of both, found here.

Bibliographic Notes: This is the only novel in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV that author Gordon Cotler (1923-2012) wrote as Alex Gordon. Under his own name he has five additional titles in CFIV, but he may be better remembered for his work in television, including (mystery genre-wise) being the co-screenwriter of three episodes of McMillan and Wife with Don Mankiewicz.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


HOUSE OF SECRETS. Chesterfield, 1936. Leslie Fenton, Muriel Evans, Noel Madison, Sidney Blackmer, Morgan Wallace, Holmes Herbert, Ian MacLaren. Screenplay by John Krafft, based on the novel and play by Sydney Horler. Directed by Roland B. Reed.

   “Horler for Excitement” the ads read, and they might have added Horler for melodrama, jingoism, sexism, racism, rampant coincidence, thorough going general nastiness, and wide spread swipes from H. C. ‘Sapper’ McNeile, E. Philips Oppenheim, Bram Stoker, and especially Edgar Wallace, whose self-styled successor Sydney Horler imagined himself to be. By all accounts, and from the testimony of his own works, Sydney Horler was a nasty little man of the first order. Luckily none of that mars this fairly crisp second feature based on one of his most popular plays and novels.

   With the nastiness expunged, the elements ‘borrowed’ from Sapper and others, the melodrama, and the coincidence, all make for a fairly entertaining fast -paced film that has the sense to play lightly and none to seriously with the material at hand. While not a comedy mystery in the Bob Hope sense, this is light-hearted fare along the lines of a low budget take of the better Bulldog Drummond films.

   Barry Wilding (Leslie Fenton) is a footloose American globetrotter who rescues beautiful Muriel Evans from a masher on board ship. She begs off sharing her name, and Barry continues onto London where he runs into his old friend American detective Tom Starr (Sidney Blackmer), who is in England to catch a killer, just before a letter arrives at his hotel from a solicitor. Barry dutifully goes to the solicitor’s office where he learns his uncle has left him an estate, Hawk’s Nest, and a neat sum of money.

   But when he goes to claim Hawk’s Nest, he is met with a gun and dogs and thrown off the property. Then when he goes to his solicitor, he is warned to sell the property, even though he signed a contract that he would not under any circumstance, and a mysterious buyer offers him more than the property is worth.

   His head still spinning from that, the mysterious young woman from the ship shows up, introducing herself as Julie Kenmore, a fellow American, and informing him that she is living with her father (the man with the gun, Morgan Wallace) at Hawk’s Nest and it is vital that he leave them there and not see her for a month.

   No hero of any mystery worth its weight in ink is going to accept that set of circumstances, and Barry sails forth only to encounter one enigma after another, including why the Home Secretary (Holmes Herbert) is involved, why a screaming madman is being held on the property, the value of a torn piece of parchment in Olde English, three American gangsters who mug him, pressure from all sides to leave well enough alone, and the increasingly puzzling Julie. There are at least three major coincidences in the film that would get most books thrown across the room violently by all but the most tolerant readers, but here it is all in the playing, which is good, and the screenplay, which is bright.

   Leslie Fenton makes an attractive enough lead once you get over his rather prominent front teeth and the vague facial and vocal resemblance to Bing Crosby, and Muriel Evans is genuinely attractive and can act. I won’t say the acting is uniformly good, but it is uniformly not too bad, and the film even manages a bit of tattered but genuine atmosphere once in a while and a relatively rousing ending.

   Being based on a play and a book, it also has a bit more shape than so many original mystery screenplays of this kind. It may be filled with coincidence and unlikely as hell, and one or two points are never explained (like how the American gangster played by Noel Madison got his half of the parchment), but it is a much more entertaining film than many such mystery outings with better known casts in the lead roles, and the sprightly dialogue is just that for once.

   Horler was nothing if not a kitchen sink writer, so this has everything, including a dying man on death row whose importance to the plot is not explained until the last minute, poison gas, not one but two mad scientists (one technically insane), secret panels, pirate treasure, gangsters, international intrigue, a beautiful mystery girl in danger who won’t say why, tsk-tsking policeman, a conspiracy against the hero, and political careers on the line — all for the finest motives, they are English and it is Horler after all.

   On that last bit, and in regard to the poison gas, it would not hurt if you understood going in what the idea of poison gas meant to those who still remembered WWI. It features prominently in adventures of Bulldog Drummond and the Saint in this time period, and within that historical framework, the somewhat high handed doings behind the scenes makes more sense than it might to modern viewers. There was no need to explain to audiences then, especially to British audiences who had lost a generation of young men to such horrors.

   Should this lead you to read Horler, something I have done but can’t really recommend, this book, The Curse of Doone (which resembles this a good deal), Chipstead of the Secret Service (featuring rough tough ‘Bunny’ Chipstead), The Vampire (which borrows heavily from Dracula), and one or two of the Paul Vivanti books are readable for all his flaws as a writer and human being. By all means avoid his obnoxious masked avenger the Nighthawk though, and his rather heavy-handed wanna be Bulldog Drummond style gentleman adventurer bully Tiger Standish, as they really do contain the absolute worst of Horler as a human being and a writer.

   This film, though, while far from great, proves to be a good mid-thirties style comedy mystery thriller that is diverting for an hour (well, forty five or fifty minutes, it drags a bit at the halfway point) of non-critical fun, and as harmless a way to say you are acquainted with Sydney Horler as I can imagine. I frankly could not have imagined they would get this good a film from a book and play by Horler. If you have read him, you likely know what I mean.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


CARTER DICKSON – He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. William Morrow, hardcover, 1944. Paperback reprints include: Dell #370, mapback edition, 1950; Berkley X1339, 1966; IPL, 1988.

   The Royal Albert Zoological Gardens is an unlikely place to find Sir Henry Merrivale. He loathes snakes, but he is at the zoo to observe how they are milked for their venom. When an angry magician breaks open two glass cages, unleashing a tropical American lizard, large size, and a Gila monster, not too small, H.M. becomes the creatures’ target.

   That’s not the least of H.M.’s problems. He comes to dine with an old friend only w discover that the friend has died of coal gas inhalation within a locked room. Though he is convinced that it was murder, how can H.M. explain not only the locked room, but the fact that paper strips have been glued to all the openings from inside the room? Furthermore. H.M. isn’t through with the snakes, who play more than one role in the investigation.

   First-class Dickson.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter 1990, “Beastly Murders.”

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR. Universal, 1933. Nancy Carroll, Frank Morgan, Paul Lukas, Gloria Stuart, Jean Dixon, Donald Cook, Charles Grapewin, Walter Pidgeon. Director: James Whale. Shown at Cinevent 16, Columbus OH, May 1984.

   The special treat of the weekend was a showing of James Whale’s The Kiss Before the Mirror, with one of those fine performances Frank Morgan gave consistently before he was typecast by MGM, acting with an intelligence and intensity that would undoubtedly surprise the fans of his 40s films.

   Here he is a lawyer defending his best friend on a murder charge, accused of killing his wife at a lovers’ tryst. Morgan has discovered that his own wife has a lover, and his defense of his friend (Paul Lukas) mirrors his own dilemma and the defense that might be mounted for him as he feels himself drawn toward a similar crime. The courtroom sequence is brilliantly directed, and it has the most unsettling movie climax I’ve witnessed since Carrie rose suddenly out of her grave in Brian DePalma’s contemporary shocker.

   And in the first 10 minutes of the film there is one of those stylized Whale landscapes that have haunted me from my first contact with with his Bride of Frankenstein in a movie trailer in the thirties.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


CORNELL WOOLRICH – Savage Bride. Gold Medal #138, paperback original; reprinted at least three times.

   So I was watching Black Moon, reviewed here a few years ago, a crackerjack little film taking place in the tropics and the priestess of a local voodoo cult, and it got me to thinking: Had I seen something like this before? No … but I’d read it; I was a Cornell Woolrich fan long before Mike Nevins made it respectable, and back in High School, when I haunted seedy used book stores in crummy neighborhoods, I picked up a copy of Savage Bride which, if I remembered correctly, had the same plot or something very much like it.

   I dug out my copy of the book, intending to skim through it and confirm my suspicions, but the Woolrich prose grabbed me right at the start, and I found myself reading (or re-reading after 40 years) this thing all the way through. And I was right: there are some changes, but this is basically the premise of Black Moon formatted for a two-bit -paperback.

   Larry Jones, naïve young hero, opens the story by eloping with Mitty, a young woman raised in seclusion by two scientists, her upbringing like some soda! experiment. The honeymooning couple miss their boat and get stuck on s Central American island where Mitty seems drawn Irresistibly towards the jungle … and the primitive tribes with their drums, those incessant drums pounding-in-my-head-night-and-day-Oh-why-won’t-they-stop?

   Yes, it’s Black Moon all right, complete with the wife turning into a creature of evil, the good folks on a plantation besieged and taken captive by natives, and the perky young love interest for our hero after his wife proves socially embarrassing.

   But there’s more here. Surprisingly more. Savage Bride is a novel with layers, only the first of which is Woolrich’s prose, colorful as a movie poster and just as effective. Woolrich evokes the feel of a scene by emphasizing its look: he describes conversations in silhouette, cigarette smoke drifting aimlessly as the pointless talk. He conveys the suspense of a car chase with the surrounding night-scape, and there’s a very neat bit late in the book with Larry darting from shadow to shadow in a moonlit night, which Woolrich likens to a chess piece maneuvering from black-square-to-white-to-black to avoid capture. Good stuff, that.

   There’s also some subtle foreshadowing which escaped me back in my teens: early on, Mitty describes her upbringing by the scientists: “He’d hand me something to drink and he’d say ‘Water.’ Then when ! wanted it again rd say ‘water’ and he’d bring it to me . . ..” And this is reprised later in the book to chilling effect. Mitty goes on to describe learning about love by reading Romeo and Juliet, and this is also echoed, very movingly, as the tale concludes. Sharp stuff for a two-bit paper-back.

   More layers? Well, like I said before, Mitty, the ostensible heroine of the book, quickly loses our sympathy and becomes the villain of the piece toward the end (“She doesn’t know what mercy is.”) but Woolrich very casually demonstrates that her cruelty is no worse than that of the heartless men who spirited her away as a child in the name of Science, and maybe not as bad as the slow, deliberate meanness of the corrupt officials of “civilization.”

   And come to that, all of these are just expressions of the malignant universe that was Woolrich’s world.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


SABATA. Produzioni Europee Associati, Italy, 1969, as Ehi amico… c’è Saba Hai chiuso! United Artists, US, 1970 (dubbed). Lee Van Cleef, William Berger, Ignazio Spalla, Aldo Canti, Pedro Sanchez, Nick Jordan, Franco Ressel, Anthony Gradwell, Linda Verasta. Director: Gianfranco Parolini.

   Don’t watch Sabata, the first of the Sabata Trilogy, for the plot. Because, truth be told, the plot is neither particularly interesting, nor is it central to the movie. Holding this enjoyably silly movie together are the following three key ingredients: Lee Van Cleef’s role as the title character; the Spaghetti Western visual aesthetic replete with wild zoom-ins; and, of course, distinct music that would be completely out of place anywhere but a late 1960s Italian western.

   Who is Sabata? He’s first and foremost a character portrayed by Lee Van Cleef. He’s also a drifter, gunfighter, friend, schemer, and vigilante who, one day, rides into a small Texas town. Lo and behold, the town just happens to experience a bank robbery soon upon Sabata’s arrival. He’s not responsible for the crime, however. The culprits are a ragtag group of outlaws and acrobats (just go with it). Sabata decides that he’s going to take it upon himself to bring the perpetrators to justice; well, his brand of justice anyway.

   After receiving a reward for retrieving the loot and returning it to its proper owners, Sabata soon discovers that the elite townsfolk are the ones really behind the crime. What’s a man like Sabata to do? Blackmail them, of course. This leads Sabata into an unlikely partnership with a drunken war veteran named Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla) and a mute Indian acrobat named Alley Cat (Aldo Canti). These two misfits become not just his partners, but also his hangout buddies. It also leads him headlong into a confrontation with a former associate, the mysterious banjo player named . . . Banjo (William Berger). He’s a gunfighter just like Sabata and he’s no pushover. So you know it’s going to be a fight to the finish.

   As I mentioned before, the plot is really secondary to the film’s aesthetic. If you don’t care for Spaghetti Westerns, Sabata isn’t going to work for you. If you do like them, you may agree with me that this is actually nifty little film that doesn’t require much from the viewer. What it lacks in coherence it more than makes up for in slightly off kilter visuals and well choreographed gunfights, all set to a remarkably effective soundtrack that really propels this buddy movie forward.

PATRICIA PONDER – Murder for Charity. Manor 15281, paperback original, 1977.

   Contradicting the ultra-macho image projected by the front cover, which shows the Cajun detective Louis Breaux being very protective of the cuddlesome Diana, this is in fact a detective story most reminiscent of the old-fashioned golden age of mystery fiction, complete with a country club overflowing with clues and suspects.

   When Diana Parnell’s aunt is murdered while she’s running an antique show for charity, it’s Diana who’s suspected. The mysterious behavior of a friend caused her to be alone at the very moment for which an alibi is needed, but to her rescue comes Louis Breaux, convinced of her innocence even though they’ve only just met, and together they set off on the killer’s trail.

   It must be remembered that most of the books of the golden age have been forgotten, with good reason. Only the Christie’s and the Queen’s still survive, and they’re the models that other writers of pure detective fiction must strive to equal. Here’s another that doesn’t measure up. When the clues are as falsely represented or slighted over as they are here, it may be playing fair with the reader in a technical sense, but the edges of an otherwise pleasing performance are curdled.

   Nevertheless, flaws and all, it was a nice surprise to find this. Mildly recommended for those who are nostalgic for this sort of thing.

Rating: C.

[Note to bibliographers: Besides the haphazard proofreading system employed by Manor throughout the book, on the title page the author’s name is given as Patricia Maxwell.]

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 4, July 1978.


[UPDATE] Additional bibliographic notes: Patrica Ponder was indeed a pen name of Patricia Maxwell (1942- ). Under that name she also wrote Haven of Fear for Manor, 1977, but it is doubtful that Louis Breaux ever made another appearance.

   Under her own name, Patricia Maxwell has seven entries in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, all apparently gothics or novels of romantic suspense. (The line between them is often blurry.) There is also one entry for her there as Elizabeth Trehearne, another gothic. She is best known to readers of romance fiction, however, as Jennifer Blake, with 50 or 60 titles in that genre, and still counting.

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