Reviews


REVIEWED BY MIKE TOONEY:


THE ORVILLE. TV series. Season 1. (Fox; 2017; 12 episodes, 43-45 minutes); Season 2 (Fox; 2018-19; 14 episodes, 48 minutes); Season 3 (Fox and Hulu; announced for late 2020). Regular Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Halston Sage (Seasons 1 and 2), J. Lee, Mark Jackson, and Jessica Szohr (Season 2). Creator: Seth MacFarlane. Theme music: Bruce Broughton. Executive producers: Seth MacFarlane, Brannon Braga, David A. Goodman, Jason Clark, Jon Favreau, (pilot), Liz Heldens (Season 1), and Jon Cassar (Season 2). Production companies: Fuzzy Door Productions and Fox.

   Imagine that you’re a trained spaceship captain with a promising career ahead of you. Imagine that one night you date a cute space navy officer but make a mess of it; the next day you sheepishly beg her forgiveness, she gives it, and agrees to another date. (Neither of you realize it at the time, but that second date will prove to be all-important, and not just on a personal level.)

   Eventually the two of you get married, but one afternoon you come home and find her in bed with another man, leading to Divorceville and your career taking a year-long nosedive. Things are looking grim when unexpectedly the higher-ups pick you to captain a new exploratory vessel. You eagerly take command, only to discover that your new executive officer is your ex-wife …

   Not only is having to deal with his ex a challenge for Captain Ed Mercer of The Orville, but there’s also the oddball crew he’s given, among them a member of an all-male race (“It is much easier with an egg”), a five-foot-nothing security officer who can knock down reinforced steel doors with her bare hands (“I’m actually just sort of working on myself right now”), a couple of conceited bridge crewmen (“One time I almost died because I humped a statue”), a giant blob of gelatin (“I gotta say, watching your corpse drift away to this music would be so peaceful”), and an artificial life form who thinks an amputation would make a good practical joke (“The penchant for biological lifeforms to anthropomorphize inanimate objects is irrational”).

   And that’s basically the set-up in Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, a TV series that, as the saying goes, has garnered a cult following, starting first as a network product and then migrating to a subscription video on demand service, with its cult following . . . following. (How many people constitute a cult, anyhow? Never mind.)

   If you go to the movies much, you’ve innocently become enmeshed in the latest Hollywood “trend” (more like a nostalgia goldrush) in churning out sequels, prequels, “reimaginings,” and reboots. (Not all remakes, by the way, are a bad thing; John Huston’s excellent 1941 reboot of The Maltese Falcon was the third attempt at filming it, one which succeeded very nicely.)

   We view this trend as an admission that they’ve run out of steam and aren’t even trying to be creative, never mind original. Complicating an already bad situation is the unmistakable messianic zeal with which the Tinsel Town elites are willing to cram their brand of political pontificating down unsuspecting audiences’ throats, even if their projects lose them money. (Someone somewhere once observed that in Hollywood influence and ego gratification — embodied in their lay sermons, movies — are the orgasm and money the aphrodisiac, the stimulus by which they achieve satisfaction.) Indeed, until a month ago we had never heard the term “woke” applied to motion picture and television productions, but to a greater or lesser degree just about everything emerging from Tinsel Town seems to have some component of “wokeness” to it.

   But we digress. In just about all aspects of art training (and, whatever you may think of them, we can include movie and TV production as art), beginners are encouraged to emulate previous masters in their field, to copy them with an eye to developing their own unique styles later on.

   … which brings us back to The Orville. Seth MacFarlane, the executive producer, writer, director, star, and who knows what else on this TV series has taken the normal art training paradigm and junked it. Every single aspect of this show is derived from somewhere else, intentionally so. If you are familiar with S*** T*** (because the latest series producers are a prickly lot, we feel it safer to employ the asterisks), viewing any given episode of The Orville should provoke a feeling of deja vu. Situations, characters, whole plotlines, musical cues, even individual shots are lifted primarily from S*** T***, with S*** W*** and a random collection of components from a bunch of other sci-fi sources, as well.

   Everyone has a unique gift; MacFarlane’s gift is in NOT being original (his tiresome cartoon shows demonstrate that) but in being a copycat, the best copycat on the Hollywood scene at the moment. In The Orville, he has done a remarkable thing by blurring the formerly clear-cut distinction between parody and pastiche, the result being a thing unto itself, funny, serious, derivative all at once. For that alone, MacFarlane deserves some sort of Major Award.

   Is the series “woke”? Oh yeah. According to what we’ve read, MacFarlane has already received a Major Award, this one from a group of like-minded people who probably wouldn’t object if authorities prosecuted parents as child abusers for providing religious instruction to their children; since very few artists ever alter their deeply felt attitudes (indeed, they constantly draw on them for inspiration), we can expect to see the consequences of that particular frame of mind to continually play out in the series, especially with respect to The Orville‘s continuing “bad guys,” a bone-headed race of aliens whose sole motivation is to murder anyone who doesn’t conform to their religion. (Bone heads. Get it?) Like its S*** T*** predecessors, in this show any person or random cactus that entertains the faintest glimmering of spirituality is automatically a moron in desperate need of rationalist enlightenment. (A case can be made that the science fiction subgenre of literature is the primary conveyance of atheist thought today, but while that might make for a thrilling Ph.D. thesis, we just don’t have the time.)

   In spite of what you’ve just read, is it possible to like The Orville? The special effects are excellent; the plots, while totally derivative, mesh nicely with the characters; and the acting is uniformly very good (Scott Grimes’s performance in his story with a simulated woman being Major Award-worthy).

   Perhaps the best way for someone who still clings to Middle American values (any of you still left out there?) to fully enjoy The Orville would involve assuming a posture in which index finger and thumb are firmly placed against the proboscis. Everybody else will cheerfully overlook the subtexts and uncritically swallow MacFarlane’s spoonful of sugar. (You remember Mary Poppins, don’t you? “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, The medicine go down-wown …”)


       

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


BRIAN FLYNN – The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye. Anthony Bathurst #3, Hamilton, UK, hardcover, 1928. Macrae-Smith, US, hardcover, 1930. Dean Street Press, trade paperback, October 2019.

   “Why have you no business to be here, Mr. X?” she queried softly.

   He shook his head. Then the Spirit of Audacity and Adventure caught him and held him securely captive. “One day — perhaps, I’ll tell you,” he declared, “till then, you must possess your soul in patience.”

   Let me be clear from the beginning: you won’t have to worry about being caught short by Audacity and Adventure in this book, though if you plan to wade through it possessing your soul in patience is a good idea, indeed it may be your only hope.

   The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye is the third adventure of amateur sleuth Anthony Lotherington Bathurst, whose literary career managed to encompass thirty two volumes of prose, much like that above, between 1927 and 1947 ending in a book Barzun and Taylor called “tripe”.

   Steve Barge, who writes a fine historical and appreciative introduction to this volume discussing Bathurst seems surprised that Brian Flynn, his creator, was never embraced by the Detection Club or the Crime Writers, but frankly only a paragraph or so in it is pretty clear why. Flynn deserves his own volume of Bill Pronzini’s alternative classics (Gun in Cheek, Son of Gun in Cheek).

   That said, his books are fair play mysteries, it’s just there isn’t much at stake in these games. As for Bathurst, having noted that his prospective client writes with a Germanic hand, Bathurst indulges in a very un-Holmesian bit of theorizing: “possibly a German professor who has mislaid his science notebook containing the recipe for diamond-making. That would account for the heavy demands to be made upon my powers of discretion!“. If Holmes indulged in such flights of fancy, Watson spared us them.

   Unlucky for us that has nothing to do with the plot at hand.

   Bathurst is a bit of a cipher. We are told he is attractive, know his parents are Irish, know he is a fine example of the concept of “Mens Sana” (perfection of mind and body, I take it rejected by Nero Wolfe and Gideon Fell), and pretty much sexless.

   Reading about this rather bland superman can make you mourn for the annoyances of Philo Vance or the touchy personality of Roger Sherringham. Flynn talks a better Holmes imitation than he delivers. At least Sapper’s Ronald Standish actually steals some of Holmes brilliant moments of reasoning (along with actual plots).

   Aside from such sterling example of prose as that passage above we have Flynn and Bathurst’s seeming inability to use simple words when there is an obscure one to be found in the dictionary. Here is Mr. Bathurst having breakfast in his rooms at the Hotel Florizel (points to anyone who catches the reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s own sleuth).

   Anthony Bathurst propped the letter against the side of the matutinal coffee-pot.

   I grant I can imagine Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion blathering something to Bunter or Lugg along the lines of, “The matutinal coffee-pot is required this morning …” but for the life of me I can’t imagine Sayers or Allingham using the word as their own without satirical point, and this is only the beginning for our boy Anthony, who shows an equal attraction for his creator’s collections of great quotes, which are dropped like bombshells along the difficult path to a solution.

   Despite or because of the nod to Holmes, the book opens well, with a grand ball where the Mr. X from above meets an attractive young lady, Sheila Delaney. A year later Mr. Bathurst at his “matuinal coffee pot” receives a client, none other than the Crown Prince of Clorania (Flynn’s fails pretty utterly at the naming of names business of fictioneering, Clorania is among the worst Ruritanian mythical kingdom names one can imagine, but then Graustark was taken) who is being, like his Bohemian cousin in Conan Doyle, blackmailed over an “affaire” with a young woman who he met at the Hunt Ball at Westhampton a year earlier where Mr. X and Sheila Delaney were so entranced with each other.

   But Mr. Bathurst can’t even begin his investigation until Inspector Richard “Dandy Dick” Bannister (one of several Yard men Bathurst collaborates with over the years), one of “the Big Six at the Yard”, on holiday in Seabourne is called in about the murder of a young woman by prussic acid in a dentist’s chair, a Miss Daphne Carruthers, and Bathurst receives a desperate cable from his client to come to Seabourne as Miss Daphne Carruthers is the young woman the Prince had his “affaire” with.

   “Strange Tragedy at Seabourne. Young Lady Murdered in Dentist’s Chair.”

   Not a headline you see every day.

   Further complicating things when Bathurst arrives is the fact Miss Daphne Carruthers is still alive, and the young dead woman unknown.

   Not that the average reader needs a lot to make a guess at who the young lady is. “we are in very deep waters, Sir Matthew! ____ _____ has been the victim of one of the most cunning and cold-blooded crimes of the century and it’s going to take me all my time to bring her assassin to justice.”

   Flynn is just off the mark, not quite up to par, neither good enough nor bad enough to really make the effort worthwhile (The “Daily Bugle” continued its bugling.). Flynn falls into the category of British mystery fiction of the Golden Age that was at its very best gold leaf, and at its worst cheap gold paint. In a career that ran to 1947, Flynn never got better, in fact he got worse, because Peacock is probably the best book he wrote.

   Granted Flynn has some talent for interesting mystery set ups, just no delivery, though this one does contain a clever bit of misdirection that is without question the reason it is the best regarded of Flynn’s books. He seems to have admired Christie and tried to plot in her class. The ambition is greater than the delivery, though once in a while he is diverting in the right mood.

   The detection proceeds divided between Banninster and Bathurst, but the former is no real improvement being almost as long winded as Bathurst as demonstrated by his description of his method.

   “Apply the maximum of the one to the maximum of the other; and when you get the combined maxima judiciously concentrated upon the problem in hand, they should eventually yield a minimum of trouble.”

   Huh, seems the proper response to that, though it does have something of a Monty Pythonesque logic to it.

   Bathurst himself happily reassures us about the case:

   “There now remains,” he said to himself, half-humorously, “the Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye! And how far is it connected with___________’s blackmailing of the Crown Prince? Connected and yet not connected. A most interesting and intricate case,” remarked Mr. Bathurst. “But nevertheless rapidly approaching a solution.”

   I grant Sherlock Holmes was sometimes hard up for an intelligent conversation with poor old Watson, but he never seems to have talked to himself. I’d also point out nothing really happens rapidly in a Bathurst novel.

   In fairness there are some bright moments like this from Sir Matthew Fulgarney.

   “Sit down then and say what you have to say. Please don’t beat about the bush. I hate to have to listen to a farrago of words — two-thirds of which are usually entirely — er — redundant — er — tautological — er — er unnecessary.” He blew his nose fiercely — intending it no doubt as an imposing battery of support.<{>

   More of that would have been welcome though they skate perilously close to self parody, and followed by a phrase too far: “He wheezed hilariously.”

   Several of the Bathurst novels are available at reasonable prices in ebook form, and for fans of the genre they are worth to toe dip to see how you feel about them. In the right mood you might find them more fun than I do, certainly if you approach without my past encounters and preconceptions of Flynn and Bathurst..

   All said and done, Bathurst out-waits the killer (The golden sunshine of July passed into the mellower maturity of August. August in its turn yielded place to the quieter beauty of September and russet-brown October reigned at due season in the latter’s stead.) who makes the mistake he was predicting and the law pounces, a minor improvement over a books worth of plodding (It did not take an overwhelming supply of intelligence to see that the trouble was coming from the Westhamptonshire neighbourhood), and Bathurst receives the praise for a job well done, which is more than can be said for Flynn.

   Approach with caution: Flynn has a typewriter and isn’t afraid to use it as a blunt instument.

THE FACULTY. Miramax, 1998. Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Josh Hartnett, Shawn Hatosy, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Chris McDonald, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Jon Stewart, Daniel von Bargen, Elijah Wood. Director: Robert Rodriguez.

   High school was not a lot of fun for me back when I had to go, and if this movie is anything like how life in high school was some 40 ears after that, I’m not sure I’d want my kids to go now, another 20 years later, what with ostracizing on social media, body-shaming and other cyber-bullying, all things students my age in the late 50s would probably would have been happy to do if only they’d had the opportunity.

   But as the title suggests, the problem that the students at Herrington High are having in this movie are with the faculty, who are beginning to act stranger and stranger: when the school nerd (Elijah Wood) and the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and head cheerleader (Jordana Brewster) watching from a closet together see the football coach (Robert Patrick) and another faculty member (Piper Laurie) force a strange small creature into the ear of the school nurse (Salma Hayek) they know something is really seriously wrong.

   Can the entire faculty have been taken over by unhuman aliens? Delilah and Casey join up with a few other similar outcasts, each in their own way, to find out and to warn the police, to no avail. Shades of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, referenced several times, along with The Breakfast Club, in other words.

   A strong and lengthy list of cast members, including Jon Stewart in a brief role as a biology teacher, and Bebe Neuwirth as the school principal, makes this one work. I have only begun to skim the surface of what I could discuss about this movie, some scenes of which will stay with me for a long time. One might wish that the aliens remain unseen, or at least I did. Alien beings are always more fearsome if you know they’re there, but you can’t see them.


NICK CARTER – Suicide Seat. Charter, paperback original, 1980.

   Nick Carter, Killmaster, has his hands full this time. He’s n the trail of a gang of white slavers who have accidentally made off with the beautiful virgin daughter of a world-powerful OPEC sheik. And on Nick Carter’s trail is an international gang of terrorists who are apparently intent on wiping out every single agent employed by Carter’s secret government organization, AXE. (*)

   Now, unfortunately, AXE itself has been axed, disbanded by some top-level White House worrywarts, and its former director, David Hawk, has disappeared, no one knows where.

   Mexico. New York City. Washington, DC. Monte Carlo. Zurich.

   Mame Ferguson. Angela Negri. Traudl Heitmyer. Lotus Fong.

   By page 111 it was when I really knew I’d had enough. Angie’s been kidnapped again, and Nick Carter’s been left for dead.

   Except.

   He isn’t dead.

   He does have a little bit of a headache, perhaps.

   Personally, I think the guy’s nuts. Back on page 70, after being briefed rather briskly by Senator Lovett about the missing sheiklette, he abruptly heads for the bathroom and climbs for safety down the outside wall of the hotel. From four floors up.

   Why?

   Don’t ask me.

   How the hell would I know.

(*) Offhand, I can’t tell you what AXE stands for, but if you’d really like to know, maybe someone knows and can tell us both.

–Reprinted in slightly revised form from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 4, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1980.


UPDATE:  Nick Carter in this case was a writer by the name of George Warren, who also wrote two other in the Carter series, along with a small handful of paperback originals from Brandon House, Playboy Press and the like.

Selected by LJ ROBERTS:

CRAIG JOHNSON – Land of the Wolves. Walt Longmre #15. Viking Press, hardcover, September 2019.

First Sentence:   Acknowledgements: Once, as a young man running fence for a rancher up near Dillon, Montana, I found myself stretching barbed wire over a rocky ridge, having ground-tied my horse below because his shod hooves weren’t too fond of the outcropping.

   An unusually large wolf is spotted by Walt. Is it the one suspected of killing sheep from a local herd? When Walt goes to find the herdsman, he found the man’s body and a question as to whether he committed suicide or was murdered. Ranchers want the wolf found and killed. A woman wants it saved as its DNA is unique. Henry Standing Bear believes it may be a messenger. Walt wants to solve the mystery of the herder, especially when another crime is committed.

   For those of us who read everything from the cover page on, the “Acknowledgements” should not be missed. There one will find what is essentially a true, short story as a lead to the actual story.

   Johnson transports readers into the environment of the story with rich, evocative passages and lush writing. Lest you fear he gets too flowery, it is balanced by his dialogue which is audible, natural, and tinged with the humor one has come to expect from this author and these characters. “‘Why is everyone treating me like a Fabergé egg?’ ‘After Mexico, all parties have decided that you need a little more adult supervision.’ … ‘Sancho follows me to the bathroom’ … ‘He’s taking his orders very seriously.'” ” Finally, there are always things one learns such as about ‘predator zones.’

   The element of mysticism, often a part of this series, adds a special touch to the story. Linking the wolf to Virgil White Buffalo, from prior books, and Henry Standing Bear telling about the spiritual relationship between a human and animals is worth considering in these times of environmental destruction.

   What is very interesting is that this is a Walt who is older, slower, still recovering from the injuries of his last case. It is also a slightly more vulnerable Walt, questioning his relationship with his daughter. Although is it hard to imagine in this time, there has always been a running joke about Walt not having a computer. That he finally receives one, due to the wonderful character of Ruby, Walt’s secretary, provides several delightful exchanges.

   Johnson includes fascinating information on a considerable number of topics. While these are interesting and do relate to the plot, after about the third occasion, it does begin to feel as though it is filler.

   Land of Wolves takes us back to Johnson’s earlier books, which is a very good thing, with his trademark humor, dialogue, interesting characters, and excellent plot twists.

Rating:   Good Plus.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


LE CORBEAU (THE RAVEN). Continental Films, France, 1943. Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Micheline Francey, and Pierre Larquey. Written & directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

THE 13th LETTER. Fox, 1951. Linda Darnell, Charles Boyer, Michael Rennie, and Constance Smith. Screenplay adapted by Howard Koch. Directed by Otto Preminger.

   There’s always some interest in watching a foreign film and its American remake, and when the films in question are the work of two able cineastes like Clouzot and Preminger, the exercise is enjoyable as well.

   Clouzot made Le Corbeau under German occupation (he was later banned for two years from the French film industry for working with the Nazis) and it’s based on a true incident: a series of anonymous letters that tore apart a rural French village and led to riots and a suicide. The 13th Letter, on the other hand, is based on Le Corbeau .

   Thus Corbeau focuses broadly on the Community, while 13th concentrates on stars Michael Rennie and Linda Darnell. Preminger incorporates scenes from the earlier film, of course, but doesn’t slavishly copy them. He and Clouzot both give a few memorable moments to the bit players, allowing them to suggest some complexity, and both directors stand back and give Pierre Larquey/Charles Boyer lots of elbow room as a garrulous old doctor, with pleasing results.

   But perhaps the difference between the films is not so much focus as viewpoint. Preminger’s film is more subjective, urging us to identify with the romantic Hollywood leads, while Corbeau remains taciturn and objective, observing everything at a distance I find typical of Clouzot.

   The wonderful thing is that Preminger’s glossy superficial approach works as well as Clouzot’s hard-edged realism. Both films are easy to watch, and quite engrossing at times. I may have identified more easily with Michael Rennie and Linda Darnell because they spoke English, but both movies hooked me as only a strong story and a capable director can.


MIKE FREDMAN – Kisses Leave No Fingerprints. Willie Halliday #2. St. Martin’s Press, US, hardcover, 1980. Originally published in the UK by Paul Elek Publishers, hardcover, 1979. The Black Dahlia Company Limited, UK, softcover, 2013.

   This is a private eye story, but as such, while nothing very much out of the ordinary seems to happen, this definitely not your ordinary private eye sort of story. A great part of his is unquestionably due to the fact that Willie Halliday is a vegetarian, a non-drinker, and a student of Asiatic religions on the side — not exactly your standard sort of private eye.

   Nor does he take on divorce cases as a rule, but he does in this one, and then simply because he finds himself moonstruck in love with the woman who hires him, and thus is easily persuaded. That she cares zip about him is obvious to the reader, but not entirely to Willie, who tells the tale.

   Not many surprises follow, but even so, Fredman nevertheless seems to have neatly captured a haunting, dreamlike essence to the fictional world-wide brotherhood of knight-errants reincarnated in today’s world as private investigatory agents.

–Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 4, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1980.


BIBLIOGRAPHIC UPDATE :  There was one earlier adventure for Willie Halliday, that being You Can Always Blame the Rain (Elek, 1978; St.Martin’s, 1980). There was never a third.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


IAN FLEMING – Thunderball. James Bond #9. Jonathan Cape, UK, hardcover, 1961. Viking Press, UK, hardcover, 1961. Signet, US, paperback, 1962. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback. Filmed as: Thunderball (1965). Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celi Directed by Terence Young; and as Never Say Never Again (1983). Sean Connery, Kim Bassinger, Klaus Maria Brandauer. Directed by Jack Smight.

   “What’s the good of other people’s opinions? Animals don’t consult each other about other animals. They look and sniff and feel. In love and hate, and everything in between, those are the only tests that matter. But people are unsure of their own instincts. They want reassurance. So they ask someone else whether they should like a particular person or not. And as the world loves bad news, they nearly always get a bad answer – or at least a qualified one.”

   The speech above is in response to Domino Vitale, the mistress, or as Ian Fleming has Bond tell us, the “courtesan de marque,” of Emilio Largo, at this point in the novel a “person of interest” in the investigation James Bond and CIA friend Felix Leiter are making as part of a global search for a missing nuclear weapons stolen from NATO, and being used by SPECTRE, a criminal terrorist organization lead by Ernst Stavro Blofied, to extort money from the West’s governments.

   Domino’s brother was the pilot of the unfortunate missing NATO flight, enough for Bond and Leiter to be sent to the Bahamas on something of a wild goose chase well away from the hot spots where the real action is centered, and Largo, a wealthy and somewhat piratical figure has both the money and means of hiding the missing nukes.

   Of course by this point we, the reader already know Largo is an agent of SPECTRE and Blofield, but as yet Bond doesn’t.

   Thunderball was the eighth James Bond novel and followed a break after Goldfinger where the new James Bond had been a collection of short stories, For Your Eyes Only.

   In fact Thunderball was the result of the author’s dwindling enthusiasm for his creation after a series of bitter disappointments about Bond’s screen fortunes. A proposed Hitchcock film of From Russia With Love had fallen through (Hitchcock ended up doing North by Northwest instead), and while sales for the Bond novels had rocketed with Doctor No and Goldfinger, the television series pilot “Commander Jamaica” that fell through had become the plot of Doctor No, and a short story collection consisted of five stories Fleming wrote as scenarios for a proposed television series, James Bond, Secret Agent, that had fallen through and ended up the hit series Danger Man with Patrick McGoohan, who despised Bond, as secret agent John Drake. Even a Ben Hecht scripted adaptation of Casino Royale had fallen through.

   Thunderball itself might not even have seen print if a film director named Kevin McClory hadn’t approached Fleming about an idea for an original story and with screenwriter Jack Whittingham and Fleming written the screenplay that Fleming “novelized” as his James Bond novel for 1961. The legal mess the novels origin created would haunt the film franchise well into the 21rst Century before it was settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

   If you are still with me, try to ignore all that history for a minute though, and go back to that paragraph I opened with, because to some extent that paragraph is what I’m really discussing here, not the history of the Bond franchise, but why Ian Fleming deserves to be read still and why there has been both a revival and a reassessment of his work in England.

   Even if you hate Bond, despise the idea of a British hero (and I know American fans who never forgave Fleming and Bond for eclipsing the endless supply of American wanna-be Bond replacements who don’t cut it or don’t last), and loathe the film franchise, the fact is that Fleming, careless as he could be, sexist as he and his creation are, men of a different time and sensibility that both are, was actually a damn good writer whose instinct went well beyond what even he admitted.

   In the chapter at hand, Bond is already in the Bahamas, and he and Leiter have been aboard Largo’s yacht, the Disco Volante, with a geiger counter seeking signs of the missing nuclear weapons. Bond has decided to get closer to Largo through Domino, and to hopefully, through seduction, to turn her against Largo as his “inside man.”

   Domino, is a typical Fleming heroine, attractive, but not flawless. She may have the “fine firm breasts” even Bondphile Kingsley Amis made fun of in his James Bond Dossier, but like most of Fleming’s women she a “bird with one wing down,” physically marred by one leg shorter than the other, and emotionally tormented by her past and her present.

   In fact I’ve always thought that quite a few Bond women should have been played by either Gloria Grahame or Lizbeth Scott with their histories of wounds, and insecurities. Contrary to the image of the films they don’t just hop into bed with Bond, and in book after book he finds himself, reluctantly at first because he wants to get on with job and often is shown thinking so rather bluntly, playing psycho-therapist to a succession of abused and emotionally stunted women he rather surprisingly rescues not only from the dragon, but from their own self destructive course.

   Bond in the books doesn’t win them over by his dark good looks or his sexual techniques and gifts. Hhe wins them over by being their way of reconnecting to life and normality. His most romantic gift turns out to be treating women well.

   Along the way no few of them rescue Bond too, because, also despite the films, Bond usually begins or ends the book in need of physical and emotional rehabilitation. In fact that is where he starts Thunderball, drinking too much, drifting into too many messy affairs, losing his edge (It was one of those days when it seemed to James Bond that all life, as someone put it, was nothing but a heap of six to four against), and thanks to a fussy and newly enthused M (Was this the first sign of senile decay?) sent to a health spa, Shrublands, for a course of drying out (“I’d rather die of drink than thirst.”), wheat-germ (…foods he had never heard of, such as Potassium Broth, Nut Mince, and the mysteriously named Unmalted Slippery Elm.), and massage.

   Miss Moneypenny rather neatly skewers him when he threatens to spank her for her amused tone at his dilemma, “I don’t think you’ll be able to do much spanking after living on nuts and lemon juice for two weeks, James.”

   Being Bond, James Bond, 007, he stumbles onto an international plot by SPECTRE and is nearly killed, but not before a nasty turn with health food. He spots Count Lippe whose strange ring catches his eye before his first treatment. Yes, there is a sexy nurse and a mink glove, but this is wish fulfillment. I can’t imagine most readers would rather Nurse Ratchet give him a high colonic instead, at least not rather read about it.

   It’s the fact that Fleming doesn’t need to spend a chapter telling us Domino’s life history that makes his choice to do so interesting. He could draw a tough but broken woman with a few lines if he wanted, as most thriller writers would have done, but instead he has Domino bothered by what people think of her as Largo’s expensive sex toy and in need of reassurance from Bond by telling him her backstory, and the key thing is that Bond’s response isn’t some sexist tough guy bull dragged out of the testicular fantasy of some chair bound pretend tough guy but sensitive and even thoughtful.

   It really isn’t the response of a Lothario or Don Juan, it’s the thoughtful response of a man who for all his tough self talk likes women. Later there is a tender and sexy scene when he has to bite poisonous sea spines out of her wounded heel (symbolic of the one short leg that mars her beauty, something else Fleming didn’t have to include), and it leads to the first time they have sex and he turns her.

   She said, looking seriously up at him, ‘Do you know, you’re the first man who’s ever made me cry.’ She held up her arms and now there was complete surrender.

   It pays off as well, because Domino not only helps, she is key to Bond’s success and saves his life in the finale.

   And not once does Fleming or Bond speculate that women ought to be raped for wearing pants like a popular American spy novelist.

   That it also goes to plot and provides Bond with information he needs about Largo and her brother is where the art lies, but Fleming could have taken more familiar thriller tracks to that same destination. That he doesn’t shows he still had that ambition to write thrillers that could be read not as literature, but with some of the pleasures of literature.

   I recognize that last line is what many readers have against Ian Fleming and James Bond in the novels. How dare an entertainer slow down the bang bang and kiss kiss for write write and think think. It always amazes me when critics condemn Fleming, but praise the often prolix and dense le Carre as if being difficult and tiresome to read was a virtue in a thriller writer. I enjoy le Carre, but I’m damned if I can find much worth quoting in his work.

   Fleming, however much you hate him, is quotable. His turn of phrase is more than sufficient, it is often eye catching and memorable. Like Raymond Chandler, or Georges Simenon, both of whom he admired, there is often something more to Fleming and Bond than just a wild yarn full of action with a bit of sex thrown in. There are passages of fine writing and even well drawn characters who come to life.

   It was really quite disturbing. Was his personality changing? Was he losing his edge, his point, his identity? Was he losing the vices that were so much part of his ruthless, cruel, fundamentally tough character? Who was he in process of becoming? A soft, dreaming, kindly idealist who would naturally leave the Service and become instead a prison visitor, interest himself in youth clubs, march with the H-bomb marchers, eat nut cutlets, try and change the world for the better?

   Or:

   The jawline, going to the appropriate middle-aged fat of authority, showed decision and independence. Only the mouth, under a heavy, squat nose, marred what might have been the face of a philosopher or a scientist. Proud and thin, like a badly healed wound, the compressed, dark lips, capable only of false, ugly smiles, suggested contempt, tyranny, and cruelty. But to an almost Shakespearian degree. Nothing about Blofeld was small.

   Or:

   They swam on in the soft moonlit mist of the sea. At first there was nothing but a milky void below them, but then the coral shelf of the island showed up, climbing steeply towards the surface. Sea fans, like small shrouds in the moonlight, waved softly, beckoning, and the clumps and trees of coral were grey and enigmatic. It was because of these things, the harmless underwater mysteries that make the skin crawl on the inexperienced, that Largo had decided to lead the disposal teams himself.

   Or:

   In front of him Largo, Largo with a spear sticking horribly through his neck, lay kicking feebly on the sand. Behind him and looking down at the body, stood a small, pale figure fitting another spear into an underwater gun. The long hair flowed round her head like a veil in the luminous sea.

   If nothing else, his villains, often drawn from life (Largo here is almost a caricature of Aristotle Onassis) raise the stakes considerably. If a thriller is only as good as its villain, then Fleming is very good indeed.

   The truth is Thunderball is not Fleming at his best. Although the Fleming effect is in full swing and Largo, Domino, and Blofield lift the book well above the average level, it is a bit of disappointment after Doctor No and >Goldfinger, and with The Spy Who Loved Me the next book readers might have thought Fleming in permanent decline if the enthusiasm of the film series had not meant On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice, two of his best books would follow.

   If you still don’t like Bond, I have no argument or problem with that. This is about why I do still like Fleming and Bond, why I still reread them, and still find pleasure in them, and why no less literary lights than Kingsley Amis, William Boyd, and Sebastian Faulks were happy to write entries in the series.

   Much as I enjoy many of the films, and fine as some of the film Bond’s have been, my first love will always be the books, and it is to the books I will always return.

DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT “The Knitting Needle Story.” Syndicated, though largely to NBC stations. 02 June 1952. (Season 1 Episode 30). Brian Donlevy (Steve Mitchell), Jim Flavin, Jan Arvan, Steve Roberts, Fay Baker, Frances Rafferty. Writers: Writers: Eddie Forman, Adrian Gendot, Robert Ryf. Directo: Bill Karn.

   Before its one and only one season on TV, Dangerous assignment had already been on the radio for several years, in a series also starring Brian Donlevy as a secret agent whose job took him on, well, dangerous assignments all over the world. When the series was passed upon up by all of the then current TV networks, Donlevy decided to pick up the tab himself for one season’s worth of 39 syndicated episodes.

   I did not choose to watch “The Knitting Needle Story” for any particular reason. Although the complete series is available on DVD, I just happened to come across this one on YouTube. Based on my memories of watching this when I was young, I can’t say this with certainty, but I think it’s about average for the series, better than some, but perhaps not as good as others.

   In this one Steve Mitchell is assigned to be the bodyguard of an Italian news reporter heading by plane back to his native country with a scoop about The Black Hand, important information with international implications. There are naturally those who do not wish him to make it home with the story he has to tell.

   Most of the action takes place on the plane, not that there’s a lot of action. There are several twists to the story, though, plus one huge red herring that sounds worth investigation but is dropped almost as quickly. There has to be a lot of skill involved in putting together a story as complete, complicated and still coherent as this one is, and in only 25 minutes.

   But as agent Steve Mitchell, Brian Donlevy tries his best to appear suave and debonair, but he comes off as only stolid and solid. James Bond hadn’t come on the scene yet: in book form, he was only a year later. Even if their careers had overlapped a little, Bond would still have had nothing to worry about, not in comparison with he rather dull Steve Mitchell. The latter was of an earlier time, and a different era.


L. C. TYLER – The Herring in the Library. Ethelred & Elsie #3. Macmillan; UK, hardcover, 2010. Pan Books, UK, trade paperback, 2011. Felony & Mayhem, US, trade paperback, 2011.

   Ethelred is Ethelred Tressider, a second-rate if not third-rate mystery writer, while Elsie Thirkettle is his literary agent, for better or worse. Their relationship is a rocky one, at least from looking at it from the outside. Elsie is always putting him and his ambitions down, for example, in hilarious fashion, but if there was any animosity between them, why would she stick with him, through thick and thin, as they say, if there were?

   And as a team of strictly amateur detectives, they may not be the best around, but they do seem to run into their fair share of mysteries to solve. In this one, it is the death of an old friend from university days, now an ex-banker who is found strangled to death in a locked room following a dinner party at his mansion of a home at Muntham Court. (Robert “Shagger” Muntham had done far better in life than Ethelred has.)

   The locked room aspect is taken care of rather quickly, but there are a huge number pf possible suspects in the case, all guests at the same party, all with possible motives, and all who must be interviewed with much care. This is accomplished very neatly by having the two detectives alternate the narration. When the scenes they describe overlap, we see that different perspective can produce wildly different results.

   Also part of the story is Ethelbert’s continuing work in progress for his latest mystery, a historical novel taking place in Chaucer’s time. This didn’t interest me personally as much as the one taking place in real time, but it did have much of the same kind tongue in cheekness to it. It isn’t easy telling a mystery story that keeps up a pretense of fun and games (Cluedo, anyone?) all the way through, but the barbed dialogue between the two protagonists and other zingers in this one come as closest as any I’ve read in a while:

   On page 16 Ethelbert has just been introduced to Sir Robert’s showcase wife:

    “…So what do you do, Alfred?” she asked.

    “Ethelred,” I said. “As for what I do, I am a writer.”

    “I thought you said ‘Ethelred,’ but then I thought I must have misheard. Do you write under your own name? No, surely not?”

    I told her the three names that I wrote under.

    “I don’t think I’ve read any of your books,” she said.


      The Elsie and Ethelred series —

1. The Herring Seller’s Apprentice (2007)
2. Ten Little Herrings (2009)
3. The Herring in the Library (2010)
4. The Herring on The Nile (2011)
5. Crooked Herring (2014)
6. Cat Among the Herrings (2016)
7. Herring in the Smoke (2017)
8. The Maltese Herring (2019)

   There seems to be pattern going on here.

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