Reviews


THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


JOHN NEWTON CHANCE – Aunt Miranda’s Murder. Macdonald, UK, hardcover, 1951. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1951.

   Aunt Miranda is Miranda Jeans, author of 49 novels of what appear to be romantic suspense. It is unclear whether Jeans, considering that she has been married three times, is the name under which her books appear. Some of her titles are High Honeysuckle, The Weak Avenger and The Wraith of Retribution.

   At age 84, Aunt Miranda feels that she is near death. Having been bothered by a ne’er-do-well nephew for some years and having no wish that her heirs should be bothered by him after her death, she threatens to kill him. The next day, the nephew’s body is found under the couch in the music room, shot to death with a pistol presented to her some years ago by an admirer.

   Covering up for Aunt Miranda becomes the order of the day, although no one seems sure that this aged lady did indeed murder her nephew.

   A splendid cast of characters makes for enjoyable reading and also tempts one to seek out other novels by John Newton Chance.

— Reprinted from CADS 17, October 1991. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.


Bibliographic Notes:   Under his own name, John Newton Chance (1911-1983) wrote over 120 mystery novels between 1935 and 1989, many of them not published until after his death. Very few of them ever had US editions. Chance also had a number of pen names, one of which was John Lymington, which he used primarily to write science fiction. It’s under that byline that you can find his Wikipedia entry.

WITNESS TO MURDER. MGM, 1954. Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Jesse White, Harry Shannon, Juanita Moore, with Claude Akins, Sam Edwards, Burt Mustin. Director of photography: John Alton. Director: Roy Rowland.

   Witness to Murder came out the same year as Rear Window, but this one came first. Both have the same basic premise. The witness in Witness is a single woman living alone in an apartment (Barbara Stanwyck) who is woken up by the wind during the night, goes to close the window and sees is a man (George Sanders) strangling a woman to death in a room across the street.

   She calls the police, but after the laxest investigation you can imagine (Strike One), they find no signs of the murder and think she dreamt or imagined the entire incident.

   She persists, however, arousing the deep-seated enmity of Sanders, who cleverly connives to convince the police that she is in serious need of psychiatric treatment.

   This in spite of the growing attraction between Ms Stanwyck and the police officer in charge of the case (Gary Merrill). An attraction that is never convincing, I’m sorry to say, which is Strike Two against this film. Totally convincing, however, is George Sanders’ usual strong performance as a totally amoral cad of a killer.

   Also on the plus side is the black and white camera work under the direction of cinematographer John Alton. A striking dark windswept street sets the tone from the very beginning, and stark shadows appear in almost every scene thereafter.

   In terms of noir film-making, the slickness of what MGM produced often worked against them, and the relatively few they made are considered far less memorable than those of smaller companies. In this one, though, the photography at least is top notch, indeed, Grade A from beginning to end.

   There is no chemistry between Stanwyck and Merrill, however, and with a story line that’s only moderately compelling, Witness to Murder simply is not in the same league as Rear Window. Not even close.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


CAMILLA T. CRESPI – The Trouble with Thin Ice. Simona Griffo #4. HarperCollins, hardcover, 1993; paperback, 1994. iUniverse, trade paperback, July 2003.

   This is the fourth in this series, but it’s my first, and it almost wasn’t that. When I read the description of Griffo is “an ad exec … who loves to cook and solve murders” I nearly wimped out right there. Then I thought, well, maybe it’s the copywriter here who’s an idiot and not the writer. Let’s see.

   Simona and her New York Detective lover (and his 14 year old son) are spending Christmas in Connecticut, where a black friend of theirs is marrying a white man, and the couple is buying one of the town’s old mansions. The lady selling it to them is a member of the tows ruling class, and her announcement of the sale at dinner is greeted with something less than pleasure and acceptance.

   The same night she is drowned in an icy pond, and the bride-to-be is arrested for the murder. Simona’s lover is called away by a family injury, and she and the son are left to soldier one.

   It should be noted that there’s at least one facet of the book of which I heartily approve: a Cast of Characters at the beginning which should be de rigueur for any story with over five characters.

   Praise ends here. The blurb was right — Simona really does love to (*gag*) cook and solve murders. This is a better written version of the nonsense that people like Mary Daheim and Valerie Wolzien perpetrate, and while I recognize that there are those who like such, their rationale remains incomprehensible to me.

   I like my fiction to either be amusing or about people and premises that I can at least temporarily believe in, and neither of these attributes is in the slightest evidence here.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.


       The Simona Griffo series —

As by Trella Crespi:
   The Trouble with a Small Raise. Zebra 1991.
   The Trouble with Moonlighting. Zebra 1991.
   The Trouble with Too Much Sun. Zebra 1992.

As by Camilla T. Crespi:
   The Trouble with Thin Ice. Harper 1993.
   The Trouble with Going Home. Harper 1995.
   The Trouble with a Bad Fit. Harper 1996.
   The Trouble with a Hot Summer. Harper 1997.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE RIFT. Trimark Pictures, 1990. Also released as Endless Descent. Jack Scalia, R. Lee Ermey, Ray Wise, Deborah Adair, John Toles Bey, Ely Pouget, Emilio Linder. Director: Juan Piquer Simón

   Judging from some of the comments that exist online, The Rift (aka Endless Descent) seems to have its fair share of detractors. In the DVD commentary at the end of the movie, one learns that even R. Lee Ermey seems to have a negative feeling toward the movie. To be honest, I think a lot of this scorn is undeserved. True, it’s a low budget feature. That much is obvious. And there are also the unescapable comparisons with much higher end creature features like Alien (1979) and Leviathan (1989).

   But do you know what? For a cheapie made in an old movie studio on the outskirts of Madrid and that was never released in the theaters, The Rift is actually a solid and downright enjoyable action-adventure movie with science fiction and horror themes running throughout. The plot is compelling, the action never lets up, and there special effects really aren’t half-bad. And the music by Joel Goldsmith, who went on to do the music for the television show Stargate, definitely adds to the suspense and the general air of creeping dread.

   Jack Scalia portrays Wick Hayes, an American scientist/engineer tasked with a mission. He’s to assist the U.S. Navy in a rescue and retrieval mission for Siren 1, a submarine he designed. Apparently the vessel has been lost at the bottom of the sea. With a crew lead by Captain Philips (R. Lee Ermey) and the scheming Robbins (Ray Wise), along with his ex-wife, scientist Lt. Nina Crowley (Deborah Adair), the Siren 2 gang embarks upon a daring rescue operation.

   The crew, along with Hayes, will soon discover that what caused the Siren 1’s disappearance wasn’t an accident at all, but rather the result of a grotesquely botched attempt to conduct biological warfare experiments underwater. Cue the monsters, animals and plants alike!

PATRICIA WENTWORTH – Dead or Alive. J. B. Lippincott Co., US, hardcover, 1936. Dell #2, paperback, 1943. Warner, paperback, September 1990. First Edition: Hodder and Stoughton, UK. hardcover, 1936. Dean Street Press, UK, softcover, 2016.

   Not a Miss Silver novel. According to Hubin, a fellow named Frank Garrett makes his third appearance as a series character in this novel, but until the ending (of which more later) his part in the story is so nominal as to be all but non-existent.

   The book definitely is part of a continuing series, however. There were two footnotes referring to people or events that happened in previous books, but not having access to them, I convinced myself to ignore them. I do not believe I missed anything; the footnotes were sufficient.

   More than anything else, when it comes down to it, Dead or Alive is a romance. When Bill Coverdale comes back to England from South America, he immediately calls on Meg O’Hara, whom he has loved (in vain) since she was fifteen. That she is now a widow may have something to do with this.

   Or is she? Widowed, I mean. She has been receiving strange notes telling her that her husband Robin is still alive. Is it possible that what was identified as his body after being pulled from a river was not him?

   Without a job, Meg is in poor straits, her only relative an absent-minded uncle who has isolated himself away on an island in a lake with only a covered bridge connecting him to his new home, with a newly acquired staff of unhelpful servants whose job it seems to be to keep Meg for seeing him.

   It turns out that Meg’s husband worked for Garrett (see above) who works for the Foreign Office. Bill turns to him for help, but all he is told is that Meg’s husband is definitely dead. Garrett has no explanation for what is going on.

   This is a story that’s charmingly told, if you’re still with me, and the trouble that Bill and Meg get into gradually gets worse and worse. At one point close to the end, they are both captured and near death, with no way out that I could think of, nor apparently could Miss Wentworth.

[PLOT ALERT] The ending is the most blatant use of a deus ex machina plotting device I have ever had the good fortune of reading. Worse, the crooks responsible get away, leaving the reader to figure out at this late date when and where they turned up next.

   And there’d better be a next time. Crooks this nasty need their comeuppance, and badly. But did I enjoy this one? You may ask, and in a word, believe it or not,the answer is yes. It’s not much as a detective novel, but as a romantic thriller, it’s top notch. Bill is stalwart and strong, whereas Meg, who starts out as being frightfully weak, shows a lot of fortitude and spunk by the time the book ends. You can’t blame the plot on them.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE NAKED VENUS. Beaux Arts Films, 1959. Patricia Conelle, Don Roberts, Arianne Ulmer (as Arianne Arden) and Wynn Gregory. Written by Gabriel Gort and Gaston Hakim, who probably didn’t use their right names either. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer (as Ove H. Sehested!).

   Over the years Edgar Ulmer has come in for a great deal of critical attention, mostly well-earned. Responsible film scholars, though, have ignored this opus from late in his career, probably because The Naked Venus represents Ulmer outside the legitimate cinema, directing a “Nudie”: the sort of film that played at seedy theaters to audiences of desperate men… and curious teenagers like me, when we looked old enough to lie about our age and sneak in. Or perhaps no serious critic wanted to admit they’d seen it.

   Well I have no such reservations, but I have to say The Naked Venus must have disappointed a lot of lonely men and curious boys, not to mention scholars of the Cinemah.

   The early scenes gave me some hope: Two detectives with a camera stalking through the woods find two women skinny-dipping and start taking movies. The stalking scenes are well composed, and the skinny-dipping is mildly sensuous; good so far….

   Then we cut to Paris at night, and we know this because we get about a dozen establishing shots of Parisian landmarks for ten minutes — ten very long minutes.

   When the Plot finally commences, it’s pure Soap, with a misunderstood young Nudist fighting her nasty mother-in-law and her weakling husband in a divorce case to keep custody of their daughter and redeem her reputation. And I’m here to tell you it’s a half-an-hour of nothing but Daytime Drama: no nudity, nothing sexy, just bad acting on cheap sets, done so haphazardly you can almost hear Ulmer saying, “Just shoot the damn thing and kill me.”

   Finally the heroine decides to get away from it all by visiting a Nudist camp run by Ulmer’s daughter Arianne… who keeps her clothes on. So I imagine the lonely old men and curious youngsters perked up (if that’s the right word) for fifteen minutes of documentary-style scenes of happy, healthy, good-looking naked people artfully keeping their crotches hidden as they swim, hike, have archery contests and — yes — play volleyball.

   But alas, this is followed by another forty-five minutes where our heroine goes to court. Things look dark as her naked life-style is dragged before the Judge. Then, when all seems lost, her lawyer brings in an Art Critic(!) who explains that the naked form is the basis of many highfalutin’ masterpieces. And that convinces the judge.

   The Divorce case is dismissed and her weakling husband breaks away from his domineering mother for a happy ending—for everyone but the paying customers, who suddenly realize they’ve sat through all this in vain: Not even a glimpse of epidermis for the last third of the film, just a movie shot as if the director were contemplating suicide.

   Now I am well known as the Boston Blackie of bad movies (“Friend to those who have no friend”) and I watched this with some anticipation, but even my love of awful filmmaking could not encompass this effort. The best thing I can say about The Naked Venus is that it will probably do Ulmer’s reputation no damage.

   Or not too much, anyway….

DONALD E. WESTLAKE – Why Me. John Dortmunder #5. Viking, hardcover, 1983. Tor, paperback, April 1985. Film: Epic, 1990, as Why Me? (with Christopher Lambert as “Gus Cardinale”).

   Professional burglar John Dortmunder’s life has never been easy — in fact, most of the people who know hm well think of him as a jinx — and it gets even worse in this book, in which he accidentally heists the Byzantine Fire, only the wold’s most valuable ruby.

   On his neck immediately are the police, the FBI, the entire underworld (tired of being endlessly hassled by the police and the FBI) and skads of very religious assassination fanatics, in what becomes a major international affair. When he’s on his game, as he is here, Westlake can exhibit a sour, sarcastic view of the world with the best of them, and the book is simply hilarious all the way through.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #23,, July 1990 (very slightly revised).

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


A. H. Z. CARR – Finding Maubee. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1971. Bantam, paperback, 1973. British title: The Calypso Murders (Hale, UK, 1973). Film: MGM, 1989, as The Mighty Quinn.

   A. H. Z. Carr’s first and only suspense novel (which won the Best First Novel Edgar for 1971) is a police procedural with an unusual setting: the tropical island of St. Caro in the Caribbean. And even for that part of the world, St. Caro is unusual: It can claim to have “the highest rate of illegitimacy and the lowest rate of crime” of all the islands.

   Illegitimacy on St. Caro carries no special stigma; “outbabies” are usually acknowledged by the fathers. But the young men of this extremely libidinous locale are careful to guard against being saddled with the support of “bushbabies” (those whose paternity is questionable), and thus they keep little black books –sexual diaries.

   Dave Maubee’s little black book is a thick one, and he has managed to sire “two inbabies, six outbabies, and an undetermined number of bushbabies.” It is no wonder he turns to a life of crime — petty theft from tourists — to support these offspring. But when a wealthy tourist, Carl Lattner, is found murdered with a machete at the exclusive Mango Beach Inn, Maubee’s boyhood friend, Police Chief Xavier Brooke, is astonished to hear Dave is the prime suspect. It is his little black book, dropped at the crime scene, that points to him.

   Xavier, a mainland-educated St. Carovian, begins his investigation amid pressures from both the island’s acting governor and a fellow officer who has designs on his job. But despite their insistence on Maubee’s guilt, he finds inconsistencies at the scene and among the stories of the resort’s high-toned but not always high-principled guests.

   When he finally sets out to track down the missing Maubee, his search takes him all over the island to the homes of women Maubee has rated “A+” in his book. In his travels, he finds that his old friend’s life has taken a surprising new turn, and by the time he apprehends him, he is certain the murder is not as straightforward as it originally seemed.

   Carr’s characters are well developed and memorable, and the setting he employs is vivid. Issues such as racial strife, Caribbean politics, and obeah (voodoo) form a backdrop for a solid and intelligent procedural. Unfortunately, Carr (who wrote a number of criminous short stories, as well as other, noncriminous books) died shortly after Finding Maubee‘s publication in 1971, and his Edgar was awarded posthumously. More Xavier Brooke novels would have been enthusiastically welcomed by this reviewer.

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

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


ARCHER MAYOR – Trace. Joe Gunther/VBI #28. Minotaur Books, hardcover, September 2017.

First Sentence:   Jayla Robinson looked out across Albany’s Lancaster Street at the three matching brownstones opposite.

   Joe Gunther, head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, needs to take his elderly mother to a hospital in the Midwest leaving his team with three very different cases; the medical examiner’s daughter’s roommate being murdered in their apartment, a closed double murder where it is now found isn’t as cut-and-dried as it originally appeared, and the discover of three teeth and a burned-out battery found on a railroad track.

   Mayor’s books contain a true ensemble cast of very individual characters. By removing Gunther from center stage for most of the book, the other characters have a chance to shine. Mayor’s descriptions tell us much more about each character than just their appearance, or even background.

   That we also learn about their personalities plays a major role in the growth in the relationship of two characters. While one may not normally be a fan of a relationship focus in a mystery, it really does work here with growth and realization. He doesn’t stint on the secondary characters, either. The relationship Joe has with his brother Leo is very easy and realistic.

   One thing about police procedurals is the fascinating things one learns. In this case it is regarding planted fingerprints and about trains, as well as how the VBI — the Bureau of Criminal Investigations in the real world — interacts with other agencies. But Mayor is also very good about the small details. Not only are they not boring, but often it’s the sort of thing where one thinks, “Oh, I’d forgotten about that.” A lot of the methodologies and technologies employed are very clever.

   Trace contains three cases each of which is interesting and stands on its own with details and suspense building at a nice pace. It also ends with a nice homage to the vast majority of good, honest, hard-working police officers who really do work to protect and serve.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TRAIL GUIDE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1952. Tim Holt, Linda Douglas, Richard Martin, Frank Wilcox, Robert Sherwood, John Pickard, Kenneth MacDonald. Director: Lesley Selander.

   Maybe in 1952 the market had changed and B-Westerns – especially those in black and white – were no longer in demand, and apparently Trail Guide, one of the last Tim Holt RKO westerns, did not make money at the box office. But I found this entry in the series to be an above average oater, one that zips along at a good pace and one with enough grittiness to make it as appealing to adults as to the kiddie matinee crowd. Indeed, there is something of a William Witney feel to this Lesley Selander directed production. Having character actor Frank Wilcox portray the villain wasn’t a bad move either.

   The plot: After Tim Holt and his perennially womanizing sidekick Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin) have finished guiding a wagon train out West, they run afoul of cattle ranchers who are none to eager to have homesteaders on their land. Totally original right? But the plot gets a goes off in another direction when the duo stumble upon a bigger criminal enterprise, one that gets not only the local marshal killed, but also the brother of lovely ranch owner Peg Masters (Linda Douglas).

   That angers Holt enough that he threatens to beat the truth out of one of the bad guys. And beat it out of him he does. He also slams the guy’s hand in a desk drawer. What did I say about a William Witney feel?

All told, Trail Guide is not a great film and it’s not something that you probably ought to go well out of your way to see. But if you do happen to catch it, you might be pleasantly surprised about how solidly crafted it is. This one didn’t deserve to lose a dime.

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