Reviews


THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


JONATHAN STAGGE – The Dogs Do Bark. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1937. Popular Library #350, paperback, 1951. Also published as Murder Gone To Earth (Joseph, UK, hardcover, 1936).

   A question is often raised about whether it is worthwhile to spend time and space reviewing a poor novel. Why bother? Well, if nothing else, to warn prospective readers that they may be in for a disappointment. And a disappointment is what The Dogs Do Bark definitely is in this reviewer’s opinion.

   Here ! must flout our distinguished editor’s admonition not to give anything away in a review. How else describe this book’s weaknesses?

   A headless and armless female body is found during a fox hunt in Massachusetts. Since a female is missing from the area, her father, a religious fanatic, is asked to view the presumably naked torso of the corpse and identifies it, more or less, as his daughter, while throwing in some wild religious quotations to prove his fanaticism. Don’t ask me how this zealot was so familiar with his daughter’s naked body. (And the author certainly didn’t want anybody to ask.)

   After the father has viewed the corpse and identified her, more or less, he is then read a description of the body, presumably another author’s ploy so that the authorities can say that she was not virgo intacta, although not pregnant, and thus must either have been married or immoral. The coroner and the doctor — the latter is the amateur detective in the novel — who had been deputized by the sheriff both seem to think that sexual intercourse is the only way that the hymen can be broken, no doubt a fond delusion during the 1930s.

   Later on in the book we are told that the girl identified as the corpse thought she was pregnant. Do the doctor and the sheriff look at one another with wild or even mild surmise? Of course not. The primary reason for the head and arms being removed from the body does not occur to them, either. If it had — and some thought was given to another female’s disappearance, one who looked much like the corpse — the book would have ended at chapter 3 or 4. And what then would have become of the so-much-per-word story?

   The arms are found in the hunting pack’s kennels, stripped to the bone by the dogs. The head is located later elsewhere, kept by the killer for reasons never made clear. The deputy doctor seems to have only one patient, a hypochondriac, so he has plenty of time to blunder around and nearly get himself killed in a had-I-but-known-or-even-given-it-some-thought fashion. He comes close to being burned to death in an old barn by the murderer, and it would have served him right. Once the corpse is correctly identified, a telegram from another police force points out the killer.

   Recommended only to those who have a mild interest in the U.S. fox hunting scene.

— Reprinted from CADS 4, April 1986. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.


Editorial Comment:   I believe but I am not positive that the doctor Bill refers to in this review is Dr. Hugh Westlake, who appeared in all nine of Jonathan Stagge’s detective novels, of which this is the first. (I do not know who the deputy doctor might be.) Stagge was a pseudonym of Richard Wilson Webb, (1901-1970) & Hugh Callingham Wheeler, (1912-1987), who also collaborated on books as by Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MICHAEL CONNELLY – The Concrete Blonde. Harry Bosch #3. Little Brown, hardcover, 1994. St. martin’s, paperback, 1995. Reprinted many times.

   Connelly won a Best First Novel Edgar for The Black Echo, the first book about LAPD detective and ex-tunnel rat Hieronymus (“Harry”) Bosch, and followed it with a second Bosch tale that I thought was even better. Third time charmed?

   Harry is on trial. He’s being sued by the widow of a man he shot and killed four years ago while attempting to arrest him as a serial killer. Now the civil suit claims he acted imprudently, but there’s worse to come. An anonymous note is delivered to the police claiming that Bosch killed the wrong man, and that the serial killer is alive, well, and in operation — and it directs them to a body to prove it.

   Harry is convinced that the man he killed was guilty, which would mean that there is a copycat killer. But is he right? And if he is, how does the copycat know what he knows about the original killings?

   Meanwhile in the courtroom, the attorney for the plaintiff is making hash of Bosch;s incompetent City Attorney, and she, too, seems to know things she shouldn’t, particularly about the copycat.

   To answer my opening question, yes, I think so. I’ve thought Connelly’s writing powerful from the start but had a few minor reservations about his plotting, particularly in the first book. I have no such problems here. He knows how to tell a story, and this is not a given among today’s crime novelists. Bosch is a strong character, and the supporting cast is drawn in enough depth to fill the roles creditably.

    The Concrete Blonde moves Connelly into the top rank, if you hadn’t already placed him there.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE. Phoenix Cinematografica, Italy, 1971, as La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba. Phase One, US, 1972; dubbed. Anthony Steffen, Marina Malfatti, Enzo Tarascio (as Rod Murdock), Giacomo Rossi Stuart. Direcctor: Emilio Miraglia.

   The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave starts off as an uncomfortably sleazy enterprise before transforming into a gripping, moody Gothic thriller. Directed by Emilio P. Miraglia, this stylish Italian giallo film has the typical sex and violence that is prevalent in the genre. But what it also has – what gives the film a little something extra – is a Gothic atmosphere that owes as much to Roger Corman’s cinematic adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems as to the emerging Italian proto-slasher genre of which it is indubitably a part.

   Although an Italian film with dialogue in Italian (there’s also apparently an English language version), the movie is set in England. Aristocrat Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) lives a decadent lifestyle in his family’s estate. His wife, the beautiful redheaded Evelyn, has recently died. But not before he was able to confront her about her infidelities. So Alan is a little … mentally unbalanced. So much so that he has a penchant for bringing red headed prostitutes back to his lair so he can have his way with them.

   All that changes when he meets Gladys (Marina Malfatti), a stripper who Alan decides is going to be his next wife. All seems well finally for the tormented Alan. But when Alan’s family members begin to die in horrifically mysterious ways, it seems as if he may be cursed. Perhaps his wife Evelyn has indeed come back from the grave to exact revenge. Or maybe someone is playing a giant prank, a cruel trick to send the wealthy Alan over the edge in order to inherit his large fortune.

   If you can manage to overlook the giant plot holes in the story, you might just find yourself a bit enthralled with The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. Although it’s not nearly as good a film as Dario Argento’s output from the same era, it has a stylish flair, some really dark humor, and an effective score composed by Bruno Nicolai.

COMPANY BUSINESS. MGM, 1991. Gene Hackman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Kurtwood Smith, Géraldine Danon. Screenwriter-Director: Nicholas Meyer.

   An aging former member of the CIA is called out of semi-retirement to oversee the clandestine end-of-the-Cold-War swap with the KGB, with a side payment of two million dollars thrown in.

   Of course things go wrong, and both the agent and the prisoner he’s supposed to turn over go on the run. And they become buddies, after a fashion, and you know how the story goes. The two stars make the movie fun for a while, but overall the best they can make of it is low key and non-involving entertainment, and little else.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.



LOUIS TRIMBLE – The Surfside Caper. Ace Double D-505, paperback original; 1st printing, 1961. Published back-to-back with In a Vanishing Room, by Robert Colby (reviewed here ).

   To be absolutely honest, Larry Flynn is not a private eye. He’s really a trouble-shooter for a worldwide hotel chain, which ordinarily would be close enough. I may be stretching the point, though, since in this case, he’s working on his own time. Does it matter, though? He talks, thinks and acts like a PI, and that’s all that really counts.

   As it turned out, The Surfside Caper was the only book he ever appeared in. Starting as far back as 1941 with a book from Phoenix Press, Trimble wrote
perhaps two dozen crime and detective novels, most of them along the same lines as this one, and in those books he made use of only one series character, an insurance investigator named Martin Zane (Cargo for the Styx, Ace, 1959, and The Dead and the Deadly, Ace, 1963). After 1963 he turned to writing science fiction and westerns only.

   This one begins with Flynn being nearly run off the road and down a steep hillside while on his way to the Surfside Lodge, somewhere along the California coast. It’s the other car, however, that goes off the road, and the driver is badly injured. Flynn goes to get help, and before he knows it, he’s accused of two murders and up to his eyeballs in a plot that he knows nothing about.

   The owner of the luxury resort he was headed for is the widow of a good friend of Flynn’s, now deceased, and when she asked him for his help, he came running. Now she acts as though he’s working for someone else, and what’s more, there are plenty of others involved who that someone else might be.

   Trimble keeps the story going by stirring up the plot and the players in it by slight of hand only, keeping Flynn pretty much in the dark most of the way. Lots of secrets and misunderstandings, in other words, with hints of perverse activities that don’t particularly add much to the overall mix.

   To sum it up briefly, competent, but not particularly recommended.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


EDWARD D. HOCH – The Thefts of Nick Velvet. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1978. A limited edition of 250 copies was also published in slipcase, numbered and signed by the author, adding the story “The Theft of the Persian Slipper.”

   The best of Edward D. Hoch’s short stories are divided more or less equally among five outstanding series characters: Police Captain Leopold, whose cases are generally of the procedural variety; Rand, the retired spy, who is an expert at solving difficult codes and ciphers; Dr. Sam Hawthorne, a New England country doctor who solves “impossible” rural mysteries in the 1920s and 1930s; Simon Ark, a shadowy figure who claims to be a 2000 year-old Coptic priest and whose detections are tinged with elements of the occult; and Nick Velvet (born Velvetta, but he dropped the last two letters because the name sounded too much like a popular cheese), a master thief with a peculiar code of honor — he will risk his life and freedom to steal any object, no matter how impossible the challenge, so long as the item has no monetary value.

   This quirk alone makes Nick Velvet unique among crime-fiction protagonists, and also makes for some highly unusual, even bizarre, challenges to his professional expertise. “The Theft of the Clouded Tiger,” for instance, in which he is hired (he works by assignment only) to swipe a tiger from a zoo, Or “The Theft of the Silver Lake Serpent,” in which a hotel owner pays him to steal a sea serpent out of a small Canadian lake.

   Or “The Theft from the Empty Room,” in which Nick is evidently hired to steal nothing at all. Some of Nick’s adventures turn into fair-play whodunits in which he is forced to play detective; in others, it is the baffling motives behind the odd things he is asked to purloin that keep the reader guessing; and in still others it is the question “How in the world can Nick possibly accomplish that theft?”

   No matter what type of story it happens to be, it is certain to be wonderfully inventive and entertaining. Hoch’s mastery of the criminous short story is evident in every one of the thirteen entries in this collection.

   Nick Velvet shares one other collection (with Rand, the retired spy): The Spy and the Thief (1971), which has seven stories featuring each character. Simon Ark appears in three collections: The Judges of Hades and City of Brass, both published in 1971, and The Quests of Simon Ark (1985). Also published in 1985 was the first Captain Leopold collection, Leopold’s Way, which contains nineteen stories and a useful checklist.

         ———
   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.

MARGARET MILLAR – Wall of Eyes. Random House, hardcover, 1943. Reprinted in Thrilling Mystery Novel, pulp magazine, November, 1945. Dell #110, paperback, mapback edition, 1946; Lancer 72-994, paperback, 1966; Avon, paperback, 1974; International Polygonics, paperback, 1986.

   I found this to be a strange and very interesting book. Half of it concerns the members of a very wealthy family, and one that’s also totally dysfunctional. A key to the problem is the youngest daughter, who lost her sight two years before in an automobile accident, but now who angrily demands attention almost constantly. Worse, even though she is blind, she is haunted by a wall of eyes staring at her, filled with hate.

   The other half concerns a cheap night club, its bouncer and several of its dancing girls. How the two halves meet is part of the mystery — and provides most of its solution.

   It is Inspector Sands of the Toronto police who’s called upon to investigate the murder of Kelsey Heath, the woman who’s blind, and by the time the case is over, he very nearly plays God too. Millar is well-known for her black humor, and it’s quite apparent in this book. It’s an extremely good detective story, but it’s also one that’s distinctly sour and cynical as well.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, revised.

Bibliographic Notes:   Inspector Sands appeared in two of Margaret Millar’s other novels, those being The Devil Loves Me (Doubleday, 1942) and The Iron Gates (Random House, 1945). Her other series character, Dr. Paul Prye, also appears in the first of the two.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


LINDA GRANT – A Woman’s Place. Catherine Sayler #4. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1994. Ivy, paperback, 1995.

   This is Grant’s first book since 1991, and I was beginning to be afraid she’d left the field. I thought that she along with Kijewski was one of the most promising newcomers to the female private eye group.

   Catherine and her partner Jesse aren’t your typical private eyes. They specialize in corporate security with a focus on computers, and here they are hired by a software firm to investigate sexual harassment in the form of pranks and computer mail. The firm has just been taken over a smaller one, and the male employees of the acquired firm seem to be having a difficult time adjusting to the larger firm’s corporate culture.

   Catherine and Jesse both go undercover and begin to work on the problem from separate angles. They discover that there is indeed a large problem, and no shortage of potential suspects. Catherine herself becomes a target of harassment, and then there is a murder.

   I believe this is Grant’s best book to date. It;s a book a man could have written nearly so effectively, and a powerful statement about not only sexual harassment in the workplace, but of the difficulties our legal systems have in dealing with the problems of sexual abuse in general.

   I continue to regard Sayler as one of the better characaterized protagonists in the field, as are her niece Molly, her atypical PI lover Peter, and her cop ex-husband Dan. Grant is a very good prose stylist, telling her story cleanly and without flamboyance. She manages to be intense about her subject without being hysterical, and holds her heroine’s Ramba-esque antics to a minimum. Excellent writer, interesting characters, good book.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.

      The Catherine Sayler series —

Random Access Murder (1988).

Blind Trust (1990).
Love Nor Money (1991).

A Woman’s Place (1994).
Lethal Genes (1996).
Vampire Bytes (1998).

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


JAMES HADLEY CHASE – Twelve Chinks and a Woman. Jarrolds, UK, hardcover, 1940. Howell Soskin, US, hardcover, 1941. Avon Monthly Novel #7, US, digest-sized paperback, 1948; Avon #485, US, paperback, 1948. Reprinted as Twelve Chinamen and a Woman, Novel Library #37, US, paperback, revised & edited, 1950. Also published as The Doll’s Bad News, Panther, UK, paperback, 1970.

   In the Gasps from the Past Department, I re-read Twelve Chinamen and a Woman by James Hadley Chase, the “specially revised and edited” Novel Library version of Twelve Chinks and a Woman which I read under its original title as a college freshman, back in the gaudy 60s.

   It should go without saying that this is hardly Great Literature or even reasonably competent writing. Chase’s grasp of American argot is a tenuous toehold at best — people keeping using “should” for “would” and “shall” for “will” — and his idea of Plot is to keep killing off characters until whoever’s left must be guilty, and he develops the story by having hoods burst in shooting every few pages.

   His scenes of Hot Passion are more laughable than lubricious, with passages like:

   She stood looking at him, breathing hard. “I guess I’m crazy,” she said, color suddenly flooding her face.

   Fenner ran his finger round the inside of his collar. “I’m a bit of a bug myself,” he said. “Scram, baby, before we really get to work. Beat it, an’ I’ll see you in church.”

   On the other hand, I have to credit Chase with the kind of loopy genius it takes to keep a story moving at white-hot speed for 157 pages, and he can put across a scene of violence rather well, when his writing doesn’t get in the way.

   In all, Twelve Chinamen is rather memorable, in its fashion (otherwise, I wouldn’t have revisited it, I guess) and while I wouldn’t put it on my resume, it made for a few nice hours of Guilty Pleasure.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE TREASURE OF PANCHO VILLA. RKO Radio Pictures, 1955. Rory Calhoun, Shelley Winters, Gilbert Roland, Joseph Calleia. Director: George Sherman.

   When is a Spaghetti Western not a Spaghetti Western? When it’s a RKO color feature starring Rory Calhoun and Gilbert Roland. Filmed on location in Mexico, The Treasure of Pancho Villa is a structurally uneven, albeit thoroughly entertaining adventure film that predates not only the Italian Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, but also Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and the ultra-violent Spaghetti and Paella (Spanish) Westerns of the 1970s. The common theme running through all of these genres and subgenres, at least when pertaining to stories set around the time of the Mexican Revolution, is the tension between idealists and mercenaries.

   Such is the case in The Treasure of Pancho Villa. Calhoun portrays Tom Bryan, a somewhat unpleasant, rakish American mercenary working for revolutionaries in the Mexican Civil War. He’s a coldhearted sort, mainly interested in money. And he means business in more ways than one. He carries with him a Lewis machine gun that calls “La Cucaracha” and employs it numerous times throughout the story in order to mow down Mexican troops.

   This violence – death at the hands of mechanized warfare – was a hallmark of many of the Mexican Revolution themed Euro-Westerns produced in the 1970s. In many ways, it represents Bryan’s personality perfectly. For him, killing Mexican troops is just a job and “La Cucaracha” is just useful tool at his disposal.

   In direct contrast to Tom Bryan, Colonel Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland) is an idealist. He’s fighting for his ideals and believes strongly in Pancho Villa. He’s not on the take, can’t be bought or bribed, and is willing to use violence when necessary. He, however, seems not to get too much of a thrill out of it and certainly doesn’t strut around with a Lewis machine gun like his “ugly American” counterpart.

   For a time, the two men find themselves on the same side, both fighting for Pancho Villa. Together, they rob a train carrying gold and begin the process of transporting the loot across rugged terrain in order to deliver it personally to Pancho Village. But when the Mexican revolutionary leader fails to show up, things fall apart between the two men, leading to a series of twists and turns that eventually has them joined together again against a common foe. As I mentioned, it’s a plot that would be followed time and again in Spaghetti Westerns that were set during the Mexican Revolution.

   Spaghetti Westerns, for the most part, didn’t often have unnecessary romantic subplots that only served to distract from the action at hand. Unfortunately, that is not the case in The Treasure of Pancho Villa with the introduction of the character of Ruth Harris (Shelley Winters), an American schoolteacher living in Mexico who has fallen in love with the revolution’s ideals. Bryan’s romantic feelings for her never seem real, nor despite what he says at the end of the film, is it believable that Juan Castro could have seen himself with her.

   That said, The Treasure of Pancho Villa was a surprisingly enjoyable action adventure film. Gilbert Roland was perfectly cast as Juan Castro and [spoiler alert], despite the fact that his character doesn’t end up surviving the onslaught of the Mexican Army, the story told in the movie is about his impact on Bryan’s worldview. For it’s only through his encounter with a man who believed in something more than money, in something greater than enriching himself, that Bryan learns what honor and loyalty are.

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