Reviews


REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


SANDRA WEST PROWELL – The Killing of Monday Brown. Phoebe Siegel #2. Walker, hardcover, 1994. Bantam, paperback, 1996.

   I’ve got this picture of a sweet LOL cozy fan spying the three names on the spine and pouncing on it with little yips of anticipation, carrying it home and settling down with a cup of tea for a nice comfortable read … and then the widening eyes, the shocked expression, the flushed face, and the sense of betrayal. Fair warms my heart, it does.

   Phoebe Siegel is an ex-cop who’s now a private investigator in Billings, Montana. She’s got a large family, an old house she wants to fix up, a lot of emotional baggage, and some bad memories from her last case.

   A murder of Crow Indians from the |nearby reservation show up in her front yard, referred to her by a cop friend of hers who’s their relative. One of the family has been arrested for the murder of an artifact-stealing white man, and they want Phoebe to find out what really happened. There’s a German artifact dealer in town who seems to have an in with the government, and several more complications, one of which being that the Indians hand her a bunch of stolen artifacts.

   This is a pretty good book, and anything but a cozy. Siegel is rougher’n hell and has a mouth on her like a stevedore. She’s an interesting character, and most of the other players are well drawn too.

   Prowell is one of the better prose-handlers I’ve see in the newer writers of late, and has a real feel for the Montana landscape. The plot wasn’t bad at all — I’m always surprised, any more, to be able to I say that — but she tossed in a lot of no-doubt authentic Native American mysticism that she seemed to like a lot, and which didn’t do anything for me at all.

   I haven’t read her first book, which is into its second printing but I’m moderately impressed with this one. I understand she’s got a six-figure contract from Bantam, and that impressive she ain’t.

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


      The Phoebe Siegel series —

By Evil Means (1993). Nominated for nominated for the Hammett Prize and the Shamus Award.

The Killing of Monday Brown (1994). Nominated for the Shamus Award.
When Wallflowers Die (1996).
An Accepted Sorrow (unpublished).

PASSION. RKO Radio Pictures, 1954. Cornel Wilde, Yvonne De Carlo, Raymond Burr, Lon Chaney Jr., Rodolfo Acosta, John Qualen, Anthony Caruso. Director: Allan Dwan.

   A conflict over land in old Spanish California flares up into the deaths of several members of one homesteading family, and one of the survivors vows vengeance.

   Cornel Wilde and Yvonne De Carlo strike me as being a couple who are absolutely meant for each other, but surprisingly, in this movie they don’t even get to kiss. She’s the tomboy (!) sister of the woman who’s the murder5ed mother of Wilde’s son, and while she is obviously making eyes at him, he is so busy with revenge, he hardly notices her at all. A passionate affair it isn’t.

   Raymond Burr plays the officer of the police who must bring his old friend to justice. If it weren’t for him, I’d never even have considered saving this movie on tape. (And even so, I didn’t.)

COMMENT:  In Brian Garfield’s book on western movies, he calls what this film as a “Bob Steele” plot. If it weren’t such an obvious slur on Bob Steele, I’d agree 100 percent.

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


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


WICKED WOMAN. United Artists, 1953. Beverly Michaels, Richard Egan, Percy Helton, Evelyn Scott, Robert Osterloh, Frank Ferguson. Written by Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse. Produced by Clarence Greene. Directed by Russsell Rouse, who later married Beverly Michaels, making this a tight-knit ensemble indeed.

   I’m getting to the point where my memory is not to be trusted. Lately as I drive in to work, I can’t recall if I remembered to feed the cat, and it’s even later in the day when I realize I don’t have one. But such are the vagaries of the human mind that when I saw this at CINEVENT I remembered Andrew Sarris making a passing positive reference to it in an article from 1974.

   It’s well worth the mention, a film that floats at the edge of James M. Cain territory like a threatening cloud. Beverly Michaels blows into town on a greyhound, and from the moment she lights a cigarette and asks where to find a cheap room, we can see this dame is trouble and headed for more.

   In short order Bev gets a job as a waitress in a neighborhood bar owned by Evelyn Scott (who is a bit of a lush) run by her hunky husband Richard Egan. She also takes advantage of a mousy – no make that ratty —neighbor across the hall at the boarding house, played to perfection by Percy Helton. It’s obvious from the first that he has a letch for Beverly, and equally obvious that she has only contempt for the little wheezy-voiced fat man, but we shall see…..

   It’s surprising how natural the acting is here. Ms. Michaels seems the perfect tramp, Egan the brainless jock, and Scott the bitch who’s getting in the way as Egan and Michaels start a torrid affair and dream of getting away somewhere — Mexico maybe — if only they could sell the bar without Scott objecting…..

   Using passion instead of brains, Egan and Michaels hatch a plan for her to impersonate the wife and sign the necessary papers, then skip town with the dough. But it seems neither of them knew the paperwork takes a week or ten days to process, resulting in an enjoyably suspenseful stretch with the lovers trying to conceal the deception, even when the new buyer wanders in to look things over.

   And there’s an even nastier wrinkle when the ratty little neighbor tumbles to the scheme and blackmails Michaels for sexual favors — believe, me, there’s nothing as scary or sinister as pipsqueak Percy popping out in the passageway with a cheery “I’ve been waiting for you!”

   From this point on, the plot could have gone any number of places, but it went where I wasn’t expecting it to go. And maybe you won’t expect it either. Suffice it to say, this is tough, cynical and as downbeat as any noir buff could wish for.

   And incidentally, the title song for this enchanting film is sung (belted out, rather) by none other than Herb Jeffries, the Bronze Buckaroo himself!

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


PASSENGERS. Columbia Pictures, 2016. Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Vince Foster. Director: Morten Tyldum.

   Is Passengers a romance set in outer space or a science fiction movie with a strong romantic theme throughout? I tend to support the latter interpretation. Directed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, this extraordinarily well acted film is predominantly a thinking person’s science fiction film, albeit one with a romance unmistakably at its core.

   Many viewers will likely recognize similar themes from the 1972 film Silent Running (reviewed on this blog here ): the terrifying experience of being completely alone in space, the ingenuity needed to adapt to mechanical challenges plaguing a space ship, and the notion of creating an Earth like ecosystem aboard a vessel in outer space.

   Chris Pratt portrays Jim Preston, a mechanic who is thrust into a situation well beyond his control. He, like some 5,000 other passengers, is in a deep hibernation aboard the starship Avalon as it makes its way to Homestead II. These colonists, as well as the crew, were put into a hibernation pods for the long journey. And I do mean long. 120 years in fact.

   But when an asteroid collides with the Avalon, Jim awakes from his deep sleep. Soon enough he finds out that his revival was an accident and that he’s totally alone on the ship. But he’s not alone really, is he? There are close to 5,000 other passengers aboard, all of whom are continuing their deep sleep until they reach Homestead II. Much like Adam in the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, Jim doesn’t want to be alone. So against his better judgment and his moral understanding of what he is doing is wrong, he decides to use his technical skills to awaken another passenger, the beautiful Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).

   Soon enough the two of them are romantically involved and settling into their strange new life together on the Avalon. As you might imagine, however, Aurora eventually learns that Jim woke her up. And let’s put it this way: She’s not happy about it. Not in the least. Romance gives way to conflict and unbearable tension as the two people awake on the ship end up completely emotionally isolated from each other. Then things take a turn for the worse. The Avalon begins to break down.

   If the plot sounds simplistic or cliché, trust me when I tell you that it isn’t saccharine or melodramatic in the slightest. The movie raises important themes about technology and about space colonization. Visually stunning, Passengers also benefits from great sound design and a soundtrack that isn’t overbearing in the slightest. For those skeptical of newer science fiction films, it’s worth putting your skepticism aside for this film. It is definitely a film that deserves at least one viewing.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


JAMES CORBETT – Murder Minus Motive. Herbert Jenkins, UK, 1943. No US edition.

   Though not up to Mr. Corbett’s usual standards of wonderfully awful, Murder Minus Motive nonetheless demonstrates what he is not capable of even when he tries. In this alleged thriller, a medical doctor murders a total stranger for no apparent reason except the way the stranger carries his umbrella. The doctor, a law-abiding citizen — well, obviously for the most part — turns himself in. He claims that he is not insane and was not afflicted with temporary insanity.

   To test the good doctor’s opinion of his own sanity, the police have him examined by Dr. Julian Buxton, an eminent pathologist. (Yes, I’m quite aware this isn’t the role of a pathologist, but the author probably isn’t.) Dr. Buxton, of course, is aware of the difficulties of such an examination and admits that it might take “an hour, an hour and a half — perhaps two hours or longer, even.”

   Dr. Buxton, however, does do a thorough job. Examining the killer the next day, he does blood-pressure tests, finding that the killer had not recently “undergone any great mental stress.” Thus he concludes that the killer is sane now and was sane then.

   Another murder is committed of the same type, this time by a mild-mannered clergyman. When he is examined by yet another pathologist, he, too, is found to be sane and not to have suffered from temporary insanity when he committed the crime. We can be sure that this examination was also a thorough one because the pathologist uses “a pair of stethoscopes.” Blood pressure, strangely, is not mentioned.

   An expert criminologist sums the situation up: “It’s like this — no motive, no murder. No murder, no death-sentence. On the other side; same again. No insanity, no asylum. Deadlock, and there’s only one answer to that — Acquital. Therefore, our master-murderer gets off scot-free.”

   The novel has to be read not to be believed. To employ one of my favorite quotes from Corbett’s works: “The whole thing is so fantastic as to appear incredulous.”

— Reprinted from CADS 12, November 1989. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


CLIVE CUSSLER & JUSTIN SCOTT – The Cutthroat. Isaac Bell #10. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover; first edition, March 2017.

   It is 1911, and Isaac Bell, chief detective of the Van Dorn Detective Agency, is back in another high adventure mixing history, past technology, and fast action for his tenth outing.

   Yes, it is still the same mix of pulp. Boys Own Paper, Dime Novel, Nicholas Carter, Tom Swift, and high adventure with an added touch of nostalgia as before, and yes, it works as well as ever in the trusted hands of old pro Justin Scott who was writing this sort of thing before most of us heard of Clive Cussler or Dirk Pitt, with no disrespect to either of the latter gentlemen who still entertain as well.

   This time around we are on Broadway, where runaway hopeful actress Anna Pape has disappeared behind the greasepaint and noise of the Great White Way, and her worried parents, friends of Joseph Van Dorn, Isaac Bell’s boss and mentor, want her found.

   That isn’t to be, though, at least not alive, and worse still her murder seems tied to others which puts fairly recently wed Isaac Bell on the trail of a serial killer called the Cutthroat (sic).

   As you might expect in any book produced under Clive Cussler’s name the plot moves swiftly and from New York’s Broadway to London’s West End. There are productions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and O Henry’s Alias Jimmy Valentine involved, as well as gangsters, producers, bankers, police, actors, and a young film maker named Marion Morgan Bell, wife of our hero.

   More than that, there are great set pieces, early twentieth century cars and transportation, theatrical lore of the period, period history, guns, and even sword play as well as decent detective work though of the thriller and not Detection Club variety. The Bell novels along with Robert Owen Butler’s Christopher Marlowe Cobb series and Graig McDonald’s Hector Lassiter novels are among my favorite contemporary series with their mix of history, adventure, and thrills.

   From the busy lights of the New York theater district to the foggy streets of London, Bell and his allies from the Van Dorn Agency hunt a clever and diabolical killer while not far away within the sound of Bow Bells the shadows of Whitechapel whisper at the edges of the Cutthroat’s crimes.

MR. ROBOT. “hellofriend.mov” USA Network, 24 June 2015. (Episode 1, Number 1.) Rami Malek (Elliot Alderson), Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, Martin Wallström, Christian Slater (Mr. Robot), Michel Gill, Ben Rappaport. Created and written by Sam Esmail. Director: Niels Arden Oplev.

   I’m always far behind the curve. This highly acclaimed cable network series has already been renewed for a third season, starting in October, and I’ve only just now sampled the beginning of the first, which has been out on DVD for a while.

   The leading character is a cybersecurity expert named Elliot Alderson, a nerdish young man who suffers from a severe society anxiety disorder, depression, and by night is an online vigilante, outing online predators, scam artists and worse. He is contacted by an underground group of hackers whose aim is to take down a gigantic worldwide corporation named E Corp (Evil Corp) which controls a high percentage of the world’s net worth.

   The leader of this self-named fsociety group is known only as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who in this first episode convinces Elliot in to take down the CEO of E Corp by a bit of totally illegal computer wizardry.

   There is no doubt that the series is well done, perfectly cast and beautifully photographed, and to me all of the code that shows up on Elliot’s computer screen looks authentic. (I’m no expert.) It is not surprised that the series as a whole currently has an 8.6 rating on IMDb.

   I have also watched the second episode, in which we learn more about Elliot’s friends, his not-so-friends, his psychiatrist, his drug-supplier (female, across the hall), but not yet all that much about Mr. Robot. There’s plenty of time for that, I realize, but this is as far as I’m going to go.

   I find all but one of the characters exceedingly unlikable — the exception being Elliot’s boss at Allsafe, and he probably is going to have problems that will be as depressing as all of the others. Even his psychiatrist has her problems, which Elliot in his usual awkward way, tries to set right. We may see the consequences of this in later episodes.

   As for Elliot himself, he has all kinds of conflicts to work out between himself, his friends — the few he has — and, well, the world in general. Elliot as a character is extremely well drawn, but I’m not ready to jump on board yet. For now, I’m going to pass on this one.

   I realize that I’m in a very small minority, but neither will I lie to you.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Newell Dunlap


RICHARD BRAUTIGAN – Dreaming of Babylon. Delacorte, hardcover/softcover, 1977. Dell, paperback, 1980.

   The time is 1942, the place is San Francisco, and a private detective named C. Card is down on his luck. He already has sold everything of value he owns. He owes rent to his landlady, money to all his friends, and various domestic items to all his fellow tenants. Then, amazingly, his luck begins to change with two fortuitous events: (1) His landlady dies, and (2) he gets a client. The trouble is, he has no bullets for his gun and must find some before he meets his client. (What kind of detective goes around with an unloaded gun?)

   The search for bullets takes him to the Hall of Justice and to the city morgue, and many a mysterious stranger he meets along the way — a beautiful, crying blonde; a tough, smiling chauffeur; and a lovely, but dead, prostitute, to name but a few. Of course, the bullet search is not aided any by the fact that he keeps slipping into a daydream about ancient Babylon.

   This is Richard Brautigan’s only criminous novel and, to the average mystery aficionado, the story will seem rambling and plotless, having emerged as it did through the old, capricious byways of the author’s mind. It is a story not so much for fans of detective fiction but for fans of Brautigan fiction, for this is the popular poet/novelist who first came to us out of the hippie generation and is responsible for such works of gentle whimsy as Trout Fishing in America.

   Inexplicably, his later novels took on more violent themes. This would include Dreaming of Babylon, although, by the standards of modern detective fiction, the book is relatively nonviolent and the author’s fanciful comic inventiveness shines through.

         ———
   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.

Bibliographic Note:   Al Hubin includes two earlierr books by Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) in his Crime Fiction IV, those being The Hawkline Monster (1974) and Willard and His Bowling Trophies (1975).

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


STUDENT OF PRAGUE. German, 1935, as Der Student von Prag. Anton Walbrook (as Adolf Wohlbrück), Theodor Loos, Dorothea Wieck, Erich Fiedler, Edna Greyff. Adapted by Hans Kyser and Arthur Robison from the original story and screenplay by Hanns Heinz Ewers and Henrick Galeen. Directed by Arthur Robison.

   The two earlier versions of this story loom large in the history of German Silent Film — and therefore the history of film itself — but this one has been largely ignored or dismissed, a puzzle to me, since it’s a lovely little film, and perhaps a bit more enjoyable than its predecessors.

   Anton Walbrook stars as the impoverished (and rather superannuated) college boy, popular with the girls and handy with a sword but woefully underfunded when he falls under the spell of a visiting diva. The lady herself seems kindly disposed towards him, but she has a retinue that includes a wealthy baron and a sinister stranger who has some sort of mystical power over her.

   If you’re familiar with the story, you know that the stranger buys Walbrook’s soul, expressed by his reflection in a mirror. But this version executes a twist on the tale I found intriguing, and the result is an emotional impact not to be found in the earlier films. There’s a marvelous moment late in the movie where our student, now rich, with his life in shambles, keeps pulling big handfuls of money from his pockets and flinging it down in disgust, perfectly played by Walbrook and directed by Robison.

   Arthur Robison was American-born, German-raised, and a filmmaker in Germany since those halcyon silent days, best known for the expressionist Warning Shadows (1923). He directs here with a soft-focus splendor, bathing Prague in romantic candlelight and gentle shadows that somehow point up the sinister aspects of the tale more effectively than expressionism ever could. Moreover, for me at least, the overt romanticism lends a melancholy aspect to the spookiness that seems unique and enchanting.

   This Student wouldn’t scare a nervous cat, but it’s not a movie I’ll soon forget.


WARNING: This next clip is of the movie’s finale:

CLIFF FARRELL – Owlhoot Trail. Doubleday, hardcover, 1971. Signet T5207; 1st printing, October 1972. Zebra, paperback, 1990.

   I almost never read westerns for the history that’s behind them, but once in a while I slip up. This story takes place in the days just before the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, and surprisingly to me, this background helps juice up the whole book quite a bit.

   Vince Barrett is a con-man and a gambler, and he has no interest in land. What does attract his attention, though, is $80,000 in stolen Wells Fargo money, hidden somewhere on the other side of the starting line. With three vicious outlaw brothers determined to get their hands back on it, however, not to mention a large contingent of lawmen in the area as well, he decides to leave it lay — that is, until a girl and her father also get involved.

   Thus begins what promises to be a better than average western tale, but there are just too many secrets involved, and worse, the ending is a minor disappointment, at least in comparison to what came before.

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

Bibliographic Notes:   Cliff Farrell (1899-1977) was the author of hundreds of stories for the pulp magazines, beginning in 1926. His first novel was Follow the New Grass, published in 1954, the first of nearly 30 before his death.

« Previous PageNext Page »