June 2008

THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMENTHE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN. Allied Film Makers / J. Arthur Rank. 1960. Jack Hawkins, Nigel Patrick, Roger Livesey, Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, Kieron Moore, Terence Alexander, Norman Bird, with Robert Coote, Nanette Newman & Oliver Reed (the latter uncredited). Screenplay: Brian Forbes; based on the novel of the same name by John Boland. Director: Basil Dearden.

   When this movie was first released in England, it proved to be one of the most popular films of the year. It’s been released there recently as a Special Edition DVD, a long detailed synopsis is available on Wikipedia and an equally in-depth analysis of the film, including its sociological significance re Britain and that country’s post-war malaise, can also be found online.

   I’ve also found a two-and-a-half minute trailer on YouTube, which you can go watch if you like, but of course I’ll have something more to say when you come back.


    “Heist” films were common in the US in the 1950s — and maybe even before — that is to say, a crime film in which a gang of crooks get together and plan out a robbery in detailed form, sometimes getting away with it and more often not. But apparently this is one of the first British films in the genre, with Jack Hawkins, as Lt.-Col. J. G. Norman Hyde, the ex-military officer in charge.

   The others in his squadron of recruits are all down-on-their luck former army officers as well, having been forced out of the service for various wrong-doings and/or squeaking by on the just over the wrong side of the law since entering civilian life. (This aspect of the film gives rise to commentary about post-war Britain and what to do with men like these at variously loose ends with no wars any longer to fight.)


   The resulting caper, while entertaining enough, is top-heavy on the front end. There is too much recruitment — with brief glimpses into the players’ current lives, just enough to establish their character (or lack thereof) — and too much preparation for the attack on the bank itself, an act that takes at most only ten minutes in screen time. But “attack” is precisely the right word. These men are fighting back against the establishment — mostly metaphorically speaking, that is, as their eyes are largely on the reward of over a million pounds each.

   Here’s another short clip from YouTube, soon after Major Race (Nigel Patrick) has ingratiated his way into becoming Hyde’s second-in-command (with some homosexual implications freely flying, if you’re looking for such things, and I’m not about to go any further than what you see on the screen yourself).


   Note that Brian Forbes (who later wrote and directed Seance on a Wet Afternoon, for which he won an MWA Edgar Award in 1965 for Best Foreign Film Screenplay) not only wrote the film but starred in it as well. His wife Nanette Newman (mentioned here once before for his performance in The Wrong Box, produced and directed by Forbes) has a very small role at the beginning of the film, with next to no clothes on (in a bathtub full of suds, I’m sorry to add).

   I wish I could say that I was more involved in the film more than I was, but I found the Gentlemen far too seedy, too dishonest, and too corrupt (not all of them and all in different ways) for me to root for them. Waiting and watching for clues as to how their downfall would occur (not if) was, I admit it, a large part of the attraction for me.

   The comedy involved — you will find this movie described by some sources as a comedy thriller — is that of the low-key sort of nudge-nudge sort of way that the British so do well, although I wonder if in a crowded theater, several instances of contagious laughter could have broken out, especially back in 1960, when seven men against the establishment was — historians, help me out here — a revolutionary idea still in the making.

POSTSCRIPT. I see that I have failed to say anything about the book this movie was based on. It was published in 1958 by T.V. Boardman in the UK, with a paperback (I think) from Pan. In the US it was published only by Beacon in 1961, a company otherwise known for its long line of sleazy fiction.

   In any edition, though, it’s scarce, and so far I’ve failed to come up for a cover image to show you. The second of the non-YouTube links above states that Boland rewrote the ending of the book after the film came out, thus allowing for two more books in the series: The Gentlemen Reform (Boardman, 1961) and The Gentlemen at Large (Boardman, 1962).


[UPDATE] 06-26-08.    Bruce Grossman just emailed me to say that he found a copy of the US paperback edition up for sale on eBay. I’d buy it, but sellers who want money orders and not Paypal just don’t get my money. But here’s the cover. I’ll find another copy one of these days:


   Note that this is obviously a movie tie-in edition, with Jack Hawkins’ easily recognizable face front and center.


M. Y. HALIDOM – The Woman in Black. Ash-Tree Press, 2007. Introduction by Richard Dalby.

HALIDOM The Woman in Black

   This vampire novel was first published in 1906, and is another in this Canadian publisher’s series of vintage supernatural fiction. “The Woman in Black” is a glamorous seductress, leaving more than broken hearts in her chilling wake. The novel borders, at times, on the edge of parody, but was certainly worth resurrecting, although its audience is undoubtedly a limited one.

   The series is often chiefly distinguished by its scholarly introductions. That is certainly the case here, as Richard Dalby traces the life and career of a forgotten writer with his characteristic grace. He does go a bit far, however, in claiming this to be a forgotten “gem.” A gem it may be, but hardly one of great price or quality.

RON WEIGHELL – The Irregular Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Calabash Press, 2000.

   This collection of five Holmes pastiches carries the celebrated detective and his companion and historian Dr. Watson into the realm of the weird and the fantastic, a subject for which Holmes had little patience.

   The stories are pleasantly atmospheric but it must be admitted that none of the them produces the authentic chill that Doyle, even as he’s putting to rest the aroma of the supernatural in a story like The Hound of the Baskerville, produces.

A. F. KIDD & RICK KENNETT – No. 472 Cheyne Walk: Carnacki — The Untold Stories. Ash-Tree Press, 2002.


   One of the classics of the Victorian & Edwardian fantastic story is William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder. The modern writers, A. F. (“Chico”) Kidd and Rick Kennett have revived Hodgson’s scholarly researcher into the outre in a dozen stories that bring together a group of friends with a common interest in the supernatural who, after dinner, settle themselves in comfortable armchairs to listen to their host’s tale of another of the cases in which he has once again laid to rest a supernatural entity or entities.

   Such undertakings (the revival of a classic ghost-hunter) are generally doomed to a failure of some proportion but, as such efforts go, this displays some imagination. I would imagine that a solitary reader, regaling himself with a good cigar and a fine brandy, by a winter fire, might have quite a capital time with the stories. I read them under less appropriate circumstances (a hot summer afternoon, the room chilled by air conditioning) and still derived pleasure from their leisurely, willfully archaic style.

MARY McMULLEN – Welcome to the Grave.

Detective Book Club, hardcover reprint (3-in-1 edition); May 1979. Hardcover first edition: Doubleday Crime Club, 1979. US paperback: Jove, 1989. UK hardcover: Collins Crime Club, 1980. UK paperback: Keyhole Crime, 1981.

MARY McMULLEN Welcome to the Grave

   It was the second paragraph that hooked me in, line and sinker as well:   “Chapter Five was going well. The typewriter seemed to be doing the inventing for him and he was hard put to keep up with it, long square-tipped fingers flying. He was in the middle of what he considered a hilarious sex scene and hardly knowing it he laughed out loud, his shoulders shaking.”

   There is a knock on the door. Harley’s wife, who had run off with a gallery owner, has returned. He’d never divorced her, and now he can’t get rid of her. There is a secret, an accident, a dead child, and she is the only one who knows about it.

   If ever there was an author proficient in domestic (suburban Connecticut) malice, it was Mary McMullen, who wrote nearly a score of similar mysteries, mostly in the 70s and 80s. There is murder about to happen, and the only questions are: when is he going to do it, is he going to get away with it, and how?

MARY McMULLEN Welcome to the Grave

   McMullen is also very witty, and she jabs the socio-economic pretensions of the lower corner of the state quite nicely. But she also seems to lose her way after a third of the way through, and she allows Harley’s grandiose plans to fizzle away in a largely mystifying manner. It leads to an unsatisfactory and (upon some reflection) rather unpleasant conclusion.

— Jan 2002

[UPDATE] 06-22-08.    It’s over six years later, and for the life of me, I do not remember either the ending of this book or what I found in it to be displeased about. Either way, I don’t believe there are many authors today who write with the same kind of domestic malice in their books as Mary McMullen did, along with a number of female authors of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, such as Ursula Curtiss, Genevieve Holden, Margaret Millar and others. They didn’t necessarily write noir fiction, but there was a lot of bite to their books.

   (Using Ursula Curtiss as an example is a small in-joke, perhaps, since she was Mary McMullen’s sister. See this earlier post for more about their family and the mystery fiction they wrote.)

ANNA GILBERT – A Morning in Eden.

St. Martin’s; hardcover; First US Edition, Dec 2001. UK edition: Robert Hale, 2001. No paperback editions.

ANNA GILBERT A Morning in Eden

   A couple of quick reactions first. (a) No diehard private eye fan will ever read this slow-moving tale of adolescent romance in a remote village in England, just after the close of World War I. (b) Time and place are both important aspects of the story, and yet very little of the outside world intrudes — soldiers are coming home from the war, trying to fit into society again — but it’s all very incidental, hardly a major theme.

   After the death of one aunt, young Lorna Kent goes to live with another. In isolated Canterlow, she realizes that her infatuation with the local headmaster must be kept secret.

   She also discovers she is surrounded by swirls of other mysteries around her. Even more sinister secrets abound — most centering around the death (suicide or murder?) of another young girl not too long before.

   Ominous writing prevails, filled with constant portent, imbued with the sadness of nostalgia and the regrets of life that could have been. Decisions made that could not be undone.

   More than the mystery to be solved, the reader begins rather to wonder when Lorna will make her own right decision — glaringly obvious, if she were only to see.

— December 2001

ANNA GILBERT A Morning in Eden

[UPDATE] 06-21-08.    Anna Gilbert was the pen name of Marguerite Lazarus (1916-  ), making her 85 years old when this book appeared. (I have used “was” in the past tense only because I am fairly sure she is no longer writing; I have found no information to say that she has passed away.)

   [Unfortunately I was wrong when I wrote this last statement. Marguerite Lazarus died in 2004. See the first comment below for a link to a well-written and heartfelt tribute to her.]

   Here, using the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, as the primary source, is a complete list of her crime-related fiction (the dash (-) indicating only minor relevance to our field.)

   These are the British editions; most if not all have been published in the US, all but one by St. Martin’s. (This list does not include a few novels with no criminous component.)

# Images of Rose (n.) Hodder 1974 [England; 1883]
# The Look of Innocence (n.) Hodder 1975 [England; 1800s]
# A Family Likeness (n.) Hodder 1977 [England; 1800s]
# -Remembering Louise (n.) Hodder 1978
# The Leavetaking (n.) Hodder 1979 [England; 1880s]
# Flowers for Lilian (n.) Hodder 1980 [England; 1800s]
# Miss Bede Is Staying (n.) Piatkus 1982 [England; 1800s]
# The Long Shadow (n.) Piatkus 1983 [England; 1800s]
# A Walk in the Wood (n.) Piatkus 1989 [England; WWII]
# The Wedding Guest (n.) Piatkus 1994 [England; 1920 ca.]

ANNA GILBERT The Wedding Guest

# -A Hint of Witchcraft (n.) Hale 2000 [England]
# A Morning in Eden (n.) Hale 2001 [England; post-WWI.]

   Quoting very briefly from Contemporary Authors:

   Marguerite Lazarus writes Victorian stories of mystery, deception, and intrigue. Her ability to create realistic Victorian settings and characters is the result of her interest in the literature, memoirs, letters, and biographies of the time. In Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, Elizabeth Gray wrote that Lazarus’ “work is stylish and elegant. She writes with fastidious care, making every word count… and she is past mistress at the art of heightening tension by placing a gentle finger on the reader’s nerves.”

MAX BRAND – The Outlaw Redeemer.

Leisure; paperback reprint, March 2004. Hardcover edition: Five Star, 2000.

MAX BRAND The Outlaw Redeemer

   In one way or another, most traditional westerns have elements of crime fiction inherently built into their plot structure, and naturally I wouldn’t have brought it up if both of the short novels in the case at hand, The Outlaw Redeemer, did not abundantly qualify, but in different ways.

   In “The Last Irving,” which takes place in the more recent Old West – there is electricity in Irvington, and the characters drive proudly around in flivvers – the heir to the non-existent Irving fortune, a city yokel by the name of Archibald, returns from the East to revenge himself on the two crooks who conned his Uncle Ned out of his life’s savings. This a standard tall tale of a (perceived) dumb sap who (it is anticipated) comes out on top by the simple expedient of setting his two opponents one against the other.

   While there is more anticipation than there is follow-through, I can’t imagine anyone not finding the ending at least mildly satisfying.

   The title story, “The Outlaw Redeemer,” comes with some unexpected surprises, however, making it by far the more enjoyable one of the two.

   The opening is nothing more than Biblical in nature, with lots of “begat”s that trace the lineage of the tale’s two antagonists, the pure in heart John Tipton, who becomes a Texas Ranger whose constant quarry is the brutish and devilish criminally-minded Hubert Dunleven, nicknamed either Shorty or Bunch, “both of which were derived from his physical peculiarities.”

   Their efforts directed against each other are the stuff that legends are made of – can a western ever be called utterly charming? Dunleven is that rarest of beings, an outlaw with a silver tongue. Take for example, this speech he makes to the beautiful Nell – oh, yes, there is a girl, and of course she comes between them. But first, from page 118, after he has requested that she make breakfast for him, a request she cannot refuse:

MAX BRAND The Outlaw Redeemer

    “For instance,” he [Dunleven] explained, “there are your hands. Hands have an eloquence all their own. Your small brown ones, for example, have never before served a meal to a hungry man without enjoying their work. They have been gay and swift and tireless. They have carried dishes to every hungry table with a certain charming eagerness. And it has been a sad thing to sit here and to watch those hands working like slaves, heavily, joylessly, dragging themselves along.”

   Nell is not, however, emphasis not, your usual western heroine. As the two male protagonists of the tale, she also is flawed, and I confess – I admit it – I did not know, with several chapters remaining to go, which way the story was going to come out.

   That is it a happy ending, you may rest assured. You may be assured that you will not know in which way it will end happily, but it will.

— May 2004

PostScript:    Both of the these stories first appeared in the pulp magazine, Western Story. “The Last Irving” appeared as “Not the Fastest Horse,” as by John Frederick in the November 7, 1925, issue; and “The Outlaw Redeemer” appeared as “The Man He Couldn’t Get,” as by George Owen Baxter in the February 27, 1926, issue.

   In some substantial way, I like the original titles better.


Gold Medal k1333, paperback original. First printing: 1963. Reprinted several times.


   When readers and critics talk about hard-boiled writers, Donald Hamilton’s name never seems to come up, and it should. There may be two reasons for this. First, he didn’t write about private eyes. His primary hero, who appeared in 27 spy fiction novels for Gold Medal between 1960 and 1993, was Matt Helm, a hard-as-nails agent for an unnamed branch of the US government, but still not a private detective. Secondly, Dean Martin, and those godawful movies. I enjoyed them at the time, but I was only in my 20s. What can I tell you?

   In the order of appearance, this is the 6th in the series. Starting in a Latin American country falsely called Costa Verde, where Helm takes out the leader of a gang of cutthroat revolutionaries, back to Washington, then out west to Tucson and into northern Mexico, where a leftover Nazi overling has been spotted, Hamilton doesn’t let the story die of the doldrums, to say the least.

   There is a girl. Reminiscent of many John D. MacDonald stories, this one needs a rescue, and then some therapeutic rehabilitation. But in this case, Sheila, the agent who ran into problems in Costa Verde, is an essential part of the story, and its ending as well.


   As for Helm, he improvises quickly, making (for example) being caught in a trap all part of the plan, and he has no false compunctions or misgivings about what his job entails. He’s in a rough line of work, no doubt about it, with little or no tolerance for error. James Bond is more famous than he, with more of a Continental flair (and better movies) but by a good margin, Matt Helm is the tougher of the two.

— July 2002

[UPDATE] 06-19-08.    My comment at the beginning of this review may have been true when I wrote it, but in the six years between then and now, I think Donald Hamilton has been given his due, at least on blogs and the Internet, if not in terms of new editions of his books at Borders and Barnes & Noble. (Hard Case Crime has reprinted Night Walker, a non- Matt Helm book, and I hope it has done well.)

   So it may be that neither Helm nor Hamilton are truly forgotten, but the Matt Helm books have been so long out of print that anyone in their 20s now is very likely never to have heard of him in the first place. Unless they read blogs like this one, and Bruce Grossman’s reviews over at bookgasm and Bill Crider on his blog and John Fraser on his website

[UPDATE #2] Just after posting this, I went to check my email and by some uncanny coincidence, I discovered that Ed Crocker had posted a long reminiscence about Donald Hamilton on an earlier post here on the Mystery*File blog, back when Hamilton’s death was first reported. I’ve kept what he had to say there, but I’ve moved it here as well. It’s the first comment you’ll see below. Thanks, Ed!

CHARLAINE HARRIS – Shakespeare’s Champion.

CHARLAINE HARRIS Shakespeare's Champion

Dell; paperback reprint, November 1998. Hardcover first edition: St. Martin’s, December 1997. Later paperback edition: Berkley, December 2006.

   You could have fooled me, and I was. I didn’t see it coming. I thought this book was one of those “cozy” mysteries that have been flooding the paperbacks shelves at Borders and other outlets over the past ten years or more. What with ice-skating detectives, teddy-bear-collecting detectives, quilting detective, herbal-shop-owner detectives, fudge-making detectives — which is not to put any of them down, as long-time readers of this blog know that most certainly do I not make a habit of — I was caught leaning the wrong way this time, and Ouch.

   Lily Bard is the detective in this one, her second appearance of five so far, and she cleans houses for a living in a small town named Shakespeare, somewhere in Arkansas. What would you think, if that were all you knew about the series?

   My guess is that you’d be wrong, too. There are more dead bodies in this than any Robert B. Parker books you’ve read, and if you stacked two or three of them together, the count might then just start to be close.

CHARLAINE HARRIS Shakespeare's Champion

   There are some things I was unhappy about in this book, the criminous part focusing on racial hatred and violence, but neither that fact nor Lily Bard herself is one of them. She’s quite a lady, having come to Shakespeare to run away from her past, but she works out nearly every morning in the local gym (body building and karate), and does not take any sass from anybody. Hard-boiled, flinty — but in a totally feminine sense — independent. Name it, she’s it.

   I may as well start enumerating some of the problems I had with the book, even though I still haven’t told you much about the story line. First, the prologue, which is not told by Lily, while the rest of the book is. I hate prologues, especially when they are as useless as this one.

   Secondly, while I can understand Lily’s reticence in talking about her past — and she doesn’t for the longest time in this one — she already has in the first one. Revealed her secrets, that is, to at least some of the people in her new life.

   This means that someone who’s already read the first book, as I haven’t, would be reading a totally different book than I was, as he or she would already know the players and the tensions (many sexual) between them, and I didn’t. Lily’s conversation with Claude Friedrich, the local chief of police, as she spurns his amorous advances — soon after the discovery of the first body (although it really isn’t– the first body, that is) — makes a lot more sense later on, then it does in Chapter One. The reader of book one knows, but the reader of book two hasn’t a clue.

CHARLAINE HARRIS Shakespeare's Champion

   I’m making this complicated, but going back and re-reading what I just wrote, it’s correct, and I think I will stay with it the way it is. There has been a series of deaths in Shakespeare, and only gradually are they revealed, and of course they’re important. The blurb on the back cover puts things in the right order, chronologically, but I have to admit that this is only a minor quibble, although a frustrating one, as the characters’ actions reflect what they know, and we (the reader) do not.

   But here’s the greatest problem I found with this book. With a scene of violence as horrific as the one that occurs in this book — if it were to have happened in the real world — it would have made national headlines, news crews from every channel on the cable dial would have been in town, snooping around 24/7, and a real investigation would have gone on, the ending not relying on three people sneaking around at night to uncover the culprits and their plot on their own. And in spite of all of the bloodshed, this strictly amateurish way of nabbing the killers is perhaps what makes this dark and sobering tale story a “cozy” mystery after all.

   Would I read another Lily Bard tale, though? You bet I would. She’s quite a lady.

POSTSCRIPT.    I know they’re too small for the details to be all that helpful, but each of the cover images that I’ve found to add to this post illustrate three different but still vitally important aspects of the book, and in three different styles. I like all three of them.

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