July 2010


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


BORIS VIAN I Spit on Your Grave

BORIS VIAN – I Spit on Your Grave. First US edition: Audubon, paperback, 1971. Canongate Edinburgh, Scotland, pb, 2001. Reprinted as I Spit on Your Graves: Tamtam Books, softcover, 1998. Translation of J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes, as by “Vernon Sullivan,” France, 1947.

Film: Audubon, 1962, as J’iral Cracher Sur Vos Tombes (I Spit on Your Grave). Christian Marquand, Antonella Lualdi, Paul Guers, Renate Ewert, Jean Sorel, Fernand Ledoux. Director: Michel Gast.

   Somewhere along the way last month I read Light in August, which I don’t propose to review here because Faulkner don’t need me to pimp for him. But it led me to read another two-bit paperback, obviously inspired by Faulkner’s work, I Spit on Your Grave.

BORIS VIAN I Spit on Your Grave

   Grave was published in France in 1946, when the public there was crazy for American hard-boiled books and movies (unavailable there since 1940) and would apparently devour anything that looked appropriately tough and western, including palpable fakes like Lemmy Caution and James Hadley Chase — I digress, but it explains how I Spit on Your Grave was promoted as a French translation of an American book, when in fact it was written by one Boris Vian, who was about as American as Pepe le Pew.

   Surprisingly, though, this is quite well done. The nameless narrator, a black man passing for white (like Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s book) sets us somewhere in the southern U.S. and tells of his quest for vengeance for the lynching of his brother. Said vengeance becomes a nasty bit of business as the narrator insinuates himself into a small town and works his way around to seducing the daughters of the local rich folk — with a view to something even worse to come…

BORIS VIAN I Spit on Your Grave

   Vian ain’t no Faulkner, but that’s not always a bad thing; he evokes the small town colorfully, his prose is sharp and well-judged and the tone is pleasingly nasty, veering toward the pornographic as the narrator exacts his baroque retribution. And I should warn you that this book contains graphic violence one seldom encounters even now in mainstream books.

   The book itself had an interesting history: when a copy was found near the body of a murdered woman (with significant passages underlined) the publishers were charged with pandering obscenity and the true story of its writing emerged.

   This only made it more popular, and it was filmed in 1959. The movie is a low-budget affair that runs out of steam somewhere along the way and softens the ending, but it evokes the dusty desperation of a one-whore town surprisingly well for a film made entirely in France and cast with badly-dubbed French actors.

   I liked it myself, but there’s a story that Vian went to a preview, screamed “What is this sh*t?!” and fell over dead.

   It’s a nice story, anyway.

BORIS VIAN I Spit on Your Grave


Editorial Comment: Most sources state the date of the French edition as 1946, as does Dan. The year 1947 that I stated in the opening credits is that as given by Al Hubin in the Revised Crime Fiction IV. He’s on a vacation cruise right now, but I’ll ask him to help sort out this small disparity when he gets back.

IT’S ABOUT CRIME
by Marv Lachman

EARL BARGAINNIER, Editor – Comic Crime. Popular Press, hardcover, 1987; trade paperback, 1988.

EARL BARGAINNIER Comic Crime

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring 1988.

   As the title implies, this collection of essays deals with comedy in the mystery and is the first book on the subject in my memory.

   It is also one which is far-reaching, covering humor in the Sherlock Holmes canon (Holmes and Watson were really the first “Odd Couple”), the academic mysteries, in mysteries set in quaint little villages, and in those featuring little old lady and gentlemen detectives.

   Even the hardboiled mystery gets its due in “Laughing with the Corpses,” by Frederick Isaac. Unfortunately, Craig Rice is virtually ignored throughout, but there is an excellent piece on Donald Westlake by Michael Dunne.

   There are fourteen essays in the book and not a bad one in the lot. Some.of the examples the authors quote will make you laugh again if they are familiar; others will make you want to seek out the books from which they were taken.

Editorial Comment:   This is the sixth in a series of reviews in which Marv covered reference works published in 1987, books about the field of mystery and crime fiction. Preceding this one was Corridors of Deceit, by Peter Wolfe. You can find it here.

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


SHIRLEY TALLMAN – Scandal on Rincon Hill. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, March 2010.

Genre:   Historical mystery. Leading character:  Sarah Woolson; 4th in series. Setting:   San Francisco, 1881.

SHIRLEY TALLMAN

First Sentence:   The nightmare began early on the morning of Sunday, December 4.

   Sarah Woolson is only the third female attorney to be licensed in California and is struggling to get her private practice off the ground.

   A brutal murder occurs on Rincon Hill, near her home, followed shortly by a second murder. Neither victim had been robbed. Both had attended the same party. Two young, very recently immigrated Chinese men are arrested, Sarah’s former client, powerful tong leader Li Ying, hires her to prove their innocence.

   At the same time, Sarah is hired by beautiful young woman. She had a written contract with a morality-touting publisher to be his private mistress. When she became pregnant, within that time, he cut off all support. Now, she wants Sarah to sue him.

   Ms. Tallman skillfully takes the reader back to 1881, pre-earthquake San Francisco. She creates a solid sense of the places, styles and attitudes of the time. She particularly illustrates the bigotry against the Chinese.

   Living in the Bay Area, it is particularly fun for me to read about locations I know and her descriptions of food are delectable. I do wonder, however, whether those who don’t know San Francisco might feel a bit lost and wished a map or photos had been included.

   The dialogue, which reflects the syntax of the period, adds to the sense of time and provides an indication of each characters social status. For those who’ve not read prior books, enough background is given so that one understands the characters and their relationships.

   Sarah Woolson is a wonderful character. She is independent and has a good logical mind, as well as a sense of humor. I particularly like the relationships with men that Tallman has created as they are natural and realistic.

   The story is well thought out and well plotted. Because it is built layer upon layer, it did seem to slow down a bit in the middle, but that doesn’t last long. Some may feel the resolution seems convenient, but to me it seemed logical and appropriate.

   While I don’t feel this is the strongest book in the series, I did enjoy it and am looking forward to the next book.

Rating:   Good Plus.

       The Sarah Woolson mystery series —

1. Murder on Nob Hill (2004)

SHIRLEY TALLMAN

2. The Russian Hill Murders (2005)
3. The Cliff House Strangler (2007)
4. Scandal on Rincon Hill (2010)

A TV Review by MIKE TOONEY:


“Homicide: DR-22.” An episode of Dragnet 1969. First air date: 9 January 1969. (Season 3, Episode 14 of the color era Dragnet series.) Jack Webb (Sergeant Joe Friday), Harry Morgan (Officer Bill Gannon), Burt Mustin (Calvin Lampe), Art Balinger (Captain Hugh Brown), Len Wayland (Officer Dave Dorman), Jill Banner (Eve Wesson), Alfred Shelly (Jack Swan). Writer: James Doherty. Creator, producer, director: Jack Webb.

DRAGNET 1969

    Joe Friday and Bill Gannon are working Homicide when they’re called in to investigate the murder of a young woman, found hog-tied on her belly in her apartment. Almost immediately, the building manager, Calvin Lampe, appears at the door and starts to point out things about the crime scene that are so obscure Friday and Gannon’s suspicions are aroused.

   Later, while being informally questioned, Lampe indicates so many more unusual things about the crime — not to mention the discovery of his incriminating handprint on the wall of the victim’s apartment — that Friday decides to take him down to the station; for the moment, Lampe isn’t just the prime suspect — he’s the only suspect. But Friday and Gannon are in for a surprise when they find out who their suspect really is.

   Burt Mustin (1884-1977) was all over television in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, nearly always in comic roles. In this Dragnet episode, however, he impresses in a semi-serious part. Mustin’s first film was Detective Story (1951), when he was 67 years old.

   Many viewers remember him from his 14 appearances on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-66). He also showed up in “Nothing Ever Happens in Linvale,” reviewed here.

   You can watch “Homicide: DR-22″ on Hulu.

THE GREAT JESSE JAMES RAID. Lippert Pictures, 1953. Willard Parker, Barbara Payton, Tom Neal, Wallace Ford, Jim Bannon, James Anderson, Richard Cutting, Barbara Woodell. Director: Reginald Le Borg.

THE GREAT JESSE JAMES RAID

   This movie comes as the first of six in a DVD boxed set titled “Legendary Outlaws,” so it will be easy to find, if you don’t have it and you decide to go looking. Others in the set are: Renegade Girl, Return of Jesse James, Gunfire, Dalton Gang, and I Shot Billy the Kid.

   I figure that Jesse James and Billy the Kid were the two men who appeared the most often in B-western motion pictures. I don’t know which one’s the more popular, if that’s the right word, but my money’s on Billy the Kid. (I suspect that maybe you could find out on IMDB, if you wanted to, but I … What the heck. There are 80 movies with Jesse James in them, and 86 with Billy the Kid. So I win!)

THE GREAT JESSE JAMES RAID

   Getting back to film at hand, though, Willard Parker does not make a particularly convincing Jesse James. He’s too tall, too handsome, and too blond too, for that matter.

THE GREAT JESSE JAMES RAID

   There’s no way around it. For someone who had the starring role in Tales of the Texas Rangers on TV for three years (1955-1958), he’s too stalwart, too strong, and simply too honest to play the role of a villain as if he meant it.

   Strike one.

   Another flaw in this film is that the ending is given away right at the beginning, when “cowardly” Bob Ford, played by Jim Bannon, comes calling one night at Mr. Howard’s house, where Jesse, his wife and son are living under assumed names. (See above.) One last job, is the deal, and Jesse falls for it. When he leaves, his wife begs him not to go, but of course he does.

   Strike two.

THE GREAT JESSE JAMES RAID

   Even though Willard Parker was decent enough as an actor, he never got the roles that would have made him a star. Not enough flair, not enough stage presence. When the real star of your western movie is Wallace Ford, playing a grizzled old-timer brought along for his skills with dynamite, sort of an Edgar Buchanan type but without the evil glint that sometimes appeared in the latter’s eye, why then, you know your budget for the film was far too low.

   Well, I’ll go ahead and say it. Strike three.

   Some pluses, though. Tom Neal (of Detour fame) is a nasty piece of work, and Barbara Payton (maybe the Lindsay Lohan of her day, if not even worse) is quite a dish. (She and Tom Neal may have been living together at the time.)

   But why Kate is brought along to the gold mine Jesse’s crew is working their way into, is a good question. There is no raid, per se, by the way, but things do get complicated. Not in any way that makes a lot of sense, but then again, the film is in color, and the dancing girls are nice.

THE GREAT JESSE JAMES RAID

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Thanks to Turner Classic Movies I recently discovered a detective film series I had never heard of before. Before Midnight (RKO, 1933) debuted on TCM in June and starred a young Ralph Bellamy as Inspector Trent of the NYPD.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT Inspector Trent

   A procedural this ain’t: Trent comes out on a dark and stormy night to a Toad Hall fifty miles from New York City at the request of a millionaire who expects to be killed before the ancestral clock strikes twelve. Sure enough, the murder takes place, and Trent immediately takes over the investigation, such as it is, smoking up a storm as he interrogates the dead man’s lovely ward, the doctor who loves her, the enigmatic Japanese butler, the sleazy lawyer, etc. etc.

   Eventually, donning a white lab coat for forensic cred, he holds up two test tubes with blood samples in them and announces to his bug-eyed stooge that both came from the same person. How he managed to do that, generations before anyone ever heard of DNA, remains a mystery after the murder method (obvious to most viewers) and the murderer (obvious to all) are exposed.

   A bit of Web surfing taught me that Before Midnight was the first of four Inspector Trent films, all starring Bellamy and dating from 1933-34. The titles of the other three are One Is Guilty, The Crime of Helen Stanley and Girl in Danger.

   Columbia had released an earlier detective series with Adolphe Menjou as Anthony Abbot’s Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt but had dropped it after two films. The Trent series lasted twice as long but who today has ever heard of it? Bellamy of course went on to star in Columbia’s bottom-of-the-barrel series of Ellery Queen films (1940-41).

***

ELLERY QUEEN Penthouse Mystery

   Second of the four EQ films with Bellamy in the lead was Ellery Queen’s Penthouse Mystery (1941). For most of my life I was unsure whether this picture was based on any genuine Queen material.

   In Royal Bloodline I speculated that it might have come from one of the early Queen radio plays. Recently I learned that my hunch was right. Its source was the 60-minute drama “The Three Scratches” (CBS, December 13, 1939).

   Someday I’d love to compare the Dannay-Lee script with the infantile novelization of the film by some anonymous hack that was published as a tie-in with the movie, but unfortunately that script was not included in The Adventure of the Murdered Moths (2005).

***

   Does the name Peter Cheyney ring any bells? He was an Englishman (1896-1951), the son of a Cockney fishmonger who specialized in whelks and jellied eels.

   He had never visited the U.S. but in 1936 began writing a long series of thrillers narrated in first person by hardboiled G-Man Lemmy Caution, beginning with This Man Is Dangerous (1936).

PETER CHEYNEY Lemmy Caution

   For the most part these quickies were laughed off as unpublishable over here but became huge successes in England and also in France, where translation concealed Cheyney’s habit of peppering the dialogue of American characters with British slang, not to mention self-created idioms which are like nothing in any language known to humankind.

   The one that has stuck in my mind longest is “He blew the bezuzus,” which is not a musical instrument but just Cheyney’s way of saying “He spilled the beans.”

   According to Google the only known use of the word was in Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt, where a character is said to have a degree from Bezuzus Mail Order University.

   Could Cheyney have read that acerbic satire on the American middle class or did he come up with the word independently? Googling “bezuzus” with Cheyney’s name produces no matches, but I suspect that situation will change as soon as this column is posted.

   With The Urgent Hangman (1938) Cheyney launched a series of utterly conventional ersatz-Hammett novels about London PI Slim Callaghan, and during World War II he wrote a series of rather bleak espionage novels, all with “Dark” in their titles and lavishly praised by Anthony Boucher and others.

   I don’t know if he’s worth rediscovering, but you can catch him as he looked in newsreel footage from 1946, dictating his then-latest thriller to a secretary, by going to www.petercheyney.co.uk and clicking first on “Links” and then on the image at the bottom of the screen.

***

   The mail has just brought me the proof copy of my latest assault on the forests of America. Cornucopia of Crime is a 449-page gargantua bringing together chunks of my writing over the past 40-odd years on mystery fiction and some of my favorites among its perpetrators, from Gardner and Woolrich and Queen to Cleve F. Adams and Milton Propper and William Ard, not to mention screwballs like Michael Avallone and mad geniuses like Harry Stephen Keeler.

   One small problem with this copy: on the title page the author’s name is conspicuous by its absence. This glitch will soon be corrected but I’m told that ten or twelve uncorrected copies are on the way to me by mail.

   If they arrive before I leave for the Pulpfest in Columbus, Ohio late next week, I plan to bring them with me and — assuming there are a few collectors in attendance who are in the market for perhaps the most limited edition of any book on mystery fiction ever published! — sell them off. Consider this an exclusive offer to Mystery*File habitues.

Editorial Comment. 07-22-10.   Inspired by David Vineyard’s comments on Peter Cheyney’s contributions to the world of crime fiction, I checked out the website devoted to him that Mike mentioned. It’s definitely worth a look. I especially enjoyed the covers, a portion of one I’ve added below. Who could resist a book with a lady like this on the cover? Not me.

   Artwork by John Pisani. For more, go here.

PETER CHEYNEY John Pisani

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller:


HILDA LAWRENCE Blood Upon the Snow

HILDA LAWRENCE – Blood Upon the Snow. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1944. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, 3-in-1 edition: February 1945. Reprint paperbacks: Pocket 336, February 1946; Avon Classic Crime PN320, 1970.

   Hilda Lawrence wrote three novels featuring the odd investigative trio of private eye Mark East and spinster sleuths Bessie Petty and Beulah Pond. In addition, she published a melodramatic suspense novel, The Pavilion (1949), and two novellas, “Death Has Four Hands” and “This Bleeding House” (both 1950).

   She is best known for the East/Petty/Pond books, and for good reason: They present an interesting juxtaposition of the hard-boiled school versus the little-old-lady sleuth, between the customs and mores of Manhattan and those of a small New England village.

HILDA LAWRENCE Blood Upon the Snow

   The characters are well drawn, the setting evocative, and the interplay between Mark East and his elderly “Watsons” is entertaining.

   As this first entry in the series opens, the snow is falling and Mark is arriving at the village of Crestwood. His introduction to Beulah Pond occurs when he stops to ask directions to the house where a prospective client expects him.

   When he eventually arrives, he is told he must wait until morning for his interview; and when he meets with Mr. Stoneman, the old man seems to think he is hiring a private secretary rather than a private detective. Mark, however, senses something is very wrong in the house; the old man seems frightened and has a hurt wrist and bruises on his face.

HILDA LAWRENCE Blood Upon the Snow

   He agrees to stay on for a few days, assuming secretarial duties, and makes it his first order of business to revisit Miss Pond, whom he perceives — rightly so — as a woman who knows a great deal about what goes on in the village.

   When he arrives at her home, he is introduced to Bessie Petty, and the unlikely partnership in detection is launched.

   The story that follows is one of slowly rising terror. The people with whom Stoneman is staying, Laura and Jim Morey and their two children, also seem disturbed; Stoneman is reported to have been sleepwalking; the housekeeper, Mrs. Lacey, has handed in her notice and seems upset about this; strange mischief has occurred in the wine cellar; and as the black winter night closes in, Mark remembers something Mrs. Lacey said about this being “good soil for evil.”

   A slow-paced but absorbing chiller, as are the other two in the series — A Time to Die (1945) and Death of a Doll (1947).

         ———
   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.

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