January 2011


MIDSOMER MURDERS. ITV, UK. Season 13, Episodes 4-6. John Nettles (D.C.I. Barnaby), Jason Hughes (DS Ben Jones), Jane Wymark (Joyce Barnaby), Barry Jackson (Dr Bullard), Kirsty Dillon (WPC Gail Stephens).


   This past fall we had a burst of four new episodes of this long-running series (2 hours each, less adverts). I missed the first of these but the second, “The Silent Land” (03 August 2010) was a typical episode with a con man who leads a “ghost walk” around various sites in the Midsomer area.

   Of course when a body turns up he is able to attract more followers, though he clearly makes things up and Barnaby pooh-poohs all things ghostly. However the producers couldn’t resist, after all the crimes have been cleared up rationally, giving Barnaby a ghostly encounter of his own.

   The third, “Master Class” (06 October 2010), was, I’m afraid to say, even worse (possibly the worst episode ever, though there have been some pretty bad ones) with a totally barmy story based on a vision — yes really — that a young girl has, replaying an incident when she was a babe in arms.

   The characters, actions and motives were unbelievable and the whole was a complete mess. Unless you are a Midsomer completist you will do best to avoid this episode.

   Following that the fourth episode, “The Noble Art” (13 October 2010), though not the most intriguing of stories, maybe, was a return to the good old days with a story that made some sense and a villain that one could make out if the clues were picked up on. If only they were all like this.

   J. F. “John” Norris, whose several posts and many comments you have seen here on this blog over the past couple of months, has begun his own, as of today, and he’s off to a great start. If you’re interested in classic detective fiction and other similar literature from the musty past, I highly recommend it to you — and even if you aren’t!

   Going into more detail about it, he describes his blog as “a foray into the realm of the old-fashioned detective novel, the ghost story and supernatural novel of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the pulp adventure magazines of the 30s & 40s and similar dusty relics.”

   Along these lines John has already posted reviews of —

The Chinese Parrot – Earl Derr Biggers (1926)
The House of Strange Guests – Nicholas Brady (1932)
Murder on Wheels – Stuart Palmer (1932)
The Saltmarsh Murders – Gladys Mitchell (1932)
The Poison Fly Murder – Harriet Rutland (1940)
The Cut Direct – Alice Tilton (1938)
Death Turns the Tables – John Dickson Carr (1941)

    …but between you and me, I don’t think he can keep up the pace. (He must have storing these up. That’s all I can think of.)

   The full URL is http://prettysinister.blogspot.com/, and you can tell him I sent you.


IAIN PEARS – The Titian Committee. Harcourt Brace, hardcover, 1993. Originally published in the UK: Victor Gollancz, hardcover, 1991. Reprint paperbacks include: Berkley, 1999; trade pb, August 2002.

IAIN PEARS Art History Mysteries

   This is the second novel featuring Flavia di Stefano of the Rome Art Theft Squad and art historian/dealer Jonathan Argyll. I haven’t read the first, The Raphael Affair.

   An American lady, a member of an international art committee meeting in Venice, is murdered there. More, because of politics than anything else, a member of the Art Theft Squad in the person of di Stefano is dispatched to Venice to “assist” in the investigation.

   In point of fact she is expected to do nothing, as is made quite clear to her by the local police. As one might imagine, however, she does a little more. When another member of the committee is found drowned, she pokes around still further.

   Argyll, with whom she has worked on a previous case, has been trying to buy a painting that was a matter of dispute among the members of the unfortunate committee as to its authenticity. It all sounds very complicated, and it is.

   This is an urbane, not exactly lighthearted but certainly not grim mystery featuring amiable investigators and a good bit of nice Venetian atmosphere and art lore. Di Stefano’s superior, General Bottando, is also an engaging character.

   It’s nothing you’re going to remember in any detail for long, but when you do think of it, your thoughts are likely to be pleasant. Pears writes smoothly and competently. A very nice read, and although I’m not going to strain any muscles doing it, I’ll probably hunt up the first in the series.

— Reprinted from Ah, Sweet Mysteries #9, September 1993.

       The “Art History” series —

1. The Raphael Affair (1990)

IAIN PEARS Art History Mysteries

2. The Titian Committee (1991)
3. The Bernini Bust (1992)

IAIN PEARS Art History Mysteries

4. The Last Judgement (1993)
5. Giotto’s Hand (1994)
6. Death and Restoration (1996)

IAIN PEARS Art History Mysteries

7. The Immaculate Deception (2000)

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

RAFE McGREGOR – The Architect of Murder. Robert Hale, hardcover, February 2009.

Genre:   Historical mystery. Leading character:   Alec Marshall; 1st in series. Setting:   England-1901/Gaslight Era.

First Sentence:   I’m not sure why I decided to return to London when I did.

RAFE McGERGOR The Architect of Murder

    Major Alec Marshall served as a policeman prior to his joining the army and receiving the Victoria Cross. Alec has returned to England after learning of his sister, Dr. Ellen Marshall. Her close friend, Miss Roberta Paterson, believes Ellen was murdered and wants Alec to investigate.

    Supt. William Melville of Scotland Yard’s CID, is short of men owing to the upcoming coronation of Edward VII, would also like Marshall’s help. Cecil Rhodes, one of the wealthiest men in Great Britain has died. The witnesses to the last two codicils, two of whom are in London are needed in Cape Town.

    Assigned to work with Inspector Truegood, they find one of the witnesses murdered and uncover a plan set to impact the future of the British Empire.

    It is always wonderful to pick up a book which looks somewhat interesting and find it to be completely fascinating and exciting. McGregor has created interesting, substantive characters. The protagonist, Alec Marshall, is one of the most fully drawn characters I’ve read in awhile.

    Although initially it is challenging to put together the pieces of Alec’s background, particularly with people misrepresenting his rank, it does sort itself out. While he utilizes the logic and skills he learned as a policeman and a soldier, what I particularly liked was the breath of emotion given to Alec.

    Roberta Paterson has a career and supports the vote for women but is still aware of social conventions. Truegood is a cop’s cop; he’s unimpressed by Alec and distrustful of his motives but will cover his back when the situation requires it.

    Historical events and figures are incorporated in a realistic manner. Because of the number of characters, it could have been confusing. McGregor avoided that pitfall by reminding us of who the characters and their relationship to each other. Rather than this being redundant, it provides clarity and is well incorporated into the plot.

    McGregor employs Alec in conveying the sense of time and place. With his transition back into London, we witness his observations on telephones, the crowds, traffic, noise and the smell of the air. There are descriptions of the manners and multi-course meals of the period, with particular attention given to men’s attire and facial hair, and the various levels of economic and social strata.

    The tendresse which develops between Alec and Roberta is completely appropriate to the period. A lot of information had to be included for the story to make sense, but I was never bored.

    There are shocking revelations and very dramatic confrontations. The story was informative, educational, exciting, suspenseful, dramatic and altogether wonderful. I can’t wait for the next book.

Rating:   Excellent.

Editorial Comment:   If I may, I’d like to recommend an article online by Rafe MacGregor about the writing of this book; it appears online here on the Shots Magazine website.

      The bad news is that the book sold out its first printing very quickly and is now commanding high prices on the secondary market; that is to say, $80 and up, an amount I personally consider to be “high.” And at the present time, the author’s blog and website no longer seem to exist. Even with the success of the first book, I do not know if there will be a second one.

[UPDATE] 01-26-11.   Jamie Sturgeon has sent me the URL to Rafe McGregor’s new website, where what he has to say about his writing career is even more discouraging. Here’s the direct link to his “Pulp Fiction” page: https://sites.google.com/site/rafemcgregor/pulp-fiction-1.


GEORGE WORTHING YATES – The Body That Wasn’t Uncle. William Morrow, hardcover, 1939. Reprint paperbacks: Dell #52, mapback edition, 1944; Dell #645, 1952.

   When a man off the train at Princeton Junction [New Jersey] heads straight across the snow for the Villars farm, the number one question asked later is, did he ever get there before he collapsed and died of atropine poisoning? And why did Sidney Villars claim the dead man to be his long-lost brother, Stephen Small?

   Ex-Scotland Yard Inspector Hazlitt Woar, now a private eye at loose ends in Bermuda, is called in by Katheren Meynard, a friend of the family who suspects fraud, but not murder. Woar, who speaks in riddles and short, clipped sentences, does a capable job of detection and fulfills while doing so a romance evidently begun in an earlier entry in the series, the courtship finally ending in a most curious fashion indeed.


   There is a class of detective novel, however, and this is one of them, in which you keep getting the distinct impression that the author is deliberately withholding information solely to keep the reader from solving the puzzle. The merely mysterious is emphasized, and not the mystery.

   Or in other words, characters are murkier than they need to be, and with murkier motives. To no avail, this time: there’s only one person the killer could be. Strangely enough, New Jersey trooper Lt. Gurney could have come straight from the pages of Black Mask, and equally so the ambitious, high-minded D.A. named Hellenberger.

   As for Woar himself, though, he has a tweedy and entirely British charm all his own.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
   Vol. 3, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1979. Very slightly revised.


BIBLIOGRAPHY:   [Adapted from the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin.]

GEORGE WORTHING YATES. 1900-1975. see pseudonym Peter Hunt (books)

      There Was a Crooked Man (n.) Morrow 1936.
      The Body That Came by Post (n.) Morrow 1937.   [Hazlitt Woar]
      The Body That Wasn’t Uncle (n.) Morrow 1939.   [Hazlitt Woar.]
      If a Body (n.) Morrow 1941.   [Hazlitt Woar]

   In collaboration with Charles Hunt Marshall under the joint pen name of Peter Hunt, Yates also wrote three earlier works of detective or mystery fiction. Alan Miller, about whom I know nothing more, was the leading character in these, including the provocatively titled Murder Among the Nudists (1934).

[UPDATE] 01-25-11.   I can’t say this with any degree of certainty, but I believe it was the earlier Dell paperback that I read. What’s strange is that I’m almost sure that I remember the bookstore where I found the book, but all I remember of the story is what you’ve just read yourself in the review above.

[UPDATE #2] 01-29-11.   Murder Among the Nudists, I am pleased — and quite surprised — to be able to tell you, has recently been reprinted by Ramble House.   (Thanks for the tip go to Jamie Sturgeon.)



YOU’RE A SWEETHEART. Universal, 1937. Alice Faye, George Murphy, Ken Murray, Andy Devine, Charles Winninger, William Gargan, Frank Jenks, Donald Meek. Music director: Charles Previn; dances staged by Carl Randall. Director: David Butler. Shown at Cinefest 28, Syracuse NY, March 2008.

   Don King (Ken Murray), a bumptious promoter, hires waiter Hal Adams (George Murphy), to pass as an Oklahoma millionaire and drum up support for his Broadway show starring Betty Bradley (Alice Faye).

   Betty is unaware of the deception and falls in love with Hal who may be working as a waiter, but is a terrific song and dance man.

   The plan to keep the show afloat goes off track, but if you don’t think there’s going to be a happy ending, you should swear off musicals. Faye and Murphy are splendid co-stars, and the cast of talented supporting actors provides sterling support.

   Both Faye (at Fox) and Murphy (at MGM) will appear in bigger budgeted films, with more illustrious casts, but they’re just fine in this ingratiating musical comedy.


Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:         


MY NAME IS MODESTY. Miramax, 2004. Alexandra Staden. Raymond Cruz, Fred Pearson, Eugenia Yuan, Nicolaj Coster Waldau. Screenplay by Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler, based on the characters created by Peter O’Donnell and “In the Beginning,” the Modesty Blaise comic strip by Peter O’Donnell & James Holdway. Directed by Scott Spiegel.

   The history of this one isn’t very promising — Quentin Tarantino had acquired the rights to film the character of Modesty Blaise from the comic strip and novels by Peter O’Donnell, and in order to keep them he needed to get something on film. As a result he produced this made for DVD release feature as a sort of prequel to a real film.

   The good news is that it is better than any previous Modesty Blaise film or television appearance, and better than it had to be.

   In fact, for now, it is the definitive Modesty Blaise on screen. The story takes place before Modesty meets Willie Garvin, and before she became the “Mam’zelle,” mistress of the criminal organization known as the Network. This is very much the story of how she came to hold such a position.

   The film is short and the story succinct. Modesty Blaise (Alexandra Staden) is in Tangier working at the casino owned by her criminal mentor, the head of the Network. As the film opens he is planning a major drug deal (despite Modesty’s disapproval) and as a result the vault at the casino is filled with money.

   Myklos, (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), a charismatic young terrorist with a grudge against her boss, kills him and takes over the casino after closing time taking Modesty and a handful of employees hostage.


   To keep herself and the other hostages alive, Modesty convinces Myklos that they must wait for her bosses second in command (Raymond Cruz from TNT’s The Closer) to return to open the safe, and engages him at the roulette wheel and in a desperate ploy: for every game he wins she will tell another chapter of her life beginning with how she came to be named Modesty Blaise, and for every three in a row she wins he will let a hostage free.

   Thus Modesty reveals the story of her origins as an orphan in war-torn Bosnia (updated from the original post WW II era) and how she met Lodz, the old man who became her teacher and traveling companion. As the suspenseful cat and mouse game proceeds Modesty carefully plays Myklos and reveals her compelling story from how she wandered over Southern Europe and North Africa to how she became involved with the Network after the old man’s death when she was caught stealing in the bazaars of Tangiers by her mentor in crime.

   Done on a small budget and with mostly unknown actors, this shouldn’t work, but ironically those things become virtues, and while Staden is too slight to really capture the Modesty of the comic strip and books, she has the exotic look, Khirghiz eyes, and screen presence to suggest both the complexity and strength of the character, and when at the end she rips off her skirt in the true Modesty style to go into action, the well-choreographed fight could have been story boarded from the panels drawn by artist James Holdway.


   Modesty wins the day, and even offers an ironic thank you to the dead Myklos, who has inadvertently delivered the Network into her hands. She cancels the drug deal, and informs her now second in command that they will deal with the problems that causes when it comes. The film ends as the legend is born.

   There is a nice touch, too, as one of the hostages, the bartender, who has overheard her life story as she recounted it to Myklos to stall him, asks her just how much of what she told them was true.

   With a Giaconda smile she replies: My name is Modesty.

   After the awful Joseph Losey film with Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp as Modesty and Willie, and the misguided television pilot designed to move the characters to California with Ann Turkel miscast, it is nice to finally see a respectful and intelligent adaptation of O’Donnell’s popular cult favorite.

   My Name is Modesty is nothing more than an appetizer, but as such it does what a good appetizer is designed for and whets the appetite for the main course.

   Even if the main course never comes, this remains a faithful and heartfelt tribute to the real thing and the DVD includes a nice making of video, insightful audio commentary by the screenwriters, director, and producer, a video interview with the late Peter O’Donnell on the creation of Modesty, and an illustrated retrospective of all her comic strip adventures replete with detailed synopsis.

   All in all this is a class act all the way, like the lady it celebrates. It is the real Modesty Blaise, and that’s all any of her fans have ever asked for.


IT’S ABOUT CRIME, by Marvin Lachman

CRAIG RICE The Corpse Steps Out

CRAIG RICE – The Corpse Steps Out. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1940. Reprint hardcover: Tower Books, 1945. Reprint paperbacks: Pocket #476, October 1947; International Polygonics, 1989.

   Paperbacks published by International Polygonics Ltd. are worth noting for quality and variety. Recently IPL has been publishing Craig Rice’s series regarding John J. Malone, aided and abetted by Jake and Helene (nee Brand) Justus, and has already published her very scarce first novel, Eight Faces at Three.

   Now comes the almost as scarce and equally enjoyable second Malone mystery, The Corpse Steps Out (1940), a wild and wacky mystery set in pre-World War II Chicago. Appropriate to the time, many of the cast of characters work in radio, and their fear of sponsor censorship is important to the plot. (Chicago at one time was an important center of national radio.)

   This is a classic case of “murder without tears,” and even the incredible amount of booze consumed by the characters seems inoffensive, though, with hindsight, we know how harmful it is.

   Included is a brief biography of Rice by William Ruehlmann which is crammed with information. Rice had a terrible alcoholism problem which contributed to her death and “wrote the binge but lived the hangover,” according to Ruehlmann. Her brief, unhappy life ended at age forty-nine in 1957; her enjoyable mysteries live on.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall 1989 (slightly revised).


SON OF DRACULA. Universal Pictures, 1943. Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Paige, Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers, Frank Craven, J. Edward Bromberg. Story: Curt Siodmak; screenplay: Eric Taylor. Director: Robert Siodmak.


   Lon Chaney Jr., last mentioned for his performance of Witch Woman [reviewed here], also starred in of one of Universal’s more successful chillers, Son of Dracula directed by Robert Siodmak, who went on to create some iconic films noir, including The Killers and Christmas Holiday.

   Siodmak handles the tale of Count Dracula coming to modern-day America in search of fresh blood with authentic creepiness, possibly remembering the expressionist German Horror films of his youth and bringing them to America as well.


   Aided by John P. Fulton’s special effects, he gives the film a splendidly gothic look, with eerie mists and floating coffins, and even elicits an off-beat performance from Chaney fils, whose hulking vampire suggests some of the virility Chris Lee brought to the part years later.

   I should also note that Robert Paige, as the hero of the tale ranks a few notches above the average bland leading man in a monster movie. Classic horror films have a perversity that has always appealed to me, in that the Monster is generally more sympathetic, or at least more interesting, than the putative good guys.

   Not here. As Son of Dracula develops, Paige becomes not so much hero as patsy, set up by a scheming girlfriend for a grisly fate, and struggling throughout with forces that outmatched him from the start.


   In fact, Siodmak reused the plot in basic outline in one of his grimmer noirs, Criss Cross (1950) with Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea in the thematic roles done here by Paige, Louise Allbritton (very effective as a literal femme fatale) and Chaney Jr. And Paige (who had a title role in the Monster and the Girl a couple years earlier) invests the part with real pathos.

   In keeping with this moody, fatalistic feel, Son wraps up on a haunting note, with the hero still wanted for murder and haunted by a love that he betrayed.

   It makes me wonder what the little kids thought of all this as they left the theater back in the 40s, particularly since Son of Dracula was double-billed with Universal’s The Mad Ghoul, a surprisingly classy B-feature with echoes of Caligari and an ending that copies the opening of a 1937 Woolrich story, “Graves for the Living.”


SHE ASKED FOR IT. Paramount, 1937. William Gargan, Orien Heyward, Vivienne Osborne, Richard Carle, Roland Drew, Harry Beresford, Miki Morita. Director: Erle C. Kenton.

   William Gargan is well-known name to long-time classic movie fans, even though I remember him most (and first) as PI Martin Kane on the radio. The rest of the cast is all but unknown to me.

SHE ASKED FOR IT William Gargan

   Orien Hayward, for example, who’s married to William Gargan’s character at the beginning of the movie, if you ever expect to see her in a movie, it will have to be this one. Except for a small uncredited part in one other, Her Husand Lies (also Paramount, 1937), she never made another.

   I don’t know why. She’s a pert young blonde who more than holds her own as Penelope, the female half of the Stafford family. She’s married to Dwight Stafford (that’s Gargan), and a more profligate and wastrel couple you cannot imagine, living high in society solely on the basis of a monthly allowance from Dwight’s (very) rich uncle.

   When the check doesn’t arrive at the beginning of one month, they are in deep financial trouble. They rush over to the uncle’s home, only to find that he has just died, the victim of a hit-and-run accident, the other party unknown.

   Forced by bitter necessity to make a living on their own, his cousin having shut the horn of plenty (and their only flow of income) down on them, Dwight, a big fan of mystery fiction, decides to become an author. The first big twist in the tale is that he does, and in a big way. The second big twist is that after several successful books, Dwight tells Penelope he’d rather go fishing than write another book. (His literary muse is gone.)

   And so is Penny, off to Reno for a divorce. Dwight, on the other hand, decides to pose as his own character and go into the detective business, and after a considerable amount of muddling around, he solves the case, the first one that comes in the door.

   I’ve gone into more detail than I might for some movies for two reasons. First of all, it’s an interesting set-up, and secondly this is a relatively difficult movie to find. There’s a long synopsis on IMDB (one which will unfortunately tell you everything, and if you read it, you will absolutely never need to see this movie), but at this point in time, there isn’t a single comment that’s been left, nor an external link, except one to this blog, as soon as it can be done. (It usually takes a couple of days.)

   Should you go to a more than usual amount of effort to find this movie? My advice is no, don’t bother, unless I’ve made the set-up sound as interesting as I tried to. But when I said that the case itself is muddled, I meant it, and more: all the way through, the vibes are off.

   The Staffords’ problems, that of the lazy rich, are difficult to identify with, to put it politely but succinctly, and most of the other characters are only crudely drawn, with one of them being out-and-out repulsive.

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