Tue 29 Mar 2011
I don’t know what caused it but I had a massive muscle spasm in my right hip Sunday morning, bad enough for us to call an ambulance to take me to the emergency room around 3 pm. They assumed it was a fracture but all of the tests, Xray, MRI and Catscan, were negative.
They finally found a medication that killed the pain, and I came home around 5 pm Monday. The pain is still mostly gone and for the most part I can get around, but I’m still too light-headed to do more than post this message to the blog. I’m using my wife’s downstairs computer. I can’t maneuver my way to my upstairs study where mine is. (We live in a split level house.)
I see that a lot of discussion is still going on following last week’s posts, especially the one about the Mannix TV show that Michael Shonk wrote up, but I don’t imagine I’ll be able to post anything new for the next few days. The visiting nurse made her first visit about 30 minutes ago, and I’ll be making a trip to our chiropractor this afternoon, I hope.
I’ll have to see if there’s as easy way from me to read my email from here. My wife uses gmail or hotmail, and I don’t. I’ll probably have to add updates to this post to stay in touch.
[UPDATE] 03-30-11. Here’s the culprit, clinically speaking: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piriformis_muscle
Located in men right where your billfold sits in your back packet. I don’t know if a possible cause is having too many bills in your wallet, but since that’s hardly ever true in my case, chances are slim that’s what happened to me. I have pills to take, and they seem to work, but the basic cure seems to be rest. And if something I do causes pain, then stop doing it.
Moving laterally is my biggest problem, which makes getting to my computer upstairs still too tough to do. Right now there’s only a narrow passageway up the stairs and into the room. I’ll be careful and not try to overdo anything I shouldn’t.
Thanks for all the good wishes. This was my first overnight stay in a hospital, though it was only in the Emergency Room. My problem seems awfully minor after seeing the incoming patients and listening to them talk to the the doctors and nurses in the cubicle next door. Everything seemed crowded and chaotic at first, but after a while it was still crowded and chaotic — but under control. The staff seemed to know exactly what they were doing.
David, I think it was you who asked about the MRI exam. It was full body one in a narrow closed tube, though open at both ends. They handed me a bulb to press if I experienced any kind of problem. It took me less than five seconds to press the bulb. It took a small sedative to get me through that. If that hadn’t worked, I think they were ready to use one of the conks on the head that knocked Mannix out every so often.
The blog will be back in business by this weekend, I’m sure, if not before. Thanks again for all the cheer and goodwill!
[UPDATE #2] 03-31-11. R.I.P. H.R.F.KEATING (1926-2011). See Comment #20 and David Vineyard’s tribute to one of the Giants of the world of mystery and crime fiction, followed briefly by one of my own.
Sat 26 Mar 2011
Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:
FRANCES PARKINSON KEYES – Station Wagon in Spain. Farrar Straus & Cudahy, hardcover, 1959. Paperback reprints include Avon G-1054, 1960; Fawcett Crest 1066, 1967.
I have to confess, I struggled with Frances Parkinson Keyes (pronounced like skies). I did not want to read her books and I certainly didn’t want to like them.
From the time I started reading heavily my mother, aunt, and cousin — all female — were pushing Keyes at me, and like a mule I balked. I grew up in the South, I did not need more maudlin memories of the Civil War and fading plantations beneath drooping willow trees. I certainly didn’t need them from a conservative Republican author of New England stock and the wife of a conservative Republican senator.
Let us just say that at the time that was enough for me to lay in a stock of garlic, wooden stakes, and a crucifix to protect myself.
Resistance wasn’t easy. Copies of Keyes’ works were everywhere I went, and those three ladies were very persuasive. And Keyes didn’t help. The first time I ate at Antoine’s in New Orleans, all I could think of over the crepe and cherries jubilee was that now I’d have to read Dinner at Antoine’s. Then too, The Chess Players was about the fascinating chess master Paul Morphy who had been a Confederate spy during the Civil War. It was an obvious conspiracy.
It wasn’t until a ski trip to Red River in New Mexico that fate and Mrs. Keyes caught up to me. I took a nasty spill early that morning on a patch of ice and had a bit of a concussion. The medic told me to go back to the lodge and rest — not sleep — going to sleep alone after a concussion can be the last thing you ever do — just hang around the lodge — under observation lest I slip into a coma — and rest.
Boredom and minor concern — not a good mix.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with ski lodges, but they are singularly lonely places when the ski slopes are open. There is no television, no radio (unless you like Mariachi music or country western — it was New Mexico after all), and nothing to read. They are designed only for partying apres skiing and sleeping when you can’t party anymore.
There was no bookstore in Red River, not even a paperback kiosk at the convenience store. There may have been a library, but no one at the ski lodge knew where and with over 100 inches of snow on the ground and temperatures in the mid teens I didn’t feel like venturing out exploring. It was starting to snow too.
But there she was, with the only book in the entire town apparently — Frances Parkinson Keyes.
With all the resignation of a rabbit about to be eaten by a wolf I sat down to my fate.
I won’t lie to you. It was not the start of a life long love affair. I still resist Southern Plantation novels with the same passion I reserve for cold cauliflower, but grudgingly she won me over. A convert — more of less.
Between 1919 and her death in 1970, Keyes wrote a whole slew of novels, no small number of which were bestsellers. They are primarily women’s books: vivid descriptions of clothes, elegant meals, lace finery, furniture, chandeliers, and social mores mixed with a bit of melodrama and a good deal of history.
Keyes was a prodigious researcher and traveler, largely self educated and endlessly curious. She had a reporter’s eye and a pleasant gossipy style that combined to make the ideal mix for her legions of readers.
And as it turned out she was a fair to middling mystery and suspense writer.
At least two of her novels are fair play mysteries — Dinner at Antoine’s, which features a well handled change on the least likely suspect theme, and The Royal Box, about a poisoning of an American diplomat in the royal box at London’s Ellen Terry Theater. She also penned three novels of romantic suspense — Victorine, The Heritage, and Station Wagon in Spain.
Station Wagon in Spain, as you have no doubt already figured out, was the book in the lodge.
The hero of the novel, one Allan Lambert, has worked all his life and only recently come into money, and he doesn’t quite know what to do, so when he gets one of those infamous Spanish Prisoner letters (the equivalent of today’s Nigerian con) instead of laughing it off or reporting it to the Postal authorities, he buys a beat up old wood paneled station wagon and ships it to Spain to have a little fun.
This being Keyes, she not only explains what the Spanish Prisoner con was, but gives a nice little history of it dating back to the first instance in 1542 and some idea of how the Postal authorities and Spanish police deal with it.
Allan soon finds himself knee deep in murder, politics, criminal gangs, romance, and ancient revenge.
Station Wagon in Spain is an exceptionally good read of its type. Nothing revolutionary, but Keyes’ novelist’s eye adds a depth to the proceedings missing in the standard model. She knows how to choreograph action,, construct a plot, and build to a pay off — in fact the book doesn’t have just one payoff, but two — three if you count the inevitable romance.
They are pretty good payoff’s too — one of them almost Poesque and damn well handled. It has a real edge and more than a touch of that passionate nature so dear to the Spanish character and history.
This isn’t the work of a mainstream novelist slumming in genre fiction.
Well, yes, it’s dated now. Her prose is a little stiff and formal. She lingers over details that her readers loved but most lovers of suspense would as soon skip, and her attitudes are those of a woman of her day, class, and social position — albeit an extremely well traveled and cosmopolitan woman of her time.
She isn’t Leslie Ford, but she’s not exactly Eleanor Roosevelt either.
And yes, I have since read a good many of Frances Parkinson Keyes novels — even some of the Southern plantation novels like River Road and Steamboat Gothic.
She was an obsessive and keen researcher, had a travel writer’s eye for the telling detail, a novelist gift for creating comfortable if not compelling characters, and despite her protests to the contrary, a real gift for suspense and mystery plotting.
If you like Helen MacInnes, Martha Albrand, Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Charlotte Armstrong, or Nora Lofts you might well enjoy her suspense and mystery novels, and if you like historical novels she was one of the masters of that form.
Her work is aimed at her primarily female audience, but there is nothing to keep a man from enjoying them with a little judicious skipping here and there — there is only so much I feel the need to know about Damascus silk, and all that sumptuous descriptions of food remind me of is that I ought to order a pizza for dinner.
I recovered from the concussion — no comments — got back on the ski slopes the next day, and when I got home rounded up all the Keyes novels my family had been pushing on me for years. I still have some of them, battered, dog eared, and once much loved.
The first one I read was the Paul Morphy novel, The Chess Players.
I enjoyed it too.
If you’re in the mood for fictional comfort food, you could do much worse, and for all her flaws, her virtues still out weigh them. She is largely forgotten today, as the once popular works of past generations generally are, but there are still pleasures to be found, and you will likely feel more than a little appreciation for a time and a writer who appreciated literacy, construction, and respected her readers intelligence.
She was a most literate and accomplished lady.
As best selling writers from the past go, she is still well worth getting acquainted with.
Crime Fiction Bibliography: [Taken from the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin]
KEYES, FRANCES PARKINSON (née Wheeler). 1885-1970.
Dinner at Antoine’s (n.) Messner 1948.
The Royal Box (n.) Messner 1954.
Victorine (n.) Messner 1958.
Station Wagon in Spain (n.) Farrar 1959.
Sat 26 Mar 2011
As a followup to the various lists posted here recently of favorite mystery writers and characters over the years, here’s yet another. This one was announced in the Fall 1994 issue of The Armchair Detective, the results of a survey the magazine had taken of its readers earlier that year.
ALL TIME FAVORITE MYSTERY WRITERS
1. Rex Stout
2. Agatha Christie
3. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
4. Raymond Chandler
5. Ross Macdonald
6. Dorothy L. Sayers
7. Dashiell Hammett
8. Ngaio Marsh
9. Josephine Tey
10. P. D. James
11. Robert B. Parker
12. John Dickson Carr
13. Erle Stanley Gardner
14. Dick Francis
15. James Lee Burke
FAVORITE CURRENTLY ACTIVE MYSTERY WRITERS
1, P. D. James
2. Lawrence Block
3. Robert B. Parker
4. Sue Grafton
5. Dick Francis
6. Tony Hillerman
7. Ed McBain
8. James Lee Burke
9. Martha Grimes
10. Elizabeth George
FAVORITE MYSTERY NOVELS
1. The Maltese Falcon
2. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
3. The Hound of the Baskervilles
4. Gaudy Night
5. The Daughter of Time
FAVORITE MYSTERY SERIES CHARACTER
1. Sherlock Holmes
2. Nero Wolfe
3. Hercule Poirot
4. Miss Marple
5. Lew Archer
WRITER WHO WILL STILL BE READ FIFTY YEARS FROM NOW
1. P. D. James
2. Tony Hillerman
3. Dick Francis
4. Robert B. Parker
5T. Ruth Rendell
5T. Lawrence Block
On the reverse page of the poll results were the Mystery Bestseller Lists for May-June 1994, as reported by several specialty mystery bookshops:
1. “K” Is for Killer, Sue Grafton
2. Tunnel Vision, Sara Paretsky
3. Shooting at Loons, Margaret Maron
4. The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, Lawrence Block
5T. Dead Man’s Heart, Aaron Elkins
5T. Tickled to Death, Joan Hess
7. Till the Butchers Cut Him Down, Marcia Muller
8. The Concrete Blonde, Michael Connelly
9. How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law, Dorothy Cannell
10. Dixie City Jam, James Lee Burke
1. The Track of the Cat, Nevada Barr
2. Missing Joseph, Elizabeth George
3T. To Live and Die in Dixie, Kathy Hogan Trocheck
3T. Blooming Murder, Jean Hager
5. Dead Man’s Island, Carolyn Hart
6. Cruel and Unusual, Patricia Cornwell
7. J Is for Judgment, Sue Grafton
8T. Bootlegger’s Daughter, Margaret Maron
8T. Share in Death, Deborah Crombie
8T. Poisoned Pins, Joan Hess
11. Twice in a Blue Moon, Patricia Moyes
Sat 26 Mar 2011
REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:
“The Cost of a Vacation.” An episode of Mannix CBS-TV; Season 1, Episode 6 (27 October 1967). Created: Richard Levinson and William Link. Developed: Bruce Geller. Written: Chester Krumholz. Directed: John Meredyth Lucas. Cast: Joe Mannix: Mike Conners, Lew Wickersham: Joseph Campanella. Guest Cast: Joyce: Marlyn Mason, Ramon: Donnelly Rhodes, Leonard: Henry Beckman
“The Cost of a Vacation” was an entertaining episode despite the flawed premise of the first season of Mannix. The original idea behind the series was to have hardboiled PI Joe Mannix work for a modern computerized investigation agency named Intertect.
In this episode, Joe had to ask his boss’s permission to help an ex-girlfriend. Would any hardboiled PI ask permission for anything? It weakened the lone hero PI character, and for little reason, as boss Lew Wickersham gives in quickly. You are left wondering why someone like Joe Mannix would work for Intertect.
In “The Cost of a Vacation”, Mannix’s ex-girlfriend of the week, Joyce Loman asks Joe to find the man she fell for during a vacation romance. Long thought gone, she had spotted him on the street and gave chase. The beautiful but not too bright model failed to realize he was trying to get away from her.
The script is fast paced with few scenes without a twist or two. The episode overflows with classic elements from hardboiled mysteries. The lying client. Mystery man. His deadly reason to remain hidden from Joyce. A dead man in a dark alley that leads Mannix to an office where he gets knocked out from behind.
But not before finding a clue. Joe’s legman, the computer, discovers the meaning of the clue as Joe works “the streets.” Joe and disbelieving Joyce are shot at by a killer.
Later, the killer’s reason for missing them leads to a harrowing scene worthy of the darkest noir. Dark city streets. Camera angles, cuts and movement used to increase the tension of the final chase. What more could a hardboiled PI fan want?
Mike Conners was the main strength of the series. He portrayed tough guy Joe Mannix straight, as an old fashioned hero, without a hint of the modern day PI’s cynicism or sarcasm. The rest of the cast performed well, but you had to feel sorry for the talented Joe Campanella reduced to little more than telling Mannix, “No. I really mean no. Oh, go ahead, Joe.”
“The Cost of a Vacation” is an episode any TV mystery fan will enjoy, even those of us who never liked Mannix. You might even find yourself humming Lalo Schifrin’s theme music for days later.
SOURCE: The source DVD I used is listed at online at the usual outlets with the title Best of TV Detectives: 150 Episodes.
Fri 25 Mar 2011
Posted by Steve under Reviews Comments
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck
SUTHERLAND SCOTT – Crazy Murder Show. Hillman-Curl, hardcover, 1937. pages. Mystery Novel of the Month #28, digest paperback reprint, 1941, as Murder on Stage. Originally published in the UK: Stanley Paul, hc, 1937.
During the Majestic Theatre’s presentation of “Crazy Week,” a vaudeville revue scheduled to last at least a month, impressionist Tamara Medina is foully murdered in her dressing room, with her body, but not her face, horribly scarred by acid.
It is Scotland Yard’s great luck that Septimus Dodds, M.D., consulting detective, and his confidante, Sandy Stacey, are spotted in the area and asked to come observe the investigation. Following the attack of appendicitis suffered by the detective in charge, the Yard asks
Dodds to take charge.
Which he does with signal success, only two more people being murdered.
While the plot is a good one, Scott has a tendency to overwrite just a tad. “One could almost see the army of red corpuscles, which had previously staged a disorderly retreat from his facial capillaries, flood back in a joyous stream, leaving the manager a flushed, perspiring, but reprieved mass of protoplasm.”
If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you and you don’t mind a detective who is given no personality by his creator, you will find this novel acceptable.
— From The MYSTERY FANcier
, Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall 1989.
Editorial Comment: Of the twelve detective stories featuring Dr. Septimus Dodds as the primary detective, this is the only one to come out in the US. The first was published in 1936; the last to appear was in 1956. [A complete list of titles can be found in Comment #2.]
Fri 25 Mar 2011
Posted by Steve under Reviews Comments
MARVIN KAYE – My Brother, the Druggist. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1979. Trade paperback reprint: Wildside Press, 2011.
Marty Gold, druggist, travels to Washington, D.C., to attend a convention of jazz enthusiasts and record collectors. He’s accompanied by his large “actor” friend, Bill Finney, and tagging along for the ride is Mase O’Dwyer, a thirteen year old amateur magician who’s going to attend a magic convention.
Nearly everything Marty tries to do is wrong, and the detective is more a hindrance than a help. Before things are set right, Marty is so guilty that he’s barely visible.
If you can put up with the guilt, and with the insufferable Bill Finney’s insistence on speaking his own version of Elizabethan English (it’s all right to like Shakespeare, but to address people as “Sirrah” is too much), you’ll run into several nicely arranged surprises, a brief but entertaining look at record collecting, a credible solution to Mase’s disappearance, some funny lines, and other good things.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 3, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1979.
Editorial Comments: There was one earlier book in this series, My Son, the Druggist, Doubleday Crime Club, hc, 1977, but no later ones.
As Bill related in this earlier post, as a judge for the first “Nero” Award, My Brother, the Druggist was one of three books he considered as runners-up to his first choice, Lawrence Block’s The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling.
Fri 25 Mar 2011
THE CRIME NOBODY SAW. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Lew Ayres, Ruth Coleman, Eugene Pallette, Benny Baker, Vivienne Osborne, Colin Tapley, Howard C. Hickman, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Jed Prouty, Hattie McDaniel. Based on the play Danger, Men Working, by Manfred Lee & Frederic Dannay. Director: Charles Barton.
As I understand it, the play (mentioned above) that the Ellery Queen cousins wrote never made it anywhere near Broadway, and if the movie that it was made of it instead resembles it in any way, it’s no surprise.
Not that the movie is bad, if you’re in the right frame of mind, and forgiving. It just isn’t very good. It opens with three frustrated playwrights (Ayers, Pallette and Baker) struggling with their latest opus, a mystery play that’s supposed to start next week, and they, in spite of all their efforts, can’t get any farther than Page One.
Enter their drunken neighbor from the apartment across the hall. When he collapses on the floor and passes out, they go through his pockets. A little black book is filled with names and suspicious numbers. He’s not a lecherous lothario, they quickly decide, he’s a blackmailer!
Call the police? No, not they. Determined to take the situation and turn into the play they have not been able to right, they… Did you guess? They disguise themselves as policemen and call three of the names in the black book, important individuals all, and invite them over to hear the final accusation from the man who owns the book.
Well, OK, this is really a lot of fun – if you’re in the right frame of mind – but things get out of hand when (you guessed it) the lights go out (and guess again) the unconscious man is mysteriously murdered.
There are a few twists that follow, and now that I think about it, perhaps more than a few, but (still thinking about it) none that make any sense. I might have to watch the movie again, if you wanted me to be more definitive than that, and I probably will, someday, and even perhaps someday soon, but not immediately. Forgive me.
One last thing. Hattie McDaniel, a black actress who often played the same variety of lady’s maid as she does in this movie, is also a key witness. Without her, the three wanna-be playwrights wouldn’t have had a clue.
Thu 24 Mar 2011
Posted by Steve under Reviews Comments
A Review by STEPHEN MERTZ:
CARTER BROWN – Donavan’s Delight. Belmont Tower, paperback original, 1979.
— This review first appeared in The MYSTERY FANcier 3#6
, Nov-Dec 1979.
A few issues ago I was lamenting the discontinuance by Signet Books of their publication of the works of Alan Yates, who writes as Carter Brown and who is one of the very last practitioners of the tongue-in-cheek hardboiled style pioneered by Bellem, Latimer and Prather.
Yates published 179 short, snappy novels between 1953 and 1976. Then, for a while, he dropped out of sight. There was one science fiction novel published under his real name by Ace Books last year, so at least we knew the guy was still around.
And now, after a two year hiatus, “Carter Brown” has returned and Donavan’s Delight is the first of an all new, gaudily packaged series of books for the Belmont Tower line.
This one stars millionaire industrialist-adventurer Paul Donavan, who is one of Yates’ more interesting series characters. As the book opens, Donavan and his “man,” Hicks-an ex-mercenary who is more drinking and fighting buddy than butler-are confronted by a running lovely (nude, of course; the lovelies are almost always nude in Carter Brown books) who is being pursued across the open English countryside by a nasty with a whip on horseback.
Donavan and Hicks step in, naturally, and before the first chapter is out they’re tossed head first into an adventure of contraband weapons to third world nations, CIA shenanigans, quite a few nasty ladies and gentlemen and a brothel that specializes in the perversions of the very rich.
Like all of Yates’ previous books, this is almost novella length (my calculator figures it at about 40,000 words) and consists of mostly dialogue, some of it crude. There is violence and some graphic sex, and there isn’t a single word in all of the 139 pages to tax the vocabulary of anyone with at least a tenth grade education.
This will seem like pretty base stuff to readers of Ross Macdonald and LeCarre — and maybe it is; Yates is a pulpster, make no mistake, and certainly not to everyone’s taste — but if he’s no great shakes as a stylist, the man does have his good points and they too are fully in evidence in Donavan’s Delight.
The book boasts a superbly controlled narrative drive, two striking lead characters (in the figurative as well as the literal sense), Yates’ usual knack for sucking you into an interesting storyline right from the start, and a twisty, complicated whodunit mystery plot that is well resolved by the closing, violent denouement.
Litrachoor it ain’t, for sure. But it is fun of the “quick read” variety, and I for one am glad that “Carter Brown” is again back on the scene.
Editorial Comment: The science fiction novel referred to here by Steve was a new one for me, and of course I had to go looking for it. It didn’t take long, and as you see, I even found a cover image for it. The title is
Coriolanus, The Chariot!, a paperback original from Ace (July 1978). According to one ABE bookseller, it takes place “on the planet Thesbos, where the Word of Shakespeare is Law.”
I certainly don’t know how I missed this one. And no, there’s no snark involved in that statement at all.
Thu 24 Mar 2011
ACCOMPLICE. Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), 1946. Richard Arlen (Simon Lash), Veda Ann Borg, Tom Dugan, Michael Brandon, Marjorie Manners, Earle Hodgins, Francis Ford. Based on the novel Simon Lash, Private Detective, by Frank Gruber. Director: Walter Colmes.
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to get what you’ve been wishing for, even if you’ve been looking for it for a long time. Case in point: This movie, based on a private eye yarn by a long time master of pulp fiction, Frank Gruber.
Gruber also had a hand in on the screenplay, but I have to be honest. This is one of the worst assembled detective movies I’ve had the occasion to watch in a long time. It’s a jumbled up mess, one put together by a gang of ham-fisted amateurs, or so it seems.
Luckily it’s only 68 minutes long, and at that it felt a whole lot longer. PRC didn’t have a lot of money to splurge on their productions, and even so you get the feeling that they cut the budget on Accomplice by thirty percent about halfway through to save it for the next film out of their hopper.
Another problem, perhaps, is that they tried to film the book fairly closely, but that’s only a guess, not having read the book in over 50 years, but that’s what it feels like. There’s simply too much story, which goes hither and yon and there, and in 68 minutes, there’s not nearly enough time to stitch the pieces of a nicely complicated plot together so the seams don’t show, and badly.
But as for the story, since you are asking, it starts out in fine fashion. Simon Lash (a mid-career but still dashing Richard Arlen) is a private eye, and not only that, one of my favorite kinds of private eyes, a book collecting PI, mostly non-fiction about the West and how it was Won. He also has an assistant named Eddie (Tom Dugan) who seems to do a lot of the heavy lifting around the office.
He’s hired in Accomplice by brash blonde Joyce Bonniwell (played to perfection by brash blonde Veda Ann Borg) find her husband, a bank manager who suffers from periodic bouts of amnesia. (We’ve heard that before, and so has Simon Lash.) What makes things hinky here is that Joyce once dumped Simon at the altar.
So far, so good. What comes next is fast and furious. There is a mistress on the side (red-headed, as if you could tell in a black and white movie), a mink ranch, a missing bank president who’s been seen with a mysterious brunette, a body found with its head blown off, and – skipping a whole lot – a Castle in the desert being used for nefarious purposes, lorded over by Francis Ford (brother of John Ford, a fact which is of course totally irrelevant to the rest of this paragraph).
There things come to a flashy and violent end. I had stopped caring about 30 minutes earlier, but the ending, I’d have to admit, is nearly worth waiting for. Almost, but not quite.
Wed 23 Mar 2011
THE EXPLOSIVE NOVELS OF RICHARD L. GRAVES
by George Kelley
Richard L. Graves is a consultant on weapons and pyrotechnic devices as a result of the US Army training him as a demolitions expert. And his five caper novels feature explosives as a touchstone for the major action.
Graves’ first novel, and his best, is The Black Gold of Malaverde (Stein & Day, hc, 1973; Bantam, pb, 1974). My thanks go to Bill Crider for calling this book and Graves’ work to my attention.
The Black Gold of Malaverde begins with a guerrilla takeover of the South American country of Malaverde led by a buffoon named Mercado. But behind Mercado and his peoples’ revolution is the shadowy figure of international financier DePrundis. The wealth of Malaverde is its black gold: oil.
The Malaverde oil industry has been controlled by Bradford Petroleum, but during the takeover D. J. Bradford, son of the American millionaire, is captured and later killed.
Bradford Senior, burning with grief and revenge, turns to an obscure organization known as The Bank to avenge his son. The Bank is an economic intelligence agency who sees DePrundis’s influence as a threat to the international monetary stability they protect.
The Bank allows Bradford to contact Hugo Wolfram, a demolitions expert now running a company specializing in stopping oil fires. Wolfram is the architect of the caper to ruin the entire country of Malaverde. He recruits a Japanese actor, two divers, a master seaman, and a pilot.
The plan is ingenious, realistic, and suspenseful. The result is a holocaust of devastating scope. The unique feature of the caper is the stipulation it look like a monstrous accident and Wolfram manages to fulfill that condition too, with a minimum loss of life. I strongly recommend The Black Gold of Malaverde.
Less successful is The Platinum Bullet (Stein & Day, hc, 1974; ppbk, 1985). DePrundis, who managed a narrow escape in The Black Gold of Malaverde, links up with the Russians in an attempt to corner the platinum market. Again, The Bank calls in Wolfram and his crew to neutralize this threat.
Wolfram and his people work a classic “platinum mine” con on DePrundis and the Russians. The caper is fun but lacks suspense. One problem is Wolfram has a crew of four specialists who aren’t challenged enough to develop suspense and characterization as a result of their actions. The result is an entertaining but superficial novel.
The scene shifts to the Mid-East in Cobalt 60 (Stein & Day, hc, 1975; ppbk, 1986). The Emir of an oil-rich country plots the assassination of many world leaders including most of the top levels of American political leadership: the President, Senators, and Representatives.
The Bank initially asks Wolfram and his people to look into the situation. Wolfram discovers the Emir is producing highly radioactive cobalt pens and paperclips. The idea is to plant these common, innocent-looking items near world leaders and let the deadly radiation silently kill them.
Cobalt 60 ends with a wild chase scene, but again there doesn’t seem to be enough for Wolram’s crew to do.
The last Wolfram book, Quicksilver (Stein & Day, hc, 1976; ppbk, 1981), is the silliest. Harry Descau, a devious international moneymaker, forms a partnership with the Cubans and a defected Russian physicist. Then, in their jungle base in Guatemala, they transmute mercury into gold using a nuclear reactor.
The Bank discovers Descau’s plan to disrupt the entire international gold market and calls in Wolfram and his team. Wolfram’s solution, naturally, is to destroy the base and its reactor. The method is extreme: amplify that region’s natural earthquakes into a big one that will cause a nearby lake to overflow, wiping out the entire operation. It works. But it all seems too easy, too glib, and too tacky.
I suppose this is a good place to talk about the formula of caper adventures. Graves’ earlier novels succeeded because they more nearly satisfied the conditions of the caper formula.
Basically, the caper is planned, executed, and then something goes wrong and the characters have to improvise. Lionel White, one of the masters of the caper novel, told me he develops his characters so their flaws cause the caper to fail.
Donald Westlake does the same thing in his caper spoofs like The Hot Rock and Bank Shot. In programs like Mission: Impossible, essentially a caper format, the unexpected equipment failure or some random factor forced the IM team to improvise; that failure of the plan provided suspense and a chance for the characters to come up with ingenious solutions to the problem, delighting the audience.
Whether the caper fails because of the flaws of the characters executing it, or if the caper succeeds after the characters come up with clever actions to overcome the problems, it is essential something go wrong with the caper.
A perfectly executed caper is boring.
Donald Westlake asserted that tenet while writing about Parker, his professional thief. The Parker series of capers, written by Westlake under his Richard Stark pseudonym, are variations of the theme: “We had the perfect caper — then something went wrong.”
Essentially, Graves’ later novels are perfect capers and they lack the excitement and suspense of The Black Gold of Malaverde.
Perhaps Graves realized this when he wrote his latest book, C.L.A.W. (Stein & Day, hc, 1976; ppbk, 1984). A secret group of terrorists plan to disrupt the Presidential Campaign and assassinate the country’s leadership. They rob an Army munitions base, stealing three missiles and eleven artillery shells.
Benton Dace, an American intelligence officer, and the obligatory beautiful KGB agent follow the clues that lead to a potential massacre at the Presidential inauguration. The action is fast-paced, the caper is realistic, and the quality is reminiscent of The Black Gold of Malaverde.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 3, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1979.
Editorial Comment: One additional novel by Richard L. Graves, published after this review was written, was The Argon Furnace (Scarborough House, hc, 1990). Publishers Weekly described the plot thusly:
“The Japanese have developed a new steel alloy, fired in an argon furnace, that will allow them to build jet engines. A team of American saboteurs comes ashore from a submarine–and destroys the wrong steel mill. To go back and complete the mission in the face of a now-alerted enemy almost certainly means death, but brave men may not have a choice.”
PW also says the book is “relentlessly predictable” and yet the “action scenes are dynamic.”
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