January 2013


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


A WOMAN'S VENGENACE Charles Boyer

A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE. Universal, 1948. Charles Boyer, Ann Blyth, Jessica Tandy, Cedric Hardwicke, Mildred Natwick, John Williams. Director: Zoltan Korda.

   A Woman’s Vengeance is undeniably a Class Act. That it also makes compelling viewing is just an added bonus. Directed by Zoltan Korda, written by Aldous Huxley (from his own story “The Giaconda Smile”) with a big budget and a cast that includes Charles Boyer (then past his prime as a leading man but growing in stature as an actor) Jessica Tandy and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, with support from Mildred Natwick and John Williams (the actor, not the composer; look to the right) plus a fine ingénue turn by Ann Blyth.

A WOMAN'S VENGENACE Charles Boyer

   The story served by all this talent is one of harrowing simplicity: Boyer is an English Country Squire (by marriage) nursing a whiny invalid wife as attentively as he can while carrying on a covert affair with a younger woman (Ann Blythe, who radiates a voluptuous innocence here).

   He is also being blackmailed by his worthless brother-in-law and loved from anear by neighbor Jessica Tandy, who finds daily excuses to visit the sick wife and chat with Charles.

   So when the invalid wife dies suddenly, following tea in the garden with Jessica and Charles, the viewer knows almost at once what happened, whodunit and who’ll get the blame. The wonder is in seeing how skillfully director Korda and writer Huxley can play it out.

A WOMAN'S VENGENACE Charles Boyer

   The dramatic effects sometimes seem a bit too carefully orchestrated (not unlike certain powerful scenes in the Huxley-scripted Jane Eyre of1943) such as Tandy declaring her love for Boyer in a darkened room while a violent electrical storm thunders and flashes outside; or a character gloatingly confessing guilt to another who is sitting on death row for the crime while the nearby guards studiously ignore them. But that’s just me carping; this is gripping all the way.

   Jessica Tandy is brilliant here, but even better thesping comes from Sir Cedric Hardwicke, a fine actor who spent too much time in movies like Ghost of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man Returns. He plays the doctor who falls into some disrepute for mis-diagnosing the death as due to natural causes; when it’s revealed as a murder, he intuitively knows who was responsible, but he also knows that his opinion doesn’t carry much weight lately. His patient, compassionate detective work here is one of those cinematic examples of a fine actor perfectly suited to a meaty part, and much pleasure to watch.

A WOMAN'S VENGENACE Charles Boyer

AGATHA CHRISTIE – Remembered Death. Dodd Mead, hardcover, February 1945. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft, including Pocket 451, 1947 and Cardinal C-312, April 1958 (the copy at hand). First published in the UK as Sparkling Cyanide (Collins, hardcover, 1945).

AGATHA CHRISTIE Remembered Death

   So, how long’s it been since you read a Christie? For me, it’s been a while. A good long while, and much longer than it should have been. Several years at least. I read most of the Agatha Christie’s work when I was in my teens, along with all but one of the Ellery Queen’s – I was not going to go and spoil The French Powder Mystery by reading it. I was going to save it and read (and relish) it later. And later has come (but not gone, by golly) and I still haven’t read it. My oh my oh my.

   But I read all of the Poirot’s and all of the Miss Marple’s, all of them that had been written while I was still in my teens, and if you were to give me one now, and ask me, Who did it? I couldn’t tell you, except for one, and it was one of Poirot’s.

   But I never read this one. I don’t remember this one at all, and maybe it’s because M. Poirot is not in it, nor Miss Marple. It’s Colonel Race who’s in this one, the last of four of Christie’s mysteries he was in – the others being The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), Cards on the Table (1936) and Death on the Nile (1937), the latter two being primarily cases for Poirot. Race is only a friend of the family in this one, not the detective of record – that being Chief Inspector Kemp – but he is instrumental at least in part in bringing the culprit(s) to justice.

AGATHA CHRISTIE Remembered Death

   And quite a mystery it is that has to be solved. The young wife of an older man supposedly committed suicide one year before this story begins. By suicide, in a restaurant while celebrating her birthday. Depression caused by illness is the verdict, because there was no feasible way (apparently) that anyone could have gotten the cyanide into her champagne.

   But the widower has been getting anonymous messages that hint that Rosemary was murdered, and indeed everyone who was at the table with her when she died could have had a motive. George Barton concocts a plan, the kind that exist only in mystery stories, one imagines, and that is to bring everyone back who attended the first party, and have another party at the same place, the same time, but a year later.

   You have read Agatha Christie before yourself, haven’t you? Disaster happens. If this is a cozy, it’s a cozy with a sharp, wicked edge to it.

   Nor is all what it seems, as I probably needn’t warn you, and as an “impossible crime,” which this very nearly is, it’s one that just might, maybe, work. And not too many readers are going to outwit Ms. Christie, and maybe that’s why, of all of the many, many practitioners of mysteries from the Golden Age, Christie is the only one whose books you will find on the shelves in Borders, Waldens or Barnes & Noble today.

AGATHA CHRISTIE Remembered Death

   And not only is Christie a master of deception, she has an exceeding observant eye when it comes to people, and she can take what she sees and convert it into words. (I notice that I’m using the present tense. I think that’s because I sense that as long as her books are alive, so is she.)

   With just a bit of a dialogue of one of characters, she can match him perfectly to her description of him later. George Barton is talking to his wife’s younger sister on page 17, and a few lines later Iris thinks of him to herself as “kind, awkward, bumbling.” And he was. Exactly. A stereotype, perhaps, but even stereotypes are based on reality.

   And what I understand now, at this late date in my mystery reading career, is that it’s Christie’s keen eye into character that makes her mysteries work, with all of the intricate machinations inherent thereto, and somehow I don’t think I realized that back when I was reading her books for the first time. Back then it was the cleverness of the plot, and that aspect only, not thinking, or caring, that it’s that way that people act and react that’s equally essential, if not – dare I say it? – more so.

– January 2004


[UPDATE] 01-29-13. A couple of things have happened since I wrote this review. You may choose which is the more significant. Both Borders and Waldens are out of business. And I have, at long last, read The French Powder Mystery. You may read my review here.

ADVENTURES IN COLLECTING:
WHITHER VINTAGE PAPERBACKS?
by Walker Martin


   In the 1970′s one of my main interests was collecting the Dell mapbacks. I remember at one point in the 1990′s I figured I had them all, but I’ve lost interest over the last decade or so and now I’m not sure. In the 70′s and even 80′s I was getting some good trades for my duplicates, including some original cover paintings.

   Now, I’m not even sure I could get $5 each. I know at Pulpcon about 5 years ago, I had a table full of vintage paperbacks priced at $5 each and no one was interested except for the Guest of Honor. Larry Niven was so bored and ignored by pulp collectors that he wandered over and bought one paperback to read.

   At the paperback show in NYC I saw many Dell Mapbacks priced at a couple bucks each.

***

   The Doc asks about the prices of vintage paperbacks over the years. There are some exceptions of course with certain authors and oddball titles, but as a general rule and across the board, paperback prices have indeed gone down over the years.

   I first started to seriously collect paperbacks in the 1960′s and 1970′s. I soon had enough Ace Doubles, Gold Medals, Dell Mapbacks, Signets, etc to fill what I call my paperback room. Many genres and titles would not fit into the room and are presently stored in my basement, such as western, SF, and mainstream novels.

   At one time back in the 1970′s, I thought that prices would increase on vintage paperbacks but I was disappointed to find out that they decreased over the years. The internet probably had something to do with this because abebooks.com and ebay made it obvious that many paperbacks were not as rare as we once believed.

   For instance before the internet I sold the 13 Hammett digest-sized paperbacks for a few hundred dollars. But after the internet it was apparent that these paperbacks were not rare (Jonathan Press, Mercury, Bestseller). Now they are available at far lower prices.

   Each year I attend the NYC Paperback Convention put on by Gary Lovisi. There have been over 20 annual shows. The last few years the average price of many vintage paperbacks were a dollar or two. Many were priced at 2 or 3 for $5.00. Discounts were available for quantity buyers. I found the same thing at the Windy City Pulp Convention and PulpFest.

   As I said, there are exceptions like Junkie and Jim Thompson firsts. But for the most part, paperback values have gone down since the 1970′s and 1980′s. In fact they have dropped so much that it’s not worth my time to bring them to sell at the conventions at $5 each. They won’t sell at that price and to sell at a buck or two is just like giving them away. I’ll keep them instead.

   ____

Editorial Comment: This latest installment of Walker’s occasional columns for Mystery*File first appeared as a pair of comments following a review by Bill Deeck of Murders at Scandal House (1933) by the all-but-unknown Peter Hunt. What prompted a followup discussion of old paperbacks and the people who collect them was the fact that the most easily found copy of Scandal House would be the Dell mapback edition (#42) published in 1944.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


BRIDE OF VENGEANCE. Paramount, 1949. Paulette Goddard, John Lund, Macdonald Carey, Albert Dekker, John Sutton, Raymond Burr. Director: Mitchell Leisen.

BRIDE OF VENGEANCE

   BRIDE OF VENGEANCE sounds like one of those syrupy, echt-Hollywood projects: an economy-minded trip to Renaissance Italy via the studio backlot, peopled with American actors like Paulette Goddard and Macdonald Carey as the Borgia siblings, wrapped around a simplified “historical” story that serves mainly as an excuse for lavish costumes and sets — done in black-and-white as if to signify that Paramount had little interest in the project to start with — how surprising, then, that this emerges as an intelligent, even beautiful bit of work.

   Some of the credit has to go to writers Michael Hogan (who adapted REBECCA to the screen as faithfully as possible) and Clemence Dane (author of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT) and to cinematographer Daniel Fapp (he went on to WEST SIDE STORY) who provides baroque deep-focus imagery reminiscent of Olivier’s HAMLET. There are also some evocative (if cheap) sets offered up by Paramount’s art department. But the true beauty of this film seems to come from director Mitchell Leisen.

BRIDE OF VENGEANCE

   Mitchell Leisen was never a major auteur of The Cinemah, but he maintained a highly satisfying output over the years, with favorites like HOLD BACK THE DAWN, GOLDEN EARRINGS and especially the morbidly balletic DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. All of them are done with an almost painterly eye for composition and mise-en-scene, like a classical landscape from the Pre-Raphaelites.

   For BRIDE he provides an intriguing visual style that seems to define the characters; most of them (including John Lund as an Italian prince!) sport a colorful renaissance look, bright, vivid andperhaps a bit effeminate. In contrast, the Borgias and their entourage all have a vaguely medieval look: throw-backs to a more primitive time, capable of all sorts of nastiness, mostly done for them by Raymond Burr, typecast as usual in those days as a heavy in every sense of the word. The scene where he consoles Lucretia on the death of her latest husband (engineered by himself) without a trace of irony is one of the high points of his career in villainy.

BRIDE OF VENGEANCE

   But getting back to director Leisen, he infuses each scene with a clear-eyed romanticism that simply dazzles the eye and moves the plot (such as it is) along quite nicely. There’s a wonderful bit about Prince Lund dabbling in the arts, trying to cast a statue of Jupiter, followed by a baroque tracking shot down into the stygian bowels of his foundry where we discover what “Jupiter” really is as the music pounds to a crescendo worthy of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

   There are other moments too. Moments that lift the tawdry story and suffuse it with a lovingly artistic moodiness. Enough of them to make BRIDE OF VENGEANCE something memorable. And definitely worth seeing.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


PETER HUNT – Murders at Scandal House. D. Appleton-Century, hardcover, 1933; Dell #42, paperback, mapback edition, no date [1944].

PETER HUNT Murders at Scandal House

   In this, the first novel featuring Alan Miller, chief of police of Totten Ferry, Conn., when he isn’t doing his various other jobs, Miller is on a vacation he feels he doesn’t need and is definitely not enjoying the Adirondacks. Who could blame him if his description of the mosquitos, flies, and gnats is accurate?

   In fact, the mosquitoes are the first murder weapon in the novel. Miller and a game warden check out some overactive buzzards and find a man tied to a tree, drained of blood and filled with poison by the mosquitoes. This is a first in my reading of mysteries, and I hope it’s a last. I can’t think of many less pleasant ways to die.

   The dead man was a chauffeur at the Balmoral Camp, inhabited by Lydia Whyte-Burrell, relict of the unlamented Edgar Burrell, infamous for his evil ways and his various by-blows, some of Burrell’s relatives, various hangers-on, and servants.

   Though not a genuine detective, Miller is asked to investigate since the police are focusing on the more obvious but unlikely suspects. When asked how he is going to operate, Miller replies:

   Prowl a bit, and hope a great deal, and not ask too many questions. Murderers seldom tell the truth. The more clever questions I might ask, the less I would probably find out. If a man plans a killing, he plans an alibi and a reasonable accounting of himself, and that sort of thing only confuses me. Besides, the duller I seem to be, the more careless the murderer will be. Therefore, I shan’t be very bright. I’m not at all bright by nature, so it saves me a lot of effort. Now you know my method.

   In a review of the second novel by Hunt, Murder for Breakfast, in another publication, I said that Miller, though out of his depth professionally — remember, he is only a part-time policeman — is nonetheless an intelligent man with a sense of humor. That is still true here in a not-strictly-fair-play novel.

   For those who may be interested, Hunt was a combination of George Worthing Yates and Charles Hunt Marshall.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 1992.


NOTE:   The third and final book in the Alan Miller series was Murder Among the Nudists (Vanguard, 1934). (If the title sounds just a little intriguing, too bad. A quick check on the Internet showed that currently there are no copies up for sale.)

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


CASABLANCA David Soul

CASABLANCA. NBC, 1983. David L. Wolper Production in association with Warner Brothers Television. Cast: David Soul as Rick Blaine, Hector Elizondo as Captain Louis Renault, Reuven Bar-Yotam as Ferrari, Ray Liotta as Sacha, Scatman Crothers as Sam, Arthur Malet as Carl, Patrick Horgan as Major Strasser, and Kai Wolff as Lt Heinz. Executive Producer: David L. Wolper, Supervising Producer: Howard Gast. Producer: Charles B. Fitzsimons.     ***     There was no on screen credit for who created or developed the series nor was there any on screen credit for the film or the play it was loosely based on.

   This was Warner Brothers second attempt to make a TV series based on the movie CASABLANCA (1942). The first attempt was in 1955 with the first TV program produced by Warner Brothers. WARNER PRESENTS was an early example of a wheel series with CASABLANCA rotating with CHEYENNE and KINGS ROW. For more information, read the informative article by Christopher Anderson at The Museum of Broadcast Communications site.

   CASABLANCA (1983) was a limited series of five episodes and served as a pilot for a possible weekly series. But bad ratings resulted in NBC removing the series from its schedule after the third episode. The final two episodes were shown months later.

   OK, I am going to assume everyone has seen the film CASABLANCA that starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, and Dooley Wilson. If not, do so. As far as I am concerned, CASABLANCA is the best movie ever made.

   The setting remains the same, Casablanca French Morocco. The time is 1941, before Ilsa would return to Rick’s life. Rick Blaine, owner of Rick’s Café Americain, Casablanca’s most popular nightclub, has no interest in the War or politics. All he wants to do is run his saloon and mind his own business, something the rest of the world has no intention of letting him do.

CASABLANCA David Soul

   The casting was a problem with this series. David Soul as Rick Blaine? I always enjoy watching Hector Elizondo and here he is a good Claude Rains. But that was the problem the cast faced, none of the actors could match our memories of their characters as played by the original cast of the film.

   The most appealing aspect of the series was the look, thanks to Oscar award winner director of photography Joseph Biroc (TOWERING INFERNO, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, HAMMETT) and Oscar winning production designer E. Preston Ames (GIGI, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, LADY IN THE LAKE). The exterior scenes were weak in comparison and obvious studio lots. The costumes, transportation and heavy use of period music kept us in the time and place, though the original background music rarely helped.

          EPISODE INDEX:

“Who Am I Killing?” April 10, 1983. Sunday at 10-11pm (Eastern). Written by James M. Miller. Directed by Ralph Senensky. Guest Cast: Trisha Noble and Christopher Mahar *** Nazi Major Strasser’s romantic crush on Café Americain’s British born singer causes her problems. Like Rick, she doesn’t want to get involved with the politics of the day. Meanwhile, a recently shot down British pilot is wounded and being hunted by the Nazis. The pilot may die without special medicine available only on the Black Market.

   Looked great but with no substance. Predictable. Not one original twist or thought in entire episode. Director Senensky discusses the behind the scene filming of this episode here at his blog.

Ratings: 13.5 with a 24 share. Opposite: ABC SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE (“Altered States”) 14.2 with a 23 share (average for the two hours) and CBS aired repeat of TRAPPER JOHN 19.8 with a 34 share.

CASABLANCA David Soul

“Master Builder’s Woman.” April 17, 1983. Sunday at 10-11pm. Written by Bob Foster. Directed by Robert Lewis. Guest Cast: Madolyn Smith and Martina Deignan. *** Nazi top Engineer and his female companion arrive in Casablanca. His plans could change the war in Northern Africa. An American woman reporter wants Rick’s help in finding French Resistance fighter Andre Andre.

   The story had its moments but was fatally limited by its predictability and weak acting from some of the guest cast especially Martina Deignan as the female reporter. This episode won the Emmy for Best Cinematography in a Series for Joseph Biroc. A deserving choice.

Ratings: 8.6 with a 15 share (ranked 72 out of 74 series). Opposite: ABC SUNDAY MOVIE (“Mountain Men”) 17.5 with a 28 share (#18) and CBS aired (repeat) of TRAPPER JOHN 21.5 with a 38 share (#8).

“Jenny.” April 24, 1983. Sunday at 10-11pm. Written by Chester Krumholz. Directed by Mel Stuart. Guest Cast: Shanna Reed and Daniel Pilon *** Rick falls for a whore that reminds him of Ilsa. A Gestapo agent believes someone in Casablanca is selling German war secrets to the British.

   This episode was the best of the series. It had spies, murder, political intrigue, humor, and a love story, everything you’d want from a TV series called CASABLANCA.

Ratings: 12.0 with a 20 share. Opposite ABC programming (unknown) and CBS repeat of TRAPPER JOHN 19.1 with a 32 share.

“The Cashier and the Belly Dancer.” August 27, 1983. Saturday at 10-11pm. Written by Nelson Gidding. Directed by Ralph Senensky. Guest Cast: Melinda O. Fee and Michael Horton *** Rick’s customers have left him for the new belly dancer at the Blue Parrot. The wife of Rick’s cashier believes her husband is doing more with the belly dancer than watch her dance.

   A weak caper story with an ending that is unbelievable and reduces the threat of the Nazis to the level of Colonel Klink and HOGAN’S HEROES. Director Senensky did a better job than the writer and cast. You can read his experiences about this episode at his blog.

Ratings: 7.0 with a 14 share (66th out of 67). Opposite: ABC aired repeat of FANTASY ISLAND 16.5 with a 32 share (#6) and CBS NFL PRESEASON FOOTBALL 10.7 with a 22 shared (average over entire program).

“Divorce Casablanca Style.” September 3, 1983. Saturday at 10-11pm. Written by Harold Gast. Directed by Robert Lewis. Guest Cast: Persis Khambatta and Zitto Kazann. *** Rick finds himself in the middle between a husband and wife and the Muslim culture while trying to take care of smuggled guns for an old friend.

   The series always featured two plots in each episode that would merge at the end of the hour. This episode took on the serious issue of women’s rights in 1940’s Muslim world and shoved it together with a gratuitous second story of Rick taking care of a friend, an old Ethiopian General who was apparently tricked into storing smuggled guns. Information was revealed heavy-handedly as there was no time to develop either story properly.

Ratings: 7.1 with a 15 share (#61 out of 62). Opposite: ABC College Football 10.2 with a 22 share (average over program) and CBS Saturday Night Movies (Country Gold) 11.8 with a 24 share.

   I remember watching the first episode in 1983 and hating it. I am more forgiving now towards the cast, writers and directors, realizing how absurd the very idea is of attempting to recreate the magic of the film CASABLANCA as a TV series. But even by a different name, this remains a TV series that deserved to die.

MARGARET FRAZER – The Bastard’s Tale. Berkley Prime Crime, hardcover, January 2003; paperback, January 2004.

MARGARTE FRAZER The Bastard's Tale

   This is the twelfth in Frazer’s ongoing series of medieval mysteries, all with Dame Frevisse as the leading character, and given that her primary residence is the nunnery at St. Frideswide’s, England, it’s not easy to say how she’s happened to become involved in as many cases of murder and intrigue as this. And if you don’t know, I’m not the one who’s going to be able to tell you – this is the first of her adventures I’ve happened to read – but it’s also not difficult to realize that in that particular time and place of the world, death came both more easily and more often.

   So given the controls of a time-traveling machine, I’d not inclined to be heading back to this particular era any time soon, but in fiction, it’s fine, and so is the book. If you like historical mysteries, you shouldn’t allow Frazer’s series slip by you for as long as I did. It’s my error, all the way.

   The year is 1447, the 25th year of reign of Henry VI’s, and as I gathered from the story, at the time he was only just over the same age himself. (Let me insert a confession here, if I may. I obviously was not paying close enough attention back in high school. History classes barely caught my awareness level, especially British history, and it’s starting to show.)

   The character described in the title is Arteys, the illegitimate son of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, and the Henry’s “well-beloved uncle” — although the king, under the influence of the marquis (formerly earl, later duke) of Suffolk, has a strange way of showing it. To the contrary, he has recently accused Gloucester’s wife, Lady Eleanor, of witchcraft and trundled her off to prison, not an ideal way to keep peace in the family.

   While there is eventually a murder in this novel, or at least an attempt, there is very little question of who ordered it. There are a few pages of investigative activity on the part of Frevisse and the two others assisting her: Joliffe, a man of many past roles, now an actor who is part of a troupe entertaining the king’s entourage; and the singularly non-ambitious but exceedingly observant Bishop Pecock. Overall, though, the amount of actual detective work going on is minimal. It is the intrigue, the constantly shifting of alliances for the power behind the throne that the story is about, along with the characters that Frazer brings so strongly to life.

   And she somehow does it by keeping the major players, those known to history, more or less in the background. What Frazer does very nicely is to describe events from the point of view of the common people, who sense as they do that something’s going on, but who have as much effect on the day’s events as a butterfly in a snowstorm. Frazer’s focus is on everyday activities, but she also manages to keep the big picture well illuminated — and what’s more, she makes it look easy. There is the constant feeling that powerful forces are hard at work here.

   The link between the two worlds is Dame Frevisse, who walks in both of them. Somehow she’s comfortable both in her life as a nun and in the confidence of the aspiring Suffolk’s wife, who is also her cousin.

   In the grand scheme of things, Frazer is limited to and restricted by actual events. She can’t change history, which goes without saying, but if she were to have followed the usual conventions of story-telling, it’s easy to see how the story might have come out quite differently. Arteys, for example, when his demanding role in the story is over, disappears far too soon – but precisely as he did in the annals of history — as much as she or the reader might wish otherwise. (The reader, perhaps, even more so.)

   Looking over the notes I made as I was reading, I see that I said to myself “very good” several times. I’ll let that be the summary as well. Very good. Very, very good.

PostScript: Margaret Frazer began as the joint pseudonym of Mary Monica Pulver (a.k.a. Margaret Ferriss) and Gail Frazer, but after the first six in the series, it’s the latter who’s been writing them alone, including this one. The novels also started out as paperback originals, but they’ve apparently done so well that they’ve switched to coming out in hardcover first.

— December 2003


[UPDATE] 01-23-13.   There are now apparently 22 books in the Dame Frevisse series, plus seven solo appearances by Joliffe the Player, and three novels featuring Bishop Pecock. Unfortunately, as much as I liked this one, it’s still the only one of all of Frazer’s long list of titles that I’ve managed to read.

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