January 2013


A TV Review by MIKE TOONEY:


“Dead Air.” From the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation series. Season 13, Episode 11. First broadcast: 16 January 2013. Regular cast: Ted Danson (D. B. Russell), Elisabeth Shue (Julie Finlay), George Eads (Nick Stokes), Paul Guilfoyle (Captain Jim Brass), Jorja Fox (Sara Sidle), Eric Szmanda (Greg Sanders), Robert David Hall (Dr. Robbins), David Berman (David Phillips), Wallace Langham (David Hodges), Elisabeth Harnois (Morgan Brody), Jon Wellner (Henry Andrews). Guest cast: Alex Carter (Detective Vartann), Daniel Roebuck (Fred Paulsen), Spencer Grammer (Ella St. James), Lenny Jacobson (Denny Jones), Abigail Klein (Rainy Days), Jacob Zachar (Chad Lane), Danielle Bisutti (Theresa Shea), Tom Choi (Director), Richard Blake (Robbie), Felisha Terrell (Competitive Reporter). Writer: Joe Pokaski. Director: Phil Conserva.

CSI

   Theresa Shea is a no-nonsense investigative reporter presently marking time as the anchor at a Las Vegas TV station. Until somebody murders her, she is hot on the trail of an arsonist who created chaos and death in the Vegas area seventeen years ago. As the CSI team will discover, Theresa was universally hated by everyone who knew her, meaning there’s no shortage of suspects.

   And her murder is no ordinary event: During a live broadcast during a major storm, while Theresa is alone in the broadcast room with only robot cameras, there is a power transient and the lights go out. When they come back on, after a moment she collapses across her desk — “really,” as they say in The Wizard of Oz, “most sincerely dead.”

   In the twenty seconds it takes to restore the lighting, somehow a murderer has crept up behind her and expertly shoved a knife blade into her neck, severing her brain stem and rendering her speechless until she dies a few seconds later. When the lights return, she’s sitting there convulsing until she finally falls over.

   Belatedly the director orders they cut to commercial, too late for the viewers at home. As head CSI agent D. B. Russell characterizes it, “We have a locked-room murder with a million witnesses.”

   But the “million witnesses” have really seen no more than the crew in the control room.

   Suspecting the blackout was no coincidence, Russell decides to track down the source of the power outage. Not far from the TV station he finds an exploded transformer, destroyed not by a lightning strike as is usually the case but by explosives triggered by a cell phone signal. “This,” he says, “took patience.”

   Add to the locked-room problem the twists and turns of lying field reporters, a brow-beaten assistant, an emotionally unstable TV station technician, and a code-breaking sequence (the code here being the outmoded Gregg shorthand system) and you have pleasant echoes of the Golden Age of Detection.

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IMDb.com

http://www.examiner.com

ROBERTA ISLEIB – Six Strokes Under. Berkley, paperback original; 1st printing, June 2002.
          — A Buried Lie. Berkley; paperback original; 1st printing, May 2003.

ROBERTA ISLEIB Cassie Burdette

   What’s the strong connection between golf and psychotherapy? You may ask, but if you’re like me, you probably wouldn’t have ever thought of the question until/unless you’d read this book and discovered the answer for yourself. I’m no golfer, but Roberta Isleib is, and in her real job, she’s a clinical psychologist, and I’m oh-for-two.

   Her series character heroine is budding LPGA superstar Cassandra Burdette, but her superstardom on the ladies’ professional golf tour will be nipped in the very same bud if she doesn’t qualify by doing well at Q-school. Complicating matters are two murders, one back home in Myrtle Beach, the one on the golf course in Florida where the tournament is going on.

   Having found both bodies, Cassie is a key figure in the investigation, if not the key suspect, prompting her to — in the true fashion of amateur detectives everywhere — try to find the killer herself. Or are there two? The pending matter of a case of sexual abuse that a fellow golfer has accused her father of — produced by not always reliable retro-memories brought back by hypnosis and other means — seems to be the common factor.

   But is it? Isleib’s characters have more than enough chicanery up their sleeves to spread the suspicion pretty much around, so it’s not as clear-cut as it may seem.

   This is, by the way, the Cassie Burdette’s first adventure in mayhem mixed up with golf. There are others on the way, but let me back up a little. I didn’t do a page count, but I think there is more emphasis on the golf than there is mayhem. In terms of an insider’s (fictional) view of how to play the game, how to manage your nerves and keep your concentration, I don’t think I’ve read a better example.

   In the terms of the murders and their investigation, if I told you I knew who the killer(s) was/were on page 68, you might think I was being totally negative, but I’m not, because (a) I didn’t know how or why, and (b) a couple of chapters later I was convinced that someone else had done it.

   The plot is not a perfect job of construction. Isleib is awfully skittish is telling us about the first victim, for example, who he was, and how he was involved in the legal case that’s present at the beginning. Let’s get on with it, you feel, while the story is skirting unceremoniously around it.

   All in all, however, this is pretty good, better than average, you might say, for a maiden effort. Promising, you might also say, and enough so for me to make it a point to follow Cassie and her career in golfing, as her success in the latter seems to be opening up new vistas for her.

   That’s assuming, you understand, that the Jessica Fletcher factor doesn’t start to kick in. With murders continuously following her around on the tour, who’s going to want to be in the same tournament with her?

***

ROBERTA ISLEIB Cassie Burdette

   So. I did say I was going to be following Cassie Burdette’s career, didn’t I? A Buried Lie follows soon after Six Strokes Under, with Cassie playing in a pro-am golfing tournament on the ladies’ professional tour.

   With, of course, murder following her. The female member of the foursome of amateurs playing with her on the first day is later found dead. The police believe that’s it suicide, but Cassie, donning her sleuthing clothes, thinks otherwise.

   What makes the first eighty percent of the book very much a step ahead of Roberta Isleib’s first effort is that there are several possible motives for the crime — the police are wrong, by the way, but I imagine you knew that. (1) The dead woman was in trouble at work, a pharmaceutical company: she has been insisting that something is wrong with the data in their analysis of a new drug product. (2) She was going through an angry divorce, and the proceedings seem have been getting messier. (3) She was a heavy gambler and may have run into problems with the Atlantic City mobsters. And finally but perhaps foremost, (4) the last person Cassie saw her with was a runaway girl whom she was trying to help by taking to her apartment.

   All of which makes for a sizable amount of detective work to be done. There are always problems in getting an amateur sleuth involved in matters of police business and none of hers, even if the police do not believe there is any business to be done, even in spite of a second murder, so that the bits of awkwardness that keep Cassie involved are essentially a given.

   It’s the last 20 pages where the author seems to let the story get away from her, in which (1) Cassie, working undercover, interviews for a job at a local escort enterprise, the adult kind. This reminded me of Angie Dickinson in the TV show Police Woman, where she almost always had to disguise herself in every episode as a stripper, an hooker, or a combination of both. (How do I know? I was watching.) Nothing explicit here, though, just some good humor.

   And (2) a final confrontation scene with the killer, which I can’t tell you about, but it’s certainly one that Nancy Drew never had occasion to be a part of. But I didn’t believe it when I read, I don’t believe it now, and (if you’re still with me), I don’t think I ever will believe it.

   The characters are fun to be with, however, with lots of foibles and semi-romantic entanglements to make them interesting, and the plot, while implausible, is still coherent enough to keep you (well, me, anyway) looking forward to Cassie Burdette’s next case of felonious mayhem and malice.

— December 2003

      The Cassie Burdette series —

1. Six Strokes Under (2002)
2. A Buried Lie (2003)
3. Putt to Death (2004)
4. Fairway to Heaven (2005)
5. Final Fore (2006)

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


THE FIFTH CORNER. NBC, 1992. Tri-Star Television / John Herzfeld Production / Adelson and Baumgarter Production. Cast: Alex McArthur as Fifth Corner, James Coburn as Dr. Grandwell, Kim Delaney as Erica Fontaine, J.E. Freeman as Boone, and Anthony Valentine as The Hat. Creator and Executive Producer: John Herzfeld, Executive Producers: Gary Adelson and Craig Baumgarter, Supervising Producer: Bruce Zabel. Producer: Paul Pompian, Co-Producer: Robert Florio. Music by David Michael Frank.

   Over at YouTube I found a clip for the forgotten TV series THE FIFTH CORNER:

   As a fan of spy and noir fiction, I was hooked. The series itself was short lived with six hours filmed (two hour TV Movie and four hour long episodes). NBC cancelled it and took it off the air after its second week leaving three of the hour-long episodes unaired.

   I have found a copy of all six hours in the Collector’s market at sell.com.

   John Herzfeld (DR. VEGAS) created a flawed but delightful mystery, full of clues, red herrings, twists, macguffins, betrayals, sex and violence. His most serious mistake was taking the cynical hardboiled spy noir story and telling it with the emotional, express-your-feelings style of the early 90s.

THE FIFTH CORNER (NBC)

   The man with amnesia had many names. His evil co-workers called him George, but to simplify things we will call him by the nickname they had given him, Fifth Corner. He was called the Fifth Corner because when there was no way out he would find one.

   Star Alex McArthur (RAMPAGE) played Fifth Corner like the typical early 90s male hero, the sensitive man, intense, emotional, not afraid to cry. Fifth Corner had been a top spy and ruthless killer but when he loses his memory McArthur’s version becomes an emotional wreck. This unlikely change for the character cost the character much of its appeal and believability. In his favor, McArthur seemed to find the character’s stronger side as the series progressed.

   Fans of Kim Delany (NYPD BLUE) will enjoy her wardrobe or lack of, as she does what she can with the stereotypical character of the beautiful, headstrong, independent woman who becomes the hero’s love interest. To add to her challenge her character, saxophone playing, NY Times reporter Erica Fontaine had some of the most out of place dialog in the series such as, “I never let down my guard, but with you I dropped it like a whore’s nightgown.”

   J.E. Reeder (MILLER’S CROSSING) was convincing as Fifth Corner’s sidekick. But the character was weakened by too many quirks, the lover of take-out food, comic book reader, AA member with a fear of bad breath who lives in the front seat of the limo. Attempts to comment of Fifth Corner’s problems by mirroring them with Boone’s problems from his past did not work. The bit with Boone being a former op of The Corporation who fell in love with the wife of the last man he killed was a gratuitous side-trip from the all ready complicated story.

THE FIFTH CORNER (NBC)

   I am a fan of James Coburn (DAIN’S CURSE) especially when he is using his cool laid-back persona as he does here as evil billionaire Dr Grandwell, a man who never lets a life or country get in his way of making money. I do wish the story had spent more time with Grandwell and his mysterious beautiful, blind, female companion (Julia Nickson-Soul, BABYLON 5).

   Grandwell’s second in command “The Hat” (Anthony Valentine, CALLAH) might have worked as a noir character but the bit with the hat was too silly visually. His minions all had the proper noir background, the blonde femme fatale (Madchen Amick, TWIN PEAKS), the femme fatale’s killer boy toy (Mark Joy, DOGMA) the psychopath Cristoph Ohrt, (EDEL & STARCK), and the good solider (Voyo, RAMBO FIRST BLOOD PART 2).

   David Michael Frank’s (ABOVE THE LAW) soundtrack was delightfully appropriate for film noir. The one exception was his original song, “Hold Onto That Feeling” (co-written with Robert Jason who performed it) for the episode “Home” that as a bad sentimental 90s pop song may have fit the melodrama of the episode, had no place in a spy-noir TV series.


         EPISODE INDEX:

“Trio.” (April 17, 1992) Friday, 9pm-11pm (Eastern). Written and directed by John Herzfeld. Guest Cast: Sergio Calderon *** A man who lost his memory finds himself tied to the murder of a woman and a larger conspiracy. He discovers he has many names, one of which is the nickname Fifth Corner. A beautiful redhead named Erica is on his trail. Everyone wants his mysterious diary (a laptop with details of all his assignments). His evil boss Grandwell wants him back working for The Corporation, which disappoints Fifth Corner’s rival The Hat who wants him dead.

   Each episode featured a self-contained mystery involving another persona of Fifth Corner. We began with the name Richard Braun, but then switched to George Thompson. The mystery was who killed the woman “Richard” woke up with in bed, and why she was killed. “George” switched our attention to Grandwell and the mystery of who the Fifth Corner was.

   The TV movie was fun, if flawed. As with most spy-noir fiction, the story was not overburdened with reality. The murder mystery was solved and Fifth Corner, Erica and Boone joined together to take on Dr. Grandwell and his evil corporation.

Ratings: 16 share. Opposite: ABC aired repeat DINOSAURS (20), repeat BABY TALK (20) and new 20/20 (27). CBS had a repeat of JANEK “Murder Times Seven (1990) (15). FOX had a new SIGHTINGS (13), repeat TOTALLY HIDDEN VIDEO (9) and turned 10-11pm over to local stations.

“Eva.” (April 24, 1992) Friday, 10-11pm Written by John Herzfeld. Directed by Albert Pyun. Guest Cast: Peter Kwong and Tim Thomerson. *** Fifth Corner (aka “George”) search for his wife Eva is interrupted when he is arrested as Jack Previn for the murder of a Japanese electronic genius. He is about to be extradited to Japan when the blonde who works for The Hat arrives and post bail.

   The new name is Jack Previn and the mystery is the death of a Japanese inventor and his missing amazing electronic gadget. The arc story of Fifth Corner’s search for his identity and Erica’s obsession about bringing down Grandwell continue as the series primary focus.

Ratings: 13 share. Opposite: ABC aired new 20/20 (26), CBS had repeat BURT REYNOLDS SPECIAL (15), and FOX turned the time over to local stations.

“Home.” (never aired). Written by John Herzfeld and Bryce Zabel. Directed by Sam Pillsbury. Guest Cast: Barbara Barrie and Chris Allport *** While Fifth Corner continues to search for his identity Grandwell has erased all evidence of Erica’s existence. Fifth Corner may have found his family and his name, John Avlean. The mob is moving in on John’s big brother’s restaurant. When the Fifth Corner and Boone take on the mob, things go wrong.

   This week’s name is John Avlean and the mystery deals with the mob’s attempt to take over John’s big brother’s restaurant.

   This episode suffers from too much emotional melodrama but the scene where Fifth Corner and Boone take on the mob was full of style and shocking surprises that made the scene one of the best moments of the series.

“Woman at Her Toilette.” (unaired). Written by Leslie Bohem and John Herzfeld. Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont. Guest Cast: Marina Sirtis, and Frank Stallone *** Grandwell wants the painting he had Anthony Parachini (Fifth Corner) steal for him. Fifth Corner can’t remember where the painting is, but finds yet another identity, Jean Michel, that leads him to it. To complicate things, a hit squad arrives to kill Grandwell, and Anthony and get the painting. To save Erica and get her life back, Fifth Corner makes a deal with Grandwell.

   Two new names are featured, Anthony who worked for Grandwell and Jean who lead a secret life from Grandwell. The mystery is where is the painting.

   Perhaps the weirdest episode of the series, highlighted by Marina Sirtis (STAR TREK NEXT GENERATION) doing an erotic performance art piece for Fifth Corner, Erica, and Boone that had nothing to do with the story or arc.

“Sword of Damocles.” (never aired). Written and directed by John Herzfeld. Guest Cast: Paul Cain and Tianna Thorpe *** Fifth Corner had agreed never see Erica again if Grandwell restores her identity. When Erica learns of the deal, she rejects it, even if it means she will be killed. Grandwell remains in his forgiving mood in regard to Fifth Corner, but The Hat finally convinces Grandwell to let him kill Fifth Corner. Grandwell expects and hopes The Hat will fail.

   The last episode spares us a new name or mystery as we rush towards the resolution of Grandwell and Fifth Corner arc story. The final gunfight is the perfect example of where this series went wrong, as everyone was busy self-analyzing each other that the actual shooting was almost an afterthought. The series ends with many of the questions unanswered including the real name of Fifth Corner.

   While I recommend this series, if there ever was a TV series that needs to be remade it is THE FIFTH CORNER. This spy noir series was a great idea that deserved better.

      SOURCES:

Epguides.com

Tvtango.com

IMdb.com

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


JEAN LILLY Death Thumbs a Ride

JEAN LILLY – Death Thumbs a Ride. Dutton, hardcover, 1940. Black Cat Detective Series #6, digest-sized paperback, 1943.

    “Two murders would probably have gone unsuspected during the last year if Eunice Hale had not eaten a chicken croquette of questionable virtue.” The two murders were the death of a woman, of apparently natural causes, at a tourist camp in the Adirondacks and the presumed hit-and-run death of a senator’s gardener in the same area.

   Even with the aid of the chicken croquette they would have remained unsuspected except for the interest of vacationing district attorney Bruce Perkins, who is asked to investigate a jewel theft but prefers to find the alleged hit-and-run driver and begins to doubt the naturalness of the woman’s death.

JEAN LILLY Death Thumbs a Ride

    While the opening sentence is a good one, the rest of the prose does not get any better than slightly above pedestrian and the characters are essentially lifeless. Lilly somewhat makes up for this with her primary setting, unusual in mysteries, I believe: a lower-middle-class tourist camp. (Could there be such a thing as an upper-class tourist camp?)

    Lilly also provides a, for the most part, fair-play mystery. For the most part, I say, since I could find no explanation, and I certainly couldn’t figure out how the gardener died, or even if it was murder. Maybe the Black Cat publication was abridged and the publisher neglected to mention it.

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


Bibliographic Notes:   Death Thumbs a Ride was the last of three recorded cases for DA Bruce Perkins, and the last of four crime novels written by Jean Lilly:

LILLY, JEAN (McCoy), 1886-1961. Born in Milford, Michigan; died in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.

       The Seven Sisters (n.) Dutton 1928 [Connecticut]
       False Face (n.) Dutton 1929 [Bruce Perkins; Academia]
       Death in B-Minor (n.) Dutton 1934 [Bruce Perkins; Long Island, NY]
       Death Thumbs a Ride (n.) Dutton 1940 [Bruce Perkins; New York]

    Thanks to Allen J. Hubin and Crime Fiction IV for the above information. Also note that the contemporaneous Kirkus review suggests that there are no loose ends, at least in the hardcover edition.

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


   During 2012 I spent more time on Ellery Queen than on any other author or character. I hadn’t planned to tackle another Queen project so soon after completing The Art of Detection, but over the holidays I did. A few months ago Joseph Goodrich, editor of the book of selections from the correspondence between Fred Dannay and Manny Lee that was published as Blood Relations (2012), had generously sent me a 97,500-word document containing virtually all of Manny’s letters to Fred, far more material than there was room for in the book.

   I had done some organizing and rearranging and had added a number of bracketed annotations explaining obscure points in the letters but I hadn’t yet made myself thoroughly familiar with the material. This I set out to do over the holidays. Some remarkable discoveries rewarded me. Here’s one of them.

   Among the many problems Fred had to deal with as founding editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine was figuring out who would take over in that capacity if he were to die or become disabled. Manny had no interest in short detective fiction and very little editorial experience, but neither man relished the prospect of the magazine being run by a stranger. So, for a short time anyway, Manny was sent some of the stories submitted to EQMM and undertook to write comments on them for Fred.

   Among those he evaluated was a 57-page manuscript by Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969), who was best known for the spectacularly successful suspense novel The Unsuspected (1946). “Night Mustn’t Fall” begins when a dog is found poisoned in a quiet suburban neighborhood one summer Saturday afternoon. A young visitor named Mike Russell tries to help its 11-year-old owner and his sixth-grade buddies find out whether the poisoner was the homeowner on whose lot the dog was found — and with whom most of the neighborhood kids had had run-ins — or someone else.

   Manny found many things wrong with the tale. In a letter dated April 29, 1950, he agreed with Fred that the story was “at times too sentimental and gushy” and that its “psychological and emotional aspects are over-inflated.” He also considered it far too long. “I could guarantee to take this manuscript as it now stands, without changing one word…, and cut its 57 pages down to, say, 30 (or less!) and thereby improve it one thousand percent. It is repetitious throughout, and whatever is good in the writing is blunted by the sheer bludgeon blows of over-and-over-again.”

   But, he went on, “the story is worth saving. It has its potentialities, certainly, not the least of which is the kernel of its message, which is that truth is a hard job and that children have to be trained to look for truth … and that if more children were so trained, this would be a far different adult world.”

   After some conversations with Fred, Armstrong resubmitted her story as ”The Enemy.” It was published under that title (EQMM, May 1951), won first prize in the magazine’s annual short-story contest, and a few years later became the basis for a feature-length movie (Talk About a Stranger, 1954). The story is included in Armstrong’s collection The Albatross (1957).

   From reading the published version it’s clear that she thoroughly cut, revised and improved the manuscript Manny read. The repetitious writing has been eliminated, the emotions are tightly controlled as in Hemingway or Hammett. Manny had complained that altogether too many people in the neighborhood were able to tell Russell and the boys at exactly what time they had seen the dog, but apparently Fred wasn’t bothered by this point.

   What puzzles me is the number of plot flaws that survived the revision. One minuscule problem: The story needs to take place on a Saturday because the boys couldn’t be on the scene if it were a schoolday. But near the end we learn that one of the witnesses who noticed the dog before its death was a girl had a sore throat that day and was sitting on her porch, “waiting for school to be out, when she expected her friends to come by.”

   A much more serious flaw to my mind is in the solution, which I must reveal in part if I’m to discuss the story seriously. The man on whose property the dog’s body was found lives with his wheelchair-bound wife and crippled stepdaughter. At the climax we discover that when he went out to play golf that Saturday morning, the younger woman, who cooks for the three of them, gave him a lunch box containing hamburger sandwiches laced with arsenic.

   Unable to stomach her cooking, the lucky man ate out. But instead of disposing of the burgers in a trash can like any normal person, he brought them home and threw them onto the empty lot next to his house, where the unlucky dog found them and died minutes later! “The Enemy” is a fine story overall, but was it the best choice for first prize winner?

***

   I hadn’t read one of John Rhode’s detective novels about Dr. Lancelot Priestley in several years. Over the holidays I decided it was time to revisit that curmudgeonly old amateur of crime and chose Death on the Boat Train (1940), which I’d first read in my teens but had completely forgotten long before the 21st century began.

   At the end of a train’s run between the English Channel port of Southampton and London’s Waterloo Station, the body of a poorly dressed man is found in a first-class compartment and Inspector Jimmy Waghorn of Scotland Yard is summoned. The cause of death turns out to be a poison called ricin which was injected into the man’s butt (which Rhode discreetly calls “the right-hand side of the back”) with a hypodermic syringe.

   The victim turns out to be steel magnate Sir Hesper Bassenthwaite, who for some obscure reason had chosen to travel on the Channel steamer from the island of Guernsey to Southampton and then on the Southampton-Waterloo boat train more or less in disguise. Since Sir Hesper had had a compartment to himself both on the steamer and the train, how could anyone have injected poison into his kiester without his knowledge? In due course Waghorn and his boss, Superintendent Hanslet, drop in on Priestley to discuss the case over dinner and drinks and their host, true to form, offers one inspired suggestion after another.

   Death on the Boat Train is among the more solidly plotted Rhodes but, as always, the characters are wooden and the prose leaden. (In the novel’s innumerable Q&A sequences anyone’s answer to a question is followed by the words “he [or she] replied.” It was my noticing that the same linguistic oddity infested the detective novels of another Golden Ager, Miles Burton, that allowed me to deduce, way back in the Pleistocene era, that Rhode and Burton were the same man.)

   What most surprised me about the book is that amid the dry-as-dust exposition and dialogue are a few gaffes almost in the Mike Avallone league. “‘I seem to remember that at one time you knew how to make unprotected females unbosom themselves.’” (219) “She returned her shoulder to him and read a few lines of her magazine.” (221) “His glance wavered round the room as though seeking some form of liquid refreshment.” (273) “Late that night a very weary Jimmy unbosomed himself into Diana’s sympathetic ears.” (281)

   Could this most staid and stolid of English crime novelists have been fixated on a certain body part which shall be nameless?

A TV Review by MIKE TOONEY:


“The Strategy of the Scorpion” (La strategia dello scorpione”). From the Don Matteo series. Season 1, Episode 5. First broadcast 21 January 2000. Regular cast: Terence Hill (Don Matteo), Nino Frassica (Marshal Cecchini), Flavio Insinna (Captain Anceschi), Claudio Ricci (Nerino), Nathalie Guetta (Natalina), Francesco Scali (Pippo), and Pietro Pulcini (Ghisoni). Writer: Carlo Mazzotta. Director: Enrico Oldoini. In Italian with English subtitles (MHz International Mysteries series).

DON MATTEO

   Don Matteo is Italy’s answer to Father Brown. Terence Hill, who is most known to American audiences for his spaghetti Westerns, plays a parish priest with a knack for solving crime. Indeed, without Don Matteo many innocent people would be serving life sentences for murders they didn’t commit.

   Not that the police are idiots — they’re good at their jobs but basically lack the priest’s insight into situations.

   Take this episode, for instance. A prison inmate has evidently been murdered in his cell, with the valve handle from a boiler sticking out prominently from the middle of his spine. Since the dead man was known to have clashed with another prisoner (over, what else, a woman) and since this same man worked on the boiler, it looks like a simple case of murder for revenge.

   But for Don Matteo, the obvious discrepancies point in a different direction: the fact that the barred window of the victim was standing wide open in freezing weather; the upside down fingerprints on the window latch; the well-kept secret that the dead man had leukemia — all of these convince Don Matteo that this crime isn’t what it appears to be.

   Even after Don Matteo explains what actually happened, however, Captain Anceschi insists that without more solid evidence his solution will have to remain simply a theory.

DON MATTEO

   Such solid evidence is available, though, in the form of two eyewitnesses who can give the accused man an alibi — but if they do so, it will cost them dearly.

   If you know what a scorpion does when it’s in a hopeless situation (and I didn’t), you might be able to solve this one halfway through.

   Don Matteo has already run in Italy for eight seasons; a ninth one is scheduled for 2013. It’s a mixed bag: usually the whodunits are easily figured out, but on occasion they’re real head-scratchers. The humor is often forced, with the best by-play between the Marshal and the Captain.

   (Passing thoughts: Perhaps only in Italy could a priest enter a prison carrying a large sack of what he says are gifts and not be stopped for a search. As for the prison facilities: American criminals should have it so good.)

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IMDb series listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0178132/

A new profile of mystery writer Ed Lacy has appeared online. He died 45 years ago yesterday. Check it out at

http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/120789/stranger-than-pulp-fiction

Also note that Ed Lynskey did an earlier article about Lacy for Mystery*File on this blog’s primary website:

http://www.mysteryfile.com/Lacy/Profile.html

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


   Bret Harte wrote “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” sometime around 1870 and it’s been around in one form or another ever since, a harsh, ironic slice of life that prefigures Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” “Outcasts” sketches out the fates of a group of ne’er-do-wells who get run out of town in a general clean-up after the bank is robbed, and tells the tale with a terse irony that exemplifies the best in short fiction.

THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT

   Not surprisingly, it’s been filmed several times, and (equally unsurprising) each time the filmmakers felt they had to abandon the spare quality that makes the story so memorable and add more plot to pad it out to an acceptable length for a movie. I caught a couple of these recently and was impressed by their complementary nature.

   THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT (RKO, 1937) spends most of its hour-plus running time detailing the events that lead up to the ouster of the outcasts, with Preston Foster as a gambler, Jean Muir and Van Heflin as the schoolmarm and preacher who want to reform him, and a host of familiar character actors like Billy Gilbert, Si Jenks and Al St. John as barflies. There’s also a trio of rather likeable bad guys played by Bradley Page, Richard Lane and Monte Blue, all quite good in parts written a bit out of the ordinary, but pride of place here must go to Christy Cabanne’s direction.

   Cabanne was a prolific director (165 films from 1912 to 1948!) mostly of B features, best remembered for things like THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940) and THE LAST OUTLAW (1936, with Harry Carey and Hoot Gibson in a story by John Ford.) Here he imparts a kind of awkward realism to the proceedings, possibly because of the modest means at his disposal, but whatever the case, OUTCASTS unfolds with a rough-edged authenticity you don’t see often in the movies. For example:

   In a scene early on, Oakhurst (Preston Foster) hides a derringer up his sleeve to surprise an opponent. And for the next several minutes he goes around like a guy hiding a gun up his sleeve, stiff and tense as he waits for his chance and we wait to see him take it.

       THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT


   When the bartender kills a drunken Indian shooting up the place, he does it by hauling a buffalo gun out from under the bar, taking his time to aim and fire—an act of violence all the more impressive for being so slow and careful.

   And as Oakhurst and the bad guy get ready to duel, they pull their guns first, then approach each other warily; none of that quick-draw-on-Main-Street stuff you see in other westerns, just plain ordinary killing.

   All of which is just a preliminary to the exile forced on Oakhurst and the other outcasts—the crux of Harte’s story — which takes up about ten minutes of an hour-long film, and still has a haunting effect on the viewer. This one, anyway.

   Fifteen years later, Fox dusted off the story and did it again (1952), and this time they placed the emphasis on what happens after the eponymous outcasts begin their forced exile. Dale Robertson stars as Oakhurst, and gives a tough, thoughtful interpretation of a man at the end of his string, playing his cards out as best he can. Cameron Mitchell and Anne Baxter add a touch of noir as the murderous bank robber and his reluctant moll, with Miriam Hopkins thrown in as a madam and Billy Lynn as a rather pathetic drunk.

THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT

   This OUTCASTS is a dark, edgy affair—it even opens like a film noir, with a long, slow track down a dark urban street, and Cameron Mitchell, years before his embarrassing horror films, delivers a fine performance, sadistically bullying everyone around and gradually losing control as he realizes he can’t kill his way out of a blizzard. Or as Robertson succinctly puts it, “why don’t you go out and shoot yourself some snow?” Anne Baxter and Miriam Hopkins lend just the right touch of hard-boiled pathos to their fallen women, and director Joseph Newman, who had his moments, puts the whole thing over with pace and precision.

   I should add a note about Barbara Bates, who plays one half of a pair of innocents sheltering from the storm on their way into town. She plays off her naïve character very capably against Hopkins and Baxter, and actually makes a place in a film mostly devoted to the more colorful types. This was in fact her second film with Anne Baxter; they share the final scene in ALL ABOUT EVE.

             THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


CAROLY WELLS The Moss Mystery

CAROLYN WELLS – The Moss Mystery. First appeared in Four in One Mysteries, Garden City Publishing, hardcover, 1924. 119 pages. [Other novels in the same volume: Flat 2 by Edgar Wallace, The Death Bell by Edison Marshall, and The Remittance Woman by Achmed Abdullah.]

    “I am a living man, and he is a Fictional Detective, but that is the only way in which I radically differ from Sherlock Holmes. We are both wonderful detectives, and I know of no other in our class.” Thus sayeth Owen Prall, who then goes on to add to the misquotation: “Elementary, really, my dear Watson.”

   Readers of my reviews are aware that I am easily taken in by specious authors, which Wells to her credit, even when she may be trying, generally isn’t. As Prall is presented with the case he has desired his entire career — murder in a locked room — I was delighting in the spoof that Wells was engaged in as she made fun of her detective, whose ego is enormous. Reluctantly I was soon forced to conclude that Wells was serious in her intent, but this doesn’t detract from the pleasure of reading this short novel as a parody. If you wish to read it for other reasons, so be it, but don’t blame me if it is then far less enjoyable.

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

ADVENTURES IN COLLECTING

THE ALL-STORY October 1912: The First Tarzan Novel
by Walker Martin


   When I was 9 years old, the first books that I read on my own were the Tarzan and Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I knew what I would try and save if the house ever caught on fire. I loved the novels and eventually got hooked on science fiction and adventure fiction. So much so, that I now have complete or extensive runs of just about every major adventure and general fiction pulp, not to mention collecting the majority of SF magazines.

TARZAN OF THE APES

   Yet I’ve never considered myself a Burroughs collector. I don’t collect the first edition hardcovers, and I’ve never attended the annual Dum Dum Burroughs convention. However since I collect All Story, Argosy, and Bluebook, I’m constantly running into the problem that many collectors have to face; and that is the fact that if you want to collect these magazines, then you are going to have to pay a premium in order to get the Burroughs issues. He appeared quite often in all three titles and these issues can command high prices simply because Burroughs is in them.

   In fact, one of the issues is considered The Holy Grail of pulp collectors. Yes, I’m talking about ALL STORY, October 1912, containing the complete novel, Tarzan of the Apes. If ever a title of a novel deserved to be in capital letters, then that certainly applies to the first Tarzan novel. Tarzan, even a hundred years later, is still one of the most popular and iconic characters ever created.

   Many years ago, it used to be possible to play the game that all collectors love. What is the most valuable first edition SF novel, detective novel, etc. Magazine collectors of course would wonder about the most valuable pulp. I can remember old time collectors discussing and voting for the first issue of Weird Tales (I actually found the second issue to be rarer), the first Dashiell Hammett issue of Black Mask, Thrill Book, etc. Some collectors would even pick an issue of some obscure, one shot magazine like Strange Suicides or Zeppelin Stories.

   But now I would have to say that it is no longer possible to play the game of “The Most Valuable Pulp Is…” Why? Because there is only one possible answer: All Story October 1912. I have seen a beat up copy go for over $25,000, a nicer copy at auction sell for over $50,000. It is evidently a very rare and hard to find magazine in addition to being the most valuable.

   I collect All Story, which during 1905-1920 printed many early SF stories. It was mainly a weekly during this period published by Munsey and lasted over 400 issues until being finally absorbed by Argosy in 1920. I lack only 4 or 5 issues of having a complete set. Needless to say, the October 1912 issue is one of the missing dates. This then is the story of my quest for that issue, an adventure that has been an obsession for many decades.

   Several times I have had the opportunity of acquiring the issue and each time I failed. My failures I see as a combination of stupidity, bad luck, and not being rich. The first time I was offered the October 1912 issue was over 30 years ago when a fellow Trenton collector casually mentioned that he knew someone that had the issue and was willing to sell. Trying my best to appear casual and bored, I said “Yeah, what’s he want for it. Huh?” All serious collectors know that you must appear like obtaining the book or magazine is the last thing in the world that you want to do.

   He wanted $1,500 which back in the early days of pulp collecting was a lot of money. I could just about come up with the sum despite having the usual roadblocks such as mortgage, wife, and children. The only problem was that the owner was elderly and evidently on his last legs. My friend would not tell me his name and address but would broker the deal. All I had to do was pay him the cash and he would send it off to pay for the issue. However, he warned me that if the owner croaked, then I would be out of luck.

   This turned out to be a deal breaker. All collectors worry about sending off large sums of money and then hearing that death has cancelled the deal. It’s kind of hard saying to a widow, “Hey I’m sorry so and so died. By the way he owes me $1,500”.

   The second time was in the 1980’s at several Pulpcons. Each year I used to see Winston Dawson, an elderly collector who always showed up with his wife (a practice I’m violently against by the way). At one point I would have to say Winston was the oldest Pulpcon attendee, definitely in his mid-80’s. We often had discussions about All Story and it became apparent that he had The Holy Grail. As he grew older, he became more and more willing to sell the issue to me. I guess he wanted to find it a nice home with a younger collector.

   However, once again the subject of death came up. Just when we were about to conclude the deal, Winston up and died. The next couple years Pulpcon held auctions of the Winston Dawson Collection. I must of looked at every pulp he ever owned. One year hundreds of pulps were stacked on the floor waiting to be auctioned and I actually groveled and crawled along the floor, hoping to find the October 1912 issue. Someone must of got it before me because it was not there.

   A few years later, up for auction at Pulpcon, came the issue! Maybe it was even the missing Winston Dawson copy! The only problem was that it was lacking the Tarzan novel. Now, many people may not be aware that at one time there existed quite a number of old time collectors who enjoyed excerpting their favorite authors and stories and making little homemade books. Some of these guys did not have any idea of what they were doing and ruined quite a few magazines.

   They would cut or rip out the pages or maybe take out the staples, etc. Then make up a cover and staple the stories together so that they had sort of a book. Some collectors even had the pages professionally bound and some, like Harry Noble, learned how to bind books so he could make a decent looking book.

   Then you could have a book of H. Bedford Jones or Max Brand stories. This was all before The Golden Age of Pulp Reprints. This is the age we live in now with excellent reprints from Altus Press, Black Dog Books, Murania Press, John Locke, Girosal Press, and others. Now you don’t need to break up pulps and make your own book. So all these old time collectors are gone now, except for one misguided soul who continues to excerpt pulps, and this is evidently what happened with the Tarzan issue up at auction at Pulpcon.

   Someone had excerpted the Tarzan novel and the covers. What was left was the rest of the magazine in quite nice condition but without the important pages. Now you might think that this item would be laughed at and forgotten. Not so. Because the Tarzan issue is so rare and expensive, even a poor, cut up copy will be of interest to collectors in the know. The bidding was hot and furious starting off at $10. I won it at $400 and figured this was as close as I’d ever come to having the issue I’d been searching for so long.

   Fast forward into the 1990’s and I’m at my senseless office job supervising non-collectors, when one day I get a phone call from pulp collector and author Frank Robinson. Due to my habit of talking about the October 1912 issue so often, he knew I was still in the hunt for it. He explained he was at an auction on the East Coast and the Tarzan issue was coming up for bids. What did I want to bid for it? For some reason I only said $5,000 and of course it went higher than that figure. Again, I was out of luck. Maybe if I’d been at the auction, I would have been successful.

   Now here we are in December 2012 and I still don’t have the Tarzan novel. I have the October 1912 issue but the novel is missing. As usual I’m complaining about my situation in a pulp discussion group online, when another collector tells the story of how he was at the Dum Dum Burroughs convention and saw a coverless issue sell for only $25. Not only that but he noticed a coverless issue is up on eBay.

   At this point in my life, I know I’m not going to pay $50,000 or so for one of my wants. It just is not going to happen. But I will be glad to get a coverless issue at a far lower price. The eBay copy is owned by a seller in the UK and he wants a minimum bid of 600 pounds, which is almost a thousand dollars. I figure that price is ok and finally I can stop being obsessed by October 1912! Toward the end of the auction another collector enters a bid and now I have to think about just how high do I want to go? I finally decide on $1,500. This I am willing to pay to get the issue and get some peace of mind.

   The seller tells me that he obtained it in England 15 or 20 years ago and recognized that it was something special. He had no idea how it got to England from America. My bid of $1500 is successful and I finally get the issue that I’ve been hunting for so long. And get this. It arrives on Christmas Eve! This is a tale to bring tears to the eyes of any pulp collector during the Christmas Holidays. Talk about the spirit of Christmas! It’s another bloody Christmas Story, A Christmas Carol!

   So now, here I sit with not one issue of the October 1912 All Story but two issues. True, one lacks the Tarzan novel and one lack the covers but beggars can’t be choosers and neither can collectors. Is it possible that in all the entire world, I am the only person with two copies of the October 1912 issue? Ah Bliss!

TARZAN OF THE APES

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