BILL PRONZINI – Scattershot. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1982; $10.95. PaperJacks, paperback reprint, 1987.
Business, as they say, is booming. For Bill Pronzini’s pulp-collecting detective, for one, and for readers of private-eye fiction, for hundreds, if not thousands of others.
Doomsayers to the contrary, the PI story is alive and — would you believe? — thriving. I’ve got a stack of PI novels here you wouldn’t believe how high, and if I weren’t awfully careful about it, I could read nothing but. Not that I would. I’d be burned out within a month if I did. I need a Leslie Ford every now and then, just to keep a proper perspective on things.
But back to “Nameless,” as he has more or less officially been dubbed. All of a sudden he has more cases than he needs, especially just as his love life with Kerry (the lady he hit it off with so well in Hoodwink) is turning sour.
Strangely enough, so do each of the three cases recorded in this book. Each becomes an impossible crime: a locked-room murder, a man who vanishes out of a constantly watched car, a wedding present that disappears out of a constantly guarded room.
Terrific stuff , but 100 percent guaranteed to produce ulcers for the detective who is supposed to solve them or else. Lose his license? Nah, it couldn’t be … could it ? Life’s never this rotten. Is it?
People not in the know constantly confuse PI fiction with hard-boiled fiction. There is an overlap, but nothing could really be much further from the truth. “Nameless” tries — he’s a man, and he has a macho image to maintain, whether consciously or not — but in many ways, in spite of all his rough edges, he’s also too soft and vulnerable. And likeable. He’d be hell to live with, but Kerry will come back. Won’t she?
Hey, Bill! How long will we have to wait for the next one?
Rating: A minus.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 7, No. 3, May-June 1983 (slightly revised).
[UPDATE] If I have my chronology straight, the next book in the series wasDragonfire, which came out later the same year. I won’t tell you how the romance with Kerry came out, though. If you’re a fan of the series, you already know.
I missed out on Patti Abbott’s multi-blog salute to Bill Pronzini on the occasion of his 70th birthday a couple of weeks ago. I had this review in mind to be included, but … time got away from me.
Scattershot was the 8th book in the Nameless series, and now there are 30 more, or 38 in all, not including short stories, novelettes, and novellas. Best wishes for many more birthdays, Bill, and for many more books in the series.
JONATHAN STAGGE – The Yellow Taxi. Popular Library 63, no date (ca. 1945). Originally published by Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1942.
I have commented previously in these pages about the works of the authors [Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler] who used the pseudonyms Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge. The Yellow Taxi, I believe, is their best book. For one thing, rather than picking a rather obvious least-likely suspect (as Webb and Wheeler often did, especially in the Patrick Quentin books), in The Yellow Taxi they distribute suspicion evenly among a number of possible miscreants. For another, the plot is bizarre, elaborate and yet beautifully dovetailed.
A terrified young woman approaches Dr. Westlake, the narrator and detective of the Stagge books, with a story about being hounded in a small New England community by a yellow New York taxicab. Westlake is inclined to pooh-pooh the story until he himself sees the taxi. (Webb and Wheeler are much more successful than certain creators of horror films in making an automobile an object of terror.) When the woman is killed falling off a horse, Westlake’s daughter, Dawn, finds evidence of murder. The eventual discovery of the role of the taxi only deepens the mystery.
Moreover, Stagge may be playing with jaded experts in detective fiction, for he introduces identical twins and we assume (or at least I did) that confusion of identity is involved. It’s not, and the final solution is convincing and well-clued.
— Reprinted from The Poisoned Pen, Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter 1984/85.
ANTHONY GILBERT – The Woman in Red. Collins Crime Club, UK, hardcover, 1941. Smith & Durrell, US, hardcover, 1943. Digest-sized paperback: Mercury Mystery #91. Also published as The Mystery of the Woman in Red: Handi-Books #29, paperback, 1944. Film: Columbia, 1945, as My Name Is Julia Ross. Film: MGM, 1987, as Dead of Winter.
MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS. Columbia, 1945. Nina Foch, Dame May Whitty, George Macready. Based on the novel The Woman in Red, by Anthony Gilbert. Director: Joseph H. Lewis.
I almost gave up on Anthony Gilbert’s The Woman in Red after the first few pages because it seemed like every other paragraph conveyed some form of Had-she-but-known, often more than once. F’rinstance: She was wondering why she should be so convinced that nothing but harm, of danger even, could come of this venture…her whole being shaken by a protest that was instinctive and illogical In her brain, a voice rang like a chiming bell, “Don’t go,” it pealed, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go!”
At which point I damnear went. But I stayed with it and I’m glad I did. Woman in Red isn’t completely successful, but when the characters talk, they slip the surly bonds of Gilbert’s prose and come alive, with entertaining results. This was my introduction to series sleuth Anthony Crook, a delightfully irreverent character and light counterbalance to the turgid and often ridiculous story around him.
Well, maybe not ridiculous; the tale of Julia Ross, a working girl who takes a position as an old dowager’s secretary, only to find herself whisked off to a remote house in the country where everyone calls her by another name and treats her like she’s crazy has some effective moments and even generates a good deal of suspense.
But it’s hard to take a story seriously when the would-be killer tricks our heroine into wearing a red dress so as to rouse the deadly ire of a passing bull. And when the basis of the plot turns out to be a nest of foreign spies being coincidentally pursued by Julia’s beau…. Well I’m just glad there were enough bright characters and tricky bits of business to make it all worthwhile and even entertaining.
Woman in Red was turned into a film called My Name Is Julia Ross (Columbia,1945) and it had the artistic fortune to be adapted by Muriel Roy Bolton and directed by Joseph H. Lewis, a filmmaker who brought artistry to just about everything he touched. Shot in 18 days (as delightfully detailed in Mike Nevin’s Joseph H. Lewis [Scarecrow, 1998]) on a budget that wouldn’t buy catering on most “A” pictures, this emerges as a riveting, atmospheric film, and one to look out for.
Nina Foch is excellent as the imperiled heroine, set neatly against Dame May Whitty as the dotty-looking but sinister master- (or should it be mistress?) -mind. Even better, there’s George Macready as Whitty’s not-quite-right son. Bolton re-structures the basis of the plot, replacing spies with a background story that George married a wealthy heiress for her money, then inconveniently killed her. Now he and Mom need a replacement who can be passed off as the wife and meet a more acceptable end so he can inherit her fortune and avoid the gallows.
It’s fine work from writer Bolton, who also did an intelligent job on something called The Amazing Mr. X, which I must get around to reviewing someday.
Director Lewis does an outstanding job with all this. His off-beat angles and compositions are never just showy, but always work to establish character or atmosphere. And he creates a nifty tension between the murderous mother and son, with Whitty always trying to take knives and other sharp objects away, and Macready always on the point of rebelling — a nasty prospect from the look of him, and one he would relish. Macready’s career ran the gamut from the preposterous The Monster and the Ape to the prestigious Paths of Glory, but he was never better than right here, playing off Dame May Whitty like an incestuous Lorre and Greenstreet.
PostScript: Mike Grost has a lot to say about this film on his website. Check out his long insightful article here. The movie was also reviewed by J. F. Norris on his blog. Here’s the link.
VINCE KOHLER – Rising Dog. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1992. No paperback edition.
Unlike most of today’s comedy mystery writers, Vince Kohler (1948-2002) understood the key to quality comedic mystery fiction is a good mystery with comedic elements, not how funny the jokes are. The few of us who have read his work still miss his talent for writing solid mysteries with eccentric characters, black humor, and a sense of the rainy coast of Oregon so real you’ll need a raincoat.
Vince Kohler wrote four books, Rainy North Woods (1990), Rising Dog (1992), Banjo Boy (1994), and Raven’s Widow (1997). All four featured journalist Eldon Larkin who worked as reporter/photographer for the South Coast Sun, the local newspaper for small town Port Jerome, Oregon. Educated, he reads French classic literature in the original language, but proving how useful his education is, Eldon is a loser when it comes to the important things in life — women, cars, and career. He left Berkeley California and an ex-wife behind, and now dreams of the big story that will get him a job with a big city newspaper.
The books can be read in any order and all of equal high quality. So I grabbed one off my shelf and was pleased to see Rising Dog.
Rising Dog features a complex mystery centered on the murder of radical environmentalist John Henspeter, who is trying to stop a land developer from cutting down some trees to put up a condo. But while the mystery will hold your interest, it is the fast pace action, humor, and non-stop weirdness that will keep you entertained from beginning to end.
Eldon responds to a phone call from Jasper, former drunken tugboat captain turned preacher, who claims to have raised his dog from the dead. Eldon meets with Jasper, the resurrected doggie and the members of Jasper’s church.
On the way to where the miracle occurred, the group comes across some construction workers dealing with protester Henspeter. Things escalate, and as Eldon takes pictures, the church members and construction workers break out into a fight. It all stops with the arrival of a beautiful, topless mystery woman in her thirties on horseback (we will learn later her name is Enola Gay). All fall silent in awe. As quickly as she appears, she disappears back into the woods. Peace has been restored, until the dog arrives with a human foot. Its page 15 of 274 and the fun has barely begun.
Kohler had a gift for ratcheting up the tension then easing off with a slight touch of the absurd. Near the end of the book, Eldon and Enola Gay finds themselves caught between gunfire from two sides:
There were three shots from the trench. (Killer) was popping away with the Mauser. Eldon and Enola Gay flattened themselves as (killer) and the AK-47 gunner traded shots. Pop-blap, went the AK-47. The Mauser snapped in reply. Pop-blap. Pop-blap. Snap, snap. They’re both terrible marksmen, Eldon thought.
Anyone who features odd characters is usually compared to Elmore Leonard, but Kohler’s books are better. Kohler’s pace and his ability to balance mystery, action, and humor avoids the dull sections I find in many of Leonard’s books.
Kohler’s descriptions of locations are among the best in all fiction. He avoids the faults of the popular Weird Florida comedic mystery authors such as Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Moore, Tim Dorsey, etc. While too often the Florida locations out-weird the characters and events, Kohler’s locations play the straight man in his story, something real to anchor the story so the humor never cost the mystery its believability.
Sadly, all four of his books are out of print and have yet to be rescued by e-books. There is little information on the Internet about Kohler besides his books for sale and two columns by his friend Bob Hicks.
From Rising Dog, “Vince Kohler is a staff writer for the Oregonian in Portland. Kohler has traveled widely and in the course of his career, has filed stories from South America, Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. He is married, has three cats, and considers himself a permanent resident of the Pacific Northwest…”
My favorite form of fiction is mystery lite, stories the opposite of film noir. Where film noir is soaked in self-pity and doom, mystery lite finds life too absurd to be taken seriously. Writers such as Norbert Davis, Ross Thomas, Gregory Mcdonald, Nat and Ivan Lyons, and Donald Westlake fill their books with the dark tragedies of life then make fun of them. Vince Kohler was one of the best at it. I miss him.
NOTE: For a list of all of this week’s other “Forgotten Friday” books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog here.
From mystery researcher John Herrington comes the following inquiry:
I have been looking at this author of one title Headlines (1932) listed in Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV (as by Janette Cooper), and it has turned up an interesting story.
She was born Rosalea (possibly Rosa or some variant spelling) Mary McCready in Pennsylvania in early 1894. She married Henry Colin Campbell, born 1864, in 1914 in Illinois. Is on 1920 census in Illinois with Henry, and two daughter Dorothy, aged 4, and Virginia, aged 2.
But in 1930 her husband was executed as the “Cranford torch murderer,” and Rosalea seems to disappear from the records.
There are a couple of things which do not help to clarify what happened to her.
The Library of Congress copyright of Headlines is given to a Rhoda Cameron of Stamford, Connecticut. Although this lady appears in directories from 1930s, 1940s etc., sometimes with an Horace Cameron, she does not appear on 1930 or 1940 census. She may be the Rhoda Cameron born 3 April 1894 who died in Connecticut in 1978, who is Rhoda M Cameron in her Connecticut state death registration.
The reports on Campbell’s trial state that he was a bigamist and had married several times without divorcing the previous wife. He is on 1910 census living with Emma Campbell and three children. In the trial report Emma Bullock Campbell says she was never divorced after Campbell left her, apparently to marry Rosalea! And while married to Rosalea, he had married his victim Mildred Mowery.
I have no idea what Roselea’s status was after the trial and execution. Was any evidence found to say her marriage was definitely bigamous? Whatever, I cannot find her on 1930 census. Even a search for the children failed to find them. Did she change her name to escape the media hunt?
And what is the connection between Rosalea and the mysterious Rhoda Cameron in the copyright entry. Are they possibly the same person?
I would appreciate if you can do a bit on this, to see if anyone out there knows anything about Rosalea and what happened to her.
Editorial Comment: The description of the book as given on the cover says: “The wife of a man electrocuted for murder tells her own story.”
LYDIA ADAMSON – A Cat in the Manger. Signet, paperback original, 1990.
A Cat in the Manger is the first in a series about sometime NYC actress and moretimes catsitter Alice Nestleton by the pseudonymous Lydia Adamson. This is a fanciful tale requiring hyperextension of disbelief, with a heroine of little appeal and an ending without the impact it could have had.
Alice goes to Long Island to cat-sit for Harry and Jo Starobin, as she had done frequently before. This time, however, someone has hung Harry on the back of a door. Another corpse quickly turns up, just as motiveless a killing as the first.
The police think robbery, but the Starobins were penniless — except for the $381,000 discovered in Harry’s safety-deposit box. And where has Ginger Mauch, who worked for the Starobins, gone off to, and why?
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter 1991.
[UPDATE.] It is now known that Lydia Adamson is the pen name of mystery writer Frank King, who besides 21 books in his/her Alice Nestleton series (see below), also wrote 12 books in a series starring Dr. Deirdre Quinn Nightingale, veterinarian, and three books about birdwatcher and ex-librarian Lucy Wayles, not to mention five works of crime fiction under his own name.
The Alice Nestleton series —
1. A Cat in the Manger (1990)
2. A Cat of a Different Color (1991)
3. A Cat in Wolf’s Clothing (1991)
4. A Cat in the Wings (1992)
5. A Cat by Any Other Name (1992)
6. A Cat with a Fiddle (1993)
7. A Cat in a Glass House (1993)
8. A Cat with No Regrets (1994)
9. A Cat on the Cutting Edge (1994)
10. A Cat in Fine Style (1995)
11. A Cat on a Winning Streak (1995)
12. A Cat Under the Mistletoe (1996)
13. A Cat in a Chorus Line (1996)
14. A Cat on a Beach Blanket (1997)
15. A Cat on Jingle Bell Rock (1997)
16. A Cat on Stage Left (1998)
17. A Cat of One’s Own (1999)
18. A Cat With the Blues (2000)
19. A Cat With No Clue (2001)
20. A Cat Named Brat (2002)
21. A Cat on the Bus (2002)
Author Audrey Boyers is included in the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, for one book under this name, Murder by Proxy (Doubleday Crime Club, 1945), which was actually a collaboration with Bettina Boyers. Some information about the latter has recently come to light: included in Part 37 of the online Addenda to the Revised CFIV, Bettina Boyers was the “pseudonym of Betti Rosa Tagger, 1891-1960. She was also known as Bettina Bruckner, and died the widow of Theodor Tagger, whose pseudonym was Ferdinand Bruckner. Born in Rosnow, Poland; died in New York City.”
Bettina Boyers has one other entry of her own in CFIV, a solo novel entitled The White Mazurka (Doubleday, 1946), also a Crime Club novel.
Not much information seems to be known about Audrey Boyers, however. One might have guessed that she and Bettina were sisters, and yet apparently they were not. What has caught Al’s eye in recent days, along with that of fellow mystery researcher John Herrington, is the entry for Audrey Boyers Walz (1906-1983) who between 1931 and 1951 wrote eight mystery novels under the pen name of Francis Bonnamy, all of which featured a series character named Peter Shane, a criminologist by trade.
The question posed by Al and John is this: Is Audrey Boyers also Audrey Boyers Walz? It would be a whopper of a coincidence if they are not, but no evidence has so far arisen to say that they are. (And where does “Bettina Boyers” fit in?)
JUNE TRUESDELL – The Morgue the Merrier. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1945.
When mystery writer John Grover and his new bride, Lee, arrive at the house in Tree-Top Glen, apparently in Los Angeles, where they are to spend their honeymoon, the door is blocked by a body whose hand is the only part that can be seen. Moments later the body vanishes. Then a woman is murdered in one of the bedrooms, stabbed through the heart and with her throat slit.
Grover and Lee call upon Julius Gilbert, criminologist not detective, who is five feet two inches tall, with two hundred pounds of tummy. (I suspect that Lee, the narrator, is exaggerating.) Muttering oracularly and managing to postpone the consummation of the marriage, Gilbert clears things up in a semi-fair-play novel after only one more murder.
Those who like frenetic married-couple types should enjoy this one. While the characters are a bit extreme, as is the plot, in spite of these objections I am keeping an eye out for Truesdell’s later pair of novels, according to Hubin not featuring Gilbert or the Grovers, in which she may have exhibited a little more authorial control.
— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter 1991.
Bibliography: [Taken from Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin]
TRUESDELL, JUNE (1918?-1996?)
The Morgue the Merrier (n.) Dodd Mead, 1945.
Be Still, My Love (n.) Dodd Mead, 1947. Film: The Accused, 1949.
Burden of Proof (n.) Boardman, UK, 1951
ANDREA CAMILLERI – The Dance of the Seagull. Originally published in Italian as La danza del gabbiano, 2009. Penguin, US, softcover, 2013.
This, the 15th and most recently recorded case of Inspector Salvo Montalbano (at least here in the US), begins with the agonized gyrations of a seagull the inspector sadly watches die before his eyes. Little does he know that a connection will soon be made between this event and his very next case, which has as yet not had time to develop.
This being my first encounter with the inspector and his various adventures, I did not recognize at first the significance of the mysterious disappearance of Fazio, the latter one of his close-knit staff of subordinates. Montalbano is, as are many fictional police inspectors, Italian or otherwise, somewhat of a lone wolf in his approach to tackling crime, but one man cannot do it alone, and the men who work under him are much like family.
The main thrust of the case, that of drug smuggling (or traffickers), is not particularly interesting, but even without a “Watson” to bounce his ideas off of, Montalbano displays a good sense of the world around him – which is to say that he’s a very good detective. Nor does a good sense of humor on the part of the author hurt in the least. I wouldn’t mind at all if I had the chance to catch up on any of Montalbano’s earlier cases, or his next one, whichever way it works out.
THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU. Anglo-Amalgamated Films, UK, 1967. Christopher Lee (Dr. Fu Manchu), Douglas Wilmer (Nayland Smith), Tsai Chin, Horst Frank, Wolfgang Kieling, Maria Rohm, Howard Marion-Crawford (Dr. Petrie). Based on the characters created by Sax Rohmer. Screenwriter (as Peter Welbeck) and producer: Harry Alan Towers. Director: Jeremy Summers.
Christopher Lee spent half his career playing Fu Manchu, a role he was born to play, or does it only seem that way? This is the third of a series of five that came out in quick succession in the 60s, the others being:
The Face of Fu Manchu (1965).
The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966).
The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967).
The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968).
The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969).
I don’t know why I started watching this list of movies in the middle, but I did. And after watching this one, I really don’t know if I’ll watch the other four. It’s really that bad. Not bad in any sense that’s interesting, but just bad.
I suppose I ought to explain myself. When I watch a movie, I really would prefer that it make sense. I really kind of resent it when there are a lot of scenes that have no connection with the rest of the story, scenes that are there only to lengthen the running time of the movie and no other reason, and when a movie has a non-existent plot that also has holes in it, you really know you have one dud of a movie.
Christopher Lee really ought to have been ashamed to have taken money for this one. His only role in the film is to step out of the interior of his palace, squint into the light a few times, with an engagingly enigmatic expression on his face, and let his daughter (played by Tsai Chin with suitably impressive imperiousness, not to mention an equally suitable innate wickedness) have all of the fun. (Tsai Chin is still active in making films today.)
There is torture in this film, a beheading, lots of really phoney-looking sword and spear play, but not one hint of sex. What’s up with that? There is one very funny subplot of the movie, which is where the vengeance comes in, in which Fu Manchu manages to replace Nayland Smith by a surgically altered and waxen-faced lookalike who then commits a murder “Smith” is hanged for. Ha, ha!
That the British judicial system would fall for such nonsense is a pure comedy delight, one that I can almost recommend that you see for yourself, but I can’t, for if I did, you’d never believe another review I ever wrote again. And we can’t have that, can we?