August 2013

GEORGE BAGBY Country and Fatal

GEORGE BAGBY – Country and Fatal. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1980.

   Need further proof that riding the Manhattan subway system can be dangerous to your health? On page one of Bagby’s latest mystery-adventure, you’ll find him being pushed off the Times Square station platform smack into the path of an oncoming train.

   A series of such attacks has surprisingly nothing to do with Bagby’s friendship with Inspector Schmidt of Homicide, and the many cases they’ve worked on together. Rather it has everything to do with an ex-con country singer named Shad McGee (almost married to the phenomenally shelf-bosomed Lucinda Belle), who wants Bagby to give him a hand with his memoirs.

   Names and any resemblances etc. etc. entirely coincidental. Not your usual background for a detective murder mystery, but it’s fun, and what’s more, the clues are fair. In fact, there’s one in particular that should have been obvious, and I missed it. I really don’t know what I was thinking of.

Rating: B minus

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 4, No. 4, July-August 1980 (very slightly revised).

UPDATE [08-14-13].   George Bagby, pen name of Aaron Marc Stein, (1906-1985) was an extremely prolific mystery author who also wrote as Hampton Stone. I think I’ll repeat my update of my review of another of Bagby’s works of detective fiction, I Could Have Died, which you’ll find here:

    “I don’t believe that George Bagby — in real life Aaron Marc Stein, under which name he wrote an equally long list of other detective novels — got nearly the critical attention that I always thought he should have, and he’s definitely forgotten by all but a few devoted aficionados now.

    “Perhaps he was too prolific, and maybe the endings didn’t match the cleverness of other writers’ mysteries (nor perhaps the openings of his own books), but I always admired the way he had for descriptive passages, making the most prosaic actions — such as taking the cap off a toothpaste tube or hunting for a set of lost keys — seem interesting.

    “George Bagby, by the way, if the review wasn’t quite clear on this, was both the pen name and the character in the Bagby novels who tagged along with Inspector Schmidt and chronicled his cases for him.”

    I don’t remember who I was referring to in the first sentence of the third paragraph. It was 33 years ago when I wrote it, and while you may think everything you say or do will stay with you forever, it doesn’t. Thank goodness.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

CRAIG JOHNSON A Serpent's Tooth

CRAIG JOHNSON – A Serpent’s Tooth. Viking, hardcover, June 2013.

Genre:  Police procedural. Leading character:   Walt Longmire, 9th in series. Setting:  Wyoming.

First Sentence: I stared at the black-and-orange corsage on Barbara Thomas’s lapel so that I wouldn’t have to look at anything else.

   Sheriff Walt Longmire and his deputy encounter a bare-assed young man and the, supposedly, 200-year-old-man watching over him. In looking for the young man’s mother, he finds himself tangling with a polygamous group buying up large areas of land in several states.

   But where are the wives and children? While they are stockpiling weapons, they are also buying things that are less expected. Walt, and his team, becomes involved in a case that starts simple but ends up much bigger and more dangerous than he expected.

   Although I’m less cranky about prologues than I used to be, it is delightful when an author takes you straight into the story from page one. Not only does Mr. Johnson take you there, but he keeps you there until you’ve finished, having a complete disregard for your desire to sleep.

CRAIG JOHNSON A Serpent's Tooth

   There is no question that Johnson’s greatest strength is his characters. He balances their personalities off beautifully. Walt is well-read and has a strong belief in justice. Vic, his deputy and occasional lover, has all the sass and impatience of an East-Coast Italian.

   It’s always nice to be reacquainted with the other recurring characters surrounding Walt, too. In this story young Cord and the older Orrin add both interest and humor and provide the bridge in the plot. Johnson develops the characters and brings them to life through excellent internal narrative and spoken dialogue. I did enjoy his nod to famous Wyoming defense attorney Gerry Spence.

   There is room for criticism with this book. There seemed to be an assumption that readers had read the previous books. Even being a faithful fan, some of the nicknames for the recurring characters became confusing and wanting a cast of characters. There was a very minor story line that seemed superfluous and completely unnecessary as it was never developed.

   Still, in all, I expect a lot from a Craig Johnson book, and I was not disappointed. A Serpent’s Tooth is a wonderful read that takes you on a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Don’t miss it.

Rating:   VG Plus.


“Collateral Damage.” From Stargate SG-1: Season 9, Episode 12 (185th of 214 installments). First aired: 13 January 2006. Regular cast: Ben Browder (Lt. Colonel Cameron Mitchell), Amanda Tapping (Lt. Col. Samantha Carter), Christopher Judge (Teal’c), Beau Bridges (Major General Hank Landry), Michael Shanks (Dr. Daniel Jackson), Gary Jones (Chief Mst. Sgt. Walter Harriman). Guest cast: Anna Galvin (Dr. Reya Varrick), Warren Kimmel (Dr. Marell), Benson Simmonds (Dr. Amuro), Ian Robison (Frank Mitchell), William Atherton (Emissary Varta). Writers: Joseph Mallozzi & Paul Mullie. Director: William Waring.

STARGATE SG-1 Collateral Damage

   Our galaxy is on the verge of complete destruction, as a race of super-powerful beings called the Ori equipped with hypertechnology have begun their campaign to force all sentient beings to succumb to their will or be exterminated . . .

   . . . but you’ll see none of that in this particular show. Instead, “Collateral Damage” is one of those series episodes which back away from the main story arc to do a little character building. The character being built in this case is Colonel Mitchell. He is, in fact, the focus of the entire show.

   Mitchell and his SG-1 team are on another planet trying to establish diplomatic relations in hopes of stopping the Ori advance. These people have developed an educational device which could drastically reduce learning times — and its potential for military use against the invasion isn’t lost on the Earthmen.

STARGATE SG-1 Collateral Damage

   The very first scene, a flashback, however, shows Mitchell committing a cold-blooded murder and being arrested for it. The victim is the very research scientist who developed the learning device, only to have it taken away from her by her government — specifically, by the military. Mitchell is sympathetic to her situation, and it isn’t long before he and this woman become romantically involved.

   The next morning the SG-1 team is informed that the colonel has been taken into custody, with the victim’s blood on him, his fingerprints on the murder weapon, and a confession on his lips.

   Although Mitchell instinctively knows better, he must reluctantly admit that he remembers killing her, but his hosts want only to send him back home to Earth. Incensed, he stubbornly refuses their offer to sweep the whole disruptive thing under the rug and demands the matter be cleared up, one way or another.

STARGATE SG-1 Collateral Damage

   Exactly how the crime was committed and how well the actual killer’s identity is submerged will come to light only when, in a nice bit of irony, the victim’s learning machine is employed to ferret out the real murderer.

   The whole plot of this show is an ingenious riff on detective fiction’s Golden Age trope of “the least likely suspect,” and in this instance could only be played out in a science fictional setting.



Transcript with SPOILERS:

And here is a review by someone who didn’t like it, also with a SPOILER alert:

MILES BURTON – The Man with the Tattooed Face. Doubleday Crime Club,US, hardcover, 1937. First published in the UK as Murder in Crown Passage, Collins, hardcover, 1937.

MILES BURTON The Man with the Tattooed Face

   Immediately preceding the first page of The Man with the Tattooed Face you’ll find a map of the “downtown” section of the village of Faston Bishop, including all the salient details that describe the locale where the dead man is found, and believe me, it — the map, that is — gets a full workout.

   The victim is — not too surprisingly — a man with a tattooed face. While he had earned his living as a common laborer on several of the farms surrounding Faston Bishop, he also seems to have been working very much below his true station in life. Rumors are also that he was not averse to carrying on an affair or two with some of the wives in the local area.

   The detective on hand is Inspector Arnold of the C.I.D., and within the first 100 pages he has a theory that fits all the facts. Obviously it doesn’t, though — “obviously,” that is, if you’ve read as many mysteries as everyone else has who’s reading this review — and on page 173 is a timetable that leads soon to the discovery of the fatal flaw in his hypothesis.

   Arnold’s good friend Desmond Merrion insists that the solution to the crime must come from the dead man’s unknown past. Arnold’s stubborn obstinacy to this plan of thought is quite inexplicable. And other than these two divergent approaches to the investi gation of the murder, the two amicable crime-solvers leave little to distinguish themselves, one from the other — or from countless other featureless detectives from the “Golden Age.

   But the seductive lure and the leisurely pace of the classical mystery novel, told in simplest terms here as a puzzle in pure detection, these are what you’ll find in abundance, on every page.

Rating: B.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 4, No. 4, July-August 1980 (slightly revised).

William F. Deeck

SAMUEL SPEWACK – The Skyscraper Murder. Macaulay, hardcover, 1928; Bleak House #17, no date [1947/48?].

SAMUEL SPEWACK The Skyscraper Murder

   When the reader is informed by the publisher that the writer of a mystery is also the author of “a long list of Broadway and Hollywood hits,” some nervousness about the quality of the mystery may be aroused. In this instance it is definitely justified.

   An alleged bridge expert, Oliver Sewell has four closets in his apartment devoted to female attire for his four lovers of the moment and his lovers, he hopes, to be. After having attended a nightclub with one of his paramours and her former husband, Sewell is found shot dead in his apartment.

   His body, although he was killed elsewhere, had been placed in a chair three feet from a mirror. Sewell should not have been in his apartment, dead or alive, because he was not seen returning from the nightclub, nor could his killer have escaped without being noticed.

   The butler reports having served meals for two, although no one lived with Sewell. A Sewell paramour is spotted coming out of a concealed room. Do the authorities scratch their heads puzzledly, then exclaim “Eureka!” and search for another hidden passages? Nope.

   The assistant medical examiner, who aids the police detective in the case, tells the detective that Sewell had been dead two hours. “That means — if it means anything — Sewell was killed just before midnight, ha?” the detective asks brightly. The doctor does not disagree.

   A short while later it is confirmed that Sewell had been in a nightclub at 1:00 a.m. Any consternation on the part of the doctor or the detective? Nope. It turns out that the murder took place about 2:00 a.m. and that this mistiming is merely the author’s bewilderment.

   The gun used to kill Sewell was taken from Sewell’s business associate while he was sleeping at Sewell’s apartment. It was employed in the dirty work and then returned to the associate in the hope of framing him. When the associate discovers that his gun was the murder weapon, he gets rid of it. Nonetheless, when another character is shot, the bullet, according to the police laboratory, came from the original gun.

   Possible, you say; yet the killer in his confession mentions in passing that he had his own revolver and that he used it, not the original pistol, to shoot the second victim. Show biz has obviously taken its toll on our author.

   Under the name of Leonard Slater, Sewell had planned to sail to Europe with one of his lovers. Later the killer goes to Europe on that same ship, and he cunningly uses the name of Leonard Slater. Why? Otherwise our fine pair of detectives would still be nonplussed.

   Another completely absurd plot development takes place, but to describe it in all its inanity would be giving away who the killer was. And there may be someone who cares, although it would be hard to understand why.

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 1990.

Bibliographic Note:   According to Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, Samuel Spewak was the author of one other work of detective fiction: Murder in the Gilded Cage (Simon & Schuster, 1929). Based on the novel was a film entitled Secret Witness (Columbia, 1931). For more on the author himself, his Wikipedia entry can be found here.


MARIA, A HUNGARIAN LEGEND. Hunnia Filmstúdió (Hungary), 1932. First shown in the US: 1935. Also released as Spring Shower; original title: Tavaszi zápor. Annabella, Ilona Dajbukát, Erzsi Bársony, Steven Geray, Karola Zala, Margit Ladomerszky. Director: Pál Fejös. Shown at Cinefest 19, Syracuse NY, March 1999.


   One of the most anticipated films [of this convention] was Paul Fejos’ Maria, a Hungarian Legend (1932), starring Anabella (later to have something of a Hollywood career and marry Tyrone Power) as a servant who is sent packing when she becomes visibly pregnant and begins wanderings that include a brief period of peace at a brothel where she scrubs floors until she gives birth to her daughter.

   The film was presented without subtitles, but this is a sound film where the story is carried by the visuals. Only a brief scrolled prologue (in Italian) and the reading of an official document depriving her of her daughter (in Hungarian) provoked some momentary nervousness in the otherwise linguistically unchallenged audience.

   A lovely film that in other hands could have been a mawkish disaster. The final sequence when Maria reaches down from heaven to prevent her daughter from making the same mistake she had made glows with a serene beauty that is extraordinarily moving.


SOUTH OF SUNSET. 1993. CBS/Paramount/Stan Rogow Productions and Byrum Power & Light. Created and executive produced by John Byrum and Stan Rogow. Cast: Glenn Frey as Cody McMahon, Aries Spears as Ziggy Duane, and Maria Pitillo as Gina Weston. “Call On Me” performed by Glenn Frey (written by Glenn Frey and Jack Tempchin).


   SOUTH OF SUNSET was meant to be TV’s answer to popular action buddy movies such as 48 HRS. Poor acting, bad writing and the inability to duplicate what made the action buddy genre popular doomed this series to a quick death.

   According to an article in the Los Angeles Times (November 13, 1993), SOUTH OF SUNSET was the fourth series in TV history to be cancelled after one episode (the first three were YOU’RE IN THE PICTURE (1961), TURN ON (1969), and MELBA (1986)). The article also stated the show’s rating (6.1 and a 9 share) was “thought to be the lowest rating ever for a network prime-time series premiere …”

   Granted, October 27, 1993 on Wednesday at 9 to 10pm (Eastern), SOUTH OF SUNSET faced some strong competition from ABC’s HOME IMPROVEMENT (24.4) and GRACE UNDER FIRE (18.7), Fox’s MELROSE PLACE (9.3) and NBC’s NOW WITH TOM BROKAW & KATIE COURIC (11.5).

   But as the Times article noted there were other reasons for not airing a second episode, mainly due to CBS’s lack of confidence in the show and the risk of staying with it during the November sweeps (important rating period that affected the local stations as well as networks).


   An interview with Glenn Frey for the Chicago Tribune (October, 26, 1993) revealed some of the problems the series faced. Glenn Frey was not the first actor hired, Aries Spears as the comedic assistant was. Frey is best known for his work with popular rock band “Eagles” but had done some acting on TV (WISEGUY). However that was not how he got the job. The producers had been testing other actors with Spears for four months when a Paramount executive saw Glenn Frey sing on the Super Bowl pregame show and asked Frey to try out for the part.

   But the teaming of Frey and Spears didn’t work. It is obvious Frey never felt comfortable in the role of Cody. Frey lacked the acting talent and confidence to make the complaining loser Cody a strong appealing character (as opposed to what James Garner did with Jim Rockford).

   Cody ran the Beverly Hills Detective Agency located in the area south of Sunset boulevard in the low-income part of Beverly Hills (yes, there really is a poor section in Beverly Hills). The agency employed two people, Gina Weston and Ziggy Duane.

   Maria Pitillo did what she could with the clichéd character of Gina, receptionist/assistant who was trying to find work as an actress while keeping in touch with her worried Mother in Kansas.


   Aries Spears as Ziggy tried too hard to be Eddie Murphy. It didn’t help Spears the scripts forced his character to bounce between mature young man and immature idiot with a blink of a scene.

   If the acting was bad, the writing was even worse. The scripts seemed to have little interest in the plots or action, instead the viewer was forced to suffer through pointless scenes featuring long-winded speeches and boring banter. The characters and stories lacked originality or appeal.

   Production values were weak and often inconsistent. The gimmick of the Beverly Hills agency being in the poor part of Beverly Hills was ruined by Cody’s large office that grew larger every week (at one point it included a new pool table).

   Cody often complained of a lack of money, but in addition to his large office, Cody had a home (where he held parties and had a pet duck), had an expensive wardrobe, and a bright yellow Pontiac GTO (for those endless scenes where Cody and Ziggy exchange banal dialogue). Better direction could have helped establish settings such as Cody’s home and made the car rides more visual interesting.

   The series lone bright spot was an Emmy nomination for Opening Titles (Ed Sullivan and Jeff Boortz). It lost to THE X-FILES.


While CBS aired only one episode of the reported seven, VH1, during a salute to the “Eagles,” aired four more. At the moment, those five episodes are available to watch on YouTube. It is uncertain if the final two episodes, “Remember Me” and “Chalk Line” were ever filmed.

“Satyricon” (October 27, 1993) Teleplay by John Byrum Story by John Byrum and Stan Rogow Directed by Andy Tennant GUEST CAST: Wendy Benson, Season Hubley, and Richard Schiff *** Cody is working on a cheating spouse case when he is hired to find who is threatening a young tennis star, and then he is hired to find a gang leader who jumped bail.

“Dream Girl” (VH1) Written by Paul Brown Directed by Felix Enriquez Alcala GUEST CAST: Mark Blankfield, John A. Fitzpatrick and John Diehl *** A friend of Cody’s mom, Lou the toilet King of Queens is in Los Angeles and hires the agency to find a girl he has seen only in his dreams. Meanwhile Gina is hired to spend three months in the Caribbean making a movie, but overprotective Cody senses something is wrong.

“Custody” (VH1) Written by John Byrum Directed by Oz Scott GUEST CAST: Judith Hoag, Robert Torti, Julia Nickson and John Diehl *** A young mother hires Cody to get her nine year old daughter back from her ex-husband who had kidnapped her. Dad and his biker friends object when Cody grabs the kid back. Cody then discovers the kid is not eager to go back to either parent. Meanwhile, Gina goes undercover on a case of a cheating husband.

“Family Affair” (VH1) Written by Terry Curtis Fox Directed by Bruce Seth Green GUEST CAST: Carroll Baker, Amber Benson, Jeff McCarthy and John Verea *** A teen-aged girl had received postcards on her birthday for years from a man claiming to be her real father. This year he sends her an expensive jewel so she hires Cody to find the man. Meanwhile, Gina’s Mom visits.

“Newspaper Boy” (VH1) Written by Reggie Rock Bythewood Directed by Michael Schultz GUEST CAST: Jessie Ferguson, Wendy Davis, William Allen Young and John Verea *** Parents of a young black teen come to Cody for help after their son is gunned down by a cop. Meanwhile, Ziggy’s love life goes bad.

   No amount of time could have overcome the series problems in front and behind the camera. SOUTH OF SUNSET deserved its quick death.


ARNOLD RIDLEY – The Ghost Train. A mystery thriller in 3 acts. Produced originally at the Eltinge Theatre, New York, 1923. Cast: 7 males, 4 females, 1 interior scene. Modern costumes. Note: For much more about this play, including its many radio, film and audiobook adaptations, see its Wikipedia entry here. Shown is the playbill for the 2012-2013 revival.]

   The story is laid in a peaceful village in Maine where there lives a superstition of twenty years standing about a ghost train which flashes by in the dead of night, swinging the scythe of death. Rumrunners use this superstition to their own advantage in the transportation of liquor from Canada.

   As the night train draws into the small station, some passengers get off and the train moves on. These passengers are compelled to wait all night, for they have missed connections.

   And what a night they spend. When the decrepit old station-master tells them about the terrifying “Ghost Train,” bringing death to all who observe it, they just poo-pooh the idea. But everything happens as forecast.

   The station-master is stricken dead mysteriously. The signal bell rings. The engine whistles. The train roars through the junction and one who rashly gazes upon it apparently succumbs. Lovers of mystery plays will find here a piece to their liking.

Editorial Comment:   Thanks once again to Mike Tooney for finding this short piece while on his never-ending travels through the Internet. (Scroll down a short way.)

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

CYNTHIA HARROD-EAGLES – Blood Never Dies. Severn House, hardcover, 2012.


Genre:  Police procedural. Leading character:   DI Bill Slider, 15th in series. Setting:  England.

First Sentence: Exsanguination was the word Slider found wandering around his mind.

   When is a suicide not a suicide? When it’s a murder. When the details are just slightly off. When is a murder particularly hard to solve? When you don’t know the identity of the victim. It’s even harder when you find a name but realize it’s false. For DI Bill Slider and his team, the more they dig, the more murders occur, and the more obscure becomes the motive behind it all.

   Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has a wonderfully descriptive style. Her writing, and dialogue, is natural, sprinkled with wry humor, and occasional colloquialisms. She is very British, so occasionally some of her references of phrases might not be understood by Americans. It doesn’t matter; look them up and move on. It is well worth it and you learn something along the way.

   Her writing can make you stop and consider … “Death was so mysterious, Slider thought, not for the first time. The difference between a human being and a dead body was so profound, it always amazed him that made the difference, the vital spark, could disappear so instantaneously and completely.” … “He looked at her. ‘Animals just follow instinct. It’s only humans who perform calculated acts of vileness.’”

   It is particularly appealing that, although Bill Slider is the protagonist, it is truly an ensemble case. Everyone has an important role to play. I also appreciate that Harrod-Eagles shows the harsh and plainly unfair reality of one’s career being limited by either not having the “right” look or manner:

    “But scrawny frog-eyed Hollis, with his despairing hair and feather-duster moustache … made Peter Lorre look like a model from a knitwear catalogue. … He was a damn good policeman, which was all that counted to Slider — though not, of course, with the media-obsessed top bods in the Job, who would never promote Colin Hollis to any position that might get him on camera.”

   Slider is misfit in his own way. He doesn’t judge others but has a dogged determination to find the truth; he believes in fighting for right and justice. What I found missing was the some of the sparkle that makes this, for me, such a must-read series. There wasn’t as much interaction between Slider and his wife, Joanna, his father and Atherton, to which one always looks forward. Even the lovely and malapropism-plagued D.S. Porson: “A case of walking your chickens before they can run…” was little less apparent than in past stories.

   It’s the excellent plotting that makes this such a compelling read. You feel the team’s frustration knowing the clues are leading somewhere, but having no idea where. You become part of the team, looking for the answers, rather than stand outside the story.

   Blood Never Dies is a solid police procedural, with a strong plot and characters you want to visit again and again.

Rating:   Good Plus.

H. R. F. KEATING Murder of a Maharajah

H. R. F. KEATING – The Murder of the Maharajah. Doubleday, hardcover, 1980. Pinnacle, paperback, 1983. First published in the UK: Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1980.

   If there were an award designed to be given every year to some new mystery in the memory of the late Agatha Christie — there isn’t, and why not? — this is the book that would make Keating this year’s hands-down winner. Not only does it owe a great deal to Mrs. Christie in time, the year 1930, and in exotic locale, India, when that land was still a formidable bulwark of the British Empire, but in atmosphere, characters (some of whom are actually seen reading a Christie novel) and leisurely pace as well.

   The maharajah, never one to be crossed, is also inordinately fond of April Fool’s jokes, but one — a limousine’s plugged exhaust pipe — quickly comes home to roost (backfires?) when a plugged shotgun barrel is discovered to be the immediate cause of His Highness’s demise.

H. R. F. KEATING Murder of a Maharajah

   There are only a limited number of suspects, which should sound familiar, but even so D. S. P. Howard’s investigation into the case makes little initial headway, not even with the most highly enthusiastic help of the palace’s schoolmaster. Not until, that is, in grandly extravagant and artificial fashion — and comes the reminder that very seldom are mysteries written like this any more in today’s penny-pinching economies — an enormous royal banquet is recreated in the smallest detail, staged solely to help a murderer reveal himself.

   Lots of red herrings, you can bet on that, a thwarted romance or two, and a clue I’m willing to wager a bevy of Imperial sandgrouse that you’ll never spot, no matter how earnestly and devoutly you try. And for those who have followed Keating’s long career in writing detective mysteries up to now, there is a last line that is utterly untoppable.

Rating: A minus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 4, No. 4, July-August 1980 (slightly revised). This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.

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