January 2014


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


FREDRIC BROWN

FREDRIC BROWN – The Murderers. Dutton, hardcover, 1961. Bantam J2587, paperback, 1963.
       — Knock Three-One-Two. Dutton, hardcover, 1959.Bantam A2135, paperback, 1960.

   I’ve had a couple Fredric Brown’s on my shelf since Hubin-knows-when, but when I glanced at the covers the other day I couldn’t for the life of me remember reading them.

   The Murderers is pleasantly amoral right up to the cop-out ending. Two unemployed actors find their careers stymied by different adverse circumstances and decide to solve their problems by swapping murders. Everything goes along smoothy and even enjoyably until … well, as I aid, the ending’s a disappointment, but it doesn’t come until late in the book, which is mostly slick and much fun.

   Knock Three-One-Two is just as contrived and just as enjoyable. Ray Fleck, the hero of the piece is a two-bit, two-timing, half-smart chiseler and gambling addict (though the term was unknown back then) looking to score the Big One that will wipe out his debts and get him back in the Game.

FREDRIC BROWN

   Knock is the account of his night-long unlucky odyssey to that elusive home, set against the backdrop of a city plagued by an elusive serial killer.

   It’s something to the credit of Brown’s writing that the extraordinary contrivances of this thing don’t seem all that apparent until you set it down and start thinking about it.

             SPOILER ALERT — PLOT DETAILS AHEAD!

   Every bet that Ray makes he loses, every ploy he tries backfires, every turn he takes is wrong one, right up to the end, when he gets the chance to score several thousand dollars of insurance money — by steering the Serial Killer to his wife.

                END OF WARNING.

   The resolution is unsurprising, but Brown delivers the package neatly enough that it’s a pleasure reading it.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


ERIC AMBLER The Light of Day

ERIC AMBLER – The Light of Day. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1963. Reprint paperback editions include: Bantam, 1964; Signet, 1968; Ballantine, 1978; Berkley, 1985; Carroll & Graf, 1992.

   This Edgar-winning novel is the story of Arthur Simpson, a roguish con man, petty thief, and sometime pornographer who, as the novel opens, is driving a car-for-hire in Athens. He makes his first mistake when he attempts to rob his client of some traveler’s checks and is caught; the man is no ordinary tourist, but an accomplished criminal, and he quickly blackmails Simpson into driving a Lincoln Continental to Istanbul.

   Simpson’s second and third mistakes are not searching the car thoroughly and not having a valid passport. (He is half English, half Egyptian, and the problem of his citizenship is a thread that runs through the narrative.)

ERIC AMBLER The Light of Day

   The border authorities search the Lincoln and discover weapons inside the doors. When Simpson finally admits how he was coerced into driving the car into Turkey, the Turkish police in turn coerce him into getting at the source of the weapons smuggling. Simpson delivers the car, finagles himself a job as guide for the three men and one woman to whom it seems to belong, then spends several tense days trying to find out what they have planned.

   As it turns out, all plans go awry — Simpson’s, the authorities’, and the smugglers’. Soon Simpson finds himself enlisted on both sides, in an even worse predicament than he could ever have imagined.

   This novel is Ambler at his best, full as it is of double-dealings and harrowing scenes. Arthur Simpson is a likable rogue and a finely drawn character. The reader can get a second glimpse of him in Dirt Story (1967).

ERIC AMBLER The Light of Day

   A film of this novel, called Topkapi, was made in 1964; starring Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, and Peter Ustinov, it is colorful and entertaining and contains riveting scenes during which viewers who are afraid of heights would be well advised to keep their eyes shut. A paperback edition of the novel, also published that year, bears the same title as the film.

   Ambler carries out his theme of an innocent man caught up in a web of deceit and intrigue in other novels, notably Background to Danger (1937), Cause for Alarm (1939), and Epitaph for a Spy (1952).

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

   In the micro-fiction story that follows, I incorporate the Lovecraftian themes of forbidden knowledge, inner psychic turmoil, and gothic horror, but within a distinct historical and political context.

THE NIGHT OF THE GARGOYLES
by Jonathan Lewis


   This will be last the world hears from me. Nevertheless, it will soon enough learn a most terrible secret, one that has stained my family name for generations.

   My only loyalists are the gargoyles. The magenta rays of the fading sun may portray their ashen faces in a grotesque light, but those grey stone carvings are the most loyal of sentries. They perch on the ledge of my citadel, leering skyward with impure eyes. Mocking my enemies with tongues grossly distorted, repulsed by the taste of sedition.

   Distortions of animal form, worn by the steady march of time, they dwell just meters from the disintegrating tapestries adorning my vestibule walls. But how much do these inanimate creatures know of their true masters? They appear to steady themselves, in preparation for the struggle ahead. For who else remains to shield my body, let alone my mind, from the gathering maelstrom.

   Those who obeyed my regency, who respected the authority of my stentorian voice, now betray me. They turned their backs and take solace in knaves who abjure the natural order of things. I hear stories of one of their self-appointed leaders and of his fealty to his own lust for power. A champion of the people, he styles himself. A ringleader of fools, he is. I have heard tales of guillotines, desecrated castles, new ways of signifying the world.

   I am told that the agitators gather their strength from the forbidden philosophers, seekers, and questioners. The very thought of those sophists and their torturous logic sets my blood on fire. Oh, how I should have cast their elephantine volumes into the flames!

   If only the mob that gathers outside these castle walls knew the abhorrent truth of this haunted terrain. Their impish rebellion will destroy us all. I may be a ruler, but I too am ruled.

   My masters are of an ancient race. Not of this world.

   When I was a boy, whispers suggested that they came from the stars centuries ago and struck a hellish bargain with my ancestors, the details of which I to this day remain unaware. The ancient ones dwell in subterranean mausoleums on the castle grounds. The rebels will surely disturb their slumber. An early awakening—a most unholy dawn—will summon horrors dwarfing the mere foibles of earthly politics.

   I smell the unkempt masses below. A breeze sweeps past the gargoyles and into my room, further unsettling me. I look to my gargoyles for solace and protection, but it is in vain. My eyes bear witness, for they dare not deceive. The gargoyles are breaking free from their terrestrial moorings, soaring ever upward in the clear night sky, casting hideous shadows in the solemn moonlight. I hear their hideous, unearthly laughter, monstrous cackles. Betrayal is the most discordant of tunes.

   My turncoat sentries aloft, I remain earthbound, hostage to forbidden knowledge, myself the last remaining nobleman of a cruel and ancient regime, but one that had no choice but to govern as we did.

   I hear the bounding of footsteps and the dissonant symphony of conspiring voices. The oxblood drapery separating my antechamber from the hallway sways to and fro.

   Something lies behind it, hidden.

   I stand, captive to fear and to what I thought I knew. My hands unsteady at my sides, I reach for my steel blade. It brings me no comfort.

   I am the last of the noblemen. I must be brave. But I am not brave. I tremble, sick to the core of my being, wondering what dwells out of sight, behind the curtain.

© Jonathan Lewis 2014

DONALD HAMILTON – The Menacers. Gold Medal d1884, paperback original, 1968. Several later printings.

DONALD HAMILTON The Menacers

   This is Number 11 in the long-running Matt Helm series, and while any of them will do, this is a fine example of why Donald Hamilton made a lot of money for Gold Medal books over his long career. Matt (known as Eric to his superiors) is in Mexico for this installment, chasing down rumors of flying saucers, which in 1968 was still a hot topic to build a spy adventure around. (I haven’t heard much about them recently.)

   It seems as though whoever is aboard the saucers has been attacking anyone who comes across them, and with US insignia plastered all over them, they’re (in the process) making it seem as though the US is behind the attacks. Hidden agenda: causing an international (south of the border) crisis.

   Before you start thinking it would make a fine vehicle (hmm) for a Dean Martin movie, well, no. This is serious espionage business, and Hamilton as an author is as hard-boiled as they come. Quoting from page 156:

   … I turned the gun around and shot her. She stared at me, uncomprehending. Then she died and fell back against the right hand door. I thought that was rather nice of her. At least she’d had the decency to stay off the controls.

   There are a number of women in the story, many many different varieties of them, and who this one happens to be, I will leave you to discover. Some of these ladies are good, some are bad, some very bad, and some are in-between. Here’s a description of the first one he encounters, his initial contact in Mexico:

   My contact was there, all right, in the Mazatlán terminal, in her snug white linen pants and her crazy palmleaf hat. She wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. She looked like a kid. I don’t mean the cuddly, blonde, lisping, baby-face type, but the slim, dark, big-eyed, hollow-cheeked kind of young girl who doesn’t seem aware of the fact that’s she’s going to be beautiful some day.

   So, OK, reading a Donald Hamilton book is not like picking up the latest by Le Carré, but you do have to keep thinking, and I mean all of the time. Matt Helm tells the story, but he won’t tell you everything, or at least not right away. He will give you the facts, and it’s up to you to make of them what you will.

   The middle of the this one sags a little, and Hamilton is a little vague about patching a couple of seams together, but the ending certainly makes up for it.

— March 2004

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


MAKE MINE MINK. The Rank Organisation, 1960. Terry Thomas, Athene Seyler, Billie Whitelaw, Hattie Jacques, Elspeth Duxbury, Jack Hedley, Raymond Huntley, Kenneth Williams. Screenplay: Peter Blackmore, Michael Pertwee, Peter Coke (his play A Breath of Scandal). Director: Robert Asher.

MAKE MINE MINK

   Mannish Miss Parry (Hattie Jacques) complaining about her buxom student, in a low cut blouse, not being ready for her debut in society: “She’s coming out next week and she’s not ready.”

   Major Rayne (Terry Thomas) face to face with the young lady’s cleavage: “It looks to me as if she’s already come out.”

   That sums up British comedies of this era, and the mix of droll wit, music-hall vulgarity, satirical barbs, and affectionate jape that mark the typical British comedy from the post war era on. Faced with Little Britain as the empire came apart and the economy struggled to rebuild; the British comedy came into a golden era not unlike the romantic and screwball comedies this side of the pond in the wake of the Depression. Hard times seem to be good for comedy.

   Major Rayne, Miss Parry, and Miss Pinkerton (Elspeth Duxbury) are boarders in the flat owned by Dame Beatrice (Athene Seyler) and kept in some line by Lily (Billie Whitelaw) the ex-con maid. Dame Beatrice doesn’t really charge what she should, and spends her time funding her favorite charities while neglecting herself. She doesn’t even have a new coat.

   Which is why when the arguing neighbors throw out a mink stole Lily picks it up — via Major Rayne’s fishing line. Dame Beatrice is pleased but horrified, and enlists Major Rayne, Miss Parry, and the nervous flighty Miss Pinkerton to return the fur after an attractive young policeman (Jack Hedley) shows up asking about furs.

   The Major (he was in the vital business of providing tea time to the troops) plans the campaign, and each is assigned a role. And despite a spate of miscalculations and miscommunication they succeed, returning the fur and even convincing the neighbor his senile mother in law had the fur all along.

   And they have a fine time doing it.

MAKE MINE MINK

   That may be why when Dame Beatrice reveals she can no longer care for her numerous charities or continue their residence the four proto-felons begin to think in terms of heisting furs for fun and profit.

   Of course it might have helped if Lily wasn’t curious what was going on and dating that attractive young policeman Jim Benham.

   With the plot in motion the cheerful quartet set themselves increasingly difficult heists (always complicated by the exasperating Miss Pinkerton’s shambled nerves) until police and press are spreading sensational accounts of the daring criminal gang pulling off fur heists all over London. None of them actually work right, but somehow all of them are successful.

   There are other complications. Turning those furs into money being the first one. Just how does one find a fence? Major Rayne tries his hand at a rough club in the East End whose name he pried out of Lily (in a leggy funny awkwardly sexy scene where she thinks he is coming on to her after her shower) by claiming he was writing a novel (she was so relieved she would have told him anything).

   That excursion into the underworld is a fine little set piece of misunderstanding with Thomas waving Dame Beatrice’s pearls about and drawing absolutely no attention. And the reason is frustratingly apt.

MAKE MINE MINK

   They do find a fence though — Dane Beatrice’s fashionable nephew the Hon. Freddie (Kenneth Williams much less broad than in his Carry On persona) who is delighted at the old girl’s new career — he even invites her to his casino night — all the best people, and the gang’s next target. Which gets really complicated when the police raid for real in the middle of the gang’s fake raid.

   Meanwhile Lily has found them out and is horrified. She even plans to take the blame and get the others off when Inspector Pape (Raymond Huntley) shows up the next morning with her young man in tow asking questions.

   Needless to say the ending is happy, Lily has her man, and the gang got away with it and learned their lesson swearing to never steal furs again. But Lily’s young man did mention to Dame Beatrice the police home for foundlings is desperately in need of help.

   And after all they only swore not to steal furs …

MAKE MINE MINK

   I’ve always preferred Terry Thomas when his brash British snobbery and self satisfaction were combined with a bit of humanity and even reluctant humility. Fine as he was as dastardly cads, there was more there, and in films like this he was more than a cartoon. Good as he was in Snidely Whiplash mode, he could do more when he got the chance (A Matter of W.H.O.).

   Athene Seyler was a gifted veteran at the slightly dizzy grand dame game, and having the wonderful Hattie Jacques and Elspeth Duxbury in a single film is a coup. They were among the best the distaff side of British comedy had to offer at that point, and all three are at their bests here.

   Now Billie Whitelaw … yes, Billie Whitelaw … I don’t know what it is about Billie Whitelaw, she’s attractive, but not a sex bomb; she has a nice figure and very nice legs, but not exceptional; yet there’s that voice — a little husky with a hint of whiskey-throated seduction there; and that look — the Billie Whitelaw look — could melt glaciers; and there is just something in the way she walks, moves, even stands that is just plain sexy. Not all that long ago she showed up in one of the last seasons of The Last of the Summer Wine, and she hadn’t lost a whit if it.

   Did I mention Billie Whitelaw …?

   Make Mine Mink may not be at the level of the best of the Ealing comedies, but very close, more broadly observed than some of the legendary films of that era, but for that a very very funny caper film both gentle and barbed, sweet and a bit sexy, silly and rather touching. No it isn’t The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, Tight Little Island, or The Titchfield Thunderbolt, but it is a delight, a romp, and a wonderful evening of sly humor and even belly laughs.

   Make mine Make Mine Mink.

THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


COLLIN WILCOX A Death Before Dying

COLLIN WILCOX – A Death Before Dying. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1990; paperback, 1994.

   A Death Before Dying is the latest of Collin Wilcox’s novels about San Francisco homicide department chief Frank Hastings. The ingredients are here: wicked men (with a dip of the hat to a famous murder case and Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood), personal involvement for Hastings, an array of characters, police procedure.

   But for me the story remained mechanical, without real emotion. One day Hastings encounters a childhood friend, now grown into a notable beauty. Desperate, too, it would seem, though she doesn’t say much about that.

   Too bad: the next view Frank has of her is her strangled corpse. The investigation begins: she lived well, without an obvious source. A kept woman, presumably, but by whom? Gradually the pieces begin to add up in very nasty fashion….

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 12, No. 4, Fall 1990.


     The Lt. Frank Hastings series —

The Lonely Hunter (1969)
The Disappearance (1970)
Dead Aim (1971)
Hiding Place (1973)
Doctor, Lawyer…. (1975)
Long Way Down (1975)
Aftershock (1975)
The Third Victim (1977)
Twospot (1978; in collaboration with Bill Pronzini, whose Nameless detective also appears)
Power Plays (1979)
Mankiller (1980)
Stalking Horse (1982)
Victims (1985)
Night Games (1986)
The Pariah (1988)
A Death Before Dying (1990)
Hire a Hangman (1991)
Dead Center (1992)
Switchback (1993)
Calculated Risk (1995)

GUN FEVER. United Artists, 1958. Mark Stevens, John Lupton, Larry Storch, Jana Davi, Russell Thorson, Iron Eyes Cody. Director & co-screenwriter: Mark Stevens.

GUN FEVER Mark Stevens

   Back in 1958 “adult” TV westerns were all the rage — Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel and many others. And in many ways, that’s what I think Mark Stevens had in mind when he put so much effort into this movie: an “A” (for adult) western movie; what he also had was a “B” (for budget) expense account, and it shows.

   From the opening scenes on, however, this is one of the grimmer westerns I’ve seen in a while. The interior backgrounds, the homesteaders’ shacks and so on, all are stark and barren; outdoors it seems as though the wind in always blowing: with the incessant tumbleweeds and eternal sand in everyone’s faces, it makes you grit your teeth even to watch.

   Storywise, there’s not much to it. A young lad splits from his father’s gang when he decides the bloodletting has gotten too much for him. Six years later, he goes on a trail of revenge with his mining partner when the other man’s parents are brutally murdered — instigated by the outlaw he knows is his father. Confrontation is inevitable.

GUN FEVER Mark Stevens

   Several other deaths occur along the way, most with guns, some with knives, some at the hands of Indians. Jana Davi, whom I don’t remember ever seeing before, plays an Indian married to a white man, a sympathetic role, but as a Native American Indian, I don’t think so. (And it did surprise me a but when I discovered that Larry Storch was the man behind the serapes of the Mexican bandit, Amigo.)

   Overall, though, no more than moderately interesting. The highlight for me was seeing at last (as far as I know) the man behind Russell Thorson’s voice. I’ve heard him many times on the radio, but while in 1958 he was quite a bit older than when he played the capable, easy-going Jack Packard on the old I Love a Mystery radio series, he still looked much as I’d pictured him.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, slightly revised.

[UPDATE] 01-14-14. From IMDb: “Maureen Hingert [aka Jana Davi] was born on 9th of January 1937 in Columbo, Ceylon, of Dutch ancestry, the daughter of Lionel Hingert and Lorna Mabel del Run.”

GUN FEVER Mark Stevens

WARREN MURPHY – Dying Space. Pinnacle, paperback original, January 1982.

WARRNE MURPHY Dying Space

   Here is the forty-seventh in the continuing adventures of Remo Williams, aka “The Destroyer.” And right there this probably tells you all that you want to know about this book. Either you’ve bought and read it already, or you have absolutely no intention of doing either one. Go on to the next review.

   As for me, well, I’m somewhere in the middle. I think I have them all, but I also think I’ve read something like every seventeenth one. And only somebody who’s read them all could say for sure, but there must be hills and valleys, noticeable ups and downs within the series itself. So I don’t know, but I think this is a valley.

   For openers, this one has a lady astrophysicist with a yen for booze and Italian soccer teams. It has a mysterious, advanced computer of her own design, and somebody (something?) named Mr. Gordons, who is a deadly robot and an implacable enemy of Remo and his Korean mentor, Chiun. There is also, almost incidentally, a Russian plot to poison the moon.

   Apparently Mr. Gordons has been around before. He will also most assuredly be around again, as once again (WARNING: you may not want to know this ahead of time) he manages to escape total dismantlement and/or destruction.

   Otherwise, nothing much seems to happen.

   I laughed a lot, though. (To put that statement into proper perspective, I was supposed to.)

Rating:   C minus

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 3, May-June 1982 (slightly revised).

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


PAT McGERR – Pick Your Victim. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1946. Dell #307, mapback, no date [1949]. Macfadden, paperback, 1970.

PAT McGERR Pick Your Victim

   An unusual mystery in that the murderer is known but the victim is not. Pete Robbins is in the Marines, stationed in the Aleutian Islands. In a package received by one of his friends is a partial clipping from a newspaper stating that Paul Stetson, managing director of SUDS — Society for the Uplift of Domestic Service — had strangled an executive of the company and had confessed to the murder.

   The clipping does not provide the victim’s identity. Robbins, who worked for SUDS before his induction in the service, relates the happenings at the company for his Marine friends so that they can have a lottery on which executive was murdered.

   The potential victims number ten. Each, from the history that Robbins relates, has given Stetson reason to kill him or her, even his best buddy from childhood.

   McGerr has done a fine job portraying the denizens of SUDS, some of whom are competent but all of whom have their own views of and goals for the organization. The characters’ flaws, the internecine battles, and the Washington politics are handled superbly. The mystery is a good one and well worth seeking out.

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter 1988.


NOTE:   This book was previously reviewed on this blog by Marv Lachman. Check out his comments here. My own review of Follow As the Night includes a career perspective of the author, Pat McGerr.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


VERNON HINKLE – Music to Murder By. Belmont Tower, paperback original, 1978. Leisure, paperback, later printing.

VERNON HINKLE Music to Murder By

   A good friend sent me this mouldering paperback mystery, knowing of my fondness for mysteries with a classical music connection. And it begins with a discussion between two old friends of the performance of Ravel’s “Bolero” at a Boston Symphony concert they have just attended.

   I won’t pretend that this is a work for the ages, and the style is, at times, leaden, but the plot is neatly developed, concluding with a classical gathering together of all the suspects by the amateur detective who proceeds to pull the numerous threads together and reveal the murderer’s identity.

   The protagonist is a music librarian, a rather fussy bachelor who has a gift for puzzle solving and quickly succeeds in persuading the homicide detectives that he will be able to solve their case for them. This takes something of a stretch of the imagination, since it involves detective squads in both Boston and New York, and the librarian, one Martin Webb, conveniently is the first to arrive at both murder scenes, creating some question about his own involvement in the crimes.

   The characters include a somewhat comical Boston patrolman, a would-be novelist and his ex-wife and current girl friend, a YMCA desk clerk, and a gaggle of porn movie performers.

   Hinkle also published Murder After a Fashion (Leisure, 1986) and, writing as H. V. Elkin, a Western series. In an interview recorded in Contemporary Authors, Hinkle comments he regards “most fiction as mystery … in the sense that each piece … is a puzzle or a quest for unknown answers.”

   And that’s my Visit to the Dusty Archives for this session.

« Previous PageNext Page »