February 2014


Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


LORA LEIGH – Deadly Sins. St. Martin’s, paperback original, February 2012.

   A definition first: today the term romantic suspense too often refers to books that are primarily pornography * for women. And before anyone objects, I am not talking about writers like J.D. Robb, Janet Evanovich, Iris Johansen and others sometimes lumped into the field. The books discussed here have their own section on most news stands well away from those better more mainstream writers, though increasingly they are crowding out everything else save for some big name bestsellers.

LORA LEIGH Deadly Sins

   Lora Leigh is one of the more prolific and popular writers in the field of romantic suspense, a legitimate NY Times bestselling writer (not the honor it once was), with a strong fan base and loyal audience.

   Her books vary from romantic suspense to borderline science fiction and fantasy. I found this one at the Dollar Store, so it falls into the category of what a friend christened Dollar Store Wonders (these run the gauntlet from overprints of bestsellers to surprisingly good books to pure pap), some of which are delightful surprises while others … others are by Lora Leigh.

   Deadly Sins is part of Leigh’s “Sins” series. When this was published in 2012 she had written some sixteen novels in three series in romantic suspense including the Elite Corps and SEALS series (she also pens a popular series known as the Breeds about metahumans enhanced by animal DNA).

   This entry in the Sins series is set in contemporary Colorado in troubled Corbin County where the Sweetrock Slasher has been preying on young women, including undercover FBI operative Skye O’Brien’s sister Amy. Skye and her older sister Amy are both the foster children of the governor.

   In general the books are set in generic locales so little time has to be subtracted from the sex scenes.

   Skye has come looking for Amy’s killer, her only clue her neighbor, attractive, brooding, loner Logan Callahan (the Brontes have a lot to apologize for) whom she and Amy long had crushes on. She knows Logan didn’t kill Amy, but believes Amy was murdered because Logan flirted with her and showed an interest in her.

   The Barons, the powerful and wealthy men who run Corbin County, are out to get Logan, who just incidentally is also an undercover FBI operative. This is involved with a feud between the Corbins and the Callahans, with the Barons wanting an end to the Callahan line, so they murder anyone who Logan shows an interest in so he will have no offspring to carry on the line (really, that’s the plot, I’m not making this up). Three Callahan brothers married daughters of the Barons, and now their bloodline must be purged. It probably didn’t help, as Logan points out, that all three brides were pregnant.

   Corbin County is as corrupt as Dashiell Hammett’s Poisonville, and crawling with curiously ineffective FBI agents. Sad to say no one goes ‘blood simple’ on the whole county.

   Skye knows all this (the book doesn’t bother with even elementary detective work Skye already knows everything going in, at no point is there any mystery element worth calling that, and what she doesn’t know the reader is told), and plots to make the devilishly attractive Logan her lover to put herself in the crosshairs as the next target.

   It doesn’t hurt that she needs to change her underwear every time she even looks at him. So Skye (the soppiest and least professional FBI operative in the history of fiction) parades around half naked in filmy negligees, tight jeans, and teddies to catch Logan’s interest, doing everything but throw herself naked at his feet with a pack of Trojans in her teeth (I’m not exaggerating all that much either — she’s damn near a stalker, at one point he even turns her in for trespass).

   Not that Skye is a bad girl or manipulative much less coldly using him (that might herald a good noirish suspense novel with a little depth and characterization). She is already in love with Logan and worries that he is too isolated and alone, so she tries to bond him with a stray puppy, but he wants nothing to do with it because his Corbin grandfather killed his puppy when he was a boy. See, under the tough exterior he’s really just a wounded little boy.

   The amount of wordage spent on that puppy will surprise even the most sentimental reader. Old Yeller didn’t get that much wordage in his own book, or half so weepy. Compared to that puppy “Lassie Come Home” was hard boiled.

   And critics used to carp about Mr. and Mrs North’s cats.

   Did I mention there is an assassin hired to kill someone in Corbin County, but we know he is really an FBI undercover agent, or is he … Either way it doesn’t generate any suspense. At times it seems as if half of the county is populated by villains and the other half undercover FBI agents.

   None of this would be out of place in a suspense novel (though it could be better handled), but the only purpose of this book is to get Logan and Skye between the sheets for graphic transformative world-shaking sex. Nor is it euphemistic sex, no ‘pulsing empurpled brands of manhood’ or ‘burning channels of passion’ (sounds like an STD). The men in these are endowed like porn stars, the women are size queens and suffer from perpetual rising damp. Thanks to Skye Logan spends more than half the book with a lump in his trousers while she is panting after him. It’s a wonder anything gets accomplished.

   Romantic suspense is a euphemism for pornography for women in publishing today. The sex scenes are graphic and detailed and the language as frank and simple as any porn written. These are not comparable to what Dean Koontz dubbed the Big Sexy Novel. Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, Jacquline Suzann, Rona Jaffe, Erica Jong, and Grace Metallious were writing children’s books in comparison to this. For that matter so was Lawrence and his Lady Chatterly. There are no John Thomas or Lady Jane moments in these graphic books. I can’t demonstrate how graphic they are here by quoting from the books short of extensive literary bleeping with blank spaces.

   Still, compared to their sisters writing vampire and fantasy books these are tame. Those often feature out an out S&M and suggestions of zoophilia what with so many half animal protagonists. At least everyone in these books is human.

   All of this might be harmless fun if Lora Leigh could write, but this is an alternative classic of epic proportions. Devoting an entire chapter of Bill Pronzini’s Gun In Cheek to this wouldn’t be out of place. Leigh seems to think syntax is a tax or booze and cigarettes, and even given the grammatical leeway fiction, often dictates this one has a cavalier attitude to the structure of the English language. The actual plot often gets lost among the graphic sex scenes leaving the reader unsure if it was resolved or not.

   Leigh can’t even master the comma, dropping them wherever it suits her regardless of what it does to the meaning of the sentence, offsetting phrases and adjectives that not only don’t need offsetting but would not be by any rule of grammar extant.

   You may want to read these aloud to get the full effect, keeping in mind a comma is a pause as if for a breath I’ve added the word ‘pause’ in brackets to demonstrate exactly how bad this is:

   The serious (pause), quiet question almost managed to throw her off guard.

   Suspicion was a vicious (pause), sharp toothed demon that gnawed his mind.

   The material molded to her breasts (pause), all the way down to her delicate waist before falling to the floor in a long sweep that trailed majestically behind her.

   His hard (pause), corded body tightened.

   He almost shuddered in pure (pause), gut wrenching male horror … (I wasn’t aware horror had a sex)

   When they married the daughters of the Barons (pause), everyone said that David, Samuel, and Benjamin would bring them to a bad end.

   Pretty (pause), dark eyes that almost seemed to mesmerize him… (a comma after ‘him’ could save that one, but it isn’t there.)

   I think a few of those gave me whiplash. You can see how annoying that could become in short order.

   Complete sentences aren’t her strong suit either:

   A lassitude edged with hunger and need.

   Hell, not for a man.

   And it was liquid.

   Held him close to her.

   That he would watch out for her. That he would care for her.

   A man a woman could find pleasure with.

   And he would.

   Knew he would never get enough of.

   Some of these could be salvaged with a colon or semicolon attaching them to another sentence or even leaving a word out, and a few I’ll give any writer when writing for effect, but not this blatant or consistent. In Leigh’s work they are jarring as a speed bump at a Nascar rally. It isn’t that hard to avoid most of these if she bothered to read Strunk and White — or Dick and Jane.

   Dialogue isn’t a strong point either:

   “I have a hunger eating my guts for a woman who has happily-ever-afters in her eyes …”

   “… had you been my sister I would have done more to protect you than those who were charged with the task.”

   “This Skye girl, she’s not exactly got an unblemished record.”

   “I will never make such a decision again at three in the morning …”

   Has she ever read a book in English, seen a play, watched a movie or a television show? Who writes or speaks that way? How can anyone believe in a rough tough federal agent going on about happily ever afters in women’s eyes. That’s sub-soap opera level. Even granting that it is hard to make exposition sound natural in dialogue, there is no excuse for syntax that awkward or dialogue that stupid. It’s not romance can’t be done in these, but it needs some concern for character and believability. The hero can say the same thing without sounding as if he wandered in from a teenage girl’s fantasy.

   The climax of the plot is secondary to the main characters multiple climaxes in the bedroom in these, very nearly a definition of pornography. She does handle the sex scenes fairly well, but it’s painful getting to them, which come to think of it is a mark of porn in and of itself.

   There is little or no effort made to establish Corbin County or Sweetrock, so it is nothing more than a generic small western town that could be in New England or on Mars for all the effort made to make it real to the reader. It’s not much more than a film set, all false fronts and empty spaces behind them.

   This one ends in a deserted mountain resort Leigh awkwardly arranges for her hero and heroine to end up in, and with no previous set up.

   Reading these you may actually miss those vivid atmospheric houses, manors, and castles of the gothic craze, not to mention the writers. Even bodice rippers offered vivid settings and research. If there are sophisticated talented writers penning these they are doing a good job of hiding themselves. These offer the bare minimum of literary invention, and much of that is borrowed from other sources.

   And what do these books offer aside from escapism?

   To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the sex, stupid. Of a 115,000 word novel I counted roughly 24,000 words of sex scenes, not counting run ups and thinking about sex. That’s a bit over a fifth of the book, porn by any standard. Even Jackie Collins novels likely only devotes 5% of a book to actual depictions of graphic sex, two or three pages each, no matter how many of them there may be. I don’t recall the notorious Harold Robbins ever devoting an entire chapter to a single sex scene much less two or three (I’m not talking about the lead up to the sexual act, but three chapters describing a single sexual act). These readers wouldn’t read Collins or Robbins though, they write dirty.

   These books are a far cry from the time when romantic suspense meant Charlotte Armstrong, Mignon G. Eberhart, Ethel Lina White, Marjorie Carleton, Mary Roberts Rhinehart, Phyllis Whitney, Norah Lofts, Dorothy Eden, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, or Mary Higgins Clark. Despite the appellation these are far closer to men’s action books in their dependency on formula and their structure designed to feature so many sex scenes ever so many pages or chapters.

   Porn novels roughly provide at minimum a sex scene at least every third chapter (often stretching to two or three chapters as these do), about what you find in these books.

   Call them what they are, pornography, and I’m fine with them, but the only suspense is how long the heroine is going to keep her knickers on.

   Fortunately these have their own little literary ghetto at most bookstores, but if you buy books at Walmart or Walgreens, the Dollar Store or any news stand, this literary kudzu is everywhere choking off the oxygen for everyone else.

    * Most of you probably know the term pornography was coined by a 19th century British minister in the 1860’s writing a review of an exhibit of works of art from ancient Greece depicting prostitutes (the Victorians were much raunchier than we give them credit for in many ways). That’s all the word actually means, works of art and literature about the doings of prostitutes. Here I’m using a broader definition, though you could say some of the writers and publishers are selling themselves as blatantly as any prostitute on any street corner. They are just getting a better return for their services though not delivering the same potential quality. I don’t object to the sale, just the value of the product being offered.

W. C. TUTTLE – Straws in the Wind. Hillman #26, paperback, no date stated [1949?]. Hardcover edition: Houghton Mifflin, February 1948. First published as a 38 page story in Short Stories, July 10, 1938.

W. C. TUTTLE Straws in the Wind

   I remember reading a lot of Tuttle’s work back when I first started reading paperback westerns in the late 1950s: Luke Short, Max Brand and so on, the early Gold Medal’s, westerns published by Popular Library and lots and lots of Dell’s by authors no one but me would me would remember, and me only barely.

   I also remember listening to the Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens radio show on Mutual, two of Tuttle’s most famous characters — a pair of cattlemen’s detectives, as I recall, whose adventures took them all over the Old West.

   Not too many collectors of old time radio shows know about the program, by the way, and as far as I know, only two of the programs still exist, both badly trimmed to fit into the Armed Forces redistribution format. I remember the program distinctly, however, surprisingly so, given my extreme youth at the time. As a matter of fact, it was Tuttle himself who appeared and introduced each episode on the air – but I digress.

   In any case, when I started Straws in the Wind, it had been a long time since I’d read anything at all by Tuttle, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect — you can’t always go back to old favorites and expect them to be new favorites all over again — but as soon as I started reading it – see if this makes sense – it was exactly as I expected.

   That’s from the very first paragraph on. See what you think:

   No one seemed to know the exact age of Granny Miles. Over a hundred, they said. She was a small, antiquated morsel of humanity, her little face etched with a million fine lines which seemed multiplied around her eyes, which were clear and still very blue. She carried a gnarled stick in lieu of a cane, and thumped herself around with an alacrity seldom seen in one of her age.

   Granny, as it happens, is an oracle of sorts, forecasting to Donna Weir as soon as the book begins that trouble is coming. If Tuttle is not exactly a teller of tall tales, he comes awfully close – a yarn spinner of some magnitude. The usual kind of opening that almost every western begins with comes at the start of Chapter Two:

   Jack Dean drew rein at the top of the grade and looked back at the long slope, where the dirt road twisted over the hills out of the haze of the distance. The old road looked like broken bits of dirty-yellow ribbon, stretched over the hills out of the haze.

   Ahead of him the road ran through a natural cut in the hills, after which it sloped sharply into Council Valley.

   At the age of 22, Dean is returning to the valley after an absence of twelve years. His father, Wolf Dean, had ruled Council Valley for 25 years, and Jack assumes that the reason the telegram had requested his return was that his father was dead. Which is true. The older man had been murdered, shot through a window in his home, and the killer has not been found.

   Confronting one of the residents of Lost Horse, a moonshiners’ settlement in the other end of the valley, here’s Jack Dean in action (pages 26-27 of the Hillman edition):

   Jack’s left hand flashed out, his fingers hooking into the collar of Sol Feeney’s shirt. Then he fairly lifted Feeney off his feet and pulled him so close that their noses almost touched. Feeney struggled for a moment, but realized he was no match for this hard-muscled young man.

   “You and your dirty gang of murderers killed my father,” said Jack quietly, “and you’ve got the gall to threaten me. Feeney, I’m not afraid of you and your killers, and you can pack that word to them. You’ll find that Wolf Pup can cut and slash as hard as the Old Wolf. You killed him, hoping that I wouldn’t come back. Well, I’m back – so make the most of it.”

W. C. TUTTLE Straws in the Wind

   I would imagine that those paragraphs would constitute a review in themselves, if the purpose of a review is allow you to decide whether a given book is one that you’d care to read, or not.

   There is a girl, of course, if you’ll allow me to keep on talking anyway. We met Donna in Chapter One, and of course she lives in the wrong end of the valley. She favors Jack, however, and she is willing to risk the wrath of her father by giving Jack a heads-up warning when she knows he is about to get into trouble. In return, her father is determined to marry her off to someone else, and she is made a prisoner in her own home, all the way up to her wedding day.

   Jack is asked to take his father’s place on the local ruling Council – Lost Horse having no representation, to their continuing and growing irritation – but he is not sure that the Council really wants anything to do with his new ideas, most of which would mean their giving up some of the power they are used to having.

   With an open seat at stake, the whole valley is about to explode. It’s about as stable as – a straw in the wind, you might say – and Jack Dean is at the center of it. Another straw is Donna’s grandmother, who just might be able to say who her granddaughter should be marrying, and that does not mean the intellectually challenged Len McFee, the fellow chosen by her father.

   There is more than a modicum of gunfire in this book, as you can tell from the cover, but I don’t imagine that I am giving anything away when I say that in spite of the obstacles in their way, good hearts do prevail. It all turns out well, in other words, especially when you consider how much (or how little) of the valley is left standing when everything is over. Whatever anyone might say, they certainly don’t write them very much like this any more.

   And all seriousness aside — keeping in mind that I mentioned Tuttle as very much a teller of tall tales, didn’t I? — there are also parts of Straws in the Wind that tickled my funny bone considerably, this way and the other, and the book just might affect you that way, too.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #7 , July
    2005 (considerably shortened and revised).


[UPDATE] 02-28-14. A chunk of the earlier version of this review contained a checklist of all of Tuttle’s fiction that ever appeared in paperback, along with some comments and other discussion of his overall body of work by me. I’ll not include the commentary here, as much of it is out of date, but I see no reason why the checklist should not be included here.

   I have made no attempt to expand or update this list, so please take this as a work in progress. Whitledge-Clark refers to a mimeographed checklist of all of Tuttle’s western fiction, not just that which appeared in paperback. Said I at the time:

    “… someone offered for sale on eBay [and I won] a complete checklist of Tuttle’s works – a fanzine titled The Hitching Rail, published by Fred C. Whitledge and William J. Clark.
    “This issue, done in mimeo, is Volume 2, #1, and it came out ‘Sometime in 1975.’”

     ● Indicates a title not listed in Whitledge-Clark.
     ●● Indicates a title listed in Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Second Edition, but for which no further confirmation of its existence has been discovered.

● The Devil’s Payday. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, October 10, 1922.
● The Law of the Range. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, — ? Found on ABE only in a hardcover four-in-one edition with three other authors.
● Powder Law. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, — ? No copies found on ABE or in WorldCat.
●● Sad Sontag Plays His Hunch. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, —? No copies found on ABE or in WorldCat.
● Sontag of Sundown. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, July 10, 1922.
● Spawn of the Desert. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, May 10, 1922.
● Straight Shooting. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, August 10, 1924. No copies found on ABE.
● Tramps of the Range. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, — ? No copies found on ABE or in WorldCat.
The Mystery of the Red Triangle, Avon #53, 1944.
● Blind Trail at Sunrise, Royce Quick Reader #148, small-sized (approx. 3″ x 5″), 1945. NOTE: A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, April 10, 1933.
Bluffer’s Luck, Western Novel of the Month #27, digest-sized, 1945; Hillman #5, 1948
Tumbling River Range, Western Novel of the Month ##33, digest-sized, 1945; Hillman #2, 1948.
The Keeper of Red Horse Pass, Western Novel of the Month #41, digest-sized, 1945.
The Tin God of Twisted River, Western Novel of the Month #46, digest-sized, 1945.
The Dead-Line, Western Novel of the Month #50, digest-sized, 1945.
Hashknife of the Double Bar 8. Western Novel of the Month #55, digest-sized, 1945.
Singing River, Popular Library #96, 1946.
● The Vultures of Vacaville, Western Novel of the Month #108, digest-sized, 1946. No prior appearance of a Tuttle story by this name is known.
Hidden Blood, Popular Library #149, 1948.
Valley of Vanishing Herds, Popular Library #165, 1948.
Straws in the Wind, Hillman #26, 1949.
The Redhead from Sun Dog, Hillman #28, 1949.
Trouble at the JHC, Hillman #40, 1949. Original title: The Mystery at the JHC Ranch.
Wild Horse Valley, Popular Library #203, 1949.
Twisted Trails, Popular Library #249, 1950. Original title: The Santa Dolores Stage (Houghton Mifflin, 1934). NOTE: There is some confusion about this attribution. According to some sources, the hardcover edition of this book was The Valley of the Twisted Trails (Houghton Mifflin, 1931), but this assertion does not appear to be substantiated.
Hashknife of Stormy River, Hillman #37, 1950.
Shotgun Gold, Popular Library #297, Dec 1950.
The Trouble Trailer, Popular Library #330, Apr 1951.
Gun Feud, Popular Library #354, July 1951. Abridged edition. Original title: Wandering Dogies.
Thunderbird Range, Pyramid #370, 1958.
● The Redhead of Aztec Wells [+] Trouble at War Eagle, Tor Western Double #14, Jan 1991. Book #1 appeared in West, August 1946. Book #2 has a 1950 copyright date, but where it first appeared, no one seems to know.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


RANGERS OF FORTUNE. Paramount, 1940. Fred MacMurray, Gilbert Roland, Albert Dekker, Patricia Morison, Betty Brewer, Dick Foran, Joseph Schildkraut. Written by Frank Butler. Directed by Sam Wood.

RANGERS OF FORTUNE

   I had some trouble getting this due to a not-quite-prompt/dependable dealer, but it was worth the effort. You don’t hear the word “Rollicking” much anymore, but there’s no better word to describe this seldom-seen adventure classic, a film right up there with Gunga Din or Princess Bride.

   MacMurray, Roland and Dekker come on as a trio of good-natured desperadoes (we first see them as they’re being marched in front of a Mexican firing squad) at loose ends on the range who find themselves sorting out the problems of a dying newspaperman, his moppet granddaughter, and a town being stylishly terrorized by an aristocratic bad guy.

   Rangers was directed by Sam (Night at the Opera) Wood and written by Frank Butler, who did the Hope/Crosby “Road to” movies so you can figure it will offer some fun, and it is in fact rich in comic moments, some of them unexpected (Dekker playing his part like Curly in the Three Stooges) and some enjoyably predictable, when you see the punch-line coming and smile as you wait for it to smack the screen.

   What you might not expect are the well-mounted action scenes (fights, chases and tricky gun-play galore) and the hard-edged moments when they kill off characters who don’t usually die in movies like this.

RANGERS OF FORTUNE

   There are also some very well-thought-out minor characters played by actors you never heard, and they surprised me from time to time: Betty Brewer as the not-cloying moppet, Arthur B. Allen (from Our Town) as a drunken milquetoast who chimes in with some erudite sleuthing, and Bernard Nedell (who?) as a gunman nasty enough to seem like a genuine threat to our doughty heroes.

   Patricia Morison is her usual sexy self, Dick Foran comes off well as the chump/straight man, and Joseph Schildkraut turns in one of those cultured-heavy performances that remind one of Count Zaroff or Kasper Gutman at their best — or worst if you prefer.

   The film really belongs to the three male leads though, and they carry it vigorously, helped out by the typical Paramount production gloss and some canny direction from Sam Wood, who follows them around with a sweeping camera that lends pace and forcefulness to everything they do, from hawking newspapers to one of those memorable walks down Main Street to the showdown so beloved of western fans.

   Not an easy film to catch, but you really ought to try.

RANGERS OF FORTUNE

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


JOHN BUCHAN

JOHN BUCHAN – The Three Hostages. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1924. Houghton Mifflin, US, hc, 1924. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback, including Bantam #31, US, pb, April 1946; Penguin, UK, pb in dj, 1955 (both shown). TV movie: BBC, 1977, with Barry Foster & Diana Quick as Richard & Mary Hannay; director: Clive Donner.

   The Three Hostages is the fourth novel by John Buchan in the series of novels featuring Richard Hannay. Hannay made his debut in The Thirty-Nine Steps as a South African in his late thirties living in England on the eve of WWI, where he is drawn into a conspiracy and finds himself on the run from the police and the conspirators. He finally meets Sir Walter Bullivant, who is something in the British Secret Service, and foils a German plot to cripple the British fleet.

   In the sequel, Greenmantle, Hannay is a Major in the army recalled from the front by Bullivant to take on a dangerous mission to stop the Germans from exploiting a prophecy involving a Turkish leader that could open a new front in the European war. In this book we first meet American agent John S. Blenkiron, South African voortrekker Peter Piennar, and Hannay’s best friend, the Lawrence of Arabian style mystic, warrior, and scholar Sandy Abuthnot, Lord Clanroyden.

   In Mr. Standfast, Hannay is now a Brigadier General, again called back from the front to face the German spy master who eluded him in the first two books. He meets his wife to be, Mary, and again teams with Sandy, Blenkiron, and Peter Piennar, and RAF pilot Archie Roylance, who will feature in later Buchan novels, John McNab, Huntingtower, and The Courts of Morning.

JOHN BUCHAN

   The Three Hostages takes place five years after Mr. Standfast. Hannay, now Sir Richard, is comfortably retired with his wife Mary, and their infant son Peter John. The last thing Hannay wants is an adventure, but when he is approached by a man whose son has been kidnapped, but who cannot go to the police, he is reluctantly drawn back into action. With the help of Sandy Arbuthnot he decyphers a mysterious Latin quote, and that leads him to the charismatic upcoming political figure Dominic Medina, a man of considerable charm and rare hypnotic power.

   Medina is ambitious and dangerous, and soon Hannay is caught in the middle of a power grab that involves kidnapping the children and loved ones of important figures and using the dark and possibly mystic hypnotic influence Medina has over the victims to control their loved ones.

   Soon Hannay, Sandy, Mary, and a small group are racing across the continent from London’s night life to a remote farm in Norway to free the victims. Hannay foils Medina and the angered Medina sets out to stalk him in the rough country of Hannay’s estate. Medina dies horribly and Hannay is rescued by his wife and groundskeeper.

   That’s a fairly simple description of what is one of the best and most influential thrillers ever written. Fully half the books under the thriller category fall under Buchan’s spell, and a whole school of writers like Geoffrey Household, Hammond Innes, Gavin Lyall, Desmond Bagley, Allan MacKinnon, Geoffrey Jenkins, Victor Canning, and more are his direct descendants.

   In addition Buchan is generally credited with having created the modern spy novel with his 1910 Strand Magazine novella, “The Power House,” in which he predicted the rise of Fascism in the 20th Century.

   In addition he moved the setting of the thriller from the wilds to the heart of the urban world when his hero, Edward Leithen first recognizes, in the middle of busy Piccadilly Circus, that the only thing protecting him is the thin veneer of civilization.

JOHN BUCHAN

   In The Thirty-Nine Steps Buchan carries it further by setting the pattern of the innocent man caught up in circumstances that he can’t control that would be the theme of writers such as Graham Greene and Eric Ambler (albeit with far more complex and less sportsman like heroes than Richard Hannay), and filmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. The novel of chase, pursuit, conspiracy, and intrigue comes from Buchan’s work. He is what O. F. Snelling once called, ‘the onlie beggeter.’

   Buchan is unique among writers of popular fiction in that his influence in the real world is even more important than that in fiction. The son of a lower middle class Scottish family he became a noted scholar, historian, biographer, and political figure. He knew and influenced the most important figures of the early 20th Century from Lawrence of Arabia to Bernard Baruch.

   A Member of Parliament he was later given the title of first Baron of Tweedsmuir, in 1935 he was given the difficult post of Governor General of Canada, his assignment to repair the shaky state of affairs between Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King and London and King and the United States, assuring that in any coming conflict Great Britain could count on its most important Commonwealth partner.

   Working tirelessly, he died of exhaustion in 1940, he charmed King, reconciled him with London, reconciled him with FDR and the United States, and had no small influence in the eventual Lend Lease program that kept England alive in the early days of WWII before America entered the war. Time magazine had called him one of the most influential men of the age when they featured him on the cover. When he died he was mourned by statesmen, commoners, and kings.

   That he was also a storyteller whose tales of horror inspired H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, a biographer of note, a noted historical novelist, a writer of popular thrillers (he preferred the term ‘shockers’), and a scholar is a mark of how great his talents were. Two of the books on John F. Kennedy’s famous list of this ten favorite books were by Buchan, his memoir Pilgrim’s Way (aka Memory Holds the Door) and his biography of Montrose. Scholar, statesman, and bestselling novelist is a difficult combination to beat.

   The genius of the Hannay novels lies largely in the character of Hannay himself. Richard Hannay is a likable man of above average intelligence, some strength, and some ambition, but he is not a superman. He succeeds by hard work, risk, loyalty, and no small amount of luck. He has his flaws. He can be stubborn, obtuse, and impetuous (in Greenmantle his overreaction to a German officers sexual advance very nearly blows his cover and sends him on the run endangering himself, his friends, and his mission). He is also capable, generous, and unusually strong and fit. In short, he’s the perfect man for an adventure. And like all Buchan’s heroes he is motivated by duty, and willing to work to near exhaustion to get the job done.

   He is also one of fictions most physical characters. In Buchan’s novels no one ever rests, stands still, or lollygags around. There is almost constant movement, tension, and physicality. Reading his novels is the literary equivalent of an aerobic workout. It isn’t uncommon to finish them literally breathless. Buchan heroes work hard and succeed big. Hannay gets a knighthood, Clanroyden is always off in some backwater of the Empire playing at international politics, Edward Leithen (the most biographical of Buchan’s characters) gets a knighthood and becomes England’s Solicitor General (more of less Attorney General), and even Glasgow grocer Dickson McCunn becomes wealthy and moves with the movers and shakers of the world. Buchan’s Calvinist upbringing valued hard work and its rewards, and his own poor health led him to overcompensate in those areas.

   In The Three Hostages Buchan does for the civilian thriller what his previous novels did for wartime intrigue. He creates his greatest and most complex villain in Dominc Medina (Buchan was by all accounts a genuinely nice man, and villains aren’t usually his strong suit, but Medina is an exception).

   Medina is charming, charismatic, mysterious, and chilling. His near hypnotic control over people is so great that even Hannay only escapes because he is the unimaginative type and less susceptible to that sort of thing, but he plays a desperate game getting close to Medina and playing at being under his influence.

   As Medina’s ambitions rise Hannay, his wife Mary, and Sandy work to out maneuver the powerful man, and it is Mary who rises to the occasion first to put the fear of God into Medina who has hypnotised a young boy and hidden him in plain sight hypnotised to believe he is a little girl:

    “You have destroyed a soul,” she said, “and you refuse to repair the wrong. I am going to destroy your body, and nothing will ever repair it.”

    Then I saw her meaning, and both Sandy and I cried out. Neither of us had led the kind of life which makes a man squeamish, but this was too much for us. But our protests died half-born, after one glance at Mary’s face. She was my own wedded wife, but in that moment I could no more have opposed her than could the poor bemused child. Her spirit seemed to transcend us all and radiate an inexorable command. She stood easily and gracefully, a figure of motherhood and pity rather than of awe. But all the same I did not recognise her; it was a stranger that stood there, a stern goddess that wielded the lightnings. Beyond doubt she meant every word she said, and her quiet voice seemed to deliver judgment as aloof and impersonal as Fate. I could see creeping over Medina’s sullenness the shadow of terror.

    “You are a desperate man,” she was saying. “But I am far more desperate. There is nothing on earth that can stand between me and the saving of this child. You know that, don’t you? A body for a soul–a soul for a body–which shall it be?”

    The light was reflected from the steel fire-irons, and Medina saw it and shivered.

    “You may live a long time, but you will have to live in seclusion. No woman will ever cast eyes on you except to shudder. People will point at you and say ‘There goes the man who was maimed by a woman–because of the soul of a child.’

   It’s the kind of scene Buchan does with great power and conviction, and certainly Mary’s finest moment in the book. In the end Hannay saves the victims, Medina’s cronies are given rough justice, but Medina escapes, only to come after Hannay in the wild for revenge — always a mistake in Buchan, for his heroes have an almost uncanny relation with rough country. After a desperate struggle Medina falls, and Hannay tries to save him:

   He had found some sort of foothold, and for a moment there was a relaxation of the strain. The rope swayed to my right towards the chimney. I began to see a glimmer of hope.

    “Cheer up,” I cried. “Once in the chimney you’re safe. Sing out when you reach it.”

    The answer out of the darkness was a sob. I think giddiness must have overtaken him, or that atrophy of muscle which is the peril of rock-climbing. Suddenly the rope scorched my fingers and a shock came on my middle which dragged me to the very edge of the abyss.

    I still believe that I could have saved him if I had had the use of both my hands, for I could have guided the rope away from that fatal knife-edge. I knew it was hopeless, but I put every ounce of strength and will into the effort to swing it with its burden into the chimney. He gave me no help, for I think–I hope –that he was unconscious. Next second the strands had parted, and I fell back with a sound in my ears which I pray God I may never hear again — the sound of a body rebounding dully from crag to crag, and then a long soft rumbling of screes like a snowslip.

* * * * *

    I managed to crawl the few yards to the anchorage of the gendarme before my senses departed. There in the morning Mary and Angus found me.

   And there it ends, with Hannay alive and returned to the bosom of his family and Medina dead and broken on the rocks below. The Three Hostages is a remarkably prescient novel too. Buchan not only warns of the dangers of the post war world, but the strange lassitude that seems to fill England and Europe and the kind of man, men like Medina — and Adolph Hitler — who will use it to build their power bases and threaten all of civilization:

    ‘In ordinary times he will not be heard, because, as I say, his world is not our world. But let there come a time of great suffering or discontent, when the mind of the ordinary man is in desperation, and the rational fanatic will come by his own. When he appeals to the sane and the sane respond, revolutions begin.’

   That’s a pretty fair interpretation of the madness Europe would soon descend into ending in another, and more vicious war.

   There are one or two minor racial matters to deal with in the book and some of Buchan’s earlier books, but unlike fellow thriller writers of the period Buchan came early to be embarrassed by these remarks and even removed them from later editions of some of his books. He was an early voice decrying Fascism and the plight of the Jews in Germany, and an early supporter of the Jewish movement in Palestine.

   Throughout his career he was a voice of reason, though certainly prey to the errors and the prejudice of his time and world. The most embarrassing passages in the book deal with a discussion of Gandhi. But in Buchan’s case I think forgiveness comes more easily than with some others. First he was a splendid writer, second a genuinely good person, and most important a man who gave his life that the Western World might untite in a time of danger against the forces of darkness and barbarity.

   Hannay appears briefly to introduce The Courts of Morning (where Sandy Clanroyden, Archie Roylance and his wife Janet, and John S. Blenkiron are involved in a South American revolution), and the narrator of one of the short stories in the collection, The Rungates Club, and finally in one last adventure with Sandy and Hannay’s teenaged son, Peter John, Man From the Norlands (aka Island of Sheep).

   There are three film versions of The 39 Steps, including the Hitchcock classic, a remake with Kenneth More as Hannay, and a third version with Robert Powell. There was also a short lived BBC series called Hannay. The Three Hostages (1977) was a made-for-television film shown here on PBS with Barry Foster as Hannay and John Castle as Medina, Clive Donner directed.

   Also screenwriter Stephen DeRosa has uncovered evidence Alfred Hitchcock considered filming The Three Hostages, and that it may have influenced his first film of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

   There was a silent film of the Dickson McCunn book, Huntingtower and later a BBC mini series, and Buchan’s Witch Wood, a novel of about devil worship in seventeenth century Scotland, was also adapted for television.

   The Three Hostages shows Hannay at his most mature and capable, and Buchan at his best. Away from all the trappings of his earlier shockers he nevertheless creates a suspenseful and intelligent tale that at once demonstrates the mental state of the world in the post war era and at the same time warns of the dangers that world is prone to.

   Good thrillers aren’t rare, but genuinely prophetic ones are. The Three Hostages succeeds as both a thriller and a prophetic look at a new breed that would use the unrest and disquiet of the post war era to play havoc with European society — the very ‘rational fanatic’ Buchan warned of.

   Nor is the hint of occult powers and dark matters far off the mark from the Occultism practiced by the Nazi’s — a sinister Indian hypnotist named Kharama features in the novel, but turns out to be less dark than he is painted — literally. It is also some how prophetic that the evil in the novel is defeated by decent men who refuse to be swayed by attractive and easy solutions. Like Buchan himself they choose hard work, duty, and simple decency.

   And all that might not amount to much if The Three Hostages wasn’t also a first class thriller with genuine puzzle elements. The obscure Latin quote that leads Hannay to Medina and the rescue is handled with intelligence and skill, and in these days of Da Vinci Code ripoffs and pseudo-scholarship, it is nice to know that Buchan managed to create a quote so realistic that for years Latin scholars sought its source before finding it was original to Buchan.

   You can find more on Buchan at the John Buchan Society website.

Note:   The quote was: ‘Sit vini abstemius qui hermeneuma tentat aut hominum petit dominatum.’ Translated in the Oxford University Press World Classics edition by Professor Miller as: ‘whoever seeks to interpret the world or seeks to exercise power over men should be an abstemious drinker of wine’. Or: ‘He who tries to interpret or seeks to dominate men should not drink wine.’ I don’t think even Christie ever managed to plant a clue that fooled classical scholars.

JOHN W, VANDERCOOK Murder in Trinidad

  JOHN W. VANDERCOOK – Murder in Trinidad. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1933. Penguin #552, paperback, 1944. Macmillan, hardcover, 1955. Collier, paperback, 1961.

   My admiration for Arthur Conan Doyle goes up a notch whenever I read a book like this, and while you may know what I mean by that, perhaps you won’t, and I’ll explain.

   The first few chapters of this book recount the first meeting between Bertram Lynch, ace investigator for the P.C.B., and Robert Deane, instructor at Yale and an amateur criminologist. Lynch, as was typical of the times, is the eccentric detective of the pair, and Deane is his “faithful” assistant. They are no Holmes and Watson by any means, however, and after a decent enough beginning, the book is sadly disappointing.   [FOOTNOTE]

   The initials P.C.B. need some explaining as well. (If you didn’t know, you’d never guess.) They stand for the Permanent Central Board, a branch of the League of Nations. Lynch’s job in this case is running down a gang of opium smugglers working out of the West Indies, and in the process he comes across a 13 year old murder to solve.

   He also does a good many things that are a great puzzlement to both Deane and the reader, most of which are explained later, but not until a point has been reached that anyone cares — or cares to point out that most of them didn’t work out early as well as they were supposed to.

   I won’t go into details of all the examples I have in mind — and you’re quite welcome, I’m sure! — but the one that puzzled me the most, all of the way through, is why, once Lynch is convinced that his purpose on the island is known (page 22) he decides to go undercover and infiltrate the bad guys by pretending to be on the run from the law. Under his own name and description. (See the constabulary orders on page 74.)

JOHN W, VANDERCOOK Murder in Trinidad

   [WARNING: PLOT ALERT]   It turns out that the bad guys don’t communicate very well with each other, so it doesn’t affect the plan any, but Lynch didn’t know this, I didn’t know this, and none of the rest of the book made much sense either. At one point Lynch and Deane have been captured, but instead of being killed outright (if I were a bad guy, I’d be a nasty bad guy) they’re tied up in sa shack and the head bad guy waits outside to pop them off as they work themselves free and try to make a break for it.

   The plot fails. Lynch and Deane get away. Ho hum.

   Which just about sums it up. This is the first of four adventures the two men had together. Besides this one, they solved cases together in Fiji (1936), Haiti (1956) and New Guinea (1959). If you happen to know why there was such a long break in their career, I’d like to hear about it. Obviously Lynch wasn’t working for the League of Nations all this time. (And maybe later cases were better than this one.)

   FOOTNOTE:   As you may have noticed, I used the word “faithful” in quotes to describe Deane’s status as Lynch’s Watson in this book. By page 227, Deane gets a little truculent at Lynch’s orders without explanations: “This is all very amusing and all that. But you’ve got to talk sense. What, in plain words, is the idea? Tell me or I quit.” You’ve got to admire a guy like that.

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

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


   Thanks to my office (where I keep my computer) being closed down for the holidays, followed by the frightful weather, followed by some health issues, I expected that my February column, if any, would be culled from those old book notes I wrote for my eyes only back in the Sixties and Seventies.

   Surprise! Thanks to Joseph Goodrich, editor of that priceless selection from the letters between Fred Dannay and Manny Lee published in 2012 as BLOOD RELATIONS, I am now in possession of all the material from their correspondence that for space or other reasons Joe didn’t include in his book. There are gems in that material, which over the next several columns I’ll dole out here.

***

   In a letter dated March 31, 1950 and not included or excerpted in BLOOD RELATIONS, Fred tells Manny that for years he’s been trying to interest various movie studios in subsidizing Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s annual story contests, arguing that an investment of as little as $10,000 would lead to an “increase in submitted stories,” “interest by bigger names,” and — always a high priority with Fred considering his background in the advertising biz — publicity.

Mike Nevins

   Approached by Fred, MGM executives told him that “they have invested millions of dollars in literary contests, but never got a single desirable piece of property out of it….now they wouldn’t contribute $10, let alone $10,000.”

   Not long after that exchange, MGM bought the movie rights to a second-prize winner in the latest year’s EQMM contest, “Once Upon a Train” by Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer, in which the authors’ respective series detectives John J. Malone and Hildegarde Withers teamed up to solve a railroad mystery.

   Since the story wasn’t published until the October 1950 issue, MGM must have bought it from manuscript. (Those who have learned from Queen to read with extreme care may think Fred might have misdated his letter and actually wrote it in 1951, but this possibility is ruled out by his later statement to Manny that the story “has not yet appeared in EQMM….”).

   Fred queried the suits at MGM and was told that they had only bought the story because they “‘had a spot for the use of two characters like Withers and Malone,’ a spinsterish schoolteacher and a dipso lawyer.” Later Fred learned that MGM’s original plan was to use the story as a vehicle for Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, who had scored a big hit as Ma and Pa Kettle in THE EGG AND I (Universal, 1947).

   By the time the movie had been released, one actor and one character had been axed from the initial conception: Marjorie Main still starred but as Harriet “Hattie” O’Malley, not Miss Withers, and John J. Malone was still the leading male character but was played by James Whitmore. For anyone who wants to waste an hour watching this turkey, its title is MRS. O’MALLEY AND MR. MALONE (MGM, 1950).

***

Mike Nevins

   In the same letter to Manny, Fred reports that MGM has also spent $5,000 buying movie rights to John Dickson Carr’s short story “The Gentleman from Paris” (EQMM, April 1950). This move baffled Fred as much as MGM’s purchase of rights to the Rice-Palmer story.

   As everyone knows who has read Carr’s excellent tale, which is set in 1840s New York, the climactic revelation is that the main character is none other than Edgar Allan Poe. “[S]urely MGM does not intend to keep the identity of the detective a secret….”

   Fred couldn’t figure out what the studio had in mind but any interested reader can find out by watching THE MAN WITH A CLOAK (MGM, 1951), a not-half-bad historical crime thriller starring a mustached Joseph Cotten as the Poe character (who calls himself Dupin) and Barbara Stanwyck and Leslie Caron as the female leads.

***

Mike Nevins

   With a bit of space left over, I return to fields I plowed almost fifty years ago with comments on first novels by authors writing under their own names. Let’s begin with a writer whom I knew slightly and once, near the end of his life, lunched with at his lovely retirement home in Sedona, Arizona, armed with an assortment of first editions of his books, some of which he said were in better condition than his own, all of which he signed for me.

   Richard S. Prather (1921-2007) was one of the first superstars of the paperback original, turning out a torrent of books for Fawcett Gold Medal in the Fifties and early Sixties which millions of readers gobbled down like Thanksgiving turkeys. I didn’t read them in order but, when I got to his first Shell Scott caper, CASE OF THE VANISHING BEAUTY (Fawcett Gold Medal pb #127, 1950) I had to concede that most of its plot and characters were lifted bodily from Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY with a few perfunctory variations.

   One of a millionaire’s two spoiled daughters engages Scott to locate her missing sister and the trail leads LA’s coolest PI to the usual sinister nightclub, phony religious cult, dope smuggling, flying bullets, you name it. Prather had the gifts of pace and raw storytelling talent from the get-go but what distinguishes this otherwise routine programmer is Scott’s narration — bemused, self-mocking, gorgeously funny, and so wildly individual that he’s never been successfully imitated. He was, as we cruciverbalists say, a oner.

***

Mike Nevins

   Bridge grandmaster Don Von Elsner (1909-1997) threw his hat, or perhaps I should say his lei, into the mystery ring with THOSE WHO PREY TOGETHER SLAY TOGETHER (Signet pb #S1943, 1961). Troubleshooter Colonel David Danning is hired by the board of directors of a packaging empire to protect its subsidiaries from a status-hungry gangster turned corporate raider.

   The trail leads from a Chicago boardroom to Honolulu’s most lavish hotels and encompasses some superb stock-market shenanigans and a couple of murders which Danning must solve while on the run from both mobsters and cops.

   At the climax all the characters unmotivatedly congregate for a Danning solution which is almost pure guesswork, but the pace is swift and the tooth-and-claw power struggles among tycoons seem to ring true.

***

Mike Nevins

   SILVER STREET (Harper & Row, 1968) introduced the mystery world to E. Richard Johnson (1938-1997), a convict serving a life term at Minnesota’s Stillwater State Prison. It’s a short and unadorned tale of the mean streets in a nameless city where a modern Jack the Ripper is slicing up the local pimps for no discernible reason.

   Streetwise homicide dick Tony Lonto’s hunt for the killer inevitably leads him to the discovery that his own girlfriend is a nympho and a whore. (Wouldn’t a streetwise cop have discovered this sooner?)

   Superficially the book is tough as nails but it’s drenched with cloying romanticism beneath the surface. Nevertheless it won an Edgar for best first novel, an award which was duly presented to Johnson in the prison visitors’ room.

   He wrote four more Lonto books and several other novels before being released in 1991 but by then his writing career was washed up and he died a few years later. So does crime pay or doesn’t it?

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


CURTAIN AT EIGHT

CURTAIN AT EIGHT. Majestic, 1933. C. Aubrey Smith, Dorothy Mackaill, Paul Cavanagh, Sam Hardy, Russel Hopton, Natalie Moorhead and Ruthelma Stevens. Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr. Based on the novel The Backstage Mystery by Octavus Roy Cohen. Directed by E. Mason Hopper.

   I’m not going to recommend Curtain at Eight because as a movie it’s mostly beneath contempt. Poor direction, a perfunctory screenplay that fails to keep track of the characters (when the killer was unmasked at the end, I wasn’t even sure I’d seen him/her before!) and entirely too much time wasted on the supposedly funny antics of a monkey.

   All the ingredients of a real time-waster, and yet … by the time I finished Curtain I found myself completely charmed by it.

   The cast mostly tries to punch through the desperate production values common to the sub-B studios of the time: shabby sets, ragged editing and continuity errors bad enough to cause whiplash, but they give it a game try, and director Hopper managed some effects that caught me off guard.

   Paul Cavanagh, the perennial Nowhere Man of the Cinemah, puts in a neat turn as an Absolute Bounder, a matinee idol who cheats, steals, seduces and ruins everyone he meets with the exception of his part-time wife, played by that energetic vamp of the early talkies, Natalie Moorhead, who had basically the same part in Shadow of the Law.

CURTAIN AT EIGHT

   There’s a dandy scene in a hotel room where Cavanagh is talking on the phone to his latest fiancée, and Moorhead, who has obviously spent the night with him, stifles a sarcastic laugh when he says he had trouble sleeping.

   Cavanagh spends the first half of the film this way while various other characters wander in and out of the plot, often looking a bit dazed and confused as to their reason for being there. We get the boozy reporter (Russell Hopton) the star-struck innocent, deftly played by Ruthelma Stevens (an intriguing actress who deserved better — catch her in The Circus Queen Murders if you can) her worried father and jilted boyfriend, sundry Theatre types, and (alas!) the Monkey, whose antics provoke tedium that would have maddened Sisyphus.

CURTAIN AT EIGHT

   By the time someone finally got around to getting murdered (in a neatly done if predictable moment.) I was torn between watching more of this or just taking my own life as an easier alternative. Then Sam Hardy came on as a pompous police detective, and things livened up. His bravura playing of a stock part perked things up considerably, particularly when he paused in his strutting across the screen to toss a comment at another cop sitting unnoticed in the background, and it turned out to be C. Aubrey Smith!

   Smith, the unofficial head of the Hollywood Raj in those days, and a regular in much better films, is simply marvelous here. Surprisingly shabby and soft-spoken, he ambles pleasantly about the scenery Hardy is chewing at, picking up a clue here, posing a pertinent question there, making his quiet deductions and bringing things to a close with considerable charm. I don’t know what burst of desperate genius led to his presence here in such a well-realized part, but it turned Curtain at Eight into something truly enjoyable.

   I should note in passing that in his day, the guy who wrote this thing was something of a pulp wunderkind; Edward T. Lowe had a hand in the Charlie Chan series at Fox, the Bulldog Drummond films at Paramount, and delirious efforts elsewhere like Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Tarzan’s Desert Mystery and House of Dracula. Clearly a hack of distinction.

CURTAIN AT EIGHT

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


COCK-EYED WORLD

THE COCK-EYED WORLD. Fox Film Corporation, 1929. Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe, Lily Damita, Leila Karnelly, El Brendel, Bob Burns, Stuart Erwin. Director: Raoul Walsh. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   I was not in a great mood for this reprise of performances by McLaglen and Lowe as Top Sergeant Flagg and Sergeant Harry Quirt, last seen in a 1926 success, What Price Glory?, but my grumpiness evaporated early on, beguiled by the combative charm of the leads and non-stop action orchestrated by director Walsh.

    The crowded plot follows the two rascals from Siberia by way of Coney Island to Central America, with brawls and womanizing pretty much summarizing the early scenes, then shifting to a more serious engagement in Central America that has the boys fighting for country, girls and the studio’s profit margin.

    This film is definitely pre-code, with girls, girls, girls in various stages of dress and undress. And oh, yes, there’s familiar comic El Brendel gracing yet another film with his ubiquitous and not always amusing presence. A lively romp that escapes the leaden ace of so many early sound films and races to a satisfying conclusion.

    PS. Jim G. was particularly impressed by the beautiful Lily Damita, future wife of Errol Flynn.

COCK-EYED WORLD

TV SERIES NOT ON OFFICIAL DVD – ON YOUTUBE – AMERICAN EDITION
by Michael Shonk


When it comes to watching lost or forgotten television series not available on official DVD YouTube has become an alternative to dealing with the collectors market. Below are just a few series without DVD that as of February 2014 can be seen on YouTube.

MARKHAM – CBS -“Vendetta in Venice” (6/27/59)

Written by Jonathan Latimer. Directed by Robert Florey. Produced by Warren Duff and Joseph Sistrom. Cast: Ray Milland. Guest Cast: Paula Raymond and Robert Lowery. Markham Production. Revue Studio-MCA-TV.

When a woman confronts her blackmailer she is surprised to find him dead. She turns to world famous detective Roy Markham (Ray Milland) to prove she didn’t kill him. Production values are laughable but the cast and Jonathan Latimer’s script makes this episode worth watching.


PHILIP MARLOWE – ABC – “Ugly Duckling” (10/6/59)

Written and Produced by Gene Wang. Directed by Robert Ellis Miller. Cast: Philip Carey and William Schallert. Guest Cast: Virginia Gregg, Barbara Bain and Rhys Williams. Mark Goodman and Bill Todman Production in association with California National Production.

Bain makes a great femme fatale who is involved with a rich man’s son-in-law. The wife refuses to divorce her cheating husband so the rich father hires Marlowe to deliver a payoff to the bad girl. Check out Marlowe’s home, a place Peter Gunn would have approved, but I doubt Chandler would have.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Well, it didn’t take long. Here it is the same day that Michael’s post appeared, and the video that was linked to has already been removed. Wish us luck that the rest of the episodes will stay online longer than this!


THE NEW BREED –ABC – “Compulsion to Confess” (10/31/61)

Written by David Z. Goodman. Directed and Produced by Walter E. Grauman. Guest Cast: Telly Savalas and Sidney Pollack.

Followed by “The Deadlier Sex” (3/20/62)

Teleplay by Don Brinkley, from novel by Genevieve Manceron. Directed and Produced by Joseph Pevney Guest Cast: Paula Raymond and James Doohan.

Cast: Leslie Nielsen, John Beradino, John Clarke and Greg Roman. Narrator: Art Gilmore.

Created by Hank Searls. Executive produced by Quinn Martin. Quinn Martin Production in association with Selmur Production Inc.

These two episodes are different but both good examples of the QM production style that would prove popular during the 60s and 70s. Stars Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Price Adams, the head of a four-man special police unit called the Metropolitan Squad. The first story deals with how psychiatry can be used as a tool for the police to solve crimes such as the murder of a man working on a government project. The second is a story of a robbery gone wrong. The noir tale highlights include an evil femme fatale and thieves betraying each other with fatal consequences. The second episode begins around the 49:40 mark.


CORONET BLUE – CBS – “Saturday” (7/31/67)

Written by Alvin Sargent. Directed by David Greene. Produced by Edgar Lansbury. Executive Produced by Herbert Brodkin. Created by Larry Cohen. CAST: Frank Converse, Joe Silver. Guest Cast: Charles Randall, Neve Patterson, David Hartman and Andrew Duncan. (Plautus Production. CBS Production – credits clipped, source: IMdb.com)

While mysterious men try to kill “Michael” (Frank Converse), he spends time with a young boy trying to deal with his father’s recent death.


TOMA – ABC – “50% of Normal” (1/18/74)

Teleplay by Zekia Marko. Story by Peter Salerno and Jane Sparkes. Directed by Jeannott Szwarc. Produced by Stephen J. Cannell. Created by Edward Hume. Executive Produced by Roy Huggins. Cast: Tony Musante, Susan Strasberg and Simon Oakland. Theme by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. Guest Cast: Steven Keats, Louise Troy and David Toma as Doorman 1. Public Arts Inc and Universal TV

Toma is searching for a rapist when an old friend, who is having mental issues due to his service in the Vietnam War, returns home. The show deals with social issues more than mystery and now forty years later can be heavy handed, but the last act is a good example why fans still miss this series. After star Musante left the series it would evolve into BARETTA.


NAKIA – ABC – “No Place to Hide” (10/19/74)

Written by Jim Byrnes. Directed by Nicholas Colasanto, Executive Produced by Charles Larson. Created by Christopher Trumbo and Michael Butler. Developed for TV by Sy Salkowitz. Cast: Robert Forster, Arthur Kennedy and Gloria DeHaven Guest Cast: Gabe Dell, Ray Dalton and Marc Singer. David Gerber Production, Inc in associations with (Columbia Pictures Television: credit clipped off video, source IMdb.com)

Deputy Nakia Parker (Forster) befriends an on the run accountant for the mob. A weak generic script that could have fit almost any cop show makes no use of the native heritage of Nakia (you know the premise of the series). Filmed on location.


FEATHER AND FATHER GANG – ABC – “Never Con a Killer” (5/13/77)

Written by William Driskill. Directed and Produced by Buzz Kulik. Executive Produced by Larry White. Produced by Bill Driskell & Robert Mintz. Cast: Stefanie Powers, Harold Gould, Joan Shawlee and Frank Delfino. Guest Cast: John Forsythe, Marc Singer, Bettye Ackerman, and Jim Backus. Larry White Production in association with Columbia Pictures Television.

The lips are out of sync in this video but beyond that (and how awful the two-hour episode is) it is watchable. Yet one more 70s detective who uses the con to trap the bad guy, brilliant female lawyer Toni “Feather” Danton (Stefanie Powers) who is honest and by the book and her con man turned PI father Harry (Harold Gould) who uses his skills and old friends to con killers into revealing themselves. We know the killer from the beginning and the action centers around the con.


OUTLAWS – CBS – TV Movie Pilot (12/28/86)

Written and Executive Produced by Nicholas Corea. Directed by Peter Werner. Produced by Stephen F. Caldwell. Cast: Rod Taylor, William Lucking, Charles Napier, Patrick Houser, Richard Roundtree and Christina Belford. Guest Cast: Lewis VanBergen and Windy Girard. (Mad Dog Productions. Universal Television: credits clipped, source: IMdb.com)

The video is a direct dub from the TV Movie’s original airing complete with commercials and promos of most of the 1986 CBS TV series lineup. Better than average TV movie. It is 1899 Houston, a gang of four bank robbers were running from their former leader, now Sheriff, who leads a posse to catch them. The five have a face off in an ancient Indian burial grounds during a thunderstorm. Lightning strikes the five and sends them into present day Houston (1986). There they struggle to adapt until they come together in the end and form the Double Eagle Ranch Detective agency. The weekly episodes are also available (at the moment) on YouTube.


OVER MY DEAD BODY – CBS – TV Movie Pilot (10/26/90)

Teleplay by David Chisholm. Television Story by David Chisholm and William Link. Suggested by Motion Picture LADY ON A TRAIN. Screenplay by Edmund Beloin & Robert O’Brien. Story by Leslie Charteris. Directed by Bradford May. Created and Executive Produced by William Link and David Chisholm. Consulting Producer Shaun Cassidy. Produced by Ken Topolsky. Cast: Edward Woodward and Jessica Lundry. Guest cast: Edward Winter, Ivory Ocean and Dan Ferro. Universal TV.

Included for William Link fans (COLUMBO). Nikki Page (Jessica Lundry) was the obit writer for a San Francisco newspaper who sees a woman murdered in the apartment across from hers. Before the cops arrive the killer takes the body and no one believe Nikki. So she turns to her favorite mystery writer, ex-Scotland Yard Inspector Maxwell Beckett (Edward Woodward). He refuses to help until she finally convinces him. Two of television’s most annoying characters join up and solve the crime.


THE HANDLER –CBS – “Street Boss” (9/26/03)

Written, Created and Executive Produced by Chris Haddock. Directed and Produced by Mick Jackson. Co-Produced by Larry Rapaport. Produced by Sean Ryerson. Cast: Joe Pantoliani, Anna Belknap, Lola Glaudini, Tanya Wright and Hill Harper. Guest Cast: Harry Lennix, Mary Mara, James Macdonald and Pruitt Taylor Vince. (Haddock Entertainment. Viacom Productions: credits clipped, source: IMdb.com).

It is a busy time for Joe Renato (Joe Pantoliani) who trains and handles FBI undercover agents. It’s the first night for a new female agent, one of his agents undercover in the Russian mob wants out, the local police need the FBI help finding someone new to go undercover in a possible murder investigation, and Joe’s brother is just out of prison. The episode is a dark drama with a fast pace, interesting characters and some nice twists.

THE SERIES CHARACTERS FROM
DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY
by Monte Herridge


        #17. OLD CALAMITY, by Joseph Fulling Fishman.

   Joseph Fulling Fishman created the prison series (ran 1928-1939) for Detective Fiction Weekly about the jailer Old Calamity, making use of his knowledge of crime and prisons. In fact, Fishman wrote more nonfiction articles on these subjects from 1925-1942 for Detective Fiction Weekly than stories in the fiction series.

   He also wrote articles for other magazines such as Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post, and books about crime and prisons. Fishman was a 1931 choice for a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was awarded a grant for being chosen. According to Wikipedia, the Fellowships “have been awarded annually since 1925 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those ‘who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.’ ”

   The name Old Calamity is what the three thousand inmates of the state prison at Cosmopolis call him. The guards and other personnel call him Ole Dep Fletch out of his hearing. His real name is Deputy Warden Fletcher, and even though there is a warden who is a political appointee, Fletcher is really the one running the prison.

   The wardens of the prison were all political appointees, but Fletcher was a professional jailer. The wardens were appointed by the state governor, but the governor on one occasion said: “You know, Fletcher. You’re really the one I should appoint warden, but of course there’s politics . . .” (Old Calamity’s Stick-up)

   “Thirty years of combating the plots and counterplots and the intrigues and chicanery of thousands of inmates of every degree of criminality and cunning and viciousness . . . had sharpened the perceptions of the Deputy Warden.” (Old Calamity Starts a Fight)

   This long experience gave Old Calamity an advantage when dealing with the many problems that he came across in his job. He knew just about every trick the convicts tried, and how to deal with them. He enjoys his work, and at one point turns down a job offer from a rich businessman with the comment “I’m afraid not, thank you,” Old Calamity replied. “I’m doing the kind of work I like and that’s worth more than money.” (Old Calamity Sniffs a Clue)

OLD CALAMITY

   He usually went to work in the prison at seven in the morning, and had a regular routine except when emergencies or problems interrupted. His usual morning routine was “supervising the count, reading his mail, making assignments of new prisoners, and so on, . . .” (By a Nose)

   He doesn’t let the routine of everyday work get himself in a rut where he overlooks things; he notices the smallest detail of what may turn out to be very important to him and the prison. Probably why he has lasted so long in his job.

   The stories are basically all about Old Calamity, with very few appearances by a regular cast of characters. One regular is Croaker Engle, the “brusque old prison doctor.” His appearances in the stories are usually very short. Before him, a Doctor Cosgrove made a single appearance in the story “Fine Feathers.”

   The prison warden is mentioned in the stories, but plays very little part in the stories. An exception to this are the stories “Old Calamity Starts a Fight,” and “Between the Lines,” where part of the story takes place around the warden. The warden of the prison is replaced at one point in the series. The warden and Old Calamity both have homes right next to the prison grounds.

   The stories usually involve murder in the prison by inmates murdering other inmates, for various motives. Prison breaks and conspiracies aimed at escaping prison are also elements in the stories. Fletcher has to break up the escapes, which sometimes are very cleverly planned.

   In the story “Old Calamity Scores Twice,” he not only has to foil a planned escape, but solve a clever locked cell murder made to look like suicide. In “Between the Lines,” he literally has to read between the lines of a prisoner’s book reading material to discover a plot to escape using explosives.

OLD CALAMITY

   The earliest story in the series, “By a Nose,” involves uncovering a murder by bomb and finding the culprit. His investigations of various kinds involve him acting more as a detail-oriented detective than as a deputy warden.

   Another concern of prison authorities is the use of illegal drugs by the inmates. The story “Fine Feathers” relates the attempt of Old Calamity to stop the flow of drugs into the prison, and in a later story, “Old Calamity Starts a Fight,” the problem of drug usage is also the main theme. This is certainly based on situations in real prisons at the time. Morphine is the drug mentioned in these stories.

   “Fine Feathers” relates some of the problems that drug usage by inmates causes – aggressiveness and fighting by prisoners, and other irrational behavior. One prisoner high on drugs even set his cell on fire.

   One story showed Old Calamity on vacation, enjoying relaxing fishing. However, the local law enforcement find out he is there and enlist his aid in solving a series of inexplicable burglaries. (Old Calamity Sniffs a Clue)

   This use of Old Calamity’s talents outside his own prison was not the only time this occurred. It appears that he was available for aid at other prisons having problems. In the story “The Suicides in Cell 32,” he travels to Milford State Prison to help investigate a series of murders made to look like suicides.

OLD CALAMITY

   Warden Olmstead of the prison knew of his reputation and had requested his help. In less than twelve hours Old Calamity has solved the mystery and was on his way back to his own prison. He noted: “I guess that some of the birds up at my place will be sorry it didn’t take me several weeks. I’m afraid they won’t be any too glad to see me back in the morning.”

   In “Old Calamity Lays the Ghost,” he travels to another prison in Springdale in response to another request for help. Warden Armitage of the prison has a mystery for him to solve: twice men in their cells have been stabbed and nearly killed. In both instances knives were found in the cells, but no evidence was found as to how the men could have been stabbed inside of locked cells.

   Old Calamity finds an ingenious method has been employed in the stabbings. It took him a few days to resolve this one, but he had developed the patience to wait for the right time. “He had often waited weeks and sometimes months for the development of a prison plot. He knew it was something that could not be hurried, . . .”

   The series is very good in its story telling and relation of the various mysteries Old Calamity is involved in. Altogether, Fishman’s descriptions of prison life and the psychological aspects of the stories seem to be very convincing, and made the stories more than mere sensationalistic prison stories such as other pulp writers wrote.

       The “Old Calamity” series by Joseph Fulling Fishman:

By a Nose October 27, 1928
Fine Feathers February 2, 1929
The Yawn March 2, 1929
Old Calamity Stages an Act April 6, 1929
Old Calamity Lays the Ghost April 9, 1932
Old Calamity Holds the Wire July 23, 1932
Old Calamity Starts a Fight September 17, 1932
Old Calamity Scores Twice February 11, 1933
The Suicides in Cell Thirty-Two June 17, 1933
Between the Lines September 9, 1933
Old Calamity Sniffs a Clue April 7, 1934
Old Calamity Cleans Up May 19, 1934
Old Calamity’s Stick-up June 23, 1934
Old Calamity Stops a Leak June 5, 1937
Honor of Thieves March 18, 1939

    Previously in this series:

1. SHAMUS MAGUIRE, by Stanley Day.
2. HAPPY McGONIGLE, by Paul Allenby.
3. ARTY BEELE, by Ruth & Alexander Wilson.
4. COLIN HAIG, by H. Bedford-Jones.
5. SECRET AGENT GEORGE DEVRITE, by Tom Curry.
6. BATTLE McKIM, by Edward Parrish Ware.
7. TUG NORTON by Edward Parrish Ware.
8. CANDID JONES by Richard Sale.
9. THE PATENT LEATHER KID, by Erle Stanley Gardner.
10. OSCAR VAN DUYVEN & PIERRE LEMASSE, by Robert Brennan.
11. INSPECTOR FRAYNE, by Harold de Polo.
12. INDIAN JOHN SEATTLE, by Charles Alexander.
13. HUGO OAKES, LAWYER-DETECTIVE, by J. Lane Linklater.
14. HANIGAN & IRVING, by Roger Torrey.
15. SENOR ARNAZ DE LOBO, by Erle Stanley Gardner.
16. DETECTIVE X. CROOK, by J. Jefferson Farjeon.

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