December 2014

ROBERT GILLESPIE – The Crossword Mystery. Raven House, paperback original, 1980.

   As I understand it, the first four Raven House titles (this is #3) were sent out as advance samples to at least some, if not all, of the subscribers to Harlequin’s line of romance titles. I don’t know if the story is true, but if it is, I wonder what those women thought of this book. As the title indicates, it’s purely a puzzle story, but the language used is often surprisingly crude and foul — of the four letter variety.

   There’s also one pretty good sex scene, and one fairly brutal, which is not so good. This does not count the murder of Mary Cross, Rocky Caputo’s predecessor as the crossword editor of the New York Herald-Courier. Means of death: starvation in a locked room, complicated by cirrhosis of the liver.

   The puzzle itself — a message in cryptograms, only later as a crossword — is major league, but as we all know, cleverness alone does not a novel make. Gillespie shows promise, but he needs more seasoning. Overall, I’d say Triple A ball in the minors, at best, and if you can’t stand crossword puzzles at all, you can probably skip this one.

Rating:   C

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1981 (slightly revised).

[UPDATE] 12-26-14.   This appears to have been Rocky Caputo’s only recorded brush with murder. It was the author’s first book. Hubin records seven additional titles to his credit, five of them with a series character named Ralph Simmons, a retired advertising director of the same newspaper that Caputo worked for.

   It would have been clear — or at least clearer — to readers of this review back in 1981 that Raven House was an attempt by Harlequin Books to create a line of paperback mysteries. The imprint didn’t last long, and sometime I’d like to take a longer look into what kinds of mysteries they published and some of the highlights of the series. There is not room in this small footnote to do so now, however. For now, it may suffice to give you this link to this New York Times article that appeared soon after Raven House began.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by James L. Traylor

W. T. BALLARD – Say Yes to Murder. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1942. Penguin #566, paperback, 1945. Also reprinted as The Demise of a Louse, as by John Shepherd, Belmont, paperback, 1962.

   W. T. Ballard was one of Joe Shaw’s second wave of Black Mask boys. His first Black Mask story, “A Little Different,” appeared in September 1933. It featured Bill Lennox, troubleshooter for the fictitious General Consolidated Studios. (Ballard himself had worked for First National Studios in the early 1930s.)

   Lennox was one of the most popular series characters in Black Mask, and appeared in twenty-seven stories between 1933 and 1942. He’s not a PI exactly, but he has that same hard-boiled ethos; his exploits have an appealing under-stated sense of immediacy.

   After writing short stories for about ten years, Ballard published Say Yes to Murder, the first of four Bill Lennox novels, and set the standard for the Hollywood murder mystery. Ballard’s gift for this type of story is his careful depiction of scene and his emphasis on character in a subgenre that usually does not rely on such realism.

   Ballard invented a cast of characters that later became almost cliches of the movie industry. Sol Spurck, the crusty head of General Consolidated Studios; Nancy Hobbs, Lennox’s long-suffering girlfriend; and cops named Spellman and Stobert who are not quite as condescending toward Lennox as the typical cops of the hard-boiled detective novel.

   In Say Yes to Murder, Lennox investigates the murder of Leon Heyworth, a drunken actor whom Lennox finds stabbed and lying under the bed of actress Jean Jeffries, granddaughter of Lennox’s old friend Mary Morris. Faithful to Spurck and the studio, Lennox, with the help of Jake Hertz, a studio minion, and an empty piano box, moves the body from Jean’s apartment, attempting to keep Mary Morris’s name out of the papers.

   Along with a superior sense of timing and scene, Ballard’s novel shows great intricacy in plotting. Here the vital clue to the solution of the mystery is identity. An the characters are in show business, with consequent multiple personas. Lennox’s primary task is wading through the maze of personalities. Ballard presents the murder as a problem of separating illusion from reality, a method quite effective in focusing Hollywood’s artificiality.

   Noted critic James Sandoe praised Lennox because “he doesn’t have to flex his biceps to prove that he’s strong.” Say Yes to Murder is a consistently rewarding hard-boiled novel.

   The other three Bill Lennox novels are also excellent Murder Can’t Stop (1946), Dealing Out Death (1948), and the paperback original Lights, Camera, Murder (1960, as by John Shepherd). Ballard was a close friend of fellow pulp writer Norbert Davis and coauthored one novel with him, Murder Picks the Jury (1947), under the joint pseudonym Harrison Hunt.

   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.

NOTE: Previously reviewed on this blog are:

      Murder Can’t Stop.
      Lights, Camera, Murder.
      Hollywood Troubleshooter (a collection of Bill Lennox short stories)

ILLEGAL. Warner Brothers, 1955. Edward G. Robinson, Nina Foch, Hugh Marlowe, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Dekker, Howard St. John, Ellen Corby, Edward Platt, Jan Merlin. Screenplay: W. R. Burnett and James R. Webb. Director: Lewis Allen.

   When District Attorney Victor Scott (Edgar G. Robinson) discovers that he’s sent an innocent man to the chair, not only are his ambitions for a higher office (governor) gone up in smoke, but soon after so is his political career altogether. He resigns, finds he can’t make a go of it as an attorney dealing in civil law, and in spite of the concern of his former assistant (Nina Foch), begins spending more time in bars than he does practicing law.

   But as chance would have it, Scott discovers that his skills in the courtroom on one side are just as good on the other, and soon the money is rolling in as one of the best defense attorneys around, with some of his performances on behalf of his clients putting to shame even the wildest ever dreamed up by the previous master of them all, Perry Mason.

   This attracts the attention of not only the local crime boss but the new D.A., who suspects an inside man is leaking information out of his office. This leads in turn to Nina Foch’s character being accused of murdering… Well, it is complicated, but to the screenwriters’ credit, the story is clearly presented from beginning to end, perhaps to the extent of being at times a little too obvious.

   This is Edgar G. Robinson’s role all the way. The triumphs and failures of the character he plays need someone with a super-sized sense of the extravaganza, and Robinson is just the person to do the job. The rest of players are mere moths flitting around his constant flame.

   Save, just maybe, Jayne Mansfield’s character, a wasp-waisted singer and live-in companion for the aforementioned crime boss makes her a perfect witness on the stand, her breathy whisper-like Marilyn Monroe voice making everyone in the courtroom sit up and take notice.

by Marv Lachman

CYRIL HARE – Tenant for Death. Faber & Faber, UK, hardcover, 1937. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1937. Softcover editions include: Dover, 1981; Perennial Library, 1982.

   Even better [than Francis Beeding’s Death Walks in Eastrepps, reviewed here ] is Cyril Hare’s first mystery, Tenant for Death. Hare generates the kind of intellectual excitement that used to be present in so many mysteries. The facts are presented to the reader and, if the puzzle is not as complex as Ellery Queen in his heyday, there is still much for the reader who wishes to compete with the detective.

   Hare’s sleuth is Inspector Mallett who, after appearing in Hare’s first three books, began playing second fiddle to the author’s later detective, Francis Pettigrew. Mallett is a detective we can respect and identify with. I can visualize a subdued Leo McKern (of Rumpole fame) playing him on the screen.

   There is humor in Tenant for Death, and it is reasonably subtle. Hare has a good ear for language and introduces (and demolishes) a few pompous individuals. There is not a great deal of description, and that is good because too much tends to slow a mystery down. There is just enough for the reader to supply his own imagination and set his own scenes.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1981.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

THE MANITOU. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1978. Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, Stella Stevens, Jon Cedar, Paul Mantee, Jeanette Nolan, Lurene Tuttle, Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredith. Based on the novel by Graham Masterton. Director: Willlam Girdler.

   First off, the good stuff. Hell of a cast. Good performance by Ansara in a rare good guy role on screen, nice turn by Meredith as a barmy anthropologist, Lurene Tuttle as a little old lady fatally possessed by a Native American medicine man. Some lovely shots of San Francisco. Adequate special effects for the time if nothing special. Interesting concept from the novel by Graham Masterton. No one gives a bad performance.

   The bad stuff? Almost everything else.

   The film opens with Dr. Paul Mantee calling in Surgeon Jon Cedar (who co-wrote the screenplay with director William Girdler) for a patient, Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) with a peculiar problem — a tumor on her neck that appears to have the characteristics of a fetus.

   Stop laughing, she has a baby on her neck, that’s the plot, the actual plot. The whole movie turns on the fact she has a fetus on her neck, you can’t make this stuff up. They never do explain how or why, and all things considered I didn’t really want to know. Do you want to know how she got a fetus on the back of her neck? I know it was the Sexual Revolution, but still …

   Think about it. This is a big budget Hollywood movie with actual known stars, and it is about a woman with a fetus on her neck. Most of their careers were still going strong — before this.

   I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they sold that story to the studio.

    “You see there is this woman and she has a tumor, but it’s not really a tumor, it’s a fetus, but here’s the kicker, the fetus is on the back of her neck!”

   Poor Karen used to be involved with Tarot reader Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis). With surgery planned the next day she calls up Harry, who is a nice guy despite using his real powers to con little old ladies like Jeanette Nolan and Lurene Tuttle. Karen and Harry used to be a number, and they get together. Harry reads the Tarot trying to reassure her, but that doesn’t help as he can’t ‘force’ a good reading. Of course then he has sex with her, because a bad reading is one thing and he’s a guy, and every woman wants sex the night before surgery on a mysterious tumor on their neck.

   Harry is concerned about the surgery. He may be a con, but his powers are real (you haven’t lived until you see Tony in a fake mustache and a black robe with astrological symbols on it. He looks like Criswell escaped from an Ed Wood movie).

   Harry doesn’t know the half of it. As Karen is going under the knife his client Lurene Tuttle is possessed by a demon chanting some weird words and then floats down the corridor before her body is thrown down the stairs to her death.

   The surgery doesn’t go much better. When surgeon Jon Cedar tries to cut into the tumor he suddenly cuts into his own wrist instead and it takes two men to keep him from crippling himself. Then Strasberg’s vital signs go wild and she nearly dies.

   Don’t mess with the tumor.

   Curtis gets together with Cedar convinced that the tumor is somehow possessing Strasberg.

   Curtis turns to his old friend Stella Stevens (in some sort of weird dark make up that seems designed to turn her into a red haired gypsy but just looks as if she spent too long in the tanning bed) and her husband, together they run an occult shop. She’s out of the business but owes Harry one so she helps him set up a seance with medium Ann Sothern to identify the spirit possessing Strasberg.

   And something attacks during the seance, something powerful.

   Another bad idea, but then this movie is full of them.

   Meanwhile that tumor is the size of what it is, a fetus growing on the back of Strasberg’s neck.

   By now they know one thing, the thing is dangerous. When they try to remove it with a laser the machine goes wild and Strasberg directs it with her glance. It seems the light from all the X-Rays have hurt the thing and it speaks through her. Now Cedar is as convinced as Harry they are in over their head. Not only is the thing possessing her and pissed off, it is also likely deformed by the X-rays (remind me not to go to the dentist if I think I have a fetus on my neck).

   Curtis and Stevens go to barmy anthropologist Burgess Meredith who identifies the words they heard (“pawitchy salaoo”) as Native American, likely a powerful medicine man who can cause a new body to be grown on a host and leave it to die when it is born. He has done it many times before over the centuries growing more powerful each time.

   Their only hope is to find a medicine man powerful enough to battle this ancient being, though Meredith would rather let Strasberg die and talk to the medicine man after. You know scientists.

   That medicine man proves to be John Rocking Horse (Michael Ansara, and no, I’m not kidding, his name is Rocking Horse I guess John Hobby Horse was taken), who reluctantly agrees to help, but when he gets to San Francisco he discovers the being is the powerful Missmequaha — in short they are up a certain smelly creek without a paddle because Ansara is way overmatched. To make it worse Missmequaha wants revenge on the white man and modern society not to mention Native Americans who have strayed along the white man’s path.

   He’s back, he’s bad, he’s mad.

   Missmequaha is born despite Ansara’s best effort, but he is weak, his body misformed by the X-Rays. Ansara can’t defeat him, but maybe white man’s magic can, so they call on the manitou, or spirit, of the hospitals computer system, enough power for a small city, and when Ansara can’t channel it Curtis tries. He fails too, but awakens Strasberg who does channel the power sitting up in bed topless shooting rays of light from her hands (don’t knock it, it’s the best part of the film though it reminded me I would rather it was Stella Stevens) and destroys Missmequaha (or Mixmaster as Curtis calls him) in a mediocre special effects scene that probably seemed much cooler when this was made.

   Big budget horror films don’t get much stupider or more inane than this one that doesn’t even have the heart to make real use of Native American myth and legend but just uses some names and half understood stories.

   I don’t know if it was faithful to the book or not, I never could get past the second chapter of one of Masterton’s high concept (low execution) novels. If this was faithful, God help the readers.

   To give the perfect illustration of just how lame this is, it ends with a note that a Japanese boy was actually born with such a fetus on his body and it killed him. Fact, it proclaims, and I suppose we were to leave the theater with a suitable frisson instead of doubling over in laughter as I wanted to as the credits rolled.

   Manitou. I was disappointed when it didn’t turn out to be Karl May’s Winnetou’s little brother. A German western would have to be better than this lame movie. But it is bad in the way you can enjoy watching it doing your own Mystery Science Theater 3000 take on it. It’s the kind of movie kids used to throw popcorn at, everything going for it but not a brain brought to bear. Some movies are just painful, this one is good stupid fun.

   Rosemary was lucky. At least she didn’t have to carry the devil’s spawn on her forehead.

   A fetus on her neck? What were they smoking when they bought that idea?

   The idea of what the sequel might have been like doesn’t bear thinking about.

   I don’t even want to guess where the next fetus might have been.

THE RIDER OF THE LAW. Supreme Pictures, 1935. Bob Steele, Gertrude Messinger, Si Jenks, Lloyd Ingraham, John Elliott, Earl Dwire. Director: Robert N. Bradbury.

   Bob Steele was far from being one of the more handsome of the B-western heroes, but he sure made a lot of them before settling down into character parts (still mostly westerns) and ending up on television (and still mostly westerns).

   I don’t know why I always liked him as a cowboy hero, though, but as a kid I did, and I don’t even know what movies he was in that I might have watched. (I never watched F-Troop on TV, if that’s what you might be thinking.)

   I did not even recognize him at first in The Rider of the Law, and I hope I don’t spoil your surprise when you watch this movie the next time your order of DVDs comes in from Alpha Video, but I suspect you won’t either.

   SPOILER ALERT. He’s the bespectacled dude in big city clothes who comes to town with no gun and no idea of how to ride a horse. (He ends up facing backward.) There is a story that might be made of this as an interesting idea, but Law of the Rider isn’t it.

   I didn’t time it, but I think Si Jenks gets as much screen time as Bob Steele. As the bewhiskered old prospector who gets talked into becoming the town marshal when the previous one is shot up pretty badly when the Tollivers last came to town and robbing the bank in the process, Jenks is as lovable an old coot as they come, and funny, too.

   There are some other small surprises to come, but I have a feeling that at least one of the remaining plot twists was due to a certain ineptitude on the part of the script, rather than anything deliberate. They should have taken the good idea at the beginning and done more with it, but it’s far too late for any of the people responsible for this basically Grade D western to heed any advice from me.

ELLIS PETERS – City of Gold and Shadows. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1973. William Morrow, US, hardcover, 1974. Pyramid V3590, paperback, February 1975.

   If she is remembered today, and I think she is, Ellis Peters is known almost solely for her series of Brother Cadfael mysteries, of which there were 20. running from 1977 to 1994. But she also had another series before Cadfael came along — he was a monk living in a 12th-century Benedictine monastery — that being a series of contemporary detective novels about the Felse family.

   This earlier series, in which the head of family, George Felse, was a British police detective, ran from 1951 to 1979 and overlapped the Cadfael books by one. (I believe that the first Cadfael novel was meant to be a one-off, but it proved to be so popular that Peters was forced to continue them until her death in 1995 at the age of 82.)

   I was going to start off this review by saying something witty about the fact that when City of Gold and Shadows was reprinted by Pyramid, they amusingly tried to cash in on the then current Gothics craze in paperback publishing and marketing as a Gothic romance. It is in fact so labeled on the spine.

   But the cover of British hardcover, also shown here (below), is even more in the Gothic mode, so there goes that opening.

   It is a fact, however, that the book certainly does start out as the Gothics of the era often did. A girl (in this case a concert oboist named Charlotte Rossignol) is invited to meet with a lawyer who informs her that her great-uncle, a famed archaeologist, has been missing for over a year, and that she is in essence the inheritor of his estate — or that she will be if for some reason he never shows up.

   A standard opening for a Gothic romance. You might think that she would then go to her uncle’s estate, a mouldering mansion filled with servants with inscrutable motives and a young man who …

   But no. Charlotte is the kind of woman with a head on her shoulders, and she decides to do some detective work on her own. She heads for the grounds of Aurae Phiala, where the ruins of an ancient Roman town are buried, somewhere along the border with Wales, and although his travels had taken him to Turkey afterward, it is where her uncle was last seen in England.

   She does meet a young man, but she counters his tentative advances with an even more interrogative set of questions of her own, subtly inquired, of course. There is a murder, that of an inquisitive young lad, and other attempts at murder. Serious business, this, and George Felse is called in.

   His wife remains off scene in this one, though, and his son shows up not at all. At about the one-third point this becomes a matter for the police, not one for amateurs, although even Felse recognizes the usefulness of Charlotte’s continued contributions.

   A major plus is that Ellis Peters was a very good writer, and this book is no exception. Her phrasing, eye for details and incidental authorial observations are nearly pitch perfect, and the chapters in which one of the characters tries to find his way out of the maze of tunnels and underground flues into which he has been tossed are as suspenseful as anything I’ve recently read in a book that has been marketed as a thriller.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

JOHN BALL – In the Heat of the Night. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1965. Paperback reprints include: Bantam, 1967; Perennial Library, 1985; Carroll & Graf, 1992.

   John Ball is best known for his series of novels about Virgil Tibbs, black homicide specialist with the Pasadena, California, Police Department. While Tibbs was preceded by Ed Lacy’s Toussaint Moore in Room to Swing, he is the first fully realized black series character. This first Tibbs novel is a strong start, in which the author explores racial conflict far from his hero’s usual beat, in the Deep South.

   Wells is a sleepy little Carolina town where nothing much happens; so sleepy, in fact, that some prominent citizens have planned a music festival in hopes of attracting badly needed tourist dollars. Then, on a steamy August night, the conductor hired for the festival is found murdered, and Police Chief Bill Gillespie and Officer Sam Wood have more of a case than they can handle. Help comes unexpectedly when Wood detains a black man passing through town, and the man turns out to be Virgil Tibbs.

   Wells is a typical small town with typical southern racial prejudice, and its lawmen are no exception. Grudgingly they accept Tibbs’s aid, prompted by the urgings of the man who had planned the music festival. And as Tibbs quietly and methodically pursues his investigation, working against the handicap of his racial background, the lawmen each come, in their way, to respect him and acknowledge his exceptional ability.

   In the final confrontation with the killer. Tibbs turns his race to an advantage- proving that what one man considers a handicap can be another’s blessing. This is an engrossing novel with a powerful premise, but it leaves us wishing we had really gotten inside Virgil Tibbs’s mind and viewed the case through the eyes of the book’s most interesting character.

   In the Heat of the Night was made into a 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. Other novels featuring Tibbs are The Cool Cottontail (1966), Johnny Get Your Gun (1969), Five Pieces of Jade (1972), The Eyes of Buddha (1976), and Then Came Violence (1980).

   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.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

CALL OF THE SAVAGE. Universal, 1935. Serial: 12 episodes. Noah Beery Jr., Dorothy Short, H. L. Woods, Bryant Washburn, Walter Miller, Fred MacKaye. Based on the novel by Otis Adelbert Kline. Director: Louis Friedlander (aka Lew Landers).

   One of the other things I do every year is watch an old-time time movie serial. One year not too long ago it was Call of the Savage, a competent and quite enjoyable trifle from folks who knew how to properly do a trifle. The writers — whose names would mean nothing to you — were all seasoned serial hacks, who based the story around Otis Aldelbert Kline’s classic Jan of the Jungle, though how faithfully I cannot say.

   Call was directed by Lew Landers, a director who knew enough to keep this thing moving before anyone looked too closely at it. Landers serves up all the improbable thrills — lions, tigers, shipwreck, stampede and volcano — mismatched stock footage and laughable back-projection with a commendably straight face, even dragging in sets and props from Bride of Frankenstein for the obligatory Lost City with nary a giggle.

   And then there’s the thespians. Harry Woods, normally a baddie in Westerns, gets to play a mysterious good guy for a change, his type-cast history lending a certain ambiguity to the character, and Dorothy Short, who spent her life in B-movies, looks quite fetching in a leopard skin.

   But best of all is Noah Beery Jr. as the Jungle Man. That’s right. Noah Beery Jr, the loveable sidekick of a dozen westerns, James Garner’s dad in The Rockford Files. Yep, he plays a cut-rate Tarzan here, and he plays it as a likeable half-wit, not so much Noble Savage, but more like Old Mose in The Searchers. And somehow the incongruity just adds to the dopey charm of a movie I liked in spite of itself.

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