Sun 31 May 2015
Posted by Steve under Reviews Comments
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
WILLIAM LE QUEUX – Sant of the Secret Service: Some Revelations of Spies and Spying. Odhams, UK, hardcover, 1918. Later hardcover reprints from Hodder & Stoughton, UK. No US edition until recent POD editions have become available, such as from Createspace, softcover, circa 2013. Also available in ebook format and online.
To those who, like myself, have moved in the Continental underworld of spies and spying, the name of “Sant of the Secret Service” is synonymous with all that is ingenious, resourceful, and daring. In the Intelligence Departments of London, Paris, Rome, and New York, the name of “Sant of the Secret Service” is to-day one to conjure with.
Like Ian Fleming, William Le Queux was no stranger to spies and spying, though his own exploits, unlike Fleming’s, were done as a private citizen on the edges of the world of spies and often tied to his paranoia about the Russian Secret Services, Anarchists, and the Germans. One of his books about a German invasion of England not only warned of the Imperial ambitions of the Kaiser, but predicted them, both envisioning and helping create the circumstances that led to World War I.
Whatever else, he was a patriot, and a prolific writer of fiction, journalism, and often semi-fiction somewhere between the two. His novels and not quite novels include sensational accounts of Rasputin, life in the court of the Kaiser, the Tsarist Secret Police, and others. He also managed to write lost world novels, at least one novel with a Bedouin hero, adventure novels about lost treasure, the then popular automobile and airplane adventure novel (the former virtually half the output it seemed of C.N. and A.M. Williamson), and mysteries, but none of those are as well known as his spy novels, some featuring a fictional version of himself, such as His Majesty’s Minister, The Zeppelin’s Passenger, and his best known work, Secrets of the Foreign Office, or The Doings of Duckworth Drew.
Sant of the Secret Service is the second best known of his agent heroes after Drew, being Gerry Sant who is the epitome of the Le Queux agent:
Cheerful, optimistic, and the most modest of men, Gerry Sant has seldom spoken of his own adventures. The son of a certain nobleman who must here remain nameless, and hence the scion of a noble house, he has graduated through all stages of the dark and devious ways of espionage.
In other words, he’s a bit of a lunkhead in the modern view. If John Buchan invented the modern spy novel in 1910’s serialization of The Power House, it was in part in tribute to E. Phillips Oppenheim and likely revulsion with Le Queux. Still Le Queux is the first writer of his age to claim the spy story as his own, and he began in the Victorian era, thrived in the Edwardian (where most of his heroes are stuck), and lasted through a world war and the Roaring Twenties into the thirties.
Not a bad run for anyone.
Like Secrets of the Foreign Office and many of Le Queux’s spy novels, Sant of the Secret Service is not actually a novel, but a sort of fix-up of short adventures tied together. And, though Le Queux is by no means a great writer or even a gifted hack, the stories do have an old world charm now that is undeniable. The stories are loosely tied together by characters such as the admirable Madame Gabrielle and the dangerous German agent …
Here, indeed, was an antagonist worthy of my steel! I had long known — and so far as his abilities went, had respected — van Rosen as one of the cleverest agents of the Koniggratzerstrasse. He was able to pose as an Englishman — a rare accomplishment in a German — for he had been educated at Haileybury, and had been in England off and on since his youth. He was now living in a north-western suburb, where he posed as Mr. George Huggon-Rose, a solicitor who had retired from practice. Only British apathy made this possible.
Yes, Le Queux was the type to write “a foe worth my steel” without blushing or chuckling, and like spy writers ever since, he was always ready to take a shot at the vast unwashed who never know the secret war being fought to protect their affable ignorance. I always thought Eric Ambler must have read more Le Queux than he would have liked to admit when he took aim at the real world of spies who often acted as if they thought they were in a Le Queux novels.
There is no shortage of duped noblemen in the government, femme fatales — not always on the other side — in black velvet dresses and opera gloves showing a bit of patriotic cleavage, dangerous men in soft brimmed hats lurking, and heroes in sturdy bowlers that could be spotted a mile away as British agents by a myopic three year old. The bowler hats are no doubt designed to protect their soft skulls.
Physically Madame Gabrielle was a match for him; she was a superb gymnast and in hard training, whereas van Rosen had been leading a dissipated life and was in thoroughly poor condition. A brief struggle had ended in Madame Gabrielle throwing him heavily by a simple wrestling trick…
This is the type of passive writing that passes for an action scene in Le Queux, since he is trying to fool the reader into believing our hero is coolly recounting actual events that transpired in a professional manner. You can imagine how that mitigates suspense and narrative drive after a while. Still, perhaps she was the grandmother of Mrs. Peel or Pussy Galore.
“Well, mon cher Gerald,” said Madame Gabrielle, as she sat with me in my flat in Curzon Street, soon after breakfast the same morning. “You see they receive warning of coming air raids and meet directly after. Who are they?”
“Enemy spies, beyond any possibility of doubt,” I replied.
Stirring stuff. John Le Carre must be ready to surrender his Le to the master.
And on it goes, with secret papers and the odd exploding cigar, new French torpedo exploded by electric eye, poisoned pin in the wash towel, silenced weapon, or other cartoonish threat, all related in leaden prose as if describing the weekly garden party in the local gazette.
It’s the kind of book where a half blind old musician is a traitor in the German employ and not blind at all and lives in a place where …
It had struck me that the house which sheltered the grey parrot might conceivably conceal a wireless plant of sufficient power to convey a message to a submarine lurking off the coast.
I should point out that Sant never really works or observes any of these brilliant deductions, he just knows them. Actually showing him at work and drawing conclusions did nothing for the melodrama Le Queux tries to hide with his semi documentary style. It’s a bit like reading a novel consisting of nothing but the voice over from The House of 92nd Street or any other of the docu-Noir films.
I had grasped my prize and was just about to shut and relock the trunk, when I heard a sound behind me, and, turning, found myself face to face with Oscar Engstrom himself.
And not only that, but I was looking straight into the barrel of a very serviceable-looking automatic pistol, held without a tremor in Engstrom’s very capable hands!
Golly what next? Actually, not much, it’s William Le Queux. Everyone talks about it even at gunpoint. 007 would at least have thrown a pillow.
Upon the shiny black leather cover of that book he had traced with a solution of nitrate of silver, mixed with other chemicals, a geometrical design — a square divided in half, the lower part being left blank, and in the upper portion a “V,” above it being traced a small circle. When he had placed the book into her palm it had left an indelible imprint upon her skin, a device which did not show itself until an hour later, when, very naturally, it greatly mystified her. Carlo Corradini had thus branded the woman he hated, and then, the coup having been made at Fiume, he had at once written an anonymous letter to Armand Hecq, head of the International Intelligence Bureau, denouncing the Admiral’s wife as an Austrian, who had divulged Italy’s secret.
I think I saw that one twice last week on television. Never show anything you can tell in as dull and anticlimactic a manner as possible.
If I am quoting more than reviewing the plots of this one, it is in part to give readers a taste of Le Queux’s prose and a warning, because as I said, this book, and some of his others have a sort of perverse charm, a relaxing somewhat brainless trip in time to another age and place and a look at what ended up James Bond, George Smiley, Matt Helm, and Harry Palmer.
In his own way, his lame heroes and shopworn femme fatale’s still entertain. Certainly they lack the entertainment and sophistication of Oppenheim’s work and the fierce energy and often beautifully written passages of John Buchan, but on their own they have more than historical value. Just know what you are getting into. All those histories of the spy novel slamming Le Queux, have a point, but so did the readers that kept him popular for almost forty years. At the very least Gerry Sant and Duckworth Drew are worth a nodding acquaintance, if only for Duckworth Drew’s name.
Sat 30 May 2015
Posted by Steve under Reviews Comments
REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:
THOMAS PERRY – Sleeping Dogs. Butcher’s Boy #2. Random House, hardcover, May 1992. Ivy Books, paperback, April 1993.
Any book about an amoral contract killer must inevitably (in my mind, anyway) evoke memories of and be compared to Westlake/Stark’s Parker. Yes, I know that Parker was a thief rather than a hit man, and that strictly speaking more appropriate comparisons would be Estleman’s Macklin and Collins’ Quarry. I remain unrepentant, however, particularly in the case of novels where the hit man is pitted against the (or a) mob, such as this one is. Stark’s Butcher’s Moon was the single best story of this type that I have read.
Sleeping Dog is a sequel to Perry’s highly acclaimed The Butcher’s Boy of a decade ago, and takes place in approximately real time. The protagonist has left the United States and is living in England, hopefully safe from America’s organized crime,which he decimated and alienated in the first book. He is recognized quite by accident by a minor American crime figure while at the track in Brighton, and the mobster has the bad judgement to attempt to enhance his standing by counting coup. The results are predictable.
Our hero (who use smany names in the book) quite naturally misapprehends the situation, and assumes organized intent rather than the serendipitous recognition which was actually the case. Though out of the game for a decade, his reactions have not changed in speed or nature: when attacked, remove the source. He immediately embarks for America to do just that.
The whole book is a tragicomedy of errors, with the Butcher’s Boy, the mob, and various law-enforcement agencies assuming motivations and intentions on the parts of the other players that are completely erroneous, and result in much quite unnecessary mayhem.
Perry is in my opinion an excellent writer. He paces his story well, the prose is crisp and unobtrusive, and the character of the kller is much more fully realized than is typical. Another character, Elizabeth Waring an agent of the Justice Department who had a leading role in the first book,is reprised and is also beautifully done.
I am not sure that the ending of the book rang totally true; but then again, the character of an amoral killer is so alien to me that I won’t say it didn’t, either.
I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you haven’t read The Butcher’s Boy, you should do so first If you like Perry’s style, try Metzger’s Dog also. I found his Big Fish of slightly lesser quality, and didn’t like Island.
— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #1, May 1992.
Bibliographic Note: A third book in the series has appeared since Barry write this review: The Informant, 2011.
Editorial Comment: My various tenures in DAPA-Em, where this review first appeared, overlapped Barry’s only slightly. Barry’s most recent review on this blog was of a Roger Zelazny fantasy hardcover, and at that point I had exhausted all of the reviews in the two mailings I had in hand.
But not all is lost, however! Many thanks to Richard Moore, who has supplied me with photocopies of Barry’s first three contributions to the apa, and to Thom Walls, who has allowed me to borrow all of the remainder of the mailings Barry’s zines appeared in before his untimely death in 1996. We will not run out of Barry’s reviews any time soon.
Fri 29 May 2015
JOURNEY INTO FEAR (Book and Films)
Reviewed by Dan Stumpf
I did a quick search of this blog just now, and found no reviews of Eric Ambler’s classic Journey Into Fear (Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1940; Knopf, US, 1940). “Well,” thought I, “I’m not one to make threats, but there’ll be a letter about this in the Times.”
Several years ago, a local video store was going out of business, and I naturally stopped by to see what priceless treasures I could pick up on the cheap. Among the things I emerged with was the remake of Journey Into Fear (New World, 1974) adapted by producer Trevor Wallace from Eric Ambler’s novel (previously filmed by Orson Welles in 1942) and directed by Daniel Mann.
Watching this, I began to suspect that Wallace’s script drew rather more from the 1942 film than from Ambler’s novel, so I pulled out the older film and the book to check my suspicions.
This was turned into a movie by Orson Welles in 1942, an engagingly gimmicky piece with the Mercury players (Agnes Moorhead, Everett Sloan et al.) but the effect is somewhat vitiated by Welles’ giving himself all the smart lines and by his decision to depict the quiet Graham (Joseph Cotton) as a boob.
The cinema of Orson Welles is deliberately un-heroic, which is probably just as well, given his strong visual style; a Welles movie with an out-and-out Hero would come off as altogether too Wagnerian. There is, in fact, more than a touch of Wagner in Welles’ two most nearly heroic characters, Rochester in Jane Eyre and MacBeth. But there I go digressin’ again
Getting back to the re-make, well, to be fair, there are a couple lines from the novel in the newer film and not in the 1942 version. But to be frank, huge chunks of Welles’ film seem to have been simply re-shot without credit and plunked down in this movie. When Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton adapted Ambler’s novel for the film (Cotton gets sole screen credit for the writing.) they gave lines from one character to another, re-arranged scenes and added little bits of business, and all these changes appear just about shot-for-shot in the re-make. In fact, the earlier film features a hired killer who never speaks, because the guy who played him was no actor and would only take the part if they cut out all his lines. And sure enough, in the re-make the hired killer –- played by the very capable actor Ian McShane –- has no dialogue.
What difference exists between the two films is largely in the ordinary look of the ’74 film – the careful camerawork and set design of the original replaced by harsh color and tinny sound – and in the casting: Welles filled his film with capable bit players whose names mean little to most moviegoers, but players who leave a distinctive impression — the best-known are maybe Everett Sloane and Hans Conreid.
The re-make, on the other hand, is filled with second-rank “stars” mostly miscast or wasted: Sam Waterston is fine in the lead, and Vincent Price and Donald Pleasance have a couple good scenes (though Price makes a decidedly unconvincing Arab) but Zero Mostel, Shelley Winters, Scott Marlowe, Yvette Mimieux and even Stanley Holloway all just kind of take up space.
On the plus side, though, I’ve got to say Joseph Wiseman (fondly remembered as the first of the Bond villains and star of his own comic-book cover) is fine in the old Orson Welles part as Colonel Haki, there’s a solid, actionful ending, and a shoot-and-chase done entirely with sound effects – I still can’t figure out whether it was meant to be clever or merely cheap, but it’s enough to elevate this startlingly unoriginal film into the class of a pleasant time-filler.
Moving on just briefly to Eric Ambler’s novel (the excuse for this piece, after all) well, it was one of those things I read in 7th grade, and I was glad to come back to it. Even after seeing two movies and getting very familiar with the plot, I found the writing absorbing and the story suspenseful.
Ambler’s tale takes a bit of familiarity with the political map of war-torn Europe in the 40s; readers who didn’t live through it or bone up on their History might wonder at a story where British and German agents travel freely in Turkey while the British are supposedly arming the Turks against Hitler, but complications like this were pretty much gratis when Ambler wrote it, and by the time he gets to the crux of the tale — Howard Graham, an un-assuming British engineer trapped on a tramp steamer with a bizarre assortment of passengers, one of whom wants to kill him — he has notched the suspense up very agreeably indeed, and proceeds to a conclusion that is both cynical and exciting: no small feat, that.
Ambler also does a sharp job here creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension, and he adds a layer of genuine thoughtfulness: our hero starts out his journey as a man with secrets to hide, and he seems at first rather unique and isolated, surrounded by a ship full of very ordinary and rather dull background characters.
As the book and the journey go on, though, we discover the rest of the cast have their own secrets: droll, noble, sinister or just venal, the passengers who began the journey as stereotypes become real by the story’s end, and the central character seems much less unique -– and more believable.
This works both as a plot device (I won’t say how) and as something more. Perhaps Ambler, writing in a world at war, was trying to say something about the worth of the individual. Or maybe he was just setting us up for a delicious bit of anticlimax at the very end of the book, when the last secret is revealed. Whatever, it makes for the kind of reading one remembers.
Thu 28 May 2015
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:
AWAY ALL BOATS. Universal International, 1956. Jeff Chandler, George Nader, Lex Barker, Julie Adams, Keith Andes, Richard Boone, William Reynolds, Charles McGraw, Jock Mahoney, John McIntire, Frank Faylen, Clint Eastwood (uncredited). Based on the book by Kenneth M. Dodson. Director: Joseph Pevney.
With a solid cast including Jeff Chandler, Lex Barker, Jock Mahoney, Richard Boone, and Charles McGraw, Away All Boats had the potential to be a much better film than it turned out to be, at least from the vantage point of 2015. It’s not so much that the acting is bad or that the movie lacks action. It’s just that it comes across as a bit too preachy, a bit too melodramatic and innocent, even for its time.
Directed by Joseph Pevney, this Universal International project features Chandler as Jebediah S. Hawks, captain of the Belinda, an amphibious attack transport ship. Captain Hawks is determined to make the Belinda the best ship of its kind, even if it means alienating himself from his crew.
Chandler is perfectly competent here, a solid presence through and through. Although it’s by no means one of his best war films, he does portray Hawks with nuance. He’s a character who, despite his somewhat aloof nature, really does want the best for his men under his command.
Despite some unnerving scenes in which kamikaze pilots attack the crew’s ship, and scenes in which the crewmen go a bit stir crazy, the film feels as it were just a bit too eager to provide the American movie going public with a somewhat sanitized view of war. This is especially the case when compared with some of the significantly more gritty war films that were released in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In conclusion, while Away All Boats isn’t by any means a poorly constructed film, it just doesn’t have all that much to set it apart from the many other average studio war films from the same era.
Wed 27 May 2015
DANCE HALL. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Carole Landis, Cesar Romero, William Henry, June Storey, J. Edward Bromberg, Charles Halton. Based on the novel The Giant Swing by W. R. Burnett (1932). Director: Irving Pichel.
According to what I’ve been able to uncover so far, and you certainly may correct me if I’m wrong, The Giant Swing was a hard-boiled novel about a jazz musician try to make his way to the top. The page for the film on the AFI website says that “the studio purchased W. R. Burnett’s novel in 1932 and began preparing scripts for it from that time. Among the writers who over the years worked on the adaptation were: W. R. Burnett, Garrett Fort, Howard J. Green, Doris Anderson, Lester Cole, Winifred Willis, Kathryn Scola, Lamar Trotti, William A. Drake, Robert Yost, Sally Sandlin, Shepard Traube and Horace McCoy.”
If my description of the book is correct, there were a lot of changes made in all that time and with all those hands working on it, I have a feeling that the end result may be a long way from its beginnings.
There is a piano player in the movie, and he is trying to write his own music while his career is stuck while spending his nights in a 1940s dance hall. But his problems play only third or fourth fiddle (bad metaphor) to the love-hate romance between the womanizing manager of the club (Cesar Romero) and the beautiful new singer (Carole Landis), whom I believe does her own singing, and quite well, too.
In spite of all their spats, Lily Brown sees something in the smooth-talking Duke McKay that I don’t see, but I imagine the ladies in the audience in 1941 may have felt the same way as she did, too. And at length, at just over 70 minutes of playing time, with each playing amusing tricks on the other, romance finds its way — and the piano player is on his way to New York with the song he has composed.
I found this moderately entertaining, but not particularly funny. The concept of on-and-off romances like this is OK, but I found the aforementioned tricks they play on each other a little too mean-spirited for me, for lack of a better term. (She steals his car behind his back while he thinks he’s proposing to her, and through a ruse he locks up another would-be suitor in a closet while she waits for the fellow outside the club alone.)
Carole Landis was only 22 when she made this film, and whatever charm the movie had for me, which was more than a little, most of it was because of her presence in it.
Wed 27 May 2015
Posted by Steve under Reviews Comments
PAUL LEVINE – Lassiter. No publisher stated [CreateSpace], trade paperback, 2012. (Copyright 2011.)
Even though this book is titled simply Lassiter, it is, in published order, the eighth book in Paul Levine’s “Jake Lassiter” series. Levine is also the author of the “Solomon vs. Lord” series, of which there are five,with a sixth, Bum Rap, a crossover between Lassiter and (Victoria) Lord, to be published in July.
I read and reviewed Solomon vs. Lord, the first in the other series, back in December, but this is the first time around with Lassiter for me. Since it was my first, though, I don’t know, but at times I wondered if might also be the first in the series, according to Lassiter’s own timeline.
An idle thought, no more. It stands by itself either way, no references to earlier cases, for example, but there is no reason why there couldn’t have been. Lassiter is a Miami-based lawyer, and a former Miami Dolphins football player, but pretty much a second- or third-stringer in either profession. The kind of kind of attorney, though, who defends his clients with plenty of vigor, whether or not the facts are on his side, bneding the rules when he can, and stretching them as as far as they’ll go when he can’t.
His client in this one is a woman who’s come to Miami from Ohio, looking for her sister who from all appearances got caught up in the local pornography business when she hit the city eighteen years earlier. The sister thinks Jake may have been the last person to see her alive.
The story that follows is a complicated one, and sorting it all out takes quite a while,with at least one big name in town connected to what happened way back then. Levine has a nice humorous way of looking at the world, but when it comes down to it, a guy like Lassiter is the one you want on your side, both as a bare-knuckles investigator as well as a tough-as-they-come litigator.
As a result, the book is a very pleasant way to spend a few hours. I do wish, though, that the author didn’t seem to be so obsessed with the pornography industry. Plenty of adult-styled paraphernalia and inside-the-business jargon here, more than I was interested in. Otherwise more than OK, with a more than usual amount of rough justice having been done by the book’s end.
Tue 26 May 2015
REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:
HEART O’ THE HILLS. Pickford/First National, 1919. Mary Pickford, Jack Gilbert, Harold Goodwin. Director: Sidney A. Franklin. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.
This is based on a novel by John Fox, Jr. and like his The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (filmed several times, including Paramount, 1936), has a heroine who leaves the hills where she has grown up to live in town, where she goes to school and picks up city ways.
This is not, however, as dark as Trail (our Mary is much perkier and more resilient than Sylvia Sidney in the sound film), and she eventually rejects the son of the rich man who has taken her into his family (a young John Gilbert) and goes back to the hills to marry her childhood sweetheart.
Beautiful location filming by Charles Rosher. A friend and I parted ways on this, but I’m a sucker for back-country folk standing up to city slickers, and this pulled me in without any trouble. I think it has something to do with the summers I spent on my grandparents’ farm in rural Arkansas, and rural Arkansas was about as primitive as the area depicted in this slice of Americana.
Mary plays herself at 13 (a real stretch) and 20ish (more believable), and she rides well and appears to handle a rifle like a young frontier sharpshooter.
Mon 25 May 2015
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:
THE MONGOLS. France Cinéma Productions, Italy-France, 1961. Original title: I mongoli. Jack Palance, Anita Ekberg, Antonella Lualdi, Franco Silva, Gianni Garko, Roldano Lupi, Gabriella Pallotta, Gabriele Antonini. Directors: André De Toth, Leopoldo Savona, Riccardo Freda (the latter uncredited).
They don’t make them like this anymore, or not at least without CGI. Call it what you will: costumer, sword-and-sandal, or an historical adventure pic. But know whatever you call it, know that The Mongols appears as if designed to resemble a big picture, epic in scope, with a cast of hundreds, if not thousands.
Directed by Andre De Toth, The Mongols features Jack Palance as the warlike Ogatai, son of Genghis Khan, who is determined to conquer Poland. At his side is Swedish model-actress, Anita Ekberg, who portrays Hulina, a woman perfectly capable of matching him in deviousness and treachery.
The story follows the Mongols, lead by Ogatai, as they attempt to conquer the Polish stronghold of Cracow. The Poles, wary of the approaching Mongols, send Stefan of Cracow (Franco Silva) to negotiate a peace arrangement with Genghis Khan. But Ogatai, lustful for blood and territory, isn’t about to let that happen.
There’s a B-story in here too. Stefan of Cracow enters into a love-hate relationship with a Polish village girl, who ends up believing – falsely, it turns out – that Stefan murdered her would-be betrothed.
But really, The Mongols isn’t a love story. It’s about wide shots of men on horseback ready to do battle and the final, epic showdown between the Mongols and the Poles. Palance is at his menacing best here, although truthfully, he really doesn’t do all that much in this picture.
In many respects, Ekberg’s character has significantly more depth than his, and this makes her a more compelling screen presence. But at the end of the day, this film really isn’t about the characters as much as it is about the spectacle. And while it is no Spartacus, The Mongols is no cheapie, either. While it’s perfectly entertaining, it gives the viewer little to think about once it’s all over. And in this case that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.
Sun 24 May 2015
Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:
THE MAN WITH TWO FACES. Warner Brothers/First National Pictures, 1934. Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor, Ricardo Cortez, Mae Clarke, Louis Calhern, Arthur Byron, John Eldredge, David Landau. Director: Archie Mayo.
The Man with Two Faces is a classy Warners programmer from 1934, based on a clever play by George Kauffman and Alexander Woollcott, and directed, in his usual dazed-and-confused style, by Archie Mayo, who ruined or nearly ruined, a lot of otherwise memorable projects – Svengali and The Petrified Forest, to name a couple.
The plot features Edward G. Robinson as a pleasantly hammy Broadway actor/director whose sister (Mary Astor) comes under the eerie spell of a palpable con man and Absolute Bounder, played by Louis Calhern. When Calhern threatens to ruin Astor’s life, Eddie decides to kill him and plans to get away with it by doing the deed disguised as a colorful and totally fictitious character based on his theatrical experience.
As I say, Archie Mayo’s direction of this thing is nothing to write home to Mom about, but it’s more than saved by the Kauffman-Woollcott script and the appropiately over-the-top playing of its leads.
Louis Calhern is particularly memorable as The Nasty, and the script gives him all sorts of interesting bits. I especially liked the way he carried two rats around in a little cage, for the thrill having them at his mercy and because he enjoys seeing the servants scramble to clean out their cage and bring them fresh cheese.
There’s also a neat turn by David Landau as a deceptively lackadaisical homicide cop. In all, a film well worth the time.
Sun 24 May 2015
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Thomas Baird
J. S. FLETCHER – The Middle Temple Murder. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1922. First published in the UK: Ward Lock, hardcover, 1919. Reprinted many times including: Dover Press, softcover, 1980.
Julian Symons, English author and critic, coined a good name for the multitude of middle-rank mystery writers who lacked literary skill and ingenuity — the Humdrums. J. S. Fletcher stood in the front rank of the prolific English phalanx of Humdrums. He wrote over a hundred books on a variety of subjects, and the majority were detective stories. These melodramas are extremely conventional, with the not-too-brilliant central puzzle dominating the story. They are a comfortable confirmation of decency and lawfulness for the moneyed middle class. Snobbery descends to racial prejudice (with several Chinese villains), and despicable, evil foreigners have dark complexions and comical accents.
Not much scientific detection is involved, and the tenets of the Golden Age are not closely followed. There is too much reliance on coincidence, detectives missing details, failure to follow up clues, and mysterious figures who appear to wrap up the plot at the end.
It is a trifling triumph to select one of Fletcher’s detective stories as his best. From The Amaranth Club (1926) to The Yorkshire Moorland Murder (1930), there is not much to choose from, except for The Middle Temple Murder.
While the plot is fairly pedestrian, many of Fletcher’s defects are absent. It is one of his earliest works, and attracted the first real notice for Fletcher in the United States when it was championed by Woodrow Wilson. The story concerns Frank Spargo, subeditor of the Watchman, who happens to be present when a bludgeoned body is found in the Middle Temple.
The hotshot reporter (he’s as bright as any latter-day Flash Casey) teams up with Ronald Breton, barrister, to follow the clues in this devious mystery. The victim is John Marbury, from Australia, who was struck down on his first night back in London after an absence of many years.
This photo-procedural novel is a case of complicated theft, legacy, parentage, and includes a suspected empty coffin. A major motif (as in many Fletcher tales) is railway travel- checking timetables; confirming alibis; zipping around to discover clues; getaways and pursuits.
Fletcher has been praised for his novels set in the English countryside, but the atmosphere in most of these is overwrought and the descriptions dull. Novels such as The Middle Temple Murder and The Charing Cross Mystery (1923) are vivid because most of the action takes place in the streets, byways, squares, stations, and buildings of London, and is reported in factual detail.
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.
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