May 2015


THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


FRANCES DUNCOMBE – Death of a Spinster. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1958.

   Dee Galbraith, trained as an anthropologist but working part time as bookkeeper in a charity consignment shop in Byfield Center in upper Westchester, decides to do an anthropological study of the town. A woman who also worked in the shop but whom Mrs. Galbra!th had never met commits suicide there.

   From the data that Mrs. Galbraith accumulates in her survey, it becomes evident to her, though not to the police nor, I confess, to me, that the woman was actually murdered.

   Byfield Center is fairly inbred, close knit at the top, protective of certain of its own, and well supplied with gossips. Mrs. Galbraith’s views become widely known, her step-daughter is bad|y injured by a hit-and-run driver, and an attempt is made on her own life. Someone obviously thinks she knows more than she actually does.

   The novel — a first and, unfortunately, a last — is well written, and Mrs. Galbraith is a most believable heroine. She is intelligent but subject to blind spots. She does go to the police, but when they fail to appreciate her information, she continues to investigate.

   All of her actions, with the exception of her eluding her protectors at the end of the book, are reasonable — that is to say, human and thus occasionally fallible. This is not a novel with a puzzle that most readers will be able to solve, but it is worth reading to discover Dee Galbraith and an interesting study of a small community.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 4, July-August 1987.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


TWO-FISTED. Paramount, 1935. Lee Tracy, Roscoe Karns, Grace Bradley, Kent Taylor, Gall Patrick, Akim Tamiroff, Florence Lake, Irving Bacon. Director: James Cruze. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   A nifty little programmer with Tracy as the fight manager of none-two-swift (except in hitting the canvas) Roscoe Karns. Hap and Chick agree to take a temporary job in the home of a millionaire whose rascally brother-in-law wants to get custody of his sister’s young son.

   Hap will train Clint (Kent Taylor) to be a fighter and stand up to his brother-in-law. Then Clint, falling from grace and landing in a bottle, bets with brother-in-law George that Chick can defeat his chauffeur in a friendly boxing match, whose outcome will decide the custody of the boy.

   An attractive cast, with Grace Bradley as Maria, the maid for whom Chick falls, a cute and funny foil for Karns.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


SUZANNE ARRUDA – The Leopard’s Prey. NAL, hardcover, January 2009; trade paperback, September 2009.

   “It comes at you with madness in its pale yellow eyes, Simba Jyke.”

   Among the more entertaining mystery series to emerge in this century, Suzanne Arruda’s books about female flyer and photojournalist American Jade del Cameron, aka Simba Jyke, meaning lioness, set in British East Africa post WWI, are an entertaining mix of adventure, action, solid detection, exotic location, and early feminism.

   Like Hemingway, Jade drove an ambulance in Italy during the war, and has come home to British East Africa where she has an ongoing romance with bush pilot and former ace Sam Featherstone. As The Leopard’s Prey, the fourth entry in her adventures, opens she is working for the Perkins and Daley Zoological Company helping to collect and capture animals for zoos (don’t go all politically correct, this is taking place in the era of Frank Buck, Clyde Beatty, and great white hunters of the Hemingway vein.

   The stories are historically accurate and feminist or not, Jade is a woman of her time, taking the job to keep the animals from extinction), as the jacket says: “…lassoing zebras, chasing down a rhinoceros, and posing as bait for a leopard.” She even has a pet cheetah named Biscuit, again not untrue to the era or the type.

   There is a murder of course. Jade’s friends Maggie and Neville Thompson find the body of a merchant, and her lover Sam is implicated, so Jade naturally has to clear his name, which leads to cracking Sam’s plane up in the African wilderness and a long trek to safety where savage beasts are the least of her problems. All this leads to being cornered by a murderer planning to use a killer leopard as a murder weapon, and an aging lion named Percy with a mind of his own.

   “My mother says you must watch for danger in a killer’s eyes.” a native warns Jade. She just misunderstands which killer the old native woman means, to her almost fatal chagrin.

   Jade is not a particularly cerebral sleuth, hardly Miss Marple in a leather flying jacket and jodhpurs. She has an Indiana Jones streak, though she is never presented as a super woman or comic book heroine. Her adventures are well within the laws of probability, given that she stumbles on more than her fair share of adventure and bodies while moving from one job to the next.

   Her attitudes are enlightened, but not unknown in that time frame, yet another example of Arruda’s research. She’s something of a mix of Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, and Pancho Barnes with a bit of Pearl White and Nyoka the Jungle Girl thrown into the mix along with a grown up Nancy Drew.

   The series captures the Africa of the era, from the adventure and romance of Out of Africa to the high and low social whirl of White Mischief, with nods to Hemingway’s African tales and memoirs. The action is well handled, and Jade is no mean sleuth. Like Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands mysteries Arruda never lets the mystery take a back seat to the adventure aspect of the books, and like that series, the world Jade moves in is richly portrayed and researched from the attitudes and politics of that world to the details of cameras, planes, and clothes.

   Arruda’s style is simple and straightforward, literate, but never complex and deceptively easy to read.

   I haven’t been able to follow the series beyond this one, but the first four books remain fresh and original, with green-eyed Jade a heroine you can root for. The books have the quality of an old fashioned adventure film like Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Too Hot to Handle, with the same crackling dialogue, wit, and action, but there is a well done mystery at the heart and a clever heroine/sleuth to pull for.

          The Jade del Cameron Series

Mark of the Lion (2006)
Stalking Ivory (2007)

The Serpent’s Daughter (2008)
The Leopard’s Prey (2008)
The Treasure of the Golden Cheetah (2009)

The Crocodile’s Last Embrace (2010)
The Devil’s Dance (2015)

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


ARIZONA RAIDERS. Columbia Pictures, 1965. Audie Murphy, Michael Dante, Ben Cooper, Buster Crabbe, Gloria Talbott. Director: William Witney.

   To enjoy Arizona Raiders, you’ll just make it past the first ten minutes or so. Then you’re free to discover that you’ll find that it’s pretty decent, if formulaic, Western. But first you’ll have to put up with an on-screen narrator breaking the fourth wall, as well as voice-over narration, all designed to provide the viewer with historical background about Quantrell’s Raiders. It’s all highly unnecessary and honestly one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a film of this nature.

   But don’t let me give you the impression it’s not worth watching, because the movie has quite a bit going for it.

   Directed by William Witney and shot in Technicolor and Techniscope, Arizona Raiders features Audie Murphy as Clint, a former member of Quantrell’s Raiders, now working for the Arizona Rangers. He’s tasked with rooting out the remnants of his former gang, which has holed itself up in a Yaqui village in preparation for a raid on a gold shipment.

   Legendary serial film star Buster Crabbe portrays Captain Andrews, Clint’s nominal boss. With Witney at the helm, there’s plenty of action, including some beautifully choreographed fight sequences. Murphy wasn’t the greatest of Western actors, but he more than holds his own here. He certainly does appear tired and world weary, something that only adds to the film’s rather downbeat, pessimistic tone. There are a couple of particularly bloody scenes in Arizona Raiders, further delineating how much Westerns had changed since the time of Roy and Trigger.

  FRANK KANE – Time to Prey. Dell 1st Edition B159, paperback original; 1st printing, November 1960. Cover art by Harry Bennett. Reprinted as Dell 8924, paperback, 1966.

   Back in the day, circa 1958-1963, I polished down books like this at the rate of one a day. It was certainly helpful, then, that publishers put them out at very nearly the same rate, and a lot of them were Johnny Liddell private eye novels, just like this one.

   This isn’t one I remember reading, but don’t count on my lack of memory meaning anything. There isn’t anything in this one that stands out now, and I doubt if it would have back then. It starts out being a little different, with Johnny apparently getting caught up with a gang smuggling Communist Chinese agents into the country, but without a lot of notice, the story gradually converts itself into a run-of-the-mill tale of a longshoremen’s racket along the New York City waterfront.

   The villain makes himself known early on, so this is no detective story. Liddell does a good job using his brain as well as his fist, though, working members of the mob against each other, one at at time. He doesn’t even have a client. It’s personal, with the deaths of two young women having occurred because of him, one incidentally, but the other he’s directly responsible for.

   The story’s pure puffery, all the more so by the ineptitude of his primary adversary, who [spoiler alert] sets up a frame for Johnny for one of the girl’s deaths, but does not bother to be sure that the latter has no alibi for the time of the killing.

   If Kane ever describes Johnny in detail, I missed it, at least in this book. Based on his actions and the way people react to him, I picture him as a Robert Ryan type. Ruggedly good-looking but tough as nails when he needs to be.

DEATH FLIES EAST. Columbia Pictures, 1935. Conrad Nagel, Florence Rice, Raymond Walburn, Geneva Mitchell, Robert Allen, Oscar Apfel, Miki Morita. Based on a story by Philip Wylie (American Magazine, July 1934). Director: Phil Rosen.

   A neat if not overly sophisticated murder mystery that takes place on an airplane heading for New York City from California. Dead is a police detective, found slumped in his seat, poisoned. Most of the passengers appear to be ordinary businessmen, plus one deaf woman who is on board primary for comic relief — she can’t hear a word anyone says.

   But also on board is Evelyn Vail (Florence Rice), a nurse and a recent parolee from prison — convicted of complicity in another poisoning case. But she has a definite reason for being on the plane: a convict on death row at Sing Sing can confess to the killing, if only she can get there in time.

   More. A gentle suave gentleman (Conrad Nagel) who sits across the aisle from her and assist her is taking a secret formula to Washington, and he takes the small briefcase he is carrying it in everywhere he goes.

   Everyone appears innocent enough until the murder occurs. Then everyone begins to look suspicious, thanks to some decent writing and even better camera work. A minor film, but an enjoyable one. I only wish I had a better copy, but who restores old, unknown movies like this one?

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


  DAVID GOODIS – Nightfall. Messner, hardcover, 1947. Reprinted as The Dark Chase. Lion #133, paperback, 1953. Other reprints include: Lion LB131, paperback, 1956; Black Lizard, paperback, 1986; Centipede Press, softcover (introduction by Bill Pronzini).

  NIGHTFALL. Columbia, 1957. Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith, James Gregory, Jocelyn Brando, Rudy Bond. Screenplay by Sterling Silliphant. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

   The book is really too quirky to make a satisfactory thriller, but if you’re just looking for a fine read, you can’t beat it.

   The story opens with Jim Vanning, a commercial artist eking out a living in New York City while hiding out from the law and a trio of very personable bank robbers who are interested in the loot from a job that Vanning inadvertently disappeared with and then lost.

   Like I say, this is just too quirky to work out as a crime story, and purists may lose interest quickly as the story spins out one unlikely move after another. There’s a cop straight out of Woolrich, with his own way of working and nothing else to do but follow Vanning around for months at a time; a girl who falls for him and even believes his cockamamie story for no apparent reason; and a plot twist that defies all logic. I could go on, but you get the point; if you’re looking for realism or even plausibility, this ain’t for you.

   For those who can relate to Goodis’s own personal universe however, it’s a treat. Not as dark and self-defeatist as the later books, but full of that sense of a small man struggling against a very big and very dark universe.

   Goodis’s unique gift was in seeing heroism in the least of us, He didn’t ennoble his bums, winos and working stiffs; he simply made heroes of them, and somehow this seems more gratifying (and much less condescending) than the efforts of many better-respected and more overtly socially conscious writers. His people come out of the gutters to live on the pulpy page, and I enjoy him all the more for it.

   Nightfall was written just after Goodis’s popular success with Dark Passage, but it wasn’t filmed for another ten years, when Columbia showed the good sense to hire writer Sterling Silliphant, who had already adapted Five Against the House (1958) and would go on to The Lineup (’58), and got Jacques Tourneur — of Cat People (1942) and Out of the Past (’48) — to direct.

   Together Silliphant and Tourneur manage to leech the improbabilities out of the story while keeping big tasty chunks of Goodis’s sharp dialogue and his more-than-pulp characterizations.

   Brian Keith is particularly effective as a thoughtful bank robber, played off perfectly against Rudy Bond’s dumb-but-sensitive killer. In the leads, Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft carry the less colorful parts nicely, but they pale in comparison to James Gregory and Jocelyn Brando as a patient detective and his loving wife.

   Silliphant also manages to throw in a nifty finale, with a Mexican stand-off in snow-bound Wyoming and a serial style cliff-hanger as Ray and Bond struggle aboard a gargantuan snow plow headed right for the good guys. Maybe it ain’t in the book, but it provides a lively cap to a film that captures something of Goodis’s compelling style.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THUNDERING HOOFS. FBG, 1924. Fred Thomson, Fred Huntley, Charles Manes, Ann May, Carrie Clark Eard, Willie Fung, Silver King. Director: Albert S. Rogell. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   Fred Thomson films are rare indeed. Thomson was married to noted screenwriter Frances Marion and died before the advent of sound films. Willie Fung is a familiar face from sound films, but the real co-star is Silver King, Thomson’s horse.

   In addition to the superb action sequence in which Thomson stops a runaway stage (and injured himself so severely by falling under the horses that the film was completed by stunt man Yakima Canutt), a sequence shows Thomson’s character’s father slipping from Silver King and dying, with a quick cut to a staged shot of Silver King kneeling by a roadside grave marked by a crude cross.

   A good friend’s unforgettable comment was his curiosity about why the footage showing the horse burying the father was cut. In spite of this irreverent comment that broke me up, the film is a top-notch western. I am convinced that had Thomson made more surviving films, he would have made it to the pantheon that includes Tom Mix, Tim McCoy and Buck Jones.

INTO THE DARKNESS: Investigating Film Noir.          




   The course runs concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” programming event—airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July. This is the deepest catalog of film noir every presented by TCM (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”

   For more information, click here.

   Thanks and a tip of the hat to Michael Shonk for passing the info along.

EILEEN DEWHURST – There Was a Little Girl. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1986. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1984.

   Eileen Dewhurst is an author new to me, so I started looking up what I could find out about her and her mystery fiction. First of all, she was born in 1929 and is apparently still living. One source says: “Eileen Dewhurst was born in Liverpool, read English at Oxford, and has earned her living in a variety of ways, including journalism. When she is not writing she enjoys solving cryptic crossword puzzles and drawing and painting cats.”

   I have found 25 mysteries that she has written. A few never appeared in this country, and there is a curious footnote to her book The Innocence of Guilt (Piatkus, 1991). Apparently Doubleday printed up copies in this country, but then they changed their minds and never sent them out for sale. Curious, but considering the whims of publishers, this is not particularly surprising.

   Some but not all of her book belong to various series. The case in hand is solved by Detective Inspector Neil Carter; he appeared in four others, three before this one, and one afterward. Inspector Tim Le Page appears in three books, all coming after this one. Phyllida Moon, an actress who moonlights as a private eye, appears in nine books. Helen Johnson, described in one source as the wife of a high member of British Intelligence, appears in two earlier mysteries, while someone named Humphrey Barnes crosses over into one Neil Carter book plus one of those that Phyllida Moon is in. The Neil Carter books may also overlap some of the Phyllida Moon books. Sorting all this out is beginning to sound lke a chore for another day.

   Enough background, perhaps. There are a couple of interesting aspects to There Was a Little Girl, and the first is the little girl herself, a 15-year-old schoolgirl whom we first see being sent off by train to London by her aunt for the weekend, and next as a murder victim – a prostitute Inspector Carter had previously chatted up in a bar for a short time and whom she telephoned for help just before her death, he arriving too late.

   Somehow, or is it my imagination, do the British do the messy sex-related mysteries better and/or more often than American authors do? Not the US hard-boiled version, but the “malice domestic” variety. If so, here’s another one.

   Another aspect is the marital status of Inspector Carter himself, which changes in Chapter 3 from single to married, and Dewhurst portrays the day, the ceremony, and the reception to perfection. A dreamlike panic.

   More. The wedding night. This has to be a first. Neil is hesitant to ask, but his new wife Cathy eagerly accepts. Instead of their regularly scheduled honeymoon location, off they go instead to Bellfield, the small town in the New Forest where the girl was from, where they do some incognito and continuing investigating on their own (department sanctioned), Neil not convinced that the man they have arrested for the murder is actually guilty.

   Query: Is this the first murder investigation conducted by a newly married couple on their honeymoon? And mind you, Cathy takes an active role in the case, an unofficial colleague as it were, allowing certain doors to open more easily than if Neil were on his own. In the process they find themselves embarrassed in how easily they are accepted by those who are (truthfully) suspects in the case.

   The author is very observant when it comes to human nature, and although this is not at all like one of Miss Marple’s detective puzzles, at least in terms of situation, I was reminded of Christie’s works more than once. Christie often made complex plotting look easy, however, and Dewhurst is just a little awkward at it, about which more I cannot say, but if you were to read this book and then go back and read one of the earlier chapters again, you will know what I mean

— July 2004

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