July 2015


ARGOSY WEEKLY. 9 June 1934. The problem with collecting Argosy pulps, unless you want them only for some inborn collector’s urges and your life wouldn’t be the same without them, is that more than half of every issues is taken up with staggered installments of usually three different serials. You have to do a heap of collecting to put a string of consecutive issues together before you could read the complete story of all three.

   So why I did I read the first installment of “Pictured Rock,” by Frank Richardson Pierce, in this particular issue? Pure carelessness, that’s all. I wasn’t paying attention. It’s Part 1 of 5, and it never came out in book form, so there’s no chance I’ll ever get to finish it. I was closing in one page 22, where the next story started, before I began to think to myself, what’s going on? This story ends in two pages, and it’s barely begun.

   A fairly astute observation, that. But the story’s an interesting one, and I don’t regret reading the portion of it that I did. It’s about a young man raised by his uncle, a banker on the East Coast, who heads for the West when his father, thought to have been dead for 25 years, manages to send him a written request to come to see him before he dies. A story very much in the larger-than-life Max Brand western tradition.

   On page 22 begins a novelette by H. Bedford-Jones in his long-running series of adventures of one John Solomon, a London-based Cockney adventurer-agent of sorts who seems to have his fingers in all kinds of pies, including friends on the police force and perhaps even higher echelons. “John Solomon of Limehouse” is the first one of these tales that I’ve read, so anything anyone can say more about the character, please do.

   Solomon’s first recorded adventure dates back to 1914, plus or minus a year so, and the one in this issue of Argosy comes (I believe) toward the end of the run. It begins with a young chap named Carson newly arrived in London being taken for his great-uncle, a rather unlikable man of some wealth — ill-gotten, by all accounts — with many enemies. To get out of the scrape Carson finds himself in, he learns that he will need all of the assistance Solomon can give him.

   The story is well-told, with plenty of exotic and picturesque settings in the area of London along the docks, but it suffers from the fact that Solomon simply has too many resources for most bad guys to make a stand against him.

   The next novelette is by William Edward Hayes, who besides being the author of many stories for the pulps, also wrote three hardcover detective novels, one of which, Black Chronicle, was reviewed on this blog by Bill Deeck some three years ago.

   “The Dark Temple” is a story about the problems facing the men trying to build a railroad through the jungles of somewhere in Central of South America. There is a deadline, and an engineer named McAllister is called on by his good friend Captain Strickland to help. As soon as he arrives, though, McAllister knows he is in danger and worse, Cap has disappeared. Lots of action in this one, but what’s amusing is that every time McAllister finds himself in a situation with no way out, it is a girl who comes to his rescue.

   I’m not a big fan of French Foreign Legion stories, but a writer named Georges Surdez wrote a lot of them for Argosy and other pulp magazines, and well enough that they seem to be based on personal experience. The short story “Another Man’s Chevrons” is about a soldier who is not noted for his bravery, but when it counts, he does what he needs to do.

   Next comes another serial installment, this one called “The Terror,” by Eustace L. Adams, which is about an air pirate with dreams of dominating the world, if I read the blurb correctly. I’d like to read this one sometime if I could, but it was never published in book form. He did write a boys’ book called Pirates of the Air (Grosset and Dunlap, 1929), featuring, I am told, mid-Atlantic floating landing platforms. According to ISDb, these are not the same two stories.

   One short story comes before the next long serial installment, this one entitled “All Equal,” by Foster-Harris about a Wild West shoot-out taking place instead in an oil rig camp, one with a twist that makes it worth reading.

   To wind up this issue is Part 4 of 6 of a novel by F. V. W. Mason called “The Barbarian.” This is a historical novel taking place in ancient Carthage. Ordinarily I find such fiction dry as bones, but I think Mason, a prolific novelist and very well known in his day, was someone who could make stories in such settings readable in everyday language. I didn’t read any of this one, but you can check out his Wikipedia page here.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


  SHIRLEY JACKSON – We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Viking, hardcover, 1962. Popular Library M2041, paperback, 1963.

   I first read this as an unpopular and maladjusted fourteen-year-old hooked on old monster movies, and I remember well how intensely I related to the outcast narrator of this compelling short novel. Now fifty-some years later, older and beloved by all for my acts of goodness and heroism, I come back to it again and find it just as forceful and fascinating as ever.

   Castle reads like To Kill a Mockingbird would have if Scout had been Boo Radley’s little sister. The narrator sets the tone in the first lines: “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood, I am eighteen years old and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf….”

   Mary Katherine (“Merricat”) Blackwood may be eighteen, but her narrative voice is more like that of an obsessive-compulsive 12-year-old, and it turns out the Blackwoods (the surviving ones anyway) live in a big old house just outside a small town where they have been despised and taunted by the locals ever since most of the family was killed in a mass poisoning years earlier.

   Merricat’s older sister Constance was tried and acquitted of the murder, but a heavy cloud of suspicion was never dispelled, and the two women endure their ostracism as best they can while they care for their weak and aging Uncle Julian, who is one of the most brilliantly-drawn characters you will ever encounter in fiction—when he speaks in the book, you can almost hear Ralph Richardson’s bluff irony, and laugh at his semi-unintentional gaffes.

   The twists in the plot are few and simple (this was before the days when a novel had to run at least 300 pages) and the solution to the “mystery” is just as obvious as it was back when I was fourteen. There is even a point where this book takes a very bleak and depressing view of humanity as a whole.

   But stick with it. The ending is poignant, heart-warming and blood-chilling, all at the same time, a remarkable feat in a book you should not miss.

               

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


MOVING VIOLATION. 20th Century Fox, 1976. Stephen McHattie, Kay Lenz, Eddie Albert, Lonny Chapman, Will Geer, Dick Miller. Director: Charles S. Dubin.

   If you’re looking for the type of movie that they simply don’t make anymore, look no further than Moving Violation, a car chase exploitation filmed produced by Roger and Julie Corman. Directed by Charles S. Dubin, who is mainly known for his work in television, the alternatingly thrilling, humorous, and sad film doesn’t have the most complex of plots. But it makes up for it in (no spoilers here) some great car chase sequences.

   The story follows Detroit autoworker-turned-drifter Eddie Moore (Stephen McHattie) and small town girl Cam Johnson (Kay Lenz) as they attempt to flee a corrupt lawman, one Sheriff Leroy Rankin (Lonny Chapman), who’s hot on their trail. It’s the couple on the run trope that we’re all familiar with.

   That Moore is an autoworker is no minor plot point. Rather, it’s instrumental to the pro-labor, anti-authority theme that permeates the film. It’s even reflected in the movie’s theme song, a rather catchy track by Phil Everly which can be heard here:

   Moore, the guitar-playing outlaw is the film’s anti-hero. The cops and the local oil magnate are, to varying degrees, the movie’s antagonists. It’s as if the movie is one giant middle finger to authority. Not the most profound of messages and one that may not have all that much depth, but it’s one that certainly was deliberately constructed and designed to appeal to a working class white audience in the mid-1970s.

  JONATHAN VALIN – Dead Letter. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1981. Avon, paperback, 1982. Dell paperback, 1994.

   The focus in this, the third adventure of Cincinnati private eye Harry Stoner, is academia, and the scurrilous sort of in-fighting and backstabbing that it is rumored goes on in such circles. As one of the characters puts it on page 197, “They don’t make very good human beings, scholars. They don’t have it in them to care for anything but themselves and their work.”

   I could argue the point, I think, but hardly with 100 per-cent conviction. The fact remains that this case of Harry Stoner’s is at once his most confusing and his most involving. Neither his client, a professor who believes his Marxist-environmentalist daughter has stolen a secret government document from him, nor the daughter herself are quite what Stoner takes them at first to be.

   Professor Daryl Lovingwell loves his daughter Sarah, or so he says. After his death, Stoner discovers an immense hatred between the two, and yet, although he had liked his client, with Kate gone (the library cop Stoner had become so involved with in Final Notice), the inevitable begins to happen between Sarah and himself.

   In a number of ways, this case is a tough one for Stoner to fathom, and even more so for the reader. Characterizations are deliberately murky, sketched from a multitude of conflicting viewpoints. The entire affair is filled with a moral ambiguity almost unnatural for a detective story.

   And so this is unlikely to be everyone’s favorite Harry Stoner novel — there is not much here to brighten the overall gloom. If it should come to it, however, a second reading will reveal how tightly structured this tale actually is. While it may not have been totally visible the first time, above all what it will demonstrate is that as an author, Jonathan Valin knows exactly what it is that he’s up to.

Rating: A minus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982 (very slightly revised)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


TAYLOR McCAFFERTY – Ruffled Feathers. Haskell Blevins #2. Pocket, paperback original, 1992.

   This is a silly book. Silly. Haskell Blevins is an ex-Louisville cop (if it’s explained why he left I missed it) who now is the only private detective in his tiny (pop. 1511) home town of Pigeon Fork, Kentucky. How he makes a living there is mercifully unexplained.

   He’s hired by the town’s millionaire, a poultry raiser (shades of East Texas’ own Bo Pilgrim), to protect his daughter, for whom he has received a ransom note, but who hasn’t been kidnapped. The chicken magnate, an irascible and thoroughly repulsive sort, is killed, and we’re off.

   Off target and off base is what we are. The Blevins books are supposed to lighthearted and amusing. Not. Try dumb. The level of humor is indicated by the fact that the narrator, who nearly always speaks to you in a folksy (it’s to be queasy) but perfectly grammatical manner, four or five times over the course of the book throws in lines (directed to you, the reader) like, “Of course, you’ve got to watch them chickens…” Supposed to reinforce his country image, I guess.

   Stupid mystery, stupid characters, and an insult to the intelligence of all with IQs in triple digits. If you think this is funny, ABC sitcoms were made for you.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.

      The Haskell Blevins series —

1. Pet Peeves (1990)

2. Ruffled Feathers (1992)
3. Bed Bugs (1993)
4. Thin Skins (1994)
5. Hanky Panky (1995)
6. Funny Money (2000)

COLIN DEXTER – Last Bus to Woodstock. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1975. Pan, UK, paperback, 1977. St. Martin’s, US, hardcover, 1975. Bantam, US, paperback, 1988. Many later reprint editions, in both hardcover and soft. TV movie: ITV/PBS, 1988.

   I’m not sure if I was able to come up with the earliest paperback edition to appear in the US, but if I’m correct, it wasn’t until the TV series began that Bantam published one in this country. If so, and I’m not entirely surethat it is, I think it may well be a case of US publishers thinking that the Inspector Morse books may have been too “British” to be successful over here.

   It what follows I am going to be, I’m sorry to say, rather negative about this book, and to explain why, or to attempt to do so, I’m going to have to say things that you may easily find me giving away too much about the ending — or in other words, whodunit.

   Back in 1975 I was given a copy of the first US edition to review, and I gave up after no more than a chapter. I don’t remember exactly why. It just didn’t appeal to me. A first novel by an unknown British writer? Except for Agatha Christie and a handful others, Ngaio Marsh for one, back then I wasn’t much interested in British detective fiction. I think I’ll go on read something else, thank you.

   This time around, knowing the success the Morse books have gotten since then, I made it all the way through, but not happily. The case begins with a girl’s body being found in the courtyard of a pub somewhere in the general vicinity of Oxford. Because she was partially undressed, it is assumed it was also a case of rape.

   And therein lies the first problem. It is assumed she was raped, but Morse and his new associate, Sergeant Lewis, do no more than assume, and fairly soon it is taken as fact. Neither Morse nor Lewis are interested in forensics, even what was the state of the art in 1975. No fingerprints, no close examination of the body, no anything. Eventually reports are referred to, but nothing of importance is relayed to the reader.

   The whole investigation, in fact, is a muddle. Morse works on intuition, instinct, guesswork and lechery, not necessarily in that order. One does not get the impression that Morse (or his author) was ever in a police station. He has a good name in the department, but damned if I know why.

   And here comes the crux of the matter. After meeting the roommate of one of the suspects, he falls immediately in lust with her, and for some reason, she for him. The “romance” that follows — she is already engaged to another — is straight out of the world of fantasy. He daydreams about her constantly, and she about him. (I also do not like the constantly shifting viewpoints from which the story is told. In the right hands, the story of a police investigation could be told this way, but this time around, it simply adds to the clutter.)

   And Dexter depends on clutter to hide the killer’s identity, not that he succeeds. I knew who the killer was going to be as should as he/she appeared on stage, and I’m sure you will, too. It takes nine pages of solid type for Morse to expound upon the solution, however, most of which is based on facts that either the reader didn’t know about before, or facts that should have come up for discussion between Morse and Lewis long before page 195, if anything like a proper police investigation had been done.

   My rating: Not Very Good. Given how many other works of detective fiction there are in the world to read, it’s not very likely I’ll give another adventure of Inspector Morse a try. And do you know what rankles the most? That the story takes place in around the Oxford area, and you’d almost never know it. It could’ve taken place almost anywhere in suburban, not big city England. What a waste of potential.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


HIGH LONESOME. LeMay-Templeton / Eagle-Lion Films, 1950. John Barrymore Jr., Chill Wills, John Archer, Lois Butler, Kristine Miller, Basil Ruysdale, Jack Elam and Dave Kashner. Written and directed by Alan LeMay.

   Alan LeMay is best remembered as the author of the novel basis for The Searchers (1954) but he started writing Westerns in 1927 and did his first Western (sorta) screenplay in 1940: Cecil B. DeMille’s Northwest Mounted Police. In between times he authored or co-authored screenplays for Along Came Jones (1945), The Walking Hills (1949), and others worthy of note, and in 1950 he turned his hand to directing as well as writing High Lonesome.

   LeMay’s direction is serviceable, but it’s not the sort of work that would worry John Ford. His story, on the other hand, is definitely intriguing. The movie opens with young Barrymore pursued by two shadowy figures on horseback who (we learn later) involved him in a murder. Caught pilfering a cookhouse, he’s tentatively adopted/detained by rancher Basil Ruysdale and his daughters (Butler & Miller) and nick-named “Cooncat” which is the only name we ever know him by, and surely the most unlikely moniker ever given a Western hero.

   No one completely trusts him though (and with good reason: Barrymore’s playing verges on hysteria) and when he tells them about the killing (now about a week old) they take him to the scene of the alleged crime, only to find it deserted, disused and dust-covered. Moreover, when he describes his shadowy pursuers, the others immediately recognize the description as that of two local outlaws—who were killed in a range war fifteen years earlier.

   Well that’s a nice creepy start, and LeMay builds on it well; when a real murder is discovered, Cooncat is naturally blamed and almost lynched. The mysterious dead men (Jack Elam and Dave Kashner) flit about in the shadows while prairie discord and ranchland romance spread across the plains in equal measure and we get a couple more murders, one of them pretty shocking even by today’s standards, whatever those are.

   The acting here is uniformly good, but it’s mostly a case of able players taking advantage of well-written character parts. John Drew Barrymore (billed here as John Barrymore Jr.) goes over the top too often, but he’s got that Youthful Angst thing down nicely, and he even looks a bit like young Sean Penn. Basil Ruysdale (you might remember him as the Confederate reverend leading his child-soldiers against John Wayne’s cavalry in The Horse Soldiers — or the befuddled detective who loses his shirt to Harpo in The Coconuts) projects real authority as the rancher/patriarch; Lois Butler conveys vulnerable adolescence nicely, and it goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that Jack Elam creeps around with appropriate loathsomeness.

   Hey! Come to think of it, howcum nobody ever made a movie where Jack Elam and Peter Falk played brothers?

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


SIGN OF THE PAGAN. Universal International, 1954. Jeff Chandler, Jack Palance, Ludmilla Tchérina, Rita Gam, Jeff Morrow, George Dolenz, Eduard Franz, Allison Hayes, Alexander Scourby. Screenplay: Oscar Brodney & Barré Lyndon. Director: Douglas Sirk.

   I had somewhat higher hopes for Sign of the Pagan. I like Douglas Sirk as a director, and I greatly appreciate both Jeff Chandler and Jack Palance as actors who worked well in different genres. The way the two actors play off each other’s strengths in Robert Aldrich’s idiosyncratic war film, Ten Seconds To Hell (1959), however, simply doesn’t exist in this middling costumer.

   Although it’s an overall forgettable film, Sign of the Pagan does open strongly, transporting the viewer to a mystical past, an era of Romans, Byzantines, and Huns. Palance portrays Attila, whose thirst for power and glory knows no bounds. Opposing him is a Roman centurion portrayed by Chandler. There are costumes a plenty and an atmosphere, although stagey, of intrigue. But the magic doesn’t last.

   For a film whose poster promises a lot of action and adventure, the movie is remarkably talky. One has to sit through a lot of scenes involving court intrigue and Attila’s fretting about whether or not to attempt to conquer Rome before finally arriving at a final battle sequence which, while enjoyable enough to watch, is simply not long or elaborate enough to make up for a lot of empty dialogue that preceded it.

A PERFECT MURDER. Warner Brothers, 1998. Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen, David Suchet, Sarita Choudhury, Constance Towers. Based on the play “Dial M for Murder” by Frederick Knott. Director: Andrew Davis.

   As the credits say, the screenplay was based on “Dial M for Murder,” and of course it then goes without saying that the play was previously filmed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock), and yes, I know. I said it anyway. I haven’t seen the earlier film since I was 12, so there is nothing in what follows that should in no way be taken as a comparison of one versus the other.

   So. To begin with, they couldn’t have cast anyone more perfect than Michael Douglas to play Steven Taylor, the wealthy investment banker (the words slimy, cold and reptilian also come to mind) who finds that his equally rich wife (equally well cast and played by a most delectable Gwyneth Paltrow) is cheating on him.

   And with all his margin calls coming due, what does Mr. Taylor do? He hires his wife’s lover (Viggo Mortensen), using a bit of very coercive blackmail, to kill his wife. It seems that the lover’s background is very shady himself, providing Taylor (Douglas) with the outline of a perfect plan, one fine tuned to the smallest detail, except for one thing, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.

   Right now I’m on the fence as to how much I should tell you, but I figure that you know that no one as lovely and innocent (or is she?) as Gwyneth Paltrow will be killed. What follows is an almost perfect example of cat-and-mouse playing, with all three major characters as major participants. Of these, Virgo Mortensen has the most challenging role. He is convincing as Paltrow’s lover, then equally so as her husband’s willing accomplice (more or less). Willing, that is.

   I don’t know how I managed to miss this the first time around. This is my kind of movie. I discovered it earlier this week taped many years ago off one of the premium movie channels (and I mean tape) and never watched by me until now. The story is extremely clever, one of those intricate set-up stories they don’t seem to make any more. Perhaps because it’s too difficult to do.

   The first two thirds of the movie are very well done, even to the extent of being overdone (e.g., the lingering shot of the roast beef in the oven), but by movie’s end, I had more questions than I had answers.

   I hate it when that happens. With just a little more care in the details, the movie could have been perfect. As is, no. There’s a lot to like, especially the ending, but an well-constructed murder mystery like this one has to be perfect from beginning to end, and in between as well.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


DANIEL WOODRELL – The Ones You Do. St. Bruno #3. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1992. Pocket, paperback, 1998. Also published in The Bayou Trilogy, hardcover, Mulholland Books, 2011.

   The first two books set in St. Bruno (Under the Bright Lights and Muscle for the Wing) have featured Rene Shade, a policeman there, as the protagonist; and his brother Tip, a semi-shady character who owns a bar, appeared in a supporting role. (A third brother was and is again seen only peripherally.) Both are featured prominently again, but here their long-absent father, John X. Shade, joins the cast and provides the focus for the tale.

   John X. is on the run. His young wife has left him, stealing a large chunk of money John was keeping for a local hardcase. The hardcase is neither understanding, forgiving, nor non-lethal, so John flees with his 10 year old daughter, Etta (who was left behind by the absconding wife), back to what he hopes is the comparative safety of St. Bruno.

   His past is hot on his trail, though, in the person of the hardcase, Lunch Pumphrey. All of the Shade clan figure prominently in the story, as does Rene’s love from past books, Nicole. The ending will surprise you, I think.

   The Ones You Do strays farther from genre norms than the first two, though Woodrell has never really written standard mystery, detective or crime stories. They are crime novels in that crimes are committed, but more than anything else they are books about people on the underside of life, people who are rough as the proverbial cob. They are rarely nice people, but they are real; if you were raised up semi-rough and rural you ll probably recognize one or two of them.

   Not all of them ring true, though — I found the sketching of the vanished wife almost cartoonish, and the relationship between Tip and a pregnant field-hippie wasn’t particularly convincing, either.

   I have long felt that Woodrell is underappreciated. His stories of the Louisiana bayou country and people have a gritty, realistic feel. The tone is wry and ironic, and he has a genuine talent with words. With the caveat that the language is rough and the people rougher. I highly recommend all three books.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.

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