June 2016


DAN J. MARLOWE – Operation Counterpunch. Fawcett Gold Medal P3454, paperback original; 1st printing, February 1976.

   This 12th and last of Dan Marlowe’s Earl Drake “Man without a Face” series was a disappointment, starting with the front cover, where Drake appears misshapen and starting to become, dare I say it, paunchy. I also don’t care for books which finish up the action in a previous one, and this one takes some care to tidy up some loose ends from not one but two earlier ones, neither of which have I read.

   To wit: At the end of Operation Deathmaker, book #11, Hazel, Drake’s girl friend and constant companion, was hurt and in the hospital. This one starts with Drake breaking her out before she’s able to answer too many questions, using one of the most embarrassingly juvenile ways of accomplishing this that I can imagine.

   Also: the story in Operation Hammerlock, book #9, had Drake and Hazel ripping off a fabulously rich Mexican gangster. Now he wants revenge, and he doesn’t much care who gets in his way to get it.

   How Drake manages to find Don Luis Morales first and finish him off with all of his henchman is all that this story is about. Drake goes through the motions of changing his face and rest of his appearance every so often, but there’s really no reason to. No undercover espionage assignment this time around, no sneaky plot devices, no interesting characters, just a series that for whatever reason needed to be wound down, including in hindsight, a happy ending at least in sight for the pair.

   It’s a readable book, all right, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still mostly an empty and non-satisfying one.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


ALICE & CLAUDE ASKEW “Aylmer Vance and the Vampire.” First published in The Weekly Tale-Teller, UK, July 1914. Collected in Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer (Wordsworth, UK) as “The Vampire.” Anthologized several times over the years, including The Vampire Archives: The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published, edited by Otto Penzler. Available online here.

   Psychic detective Aylmer Vance was the brainchild of husband and wife writer duo Alice and Claude Askew, English authors who were tragically killed when a German submarine sank the ship they were traveling on in 1917. Like his more well known and esteemed counterpart, one Sherlock Holmes, Vance also had an assistant/sidekick who recounted his cases in narrative form. Enter Dexter, Vance’s “Watson,” who acts as “recorder of his strange adventures.”

   In “Aylmer Vance and the Vampire,” the reader learns of a most unusual case investigated by Vance and Dexter, one that involves a vampire and a witch’s curse and unravels less like a mystery and more like a Gothic supernatural tale. Although it’s not a particularly compelling work of detective fiction, the story does contain all of the major tropes of the then emerging modern vampire story.

   There are references to an ancient race, an exotic Continental locale, and the tension between ancient superstitions and modern rational thought and skepticism. There is also a castle, which serves as the locale for strange happenings, one which the narrator Dexter described as a “gloomy edifice” with “the great stone walls, the long corridors, gloomy and cold even on the brightest and warmest of days …”

   All told, “Aylmer and the Vampire” is a solidly constructed vampire story and one that deserves more recognition. While reading it, I couldn’t help but picture Peter Cushing portraying Aylmer Vance in my mind’s eye. That surely counts for something. Recommended.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS – Fatal Venture. Hodder & Stughton, UK, hardcover, 1939; Dodd Mead, US, hardcover 1939, as Tragedy in the Hollow. Popular Library #18, US, paperback, under the latter title, 1944.

   Perhaps another dubious entry here. Charles Bristow has a good idea: Buy a salvageable ship and set it up to cruise around the British Isles, visiting hard-to-reach attractions, at a price the average person can afford. As the scheme is developed, however, the ship is turned into a floating casino and priced accordingly.

   Although the ship is registered in France, the British Government is embarrassed by this flouting of their gambling proscription. Inspector French is asked to take a holiday on the.ship with his wife, Em, in the hope he will spot some irregularity and be able to halt the gambling. No irregularities occur, unfortunately, but there is a murder.

   Some criticize Crofts’s novels as being dull, a view with which I do not agree. Oh, sure, the prose is mostly pedestrian and occasionally the detailed confirmation or breaking of alibis can be a bit tedious, but on the whole, Crofts manages to hold at least my attention. Try this one, or one of his many others; you may agree.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 1990, “Vacation for Murder.”

Folk singer Patrick Sky’s first album, self-titled, was released in 1965:

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE GOLDEN SALAMANDER. General Film Distributors, UK, 1950. Eagle-Lion Classics, US, 1951. Trevor Howard, Anouk, Herbert Lom, Walter Rilla, Miles Malleson, Jacques Sernas, Wilfrid Hyde-White. Based on the book by Victor Canning. Director: Ronald Neame.

   Despite the occasionally languid pacing, The Golden Salamander is overall an enjoyably cerebral British thriller. Directed by Ronald Neame, the movie features Trevor Howard as David Redfern, an English archaeologist dispatched to Tunisia to recover Etruscan antiquities and bring them back to the United Kingdom. While in the exotic confines of North Africa, Redfern stumbles both into love with Anna, a local French girl (Anouk Ameee) and upon a criminal gun running enterprise.

   Much of the film deals with the ethical question of what is a man’s responsibility in the face of evil. Indeed, the titular golden salamander, albeit not a live one, has a prominent role in the movie. One of the antiquities Redfern (Howard) is meant to transport back to England is a statue of a salamander, and on the statue’s base is engraved a Greek aphorism about the necessity of not turning one’s eyes away from evil.

   This has an indelible impact on Redfern’s psyche. It propels him into a life-altering decision. He’s simply not going to pretend that he isn’t aware of the illicit gun running taking place around him. Rather, he’s going to confront it head on, danger be damned. This course of action will affect not just him, however. It will also impact the burgeoning romantic relationship between him and Anna.

   He’s also going to have to physically take on the cartel’s enforcer, a thuggish man by the name of Rankl (Herbert Lom). Corruption and murder envelop the couple as they make their way in and out of danger, ultimately forcing a showdown with the head of the crime syndicate whose identity may or may not surprise you.

   Although packaged as part of a Kino Classics British Noir box set, The Golden Salamander isn’t really what one would think typically think of as a film noir. There’s really no doomed protagonist and the setting is a small village in Tunisia and not the post-war neon-lit American urban landscape. It’s simply a darn good British crime film/thriller, one that’s by no means a classic, but is nevertheless worth your time.

HENRY KITCHELL WEBSTER – Who Is the Next? Perennial Library, paperback reprint, 1981. First edition: Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1931. Also: Garland, hardcover, 1976.

   For a book first published fifty years ago, Who Is the Next? is amazingly fresh and up-to-date. The subdued, unacknowledged love interest between a guardian and his much younger ward would not be played quite the same today, but Webster’s version of this scenario has an attraction that is both pleasing and frustrating, as it was meant to be then, and as it still is today.

   Nor would Camilla Lindstrom’s airplane be of the same model and vintage, but in the process of becoming a woman, there’s no better symbol of her budding independence, even today. Her childhood is in the process of disappearing, and as it does, her guardian, Prentiss Murray, realizes that he is falling in love with her.

   Well, of course it’s more than a love story. (Need you ask?) Camilla’s aged grandfather is murdered, and almost immediately afterward so is Miss Parsons, his newly acquired secretary and companion. Also soon on the scene is Camilla’s prodigal brother, and of course there are numerous mysterious strangers seen lurking around the estate.

   There is a good reliance on fate (on the part of the murderer), and some good detective work (on the part of the police). My only real complaint is that too much of the latter is done behind the scenes, and it comes out only in retrospect, at the end.

   But for mystery, vintage atmosphere, and romance, with one of the spunkiest heroines you’d ever want to meet, this book would be hard to beat. I read the last one hundred pages in twenty minutes. That’s three times my usual reading speed.

Rating:   A.

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


[UPDATE] 06-28-16.   This old review was first posted on this blog in December 2014. I finished reading the book a second time last night, and while I think everything I said about it the first time is true, I found that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much this time aroud.

   First of all, it really is more of an old-fashioned romance than it is a mystery, and the young girl in the story is one of the spunkiest heroines you’d ever want to meet. I think, in fact, perhaps she may have been the first heroine in a mystery novel to fly her own airplane, which turns out to be an integral part of the plot.

   Keep in mind that has been 35 years since I’d read the book the first time, and that I’d totally forgotten it. I had in fact forgotten that I’d posted this review on this blog, and that was less than two years ago. What bothered me this time is that (a) the mystery plot promises so much and delivers so little, and (b) it still take 30 pages to explain all of the coincidences that dovetail together so nicely to make a rather unsatisfying whole.

   Tastes change over the years, and while I still read this one with enjoyment, I didn’t have the same feeling of happy contentment I seem to have had when I finished it the first time.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER. Paramount Pictures, 1950. Alan Ladd, Phyllis Calvert, Paul Stewart, Jan Sterling, Jack Webb, Stacy Harris, Henry Morgan, George J. Lewis, David Wolfe. Screenplay by Richard Breen and Warren Duff. Directed by Lewis Allen.

  “You don’t have to build up to a murder, one good try and you’re there.”

  This exceptionally well done procedural noir set against the background of a post office investigation stars Alan Ladd as postal inspector Al Goddard, a tough no-nonsense investigator with a heart of lead, who is plunged into a dangerous undercover assignment when nun Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert) witnesses two killers, Joe Regas and George Soderquist (Jack Webb and Henry Morgan) dump the body of Post Office investigator Harry Gruber in an alley in La Porte, Indiana.

  The case expands as Goddard has to track down the nun and once he finds her, find the man she saw and spoke to in the dark alley, Soderquist. That’s complicated because Goddard begins to have human feeling about the nun and when Regas, who fears she saw him, tries to kill her, he starts to take things personally.

  Meanwhile, following the late Gruber’s lead, Ladd is led to Paul Ferrer (Stacy Harris), a Post Office truck driver, and a heist planned by Earl Boetticher (Paul Stewart) a hotel owner, Regas, and a team hoping to exploit a million dollar hole in Post Office security during a transfer of funds in Gary, Indiana. While still searching for Soderquist, who Regas has killed in the meantime, Ladd goes undercover hoping to nail the gang for Gruber’s murder or catch them in the act.

  Jan Sterling has a nice bit as Boetticher’s none too loyal girlfriend, Dodie: “You can put strings on good women or bad women, but you can’t put strings on lazy women.” She is at once slightly off key, a little dopey, and too smart for the men around her.

  Goddard (listening to music with her in her room): So that’s ‘Slow Train to Memphis?’

  Dodie (standing near him with a lazy sway: Hmm-mmm. You like it.”

  Goddard (taking her in his arms): It’s already given me a lift.

  As the deadline for the heist closes Goddard finds himself suddenly alone and one complication after another closing his door to get out alive including when Regas, obsessed that the nun saw him, kidnaps Sister Augustine.

  Regas: You look as if you lost your best friend.

  Goddard: I’m my best friend.

  Regas: That’s what I mean.

  This is the one, of course, where future Dragnet team Webb and Morgan play a pair of killers. Morgan’s fairly short-lived as a simple minded type who Webb kills with a pair of brass booties, all he has left of the son he hasn’t seen since infancy: “Why’d you do that Joe, I thought you liked me?” he asks just before Webb finishes him off.

  You may find yourself having to suppress and inappropriate laugh at one point when Webb impersonates a cop to lure Calvert into his car, but it isn’t the fault of the film. It doesn’t help he’s named Joe either.

  Well-acted all around, with Ladd, Stewart, Sterling, Webb, and in a short bit, Morgan outstanding, a sharp script by Richard Breen and Warren Duff, good location shooting and set pieces (the scene in the handball court is often copied and expanded on), and solid if straight forward direction by Lewis Allen, Appointment With Danger, is a tough smart noir film that lets Ladd humanize believably during the course of the film without getting too sticky or sentimental. There is more than enough suspense, and Sterling has a great final scene any film noir femme fatale would kill for, as an unsentimental survivor.

  It’s not top noir, but it is well above average and moves smoothly and smartly, with good dialogue to keep the thing lubricated.

I know very little about this pop rock group that was around for a short while in the early 1970s. They produced only one self-titled LP, which includes this song, written by Jesse Colin Young:

Members of the group are Michael Ballew (guitar, vocals), Danny Wilder (bass, piano, vocals), Lucky Floyd (drums, vocals), Mack Tubb (guitar, vocals).

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


VERA CRUZ. United Artists, 1954. Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Sarita Montiel, George Macready, Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Morris Ankrum, Charles Buchinsky. Screenplay: Roland Kibbee & James R. Webb, based on a story by Borden Chase. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   Films in which American or European mercenaries show up in Mexico at a time of revolutionary change and hire out their guns to one side or the other, or both simultaneously, can be considered a proper subgenre of the Western. Alternatively, they have all the hallmarks of adventure films: an exotic locale, a daring protagonist on a quest fraught with danger, a love interest that develops out of said journey, and, of course, some form of priceless object or treasure that the protagonist hopes to acquire.

   As fans of the Western genre know all too well, there are many – perhaps too many – Spaghetti Westerns, most of them made between 1965 and 1975, that fall into the “mercenaries in Mexico adventure film” subgenre. Released in 1954, the Robert Aldrich directed film Vera Cruz may rightfully considered a pioneer work in the aforementioned subgenre to which I just alluded.

   Both gritty and lavish, Vera Cruz takes some effort and patience to fully appreciate. Upon first glance, the rather cynical story isn’t particularly complex, but it’s got a lot going on underneath the surface that merits attention. Indeed, Francois Truffaut himself was both a critic and admirer of the film’s narrative structure in which motifs and sequences, such as Mexican revolutionaries surrounding the mercenaries and one partner rescuing another, are repeated throughout the film.

   In the wake of the American Civil War, former Confederate colonel and Louisiana plantation owner Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) ventures south to Mexico in search of profit. He’s willing to hire himself out to the highest bidder in the Franco-Mexican War in which Emperor Maximilian I (George Macready) is facing down a Juarista nationalist peasant revolt led General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum). Trane ends up joining forces with Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), a cynical, borderline nihilist gunfighter eager to double cross anyone who gets between him and his money.

   The plot follows the exploits of the two men as they guide a convoy filled with gold from Maximilian’s lavish palace to Vera Cruz. Along for the journey are a French princess (Denise Darcel) and a Maximilian loyalist (Cesar Romaro). Each is not exactly whom they seem to be, leading to a series of plots and double crosses, some of which do get a bit wearing on the viewer.

   What the film lacks in cohesion, it more than makes up for in sheer spectacle. There is something just so, well, cinematic about the movie. Indeed, the final battle sequence in which the mercenaries, along with their newfound Juarista allies, invade a government outpost is exceedingly well staged and photographed. The same goes for the final dramatic showdown between the two mercenaries. In a movie like this, there can only be one man left standing. One last matter for Western fans: look for Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and Jack Elam in supporting roles. They are great as expected.

CHARLES KNIEF – Emerald Flash. St. Martin’s, hardcover, April, 1999; paperback, May 2000.

   Opening paragraph:

   The first time I saw Margo Halliday she was stark naked, running for all she was worth down a Honolulu alley in the middle of the night.

   Telling the story is ex-SEAL and now Hawaii-based private eye John Caine. Emerald Flash is the third of four recorded adventures.

   Chasing Margo Halliday is her ex-husband:

   The big man jogged past and I dropped him with a flying kick, He went down easy but refused to let go of the pistol, so I broke his wrist and he gave it up. All the fight went out of him. He deflated like an octopus brought up on a lure and dropped into the bottom of a canoe, when it knew it was going to die.

   Caine doesn’t see Margo again until seven months later, when she is accused of killing her ex-husband. Not only that, but hard on her trail is a gang of Colombian thugs, and for good reason. They think she is somehow in possession of a fortune in stolen emeralds. She remembers Caine, and she calls on him for help.

   He does, but it isn’t easy. I was reminded of John D. MacDonald in a couple of ways, not only the obvious one, but Caine also has a philosophy of life very similar to that of a certain Travis McGee. But there is a difference: no matter how close he and Margo get as man and woman, they sleep in separate beds, and none of the McGee books had the same amount of firepower that is called upon in this one: rifles, grenades, Glocks, even an elephant gun.

   Somewhat toward the end of the book:

   It had been a year of extremes. I felt good and fit. My wounds all had healed. I had gone up against powerful enemies and had vanquished them all, including the one who had ordered my destruction.

   And now it was over.

   It’s not a perfect book. Too much of the story depends on things that happened in earlier ones, for example, and a long, lengthy portion of the book consists of Caine and Margo on the run, which with all of the aforementioned firepower is exciting enough for two or three books, but crammed into just this one, it somehow managed to slow the pace down rather than enhance it.

   On the other hand, when things are going a little slower, Caine manages to get along with a brain as well as brawn, and is as quick with a quip as Jon Stewart on a good night, and that’s very good indeed.

       The John Caine series —

Diamond Head (1996)
Sand Dollars (1998)
Emerald Flash (1999)
Silversword (2001)

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