FRANCES & RICHARD LOCKRIDGE – Murder Has Its Points. J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, 1961. Pocket, paperback, April 1984. (On the latter the two authors’ names are reversed.)
This one begins at a cocktail party at a Manhattan hotel and ends with an attempted shooting by a desperate killer in a suburban Connecticut mansion. Of the two settings, I liked the first one best. The party is hosted by book publisher Jerry North and is filled with all kinds of agents, movie reps, authors and literary critics, playwrights and actors. Following Pam North’s thoughts and broken bits of conversation as she tries to make her way across the room is worth the price of admission in itself:
Jerry wasn’t where he had been. He had been talking to a man who, from that distance, appeared to be Livingston Birdwell (Productions) who was half-giver of the party. He and Jerry, Pam suspected, might be asking each other why the hell? Now Birdwood — if it was Birdwood — was moving somberly toward the bar, and Jerry was not —
Toward the end of the party, one literary giant of an author comes storming up to another (but one who is more of a poseur), demanding satisfaction for a crushing review written by the latter of the former’s latest book. A short exhibition of fisticuffs breaks out. Before the day is out, the latter author is dead, shot in the head by what appears to be a random sniper, or so assume the police, since a series of similar events has been happening in recent days. It is New York City, after all.
But such, as it turns out, and not at all surprisingly to the reader, is not the case. It also turns out that the dead man had a entire host of enemies and therefore would-be killers, all of whom seem to have been on the scene or nearby. The ending (see above) is both rather prosaic and muddled — but not so badly as it seems at first — at least in comparison to this brilliantly choreographed opening.
Captain Bill Weigand of the Manhattan homicide squad is, as ever, on hand to help solve the case, but of course it is Pamela North who is the middle of everything at all times, including the attempted shooting up in suburban Connecticut.
The title of this novels comes from a bit of random conversation at the cocktail party. It is Pam’s answer to the question, why does her husband publish detective novels?
THE BLACK SWAN. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara, Laird Cregar, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, Anthony Quinn, George Zucco. Screenplay: Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini. Director: Henry King.
The Black Swan, a Technicolor swashbuckler par excellence, almost feels as if it were two distinct movies put together into one.
The “first,” which is far more enthralling, consists of the first fifty minutes or so of this 85-minute Henry King-directed film in which two pirates, Jamie Boy (Tyrone Power) and Captain Morgan (Laird Cregar) adjust to new lives as domesticated land guys running Jamaica. There’s court intrigue a plenty, lavish costumes, and a carefree, lighthearted atmosphere one would expect from an early 1940s swashbuckler adventure film: nothing too violent, but with just enough of an edge you keep the viewer engaged.
The “second” movie, as it were, revolves almost exclusively on the love-hate relationship between Jamie Boy and Lady Margaret (Maureen O’Hara). Problem is: up until the final scene, it feels much more like a hate-hate relationship. Indeed, there is almost no palpable chemistry between the two leads, all of which leads to some rather cringe-worthy scenes in which Jamie Boy attempts to woo the shrewish Lady Margaret who is, naturally, in love with Jamie Boy’s court rival. O’Hara looks as if she’s going through the motions, making her character a rather dour-looking presence. Why, one must ask, would the dashing Jamie Boy devote so much time and energy to capturing her heart? Surely, there’s many more proverbial fish in the Caribbean Sea.
Unlike O’Hara, Laird Cregar seems to be having a genuine blast in his role as the mighty Captain Morgan, former pirate and newly appointed Governor of Jamaica. His large presence, both figuratively and literally, towers over Power throughout the film. In many ways, his character’s story is far more compelling than that of the more graceful, more handsome Jamie Boy. The scene in which Morgan finally sheds his role as governor is fantastic. At last, he no longer has to wear those silly clothes and a wig and can be himself again!
JACK DOLPH – Murder Makes the Mare Go. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1950. Unicorn Mystery Book Club, 4-in-1 volume, hardcover reprint. No paperback edition.
On a two-year sabbatical, 35 year old Doc Connor twice a week has a clinic for the down-and-out. His primary interest, however, is horse racing. Thus, he is called upon by a horse trainer to check a horse, unfortunately already dead.
Doc suspects poison, rather than heart attack, and that’s what it turns out to be. Neither the trainer nor the horse’s owner, a nightclub operator, wants Doc to investigate, not that that stops him. Indeed, he goes on to discover that an elderly dishwasher at the nightclub died of glanders, which means be was around a horse with the disease or —
All of Dolph’s novels feature Doc Connor. From their titles, they also all deal with horse racing. If they are as good as this one, they are worth looking for.
Vintage paperback bibliographer extraordinaire Kenneth R. Johnson has just announced the completion of his latest project “Gothics with Genuine Fantasy Elements.” You can find it online here.
Back in the 1960s and 70 “gothic romances” were so popular that they formed their own publishing category. Hundreds if not a thousand or more titles were published, before interest in them by the reading public (mostly female) finally began to fade, and historical romances of the “bodice ripper” variety took over.
Most of the gothics that were published could also have been categorized as “romantic suspense,” but elements of fantasy and the supernatural were often hinted at. On occasion the hints were more than that, and a number of books included out and out elements of witchcraft, psychic magic, vampirism and so on.
This is where Ken’s annotated — and illustrated! — checklist comes in. It has to have been quite a job: finding the books, determining first of all of they were actually published as gothics, and then reading them sufficiently enough to determine whether the fantasy element were real or not.
Not surprisingly there is a separate section of the checklist called “marginal titles.” A lot of boundaries are blurred whenever you’re trying to decide whether a book falls into a particular category or not, and for this particular project the problem is coming at you from all sides.
It’s a job well done, and if you”re at all interested, I definitely recommend that you go take a look.
KERMIT JAEDIKER – Hero’s Lust. Reprinted in A Trio of Lions, Stark House Press, softcover, 2016, in a “Classic Noir” collection with The Man I Killed, by Shel Walker, and House of Evil, by Clayre & Michel Lipman. Introductions by Gary Lovisi and Dan Roberts. Originally published as a paperback original: Lion #156, 1953.
The connection between the three novels in this recent collection from Stark House is that while nobody but the most fanatic paperback collector will have heard of any of them, including the authors who wrote them, they are also prime examples of the toughest, most hardboiled fiction you can find outside the line of Gold Medal paperbacks being published (and far more well-known) at the same time, roughly 1949-1957.
If ever a book could be both hardboiled and noir at the same time, Kermit Jaedicker’s Hero’s Lust would be it, ranking close to a ten on both scales, out of ten. What’s more, it manages to be both without even being a crime novel, unless you consider graft and city corruption a crime, which I suppose it is. I stand corrected.
The story is that of newspaper reporter Red Norton, who’s wholly in the pocket of Crescent City’s crime boss, Mayor Gowan, who’s up for re-election, but with the money he has and the favors he can hand out, who can stand a chance against him? Well, maybe there is someone, and Norton is semi-recruited by an old colleague and semi-friend to work on the other side.
But Red doesn’t recruit that easily, even going so far as to go along with a double-cross. But as fate would have it, as in the best noirish fashion, there is a girl, a TB patient who is going to undergo an operation and whom Red is writing a series about. Ann Porter is a sweet young thing, and pretty soon Red has her convinced that life is worth living after all. Is Red able to respond in equal fashion?
A lot of things come together at the end of this rather intense tale that I would have you read than tell you any more about. Jaediker has a rather crude, definitely unpolished writing style that is just about perfect for the book at hand. If you are like me, you will be reading the final few chapters as fast as the pages can be turned.
As for what is known about the author, there is a long column about him on the Mystery Writers of American website. If I’ve intrigued you a bit about the book, the column will intrigue you as greatly about Jaediker himself.
REX STOUT – Bad for Business. First published in The Second Mystery Book, Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1940. Paperback reprints include: Dell #299, mapback edition, 1949; Pyramid #R1166, A Green Door Mystery, April 1965; as well as several others.
There is a story behind the publishing history, and if I have any of the details wrong, please inform me. This is the second of three novels Stout wrote about New York City private eye Tecumseh Fox. When offered to The American Magazine for prior publication in abridged form, the editor rejected it and would accept only if Stout was able to rewrite it as a Nero Wolfe story.
Needing the money, so I have been led to believe, Stout agreed, and the story appeared in the November 1940 issue of the magazine as the first Nero Wolfe novella, “Bitter End.” The latter did not appear in book form until after Stout’s death in a limited edition collection titled Corsage (1977).
I haven’t read the shorter version, so I don’t know, but it must have been quite a rewrite job. Tecumseh Fox may live in the same world as Nero Wolfe (although the latter isn’t mentioned, Dol Bonner is, and several of the very peripheral players, including Rusterman of NYC restaurant fame) are, but he’s (apparently) independently wealthy, gregarious, and certainly most unlike Wolfe, possessing a very definite eye for the ladies.
Which is how he gets hooked on solving this case of a murdered owner of a food products emporium (Tingley’s Tidbits): one of Dol Bonner’s female associates is also the niece of the murdered man, and a small incident on a busy Manhattan street brings both Fox and Amy Duncan most coincidentally together.
Maybe it was me, but I don’t think the story reads like a Nero Wolfe tale, either. It’s a pure puzzle story from beginning to end, for one thing, without anything remotely resembling the connection that exists between Wolfe and Archie, and nothing like the jaunty and often witty way in which Archie tells his tales.
The story’s quite enjoyable, nonetheless, but any reader expecting another Nero Wolfe novel in only subtle disguise is going to end up disappointed.
WILL C. BROWN – The Border Jumpers. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1955. Dell #878, paperback, 1956. Reprinted as Man of the West, Dell #986, paperback, 1958.
MAN OF THE WEST. United Artists, 1958. Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord, John Dehner, Royal Dano, Robert Wilke. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, based on the novel The Border Jumpers, by Will C. Brown. Directed by Anthony Mann.
Lincoln Jones, on an uncomfortable train journey from Crosscut to Fort Worth, finds himself beset by Beasley and Billie: a tin-horn gambler and a saloon chanteuse trying to separate him from $600 the citizens of his small town have scraped together for him to hire a schoolteacher. But that’s the least of his worries as the train is robbed at a wood stop, speeds off, and he finds himself abandoned in the wilderness with the two con artists.
Even that pales, however, when it develops that the train robbers, still close by, are the remains of an outlaw clan run by the notorious killer Dock Tobin — Linc’s uncle.
We quickly find that Linc was raised by his Uncle Dock; raised to be a killer like the rest of the family, until the day he escaped and started making what’s known in Westerns as a decent life for himself. That life is shattered now as the demented (and still very lethal) old man takes him back into the fold, despite his glowering cousins Claude and Coaley, who would as soon kill Linc and Beasley (“I say we open ‘em up and leave ‘em here.”) and indulge themselves with Billie.
It’s a situation rife with tension and dramatic potential, and author Brown develops it with the speed and precision of an able pulp-writer, fleshing out characters and background colorfully and adding bits of unexpected excitement to keep us off-balance — there are two brutal and unsettling strip-tease scenes — until he wraps the thing up a bit too patly. But it’s even more fascinating to see how director Anthony Mann and screenwriter Reginald Rose turned it into a piece of Pure Cinema.
Gary Cooper brings his graceful authority to the role of Linc, along with a certain aging melancholy perfectly suited to the situation. He’s matched evenly with Julie London, projecting that sexy disenchantment she could do so well. Surrounded by murderous degenerates, she shoots them a look that seems to take it as just another bad hand in a crooked game. Arthur O’Connell, on the other hand, is delightful as a scrabbling, scheming angler, frightened and desperate, his agitation pitched perfectly against Ms. London’s weary composure.
Among the bad guys, Lee J. Cobb has the showiest part as mad Dock Tobin, but I prefer the typecast meanness of Robert Wilke, Royal Dano’s off-beat lunatic and Jack Lord’s wolfish juvenile delinquent. Best of all though is John Dehner as Claude, the smartest and most dangerous member of the clan. There’s a really fine scene where Linc and Claude have a quiet talk and Coop tries to make him see the insanity of living like this while Dehner insists on loving and protecting the crazy old man. It’s a moving and sensitive moment (much like the one between Robert Ryan and Terrence Stamp in Billy Budd a few years later), and it lends dramatic weight to the shoot-out when the characters have to confront each other.
Said shoot-out is a high point in the work of a director who excelled in complex action scenes, as the characters maneuver through a ghost town, running, jumping and throwing shots back and forth as they jockey for position until, weary and near death, they pause for a final sad exchange before finishing it off.
This confrontation is set in a ghost town, the perfect visual metaphor for the waste and emptiness confronting our hero. And where the book wraps things neatly, the movie leaves a lot of emotional loose ends to dangle intriguingly in the viewer’s mind. Indeed, as the two survivors make their way to the fade-out through a bleak landscape, one recalls the tension, brutality and emotional rawness of this thing and asks, “What the hell just happened?”
JONATHAN STAGGE – Death, My Darling Daughters. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1945. Michael Joseph, UK, hardcover, as Death and the Dear Girls. No paperback edition. Bestseller Mystery B164, digest-sized paperback, 1953. (Thanks to Bill Kelly for the latter information.)
In cool, analytical fashion Stagge methodically bares the dabbling fraudulency underlying the cultural legend pretended to by an ultra respectable New England family. The august Benjamine Hilton was once Vice President of the United States, and two generations later his family still finds delight in dropping names from the political and literary past. Their influence is used in hushing up the mysterious death of the family nanny during a secret scientific conference they are conducting, but their assumption that murder is beneath them is a disastrous one.
The unlikely investigator on the scene is Dr. Westlake, only physician for the small town of Kenmore, but this is not, however, the first case of murder he’s had to deal with. Occasionally great Freudian profundities rear their ugly heads, but as a detective puzzle it’s more than fair. Overall, though, an oversimplified view of life from another age.
Rating: C plus
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 4, July 1978.
Bibliographic Notes: “Jonathan Stagge” was one the many tangled pen name/collaborations between Richard Wilson Webb & Hugh Callingham Wheeler (also variously Q. Patrick and Patric Quentin). This is the seventh of nine Dr. Westlake novels published between 1937 and 1949.
WILLIAM SHARP “The Graven Image.” First collected in The Gypsy Christ and Other Tales (Stone and Kimball, 1895). Reprinted in Great Tales of Terror, edited by S. T. Joshi (Dover, 2002). (Follow the link to read the story online.)
Sometimes a story can leave you with an indelible sense of horror, indeed of terror. Skilled horror writers know exactly what imagery and settings can instantly evoke a sense of dread in the reader. Locales such as an abandoned mansion, a campground at twilight, and an uncharted island all can be utilized to great effect in transporting the reader into a realm of literary danger.
In William Sharp’s “The Graven Image,” the reader is treated vicariously to a night’s stay in a haunted bedroom, a setting that should lend itself to a solidly constructed short story. Unfortunately, the setting itself is unable to carry the story to a satisfying conclusion.
The tale follows the narrator, Cornwall native James Trenairy, as he recounts his disquieting stay at “The Mulberries,” an old house in Kensington, London inhabited by both the living … and the dead. Although the story is most certainly a well written and captivating supernatural tale, it nonetheless feels incomplete, as if it’s more of a vignette than a complete short story. The reason for this is as simple as it is oft neglected, particularly in stories that aim more for shock value than for dramatic effect. Other than resolving to never stay in the house again, the protagonist undergoes no fundamental character or life change as a result of his experiences.
That’s not to say that Sharp wasn’t more than capable of both building tension in the story and envisioning a situation that surely would evoke a sense of horror in readers. It’s just that the story concludes without us wondering exactly how this horrible experience, described in exquisite detail, will affect the psyche of one James Trenairy.