January 2017


KEN KUHLKEN – The Loud Adios. St. Martin’s, hardcover, August 1991. Poisoned Pen Press, trade paperback, 2006.

   This was the winner of the 1990 PWA/St.Martin’s “Best First Private Eye Contest,” and let me tell you right away that at the price they’re asking [$16.95], it’s a bargain.

   Not many authors these days write hard, tough Black Mask fiction anymore — short, terse sentences that never pull a punch, and characters who never give an inch — and it’s always a pleasure to find one who does. This is it, guys, the real stuff.

   PI Tom Hickey is doing double duty for the Army as an MP watching the border between San Diego and Tijuana. The year is 1943, the war is on, and refugees and politics are on everyone’s minds. Then Hickey takes on a job for a solider about to ship overseas — to rescue a girl doing nude shows in a rundown bar south of the border. The guy claims she is his sister; to Hickey she looks like an angel on earth.

   What neither Hickey nor his client knows is that the stakes are much higher than this — there may or may not be a plot by Germans in Mexico to take over all of Baja California, there may or may not be a fortune in gold available for the taking.

   Unfortunately, the girl, Wendy Rose, is either all or in part mentally retarded, or she has been so badly traumatized that she does not know reality from fantasy, either of which makes a tougher job even worse.

   The title sounds like Chandler, on the back jacket is the inevitable quote from someone comparing Kuhlken to Chandler, and as usual, the Santa Ana winds are prominently mentioned, but to my mind, most of the book reminded me more of Dashiell Hammett, with a bit of Paul Cain thrown in. (Kuhlken, by the way, has written one other book, Midheaven, which according to the flap on the back of dust jacket, was nominated for a Hemingway Prize. He’s obviously got the right technique.)

   Unfortunately, there is a down side to all of this. I wouldn’t call the plot line as straight as a string, but in many ways it’s like a one-note samba, one that simply goes on too long. Until Wendy Rose is finally rescued, Hickey and her brother simply make one sortie across the border after the other, each time getting a bit more daring, bringing along additional reinforcements with each trip, and continuing on until the job is done.

   This takes over half the book. The remainder consists of gathering weaponry, forces and (most importantly) nerve, and then (but not till then) finally going back to finish the job — either making themselves rich, or saving America from a growing evil to the south. Or both, or neither — and that is something I simply shouldn’t tell you.

   This is more than mere quibbles, but even without my seeing the rest of the entries in the contest, I think the judges made the right choice. Even though he hasn’t made much of bis life so far, Tom Hickey is no loser in my book.

— This review first appeared in Deadly Pleasures, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1993 .


      The Tom Hickey series —

1. The Loud Adios (1991)
2. The Venus Deal (1993)

3. The Angel Gang (1994)
4. The Do-Re-Mi (2006)

5. The Vagabond Virgins (2008)
6. The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles (2010)
7. The Good Know Nothing (2014)

EDWARD MATHIS – From a High Place. Dan Roman #1. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1985. Ballantine, paperback; 1st printing, July 1987.

   Edward Mathis died at the relatively young age of 61 in 1988. He started late, but once he got going, he must have been a very fast writer, because four of the eight recorded cases of Texas PI Dan Roman must have gotten backed up at Scribner’s at the time of his death and were never published until two or three more years had gone by.

   From a High Place is the first of the series and the first I’ve read. In large part it’s a personal affair, since the man whose death he’s asked to investigate lived in Roman’s home town of Butler Wells. His widow was Roman’s high school teacher. The death has been written off as an accident, but since her husband had a severe case of acrophobia, she wonders what he was doing at the top of cliff he fell from.

   Revisiting his home town in many years also brings back many memories, almost all of them centered on the glory days of high school — good buddies, football, and the girl who introduced him to the delights of sex — one never-to-be-forgotten night only.

   Roman’s life has not been a happy since then. Both his wife and son have died, leaving him a loner, for example, and who could blame him for the moodiness that sometimes seems to swallow him up? Life in a small Texas town can also be a lot more complicated than an outsider could ever imagine, and this is depicted well.

   I think, though, that 278 pages (in the paperback edition) is a little too long for a case that should take a lot less time than that to tell. A little leaner story might have helped, in my opinion, but given how it all comes out, Mathis knew what he had in mind all along. As I say, it’s a moody, nostalgic kind of tale, and if that’s right up your alley, this is exactly the book for you.

      The Dan Roman series —

From a High Place (1985).

Dark Streaks and Empty Places (1986).
Natural Prey (1987).
Another Path, Another Dragon (1988).

The Burned Woman (1989).
Out of the Shadows (1990).

September Song (1991).
The Fifth Level (1992)

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


JOHN TOMERLIN – Return to Vikki. Gold Medal #900, paperback original; 1st printing, 1959.

   “Any time you see a Gold Medal for sale cheap, grab it and give it a try.”               — Socrates

   I’d better review this one quick before I forget it. It’s not bad, but somehow it’s not terribly memorable either.

   The plot lifts just a bit from Out of the Past (RKO, 1947) as Frank Selby, suburban husband, finds his 9-to-5 routine disrupted by a visit from an old “friend” who summons him back to his previous life as a meticulous planner of successful heists. And the borrowing continues as Frank finds he’s wanted by his previous employer, a sadistic and wealthy mega-crook with a legitimate “front” — for that iconic plot device: One Last Job.

   Out of the Past echoes keep resounding as we learn Frank’s old love Vikki is still hooked up with the bad guys, and before long Frank finds himself framed for murder and scrambling for the pieces of his old life, in between passionate clichés with Vikki and brutal run-ins with her new and very deadly beau.

   All of which makes Return to Vikki sound much worse than it is. In point of fact, it’s a tightly-written, fast-moving piece, with well-developed minor characters and a tense, timed-to-the-second caper told in gritty, real-sounding prose — the sort of thing you’d expect from Gold Medal, and a fun way to pass an hour or two.

   Don’t expect anything spectacular, but it’s pleasant to be reminded just how taut and enjoyable these two-bit paperbacks could be.

This group’s only LP, from 1968. From Wikipedia: “Debbie Harry went on to join The Stillettoes in 1974 and other bands until subsequently achieving success in 1976 fronting the new wave band Blondie.”

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


CRACK HOUSE. Cannon Films, 1989. Jim Brown, Anthony Geary, Richard Roundtree, Cher Butler, Angel Tompkins, Gregg Thomsen. Director: Michael Fischa.

   This one isn’t for the faint of heart. Although the story takes place in Los Angeles, there’s little sunlight – real or metaphorical – in this surprisingly gripping exploitation film about rival gangs and the urban crack epidemic that gripped the nation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The mood is somber, the performances better than one might expect, and the atmosphere is bleak. But make no mistake. Crack House is an exploitation film par excellence. It truly exploits the public’s dual fascination with how the other half lives and fears about the crack-related urban violence spreading out to suburban America.

   The plot is an essentially a Romeo and Juliet inspired love story set against the backdrop of an increasingly drug infested neighborhood. Rick (Gregg Thomsen), a Hispanic high school student who has recently quit a gang, is in love with Melissa (Cher Butler), one of the few – if only – white girls in the neighborhood. Their trouble really begins when Rick ends up in jail, having taken part in the very gangland violence he swore he had given up.

   That leaves Melissa at the mercy of local street toughs and dealers. Things go from bad to worse for her as she ups her social cocaine habit to crack addiction.

   Her spiral downward goes from bad to worse. She learns that one of her high school teachers (Anthony Geary) is involved in the crack trade. He is also a total sleaze and expects sexual favors from her.

   But the heart of the action in this movie revolves around two blaxploitation giants. Richard Roundtree portrays Lieutenant Johnson, a LAPD cop determined to break the backs of the crack dealers infesting his city. His nemesis is the aptly named Steadman (Jim Brown), a cruel brute SOB who makes Melissa a virtual captive in his crack house.

   If it weren’t for the presence of these two men who starred in many 1970s urban crime dramas, there’d honestly be no reason to watch Crack House. But with them in it, the movie actually does have something going for it. It is not fine cinema and it doesn’t have much artistic merit, but it hit all the buttons in terms of exploiting the public’s dual curiosity and revulsion when it came to the crack epidemic.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MINETTE WALTERS – The Ice-House. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1992; paperback, 1993. First published in the UK by Macmillan, hardcover, 1992.

   Minette Walters is an author new to me, and in 1992 at least, was new to everyone. I think her first novel is a most impressive debut.

   Set in Hampshire, the story begins with the discovery of a badly decomposed (and partially eaten) body in an abandoned ice-house at Stretch Manor. The Manor is no stranger to trouble — ten years ago its sadistic master vanished, and though the police believed his wife to have murdered him, were unable to make a case. Since then, she and two schooldays chums have lived there, ostracized by the villagers and the subject of devoutly believed rumors ranging from lesbianism to witchcraft.

   The police return to Stretch Manor in the person of Inspector Walsh, who investigated the original murder and still is convinced of the lady of the manor’s guilt, and Sergeant McLoughlin, a brooding Scot undergoing marital difficulties and a bout with the bottle. Questions: Is the body that of the missing husband, or someone else? Why have the three women locked themselves away in despised isolation for a decade?

   This is an excellently written book with very few flaws, and one of the best first novels I’ve read in recent memory. The characterization was outstanding for both major and minor players, with only a character shift or two that didn’t quite ring true. The almost Gothic-seeming plot had several unexpected twists, and never strained my credulity to excess.

   I don’t believe this has the makings of a series (though I’ve been wrong before), but you may be sure I’ll read Mrs. Walters’ next offering regardless. You should read this, and if you like it spread the word.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #6, March 1993


From Wikipedia:   “Her first full-length novel, The Ice House, was published in 1992. It took two and a half years to write and was rejected by numerous publishing houses until Maria Rejt, Macmillan Publishers, bought it for £1250. Within four months, it had won the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey award for best first novel and had been snapped up by 11 foreign publishers. With her next two books, The Sculptress and The Scold’s Bridle, Walters won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award and the CWA Gold Dagger respectively, giving her a unique treble. She was the first crime/thriller writer to win three major prizes with her first three books.”

WHISTLING HILLS. Monogram, 1951. Johnny Mack Brown, Jimmy Ellison, Noel Neill, I. Stanford Jolley, Marshall Reed, Pamela Duncan. Director: Derwin Abrahams.

   There’s a little more plot than usual to this otherwise run-of-the-mill western, enough so that I decided it was worth talking about. It seems that the local stage is being held up on a regular basis by a gang of outlaws who always seem to know which pass it’s going through, and they go into action only on days when the strongbox is full.

   Key to their success is a rider dressed all in black who rides the crests of the surrounding hills and blows a whistle when it’s time for the bandits to go into action. The local sheriff (Jimmy Ellison) is stumped; he has no clue as to who the rider in black is.

   When Johnny Mack Brown comes to town looking for a horse that has been stolen from him (and finds both it and the fellow responsible), he stays on to help the sheriff, the owner of the stage line (I. Stanford Jolley), and his niece (a very petite Noel Neill). Problem is, although very much a good guy, Sheriff Dave Holland resents Johnny taking over the chase, and more: he really resents the fact that the niece seems to be making a play for Johnny.

   There is the usual amount of riding and shooting, and barroom fisticuffs, too, but the little bit of mystery adds to the story — not a detective story in reality, although it acts like one, since there’s no reason to suspect the guilty party ahead of time — unless, that is, you realize that there are only a limited number of suspects it could be.

HUGH PENTECOST – The Girl with Six Fingers. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1969. Zebra, paperback, John Jericho series #5; 1st printing, June 1974.

   John Jericho is a massive bulk of a man, six feet six inches tall, and two hundred and forty pounds of solid bone and muscle. With a beard of flaming red, he looks like a Viking warrior. In reality he is an artist of some renown, based in Manhattan and fiercely dedicated to the cause of justice. All conservative causes beware!

   His stories are told by a much less impressive gent named Arthur Hallam, a writer with several novels to his credit but little acclaim. But the two are friends and had six book-length adventures together, plus a large number of novelettes and stories, all appearing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1964 and 1987.

   It should also be pointed out that both Jericho and Hallam had a previous incarnation as long-standing members of The Park Avenue Hunt Club, with many recorded adventures appearing in the pulp magazine Detective Fiction Weekly in the 1930 and early 40s. Jericho was then a big game hunter, Hallam a bespectacled intellectual type, with the third member being actor Geoffrey Saville. They were on occasion assisted by their Oriental servant, Wu.

   While the title of this later adventure is intriguing — and so is the cover! — it has an easy, more or less mundane explanation. The girl is on an LSD trip and is only imagining the extra finger. The other girl, the one shown on the cover in multi-colored paint, is otherwise nude and is/was the star attraction to a Happening on an exclusive estate somewhere in the wilds of rural Connecticut.

   What brings the outraged Jericho and Hallam into the story is that the event was raided by a non-approving self-organized right-wing militia, and the girl dancing has disappeared. Pentecost pulls out none of the stops in the tale that follows, not really a detective story at all, but a wild and woolly pulp story updated to the Swinging Sixties.

   Unfortunately, and I cannot tell you why, but I think detective stories dealing with hippies, drugs and love-in’s have dated even more than tales written in the 1930s taking place in manor houses and rich people’s estates. It may also be that Pentecost (pen name of Judson Philips, 1903-1989) really wasn’t writing on the basis of personal experience, but perhaps second- or even third-hand knowledge only.

   Nevertheless, the story, previous caveat aside, kept me well occupied for the first leg of a cross-country flight from CA to CT earlier this week.

      The John Jericho series —

Sniper (1965)

Hide Her From Every Eye (1966)
The Creeping Hours (1966)
Dead Woman of the Year (1967)

The Girl With Six Fingers (1969)
A Plague of Violence (1970)

Lori Burton was a record producer as well as a singer-songwriter in her own right. Released in 1967, Breakout was her only solo album and has been described as “a mixture of soul and densely produced New York mid-’60s pop/rock.”

THE EQUALIZER. Columbia Pictures, 2014. Denzel Washington (Robert McCall), Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis. Loosely based on the CBS television series (1985-89) created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim and starring Edward Woodward. Director: Antoine Fuqua.

   Well, the name’s the same, and by time the movie’s ended, you can see the new Robert McCall going into same business as the original one did. In that regard, you might call this the prequel.

   This the film version is a delight for the eyes of any action thriller fan, much flashier than the one I watched many years ago on TV, and naturally a lot more violent. Everybody loves to get revenge, no matter not small the slight, and everyone who does will love this movie.

   It starts very slowly, depicting as it does the life of a dedicated foreman at a home improvement warehouse store, living a life of quiet, spending evenings in a diner eating and reading alone. But in so doing he makes the acquaintance and a small friendship with Elena, a young local hooker, played to perfection by an actress previously unknown to me, Chloë Grace Moretz. They are close enough that when she is beaten up by a gang of Russian pimps, he takes it upon himself to avenge her.

   Here is where the action (finally) begins. A confrontation in their lair ends up with all five of the thugs dead within an interval of time that seems like less than a minute. There are secrets, the viewer quickly realizes, that the mild-mannered McCall had not revealed until now.

   All well and good, but is it possible that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. It so happens that the five pimps were just the tip of a Russian mafia iceberg. One man against a huge East Coast operation, headquartered back in Moscow? Seems impossible, but true.

   But to me, without a challenge — and there is none — there is also no movie. No matter how beautifully filmed and choreographed, it’s all movie fakery, with no more depth than the pages of a comic book. What I’d liked to have seen is some weakness in McCall, enough that he could have used Elena’s assistance, for example. She doesn’t show up from the time she’s in the hospital until the end of the movie, a character and performance on the part of Chloë Grace Moretz that’s utterly wasted.

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