March 2017


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


A KILLER WALKS. Grand National Pictures, British, 1952. Laurence Harvey, Laurence Naismith, Susan Shaw and no one else familiar to US viewers. Screenplay by Ronald Drake, from the play Gathering Storm by Gordon Glennon, based on the novel Envy My Simplicity by Reyner Barton. Directed by Ronald Drake.

   You probably never heard of this quota quickie, but if you come across it, you should give it a try. It offers all the usual flaws of a British-made-to-order cheapie: tinny sound, canned music and jaggy editing because they didn’t shoot enough film to cover things properly, but A Killer Walks has more redeeming qualities than any movie really needs.

   For one thing, it’s based on a play and a novel, which means (1) they had to pay someone for the rights, (2) the action is confined to a few simple sets, perfectly suited to economy measures, and (3) the characters and dialogue are handled rather neatly, and in this case by an able cast.

   Laurence Harvey stars as a man who has spent his life working on his grandmother’s farm, and resented every minute of it. Now I don’t know about you, but when I see him on the screen I find it hard to believe Laurence Harvey ever did an honest day’s work in his life, much less tilled the soil, but fortunately the makers of this thing keep him dressed in suit and tie, always just about to go out for a night on the town with his expensive girlfriend, so we don’t have to deal with the sight of him getting his hands dirty in gumboots & dungarees, which would have made the whole thing unbelievable.

   In fact, it quickly develops that Harvey doesn’t like farm labor any more than you’d think he would, and he’s about had it with having to take wages from his grandmother (Ethel Edwards) at a farm he stands to inherit whenever the old bat kicks off. He’s also losing patience with his younger brother (Trader Faulkner) who has some mental problems that seem to have got him into some vaguely-hinted trouble in the past.

   In due course the plot heads where we knew it would, with Larry murdering Gran and pinning it on his little brother, but Killer Walks gets there gracefully, gradually working up to the thing with evocative characterizations from Edwards and Faulkner. As for Harvey, there’s an excellent bit where he tells his brother that old people don’t really want to live anymore, skillfully written, and delivered with baleful relish delightful to behold.

   When the murder comes, it arrives with a bit of polish, probably the work of co-photographer Jack Asher, who defined the look of Hammer’s horror films a few years later with his stylish visuals. In this case he does it on the cheap, with a few odd angles and superimpositions that lend a nightmare feel to the homicide we knew was coming all along.

   The fun in these things, however, is always in watching things unravel; I mentioned somewhere before that we read detective stories to see things come together and crime films to see things fall apart, and in this case they do so in one brilliant scene between the two Laurences (Naismith & Harvey) perfectly written and performed. Suffice it to say that “a killer walks” is the title, not the coda, and things wrap up very neatly indeed.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


LORD DUNSANY “The Strange Drug of Dr. Caber.” Included in The Fourth Book of Jorkens (Jarrolds, UK, hardcover, 1947; Arkham House, US, hardcover, 1948). Reprinted many times including Alfred Hitchcock’s Sinister Spies [edited by Robert Arthur], Random House, hardcover, 1966.)

   There is a long tradition of tall tales being told being told by a single narrator in a gentleman’s club or bar. These include, among others, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s Tales from Gavagan’s Bar, Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart and Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers and Union Club mysteries.

   The story in this particular entry in the category is but one of over 150 short stories written by Irish author Lord Dunsany, beginning in 1925, in which the leading character is a chap called Jorkens. “The Strange Drug of Dr. Caber.” is a (very) short fictional work is as much a puzzle as it is a crime or spy story.

   The tale begins in the Billiards Club where the unnamed narrator and others become involved in a debate as to whether pulling off a murder is easy or difficult. There is about to be an emerging consensus “that murder cannot successfully be committed,” when Jorkens. one of those present, begins to relate the story of one Dr. Caber.

   It is Dr. Caber’s tale that is thus presented for the remainder of the story. And it’s a clever one, perhaps more of a vignette than a short story, but nevertheless one I found to be a compelling read. In 1938, a group of likely British secret agents approached Dr. Caber in order to obtain his services for a most delicate project: kill “Norman Smith,” the pseudonym for a German spy in England.

   Caber reluctantly takes on the project and assures the men that he is going to be able to have “Smith” killed. But he will not mess with the enemy agent’s vicious huge Alsatian dog and he won’t utilize poison. He will merely have Smith pricked with a syringe and lead the man to believe he has been poisoned. As it turns out, Smith ends up dead soon enough.

   How Dr. Caber pulls this off and the role the Alsatian plays in the affair is the key to unlocking the puzzle.

From the double CD set At the Half Note Cafe, recorded in 1960.

Donald Byrd – trumpet,
Pepper Adams – baritone saxophone
Duke Pearson – piano
Laymon Jackson – bass
Lex Humphries – drums

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:


JOE HALDEMAN – The Forever War. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1970. Ballantine/Del Rey, paperback, 1976. Avon, paperback, 1991 (includes material excluded from earlier editions). AvoNova, paperback, 1997 (author’s definitive edition). Sections were originally published in Analog SF as four shorter works; “Hero”, “We Are Very Happy Here”, “This Best of All Possible Worlds”, and “End Game.” “You Can Never Go Back” was published in Amazing Stories and eventually became part of the paperback version of the novel.

   William Mandella, the child of hippie parents, gets caught up in events way beyond his control. Just before a battle he pauses to reflect:

   Then what the hell are you, we, am I answered the other side [of my mind]. A peace-loving vacuum-welding specialist cum physics teacher snatched up by the Elite Conscription Act and reprogrammed to be a killing machine. You, I have killed and liked it.

   Like all draftees, William didn’t ask for this, but now that he’s in it he knows it’s kill or be killed. Such is the way with all wars. High-flown rhetoric about “why we fight” sells newspapers, but when you get right down to it, you fight for your life and your buddies’ lives—and not necessarily in that order.

   From all reports, an alien race known as the Taurans (what they call themselves is anybody’s guess) have attacked an Earth transport without provocation and a state of war now exists. So it should be a simple matter to track the Taurans to where they live and reduce them to less than nothing with tachyon bombs, right? Not quite. It was recognized centuries ago that infantry is the queen of battle, meaning that no matter how many ships and planes and bombs you throw at them, sooner or later somebody has to occupy and hold the enemy’s terrain.

   Enter William Mandella, reluctant hero. The Forever War chronicles Mandella’s wartime experiences from raw recruit to company commander, his battles (which are never glorious), his love for Marygay (which is marked with pain and keen loss), his injuries (which include mutilation), and his reactions to the changes wrought by time on the culture he left behind—for, while he and Marygay struggle to survive, back on distant Earth, things are getting stranger . . . and stranger . . . and stranger . . . .

   The best writers—SF authors among them—are able to transport the reader to a time and place and culture that either once existed or exists only in their imagination. Haldeman succeeds by limiting us to Mandella’s perception of events; William’s wry and laconic narration convinces us of the plausibility of the advanced technology he dazzles us with even as we realize with our logical faculties how unlikely all of this is.

   There’s high-tech aplenty in The Forever War: tachyon drives allowing high-speed movement through normal space at velocities nearing the speed of light; interstellar travel through “collapsars” (collapsed stars, which have since been commonly termed “black holes,” permitting instantaneous passage through what are now called “wormholes” connecting to other collapsars); battlesuits that recycle everything, making it possible for troopers to stay in them for weeks (not really a pleasant prospect, just ask Mandella); stasis fields that dampen electronic systems, thus necessitating fighting with bows and arrows and swords (!); and acceleration pods that make it possible for the frail human body to withstand upwards of twenty-five gees — of course, you’re totally incapacitated and in a near-coma, but at least you won’t wind up looking like a bowl of salsa that’s been slammed into a wall. And let’s not forget Heaven, which William and Marygay get to without dying.

   Since the tachyon drive permits near-light-speed travel, Haldeman makes the most of Einstein’s relativity theory, hanging two important plot points on it—which we won’t reveal. But think about this: As you may recall from that physics class you might also have slept through, Saint Albert tells us that the faster you go, the slower time passes for you, while in the outside universe time passes at its normal rate.

   The spaceships in The Forever War travel from collapsar to collapsar at relativistic speeds, taking weeks, months, or even years in transit; but once they enter the collapsar they exit at the other end in the smallest fraction of a second—in one instance jumping 140,000 light-years in the blink of an eye. This implies that the folks on the ship seem to age more slowly than the people back on Earth—and that means kids like William Mandella grow older just a few years at a time while centuries are passing back home. Imagine Christopher Columbus returning to Spain this afternoon and you’ll get an inkling of what Haldeman is up to.

   The Forever War was awarded a Nebula (voted by writers and editors) and a Hugo (voted by fans) back in 1976. We believe it was as much a zeitgeist vote — most Americans were fed up with the conflict in Vietnam, a kind of “forever war” that never seemed to end — as an acknowledgement of the quality of the writing, which is nevertheless quite high for the usual “hard science fiction” novel.

   The Forever War invites comparison with Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Many believe Haldeman was writing a rebuttal to Heinlein’s book, but Haldeman is reputed to have denied it; so the jury’s still out on that.

   Joe Haldeman, a Vietnam War draftee and Purple Heart recipient, is still producing fiction.

SHELLEY SINGER – Suicide King. Jake Samson & Rosie Vicente #5. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1988. Worldwide Library, paperback; 1st printing, January 1990.

   Jake Samson is a non-licensed PI who lives in Oakland CA, His partner, Rosie Vicente, is a carpenter and is a tenant in the guest half of his house. They solved five cases together for St. Martin’s in the 80s, then one last one in 1999 for a small independent press. (I didn’t know about that one until now.)

   Suicide King has to do with the purported suicide of a would-be candidate for governor of California. I say would-be because he was looking to gain the nomination from the Vivo party, an offshoot of the Greens, and what chance does a third party have, even in California?

   But although the police are satisfied, most of his friends are not, and so Jake is hired. Shelley Smith is a good writer with a nice way with words, but keeping me interested in third party politics is a tough task for any author to accomplish. I found the book more enjoyable when Jake and Rosie are interviewing people; when it came down to talking about motive, it was politics all the way, and I found myself lagging far behind.

       The Jake Samson / Rosie Vicente series —

Samson’s Deal (1983)
Free Draw (1984)
Full House (1986)
Spit in the Ocean (1987)
Suicide King (1988)
Royal Flush (1999) .

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


BRIGHT STAR. Syndicated, Frederic W. Ziv Company; September 24, 1951. Voice Cast: Irene Dunne as Susan Armstrong and Fred MacMurry as George Harvey. Announcer: Harry Von Zell.

   Syndication studio Frederic W. Ziv Company is best remembered for its several low budget syndicated TV series such as Sea Hunt and Highway Patrol. The company also had its successes in radio, and many of those series would continue their success in TV, shows such as Boston Blackie and The Cisco Kid.

   Despite the falling popularity of radio in the 1950s due to the rising interest in TV, Ziv found a way to convince famous movie stars to star in transcribed radio series. Their first success was with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Bold Venture (reviewed here and its TV version reviewed here ).

   Next Ziv convinced Irene Dunne and Fred MacMurray to star in the radio series Bright Star. This was Ziv’s first comedy. Unlike many other Ziv’s radio series, Bright Star apparently was never adapted for television.

   So how was Ziv able to convince such famous movie stars as Bogart, Bacall, Dunne and MacMurray to star in a weekly radio series? They gave them a huge amount of money.

   According to Broadcasting (August 13,1951) Dunne and MacMurray each were paid $300,000 for a 10 year radio contract with an opt-out clause after 52 episodes. Three episodes were taped each week with a budget of $12,500 per half-hour episode. Broadcasting claimed this was the second highest budget in radio next only to Bold Venture. Billboard (August 18, 1951) claimed Bright Star was higher than Bold Venture by $2,500.

   Both Broadcasting and Billboard reported writers were to include Milton Geiger, Carl Gass, and Richard Powell. Henry Hayward would direct. Broadcasting added that additional cast members would include Elvia Allman and Michael Miller.

   Bright Star was about the daily operation of the small town newspaper, the Hillsdale Morning Star. Susan Armstrong voiced by Irene Dunne was the paper’s publisher and editor. George Harvey voiced by Fred MacMurray was the paper’s top reporter. As required by romantic comedy rules the two constantly argued when not trying to romance the other.

      George and the Informer:

   George was getting increasing attention due to a series of articles he was writing exposing a mob leader. Susan began to worry when George refused to tell her his source.


   This was one of the better episodes but still far from great radio. The soft character humor ruled over any realism in the plots. Not surprisingly after fifty-two episodes were transcribed the two stars opted out of their contract and the series ended.

   According to Broadcasting (September 10. 1951) Ziv claimed Bright Star that was due to debut in two weeks had been sold in 183 cities including 21 of the 63 television cities in the United States. While not the success of Bold Venture, which was in 427 stations when it debuted in March 1951 (Broadcasting April 2, 1951), the transcribed episodes of Bright Star would remain on the air for years.

   It was the fifties and the networks were turning their attention from radio to television. As Billboard examined in its October 16, 1954 issue, this left the local radio stations searching for programming. Ziv’s transcribed radio series became popular with stations and local advertisers. Shows such as Bright Star would continue to air on the radio at least into the mid-50s.

MARGARET YORKE – Dead in the Morning. Patrick Grant #1. Geoffrey Bles Ltd, UK, hardcover, 1970. Bantam, US, paperback, 1982.

   A continuing character in many of Margaret Yorke’s early mysteries was Dr. Patrick Grant, an Oxford don, Dean of St. Marks. Some of the books have been published in this country. Some of the books have been published in this country by Walker [then others later in paperback by Bantam].

   The scene in Dead in the Morning, the first book in the series, however, is not academia at all. It’s between terms, and Dr. Grant is staying over with his sister, amusing himself in the meantime by snooping around for a mystery to solve. When the housekeeper of a neighboring family accidentally dies of barbiturate poisoning, his interests are piqued, to say the least.

   He plays the part of an interested bystander to the hilt — how the police stand for his interruptions and enthusiastic non-cooperation is impossible to fathom — and he glories in his role of benevolent meddler no end. He’s a likable fellow, mind you. His intentions, well, nothing could be finer, and they all seem to work out.

   The killer — for of course murder it is — fits the crime. Solid characterization means that the mystery can be seen through very early. The twist is so good, however, that if I’d have been wrong, I was going to use it in my own next novel, The writing, unfortunately, is only so-so.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 4, No. 2, March-April 1980 (somewhat revised).


       The Patrick Grant series —

Dead in the Morning. Bles, 1970.
Silent Witness. Bles, 1972.
Grave Matters. Bles, 1973.
Mortal Remains. Bles, 1974.
Cast for Death. Hutchinson, 1976.

Hazel O’Connor is a British singer-songwriter and a sometimes actress. Breaking Glass, her first album, was released in 1980, and rose to #5 on the UK charts:

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE LAST TRAIN FROM MADRID. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Dorothy Lamour, Lew Ayres, Gilbert Roland, Karen Morley, Lionel Atwill, Helen Mack, Robert Cummings, Olympe Bradna, Anthony Quinn, Lee Bowman. Director: James P. Hogan.

   Finally the train. Close to an hour into a movie with a running time just under ninety minutes, the audience finally gets to see the titular train. That’s pretty much my first and greatest impression of this rather slow moving and melodramatic movie about a disparate group of people attempting to obtain passes for the last train out of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.

   There are a few subplots involving romance during wartime, and how a lifelong bond of friendship takes precedence over political affiliations. But overall, the film is a rather talky affair, all leading up to the final sequence in which some of the main characters finally do end up on a train for Valencia.

   What The Last Train from Madrid does have going for it is its exceptional cast. Gilbert Roland, in particular, is always a delight to see on screen. And, love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Lionel Atwill is a distinct presence in any movie that he appears in. (Although, Atwill as a Spanish Army officer? Not believable.)

   On the other hand, a young Anthony Quinn and an even younger looking Robert Cummings are quite convincing as Spanish soldiers.

   It’s just unfortunate that, with a cast like this, there isn’t enough action in this stagey production to keep the viewer particularly engaged throughout the proceedings.

GAR ANTHONY HAYWOOD – Not Long for This World. Aaron Gunner #2. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1990. Penguin, paperback, 1991.

   In this, the second recorded case for L.A.-based private eye Aaron Gunner, he’s hired by the female defense attorney for a young South Central gang member accused of killing the black founder of the L. A. Peace Patrol — a mild-mannered man who had taken it upon himself to try to rein in gang-related violence in the city.

   It takes Gunner a while to decide to take the case, mostly because he doesn’t believe there is much redeeming value in the boy, but the conviction by his lawyer that he’s innocent eventually helps persuade him. It isn’t an easy case to investigate. All of the witnesses and other people he must ask questions of are either gangbangers themselves, or people intimidated by them.

   To my mind there might be more social significance to this tale if Gunner were a stronger character. Even once he’s taken the case, he’s never quite sure if he made the right choice, nor is he the kind of guy who’s always infallible. Not helping matters is that the story is told in what I’ve decided to call the “impersonal third person” mode. Every so often, Gunner is referred to only as “the investigator,” not a description designed to give the reader a lot of confidence in his abilities.

   I’m also not a fan of PI’s going to bed with the dead man’s widow while on the case. Which is a complicated one in many ways, but not in one essential way: I believe the real villain is discernible immediately, once he (or she) steps onto the stage.

   Overall, then: quite readable, but flawed.

      The Aaron Gunner series —

Fear of the Dark (1988)
Not Long for This World (1990)
You Can Die Trying (1993)
It’s Not a Pretty Sight (1996)
When Last Seen Alive (1997)
All the Lucky Ones Are Dead (1999)

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