June 2017

JOHN CROWE – When They Kill Your Wife. Buena Costa County series #5. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1977. No paperback edition.

   As seems true about all the inhabitants of California, the residents of fictional Buena Costa county live in a world of intricately tangled relationships, the kind that too often result in murder. Even though they’d been separated for a year, when Paul Sobers’ wife is killed, he’s compelled to find out why, and a tightly closed corner of the world yields many secrets as he starts digging up the past.

   The result is a tale that’s even more complex and tortuous than the one Ross Macdonald tells, and occasionally the going gets heavy. The ending is not fair to the reader, but while the finale to a detective story sometimes comes as a letdown to the reader, this one’s actually better than any of the preceding parts — a triple-snapper!

Rating:   B

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 6, November 1977 (slightly revised).

       The Buena Costa County series —

Another Way To Die (1972)
A Touch of Darkness (1972)
Bloodwater (1974)
Crooked Shadows (1975)
When They Kill Your Wife (1977)
Close To Death (1979)


DANCE HALL RACKET. Screen Classics Inc., 1953. Timothy Farrell, Lenny Bruce, Bernie Jones, Honey Bruce and Killer Joe Piro. Written by Lenny Bruce. Produced by George Weiss. Directed by Phil Tucker.

   There’s something sort of fitting about Lenny Bruce dong a tame 1950s skin-flick, but the good news here is that this film is too seldom shown to damage his reputation — which, come to think of it, he did pretty well all by himself. The other good news is that aside from Bruce, Dance Hall Racket is not a waste of anyone’s talent; the talents here assembled are perfectly suited to this sub-nudie effort, and navigate the seedy screen like they were born for it.

   We get Timothy Farrell as Umberto Scali, running a dime-a-dance joint as a front for various & sundry illegalities, such as murder, diamond smuggling and maybe a touch of prostitution; Lenny Bruce and Killer Joe Piro as flunky-hoods; Honey Bruce as a dancer who changes her clothes a lot, and Bernie Jones (formerly of Spike Jones’ ensemble) as a dumb Swede who stops the action every so often to tell excruciatingly bad jokes.

   Dance Hall Racket exists primarily as an excuse to show attractive young ladies in stages of undress, highlighted at various intervals by an actual glimpse of a bare breast (GOSH!) but there’s a sort of tawdry plot here: something about Timothy Farrell buying hot ice and planning to abduct a recently-released con and find out where he stashed the loot.

   We also get an undercover cop worming his way into Farrell’s scene and a neophyte taxi-dancer resisting temptation, but Dance Hall Racket is too disjointed to weave any of these threads together; like I say, it’s an excuse to look at nekkid wimmin, and a pretty feeble one at that, shot on shoe-box sets by a cameraman who looks like he was thinking of something else at the time.

   Getting back to the talented people who made this film, well, Lenny Bruce is legendary, and his wife Honey was played by Valerie Perrine (who got an Oscar nomination) in the biopic Lenny, but the others are almost as fascinating: Producer George Weiss started out with Test Tube Babies in 1948, went on to Glen or Glenda? (1953) and continued on into the 90s making films he should be ashamed of.

   Right after Dance Hall Racket director Phil Tucker tried going “legit” with Robot Monster, a legendary mess in fake 3-D, but was soon back to doing things like Strips Around the World and Bagdad After Midnite. He continued working sporadically in the movies as late as the 1980s.

   My favorite though is Timothy Farrell, here the gang boss, but in real life an L.A. County Sherriff’s bailiff (he appeared as himself the next year in A Star Is Born) who acted in nudie movies and religious shorts on the side. He eventually made County Marshall (despite having one of his films seized in a police raid) but was fired for using his deputies as political activists in 1975, indicating a personality much more interesting than this bizarre little film.


When The Death Bat Flies: The Detective Stories of NORVELL PAGE. Altus Press, hardcover, softcover, ebook, 2013. Introduction by Will Murray.

   This thick Altus Press edition collects over 800 pages of detective and crime stories by pulp wunderkind Norvell Page, best remembered today for helming the best of the popular adventures of Richard Wentworth, star of the eponymous pulp The Spider. It is accompanied by an informative introduction and biographical look at Page and his career by pulp expert and Doc Savage chronicler Will Murray.

   Page cracked the more highly regarded pulps like Black Mask, Dime Detective, and John Campbell’s Unknown, but by far his greatest output aside from the Spider epic was for the likes of Ten Detective Aces (his Ken Carter series), Detective Tales, Strange Detective Mysteries, and even the spicy pulps. Most pf the stories collected here come from Detective Tales.

   Most of the stories are novellas running about seven chapters and around 30,000 words. These novellas feature tough cops, private eyes, amateur criminologists, and the like, and enough gunfire for several small wars. Never let it be said Norvell Page spared bullets even when his language was spare. A few of the novellas venture into weird menace territory, coming out of Strange Detective Mysteries and Strange Detective Adventures.

   If you like rough tough knock ’em sock ’em rock ’em action, relentless pace, breathless escapes, low-slung fast cars and faster women, gun-happy mugs and crafty villains, this book is a bonanza, with sleuths like Don Q. (Quixote) Ryan, big Swede Larsen, Richard Carter. John Stone (whose paralyzed face is mindful of Richard Benson, the Avenger), Aubrei Dunne (two-fisted inventor of countless gadgets, and star of the book’s title story), Bruce Shane (a two-gun man), Flinn McHurd, Walsh Devore, amateur criminologist, Grant Montana out to clear his Private Eye dad who did seven years for a crime he didn’t commit, and more.

   “The explosion of the gun almost blew me out of the bed.”

   “Conroy laughed sharply and his belly-gun blasted upward toward the sound of that voice.”

   “Pardon my rudeness,” she said pleasantly. “Go to Hell.”

   “… he seized a chair and used his impetus to snatch it back over his shoulder. Instantly he whipped it up and it smashed across the chest of Blackie, who was fumbling for a gun.”

   “… But see oh man of the West, how we of the East can die!”

   “It was glorious, Garner thought, to be able to fight against criminals who preyed on the people, to be a defender of innocents like … yes, like the knights of old did!”

   And that’s a random sampling just from page flipping.

   The shorts tend to be crime stories, fast moving, with a lot of impact, but not strong on originality. They are better than filler because Page was incapable of not writing compelling prose, but they wouldn’t make anyone’s best list. For all that they have impact.

   Page is a pulp master, not a great writer, certainly not a great innovator, but a skilled professional with enough personal demons and more than enough drive to make his work both interesting and fun to read. If you only know him from Spider reprints or his two collections of Prester John tales from Unknown, this is an ideal place to see him at work. More collections are coming, and I am particularly hoping to see the Ken Carter stories collected. Meanwhile sit back, pop some popcorn, and kick back. Norvell Page is taking you on a hell of a ride through the wild and woolly pulp jungle.

ALEX SAXON – A Run in Diamonds. Carmody #1. Pocket, paperback original; 1st printing, November 1974. Expanded from the story “The $50,000 Bosom,” Adventure, December 1970. Included in Carmody’s Run (Dark Harvest, hardcover, 1993) as by Bill Pronzini, along with three stories from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine which appeared there also under the author’s own name. This latter book was reprinted by the Detective Book Club in a hardcover 3-in-1 edition.

   In spite of my affection for Bill Pronzini’s nameless private detective, enhanced no end by the latter’s love affair with Black Mask and the other detective pulps he collects, I find Carmody a more original creation, seemingly more free of the cliches of his particular subgenre.

   Carmody is a freelance contract man, providing bodyguards, new identities, black market commodities, what have you. Since his divorce he has moved his theater of operations from San Francisco to Europe and a villa in Majorca, which is where this adventure begins.

   Stolen diamonds are involved, which should be obvious from the front cover on. Somebody wants Carmody out of the way for a while, and a wild goose chase takes him to Amsterdam while dirty business is going on elsewhere. Carmody’s business success relies greatly on his reputation, and any embarrassment he received he must take as a personal matter.

   And revenge he gets. A number of deaths result, though not all at his hand. It’s an earthy, violent tale, just complicated enough to keep you guessing, and suspenseful enough to make one relish every minute of successful retribution to the disrespectful enemy.

   Carmody has previously appeared in a number of shorter stories, in magazines such as Alfred Hitchcock’s, but as far as I know this is his only novel. I sort of wonder if Pronzini had put his own name on it, whether this might have made more of an impression when it came out.

   Here’s the highest compliment I can give a book: this is the kind of tale I would write if I could.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 6, November 1977 (very slightly revised).

DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET. Episode 25, Season 1, of Tatort, Germany, 07 January 1973. Original title: Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße. Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang, Sieghardt Rupp, Anton Diffring, Stephanie Audran, Eric P. Caspar. Screenwriter-director: Sam Fuller. Novelization: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, by Samuel Fuller (Pyramid V3736, paperback original, 1974).

   This is the story of a private eye named Sandy (Glenn Corbett) who comes to Germany on an extremely important case. He’s been hired an United States senator with presidential aspirations to obtain a negative that in the wrong hands could prove to be extremely embarrassing. His partner, who arrived before him, is dead. His objective: find the killer, infiltrate the gang of blackmailers, and save the senator’s hide.

   The killer, as it turns out, is a fellow named Charlie Umlaut. Sandy’s gateway to the gang is a girl named Christa (Christa Lang) who is also the girl in the compromising photograph. She also knows who the leader of the gang is (Anton Diffring), and to gain her confidence, Sandy poses as a rival in the blackmail business. But can Christa herself be trusted, even when propinquity (between herself and Sandy) takes the way of nature and least resistance?

   This was filmed at a low point in Director Sam Fuller’s career. The story had nothing (or very little) to do with the rest of the German series it was filmed as part of. But Fuller had name value, and he was given a a free hand, more or less — given budgetary considerations. The movie (which is what I will call it) is filmed in beautiful colors and fanciful camera angles, and in those two regards, I should consider it a huge success.

   But the story, at least in the longer, restored director’s cut (in the DVD recently released and remastered through the UCLA Archives) becomes repetitious and boring, and the acting is stiff and the dialogue on occasion seemingly ad-libbed. Christa Lang’s awkward body motions, speech patterns and facial expressions can easily become annoying, if you allow them. (She was married to Fuller at the time and until his death.)

   Some reviewers have really disliked this movie. Others call it a work of genius, calling it an inspired collision with (and combination of) Noir and the New Wave. I don’t know as I’d go that far, but Fuller usually knew what he was doing, and while I also don’t know if he did here, maybe he really did. Either that or the movie is a complete failure, and once that is admitted, then perhaps that’s what it was how it was intended, as a complete spoof of the crime genre.

   And maybe this review makes sense too, and maybe it doesn’t.


THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X. Warner Brothers, 1939. Wayne Morris, Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, Lya Lys, Huntz Hall, Olin Howland. Written by Lee Katz and William J. Makin. Directed by Vincent Sherman.

   1939 was the year that brought us Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind, Of Mice and Men, Wizard of Oz… and this, Bogie’s only horror film. He didn’t like it much, but it ain’t all that bad. It isn’t very good, either, but I found it fun.

   Wayne Morris, playing his usual likeable half-wit, is your typical movie reporter of the day: bluff, brassy and smart as a corn cob. As the story opens, he talks his way into an interview with a stage star (Lya Lys, in a rather good sub-Dietrich performance) only to find her dead in her apartment, her body drained of blood—and cue up the ominous music.

   Things take a surprising turn when Wayne’s paper splashes the story across the front page before telling the police, only to have the body disappear when the cops show up… then reappear alive (sort of; she now sports a goth look and talks like Robert Downey in his drug-using days) leading to Wayne getting fired by a typically apoplectic movie-style editor.

   Nothing daunted, our hero hooks up with his doctor buddy (Dennis Morgan) and consults with blood specialist Dr. Flegg (“Interesting stuff, blood!”) who assures him there’s nothing to see here, but….

   About this time we get a look at Dr. Flegg’s assistant, Doctor Quesne, and the jig is up, for it’s no less than Humphrey Bogart, made up like a reverse-Jolson, with pasty white face, dark lips and eyeshadow, with a shock of white in his hair. Doctor Flegg (John Litel, made up with satanic goatee and monocle) explains it all by saying Bogie’s “getting over a shock.”

   It would be easy to say the shock must be appearing in this picture, but as I said, it’s not all that bad. Return is done with typical Warners polish: elaborate sets, glistening photography (by Sid Hickox, of Dark Passage and Colorado Territory) and the usual cast of Warners bit players, all doing their reliable best and keeping a straight face when we learn that Dr Quesne is actually Doctor Xavier, an executed criminal brought back to life and now in need of human blood to keep going.

   I should add however that Return is also heavy-duty stupid. How so? Well for starters, we get a front-page headline of a murder out on the streets before the police can even get to the scene of the crime. Later, a detective tells Dennis Morgan that the coroner has ruled a death by natural causes — while the body is still lying on the floor!

   Further on, our persistent heroes, investigating the supposed death of Dr Xavier, go to the cemetery in the middle of the night and simply have the caretaker dig up the grave, which he does as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Xavier’s coffin turns up empty of course, whereupon the cops compound the stupidity by showing up to arrest Morris and Morgan for stealing the copse! Faced with all this, the notion of raising the dead seems but another improbability, and hardly noticeable.

   For those who don’t know how horror films end, I’m going to throw out a SPOILER ALERT! here and add that in deference to Bogie’s image, the writers allow him to perish shooting it out with the Law in a hail of police bullets. And it’s done well, an exciting moment in a film that can be fun if you’ll let it.


THE FAR FRONTIER. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Gail Davis, Andy Devine, Francis Ford, Roy Barcroft, Clayton Moore, Robert Strange, Riders of the Purple Sage. Director: William Witney.

   With William Whitney at the helm, you just know you’re quite likely going to get a motion picture with some down and dirty fighting in it. While The Far Frontier has some well-choreographed fight scenes, it’s more notable for “death by oil barrel.”

   What’s that, you ask? Well, for starters it’s a particularly brutal way to kill someone. There’s a scene, early on in the movie, in which sadistic human traffickers toss oil barrels down a rocky mountain cliff. In the barrels are the very persons who have hired them to transport them illegally across the U.S.-Mexican border.

   That scene, along with Whitney’s name in the opening credits, gives the viewer the sense that this entry into the extensive Roy Rogers filmography isn’t going to be one of the more innocent, child-friendly ones.

   Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s some singing and lightheartedness and Andy Devine, with that goofy and innocent smile on his face, is there to provide some comic relief to the proceedings. But overall, this Rogers film has a slightly darker story. One that involves coldblooded murder, amnesia, and a blood feud that finally comes to a violent conclusion.

   A final note: there are a few un-credited “actors” in The Far Frontier who portray characters who become essential to the plot.

   I’m talking about pigeons, carrier pigeons to be precise. These little birds are the means by which the film’s primary villain communicates with his minions. Fortunately, Roy is able to get one of the pigeons on the side of justice. Who said birds didn’t matter?

  JOHN FLAGG – Death and the Naked Lady. Stark House Press, trade paperback, 2017. Published in one volume with the novel The Lady and the Cheetah and the short story “Faces Turned Against Him.” Introduction by James Reasoner. First published as a Gold Medal paperback original in 1951 (#151).

   John Flagg, not his real name, wrote eight paperback originals for Gold Medal back in the 1950s and early 60s. Before that, under his own name, John Gearon, he wrote one earlier work of crime fiction, The Velvet Well (Duell, hardcover, 1946) about about a man on the run from some former Nazis in South America.

   Five of the Gold Medal books had a continuing series character named Hart Muldoon, a former OSS agent and man of mystery, or so I’m told, but he does not appear in either this novel or its companion novel in this recently published book from Stark House Press.

   The protagonist in Death and the Naked Lady is a lounge singer named Mac McLean who, thanks to a few very fortunate turn of events, has become very popular in Europe and is on his way by ocean steamer to New York City and a lucrative engagement at the Persian Room there.

   What he doesn’t know is that both murder and international intrigue are following closely on his heels. Telling his own story, if he’s not careful, he’s sure to be accused of being the killer of his close friend and sponsor, Georges Fournier.

   Complicating matters are, first, a collection of jade owls he discovers in his possession, and then, not one, not two, but three beautiful women, all attractive and all (apparently) attracted to him. First, Lady Harcourt, whose husband Albert is a bore and does not seem to see what’s going on under his own nose; second, the stunningly beautiful Lili Fenwick, a girl from the Midwest who’s hit the top as a glamorous movie star; and third, the lady of the title, who made her name in the Folies Bergère but who is now married to a gentleman from Central America and who is rumored to be very powerful or very rich, or both.

   Gearon/Flagg must have been very familiar with the jet transatlantic steamship set, circa 1950, since he describes the people and the boat they’re on so well. Compared with other authors in the Gold Medal stable at the time, he is better at writing than most. What he doesn’t seem to be able to create is the same flow of action as those do whose careers began in the pulp magazines (Bruno Fischer, Day Keene, Edward Aarons and so on).

   That may be true for this book only, though. The story takes place almost entirely on board ship, and while it limits the number of suspects, it also feels cramped at times, with little room left for maneuvering.

   Almost as big a mystery as who killed Fournier, and why did they frame McLean for the murder, is which of the three women will he end up with? My intuition was correct, I’m happy to say, or maybe that’s also because Flagg nailed their personalities, all very distinct, so well. Overall? A very enjoyable read.

Russell Gunn is described online as a “contemporary Neo-bop jazz musician, known primarily for his trumpet playing.” (Wikipedia.) “Fly Me to the Moon” is a track from his first album, Young Gunn, released in 1995, when he was 24, and re-released in 1998 on Young Gunn Plus.


SANDRA WEST PROWELL – The Killing of Monday Brown. Phoebe Siegel #2. Walker, hardcover, 1994. Bantam, paperback, 1996.

   I’ve got this picture of a sweet LOL cozy fan spying the three names on the spine and pouncing on it with little yips of anticipation, carrying it home and settling down with a cup of tea for a nice comfortable read … and then the widening eyes, the shocked expression, the flushed face, and the sense of betrayal. Fair warms my heart, it does.

   Phoebe Siegel is an ex-cop who’s now a private investigator in Billings, Montana. She’s got a large family, an old house she wants to fix up, a lot of emotional baggage, and some bad memories from her last case.

   A murder of Crow Indians from the |nearby reservation show up in her front yard, referred to her by a cop friend of hers who’s their relative. One of the family has been arrested for the murder of an artifact-stealing white man, and they want Phoebe to find out what really happened. There’s a German artifact dealer in town who seems to have an in with the government, and several more complications, one of which being that the Indians hand her a bunch of stolen artifacts.

   This is a pretty good book, and anything but a cozy. Siegel is rougher’n hell and has a mouth on her like a stevedore. She’s an interesting character, and most of the other players are well drawn too.

   Prowell is one of the better prose-handlers I’ve see in the newer writers of late, and has a real feel for the Montana landscape. The plot wasn’t bad at all — I’m always surprised, any more, to be able to I say that — but she tossed in a lot of no-doubt authentic Native American mysticism that she seemed to like a lot, and which didn’t do anything for me at all.

   I haven’t read her first book, which is into its second printing but I’m moderately impressed with this one. I understand she’s got a six-figure contract from Bantam, and that impressive she ain’t.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.

      The Phoebe Siegel series —

By Evil Means (1993). Nominated for nominated for the Hammett Prize and the Shamus Award.

The Killing of Monday Brown (1994). Nominated for the Shamus Award.
When Wallflowers Die (1996).
An Accepted Sorrow (unpublished).

Next Page »