September 2017


JAMES MICHAEL ULLMAN – Good Night, Irene. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1965. Pocket 50530, paperback, April 1967. Published in the UK as Full Coverage by Cassell, hardcover, 1966.

   While Ullman wrote four books that were mysteries, all during the 1960s, his work seems to have escaped notice in all the standard reference sources. According to Hubin, however, he was a Chicago newspaperman, which should also be obvious once you’ve read this book.

   There’s nothing here that’s all that remarkable, though. When a young, cocky reporter turns away a woman with a scandal to tell, he ends up fired when she’s murdered before the day is through. The background is filled in nicely enough, but the story itself is told in fits and starts.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #23,, July 1990 (very slightly revised).

POSTMARK FOR DANGER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1956. Previously released in the UK as Portrait of Alison, Anglo-Amalgamated Films, 1955. Terry Moore, Robert Beatty, William Sylvester, Josephine Griffin, Geoffrey Keen, Allan Cuthbertson. Screenplay by Guy Green, based on a story by Francis Durbridge that was also used as the basis for the BBC television series Portrait of Alison broadcast earlier that year (six 30-minute episodes). Durbridge later converted the screenplay into a novel
of the same title (Hodder, UK, 1962; Dodd Mead, US, 1962). Director: Guy Green.

   I may not have all of the facts correct, but I haven’t found anything to contradict anything stated above. Durbridge, also the creator of Paul Temple, a British crime-solver extraordinaire not well known in the US, was a prolific writer of complicated mystery mini-series for the BBC in 50s, 60 and 70s, and this one has as many threads to its plot that can be fit into just under 80 minutes of running time.

   So much so that all the average viewer, using myself as a prime example, can do is to wonder is how on earth is there going to be a simple explanation for what’s going on? There is, but it can’t have been easy to have come up with a plot like this one and leave no loose threads hanging. It comes close, but if I were to run through the explanations again, I have a feeling that maybe there’d still be a few more questions than there are answers.

   It’s my kind of mystery movie, though, I can tell you that. It’s the story of three brothers, one an artist (Robert Beatty), the second a freelance pilot (William Sylvester) and the third, an investigative reporter who dies in the first scene, even before the opening credits, in a car going up in flames after going over a cliff off an isolated Italian mountain highway.

   There is, or was, a girl with him at the time, which is important, since she is the Alison of the British title. Before his death the third brother is said to have sent someone in England a postcard, but to who is not known, nor the significance of the drawing on it.

   In the meantime the father of the dead girl hires the artist brother to paint a portrait of her, which he does, only to find it later smeared with white paint and the body of a former model dead in his bedroom, and wearing the dress of the dead girl. The detectives from Scotland Yard are very skeptical of his story, which goes without saying.

   There is more, including some attempts at blackmail, more deaths and even more twists, including an apparent suicide (and I don’t remember if it was or not). And it’s all wrapped up rather neatly, subject to the qualifications I ran through above, filmed in beautifully noirish black and white.

   Robert Beatty is a fine actor, and while Terry Moore is very pretty, I’d prefer the company of the mush more vivacious model played by Josephine Griffin, who dies way too soon. Otherwise, I enjoyed it all, from beginning to end.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN. 20th Century Fox, 1974. Victor French, Janee Michelle, Jean Durand, Mike Evans, Xernona Clayton, Lloyd Nelson, Ella Woods. Director: Ron Honthaner.

   Let me speak true from the outset. In no manner can The House on Skull Mountain, a low budget production filmed in Georgia, be considered a “good movie.” In terms of acting, direction, and plot development, this 1970s B-film falls short. It wouldn’t be completely unfair to call it a clichéd mess of a horror movie. There’s voodoo, racial politics, snakes, a zombie, and a gathering of people to are forced to spend the night in seemingly haunted house. There’s even a dark and stormy night. You get the picture.

   And yet I watched to the very end. Mainly because it’s not all that often that you find a horror movie with a nearly all African-American cast. But mostly because, despite everything I just told you, the movie is so clichéd and so over the top that it ends up being a delightfully guilty pleasure.

   One even gets the sense that at least one actor, namely Mike Evans (Lionel on the 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons) was in on the joke. For the movie is indisputably silly. Example: no one in the movie seems to ever mention that the house is on a mountain with a giant skull carved into it. Granted, it’s just a cartoonist matte painting. But whatever. It’s Skull Mountain and it’s got a house built on the very top. And voodoo is all around. Because of course it is. Just listen for the bongo drums.

DAVID CHRISTIE MURRAY “The Case of Muelvos Y Sagra.” Collected in The Investigations of John Pym (White, UK, hardcover, 1895). Previously published in the newspaper Star, issue 5014, 28 July 1894, available online here. Also reprinted online here from a bound volume of the magazine The Woman at Home (1894).

   I believe (but am not sure) that all six of the stories in the hardcover collection The Investigations of John Pym were published first in the British magazine The Woman at Home. “The Case of Muelvos Y Sagra,” is the first of them, and the first few pages are devoted to describing John Pym as a man who loves to learn everything about everything but who never manages to put it to practical use.

   Until, that is, he finds that all of his accumulated knowledge can be used to solve crimes that stump the minds — and imaginations — of more ordinary men. Narrating this tale is his good friend Ned Venables, a journalist who lives in the same house on the floor above. Ill is a young child whose strange symptoms come and go, and his doctor fears that the next attack will mean his death. A most relevant fact is that if he were to die, the estate the boy is an heir to will go to a man named Josef Muelvos y Sagra, a scoundrel if ever there was one.

   You may go read the story if you like and come back — it is quite short — but if you were to ask me, Mr Conan Doyle, if he were aware of this story might have a good case of copyright infringement worth pursuing. The tale is very reminiscent, shall we say, of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which appeared in The Strand Magazine only two years before. Perhaps it is a homage to be this reminiscent, but I don’t think so.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


ANNE HOCKING – Poison Is a Bitter Brew.Chief Inspector William Austen #7. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1942. First published in the UK as Miss Milverton, by Geoffrey Bles, hardcover, 1941.

   Miss Milverton, or Aunt Augusta to some, is the doyen of the Milverton family in Trevarrow, a large Cornish village. She has inherited, for the duration of her life, the Milverton home, grounds. and farm, and administers them as a maiden lady of uncertain years and fixed views would be likely to do. Miss Milverton cannot be said to be liked by anyone, but she is certainly respected by most.

   Unfortunately, the heir to the estate is a bit of a wastrel with a tendency to low morals, though not as low, Miss Milverton feels, as those of his wife. When the heir dies on the estate from what appears to be food poisoning — oxalic acid presumably made from rhubarb leaves — there is little mourning.

   Another death under similar circumstances opens up a reinvestigation of the first one, and Chief Inspector William Austen is brought in from Scotland Yard. Austen is a gentleman and a scholar, and he handles the investigation in a manner befitting those two attributes.

   The novel is well written, with some interesting characters, but the ultimate heir is a bit too charming, or so we are told, to be real. Still, this book makes one look forward to reading more mystery novels by Anne Hocking.

— Reprinted from CADS 17, October 1991. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.


Bibliographic Notes:   Anne Hocking was the name under which Naomi Annie Hocking Messer (nicknamed “Mona”) wrote most of her more than 40 mysteries, in a career extending from 1933 to her death in 1966, with one book appearing in 1968, two years after her death. Over 30 of them were cases for Superintendent Austen. Only a small fraction of her work was ever published in the US.

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


JAMES W. ZISKIN – Cast the First Stone. Ellie Stone #5. Seventh Street Books, softcover, June 2017.

First Sentence:   Sitting at the head of runway 31R at Idlewild, the jet hummed patiently, its four turbines spinning, almost whining.

   Los Angeles. 1962. Tony Eberle, a boy from upstate New York, is about to appear in his first Hollywood film and small-town reporter, Ellie Stone, has been sent West to do a story on Tony. One problem: Tony is missing, the director is desperate, and the producer has been murdered. Can Ellie solve the murder and find a hopefully innocent Tony?

   Ziskin has truly captured the time and details of the early 1960s. How refreshing to not have cell phones, GPS, the internet, and all the rest of today’s technology. Instead, there are pay phones, telegrams, Thomas Bros. Guide maps, and good old legwork. And twenty-five cent tips; an element that is really is overworked. There are excellent cultural references to the music, actors, and locations of the time, as well as emerging stories of the homosexuality of Rock Hudson, Tony Perkins, and others.

   Ellie is a really well-drawn character; she’s smart, clever, independent, and resourceful. As she is also the author’s narrator, she is also the voice of some great lines— “The same waitress from the day before asked me how my fairy tale had worked out. I shook my head and said it had turned grim.”

    Cast the First Stone has a very good plot with unexpected twists, including the killer one doesn’t predict. What was particularly nice was that there was never an obvious suspect, and the ending was delightful.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.


       The Ellie Stone series —

1. Styx & Stone (2013)

2. No Stone Unturned (2014)      Nominated for Anthony, Best Paperback Original.
3. Stone Cold Dead (2015)      Nominated for Barry, Best Paperback Original.
4. Heart of Stone (2016)      Nomintated for Anthony & Edgar, Best Paperback Original.

5. Cast the First Stone (2017)
6. A Stone’s Throw (2018)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


GEOFFREY NORMAN – Deep End. Morgan Hunt #3. William Morrow, hardcover, 1994. Avon, paperback, April 1995.

   Norman’s tales of the ex-con turned private eye in the Florida Panhandle have gotten some pretty good press. I do wish the publicists would stop the comparisons to John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee, but faint hope of that, I’m afraid.

   Hunt was sent to prison for beating his sister’s husband to death after a long history of her being a battered wife. Released early through intervention of a lawyer for whom he now works occasionally, he obtained a PI’s license with the same lawyer’s help.

   As the story opens, he has nothing in particular going, and is out for a pleasure dive with a casual friend when the friend’s boat is stopped by the Coast Guard for a drug search. The Coast Guard people are arrogant and destructive, and Hunt is barely able to hold his temper in check.

   Though the friend is disposed to let it go, Hunt decides to see if he can cause the Coast Guard some trouble, and find out why a man such as his friend should be targeted. The trail leads to a lawyer that his friend has mortally offended. He resolves the problem to everyone’s satisfaction, but then his friend — who has all sorts of financial problems — takes a quasi-legal job diving for sunken treasure, and then he disappears.

   All right, I’ll admit it — there is a faint flavor of Travis McGee in the way Hunt operates and looks at the world, at least in this book. As I’ve said before, Norman is a very good writer even if he isn’t another John D. He has created appealing charcetrs in Hunt, his Cajun lady Jesse Beaudreaux, and the lawyer Nat Semmes.

   The first-person narrative is excellent, as is the feel for the Florida landscape. The story this time is nothing particularly special, but neither is it offensive. If you like hardboiled fiction, Norman consistently furnishes you with high-quality examples.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #13, June 1994.


       The Morgan Hunt series —

Sweetwater Ranch (1991)
Blue Chipper (1993)
Deep End (1994)
Blue Light (1995)

THE THIRD MAN “One Kind Word.” BBC, UK, 02 October 1959 (episode 1, season 1). Syndicated, US, 03 September 59 (?). Michael Rennie, (Harry Lime), Rupert Davies (Inspector Shillings). Guest cast: Mai Zetterling, George Pastell, Eric Pohlmann. Based on characters in the novel The Third Man by Graham Greene and on the 1949 film of the same title starring Orson Welles. Director: Cliff Owen.

   Before this TV series, there was also a spinoff on British radio called The Adventures of Harry Lime (broadcast in the US as The Lives of Harry Lime), also starring Orson Welles. Produced by Harry Alan Towers, it lasted for one season, 1951-52, and 52 episodes, most readily available to listen to today. Although well remembered by OTR fans, the television series lasted longer, from 1959 to 1965, for a total of 77 30 minute episodes.

   The radio series took place before the film, but the TV series covered Harry Lime’s post-war activities, after (if I understand it correctly) he had become a legitimate import-export dealer in both London and New York. Most of this first episode, however, consists of a flashback to a time in Vienna just after the war, when Harry was still deeply involved in the underground and a huge assortment of black market activities there in the British zone.

   Beginning in London several years after the war, this episode finds Harry being called to a hospital where a woman (Mai Zetterling) is near death after being rescued from the Thames River. It turns out that he had met her twice before, once during the war in Cairo, and the second time in Vienna immediately afterward, when she was involved in a smuggling operation she tried to lead Harry to and have him join up with them.

   She obviously did not lead a happy life, and as the title of the episode suggests, one kind word at the right time, ibe hat she never received, may have made all the difference. This is a very moody piece, with lots of dark shadows, tight closeups and mysterious men hidden in doorways, some with guns.

   Not to mention the trenchcoat Harry seems always to be wearing, and the inevitable zither music, always at the appropriate moment. Many of the 77 episodes are available on the collectors’ market, and if this one’s a good example, I’m going to see about obtaining them.

THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY. United Artists, 1959. Robert Mitchum, Julie London, Gary Merrill, Albert Dekker, Jack Oakie, Charles McGraw, Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige, Jay Novello, Tom Lea. Based on the novel by Tom Lea. Director: Robert Parrish.

   An American gunman who has lived in Mexico since killing man as a youngster takes an inquisitive trip into Texas, breaks his leg in an accident involving a tumbleweed and his horse, and is almost persuaded to stay. The wife of the lieutenant in charge of a cavalry post is one of the main attractions.

   There is also a good deal of political activity going on, both n the US and Mexico, but the story that’s worth caring about is a personal one. Mitchum is always always effortless in the roles he does on the screen, but he does more acting here than in a dozen other movies he’s been in. He portrays Martin Brady as a slow, cautious, and possibly thick-witted man, but one greatly in demand for the speed of his gun hand, and that’s wher all his troubles lie. In other words, this is strictly a Robert Mitchum picture, but Julie London still somehow manages to make the most of her rather limited role.

PostScript:   Tom Lea, who is said to have a small part, I wouldn’t recognize if I saw him, and I guess I did. Satchel Paige is, of course, the baseball pitching legend, and I never knew he was also in demand by anyone in Hollywood. Charles McGraw, a long-time favorite of mind, had a part too short to suit me, but I was glad to finally out a face on the voice of Jay Novello — better known in this house, at least, as Rocky Jordan’s old fried and enemy, Captain Sam Sabaaya of the Cairo police.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24, August 1990 (very slightly revised).


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SABAKA. United Artists, 1954. Originally released as The Hindu in 1953. Nino Marcel, Boris Karloff, Lou Krugman, Reginald Denny, June Foray, Peter Coe, Jay Novello. Several sources say that The Hindu was an outgrowth of the “Gunga Ram” episodes originally seen on TV’s Smilin’ Ed’s Gang (later known as Andy’s Gang). Written produced & directed by Frank Ferrin.

   A real cut-and-paste job by a guy who also wrote, produced & directed two episodes of Andy’s Gang featuring this film, and how’s that for street creds?

   Actually Sabaka isn’t all that bad. Not very good either, but… well we’ll get to that later. For now, just to dispense with the preliminaries, the story such as it is, is about young elephant jockey Gunga Ram, played by Nino Marcel, a young actor in the Sabu mold, who gets involved with a cult of fire-devil worshipers. When the baddies kill his sister and her husband he vows to track them down — does some of this anticipate The Searchers? — which he (SPOILER!) manages with the aid of his loyal elephant and pet tiger.

   On the plus side, this was photographed in color, entirely in India amid some splendid scenery and a few rather tacky sets. The costumes splash gaudily across the screen, crowd scenes loom truly epic in scope, and the animals seem to actually interact with the people around them. Someone took care too to make the fake forest fire seem not-quite-so-fakey, and Boris Karloff as a sinister-looking police type delivers his lines with accustomed relish — unlike many cheap foreign films, this one features the actual actors saying their lines.

   Also to its credit, Sabaka offers some obscure bit players doing their thing skillfully as usual. Lou Krugman, Peter Coe (in his 2nd film with Karloff) and Jay Novello aren’t exactly household names, but they pitch right in there along with better-known Reginald Denney and Victor Jory, strutting their stuffy and evil acts respectively.

   But alas, there’s a movie to contend with here, and Sabaka ain’t much. The story moves in fits and starts, pausing frequently for the characters to stand around and explain the plot to each other, and it stops dead still for several minutes whenever a parade goes by.

   Sabaka, however, offers one unique treasure to delight in: a rare live screen appearance by the remarkable June Foray, in a meaty role as the evil high priestess of the Flame Devil. She gets to kill Victor Jory, gloat at the hero, preach violence to her minions and try to immolate an elephant, all with enthusiasm that far outstrips the meager movie around her.

   I can’t really recommend Sabaka, but I have to say I enjoyed it.

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