January 2018

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

CHARLES FINCH “Gone Before Christmas.” Charles Lenox #10.5. eBook novelette. Minotaur Books, December 2017. Setting: London-1887.

First Sentence: The two brothers stood motionless upon the top step of a fine London townhouse, each with arms crossed, assessing a correspondingly motionless pair of trees propped against a railing.

   Lt. Ernest Austen of the Grenadier Guards has disappeared. Charles Lenox is trying to establish his detective agency, the first of its kind, but having little luck. Even Scotland Yard is so baffled, they’ve agreed to having Lenox consult. Solving this case would give him credibility and recognition. But can he solve it?

   One of the many things to love about Finch’s writing is his use of humor, whether it’s about life, death— “Death is the great spiritual adventure toward which all living things mush lean forward in hope and humility, in neither fear or anger.” –and Christmas trees.

   It is always interesting learning about the customs of a period, and that they relate to Christmas makes them even more so. The tradition of Lenox’s father is quite progressive for the time. Yet one of the best things about a prequel, is to learn more about the protagonists and their history.

   Finch creates wonderful analogies— “France and England were rather like an unhappy couple out to supper at friends’: not presently at war, except in the sense that they were continually at war.” His descriptions are evocative— “There was evidence all over it of wealth, and ancient lineage—tapestries on the walls, enormous hunting scenes in oils, tables of marble….”

   His use of language is a treat— “…he discovered that the next train was in ninety minutes. He set out to see the wonders of Ipswich for himself. When that was finished, he had eighty-seven minutes left….” It is elements such as these, along with learning bits of information such as how the term “butler” came to be, that makes reading Finch such a pleasure.

   “Gone Before Christmas” is a lovely story for the holidays with just the right balance of seriousness and sentimentality.

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

DOCTOR OF DOOM. Cinematográfica Calderón S.A., Mexico, 1963. Originally released as Las luchadoras contra el médico asesino. Young America Productions Inc., US, English dubbed version. Lorena Velazquez, Armando Silvestre, Elizabeth Campbell, Roberto Canedo, Chucho Salinas, Chabela Romero — and Gerardo Zepeda as “Gomar.” Written by Alfredo Salazar. Directed by Rene Cardona. American version produced by K. Gordon Murray.

   A film of surreal badness and genuine delight, this one has it all: wrestling women, mad scientist, ape-man, gangsters….. everything but cowboys, and I suspect they may have been in the original Mexican version.

   In fact, it may be impossible to fully appreciate the vision of Luchadoras/Asesino from what “Mexploitation” producer K. Gordon Murray turned into Doctor of Doom, but enough survives to boggle the mind.

   The plot is admirably straightforward: A mad doctor (imaginatively dubbed “The Mad Doctor”) has been kidnapping women off the street and removing their brains. We know, but the police don’t, that the flakey physician has been trying to transplant the brain of a gorilla into their skulls — always a project of dubious medical value, but there you are — but they tend to die once their brains are removed; thoughtless of them.

   (See what I did there? “Thoughtless?”) Anyway, I should add here for the sake of clarity that we don’t see The batty bone-setter’s face, but he’s aided by a cringing medical assistant, a bunch of small-time hoods, and a half-man/half-ape named Gomar, who has super strength and can be fitted with a bullet-proof suit when the heat is on.

   So right away we have the quintessential elements of old horror films and serials. The Police (Canedo & Salinas) are puzzled, in the time-honored tradition of monster-movie cops, but things take a turn when the demented doctor snatches the sister of pro-wrestler Gloria Venus (Lorena Velazquez, who looks unsettlingly like young Mary Tyler Moore) who also happens to be Canedo’s girlfriend. Joined by Golden Rubi (Campbell) the cops and the grapplers set out to get the bad guys.

   Which doesn’t involve a lot of detective work, because the screwy scientist has decided that what he needs for his project is a female wrestler (only logical when you stop to think about it) and while Venus and Rubi are after him, his hoods and Gomar are after them.

   Hang on a minute. I need to say here that because of legal restrictions south of the border in those days, this was made (ostensibly) as three short episodes which were then combined into a single feature film. Go figure. Anyway, the goons out after the girls kidnap the cops instead (!?) who are then rescued by the wrestling women, and everything ends happily except that the cracked quack has escaped with Gomar.

   Part two is more of the same, this time with an emphasis on discovering the real identity of the potty professor. Since there’s a character who’s been hanging around since chapter one trying to be helpful and pleasant, well… draw your own conclusions. Suffice it to say that we get more kidnappings, a fracas in the same Mad Lab that got busted up previously, and a fire that leaves the daffy doctor disfigured and thirsty for revenge.

   All this, though, was just a set-up for the Big Finish, as the paranoid practitioner captures another wrestling woman, plants Gomar’s brain in her skull, thus giving her super-strength (!?!) and sets her up as a masked rival wrestler to kill Gloria Venus in the ring, in a baroque vengeance worthy of Fu Manchu or a Sergio Leone Western, the whole thing wrapping up like a bizarre mix of Rocky and White Heat.

   What Doctor of Doom lacks in finesse — and it lacks a lot — it makes up in exuberance and a not-quite innocent charm, like an old Mascot serial or a horror flick from PRC. Director Rene Cardona, who launched wrestling super-star Santo into a cinematic career, handles it with just the right slap-dash energy and enough inattention to detail to keep things in constant motion.

   I’ll only add for you trivia completists out there that Doctor of Doom launched Lorena Velazquez into a short-lived series (see Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy) and even Gerardo Zepeda returned as Gomar in a semi-remake that surfaced here as Night of the Bloody Apes.

BILL CRIDER – Of All Sad Words. Sheriff Dan Rhodes #15. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 2008. Worldwide, paperback, 2009.

   This book also marks the first appearance in the series of C. P. (Seepy) Benton, a new-to-Blacklin County math teacher and would be folk singer whom Judge Parry warns Rhodes about as being a possible vigilante. True enough, after attending Rhodes’s “Citizens’ Academy,” Benton now believes that Rhodes could use a helping hand every so often, and that he, Benton, is just the man to give it.

   Based on a real life friend of Bill’s, Benton joins the rest of the characters in Rhodes’s jurisdiction who continue to pop up in all of the books in the series, all vicarious friends of mine, and yours, too, if you’ve read as many of them as I have.

   This one begins with the death of one of two dull-witted brothers suspected of running a meth lab in their mobile home which has exploded. Turns out that it wasn’t meth that they were working with, but a small full-blown still. Another death occurs before the book is over, and in the course of his investigation, Rhodes has plenty of bumps, scrapes and bruises to show for it.

   While the mystery to be solved is a good one, even better is how well Bill Crider was able to make all of the people and places in this very enjoyable episode in Dan Rhodes’ career come to life — often in a quietly humorous way — but man, these are real people.

AGATHA CHRISTIE – An Overdose of Death. Hercule Poirot #22. First published in the UK as One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (Collins Crime Club, hardcover, Nov 1940). First US edition published by Dodd Mead under the title The Patriotic Murders (hardcover, Feb 1941). Reprinted by Dell in the US in 1953 as An Overdose of Death. Many other reprint editions exist, in both hardcover and paperback.

   The question is, why did a quiet, unassuming and otherwise quite unremarkable dentist commit suicide in the middle of the afternoon on a day no different than other day? When one of his morning’s patients is later found dead from an overdose of a numbing agent the dentist used, the police think they know.

   Hercule Poirot is not so sure.

   This is a beautifully constructed puzzle mystery, with patients for both the deceased dentist and his partner in and out all morning, with stairs, an elevator and a front door that may or not have been fully attended. Lots of suspects, in other words, with just as many motives and opportunities. This is as totally expected from a Christie novel of this time period. Not quite as expected is the political aspect of the story, with part of the story line involving left wing agitators speaking out against the conservative upper class who never want to change anything.

   Does that have anything to do with the mystery and who did it? You’ll have to read this one for yourself. Christie is in very good form here, and while you may figure out the puzzle before Poirot does, I’m willing to wager you won’t. Either way, when I say “beautifully constructed,” I mean it. You will also be surprised how simple the explanation is. If nothing else, Christie was an absolute master of misdirection.


ROBERT CAMPBELL – The Wizard of La-La Land. Whistler #4. Pocket Books, hardcover, 1994. No paperback edition.

   This is the first Whistler since Sweet La-La Land in 1990. Campbell is best known for his Jimmy Flannery books, but my favorite series of his consisted of two books about railroad detective Jake Hatch, Plugged Nickel and Red Cent.

   Whistler, an ex-radio personality, a recovering alcoholic, and now a PI working the grungy streets of Hollywood, still remembers the unsolved murder of a cop friend’s young niece a decade ago. Now a young man dying of AIDS has whispered to a relative that he knows who did it, but hes murdered in his hospital bed before he names anyone. Old ghosts, new demons, and ever-present evil haunt Hollywood’s streets as Whistler tries to link past and present.

   The Whistler books are among the darker of PI stories, and as a matter of fact remind me to mood and sometimes subject matter of Andrew Vachss. They are rough, hard books that deal with unpleasant subjects, written in terse prose to match. Whistler has never really come alive as a character to me, though Campbell does a creditable job with some supporting players. The narration if shifting third person, and Campbell is adept at telling his stories in this way. These are for only the hardest of hardboiled fans.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, August 1994.

       The Whistler series —

1. In La-La Land We Trust (1986)
2. Alice in La-La Land (1987)
3. Sweet La-La Land (1990)
4. The Wizard of La-La Land (1995)


A SPECIAL DAY. Gold Film, Italy, 1977, as Una giornata particolare. Cinema 5, US, 1977 (subtitled). Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, John Vernon, Françoise Berd, Patrizia Basso, Tiziano De Persio. Director: Ettore Scola.

   A Special Day is a very quiet film. It’s a film stripped down to its bare essentials. Two lead actors, one primary location, and a story that unfolds through dialogue. There’s not a lot of music and no special effects. And for the most part, this Golden Globe winner works in accomplishing what it sets out to do: to tell the story of two ordinary people trying to live authentically under the oppressive force of Italian fascism.

   Filmed in a quasi-sepia tone, where the only notable colors are those of the Nazi and fascist flags, A Special Day isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a captivating one due in large part to its cinematography, direction, and its two legendary stars: Sophia Loren and Marco Mastroianni. The entire movie takes place on May 8, 1938, the day when Adolf Hitler visited Mussolini in Rome to solidify the alliance between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It was a day of military parades and fascist spectacle.

   Loren portrays Antonietta, a bored, listless Roman housewife with a husband (John Vernon) who doesn’t respect her and cheats on her with prostitutes. When she is left alone in the family apartment after everyone else goes to the parade for Hitler and Mussolini, a chance encounter leads her into the life of her quirky neighbor Gabriele (Mastroianni). He has decided not to attend the parade either.

   As the story progresses, it turns out that both of them are suffering from extreme loneliness and that both have been living a lie. Antonietta is suffocating in her unhappy marriage and is not quite as enthusiastic for the fascist movement as she has publicly portrayed herself to be. And Gabriele has been removed from his position as a radio broadcaster for his homosexuality.

   SPOILER ALERT! What the viewer doesn’t learn until the very end is that this is a “special” day for Gabriele in that he knows that evening he will be arrested and deported to an internment camp for his anti-fascist views and his homosexuality.

   The story works best when it’s focused on the individual characters and their quirks and how their chance encounter changes the both of them. Little things such as Antonietta’s shame that she isn’t formally educated or Gabriele’s desire to learn the rumba give depth to their identities. There are some quite funny moments as well.

   What doesn’t work as well is the film’s desire to deliver a message to the audience. Sometimes subtlety works better than hammering home a message that could have been delivered without some of the less believable moments, such as when Gabriele all but assaults Antonietta after she slaps him once he spurns her romantic advances.

   And although the viewer sees Loren and Mastroianni, the film is supposed to be the story of a chance encounter between a conservative Italian housewife and an urbane, intellectual. Would these distinct personalities really bond in the emotional manner that they ultimately do in the film? Or is it pure theater and spectacle, a cinematic counterpart to the fascist narrative?

   A Special Day works wonderfully in capturing the mood of how oppressive fascist Italy was for nonconformists, but does it in a manner that occasionally feels too forced and too reliant on its two leads to propel the movie forward when the script runs out of steam, which occurs after about an hour. But what two leads!

NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Arthur Franz, Beverly Garland, Helene Stanton, Michael Ansara, Stacy Harris, Edwin Stafford Nelson, Mike Mazurki. Director: William Castle.

   From the poster, you’d think that this movie would take place in and along Bourbon Street, with lots of gin joints, hot jazz, and girls in tight blouses and loose morals. Alas, it is not to be. This is a behind the scenes look at crime along the waterfront — smuggling, kickbacks, and petty pilfering, and as such, could have be told bout any large-sized port city in the US.

   When Arthur Franz comes to town, he’s an innocent whose only goal is to fix up an old tub and go into the shipping business on the Mississippi for himself. In trying to make a go of it, his path crosses that of the big crime boss in person (Michael Ansara) and two women, one good (Helene Stanton), the other not so good (Beverly Garland).

   I will not tell you which one he ends up with at the end of the movie, but I think perhaps you can guess as well I did. I cannot tell you more, as there is otherwise very little suspense in this film. Franz is OK as an actor, but as a leading man, he has very little charisma in this film. Another weakness in the casting is that Beverly Garland and Helene Stanton (The Big Combo) look too much alike, and while it was no chore watching either of them in action, it always took me a few seconds to distinguish which one was who, and even then I wasn’t always sure.

CARLETON CARPENTER – Deadhead. Curtis, paperback original; 1974. Paperback reprint: Black Walnut, 1985.

   If you were to do a search for Mr. Carpenter on the Internet, you’d find more in the movie and entertainment databases than you will regarding his writing career, which consisted of only a small handful of paperback originals. There’ll be a list of them soon, in case you’re interested.

   Before concentrating on the books, though, perhaps it suffices to say that Carleton Carpenter was a both a composer and an actor, in both the movies, on television and in Broadway musicals. One of the top musical hits of 1951 was “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” sung by Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter (from the film Two Weeks in Love). His career in the movies and on TV is summed up neatly at imdb.com (with some 42 credits as an actor).

   Here’s a list of Mr. Carpenter’s mystery fiction. As previously mentioned all of these are paperback originals. * = Chester Long mysteries. ** = billed as a Jasper Wild mystery.

Games Murderers Play. Curtis 07271, 1973; Black Walnut, 1985.
Cat Got Your Tongue? Curtis 07272, 1973; Black Walnut, 1985.
* Only Her Hairdresser Knew… Curtis 07299, 1973; Black Walnut, 1985.
Pinecastle. Curtis 09187, 1973, as by Ivy Manchester; Black Walnut, as Stumped, as by Carleton Carpenter.
* Deadhead. Curtis 09263, 1974; Black Walnut, 1985.
** Sleight of Hand. Popular Library 00661, 1975; Black Walnut, as Sleight of Deadly Hand.
The Peabody Experience. Black Walnut, 1985.

Short story: “Second Banana.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, October 1976.

   Little is known about Black Walnut Books, but they seem to have been in business only to print Mr. Carpenter’s books.

   Whether Jasper Wild appeared in any of the earlier books or was intended to be another continuing character is also unknown. It would also be interesting to learn whether the AHMM short story has either Chester Long or Jasper Wild as characters, leading or incidental. Someone with access to that issue will have to let us know.

   As you can see from the cover, Pinecastle (aka Stumped) was marketed and sold by Curtis as a gothic romance, but a quick scan through my copy indicates that the people who are in it all have a very strong theatrical background, which is not surprising.

   Chester Long is a hairdresser (straight). Jasper Wild’s occupation is unknown. Someone who has a copy of Sleight of Hand will have to let us know. If by chance he’s a magician as well as a detective, that would be worth knowing.

   As for the book at hand, Deadhead, when Chester is offered a position on the side as the head of the hairdresser crew for a musical bound for Broadway, he jumps at it. For the rest of the book he’s a fascinated observer behind the scenes, giving the reader an equally vicarious (and authentic) look at a world largely foreign to us mere mortals. Even so, as Chester admits on page 81:

   In my heart I knew I was nothing more than a voyeur who was being overpaid for the opportunity to peep.

   The going is as light and breezy as this for over 100 pages, chatty and gossipy in trunk loads. The murder of the show’s bizarrely flamboyant producer does not occur until page 104, which gives Chester the opportunity to show his flair as a sleuth. (Not that there’s any inkling of a previous criminous adventure. Until I checked out the bibliography, I was working under the impression that this was Chester’s first encounter with detective work.)

   With the entire company on the road and snowed in as a mammoth snowstorm hits Boston, the effect is that of an isolated country house, which means, of course, besides clues and motives, means and opportunities galore.

   And until the end, when things seem to fall apart plotwise, there would be much in the reading to recommend. While Carleton Carpenter is a story teller’s story teller, he unaccountably allows Chester’s previously mentioned flair as a sleuth to fizzle out well before the finale, all of his theories disappearing into smoke. On page 189, after the killer has been nabbed, and the case is being rehashed, Chester says:

   This has been hindsight babbling on. I was just as surprised as anyone else.

   In any case, all I can offer for a recommendation is hemi-semi-demi-positive one. The book is worth reading for the show business element – that part is simply Grade A all the way – but as a mystery, while it has its moments, the answer, if that’s what you’re asking, is, reluctantly, no. The cast and choreography are excellent, but the book itself? Good, but not up to par. It needs some work.

— April 2005


THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT. Columbia, 1939. Warren William (Michael Lanyard), Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth, Virginia Weidler, Ralph Morgan. Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, based on the novel Red Masquerade (Doubleday, 1921) by Louis Joseph Vance. Director: Peter Godfrey. Shown at Cinevent 26, Columbus OH, May 1994.

   Warren William is, as I have pointed out before, one of the great favorites of film convention audiences (both Cinevent and Cinefest), so his stint in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt was eagerly awaited by the conventioneers. Well, everybody has an off day, and it appeared to me that Williams’ dapper suavity was showing its age and formulaic quality here.

   He was not helped by co-star Ida Lupino, an intelligent actress requited to throw ignored girl friend fits that were noisy but sour rather than funny or wry. Lupino was uneven as an actress, sometimes betrayed by her natural ability to command attention whatever she did, even when it seemed out of key with the movie.

   Virginia Weidler was arch as Williams’s precocious daughter (a role she patented in The Philadelphia Story), although the writer of the program notes thought her “delightful.” A reminder that not all “B” movies were little gems.

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

(Give Me That) OLD-TIME DETECTION. Issue #46. Autumn 2017. Editor: Arthur Vidro. 36 pages. Published three times a year: Spring, Summer, and Autumn. Sample copy: $6.00 in the U.S.; $10.00 anywhere else.

   The latest issue of Old-Time Detection is here, and it’s definitely worth a look, as it’s full to the brim with information and insights about detective fiction’s Golden Age (and beyond).

   J. Randolph Cox has a biographical sketch of A.E.W. Mason, remembered today more for his general fiction than his mysteries (“[In the character of Hanaud] Mason seems to have wanted to create a professional detective who was unlike Sherlock Holmes, a man who was genial and friendly and willing to trust his intuition. Hanaud is all of these but is never described explicity. He is revealed by his actions, as an actor in a play is revealed”).

   Dr. John Curran keeps us up to date with the latest doings in the ever-expanding Agatha Christie universe (“This year’s [Agatha Christie] Festival was, sadly, a disappointment”).

   Jon L. Breen offers expert opinions about authors who were hot in the early ’80s (“This is a worthy sequel because of its freshly-minted bamboozlement”).

   Francis M. Nevins gives us a fine overview of the life and times of uber-reviewer Anthony Boucher, a genius in any field he chose to explore (“At two the next morning she [Lee Wright] woke up her husband with the excited cry that she had just found the first unsolicited manuscript she ever wanted to publish”).

   Michael Dirda has recommendations for those chilly evenings when TV isn’t spooky enough (“Even if you’re snowed in for the holidays — or all of January, for that matter — these collections will keep you cozy”).

   Charles Shibuk reveals the pleasures to be found in paperback reprints (“… the best reprint period I have seen in many years”), but notes the sad decline of a detective fiction legend (“Gone is the mastery of plot and puzzle, the spinning of deceptive clues, the sharp and incisive descriptions and dialogue”).

   Dennis Drabelle highlights the late P. D. James’s short mystery fiction, something she seldom produced (“The four tales in this slim volume, then, are old-fashioned, at least up to a point: no noir, yet plenty of shadows; no explicit sex, but ample erotic tension. And James spins them with the economy demanded by the short form”).

   … and, to top it all off, editor Arthur Vidro offers up a typically fine puzzler by William Brittain originally from EQMM (“The man in the comic strip. He walked right up the alley there just when the men came out of the bank, and touched them with his electric hands. And then he took them back down the alley”).

   You can subscribe to Old-Time Detection, by contacting the editor at: Arthur Vidro, Old-Time Detection, 2 Ellery Street, Claremont, New Hampshire 03743 or oldtimedetection@netzero.net.

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