March 2018


ED McBAIN – There Was a Little Girl. Matthew Hope #11. Warner, hardcover, 1994; paperback, 1995.

   I thought the last Matthew Hope book — Mary, Mary — was poor in just about every respect. I’d enjoyed the series in the past, though, and thought I’d try another. Anybody’s entitled to an off day.

   As the book opens, Matthew Hope is shot twice by an unknown assailant as he emerges from a bar in the Newtown section of Calusa, Florida. He’s rushed to the hospital in critical condition and is stabilized, but in a semi-comatose condition.

   The police and his friends and associates begin to try to backtrack him to find what could have led to the shooting, and find only a real estate deal. Hope was acting as agent for a circus owner to try to buy some privately owned fairgrounds as a permanent home for the circus. Can this seemingly innocuous transaction be the rationale for an attempted murder? Yep. Sure can.

   This is an interesting departure from the norm in terms of structure. The story is told by a combination of flashbacks via the semi-comatose Hope and the actions of his friends and associates as they investigate his shooting.

   The narration segues from one into the other and back, and it works well. McBain does his usual competent job of writing smooth, readable prose, and a good degree of tension is maintained both as to Hope’s condition and finding the killer.

   The circus background was interesting, too. Little Girl goes a long way toward recapturing the form Mcain showed in the early Hope stories.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.

JAMES E. MARTIN – The Flip Side of Life. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1990. Avon, paperback, 1991.

   Cleveland-based PI Gil Disbro’s second case involves a missing college professor and his son, who may be the victim of grandparental kidnapping. There are also three murders before the book is finished, so all in all, in spite of the price tag [$21.95], you do get your money’s worth.

   Martin writes with nice clean prose, nothing too elegant, but he keeps the story moving. Some introspective passages, mostly with his live-in lady, add a bit to his character. It’s pretty good as a detective story too, even without a big surprise at the end.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #22, June 1990.

      The Gil Disbro series —

The Mercy Trap (1989)
The Flip Side of Life (1990)
And Then You Die (1992)
A Fine and Private Place (1994)

DECOY. Monogram, 1946. (Miss) Jean Gillie, Edward Norris, Robert Armstrong, Herbert Rudley, Sheldon Leonard, Marjorie Woodworth, William Self. Screenplay by Ned Young, based on a story by Stanley Rubin, adapted from a radio play broadcast as an episode of The Whistler. Director: Jack Bernhard.

   This rather bizarre excursion into sci-fi noir is, according to some critics, the best movie that Monogram ever made. I wouldn’t go that far, but it has its moments. Based on an actual fact, though, stretched to its limit and quite a way beyond, it has to do with reviving a hardened criminal after being successfully put to death in the state of California’s notorious gas chamber. (There is a drug that is an antidote to cyanide poisoning, but no, it doesn’t work once the victim is already dead.)

   That’s the extent of the sci-fi content, and again no, that’s not why this movie has become to many a cult classic. Unavailable for many years, except as a scattering of film conventions, the real reason this movie has so many fans is its starring lady, British-born Jean Gillie, whose American debut this was. As far as femme fatales in noir film go, she is the fatalest. There is $400,000 of stolen money at stake, and she is absolutely determined to get her hands on it, no matter how many men she has to seduce and betray along the way.

   For a film made in 1946, there is a lot of violence in this film, but thinking back, most of it is not shown on camera. You may think so as you’re watching, but not so. Even so, when Monogram released the movie to TV, one scene of Margot Shelby (Gillie’s character) backing up and driving over her erstwhile boyfriend two or three times was cut so that it happens only once. Or so I’m told. This latter version is the one, alas, that’s now available on DVD, perhaps the only one in existence.

   The acting is mostly fine, the sets are solid and often extremely effective (such as the opening scene as the doctor who had previously succumbed to Gillie’s character’s charms looks in a mirror at his battered and disheveled self in a ratty gas station restroom). And the final scene, one in which Margot stays true to herself to the end, is one you will long remember.

   Trouble is, Margot is such a one-dimensional character you have to do a science-fictional “suspension of disbelief” to swallow the fact that such an amoral person could exist. Given that, as well as the cornerstone sfnal concept at the core of the film, and I think you’ll enjoy this movie as much as I did.


GARY JENNINGS – The Terrible Teague Bunch. W. W. Norton & Co., hardcover, 1975; trade paperback, 1980. Avon, paperback, 1982.

   Drop what you’re doing and go out and get this. I mean it. Waste no time. Don’t read another word here, don’t touch that mouse, just put down the piano and get this book. I’ll wait here till you get back.

   Okay, while everyone else is gone, I’ll fill you in on the back-story of how I came to read this. It’s long and not very interesting, but I’ll tell it anyway.

   Back in 1975 when we were a young married couple, my wife worked at a public library (and aren’t you glad we already have public libraries? Can you imagine trying to get an idea like that through Congress now?). Whenever I picked her up for lunch or dinner, I used to browse through the books a bit. Or more than a bit, which is how I saw this book, 43 years ago, but for some reason I never checked it out.

   Okay, so fast-forward four decades and odd-change, to last week, when my favorite used-book store went out of business and I went in to scarf up some bargains. At one point I sat down to take a break on the only chair they had there for public use, tucked into the section on Railroad books. I have no interest in Railroad books, but as I sat there, my eyes lighted on the easy-to-read spine of The Terrible Teague Bunch. I didn’t recognize the title, but I figured I might as well look at it till my legs quit hurting, and as soon as I read the jacket-flap, I recognized it as that book from long ago I never got around to.

   “Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”                       — Detour, 1945

   So if everybody’s back now, I’ll go on to talk about The Terrible Teague Bunch. It’s a magnificent shaggy-dog-story of a Western about two cowboys, an oil well rigger and a Cajun swamp logger who decide to rob a train and spend most of the book just trying to get to the railroad with a meager herd of mangy cows.

   Along the way they have to deal with swindlers, swollen rivers, bellicose Baptists and a tornado, but that’s only part of the story. There’s also a thread about a woman who was captured by Comanches twenty years ago, trying to make her way in the world with a mixed-race daughter, and ….

    … and I’m not going to tell much about the rest, because it would spoil a good story. I will say that the tale is told with a wry, sharp sense of humor that had me laughing out loud in places, and it quickly becomes apparent that these guys are just too damn nice to rob a train. At which point I thought I could see the ending coming, but I was wrong.

   The last third of Teague turns grim, all the more so because the jokes keep coming, and from characters we really care about. This is writing of a high order, and more than that, it’s fun to read — a LOT of fun! Check it out now and thank me later.


THE ADVENTURERS. Gravity Pictures, China, 2017. Original title Xia dao lian meng. Andy Lao, Jean Reno, Zhang Jingchu, Qui Shu, Tony Yo-ning Yang, Eric Trang, Yi Sha. Co-Written and directed by Stephen Fung.

   The setup for this exciting heist film is the oldest of cops and robbers cliches, the tough obsessed cop vs the clever thief. A thousand variations of the story have been told from Les Miserables to Arsene Lupin, but this one wisely relies on action, high tech, gorgeous locales (Paris, Cannes, Prague, Kiev — the latter not so gorgeous), and a bit of character development rather than try to ring any changes on the standard tropes.

   Dan Zhang (Andy Lao) is just out of prison. He was captured while stealing a rare jewel, one part of a fabulous set known as Gaea, when he stopped to rescue Inspector Pierre Bissette (Jean Reno) from a burning police car, and a mysterious motorcyclist ambushed him, knocked him unconscious, and stole the jewel.

   In short order Dan eludes Bissette and is off to Cannes where the second part of the Gaea set is up for auction. Reunited with his friend and computer geek partner Po (Tony Yo-ning Yang) for the heist they are also joined by a third new team member, Red (Qui Shu) a kick ass young woman of invaluable skills.

   The heist goes off without a hitch despite Bissette’s presence, and Dan and Po are off to see the fence who befriended and taught Dan all he knows, Kong (Eric Trang), who presents Dan with the tongue of the thief who hijacked the jewel five years earlier, and informs Dan that his fiance, art appraiser Amber, was the one who turned him into the cops. Dan still loves her though, and can’t really blame her.

   The cost of retirement is high, and with the money Kong spent on revenge taken out of his payment, Dan agrees to one last heist, the third and final part of the Gaea set the Rope of Life, owned by wealthy Charlie Lo (Yi Sha) who keeps it in his castle outside Prague.

   Meanwhile Bissette, under pressure to capture Dan, and with his own demonsdriving his pursuit (his father was a thief) is joined by Dan’s fiance Amber (Zhang Jingchu) to try and track Dan’s next heist down.

   “He’s the worst kind of thief,” Bissette tells Amber, “one with ethics and integrity. If I don’t get him now I never will.”

   It will be a surprise to no one that there is more going on than this, crosses and double crosses, betrayal, and subtle reminders that Dan and Bissette are more alike than different spice up the heist and its aftermath. Finally, with Amber taken hostage Dan must team with Bissette, and he and Po travel to Kiev in Russia where Gaea is to be sold, and all the scores settled in a clever finale.

   A clever metaphor for the plot and action are the Russian style dolls Kong makes for a hobby, revealed layer beneath layer until the truth is uncovered. No new ground is broken here, but it is great fun, better acted than usual, and with enough car chases, narrow escapes, neat gadgets, and reversals of fortune for two or three Bond movies enhanced by a solid script (co-credited with Lao as Andy Lo and others) and direction.

   Reno doesn’t have a lot to do in the mostly Chinese cast, but he adds weight to the story, and wears the cliches of his character like a bespoken suit. His Inspector Bissette is a lonely man who talks to the bugs in his apartment and has been passed over for promotion because of his failure to capture Zhang, but he is human and capable rather than the usual cartoon policeman of the cliché.

   Of course as usual there are some things you just have to take on faith they are so outside the realm of possibility, but if you are willing to give an inch, The Adventurers will brighten any evening.

by Francis M. Nevins

   A few columns ago I spent some space on the earliest Maigret short stories, written by Georges Simenon in a single month and published in the French weekly magazine Paris-Soir-Dimanche between October 1936 and January 1937. This time we take a look at some of the slightly later and somewhat longer tales about the titan of the Quai des Orfèvres, including two that have never been published in English. Not in print anyway.

   After a hiatus of a bit more than a year, the second series of Maigret stories began to appear on a monthly basis in the interconnected weeklies Police-Film, Police-Roman, and Police-Film/Police-Roman. All were collected during the Nazi occupation period in LES NOUVELLES ENQUÊTES DE MAIGRET (Gallimard, 1944) except what I shall call the two outliers, which were included in later printings of the collection. The last three stories in the series first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1949 and 1952 and most of the others much later, in the early and middle 1970s. All but the two outliers were included in the collection MAIGRET’S PIPE (1977).

   Of the ten stories in the series the earliest to be published in French was “Mademoiselle Berthe et son Amant” (Police-Film, 29 April 1938), which appeared in EQMM for April 1973 as “Maigret and the Frightened Dressmaker” and in MAIGRET’S PIPE under its proper title, which I assume any reader of this column can figure out. Maigret has retired and is happily cultivating his garden at his villa in Meung-sur-Loire when he receives an anonymous letter from a woman claiming to be the niece of a Police Judiciaire colleague of his who was killed by his side. (Later this colleague is identified as Sergeant Lucas, but as far as I can tell, no fellow cop has ever been killed by Maigret’s side, least of all Lucas, who appears several times after this story, including in one of the ten tales in this series.)

   Maigret travels to Paris, meets Mlle. Berthe on the terrace of Montmartre’s Café de Madrid, and discovers that she’s the lover of one of four young men who robbed a radio store in the boulevard Beaumarchais and killed a cop during their getaway. That young man, now a fugitive, has sent Berthe some letters threatening to kill her if she doesn’t abandon her work as a free-lance dressmaker and join him on the run.

   Maigret takes a room in a hotel facing Berthe’s apartment and starts to keep watch. In a neighborhood bistro known as the Zanzi-Bar he meets Berthe’s brother, a young hoodlum called P’tit Louis, who’s been following her. (There are countless Simenon underworld characters known by that name, which some translators leave as is and others, like Jean Stewart in this story, render as Louis the Kid.) Later Berthe is attacked in her apartment, but Maigret sees through what has been going on—though the reader who can do likewise is as rare as a toad with wings—and magnanimously allows the dressmaker and her Albert to escape.

   “Tempête sur la Manche” (Police-Film, 20 May 1938; published both in EQMM for December 1978 and in MAIGRET’S PIPE as “Storm in the Channel”) seems almost like a full-length Maigret in miniature, complete with the vivid atmospheric touches one always encounters in Simenon novels. The Commissaire has been retired for three months and he and Mme. Maigret are in the harbor city of Dieppe, awaiting the Channel boat that will take them to a vacation in England.

   But the harbor is shut down by the titular storm and the Maigrets take shelter in a quayside boardinghouse. When one of the maids in that establishment is shot down on the deserted rue de la Digue on the way back from carrying a boarder’s luggage to a Channel boat about to brave the storm and make for Newhaven, Maigret tries to keep his identity a secret but soon finds himself helping the local police identify the murderer, who seems clearly to have been one of the boarders.

   The central clue is a series of numbers written on a back of a boardinghouse menu card, but not one reader in a million will be able to decipher the figures although Mme. Maigret grasps their meaning in an instant. The story implausibly ends with the police beating a confession out of the murderer—not at Headquarters, which would be credible enough, but in the boardinghouse front room.

   Next came “Le Notaire de Châteauneuf” (Police-Film/Police- Roman, 17 June 1938), which was translated in EQMM for March 1972 as “Maigret and the Missing Miniatures,” the same translation appearing in MAIGRET’S PIPE as “The Three Daughters of the Lawyer.”

   Maigret, still retired, is puttering around his garden, “in a patch of tomatoes so ripe that they dropped to the ground and spilled their scarlet juice,” when he receives an unexpected visitor named Motte, a notaire from Châteauneuf, some 40 kilometers from Meung-sur-Loire. One of Motte’s three daughters, 19-year-old Armande, is engaged to a poor but handsome young man who aspires to be an artist. Motte is also a collector of “carved and engraved ivories,” several of which have disappeared from his study.

   The prime suspect is his soon to be son-in-law, whose father is a notorious international thief, but Motte’s chief clerk, who wants Armande for himself, might have taken the ivories in order to discredit his rival the aspiring artist. Then of course there are Motte’s three daughters, and his all-but-invisible wife, and Motte himself.

   This turns out to be one of those Maigrets in which there’s no crime but only what we might call a domestic entanglement. It’s a bright and springlike tale, but it must have convinced Simenon that as long as he kept Maigret retired and without authority, he’d be pretty much confined to unexciting cases like this one.

   He overcame this challenge, in part at least, with the next month’s tale, “L’improbable Monsieur Owen” (Police-Roman, 15 July 1938), which has never been officially published in English but can be read and downloaded on the Web simply by googling the title.

   When Mme. Maigret is summoned to Quimper to care for a dying aunt, the former Commissaire heads south to Cannes at the invitation of an old friend, nominally the porter at the palatial Hôtel Excelsior, who seems to have the clout to treat Maigret to a luxury suite indefinitely at no charge. His enjoyment of the high life is interrupted when his benefactor knocks on his door and reports some strange goings-on in the hotel.

   A young man no one has ever seen before has been found naked and drowned in the tub of a suite in which resides a well-to-do Swede with the most un-Swedish name of Owen who meanwhile has vanished, leaving all his clothes and possessions behind. An empty whiskey bottle is found which didn’t come from the hotel but Owen’s lovely French nurse has also vanished.

   It almost sounds like an Ellery Queen puzzle but Maigret refuses to become involved, although he gets sucked in before he knows it. The highlight of the story is the exceptionally strong interrogation scene in the final pages, but Simenon never bothers to explain what the grand scheme underlying the events was all about, let alone how it could have been profitable enough to justify the carload of francs it must have cost. How that whiskey bottle figured in the plot likewise gets dropped down the memory hole. Quel dommage. This story had potential that Simenon let go to waste.

   In “Ceux du Grand Café” (Police-Film/Police-Roman, 12 August 1938) the Maigrets are back in Meung-sur-Loire and the bored former Commissaire has taken to spending his afternoons drinking at the local bistro and playing cards with the other town characters, who are never referred to by their names but only as the butcher, the mechanic (a.k.a. Citroën), the blacksmith and the veterinarian, who also happens to be the mayor.

   The only parties besides Maigret who have names are Urbain, the proprietor of the Grand Café, and the barmaid Angèle, whose “blouse is particularly well filled.” One afternoon the butcher is found shot to death at the edge of town shortly after displaying to his fellow Grand Café habitués a wallet apparently filled with 1000-franc notes which are now missing.

   Maigret is begged to step in by the mayor and every other dignitary in town but adamantly refuses until events force his hand. This tale, which has a much thinner plot than “Monsieur Owen,” can also be accessed on the Web by googling the title.

         (To be continued.)


ROBERT A. CARTER – Final Edit. Nicholas Barlow #2. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1994. No paperback edition.

   I read the first in the series, Casual Slaughters, and thought it was decent if ot quite as good as the notices it got. Carver is a publishing veteran and a Contributing Editor to Publisher’s Weekly, and this got a starred review from them. No connection, I’m sure.

   Publisher Nicholas Barlow has an Imprint Editor (an editor with his own line of authors who gets credit on the book) who is giving him a lot of problems. Everyone in the firm has feelings toward him that range from dislike to detestation, and one threatens to quit over his actions. Nick is working his way up to firing him and buying out his contract, but before he gets there, the man is murdered in the firm’s offices.

   There’s no shortage of suspects, including to his displeasure, Nicholas himself. So he sets to work with the aid of his brilliant crippled brother to unmask the killer.

   Nicholas Barlow is an amiable character, a throwback in some ways to the bygone era of gentleman sleuths. I liked the publishing background, and though the characters generally well done. It’s a smooth if not exactly gripping read, and though the villain is no real surprise when finally unmasked, the book ends on a bittersweet note.

   Carver breaks no new ground at all in Final Edit, but he does what he’s chosen to do quite well. There are worse things to say about an author and his book.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.

Editorial Note: This was the second and final case of murder solved by Nicholas Barlow.


21 HOURS AT MUNICH. Made-for-TV movie. ABC, 7 November 1976. William Holden, Shirley Knight, Franco Nero, Anthony Quayle, Richard Basehart. Director: William A. Graham.

   Surprisingly bloody and violent for a made-for-TV movie (released theatrically overseas), 21 Hours at Munich is a minimalist docudrama recreation of the Palestinian terror attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Franco Nero stars as Issa, the leader of the Palestinian Black September organization. He’s portrayed as a killer, albeit a reluctant one who is more interested in freeing his brothers from Israeli jails.

   Over the course of a day, he faces off against Munich Chief of Police Manfred Schreiber (William Holden) who is determined to save as many lives of the Israeli captives as possible. Rounding out the cast are Richard Basehart as German prime minister Willi Brandt, Shirley Knight as a Olympics security officer tasked with acting as a liaison between the authorities and the terrorists, and Anthony Quayle as an Israeli general who is deeply skeptical of the German authorities’ ability to pull off a successful counter-terrorist operation.

   A lot of the proceedings are unfortunately devoted to repetitive conversations between Issa and Schrieber in which the latter asks for more time to reply to the terrorists’ demands and the formerer fumes with anger. The more effective moments, however, are in the portrayals of the bursts of tragic violence that marred an event nominally devoted to the brotherhood of man. The downbeat ending is followed by voice-over narration that resounds on a decidedly pessimistic note. Teleplay by Edward Hume and Howard Fast.

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