May 2018


FOUR ODD & FORGOTTEN RADIO CRIME FIGHTERS
by Michael Shonk


   I have a fondness for the unusual in fiction. Mainstream popular fiction bores me. Take me somewhere I didn’t expect to be or have never been, and I will forgive the creative talent for a lot. Below are four crime-fighters that may not be the greatest radio detectives but are worth listening for their attempt to be different.


JOHNNY FLETCHER MYSTERY – “Navy Colt.” NBC, March 28, 1946. Written by Frank Gruber, based on the Frank Gruber novel of the same title. Cast: Albert Dekker as Johnny Fletcher, Mike Mazurki as Sam Cragg. *** Johnny and Sam are working a book scam when a beautiful young woman hires them to punch a man in the nose. Soon Johnny and Sam find themselves wanted by the police for murder.

   The script in this complex mystery is filled with wisecracks and an occasional clue, making for a fun listen.

   Pulp, mystery and western fans most likely recognize the name Frank Gruber, and maybe have read one or more of the fourteen comedy-crime books in the Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg series.

   The books not only led to this radio audition episode but also a Republic studio film in 1946 with the same cast. While this episode mentions a second episode for this proposed NBC radio series there is no evidence it was ever made.

   There was a radio series with Johnny and Sam on ABC (1948) with Bill Goodman as Johnny and Sheldon Leonard as Sam.


TALES OF FATIMA. – “A Time to Kill.” CBS, May 28, 1949. Written by Gail Ingram. Cast: Basil Rathbone as himself, Francis DeSales as Police Lieutenant Farrell. Basil’s plans for a weekend break from his role in a Broadway play are spoiled when someone tries to kill him.

   The story is full of twists including Basil hearing a murder over the phone as well as a radio announcement that Basil was dead. It makes the plot confusing, but the series’ appeal is its humor.

   It is also one of two radio detectives to have a voice from beyond help solve the mystery. Here the ancient spirit of Fatima gives Basil and the audience a clue (the other was Rogues Gallery where Eugor talks to Rogue as the PI recovers from being knocked out).

   Basil Rathbone shows his sense of humor in this series that smashes the fourth wall to tiny tiny little bits. Not only is Fatima an ancient Spirit who helps the audience and Basil solve the case, but Fatima is also the name of a cigarette and the series sponsor.

   This recording is from the podcast Great Detectives of Old Time Radio and worth a visit for any radio fans.


THE WHISPERER -“Policeman In Danger” NBC, July 29. 1951) Written by Jonathan Price. Cast: Carleton G. Young as Philip “The Whisperer” Gault, Betty Moran as Ellen Norris, and Paul Frees as Lt. Denvers. *** The Whisperer relays “The Syndicate” orders to local gang member to kill the bothersome Police Lt. Denvers. Gault and Ellen know and like the detective rush to save him.

   The Whisperer was a summer replacement series based on the characters and stories by Dr. Stetson Humphrey and his wife Irene.

   While playing college football Philip Gault was injured, leaving his voice a gruesome whisper. Gault decided to go undercover in the local Central City syndicate and destroy it. Then Doctor Lee with his nurse Ellen was able to restore Gault’s original voice. Gault decided to stay The Whisperer and use the information he learns to continue his fight against organized crime.

   Each week The Whisperer would relay “The Syndicate” orders to the local Central City gang then Gault with Ellen at his side would prevent the Mob’s plans from succeeding.

   The show played its strange premise straight with dialog that could be witty or awkwardly out of date. Uneven but fun, The Whisperer remains an odd crime-fighter worth a listen.



A VOICE IN THE NIGHT – “Case of the Worried Detective” Mutual, August 8, 1946. Written by Bob Arthur and David Kogan. Cast: Carl Brisson as himself. *** Carl’s weakness for beautiful women and a need to find a place to stay lands him in the hands of a Mob boss who demands Carl solve the murder of one of the Boss’s gang members.

   Only two episodes are known to exist and both are terrible. Little is known about A Voice in the Night beyond that it is one of radio’s strangest PI’s.

   International star Carl Brisson plays himself as the Golden Oriole nightclub owner and singer. The series’ focus is on Carl singing for the nightclub audience. Eventually Carl takes a break to share one of his crime-solving cases.

   Nothing really works in this series that mashes together the music series and the mystery. The acting and writing is awful and seems unsure whether to take Brisson tales of crime solving seriously.


   One of the appeals of mystery and crime fiction is the range of the protagonist, from brilliant to lucky, from serious to comedic. I will always have a weakness for the odd and different.

From jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman’s 1994 CD, MoodSwing.

Personnel:
Joshua Redman – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Brad Mehldau – piano
Christian McBride – bass
Brian Blade – drums

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


TEN SECONDS TO HELL. Hammer Films, 1959. Jack Palance, Jeff Chandler, Martine Carol, Robert Cornthwaite, Dave Willock. Sreenplay by Robert Aldrich and Teddi Sherman, based on the novel The Phoenix by Lawrence P. Bachmann. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   Three years after Jeff Chandler portrayed a heroic U.S. Navy captain in Away All Boats (1956), he would co-star with Jack Palance in the stunningly well photographed drama, Ten Seconds To Hell (1959). Based on Lawrence P. Bachmann’s book The Phoenix, the plot follows a German bomb disposal unit tasked with dismantling unexploded ordinances in post-war Berlin. They are a coterie of men whose work would allow the German capital to rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes.

   Directed by Robert Aldrich, who had worked with Palance in The Big Knife (1955) and Attack (1956), Ten Seconds to Hell was a Hammer Films Production/Seven Arts Pictures feature and was the auteur’s only film to feature Chandler as an actor. Aldrich made apt use of not only both men’s acting skills, but also their imposing physicality, as both Chandler and Palance were tall men. In Ten Seconds To Hell, a sublimely claustrophobic film, they portrayed men locked in a peculiar existential struggle, who both literally and figuratively, towered over the other men in their unit. Although Chandler and Palance had appeared together as opponents in Douglas Sirk’s Sign of the Pagan (1954), that mediocre costumer failed to fully utilize either man’s talents in portraying strong men locked in battle.

   At the time of the theatrical release of Ten Seconds To Hell, the New York Times recognized the impact that Aldrich’s direction had on eliciting strong performances from the two male leads, noting that Aldrich “has drawn from Jack Palance a performance that is perhaps the finest of the actor’s career” and that he “has deftly maneuvered Jeff Chandler as [Palance’s] evil alter-ego.” It is also the case that the characters portrayed by Palance and Chandler, much like the actors’ performances, are best understood primarily within the context of their antagonistic relationship and the period of time in which both men live.

   Ten Seconds To Hell takes place at the end of the Second World War, but it still can be considered central to the World War II War film genre. Set in the ruins of Berlin, the film tells the story of a bomb disposal unit who work at the behest of Major Haven (Richard Wattis), a British officer working in the Allied-occupied city. The unit consists of six men, with Erich Koertner (Palance), a former architect, and the nasty, sarcastic Karl Wirtz (Chandler) as the two primary characters.

   Their distinct worldviews and opposing personalities create exacerbate the already existing tension of working as bomb disposal technicians. The other four men, Franz Loeffler (Robert Cornthwaite), Peter Tillig (Dave Willock), Wolfgang Sulke (Wes Addy), and Hans Globke (Jimmy Goodwin), are less prominently featured in the story, but serve to further highlight the antagonism between the more introspective Koertner (Palance) and the fatalist Wirtz (Chandler).

   What unites these men is their status as History’s losers. In their study of Robert Aldrich, Alain Silver and James Ursini note that the “men of the bomb disposal unit “. . . are defeated. They are literally so, as soldiers on a losing side. They are figuratively so as well, for when they return to Berlin at the beginning of the film, they are carrying that defeat as an emotional burden.” Indeed, none of the men, with the exception of Solke, has a wife or a child to return to.

   The movie opens with a camera shot of a train pulling into a rather dismal looking Berlin station. On board are soldiers, defeated men from the losing side of the cataclysmic war that left German cities in ruins. The first person off the train is Wirtz (Chandler), signifying the pivotal role he is to play in the movie’s narrative. But, as it turns out, he will not be the film’s protagonist. That role is reserved for Koertner (Palance), the soldier to immediately follow him off the train.

   Voice over narrative, conducted in semi-documentary style, tells the viewer that Wirtz is concerned primarily with his own survival and that he plays for “high stakes” and deals “from the bottom of the deck.” It’s a blunt characterization and is designed to intrigue the viewer into wanting to know more.

   The first speaking part for Chandler occurs soon thereafter. Wirtz, Koertner, and the other four men are meeting with Major Haven, their British liaison. Wirtz takes control of the salary negotiations, forcing Haven to provide the men with a higher salary than originally suggested. Soon, the discussion among the unit turns antagonistic, as Wirtz (Chandler) challenges Koertner (Palance) to a bet that he will outlive him.

   The stakes are high. As bomb disposal technicians, the men know that one false move can mean sudden death. But they agree to Wirtz’s bet, pooling half their salaries into a pool for the winner of this morbid game. It is here that we learn just how smug, arrogant, and selfish Wirtz truly is. He knows exactly how to taunt, how to push people’s buttons. Chandler is able to convey Wirtz’s ruthlessness not merely with words, but also with a smirk, body language, and posture. It is not so much that Chandler portrays Wirtz as vicious, as it is that he is able to instill a sense of what could only be best described as creepiness into Wirtz’s persona.

   Living in the ruins of Berlin, Wirtz and Koertner share a boardinghouse run by Margot Hoefler (Martine Carole), a Frenchwoman who married a German soldier during wartime. Margot is now both a widow and a societal outcast in Berlin. Carole, the French actress who had starred as the eponymous lead character in Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès (1955), portrays Margot in a rather subdued, although occasionally too melodramatic, manner. Like Koertner and Wirtz, she too is defeated, her status as a German war bride having left her a perpetual outsider, alienated from mainstream society.

   It does not take long for Wirtz, a man without shame, to make unwanted romantic advances on Margot. One evening he comes back to the boardinghouse inebriated. His loud voice wakes up Koertner, as the former attempts to seduce an unwilling Margot. Chandler portrays Wirtz in this scene with understated ferocity, in some ways similar to the character of Luke Darcy he portrayed in The Jayhawkers (1959).

   Wirtz is a man who utilizes pitiful attempts at humor to mask his rage, telling Margot that, “biology used to be [his] best subject.” and “Why not take Dr. Wirtz’s introductory course?” Koertner, awakened by Wirtz’s booming voice, rushes into Margot’s room and stops him from going any further. This scene fuels the increasing tension between the two primary characters and serves to delineate the men’s differing attitudes toward women. While Wirtz is a man who seeks conquest, Koertner is a man who seeks companionship.

   Koertner will go on to develop a romantic relationship with Margot, although this will not cause the ultimate rupture with Wirtz. Rather, it will be the discovery of the British thousand-pounder, a type of unexploded ordinance with which the team was unfamiliar. Not only does this type of bomb cause the death of team members, it plays a pivotal role in furthering the antagonism between Koertner, the brooding outsider and Wirtz, the dissolute cynic.

   When Koertner suggests that they call off the bet, Wirtz refuses, leading to a verbal confrontation between the two men. A distraught Koertner tells Wirtz that he would like to see him dead and blasted to hell. It is then that Koertner realizes that there is something bigger at stake in this dispute than just money. He tells Margot that it is a “battle for survival between the Karls of the world and the me’s of the world.” Koerner’s revelation stems, to a large degree, from his reaction to Wirtz’s radical selfishness, a particularly chilling worldview that he learned from his uncle.

   [PLOT WARNING] Ultimately, it is Koertner who survives the bet and who is freed from the shackles of Wirtz’s cynicism. In the film’s final sequence, we see Wirtz (Chandler) deep in rubble, defusing a bomb. With jazz music playing on the soundtrack, Koertner walks out of the abandoned building where Wirtz is working. Seconds thereafter, the bomb explodes, killing him. Koertner is now free, liberated from the bet and his existential struggle against Wirtz.

   But it’s not a joyous or celebratory victory, for Koertner still, in both a literally and metaphorical sense, walks alone. While the film ends with optimistic voice over narration and positive imagery of rebuilt Berlin, one cannot help escape the theme of post-war alienation just below the surface.

   Ten Seconds to Hell is closest thing to an “art house” film that Jeff Chandler ever starred in. Indeed, Aldrich, who had caught the eye of French critics well before he became widely known in the United States, allowed Chandler to take on a role quite distinct from many of his previous films. His character, Wirtz, is not so much a villain as a spiritually defeated man tasked with a dangerous and dirty job. He is a man who has irreparably lost a moral compass – his center, as it were – in a chaotic, tumultuous society, a claustrophobic world in which the concrete possibility of an inadvertent horrific death looms large. He is most certainly not a hero.

   Andrew Sarris, longtime film critic for The Village Voice and a leading proponent of the auteur theory, has noted that Aldrich’s “films are invariably troubled by intimations of decadence and disorder.” When applied to Ten Seconds To Hell, Sarris’s observation seems particularly apt. Filmed in the ruins of Berlin, physical decay is visually omnipresent throughout the movie.

   But it is the theme of moral decay, however, that propels the narrative. It is largely Chandler’s alternatingly subdued and overpowering portrayal of the decadent Wirtz that propels the narrative forward to its simultaneously tragic (for Wirtz) and liberating (for Koertner) conclusion.

JUSTIFIED “Fire in the Hole.” Season One, Episode One. FX, 16 March 2010. Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Joelle Carter, Nick Searcy, Erica Tazel, Natalie Zea. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard (ebook, 2001). Series developer: Graham Yost. Director: Michael Dinner.

   The story that Elmore Leonard wrote, a 60 page novella, one source says, really had some legs to it. Few cable TV series last as long as Justified did: It was on for six seasons and 78 episodes. (If anyone knows if I am correct in saying that the story first appeared as an ebook — and if so, why — let me know, or correct me if I am wrong.)

   This, the first episode, seems to follow the story closely, but in truth this is hearsay only. I have not read the story, one in which Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Olyphant) kills a Miami gangster before the latter could pull his own gun and fire, even though he made his move first.

   Even though the killing was “justified,” Givens is reassigned to the area of home state of Kentucky where he grew up, and his past quickly fills his life again. In particular, his partner in the coal mines, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), when they were both 19-year-olds, is now a local criminal hiding behind a facade of Bible-thumping white supremacy. The two meet again after Crowder’s brother is killed by his wife (Joelle Carter) after years of abuse, and an almost deadly shootout ends this first installment of the six-season series.

   I do not know where the story goes from here, but there is plenty of potential, with Givens’ ex-wife part of it, I am sure, as well as the fellow officers in his new place of work.

   I am also sure that more characters will be introduced as time goes one, but it’s rather obvious that the relationship with Givens and Crowder will be the major one that will continue to develop and be explored.

   The cast and production values are all excellent. You spend money on a TV series, and it shows. I don’t know how involved I want to be in watching the rest of the story, but if I start, I am sure it will be addictive.

   One small caveat, as far as I am concerned. Olyphant’s character, very well established from the get-go, is awfully cocksure of himself, and so far, through episode one, always has the right quip at the right time. I imagine (hope) the producers of the show will have him show some human failings, too. (The final scene suggests anger issues.)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


TONY DUNBAR – Crooked Man. [Tubby Dubonnet #1.] G.P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1994. Berkley, paperback, 1996.

   This came out back in January [of 1994], and I missed it completely. I don’t believe I ever even saw a copy. Dunbar us a New Orleans lawyer, and has written four non-fiction books; this is his first novel.

   Tubby Dubonnet is a successful though not overly affluent New Orleans lawyer who has an ex-wife, three daughters, and a varied and odd group of clients. Among them are a doctor who refers his own malpractice patient to Tubby, a flamboyant wrecker operator who has problems with insurance, a buxom blonde who doesn’t pay bills, and a club owner who deals in a few drugs.

   The latter is the one who, as you might suspect, is destined to cause him major problems. Before it’s over Tubby has run afoul of crooked cops and rich drug bankrollers, and seen more dead bodies than he wanted to.

   I enjoyed this. Dunbar knows New Orleans, and while he doesn’t overpower you with atmosphere, the city definitely comes alive. The prose is low key and straightforward, and the characters are interesting. Dunbar tells the story effectively through shifting third-person viewpoints, though Tubby is the predominant focus.

   It isn’t and doesn’t attempt to be a Big Novel, but it is a well told story about some engaging and mostly amiable characters. I liked them, and I wouldn’t mind seeing some more of Tubby and the Big Easy.

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


       The Tubby Dubonnet series —

1. Crooked Man (1994)
2. City of Beads (1996)
3. Trick Question (1997)
4. Shelter from the Storm (1997)
5. The Crime Czar (1998)
6. Lucky Man (1999)
7. Tubby Meets Katrina (2005)
8. Night Watchman (2015)
9. Fat Man Blues (2016)
10. Flag Boy (2017)

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


GILDERSLEEVE’S GHOST. RKO, 1944. Harold Peary, Marion Martin, Richard LeGrand, Frank Reicher, Amelita Ward, Freddie Mercer, Margie Stewart, Emory Parnell, Jack Norton as the Drunk and Charles Gemora as the Gorilla. Screenwriter: Robert E. Kent, based on characters appearing on the long-running radio program, The Great Gildersleeve (1941-1958). Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Some folks think it kinky of me, others merely shrug and roll their eyes, and a few have damned me from the pulpit for it, but I always thought Harold Peary was funny. Just something about that chuckle of his and the trademark hem-and-hawing, always gets a laugh out of me.

   So I’m tempted to give Gildersleeve’s Ghost much more praise than it deserves from a discerning critic like myself. I can’t honestly recommend it to any serious movie buff either. But damitall, this movie has everything: ghosts, an old dark house, a mad doctor with a sinister assistant, an invisible woman, insulting comic relief, and an escaped gorilla. Who — I ask you WHO? — could ask for anything more?

   Peary skips through it with his usual aplomb, and Gordon Douglas, whose career included Rio Conchos, Tony Rome, and Sincerely Yours, directs with the flippancy it deserves. I should also mention writer Robert Kent, who went on to a long and bizarre career with Sam Katzman, writing things like Hootenanny Hoot and The Fastest Guitar Alive.

   As for Gildersleeve’s Ghost, it’s fast, light, and outrageous enough to keep you saying “Whuzza?” even if you don’t find it funny. Catch it if you can.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “At Arm’s Length.” Detective Fiction Weekly, December 9, 1938. Included in the collection The Case of the Crimson Kiss (Morrow, hardcover, 1970).

   The reason I’ve chosen “At Arm’s Length” to talk about is not because it’s one of his better ones, for it isn’t, but because… Well, here’s how the blurb for the story on the contents page puts it:

  “Lester Leith, Perry Mason, Jax Keene (sic), Senor Lobo! Look to your laurels! Jerry Marr, toughest dick in captivity, is on the scene.” (Raise your hand if you know who Jax Keen was.)

   Or in other words, “At Arm’s Length” serves as the introduction of a brand new character in Mr. Gardner’s long list of same — as well as his only appearance. It’s not that it’s a terrible story, for it isn’t, but in 1939 career writing for the pulp magazines was winding down. He was making good money with the Perry Mason books, and the first Donald Lam & Bertha Cool novel also came out in 1939.

   There are overtones of Lester Leith in this tale. Jerry Marr is the kind of guy who reads a pair of unconnected stories in a newspaper, put two and two together and get five — and cash in his pocket. The lead story of the day is that of a murdered society girl, but what catches Jerry Marr’s eye is a story on page four about a man seen sweeping up large tacks on a street nearby.

   Marr is also a semi-hardboiled kind of PI. What his does is, to put it bluntly, blackmail a possible suspect in the murder case into hiring him. Or at least he would be a suspect if Marr told the police what he knows.

   Marr has a girl friend named Lorrain Dell, and not only do you get the idea that he and she are closer than Perry and Della ever were, but he allows her to do some of his legwork for him. This doesn’t work out all that well when he discovers that Lorrain has pushed someone’s buttons too far, and she ends up a captive. Not only that, but Jerry Marr pulls a Mannix, well before Mannix came along, and is knocked on the head at one point in the story by some unknown malefactor into a short oblivion

   It all works out fine, though, almost making Marr’s client-under-duress happy. The key word is almost, because Marr’s primary motivation, as stated above, is cash in hand.

   Reading back the last few paragraphs to myself, I see that I may have made the story sound better than it is. It isn’t, but nor is it terrible, either.

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


CHRIS KNOPF – Tango Down. PI Sam Acquillo #8. The Permanent Press, hardcover, December 2017. Setting: Long island NY (The Hamptons).

First Sentence:   I was trying to maneuver my way across the muddy construction site when Frank Entwhistle ran up to my old Jeep Cherokee and slapped on the windshield.

   Sam Acquillo has been building cabinets for the new home of wealthy New Yorker Victor Bollings. When Bollings’ body is found on the job site, Colombian illegal Ernesto Mazzoti, a finish carpenter and Sam’s friend, is arrested as the obvious suspect. The murder weapon contains Ernesto’s fingerprints, but Sam isn’t buying it. With the help of Jackie Swaitkowski, a defense attorney who, courtesy of billionaire Burton Lewis, takes the cases of those who can’t afford to pay, Sam works to prove Ernesto innocent.

   It is nice when an author starts straight in with the crime. Sam is a great character with a fascinating background and unexpected skills. Just when his machismo starts becoming a bit strong, it is tempered by his caring for others. His lover, Amada, and dog, Eddie Van Halen, round out the character nicely. It is also nice that Knopf’s writing is wonderfully intelligent and that he provides a good sense of Eastern Long Island with its marked contrast between the extremely wealthy, primarily summer people, and the working-class people who live there year-round.

   A well-done metaphor is always a pleasure to read— “Then I used a few other traditional calibrating tools to reset the table saw. … The result was perfect and true, like the heart of a young lover before disappointment upends her soul.”

   The story line of undocumented workers couldn’t be more timely or accurate. That the investigation involves multiple agencies, and a jaunt to the Virgin Islands adds dimensions to the story. So too is that of the issue with which Amanda is dealing which is emotional and adds yet another layer to the plot as well as the characters.

   Tango Down is intelligent, complex, multi-layered, and has a realistic ending. It is also really, really good; it is always surprising that Knopf is not more widely known and read.

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


The Sam Acquillo series —

1. The Last Refuge (2005)

2. Two Time (2005)
3. Head Wounds (2008)
4. Hardstop (2009)

5. Black Swan (2011)
6. Cop Job (2015)
7. Back Lash (2016)
8. Tango Down (2017)

Note:   Attorney Jackie Swaitkowski has her own series of books (so far) as does another of Knopf’s series characters, Arthur Cathcart, “market researcher and occasional finder of missing persons”

K. K. BECK – The Body in the Volvo. Walker, hardcover, 198. Ballantine/Ivy, paperback, August 1989.

    When a young professor at the University of Washington (in what department I don’t think it’s ever said) is unjustly denied tenure. he’s forced to look for work in the real world. Luckily his Uncle Cosmo has just won the lottery, and he helps his nephew out.

   With full custody of his auto-repair shop. It’s hardly the gold mine of opportunity he envisioned, as you can imagine, and when the body of his former department chairman is found on the premises, it turns into outright disaster.

   Not a major work, but one that’s both funny and well-plotted.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.
SELECTED BY DAVID VINETARD:


B. M. BOWER “The Spook Hills Mystery.” Popular Magazine, November 7, 1914. Published in hardcover as The Haunted Hills, Little Brown, 1934, and in paperback by Popular Library, #306, 1951. Also available online here, among other websites.

   “The Spook Hills Mystery” begins rather tritely with the arrival of young Easterner Shelton C. Sherman with a typically cantankerous old hand named Spooky (Gabby Hayes before there was one, “He was not a bad sort, though he was an awful liar when the mood seized him…”) who leads him on about the “ghost” of Spook Hills, but then popular Western writer B(ertha) M(uzzy) Bower, creator of Chip of the Flying U and a long series about that outfit, throws us a curve.

   This, as a beginning, may sound a bit hackneyed. Since the first story was told of the West, innocent young males have arrived in first chapters and have been lied to by seasoned old reprobates of the range, and have attained sophistication by devious paths not always unmarked with violence. But when you stop to consider, life itself is a bit hackneyed.

   At least she noticed, and it is far from the only curve in this tale.

   Sherman, soon to be known as Shep, is greener than the greenest greenhorn who ever lived, and about to join the Sunbeam Outfit (in “that part of Idaho which lies south of the Snake …”) to make a man out of him at the hands of Aleck Burney, who has a way of putting youngsters “on the fence” to make “men” out of them in the time-honored way of obnoxious bullies who are supposed to be makers of men in popular fiction from time immemorial. Never let it be said Ms Bower ever missed a cliché when one was at hand (enter Wallace Beery, or the older John Wayne, making men by breaking their spirit since time began).

   Shep’s parents have sent him West, all pretty 6’ 2” of him: “… to get some width to go with my length: Dad’s an architect. He said he’d have to use me for a straight edge if something wasn’t done pretty soon.”

   The Sunbeam Ranch itself is harbinger of “a keen sensation of disappointment,” otherwise little more than a dirt shack seen over by the giant Burney, who typically tries to establish dominance first thing by a crushing handgrip. Give old Shep this, it hardly bothers him.

   Soon he starts to get the hang of things, and they brighten a bit when he meets Vida, daughter of Sam Williams and niece of Uncle Jake and part of a sheep herding outfit, and that should tell you a bit about where this is going, though it is hardly enough, because that is another of Bower’s curves.

   Bower knew a great deal about life on a ranch, in fact too much for her readers’ own good, since some of her books spend more time on the drudgery and boredom of actually living on and running a ranch than any good Western can take. Realism combined with a certain Polyannaish view and too few doses of adventure and melodrama makes for an uncertain read for many. For all her beautifully described scenery and realistic views of frontier life you can find yourself wishing Max Brand would show up and kick a few doors down. You wish a few of those “Gosh Darn” moments were at least “Gol Dangs.”

   This one is made of sterner material than that though, and soon Shep has gotten a glimpse of Spooky’s Spook, a critter that leaves a footprint like a bear, if a bear was big as an elephant. Of course we all know he can’t leave that alone any more than he will the feud building between the Sunbeamers and the sheep herders.

   And he certainly doesn’t leave bad enough alone, tracking the “thing” to a tunnel where, “The terrible silence was split suddenly by a scream. Human, it sounded, and yet not human, but beastly — horrible. Shelton dropped the candle and clung to the rock beside him. His heart, he thought, stopped absolutely. His very knees buckled under him while he stood there. And then he heard something running, somewhere, even while the cave was playing horribly with the echoes of that scream. Running down that other passage with long leaps, it seemed to him, and the beat of four padded feet upon the rock floor.”

   Where’s Sherlock Holmes when you need him, or for that matter Allan Quatermain? From an Indian woman Shep learns Burney’s father was killed by a “big bear” in Montana, which might explain why Burney objects more to his hunt than his friendship and budding romance with Vida, it also makes it unlikely the sheep killer preying on the Williams herd is Burney. Shep has a mystery to solve.

   Then Uncle Jake is killed in the sheep camp while Burney is away in Pocatella, though the herders don’t believe it, and Vida wants his blood.

   “I find,” replied the coroner, “that the deceased undoubtedly came to his death by having his neck broken by twisting. Four ribs were broken also, evidently by crushing. There are no bullet wounds — the only other marks of violence on the body being some scratches on the scalp behind the ear. These, I judge, were made by finger nails, in gripping the head to twist it.”

   Burney is free. He never made the prints the jury viewed. When the wagon where Vida sleeps is attacked in the night and she hears: “a hoarse scream …. Human—and yet not human—mocking, maniacal, horrible. The most awful sound that Vida had ever heard in her life; a squall, a cry — a shriek she could not find a name for. Her memory flew back to the tales of ghosts and demons that an old Scotch woman had told her years ago. Warlock — that was it! A warlock, such as Maggie MacDonald had told about, that haunted the heath behind the village where strange deaths occurred periodically in the dark of the moon. When men and women were found strangled — and none knew how or why.” And then Vida sees the creature pursuing one of the herders, “the huge figure of a man who came on with
giant strides, leaping clean over what bushes came in his way.”

   And then, and then … Shep drops entirely out of the picture. One of the cowhands, Spider, takes up with Vida, they solve the mystery, and all Shep gets is a letter home, while Spider gets the girl.

   Uh, wow.

   The action is everything you could hope for and Bower handles the atmosphere and building sense of danger and threat with the skill of a pro. Some of the passages describing the country and the setting border on beautiful, and for all the Western lingo, it’s not too trying, to this reader at least. If the rather juvenile saga of the Flying U is all you know of Bower’s Westerns, this one will clear your sinuses, it’s a humdinger.

Next Page »