February 2019


PLEASE MURDER ME!. Distributors Corporation of America, 1956. Angela Lansbury, Raymond Burr, Dick Foran, John Dehner, Lamont Johnson. Director: Peter Godfrey.

   Before his role of a lifetime came along as TV’s Perry Mason, Raymond Burr did not have many leading roles in the movies, but here he is in Please Murder Me! as the second billed actor. I have no idea if this is the case, but it’s fun to speculate: If the people who were in charge of casting the role of Mason happened to have seen this movie, they would have said “He’s our guy!,” and signed him up on the spot.

   He plays a lawyer in this one, if you hadn’t realized that already, but with a twist. His client is the woman he is in love with (Angela Lansbury), and she is charged with having killed her husband. She claims it was in self-defense, but the D.A. (John Dehner) is making an awfully good case that it was premeditated murder, when Burr’s character makes a confession that turns everything upside down.

   It has already been established to the viewer that the dead man was Burr’s best friend, but the friendship has been permanently ruined when Burr tells the husband that he has fallen in love with his wife, and that he will be representing her in terms of a divorce.

   This is not as complicated as perhaps I have made it sound, or maybe it is. It is the basis for a very good movie, one that I can definitely recommend. It really ought to have an official release.

   While I could not discern any particular chemistry between Burr and Angela Lansbury, they are both well chosen for their respective roles. Before making this film Burr usually played villains, and if I say heavies, he was, but he had definitely slimmed down by the time he appeared in this one.

   A late entry noir — take a look at the opening scenes, at least, from the copy embedded above from YouTube — and one worth watching.


HAMMOND INNES – Levkas Man. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1971. Knopf, US, hardcover, 1971. Avon, US, paperback, 1973. Ballantine, US, paperback, 1978.

   Man is a killer, and he carries the seed of his own destruction in him.

   For Paul Van der Voort, born Paul Scott, returning to his home in Amsterdam is filled with trepidation. His adopted father Dr. Pieter Van der Voort is not an easy man, and their relation is nothing if not frought.

   “He’s one of the world’s most brilliant palæontologists and it means nothing to you. No wonder he spoke of you with contempt. You owed him everything — education, your upbringing, a roof over your head, even the food you ate, everything. And what did you do? Got yourself expelled, mixed with the riff-raff of the docks, stole, lied, beat people up, landed in jail …”

   …a young woman named Sonia Winters, whose brother is with Pieter on an expedition, berates him, and now Paul has returned to an empty house on the run and looking for a place to lay low only to find is estranged father is off on an expedition in the Greek islands following a trail of bones.

   But all is not well with his father, a difficult and often times dark man, and an elderly teacher and colleague of Pieter’’s, his mentor Dr. Gilmore, fears for his sanity:

   “This is something it may be difficult for you to understand. A practical man, you’re naturally impatient of the sort of introspective self-analysis on which Pieter Van der Voort was engaged. “Probing the ultimate depths of Man’s aggressive instincts,” he called it, and he talked of the Devil and a spiritual struggle. It’s all there, all his instinctual urges—the good and the bad. It goes back to his original thesis.’ And he added a little wistfully, ‘I should have come here before—as soon as I had read it. A man like that—alone, delving into the fundamental problems of mankind … I should have come at once.”

   With a possible manslaughter or even murder hanging over him Paul is eager enough when he gets and offer to charter a boat, the Coromandel, and get out of the country, picking up a load of antiquities, and if the cargo isn’t entirely honest that’s no problem, and sailing from Malta to Turkey. But before he can leave another colleague of his fathers, Dr. Holroyd, shows up asking questions about his work and he discovers two shocking facts; his father has gone missing after what appears to be a violent attack on Sonia Winters brother in Greece, and Pieter may be his birth father and not just the man who adopted him when his mother and supposed father were killed on their farm in a Mau Man uprising in Kenya.

   This is familiar country for Hammond Innes readers, a hero with a complex past, a journey to some place exotic, an older male figure the hero has a difficult relationship with, and the romance of expertise, in sailing, flying, surviving, or even the ancient past.

   Once he reaches Greece however his inquiries about his father lead to complications. Pieter’s bizarre theories had meant the Russians were the only ones who would finance him, and though his Communism was merely convenient, and his theories had long since cost him his Russian ties, the police and secret police are far from happy about a former Russian sympathizer missing in their country especially as across the sea in North Africa tensions are rising. Paul finds himself under their watchful eye too, something less than helpful considering his present employment as a smuggler. Then to further complicate things a talkative Greek named Demetrios Kotiadis, claiming to be from some obscure ministry, starts asking questions and attaches himself to Paul and Sonia Winters shows up.

   In any Hammond Innes novel there is a mystery to be solved, though it is seldom as simple as who killed whom. The hero, like the protagonist of a John Buchan novel, must go through a rigorous physical ordeal and emerge with new insight in order to solve that mystery, and here Paul Van der Voort must literally descend into the earth in a dangerous cave dive, the ancient past, his own history, an act of academic revenge, and the broken mind of Pieter to discover the truth, whatever the cost.

   Hammond Innes’s reputation grew from the time of his earliest works in the shadow of the Second World War to a string of increasingly successful novels and film adaptations until his Wreck of the Mary Deare hit the bestseller list and became a hit film with Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, and Richard Harris. His reputation continued to grow through the early sixties, until with The Strode Venturer, he not only penned a critical and successful novel but garnered reviews that compared him to Joseph Conrad. After that his novels became longer and more serious, but with no loss of the elements of adventure and suspense of the earlier works.

   To some extent he outlived the era of his greatest success and not all of his later novels saw publication in this country, though books like Medusa and Isvik still received sterling reviews and read as well as any of his novels.

   Today when you are reading the latest adventure thriller by a James Rollins, Clive Cussler, or whomever your favorite may be, you are reading in the tradition and footsteps of Hammond Innes (a former journalist who began writing thrillers during the war while serving in the British military as an anti-aircraft gunner), the most important and literate of that first generation of descendants of John Buchan like Geoffrey Household, Victor Canning, and Alistair MacLean.

   To say he is first among equals is only a pale recognition of the impact and influence of his work in the genre. In 1953 when Ian Fleming penned Casino Royale, the first James Bond thriller, Innes was already selling 40,000 to 60,000 copies in hardcover and more in the Fontana paperback reprints in England according to Mike Ripley in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, his history of British thrillers from Bond to now.

   Levkas Man is among many classics in a pantheon of works that includes Atlantic Fury, Gale Force, Campbell’s Kingdom, Blue Ice, The Angry Mountain, The Lonely Skier, White South, Air Bridge, The Killer Mine, The Doomed Oasis, The Land God Gave to Cain, Wreckers Must Breathe, The Big Footprint, The Golden Soak, and many more, but remains a favorite of mine for its dark classical themes, and as a fine novel of adventure and mystery.

   Anyone who has never read Innes is in for a fine experience and a great deal of entertainment with a writer who brought to the adventure novel his seven league boots travel experiences, endless curiosity about the world and its environs, and the skills of a novelist and not just a storyteller.

WEB OF DANGER. Republic Pictures, 1947, Adele Mara, Bill Kennedy, Damian O’Flynn, Richard Loo, Victor Sen Yung, Roy Barcroft. Director: Philip Ford.

   In spite of the title, Web of Danger is not a crime film at all, and to tell you the truth, I can’t even tell you what the title means. In a small, rather slight degree, you might possibly call this a thriller, but since the danger caused a bridge-building crew by flooding far upriver, except for one specific scene, any suspense that’s conjured up is more in the mind of the viewer than from anything seen onscreen.

   What it is, more than anything else, is a romantic drama, with the supervisor and foreman of the crew (Bill Kennedy and Damian O’Flynn) fighting it out (literally) over the hand of waitress Peg Mallory (Adele Mara) — as if she had no say in the matter.

   Except for the accidental death of one of the crew members (see above), the story plays out in light and frothy fashion. Another exception is the rescue of the families whose homes are threatened by the levees about to break, which is perfunctory and anticlimactic. The part that’s light and frothy is well done, though!


  DONALD WOLLHEIM, Editor, with Arthur W. Saha – The 1989 Annual World’s Best SF. Daw #783, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1989. Cover art by Jim Burns.

   #1. DAVID BRIN “The Giving Plague.” Short story. Interzone, Spring 1988. Also reprinted in Full Spectrum 2, edited by Lou Aronica et al. (Doubleday, hardcover, 1989). First collected in Otherness (Bantam, paperback, 1994). Nominated for a Hugo (2nd place).

   I may have missed one, but I believe that David Brin has won three Hugos and one Nebula award. The complete list of his nominations and other wins fills two or three pages of my computer screen on the ISFDb website. And yet, and I’m not sure why, this is the first work of his I’ve ever read, long or short.

   I read most of the science fiction magazines in the 60 and 70s, but by the time the 80s came along, I kept buying them, but I just wasn’t reading them any more. The same was true for novels — not only Brin’s — and even more so. I don’t think I’ll ever catch up on all the novels, but by taking my “Best of” anthologies out of storage and making my way through them, my hope is that I can finally read what was considered the Best at the time.

   I found “The Giving Plague” to be a strange one. It’s filled with to the top with scientific information that since it deals primarily with viruses and the way they spread, most of the diagrams and other details went way over my head, zip zip zip. But not only does Brin know his science, he also has the ability to explain it at a high enough level that it all makes sense to the reader, or seems to.

   And enough so that when he hypotheses a new kind of virus, one that’s called ALAS for short (Acquired Lavish Altruism Syndrome) and which propagates itself through blood transfusions by making people enjoy giving, it goes down awfully easily. This is what I think you’d agree is a Brand New Idea, and the story Brin builds from here is an awfully good one, well told.

   I don’t think I’ll be reading any of Brin’s novels right away — I’m too far behind for any hope of that — but his shorter work? Yes, indeed. I was impressed by this one.

      —

Note:   In the same way that I’ve been working my way through Lester del Rey’s 1972 Best of the Year anthology, I thought I’d do a parallel investigation of what Donald Wollheim thought were the best stories of 1989, and see what a difference 17 years make. So far one thing sticks out, a minor one and maybe only important to me, but I’m a lot less familiar with the authors, sometimes even their names.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


OPERATION FINALE. MGM, 2018. Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll. Director: Chris Weitz.

   The Israeli hunt for, and capture of, Adolf Eichmann is a story that has been told numerous times in memoirs, historical accounts, and in visual media including in Operation Eichmann (1961) reviewed here. Although the television movie The House on Garibaldi Street (1979) directed by Peter Collinson remains, to my mind, the standard by which other cinematic representations of this particular intelligence mission should be measured, Operation Finale (2018) is nevertheless a compelling and suspenseful feature film that merits a look for those interested in the topic.

   Perhaps the strongest aspect this recent theatrical release has going for it is the presence of British actor Ben Kingsley. Unlike Collinson’s TV movie, in which Eichmann was presented as a man far too banal to be truly evil, in Operation Finale, Kingsley gives the Nazi architect of the Final Solution a sociopathic charm and a sense of malice. He’s a master manipulator, a natural predator capable of finding his opponent’s weakness and exploiting it.

   In the film it’s Mossad operative Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) who ends up as Eichmann’s psychological sparring partner. After the Mossad successfully kidnaps Eichmann and holds him in a safe house in Argentina, they learn that El Al will agree to fly Eichmann out of the country and to Israel only if the SS officer voluntarily signs a form agreeing to stand trial in Jerusalem.

   This, rather than the actual operation to identify and to kidnap Eichmann, is the core of the film’s emotional and narrative thrust. Malkin, haunted by his sister’s death during the Holocaust, is tasked with the goal of coaxing an agreement to stand trial out of Eichmann, a man who would rather die at the hands of his captors than be forced into a courtroom, let alone one in the Jewish State.

   Although there’s nothing truly groundbreaking in Operation Finale, it’s overall a solid production that handles its sensitive historical material with care. My one main complaint with the film is that the Israeli agents, with the notable exception of Lior Raz, the Israeli actor who portrays Mossad head Isser Harel, are just a little too polished for their roles, both in terms of dress, makeup, and tone.

   Isaac is a talented actor and he delivers a strong, serious performance that isn’t marred by Hollywood melodrama. It just does not compare with Topol’s haunting performance in The House on Garibaldi Street in which he infuses the role of Peter Malkin with such hatred for the Nazis that it nearly drives his character mad.

   Look for French actress Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) as a female Mossad agent in love with Peter Malkin.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR MGM, 1934. Charlie Ruggles, Una Merkel, Mary Carlisle, Russell Hardie, Porter Hall, Burton Churchill — and Ray Corrigan as Naba the Gorilla. Screenplay by Ralph Spence, Edgar Allen Woolf, Al Boasberg, and Harvey Thew, from a play by Edward E. Rose. Directed by Harry Beaumont.

   If you only watch one movie in your entire life, it should be Murder in the Private Car.

   Charming Charlie Ruggles, in a rare star turn, plays Godfrey D. Scott, Crime Deflector (i.e., he deflects crimes before they happen). Scott, in his own off-hand way, involves himself with the case of Ruth Raymond (Carlisle) who has recently been identified as a missing heiress and subject to all sorts of dire attempts, especially since she boarded the private car of an eastbound train to meet her father (Churchill) along with her friend and former co-worker Una Merkel.

   Ah yes, Una Merkel, an over-underrated actress normally stuck in supporting roles as the heroine’s best friend. Here she plays… well, she plays the heroine’s best friend again, but in this case the part is a co-starring one as she sneaks zingers at Charlie Ruggles and looks amusingly askance at his bumbling antics. Indeed the two of them play off each other so well, I wonder no one thought to co-star them in a series.

   Car doesn’t give them much time for witty repartee, though. Not with a plot that moves like an express train (sorry!) once the principals get on board the private car, only to find one peril after another hurled at them as fast as Charlie can deflect: A kidnapping attempt, secret passages, hands clutching in the dark, threatening notes and sinister whispers, a murder or two, and an escaped Gorilla just to liven things up a bit.

   I’m not familiar with the original play this was based upon, but knowing the work of Ralph Spence as I do, I’m sore tempted to attribute the sliding panels and gorilla to him, and I think anyone who’s seen any version of The Gorilla will agree. And I’ll wrestle anyone in the crowd who says it ain’t. Any takers? I thought not!

   Getting back to the movie, it chugs along nicely to a marvelous climax with the principal characters trapped in a runaway car filled with nitroglycerine hurtling down the tracks toward the approaching Westbound Express (The folks at MGM knew how to pile it on.) a sequence done in obvious back-projection, but done so well I found myself gasping, jumping, and laughing with relief at the climax.

    Murder in the Private Car lacks the star power to make it remembered much these days, but it’s a film that once seen & enjoyed, will not be forgotten.

   Particularly if, as I say, it’s the only film you ever see in your entire life.


  •   LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

       #4. ISAAC ASIMOV “The Greatest Asset.” Short story. First published in Analog SF, January 1972. First collected in Buy Jupiter and Other Stories (Doubleday, hardcover, 1972). Also reprinted in Holt Anthology of Science Fiction (Holt Rinehart & Winston, no editor stated, trade paperback, 2000).

       Part of the motto of the Earth of the future is is “The Greatest Asset Is a Balanced Ecology,” and to that end, all life on the planet, human and otherwise, is micromanaged, down to very nearly every single blade of grass, overseen by powerful computers which make every decision for the welfare of Earth with very little human input.

       When a young scientist based on the Moon comes to Earth to ask for reconsideration of a huge ecological project that the computers have rejected, it is the Secretary General of Ecology that he talks to, a real person. It is the final decision that’s made that is the point of the story.

       For a writer of the renown of Isaac Asimov, this is a very minor and didactically told story, confirmed by the fact that only one other anthology has seen fit since to include it within its pages. I happen to agree with the decision that’s made, but I wouldn’t have included the story among the year’s best for 1972.

           —

    Previously from the del Rey anthology: GORDON EKLUND “Underbelly.”

  • EMMETT McDOWELL – Stamped for Death. Jonathan Knox #1 . Ace Double D-329, paperback original, 1958.

       I used to collect stamps. I’ve never been able to explain what the fascination is, but even though I sold my collection some time ago, for no good reason, the urge has never quite gone away. I never had any like the ones at the core of this story, though, a set of rare Hawaiian “missionary” stamps.

       Louisville auctioneer Jonathan Knox has an eye for rare collectibles, too. After a few stories for the pulps (*), this is his first book appearance. I’m sorry to say that it shows. Lots of incoherent action, in a naive sort of way, although the topless belly dancer does have her charms.

       The other half of this Ace Double is entitled Three for the Gallows, and consists pf three novelettes by Emmett McDowell, the first featuring Jonathan Knox as well. It’s reprinted from a 1953 appearance in Triple Detective Magazine (“All She Wants Is Money,” Summer 1953).

       The remaining two stories, neither of them with Knox) were first published in 1949 in King Features Syndicate’s Great Mystery Novelettes series, and that’s all I can tell you about that. Does anyone know anything more. (*) I also have not been able to identify another Knox story that appeared in the pulps, so the use of the plural in this regard in the original review may be in error.

    –Slightly revised from Mystery*File #16, October 1989.


            The Jonathan Knox series —

    Stamped for Death. Ace 1958
    Bloodline to Murder. Ace 1960
    In at the Kill. Ace 1960
    Portrait of a Victim. Avalon 1964 (no paperback edition)

    SELECTED BY DAVID VINETARD:


    DAVID GOODIS “The Blue Sweetheart.” Novelette. First published in Manhunt, April 1953. Published as a Kindle eBook by Peril Press, November 2013.

       Thick sticky heat came gushing from the Indian Ocean, closed in on Ceylon, and it seemed to Clayton he was the sole target. He sat at the bar of a joint called Kroner’s on the Colombo waterfront, and tried vainly to cool himself with gin and ice. It was Saturday night and the place was mobbed, and most of them needed baths. Clayton told himself if he didn’t get out soon, he’d suffocate. But he knew he couldn’t walk out. If he walked out now he’d be killed.

       The setting may be different, but the milieu and the predicament of the hapless hero of this novelette from the legendary digest Manhunt, is pure David Goodis, the poet of the down and out, the hopeless, and the lost. You may know him best from his novels or the films made from them (Dark Passage, Nightfall, The Burglar, The Burglars …), but chances you know him as the author of grim down to the bone tales that could give Cornell Woolrich a run for their doomed kismet haunted protagonists.

       What you may not know is Goodis also had a good run in the pulps, particularly in the aviation pulps. Aside from his fatalistic novels he also wrote tales of adventure and intrigue, and this novelette from Manhunt is much closer to those works than his better known novels, though hints of those works can’t help but slip in.

       Not that Clayton, the protagonist of this tale, would feel out of place beside the doomed heroes of most of Goodis novels. As the story opens he is in a very shady bar in a foreign port knowing simply leaving will likely cost him his life, and the back story is no prettier about Russ Hagen, a brutal power that be in Colombo who stole Clayton’s woman and fortune in gems and booted him out of Ceylon a year earlier.

       Now Clayton is back, his fate seemingly sealed, all because of Alma who had laughed with Hagen as Clayton lay beaten and bleeding at Hagen’s feet, and because of a large sapphire, the “blue sweetheart” of the title which is Clayton’s hope for redemption and revenge.

       Cast this one in the movie of your mind as you will, Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth, and George Macready (Gilda) or Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, and Brad Dexter (Macao), this is the familiar adventure tale of countless pulp stories filtered through a film noir lens and peppered with a certain shabby hopeless elegance unique to Goodis voice and gift for painting unforgettable word images:

       The Englishman’s name was Dodsley and he was a greasy whiskered derelict of forty years.

       “Of course there were witnesses, they flocked like angry hyenas. Then I showed them the gun.”

       He was broken and bleeding at Hagen’s feet. And Alma was in Hagen’s arms, looking down at him as if he were mud.

       The knocking was a parade of glimmering blue spheres bouncing in blackness.

       He was swept outward and away from the boundaries of reality, and yet somehow he knew this wasn’t a dream, it was something he had waited for and hungered for …

       And this little exchange when he sees Alma again for the first time in a revealing dress standing in his bedroom and it all comes back to him:

       He said: “You here on business?”

       “Strictly.”

       “If that’s a business outfit you’re wearing, I got a few dollars ain’t busy.”

       She didn’t even flinch. She was a clever boxer neatly slipping a right-hand smash to the jaw. “I’ll do the buying,” she said very softly.

       It’s hard not to see that one in cinematic terms.

       “The Blue Sweetheart” is no classic, and it reads with an easy familiarity, but it also hits all the right notes, a perfect jazz rift played with ultimate skill from a well worn Fake Book by a master whose fingers almost autonomously caress the keys with grace and style.

       The first grey ribbons of dawn were sliding across the sky as he turned slowly and moved towards the woman who had her back to him and looked out at the dark water that was reflected in his eyes.

       Muted horns playing, gradual fade …

    JAMES McKIMMEY – Winner Take All. Dell First Edition A185, paperback original, 1959; cover art by Darcy. Stark House Press, trade paperback, December 2017 (published in combination with Perfect Victim).

       Now let’s suppose. A little bit of make believe. You’re alone in San Francisco. You’re a field engineer, and you’ve just returned from Saudi Arabia. There’s a knock on the door of your door. You say, what the hell, and you decide to open it. The man standing there looks almost exactly like you.

       He’s your twin brother, he says. It’s a long story, but he convinces you. And he has a proposition for you. He owes a crooked gambler in Reno $100,000, and all he’s been able to come up with is $60,000. What he wants you to do (for a $10,000 fee) is pose yourself off as him and offer the gambler half of what he owes. He’s a coward, he says, and you’ve been around. You’re tough and can handle yourself.

       Question: Would you take him up on the offer? You can use the money. Would you say yes?

       Well, Mark Steele does just that, and thereby the tale. No, of course it doesn’t go well. In fact he goes as badly as you might think, even if you were writing the story.

       James McKimmey, who was actually the one who wrote it, not you or I, was awfully good with dialogue, and the action-packed finale, while even more far-fetched than the opening couple of chapters, goes by in a flurry of turning pages. Or at least it did for me.

       In a interview with the author by Allan Guthrie in 2004, published as the introduction to the Stark House edition, McKimmey said he wrote the book (50,00 words) in ten days. If I were to tell you that it reads like it, I absolutely also need to add that I do not men that in a bad way. This was a joy to read, knots in the logic and all.

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