August 2019


IONE SANDBERG SHRIBER – The Last Straw. Lt. Bill Grady #8. Rinehart & Co., Inc., hardcover, 1946. No paperback edition.

   I think that Ione Sandberg Shriber is a sure-fire choice for inclusion in the category of Little Known Mystery Writers. This is spite of the fact that between 1940 and 1953 she wrote a total of eleven mystery novels, eight of them cases solved by Lt. Bill Grady, whom I talked a bit about in my review of Pattern for Murder, number seven in the series, which appeared here on this blog late last year. (Follow the link.)

   The fellow named Hemingway who appeared in that one as Grady’s assistant/aide-de-camp does not show up in this one, and Grady himself has moved from the state of Ohio to the La Jolla, California area. But just as in the previous book, the book focuses on a dysfunctional family, a rather wealthy one, but money certainly does not guarantee happiness.

   The new wife of a much older man, now an invalid, is in fact in love with a another man, whose return from the war seems to be catalyst for several events to come to a head, beginning with a fatal hit-and-run accident committed with someone who has access to the family car, then a series of thefts from the house, the most recent that of some diamonds worth a small fortune.

   The old man’s death is verified by his doctor to be entirely natural, but his will, or rather his plans to change it, makes it hard to believe that hi death was just a coincidence. And in the background is the mysterious death several years before of Henry Thorne’s previous wife Iris.

   When a second death occurs, this one definitely murder, a lot of rivalries, jealousies — and just plain greed — all come to the fore. There are lots of clues and alibis for Grady to sort through, but it’s the personalizes of the people involved that Shriber takes the most care to build her novel upon, and I think she did a good job in doing so.

   The detective end of things is in fact wrapped up a tad too quickly, from my point of view, but all in all, as a mystery, it’s not at all bad. I don’t believe that Ione Sandberg Shriber should have fallen into the cracks as much as she seems to have.


       The Lt. Bill Grady series —

The Dark Arbor. Farrar 1940 [New York]
Head Over Heels in Murder. Farrar 1940 [New York]
Family Affair. Farrar 1941 [New York]
Murder Well Done. Farrar 1941 [Michigan]
A Body for Bill. Farrar 1942 [Ohio]
Invitation to Murder. Farrar 1943 [Cleveland, OH]
Pattern for Murder. Farrar 1944 [Cleveland, OH]
The Last Straw. Rinehart 1946 [California]

REVIEWED BY MIKE TOONEY:


MONK. “Mr. Monk and the 12th Man.” Season 2, episode 9 (22nd of 125). First broadcast: August 22, 2003. Cast: Tony Shalhoub (Adrian Monk), Bitty Schram (Sharona Fleming), Jason Gray-Stanford (Lieutenant Randy Disher), Ted Levine (Captain Stottlemeyer), Jerry Levine (Kenny Shale), Ed Marinaro (Stewart Babcock), Billy Gardell (Ian Agnew), Lauren Tom (Mrs. Ling), David Figlioli (Tommy Zimm), Jimmy Shubert (Frank Pulaski), Deborah Zoe (Lisa Babcock). Writing staff: Andy Breckman (creator), Michael Angeli (writer), David Breckman (executive story editor), Daniel Dratch (story editor), Hy Conrad (staff writer). Director: Michael Zinberg.

   There have already been nine apparently unrelated murders in the San Francisco Bay area by the time a toll booth attendant is brutally dragged to death along 7/10ths of a mile of paved highway behind a sports car. The police, as is often the case in these shows, don’t have a clue, since there is no known connection among the victims. Captain Stottlemeyer talks with Monk, the department’s unofficial consultant:

    “Any connection?” asks Monk.

    “No, no connections at all. I mean, four have been men, five women. All different ages—Latino, black, white.”

    “And the M.O.s?”

    “All different. There’s been a couple of shootings—all different weapons, a hit-and-run, a drowning, an electrocution. It’s . . . it’s like a full moon every night.”

    “And you’re sure,” says Monk, “that the cases have absolutely nothing in common?”

    “Well, they have one thing in common, Monk: we can’t solve them. I swear, there’s something in the water here.”

    … but the water, unfortunately, isn’t to blame.

   According to Monk, the more he thinks about it the more he sees how all of the victims do have one thing in common: “Captain, this is a very diverse group,” one that’s “too diverse.” “I’m talking statistics,” he says. “You’d have to work hard, really hard, to find a group this different.” Finding a common denominator in a series of crimes can be one of the first steps in discovering a hidden motive, and once you know the motive you’re well on your way to finding the killer(s) . . .

   Normally we’re not too fond of serial killer stories, but this one is, thankfully, low on grue and high on plot. As in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, understanding the “why” is essential to arriving at the “who,” and this episode of Monk is a worthy successor to Dame Agatha’s classic story (there’s even an echo of it in “12th Man,” a murder in a darkened theater).

   A few years ago Curt Evans had a Mystery*File article about Seasons 1-4 of Monk (here), in which he wrote: “Season two, on the other hand, seems to me nearly flawless. The ingenuity of the mystery plots often is quite remarkable, in my view, for forty-five minute television shows.”

   We agree; the cleverness of the second season shows (and “12th Man” is one of them) was so good that the series never came as close to being that smart again. “Mr. Monk and the Missing Granny” earns high marks for cleverly obscuring the motive; “Mr. Monk Goes to the Circus” excels at exploding the impossible alibi; and “Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect” takes exploding impossible alibis to stratospheric heights (those ketchup bottles—brilliant!)

   Indeed, for a long time we regarded “Sleeping Suspect” as the acme of Monk, but watching it again we’ve noticed how some of the events are throwaways not closely relating to the central story line, vignettes which are in there more for character development than driving the plot — and, we hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with that, if done in moderation.

   The principal virtue of “12th Man,” on the other hand, is how everything — and we mean EVERYTHING — dovetails with the plot. Such apparently irrelevant elements as Sharona’s hot and heavy romance with a mayoral candidate, a man with a pipe in his head, a finger in a freezer, the outcome of a court case, and Mrs. Ling’s headaches with Monk’s dry cleaning actually serve the plot as well as being comic moments in their own right. Nothing in “12th Man” is wasted; it all fits, which is something so few dramatic mystery presentations can boast.

   Recognizing how well the various plot elements meshed (or so we’d like to imagine), the MWA nominated “12th Man” for a Major Award (as well as another Monk episode), putting us in agreement with them, for once; even so, it lost. (The winner, as it turned out, was an installment of The Practice. Nice going, MWA!)

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


THERE’S THAT WOMAN AGAIN. Columbia, 1939. Melvyn Douglas, Virginia Bruce, Margaret Lindsay, Stanley Ridges. Director: Alexander Hall. Shown at Cinevent 27, Columbus OH, 1995.

   A followup to last year’s showing of There’s Always a Woman [reviewed by Steve here ], with Virginia Bruce replacing Joan Blondell as Sally Reardon, wife and would-be colleague of her husband Bill (melvyn Douglas) in his detective agency.

   Bruce, as far as I’m concerned, almost makes this unwatchable. She plays a ditzy blonde, with no compensating charm or cuteness. The mystery [concerning a series of robberies from a local jewelry store] is marginally interesting, but Bruce killed off any pleasure I might have taken in it.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #108, July 1995.


D. MILLER MORGAN – A Lovely Night to Kill. Daisy Marlow #2. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1988. No paperback edition.

This one started out well, reminding me as it did of one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s better known non-Perry Mason characters, and if tell you the the leading character is a beer-drinking 183-pounder PI named Daisy Marlow, you will immediately know why. By the time I got to the end of the book, I was thinking Phoenix Press, and no, that’s not good, not good at all.

   I hate to be nasty, but this is a terrible book. People seem to think that they need to write a mystery story is to create screwy or somehow otherwise unique type of detective with lots of idiosyncrasies, then somebody has to die, somebody has to be the killer, and then fill it in with all sorts of clues.

   And leaving it to the reader to connect it all up.

   In case, though, you’re interested in the story, in the first couple of chapters a man, his wife and their two young children are blown up in a trailer with some sort of “nuclear” device. The wife escapes the explosion,but is caught by the killer, beaten up and raped. Then, for reasons never fully explained, the woman and her dog are left in front of a “fat” clinic.

   This clinic is somehow the key to the other half of the story: a dog-napping/blackmail ring working the members of a San Diego bridge club. San Diego is where Daisy Marlow works, and that’s how she gets involved.

   The brutality of the opening scene never meshes with the whimsical approach Daisy takes to the detective business, and she should thank her heavenly stars she has the skillful Joanne as her assistant. Joanne’s “sources” seem to know everyone and everything, ad as neat as a pin, the solution unravels itself to Daisy, if not to me.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #15, September 1989 (somewhat revised).


Bio-Bibliographic Update:   The initial “D” in the author’s name stands for Deloris. There was one earlier book in the Daisy Marlow series, Money Leads to Murder (Dodd Mead, 1987). There was never a third.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


ROBIN HOOD AND THE PIRATES. Finanziaria Cinematografica Italiana, 1960,as Robin Hood e i pirati; Embassy Pictures, US, 1964. Lex Barker, Jocelyn Lane, Rossanna Rory, Mario Scaccia, Edith Peters, Walter Barnes. Written by Edoardo Anton and Leo Bomba. Directed by Giorgio Simonelli.

   My DVD of this seems to be missing the first 10 minutes or so, where Robin is on his way to or from the Crusades, gets kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom. It opens, in obvious homage to The Tempest, with the ship in a violent storm and Robin washed overboard to land on the beach… close to a sign that says SHERWOOD COUNTY (in Italian) and so he’s home.

   Well that sure saved a lot of film.

   But as usual in these things, Robin Hood’s estate has been taken over by usurpers (Scaccia and Lane) and all his friends are locked up, sending Robin fleeing into the woods. The parallels with King Lear are obvious, but there are no woods here because this was filmed on the Mediterranean coast, which looks as much like Nottinghamshire as Sicily looks like Picadilly Circus.

   Fortunately, the Pirates were washed ashore too, along with some Saracen women, led by Edith Peters, who speaks with a southern drawl and sings in her own inimitable style when they form an impromptu singing group —

Edith Peters (April 14, 1926 – October 28, 2000) Con Lino Patruno rievocano il grande “Satchmo” Dai tempi della …

   –and Robin Hood and the pirates and the Saracen Supremes all team up to… well write the rest yourself.

   The discerning reader has discerned from reading so far that Robin Hood and the Pirates is no ordinary film. It isn’t actually bad enough to be funny, but it offers a cheerful disregard for Reality and Legend I found consistently amusing, as Barker and the baddies chase each other around Sherwood-on-the-Beach and indulge in spirited, if not terribly proficient, swordplay.

   And that’s my qualified recommendation: amusing if you’re in the mood. As I watched it though, I got to thinking how many notable heroes Lex Barker’s career encompassed. Besides Tarzan and Robin Hood, he was at various times: Mr. Lana Turner, Old Shatterhand, Mr. Arlene Dahl, Mangas Coloradas, and Natty Bumpo. Sounds like quite a life.


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


ALEXANDRE DUMAS PERE – The Count of Monte Cristo. Penguin, hardcover, 2013. Translation by Robin Buss. Illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith.

   The Count of Monte Cristo is a book everyone knows, most people will claim to have read in some form, and almost everyone knows is a classic of little more than children’s literature, one of those homogenized 19th Century classics approved for animated features, comic books, and “safe” to read for all ages.

   And yet the plot of the book involves the following elements and always has:

    “… a female serial poisoner, two cases of infanticide, a stabbing and three suicides; an extended scene of torture and execution; drug-induced sexual fantasies, illegitimacy, transvestism and lesbianism; a display of the author’s classical learning, and his knowledge of modern European history, the customs and diet of the Italians, the effects of hashish, and so on; the length would, in any case, immediately disqualify it from inclusion in any modern series of books for children.”

   As Robin Buss argues in his introduction to this new translation, part of the problem is simply the book hasn’t had a new complete translation since 1910, meaning even the best English translations of the book are heavily censored by Victorian and Edwardian prudery and the stiff and uninspired literalism that can make the book hard going.

   It is true Dumas was not a great stylist, and wrote in collaboration, but he did write in a style at least equal to the modern bestseller. Most translations have ignored that and disguised or obscured the racier elements of the novel as mentioned above behind the most heavy handed of Victorian prose and unimaginative translators.

   Note how Dumas introduces the reborn Edmond Dantès as Monte Cristo tying him to the popular figure of the vampire in literature:

    ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘Lord Byron swore to me that he believed in vampires. He even told me that he had seen them and described how they look – and that was it, exactly! The black hair, the large eyes glowing with some strange light, that deathly pallor. Then: observe that he is not with a woman like other women, but with a foreigner – a Greek, a schismatic – and no doubt a magician like himself. I beg you, stay with me. Go and look for him tomorrow if you must, but today I declare that I am keeping you here.’

   That idea of Monte Cristo literally risen from the dead is one key to the novel. It is not merely the story of Dantès’ stunning revenge and undoing of injustice, but also of Dantès’ resurrection and return to life, an element often lost in prior translations designed to disguise the more serious themes as well as the darker aspects of the novel. Other elements of the novel link it to Doyle and Sherlock Holmes in the near prescience of the brilliant Abbe Faria.

   I’m not really suggesting most of you will want to read this latest 1,500 plus page translation of the novel, only that if you do you will discover much you missed in earlier readings. The story you think you know is much different than the reality, the book both easier and more felicitous to read, and certainly no classic of children’s literature.

   Read in this new translation, it is easy to see why the novel has held such sway over the popular imagination, and why it was one of the greatest best sellers of French and English literature. It holds a little bit of everything, from Near Eastern intrigue to international skulduggery, mystery, romance, and adventure. This translation is almost the equivalent of a new and previously unknown work by one of the masters of French literature.

  AUGUST DERLETH “The China Cottage.” Solar Pons. Short story. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, March 1965. First collected in The The Casebook of Solar Pons (Mycroft & Moran, hardcover, 1965), as “The Adventure of the China Cottage.” Reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Games Killers Play (Dell, paperback, 1968.

   I wonder if this story marked the first appearance of Solar Pons’ brother Bancroft, a man of some size and weight and who worked, not surprisingly, for the British Foreign Office. Dead in a locked room is an eccentric breaker of codes and ciphers, found slumped over the latest set of papers he was working on.

   But as it turns out, Pons quickly deduces that the papers and the secrets that may have been in them were not the reason for his murder, and the problem of the locked room is disposed of almost as quickly. If it was indeed murder, the killer simply walked out of the room, closing the door behind him. Or her.

   No, the puzzle, as Pons finally works it out, and I hope I’m not giving too much away, has to do with the china cottage of the title, an ordinary incense burner in the shape of … a cottage. It is imagined, by me at least, that at one time these were quite popular in England.

   As a consulting detective whose cases you may decide to follow when you’ve read the entire Holmes canon several times over, Solar Pons certainly has his fans, even today, but I’ve always found his tales to be a mixed bag. This one’s better than many, but in my opinion, no way near the best of them. I found the shift in focus from a case in Bancroft’s purview to a much more domestic one disconcerting, but your opinion may vary.

LINDA GREENLAW – Fisherman’s Bend. Jane Bunker #2. Hyperion, hardcover, 2008. St. Martin’s, paperback, April 2019.

   There is some backstory left over from book one in this series, in which Jane Bunker dealt with a case of murder back in Miami, but in this followup adventure, she’s picked up stakes and is now living in Maine, which seems to be a more natural habitat for her.

   She’s working full time as a marine investigator and on the side she’s nabbed a position as assistant deputy sheriff of the county she’s moved to. And once in a while the two hats seem to overlap, as it does in this book. After checking into some vandalism at the lab a pair of marine scientists are doing a oceanographic survey, she finds a empty lobster boat running in circles, the owner totally missing.

   The missing man’s son had just died of a drug overdose, and drug dealers are Jane’s sworn enemies. Do you believe in coincidence? Neither does Jane.

   Jane is 40ish, unattached but not unattractive, and she doesn’t back down for anyone or anything. While about 3000 miles apart from Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, the tone of the story Jane tells is very much the same. I only wish I could tell you the mystery is as good as those that Kinsey worked on, but I can’t. Too may loose ends are wrapped up very quickly at the end, as if suddenly not very important any more.

   I did like the setting of coastal Maine and the presence of so any well-drawn people who live there. Authentic? Yes. I’d say so.


      The Jane Bunker series —

Slipknot. June 2007
Fisherman’s Bend. July 2008
Shiver Hitch. June 2017
Bimini Twist. July 2018

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DONALD HAMILTON – The Steel Mirror. Rinehart & Co., 1948. Paperback reprints include: Dell #473, 1950; Gold Medal d1617, 1966.

FIVE STEPS TO DANGER. Henry S. Kesler Productions/Unoted Artists, 1957. Ruth Roman, Sterling Hayden, Werner Kemperer, Jeanne Cooper and Karl Lindt. Written & directed by Henry S. Kesler, from the novel by Donald Hamilton.

   A tightly-written post-war mystery with the times reflected in small details and a plot that kept surprising me right to the end.

   Even without the surprises, this would be a fun piece of nostalgia, but Steel Mirror hooks the reader quickly with John Emmett, vacationing everyman, whose car breaks down somewhere west of nowhere. He gets a ride from Anne Nicholson, an attractive, well-dressed young woman in a new car, driving across the country, and congratulates himself on his good fortune.

   Until he stows his gear in the trunk and sees no luggage….

   Hamilton builds nicely from this. Our hero and the young lady without luggage are being followed… by what turns out to be her Doctor and a nurse. It seems Anne worked with the French Resistance in WWII, got captured and tortured by the Gestapo – and may have betrayed her husband and friends; she can’t remember, and she’s driving across country to meet the one man who can tell her.

   And oh yes: the good Doctor adds that she’s subject to mental breakdowns, has tried to kill herself, doesn’t trust him (the Doc) and it would be a big help to everyone if Emmett would stay with her and check in when she gets where she’s going.

   Okay at this point the savvy reader has spotted the Bad Guy, and as the pages turn will guess the truth about the one man we’re after. This is because Donald Hamilton has let us spot and let us guess; this plot has more twists than a box of candy canes — near-arrest by a county sheriff, a visit from the FBI, and a helpful passer-by packing heat—and it soon occurs to Emmett and that savvy reader I mentioned that there are a lot of people who don’t want Anne to get where she’s going.

   Eventually the journey reaches that point where all thrillers must inevitably arrive — Anne & Emmett on the run from a Murder charge, posing as husband & wife till they can get to the one man who can clear the whole thing up for them — whereupon it simply takes another turn and then another, all predicated on the people acting like grown-ups and not like characters in a paperback. Even when the chips are down and guns drawn there’s none of the “Very clever, Mr. Bond!” stuff, just everyone playing their cards close to the vest and me trying to figure out who’s got the Joker.

   But what I shall remember from The Steel Mirror is an underlying theme of characters trying to define themselves. Emmett spent the War in a vital civilian job and he’s always wondered if he did it from convenience or cowardice. Anne is trying to find out if she’s a heroine or a traitor. And The Steel Mirror resolves both issues by letting the characters grow and understand each other.

   Nice job, that.

   I only started reading Donald Hamilton in the last few years. I was always put off by the Matt Helm thing, but he did some decent stuff. Like the novel basis of The Big Country and The Violent Men, and in between those two fine Westerns, Henry S. Kesler made a modest little film from this.

   Kesler is hardly a name to conjure with, but he worked on some memorable films (5 Graves to Cairo, In a Lonely Place, Lured …) and Five Steps to Danger is competently done. Even quite good at times. Stars Ruth Roman and Sterling Hayden play well off each other, and the bad guys (Werner Klemperer and Richard Gaines) strike just the right note of stuffy disdain: not so much evil as arrogant, and it works well here. If you ever met a doctor too interested in himself to listen to you, then you know Klemperer’s character. And Richard Gaines (the Insurance Executive in Double Indemnity) as a duplicitous dean is so politely unhelpful as to seem maddeningly sinister.

   That’s director Kesler. Writer Kesler simplifies and updates Hamilton’s book. Maybe too much so. No more Gestapo. Now Anne has (or had) a brother in East Germany working against the communists who died trying to get valuable information to a German Rocket Scientist, now working for the U.S., who was an old friend of the family before the war, and it’s up to Anne to complete the mission.

   Rocket Science. I wonder how long it took to think that one up? Kesler treats it more seriously than it deserves, and maybe I’m being too hard on him. If I hadn’t read the book first, I might have thought more highly of this. But I remembered the human element in the book, and I missed it in the movie.


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Crider


M. E. CHABER – The Splintered Man. Rinehart & Co., hardcover, 1955. Perma Book M-3080, paperback, 1957. Paperback Library 63-308, paperback, 1970.

   Kendall Foster Crossen published more than twenty novels as M. E. Chaber. All but one of these featured Milo March as the first-person narrator and protagonist. At times March functioned in his usual capacity as an insurance investigator, but he often had occasion to work for the State Department or the CIA.

   There is a certain similarity in many of March’s adventures, but Crossen is a writer who perfected his craft, and the Chaber books are fast, smooth, funny in spots, and always entertaining. The Splintered Man stands out among them because long before the Beatles were singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Crossen introduced lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) as a major [;pt device in an espionage story.

   Milo March is called back into the army and sent into East Berlin to find Herman Gruss, the head of the counterespionage police in West Berlin, who is believed to have defected to the East. Getting into East Berlin is not too hard for March in those days before the wall. Getting out is something else again, especially when March is caught and given a hefty dose of LSD by a doctor who is experimenting with the drug at a large Russian hospital.

   The description of the drug’s effects on March, while perhaps not clinically accurate by today’s standards, is nevertheless convincingly carried off. It is not revealing too much to say that March;s inevitable escape from the hospital is accomplished by a little fudging of scientific facts, but the result us still satisfactory.

   The cover of the first paperback edition of The Splintered Man (Perma Books, 1957), is a collector’s dream. March, in his undershorts, cowers in the background while held by two men in uniform. In the foreground are two large red hands, one holding a test tube, the other holding a sizable red hypodermic needle. (In the story, March’s dose of LSD is administered in a glass of water.)

   Milo March’s other adventures include The Gallows Garden (1958), Softly in the Night (1963), The Flaming Man (1969), and Born to Be Hanged (1973). Crossen also published numerous mystery novels under his own name and such pseudonyms at Christopher Monig, Clay Richards, and Richard Foster.

     ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

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