June 2020


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

BULLETS OR BALLOTS. Warner Brothers, 1936. Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton MacLane, and Humphrey Bogart. Written by Seton I. Miller and Martin Mooney. Directed by William Keighly.

   A dumb title on a story guaranteed to surprise no one, but so well-mounted I didn’t care.

   Edward G. Robinson stars as a veteran plainclothes cop, who opens the show by throwing a cheap hood through a glass door — Warner’s way of telling us he’s tough and straight — but not puritanical; he flirts with hard-boiled Joan Blondell, who runs a numbers game, and chums around with Barton MacLane as an upper-echelon gangster.

   Then, following a departmental house-cleaning, Robinson gets fired, fired up, socks the Police Captain and joins MacLane’s mob, where he quickly rises in importance. But don’t worry folks, it’s all a ruse, a sham, and a ploy, designed to get Eddie access to the really big boys who give the orders and rake off the profits.

   Well, as movie-schemes go, it’s not bad. The only real problem is Humphrey Bogart as MacLane’s trigger-happy Number Two, understandably upset by Robinson’s rise in the ranks and all too eager to demote him permanently.

   At this point Bullets or Ballots (what the hell does that title refer to?) becomes a vigorous game of cat-and-mouse, with Bogie and Eddie taking turns as predator and prey, trying to outmaneuver each other in games of gunfire and gangland politics, done with typical Warners panache: squealing tires, blazing guns and the gentle pitter-patter of fists on faces. I particularly liked one scene where Eddie walks into a room full of hostile hoods and director Keighly emphasizes his isolation with subtle camera placement and composition, then gradually eases the visual tension as Robinson wins them over.

   This was Bogie’s first film at Warner Brothers after his memorable Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, and his first team-up Edward G. Robinson, whom he would definitively kill in Key Largo. Here we have all the nastiness of Mantee, but none of that independent spirit that ennobled the earlier part. No, Bogie is the classic Meanie here: vicious, cowardly and compulsively watchable. There were better parts to come — and some definitely worse — but fans of Bogart need to see this one.

   

BRIAN GARFIELD – What of Terry Conniston? World, hardcover, 1971. Fawcett Crest, paperback, February 1974.

   The five members of a chronically out-of-work rock group (and a motley, unsavory group they are) decide to try their hand at kidnapping. Their target: Terry Conniston, the daughter of an Arizonan multimillionaire. After they grab her, though, complications set in. Things go wrong on both sides, but the comedy of errors is not funny à la Donald Westlake. The girl’s life is really at stake.

   Garfield deftly mixes dollops of marital infidelity and family discord, stock manipulation, a Chicano uprising, and Mitch Baird, an unwilling participant in the kidnapping. And Terry herself has her own attractions. The cliché about not being able to put a book down strikes again.

Rating: A minus.

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 2, March 1977.

PERSON OF INTEREST “Pilot.” CBS, 22 September 2011. Jim Caviezel as John Reese, Michael Emerson as Harold Finch. Guest cast: Natalie Zea. Seriescreated by Jonathan Nolan; executive producers: Nolan, J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Greg Plageman, Denise Thé, and Chris Fisher. Director: David Semel.

   This series lasted for five years, but when it was first suggested to me that it was excellent and I really had to watch it, it was part way through the third year, and believe you me, I had no idea what was going on. Science fictional TV series like this one has a tendency to get that way, especially when the basic concept was so complicated to begin with.

   To wit: A former government contractor named Harold Finch is  the man who helped build a super computer program that… What the hell. I’m just going to quote Wikipedia:

   “…that is capable of collating all sources of information to predict terrorist acts and identify people planning them. The Machine also identifies perpetrators and victims of other premeditated deadly crimes, but, because the government considers these ‘irrelevant,’ he programs the Machine to delete this information each night. Anticipating abuse of his creation, Finch created a backdoor into the Machine. Tormented by the ‘irrelevant’ deaths that might have been prevented, he eventually decides to use his backdoor to act covertly. To escape detection, he directs the Machine to provide only a tiny fragment of data: the social security number of a ‘person of interest.’ The person may be a victim, a perpetrator, or an innocent bystander caught up in lethal events.”

   In the pilot, the social security number is that of a successful female prosecutor. What kind of problem is she having, or will she have? There are many low life characters in her life every day. Is she in danger? To help him find out, Finch recruits John Reese (Jim Caviezel) – and quoting Wikipedia again, he is “a former Green Beret and CIA agent now presumed dead.” Finch needs him as a leg man to investigate.

   It’s a great concept, and this the first episode is slickly done, with a twist or two that  brought a smile (or several smiles) to my face.. It’s no wonder the show went on to great success.

   I’m not sure, though, whether I want to invest the equivalent of five years’ worth of episodes, especially, as I said the outset, I think the show went off in directions that even those who made this pilot had no idea of that far in advance. Fringe was another series that I enjoyed for maybe two years before the plots became way way too complicated, at least for me.

   I welcome any advice you may have to offer on this.

   

REVIEWED BY RAY O’LEARY:

   

CARTER DICKSON – The Cavalier’s Cup. Sir Henry Merrivale #22. William Morrow & Co., hardcover, 1953. Zebra, paperback, 1987.

   Another book passed on to me by Dan and another re-read of one of the later Sir Henry Merrivale novels. It is also one that isn’t a murder mystery.

   Lady Brace, the American-born wife of Lord Brace and the daughter of a Congressman from Pennsylvania comes to Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters of Scotland Yard seeking his help to find an explanation for how her husband, having locked himself in the Oak Room of his home, Telford Old Hall, in order to guard the golden bejeweled Cavalier’s Cup, a family heirloom taken from the bank for a museum exhibition, awoke to find the cup on the table before him and no longer in the safe, which is open and the door and windows still locked as they had been when he had locked himself in the night before.

   Masters reluctantly goes along after being ordered to by his superiors, even though he thinks it’s a simple case of Lord Brace walking in his sleep, and even though he knows that Sir Henry Merrivale has been staying in nearby Cranleigh Court for the past six months. Masters is forced to spend a night locked in the Oak Room. where, in the middle of the night, he is knocked out and a sword displayed outside the room is found inside along with the opened safe and the Cavalier’s Cup again out in the open. So it’s up to Sir Henry to explain it all.

   This is a book I completely forgot and I think I know the reason why, since Carr was clearly tiring of the character. In a way this reminded me of The Maltese Falcon. (I’ll wait here while the laughter dies down.) One of the criticisms of that classic was that the murder of Miles Archer was pushed aside while the characters and story concentrated on the Black Bird: who has it and how to get it In response Hammett wrote The Glass Key in which “who killed Taylor Henry” was on everyone’s lips.

   Here, Carr sets up an intriguing locked-room puzzle but spends the whole middle of the book trying to write farce about Merrivale’s singing (with an Italian teacher named Ravioli yet who speaks ,n the sort of Italian accented English that should have the Italian-American Civil Rights League up in arms) and the Congressman’s love at first sight (and sex at second) with the local Labour M. P. Miss E. M. Cheeseman.

   Only then does he go back to the puzzle and Merrivale’s explanation (to the perpetrator who he decides to let get away with it). So let me remember Carr’s glory days and forget this as thoroughly as I did the first time I read it.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson 53, September 2007.

THE FATAL HOUR. Monogram Pictures, 1940. Mr. Wong #4. Boris Karloff (James Lee Wong), Marjorie Reynolds, Grant Withers, Charles Trowbridge, Frank Puglia, Craig Reynolds, Lita Chevret. Based on the “James Lee Wong” series in Collier’s Magazine written by Hugh Wiley. Director: William Nigh.

   When an undercover policeman and a good friend of Captain Bill Street of San Francisco Homicide is found murdered, it is his friend Mr. Wong who steps in and gives him all the help he needs to catch the killer. Spunky female reporter Bobbie Logan is also on hand, but she’s there mostly for eye appeal and doesn’t do much in the way of actual detective work.

   But since I’ve mentioned “detective work,” this is, I think, is one of the better B-movies in that regard that I’ve watched in a while. There are a lot of suspects crammed into a movie that is only about an hour long, and all of the plot points click off like clockwork. There is even a brand new invention involving a common home [Redacted] that’s part of the solution.

   To tell you the truth, Boris Karloff doesn’t look Chinese to me, but any movie that he appeared in was far better off than if he wasn’t, and The Fatal Hour is no exception. I haven’t seen one of these Mr. Wong movies since I was 15 or 16, and it’s only me who’s the worse for wear.

   

THIEVES. “Pilot.” ABC, 28 September 2001. John Stamos (as Johnny), Melissa George (as Rita), Robert Knepper, Tone Lōc. Written by Jim Leonard. Director: James Frawley.

  It’s so tempting to start this review by saying, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” and guess what? I just did. Two young cat burglars, male and female, each successful on their own, are caught trying to steal the same set of diamonds, and given an ultimatum” Work for us (the government) or go to jail. By story’s end, they have (guess what) decided to work for the government.

  They of course bicker between each other a lot, but one can imagine that if the series had been allowed to continue (only eight of the ten films were aired before the plug was pulled), the sparks would have been romantic ones as well as those generated by their competitive natures. Both lead actors are extremely attractive (and the female partner of the two seems to dress in clothes that show as much bare skin as much as possible).

  There is an old adage in the television business (or if there isn’t, there should be), that you need a story, too, not bits of pieces of one that need as much padding as to make each episode fit comfortably in a 60 minute time slot, less commercials.

  Each of the two leads ha gone on to have had successful careers. This series wasn’t much of a step up along the way, however. It remains a relic only, of interest only to those of us who love digging up old relics such as this.

   

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

   

CLYDE B. CLASON – Blind Drifts. Theocritus Lucius Westborough #3 or 4 (two book appearances in 1937). Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1937. Rue Morgue Press, trade paperback, 2012.

   Mild-mannered Professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough, an expert on the Roman emperor Heliogabalus, is an amateur sleuth in the classic mold of the Twenties and Thirties: He solves convoluted puzzles through the time-tested Sherlockian methods of keen observation, a storehouse of esoteric knowledge, and deductive reasoning. Westborough – and his creator specializes in locked-room “miracle problems.” Even the best of these offers no challenge to John Dickson Carr, but for the most pan they are cleverly constructed and well clued. The one in Blind Drifts offers a particularly neat and satisfying variation on the theme.

   Westborough’s home base is Chicago, but here he travels to Colorado to visit a gold mine in which he has inherited 70,000 shares. Not long after his arrival, he finds himself investigating, first, the disappearance or one of the mine’s directors, and then the murder of its owner, Mrs. Coranlue Edmonds, known far and wide as a “bearcat on wheels” – a murder by shooting that takes place in front of seven witnesses, in a “blind drift” deep inside the Virgin Queen mine. by a seemingly nonexistent gun.

   The plot is twisty and complex, the clues numerous and fairly presented, the motive for Mrs. Edrnonds’ murder plausible, and the method likewise. The Colorado setting is well depicted, as are the details of the operation and physical makeup of a large gold mine. It is Clason’s attention to such detail, more than anything else, that lifts his work above the average puzzle story or the period; you can’t read a Westborough novel without learning something, and something interesting at that.

   The one drawback to this and the eight other entries in the series is Clason’s sometimes florid, often prolix style. Blind Drifts is the only book of his that would not benefit greatly from the excision of ten or fifteen thousand words, and at that it could stand to lose five or six thousand here and there.

   The most appealing of Wcstborough ‘s other cases are The Death Angel ( 1936), set on a Wisconsin country estate called Rumpelstiltskin, where a murder happens in spite of 1542-to-l odds against it. and a murderer is twice guilty of killing the same man; The Man from Tibet (1939), which features a locked-room murder and contains some fascinating background material on the strange customs and rites of Tibet; and Green Shiver (1941), which has a Los Angeles setting and another “impossible” plot, the solution to which depends on Westborough’s knowledge of Chinese jade.

———
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

OZARK  “Sugarwood,” Netflix, 21 July 2017. Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Esai Morales. Director: Jason Bateman.

   As a pilot for this series that’s now in its third season on Netflix, it does its job exceedingly well. Due to some serious lapses on the part of his fellow members in a plan to skim off a potion of the profits in a money-laundering scheme they are working on for a Mexican drug cartel, Marty Byrde, his wife and two children must pack up their bags overnight and leave Chicago behind so he can start anew in the area around the Lake of the Ozarks.

   I did not know that the shoreline of the lake is longer than hat of the entire state of California, did you? With tourists and other visitors from all over the world, it seems as though the area wold be a great spot to start business up again, or so Byrde manages to convince Camino “Del” Del Rio (Esai Morales) in a desperate attempt to save his life.

   It takes the full hour to set up the premise. It is assumed that things are Not Going to Go Well. Other than that, though, there is, however, no indication of where the story line will go from here. In fact I should not even pretend that I am reviewing the series at all, based on this first episode, which is well enough done that watching the second one is a must before passing judgment, so I won’t.

   I will say this, however. I found nothing interesting to say so far about the newly exiled father, who as a crook and not a very good one at that, is very nearly a cipher, even at episode’s end; nor his wife, who has been cheating on him; nor his daughter, a whiny teen-aged girl; nor his nebbish younger son.

   No, the standout at this point is Esai Morales, a loyal lieutenant in the drug cartel and a man who knows his job and does it well. He also knows the answer to the question he poses to Byrde and his associates when he first finds them out: If a loyal female clerk in a family business for many years is found taking the cash from the till, should she be fired, or should she be forgiven?

   I knew the answer, the crime boss knows, and by the end of this first episode, Marty Byrde has figured it out as well.

   

JOSH PACHTER “Sam Buried Caesar.” Nero Wolfe Griffen & Artie Goodman #1. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1971. Reprinted in The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe, edited by Josh Pachter (Mysterious Press, trade paperback, April 2020).

   Nero Wolfe Griffen and Artie Goodman may be the youngest private eyes on record. The former is ten when this story takes place; the latter is a year younger. And some background, I think, before I talk about the story itself. Artie has recently moved next door to the Griffen family. The father, a widower and an inspector for the Tyson County Police Force, has eleven children. Their first and middle names are Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, John Jericho, Parker Pyne, Gideon Fell, Augustus Van Dusen, Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, and one girl, Jane Marple Griffen.

   Two earlier stories by Josh Pachter in EQMM featured cases solved by E. Q. Griffen. “Sam Buried Caesar” appears to to be the third and final case solved by members of the Griffen family, which is a shame, as I’m sure you will agree, the tales could have gone on indefinitely. In this one the two friends are hired to solve a case of the missing body of a dog (named Caesar) who a neighboring boy (named Sam) buried after his pet was hit by a car. When dug up, the makeshift grave is discovered to be empty.

   Artie, of course, is the one who does all of the legwork, while Nero sits home and does all of the detective work without moving an inch. As I’ll also sure you’ll agree, this is an amusing tale that’s a lot of fun to read, and as I understand it, was the impetus behind the recent collection of pastiches recently published in honor of one the most famous detectives of all time.
   

BRUNO FISCHER – Quoth the Raven. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1944. Bestseller Mystery #B82, digest-sized paperback, 1950. Reprinted as The Fingered Man, Ace Double D-27, paperback, 1953; published back to back with Double Take by Mel Colton.

   Grocer Sam Tree’s wife had two previous husbands. The first was killed escaping from the police; the second is a drunk, a gambler, and not averse to a little blackmail. Where is his wife getting the money to pay him? And is her first husband really dead?

   In this book Fischer deftly balances the clever with the cheap cliché. Except for Sam’s wife, who has neatly mastered the technique of cuddly double talk to answer her way around any question, the dialogue is trite and corny. But I will tell you this: the ending surprised me.

Rating: C plus.

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 2, March 1977.

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