AGATHA CHRISTIE – The Boomerang Clue. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1935. First published in the UK as Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Collins, hardcover, 1934. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and paperback, including Dell #46, mapback edition, no date [1944]. TV movie: London Weekend Television, 1980 (Francesca Annis & James Warwick). TV movie: ITV, 2009 (an episode of Agatha Christie’s Marple).

   Don’t get the wrong idea about that last TV series adaptation. This is not a Miss Marple mystery, and not only was a very loud outcry about shoehorning a character into the story who didn’t belong there, but also how they badly botched the story line itself, or so I’ve read.

   I’ve not seen this particular Marple adaptation, but (speaking generally) if there’s a perfectly fine story line that you’re working from, why mess around with it? Perhaps the producers thought that people watching their adaptation had never read the book. Perhaps the plan was to pull the rug out from under the feet of those who had, to give them a “surprise” ending.

   But do you know, it doesn’t really matter. We’ll always have the book, and it’s a good one. I don’t know why, but I’m always surprised to pick up an Agatha Christie novel and discover all over again how readable she is. I started this one rather late at night, thinking to read a chapter or so, and an hour later I’d finished ten. Chapters, that is. It isn’t easy to write stories that read as easily as this, but it has to be one of the reasons Christie’s books are still in bookstores today and 99.9% of her contemporaries are not.

   This one begins with a young Bobby Jones (not the famous one) hitting a golf ball and doing dreadfully at it, trying mightily several swings in succession, but hearing a cry, discovers a dying man lying at the bottom of cliff. He had fallen perhaps, as Bobby and his golfing partner believe, not to mention the police and the coroner’s jury, but we the reader know better.

   Before he dies, though, the man utters a dying question: “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” We are at page 9 and the end of Chapter One, and anyone who can stop here is a better person than I.

   Assisting Bobby in his quest for the truth, especially after surviving being poisoned by eight grains of morphia, is his childhood friend, Lady Frances Derwent, whom he calls Frankie. Together they make a great pair of amateur detectives, continuing to investigate the case even after the authorities have written the man’s death off as an accident.

   The tone is light and witty, as if investigating a murder is a lark, but this intrepid pair of detectives do an excellent job of it, even to the extent of faking an automobile accident and inserting an “invalid” Frankie into their primary suspect’s home.

   Before continuing, I’ll stop a moment here and point out that Bobby is the son of a vicar and a former Naval officer, while Frankie’s father is a Lord and extremely wealthy. The difference in social standing means little to Frankie, all but oblivious to her wealth, but it does to Bobby, who finds himself more and more infatuated with the young beautiful wife of a doctor they suspect is behind the plot, to Frankie’s displeasure, although the woman may be the man’s next victim herself. (This does not mean that Frankie is averse to using her position in life to help their investigation along.)

   The tone does get darker as Bobby and Frankie close in on the killer, and at the same time, the threads of the plot get more and more complicated. I’d have rather the story stay focused on the detection, but toward the end it becomes more and more a thriller. It couldn’t be helped. The essential clue is there all of the time, but nothing could be deduced from it until the book has only 15 pages to go, but making the renamed US title at lat make sense.

   In summary, here’s a book that’s immensely fun to read, with a delightful couple doing the honors in investigating a crime the police do not even realize was a crime, dreaming up various scenarios and coming up with sundry plots to incriminate the killer. Coincidences abound, but who cares?

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE SEA HAWK. First National Pictures, 1924. Milton Sills, Enid Bennett, Lloyd Hughes, Wallace MacDonald, Marc MacDermott, Wallace Beery, Frank Currier, Medea Radzina, William Collier, J. Lionel Belmore. Based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini. Director: Frank Lloyd. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   The Sea Hawk was a substitution for the originally scheduled L’Argent (1929; Marcel L’Herbier, director) L’Argent was certainly the film I was looking forward to with the most anticipation. However, although I’d seen The Sea Hawk more than once and have a Turner showing on tape, I didn’t miss the opportunity to watch it again.

   Some of you will be familiar with the Errol Flynn remake (WB, 1940), although the silent version is more faithful to Sabatini’s novel than the later version, which eliminates the extensive Moorish section that’s one of the glories of this film.

   When Sir Oliver Tressilian (Sills) is betrayed by his villainous younger brother and delivered into the greedy hands of rascally Jasper Leigh (Beery), his Christian upbringing is so damaged by his sense of outrage that when he falls into the hands of Moorish pirates, he quickly becomes Sakr-el-Bahr, the “Sea Hawk,” Muslim scourge of the high seas, and the favorite of Asad-el-Din, Sasha of Algiers, much to the chagrin of the Sasha’s favorite wife and heir apparent son.

   Enid Bennett, the lovely star of Hairpins, and Sir Oliver’s intended bride until his betrayal, is imprisoned in unbecoming costumes that mask her beauty until she’s captured by Moorish pirates (guess who?) and put up for auction, her clothes in tatters that reveal something of her native charms, and sold to… guess who again?

   Beery is a rascal, but lovable, and Sills is a splendid corsaire, with a focused rage that distinguishes his portrayal from that of the rakish, devil-may-care Flynn. I like both portrayals and both films.

   Now, the downside: this was, for much of the screening, an inferior print that only occasionally incorporated a reel of superior quality, most notably during the Moorish episodes. Of course, I missed the great score that Korngold composed for the sound remake, but the accompanist was more than competent.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


MEL ARRIGHI – Alter Ego. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1983. No paperback edition. TV movie: CBS, 1987, as Murder by the Book (with Robert Hays as D.H. ‘Hank’ Mercer / Biff Deegan, and Catherine Mary Stewart).

   Hank Mercer is a New York mystery writer, author of such modest best sellers as Death Is My Bedmate and Kill Me Tender. Biff Deegen is Hank’s series sleuth, a hard-boiled private eye patterned after Mike Hammer. Hank is tired of Biff and Biff’s uncouth style; he wants to scrap him and begin a new series about an erudite, tasteful detective named Amos Frisby.

   His editor, Norman Wagstaff. is of course opposed to the idea vehemently. But to placate Hank, who after all is one of his top authors, he agrees over lunch to the following bargain: If Hank can solve a real-life mystery, using Frisby’s methods of deduction, then he trade Riff in for Amos.

   What precipitates this bargain — and what starts Hank off on his all-too-real mystery — is a matchbook dropped on their lunch table by a well-dressed woman, containing the scrawled words “Help me.”

   The mystery involves a valuable statue called The Etruscan Dancer, some urbane crooks, some not so urbane crooks, sexy Marisa Winfield, a poker game, a daring rescue accomplished by Hank using methods better suited to the Human Fly, a chase through the Lexington Avenue subway and, as it were, the piece de resistance: Biff Deegen.

   Biff, you see, steps out of the pages of his own books to become a character in Hank’s real-life mystery.He doesn’t really come to life, of course; he is merely an anthropomorphized figment of Hank’s overworked imagination, his creator’s alter ego. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming Hank’s detective “partner,” sneering at the likes of Amos Frisby and appearing at tense moments to advise Hank on the finer points of physical combat (“Kick him in the balls!”).

   This amusing and affectionate spoof of both genres seems to have been intended as the first of a series– it is billed on the dust jacket as “A Hank & Riff Mystery” — but so far no second book has appeared. Arrighi’s other criminous novels are much more serious in tone; these include such first-rate titles as Freak-Out (1968), The Hatchet Man (1975), Turkish White (1977), the Hitchcockian thriller Delphine (1981), and Manhattan Gothic (1985).

         ———
   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.

NOTE: Mel Arrighi died in 1986 at the relatively young age of only 53. If it so happened that he wrote another book in this series, it was never published before he died.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


EDGE OF DARKNESS. Warner Brothers, 1943. Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, Nancy Coleman, Helmut Dantine, Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, John Beal, Morris Carnovsky. Director: Lewis Milestone.

   Many of Errol Flynn’s movies have a sense of lightness to them. That’s often what makes them such watchable, timeless films. Flynn is most often cast alongside two comical companions or in singular pursuit of a lovely girl who initially despises him, but eventually comes to love him.

   He’s the gentleman forced into fighting for a just cause. Think the swashbuckling Captain Blood (1935) or the epic, iconic Dodge City (1939). They are adventure stories, where Flynn portrays the elegant good guy who defeats the bad guy and, in the end, gets the girl. But there’s a sense that all the fisticuffs and gunfighting have been in good fun, even if more than a few people have gotten banged up or shot down along the way.

   Edge of Darkness, while an exceptionally good war movie, is neither fun, nor would one would call a happy film. Indeed, it’s one Errol Flynn movie where he doesn’t portray a particularly elegant man and there aren’t any bad guys, at least not in the lighthearted sense of the term.

   In Edge of Darkness, a story about Norwegian resistance fighters during the Second World War, the proverbial bad guys – the Nazis – aren’t merely bad. They are evil. And they can’t be reasoned with, tricked into changing their ways, or laughed aside. They must be killed. It’s this premise, coupled with great cinematography and superb performances by Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, and Helmut Dantine, that set this beautifully gritty Warner Brothers war film apart from other anti-Nazi films of the era.

   Directed by Lewis Milestone with a script by Robert Rossen, Edge of Darkness is a very powerful film about a simple man’s determination to free his country from the grip of totalitarianism. Flynn portrays Gunnar Brogge, a Norwegian resistance leader in the small fishing village of Trollness. He’s determined to get weapons from the British and to use them to strike against the Nazis occupying his town.

   Brogge’s commitment to methodical planning is tested when he discovers that a Nazi soldier violated his girlfriend, Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan). Further straining the already tense situation is the fact that Karen’s brother collaborated with the Nazis in Oslo and that her father, Dr. Martin Stensgard (Huston) is not fully committed to violent action against the German invaders.

   There are some very tense moments in this well-acted film, including a scene in which Brogge, along with others, is forced to dig his own grave — literally. The most memorable scene in the film, however, may belong to actor Morris Carnovksy, a veteran of the Yiddish theater and Broadway. Carnovsky, portrays Sixtus Andresen, a town schoolteacher who refuses to yield to the demands of the top Nazi thug in Trollness, Captain Koenig (Dantine). It’s a poignant reminder than individuals do have a choice when faced with tyranny.

LOREN D. ESTLEMAN – Motor City Blue. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1980. Pinnacle, paperback, 1983. Fawcett Crest, paperback, 1986.

   Say welcome to a new private eye. Amos Walker hails from Detroit, and if nothing else, it insures he has no shortage of clients.

   He’s hired in this one by an ex-gangster named Ben Morningstar to find his missing ward. The only clue is a black-and-white glossy of the type sold under the counter in even “those” kinds of bookstores. He’s also a witness to the kidnapping of an old “friend,” a former company commander back in the days of the Vietnam affair. In broad daylight, on Woodward Avenue. I believe it.

   There’s more. The Black Legion — a northern offshoot of the Klan — may be involved in the death of a militant young black labor leader. It’s quite a case. Nothing wholly original, mind you, and if coincidence bothers you, stay away. All the same, it’s written with a definite sense of style and a contagious feeling for the rhythms of life in the inner city.

   If you’re from out of town, you might even get the feeling that the grand old city of Detroit is nothing but one gigantic slum, ready and ripe for redevelopment. Well, I’ve been there, and do you know — not meaning to malign one of my favorite cities at all — I can tell you this: you’d not really be so very far from wrong.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 3, May/June 1981.


[UPDATE] 10-17-14.   There are (or will be) 24 novels in Estleman’s Amos Walker series, with #24 being published in December: You Know Who Killed Me. There are also two collections of Amos Walker short stories (with possible overlapping). I’ve read only a third of the novels, a sign of serious neglect on my part.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD. Miramax Films, 1995. Andy Garcia, Christopher Lloyd, William Forsythe, Bill Nunn, Treat Williams, Jack Warden, Steve Buscemi, Fairuza Balk, Gabrielle Anwar, Christopher Walken. Director: Gary Fleder.

   Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is a good film, perhaps very good, if a bit too firmly mired in its own neo-noir ambiance. Andy Garcia plays a character on the fringe of the underworld pressured by mob boss James Woods into settling his debts by beating up a romantic rival of Woods’ younger brother.

   Andy recruits a team of other needy-seedy types to help out, including Treat Williams and Christopher Lloyd, and when the plan goes spectacularly awry, he’s given 48 hours to get out of town… while his henchmen get Steve Buscemi as the deliveryman for slow, painful death.

   Motivated by quirky loyalty, Garcia decides to spend his last 48 hours trying to save the inept buddies who screwed things up in the first place, bringing on a nice, pre-doomed search for some meaning in one’s own death: a perfect noir conundrum.

   Most reviewers found this too clever by half, but I thought it very deeply-felt, well-played and intelligent. Someone told Andy Garcia to “do Cary Grant,” and he makes a nice job of it. Even better is Treat Williams, whose brilliant, portrayal of a sub-normal Strong-arm should be held up as a textbook model to show every actor how to lose himself in a part, a powerful bit of acting which should have won him an Oscar.

   Of course, some elements of his character may be in questionable taste, but it’s still a dandy performance in a film good enough that I wish they hadn’t felt it necessary to underline Garcia’s dilemma by having someone watch DOA in the background.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


MASTERSON OF KANSAS. Columbia Pictures, 1954. George Montgomery, Nancy Gates, James Griffith, Jean Wille, Benny Rubin, William Henry, David Bruce, Bruce Cowling. Story and screenplay: Douglas Heyes. Director: William Castle.

   Masterson of Kansas is, in many ways, a much better movie than it deserves to be. Let me explain. This Sam Katzman-produced film has little in the way of beautiful Western scenery, not all that much in the way of character development, and, with the exception of the final ten minutes or so, very little creative or unique cinematography or direction. Even so, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this highly fictionalized Bat Masterson lawman story.

   Directed by William Castle, who is now best known for his schlocky and gimmicky horror films, Masterson of Kansas is economical both with plot and time. It’s a short, fun-filled little film that benefits strongly from its casting of George Montgomery as Bat Masterson and veteran character actor James Griffith as Doc Holliday.

   Although Montgomery is definitely a presence in this film, it’s Griffith who steals the show as Holliday, depicted in this movie as a sickly, vengeful gambler who hates – I mean hates! – Masterson with a passion. Griffith simply shines as the irritable Holliday, a man torn between loving cards and loathing Masterson.

   The plot revolves around Masterson’s attempt to clear the name of a man falsely accused and convicted of murder. He does this primarily to help keep the peace between Kansas settlers and the local Indian tribes, one of which is lead by Yellow Hawk (Jay Silverheels). Bat may not be completely altruistic. Along the way, he seems to develop an interest the convicted man’s lovely daughter (Nancy Gates). Their supposed romance is more of a cliché than anything else.

   Truth be told, the storyline isn’t all that much. But there is enough action to keep the viewer engaged. The sequence in which Masterson, Holliday, and Wyatt Earp (Bruce Cowling) walk down the street together as comrades in arms is beautifully filmed, as is the scene of the hangman’s noose waiting for the falsely accused man.

   Masterson of Kansas is no brooding psychological weapon, nor is it an epic tale. But that doesn’t stop it from being fun. As escapist entertainment, this movie has a lot to recommend it.

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