REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


CAMILLA T. CRESPI – The Trouble with Thin Ice. Simona Griffo #4. HarperCollins, hardcover, 1993; paperback, 1994. iUniverse, trade paperback, July 2003.

   This is the fourth in this series, but it’s my first, and it almost wasn’t that. When I read the description of Griffo is “an ad exec … who loves to cook and solve murders” I nearly wimped out right there. Then I thought, well, maybe it’s the copywriter here who’s an idiot and not the writer. Let’s see.

   Simona and her New York Detective lover (and his 14 year old son) are spending Christmas in Connecticut, where a black friend of theirs is marrying a white man, and the couple is buying one of the town’s old mansions. The lady selling it to them is a member of the tows ruling class, and her announcement of the sale at dinner is greeted with something less than pleasure and acceptance.

   The same night she is drowned in an icy pond, and the bride-to-be is arrested for the murder. Simona’s lover is called away by a family injury, and she and the son are left to soldier one.

   It should be noted that there’s at least one facet of the book of which I heartily approve: a Cast of Characters at the beginning which should be de rigueur for any story with over five characters.

   Praise ends here. The blurb was right — Simona really does love to (*gag*) cook and solve murders. This is a better written version of the nonsense that people like Mary Daheim and Valerie Wolzien perpetrate, and while I recognize that there are those who like such, their rationale remains incomprehensible to me.

   I like my fiction to either be amusing or about people and premises that I can at least temporarily believe in, and neither of these attributes is in the slightest evidence here.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.


       The Simona Griffo series —

As by Trella Crespi:
   The Trouble with a Small Raise. Zebra 1991.
   The Trouble with Moonlighting. Zebra 1991.
   The Trouble with Too Much Sun. Zebra 1992.

As by Camilla T. Crespi:
   The Trouble with Thin Ice. Harper 1993.
   The Trouble with Going Home. Harper 1995.
   The Trouble with a Bad Fit. Harper 1996.
   The Trouble with a Hot Summer. Harper 1997.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE RIFT. Trimark Pictures, 1990. Also released as Endless Descent. Jack Scalia, R. Lee Ermey, Ray Wise, Deborah Adair, John Toles Bey, Ely Pouget, Emilio Linder. Director: Juan Piquer Simón

   Judging from some of the comments that exist online, The Rift (aka Endless Descent) seems to have its fair share of detractors. In the DVD commentary at the end of the movie, one learns that even R. Lee Ermey seems to have a negative feeling toward the movie. To be honest, I think a lot of this scorn is undeserved. True, it’s a low budget feature. That much is obvious. And there are also the unescapable comparisons with much higher end creature features like Alien (1979) and Leviathan (1989).

   But do you know what? For a cheapie made in an old movie studio on the outskirts of Madrid and that was never released in the theaters, The Rift is actually a solid and downright enjoyable action-adventure movie with science fiction and horror themes running throughout. The plot is compelling, the action never lets up, and there special effects really aren’t half-bad. And the music by Joel Goldsmith, who went on to do the music for the television show Stargate, definitely adds to the suspense and the general air of creeping dread.

   Jack Scalia portrays Wick Hayes, an American scientist/engineer tasked with a mission. He’s to assist the U.S. Navy in a rescue and retrieval mission for Siren 1, a submarine he designed. Apparently the vessel has been lost at the bottom of the sea. With a crew lead by Captain Philips (R. Lee Ermey) and the scheming Robbins (Ray Wise), along with his ex-wife, scientist Lt. Nina Crowley (Deborah Adair), the Siren 2 gang embarks upon a daring rescue operation.

   The crew, along with Hayes, will soon discover that what caused the Siren 1’s disappearance wasn’t an accident at all, but rather the result of a grotesquely botched attempt to conduct biological warfare experiments underwater. Cue the monsters, animals and plants alike!

PATRICIA WENTWORTH – Dead or Alive. J. B. Lippincott Co., US, hardcover, 1936. Dell #2, paperback, 1943. Warner, paperback, September 1990. First Edition: Hodder and Stoughton, UK. hardcover, 1936. Dean Street Press, UK, softcover, 2016.

   Not a Miss Silver novel. According to Hubin, a fellow named Frank Garrett makes his third appearance as a series character in this novel, but until the ending (of which more later) his part in the story is so nominal as to be all but non-existent.

   The book definitely is part of a continuing series, however. There were two footnotes referring to people or events that happened in previous books, but not having access to them, I convinced myself to ignore them. I do not believe I missed anything; the footnotes were sufficient.

   More than anything else, when it comes down to it, Dead or Alive is a romance. When Bill Coverdale comes back to England from South America, he immediately calls on Meg O’Hara, whom he has loved (in vain) since she was fifteen. That she is now a widow may have something to do with this.

   Or is she? Widowed, I mean. She has been receiving strange notes telling her that her husband Robin is still alive. Is it possible that what was identified as his body after being pulled from a river was not him?

   Without a job, Meg is in poor straits, her only relative an absent-minded uncle who has isolated himself away on an island in a lake with only a covered bridge connecting him to his new home, with a newly acquired staff of unhelpful servants whose job it seems to be to keep Meg for seeing him.

   It turns out that Meg’s husband worked for Garrett (see above) who works for the Foreign Office. Bill turns to him for help, but all he is told is that Meg’s husband is definitely dead. Garrett has no explanation for what is going on.

   This is a story that’s charmingly told, if you’re still with me, and the trouble that Bill and Meg get into gradually gets worse and worse. At one point close to the end, they are both captured and near death, with no way out that I could think of, nor apparently could Miss Wentworth.

[PLOT ALERT] The ending is the most blatant use of a deus ex machina plotting device I have ever had the good fortune of reading. Worse, the crooks responsible get away, leaving the reader to figure out at this late date when and where they turned up next.

   And there’d better be a next time. Crooks this nasty need their comeuppance, and badly. But did I enjoy this one? You may ask, and in a word, believe it or not,the answer is yes. It’s not much as a detective novel, but as a romantic thriller, it’s top notch. Bill is stalwart and strong, whereas Meg, who starts out as being frightfully weak, shows a lot of fortitude and spunk by the time the book ends. You can’t blame the plot on them.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE NAKED VENUS. Beaux Arts Films, 1959. Patricia Conelle, Don Roberts, Arianne Ulmer (as Arianne Arden) and Wynn Gregory. Written by Gabriel Gort and Gaston Hakim, who probably didn’t use their right names either. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer (as Ove H. Sehested!).

   Over the years Edgar Ulmer has come in for a great deal of critical attention, mostly well-earned. Responsible film scholars, though, have ignored this opus from late in his career, probably because The Naked Venus represents Ulmer outside the legitimate cinema, directing a “Nudie”: the sort of film that played at seedy theaters to audiences of desperate men… and curious teenagers like me, when we looked old enough to lie about our age and sneak in. Or perhaps no serious critic wanted to admit they’d seen it.

   Well I have no such reservations, but I have to say The Naked Venus must have disappointed a lot of lonely men and curious boys, not to mention scholars of the Cinemah.

   The early scenes gave me some hope: Two detectives with a camera stalking through the woods find two women skinny-dipping and start taking movies. The stalking scenes are well composed, and the skinny-dipping is mildly sensuous; good so far….

   Then we cut to Paris at night, and we know this because we get about a dozen establishing shots of Parisian landmarks for ten minutes — ten very long minutes.

   When the Plot finally commences, it’s pure Soap, with a misunderstood young Nudist fighting her nasty mother-in-law and her weakling husband in a divorce case to keep custody of their daughter and redeem her reputation. And I’m here to tell you it’s a half-an-hour of nothing but Daytime Drama: no nudity, nothing sexy, just bad acting on cheap sets, done so haphazardly you can almost hear Ulmer saying, “Just shoot the damn thing and kill me.”

   Finally the heroine decides to get away from it all by visiting a Nudist camp run by Ulmer’s daughter Arianne… who keeps her clothes on. So I imagine the lonely old men and curious youngsters perked up (if that’s the right word) for fifteen minutes of documentary-style scenes of happy, healthy, good-looking naked people artfully keeping their crotches hidden as they swim, hike, have archery contests and — yes — play volleyball.

   But alas, this is followed by another forty-five minutes where our heroine goes to court. Things look dark as her naked life-style is dragged before the Judge. Then, when all seems lost, her lawyer brings in an Art Critic(!) who explains that the naked form is the basis of many highfalutin’ masterpieces. And that convinces the judge.

   The Divorce case is dismissed and her weakling husband breaks away from his domineering mother for a happy ending—for everyone but the paying customers, who suddenly realize they’ve sat through all this in vain: Not even a glimpse of epidermis for the last third of the film, just a movie shot as if the director were contemplating suicide.

   Now I am well known as the Boston Blackie of bad movies (“Friend to those who have no friend”) and I watched this with some anticipation, but even my love of awful filmmaking could not encompass this effort. The best thing I can say about The Naked Venus is that it will probably do Ulmer’s reputation no damage.

   Or not too much, anyway….

E. R. PUNSHON “The Avenging Phonograph.” First published in Black and White, UK, 12 January 1907. Collected in The Ash-Tree Press Annual Macabre 2000, edited by Jack Adrian, and Bobby Owen, Black Magic, Bloodshed and Burglary: Selected Short Stories of E. R Punshon (Ramble House, US, 2015).

   Before hitting upon the idea of writing detective novels to make a living, with some 35 cases of police constable Bobby Owen produced between 1933 and 1956, E. R. Punshon was a prolific author of dozens of tales for the British weeklies of the teens and 20s of the last century.

   Only a handful of these had even a hint of the supernatural or the macabre, and a trace of the latter is all that’s in “The Avenging Photograph.” It is the mayor of a small identified town who has committed murder and who is greatly relieved when the coroner’s jury brings in a verdict of suicide.

   Perhaps it is only conscience working its way through his mind, but suddenly the mayor has this almost undeniable compulsion (not really a conscience!) to tell someone — anyone! — that he did it. That he was the killer.

   Not being a king able to talk to the reeds, he finds himself buying a recording phonograph, one of those new machines which you can speak into and have your voice preserved on a wax cylinder inside.

   I won’t tell you more, except to say that the ten pages of this rather understated story should make a solid impression on anyone happening to read it, an opportunity, I imagine, not very likely to occur in its original publication, a magazine so rare that I doubt more than five copies may even exist.

DONALD E. WESTLAKE – Why Me. John Dortmunder #5. Viking, hardcover, 1983. Tor, paperback, April 1985. Film: Epic, 1990, as Why Me? (with Christopher Lambert as “Gus Cardinale”).

   Professional burglar John Dortmunder’s life has never been easy — in fact, most of the people who know hm well think of him as a jinx — and it gets even worse in this book, in which he accidentally heists the Byzantine Fire, only the wold’s most valuable ruby.

   On his neck immediately are the police, the FBI, the entire underworld (tired of being endlessly hassled by the police and the FBI) and skads of very religious assassination fanatics, in what becomes a major international affair. When he’s on his game, as he is here, Westlake can exhibit a sour, sarcastic view of the world with the best of them, and the book is simply hilarious all the way through.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #23,, July 1990 (very slightly revised).

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


A. H. Z. CARR – Finding Maubee. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1971. Bantam, paperback, 1973. British title: The Calypso Murders (Hale, UK, 1973). Film: MGM, 1989, as The Mighty Quinn.

   A. H. Z. Carr’s first and only suspense novel (which won the Best First Novel Edgar for 1971) is a police procedural with an unusual setting: the tropical island of St. Caro in the Caribbean. And even for that part of the world, St. Caro is unusual: It can claim to have “the highest rate of illegitimacy and the lowest rate of crime” of all the islands.

   Illegitimacy on St. Caro carries no special stigma; “outbabies” are usually acknowledged by the fathers. But the young men of this extremely libidinous locale are careful to guard against being saddled with the support of “bushbabies” (those whose paternity is questionable), and thus they keep little black books –sexual diaries.

   Dave Maubee’s little black book is a thick one, and he has managed to sire “two inbabies, six outbabies, and an undetermined number of bushbabies.” It is no wonder he turns to a life of crime — petty theft from tourists — to support these offspring. But when a wealthy tourist, Carl Lattner, is found murdered with a machete at the exclusive Mango Beach Inn, Maubee’s boyhood friend, Police Chief Xavier Brooke, is astonished to hear Dave is the prime suspect. It is his little black book, dropped at the crime scene, that points to him.

   Xavier, a mainland-educated St. Carovian, begins his investigation amid pressures from both the island’s acting governor and a fellow officer who has designs on his job. But despite their insistence on Maubee’s guilt, he finds inconsistencies at the scene and among the stories of the resort’s high-toned but not always high-principled guests.

   When he finally sets out to track down the missing Maubee, his search takes him all over the island to the homes of women Maubee has rated “A+” in his book. In his travels, he finds that his old friend’s life has taken a surprising new turn, and by the time he apprehends him, he is certain the murder is not as straightforward as it originally seemed.

   Carr’s characters are well developed and memorable, and the setting he employs is vivid. Issues such as racial strife, Caribbean politics, and obeah (voodoo) form a backdrop for a solid and intelligent procedural. Unfortunately, Carr (who wrote a number of criminous short stories, as well as other, noncriminous books) died shortly after Finding Maubee‘s publication in 1971, and his Edgar was awarded posthumously. More Xavier Brooke novels would have been enthusiastically welcomed by this reviewer.

         ———
   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.

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


ARCHER MAYOR – Trace. Joe Gunther/VBI #28. Minotaur Books, hardcover, September 2017.

First Sentence:   Jayla Robinson looked out across Albany’s Lancaster Street at the three matching brownstones opposite.

   Joe Gunther, head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, needs to take his elderly mother to a hospital in the Midwest leaving his team with three very different cases; the medical examiner’s daughter’s roommate being murdered in their apartment, a closed double murder where it is now found isn’t as cut-and-dried as it originally appeared, and the discover of three teeth and a burned-out battery found on a railroad track.

   Mayor’s books contain a true ensemble cast of very individual characters. By removing Gunther from center stage for most of the book, the other characters have a chance to shine. Mayor’s descriptions tell us much more about each character than just their appearance, or even background.

   That we also learn about their personalities plays a major role in the growth in the relationship of two characters. While one may not normally be a fan of a relationship focus in a mystery, it really does work here with growth and realization. He doesn’t stint on the secondary characters, either. The relationship Joe has with his brother Leo is very easy and realistic.

   One thing about police procedurals is the fascinating things one learns. In this case it is regarding planted fingerprints and about trains, as well as how the VBI — the Bureau of Criminal Investigations in the real world — interacts with other agencies. But Mayor is also very good about the small details. Not only are they not boring, but often it’s the sort of thing where one thinks, “Oh, I’d forgotten about that.” A lot of the methodologies and technologies employed are very clever.

   Trace contains three cases each of which is interesting and stands on its own with details and suspense building at a nice pace. It also ends with a nice homage to the vast majority of good, honest, hard-working police officers who really do work to protect and serve.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TRAIL GUIDE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1952. Tim Holt, Linda Douglas, Richard Martin, Frank Wilcox, Robert Sherwood, John Pickard, Kenneth MacDonald. Director: Lesley Selander.

   Maybe in 1952 the market had changed and B-Westerns – especially those in black and white – were no longer in demand, and apparently Trail Guide, one of the last Tim Holt RKO westerns, did not make money at the box office. But I found this entry in the series to be an above average oater, one that zips along at a good pace and one with enough grittiness to make it as appealing to adults as to the kiddie matinee crowd. Indeed, there is something of a William Witney feel to this Lesley Selander directed production. Having character actor Frank Wilcox portray the villain wasn’t a bad move either.

   The plot: After Tim Holt and his perennially womanizing sidekick Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin) have finished guiding a wagon train out West, they run afoul of cattle ranchers who are none to eager to have homesteaders on their land. Totally original right? But the plot gets a goes off in another direction when the duo stumble upon a bigger criminal enterprise, one that gets not only the local marshal killed, but also the brother of lovely ranch owner Peg Masters (Linda Douglas).

   That angers Holt enough that he threatens to beat the truth out of one of the bad guys. And beat it out of him he does. He also slams the guy’s hand in a desk drawer. What did I say about a William Witney feel?

All told, Trail Guide is not a great film and it’s not something that you probably ought to go well out of your way to see. But if you do happen to catch it, you might be pleasantly surprised about how solidly crafted it is. This one didn’t deserve to lose a dime.

BRAM STOKER – Dracula’s Guest. Published posthumously in the collection Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories (George Routledge & Sons, UK, hardcover, 1914). Reprinted many times including: Weird Tales, December 1927; The Ghouls, edited by Peter Haining (W. H. Allen, UK, hardcover, 1971; Pocket, US, paperback, April 1971); Dracula’s Guest and Other Stories, edited by Victor Ghidalia (Xerox, US, paperback, 1972); Werewolf!, edited by Bill Pronzini (Arbor House, US, hardcover, 1979); The Vampire Archives: The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard / Vintage Books, softcover, 2009); The Big Book of Rogues and Villains, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, softcover, October 24 2017). Film: Among others “inspired” by the story, Universal’s film Dracula’s Daughter (1936) was supposedly based on the tale, but nothing of the plot was used.

   It is generally stated and accepted that this story, somewhat complete in itself, was the the first chapter of the original manuscript of Dracula, but deleted for reasons of length. It is told by an unknown narrator, but presumably it was Jonathan Harker who very foolishly ignores the advice of his innkeeper and the coachman of his carriage to get out to investigate on foot a village said to be unholy and abandoned for some 300 years.

   On Walpurgis Night, no less. Needless to say, he soon realizes that he has made a dangerous mistake. Some thoughts. First of all, how modern Stoker’s writing is. This is story that could easily pass as having been written last week, if not yesterday. Secondly, it is wonder how well this story anticipates all those Hammer horror films that came along so many years later.

         BONUS:

   Here are the stories included in the Rogues and Villains anthology:


      THE VICTORIANS

At the Edge of the Crater by L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace
The Episode of the Mexican Seer by Grant Allen
The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson
Dracula’s Guest by Bram Stoker
The Narrative of Mr. James Rigby by Arthur Morrison
The Ides of March by E. W. Hornung

   19TH CENTURY AMERICANS

The Story of a Young Robber by Washington Irving
Moon-Face by Jack London
The Shadow of Quong Lung by C. W. Doyle

      THE EDWARDIANS

The Fire of London by Arnold Bennett
Madame Sara by L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace
The Affair of the Man Who Called Himself Hamilton Cleek by Thomas W. Hanshew
The Mysterious Railway Passenger by Maurice Leblan
An Unposted Letter by Newton MacTavish
The Adventure of “The Brain” by Bertram Atkey
The Kailyard Novel by Clifford Ashdown
The Parole of Gevil-Hay by K. & Hesketh Prichard
The Hammerspond Park Burglary by H. G. Wells
The Zayat Kiss by Sax Rohmer

      EARLY 20TH CENTURY AMERICANS

The Infallible Godahl by Frederick Irving Anderson
The Caballero’s Way by O. Henry
Conscience in Art by O. Henry
The Unpublishable Memoirs by A. S. W. Rosenbach
The Universal Covered Carpet Tack Company by George Randolph Chester
Boston Blackie’s Code by Jack Boyle
The Gray Seal by Frank L. Packard
The Dignity of Honest Labor by Percival Pollard
The Eyes of the Countess Gerda by May Edginton
The Willow Walk by Sinclair Lewis
A Retrieved Reformation by O. Henry

      BETWEEN THE WORLD WARS

The Burglar by John Russell
Portrait of a Murderer by Q. Patrick
Karmesin and the Big Flea by Gerald Kersh
The Very Raffles-Like Episode of Castor and Pollux, Diamonds De Luxe by Harry Stephen Keeler
The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
Four Square Jane by Edgar Wallace
A Fortune in Tin by Edgar Wallace
The Genuine Old Master by David Durham
The Colonel Gives a Party by Everett Rhodes Castle
Footsteps of Fear by Vincent Starrett
The Signed Masterpieces by Frederick Irving Anderson
The Hands of Mr. Ottermole by Thomas Burke
“His Lady” to the Rescue by Bruce Graeme
On Getting an Introduction by Edgar Wallace
The 15 Murderers by Ben Hecht
The Damsel in Distress by Leslie Charteris

      THE PULP ERA

After-Dinner Story by William Irish
The Mystery of the Golden Skull by Donald E. Keyhoe
We Are All Dead by Bruno Fischer
Horror Insured by Paul Ernst
A Shock for the Countess by C. S. Montanye
A Shabby Millionaire by Christopher B. Booth
Crimson Shackles by Frederick C. Davis
The Adventure of the Voodoo Moon by Eugene Thomas
The Copper Bowl by George Fielding Eliot

      POST-WORLD WAR 2

The Cat-Woman by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Kid Stacks a Deck by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Theft from the Empty Room by Edward D. Hoch
The Shill by Stephen Marlowe
The Dr. Sherrock Commission by Frank McAuliffe
In Round Figures by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Racket Buster by Erle Stanley Gardner
Sweet Music by Robert L. Fish

      THE MODERNS

The Ehrengraf Experience by Lawrence Block
Quarry’s Luck by Max Allan Collins
The Partnership by David Morrell
Blackburn Sins by Bradley Denton
The Black Spot by Loren D. Estleman
Car Trouble by Jas A. Petrin
Keller on the Spot by Lawrence Block
Boudin Noir by R. T. Lawton
Like a Thief in the Night by Lawrence Block
Too Many Crooks by Donald E. Westlake

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