PETER CHAMBERS – Downbeat Kill. Abelard-Schuman, US, hardcover, 1964. First published in the UK by Robert Hale, hardcover, 1963.

   There was a time — this was long ago — when I thought there was somehow a connection between the author Peter Chambers, and the private eye character Peter Chambers whose adventures were told by Henry Kane. That the author Peter Chambers’s most frequently used character was also a PI (named Mark Preston) made such a connection all the more plausible. So so I thought.

   It turns out, as has been well known for many years now, that even though his character’s stories take place in California, Peter Chambers the author is as British as they come, and there is no connection to Henry Kane or his character whatsoever. Chambers’ real name is Dennis Phillips (1924-2006), and while having written only one crime novel under his own name, he wrote almost 40 as Chambers — most but not all with Preston — one as Simon Challis, five as Peter Chester, and thirteen as Philip Daniels.

   Very few of them have been reprinted in this country. Downbeat Kill is one of only eight of Preston’s cases to have been published over here. On the basis of this sample of size one, in spite of this overall rather sizable output of 36 in all, I find it really doubtful that I will find myself searching out any others.

   For one thing, Chambers (the author) has a totally tin ear when it comes to things Americana. This is the story of a universally disliked TV deejay whose death has been threatened, calling Preston in, His name is Donny Jingle (not his real one, though); the man works for a TV conglomerate called Amalgamated Inter-Coastal Television (or A.I.C.T. for short); and in a town called Monkton City, California. Worse, to my sense of hearing, every time Preston mentions his car by name, he calls it a Chev, but maybe that’s me.

   The case turns into murder when one of the go-fer guys working for Donny Jingle dies in a car bombing in his place. Preston digs up a lot of dirt as he investigates, but none of it is very interesting, and the ending is one big yawner.

   He doesn’t even make a big play for Donny Jingle’s personal secretary. Meh. This is one mediocre mystery at best.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


H. ASHBROOK – The Murder of Stephen Kester. Coward-McCann, hardcover, 1931. Forthcoming from Resurrected Press, softcover, 2016.

GREEN EYES. Chesterfield, 1934. Charles Starrett, Shirley Grey, Claude Gillingwater, John Wray. Screenplay by Andrew Moss, based on The Murder of Stephen Kester by H. Ashbrook. Directed by Richard Thorpe.

   Until Resurrected Press began reissuing the novels of Harriette Cora Ashbrook (1898-1946) who wrote as H. Ashbrook and Susannah Shane, she was a virtually forgotten follower of the Philo Vance school of detective fiction that featured talented amateurs with connections and more than a little contempt for the authorities. As H. Ashbrook she wrote thirteen mysteries featuring Philip “Spike” Tracy and six as Shane about Christopher Saxe.

   The Murder of Stephen Kester is a Spike Tracy mystery. Tracy, the brother of New York District Attorney Richard Tracy (yup, Dick Tracy is his brother), is a layabout and playboy with a penchant for lolling about making wisecracks while either suffering a hangover or drinking, getting thrown in various jails for being drunk and disorderly, and brilliantly solving crimes.

   If that doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation it should be pointed out that Ashbrook writes well, the dialogue has a certain crackle, the wise cracks are fairly good, and the pace much better than usual for the Van Dine school.

   The plots and detection are workmanlike at best, no Ellery Queen here, and equally no Rex Stout with characters as fascinating as Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but still well above most of her competitors. As in many of the Van Dine school there is also a bit of social commentary thrown into the mix.

   The adjective that comes to mind is crisp.

   Here, wealthy Stephen Kester is murdered at a costume ball given by his granddaughter Jean. Numerous people attending have reason to kill the old man including Jean and her fiancé who have stolen money to elope, Kester’s manager/accountant with the high maintenance wife, the butler who calls the old man a Simon Legree, the housemaid who loves Jean and knows where the old man buried the bodies, and the mysterious Wall, who showed up and argued with Kester, but is staying at the house, and who Jean seems to know but can’t remember.

   Tracy sorts through the evidence and suspects, uncovers the truth despite being hindered by his brother and lunk-headed cop Inspector Hershman, and two murders later lets the killer escape by means of suicide in true Philo Vance fashion, though the spineless weasel killer in this one deserves no such grace.

   The film, renamed Green Eyes for no apparent reason other than a pair of glow-in-the-dark marbles that feature in the solution, stars Charles Starrett as Michael Tracy (no idea why Spike was dropped much less Philip), a writer who specializes in being a pain in the police posterior, and who has an admitted history of visiting various jails around the world for drunk and disorderly charges. He’s at the party when Kester is murdered and injects himself in the investigation by Captain Crofton and his version of Hershman, both of whom know Tracy.

   Why any of these changes were made is a greater mystery than the plot, but that’s Hollywood for you. Maybe they thought Tracy was more appealing as a total outsider and a bit more sober and collegiate. Maybe they didn’t want the public to make the Dick Tracy connection with the brother.

   At just a bit over an hour it moves well, Starrett makes a pretty good amateur sleuth even though it is a bit hard to imagine him dissolute in any way, and the plot doesn’t veer too significantly from the book. It’s a pleasant enough well made little mystery, and frankly better written and acted than any of the God awful Ellery Queen pictures from the same era. I wouldn’t have minded seeing Starrett in a second outing as Tracy.

   Read the book and see the film. Both are available, the book from Resurrected Press, and the movie on YouTube. Of the two the book offers more pleasures, but the movie looks and plays better than most of its type thanks to a good cast and Richard Thorpe’s direction.

   I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by both.

A track from The Rose of San Joaquin, this country-western singer’s 1995 CD on Hightone:

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   On Christmas morning I finished proofreading my next book — which has nothing to do with mystery fiction and won’t be described here — and, with time on my hands, began reading a pile of randomly chosen short stories in the hope that at least one would generate an item for this column. I was not disappointed.

   In addition to her well-known Albert Campion stories, Margery Allingham (1903-1966) wrote a few dozen non-series shorts, most of them for English newspapers. I’d read only a couple of these but, finding one in Thomas F. Godfrey’s anthology English Country House Murders (1988), decided to give it a whirl.

   “The Same to Us” has to do with a jewel robbery at posh Molesworth Manor during a house party whose guest of honor is Dr. Koo Fin, “the Chinese Einstein” and creator of the Theory of Objectivity (obviously a take-off on Einstein’s Relativity hypothesis). What brought me up short was Allingham’s remark that “already television comedians referred to his great objectivity theory in their patter.”

   Come again? Television comedians? In a story that was first published in 1934 and clearly takes place during that “long weekend” between World Wars? I realized at once that I’d stumbled upon yet another specimen of Unconscionable Updating, where an author tries to make an old story seem up-to-the-minute.

   But could I prove it? My shelves didn’t happen to include a copy of the London Daily Express for May 17, 1934, in which the tale had first appeared, but I did have The Allingham Minibus (1973), where it was first collected. No help: the same TV comedians pop up there.

   Luckily I also had Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for January 1950, in which Fred Dannay had reprinted the tale long before its book appearance. There I found what I take it Allingham had written: “….and already music-hall comedians referred to [Dr. Koo Fin’s] great ‘objectivity’ theory in their routines.” My guess is that the change was made after her death.

***

   Among English writers perhaps the most unconscionable updater was John Creasey (1908-1973), who wrote countless thrillers set in London during World War II and then later, when he’d become rich and internationally famous, revised them to get rid of the war atmosphere and sold them as contemporary novels.

   Two examples of the harm he did to his own work will suffice here. In Chapters 12 and 13 of Inspector West Regrets (1945) Roger West and his sergeant find themselves in a gun battle with gangsters that takes place in two connected air-raid shelters dug into the earth in the adjoining backyards of two houses in parallel streets. In the revised version of 1965 the bomb shelters become conventional garages.

   In Holiday for Inspector West (1945) as first written and published, Roger and a contingent of cops lay siege to a gang headquarters in a complex of arches supporting a wartime railway bridge and intended to shelter Londoners bombed out in the Blitz. In the 1957 updated version that setting too becomes a casualty.

   Anyone interested in reading these two novels the way Creasey originally wrote them, plus three others from the WWII years, should hunt down Inspector West Goes to War (2011), a handsome coffee-table book with an introduction by — oh hell, how did you guess?

***

   There have been updaters on our side of the pond too, among them that kafoozalus of wackadoodledom Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967). One of the earliest examples of a youthful specialty of his, which most of us call short novels or novelettes and he liked to call novellos (no doubt with the accent on the first syllahble) was originally titled “Misled in Milwaukee.”

   Keeler wrote this 26,000-word novello in 1916 and sold first publication rights for a whopping $65 to the Chicago Ledger, where it appeared as a 5-part serial (23 June-21 July 1917). As the year of publication tells us, Prohibition was still in the future at the time this tale first appeared. Five years later, as “The Search for Xeno,” it was included in the December 1922 issue of 10-Story Book under the byline of York T. Sibley — a bit of deception Keeler thought prudent because the editor to whom he sold the reprint rights was himself!

   (Between 1919 and 1940 he spent his afternoons editing the magazine while devoting mornings to writing dozens of the long, convoluted and sublimely nutty novels for which he is famous, or perhaps le mot juste is notorious.)

   The 1922 version is the earliest that survives and was used as the text for the presently available edition of the tale, first published by Ramble House in 2003 as a separate volume and, two years later, as part of the collection Three Novellos,both graced with an introduction by — oh hell, you guessed it again!

   This version keeps what I assume was the original description of what protagonist Clint Farrell sees as he approaches Milwaukee by rail. “Outside in the darkness, great breweries slid past the train, their square-cut buildings, dotted with tiny windows, looming against the pink-tinged sky from the foundries, their gigantic grain and hop silos illuminated by sputtering, brilliant lights strung up and down the concrete cylinders.”

   But, since this time the year is 1922 and Prohibition is in full swing, Farrell quickly learns that the man he’s looking for works at “the Southern Wisconsin Near-Beer Company on East Water Street, near Grand.”

   That wasn’t the last time Keeler fiddled with this tale. Sometime in the late 1950s or early Sixties, long after all his English-language publishers had dumped him, he completely rewrote it — eliminating the 1916-era shirt collars that are crucial to the plot, replacing the near-beer with drinks that weren’t ersatz, and splicing in some references to the atomic bomb and other feeble attempts to update — and, retitling it “Adventure in Milwaukee,” included it with two other novellos in a package he sent to his Madrid publisher Instituto Editorial Reus. Señor Reus passed on this one, saying — assuming he spoke Keeler Spanglish! — “We no wan’ theez novelitos, my fr’an.” The threesome remained unpublished until that incomparable loon sanctuary Ramble House got into the act early in the 21st century.

***

   Even Ellery Queen was not immune to the updating bug. In EQMM for March 1959 Fred Dannay reprinted “Long Shot,” a Queen story that takes place in Hollywood and was first published in 1939. This time around, the names of all but one of the Tinseltown luminaries who attend the big horse race have been changed.

   Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo are fused into Sophia Loren, Al Jolson is replaced by Bob Hope, Bob Burns (remember him?) by Rock Hudson, Joan Crawford the second time by Marilyn Monroe, and Carole Lombard by Jayne Mansfield. Who’s the only star with enough name recognition to survive the update process intact? Clark Gable.

***

   Any number of writers have played the updating game but the only one I know of who defended doing so was John D. MacDonald (1915-1985). Back in the early Eighties I and a few others who admired John’s early work persuaded him that we should put together a large collection of his pulp stories, along the lines of what I had done a decade earlier with Cornell Woolrich’s stories in Nightwebs (1972).

   With John’s help we got hold of photocopies of just about every published tale of his salad days, mailed them back and forth to each other with comments, and ultimately winnowed the list down to thirty.

   These we submitted to John, who axed three of them but was satisfied with the other 27. The result was not one sizable collection but two: The Good Old Stuff (1982) and More Good Old Stuff (1984).

   But before these 27 stories were republished, John insisted on updating — not all but some of them — and, in his Author’s Foreword, defended the practice vigorously. Most of his changes, he said, had to do with “references which could confuse the reader. Thirty years ago [i.e. back in the early 1950s] everyone understood the phrase ‘unless he threw the gun as far as Carnera could.’ But the Primo is largely forgotten, and I changed him to Superman.”

   Where a particular story was “entangled with and dependent upon” the years following World War II when the tales were written, he wisely chose not to update. But where a story “could happen at any time,” he did.

   “I changed a live radio show to a live television show. And in others I changed pay scales, taxi fares, long-distance phoning procedures, beer prices, and so forth to keep from watering down the attention of the reader. This may offend the purists,” he concedes, and it did indeed bother all four of us who edited the books (Marty Greenberg, Jean and Walter Shine and myself), but John of course outvoted us. Someday I’d love to see those collections in print yet again, with every story restored to the way he first wrote it. That’ll be the day!

***

   If John’s rationale for updating ever had any validity, I submit that it has none at all in our high-tech era. To use his own example, anyone who sees the word Carnera and is baffled need only Google the name, as I just did, and find more than 600,000 references in less than a second. Do we live in amazing times or what?

A TV SERIES REVIEW
by Michael Shonk


QUEEN OF SWORDS. Syndicated, 2000-2001. 22 episodes @ 60 minutes. Fireworks Entertainment (Canada)/ Global-Can West Company (Canada)/ Telefonica Media (Spain)/ Morena Films (Spain)/ Amy International (UK)/ M6 (France)/ Antena 3 (Spain). Tessie Santiago as Marie Teresa Alvarado. Anthony Lemke as Captain Marcus Grisham, Elsa Pataka as Vera Hidalgo. Peter Wingfield as Dr. Robert Helm, Paulina Galvez as Marta, Valentine Pelka as Colonel Luis Montoya, and Tacho Gonzalez as Don Gasper Hidalgo.

Executive Producers: David Abramowitz, Jay Firestone and Adam Haight. Co-Executive Producers: Simon MacCorkindale, Ira Bernstein, Alvaro Longoria and Juan Gordon. Supervising Producers: James Thorpe, Steve Roberts. Producers: Ken Gord, Troy Thatcher. Line Producer: Gerard Croce. Distributed in U.S. by Paramount Domestic Television in association with Mercury Entertainment (U.S.). Distributed internationally by Fireworks International.

   An oversimplified description of Queen of Swords would be Xena meets Zorro. Fortunately for TV producers an original premise is not required for entertaining television.

   A female Zorro was nothing new and the success of Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) had lead to more series featuring female action heroes. Series such as Relic Hunter (1999-2002), Sheena (2000-2002), and Queen of Swords attempted but failed to duplicate Xena’s success in syndication.

   The opening episode “Destiny” sets up the premise and characters not unlike the usual origin story of Zorro.

“DESTINY.” 10/7/00. Written by James Thorpe Directed by Jon Cassar. Guest Cast: Enrique Rodriguez, Anthony De Longis and Teresa Del Olmo. *** It is 1817. While at school in Spain Tessa Alvarado learns of her father’s death back in Spanish California. She returns home to find her family Hacienda in ruins and about to be taken over by the ruthless power hungry Alcalde, Colonel Montoya. Times have changed since Tessa left Santa Helena.

   All of her family gone, the family servants reduced to stealing to eat, Tessa must find a way to save her home. A visit from the ghost of her father who had been murdered by leader of the guards Captain Grisham gives Tessa the courage to take up the blade against Montoya and his men, her mask comes from her dead mother’s shawl and her name Queen of Swords comes from the tarot card revealed by her female companion, the gypsy Marta.

   Swordmaster, stunt coordinator and actor Anthony De Longis (Highlander – the Series) wrote an online diary about his time working on Queen of Swords including the episode ‘Destiny.”

   De Longis writing is a researcher’s dream. His attention to the smallest details gives incredible insight to life working for the second unit on a syndicated action series of its era. He discusses some of the series pre-production work such as the two months star Tessie Santiago had to learn how to ride a horse and use a sword, rapier, dagger and whip.

   De Longis shares what it was like on location in Texas-Hollywood, Spain. He reveals bits of information such as each episode was filmed in seven days, why the soldiers’ uniforms were changed from red pants to blue (the red looked “too opera”), how stunts were performed and even the name of the horses including credits (The Queen’s main horse was Chico, Captain Grisham rode Montero the same horse Russell Crowe rode in Gladiator.)

   He also explained why the first episode to air “Destiny” was the third episode filmed (after “Death To The Queen” and “Vengeance”). It was so the multinational cast and crew could get experience working together before filming the origin story. It was a wise idea as “Destiny” sets the style and tone of the series well.

   Production values on Queen of Swords were high with better writing and direction than usual for syndicated TV series of the time. The acting was professional but nothing special. For more information about the cast visit here and those interested can find interviews with Tessie Santiago and Anthony Lemke here.

   The characters were simple and one dimensional with the good guys likable and the bad guys always worthy of booing. But for a heroic action adventure series such as Queen of Swords characters with little depth is a good thing.

   On the side of good was young beautiful Dona Maria Teresa “Tessa” Alvarado. In the tradition of too many heroes to name Tessa poses as a rich self absorbed Dona in the eyes of others while secretly donning the mask to fight for justice as the Queen of Swords. Her best friend/servant/companion since her childhood schooldays in Spain was Marta. Marta was a gypsy with mystical powers and the only one to know the identity of The Queen (of Swords).

   The villains were lead by the ruthless Colonel Montoya. Obsessed with his quest for riches and power, Montoya used any means necessary to get his way. He blackmailed his second in command Captain Grisham. Grisham was still wanted as an Army deserter who had escaped execution during the War of 1812. Grisham was the lover of the wife of Don Hidalgo.

   Senora Vera Hidalgo had married her husband for money. The young beautiful shallow woman enjoyed the excitement of cheating on her husband and playing spy for Grisham. The weak and cowardly Don Hidalgo represented the landowners in their dealings with Colonel Montoya.

   Trying not to take sides was the handsome brave Dr. Robert Helm. Haunted by his time serving in the British army as a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars Helm had become a Doctor dedicated to saving lives. A possible love interest for Tessa/The Queen but the Doctor disliked Tessa for her spoiled nature and the Queen for her use of violence.



“THE PACT.” 1/27/01. Written by Elizabeth Keyishian. Directed by Carlos Gil. Guest Cast: Jose Conde, Patrick Medioni and Pablo Scola. *** Vera tells Captain Grisham that the Dons have hidden a treasure from the greedy hands of Colonel Montoya. Rather than report it Grisham decides to find it for himself.



“TAKES A THIEF.” 5/12/01. Written by Elizabeth Keyishian. Directed by Paolo Barzman. Guest Cast: Darren Tighe, Ralf Moller and Miglen Mirtchev. *** Two thieves – a strongman and a conman – pass through town and learning of the reward offered for The Queen of Swords decide to capture her. When the Queen saves the life of strongman Roman he refuses to help his partner continue to try to capture the Queen. A romance develops between Roman and Tessa’s companion Maria.



   Queen of Swords was everything it wanted to be – a well produced, entertaining heroic action adventure. The series deserved a better fate.

   So what happened to the series? Why did it last just one season? The audience was loyal but small. The many Xena inspired syndicated series available at the time made it difficult for any one to stand out among the crowd. And the premise had begun to fade in popularity. Xena: Warrior Princess would end, as Queen of Swords, in 2001. Relic Hunter and Sheena would follow the next season.

   A peek at the credits above shows Queen of Swords was a multinational project. This allowed for bigger budgets, different locations than the American audience was used to, and advantages in the global market.

   The project began with Fireworks Entertainment (owned at the time by Global Can West). Fireworks Entertainment was a successful syndication company having produced such series as Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, La Femme Nikita, and Relic Hunter.

   Besides the normal costs of producing a TV series, Queen of Swords had the added financial burden of fighting two lawsuits. One was from Sony Pictures over the film rights to Zorro. In November 2001 the court ruled against Sony citing the Zorro character and Douglas Fairbanks copyright for film rights had expired and the character was in public domain.

   However, by then Queen of Swords had ended with the last episode airing May 30, 2001. Fireworks had moved on to its next project that premiered in syndication October 6, 2001 – Marvel’s Mutant X. (Fireworks would be sued by Fox claiming it had film rights to Marvel.)

   August 2000 writer Linda S. Lukens sued the series and creator-executive producer David Abramowitz (Jake and the Fatman, Highlander – the Series) claiming the series was based on a script she had written and sold to ABC when the two were with the same literary agency. Unlike Sony she won. In October 2000 Los Angeles Superior court Judge ordered the series to add an on screen credit for Lukens as series creator.

   Apparently Lukens received credit on the series version shown in the United States (starting with the second episode) but did not receive credit on the versions shown in other countries such as Japan and France. The episodes shown on YouTube have no credit for “created by.”

   Nothing about Queen of Swords is simple except the plots and characters. The Queen of Swords fan website The Presidio added another name to those responsible for the series creation. It claims Queen co-executive producer Ira Bernstein (Relic Hunter) developed the series and sites producer Ken Gord (Highlander – the Series, Relic Hunter) as its source.

   Finally, for even more details and information about the series and its availability on home media (no DVD Region 1) I recommend the better than average Wikipedia page devoted to Queen of Swords.

HENRY KANE – Until You Are Dead. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1951. Dell #580, paperback, 1952. Signet S1835, paperback, August 1960.

   Of author Henry Kane’s prodigious output of over 60 novels, about half of them featured PI Peter Chambers as the main protagonist. Until You Are Dead is the first of them I’ve read in several years, and it took me a while to get used to his writing style, a combination of quick patter and a uniquely quirky view of the world. Whether that POV was Chambers’ or Kane himself, I do not know.

   The story has to do with a jazz musician’s attempt to cut a deal with a mob boss whom he saw kill a man in a night club men’s room. Said jazz musician ends up dead, and it is up to Chambers to find out who and why, even though he doesn’t have a client. Not right away anyway.

   Chambers, a guy with an eye for the ladies as he goes, both fires and misfires on the case, which is a medium-boiled affair with a modicum of actual detective work. A potboiler, perhaps, but all in all, once I was in sync with Kane’s style, an interesting and in its own way, an enjoyable reading experience.

   Some examples thereof. From pages 85 and 86 of the Signet paperback:

   I went to the cabinet and broke out a new bottle of Scotch (here he goes again). I peeled the cellophane off the top and clipped off the cork. I poured into a shot glass and swallowed it neat. I poured again and put the bottle away. 1 held up the glass and looked at amber glistening in the sunlight and mused. People say I drink too much. The hell with them. People say nobody can drink that much. The hell with them, I know people who drink more. People say I’ll have no liver left when I’m old. The hell with them, who wants a liver when you’re old? Literary critics rant. The … (excuse me). Let them rant (between drinks). I like to drink. So far, it agrees with me. When it stops agreeing with me, I’ll listen to the literary critics, as I sorrow under the burden of cirrhosis. There are all kinds of people. It makes for an interesting world. There are people who smoke three packs of cigarettes before they really get going for an evening in the night clubs. There are prime ministers who inhale eighteen fat cigars a day. There are people who buy pornographic books which they read every day except Sunday. There are people who push against people in crowded subways. There are people who play footsie with strangers in the movies. There are people who drink four ice cream sodas at a smack. There are secret eaters of constant pickles. There are people who go for smoked tongue with mustard by the heap. There are people who slush through a pound of cream candies during one chapter of a thick book with significance. There are pistachio nut eaters. There are marijuana smokers. There are opium addicts. There are movie-goers (including matinees). There are people who devote celibate lives to devising instruments of mass destruction. There are soda-pop drinkers. There are frankfurter nuts. There are sun-bathers, vegetable eaters, vitamin girls, hormone boys, sidewalk psychiatrists, neon hunters, nylon oglers, stamp collectors, headline readers, glass crunchers, five-mile hikers, deep breathers, left-handed pitchers, sweepstake winners, golf players, winter swimmers, and guys that make parachute jumps at the age of a hundred and nine. There are even philosophical private detectives.

   Me, I like to drink (among other things). So what?

   Switching gears on a dime and continuing on, from pages 86 and 87:

    I drank. Then I latched on to the phone again. I dialed Information and asked for Cream Baylor’s phone number, I got the number and I called Baylor. Sweetly, I said, “Mr. Baylor, please.”

    The girl said, “Who’s calling?”

    “Peter Chambers.”

    “Peter Chambers of where?”

    “Of where?”

    “Your firm? Whom are you connected with?”

    “I am connected with nobody. Personal.”

    “One moment, please.”

    I held the receiver away from my ear while the plugs plugged, then I got a new voice, feminine, but just as firm.

    “Yes?”

    “Mr. Baylor, please.”

    “Who’s calling?”

    “Peter Chambers.”

    “Peter Chambers? Of where?”

    “I just went through that routine, sister. This is a personal call.”

    “Oh. Whom do you wish to speak with?”

    “Same party. Cream Baylor.”

    “Your name please?”

    “No change. Still Peter Chambers.”

    “Thank you. Will you hold on a moment?”

    I held on a moment. I lit a cigarette with one hand. I gazed fondly at the liquor cabinet. Then the voice came back. “Mr. Baylor doesn’t seem to know you, sir.”

    “May I speak with him, please?”

    “He’s very busy right now.”

    “Look, it’s important.”

    “I’m sorry, sir.”

    “Well, can I make an appointment to see him?”

    “What is it about, sir?”

    “Who’s this? Who’m I talking to?”

    “This is his secretary, sir.”

    “Look, Miss, I’m a private, uh, a philosophical private detective.”

    “Pardon?”

    “A private detective.”

    “Yes?”

    “I’d like to see Mr. Baylor on a case rm employed on. A murder case. A young man by the name of Kermit Teshle. Wm you tell that to him, please? Tell him it’s urgent.”

    “One moment, sir.”

    I smoked, savagely. I ground out the cigarette. I couldn’t get to the inviting cabinet without leaving the phone. Urgent, I had said to the girl. I lived without a drink.

    The voice returned. “Hello?”

    “Yes?”

    “Mr.Baylor can fit you in two weeks from today, Thursday, at two o’clock ”

    “Look, I want to talk to the guy. Now.”

    “Sorry, sir. Mr. Baylor is engaged right now.”

    “It’s murder.”

    “That’s right, sir.”

    “Take a message for him, will you?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Tell him to go and —”

    She hung up on me.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE. United Artists, 1969. Clint Walker, Vincent Price, Anne Francis, Paul Hampton, Craig Littler, Mike Henry. Written by George Schenck. Directed by Robert Sparr.

   In the wisdom of my advancing years I find myself wondering more and more where films like this come from. At the tail end of the “Spaghetti Western” cycle this film appears, written and directed by talents completely undistinguished, yet brought off with style and imagination, carried through by a well-used cast.

   Perhaps I should have said “almost completely undistinguished;” the cinematographer here was Jack Marquette, who worked in the B-movie sub-basement back in its 50s/60s hey-day, with films like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Creature from the Haunted Sea to his credit, and he does serviceable work here. But to get back to the Movie, as they say:

   Clint Walker stars as Cain (aka:“Killer Cain”) a notorious gunman with twelve notches on his pistol, released from Prison after an 18-year stretch… possibly for thwarting bad-guy Mike Henry’s effort to spring his brother from jail in a bloody but abortive break-out attempt.

   At any rate, Cain finds himself at loose ends in a society that has moved past him, much like the aging lawmen in Ride the High Country, periodically tormented by the sadistic Mike Henry and unable to find a steady job because of his reputation. Like Randolph Scott in Country, he settles uncomfortably into employment in a shabby Wild West show run by Vincent Price (a marvelous performance) where his notoriety brings him dubious stardom.

   It also brings him into conflict with the show’s former star (Paul Hampton, of whom more later) a superior gun-artist now reduced to supporting-player status. The movie becomes an interesting study of the three-way relationship between Walker, Price and Hampton, with Walker’s easy assurance matched perfectly by Price’s show-biz savvy while Hampton knocks himself out on the sidelines like a moth batting into a light bulb, torn between jealousy and hero-worship.

   Writer Schenck also throws in Anne Francis, every bit as bewitching as she was back when she sported about on the Forbidden Planet, and Craig Littler as a good-humored young attorney dogging Walker’s footsteps like a benevolent counterpart to Mike Henry’s outlaw. Things run to a surprise finish after a satisfying set-to between Walker and Henry—two screen antagonists who seem perfectly matched against each other.

   But I should put in a word here about Paul Hampton as the would-be gunslinger: his performance has come in for a lot of ridicule — I particularly like the reviewer who called him the Ultimate Method Actor — but I find his playing energetic and daring. Equal parts James Dean and Leo Gorcey, he agitates, cries, and visibly deflates as the part requires, and his scene with Mike Henry is incredibly visceral.

   One thing puzzles me, though: according to Wikipedia, Paul Hampton is a highly-regarded singer and composer, but the only actual credit I can find for him is as the writer/performer of My Mother the Car. So either I’m missing something important or it’s pretty easy to be “highly regarded” in the Music Industry.

   Hey, maybe I should give it a try….

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