Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


FINAL EXAM. Motion Picture Marketing / Embassy Pictures, 1981. Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, Ralph Brown, DeAnna Robbins, Sherry Willis-Burch, John Fallon. Written and directed by Jimmy Huston.

   Odd. Amateurish. Creative. Atmospheric. These are just four ways to describe this low-budget “madman on the campus” thriller. Filmed on location in North Carolina, Final Exam features an extremely effective musical score and a cast replete with first-time actors and relative unknowns. All of them, despite their lack of on screen experience, do an admirable job in making this offbeat slasher film something far more memorable than it truthfully deserves to be.

   The plot isn’t particularly difficult to follow. It’s finals week at a small liberal arts college somewhere in the US South and the remaining students on campus are involved in studying and partying. There’s also the jock-filled fraternity that decides it’s a good idea to pull a major prank on campus, one that involves a simulated terrorist attack. This naturally sets up one of the major characters, a nerdy fellow named Radish (Joel Rice) into believing the prank is real, leading him to phone the local sheriff who is less than pleased to learn that the whole thing was a false alarm.

   But what happens next is no prank. Soon enough, a knife-wielding madman shows up on campus and begins his senseless murderous rampage. (I say “senseless” not just as a means of describing psychopathic murders, but also because the film controversially provides no motive for the killer. Whether that makes it more effective or less is up to the viewer to decide.) The main characters – from the jock to the blonde girl having an affair with the chemistry professor – come face to face with the lurking evil in their midst.

   Typical for the genre, there is a studious, morally upright final girl who (spoiler alert) not only kills the killer, but also survives the ordeal. Courtney (Cecil Bagdadi) is filled with self-doubt and is insecure about her future. She doesn’t feel as if she has it easy either in terms of looks or marketable skills. But somehow she finds the internal strength to not only keep on living in the midst of the evil that overtakes the campus, but to also defeat it.

   I’d be exaggerating if I said that there were any deep philosophical themes explored in Final Exam, a movie that’s far more grindhouse than art house. But there are several thematic elements that merit further exploration, such as the effect of fraternity pranks on college campuses, the psychological insecurity of college students soon to embark on their journey into the “real world,” and the randomness of life itself.

   Indeed, Radish is constantly badgering Courtney with seemingly useless observations about how there are psychopaths out there in the world who would do innocent people harm. Taken as a metaphor for the difference between the relative security of a college campus and the dog-eat-dog reality of post-collegiate life, Final Exam deserves a far higher grade than many of the other derivative slasher films that were released in the wake of John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween (1978). And much like Halloween, this film eschews gore and relies more on atmosphere, suspense, and a haunting soundtrack to make an impact on the viewer.

PHOEBE ATWOOD TAYLOR – The Cape Cod Mystery. Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1931. Paperback reprints include: Pyramid R-1124, Green Door Mystery, 1965; Foul Play Press, 1985.

   The Cape Cod Mystery is the first book in a series of 22 Asey Mayo novels and two hardcover collections, each of the latter containing three novellas reprinted from The American Magazine. All of the stories take place in the quintessential area of New England called Cape Cod, and over the years Asey Mayo became the model for the typical New England Yankee handyman, whose knowledge of the world and the people in it made him a natural-born solver of mysteries as well.

   In this first foray into detective work, Asey Mayo tackles the death at unknown hands of a well-known novelist who takes up residence in a small cottage behind the residence of Prudence “Snoodles” Whitsby, who accompanies Asey as he tries to prove the innocence of his employer, Bill Porter, heir to a prosperous automobile company.

   As it turns out, as the pair of sleuths continue to ask questions, they quickly learn that the dead man was someone who had made more enemies than friends over the course of his life. There is, therefore, no shortage of suspects, and it takes quite a while to sort out which of them was where and when.

   It is difficult to believe that Phoebe Atwood Taylor was only 22 years old when she wrote this book. Each and every character is distinctively drawn, even if only in broad strokes, but most impressively, Asey Mayo acts and talks exactly like a man who might not have a formal education but has a ton of both life experience and common sense to base his observations and deductions on.

   The book does get a little talky in the middle, and the ending — following a gathering of all the important players in one room — might be overly dramatic, but it works well enough for me to suggest to you that if you’re a fan of Golden Age mysteries, this is a series you really ought to look into. If you haven’t already.

GEORGE C. CHESBRO – City of Whispering Stone. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1978. Signet, paperback, 1979.

   Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Bob Frederickson, alias Mongo the Magnificent, former circus dwarf with a Ph.D. in criminology, now moonlighting as the world’s shortest private detective!

   This case of the missing Iranian weight-lifter is actually Mongo’s second, and it takes him deep into the web of revolution threatening that ancient oil-rich kingdom as it struggles to make its way into this century. Plenty of bodies pile up, and lots of double (and redoubled) agents, but as in cheap carnival sideshows, the emphasis seems to be more on flash than substance.

   Cotton candy also comes to mind.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 3, No. 1, Jan-Feb 1979.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


AARON ELKINS – Old Scores. Chris Norgren #3. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1993. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback, 1994.

   One thing about Elkins, he picks widely varying specialties for his series characters. Though he;s best known for his “bone doctor” series about Gideon Oliver, the Norgren books seem to be pucking up steam. Chris Norgren is curator at the Seattle Art Museum, and who’d have thought the world of acquisitions would be so hazardous?

   A famous French collector wants to give the museum a Rembrandt — great, hein? Well, maybe. There are a couple of catches: the painting has no provenance, and no scientific tests will be allowed. Chris’s director wants him to go to France and make an accept/reject decision. Chris wants to reject it out of hand, but goes anyway, at the cost of some discombobulation to his already shaky love life. Things are even weirder than expected in France, the situation turns nasty, and murder is done. Well, hell, what did you expect?

   I don’t believe for a minute that any museum would even consider accepting a master painting without provenance and/or testing, but what do I know about museums? Aside from that, this was the kind of entertaining tale I’ve come to expect from Elkins. I like Norgren as a character, and find the artistic background interesting and edifying. Elkins tells a good story, and creates a good set of supporting characters. His stories fall somewhere between cozy and hard-edged, and while I don’t think anyone would call them memorable, they provide an enjoyable read.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #7, May 1993.


      The Chris Norgren series —

1. A Deceptive Clarity (1987)
2. A Glancing Light (1991)
3. Old Scores (1993)

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


   No sooner did I send off my November column than I learned of another death in October. Norman Sherry, who devoted almost thirty years of his life to researching and writing a 3-volume, 2250-page biography of Graham Greene, died on October 19 at age 91. For Volume One (1989) he received an Edgar from MWA. The New York Review of Books chose Volume Two (1994) as one of the eleven best books of its year. If I have a special fondness for Volume Three (2004), perhaps it’s because I contributed to it a little.

   The story of how he came to be Greene’s biographer has been often told. In 1974, the year he turned 70, the man who was perhaps the finest English novelist of the 20th century — and certainly one of the finest crime and espionage novelists ever — was in the market for a biographer and became interested in Sherry, whose previous life of Joseph Conrad Greene had much admired.

   The two met for lunch at London’s Savile Club but apparently nothing was decided. They met again and, walking across a busy street, Greene was knocked down by a taxi. “You almost lost your subject,” he said to Sherry. “Not half so bad as losing your biographer,” Sherry replied. That bit of quick wit got him the job. It was the beginning of a decades-long hunt with Sherry the literary detective tracking Greene through Mexico, Cuba, Liberia, Vietnam, Haiti, most if not all of the Third World places in which his quarry had set novels.

   The quest was ruinous to Sherry’s health — dysentery, gangrene that cost him fifteen feet of his intestines, the list seems endless — but he carried on. After Greene’s death in 1991 he found himself at odds with his subject’s closest relations, many of whom despise his three volumes. You can find what Greene’s son Francis thought of the books by googling “Graham Greene Norman Sherry,” such as this article from the New York Times, and there are similar critiques elsewhere on the Web.

   But there are also extravagant, near-idolatrous comments by others. My own view is that if you want to understand, or at least come as close as humanly possible to understanding, the brilliant, profoundly devious, sex-obsessed alcoholic who wrote like a dark angel and gave us THIS GUN FOR HIRE, BRIGHTON ROCK, THE CONFIDENTIAL AGENT, THE MINISTRY OF FEAR and so many other novels that have nothing to do with crime or espionage, you can’t do without Sherry’s epic biography.

   But perhaps I’m biased since, as I said above, I contributed a morsel to Volume Three. After such a buildup I’d be a toad if I didn’t share that morsel here with those who haven’t read the biography, so here goes. Back in 1984 and purely by accident I discovered that James Atlee Phillips, better known as Philip Atlee, author of the Joe Gall espionage novels, had moved to St. Louis County where I lived. Jim was reputed to be an interview-shunning curmudgeon but I took a chance, called him and, to my flabbergastment, was invited to come out to his place for dinner.

   After the meal we adjourned to his basement office, and I taped an hour-long conversation with him which was published in Espionage magazine (November 1985). That interview went so well that arrangements were made for me to follow up by interviewing Jim’s younger brother, David Atlee Phillips.

   David, who lived in Bethesda, Maryland, had written a novel and one or two nonfiction books but until his retirement a few years before our meeting most of his time had been spent working for the Central Intelligence Agency in Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Venezuela, rising through the ranks to become one of the foremost practitioners of what is euphemistically called covert action.

   The next time I was on the East Coast I took the Amtrak Metroliner from New York to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station where David met me. We had an excellent lunch at La Mirabelle, a restaurant in McLean, Virginia that was favored by people in the CIA. Over our meal he told me a story which was so good, I insisted on his repeating it when we got to his house and I had my cassette recorder running.

   In the late 1950s, soon after Cuba had become a Communist country under Fidel Castro, David was sent to Havana in deep cover. He was there when Graham Greene came to work with director Carol Reed on the movie OUR MAN IN HAVANA, starring Alec Guinness and based on Greene’s novel of the same name. Much of the picture was shot on the streets of Havana, with David shadowing Greene as they filmed.

   “And at one point Greene said to the director, ‘All right, we should change this line and have him say the following.’ And Alec Guinness said: ‘Fine.’ But then a comandante, a man with a star on his shoulder, a military censor, walked up and said: ‘No, you can’t change that line.’ I’ll never forget the look on Graham Greene’s face when he realized for the first time that there might be some flaws in the new Cuban society,…when his work was suddenly subject to censorship.”

   My interview with David was also published in Espionage (July 1987) and, like my conversation with his brother, can be found in my book CORNUCOPIA OF CRIME (2010), but you won’t find the anecdote I just quoted in the magazine version. Not wanting to see that incident permanently on the cutting room floor, I shared it with Norman Sherry, who included it in Volume Three of the Greene biography. That’s the tidbit I contributed to Norman’s massive project. I still think it was worth saving.

***

   I haven’t read Peter Ackroyd’s ALFRED HITCHCOCK: A BRIEF LIFE but recently read a review in the Times with a passage I particularly liked: “[T]he world of menace [Hitchcock] conjured embodies our deepest, most existential fears. Fears (especially resonant today) that the universe is irrational, that evil lives around the corner, that ordinary life can be ripped apart at any moment by some random unforeseen event.”

    Let’s play Jeopardy! for a minute, shall we? Answer: The author whose work and world are described by those words equally as well as Hitchcock’s. Question: Who is Cornell Woolrich? Second answer: Same as the first but with “composer” substituted for “author.” Question: Who is Bernard Herrmann?

   Hitchcock, Woolrich, Herrmann, so much like Jules and Jim and Catherine in Truffaut’s film: round and round, together bound. When I first started calling Woolrich the Hitchcock of the written word, that was a moment of inspiration if I ever had one.

***

   I received an interesting email recently from a man who had been reading some of the early Woolrich stories collected in my DARKNESS AT DAWN (1985) and had a question about one of them, the 1934 “Walls That Hear You.” That tale, in case you’ve forgotten it, is about a man who discovers that his younger brother has been found with all ten fingers cut off and his tongue severed at the roots.

   Later, in the hospital, we are told that he “shook hands hard” with his brother. How is this possible, my reader asked, when the younger brother’s fingers have been cut off? Could Woolrich have been writing at such white heat that he forgot this? The best reply I could come up with was that we’re supposed to imagine the narrator embracing his kid brother’s fingerless and bandaged hands between his own. Can anyone reading this column come up with anything better?

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


NORMAN BERROW – The Footprints of Satan. Ward Lock, UK, hardcover, 1950. Ramble House, US, softcover, April 2005.

   One morning the inhabitants of the English village of Winchingham awaken to find a single line of hoofprints that begin in the middle of the road, in a carpeting of virgin snow, and then lead through gardens, over walls and hedges, through a locked summerhouse and pavilion, across a steep roof inaccessible to humans, to finally end by an old tree from which a man is hanging by the neck.

   Superstitious terror grips the village: Many believe the devil is responsible. (There is actual historical precedent for such a belief: On the night of February 8, 1855, a similar trail of cloven hoofprints appeared in and around a number of towns in the south of Devon, and no earthly explanation for them was ever discovered.)

   The trail and the dead man are not the work of Satan, of course, but that of a very clever murderer. Berrow’s development and unraveling of the apparently inexplicable is likewise ingenious, and he builds considerable suspense before his series sleuth, Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith, finally solves the mystery.

   Only one of Berrow’s twenty novels — a revised and updated version of the 1940 book The Ghost House (1979) — was published in the United States, perhaps because of their numerous flaws: talkiness and overwriting, colorless characters, and some dubious use of English slang (Berrow was a New Zealander). The Footprints of Satan, however, his best and most baffling novel, deserves to have been reprinted here — and still should be for the amusement of contemporary readers.

   Other of his books worth reading include The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) and The Bishop’s Sword (1948), each of which contains no fewer than three neatly worked out “impossible crimes”; and It Howls at Night (1937), a non-series book set in Spain, which has a werewolf theme.

         ———
   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.

UPDATE:   Here is some good news, at least for fans of “impossible crime” mysteries. All twenty of Berrow’s mysteries have been reprinted by Ramble House, including this one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE DRIVER. EMI Films/20th Century Fox, 1978. Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Ronee Blakley. Written and directed by Walter Hill.

   Ryan O’Neal plays it cool – really cool – as the eponymous Driver in Walter Hill’s genre bending contemporary Western/crime drama. Although on the surface, The Driver is just another action movie replete with urban car chases, the movie is a multi-layered, yet subtle, re-imagining of the Western film subgenre in which a renegade lawman becomes consumed with bringing an outlaw to justice.

   Enter Bruce Dern, who is known for his seemingly effortless ability to portray unhinged characters. He portrays the Detective who relentlessly pursues the Driver, a skillful, ascetic getaway driver who has been involved in some high profile robberies in Los Angeles. Dern is actually quite effective in this role, and he chews the scenery throughout the film. There’s a goldmine of subtle dialogue sprinkled throughout the movie, much of it the Detective’s acerbic interactions with his colleagues and suspects alike.

   That brings us to the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a gambler who the Detective suspects isn’t exactly truthful about what she witnesses during a casino robbery. Much like O’Neal, Adjani plays it cool with an understated performance that somehow makes the movie even stronger than it would have been had she showed more emotion. The Player is not afraid in getting caught up in the cat-and-mouse game between the Driver and the Detective. She may be mysterious and vulnerable, but she isn’t going to be so easily intimidated by either the cops or the criminals.

   What the movie lacks in character development – seen most obviously in the lack of personal names for the main characters – it more than makes up for in skillfully filmed car chases, most of which take place without any music. Indeed, there is no fanfare to drown out the sounds of revving engines and squeaking tires. All of which serve to remind the viewer that, despite the fact that the narrative could just have easily been reworked for a gritty Western, that this is a car chase film par excellence.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE 39 STEPS. Rank Films, UK, 1959; 20th Century Fox, US, 1960. Kenneth More,Tania Elg, Barry Jones, Brenda de Banzie, Reginald Beckwith, James Hayter, Faith Brook, Dunacan Lamont, Jameson Clark, Sidney James. Screenplay by Frank Harvey, based on the novel by John Buchan. Directed by Ralph Thomas.

   This color almost scene-for-scene remake of the 1936 Alfred Hitchcock classic has many things to recommend it, and had there been no film of the book by the master would stand as the best version of the story committed to film. Four films of the classic novel of escape and pursuit by John Buchan have been made including a slightly more faithful to the book version with Robert Powell and a version done for PBS. The Powell has things to recommend it, less so the PBS version. Not too long ago Jonathan Demme was thinking of doing yet another adaptation of the book.

   Of course, Hitchcock himself remade it at least twice using the essential story from his own film, once as Saboteur with Robert Cummings and once more as North By Northwest with Cary Grant. For all the changes, both are variations on the same theme and plot. With the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” The 39 Steps may be the most borrowed plot in film and modern genre fiction. Even Bob Hope’s My Favorite Blonde owed much to it, including the presence of Madeline Carroll.

   This version produced by Betty Box, opens with Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) footloose and at loose ends in London. In the park he encounters a Nanny (Faith Brook) and tries to return a rattle dropped on the ground only to be rebuffed. Still trying to return the rattle he saves her from nearly being run down by a car and ends up with the pram, which had no baby in it, and her purse with no identity but a gun and tickets to a music hall performance that night at the Palace (and that’s a fairly placed clue for the handful unfamiliar with the film versions).

   The Nanny shows up, and promises to tell him the story behind the empty pram, but only after they watch Mr. Memory (James Hayter), a little man with a prodigious memory for facts. They go to Hannay’s flat, where she reveals she works for the government and is being hunted by a spy ring led by a man missing the top joint of his little finger. Something important about a military project is being smuggled out of England and it has to be stopped (the classic Hitchcockian definition of a McGuffin, that exists only to move the plot forward).

   Hannay goes to make tea and while he is doing that, the two men (Duncan Lamont and Jameson Clark), who tried to run her down earlier and who have followed her to Hannay’s flat, kill her with a dagger Hannay brought back from his adventures (in the book he is an engineer from South Africa, in the Hitchcock he’s Canadian, and here he appears to have been connected with the Foreign Office though not as an agent).

   He knows the police will never believe him and the two killers are waiting outside in case he tries to leave. His only hope is to follow the few clues Nanny gave him and go to Scotland and try to see the important man she named.

   Aside from the color, what sets this apart from the Hitchcock classic is its on location filming. Some spectacular shots, narrow misses, and eccentric characters (shopworn medium Brenda de Banzie and her cuckold husband Reginald Beckwith), a few new bits including Hannay asked to speak at a girls school rather than a political meeting as in the book and first film (a scene ‘borrowed’ and set in a nudist meeting in the film of Irving Wallace’s The Prize, another Steps influenced thriller), all add to the mix that made the first film so charming and this one a worthwhile remake.

   If nothing else, the location color shooting expands the films feel for Buchan country, something suggested by a few scenes in the original.

   Along the way Hannay meets Miss Fisher (Tania Elg), who is traveling with a group of school girls, who doesn’t believe a word he says, but has seen and knows too much, ending up handcuffed to him as he tries to reach London and discover just where and what the 39 steps are (this version does restore the original meaning of the steps of the title even if we never see them).

   The cast is first rate, but it is More’s film, and like Robert Donat before him, the success depends greatly on his charm and abilities as a light comedian as much as a dramatic actor. Elg does quite well, but lacks the cool Hitchcock blonde demeanor of Madeline Carroll. It isn’t her fault, even Deborah Kerr had trouble recreating icy Carroll’s beauty in The Prisoner of Zenda scene-for-scene remake. Barry Jones (Brigadoon, Seven Days to Noon) is especially sinister as Professor Logan who exudes charm and threat with the same soft tones.

   Sidney James, Reginald Beckwith, and James Hayter all bring their usual skills to bits in the film, as does Brenda de Banzie as a phony medium half convinced of her own con and attracted to all the wrong men. Ralph Thomas was always a competent director and often more, and screenwriter Frank Harvey not only wrote or co-wrote some of the best films of the period but was a first class novelist as well (The Mercenary).

   Hitchcock’s film is the classic, and there is no suggestion this is anything but a shadow of that, but it is a strong and quite entertaining shadow, and as the first version of the story I saw, it has some pride of place for me. It served as my introduction to the works of John Buchan and to Kenneth More, and both have served me well in terms of entertainment over the years.

   The 39 Steps has been adapted to four films, radio, the stage (a major hit on Broadway and London’s West End), comic books, appeared as a serial in Argosy, and audiobooks. The book is a recognized minor classic (major in the mystery genre), and Alfred Hitchcock’s film a classic in itself.

   This version may not reach that high bar, but it does have charm, excitement, wit, and attractive leads in an entertaining film, and that’s not such a low bar to achieve for any film, especially a remake.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


FREDRIC BROWN – The Wench Is Dead. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1953. Bantam #1565, paperback, 1957.

   This finds Brown in David Goodis territory at his smooth, shattering best.

   Howard (“Howie”) Perry is a High School sociology teacher studying the denizens of Los Angeles’ skid row by living as one of them as he angles for a master’s degree and a better teaching position. As the story opens he’s staying in a flophouse, washing dishes for a living, and spending most nights on the street, drinking himself comatose among the other winos, all in the name of Research.

   He’s also carrying on a relationship of sorts with Billie, a good-natured B-Girl who likes him for his sensitive nature, and expresses her affection in a very physical way. There’s a murder early on, and the cops don’t know whodunit, but we’re not far into the book before we realize that this is not so much a mystery as it is an observation of Howard losing control and in danger of becoming one of the derelicts he’s supposed to be studying.

   Brown keeps his story light, moving the plot along with telling details about Howie and his chums as they instinctively duck the police, desperately try to make up the price of a bottle, and stake out a safe place to drink themselves unconscious. Like David Goodis, Brown never looks down on his bums and winos, nor does he seek to make them noble savages; they’re just guys getting along their own way, with their own norms and goals in life, and in Brown as well as Goodis, these are the heroes of pulp fiction.

   In fact, Howie does eventually solve the murder and see the killer brought to justice, but (again like Goodis) any sense of accomplishment is illusory. Howard Perry spends a whole murder mystery treading water, and if we see the ending coming a long way off, Fredric Brown still delivers it with a punch.

Gayle McCormick was the lead singer for the blues rock group Smith, which was formed in Los Angeles in 1969. They had two semi-successful albums before breaking up and Gayle McCormick became a solo performer. “Baby It’s You,” written by Burt Bacharach, sold over a million copies for them:

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