A STRANGE ADVENTURE. Republic Pictures, 1956. Joan Evans, Ben Cooper, Marla English, Jan Merlin, Nick Adams, Peter Miller. Director: William Witney.

   We could have a contest with 20 entries to choose a better title than the one A Strange Adventure was saddled with, and I have no doubt that all 20 would be a ten times improvement. My guess is that in 1956 Republic was beginning to cut back, a little at a time, and the first people to go were the ones in charge of choosing titles for the movies they made. (I don’t know what the particular job title for this might be.)

   It turns out that what this is is a heist film, a rather minor one, true, but with an action director such as William Witney at the helm, it does have its moments. There’s something happening on the screen all the time — that is to say until he ending, which I’ll get to in a moment.

   Marla English plays the femme fatale in this one, playing the young tempting sexpot role for all she’s worth, and the focus is almost entirely on her for most of the first half of the movie. First she’s flirting with Harold Norton (Ben Cooper), the hot rod-obsessed son of her landlady; then with the driver of the armored car she and her two confederates (Jan Merlin and Nick Adams) are going to rob; and then with the leader of the small threesome (Merlin), who doesn’t hesitate to slap her down whenever he thinks he should.

   Once the loot is in their hands, though, and the armored car driver dead, they don’t have much of a plan. They borrow Harold’s car (with him as driver) and speed off to the mountains at 100 miles per hour.

   With no one following them, this is not the best way to avoid being spotted by the police, but never fear, the police seem to be off looking somewhere else.

   And somehow they end up in a cabin about to be snowed in for the winter. In the cabin are a brother and sister (Joan Evans and Peter Miller) whose job it is is to monitor the amount of snow that’s fallen all winter long. One problem: the latter have to radio in twice a week, or the folks down below will know something is wrong. Three gang members with three captives, all in close quarters. No wonder things do not go well.

   Factoring in the fact the two male gang members are as dumb as dirt, the movie is still quite watchable, if not totally engaging. The ending is extremely rushed, though, and that’s putting it mildly. The production crew may have run out of money. I have no idea how Harold knew where the money was, or did he? I don’t think he did, nor did the writer of this whole misguided adventure.


SHELLEY SINGER – Spit in the Ocean. Jake Samson #4. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1987. Worldwide, paperback, June 1989.

   Vandalism — let’s not get into whether you’d call it murder — at a sperm bank, then a fatal accident off the rocky spit into the ocean north of San Francisco suspiciously does look like murder. Luckily unlicensed PI Jake Samson is already on hand to investigate.

   Along with him is his partner, Rosie Vincente. It takes a while to determine their relationship more than that, but in a word: none. This mystery comes as close to the classic detective story as any I’ve read recently, spoiled only by a “gratuitous” sex scene.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #14, July 1989.


        The Jake Samson series —

Samson’s Deal. St. Martin’s, 1983.
Free Draw. St. Martin’s, 1984.
Full House. St. Martin’s, 1986.]
Spit in the Ocean. St. Martin’s, 1987.
Suicide King. St. Martin’s, 1988.
Royal Flush. Perseverance, 1999.

  LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

   #9. VERNOR VINGE “Long Shot.” Short story. First appeared in Analog SF, August 1972. Collected in True Names … and Other Dangers (Baen, paperback, November 1987) and The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (Tor, hardcover, November 2001). Reprinted several times, including Explorers: SF Adventures to Far Horizons, edited by Gardner Dozois (St. Martins, trade paperback, April 2000).

   Vernor Vinge not only writes the kind of SF I like to read, but he has won Hugos for three novels he’s written: A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), A Deepness in the Sky (1999), Rainbows End (2006), as well as two novellas: Fast Times at Fairmont High (2002), and The Cookie Monster (2004). “Long Shot” didn’t win any awards, nor was it even nominated, but it’s a good one.

   For lack of a better word on my part, I’m going to call Ilse an A.I., although that may not be entirely true. She is female, that much is certain, so even though her brain is made of iron and germanium, laced with arsenic, the name Ilse fits her just fine.

   She is also the longest lived of all of Earth’s creatures “and perhaps the last.” Boosted into space and making a loop around the sun to gain acceleration, the ship she controls head off on a voyage lasting one hundred centuries and four light years.

   For what purpose? Although Ilse retains enough of her memory to make the minute changes in course to reach, Centauran system, by the time she nears the end of her voyage, she has forgotten the purpose of her mission, which of course is the entire point of the story. Which also when revealed to the reader, that very same reader will say “of course.”

   The math and the physics are only the clincher. This story is a prime example of hard SF at its finest.

          —

Previously from the del Rey anthology: DONALD NOAKES “The Long Silence.”

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


WEREWOLF. Fox. Pilot for subsequent series, two hours, 11 July 1987. John J. York, Lance LeGault, Chuck Connors. Guest cast: Raphael Sbarge, Michelle Johnson. Writers: Allan Cole, Frank Lupo. Director: David Hemmings.

   Revisiting TV shows from your childhood is always a precarious endeavor. Once you press play, you simply don’t know if your positive memories of a particular show, character or plot is going to hold up. I’ve watched some movies that I absolutely loved as a teenager that now make me cringe. Alternatively, I’ve recently had the chance to revisit some features from that era that, while largely forgotten, still hold up extraordinarily well.

   Case in point: the pilot for Fox’s TV series Werewolf. Aired originally on July 11, 1987, this one I specifically remember watching, commercial breaks and all. Conceived as a hybrid of a supernatural thriller and a fugitive-on-the-run crime drama, Werewolf was absolutely terrifying (in a good way) to me as a child. And it remains scary and suspenseful even today. The soundtrack is eerie. The special effects are top notch. And the writing by Frank Lupo is superb.

   The plot. Eric Cord (John J. York) is an all-American kid living what appears to be the Southern California dream. He’s handsome, rooms with his best friend, and has a beautiful girlfriend who just so happens to be his best friend’s sister. All is well in Eric’s world. Until one fateful night when his best friend/roommate makes a confession to him. That he’s a werewolf and responsible for a local series of grisly murders.

   Eric thinks his best friend is nuts and in need of psychiatric intervention. It doesn’t help matters that his friend asks him to kill him with a gun loaded with silver bullets. Eric, decent man that he is, refuses to partake in this perceived insanity. Until it’s too late. Until his friend turns into a werewolf and attacks him. The end result being that his friend is now dead, but not before he bites Eric and transforms him into a werewolf.

   The rest of the pilot follows Eric as he battles the legal system that holds him responsible for his friend’s death, as he navigates his relationship with his girlfriend, and as he begins his quest to find and to kill the head of the werewolf bloodline. Who is it? Well, it’s none other than a sneering, scenery chewing Chuck Connors who is playing this way over the top. He portrays Janos Skorzeny, the man who transformed Eric’s friend into a werewolf down in Baja California.

   The name Skorzeny will ring a bell for fans of supernatural television. It is the same name as the vampire in The Night Stalker (1972). This time, Skorzeny is cruder and hairier, but he’s still a monster. And what a monster! Look for the scene where he rips off his face and transforms into a gigantic werewolf. Hair raising stuff indeed.

    A discussion of Werewolf would not be complete without an analysis of the show’s third main character. A part Native American bounty hunter by the name of “Alamo,” Joe Rogan (Lance LeGault) who has been assigned to track down Eric once he skips his court date. He’s part Steve McQueen, part Charles Bronson. Equipped with a small arsenal, he’s on an obsessive quest to track down and to kill Eric with a silver bullet. Little does he know that Eric is a “good” werewolf and that the really “bad” werewolf is the one he should be after.

   Now I realize that this show might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea. Not everyone is into supernatural themes. But if you watch it as if it were a crime show, you will find a lot to like. The characters are well developed and there’s the occasional dose of light humor to break the rather bleak and downright tragic feeling that permeates the show.

   Fox had a great thing on its hands back in 1987. Too bad it only lasted one season. If any show deserves a reboot based on the concept alone, it’s this one. But I dare suspect that no one will ever quite be able to recreate the foreboding atmosphere that drenches this show like a Southern California fog.


BELLE STARR. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Randolph Scott, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, John Shepperd, Chill Wills, Louise Beavers. Director: Irving Cummings.

   This was the first sound film to pretend to tell the story of the notorious western outlaw named Belle Starr, and by all accounts, they messed it up pretty badly. Some of the names are the same, and an incident or two, perhaps, but that’s about all.

   As I understand it, Belle Starr was not even all that notorious in her lifetime. It was not until the time of her unsolved murder in 1889 that dime novels picked up her story, leading to a novel about her by Richard K. Fox, Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, published in 1889. Not too incidentally, Fox was also the publisher of the National Police Gazette, which had also been touting her exploits.

   In any case, the movie is entertaining enough, but from the opening scene, you know the intent was primarily to create a legend, be it based only on Technicolor and imagination. The movie begins with an old black man plowing a rocky field aside a burned out mansion telling his grandson the story of the woman who once lived there, and it ends with one black man telling another that Belle Starr will never die, because she is a legend.

   Belle Shirley is played by a young Gene Tierney, who is very pretty but not as beautiful on screen as she grew to be. Even so she is better looking than the real Belle Starr by a multiplicative factor of 100 or more. The story takes place in Missouri, but Tierney’s southern accent and mansion makes it seem as though the film was set in Georgia. (Cue for “Tara’s Theme.”)

   Miss Belle, as portrayed in the movie at least, is a Southerner through and through, even after the war is over, and when she meets Captain Sam Starr, a rebel turned bandit still fighting the Yankee troops and carpetbaggers busily taking over the state, she gives him shelter, at the cost of her home being burned (Dana Andrews’ character, Union major Thomas Crail, a former sweetheart, comes into play here), and she and her brother end up being declared outlaws.

   Captain Starr is played by Randolph Scott, as upright and soft-spoken then as he was in later films. Eventually he and Belle marry, she taking up his cause as thoroughly as he. Until, that is, she realizes that perhaps he is taking his killing and marauding too far.

   From this point on, though, you’ll have to watch the film yourself. It’s likable enough. You just have to realize that it’s made up of whole cloth only, planting the seeds for the legend that grew from there.


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


LESLIE CHARTERIS – The Saint in New York. The Saint #15. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1935. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1935. Avon #44, US, paperback, 1944. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback. Note: A shorter version appeared in the The American Magazine, September 1934.

THE SAINT IN NEW YORK. RKO, 1938. Louis Hayward, Kay Sutton, Jonathan Hale, Sig Ruman, Jack Carson, Paul Guilfoyle, Frederick Burton, Ben Weldon, Paul Fix, Leon Belasco. Screenplay: Charles Kaufman & Mortimer Offner, based on the novel by Leslie Charteris. Directed by Ben Holmes.

   Inspector John Fernack of the New York Police Department is fed up with the rampant crime plaguing the city when he vents to the Commissioner.

   “There’s times when I wish I knew a guy like this Saint was here in New York—doing things like it says in that dossier,” he said. “There’s times when for two cents I’d resign from the Force and do ’em myself. I’d sleep better nights if I knew there was things like that going on in this city.”

   And as Fernack is going to learn sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.

   The Saint in New York is not my favorite Saint novel, but I will be the first to admit it is likely Charteris’s best novel, and it was certainly the best film adaptation of the character and his work despite his own dislike of the film.

   Not surprisingly Simon Templar’s arrival in New York also ushers in a considerably tougher, even hard-boiled version of the Saint, who had been around almost a decade when the novel was published in 1934. Indeed, the book itself was heavily censored in its early magazine and newspaper serialization, close to emasculated, because the full thing is a wild ride full of bursts of gunfire and violence, breathless escapes from impossible traps, cold blooded killings, the kidnapping of an innocent child, and the kind of retribution the Saint is famous for. There is also a beautiful and sexy femme fatale who is not only a match for the Saint, but possibly even wilder than the adventurer himself.

   The plot is that old favorite about the citizens committee that decides to clean up the city by extra legal means, in this case persuading one of its members, one Valcross, to find and hire Simon Templar to eliminate six of the big time racketeers terrorizing New York. Simon takes the job and arrives in New York with typical Saintly verve notifying his victims they are on his list.

   “It goes back to some grand times—of which you’ve heard,” he said quietly. “The Saint was a law of his own in those days, and that little drawing stood for battle and sudden death and all manner of mayhem. Some of us lived for it—worked for it — fought for it; one of us died for it…There was a time when any man who received a note like I sent to Irboll, with that signature, knew that there was nothing more he could do. And since we’re out on this picnic, I’d like things to be the same—even if it’s only for a little while.”

   Not too long after he polished off Irboll the Saint is captured and taken to the lair of yet another of his victims, and it is there he finds the kidnapped little girl and first meets the beautiful and enigmatic Fay Edwards, who is connected in some mysterious way with all the men on his list.

   Escaping and rescuing the little girl with typical Saintly elan the Saint finds himself entranced by Fay Edwards even as he moves on his next victim.

   Eventually he meets Fay and he discovers that behind the six men he has been sent to kill is the Big Fella, the mastermind who with Fay’s help recruited the six criminals and who meticulously planned all their crimes, He also learns the big payoff is due soon when the Big Fella plans to split the profits — to a much smaller group than originally planned thanks to the Saint.

   I’m not going to pretend this one takes much effort for any mystery reader to figure out. Even in 1934 the villain should have been pretty obvious, which is why Charteris, who must have been well aware of this, never lets the action falter, never give the reader a chance to catch his breath, and piles incident upon incident in one of the most sustained action novels of its type ever penned.

   His trembling hands went up as if to shield himself from the stare of those devilish blue eyes.

   “Death,” said the Saint, in a voice of terrible softness. “Death is my racket.”

   The Saint gets his man, the femme fatale meets the fate of most her kind, and the Saint and Inpector Fernack develop a much different relationship than the one he has back home with Inspector Teal.

   You know how it is, prophets in their own land.

   Charteris was working at Paramount when RKO bought the rights to his novel and the Saint came to the screen for the first time. Despite Charteris’s caveats, Louis Hayward is far and away the most Saintly of film Saints, hard edged but smooth, dangerous, suave, funny, and closer to the actual character in the books than any actor before or since. The scenes between he and Kay Sutton are not only well written, they are damn sexy considering when the film was made.

   There is a first rate cast with Jonathan Hale as Fernack, Kay Sutton as Fay, and a who’s who of bad guys that include Sig Ruman, Jack Carson, Paul Guilfoyle (as a semi comic team of killers Red and Heimie), Paul Fix, and Ben Weldon. The screenplay is fairly close to the book, certainly capturing the tone of the books better than any since, and the action is well staged.

   Granted it looks a little cheap here and there, and it could all be done a bit smoother, but it is the genuine Saint we are seeing in action, not the rather bored George Sanders or the dull Hugh Sinclair, and not the late much more sedate version television gave us (true to the later stories and novels in the series, there being almost as many versions of Simon Templar as there are of Ellery Queen).

   Whatever it’s flaws, you can imagine Hayward in white tie and tails singing to a Bobby beneath a street light or leaping through a window guns blazing — which he does at least twice in this film. Unlike later Saint’s he even makes use of his knife though he doesn’t seem to have named them.

   Some of the Sanders films are fun, and Hayward made an interesting if not entirely successful return to Sainthood in The Saint’s Girl Friday twenty years later. There is at least one French adaptation of a Saint novel done without Charteris’s permission (The Dance of Death (1960) with Felix Marten and based on “Palm Springs”) and available with the hero’s name changed.

   And of course there was the much loved Roger Moore series, a second series with Ian Ogilvy, a failed pilot, a series of made for television films with Simon Dutton, the Val Kilmer film, and a 2013 pilot with Adam Raynor (available on Netflix). That doesn’t include comics, comic strips, and the radio series that starred Vincent Price and later Brian Aherne as the Saint, but this is far and away the closest to Leslie Charteris’s vision of the character, making it ironic that he disliked it and Hayward so much, but I suppose when his ideals were Cary Grant and Rex Harrison anyone would be a letdown.

   Whoever plays the role next, I’m willing to bet it will be with less than half the verve and style Hayward brings to the part in his American debut as a leading man. For one time, and one time only, he was the Saint, the real one, not the rather wan imitation we have gotten since, and that is something Saint fans have every right to treasure.


SPIDER-WOMAN #3. Marvel Comics, June 1978. Writer: Marv Wolfman. Pencils: Carmine Infantino. Inker: Tony DeZugina. Cover: Not credited. Reprinted in Essential Spider-Woman #1 (Marvel, 2005)

   As I understand the story, Marvel Comics’ Spider-Woman came into existence for one reason: to make sure no other comic book company would come along and steal the name. Her first appearance was in Marvel Spotlight #32 (February 1977). This one shot appearance was successful enough — perhaps surprisingly so — that they gave her her own magazine, the first issue of which was in April 1978. There were 50 issues in all.

   At this stage of her existence — there have been several other Marvel characters also named Spider-Woman — she was named Jessica Drew, and her superhuman powers came from “…her mother being struck with a beam of radiation containing the DNA of several different types of spiders while she was in-utero.” [Quote from her Wikipedia page.]

   Not having issues #1 and 2 handy when I read #3, I did not know any of this, but did it matter? Not all that much. She seems to be wandering around trying to find herself in this one, accompanied by a Merlin-like sorcerer who shows her the grave of her father, who was mysteriously killed several months before.

   Trying to hunt to down the killer, Jessica’s path crosses that of a super-villain who calls himself Brother Grimm, who first appears at a theater where the play being performed is Hansel and Gretel. Things get suitably complicated from there, including some foreshadowing that there may be more than the one villain called Brother Grimm.

   The story doesn’t stop with just this one issue, in other words, and if I had the next one, I’d want to read it right away. Marv Wolfman does a good job melding at least two, maybe three, story lines together. I’ve always thought that Carmine Infantino’s characters were too angular looking, but inker Tony DeZugina, a favorite of mine, does well in softening them up a lot.

  DONALD WOLLHEIM, Editor, with Arthur W. Saha – The 1989 Annual World’s Best SF. Daw #783, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1989. Cover art by Jim Burns.

   #6. KRISTINE KATHRYN RUSCH “Skin Deep.” Short story. First published in Amazing Stories, January 1988. First collected in Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon (Golden Gryphon Press, hardcover, 2001).

   Although she seems to have slowed down somewhat over the last couple of years, Kristine Kathryn Rusch has been one of the most prolific science fiction and fantasy writers over the past 20 years, producing dozens if not over a hundred novels and short stories over that period of time. Not only that, but she was the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between July 1991 and May 1997.

   She wrote “Skin Deep” long before any of this, however. It was only her third published story, way back in 1988, and it’s a good one. It’s both a subtle and yet very perceptive story about a young man whose lineage is native to a planet that colonists from Earth have landed and are slowly taking over, as colonists from Earth always have a tendency to do, even though they are the “aliens” on the planet.

   He can pass for human for a time, but when that time is up, which happens regularly after a period of so many years, he must leave where he’s been living and go into hiding, perhaps to find others such as himself. This time, however, the adopted daughter of the family he’s been staying with is about to undergo the same Change in her life as well: note the title of the story. Should he go, or should he stay and help her?

   This is a solidly built story, both structured and told well. A future for this young author was easy to see.

       —

Previously from the Wollheim anthology: IAN WATSON “The Flies of Memory.”

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


WILLIAM O’FARRELL – Gypsy, Go Home. Gold Medal s1175, paperback original, December 1961. Cover art by Barye Phillips

   Nothing to see here, folks. Just a tightly-written and forgettable tale of murder and detection, with a great cover. In other words, a typical Gold Medal of its time. Move along now.

   Author William O’Farrell debuted with Repeat Performance in 1942, and over the next twenty years he turned out about a dozen books, until his death in 1962 (none afterwards) with occasional forays into television writing for Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s perhaps this last that provided background for Gypsy, Go Home and its milieu of small-screen scribes, producers and wanna-bes — and murder.

   The lady on the cover is Gypsy O’Brien: loud, grasping, crudely manipulative and usually drunk. I went out with a girl like that in college, but after a couple of dates she dumped me. And after a couple of chapters, Gypsy puts the squeeze on a no-talent writer trying to lever himself into a job on a TV show, and ends up the subject of a murder investigation.

   O’Farrell does a competent if unremarkable job of setting up two protagonists: Ken Morse, a television writer with a proven track record, lined up for a job on new series, and Alan Procter, the guy on the cover playing “guess what I got for you” with a poker. When Alan kills Gypsy and (mostly) covers his tracks, he decides the best way to get Ken’s job is to frame him for murder – even if the frame slips, it’ll muddy Ken’s reputation, and besides, Ken’s ex-girlfriend happens to be the daughter of the show’s creator, so if he can insinuate himself with her….

   About this time I started seeing similarities between this and the book (not the movie) In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes, which also featured a murderous would-be writer. But where Hughes focused on her deadly dramatist, O’Farrell skips nimbly between his rivals in love and television, with frequent stops in between to sketch out the characters of Gypsy’s complaisant cuckold husband, her confused nine-year-old daughter, and a smart cop who realizes the case goes considerably deeper than Gypsy’s shallow grave.

   If anything lifts Gypsy, Go Home out of the ordinary — and I’m not sure it does — it’s the Police, refusing to act according to type by arresting Ken and needlessly prolonging the action. Instead, O’Farrell keeps the story moving fast and in a straight line to a pat solution. In all, there’s nothing very memorable here, except as a relic of the kind of light, compact and easily-enjoyable book they just don’t make anymore.

 MARTIN H. GREENBERG, Editor – Deadly Doings. Ivy, paperback original; 1st printing, 1989.

   #1. IRA LEVIN “Sylvia.” Short story. First appeared in Manhunt, April 1955. Reprinted in Giant Manhunt #6, 1955 (variation #1). Adapted for TV: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 19 January 1958 (Season 3, episode 16).

   The name Ira Levin probably needs no introduction to readers pf his blog, but just in case, I’ll jog your memory: A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and others. This was, however, the only story he had published for the crime fiction magazines.

   In it wealthy businessman Lewis Melton, being ultra-protective of his daughter’s well-being, has already broken up her marriage to a fortune hunter named Lyle Waterman. When he intercepts a letter from Waterman to his still despondent daughter, he realizes that the stakes have suddenly risen a whole lot higher.

   But when he finds a gun in his daughter’s bedroom, he realizes that Waterman has to be warned. But pf course the story doesn’t end here, making at a natural to be picked up a few years later by the Alfred Hitchcock TV show.

   The story’s a good one, but if I’ve read the synopsis of the TV version correctly, they made some changes and I think they messed it up. I will have to watch it some time before I can tell you for sure.

            —

   I’m currently working my way through three different SF magazines and best-of-year anthologies, story by story. Since this is nominally a mystery-oriented blog, I’ve decided to do the same with this particular anthology. There’s no theme behind the stories chosen, only that they are, acceding to the introduction, both “finely crafted and entertaining.”

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