A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Thomas Baird

  J. S. FLETCHER – The Middle Temple Murder. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1922. First published in the UK: Ward Lock, hardcover, 1919. Reprinted many times including: Dover Press, softcover, 1980.

   Julian Symons, English author and critic, coined a good name for the multitude of middle-rank mystery writers who lacked literary skill and ingenuity — the Humdrums. J. S. Fletcher stood in the front rank of the prolific English phalanx of Humdrums. He wrote over a hundred books on a variety of subjects, and the majority were detective stories. These melodramas are extremely conventional, with the not-too-brilliant central puzzle dominating the story. They are a comfortable confirmation of decency and lawfulness for the moneyed middle class. Snobbery descends to racial prejudice (with several Chinese villains), and despicable, evil foreigners have dark complexions and comical accents.

   Not much scientific detection is involved, and the tenets of the Golden Age are not closely followed. There is too much reliance on coincidence, detectives missing details, failure to follow up clues, and mysterious figures who appear to wrap up the plot at the end.

   It is a trifling triumph to select one of Fletcher’s detective stories as his best. From The Amaranth Club (1926) to The Yorkshire Moorland Murder (1930), there is not much to choose from, except for The Middle Temple Murder.

   While the plot is fairly pedestrian, many of Fletcher’s defects are absent. It is one of his earliest works, and attracted the first real notice for Fletcher in the United States when it was championed by Woodrow Wilson. The story concerns Frank Spargo, subeditor of the Watchman, who happens to be present when a bludgeoned body is found in the Middle Temple.

   The hotshot reporter (he’s as bright as any latter-day Flash Casey) teams up with Ronald Breton, barrister, to follow the clues in this devious mystery. The victim is John Marbury, from Australia, who was struck down on his first night back in London after an absence of many years.

   This photo-procedural novel is a case of complicated theft, legacy, parentage, and includes a suspected empty coffin. A major motif (as in many Fletcher tales) is railway travel- checking timetables; confirming alibis; zipping around to discover clues; getaways and pursuits.

   Fletcher has been praised for his novels set in the English countryside, but the atmosphere in most of these is overwrought and the descriptions dull. Novels such as The Middle Temple Murder and The Charing Cross Mystery (1923) are vivid because most of the action takes place in the streets, byways, squares, stations, and buildings of London, and is reported in factual detail.

   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.

William F. Deeck

FRANCES DUNCOMBE – Death of a Spinster. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1958.

   Dee Galbraith, trained as an anthropologist but working part time as bookkeeper in a charity consignment shop in Byfield Center in upper Westchester, decides to do an anthropological study of the town. A woman who also worked in the shop but whom Mrs. Galbra!th had never met commits suicide there.

   From the data that Mrs. Galbraith accumulates in her survey, it becomes evident to her, though not to the police nor, I confess, to me, that the woman was actually murdered.

   Byfield Center is fairly inbred, close knit at the top, protective of certain of its own, and well supplied with gossips. Mrs. Galbraith’s views become widely known, her step-daughter is bad|y injured by a hit-and-run driver, and an attempt is made on her own life. Someone obviously thinks she knows more than she actually does.

   The novel — a first and, unfortunately, a last — is well written, and Mrs. Galbraith is a most believable heroine. She is intelligent but subject to blind spots. She does go to the police, but when they fail to appreciate her information, she continues to investigate.

   All of her actions, with the exception of her eluding her protectors at the end of the book, are reasonable — that is to say, human and thus occasionally fallible. This is not a novel with a puzzle that most readers will be able to solve, but it is worth reading to discover Dee Galbraith and an interesting study of a small community.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 4, July-August 1987.


TWO-FISTED. Paramount, 1935. Lee Tracy, Roscoe Karns, Grace Bradley, Kent Taylor, Gall Patrick, Akim Tamiroff, Florence Lake, Irving Bacon. Director: James Cruze. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   A nifty little programmer with Tracy as the fight manager of none-two-swift (except in hitting the canvas) Roscoe Karns. Hap and Chick agree to take a temporary job in the home of a millionaire whose rascally brother-in-law wants to get custody of his sister’s young son.

   Hap will train Clint (Kent Taylor) to be a fighter and stand up to his brother-in-law. Then Clint, falling from grace and landing in a bottle, bets with brother-in-law George that Chick can defeat his chauffeur in a friendly boxing match, whose outcome will decide the custody of the boy.

   An attractive cast, with Grace Bradley as Maria, the maid for whom Chick falls, a cute and funny foil for Karns.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

SUZANNE ARRUDA – The Leopard’s Prey. NAL, hardcover, January 2009; trade paperback, September 2009.

   “It comes at you with madness in its pale yellow eyes, Simba Jyke.”

   Among the more entertaining mystery series to emerge in this century, Suzanne Arruda’s books about female flyer and photojournalist American Jade del Cameron, aka Simba Jyke, meaning lioness, set in British East Africa post WWI, are an entertaining mix of adventure, action, solid detection, exotic location, and early feminism.

   Like Hemingway, Jade drove an ambulance in Italy during the war, and has come home to British East Africa where she has an ongoing romance with bush pilot and former ace Sam Featherstone. As The Leopard’s Prey, the fourth entry in her adventures, opens she is working for the Perkins and Daley Zoological Company helping to collect and capture animals for zoos (don’t go all politically correct, this is taking place in the era of Frank Buck, Clyde Beatty, and great white hunters of the Hemingway vein.

   The stories are historically accurate and feminist or not, Jade is a woman of her time, taking the job to keep the animals from extinction), as the jacket says: “…lassoing zebras, chasing down a rhinoceros, and posing as bait for a leopard.” She even has a pet cheetah named Biscuit, again not untrue to the era or the type.

   There is a murder of course. Jade’s friends Maggie and Neville Thompson find the body of a merchant, and her lover Sam is implicated, so Jade naturally has to clear his name, which leads to cracking Sam’s plane up in the African wilderness and a long trek to safety where savage beasts are the least of her problems. All this leads to being cornered by a murderer planning to use a killer leopard as a murder weapon, and an aging lion named Percy with a mind of his own.

   “My mother says you must watch for danger in a killer’s eyes.” a native warns Jade. She just misunderstands which killer the old native woman means, to her almost fatal chagrin.

   Jade is not a particularly cerebral sleuth, hardly Miss Marple in a leather flying jacket and jodhpurs. She has an Indiana Jones streak, though she is never presented as a super woman or comic book heroine. Her adventures are well within the laws of probability, given that she stumbles on more than her fair share of adventure and bodies while moving from one job to the next.

   Her attitudes are enlightened, but not unknown in that time frame, yet another example of Arruda’s research. She’s something of a mix of Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, and Pancho Barnes with a bit of Pearl White and Nyoka the Jungle Girl thrown into the mix along with a grown up Nancy Drew.

   The series captures the Africa of the era, from the adventure and romance of Out of Africa to the high and low social whirl of White Mischief, with nods to Hemingway’s African tales and memoirs. The action is well handled, and Jade is no mean sleuth. Like Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands mysteries Arruda never lets the mystery take a back seat to the adventure aspect of the books, and like that series, the world Jade moves in is richly portrayed and researched from the attitudes and politics of that world to the details of cameras, planes, and clothes.

   Arruda’s style is simple and straightforward, literate, but never complex and deceptively easy to read.

   I haven’t been able to follow the series beyond this one, but the first four books remain fresh and original, with green-eyed Jade a heroine you can root for. The books have the quality of an old fashioned adventure film like Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Too Hot to Handle, with the same crackling dialogue, wit, and action, but there is a well done mystery at the heart and a clever heroine/sleuth to pull for.

          The Jade del Cameron Series

Mark of the Lion (2006)
Stalking Ivory (2007)

The Serpent’s Daughter (2008)
The Leopard’s Prey (2008)
The Treasure of the Golden Cheetah (2009)

The Crocodile’s Last Embrace (2010)
The Devil’s Dance (2015)

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

ARIZONA RAIDERS. Columbia Pictures, 1965. Audie Murphy, Michael Dante, Ben Cooper, Buster Crabbe, Gloria Talbott. Director: William Witney.

   To enjoy Arizona Raiders, you’ll just make it past the first ten minutes or so. Then you’re free to discover that you’ll find that it’s pretty decent, if formulaic, Western. But first you’ll have to put up with an on-screen narrator breaking the fourth wall, as well as voice-over narration, all designed to provide the viewer with historical background about Quantrell’s Raiders. It’s all highly unnecessary and honestly one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a film of this nature.

   But don’t let me give you the impression it’s not worth watching, because the movie has quite a bit going for it.

   Directed by William Witney and shot in Technicolor and Techniscope, Arizona Raiders features Audie Murphy as Clint, a former member of Quantrell’s Raiders, now working for the Arizona Rangers. He’s tasked with rooting out the remnants of his former gang, which has holed itself up in a Yaqui village in preparation for a raid on a gold shipment.

   Legendary serial film star Buster Crabbe portrays Captain Andrews, Clint’s nominal boss. With Witney at the helm, there’s plenty of action, including some beautifully choreographed fight sequences. Murphy wasn’t the greatest of Western actors, but he more than holds his own here. He certainly does appear tired and world weary, something that only adds to the film’s rather downbeat, pessimistic tone. There are a couple of particularly bloody scenes in Arizona Raiders, further delineating how much Westerns had changed since the time of Roy and Trigger.

  FRANK KANE – Time to Prey. Dell 1st Edition B159, paperback original; 1st printing, November 1960. Cover art by Harry Bennett. Reprinted as Dell 8924, paperback, 1966.

   Back in the day, circa 1958-1963, I polished down books like this at the rate of one a day. It was certainly helpful, then, that publishers put them out at very nearly the same rate, and a lot of them were Johnny Liddell private eye novels, just like this one.

   This isn’t one I remember reading, but don’t count on my lack of memory meaning anything. There isn’t anything in this one that stands out now, and I doubt if it would have back then. It starts out being a little different, with Johnny apparently getting caught up with a gang smuggling Communist Chinese agents into the country, but without a lot of notice, the story gradually converts itself into a run-of-the-mill tale of a longshoremen’s racket along the New York City waterfront.

   The villain makes himself known early on, so this is no detective story. Liddell does a good job using his brain as well as his fist, though, working members of the mob against each other, one at at time. He doesn’t even have a client. It’s personal, with the deaths of two young women having occurred because of him, one incidentally, but the other he’s directly responsible for.

   The story’s pure puffery, all the more so by the ineptitude of his primary adversary, who [spoiler alert] sets up a frame for Johnny for one of the girl’s deaths, but does not bother to be sure that the latter has no alibi for the time of the killing.

   If Kane ever describes Johnny in detail, I missed it, at least in this book. Based on his actions and the way people react to him, I picture him as a Robert Ryan type. Ruggedly good-looking but tough as nails when he needs to be.

DEATH FLIES EAST. Columbia Pictures, 1935. Conrad Nagel, Florence Rice, Raymond Walburn, Geneva Mitchell, Robert Allen, Oscar Apfel, Miki Morita. Based on a story by Philip Wylie (American Magazine, July 1934). Director: Phil Rosen.

   A neat if not overly sophisticated murder mystery that takes place on an airplane heading for New York City from California. Dead is a police detective, found slumped in his seat, poisoned. Most of the passengers appear to be ordinary businessmen, plus one deaf woman who is on board primary for comic relief — she can’t hear a word anyone says.

   But also on board is Evelyn Vail (Florence Rice), a nurse and a recent parolee from prison — convicted of complicity in another poisoning case. But she has a definite reason for being on the plane: a convict on death row at Sing Sing can confess to the killing, if only she can get there in time.

   More. A gentle suave gentleman (Conrad Nagel) who sits across the aisle from her and assist her is taking a secret formula to Washington, and he takes the small briefcase he is carrying it in everywhere he goes.

   Everyone appears innocent enough until the murder occurs. Then everyone begins to look suspicious, thanks to some decent writing and even better camera work. A minor film, but an enjoyable one. I only wish I had a better copy, but who restores old, unknown movies like this one?

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