SANDRA WEST PROWELL – By Evil Means. Walker, hardcover, 1993. Bantam, paperback, April 1995.

   This is the first of three recorded adventures for perhaps the only fictional PI working out of Billings, Montana, a former FBI agent named Phoebe Siegel. The case seems simple enough, that of a woman who is afraid that there is something wrong at Whispering Pines, the psychiatric clinic on the outskirts of town where her daughter had recently sought help.

   Phoebe is about to turn her down, since (for many reasons) she always takes the month of March off. One of the reasons is that March is the month that her brother Ben, a cop in the local police force, committed suicide. She changes her mind, though, when the mother tells her there may have been an involvement between the girl and her brother Ben, even to the extent of a police complaint just before he died.

   Thus begins a long (over 350 pages) investigation into all kinds of secrets in her home town that Phoebe had never had an inkling of, many of them involving her family and friends, and she has many in both categories. The book is slow to start. It is not until page 130 or so, when Phoebe goes sneaks into Whispering Pines and convinces herself at last that Dr. Stroud is indeed up to no good, that the tale really starts to get into high gear.

   In some ways, this book reminded me of several of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone stories, in which the friends and family seem to be a secondary but essential sidebar to the mystery. But in Phoebe Siegel’s case, the role they both take on simply grows and grows, insidiously so. The ending is as harrowing as any that I’ve read in a PI novel in quite a long time.

   I wasn’t so sure for a while, but this one’s a keeper.

      The Phoebe Siegel series –

By Evil Means (1993)
The Killing of Monday Brown (1994)

When Wallflowers Die (1996)
An Accepted Sorrow (unpublished)

   According to the Thrilling Detective website, By Evil Means was nominated for the Hammett Prize, and both that novel and The Killing of Monday Brown were nominated for a Shamus.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MICHAEL Z. LEWIN – Called by a Panther. Albert Samson #8. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1991; paperback, June 1992.

   Albert Samson, it has been noted before, isn’t your typical hard-boiled, punchem inna nose, kickem inna crotch private eye. He’s middle-aged, low-key, laid-back, and not terribly successful; perilously close, actually, to being one of life’s losers. In this, his eighth appearance overall but first in eight years, he is trying to change his style. He is actually going to advertise on television; cable access, granted, but still —

   That’s just one of the threads running through the story. There’s a poet who wants to marry his rich benefactress, but needs Samson’s help in murdering his wife, first. Well, sort of, anyway. But the real problem is that terrorism has come to Indianapolis, yes, Indianapolis. The Scum Front, an environmentalist group, have planted several bombs recently, though taking great pains to not have them go off.

   Now the S. F. have had one of their bombs stolen after they planted it, and want Albert to find it for them. Given that the Indianapolis police are practically frothing at the mouth over the terrorists, he is naturally somewhat reluctant to become involved with the anonymous group. Does he? Well, of course.

   The ending, I think, will surprise you, as well as raise questions as to where the series goes from here. It’s an interesting if not too terribly believable story, and told in Lewin’s usual witty and enjoyable style. Samson’s exploits are a welcome change of pace from the typically gritty, angst-driven private detective story. I recommend them, and Panther, highly.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.

THE AVENGERS: A TV FACE-OFF
by Michael Shonk
Season Three v. Season Four


“Don’t Look Behind You.” (Season Three) Honor Blackman as Mrs. Catherine Gale and Patrick Macnee as John Steed. Guest Cast: Maurice Good as Max, Janine Gray as Ola, Kenneth Colley as Strange Young Man Written by Brian Clemens. Produced by John Bryce. Directed by Peter Hammond.

“The Joker.” (Season Four) Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel and Patrick Macnee as John Steed. Guest Cast: Peter Jeffrey as Max, Sally Nesbitt as Ola and Ronald Lacey as Strange Young Man. Teleplay by Brian Clemens. Produced by Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens. Directed by Sidney Hayers.

   In today’s culture virtually everything from politics to entertainment is examined as if it is a sporting event. Which team will win the election? Which is better Star Wars or Star Trek? Sherlock versus Scooby Doo?

   So in this spirit we look at the TV series The Avengers. It is a battle between Season Three and Season Four. A fight to the finish, a duel between Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg, between Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, between Steed and Steed, between production values, and between leather jumpsuits.


   Representing Season Three is the episode “Don’t Look Behind You” with Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale.


   Representing Season Four is the episode “The Joker,” a remake of “Don’t Look Behind You” with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.


THE PLOT:

   Heroine in jeopardy in the “Old Dark House.”

   Both begin with a scene where an unknown pair of hands cuts up and mutilates a close up photo of Gale/Peel. Next we learn a famous reclusive expert in Gale/Peel’s field of interest has invited her to spend a weekend alone with him in his remote mansion.

   At the mansion Gale/Peel meets an odd young woman named Ola and learns her host has been called away but hopes to return soon. Ola leaves Gale/Peel alone and mind games begin.

   A strange young man appears at the mansion’s door claiming his car is out of gas and he needs to use the phone. They discover the phone line has been cut. More mind games follow until the villain reveals himself and (spoiler alert) the villain is defeated.

WINNER: The plot is a better fit for the third season hardboiled thriller style than the fantasy adventure era of Emma Peel. DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU


THE SCRIPT:

   Some of the rewrites changes were minor and not always best for the mood of the story, such as switching Gale’s fan from being an expert in medieval history to that of Peel’s being an expert in the less serious subject of card game Bridge.

   The main problem with heroine in jeopardy stories for weekly TV series is the audience knows the heroine will survive thus eliminating any real jeopardy. Clemens’ two scripts handled that challenge differently.

   The Gale version was a better than expected suspense thriller worthy of the man who gave us the TV series Thriller. Because you don’t know whom or why this is happening, there is an increasing uneasiness and a feeling of tension typical in “Old Dark House” maniac killer thrillers.

   In the rewrite episode “The Joker,” Clemens made a major mistake by revealing too early who the killer was and his motive. This removed much of the uneasiness and suspense that worked well in Season Three version. The best change Clemens made in the rewrite was with the motivations of Ola and the Strange Young Man. These changes made the characters more believable and the villain’s plan much more credible. However, Clemens most unforgivable mistake with the rewrite dealt with John Steed.

WINNER: Both scripts had flaws but DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU worked the best with the plot and story.


JOHN STEED:

   In both scripts Steed’s role was minor but important. Steed drives Gale to the mansion then continues on his way. During the trip Steed flirts with receptive Gale, even stopping to pick some wild flowers for her. While Steed would leave Gale alone in the mansion he would arrive to help her as soon as he learned a certain bit of news.

   In Peel’s version Steed falls down the stairs and hurts his leg, but he is more clueless than clumsy. Steed is given the news that made it obvious to third season Steed that his partner was in danger. This time he doesn’t notify Emma of the news because it would spoil her weekend with the Bridge expert. It takes dimwitted Steed too long to realize Mrs. Peel is in danger. Steed’s arrival in this version is a letdown for Steed fans compared to his heroics in Season Three.

   The Gale version also featured a great reaction by Macnee when Cathy asks him if he had known she was in danger and used her as a decoy (something earlier Steed was fond of doing to his partners). Steed’s reaction of hurt disbelief that she would ask him that showed just how much he had changed and how much Gale meant to him.

WINNER: For the third season’s moment revealing Steed’s growth and the fourth season episode turning Steed into an idiot… DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU.


THE DIRECTOR:

   The person who captured that Steed moment was Peter Hammond. Hammond was one of the series first directors and known for his fondness of odd angles and points of view. His camera work added to the uneasiness and strangeness of the story without getting in the way of the story. And boy did he have fun with the camera in this episode especially taking advantage of the odd stairs that went in a variety of directions.

   Sidney Hayers did a fine professional but standard job directing “The Joker.” He also made positive use of the surroundings, taking advantage of the large playing cards as doors to add some visual creepiness to the action.

WINNER: DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU – Peter Hammond.


THE GUEST CAST:

   The Gale version went for a theatrical style that matched the tone and style director Hammond set for the entire episode. The guest cast got to ham it up adding a sense of insanity to the characters.

   The Peel version used a more typical TV style of underplaying the roles, especially with the Strange Young Man. The increase in Steed’s role meant less of the Strange Young Man, which was a plus.

WINNER: In both episodes the performances of characters Ola and Strange Young Man seemed artificial. Both actors who played the killer were good but I found Maurice Good in “Don’t Look Behind You” better as he added a sense of tragedy to the character. DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU.


PRODUCTION VALUES:

   Oddly enough the limited production values in the third season version was a plus. The black and white videotape gave the thriller more of an “Old Dark House” feel than the filmed in color version.

   The sets in the Peel’s version were bigger and better. The interiors of the mansion looked real but marred by the rooms decorated with ludicrous playing cards that conflicted with the serious suspense of the story. The Peel era would learn to better balance its surrealism with story.

   The smaller sets in the Gale’s version designed by Terry Green gave the episode a claustrophobic feel that worked better. The design of the stairs with a hint of M. C. Escher added to the audience discomfort as it felt that anything could happen from any direction at any moment.

   Johnny Dankworth’s theme and soundtrack would be approved by anyone who admired jazz music during the fifties and sixties. But the Steed picks flowers for Cathy scene needed more and better music in the background. The record that would play a clue was misused in “Don’t Look Behind You.”

   Laurie Johnson’s theme was more stylish and in a pop style. It plays a major role in the famously popular opening credits. “The Joker” makes good use of the record of a song that is so important to the killer.

   Both episodes costume department failed to help establish the guest characters. The Strange Young Man’s sunglasses seemed to reflect his ego but had nothing to add to the story. Gale’s clothes seemed limited to conservative dress and black leather jumpsuit worn only during fight scenes. Peel had the larger more feminine wardrobe (and a scene where Peel is exposed in a bra as she dressed – a big deal for the young audience during a time when the Sears catalog was considered risque). Steed dressed much the same in both episodes.

WINNER: DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU in Sets and Look. THE JOKER in Music and Costumes.


   And now the battles you all have been waiting for…


MRS. CATHERINE GALE versus MRS. EMMA PEEL

   Cathy Gale was originally named Mr. Charlie Gale. Studio Press officer Marie Donaldson is credited for naming Emma Peel – a twist of the phrase “man appeal.”

   Oddly, the two female characters were more alike than the third and fourth season were. Both were strong kick ass women that looked great in leather jumpsuits. Both had the same relationship with John Steed, one of mutual respect, professionalism, and hints of romance. Gale, as with Season Three, was darker, more serious. She had a sense of wit but rarely smiled. However Clemens was showing signs in Season Three that he saw Gale differently than she was usually portrayed. The flower scene in “Don’t Look Behind You” was notable for softening Gale to the audience.

   Emma Peel had strength and confidence. She ran toward danger and kicked down doors to get at the killer. She was the near perfect image of the modern independent woman. While Peel was grateful for Steed’s coming to her rescue she didn’t need him to take out the villains.

   While much of what was right with Mrs. Emma Peel came from the development of Mrs. Catherine Gale, Emma Peel remains one of the most beloved female characters in all of television history.

WINNER: THE JOKER – Emma Peel


HONOR BLACKMAN versus DIANA RIGG

   Both co-starred in Bond films, both were offered a CBE (Commander). Blackman declined due to her political beliefs favoring a republic over royalty. Riggs accepted hers in 1988 and now is a DBE (Dame Commander).

   Website ‘Avengers Forever’ quotes an interview Blackman gave “Star Log” magazine where she confessed that director Hammond argued with her over how to play the final scene with the killer in “Don’t Look Behind You”. Hammond wanted her tough and ready to kill the bad guy. But Blackman felt so sorry for the villain she was unable to play the scene without tears running down her face. Diana Rigg’s performance during that scene would have made Hammond proud.

   Rigg had no problem with the tough part of Peel. She could break a man’s arm and still remain feminine. Perhaps the greatest difference Rigg brought to the role was the playfulness. The way she holds the gun in the opening titles is enough to drive a gun safety expert insane but adds a sense of genial fun that is irresistibly appealing,

WINNER: THE JOKER – Diana Rigg who made Emma Peel an iconic television character. But Honor Blackman was a better Bond Girl.


THE FINAL VERDICT:

   And the winner is… DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU. (7 to 4.)

   It really should be no surprise that a script written for Mrs. Catherine Gale and the third season of the series would turn out better than a rewrite done to speed up production time while Brian Clemens was still developing where he wanted to take the series.

GEORGE DILNOT – The Crooks’ Game. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1927. Cherry Tree, UK, paperback, 1938/1945. Houghton, US, 1927. McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie: “The Scotland Yard Library,” US, no date given. Also published in Detective Classics, May 1930.

   According to Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, George Dilnot was the author of 22 works of detective fiction, two of them collaborations with Frank Froest, and another three of them Sexton Blake paperbacks in the 1930s. All but a handful were never published in the US, so any that weren’t are going to be scarce. Based on reading this one, which I purchased at PulpFest, I may go looking, but if no cheap inexpensive copies turn up, I won’t go into a funk about it.

   Dilnot’s hero is a rather down-to-earth gentleman by the name of Detective-Inspector Strickland of Scotland Yard, no first name ever stated, so far I can recall. The case revolves around a millionaire from the US, one Buck Shang, and his daughter Shirley. Having been pardoned from the jail sentence he was serving back in Colorado, he now goes by the name of Earl Millard.

   Some former associates have followed father and daughter to England, and they are determined to get two million dollars from them, no matter how they get it or who gets in their way, and that includes Inspector Strickland.

   What follows in the story is a grand game of murder, capture, escape and recapture, boat trips up and down the Thames, and all around London town, good sections and bad, accomplices, assorted gang members, double-crosses and twists galore. It’s a lot of fun to read, and not until you’re finished do you realize that only a very routine lot of detective work ever went on.

   One really striking surprise occurs well before the end of the book, with the unfortunate result being that it also ends the case as well. What follows from here is a long recap, mostly unnecessary, and a short romantic interlude at the very end.

   Which also means that Strickland is about to chuck his job at Scotland Yard and head to the US with the Millards (if I’m telling you anything I shouldn’t, I apologize), and yet Strickland showed up in one of Dilnot’s novels two years later, in The Black Ace, his second and final appearance, but still in England. I’m curious enough to make this the first one I may go looking for.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


“Joaquin Murietta.” An episode of Stories of the Century.   Syndicated / Republic Pictures, 16 April 1954 (Season 1, Episode 13). Jim Davis, Mary Castle, with Rick Jason as Joaquin Murietta. Screenplay: Milton Raison. Director: William Witney.

   In this Stories of the Century episode, Matt Clark, Railroad Detective (Jim Davis) and his female partner, Frankie Adams (Mary Castle) take on legendary/quasi-fictional bandit Joaquin Murietta. Directed by William Witney, this episode plays like an extended serial or a very short B-Western. Unlike many other television Westerns from this era, the hero not only has a female partner, but a strong willed and independent one more than willing to speak her mind.

   The plot is adequate, but some details don’t make a whole lot of logical sense. The characters, such as they are, aren’t all that developed, although it should be noted that Murietta is portrayed as both as a ladies man and as a cruel bandit. Still, there’s action, gun-fighting, allusions to gold treasure a plenty. Most importantly, there’s a Whitneyesque drawn out, bare-knuckles fistfight at the very end. How could there not be?

   You can watch the entire episode on the YouTube videobelow:






Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE SCARLET COAT. MGM, 1955. Cornel Wilde, Michael Wilding, George Sanders, Anne Francis, Robert Douglas, John McIntire, Rhys Williams, John Dehner, Bobby Driscoll. Director: John Sturges.

   The Scarlet Coat is at once a docudrama epic, a Revolutionary War era swashbuckler, and a war film. Directed by John Sturges, the movie stars Cornel Wilde as the fictional Major John Bolton of the Continental Army. His task: ferret out the traitor in the colonists’ midst, a trail that ultimately leads him to none other than the infamous historical traitor, Benedict Arnold (Robert Douglas). To accomplish this task, Bolton goes undercover as a deserter in British-controlled New York City where he aims to deceive Major John Andre (Michael Wilding) and the loyalist Dr. Jonathan Odell (George Sanders).

   Filmed in Cinemascope in Eastman Color on location in New York’s Hudson River Valley, The Scarlet Coat benefits from a stellar cast, and lavish, detailed costumes. Yet, when all is said and done, it’s the alternatingly flaccid and meandering script that makes the movie an altogether humdrum affair.

   That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its moments. Indeed, the film’s last thirty minutes or so have enough action and suspense to keep you engaged and anticipating what happens next.

   But it’s simply not enough to make up for the fact that, for much of the movie, the actors seem to be going through the motions more than anything else. Likewise, the friendly rivalry between Bolton and Andre over the fictional Sally Cameron (Anne Francis) seems forced, as if the screenwriters decided upon introducing a romantic subplot just for the sake of having one in the movie.

   And the character of Benedict Arnold, nominally the pivotal character, barely appears on screen, making the film more the story of British spy, John Andre than of the American spy, Arnold.

   The Scarlet Coat, which was not a commercial success, is not a bad film so much a as a movie which reached for a level of historical relevancy that, despite gallant effort, ultimately eluded its grasp. That’s not to say that it’s not worth watching. In a way, it still is, so long as you do so with tempered expectations.

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