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


   I had thought to devote my final column of the year to the next segment of my series about Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels, but a bout of ill health interfered. So this month we’ll turn to something extinct that I wrote perhaps 15 years ago, about a writer as far removed from Block as it’s possible to imagine: the nuttiest filbert who ever pounded on typewriter keys. I refer, as if you hadn’t guessed, to Harry Stephen Keeler.

***

   Harry (1890-1967) had been pounding that keyboard since around the outbreak of World War I, but in the early 1950s his career was in a death spiral. He had lost first a major and then a distinctly minor U.S. publisher (Dutton and Phoenix respectively) and would soon lose his British publisher Ward Lock. In his own wacko way he worked desperately to adapt to new markets and new styles. Seeing that science fiction was enjoying boom times, he tried his hand at that genre. The result was a series of commercially impossible novels whose protagonist is a house. Seeing that the police procedural represented the new wave in detective fiction, he tried his hand at that genre too. The result was another string of commercially impossible novels, each featuring a different Chicago police detective as the main character but having about as much relation to, say, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series as a toad has to grand opera.

   One of these books was The Straw Hat Murders, which was never been published anywhere in his lifetime, not even in Spain where he remained in print almost until his death. It was completed on October 14, 1958 and, weighing in at roughly 48,000 words, is one of the shortest novels he ever wrote. If offered by a trade-book publisher today, it would probably be blurbed as dealing with a big-city cop’s hunt for a serial killer. Which would be a technically accurate description but wildly misleading.

   We open on a street under an abandoned Elevated line as Huntoon Cambourne, British-born chief of homicide in Chicago’s police department, is parking his car on the way to investigate a telephone message from patrolman Aert de Gelder: “S.O.T.! No. 633.” None but a Keeler Kop would have made such a cryptic report but Cambourne has had no trouble deciphering it. “For what could ‘S.O.T.’ stand for but ‘Same Old Thing’?” Clearly there’s been yet another homicide in the piano studio on the third floor of the warehouse building at 633 South Street.

   “Yes, the Straw Hat Murderer—killer of four pianists—must have struck again. Springing—the crazy fool!—across that 7-foot gap in the roofs, three stories up—to get to the single and only ingress that could bring him into the murder studio, the roof trap. Must have struck—unless, perchance, ‘S.O.T.’ stood for something like—like ‘Samuel O. Torber’—or ‘Saul O. Tabwith’—at 633 Wabash Avenue—or 633 Dearborn Street —or—

   “But if he had struck again, Cambourne reflected, leaving the car, had he again left behind him the straw hat which, apparently, he wore, or carried, to every killing, rain, snow, shine, or sun? And had he, as in the last four cases, contemptuously, triumphantly, dropped his usual $20 goldpiece into the repository of the blind, deaf beggar around the corner, to mark his own flight to the [nearby railroad] depot? And thus make evident to the police the sheer futility of search for him? This latter being a theory, only, of Cambourne’s.”

   The building is owned by Max Goldfarb, who runs a secondhand office furniture store across the street as had his father Emmanuel and his grandfather Abraham before him. Emmanuel had bricked up the front entrance and all the front windows of the warehouse so that the only way in is via the back door, which is secured by an impenetrable lock. His will had specified that the room on the third floor must be preserved as is, complete with the $3000 grand piano on which after his wife’s death he had played the songs she had loved, so Max had advertised in Chicago’s foreign-language newspapers that the studio could be rented cheaply by piano students.

   Even after his tenants began getting knocked off—Robert Hordon and Charles Amodie stabbed in the back, Gustav Einhorn shot at point blank range, Louise Wanstreet strangled, and a straw hat of a different size and style found near each corpse—Max kept the killer’s apparent method of entry unsecured because under the fire laws he’ll be fined $1000 and sentenced to a year in jail if he nails up the roof trap. We learn all this and more, including the fact that a new $20 gold piece has been dropped into the receptacle of blind and deaf Piggy Bank Pete, before Cambourne clambers over the rooftops in imitation of what he takes to be the killer’s modus operandi and discovers that the fifth tenant, Elftherios Paleogus, has become the fifth victim—and that a fifth straw hat is in the murder room. When he can’t solve the crime, Cambourne is fired and returns to England where he rises to high position at Scotland Yard.

   All this happens in the first 72 pages of typescript, and only then do we learn that those pages did not take place in the present, as until this point we had every reason to assume, but twenty years in the past; which means, considering the date of the book’s composition, around 1938. Careful readers will note that in his efforts to fool us Harry didn’t play quite fair: the European conflict of 1914-18 was never referred to as World War I until, at the very earliest, the outbreak of World War II!

   Chapters 15 through 18 propel us forward ten years, roughly to 1948. A man in blue spectacles, who has no connection with the hero of Keeler’s classic The Spectacles of Mr. Cagloostro but used to be a world champion standing leaper with the nickname of The Human Frog, spends $20 on a long-distance phone call from Chicago to Cambourne’s office at Scotland Yard and claims to be the Straw Hat killer. The caller’s name is Steward Pann but the manuscript shows that originally it had been Peter Pann. Imagine Harry changing a character’s name because he thought it was too bizarre! The final chapters take place yet another decade later.

   In an endless conversation at London’s Carlton Club with his childhood friend Guy Standidge, who’s spent most of his life in faraway Kenya, Cambourne explains the true solution of the Straw Hat murders, which kulminates in the kind of Koindydink that Harry’s fans have come to love him for.

   Keeler does slip up here and there on points of motivation and motiving—how the murderer got hold of all his weapons is disposed of in a few perfunctory and speculative lines—but blesses us with some fine specimens of eccentric prose, two of which are worth singling out. He describes a multi-deck parking structure as “[o]ne of those places…where cars wind up and up and around—for 3 stories up sometimes—with white concrete ramps that look like strands of giant spaghetti….” Later he evokes a classical pianist at practice. “[T]he majesty—the very staccato trippery of his playing, here and there, showed that his whole ten fingertips must have been virtually little lambs, gamboling, playing hop, skip and jump—dancing the light fantastic, upon a green consisting of monotonous oblongs that formed a keyboard….”

   The Straw Hat Murders is the only Keeler title I can recall in which a family of Jews figures prominently. If one were to judge solely by the portrayal of Max Goldfarb—“dark and swarthy, with a huge beak of a nose and glittering black eyes” and “unusually thick lips”—it would take a Johnnie Cockroach to get Keeler acquitted of anti-Semitism. But precisely because the plot seems to require one stereotypical Jewish character of the worst sort, Harry goes out of his way to emphasize that the rest of the Goldfarbs are (living or dead) saints. “Max, your father…was, from all I hear, the finest old man this block ever had….You, Max, are greedy—self-seeking, and, in some ways, a murderer.”

   Late in the book Cambourne makes it clear to his pal Standidge that Max’s little daughter Rose from the early chapters, now grown up and married to a man named Yudelson, rivals her grandfather in wonderfulness. And at the climax Keeler even makes a stab at explaining anti-Semitism. “All hatreds of the Jewish race, Guy, stem out of the fact that one Jew has injured the hater sometime in the past. Then the whole race gets hated—by the victim.” I can’t help suspecting that STRAW HAT was never published in Franco’s fascist Spain precisely because all but one Jewish character was so admirable.

   Late in life Harry seems to have developed a genius for choosing the road through the yellow wood that no one in his right mind would travel by. His stabs at s-f and the police procedural are wacky to the max, and when he fiddled with serious issues like anti-Semitism he left himself wide open to misinterpretation. But then, if the novels he wrote in his last years had been conventionally acceptable, he wouldn’t have been our Harry. In The Straw Hat Murders he was quintessentially himself.

***

   Bill Pronzini would doubtless have called The Straw Hat Murders an alternative classic, but it’s most unlikely to appeal to admirers of, say, the Scudder novels of Lawrence Block. Still the question remains to be asked: If what I’ve written has piqued your curiosity, where might you obtain a copy? For the answer I can only refer you to that friend of all book lovers everywhere, Radhakrishnan Google. Good luck and happy holidays!

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


RUSSIAN ROULETTE. Embassy Pictures, 1975. George Segal, Christina Raines, Bo Brundin, Denholm Elliot, Richard Romanus, Gordon Jackson, Louise Fletcher, Peter Donat, Nigel Stock, Val Avery, Screenplay by Stanley Mann, Jack Trolley, Arnold Margolin, and Tom Ardles, based on the latter’s novel, Kosygin is Coming. Directed by Lou Lombardo.

   I was halfway into this late Cold War, early Glastnost, thriller set in a wet grungy version of a Vancouver so unattractive Canada should have boycotted the studio that made it when I realized I had seen it before. I’m not sure why I so roundly forgot it, but I surely did.

   In retrospect I suspect PTSD (no, I am not making light of PTSD, I have PTSD) from having seen it the first time.

   George Segal is Corporal Shaver of the RCMP, a plainclothes cop with an attitude and a life vaguely falling apart because he is on leave for punching his superior, Peter Donat, in the eye. As we meet him he is meeting with seedy Special Branch agent Denholm Elliot in a bar for Veterans with amputations (just why Elliot and Segal are members is never quite covered, nor is why if both belong to a small club neither knows the other).

   Elliot has the good sense to play the whole film as if he can’t quite figure out how to get out of it.

   Anyway, Elliot has a job to offer Shaver, one that might save his police career, and at the minor cost of his conscience. Rudoplph Henke (Val Avery) is a deviant Russian dissident living in Vancouver, a pain in the ass to everyone, and the Canadian government would like him out of the way during an upcoming diplomatic visit by Soviet Premier Kosygin — something the KGB, in the person of an insistent Soviet security expert (Bo Brundin) is pressing.

   All Segal has to do is kidnap the unpleasant Henke and keep him on ice for a few days. Hey, it’s Canada, no pesky Constitution to deal with, no big deal, right ?

   Meanwhile a flashy American, Richard Romanus, has arrived in Vancouver with a gun and a photograph of Henke. Obviously things are going to get complicated.

   And there lies the problem, aside from the grungy look of the film. The plot is absurdly complicated, and a film that builds up some real suspense toward the end with a race to save the target, is burdened by questions that don’t get answered and a Rube Goldberg construct of complications that really don’t seem necessary.

   If the Soviets had operated like this, we wouldn’t have had to wait nearly twenty years until they failed.

   So when Segal goes to kidnap Henke, only to have him snatched under his nose by someone else, rather than go to Elliot or his superiors, he decides to play private eye and find out what happened to Henke. This involves the receptionist at the RCMP he has broken up with (Raines) and her friend, a totally wasted Louise Fletcher. Because obviously a scene indicating Henke was violently kidnapped doesn’t need reporting to the authorities, who blithely assume Segal did his job.

   Later he doesn’t bother to report when his friend, another policeman, is murdered and left in Raines bathroom for information Segal already got somewhere else (and if it is that easy to find why kill … well, this film doesn’t bother to think these things through). Nothing had happened since Segal made a bad guy walk the plank off a railroad bridge and a body always picks things up. At least it does in better movies than this.

   We however pretty much know why Segal’s character is on suspension. He’s a lousy cop, he punched a superior, bungled a simple job and lied about it, drowned a suspect and claimed his new expensive sports car, and failed to report the death of a policeman.

   It doesn’t help that at several points Segal’s Shaver just suddenly knows things, like that Romanus, who offers him a lift when his car is towed (from a ski resort Segal has driven all the way to so he can speak to colleague Gordon Jackson who is coming back to town anyway), is trying to kidnap him. Just out of nowhere, because he’s the hero and Romanus character is about to be written out of the story, he knows the American giving him a lift is out to kidnap him.

   He doesn’t recognize him, Romanus hasn’t been following him, there is nothing suspicious about his car being towed (until later when it is, and meanwhile Segal hasn’t tied his car being towed to the coincidence of his being nearly kidnapped), and he doesn’t learn anything valuable from Romanus, though he does get Romanus nice Jensen Interceptor rather than the clunker he’s been driving.

   As far as I can tell, Romanus’s whole point in the film is so Segal’s character gets to drive that car.

   I had a Jensen in the seventies. It is worth at least a Richard Romanuses, I promise you.

   Of course. as you might imagine, Elliot and everyone is lying to Segal, and he begins to piece it together. Henke isn’t a Russian dissident, but an American CIA agent (why in the hell a CIA agent would pose as an anti-Soviet and live in Vancouver to spy on the Soviets is one of the bigger holes in the plot), and everyone but Segal knows that including the KGB Colonel who promptly kidnaps Segal and Raines and reveals his plot to assassinate Kosygin, for getting too friendly with the West, using the drugged CIA agent covered in explosives (and no, they never do explain how he is supposed to get close enough to blow up Kosygin since he is stoned out of his gourd) sitting in the doorway of a phony police helicopter (because the RCMP would never notice a stray helicopter while trying to protect a world leader or stop a staggering man wearing explosives from getting near a world leader).

   Raines and Segal escape from the farm where they are being held, and at least some suspense (about mid-film the director spends a pointless ten minutes as Segal goes from one Chinese restaurant to another looking for Elliot) kicks in as a race/chase ensues with cars zipping everywhere, quick cuts to the helicopter and drugged Henke, a whole Road Runner thing with Segal and the Soviet Colonel, and rooftop shootout between Segal, the Colonel, and the helicopter in downtown Vancouver, that, true to the quality of work Segal’s Shaver has shown up to now, ends with him murdering a CIA agent he could have stopped with a bullet to the knee.

   At one point he and Raines escape by causing a car wreck. He then takes the keys to the handcuffs from the dead driver and frees them, but does he take the gun the man almost certainly has — no, because if he had a gun, he could just shoot a couple of bad guys who are about to chase him. It’s that kind of brainless plotting that sabotages this at every turn.

   When he hands his boss Donat the rifle he confiscated from another policeman at film’s end, I half expected Donat to shoot him. The man is a menace. Clouseau is more capable.

   Did I mention this movie makes some of the worse music choices in the history of suspense movies that work to sabotage an already confused and confusing story?

   I’m not sure what anyone thought they were doing. The whole movie is ugly. Literally they cannot find one attractive thing is all of Vancouver and the surrounding countryside. Even the ski lodge is photographed ugly.

   Segal is better than the material, but wasted, and the amateurish confused direction and screenplay are frankly terrible. Good actors are given underwritten dialogue with no motivation and much of what does happen in the film is stretched to the breaking point where it could have been covered in a few lines of decent exposition.

   About fifteen minutes of suspense at the end doesn’t excuse the fact that nothing, including the big chase, makes any sense at all. They don’t give the viewer the chance Russian roulette (that’s another problem, the title gives too much away) does in real life. They load this one with duds and fire them all at the unsuspecting audience.

   But other than that, I liked it.


5 AGAINST THE HOUSE. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, Kerwin Mathews, William Conrad. Co-producer & co-screenwriter: Stirling Silliphant, based on the book by Jack Finney. Director: Phil Karlson.

   I’m not sure where it fits in historically, but this is a very early heist film, one that shows, as almost all of them do, how easily “perfect plans” can go wrong. Target: Harold’s Club, one of the most impregnable casinos in Reno of its era. The perpetrators: a small group of Korean War veterans going to college in Arizona on the GI Bill.

   Which explains why at least two of them (Guy Madison and Brian Keith) looks so much older than the other students on campus. The latter is having PTSD problems; the former, who is busy trying to persuade Kim Novak, a glamorous singer at a local student hangout, to marry him, is not in on the plan until too late.

   The first half of the film plays out at a near sophomoric comedy level — campus hi-jinks and so on — and it’s even hard to take the second half seriously when the “perfect plan” is as unworkable as it is. But any movie with Kim Novak in it is worth watching. What a beautiful woman she was. I wish it had been filmed in color. I really do:


VINCENT STARRETT “The Taggart Assignment.” Short story. Jimmy Lavender #6. First published in Short Stories, 10 August 1922. Reprinted in The Detective Megapack: 28 Tales by Modern and Classic Authors (Wildside Press, Kindle edition, January 2016).

   Although a number of his Jimmy Lavender stories were collected in book form during Vincent Starrett’s lifetime, this doesn’t doesn’t seem to have been one of them, and I think there may have been a reason for it. Before getting into that, however, let me say first of all that the resemblance of the Lavender tales to Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes is unmistakable. (Starrett was a noted Sherlockian of his day.)

   Simply move the stories from London in the late 1800s to Chicago in he 1920s, swap Watson for a narrator-assistant named “Gilly” Gilruth, and there you have it. Even the story itself, that of a young woman whose fiancé has gone missing only days before their wedding, is reminiscent of one of Holmes’s own adventures, that being “A Case of Identity.”

   The about-to-be-jilted woman — or has something more serious happened to the missing man? — wishes no publicity, and Lavender agrees. The trail leads, by sheer coincidence (Lavender thinks not) to a another missing man, this one the circulation manager of a local newspaper.

   The story is lively and fun to read, with Gilly more actively involved that Watson was, but (and I hate to have to say thus) it’s seriously marred by a final conclusive clue that unfortunately means nothing to the reader and everything to Jimmy Lavender. I was somewhat mollified by a very striking last line, however.

THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Jack Kelly, Hildy Parks, Vince Edwards, John Cassavetes, David Cross. Screenwriter-director: Andrew L. Stone.

   The moral of this story is simple. Never pick up hitchhikers. That’s the mistake that Gene Courtier (Jack Kelly) makes. Giving a ride to Vince Edwards leads to a gang of three young hoodlums, including a very youthful John Cassevetes, taking over Kelly’s home and terrorizing his wife (Hildy Parks) and two small children.

   The set-up is promising, but the fact is that the gang doesn’t really seem to have a plan in mind — first forcing Kelly to sell his car, then holding him for a ransom to be paid by his rich father. They go through the motions, but none of the three has the hair-trigger level of viciousness vthat would keep the viewer (me, that is, in this case) at the edge of his seat.

   They also commit too many dumb mistakes, making their ultimate downfall all but preordained, in a wrap-up that, once the police are called in, is all too perfunctory. With the cast that this one has, it’s hardly uninteresting, but given a choice, you’d be better off watching The Desperate Hours instead, a film made the same year, but one that’s far better structured.


POUL ANDERSON “Sargasso of Lost Starships.” Novella. Technic History #1. Planet Stories, January 1952. Collected in Rise of the Terran Empire (Baen, trade paperback, 2009). Reprinted as Sargasso of Lost Starships (Armchair Sci-Fi & Horror Double Novels #92, trade paperback, 2013), with The Ice Queen by Don Wilcox.

   The story opens thusly:

   Basil Donovan was drunk again.

   He sat near the open door of the Golden Planet, boots on the table, chair tilted back, one arm resting on the broad shoulder of Wocha, who sprawled on the floor beside him, the other hand clutching a tankard of ale. The tunic was open above his stained gray shirt, the battered cap was askew on his close-cropped blond hair, and his insignia–the stars of a captain and the silver leaves of an earl on Ansa–were tarnished. There was a deepening flush over his pale gaunt cheeks, and his eyes smoldered with an old rage.

   Looking out across the cobbled street, he could see one of the tall, half-timbered houses of Lanstead. It had somehow survived the space bombardment, though its neighbors were rubble, but the tile roof was clumsily patched and there was oiled paper across the broken plastic of the windows. An anachronism, looming over the great bulldozer which was clearing the wreckage next door. The workmen there were mostly Ansans, big men in ragged clothes, but a well-dressed Terran was bossing the job. Donovan cursed wearily and lifted his tankard again.

   Donovan had been a leader of the Ansan forces in their defeat at the hands of the Terran Empire. He is naturally bitter and is surprised to e taken by force to an interview with Commander Helena Jansky from Earth:

   “Sit down, Captain Donovan,” said the woman.

   He lowered himself to a chair, raking her with deliberately insolent eyes. She was young to be wearing a commander’s twin planets–young and trim and nice looking. Tall body, sturdy but graceful, well filled out in the blue uniform and red cloak; raven-black hair falling to her shoulders; strong blunt-fingered hands, one of them resting close to her sidearm. Her face was interesting, broad and cleanly molded, high cheekbones, wide full mouth, stubborn chin, snub nose, storm-gray eyes set far apart under heavy dark brows. A superior peasant type, he decided, and felt more at ease in the armor of his inbred haughtiness. He leaned back and crossed his legs.

   “I am Helena Jansky, in command of this vessel,” she said. Her voice was low and resonant, the note of strength in it. “I need you for a certain purpose. Why did you resist the Imperial summons?”

   It seems that Donovan is only of only a handful of people who have ventured into the Black Nebula and returned. Jansky needs him to guide her forces there on a return visit:

   Space burned and blazed with a million bitter-bright suns, keen cold unwinking flames strewn across the utter dark of space, flashing and flashing over the hollow gulf of the leagues and the years. The Milky Way foamed in curdled silver around that enormous night, a shining girdle jeweled with the constellations. Far and far away wheeled the mysterious green and blue-white of the other galaxies, sparks of a guttering fire with a reeling immensity between. Looking toward the bows, one saw the great star-clusters of Sagittari, the thronging host of suns burning and thundering at the heart of the Galaxy. And what have we done? thought Basil Donovan. What is man and all his proud achievements? Our home star is a dwarf on the lonely fringe of the Galaxy, out where the stars thin away toward the great emptiness. We’ve ranged maybe two hundred light-years from it in all directions and it’s thirty thousand to the Center! Night and mystery and nameless immensities around us, our day of glory the briefest flicker on the edge of nowhere, then oblivion forever–and we won’t be forgotten, because we’ll never have been noticed. The Black Nebula is only the least and outermost of the great clouds which thicken toward the Center and hide its ultimate heart from us, it is nothing even as we, and yet it holds a power older than the human race and a terror that may whelm it.

   He felt again the old quailing funk, fear crawled along his spine and will drained out of his soul. He wanted to run, escape, huddle under the sky of Ansa to hide from the naked blaze of the universe, live out his day and forget that he had seen the scornful face of God. But there was no turning back, not now, the ship was already outpacing light on her secondary drive and he was half a prisoner aboard. He squared his shoulders and walked away from the viewplate, back toward his cabin.

   Wocha was sprawled on a heap of blankets, covering the floor with his bulk. He was turning the brightly colored pages of a child’s picture book. “Boss,” he asked, “when do we kill ’em?”

   Things do not go well on the voyage. Strange voices and apparitions begin appearing to the entire crew, including Donovan:

   Donovan had not watched the Black Nebula grow over the days, swell to a monstrous thing that blotted out half the sky, lightlessness fringed with the cold glory of the stars. Now that the ship was entering its tenuous outer fringes, the heavens on either side were blurring and dimming, and the blackness yawned before. Even the densest nebula is a hard vacuum; but tons upon incredible tons of cosmic dust and gas, reaching planetary and interstellar distances on every hand, will blot out the sky. It was like rushing into an endless, bottomless hole, the ship was falling and falling into the pit of Hell.

   Eventually Donovan comes face to face with Valduma, an old nemesis slash alien lover from his previous voyage:

   Valduma stood beside Morzach for an instant, and Donovan watched her with the old sick wildness rising and clamoring in him.

   You are the fairest thing which ever was between the stars, you are ice and flame and living fury, stronger and weaker than man, cruel and sweet as a child a thousand years old, and I love you. But you are not human, Valduma.

   She was tall, and her grace was a lithe rippling flow, wind and fire and music made flesh, a burning glory of hair rushing past her black-caped shoulders, hands slim and beautiful, the strange clean-molded face white as polished ivory, the mouth red and laughing, the eyes long and oblique and gold-flecked green. When she spoke, it was like singing in Heaven and laughter in Hell. Donovan looked at her, not moving.

   “Basil, you came back to me?”

   The Terran forces lose control of their ship:

   The engines cut off and the ship snapped into normal matter state. Helena Jansky saw blood-red sunlight through the viewport. There was no time to sound the alarm before the ship crashed.

   “A hundred men. No more than a hundred men alive.”

   She [Helena] wrapped her cloak tight about her against the wind and stood looking across the camp. The streaming firelight touched her face with red, limning it against the utter dark of the night heavens, sheening faintly in the hair that blew wildly around her strong bitter countenance. Beyond, other fires danced and flickered in the gloom, men huddled around them while the cold seeped slowly to their bones. Here and there an injured human moaned.

   Across the ragged spine of bare black hills they could still see the molten glow of the wreck. When it hit, the atomic converters had run wild and begun devouring the hull. There had barely been time for the survivors to drag themselves and some of the cripples free, and to put the rocky barrier between them and the mounting radioactivity. During the slow red sunset, they had gathered wood, hewing with knives at the distorted scrub trees reaching above the shale and snow of the valley. Now they sat waiting out the night.

   Takahashi shuddered. “God, it’s cold!”

   A battle begins, one of groundshaking ferocity:

   The others were there with her, men of Drogobych standing on the heights and howling their fury. They had chains in their hands, and suddenly the air was thick with flying links.

   One of them smashed against Donovan and curled itself snake-like around his waist. He dropped his sword and tugged at the cold iron, feeling the breath strained out of him, cursing with the pain of it. Wocha reached down a hand and peeled the chain off, snapping it in two and hurling it back at the Arzunians. It whipped in the air, lashing itself across his face, and he bellowed.

   The men of Sol were weltering in a fight with the flying chains, beating them off, stamping the writhing lengths underfoot, yelling as the things cracked against their heads. “Forward!” cried Helena. “Charge–get out of here–forward, Empire!”

   The stronghold of the dying alien race is entered:

   The Terrans slogged on down the street, filthy with dust and grease and blood, uncouth shamblers, apes in the somber ruin of the gods. Donovan thought he had a glimpse of Valduma standing on a rooftop, the clean lithe fire of her, silken flame of her hair and the green unhuman eyes which had lighted in the dark at his side. She had been a living blaze, an unending trumpet and challenge, and when she broke with him it had been quick and dean, no soddenness of age and custom and–and, damn it, all the little things which made humanness.

   All right, Valduma. We’re monkeys. We’re noisy and self-important, compromisers and trimmers and petty cheats, we huddle away from the greatness we could have, our edifices are laid brick by brick with endless futile squabbling over each one–and yet, Valduma, there is something in man which you don’t have. There’s something by which these men have fought their way through everything you could loose on them, helping each other, going forward under a ridiculous rag of colored cloth and singing as they went.

   This is a prime example of a subcategory of science fiction that might be called “swords and spaceships.” The pages of Planet Stories were filled with this kind of tale, and no one did it better than Poul Anderson.

   PS. The cover illustration is perfectly correct. It must have helped hundreds of copies of the magazine on the newsstands, if not more.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE FORBIDDEN ROOM. Buffalo Gal Pictures, 2015. Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, and Charlotte Rampling. Written & directed by Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson.

   Well we’ve all known a forbidden room, haven’t we? Maybe it was in your own house, maybe a grandparent’s, or the musty abode of some aged and indeterminate relative, but we’ve all been given the solemn warning, “This door must be kept locked at all times.” and heard the strange noises from within — haven’t we?

   Well this movie isn’t about that. If The Forbidden Room is about anything at all, it’s about our inability to master our dreams. Indeed, Room drifts and lurches from one vision to another, from the bowels of a trapped submarine to a wintry forest primeval, to a sleazy nightclub, a tropical island….

   You may assume from this non-synopsis that Forbidden Room doesn’t make much sense, and it doesn’t, in the usual sense. But filmmaker Maddin moves it along from tangent to tangent with perfect dream-logic, backed up by visual images where you never quite see what it is that you’re looking at.

   If you’ve never seen a Maddin film, I should explain that he deliberately makes them look like an old movie, maybe something you saw as a child nodding off late at night, on an old TV with bad reception, then half-remembered years later. They look a little like that, bathed in faded, runny, pulsating colors. It’s a unique experience, and one I recommend highly.

   Forbidden Room was originally supposed to be a series of short films but got squeezed together for reasons of economics. As a result, it runs a bit too long and loses momentum. But that only bothered me; it didn’t keep me from watching in wide-eyed fascination.

   And maybe you will, too.


   Here below is the current data for author R. E. HARRINGTON in the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin. Both he and fellow researcher John Herrington are trying to pin down his correct dates of birth and death.

   Of the dates below, Al says: “[He] was born NY in December 1931, but I have now found a reference that says the author was born in Oklahoma 8 May 1931. And another saying 8 March 1931 which intimates he is still about.!!

   “But to be honest, wonder if either is correct. And curiously several with those names born 1931, though the obituaries I have found for some indicate they are not the author.

   One possibility, says Al is “… a Robert Edward Harrington was born in Oklahoma on 3/6/1924 and died there on 12/8/2018.”

   John’s response:

   “Another site (probably one that you found) says the author was born in Oklahoma, educated at the University of Utah, worked as a systems engineer with IBM, and manager of corporate data processing with Chrysler, later president of a computer R&D company; then living with wife and children in Southern California.”

   If anyone has any other information, it would be welcome!

HARRINGTON, R(obert) E(dward) (1931-1996?) (chron.)
    *Aswan High (with James A. Young) (U.S. & London: Secker, 1983, hc) [Egypt; 1984]
    *Death of a Patriot (Putnam, 1979, hc) [Washington, D.C.] Secker, 1979.
    *-The Doomsday Game (Secker, 1981, hc)
    *Quintain (Putnam, 1977, hc) [Los Angeles, CA] Secker, 1977.
    *The Seven of Swords (Putnam, 1976, hc) [California] Secker, 1976.

MICHAEL Z. LEWIN – Outside In. Willie Werth/Hank Midwinter #1. Alfred A.Knopf, hardcover, 1980. Berkley, paperback, 1981.

   Most of the work that Lewin has previously produced in the field of detective fiction has been steady if not spectacular private eye fare, Albert Samson, the hero he has used most often, is known as the cheapest detective in Indianapolis, which means that he invariably gets stuck with the cases o one else will touch.

   None of this, however, adequately paves the way for the tables that Lewin turns upon himself in this, his latest effort. With a nod to the credo always given to the beginning writer, “Write what you know.” Lewin’s newest protagonist is a middle-aged writer named Willie Werth, whose life has grown soft and comfortable from the proceeds gained over the years fro a long series of mystery adventures starring that premier private eye, Hank Midwinter.

   Now, Hank Midwinter is the kind of guy who outhammers Mickey Spillane’s hero, for example, but his author, who finds himself compelled to try to help the police investigate the murder of a friend, quickly discovers that the real cops are not like, and do not like, fiction.

   Werth is also going through a minor crisis with his wifem who tolerates but who does not always understand the artistic muse. Nor is Werth (nor the reader, for that matter) entirely sure that part of what attracts him so greatly to the case us not the presence at home of his friend’s daughter, whose newly found fame is for having made one of “those movies” back in New York.

   The combination os Werth’s case and the eventual wrapping up of Midwnter’s own latest caper is a synergistic entanglement that finds each feeding off the other in alternating chapters. The result is a highly amusing and yet an intensely retrospective view of the world as it exists within its own shell of reality.

   Or perhaps, as Lewin strongly suggests, with the right perspective, why couldn’t that be taken the other way around?

–Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 4, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1980. Previously published in the Hartford Courant.


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