THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


GUY CULLINGFORD – Conjurer’s Coffin. Hammond, UK, hardcover, 1954. Lippincott, US, hardcover, 1954 Penguin Books, UK. paperback, 1957.

   Miss Jessie Milk, spinster of uncertain age and kin to the distressed gentlewomen so well portrayed by Barbara Pym, finds somewhat unsuitable employment as a receptionist at the Bellevue Hotel, which does not live up to its name and which the police have nothing against, muddle and unconventionality not yet being against the law. The Bellevue caters, if that’s the mot juste, to the less eminent variety performers.

   Gene the Genie, a magician and one of the not-quite-successful artistes, primarily because of his interest in horse-flesh and not because of lack of talent or imagination, checks into the hotel with his wife and his female assistant the first afternoon Miss Milk is on duty. He plays a trick on her then and becomes aware that she is a perfect foil for a magician.

   When first Gene the Genie’s assistant and then his wife disappear, Miss Milk is an excellent witness. When the wife’s body turns up in the trash, the police are baffled by Miss Milk’s testimony but accept her transparent honesty in telling things as she believes she saw them. Fortunately, a retired Merchant Navy Captain, now a bookstore detective, lives in the hotel and has Miss Milk’s interests at heart in more ways than one. He is able to determine what happened, although it’s not by any means all ratiocination.

   Well written, amusing, excellent characterization, and an interesting crime. All of Cullingford’s novels are well worth trying to find.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.


Bibliographic Notes:   Guy Cullingford was the pen name of (Alice) C(onstance) Lindsay Taylor, 1907-2000, who has one title in Hubin under her own name, and ten as by Cullingford. Of the latter, only four have been published in the US. In spite of the possibilities suggested by Conjurer’s Coffin, there seems to be no series character appearing in any more than one of them.

TED LEWIS – Get Carter. Syndicate Books/Soho Crime, US, softcover, 2014. First published in the UK as Jack’s Return Home, Michael Joseph, hardcover, 1970. First US edition: Doubleday, hardcover, 1970. Reprinted as Get Carter by Pan, UK. paperback, 1971; Popular Library, US, paperback, 1971. Other reprint editions exist. Film: MGM, 1970, as Get Carter (with Michael Caine). Also: MGM, 1972, as Hit Man (with Bernie Casey) and Warner Bros., 2000, as Get Carter (with Sylvester Stallone).

   This is what you might call a “revenge” novel, and that’s with a vengeance, if that’s not redundant, and I don’t think it is. As the story begins, Jack Carter, who works for a pair of mobsters back in London, is heading back to his steel-working home town in northern England (no name given, as far I have discerned), where his brother Frank has just died, supposedly in a drink-related automobile accident.

   Jack, who tells his own story, knows better. He knows his brother, and he knows the men who run the town, better perhaps than they know themselves. Someone is going to pay, and before the book is over, pay they do.

   It does not matter that he and his brother never got along. That Frank’s daughter Doreen, now 15, may really be Jack’s has something to with that, and as a result, Doreen may have grown up way too fast. Also occupying Jack’s mind is that back in London, he has been sleeping with one of his boss’s wives, and once this bit of business is done, is planning to hie off to South Africa with her. He’s a tough nervy bloke, Jack is.

   I’ve not seen any of the movies based on this book, a serious error on my part, but I’ll remedy that as soon as I can, starting with the Michael Caine version. You can tell me in the comments whether the other two are worth tracking down.

   But whether any of these movie versions can match the intensity, brutality and bursts of mayhem of the novel, I’m not so sure. Also involved are child pornography, cheap sex and a surprisingly careless viciousness toward women.

   What you also get is a gritty picture of the working underclass of a small but typical mill town in England circa 1970, when this book first ppeared. The prose reminded me at times of Chandler, while the story is as hard-boiled as anything Hammett might have written. There are not a lot of survivors at book’s end. Jack Carter is cool, cruel and efficient at what he does, and he does a thorough job of it.

   But surprisingly enough, it is the ending itself which is the most disappointing, or such is how I found it. The last two pages nearly undo what should have been one crackup of a finale, marred by a bit of near deus ex machina — almost but not quite. It’s still a doozy, but unless I missed something, it should have been better.

Note:   By the time this one ends, you might think that this would have been strictly a solo appearance for Jack Carter, but no, he returned in two more novels: Jack Carter’s Law (1974), and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon (1977), both also recently published in the US by Syndicate Books. Ted Lewis (no relation) died in 1982 at the very young age of 42.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


ROBERT J. CASEY – Hot Ice. Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1933. Greenberg, reprint hardcover, no date stated. Prize Mystery Novels #4, digest-sized paperback, 1943.

   Robert J. Casey’s Hot Ice was something I picked up at an antique store just to be nice and let it sit on my TBR shelf for five or ten years till I finally seized it in fit of read-it-or-rid-of-it. Well, it’s not a keeper, but I’m glad I took the time for this charming, hard-boiled tale of double-cross and murder in the stolen gem market.

   It features Joseph Crewe, a Chicago police detective, and an ex-reporter named Jim Sands as an engaging pair of sleuths following a trail of unrelated (or are they?) murders across the city, and author Casey uses a ploy here you don’t see very often: we all know how irritating it is when an author provides information to the detective and withholds it from the reader (she bent down and picked something off the floor, tucking it carefully in her pocket. “I’ll pull this out in the last chapter,” she smiled knowingly) but Casey provides information to the reader that the sleuths have to puzzle out for themselves (or will they?) and there’s some dandy suspense engendered watching them stumble towards it, plus a few added twists as the reader and detectives are both faced with the mystery of a murdered milkman who finished his route post mortem.

       The Jim Sands series –

The Secret of Thirty-Seven Hardy Street. Bobbs, 1929.
The Secret of the Bungalow. Bobbs, 1930.
News Reel. Bobbs, 1932.
Hot Ice. Bobbs, 1933.
The Third Owl. Bobbs, 1934.

Editorial Comment:   Hubin does not say whether Joseph Crewe is in all of these novels or not. According to a limited Google search, he is in some of them.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


UNDER CALIFORNIA STARS. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Jane Frazee, Andy Devine, George H. Lloyd, Wade Crosby, Michael Chapin. Director: William Witney.

   Don’t let the cowboy songs and the lighthearted Andy Devine comic antics deceive you. This William Witney-directed Roy Rogers movie isn’t entirely as innocent as you might think.

   In Under California Stars, Trigger is kidnapped and is nearly shot to death by a bunch of ornery horse traders. A criminal double-crosses his masters and, as payback for his deception, gets some lead in his chest. And Rogers aptly demonstrates that he can throw a mean punch or two, get scrappy in a fight, and roll in the dirt with the best of the brawlers, thanks in so small part to Witney’s excellent choreographing.

   But it’s not all mayhem in and around the Double R ranch. There are some fun characters too. Cookie Bullfincher (Devine) and his lovely cousin, Caroline (Jane Frazee) add a light touch to the story, as does Ted Carver (Michael Chapin), who portrays a young boy caught between his mean stepfather and his affection for Trigger.

   All told, this Roy Rogers movie is a better than average singing cowboy 1940s Western. Filmed in Trucolor, it’s definitely a step up from the lower grade black and white Western films from the same era. And you know what, the catchy title song, “Under California Stars,” isn’t all that bad, either.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE CAT BURGLAR. United Artists, 1961. Jack Hogan, June Kenney, John Baer, Gregg Palmer, Will White, Gene Roth, Bruno VeSota. Screenwriter: Leo Gordon. Director: William Witney.

   The Cat Burglar doesn’t have the most unique plot, the best actors, or the greatest cinematography. But what it has going for it is atmosphere. An atmosphere of low-rent criminals, sleaze, and the type of world-weariness and despair you’d expect to find on the margins of polite society. Plus there’s a pretty great fight sequence in a warehouse at the end of the movie.

   Directed by William Witney, the story follows the tragic life of third, make that fourth, rate Southern California cat burglar Jack Coley (Jack Hogan). Coley gets more than he bargains for when he breaks into a woman’s apartment and steals a briefcase that contains – you guessed it – documents and papers that a foreign spy ring is more than eager to get their hands (and fists) on. As I said, it’s not the most unique plot.

   Witney’s direction takes us to the low-rent side of Los Angeles: a pawnshop, the broken down apartment of a criminal low-life fixer, Coley’s ratty garden apartment, and a warehouse filled with cardboard boxes. Coley is a tragic figure, a man who knows he’s really not a very good person. In the course of the film, he gets chewed out by his landlady and beaten to a bloody pulp. He also redeems himself at the very end, demonstrating to himself that his life hasn’t been a complete waste.

   All told, it’s a fairly bleak, albeit disconcertingly entertaining, little production. Part of this is due to the Buddy Bregman jazz soundtrack. Granted, it’s a bit unusual to have an early 1960s jazz sound to a taut, low budget crime thriller. But The Cat Burglar is, in many ways, a quite unusual film.

   Yes, the story doesn’t really make all that much sense or hold up to scrutiny all that well. But in a way, it really doesn’t matter. The film is less about the story, than it is about taking the viewer a cinematic sojourn through the frighteningly sleazy shadows of sun-baked Los Angeles. And with Witney at the helm, The Cat Burglar does that pretty darn well.

PEOPLE ON SUNDAY. Filmstudio Berlin, Germany, 1930. Originally released as Menschen am Sonntag. Erwin Splettstößer (taxi driver), Brigitte Borchert (record seller), Wolfgang von Waltershausen (wine seller), Christl Ehlers, (an extra in films), Annie Schreyer (model). Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak (source material), Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder. Cinematography: Eugen Schüfftan, Fred Zinnemann. Producers: Seymour Nebenzal & Edgar G. Ulmer. Directors: Kurt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, Rochus Gliese (uncredited).

   Jon and I saw this a couple of nights ago as a restored print at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, introduced by Arianne Ulmer, Edgar Ulmer’s daughter, with live piano accompaniment by Michael Mortilla.

   It’s a long list of credits for a film with virtually no plot, and I’m not sure if anybody knows now who did what in putting the film together. It was a collaborative effort, or so I’m inclined to assume, with no studio backing, making this possibly the first “indy” film. The actors, as per the credits, played themselves as a group of friends and acquaintances who on a Sunday afternoon go to a park with a lake and bathing area in or near Berlin to spend the day together.

   Two men, two young ladies, and one wife or girl friend of one of the men who stays home in bed all day. They pair off, laugh, play, flirt, and go off in the woods together, but in this last instance, the pair in question are not necessarily the two who met at a train station the day before to set up the date for this particular Sunday.

   The next day it is back to work, but in the meantime we have a small time capsule of what life may have been for the working class in Germany before the small man with the mustache rose to power, lending a certain poignancy to the film that probably was not intended, although who knows, since I wasn’t there, it may have been.

   Watching this film feels at times as though someone is showing you a home movie, made with a small camera without sound, as many of my father’s family movies were made. And yet, despite a story line that is so flimsy as so nearly not exist, some of the filming techniques, the cutting of one scene to another, the angles of the shots and so on, foreshadow what was to come in the careers of those who created this film.

   Unhappily the men, who flirt with two other women in a boat on the lake right before the eyes of their dates for the day, are not very likeable, while the girls are pretty but not beautiful by any means. Brigitte Borchert, who is the blonde girl in the photos you see, died in 2011 at the age of 100, and this is the only film she made.

   As amateurs, the players play themselves very naturally, and perhaps this explains why their performances do not display the “overacting” that is so often associated with silent films.

   This is considered a classic movie by many sources, but in my opinion, only because of its historical significance in film making, not because it represents a giant leap in storytelling.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins


PHILIP ATLEE – The Green Wound. Gold Medal k1321, paperback original, 1963. Reprinted later as The Green Wound Contract, Gold Medal, paperback, 1967.

   Joseph Liam Gall’s first appearance in print was as a free-lance soldier of fortune embroiled in a Burmese civil war in Pagoda (1951), a hardcover adventure novel published under James Atlee Phillips’s full name. A dozen years later, writing as Philip Atlee, the author revived Gall, made him a disillusioned contract killer for the CIA, and put him through more than twenty paperback spy thrillers, of which the first and best was The Green Wound.

   The crime writer with whom Phillips seems to have the most in common is Raymond Chandler. Both men use a cinematically vivid first-person style (although Phillips avoids the profusions of metaphor and simile that make Chandler so easy to parody) and eschew careful plotting in favor of strong individual scenes and memorable moments.

   Almost all the Joe Gall novels suffer from near-chaotic structure, but Phillips’s finest scenes are so fresh and alive that, as Chandler said of Dashiell Hammett’s, they seem never to have been written before.

   Phillips’s treatment of his main character is a brilliant study in schizophrenia. On one level Gall is the stoic code hero of the Hemingway tradition, and on another he stems from Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the professional killer for his government, the larger-than-life secret agent forever besting villains of the mythological-monster sort.

   In the conventional patriotic thriller of this type, we are never allowed to doubt that whatever our side does is right because we are by definition the good guys. Phillips at his best subverts this nonsense and approaches the insight of John Le Carre that perhaps at bottom We and They are mirror images of each other.

   Witness,for instance, the story line of The Green Wound. Gall is paid a huge sum by his former bosses at the CIA to come out of idyllic semi-retirement in an Ozark castle, infiltrate a quiet Texas community, and frustrate a plot to ruin the politically connected millionaire who runs the city. From his vantage point as manager of the local country club, Gall dispassionately observes the viciousness of the ruling class and the institutionalized racism that keeps the blacks in a shantytown on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.

   In due course Gall learns that the blacks have secretly organized, with the help of federal civil-rights enforcers, to register to vote at the last possible minute and then oust the white politicians at the polls. On Election Day a bloody race war erupts, leaving the city in flames. Later Gall pursues the instigator of the revolt, a horribly disfigured black veteran who was used by army doctors as an experimental animal and is aching for revenge on the entire power structure.

   The action swings from Mexico to Texas to New Orleans to the Caribbean and back again, but Phillips never resolves the tension between Gall the good soldier and Gall the man who knows he’s on the wrong side. This tension, rather than its considerable virtues as an action thriller, is what makes The Green Wound one of the finest spy novels ever written by an American.

   In most of the later Galls, Phillips downplays or eliminates the structural schizophrenia, and the lesser exploits overstress local color and exotic settings — Sweden, Tahiti, Thailand, Haiti, British Columbia, Korea, and elsewhere — at the expense of story and action. But even the weaker Phillips novels are usually redeemed by several powerful individual scenes that stick in the memory long after the book as a whole is forgotten.

         ———
   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.

Note:   Posted earlier on this blog was a comprehensive overview of the Joe Gall series by George Kelley, including a complete checklist. Check it out here.

   Besides the large number of comments left in response to George’s article, additional replies by David Vineyard and Mark Lazenby appear in a later post of their own. You may find it here.

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