TOO HOT TO HANDLE. MGM, UK, 1960. Also released as Playgirl After Dark, US, 1962. Jayne Mansfield, Leo Genn, Carl Boehm, Christopher Lee, Danik Patisson, Patrick Holt. Director: Terence Young.
Too Hot to Handle proves an unexpectedly classy affair despite its tawdry background and leering attitude. Set in a seedy Soho strip club run by Jayne Mansfield and Leo Genn, it takes a diverse and mostly well-realized cast of characters through a tale of extortion, killing, and the odd permutations of love, pausing every three minutes or so for some young lady or another to remove most of her clothes and parade around a bit — who could want more?
Well in fact, there’s a great deal more, starting with a fine cast of players you’ve mostly never heard of except for Christopher Lee, two years after he achieved horror-star status, here playing a duplicitous emcee in the pay of a rival strip-club owner (Sheldon Lawrence, a nasty to the manner born) and not above pimping for the patrons, including Martin Boddey who comes off truly creepy as an old letch trying to look “mod.”
There are other able players about, including Carl Boehm, but the film basically belongs to Genn and Mansfield, eking out their emotional needs with each other, keeping the girls in line, fighting goons and trying to keep up a passable front (obvious Jayne Mansfield joke omitted here) while moving the plot along. They do quite well with it, thanks to able writing and fluid direction from Terrence Young, who would soon kick off the Bond series, and here shows a fine sensibility for violence and titillation.
Ah yes, the titillation. Well it ain’t much by today’s standards, and the strip acts sometimes look more like overblown numbers from Al Jolson’s Wonder Bar than anything in a Soho strip club, with elaborate orchestrations, lighting, wind effects and even rain. Despite that, there is one surprisingly simple and steamy number that will appeal to the arrested adolescent in all of us. Look for it.
You can also look for an ending you won’t expect. As the plot grows more violent, the characters surprisingly grow more mature, leading to a conclusion that some may think disappointing, but one I found convincing and downbeat, the perfect climax to a film of surprising intelligence.
TERRY SHAMES – A Killing at Cotton Hill. Prometheus Books/Seventh Street Books, trade paperback, July 2013.
Former chief of police Samuel Craddock may be in his sixties, and he may have been forcibly retired from his job in the small Texas town of Jarrett Creek, but he’s still a lot sharper and on the ball than the present man in the position, a good-ol’-boy political appointee named Rodell Skinner.
The death by stabbing of a long time lady friend is also personal, and when Rodell seems all too willing to pin the murder on the woman’s grandson for no other reason than that he’s handy, Craddock decides to un-retire himself, totally unofficially, and see if he can’t make sure justice is done.
A first novel, I believe, and from the first page onward, one that catches your attention and holds it all the way through. While you probably read books like this one for the mystery, and Craddock is by no means a slouch as a detective, if you’re as fond of good writing as I am, it will be the characters in Cotton Hill that will keep the pages turning until late in the evening, or maybe even early into the morning.
Each and every one of the people in this book is a human being, as perfect and as flawed as you or I, starting with Craddock himself, who kicks himself in the butt – hard – for failing to act on the dead woman’s call to him for help the night before her death. As a widower, Craddock has the attention of several ladies (one in particular), and while he’s aware of it, he’s still filled with the memories of his dead wife, and he tactfully manages to avoid further complications in that regard.
The grandson, he discovers, has a great artistic talent, but not so much in the way of social skills. The lady attorney whom he hires to defend the lad he has had issues with in the past, but Craddock soon has to admit that she has more than one arrow in her bow. The other would-be heirs? Well, that’s where the bulk of the suspect pool lies.
The ending, the solution to the mystery, seemed a little rushed to me, but maybe that’s because I was reading faster than I should have. It happens, once in a while, and once again it did this time.
PostScript: I hadn’t decided to mention it until now, but for better or worse, I’ve just decided to. The book is told in first person, present tense, from Craddock’s point of view, and I didn’t discover that the author is female (thanks to the blurb on the back cover of the Advance Reading Copy I read) until 100 pages into the book. Upon a few seconds of reflection, I concluded that I really wasn’t surprised after all.
SAM S. TAYLOR – Sleep No More. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1949. Signet #821, reprint paperback, October 1950.
In Blood in Their Ink, Sutherland Scott gave high marks to this novel. Oh, sure, Scott himself wasn’t much of a writer, to give him praise beyond his due, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have good taste. Gee, if we went by the theory that it takes one to know one, readers struggling through one of my reviews might question my judgments.
To make a short story long, Scott put me on to a good thing here. While it breaks no new ground, it does employ the best from the hard-boiled genre. Though not invariably excellent, the obligatory metaphors and similes are at least very good.
Recently released from the Army, Neal Cotten has established his very own detective agency in Los Angeles, where it would seem from the literature there must have been a P.I. office in every block. Business is slow until Cotten gets a client who, suspecting blackmail, wants her daughter’s spending habits investigated.
Before Cotten can turn up much information, the client’s daughter commits suicide, or so the official theory has it. With his ’35 Buick no longer fit for speed or hills, Cotten, who is in somewhat better shape, starts on the trail.
An interesting character in Cotten and an engrossing picture of early postwar Los Angeles make me forgive the appearance of a silenced revolver.
– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter 1991.
The Neal Cotten series –
Sleep No More. Dutton, 1949.
No Head for Her Pillow. Dutton, 1952.
So Cold, My Bed. Dutton, 1953.
For much more about both Sam S. Taylor and his PI character, Neal Cotten, check out “The Compleat Sam S. Taylor,” posted on this blog back in 2007.
LOUISE PENNY – The Beautiful Mystery. St. Martin’s/Minotaur Books, hardcover, August 2012; trade paperback, July 2013.
Genre: Police procedural. Leading character: Chief Inspector Gamache, 8th in series. Setting: Canada.
First Sentence: In the early nineteenth century, the Catholic Church realized it had a problem.
The cloistered monks of Quebec’s self-contained Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups monastery focus their lives on prayer and the simplicity of Gregorian Chants. The murder of their prior and choirmaster, Frère Mathieu, has forced open their doors to Inspector Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Sûreté du Québec
Penny’s writing is simply superb. Her prose is more than mere words telling a story, her phrases are stories in themselves:
Gamache couldn’t yet see the blows that led up to the final, catastrophic crushing of this man’s skull. But he’d find them. This sort of thing never came out of the blue. There’d be a trail of small wounds, bruises, hurt feelings, insults and exclusions.
Penny wonderfully and accurately describes the way in which music can transport the soul. Her analogies are highly evocative:
The monk examined Gamache. “… We don’t just sing, we are the song.” Gamache could see he believed it. The Chief has a vision of the halls of the monastery filled not with monks in black robes, but with musical notes. Black notes bobbing through the halls. Waiting to come together in sacred song.
The inclusion of humor adds levity, yet there is anger and pain as well. Her words are thoughtful and thought-provoking. There are contrasts such as describing one particularly dour monk as “The Eeyore of the monastery.”, while having a doctor describe how “People die in bits and pieces.” Her writing causes you to stop and consider the concepts behind the words and can compel one to share passages with others. I’ve been known to call friends at odd hours insisting that they “Listen to this.”
Penny’s descriptions bring places and people to life, placing you at the scene and causing you to see, hear and know the things and people around you. Among Penny’s many strengths is her ability to create characters about whom you want to know more.
This is finally, I feel, the first time we see Gamache truly at his strength in his role. At the same time, we are made painfully aware that although he has a very close relationship, both to its credit and detriment, with his second, Jean-Guy, there are others who would do anything to discredit him.
There is a wonderful segment where we learn of the same information but from two separate perspectives. Rather than being redundant, it truly exposes the differences in the personalities of Gamache and Jean-Guy. We also learn the details of the enmity between Gamache and his superior in whom she has created a distinct type of evil; a character who truly excels at manipulation and cruelty.
The story is very well constructed with plots and sub-plots each as interesting as the next. Lest you think this is a cozy, it is not. It is a traditional police procedural solved by investigating and following the clues. It is also a story of relationships and strong emotions, and there is nothing cozy about them.
Staying up most of the night reading is not something one would normally recommend. Staying up most of the night with a new book by Louise Penny is almost unavoidable.
A reader begins every book with the hope of finding something wonderful. The Beautiful Mystery is the realization of that hope. It is an excellent, beautifully written book that stays with you long after closing the cover yet leaves you wanting to demand the next book immediately. It is also only the latest in excellent series I recommend reading in order from the beginning.
MAKE A LIST: YOUR PERFECT DAY PRIME TIME SCHEDULE – MYSTERY
by Michael Shonk
The question reportedly began at TVGuide.com. If you could program one night of prime time using any television series you wish, what would your schedule look like?
For this “make a list” post I am more interested in opinions than who is correct. The question is an impossible one to answer for reasons beyond the obvious. A prime time schedule is more than just scheduling the best programs. But we can still have fun. There is only one rule. You are limited to three hours.
Below I have three different schedules using only mystery series (for those who wish to play, a mystery series is whatever you say is a mystery series). Feel free to make your own lists and post them in comments. Be nice to others but feel free to say whatever you please about my “perfect” schedules. My schedules feature “Forgotten Mysteries,” “Today’s Mysteries,” and “All Time Mysteries.” Some suggestions for other schedules include traditional, hardboiled, crime, thrillers, noir, PIs, cops, comedies, docudramas, and mysteries with actors named Fred; whatever you want.
My favorite. TV mysteries no one remembers and few ever watched.
Judd Risk Management was a gadget happy PI agency run by a man with the morals of Sam Spade and the looks of Tim Daly. Cases were rarely standard TV plots and the twists actually surprised. In one case they were hired to find the client’s kidnapped mistress before the wife found out.
SPOILER: An example of the series’ typical clever twists occurred in the kidnap episode. They convince the kidnapper to turn over the girl by giving him the money he wanted, plus they volunteered to forge a passport and give him a plane ticket to escape the country. What they didn’t tell the kidnapper was his new ID was for a Most Wanted terrorist on the no fly list.
The 2012-13 season has featured over seventy five different mystery series including CASTLE (ABC), NCIS (CBS), BONES (FOX), THE AMERICANS (FX), HANNIBAL (NBC), NIKITA (CW), WHITE COLLAR (USA), SOUTHLAND (TNT), CONTINUUM (SYFY) RIPPER STREET (BBCA), MASTERPIECE MYSTERY (PBS), BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO), HOMELAND (Showtime), STRIKE BACK (Cinemax), BOSS (Starz), THORNE (Encore), HOUSE OF CARDS (Netflix), ROGUE (DirecTV), RECTIFY (Sundance), and BRAQUO (Hulu). There should be enough good mysteries for everyone to find three hours worth watching.
8 to 9pm: ZERO HOUR
ABC, 2013, returning in June to “burn” off the remaining 10 episodes –
Yes, there are better series than this personal guilty pleasure, but none of them hooked me like this train wreck. Publisher of a skeptic magazine with unlimited funds, Hank has to weekly choose between trying to save his kidnapped wife or the world. From Christian mystics hiding a map in twelve clocks to the “new apostle Thomas” being an old woman who hasn’t sat down for seventy years, from a mysterious Nazi baby to the hero finding a dead Nazi on a WWII Nazi sub at the North Pole who is his exact double, this series is non-stop weird with lol over the top mysteries.
The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of all TV series, PERSON OF INTEREST combines the popularity of procedural episodic TV mystery with one of TV’s best ever conspiracy arcs. Every episode features our heroes trying to save or stop a person of interest from some crime that had not yet happened. That mystery is self-contained in one episode, however the good guys are also dealing with a mysterious complex conspiracy, and a growing number of recurring villains with a variety of evil ambitions.
Each of the prior four seasons have featured its own storyline involving Elmore Leonard’s character Rayland Givens, Federal Marshall in Harlan County, Kentucky. Adapted with Leonard’s style, the series is blessed with great stories and characters as well as some of the best writers, actors, directors, producers, and probably even craft services in television today.
Series that almost made my schedule: MASTERPIECE MYSTERY (PBS via England) has been a must see for mystery fans, especially traditional mystery fans for decades, but there was no room left on the schedule for the ninety minute program.
ALL TIME MYSTERY
There is too much choice to ever settle on one final schedule of three hours, but this will do until I change my mind again. Lists we create can often reveal secrets about ourselves. I am a sucker for characters that interest and entertain me. Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I fall easily for any show that can surprises me or just tries to do something different. Style plays an important role, with my favorite style being the cool and confident hero of the 60s/70s with wit and a nice jazz soundtrack.
8 to 8:30pm: T.H.E. CAT
(See Forgotten Television)
8:30 to10pm: BANACEK
NBC – 1972-74 –
TV’s most underrated series is too often overlooked in a sea of longer running great mystery series from the 70s. But this is one of the rare series I could enjoy on an infinite loop, George Peppard’s cool confident role model, the wit of the dialog, the appeal of the characters, and the fair play mysteries. Yes, it was formulaic, but it’s a formula I never tire watching.
10 to 11pm: JUSTIFIED
(See Today’s Television)
Series that almost made my schedule: DELPHI BUREAU and DANTE are more examples of my fondness of style and characters. Series such as EYES, RAINES, and PERSON OF INTEREST all have characters I find interesting, and the series are also risk takers, shows that try new approaches to telling the TV mystery.
BELLA DONNA. Twickenham Studios, UK, 1934. Mary Ellis, John Stuart, Nigel Armine, Cedric Hardwicke, Conrad Veidt, Jeanne Stuart. Based on a novel by Robert Hichens. Director: Robert Milton.
TEMPTATION. Universal Pictures, 1946. Merle Oberon, George Brent, Charles Korvin, Paul Lukas, Lenore Ulric, Arnold Moss. Based on a novel by Robert Hichens. Director: Irving Pichel.
Bella Donna is one of those unique little films that will stay on my mind long after better-known flicks have gone their way. Based on a novel by Robert Hitchens and a play by James B. Fagan, it weaves, rather than tells, the story of a divorcee apparently used to using men and using them up, who marries a chump and goes with him to Egypt where he’s apparently some sort of busy muckety-muck with a job that entails long separations.
Bored and horny, she falls under the spell of a sinister Egyptian — himself something of a rat with women — and finds herself hopelessly addicted to his charms. So much so that when he expresses annoyance at her husband’s infrequent presence, she decides on divorce-by-poison, with intriguing consequences.
This story is put across in a series of rather stagey confrontations — the plot is developed and moved around by long scenes of dialogue rather than action — but this in no way diminishes the charms of a film whose chief allure is in mood and atmosphere. Bella Donna starts out as a very properly British sort of thing, with smoking jackets, drawing rooms, and a nearly palpable sense of Stuffie Olde Englande, furthered by the playing of Mary Ellis as the divorcee, John Stuart as the chump, and especially Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the chump’s wise doctor-friend, looking ruefully on as his old chum hastens to ruin.
Once the couple leaves England, though, we get an equally visceral sense of Egypt as some eerie fairyland, a kingdom suffused with dread and desire in equal measure. Conrad Veidt turns in a magnetic performance as the sinister Egyptian (despite the fact that his makeup keeps changing from pale Eurasian to something resembling a minstrel show) stalking through sets of literally byzantine splendor, and director Robert Milton maintains a slow but insistent pace, like the music of a snake-charmer, as the story plays itself out to a conclusion I will probably never forget. The last shot of Bella Donna is one of those rare cinematic codas, like the last shot of Vertigo, The Searchers or Shock Corridor, that says much more than words ever will, and one that’s a lot of fun to get to.
The story was remade in Hollywood in 1946 as Temptation, directed by Irving Pichel, with Merle Oberon as the femme-would-be-fatale, who marries George Brent over the objections of Paul Lukas and subsequently falls for Charles Korvin. Temptation seems to have set the pattern for subsequent Victorian noir films like Ivy (1947) and So Evil My Love (1948) but it also shows the sad censorial effects of its time:
Where the Mary Ellis in the earlier film seemed warped by lust, Merle Oberon is merely enslaved by passion. Poisoning the chump becomes her lover’s idea, not her own, and both lover and erring wife must come to some explicitly sticky end. And I mean sticky. The writers apparently got themselves into a corner on this one, deciding that a big star like Merle Oberon had to meet her own fate (rather than get picked up by the cops) but Suicide as a plot resolution was not permitted in films then.
The result is a rather muddled off-screen affair recounted by Lukas to an unbelieving cop (nicely played by Arnold Moss, usually a heavy in the movies, and a very good one). There is, however, a rather nice wrap-up, and the rest of the film is done with enough grace and Hollywood polish to make it a pleasant 98-minute trip.
MAX BRAND – The Phantom Spy. Pocket, reprint paperback, December 1975. Dodd Mean, hardcover, 1973. First serialized in Argosy magazine, as “War for Sale,” April 24 to May 15, 1937.
They don’t write spy novels like this any more, and even when they did, I have a feeling that it was only Max Brand who wrote them. He had a highly romanticized view of the world, one in which friends were friends, lovers were lovers, and enemies were enemies, and even on occasion when there was some well-constructed confusion as to which was which, the reader always knew.
Lady Cecil de Winter is the early star of this one, a delightful young lady with a real feel for the game of espionage. Recruited by the British government in those days immediately prior to World War II to retrieve missing plans for the Maginot Line – a grand line of defense designed to protect France and Western Europe on the chance that war should break out — she recruits in turn a fellow named Willie Gloster, a cheerful, happy-go-lucky American who provides the help she needs, only to have her lose them again (the plans, that is) to the hands of a suave but evil mastermind by the name of von Emsdorf.
And the game is on. Not since reading the adventures of the early Saint have I read a tale of down to earth swashbuckling, without a single swash or buckle in sight. There is, of course, a phantom spy, a chap named Jacquelin, whom Lady Cecil believes to be another fellow named Cailland. We know better, and we groan in despair when she leaves the love of her life, Willie Gloster, who comes to her aid again anyway.
There is blood, there is danger, and there is one hell of a grand impersonation, and there is more. This is the real stuff, but written well before we know how far Hitler would go and how the war would really be waged. Max Brand, who of course is much better known for his westerns, was well aware of what causes countries to wage war with one another, but only close to the end of this book does he let the details intrude, and truth be told, I’d've rather he hadn’t.
This is very much of a period piece, if you haven’t gathered that already, but as I suggested at the beginning, perhaps it was even at the time it was written.