MORRIS HERSHMAN “Pressure.” First published in Manhunt, February 1958, as by Arnold English. Reprinted under his own name in Tales for a Rainy Night, edited by David Alexander (Holt Rinehart & Winston, hardcover; 1961; Crest d557, paperback, 1962).

   Sometimes all that a compelling crime story requires is a scenario, a mere vignette in which two characters face off in primarily one location. This works best in “short and taut” stories, those that focus on a single character’s dilemma and are of a length of no more than 2,000 words or so.

   Such is the case in Morris Hershman’s “Pressure,” a tense, albeit not overly memorable, tale about a gangster’s final confrontation with the police. Hershman conjures up the character of Dapper Phil Rand, an aging gangster from the Prohibition Era who has managed to survive well into the late 1950s. Rand’s gone to jail before and isn’t particularly afraid of going back. The one thing he simply won’t do is rat on the Syndicate.

   Enter “Coffee,” a cop who is willing to offer Rand a deal of a lifetime: protection and relocation to South America if he’s willing to name names. But Rand’s not willing to do that, so Coffee decides he is going to have to play hardball and apply some pressure, albeit not the physical kind. Rather, he tells the press that Rand’s singing like a canary, that Rand is spilling the beans on the Syndicate. Then he lets Rand out of the police station.

   What happens next tells us a lot about Dapper Phil Rand. Will he return to Coffee and catch a plane to South America or will he find a way to convince the Syndicate that it was all a ploy? What happens next is a portrait of a greying gangster under pressure.


GUILTY AS HELL. Paramount, 1932. Edmond Lowe, Victor McLaglen, Richard Arlen, Adrienne Ames, Henry Stephenson, Ralph Ince. Written by Arthuir Kober and Frank Partos. Directed by Erle C. Kenton.


   Well they were the hands of Henry Stephenson, playing a doctor who murders his wife in the opening minutes of the film and frames her lover (Richard Arlen) for the crime. We know that right at the start, so why they made a big deal of it in the ads is anybody’s guess — whoever heard of a movie ad being misleading?

   Anyway, Guilty As Hell finds Lowe and McLaglen once again reprising their “friendly enemies” act from What Price Glory, this time with McLaglen as a tough police detective out to nail Richard Arlen, and Lowe as a wise-cracking reporter (are there any other kid in these movies?) smitten with Arlen’s sister and determined to clear her brother — and score some points.

   And so it goes. The repartee isn’t terribly sharp, and the plot hinges on a couple of rather obvious fulcrums, but Lowe and McLagen seem to have fun batting their lines back and forth, and Ms. Ames is delightful to look at. What makes Guilty memorable, however, is the visual stylings of director Kenton and cameraman Karl Struss.

   Kenton and Struss worked together to memorable effect on Island of Lost Souls, and here they seem to realize they need to give the viewer something to focus on besides the plot. Hence the movie is filled with eye-catching moments that never seem contrived but always effective: startling zoom-ins on the characters’ faces, a death-row scene done in silhouette, a swift, startling shoot-out, and even a murder reflected in a pair of glasses, more than twenty years before Strangers on a Train.

   Guilty As Hell will never make any list of great movies — in fact I may forget all about it before 2017 is over; but I’m glad I started the year with something so fast and fun.

MARY McMULLEN – A Country Kind of Death. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1975. Jove, paperback reprint, April 1988.

   I have a small prejudice against small children appearing in mystery novels. They’re either pests or small nuisances, or they’re victims. While children as victims is something we should read about — ignoring the .problem doesn’t make it go away — it’s not something I want to read about, if you see what I mean. Children (ideally) should be innocent and charming, and innocent and charming is not exactly what detective fiction is about.

   For a while, I thought we might have an exception to this loose and sloppy rule. Kit is seven, her father writes mysteries for a living, and on page 3, Kit is described as having “read Philip’s most recent book, in manuscript, and had guessed by page 60 who the murderer was, which at the time had nettled her father considerably.”

   But as good as that line is, the rest of Mary McMullen’s book shows that there is as much malice alive and well in the sweet-smelling country lanes as there is in the stench of any city’s streets. One could coin the phrase “Malice Domestic,” to describe this book, and it would fit perfectly.

   Most of the life in the Keane household is a normal, everyday muddle, but when Kit’s mother Mag leaves for a short vacation, bringing her sister, Aunt Therese, in to keep things running while she’s gone, the muddle becomes nasty.

   Don’t misunderstand. Therese is an innocent bystander. And it’s the neighbor lady, Mrs. Mint, who dies, drowned in the fishpond, and either Kit knows too much, or (could it be?) she’s the one who nudged her in.

   This is not a detective story. Not really. There is a crime, a serious one, or maybe there isn’t one at all. She could have just fallen, you see. But don’t take the kindly prose of Mary McMullen too lightly. There’s viciousness hiding in the organdy, the wild geraniums, and the crisp-smelling sheets, and her characters are not always very nice…

— This review first appeared in Deadly Pleasures, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1993 .

MAX BRAND – Dogs of the Captain. Five Star, hardcover, March 2006. Leisure, paperback, 2007. First appeared as a six-part serial in Western Story Magazine, January 2 through February 6, 1932.

   There are moments in this book, especially in the first half, when you may have the feeling that Max Brand was writing the great American novel, Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn style. The portrayal of a small 12-year-old boy in a small town finding his way among his peers by breaking into the universally feared Captain Slocum’s property to steal a watermelon, then on a later night, climbing the side of the house to the uppermost tower to investigate the general belief that a ghost is in permanent residence there — why that is the stuff that dreams are made of.

   What Don Grier, shaking in his — not boots, as he is barefoot — does not reckon on is that when he is caught, the captain will take a liking to him, and will eventually ask Don’s Aunt Lizzie if he may adopt him. All would be well, except that Aunt Lizzie, before letting go, lets slip that Don’s father was hanged — and for the offense of killing his brother.

   Don’s uncle, it seems, was shot to death several years before in a mining camp called Chalmer’s Creek, somewhere out in the untamed West. Don will hear of nothing but leaving at once to salvage the name of his father, and the captain agrees.

   Obviously this is a rite-of-passage story, and what Max Brand does is take the basic material and does his best to shape into a small epic of legendary proportions. While the resulting novel is not an easy one to put down, he doesn’t quite succeed. Characters and characterization seem to slip away from him more often than once, and when much is made of a surprising reappearance of Aunt Lizzie into the story, she just as quickly disappears, never to be heard of again.


WILLIAM DIEHL – Primal Fear. Martin Vail #1. Villard, hardcover, 1993. Ballantine, paperback, 1994. Film: Paramount, 1996 (with Richard Gere as Martin Vail).

   Diehl has written a number of successful novels, the best known of which are probably Sharkey’s Machine and Thai Horse. This is the first in what will be a series of at least two about superstar Chicago defense attorney Marty Vail. I think we’ve got a winner here, folks.

   The book opens with the bloody and brutal murder of Chicago’s most prominent Catholic clergyman, and then shifts to Vail winning a multi-million dollar settlement from the City and County on a police brutality suit by a gangster. They are not pleased. To show their displeasure, the power structure insures that Vail is handed the pro bono defense of the youth charged with the clergyman’s murder. As the police believe they have a cod-lock cinch case, it is almost certain that Vail’s reputation will suffer; which, of course, is the point of it all.

   Diehl is a polished writer and a consummate storyteller. There’s a many a twist and turn in the plot, which has a lot to offer fans of both psychiatry and courtroom drama, but I’ll let you discover them for yourself. The story is told from shifting viewpoints to good advantage, and suspense is maintained to the end; if you see it all coming you’re a good deal more perceptive than I am.

   Vail is an intriguing if not wholly admirable character, and his supporting cast hardly less so — intriguing, that is. I think there is room for both him and his henchmen-and-women to grow, and I look forward to reading more about them.

   I didn’t come away from Primal Fear with any gripes at all, and that happens damned seldom. This is a good story with interesting characters, excellently told, and I highly recommend it.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #6, March 1993.

      The Martin Vail series —

1. Primal Fear (1992)
2. Show Of Evil (1995)
3. Reign in Hell (1997)

If there is (or was) such a thing as an “acid folk” band, Michaelangelo may have been it. They released One Voice Many, their one and only LP, in 1971 for Columbia, but the album received no promotion and the group disbanded soon thereafter. It is now a collectors’ item, of course.


ADVENTURE IN SAHARA. Columbia Pictures, 1938. Paul Kelly, C. Henry Gordon, Lorna Gray, Robert Fiske, Marc Lawrence, Dwight Frye. Screenplay by Maxwell Shane; story: Samuel Fuller. Director: D. Ross Lederman.

   With a story written by Samuel Fuller, who went on to far bigger and better things, Adventure in Sahara is more of an historical curiosity than anything else. A surprisingly gritty programmer, the film features Paul Kelly as an American who joins the French Foreign Legion to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of the sadistic Captain Savatt (C. Henry Gordon).

   Kelly isn’t exactly Gary Cooper, but he gets the job done. Gordon’s character, Savatt, borders on the cartoonish. I imagine he’s sort of what American filmgoers might have expected a cruel French officer to act like; nothing more, nothing less.

   When the desert sun sets, however, Adventure in Sahara remains remarkably forgettable. There’s no particularly captivating dialogue and the characters are never fully fleshed out. But that’s not to say that it’s not watchable, if mindless escapism.

   Personally, I’ve always enjoyed films involving France’s role in the world, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East. Granted, I’m part of a niche audience that could probably have meetings in a phone booth (not that they really exist anymore), but films like these serve more as time capsules than anything else. After all, how many people would choose to make — let alone rush to see — a movie about the French Foreign Legion today?

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

MARTIN EDWARDS, Editor – Motives for Murder: A Celebration of Peter Lovesey on His 80th Birthday by Members of the Detection Club. Crippen & Landru, November 2016. Introduction by Martin Edwards. Foreword by Len Deighton. Afterword by Peter Lovesey.

   Popular crime fiction writer Peter Lovesey recently turned eighty, a notable achievement in itself, and twenty of his friends at the Detection Club got together to produce this Festschrift in his honor. Editor Martin Edwards’ choice of selections is worthy of commendation, while Douglas Greene at Crippen & Landru has done his usual fine job assembling it all into a coherent whole.

   Some of the resulting stories knowingly reflect the milieus and characters that Lovesey has developed and explored over the years, the town of Bath and his historical mysteries especially so. Other tales by established authors, however, feature their own characters and settings, with sub-types running the gamut from domestic suspense to pure detection.

   As varied as the stories are, though, there isn’t a clunker in the bunch. As instances, we can point to Catherine Aird’s “The Walrus and the Spy,” which involves espionage and the solution of a knotty cipher; L. C. Tyler’s “The Trials of Margaret” is a black comedy pure and simple; Martin Edwards’ “Murder and Its Motives” centers on bibliographical criminality; Michael Jecks’ “Alive or Dead” plays with narrative time; John Malcolm’s “The Marquis Wellington Jug” explores Lovejoy territory while Michael Ridpath’s “The Super Recogniser of Vik” wanders poleward into Nordic Noir; Susan Moody’s “A Village Affair” echoes Miss Marple, just as Kate Charles’ “A Question of Identity” reflects Hitchcock.

   For devotees of the Sage of Baker Street there’s David Stuart Davies’ featherweight “The Adventure of the Marie Antoinette Necklace: A Case for Sherlock Holmes”; while for fans of Peter Lovesey’s Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray there are David Roberts’ inconclusive “Unfinished Business” and, better still, Kate Ellis’s “The Mole Catcher’s Daughter,” with Thackeray’s nephew performing some simple but effective sleuthing; and finally our favorite, Andrew Taylor’s unpredictable “The False Inspector Lovesey,” with its delightfully spunky narrator leading us down the garden path.

THOMAS H. STONE – Black Death. New English Library, UK, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1973.

   Here’s a PI missed by most lists of PI’s, whether online or not, no matter how thorough they may be: mulatto detective Chester Fortune. For completists, here’s a list of his first four adventures: Dead Set (1972), One Horse Race (1972), Stopover for Murder (1973), and Black Death (1973).

   Thomas H. Stone is a pseudonym of Terry Harknett, who wrote a slew of other British mysteries and spy adventures under both his own name and several others. He later became rich or famous by writing hard-edged and violent western series, including the Edge and Adam Steele books, both as George G. Gilman, and the Apache series, as William M. James.

   Following in a long (and mostly unrich) tradition, while the Chester Fortune books were published and appeared only in Britain, the character works out of Los Angeles (the alternative world LA that has kerbs, tyres and is populated in part by coloured folk). In this particular adventure, however, Fortune has temporarily stopped over in New Orleans, home of hot jazz and black beautiful women.

   One of whom takes him along on a midnight picnic alongside a lake, but just as things begin to heat up, all Helsinki breaks loose. Fortune is beaten up, robbed, his gun is missing, and so is April. When her body is found, the local cops (“racialists” all) need look no further than Mr. Fortune.

   Fortune also has the (mis)fortune of meeting a local gang of butch dykes (the latter term also the source of a lot of bad jokes) and under circumstances that Chester least expects, his father, whom he’s never seen.

   It is difficult to know what to make of all of this. It is not a world recognizable as ever having existed in any dimension within several stops from ours, but as Fortune points out about the town of Masterson – a white town scrubbed shiny clean, and from which hapless blacks who wander in are quickly escorted to the city limits by the police force in nothing flat — ” get below the neat veneer and you see a lot of slime underneath” — there is an imagery here that stands clear and tall.

   Stone is not a word stylist, and there is the unmistakable smell of unmanageable coincidence hanging high over the tale he tells (and it is even worse if I understand the rather enigmatic ending completely). But, as crude as he is, the story is forceful and compelling, and as appealing as an alternate world story that’s just slightly jumped the tracks. (The mystery involved is strictly a bonus.)

— The first few paragraphs of this review have been revised from its first appearance in Deadly Pleasures, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1993,

Released on Blue Note Records in 1958. Personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet; Cannonball Adderley, alto saxophone; Hank Jones, piano; Sam Jones, bass; Art Blakey, drums.

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