ERIC AMBLER – A Kind of Anger. Bodley Head, UK, hardcover, 1964. Atheneum, S, hardcover, 1964. Bantam, US, paperback, 1965. Reprinted many times.

   I had been the editor and part-owner of Ethos, an experimental international news review which had gone bankrupt, and that I had spent several months in a French mental hospital following a suicide attempt. The investigators, a Paris firm of private detectives, had even managed to worm out of the hospital authorities the fact that I had received shock treatments.

   The narrator is Piet Maas, a Dutch-born English-speaking reporter for the news magazine World Reporter. He’s also a typical Ambler hero, walking-wounded, no one’s hero, but a surprising survivor.

   Mr. Cust, Piet’s employer, wants rid of Piet because he is none to fond of people with mental problems, but he is also incredibly cheap and Piet has five months to go on his contract, so when a story comes up, a humdinger, and there is no one else available, the result is inevitable: “Pete, you shake the long hair out of your eyes, get your ass out of there and find that bikini girl…”

   “That bikini girl,” is related to a story Mr. Cust wants his Paris editor to assign Piet to breaking, a story Piet has little interest in, “ …a man named Arbil had been murdered in Switzerland and the police were trying to find some woman who wore a bikini and had witnessed the crime.” Said girl has been missing some time now, and Mr. Cust doesn’t want to be scooped by Time or Newsweek.

   Piet, like many an Eric Ambler hero before him, is in over his head before he even starts.

   After the War, Ambler seemed to lose track a little. Admittedly he was busy with new-found fame and a career as a screenwriter, but the post-war Ambler books just don’t measure up to his pre-war classics. They aren’t bad books, from anyone else they would be outstanding books, but they just aren’t Ambler at his best.

   That changed with The Light of Day, which Jules Dassin made into the classic film Topkapi. The book introduced a new wry humor into the mix, and Ambler fans waited with some trepidation to see what he would do next. What he did was A Kind of Anger.

   Sales and reviews said he was back on track and they were both right.

   Piet soon finds why everyone wants the girl in the bikini. Her name is Lucia Bernardi and she was the mistress of a wealthy man in Zurich fleeing his chateau there where he had been tortured then murdered. The man in question is “Ahmed Fathir Arbil, and he was an Iraqi. He was also a refugee.” Worse, he is a former Iraqi police chief, a Colonel who knows where bodies are buried and money hidden, and there are people who would like to find Lucia Bernardi for both reasons — to question her, or silence her. Complicating things more is the fact Lucia met Abril while in the company of an American named Patrick Chase, a suspected con man.

   Chase is actually named Philip Sanger, born in Lyon, France, and what he has to do with everything is where much of the plot comes in.

   Piet, though, is pretty good at what he does, and it is Piet who gets to Lucia first.

   And as luck would have it, Piet finds himself falling for Lucia, and suddenly faced with a choice. He can have the girl or the headline. Solidify his job at World Reporter, get an international by-line, and make his career, rebuilding his life in one stroke; or with Lucia, and Philip Sanger and his wife, Piet can gamble everything on the neatest little bit of international blackmail ever conceived.

   This being an Eric Ambler novel, you only get one guess which path he takes discovering things about himself, falling in love, and of course very nearly ending up dead a few times along the way before Piet, his love, his friends, and justice all get more or less well served.

   Sanger is another example of Ambler’s favorite kind of shadowy figure, the able criminal, one who may be suspected, but can never quite be caught, a smarter and more capable version of Graham Greene’s Harry Lime. In his earlier novels they were men like the murderous Dimitrios, but as the years passed, Ambler developed a kind of admiration for them until in Send No More Roses the able criminal was the hero of the book.

   Ambler remained uneven for the rest of his career, but he also wrote some of the best books of his career like Levanter and Dr. Frigo, not just thrillers, but novels that had something to say, often with a dark sense of humor. There are three distinct eras in Ambler’s work, the early years ending with Cause For Alarm, the post-War years where his books under his own name and in collaboration with Charles Rodda seemed to have lost something they once had, and the era beginning with The Light of Day where Ambler turned back to books walked away from cinema and produced some of his best works.

    A Kind of Anger is prime Ambler, modern in tone, complex, and about people you might actually meet if you hung out in the Europe Eric Ambler types hang out in where the double cross and dark alley always seem more appealing than the straight and narrow. The wry humor added to the mix of intrigue and irony proved a tonic for Ambler and his fans.
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   While I was visiting Jon in Burbank last week (home on Tuesday), we visited the local used music store just around the corner from him. It’s a sizable place specializing mostly in old used LPs in nice shape. Lots of obscure bands that I’ve never heard of, that’s what I look for, but Jon found and bought THE BEST OF THE GUESS WHO, the first track of which is the song below:



   If you’re a fan of their music, I’m sure you recognized it right away, no more then two or three seconds in — and maybe eve if you’re not. Here’s the rest of songs on the album, almost all of them also immediately recognizable:

       Side one

1. “These Eyes”

2. “Laughing”

3. “Undun”

4. “No Time”

5. “American Woman”

6. “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature”

       Side two

7. “Hand Me Down World”

8. “Bus Rider”

9. “Share the Land”

10. “Do You Miss Me Darlin’?”

11. “Hang On to Your Life”

LAWRENCE BLOCK – Tanner’s Tiger. Evan Tanner #5. Gold Medal D1940, paperback original; 1st printing, 1968. Reprinted in paperback by Jove (1985) and Harper (2007). Subterranean, hardcover reprint, 2001.

   The gimmick in Lawrence Block’s Tanner stories is actually twofold: (1) that a piece of shrapnel in his brain during the Korean War has not allowed him to get a moment’s sleep ever since, and (2) he somehow is given assignments by someone in the CIA who he doesn’t know and who doesn’t know that Tanner doesn’t work for him. (If I have any details of either (1) or (2) wrong, you can easily let me know.)

   In Tanner’s Tiger he’s handed the task of checking out the Cuban pavilion at the ’67 Montreal Expo; something wrong is going on there, but no one knows what. Refused entry at the border, however, Tanner and his young ward (semi-adopted daughter) Minna (putative queen of Lithuania) have to sneak across from Buffalo.

   And to complete his assignment he must join up with several members of the local chapter of the MNQ (Le Mouvement national des Québécoises et Québécois), who besides coming to Tanner’s aid, are planning to assassinate Queen Elizabeth while she also attends the Expo. (Tanner is a champion of all sort of Lost Causes.)

   Which is were the “tiger” of the tale comes in. Not only is Arlette a fervent member of the cause, but she also has a lusty outlook on both love and life. Throw in the mysterious disappearance of Minna while she and Tanner are visiting the Cuban pavilion, followed soon after by the discovery of a small fortune of smuggled heroin, and you have quite a multi-fold predicament for Tanner.

   Which he decides to handle as only one problem at a time, and he does, but unfortunately only in a most perfunctory way. Getting Tanner into trouble turns out to be a lot more fun than getting him out of it. But of course with author Lawrence Block at the helm, the books is filled from top to bottom with enough witty observations and laugh-out-loud scenes of pure comedy to make this an entertaining romp from beginning to end.

   For example, from page 105, a mysterious man has just swapped a small attaché case he had for a bag of belongings that Arlette and Tanner had been carrying:

    “Evan?”

    “Yes?”

    “This satchel.”

    “Do you know what is in it?”

    “No.”

    “Neither do I. Why did he take our sandwiched?”

    “Perhaps he was hungry.”

   In the case that the man left them are several packages of white powder. Three kilos’ worth. You may or may not find this funny, but I did. This particular adventure for Evan Tanner may be too uneven to be the best of the series, but if you don’t take it all that seriously, I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.


       The Evan Tanner series —

The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep (1966)
The Canceled Czech (1966)

Tanner’s Twelve Swingers (1967)
The Scoreless Thai (a.k.a. Two for Tanner) (1968)
Tanner’s Tiger (1968)
Here Comes a Hero (1968) (a.k.a. Tanner’s Virgin)
Me Tanner, You Jane (1970)
Tanner on Ice (1998)

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH. Universal, 1943. Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Hillary Brooke, Milburn Stone and Vernon Downing. Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based on the story “The Musgrave Ritual” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Directed by Roy William Neill.

   A turning point in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series, as Director Roy William Neill took the Producer’s reins, weaned the stories away from Wartime propaganda, and told Basil Rathbone to go comb his hair.

   Fans know this as the one set in creepy Musgrave Manor, with the scene where the characters move about the checkered floor of the great hall like chess pieces, then descend into a crypt set left over from Dracula. It’s also the one where Neill began consolidating his stock company: cementing Dennis Hoey firmly in place as Lestrade (a cop thick enough to make Nigel Bruce’s charmingly comic Dr. Watson look brilliant by comparison) and bringing back Gavin Muir, Gerald Hamer, Olaf Hytten, and other capable bit-players, including Mary Gordon as Mrs. Hudson.

   So we get the usual cast of sidelong-glancing suspects, beleaguered heroine, and the wrongly-accused nice-guy. There’s something else, though: the cast of suspects poking and sneaking about the gloomy corridors and secret passages includes some recuperating soldiers, obviously mentally disturbed by some trauma in combat, trying to keep a grip on sanity. Just how they were expected to recover in The Haunted Mansion is never made clear, (“Every house has a personality,” Holmes intones, “This one is positively ghoulish.”) but the film portrays these souls with surprising insight and compassion.

   And as such, this “B” picture may have been the first to address, however tangentially, the psychological problems of returning heroes — this at a time when most “A” war films were glossing over any unpleasantness.

   Or maybe not. Whatever the case, I shall remember a brief moment with a soldier afraid to open a pack of cigarettes in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death when I have forgotten much more “important” films and not missed them a bit.


IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


SARA LÖVESTAM – The Truth Behind the Lie. Kouplan #1. Minotaur Books, hardcover, August 2019.

First Sentence: The rain was so strange the day they took Julia.

   Kouplan is a young, very young, Iranian refugee living in Sweden but who needs to stay in the shadows. To earn money, he works as a Private Investigator to those who can’t involve the police. Pernilla, a single mother recently split from her husband, desperately seeks Kouplan’s help. Her daughter has disappeared and, for reasons of her own fears going to the police. The deeper Kouplan digs into the case, the more he questions whether things are as he has been told.

   Lövestam has created a very intriguing opening. Both the protagonist and the client are as mysterious as is the case. The author does a very good job of making one want to know more about who these characters are. Due to Kouplan’s background, Iranian proverbs are included which injects realism into the character— “Cho istadei, daste oftade gir … As long as you are standing, hold out a hand to those who have fallen.”

   There is also interesting imagery— “As she gets up, she’s dizzy and the pajamas fall to the floor. Janus [her dog] picks them up with his teeth and as she stumbles into the kitchen, he follows her. The pajamas hang from his muzzle like a lifeless, extremely thin child.” One can be secure in the knowledge that no animals are harmed in the story.

   The descriptions of Kouplan’s overwhelming fear of being stopped by the police is almost palpable, and it makes the story extremely relevant to today also giving it a universality. One realizes the issue of refugees and their fears are common to many countries. However, through Lövestam, one is given a view of that Sweden which is contrary to the idyllic version most hold as being true.

   Both characters are forced to live in the shadows due to the restrictions and rules of governments— “It’s unreal how he, born in a hot country to parents with double degrees, is now following a mountain of muscle while avoiding the police like a criminal in this October chill of Stockholm.” There is a lot of focus on food— “There’s something special about hunger.” But this isn’t the food which comes from indulgence, but from knowing real hunger.

   The author provides excellent twists and mysterious trails down which we’re led, with a clever and “oh, my” turn of events and realization. This is not what one usually thinks of as “Scandinavian noir,” in that it lacks the usual traits related to some of those characters and contains little violence. Instead, this is very new and different from what most of us have read before.

   The Truth Behind the Lie is a fascinating book of complex, enigmatic characters where no one and nothing is as it seems.

Rating: Very Good.

PETER WHALLEY – Robbers. Harry Sommers #1. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1986. Walker, US, hardcover, 1987. Avon, US, paperback; January 1989.

   Harry Sommers’ background includes a short career as a boxer, then as a nightclub bouncer and few other other jobs, including a short stay in prison. Hired as a muscle man when needed for a small detective agency, he surprisingly becomes a co-owner of the firm when the man who hired him dies suddenly of a heart attack.

   His first real case on his own, other than usual process servings and straying husbands, is a strange one. Someone is blackmailing the members of a gang that made off with 500,000 pounds in a well-planned robbery some eight years ago, and one of those involved needs Harry to investigate. One man is dead already. Harry’s friend from the old days does not want to be the next.

   Although Harry has a strong distaste for guns, it’s a good thing that Harry is handy withe his fists, since some of the other gang members he tracks down are nasty customers indeed. But one by one he discards each of them as the blackmailer/killer, and he’s equally convinced that none of them talked.

   As mysteries go, this is a decent one, and Peter Whalley tells it well. As an extra bonus, we also get to see Harry struggle on his first few dates with a woman definitely a step above him in social standing, a teacher at a school where he drives the daughter of a gangster friend and back home again.

   It’s also a big reward when a detective thinks a case is over, and it really isn’t. Whalley ties up all the loose ends, though, and most satisfactorily.


       The Harry Sommers series —

Robbers. Macmillan 1986; Walker, 1987.
Bandits. Macmillan 1986; Walker, 1988, as Rogues.
Villains. Macmillan 1987; Walker, 1988, as Crooks.


Bio-Bibliograhic Notes: From his online obituary from 2017: “Peter Whalley, who has died aged 71 of cancer, was Coronation Street’s longest-serving and most prolific scriptwriter, penning 601 episodes over 35 years. Between 1979 and 2014 he bridged several eras and a multitude of characters, and brought to life some of the soap’s biggest storylines.”

   Besides the three books in his Harry Sommers trilogy, Peter Whalley has nearly a dozen other crime novels listed in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV> .

HOPSCOTCH. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1980. Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, Herbert Lom, David Matthau, Lucy Saroyan. Screenplay by Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by the former. Director: Ronald Neame.

   It wasn’t intentional, but I saw this right after after watching Spy Game (reviewed here ), another film based on what happens after men in the spy business are about to retire, or in this case, unwillingly bounced out of the job. This is what happens to Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) when he lets his counterpart for the Soviet Union (Herbert Lom) go free when caught red-handed just doing his job.

   Matthau’s rationale is that it’s better to know who’s who on the other side rather the wait to learn who the new guy might be. But furious, Ned Beatty as Matthau’s new inexperienced boss, boots him out, permanently.

   What is there for Matthau to do but a little revenge, which comes in the form of writing his memoirs, which he starts sending out to publishers one chapter at a time, and staying ahead of Beatty and his former co-workers one jump at a time.

   It is but a game to him, and it is a lot of fun for the viewer too, but the viewer (this one, anyway) begins to realize that the game is all too easy for Miles Kendig. The game is far too one-sided. Ned Beatty, for all his profanity and foot-stomping, doesn’t stand a chance.

   The remaining pleasure therefore lies in watching Walter Matthau, he of the lugubrious, lived-in face, as an old pro at work. Glenda Jackson as his long-time lady friend, doesn’t have all that much else to do, but whenever the two of them are on the screen together, the chemistry between them makes sparks fly.

   All in all, though, when compared to Spy Game, the only category for which I would rate Hopscotch more than second best is light comedy, at which there was none better than Walter Matthau, that and the additional presence of Glenda Jackson.

   As a movie, it’s a lot of fun to watch, I grant you, but when what’s happening on the screen starts repeating itself, you know the movie’s over, and way too soon. And worse, there’s never a sense of urgency or tension in the story that’s told. Even if played as a comedy, which this one is, stories of a master spy at work should never be as relaxing as this one.


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


THE LADY IN THE MORGUE. Universal Pictures: A Crime Club Production, 1938. Preston Foster (Bill Crane), Patricia Ellis, Frank Jenks, Thomas Jackson, Gordon (Bill) Elliott), Roland Drew, Barbara Pepper. Based on the book by Jonathan Latimer. Director: Otis Garrett.

   I’ve never read the Crime Club novel by Jonathan Latimer on which this is based, but — according to the program notes — the film is less true to the novel than was the film version of Latimer’s The Westland Case.

   This sips along with zany ease [beginning with the disappearance of a girl’s body from the city morgue], and is notable for some inventive camera work by Stanley Cortez, who also filmed The Magnificent Ambersons and Night of the Hunter. It’s the kind of camera work that calls attention to itself (some of the visual scene transitions are as wild as the plot), but it seems perfectly matched to the narrative.

   Foster and Jenks are first-rate, and maybe the organizers will turn up the third Crime Club Bill Crane film (The Last Warning) for next year’s program. If The Last Warning is everywhere near as good as the first two, this would make a sensational laser disc set.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #108, July 1995.


KAREN KIJEWSKI – Katwalk. Kat Colorado #1. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover 1989. Avon, paperback, 1990.

   Sacramento PI Kat Colorado does a favor for a friend, a newspaper advice columnist named Charity, and tries to find out where the woman’s soon-to-be-ex-husband has stashed away a missing $200,000. The trail leads to Las Vegas, and lots of violence.

   Very little of this is a detective story, per se, as most of the guilty parties are identified early on. Kat makes a few mistakes along the way — going it alone, not thinking of consequences — otherwise she’s the perfect epitome of feminine toughness.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #15, September 1989.


       The Kat Colorado series —

Katwalk. St. Martin’s 1989. Shamus winner (PWA) for Best First PI Novel; Anthony winner for Best First Mystery.
Katapult. St. Martin’s 1990
“Katfall” Sisters in Crime 3, 1990.
Copy Kat. Doubleday 1992
Kat’s Cradle. Doubleday 1992
Wild Kat. Doubleday 1994
Alley Kat Blues. Doubleday 1995
Honky Tonk Kat. Putnam 1996
Kat Scratch Fever. Putnam 1997
Stray Kat Waltz. Putnam 1998

REVIEWED BY MIKE TOONEY:


MURDER MYSTERY. Netflix, 2019. Running time: 97 minutes. Cast: Adam Sandler (Nick Spitz), Jennifer Aniston (Audrey Spitz), Luke Evans (Charles Cavendish), Terence Stamp (Malcolm Quince), Gemma Arterton (Grace Ballard), David Walliams (Tobey Quince), Dany Boon (Inspector de la Croix). Producers: 19 of them. Writer: James Vanderbilt. Director: Kyle Newacheck.

   It probably looked good on paper, but this production is a misfire from the get-go. You know that right away when the most capable actor on screen (Terence Stamp) gets “murdered” five minutes after he shows up.

   We can appreciate the fact that it’s an attempt to recapture the screen chemistry of Nick and Nora or Mr. and Mrs. North, but it just doesn’t work with these two leads. We found ourselves sitting there urging potty-mouthed “comedian” Adam Sandler to do something worthwhile (“If you can’t be coherent, at least make us laugh.”), but the moment never came. We found Jennifer Aniston’s character far more engaging, but it’s nowhere near enough to save this mess.

   If you’ve got an hour and a half to kill and you don’t give a rat’s navel how you do it, then this may be the movie for you. To be frank, we think Murder Mystery could possibly be the nail in the coffin for romantic comedy mysteries for some time to come. If there are plans for a follow-up to this one, our advice is “Don’t even try it!”


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