Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


RIMFIRE. Lippert/Screen Guild, 1949. James Millican, Mary Beth Hughes, Reed Hadley, Victor Killian, Henry Hull, Fuzzy Knight, Chris-Pin Martin, Glenn Strange, Jason Robards Sr., I. Stanford Jolley and the ubiquitous (at Lippert) Margia Dean. Written by Ron Ormond, Arthur St. Claire and Frank Wisbar. Directed by B. Reeves Eason.

   Not a terribly good movie, but an unusual and intriguing one, Rimfire offers James Millican as an undercover cavalry officer in search of a purloined gold shipment. Early on he stops a stagecoach robbery (masterminded by that stalwart of the genre, the fancy-vested saloon-owner) and gets a job as deputy for the local sheriff.

   All pretty standard stuff, but it happens that one of the stagecoach passengers is a savvy gambler known as the Abilene Kid (saturnine Reed Hadley) who knows a thing or two about the local bad guys, and in short order, he’s framed for cheating at cards with a marked deck and promptly hanged by the law-abiding citizenry.

   Well I wasn’t expecting that. Nor the next part where a ghostly shadow shows up at odd times and starts murdering the rest of the cast, leaving a playing card at the scene of each slaying.

   The origins of this bit aren’t far to seek. Co-writer Frank Wisbar is best known for writing/directing Strangler of the Swamp (PRC, 1946) which also featured the ghost of a wrongly-hanged man exacting revenge. Director B. Reeves Eason, who helmed such off-beat adventures as Undersea Kingdom and Darkest Africa (both Mascot, 1936) knew his way around the world of low-budget thrills, so Rimfire achieves a certain eerie resonance as we see each doomed victim suddenly shrouded by shadow, staring fearfully into the camera as a sepulchral voice tells him his time has come. And some of the murders are unusually grim for a B-western.

   Alas, however, and also alack while you’re up, the makers of this thing opted for a fairly conventional “surprise” ending which I saw coming about 10 minutes in. Damn shame, that.

   Along the way though there’s some fairly chilling fun to be had, and if Rimfire never makes it into the ranks of Creepy Classics or Western Noir, at least it offers something a little out the ordinary to keep you watching.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


WHITE ZOMBIE. United Artists, 1932. Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer, John Harron, Brandon Hurst, George Burr MacAnnan. Director: Victor Halperin.

   I recently had the opportunity to attend a screening of White Zombie at the Billy Wilder Theater here in Los Angeles. Presented as part of the UCLA Festival of Restoration, the low budget production is a zombie story, a fairy tale, and a fever dream wrapped into one idiosyncratic, but thoroughly watchable, celluloid package.

   Directed by Victor Halperin, White Zombie isn’t nearly as lavish as Dracula, nor is it as philosophically rich as The Wolf Man. But it is a lot better than many of the later Poverty Row productions in which Lugosi starred in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

   Although it was cheaply made with some incredibly clunky moments of both acting and dialogue, the film has its atmospheric charms and benefits from an exquisitely mischievous performance by Lugosi. In this post-Dracula outing, he portrays Murder Legendre, a white Haitian plantation owner and a master of voodoo who puts the enchanting Madeleine Short Parker (Madge Bellamy) under his spell. That is, until her white knight husband storms Legendre’s fortress to rescue his one true love from the evil madman’s clutches!

   It’s silly, magical fun.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


J. A. KONRATH – Rusty Nail. Hyperion, hardcover, 2006; softcover, 2007.

   I have said it before and will reiterate, I have had it with serial killers. I just don’t read or buy serial killer books. In fact, the only reason I picked this one up was because Publisher’s Weekly described it as a “cross between Carl Hiaason and Thomas Harris.”

   That, I admit, piqued my curiosity, and since it was a Dollar Store Wonder what could I lose? I could afford to risk 109 pennies (with tax).

   The heroine of this series is Lieutenant Jacqueline ‘Jack’ Daniels, second generation Chicago homicide cop, age 46, looks younger, dresses nice by shopping smart, and has a self confessed smart mouth. Her life isn’t looking all that good either. Her mother, the first generation homicide cop, is in a hospice facility in a coma Jack blames herself for. Her partner, Herb Benedict, her strong right had and friend is about to discover he has a tumor from his colonoscopy. She screwed up the relationship with the man she loved, and he has someone new. And there is a copycat killer following the path of Phil Kork, the serial killer whose capture made her famous, in fact, a little too famous.

   A big part of her problem is sexist and none-too-bright Harry McGlade. Harry was a private eye who helped her catch Kork and parlayed it into fame for both of them. Something the department is none to happy about:

   “The superintendent has been getting some flack lately about that TV show.”

   “TV show?”

   “That series with the PI and the fat woman who plays you.”

   The series is called Fatal Autonomy, and it has made Harry McGlade rich and Jack miserable. Whenever she introduces herself to anyone they comment she has lost weight. They can’t separate her from her job, and she can’t separate herself from Harry. He even wants her to be his ‘best man’ at his wedding.

   Worse still, the woman he is marrying, Holly, is a Barbie doll private eye, younger than Jack, smart, a fine markswoman, black belt, and to add insult to injury sincere, friendly, and despite Jack’s best — or worst — efforts, determined to be friends and help catch the copycat killer. She even saves Jack’s life. How dare she?

   There is also her cat, Mr. Friskers, who doesn’t seem to like her, but her Mother loves him; her lack of a sex life; and the fact it seems the serial killer is seeking revenge on Jack and everyone who was involved in catching and killing Phil Kork, including everyone and everything Jack loves.

   Jack is on the trail though, and the hunt will take her through the Mid-West into Kork’s family history and a virtual family reunion of serial killers and mass graves. Meanwhile Konrath introduces us in alternating chapters to Alex, the serial killer behind these murders and from a twisted and shocking history tied to the Kork’s.

   Aside from being literally knee deep in rotting corpses, Jack also manages to get shot at, threatened with losing her job, and seriously singed in a fire. It’s enough to make a girl wear cheap sensible shoes to work — a real trial for the fashion and name brand conscious Jack.

   If you haven’t caught on yet that comparison to Carl Hiaason and Thomas Harris was accurate. The serial killer is a monster, and graphically, if never exploitatively, described — it’s all Jack can do to keep from ruining a few crime scenes. What balances that is Jack is smart, attractive, good company, a genuinely good detective, and best of all, fall out of the chair and roll on the floor funny. Slight smiles aren’t her style. Jack is laugh-out-loud funny, and few books get audible chuckles out of me:

   His head was bald, but he had bushy white eyebrows long enough to comb, and enough ear hair to stuff a pillow.

   The shoes (Dior) were acquired at an outlet store and had been mispriced. I got them for eight bucks. I remember holding my breath when the cashier rang them up, figuring she’d notice. She didn’t. That’s been the high point of my year so far.

   He had to be putting me on. No one was this slow outside of Hee Haw.

   All play and no work makes Jack a bit flighty.

   … a careful mirror examination of my face, studying the wrinkles and deciding I needed nothing short of spackle to fill them in.

   Told by the FBI, who are trying to horn in, the obviously copycat murders are copycat murders “… was your first clue the note or that it took place in the same house as the Kork murders?”

   Mr. Friskers had his face buried in his bowl. He hissed at my interruption of his gluttony. I hissed back and set the bag on the corner, next to the sink. The cat ran up and swiped a claw at my leg… It was always my left leg. He’d clawed me a dozen times, but never the right leg. Sadism with an agenda.

   “Hey, your name is Jack Daniels.”

   “That’s me, lightly braised but in the flesh.”

   “I like that TV show that you’re in, that Fatal Autonomy. You’re pretty funny. I loved the one where you were screaming and screaming and screaming for help and that private eye guy took off his dirty sock and crammed it in your mouth.”

   I gave him a weak smile. “Yeah, good episode.”

   Peter chimed in, “My favorite is the one where you tracked down that killer and went to shoot him but forgot to load your gun.” He slapped his leg grinning. “Classic.”

   There is a nice twist at the end, not really withheld from the reader, and for once a least likely suspect that has been set up right, and all the subplots stay raveled together for the multiple payoffs.

   The titles are all mixed drinks. Rusty Nail, Whisky Sour, Bloody Mary and more. I can say honestly, that serial killer or not, I would read another one, and these days that is praise for any series, serial killers or not. Jack Daniels proves almost as good company as her namesake, and if you stay up all night with her, you can still go to work in the morning and there is no hangover.

   One last great line, delivered by Herb’s wife. It turns out Herb didn’t have a tumor, but he did have a heart attack, which Jack has trouble understanding why they didn’t find earlier until Herb’s wife Bernice explains: “It’s hard to diagnose a heart condition by sticking a camera up your ass.”

   That sums up Jack’s life and Rusty Nail as well as anything.

      The Jack Daniels series -

1. Whiskey Sour (2004)

2. Bloody Mary (2005)
3. Rusty Nail (2006)
4. Dirty Martini (2007)
5. Fuzzy Navel (2008)
6. Cherry Bomb (2009)

7. Shaken (2010)
8. Stirred (2011) (with Blake Crouch)

65 Proof: Jack Daniels and Other Thriller Stories (2009)
Shot of Tequila (2009)   [ebook]
Jack Daniels Stories: Fifteen Mystery Tales (2010)
With A Twist (2011)   [short story]
Jacked Up! (2013) (with Jack Kilborn and Tracy Sharp) [novella]

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


FRANK SHAY – The Charming Murder. Macaulay, hardcover, 1930.

   This is Frank Shay’s first attempt, and that is indeed the operative word, at a mystery novel. There is a fine plot here, one worthy of Queen, Carr, or Christie. As it is worked out, however, it is unworthy of almost anyone.

   Dr. Jack Charming is an unhappy man, for several undeniable reasons: He is a millionaire and he is irresistible to women. Both of these drawbacks are getting in the way of his practice of medicine, his simple rounds in the hospital, and his marrying the not-yet-divorced fourth wife of a bounder. She appears to be no great catch, but such apparently is love.

   Charming has invited seven friends — and with friends like his he has no need for enemies — for cocktails and a buffet. At about 9:45 p.m. off they all go to the theater, followed by drinks at a nightclub, and then back to the doctor’s apartment. The doctor sends in his guests and keeps the taxi to take home the woman he wants to marry. The guests go into the apartment to discover the police, who inform them that Dr. Charming was shot dead in the apartment while they — well, most of them; things are a bit unclear here — were all there about 9:30 p.m.

   A nifty puzzle to work out, eh? Does the author accomplish the feat? Yes. Is it satisfactory ? No.

   The first-person narrator, a newspaperman of the not-too-bright breed that was prominent in those days, tells the reader in a prologue that “no one, save these same guests and his servants,” had access to Dr. Charming’s apartment at the time of the murder. He lies. At least five others did, and there was only one servant.

   The stage presentation that the group goes to see is Professor Proteus, an impersonator. During his act, he impersonates George Washington delivering his “Farewell Address to his Generals” — no, I hadn’t known about this either. His impersonation is “pure genius,” although how anyone would be able to judge is beyond me.

   Getting closer to the present, Proteus makes himself up like Abraham Lincoln and delivers the Gettysburg Address. The audience stamps on the floor after this performance, presumably in approval. Perhaps some of them were there for the original and remember it well.

   Finally, in the here and now, Proteus makes himself up to look like Charles Lindbergh standing in front of the “Spirit of St. Louis.” No remarks this time — what would they be? — but the house shakes with applause. A little authorial license here, one presumes. Proteus is obviously on to a good thing with this group.

   Then, as a departure from his regular act, Proteus says he will make himself up to look like a member of the audience. Dr. Charming is chosen, and Proteus does such a good job that even Charming’s friends can’t tell him from the good doctor.

   It turns out that Proteus has been paid by one of the Doctor’s party to impersonate him. Why? I don’t know, Proteus doesn’t know, and if the author knows, he isn’t splitting.

   A police sergeant, the newspaper reporter, and the widower of the woman Dr. Charming wanted to marry — yes, she’s dead, too, murdered about the same time as the Doctor but In a different place — are returning from the dead woman’s apartment. The widower won’t answer the sergeant’s questions, so the sergeant turns a flashlight on him and discovers that the man’s pupils do not respond to light, which means he’s either dead or the sergeant thinks he is. The sergeant gets out of the taxi an d tells the driver to take the corpse to the morgue, Ah, those were simpler days!

   The doctor’s apartment, joined to his office, is on the ground floor. In one of the many summings-up by police lieutenant Daniel (Deedee) Donor, he has one of the suspects going upstairs. One of the suspects is shot and killed while in the apartment, apparently by someone who thought he and the victim were on the second floor.

   Four people enter the apartment through a door that only the police have noticed. The reason it has not been noticed is that it is blocked by a steel cabinet. The question of how that group got through the steel cabinet is never raised.

   The group of four contained a gangster, his hit man who was supposed to kill Charming, and two people who were to play other roles but would have made excellent witnesses to the murder, something that seems not to have occurred to the gangster. Something else had not occurred to the gangster, and who this time can blame him? “I hears someone in the bathroom and when I whispers to ’em to lay quiet the guy with the gun lets it go off.” Good hit men have always been hard to find. Luckily for the gangster, someone else had already shot Charming.

   The man impersonating Charming — not Professor Proteus, remember — was dubious about being able to do the job successfully, but after “trailing” Charming for several days he is able to fool Charming’s friends, Charming’s mistress, and Charming’s would-like-to-be mistresses under the most testing of circumstances.

   The narrator becomes drunk and starts slurring his words, except when the author forgets to have him do it.

   Those who enjoy what Bill Pronzini deems “alternative classics” ought to appreciate this novel. Others should shun it.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 6, November-December 1987.


Bibliographic Note:   There was a second case that was solved by the same detective, that being chronicled in Murder on Cape Cod (Macaulay, 1931). A quick search on the Internet suggests that the second book is more difficult to obtain then the first.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


DOUG ALLYN – Motown Underground. Lupe Garcia #2. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1993. No paperback edition.

   Allyn is the author of short stories and a previous Garcia novel [The Cheerio Killings, St. Martin’s, 1989], but his main livelihood is leading and playing in a rock band. His Detroit reminds me of Solamita’s NYC, and like Solamita’s stories, his are filled with mean, hard people on both sides of the law.

   Garcia is a Detroit cop on leave after an explosion that injured him and killed others, and is thinking about quitting. An old friend dying of cancer asks his help in getting out of an arrangement with a crook who is taking over his nightclub, but before Garcia can do anything, the crook is killed and his friend commits suicide. The cops think Garcia killed the crook, and he finds himself between their rock and a gangster hard place.

   This is a rough story, full of mean people, bad language, and bloody violence. It’s well and tersely written, with good dialogue and mostly believable characters. The ending didn’t quite come off, though, and I’m not sure I liked any of the characters enough to give a damn.

– Reprinted from Ah, Sweet Mysteries #9, September 1993.


Bibliographic Note:   These were only the two recorded advenures of Lupe Garcia.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE DEADLY TRACKERS. Warner Brothers, 1973. Richard Harris, Rod Taylor, Al Lettieri, Neville Brand, William Smith. Based on a story by Samuel Fuller. Directors: Barry Shear & Samuel Fuller, the latter uncredited.

   The first three minutes of The Deadly Trackers are about as annoying as you can possibly get. In what appears to be an attempt to be artistic and edgy, the movie begins with an unnecessary voice-over dialogue and a frame by frame introduction to the main character, Sean Kilpatrick (Richard Harris), a pacifist sheriff in a small border town.

   It’s enough to make you want to turn the whole thing off.

   I’m guess I am glad I didn’t. While I’d never go so far to say The Deadly Trackers is a particularly good or an effective Western, it does have something worthwhile going for it. That would be Al Lettieri (The Getaway, Mr. Majestyk), a veteran crime film actor who died at the early age of 47 in 1975. Lettieri portrays Gutierrez, a Mexican lawman, who is just about the remotely likable character in this gritty, sweaty, revenge thriller.

   The plot is simple enough. After Kilpatrick (Harris) witnesses his wife and son killed by the cruel Frank Brand (Rod Taylor), he gives up his pacifist ways (a little too easily, it should be noted) and sets out to seek Brand and his three henchmen, Schoolboy (William Smith), Choo Choo (a tired looking Neville Brand), and Jacob (Paul Benjamin). None of these men are particularly interesting villains save Choo Choo, a man with part of a railroad track for a hand.

   After crossing the border, Kilpatrick encounters Mexican lawman Gutierrez and engages in a series of cat and mouse chases with him. By the time the whole thing’s over, Kilpatrick has turned into a carbon copy of the man who killed his family. In the matter of less than two hours running time, he’s become a truly despicable character, so much so that you’re not sad when [SPOILER ALERT] Gutierrez shoots the lout in the back.

   And therein lies the problem with The Deadly Trackers. There’s no one really to root for. It’s mainly just a bunch of dirty, sickly looking men doing horrible things to one another.

   That may be a necessary ingredient for a certain type of Western, but it’s not sufficient to make this anything other than a historical curiosity: an American Spaghetti Western morality play about how blood lust corrupts, a story that attempts to be more profound than it actually is.

   The movie does have some decent cinematography, but it would have been a whole lot better had the film been told from Gutierrez’s point of view. He seems like the only character in this film that you wouldn’t be terrified to be around for more than a minute or two.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


THE KEY MAN. Anglo-Amalgamated Films, UK, 1957; United Artists, US, 1958, as Life at Stake. Lee Patterson, Hy Hazell, Philip Leaver, Harold Kasket, George Margo. Written by J. McLaren Ross. Directed by Montgomery Tully.

   Just another British-second-feature of its time, but a bit better than it needed to be and perhaps worthy of note.

   The film opens on joyous celebration scenes of VE-Day in London, then on to a lone figure walking, somber and purposeful, through the confetti and ticker-tape onto a quiet street and up to a mysterious door. He inserts a key and — all of a sudden three guys grab him! And next thing one of them is saying, “Arthur Smithers, you are under arrest for robbery and murder, and anything you say….”

   Flash forward twelve years. Smithers has been released from jail, and Radio Crime Reporter Lionel Hulme (Patterson) is trying to find him — and the whereabouts of the loot from the robbery he did time for. Hulme is also broke, fighting with his wife (Hazell) and trying to get an advance from his boss so he can follow this thing up. In due time, he gets a lead, finds out Smithers has died in mysterious circumstances, gets followed around a lot by a shadowy stranger, finds out Smithers is not dead, talks to a fatale-looking femme who may be Smithers’ wife, gets a call from an informant who has the information he needs and he’ll come right round with it (and we know what happened to that lot!) gets in a fight, a car chase….

   … all pretty much standard stuff, and it’s not helped by budgetary constraints that keep the background rather sketchy. We’re told, for instance, that Hulme is a Radio Crime Reporter, but all we ever see of the station is a couple of nondescript offices: no microphones, no bustling secretaries or sound engineers. Hell, Monogram did better than that!

   On the plus side though, the writer took some time to populate this with real-seeming people, the producer cast them rather well, and the director added some fine flourishes; there’s some well-judged camera-work here and there, including a nifty fight in a pitch-black barbershop fitfully lighted by an on-and-off neon sign outside.

   But it’s the characters that surprised me most. Our elusive criminal mastermind proves to be a fairly ordinary chap, podgy and middle-aged, with a pretty young wife who loves him anyway. The venal stool pigeon and phony tipster have moments of actual humanity, and when we go to the wrap-up, the final scene between the amateur sleuth and the mysterious lady, where I was expecting to hear “You’re taking the fall, Sweetheart,” I heard something instead very real and quite surprising. Check it out if you can.

Editorial Comment:   One should not confuse this movie (as I did, for a while) with a film noir released in the US in 1955 entitled A Life at Stake, starring Angela Lansbury and Keith Andes.

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