REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


WILLIAM HJORTSBERG – Nevermore. Grove / Atlantic, hardcover, 1994. St. Martin’s, paperback, 1996.

   He of the unpronounceable name is best known for the “cult classic” (which cult?) Falling Angel, which I think is a very overrated novel. Which is not to say that he isn’t talented — he is.

   The time is 1923, and the place is New York City. Harry Houdini is there, making a triumphant return to the Palace and is at the height of his career and powers. A. Conan Doyle is there, too, embarking on a six-month American tour to promote spiritualism.

   So is a murderer who kills seemingly at random, but always taking a story written by Edgar Allan Poe as a template for his crime. And so is the ghost of Poe himself — or at best so thinks Doyle, to whom the apparition appears with distressing frequency. Houdini and Doyle become acquainted and then somewhat estranged, owing to their opposing views on spiritualism, but work together to try and puzzle out the murders. And then both are menaced.

   Well, this was … interesting. It’s a fine novel from a historical standpoint, bringing America and particularly the Big Apple of the 20s to vivid life. Hjosrtberg does a good job with Houdini and Doyle, and with Damon Runyon (who appears frequently) as well.

   The identity of the killer is given away (at least to me) well before the end of the book, and in such a glaring fashion that I can only assume it was done deliberately — but why? There really isn’t all that much detection, though there’s an interesting sub-plot that provides a red herring or two.

   It’s primarily a novel of atmosphere and character, and considered on that basis a goo done. Houdini is particularly colorful and believable. Hjortsberg is an excellent wordsmith, though there was one glaringly inappropriate phrase that should have been caught by an editor. It’s a pretty good book, but not an outstanding one.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.
REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


OPERATION EICHMANN. Allied Artists, 1961. Werner Klemperer, Ruta Lee, Donald Buka, Barbara Turner, John Banner. Director: R. G. Springsteen

   Arrogance. That was Eichmann’s defining trait. At least that is how it was presented in Operation Eichmann, a 1961 release from Allied Artists. Directed by R. G. Springsteen, best known for his extensive work with B-Westerns, the film is a deeply flawed, but nevertheless historically interesting feature about the rise and fall of SS officer Adolf Eichmann, the man considered instrumental to the logistics of the concentration camp system set up by the Nazis in Poland and Germany.

   German-American actor Werner Klemperer, whose father was Jewish, portrays Eichmann as an arrogant, obsessive, and paranoid man who is absolutely devoted to the Nazi cause. Although Klemperer may be best known to American audiences for his portrayal of Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes, his performance in this downbeat, grim feature demonstrates that he was an immensely talented actor also capable of handling serious dramatic roles.

   The film traces Eichmann from the height of his political power during the Nazi regime to his life on the run in Madrid, Kuwait, and Argentina. All the while, seeing himself as the natural heir to Hitler, Eichmann was also interested in wealth and women. As depicted in the film, it was Eichmann’s haughtiness and paranoia that did him in and allowed for Israeli intelligence agents to eventually capture him in Argentina and bring him back to Jerusalem for trial.

   The main problem with the film, aside from the fact that it looks and feels more like a TV show than a feature film, is that we never really get to know the film’s nominal hero: an Israeli intelligence agent who was a child in Auschwitz and remembers Eichmann’s brutality from his childhood. David (Donald Buka) is a cipher, a character that the audience never gets to really know. This is a real shame, for there could have been a much more gripping film here about a young boy who grows up seeking vengeance on Eichmann.

   Instead, Operation Eichmann presents David as a staunch moralist, more concerned about trying Eichmann than in killing him. Klemperer was also a far more compelling screen presence than Buka, allowing his fictionalized Eichmann to completely overshadow the unfortunately empty character of David. And without a compelling hero to root for, one is left with remembering Klemperer’s Eichmann more than anything else. Which is not necessarily terrible, given Klemperer’s stand out performance. But it didn’t do much to make me believe this movie is worth a second viewing.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


RODERIC JEFFRIES writing as RODERICK GRAEME – Blackshirt Wins the Trick. Blackshirt #3, second series. Hutchinson, UK, hardcover, 1953/ No US edition. Independently published, paperback, 02 November 2017.

   If Richard Verrell had not been taken in by an old, old trick, he would not have seen Janet again. And if he had not seen Janet…

   Blackshirt lives!

   In fact, it is almost impossible to kill him. Not that he’s the same man he was when Bruce Graeme, a literary agent, dreamed him up out of Raffles by way of Jimmy Dale, Michael Lanyard, and Charles Dickens back in 1922, or the way he was in the 1940’s when his son briefly took over for him, or even who he ended up being when he came roaring back in 1951 for a run all the way to 1969.

   But, as William Vivian Butler said in his study of gentleman adventures and cracksmen, The Durable Desperadoes, Richard Verrill has a good claim on being the most durable desperado of them all.

   Created in 1922, and after ten stories finally seeing print in hardcovers in 1925, Richard Verrill is a successful mystery writer who steals for the fun of it, for the challenge, the chase, and the adrenaline. Like Michael Lanyard, the Lone Wolf, he has a Dickensian backstory, though more the Artful Dodger than Oliver Twist, and like Jimmy Dale, the Gray Seal, he has a mysterious female voice on the phone who blackmails him into using his skills to help the downtrodden and grease the hinges of justice. Eventually Verrill and the voice of his conscience meet and marry.

   As for that name, Blackshirt, it has nothing to do with politics. Verrill came before Mussolini’s Brown Shirts, and well before Oswald Mosely’s Blackshirts. Graeme’s Blackshirt takes his name from the fact he performs his crimes in dinner dress wearing a black dress shirt and a black hood.

   Meanwhile writing as David Graeme Bruce got a little bored with his creation and penned Monsieur Blackshirt, about the adventures of Verrill’s ancestor in sixteenth centiury France.

   Come 1939 it occurred to Graeme, that Blackshirt was getting a bit long in the tooth. By then Graeme had two popular series aside from Blackshirt, so he decided to retire his hero and instead unveiled Anthony Verrill, The Son ofBlackshirt. By that time England was in the war, and Graeme felt gentleman adventuring was a bit out of tune with the times, so Anthony’s adventures, written during the war, take place after the war ended, and to confuse things even more RAF ace Anthony discovers his father was in reality an Earl (with a Dickensian childhood), so Anthony is Lord Blackshirt.

   Confused yet?

   Believe me, it is just getting started.

   And so things rested until 1950, when Graeme’s publisher decided that with a little updating the public might enjoy Blackshirt knocking around again. They did, and in early 1951 approached Graeme about bringing Blackshirt back in a more modern form.

   Graeme had even less interest in the character than he had in 1939, but he did have a 25 year old son, Roderic, who could write and thus Richard Verrill is once again prowling the night in black dress shirt and hood.

   You would be hard put to see him as a continuation though. Roderic, an even better writer than his successful father, picks up about three pages into Blackshirt’s first adventure, before the mysterious lady on the phone. She never makes an appearance and Blackshirt never reforms. He’s a cracksman, more of a professional than before, still wired for action, but not immune to profit either.

   Now he is a highly successful mystery writer as well, and having never met his mother, there is no son and no Earldom.

   There it is, a popular and well written series, that runs until 1969 and only really ends because writing as Roderic Jeffries, Roderic Graeme had bigger fish to fry, namely the popular Inspector Alvarez mysteries (which unlike Blackshirt, did see publication here).

   And we are at last where we began, with Richard Verrill about to become reacquainted with a woman named Janet in the third of the new series. And what a re-acquaintance it proves to be.

   Verrill is on holiday in St. Tropez before heading back to England for a friend’s wedding when he decides to try his hand at the casino, where he meets an attractive lady. In her company he wins big, and walking back with her to her hotel she and her accomplices mug him.

      The French police are not sympathetic:

   “I was not going home with her, I was escorting her to her hotel. I had every intention of coming away at once.”

   “You had?” murmured the inspector incredulously. He turned and regarded his subordinate. Then, “Pierre, call the doctor at once.”

   He misses the wedding, and shortly, still in St. Tropez, runs into an old friend who asks him to join him and his sister as they are a man short for a party they are invited to. Verrill is happy to be the fourth with his friend because they are invited to a ball being given by the very wealthy, very indiscriminate, and jewel-laden Mrs. Varnes, and Verrill is after all:

   “Blackshirt, who stole for the joy of stealing; whose code of behaviour had convinced the police that, at least, he was a sport. The man who would steal a sixpenny tiepin in preference to a valuable diamond, if the tiepin could offer the greater thrills.”

   And there is where the complications set in, because also after the Varne’s jewels is the lady who mugged him, who he now recognizes as a ruthless rival from his past and a pleasant diversion Janet Dove (“Richard dear, if I hadn’t done it first, you’d have double-crossed me, wouldn’t you?”), and as if that wasn’t enough he also finds himself pitted against the even more dangerous and more ruthless Peebles, the Jackdaw (“When their respective interests did not conflict, there was a strange bond between the two men.”), another past rival, so Blackshirt is up to his neck in twists and turns as the three criminals compete, not always in gentlemanly or ladylike fashion, to win the trick as the title says.

   Throw into the mix a suspicious reporter with blackmail on his mind who recognizes Verrill’s valet Roberts as a former felon and wonders why a successful writer would employ such a man, the legendary Darthweight pearls, and a vicious millionaire plotting a trap for Blackshirt and Janet …

   Things move fast, but then they always do when Blackshirt is around.

   The style is clipped, terse, always moving, the characters are believable, if only just, and the mood is light and playful with just enough of an edge to keep pages turning well into the night.

   If you have never met the audacious Mr. Verrill, or at least this incarnation of him, you owe it to yourself to do so, with the twists coming right down to the last line of the final page.

   Here is charm, wit, and breathless action served well chilled, a brut rather than a vintage perhaps, but there is nothing to be ashamed of in a delightful dessert wine.

   Cheers.

EDWARD D. HOCH “The Theft of the Mafia Cat.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 1972. Collected in The Thefts of Nick Velvet (Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1978). Reprinted in Purr-Fect Crime, edited by Carol-Lynn Rösell Waugh, Martin Greenberg & Isaac Asimov (Lynx, paperback, 1989).

   The charm of the Nick Velvet stories to me is how clever they are, and in fact, they have to be. Not only does Nick have to figure out how to steal the essentially valueless objects he’s hired to obtain, but he also has to work out why he was hired to steal them in the first place. (In this story originally published in 1972, his fee is $20,000.)

   In this case Nick is hired by an old friend from the Italian neighborhood in which he grew up to steal the local Mafia don’s favorite pet, a cat named Sparkle, then return it a day later. Needless to say, Nick does both jobs with eclat and ease. Just another day at the office.

   What makes this particular story stand out a little more than some of Nick’s other adventures is that along the way he tells his friend how he got started in his unique way of making a living. The first job he was hired to do was to help someone break into a museum of fine art, which he accomplished by removing a stained glass window and climbing in.

   Turns out that window was worth $50,000 and that was all the woman who hired him wanted. After she was arrested and the window was returned, Nick decided from that point on his career in thievery consisted of stealing only things that were essentially worthless.

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


C. J. BOX – The Disappeared. Joe Pickett #18. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, March 2018.

First Sentence:   Wylie Frye was used to smelling of smoke and that was long before he became a criminal of sorts.

   Wyoming’s new governor wants Game Warden Joe Pickett to find a wealthy Englishwoman and ad-agency CEO who disappeared after staying at the dude ranch where Joe’s daughter, Sheridan, works. Joe’s friend, master falconer Nate Romanowski, wants Joe to find out why the falconers can no longer hunt with eagles in spite of having valid permits. Joe wants to know why the Game Warden from the area where the ranch is located has also disappeared. And who is working hard to make Joe go away?

   Box is very good at creating a sense of place, and a sense of cold— “Twilight in the mountains brought a special kind of cold. It crept out from the darkness of the lodge pole pine forest where it had spent the daylight hours and it slithered across the top of the snow to sting every inch of exposed human skin. Sounds became sharper and the snow itself became a different texture that squeaked like nails on a chalkboard with every footfall.”

   His description of what it’s like to drive during the winter in the mountains conveys some of the dangers involved. And most of us don’t think about the risks inherent with snowmobiling. There is fascinating information about the use of predator birds for protecting flocks and endangered birds, as well as killing animal predators, and all the political machinations involved. The relationship of falconry to Shakespeare is a nice touch.

   The perspective Joe has on how his relationship has changed with his now-grown daughter is one with which most can identify in some way. For those who have followed the series, it is particularly poignant. The contrast of Joe and Nate is always interesting. They truly are light and dark. Lance, Sheridan’s boyfriend, is someone of whom I hope we see more.

   There’s a lot in this book, almost too much. The threads do come together but awkwardly. There isn’t the cohesion one finds in Box’s previous books, and even the humor and suspense are less apparent. The motive is rather weak and far-fetched, particularly when we learn who is behind everything, and the ending rather abrupt. One dearly hopes Box isn’t getting tired of his series.

   The Disappeared is not Box’s strongest book, but it’s still better than a very good book by other authors. There is an excellent twist, and a good “Western” ending.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.


Bibliographic Note:   Box has written a book in this series every year since 2001.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


KENNETH FEARING – The Big Clock. Harcourt Brace, hardcover, 1946. A condensed version first appeared in The American Magazine, October 1946, as “The Judas Picture.” Reprinted many times, including Bantam #738, paperback, 1949; and in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, Library of America, hardcover, 1997. Also published as No Way Out (Perennial, paperback, 1987).

THE BIG CLOCK. Paramount Pictures, 1948. Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, based on the novel by Kenneth Fearing. Director: John Farrow.

   The other day I was in the re-reading mode, and pulled Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel The Big Clock off the shelf. It was well worth going back to. Clock is built very nicely around a clever gimmick that sustains it as a thriller, but there’s an undercurrent — a very subtle one — that surfaces now and again to hint that there’s more going on here than we think.

   George Stroud starts off the novel as a thoughtful hedonist; he enjoys books, paintings, colorful characters, his family, a comfortable job editing a crime magazine, good liquor and the occasional affair. One of these affairs is with Pauline Delos, the mistress of his publisher, Earl Janoth, and when Stroud is seen-but-not-recognized leaving Pauline’s place, it precipitates an argument that results in Janoth murdering Pauline.

   What follows is not so much a cat-and-mouse game as a perverse dance: Janoth sets the resources of his publishing empire to the task of finding the man seen leaving Pauline’s apartment, seeking to implicate him in the murder, and chooses Stroud to head up the search; Stroud realizes that Janoth must have killed their mutual bed-partner, but he also knows that saying so would destroy his marriage and career — and if Janoth learns Stroud’s secret, he’ll destroy more than that.

   Okay, that’s the plot gimmick: a man set to catch himself, trying to avoid getting caught, and Fearing exploits it very ably, with Stroud’s maneuvers getting ever more intricate, always quicker, as the dance picks up tempo and the net tries to close around him.

   But there’s more here: those subtle roilings below the surface; multiple narrators tell the tale, mostly Stroud, but also Janoth, his sycophantic henchman Hagen — there‘s a telling bit where Hagen wonders why anyone would buy an old painting at an antique shoppe — and there’s an oddly moving chapter narrated by Stroud’s wife, where we glimpse just how much harm Stroud’s pleasure-seeking can do.

   And then there’s the Big Clock: Fearing’s metaphor for a life without soul, a society whose unrelenting gears can brush a man or crush him: “I could beat the machine. The super-clock would go on forever; it was too massive to be stopped. But it had no brains and I did. I could escape from it. Let Janoth and Hagen perish in its wheels. They loved it.”

   But later: “I told myself it was just a tool, a vast machine, and the machine was blind. But I had not fully realized its crushing weight and power. That was insane. The machine cannot be challenged. It both creates and blots out, doing each with glacial impersonality. It measures people in the same way that it measures money, and the growth of trees, the life-span of mosquitoes and morals, the advance of time. And when the hour strikes on the big clock, that is indeed the hour, the day, the correct time. When it says a man is right, he is right, and when it finds him wrong, he is through, with no appeal.”

   Good stuff, that. And the wrap-up is equally strong. Ostensibly a happy ending, but with loose ends that keep threatening to unravel. And a final line that hits with memorable brutality. This is a thriller written by a poet, and it’s worth a look. Or two.

   Paramount filmed this in 1948, and they did a pretty creditable job of it, with typically smooth direction by John Farrow, and pluperfect performances from Ray Milland as Stroud, Charles Laughton as Janoth, icy George Macready as Hagen, and Maureen O’Sullivan (Farrow’s wife) as the long-suffering Mrs. Stroud.

   There’s also a ticklish turn by Elsa Lanchester (Laughton’s wife) as a dotty artist, and a chilling bit from Henry Morgan (Nobody’s wife) as Jeff, Laughton’s silent masseur/gunman. Jeff doesn’t speak throughout the film, but one gets the odd impression it’s because he simply sees no point in it, a neat dramatic evocation — along with arid sets and clockwork-cold line readings from Laughton and Macready — of Fearing’s subtext.

   I might add, though, that Jonathan Latimer’s screen adaptation rings some necessary-for-movies-of-that-time changes on Fearing’s story: the affair with Janoth’s mistress is replaced by an over-complicated marital mix-up that makes Stroud seem more Dagwood than Don Juan. And in the book, Janoth begins the quarrel leading up to the murder by taunting his mistress about a lesbian affair, then flies into a rage when she accuses him of “camping” with the fawning Hagen — whereupon he kills her, and later, justifying the murder to Hagen, the first thing he mentions is her bisexuality. Fearing makes the point subtly (no doubt he had to in those days) but he leaves the strong impression that this murder is more a crime of intolerance than passion.

   Well all that’s gone in the movie, replaced by more conventional stuff while director Farrow and writer Latimer drop subtle hints here and there, and though one mourns the loss a bit, I have to say no one improved things any when they re-made the story (as No Way Out) in the more permissive 1980s.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


RICHARD ROSEN – World of Hurt. Harvey Blissberg #4. Walker, hardcover, 1994. No paperback edition.

   Rosen is currently a writer/producer for Eye to Eye with Connie Chung, has appeared on netwrork TV and National Public Radio, and is credited with inventing the word “psychobabble.” This is the first Harvey Blissberg from him since 1988, and he’s switched from Viking Penguin to Walker. Have you noticed how many male writers are moving down the publishing scale, or losing their contracts entirely? Is it time for Dudes in Crime (DiC, acronymically speaking) to become a reality?

   Harvey Blissberg, an ex-major league baseball player now a PI, gets a call from his brother in a Chicago suburb. A casual friend who played picjup basketball with him regularly has been murdered, and the local police seem to have come to a dead end.

   The brother wants Harvey to come out from Cambridge and see what he can find out. Harvey, going through a bad patch with his long-time lover, more or less reluctantly accedes and soon finds himself trying to put together pieces of the life of a man nobody really seemed to know.

   I had forgotten how competent Rosen is. I don’t think he’s at the top of his group, but he’s a smoothly professional writer, and has created a very likeable character in Harvey Bloomberg. His prose is clean and straightforward, and he tells his story will through third-person narration.

   I think his strong point is characterization, and Blissberg and his lover have considerable depth. There were a couple of spots in the book that bothered me; one turned out to be fleeting and inconsequential, but the other was an unlikely coincidence on which the story hinged.

    Overall, though, it was a good solid PI novel — and I haven’t read too damned many of those, lately.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.


      The Harvey Blissberg series

Strike Three You’re Dead (1984)     [Edgar-winner for Best First Novel.]

Fadeaway (1986)
Saturday Night Dead (1988)
World Of Hurt (1994)
Dead Ball (2001)

CLEVE F. ADAMS – No Wings on a Cop. Handi-Book #112, paperback original, 1950. Harlequin #256, Canada, paperback, 1953.

   Cleve F. Adams (1895-1949) was a fairly prolific writer for the detective pulps in the 1930s and early 40s before making the transition to hardcover novels under not only his name but as John Spain and Franklin Charles. His most well-known series character was a hard-boiled PI named Rex McBride, but even the latter is little remembered today.

   Before getting the story line of this one, one of two he wrote that came out in paperback only, there is a tale to tell about it. As I understand it, No Wings on a Cop began life as a pulp story, then after Adams’s death was expanded into a novel as a favor to his wife by fellow pulp writer Robert Leslie Bellem. In James Reasoner’s online review of the book, he suggests the original story may have been, in his words: “‘Clean Sweep,’ from the August 24, 1940 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly, which, according to the Fictionmags Index, features police lieutenant John J. Shannon, the hero of No Wings on a Cop.”

   From the title, this is good detective work on James’s part, but it’s still only one possibility among a handful of others it may have been. Until someone is able to check it out to be sure, we’ll have to leave it as an open, unanswered question.

   John J. Shannon was also the name of the title character in the novel The Private Eye that Adams wrote in 1942. Everyone assumes it’s the same character, but when it was, and why Shannon made the transition from police lieutenant to PI is a story that Adams never told. (I may be wrong about that.)

   The main story line in No Wings on a Cop is a very common one in its day, that of corruption in a small town involving a the head of the local rackets and working its way up to (possibly) the mayor and several members of the police force. Shannon gets involved when a fellow officer and a good friend is killed, with the suggestion that he was on the take.

   Shannon knows better and spends the entire book trying to come up with evidence to prove it. His kind of investigation involves a goodly amount of gunplay, but as it turns out, he has a head on his shoulders as well, and a good instinct for who’s running on the wrong side of the track. He also has one arm in a cast all through the book, a hindrance that doesn’t show him down one bit.

   Unfortunately I’ve read a lot of stories like this before, and I found this one slow going for most of the first half of the book. Things picked up considerably after that, but all in all, while competently written, it’s still not better than average, even for the genre it’s in. I wouldn’t say this a “must read” for anyone reading this, but I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


VIGILANTE FORCE. United Artists, 1976. Kris Kristofferson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Victoria Principal, Bernadette Peters, Brad Dexter, Judson Pratt, David Doyle, Antony Carbone, Andrew Stevens, Shelly Novack. Screenwriter-Director: George Armitage.

   Vigilante Force is one of those blue-collar action movies from the mid-1970s designed to appeal to a White working class demographic looking for some simple escapism and a familiar social milieu. Set in a fictional small town in California’s interior (somewhere near Bakersfield I would imagine) where newfound oil wealth is destroying the fabric of society, this film is as much about the setting as the story. That’s probably for the best, given how flimsy the plot of the movie actually is.

   Jan-Michael Vincent, before he became one of Hollywood’s hottest items, portrays Ben Arnold, a laconic working class widower living with his young daughter and new girlfriend. When the police chief of his town gets overwhelmed by the sheer amount of criminal activity taking place there due to an influx of oil workers, Ben seeks out his somewhat estranged brother Aaron (Kris Kristofferson), a Vietnam Veteran working somewhere in Southern California and convinces him to return home and to become a deputized peace officer.

   But it doesn’t take long before Ben realizes that Aaron and the men he has brought with him aren’t going to play nice with either the criminals or the townsfolk. In fact, Aaron has his own nefarious plans for his hometown, a place for which he has utter contempt.

   There’s a lot of talk, some shooting, a lot more talk with low tech dialogue, and then a final action sequence which isn’t all that spectacular. Kristofferson was a far better actor and capable of so much more than he was given in this one. As for Vincent, he’d go on to bigger and better things in the 1980s before suffering a severe career decline the following decade.

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