A live version of this song from acoustic blues-rock singer Les Sampou’s 2010 album Lonesomeville.


MAURICE HELBRANT – Narcotic Agent. Ace Double-15, paperback, abridged, 1953. Originally published in hardcover by Vanguard Press, 1941.

   This is one of the most expensive books in my collection, so I read it carefully, but when I finished I had to wonder what all the fuss is about.

   Don’t get me wrong; Narcotic Agent is a tough, reasonably well-written book, and as a document from the days when attitudes towards drugs and drug-users were very different, it’s a vivid artifact of its time.

   Helbrant was a Federal Narcotics agent for more than 15 years, beginning in the days of Prohibition, and during that time he seems to have carried out his job with admirable professionalism, which comes through very effectively in his account of those days: calm, matter-of-fact, and untinged by that megalomania one finds in the ghost-written memoirs of J. Edgar Hoover. He’s just a guy doing a dangerous job and doing it well.

   It’s this professionalism in fact that mitigates against Narcotic Agent as literature. There’s no clear narrative line here, just a simple recounting of case after case (after case, after case…) of him working, usually undercover, with drug addicts and stool pigeons to catch their dealers and thence to the organized gangs of dealers.

   Helbrant occasionally stops to reflect on the nature of Narcotics and their effect on Society in his day, but not often; usually just a few lines about why he’s doing all this and then back to the job at hand. One appreciates the competence, and the absence of sanctimony — rare in books about Drugs in those days — but the result is only readable, not entertaining.

   All of which left me wondering why Narcotic Agent is such a valuable book. Copies can go for as much as $5,000, which is surprising for a tome as ordinary as this. Perhaps someday I’ll flip it over and see if the other side is any good….

THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER. “The Crowd.” HBO, season 1, episode 3 (2 July 1985). Nick Mancuso, R. H. Thomson, David Hughes. Hosted and based on the story by Ray Bradbury. Director: Ralph L. Thomas.

   This one’s a ghost story, and like most ghost stories, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s slickly done, with high production values, and there are some appreciably spooky moments. But it didn’t work for me in any way, shape, or form, and I can’t tell you too much as to why without issuing a Spoiler Alert, so consider it done.

   The idea is that a survivor of a near deadly automobile incident can’t figure out how such a loud noisy crowd of people formed around the scene of the accident so quickly. (The tires hadn’t even stopped spinning.) Probing further, he discovers that the same crowd of individuals were seen (via videotape) at many other such accidents, most of them fatal. Against the advice of a good friend, he makes the mistake of trying to find out more.

   To me, with a logical mind, the question is not how these crowds of ghostly origin form so quickly, but why. I don’t remember how it’s replied to in the story, but this 27 minute cable TV episode answers with mirrors, atmosphere, glitz and special effects. It doesn’t go anywhere near a reason and relies instead on a knock-em-out finale that’s there for shock value only.


STUART KAMINSKY – Death of a Russian Priest. Porfiry Rostnikov #8. Fawcett, hardcover, 1992. Ballantine, paperback, 1993.

   Kaminsky is another author with whom I have an ambivalent relationship. I very much like his books featuring Porfiry Rostnikov and Abe Lieberman, and thoroughly dislike those with Toby Peters. I was a little apprehensive as to what effect the breakup of the USSR would have on his Russian series, but he seems not to have broken stride.

   The latest book takes place after the abortive coup against Gorbachev, with Boris Yeltsin in uneasy power. The government agency for which Rostnikov works has been given more power, but bureaucratic enemies still exist on every side, very much including the revamped KGB.

   Against this background, Rostnikov and his merry band — Emil Karpo, Sasha Tkach, and a new member, Elena Timofeyeva — are working through two unconnected cases. Rostnikov and Karpo are dispatched to the village of Arkush to deal with the murder of an outspoken and charismatic priest, while Tkach and Elena try to trace the missing daughter of a Syrian diplomat. The missing girl’s lover, a Jew, is murdered just as the book begins.

   I have no real idea, of course, as to how accurate Kaminsky has been over the course of the series in depicting the lives and milieu of his Russian characters. They have felt real; and certainly the present book in its picture of everyday life does not contradict what one has read in Time, or seen on network television. If Rostnikov and company are not real, they are Russia’s loss, not ours.

   Kaminsky is an entertaining writer, and the Russia he depicts is a fascinating one. I recommend the entire series, perhaps the first few a trifle more.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #4, November 1992.

PETER LOVESEY – Waxwork. Pantheon, US, hardcover, 1978. Pebguin, US, paperback, 1980. First published in the UK by Macmillan, hardcover, 1978. Adapted for TV: (1) Episode 4, Season 1 of Screenplay, 19 August 1979. (2) Episode 1, season 1 of Cribb, 13 April 1980.

   Mystery fiction written before the turn of the century is doubtless an acquired taste, one that I’ve never developed. Yet with smooth and consummate ease Lovesey continues to show that not only can detective stories be successfully set in the days of Queen Victoria, but he also blends the details of this long-ago era into an essential part of the crime and its solution.

   In this, his latest, all Britain eagerly awaits the salacious details as a beautiful woman is accused of poisoning a blackmailer and is committed for trial at Old Bailey. Sergeant Cribb‘s task is to close out the investigation — some details remain that could yet contradict the lady’s guilty plea.

   From a technical sense, this had to be one of the most difficult tales to tell of any in recent months, and as the jiggery-pokery at length slides effortlessly into place, one can only sit back and applaud with admiration.

Rating:  A.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1978. This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.

Bibliographic Note:   This was the eighth and last recorded case to be solved by Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray, a pair of London-based policemen.


SECRET OF THE INCAS. Paramount Pictures, 1954. Charlton Heston, Robert Young, Nicole Maurey, Thomas Mitchell, Glenda Farrell, Michael Pate, Yma Sumac. Director: Jerry Hopper.

   Before there was Indiana Jones, there was Charlton Heston in Secret of the Incas. A lackluster action movie filmed on location in Peru, the movie features Heston in khaki pants, a leather jacket, and a fedora. He portrays scheming smart aleck Harry Steele, a would-be adventurer and treasure seeker unhappily giving wealthy Americans tours of Cusco, Peru. Even more than women, Harry has one thing on his mind. Money.

   All that begins to change when Romanian exile, Elena Antonescu (Nicole Maurey) arrives in town, the communist authorities hot on her trail. When he and Elana steal a private plane and head to Machu Picchu to steal an Incan treasure (his plan, not hers), it feels as if you’re about to take part in a great adventure and a character’s radical moral transformation.

   Except you’re not.

   Truth be told, Secrets of the Incas is, with a few exceptions, an epic bore. The on-location photography, including some truly breathtaking mountain vistas, is wasted on a lackluster script and strikingly unoriginal direction.

   Heston, who was more than capable of portraying men with villainous streaks, does his best with what he was given. His character, thought by many to be the basis for Indiana Jones, hardly has Indy’s rapscallion charm. Harry Steele isn’t a particularly interesting character; indeed, when he finally realizes that there’s other things in life other than money, it’s with the type of bitterness Heston was so capable of emoting. But truthfully it’s difficult to care all that much: another day, another modernist epiphany.

   All of which leaves the viewer with the question: if it weren’t for Indiana Jones, would anyone anywhere care about Harry Steele?

STUART KAMINSKY – Murder on the Yellow Brick Road. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1977. Penguin, paperback, 1979.

    “Someone had murdered a Munchkin.” So begins the latest case of Toby Peters, last seen helping Errol Flynn out of a nasty blackmail scheme. This time it’s a frightened Judy Garland who demands that MGM allow our lowly Hollywood private eye to handle the affair.

    Name-dropping is again as much of a nuisance as it is of nostalgia value, but rather amusing is the assistance of a rather famous mystery writer who happens to be in Hollywood at the time. More importantly, by the time he’s cracked the case, this time the raffish Toby Peters has begun to become a little more real himself, in a way equivalent to catching a glimpse of an actual person hidden behind the glitter and glamor visible up front on the silver screen.

    Next up, the Marx Brothers.

Rating:   B minus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1978. This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.

Bibliographic Notes:   This was the second of twenty-four Toby Peters novels published between 1977 and 2004, a very nice run by anyone’s standards. For a complete list, along with the books in four other series Kaminsky wrote, plus two standalones, go here.

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