An inquiry from Bill Bickley:

Hello- I’m trying to identify what book the painting I purchased recently was used on…any ideas?? I thought it was a Mack Bolan or Nick Carter but have gone through most of those covers online to no avail. Do you know or perhaps know someone who has an encyclopedic knowledge of these types of books you can show or post this for others to see and offer opinions/answers?? Thanks!

KELLEY ROOS – Murder on Martha’s Vineyard. Walker, hardcover, 1981; paperback, 1986.

   Readers in this part of the country [New England] are likely to pick this one up solely because of its title, read a page or two, and then find themselves suddenly hooked and being reeled in by one of the most suspenseful thrillers I’ve read in quite some time.

   The background turns out to be only incidental. Audrey and William Roos, the names behind the joint Kelley Roos by-line, are a couple of old pros, however, who know all the tricks in snagging the reader’s attention and, more importantly, in holding it.

   A young newlywed returns to the island with her new husband, only to find resentment still blazing on the part of one of the natives, who thinks she got off too easily when she was acquitted for the murder of her first husband.

   She hires an old, used-up private eye to help clear her name, and he does a pretty good job of detective work before he’s finished, but too late. Situations where kidnapping is involved always produce a tremendous amount of tension, and here’s no exception.

   I don’t want to give away too much, but while a good deal of what follows is predictable enough, you shouldn’t really expect a happy ending. Not completely, that is.

Rating: B plus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1981. This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.

THE MYSTERY MAN. Monogram, 1935. Robert Armstrong, Maxine Doyle, Henry Kolker, LeRoy Mason, James Burke, Guy Usher. Director: Ray McCarey.

   I don’t know about you, but Robert Armstrong is the only name in the list of credits above that I recognized before watching this fairly mediocre crime drama — and even after watching it, for that matter. I didn’t recognize a single face, other than Armstrong’s.

   He plays Larry Doyle in this one, one of those brash reporters always at odds with his managing editor, even when he’s given a $50 bonus for the help he gave the police in solving their last case for him. The $50 disappears on a bender with the boys, and he ends up on a train to St. Louis rather than Chicago.

   In Chicago he befriends a young girl who is also out of funds, and together they scam a hotel, pawn a gun, watch a robbery taking place (committed by a notorious criminal know as “The Eel”), grab the loot, get blamed for the killing, go back to the pawnbroker who turned them in, and nab the Eel, making headline news. The end.

   Problem is, Armstrong was 45 when he made this movie, with a receding hairline, and Maxine Doyle was a mere slip of a lass and only 20 years old, young enough to be his daughter. The romance between the two is as unlikely as the screwy crime story the perpetrators of this movie put together.

   But what this still mildly amusing movie does do is remind you of the days (before my time) when a cup of coffee and three doughnuts would cost you 20 cents, and a young lady could have all of 10 cents on her and not be able to pay for it. This is where Larry Doyle comes in.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


FRANKLIN BANDY – Deceit and Deadly Lies. Charter, paperback original, 1978.

   Kevin Maclnnes is known as the “Lie King.” A specialist with the Psychological Stress Evaluator (lie detector), he makes a living by taking voice readings of people and assessing their truthfulness. For a handsome fee, he will aid any client — governmental or private — in a situation where getting at the truth is paramount; and the fee goes to support his elegant but enigmatic mistress, Vanessa.

   One of the subjects Maclnnes is asked to evaluate is brought to him by a New York assistant district attorney; the client is a cabby who claims to have overheard two men talking about an assassination plot, something “really big.” The man apparently is telling the truth, and Maclnnes, spurred by a combination of patriotism (he is a former army officer) and curiosity, aids the authorities by embarking on a search for one of the men described — a search that nearly costs him his lover and his life.

   Maclnnes is interesting, and so is his work. In the course of the novel, he aids a businessman in making a low bid on a tract of land (and suffers sleepless nights when the seller kills himself); rigs a voice test in such a way as to prove a battered wife accidentally killed her husband (he knows she is really guilty, and he loses sleep over that, too); helps a wealthy Mexican family find where the killer of their young son has hidden his body; and bugs a bedroom conversation between himself and his mistress to evaluate whether she really loves him.

   The uncertain relationship with Vanessa is a thread through the story, as are Maclnnes’s fears about misusing his skills.

   For all its merits, this novel could stand to be about 100 pages shorter. It is padded with Harold Robbins-like descriptions of expensive clothing, hotels, gourmet meals, and brand names of liquors and wines.

   There is also a gratuitous side trip into Maclnnes’s attempt to cure a temporary bout of impotence with a call girl, which causes us to lose track of the main focus of the narrative — finding out who is to be assassinated and stopping the killers. But on the whole, it’s a good rainy day book for those who like their settings luxurious and their characters sophisticated, if a trifle stereotypical.

   This novel won the MWA Edgar for Best Paperback Original of 1978. In addition, Franklin Bandy has written The Blackstock Affair (1980) and The Farewell Party (1980).

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Bibliographic Notes:   The Blackstock Affair was the second and final recorded adventure of Kevin MacInnes. Bandy, who died in 1987, also wrote a book called The Shannonese Hustle (1978) and as Eugene Franklin (his first and middle names), three books in a series of cases solved by Berkeley Barnes and Larry Howe, about whom I know nothing.

Reviewed by Mark D. Nevins:


JOHN D. MacDONALD – The Dreadful Lemon Sky. Lippincott, hardcover, 1974. Fawcett Gold Medal Q3285, paperback, 1975. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and soft.

   Continuing my reading of the Travis McGee series in order, and at this point rationing them because I like them so much, but there are so few left.

   The Dreadful Lemon Sky is a solid entry in the series — not one of the best, but very good. By now it seems that MacDonald has basically ditched the whole quasi-PI/“salvage expert” formula: one of McGee’s old girlfriends visits the Busted Flush and asks him to hold a hundred grand in cash for her, and in the event that she never comes back, get it to her younger sister.

   She never does come back, and moral Trav sees fit to get to the bottom of the mystery, which is a clever one, knotted up as McGee tales often are in petty local politics and petty characters, both politics and characters fleshed out with an uncommon level of attention and realism for a thriller novel.

   There are a few surprises here [SPOILER ALERT] including Trav’s houseboat The Busted Flush getting blown to smithereens (don’t worry, it gets fixed up), and as always MacDonald shows off some really nice writing, such as:

   The world looked strange. There were little halos around the edges of every tree and building. I did very deep breathing. It is strange to sleep for five days and five nights and have the world go rolling along without you. Just like it will keep on after you’re dead. The wide busy world of tire balancing, diaper changing, window washing, barn dancing, bike racing, nose picking, and bug swatting will go merrily merrily along. If they were never aware of your presence, they won’t be overwhelmed by your absence.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


P. G. WODEHOUSE – A Damsel in Distress. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1919. George H. Doran Company, US, hardcover, 1919. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft.

A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS. RKO, 1937. Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Reginald Gardiner, Montagu Love, Ray Noble. Written by Wodehouse, Ernest Pagano, S.K. Lauren, William J. Burns and P.J. Wolfson. Music by George Gershwin. Dance Director: Hermes Pan . Directed by George Stevens.

   A tale that finds the author at the top of his form, A Damsel in Distress was adapted as a silent film the year it was published, then as a play in 1928, and finally as a lush RKO musical in 1937. The book itself mines all the usual rich veins of Wodehouse: the stately castle presided over by an Earl (Emsworth in all but name — this Earl nurses roses instead of a prize pig.) the standard iron-clad Aunt, cunning servants, young lovers, dithering relations, and a young demi-lord who could stand as Bertie Wooster’s twin brother.

   The amazing thing is that Wodehouse could return to the same plots, themes, characters and motifs time and again without ever getting stale. In this case, he takes for his hero a composer of popular musicals, one George Bevan (who coincidentally has the same occupation and initials as Wodehouse’s long-time collaborator, the incurably romantic Guy Bolton), whose life is agreeably upset one day on a London street when a desperate young lady (the Damsel in Distress) jumps in his taxi and begs him to hide her.

   From there on, things go as one expects them to: He falls in love; she does too but doesn’t realize it; identities are mistaken, plans laid, plots hatched, things go awry and then get wryed back up again. No surprises here, just laugh-out-loud humor as Wodehouse weaves the tale with his customary understated hyperbole and stream-of-non-sequiturs narration.

   I was struck though by how astute and likable our hero turned out to be — characters in Wodehouse tend to be either one or the other, but seldom both to this degree — and I found myself wondering if this were a mark of the author’s affection for his life-long friend, Bevan’s character model.

   Be that as it may, I read a biography of Wodehouse once that deplored the RKO film of Damsel in Distress, and Wodehouse himself said he contributed remarkably little to it, but I find it a hard film to deplore or even dislike.

   This Damsel is a charming thing, faithful in its fashion to the novel, and where it departs from the text it does so with admirable aplomb; for example, a meeting between the plot-crossed lovers set in a smelly barn in the book is relocated to a fun-fair for splendidly cinematic results. Joan Fontaine seems a pluperfect romantic heroine, and even Burns & Allen enter into the Wodehousian spirit admirably.

   I was struck also by the inspiration in re-shaping the romantic Bevan. Someone at RKO must have noticed that they had cast Fred Astaire in the part (rechristened Jerry Halliday for some reason) and hit upon the happy notion to make him not a musical composer but a musical star! One applauds the cutting-edge creativity involved, as this lets them slip in several highly enjoyable dance numbers, including a fine bit with Burns & Allen, who turn out to be talented hoofers themselves.

   I don’t know which of the phalanx of writers came up with this idea, but I’m glad whoever it was took the concept by the horns and talked the others around to his way of thinking — just imagine how otherwise this might have turned out had they missed this boat and the character remained a composer; the notion of scenes with Astaire sitting at his desk trying to find a rhyme for “Lady Alyce Marshmorton” simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

   Oh, and I wanted to say something about the music by George Gershwin, but once you’ve said “Music by George Gershwin” what more is there?

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT. Warner Brothers, 1933. Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Tully Marshall, Harold Huber, Dorothy Burgess Directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley

   Made on the cusp of the code, this one is almost as tough as it wants to be, with Stanwyck as Nan Taylor, a smart moll who ends up in San Quentin for a bank robbery she aided a hood named Don (Lyle Talbot) in committing.

   This is typical women in prison, and exactly what you would expect from Warners in this era. Stanwyck sets up to con radio crusading do-gooder David Slade (Preston Foster) in order to keep out of prison, and he arranges for her pardon to keep her from prison and falls for her (mutually). But when he finds out she was conning him originally the sanctimonious fool refuses to vouch for her, and she is off to prison. Now the idiot realizes he loves her but it’s too late.

   Apparently women who look like Stanwyck are disposable in his life.

   Foster does what he can with Slade, but among all these colorful types, Clark Gable couldn’t make him anything but a stiff. Casting a tough guy like Foster helps, just not enough.

   I should point out I’m editorializing. The film is much kinder to the noble Slade. I personally found him a huge pain in the lower rear anatomy. Dumb and sanctimonious, the perfect hero.

   Prison is the usual Grand Hotel collection of types: the Duchess, the grand dame of the place who put ground glass in a rival’s food; the aging madam who ran a ‘beauty parlor’; the cigar smoking butch, the rival who will do anything to keep Stanwyck from Slade; and of course the instant best friend (Dorothy Burgess).

   The women’s wing of San Quentin is no cake-walk, but it’s damn glamorous for a prison. There is no shortage of sheer nighties, baby dolls, frilly undies, make up, perms, nylons, suspender belts, and high heels. Save for the ‘butch’ (“Watch out, she likes to wrestle”) there’s not a sensible flat heel in the joint.

   Hard hitting realism, Hollywood style.

   An embittered Stanwyck helps Don (Talbot) and pal Dutch (Huber) plan an escape, and when Dave visits even slips a note in his pocket for him to mail unwittingly helping. When the escape goes wrong and Don is killed she thinks Dave found the note and betrayed her. She swears to kill him.

   When she’s released (short sentences for bank robbery back then) she tracks Dave down to a revival where he is speaking. There she gets him alone and shoots him, but then realizes she loves him and he didn’t betray her. You know how women with guns are. He’s willing to forget the bullet, he loves her, but plainclothes cop Tracy shows up (Tully Marshall, and it’s a full year before Plainclothes Dick appeared in the Chicago Tribune).

   “You ought to have that seen to … gunshots can be tricky,” but suspicion or not, Dave finally grows a pair and stands by his woman. Final clench and they live happily ever after producing little jail birds and revivalists — after a proper period of marital bliss of course. Considering Nan, they better wait at least three years, she is clearly a lady they talk about.

   Ladies They Talk About is a typical little Warner’s picture from the era, with Stanwyck always good in these tough but vulnerable broad roles. Like her, the movie is smart, quick, sassy, and nice to look at.

   The problem is she is alone in this film. There is no one here who can match her. She’s Stanwyck, and at best they are Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot. I like both actors, but matching them up with Stanwyck is like putting Pee Wee Herman in the ring with Ali. They don’t stand a chance in hell. This is a bit lightweight for Warners from this era, not quite one thing or another, and leaves Stanwyck standing center ring alone for most of the movie.

   Bette Davis could have at least loaned her George Brent.

   That said, if you buy the happy moral ending, no doubt code imposed, I have some land in New Mexico next to the White Sands testing grounds you might want to purchase. Nice place save for the black glass.

   Stanwyck’s Nan Taylor is always going to be smarter, classier, and more volatile than her bland do-gooder reformer. Even in a pinafore, gingham, and a pink bow you know Nan will have a flask under her garter and be sneaking cigarettes when Dave isn’t looking. While Dave leads revivals Nan’s going to be nostalgic for bathtub gin, speakeasies, and flash types she used to twirl around her fingers. It’s hard to imagine the pious women of Dave’s revivalist movement are going to welcome an ex-con who matriculated at San Quentin to the fold.

   But then, come to think of it, considering the wan, pale, types Dave spends most of his time with, maybe he’s a very lucky man to come home to Nan’s flash and hidden cigarettes. What’s a little bullet now and then compared to love?

   At least she won’t be dull, and at a fast sixty nine minutes neither is the movie.

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