REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


CAPTAIN SWAGGER. Pathé Exchange, 1928. Rod La Rocque, Sue Carol, Richard Tucker, Victor Potel, Ulrich Haupt, Maurice Black, Ray Cooke. Directed by Edward H. Griffith.

   This silent comedy opens in France in 1917, where gallant American pilot Rod La Rocque as just returned from Paris, “an hour and three quarts away…” still on the windward side of soused, but ready to volunteer to dare the skies against Baron Von Stahl (Ulrich Haupt), due to make his daily bombing run.

   Sure enough our hero is true to his word and shoots Von Stahl down over his own lines, but when he fails to see the gallant enemy pilot emerge from his burning plane he lands and rescues him. The grateful German recognizes a fellow knight of the sky and presents him with his own engraved Luger, then helps him to escape the German troops who spotted his plane come down.

   A decade later back in good old New York, our hero, who has earned the nickname “Captain Swagger” from his numerous bill collectors is on his last dime, a playboy who has run out of funds and friends, so taking the engraved Luger he decides to do what any self respecting Twenties gentleman would do: turn elegant bandit (top hat, white tie, formal coat, and white silk scarf).

As luck would have it, all he succeeds in doing is rescuing beautiful Sue Arnold (Sue Carol) from a wolf with a convertible. A bust at banditry, Captain Swagger returns to his soon to be former residence with the girl, and resolves he will have to try a more honest form of survival.

   With the girl, he manages to form a dancing act at one of the more upscale clubs and they are an instant hit. Sue is ready to breathe a sigh of relief: he has finally given up the gentleman bandit game when the club his held up, and one of the hold-up men is Baron Von Stahl.

   Will Captain Swagger stay on the straight and narrow for the sake of true love, or will he fall under the sway of his old enemy and comrade of the skies?

   And why, should you care?

   There is a reason, the reason I have been so careful not to reveal the true name of Rod La Rocque’s Captain Swagger, you see his real name is one you will almost certainly know:

   It’s Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond.

   Brought to the American screen for the first time, H. C. “Sapper” McNeile’s two-fisted, beer-guzzling, jovial and homicidal hero not only becomes an American, he loses his entire reason for being, looking for adventure in boring old peacetime, misplaces Carl and Irma Peterson, leaves the trenches for the skies, and ends up dancing at a night club.

   What would Algy Longworth say? What would Dick Hannay say? What would they say at his club? What would Phyllis say?

   He can hardly show his face at those old Etonian dinners again, one would think. At least Raffles had the good taste to get shot in the Boer War. Even the Saint might think twice about rubbing shoulders with half of a cabaret act.

   La Rocque isn’t bad in the lead. You can imagine him as Drummond, and fortunately a year later Samuel Goldwyn had the good taste to stick much closer to the book and play with an all talking film, cast Joan Bennett as the soon to be Mrs. Drummond, Montagu Love as dear old Carl, and Ronald Colman as Hugh, an especially good idea as Colman managed to get nominated for the first Best Actor Oscar for playing Drummond (he lost out to Warner Baxter’s the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona the last time two series characters or films would be nominated).

   But such is Bulldog Drummond’s first sojourn onto American screens, and I suppose we should be grateful the Brits didn’t retaliate by casting Jack Buchanan as a singing and dancing Philo Vance. There’s no telling where this kind of thing might lead. Can you imagine Mr. Moto, Burlesque comic; or Charle Chan with simple songs and snappy patter; Ellery Queen and his amazing Poodles; or, Fred and Ginger as Nick and Nora?

   The blood curdleth.

AGATHA CHRISTIE – Cards on the Table. Hercule Poirot #10. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1936. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1937. Many reprint editions, both hardcover and soft, including: Dell, paperback, 1967; Berkley, paperback, 1984. TV movie: Granada, UK, 2005, Season 10 Episode 2 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, with David Suchet (Hercule Poirot), Zoë Wanamaker (Ariadne Oliver).

   Another absolute gem of a detective mystery, but you should have known that already without my saying so. After all it is by Agatha Christie and the year it came out was 1936, when the grandest dame of detective fiction of all time was at the peak of her writing ability.

   It is stagey, one of those books in which one of the characters must cry out, “But we’re not in a detective story,” even though they all know they are. Or they should.

   A mysterious man with a Mephistophelian look about him tells Poirot at a dinner party that while the latter collects artifacts of cases he has solved, he, Mr. Shaitana, collects killers who have gotten away with it. To prove his statement, he invites M. Poirot to another dinner party, one designed in advance to display and show off (the implication is) his collection.

   The total number of guests: eight. Half the group are detectives, each in their own way: Poirot, Mrs Oliver, the detective writer, Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race. The other four, all murderers who have never been caught, nor even suspected. But Shaitana’s game, whatever it is, is disrupted when he is found murdered himself while everyone else has been playing bridge, the first four above in one room, the second four in another while Shaitana has presumably been watching.

   Supt. Battle’s approach is the usual solid police work, Mrs. Oliver’s that of woman’s intuition, while Poirot’s is that of people watching. Conversation and psychology. (Col. Race does not make much of an appearance; he is there, one presumes to make up a fourth.)

   Personally I find that Poirot’s approach is not only the successful one, but it is the one that is most fun to read. The painstaking hunt for physical clues he leaves for the police. He asks the suspects to describe instead what they remember seeing in the room and looks at the scoring pads as they were filled in while the games of bridge were going on. (Something called rubbers.)

   It helps, unfortunately, if you the reader know something about bridge yourself, but I don’t, and I managed just fine. Each of the suspects takes his or her turn as the prime one and is either eliminated or placed lower down on the list as the investigation goes on — only to emerge again later as the most obvious killer, at least for the time being. And not only does Agatha Christie do this once, but at least twice. If not more.

   Utterly amazing.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SEVEN SINNERS. Universal, 1940. Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Albert Dekker, Broderick Crawford, Anna Lee, Mischa Auer, Oscar Homolka, Billy Gilbert, Samuel S. Hinds, Reginald Denny, Vince Barnett, Henry Victor. Written by John Meehan, Harry Tugend, Ladislas Fodor and Laszlo Vadnay. Directed by Tay Garnett.

   Lusty.

   That says all you need to know, but I’ll expand on it just a bit.

   Seven Sinners opens with a saloon-busting brawl of epic proportions and closes with another even better. In between times we get Marlene Dietrich doing a Miss Sadie Thompson bit as a notorious chanteuse plying her dubious trade among the islands of the South Pacific.

   She goes to work in Billy Gilbert’s Seven Sinners Saloon, meets and falls in love with naval lieutenant John Wayne, but the course of true love is obstructed by his officious superiors (Samuel S. Hinds and Reginald Denny at their stuffiest) and her earthy admirers, including muscle-brained Brod Crawford, jolly klepto Mischa Auer, and knife-wielding Oscar Homolka, whom she would rather forget.

   Director Tay Garnett lets things simmer nicely, teetering at the brink of violence like a drunk on a diving board while Dietrich and the Duke get the hots for each other—by some accounts a passion that extended off-screen as well. Whatever the case, the chemistry between them bubbles up on-screen quite palpably, as the story steams toward a climax that surprised and pleased me no end.

   But before that ending we get the definitive Saloon Brawl. One that matches and exceeds the exuberant melee in Dodge City, mainly because all the principals are right in the thick of things, swinging, kicking, walloping and smashing stuff with balletic abandon. Nobody just gets hit in this donnybrook; they go careening over bars and balconies, breaking tables, chairs, walls, windows and bottles—or having that stuff crashed over them.

   The result is a film of unforgettable energy: romantic, funny, surprising… and undeniably lusty.

TRAPPED. Eagle-Lion Films, 1949. Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt, James Todd. Director: Richard Fleischer.

   Leading man Lloyd Bridges had been around for a while when this movie was made, but this was co-star Barbara Payton’s first credited role in a full-length film. In spite of opening in full-tilt documentary style, expounding the many jobs done by the Treasury Department, and needfully shot on a low budget, the movie definitely falls into the film noir category, and one which definitely needs to be watched by aficionados of such films — once they’ve see all of the better ones.

   It was at first difficult to see Lloyd Bridges as a villain — he’s a little too “honest looking” (if not clean cut) for that — but he was also a good enough actor that he gradually starts to make his role as the former owner of some counterfeit plates more and more believable as time goes on.

   Sprung from jail, nominally having agreed to work undercover for the Treasury Department, he pulls a fast one on them and heads straight for his old girl friend (you know who that is) and the fellow who has the plates now. There’s nothing you haven’t seen before happens from here on in, but it is well filmed and choreographed.

   No, I’ll take that back. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film before in which neither of the two primary leads appear in the last 10 to 15 minutes. (One is dead, the other is in jail. I won’t tell you which is which.)

   In the meantime it is John Hoyt (good) on the chase of James Todd (bad) in the Los Angeles Trolley Barn (very picturesque) that takes the spotlight in the long action-packed finale of this moderately entertaining crime film. Overall, better than expected, but not that much better.

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


ANN PARKER – A Dying Note. Inez Stannert #6. Poisoned Pen Press, softcover, April 2018. Setting: San Francisco CA, 1881.

First Sentence:  Not my hands!

   Inez Stannert and her ward Antonia have moved to San Francisco from Leadville, Colorado, where they live above a music store owned by a renowned local violinist. Inez works in the shop and teaches piano, including to a young musician whose badly beaten body has been found on the banks of the Mission Creek canal. Inez, her life, and the secrets she’s keeping, may fall apart when a friend from her previous home of Leadville shows up with Wolter Roeland de Bruijn, a man who knew Antonia’s late mother, and a man looking for his son. When the link between the two young men is made, can Inez discover his killer without her reputation being destroyed?

   The opening is violent and difficult to read. It is clear there is an important link, but one wonders whether the first chapter truly adds to the story or could have been omitted.

   What follows is the true introduction of the protagonist, Inez, and many of the supporting characters. One thing that makes Inez particularly interesting and admirable is her determination and her business acumen. She has found a way to help other women support themselves with small women-owned businesses, while building security for herself and Antonia. There is information on Antonia’s past included in the story that explains her behavior and tendency toward self-reliance. Inez knows what it is to be an outsider and recognizes it in others. There is also a scene of great tenderness.

   There are a number of other wonderful characters who enrich the plot. Antonia’s friend Mick Lynch is a member of a large Irish family and son of the cop. John Hue is a Chinese purveyor of curiosities and repairer of stringed instruments and woodwinds. Patrick May, the young black man, loves music and just wants to play the piano. Elizabeth O’Connell, is a female Pinkerton agent. These, among others, give flavor and dimension to the story.

   One is given a good look at life in this time, but it is life of ordinary people. Yes, there are scenes at the still-fabulous Palace Hotel, but the bulk of of the story involves the working class which is a rather refreshing change. Parker also addresses the issues of attitudes toward the blacks and Chinese immigrants, and the events surrounding the attempts at unionizing musicians.

   Even so, there is a nod to today— “Mark me,” he continued, “there will come a time when the oppression by the moneyed powers of this country will be so great it will no longer be endured.” There is so much wonderful historical information included that adds veracity to the story. When reading historical mysteries, the Author’s Notes are always important and informative. It’s fun to learn which things are real and which were invented or changed for the purpose of the story.

    A Dying Note includes very good plot twists, a surprising ending, and a promise of continuing associations in the future.

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


      The Inez Stannert series —

1. Silver Lies (2003)     Spur Award and Bruce Alexander Historical Award finalists
2. Iron Ties (2006)
3. Leaden Skies (2009)
4. Mercury’s Rise (2011)     Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award winner and Agatha Award Best Historical Novel nominee
5. What Gold Buys (2016)     Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award and Macavity/Sue Feder Historical Novel Award finalists
6. A Dying Note (2018)

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   We continue our discussion of H. C. Branson with his third novel. He never tells us in so many words where CASE OF THE GIANT KILLER (1944) takes place but he does give us two clues. We open at a country club which is said to overlook Lake Erie. That lake borders on only four states—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. At first one might conclude that the events are taking place in Michigan, but later in the novel that state is referred to as a place other than the book’s setting, although whether Branson meant to rule out his home state or simply made a mistake isn’t clear.

   Bent is vacationing at the country club near the town of Port Arthur when he’s approached by two parties. The first to seek his advice is Barney Hogan, a local investment adviser whose wife’s first husband, convicted of embezzling from Hogan’s firm and just released from prison, is making revenge noises. The second is Elizabeth Orme, widow of a prominent Supreme Court justice, whose bookish young son has gotten involved with a married woman several years his senior.

   The two sets of dramatis personae are of course connected: the ex-con is the brother of the woman young Orme is involved with and her husband, Arthur Pickett, is Barney Hogan’s business partner. Pickett is found dead at the bottom of a cliff a few days after these conversations, and a few nights after the first murder Hogan is shot to death. As usual in Branson, the clues to both crimes are somewhat less than concrete.

   But Bent keeps formulating reconstructions of what might have happened and eventually the complex truth comes out. There’s not a smidgen of a hint that the United States is fighting a world war — not even in the final conversation between Bent and the novel’s Iago figure where the fact of war would be extremely relevant. It’s as if Branson had made a “contract with America,” similar to Georges Simenon’s wartime “contract with France,” to write nothing that would reflect the real-world situation at the time.

   Tony Boucher once again dispensed with a verb in his Chronicle review (26 March 1944) but was even more lavish in his praise: “The best Branson yet, a flawless job to delight the purist who does not insist on extraneous excitement, and demonstrating…that the so-called rules of detective fiction are made to be broken—but only by one who understands them as well as Mr. Branson.”

***

   In THE FEARFUL PASSAGE (1945) World War II is once again conspicuous by its absence, but this time Branson tells us unequivocally where his protagonist is based and where the action takes place. At 1:40 P.M. on a bright October day, after a journey of two to three hours, Bent steps off the train from New York City at the affluent town of Chalcis, having been summoned by county prosecutor Mark Shaftoe, on behalf of a private client he refuses to name, to investigate a murder that took place the night before.

   It’s apparent that the prime suspect in the murder of Gavin Hunter is young Tom Shepherd, the son of Hunter’s deceased wife by her first husband. Not only does Tom hate his stepfather but upon Hunter’s death he’ll inherit the fortune made by his biological dad, a wealthy candy manufacturer. At first it seems that Tom can’t possibly be guilty since he was in New York at the time of the murder. But when it develops that he was seen in Chalcis the evening of the shooting, he’s given a second alibi by the much younger wife of Professor John Winter Shaftoe, the uncle of the prosecutor who sent for Bent and an historian of civilizations whom Branson portrays as a sort of cross between Hemingway and Arnold Toynbee.

   In fact the town seems to be full of people, including the prosecutor himself, who don’t want Tom to be charged with anything. With only one murder, Branson’s fourth novel is more unified than the previous three but, in a quiet detached way, just as emotionally intense, although few if any readers are likely to beat Bent to the answer. Boucher in his Chronicle review (9 December 1945) didn’t eschew verbs but lavished praise as before: “Like all of Branson’s works this is a civilized and distinguished contribution to the serious literature of the detective story, and there’s a peculiar ironic aftertaste to this one.”

***

   On the first page of LAST YEAR’S BLOOD (1947) we’re told that Bent has come from New York, but later events prove pretty conclusively that the setting is nowhere in the Empire State. Near the end of the book we learn that one of the characters left Chicago at 7:10 P.M., drove to the nameless town where the novel takes place, committed a murder, and was back in Chicago by 4:35 A.M.

   From Chicago to Erie, Pennsylvania, which is a little nearer the Windy City than any point in New York, is almost 450 miles. Can you imagine driving more than 900 miles in a little over nine hours, years before anyone ever heard of the Interstate Highway System? If we assume that the novel’s center of gravity is in Michigan, probably not far from Ann Arbor where Branson lived, we aren’t likely to go far wrong.

   Wherever it is, Bent arrives there on a snowy February evening on commission from Bertha Gretsch, a wealthy vindictive old woman whose daughter Madeline was found in her garage, dead of monoxide poisoning but with chloral hydrate in her system. The death could have been an accident or suicide but Bertha insists it was murder, committed by Madeline’s new second husband, a young doctor.

   Bent begins a quiet investigation which is sidetracked when, the day after his arrival, Bertha herself is clubbed to death and stuffed into a clothes press in the house shared by the late Madeline and her husband. Eventually Bent comes to suspect that the deaths of daughter and mother are part of an elaborate scheme to channel the Gretsch fortune in a certain direction. (Haven’t we seen that element before in Branson?)

   The novel doesn’t offer a diagram of the family tree which might help to clarify the characters’ relationship to each other, but I’ve drawn one and you can access it by clicking here. This time, unlike in I’LL EAT YOU LAST, there are no estate law blunders.

   In 1947, with World War II over, Branson is willing to admit that it happened. Madeline’s second husband served in various stateside Army medical facilities and, after the war, worked as a psychiatrist in a VA hospital, and the husband of another female character (not related to the Gretsches and therefore not shown on the diagram) was killed in the Pacific. Not that any of these details are connected with the plot, which Bent probes in his usual speculative way and which he probably wouldn’t have been able to solve except that in the last chapter one suspect shoots another to death in full view of Bent and the local cop nominally in charge.

***

   THE LEADEN BUBBLE (1949) may well be Branson’s finest novel. Among those who thought so was Ross Macdonald, who in July 1953, a few years before he adopted that byline, called the book “remarkable” in a talk at the University of Michigan with Branson himself in the audience. Almost twenty years later, in a letter to Eudora Welty dated December 4, 1972 and included in the authors’ correspondence collection MEANWHILE THERE ARE LETTERS (2015): “Hank wrote some marvellous mystery novels, as you doubtless know—you perhaps remember THE LEADEN BUBBLE, and if you don’t give it a try….”

   Perhaps the book had a special appeal for Macdonald because so much of it takes place in a shabby-genteel boardinghouse of the sort he spent several years in while growing up in Canada. As BUBBLE begins we find Bent once again visiting a nameless state, although it can’t be too far from his home base because he arrives on a rainy Friday evening in mid-January, driving his own car, and apparently set out only a day or two earlier. What brings him to the town of Marchfield is a letter from an old friend, former Supreme Court justice Matthew Gregory, saying that he’s been “greatly disturbed” by something he doesn’t reveal.

   Bent reaches Gregory’s house only to find the old jurist an inch from death, and in fact he dies a few hours later, leaving Bent in the dark as to what he wanted. Might it somehow be connected with the dead man’s son Robert Gregory, whose estranged wife is about to file for divorce and, with the help of an odious local attorney named Horace Bradley, turn her soon to be ex-husband into a pauper? Might the appeal to Bent have something to do with the old man’s granddaughter, Robert’s niece, whose husband had found her in bed with another man and killed her? Might it be significant that the murderer’s attorney, who managed to get a jury to find the man not guilty (a foreshadowing of the O.J. Simpson trial almost 50 years later?), is the same shyster Robert Gregory’s wife has hired to clean out her husband?

   Bent begins to poke around and, discovering that shortly before his fatal stroke the elder Gregory had paid a mysterious visit to a boardinghouse in the town of Waterford, twelve miles from Marchfield, decides to rent a room in the house himself. On the evening of Bent’s first full day in the area, Horace Bradley is shot to death.

   As usual the suspect list is a long one: Robert Gregory, his rapacious wife, the lover who was in bed with old Gregory’s granddaughter when her husband shot her, and even the husband himself, whom Bradley had been dunning for an exorbitant fee. Barzun and Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME give away the murderer but I shall be kinder and quote only their last sentence: “The atmosphere of steady rain and glistening pavements suits the mood of night wandering, driving to nearby towns, and steady speculation aided by brandy and Beethoven’s piano works.”

***

   At the opening of BEGGAR’S CHOICE (1953) Bent is again disembarking from a train in a town that seems to be in the upper midwest although as usual Branson declines to name the state and mentions the town’s name, Fairfax, only once. Awaiting the detective is attorney Leo Murphy, brother of the county prosecutor, who has sent for Bent because of pervasive rumors that the recent death of aged local millionaire Augustus Lefever, apparently the result of a heart attack, was actually something more sinister.

   The principal beneficiaries of Lefever’s estate are his niece Irene Miller, long a resident of Fairfax, and a young grandnephew from California who happened to be visiting at the time of the old man’s death, but Bent doesn’t rule out the possibility that the murderer, assuming there is one, is an outside party whose motive was to enrich one or the other beneficiary.

   Not much happens besides speculation until some attempts are made on the life of the young woman who’s engaged to the grandnephew. As usual the guilty party never has to face a judge and jury. Although the last couple of paragraphs, describing the murderer’s fate, are strictly out of the blue, Tony Boucher in his New York Times review (21 June 1953) praised the book’s “fine tragic denouement.”

***

    As we’ve seen, opinions about Branson are divided. On the positive side we find not only Don Yates and Ross Macdonald, whom Branson had befriended when all three lived in Ann Arbor, but critics like Tony Boucher who probably never met him. In his final discussion of the novels Boucher called them “….so meticulous in detection and so subtly revealing of human character that they rank high among connoisseurs’ delights….” and commended their “sensitive, courageous, adroit, perspicacious probing….”

   On the other side we find Bill Pronzini, who found the books too “detached and emotionless” for his taste. After re-reading all seven novels in chronological order over a month or so, I’d venture the opinion that anyone with an interest in what is now commonly called Golden Age detection will find Branson an off-trail author well worth more attention than he’s received. Quirks, gaffes and all.

FLOYD MAHANNAH – The Broken Angel. Macrae Smith, hardcover, 1957. Condensed version published in Mercury Mystery Book Magazine, January 1958. Pocket #1231, paperback, 1958. Stark House Press, softcover, March 2018, combined in one volume with Backfire and Other Stories; introduction by Bill Pronzini.

   In spite of owning all five of the mystery novels published by Floyd Mahannah in his relatively short lifetime, I’d never read any of them until now. My mistake, but thanks to the folks at Stark House Press, I’ve rectified it.
   
   The Broken Angel is pure noir, through and through. It begins with two main characters, newspaper editor/writer Roy Holgren and his secretary, Sara Martin, having a one-sided affair — the kind in which he is more in love with her than she is with him, but the sex is good.

   But the lady has a past, and when it catches up with her, it is with a bang. When Roy rescues her from the hospital in which she ends up, it is he who convinces her that he can help. When at last she admits to committing a murder before she came to work for him, he stays with her, but there are times in The Broken Angel when he wishes he hadn’t.

   Think, perhaps of pairing William Hurt with Kathleen Turner, if you were to make a movie of this, or Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and I’d go see it, that’s for sure.

   The book itself slows down a bit a bit about two-thirds of the way through. There is an overabundance of characters, all with there own secrets, and it becomes more difficult than it should be to figure out who is blackmailing who, and why.

   But the ending is a rip-roarer of one, and Roy at last learns whether she loves him or not, or perhaps of even more importance, did she kill the wife of the doctor she worked for or not? Some detective work on Roy’s part answers the second question, but on balance, there may be more tension involved before the first one is answered.

      Bibliography: FLOYD MAHANNAH (1911-1976) —

The Yellow Hearse. Duell 1950; Signet 1951, as No Luck for a Lady.
The Golden Goose. Duell 1951; Signet, 1952, as The Broken Body.
Stopover for Murder. Macrae-Smith 1953. Signet, 1956.
The Golden Widow. Macrae-Smith 1956. Permabook, 1957.
The Broken Angel. Macrae-Smith 1957. Pocket, 1958.

   Backfire and Other Stories appears to be an original collection, consisting of five stories from Manhunt and one from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DUDE RANCH. Paramount, 1931. Jack Oakie, Stu Erwin, Eugene Pallette, Mitzi Green, June Collyer. Written by Milton Krims, Percy Heath and Joseph L. & Herman J. Mankiewicz. Directed by Frank Tuttle.

   The first of the films I brought home from Cinevent, and what a treat!

   Stu Erwin plays the owner of a Dude Ranch where things are so dull the tour guide falls asleep in mid-sentence. As one departing guest observes, “Wild West? The wildest thing I saw out here was a wildflower — and it was a pansy!”

   As the guests prepare to depart en masse, a down-at-the-heels-and-soles troupe of traveling players (Oakie and Pallette, marvelously hammy, abetted by Mitzi Green as a professional orphan and Ms Cecil Weston as her chronically long-lost mother) stumble onto the scene, and quickly conspire with Stu to liven things up with a bit of full-blooded melodrama.

   Thus Jack Oakie becomes Vance Kilroy, hero of the plains; Eugene Pallette morphs into Black Jed, wife-beater, child-starver, and all-purpose blackguard, menacing Mitzi and Ms Weston as mother-and-daughter recently escaped from Injuns. A bit of drama, some fisticuffs, and the guests (except for the lovely Ms Collyer) eat it up with a ladle.

   This is the meat of the film: Jack Oakie, preening and posing as only he could, Eugene Pallette huffing, puffing, and stuffing his mouth, and little Mitzi wrenching tears of sympathy from all & sundry. The written word doesn’t do her justice. You just have to watch the scene where a kindly old lady asks her what tribe captured her, and she rolls her eyes heavenward and sighs, “They was Cleveland Indians, Ma’am!”

   As an aside, I really think Jack Oakie developed the Bob Hope Persona before Hope himself did: Soft of heart and head, cowardly, vainglorious, yet somehow likeable—and most important, Fun-nee!

   But to get back to the story: More plot quickly ensues as a quartet of genuine tough guys arrive, intending to use the dude ranch as a base of operations for a bank job—a plot that gets no more attention from director Frank Tuttle than it merits, as we race through the usual complications, enlivened with some funny pratfalls and cutting wordplay, then up to the Big Chase Finale, with thespians, guests, Stu Erwin and the law in pell-mell pursuit of the baddies and a captured heroine.

   And I have to say that this chase seems to have been the inspiration for much of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as Jack Oakie’s stunt double leaps from car to truck, swings off the roof and into the cab, kicking the driver out, and gets into a wild donnybrook with the baddies while the truck is stalled on a railroad track with the Superchief bearing down on them. Tuttle gears this bit for thrills, and produces a breathtaking and suspenseful few minutes that left me marveling in its wake.

    Dude Ranch didn’t win any awards, and it’s completely forgotten these days, but the talents involved put a lot into it, and it paid off handsomely for any viewer who chances to discover this gem.

ROBERT CAMPBELL – Thinning the Turkey Herd. Jimmy Flannery #4. New American Library, hardcover, 1988. Signet, paperback, August 1989.

   Jimmy Flannery is not a private eye, but when it comes to doing favors for people, he may as well be. Basically he works for the Sewer Department for the city of Chicago, but in reality he spends far more of his time as the Democratic party precinct captain for the neighborhood in which he and and his wife Mary live. And as I say, doing favors for people.

   The title comes from a bit of black humor. The turkey herd refers refers to the horde of young girls who come to the Windy City every year hoping to become models. And three so far have been killed. The police have no suspects, and the local alderman, Janet Canarias, a Puerto Rican and a lesbian, asks Jimmy to look into in.

   And the next time she comes knocking on his door, her distress is personal. The girl who was going to move in with her has disappeared, her suitcase in Janet’s apartment, but with no sign of her. It us too soon for the police to investigate. Canarias once asks Flannery again for assistance.

   And with a caveat or two, Flannery’s low-keyed look into matters is a pleasure to read. As the author, Campbell seems to have known Chicago politics from the ground up — almost all the way up, as certain political figures try to maneuver their friends (or even themselves) out of the way of Flannery’s investigation.

   Caveats. Campbell is far better at describing life in Chicago as it is (was) lived at the neighborhood level than writing a detective story. Flannery should have put two and two together much faster than he did, and when he does, it is almost like pulling a rabbit out of a hat with only a chapter or two to go. Flannery spends far more time with Willy Dink, a independent one-man pest control man in the dead girl’s building, complete with dog, chicken, snake, and an armadillo, than he does in finding the her killer.

   Here’s a book, in other words, that was fun to read, but in the end, not nearly as solid as it could have been.

       The Jimmy Flannery series —

1. The Junkyard Dog (1986)
2. The 600 Pound Gorilla (1987)
3. Hip-Deep in Alligators (1987)
4. Thinning the Turkey Herd (1988)
5. The Cat’s Meow (1988)
6. Nibbled to Death by Ducks (1989)
7. The Gift Horse’s Mouth (1990)
8. In a Pig’s Eye (1992)
9. Sauce for the Goose (1994)
10. The Lion’s Share (1996)
11. Pigeon Pie (1998)

DOROTHY GILMAN – Mrs. Pollifax and the Golden Triangle. Mrs. Pollifax #8. Doubleday, hardcover, 1988. Fawcett Crest 21515, paperback, March 1989.

   A confession. Dorothy Gilman has been writing these adventures of part-time CIA operative Mrs. Pollifax for some time now, and I’ve always considered them to be of the humorous “Miss Seeton” variety. Not so, and I apologize. I’m a convert, as of right now.

   Here she’s asked to deliver a small package in Thailand, a minor job, but then she’s forced to spend the next five days in the jungle searching for her kidnapped husband. Exotic countryside and espionage on the personal level, mixed together in solid, convincing fashion.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.


Bibliographic Note:   Dorothy Gilman wrote a total of 14 spy adventures of Mrs. Pollifax between 1966 and 2000. In 2010 she was was awarded the annual Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America.

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