Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

MALAYA. MGM, 1949. Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Valentina Cortesa, Sydney Greenstreet, John Hodiak, Lionel Barrymore, Gilbert Roland, Roland Winters. Director: Richard Thorpe.

   Sometimes even a great cast can’t save a film bogged down with a lackluster storyline and undistinguished direction. That’s definitely the case with Malaya, an overall disappointing war movie about American smugglers working to get rubber out of Malaysia and into the hands of the Allied war effort.

   If you think I’m being too harsh, consider the all-star cast that’s bogged down by a mediocre script: Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Lionel Barrymore. Plus there are some great character actors in this one. John Hodiak as a federal agent, DeForest Kelley as a U.S. Navy officer, Gilbert Roland as a smuggler, and Roland Winters as a German plantation owner living in Malaysia.

   And truth be told, Greenstreet really does steal the show in this one, making it worth watching for admirers of his work. In his final screen role, he portrays a character named The Dutchman, a scheming, world-weary saloon owner in Imperial Japanese-occupied Malaysia. There’s something both sad and charming about his character, a tired, obese man at war with his pet bird and, it would seem, with a life that has seemingly lost its purpose.

   But it’s not enough to make Malaya anything other than a run-of-the-mill late 1940s wartime film, one that just feels like a tired effort designed to be both patriotic and informative about a lesser-known chapter in the Second World War.

   James Stewart, of course, would soon get a new lease on celluloid life as a Western actor in Broken Arrow and in his collaborative efforts with Anthony Mann. Maybe that’s but one reason why this 1949 war melodrama isn’t very well known. But then again, there’s just no outstanding reason why it should be.

CHARLES L. CLIFFORD – While the Bells Rang. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1941. [Also published in novella form in The American Magazine, March 1941.]

   Except for one borderline item, according to Hubin, this book constitutes the extent of Clifford’s contribution to novel-length crime fiction. (According to the dust jacket, he was well known for his short stories, but if any of them were detective stories, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know.)

   When the story begins, a great deal has already happened. A well-known columnist has been murdered on a polo-player’s ranch, and an army captain from the base adjoining has already been tried and convicted. Convinced of his innocence, however, his fiancee and his closest army buddy decide to become partners and do a little bit of undercover detective work to prove it.

   The delivery is fast and slangy — the combined effect, I imagine, of the army post background plus the presence of the fast-paced horsey set next door — while at times a little too much is left unsaid, making the whole affair seem to be taking place in another time and another place altogether. Through the faulty focus of this self-contained time-machine, it’s no great wonder the pieces of the puzzle seem continually blurred and fractionally out of place.

   And yet, before it was all over, the characters had started to show definite signs of life, and some of their romantic entanglements had begun to seem important to me as well as to them.

   If Clifford had been able to give his amateur sleuths a little more direction, if he had gathered his own material a little more tightly together, if he’d forced the plot to ramble a little less, I’m convinced he’d have had a winner.

   That’s a lot of “ifs,” I grant you. I was left in a good mood when it was over, though, and I really think he came closer than I thought for a while he was going to.

Rating:   B minus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 3, May/June 1981.

[UPDATE] 11-10-14.   I don’t remember this one at all, not even with the review itself to jog my memory. I have it to admit it. It’s time to start over.

   One other thing. In the comments that followed David Vineyard’s recent review of a novel by Charles Williams, there was a short discussion of pairs of authors with the same name. Here’s another one for you. The real name of Robert Ames, who wrote three paperback originals for Gold Medal in the 50s, was Charles Clifford. You could look it up.


RICHARD GLENDINNING – Terror in the Sun. Gold Medal #237, paperback original, 1952.

   From the back cover:

         She swept through that swamp town like original sin.

         Johnny Clayton looked at her and kissed his life good-by.

         Because of her, he suffered jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

         Because of her, he risked his life in a battle with incredible evil.

         And she cursed him for it.

   Well, I’ve had relationships like that, so I picked up Richard Glendenning’s Terror in the Sun with some interest and anticipation. And found it enjoyably routine. All the Gold Medal staples are here: working-class hero, willing women, corrupt cops, noble Indians, tough feds and loathsome furinners.

   They all strut and fret their appointed hour on the page, full of spit and vinegar, signifying a pleasant and forgettable read.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

CARSON CITY. Warner Brothers, 1952. Randolph Scott, Lucille Norman, Raymond Massey, Richard Webb, James Millican, Larry Keating, George Cleveland, Don Beddoe. Director: André De Toth.

   Carson City is a good, albeit not great, Western starring Randolph Scott. Directed by Andre de Toth, whose The Stranger Wore a Gun I reviewed here, the film benefits from a solid, if standard, plot and the presence of a sinister-looking Raymond Massey as the main villain.

   Unfortunately, there just isn’t all that much in the way of outstanding cinematography or in-depth character development. That, and the fact that at times it feels as if Scott is merely going through the motions, makes Carson City less entertaining than it might have been.

   That said, the plot is easy enough to follow. Scott portrays Jeff Kincaid, an adventurer and an engineer who is tasked with building a railroad between Carson City and Virginia City, both in Nevada.

   Unfortunately, the good townsfolk of Carson City are divided on the wisdom of constructing a rail line through their small city. Local newspaper owner, Zeke Mitchell (Don Beddoe) is strongly opposed. His daughter, Susan (Lucille Norman) seems more ambivalent. Susan also figures in some family drama: Kincaid’s half-brother, Alan (Richard Webb), has romantic feelings for her, feelings that aren’t reciprocated.

   But as it turns out the real drama in this movie isn’t so much about the railroad. It’s about bandits, particularly a group called the Champagne Bandits, so named for their propensity to serve their victims bubbly. Leading these gourmand outlaws is no other than the character portrayed by Raymond Massey, Jack Davis. It’s really Massey, more than Scott, who makes this film worth watching. Massey, who like Scott served during the First World War (some historical trivia), is quite good in this film. One only wishes that the final showdown between Scott and Massey’s characters wasn’t so brief.

   While Carson City isn’t nearly among the best Western movies from the 1950s, it’s not the worst either. It’s just somewhere in the vast middle or maybe just slightly better than average.

DAY KEENE – Flight by Night. Ace Double D-170, paperback original, 1956. Published back-to-back with Black Fire, by Lawrence Goldman, reviewed here.

   This one starts out like gangbusters, more or less, but maybe you’ve heard this one before. A semi-seedy bush pilot specializing in taking bits of cargo here and there in short hops in and around Central and South America finds himself in prison and ready for execution — by firing squad — on the next day following, after the story begins.

   But it seems that there is a tradition that is common in Latin American countries. Besides a visit from a local priest, there is a time set aside once a week for all prisoners to welcome female guests, who are allowed to spend an unobserved hour alone with the ones they love. Such a guest is the young and beautiful Conchita, a girl that Jim Bishop does not know and in fact has never seen before.

   While unbuttoning her blouse, in case someone is really watching, Bishop learns that a plan is in motion, a costly one, to get him free. Why, and for what purpose, he does not know, but he is of course naturally willing to learn more.

   There is a group of former citizens from Argentina, it seems, who have left behind a fortune in gold after the fall of Juan Perón, and who have chosen Bishop to help them get it back again.

   Not all is what it seems, of course, as the plot unfolds, but it is disappointing to learn there are no really big twists along the way. Jim Bishop, on the run from a busted marriage, certainly finds romance again, as well as plenty of adventure in the pages that follow, but this relatively uninspired effort reads to me as a reject from Gold Medal, the publisher that in the 1950s Day Keene probably sent his better work to first.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

CHARLES WILLIAMS – Shadows of Ecstasy. Victor Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1933. Pelligrini & Cudahy, US, hardcover, 1950. Reprinted several times in both hardcover and paperback. Available online at Project Gutenberg Australia.

   There once was a small gathering of friends, sometimes two, sometimes three, at a public house in Oxford. The three men called themselves The Inklings because they were all writers. Two of them were Oxford dons at one of the colleges that compose that ancient institution: a Catholic scholar in ancient tongues and elder sagas who would pen one of the great children’s books of the 20th Century and go on to create a literary phenomena, a trilogy that would become one of the cultural icons of the 1960′s and remain one of the world’s most read and loved volumes.

   The other don was no less successful; his conversion to Christianity would make him one of the most famous Christian apologists of his era, and he would pen a trilogy of science fiction novels that helped, along with writers like Kingsley Amis and Aldous Huxley, to drag that genre kicking and screaming out of the pulps into the literary light. His tragic late marriage would become one of the great love stories and inspire one of the key works on grief, and a series of children’s allegorical tales about a place called Narnia would become among the best loved stories in the world.

   Those names you know well, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, yet the third member is not so well known today despite the fact that at that time he was far and away the most famous member of that group: poet, playwright, lecturer, radio personality, leading Christian apologist, and bestselling novelist, Charles Williams.

   Williams was the brightest star of the Inklings. He and Tolkien quietly clashed and were held together by Lewis. Tolkien, a Catholic did not agree with Williams’ Anglican views of faith, and probably resented his hold on Lewis, himself a late convert to the Church of England. Nor was Williams a particularly donnish or quiet sort. To the contrary it is difficult to imagine him in that sedate literary trio.

   No one reads Williams’ poetry much today and his plays go unproduced, but his novels are kept in print, and while not as famous or widely read as those of his fellow Inklings, they have not suffered complete obscurity. But they lack the timeless setting of Lewis’s Perelandra and Narnia and of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Instead they are allegorical thrillers, a sometimes confusing mix of those two great friends P. G. Wodehouse and Sax Rohmer (they were clerks at the same bank in Egypt and remained life long friends and literary supporters) though his writing style is closer to the Huxley of the thirties or early Durrell.

   Christian thrillers are in vogue today, but don’t confuse them with Williams. These poorly written examples of bad pulp, intolerance, and simple-minded theology are no kin to Williams witty, deep novels of soaring imagination, vision, and ageless questions.

   The best of his works is All Hallows Eve, a novel about two people suspended between life and death in shadowy ghost of London unseen by the living around them. Here though we are concerned with one of the thrillers, Shadows Of Ecstasy, which spins a threat that would daunt James Bond, and a villain —- well, is he a villain? — you’ll have to decide for yourself: is he the Antichrist as vicar Ian Caithness holds, a hypnotic power mad genius as agnostic Sir Bernard Travers suspects (Travers and Caithness are best friends — the vicar can’t stand other people’s dogma and Travers has none), or is poet Roger Ingram right, is Nigel Considine’s blinding star to be followed at whatever cost?

    “I have wondered whether there may not be colleges and faculties of other experiences than yours, and whether even now in the far corners of other continents powers not yours are being brought to fruition.”

   Three main plot-lines tie these people and events together: in London a wealthy Jewish collector of rare gems has committed suicide shortly after a visit from Considine and left his collection, including the holy Jewels of Messia, to two relatives who plan to transport part of the collection to the temple in Jerusalem where it belongs; in Africa there are uprisings and unrest, the colonial forces are in retreat, and someone calling himself the High Executive proclaims the day of the European way is ended and a great force is rising from the past to conquer the world with love, but not without bloodshed and the threat of invasion from the great black masses,” the great age of intellect is done.”

   Meanwhile Roger, Travers, and Caithness have befriended a young black man, Inkamasi, they saved from an ugly English mob only to find he is the charming and well educated traditional king of the Zulu nation, descendent of Shaka, and exiled like the hero of Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. He is also key to Nigel Considine’s plans, a king must die.

   “ … the Second Evolution of man has begun.”

   And in London the black people are rising, the secret army of the High Executive, “ Daughters and Sons of Africa, you are called to the everlasting sacrifice.” Soon bombs fall from above, or so the populace believes, and the streets are filled with angry mobs attacking innocent blacks, Jews, and Indians. Williams is no racist; even if his views are dated, there are few demeaning stereotypes. Far and away his greatest wrath is aimed at the English mobs destroying their own city, unknowingly doing the High Executive’s bidding, he isn’t too keen on the government either.

   Is Considine the High Executive? When Travers finds a family photo of Considine taken with his grandfather by Travers as a child in 1883 he realizes Considine would have to be over a hundred years old, and Inkamasi knows him from earliest childhood as the Deathless One.

   Rounding out the cast are the male and female ingenues: Travers’ son Philip, a soldier on leave, and his fiance Rosamund, a beautiful and rather shallow young woman whom Travers has little use for, and who has the thankless job of representing the prejudice and blindness of the average upper middle class Englishwoman or man; two of Considine’s disciples. the Devotees: Nielson, the German who is ready to die and rise again, the final step in achieving the highest order of immortality, and Mottreaux, the Frenchman and Considine’s right hand man.

   Finally there is Roger’s wife Isobel, beautiful, wise, loving, and far and away the sanest person in the book. Even in Considine’s opinion, she is Roger’s anchor to sanity as the world spins into madness, and if you are wondering just who the hero of this book is, the character closest to truth let me point out again Roger is a poet with a rather sardonic tongue, just like the author: “I think you dare encounter darkness.” Considine tells him.

   Granted this is complex and confusing, and Williams, while highly literate and capable of spinning lyrical sentences and witty rapport is not an easy writer, especially for readers used to today’s choppy one-sentence paragraphs. Williams never saw a complex sentence or long paragraph he didn’t like and the book seems longer than it actually is because you have to think while you read.

   Don’t be fooled though, this is compelling page-turning reading, your imagination and intellect kept reeling and your faith or lack of it challenged. This isn’t Narnia, though I suspect Williams’ The Place of the Lion inspired Lewis Aslan.

   I used a key word earlier in relation to Considine, “disciples,” because it soon becomes clear what the allegory is here, and Williams never clearly establishes if Considine reaches too far or fails because of hubris, but the point of the allegory is made pretty clearly when Considine fails to raise Nielson from the dead and is struck down by the bullet of a greedy traitor, who covets the Jewels of Messia, at his moment of triumph:

   That this dreamer, this master of vision should have been destroyed by — by a traitor and a clergyman. He (Roger) walked back abruptly and said: “I hope you paid him better than Caiaphas did? Even at half-crowns it would only come to three pounds fifteen.”

   Who is Considine, a secular second savior, a super criminal worthy of and far more nuanced than Fu Manchu, the Antichrist, or something of all three? At several points Milton and Paradise Lost are invoked but no one quite makes the connection. In the end there are no easy answers, and this thriller bears on its shoulders a greater weight than mere conspiracy and world conquests. Roger and the reader are left wondering, pondering.

   If he returned. If he carried out the experiment of his vision, the purpose of his labours. If, first among his peers, when all believed him lost, he thrust himself from the place of shades back into immortal and transmuted life, if he held death at his disposal, if he knew how the vivid ecstasy of experience dominated all shapes and forms, all accidents of time and place… if now he came once more to threaten and deliver it. If — ah beyond, beyond belief! — but if he returned…


DAVID V. REED – The Thing That Made Love. Unibook #15, digest-sized paperback, 1951. Originally published as “The Metal Monster Murders” in Mammoth Detective, November 1944. Also published as I Thought I’d Die: Green Dragon #23, digest-sized paperback, 1946.

   I owe Bill Crider a debt of gratitude for cluing me into this book (follow the link and click on the back cover), and the miracle of the Internet for making it easy to find, for despite the trashy cover, this is a thoughtful story and one that will surprise you — even if you know a surprise is coming.

   The story here involves yet another mysterious and predatory thing lurking in a swamp, but unlike the pesky critter in Night of the Black Horror, this one is less tangible and more cerebral — they might even have titled it The Thing that Quoted Whitman, though that mightn’t have helped sales much.

   At any rate, the creature inhabits Jamaica Bay, New York, and as the story starts, it has established contact with a writer named Jim Shilling and is just beginning to exert its diabolical influence on Shilling’s journalist friend, Elliott Hammond.

   Here’s where things get tricky. Increasingly alarmed by the Thing and its growing power over him, Hammond relates events to a fantasy-writer friend of his, author David V. Reed. In fact, the novel is laid out as Reed’s collection of pages from Hammond’s journal, mixed in with newspaper clippings, interviews with Hammond’s psychiatrist and sundry input from various other interested parties.

   The multiple viewpoints, many of them first-person, could easily have become confusing, but Reed keeps it all running smoothly and clearly… and with increasingly ominous notes as the Thing begins to extend its control over Shilling and Hammond and young women start turning up dead — each with an unexplained look of ecstasy on her face. At length they work up a scheme to destroy the Thing, but it may be too late as Hammond finds himself more and more living in a world of hallucination and horror….

   I won’t reveal too much more here except to say that author Reed rings in a surprise I found truly ingenious. He also throws in references to fellow-writer John Broome and the Continental Op, making this book a sneaky treat for fans of comic books (Reed wrote memorably for Batman in the 50s and 70s, and Broome brought the silver-age Flash into four-color stardom in the 1960s.) and lovers of Hammett’s pulp classics.

   And for me there was an added and very personal pleasure: Reed created a character just exactly like a guy I once arrested, and I mean to say the parallels left me gasping with surprised recognition.

   In short, this is a gem one wouldn’t expect to find behind that lurid cover and trashy title, and a genuine treat in my Halloween bag.

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