Reviewed by STEPHEN MERTZ:         

  JOHN SPAIN – Death Is Like That. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1943. Detective Novel Classic #35, digest-sized paperback, no date stated [1944]. Popular Library #178, paperback, 1949.

   “Spain” was a pseudonym of Cleve F. Adams, a popular L.A. hard-boiled writer of the forties who is largely forgotten today. This book is one of his very best.

   Hero Bill Rye is a trouble shooter for millionaire Ed Callahan. Callahan once saved Rye’s life (we’re never told just how) and there is a far deeper bond running between the two than mere employer/employee.

   Callahan owns the Governor of California. However, it’s election time and the campaign is a bitter, under-handed one. The candidate opposing Callahan’s man is owned by a ruthless newspaper magnate who would like nothing better than to dig up a juicy scandal on either Callahan or the Governor to smear across the front pages of his dailies and shoo his own man into office.

   Since Callahan’s family is comprised of a promiscuous alcoholic wife, a short-tempered, hell-raising son, and an ex-showgirl daughter-in-law who still yearns on occasion for the fast life, Rye, needless to say, more than has his hands full.

   If the Rye/Callahan relationship and the casual acceptance of all-pervasive political corruption reminds one of Hammett’s The Glass Key at times, Adams was nonetheless a supremely gifted, original talent and Death Is Like That is a tough guy masterpiece of intricate plotting, non-stop pace, colorful characterization, incisive wit and a writing style evocative of Chandler at his best:

   Across the hall someone must have told a funny story. The shrill laughter of women topped the deeper tones of men like froth on a beer.

   A hard one to find, but well worth the effort to any fan of the hard-boiled genre.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 4, July 1978.

Bibliographic Notes:   There was one earlier Bill Rye novel, Dig Me a Grave (Dutton, 1942). Adams (1895-1949) also wrote one other book under the Spain name, a standalone novel titled The Evil Star (Dutton, 1944).

Here’s the first track on this singer-songwriter’s only album, Gordon’s Buster, released in 1968 by Columbia.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TONIGHT WE RAID CALAIS. 20th Century Fox, 1943. Annabella, John Sutton, Lee J. Cobb, Beulah Bondi, Blanche Yurka, Howard Da Silva. Director: John Brahm.

   Although Tonight We Raid Calais is most certainly a war film, it is emphatically not a combat film. Rather, it belongs to that particular subset of movies, filmed and released as the war was raging in Europe, in which ordinary people are forced to make a choice between accommodating themselves to the Nazi occupation or fighting back against the Third Reich despite great personal risk to their families. It’s a morale booster, to be sure, but one benefits from John Brahm’s direction and Lucien Ballard’s cinematography.

   Much like the superb Edge of Darkness (1943) starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, which I reviewed here, Tonight We Raid Calais tells that story of a small-town community that summons the will to take on the Nazis. Instead of a Norwegian fishing village, this film unfolds in northern France, not too far from the eponymous port city that sits across the English Channel.

   Geoffrey Carter (John Sutton), a French-speaking British commando lands in Nazi-occupied France with a mission. He is to seek out the precise location of a German munitions factory and to find a means of relaying that information to the RAF. After attacking and killing German soldiers, Carter hides out in a French farmhouse. The family, lead by patriarch M. Bonnard (Lee J. Cobb) is a house divided: Bonnard is a staunch French patriot opposed to the Nazis; his wife (Beulah Bondi) is grief-stricken by the loss of her son, Pierre; and his daughter, Odette (Annabella) who distrusts the British and is ready to somewhat accommodate herself with the German presence in her country.

   The plot, which runs at a steady clip, follows Carter as he both tries to ensure that Odette doesn’t betray his plans and works to enlist the local townsfolk into a plan to burn their crops at night so as to give the RAF a clear view of the factory. Getting in his way is the occasionally bumbling, but clearly devious Sgt. Block (a truly miscast Howard Da Silva who simply is not believable as a Nazi) who has more than a fleeting romantic interest in Odette.

   What really makes Tonight We Raid Calais a standout film, however, is not the rather standard “commando behind enemy lines” storyline, but rather a subplot that takes place (Spoiler Alert) toward the end of the film. After the local German commander executes M. Bonnard and his wife for their resistance activities, Odette takes it upon herself to avenge her parents’ deaths.

   Indeed, due to the aforementioned actions of the character portrayed by Annabella, Tonight We Raid Calais also belongs to the “female revenge thriller” subgenre that can exist comfortably within film noir, action films, or martial arts films. In this case, the female revenge narrative occurs within the context of a war film, making Annabella’s character much more memorable than the British commando she is aiding.

   Overall, this is one of the better World War II films released during the course of the war. It’s at times overly sentimental, but with an edge to it. There are some genuinely tense moments, much of it due to Brahm getting the most of his actors, including Lee J. Cobb who, although he was in his early 30s at the time of filming, was very convincing in his role a late middle-aged French farmer willing to sacrifice his life for a cause greater than himself.

RICHARD SAPIR & WARREN MURPHY – The Destroyer #31: The Head Man. Pinnacle 40-153, paperback original, 1977.

   Threatened in this, the latest adventure of Remo Williams and his North Korean mentor Chino Chiun, is the assassination of a newly elected president who has a magnificent smile and comes from the South:

    “So the President is going to be killed. So what?” Remo said.

    “Have you seen the Vice President?” Smith asked.

    “We’ve got to save the President,” Remo said.

   This particular president is a gutsy individual, who refuses to spend his tenure in office as a prisoner inside the White House, but of course that only makes the job harder. Sapir and Murphy have come up with a neat theory of bow presidents since Kennedy have avoided being assassinated, and their coarse comments on how affairs in Washington are conducted continue to cut across the grain of teeth-gritting liberals, but there’s no denying that the first half of this book is much talkier than usual.

   Long-time fans of this series will be crying for the action to start, and anyone else should find an earlier entry and one more substantial to try their taste buds on.

Rating:   C plus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 4, July 1978.

William F. Deeck

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Case of the Golddigger’s Purse. William Morrow, hardcover, 1945. Pocket #812, paperback, 1951. Reprinted many times.

   Dining innocently in a restaurant, Perry Mason is approached by a man who wants to discuss the legal problems of bis goldfish and also, incidentally, their medical condition. The fish are a specially bred Veiltail Moor Telescope, sometimes known as the Fish of Death because they arc black, not gold.

   Though not interested in the fish’s problem, Mason’s curiosity is piqued by this prospective client and his golddigger date. As might be expected, one of them does become a client after the other becomes a corpse.

   The goldfish run, not that such a thing is possible, throughout the novel, both alive and ill and dead. They are also a clue in a standard, which is not high but also never low, Perry Mason novel.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter 1990, “Beastly Murders.”

AGATHA CHRISTIE – Funerals Are Fatal. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1953. First published in the UK as After the Funeral by Collins, hardcover, 1953. First paperback printing in the US: Pocket #1003, 1954. Reprinted many times. Film: MGM, 1963, as Murder at the Gallop.

   Hercule Poirot’s self-proclaimed procedure in investigating a case is to study the people involved, listen to them (sometimes surreptitiously), and above all engage them in conversation. Talk to a murderer long enough, he believes, and he (or she) will say something, perhaps very innocuously, that will give himself (or herself) away.

   And so it is in Funerals Are Fatal. It takes the full first chapter, a family tree and a Cast of Characters to identify all of the players firmly in the reader’s mind, but because each of the surviving members of the newly deceased Richard Abernathy’s family are such distinct individuals, as delineated so (seemingly) easily by Agatha Christie, it is not difficult to keep the various players straight from that point on.

   Not that Poirot doesn’t rely on physical evidence as well, for he does, even going so far as to hire a private detective himself, a task absolutely necessary to check out alibis and so on — not Poirot’s forte at all.

   The story. After Richard Abernathy’s funeral, his youngest sister Cora, a bit of an innocent, asks the question that perhaps the entire family (all in need of ready funds, it almost goes without saying) is also wondering: “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”

   When Cora is found murdered the next day, the family solicitor takes it upon himself to employ Poirot to make some discreet inquiries, and so he does, in a case in which everyone has a motive and (quite surprisingly) opportunity.

   It is my firm opinion that anyone who claims that they can outwit Agatha Christie when it comes to solving the puzzles she put together when she was at the top of her game, as she is here, is — shall we say — exaggerating? Or very very lucky at guessing. (Maybe that is just sour grapes talking.)

GLORIA DANK – Friends to the End. Bantam, paperback original; 1st printing, October 1989.

   This is the first of four murder mystery investigations tackled by the unlikely team of Snooky Randolph, a young 20-something member of the idle rich, and his curmudgeonly brother-in-law, Bernard Woodruff, world renown writer of children’s books. The latter and his wife (and Snooky’s older sister) live in the rich lower left corner of Connecticut, of course, while Snooky stops by and stays (and stays) every once in a while.

    Dead at a dinner party for a small group of friends is the wife of a man that no one in particular likes. Poison, insecticide, in something she drank. What the poison meant for her? Or for her husband, as he claims loudly to the police?

   Snooky’s connection is that he is in love, he thinks, with the stepdaughter of the dead woman, while Bernard finds that even though he dislikes mankind — and hates children — and greatly to his amazement, that armchair detective work is much to his liking.

   This is a humorous novel, with lots of witty commentary on life in suburban Connecticut and the people in it. From page 123, referring yo Mr. Hal, the gardener: “Finding his employer’s dead body was clearly the most exciting thing that had happened in Harold Shrimpton’s life since the Super Bowl.”

   It is also a decent detective novel, even given that once the number of bodies starts to pile up, the number of possible suspects goes down in equal number. I enjoyed this one.

       The Snooky Randolph & Bernard Woodruff mystery series

Friends Till the End. Bantam, 1989.
Going Out in Style. Bantam, 1990.
As the Sparks Fly Upward. Doubleday, 1992.
The Misfortunes of Others. Doubleday, 1993.


JAN BURKE – Goodnight, Irene. Irene Kelly #1. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1993. Avon, paperback, 1994. Pocket, paperback, 2002.

   I didn’t expect to like this. First, there was the blurb, “In the best-selling tradition of Grafton & Paretsky.” Sure. You bet. Second, it featured a new amateur sleuth by a new writer, both female, and my luck’s been poor with that combination. But I was wrong.

   Irene Kelly is a Southern Califomia ex-reporter. Her mentor and close friend is killed by a bomb, and the murder would seem to be linked to an old slaying with which he had been obsessed, his current investigation of a local money-laundering scheme, or both. Irene quickly becomes the next target of the killer, even before she begins to probe into things. The situation is complicated by a rekindling flame with a local policeman whom she had briefly be involved in the past.

   I loved the first line: “He loved to watch fat women dance.” Burke is an good writer, accomplished far beyond her first-book status. Kelly is both likable and believable as a person, as are most of the other players. The plot was pretty standard, and I was neither surprised by the outcome nor found it too convincing but these are faults not limited to inexperienced authors. There were plot elements that usually tum me off (the romance with the cop in particular), but Burke’s writing and my liking for the heroine mostly overcame them.

   This is one of the better debut novels in a while, and I look forward to more and better from Burke.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #5, January 1993.

      The Irene Kelly series —

1. Goodnight, Irene (1993)
2. Sweet Dreams, Irene (1994)
3. Dear Irene, (1995)
4. Remember Me, Irene (1996)
5. Hocus (1997)
6. Liar (1998)
7. Bones (1999)
8. Flight (2001)
9. Bloodlines (2005)
10. Kidnapped (2006)
11. Disturbance (2011)

NOTES:   Goodnight, Irene was nominated for an Anthony award for Best First Novel. Bones was awarded an Edgar by the MWA for Best Novel. Irene has only a secondary role in Flight, which is told from the point of view of her husband, homicide detective Frank Harriman.

From this Texas-born singer-songwriter’s 1975 LP Your Place or Mine, a song dedicated to Jim Croce after his death in 1973:

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

ONLY THE VALIANT. Warner Brothers, 1951. Gregory Peck, Barbara Payton, Ward Bond, Gig Young, Lon Chaney, Neville Brand, Jeff Corey, Warner Anderson. Based on the novel by Charles Marquis Warren. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   For a movie that, truth be told, isn’t structurally all that sound, Only the Valiant remains overall quite entertaining. Adapted from the eponymous 1943 novel by Charles Marquis Warren, the movie, while far better than many other Westerns released in the same era, suffers from the same ailment that afflicts far too many Westerns based on novels: namely, it tries to do too much.

   Rather than condense the backstories and numerous subplots, the film keeps them in, but in such an abbreviated manner that they all become muddled, leaving the viewer to wonder exactly what is motivating different characters.

   Gregory Peck, who apparently later considered Only the Valiant to have been his least favorite film project, portrays Captain Richard Lance, a hard-nosed U.S. Army Cavalry officer posted in the New Mexico Territory. And with New Mexico comes Apache warriors ready to fight the newly arrived White settlers. After Capt. Lance and his men capture Apache leader, Tucsos (Michael Ansara) at an Army fort decimated by Apache violence, a debate erupts as to what to do with the captive. Lance, known for being by the book, rejects the suggestion that they should kill Tucsos outright.

   This decision sets in motion a series of events that leads Capt. Lance and a handpicked crew of misfits from within the ranks back to the destroyed Army fort. There, the men will make a final stand both against the Apaches and themselves. In the course of their suicide mission, some men will all but crack under the pressure. Others will lash out against the hated Capt. Lance. Sergeant Ben Murdock (Neville Brand), for instance, loathes Lance for denying him a promotion.

   On the other hand, Trooper Kebussyan (Lon Chaney), a soldier of Arab descent, loathes Lance for reasons never satisfactorily explained. The same could be said for Trooper Rutledge (Warner Anderson) and Trooper Saxton (Terry Kilburn), both whom seem to want to kill Capt. Lance. But the backstories why are so condensed that it leaves the viewer a bit puzzled as to what Lance has done to earn so much enmity.

   Muddying the waters even more is the fact that Only the Valiant does not do a particularly good job in introducing other important characters to the audience. Case in point is Captain Eversham (Hugh Sanders), father of Lance’s love interest, Cathy Eversham (Barbara Payton). One again suspects that the movie leaves out important details found in the book, a work that I admittedly have not had the chance to read.

   Despite these flaws, however, Only the Valiant ends up being a perfectly watchable movie. Ironically, a lot of this stems from the fact that one often doesn’t have a clear idea of what direction the plot is going to go. Is it going to be a film about a doomed romantic relationship on an Army outpost, a movie about men bonding in the heat of battle, or something completely different?

   In retrospect, I actually enjoyed watching the movie as the story unfolded more than I find myself appreciating it as a final product. Make of that what you will.

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