BOB SHAW – A Wreath of Stars. Doubleday, January 1977, US, hardcover, Dell, paperback, April 1978. Baen Books, US, paperback, November 1987. First published in the UK: Victor Gollancz, hardcover, June 1976.

   If you want science in your science fiction, albeit of the most sensationalist nature possible, look no further this rather dull and plodding tale of adventure. It starts well, with the invention of a special kind of glass that allows wearers to see in the dark — a discovery made just in time for the Earth’s population — but only those wearing glasses made of the material — to see a giant planet consisting solely of anti-neutrons bearing down on the planet. Or more precisely, to pass right through it.

   And causing no damage as it does so. But no matter. As it happens it swerves off from its oncoming path at next to the last minute. No one knows why.

   But what it does do is what the book is all about, beginning with the “ghosts” miners in an underground cavern in a post-colonial country in Africa begin to see at regular intervals. Turns out that an entire world made of anti-neutrino matter has existed within the Earth for perhaps billions of years, and only the onrush of the anti-neutrino planet has forced it out of its hiding place below the Earth’s surface.

   What follows is one of those old-fashioned Sci-Fi movies from the 50s and 60s that the British did so well. Is there a means of making contact with the race of people living on this new world? Problem is, the rulers of the African country are despots of tin-hat generals who do not want the outside world barging in.

   A fellow named Gil Snook (don’t snigger) is one of the outsiders on hand to give a hand to the lone scientist who learns early on what a find this new world within our world represents. There is a woman, too, who finds herself in the middle of all this, one both men find irresistible, one only wistfully, as the lady has a mind of her own, very much a creature of her time (the 1970s).

   Unfortunately this is one of those novels that slows down as it goes. Dull and plodding, I said up above, but not in the beginning, I grant you, and it is great fun for a while. The novel ends in a most uninteresting fashion, however, leaving way for a sequel, perhaps, one that never happened, not with the characters spread out between two worlds, never to see other again, with no opportunity for the strange, unconventional but somewhat interesting love triangle to ever have any chance of a resolution. I regret that.

   Nor if you were to ask me, do I know where the title comes from.

WADE MILLER – Calamity Fair. Farrar Straus & Co., hardcover, 1950. Signet #843, paperback, January 1951; Signet #1270; 2nd printing 1956. Harper Perennial, trade paperback, 1993.

   I was prepared to like this one more than I did, even in spite of Chapter One which is essentially a prologue, and as such essentially unnecessary. Sometimes they work, more often they don’t, and this is one in the latter category.

   The PI in this book is Max Thursday, the fourth of six recorded adventures. The scene is San Diego, which is described in enough detail to make the reader (me) feel at home there. The crime: an organized gang of blackmailers. Thursday’s client: Irene Whitney, she says, meeting him in a house which is not hers, and what she wants him to do is get back a stack of gambling IOU’s before her husband finds out.

   And once on the case, that is Thursday’s only concern. Very little of his personal life is brought up. In fact, he may as well have none. He is on the go from page one and does not stop until page 160 of the Signet paperback edition.

   Problems, as I saw them: In the course of events Thursday meets a lot of people, some of them women and most of those are very seductive. Some more than others. Combined with the intense pace throughout the book, it is often difficult to keep them straight, as many of them, those who aren’t killed early on, pop up again later, sometimes quite unexpectedly.

   But what bothered me more is the tenuous way that the primary villain, as he (or she) turns out to be, is brought into the case. Very strange, I thought at the time, and as I finished the book, I thought, even stranger. But how else could he (or she) have been brought into it? I have no answer for that.

    Although he makes a point of not carrying a gun, at least in this book, Max Thursday is a tough guy through and through, tough and tenacious. He’s also rather smart at putting two and two together, too, though when I got four, Thursday sometimes got five. Or in other words, he was slightly ahead of me for much of the way.

   All in all, though, I’d rather a book read that way than the other way around. Not quite as good as I expected, but still good.

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

SHERLOCK, JR. Buster Keaton Productions, 1924, 45 minutes. Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane. Writers: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez, Joe Mitchell. Director: Buster Keaton.

   For silent film aficionados Charlie Chaplin is the ne plus ultra of comedians. Certainly Chaplin had a wide emotional range which he was able to exploit at every turn; with him, slapstick humor and pathos — if not bathos — could be only a few frames apart. There is no denying Charlie Chaplin’s talent.

   For this silent film enthusiast, however, Buster Keaton is still my favorite comedian of the era. No knock against Chaplin, but there is something irreducibly American about Keaton, especially in his boundless enthusiasm and unquenchable energy in accomplishing his goals. If a situation seemed hopeless, Keaton would simply redouble his efforts and win out in the end — no defeatism for Buster. For him, the most intractable problems would always involve women in some way — and thus has it ever been with men.

   Buster Keaton didn’t have that wide emotional range that Chaplin possessed, but he didn’t really need it. In fact, he eschewed facial emotions, leading to his nickname “The Great Stone Face.” Keeping a dead pan regardless of the situation, Buster was still able to convey exactly what he should be feeling at any given moment. Now that’s talent!

    Sherlock, Jr. is one of Keaton’s best efforts. In it he plays a film projector operator whose dreams mirror his real-life anxieties, so you shouldn’t think that the movie is simply a shallow comedy. As Dan Callahan writes:

    “With Sherlock Jr, he [Keaton] came up with a haunting little meditation on movies and dreams. Projectionist Buster falls asleep at the controls and dreams that he can enter the film he is unreeling. With a series of ingenious visual effects, Keaton gives us a perfect demonstration of what it would be like to climb up onto a screen and become a part of the movie we are watching. It’s an unforgettable scene. Without self-consciousness, Keaton brings home the wondrousness of the medium itself, submerging himself in the ocean of its superb and liquid unreality. When he steps onto the screen, he fulfills something in all of us.”

   It is within this framework of fantasy that Buster acts out some of his most inventive visual gags — falling in and out of the dream world of the film-within-a-film, pretending to be the suave supersleuth (more like James Bond, in fact) who nearly gets it from an explosive billiard ball, diving through a window in a tuxedo and coming up from the ground inside a woman’s dress, diving headfirst yet again through — yes, through — another human being, an exquisitely-timed descent hanging from a railroad crossing gate into a moving car (if you can, run that sequence in slow motion), a gag involving Buster all alone on a bicycle’s handle bars approaching a train that’s just about to pass a trestle, and another stunt in which he falls from a moving train (and during which, he learned years later, he actually broke his neck). It seems that one of Buster’s favorite gag props was trains; he also used them to good effect in The General.

   No two ways about it: Buster Keaton was a comic film genius.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

DOROTHY B. HUGHES – In a Lonely Place. Duell Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1947. Pocket #587, paperback, 1949; Bantam, paperback, 1979; Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1984. Feminist Press, softcover, 2003.

IN A LONELY PLACE. Columbia, 1950. Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart (no, not that Martha Stewart), Robert Warwick. Screenplay by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. Directed by Nicholas Ray.

   A terse, gripping and effectively-written novel, but perhaps too well done to be much fun. The story is told from the third-person POV of Dixon Steele, a would-be gentleman of leisure living off the generosity and gullibility of friends and relatives who think he’s working on a novel. Steele is a confirmed misogynist, but to be fair, he’s also a misanthrope with a dim view of his fellow men and the society that demands he work for a living.

   It’s hard to stick with a character like this very long, but Hughes does an excellent job of trapping us in his psyche, revealing little by little just how sick and self-absorbed he is. Meanwhile we see him hooking up with an old war buddy who is now an L. A. police detective and romancing a neighbor lady, Laurel Gray. We also learn that there has been series of stranglings in the area — and Dix is the killer.

   The killings are neatly conveyed, with Hughes telling us just enough about each one to impart a sense of brutality and horror without getting unpleasantly graphic. But it’s the characterizations that make the story work, not only Steele’s but also his cop-buddy, the buddy’s wife, and especially the neighbor-lady; Laurel Gray is a perfectly-realized character: intelligent, independent and just bitchy enough to seem real.

   And if the book as a whole left me a bit down and creepy-feeling, I still have to say it was wonderfully done, as we watch Steele’s hunter/hunted game with women (hunter) and the Law (hunted) draw to an end we knew was coming but couldn’t look away from.

   In 1950 Columbia took the title and the character names and made a film out of them, discarding most of the rest. And a damnfine film they made, too, though lovers of the book must have been somewhat dazed and confused by it.

   Here, Dixon Steele is a conscientious Hollywood screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit since before the war, in a town where you’re only as good as your last movie. He’s also subject to what we might nowadays call PTSD, prone to heavy drinking and fits of violence. Given a chance to adapt a trashy best-seller for the movies, he finds a hat-check girl who has read and loved it (“It’s what I call a epic!”) and takes her to his apartment to tell him the story so he won’t have to read it.

   Thus when she turns up strangled the next day, he’s the logical suspect. He’s tentatively cleared by the luscious neighbor-lady (Gloria Grahame in one of her best roles ever) but as they begin a relationship, she’s nagged by suspicions that he may be the killer after all — an opinion shared by the LAPD.

   So you’ve got the characters, the locale and a strangling carried over from the book, but that’s about it. In fact there’s an eerie echo-chamber effect in a movie that has nothing to do with the book it’s based on, where the main character writes a screenplay that has nothing to do with the book he’s supposedly adapting. Unintentional no doubt, but it still packs a certain resonance.

   And that’s about it for the film too, as we get as rather uneventful hour or so of Laurel and Dix falling in love, Dix throwing getting more violent, Laurel growing afraid and the cops getting more suspicious. No chases, tense walks in the fog or suspenseful cat-and-mouse, but it does convey a sense of edgy melancholy that evokes Hollywood wonderfully.

   Nicholas Ray’s fine eye for setting a scene and his fluid camera literally keep things moving, and the leisurely pace left me totally unprepared for a fast and unforgettable climax unlike any other. In a Lonely Place could be a lot slower and twice as long, and it’d still be worth sitting through just for the wrap-up.

   By the way, you can read a lot of gossipy trivia about the making of this film — director Ray and star Grahame were married when the movie started filming, but not when it finished — but my favorite bit involves Robert Warwick playing a faded, boozy has-been actor. Warwick himself was a star of the silent films and on Broadway, where, at the height of his fame, he took time to encourage a struggling and not-very-good young actor named Humphrey Bogart. Bogart never forgot his kindness and repaid him with this small but juicy part.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

HOWARD ANDREW JONES – The Desert of Souls. Thomas Dunne Books, hardcover. February 2011. St. Martin’s, trade paperback, January 2012.

   Arabian nights and swords and sorcery may not be the usual fodder for this site, but when they are also a detective story and thriller along Conan Doyle lines, then something new is going on.

   If it were possible to modify the word unique in the English language, this one would be “uniquer.”

   The time is the eighth century. The place Baghdad, the Baghdad of legend and myth under the wise rule of the most famous of the fabled cities leaders, Haroun al Rashid, the caliph of the Arabian nights, Ali Baba, Sinbad, Scherezade, the Old Man of the Mountain, the Hashishin, and wine drinking poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam. It is also the ancient Persia of cruel and unpredictable djinn, sorcery, mythical creatures, and imagination.

   This really should not work on any level, but Jones proves a clever storyteller and puts us in the hands of a swashbuckling Watson, in the able Captain Asim — more Archie Goodwin than Watson in most aspects — who keeps the reader grounded like all good Watson’s should, as Hamil the poet tells him: “A good storyteller tailors his story to his audience.”

   And if there is a Watson that means there is a Holmes, in this case the scholar Dagbir, who has a bad habit of speaking truth to power. As might be expected we first meet him in relation to a murder: The case of the murdered parrot.

   The parrot lay on the floor of his cage, one claw stiffly thrust toward the tiny wooden swing suspended above him. The black olive branch clenched in his beak was the definitive sign that Pago was a corpse …

   Pago belongs to Asim’s master Jaffar, the grand vizier (another actual historical figure), and Azim calls upon Dagbir to help distract the distraught Jaffar with a incognito journey into the city. Well disguised Jaffar, Asim, and Dagbir set out of their adventure and visit a seeress in the poorest part of town where they are told Dagbir will be famed as a slayer of monsters, Asim for his tales of Dagbir’s adventures, and Jaffar will lose his head to a woman to high for his station — literally lose his head.

   Leaving the seeress, a bleeding man stumbles into their arms followed by his pursuers which they quickly dispatch, leading to a jeweled tablet that holds the secret of the Atlantis of the sands, the lost city of Ubar.

   Before they can get far though, the tablet is stolen by a Greek spy and Firouz, a fire wizard, and Jaffar dismisses Dagbir assuming that the seeress confused him with the scholar who has been privately treating Jaffar’s neice, Sabirah, who is none to happy with Asim who she blames for Dagbir’s dismissal.

   And we are off for high adventure, low intrigue, and some good detection though this is hardly a detective story, what with djinn and giant talkative feather serpents who guard the secrets of the sands. At stake are not only the lives of Asim, Dagbir, and Dagbir’s love Sabirah, the niece of Jaffar and forbidden to the scholar, but the soul of Baghdad itself, the target of Firouz madness.

   Howard Andrew Jones is a leading expert on Harold Lamb (having edited two volumes of Lamb’s Arabian tales, Swords from the West and Swords of the Desert), whose tales, along with Robert E. Howard, and Talbot Mundy inspired this tale, but Jones wisely chooses a modern voice for his narrator eschewing any labored thee’s, thou’s, and thy’s for a crisp fast moving narrative with a capable and fast thinking narrator who just doesn’t happen to be as clever as Dagbir, but who is an amiable hero on his own, and adds a touch of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes to the mix.

   The result is a clever mix of sword and sorcery staples, historical fiction in the Lamb and Howard style, modern thriller, and an unusual Sherlockian adventure. This is one of those remarkably good-natured books that a few pages in you find yourself wanting to give the benefit of the doubt and simply enjoy.

   I’m reminded of Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody books or Will Thomas historical thrillers in that you just want to relax and enjoy the ride without thinking about it. Books that entertain on that level are too far between these days — I suppose they always were.

   “Cleave close to your friend,” a seeress tells Asim at the end, “He will need you and the world will have need of you both.”

   I certainly hope so. This doesn’t just bend the genres it apes, it ties them in knots and creates something new and original. It’s a flying carpet ride of a novel in glorious Technicolor.

CURTAIN AT EIGHT. Majestic Pictures, 1933. C. Aubrey Smith, Dorothy Mackaill, Paul Cavanagh, Sam Hardy, Marion Shilling, Russell Hopton, Natalie Moorhead, Hale Hamilton, Ruthelma Stevens. Screenplay: Edward T. Lowe. Director: E. Mason Hopper.

   This rather wretched murder mystery movie has only one thing going for it: C. Aubrey Smith in a rather unusual role for him, that of Jim Hanvey, the detective character created by Octavus Roy Cohen. Although the credits don’t mention it, but Curtain at Eight, the movie, was based on Cohen’s book The Backstage Mystery (Appleton, 1930), and what the resemblance is, I’d like to say slim to none.

   Unless, that is, there is a monkey in the book — or rather a chimp — although none of the characters in the movie know the difference. If you cant stand chimps in movies any more than I can, avoid this film. I stuck it out, though, so I can’t follow my own advice, then why should you?

   Murdered on the stage as they are celebrating his birthday is actor and notorious womanizer Wylie Thornton (Paul Cavanagh) — one of those scenes when the lights go off and wouldn’t you know it, a shot rings out. There are more than the usual number of suspects, and before the movie is over, the dopey homicide detective on the case (Sam Hardy) has locked up almost all of them, along with another one who simply wanders in at about the two-thirds mark.

   Thankfully also on the case is Jim Hanvey, played by Aubrey Smith as a tall, lanky, homespun (aw, shucks) sort of guy, with a shank of unruly hair — a far cry from Smith’s usual role as a British officer and a gentleman. His portrayal of Hanvey is also a far cry from that of Guy Kibbee, who was the star of Jim Hanvey, Detective (Republic, 1937). To me, Kibbee sounds as though he’s be more appropriate as the character, as Kevin Burton Smith describes him on his Thrilling Detective website: “…full-time good ol’ boy. He’s fat, slow-moving, [with] fishy eyes…”

   Besides the chimp, Curtain at Eight is plagued by a script that could have used a lot more time to stretch out and introduce the real players in the story, not the chimp and not the dopey guy from homicide. Between the two, the two must take up half of the movie’s sixty minutes running time, or did it only seem that way?

   I’ll bet bits and pieces of the movie came from the book, picked up from here and there and strung together in some hope of a coherent mystery plot, and not succeeding. Maybe even the chimp came from the book, but I hope not.

   As for director E. Mason Hopper, he had a long career making silent films, but he made only one more with sound, the truly abysmal Hong Kong Nights (First Division Pictures, 1935), a spy film in which one of the major stars, the hero’s good buddy and constant sidekick, simply disappears half way through the movie, never to be seen or mentioned again. I watched it a short while ago, and I’m almost embarrassed to say that I did.

   The screenwriter, though, Edward T. Lowe, went to much better things, including worthwhile entries in the Charlie Chan, Bulldog Drummond, and Sherlock Holmes series, not to mention a couple of Universal horror movies in the mid-1940s.

Note:   For Dan Stumpf’s comments on this same film, which I didn’t read again until just now myself, go here. We clearly watched the same movie, but he seems to have found more charm in it than I did.

GET CHRISTIE LOVE! ABC, made-for-TV Movie,22 January 1974. Teresa Graves, Harry Guardino, Louise Sorel, Paul Stevens.. Screenplay: George Kirgo, based on the novel The Ledger by Dorothy Uhnak. Director: William A. Graham.

   I don’t have access to my copy of the book, and it’s been far too long for me to remember anything about the novel, but it’s fairly obvious that there’s been some changes made. Uhnak’s series character was the police woman Christie Opara, not Christie Love, and I’m sure she was white, not black. The police work in the book was “real life,” and the police work in the movie was “made for TV,” or in other words, sheer flights of fancy, more often than not.

   Which is not to say that the movie is not entertaining, for it is, and the “gimmick,” the surprise that makes the ending work, is probably the same in both the book and the movie – or why else use the book as the basis for the movie in the first place?

   I should start at the beginning. The villain, Enzo Cortino, is a drug dealer, whose activities are recorded, the police discover, in a ledger that Cortino’s girl friend, Helena Varga, keeps in her possession. Christie Love’s assignment, given to her by Captain Reardon, in pseudo-blustery fashion, is to get the ledger.

   Some general comments follow, more or less in the same order as they struck me while watching the film, which is available on DVD. While Graves had a limited range of acting ability, mostly smart to sassy, she is easy on the eyes and more-or-less convincing in close hand-to-hand (karate-related) combat with various of Cortino’s minions, one of whom goes over the balcony on the losing end of one of rough-house struggles she finds herself in.

   In one of the opening scenes, introducing her to the viewer, she is (of course) posing as a hooker in an attempt to nab a guy who’s been bad to prostitutes. One guy whose overtures she turns down calls her a nigger in frustration. Her retort, as she sashays off: “Nigger lover.” My jaw dropped.

   This was an era (1974) when cops were routinely called “pigs,” and so they are here. As a cultural artifact, this is a gem in the rough. The background music is typical 70s jazz, or what passed for jazz at the time, in suitably ersatz-Mancini fashion. It’s most noticeable during car chases and other moments of great importance.

   Christie’s own mode of transportation is a yellow Volkswagen convertible, and as soon as you realize that that’s her car, you begin to wonder if it will survive the movie. You will have to watch to find out, as critical plot points like this should never be revealed by reviewers in advance.

   The most important plot detail that also surprised me, and for whatever reason, it’s the one that has stuck with me over all the years since I watched this movie the first time, is the semi-love interest between Christie and the interminably shaggy Reardon. She archly refuses his semi-advances until perhaps the closing scene.

   Hints are all we get, but a black and white romance, in 1974? That’s all that we could get. (When did Kirk kiss Lt. Uhara? Sometime in the 60s, I’m sure, but – as I recall – one of the two was possessed by an alien entity, and so it didn’t count.)

   Harry Guardino did not survive the cut and did not appear in the follow-up television series, which lasted only a year, nor as I recall, was there any more hanky-panky between Christie and her superior(s), nor even the hint of any. I have not been able to locate, so far, any of the shows from the TV series on either video or DVD, but I watched them at the time, and strangely enough, I enjoyed them more than Angie Dickinson’s show, whatever it was called.

— July 2004

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