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

   

CRAIG JOHNSON – Next to Last Stand. Walt Longmire #16. Viking, hardcover, 2020. Setting: Contemporary Wyoming/Montana.

First Sentence: Years ago, on one particularly beautiful, high plains afternoon when I was a deputy with the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department, I propped my young daughter, Cady, on my hip and introduced her to Charlie Lee Stillwater.

   Walt receives a call from Carol Williams, the caretaker and administrator of the Veteran’s Home of Wyoming, once Fort McKinney. Charlie Lee Stillwater, the fifth of the group call the Wavers, old Veterans in souped-up electric wheelchairs, has died. Going through his effects, Carol and Walt find a box containing two items of particular note: one million dollars in cash, and a painted canvas which was clearly part of a larger painting. Walt investigates the source of both, and whether the painting, thought to have been long destroyed, was stolen.

   The best characters are ones who grow and change over the course of a series. So too has Johnson done with Longmire. This book is more the Walt we love; the events of the prior two books have understandably changed him as he questions his future.

   Dog is here! Those who are series readers have come to love Dog. Henry is also here. A joke that runs between him and Walt in this story makes one smile. Vic, Walt’s second and girlfriend, is a character who, for some of us, has become tiring. It is nice to see Lonnie Littlebird, Chief of the Cheyenne Nation and Tribal Elder— “Um humm, yes it is so.” But it’s the “Wavers” who are the stars: four elderly veterans in souped-up wheelchairs who wave to passing traffic in front of the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming.

   Walt in evening dress and chasing bad guys through a museum is new, but so are the bad guys. No cowboy hats and boots here— “Do you ever get the feeling that there are people out there who are living lives that we know absolutely nothing about?”

   The plot is interesting and filled with historical information. Unfortunately, it was almost too much information and it slows down the first half of the book. Fortunately, once past that, the pace picks up noticeably. One does wonder where the series is going. Were some of Walt’s comments foreshadowing or merely a frustrating tease?

   The Epilogue is wonderful and worth the price of the book in itself, except for the last sentence, which is annoying, insulting to his readers, and caused me to reduce my rating.

   Next to Last Stand is something of a return to that which fans most love about Johnson’s books. It is interesting, exciting, and filled with excellent characters. However, this is a book one might want to wait to read until the next book is released.

Rating: Good.

HENRY KUTTNER “Don’t Look Now.” First published in Startling Stories, March 1948. Reprinted many times, including: My Best Science Fiction Story, edited by Oscar J. Friend & Leo Margulies (Merlin Press, hardcover, 1949); The Great Science Fiction Stories: Volume 10, 1948, edited by Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, paperback, 1983); and Tales from the Spaceport Bar, edited by George H. Scithers & Darrell Schweitzer (Avon, paperback, 1987). Collected in Two-Handed Engine by Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore (Centipede Press, hardcover, 2005).

   Mos Eisley and the spaceport bar. What a perfect scene. One that thousands of long time science fiction fans had read about and pictured in their minds for years. And there it was, having come to life right before their eyes.

   Bars where spacefarers come to talk, lie and swap yarns. Not all of them human. All kinds and shapes of aliens used Mos Eisley as a stopover point, a place to restock and refuel and catch up on the news. Or in some cases the bar is on Earth, and the conversation is between two men, and the Martians are the beings secretly ruling the world that one of the men is trying to convince the other he can see. Most of the time they are invisible, lurking just out the corner of your eye, but when you can see them, they are easily identified by their third eye. Right in the middle of their foreheads.

   This is a classic story, first published way back in 1948, and if you go looking, over 70 years later, I’m sure you can find a book in print that it’s in, or if not, then in ebook format. In those years after the war, there was a certain uncertainty, if not outright paranoia, about the possibility we were not alone in the universe, that mankind had lost control of things, and in “Don’t Look Now,” Kuttner, in his most humorous mode, capitalizes on it most excellently.

AWAY. “Go.” Netflix, 60m, 04 September 2020 (Season 1, Episode 1). Hilary Swank as Emma Green, an American astronaut who is the commander of the mission; Josh Charles as Matt Logan, Emma’s husband and a NASA engineer who has washed out of the astronaut program because of a brain disease; Vivian Wu as Lu, a Chinese taikonaut who is also a chemist; Mark Ivanir as Misha, a veteran Russian astronaut who is also the space shuttle’s engineer; Ato Essandoh as Kwesi, a Jewish British-Ghanaian rookie astronaut who is a botanist; Ray Panthaki as Ram, the mission’s second-in-command; Talitha Bateman as Alexis “Lex” Logan, Emma and Matt’s teenage daughter. Creator/screenwriter: Andrew Hinderaker. Director: Edward Zwick.

   This is the kind of Science Fiction that I can still watch on either the big screen or small one. Minimal special effects (floating in low gravity environments) and quite a bit of effort on the producers’ part to get the science and engineering right. The basis of the story is simple: follow a diverse crew of five (the standard list of both sexes and various nationalities) as they begin a long arduous three year journey to Mars.

   In practice, though, it isn’t going to be easy. Due to a mistake Emma Green (a perfectly cast Hilary Swank) as commander makes on the trip from the Earth to the Moon, two of the crew are in near rebellion, even before the main part of the journey begins, and complications back on Earth do not make things any easier for her (Emma’s husband suffers a stroke, but without giving anything away, if he didn’t recover just in time, there’d be no series, or does he?).

   So it’s going to be a mixture of soap opera and space opera from here on out. I can anticipate the problems they’re going to have in both regards. I don’t think media critics are likely to praise this, but who cares. I enjoyed this, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the trip.

   

K. K. BECK

GEORGE BAGBY – Murder’s Little Helper. Inspector Schmidt #30. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1963. Pocket Cardinal 35007, paperback, 1964; Paperback Library 65-838, paperback, April 1972.

   If my count is correct, this is the 30th in the series of novels that Aaron Marc Stein wrote about NYPD Inspector Schmidt and his “Watson” George Bagby, all also written as by Bagby. The latter is friends enough with Schmitty, as he calls him, to be allowed to hang around with him on his cases. Mostly he keeps quiet and lets the inspector do all the talking, but every once in a while he pipes in with a question or observation or two.

   In Murder’s Little Helper it all begins with a young pregnant woman’s death by drowning in the river, presumably by suicide, but that’s a presumption that doesn’t last long. It turns out that the young lady was the kind of young lady who had lots of very close gentlemen friends, and she wasn’t averse to doing a bit of blackmailing on the side after they were no longer very close.

   Although the Bagby books were popular in their day, they wouldn’t register more than a two out of ten in how they’d go over with mystery fans today. No action, no mutilated bodies, no psychopathic serial killers, just a lot of on the ground detective work – which means a lot of talking, and more talking. Looking at the case over and over again from all directions, twisting it this way and that, left and right and inside out before coming back to the beginning again.

   And talking at length with anyone involved: next door neighbors, the janitor in the building in which the the victim lived, and most importantly, with the men (and their wives) who were paying her money to live on until her dream man was free to marry her. There is a section of some forty pages devoted to this last group of four in which by the time they are done, even George and Martha would sympathize with them.

   This particular case is one that’s not for everyone, and personally I wouldn’t call this one anywhere above average, but I enjoy Stein’s way with words as the author, and once finished, I’m ready for another.

REVIEWED BY RAY O’LEARY:

JOSEPHINE BELL – Death of a Poison-Tongue. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1972. Stein & Day, US, hardcover, 1977; paperback, 1981.

K. K. BECK

   Althea Swinford, the daughter of an archeologist, is en route to the village of Middlecombe, where she is to stay with the local Vicar and his wife — distant relations — while attending school nearby. On the train down, she meets Mrs. Golden, also from Middlecombe, the leader of a local Pentecostal sect who claims to speak “in tongues.” She is the first to tell Althea about the local “poison-tongue,” someone spreading outrageous stories about just about everyone else in the district. Everyone knows who the “poison-tongue” is, and about halfway through the book she is found strangled.

   There is just one word for this book. Well, there may be others, but the most printable is AWFUL. You could create livelier characters with paste and scissors. Bell gets involved at tedious length in subplots about drugs and smuggled antiquities, and her attempt at writing a Seduction (don’t worry, she keeps her virginity) Scene borders on the Ludicrous. Some of her earlier novels were fairly decent efforts, but this thing is a mishmash of ineptitude.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #42, November 1989.

MICHAEL COLLINS “A Death in Monecito.” Short story. PI Dan Fortune. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1995. Collected in Fortune’s World (Crippen & Landru, 2000).

   Montecito is a small but exclusive community area located east of Santa Barbara, a fact which is important in how one-armed PI Dan Fortune approaches this case of murder he’s asked by the victim’s lawyer to look into. The woman’s death is assumed to have been perpetrated by a burglar caught in the act by her, but the arrangement of the furniture seems to Fortune’s client to have been changed. But why? No ordinary burglar would not have done that.

   Posing as a would-be buyer of the house, even before it goes on the market, Fortune does his initial investigation at the scene of the crime itself and by talking to the dead woman’s two daughters, as different from each other as night and day, one a rising Hollywood star, the other the owner of a local boutique. There are other suspects as well, if indeed a burglar was not responsible, and the solution to the cases is a nicely woven combination of clues (minor) and personalities (major).

   In spite of the bright clear skies of sunny California, or perhaps brought out all the more out in contrast, a melancholy mode persists throughout the story, as is the case in many of Fortune’s adventures, and the ending doubly so.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE CITY OF THE DEAD. Vulcan Films, UK, 1960. Trans-Lux, US, 1962, as Horror Hotel. Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis, Valentine Dyall. Written by George Baxt and Milton Subotsky. Directed by John Moxey. Easily found on YouTube, among other sources, including Amazon Prime.

   A decade before John Llewellyn Moxey directed The Night Stalker (1972), he, under the name John Moxey, honed his skills in the supernatural genre with The City of the Dead, aka Horror Hotel (reviewed here earlier on this blog by Dan Stumpf).

   Beautifully filmed in crisp black and white with an ongoing visual sense of impending menace, the movie draws upon New England witchcraft lore to tell a tragic tale of what happens when one gets too fascinated by the darkness.

   WARNING: Possible Spoilers Ahead. Eager and intrepid college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), intrigued by her professor’s lecture on witch burnings seeks to do further research on the morbid topic. Little does she know that her professor, one Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) is himself a purveyor of the dark arts. In a twist that would be repeated with greater effect and recognition that same year in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the first act of the film follows the would-be protagonist from a relatively secure setting to a hotel where she will meet her doom.

   But unlike in Psycho where the killer is a human, albeit a tremendously disturbed one, in The City of the Dead, the killers are very much empowered by a dark, supernatural force. As it turns out, when the good people of the fictional hamlet of Whitewood, Massachusetts, burned a witch at the stake in 1692, they didn’t actually kill her so much as curse their own descendants for all eternity.

   The witch (Patricia Dressel) that they thought they had put to death is very much alive. And in 1960, she’s the proprietor of the Raven Inn, the “horror hotel.” As in Psycho, it’s up to others to figure out what happened to a beautiful young woman who mysteriously disappeared at a hotel. Here, it is Nan’s brother and her boyfriend team who up to solve the puzzle and defeat the coven of witches responsible for the co-ed’s murder.

   There’s a particular aesthetic to The City of the Dead that makes it a stronger and more compelling film than its rather clumsy sets and relatively short running time would suggest. The witch burning sequence at the beginning is top notch. So is the final sequence set in a graveyard. There’s definitely a letdown of dramatic tension in the second act, but this only makes the tense scenes that much more visceral. For his part, Lee puts in a strong performance, but it’s nowhere near his best nor most memorable.

   Still, this is an overall enjoyable horror film that is worth a look this upcoming Halloween season. One final note. The film contains a seemingly incongruous jazz score. One would think that it would be horribly out of place in such a macabre film. But it works quite effectively in reminding the viewer of the era in which the movie was made. And, for those of us who enjoy early 1960s British horror films, movies that were just a little more innocent than the color horror films of the 1970s, that’s not such a bad thing.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE HIPPOPOTAMUS. Lightyear Entertainment, 2017. Roger Allam, Mathew Modine, Fiona Shaw, Tim McInnerny, Emily Berrington, Geraldine Sommerville, John Standing, Tommy Knight, Dean Ridge. Screenplay by Blanche McIntyre, Tom Hodgson, John Finnemore, & Robin Hill, based on the novel by Stephen Fry. Directed by John Jencks. Available on DVD, as well as streaming on Amazon Prime.

   To begin with, Ted Wallace (Roger Allam) has committed original sin, he’s a poet, worse still he’s a successful published poet even though it has been five years since the wrote a line. These days he makes his living at an even worse crime: he “commits journalism.” He is a theatrical critic.

   At least he is until he blows up during a particularly odious production and is escorted out by the police after having sucker punched the director.

   Ted is miserable and self destructive, and now he is broke as well, but Ted is about to be thrown a lifeline by an unlikely source, his goddaughter Jane (Emily Berrington) who is dying of cancer and recently in remission.

   Jane is convinced she has been saved by a miracle, the nature of which she will not reveal, but wishes Ted to investigate, at her Uncle, Lord John Logan (Mathew Modine)’s estate (“he did something unspeakable for Margaret Thatcher” to earn his knighthood, we are told).

   Ted is more than willing for the 25,000 Sterling offered, but things are a bit strained between him and his old school chum John, but then things are a bit constrained between him and Jane’s Mother, John’s sister (Geraldine Sommevile) too. In fact things are a bit strained between Ted and the world, but if he is just careful he can get by claiming to be concerned about his nephew young David (Tommy Knight) who is sensitive, awkward, and wants to be a poet.

   Those are just some of the odd things about David, as Ted will soon learn, because though there isn’t a corpse or a murder in sight, The Hippopotamus (Ted) is a manor house mystery in the mode of Agatha Christie replete with eccentric characters, carefully hidden family secrets, and a reluctant but acerbic and quite able sleuth in Ted himself.

   John Logan once saw his father save a man’s life, and he has believed his father had a gift all his life. Now he thinks it skipped a generation and is in his son David, who it seems has performed three actual miracles, starting my saving his mother’s life. John wants to protect David from being exploited, but is also a bit too in awe of that supposed gift.

   Just how David performed most of those miracles though is among the more hilarious and scandalous things about this tale.

   Most of the laughs here are of the quiet variety, but real enough. Despite the constant flow of acid and obscenity from Ted, the film is gentle as very nearly as everyone involved, but Ted has a desperate need to believe in a miracle that ultimately will do more harm than good. He is an unlikely hero, but before it is over he and several others will be saved, though not without cost.

   There is even a delightful great detective moment when kicking the bucket puts all the pieces of the puzzle together.

   Suspects include Tim McInnerny as a flamboyant homosexual who lives on the estate; Fiona Shaw as David’s protective, and sane, Mother; a house guest and her plain daughter who pose another threat to David; Jane’s mother who still loathes Ted after their breakup; and Simon (Dean Ridge) David’s sane nice brother.

   John Standing has a nice bit as Podmore, the aging and rather bored butler.

   All in all, it builds up to a satisfying conclusion with Ted even getting to play at Hercule Poirot at a gathering of the suspects when he puts the pieces of the puzzle in the right order that everyone else has jumbled up in their own needs and hopes. As in a Christie novel everyone sees the same things, but only Ted sees them as they are and not as everyone would like them to be.

   The novel is by Stephen Fry, himself an acerbic actor, comic, and commentator who has appeared in numerous movies, television shows (a semi regular role on Bones), was teamed with actor Hugh Laurie as Jeeves to Laurie’s Wooster and in a variety series, and who has written several novels, one a modern version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Fry is one of those jack of all literary and artistic trades that seem to appear when needed in British entertainment and enrich us all.

   It is almost impossible to describe anything from Fry without the words, wicked, delicious, delightful, playful, sinful, arch, amusing, intelligent, or barbed, and that perfectly sums up this bright tale where the laying on of hands becomes a different kind of miracle in the mind of an oversexed teen than you would ever expect.

   Feel the need to escape, but to do so without sacrificing brain cells, then this is perfect for you. Literate, well played, vicious and kind at the same time, arch and human, nasty and heartfelt, it is a delight as novel or film. There is a definite Ealing comedy feel to it, with a touch of Oscar Wilde, the zing of Monty Python, and just enough black humor (or at least dark gray) to leaven the whole thing.

   We are in those delightful British waters where dwelt Oscar Wilde, John Mortimer, P. G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Simon Raven, Iris Murdoch, George Orwell, Timothy Findlay, and in a comic mood Graham Greene, and it is refreshing indeed.

   

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

   
C. J. BOX – Long Range. Joe Pickett #20. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, March 2020; paperback, January 2021. Setting: Contemporary Wyoming.

First Sentence: The sleek golden projectile exploded into the thin mountain air at three thousand feet per second.

   A grizzly attack causes game warden Joe Picket to leave his district and join members of the Predator Attack Team. Joe has suspicions about the attack but is called away before being able to investigate further. A shooter targets a local judge, seriously wounding the judge’s wife. The shot came from an extremely long range, and Joe’s best friend Nate Romanowski is suspected, leaving Joe to find the killer, clear his friend, and uncover the answer to the bear attack.

   Talk about a hook! Box sets the scene well, contrasting the beauty of the location with the cold, hard terror of a lethal element coming from through the air, so that one experiences the horror of when the two elements combine. The suspense continues once we join Joe.

   Reading Box is both exciting and an education in everything from grizzly bears, technology which enables a cell phone to be tracked even in a no-service area, an air force of predator birds, and long-range rifles. Box explains each of these in a way that is fascinating even to urban dwellers, and each has an important role to play in the plot. There is a nice piece of information regarding the role of a Wyoming game warden which helps explain Joe’s involvement in the shooting investigation.

   The characters are alive. Some are those series readers have met before. Some carry over from a previous book, but in a way that their backstory is apparent and their incorporation into the present story handled seamlessly. There are good guys; bad guys, and those about whom we are uncertain, which adds to the suspense.

   Joe is a compelling character, refreshing for his imperfections — not the best on horseback, not the finest shot, has a penchant for destroying his county vehicle — and his phobias, particularly his fear of flying. Marybeth, his wife, is a true partner both in their marriage and due to her position as director of the county library, which can aid in Joe’s investigation. The personal side of their struggle of being empty nesters, personalizes and humanizes them.

   One of the characters who has developed and changed most in the series is Nate Romanowski. The suspense and excitement always escalate whenever Nate appears. The friendship between Nate and Joe is admirable. When you combine the two men in a scene, non-stop action ensues.

   It is not all action, however. While not overtly political, the story does connect to present events— “It was a new political world, Joe had learned. Politicians who were snared in scandal didn’t fight back or resign in shame, because there was no personal shame.”

   One may identify one of the villains quite early, others are less obvious, and one whose appearance may cause series readers to roll their eyes in dismay. Box’s wry humor is always a pleasure and “Pickett’s charge” a definite high point.

   Long Range has an exciting, dramatic climax followed by a wonderful ending making one feel it was over all too soon.

Rating: Good Plus.

DEATH IN PARADISE “Murder Begins at Home.” BBC, 28 February 2019. Ardal O’Hanlon (DI Jack Mooney), Aude Legastelois (DS Madeleine Dumas), Tobi Bakare (Officer J.P. Hooper), Shyko Amos (Officer Ruby Patterson), Don Warrington (Commissioner Selwyn Patterson). Created by Robert Thorogood. Written by James Hall. Director: Richard Signy.

   Imagine unlocking the door and walking into your police station in the morning, as DI Jack Mooney does every morning, and finding a body dead on the floor. He is fully clothed but has no identification on him, nor any other personal effects. Cause of death: strangulation, as the marks on his neck indicate. But how did he get in and the killer get out?

   To compound matters, it is soon learned that the dead man was a member of a tourist group trekking by horseback high up in the hills, and he was last seen alive going to bed for the night as a ferocious storm came upon them. How did he get from there to the police station to be found dead on the floor in the morning with all the doors secured?

   It is quite a puzzle, and a lot of fun afterward is tracing back and agreeing that yes, all of the clues were there, if only one was paying attention. It is also clear, afterward, how, as good magicians do, the screenwriter managed to keep the audience’s eye off the mystery of howdunit by concentrating on the whodunit. I enjoyed this one!

   

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