TAYLOR McCAFFERTY – Ruffled Feathers. Haskell Blevins #2. Pocket, paperback original, 1992.

   This is a silly book. Silly. Haskell Blevins is an ex-Louisville cop (if it’s explained why he left I missed it) who now is the only private detective in his tiny (pop. 1511) home town of Pigeon Fork, Kentucky. How he makes a living there is mercifully unexplained.

   He’s hired by the town’s millionaire, a poultry raiser (shades of East Texas’ own Bo Pilgrim), to protect his daughter, for whom he has received a ransom note, but who hasn’t been kidnapped. The chicken magnate, an irascible and thoroughly repulsive sort, is killed, and we’re off.

   Off target and off base is what we are. The Blevins books are supposed to lighthearted and amusing. Not. Try dumb. The level of humor is indicated by the fact that the narrator, who nearly always speaks to you in a folksy (it’s to be queasy) but perfectly grammatical manner, four or five times over the course of the book throws in lines (directed to you, the reader) like, “Of course, you’ve got to watch them chickens…” Supposed to reinforce his country image, I guess.

   Stupid mystery, stupid characters, and an insult to the intelligence of all with IQs in triple digits. If you think this is funny, ABC sitcoms were made for you.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.

      The Haskell Blevins series –

1. Pet Peeves (1990)

2. Ruffled Feathers (1992)
3. Bed Bugs (1993)
4. Thin Skins (1994)
5. Hanky Panky (1995)
6. Funny Money (2000)

COLIN DEXTER - Last Bus to Woodstock. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1975. Pan, UK, paperback, 1977. St. Martin’s, US, hardcover, 1975. Bantam, US, paperback, 1988. Many later reprint editions, in both hardcover and soft. TV movie: ITV/PBS, 1988.

   I’m not sure if I was able to come up with the earliest paperback edition to appear in the US, but if I’m correct, it wasn’t until the TV series began that Bantam published one in this country. If so, and I’m not entirely surethat it is, I think it may well be a case of US publishers thinking that the Inspector Morse books may have been too “British” to be successful over here.

   It what follows I am going to be, I’m sorry to say, rather negative about this book, and to explain why, or to attempt to do so, I’m going to have to say things that you may easily find me giving away too much about the ending — or in other words, whodunit.

   Back in 1975 I was given a copy of the first US edition to review, and I gave up after no more than a chapter. I don’t remember exactly why. It just didn’t appeal to me. A first novel by an unknown British writer? Except for Agatha Christie and a handful others, Ngaio Marsh for one, back then I wasn’t much interested in British detective fiction. I think I’ll go on read something else, thank you.

   This time around, knowing the success the Morse books have gotten since then, I made it all the way through, but not happily. The case begins with a girl’s body being found in the courtyard of a pub somewhere in the general vicinity of Oxford. Because she was partially undressed, it is assumed it was also a case of rape.

   And therein lies the first problem. It is assumed she was raped, but Morse and his new associate, Sergeant Lewis, do no more than assume, and fairly soon it is taken as fact. Neither Morse nor Lewis are interested in forensics, even what was the state of the art in 1975. No fingerprints, no close examination of the body, no anything. Eventually reports are referred to, but nothing of importance is relayed to the reader.

   The whole investigation, in fact, is a muddle. Morse works on intuition, instinct, guesswork and lechery, not necessarily in that order. One does not get the impression that Morse (or his author) was ever in a police station. He has a good name in the department, but damned if I know why.

   And here comes the crux of the matter. After meeting the roommate of one of the suspects, he falls immediately in lust with her, and for some reason, she for him. The “romance” that follows — she is already engaged to another — is straight out of the world of fantasy. He daydreams about her constantly, and she about him. (I also do not like the constantly shifting viewpoints from which the story is told. In the right hands, the story of a police investigation could be told this way, but this time around, it simply adds to the clutter.)

   And Dexter depends on clutter to hide the killer’s identity, not that he succeeds. I knew who the killer was going to be as should as he/she appeared on stage, and I’m sure you will, too. It takes nine pages of solid type for Morse to expound upon the solution, however, most of which is based on facts that either the reader didn’t know about before, or facts that should have come up for discussion between Morse and Lewis long before page 195, if anything like a proper police investigation had been done.

   My rating: Not Very Good. Given how many other works of detective fiction there are in the world to read, it’s not very likely I’ll give another adventure of Inspector Morse a try. And do you know what rankles the most? That the story takes place in around the Oxford area, and you’d almost never know it. It could’ve taken place almost anywhere in suburban, not big city England. What a waste of potential.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

HIGH LONESOME. LeMay-Templeton / Eagle-Lion Films, 1950. John Barrymore Jr., Chill Wills, John Archer, Lois Butler, Kristine Miller, Basil Ruysdale, Jack Elam and Dave Kashner. Written and directed by Alan LeMay.

   Alan LeMay is best remembered as the author of the novel basis for The Searchers (1954) but he started writing Westerns in 1927 and did his first Western (sorta) screenplay in 1940: Cecil B. DeMille’s Northwest Mounted Police. In between times he authored or co-authored screenplays for Along Came Jones (1945), The Walking Hills (1949), and others worthy of note, and in 1950 he turned his hand to directing as well as writing High Lonesome.

   LeMay’s direction is serviceable, but it’s not the sort of work that would worry John Ford. His story, on the other hand, is definitely intriguing. The movie opens with young Barrymore pursued by two shadowy figures on horseback who (we learn later) involved him in a murder. Caught pilfering a cookhouse, he’s tentatively adopted/detained by rancher Basil Ruysdale and his daughters (Butler & Miller) and nick-named “Cooncat” which is the only name we ever know him by, and surely the most unlikely moniker ever given a Western hero.

   No one completely trusts him though (and with good reason: Barrymore’s playing verges on hysteria) and when he tells them about the killing (now about a week old) they take him to the scene of the alleged crime, only to find it deserted, disused and dust-covered. Moreover, when he describes his shadowy pursuers, the others immediately recognize the description as that of two local outlaws—who were killed in a range war fifteen years earlier.

   Well that’s a nice creepy start, and LeMay builds on it well; when a real murder is discovered, Cooncat is naturally blamed and almost lynched. The mysterious dead men (Jack Elam and Dave Kashner) flit about in the shadows while prairie discord and ranchland romance spread across the plains in equal measure and we get a couple more murders, one of them pretty shocking even by today’s standards, whatever those are.

   The acting here is uniformly good, but it’s mostly a case of able players taking advantage of well-written character parts. John Drew Barrymore (billed here as John Barrymore Jr.) goes over the top too often, but he’s got that Youthful Angst thing down nicely, and he even looks a bit like young Sean Penn. Basil Ruysdale (you might remember him as the Confederate reverend leading his child-soldiers against John Wayne’s cavalry in The Horse Soldiers — or the befuddled detective who loses his shirt to Harpo in The Coconuts) projects real authority as the rancher/patriarch; Lois Butler conveys vulnerable adolescence nicely, and it goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that Jack Elam creeps around with appropriate loathsomeness.

   Hey! Come to think of it, howcum nobody ever made a movie where Jack Elam and Peter Falk played brothers?

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

SIGN OF THE PAGAN. Universal International, 1954. Jeff Chandler, Jack Palance, Ludmilla Tchérina, Rita Gam, Jeff Morrow, George Dolenz, Eduard Franz, Allison Hayes, Alexander Scourby. Screenplay: Oscar Brodney & Barré Lyndon. Director: Douglas Sirk.

   I had somewhat higher hopes for Sign of the Pagan. I like Douglas Sirk as a director, and I greatly appreciate both Jeff Chandler and Jack Palance as actors who worked well in different genres. The way the two actors play off each other’s strengths in Robert Aldrich’s idiosyncratic war film, Ten Seconds To Hell (1959), however, simply doesn’t exist in this middling costumer.

   Although it’s an overall forgettable film, Sign of the Pagan does open strongly, transporting the viewer to a mystical past, an era of Romans, Byzantines, and Huns. Palance portrays Attila, whose thirst for power and glory knows no bounds. Opposing him is a Roman centurion portrayed by Chandler. There are costumes a plenty and an atmosphere, although stagey, of intrigue. But the magic doesn’t last.

   For a film whose poster promises a lot of action and adventure, the movie is remarkably talky. One has to sit through a lot of scenes involving court intrigue and Attila’s fretting about whether or not to attempt to conquer Rome before finally arriving at a final battle sequence which, while enjoyable enough to watch, is simply not long or elaborate enough to make up for a lot of empty dialogue that preceded it.

A PERFECT MURDER. Warner Brothers, 1998. Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen, David Suchet, Sarita Choudhury, Constance Towers. Based on the play “Dial M for Murder” by Frederick Knott. Director: Andrew Davis.

   As the credits say, the screenplay was based on “Dial M for Murder,” and of course it then goes without saying that the play was previously filmed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock), and yes, I know. I said it anyway. I haven’t seen the earlier film since I was 12, so there is nothing in what follows that should in no way be taken as a comparison of one versus the other.

   So. To begin with, they couldn’t have cast anyone more perfect than Michael Douglas to play Steven Taylor, the wealthy investment banker (the words slimy, cold and reptilian also come to mind) who finds that his equally rich wife (equally well cast and played by a most delectable Gwyneth Paltrow) is cheating on him.

   And with all his margin calls coming due, what does Mr. Taylor do? He hires his wife’s lover (Viggo Mortensen), using a bit of very coercive blackmail, to kill his wife. It seems that the lover’s background is very shady himself, providing Taylor (Douglas) with the outline of a perfect plan, one fine tuned to the smallest detail, except for one thing, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.

   Right now I’m on the fence as to how much I should tell you, but I figure that you know that no one as lovely and innocent (or is she?) as Gwyneth Paltrow will be killed. What follows is an almost perfect example of cat-and-mouse playing, with all three major characters as major participants. Of these, Virgo Mortensen has the most challenging role. He is convincing as Paltrow’s lover, then equally so as her husband’s willing accomplice (more or less). Willing, that is.

   I don’t know how I managed to miss this the first time around. This is my kind of movie. I discovered it earlier this week taped many years ago off one of the premium movie channels (and I mean tape) and never watched by me until now. The story is extremely clever, one of those intricate set-up stories they don’t seem to make any more. Perhaps because it’s too difficult to do.

   The first two thirds of the movie are very well done, even to the extent of being overdone (e.g., the lingering shot of the roast beef in the oven), but by movie’s end, I had more questions than I had answers.

   I hate it when that happens. With just a little more care in the details, the movie could have been perfect. As is, no. There’s a lot to like, especially the ending, but an well-constructed murder mystery like this one has to be perfect from beginning to end, and in between as well.


DANIEL WOODRELL – The Ones You Do. St. Bruno #3. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1992. Pocket, paperback, 1998. Also published in The Bayou Trilogy, hardcover, Mulholland Books, 2011.

   The first two books set in St. Bruno (Under the Bright Lights and Muscle for the Wing) have featured Rene Shade, a policeman there, as the protagonist; and his brother Tip, a semi-shady character who owns a bar, appeared in a supporting role. (A third brother was and is again seen only peripherally.) Both are featured prominently again, but here their long-absent father, John X. Shade, joins the cast and provides the focus for the tale.

   John X. is on the run. His young wife has left him, stealing a large chunk of money John was keeping for a local hardcase. The hardcase is neither understanding, forgiving, nor non-lethal, so John flees with his 10 year old daughter, Etta (who was left behind by the absconding wife), back to what he hopes is the comparative safety of St. Bruno.

   His past is hot on his trail, though, in the person of the hardcase, Lunch Pumphrey. All of the Shade clan figure prominently in the story, as does Rene’s love from past books, Nicole. The ending will surprise you, I think.

   The Ones You Do strays farther from genre norms than the first two, though Woodrell has never really written standard mystery, detective or crime stories. They are crime novels in that crimes are committed, but more than anything else they are books about people on the underside of life, people who are rough as the proverbial cob. They are rarely nice people, but they are real; if you were raised up semi-rough and rural you ll probably recognize one or two of them.

   Not all of them ring true, though — I found the sketching of the vanished wife almost cartoonish, and the relationship between Tip and a pregnant field-hippie wasn’t particularly convincing, either.

   I have long felt that Woodrell is underappreciated. His stories of the Louisiana bayou country and people have a gritty, realistic feel. The tone is wry and ironic, and he has a genuine talent with words. With the caveat that the language is rough and the people rougher. I highly recommend all three books.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.

by Marvin Lachman

   [Back in 1982] Jove Books was busily reprinting virtually all of Ngaio Marsh’s books, making it possible for the reader to trace her long career from its beginning, with A Man Lay Dead (1934), to her latest in paperback, Photo Finish (1980). [At the time this essay first appeared] one book remained to be published, posthumously: Light Thickens (Little Brown, 1982).

   Like her contemporaries, Sayers and Allingham, Marsh used elements of the thriller in her early work. A Man Lay Dead, though a detective story, is also about Bolsheviks, spies, and maidens in distress. It moves at a far crisper pace than later Marsh because there are fewer long passages detailing the interrogation of suspects. If Marsh had a weakness, it was that her hero, Roderick Alleyn, spent too much time asking questions.

   More than compensating was her use of unusual murder methods. I can think of few authors as imaginative in how they disposed of victims-to-be. My favorite is the gun-in-the-piano in Overture to Death (1939), but there are other contenders; e.g., the wool-compressing machine in Died in the Wool (1945) and the swinging champagne bottle in Vintage Murder (1937).

   Another Marsh strength was what Howard Haycraft dubbed the “Marsh-milieu.” It was a world of artists, theater people, aristocracy, and civilized policemen. Far removed from the usual settings for murder in real life, it was all the better for escape reading because of that.

   Especially attractive were such theater novels as Night at the Vulcan (1951) and Killer Dolphin (1966). Not only did she make the people come alive, but she made you feel you were physically inside the theater.

   Generally, Marsh’s novels did not change too much from the classic detective type she used in her second, Enter a Murderer (1935). She returned to the thriller once, with excellent results, in Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953). Her attempts to modernize her books, by using the drug scene in When in Rome (1970), the leader of an emerging African nation in Black as He’s Painted (1974), or the Mafia in Photo Finish, were not fully successful. Yet, each of these hooks contained enough traditional Marsh to satisfy her fans.

   If I had a gun to my head and had to select only two Marsh books to recommend, I would pick Overture to Death and Death in a White Tie (1938). However, there are almost thirty others which I’ve read, enjoyed, and can recommend. Thankfully most are [still] available.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1982.

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