Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


EDEN PHILLPOTTS – Lycanthrope: The Mystery of Sir William Wolf. Butterworth, UK, hardcover, 1937. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1938. Also available online here.

    The ceremonial gates of Stormbury were seldom opened. They led, by a wide grass avenue, between red-woods and other conifers to the southern front of the manor, and rose in two massive pediments between which hung gates of scrolled iron brought by a former baronet from Italy. On each of the supporting pillars sat a wolf, also the work of an Italian artist. They were carved of grey marble in a realistic fashion and taken from the family coat of arms. On the coat, indeed, the wolves stalked one above the other — twain wolves passant — but here the monsters were separated and each from his lofty perch looked down, with bared teeth, alert and alive, upon the passer-by. Neither lichen nor moss was permitted to adorn them and for a hundred years they had preserved their formidable and threatening animation.

   Sir William Wolf has just inherited Stormbury on his father’s, Sir Porteous, death. A slight scholarly man, he has a quality of strength about him as well as frailty. He has just returned from Greece where he was studying antiquities with his man and close friend Bob Meadows. He returns home to another close friend, the hearty John Malfroy offering support in these difficult times.

   Sir William Wolf had deeper problems than running Stormbury, though. Recent mysterious events and a creature only half perceived in the darkness have left Sir William with a strange idee fixe he explains to his friend Malfroy:

    “The creature we heard to-night is no ordinary, wandering wolf liberated by unknown enemies, as you imagine and Telford tries to believe. It is a lycanthrope…”

   And it gets worse:

    “You can’t get on equal terms with a lycanthrope, supposing any such abortion existed.”

    “I can — by becoming one myself. And there is that already moving deep in me that makes me think such a thing may soon happen.”

   If Sir William was merely obsessed, it would be difficult enough, but there are mysteries afoot, and it is hard to dismiss Sir William’s fears so easily. Eventually the tension will force a separation between Sir William and his long time friend and servant Bob Meadows, and a new man will be hired, one James Callender, and whether he, or anyone, can be trusted is a real question.

   I should pause here to explain something. Lycanthrope is a thriller, but it is not a horror novel, Lycanthrope is a detective story.

   Enter our sleuth, whose explanation of the complicated events takes up the latter part of the novel.

    My name is Samuel Pettigrew. After leaving the University of Oxford, I became an actor… Then I played a detective in a most ingenious and popular entertainment, and having impersonated this astute officer for many months without a respite, abandoned the profession to become a private inquirer amid the real misdemeanours of my fellow-men.

   Okay, it’s not Hammett. This is old fashioned, even for 1937. It would have been old fashioned in 1927, maybe even 1917. Eden Phillpotts was born in 1862 and had his first great success with the chapbook My Adventure on the Flying Scotsman, by most accounts the first mystery set on a train well before the 20th Century. He was still writing in 1950. He lived until 1960, two years short of 100.

   If you know Phillpotts at all it is for his detective novel The Red Redmaynes, and if you don’t know that you might know him because of a young woman he encouraged to write detective stories — Agatha Christie.

   Phillpotts wrote detective novels and well-received regional novels under his own name, and thrillers a bit less formal about the detective work as Harrington Hext.

   That said, Pettigrew does an admirable job with the Sherlock Holmes bit. He may not have been a great actor, he admits he was no tragedian, but as a detective he is gifted, and he needs to be, because more is going on at Stormbury than Sir William’s obsession. Mystery and conspiracy swirl around the place, and more than one of both. Why did Bob Meadows desert his friend, and who is James Callender …?

   For me, the old fashioned element of this book worked in its favor with the atmosphere and the hint of the supernatural. Phillpotts isn’t content merely to tell you the mysterious events. He wants you to feel them.

    …an amorphous shadow like a black smudge appeared upon the stairway. It ascended step by step in animal shape, with animal caution, and there flickered a lambent ray of pale green about its feet. On all fours it crept, and when the light from the gallery fell upon it there was revealed a wolf-headed creature with open mouth, pricked ears, and eyes, not phosphorescent after the manner of wild beasts’ eyes, but shining by steady inner illumination, like little lamps.

   Lycanthrope manages some thrills and chills, and the mystery is satisfyingly solved. If Sir William reminds you a bit of Sir Henry Baskerville its no accident, but this in no other way resembles Doyle’s novel. Pettigrew is no Holmes, but you might keep in mind Holmes is an actor as well.

    For I had sensed something evil in the air of this business. As Sir William and his companions had smelled the aroma of wolf at midnight on his last birthday, so now did I experience the subtle tang of secret villainy — an odour offensive enough to honest nostrils, but not devoid of exhilarating and tonic qualities for the nose of such depraved beings as myself.

   Can Pettigrew save Sir William’s fragile grasp on reality much less his life? Can he unravel the conspiracies at foot and lay the wolf haunting Stormbury?

   I enjoyed this one. It moved much faster than I expected, and it turned into a much better detective story, if hardly fair play, than I had expected. Pettigrew proves an engaging narrator and a believable one, and Sir William, who could easily become a silly fool we could not identify with, becomes a figure you want to save.

   I can’t tell you why you can’t actually call this one a murder mystery, but it comes very close to being one.

   All in all, despite its dated prose, this was one worth reading, a good example of why Phillpotts remained in print from the end of one century into the middle of another.

Editorial Comment:   Unless Al Hubin is in error about this, Lycanthrope is the only case of mystery that Samuel Pettigrew was ever consulted on.

Reviewed by Mark D. Nevins:


  JOHN D. MacDONALD – Free Fall in Crimson. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1981. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback, 1982. Reprinted many times since.

   I’m coming to the end of my run of the McGee series: Freefall in Crimson is the antepenultimate (how often does one get to use that word?), and so I’m somewhat disappointed to say, having just finished it, that it’s probably my second-least-favorite in the series. (My least favorite is Nightmare in Pink: the story seemed contrived and the psychedelic drug references have really not aged well.)

   The set-up in Crimson gave no indication that the book would fail to please: the estranged son of a wealthy businessman suspects his father was murdered, and locates problem-solver McGee through some old mutual connections (including a femme fatale from #4, The Quick Red Fox).

   Sounds like a typical kickoff for Travis, but the book fails to deliver the goods, at least by the standards JDM set for himself. I have a few thoughts on what’s “wrong” with Crimson:

   1. After the emotional intensity of The Green Ripper [reviewed here ], JDM may simply have been set for a let-down. (Green is far from my favorite, but it’s a massive step in a different direction from the series’ trajectory — an exhausting experience for the reader and, I expect, for the author as well.)

   2. JDM is a master of storytelling and pacing, and both seemed a bit left-footed here. The chapters and “story chunks” felt disproportionate, and the “mystery” didn’t really hang together: a quick pivot from tracks discovered in the bushes to deep undercover with motorcycle gangs; some amateur porno stuff that seemed like an afterthought and lazy; and a mob scene that advances the plot in a clunky deus-ex-machina way. Even the “economics” didn’t hang together as credibly as they do in so many of the other mysteries–and that’s an area JDM loves.

   3. The violence was a bit much — and more egregious than thrilling. Part of that was because it was rushed through (the main baddy Grizzel’s rampage was quick, and much of it “off-screen”), and part was that the bad guy didn’t have the deep intensity of some of the other major psychologically broken bad guys Trav has faced before. (My points 2 and 3 actually cross here–the last 30-40 pages of the book felt like they had been written in a single draft, and not polished up and filled out.)

   I also wonder if, and this may be a reach, JDM wasn’t also having a sort of change-of-heart as he wrote this book — hence the strange rough treatment of Meyer at the end. As Travis the protagonist has started to get weary of the world and its changes, has MacDonald the author also grown weary of the mystery/thriller genre? To some extent Green and Crimson seem to criticize the genre itself by the way they yank us out of the comfortable mood we’ve gotten used to getting into, in a comfortable chair with a McGee in our hands. I’ll need to think more about this angle as I make my way through Cinnamon and Silver.

   I can’t believe there are only two McGees left. I have sometimes thought it would be great to have someone else take a crack at a new McGee — but it would have to be a very careful choice, and I don’t like Stephen King (who has apparently offered) as a candidate. I’d choose a more “literary” writer, much as the Fleming estate has been doing with the James Bond series. Just like, as I’ve often thought, I’d love to see Garry Disher write a new Stark/Westlake “Parker” novel.

   One final problem with Crimson: it’s oddly lacking in the sorts of poetic writing I’ve come to love in a McGee book. There were a few pages I dog-eared, but the passages were short and lacked the usual elaborate internal monologue:

    “That is one of the great troubles, I thought, after I hung up. The people you have great empathy with are never conveniently located nearby. Many are, but the rest are scattered far and wide. You see them too seldom. But you can always pick up right where you left off. You know who they are. They know who you are. No reintroductions required.”

   and

    “Once in a great while, like once every fifty miles, I even got a look at a tiny slice of the Gulf of Mexico, way off to the right. And remembered bringing the Flush down this coast with Gretel aboard. And wished I could cry as easily as a child does.”

   (If you’ve read The Green Ripper, that last one should make you choke up a little.)

WAYNE D. OVERHOLSER – Fabulous Gunman. Macmillan, hardcover, 1952. Dell #729, paperback, 1953; reprinted by Dell several times. Also: Leisure, paperback, 1991; Leisure Double, paperback, bound with Steel to the South, 1994.

   According to his Wikipedia page, Overholser wrote something close to a hundred western novels, under both his own name and several pseudonyms, including Lee Leighton, John S. Daniels, Dan J. Stevens and Joseph Wayne. His first novel was Buckaroo’s Code (1947), but well before then, he was a prolific writer for the westerns pulps, beginning with a story called “Wanted Man” (Popular Western, December 1936).

   And even so, while I’m not sure, this may be the first of his work that I’ve ever read. I am sure it is the first in the last 30 years, which is entirely too bad, as I enjoyed this one quite a bit.

   It occurred to me as I was reading it that it might even be considered a Private Eye novel, not quite, and certainty not in the traditional sense, but it comes close. Bill Womack is, in the traditional western sense, a gun for hire. Not a Paladin, by any means, for he’s quick on the gun and has killed many men with it, not caring who has hired him or the reason why.

   But age and notoriety is catching up with him, and when he’s hired by twin siblings, Rose and Ed Hovey, to protect their father from the mess he’s in — a range war is about to begin, and Grant Hovey is right in the middle, a victim of his own weaknesses — Womack starts to ponder the meaning of the word justice, and whether or not a man can ever retire from the business of hiring out his guns to anyone who can pay the price.

   As I say, a traditional western through and through, which also means a more than a little romance is involved as well. Not with the wife of the biggest rancher on the range, although Womack at first is attracted, but (as it turns out) the beautiful Nita Chapman has eyes for someone else.

   It’s a long book with a complicated plot, and a lot of men don’t live to see the end of it. Overholser handles the varied strands of the story very well, all of an adult nature, and by adult I do not mean anything rated more than PG. A kiss at the end is all Womack has been working for.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


JOHN FRANKLIN BARDIN – The Deadly Percheron. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1946. Reprints include: MacFadden Bartell, paperback, 1968; Penguin, paperback, 1988; Poisoned Pen Press, trade paperback, 1998; Centipede Press, 2006.

   New York psychiatrist George Matthews is visited by a young man named Jacob Blunt who wears flowers in his hair, gives away quarters to people on the street, and fears he is losing his mind — all because of the manipulation of three-foot-tall “leprechauns.”

   Matthews doesn’t believe in the leprechauns, of course, but neither does he believe Blunt is anything but sane. He agrees to accompany the young man to meet one of the gnomes, Eustace, who looks suspiciously like a midget and who insists that Blunt now start giving away horses instead of quarters, beginning with a Percheron to the star of a hit Broadway show.

   The star turns up murdered, the man the police arrest as Jacob Blunt turns out to be an imposter, and an attempt is made on Matthews’s life in a subway station. At which point matters really become bizarre. Matthews wakes up in a mental hospital some six months later, suffering from partial amnesia and with a hideous scar disfiguring his face.

   It is only after he adopts an entirely new identity that he is able to effect a release from the hospital and to begin, torturously, to piece his life back together and seek out the truth about the strange events surrounding Jacob Blunt, the leprechauns, and the deadly Percheron.

   A most unusual and ingeniously constructed mystery up to a point. Suspense is high throughout, and there are some forcefully written scenes. But the book’s weaknesses far outweigh its strengths. Other scenes and much of the plot strain credulity to the breaking point, the characterization is weak (Matthews isn’t very likeable, for one), the dialogue is stilted, and the explanation behind all the bizarre happenings is downright silly. All in all, The Deadly Percheron is a vaguely irritating and unsatisfying novel.

   Bardin has his admirers, who praise the hallucinatory quality of this and such other mysteries as The Last of Philip Banter (1947), Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly (1948), Purloining Tiny (1978), and four published under the pseudonyms Gregory Tree and Douglas Ashe. But he is definitely an acquired taste, like olives and rutabagas.

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


HANGMAN’S KNOT. Columbia Pictures, 1952. Randolph Scott, Donna Reed, Claude Jarman Jr., Frank Faylen, Glenn Langan, Richard Denning, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Clem Bevans, Ray Teal. Written and directed by Roy Huggins.

   Hangman’s Knot has Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin in it —two of my all time favorite actors — so I had pretty high hopes prior to watching this lesser known early 1950s Western. Unfortunately, despite solid performances by both these men (especially Marvin), the movie never really gets that far off the proverbial ground.

   It’s not that Hangman’s Knot is remotely a bad film; it’s just that it devolves into (trust me, I almost feel guilty saying this) somewhat mediocre, even somewhat clichéd, post Civil War-era, Western. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that I couldn’t help but watch this film without subconsciously comparing it the decidedly excellent Budd Boetticher-directed Westerns that Scott would star in as the golden age for the Western genre wound on.

   Written and directed by Roy Huggins and produced by Harry Joe Brown, Hangman’s Knot features Scott as Major Matt Stewart, a Confederate officer tasked with stealing a gold shipment from Union troops in Nevada. The mission, which he carries out with the assistance of his sociopath comrade (Lee Marvin), is a success.

   The catch: as it turns out, the war is already over, making these Confederate soldiers just a bunch of outlaws. They are literally men without a country.

   The rest of the movie follows these happenstance outlaws as they hole up in a way station with a group of hostages and surrounded by a ragtag posse out for the gold. About those aforementioned hostages: did I mention that one of them is a lovely young Yankee woman (Donna Reed) who, by the end, falls in love with our tall and handsome Southern protagonist? Love conquers all or something like that.

SUSAN RICHARD – Chateau Saxony. Paperback Library; paperback original, 1971.

   You pick a book at random, around here at least, and you never know exactly what you may find. This looks like a perfectly ordinary gothic romance novel from the 70s, and that’s precisely what it is. Checking with Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, you then discover that “Susan Richard” is a pseudonym, of Julie Ellis, who also wrote mysteries and crime fiction (mostly other gothics) as Susan Marino and Susan Marvin.

   Most of her books seem to have been written as by Julie Ellis, and over the years – from the titles, at least – it appears that she is now writing what is called “romantic suspense” – gothics as such having lost some of their appeal. (There simply can’t be that many spooky castles and mansions still remaining anywhere in the world.)

   While the first book that Hubin lists for her as being crime fiction, The Secret of the Villa Como, as by Susan Marvin, came out from Lancer in 1966, Julie Ellis seems to have had another early career writing as Joan Ellis for the relatively sexy line of Midwood paperbacks from the even earlier 1960s – for example, The Hot Canary (Midwood, 1963), The Strange Compulsion of Laura M. (Midwood, 1962), Liza’s Apartment (Midwood, 1961) and Gang Girl (Midwood, 1964).

   INSERT: There is a short interview with Julie Ellis you can find online that was conducted by Lynn Munroe before her death in 2006. She was not bothered by the attention paid to her early “sexy” novels, but rather she seemed to enjoy the attention and was a guest at several of Gary Lovisi’s annual paperback shows in Manhattan. I never met her, but after writing this review, I was in touch with her several times by email.

   So. Chateau Saxony is where young, unattached Laurie Stanton finds herself going after graduating from college – Switzerland, that is, near Geneva, where she by happenstance has been hired to teach French to a young wealthy businessman’s stubborn grandmother, who’d rather be back home in New England.

   The house itself is not spooky, but the servants do not seem to like her, and soon after Laurie’s arrival, strange events begin to happen: a rock and a trivet are thrown through her window; she finds a voodoo doll on her bed; a fire breaks out in her room. The grandmother, Diedre, on several occasions, claims to have ESP and warns Laurie that if she stays, something horrible will happen at the chateau that summer.

   The challenge to the author is, if you’re going by the rules, is to have all of these events happen, and yet make them seem reasonable, with everyday kinds of explanations, so that in effect, nothing seems to happen while there really is. And – if you were wondering – why does Laurie stay? There is the young wealthy millionaire (I guess that was redundant) whom she finds herself falling in love with. And, it as gradually becomes clear, although under the most chaste of circumstances, he with her.

   The last incident that Laurie must face could have been enhanced into a fairly decent locked-room mystery – a pendant is stolen from her room while she is sleeping and locked in – but after nearly 150 pages of gradually growing suspense and atmosphere (mostly the latter), the whole affair seems to come unraveled and is solved all too quickly. I imagine I should have spotted the person responsible, but I confess that I did not. I am embarrassed, but I will never lie to you.

— June 2004

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


PROFESSOR BEWARE. Paramount, 1938. Harold Lloyd, Phyllis Welch, Raymond Walburn, Lionel Stander, William Frawley, and Montagu Love as Professor Schmutz. Written by Delmer Daves. Directed by Elliott Nugent.

   Not a completely successful film, nor a consistently funny one, Professor Beware flopped at the box office, leading to Lloyd’s retirement (until Mad Wednesday anyway) but I find it a charming thing, with a screamingly funny wrap-up.

   This starts off with a creepy pastiche of The Mummy (Universal, 1932) as a star-crossed Egyptian Romeo gets entombed alive, the result it seems of a misunderstanding involving a vestal virgin or some such. Flash forward to 1938 and we find the ancient swain reincarnated as our Egyptologist Hero and launched on a cross country chase with a madcap heiress in true screwball-comedy fashion.

   The problem here is that the resulting escapades ain’t all that funny. There’s a clever line here and there, a fleetingly funny bit of business now and then, and Phyllis Welch, in her one and only starring film, has the requisite cute-and-perky act down pat, but the story lacks sustained comic momentum, and Lloyd’s best and most athletic days were now behind him.

   Instead of the cheerful ballet of Harold at his best, we get some rather dire back-projection and a faintly unfocused odyssey as he tries to escape the curse of his ancient progenitor, the heiress and cops chase after him, and a slew of comic character actors do what they can in brief bits — my favorite being Montagu Love as Professor Schmutz; he doesn’t do anything funny, I just like the name “Professor Schmutz.”

   But I said early on that I liked this film, and I do. There’s a certain eerie mood hung on the theme of Harold trying to cheat his fate that sustains the story in spite of itself, and it comes together in a thoughtful moment when our hero figures out that if risking a horrible death is the price of true love…. Well, maybe it’s worth it.

   Of course it helps that Professor Beware wraps up with a full ten minutes of delightful sight gags, wonderfully conceived, and beautifully shot and edited as Harold storms a yacht and we get that wonderful feel of his Silent Movie days, that this guy can sweep a football field or climb a skyscraper and take us right along with him.

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