JOHN RHODE & CARTER DICKSON – Fatal Descent. Dr. Horatio Glass & Chief Inspector Hornbeam #1. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1939. Popular Library #87, paperback, 1946. Dover, US, paperback, 1987. Published first in the UK as Drop to His Death (William Heinemann, hardcover, 1939).

   Carter Dickson is of course better known as John Dickson Carr, the most famous locked-room mystery writer of all time, and the locked room in this collaboration with John Rhode, author of many many Dr. Priestley novels, is a doozy. It’s an elevator, and to all practical purposes, a hermetically sealed elevator, into which a man steps in alone at the top floor of a five story office building. When it reaches the bottom floor, he is found dead, shot to death in the head.

   As the elevator passes each floor on its way down, no one is able to stop the car either to get in or get off. Nor could have anyone been able to stand on the roof of the car. He was alone all the way down, but someone managed to kill him anyway. The question is how? And of course, secondarily, why?

   This was the only pairing in print of the two authors and of the two detectives who handle the case. In this instance, it is the professional, Chief Inspector Hornbeam whose technique depends on interpreting facts, while Dr. Glass relies on people, psychology and motive. It is the latter, however, who comes up with more than possible solution, one of which (in my opinion) is as good as the real one, if not better.

   But of course, which checked out, Dr. Glass’s solution does not fit the facts, and that is what finely detailed detective novels depend on. In that regard, this book delivers the goods one hundred percent. Unless uncommonly diligent, the reader will still be fooled every step of the way. My only regret is how complicated the murder plan was, even though the authors do a fine job in trying to explain why the killer had to do it the way he did.

   I do not know which author wrote what in this novel, or if one did all of the plotting and the other did the writing. I suspect it was Carr who did the bulk of the work. I recognize his style in detail and humor, but I may be swayed in this regard by having read much more of his work than I have of Rhode’s. Either way, this is a fine example of late 1930s detective fiction writing, and especially if you’re also a fan of locked room mysteries, you should not miss this one.

   

   Two GOLD MEDAL Originals dealing
with sex and violence down Lou’siana way.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   
DAY KEENE – Notorious. Gold Medal #372, paperback original, 1954.

CHARLES WILLIAMS – Hill Girl. Gold Medal #141, paperback original, 1951.

   In Notorious, Carny boss Ed Ferron finds his show mysteriously shunned by the locals in Bay Bayou on opening day. He’s just coming off two rain-out stands, and a bloomer here will send him into bankruptcy. Keene fills in Ed’s background at this point. He’s an ex-con, having done three years hard labor for killing a man he found in bed with his wife — only to discover at his trial that the unlucky deceased was just one in a long and continuing line of infidelities.

   This has made him leery of cops and women, but when he sees young Marva Miller — returning home after two years in the Big City and a failed career as a nightclub singer — being molested by the station master at the depot, he wades in, decks the masher and offers the lady a ride into town, where they’re both inexplicably harassed by the locals. A trip to Marva’s ol’ homestead finds her drunkard dad recently murdered, money missing, and someone taking shots at them. They call the police, and in another unpleasant surprise, find themselves accused of the murder.

   The story that unfolds is a bit predictable, including the inevitable death of a would-be informer (“Meet me at Nine, and bring money with you. What I know will blow this case wide open!”) and a crucial plot twist strained my credulity a bit too far, but Keene keeps a fast pace, builds tension, and his evocation of carnies and small-town folk (Variously termed Gilhoolies, Puddle-Jumpers, and Thistle-Chins) is vivid if not always quite…..

   Well what’s the word I’m looking for?

   What it comes down to is a tendency of some writers to paint small towns as inherently corrupt, like smaller versions of Chicago, where Day Keene (born Gunard Hjertstedt) grew up in the 1920s. My own experience of small towns, while not extensive, leads me to believe that corruption is harder to get away with in a place where everyone knows your business. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that individuals are like any other commodity: valued more highly where there’s fewer around.

   This folksy attitude comes across colorfully in Charles Williams’ Hill Girl, which starts with Bob Crane returning to his rural home town after two years in college football and a failed career as a boxer. When Bob’s father died, he left his considerable assets to Bob’s brother Lee, but Bob’s grandfather left him the modest farm where he spent his boyhood summers, and he has a yen to get back to it.

   One doesn’t think of Gold Medals as bucolic, but there’s no other description for the feel of getting back to the soil Bob enjoys (and Williams evokes.) He gets along with his nearest neighbor, Sam Harley, contracts with a decent couple to help out on shares, and generally refreshes his soul as he works the land.

   The fly in the ointment, and the crux of the plot, is Bob’s brother Lee, wild, hard-drinking and married but nursing a letch for Sam Harley’s daughter Angelina. Bob sees enough of the relationship to nourish a grudge against the girl, who treats him with heart-felt indifference, but when things boil over and Sam Harley comes gunnin’ after Lee, Bob steps in and tells Sam he was the one Sam saw runnin’ away with his pants down.

   Williams injects a telling note of understanding here. Sam knows Bob is lying, but the lie will save face for all concerned, so he accepts it. All things considered, a live husband is better than a dead philanderer and facing a murder rap.

   So now the story centers on the uneasy relationship between shotgun-wedded Bob and Angelina, and here Williams crafts a nicely readable balance between their finer feelings and the fighting, drinking, and other Manly Stuff essential to any paperback original. And having resolved this, he neatly turns the plot back to Lee, and his passion for his brother’s wife.

   I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say that the situation develops with considerable excitement, and includes a magnificent scene that captures the edgy tension of a drunk with a loaded gun.

   No one did this sort of thing better than Gold Medal in those days, and I mourn the passing of this fast, brilliant writing wrapped in gaudy covers at the drugstores of my childhood.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE WIFE OF MONTE CRISTO. PRC, 1946. John Loder, Lenore Aubert, Fritz Kortman, Charles Dingle, Eduardo Ciannelli, Martin Kosleck, Fritz Feld, Eva Gabor. Screenplay by Dorcas Cochran, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Franz Rosenwalk (Francis Rosenwald) suggested by the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.

   Almost from the start there were sequels to Alexandre Dumas mega selling The Count of Monte Cristo including The Daughter of Monte Cristo and The Treasure of Monte Cristo by Jules Lermina published orginally as by Dumas himself. The Wife of Monte Cristo is not a sequel, but a retelling, adding a dash of Zorro and casting Haydee, Dantes Indian ward who is a key part of his revenge plot, as the wife of the title.

   The time is 1832, the place France where corrupt government is opposed by the mysterious masked man known as the Avenger. The Prefect of the Police, de Villefort (John Loder) has two reasons to stop the Avenger, one he ruined his father, the other because he is the head of the corrupt elements in the governent backed by the wealthy Danglars (Charles Dingle) and Malliard (Fritz Kortman) who are both part of a plot to sell contaminated medicine during an outbreak of fever.

   De Villefort has set a trap for the Avenger, and it very nearly works when his men ambush the Avenger and his hand is wounded. Now de Villefort is sure he has the man he suspects is the Avenger, the mysterious and wealthy Edmund Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo (Martin Kosleck).

   Monte Cristo manages to outwit de Villefort, going out of town to his hunting lodge and leaving his beautiful wife Haydee (Lenore Aubert) in charge and in contact with the Avengers legion of men.

   But de Villefort still suspects Monte Cristo and the only way to keep him off balance is if the Avenger appears while Monte Cristo is gone so Haydee chooses to don the mask and black costume of the masked hero.

   Meanwhile de Villefort, still certain Monte Cristo is the Avenger, romances Haydee enlisting Mme Malliard (Eva Gabor) in his game to set a trap for the count. But for a time Haydee manages to outwit him, even capturing, putting on trial, and executing Malliard under de Villefort’s nose (in the best sequence of the film shot in smoky dark inns, wine cellars, and on Parisian roof tops), which results in Haydee being arrested, and now it is up to Monte Cristo to return from his hunting lodge and free his wife and avenge his honor as de Villefort has discovered from his spy (Fritz Feld) Monte Cristo is Edmund Dantes.

   All this is standard cloak and dagger, and done on a low budget, but in this case done stylishly by director Edgar G. Ulmer who takes a fairly strong script, an interesting and intelligent heroine in Aubert, who is convincing equally in cape and mask and low cut gown, a dashing and despicable villain in Loder, and a surprisingly dashing and adept hero in Kosleck, who is off screen for much of the film, but returns in time to outwit de Villefort and confront him in his own palace in a well staged duel to the death. Considering Kosleck is best remembered for low budget villainy he is quite good as the swashbuckling mystery man.

   A better than usual supporting cast of Kortman, Dingle, Gabor, Ciannelli, Anthony Warde, and Feld add to the fun while Bruce Lester and Robert J. Wilkie are unbilled in small parts.

   Virginia Christine has a nice bit as a woman who hides Monte Cristo from the soldiers.

   Mostly it is Ulmer who makes this worthwhile. While I don’t quite hold with the auteur theory of Ulmer’s genius, he was capable of making the most of a low budget, poor lighting, inexpensive sets, and a feel for German Expressionism. Here the directors eye and ability to make the most of very little combined with a decent cast and the usual mix of desirable women, flashing swords, swirling cloaks, and masked heroes works better than you might expect.

   This is by no means a great film, but it holds its own with better known and better financed sequels to Monte Cristo like the two Louis Hayward outings The Return of Monte Cristo and The Son of Monte Cristo. Considering those two are well respected among fans of swashbucklers that’s saying quite a bit for this film.

   

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Crider

   
WILLIAM R. COX – Hell To Pay. Tom Kincaid #1. Signet #1555, paperback original, 1958.

   William R. Cox started in the pulp field and turned to writing paperback originals in the 1950s. He is probably better known for his westerns and juveniles than for his mysteries, but his contributions to the mystery field should not go unremarked.  In fact, Cox is a very good writer, utilizing sharp characterization and a well-paced narrative, and often providing insightful comments on various topics.

   Hell to Pay is the first in a series of books about Tom Kincaid, a professional gambler. Kincaid functions much like a private eye as he is unwillingly pulled into a gang war between the old members of the Syndicate and a new gang composed of Fifties-style juvenile delinquents. Even Kincaid does not understand his role in this war, but the girlfriend of a man Kincaid has hired is raped and killed, and several attempts are made on Kincaid’s life.

   Along with his other problems, Kincaid has a longtime girl who wants him to leave New York and go west, to Vegas, so that she can work in Hollywood and still be close to him. Before the end of the book, she is involved in the war, too.

   In some ways, reading this book is like reading the old pulps; Cox makes fine use of Fifties slang, and the gambler’s world is depicted with a good sense of realism. All the virtues of pulp fiction are present, with few exceptions. Books like this one make this reviewer wish Cox had done more mysteries.

   Tom Kincaid also appears in two other very good books by Cox: Murder in Vegas (1960) and Death on Location (1962).

     ———
   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.
   

Editorial Comment: I reviewed Death on Location much earlier on this blog. Here’s the link. Be sure to read the comments, where Bill Kelly has recently added a list of all the Tom Kincaid pulp stories.

MILES BURTON – The Man with the Tattooed Face. Inspector Henry Arnold & Desmond Merrion #15. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1937. Previously published in the UK as Murder in Crown Passage (Collins, hardcover, 1937). Albatross Mystery Club #436, paperback, April 1939.

   The face of the dead man found in Crown Passage, a narrow walkway in the small village of Faston Bishop, is indeed marred by tattoos, those of a suspiciously Chinese origin. He had been hit over the head by the proverbial short but very blunt instrument. Unaccustomed to dealing with violent crimes of this nature, the local police force calls for help almost immediately.

   Enter Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard. Even though the dead man worked only at odd jobs as a poor labourer, he never seemed to have been short of money, and he always sat in the more elite section of the local pub. After a few rounds of questioning, Arnold soon has a theory of the case, even down to who done it. This is on page 100 or so of a 280 page novel, so of course we know he’s wrong.

   And so does his friend Desmond Merrion, a former military intelligence officer who often assists Arnold on his various cases, and he doesn’t hesitate in telling the latter so almost as soon as he’s been briefed on the investigation. They do make good pair, though, as they begin looking at the evidence again.

   This is one of those detective mysteries in which almost no action takes place; only a nearly non-stop series of conversations with everyone who is even tangentially involved. Some minor coincidences take place, and I quibble a bit about one aspect of the killer, but no more than that. Modern mystery fans would, I imagine, be bored to tears. But not I, nor probably you, if you have read this far into this review.

   As for me, I loved it. Quiet, polite, and subdued is what I needed when I started this one, and that is exactly I got. And so will you, if you ever manage to find a copy. When last I looked, there were no copies anywhere to be had on the Internet. John Rhode’s books are being reprinted – he’s another of the author’s pen names, the author in question being Cecil John Charles Street – why aren’t Miles Burton’s? There are 61 in all, most of them yet to be published in this country. Help, someone!
   

NOTE: I have read the book once before, and I wrote a review of it back in 1980. It was posted here on this blog in 2013. Here’s the link. I deliberately did not look at this earlier review before writing this later one. I am surprised but pleased to see how similar the two reviews are.

BARRICADE. 20th Century Fox, 1939. Alice Faye, Warner Baxter, Charles Winninger, Arthur Treacher, Keye Luke, Willie Fung, Philip Ahn. Directed by Gregory Ratoff.

   In the midst of war-torn China, an isolated, almost forgotten American consulate is besieged by Mongolian bandits, Trapped inside, among others, are a beautiful American woman (traveling incognito without a passport as the Russian wife of a dead American) and a reporter who is “temporarily” between jobs, fired for having concocted an interview with a Chinese general who (unbeknownst to him) was dead at the time.

   On the surface this is nothing more than a love story, taking place against a background of history’s making, filled with suspense and brave deeds, but once again the real hero is neither of the two leading stars. As the consul who is all but forgotten by his country, Charles Winninger turns in an outstanding performance as a patriot who has not forgotten his country a fraction of an inch. Seemingly bumbling and naive, Winninger shows that his character knows exactly what is going on, and that trampling on the rights of Americans is not an action that should be taken lightly.

   In other words, an old-fashioned movie that’s as timely as last month’s headlines.

– Reprinted from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.

   

CLIVE CUSSLER – Night Probe!  Dirk Pitt #5.  Bantam, hardcover, 1981; paperback, 1982.

   After helping raise the Titanic last time out (*), what could there possibly be for Dirk Pitt to do for an encore? As America’s number one underwater super-agent, even he would seem hard pressed to come up with something to top that one.

   The year is 1989, far enough into the future for the United States to be realistically sinking slowly into bankruptcy, desperately in need of new sources of energy, and yet near enough to avoid being passed off as mere science fiction. Missing are two vitally needed copies of a treaty made with England in 1914, one that would have sold Canada to the United States to help finance the early stages of World War I, but lost to the pages of history by an amazing series of tragic accidents.

   One copy is in an ocean liner now residing at the bottom of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The other is somewhere on a train which met its doom on the very same day, crashing through a bridge crossing the Hudson River.

   Together, their twin disappearances mark one of the greatest vanishing acts of all time. (The treaty was secret. Why is it that hardly anybody remembers either disaster?) The President puts all his faith in Dirk Pitt to produce another miracle.

   Not to be caught napping, Britain calls out of retirement one of the most famous spies the world has ever known, just for the occasion. He is known as “Brian Shaw” in this book, but that won’t fool any of his many fans for. a minute. Reknown as both a ladies’ man and for his even more famous license to kill, “Shaw” proves he has lost none of his touch for either.

   In a word, Clive Cussler’s technical expertise in matters aquanautical is impressive, but if anything his. knack for telling a spell-binder of a story is even more so. Like the old penny-a-word pulpsters, or the directors of the great adventure serials of yesteryear, Cussler is a master of action, intrigue,. and romance (not necessarily in that order), and the pace is never allowed to slacken for a moment.

   If you missed the hardcover (Bantam, 1981), the paperback is now out. You could wait for the movie,  I suppose, but why? (**)

Rating: A

– Reprinted and slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, September/October 1982.

   

(*) I was incorrect on this. There was another Dirk Pitt adventure between Raising the Titanic! and Night Probe!, that being Vixen 03.

(**) I was incorrect on this as well. There has been no movie made from this book. And surprisingly enough, given the popularity of the Dirk Pitt books, only two of them have been made into films: Raise the Titanic! (1980) and Sahara (2005).

REVIEWED BY GLORIA MAXWELL:

   

K. K. BECK – Death in a Deck Chair. Iris Cooper #1. Walker & Co., hardcover, 1984. Ivy, paperback, 1987.

   Replete with the vintage scenery of shipboard antics and romance, this book provides an airy, enjoyable read. [The year is 1927 and young Stanford co-ed] Iris Cooper is completing a round-the-world cruise with her aunt aboard the luxury liner Irenia. Shipboard life becomes strained when a rather inconspicuous young man is found knifed in the back while sitting in a deck chair.

   Iris becomes an impromptu amateur detective when the captain accepts her offer to take shorthand during the murder investigation. A blackmail plot is discovered which points to several likely suspects: a seductive screen star vamp with a lurid past; a journalist eager to find a story; a prince traveling incognito; and a mysterious professor.

   An anarchist plot to depose the monarchy in Graznia is disclosed, which is intertwined with the victim’s identity and purpose in traveling aboard this particular ship.

   Light touches of romance pepper this sprightly mystery which evokes a pleasant period ambience. This is a murder for those who favor old-fashioned mysteries.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 6, Number 3 (Fall 1985).

   
      The Iris Cooper series —

1. Death in a Deck Chair (1984)
2. Murder in a Mummy Case (1986)
3. Peril Under the Palms (1989)

TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN. Nikkatsu, Japa, 1960. Original title: Sono gosôsha wo nerae: ‘Jûsangô taihisen’ yori. Michitaro Mizushima, Mari Shiraki, Misako Watanabe, Shinsuke Ashida, Shôichi Ozawa. Director: Seijun Suzuki.

   Although not a film noir, this Japanese crime film from 1960 has a lot going for it for fans of the genre from a purely visual point of view. Filmed in sharp, clear black and white, Take Aim at the Police Van avoids the big glittering neon-lit cities seen so often in movie staking place in Japan, and concentrates instead on the underbellies of small towns and in darkened streets and long stretches of mostly isolated highway (not always).

   The opening scene tells you right away where the title in English came from. A prison bus is shot at by a sniper on a hillside, killing not the guards, but two of the three convicts being transported inside. One of the guards, Daijirô Tamon (played by Michitaro Mizushima) is deemed responsible and is given a six months’ suspension.

   Rather than sit back and take a vacation, Tamon decides to track down the killer(s) and find out what kind of scheme is behind the murders, thus leading him into a complex tale of a prostitution ring, dead ends, false trails, fake deaths, and narrowly escaping death in a runaway gasoline tanker leaking a trail of flames behind it as it thunders down a highway.

   Even more importantly, every clue he follows seems to lead him back to a beautiful but totally enigmatic woman, Yuko Hamashima (Misako Watanabe), whose father apparently runs a brothel, but in whose absence illness Yuko is trying to keep the business going, but with competition being what it is, without as much success as she’d prefer.

   I am hazy on the details. There are a lot twists and turns in the tale that is told in this movie, with very abrupt changes of scenes, not only in time but in location. Another viewing may help, and I think I will, if only to savor the entire viewing experience again, the story itself be damned.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM – The Narrow Corner. William Heinemann Ltd., UK, hardcover, 1932.

THE NARROW CORNER. Warners, 1933. Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Patricia Ellis, Ralph Bellamy, Dudley Digges, Artur Hohl, Reginald Owen, Willie Fung, and Sidney Toler. Screenplay by Robert Presnell. Directed by Alfred E. Green.

ISLE OF FURY. Warners, 1936. Humphrey Bogart, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Woods, E.E. Clive, Paul Graetz, George Regas, Tetsu Komai, Miki Morita, and Frank Lackteen. Screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews and William Jacobs. Directed by Frank McDonald.

   The Narrow Corner finds Maugham striding confidently through Joseph Conrad territory, with a Marlow-like narrator recalling his encounter with a young wastrel out cruising the south seas to evade a murder rap in Australia. With the ship laid up for repairs on a remote island, the young man meets a family of simple, decent Dutch traders and finds love (or does he?) when it’s too late (or is it?)

   Maugham does a splendid job with the locations, the simple plot and the complex characterizations, but it sometimes seems he’s trying too hard to write a Serious Novel when he could be telling a Good Story. I should also add, in case you’re bothered by it, that this is the homosexiest straight novel I’ve seen in some time: the women are generally predatory or self-absorbed, and Maugham spends a lot of time contrasting the physical beauty and innocence of the young men with the saggy, baggy dissipation of their elders.

   Despite the subtext, The Narrow Corner was snapped up by Warners and filmed just a year after publication. In those heady, pre-code days, Hollywood could still exploit the steamy exoticism of the thing, and director Alfred E. Green and writer Robert Presnell did rather well by it, Presnell excising Maugham’s pretensions, and Green slapping the story on screen with pace and style.

   Corner offers one of the best storm-at-sea scenes ever in the Movies, plus a cast of able thespians (including Doug Fairbanks Jr. as the wastrel, Patricia Ellis as the love-starved island girl, Dudley Digges and Arthur Hohl as dope-addict doctor and crooked captain, and Sidney Toler as a tough “fixer.”) delivering some sharp lines. The film falls down only in the casting of Ralph Bellamy, the mere appearance of whom gives away the ending immediately.

   A few years later, Warners went to the well again, and to their credit, they made an enjoyable “B” picture out of the thing. True, they tossed out most of Maugham’s novel (He got screen credit anyway, which he may or may not have welcomed.) but they filled it up with crackerjack ideas of their own invention: shifty natives planning robbery and fomenting unrest; a larcenous skipper prone to murder; undersea mayhem, and even a hokey octopus!

   Humphrey Bogart, sporting an unflattering mustache, stars as a husband balanced precariously on the edge of cuckoldry when mysterious castaway Donald Woods turns up on his remote tropical island. Wise old Doctor E.E. Clive is quick to intuit the attraction between Woods and Bogey’s bride (lovely Margaret Lindsay, whose star burned steadily in Hollywood but somehow never caught fire) but writers Andrews and Jacobs cut away to the action scenes before things get too syrupy.

   They also do a good job of fleshing out the characters to more than B-movie dimensions. Director McDonald lets his actors expand to fit the parts, as his camera moves gracefully through the studio tropics. As for Bogart, well, this was the point in his career when Warners was still wondering what to do with him, the years he spent playing second-leads, vampires and Mexican bandits. He looks a bit as if at any moment the writers might decide to kill off his character, and the uncertainty works well in this context. It’s not Maugham’s novel, but it’s a dandy bit of entertainment in the Warners style.

   

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