Reviews


REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:

   

JOANNA SCOTT – The Manikin.  Henry Holt, hardcover, 1996. Picador, softcover, 1998.

   Scott is the author of four novels and a story collection, the latter of which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Holt characterizes this is a part coming-of-age story and part Gothic mystery, and uses some other more literary terns as well.

   Outside of Rochester in rural upstate New York lies The Manikin, a baroque mansion designed by and ‘built for the man known as “the Henry Ford of Natural History.”  His business specialty was taxidermy, and the house is filled with mute and sometimes startling testimony to it. A motley crew of humans live there as well, made up of his aging widow and her servants and his former chief taxidermist.

   They exist in slowly dwindling splendor, isolated from the real world, until a house guest arrives as winter sets in one year in the late 1920’s, a wandering son returns, and everything changes forever.

   Holt misspoke; though this does have Gothic overtones, and though there are crimes including rape and animal mutilation, it is no sort of a mystery. Nor are there any genre trappings whatsoever. It is a Novel, by a Novelist, and to my eye an exceptional one. Scott has created .a strange and wonderful set of characters, and her prose is simply outstanding. The countryside and the strange old house are evoked so well as to become characters in themselves.

   Scott is a writer both lyrical and mannered, and this isn’t a book to read quickly. It’s one to read, though.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #24, March 1996.
THE VALUE OF MIDDLE OF THE ROAD DETECTIVE NOVELS
or WILLIAM ARD’s The Diary and JONATHAN LATIMER’S Murder in the Madhouse, by TONY BAER.

   

   There was some review on the back of a Maigret book that said something about how many countless traveling businessmen had been comforted, salved, and assuaged in their lonely motel rooms by these books.

   So I guess that’s where I’m going with this.

   Murder in the Madhouse is the first of the Bill Crane detective novels. He’s been assigned to investigate a theft of a strongbox of one of the inmates. He enters incognito, ‘disguised’ as a crazy drunkard who thinks he’s a great detective.

   Once he arrives, a series of murders ensue, for which he serves as a chief suspect of the local stupid sheriff.

   Crane’s detection is surprisingly effective, and justice, after drinks, is served.

   The Diary (Timothy Dane #3), is pretty much a straight ripoff of The Big Sleep. Dane gets called in by a millionaire widower because he is being blackmailed over his sexpot 18 year old daughter’s stolen diary. Murders ensue, for which Dane serves as chief suspect of the stupid DA. Dane’s detection is surprisingly suspect, and justice, hold the drinks, is served.

   Both the books are well told. The authors are natural born writers, who write smoothly, entreatingly, and know how to tie a thing together.

   You finish the book, and it’s done. You won’t remember it.

   On the other hand, in the time that you’re in it, you’re in it. It holds you.

   And all of the terrible shit of the world, and of the day, it disappears.

   And the smartass detective, buzzing off highballs, poor, honest, and self sufficient, keeps punching onward against a screwed up world.

   Thank you, Mr. Hardboiled Detective, for showing us the way.

          “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” — Beckett

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT. West Germany, 1957. Zenith International Films, US. 1959. Originally released as Nacht, wenn der Teufel kam. Claus Holm, Mario Adorf, Hans Messemer, Peter Carsten, Carl Lange, Werner Peters, Annemarie Düringer, Monika John. Screenplay by Werner Jörg, from an article by Will Berthold. Directed by Robert Siodmak.

   This fine West German film noir, by noir master Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady) is based on a true story that bears an uncanny resemblance to a similar incident in the Soviet Union, a powerful condemnation and revealing expose of the twisted mindset of totalitarian governments regardless of their political leanings.

   The time is the summer of 1944 with the West and the Russians both pushing forward and Germany under constant bombardment from Allied planes. Wounded hero Kommissar Axel Kersten (Claus Holm) has returned to Berlin from the Russian front sick of war and heroics with shrapnel in his leg and still less than enamored of his Nazi superiors, which is why he is less than happy when he is assigned a murder in Hamburg of a waitress, one Lucy Hansen (Monika John) by minor Nazi functionary Willi Keun (Werner Peters).

   It seems all rather cut and dried. Keun frequently pestered and sexually harassed the woman, is known for being free with his hands with women, and her body was found in the doorway of his flat during an air raid with her neck broken. There is everything but an eyewitness to the murder.

   But Kersten sees inconsistencies and we the viewer know Keun is innocent, however little we sympathize with him. The film is very careful not to allow the viewer to identify with Keun. He’s a small bureaucratic monster, just not a murderer. Saving him is an act of conscience and justice, not any virtue he possesses.

   For Kersten the case doesn’t hold up either, not the least problem being the fact the soft Keun could not possibly have had the strength to strangle a healthy grown woman and shatter her hyoid bone with one hand. It just isn’t possible.

   Further when he starts looking, he finds a series of murders in Hamburg dating back to before the war that suggests a serial killer, a madman, is stalking the women of the city.

   Complicating things for Kersten is a developing romance with Helga Hornung (Annemarie Düringer) who has secrets of her own and pressure in from charming cynical SS Grupenfüher Rossdorf (Hans Messemer) who informs him in no uncertain terms that in Adolf Hitler’s Germany there is no such thing as a mentally degenerate serial killer and Willi Keun’s trial and certain conviction will be expedited.

   There are a few spoilers here, but this is not a detective story or a suspense film really. It has element of those, but they aren’t the purpose here.

   Kersten continues to push though and soon enough he discovers simple minded Bruno Lüdke (Mario Adorf) who has a reputation for hanging around women, but even when he has a confession from the real killer he may not be able to save Willi Keun from a corrupt bureaucracy and the State’s unwillingness to face reality while his actions expose him and Helga to increasing danger.

   In the Nazi Germany of 1944 Bruno Lüdke simply cannot exist no matter how many women he murdered.

   Ironic and intelligent, West Germany submitted this as their 1958 entry in the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards. With a cast more familiar to American audiences than most (Messeemer, Carsten, and Peters in particular), a lean script, and Robert Siodmak at the helm having returned to his homeland after work in Hollywood dried up, The Devil Strikes at Night is a taut and cynical film that covers much of the same ground as much bigger productions like Night of the Generals, based on the bestselling Hans Helmut Kirst novel. The sheer banality of evil has seldom been as well presented.

   Holm, Messemer, Adorf, and Peters are particularly effective with Holm’s decent man caught in a moral predicament easy to identify with. The almost Orwellian lengths a society is willing to go to to deny the truth, even at the cost of an innocent life and one of their own gives added weight to the film.

   It would have been simple to make Willi Keun a sympathetic character and identify the viewer with him and Kersten’s attempt to save him, but this film chooses a more complex path with Keun a pathetic self-serving cog in the very machine that destroys him, and Kersten’s crusade to save him almost quixotic considering he represents everything Kersten loathes.

   The grim reality of a few decent people in a society where madness is the norm trying to survive when national suicide is seen as heroic and inevitable makes this a powerful film and still effective.

   It, and quite a few German Krimi films are currently available on YouTube with English subtitles, and while most of them are more along the lines of the somewhat campy Edgar Wallace films there are some gems among them worth looking into.

   

LAWRENCE SANDERS – The Tangent Factor. Peter Tangent #2. Putnam’s, hardcover, 1978. Berkley, paperback, 1979.

   Out of the patchwork quilt that’s the map of present-day Africa comes a dream of a united continent. Obiri Anokye is today but the ruler of the small (fictional) country of Asante, but with a little help from busily pumping oil wells, and the advice of men like Peter Tangent, nominally a representative of American commercial interests, that dream may yet become a reality.

   It’d be unfair to reveal whether this novel ends as a setback toward that goal, or as a step forward, but as a story it does suffer from the fact that the effort has by no means ended. Nevertheless, rich in detail but still aesthetically lean in dialogue and characterization, and punctuated briefly by sophisticated sex and extreme violence, this has all the hallmarks of a top seller.

Rating: C plus

– Slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, September/October 1978.

ROB LEININGER – January Cold Kill. Gabrielle Johns #1. CreateSpace, softcover, 2014. Also available on Kindle.

   Who knew that it snows all the time in Reno in January? Two to three inches at a time. Maybe more. It doesn’t interfere in any way with Gabbi’s latest case, though; it only provides an interesting backdrop to it, which involves an old school friend, Ashley Dinsmore, who’s being stalked in a very unusual way.

   To wit: he has pictures of her in a, shall we say, a very compromising way. What he wants, though, is not at all clear. Blackmail? Not a hint of it. Instead, he calls her on the phone and more, follows her around everywhere she goes, and all the while declaring his undying love for her.

   Gabbi herself is as much a part of the story as the puzzle itself. She is a statuesque blonde former showgirl who for a while was an assistant to her former father-in-law who is a PI (her name is still on the door). But even though while doing so she discovered a knack of picking locks, she is now a professional gambler and doing quite well at it. She can’t turn down an old school friend, though, especially with such a strange case to work on.

   Gabbi tells her own story, and quite wittily too. From the 77% point on my Kindle:

   I had dinner with Bill. I brought over wine and French bread and he cooked. Spaghetti. Once, in an adventurous mood or in a never-to-be-repeated fit of optimism, I tried to cook spaghetti. It congealed into a noodly-looking gray mass that might have had industrial or scientific significance, I threw it out anyway, missing out on my one and only chance at a Nobel Prize.    

   The story zips along in fine fashion, with Gabbi using a small crew of geriatric friends to come along whenever she needs backup. Until the end, that is, that takes ever so long to tie up what ends up being a very complicated case, as told by the killer who has to go into considerable detail to explain everything. I think if I were a killer, and I had the detective who is onto me all trussed up with duck tape, I’d just add her to my list of victims, right then and there.

   I’d still read another of Gabbi’s adventures, though — there are, after all, eleven months yet to go — but for reasons not known to me, there never was another one.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. The Cannon Group/Golan-Globus Productions, 1984. Shô Kosugi, Lucinda Dickey, Jordan Bennett, David Chung, Dale Ishimoto, James Hong. Screenwriter: James R. Silke. Director: Sam Firstenberg.

   Cinema takes different forms. Some movies are certainly a high art form; others are lowbrow popcorn fare. Then there’s Ninja III: The Domination, which I got to see as part of Cinematic Void’s presentation in conjunction with American Cinematheque. Released by the Cannon Group, this schlock fest blends the 1980s ninja obsession with supernatural elements, creating something entirely new, extremely weird, and very clumsy.

   Directed by Sam Firstenberg (Revenge of the Ninja), the plot follows Christie Ryder (Lucinda Dickey), a professional telephone lineswoman and part-time aerobics instructor who becomes demonically possessed by a deceased ninja assassin. Yes, you read that right. How’s that for a set-up?

   She’s also romantically involved with a police officer, the caring, but generally clueless Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett). He knows something is very wrong with Christie. But because he doesn’t know exactly what, he takes her to a Japanese alchemist (James Hong) who summons the hidden ninja demon within. It’s a hilariously bad – but also stunningly good – scene that pays, er, homage to William Friedkin’s classic horror film The Exorcist (1973). The audience cheered and lapped up every minute.

   A ninja film, of course, wouldn’t be a ninja film without the singular presence of Japanese martial artist and actor Shô Kosugi. Here he portrays the good ninja, an eye-patched and stoic warrior who flies in from Japan to defeat the supernatural ninja warrior spirit. Kosugi is an exceptional martial artist. His stunt scenes are compelling; he just simply didn’t have the face or persona that made someone like Jackie Chan a household name in the 1990s.

   If anyone tells you that Ninja III: The Domination is a great film, they’re most likely lying to you. But if they tell you that it’s great fun, I think they’re being honest. Who would have thought that dozens of people would have turned out on a Monday night almost forty years after it was released into theaters to laugh and to clap at one of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’s weirdest movies?

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

JOHN CUNNINGHAM – The Rainbow Runner. Tor, hardcover, 1992; paperback, 1993.

   The partners always kept locked the half-glassed doors of their office. Neither of them had ever been shot at, Jacko thought as he felt in his pocket for his key, but it was always a possibility.

   West Pointer and former Rough Rider Jacko O’Donohue of O’Donohue and Horton Export/Import has good reason to worry about being shot at. He and his partner Mike Horton are more private detectives than importers, and Jacko’s life is complex by any standards.

   His family owes money they can’t raise or they will lose their California vineyards, his wife married him expecting riches and comfort that Jacko couldn’t give her, his old “friend” and partner Mike Horton is blackmailing clients according to the D. A. (“Where’d they get the idea of blackmail? They don’t like me, never did.”), and Mike and Jacko’s wife May are having an affair.

   So when the Mexican Consul in Los Angeles, Manuel Palafox, a frequent client of O’Donohue and Horton for whom they spy on local anarchists, offers Jacko a considerable fee to escort a religious artifact that was smuggled out of Mexico by would-be anarchists, a monstrance worth a quarter of a million dollars stolen from the church in San Luis Potosi, back to its rightful place it seems like a solution to all his problems.

   But that may not be as simple as it seems, not with Palafox’s dangerous half-brother Herculano, the revolutionaries in L.A. who stole the relic in the first place and moved it out of Mexico, the forces of the Pancho Villa’s army in Mexico, and the treacherous Mike and May simply surviving may be all Jacko can manage.

   Jacko went over his Tactical Rules. Number 1: the most effective offense as well as the most difficult is to take the enemy by surprise from the rear. Number 2: in the rear from an elevated position. Number 3: in the rear by enfilade. All these West Point abstractions were subsumed under the general heading of Backshooting.

   While this may sound like a private eye novel (there was never all that much difference between the two), and a fairly hard-boiled one at that, The Rainbow Runner, is, in fact, a Western (though one that would not have been out of place in Black Mask), and by a fairly well known Western writer, John Cunningham, a highly praised master of the form well known for his fine novel of the trail drives, Warhorse, and a little story called “The Tin Star” filmed under the more familiar name of High Noon.

   The high quality of the writing (… his small feet adventuring timidly, one after the other, like a pair of old married mice out of a hole.) the well-developed characters, and the sense that everything arises naturally from the characters and plot as set in motion mark this as a classic adventure story as Jacko gets involved reluctantly with Becky (“I can see you, scuttling along behind me, terrified because you think you might have to protect me.”), Mike’s wife and tries to survive against a background of treachery and violent terrain.

   Everyone is out for themselves and everyone has a hidden agenda. No one can be trusted, and Jacko isn’t all that sure of himself or his own motives. All he knows is his life has come apart and now delivering that religious relic may mean the end of it.

   Here he evokes the divided border town of Nogales as sharply as Berlin divided by the Wall:

   They came out onto International the broad double width of street cleared like a tornado straight east to west across the town. Down the center ran a line of telephone poles as though to mark the line. Where Grand crossed south into Mexico stood an obelisk, a little taller than the sentry posted next to it. Three others of the U. S. Infantry patrolled the line with Springfields at shoulder arms, looking professional in their wrinkled bloomers. On the other side of the telephone poles two Mexicans in bedraggled shirts and pants, one with a jacket half torn off his back, shuffled slowly back and forth, carrying captured Mausers across their shoulders as if they were shovels.

   Cunningham is often ranked with writers like Jack Shaefer and A. B. Guthrie as a Western writer, and here blurbed by Guthrie, Elmore Leonard, Alan LeMay, Douglas C. Jones, and reviewed in The New Yorker. His bona fides as a writer of Westerns are top notch.

   This and his novel Starfall came along late in his career and are both well worth finding. Four novels and a classic short story aren’t a prolific career, but when they are all this good quality weighs far more than quantity.

REVIEWED BY JIM McCAHERY:

   

TIMOTHY FULLER – Three Thirds of a Ghost. Jupiter Jones #2. Little Brown, hardcover, 1941. Popular Library #81, paperback, [1946].

   This is the second of the Jupiter Jones adventures It is somewhat of a relief to see a more mature sleuth than in the earlier Harvard Has a Homicide to which there is a reference in this present work as well as to Jupiter’s having been “an eccentric graduate student” who “interfered with the Cambridge Police.”

   The scene this time is Boston. and Jupiter, who is now a recently appointed instructor in Fine Arts at Harvard, cooperates almost fully with the police after witnessing with some two hundred others, the shooting death of Pulitzer Prize author George Newbury during the latter’s talk at Bromfield’s Bookstore on the occasion of its 150th Anniversary.

   The book purports to be an intimate and humorous roman a clef in miniature with Newbury representing John P. Marquand, social satirist and creator of a well-known Oriental detective (cf. Newbury’s Chinese detective “Parrot” and Marquand’s Japanese Mr. Moto).  On this score, Timothy Fuller himself says in his author’s note: “Some of the  characters in this book bear a singular resemblance to persons now living, not dead… Let us say that the resemblances are too close to be “coincidental and hope they are too inaccurate to be libelous.”

   When Police Captain Hogan is  killed during a sudden basement fire at the bookstore, Jones realizes that he had already found evidence sufficient to incriminate Newbury’s killer. Jupiter’s fiancee Betty Mahon, to whom he proposes in a cab, is naturally on hand  throughout the book. The disappearance of the supposed murder weapon is cleverly manipulated as is the cat-and-mouse play between Jones and Newbury’s Oriental secretary, Lin.

   It takes a bogus seance and a full ghost in the person of Jupiter Jones to trap the killer in an interesting denouement which, with apologies to Van Dine, is very well handled. The few red herrings were quite enough to distract my attention from the real killer. Lighthearted and unpretentious fun.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 2, Number 5 (Sept-Oct 1979).
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET. Episode 25, Season 1, of Tatort, Germany, 07 January 1973. Original title: Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße. Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang, Sieghardt Rupp, Anton Diffring, Stephanie Audran, Eric P. Caspar. Screenwriter-director: Sam Fuller. Novelization: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, by Samuel Fuller (Pyramid V3736, paperback original, 1974).

   To point up the difference between Promise and Genius, there’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, written and directed by that certifiable madman Sam Fuller, auteur of Shock Corridor, Underworld USA and I Shot Jesse James.

   When he made this, Fuller hadn’t had control of a film since The Naked Kiss, seven years earlier, and it’s wonderful to see him right back in form, taking a standard plot (Glenn Corbett as an American Pl in Germany out to avenge the death of his partner . and retrieve incriminating photos of a client), pumping it full of energy and suffusing it with his own perverse artistry.

   There are some brilliantly edited action scenes, jarringly surreal tnise-en scene, and a story that stubbornly refuses to stay in its accustomed place. Fuller throws in some nifty extras as well, including bits of Rio Bravo in German, a cameo by Stephane Audran, and a wonderful turn from veteran character actor Alex D’Arcy.

   With his oily hair, vacuous leer and pencil mustache, D’Arcy was a Hollywood Fixture from the Silents through the Golden Age and well beyond, specializing in worthless heirs, effeminate gigolos and brainless fortune hunters (Remember him swapping derbies with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth?), and it’s a pleasure to see him once more, strutting his gaudy Nothing as amiably as ever, and kissing Glenn Corbett.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #7, May 2000.

   

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

   
DOROTHY SALISBURY DAVIS – Tales for a Stormy Night.  Foul Play Press, hardcover, 1984. Avon, paperback, 1985.

   In this collection, which spans more than thirty years, Davis draws heavily upon her country childhood, as well as the city streets of her longer fiction. Her younger years on Midwestern farms provide rich material, which Davis details in her informative introduction, also acknowledging the part that youthful crisis plays in shaping a writer’s work: “The soul is marked with childhood’s wounds, and I am grateful for mine. As a writer, I don’t know what I’d have done without them.”

   Those wounds, perhaps, are why these stories show such depth; the characters and settings. are fully developed, and the endings, while offering clever twists, are entirely plausible. “Backward, Turn Backward,” for instance, is about the investigation of a murder; only two suspects exist, and the solution must come directly from the character of one or the other of them. In “Spring Fever,” Davis gives us a haunting picture of a woman on the desperate brink of middle age and shows how such restlessness as hers can indeed become deadly. “Old Friends” reminds us how little we may know of those closest to us.

   While these three stories are set in the country, Davis has not deserted her “mean streets” in her short fiction. “Sweet Wilham” takes a whimsical look at what can happen to foreigners caught up in the vicissitudes of Manhattan living. And while the heroine of”The Purple Is Everything” is described as living in a “large East Coast city,” one is certain the peculiar events that happen to her could occur only in New York.

   This is a well-balanced, entertaining, and sometimes chilling collection that shows the best of Davis’s work over her long and distinguished career. Three of the stories included here were nominated for Edgars: “Backward, Turn Backward,” “Old Friends,” and “The Purple Is Everything.”

———
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.

Next Page »