Reviews


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

W. R. BURNETT – Vanity Row. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1952. Pennant P7, paperback, 1953 (cover art by Harry Schaare). Stark House, softcover, 2015, with Little Men, Big World. Filmed as Accused of Murder (Republic, 1956); previously reviewed on this blog here.

   I felt the need of a strong sharp draught to rinse the taste of [some recent] fatty prose from my mind, and luckily came across Vanity Row,  by W. R. Burnett. Burnett has not come in for the reappraisal and revival so many of his contemporaries have earned, but he authored some classics: Little Caesar, High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle, etc. and his writing at it’s best combines the terse energy of Hammett with the raised-eyebrow cynicism of Chandler.

   Though the title sounds like a turgid romance, and the dust jacket seems designed to scare away potential buyers, Vanity Row has its moments. Roy Hargis, known as “the Hangman”, is a Police Captain detailed to the Administration of a midwestern city to cover up problems and dispense rough justice when necessary.

   When a prominent local attorney is apparently rubbed out by out-of-town hoods, Hargis is called in to make a quick arrest– but since the Administration is currently negotiating a Gambling agreement with these hoods, Hargis’s job is simply to find a convenient patsy for the killing, and the late attorney’s jilted mistress seems tailor-made for the part.

   The ensuing tale gets sappy at times, but Burnett keeps it fast, straight, and quite readable. He also manages to make his characters seem quite tough without the usual shoot-outs, beatings and car chases of the genre, with a fast-paced narrative perched right on the edge of violence.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #7, May 2000.
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS PI Review
by Robert E. Briney

   

STANLEY ELLIN – The Specialty of the House and Other Stories: The Complete Mystery Tales, 1948-1978. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1979.

   Stanley Ellin made his first impact on the mystery field as a writer of short stories; and in spite of more than a dozen highly praised novels, it is still as a short-story writer that many readers think of him. This hefty collection contains, in chronological order, all thirty-live of the stories written during the first thirty years of his writing career. All but one of them originally appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where the author’s “annual story” is still an eagerly awaited event. The first seven stories in the collection, starting with the title story (surely one of the most impressive debuts in the field), were prizewinners in the annual Ellery Queen contests.

   Here we have “The Betrayers,” in which a young man constructs an air-tight solution to the wrong crime; the Edgar-winning fantasy “The House Party”; a second Edgar winner, “The Blessington Method,” with its unique approach to gerontology; “You Can’t Be a Little Girl All Your Life,” the story of a rape and its aftermath; “The Crime of Ezechicle Coen,” with its roots going back to the German occupation of Rome in World War II; “The Twelfth Statue,” a novelette of murder in a Rome film studio; “The Corruption of Officer Avakadian,” concerning doctors who ref use to make house calls; and “The Question,” in which the whole point of the story is compressed into a single devastating three-letter word in the final sentence. The stories vary widely in theme and setting. but exhibit the same polished craftsmanship.

   In his introduction to the volume, speaking of another master of the short story, Guy de Maupassant, Ellin wrote: “Here was a writer who reduced stories to their absolute essence. And the ending of each story, however unpredictable, was, when I thought of it, as inevitable as doom.”

   These words might have been written about Ellin’s own work. When Ellin’s first ten stories were issued in book form under the title Mystery Stories in 1956, the book was praised by Julian Symons as “the finest collection of stories in the crime form published in the past half-century.” With the addition of twenty-five stories and twenty years, the judgment still stands.

         ———
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 TONY BAER:

   

A. A. AVERY – Anything for a Quiet Life. Farrar & Rinehart. hardcover, 1942. Bantam #38, paperback; 1st printing, June 1946.

   Donovan’s an ad man for a trade magazine in New York City in the late 1930’s. He’s not too into it. What he’s really into is sailing his skiff in the South Seas.

   His best buddy and sailing partner has come into a bunch of money, and a sporting girl has gotten her hooks into him. Not only is she gonna take him to the cleaners, but it’s going to play havoc with Donovan’s sailing plans.

   So Donovan is set with trying to break up the marriage before it happens.

   Turns out the sporting gal is being sicced on Donovan’s buddy by design of some dangerous mobsters.

   The mobsters have a number of fish to fry, only one of which involves Donovan’s buddy.

   The biggest fish set to fry is based on the real-life McKesson & Robbins, Inc. scandal of 1938. Said scandal involved a bogus bootlegging corporation manipulated to merge with a legit pharma company. A fake balance sheet formed the basis for a merger worth millions to the fraudsters passing off the valueless shares of the shell company to the stockholders of the legit one.

   Donovan gets his hands on proof that the balance sheet is fake and aims to leverage this information to sabotage his buddy’s marriage and save both his sailing plans and the shareholders from a soaking.

   If it sounds convoluted, it is. But as convoluted as it is, you don’t have time to think about it — Donovan (and you, dear reader) is too busy being chased by men with guns all thru the city, warding them off by his swift wits and fisticuffs. With the help of a lovely lass he meets along the way (who happens to be not only executive assistant of the pharma company but an excellent sailor to boot!).

   The book is fast as hell and twice as fun. It’s not a book to ponder. But it’s a breathtaking ride.


ROUNDERS
. Miramax,1998. Matt Damon. Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Martin Landau, Famke Janssen. Directed by John Dahl.

   Included in the long list of things I didn’t know before, here is the definition of the work “rounder” as used in the title of this film: “a person traveling around from city to city seeking high-stakes card games.”

   It turns out, at least in this case, that a movie about poker players follows the same template as many a film about other sporting events, be they boxing, baseball, basketball and so on: protagonist loses big in the first twenty minutes, followed by a long struggle to recoup and get back in shape for a rematch, then of course the rematch, and (giving the ending completely away, perhaps) eventual victory.

   Note the use of my word “perhaps.” It is intentional.

   Poker games differ, perhaps, from the other sports I used as similar examples in that there is very little physical activity during the course of one. (There may be some afterward, however, warranted or not).

   There are two primary “heroes” in The Rounders. Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) who is both a young law student and an inveterate poker player, and his friend Worm (Edward Norton) who has just been released from prison, complete with debts incurred from before incarceration, plus interest. Object: find games to play to clear Worm with the mob, in spite of Mike’s promise to his live-in girl friend (Gretchen Mol) to stay clear of any such activity.

   When you’re addicted, promises are hard to keep, and of course Worm is a friend.

   Mike’s approach to poker to win by playing well. Worm can’t stop taking chances, just for the thrill of it, and thereby lies the tale.

   If you take me as a prime example, you can watch this movie, beautifully photographed in the dingiest byways of 1990s Manhattan (not a contradiction), without knowing anything about the rules of the various games played throughout the film. It might have helped, but once you realize what the basic template is that constitutes the structure of the whole setup and how it is (probably) going to turn out, you can skip the details.

   One last thought. If you would like to know a basic axiom of pick-up card games, consider this as a basic truth: “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, you are the sucker.”

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

MICHAEL MANN & MEG GARDINER – Heat 2. William Morrow, hardcover, August 2022; softcover, January 2024. Novelization of forthcoming sequel (in development?) to the film Heat (Warner Brothers, 1995; directed by Michael Mann).

   This.

   Is.

   A sequel, by director Michael Mann, and by successful suspense novelist, Meg, Gardiner, to the popular crime film, Heat starring. Robert de Niro, Brad Pitt, and Al Pacino,

   Okay, sorry, I won’t write all of the review in the style of the book. Unfortunately, unlike this book, I have some vague idea what syntax means and how sentences are constructed.

   If you have a copy of this book you have seen the rave reviews it received.

   I have no idea what these people were smoking.

   Heat 2 picks up where the film ends. Ghris Shiherlis (Brad Pitt) is wounded and hiding out in Koreatown hallucinating from his wounds and oxycodone while policeman Vince Hanna (Al Pacino) is hunting him. Neil McCarthy (Robert de Niro) is dead, but that won’t keep him out of the novel (I use the word reservedly) which switches back and forth from seven years before the events in Heat to now.

   The novel is written in a stream of consciousness fragmented jagged present tense voice that amounts to 613 page of nails on the blackboard prose. Reading it is as close to recreating the pain I used to suffer with Cluster Headaches as I hope to ever experience.

   You may want to borrow one of the oxycodone tablets Chris Shiherlis keeps popping, but honestly I don’t think drugs would help, though this book often reads as if it was written on them.

   I’m not going to go into the plot. Instead I’ll just quote a few short bits.

   Before I start you may want to find a bullet to bite on.

   Chris head swam. My cut from the bank heist…

   Will be safe. I’ll set up an account from a Delaware trust. You can access it by phone, fax, computer. But where you’re going, don’t draw on that money unless it’s an emergency. No flash. You can’t stick out.

   I need to get some of it to Charlene and Dominick.

   Charlene, luring him into a trap. Why?       (The italics are the authors.)

   And.

   Jeans, boots, T-shirt. The Shooter. Someone named Wardell. A corpse.

   Words. Fragments. Thoughts. A novel. Not.

   “On top of me. You. Now.”

   He looks at her and smiles. She’s outrageous.

   She laughs.

   It’s like she’s a fighter pilot who has landed an F-18 on a carrier deck. She’s ready to accelerate and take to the sky again.

   Did I mention metaphor and simile get the crap kicked out of them in this book?

   I really wanted this to be good. Where’s Elmore Leonard when you need him? Elmore Leonard? I’d settle for Orrie Hitt.

   I’m weary. Now. I need a. Drink. A Scotch. Maybe you. Do too.

   This is Heat 2. Be. Afraid. Very.

   Afraid.

Reviewed by TONY BAER:

   

DASHIELL HAMMETT – The Thin Man. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1934. Originally published in abridged form in Redbook (December 1933). Reprinted many times. Film: MGM, 1945, starring William Powell & Myrna Loy. (A total of six films were made based on the characters.) TV series: NBC, 1957-59, starring Peter Lawford & Phyllis Kirk.

   Nick and Nora Charles are terrific inventions. Equals at witty repartee. Equals at powers of observation, if not detection. Equals at handling their booze.

   That’s what’s fun about the book: Nick and Nora. They’re screwball and they don’t care who knows it. But as screwball and drunk as they are, they’re still more deft than the daft coppers.

   Nick’s a retired detective. Retired since he married Nora and her rich uncle died, leaving enough for Nick and Nora to remain comfortably housed and soused from here to eternity.

   Nick wouldn’t be drug into any more detection, either, if he could help it. But help it he can’t. For a former client of his, the titular Thin Man, is a murder suspect. He’s disappeared, but leaves word with his lawyer that he wants Nick hired to find the real killer. Price is no object.

   Now Nick has no need of the Thin Man’s money. But gangster’s bullets, the cops, and the Thin Man’s ex and kids won’t leave Nick be. So he’s really got no choice but to solve the thing so he can be left alone.

   I’d remembered who ‘did it’, as this was probably the 3rd time reading it over the years. But it really doesn’t matter. The wit doesn’t grow old. And like Pound says, ‘art is news that stays news’. And this is art, for sure. At least in my book.

   A terrific, witty book. Nick and Nora are great fun to hang out with. The only thing I can’t figure is how the movie sequels got called “….The Thin Man….” (‘After…’, ‘Another…’, ‘Shadow of…’, ‘…goes home’, ‘Song of…’). Not to give anything away, but the Thin Man ain’t having any more adventures after this one.

   

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS PI Review
by Robert E. Briney

   

STANLEY ELLIN – The Dark Fantastic. John Milano #2. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1983. Berkley, paperback, 1985.

   Stanley Ellin is one of the most honored of contemporary writers of mystery fiction. Beginning with his first story in 1948, he consistently won prizes in the annual short-story contests run by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. He is a three-time winner of the Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America: for Best Short Story in 1954 and 1956 and for Best Novel (The Eighth Circle) in 1958. Four other stories (the most recent in 1983) and one novel have appeared on the short list of nominees for the Edgar. His novel Mirror, Mirror on the Wall ( 1972) was awarded France’s Grand Prix de Littdrature Policifte in 1975.

   He was elected president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1969, and in 1981 received that organization’s Grand Master Award honoring his lifetime achievement in the mystery field. The point of this litany of awards is that they are all deserved. As a careful craftsman with an ear for language and a deep concern for its proper use, as an acute observer of the human condition, and as an inventive plotter with a flair for the unexpected, Ellin has maintained a consistent level of quality that makes him indeed a grand master of his art.

   A string of awards and a proven track record do not, however, guarantee that publishers will jump to accept a book with potentially controversial elements. The Dark Fantastic was rejected by several major publishing houses before being picked up by a relatively small specialty publisher. It subsequently gathered a stack of favorable reviews in the United States, sold to a major British publisher, and has become a feather in the cap of the Mysterious Press.

   The story alternates between two viewpoints: that of Charles Witter Kirwan, a retired college professor with madness eating at his brain just as cancer is eating at his body; and that of John Milano, a private detective first introduced in Star Light, Star Bright (1979), who specializes in the recovery of stolen works of art. Kirwan, reluctant landlord of an apartment building in a black neighborhood in Brooklyn, plans to blow up the building with himself and his black tenants inside. Among the tenants are the family of Christine Bailey, who works as a receptionist in a Manhattan art gallery currently under investigation by Milano.

   From this tenuous connection, the paths of Kirwan and Milano are drawn inexorably together. Ultimately, Milano is the only person who has a chance to uncover Kirwan’s plot; but can he stop it in time? Ellin tightens the screws expertly. and the suspense intensifies up to the very end.

   Kirwan’s chapters are in the form of transcripts of a tape-recorded journal in which he attempts to explain the reasons for his destructive plan, while recounting the day-to-day progress toward its accomplishment. The transcripts are studded with racial invective-not mere ethnic name-calling, but the type of inventive viciousness that an educated mind can apply to the expression of its prejudices.

   These passages make uncomfortable reading, especially in view of the skill with which Ellin takes us into Kirwan’s mind and makes us understand the familial and societal roots of his attitudes. Another source of discomfort for some readers lies in the explicit descriptions of Kirwan’ s sexual victimization of Christine’s teenaged sister.

   But Ellin handles this highly charged material with assured skill and without a hint of sensationalism. The book is a serious psychological study, a detective story, an unusual love story, and an exercise in down-to-the-wire suspense: a worthy addition to the author’s already impressive body of work.

         ———
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 DAVID VINEYARD:

   

DOUGLAS PRESTON & LINCOLN CHILD – The Cabinet of Dr. Leng. Agent Pendergast #21. Grand Central, hardcover, January 2023; paperback, September 2023.

   Previously in the Pendergast saga in Bloodless, volume twenty, FBI Special Agent Aloyious Pendergast had discovered that his apprentice and companion Constance was in fact immortal and had grown up in the madhouse and mansion of terror of serial killer and mad scientist Dr. Leng in the 19th Century.

   Now as volume twenty-one, The Cabinet of Dr. Leng, opens, Constance has discovered a one way ticket back to the 19th Century where she plans to destroy Leng and save the life of her brother and sister leaving Pendergast trying to find a way to save her while his friend Vincent D’Gosta of NYPD Homicide investigates the case of the frozen curator of the Museum of Natural History where his first adventure with Pendergast, Relic, took place twenty-two books earlier.

   Have to catch my breath after that.

   And if that hasn’t chased you off…

   The long running Pendergast saga of bestselling thrillers has been one of the great modern pulp sagas, half mystery/detective mixed with SF, horror, the Gothic tradition, monsters, immortal villains (Wilkie Collins’ Count Fosco showed up as the villain in Brimstone), and whatever else the two have chosen to throw in the mix. Pendergast is a Holmesian figure given to eccentricity and mysterious statements and perhaps the best of the series has been the two trilogies the Diogenes Trilogy and the Helen Trilogy (Diogenes is Pendergast’s dangerous and mad brother and Helen was his wife) while the work in question is the first volume in yet another trilogy so a cliffhanger is guaranteed.

   You can be certain Pendergast and D’Agosta will manage to travel back to 19th Century New York to match wits with Dr. Leng (shades of Berkeley Square and John Dickson Carr’s Fire Burn and The Devil in Velvet) and there will be thrills, melodrama, and twists enough for a French serial novel by Dumas, Sue, or, Feval (maybe all three) with a smattering of Universal Pictures Horror classics and Hammer Films.

   It is all done straight faced with absolute conviction, and whatever the flaws of the two writers, spinning a plot and creating interesting characters are not among their weaknesses. It’s all a bit like the theater of Grand Guignol where half the fun is how well they get away with all the theatrics. Mad men, serial killers, ancient monsters, mysterious Tibetian secret knowledge, and super villains haunt these pages all pitted against the eccentric and high-handed Pendergast and by now a small army of regulars who aide him.

   Pendergast is surely one of the great modern detectives however wild his detections get, modeled on Holmes, but more likely to face the kind of enemies Sexton Blake and Arsene Lupin did, and where else do you get dialogue like this bit addressed by Pendergast to D’Gosta:

   “I truly welcome your companionship here in the library as long as we speak of other things (than Constance’s disappearance). Reminiscences are either good or bad.” He reached for bottle of absinthe. “Strange as it seems, even the zombies you refer to seem almost a nostalgic interlude to me now, but first tell more about the frozen curator.”

   
   You just don’t get dialogue like that often these days. Frozen curators and nostalgic zombies just don’t haunt the pages of pulp fiction as the once did back in the good old days of The Spider, Operator # 5, and The Green Lama.

   This review is a bit tongue-in-cheek, as are the books, but the books are highly enjoyable and excellent time-killers that keep readers happily turning pages and coming back.

Reviewed by TONY BAER:

   

WILLIAM MAXWELL – So Long, See You Tomorrow. Serialized in The New Yorker, Oct 1, Oct 8 1979. Knopf, hardcover, 1980. Ballantine Books, paperback, 1981. Vintage, softcover, 1996, 2011. Included in Later novels and stories: the Chateau; So long, see you tomorrow; stories and improvisations, 1957-1999, Library of America, hardcover, 2008. National Book Award winner, finalist for the 1981 Pulitzer Prize.

   William Maxwell grew up in the 1910’s and 20’s in a small farming town in Illinois. With a mother dead of the Spanish Flu and his nose always stuck in a book, he had few friends.

   His one friend was a boy named Cletus. Cletus and William would play in the scaffolding of William’s unbuilt home. Until one fateful day.

   That day, Cletus’s dad murdered the man who’d been his dad’s best friend. But friend turned fiend when he started sleeping with his wife.

   Dad murdered the friend, the shot singing thru the prairie, then drowned himself in the swimming hole, tying a stone to his leg.

   William Maxwell never saw his friend Cletus again. But once.

   He saw him in high school. In Chicago.

   They locked eyes. But William turned away. And walked past.

   He never forgave himself for this act. And fifty-some-odd years later, he tried to write about it, to purge his guilt. He wrote the story. The story of Cletus and his father, his mother, and his father’s friend, his mother’s lover, and a murder.

   A murder that ripped a boy’s life asunder. That stole two fathers and a mother’s love. That left a boy alone. Without a friend to recognize him, in the halls of a Chicago high school in the 1920’s. And the guilt.

         ——————-

It’s a soft and wistful wisp of murder’s memory. It’s short and yet seems much longer. It lingers. Like life. It was good.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Karol Kay Hope

   

AARON ELKINS – Fellowship of Fear. Gideon Oliver #1. Walker, hardcover, 1982. Popular Library, paperback, 1986. TV series: Quoting from Wikipedia “Gideon Oliver is a prime time television series that ran on the ABC television network between February 1989 and May 1989 as part of the ABC Mystery Movie rotation, along with B.L. Stryker, Kojak and Columbo. On the air for only five episodes, the series starred Louis Gossett Jr., and was created by Dick Wolf.”

   The early 1980s spawned a great many new mystery writers, and Aaron Elkins is one of the best of them. This first novel introduces us to Gideon Oliver, a young anthropology professor (Elkins himself teaches anthropology in northern California) who signed up for a summer teaching stint in Europe with the U.S. Overseas College. He’s recovering from the death of his beloved wife the year before and needs a break from that reality. And he’s never been to Europe.

   Oliver gets a change of pace, all right. Far from the confines of academic life, he’s cast as the main character in an international spy ring — but not until he’s been robbed, attacked, and followed all over Europe does he take it seriously. He then teams up with John Lau, a U.S. security officer, who’s not quite so naive about these matters. After being suitably impressed by Oliver’s fine investigative mind — he is a physical anthropologist, after all, and used to solving mysteries with little more than a sliver of bone and some ash for evidence — Lau teams with him and they attack the spy operation with fresh enthusiasm.

   Elkins has a good sense of contemporary character, dialogue, and plot. Gideon Oliver is a good man, and Elkins is good, too. He writes sparsely, to the point, and is cagey enough to keep us wondering until the very end.

   Elkins’s second novel, The Dark Place ( 1983), also features Oliver and is set in the Olympic National Park in Washington State. It also has the distinction of being the first mystery to involve the ongoing hunt for Sasquatch, otherwise known as Bigfoot.

         ———
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.
   

      The Gideon Oliver series

1 Fellowship of Fear (1982)
2 The Dark Place (1983)
3 Murder in the Queen’s Armes (1985)
4 Old Bones (1987)
5 Curses! (1989)
6 Icy Clutches (1990)
7 Make No Bones (1991)
8 Dead Men’s Hearts (1994)
9 Twenty Blue Devils (1997)
10 Skeleton Dance (2000)
11 Good Blood (2004)
12 Where There’s a Will (2005)
13 Unnatural Selection (2006)
14 Little Tiny Teeth (2007)
15 Uneasy Relations (2008)
16 Skull Duggery (2009)
17 Dying on the Vine (2012)
18 Switcheroo (2016)

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