January 2010


ROBERT BARNARD Death of a Perfect Mother

ROBERT BARNARD – Death of a Perfect Mother.

Charles Scribner’s Sons, US, hardcover, 1981. Paperback reprint: Dell, 1985. Previously published in the UK as Mother’s Boys: Collins Crime Club, 1981.

   Who killed Lill Hodsden? Thick-skinned, loud-mouthed, high-tempered Lill, bane of the local merchants and her neighbors; lusty Lill, who knows how to trade sexual favors for a telly and maybe a car; tempestuous Lill, who can’t get along with her daughter or her mother but whose two grown sons adore her so she says.

   Gordon and Brian seem to be the perfect sons, but the reader finds them plotting to kill her in Chapter One. They can only get away from their vulgar, doting mother by getting rid of her, they say. But when she’s found strangled, it develops that there are plenty of others with motives for getting Lill out of the way.

   Barnard’s mordant humor makes the process of finding out whodunit a pleasurable read.

– Reprinted from The Poisoned Pen, Vol. 6, No. 4, Fall 1986

BRAD LATHEM – The Hook #1: The Gilded Canary. Warner, paperback original; 1st printing, September 1981.

BRAD LATHAM The Gilded Canary (Hook #1)

   Warner has been publishing books in several of its various new “Men of Action” series for some time now, and for mystery fans, here is the first appearance of the one that might seem the most promising. “The Hook” is Bill Lockwood, a 1930’s private eye who is as tough with his fists as he is energetic in bed.

   There seems to be little else to say. Lockwood’s case, as he investigates the theft of some jewelry from a rich girl singer named Muffy Dearborn, is nothing less than a flimsy excuse for him to jump in and out of a bed or two and beat up a few hoodlums in between with his patented left hook.

   There are a few good moments — once in a while I got a fleeting impression that there was some intelligent thought put into the writing of this mediocre excuse for a book — but they quickly pass.

   On the other hand, the result is probably exactly what Warner had in mind when they commissioned it.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 2, March/April 1982
        (slightly revised)

[UPDATE] 01-28-10.   Whew. I seldom put down a book as solidly as this, and this review took me a bit by surprise when it turned up next to be put online. I thought of tempering the tone down a notch or two, but this is what my reaction was some 28 years ago, and (without re-reading the book) I decided at length that I ought to stand by it.

   There were, in all, five in the series. Here, taken from the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, is a complete list:

          LATHAM, BRAD. Pseudonym of David J. Schow.

    1. The Gilded Canary (n.) Warner, pbo, Sept 1981.
    2. Sight Unseen (n.) Warner, pbo, Sept 1981.
    3. Hate Is Thicker Than Blood (n.) Warner, pbo, Dec 1981.
    4. The Death of Lorenzo Jones (n.) Warner, pbo, 1982.
    5. Corpses in the Cellar (n.) Warner, pbo, June 1982.

ROBERT MOORE WILLIAMS – The Darkness Before Tomorrow. Ace Double F-141, paperback original; 1st printing, 1962. [Paired with this novel, tête-bêche, is The Ladder in the Sky, by Keith Woodcott (aka John Brunner).]

   Dan Stumpf and David Vineyard were briefly exchanging comments about “hack” writers earlier this month. It all depends on one’s definition, of course, and while you can say that a hack writer is one without talent and/or one who merely cranks out the wordage for the money, everyone has a different concept of what’s talent and what’s not and/or how many cranks are needed to make a hack.

ROBERT MOORE WILLIAMS Darkness Before Tomorrow.

   When it comes to Science Fiction hacks, though, for some reason Robert Moore Williams comes to mind. Not that I’ve read anything by him in nearly 50 years, but I’m sure I have, and it must have stuck with me, since (rightly or wrongly, but with no malice intended) I’ve tended to use his fiction as more or less my yardstick of hackwork.

   Titles such as Conquest of the Space Sea (1955) and Zanthar of the Many Worlds (1967) might suffice as examples, but in all honestly, since I haven’t read them, I can hardly dwell on them.

   I will point out that Robert Moore Williams’ SF career started considerably earlier than did, say, John Brunner’s, whose novel on the other side of this Ace Double I reviewed here not so long ago. Brunner first novel was published in 1951, I believe, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that anyone began to take notice of him.

   In comparison, Williams’ first story appeared in Astounding SF in 1937, and he had a long list of other pulp stories to his credit before he turned to paperback fiction in the 1950s. But no matter; even in 1962 his pulp roots show. The Darkness Before Tomorrow has, I am sorry to say, very little in it for which I might recommend it to you.

   The opening couple of chapters are adequate, however, and indeed maybe even more than adequate. The story begins in the year 1980 or so, with the action going on immediately, allowing the characters to be introduced on the fly.

   Someone, as it happens, has discovered a new kind of weapon that kills without making a wound of any kind. Scientist George Gillian stumbles across a body killed in such a way and hence into a crossfire between the villains and the pair who are resisting them, a brother and sister (Eck and Sis) whose side Gillian quickly joins.

   If I were to tell you that the head villain is a ruthless gangster named Ape Abrussi, and his headquarters are in what’s called Mad Mountain, you will know at once what kind of story this is. It is also the story of aliens walking among us (with small horns on the foreheads and goat-like eyes), with only good intentions (it is assumed), and no, Ape is not one of them. It turns out that he came across his new weapon only by accident, and now that he has, his intentions are to rule the world.

   In a novel like this, of course, good luck with that.

   And so, the big question is: Is this the work of a hack? “Hackery” is such a pejorative term I’d hate to say yes, but I have a feeling that by many people’s standards, the answer is is probably in the affirmative. Williams is good in describing places and things, conjuring up loads of atmosphere for the former and having an excellent eye for detail on the latter.

   But what he’s not so good at are essential things, such as working with people and complex relationships between them — nor is the dialogue they speak anything but stiff. Williams is not so good at science, either, but he’s good at waving his hands and making believe that he does.

   But you could say pretty much the same sort of things about 90% of the writers who wrote for the pulps. What most of them could do, though, those who were successful at it — and I’d place Robert Moore Williams among them — was to write stories that made readers keep on reading them. It worked for me!


EASY LIVING. Paramount, 1937. Jean Arthur, Ray Milland, Edward Arnold, Mary Nash, Luis Alberni, Franklin Pangborn, William Demarest. Screenplay by Preston Sturges, from a story by Vera Caspary. Director: Mitchell Leisen. Shown at Cinecon 45, Hollywood CA, September 2009.


    Although this was described as a well known classic (at least to Cinephile attendees), I don’t recall seeing it in the 19 years I’ve been attending the convention, and after one viewing, I can tell you that it’s not a film I would easily forget.

    With a sizzling script by Preston Sturges and direction by Mitchell Leisen that never misses a comic beat, this is, in my opinion, a lost screwball masterpiece.

    When Wall Street tycoon Edward Arnold tosses the expensive sable coat his wife has bought off the balcony of their apartment, it lands on Jean Arthur, ruining her hat, and setting off a chain of improbable but hilarious events that will hit the headlines of every newspaper in the country, turn the stock market upside down, and, in the funniest set piece in the movie, turn an automat into a riotous madhouse.

    Arthur is a delightful madcap, Ray Milland an adroit comic and romantic foil, and every other actor in the film, from co-star Arnold down to the most insignificant walk-on player, performs flawlessly, like the mechanism in a classy Swiss watch.


“Nothing Ever Happens in Linvale.” An episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (Season 2, Episode 6). First air date: 8 November 1963. Fess Parker, Gary Merrill, Phyllis Thaxter, George Furth, Burt Mustin, Sam Reese. Teleplay: Richard Levinson and William Link; screenplay: Robert Twohy based on his story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (title and issue unknown). Director: Herschel Daugherty.

   Mrs. Logan (Phyllis Thaxter), a widow living alone, is alarmed. From her upstairs bedroom window she has watched the suspicious behavior of her next door neighbor, Harry Jarvis (Gary Merrill), and feels it’s time to call in the authorities.

   In this instance, “the authorities” consist of mild-mannered Sheriff Ben Wister (Fess Parker) and his semi-official and somewhat excitable deputy Charlie (George Furth).

   Mrs. Logan details the late-night digging around she has seen Harry Jarvis doing, and concludes Jarvis has done in his wife and buried her in his backyard. The sheriff investigates as far as he can, but tells her that based on the evidence he has, Harry has done no wrong. Nevertheless, responding to Mrs. Logan’s urgings to DO something before this killer gets away with murder, he takes it upon himself to dig up Jarvis’s back yard, where he does find a body — but not the one he was expecting ….

   This story is a clever variation on Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but if you’ve seen that film you’ll be at a disadvantage here because of preconceptions and expectations that you may have brought with you from the movie — and I think the screenwriters are clearly counting on that. (To say more would be to say too much.)

   Among Gary Merrill’s crime/suspense screen credits are Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), A Blueprint for Murder (1953), Witness to Murder (1954), and The Human Jungle (1954). He also commanded a bomber group in Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and was nearly eaten by a giant crab in Mysterious Island (1961).

   Amiable Fess Parker’s screen persona usually led him to being cast as good guys — e.g., Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone on TV — so he never had much of a chance at being a bad ’un.

   Phyllis Thaxter was equally adept at being a victim, a perpetrator, or just the girl next door. She appeared in a noir Western, Blood on the Moon (1948); in Act of Violence (1948), Women’s Prison (1955), as well as in nine Alfred Hitchcock TV series episodes (is that a record?). She was also Clark Kent’s adoptive mother in Superman (1978).

   Follow the link to Hulu to see why “Nothing Ever Happens in Linvale.”

TWO TICKETS TO LONDON. Universal Pictures, 1943. Michèle Morgan, Alan Curtis, C. Aubrey Smith, Barry Fitzgerald, Dooley Wilson, Sherlee Collier (the latter uncredited). Screenplay by Tom Reed, based on a story by Roy William Neill. Director: Edwin L. Marin.


   It’s a good thing that Roy William Neill was a better producer and director (the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, for example, and Black Angel) than he was at writing stories, if this film is an example, as there’s very little positive I can say about the story of Two Tickets to London, or in other words, next to nothing.

   The opening scenes are a little murky, deliberately so and not badly done, as we’re plunged right into the second act without so much as a hint of what happened in the first one.

   But details are gradually filled in: Dan Driscoll (Alan Curtis) is the First Mate of a ship that was sunk by a Nazi submarine; as one of the survivors, though, he’s in handcuffs and being taken by train back to London where he’ll go on trial for treason.


   The train is bombed, however, and he makes good his escape, accompanied by a good-looking pub singer named Jeanne (Michèle Morgan), who’s frightened of him at first but gradually begins to believe in his innocence.

   And together they head to London where he hopes to obtain proof that he’s not the guilty party. You want more? Sorry. That’s it.

   I was hoping there would be more, but there’s not, and the pair’s adventures getting to London are about as interesting as watching paint dry, as the old saying goes.

   Or they would be, except for seven year old Sherlee Collier’s performance as a wonderfully precocious and charmingly polite schoolgirl who serves them tea along the way, and for the two primary actors themselves, who make something, if not a lot, out of very little.

   Michèle Morgan didn’t make many American films; luckily for her career she returned to her native France and became hugely famous there – and I think she still is.

   Alan Curtis, well, he wasn’t so lucky. He was in High Sierra before this one (1941) and starred in Phantom Lady afterward (1944, and reviewed here ), but otherwise all I see in his list of credits is a string of medium-good B-movies as well as many perhaps not so good. He died young in 1953 at the age of only 44.


William F. Deeck

MEDORA FIELD – Blood on Her Shoe. The Macmillan Co., hardcover, 1942. Paperback reprint: Popular Library #201, no date stated [1949].

MEDORA FIELD Blood on Her Shoe

   Despite the fact that her cousin, assumedly a levelheaded chap, calls to tell her not to come to St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, though with no explanation, Ann Carroll goes anyhow.

   Despite the fact she would rather not be there, she attends a ghost-seeking session at a graveyard, where murder occurs.

   Despite the murderer being still at large and she possessing, or so it is presumed, information that might identify the murderer, she visits a lonely farm house alone at dead of night.

   Despite nearly dying from that dunderheadedness, she goes later to the graveyard by herself to gather evidence.

   At the end of the novel, the young man she is in love with has been arrested for being AWOL and has assaulted the M.P.’s. This novel isn’t a matter of had-I-but-known. She does know, and she deserves all she gets, including her future husband.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer 1992.

       Bibliographic Data:    [Taken from the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin.]

FIELD, MEDORA. Working byline of Medora Field Perkerson, 1892-1960. Born in Georgia; newspaper columnist in Atlanta as “Marie Rose.”

    Who Killed Aunt Maggie? Macmillan, hc, 1939. Film: Republic, 1940.
    Blood on Her Shoe. Macmillan, hc, 1942. Film: Republic, 1944, as The Girl Who Dared (with Lorna Gray, Peter Cookson).


MICHAEL GRUBER – Night of the Jaguar. Harper, paperback reprint, March 2007. Originally published in hardcover by William Morrow, March 2006. Trade paperback: Harper, November 2009.


   Jimmy Paz, formerly a crackerjack Miami homicide detective, works in his mother’s restaurant, but still consults, on occasion, for the police.

   Now, as a series of horrific murders begin to eliminate the shady members of a cartel that is planning to level a Colombian forest for the highly desirable lumber it contains, he’s drawn into the investigation, which seems to target an improbable giant jaguar as the killer.

   Jimmy’s mother is considered by the native community to have special powers that her son has inherited, a sensitivity to psychic forces that invade his dreams and those of his young daughter, a development that makes the case a very personal one for Jimmy Paz.

   There’s an environmental group with connections to the Colombian timber region, a Colombian shaman, and some very scary drug lords, with even scarier associates they bring in to settle with whoever or whatever is reducing their number very quickly.

   Gruber tends to overwrite, but, just when you think one of his too bright and too articulate characters is never going to shut up, the plot lunges ahead again with some slambang action that almost makes you forget the oases of boredom that crop up from time to time.

   This is the third in a series. I may read the first one, but if it’s as wordy as this one, I’ll probably close the book on the series.

    The Jimmy Paz Series —

        1. Tropic of Night (2003)


        2. Valley of Bones (2005)
        3. Night of the Jaguar (2006)

    Note: Subsequent books by Michael Gruber have not involved Jimmy Paz.

by Marvin Lachman


    In 1961 Patricia Wentworth had her own fan club in the United States, testimony to the fact that devotees of the “little old lady” detective were out there. Apparently they still are, based on the frequency with which Wentworth’s books are reprinted.

    Her Maud Silver was perhaps the archetypal elderly female sleuth, from her white hair to her knitting needles. However, there was nothing soft about her. She became a consulting detective to supplement the meager income she received as a retired governess. She had a nimble brain and an inner toughness belying her mild exterior.

    Warner Paperbacks has recently sandwiched World War II and reprinted two of Silver’s best, Lonesome Road (1939) and Pilgrim’s Rest (1946). I recommend both, though I’d like to see some enterprising publisher give us an even better Wentworth, the long out-of-print nonseries book, also from her best period, Weekend with Death (1941).

– Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall 1988 (very slightly revised).


Bibliographic Data:

    ●   Lonesome Road. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1939. J. B. Lippincott, US, hc, 1939. Reprinted many times.

    ●   Pilgrim’s Rest. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1948. J. B. Lippincott, US, hc, 1946. Reprinted many times.

    ●   Unlawful Occasions. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1941. US title: Weekend with Death. J. B. Lippincott, hc, 1941. US paperback reprint: Popular Library 29, early 1940s. Very scarce.


GEORGE BAXT – The Dorothy Parker Murder Case. International Polygonics; reprint paperback; 1st printing, April 1986. Hardcover edition: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Trade paperback reprint: IPL, November 1989.


   It’s 1926, and the story opens with Mrs. Parker once again attempting suicide. Her witty-melancholy POV leads the reader through an investigation into the death of George S. Kaufman’s latest illicit girlfriend. She and Alec Woollcott bring in police detective Jacob Singer to help, and the romp is afoot.

   Rudolph Valentino’s death works into the story, as does the murder of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor. The habitués of the Algonquin round table and figures from New York’s rowdy Prohibition nightlife populate the story.

   It’s quippy, colorful and fun, and there’s enough real investigation going on to make the plot plausible. Mysteries that utilize historical figures as sleuths and supporting players can seem contrived, but Baxt makes it make perfect sense.

   The historical aspect works, too; this feels like what 1920s literary New York might really have been like. Recommended — enthusiastically if you’re a fan of the era.

« Previous PageNext Page »