May 2011

HIGHWAY 13. Screen Guild Productions, 1948. Robert Lowery, Pamela Blake, Clem Bevans, Michael Whalen, Gaylord Pendleton, Lyle Talbot, Maris Wrixon, Mary Gordon. Director: William Berke.

HIGHWAY 13 Robert Lowrey

   If you were to go looking for this film on DVD, you’ll find it easily enough in an inexpensive box set of noir films recently released to the market.

   Noir? Don’t believe everything you’re told. Even though there are noirish elements to it, there aren’t any more than you’ll find in any black and white crime film made in the 1940s or early 50s, and that’s all that this movie is. No more — or no less.

   It turns out that California’s Highway 13 is a death trap for truckers, with six accidents having occurred in as many weeks. The problem is that the accidents have happened only to the drivers working for one company, the one that Hank Wilson (good-looking and well-built Robert Lowery, soon to become serial-world’s Batman) has hired on for. Sabotage is suspected.

HIGHWAY 13 Robert Lowrey

   Most of the movie takes place in or around Pops Lacy’s isolated restaurant and truck stop somewhere along that same Highway 13 where Wilson’s steady girl friend Doris (Pamela Blake) works as a waitress behind the counter. Pops himself is a sour cantankerous old cuss played by Clem Bevans, who is (no surprise) perfect for the part. The players are fine, in other words; it’s the story that doesn’t match up.

   Most other reviewers of this film rate it a whole lot higher than I do, but personally I don’t care for crime films in which the culprit(s) is/are obvious; the scenes while individually fine are jammed together in haphazard fashion; and the reason for the whole affair doesn’t make any more sense than a chicken caught in a fence.

   It isn’t really all that bad, but reading that last sentence back again, almost.

HIGHWAY 13 Robert Lowrey


HERBERT KERKOW  [VAL LEWTON] – The Fateful Star Murder. Mohawk Press, hardcover, 1931.

HERBERT KERKOW The Fateful Star Murder

   Just about anyone who admires vintage black and white films, in particular those made during the 1940s, is familiar with the name Val Lewton.

   From 1942 to 1946, while head of the horror unit at RKO Pictures, Lewton (born Vladimir Leventon) produced nine memorable films that, despite their low budgets and often lurid, studio-mandated titles, were of considerable quality, including: Cat People and Curse of the Cat People (made even though or possibly because Lewton had a morbid fear and hatred of cats), The Leopard Man, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim.

   Not quite so many aficionados are aware of the fact that Lewton published several novels prior to taking a writing job with MGM in New York and eventually migrating to Hollywood. These appeared under an array of pseudonyms: Cosmo Forbes, Carlos Keith, Herbert Kerkow, and Val Lewton. Most had contemporary settings, at least one was a historical, all were distinguished (if that’s the right word) by their explicit sexual themes, and all are exceedingly scarce.

   Very few people at all, I’ll wager, know that the novel published as by Herbert Kerkow is a detective story. Fortunately, it was Lewton’s only foray into the field. I say fortunately because The Fateful Star Murder is of a distinct alternative bent, though not quite bad enough to join the classic titles at the top, or rather the bottom, level of the pantheon.

   The most interesting thing about this lumbering, disjointed mess of a mystery is its kinky and remarkably graphic (for 1931) sexual content. There are enough lustful elements in its 239 pages to make the stories in the Spicy pulps seem tame by comparison, and to make this reader wonder how the novel managed to escape the wrath and censorship crusades of the era’s blue noses.

   Possibly what saved it was the fact that its publisher, Mohawk Press, was an obscure outfit whose offerings had miniscule printings. (The only other mystery published by Mohawk during its short life was Stuart Palmer’s first and rarest book, the gangster saga Ace of Jades.)

   The “fateful star murder” victim, one Dawn Loyall, is a nymphomaniac who,we are told, is so obsessed and debased that she enjoys sleeping with clients of one of Seaside City’s most notorious whorehouses free of charge. Her nineteen-year-old sister, Sybil, having been deflowered at age 13 by the same sexual predator who deflowered Dawn, is either casually or desperately promiscuous (it isn’t clear which) and in danger of becoming a nympho herself.

   One of the suspects in Dawn’s death by shooting, drowning, and/or poison is the aforementioned sexual predator, a middle-aged politician whose hobby is molesting prepubescent girls. Another suspect is a “cured” sadist who gets his jollies by beating up and burning women of all ages. And one of the nominal protagonists has a girlfriend named Gwenie who operates a whorehouse and is “a queen between the sheets.”

   As if all of this wasn’t enough to satisfy the most prurient reader, there are two gratuitous on-stage sex scenes between Sybil and her newspaperman lover, Maurice Martin, both of which are described in what for its day was explicit detail.

   In the second of these, for good (or bad) measure, Martin coldly and calculatedly interrupts his lovemaking at a crucial moment to accuse Sybil of bumping off her sister.

   The rest of the novel is made up of: Chapters and events that don’t quite connect with one another. Some highly dubious psychological observations and motivations. Ridiculous methods of amateur detection. A questionable explanation of the effects of ricin, the poison extracted from castor beans. The activities of a low-life gangster of (gasp!) Italian extraction, Giacomo the Wop.

   More: A gratuitously poisoned Siamese cat, on the corpse of which the protagonist gleefully performs an autopsy in his office. And some pointless astrological commentary, possibly tossed in to justify the title, for Dawn is said by her mother’s live-in lover to have been“murdered under a fateful star.”

   The autopsy-performing “hero” of the piece is one Luigi Rothmere, an allegedly eminent psychiatrist who thinks nothing of confiding intimate personal details about his patients to anyone who’ll listen, and who predicts Dawn’s violent demise by claiming “the woman who is a spendthrift of her love courts death.”

   He is given to making other “learned” observations throughout, such as this little gem of cerebral insight: “Women are the most savage murderers. Criminology teaches us to look first for a woman when we find that the victim’s body has been brutally mutilated or dismembered.”

   Rothmereis aided in his sleuthing by a pair of newspapermen, neither of whom is introduced until a third of the way through the book. Maurice Martin, Sybil’s lover, a horny columnist who once dreamed of being a “male harlot” so he could have all the women he wanted; and Henry Deal, a dipso reporter so far gone that he needs to consume a quart of brandy in the morning (!) in order to steady his hands so he can tie his tie.

   Dr. Rothmere, Martin, and Deal conduct their investigation by eliminating one suspect after another through mostly illogical reasoning, until only one name is left on the list – the most likely suspect with the least satisfying motive for dispatching Ms. Roundheels.

   Do Rothmere and his cohorts then turn the murderer over to the police for due process? They do not. The good doctor self-righteously knocks off the villain himself to ensure that justice is done, after which his friend, a politically ambitious District Attorney, absolves him of any wrongdoing.

   The pair then collude to officially write off the shooting, drowning, poisoning death of Dawn Loyall as a suicide so as to protect the remaining members of her family.

   And there you have The Fateful Star Murder. An alternative mystery, to be sure. Deserving of only two stars, though, because of a low risibility factor.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

MALLA NUNN – A Beautiful Place to Die. Atria, hardcover, January 2009. Washington Square Press, trade paperback, October 2009.

Genre:   Police Procedural. Leading character:  Det Sgt. Emmanuel Cooper; 1st in series. Setting:   South Africa; 1952.

MALLA NUNN A Beautiful Place to Die

First Sentence:   Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper switched off the engine and looked out through the dirty windscreen.

   Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is sent from Johannesburg to Jacob’s Rest after a call comes in reporting a possible murder. What he finds is the body of the town’s Afrikaner police captain, William Pretorius, and a confrontation with his volatile family.

   Members of the powerful Security Branch also arrive and push Cooper out, leaving his to investigate a peeping tom case unsolved by the dead chief. Clues and determination lead Cooper to Pretorius secrets and the motive for his death.

   A Beautiful Place to Die gives a stark portrayal of South Africa during apartheid and the Immorality Act banning sexual conduct between whites and nonwhites. Although I was able to look the terms up, a glossary might have been helpful for those of us not as familiar with the history and terminology.

   Cooper makes a sympathetic protagonist with shades of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge character. While it’s an interesting homage, it also felt like a cheap, and not very satisfying, way of telling us about Cooper’s background. We do learn, though other means, some of this background throughout the story, but much remains vague about him.

   However, all the characters seemed stereotypical, from the Jewish doctor and his wife, to the enigmatic Zulu constable, to the storm trooper Security Branch and on. There was very little dimension to the majority of the characters.

   The plot conveys how unjust and brutal living was under apartheid. While interesting and educational, it’s not enough to make the book work. The mystery itself, and its investigation, became almost secondary. It did have a number of well-executed twists and revelations, along with suspense and some brutality. I did identify one villain early but not another. However, my largest complaint was that, although realistic, I found the ending unsatisfying.

   I certainly don’t regret having read this book. It was interesting, I did learn from it. However, I don’t believe this is a series I will continue to follow.

Rating:   Good.



MARTIN CRUZ SMITH – Three Stations. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, August 2010. Pocket, trade paperback, September 2011.

   As aged and battered as Moscovian police detective Arkady Renko must be by now, he’s evidently still irresistible to women, such as the journalist in Three Stations. Be that as it may, he’s worthy of being irresistible to readers. In this, the seventh in the series that began with Gorky Park 30 years ago, he’s still solving crime and helping friends with his intelligence, integrity and dark humor.

   One young woman’s murder intertwines with the story of a young prostitute, Maya. With her baby, she escapes her controllers; they send assassins to make an example of her. Hoping to disappear into the crowds of Moscow, Maya instead loses her baby to kidnappers running illegal adoptions.

   Determined to find the child, she crosses paths with Arkady’s chess-playing protégé, Zhenya, and the threads begin to weave together. The ending could be more elegantly finished, but at least it’s a happy one, whatever that means in such a bleak context.

   Three Stations is a devastating look at what the promise of a new Russia has devolved into.

BOMBAY MAIL. Universal Pictures, 1934. Edmund Lowe (Inspector Dyke), Ralph Forbes, Shirley Grey, Hedda Hopper, Onslow Stevens. Based on the novel by Lawrence G. Blochman. Director: Edwin L. Marin.


   In the novel, the leading detective is Inspector Leonidas Prike, who made repeat appearances in two later Blochman novels, Bengal Fire (1937) and Red Snow at Darjeeling (1938). All three books, rather obviously, take place in India.

   But Bombay Mail also has the advantage, as far as I’m concerned, of taking place on a train, which in case of the motion picture is a huge plus, with the clickety-clack of the wheels on the track being heard at least 98% of the time. (I say this even though it was filmed, I’m sure, on a stage set).

   What Inspector Dyke must learn, as the trains cuts across the Indian sub-continent from Calcutta to Bombay, is first who poisoned the British governor of Bengal (lots of suspects on the train, with lots of reasons – one per suspect, at least), then who shoots the Maharajah of Zungore before he can tell Dyke what he knows and who he saw doing what.

   There is, as there has to be, one femme fatale among the suspects, and in Bombay Mail she is played by Shirley Grey, known in some circles as Russian opera singer Sonia Smeganoff, and by others as plain Beatrice Jones (on her passport).


   Questions: Who supplied her with the ticket she needed to be on the train before she was deported? Who had access to the cyanide used? (Quite a few, as the Inspector Dyke soon learns.) Who is the mysterious Mr. Xavier, and who is the dangerous-looking man he hires to keep an eye on John Hawley? Why does the scientist Dr. Lenoir carry a deadly king cobra snake around in his handbag? And what are those valuable rubies doing in Hawley’s tobacco pouch?

   This is definitely my kind of movie, and maybe yours as well, but overall I was disappointed. There is too much plot for too little playing time (70 minutes or so), and it takes a long time for the viewer (me) to sort out who all the players are and what the connections are between them. Perhaps I was slow on the uptake, but I believe another 20 or 30 minutes of movie time would have been useful.

   I’m still going to recommend this movie to you. One should never complain too loudly about too much plot in a detective movie, especially one that takes place on a train. When I watch this one again, and I will, I’m going to enjoy it immensely.


by Michael Shonk

   The following are just some of this summer’s new shows for the TV mystery fan:

ABC:   Rookie Blue returns June 23rd for its second summer as the story of five rookie cops continues.

CBS:   Flashpoint, the story of a special unit of cops, will continue to air new episodes into August. Spy drama Chaos has ten episodes left that are being run on Saturday where it can cause the least suffering.

NBC:   Rebooted Law & Order L.A. has enough original episodes to last through June. For those without cable or the willingness to watch the USA network, NBC is showing the possible final season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent as reruns.

   Summer means the cable stations are seeking attention with new programs:

TNT:   Franklin & Bash is a new light-hearted legal drama. Memphis Beat returns (June 14) as cops solve crimes with music in their souls and a great soundtrack. June 26th marks the start of the fourth season of Leverage, where the con is a source of good. Two favorites return on July 11th. In this season of The Closer, Brenda and her fellow cops face many new and old challenges. Rizzoli & Isles offer more stories of the team of gorgeous cop and her friend, the M.E., based on Tess Gerritsen’s books.

USA:   Goren and Eames are back, as it should be, solving crimes on Law & Order C.I. Stories of U.S. Marshals working for the Federal Witness Protection program make In Plain Sight fun to watch, if only her family would disappear into the federal program. White Collar returns (June 7) to continue the story of a FBI agent and his thief. It will be followed by CIA’s prettiest spies in the light thriller Covert Affairs. Burn Notice is back (June 23) with further adventures of burned spy Michael, Fiona, Sam, Mom, and a growing cast of thousands. New series Suits begins (June 23) when a top corporate attorney hires a legal genius and college dropout to be his associate.

A&E:   The Glades (June 5) is set in a sleepy town near the Florida Everglades where crime continues to interrupt Detective Longworth’s golf game.

ABC Family:   June 14th Pretty Little Liars returns and the people of Rosewood wonder what the girls know about missing Ian. New series Nine Lives of Chloe King features a teenage girl who discovers she is part of an ancient race being hunted by assassins. Should make her Sweet 16 party exciting. On August 15th, Lying Game debuts. Two long separated twins reunite and exchange places, but then one disappears. Based on a Sara Sherard book.

BBC America:   August 17th begins The Hour, a six part spy thriller set in mid-1950s BBC’s newsroom.

Cartoon Network: There is always Scooby Doo. But starting July 21st Adult Swim adds live action 15 minute spoof on TV detectives called NTSF: SD: SUV.

Direct-TV:   Too many “fun” lawyers on TV this summer? Damages with Glenn Close returns with ten new uncut episodes starting July 13th.

Lifetime:   Starting June 12th, The Protector begins. A police procedural features a Mom who is a cop and has to balance both sides of her life.

Syfy:   Haven returns June 15th as FBI agent Parker finds out more about her lost past and her connection to the city of Haven. New in July will be Alphas, a group of people with strange powers who fight crime, and Legend Quest, archaeologist has adventures inspired by Indiana Jones and the Da Vinci Code.

   For those who like some reality with their mystery…

A&E:   First 48 — Missing Persons.

ID:   Behind Mansion Walls (June 6), The Devil You Know (June 15), I Married a Mobster (July 13), True Grime: Crime Scene Cleanup (July 19), and Big Law — Deputy Butterbean (August 9).

National Geographic:   Locked Up — Abroad (June 8th).

   TV Movies are trying to come back:

Lifetime:   Last Man Standing (June 6) Ex-special op now Mom has to rescue hubby. Carnal Innocence (June 13) is based on a Nora Roberts novel. Gone (June 27) Nurse must choose between kidnapped daughter and life of a patient.

MTV:   The Truth Below (June 16) is a thriller that takes place during a spring break mountain vacation.

      SOURCE: where networks press releases are posted.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Crider


JIM THOMPSON – Savage Night. Lion #155, paperback original, 1953. Reprinted several times, including Black Lizard Books, softcover, 1985, 1991.

   Although Savage Night has never attained the cult status of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, it is an equally unnerving book, one that still has the power to shock despite the more than thirty years that have elapsed since its original publication.

   Carl (“Little”) Bigger (a.k.a. Carl Bigelow), a tubercular professional killer who is all of five feet tall, is sent to murder a key witness in an upcoming trial.


   His plan is to do so by enlisting the help of his victim’s wife, but he hasn’t counted on the complications that arise, including the distrust of the local sheriff and his own feelings for Ruth, the deformed girl who works for his victim.

   Like Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, Bigger is oddly sympathetic. He is a cold-blooded killer, but he is at the same time a human being. He coldly seduces the wife, but his affair with Ruth is quite different. He has decent impulses, and even acts on them. The book has a number of unexpected twists in the plot, but what really interests the reader are Bigger and his inner conflicts.


   The climax comes in a crescendo of violence and madness unsurpassed in the work of any other writer of paperback fiction, and perhaps even in Thompson’s other work.

   The chapters become shorter as the madness and violence grow, with the last six chapters occupying only three pages of text. The final chapter is one sentence long, but it is as devastating as any conclusion you are ever likely to read.

   Thompson wrote several other powerfully unique novels that should not be missed, including A Hell of a Woman (1954), Wild Town (1957; in which Lou Ford has a cameo appearance), The Getaway (1959), Pop. 1280 (1964), and Texas by the Tail (1965).

   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.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Max Allan Collins

JIM THOMPSON – Pop. 1280. Gold Medal k1438, paperback original, 1964. Reprinted several times since, including Black Lizard, softcover, 1984, 1990. Filmed as Coup de Torchon (France, 1981).

jim thompson Pop.1280

   The psychopaths of Jim Thompson’s novels — and his best novels invariably feature psychopathic protagonists — have much in common, but each is distinct. The closest Thompson comes to repeating himself is in Pop. 1280, where protagonist Nick Corey bears a great resemblance to Lou Ford of the better-known Killer Inside Me.

   Like Ford, Corey is a law officer (a sheriff), and like Ford, he feigns folksy stupidity while committing cunning, vile, and often pointless murders — using his position as sheriff to cover them up.

   The setting is a small southern river town before the turn of the century, and the flavor is at once reminiscent of Erskine Caldwell and Mark Twain; the latter influence is such that Corey at times seems a psychopathic Huck Finn.

   Thompson is at his best here — on familiar ground, he seems almost to be having fun, not trying as hard to be an artist as he did in the sometimes uneven telling of Lou Ford’s story. Pop. 1280, a reworking of his most famous book, may well be his best. This is partially because Pop. 1280 is a black comedy; The Killer Inside Me is far too bleak for Lou Ford’s absurd behavior to approach the black humor that pervades the later novel.

jim thompson Pop.1280

   Corey seems so picked on and put upon (by his shrewish wife Myra, among others) that the reader begins to root for this combination Li’l Abner/William Heirens. Also, Corey’s shrewdness — and sickness — dawns so gradually that the reader initially underestimates Corey — just as other characters in the novel have done.

   By the end, Corey has come to the conclusion that he is Jesus Christ, but concludes also that being Christ doesn’t seem to be of any particular advantage.

   Behind Thompson’s black humor is the notion that the human condition is so unpleasant as to drive each of us mad, at least a little. And perhaps, after identifying with or at least allowing ourselves to be confined within the point of view of a madman, we will understand the madness of, say, a Richard Speck — and the madness in ourselves — a little better.

jim thompson Pop.1280

   An award-winning French film, Coup de Torchon (1981), directed by Bertran Tavernier, transplants Thompson’s tale to Equatorial Africa, 1936, but captures the spirit of the work to perfection.

   Tavernier’s film has helped draw attention to Thompson and Pop. 1280, and Black Lizard Books brought this minor masterpiece back into print in 1984, as one of a trio of Thompsons published in self-consciously old-fashioned “paperback” format, with covers evoking old pinball-machine art.

   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.



JIM THOMPSON – Savage Night. Lion #155, paperback original, 1953. Reprinted several times, including Black Lizard Books, softcover, 1985, 1991.

   When a good friend described Jim Thompson as “over-rated” to me not too long ago, it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually read anything by Thompson in a quarter century. So I picked up his most nightmarish novel, Savage Night to have another look at it.

   Damn, it’s good.

   Night is the chilling story of a freakishly petite and young-looking hitman pressured into that preordained failure, the One Last Job. Charlie “Little” Bigger lands in a small town for a tough job that turns into a paranoid hell, then into a surreal spin where neither he nor the reader quite knows what’s going on we just realize something pretty awful is happening here, and when I applied the adjective nightmarish, it was with a full appreciation that Savage Night could stand right up there with the scariest of traditional “horror stories.”

   It also benefits from the kind of writing we look for most in two-bit novels: efficient prose that goes beyond prosaic efficiency to achieve a quality completely unlooked-for in pulp fiction:


   Bigger sees a puritanical old woman and “I couldn’t figure why some dairy hadn’t hired her to sour their cream for them. ” A self important character gets a compliment and “swelled up like a poisoned pup.” And then there’s the short sequence where Thompson’s narrator enters a house:

    I pushed the sagging gate open. I climbed the rickety steps to the porch and rang the bell… I turned and glanced around the bare yard — too goddamned lazy to plant a little grass. I looked at the paint-peeled fence with half the pickets knocked off….

   Now that passage should be taught in every Creative Writing course in the Free World: a quickly-carried couple of sentences that (a) move the story along, (b) describe the setting, (c) tell us something about the guy who lives there, and (d) tell us something about the narrator at the same time.

   Amazing. This is the sort of writing that gave Thompson his belated reputation, and it serves very well for a tough, fast story that still scares me.



THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK. Paramount, 1933. Fredric March, Cary Grant, Jack Oakie, Carole Lombard, Guy Standing, Forrester Harvey, Kenneth Howell, Leyland Hodgson, Virginia Hammond, Yorke Sherwood, Adrienne D’Ambricourt, Lane Chandler, Dennis O’Keefe. Screenplay by Bogart Rogers and Seton I. Miller, from the story “Death in the Morning” by John Monk Saunders. Photography by Harry Fischbeck, with photographic effects by Farciot Edouart, assisted by Loyal Griggs. Director: Stuart Walker (also Mitchell Leisen, credited as associate director). Shown at Cinecon 44, Hollywood CA, Aug-Sept 2008.

   No film at the convention made a more powerful impression on me than this WWI drama of pilots manning two-man planes making reconnaissance flights over enemy territory in France, with a tailgunner photographing target installations.


   The flights are euphemistically called “observation flights,” but the incidence of downed planes or planes returning with the tailgunner killed by enemy fire is high. Jerry Young (Fredric March), an American whose unit has been transferred to France to serve with a British company, keeps returning successfully but is increasingly depressed by the significant numbers of tailgunner losses.

   The unit is joined by Henry Crocker (Cary Grant), a pilot from Young’s American unit who had been left behind at Young’s recommendation. The antagonism between the two charges the close quarters with a palpable electricity, but it is Crocker who is most aware of Young’s instability, leading to a stunning conclusion.

   This is a powerful portrait of the human costs of war, with brilliant performances by March and Grant. Grant, who, with no trace of his man-about-town persona, has the kind of role he wanted to play when he tired of his type-casting. I think he gives one of the great performances of his career in the film.


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