June 2013



MURDER BY THE CLOCK. Paramount, 1931. William (Stage) Boyd, Lilyan Tashman, Irving Pichel, Regis Toomey, Sally O’Neil. Based on the novel by Rufus King (Doubleday/Crime Club, 1929). Director: Edward Sloman. Shown at Cinefest 19, Syracuse NY, March 1999.

   This was an end-of-day screening (after 11 p.m.) that I would probably have skipped had the notes not pointed out that the film is “celebrated” by William Everson in his Classics of the Horror Film.


   Tashman had a brief Hollywood career (she died shortly after the release of this film, according to the notes), but she was worth staying up for. She’s the sultry villainess who masterminds three homicides and appears to be getting off Scot-free until Boyd upstages her in the final minutes of the film.

   This is an old-house mystery with a crusty dowager heiress who rigs her coffin in the family crypt so that an alarm can be sounded if she’s buried alive. As indeed, she appears to have been. Pichel (whose most memorable screen performance was as Gloria Holden’s minion in Dracula’s Daughter) has a hoot playing a deranged legatee and he almost manages to steal kinky acting honors from Tashman.

   An improbable but delicious early sound romp among the corpses.


ARIEL S. WINTER – The Twenty-Year Death. Hard Case Crime, hardcover, August 2012; trade paperback, August 2013.

    Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death sets a challenge both ambitious and unique: three crime novels, each in the style of a different writer, that could individually stand alone but as a group tell a connected story.

ARIEL S. WINTER The Twenty-Year Death

    “Malniveau Prison,” set in France in 1931, is a classical detective story with a bizarre plot in the style of Georges Simenon. “Falling Star,” set in 1941 Hollywood, is a hardboiled detective novel inspired by Raymond Chandler. “Police at the Funeral,” set in 1951 Maryland, is fiction noir in the Jim Thompson vein. (That last is one of the great mystery-novel titles, previously used by quite a different writer, Margery Allingham.)

    The common character in the trilogy is novelist and screenwriter Shem Rosenkrantz, whose drinking problem and institutionalized wife make clear he was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who for all his faults surely was not as unsympathetic, weak, and pathetic as Shem. Just as well we don’t have to live through three whole books with him. He’s just a minor presence in the first two but no more likable when you get to know him better in the third one.

    I believe Winter has done a superb job on all three stories, and they’re worthy of the praise they have received. But what I want to discuss here are some errors and odd choices.

    Anachronisms are the bane of historical writers, and as I’ve pointed out before they are both harder to avoid and more likely to be noticed when the history is relatively recent. I don’t believe the term “senior citizens” or a French equivalent was current in 1931, nor was the meaningless expression, “It is what it is.” Nor was Ms used to designate women in 1951, except maybe in regional dialect which is not how it’s used here.

    In the Chandler pastiche, British expressions not likely to be used by an American turn up: “the chemist’s” for druggist’s, “in the cinema.” I don’t think Winter, who lives in Baltimore, is British. Is it a nod to the fact that Chandler was educated in Britain? Unlikely, and the typically British phrase “on about” occurs later in the Thompson pastiche. (While it’s true the co-publisher with Hard Case Crime, Titan Books, is headquartered in London, I would assume Charles Ardai was at the editorial reins.)

    In “Falling Star,” a horse race is started with a pistol shot. It’s never been done that way to my knowledge, and the odd terminology describing the race makes clear the track is not the author’s milieu.

    Moving from errors to odd choices, “Falling Star” takes place in a fantasy Hollywood. Where Chandler famously renamed Santa Monica as Bay City in his Philip Marlowe novels, Winter carries it to a greater extreme, changing place name and street names in a manner disorienting to the Southern California reader. Sunset Boulevard becomes Sommerset, Wilshire becomes Woodsheer.

    Even Los Angeles is not called by its right name, becoming San Angelo. As for the racetracks, Santa Anita in Arcadia becomes Santa Theresa in Arcucia, but Hollywood Park keeps its right name, though it is not and never was actually in Hollywood.

    Finally, in “Police at the Funeral,” one character reacts to unwelcome news with the following bit of censored dialogue: “S—t! S—t, s—t, s—t.” Now surely, the style book of Hard Case Crime allows for the use of the actual spelled-out obscenity. Would it have been presented this way in Thompson’s day, and is that the reason?

    Anyway, quibbles aside, I highly recommend this three-part book. I’m just curious how these particular errors and decisions came to be. Anybody want to speculate?


STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. RKO Radio Pictures, 1940. Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cook Jr. Director: Boris Ingster.


   Stranger on the Third Floor is sometimes cited as the first film noir, and it certainly is the first film I know of to combine that sense of bleak oppression and German expressionism in a contemporary crime film. And if it’s not completely successful, one has only to look at the obvious effort involved and give it high marks for trying.

   The story is certainly essential noir: reporter Mike Ward has just gotten a big promotion for being the star witness in a murder case, he’s about to marry his girl and move out of his crummy apartment… in short one of those guys coming up in the world who, in movies like these, invariably comes crashing down.

   In this case it starts with Ward’s fiancée having doubts about how Mike’s testimony helped convict a man who may be innocent — doubts enough to break off their engagement. This segues into an extended nightmare sequence wherein Ward dreams he’s executed for a murder he didn’t commit. From there, it’s just a short step to Ward actually being arrested for Murder, and his girlfriend’s lonely, desperate efforts to save him (a theme to recur in films like Phantom Lady and Black Angel).

   This echt-noir story is ladled out with generous helpings of dark photography, ominous music and corrosive characters: an inattentive judge, nosy neighbor and sanctimonious landlady, cops both brutal and dumb (when two identical murders occur within a block of each other, Ward has to point the similarity out to the investigating officer) and the stranger skulking about the third floor. And then there’s that long nightmare, a tour-de-force that outdoes Caligari in its use of surreal lighting and sets.


   Unfortunately, director Boris Ingster (whose career stretched from The Last Days of Pompeii to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and writer Frank Partos (The Uninvited) took it all a bit over the top. Except for Ward and his girlfriend, there are simply no likeable characters in this dark, seedy world. In fact, everyone seems to go out of his way to be a little more unpleasant. Ingster also seems to have directed his players to put it on the edge of hysteria; only Margaret Tallichet, a talented Maureen-O’Hara-type, seems at all natural or convincing.

   On the balance though, Stranger is saved from itself by Peter Lorre, who is only in the movie maybe ten minutes as the—well, as the stranger on the third floor. Seen only in quick haunting glimpses at first (like Raymond Burr in the thematically similar Rear Window) Lorre finally emerges as a supremely terrifying and oddly sympathetic little boogeyman, just the type to chill your spine and tug your heart strings. It’s a memorable bit of casting in a film that for all its faults deserves a look.


William F. Deeck


PAUL McGUIRE – The Black Rose Murder. Brentano’s, US, hardcover, 1932. First published in the UK: Skeffington, hardcover, 1931, as Murder in Bostall.

   At first appearance, it’s a simple case: Lord Barbary wants his wife investigated for possible adultery. The firm that Jacob Modstone heads has undertaken the task. Modstone is an elderly private detective who is “kindly and honest except in the way of business and old furniture.” His nephew, the firm’s chief operative, is in charge of the investigation. Unfortunately, despite his uncle’s misgivings, the nephew doesn’t reveal all of the facts to Mr. Modstone and is soon found dead.

   It appears that Modstone’s nephew may have been blackmailing someone. In order to clear his nephew’s reputation, Modstone begins a search for the murderer, a search that pits him directly against Inspector Cummings, of no known first name. Occasionally Modstone is ahead of Cummings, but not very far, and Cummings always catches up.

   The plot isn’t much here. It is the characters of Modstone, a most unusual private investigator — on one occasion he carries a revolver but is “not certain what happened when you pulled the trigger thing” — and Cummings that make the novel enjoyable reading.

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter 1991.

      The Chief Inspector Cummings series —

Murder in Bostall. Skeffington 1931. Brentano’s, US, 1932, as The Black Rose Murder.
Three Dead Men. Skeffington 1931. Brentano’s, US, 1932.
Daylight Murder. Skeffington 1934. Doubleday, US, 1935, as Murder at High Noon.
Murder in Haste. Skeffington 1934. No US edition.
7:30 Victoria. Skeffington 1935. No US edition.

Note:   Previously reviewed on this blog by Al Hubin was Murder by the Law (Skeffington, 1932). For more on the author himself, plus a more complete bibliography, check out this page on the Golden Age of Detection wiki.

GIL BREWER – It Takes a Thief #3: Appointment in Cairo. Ace 37600, paperback original, 1970.


   There are a couple of ways I could have begun this review. One, of course, is to start by talking about the TV series this novel is based on. The problem with that is that I’ve never seen an episode of the show, not when it was on (9 January 1968 – 24 March 1970) nor now, even though I bought the complete series when it came out on DVD a couple of years ago, nor even when it’s been shown on the Cozi channel, though if I ever flipped over there when it was on, I’m sure I would. Watch it, that is.

   I’m not sure why that is, but the fault, if fault there is, is mine, I’m sure. I’ve always found the delivery of Robert Wagner, the star of the show, to be both overly glib and overly flat, both at the same time, if that were possible. I realize that I am in the minority on this, since Wagner has always been a very popular TV star, even to the present day, including occasional recurring appearances on NCIS as agent Tony DiNozzo’s father.


   The premise of this older series is that Wagner, playing Alexander Mundy a suave cat burglar (in the obvious Cary Grant mode), is forced to work for the US government in places all over the world where his particular field of expertise would come in useful. What he gets in return is his release from prison, not a very original concept now, but maybe it was at the time. Supervising Mundy (and holding his past over his head) on most of these adventures is Noah Bain, played by Malachi Throne.

   The other way I could have approached this review is by pointing out that this particular book was the last work of crime fiction to appear under famed Gold Medal paperback writer Gil Brewer’s own name. The sad decline of Brewer’s career over the years is chronicled here on the main Mystery*File website by Bill Pronzini, along with an exhaustive list of his (Brewer’s) entire written output.


   But that this book came at the end of Brewer’s career rather than at the beginning does not mean that it is anything but a solid, professional effort. Inept it is most definitely not. Given the restrictions of working within the confines of the TV series, though, I found Appointment in Cairo to be, for the most part, as flat as Robert Wagner’s speech patterns, picking up in excitement a notch or two by story’s end, which includes the same little kind of twistette that tons of TV crime and mystery shows have ended with over the years.

   The story itself, one which I do not believe was adapted from any one of the individual episodes of the series, has to do with “an ancient Egyptian formula for a deadly nerve gas” (quoting from the back cover), and if Mundy doesn’t do something about it, the whole world is in deadly peril.

   As a postscript to myself, I had forgotten until now that Mundy’s father Alistair appeared several times in the third and final season of the series. He shows up in this novel as well, but in the book he is not nearly as interesting as he was on TV, given that there he was played by none other than Fred Astaire.


SHANNON. Syndicated, 1961-62. Columbia Pictures–Screen Gems Productions. Cast: George Nader as Joe Shannon, Regis Toomey as Bill Cochran. Music by Arthur Morton. Created by John Hawkins. Executive Producer: Robert Sparks. Producer: Jerry Briskin. Directed by Fred Jackman.

SHANNON George Nader

   Joe Shannon worked as an insurance investigator for Transport Bonding & Surety Company. TB&S main office was in Denver Colorado with a branch office in Los Angeles. While TB&S was owned and run by Bill Cochran, he did have to answer to stockholders. Shannon worked out of the Denver office and received his assignments directly from Bill.

   What set Shannon apart from your average syndicated PI was his car, a 1961 Buick Special with enough gadgets to please James Bond (though Bond would have be disappointed by the lack of lethal weapons/gadgets). The car’s most used features were a telephone that allowed Shannon to give exposition to his boss Bill who was at another location, and a microphone and tape recorder that popped out of the dashboard. There was also a camera mounted near the driver’s outside rear view mirror, and a film camera that with a touch of a button mechanically rose from the front middle seat.

   Shannon’s toys did not stop at just the car. He also carried a small tape recorder with him to preserve anything important a suspect or witness might tell him.

   Shannon was the typical first run TV Film syndicated half hour series. It suffered from poor production values, weak acting especially from the guest cast, scripts and direction flawed by a lack of production time and budget. There was no time to develop the characters to where we cared about them, and no time to develop any mystery or drama. But Shannon did have something that could have made it memorable, the car.

   This was the early 60s, a PI’s car was as important as a cowboy’s horse. Joe Shannon’s car was special and all the characters should have reacted to it with amazement and curiosity. Yet everyone behaved around the gadget filled car with indifference as if every one had a car with a tape recorder that pops out of the dashboard. Due to a lack of time in these thirty-minute dramas I expect the hero to be one dimensional, but if your series has a gimmick like Shannon’s car you need to highlight it, not virtually ignore it.


(Of the four episodes I have seen, there were no on screen episode titles. The titles used here came from IMdb.com and TVTango.com. The two sites had the same titles but listed the episodes in different order.)

“Zendee Report.” Written by John Hawkins. Guest Cast: Kathie Browne, Jan Arvan, and Joseph Rome. *** Zendee Truck company was having problems with hijackers. Shannon follows one trucker on a delivery run, but he was unable to stop two men from killing the driver. Shannon searched for an answer to the trucker’s little girl who asked, “Mister Shannon…Why did my daddy get shot?”

“Lady on the Rocks.” Written by Paul Schneider. Guest Cast: Leonard Stone, George Murdock and Walter Kinsella. *** Every one but Shannon believed the Captain wreaked his own ship so he could collect on the insurance.

“Professional Widower.” Teleplay by Todhunter Ballard. Story by Seymour Friedman Guest Cast: Walter Brooke, Elsie Baker and Henry Hunter. *** A con man marries lonely old ladies then kills them makes a mistake when he uses a teapot insured by TB&S as a murder weapon on his latest victim.

“Deadly Homecoming.” Written by Joseph Vogel and Lou Lantz. Guest Cast: James Griffith, Brenda Scott and Stephen Roberts. *** A truck covered by TB&S strikes a pedestrian, leading Shannon to play matchmaker for a great jazz musician just out of prison and his young daughter who refuses to see him.

   In 1961 first run syndication was dying. June 2, 1961 Screen Gems announced the availability of Shannon for the fall. In Broadcasting, June 5, 1961, a spokesperson for the company claimed it had more first-run programs “waiting in the wings,” when and if there was a market.

   However, Screen Gems had found more success with the networks than first run syndication. At this time Screen Gems was a major TV producer for network television. In Broadcasting (August 13, 1962) an article focused on what it called TV’s major studios, six studios that produced 40% of prime-time entertainment programs (Screen Gems, Revue, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, MGM, and Four Star Television). Screen Gems had nine series on the networks primetime schedules for the fall 1962 season.

   Shannon was an average half hour TV Film syndicated series. Perhaps the other episodes (of the thirty-six total episodes) were better. Perhaps those written by Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) were magical. Perhaps those episodes paid the proper attention to the real star and attraction of the series, the 1961 Buick Special with all the gadgets inside. But based on what I watched, I doubt it.


KING OF THE RODEO. Universal, 1929. Hoot Gibson, Kathryn Crawford, Slim Summerfield, Monte Montague. Director: Henry MacRae. Shown at Cinefest 19, Syracuse NY, March 1999.

   One of the high points of the weekend. Hoot is thrown out by his rancher father because he wants to ride in a rodeo in Chicago rather than go to college. Hoot’s films are notable for their superb action and good humor and his search for his rodeo shirts (ill-advisedly stolen by the film’s villain during the commission of a more serious crime) provided both laughs and thrills in a motorcycle/car chase that kept this eternal adolescent on the edge of his seat.


SPRING PARADE. Universal, 1940. Deanna Durbin, Robert Cummings, Mischa Auer, Henry Stephenson, S. Z. Sakall. Director: Henry Koster.

   Saturday night featured a “lost” Deanna Durbin musical Spring Parade, with the unbeatable Deanna playing a girl from the country who befriends the Emperor Franz Joseph II in pre-war Vienna, benefiting her boyfriend, the insufferable Robert Cummings and her employer, S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, being his usual … uh … cuddly self. DD is in fine voice and there’s a scene at a beer garden where she sang and danced her way into my heart. I love this kind of schmaltz.



KISS ME DEADLY. United Artists, 1955. Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer, Albert Dekker as Dr. G.E. Soberin, Paul Stewart as Carl Evello, Juano Hernandez as Eddie Yeager, Wesley Addy as Lt. Pat Murphy, Marian Carr as Friday, Maxine Cooper as Velda, Cloris Leachman as Christina Bailey. Screenwriter: A. I. Bezzerides, based on the novel by Mickey Spillane. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   Robert Aldrich’s classic 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly came out on video recently with the original ending — truncated for Television ever since it fell off the Big Screen and landed in Tube-Land — restored for the first time in 40 years, and it set a lot of B-movie critics to re-writing their ideas about just what the film`s creators — director Aldrich and writer A. I. Bezzerides — had in mind.


   Kiss Me Deadly always was a subversive little film, full of stylish violence and sexual innuendo, unfolding a plot more hinted-at than explained, where “thieves and murderers fashion the tools of their own destruction,” with a hero (like Hammer, played with brilliant egotism by Ralph Meeker) callous and self-centered rather than heroic.

   And for years critics watched this film on television and saw an ambiguous ending (WARNING!!) where Mike and Velda run for the door to escape just as the house explodes. Did they make it? (END OF WARNING!) The uncertain resolution seemed to fit perfectly with the moral anarchy of the film, several critics who saw the movie only on television praised Aldrich`s underhand genius; Just imagine, they said, Sneaking an ending like that onto a mainstream film like this.


   Turns out, though, that as originally released, Kiss Me Deadly ended (WARNING!) with Mike and Velda clearly escaping — wading through the surf and looking back to see the villains of iniquity get vaporized. (END OF WARNING!) The few seconds extra footage that showed this (along with some shots of a torch singer in a nightclub handling her microphone a bit -ah- suggestively) were scrapped to make room for extra commercials when the film was sold to television, not restored till now.

   So for years, critics, general audiences, and mystery fans have been evaluating this movie and its creator — both of them — plenty subversive enough anyway — based on how they thought Kiss Me Deadly was filmed. And a movie that ends (WARNING!) with its thuggish hero battling through to survival is substantially different from one that seems to end with him possibly destroyed by his own lack of brains. (END OF WARNING)

   Which is what we mean, I guess, when we say “Trust the Tale, not the Teller.” Or something like that. Myself, I kind of like the truncated ending a little better, even if it was accidental. It seems to fit more with the overall mood of the piece. Trust the tale…

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #99, January 1999.


ERIC AMBLER Passage of Arms

  ERIC AMBLER – Passage of Arms. Bantam F2246, reprint paperback; 1st printing, July 1961. Original hardcover edition: Alfred A. Knopf; March 1960. Reprinted several times since, in both hardcover and soft.

   I am on record elsewhere on this blog in expressing my admiration for the first five pre-war novels Eric Ambler wrote, excluding his first, The Dark Frontier (UK, 1936, and reviewed here ) which wasn’t published in the US until 1990. Even the titles were terrific: Background to Danger, Cause for Alarm, Epitaph for a Spy, A Coffin for Dimitrios, and Journey into Fear (as they were called here in this country). Each of them calls up memories of desperate times and ordinary men who fall into desperate situations.

   But Journey into Fear was published in 1940, followed by a gap of 11 years when Judgment on Delchev appeared. The latter is OK, but I think the hiatus cost Ambler something, or perhaps it was simply that the times were changing. Post-war Europe was not as interesting, spy or adventure-wise, as it was in 1940 and before.

ERIC AMBLER Passage of Arms

   Credit Ambler for changing with the times. Passage of Arms takes place in the Far East, for one thing, Malaya, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and so on, long before anyone here in the US had heard of any of those places. The focus is a weapons cache discovered by a bookkeeping clerk in Malaya, set up several years earlier by Chinese militants and terrorists, and one worth many thousands of dollars today, if it could be gotten into the right hands.

   Enter a tourist named Greg Nilsen, owner of a precision die-casting business in Wilmington, Delaware. He and his wife Dorothy are taking a self-guided trip through that part of the world, and somehow before he realizes exactly how, he finds himself far in over his head as a not-entirely-innocent go-between.

   All to the good, but the story is static and barely moves, and it is clear from nearly the get-go that Nilsen and wife are one of those pairs of non-worldly innocents that nothing serious will happen to. Ambler knows the ins and outs of the underground gun business, and the lack of trust that exists between all of the participating parties, which is gone into in great detail, but if action or suspense is what you’re looking for in a spy novel, this one isn’t it.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

ALAN BRADLEY – Speaking from Among the Bones. Delacorte Press, hardcover, January 2013.

ALAN BRADLEY Flavia de Luce

Genre:  Amateur sleuth. Leading character:   Flavia de Luce, 5th in series. Setting:  England, 1950s.

First Sentence:   Blood dripped from the neck of the severed head and fell in a drizzle of red raindrops, clotting into a ruby pool upon the black and white tiles.

   Pre-teen Flavia de Luce is excited about the opening of the 500-year-old tomb of Saint Tancred and is determined to witness the event. However, the first body uncovered, is that of Mr. Collicutt, the church organist — dead, wearing a gas mask. With her skill at chemistry, detection and a little help, Flavia has yet another murder to solve.

   From the beginning, it is clear that Flavia is a delightful, unusual protagonist. She is 14 and wonderfully irreverent. When discussing how to get a bat out of one of the church organ’s pipes, her suggestion is for her sister to “…play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor? Full throttle. That out to fix the little sod.”

   One cannot help but love her. She is an outsider in her own family. She is brilliant, yet has her insecurities. Her sisters have told her she’s adopted so she collects samples of everyone’s blood to test for matching. Her best friends are Gladys, her bicycle which she anthropomorphizes; and Dogger, the shell-shocked soldier who was with her father during WWII and now works for the family. There is such a wonderful bond between Dogger and Flavia. She is daring, but not fearless.

   It cannot be overlooked that an older man has created such a vibrant, and realistic, young character. In an interview, he talks about how children of that age are undervalued and too much overlooked, yet it’s a wonderful age as they are just on the cusp of adulthood.

   The story is told in first person and Bradley has such a wonderful voice… “Whenever I’m a little blue I think about cyanide, whose color so perfectly reflects my mood.”

   The story is very much character-driven. The series started when Flavia was 11 years old; she is now 14 and we are starting to see her mature. However, those who come
into the series late needn’t worry. Bradley provides sufficient back story for each of the
characters for new readers to know who they are and the relationships between. He also introduces a fascinating new character in the shape of a flora archeologist with a Rolls Royce named Nancy.

   Bradley has a wonderful eye for detail and period. He provides us with a real sense of post-war England, still in the stages of uncertainty about the future. He is also able to make chemistry fascinating.

   Although character drives the story, the plot doesn’t at all suffer for it. We are taken down curious and shadowy paths. We, mistakenly, think we know where we are going, and we’re wrong. We’re given a delightful dessert filled with fascinating tidbits of information, suspense, resolution and a whopping cliffhanger — but not in a bad way — iced with humor and emotion.

   Speaking from Among the Bones lags just a touch in the middle, but finishes with a roar. It is a wonderful book and now ranks among my favorites of the series.

Rating: VG Plus.

      The Flavia de Luce series —

1. The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie (2009)

ALAN BRADLEY Flavia de Luce

2. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (2010)
3. A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011)
4. I Am Half Sick of Shadows (2011)
5. Speaking From Among the Bones (2013)
6. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (2014)

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