June 2015

LAWRENCE G. BLOCHMAN – Midnight Sailing. Harcourt Brace & Co., hardcover, 1938. Dell #43, paperback, mapback edition, 1944. First published as a ten-part serial in Collier’s, 26 February through 30 April 1938 as “Sunset Voyage.”

   If a detective novel doesn’t take place on a transcontinental train the next best thing is on a slow freighter going across the Atlantic or Pacific. It is the latter that’s the setting of Midnight Sailing, on the Japanese ship Kumo-maru with plenty of pre-war jitters in the background.

   The detective of note, although this is the only murder mystery he seems to have been involved in, is foreign correspondent Glen Larkin, whose assignment is to follow Dorothy Bonner, the heretofore missing daughter of a rich silk merchant who committed suicide after being confronted by a Congressional hearing in which he was accused of stealing secret blueprints from the Navy Department.

   Also involved but seemingly not connected are some negotiations for valadium mines in Peru, and the ship is filled with many interesting characters, or ones who act suspiciously enough that any one of hem could be the killer of a stowaway (although he could have died accidentally) and the ship’s doctor (out and out murder).

   Larkin’s actions are somewhat less than professional on this assignment, since he finds Miss Bonner very attractive, and she seems to respond. But among the various other passengers are her brother (the previously mentioned stowaway) and her fiancé. The reader soon begins to wonder if his suspicions about the latter are warranted or if something else has come into play.

   The detective puzzle is good enough, however, that by the end, all of the pieces have fallen neatly into place. But I have to confess I gave up early on who had the plans when or if they were copies and if so, who made them and why. As for the valadium, that seemed to be a red herring, but I will not tell you whether I was correct about that or not.

   The sights and sounds (and smells) on a freighter heading to Honolulu from California are well described and are the primary reasons I enjoyed this one. The puzzle, which got rather muddled along the way, at least for a while, is a bonus. The romantic aspects are there only to keep the story moving.

by Jonathan Lewis

  CAPTAIN AMERICA II: DEATH TOO SOON. Made for TV movie. CBS/Universal Television, 23-24 November 1979. Reb Brown, Connie Sellecca, Len Birman, Christopher Lee, Katherine Justice, Christopher Cary,William Lucking, Stanley Kamel, Ken Swofford, Lana Wood. Based on characters created by Jack Kirby & Joe Simon (uncredited). Director: Ivan Nagy.

   If you want to know why CBS never was able to get a Captain America live-action television show off the ground, look no further than Captain America II: Death Too Soon. This 1979 made-for-TV movie was originally shown in two parts and stars Reb Brown as Steve Rogers/Captain America.

   It’s unevenly paced, clunky, and generally poorly acted. But once you get beyond all that, it’s actually an amusingly cheesy, mindless superhero movie that, whatever its faults, doesn’t rely on CGI for action sequences.

   In perhaps the most unintentional act of subversion ever on the part of a major studio, the character you end up liking the most isn’t Captain America. Patriotism flies out the window, much like Captain America’s motorcycle in the air, for it’s the diabolical criminal mastermind/international terrorist/general badass “Miguel” portrayed by Christopher Lee who’s the star here. (After his portrayal of Scaramanga in 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, casting Lee in this role was quite a coup.)

   Miguel, loosely based on Carlos the Jackal, has a plot that defies both credulity and nature. He’s acquired a biological agent that rapidly advances the aging process and he’s going to use it on American cities unless he gets some cold hard cash.

   I can’t honestly tell you Captain America II: Death Too Soon is a good movie or that it’s even worth seeking out. Consider it a curiosity, a quirky obscurity, something that really shouldn’t have been made, a “what in the world were they thinking” in the studio moment. Even so, my seeing criminal mastermind Miguel (Lee) driving a station wagon while fleeing Captain America was enough to put a smile on my face and overlook the whole absurdity of this pleasantly idiotic attempt at bringing Captain America to American living rooms.


RICHARD HOYT – Whoo? John Denson #5. Tor, hardcover, 1991; reprint paperback, 2000.

   This fifth (after a several-year hiatus) of the Denson books is set against the backdrop of the spotted owl-lumber industry conflict in the Northwest. Denson assists a stranded motorist who turns out to be a federal owl-counter, beds her that night, and goes on to the case that’s brought him to the area.

   She is murdered, he vows vengeance, and (surprise) Denson’s original case turns out to be connected. His sometime partner, native American Willy Prettybird, becomes involved and things move right along to a more or less satisfying finish.

   The owls or trees issue gets a lot of space; more, perhaps, than some readers would wish, even though the issue itself is integral to the plot The explanations are not one-sided, which is refreshing though the author and Denson make it clear where their ultimate sympathies lie.

   I enjoyed the book. Hoyt is an excellent writer who knows how to tell a story, and create sharply defined and interesting characters. Denson is, as always, irreverent and witty. The plot, however, doesn’t bear thinking about very deeply while reading — there are simply too many elements that upon reflection are unlikely, improbable, or just plain silly.

   It isn’t one of Hoyt’s major efforts, but nevertheless recommended.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #1, May 1992.

       The John Denson series

Decoys (1980)

30 for a Harry (1981)
The Siskiyou Two-Step (1983). Published in slightly expanded paperback form as Siskiyou.
Fish Story (1985)

Whoo? (1991)
Bigfoot (1993)
Snake Eyes (1995)

The Weatherman’s Daughters (2003)
Pony Girls (2004)

by Jonathan Lewis

  CRYPT OF THE VAMPIRE. E.I. Associates Producers, Italy, 1964. Original title: La cripta e l’incubo. Christopher Lee, Audry Amber, Ursula Davis, José Campos, Vera Valmont, Angel Midlin. Based on the novel Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (uncredited). Director: Camillo Mastrocinque (as Thomas Miller).

   Fans of horror B-films from the early sixties, rejoice! This one’s got it all: a superbly Gothic atmosphere, witchcraft and Satanism, a family crypt, mysterious murders in the night, and lesbian vampirism.

   Inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire story, Carmilla, and directed by Thomas Miller (Camillo Mastrocinque), Crypt of the Vampire features Christopher Lee (billed with the Italian spelling of his name as Cristopher Lee) as a European nobleman living under the shadow of a family curse.

   Count Ludwig von Karnstein (Lee) is concerned that his lovely daughter is somehow cursed. These things happen when you’ve got a witch as an ancestor, I suppose. But the good Count’s problems seem to multiply. He’s having a dalliance with his chambermaid, further straining his relationship with his daughter. And after a mysterious young woman shows up at the castle, things get even stranger.

   Lee, who did many horror movies in his long and illustrious career, is great in this. His portrayal of the frightened nobleman is spot on, suggesting a man who wants to be in control, but is plunging out of his depth. The camera work, which gives the film an aura of deliberate disorientation, heightens the film’s otherworldly atmosphere.

   I watched a copy on DVD, a version from RetroMedia. Although the film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1:85:1 (and enhanced for 16 x 9), it isn’t always the clearest picture. This is a shame, for Crypt of the Vampire really is a supremely atmospheric Italian thriller, one worth viewing in the best possible format that could be rendered.


WELCOME DANGER. Paramount, 1929, Harold Lloyd, Charles Middleton, Barbara Kent, Noah Young. Directors: Malcolm St. Clair & Clyde Bruckman. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   This Harold Lloyd starrer was originally filmed as a silent, but converted to sound. St. Clair directed the silent version, Bruckman did the sound inserts. (We were told that the silent version is being restored.)

   Harold plays Harold Bledsoe, son of a notable San Francisco police chief, who is called in by the new chief to deal with an outbreak of crime. Harold is a shy botanist who is not what anyone expected and quickly reduces the department to chaos. He does, however, with his sidekick, silent film comic actor Noah Young, stumble onto the Tong’s headquarters and eventually expose do-gooder Middleton as the tong criminal mastermind.

   The film is too long [at 113 minutes], and it is extremely repetitive, but it was Lloyd’s highest grossing film. Not top-flight Lloyd by any means, but the best things in it make me want to see the silent version, which should be shorter and better paced.

M. A. LAWSON – Rosarito Beach. Blue Rider Press, hardcover, December 2013. Signet, paperback, November 2014.

   As Mike Lawson, the author has written a series of nine books about Joe DeMarco, whose claim to fame is is job as a troubleshooter for the Speaker of the House in the US Congress. I haven’t read any of them, nor in fact have I ever seen any for sale. I may be looking in the wrong places, since as you know, I far more favor reading detective stories than I do the present day version of men’s adventure fiction.

   But once in a while I indulge. I recently came across this book I’d bought late last year and totally forgotten about. It’s the first in a nw series of books about female DEA agent Kay Hamilton. She’s the kind of hard-nosed characters who can play act the role of a Miami druglord’s mistress for several months before shooting him in a final confrontation. (This is in her case file, and not this book’s story.)

   Since her male co-workers’ seem to resent her sleeping her way to success in this particular fashion, she’s since been transferred to the San Diego area, where he manages to capture the younger brother of yet another notorious druglord, this one based in Mexico. Which is when all hell hits the fan, as Caesar Olivera is not about to let his brother ever be convicted, no matter how incompetent he is.

    And who is in his way is none other than Kay Hamilton.

   This is one of those books in which the only way that bad guys can get away with their evil things is to do dumb things. What of course evens things out is that the bad guys do dumb things too.

   It’s all pretty predictable stuff, in other words, especially when a 15-year-old girl comes knocking on Kay’s door, telling her that she’s her daughter and that she has nowhere to go and has to move in with her. Kay is not thrilled.

   But does that give Olivera the edge he needs? You bet.

   Lawson has an easy, fluid writing style that makes the well over 400 pages go very quickly. On that basis alone, I might even read another in the series, but mitigating against that is that by book’s end Kay has worn out her welcome at the DEA, and at the beginning of the next book (showcased at the end of this one) she’s in training for her next job for some sort of super-secret spy organization. I found Kay’s resourceful daughter more interesting as a character than Kay herself, and to tell you the truth, super-secret spy organizations are a dime a dozen these days.

by Jonathan Lewis

   With Christopher Lee’s recent passing, I thought it would be worthwhile to seek out some of the veteran actor’s more obscure, or at least lesser discussed, films. Lee was in many films, over 250 according to IMDb, in fact. Some were great, some were good, and others were downright forgettable. All except for one thing: Lee was in them. And that’s one thing that made Christopher Lee so special. No matter how silly, campy, or mediocre the film, Lee’s singular presence, coupled with his distinct bass voice, shined through.

THE TERROR OF THE TONGS. Hammer Films, UK, 1961; Columbia, US, 1961. Christopher Lee, Yvonne Monlaur, Geoffrey Toone, Marne Maitland, Brian Worth, Ewen Solon, Roger Delgado, Richard Leech. Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster. Director: Anthony Bushell.

   Such was the case in The Terror of the Tongs, a considerably dated movie about the Red Dragon Tong, a secret, violent Chinese criminal gang terrorizing the residents of British Hong Kong. Set in 1910, the story is nominally about a British man, Captain Jackson Sale (Geoffrey Toone) who seeks to avenge the death of his sixteen year old daughter at the hands of the Tongs. It’s sort of like Death Wish or Taken before these movies were even thought of by their respective writers.

   But who’s kidding whom?

   With laughably clumsy dialogue and borderline incompetent direction, the movie really is worth watching for one reason and one reason only.

   It’s to see Christopher Lee in his portrayal of Chung King, the leader of the Hong Kong branch of the Red Dragon Tong. Although many contemporary viewers might bristle at the sight of tall Englishman of Italian heritage portraying a Chinese criminal mastermind, it’s worth noting that Lee’s performance in The Terror of the Tongs really transcends ethnicity. He’s just a villain and a captivating one at that. (Thankfully, he doesn’t speak in a faux “Chinese” accent, if you know what I mean.)

   So, while it might seem odd to begin a tribute to Lee with this otherwise forgettable film, I did so to prove a point. That there are a lot of films out there, some rarely written about or discussed anymore, where Lee towers over, both figuratively and literally, the whole production. He will be missed.

William F. Deeck

STUART PALMER – The Puzzle of the Silver Persian. Doubleday/Crime Club, hardcover, 1934. Dell #18, paperback, mapback edition, 1943. Bantam, paperback, 1986. Rue Morgue Press, trade paperback, 2010.

   Miss Hildegarde Withers is spending the reward money from the last investigation she was involved in on a trip to Europe.

   Unfortunately, she is seasick the first few days of the voyage and misses out on the activities that presumably drive a young lady to suicide by leaping off the ship six hundred miles from shore.

   Or was the young lady pushed or pulled off the ship? The bar steward is accused of murdering her and takes cyanide in full view of the police. This clears up the case, in the minds of some.

   Later on, however, the ship’s passengers who dined at the table with the no-longer-presumed suicide start getting black-bordered warnings. Then one of her tablemates dies, seemingly by accident. Another comes near death by poisoned cigarettes, obviously not a fortuitous circumstance.

   Miss Withers investigates — and mucks it up, as far as I’m concerned. She also, at least in this novel, is a creature without personality. Stuart Palmer, it would seem, assumes either that his readers will know Miss Withers well and he doesn’t have to expend energy establishing her reality or that it really doesn’t matter if she’s not a distinct individual.

   Also not believable is the pharmacopeia aboard the ship. It contains potassium of cyanide and, apparently, sodium of cyanide. What fearsome distempers these are intended to cure is left to the imagination.

   There is, in addition, a chief inspector of Scotland Yard who tastes the contents of the jar in which the potassium of cyanide is supposed to be. A trifle foolhardy, one would think.

   For puzzle lovers — and those who like novels in which cats figure prominently — only.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 4, July-August 1987.

THE SPHINX. Monogram Pictures, 1933. Lionel Atwill, Sheila Terry, Theodore Newton, Paul Hurst, Luis Alberni, Robert Ellis. Director: Phil Rosen.

   If you’re a fan of Lionel Atwill, you’re sure to enjoy his sly and almost creepy performance as the deaf and dumb mastermind killer known as “The Sphinx” in this early, low budget crime film. If not, you may end up scratching your head when it’s over and asking yourself what on earth were they thinking?

   The gimmick is that after killing his latest stockbroker victim, the latest in a series of stockbroker victims, he walks up to the night watchman, asks him for a match and then what time it is. When the case goes to trial, an unimpeachable medical witness verifies that the accused killer can indeed neither speak nor hear, and he is obviously and immediately acquitted.

   Not believing the medical evidence for a minute is reporter Jack Burton (Theodore Newton), while his would-be girl friend Jerry Crane (Sheila Terry), the society and/or special features writer for the same paper, thinks Atwill is being unfairly persecuted. Well, one thing we know is that she will be in danger in way or another before the movie is over, and that in spite of their minor tiffs, the two lovers will be in each other’s arms when it is.

   That much is a given, and it’s about as much fun to wait and watch for both of these eventualities to occur as it always is, no snark intended. But the Sphinx’s modus operandi makes little sense, and he deserves to be caught as easily as he is, which you should also take as a given.

   But Lionel Atwood’s performance is worth a watch. Even if he has no dialogue for most of the movie, his body language, eye movement and the muscles in his face are so finally tuned they deserve an award in themselves, even if there’s category they would fit into.

NOTE: For a re-evaluation of the story line on my part, be sure to read Comment #3.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


HIDDEN GUNS. Republic, 1956. Bruce Bennett, Richard Arlen, Faron Young, John Carradine, Angie Dickinson. Written by Samuel Roeca and Al Gannaway. Director: Al Gannaway.

   This ain’t much good, but it’s off-beat enough to keep you watching. Bruce Bennett stars as a slimy saloon owner, complete with fancy vest, a cadre of dog-heavies, and dreams of a western empire founded on the land he steals from honest folk. Richard Arlen is Sheriff Ward Young, trying to round up a witness to Bennett’s latest atrocity, and country singer Faron Young is his son Faron (get it?) Angie Dickinson is the pretty young heroine with not much to do.

   Plot-wise, there may be a few surprises tossed into the formula, but it’s still a western-by-rote. The stunt work is up to the classic Republic standard, and the only real irritant is an off-screen chorus occasionally bursting into doggerel to sing us what we already know, like,

“The Sher-riff had to find his man,
To tes-ti-fy,
And make a stand….”


   But Hidden Guns leaps out of the ordinary the minute John Carradine comes on, laughing it up as a hired gun named Snipe Harding, making corny jokes, bursting into song, and generally having a fun time, as in:

    “How old are you, sonny?”


    “You should be ashamed! At your age, I was fourteen.”

   Actually, some of Carradine’s dialogue is so good — and delivered with such relish — I suspect he may have written it himself (or borrowed it from his friend W. C. Fields) certainly nothing else in the writers’ or director’s oeuvre suggests such talent for bizarre zaniness.

   The rest of the crowd is nothing but solid. Richard Arlen, a western stalwart since The Virginian (1929) is reliably heroic as the beleaguered lawman, Faron Young makes an adequate juvenile lead, and Angie Dickenson fills her nothing part rather well. Bruce Bennett plays his raffish baddie like an actor who knows he’s stuck in B-mnovies, and it adds an edge of nasty desperation that works here.

   It’s Carradine’s show, though, and he makes a rather ordinary thing worthy of note.

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