December 2015

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

KATHRYN HEISENFELT – Ann Sheridan and the Secret of the Sphinx. Whitman, hardcover, 1943. Illustrated by Henry E. Vallely.

   If it were dark and the lights were on, the neon display would be much more effective. But even now, swaying from the suspended black bar, it did have the look of an old sampler. Since she turned the last corner, Ann Sheridan had kept her eyes on it, eagerly, expectantly. She thought to herself, “Tess has come up another notch in the world. And I’m glad — glad!”

   Again, braving the ferocity of the wind, she was forced to bend her head, to put her free hand to the small blue hat atop the gold-spun hair that fell almost to her shoulders. In her left hand, her spacious bag was cradled against her side. The gold tweed suit, with its short fitted jacket and wide striped scarf, was intended for lamb-like weather. But March in Coreyville, Ann decided emphatically, was on the lion side.

   In this age of the celebrity, we think we have seen everything, but truth is there is nothing new under the celebrity sun when it comes to exploiting fame. Whitman, the people behind the Big Little Book, came up with a series of books for older readers in the 1940‘s, and beyond the usual cowboy stars, and comic strip heroes they carried it one step farther with adventures of Hollywood stars like Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers, Deanna Durbin, John Payne, and others.

   This one features the Ooompf Girl from Denton, Texas, red-haired Ann Sheridan, who visits her friend Tess Whitehouse at her new beauty salon and soon finds herself up to her pretty neck in a mystery involving a mysterious Egyptian Sphinx cult:

   She saw now that the man’s face was a deep reddish tan. Black hair grew back from a high forehead. He was facing the light from a wall lamp, and his cheek bones seemed to jut out in a sunken face. His eyes were snapping black and mercilessly intent. Ann pulled her gaze from those eyes and in a brief moment studied the unusual clothing, the long-sleeved, black embroidered coat that hung loosely, the baggy dark trousers, gathered tight at the ankles. Around the man’s waist was a wide, red sash. Tucked in the sash was a curved knife, sharp and shining.

   Without knowing it, Ann’s hand that held the key came up to her mouth. She felt her heart mounting in her throat, almost exploding with her terror. She heard a strange, strangled cry and knew it was her own voice.

   With a leap like a panther’s, the man was at her side. Fingers of steel closed over her mouth. Wings seemed to beat over her head, faster, faster, the whirl of sound growing so that all thought, all fear was drowned out.

   Of course Ann solves the mystery with help of an attractive young man named Crunch, without the slightest hint of romance, but well within the B movie mystery formula the book falls into.

   The best part of the book are the attractive illustrations by Henry Vallely, the king of the Big Little Book illustrators whose work graced the adventures of the Lone Ranger, Tom Mix, the Green Hornet, and the Big Little Books own superhero, Maximo. His illustrations are outstanding examples of the art, more than can be said of the story.

   Other adventures in this series include Betty Grable and The House With The Iron Shutters, John Payne and the Menace at Hawk’s Nest, Jane Withers and the Phantom Violin, Judy Garland and the Hoodoo Costume, Ann Rutherford and the Key to Nightmare Hall, Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak, and Deanna Durbin and the Feather of Flame.

   It may strike you almost all of these titles fall into the mystery genre in one way or another. If most are like this they are simple low level reads for slightly older children — eight and up — along the line of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys or the Rover Boys and Frank Merriwell before them.

   There is a little mystery, a few minor scares, and a bit of action. I grant this one is more collectable than readable, but its worth the effort if only for the handsome Vallely illustrations.

   Looking at Harry Potter, Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider, and the Hunger Games we can at least note how young adult literature has improved. We can consider ourselves lucky we don’t have to deal with Justin Beiber and the Jailer’s Daughter or Myley Cyrus and the Obscene Gesture.

FIND THE LADY. Major Pictures/J. Arthur Rank, UK, 1956. Donald Houston, Beverley Brooks, Mervyn Johns, Kay Callard, Maurice Kaufmann, Edwin Richfield, Moray Watson, Ferdy Mayne, Anne Heywood. Director: Charles Saunders.

   I’ve categorized this old obscure British movie as a crime film, but in all honesty, it’s played a lot more for comedy than it is for thrills. To summarize quickly, though: when the starring lady (Beverley Brooks, as a fashion model from London) goes to spend New Year’s Eve with her godmother out in the country, she finds that the old lady has disappeared.

   But before that she has a funny (and perhaps at the time hilarious) encounter with the local doctor (Donald Houston) when their paths cross while their automobiles traverse a watersplash (a shallow ford in a stream) in opposite directions. The end result is the doctor falling face first into the water while the young lady’s car stalls and she has to walk into the local village for help.

   When the missing woman’s brother-in-law (Mervyn Johns) answers the door, getting back to the kidnapping, for that is what it is from the get-go, he says that she has been taken to a nursing home for seclusion and rest. We, of course, know that something is wrong right away. The old woman’s cane is there, her dog is there, and the replacement “maid” (Kay Callard) looks more like a gangster’s moll than I imagine that any gangster’s moll in the real world ever did. (She’s the one on the far right in the photo above.)

   The young woman and the doctor hit it off very well, and they decide to investigate together. Complicating matters is Miss June Weston’s other suitor (Moray Watson) who comes down from London to add some comedy relief to the proceedings.

   Most of the names I have dropping are totally new to me. I’d have thought, though, that Beverley Brooks (the beautiful brunette above and up at the top crowded into the phone booth with the doctor) would have had a longer career, but she didn’t. This movie, perhaps her only starring role, was the last one of her career.

   But you may noticed Anne Heywood’s name in the credits. She plays the receptionist at the inn (see the photo above) in this, only her second film. She’s very easy on the eyes as well.

William F. Deeck

JOHN FARR – The Deadly Combo. Ace Double D-301, paperback original, 1958. Bound back-to-back with Murder Isn’t Funny, by J. Harvey Bond.

   Two factors militate against this novel for me: I am not all that fond of the hard-boiled mystery and listening to jazz I find painful. Despite my biases, I must conclude that John Farr, a pseudonym of Jack Webb, has written a dandy novel.

   Mac Stewart. whose position on the Los Angeles police force I don’t quite understand — he’s a plainclothes detective who cruises just like a patrolman — has been a jazz enthusiast since he used to sit in alleys listening to tin pan in a noisy speakeasy. Stewart’s love for the music drew him to Dandy Mullens, a former jazz great, from whom he learned a great deal. When Mullens is found stabbed to death in another alley, Stewart investigates on his own.

   As I said, this is a hard-boiled novel, but Farr often approaches poetry in his writing. particularly when he is dealing with jazz. It’s somewhat fair play, also, though Stewart is helped by the murderer — at least the first one — being not too bright.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 1990, “Musical Mysteries.”

Bibliographic Notes:   First of all, the Jack Webb who wrote this book is not the radio-TV-movie actor Jack Webb. There was a lot of confusion about this in the early days of mystery fiction fandom (and elsewhere I’m sure). The Jack Webb who wrote this book was the author of eleven mystery novels under his own name, nine of them with the unlikely sleuthing pair of Father Joseph Shanley and Sammy Golden.

   As John Farr, Webb wrote five more crime and detective novels, two of them with a series character named Cy Clements, about whom I know nothing. The Deadly Combo was Mac Stewart’s only appearance.

JACK LISTON – Man Bait. Dell First Edition B158, paperback original, June 1960.

   Unless you’re collector of paperback books for their covers, you’ve probably never heard of Jack Liston. Man Bait may have been the only book he wrote under that name. But according to his online biography at Bowling Green University, where his literary papers are held — under his real name Ralph Maloney (1927-73) — he wrote six books and “was a contributor of short stories to The Atlantic Monthly and other periodicals. He also wrote documentary film scripts for British television.”

   The only other novel he wrote that’s included in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, though, is The Nixon Recession Caper (Norton, 1972), which sounds interesting enough, I suppose, but I don’t think it warrants a cover like the one you see above and to the right. It’s truly a work of art, and no wonder. It’s by famed artist Robert Maguire, whose covers invariable featured some of the most beautiful women in the world. (Follow the link and scroll down.)

   Unfortunately neither the title nor the cover are really all that appropriate. Bill Madden, who tells his own story, is a seaman by trade who finds himself in New York City longer than he expected. He’s recovering from an allergic reaction to a bad dose of penicillin, which was designed to cure the clap, and where he got the latter, he declines to say.

   Working as a bartender in a joint across from his hotel is Marcia, she of the “angry apple upthrust breasts,” and before the evening is over, she is up in his hotel room, staying the night. It’s an unusual type of affair. Each in their way is dependent on the other. Love may come into it, but these two are real people, with real concerns and desires, and romance is not really at the top of either of their priorities, not at first, at least.

   Marcia is not at all pretty. Bill describes her as a stringy sort, and he never sees her as attractive. But she knows the city inside and out, including some marginal underworld characters, and by association, some not so marginal. Bill’s other problem, besides hands and feet that swell when he is too active, is that he is a gambler, and gambling is no way to make a living when he can’t get back to his ship at sea.

   He hits bottom on page 110. What else is there to do but try his hand at crime? Up to now, we the reader may not have known where the story is heading, even with an itchy under-the-skin sort of suspense that’s continually been building up, but from this point one, now we know for sure, and there’s no turning back.

   As a bit of a warning, though, it may take some patience to get to this point. The downhill spiral the two almost-lovers find themselves in is developed oh-ever-so slowly and carefully. It is in their nature and the flaws in their characters that makes their destiny all the more predetermined and real — painfully so.

   I enjoyed this one. And what the heck. Here’s the cover again:

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN. 1945. Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Barbara Mullen, Dennis Price. Screenplay by Brock Williams and Osbert Sitwell, based on the latter’s novel. Directed by Bernard Knowles.

   This quiet little British film is both a ghost story and a murder mystery, but done in such a subtle civilized style minus any melodrama that you might miss that. You shouldn’t. It is a fine subtle film that features fine performances and a strong affecting story.

   James Mason and Barbara Mullen are the Smedhursts, an older couple, he retired from business, who move into a quiet home in the country where they hire Annette, Margaret Lockwood, as a companion who soon becomes like their daughter, and when young Dr. Selbie (Dennis Price) begins to woo her it seems as if all will live happily ever after, but there is something waiting for them that cannot be ignored.

   It seems their lovely home is haunted by the spirit of a young woman who was murdered, her death unsolved, and this restless spirit soon begins to influence Annette, who grows ill, and whose life is soon at stake unless hard headed pragmatic Mr. Smedhurst and young Dr. Selbie can lay the ghost and the murderer with a bit of detective work.

   It is hard to describe how charming and low key this film is, with Mason, at the time labeled the “man women loved to hate” for his sexy dangerous leads in films like The Man in Gray, The Wicked Lady, and The Seventh Veil, heavily made up against type as a practical aging middle class businessman who applies his level head to laying a ghost and saving a young woman. Everyone is good in the film, but it is Mason who carries the weight, and carries it effortlessly.

   This is a charming drama with more than a few touches of gentle humor, far from a thriller, and certainly not scary, but none the less a fine cinematic ghost story that manages to make the haunting quite real while never indulging in the usual trappings of the ghost story.

   A Place of One’s Own may be too low key for some, but I found it an intelligent and entertaining exercise in literate, well acted, and intelligent cinematic storytelling professionally and charmingly presented by all involved. Once you get into it this film will hold you effortlessly to the final scene.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF

BLAST OF SILENCE. Universal, 1961. Written, directed by and starring Allen Baron. With Molly McCarthy, Larry Tucker and Peter Clune.

   A Christmas movie for noir fans and nostalgia buffs alike, and one that’s hard to forget.

   Back in the late 50s/early 60s — the time of the “New Wave” in France — there were quite a few American film-makers doing meaningful, personal, sometimes daring work on the ragged fringes of Hollywood: Minimalist Westerns like Ride Lonesome and Terror in a Texas Town, off-beat horrors such as Bucket of Blood and The Tingler, and memorable low-budget thrillers like Underworld USA, Murder by Contract and Blast of Silence.

   When I say that viewing Blast of Silence is like watching a bad accident in slow motion, it sounds like a put-down, but there’s really no other way to describe the sick sensation this simple tale evokes: A hit-man arrives in New York at Christmas to carry out a contract that somehow slips out of control. We know what’s going to happen from the first shot, and there’s nothing we can do but watch, in the words of one critic, “a man playing out his role and quietly awaiting his inexorable betrayal.”

   Along the way, there are some really atmospheric moments, striking photography — including location shots of Harlem, 42nd Street and Times Square at Christmas that seem like artifacts now. There are edgy/jovial grown-up Christmas parties, 1960s-style; cold snowless streets decked out for the Holidays; and some really fine acting by performers who shoulda been contenders:

   Larry Tucker is perfectly loathsome as a rat-loving double-crosser, but his only other role of note in the movies is “Pagliacci” in Shock Corridor; Mary McCarthy projects the same sensitive, intelligent femininity she projected in The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (another neglected treasure from the same period), and as for Allen Baron, his acting has an unforced naturalism about it that matches his writing and direction very effectively indeed.

   As far as the other credits, the only name you’d recognize is Lionel Stander, who does the voice-over narration (oddly, in the 2nd-person) which was written by Waldo Salt, who deserves a footnote here: Salt was blacklisted in the McCarthy era (he is billed here as “Mel Davenport”) but the ordeal seems to have done him some good; his pre-blacklist films are competent but unmemorable things like The Bride Wore Red and The Flame and the Arrow, but afterwards he went on to respected work like Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and Coming Home.

   No such luck for Allen Baron, however. Blast of Silence remains an intriguing but obscure film — and perhaps the bleakest Christmas Movie ever.



THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. “The Project Strigas Affair.” NBC; 24 November 1964 (Season 1, Episode 9). Robert Vaughn (Napoleon Solo), David McCallum (Illya Kuryakin), Leo G. Carroll (Alexander Waverly). Guest Cast: William Shatner, Peggy Ann Garner, Werner Klemperer, Leonard Nimoy. Director: Joseph Sargent.

   Directed by Joseph Sargent (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), “The Project Strigas Affair” surely deserves a special place in the annals of television history and popular culture. A lighthearted first season The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode filmed in black and white, it features both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as guest stars. This would be the first and only time they appeared together in a scripted series prior to helming the Starship Enterprise.

   It also co-stars Werner Klemperer, who would go on to portray Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes. Seeing all of these faces, along with Robert Vaughn and David McCallum (who is still going strong on CBS as Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on NCIS), is a real treat for those of us who grew up watching reruns of not only this quirky spy show, but also Star Trek and aforementioned Hogan’s Heroes.

   In this episode, U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin concoct a devious plan in order to neutralize a non-Soviet Bloc Eastern European ambassador, Lalso Kurasov (Klemperer) intent on foisting the United States and the Soviet Union into an unwinnable global conflict.

   They enlist the assistance of chemist-turned-pest-exterminator, Michael Donfield (Shatner) and his wife. Solo and Kuryakin hope to employ Donfield to lure Kurasov with the promise of a chemical compound that would be highly useful to Kurasov’s country. It’s the “false secret” routine, but it works exceedingly well as a plot device.

   But things aren’t going to be so simple. First of all, Kurasov is foolish, but not quite as big a fool as Solo and Kuryakin would have hoped. More significantly, Kurasov’s deputy, Vladeck (Nimoy) has his eye on Kurasov’s job and is no pushover when it comes to dirty dealing and high stakes espionage.

   Although there are a few plot holes, “The Project Strigas Affair” is overall a successful episode and one that skillfully includes enough humor and suspense to keep you watching. Sure, it’s silly at times, but who cares. For his part, Shatner comes less like the Captain Kirk character he’d soon play on Star Trek and more like the post-Trek Shatner, the one who was more than comfortable in mocking his celebrity persona.

   It makes you wonder: how many people, upon watching the first episode of Gene Roddenberry’s legendary science fiction series, said to themselves, “wait, weren’t those two guys just on a The Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode?”

NOTE:   The episode can currently be seen online here.


STANLEY ELLIN “The Day of the Bullet.” First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1959. Reprinted in The Blessington Method (Random House, 1974) and The Specialty of the House (Mysterious Press, 1980). Also included in Brooklyn Noir 2: The Classics (Akashic Books, Tim McLoughlin ed., 2005). Adapted for television: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 14 February 1960 (Season 5, Episode 20); teleplay: Bill S. Ballinger. Nominated for an MWA Edgar, Best Short Story, 1960.

   That’s a long list of bibliographic data, one nearly as long as my comments are going to be. The story that won the Edgar that year was “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl, which I do not remember reading, so I can only conjecture, but Dahl’s story must have been a doozy to beat out this one.

   Stanley Ellin wrote a number of novels, but if he’s remembered today, it will be for his short stories, which he wrote at a rate of once a year. Inevitably they were gems of story-telling as polished as they could be, including this one.

   It’s the story of two 12-year-olds growing up in Brooklyn until they were separated when parents of the narrator of the tale moved to Brooklyn in 1923. They never saw each other again, but the teller of story recognizes his former friend when his bloody photos is published in the newspaper, some 35 years later.

   It turns out their last adventure together was a trip to a nearby golf course fishing for lost balls, when they witness a guy being beaten up by a pair of gangsters. Iggy, the friend, wants to tell the police, and so they both do, but what happens from that point on was the turning point in Iggy’s life.

   This deeply noirish tale is also a story of growing up, of making the wrong decision in life, but one you don’t realize at the time. It’s a warning story, of sorts, not really a sad one, as it’s told at a solid distance away, chronologically, but it could be if you think about it for a while.

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