December 2015

KATHARINE HILL – Case for Equity. E. P. Dutton; hardcover; 1945. Digest paperback reprint: Mystery Novel Classic #74, as The Case of the Absent Corpse, 1946.

   This is the second half of a two-part series on Katharine Hill’s complete works of mystery fiction. Dear Dead Mother-in-Law (Dutton, 1944), Lorna Donahue’s first foray into fighting crime, was reported on here on this blog not too long along, and this is her second. As of yet, no additional information has been discovered about the author, but not all of the available resources have been exhausted, so there is still hope.

   The two books take place in consecutive summers, but if Katharine Hill had another summer (and another mystery to be solved) in mind, it (or they) unfortunately never materialized. Once again the red-headed suburban Connecticut widow, married four times, gets on the wrong side of the local law, in the guise of Chief of Police Starkey, first by parking in an illegal spot in front of the post office, then by calling him out to a isolated home in the country where she’s found a body – but when he gets there, there is no body to be found.

   The owner of the house is an actor, one with a role in a local play, and when he doesn’t show up later for work, it is, of course, a “Case for Equity.” But is the dead body, the one that disappeared, his? Lorna does not know, and so she goes to work, determined to show Sharkey what’s what.

   From page 20, as she finds the house empty the next day:

   And what a glorious opportunity for an amateur detective – to have the scene of the crime all to herself without any interfering officers of the law shouldering about, collecting and removing clues to be numbered exhibits later; obliterating all the subtle indications that might tell much to a perceptive woman, in their eagerness not to overlook the smallest material evidence – the dropped button, the cigar or cigarette ash, the bullet embedded in the woodwork!

   Later on, from page 33:

   Surely no professional detective had ever had such a difficult task as this self-assumed one of hers. With the corpse just briefly glimpsed once, and not available for examination, without knowledge of the nature of the wound or the weapon used – her horrified mind had merely registered that there was a lot of blood about – with no fingerprints or other regulation aids, this mystery must be solved, if at all, by psychological methods, by intuition rather than by deduction – perhaps by nothing more scientific than that leap across probabilities to the truth which is known as a hunch.

   As even the most seasoned mystery reader knows, without my reminding him or her, it is also awfully difficult to solve a murder when one does not even know who the dead man is. And to Lorna’s credit, her efforts are … not awful. There are pieces of manuscript salvaged from a fire, and a letter from the missing man (who may be the dead man) which may or may not be forgery. There are also intricate time-tables describing the whereabouts of all of the interested parties, a poker chip left fortuitously under an table, and more.

   In similar fashion to her previous mystery, Mrs. Donahue takes the missing man’s widow (?) under her wing, and simply moves in with her to facilitate her investigation. There is much of interest to the inveterate mystery buff here, and a very clever plot to be uncovered, so why it just doesn’t work is also a mystery. Part of the reason, though, may be because of the extremely narrow group of people who take an active role this time around.

   Even the old-fashioned kind of mysteries that invariably take place in isolated English country house mansions have more active suspects and/or active players than Case for Equity does. It’s a closed set, and after a while, even in the wide-open Connecticut countryside, the reading starts to feel cramped. (In Dear Dead Mother-in-Law the town of Ridgemont seemed filled with people. Not so now. It could almost be a ghost town.)

   While this book has all of the right elements, in other words, they’re not spread around thickly enough and/or they’re simply not laid out properly, without the tight Christie-like control over events. It’s another case of almost, but not quite, and with no intention of being unkind at all, that could also be easily said of Katharine Hill’s writing career. Other the other hand, you should not get me wrong. Read her if you get the chance. Neither of her works of detective fiction deserves obscurity either.

— April 2005

Written by Townes Van Zandt, “No Place to Call” is the title track of Kathleen Grace’s 2013 CD.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF

TENNESSEE’S PARTNER. RKO, 1955. John Payne, Rhonda Fleming, Ronald Reagan and Coleen Gray. Written by Milton Krims and D. D. Beauchamp, based on the story by Bret Harte (Overland Monthly, 1869). Photography by John Alton. Directed by Alan Dwan.

   An elegant little Western: maybe a bit short on action, but fun nonetheless and even a bit poignant in parts.

   Director Alan Dwan was in the movies almost since they started, with classics to his credit from Robin Hood (1923) to Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) with stops along the way for Shirley Temple in Heidi and the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla, but he is perhaps most fondly remembered for a series of medium-to-low-budget films he did for producer Benedict Bogeaus in the 1950s of which Tennessee’s Partner may be the most charming.

   Loosely (and I mean very loosely) based on a Bret Harte story, with the dubious charisma of John Payne and Ronald Reagan to carry it along, Partner moves a bit sluggishly at first; Payne is Tennessee, a cynical gambler who likes no one, and Reagan (looking a bit long in the tooth for the part) is a naïve cowpoke (that’s his name: Cowpoke) who likes everyone. When Cowpoke saves Tennessee’s life in a rigged gunfight and the two of them land in jail, they become unlikely friends and partners — hence the title of the piece.

   The plot gels a bit when Cowpoke’s fiancée (Coleen Gray) shows up and Payne recognizes her as a mercenary little tramp … and proceeds to run off with her, leaving Reagan in the proverbial lurch and looking something of a chump. Payne quickly dumps Gray however, and returns to settle up with his partner, since he did it all for Cowpoke’s sake anyway.

   So far so dull, and I think if I were a little kid at the movies in those days, I’d have been mighty restless by now. But then things pick up sharply, with a stolen gold claim, murder, a lynch mob out after the unpopular Tennessee, and enough chasin’ shooton’ and fightin’ to fill the quota of any B-Western.

   I should especially note the rich Technicolor photography of John Alton, a painter-with-light whose work highlighted films across the spectrum from He Walked by Night to Elmer Gantry, and makes Tennessee’s Partner a joy to look at even when there’s nothing going on.

   John Payne manages to inject a pleasing bit of rattiness into the character of Tennessee, and Coleen Gray, memorable in Red River and Nightmare Alley, makes a fine trollop, but the prize for Screen Presence here goes to Rhonda Fleming as Tennessee’s girlfriend and owner of the local brothel, an opulent establishment that advertises itself as a Matrimonial Bureau. When Coleen Gray enters and remarks, “I’ve never been in a place so beautiful!” Rhonda replies knowingly, “I think you’ll feel right at home!”

Annie Sellick is the guest vocalist on the CD Low Standards by Steve Shapiro & Pat Bergeson (2005).


JOHN MALCOLM – Sheep, Goats and Soap. Tim Simpson #8. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1992. First published in the UK by Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1991.

   I’m a Tim Simpson fan, and it has been a continuing source of irritation to me that the American paperbacks are so far behind in the series — four books now, with this one. Simpson is an ex-rugby player who works for a London merchant bank as one of the Trustees of their Art Fund, and is resident expert`of same. He is married (finally) to Sue, who has alternated between being his lover and the bane of his existence in the earlier books in the series. She is an art historian for the Tate.

   Tim receives a letter from an old rugby acquaintance, hinting at art treasures to be acquired, and making reference to sheep, goats, and soap. These are, it develops, terms used in connection with the pre-Raphaelite group of artists. You’ll have to read the book to understand the exact relevance of the terms, assuming that you don’t already know.

   Tim and Sue hie themselves off to Hastings in search of the acquaintance, and arrive just after his cottage has been blown off a cliff. He himself is missing but there are two corpses discovered in the ruins. They encounter an old nemesis, Inspector Foster, who is less than pleased by their appearance. The plot eventually involves Simpson’s old Scotland Yard rugby chum, Nobby Roberts, and (much to Sue’s displeasure) an old one-afternoon stand of Tim’s.

   The Simpson books appeal to me on several levels. Oddly, one is the painless but quite interesting historical lore about whatever the focus of the current book happens to be. Odd because though I’m reasonably interested in the history of painting, I have almost no interest at all in sculpture and antique furniture; both of which have been the subject of earlier books.

   Malcolm is a founding member of the Antique Collector’s Club, and his love of the subject is evident. Most importantly, though, I like his way of telling a story. He keeps the action moving along while at the same time developing his characters and throwing in the odd bit of art history. And finally, of course, I like Tim Simpson as a leading man.

   It all adds up to a very good series, and a very good current offering. I recommend them all.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #3, September 1992.

      The Tim Simpson series —

1. A Back Room in Somers Town (1984)

2. The Godwin Sideboard (1984)
3. The Gwen John Sculpture (1985)
4. Whistler in the Dark (1986)
5. Gothic Pursuit (1987)

6. Mortal Ruin (1988)
7. The Wrong Impression (1990)
8. Sheep, Goats and Soap (1991)
9. A Deceptive Appearance (1992)

10. The Burning Ground (1993)
11. Hung over (1994)

12. Into the Vortex (1996)
13. Simpson’s Homer (2001)
14. Circles and Squares (2003)
15. Rogues’ Gallery (2005)

THE SAINT: THE BRAZILIAN CONNECTION. Made-for-TV movie, UK, ITV/LWT, 2 September 1989; US, syndicated. One hour and forty minutes. Simon Dutton (Simon Templar), Gayle Hunnicutt, David Ryall (Inspector Teal), Simon Rouse, Jenifer Landor. Based on the character created by Leslie Charteris. Screenplay: Anthony Horowitz. Director: Ian Toynton.

   This was a disappointment, to put it mildly. That this was the first of only six made-for-TV movies featuring The Saint could have been a bit of a warning — if the series had been successful, why weren’t there more?

   There are a lot of credentials involved on the production end. Among other TV productions, screenwriter Anthony Horowitz is best known now for Foyle’s War, and director Ian Toynton has an equally long list of movie he had a final say on.

   You can’t blame the story on the lead, Simon Dutton, although he seems to have only two expressions in this film, sour and dour. No, make that three. Once in a while he has three. On occasion he has the temerity to look puzzled.

   No carefree sense of adventure in his portrayal of The Saint, no gleam in his eye when one of his capers is about to come to fruition. I imagine I was spoiled by Roger Moore in the role, although George Sanders was pretty good, too.

   Maybe it’s that the story in its basics is dull. Baby smuggling from Brazil, that’s the “connection” the title of this episode comes from. The opening setup has to do with two other cases before this one gets down to business: a stolen diamond tiara and a showing of ancient Chinese sculptures (fake) are far more interesting, but both are forgotten once two lower level bad guys steal a baby off a busy London street.

   There is a philosophy of film-making that is very common but which puzzles me quite a bit, and I’ll see if I can describe what I mean. When there are sequences in a film designed to set up the story and background, the pace of the movie is slow, unhurried and deliberate. But when the action starts, what happens on the screen flashes by so quickly, zip, zip, zip and what was it that just happened? Who knows. Maybe what happened will be explained in the next scene, and maybe it won’t.

   Some of what happened in The Brazilian Connection is still a mystery to me, including how on earth Templar and his lady friend find themselves running up and down inside the Thames Barrier to order to stop a yacht from making its way through. An interesting action sequence, to be sure, but as it turns out, the whole scene has nothing to do with how the bad guys are caught.

   Will I watch another. as long as I have a complete set of the first three of these movies? Well, I did like the gentleman who plays Inspector Teal (David Ryall), whose quasi-friendship simply chafes the sensibilities of his superior at New Scotland Yard (Simon Rouse).

   There were a lot of Simon’s involved in the whole production, weren’t there?


THE UNDEFEATED. 20th Century Fox, 1969. John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Antonio “Tony” Aguilar, Roman Gabriel, Marian McCargo, Lee Meriwether, Merlin Olsen, Melissa Newman, Bruce Cabot, Jan-Michael Vincent, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Paul Fix, Royal Dano. Director: Andrew V. McLaglen.

   Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, The Undefeated features two of Hollywood’s leading men, some breathtaking outdoor vistas, and a John Ford sensibility. All that, however, cannot compensate for a lackluster script. The movie takes far too long in getting to the heart of the post-Civil War story, one about national reconciliation as experienced through the intersecting journeys of two men and those recently under their commands.

   John Wayne, looking both sturdy and timeworn, portrays Colonel John Henry Thomas, a recently decommissioned Union officer who decides to try his luck in horse-trading in Emperor Maximilian’s Mexico. Rock Hudson portrays Thomas’s would-be nemesis, former Confederate Colonel James Langdon who, upon learning that the South has lost the war, heads to Mexico with his men and their families rather than live under humiliating Yankee rule.

   When the two men finally end up meeting in Mexico, it doesn’t take long for the movie veer into national reconciliation sentimentalism, as the two former enemies on the battlefield end up joining forces to defeat Mexican bandits. All well and good, except for the fact that the movie’s most glaring flaw is in the absolute mismatch of the two leads. For his part, Wayne actually looks like he belongs in the movie and is a good fit for his character. Hudson, on the other hand, looks like he’s phoning it in and is altogether unconvincing as a Yankee-hating Confederate colonel.

   Although beautifully filmed without any glaring technical flaws, this rather forgettable Western could have been a lot memorable than it ends up being. The film’s romantic subplots and its occasional attempts at lighthearted humor really don’t work very well, either. For a John Wayne film, The Undefeated is surprisingly uninspiring.

MICHAEL BRETT – Kill Him Quickly, It’s Raining. Pocket; paperback original; 1st printing, December 1966.

   First of all, what a great title for a private eye novel. This is the first recorded case for Manhattan based PI Pete McGrath, and most of his book titles are as good as this one, if not better. I’ll add a list of all ten at the end of this review, as usual.

   While Kill Him Quickly is the first of the McGrath books, Michael Brett was the author of two earlier books, both paperback originals from Ace, in which the leading character was someone called Sam Dakkers. The titles were The Guilty Bystander and Scream Street, both from 1959. If anyone recognizes either title and can tell me anything about Sam Dakkers, I’d be happy to know more about him.

   When I picked this one up to be read at bedtime, I had no idea that it was McGrath’s debut to the world. It was easy to assume that he’d had other adventures, it was just that I hadn’t read them yet. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. McGrath tells his own story, and with such confidence that you assume he’s been around for a while, that he hadn’t just hatched out of nowhere, which in effect he had.

   I didn’t get much of a picture of who he is, though, or even what he looks like. Just another tough PI with a bit of an attitude. Just how tough, that comes later, when he finds himself needing answers from someone, and he’s in a bit of a hurry as to how he gets it.

   The case, as it so happens, is twofold. He’s hired first by a woman recently widowed whose home has been entered and probably robbed, and she can tell that someone is following her. It turns out that her now deceased husband had some friends with whom he was involved in an unsavory venture together, and one of the friends is decidedly unfriendly.

   While still working on this case, McGrath is hired by a second client, a spy, he says, trying to come in from the cold, and he needs a bodyguard. It turns out that the spy is pretty good with a gun himself, and McGrath finds himself with a dead body on his hands and in a jam with the police

   This one’s a good one, with only a couple of caveats. There are a few too many people involved; after a while it becomes difficult to keep them all straight, and not all of them manage to survive. I also thought the ending was wrapped up too quickly, as if the book was beginning to run out of pages. Otherwise this debut venture for Pete McGrath makes me want to read more. I think I have all of them listed below, and it’s time to dig them out and have at them.

       The Pete McGrath series —

Kill Him Quickly, It’s Raining (1966)
An Ear For Murder (1967)
The Flight of the Stiff (1967)

Turn Blue, You Murderers (1967)

We, the Killers (1967)

Dead Upstairs in the Tub (1967)

Slit My Throat Gently (1968)

Lie a Little, Die a Little (1968)
Another Day, Another Stiff (1968)
Death of a Hippie (1968)

GIRL OF THE PORT. RKO Radio Pictures, 1930. Sally O’Neil, Reginald Sharland, Mitchell Lewis, Duke Kahanamoku, Donald MacKenzie. Based on the story “The Firewalker” by John Russell. Director: Bert Glennon.

   A rare film, this, with no synopsis on IMDb, not a single person leaving a comment nor an external review. What it is is an early talkie that’s better filmed than most, and other than Reginald Sharland, who plays the drunken ex-British soldier who’s stranded himself on one of the Fiji Islands, the acting performances are better by far than many movies made in 1930.

   It may not be his fault. His role is meant to be melodramatic. He is the only survivor of a regiment burned to death by German flamethrowers in the war, and any burst of fire causes him to react in overdramatized panic. (“The flames! The flames!”) Enter Sally O’Neil as Josie, a perky sort of showgirl from Coney Island, as well as other places, who also finds herself at loose ends on Suva, if not desperate straits.

   They make a good pair together, of course, but they soon find themselves menaced and tormented by a white supremacist (Mitchell Lewis) who for all intents and purposes runs the island, and once Josie catches his eyes, watch out.

   It is soon revealed that he’s the worst kind of white supremacist, a half-breed himself. What you might want to know next, I cannot tell you, but if you look at the title of the story this movie is based on, you may be able to work it out on your own.

   Not my usual fare, when it comes to watching old movies, but I surprised myself by enjoying this one.

KATHARINE HILL – Dear Dead Mother-in-Law. E. P. Dutton; hardcover; 1944. Books, Inc., hardcover reprint, 1944?

   This is the first half of a two-part series on Katharine Hill’s complete works of mystery fiction. Part two, covering her second novel, Case for Equity, also involving her series character detective, Lorna Donahue, will be reported on shortly.

   In Crime Fiction IV, Al Hubin provides us with no information on Katharine Hill, neither birth nor death date. She seems to have written the two books and vanished. But not quite, or at least not completely. The copyrights on both books were renewed in the early 1970s, so she was still alive then. I also have tracked down the name of a sister, and the sister’s daughter, but – all three have very common names, and the hunt has bogged down. [Bogged down totally, as a matter of fact. I have learned nothing since I first wrote this review, nor does Al Hubin shed any further light.]

   Lorna Donahue is a widow who lives in Connecticut, the town of Ridgemont, to be precise. Even though fictitious as far as Connecticut is concerned, it’s obviously a wealthy sort of town in the semi-rural Wilton-Weston-Ridgefield suburban part of the state. Or at least in 1943 or so, it would have been quite rural, and with a gasoline shortage a large problem of the day, walking was a common alternative to driving.

   Only gradually do we learn about Lorna’s prior life: several husbands, on the stage, the newspaper game and now the real estate business, for which she has a partner, thankfully, for it allows her both (a) to be snooping into homes while people are gone and (b) to have someone to run the business while she is busily doing the aforementioned snooping.

   These last two observations are my own. Found dead at a bridge party is a recent bride’s outspoken mother, emphasis on outspoken, and it is her husband (of the recent bride) who is accused of killing his mother-in-law. And clapped immediately into jail, with no provision for bail, and so he sits, as the daughter (and his wife) moves in with Lorna.

   Who of course does not believe for a moment that he did it. A much more likely is the snooty woman (my observation) whom the dead woman, not long before she died, accused of cheating at cards on the continent, in partnership with a younger man everyone assumes she was cheating on her husband with (now deceased). Or it could have a tramp. Britain never had a monopoly of tramps to be murder suspects.

   Without my being able to come up with a better word, the sleuthing that is done is charming, as long as you can ignore the fact that the police department on the job is not on the job, because if they were, Lorna would have hardly a role to play. The small town atmosphere is evoked through many small details, describable only by someone who lived through that small era in time, unreproducible by someone would attempt to write a story taking place in such a setting today.

   The humor is sneaky but not all subtle. From a brief passage, as Lorna takes in her new guest (Pamela, the daughter), page 39:

    Mrs. Donahue fitted out her pathetic house guest with a pair of her own pyjamas, flowered in green on purple and they were her quietest pair, which would contained three Pamelas, and a toothbrush in cellophane which she had on hand for emergencies.

   Later on, Lorna is trying to envision what kind of defense that Walter (the son-in-law) might be able to raise. From page 166:

   The inference was therefore inescapable that the person who killed Ada Mullins by swinging a bottle over her head had left the scene, carrying the bottle with him. The disappearance of the bottle proved, ipso facto, the disappearance of the killer – and that the man who had not disappeared, who had remained innocently and jovially preparing doubtless mild cocktails for the most prominent and respected of Ridgemont’s ladies, was not the murderer, in spite of the circumstances deemed so damning by the prosecution, that he was a married man whose mother-in-law was not a pauper, and that he had not been on th best of terms with her every moment of his married life. Could every member of the jury assent that there had never been a breeze at breakfast – a time when few of us are at our best – between him and his mother-in-law?

   You have probably decided long before now whether or not this is book you feel urged to seek out and purchase on the Internet, and I don’t blame you at all. The detective work is successful, however, no matter how improbable (and perhaps even naive) its basis in reality may be. Gritty hard-boiled fiction it’s not, but please don’t get me wrong. Following the clues and solving the mystery – that’s the edge that makes this old-fashioned suburban cozy work for me.

— April 2005.

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