December 2015

SOUTH OF SUEZ. Warner Brothers, 1940. George Brent, Brenda Marshall, George Tobias, Lee Patrick, Eric Blore, Miles Mander. Director: Lewis Seiler.

   The title makes this movie sound as though it were another pre-War Egyptian spy adventure, but not so. The geography is right, more or less, but a title something like “The Middle of Tanganyika” just wouldn’t attract anybody to the box office. And it’s really not a spy adventure, either, but rather a murder mystery than begins in the diamond fields of central Africa and ends in a British court, back in England. It is there that the main protagonist, played by George Brent, due to a deliberate case of false identity, is on trial for killing himself. Only two people know that, though, himself and an eye witness who saw another murder done, back in Africa.

   How did Brent’s characters get mixed up in such a mess? That’s a good question, and how he managed to do it is the best part of this otherwise mostly mediocre mystery movie. It’s all for the love of a girl, however, as you may have guessed, but Brent’s typically low key performance doesn’t rise even halfway to the occasion, that being the hand of Brenda Marshall, with whom he has only a modicum of chemistry.

   George Tobias is terrific as the near-sighted villain of the drama, but there is very little I found in this film to suggest any kind of motivation for Lee Patrick, who plays his wife, to do any of the strange things she does.

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

MARILYN TODD – Swords, Sandals and Sirens. Crippen & Landru Publishers, softcover, November 2015.

   If you don’t always like your mysteries with contemporary settings, there are a few authors who can oblige by taking the reader centuries into the past to places that once teemed with people but are now crumbling jumbles of detritus; one of the best at this approach is Marilyn Todd.

   Rather than trying to ape the stilted style of speech that we’ve come to expect from badly-dubbed sword-and-sandal movies, Todd modernizes the proceedings in such a way as to keep her characters from sounding like a dress rehearsal for a high school production of Julius Caesar while preserving the salient attributes of the ancient cultures she places us in. The result makes for smoother reading and assists us in concentrating more on the mystery plot.

   Swords, Sandals and Sirens collects eleven of Todd’s historical mysteries, with settings in either ancient Greece (3 stories) or, most often, Rome in the time of Augustus Caesar (7 stories, with one other set earlier, during Julius Caesar’s dalliance with the Queen of the Nile). The Greek stories feature several characters: the wholly mythical Echo, as well as two more down-to-earth individuals, the Delphic Oracle and Iliona, a high priestess who has appeared in at least three novels.

   The remaining Roman stories focus on Claudia Seferius, the always cash-strapped widow of a wine merchant — and a real looker. Thanks to the prevailing oppressive tax structure and the repressive patriarchal culture of the times, Claudia is often forced to skirt the law, always with the prospect of exile from Rome lurking in the back of her mind—but it seems that every time she’s about to make a big score that will get her out of the red, somebody gets murdered.

   When that happens, the law’s long arm soon appears, sometimes like a wraith from the shadows, in the person of Marcus Cornelius Orbilio, a patrician member of the Secret Police whose ambition for promotion would make squashing a minor scofflaw like Claudia the work of but a moment. Yet when these two get together to solve a murder, for some reason Marcus overlooks his duty and never does nab her. Maybe it’s his respect for her smarts, maybe it’s her regard for his prowess, maybe it’s his concern for her welfare, maybe it’s her respect for his position — and maybe, just maybe, it’s because they’re in love.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

LARRY D. SWEAZY – A Thousand Falling Crows. Seventh Street Books, softcover, January 2016.

   The crows went about their summer business. Families were raised and fledged, the promise of winter certain, but distant. What corn had survived the drought was hardly worth eating. For now there was a bounty of dead things to live on. But hunger would come soon… Only survival mattered. The hand of death provided the crows the opportunity to continue to fly.

   It is a dry spring in Texas circa 1934, the ravages of the Dust Bowl still taking their toll, and former Texas Ranger Sonny Burton — Red Burton was a legendary Ranger, who among other things arrested John Wesley Hardin, and Sweazy, who knows his Ranger history, no doubt had that connection in mind — who lost an arm and his career in a shootout with Bonne Parker and Clyde Barrow is trying to rebuild his life. When Aldo Hernandez, the janitor of the hospital he was in, asks Sonny to help find his daughter who is involved with a pair of robbers, he sees a chance for a kind of redemption by saving the girl from becoming another Bonnie Parker and beginning a new career as a private detective.

   A Thousand Falling Crows is a noirish hard-boiled tale with an elegiac voice about loss and redemption as that case dovetails into a more serious matter of a killer murdering young women and leaving them in local fields to be eaten by the crows of the title. With help from his son, Pete, and from legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who hunted Bonnie and Clyde to their bullet-ridden fate in Louisiana, Sonny might just reclaim his manhood and his past if he can save one not-quite-innocent from herself and the bitter facts of the harsh landscape of the Depression and the Dust Bowl.

   Larry D. Sweazy is a Spur Award winning Western writer who also delves into mystery, and here starts what I hope is a new series about a good man in a tough dangerous world. He manages a nice balance between realism and romanticism here, presenting a sort of Gothic vision of an era known for its unforgiving violence and loss as much as its unbending faith there would be a future.

   Sweazy has an impressive list of accomplishments as a writer, but this book is not without flaws. I found at times that he leaned toward a slight excess in some of his atmospherics — including the quote above which needs a bit of tightening by a good editor — but for the most part he is in control, and any minor quibbles are just that, quibbles. I will certainly read more, look for some of his Western novels and other titles, and look forward to more about Sonny Burton. Sweazy is potentially a major voice in development.

by Francis M. Nevins

   I’ve never had much interest in Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) but somewhere along the line I wound up with a copy of Jan Cohn’s biography IMPROBABLE FICTION (1980). A few weeks ago, for no particular reason, I started idly skimming through this book. At least it was idle skimming until a paragraph on page 155 brought me up short. It seems there was a time early in the 20th century when Rinehart became interested in spiritualism.

   As we learn from Cohn: “Mary and Stan [her husband] probably had their first experience with spiritualism in 1909, at Lily Dale near Chautauqua, where there was a spiritualist camp. Both had sittings there with a medium named Keeler. First they wrote notes on a slate and awaited replies that were to come through Keeler. Stan wrote notes to his father, his brother Charlie, and a young doctor friend, but the replies were unsatisfactory. A trumpet seance followed and Stan’s brother Charlie spoke, but again it was unconvincing.”

   The Keeler mentioned here didn’t make it into the index of Cohn’s book, obviously because she didn’t know the rest of his name. I do. I had read about this spiritualist before, and I remembered where. Not to keep anyone in suspense, he was the uncle of Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), the nuttiest filbert who ever sat down to a typewriter and one of my favorite writers ever.

   Harry’s first wife had died of cancer in 1960, and her death so devastated him that for the next three years he was unable to write fiction. He did, however, bang out a long series of “Walter Keyhole” newsletters. These in effect constituted a low-tech blog, printed on multi-colored paper, discussing any subject that caught his fancy—cosmology, autobiography, writers’ gossip, religion, restaurants, cats, whatever — and mailed out on an irregular basis to almost everyone for whom he had an address.

   The hobby, or whatever you want to call it, cost him up to $50 a week, an amount not to be sneezed at in those days, but he obviously felt the price was worth it and kept it up, although less frequently, even after he remarried and until about six months before his death. Over the decades I acquired originals or photocopies of 188 of these newsletters, and several years ago I organized the material in them into THE KEELER KEYHOLE COLLECTION (2005), a hefty volume which I still thumb through with enjoyment every so often. I knew that was where I had first heard about Harry’s slate-writing uncle, and finding the relevant passages plus a bit of time with my good buddy Joe Google brought me up to speed.

   Pierre L.O.A. Keeler (the initials stand for Louis Ormond Augustus) was born in 1855, or perhaps 1856, and died in 1948 at age 92, or perhaps 93. Late in 1960 Harry wrote in one of his Keyhole newsletters that Pierre,

   â€œ…known for decades in the spiritistic trade as ‘Alphabet’ Keeler, had clients at Lilydale, New York, who came from all over the world to receive ‘messages’ from their dead loved ones. He was a ‘slate-writer’ and brought the messages through on his slate or their slates, as they desired. Whether the messages were genuine or just super-legerdemain doesn’t matter; it brought the bereaved ones great comfort. He died not long ago [did Harry really think twelve years was a short time?] at an extremely advanced age, leaving a nephew in Washington practicing Federal law and a nephew in Chicago [Harry himself, of course] who writes on paper instead of slates….”

   A few months later, after reading a piece about Pierre in the National Enquirer, he complained in another Keyhole that the Enquirer “neglected completely to point out that the high spot of his work was to bring out messages from the ‘dead’ not only upon the slates brought by his clients, but in actual handwritings of the dead.”

   Are we to conclude that Harry believed Unc was a genuine medium? Not at all. In a later Keyhole, probably dating from the summer of 1963, he claims to have known Pierre “fairly intimately” and describes him as “a consummate sleight-of-hand artist, deriving his astounding results via various methods, [and] was, therefore, a charlatan. Was, in short, exactly like all male members of the tribe of Keeler.” No Mike Avallone-style I’m-the-greatest hype for Harry!

   Googling Pierre’s name, we find that he was quite a character, continuing his slate-writing career for decades despite being exposed again and again by a number of psychic investigators including Houdini. Could he have fooled people on the same scale in the Internet age that allows us to learn so much about him with so little effort? Probably. There’s an old Latin proverb, mundus vult decipi, the world wants to be deceived, that I suspect remains true today.


   Writing about his uncle, Harry consistently misarranged his middle initials, L.A.O. instead of L.O.A. I don’t know if we should make anything of this, but it’s a sober fact that the female lead in one of the most charming Keeler novels, Y. CHEUNG, BUSINESS DETECTIVE (1939), is a young woman of Chinese-Hawaiian descent named Loa Marling. Did Harry derive that name from his uncle Pierre’s middle initials?


   Writing about Harry can easily become habit-forming, for me anyway. I acquired the habit back in my teens when I first discovered HSK, and here I am about to turn 73 and still hooked!

   Having become a lawyer and law professor during those intervening decades, I have a particular interest in Harry’s take on that subject. Very few of his books have lawyer protagonists but one of those few is the first Keeler novel that I ever stumbled upon. The main character in THE AMAZING WEB (1930) is David Crosby, a young attorney who screws up his first big case—where the defendant is the woman he loves!—but goes on several years later to prove himself a tiger of the courtroom, with a golden future as a criminal defender ahead of him and, as Keeler Koinkydink would have it, the same young woman at his side. Here, at the end of more than 500 pages of plot labyrinth, is where David Just Says No.

   â€œI have a clear realization of the long years to come. Of the hundreds of truth-telling witnesses I shall have to beat down into a state bordering on hysteria. Of the other hundreds of witnesses whom I shall put on the stand and who will craftily perjure themselves….Of being the last refuge of criminals trying to save both their liberty and their loot—of having to save them because I shall not know whether they are guilty or innocent, and because the saving of such is my profession. Of being…in bitter fights in court where I must make a liar of the man who tells the truth and shame him before his friends and the world….[T]he road to the moon is directly through the muck.”

   Instead David decides to buy a farm and devote the rest of his life to producing “clean sweet food for the thousands.”


   The other Keeler novel with a lawyer protagonist offers a more positive view of the profession and is also of historical importance because its protagonist is a woman. THE CASE OF THE LAVENDER GRIPSACK (1944) is the fourth and final volume of what today is known as the Skull in the Box series. Elsa Colby, recent graduate of Chicago’s Northwestern Law School, has signed a Keeler Krackpot Kontract that will divest her of title to a valuable piece of real estate known as Colby’s Nugget, and vest title in her rascally uncle Silas Moffit, if she should be disbarred or lose a criminal case within a certain number of months.

   For obvious reasons Elsa is accepting no cases and spends her time making a quilt. Moffit pressures Judge Hilford “Ultra Legal” Penworth to compel her to defend a capital case she can’t possibly win and to disbar her on the spot — which is within the judge’s power as Chief Commissioner of the Ethical Practices Subdivision! — if she refuses. To understand what the case is about you have to read the three previous Skull in the Box books — THE MAN WITH THE MAGIC EARDRUMS (1939), THE MAN WITH THE CRIMSON BOX (1940) and THE MAN WITH THE WOODEN SPECTACLES (1940) — but any readers not up to that ordeal may substitute the summary I wrote for the second edition of Jon L. Breen’s NOVEL VERDICTS (1999).

   The trial — for a murder that took place less than 24 hours earlier! — is to be held in the drawing room of Judge Penworth, who is suffering from a bad case of gout. The courtroom action is full of long-winded speeches and light on Q-and-A but packed with Keeler’s inspired daffiness — and with sentences like this one and several of those above which feature long asides punctuated with an exclamation point! The crossword puzzle exegesis in Chapter 13 is guaranteed to pop the eyeballs of every cruciverbalist, and the surprise ending will knock the socks off any reader with the patience to hang on till the end. As in THE AMAZING WEB, although this time the attorney is the woman and the client the man, they’re clearly going to get married after the book is closed.


   Thanksgiving is two days away as I finish this column. In the years of his widowerhood Keeler endured a number of long and lonely turkey days, and an entry in a Walter Keyhole newsletter written late in 1962 memorializes one of them.

   â€œWe had our choice of having 3 soft-boiled eggs (only thing we can cook) as a dinner, then seeing the Three Stooges conk each other over the head at the Logan [his neighborhood theatre], or of having 3 soft-boiled eggs as a dinner and re-reading Keyser’s MATHEMATICAL PHILOSOPHY. You guess!”

   I hope everyone who reads this column had a far more pleasant holiday than that.


BRAM STOKER “The Burial of the Rats.” First published in the UK in the January 26, 1896 and February 2, 1896 issues of Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper. First published in the US in the January 26, 1896 and February 2, 1896 issues of The Boston Herald. It also appeared in the September 1928 issue of Weird Tales (cover shown). First published in book form in Dracula’s Guest And Other Weird Stories, George Routledge & Sons (1914). Available online here.

   Although Bram Stoker’s short story, “The Burial of the Rats” isn’t a particularly literary work of horror fiction, it’s nevertheless a highly atmospheric one. In many ways, it’s more a work of adventure fiction than weird fiction, more Conrad than Blackwood.

   Indeed, Stoker, despite his fame for creating the template for the modern vampire myth in Dracula (1897), wasn’t nearly the wordsmith as was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who helped invent the modern detective story. Stoker, however, was more than able to create highly effective scenes that, when fully absorbed, clench the reader by the throat.

   Such is the case in “The Burial of the Rats,” a story of admittedly dubious literary merit, but one that leaves an indelible impression on the reader’s psyche. Written from the first-person perspective of an Englishman on a Continental sojourn, the tale follows the narrator as he explores the dangerous and dirty shantytowns outside of Paris.

   Specifically, he decides to visit the area where rag-pickers make their homes in decrepit structures. There, he encounters an old woman in a ramshackle dwelling infested with not only rats, but also rat-like humans, dirty men capable of horrific violence against their fellow man. The story follows our intrepid narrator as he tries to escape certain death at the hands of his gruesome would be captors.

   â€œThe Burial of the Rats” doesn’t have much in the way of dramatic, literary tropes, ones that often appear in truly exceptional works of weird fiction. Aside from the notions that romantic love can propel a man forward in the face of certain death and that certain human behaviors are animalistic, Stoker’s tale doesn’t delve particularly deep into any moral or philosophical questions. But it does provide the reader with a bit of excitement and an unforgettable chase scene in which the narrator escapes with his life.

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