January 2016


LAWRENCE BLOCK – A Walk Among the Tombstones. Matthew Scudder #11, Morrow, hardcover, 1992. Avon, paperback, 1993. Reprinted several times. Film: Universal, 2014 (with Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder).

   Hey, it isn’t as though the guy hasn’t paid his dues. Larry Block has been writing crime fiction for over thirty years, and writing about Matthew Scudder for sixteen; though this is the eleventh Scudder book, his fictional output exceeds forty. Some hard-core mystery fans still prefer his more lighthearted series about the bibliophile burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr, but Block has devoted his attentions solely to Scudder of late.

    For good reason; the popularity of the Scudder novels has been steadily increasing since publication of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, and has been crowned for the moment by a 1991 Edgar award for Best Mystery Novel for A Dance at the Slaughterhouse.

   It’s hard to believe, but Scudder wasn’t even deemed worthy of hardcovers when he began his career as an alcoholic sorter of broken dreams in 1976; not until his fourth appearance, as a matter of fact. But that’s all changed, and the release of a new Matt Scudder book is a major event in the mystery world.

   In A Walk Among the Tombstones the walk is a dark one, indeed. A dope dealer’s wife is kidnapped and held for ransom, and when he pays (though refusing to pay as much as they ask), she is returned — wrapped, in pieces. The dealer’s brother, a recovering alcoholic and junkie who has met Scudder at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and is aware of what he does, brings them together.

   The dealer for obvious reasons can not go to the police, and Scudder agrees to hunt his wife’s murderers, knowing full well that revenge, not justice, is the commodity sought As the search narrows its focus, it becomes clear that its objects are even more malign than they first appeared. This is not a book for the squeamish.

   For benefit of those come late to the party, Scudder both is and isn’t a private detective: is, in the sense that he does what a private detective does; isn’t in that he neither has nor wants a license. An alcoholic ex-cop, he never forgets (nor or we allowed to) that the central fact of his existence is alcohol and its daily absence. He has opted out of the structured, safe world that most of us inhabit, choosing to live along its shadowy edges, and his clients are more likely to be fellow denizens of the fringes than little old ladies from Nebraska.

   He has lost, or perhaps discarded, the capacity for passing moral judgements upon his fellow human beings. His best friend is a criminal, a saloon-owning gangster named Mick Ballou who has played a large part in previous books, though absent here; his lady, a tiring but still practicing call girl. He is neither an immoral nor an amoral man, but his morality is very much a personal thing, and not taught in Sunday Schools.

   Scudder’s willingness to accept drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and murderers on their own terms is a facet of his character that does not disturb him, but may well disturb us; equally so his capacity for the acceptance of the use of violence.

   There are many reasons to enjoy the Man Scudder novels. Block is a consistently excellent prose craftsman. His stories are beautifully paced, his dialogue crisp and sure. Scudder’s New York City may not be the one that tourists see (they should certainly hope not, anyway), but is a real and vivid place nonetheless. His plots are adequate, but Block’s focus is upon character rather than plot, and it is there that he excels — not just with Scudder, and not just with the supporting cast that may appear and reappear, but with each of the characters important enough to merit description. One of the more sharply delineated of his recent creations is the black street kid, TJ, who makes his second appearance here as one of Scudder’s unofficial helpers. A pair of young computer hackers are also appealingly drawn in the current book.

   While I am reluctant to accord any single person the accolade of being the absolute best writer of hard-boiled fiction, it is quite impossible to discuss the category without citing Lawrence Block prominently. He is simply one of the very best at what he does, and all of his existing fans should rejoice at this latest confirmation. If you haven’t read him before, you’ve wasted a lot of time. Begin now.

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


J. ROBERT JANES – Sandman. Soho, US, hardcover, 1996; paperback, 1998. First published in the UK by Constable, hardcover, 1996.

   The sixth in a series of novels set in occupied Paris (1943) and featuring an unlikely pair of investigators who have become friends, Louis St. Cyr of the French Sûreté, and Hermann Kohler of the German Gestapo. They investigate what are thought of as “ordinary” crimes (not connected to the ongoing occupation), which in this case is the series of rapes and murders of schoolgirls by a serial killer called the “Sandman.”

   Within the confines of the unusual situation, the novel follows a fairly conventional path, with incompetent superiors who threaten to impede the investigation by the two dogged, competent detectives.

   The distinction of the book is in its setting, a cold winter in occupied Paris, where the weather and the occupation have settled into the bones and the soul, and the believable characterizations. This is definitely a series to which I will want to return.

       The St. Cyr and Kohler series —

1. Mayhem (1992)
2. Carousel (1992)
3. Kaleidoscope (1993)

4. Salamander (1994)
5. Mannequin (1994)
6. Sandman (1994)
7. Stonekiller (1995)
8. Dollmaker (1995)

9. Gypsy (1997)
10. Madrigal (1999)
11. Beekeeper (2001)
12. Flykiller (2002)

13. Bellringer (2012)
14. Tapestry (2013)
15. Carnival (2014)

16. Clandestine (2015)

A live version of a song included on his 1993 CD Great Days: The John Prine Anthology:

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:

UNTAMED MISTRESS. Howco/Joseph Brenner Associates, 1956. Allan Nixon, Jacqueline Fontaine, John Martin and Cliff Taylor. Written, produced and directed by Ron Ormond.

   This is planned as the first in a series of reviews that will include Untamed Women and Love Slaves of the Amazon, but we shall see ….

   Meanwhile, if you’ve never heard of Ron Ormond, the auteur of Untamed Mistress, there are some very entertaining articles about him on the web. Suffice it to say here that he was a vaudeville magician turned huckster, who turned filmmaker when he hooked up with Lash LaRue after PRC folded, propagating the Lash mystique in eleven ultra-cheap westerns between 1948 and 1952. Ormond branched out into Sci-Fi with Mesa of Lost Women in 1953, then hit the Southern Drive-In Big-Time with the jungle-fantasy/soft-porn Untamed Mistress.

   There’s an interesting defense of this film on IMDb (written by Ormond’s son, I think) citing the fact that Mistress packed drive-ins throughout the South. As I got into the movie, it was easy to see why, but more on that later; the origins of Untamed Mistress constitute a story all their own.

   It seems Ormond got into some sort of partnership with Howco, and emerged with rights to a movie called The Black Panther, starring Sabu — most of the rights, anyway; he just couldn’t use any of the scenes with Sabu actually in them.

   So with about 20 minutes of jungle movie to make a feature from, Ormond next acquired some non-professional footage of someone’s trip to Africa. It didn’t really match the other film, and there was no thematic relationship between the two, but hey: one was a jungle movie and the other was shot in Africa, wasn’t it?

   It was enough for a filmmaker of Ormond’s unique talents. He got a few actors together (including Allan Nixon, whose real life was every bit as chaotic as this film, and a good deal more interesting) and cobbled together a story about two brothers (Nixon and John Martin) who mount a smallish expedition to solve the mystery of Velda (Jacqueline Fontaine) Martin’s intended bride, who may have a Gorilla for an ex-husband.

   And here we see one of the reasons for Untamed’s success: Ormond’s advertising all but promised savage sex, and for its time this was a pretty daring item, mainly because the filmed-in-Africa footage was mostly of topless women dancing about in tribal rituals. And yes, in the 1950s, in the South, you could get away with this if the women were black. In fact, for a scene depicting home life in the “Gorilla Colony” Ormond simply hired three African-American strippers and had them dance around in front of a few men in bad gorilla suits.

   Okay, so in terms of Plot, we’ve got about 20 minutes of story about a maharajah on safari who can’t find any game because all the local fauna are under the protection of a mysterious Jungle Lord called Sabu, who never actually comes into the movie at all. The scene shifts (uncomfortably) the Maharajah is attacked by a gorilla and rescued by Velda, the mysterious jungle girl who looks a lot like Jane Russell in The Outlaw. The scene shifts again, the maharajah, now old and dying, issues a warning about Velda being irresistibly drawn to the Apes, and passes on a cursed jewel and a shrunken head that flies — no kidding.

   Next we get another 20 minutes of the mini-expedition walking around and around the same trees in the woods behind somebody’s back yard, occasionally stopping to react to mismatched stock footage, the whole thing narrated voice-over by Nixon in a valiant but futile attempt to tie it all together. Eventually the stock footage segues into about 20 minutes of breast-bouncing before we get back to the story and find Velda has got herself carried off by gorillas while we were ogling the local talent. Our heroes charge off to the rescue and find a whole tribe of gorillas and their wiling brides.

   I have to say the ending of this surprised me. It isn’t particularly good, and it was probably the result of simply running out of film, but it did startle me out of a state of slack-jawed disbelief. For the rest, Untamed Mistress is a joy for lovers of Old-Fashioned Bad Movies, and fans of this dubious genre shouldn’t miss it.


RUN ALL NIGHT. Warner Brothers, 2015. Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Common. Director: Jaume Collet-Serra.

   Because it’s a fairly recent movie and there’s quite a few reviews available online to read (this one from Sight & Sound magazine is particularly on point), I probably am not going to be saying all that much that’s new here about Run All Night.

   Still, it’s worth noting that, for those not familiar with the film, it’s is actually a quite engaging neo-noir feature, one that grips you tight and doesn’t particularly want to let you go until the very end.

   Combining the directorial talents of Jaume Collet-Serra and both the world-weariness and sheer physicality of Liam Neeson, this gritty crime film set primarily in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, feels more like a 1970s Charles Bronson/Steve McQueen/Roy Scheider movie than it does a sleek Hollywood action film. There’s murder, revenge, car chases, corrupt cops, ruthless gangsters, bright neon lights, and cold winter rain. There are back alleys, back rooms, and back streets.

   Neeson portrays Jimmy Conlon, a down on his luck, washed up enforcer for Irish crime boss Shawn Maguire (a nearly perfectly cast Ed Harris). Jimmy’s glory days as a hit man have come and gone. All he’s got now are bad memories and the bottle. He’s estranged from his son, Mike, and lives alone in an apartment several yards from an elevated subway platform. It’s a depressing life, especially in contrast to Shawn’s upper middle class lifestyle.

   All that changes when Maguire’s son Danny sets out to kill Mike for witnessing several murders that he has committed after a drug deal gone bad. That’s when our antihero Jimmy, who was throwing up from too much booze earlier in the film, turns into a Charles Bronson-type figure and decides that he’ll take on the entire city, the police included, if that’s what it takes to protect Mike and to redeem himself in his son’s eyes.

   It takes some suspension of disbelief to imagine this action all taking place on one rainy December night. Neeson’s character often looks tired, as if he’s beyond exhausted by both his present condition and by the crimes he himself has committed in the past.

   But that’s the point, and if anyone is well suited to this role it is Neeson who is able to convey an incredible amount of meaning in short, terse sentences and in body language alone. Neeson excels in portraying men carrying heavy moral burdens and that’s certainly the case in Run All Night. Look for rapper Common who portrays a Terminator-like hit man. It’s something else.

   One final observation: after watching this one on DVD not knowing whether I’d care for it or not, I can now safely report that I regret not going to see it on the big screen during its theatrical release last year. Next time a Liam Neeson actioner hits the theaters, I’m there.

Reviewed by JEFF MEYERSON:

JOHN DICKSON CARR – The Crooked Hinge. The Mystery Library #2, University Extension: Univ. of California at San Diego, hardcover, 1976. Introduction, with notes and checklist, by Robert E. Briney. Illustrations by Dick Connor. Originally published by Harper, US, hardcover, 1938 (shown); H. Hamilton, UK, hardcover, 1938. Reprinted many times.

   The second in The Mystery Library’s series of reprints is another quality job, and the book itself is a good one. Twenty-five years before the story begins John Farnleigh was packed off to America on the Titanic. He survived and stayed in America, as he was the black sheep of the family, returning only when he inherited the family estate and title.

   Now, a year later, a man shows up claiming to be the real Sir John Farnleigh. On the night the confrontation takes place to determine the impostor, the first Farnleigh is murdered. Dr. Gideon Fell, somewhat less outrageous here than usual, must determine who killed him (or was it suicide?), and why.

   There is also a possible tie-in with another murder that happened a year earlier, and a number of Carr’s usual strange elements. These include an automaton based on Maelzel’s famous Chess Player, a local coven (?), and a truly bizarre solution. An engrossing book.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 4, July 1977.

BILL S. BALLINGER – Heist Me Higher. Signet P3799, paperback original, March 1969.

   Over his long writing career (24 books listed in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, and more than a few dozen TV and movie credits on IMDb), Bill Ballinger came up with only two series characters: a Chicago PI by the name of Barr Breed (two appearances) and Joaquin Hawks, who was a Native American agent for the CIA whose adventures took place in Southeast Asia.

   The detective of record in Heist Me Higher is another PI, this time a fellow named Bryce Patch, who owns his own security firm. The detective aspect of the story is only so-so, but there’s no reason why Patch couldn’t have made subsequent appearances. Ballinger is especially good at describing people and places, and the conversations and dialogue that take place are as good as any other PI writer of the day. Combined with an adequate amount of action, some of it in the bedroom (very discreetly), keeps the reader flipping through the book in nothing flat. At least it did me.

   Patch has two cases on his hands in this one. The first is that of an armored car heist — no surprise there — in which a guard and a good friend of his gets killed. The second is brought to him by a good-looking lady who wants her ex-husband found to have some papers signed. I will not tell you whether or not the two cases are in any other way connected.

   What I will tell you is that Bryce Patch is a sex magnet of some great magnitude. As the way the story works out, he shares his bedroom with three lovely ladies on successive nights, one at a time, and at story’s end he he faced with happy prospect of four of them in his penthouse apartment at one time, two of them return visits from the previous three. This is what you may very well refer to as a male fantasy.

   I wish the detective work had been presented better, however. The clues are there, sort of, and the way Patch described it at the end, he had to have been working on instinct alone; either that or a slick combination of hunches and guesswork, which is probably the same thing. Nonetheless, the book is short (125 pages), and as a low ambition crime caper, it is fun to read.


BOXCAR BERTHA. American International Pictures, 1972. Barbara Hershey, David Carradine, Barry Primus, Bernie Casey, John Carradine. Director: Martin Scorsese.

   Produced by Roger Corman, the Depression-era crime film Boxcar Bertha has its share of sex, violence, and leftist social commentary. With director Martin Scorsese at the helm, however, this would-be exploitation film ends up being as much an art house film as it is a grindhouse movie.

   That perhaps, along with a stellar cast including Barbara Hershey as the title character and John Carradine as her partner in crime in taking on the greedy and mendacious railroad elites, is what makes this low budget, but high quality production, a memorable visual depiction of the shadowy borderlines between crime and political protest.

   At once a depiction of the tensions between haves and “have-nots” in Depression-era Arkansas and a character-based film about a young woman trying to navigate a life in that milieu, Boxcar Bertha isn’t the easiest movie to categorize. It’s a crime film about outlaws on the run as well as a romantic drama; a hang out movie as well as a buddy film.

   It’s a very personal film and a vehicle for a stridently pro-labor, pro-feminist, and anti-racist political message. There’s even quite a bit of religious, particularly Catholic overtones throughout, themes that would be explored time and again in Scorsese’s films. However one categorizes this movie, it’s definitely the case that Corman and Scorsese successfully captured lightning in a bottle with this unflinching portrait the dark side of the American Dream.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:

  CARYL BRAHMS & S. J. SIMON – No Bed for Bacon. Michael Joseph, UK, hardcover, 1941. Thomas Y. Crowell, US, hardcover, 1950. Various reprint editions exist.

   This book is about a lot of things.

   — Sir Francis Bacon’s Finagling to get one of Queen Elizabeth’s touring beds; the attempts of rival impresarios Henslowe and Burbage to burn down each other’s theatres; Sir Walter Raleigh’s efforts to out-dress the earl of Essex and the culinary debut of the potato — but the most intriguing sub-plot centers around rising playwright William Shakespeare and a young gentlewoman named Viola who aspires to be an actress and gets on stage by impersonating a boy playing girls’ parts — the makers of Shakespeare in Love disavow all knowledge.

   Be that as it may, No Bed stands very ably on its own merits as a shrewdly observed, deftly-plotted and often riotously funny comedy. Brahms and Simon are adept at broad slapstick, sly repartee, and the occasional jibe at History, as when Shakespeare and Bacon argue over how a scene should be played and Will asks rhetorically, “Master Bacon, did you write this play or did I?” There’s also a nice running gag about Shakespeare trying to write past the first page of his forthcoming hit, Love’s Labour Wunne.

   There was one rather lengthy bit here that puzzled me for a moment, though: late in the book there’s a long scene where the Queen and her favorites sit around reminiscing about Drake whipping the Spanish Armada out of the Channel. It’s not a bad passage, per se, but it goes on for some pages and doesn’t move the story along a bit. I wondered at first why the authors were spending so much ink on this, then I remembered this was written in England in 1941 — a time when memories of Britain beating back a vastly superior invading force must have appealed to readers and author alike.

   It slows things down perhaps, but it doesn’t dampen the irreverent charm and sly humor of the thing, and I can recommend No Bed to lovers of History, lovers of Shakespeare, and anyone who just loves a good laugh.

RICHARD HAWKE – Speak of the Devil. Random House, hardcover, January 2006. Ballantine, paperback, February 2007.

   This one starts out in grand fashion, with a mass shooting at a Manhattan Thanksgiving Day parade by someone (perhaps) with a personal vendetta with the mayor. PI Fritz Malone, whose first recorded case this is, is a witness and chases after the killer. He shoots him in the shoulder … and then things start to get weird.

   Malone is nabbed by the police, put into a patrol car, a bag is placed over his head, and he is rushed off to places unknown. And the shooter, who was only wounded, somehow ends up dead, shot to death at police headquarters.

   Eventually things get straightened out re Fritz vs the cops, and (this is also not strictly kosher, I don’t imagine) Malone is asked by the mayor to work on the case: the unknown someone who hired the now dead killer now is blackmailing the city for millions of dollars, and to prove his point, he is methodically cutting the fingers off a kidnapped city official.

   So this is not exactly standard PI fare, yet in another way, Fritz Malone is very little different from other wisecracking PI’s with girl friends who try to be patient and understanding while their guys are off doing their PI thing. This part of the story I enjoyed a whole lot more than the bigger picture.

   Which reminds me of another thing. When I got to page 164 or so, which is about where the Gold Medal paperbacks of the 1950s used to end, I looked at where I was in the book, and I was surprised to see that I was barely over halfway through. And the second half, unfortunately, was not nearly as interesting as the first half. There is simply too much story in this book. (I have not yet told you about the novice nun who committed suicide in one of New York City’s many parks a while back. How she is connected, you will have to read the book.)

   One thing toward the end of the book annoyed me immensely. [This may warrant a SPOILER ALERT.] Malone has an important — no, crucial — piece of evidence which he gives to Margo, his girl friend, and asks her to take it to Brooklyn to give to her father, an invalid ex-cop, with the killer still on the loose. Have you seen this gambit on TV before?

   Pages 317-318, in which Malone explains everything after all the excitement has died down, are really a mess. These two pages are filled solid with Ramos did this so Carroll did that, Cox said this and Cox said that, then McNally did this in return, then Byron did this and Sister Natividad was — and who’s Margaret King?

   This book was given a big fanfare when it first came out, a big budget promotion, an huge advertising campaign, floor displays in bookstores, the whole works. I hope the author, in reality mystery writer Tim Cockey, got a big advance. There was one other book for Fritz Malone, Cold Day in Hell (Random House, 2007), but I don’t think the ad campaign worked. In spite of the hullabaloo and critical acclaim from several quarters, neither book seems to have gone anywhere.

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