July 2016


SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF. American International Pictures, 1958. Bill Cord, Don Durant, Lisa Montell, Jeanne Gerson, Carol Lindsay. Director: Roger Corman.

   I’m someone who finds a great deal of value in some of Roger Corman’s earliest films, movies released prior to his Poe cycle that are otherwise disregarded for being too simply low budget and too amateurish. For instance, Teenage Caveman (1958) reviewed here and Ski Troop Attack (1960) reviewed here are much better films than their detractors would suggest. Both are fun little adventure films that deliver escapism, some thrills, and a liberal humanist message.

   The same can’t be said for She Gods of Shark Reef. As I understand it, Corman had a great time filming this one – and why not? Filmed on location in Hawaii, She Gods of Shark Reef has some beautiful natural scenery. But that’s kind of all that it has. Amateurish supporting actors and an annoying film score make this early Corman entry a rather forgettable affair.

   As far as the plot goes, there isn’t much there either. Two brothers, one a criminal on the lam and the other, a man who feels that its his moral duty to protect his rapscallion sibling, end up crashing their boat on a reef off the coast of a Polynesian island. Turns out the island is inhabited only by women and that they adhere to some rather unique religious beliefs involving the need to appease some primitive underwater god.

   Most of the movie follows the two brothers as one of them attempts to woo a native girl and the other looks for a means of escaping the island. That’s kind of it. Truth be told, it seems like She Gods of Shark Reef would have been an extremely fun project to work on. But to watch – that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

JANET DAWSON – Kindred Crimes. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1990. Fawcett Crest, paperback, May 1992.

   This is the first of fifteen recorded cases tackled and solved by Oakland-based PI Jeri Howard, including four novellas, and it’s a good one. I’m not alone in holding that opinion. Kindred Crimes won the St. Martin’s Press/PWA contest for best first private eye novel. It was also nominated in the best first novel category for the Shamus, the Macavity and the Anthony.

   In this novel Jeri is hired by a forlorn husband whose wife left their baby son with his grandparents, cleaned out their joint checking account and completely disappeared. Using nothing more than feet and wheels on the ground, Jeri discovers that the missing woman had married him under a phony name, and that her brother had been convicted of killing their parents when they were still children.

   This is a tough-minded detective story. Hints of child abuse immediately come to Jeri’s mind. If you don’t care for detective stories in which the detective gets too emotionally involved with the case she is working on, this may not be the book for you.

   Dawson is a smooth but not overly slick writer, and the puzzle aspect is as well done as the characters. If you decide that this is the kind of book you’d like to read, I think you’ll see why Jeri Howard has managed to hang around for quite a while now.

       The Jeri Howard series —

1. Kindred Crimes (1990)
2. Till the Old Men Die (1993)

3. Take a Number (1993)
4. Don’t Turn Your Back On the Ocean (1994)
5. Nobody’s Child (1995)

6. A Credible Threat (1996)
7. Witness to Evil (1997)
8. Where the Bodies Are Buried (1998)
9. A Killing at the Track (2000)

10. Bit Player (2011)
11. Jeri Howard Casebook: 4 Stories (2011)
12. Cold Trail (2015)

THE BROTHERHOOD. Paramount Pictures, 1968. Kirk Douglas, Alex Cord, Irene Papas, Luther Adler, Susan Strasberg, Murray Hamilton, Eduardo Ciannelli. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Producer: Kirk Douglas. Director: Martin Ritt.

   I don’t know where this movie fits precisely into the chronology of Mafia-based crime films, but while there were certainly gangster movies before The Brotherhood was filmed, in terms of realism, none were quite like this one. It was also four years before The Godfather showed up and finally convinced everyone how they were supposed to be done.

   The story has it that when this one bombed so badly at the box office, it took quite a while to convince the people at Paramount to do another one, which of course was The Godfather.

   The reason I bring this up is that, well, first of all, the movie is actually quite good, but if you can’t place it properly in the evolution of Mafia movies, it can be viewed as a whole series of clichés. Kirk Douglas plays Frank Ginetta, an old-fashioned Mafia don based in New York City; Alex Cord is his (much) younger Vince, who’s gone to college, is home from Viet Nam, has just gotten married, and wants to join the “firm.” Big brother Frank is elated.

   But Vince and the other members of the council want to abandon the old ways and start finding new ways to invest their money and talents. This causes all kinds of problems, as you can imagine. Frank also finds out who provided the tip-off that happened many years ago that resulted in the massacre of over 40 members of the Mafia at the time, including Frank’s father.

   Frank does not take this very well, and his actions leave Vince squarely in the middle. Kirk Douglas takes this role and makes it entirely his own. He is an ebullient lover of his family, good food and happy times, and yet he casually and reminiscently tells someone about the first hit he ever made — when he was eighteen years old.

   Alex Cord, in contrast, and perhaps deliberately so, downplays his role so low that you barely know he’s in the film. He’s grim and dour while his brother’s innate nature is cheerful and charming. The ending is perhaps inevitable, but the getting there is not only absorbing, but a lot of fun to watch.

   If the movie didn’t do well financially, perhaps the movie audiences of the day were simply not ready for it. Another possibility, of course, is that I’m the only one in the world who has ever enjoyed it, but I’m fairly sure that that’s not so.

From this jazz singer’s debut LP released in 1961. Backed up by the Buck Clayton Jazz Stars Band.


ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT “Bride of the Winged Terror.” First published in Dime Mystery Magazine, November 1936, writing as Grendon Alzee. (In the same issue is “Terror Beneath the Streets,” by Arthur Leo Zagat.) Also available online and in ebook form.

   â€œThese hillbillies hate furriners worse’n poison …” ex-mountain man Fred Harris warns his private detective buddy Dick Mervale as their roadster tackles the dangerous winding roads of Buzzard Mountain where a picture in a circular has led the two to believe bank embezzler Gorham Carstairs has been hiding lo these many years.

   Capturing Carstairs would not only me a big reward and much needed publicity for the low rent sleuths out of Louisville (presumably Kentucky, it is never made clear), but also the gratitude and business of the Bank Association, so they are willing to risk a great deal to capture Carstairs.

   And it becomes clear how much when a bullet from a high powered rifle punches a hole in Fred’s head.

   That doesn’t slow down Dick Mervale, who quickly covers up Fred’s body with rocks, spying a huge vulture as he does so, and makes his way up to the town of Winburg where he is met by armed citizens. They aren’t after Dick though. A child, a young girl has been murdered, horribly mangled by a “big black bird.”

   Dick manages to get out of Winburg and reach the top of Buzzard Mountain where he plans to wait until daylight, but he spies the giant black bird, and seconds later hears a woman’s cry. Racing to her rescue he encounters a leathery black winged monster with a “human face” attacking a young woman “… her gauzy frock … ripped in the struggle…” revealing “…white satiny skin seeming to glow from some inner light and the swelling firm curves of just budding womanhood.”

   And wouldn’t you know it, this is Elise Carstairs the mountain-raised daughter of the man he is after, who promptly shows up with a shotgun.

   From that point on the action literally races to its conclusion, piling horror on horror until the naked Elise is in Dick’s protective arms and the mystery of the winged terror (she isn’t its bride, in fact there is no bride — she’s the monsters niece and no hint of incest appears) and why Carstairs embezzled the money in the first place is laid to rest along with Carstairs and his brother.

   If you don’t recognize the basics of a typical Weird Menace story from what Robert Jonas labeled “The Shudder Pulps” in his excellent book on the subject then you likely don’t know you pulps. These were the ones with the gaudy covers of scantily clad women being tortured and murdered by looming madmen in the most suggestive way with a heroic male usually helplessly watching nearby.

   A variety of pulp authors contributed to the genre, which was one step up from the Spicy genre where the sex was a bit more obvious and the nudity considerably so, including some notable names like Norvel Page, Cornell Woolrich, and Richard Sale, but the genre had its own stars, and one of them was the prolific Arthur Leo Zagat, best known for his fantasy horror Drink We Deep.

   For all the nudity and strange psycho-sexual tortures out of de Sade by way of Kraft-Ebling featured on the covers and in the stories virtue prevailed as did virginity for both hero and heroine. In most cases, as here, a logical (if you can call it that) explanation was swiftly tacked on in the final paragraphs to assure the reader nothing supernatural had happened, though once in a while a whiff of sulfur and brimstone would linger.

   The stories vary in quality as you might expect, from say a minor Universal Horror film to one of those independent productions with the likes of George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, or Bela Lugosi where the sets look like someone’s three bedroom house.

   This one is absurd, even by the standard of the genre, but Zagat was a master of empurpled prose and swelling horrors (sounds like a bad diagnosis doesn’t it?) who could do better and did elsewhere, and this is actually quick fun to read with the caveat you don’t dare stop and think about it. If slavering mad monsters with foetid breath, reddened claws, and hideous eyes are your cuppa, this more than delivers.

   They don’t write ’em like this anymore — well, they do, , but now they are themselves swollen monsters of 500 plus pages and with considerably less virtuous characters, and what logic there once was has gone the way of the pulps themselves. There is something almost innocent about the Weird Menace genre, in a slightly disturbing way, but I wouldn’t suggest you delve too deep.

   Some things are better left alone.


SUE GRAFTON – “I” is for Innocent. Kinsey Millhone #9. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1992. Fawcett, paperback, 1993.

   I like the way Sue Grafton writes. Depending on the day and the book, she is quite often my favorite writer of female PI stories, and Kinsey Millhone my favorite female PI; both are always high on the list regardless of sex. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the ninth Kinsey.

   Kinsey has lost her office and sinecure with California Fidelity, and is now freelancing with a Santa Teresa law firm. One of the partners is handling a civil suit involving a murder; the defendant has been acquitted of criminal charges in the murder of his wife, but her family hasn’t given up.

   The private detective who has been working on the case for the firm has died of a heart attack, and the lawyer wants Kinsey to take over. She does, and finds there are a lot more loose ends to tie up than she had thought. Even worse, key witnesses begin to lose credibility and the possibility of the defendant’s innocence looms large; not what Kinsey is supposed to be proving.

   The plot is twisty and well handled, though once again there is the obligatory shootout at the end; these have become so prevalent that they have begun to annoy me even when justified. Kinsey is her usual very human, appealing self — which is to say that I like the voice Grafton gives her. The book is written in her straightforward narrative style, refreshingly free from angst and unfocused anger. She writes a detective story rather than a polemic, and by now you’ve probably figured out that I prefer the former. A good book in a good series — what more do you want?

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #5, January 1993.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary. William Morrow & Co., hardcover, 1955. Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post from March 5 to April 23, 1955. Reprinted many times in paperback, including Cardinal C268, February 1958; Pocket 4514, 1963; Ballantine, July 1982.

   You have to hand it to Erle Stanley Gardner for consistently coming up with openings that are sure to attract the reader’s attention, and this is certainly one of them. Della Street answers the telephone in the very first paragraph and calling is a young woman in quite a predicament. (Della’s very words.) She’s been robbed of absolutely everything, including every stitch of clothing.

   It seems as though she’s a “nature girl” who lives in a secluded trailer and likes to wander around nude but hidden from view in the California sun. When she returns to the trailer containing all her belongings, she finds it gone.

   Now this aspect of the story has little to do with the rest of the case, but you have to admit, it makes the reader sit up and take notice. As it turns out, the case involves her father who is in prison for having stolen a payroll of nearly $400,000 from an armored car. How it was done is unknown, since the money was under watch at both ends of the delivery route, as well as during.

   Also unknown is where the money is, which is why Perry’s client is under such strict scrutiny. Perry is one of those hands-on kind of attorneys, and in this one, as it so happens, if his client didn’t commit the murder that happens about halfway through, then Perry is the only other one who could have done it.

   Well, we know he didn’t, and we doubt that his client did, but how on earth could anyone else have done it? In spite of thinly written characters and his usual only utilitarian prose, Gardner as always has several tricks up his sleeve, and Perry utterly flummoxes D.A. Hamilton Burger once again, who is convinced that this time he has Perry dead to rights.

   I defy anyone to figure this one out in advance. I sure didn’t.


HANNIE CAULDER. Tigon British Film Productions, UK, 1971. Paramount Pictures, US, 1972. Raquel Welch, Robert Culp, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Strother Martin, Christopher Lee, Diana Dors. Director: Burt Kennedy.

   Hannie Caulder is the type of movie that could only have been made in the 1970s, a time of comparably anarchic freedom for directors, producers, and screenwriters. Take a few well known characters actors and cast them as buffoonish rapists, add a strong willed feminist protagonist to be portrayed by a leading sex symbol, and then cast Robert Culp and Christopher Lee as a bounty hunter and a gunsmith, respectively, and you’ve got yourself a Western cult classic in the making.

   But wait, there’s more. While a Spaghetti Western aesthetic, replete with notably fake red blood, gives the film a gritty edge, a mysterious character, a gunslinger dressed from head to toe in black, adds a quasi-mystical element to the proceedings.

   Raquel Welch stars as the film’s title character, a woman who is savagely raped and beaten by three outlaw brothers portrayed by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin. After that experience, Hannie Caulder sets out on a course of revenge against the men who attacked her and murdered her husband.

   Soon enough, she comes under the tutelage of bounty hunter Thomas Luther Price (Culp), a solitary man who – not surprisingly – begins to develop romantic feelings toward Hannie. Price is a man torn. On the one hand, he’s willing to teach Hannie the art of gun fighting; on the other, he doesn’t want Hannie to become a killer like he is.

   All told, Hannie Caulder is a solid revenge Western. Look for Christopher Lee in his portrayal of Bailey, a boutique gunsmith camped out in Mexico. The interactions between his character and Price and Hannie Caulder are among the best in this truly unique Burt Kennedy film. It may not be among the best Westerns ever filmed, but it’s certainly a spunky little 1970s meditation on violence that isn’t easily forgotten.

William F. Deeck

THE GORDONS – Campaign Train. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1952. Bantam 1475, paperback, 1956; Popular Library, paperback, no date stated, both as Murder Rides the Campaign Train.

   A hopeful assassin rides the campaign train of Gov. Wallace X. Martin, candidate for the presidency. Worse, Martin’s No. 2 secretary, 19-year-old Jackie Moxas, whom he has rescued from a correctional institution, is looking for the assassin in order to lend him (or her) her support. No good deed goes unpunished, someone has rightly contended.

   Moxas despises the governor for what he once did and is now doing to her. all of which is imaginary. When she discovers who the assassin is, her views begin to change.

   Not a sympathetic character, Moxas, but convincingly drawn by The Gordons are the political background and the campaign.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall 1990, “Political Mysteries.”

From this Swedish singer-songwriter’s 2003 CD Heaven, Earth and Beyond:

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