January 2017


STANLEY ELLIN “Robert.” First published in Sleuth Mystery Magazine, October 1958. Reprinted several times, including Tales for a Rainy Night, edited by David Alexander (Holt Rinehart & Winston, hardcover; 1961; Crest d557, paperback, 1962) and Ellin’s story collection The Blessington Method and Other Strange Tales (Random House, hardcover, 1964; Signet D2805, paperback, 1966).

   Frequent visitors to this blog are likely familiar with the work of Stanley Ellin (1916–1986). A prolific mystery writer and the winner of three Edgars, Ellin sold his first story, “The Specialty of the House” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948. Several of his works were adapted for film and television.

   One of Ellin’s stories, simply entitled “Robert” has, as far as I know, never been adapted to stage or screen. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t vast potential there for such an adaptation. A work of horror and suspense more than a mystery tale, “Robert” concerns the interactions between a schoolteacher named Miss Gildea and the eponymous Sixth Grade student. Robert is not like the other kids. He’s a bit … different. And his difference seems to stem from his having uncanny, if not almost psychic, powers.

   Students and schoolteachers often don’t get along. And there’s always one troublemaker in particular that seems to have it in for the teacher. But Robert really has it in for Miss Gildea, so much so that he confesses that he wished he could kill her. This leads the frantic schoolteacher to rush to the school principal. Big mistake. For from the moment that she makes young Robert her adversary, things start going downhill for her. And fast.

   Overall, “Robert” doesn’t explain why things are happening so much as depict a scenario in which such bizarre things could possibly occur. While the resolution to the story is somewhat anticlimactic, getting there is a thrilling little ride.


POOR WHITE TRASH. Cinema Distributors of America, 1961; originally released as Bayou by United Artists, 1957. Peter Graves, Lita Milan, Douglas Fowley, Jonathan Haze and Timothy Carey. Written by Edward I. Fessler. Directed by Harold Daniels.

   Neither sleazy exploitation nor a great movie by any standard, Poor White Trash / Bayou is nonetheless a film like no other.

   The background here is that independent filmmakers Fessler and Daniels made Bayou in 1957 and released it through United Artists to general indifference, possibly because much of the dialogue is spoken in the Cajun dialect. Or perhaps because the film sometimes loses its way veering between drama and documentary in its story of architect Peter Graves trying for a job in New Orleans.

   He doesn’t get the job, but he hooks up with lovely Cajun girl Marie (Lita Milan, who soon afterwards left the movies to marry the billionaire son of a dictator). Unfortunately Lita is lusted after by swampland big-shot Ulysses (Timothy Carey) leading to the usual drama, a fist-fight and a pat wrap-up.

   So as I say, the movie drifted into obscurity, which is okay by me if it’s okay Bayou, and there it might have remained, but in the early 1960s an outfit called Cinema Distributors of America bought it outright, added a musical prologue and some murky nude scenes using doubles, and reissued the whole thing with a salacious ad campaign under the new title. Poor White Trash it became, and it continued showing at drive-ins and grind houses into the 1970s.

   That’s the film I saw and the one I’m reviewing now. It’s not a sleazy rip off, it’s not a classic movie, but it is a unique and interesting thing, due mainly to the performance of Timothy Carey as the local bad guy, Ulysses.

   Carey dominates this thing like Lugosi dominates Dracula or Barrymore Svengali, with a bravura performance placed center stage. He bullies, he wheedles, smirks, screams and even socializes. At one point he breaks into a dance like you wouldn’t believe: shaking, kicking, scratching himself and writhing like Nicholas Cage on speed. And through it all he dominates the film with sheer force of will.

   Almost as memorable is Lita Milan, who projects a vital liveliness that her hackneyed dialogue never dampens. We also get a couple of rather startling montages, as the camera pans around a simple Catholic church while curtains flutter and wave across the image like nothing else I’ve seen before, and a sensuous cross-cut between a raging storm and a couple making love.

   Amid all this, square-jawed Peter Graves makes an appropriately cardboard hero, Douglas Fowley puts in a typical character part, and a bunch of actors I’ve never heard of provide colorful and convincing Cajun background.

   The result is the sort of thing usually called a Cult Movie, and I recommend it to anyone out there whose movie tastes run to the unusual and haunting.


SIMON BRETT – Mrs. Pargeter’s Pound of Flesh. Mrs. Pargeter #4. Charles Scribner’s Sons, US, hardcover, 1993. Penguin, US, paperback, 1994. First published in the UK by Macmillan, hardcover, 1992.

   This is the fourth in Simon Brett’s “secondary” series (he is better known for his very popular stories of the actor Charles Paris) featuring Melita Pargeter. I’m in a distinct minority that doesn’t care for the Paris books at all, so it might seem surprising that I’m fairly fond of Mrs. Pargeter. No so, though; my antipathy toward the former is founded in my dislike for Paris himself, and not in reservations about Brett’s ability.

   For the benefit of newcomers to the series, Melita Pargeter is the widow of a shadowy figure who was evidently quite a proficient criminal of some sort, high up in the criminal hierarchy. He has left her not only very well provided for, but with a seemingly inexhaustible list of persons with shady specialties upon to call at need.

   Here, Mrs. Pargeter and a friend check into the British equivalent of a fitness spa, not so coincidentally run by an ex-associate of her late husband. She hasn’t been there long before discovering a young girl’s body, apparently dead of starvation. Then another death occurs, and she enlists the aid of several of her “helpers” to investigate. Before she’s done, she’s brought down a commercial empire or two and settled some old scores.

   The Pargeter books are witty and light in tone, and not meant to be taken too seriously. Brett is a very good writer with a sharp eye for character, and a breezy and enjoyable narrative style. Mrs. Pargeter provides a refreshing and engaging twist on the LOL detective — likable, intelligent, and altogether competent to deal with whatever comes to hand. Miss Marple she ain’t. I also enjoyed the first two books in the series, and recommend them.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #6, March 1993

Bibliographic Notes:   To this date there are 19 books in Simon Brett’s Charles Paris series, 8 books about Mrs. Pargeter, 17 books taking place in the seaside town of Fethering, 7 books in his Blotto & Twinks series, and at least 10 standalone works of crime fiction.

Sweetwater was a psychedelic rock/fusion band originally from Los Angeles, California, and were one of the opening acts at Woodstock. The lead singer on this, their first LP, was Nansi Nevins.

ROBERT B. PARKER – Perish Twice. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, October 2000. Berkley, paperback, November 2001.

   I think everybody reading this blog has already made up their minds, one way or the other, whether they’re ever going to read one of Parker’s Spenser novels again. He’s a controversial author and he’s a controversial character, no doubt about it, and everybody knows what side they’re on.

   But for some reason, and maybe I just wasn’t paying attention, I don’t believe I’ve ever read any reviews or eve serious discussion of Parker’s series of Sunny Randall books. She’s a PI too, and also based in the Boston area. I don’t believe she and Spenser ever met, but as I understand it, some of the minor characters in the Spenser novels show up now and then in the Randall books.

   For what it’s worth, this is my report on the first of the latter’s books I’ve read. If you don’t like Spenser, you can stop right here. There’s no way in the world that I can persuade you read any of the Sunny Randall books. I’m not sure how convincingly Parker was able to pull off telling the six books in the series from a female point of view, from a female perspective, but I can tell you this. There’s no mistaking the voice. The author of the Spenser books is the same fellow who wrote the Randall books.

   In Perish Twice Sunny starts with two clients: First, her sister, who thinks her husband is cheating on her. (He is.) Then she’s hired by a high-powered feminist to find out who’s stalking her, which she does, but the stakes seem to suddenly go higher when an associate of her client is murdered. The cops think the dead women was killed by mistake. Sunny disagrees, and quite strongly so, and she ends up fired, without a paying client.

   Does that stop her? No way, no how. There’s a lot more I’ve decided not to go into, and this includes the therapy gives her long time friend Julie whose marriage is also breaking up. Sunny’s non-extinguished love affair with Richie, her ex-husband (mob-connected), seems to make her an expert on love affairs that are going wrong.

   It’s too bad that with her dedication to finding answers to questions that bother her doesn’t end up with her solving the case on her own. That she has to depend on Richie’s family for, giving her the answers but not much in the way of resolution. This is a bit troublesome, if you think about it.


THE CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE. Mexico, 1961. Originally released as Muñecos Infernales. Elvira Quintana, Ramón Gay, Roberto G. Rivera, Quintín Bulnes, Nora Veryán. Directors: Benito Alazraki and Paul Nagle.

   Apparently they made two versions of this black and white Mexican horror film. The original Mexican production, entitled Muñecos Infernales (“Diabolical Dolls” is a good translation and one I think that works pretty well in describing the movie), and the made for American release, The Curse of the Doll People, which I understood to be a rather disjointed production.

   So it was the former production that I recently watched, albeit with the necessary English subtitles. And I have to tell you: it’s a strange one, through and through. It’s not just that the atmosphere is at times uncannily creepy or that the soundtrack works perfectly for an early 1960s horror movie.

   No. It’s also the subject matter which you’ve probably guessed by now revolves around dolls. And not just any dolls, but devilish little fiends that come to life and then proceed to murder you in your sleep with tiny little daggers. That is what makes Muñecos Infernales worth watching. It actually successfully pulls off the whole “evil dolls come to life” without once slipping into self-parody or light comedy.

   But where did these dolls come from and what do they want? Well, there’s a backstory to that. A group of wealthy Mexican professional friends reveal to another friend, a female physician named Karina (Elvira Quintana), that they went on a trip to Haiti and while there, violated the sanctity of a voodoo temple and stole an ancient relic.

   Why Karina? Well, she’s familiar with archaeology and the occult, her father being an archaeologist who took her to far-flung places in her youth. (Marion Ravenwood comes to mind.) When members of the traveling party start dying in mysterious ways, it doesn’t take long for Karina to surmise that they were cursed. Her fiancé, Dr. Armando Valdés (Ramón Gay) thinks all this superstition is hokum.

   That is, until he learns that his friends have indeed been killed for their transgressions and that the murderers were devil dolls. If that sounds like a lot to take in for one feature, that’s because it is. There’s voodoo, a sorcerer, devil dolls, and last but not least, a zombie.

   But the whole thing’s oddly captivating nonetheless. Not a great horror film, but it’s certainly on par with some of the better British and Italian films from the same era.

For all intents and purposes, Picadilly Line was a duo consisting of the two lead singers, Rod Edwards and Roger Hand, backed up by a large group of session musicians. The Huge World of Emily Small (1967), their only LP in this incarnation, has been described as “psych baroque pop.” Listen for yourself:


THE NINTH GUEST. Columbia, 1934. Donald Cook, Genevieve Tobin, Hardie Albright, Edward Ellis, Edwin Maxwell, Vince Barnett, Helen Flint, Samuel S. Hinds. Director: Roy William Neill. Shown at Cinefest #14, Syracuse NY, March 1994.

   The first movie to be given a midnight showing was The Ninth Guest, a literate mystery based on a novel by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning and originally published by the Mystery League in 1930 as The Invisible Host (a fact of which the writer of the program notes left the audience blissfully unaware).

   The novel and film with the familiar plot device of killing off guests invited for a party/weekend in the country/reading of a will predates the Christie novel And Then There Were None (1939) and the film version of the same title (1945) by nine and eleven years respectively, but The Ninth Guest film although it does not have the casting luster of René Clair’s And Then There Were None, is a stylish, moody thriller that deserved better scheduling than the midnight showing it received.

PATRICK RUELL – Red Christmas. John Long, UK, hardcover, 1972. Hawthorn, US, hardcover, 1972. Manor Books, US, paperback, 1974. Mysterious Press, US, paperback; 1st printing, May 1987.

   Author Reginald Hill, who died in 2012, is best known, of course, for his two dozen books about British police detectives Andrew Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. Not nearly as well known is that he also wrote five books about a black private detective named Joe Sixsmith, plus a number of standalones under both his name and as Patrick Ruell.

   This was my first sample of any the latter, and while it was a little late for the holiday season, it stands up as the best crime or detective novel I’ve read so far this year. It starts on the day before Christmas, as travelers from all directions converge on an isolated country house called Dingley Dell, straight out of Charles Dickens and The Pickwick Papers, and decked up as an exact facsimile for the holiday.

   Some of the guests are exactly that. Others have secret reasons for being there. Question: In which group does the delectable Arabella Allen fall? Their host is a jovial stout gentleman named Wardle, but Arabella seems to find a kindred spirit in his assistant, a scholar named Boswell, one of whose stated tasks is to maintain as close a verisimilitude to the past as possible.

   Spirits are high — they are snowed in, of course — and everyone seems to be having a great time. Behind the scenes, though, their hosts are doing their best to keep the sight of a growing number of deaths a secret from them. This is the edge that keeps the reader reading as well, long into the night. Are Arabella and Boswell on the same side? Eventually, yes, but how long will the truce last?

   On the cover of the Mysterious Press paperback you may be able to make out the shape of a helicopter swooping down over the manor — a very appropriate image. As the body count begins to grow, so do the stakes, and one or two big twists are just what the reader needs to sit back and say, Ah! for a job well done.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Case of the Gilded Lily. William Morrow & Co., hardcover, September 1956. Cardinal C-337, paperback; 1st printing, April 1959. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and soft, including Pocket 35085, paperback; 6th printing, January 1968 (shown). Ballantine, paperback, 1985.

   This mid-career Gardner differs from most of the run in at least one significant way: Perry Mason does not show up until page 46. The stories most often begin with Perry and Della sitting in his office going through his mail and correspondence together until their next client is shown in sometimes with an appointment, sometimes not.

   In Gilded Lily we’re given a long look at the situation businessman Stewart Bedford finds himself in. A widower for twelve years, he is now married to a much younger wife, and very happily so. Life is good until a blackmailer demands $20,000 in cash. If not delivered, details of his wife’s previous life (insurance fraud) will be delivered to the scandal magazines.

   Going along with what’s asked of him, Bedford is taken by a good-looking blonde to a roadside motel to wait it out until the financial transaction is consummated. But given something in his drink, he wakes to find the blonde gone and the blackmailer shot to death in the adjoining cabin. With what is in all likelihood his gun.

   Well sir. At long last, this is certainly a good time to call Perry Mason in, and in the process of representing his client, the latter seems to skirt the letter of the law as closely as he ever has, and that’s something he does as a matter of everyday routine.

   It’s fingerprints rather than ballistics that’s at the core of this one, and if you can follow Mason as he juggles the evidence around as he does in this one, you’re a better person than I. I had no idea what he had in mind, but in the course of the trial, all is explained, with his one of his trickiest gambits ever working like a charm.

   This is one of Mason’s more complicated cases, and plain, unadorned writing style and all, I enjoyed every minute of it.

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