May 2017


MacKINLAY KANTOR – Wicked Water. Random House, hardcover, 1948. Unicorn Mystery Book Club, hardcover, 4-in-1 edition, 1949. Bantam #809, paperback, 1950; 2nd printing, #1238, 1954.

   Another tip-off from the redoubtable Bill Crider.

   Okay, for starters I assume everyone here has read Shane or seen the movie and you all remember Jack Palance as the saturnine gunman, Wilson. Well, Wicked Water is what Shane would have been if it were called Wilson.

   Buster Crowe makes his entrance in the classic fashion, riding into the tiny hamlet of Pearl City on a dusty afternoon, and he shows his nature by beating a kid in the first few pages, then cowing the boy’s dad with a display of deadly marksmanship. In short order he’s hired by the local big ranchers to scare away the “nesters” and the murders start.

   Kantor takes a simple tale, does it in prose that’s expressive but never showy, and rings in some colorful characters to move it along, notably Mattie MacLaird, a saloon-singer-turned-schoolmarm, and Marshal “Speedy” Rochelle, a laid-back lawman who ambles in at the half-way point to set things to rights — another neat reversal on Shane.

   Mostly though this is about Buster Crow, the hired killer, and his murderous progress through the environs of Pearl City, and it’s here where Kantor really shines, fleshing out the character without letting up on the pace, and he lets the interaction among the characters bring things to a conclusion that actually got me a little misty.

   Definitely one for fans of Westerns or just plain good writing.

KEITH LAUMER “Ballots and Bandits.” First published in If, September-October 1970. Collected in Retief of the CDT (Doubleday, hardcover, 1971; Pocket, paperback, July 1978).

   After reading and reporting back on a novel by Keith Laumer called Catastrophe Planet a while back, I realized that I hadn’t read any of the series of stories he wrote about an intergalactic diplomatic troubleshooter named Retief in quite a while. I enjoyed them immensely back in the 60s and early 70s, but as time went on, I started to forget how good they were.

   Shame on me. I read this one a couple of days ago, and I found it as funny as I remember all of Retief’s adventures for the CDT were. Retief is “fighter” spelled backwards, or so I’m told (well, it’s close), and what the initials CDT stand for is Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne. The stories themselves are wicked, satirical jabs at diplomatic missions around the world, and the US in particular, based on Laumer’s previous career in the foreign service.

   The only difference being that instead of traveling around the world, Retief’s job takes him to all kinds of alien planets all over the galaxy. What’s the same is the dunderheadedness of all ambassadors and their ilk — all Retief’s superiors, but none of them, not one, can maneuver their way through an interworld diplomatic crisis if their lives depend on it. And often they do.

   In “Ballots and Bandits” Retief and entourage (well, technically speaking, he’s part of the entourage) are on the planet Oberon where the enemy Groaci have recently been sent packing, and the various races on the planet are about to have independent elections for the first time.

   Two problems: Ambassador Clawhammer thinks the Terrans should have their say in the matter, and worse, the various races on Oberon have mistakenly taken the idea of election battles and political war chests far more literally as the people of other worlds do. The question is, which is better, being pushed around by local hoodlums, of being exploited from afar?

   Retief is the kind of guy that cuts through diplomatic double talk with total impatience, and as a mere Second Secretary solves the problem as a man who thinks with his head instead of using it as only a place to rest his hat. And in the process this time around he teaches the Oberonians the Rituals of “Whistle-stopping, Baby-kisisng, Fence-sitting, and Mid-slinging, plus a considerable amount of Viewing-with-Alarm.”

   Great stuff. I’ve only scratched the surface of what made me laugh out loud with this one, and more than once.

L. L. FOREMAN – Jemez Brand. Ace Double 38500, paperback original, 1971. A “fix-up” novel comprised of two novellas from Western Story Magazine, the first being “Jemez Brand” from the 10 December 1941 issue, the second “Six-Gun Sermon,” from 05 September 1942. Published back-to-back with Ransome’s Move, by Kyle Hollingshead.

   The hero of this pair of western tales is Preacher Devlin, who appeared in several dozen pulp magazine stories in the 30s and 40s, beginning with Western Aces in December 1934 before moving over to Western Story in 1939. The last of his adventures appeared in the issue for June 1949.

   Something I do not know is whether this is the only appearance in book form of Preacher Devlin or not. He’s basically an outlaw, with posses invariably on his trail. I do not believe that he ever was a minister of any denomination, but he may have been at one time. As the book begins, he is described as wearing a long black coat with a black hat with flat brim and crown. He is also very good with his guns, with the reputation that goes along with such a man in the Old West. He is not averse to coming out ahead in monetary fashion as he travels, but only if he has earned it.

   For example, when he comes across a dead man, murdered in some strange fashion at the beginning of the first story, with money still in the man’s pockets, he does not take it. The body is only the beginning of a strange affair that involves a hunt for a city of gold, complete with a tribe of local Indians who may be descendants from the Ucaylis originally from Peru — or even Lost Atlantis.

   Add in a young ethnologist searching for traces of his missing father, a young girl with the face of a cat — a mask made of gold — and a band of vicious mercenaries led by an ex-Confederate colonel named Trist. It’s quite a wild story, but unfortunately — and not surprisingly — after a great start, it tails off in rather perfunctory fashion, at least in comparison to the earlier part of the tale.

   Even better is Part II of this cobbled-up novel, and thanks to Walker Martin for helping me identify this second tale, after narrowing the possibilities down by the use of Phil Stephenson-Payne’s online Western Fiction Index.

   Unlike the story in Part I, this one starts out in bang and gets even better as it goes along. It begins with a traveling minister and his daughter finding Devlin in sorry straits after being bushwhacked and left for dead. They then bring him into a town most inappropriately called Rainbow, where all hell breaks loose. It seems that the rough and very wild gold-mining town is under the control of outlaws, in spite of the best effort of the local lawman. Even more, Devlin has a price on his head, and not only is a posse after him, but hordes of bounty hunters from all over the West.

   One highlight of this second story is when Reverend Topcliff tries to start up a church service in Rainbow, not realizing that the bad element in the area are only joshing him along in anticipation of the fun they are going to have with him. It is up to Preacher Devlin to end the chaos that follows, as he makes good use of not only a sermon but both of his six-guns.

   A very enjoyable pair of stories. I think more of Preacher Devlin’s western tales should be in print. I hope someone is listening.


S. T. HAYMON – A Beautiful Death. Ben Jurnet #7. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1994. No US paperback edition. First published in the UK: Constable, hardcover, 1993.

   The “S”in S. T. stands for Sylvia, if you didn’t know. This prima facie remarkable lady is now 76, and pulished the first Jurnet book when she was 62.

   DI Ben Jurnet is so weary that he can’t quite wake up when his lover tries to tell him she’s taking his car because hers won’t start. He never sees her again, because the car explodes when she starts it. Incapacitated by grief for a time, he finally begins to look in the past and present for answers.

   Official inquiries focus on the IRA, who are quick to claim responsibility, and indeed Jurnet travels to Ireland after a guest of Irish neighbors vanishes. But there are enemies from his own past to consider, too, including a petty crook who blames Jurnet for his brother’s crippling, and an ex-political figure who blames him for his wife’s death. Too, he must cope with how the tragedy has affected his impending conversion to Judaism.

   This is a powerfully written book. Jurnet’s grief at the loss of his lover is almost overwhelming in its intensity, and the novel is as much of his coming to terms with it as it is a detective story. Haymon has much to say about violence, and guilt, and blame, and the ways people cope with them.

   Her characterizations are strong, the saturnine Jurnet and his superior in particular, and her prose is clear and illuminating. I think it’s time that this lady is recognized for what she is: one of the better serious crime novelists practicing today. If you aren’t familiar with her, you owe it to yourself to become so.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.

[UPDATE.] Unfortunately there was to be only one additional book in Haymon’s Ben Jurnet series. Death of a Hero was published in 1996, one year after her death in 1995.

JONATHAN LATIMER – The Lady in the Morgue. Bill Crane #3. Doubleday Doran / Crime Club, hardcover, 1936. Pocket Books #246, paperback, 1943 [several printings]. Dell, paperback, 1957 [Great Mystery Library]. International Polygonics, paperback, 1988. Contained in Triple Detective, pulp magazine, Winter 1952 [probably abridged]. Film: Universal, 1938, with Preston Foster (Bill Crane), Patricia Ellis, Frank Jenks (Doc Williams), Tom Jackson, Bill (Gordon) Elliott. Director: Otis Garrett.

   After the staggering amount of every kind of liquor consumed by PI Bill Crane and his two associates in this book, in every combination of proportion thereof, it’s a wonder that by the time the case is over, anyone is left standing at all.

   It’s a wild, woolly, and definitely risque affair, with the unidentified nude body of a beautiful young woman being stolen from the morgue late at night right from under Crane’s watchful eye. Various factions of gangsters and one very rich family either want the body back, don’t want anyone else to have it, or simply want to know if it’s that of a wandering daughter. Crane is left right in the middle.

   There is actually some detective work going on here, in between bouts at a taxi dance hall, another mausoleum, various mobsters’ hangouts and so on, but with all the lowbrow humor (including some really nifty puns), it might be hard to notice.

   Did I care? No.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.


THE ARNELO AFFAIR. MGM, 1947. John Hodiak, George Murphy, Frances Gifford, Dean Stockwell, Eve Arden, Warner Anderson. Screenwriter/director: Arch Oboler.

   Perhaps you’ve never had occasion to watch The Arnelo Affair. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones. For despite the potentially interesting premise – a suburban Chicago housewife named Anne Parkson (Frances Gifford) gets caught up in a romantic entanglement with a sleazy nightclub owner named Tony Arnelo (Hodiak) – this movie is far more of a tedious soap opera than it is a crime film.

   Let me be perfectly honest. The melodramatic acting, the incessant and overwrought soundtrack, and the truly dismal dialogue made this one a tough one for me to get through.

   Directed by Arch Oboler, who was known primarily for his work in radio, The Arnelo Affair is a flat, lifeless composition that offers little in the way of distinguished direction or photography.

   That’s not to say that Oboler didn’t have talent on hand. John Hodiak was a terrific actor, and he did his best with what he had to work with, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make his performance as the eponymous Tony Arnelo anything particularly memorable.

   The one small bright spot in this rather tepid affair is the presence of Warner Anderson as a police detective tasked with solving the murder of an actress. His trail leads him directing to both Arnelo and to Anne and her boring-as-dirt lawyer husband (George Murphy). Convincing in this role, Anderson gives a little bit of gritty reality and gravitas to the soap opera proceedings.

SNEAKERS. Universal Pictures, 1992. Robert Redford, Dan Ackroyd, Ben Kingsley, Sidney Portier, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones. Director: Phil Alden Robinson.

   An aging ex-radical hippie is roped into pulling a steal for what he thinks is the National Security Agency, but of course it really isn’t. At stake is the security of the nation’s computer networks, a hacker’s sweat dream, if ever there was one.

   High tech without much glitter, the movie is slower moving than it should be, but with all these pros on the job, it still manages to be an above average piece of work.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993 (very slightly revised)

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

CHRISTIANNA BRAND – Green for Danger. John Lane/The Bodley Head, UK, hardcover, 1945. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1944. US paperback reprints include: Bantam F2858, 1965; Perennial Library, 1981; Carroll & Graf, 1989. Film: General Film, UK, 1947 (with Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill).

   Christianna Brand has written mainstream novels, short stories, and juveniles, but she is best known for her detective novels featuring Inspector Cockrill of the Kent, England, County Police. Cockrill (known affectionately as Cockle) is a somewhat eccentric, curmudgeonly fellow — less a character than a catalyst in the cases he solves. He delights in setting up situations that force the murderer’s hand, and the murderer’s identity usually seems quite obvious to the reader, until Brand introduces a twist designed to delight.

   At the beginning of Green for Danger, an unlikely group of characters assemble at a military hospital during the blitz of World War II. Each has his reasons for escaping his previous environment; each has expectations of what this assignment will bring. What none of them suspects is that a patient — the postman who, incidentally, delivered their letters saying they were coming to Heron’s Park Hospital — will die mysteriously on the operating table, and that all of them will come under Inspector Cockrill’s scrutinizing eye as murder suspects.

   The characters are numerous, but Brand nonetheless manages to instill unique qualities that enlist the reader’s sympathy and create dismay at the revelation of the murderer. The solution is plausible, the motivation well foreshadowed, and the evocation of both the terror and fortitude of those who endured the German bombing is very real indeed.

   Inspector Cockrill has also solved such cases as Heads You Lose (1941), Death of Jezebel (1948), London Particular (1952), and The Three-Cornered Halo (1957).

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

William F. Deeck

JAMES CORBETT – The Lion’s Mouth. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1941. No US edition.

   Another in Mr. Corbett’s continuing series of poor-quality thrillers. It is apparent that he means well, but he really just can’t seem to break out of the formula, which is a rather humdrum one at that.

   In this novel, Robert Morley, archcrook, has threatened Chief-Inspector Langton of Scotland Yard with kidnapping. Morley wishes to remove Langton so that he can successfully complete his final crime and retire. He is also aware, as the novel proves, that without Langton Scotland Yard is a mere nothing.

   The kidnapping takes place. The case is placed temporarily in the hands of Detective-Inspector Denton — none of the members of the big five wanting to handle it. It is said about Denton that “the set of his chin below humorous grey eyes bespoke his ability to take care of himself in any situation that might arise”. A gross exaggeration, as his later falling over a female, getting knocked out, and kidnapped proves.

   While there is no real mystery here — it is a police procedural, very loosely described — some puzzles are present:

   â€” Is there such a thing as a “Mauser revolver”?

   â€” One of Morley’s henchmen is a Hungarian. We know this because the author keeps telling us, plus the henchman has an accent when the author remembers to provide him with one and says “he in?” and “Schweinhundt!” periodically. Why then would Denton look for him in a shop with provisions “dear to the taste of the Latin”? (Why Denton would also seek him out in “a struggling photographer’s studio” also raises questions.)

   â€” What does “the character he had so skillfully assumed seemed to synchronise with his surroundings” mean?

   â€” After a 45-minute walk, plus time for some ridiculous conversation, Denton whips out a handkerchief from his pocket and covers a woman’s face. He had prepared the handkerchief with “just a spot” of chloroform at his apartment. Where did Denton get this remarkable stuff?

   Not to be compared with Mr. Corbett’s delightfully awful novels, but amusing in its own way.

— Reprinted from CADS 7, December 1987. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.

Note:   James Corbett books previously reviewed by Bill on this blog —

      Murder While You Wait
      Gallows Wait
      Vampire of the Skies


RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL. Universal, 1958. Audie Murphy, Gia Scala, Walter Matthau, Henry Silva. Written by Borden Chase. Directed by Jesse Hibbs.

   Audie Murphy may have been the top billed star, but it’s Walter Matthau who steals the show in the 1958 Cinemascope western, Ride a Crooked Trail. The future Academy Award winner portrays Judge Kyle, a rough-around-the-edges, whiskey-drinking, and shotgun-toting small town magistrate.

   When outlaw Joe Maybe (Murphy) comes to town and falsely assumes the identity of a federal marshal, the ornery Judge Kyle takes the young man under his wing and makes him the town’s lawman. Little does he realize, at least at the beginning, that Joe Maybe, along with his “wife” Tessa (Gia Scala) have their eyes on the local bank vault.

   Leading the outlaw gang is the borderline sociopathic Sam Teeler, portrayed to the hilt by veteran character actor Henry Silva. Of course, there comes “the choice.” Does Joe Maybe decide to go straight and side with his newfound friend, Judge Kyle, or does he stay on a crooked path?

   Much of the film is typical Western fare and there’s not all that much in this one that you probably haven’t seen done better elsewhere before. Sad to say, the film’s direction and editing is really at times noticeably sub-par. Which is a shame, because it looks so good, with bright colors and distinctive hues.

   But as I mentioned before, Matthau gives a stand-out performance. It was a relatively early film for him, one made in the first several years of his long and illustrious career. If for nothing else, Ride a Crooked Trail is worth watching for him alone.

NOTE: Dan Stumpf has also reviewed Ride a Crooked Trail for this blog. See his comments here.

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