April 2018

ANNETTE MEYERS – The Big Killing. Xenia Smith & Leslie Wetzon #1. Bantam, hardcover, 1989; paperback, 1990.

   For what it’s worth, this is the best story of murder on Wall Street since Emma Lathen seems to have stopped writing, and for all that, not that good. It’s also the first mystery to be tackled and solved by the executive headhunting team of Smith and Wetzon, both female.

   And apparently both rivals for the eye of police detective Silvestri, who really solves the case, sort of a split-screen affair, half dealing with missing tapes, half with a stash of stolen drugs. Unfortunately, the connection is that of only coincidence, merely a million-to-one shot, if you will.

PostScript:   And so Silvestri agrees, on page 348, which is maybe another indicator why I’d begun to lose interest long before. There are 350 pages in all, and that’s simply way too long for a mystery novel. It takes some pretty good characters to keep a good hold on a reader’s attention for that long, and sorry to say, Smith and Wetzon and their problems kept me involved for only 200 pages or so.

— Reprinted (and somewhat shortened) from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

DAVID HOUSEWRIGHT – Darkness, Sing Me a Song. Holland Taylor #4. Minotaur Books, hardcover, January 2018. Setting: Twin Cities Minnesota.

First Sentence: She was tall, slender, impeccably tanned; strawberry hair fell in waves to her shoulders.

   Wealthy and socially important Eleanor Barrington has been arrested for the murder of her son Joel’s fiancée, Emily Denys. PI Holland Taylor has been hired to help the defending law firm by investigating Emily’s background, only to find she doesn’t have one.

   And that’s not the only mystery. Bigger questions revolve around the relationship between the mother and son, and where, if at all, does Joel’s sister Devon fit in to things and whether a controversial business deal is involved. This case is much more than Taylor, still recovering from the death of his wife and daughter, and the breakup of a recent relationship, expected.

   The best story is one which starts on page one, although I was amused by the typo on page 6 in the hardcover copy, and dives right it. It is a classic story for a reason. What also works is the reader being set up with one expectation and then story taking a twist within the first two paragraphs.

   Housewright weaves the backstory of the characters into the text and dialogue in a manner where it is intriguing rather than disruptive. While some of the characters are quite disturbing, Ogilvy the rabbit, Mandy Wedermeyer, the 14-year-old neighbor, her mom Claire, and Taylor’s parents add balance and made Taylor more real.

   Taylor is a great character and one that is fully-developed. He has a past that impacts the present. He is a person one would want to know, and there are some nice moments of realization— “I don’t think she was interested in me so much as she craved human contact, which seemed to prove that it isn’t how many people you meet, it’s how many you connect with that matters.”

   There is a very well-done inclusion of environmental issues related to fracking, water and land usage which bring contemporary relevance to the story. One minor criticism is that there are times when following a conversation can become confusing as to whom is speaking.

   Darkness, Sing Me a Song includes relationships which are uncomfortable, has very effective plot twists, and a powerful, rather sad, ending.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.

       The Holland Taylor series —

1. Penance (1995)

2. Practice to Deceive (1997)
3. Dearly Departed (1999)
4. Darkness, Sing Me a Song (2018)
5. First, Kill the Lawyers (2019)


ED LACY – Sin in Their Blood. Eton Books E111, paperback original, 1952. Macfadden #50-255, paperback, 1966. Black Curtain Press, softcover, 2013.

   To my mind, Ed Lacy occupies a place firmly in the upper second rank of hard-boiled writers of the last century. Maybe not up there with Hammett, Chandler, and (insert a few names of your own) but definitely right up there with Charles Williams, Peter Rabe, and (insert etc. etc.)

   Lacy’s writing offers smooth prose, plotting that hooks the reader and moves things right along, and characters who seem unique enough to be real, without the flamboyant eccentricities that mark too many patently fictional creations.

   I did some reading up on Lacy, who turns out to have been Len Zinberg, born in 1911 and raised in an affluent Jewish family on the fringes of Harlem. Not surprisingly, considering that time and place, Zinberg got involved in the Harlem Renaissance and left-wing politics of his day, and these show up in Lacy’s writing.

   Sin in Their Blood opens with Matt Ranzino returning to his home town after a year in a VA hospital following service in Korea. Seems he was formerly a PI, and before that a cop, and before that a prizefighter, so he has all the qualifications necessary for a paperback hero, except that he contracted Tuberculosis in the Army and now feels super-cautious about undue exertion.

   By the way, Zinberg suffered from heart trouble all his life, so when Lacy writes about debilitating fatigue and panic, he knows how to put it across.

   Getting back to the story, Ranzino finds himself reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation, and just as reluctantly lured back toward his old PI Agency, which is now making big bucks off McCarthyism and the Red Scare, blackmailing vulnerable types who may have joined a pinkish organization back in the 1930s, or maybe signed a petition against capital punishment for the Rosenbergs or some such.

   Lacy moves his hero through a potentially preachy miasma without getting didactic, even when the title of the piece — Sin in Their Blood — turns out to refer to a couple murdered because he was passing for white, with her knowledge. There’s also a plucky lady involved with Matt who insists on getting a job and making him share the household chores. And just to put this in perspective, this was written in 1952 — in 1974, when my wife went to get a credit card in her name, she was asked if her husband would object.

   But most impressive (to me, anyway) is that Lacy keeps all this subtext in the background. This book moves fast and it moves well, with all the shady hoods, loose ladies, fights, and shoot-outs one looks for between the gaudy covers of a paperback. Enjoy the flash, appreciate the substance.

RONALD TIERNEY – The Stone Veil. Deets Shanahan #1. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1990. Life Death & Fog Books, softcover, 2011.

   Is there room in Indianapolis for another PI? Move over, Albert Samson, and make room for Dietrich “Deets” Shanahan, pushing 70, nearly retired, but still man enough to take on both a missing husband case and a new lady friend whom he meets working in a massage parlor.

   He’s not really inept, trying to cope with new computer technology and so on, but he doesn’t really shine either. The problem with this, his second case in four years, is that over 70% of it concerns his personal life. But then, his personal life is interesting.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.

The Deets Shanahan series —

1. The Stone Veil (1990)
2. The Steel Web (1991)

3. The Iron Glove (1992)
4. The Concrete Pillow (1995)
5. Nickel-Plated Soul (2004)
6. Platinum Canary (2005)

7. Glass Chameleon (2006)
8. Asphalt Moon (2007)
9. Bloody Palms (2008)

10. Bullet Beach (2010)
11. Killing Frost (2015)

Note: The Stone Veil was a finalist for both the St. Martin’s Press and Shamus awards for the best first mystery novel


THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1973. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, John Dehner. Screenwriter: Buck Henry, based on the novel by Robert Merle. Director: Mike Nichols.

   The first thing you need to know about this movie is that, in it, George C. Scott talks to dolphins. And the dolphins, at least one of them, talks back with loving affection, telling him how much he loves him. Now if you can suspend disbelief on this rather fantastic matter, you may also be able to suspend disbelief regarding the movie poster’s famous tagline and how it gives away the whole plot: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States!”

   Now, I know what you’re thinking. The Day of the Dolphin must be a fun, quirky action-adventure movie with an over the top performance from Scott. It has to be, right? Wrong. Inexplicably, director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) decided to play it straight, taking the source material deeply seriously, embellishing it with cinematic artistry and artifice.

   All of which makes this movie one of the oddest motion pictures I’ve ever seen. Technically, it’s extremely well filmed. And Scott was a trooper, giving a stellar performance as a marine biologist who has unknowingly been working for a shadowy group within the government that hopes to assassinate the president.

   But it all comes back to Alpha. That’s the name of the prized talking dolphin. Actually, it’s “Fa” for short. As in Al-Fa. You see “Fa loves Pa.” Or so he says in a squeaky voice. The viewer is supposed to take this all seriously. Maybe you can. I couldn’t. But that didn’t stop me from watching The Day of the Dolphin to the very end.

   It’s got sheer chutzpah for even existing, this strange little neglected film that concludes on a most somber note with the protagonists quietly waiting for their deaths at the hands of powerful hidden forces in the government. For a movie with talking animals, this one is a downer.

   Final note: interesting factoid, originally Roman Polanski was set to direct this film and was in London working on pre-production when he learned that Sharon Tate had been murdered in Los Angeles by the Manson Family.

THE SPECKLED BAND. British & Dominions Film Corporation, UK, 1931. Lyn Harding, Raymond Massey (Sherlock Holmes), Angela Baddeley, Nancy Price, Athole Stewart (Dr. John Watson), Marie Ault (Mrs. Hudson). Based on the story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Director: Jack Raymond.

   This was Raymond Massey’s first credited screen role, and as Sherlock Holmes, he looks and acts just like Raymond Massey. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and in many ways he’s the best actor in the film, but as chance would have it, he never played the role again.

   Hopefully someday someone will somewhere find a complete version of this film, one that can be remastered so that it’s actually watchable. The one in general circulation is in really shoddy shape and has been cut down from what was originally may have been a 90 minute movie to one that runs less than 50. (The 90 minute figure may be incorrect, but there are many obvious jumps in the story line.)

   I don’t remember a band of gypsies camping outside the manor house in the original story where all of the action takes place, but I may be wrong about that, and I think the Indian servant is new also. The extra characters do flesh out the story some, and even more importantly, they add a few more possible suspects as to committed the mysterious murder of a young girl alone in her locked bedroom.

   What I know was not in Doyle’s tale was a front office to his lodgings in Baker Street filled with what appears to be primitive computers to which a staff of young ladies are shown busily typing in data about all sorts of crimes that have been committed in England over the years.

   Not only that, but Holmes is proud to show off a device capable of recording voices, which in the film itself was way before its time, as the primary mode of transportation are horse-drawn carriages. It is also a mystery why the device was shown only once but never to be been seen again.

   Unfortunately my knowing the solution to the crime ahead of time — as I assume most of you do, too — makes it difficult to say how effective the overall impact of the film is. It’s an interesting artifact, that’s for certain, and I’m glad I watched it, but more than that, I cannot say.


BRAD MELTZER -The Fifth Assassin. Beecher White #2. Grand Central, trade paperback, January 2013; mass market paperback, May 2015.

   The recipe for a good conspiracy thriller is fairly simple. You start with a few historical anomalies and oddities, research heavily, trim any logic or uncomfortable facts (while noting them in your notes to prove you actually did your research), employ audacity freely, add ruthless villains with vast resources and ties to power, throw in innocent and not so innocent victims, mix with human complications, and finally throw in an attractive and believably human protagonist and bring to a series of boils until the lid threatens to blow off the pot.

   It sounds much easier to do than it is, which is why so few writers get it right. That is exactly what Brad Meltzer does in The Fifth Assassin, and to great effect. This is the second thriller to feature Beecher White, a researcher who works for the National Archives, and who is also a member of the secret Culper Society founded by none other than George Washington to protect the Presidency (viewers of Turn or readers of Washington’s Spies have a heads-up here).

   We begin with the murder of Pastor Riis of St. John’s Church which sits across from the White House, by a mysterious and highly skilled assassin called the Knight (there are no incompetent and seedy assassins in conspiracy thrillers, I think its in the union rules). White and his friend and ally Tot are friends of the late Pastor and note almost immediately the murder of their friend has been staged to resemble the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

   When shortly after a second murder is staged to resemble the assassination of President James Garfield White and company are off digging into a conspiracy dating to the beginning of the nation and tying the four successful assassinations of Presidents and the ten unsuccessful to a conspiracy as old as the Culper Society itself, a conspiracy that goes higher up than White can or is willing to imagine and which puts him and his partner in personal danger as well as calling into question their loyalty and that of men much higher in government than they are reaching the Oval Office itself.

   White is a likable, moral, and human hero, and following along with him is one of the pleasures of this better written than average bestselling conspiracy thriller. Climax and anti-climax follow in traditional thriller mode, all done with more care than usual, all coming down to a final page conclusion that without quite being a cliff-hanger leaves you restlessly panting for the next book (which gratefully is already out).

   This mix of history, conspiracy, mystery, some detection — at least of the historical kind — ethical hero, patriotism of the actual sort, and enough action to keep pages turning is highly entertaining, and best of all the plot is kept moving without pages of half-digested exposition that would slow down even the most dedicated historian.

   Don’t start reading too late in the evening, you may find yourself not wanting to put it down until you see how it all unfolds, and you will almost certainly want to spend more time with Beecher White, the most likable thriller hero in my recent reading.

      The Culper Ring Trilogy

1. The Inner Circle (2011)
2. The Fifth Assassin (2013)
3. The President’s Shadow (2015)

by Michael Shonk

   It’s pilot season at the major TV networks as the networks look for new shows for the 2018-19 season. Here is a link to Deadline’s “Primetime pilot panic” where you can read what each network is looking at for next season:


   The creation of the pilot dates back to radio days when audition shows were used to find a sponsor or stations to support the show as a regularly appearing series. While radio used the word “audition” for the first example of the possible series, TV uses pilot from “pilot project.”

   In the summer of 1940 CBS aired FORECAST, a series of radio episodes with the hope the audience would help them become a network series. Of these auditions two would become hits and continue to be remembered today, SUSPENSE and DUFFY’S TAVERN.

   Below is DEDUCTION DELUXE, an episode from FORECAST second and final season. Despite its pleas to the radio audience DEDUCTION DELUXE did not survive for a second episode.

DEDUCTION DELUXE “Problem of the Painted Poodle.” CBS Radio, July 28, 1941, Monday at 9pm (Eastern). Cast: Adolphe Menjou as Roger Boone, Verree Teasdale as Twyla Boone. Other Voices include: Arthur Q. Bryan, Verna Telton, and Gerald Mohr. Written by Keith Fowler and Frank Galen.

   The episode sounded like a vaudeville sketch with its simple character types and non-stop patter of gags, many still funny. The mystery of who painted a rich lady’s poodle green was better than average as the writers for the most part played fair with the clues.

   Real life married couple Adolphe Menjou and Verree Teasdale certainly had the right chemistry as PI Roger Boone and his wife Twyla Boone. The fatal flaw for the show was in the character of husband Roger Boone, a man who handled “clues, blondes and horses with equal enthusiasm.” Twyla seemed resigned to her husband sleeping with other women but I doubt the 1941 radio audience was as forgiving.

RUSSELL. Paramount Television – CBS Films Production; date unknown. Fess Parker as Charles Russell, Beverly Garland as Bonnie, Jay C. Flippen as Windy, and Paul Carr as Tracey. Created and written by Borden Chase. Directed by Arthur Hiller. Executive Producer: Gordon Kay. Produced by Frank O’Connor.

   I can find nothing about this pilot beyond the on screen credits and the copyright is unreadable. The pilot was done by Paramount. Fess Parker worked for Paramount between 1958 and 1962. The credit for CBS Films and the sales pitch epilogue probably makes this a pilot for a possible syndicated series. Since Fess Parker was starring in MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON in 1962 we can narrow the time for this show even further to 1958-61.

   While the story and characters were overly simple the show had a certain charm helped by a talented cast and a script that kept things moving.

   Fess Parker played Charles Russell one of the greatest artists of the Old West, and a man of many talents and experiences. He was a good man who was as good with the gun as he was with a brush. Russell wrote about his times and travels through the Old West in books such as TRAILS PLOWED UNDER. Link from Project Gutenberg Australia: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700941h.html.

   In an interesting twist, the premise of the series was not to be just a loosely based biography but instead the stories were to be based on Charlie Russell’s artwork. The pilot episode featured the famous painting “Innocent Allies.”

   The story had Charlie partnering with a man called Windy to run a cattle drive. When Charlie and a young hothead cowboy witness a stage robbery, the young cowboy overreacts and runs off to stop the robbery. His gunfire starts a stampede. Charlie warns others of the approaching stampede and rescues the beautiful and feisty Bonnie, the new owner of the saloon. Charlie tries to help the young man grow up while he paints for Bonnie “Innocent Allies” – his eyewitness account of the stage holdup.

   RUSSELL had the makings for a successful series but Westerns were fading during the years 1958-1961 as the PI and modern detective was growing in its popularity.

GLOBAL FREQUENCY . WB, 2005 Cast: Michelle Forbes as Miranda Zero, Aimee Garcia as Aleph, Josh Hopkins as Sean Flynn and Jenni Baird as Dr. Katrina Finch. * The on-air credits were clipped from this YouTube copy of the 45-minute pilot. The series was created by Warren Ellis based on the popular award winning graphic novel series. John Rogers wrote the script, or at least he was the main writer for the pilot that was directed by Nelson McCormick. (Sources: IMdb and Wikipedia.)

   Before WB had made its decision about the fate of GLOBAL FREQUENCY the episode was leaked to the Internet. According to an email by creator Warren Ellis sent out to fans he claimed WB was so unhappy over the leak they rejected the pilot (CBR.com, July 29, 2005). It would not be the first time or the last Hollywood egos destroyed a quality program.

   Here is a YouTube clip explaining the premise.

   Global Frequency is a secret independent organization created to do the dirty jobs that threaten the world. Run by Miranda Zero, a former top spy, with the aid of Aleph, a young female computer expert who from a high tech base assists and contacts field agents.

   Global Frequency’s agents are a group of people with various talents and connections from all over the world waiting for that call that they are needed to save the world, or at least part of it. This is one of my favorite plot devices and the way it is handled would have hooked me on the series.

   The story began when disgraced ex-cop Sean finds the dead body of a Global Frequency agent. It seems San Francisco will be destroyed in 55 minutes. Sean joins in to help find the man who killed the agent and now is a threat to destroy San Francisco.

   Everything works here. The writing based on an award winning graphic novel series, the cast, the direction, the production, all are excellent. The characters are likable and developed. This even has the most elusive of all qualities, excellent chemistry between the actors.

   Every time I watch a TV thriller like GLOBAL FREQUENCY that blends technology and the human hero so entertainingly, I remember the objections that Hugh O’Brian had during SEARCH (NBC 1972) that the technology not upstage him and again I realize how better SEARCH could have been.

CALLAHAN. ABC – Carsey/Werner Company Production in association with Finnegan Associates, September 9, 1982. Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis as Rachel Bartlett, Hart Bocher as Callahan, John Harkins as Marcus Vox, and Peter Maloney as Mustaf. Created by Ken Finkleman. Developed and Written by David Misch and Ken Finkleman. Directed by Harry Winer

   This funny pilot spoof of the Indiana Jones movie unfairly faced some challenges that had nothing to do with the quality of the episode entitled “Appointment In Rangoon.”

   Plucky innocent Rachel Bartlett applies for the job of assistant to the Director of Research (Callahan) at the Regis Foundation. The job interview quickly expands from Callahan’s academic office into a dangerous thrill-filled chase across the world.

   Overly focused on his work, Callahan is clueless to how unaccustomed Miss Bartlett (as Callahan calls her) is to the action. But Rachel does not let the constant dangers to her life or her torn and increasingly disappearing dress stop her from helping Callahan to recover the object, stop the villain and save the world.

   However quality writing and acting does not always lead a pilot to series. CALLAHAN wanted to become an ABC series for the 1982-83 season. But TV cop spoof POLICE SQUAD had just bombed on ABC during the 1981-82 season. ABC’s pilots for the 1982-83 season had contained more than one Indiana Jones inspired pilot. ABC chose the action drama TALES OF THE GOLDEN MONKEY.

   YouTube continues to be a great place to find failed pilots, so coming soon I will look at four more failed pilots from the past.

At the Gershwin Prize awards in honor of Willie Nelson:

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