June 2018

ELMORE LEONARD – The Hot Kid. Carl Webster #1. William Morrow, hardcover, May 2005. HarperTorch, paperback, 2006.

   As you very well may know without my telling you, Elmore Leonard’s writing career began with westerns of the classic, traditional variety. While he was more than slightly successful at it (with books turned into movies like Hombre and 3:10 to Yuma) his sales didn’t begin to take off until he switched to contemporary crime novels (with books turned into movies like Mr. Majestyk and Get Shorty).

   What The Hot Kid is, is a semi-combination of the two genres, permuted and shuffled around into a smooth, well-blended concoction of the two. Historical gangster fiction, that is, one that takes place in the Old West of the 1920s: the world of Pretty Boy Floyd, Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, and Bonnie and Clyde, all of whom are mentioned, as are Will Rogers and Count Basie, but while Floyd comes close, none of the aforementioned villains and world famous stars actually appear.

   It’s a meandering sort of tale, but when it comes down to it, there are only two primary players involved, and they are (as one would expect) on the opposite sides of the law: Carlos (Carl) Webster, a U.S. Marshal, and Jack Belmont, the son of a wealthy businessman, but a gent who is intent on becoming Public Enemy Number One.

   And he very nearly succeeds. Carl is better, however, and who knows, he may return in yet another adventure. Here’s a quote from page 57, as true crime reporter Tony Antonelli is trying to convince his editor to allow him to write a piece on Carl:

   And then [he] suggested, how about a close study of a deputy U.S. marshal, a good-looking young guy who was on his way to becoming the most famous lawman in America. The hot kid of the Marshals Service who said if he had to draw his gun, he would shoot to kill the felon he was apprehending. “And Carl Webster has drawn his Colt .38 four times in his career. You can tell he’s sharp just by the way he wears his panama, his suit’s always pressed. You look at him and wonder where he keeps his gun.”

   “He’s good-looking, uh?”

   “Could be a movie star.”

   The resulting story is in turn profane, mundane and jazzy. Sparked every so often with confrontations, holdups and numerous shootouts, it’s vastly entertaining. The problem is that it may be too smooth and too easy-going, not to mention the fact that everyone’s dialogue, while suitably terse and in the vernacular, sounds exactly the same as everyone else’s. That includes the descriptive passages as well, as if a grizzled old-timer back in the 1920s had wound himself up in a place of his own choosing and spieled off a yarn of his own making.

   One might have expected a little more jaggedness. Except for a few isolated moments that directly contradict this statement, and I will certainly concede there are, this one’s surprisingly straightforward and calm, in its own sentimental way.

— October 2005. (A shorter version of this review appeared previously in the Historical Novels Review.)

        The Carl Webster series —

1. The Hot Kid (2005)
2. Up in Honey’s Room (2006)
3. Comfort To The Enemy (story collection; 2009)

GEORGES SIMENON – Maigret in New York. Inspector Maigret #27. Penguin, softcover, 2016; translated by Linda Coverdale. First published as Maigret à New York, Paris, 1947. First British publication: H. Hamilton, hardcover, 1979. First published in the US as Maigret in New York’s Underworld, Doubleday, hardcover, 1955. Also published in the US as Inspector Maigret in New York’s Underworld, Signet, paperback, 1956.

   The title tells the whole story. All I have to do is fill in the details. Maigret is retired and living quietly at home when a young French lad calls on him and asks him to come with him to New York where he believes his father, a very rich businessman, is in trouble and perhaps afraid for his life.

   Maigret agrees, but as soon as their ship docks, the boy disappears, and the father does not seem at all concerned. Not convinced, Maigret stays on the case, even though he is, not surprisingly, akin to a fish out of his natural habitat.

   It is that part of the tale that is the more interesting; the problems of the Maura family, with its roots far in the past, less so. But after being quite overwhelmed at the beginning of his stay in the ultimate of American cities, Maigret soon rights himself, and as per his usual custom, sits in a bar alone thinking, and finally puts all the threads of the plot back together again — demonstrating that an expert in human behavior need not have all the comforts of home to get to the bottom of things.

   It is the characters who make the story, in other words, as almost always is the case in a Maigret novel, but this time around that includes Maigret as well.


STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM. Fida Cinematografica, Italy, 1976, as Una Magnum Special per Tony Saitta. American International, US, 1977. Stuart Whitman, John Saxon, Martin Landau, Tisa Farrow, Carole Laure, Jean Leclerc, Gayle Hunnicutt. Director: Alberto De Martino.

   Stuart Whitman does his best as a Canadian Dirty Harry in Strange Shadows in an Empty Room, an Italian crime movie filmed in Ottawa and Montreal. Sleazy with giallo flourishes, the movie follows Ottawa policeman Tony Saitta (Whitman) as he attempts to make sense of his sister’s bizarre poisoning death in Montreal.

   The top suspect is physician George Tracer (Martin Landau), who was having an affair with the young university student. But there are a few other people with secrets of their own who may have had something to do with the shocking crime.

   The movie follows Tony as he, along with his Montreal counterpart Ned Matthews (John Saxon), traverse the boulevards and back streets of Quebec’s largest city in an attempt to figure out what Tony’s sister’s death may have had to do with a murder and jewelry theft in Toronto. Along the way, Tony investigates the death of a transvestite, helps a blind woman stalked by a killer, and uncovers a romantic affair involving Tracer’s son.

   There’s a ridiculous car chase scene that goes on way too long, a fight scene in which Tony takes on three violent transvestites, and a series of illogical and implausible scenarios all culminating in a final shootout in which our antihero shoots down a helicopter with his Magnum.

   Not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but a surprisingly engrossing one for those in the mood for something that could only have been produced in 1970s Italy.


TRAIL OF THE VIGILANTES. Universal, 1940. Franchot Tone, Warren William, Peggy Moran, Andy Devine, Mischa Auer, Porter Hall and Broderick Crawford! Written by Harold Shumate. Directed by Alan Dwan.

   Hey, how’s this for an original Western plot: A lawman comes to town to look into a killin’ and discovers that a pillar of the community is actually running the gang of rustlers that murdered his friend.

   Oh you’ve seen it? Well maybe not, because this one has the intelligence not to take itself too seriously – or seriously at all.

   The intelligence starts with Franchot Tone as an Eastern dude sent West to root around the prairie and look for clues — thank gawd no one tried to pass the cosmopolitan Tone off as a cowboy. Even better, when he gets to the burg of Peaceful Flats and finds the sheriff handcuffed to a lamp post, the laughs start coming, and though they pause for action, they never really stop.

   Warren William, his career in sad eclipse, lends his usual polish to the role of dress-heavy, and his veneer of sophistication matches Tone’s perfectly. In direct contrast, Tone gets teamed up with Andy Devine as a cowboy who dreams of becoming a valet (?!) and Broderick Crawford, providing truculent muscle for any and all occasions.

   And then there’s Mischa Auer, who comes on as an Indian in a Medicine show, morphs into a Mexican, then a Bullfighter, a Cossack, an Acrobat, Magician and Southern Colonel (!) lending an air of pleasing surrealism to the whole thing.

   I should also put in a word for Peggy Moran as a predatory ingénue who spends most of the film trying to seduce Franchot Tone, an agreeable change-up on the usual formula, and she handles it well.

   Overall though, the chief attractions of Trail of the Vigilantes are writer Shumate’s ability to overturn the conventions and director Dwan’s relaxed approach to it all. Thus Tone never fires a shot, even in the big saloon shoot-out, but the film makes no big deal of it. On the other hand, his iffy horsemanship gets only passing notice till it emerges to rousing effect in that saloon melee.

   So what you have here is that rarity, a film that mocks itself yet remains true to form. Exciting, absurd, funny and formulaic in equal measure, Trail of the Vigilantes emerges as rare fun. And what more could you ask?

DONALD HAMILTON – The Frighteners. Matt Helm #25. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback original, May 1989. Titan Books, softcover, 2016.

   According to the tiny number on the spine, this is #25 in the Matt Helm series, but inside the cover there’s a list of only 23 preceding this one. You figure it out. [In the age of the Internet, it is now very easy to verify that #25 is correct.] Helm takes up with three various female companions in this one, the first a bride on her wedding day.

   I do not believe I will be revealing too much of the story line if I tell you he’s impersonating her husband on a “honeymoon” trip to Mexico, on the trail of guns and revolutionaries. There is more that is not what it seems, and while there’s a fair amount if bloodshed, the complications of the plot will have your brain cells working overtime.

[ADDED LATER] I’ve actually probably understated the amount of bloodshed. This is a violent, male-oriented book, filled with talk of guns and the proper way to use them. Of all the quotes I could pick from this book, I liked the one on page 270 just about as well as any. This is Matt Helm, telling his own story: “As I’ve said before, we don’t play the hostage game, and he shouldn’t have tried it. He really shouldn’t.”

— Reprinted and slightly revised from Mystery*File #20, March 1990.

CHRISTOPHER NICOLE – Angel Rising. Anna Fehrbach #6. Severn House, hardcover, 2008.

   …Anna Fehrbach, alias the Countess von Widerstand, alias the Honourable Mrs Ballantine Bordman, alias Anna Fitzjohn. Her ebullient confidence had carried her, when hardly more than a girl, through the horrors of the Second World War, not to mention the traumas of trying to survive afterwards, which for her had been greater than for most, as she had remained for too long the most wanted woman in the world.

   A fair summation from the prologue of the sixth entry in a series of the heroine of this sexy playful historical series by Christopher Nicole, a British writer of big sexy historical thrillers in the Wilbur Smith/James Leasor vein, best known here for his popular spy novels as Andrew York about professional assassin Jonas Wilde (*) and later CID operator Tallant in the Cockpit country of Jamaica.

    When I say sexy, I should point out I mean in the James Bond sense and not the Lady from L.U.S.T. or Man from O.R.G.Y. vein. While these may not stop at the edge of the bed neither do they overly dwell on activities between the sheets, the object being tease more than fulfillment. In fact the best I can describe this series is a cross between Ilsa She Wolf of the SS, Geoffrey Bocca’s soft core Commander Amanda titles about a sort of female Candide serving in the SOE during WWII, Modesty Blaise, and Flashman with far more ties to the latter two in style and mood.

   At eighteen in 1938 Austro-Irish Anna Fehrbach and her family are arrested during the Hitler putsch in Austria. Forced by the SS, who hold her family hostage, Anna becomes the top agent of the SD, their number one assassin and mistress of Reyhard Heydrich, at one point even pursuing an attempt on Joseph Stalin, but eventually Anna is recruited by MI6 and her future husband Clive Bartley and becomes a double agent, even planning the execution of Heydrich in Czechoslovakia and plotting the failed coup against Hitler.

   In and out of bed whether with Heydrich, Stalin, or Hitler Anna is a busy girl.

   That is all back story as this one begins at the end of the war when the Soviets under Stalin’s orders and MVD (predecessor to the KGB) head Beria’s directions decide along with the Americans and Anna’s ex-American lover, Joe Andrews, formerly OSS and now the fledgling CIA, agree Anna is too dangerous to live, and join forces to find and kill her leaving her with no where to hide, pursued and betrayed by the deadliest killers in the world not to mention vengeful Nazis.

   The chase takes her from the highlands of Scotland to Brazil, Germany and Switzerland, a confrontation with her SS trained and loyal Nazi sister, Katherine, and a reckoning with former lover Joe Andrews until Anna wins a brief respite and relieves the Soviets of a considerable sum of money along the way.

   â€˜I gave up trusting people, most people, long ago. But I have grown to understand a little of human motivation; there are only three that matter: love, fear and greed.’

   â€˜You wouldn’t include hate?’

   â€˜Hate is merely an aspect of fear. We only hate the things we fear.’

   â€˜And thus you hate no one.’

   â€˜Not right now. Which is not to say that there are a few people I believe the world would be a better place without.’

   Anna is described as amoral, but instead is something of an original moralist along the lines of Frank McCauliffe’s Augustus Mandrel, Mark Gattiss’s Lucifer Box, and Kyril Bonfigioli’s Mortdecai. She is all the more fun for it eschewing the tiresomely earnest purity of too many of contemporary fiction’s cold-blooded killers.

   This history is of the playful behind-the-scenes type, both accurate and imaginative, the plot fast moving, and the pleasure in watching the beautiful and brilliant Anna (she has an IQ of 173) outwit everyone and anyone trying to use her or kill her, and often both. It is a lighter variation of the kind of thing both Ian Fleming and William F. Buckley did, offering a playful peek at the inner workings of the great and powerful with their hair down and make-up off.

   Yes, it is nonsense, but not without some actual models in the case of Anna, albeit in a less superhuman mold. I don’t want to oversell this; it is fluff, but it is good fluff of the kind not seen as often as it should be these days, not bloated or self important, and Anna’s cheerful blend of amoral survival, healthy (and not so healthy) sexuality, and crisp action and violence is exactly the kind of beach read that used to be a summer staple before the advent of the hernia-inducing beach book.

   Anna threw herself sideways, rolling across the floor but at the same time dragging her dress to her waist to reach the Walther. The two men turned back again, and died before they realized what was going on. Anna kept on firing.

   The writing is crisp and professional, the nonsense factor the tongue-in-cheek sort of the better Bond and Modesty Blaise imitators (which Nicole was), and as I said, the history accurate if playfully tweaked as only the better thrillers manage. Think Dennis Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust without the clunky info dumps.

   Best of all it never overstays its welcome unlike too many thrillers today.

   By the time Anna has earned her rest you will likely feel she fully deserves it and be wanting to join her on other adventures, done in a high style that seems to be lost to many of today’s more heavy-handed thriller writers and their earnest Boy Scout heroes. Pink champagne and caviar with a Vodka chaser taken in proper amounts makes a nice change up from the lite-beer and potato chip boys of too many modern thriller series.

   There is something to be said for style above all else in entertainment which is the only serious intent here.

   â€˜And you mean you and Clive didn’t manage to sneak off and live happily ever after, spending your loot?’

   â€˜Not right then. We had our moments. But I was about to find out just how cold the Cold War could get.’

   â€˜So tell me, did you ever come face to face with Beria?’

   Anna Fehrbach smiled.

    To be, as they say, continued.


   (*) Jonas Wilde debuted in The Eliminator and went on to a long and successful career, most of the books published here in paperback by Berkeley and even resulting in a solid little film, Danger Route, starring Richard Johnson as Wilde, which Quentin Tarantino champions as a model of its kind and has often said the wanted to remake.

   As Nicole the author also penned a juvenile spy series about young agent Jonathan Anders (published here by Dell). He is a popular historical novelist in England with numerous series. The Anna Fehrbach series is up to the ninth entry in that series, and I warn you Nicole is nothing if not prolific…

      The Anna Fehrbach series —

1. Angel from Hell (2006)
2. Angel in Red (2006)
3. Angel of Vengeance (2007)
4. Angel in Jeopardy (2007)
5. Angel of Doom (2008)
6. Angel Rising (2008)
7. Angel of Destruction (2009)
8. Angel of Darkness (2009)
9. Angel in Peril (2013)


FRANCINE MATHEWS – Death in the Off-Season. Merry Folger #1. William Morrow, hardcover, 1994. Avon, paperback, 1995. Soho Crime, trade paperback, 2016.

   There are two facts worthy of immediate note here, before reading a word of the text: that this is yet another first novel trumpeting on the dust wrapper that it is “An Ima New Character Book” (as though anyone gave a damn yet if ever), and Morrow has it priced at $23. Twenty-three dollars. For an unknown. I simply don’t understand. Someone help me, please.

   Merry Folger us a detective on the Nantucket Police Department, and the daughter of the Chief. She catches her first murder case when the brother of a local farmer turns up unexpectedly at the farm after a ten year absence — murdered at the gate,

   Nobody knows why he returned; not the brother, not the lawyer and family friend, not Merry’s ex-love and the brother;s current employee. Nobody. But then somebody takes a shot at the brother, and Merry has to decide whose life to dig in.

   This is all too typical of a type of “mystery” that has become ubiquitous. It’s all about Relationships. Merry with her father. Merry with her ex-love. Merry with the brother. The brother with everybody. And on and on. As a crime novel, it’s silly, and the “investigation” bears about as much relationship[ to real police work as it does to … whatever. It’s told in third person from a number of viewpoints, primarily Merry’s and the brother’s, and the prose is adequate, no more. $23, my ass. Pass this up and read a romance.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.

       The Merry Folger series —

1. Death in the Off Season (1994)
2. Death in Rough Water (1995)
3. Death in a Mood Indigo (1997)
4. Death in a Cold Hard Light (1998)
5. Death on Nantucket (2017)

PANHANDLE. Allied Artists, 1948. Rod Cameron, Cathy Downs, Reed Hadley, Anne Gwynne, Blake Edwards. Screenplay by John C. Champion and Blake Edwards. Director: Leslie Selander.

   This is the film that the later 1966 western movie The Texican was a re-imaging of. (You can read the review by Jonathan and posted here not too long ago.) The later film starred Audie Murphy in Rod Cameron’s part in the original, that of a former lawman now living as a reformed outlaw in Mexico, but who heads back north again to avenge the murder of his brother at the hands of an unknown bushwhacker.

   The villain in this original version is Reed Hadley, a role played by the much heavier Broderick Crawford in the later film, but both are equally mean and despicable. There are a few other changes made, but the basic storylines are about the same, emphasis on basic, and I’d say that the two movies are equally entertaining.

   Some things of interest about Panhandle on its own, however. It was filmed in sepia color, for no good reason that I could see, and because it’s such an uncommon choice, it takes a while to get used to, or it did me.

   While entertaining, the meandering plot really doesn’t know where it is going. When John Sands (Cameron) crosses the border heading north, he’s confronted by a sheriff he knew in the past, but after shooting the gun out of his hand, Sands continues his journey north. The incident does not come up again. Once in the town Hadley all but owns, some townsmen call on Sands to help bring justice to the town. Sands refuses and the incident does not come up again. After a breakneck brawl in a saloon and a subsequent shootout, a stranger has Sands’ back to good advantage. Turns out he (the stranger) works for the federal government (something to do with the panhandle country), but Sands refuses and the incident does not come up again.

   Sands also chooses the wrong girl, to my way of thinking, but we can certainly agree to disagree about that, if you’re so minded.

   One other thing. After seeing Blake Edwards play Floyd Schofield, one of Reed Hadley gunman’s hired gunmen, it is clear that Edwards made the right choice in switching from acting to writing. He’s the one on the right in the photo on the left. I don’t think anyone will disagree with me about that.

KID GLOVE KILLER. MGM, 1942, Van Heflin, Marsha Hunt, Lee Bowman, Samuel S. Hinds, Cliff Clark, Eddie Quillan, John Litel, Cathy Lewis. Director: Fred Zinnemann.

   An excellent cast and a future Oacar-winning director’s first feature length film — that’s all it takes for a movie to play out on the screen as if the studio (MGM) had loads of money poured into it when it hadn’t. It may also have the distinction of being the first film in which a police department’s crime lab had a major role in bringing a killer to justice.

   A very young Van Heflin, himself later an Oscar-winner, plays the Gordon McKay, the crusty head of the lab, while Marsha Hunt is his curvaceous new assistant. While nominally trying to solve the murder of the mayor who died when his car exploded when he tried to start it one morning, the banter between the two is near non-stop. One would think they’re attracted to each other, but of course neither of them will admit it.

   The audience knows very early on who the bad egg is, the suitably unctuous Lee Bowman (he was always good in such parts). The fun for the everyone watching, both then and now, is seeing how early forensics slowly narrows in on him, while quietly screaming out a warning to Marsha Hunt’s character when she acts as though she is falling for him, while McKay does his best to pretend to ignore her charms but not fooling anyone for a single minute

   There is a lot of zip to this movie, and not a scene is wasted. There is a lot of smoking in this movie, too, as the two main characters also make an amusing habit of one mooching cigarettes and lights from each other. Given a bit of byplay that a pass as a sign of the times, this one’s a class act, from the director on down.

NOTE: Walter Albert also reviewed this movie on this blog almost eight years ago. Check out his comments here

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