September 2018

SUPER-SLEUTH. RKO Radio Pictures, 1937. Jack Oakie, Ann Sothern, Eduardo Ciannelli, Alan Bruce, Edgar Kennedy, Joan Woodbury. Director: Ben Stoloff.

   An insufferably conceited movie star who plays a genius detective on the screen begins to mock the police department’s efforts in catching the perpetrator of a series of “poison pen” murders, and as a result, not surprisingly, ends up being the target of the killer himself.

   Pretty much a ho-hum effort, both as a mystery and as a comedy. Jack Oakie never seemed to catch the public as a comedian, and if you take this film as an example, it’s easy to see why. His portly arrogance and general dimwittedness certainly turned me off.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

RICHARD FOSTER – Bier for a Chaser. Pete Draco #1. Gold Medal #899, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1959.

   The only thing I found interesting about this book is its cover. There is little else to it. PI Pete Draco, from Miami Beach, is brash and ballsy but noticeably weaker when it comes to brainpower, and somehow beautiful babe simply flock to his bedroom. I’d be hard pressed to say why.

   A syndicate kingpin has dies, and nearly a million dollars in gunrunning money has disappeared. (This was written back in the day when a guy named Castro was a folk hero.) This is boozy male fantasy fiction at either its worst or its finest — it is hard to say which.

–Reprinted and slightly revised from Mystery*File #17, November 1989.

Bibliographic Note: Richard Foster was but one of many pen names of Kendell Foster Crossen, best known perhaps under his M. E. Chaber byline for a long series of books about insurance investigator Milo March. Crossen wrote a total of seven mysteries as Foster, but only one was another Pete Draco adventure, that being Too Late for Mourning (Gold Medal, 1960).


JULIAN SYMONS – Playing Happy Families. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1995; paperback, 1995.

   Though I’ve read a good bit of Julian Symons’ criticism — enough to know that we had quite different tastes and attitudes — to my memory, I haven’t read any of his fiction.

   The Midway family is a happy family. John and Eleanor are celebrating 30 years of marriage, and the family has gathered in their honor. Giles, John’s brother, High Court justice; Eversley, Eleanor’s son by a previous marriage, and his wife and children; son David and his wife; and daughter Jenny.

   This is the last time they will play happy families, though, because in the next week Jenny will vanish. In the aftermath all of them will learn much of themselves, and each other. Detective Superintendent Hilary Catchpole must try to learn where Jenny is, and what happened to her. None of them will enjoy their lessons.

   There is a type of crime novel, not peculiar to British crime-writers but certainly one of their favorites, wherein detection is less, or at least no more, the focus than are the effects if a crime in a group of people. That’s the sort of book this is, and of the type it’s quite well done.

   Symons is a smooth and literate writer, and more than adept at characterization. My problem with it is the same one I have with much of Ruth Rendell’s work. I don’t particularly enjoy looking at an album full of pictures of sad and ugly people, no matter the skill of the photographer.

   Only the lead police detective here is even remotely sympathetic, and one gets the feeling that Symons doesn’t care for him too much. Well done, but to me not very enjoyable.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #17, January 1995.

Bibliographic Note:   Supt. Hilary Catchpole made a second and final appearance in A Sort of Virtue (Macmillan, UK, 1996; no US edition).

RALPH DENNIS – The Buy Back Blues. (Jim) Hardman #12. Popular Library, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1977.

   In this, the last of the Hardman series, he’s hired in Chapter One to find a waitress’s missing husband, Bob, a bartender by trade. The man turns up dead, but Hardman has already made a connection between him and several break-ins and thefts in homes after parties where he’d worked. The insurance company is interested, and Hardman has a new client.

   I may be wrong — it’s been a while since I’ve read any of the earlier books in the series (over forty years) — but many of the rough edges that Hardman had in his earlier adventures have long since worn away. He’s overweight (“pudgy”), white and balding. Assisting him on all of his cases is Hump Evans, who is black, over six feet six inches tall, and a former star football player.

   There is an elephant in the room whenever this series is discussed. Both this series and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books started in 1974, and even though Dennis had the first seven Hardman books published that year, I don’t think Parker read any of them. Or as Ed Gorman once wrote, mixed race detective duos have been around since at least the days of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

   It has also been noted over the years that Hardman’s appearance (read his description above…) is at some odds with the publisher’s marketing strategy for the series, which makes the books out to be Executioner style men’s adventure paperbacks (…and compare with the cover art in the image provided). Any guy who bought one of them on the basis of the covers had to have been badly disappointed.

   But what Dennis did provide for the series is a drive that keeps the stories constantly moving, even though the stories are otherwise standard enough PI fare, and The Buy Back Blues is no exception. At the end of the book, Hardman and his off-and-on girl friend are back on again, and if the series had to end with Hardman standing at the window of a mountain cabin with Marcy still in bed while he’s watching the mist rising from the valley below, why that’s not a bad conclusion at all.

   The Jim Hardman & Hump Evans series —

Hardman 1: Atlanta Deathwatch (1974)
Hardman 2: The Charleston Knife’s Back In Town (1974)
Hardman 3: The Golden Girl & All (1974)
Hardman 4: Pimp for the Dead (1974)
Hardman 5: Down Among the Jocks (1974)
Hardman 6: Murder’s Not an Odd Job (1974)
Hardman 7: Working for the Man (1974)
Hardman 8: The Deadly Cotton Heart (1976)
Hardman 9: The One-Dollar Rip-Off (1977)
Hardman 10: Hump’s First Case (1977)
Hardman 11: The Last of the Armageddon Wars (1977)
Hardman 12: The Buy Back Blues (1977)


FRONTIER MARSHAL. 20th Century Fox, 1939. Randolph Scott (Wyatt Earp), Nancy Kelly, Cesar Romero (Doc Halliday), Binnie Barnes, John Carradine, Eddie Foy Jr., Ward Bond, Lon Chaney Jr., Chris-Pin Martin, Joe Sawyer. Based on the book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, by Stuart N. Lake. Director: Allan Dwan.

   There’s something just a little too polished about Twentieth-Century Fox’s Frontier Marshal. The second cinematic adaptation of Stuart N. Lake’s largely fictional biography of Wyatt Earp, the film features the gentlemanly Randolph Scott as the titular character and Cesar Romero as his friend, the gambler/gunman Doc Holliday. Both actors are personal favorites of mine, but neither seem to completely immerse themselves in their given roles.

   If Scott comes across as too refined – this is before he took on a more rugged screen persona in Budd Boetticher’s Westerns – Romero fails to present himself as a man with blood on his hands. This was supposed to be Tombstone, after all! Those criticisms aside, Frontier Marshal is a perfectly enjoyable pre-war feature that benefits strongly from a supporting cast including John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and Ward Bond, all of whom deliver memorable performances.

   Although the film nominally is about famed lawman Wyatt Earp, the central focus of the story is on Doc Holliday, as he struggles to reconcile his past identity as a successful East Coast physician with his current predicament as a man facing the end of his life with anger and regret. The two ladies who vie for Doc’s affection, the sophisticated and urbane Sarah Allen (Nancy Kelly) and the tough and jaded saloon girl Jerry (Binnie Barnes) are essentially peripheral to the film’s core.

   Frontier Marshal is, above all else, a story about friendship, a buddy movie before there were buddy movies. While not half-bad, the film will always be overshadowed by John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1949). And for good reason, as Ford’s reimagining of Tombstone and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral has an elegiac feel that Frontier Marshal simply cannot reach.

MARGARET MILLAR – Fire Will Freeze. Random House, hardcover, 1944. Dell #157, paperback, mapback edition, no date stated [1947]. Signet P3101, paperback, 1967. IPL, paperback, 1987.

   A busload of tourists is on its way to a Canadian ski lodge when suddenly the driver stops, gets out and disappears. The snow is coming down hard, and eventually the passengers decide they must seek shelter, which they do, at an isolated mansion not far away.

   Living in the house are a crazy woman and her nurse, and overnight even stranger things begin to occur, in spite of which the self-absorbed passengers have a rip-roaring time. As a black comedy, this novel is first-rate. As a mystery, perhaps a bit less.

[ADDED LATER.] To be totally fair, there aren’t many writers who could could come up with a satisfactory explanation for everything that happens in the first half of this book.

   As for my comments about “black comedy,” let me quote the following line from page 103 of the Dell edition. The body of the nurse has been discovered frozen solid in a snowbank below a second floor balcony, and they are trying to bring her into the house: “When they reached the front door they had to prop her up so she would go through.”

–Reprinted and slightly revised from Mystery*File #17, November 1989.


HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. Woolner Brothers Pictures, 1967. Ferlin Husky, Joi Lansing, Don Bowman, Merle Haggard, Linda Ho, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and George Barrows as the Gorilla. Written by Duke Yelton. Directed by Jean Yarbrough.

   I followed up SLEEP. MY LOVE [reviewed here] by watching HILLBILLYS (sic) IN A HAUNTED HOUSE something in the manner of a man putting a gun to his head, hoping the culture shock wouldn’t kill me. Indeed, if I may compare-and-contrast, where SLEEP tends to be elegant and thoughtful, HILLBILLYS (sic) is nasty, brutish and short: eighty-eight minutes of forgettable songs, indifferent acting and a script for which the author must surely burn in Hell.

   I liked it quite a lot, actually. Sometimes it’s fun to turn off the Brains, and watching this is as close as one can come without the use of firearms or illegal substances. It was kind of fun, in a depressing way, to see Basil Rathbone, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. all spooking like troupers, playing bad guys in a monster movie one more time, buckling on their sneers, leers and menacing looks for one last waltz with a guy in a gorilla suit — something like the aging lawmen in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY trying to summon up a strength they no longer have, getting by on the vestiges of their legends. Or maybe just three actors in search of a paycheck.

   This was doggedly directed by Jean Yarborough, his last film and a fitting coda for an artist who, in his day, worked with all the big names in bad movies: Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, Rondo Hatton, Bela Lugosi… he even did an unacknowledged mini-adventure series with Mantan Moreland fighting Nazis in the tropics. Check out LAW OF THE JUNGLE or KING OF THE ZOMBIES. Both were directed — along with THE BRUTE MAN, THE DEVIL BAT and others too feeble to mention — by Jean Yarborough.

   Even in his hey-day, Yarborough’s style was nothing very remarkable, and HILLBILLYS (sic) is no better than the indifferent rest of his work, except in the ironic fact of its existence. It’s as if the gods of the B-movies had settled on this as this as the curtain line of a forgotten play, the destiny to which a plodding director must wander, Bogart-like, to his own personal Casablanca. Poetic justice, perhaps. Or maybe just doggerel.


CLIFFORD IRVING – Tom Mix and Pancho Villa: A Romance of the Mexican Revolution. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1982; paperback, 1984.

   After Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show passed through El Paso I learned to twirl a ketch rope, and when I gave up my dream of becoming an actor, I couldn’t decide whether I’d be a Texas Ranger or a champion rodeo rider. My father hoped I’d go into the cold-body business with him, my mother thought insurance would be a nice trade, but I confounded everybody by quitting school at the age of seventeen, tucking my Shakespeare into my bedroll and hightailing it over to the Brazos, where I landed a job as wrangler in a cow camp. I was one of five healthy children, not the brightest and surely not the prettiest, so no one missed me to the point of grief … or else they guessed I was a quitter and would come back in my own sweet time.

   So begins the rip-snorting adventure tale told in the first person by Tom Mix about his early days and his adventures riding side by side with Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa in the days of the Mexican Revolution at the beginning of the 20th Centruy. And it should come as no surprise that this tall tale of a “memoir” should sound authentic since it is penned by the infamous Clifford Irving whose Howard Hughes memoir was one of the great literary hoaxes of all time.

   It hardly needs to be said this “memoir” is no more authentic than most of its subjects popular Westerns, but must be added it is every bit as entertaining as the best of them, as Tom Mix, at trails end, shortly before the tragic accident that ended his legendary (in more senses than one) life sits down to recall the best and happiest time of his checkered career.

   Seeking an old friend in Juarez young Tom falls in with Villa, and soon is hypnotized by the revolutionary:

   “And how many men do you have in your own army, chief?”

   “Five here. That’s counting you and me. Four waiting for me across the river in El Paso. That’s … let’s see …” He counted rapidly on his fingers.

   “That’s nine.”

   “That’s all? I thought you already had an army!”

   “I’ll get one.” “Nine men?” “With nine men, loyal and brave, I can recruit nine thousand more. Then I’ll need horses for them to ride, trains for them to travel on, food for them to eat, rifles for them to shoot and bullets to put into the rifles.”

   A pop-eyed smile lit up his face. “None of this will be very difficult. The people know me. They’ll follow me. Look how easily I convinced you to do it, and you’re a gringo.” His eyes grew a shade more solemn. “I need men like you, Tomás. You’re young, but you’re clever and you want to learn. Moreover, as Candelario said, you’re lucky. Once we have a real army, you’ll have the rank of captain. If I forget, remind me.”

   And young Tom is swept up, and who wouldn’t be, in dreams of revolution and adventure.

   Adventure being the key word. Adventure in the grand and picaresque sense of the word, adventure full of character building, painful realizations, fast horses, flying bullets, dead enemies, lost friends, beautiful senoritas Rosa, Eliza, and one of his own race. Hannah, treachery, Hemingwayesque discussions of passion, revolution, death, and manhood (“If your obligations are the same as your desires, you’re a lucky man. You can be whole.”), all kept moving by colorful and rich portraits of Mexico and the border in those wild days.

   The ending, as our hero rides into a different kind of sunset has a beauty all its own:

   A bloody ball of sun dipped toward the mountains that tumbled about on the horizon in the direction of Sonora.

   To Sonora …

   To Celaya …

   To Torreón, again …

   To Hollywood …

   The desert lay drowned in rich, soft mist. Somewhere, a coyote howled. The dead slept in the slowly cooling earth of Mexico. Goodbye, my love. What the hell, I thought. The defeats are also battles. Goodbye, my youth — and goodbye. Chihuahua. I flicked a rein. The horse turned west. I rode off into the sunset, singing a mournful tune, and became a movie cowboy.

    Tom Mix and Pancho Villa is a big technicolor historical fantasy, all vistas and gun battles, beautiful women, heroic men, and hard riding against a rich backdrop of a time not so very far away. I confess it is one of my favorite books, rich in imagination and vivid action and characters, not, perhaps, as flawed as their real life counterparts, or at least in the same ways, but beautifully painted images as glorious in their own ways as their cinematic adventures.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Universal Pictures, 1940. Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Oscar Homolka, Donald MacBride, Margaret Hamilton, Shemp Howard, Anne Nagel. Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

   This may be the only movie made by a major studio in the 1940s in which the leading lady spends most of her time on the screen totally nude. She even kisses the leading man in the same condition. We can’t see her, of course, but we’ve got imaginations, don’t we?

   This movie is also (slightly less) famous for that noteworthy line, “You know, if women were invisible, life would be much less complicated.” It’s also the funniest movie I’ve seen in ages. If ever this shows up again on your favorite cable station, don’t miss it.

— Reprinted from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

DANA CHAMBERS – She’ll Be Dead by Morning. Jim Steele #3. The Dial Press, hardcover, 1940. Popular Library #238, paperback, no date stated [1950]. Popular Library Eagle EB-5, paperback, 1953.

   The gimmick in this tough guy detective series is that Jim Steele is not a private eye, even though all of his cases, which he seems take on only as favors to friends of friends, are precisely the kinds of cases that PI’s take on.

   In this one he’s “hired” to help a wealthy old man to help his daughter get though the trouble she’s obviously in. He’s recently lost two of his other children to accidents, so Steele has no problem in saying yes at the same time he’s tearing up the blank check he’s offered.

   In other books in the series Steele’s day job is said to be hat of writing radio thrillers, but in this one, he calls himself only a businessman, but no ordinary businessman gets into the kind of scrape that he does in this one.

   Which starts out with a bang. Whatever trouble that Suzy is involved with, there is someone who wants him off the case, and badly. After being shot through the arm Steele is told to get out of town — to take a train to Chicago — and only if he does, will his wife be released. She has been kidnapped and in the hands of the bad guys.

   Steele gets on the train, followed closely by someone obviously assigned to keep an eye on him, but he dumps the guy off the train, follows suit and finds the man dead. He has until the train’s arrival in Chicago, which he will not be on, to find whoever has his wife and rescue her.

   An action-packed adventure story, in other words. It starts well but gets talky and sags in the middle, before ending up on a higher note, but as a full-fledged detective novel, which in my opinion was not one of the author’s stronger points. This is a case of simply going off in too many directions, in other words, but all in all it’s good enough to tell me I ought to find time to read more of the series, most of which I already own. Unaccountably I have allowed them to sit idle for far too long.

       The Jim Steele series —

Some Day I’ll Kill You (n.) Dial 1939
Too Like the Lightning (n.) Dial 1939
She’ll Be Dead by Morning (n.) Dial 1940
The Blonde Died First (n.) Dial 1941
The Frightened Man (n.) Dial 1942
The Last Secret (n.) Dial 1943
The Case of Caroline Animus (n.) Dial 1946

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