November 2018

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “The Silver Mask Murders.” The Man in the Silver Mask #3. Novelette. Detective Fiction Weekly, 23 November 1935.

   In the years during which Erle Stanley Gardner was one of the most prolific pulp writers around, he tried his hand not only at mysteries — tons of them — but westerns, adventure stories and even science fiction (collected in The Human Zero: The Science Fiction Stories of Erle Stanley Gardner, 1981). Given the undeniable fact of the latter, it should come as no surprise that he dabbled in the equivalent of the hero pulps as well.

   The most famous of the latter were The Shadow, The Spider, Operator #5 and so on. Most were the primary occupants of their own magazines. Gardner’s contributions to the genre consisted of only three long stories in the pages of Detective Fiction Weekly, all in 1935. Having read only this, the third and last of them, I don’t know if the hero in these stories was ever given a name. He seems to have been known only as The Man in the Silver Mask.

   You can probably guess why, but to confirm your suspicion, the cover of the magazine his third adventure appeared in will illustrate as well as words could do. Besides his general anonymity, nothing also is known about his background, nor why he feels to need to keep his identity a secret. All we know for sure is his fierce determination to fight crime.

   Assisting him in these endeavors are a hunchbacked Chinese mute servant by the name of Ah Wong, and a female secretary/assistant named Norma Lorne and described as “a rather slender, willowy young blonde,” who aids The Masked Man outside the office as well as in.

   In “The Silver Mask Murders” this vigilante on the side of justice comes up against a powerful nemesis named Thornton Acker, a lawyer whose clientele consists solely of other criminals who can afford his steep fees ($250,000 this time around) to help them get out of jams they can’t manage to do on their own.

   Acker’s task in this one is to make sure that a man in prison doesn’t testify against his boss in court, which he does in spectacular fashion. But the Man in the Silver Mask is working on the other side, that of law and order, and Acker’s meticulous planning soon begins to go further and further awry.

   For the most part, this is routine stuff, with a lot more violence, I suspect, than ever appeared in any other Erle Stanley Gardner story. One scene sticks out, though, one in which Silver Mask is threatening a hoodlum he’s holding captive with physical torture at the hands of his Chinese assistant. When asked later by Norma Lorne whether or not he was bluffing, Silver Mask confesses that he doesn’t know.

   The story ends with many underlings dead or in jail, but with Acker still at large. A blurb at the end of the story advertises that the next installment of the series would be coming soon, but it never did. The world of mystery fiction never noticed.

   The Man in the Silver Mask series —

The Man in the Silver Mask. Detective Fiction Weekly, July 13 1935


The Man Who Talked. Detective Fiction Weekly, September 7, 1935


The Silver Mask Murders, Detective Fiction Weekly, November 23, 1935


JERRY KENNEALY – Beggar’s Choice. Nick Polo #9. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1994. No mass market paperback edition.

   One of the cover blurbs calls this an “underrated series,” and I’d have to agree. Almost none of the books have made it to paperback, which is dismaying when you think about the large amount of trash that does. Kennealy is, like his character, a San Francisco PI.

   Polo and his lady friend are doing a regular stint of volunteer work in a soup kitchen when one of the homeless regulars asks Nick to check a couple of license plate numbers. He says they belong to people who’ve been generous to him, but Nick has doubts about that. He has even more doubts when they turn out ti belong to a Tong lord and a wealthy businessman, but before he can find out anything else, the homeless man is dead, victim of a somewhat suspicious hit-and-run. He decides to check into it a little further, and the hornets stat buzzing about the proverbial nest.

   The Polo books aren’t Edgar material but they are enjoyable, solid examples of standard PI fare without a lot of breast-beating, angst, and Significant Social Issues. Polo is a likable and well-developed character, as is his current lady, reporter Jane Tobin.

   Kennealy’s prose is competent though not flashy, and he tells a reasonably fast-moving, well-constructed story. Though he doesn’t overwhelm you with ambiance, he obviously knows San Francisco [and overall, what he’s doing].

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

       The Nick Polo series —


Polo Solo (1987)
Polo Anyone? (1988)
Polo’s Ponies (1988)
Polo in the Rough (1989)
Polo’s Wild Card (1990)
Green With Envy (1991)
Special Delivery (1992)
Vintage Polo (1993)
Beggar’s Choice (1994)
All That Glitters (1997)
Long Shot (2017)


“Polo at the Ritz” (May 1993, New Mystery; also 1999, First Cases 3)
“Reluctant Witness” (2000, The Shamus Game)
“Carole on Lombard” (2001, Mystery Street)
“Love for Bail” (2015, Fifty Shades of Grey Fedora)

LURED. United Artists, 1947. George Sanders, Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn, Boris Karloff, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Joseph Calleia, Alan Mowbray, George Zucco, Robert Coote, Alan Napier, Tanis Chandler.
   Screenplay by Leo Rosten, based on Robert Siodmak’s 1939 French film Pieges (titled Personal Column in the United States). Screenplay of the earlier film by Jacques Companéez and Ernst Neubach. Director: Douglas Sirk.

   The title is appropriate. I was lured into watching this film under false pretenses. From the title and what I knew about the story line it was my general impression that this was a film noir movie. Ah, very much not so. I began to suspect something was wrong when I saw the director’s credit. I tried to reassure myself by saying that while I don’t know much about his career, the extravigant Hollywood melodramas Douglas Sirk is best known for didn’t come along until the 1950s.

   True enough that Lured is a black-and-white crime film centered on a serial killer responsible for the disappearances and deaths of a number of young women in London, each preceded by a poem sent to Scotland Yard based on the work of Charles Baudelaire. Lucille Ball is an American chorus girl stranded in England. Working at would be called a “dime a dance” hall in the US, one of her co-workers and a close friend goes missing.

   So far, so good. This is the part of the movie in which the noirish aspects are the greatest, and in 1947 Lucille Ball had the perfect face for films noir. (To my mind, however, she didn’t have the earthiness of an Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor or Gloria Grahame, but she was quite a beauty, no doubt about it.)

   But in any case, off she goes to Scotland Yard, where a totally miscast Charles Coburn as a very non-British inspector persuades her to work for him and act as bait to catch the killer. Besides being a very questionable proposition on the face of it, he hands her a gun for her to protect herself if need be.

   It didn’t make any sense to me, then or now as I’m typing this. Worse though, is the change of direction the story takes soon after, as Ball’s character meets and definitely attracts the attention of a nightclub owner played by George Sanders.

   And all of a suden the story turns into a sappy romance between two would-be lovers who have no chemistry together. Opinions may vary on this, but I can only report on what I saw.

   Which in the end, was neither solid enough to recommend as a mystery (the villain is obvious way too soon) or as a romance, the latter jerry-rigged out of nothing at all.


CAPTAIN APACHE. Scotia-Barber, Spain-UK, 1971. Lee Van Cleef (Capt. Apache), Carroll Baker, Stuart Whitman, Percy Herbert, Elisa Montes, Tony Vogel. Director: Alexander Singer.

   The thing I won’t forget about Captain Apache is undoubtedly the film’s theme song as it’s sung – spoken, really – by Lee Van Cleef, who portrays this quirky acid western’s titular hero, an Apache in the U.S. Calvary.

   Investigating the enigmatic last words of a dying Indian Commissioner, he finds hemself caught in a web of deception as he begins to uncover a conspiracy to assassinate the President Ulysses S. Grant, who is traveling through Arizona on his way to California. As he proceeds with his investigation, Captain Apache encounters a witch who piles him with hallucinogens, a motley crew of Mexican bandits, and an urbane scoundrel played to the hilt by a scene-chewing Stuart Whitman who also wants to know what the cryptic phrase “April Morning” means.

   There’s a lot of humor in Captain Apache, much of it goofy and borderline juvenile, one that surely was designed to elicit guffaws from European teenagers. It works for a while, but it soon wears out its welcome, making the scenes in which humor is employed less and less compelling as the movie begins to repeat itself. While there is a final sequence on a train that’s admittedly worth waiting for, it pales in comparison to so many other train scenes in so many other westerns, Spaghetti or not.

   I wouldn’t recommend anyone go out of their way to catch this one, but fans of Lee Van Cleef might appreciate seeing him in a starring role, one that apparently required that he shave off his trademark mustache and give his vocal cords a nice workout.

JOHN STEPHEN STRANGE – The Clue of the Second Murder. Van Dusen Ormsberry #2. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1929. Grosset & Dunlap, hardcover reprint (cover shown).

   When this book was written (60 years ago!), Philo Vance was all the rage, and in the same pattern is fastidious gentleman detective Van Dusen Ormsberry, whose second recorded case this is. Assisting him is his 13-year-old protégé, the freckle-faced Bill Adams.

   While the book is readable, the telling is flawed, and Ormsberry does very little in the way of detecting. He is a bad judge of character, and allowing young Bill to assist leads to an even greater error on his part. His career was over after only one more book.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #18, December 1989, very slightly revised.

        The Van Dusen Ormsberry series —

The Man Who Killed Fortescue. Doubleday 1928
The Clue of the Second Murder. Doubleday 1929
Murder on the Ten-Yard Line. Doubleday 1931

[UPDATE] 11-28-18.   Time does not stand still. It’s now been almost 90 years since this book was written, very near a relic — but not a forgotten one. There is currently a POD edition published by, apparently from a source in the UK. I don’t know if how interested anyone (including myself) would be after reading review above, but as a note to myself, I did say it was readable.

   I did not say much about the plot, so I went looking, and I found this description of the book online:

   “After leaving his sisters opulent Garden Party in 1927 Greenwich, Connecticut a naval inventor is shot dead while driving his Packard down a country lane beside the estate. Bill Adams, teen sleuth, begins the investigation, calling his friend, Detective Van Dusen Ormsberry home from his vacation in France to prevent an unjust conviction. Ormsberry must wade through the accused’s past political scandal; the torrid love triangle of the accused, the stage actress and the victim; and the post-World War I International espionage ring he discovers to find the actual murderer.”


THE LINEUP. Pajemer/Columbia, 1958. Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, Emile Meyer, Marshall Reed and Vaughn Taylor. Written by Stirling Silliphant. Directed by Don Siegel.

MURDER BY CONTRACT. Orbit/Columbia, 1958. Vince Edwards, Herschel Bernardi, Philip Pine and Caprice Toriel. Written by Ben Simcoe. Directed by Irving Lerner.

   Two remarkably similar films from the same studio, released within months of each other.

   THE LINEUP is the more polished and less compelling of the two, largely because it’s a spin-off from a TV series and is therefore obliged to spend some time with the familiar cast plodding through familiar paces — and when I say “plod,” I’m being charitable. After a slam-bang opening, things slog through quicksand, as detectives Meyer and Reed patiently interview witnesses, quietly await lab results, placidly look over crime scenes and impassively conduct the obligatory Line-Up.

   Then, twenty minutes into the film, the stillness is broken by the arrival of Eli Wallach and Robert Keith as hit-men hired to retrieve smuggled heroin from three passengers who have carried it concealed in knick-knacks from abroad. And from here on, THE LINEUP becomes a different film altogether: perverse, violent, and non-stop action.

   Action yes, but the real interest of THE LINEUP derives from the interplay of the characters: Richard Jaeckel as a cocky driver, Robert Keith as the erudite overseer of the operation (who collects the last words of their victims) and most of all Eli Wallach as the barely-controlled psychopath who does the killings.

   Wallach is quite good here, moving with staccato grace (His character is appropriately named “Dancer.”) and darting knife-sharp glances at his potential targets like a bomb looking for an excuse to explode. But the character wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the interaction between him and his cohorts, skillfully laid out with Silliphant’s dialogue and knowingly evoked by Don Siegels’s economic direction.

   If you take THE LINEUP, slash the budget and cut out the dull parts, you’ve got MURDER BY CONTRACT, a lean, mean and artful 80 minutes of down-and-dirty crime drama.

   The structure and characters here are pretty much the same as in the earlier film: Vince Edwards is Claude, a creepily emotionless hit-man brought out to L.A. for an important contract and given two wheelman/watchers: Herschel Bernardi as the older, thoughtful type, and Philip Pine, immature and loud-mouthed.

   And again, it’s the relationships between the principals that livens the story, even as Ben Simcoe’s screenplay zips things along. Like THE LINE-UP, CONTRACT breaks the story down into three segments, as Edwards & Co. make tries on their target, with deadly results.

   But where THE LINEUP gets mired in detail, MURDER BY CONTRACT will have none of that — maybe because it was made for roots & berries. Whatever the case, CONTRACT cuts the narrative down to its bare bones, with elliptical editing, cramped sets and spare background music by Perry Botkin that literally underscores the killer’s alienation.

   And when, like Dancer in THE LINEUP, Claude finds himself alone, his physical solitude is a mere formality. He always was an outcast.


FLORENCE M. PETTEE – The Exploits of Beau Quicksilver. Altus Press, 2018. Story collection; reprinted from Argosy All-Story Weekly, February 24 through April 7, 1923.

   …“that damned dude dick” to the underworld—was an enigmatical crime chaser—a mercurial mystery master. Like a chimerical will-of-the-wisp, he lunged to the answer in each cryptic case. No wonder they clubbed him Quicksilver. He ran through a fellow’s fingers just like mercury. There had never been another sleuth like him … a spoiled operatic star couldn’t equal him for temperament! The fellow wouldn’t touch a case with the tip of his nobbiest cane if the thing didn’t interest him. They couldn’t beg, hire or steal him to it.

   Before there was Philo Vance there was Beau Quicksilver, who adventured in seven consecutive issues of Argosy under the guiding hand of mystery writer and pulpster Florence M. Pettee, his rare adventures reprinted for the first time by Altus Press.

   We open as Chief Cartman leaps into a car to race to Quicksilver’s home, where his servant Shunta guards his privacy, to hopefully offer him a case he can’t resist, and of course he can’t because there is no story if he does. Still we share in Cartman’s discomfort having heard his description of our sleuth: …a real tiger when in one of his moods. Yet again he would weep at the mere sound of pathetic music. An obtuse riddle, Quicksilver! A regular Sphinx at times, and then affably human. Nobody ever knew where to find him next.

   Yet all Beau has to hear is that Carl Whitney has been found slain at the Whitney mansion and he literally leaps to his feet from his lethargy and responds with boundless energy. Quicksilver temperament indeed. Beau could give Prince Zaleski a run in the languorous department and Sherlock Holmes a cocaine-spiked energy high when he is fully engaged.

   Carl Whitney has been shot while eating his midnight repast and Beau’s attention is drawn to the imprint of a bicuspid in a piece of cheese. There are no shortage of suspects, including a gambler, a jewel thief known as the Falcon and his gluttonous associate Peter Scarlet.

   Alas, Beau doesn’t so much solve the crime as simply know and then provide a more or less ridiculous solution involving a falling out between thieves and a false pair of dentures used to frame a suspect.

   Wilfrid Huntington Wright’s rules of Detection are not in play here, the Detection Club would not be amused, and even Sexton Blake might be taken aback by the rapidity with which Beau leaps to his brilliant conclusions, past both logic and detection and seemingly being personally connected to every criminal extant.

   No lost classics of detective fiction here. Beau Quicksilver may act like Philo Vance, but he detects more like Lamont Cranston or Richard Curtis Van Loan, which is not to say the stories aren’t written in a curious but readable style so breathless you may need oxygen reading them. Come to think of it the Cranston connection isn’t entirely out of place.

   A magnificent fire opal gleamed like a spark of baleful red in the cravat. A duplicate stone was repeated in the setting of a ring worn on the little finger of the left hand. The opal might have stood for the methods of Quicksilver. For he, too, was like a dangerous, baleful eye, forever turned toward the dispersing of darkness and the dissipating of cryptic crime.

   At best Beau Quicksilver is a footnote in both the field of detectives and pulp heroes, but not an uninteresting one, more at home in Gun in Cheek than Haycraft, but not unentertaining for that.

   â€œThe Hand of the Hyena” is the best of the lot for my money:

   “AMUSING little epistle! So gentle and solicitous for my health.” Beau Quicksilver languidly tossed over the letter he had just received by special delivery.

   The characters of the message were set down in ruddy red, of an insidious and exceedingly suggestive hue. The communication ran:

   You damned Dude:

   We are sending this letter in red ink. But we shall soon write in your blood to the gang the glad word that you’ve slipped your wind. We are going to get you, you dirty dick — you little dolled-up excuse of a tailor’s dummy! You can’t shake us! We’ve got Jack Ketch camping on your trail.

   We dare you to set foot outside your diggings this evening. We swear that if you put half a toe toward that carnival thing — you’re a goner.

               The Hyena.

   In the true spirit of the pulps it is hard not to keep reading at that point. Philo Vance never got mail like that.

      The stories:

Tooth For a Tooth. Argosy All-Story Weekly, February 24, 1923
Eye For an Eye. March 3, 1923
Claws of the Weasel. March 10, 1923
The Hand of the Hyena. March 17, 1923
The Green Rajah. March 24, 1923
Blistering Tongues. March 31, 1923
Murder Ingognito. April 7, 1923

MERLE CONSTINER – Two Pistols South of Deadwood. Ace Double G-674, paperback original, 1967. Published back-to-back with No Man’s Brand, by William Vance.

   While writing for the pulps in the 1940s, Merle Constiner’s stories appeared primarily in the detective magazines. He had two long-running series about PIs, the first being the semi-scurrilous Dean Wardlow Rock, aka “The Dean,” whose many adventures were recorded in the pages of Dime Detective. The second was Memphis-based Luther McGavock, stories about whom showed up in Black Mask magazine on a regular basis.

   When the pulps started dying out, Constiner was one of the writers who successfully managed the transition over to novel-length fiction. As he did so, however, he made a sudden change of direction and decided to make his mark instead with westerns. In his entire career he wrote but one detective novel, that being Hearse of a Different Color, for the second- or third-rate and hardly prestigious Phoenix Press.

   Even so, many of his western novels had elements of detective fiction in them, some more than others. In Two Pistols South of Deadwood, for example, they show up only in a very minor way. When a bank is robbed in Hartsburg (somewhere south of Deadwood), all of trapper Kinney Lampson’s accumulated savings go with it, giving him no choice but to after the leader of the gang, a notorious outlaw named Lucas Gambrell, on his own.

   Along the trail he picks up a companion, a man who’s fast with a gun named Gatling. As it turns out, Gatling works for Gambrell, but a friendship between the two develops, eventually leading to a partnership of sorts, and they have several boisterous adventures on their way to the lawless town of Merriman, where Gambrell makes his headquarters.

   Kinney is one of those larger-than-life characters that populate western folklore, and Constiner’s sly understated sense of humor makes this book stand out from many other westerns of the era, all of which took themselves a lot more seriously.

   From page 25, Gatling happens to ask, hypothetically speaking:

   “They have beer [at a way station called Stop Seven]. What would happen if I drank a hundred dollars’ worth of beer?”

   “I’d hate to guess,” said Kinney.

   “Well, let’s see,” said Gatling.

   “I could use a glass myself, unless it has too many wasps and bluebottle flies and dead spiders in it,” said Kinney.

   “They won’t hurt you,” said Gatling.

   “I know,” said Kinney. “It’s just that I hate the idea of having to buy them when I don’t really care for them.”

   And what happened to Kinney’s money, and does he ever get it back? There are many stumbling blocks to overcome, and some intricate bits of misdirection by Gambrell, of all people, but yes, Kinney Lampson and his new comrade in arms are definitely up to the task.


THE WALDHEIM WALTZ. Ruth Beckermann Filmproduktion, Austria, 2018. Original title: Waldheims Walzer. Written, directed and narrated by Ruth Beckermann.

   The best documentaries are often those that sneak up on you, that don’t insult your intelligence or utilize inflammatory footage to get you momentarily agitated and angry. No. The best ones make their points slowly and carefully, meticulously building their case and allowing the viewer to play the role of juror. After all, it’s the job of the documentarian to document. The audience’s role is to deliver a verdict, so to speak, on both the film as a work of art and toward the subject matter of the project.

   And my verdict and that of the movie theater audience where I saw the film, as far as the subject matter of The Waldheim Waltz, is undoubtedly guilty. Guilty not necessarily of a specific action, but a sense of moral culpability, made even worse by decades of lying, obfuscation, and general aloofness and smugness masked by an urbane facade .

   Ruth Beckermann’s documentary skillfully interweaves footage from the Austrian street during an impassioned election season with international news reports to document the controversy surrounding Kurt Waldheim’s run for the Austrian presidency in 1985-86. The question posed by the film is this. Was this man, so admired in the world of international diplomacy and comfortable in Manhattan salons, really not who he said he was? Did the man who proclaimed that he spent much of the Second World War studying law in Vienna really spend those years working for a Nazi war criminal that oversaw the deportation of Salonika’s Jewish population to Auschwitz?

   The film works as a slow boil, steadily building up the heat, culminating in a fascinatingly surreal scene in Congress in which Congressman Tom Lantos, himself a Hungarian Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, tells Waldheim’s son that no one believes the absurd lies propagated by his father.

   But the question ultimately posed by the film isn’t whether anyone believes Waldheim’s fabrications and explanations. It’s whether Austrian voters did in 1986 when they ultimately decided to vote him into office. The film, while touching upon the international scope of the Waldheim Affair, is fundamentally a story about Austrian post-war society and Austrian identity.

   A compelling story, to be sure. But one that only barely scratched the surface of what was, to my mind, one of the most insidious aspects of Waldheim’s career. How was it that a former Nazi ended up not only in charge of the United Nations without anyone seriously looking into his biography, but utilized his position to legitimate Yasser Arafat and the PLO in the eyes of the world?

TOM CLANCY’S JACK RYAN. “Pilot.” Season 1, Episode 1. Streaming on Amazon Video, beginning on August 31, 2018. (All eight episodes were available on the same date.) Based on a character created by Tom Clancy. John Krasinski (Jack Ryan), Wendell Pierce (James Greer, Ryan’s boss at the CIA), Ali Suliman (Mousa Bin Suleiman), Dina Shihabi (Hanin Ali, Suleiman’s wife), Abbie Cornish (Cathy Mueller, Ryan’s girl friend). Director: Morten Tyldum.

   The place to see action thrillers such as this has definitely shifted from the movies to cable and streaming TV, no doubt about it. Previous versions of Jack Ryan stories have starred Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine, but the point to emphasize is that they appeared in movies made for the big screen. This latest version is a solid indicator as to which way the future is going, if indeed it isn’t already there.

   I’ve seen only this first episode, but if anyone wanted to, all eight could have been watched in one long evening from the very beginning — all were available at the same time, which is just another way series TV is changing. Before our eyes, so to speak!

   If this were a comic book, this first episode would be considered Jack Ryan’s “origin story,” for it goes back to his early days at the CIA, where he’s a financial transactions analyst covering the Middle East. Boring, yes, but when he uncovers millions of dollars in funds accumulated covertly over a short period of time, it tells him him that another Osama bin Laden may be on his way — an Islamic terrorist named Suleiman — his life is, as they say, turned upside down.

   At first his new boss at the CIA, James Greer, disparages Ryan’s conclusions, but soon enough Ryan is hustled off to Yemen to help interrogate two suspects that have been picked up there on the basis of ordinary surveillance. At which point all hell, in terms of guns, bombs and every other kind of firepower you can think of, breaks loose.

   There is more to the story, of course, but I can’t tell you anything more, since this all I’ve seen. I’m sure most of the primary threads of the story line to come have already been planted, but no more than that. Everything is extremely well done. The locations look authentic, the acting is top notch, and the explosions and all are impressive as anything I’ve seen in the past, big screen or small.

   Maybe I have to sign up with Amazon. I’ll definitely start sampling more of their various series while I can, and see if I can’t finish this one. You might say I’m hooked, and all they need to do is reel me in.

      The Jack Ryan series —

The Hunt for Red October. Alec Baldwin. 1990.
Patriot Games. Harrison Ford. 1992.
Clear and Present Danger. Harrison Ford. 1994.
The Sum of All Fears. Ben Affleck. 2002.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Chris Pine. 2014.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. John Krasinski. 2018.

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