December 2018

JERRY KENNEALY – Polo Solo. Nick Polo #1. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1987; paperback, February 1988.

   After posting an old review by Barry Gardner of Beggar’s Choice, the ninth in Jerry Kennealy’s Nick Polo series, I decided I had to read one for myself. There are eleven in total, and for whatever reason, I’d missed them all.

   This is the one I found, and I’m glad I did. Read it, that is. This was a good one. I don’t why the Nick Polo books have never been any better known than they have, which is as far as I know, is not at all.

   This one begins with Polo being freed from the prison he’s been in — there’s obviously a small story there — and his license restored by a political operative who has the clout to do so. Why? The mayor of San Francisco, female, has been photographed doing a porno movie, and she’s being blackmailed.

   It was a rigged up job, of course, but the publicity? Devastating. There are some mean streets in San Francisco, and with an opening like this one, you just know that Polo is going to go down some of them, and he does. He also runs across the path of one of the toughest and meanest villains in PI history, and as they say, Polo is lucky to get out of this one alive.

   He’s tough enough, though, and street savvy enough, that his coming out on top is totally believable. I enjoyed this one, and I’ll be looking out for more.

DEPORTED. Universal Pictures, 1950. Marta Toren, Jeff Chandler, Claude Dauphin, Marina Berti, Richard Rober. Director: Robert Siodmak.

   Deported is far from a cinematic masterpiece, but with director Robert Siodmak at the helm, fans of crime films of the late forties and early fifties nay find several points of interest along the way. Filmed largely on location in Italy, the film’s travelogue aspects may not be of much interest today, but any film based on the life of Lucky Luciano has to have at least the headline factor going for it.

   Jeff Chandler plays Luciano’s counterpart in this film, a small time American gangster by the name of Vittorio Mario Sparducci, or as he was known in the US, Vic Smith. Shipped out of the country and back to his home town in Italy, Smith’s primary goal is to find a way to get his hands on the $100,000 in stolen money he was unable to bring with him (and for which he has spent five years in prison).

   To that end he romances the widowed Countess di Lorenzi (Marta Toren), whose primary preoccupation in life is raising money to help feed the people of her small, impoverished post-war town. Under the watchful eye of his parole officer (Claude Dauphin), Smith manages to keep his plans a secret, until…

   I needn’t tell you the whole story, need I? The pace is slow, but not terminally so, and the ending is well worth waiting for, especially to dedicated connoisseurs of noir films. The biggest flaw, as far as I was concerned, was the casting. They’re all fine actors, but Toren was Swedish, not Italian, while Dauphin was French. And of course, Jeff Chandler was born in Brooklyn, which allows him to portray a tough American gangster to perfection, but Italian? No. He stands a foot and a half taller than his relatives back in Italy, with no family resemblance at all.

   All in all, this rather pedestrian crime film is far from essential, but it’s solidly produced, with some good work done by both the cast and Oscar-winning cinematographer William Daniels. A bit more than average, but no more than that.


KEOMA. Far International Films, Italy, 1976. Also released as Django Rides Again and The Violent Breed. Franco Nero, William Berger, Olga Karlatos, Gabriela Giacobbe, and Woody Strode. Written & directed by Enzo Castellari.

   One of the Great Westerns.

   And I don’t mean just Spaghetti Westerns; KEOMA can stand right alongside STAGECOACH, RIDE LONSOME, THE NAKED SPUR or any other superb western you care to name, and for once I’m not kidding.

   I’ll say at the start (or close to the start, anyway) that KEOMA lacks the warmth of RIO BRAVO, the intimacy of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, and the drama of MAN OF THE WEST. But what it lacks in Heart, it shellacs with Pizzazz. KEOMA’s visual sweep and choreographed camerawork boggle the eyes and dizzy the imagination.

   Also, Woody Strode gets one of the best death scenes ever in the movies.

   The plot here is a timeworn thing about the lethal drifter coming up against a ruthless small-town despot. It’s also just a launching pad for writer Castellari’s mysticism and director Castellari’s rich visuals, both of which get shown off in the very first scene as Keoma (the name means “far away.”) rides into a ghost town and talks with a witch about Destiny. The witch recalls a time when she saved Keoma as an infant, the camera pans across the ghost town, and suddenly, without apparent cutting, it has become a burned-out Indian village.


   I should also throw a bouquet here to Carlo Simi, who designed a Western Town that looks like the Gotham City of Tim Burton’s BATMAN: an Escher-style thing of twisting streets, half-built structures, and stairways rising to vertiginous nowheres.

   And another bouquet to stunt coordinator Rocco Lerro, who populates the despot’s army with hyperkinetic stuntmen and – more important – gives them lots of neat stuff to do. There’s one manic moment when a bad guy chasing Keoma rides pell-mell down the street, grabs one of those wooden posts that holds up the awning over the sidewalk, flies off his horse, spins around the post holding on one-handed, lands on a stairway and runs up just in time to get mowed down by Woody Strode’s shotgun and go flying back down the stairs, all in a single take.


   In the lead role, blue-eyed Franco Nero looks a bit like Jeffrey Hunter in KING OF KINGS, all the more so when Castellari’s script gets him crucified with a nod to Shakespear’s JULIUS CAESAR. Aside from that, Nero plays to his strengths: impassivity and silence. I can’t speak with authority on the other actors except to say that everyone is adequately dubbed in the voices familiar to those of us who watched the cheap foreign films that flooded the market in those days.

   Mostly though, this is a film of visuals and mystery. And as such it’s a thing of wonder and one not to be missed.


A live performance, August 2006, with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir at Ledreborg Castle, Denmark. There are songs that will stick with you forever and you know it as soon as you hear it for the first time. This is one of them for me.


  JAMES GRADY – Six Days of the Condor. Ronald Malcolm #1. W. W. Norton, hardcover, 1974. Dell, paperback, 1975. Also published as Three Days of the Condor (Dell, 1975). Film: Paramount, 1975, as Three Days of the Condor.

   It’s safe to say that more people have seen Three Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford (reviewed here on this blog) than have read the novel the film was based on. James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor is a taut, suspenseful read from beginning to end. It’s hardly a flawless work, however. There are far too many information dumps, scattered bits of information about the internal workings of the intelligence community that are awkwardly inserted into the text. This interrupts the flow of the narrative and gives the work an occasionally encyclopedic feeling. Overall, though, it’s an enjoyable, quick read and one that is highly visual. It’s no surprise that Hollywood came calling.

   The story follows Ronald Malcolm, a CIA analyst, as he descends into a Kafkaesque nightmare when his station gets hit. Unlike other thrillers which are set at CIA stations in such exotic places as Beirut and sub-Saharan Africa, Six Days of the Condor is set at the most quotidian of locales: Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. (In the movie, the location is shifted to Manhattan). Malcolm works at a small subdivision of the Company called the American Literary Historical Society, a CIA front where analysts pore over literary works and study their plots to see if any information could be useful for the higher ups at the Agency. In other words, Malcolm is the bookish type. A reader, not a fighter.

   All that changes, however, when his workplace is hit. When he finds his co-workers dead, Malcolm calls into the Panic Section and identifies himself using his code name. Condor. But he soon learns he can hardly trust the CIA. It would seem as if there’s a double inside the Agency. When Malcolm learns the assassins that targeted his workplace were hired by someone inside the Company, he begins a hero’s quest to find out who did this and why.

   This is where the book loses me for a while. It’s not that I mind whirlwind romances. It’s just that Malcolm’s quick romantic connection with a woman he kidnaps in order to secure a place to hide out seems remarkably forced. I thought the same thing watching Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway in the cinematic adaptation.

   Where the novel works best is in its description of how various factions in the intelligence community each seek to find Malcolm and to investigate what really happened at the American Literary Historical Society. Grady is at his best when he’s putting Malcolm in perilous situations. He’s less successful in divulging the reason why Malcolm’s workplace was targeted. It has to do with a drug smuggling operation run by rogue CIA operatives, something the film wisely changed into a far more nebulous conspiracy involving geopolitics.

Bibliographic Note:   James Grady wrote a followup novel, Shadow of the Condor (Putnam, 1975), with Ronald Malcolm again as the primary protagonist. [Added later: Two more in the series are Last Days of the Condor and Next Day of the Condor were published in 2014 and 2015 respectively.]


RICHARD HILL – Kill the Hundredth Monkey. Randall Gatsby Sierra #3. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1995. No paperback edition.

   I don’t know anything about Hill, other than that he is described as a prize-winning author, and lives in Gainesville, Florida.

   Old three-names isn’t really looking for work right now, but some things a man’s just gotta do. One of the nation’s sports icons, a young white basketball player who was also a Rhodes scholar, has just been gunned down in Atlanta in an apparent random act of violence. Sierra is called down off his North Carolina mountaintop by n ex-movie star who lives not too far away in the mountains, where she presides over a group dedicated to stopping the destruction of personal liberty, civility, and various other Good Parts of American Life.

   The dead youth had come from their community, and she wants Sierra to investigate his death. It’s not his thing — he specializes in finding people — but he was one of the youth’s admirers himself, and can’t resist her entreaties. It’s a cold and dark trail, but he puts his nose to the ground and starts.

   I wish Hill weren’t quite as good a writer as he is, so I could just unload in this and be done with it. It’s filled with the Crumley/Parker macho, Brotherhood of Real Men bullshit that annoys me so much, and has pages and pages of commentary (in a not too lengthy book) on the ills of our society and how we have lost our way.

   I hate being preached to at the expense of the story, and particularly so by writers who get off on and glorify violence. I mean, hey, if we’ll all just do a little bonding and then kick some righteous ass, everything will be fine. You bet,

   But he is a good writer prose-wise, a very good one when he remembers to tell his story. His men and women are just a little too good, staunch, and caring to be true, but they’re the kind you want to root for. The plot really wasn’t all that bad, which is surprising: kick-ass books are usually more than a little silly when you look at them closely.

   Decidedly mixed feelings, that’s what I’ve got about this one.

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

Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   I have discovered little more abut the author than Barry knew at the time he wrote this review. He is listed in Ak Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV as RICHARD (Fontaine) HILL (1941-1999?), along with the three books in his leading character’s series given below. Hill has escaped notice from both the Fantastic Fiction and Thrilling Detective websites, but both his second and third books were reviewed by Publishers Weekly.

      The Randall Gatsby Sierra series —

What Rough Beast, Foul Play, 1992
Shoot the Piper. St. Martin’s, 1994

Kill the Hundredth Monkey, St. Martin’s, 1995

JOHN D. MacDONALD – The Deep Blue Good-By. Trevis McGee #1. Gold Medal k1405, paperback original, 1964. Reprinted many times. J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, 1975.

   I don’t think there’s any reason why we can’t think of Travis McGee as a private eye, is there? Of course he’s not a PI in the traditional sense. He doesn’t have an office with a secretary — rather a 52-foot house boat called the Busted Flush— not does he even have a license. He calls himself a “salvage consultant,” and asks for (and gets) expense money plus 50% of the proceeds accruing from whatever he is able to find that has been lost.

   In this case the daughter of a war vet who never quite made it home wants the money or whatever it was that her father brought home from the war. She assumes that Junior Allen, the man who was her dad’s cell mate at Leavenworth, an out and out villain if ever there was one, came looking for it, loved her for a while until he found it, then left her and took up with another woman.

   Which is where the other part of Travis McGee’s personality and mystique come into play: his self-appointed role as God’s gift to shattered women. This particular aspect of the McGee stories has become more controversial in today’s world than it was in the mid-60s, which is when they began.

   When it comes down to it, even though the trail takes McGee from Miami to New Your City to a small town in Texas, the first adventure a simple one. It all comes to a head back in Miami and a direct confrontation with the aforementioned Mr. Allen, the end of which is twist upon the McGee mystique above [PLOT ALERT!], as he is the one who needs the time and TLC for a full recovery.

   Here are some inner thoughts that Travis McGee has about himself:

   Maybe I was despising that part of myself….What an astonishment these night thoughts would induce in the carefree companions of blithe Travis McGee, that big brown loose-jointed boat bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, argufier, that knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society.

   Here is a view he has of one aspect of Miami social life, and the role of some of the women in it.

   These are the playmate years, and they are demonstrably fraudulent. The scene is reputed to be acrawl with adorably amoral bunnies to whom sex is a pleasant social favor. The new culture. And they are indeed present and available, in exhausting quantity, but there is a curious tastelessness about them. A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of very much value to anyone else. They become a pretty little convenience, like a guest towel…. Only a woman of pride, complexity, and emotional tension is genuinely worth the act of love.

   Here some thoughts that McGee has about his adversary in this book:

A. A. Allen, Junior, came through as a crafty, impulsive, and lucky man. He had gone after the sergeant’s fortune with guile and patience, but now that he had begun to have the use of it, he was recklessly impatient to find his own rather perverse gratifications. Sanity is not an absolute term. Probably, in the five years of imprisonment, what had originally been merely a strong sexual drive had been perverted into a search for victims. He had indulged himself with erotic fantasies of gentle women, force, terror, corruption. Until, finally, the restolen fortune became merely a means to an end, to come out and live the fantasies.

   Here is a rant — I cannot think of a better word to describe it — McGee has about life in modern America, a feature readers came to expect in each and every follow-up novel. There were 20 more to come:

   She looked at me with soft apologetic brown eyes, all dressed in her best to come talk to me. The world had done its best to subdue and humble her, but the edge of her good, tough spirit showed through. I found I had taken an irrational dislike to Junior Allen, that smiling man. And I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, checklists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.

   I am dreary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.


13 HOURS BY AIR. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett, Zasu Pitts, John Howard, Brian Donlevy, Alan Baxter, Fred Keating, Ruth Donnelly, Adrienne Martin, Benny Bartlett. Screenplay Bogart Rogers, based on his story “Wild Wings” with Frank Mitchell Dazey. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

   A bit different than what you might expect from director Leisen, though he often did films about flying or flyers (Arise My Love).

   This is an early aviation film with the usual Grand Hotel cast, first Captain Jack Gordon (MacMurray) meets Felice Rollins (Joan Bennett) desperate to get a ticket on the flight to San Francisco. Of course he can’t resist helping even when he sees a headline about a woman in a fur coat who held up a jewelry store with two men.

   Add to the passenger list Zasu Pitts as the high-strung nanny to wealthy young Waldemar Pitt III (Benny Bartlett, billed as Binnie Bartlett), a small handful of ill manners and painful tricks, then a mysterious Dr. Evarts (Brian Donlevy), the nosy Mr. Palmer (Alan Baxter), and a foreign fellow threatening Felice (Fred Keating), plus co-pilot John Howard and stewardess Adrienne Martin who just got engaged.

   The usual comedic misdirection abounds, and this one almost falls into the runaway heiress genre of screwball comedy, with Bennett and MacMurray both veterans of such lighter fare, but then the plane is forced down in bad weather in a snowy field, and it turns out there is a killer on board willing to sacrifice everyone so he can escape to Mexico.

   No surprises here. Waldemar proves his worth, MacMurray gets the girl, and the bad guy gets decked while all the romantic entanglements get explained simply as soon as everyone stops playing cute and just talk to each other. Leisen often combined comedy and drama in his films.

   Granted the model work is distractingly crude, though good for the time, but aside from that I’m a sucker for these closed world films whether on a train, a plane, or ship, and this one boasts an unusually good cast and a solid plot that, while slight, gets by on good dialogue and the quality of the players. It plays like one of the better stories of this sort that appeared in the slicks and the pulps of the period, and is a good example of a genre that writers such as Ernest K. Gann and Arthur Hailey would push to the bestseller list and would be adapted into memorable films later.

   Better than average fare in a genre that would become a staple in the decades that followed.


ALISTAIR MacLEAN – River of Death. Collins, UK. hardcover, 1981. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1982. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1983.

RIVER OF DEATH. Cannon Films, 1989. Michael Dudikoff, Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence, Herbert Lom, L.Q. Jones. Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean. Director: Steve Carver.

   I imagine a conversation between Alistair Maclean and his editor going something like this: “Imagine a story where you have an adventurer, an Allan Quatermain sort ripped straight from the pages of H. Rider Haggard, who discovers that a Nazi war criminal is not just hiding in South America, but that he’s hiding in a lost city originally founded by a hitherto unknown Indian tribe!” That is, to be sure, an intriguing premise to a story.

   But there are obvious questions raised by the idea. How did the Nazi get there? What is he doing there? Just hiding out or up to something far more nefarious? And who is this adventurer who gets the honor of serving as the tale’s protagonist?

   Sadly, it’s the near complete dearth of character development, to say nothing of the achingly dull plot, which relegates Maclean’s River of Death to a minor work in the author’s far more distinguished canon. Hamilton, the hero of the story, is introduced to the reader almost simultaneously with other characters, all of whom will play far lesser roles in the plot.

   There’s no real moment in the first third of the novel when the reader gets a feel for Hamilton and learns why he might be so motivated to return to the site of this so-called lost city. That, along with the fact that many of the characters seem to speak exactly alike, is unnecessarily confusing and does very little to keep one engrossed, let alone interested, in what’s transpiring.

   And then there are the Nazis. In the novel’s prologue, which is undoubtedly the best part of the work, Maclean is at his best at least as far as this work is concerned. He paints a picture of two Nazi war criminals. It’s the end of the war, when it’s clear to all but the most deluded fanatics that Germany is about to be a defeated power. Two S.S. officers, Van Manteuffel and Spaatz, decide to abscond to South America with treasures they have looted from a Greek monastery.

   But Nazis aren’t the sorts to play fair. It’s no surprise that Von Manteuffel, a poorly developed arch-villain if there ever were one, decides he’d rather have the loot all to himself and have his would-be partner in crime out of the way.

   Fast-forward several decades. Spaatz, who managed to survive Van Manteuffel’s bullet, is now working and living in Brazil under the laughably generic name Smith. He hires Hamilton, the story’s hero-adventurer, to lead him into the Amazonian jungle under the pretense that he’s interested in seeing the lost city for himself. What he’s really after, of course, is revenge. He knows that Van Manteuffel is living a Kurtz-like existence out in the jungle.

   Most of the novel follows Hamilton and Smith, along with a motley crew of thrill seekers, as they traverse rough terrain, fight off Indian tribes, and learn each other’s deepest secrets. The dialogue is forgettable, as are the descriptions of the group’s infighting. Like slogging through the rainforest, it requires patience to get where you’re going.

   And, unfortunately, the payoff isn’t really worth it. Yes, they find Van Manteuffel and the implication of the ending is that the bastard gets his just desserts. Nevertheless, it all left me with a feeling of “so what.” Unlike Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (reviewed here), which raised all sorts of ethical and political questions, Maclean’s work seems to be content with just following through with a mildly quirky, albeit intriguing, premise.

   The cinematic adaptation of Maclean’s work isn’t much better than the novel itself. What starts off as a sweaty, low-budget adventure film with potential to punch well above its weight, ends up faltering under the weight of so many 1980s action movie clichés. You’ve got some gunfights, some explosions, uncivilized natives, and the cruel and sadistic Nazis.

   Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence, who portray the two Nazi war criminals, could have put in solid dramatic performances rather than the cartoonish ones they deliver here. Michael Dudikoff, who plays Hamilton, is stilted from the very beginning. He radiates as much personality as his character in the novel. Which is to say almost none. It’s a shame. When given the opportunity to do so, he was capable of so much more than phoning it in.

   The one exception is L. Q. Jones. A veteran of many Sam Peckinpah productions, Jones is a welcome presence in River of Death. He plays a shifty fixer, the type of guy you might very well meet in a small town Brazilian watering hole a million miles from nowhere. It’s a real good role for him and one that I admit kept me watching the movie longer than I would have otherwise.

« Previous PageNext Page »