January 2019



LEN DEIGHTON – The Ipcress File. “Harry Palmer” #1. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1962. Simon & Schuster, US, hardcover, 1963. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1965. Reprinted many times.

THE IPCRESS FILE. Rank Films, UK, 1965. Universal, US, 1965. Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Aubrey Richards. Based on the novel by Len Deighton. Director: Sidney J. Furie.

   The screenwriters of the stylishly downbeat film The Ipcress File made the correct decision by introducing the notion of the eponymous file to the audience in the first half of the film’s running time. One structural problem in Len Deighton’s otherwise exceedingly compelling work of espionage fiction is that it’s not until the very tail end of the text that the author discloses what “IPCRESS” really means and how it fits into all that has transpired.

   Somehow it lessens not only the impact of the word, but also the terrifying possibilities it portends for both the story’s protagonist and Western democracy as a whole.

   To no one’s surprise, particularly those who are familiar with tropes from the spy genre, IPCRESS is an acronymm in this case for “Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress.” That makes perfect sense, since Len Deighton’s work is Cold War fiction at its best. It is also fundamentally a thriller about mind control, particularly the West’s fear that the Eastern bloc as well as its more dogmatic and revolutionary Maoist cousins would develop a means of reprogramming Westerners into docile communist agents.

   In the movie adaptation, British agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) comes across the word IPCRESS fairly early on during his investigation into the disappearance of a British physicist. He’s not sure what it means, but when a colleague who uncovers the true meaning of the word is murdered, he knows that he’s up against individuals willing to destroy people psychologically for the sake of their ideology or money or both.

   Fundamental to the story is Palmer and how he fits, or alternatively doesn’t fit, into the mold of a spy. A military officer with a troubled past and a penchant for insubordination, Palmer is the anti-James Bond. He’s working class and lives a far from glamorous lifestyle. There are no exotic locales filled with beautiful women, yachts, or sports cars for him.

   While the novel features sequences in both Lebanon and the South Pacific, the filmmakers made the right call and set the movie entirely in London, emphasizing the city’s persistently gray sky and its foreboding industrial spaces. Caine, with his Cockney accent and devil may care attitude, is a perfect fit for the role. Audiences must have agreed for Caine reprised the role in two other Palmer films in the 1960s: Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967).

   In both the novel and the film version of The Ipcress File, Palmer’s investigation into the man allegedly responsible for both kidnapping and reprogramming British scientists so that they would be unable to work eventually leads him straight into the lion’s den. He gets captured and is forced to endure the mind control techniques that have wreaked havoc on some of England’s finest scientists, figuratively turning their brains into mush.

   This is where the film gets psychedelic, very much akin to a scene toward the end of The Venetian Affair (1967), a movie similarly about communist brainwashing techniques, in which Robert Vaughn’s character is subject to an equally sinister method of mind control at the hands of a villain working for Communist China.

   Sidney J. Furie’s direction, with his use of strange, unsettling angles, lends the film a disquieting feel. There’s not a lot of sunlight on display here, either literally or metaphorically. Palmer’s not doing his duty for Queen and Country as much as he is for his pay check and to avoid a military prison for transgressions he committed while serving in Germany.

   In this film everyone is expendable and no one can be trusted. John Barry’s jazzy score gives this cynical and bleak alternative to the James Bond franchise a hip London vibe without the heroic fanfare.


RAYMOND CHANDLER “Guns at Cyrano’s.” Ted Carmady #1. Novelette. First published in Black Mask January 1936 (with the leading character named Ted Malvern). Collected in: Five Murderers, Avon, paperback, 1944; Red Wind, World, hardcover, 1946; The Simple Art of Murder, Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1950; Pick-Up on Noon Street, Pocket, paperback, 1952; Stories and Early Novels, Library of America, hardcover, 1995. TV episode: Season 2 Episode 4 of Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, 18 May 1986 (with Powers Boothe as Philip Marlowe).

   Ted Carmady liked the rain; liked the feel of it, the sound of it, the smell of it. He got out of his LaSalle coupe and stood for a while by the side entrance to the Carondelet, the high collar of his blue suede ulster tickling his ears, his hands in his pockets and a limp cigarette sputtering between his lips. Then he went in past the barbershop and the drugstore and the perfume shop with its rows of delicately lighted bottles, ranged like the ensemble in the finale of a Broadway musical.

   â€œGuns at Cyrano’s” is one of the many short works written by Raymond Chandler for the pulps between 1929 and the publication of his first story “Blackmailer’s Don’t Shoot” and 1938 and the publication of The Big Sleep, the first Philip Marlowe novel. It is neither the best nor the worst of the lot (certainly not as good as the John Dalmas stories, particularly “Red Wind”), not even the best of the stories written in the third person (“Spanish Blood” and “Nevada Gas” are both better).

   I’ll go further, it isn’t even the best of the stories featuring Carmady (here known as Ted Carmady).

   I am not damning with faint praise though, because it is my personal favorite of the early stories, a pulpy B-movie of a boozy rainy noir tale replete with women no better than they have to be, a hero who isn’t so noble he’s boring or hard to believe in, a few innocents, and of course that famous man who walks into the room with a gun just as the lull starts to set in.

   Carmady, at least as presented here — and you will be forgiven if you question if this is the same Carmady of “Killer in the Rain” — has money and lives well, unlike anyone else in Chandler’s oveure he is not a private detective (he used to be, and even identifies himself as one at one point, but a rich private eye goes against almost everything Chandler ever wrote elsewhere) nor a good cop or house dick, but instead the son of a father who got his money in a clearly stated illegal way, meaning his son knows a lot of shady people and has a romantic notion that maybe he ought to make up for his father’s sins by helping people in trouble:

   â€œOkey,” he said thinly. “I’m nosey. So what? This is my town. My dad used to run it. Old Marcus Carmady, the People’s Friend; this is my hotel. I own a piece of it. That snowed–up hoodlum looked like a life–taker to me. Why wouldn’t I want to help out?”

   Here he is headed for the hotel room he lives in when he spots a victim lying in an open doorway.

   She lay on her side, in a sheen of steel–gray lounging pajamas, her cheek pressed into the nap of the hall carpet, her head a mass of thick corn–blond hair, waved with glassy precision. Not a hair looked out of place. She was young, very pretty, and she didn’t look dead.

   Carmady slid down beside her, touched her cheek. It was warm. He lifted the hair softly away from her head and saw the bruise.

   â€œSapped.” His lips pressed back against his teeth.

   Frankly at this point you wouldn’t be too shocked if Carmady turned out to have a sobriquet like the Saint or the Toff. Only the language is different, and maybe the attitude, the milieu is pretty much the same.

   The Dame, all women in these stories are some shade of Dames, good, bad, classy, murderous, or saintly, is a chanteuse named Jean Adrian (“I do a number at Cyrano’s.”), no better and no worse than life and men have made her, who likes his whiskey and is loathe to admit she was sapped or explain the.22 he finds beside her.

   Seems Miss Adrian has a boy friend who is a fighter, Duke Targo, and the Boys would like him to drop a fight, and they are trying to get to her through him. Naturally no Chandler hero can let that knightly quest go unmet.

   Of course that knightly quest is far from simple this being Chandler, involving a State Senator being blackmailed, a fixer named Doll Conant (His clothes looked as if they had cost a great deal of money and had been slept in.), an innocent victim to be avenged, and that gunfight at Benny Cyrano’s club from the title.

   Before it is over there is more gunplay (more in this single story than all the Marlowe novels put together), a few beatings, plenty of the kind of tough poetic dialogue Chandler was famous for, and a moral of sorts. It all makes for a satisfying pulp tale with the air of a good B movie and with those little touches that make even early Chandler such a pleasure to read.

   As I said, I like this story much more than it deserves for what it is. I’ve even seen it suggested it is the weakest of the Chandler stories, but it just happens to fit me for some reason, which is all any of us can ask of any story.

   They went through silent streets, past blurred houses, blurred trees, the blurred shine of street lights. There were neon signs behind the thick curtains of mist. There was no sky.

   If, like me you are a sucker for that particular brand of music, “Guns at Cyrano’s” hits all the notes on key, sonata for Thompson Machine Gun in B-Flat.

BACKSTREET JUSTICE. Prism Entertainment Corporation, 1994. Linda Kozlowski (Keri Finnegan), Paul Sorvino, Hector Elizondo, John Shea, Tammy Grimes, Viveca Lindfors. Written and directed by Chris McIntyre.

   I’m not sure, but while this film has some rather well-known names in the cast, I believe that it was released straight to video. I taped it from cable nearly 25 years ago, and a couple of evenings ago I finally got around to watching it.

   Linda Kozlowski, best known for her work in the Crocodile Dundee movie series, plays Pittsburgh-based private eye Keri Finnegan. She’s been hired by the residents of a crime-ridden section of town to find the person responsible for the recent deaths of three residents of the area, the police apparently having given up on the crimes.

   As it turns out, Keri’s relationship with the police is absolutely none. Her father, a police officer who died in a deadly shootout several years ago, was assumed to have been on the take, and Captain Phil Giarusso (Paul Sorvino) will have nothing to do with her.

   Her investigation takes some twists and turns, but eventually it comes down to a mysterious corporation who’s been taking advantage of the deaths to buy up property in the area. I’m not exactly clear on the details, since the story line is rather muddled, to say the least. There are a couple of twists toward the end that maybe make sense, as the acting is at least OK and the photography even better.

   There is also one lengthy and quite graphic sex scene between Ms Kozlowski and her sometimes boy friend (John Shea), but I’d have to admit that it’s gratuitous enough that I can’t recommend your trying to track down the movie for that reason alone — it’s apparently on Amazon Prime, but otherwise it is rather hard to find.

   All in all, though, Ms Kozlowski is quite glamorous in this film, but perhaps too much so to be totally convincing as a private eye. For most of the film I gave up on the story line and watched her instead.

   Headline: “Country icon Tom T. Hall is among the songwriters who will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.”

   Question: What the hell took so long?

   In addition to Hall, John Prine, Dallas Austin, Missy Elliott, Jack Tempchin and Yusuf (Cat Stevens) will be inducted at a ceremony in New York City in June.

FRANCIS DUNCAN – So Pretty a Problem. Mordecai Tremaine #5. John Long, UK, hardcover, 1950. Sourcebooks, US, trade paperback, 2018.

   It’s strange, but I have a feeling that Francis Duncan’s detective novels are selling now as well as they ever did, if not a whole lot better. Four of his six novels are back in print, and in the list of the titles at the end of this review, I’ve added the current Amazon sales ranking. They may not look spectacular, but believe me, they are — especially for detective fiction. Most of the books I have listed for sale on Amazon have rankings in the 3 to 8 millions. I don’t have any books there over 20 million.

   For an author no one had even heard of a year ago at this time, that’s quite an achievement.

   Duncan’s series character is a chap named Mordecai Tremaine, a retired tobacconist whose hobbies are reading romance novels and solving crimes. He’s done so well at the latter that’s he’s on a first name basis with several policemen at Scotland Yard, and they don’t mind in the least if he does some investigating for them on his own.

   The structure of So Pretty a Problem is an odd one, especially at first glance. Part I consists of the murder and the immediate investigation. This section is about 90 pages long, and it serves largely as a prologue to Part II, all of which takes place before the murder. This portion, over 160 pages long, consists entirely of Tremaine’s interactions with the murder victim and his wife and all of the other suspects-to-be. Ordinarily this section would come first, chronologically speaking, but 160 pages in a detective novel before the first murder occurs is an awfully long time to keep a reader’s interest at a high edge of anticipation.

   Part Three reverts to real time and Tremaine’s meticulously worked out explanation, including one of those “gathering the suspects together in one room” types of detective story expositions. Since this section is over 130 pages long, any complaints that current mysteries are longer than than they used to be will fall on deaf ears when you compare them to this one.

   Dead is an extremely successful high-society artist. He is found shot to death in his isolated home off the coast of England, connected to the mainland by means of only a single footbridge that an invalid lady is constantly watching. The only person found in the house except for the dead man is his wife, who tells two obviously false stories to the police, who believe neither one, but neither do they believe that she is the killer.

   I enjoyed this one. What impressed me the most about the story is how well Duncan made the explanation fit the facts so precisely, and yet before the explanation, there does not seem that there is one that’s possible. Knowing human character is a big asset for Mordecai Tremaine, and if this is an example of how he unravels a mystery as complicated as this, I’m going to go on and read all of his other cases in solving crimes.

       The Mordecai Tremaine series –

Murderer’s Bluff. Jenkins 1938
They’ll Never Find Out. Jenkins 1944
Murder Has a Motive. Long 1947 (*) #600,815
Murder for Christmas. Long 1949 (*) #119,807


So Pretty a Problem. Long 1950 (*) #192,556
In at the Death. Long 1952 (*) #88,764
Behold a Fair Woman. Long 1954 (*) #123,776

   Those marked with a (*) have been recently been reprinted in the US by Sourcebooks.



LADY IN THE DEATH HOUSE PRC, 1944. Jean Parker, Lionell Atwill and Douglas Fowley. Screenplay by Frederick C. Davis and Harry O. Hoyt, [based on the former’s story “Meet the Executioner” in the June 1942 issue of Detective Tales]. Directed by Steve Sekely.

   Well, it’s different.

   The story opens with Jean Parker walking that last mile to the Electric Chair. Then, as the door closes, we fade to Lionel Atwill as an avuncular criminologist, telling the tale of how he solved the baffling case of…. And we fade again into the first of many – many! — flashbacks.

   It seems Parker was a secretary working under an assumed name for the self-righteous moral crusader (George Irving) who railroaded her dad into prison and suicide years before. She uses her position to get Irving’s old file on her dad…. But never mind that; the writers soon forget about it.

   Parker is also being blackmailed by her sister’s shady boyfriend, who may have been responsible for the crimes pinned on her Dad. But don’t worry about that either, since the writers wander off on another tangent about halfway through.

   What they concentrate on is Douglas Fowley (bad guy in more than 100,000 B-movies and the harassed director in Singin’ in the Rain) who is in love with Ms Parker. She loves him right back, but is put off by his employment: Whenever somebody on Death Row gets the Hot Seat, it’s his job to flip the switch. Things get even stickier when Jean is convicted of murdering her sister’s boyfriend (remember him?) and now it’s Doug’s job to pull the rug out from under the woman he loves.

   BUT … it seems Doug also has a sideline as a research scientist, working on a way to restore life to the dead! And….

And nothing. Zip. Nada. Bupkis. Zilch. The writers once again wander off to different, if not necessarily greener, pastures, and Lady in the Death House eventually devolves into a desperate race against the clock to etc. etc.

   I am reminded here of Harry Stephen Keeler’s trick of building a story by drawing scraps of plot and sub-plot from a hat. Anyway, Steve Sekely directs all this with as much style as he can muster, given PRC’s meager resources. He had his moments (Hollow Triumph) and gives this thing a sense of pace and even a flash or two of visual elegance.

   What he can’t overcome is the crucial sequence where Parker is arguing with her sister’s beau, and their silhouettes are seen in incriminating outline from the street below. The more Sekely cuts from the street to the apartment, the more we see that the two of them ain’t nowhere close to that window – well, such are the vagaries of filmmaking at PRC.

   I will add though that Fowley and Atwill seem delighted at playing good guys for a change and make the most of it. In fact, their thesping and Sekely’s desperate efforts at directing kept me watching, even as I wondered what the writers were smoking and where I could get some for myself.


RICK BOYER – Pirate Trade. Doc Adams #8. Ivy, paperback original, 1995.

   I’ve been wondering what happened to Boyer; this is the first from him since 1991’s Yellow Bird, and he’s obviously lost his hardback contract. Yet another HWMA (Hardboiled White Male Author) takes a shoot to the crotch. Oh well, he’s still being published, which is more than Benjamin Schutz can say.

   Doc buys his wife Mary a purse decorated with real ivory from a sore on Nantucket, but he soon wishes he hadn’t. The ivory turns out to be illegal — illegal ivory is Big Criminal Business — and Mary is enlisted by the Feds to help with a sting operation. Doc doesn’t like this even a little bit, but Mary wants to do Something On Her Own.

   Due as much to his interference as anything else, both of them end up facing some real real danger, and Doc’s mercenary friend, Rozantis, is pressed into service.

   These are basically crime/adventure books, and my taste for such seems to be waning lately. On top of that, I think this is the least of the eight Adams’s, with a plot that seemed disjointed and narration more than a bit episodic. The characterization of Adams and his supporting cast has been fairly strong over the length of the series, but there was nothing here to add to it.

   All in all, it was a reasonably quick and pleasant read — but nothing that would send you running to Half-Price to find the earlier books. Boyer and Adams may have hit the wall with this.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #18, February-March 1995.

       The Doc Adams series —

Billingsgate Shoal (1982)
The Penny Ferry (1984)
The Daisy Ducks (1986)
Moscow Metal (1987)
The Whale’s Footprints (1988)
Gone to Earth (1990)
Yellow Bird (1991)
Pirate Trade (1994)
The Man Who Whispered (1998)

“Orange Blossom Special” is one of those songs that every band who plays it tries to do it faster and better than every other band that’s ever played it. Most bands fall far short. To my eyes and ears, this group comes awfully close to the top.

THOMAS POLSKY – Curtains for the Copper. “Scoop” Griddle #3. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1941. Handi-Books #5, paperback, 1942. Dell #29, mapback edition, no date stated [1944]; Dell #700, paperback, 1953.

   While Polsky wrote one additional non-series book in 1952, Curtains for the Copper is the last of three cases that ace newspaper reporter L. F. “Scoop” Griddle worked on shortly before World War II. The cop who dies is a rookie on the beat, shot and killed during a raid on a gambling house.

   There are lots of suspects on the scene, including a good-looking girl and a police chief with a IQ of 62. In fact it is only the sorry excuse for police work that makes the final scene possible. Nothing more than a good imitation of George Harmon Coxe, only the latter did it better.

–Reprinted and slightly revised form from Mystery*File #16, October 1989.

       The L. F. “Scoop” Griddle series —

Curtains for the Editor. Dutton 1939
Curtains for the Judge. Dutton 1939
Curtains for the Copper. Dutton 1941


HOLLYWOOD STORY. Universal Pictures, 1951. Richard Conte, Julie Adams, Richard Egan, Jim Backus, Fred Clark, Henry Hull, Paul Cavanagh. Screenplay and story by Frederick Kohener (story as by Frederick Brady). Directed by William Castle.

   A surprisingly good mystery that is a bit plot heavy and would have benefited without Jim Backus’s jovial press agent narration, but otherwise posits a fair Hollywood mystery. Richard Conte plays Larry O’Brien, a successful New York film producer, lured West by money-man and friend Sam Collier (Fred Clark).

   When he goes to visit his new studio, once home of silent films, he discovers it is where famed silent film director Franklin Ferrera was murdered in 1929 in his cabana in an unsolved mystery. Despite being warned off, O’Brien decides to look into the old murder as the subject of his first film and begins nosing around.

   He even hires washed-up screenwriter Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull) who worked with Ferrara to write the screenplay, and attracts the attention of Lt. Lennox (Richard Egan) who reminds him there is no statute of limitations on murder, and cops might come in handy.

   Not everyone is happy about the case being reopened. Sally Rosseau (Julie Adams) is the daughter of silent star Amanda Rosseau (Adams appears in a dual role but is billed as Julia Adams in it) who was involved with Ferrara and would as soon leave the whole thing in the past with her late mother’s memory. So would O’Brien’s friend Sam Collier, and former male lead Roland Paul (Paul Cavanagh), the latter the suspect whose career was ruined because everyone believed he murdered the director over Amanda. And when someone takes a shot at O’Brien at the studio late at night it seems as if someone is willing to kill to keep the past silent.

   Of course O’Brien and Sally will become romantically involved and secrets that hurt the innocent and the guilty will emerge, including a missing male secretary named Rodale who shows up willing to sell information and turns up murdered in his cheap hotel room.

   Despite the setting, direction by William Castle, Richard Conte in the lead playing at amateur private eye, and black and white photography, this is in no way film noir. Instead it’s a fair mystery with suspects and clues that unfolds more like the kind of thing done later on television on shows like Burke’s Law or Ellery Queen than what you might expect on the big screen from this era.

   There are lulls, the Jim Backus narration is a pointless distraction, and while it is nice to see them, brief cameos by silent film stars like Francis X. Bushman and William Farnum are more awkward than nostalgic, but get past that aspect, and there are actual clues here (the main one not shared with the viewer), a dangerous killer, and even a frame-up of not one but two innocent men.

   It’s a short fairly complex mystery, and if you solve it before the hero, it is likely based more on being familiar with the genre than anything else, and I have to say there is one clue shown early and right out in the open that proves key to unraveling the mystery that is good enough for any mystery.

   In fact the biggest mystery about this one is that they didn’t take that cast and story and make it into a noir. It wouldn’t have taken much effort to make the difference between a decent little mystery film and maybe a very good one. The problem here is that a pretty good idea is actually tossed off by everyone involved.

Next Page »