March 2019


DON WINSLOW – A Cool Breeze on the Underground. Neal Carey #1. St.Martin’s, hardcover. 1991; paperback, 1996. Nominated for an Edgar award for Best First Novel.

   Neal Carey is a young man employed by a firm called Friends of the Family, which exists to solve nagging little problems that might annoy friends, acquaintances, or business associates of an old New England bank. Carey is called away from his studies — the firm is financing his education — to hunt down the daughter of a politician who has run away from home, and has been sighted in London.

   He doesn’t care much for the assignment, or the timing that’s going to cause him to fail a course, but really doesn’t have much choice. And as if finding a runaway in a huge city weren’t chore enough, he’s given a deadline. Off he goes to the Smoke, where he finds that nothing is ever simple. But he already knew that.

   I can see why Winslow is getting a lot of attention. I don’t know whether the series will stand the test of time — or even if the second and third are as good as the first, for that matter — but I liked this considerably. A good bit of the book is devoted to flashbacks that tell us who Carey is, and how he got to where he is today, and these interludes are well integrated with the story proper.

   Winslow has what may be the most important ingredient in making it big in the field — an engaging “voice.” His characters are interesting and believable, his narration smooth. The plot was nothing special, but nothing especially offensive either. Underground is one of the better series debuts I’ve read, and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain the standard he’s set.

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

      The Neal Carey series —

A Cool Breeze on the Underground (1990)
The Trail to Buddha’s Mirror (1992)
Way Down on the High Lonely (1994)
A Long Walk Up the Waterslide (1995).
While Drowning in the Desert (1996).

MICHAEL INNES – Lord Mullion’s Secret. Charles Honeybath #3. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1982. Penguin, US, paperback, 1983. Published previously in the UK by Victor Gollancz, hardcover, 1981.

   There may be a few others, but Innes is one mystery writer who can get away with writing a full-length detective story that doesn’t have a single murder in it. Famed portrait painter Charles Honeybath returns for this latest of now three witty adventures. allowing Innes’s more famous detective character, Sir John Appleby, to continue enjoying his retirement a while longer.

   Asked by an old friend to paint his wife, Honeybath quickly discovers that Mullion Castle is filled to the brim with secrets. Small unaccountable things begin to happen as soon as he arrives, including some switched paintings, a clandestine romance between a gardener and the lord’s older daughter, and a dotty great-aunt’s sudden penchant for sleepwalking.

   Stately mansions may be becoming more and more difficult to maintain, but they do have their places in mystery fiction, don’t they?

–Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 1, Jan-Feb 1982.

      The Charles Honeybath series —

The Mysterious Commission. Gollancz 1974
Honeybath’s Haven. Gollancz 1977
Lord Mullion’s Secret. Gollancz 1981
Appleby and Honeybath. Gollancz 1983


  ROUGHSHOD. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949. Robert Sterling, Gloria Grahame, Claude Jarman Jr., John Ireland, Jeff Donnell, Myrna Dell, Martha Hyer, George Cooper, Jeff Corey. Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes) and Hugo Butler. Director: Mark Robson.

   Roughshod is a surprisingly noir western from RKO, the quintessential nor studio, co-written by Geoffrey Homes (Out of the Past) and directed by Val-Lewton-alumnus Mark Robson. Surprising because it sets up a standard White-Hat vs. Black-Hat plot, then pretty much abandons it to dwell of the Pilgrim’s Progress of four Ladies of Easy Virtue reluctantly rescued by absurdly tight-lipped White-Hat Robert Sterling, who is stalking and being stalked by Black-Hat John Ireland.

   Homes does a thoughtful job sketching the trials and tribulations of the euphemistic “Dance Hall Gals” (who include Martha Hyer, Jeff Donnell and the unforgettable Gloria Grahame) as they chase dreams of Love, Lust, Avarice and Respectability, showing sensitivity without straying West of the Pathos, while Robson skillfully sustains tension in the Val Lewton style, with half-seen figures flitting about the night, punctuated by a few very chilling scenes of Ireland prowling about like a monster in a horror flick.

   There is also a dandy run-and-jump gunfight to wrap things up with a satisfying ironic twist that I refuse to divulge.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #44, May 1990.

ARTHUR LYONS – Fast Fade. Jacob Asch #9. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1987; paperback, July 1988.

   PI Jacob Asch goes Hollywood in this one, his ninth overall. His client thinks a well-known director was once her husband, under another name, The director is also into kinky bondage, and when he’s found dead, they have a name for it: autoerotic asphyxiation.

   An underlying themes seems to be the built-in insecurities of show business, and the people in it. While the case itself is as heavily plotted as an X-rated Erle Stanley Gardner story, the wrapup comes a little too quick. I anticipated more than I got.

–Reprinted from from Mystery*File #14, July 1989.

ROBERT SHECKLEY – The Game of X: A Novel of Upsmanship Espionage. Delacorte Press, hardcover, 1965. Dell #2788, paperback, 1966; Ace, paperback, 1980 (?). Film: Condorman, 1981.

CONDORMAN. Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1981. Michael Crawford, Oliver Reed, Barbara Carrera. Loosely based on the novel The Game of X, by Robert Sheckley. Directed by Charles Jarrett.

   William Nye (yes, Bill Nye) is a likable, if not overly bright sort hanging on in Europe by the skin of his teeth, and reluctant to go home, so when a friend who works for an obscure agency that lends the CIA a hand once in a while offers Nye a simple job, to entrap a spy so they can turn him, a modest and nonthreatening spy, Nye accepts the job, and finds shutting the spy in question up is far harder than entrapping him.

   But things soon get out of hand when Nye’s new boss, Colonel Baker, takes note of a certain phenomena once the debriefs the spy Nye helped entrap.

   …other possibilities glimmered like marsh fire: a shadow agent can undertake much more dangerous assignments than his fleshy counterparts. A specter is not susceptible to capture by normal methods.

   Yes, there was work for Agent X — as Baker had already begun to think of him. Agent X utilized that law of human nature which makes con men the easiest victims of a con game. The law of autopredation, Baker decided to call it; the iron rule by which an inevitably merciful Nature turns the specialized strength of the predator into a fatal weakness, and thus betrays a vested interest in long-range averages.

   Nye assumes he is done and goes back to trying to make a living doing things like illegally bartending, when he suddenly finds himself drawn back in. Karinovsky, the spy he unwittingly turned, wants to come in from the cold, and naturally he wants the brilliant Agent X to do the job. All Nye has to do is what he is told, pretend again to be the ruthless Agent X, and all will be well.

   Of course the Russians aren’t going to just let Karinovsky go, but for the most part they are a fairly useless group, for the most part …

   â€œForster is head of Soviet Intelligence Operations, Northeast Italian sector. He’s a formidable fellow, a big, powerful chap, skilled with small arms and quite ingenious at planning. Definitely a man on his way up. But I suspect that he’s overconfident.”

   â€œHow am I supposed to handle him?”

   The Colonel thought about that for a while. At last he said, “I think the best plan would be to avoid him entirely.”

   And anyone who has ever read a thriller can imagine how that is going to go. Nye has hardly set foot in Venice where the game is set to be played before he has been picked up by Foster, who is impressed to be face to face with the famous Agent X.

   â€œI wonder, Nye, if you are as good as your dossier indicates. In all frankness, you don’t look particularly dangerous. A casual observer would judge you barely competent. And yet, your record in the Far East speaks for itself. Specialist in guerrilla warfare. Expert in small arms and explosives. Skilled saboteur and arsonist. Licensed to fly fighter aircraft. A former hydroplane operator and master diver. … Have I left anything out?”

   â€œYou forgot my medals in lacrosse and jai alai,” I said. Inwardly I was cursing Colonel Baker’s overreaching imagination. He had poured too much gilt on the lily; in striving to create a paragon, he had only succeeded in producing a paradox.

   Not long after Nye finds himself kidnapped (again) by one Dr. Jansen (… a dwarf, about two and a half feet high, with a large, finely shaped head and blue pop eyes behind heavy glasses. He wore a dark business suit with a rubber apron over it. He also wore a beard. He looked like a tiny Paul Muni playing a miniature Pasteur.) who plans to torture him for details of Karinovsky’s defection, but Nye blunders his way to safety — or was it a brilliant move by Agent X? No matter what Nye does he seems to be feeding the legend of Agent X.

   The Game of X, subtitled “A Novel of Upsmanship Espioinage” is from the pen of satirical science fiction writer Robert Sheckley, whose work graced many of the best magazines and collections in the fifties and sixties, and who tried a more serious hand at thrillers with his Stephen Dain novels and his mix of science fiction and thriller the “Victim” series that began with his short story “The Seventh Victim” (Galaxy SF, 1953) that came to the screen as The Tenth Victim, about a society where in order to deal with over population and boredom people take art in a game of hunter and hunted elaborately assassinating each other for profit and televised entertainment.

   As you might expect with that pedigree the book is a very funny send up of spies and spying and the whole James Bond milieu, with Nye blundering from one success to another until at the end Colonel Baker is no longer sure whether he made Agent X up or if Nye was X all along, and as Nye asks himself, “Why, after all, did I have to live with reality? Wasn’t illusion a perfectly suitable condition?”

   Game of X came to the screen as a rather handsome and fairly faithful Disney film called Condorman with future Phantom of the Opera star Michael Crawford as a comic book artist who finds himself recruited to play his creation, Condorman. Oliver Reed was well cast as the redoubtable Foster. Some of the fun of the book is lost in silliness and camp, but then there is a fair amount of silliness in the book to begin with. A sharper, more Sheckley-like edge would have helped no end.

   The Game of X fits nicely on the shelf with some of the better spy spoofs of the era, John Gardner’s The Liquidator, Martin Waddell’s Otley, and books such as Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day and Victor Canning’s The Great Affair. William Nye may not be the brightest bulb, but he proves an affable companion for a jaunty adventure in the sometimes blackly humorous world of unlikely spies.

C. S. MONTAYNE “The Perfect Crime.” Short story. Rider Lott #1. First appeared in Black Mask, July 1920 (Vol.1, No.4). Reprinted in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, softcover, November 2007).

   Unless I’m very much mistaken, not only was this Rider Lott’s first appearance, it was also his last. Which is as it should be, since doesn’t the old saying go, “Crime Does Not Pay”? The story is included in “The Villains” section of Otto Penzler’s book, but to tell you the truth, Rider Lott is one very minor villain indeed.

   His modus operandi in “The Perfect Crime” is to recruit two others, one male and one female, to commit the crime of burglary for him, while he takes a third of the loot for being the mastermind behind the plot. But even though he warns his two underlings to be extra cautious in leaving no clues behind them, it goes without saying that if you want to commit the perfect crime, you’d be better off doing it yourself.

   As I suggested earlier, this is not a major piece of work. To me it’s historically significant because I’m fairly sure this is the earliest story in the long run of Black Mask I’ve ever read. Otherwise I think I’d rather have read one of Montayne’s stories about one of his other villains, namely a certain jewel thief by the name of Captain Valentine, a gentleman who appeared in a total of ten Black Mask stories, as Otto tells us in his introduction to this tale, plus one novel, Moons in Gold (1936).


ERNEST HAYCOX – Canyon Passage. Little Brown, hardcover, 1945. Pocket, #640, paperback, 1949. Many other reprint editions exist.

CANYON PASSAGE. Universal, 1946. Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges and Andy Devine. Screenplay by Ernest Pascal, based on the novel by Ernest Haycox. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

   Ernest Haycox writes best about working men — miners, ranchers, or as here a freighter — made heroes by force of circumstance, set in communities that are not always right or just, but keep striving to get that way. Canyon Passage is the best example of this I’ve seen so far, not so much a carefully-plotted story as a series of interactions between fallible people bouncing off each other in an evolving milieu.

   A book like this gets life from its characters, and Haycox gives us a colorful cast. Logan Stuart, the central character, is the solid, dependable sort to hang a story on; he has a hankerin’ for smart, tough Lucy Overmire, and she for him, but… well, Haycox puts it best, as Logan ponders to himself:

   â€œIt was a queer business — this confused wandering of people toward things they wanted and could not have, this silent resignation to less than they wanted. It was a world where people walked with their desires and seldom attained them, but it was all in silence, held away….”

   I credit Haycox with making these ill-turned relationships at least as interesting as the fights, murders and Indian raids that propel the story. He draws an interesting parallel between George Camrose — Logan’s friend betrothed to Lucy, and also a polished thief preying on his friends — and Honey Bragg, a murderous brute and near-outcast, also preying on the locals. Both are eventually punished by the mining camp they live in (and off) but in very different ways, and it’s this sense of Community as Character that gives Canyon Passage real depth.

   Bragg gets his comeuppance at the hands of Logan Stuart, after the good people of the town have goaded them into a fight for no better reason than they wanted to see a battle royal. And Haycox writes us a dandy. Faced with the meaner, stronger, Bragg, Stuart starts the fight by cracking a bottle across his face, then smashing a chair over his head, then picking up the pieces of the chair and smashing them over his head, then picking up another chair…. You get the idea. It’s brutal and very real.

   Camrose, on the other hand, gets tried by a Miner’s Court for the murder of a man whose poke he’s pilfered, found guilty on the basis of circumstantial evidence (He is in fact guilty as hell.) and locked up till the town can get around to lynching him—which puts Logan in the position of having to rescue his guilty buddy for the sake of the misguided Lucy.

   Me, I woulda just sat back, seen him hanged, and moved in on Lucy myself, but that’s probably why I was never the hero of a Western. And I have to say Haycox rings in the Indian Raid that brings everything to a head and resolves the various conflicts without seeming a bit contrived.

   Producer Walter Wanger made a fine job of filming this, hiring Jacques Tourneur, known for his horror flicks with Val Lewton, to direct, and dependable hack Ernest Pascal to stick close to the book. He also signed up sturdy leads Andrews, Donlevy and Hayward, and a host of dependable character actors, including Ward Bond as Bragg, Andy Devine as a homesteader, and best of all Hoagy Carmichael as an amiable minstrel.

   The result is a film of considerable charm and surprising brutality. Like I say, writer Pascal stays close to the book, and director Tourneur gives us the beatings & killings with unflinching nastiness, done up in fairy-tale Technicolor by photographer Edward (Heaven Can Wait) Cronjager.

   There is one point where the movie departs from the book though, and I think it’s an improvement. And since it’s at the ending, I’ll throw in a SPOILER ALERT!!

   In the book, Logan Stewart helps his friend Camrose escape, but it does no good as he’s shot down shortly thereafter by one of his victims. Logan, having led the miners against raiding Indians, is forgiven by the town, mainly because they got their man anyway and no real harm done.

   In the movie, however, Logan returns from injun-fightin’ to find that the good people of the town have burned down his store as retribution for his crime. Having chastened him, they are now willing to accept him back as a member of society in good standing. And Logan accepts it as a just punishment, ready to move on with his life.

   It’s not a major story element, but somehow this moment, as directed by Tourneur, gets to the meat of what Haycox was saying in the book. I’m not sure I can put it into words, but it has something to do with a civilization not built on laws, religion, or even tradition, but on people. And therefore as good or bad as the best and worst of us.

   As Walt Kelly used to say, “it’s enough to make a man think.”

NO PLACE TO LAND. Republic Pictures, 1958. John Ireland, Mari Blanchard, Gail Russell, Jackie Coogan, Robert Middleton. Produced & directed by Albert C. Gannaway.

   The cast of this little known noir film is ultra fine, the story is OK, but the problem is — although it does have its moments — the filming leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. Produced late in Republic Films’ existence, the budget was tight, and it shows.

   It begins by focusing in on the swiveling gyrations of Mari Blancherd’s hips as she dances to the sound of a jukebox in a low-rent dive in the heart of produce country. Spurned by ace cropduster John Ireland, her character impulsively marries landowner Robert Middleton, which she regents immediately. Overweight, ugly and insanely jealous, Middleton is a petty villain without many equals.

   It is Ireland she continues to lust for, in spite of the marriage license now in her name. Fleeing her amorous advances (and wishing to avoid a confrontation with Middleton), Ireland finds a job on another farm quickly, and almost as quickly takes up with Gail Russell, the wife of its owner, who spends most of his time working off a drunk — or building up to one.

   You may thing this is enough of a plot, but there is more. Ireland’s assistant, Jackie Coogan, is injured saving their plane while in the air, and the diagnosis is not good. He will be blind in two months, the doctor says.

   It’s quite a mixture of story lines, the most prominent portion of which is Mari Blanchard’s role as one of the most fatal of femme fatales you will ever see this early in film history — bedding and romancing everyone in this film with pants on — or off, as the case may be — except for Ireland, who refuses her, and Middleton, whom she refuses, even though she married him. Before the story ends, more than one person will have died as a result.

   It’s quite a tale, and only its low budget production values keeps me from recommending it completely and totally. Of especial note is Gail Russell’s low key but still very effective appearance in this film. She was to make but one more movie before her untimely death. What a beautiful and talented actress she was!

KELLEY ROOS – Ghost of a Chance. Haila & Jeff Troy #6. A. A. Wyn, hardcover, 1947. Detective Book Club, hardcover, 3-in-1 edition. Dell #266, paperback, mapback edition, 1948. Armed Forces Edition #1292, paperback, no date stated. Film: As Scent of Mystery, 1960, without the Troys. Novelization of film: As Scent of Mystery (Dell, paperback, 1959), reset in Spain.

   After a telephone message from a stranger warns Jeff Troy that a woman is about to be murdered, he and his wife Haila head out in a snowstorm to meet him, but (of course) they arrive too late. The man is dead. Who is the woman he warned Jeff about, and can they find her in time?

   A suspenseful book, but it’s of the artificially produced variety that leaves you hungry an hour later. Jeff and Haila are a fun couple, however, modeled, no doubt, on Nick and Nora Charles. A cheerfully lighthearted story, just an inch this side of silly.     (**)


(**)   Just what it is that Jeff Troy does for a living is never made quite clear. Apparently he dabbles a bit in photography, but why the former coachman decided to call on him with his warning was something that puzzled me all through the book. Since this wasn’t the first of the Troys’ adventures, though, I finally decided they had made the newspapers after one of their earlier cases. (Why Haila was allowed to tag along was something else that was never explained very well either.)

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

   Jazz trumpeter Christian Scott’s latest CD, Ancestral Recall, got a very favorable review earlier this week in the New York Times. Of several videos currently on YouTube, I liked this one best, but only by the narrowest of margins. Fans of Miles Davis’s music should enjoy Scott’s performance here as much as I do.

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