July 2019


   The trailer for Just Before Dawn (1981, directed by Jeff Lieberman) suggests that it’s a standard slasher film, one with perhaps some supernatural themes. While it’s true that the movie is undeniably a slasher film and part of that “craze” that swept drive-ins and cheap theaters in the early 1980s, it is also a survival film.

   Think: John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), which Lieberman credits as a major influence on his work. The trailer decribes the plot pretty well, but it fails to capture how hauntingly atmospheric the movie is. How the natural outdoor setting in the movie – it was filmed on location in Oregon – is as much as a character in the film as are the doomed protagonists.

   But let’s be honest. Just Before Dawn is an exploitation film, designed to appeal to the suburban fear of the backwoods. Just who are those inbred people who live up there, all alone in the mountains? The fun-loving kids in this movie with their fashionable clothes and their love for Blondie and Debbie Harry will soon find out, much as Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight’s characters did in that seminal work of 1970s cinema.

   One final note: for a slasher film, Just Before Dawns is relatively bloodless. There’s some gore, of course, but Lieberman didn’t go for the cheap thrills as much as he did the psychological menace of being chased and hunted in an unfamiliar, dangerous setting.

STUART PALMER “The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl.” Novelette. Hildegarde Withers. First published in Mystery, November 1933. Collected in Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (Crippen & Landru, 2002). Reprinted in The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories that Inspired Great Crime Films, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, softcover, forthcoming November 2019). Film: The Plot Thickens, RKO, 1936, with Zasu Pitts as Miss Withers and James Gleason as Oscar Piper.

   Things were different back in 1933. When Inspector Oscar Piper of the NYPD gets a call from an associate curator at the Cosmopolitan Museum of Art asking for police assistance, he being shorthanded at the moment, sends schoolteacher Miss Hildegarde Withers to act in his stead.

   It’s a good thing she’s on hand, though, for as soon as she arrives she sees the man she is to meet falling down a long flight of stairs and landing on the floor below, quite dead. This is only the prelude to several other extraordinary things happening at the museum that day, including the disappearance of a extremely valuable Cellini cup, ordinarily kept under close guard at all times.

   While I was reading this early Miss Withers tale, I was somewhat annoyed by the clutter of characters, much more than usual, I thought, not to mention the flurry of activity surrounding them, almost non-stop. Once finished, though, and looking back, it’s easy to see how well the story was constructed, brick by brick, and everything in its place, precisely when needed.

   While there’s no depth to either the characters or the story, it is a lot of fun to read.

   I’ve not seen the movie based on this story in a long time, but I have to agree with Otto Penzler’s assessment in his introduction to the story that Zasu Pitts was the wrong person chosen to replace Edna May Oliver in the leading role. He adds that “The screenplay provides a different motive for the murder, different suspects, and a different murderer.” He does go on to say that the movie retains the same comic tone as the story, however.

CIMARRON CITY “I, the People.” NBC, 11 October 1958. Swaon 1, Episode 1. Cast: George Montgomery (Matt Rockford), Audrey Totter (Beth Purcell), John Smith (Lane Temple). Guest Cast: Fred MacMurray, John Anderson. Director: Writers: Gene L. Coon, Fenton Earnshaw. Director: Jules Bricken.

   The story is interesting enough, but as a first episode of the series, which lasted only one year, it really doesn’t do the job, as far as I was concerned. Of the three major cast members, only George Montgomery’s role is well defined. As Matt Rockford, he’s a successful cattle rancher but even more importantly, he’s also the son of the founder of Cimarron City, a small town north of Oklahoma City, and as such takes a decidedly paternalistic attitude toward it.

   Audrey Totter plays the owner of a boarding house in town, and is given a few lines every so often, but her role has nothing to do with the story. I never did figure out who John Smith was supposed to be. I have since found out that he was a town blacksmith, but if he did any blacksmithing during this episode, I apologize for missing it.

   I saw no reason for Audrey Totter to be in this episode, and apparently also saw no future for her in the part, for (I am told) she quit the series soon thereafter. To give Smith more of a part, in later episodes he becomes a deputy sheriff, while Montgomery is elected town mayor. But that all comes later. In “I, the People,” nobody in charge seems to know exactly what they are doing.

   Which allows Fred MacMurray’s character to come into town and ingratiate himself to the town elders as a substantial citizen, moving his way up first from town banker to being elected mayor. At which point, in the name of law and order, he really begins to tighten his smug self-satisfied grip on the town.

   And eventually Matt Rockford decides he’s had enough and that he’s the only one who can do anything about it. Otherwise it’s Fred MacMurray’s show all the way, at first anxious to please any way he can, but as time goes on, showing more an more of his inner character. Everything in this episode centers around him, not George Montgomery. As for Totter and Smith, they make no impression at all.

Eilen Jewell is a singer-songwriter from Boise, Idaho. “Warning Signs” is a song from her 2011 CD Queen of the Minor Key.


PETER CHEYNEY – Dames Don’t Care. Lemmy Caution #3. . Collins, UK, hardcover, 1937. Coward McCann, US, hardcover, 1938. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and soft. Serialized in The Thriller Library Jul 31, Aug 7, Aug 14, Aug 21, Aug 28, Sep 4, Sep 11, Sep 18, 1937. Film: Les Femmes En Balacent (1954) with Eddie Constantine, Nadja Gray; directed by Bernard Borderie.

   I am sittin’ in this bar minding my own business like any guy might, when I looks up and see this guy come sailin’ in like the owns the place, and from the greeting he gets you wonder if he might, ’cause people are happy to see him, though at first I wonder if maybe they mistake him for some actor named Constantine, but I know him for who he is.

   And who he is happens to be Ma Caution’s baby boy Lemuel H., sometimes called Lemmy for short cause he likes to play with words does Lemmy as in Le’Me caution ya.

   Quite a sport this Lemmy, the pride and joy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation he is, the damnedest G-Man since Gagney on the big screen. Of course he takes a bit of getting used to does Mr. Caution, because he speaks in the a style and lingo unique to him, kinda as if Damon Runyon had a run in with Edgar Wallace an’ neither of them came out of it quite right, all in present tense save when he forgets here and there, because present tense is a bitch to write in.

   Anyways, he says his hellos and comes over to me, shakes hands, orders a beer, and without much preamble starts to tell me what just happened to him out West in California and down Mexico way. And believe me, its a hoot.

   Says he:

   IS it hot.

   I ain’t never been in hell, but I’m tellin’ you that I bet it ain’t any hotter than this Californian desert in July.

   I am drivin’ along past Indio an’ I figure that soon I am goin’ to see the Palm Springs lights. An’ I am goin’ some — the speedometer says eighty. If it wasn’t so hot it would be a swell night; but there ain’t any air, an’ there was a baby sand storm this afternoon that caught me asleep an’ I gotta lump of the Mojave desert or whatever they call it stuck right at the back of my throat.

   An’ that’s pretty much how Lemmy sounds, as if you was cornered in a bar by a pretty interesting guy who is determined to tell you a story whether you are determined to hear it or not. Mostly I am, but I’m aware many ain’t.

   Bein’ Lemmy, pretty soon there are dames and dead bodies in about equal proportions, some very bad bad men, some not quite as bad bad men, some dames that are lyin’ for good reason and some that are lyin’ for very bad reasons, and Lemmy is negotiating the lot of ‘em with frequent pauses for refreshment of the inebriating kind.

   It ain’t the things that dames do that worries me it’s the things that they get guys to do for ’em.

   Lemmy is not what you would call exactly woke when it comes to dames. Frankly he makes Mike Hammer look like a feminist. Just a friendly warnin’. Not that the ladies Lemmy encounters much deserve better sometimes.

   “Take it nice an’ calm, Cleopatra,” I tell her, “Because gettin’ excited or raisin’ hell around here is goin’ to be as much use to you as red pepper on a gumboil. Sweet dame, you are all shot to hell, you are washed up like a dead fish in a waterspout. From now on you are the sample that got lost in the mail, you are the copy the news editor spiked, you are the lady who got stood-up by a gumshoein’ Federal dick that you thought was a pushover. You make me sick. Even if you was good I wouldn’t like you.”

   An’ while I’m do in the warnin’ it’s also the sort of book where a Hispanic character says “keel” instead of kill a few times.

   Just so’s you know.

   Lemmy is plenty hot on this case because a guy he was workin’ with called Sagers has been killed, an’ even though a counterfeiting ring is operating Lemmy takes that kind of personal.

   â€œNow, right now I’m not interested in the counterfeitin’. I know that was done here, an’ I figure I know the whole story of it. The thing that’s takin’ my notice at the present moment is this:

   “Somebody here — one of you two guys — shot Jeremy Sagers. Now I guess I know who bumped him. I’ve got it all figured out, but I made up my mind about one thing. The guy who shot him is goin’ to fry for it, an’ maybe the other guy will be lucky.”

   For a G-Man Lemmy is a lot more interested in justice than law.

   An’ bein’ Lemmy there is, of course, a nice dame left over, because it wouldn’t be Lemmy if he didn’t end up with a dame.

   All Lemmy’s stories are hoots, especially the ones with all those dames he stumbles over where ever he goes, mostly tall and classy though some fatale types. Cause the other thing you have to know about Lemmy is nothing is ever exactly what it looks like and no one exactly who they seem in any story he tells.

   I first heard of him in this book called This Man is Dangerous, where we meet Lemmy as an escaped criminal who makes his way to London an’ gets involved with gamblers, crooks, an’ dames before he reveals he’s an undercover G-Man on loan to Scotland Yard. It gets made into a pretty good film by the French with this guy named Eddie Constantine, who looks so much like Lemmy he could have posed for the book covers from twenty years earlier but didn’t. Guy even gets typecast playin’ Lemmy, though it don’t seem to bother him much.

   Funny thing is this Constantine guy is a well known crooner in France, an’ in this book Lemmy sings, something actually in the film they made out of it. After that he sings in most of the films ’cause this actor is like a music star in Europe an’ even has television specials and does musicals in between playin’ :Lemmy and guys so much like Lemmy they might as well be him save for the name.

   This book becomes a best seller over in England and then in France as written by an ex-journalist and publicist named Peter Cheyney who also chronicles the adventures of a British Private Eye named Slim Callaghan, and a series of Dark books about wartime espionage in England among others.

   This Cheyney sort of sets the British mystery genre on its head and eventually even influences this guy named Ian Fleming who writes about a spy named James Bond, 007 though Cheyney was never too hot here Stateside. Anyways not Lemmy’s adventures.

   Lemmy never gets a number that I know of, but in Lemmy’s mind if he did, it would be Number 1.

   An’ with that Lemmy excuses himself and fades into the night, off to another adventure, more dames, more crooks, more cliches, an’ more slightly cracked Americaneze, but for all that he ain’t bad company in the right mood, an’ it is a mood I am sometimes in though I admit it ain’t one I stays in very long at a time.

   Your mileage my vary like they says.

   Just don’t read too many of ’em in a row, ’cause brain damage is possible.


    Horror House aka The Haunted House of Horror is a strange movie that defies easy categorization. Essentially a British giallo film, this Tigon Productions release from 1969 stars a nearly thirty-year old Frankie Avalon as a hip British teen (!!) who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery outside swinging London.

   The trailer doesn’t do a particularly effective job in conveying just how stylish the movie is, nor how shockingly gory it is in a few particularly sequences. Apparently both David Bowie and Boris Karloff were considered for roles in the movie, with Dennis Price taking the role meant for the latter. I can’t say that the plot, after it unfolds, is all that coherent. But it isn’t easily forgotten.

TOMORROW AT SEVEN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1933. Chester Morris, Vivienne Osborne, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Henry Stephenson, Grant Mitchell. Director: Ray Enright.

   This one comes straight from the pulp magazines. I should know. I’ve read enough of them. Looking for some background for his next book, a mystery writer named Neil Broderick (Chester Morris) inveigles his way into the household of Thornton Drake (Henry Stephenson), a wealthy man who is said to know a lot about a mysterious killer nicknamed “The Black Ace.”

   The latter’s modus operandi is to send a warning the day before the victim is to die, in the form of course of a black ace of spades. Broderick manages to meet Drake by means of his secretary (Vivienne Osborne), but when Drake gets the black ace warning himself, off they all go to his manor house on a Louisiana plantation. And when I say “all” I mean Drake’s butler and two dimwitted Chicago cops who have maybe a half a brain between them.

   If you picked Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins as the two cops just from the cast listing, you’d be right, and I’ll bet you’re not the only one. It is Drake’s butler who was murdered on the plane coming in, though, not Drake himself, and with only a limited number of suspects to choose from, it’s also not very difficult to figure out who the killer has to be.

   That’s not the point, though. This is half comedy and half a spooky old mansion mystery, not really a detective mystery, and depending on your tolerance for lowbrow comedy, the combination makes this an enjoyable if not very demanding film to watch. (If McHugh and Jenkins are the best that the Chicago Homicide Squad are able to offer, however, we really are in an alternate universe here.)

SUSANNAH STACEY – Goodbye, Nanny Gray. Superintendent Bone #1. Summit, US, hardcover, 1988. First published in the UK by Bodley Head as by Jill Staynes & Margaret Storey. Pocket, US, paperback, July 1989.

   When Phoebe Gray inherits the bulk of a rich man’s estate, the dead man’s brother has a right to be surprised. But then Miss Gray disappears and is later found dead. Was sge murdered? Or had she only bumped her head and wandered off to die? Supt. Bone needs to know.

   This is his debut, and with cares at home mixing in with his devotion to his job, I wouldn’t mind calling this a “cosy” at all. Details in the case, time, day of the week, etc., are kept rather vague, however, and deliberately so, for it all comes down to that.

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

Bibliographic Notes:   This was the first of eight outings for Supt. Bone (no first name known). Under the name Elizabeth Eyre, the two female collaborators wrote another six novels set during the Italian Renaissance. The leading protagonist in those books was a knight and/or a soldier of fortune by the name of Sigismondo da Roca.


JOHNNY GUNMAN. Will Kohler Productions, 1957. Martin E. Brooks, Ann Donaldson, Johnny Seven, Woodrow Parfrey, and Carrie Radisson. Written & directed by Art Ford.

   Well… it’s different.

   An independent effort from 1957, Johnny Gunman unfolds a tale of gang war over a single night, and with that premise and the title I was expecting some action. Maybe a lot of action. But this is quite literally all talk.

   The story? Johnny G, aspiring Gang Boss (Martin E. Brooks) meets failed writer (Ann Donaldson) and they kill time till his confrontation with a rival aspiring gang boss.

   When I say they kill time, I mean they talk it to death. All allocution. Nothing but natter in the absence of action. Conversation commences and gab goes on, declamation and discourse dominate the drama, challenged by chatter, overcome by oration. It got to the point where I was staring in disbelief at a film that made Andy Warhol’s Empire look like Kill Bill.

   If I were guessing, I’d say this was written with an eye toward Playhouse 90 or some such, influenced by Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid, with the intention of injecting Significance into a genre piece. Somehow it ended up as the B&W equivalent of Creation of the Humanoids: an arty, low-budget sub-basement film, probably destined for the bottom of a triple-bill or maybe as filler in a burlesque show.

   That’s a pity, because there are glimmers of talent here. The acting is generally good, if a bit intense, the camera work threadbare but inventive, and the script…..

   Well, there are moments where all that talk is almost believable. Unfortunately those moments are buried in an avalanche of other moments where I just wished they’d shut up and shoot somebody.

   Maybe words are like any other commodity: when there aren’t many, they seem very special, but when they glut the market, they lose their value. Whatever the case, Johnny Gunman strives to sound important, but finally achieves only self-importance. And that ain’t even close.

THOMAS WALSH “Murder Twist.” Short story. First published in Ace-High Detective, August 1936. Probably never reprinted.

   I haven’t taken the time to check this theory out, but it’s my sense of things that most Edgar winners for Best First Novel come from nowhere, so to speak, or in other words are brand new to the mystery field. Not so in the case of Thomas Walsh, whose novel Nightmare in Manhattan (Little Brown, 1950) was indeed a winner, but he’d been writing short mystery fiction since 1933, when a story titled “Double Check” appeared in the July issue of Black Mask magazine.

   Walsh gradually graduated to the slicks, magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, many of them later being reprinted in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Almost all of these, if not out-and-out police procedurals, were cases solved by policemen largely working alone but in their ordinary tours of duty.

   Such a one is “Mystery Twist,” in which a cop named Gannet — his only appearance, I believe — tackles what appears to be a straightforward suicide, that of a woman whose grieving husband claims she jumped out of a window on the 20th floor of an apartment building.

   Gannet is the kind of cop who doesn’t like to take anything for granted, however, but it takes some psychological prodding on the part of his immediate superior, Inspector Powell, to make sure he follows up on his instincts in cases such as this.

   As the title of the story suggests, there is a twist in tale, and I’m going to pat myself on the back by telling you that I figured it out as quickly as Gannet did. But if the story’s well told, and this one definitely is, then the facts should point to the conclusion all along the way, shouldn’t they?

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