October 2019

   Among many other awards and accolades for this California native is this one, quoting from Wikipedia:

   “[Sara] Bareilles received acclaim for her portrayal of Mary Magdalene in NBC’s adaptation of a classic Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, for which she was nominated for the 2018 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie.”

PAUL HALTER “The Yellow Room.” Short story. Dr. Alan Twist. Published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 017. Translated from the French by John Pugmire. Collected in The Helm of Hades, paperback, October 2919.

   Paul Halter, as some of you may know, is the present day master of the so-called “locked room” or impossible mystery, Falling closely in the footsteps of John Dickson Carr, Halter has written numerous such mysteries, both as full-length novels and in the short form.

   Since his native language is French, he’s so far reached only a niche market here in the US, but fans of “impossible crimes” are always on the lookout for the next one of his tales to be published here. It’s a small niche, but Halter is filling it well.

   Dr. Alan Twist is probably his best known character, a renown British criminologist whom the police of several countries call upon when they’re stumped by cases that seem to have no solutions. “The Yellow Room” takes place in 1938 near Verdun, France. A man has been stabbed to death by a ceremonial dagger in a small cottage surrounded by several inches of snow in which no footprints can be seen. The local commissionaire of police needs help.

   The solution, which I obviously will not divulge here, is both exceedingly clever and yet very simple, once explained. It is the atmosphere of such a story, written and set up in meticulous detail, that makes the crime seem so impossible.

   Halter may be skimpy on bringing his characters to life, but he has other ends in mind. It’s both the the mystery and the challenge to the reader that he hopes to create, which once again is what he does here, just another notch in his belt. Nicely done.

THE SAINT “The Latin Touch.” ITV, UK, 60m, 11 October 1962 (Season 1, Episode 2). Black and white. First shown in the US in first-run syndication, dates unknown, then per Wikipedia, it was picked up by NBC as a summer replacement series in 1967 (in color). Roger Moore (Simon Templar, aka The Saint), Alexander Knox, Doris Nolan, Bill Nagy, Warren Mitchell, Peter Illing, Marie Burke, Suzan Farmer, Robert Easton. Screenplay: Gerald Kelsey and Dick Sharples, based on the character created by Leslie Charteris. Director: John Gilling.

   Wherever Simon Templar goes, he always seems to find someone in trouble to help. In this case, he’s in Rome wandering around the outside the ruins of the Coliseum, when he overhears a young woman arguing with an aggressively over-shady taxi driver about the amount he would like to overcharge her. Solving that problem quickly, he walks off with her, only to be slugged over the head and then waking up to discover she has been kidnapped.

   It turns out that she is the daughter of the governor of Indiana, who is in Rome with his wife on a combination of vacation and trade mission. It is not money the kidnappers want, however, but a reprieve of a deported Mafia boss’s brother about to executed back in the states. Templar, of course, offers to help the distraught parents, but time is not on their side.

   Besides the more than satisfactory performance of Roger Moore, who was still very youthful looking at this early stage of his career, Alexander Knox’s well-defined role as the worried father, caught in a serious bind — choosing between his daughter’s life against that of a hardened criminal — is of special note, as is that of Warren Mitchell as the street savvy cabdriver, the first of three such appearances. And with veteran director John Gilling at the helm, the 60 minutes of running time (less commercials) goes by very quickly.

   With that said, I should also point out the only flaw I saw: I was able to pick up on the final twist a lot faster than The Saint did. That shouldn’t have happened!

C. S. CHALLINOR – Phi Beta Murder. Rex Graves #3. Midnight Ink, trade paperback; 1st printing, 2010.

   This one had the allure of featuring a well grounded albeit amateur detective, by which I mean one who’s not a gourmet cookie shop owner first, and a solver of mysteries only as the occasion arises — the case being a locked room mystery to boot. Neither promise was quite fulfilled, but the story was interesting enough for me to stay with it through to the end.

   The detective is Scottish barrister Rex Graves, whose previous two adventures I have not read. (There are now eleven novels and two novellas.) He’s in Florida where his son Campbell is in college, and in whose dormitory another student is found hanged to death in the room directly above.

   The school authorities want this incident chalked up as a suicide — the doors and windows were all locked from the inside — but the boy’s parents ask Graves to learn more, if he can. [Plot Alert] The locked room aspect is not played up, and is eliminated very quickly when Rex obtains some plans of the building and sends Campbell up through the duct work to obtain the dead boy’s computer.

   There is a little bit of hand-waving going on here. How would a visiting father have the clout to obtain such building plans so quickly to be of any use to him? The relationship that exists between father and son is a lot more interesting, and so are the problem Rex has with his love life. His current girl friend is upset that his former lover has followed him to Florida, and when the latter is rejected, she tries to commit suicide herself.

   But I don’t read mysteries in which the love triangles therein are more key to the story than the mystery. Challiner’s writing style is smooth and breezy, but I didn’t find enough at the core of this one to be tempted to read another.

FINGER MAN. Allied Artists, 1955. Frank Lovejoy, Forrest Tucker, Peggie Castle, Timothy Carey. Director: Harold D. Schuster.

   The opening voiceover narration took me back right away to the old time radio show Night Beat, which Frank Lovejoy starred in for two years between 1950 and 1952. His voice was unmistakable: strong, no-nonsense and gritty, perfect for radio and not a bad choice, either, for this full notch better than average crime drama.

   In Night Beat, he played Randy Stone, a Chicago newspaperman who spent his evenings out on the streets looking for human interest stories, and always finding them. He’s on the other side of the law in Finger Man, a three-time loser named Casey Martin who’s caught hijacking a truck one time too many. His only way out of a long prison sentence is to work on the inside to help the cops bring down a multi-state racketeer named Dutch Baker (Forrest Tucker).

   Helping him make a solid contact with Dutch is a girl (a very pretty Peggie Castle) who used to work for him. (Doing what is left unsaid.) Casey thinks the only way to get in solid with Dutch is to act as tough as he can, and that’s exactly what he does. Dutch’s second-in-command, Lou Terpe, played in his usual over the top fashion by Tim Carey, doesn’t convince so easily, with devastating consequences.

   With Casey as solidly caught between the law and the head of the underworld as he is, Finger Man is a late but very solid entry in the category now known as film noir. In spite of budget limitations, it’s well directed and it packs quite a punch. There’s a lot going on in this one, and in my opinion, it’s well worth your time — less than 90 minutes — to sit down, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy it to the hilt.

Here is Danish jazz vocalist Sinne Eeg singing with the Bergen Big Band, a great combination:

  HUGH B. CAVE “The Late Mr. Smythe.” Short story. Peter Kane #1. First published in Dime Detective Magazine, August 1, 1934. Collected in Bottled in Blonde (Fedogan & Bremer, hardcover, 2000) and The Complete Cases of Peter Kane (Altus Press, 2018; introduction by Bob Byrne).

   Private eyes in detective fiction are as often as not hard drinkers, and some of them are awfully good at it. But few of them are as good at it as was Peter Kane. There isn’t a single minute in “The Late Mr. Smythe” in which he isn’t totally sozzled. I can’t believe that anyone could go through life the same way he does, in three stages: drunk, drunker, and completely plastered.

   A former member of the Boston police department, Kane nominally now works for the Beacon Detective Agency, but in “The Late Mr. Smythe,” he takes the death of a friend of his still on the force personally, and he works full time on this one on his own to bring the killer(s) to justice.

   The first death is that of a blackmailer named Smiley Smythe, and when a cop named Hoban tries to bring his suspected killer in, a hoodlum named Joe DiVina, both men are killed by a torrent of machine gun fire from a car that comes speeding by.

   Besides Kane, who spends a lot of time at a bar run by a fellow named Limpy, the other recurring characters are Moe Finch, the hapless chief of police, who continually begs for Kane’s assistance; and Kane’s nemesis still on the force, Lt. Moroni. It is always Kane’s pleasure to not only solve the case at hand, but to show up Moroni as well, and in the most dramatic way he can.

   Hugh B. Cave is best known for his tales of horror and weird menace, but in this, the first of Peter Kane’s cases on record, he shows he could write very very good detective stories too. Surprisingly good, given Peter Kane’s way with either a glass or the bottle.

      The Peter Kane series —

The Late Mr. Smythe. Dime Detective Magazine Aug 1 1934
Hell on Hume Street. Dime Detective Magazine Nov 1 1934
Bottled in Blonde. Dime Detective Magazine Jan 1 1935
The Man Who Looked Sick. Dime Detective Magazine Apr 1 1935
The Screaming Phantom . Dime Detective Magazine May 1 1935
The Brand of Kane. Dime Detective Magazine Jun 15 1935
Ding Dong Belle. Dime Detective Magazine Aug 1941
The Dead Don’t Swim. Dime Detective Magazine Nov 1941
No Place to Hide. Dime Detective Magazine Feb 1942


W. L. RIPLEY – Storme Front. Wyatt Storme #2. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1995. Brash Books, paperback, 2005.

   As I recall, my comment on the first of this series was “pretty good for what it is” — and what it was, was a typical Spenser/Hawk, Cole/Pike, etc., cowboy story. I seem to like the breed a little less each year, but I’ll still read ’em if they’re decently written, so —

   Wyatt Storme, ex-Dallas Cowboy, Viet Nam vet, and semi-recluse, comes down off his Colorado mountain when an old college acquaintance inveigles him into acting as bodyguard on an illegal weapons deal by hinting at some danger to another old friend of Storme’s.

   The deal goes bad and people are killed, but that’s just the start. Wyatt and his badass friend Chick Easton start looking for answers and find some that threaten not only them but Storme’s relaionship with his lover.

   Well, Ripley still writes cowboy stories, and he still writes them well enough, and there’s not much more to say. He’s quite good on banter and one-liners, but that’s not really enough to carry a whole book. The wisecracking. brooding, semi-tragic hero and his lethal sidekick tak eon the bad guys, kick some righteous ass, kill a few people, and leave the world a better place for us all while the law watches admiringly and from a respectful distance.

   It’s the masculine-machoequivalent of a good cozy, decently done, basically silly, utterly forgettable.

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

       The Wyatt Storme series —

Dreamsicle (1993) Reprinted as Hail Storme (2015)
Storme Front (1994)
Electric Country Roulette (1996) Reprinted as Eye of the Storme (2016)
Storme Warning (2015)

PETER LOVESEY – The Circle. Inspector Henrietta “Hen” Mallin #1. Soho Crime, hardcover, June 2005; trade paperback, June 2006. First published in the UK by Little Brown & Co., hardcover, 2005.

   There’s a lot to like in this one. The “circle” in the title refers to a group of would-be writers who meet monthly to read and critique each other’s books, a premise for a mystery novel that I think all of us can identify with, even if only from the outside. Lovesey makes some very deft jabs at each of the members’ dreams and aspirations, even with the obvious realization that he’s set them up as very easy targets.

   A newcomer to the group, a parcel truck driver named Bob Naylor and a sometime poet (of doggerel, he says), joins too late to be present when a vanity publisher stops in to talk to the members of the group, but when he’s later found murdered, perhaps by one of those who work he praised too highly (and falsely), it is Bob as an outsider, who leads the ad hoc and totally amateur investigation that follows, needed to clear everyone’s name.

   The police are also involved, but Inspector Hen Mallin does not show up until about halfway through, introduced very briefly (less than one page) by Lovesey’s other major detective figure, Peter Diamond. It is possible that Mallin made an appearance in one of Lovesey’s earlier novels, but this is the first time she has (most of) a book to herself. She’s a non-nonsense cigar-smoking kind of woman, and it’s enjoyable to see her put down some of her male colleagues who are often either in awe of her or more simply jealous of her success.

   Through the first two-thirds of the book there is something to smile about, or even laugh out loud, on nearly every page. The humor quotient goes down drastically after that point, however. as the detective story gains more and more precedence. And as such, and this is another key to the first sentence of this review, what Lovesey accomplishes in this book is the best Agatha Christie ending to a non-Agatha Christie novel that I’ve read in a long time, bar none.


Bibliographic Note:   The only other solo outing for Inspector Mallin so far is The Headhunters (2008). I plan to give it a try as soon as I can.


BECK. Sweden, beginning 1997. 10 seasons to date (not consecutive). Peter Haber, Mikael Persbrandt. Based on the characters created by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

   A few notes before going on with the review, the first being that much of the information on this series at IMDb is wrong. The series ran ten seasons (all available on Hulu), not six. (*) The 1997 series does not have the same cast as the one produced in 1993, and most of the episode descriptions are wildly wrong. It is not a series about “Martin Beck and his eccentric partner,” as IMDb suggests, and the story lines read as though they were written by someone with limited understanding of Swedish who didn’t have English subtitles. They sound like bad guessing based on badly translated TV Guide summaries.

   Based on the series of books by the husband and wife writing team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Beck follows a Stockholm based homicide squad in Sweden lead by Martin Beck (Peter Haber), a weary stodgy but gifted policeman with troubles at home, hypochondria, and resentment of the difficulty created by politics interfering with his investigations. Typically one of his detectives Lena Klingstrom (Stina Rautlein) formerly had an affair with and lived with Beck, but is now back on his team.

   His top investigator Gunvald Larsson is given to overuse of violence and questionable tactics, and something of an attractive oaf in the books, here played by Mikael Persbrandt (Swedish televisions spy series Hamilton) as the most attractive character in the series, whose brutal tactics usually work though he runs afoul of Internal Affairs fairly often. Gunvald is jealous of his position on the team, often rude, sexist, and would be a total ass if Persbrandt wasn’t such a good actor and the writers obviously enthralled by actor and character. As is, he brings much needed charisma to the series and an antidote to Haber’s Beck’s pained expressions and sad sack existence.

   As in the books the series is a police procedural, but beyond the name of the two main characters, once the second season passed, the episodes have little to do with Sjowall and Wahloo’s rather dark view of Sweden. (Wahloo was a Marxist -leaning journalist who weighs the books down a bit with his bleak view of his country and anything vaguely resembling Democracy.) A few episodes in the first two seasons reflect this, and Beck’s hypochondria emerges off and on over the course of the series, but the series presents a brightly lit colorful view of Sweden even when tackling serious issues (which it does well and regularly) like drugs, child abuse, government abuses, corporate crime, and the like.

   The wealthy and powerful don’t fare all that well, so some of Wahloo’s Marxist philosophy still slips through. By the by, I’m not being political, Wahloo was a well,known actual Marxist,leaning journalist highly critical of his homeland and the West. It’s how he was known before he began writing mystery novels. It’s not my opinion, it’s his own description of himself.

   And while true to the books, the series spends far too much time on Beck’s tiresomely painful private life. Rebecka Hemse has a recurring role as his combative single-mother daughter Inger who in the most recent season is secretly seeing Larsson, who is twelve years older than her. Beck is not happy when he finds out.

   Also filling out far too much of the time of the average 1 hour and 25 minute episode (many episodes were released as movies) is Beck’s annoying neighbor, or “Grannen” (Ingvar Hirdwall), who is not only eccentric, but insulting, casually racist, and boring as hell. Maybe I just don’t understand the Swedish sense of humor, but I clearly don’t get this guy who seems to have wandered in from a bad episode of Seinfeld.

   But aside from that character, the actors are good with Haber (not my idea of Beck at all) quite good, and Persbrandt far more charismatic than the books ever imagined Gunvald.

   Episodes are good, they just aren’t Martin Beck, at least not Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck. Some of them are very good though.

   â€œThe Japanese Print” from the most recent season is a good example. Hans Sperbling is a grossly obese German policeman who has assisted Beck in Germany in the past; he’s pretty much Germany’s Beck. He has come to Stockholm quietly to bid at an art auction on a rare signed Shunga period erotic print, which he loses out to an attractive woman who identifies herself as an art agent and offers him first look at some Shunga prints and Marc Chagall prints she has in her room later that evening.

   When she doesn’t show up he goes upstairs at the hotel and finds her room open. He calls his friend Martin Beck and together they find her murdered, posed like a well known Chagall print “Woman on Bed of Roses”, and the prints gone.

   Gunvald doesn’t much trust his boss’s German friend, who despite Beck’s protests has to stay during the investigation. There are two more murders each a tableau mordant copying works of art.

   Meanwhile Beck’s grandson drops the bomb that Gunvald is dating Inger.

   The investigation leads to dealers who fix low prices at auctions illegally as well as a series of fake Chagall prints made from the original color lithographic stones that were supposed to have been destroyed. It turns out to be a multi million dollar scam and ends with Sperbling and Gunvald teamed in what works out to be a pretty good Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin vibe before going a bit melodramatic at the end with a wealthy mad collector and his armed henchmen.

   To be honest, the fat German and Gunvald are a more interesting team than Beck and Gunvald.

   The series shown on Hulu is subtitled, but this particular episode includes long sequences in English, and most episodes have some English language dialogue.

   Other than Beck’s neighbor and private life, the usual problems with series television apply. Far too many episodes end in gunfire, far too often the criminal is brought in out of thin air, and more often than is good for the series, the protagonists somehow manage to get “revenge” on the bad guy. Almost none of those problems were true to the books, which were often clever, and I suspect not to the 1993 episodes often based on the novels.

   Other than the climate, there is nothing very Swedish about the series. The plots are mostly clever and well done, acting good, and writing above average, but they could be set in any large Western capital in any country and any language, and you wouldn’t notice much of a change, a reminder that Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern played Beck and Gunvald in the Americanized film of The Laughing Policeman.


(*) IMDB says six seasons, but lists episodes since 1997 with breaks of several years between episodes over the years, the last in 2018. Wikipedia has seven seasons, but Hulu lists the series as ten seasons as did MHv where the series was also shown. I would tend to suspect both IMDb and Wikipedia haven’t been updated since they were written.

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