February 2020


RICHARD DOYLE – Imperial 109. Arlington, UK, hardcover, 1977,. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1977; Bantam, paperback, 1978.

   Richard Doyle is one of those writers who had a good if not spectacular career in England and Canada, but only had one or two books cross the Pond to have any success here. His best known novel, Flood, made into a two part mini series in England which played here, wasn’t even published in paperback in this country that I know of.

    Imperial 109 was. It’s one of those grand hotel in the air mixes of adventure, soap opera, and intrigue, set on ”the S30C Empire class ‘boat’ of Britain’s Imperial Airways was one of the most beautiful aircraft ever to fly, carrying passengers in a style and luxury unmatched since the passing of the great air ships a decade earlier.”

   While it’s not Ernest K. Gann’s The High and the Mighty or Ken Follett’s similar Night Over Water, it is a big entertaining tale full of incident and action with attractive characters caught up in everything from trouble in the air to racing cars along the Nile.

   Richard Doyle is named for his famous illustrator great grandfather, but it is his more famous writer grandfather Sir Arthur Conan Doyle he takes after.

   He’s no ACD, but he is a good writer and this is more than entertaining fun.

   The hero is pilot Captain Desmond O’Neill whose job is keeping passengers and crew in on piece and make a gold delivery on what should be a routine flight, but isn’t right from the start when his incompetent co-pilot fails to detect a fuel leak and they are forced down over Africa in the Sud in an outpost far off their usual track.

   Among the complications beyond the leaky fuel line are the weather, the perils of long distance navigation, and the all too human worries involved including a crooked financier on the run, an Italian nobleman whose sexy wife is pursued by her lover, a passionate mysterious sheikh, and a pair of Jewish refuges, father and daughter, pursued by the Gestapo.

   The book is divided into three sections, part one being the flight from South Africa for the Sudan, Khartoum, and Cairo, with part two the layover in Cairo, and the final section Alexandria, Athens, Rome, London, and onto New York where a hijacker waits ready to shoot down Imperial 109 for the gold they are transporting.

   Admittedly the novel is structured more along the lines of a bestseller than a suspense novel. There is a bit of sex, more than a bit of romance, adventure, stalwart heroes, bad guys with unambiguous motives, and incident piled on incident. It’s hard not to imagine the book as one of those big late fifties early sixties films with a cast of international stars careening from one set piece to the next. In fact it is hard not to indulge in a bit of fantasy casting while reading it, which is one of the pleasures of this sort of book.

   Not to oversell it, but if you are looking for a charming adventure set in the pre-war period (1939) with an attractive cast of characters, plenty of incident, the romance of travel and flying from the classic era, and a well balanced mix of bestseller candy dish elements this is a pleasant diversion.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

RAYMOND CHANDLER – Farewell My Lovely. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1940. Pocket Book #212, paperback, 1943. Reprinted many times.

   Many critics consider The Long Goodbye to be Chandler’s finest novel. This one disagrees. That distinction should probably go to Farewell, My Lovely – a more tightly plotted, less self-indulgent and overblown book, with characters, scenes, and prose of such artistry that it ranks as not only a cornerstone private-eye novel but a cornerstone work in the genre. Its near-flawless construction is all the more awesome when you consider that like The Big Sleep, it is a product of “canniballzation”: It makes extensive use of “The Man Who Liked Dogs” (Black Mask, March 1936); “Try the Girl” (Black Mask, January 1937); and “Mandarin’s Jade” (Dime Detective, November 1937).

   Marlowe’s client in this case is Moose Malloy, a giant ex-con with a one-track mind: All that matters to him is finding his former girlfriend, Velma, a redhead “cute as lace pants,” who disappeared after he was sent to prison. Marlowe is a reluctant detective, his first encounter with Malloy having ended in the wreckage of a bar, Florian’s, where Velma once worked and a black bouncer suffering a broken neck; but Malloy won’t take no for an answer.

   As Marlowe’s search for Velma develops, “the atmosphere becomes increasingly malevolent and charged with evil.” Among the characters he meets are a foppish blackmailer named Lindsay Marriott; a gin-drinking old lady with secrets and a fine new radio; a beautiful blonde with no morals and a rich husband who doesn’t give a damn; a Hollywood Indian named Second Planting who has “the shoulders of a blacksmith and the … legs of a chimpanzee”; a phony psychic, Jules Amthor: Dr. Sonderborg, who runs a private psychiatric clinic staffed with thugs; Laird Brunelle, the tough operator of a gambling ship called the Royal Crown; and L.A. and Bay City cops, some of whom are as crooked as a dog’s hind leg.

   The climax, in which Marlowe and Moose Malloy both come face-to-face with the elusive Velma, is a stunner. Like a number of other scenes — especially Marlowe’s drugged imprisonment in Sonderberg’s clinic, in a room “full of smoke [that] hung straight up in the air, in thin lines, straight up and down like a curtain of small clear beads”-it remains sharp in one’s memory long after reading.

    Farewell. My Lovely was filmed twice, once in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet, With Dick Powell as Marlowe, and once in 1975 under its original title, with Robert Mitchum in the starring role. The Powell version is the better of the two, even though Mitchum, aging and slightly seedy, better captures the essence of Marlowe. (Powell isn’t bad, though-a surprisingly gritty performance for an actor who began his career as a crooner in Busby Berkley musicals.) Mike Mazurki’s portrayal of Moose Malloy in Murder My Sweet is more memorable (and credible) than Jack O’Halloran’ s in Farewell. And the noir style of the earlier film better captures the flavor of Chandler’s work than the arty, full-color remake.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

THE ASSASSIN NEXT DOOR. Israel, 2009. Original title: Kirot (Hebrew: קירות‎; literally “Walls”). Olga Kurylenko (Galia), Ninet Tayeb (Eleanor), Vladimir Friedman, Liron Levo, Shalom Micahelashvili, Zohar Strauss. Written and directed by Danny Lerner.

   As you watch this film, it will at times have you both frustrated and enraptured, but thankfully not at the same time. It is also, fatally flawed, especially at the very end, at which point a bloody shootout takes place at an Israeli airport, and not a single security office ever shows up. In Israel? At an airport? I think not.

   Mitigating that is the fact that the film is wonderfully acted and beautifully photographed, and the story will suck you right in, in spite of its flaws.

   I am, of course, ahead of myself. Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) plays Galia, a immigrant to Israel from Ukraine who has gotten herself trapped in the sex trade by a Russian mobster. See a certain potential in her — she is superbly slim and athletic — he “recruits” her as an assassin, a sideline she hates, but without her passport and money, she has no choice.

   Living next door to her are a married couple, but not happily. He abuses her almost every night, and Galia cannot help but notice. Thin walls keep her up most of the night. She slowly and hesitantly befriends the wife, a young woman named Eleanor, played to perfection by Ninet Tayeb as the model of a woman who cannot help but blame herself for her husband’s failures.

   You may think you know where this is going — I certainly did — but I was wrong and you may be too. There is a lot of violence in his movie, and as I said up above, especially at the end. The fantasy aspect of the final scene is overshadowed, however, by the amount of tension that is released.

   But when it comes down to it, it is the friendship between the two women, both in extremely dangerous situations, that will stick with you later, well after the movie is over. Overall? Flawed but fascinating.

   Best line? “You hold gun like little girl. Hold gun like woman.”

P. D. JAMES – Death of an Expert Witness. Inspector Adam Dalgliesh #6. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1977. Popular Library, paperback, 1977? Reprinted many times since. TV movie: “Death of an Expert Witness,” ITV/PBS, 1983, with Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgleish.

   What better place for a murder (fictional, of course) could there be than inside a police forensic science lab? Just imagine the opportunity to fiddle with the evidence! It comes as no surprise that this lengthy (322 pages) tale is filled to he brim with suspects, clues, and plenty of false trails.

   On the case is Scotland Yard’s Commander Adam Dalgleish, who seems more personally involved than usual with the other characters, all of whom, as in most of James’s fiction, are forever burdened with the twin weights of worry and misery.

   The ending could hardly be called a cheerful one, which is not wholly unexpected, but no self-respecting mystery lover should pass this one by.

–Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 3, May 1978.

BILL CRIDER ‘Who Killed Cock Rogers?” Sheriff Dan Rhodes. First published in The Mysterious West, edited by Tony Hillerman (HarperCollins, 1994). Collected in The Blacklin County Files (Kindle edition, 2012).

   Here are the first two paragraphs that slide us right into the story with infinite ease:

   Mrs. Janelle Tabor, an attractive widow in her early forties, was spattered with cow manure. It was green, mostly, and it didn’t go well wit her yellow blouse. It didn’t smell good, either.

   “And it’s all your fault, Sheriff Rhodes!” she said. wagging her finger in his face.

   And here are the last three paragraphs, as the author winds up his tale:

   “Too bad for ever’body,” Hack said. “Hard to believe all this was caused by a truckful of cows.”

   “It wasn’t the cows,” Rhodes aid, “It was the manure.”

   Hack chuckled. “Ain’t it always?” he said.

   In between is a tale of murder, that of a radio host whose technique of choice was to boost his ratings by any controversial means he could. Bill’s way with a story stands out, as always: a hint of dry downhome Texas humor (well, more often than not, more than a hint) along with a serious crime to be solved, one that both he and Dan Rhodes take very seriously. This story is no exception.


COLLIER YOUNG – The Todd Dossier. Delacorte, hardcover, 1969. Dell, paperback, 1970.

   The Todd Dossier by “Collier Young” — actually a pseudonym of Robert Bloch — is for the most part a fairly gripping and well-constructed medical mystery about a shady heart transplant and it’s slow unraveling… right up to the end, when Bloch throws the story away.

   Having set up an ingenious crime and some very nasty bad guys, then whipped up a good amount of suspense over the fate of his doctor-detective, he decided for some reason to resolve it with a facile plot device from nowhere that goes unconvincingly against the grain of his characters.

    Most of the time I was reading this, I wondered why Bloch put a pen name on it, but when I finished, it occurred to me if I’d written an ending like that I probably wouldn’t give my right name either.

   Dossier does offer, though an insightful look back to another time, one that I hadn’t thought quite so distant. Fifty years ago, when this was written, heart transplants had just crossed the line from Sci-Fi to reality. It was the time of the Jarvic Heart, Baboon hearts in babies, and other faltering steps toward what is today routine surgery.

   Bloch’s awe — expressed by his characters — about the dawn of a new biology, is as quaint in its way as the speeches in old war movies (Pick a war — any war) about the New and Better World that will surely follow once we kill these bastards. We also get an actual plot point about a couple whose marital bliss is threatened because the husband feels emasculated by his wife’s job — was this really just fifty years ago?

   As I say, Todd Dossier is mostly taut and readable. I just never expected anything so antiquated “by the Author of Psycho.”

REX BURNS “Dust Devil.” “Snake” Garrick #1. First published in The Mysterious West, edited by Tony Hillerman (HarperCollins, 1994). No record found of a later printing.

   And likewise no record found of a subsequent appearance of Boulder-based PI “Snake” Garrick. The story is too short to get more than a general sense of who he is as a man, save for the description provided by his client in this story. She says to him:

   “I thought private detectives were supposed to be big and tough. You don’t look no wider than a fence post. Not much taller, either.”

   Snake may have been a lightweight in her eyes, but he’s smart enough to solve the case he agrees to take on in only eighteen pages. It seems as though the woman’s brother sold a horse named Devil Dust to a fellow rancher the day before he died in an auto accident. The woman cannot now find any trace of the transaction in the dead man’s papers, but the man who has now claimed the horse has a signed invoice for it.

   The detective story is a minor one, but it’s well made up for by the the several picturesque passages Burns uses to describe the largely untrammeled grassland area in which the smallish city-town of Boulder. Colorado, is located. I’d like to read more about the cases Snake Garrick has worked on, but alas, this one’s all there is and probably will be.

THE LAST HIT MAN. Direct to video, 2008. Joe Mantegna, Elizabeth Whitmere, Romano Orzari, Michael Majeski, Victoria Snow. Written and directed by Christopher Warre Smets.

   As I’m sure you could easily tell from the title without my telling you, The Last Hit Man is rated “R” for lots of gun-related violence, but if that isn’tanything that would stop you, if the movie is otherwise well done, here’s a movie I can recommend to you, and highly at that.

   Joe Mantegna is perfectly cast as Harry Tremayne, the titular hit man, a fellow getting up in years after a long career of never failing on an assignment. Until, that is, he does. Not only does he begin to be filled with self doubt — is his body stating to fail him? — he realizes that the person who hired him is going to start wondering if it’s possible Harry has changed sides.

   So Harry is ready when someone else comes gunning for him. Someone who fails. And whom Harry then hires to .. Well, I probably shouldn’t tell you, but it’s a neat twist (and even with as little of a hint that I can give you, you probably already know what I’m not telling you).

   That’s the outer story. What I haven’t told you yet is that Harry has a partner. His young twenty-something daughter, Racquel, who is his electronics expert as well as his getaway driver. And more: she has a boy friend, an earnest young man who has no idea what the family business is that he just might be marrying into.

   There is a lot of humor in this story, but it’s definitely understated — the kind that makes you smile rather than laugh out loud — and so you should definitely not take what I say to mean that The Last Hit Man is a comedy. It is not. It is rather a personal and down-to-earth family drama, and there is more to the story that I am definitely not telling you, and this time I mean it.


[Added later.] I was so impressed by Joe Mantegna’s performance in this film, I went looking for his resume. I knew he’d taken over for Robert Urich in two or three made-for-TV Spenser movies, and he was in several very good David Mamet films, but of his other work, not much else. It turns out that he’s had a substantial role in most of the fifteen year run that Criminal Minds recently closed up shop on.

   Fifteen years? I’ve never watched it. Barely heard of it. Thought of it as a psychopath and/or serial killer of week kind of show. Psychopaths and/or serial killers don’t interest me. Is/was it more that? It would it seem to have to have been, for a TV series to be on that long.



STAGECOACH TO DANCERS’ ROCK. Universal Pictures. 1962. Warren Stevens, Martin Landau, Jody Lawrance, Don Wilbanks, Del Moore, Bob Anderson. Screenplay: Kenneth Darling , based on his own story (his only film credit). Director: Earl Bellamy.

   Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting much from Stagecoach to Dancers’ Rock. Especially once the opening credits began rolling, along with a ridiculously outdated (even for 1962) theme song that basically explains the whole plot. Also, the movie starts off like any other somewhat lower budget Western of the time period. There’s a ragtag group of travelers heading into Apache territory. And among them, there’s Dade Coleman (Martin Landau), an outlaw recently released from jail.

   The first twenty minutes or so are nothing you haven’t seen time and again. But things begin to get interesting when it turns out that one of the passengers – a Chinese woman on her way to San Francisco – may have smallpox. The myriad ways in which the characters react to that development could have carried the whole film, had the screenwriter wanted it to.

   But instead, the film shifts into a half-baked subplot in which one of the stagecoach’s passengers named Jess Dollard (Warren Stevens) teams up with a gunman to rob the very coach he is riding. Why he does this and what lead him to this decision is never fleshed out. In fact, by the end of the movie, it’s almost all forgotten.

   So why did I enjoy the second half of this movie so much? Martin Landau. That’s why. Stagecoach to Dancers’ Rock was one of his earliest screen roles. And he certainly was a much bigger presence in this production than he was in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

   Here, he takes on the role of a psychotic Western outlaw with glee and with vigor. He smiles that mad smile he was capable of. His character quotes aphorisms and cackles with fiendish delight as succumbs to madness under the glare of the unforgiving hot desert sun.

   You may never have heard of Dade Coleman as an infamous Western villain. But with Landau’s scenery-chewing performance, his name should be up there in the pantheon of villains who stand out from the pack.


THE RIVERSIDE MURDER. Fox Film Co. UK, 1935. Basil Sydney (Inspector Philip Winton), Judy Gunn, Zoë Davis, Alastair Sim, Ian Fleming, Tom Helmore, Martin Lewis. Screenplay by Selwyn Jepson, based on the novel Les Six Hommes Morts by André Steeman. Director: Albert Parker.

    Most of this rather well done mystery movie takes place in an “old dark house,” British style. Someone is killing off the members of a financial pact in which those still alive at the appointed date and time will share in each others’ fortunes over the length of the pact.

   The local inspector (Basil Sydney) thinks he can handle the case without having to call Scotland Yard in, but can he handle the bubbling interference of a young female reporter (Judy Gunn) who always seems to be one step ahead of him? She’s as much of a challenge as solving the murders is.

   Long time readers of detective stories will not be challenged all that much by the plot, but it’s still a lot of fun to see it played out as capably as it is here. And fans of one Alistair Sim will not want to miss him in this, his very first film. He plays the inspector’s sergeant and second-in-command on the case, a semi-comic role that doesn’t depend on him being a total nincompoop, either, as those in the same position in many US films of the same variety oh so often turn out to be.

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