February 2020

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. BBC/PBS, 12 March 2001 (Season 1, episode 1, with Nathaniel Parker & Sharon Small).

   In recent years British mysteries seem to have evolved into books which everybody in them is so afflicted with such character flaws that the mysteries in them are overpowered. While George is not British, she’s got the same dour taste in her writing that it is as if she were.

   Or in other words, even in this, her first book, she’s got it down pat. Investigating a hideous crime in northern England are aristocratic Insp. Lynley, the golden boy of Scotland Yard, and Sgt. Barbara Havers, plain and unattractive (to put it mildly). If you like P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, here’s another.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #13, June 1989 (slightly revised).

NEWTON’S LAW “External Forces.” Australia, ABC TV. 60 minutes. 09 February 2017. Claudia Karvan (Josephine Newton), Toby Schmitz, Brett Tucker, Georgina Naidu, Sean Keenan. Original concept by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger. Director: Jennifer Leacey.

   Another country (Dicte, Denmark, and The Coroner, UK), and another divorced woman trying to make a go of it on her own in her chosen profession, all the while facing the challenges bringing up a teen-aged daughter. The one small difference this time is that the daughter is not into boy friends, but this may be something yet to come.

   Claudia Karvan, a well-known Australian actress, plays Josephine Newton, a neighborhood solicitor who is forced to go back to back to work for a large prestigious law firm, much against her wishes. It seems that her storefront office was bombed out by a former and thoroughly disgruntled client she unsuccessfully defended on arson charges.

   Her first case is kind of a set up one. She’s to defend the son of a client who is accused of pushing one of the partners of the firm off the top of their office building. Complicating matters is an eye witness, a nanny who saw the incident through the window of an apartment building across the way.

   It is up to Jane to uncover what was in the dead man’s life that may have contributed to his death, if indeed something is there. Which she does with all of the good humor and charm that a woman (and actress) in her mid-40s can have. The mystery and detective work are both good too. The series lasted only eight episodes, but the basis of this first one, I won’t binge, but I will see if I can’t watch all of them in short order.

JONATHAN GASH – The Judas Pair. Lovejoy #1. Harper & Row, US, hardcover, 1977. Dell (Scene of the Crime #30), US, paperback, 1981. Published earlier in the UK by Collins Crime Club, hardcover., 1977. TV Adaptation: “The Judas Pair.” Lovejoy, BBC, UK, 07 Feb 1986 (season 1, episode 5) starring Ian McShane).

   The Judas pair in is the thirteenth pair of flintlock dueling pistols made by a master craftsman named Durs. Their existence is purely a legend, or so believes Lovejoy, noted antiques dealer, until he’s commissioned to locate them by the brother of the man killed by one.

   Those also afflicted by the mania known as collecting will best understand the killer’s motive and will watch with fascination as Lovejoy explains the world of antiques while methodically turning it upside down. The style is determinedly high-key, too much so for the long haul, and when the mood abruptly becomes serious, it leads to a melodramatic ending more notable for the many gaps in its wake.

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



THE TALL T (AND OTHER WESTERN ADVENTURES) Avon #775, 1957, featuring: “The Tall T” (originally “The Captives”) by Elmore Leonard, 1955; “The Man from Gant’s Place” by Steve Frazee, 1951; “The Twilighters” by Noel M Loomis, 1954.

THE TALL T. Columbia, 1957. Randolph Scott, Maureen O’Sullivan, Richard Boone, Henry Silva, Arthur Hunnicutt, Skip Homeier, and John Hubbard. Screenoplay by Burt Kennedy from the story by Elmore Leonard. Directed by Budd Boetticher.

   Whathehell does that title mean?

   But leave that be for now. Perhaps it will convey the quality of the book if I say that the Elmore Leonard story, while quite good, is the least of the three here.

   Leonard’s tale is a tight-knit saga of a hold-up-turned-kidnapping, with Rancher Pat Brennan reluctantly along for the ride as three killers hold heiress Doretta Mims for ransom and send her husband — Willard Mims, the name says it all — to make arrangements. The characters are well defined, the action deftly done, but it all seems a bit too terse, as if there were a novel inside this story, yearning to break out.

   I will add though that I saw the film before reading the book, and my judgement may be more critically impaired than usual. More on this anon. For now I’ll just say, as if it needed saying, that Elmore Leonard knew how to write action and move a story fast without seeming rushed.

   But “The Man from Gant’s Place” takes the prize here. A simple tale of a boy fresh off the farm walking into the middle of a range war, that overturns every cliché known to pulp writers. Steve Frazee isn’t well remembered among Western writers, but he had a way of looking at hard work and senseless gunplay that gave his stories depth as well as life, and this is one of his best.

   And the book rounds off with one of the grimmest western stories I’ve ever read: “The Twilighters,” a narrative of dishonor among thieves filled with shocking brutality. Tough, scary and unforgettable.

   I will add that the book is graced with a gaudy cover and loads of shots from the film, and conclude that it’s an attractive package indeed, and one worth seeking out.


   As for the movie made from it, this is a minority opinion, but I’ve always felt that the first twenty minutes were a waste of film, and watching them was a wanton squandering of my precious youth. But the film proper truly takes off when the three bad guys ooze out of the darkened swing station, and from there on it attains a high level of tension and feeling until (SPOILER ALERT!) Randolph Scott flushes them back into the darkness from whence they oozed at film’s end.

   I say “tension” because The Tall T reels at the edge of violence like a drunk at a wedding, with Henry Silva as a killer who enjoys his work entirely too much, Skip Homeier as an outlaw too dumb to be honest, and Richard Boone as their leader, who doesn’t really want to kill Scott but knows he will have to do it in the end.

   All four actors seem so at home in their parts that one doesn’t even notice them acting, and Maureen O’Sullivan matches them as the homely prize they must fight over. Arthur Hunnicutt tosses off another of his pitch-perfect performances as himself, and even John Hubbard, the forgettable leading man of The Mummy’s Tomb, has moments of rare and well-done intensity.

   Best of all, writer Burt Kennedy fleshes out the empty spaces in Elmore Leonard’s story with genuine sensitivity. When Boone and Scott talk quietly about ranching and outlawry, they’re really talking about life itself and why they ended up on opposite sides of it. Boone in particular seems trapped in his role no less than his captives, and his confabs with Scott are as much a struggle for escape as Scott will undertake when the chips go flying.

   The Tall T is, in short, what poets and philosophers call “a must-see” and though I have yet to figure out what the title means, it’s a film I can watch again and again with pleasure.

MICHAEL SHAYNE “Marriage Can Be Fatal.” NBC, 31 March 1961 (season 1, episode 26). Richard Denning (Michael Shayne), Jerry Paris (Tim Rourke), Herbert Rudley (Lt. Will Gentry), Margie Regan (Lucy Carr). Guest Cast: Patricia Barry, Barbara Nichols, Michael Forest, Robert Harland, Nancy Rennick. Director: Walter Doniger .

   As I’m sure you will recall, I reviewed an earlier episode in this series a while back, that being “Spotlight on a Corpse,” number 15 in this one season show. I expressed some disappointment with the story itself, so I thought I’d try another, one that’s on the same Alpha Video disc of the series.

   I think the story let me down again this time, but not in the same way, and I”ll get to that in a minute. In between the earlier one and this one, there was some shuffling of personnel around. Lucy Hamilton, Shayne’s secretary was apparently being phased out in the earlier show, as she did not appear. She’s been replaced by a new actress (Margie Regan) to play someone named Lucy Carr instead. Tim Rourke has a new cub reporter to mentor (why I don’t know, since Paris has few enough lines of his own), and Will Gentry has a subordinate I don’t remember from before, but who has a part maybe even bigger than Gentry’s. Neither made an impression on me, and they’re not listed in the credits above.

   [WARNING: SPOILER ALERT] The story is a lot more interesting, but as a mystery, it has its flaws. First when a profligate son hears that his father has been taken ill and is in the hospital, he is asked to call the man’s doctor. He starts to, then doesn’t, and calls a lady friend named Topaz McQueen (Barbara Nichols) instead.

   He has a surprise for her: he proposes, and overcome with joy, she accepts. Now what’s wrong with this is that in order to inherit, the son has to be married when his father dies. Well, OK, but why wouldn’t he have called the doctor first anyway, in the hopes he can keep the father alive long enough to get himself married? I sure would, if it were me.

   Then later on, a vital clue (remember the Warning) has to do with a glass door to a gun cabinet being broken into. Turns out, Mike deduces, out of thin air, that it was done by someone using a woman’s shoe, and remembering that a woman must have changed shoes because the new ones didn’t match her outfit, he pins the killing on her. But do we the viewer see the mismatched shoes? The answer is yes, but in only a briefest of shots. I had to go back and look, and yes, it’s there, but I call that a cheat, no way around it.

   The star of the proceedings, I think, is Barbara Nichols, who had her role in movies down pat, that of a brassy blonde bimbo who (at least in this one) shows herself to have totally human feelings too. I also noticed the direction as having a “soap opera” sort of flair to it, so I checked out Walter Doniger ‘s resume on IMDb. I was right. Something like 173 episodes of Peyton Place also to his credit.

  NORBERT DAVIS – Oh, Murderer Mine. Doan & Carstairs #3. Handi-Book #54, digest-sized paperback, 1946. Rue Morgue Press, softcover, 2003. Collected in Doan and Carstairs: Their Complete Cases, Altus Press, softcover, 2016.

   Doan is a fiftyish and overweight private eye based in L.A., and fans of the stories he appeared in, starting back in the pulp magazines, constantly bemoan the fact that there weren’t more of them: only three novels and two short stories. Carstairs is his constant companion, a Great Dane, and one of he largest ever of his breed. And together they tackle the wackiest combination of hard-boiled fiction and goofy humor that you can possibly imagine.

   Unfortunately Oh, Murderer Mine is strong on the goofiness, but weak on the hard-boiled side of things. It may be the reason that the only publisher willing to take it on was a third-rank paperback outfit named Handi-Books. Their books were in size somewhere between regular paperbarks and digest-sized ones(a la EQMM). Many of their books were condensed down drastically from their earlier hardcover appearances; some, such as this one,were paperback originals.

   The setting is academia, which of course makes a very easy target of jokes and other funnery, and it begins with an anthropology instructor named Melissa Gregory going to her office and finding another faculty member ensconced there, courtesy the head of the school It turns out that he’s married to the fabulously wealthy Heloise of Hollywood, who has hired Doan to keep young impressionable women from throwing themselves at his feet.

   Somehow or another murder comes into play, and by story’s end at least three people has been killed. In the meantime, Carstairs has taken over much of the book, including a madhouse romp on his part through Heloise’s salon facility, including the mudbath area.

   There is no depth to any of the characters, however, some of whom have only walk-on parts but who are just as wacky as those who have much larger roles. In all in the name of good-natured fun, except perhaps for the murder victims. I think the earlier two books were better.

      The Doan & Carstairs series —


The Mouse in the Mountain (1943).
Sally’s in The Alley (1943)
Oh, Murderer Mine (1946)

   Short stories:

“Holocaust House” Argosy, Nov 16 & 23, 1940.
“Cry Murder!” Flynn’s Detective Fiction, July 1944.


THE SCAPEGOAT. ITV, UK, 09 September 2012. Made for TV movie. Matthew Rhys, Eileen Atkins, Alice Orr-Ewing, Andrew Scott, heridan Smith, Jodhi May, Eloise Webb, Sylvie Testud, Pip Torrens, Phoebe Nicholls. Based on the novel by Dapne du Maurier. Written and directed by Charles Sturridge. Previous filmed in 1959, starring Alec Guinness.

   You have to watch this one with a serious sense of willing disbelief, but if you can, you will enjoy this one as much as I did. Two men, one a schoolmaster who’s just been let go, and another who is outwardly a man of some wealth and power, discover that they are exact lookalikes. So much so, that the latter of the two swaps clothes and belongings, and heads out to parts unknown.

   Leaving the former no choice but to take the other’s place, complete withe family mansion, wife and daughter, a bedridden mother, a younger brother and sister, the brother’s wife (who he has been dallying with), a mistress (who he has obviously also been dallying with) and the usual assortment of servants.

   Not one of them notices that he is not he, if you see what I mean, even though he is at an obvious disadvantage. He doesn’t know any of them, no the house, the room, his responsibilities as the male head of the family. He catches on very quickly, though, even faster than I would — or in fact, faster than I did.

   What’s also remarkable he comes to care, if not love, all of them, and he soon settles in to handle their affairs for them far better than the man he is posing as ever did. Set at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, this is a film filled with not only fine acting, but charm and heart. (The ending , I am told, differs from that of the book. If so, I think the ending of the movie is better.)

   There is a small but crucial bit of a murder plot involved as well. When the absentee owner of the house sneaks back in and sees how well his imposter has worked his way into his home, he decides to take advantage of it in a most deadly fashion, a plot however, that is most capably foiled.

   My thought is that everything online is only temporary.

   That particular concept was thoroughly tested yesterday. You may not have noticed, but this blog was all but offline for 24 hours beginning Thursday night. Nothing disappeared, thank goodness, but I couldn’t access any of the management tools for the blog, including editing and posting. No one could leave comments, either. (If you tried and failed, please try again.)

   I can’t explain things I don’t really understand myself, so I won’t go into details, but my son-in-law Mark says it was a “database server error.”

   While working our way through that, Mark discovered that there is a new hosting plan scheduled to take effect on March 28, after which certain incompatibilities (which I won’t even try to get into) will mean that all 13 plus years of blogging here on M*F will disappear. There may be an extension of the date, and (who knows) the “incompatibility” issue may be worked out, but in the meantime, I will be doing my best to back up and preserve as many of the thousands of posts as I can.

   If worst comes to worst, I will most certainly start over again. There’s only so much reading and watching I could do without being able to write about it all too, and I know that holds true for the many other contributors to this blog as well.

   And while I’m busy backing up an archive of the “Best of Mystery*File,” regular blogging will go on as usual. Count on it!

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

ASHLEY GARDNER – Death at Brighton Pavilion. Cpt. Gabriel Lacey #14. JA/AG Publishing, softcover, December 2019. Setting: Regency England.

First Sentence: I woke, or seemed to.

   Captain Gabriel Lacey’s old enemy, Colonel Hamilton Isherwood, has been murdered. Isherwood’s blood is on Lacey’s clothes and a cavalry saber is in Lacey’s hand, and there is a gap in his memory as to what happened. The one person who might know is Clement, a footman, and Isherwood’s son asks for Lacey’s help in identifying his father’s killer. While trying to put the pieces together, Gabriel learns of two Quakers who are missing and promises to make inquiries as to their whereabouts.

   There’s nothing like a good hook; an opening that captures your attention from the very beginning. Having the protagonist come to consciousness in the company of a dead body, a saber in this hand, and the victim’s blood on his clothes accomplishes that goal.

   It’s also nice that new readers need not worry about coming into the series with this 14th book. Gardner does a very good job of introducing each of the characters and establishing their relationships. She also incorporates the intimacy between Lacey and his wife Donata in a way that is lovely, romantic and a bit sexy, but never detailed.

   Gardner creates an excellent sense of place, inviting the reader into the environment in which the characters find themselves. Often, too, she provides bits of history and general information, such as that about Quakers, never overwhelming the story, but enhancing it.

   One likes to read of protagonists who have a strong moral and ethical base, who believe in doing what is just. Lacey is just such a character in spite of the urgings of others. At the same time, he is not perfect and does have a past, yet one of the best traits of Lacey is his humanity; his sense of responsibility. In other words, he is believable.

   Gardner creates an assumption and immediately dispels it carrying one along in the investigation. Her writing draws one back to her books due to her voice; her dialogue and the subtle humor incorporated which is offset by an excellent accounting of grieving– “That was the trouble with death. I too had been brought up to believe we should rejoice that the one we loved was with the lord, but somehow I never could. I could feel only emptiness, the lessening of myself for the absence of that person.”

   Death at Brighton Pavilion is a thoroughly enjoyable period mystery with plenty of twists, action, wonderful period details, and an ending that moves the series forward. As the author says– “Captain Lacey’s adventures continue…”

Rating: Good Plus.

      The Captain Gabriel Lacey series —

1. The Hanover Square Affair (2003)
2. A Regimental Murder (2004)
3. The Glass House (2004)
4. The Sudbury School Murders (2005)
5. A Body in Berkley Square (2005)
6. A Covent Garden Mystery (2006)
7. A Death in Norfolk (2011)
8. A Disappearance in Drury Lane (2013)
9. Murder in Grosvenor Square (2014)
10. The Thames River Murders (2015)
11. The Alexandria Affair (2016)
12. A Mystery at Carlton House (2017)
13. Murder in St. Giles (2018)
14. Death at Brighton Pavilion (2019)

THOMAS BUNN – Closet Bones. John Thomas Ross #1. (***) G. P. Putnam’s Sons. hardcover 1977. No paperback edition.

   The copy on the dust jacket mentions Sam Spade in referring to private detective John Thomas Ross, but the resemblance is closer to Dashiell Hammett’s other detective, the nameless Continental Op. Ross is paunchy, losing his hair and not getting any younger, but yet not easily waylaid by temptation.

   He’s called on to find a missing playboy, patron of an upstate New York hippie community, who disappears shortly after a sudden marriage. The plot is complicated, the writing is competent and quietly unobtrusive, and all the way through there is a curious lack of intensity or involvement, as if we have read it all before.

   We have.

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

(***) Most sources call this the first in a series of three books featuring Jack Bodine, another of Thomas Bunn’s private eye creations, but I have one online source that agrees with me, that the PI in this book is indeed John Thomas Ross, his only recorded case. Bunn wrote only the three books. Follow the link to Bodine’s Thrilling Detective webpage.

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