March 2020



THE BURGLARS. Columbia Films, France, 1971. Columbia Pictures, US, 1972. Original title: Le casse. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Omar Sharif, Dyan Cannon. Based on the novel The Burglar, by David Goodis. Director: Henri Verneuil.

   Speaking of Perversity, I wanted to say a word or two about a French film called The Burglars, directed by Henri Verneuil and, based on David Goodis’s melancholy novel The Burglar. Never — not once in many many years of watching Trashy Movies — have I seen a film so utterly unfaithful o its source material.

   And never have I watched a film so lightly enjoyable anyway. From start to Finish, the Burglars is a romp, with spectacular scenery, mind-boggling stuntwork by its star,Jean-Paul Belmondo, colorful backgrounds, fights, chases, leaps, bounds, double-crosses, Op Art, gimmicks, and every thing else that made the thrillers of the late 60s/early 70s such fun to watch.

   The plot, about a gang of jewel thieves picked off by a cop who’s gone into business for himself, serves mainly as a pretext for Belmondo to strut his klutzy machismo while Cannon and Sharif look seductive, and is a complete betrayal of Goodis’s haunting thriller. But it’s all done with so much panache as to be immediately forgivable. And totally entertaining. Catch it!




THE MOONLIGHTER. Warner Brothers, 1953. Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Ward Bond, William Ching, John Dierkes, Morris Ankrum, Jack Elam. Writer: Niven Busch. Director: Roy Rowland.

   In Warner Brothers’ The Moonlighter, Fred MacMurray portrays a cattle thief who finds himself at odds with not only the law, but also with his brother (William Ching). He also comes into conflict with his own true love (Barbara Stanwyck), who gets fed up with his reckless criminal ways. Typical Western fare, for sure.

   Although the plot may be fairly standard, The Moonlighter is nevertheless an odd film. Not because it’s quirky or because it’s offbeat. No. It’s because of two factors, none of which seem to make much sense. First of all, the film’s running time is a mere 78 minutes, yet it has an intermission! Second, it was released in 3-D, but there’s really nothing in the movie that makes it remotely worthy of that format.

   The cast also makes it an odd film. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were undoubtedly far too talented for this uneven film. Admittedly, the reunited Double Indemnity (1944) actors do the best they can with the sometimes downright atrocious low-tech dialogue that plagues what could have, with some tweaking, been a much better film. Too much of the dialogue is on the nose, with characters telling each other how much they either love or hate one another. It’s just cringeworthy to listen to these two actors who, it’s clear, deserved a much better script than the one offered here.

   And yet, despite these factors, there are some rather good moments in the film. These include when Fred MacMurray’s character works outside of the law to avenge the death of an innocent man or when Barbara Stanwyck’s character becomes a deputized lawman (or woman!) and rides out on horseback, rifle in tow, to seek justice. In how many movies, can you say that a female law officer shoots and kills a villain portrayed by Ward Bond? Not many, I suppose. That too makes The Moonlighter unique. Whether it’s worth your time depends, however, on how much you like the actors. (This includes the always enjoyable Jack Elam.) Without them, this would have been a completely turgid and forgettable production.



E. R. PUNSHON – Mystery Villa. Detective Sergeant Bobby Owen #4. Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1934. Penguin, UK, paperback, 1950. Dean Street Press, UK, trade paperback, 2015. No US edition.

   Written in the days when Sergeant Bobby Owen, Punshon’s long-running series character, was young and throbbing with ambition and energy, this small puzzle of the mysterious lady of Tudor Lodge is a tiny little mystery that grows and grows and grows.

   But slowly! It is fifty pages before Bobby finds reason enough to investigate within, and in doing so he widens the case forty or fifty years into the past – to a happy event that never took place, and to a murder that did.

   (Sorry to be so ambiguous. Pat of the soporific pleasure of reading this novel is just just being able to relax and let events flow over you, and I hope I haven’t already said too much and deprived you of that particular enjoyment.)

   The characters are nicely done – save Bobby – who has no personal life to speak of, and otherwise is described completely by the first sentence o this review. Outdated, but drawn with precision and care.

   It is the detective work that fails to hold up, beginning with a sloppy search of the house by the police themselves, and continuing on as Bobby completely forgets about one of the characters involved. And of course that person turns out to by the, um, well, yes, I shouldn’t even say that , should I?

   Overall, the worst crime a detective story can perpetrate is that of being unconvincing. What with faulty premises, unlikely motivations, and sheer, devout strongheadedness, well – it’s not really that bad, but …

–Very slightly revsed from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 6, Nov/Dec 1981.



THE LINEUP. Columbia Pictures, 1958. Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, William Leslie, Emile Meyer, Marshall Reed, Raymond Bailey, Vaughn Taylor, Cheryl Callaway, Robert Bailey, Warner Anderson. Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant. Director: Don Siegel.

   The Lineup is a film of contradictions, managing somehow to be both intriguing and dull, subversive and complacent – not at the same time, but close enough together to make one wonder how it ever got made at all. No one who has ever seen it forgets the killing at the skating rink or the wild car chase and shoot-out that climax he movie; on the other hand, one is hard-pressed to remember anything much happening in the whole first twenty minutes of the thing. Memorable and forgettable: that’s The Lineup.

   The reasons for this strange duality are readily apparent now, but at the time it must have seemed .like a good idea, to the producers at Columbia to make a low-budget feature film based on a popular TV series. And Don Siegel probably looked — on the surface, at least — like the best man to direct it, having done the pilot for the television series four years earlier . He must have seemed like a natural.

   But Don Siegel had changed a lot in the years since The Lineup was first televised; he had entered the most anarchic and most personals age of his career, using low-budget action films as vehicles to say something meaningful about individuals trying to attain identity in an Anonymous Society: films like Riot in Cell Block11, Baby Face Nelson, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, his clearest and mos deliberately paranoid statement on the dangers of Unity. And it was this middle-aged rebel, not the fair-haired boy of four years earlier, who brought his feelings to bear on The Lineup, which mus have turned out to be a lot different from what the producers had in mind.

   For one thing, he scenes built around the police/heroes of the piece, are thoroughly, almost painstakingly, dull. Siegel shoots he Police Procedure parts in an obviously disinterested style, routine set-up following routine set-up as the story meanders towards no place in particular with no noticeable sense of pace. The Police are sympathetic enough, to be sure, but they’re also boring and banal in this movie, which makes for a pretty soporific first twenty minutes or so … Until the killers come on.

   With the introduction of Eli Wallach and Robert Keith, we get a look at last at he film Siegel wanted to make, and an impressive job it is, too. The flatness of the photography suddenly looks impressive, with the characters struggling in long shot against a landscape of towering ships and crowded streets, standing in sharp contrast against anonymous hotel rooms and deserted docks as they march resolutely towards some predestined end.

   Wallach and Keith are quickly established as enforcers for some anonymous but highly structured criminal organization. They, and everyone they meet, have a small and well-defined part to play in some complex and mysteriously important scheme; the nondescript man who gives them their assignment, the nameless figure who pronounces their death sentences, and everyone else they encounter, all either conform to the rigid norm of their social order or die for departing from them.

   It’s a daring message for a film supposedly designed to celebrate the glories of Police Routine, but Siegel states his theme clearly and repeatedly, from the siren-blast time signal that begins and ends his characters assignment, to the way Keith keeps correcting Wallach’s stammer, right down to the infringement of The Rules that dooms both men: Siegel demonstrates the peril of acing Human in a world of Pod People, and, intriguingly, he makes his point around a deliberately unsympathetic character.

   As the killer (ironically called Dancer) Eli Wallach’s ripe features and beady eyes seem constantly cocked and ready, about to explode into some socially unsanctioned violence as he moves skittishly about the San Francisco landscape. He plays this perfectly against Keith, as his mysterious supervisor, who comes on like a voice-over announcer in a commercial, constantly reminding his subordinate about how well they are doing their job as he methodically jots down the last words of their victims in a little notebook.

   The last half of The Lineup is heady stuff indeed, with well-staged bursts of violence built around a rapidly accelerating plot, culminating in one of the most chilling performances ever committed to film, by a perfect unknown named Vaughan Taylor, and a car-chase across a half-completed freeway system — done mostly with back-projection — that completely outclasses the more expensive and highly-touted car-chase scenes that became a staple of the Movies in the 1970s.

   So catch this movie the next time it comes along. Have a good book to read or something to occupy your mind for the first twenty minutes, then sit back o enjoy one of the most surprisingly perverse movies ever.


ROBERT PORTNER KOEHLER – Sing a Song of Murder. Pecos Appleby #1. Phoenix Press, hardcover, 1941. No paperback edition.

   According to Al Hubin’s monumental bibliography Crime Fiction IV, Robert Portner Koehler was the author of fifteen mysteries between 1933 and 1948, all but the first for Phoenix Press. The latter was in my opinion the best of the lending library publishers over that period, but they put out many an absolute clunker too. Over the years, there are quite a few I have given up on after only a chapter or two, and once in while it’s taken one or two pages to tell me I’d be better off spending my time reading something else.

   I’m happy to say, though, that Sing a Song of Murder is one of Phoenix’s better ones. It’s best, though, if you take that statement in the proper perspective.  Koehler’s name is hardly one that more than a handful of mystery readers have ever heard of, either now  especially, or quite possibly even then.

   The detective on the case is one Pecos Appleby, who even though this is his first recorded adventure, comes with a sense that he’s been around for a while. As a weather-beaten man in his forties, he introduces himself to the owner of a trading post and tourist lodge in the middle of a Navajo reservation as a special investigator for the New Mexico police.

   It seems he is on the trail of a woman who abandoned her car along a lonely stretch of desert highway. She in her turn seems to have turned up at the lodge without a care in the world. Or, perhaps not, for she is soon found dead, the victim of a killer who can only be one of the several people who are staying there.

   This is obviously a very common setup for a Golden Age detective story, and until the end, when the explanations get a little muddled, Koehler does a better than average job of it. He in fact takes one of the oldest tropes in detective fiction and turns it around to good advantage. When asked if he knows who did it, Appleby says yes, but I can’t prove it. When pressed, however, instead of demurring, as is the usual in situations such as this, he decides to go ahead and explain the case as he sees it to his superior, and in detail.

   Problem is, this comes some sixty pages before the end of the book. What he right or wrong? Well, I can’t tell you, but I liked what the author was doing here, and you can use your imagination, I think. As for the title, it comes from the fact the local Navajo tribe doing a sing, a healing ceremony, near the post all the while Appleby’s investigation is going on.

      The Pecos Appleby series —

Sing a Song of Murder (n.) Phoenix 1941
Here Come the Dead (n.) Phoenix 1942
Some Try Murder (n.) Phoenix 1943

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


RAYMOND CHANDLER – The Simple Art of Murder. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1950. Pocket #916, paperback, 1953. Reprinted many times since, in both hardcover and paperback.

   Eleven of the twelve stories in is collection are those that Chandler considered the best of his output for the pulps; the other story, “I’ll Be Waiting” was first published in the Saturday Evening Post (although Chandler admittedly felt uncomfortable and restricted writing for the slick-magazine medium). Also included here is Chandler’s famous and controversial essay on detective fiction, first published in the Atlantic Monthly, in which he lauds Hammett and the realistic school of crime writing, and takes a number of shots (some fair, some cheap) at such Golden Age luminaries as Christie, Sayers, and A. A. Milne.

   The stories here, as the dust jacket blurb says with typical publishers’ overstatement bur accurately nonetheless “hit you as hard as if [Chandler] were driving the last spike on the first continental railroad.” “Red Wind,” for instance, begins with one of the finest opening paragraphs in the history of the genre:

   There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of the hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edges of carving knives and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

   In the original appearance of that story, the private-eye narrator was Johnny Dalmas; here he becomes Philip Marlowe. Similarly, the unnamed narrator in “Finger Man,“ Carmady in “Goldfish,” and Dalmas again in “Trouble 1s My Business” are also changed to Marlowe. Johnny Dalmas does get to keep his own name in “Smart-Aleck Kill,” no doubt because that novelette is told third-person.

   And the same is true of Carmady in “Guns at Cyrano’s.” The only other first person story in the collection, the lighter-toned and somewhat wacky “Pearls Are a Nuisance,” features a much more refined dick named Walter Gage whose antics in search of a string of forty-nine matched pink pearls provide chuckles as well as thrills. Also included arc the tough Black Mask novelettes “Nevada Gas” and “Spanish Blood,” “The King in Yellow” from Dime Detective and “‘Pick-Up on Noon Street” from Detective Fiction Weekly.

   All of these stories appear in several other collections, such the paperback originals Five Murderers (1944) and Finger Man and Other Stories (1946) and the Tower Books hardcover originals Red Wind (1946) and Spanish Blood (1946). Next to The Simple Art of Murder, the most interesting and important Chandler collection is Killer in the Rain (1964), which gathers the eight “cannibalized” stories that were used as the bases for The Big Sleep, Farewell. My Lovely, and The Lady in the Lake.

   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.

WIR£D “The Beginning.” ITV, UK, 13 October 2008. 60m. Part one of a three-part mini-series. Jodie Whittaker, Laurence Fox, Toby Stephens. Screenplay: Kate Brooke. Director: Kenny Gleenan.

   A single mother (Louise Evans, played to perfection by Jodie Whittaker) who has just been promoted at the bank where she works is surprised to learn that her new position was not earned on her own resume and what’s worse, it comes with some very nasty strings attached. It seems that she has a back story involving criminal activity she doesn’t want known now, but it engenders a little blackmail and a threat to her young girl, either of which on their own are enough incentive for her to comply when she’s asked to do a “favor” to he crummy boy friend (Laurence Fox) of a lady “friend” she has at work.

   The favor seems minor, but what do I know about banking? Enough to know that she’s up to her ears in deep stuff. There is already an undercover police officer (Toby Stephens) snooping around, threatening audits. Episode one is just the set up. Yet to come are two more episodes: “The Middle” and “The End.”

   As is often the case these days, it is the heroine of the tale that receives the most attention, but Jody Whitaker, the future Doctor Who, is more than up to the task. Which is not to suggest that the rest of the cast, most of whom I’ve left uncredited above, is not doing their job too. Somehow the British seem to do short series such as this a quantum level higher than most of those in the US. This is one series I know I’ll finish.




GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD – Olura. Michael Joseph, UK, hardcover, 1965. Little Brown & Co., US, hardcover, 1965.

   ‘The objectives of the Alliance des Blancs, of which you will have heard, are clear and logical. It maintains that we, the Europeans, had no right to surrender political power to states which are not viable, which had no unity before our administrators created it, which demand the services of the United Nations once a month. It is our duty to the future, as trustees of civilisation, to preserve supremacy until such time as we can hand over to a responsible Confederation.’

   The Alliance des Blancs provides the villains, former European colonials plotting to overthrow struggling African states and seize them, and the McGuffin in this romantic adventure novel by Geoffrey Household, the poet laureate of the novel of escape and pursuit, whose novels such as Rogue Male, Watcher in the Shadows, and Dance of the Dwarves are classics of the genre. Olura isn’t in that class, but it is an example of Household’s innate ability to draw the reader into an almost fairy tale like picaresque adventure and build real suspense into the mix.

   Indeed, in this case that fairy tale like quality is established with the first line of Dr. Philip Ardower’s narrative.

   At our first meeting it seemed to me odd that a woman of obvious sophistication should insist on dressing like Red Riding Hood.

   And a bit farther along:

   She was too young to be a great lady. The crimson cloak and hood suggested Disneyland rather than a Duchess.

   That meeting is in Spain’s Basque country where they are both staying at the Hostal de las Olas, a small but expensive tourist hotel where Ardower, a philologist is studying the Basque language and where he also meets Major Vigny, a former French officer who was forced out of the army over his opposition to France giving up Algeria. Those two meetings and the appearance of African political figure Leopold Mgwana are going to plunge Ardower and Olura into conspiracy and murder.

   As usual with Household, the simple joys of his art are the first thing you notice, the effortless evocation of setting, especially the countryside, the sense of unease that can’t quite be explained, and the certainty that however normal the world seems it is about to become a nightmare.

   The tale is divided by three narrators, the first is Henry Sequerra, a family friend of Olura and her father who sets up the structure of the novel, the narrative of Ardower, then the same story but told from Olura’s much different perspective, another section by Ardower, and finally a codicil by Sequerra. This structure lets us see Olura, whose character has much to do with the adventure at hand from multiple perspectives, that of an old family friend who knows her as willful, adventurous, and rebellious, Ardower who is entranced by her and mystified, and her own testimony which sees things quite differently from either her guardian or her lover.

   One of the qualities that sets this book apart Is that Household and the reader are both entranced by Olura (a secretaries typo changed her name from Olivia to Olura on her birth certificate), a free spirit, almost a demigoddess, child woman, and seductress. In fact any reader of Dornford Yates will recognize the basic country of the novel with its English hero and child like princess in danger even if this princess is a modern politically active young woman.

   Olura, however is a more modern princess, the daughter of late Greek shipowner turned English knight Sir Theodore Manoli, Olura is outspoken and prone to being in the middle of things like political marches and student protests, particularly supporting African freedom. Her involvement with Leopold Mgwana, an African politician whose nation is the target of the Alliance des Blancs is what draws the pair into danger.

   Despite initial jealousy, Ardower likes Mgwana and soon gets caught up in his cause, and things complicate when a dead man shows up in Mgwana’s bath and the heroes find themselves with a pesky body to get rid of with marks of violence that clearly point to murder.

   Any Household hero is always at his best hunted, endangered, and loose in rough country. It is there he does his best thinking, there he is most dangerous, there he finds the heroic side of his nature. All Household heroes find their true selves through a similar path of uncomfortable civilization and a rebirth in the wild. It is in the rough the true Household hero finds inspiration.

   Full of eggs and red sausage, my aim undetermined, yet relieved for the moment of all sense of urgency and anxiety, I accepted the rest offered by the bank of the Urumea. I put my back against a rock with a twisted oak on it, peaceful as a Chinese painting, and began to think what on earth I should do with such liberty. Free from the hothouse of plots and interrogations, free—intellectually though never emotionally—from the beloved complications of Olura, I could at last draw breath and contemplate the past weeks. I was no longer trapped inside a ring. I was outside it, with time to see what it was made of.

   Later on, Ardower refers to the pantheist nature of his sojourn in the wild. The very countryside is alive in a Household novel, suggestions of elder beings and older faiths lurk at the edge of any Household protagonists experience in the wild. The almost supernatural connection of a Household hero to rough country is part of the experience of reading his work as it was in Stevenson, Haggard, and Buchan.

   Rough country is always a character in any Household novel.

   Eventually Ardower comes face to face with General Duyker, the sjambok wielding South African who controls the Alliance des Blancs and there is a final reckoning, and like any Household villain Duyker is more than just a villain. However villainous he is a three dimensional creation..

   Olura is to some extent post modern Household, with his hero who is almost mystically aligned with nature and the wild involved with protests, modern politics, and beautiful very modern young woman Olura. It’s a tribute to Household’s skills that the contrast between the two enhances the novel rather than makes it schizophrenic. That late in his career he wrote some of his best books like The Courtesy of Death, Dance of the Dwarves (a horror novel), Rogue Justice (the long awaited sequel to Rogue Male, and no disappointment), and The Sending (a supernatural novel) is tribute to his skills and art.

   Olura isn’t perfect Household, but it is a charming romantic adventure well worth your time.

H. R. F. KEATING – Go West, Inspector Ghote. Inspector Ghote #12. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1981. Penguin, US, paperback, 1982. Previously published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1981.

   In commenting on The Murder of the Maharaja, the book Keating wrote immediately before this one, I suggested it as the ideal candidate for he annual Agatha Christie Award, if there was one.

   There’s no John Dickson Carr Award for the year’s best locked room detective story, either, and it’s a shame, for here’s a book that would be an odds-on favorite for this year’s prize.

   In his latest book, Keating returns to his long-time series character, Inspector Ganesh V. Ghote of the Bombay C.I.D. The puzzle concerns the mysterious death of a swami known to have been alone in his empty house. For comic relief there is an overbearing (and grossly overweight) American private eye, who gives Ghote an unwanted and unwelcome helping hand. And, just as Carr often did himself, Keating stirs in more than a hint of the supernatural as well.

   Ghote, not so incidentally, is in the United States for this case, on the trail of a young girl from India who has apparently succumbed to the charms of a Hindi-California yogi with a life style to match. Dazed by a mind-numbing culture shock at first, the meek self-effacing Ghote at length rises to the occasion.

   Providing most of the charm of this offbeat sort of detective story is the overwhelming contrast between Ghote’s two worlds, Bombay and Los Angeles.

   It’s just too bad that the solution to the puzzle has to deflate the effect so considerably, although perhaps not fatally. I remain with the feeling that a completely thorough police search would have revealed the secret of the yogi’s strange death right away.

Rating: A minus.

–Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 6, Nov/Dec 1981.


M. K. WREN – Seasons of Death. Conan Flagg #5. Doubleday/Crime Club, hardcover 1981. Ballantine, paperback, 1989.

   This was the fifth adventure of PI/bookseller Conan Flagg. It came out in 1981, but for some reason there has been only  one since, unless I’ve lost track. [This was written in 1989, and I hadn’t.] Conan, half Indian/half Irish, lives in Oregon, and is wealthy enough to be selective on the cases he accepts.

   He spends all his time in an isolated corner of Idaho in this one, though, trying to solve a murder committed 40 years before. As he does so, what author M. K. Wren [the pen name of Martha Kay Renfroe] does, and most acceptably so, is combine the PI story with the “cozy” mystery, however it is you define “cozy.”

PostScript: Since you asked, and most politely, too, I’ll see if I can explain. It’s the type of timeless story filled with the kind of people and locals you feel at home with, along with the added comfort of realizing that problems are meant to be solved. (Truth doesn’t always equal happiness, true, but in the end, everyone accepts it as preferable to the alternative.)

–Reprinted with slight revisions from Mystery*File #13, June 1989


      The Conan Flagg series –

1. Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat (1973)


2. A Multitude of Sins (1975)
3. Oh, Bury Me Not (1976)
4. Nothing’s Certain But Death (1978)
5. Seasons of Death (1981)
6. Wake Up, Darlin’ Corey (1984)
7. Dead Matter (1993)
8. King of the Mountain (1994)

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