July 2020



LOVE FROM A STRANGER. United Artists, UK/US, 1937. Also released in the US as A Night of Terror. Ann Harding, Basil Rathbone, Binnie Hale, Bruce Seton, Jean Cadell, Bryan Powley, Joan Hickson. Based on the 1936 play of the same name by Frank Vosper, which in turn was based on the 1924 short story “Philomel Cottage,” written by Agatha Christie. Directed by Rowland V. Lee.

   Basil Rathbone used to turn out a fine line of cold-hearted seducers. As a cad supposedly irresistible to women, he was never completely convincing, but that, oddly, was part of his success: when the naive young heiress or wealthy widow fell for Rathbone’s icy charm, you just knew she was walking into a trap. They never seemed to learn, though, and a succession of films like Kind Lady (1935), Rio (’39) and The Mad Doctor (’41) found a variety of leading ladies suddenly-finding-too-late (or is it?) they were in the clutches of a serial killer murderous con man, or at best an insanely jealous spouse.

   Love from a Stranger is pretty typical of the lot, and fun to look at, with a script incorporating the talents of Agatha Christie (original story) Frank Vosper (stage play) and Francis Marion (screen adaptation.) under the steady hand of Rowland V. Lee. Heroine Anne Harding has barely learned she won the lottery before suave, mysterious Basil Rathbone turns up to sweep her off her feet and into a remote cottage, where he likes to spend hours in the cellar listening to “In the Hall of the Mountain King” on the gramophone while burning pictures of his new bride — a sure sign that this marriage is in trouble. More fruity stuff follows, but it’s played for such full-blooded theatricality as to make it rather enjoyable as the story moves to its predestined climax.

   That climax perhaps betrays a bit too much of the film’s stage origins: at the point to which all these things must come, where the heroine ls alone in the house with a killer and no hope of rescue, we suddenly get an awful lot of dialogue. Without revealing too much of the ending, I may say it goes something like this:

RATHBONE: “Well, my dear, something something something.”

HARDING: “No! Wait!”

RATHBONE: “Why should I?”

HARDING: “Because something something something!”

RATHBONE: “Something something?”

HARDING: “Yes! And something else!”

RATHBQNE: “You expect me to believe that?”


RATHBONE: “But if somethlng something, why not something?”

HARDING: “Because something!”

RATHBONE: ”A very pretty story, my dear, but I happen to know something something.”

HARDING: “I know you knew that. I was only something something until something something else something!”


   As you may have noticed, this is an awful lot of plot to carry around just by talking it out, and it gets a bit stagy after the first ten minutes or so. Still fun, though, in its own hammy way, and I have to say I liked this a lot.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #40, September 2005.


LUCILLE KALLEN – C. B. Greenfield: The Tanglewood Murders. Wyndham Books, hardcover, 1980. Ballantine, paperback, 1981.

   Have you ever noticed how much more you enjoy a mystery novel, say, when the setting is a local one, or one you know? Take, for example, Tanglewood. As everyone in most of New England, at least, must know, Tanglewood is the annual summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a small village and environs nestled up in the lush green hills of the Massachusetts Berkshires, close to the New York border.

   An apparent plot against the orchestra seems to be motivated by more than usual resentment lodges against them by the local townspeople, upset by the yearly influx of gawking tourists. Tackling an solving the murder that eventually results, in their second case, are C. B. Greenfield, crusty publisher of a weekly upstate New York newspaper, and his star reporter, Maggie Rome.

   It’s Maggie who does the legwork, and Greenfield, although long and lean, who supplies the Nero Wolfian ratiocination. While their combined detective technique lacks polish and remains determinedly amateurish is style, the two sleuths are most decidedly up to the intellectiual challenge of the musical clue left as a dying message – from Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espanole.” That, plus a helpful quote from Shakespeare, and the quiet serenity of one of this country’s most charming corners is quickly restored.

Rating: B plus.

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 1, January-February 1981.

      The C. B. Greenfield series –

1. Introducing C. B. Greenfield (1979)
2. The Tanglewood Murder (1980)
3. No Lady in the House (1982)
4. The Piano Bird (1985)
5. A Little Madness (1986)

WESTINGHOUSE STUDIO ONE “The Case of Karen Smith.” CBS, 60m. 26 March 1951 (Season 3, Episode 31). Teleplay by Mona Kent, based on a story by Viola Brothers Shore. Felicia Montealegre, Leslie Nielsen, Annette Carell, Paul Potter, James Westerfield, Jean Casto, Director: Lela Swift. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime.

   Studio One began as a radio series but was converted into a television series very early on, beginning in 1948, where it continued on under slightly different titles through 1958, for a grant total of 467 episodes. As an anthology series, it featured all kinds of drama, including mysteries, and hundreds of well known actors and actresses, some very familiar, others making their debuts on the show.

   A good many of the episodes can be found here and there on the Internet. I discovered “The Case of Karen Smith” streaming on Amazon Video, for example. I can’t tell you want prompted me to watch this particular one. It certainly wasn’t the name factor, but when looking up the credits afterward, several of the players had a long list of appearances on early TV; others only one or two.

   The story is a strange one. A police detective (a very young Leslie Nielsen) encourages his girl friend, a night club pianist named Karen Smith (Felicia Montealegre), to go with a not-so-gentlemanly gentleman admirer to go with him to his apartment after a late night performance. Why? He won’t tell her, but to be on the lookout for another visitor. Not understanding, but agreeing, she is on hand to see her would-be date for the evening being shot and killed by a former jilted lover.

   The twist comes when Karen Smith leaves evidence to incriminate herself, and then sets out on a trail that’s easily followed to a deserted beach where she commits suicide. We the viewer don’t believe this for a minute, but just what it is that’s going on? The story twists itself into contorted knots trying to explain, including a twin sister, and just barely succeeds. Maybe.

   It’s still enjoyable enough to watch, but perhaps only to fans of early television to begin with. It certainly won’t convert anyone under the age of fifty to become one.

EDMUND CRISPIN – The Glimpses of the Moon. Gervase Fen #10 (including one collection). Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1977. Walker, US, hardcover, 1978. Avon, US, reprint paperback; 1st printing August 1979. Felony & Mayhem, US, softcover, 2012

   In a a recent issue of Fatal Kiss, my otherwise splendiferous contribution to DAPA-Em, I thoughtlessly mentioned in passing that I could not think of a mystery I had recently read that was funny to laugh at as well as fun to read. Almost immediately Charlotte MacLeod’s Professor Shandy books were pointed out to me. I’ve read only the first one, that being Rest You Merry, and I shouldn’t have forgotten it. The second, The Luck Runs Out, and it is near to top of my must-read pile.

   But, Ms MacLeod’s efforts in the limited world of comedy detective fiction notwithstanding, I’m forced to say that The Glimpses of the Moon is absolutely the funniest detective story I’ve ever read.

   Everyone in it is quite bonkers, you understand, and that’s the kind of humor it is. From Gobbo, the drooling local village idiot, on down. The arthritic Major, whose tone-deafness does nothing to inhabit his singing voice when it comes to the lyrical sensitivity of his favorite TV jingles. The innkeeper whose avocation it is to live abed three quarters or more of the day. And this only Chapter One, the tip of the iceberg.

   Even Gervase Fen is only mildly astonished to find that the head of a pig he has carried around with him all day suddenly turns out to be the battered head of a corpse.

   Or take Chapter Eleven, for example. It begins with Fen and the Major sitting together in an apple tree, the better to view the proceedings below, involving a herd of recalcitrant cows, a motorcycle scramble, several members of he local anti-hunt league, the rector and a thief, and … I guess you just have to read it to believe it.

   The murders, for yes, there are some, are of a rather bizarre nature, involving not only decapitation, but a limb-proving as well. And there’s a “locked room” mystery to boot. How did the murderer get the missing arm out of the tent?

   The motivation is perhaps a unique one. What else could it be in a wacky affair like this but rather unusual, to say the least?

   (To be honest, if you were to force me to, I think Crispin lets the story run away with itself a little too often. Take P. G. Wodehouse, for example,to show us how such nuttiness can be kept under tight, tight control.)

Rating: B

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 1, January-February 1981.

RACHEL SWIRSKY “Scene from a Dystopia.” Short story. First published in Subterranean, Issue #4, 2006. Collected in How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future (Subterranean Press, hardcover, 2013).

   Guest-edited by science fiction author John Scalzi, the theme of this particular issue of Subterranean is that of SF Cliches. Quoting from his introduction, “You know, those ideas like sentient computers and Amazon women on he moon that are so been there done that in the field that even the souvenir t-shirt doesn’t fit anymore.”

   Rachel Swirsky’s story, which is given the first slot in the magazine, is her first story as well, but there’s no one in the world who would otherwise believe it, without being told, it’s so well written. She takes the idea of a future world in which an all-knowing computer takes students about to graduate and places them in their future jobs for the rest of their lives.

   But of course there is always a rebellious one, an individual who is going to fight back against the machine and give everyone the opportunity to make their own choices in life. That’s the cliche.

   But what would really happen? Swirsky takes the question and answers it in another extreme, or at least she suggests the possibility. Natalie aches to become an opera singer. In the Technocracy, should she settle for being a piano teacher? And at the expense of what?

   The story is quietly but powerfully told, with a lyrical sensibility that seems an impossibility for a first time writer. Nor is the story a fluke of any kind. Look at her resume, taken from her page on Wikipedia: “Her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” won the 2010 Nebula Award, and was also a nominee for a 2011 Hugo Award and for the 2011 World Fantasy Award. Swirsky’s short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” won the 2013 Nebula Award for Best Short Story, and was nominated for the Hugo award for best short story of 2013.”

   This is the only story I’ve read in the magazine so far. Hopefully the rest are as good as this one.

SHOOT ’EM UP. New Line Cinema, 2007. Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Bellucci. Screenwriter-director: Michael Davis.

   There’s a host of other people in this movie, mostly of them ending up dead, but the three that I listed above are all that really matter. Clive Owen is the man who witnesses a pregnant woman being run down and attacked; he rescues her, she dies, but somehow in the confusion he manages to deliver the baby. He needs assistance, and quickly, but where? Monica Bellucci as Donna Quintano, a prostitute who agrees to help.

   Their problems are not over, however. Paul Giamatti, as brilliant as always, is the head of the squad of men who are on their trail from that point on — until the end of the movie, and who end up wholly frustrated in what turns out to be an entirely useless chase. For as we all know, the good guys always aim right the first time, and the bad guys couldn’t hit the inside of a barn from inside the barn.


   Cannon fodder is all they are. What seems like thousands of bodies pile up, but I’m sure I read somewhere that there were only 150. Some people have little else to do with their time than to create statistics like this. Don’t look at me. All I did was watch it.

   The sexy scenes are minimal. There are a few gross out scenes, that is true, but other than that, this is a movie filled with non-stop movie violence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

   What I think is that this is a even better Jack Reacher film than Jack Reacher, the film itself, the one with a pint-sized Tom Cruise trying to fill Jack Reacher’s shoes. He did surprisingly OK, but Clive Owen does an even better job playing an antisocial and psychotic hero, the kind of guy who drifts into town and waits for trouble to find him.

   Which it certainly does in this film, along with a girl who detests him at first — no, that’s unfair — actively dislikes him, but then as she’s also caught up in their plight together, she learns to like him a lot better.

   My purpose here is not to tell you how much I liked this film, or not, but to let you know what to expect if you decide to watch it anyway, in which case, my job is done.




DONALD HAMILTON – The Ravagers. Matt Helm #8. Gold Medal paperback original, 1964.

   Like many other people I avoided the Matt Helm series for years because of the awful Dean Martin movies. Last year, while trying several paperback series, I read Death of a Citizen (1960), the first Helm book, and was very pleasantly surprised to see what I’d been missing. The Ravagers confirms for me that Hamilton is a fine writer and that this is one of the best series around.

   Matt Helm did undercover work for a special unit under a man named Mac during the war. Afterward he left the organization and settled own as a western writer and a photographer in Santa Fe with his wife and (ultimately) three children. This life comes apart with the sudden reappearance of a former colleague in Death of a Citizen. By the end of the book Matt is back working for Mac, and his wife is divorcing him.

   In The Ravagers Helm is involved in a complicated plot which has him protecting a woman, her lover (a Russian agent), and her fifteen year old daughter from other American agents who want to stop her from passing documents to the Russians. Only Helm’s group knows that the documents are a plant, and Matt must see that they get through at whatever cost.

   The ensuing cross-Canada car trip has plenty of action and surprises, with a big surprise coming at the end. Matt must let the documents get through without letting on that this is just what he is doing, which makes for a lot of complications. I’ve looking forward to reading more of Helm’s adventures.

–Reprinted with permission from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 2, March 1977.



DON JUAN. Vitaphone/Warners, 1926. John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Warner Oland, Estelle Taylor, Montagu Love and Nigel de Brulier. Screenplay by Estelle Taylor. Directed by Alan Crosland.

THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. Warners, 1948. Errol Flynn, Viveca Lindfors, Robert Douglas, Alan Hale, Romney Brent, Robert Warwick, Una O’Connor and Raymond Burr. Screenplay by Herbert Dalmas, George Oppenheimer, William Faulkner, and Robert Florey. Directed by Vincent Sherman.

   Errol Flynn and John Barrymore were close friends and legendary drinking buddies in life, whose paths twice crossed professionally: Flynn’s portrayal of Barrymore in the turgid biopic TOO MUCH, TOO SOON (Warners, 1958) won praise from critics who panned the rest of the film, and he himself said, “I wanted to show a man with a heart, a man eaten up inside — as I knew him to be in those final days when I was close to him.”

   Ten years earlier, when Warners decided to remake Barrymore’s DON JUAN, Flynn was the natural—indeed, the only—choice for the part. Under Vincent Sherman’s workmanlike but uninspired direction, it emerged as a gaudy but oddly lifeless affair, with footage “borrowed” from ROBIN HOOD and THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, and Flynn visibly tired of the whole swashbuckling-lover act. The supporting players do what they can, a phalanx of writers throw in some witty lines, and stuntman Jock Mahoney even recreates Barrymore’s staircase leap from the earlier film, but on the whole the tale of swordplay and palace intrigue seems profoundly shallow.

   In contrast, the original DON JUAN is an altogether more personal and livelier effort. Barrymore’s first appearance as the legendary lover doesn’t come till twenty minutes into the film, after an extended prologue featuring the star as Don Juan’s father, betrayed by his wife, who entombs her lover in a wall, then devotes himself to wine and women till he’s murdered by a discarded mistress and leaves his son with a parting dictum never to give love; only take it.

   Prologue over, Barrymore makes a light-hearted entrance as Don Juan, skillfully manipulating two ladies at his door while a third slips out his bedroom window. Very soon after, he runs afoul of the Borgias: Warner Oland as Cesare (“We Borgia approve of cleverness in our friends – we have no clever enemies!”) and Estelle Taylor as a predatory Lucrezia. It seems the toxic siblings plan to poison Mary Astor’s dad and marry the girl off to barely-civilized Montagu Love, but Juan/John squelches the cyanide, then beats the lustful bridegroom in one of the finest swordfights ever in the Movies: imaginatively conceived and cleverly edited, it ends with an impressive swan dive down a flight of stairs, so good it was repeated in the later film.

   There’s a lot more plot of course, but one aspect of this thing intrigues me. Early on, as I said, Don Juan’s father seals his wife’s lover up in a wall, and sets his son on a path of loveless and rather misogynistic pleasure. Later on, imprisoned by the Borgias, Juan takes down a wall to escape … and on the other side he finds an erstwhile victim: the husband of a woman he seduced, who went mad with jealousy and murdered his wife. In a surprising twist, the madman forgives and helps Juan escape so he can rescue Mary Astor etc. etc.

   Okay, if we can divorce the whole “Wall” thing from the current political climate, it becomes a striking metaphor for our hero’s psyche. The wall his father built entombed a philanderer and became a barrier that kept the legendary lover from actually loving anyone. It is only when he destroys a wall that Don Juan finds forgiveness and becomes capable of love.

   The screenplay never spells this out—Thank Gawd!—but it adds a special depth to DON JUAN that THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN never achieved… or even attempted.




PATRICIA CORNWELL – Cruel and Unusual. Dr. Kay Scarpetta #4. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1993. Avon, paperback, 1994.

   On the night Ronnie Joe Waddell is executed for Homicide, a murder similar to the one he was convicted of is committed. Medical Examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta performed the autopsies on both. A few days later, a long-time correspondent of Waddell’s is found dead, an apparent suicide, and although Waddell had been on Death Row for ten years, his fingerprints are found in her apartment. Then Kay’s computer files are broken into and one of her assistants is murdered. All three victims were shot with the same gun, but things get even more complicated when Kay finds herself under investigation for the murders.

   Though I don’t think I saw it all the way through. I vaguely recall a Fu Manchu movie in which Christopher Lee was executed in the opening. Only (WARNING!) he really wasn’t you see, (END OF WARNING!) and I thought that’s where this was heading.

   I was wrong.

   For most of the way, I found this pretty gripping, with credible characters and nice pace. Unfortunately, Cornwell set herself a tough problem here, and her solution just wasn’t quite up to it … for me, anyway. Still, there are some nice moments before she runs off into Oliver Stone Territory.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #66, July 1994.



BRETT HALLIDAY – She Woke to Darkness. Mike Shayne #25. Torquil/Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1954. Dell #867, paperback, 1956; reprinted as Dell D446, paperback, 1962.

   The 25th case for Michael Shayne, who finally appears in Chapter 11. Since 1938, Shayne arrived in the first sentence of 21 books. I will mention some of the plot in this review, but truthfully, I am compelled to talk about significant changes in Davis Dresser’s writing style; his sudden desire to “crank up” the sexiness and violence in dialog among a lower class of despicable characters.

   Brett Halliday, the major character, attends a Mystery Writer’s Convention in NYC, 1953. In the author’s foreword, Dresser, as Brett, states that Mike Shayne’s “previous 24 books were written in Third person by me”, but now this case has happened to me,’ and in first person. Brett becomes the #1 murder suspect.

   Surrounded by contemporary writers both real and fictitious, Brett overhears harsh criticism, describing him as an ”out-dated old timer”, a hack writer… doubt if he ever reads anything but his own stuff… what a bore that must be”. From peer pressure, style changes begin.

   As usual, the cognac flows throughout pages 11 to 25. This boozing allows Brett to meet his newest admirer, Elsie, the heavy-drinking, hot babe, mystery-writer-wannabe. She’s writing a True Crime murder mystery based on her own horrible experience three months ago, and would Brett please read it to suggest a continuation?

   They go back to her place, Brett gets the original 56-pages, they drink more, kiss more, as Brett begins his new-found romantic style. He lights two cigarettes (a la film Now, Voyager, 1942) “… her eyes dancing, ‘Darling’. It was a long kiss…”. Elsie gets a phone call then kicks Brett out at midnight. Guess who the Police find strangled at 2am?

   Elsie had commented that she read all 24 Shayne mysteries, in order, and considers Mike Shayne, ” …so real, not like Philo Vance (the 1920s-30s fictional crime solver). … Characters like Philo remain so exactly the same book after book, year after year. They never change.”

   Brett’s words here are his own, sarcastic comment upon his Shayne, because for 24 books Shayne is one that has remained the same… and sadly, Dresser knows it. Shayne never develops from his hot-headed ways; his cognac for breakfast, lunch, dinner, cognac before driving and taking Lucy Hamilton’s affections for granted. (Spoiler alert: Readers will see changes in books 25 – 31)

   Halliday now reads Elsie’s first chapters where several cruder types, not found in earlier Shayne novels, are described using their new names, but keeping the true facts in the case.

1. Aline, is Elsie’s new name… “She Woke To Darkness” alone (?) in a hotel bed with a two-dollar bill stuffed in her rolled-down nylons. She’s become a “two-dollar whore,” has alcoholic black outs. She remembers nothing about last evening.
2. Mr. Unknown, an unattractive, dead guy with his throat slashed… on the hotel room floor.
3. Ralph, the suave, ever-horny, ladies’ man.
4. Doris, the plump, blonde, that opens her front door at midnight, for Ralph.
5. Dirk, the (again) alcoholic-black-out, married guy, smooched, then was rejected by Elsie, and he can’t remember anything either.
6. Gerry, who will swear Elsie is guilty of murder, or could her body keep him quiet? New vocabulary: “he pressed his pelvic bone against hers”’ (This was probably pretty racy dialog in 1954.)
7. Brett Halliday, who is described thusly:, “drunk as a coot, has-been loser, one-eyed bastard, He writes those lousy books about a redhead Miami detective.”

   Shayne flies into NYC becoming desperate character #8 because murder suspect #1, Halliday, goes missing. Two murders and now Halliday might be number three? Shayne visits suspects and lays on the new, 1953 charm, “Give me his name or, so help me, sweet Jesus… I’ll kick your face into a pulp that none of your women will ever recognize again.”

   “Tell him…” sobbed Estelle, “He’s capable of anything.”

   Shayne yells, “I’m going to beat his God-damned brains out.” (Yikes, Brett, Mike, the Lord’s name taken in vain? That’s a change!)

   In conclusion, the romance ended in chapter three, everybody lies, and kidnapped Brett is beaten senseless. The cops were stumped, Shayne solves it and Mr. Unknown never spoke a word. Usually the victim has a role somewhere in a Shayne novel… not here.

   Rest assured Readers, these changes affect the next few Dresser novels. After 24 shy novels along the lines of, “she had a small waist, her skirt rose above her knee, her curves…” Those days are over. In #26, Death Has Three Lives, Shayne demonstrates undying love for kidnapped Lucy. Violence abounds in #27, Stranger In Town, Shayne is beaten to a pulp and still kills a guy. #30, Shoot The Works, we meet Kitty and Lola; two of the horniest, hot young ladies yet. But Shayne is still loyal to Lucy.

   Finally, in 1958, Dresser rewrites 1946’s Dinner At Dupré’s, into an expanded version titled, Murder and the Wanton Bride. Dresser ends his writing career with #31, a “Wanton Bride” to surpass all previous babes; more desirable and provocative than any McGinnis cover art. (Chapter 8 is devoted to her.)

   Viva the new 1954-style Brett Halliday!

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