October 2020

   I have good news to report. Bill Pronzini has just informed me that after many years of collecting, he has finally found a copy of the last Phoenix Press hardcover mystery in jacket that he’s needed to complete the entire run.

   The one book that has eluded him for so long is Tread Gently, Death, by Robert Portner Koehler. It probably has no intrinsic value other than it’s so rare. As a milestone in collecting history, that’s another matter altogether.

   The cover is shown below. For covers of the complete run, go here:




MAX ALLAN COLLINS “A Wreath for Marley.” PI Richard Stone #1. First published in Dante’s Disciples, edited by Peter Crowther & Edward E. Kramer (White Wolf, 1995). Collected in Blue Christmas and Other Holiday Stories (Five Star, hardcover, 2001). Rewritten as “Blue Christmas,” an unpublished and unproduced screenplay.

   “A Wreath for Marley” takes place in Chicago, 1942, at Christmas time, and it doesn’t take long before you, the reader, realize that PI Richard Stone is a louse. He’s bribed his doctor to come up with a note to say he’s 4-F, he buys steak on the black market, and he has been sleeping with the widow of his now deceased former partner, Jacob Marley.

   Marley was shot and killed a full year ago, and to this date, Stone has done nothing about it. I don’t know if you know what’s ahead of him that evening, but if you are already suspecting that this is a mashup of Charles Dickens and The Maltese Falcon, you are one hundred percent correct.

   The ghost that Stone first meets is a gent named John Dillinger, and the one who takes Stone to see his (possible) future looks and sounds very much like the King himself, Elvis Presley. This in spite of the fact that in the real world, the latter is still only seven years old.

   You can get away with a lot of things when you’re writing fantasy, but you can take from me that this is a good one, even if you do know exactly where it is going. In his introduction to hardcover collection of several holiday-based stories he’s written, Max Allan Collins says that while this may not be his best story, it is his favorite one. I can see why.


      The Richard Stone series –

“A Wreath For Marley” (1995, Dante’s Disciples, Blue Christmas)
“A Bird for Becky” (1996, Shades of Noir, Blue Christmas)
“Flowers for Bill O’Reilly” (2001, Flesh and Blood, Blue Christmas)


FRANK THOMPSON – Alamo Movies. Old Mill Books, softcover, 1991. Republic of Texas Press, softcover, 1994.

   I have a fondness for what I call “Alamo Movies”: films based on fact or fiction in which a small group of soldiers hold out against superior forces, a list which includes THE LOST PATROL, the Flynn CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, BEAU GESTE, BATAAN, 55 DAYS AT PEKING, KHARTOUM and ZULU. There are more, but by this time you either know what I mean or I can’t explain it. Anyway, in ALAMO MOVIES, Frank Thompson confines himself to one particular siege, about which there has never been a great film made.

   After a brief introduction by Fess Parker, there’s a chapter on facts and legends surrounding the actual battle, mostly centering on whether or not Travis actually drew the line in the sand, and more importantly the fact that a handful of Alamo defenders were captured alive, with many eyewitnesses claiming Davy Crockett was among them (though executed shortly thereafter) although you will never see a film where Crockett doesn’t die heroically.

   Chapters are devoted to the films: THE IMMORTAL ALAMO, the lost first film on the subject, made by Gaston Melies (George’s brother) who crammed the whole story into 10 minutes! MARTYRS OF THE ALAMO, produced by D. W. Griffith and subtitled THE BIRTH OF TEXAS to cash in on the notoriety of BIRTH OF A NATION, and with a similarly racist slant — the revolt isn’t so much against Santa Anna as to protect the flower of American Womanhood from dark-skinned Mexican Lust; Santa Anna was even played by Walter Lang, th would-be rapist in BIRTH OF A NATION.

   Then there’s DAVY CROCKETT AT THE FALL OF THE ALAMO, directed by Robert Bradbury, whose son (later Bob Steele) played one of the defenders, so years later, on F-TROOP, when Steele as Duffy talked about fighting alongside Davy Crockett, it wasn’t so far from the truth.

   As the chapters progress, more familiar films get their due: MAN FROM THE ALAMO, DAVY CROCKETT: KING OF THE WILD FRONTIER, THE LAST COMMAND, THE ALAMO, and the Peter Ustinov comedy, VIVA MAX. Moving on, Thompson appraises the TV miniseries 13 DAYS TO GLORY and the IMAX film ALAMO … THE PRICE OF FREEDOM.

   Final chapters cover “lost” Alamo movies and films that were announced but never made. Thompson rates Wayne’s THE ALAMO as the best, “nearly great except for an awful screenplay,” which is like saying the Giants had a nearly perfect season except for a seven-game losing streak. Still, it’s an entertaining and informative read, with lots of purty pitchurs to look at when the going gets heavy.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #71, May 1995.

GRANTCHESTER “Episode 1.” ITV, UK, 06 October 2014. Shown in the US as part of Masterpiece Theater (PBS, 2015). James Norton (Sidney Chambers), Robson Green (Inspector Geordie Keating), Morven Christie, Tessa Peake-Jones. Based on the short story collection Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, written by James Runcie. Developed for television by Daisy Coulam. Director: Harry Bradbeer. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

   Sidney Chambers is the Anglican vicar in the small English village of Cambridgeshire. Set in the early 1950s, you might say that the small town is as dangerous place to live as Cabot Cove, since the series is now in its sixth season. Blessed with a honest smile and a sense of who people are, he makes a good partner with local policeman Inspector Keating in tracking down murderers; the latter is a by-the-books detective who resents Chambers’ intrusion on this, their first case, but they quickly become good friends.

   The reason for the initial resentment is that Keating thinks the case is all wrapped up, as an obvious suicide. But after Chambers is persuaded to intercede by the dead man’s mistress (and the wife of his business partner), Keating reluctantly has to agree that Chambers – and his keen eye for items found at the murder scene – is right. It’s a good mystery, but I claim it’s unfair to the viewer to not be able to read what the two detectives do in the dead man’s diary. Well, we do, but you can measure the length of time it’s on the screen in nanoseconds.

   Both stars have engaging personalities, however, and that goes a long way in paving over small little complaints such as this. There is, or will be, an ongoing sub-plot that may prove interesting, that of a platonic girl friend that Chambers has known since they were both were young. But when she announces her engagement to someone else, it appears that both of them are beginning to wonder if their friendship was so platonic after all.



H. P. LOVECRAFT’s “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” Short story. Adapted in graphic format Lovecraft in Full Color #2. Adventure Comics [an imprint of Malibu Comics], March 1992. Writer: Steven Philip Jones. Pencils & inks: Octavio Cariello. Reprinted in H.P. Lovecraft’s Worlds – Volume One (Caliber Comics, paperback, June 2019).

   “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is one of H. P. Lovecraft’s earliest stories, written in Spring 1919 and first published in the amateur publication Pine Cones in October 1919. It has been reprinted many times since and is probably still in print today, over a hundred years later.

   In this particular comic, it’s been updated to what was present day at the time (1992), and while it’s told in a somewhat disjointed form, the story is still very much recognizable from the one Lovecraft first created. A university researcher is trying to find ways to read the minds of others, and in what may be a breakthrough, connects with a being somewhere in the cosmos through the mind of crazed killer named Joe Slaader, a denizen of the deep Catskill hills, a man suffering from dementia who likely never been more than five miles from where he was born.

   Slaader is dying, but has a history of visions and delusions, and somehow the researcher has tapped into that. And at least for the short time before Slaader dies, the researcher finds himself “not a stranger in this Elysian realm,” but looking out upon Earth from somewhere near the star Algol. Slaader is dead, but his life of torment on this world is over.

   The story is short, the adaptation is clunky and difficult to follow, but there’s a magic to it that somehow neither the telling nor the sketchy artwork can hide. It may, paradoxically, add to it.


   Other Lovecraft stories adapted in this series:

1. “The Lurking Fear.”
2. “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”
3. “The Tomb.”
4. “The Alchemist.”

BAT MASTERSON “Double Showdown.” NBC, 08 October 1958 (Season 1, Episode 1.) Gene Barry (Bat Masterson). Guest Cast: Robert Middleton, Jean Willes, Elisha Cook, Adele Mara, King Donovan. Teleplay: Gene Levitt. Director: Walter Doniger. Currently streaming on Amzazon Prime Video.

   In this first episode of a new western series on NBC, Bat Masterson comes to the aid of a old friend who owns a casino saloon: he’s being threatened by a competitor (Robert Middleton) who does not think the town is big enough for them both, but if it is, he wants to own them both.

   Using his guns and his trademark cane as well as his wits, Masterson manages to persuade the unctuous villain to a game of chance, winner take all. Dealing the cards is an old girl friend (Jean Willes), now reduced to working for Middleton’s character.

   Unfortunately there’s not a lot of suspense that can build in an episode that’s only 30 minutes long, and that includes commercials and a bit of flirtatious byplay involving Adele Mara’s characters, who comes in the stage one day and leaves the next. Not only that, the episode has two different endings. Anticipating that critics would be complaining how badly the show plays loose and easy with the facts, the point the producers decided to make in advance is that there is often more than one way history gets relayed down to us over the years.

   It’s an approach that I don’t remember ever seeing before, and I wasn’t expecting it. It was rather neat to see it done here.


RICHARD HOYT – Decoys. John Denson #1. M. Evans, hardcover, 1980. Penguin, paperback, 1984.

   John Denson is a Seattle-based private eye. While his first case is no out-and-out classic, it is refreshingly different, and Denson’s a character I’d love to see again.

   Nor would I mind if his competition in this book for an unknown treasure – unknown to Denson, that is – were to show up along with him. She is Pamela Yew, also a private investigator, and she knows what the objective is. They make a bet. She will win the $50,000 piece of artwork adorning Denson’s office. He will win, um, her.

   A lot of male/female stuff comes into play. Denson does not think PI work is a woman’s line. She refuses to stay on the pedestal he offers her. Who wins? You’ll have to read this one for yourself to find out.

   There are also a large number of “decoys” in this book. It all depends on how deep allegorically you want to dig. And even so, if you like your detective fiction fast-paced with a lot of twists, and populated by characters who know what they are all about, I can’t imagine your failing to enjoy this one.

Rating: A minus.

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 2, March/April 1981.

     The John Denson series –

Decoys (1980)
30 for a Harry (1981)
Siskiyou (1983; aka “The Siskiyou Two-Step”)
Fish Story (1985; aka “Contract Killer”)
Whoo? (1991; aka “Flight of Death”)
Bigfoot (1993)
Snake Eyes (1995)
The Weatherman’s Daughters (2003)
Pony Girls (2004)

      Short Stories –

“Private Investigations” (1984, The Eyes Have It)

Reviews by L. J. Roberts


LOUISE PENNY – All the Devils Are Here. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #16. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, hardcover, September 2020; softcover, June 2021. Setting: Contemporary Paris.

First Sentence: “Hell is empty, Armand,” said Stephen Horowitz.

   Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife Raine-Marie have come from Canada to Paris for the birth of a new grandchild. After a celebratory dinner with their two children, spouses, and Armand’s billionaire godfather, Stephen Horowitz, Stephen is deliberately struck by a vehicle and now lies in a coma. A grim discovery at his apartment prompts an investigation and the uncovering of family secrets leaving Armand to determine just who can be trusted.

   Paris is not a city about which one can be objective. It is a city that enthralls from the moment one arrives and, even if one never has the chance to return, it lives within one forever. Penny has captured perfectly that sense of having found the city of one’s soul and portrays it perfectly. Even the hardcover book’s glorious endsheets, designed by MaryAnna Coleman, draw one into the beauty of Paris. Opening with lines from Shakespeare’s “Tempest” is the perfect balance to the City of Light with a history of darkness.

   Although not an issue for new readers, series readers may have a sense of being a stranger in a strange land having the story set outside the usual environs of Canada and Three Pines. This was an effective decision as it is echoed by Gamache having the same sense of not knowing who to believe, who to trust. It illustrates the duplicity of people and is effective in heightening the suspense and tension. The connections made back to Three Pines and the Sûreté du Québec are nicely done.

   The mystery is well-plotted as it grows upon itself and is delightfully complex taking one down unexpected roads. Yet, more than a mystery, this is a story of relationships, and with that comes wisdom.

   Penny employs her characters wisely. Involving family members as part of an investigation can be risky. However, in this case, no one is superfluous; neither are any of their roles forced or out of character. Each has skills that contribute, and each is humanly imperfect with weaknesses and foibles. In other words, they are real. Even the use of an unseen, yet critical, character is wonderfully done. The theme of abandonment, which appears in various ways through Penny’s books, is heartfelt and recognizable to so many.

   Penny’s ability to place the reader within the story is second to none. Sitting in the hospital, awaiting news of a loved one, you feel, hear, and smell the starkness and desperation of those who are there, and the unwillingness to give up hope. Her use of dialogue is evocative. The banter between Jean-Guy and Armand is always something one anticipates and enjoys, but this was lovely as well– “Please, Dad,” Daniel now said. “Tell me you were a commando.” “Better.” His father leaned closer and dropping his voice further. “I taught commandos.”

   When reading Penny, there are always lines that make one stop and consider, small lessons to be learned– “It had taken Beauvoir years to see the power of pausing. And of patience. Of taking a breath to consider all options, all angles, and not simply acting on the most obvious.” She teaches one the value of seeing not only what is there, but what is not; what is real, and what is facade, and that– “People believe what they want to believe. Beginning with their own lies.” “Hell is the truth seen too late,” said Reine-Marie.”

   strong>All the Devils are Here is Penny’s best book to date. It is complex, suspenseful, and emotional with a small touch of the paranormal. It has a cracking good, twisty plot — you don’t see where it is going — and an excellent ending. Most of all, it demonstrates Penny’s continuing growth as an author and, I suspect, as a person. And isn’t that the goal of us all?

Rating: Excellent.

THE DIPLOMATIC CORPSE. Rank, UK, 1958. Robin Bailey, Susan Shaw, Liam Redmond, Harry Fowler, André Mikhelson. Director: Montgomery Tully.

   Robin Bailey, known best to me for playing Charters in the British TV series Charters & Caldicott, is a newspaper reporter in this one, along with Susan Shaw, who works the paper’s woman’s news desk. To tell you the truth, though, she seems to have more a nose for news than he does. Shaw is a pretty blonde who ought to have had a greater movie career than she seems to have had (even looking at her IMDb list of credits, they all seem to be minor – I don’t recognize any of them).

   Dead is an attaché for a foreign embassy in London. While the viewer knows who the villains are as soon as they appear on the screen, it takes our stalwart detective pair a little longer, even with the reluctant assistance of a Scotland Yard detective, whose hands are tied because, as everyone knows, embassies are not legally on British soil.

   Which as it so happens, without really giving anything away, I hope, is the key to the case, as a purely legal matter, although I do think the bad guys give up way too easily.

   The Diplomatic Corpse is a minor film from any perspective, but its mere 60 minutes running time makes it seem that it’s moving faster than it really is. It’s stagy and severely handicapped by a lack of more than the three or four sets than are actively used, all indoor. Even when Susan Shaw’s character is caught impersonating the switchboard operator in the embassy and locked in an upstairs bedroom, it doesn’t move the needle on the suspense meter more than one small notch, if that.

   And yet, and yet, after all this carping, as minor as this movie is, I enjoyed watching it. Whatever the story and production may be lacking, the actors were pros at the job and they seemed to having a good time. That counts for a lot.



KATHERINE HALL PAGE – The Body in the Vestibule. Faith Fairchild #4. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1992. Avon, paperback, 1993.

   Faith Fairchild, her husband Tom and their three-year-old son are in Lyon, France, while Tom researches his dissertation on the Albigensian heresy. A friend of his has secured them lodging across from the St. Nizier’s Church, where a clochard (homeless man) begs. Two weeks into their stay, Faith discovers the clochard’s body in a dustbin at the foot of the stairs (they live five flights up), but when she gets her husband and returns with the Police, the body is gone.

   The next day, the clochard has apparently returned to his spot, but Faith realizes he is not the same man. Then a young prostitute whom Faith has befriended “commits suicide.” After being warned not to meddle in the clochard’s disappearance, naturally Faith does meddle and ends up getting abducted herself.

   Early on, mention is made of a burglary ring , and one expects this will tie in with the killings. Some surprises at the end and a few likeable characters make this a tolerable effort.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #71, May 1995.

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