December 2020

DASHIELL HAMMETT “Corkscrew.” The Continental Op #20. Short novel. First published in The Black Mask, September 1925. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September 1947 (severely edited by Fred Dannay). Collected in The Big Knockover, edited by Lillian Hellman (Random House, hardcover, 1966) which includes all of Dannay’s changes and adds one. Also collected in The Big Book of the Continental Op (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, softcover, 2017), which goes back to the original text and reverses all the changes.

   In many ways “Corkscrew” is one of my favorites of Hammett’s shorter works. In it the Op travels to an isolated small town in Arizona (circa 1925, I presume) and tries his best to fit in as an obvious city slicker in one of the last pockets of the Old West, complete with all of the lawless elements you can think of, standard cliches all, including some of the newer ones, such as opium users and human trafficking of would-be immigrants across the border.

   Nor did the Old West have automobiles (flivvers) or telephones, although while I’m sure they are mentioned, I don’t think anyone in Corkscrew had one. The Op’s mission is supposed to be a secret: he’s undercover as the new deputy sheriff in town, but he’s recognized as that eve before he arrives. He’s been sent by the head office to clean up all of the bad element so that their clients can come safely in and bring commercial enterprise to the area.

   The scene that I like best – and it’s stuck with me ever since I read this story the first time – is the one in which the Op is joshed along by some ranchhands who persuade him that the horse they’re offering to sell him is as gentle a horse as there ever could be. Ha! Three times on, and three times off. The Op is no horseman, but it is a way to get the locals’ respect.

   What I also noticed this time around is how much of precursor to Red Harvest this tale is. The Op comes in and when the opportunity arises, he sets one faction of the non-savory aspect of Corkscrew against the other. What I also noticed is this is more than just a crime story. It’s a detective tale as well, and well-clued at that. And I didn’t even notice!

   Here’s a link to the long list of changes Fred Dannay made when he published the story in EQMM, as carefully delineated by Terry Zobeck on Don Herron’s website.

   Some are relatively minor, some consist of huge chunks of expository text. And some are explainable, sort of. A character referred to as the “the Jew” in the original version becomes “The Toad” in EQMM. It’s not a choice I would have made, but as I said, it sort of makes sense.

HEADLINE: More baseball players in the Hall of Fame have died in 2020 than in any other year:

Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, and Tom Seaver.

   These men constitute a large portion of my generation’s baseball heroes.



THE CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS. Genie Productions, 1960/ Emerson Film Enterprises, 1962. Don Megowan, Erica Elliott, Frances McCann and Don Doolittle. Written by Jay Simms. Directed by Wesley E, Barry.

   A Truly Strange item, made in eye-searing color the same year as Dr. No, for peanuts and it looks it. It’s about the eventual replacement of human beings by Robots, but unlike most films of this genre, it depicts the robots sympathetically, the humans as boors, and the whole process as genetically inevitable, which evinces a feel for the SF genre surprising in a film so tawdry.

   Having said this, I have to add that it’s incredibly dull.

   It has that terrific title, neat sets, and even implies kinky sex between humans and robots, but it’s all presented in an astoundingly static fashion. You may find it hard to credit this next sentence, but I assure you I do not exaggerate here for dramatic effect. Nothing happens for the whole run of the film.

   I mean NOTHING. Aught. Naught. Bugger-all. Bupkis. Diddly. Goose Egg. Nihility. Nil. Scratch. Squat. Void. Zip. Nada. Zero. Non-existence. What Sartre was fond of calling “nothingness.” People stand around and talk, then say they’re going someplace else. The scene shifts there, and they stand around and talk some more. I say “talk”, but actually they Explicate, conveying all the background and plot development (as in a Harry Stephen Keeler novel) by means of endless conversations in stilted language between actors of very limited range.

   It’s quite possible, of course, that the filmmakers were doing this intentionally to convey the sense of a sterile society, in which the substitution of machines for men will be a mere formality, and if so, I must admit they certainly succeeded. Unfortunately, they forgot to make it Watchable. What they ended up with was a movie that merits some attention on an intellectual level, as a curiosity, but fails totally to convey any conviction at all.

   I admit that it stays in the memory, but so does an irritating commercial jingle. And commercials, unlike The Creation of the Humanoids, are mercifully brief.




EDWARD D. HOCH – Diagnosis: Impossible. Sam Hawthorne; collection #1. Crippen & Landru, hardcover/paperback, 1996.

   I’m a great fan of locked room/ impossible-situation crime fiction, and it’s always a pleasure to come across some enjoyable examples of same. This is a collection of the first dozen stories in the Dr. Sam Hawthorne series, set in the 1920ss. Hawthorne is a country doctor practicing in the town of Northmost Connecticut, where he encounters vanishing buggies, murderous ghosts, escaping prisoners, murder in a voting booth and killer trees – among other things.

   The one I enjoyed most had a time capsule, about to be buried qt the county fair, found to have a body in it…. this despite the fact that it was in plain sight and empty when the various articles were deposited in it a few hours before.

   Since the stories run about 15 pages or so, there isn’t such room for character development, though recurring characters do round out in reading twelve in a row. It’s the ingenuity of the stunts and their explanation that matter most, and here Mr. Hoch is quite clever.

   At the end Marv Lachman (to whom this volume is dedicated along with his wife) provides a checklist of 59 stories (through July 2000) with their dates of publication in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the time in which the story is set. Since I didn’t read the stories when they appeared in the magazine, I can only hope that further volumes will be published.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #17, January 2002.



JOHN BOLAND – Negative Value. Boardman, UK, hardcover, 1960. No US edition.

   The Earl of Staves is being blackmailed on account of some compromising photographs of his daughter. She commits suicide and he gives the job of investigating the matter to an employee, John Poynder. Poynder, although not a professional sleuth, soon discovers that other members of the debutante set have also been blackmailed and with the help of attractive Druscilla Lane, he eventually unmasks the criminals.

   The first part of the book is by far the best and the author paints a convincing, if unattractive, picture of the deb scene, But the investigation itself is a little disappointing and rather fortuitous (though Poynder is of course only an amateur). The Earl himself came over as rather an unsympathetic character and one might have hoped for a twist in the tail [sic] that gave him something of his desserts. There isn’t any.

   Light, undemanding, relatively uncomplicated.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 4, Number 2 (April, 1981). Permission granted by publisher/editor Jeff Meyerson.

UPDATE: John Boland, who died in 1976, and who is not the John [C.] Boland still active today, has over two dozen crime novels in Hubin under his own name and two as James Trevor. Practically unknown in the US, he was the author of The League of Gentlemen (1958), which was filmed in the UK the next year. If ever John Poynder appeared in another novel with a case to solve, Hubin does not know about it.

WORLDS OF TOMORROW. November 1966. Overall rating: 3 stars.

LIN CARTER “Crown of Stars.” Novelette. Tongue-in-cheek adventure with Hautley Quicksilver, Confidential agent, as he attempts to steal a jeweled crown. The over-eloquent descriptive style slows things down too much. (3)

Update: While the story doesn’t appear to have been either collected or reprinted, it’s fairly clear that it was the basis for Carter’s novel The Thief of Thoth (Belmont Double, paperback original, 1968). Here’s a synopsis of that book which I found online:

   â€œHautley Quicksilver is a licensed thief and considered the best in the business.. A man posing as an archeologist, a planetary prince and an intelligence agent acting on orders from the Emperor’s cabinet approach Quicksilver separately. They all want him to steal the Crown Of Stars. It’s an artifact from the long gone Cavern Kings Of Toth. They were a lizard like race and the cave containing the Crown is guarded by a fanatical cult.”

   A followup novel in the same series, The Purloined Planet, was published the following year, also by Belmont. I used to like Carter’s novels, almost all of them pastiches of other author’s series, but that was when I was a whole lot younger. I’d like to give the expanded novel a try, though, whenever I find my copy.

C. C. MacAPP “Frost Planet.” Novelette. Murder and sabotage in an Earth enclave disrupts relations with the natives. The motives behind the plot are poorly defined, and the physical background has little bearing on the story. (2)

Update: The story has never been collected or reprinted. C. C. MacApp was a pen name of Carroll Mather Capps, and while he wrote seven novels between 1968 and 1972, I don’t recall reading any of them.

RICHARD C. MEREDITH “To the War Is Gone.” Novelette. Illustrating a poem of Thomas Moore, a minstrel goes to war and dies in the fight against slavery. His sole opponent in his final conflict is a beautiful girl, who holds his life in her hands, just as he is the only one who can save her. (5)

Update: This was Meredith’s second published story. I wish I’d said more about the time and place where it was set. It was never reprinted or collected. Meredith wrote seven novels between 1969 and 1979, including three in his “Timeliner” series. I remember enjoying them, but the details are long gone.

DANNIE PLACHTA “Until Armageddon.” A computer announces the beginning of the Hour of Judgment. (3)

Update: At only two pages in length, this was obviously only a filler for this issue. It is possible that I once met the author. One online source describes him as an active participant in the Detroit fandom in the 1960s, which I was tangentially involved with when I lived in Ann Arbor.

STEPHEN TALL “Seventy Light-Years from Sol.” Short novel. An exploration team discovers a new evolutionary system, consisting of cubes and millwheels on a planet covered with lettuce. [At 40 pages in length] about ten pages too long. (3)

Update: Collected in The Stardust Voyages (Berkley, paperback original, 1975) as “A Star Called Cyrene.” There was a followup novel in the same series, The Ramsgate Paradox (Berkley, paperback original, 1976). I own both books, but alas, I’ve managed to read neither one.

– August 1967

Overall thoughts: I rated this three stars out of five, which is a notch above average. That’s about right. Worlds of Tomorrow was my favorite science fiction magazine at the time, less literary than F&SF and more fun than the rather stodgy Analog SF, as it had increasingly become.


CHAIN REACTION. 20th Century Fox, 1996. Keanu Reeves, Morgan Freeman, Rachel Weisz, Fred Ward, Kevin Dunn, Brian Cox, Joanna Cassidy. Director: Andrew Davis.

   It may not be overly memorable, but Chain Reaction is a solidly crafted 1990s thriller that benefits immensely from both a strong cast and a screenplay that never condescends to the audience. Directed by Adam Davis, who is perhaps best known for directing The Fugitive (1993) starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, this suspense film also involves an innocent man on the run from law enforcement.

   Eddie Kasalivich (Keanu Reeves) is a scientist working on a university science project that would convert water into energy. The director of the project believes that the technology should be freely available to all countries and all peoples. In opposition to this idealism stands Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman), a shady Washington figure who represents the interests of the defense lobby.

   When an explosion destroys the laboratory, both Eddie and his physicist partner Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) are fingered as domestic terrorists. Enter FBI agent Leon Ford (Fred Ward) who begins to suspect that there is something amiss about the whole affair. As it turns out (spoiler alert), Eddie and Lily are not terrorists after all, but rather pawns in an elaborate government conspiracy headed by intelligence operative Lyman Earl Collier (Brian Cox).

   Aside from the somewhat ridiculous nature of the premise, the film overall works. It sets out what it intends to do; namely, to be a diversionary piece of entertainment. While I am not exactly convinced Reeves was the best choice for the lead role, I can say with conviction that Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox, and Fred Ward were nearly perfect choices for their respective roles. Given the fact that there are no particularly memorable lines or sequences, there’s no particular reason to watch this movie twice. But once? Certainly. You could do a lot worse.



A TIME FOR DYING. Fipco, 1969/71/82. (*) Richard Lapp, Anne Randall, Robert Random, Audie Murphy, Victor Jory, Beatrice Kay, Burt Mustin, Peter Brocco, Walter Reed and Emile Meyer. Written and directed by Budd Boetticher.

   The last film of legendary westerners Audie Murphy and Budd Boetticher, and the best I can say is that it will probably do their reputations no lasting damage.

   Murphy, of course, is remembered as the most decorated soldier of WWII (Neville Brand was the fourth most decorated.) and as the rather retiring hero of numerous westerns, some pretty good, including fine performances in THE UNFORGIVEN and RED BADGE OF COURAGE.

   Budd Boetticher’s films are a mixed bag, but he hit his stride with a series of Randolph Scott Westerns, most of them produced by Harry Joe Brown, including SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, THE TALL T, COMANCHE STATION and RIDE LONESOME. Same Peckinpah’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is often seen as a continuation of the series and a fitting coda to Scott’s career.

   Boetticher’s subsequent career was notably rockier, including a lengthy exile in Mexico laboring to produce ARRUZA, which is only fair-to-middling, the screenplay for TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARAH, and this one, A TIME FOR DYING, which was plagued with money troubles during and after production — note the various release dates — probably because it isn’t very good.

   Boetticher’s best work was spiced with the fiery Karen Steele and memorable baddies like Lee Marvin and Richard Boone, anchored by the authoritative presence of Randolph Scott at the films’ center. DYING offers some fine character actors, but they only serve to show up the inadequacies of the leading players, who never seem to relax into the natural performances that grace the earlier films.

   If you can get past this (and you can’t, really) you run into an uncharacteristically aimless screenplay from Boetticher. His films with Randolph Scott had a sense of movement (One critic called them “journey films.) with the characters and the story visibly progressing to a conflict defined early on. Or as another critic put it: “Partly metaphorical odysseys, partly floating poker games where every character took turns bluffing about his hand until the final shoot-out.”

   There’s movement in A TIME FOR DYING, but it’s mostly just Richard Lapp and Anne Randall (Never heard of them? See this and find out why.) bounced from one encounter to another without ever realizing their place in Boetticher’s existential universe. And the result is a story that meanders when it needs to move.

   If there’s a saving grace, it’s Boetticher’s elliptical, near-poetic dialogue. Dialogue written to be spoken, not read. As in a Mexican stand-off:

SHOTGUN: “Billy, that woman drop a hammer on you, I’ll blow her husband’s head clear across the street.”

BILLY: “That woman drop a hammer on me, it don’t make a damn what you do to her husband’s head.”

   But I’m afraid it’s just not enough. This is available free on Amazon Prime, and worth every penny, but if you’re inclined to see it, talk yourself down and watch RIDE LONESOME instead.


(*) From Wikipedia: A rough cut of the film premiered at the National Film Theatre in London on May 27, 1969. The finished version of the film premiered in Dallas, Texas on September 15, 1969. The film was shown throughout Texas, but following legal problems after Murphy’s death in 1971, the film only had limited showings and did not screen in New York until 1982.


THE SHADOW “Death Rides a Broomstick.” Mutual, 02 March 1941. Bill Johnstone (Lamont Cranston, a/k/a The Shadow), Marjorie Anderson (Margot Lane). Script: Jerry Devine. Sponsor: Blue Coal.

   Packed into this short 30 minute drama is boatload of old pulp clichés, beginning with a woman accused of being a witch in the Scottish highlands in 1741. Before she is burned to death at the stake, she issues a curse upon the McCavery clan responsible: “death to all male descendants still living 200 years later,” which is when the story then takes up.


   Add a mysterious dark mansion where Margo and Lamont are greeted but turned away by a gangster who calls himself The Smiler, a open graveyard outside, an escaped convict who is a prisoner inside, a dingy tavern by the sea filled with all sorts of thugs, a twist in the tale, ending with the curse fulfilled and a spooky cackle in the air.

   Pure nonsense of course, but with the lights turned down low, nonetheless a lot of fun.

« Previous PageNext Page »