March 2021


IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts

   

ANN CLEEVES “Frozen.” Minotaur, free e-short story, 2021.

First Sentence: Vera woke to a free day and an unexpected longing for exercise.

   It’s her day off, and DI Vera Stanhope takes the opportunity to visit a new bookshop located in a renovated chapel. What she was not looking for was a skeleton unearthed in a cellar baptismal font. Time for Vera to solve this long-cold case.

   Cleeves’ descriptions allow one to see places we’ve not been, in the present and the past— “Standing with her back to old stones, she imagined squads of legionnaires marching… they must have policed the region then, so she saw them as her forbears, as kindred spirits, and felt a connection across the centuries.”

   Bringing us to the present, she carries forth that sense of timelessness with her wonderful imagery— “the building that had once been built to the glory of God, now celebrated the story in all its forms.” Whereupon the mood is effectively broken and the investigation begins.

   Even though the books are separate from the television series, those who watch may clearly hear the voice of actress Brenda Blethyn as Vera. Rather than a negative, it adds a warmth and personal touch to the story. Still, this is not Vera’s story alone, but one which includes her team, including Joe who is still her second in the books, and Holly in a scene that makes one smile. However, if one is looking for in-depth descriptions of the characters, or quantities of backstory, it’s not here. “Frozen” is a short story, after all, and fits in after book eight in the series.

   What is here is atmosphere and Cleeve’s creative use of the weather almost as another character. Nothing is lost in the construction of this fascinating short story. Suspects are identified, clues tracked down with twists and red herrings.

   “Frozen” may be a fairly simple story, but it is well-crafted and, if one has not previously read Ann Cleeves, this a perfect introduction to her writing and the Vera series.

Rating: A

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE STEEL KEY. Eros Films, UK, 1953. Terence Morgan, Joan Rice, Raymond Lovell, Diane Foster, Esmond Knight. Screenplay: John Gilling & Roy Chanslor. Directed by Robert S. Baker.

SALUTE THE TOFF. Nettlefold Studios, 1952. John Bentley, Carol Marsh, Roddy Hughes, Wally Patch, Valentine Dyall, Arthur Hill, Peter Bull, Tony Britton, Sheilagh Fraser. Screenplay John Creasey, based on his novel of the same title. Directed by Maclean Rogers.

   As The Steel Key begins, Inspector Forsythe (Raymond Lovell) of the Yard is waiting at Heathrow when Johnny O’Flynn (Terence Morgan) arrives and none too happy to see him. O’Flynn is what used to be known as a “Gentleman Adventurer” and has a history of playing fast and loose with the law. In fact Forsythe isn’t entirely sure O’Flynn hasn’t stolen and then “recovered” and collected the reward on a few items in the past.

   This time he’s on the trail of the “steel key,” a process for hardening metals that is not only vital to industry but also national security. The formula is held by two scientists, Professor Newman in England, and Dr. Metcalfe in the States, and O’Flynn has shown up pretending to be Metcalfe.

   Things get more complicated when O’Flynn manages to avoid Forsythe and shows up at Newman’s home in time for the Professor’s funeral where his attractive widow Sylvia (Diane Foster) is obviously not in mourning and obviously attracted to O’Flynn.

   O’Flynn wants Newman’s formula and Sylvia wants Metcalfe’s, and there is a lot of obvious conspirators surrounding the dangerous black widow.

   Pretty Doreen Wilson (Joan Rice) gets involved and soon it turns up Newman may not be as dead as advertised, while the real Metcalfe shows up complicating things for O’Flynn who finds himself hunted by Scotland Yard for a murder he didn’t commit (not that it ever bothers him much, he eludes the Yard with the skill of Houdini).

   It’s a pretty standard British crime film, attractively played by Morgan as the charming roguish O’Flynn, and works up to a fairly well done chase and a pretty good climax at sea.

   Nothing special, save for one thing.

   Without ever saying it, without trying too hard, it’s the Saint. It is so obviously the Saint I’m shocked Leslie Charteris didn’t sue. In fact it is so much the Saint Morgan behaves exactly like Simon Templar, replete with his witty repartee with Inspector Teal — I mean Forsythe — and even down to Morgan having the same bouffant hair-do as Roger Moore nine years later.

   And there is the fact of the director, Robert S. Baker (The Siege of Sydney Street, The Hellfire Club, Jack the Ripper), who only directed ten films, but was rather better known as the producer of the Saint television series with Roger Moore.

   Granted it was nine years before Baker succeeded in putting the Saint on television, but it is hard to see this as anything but a pilot, albeit a nine year old one, as it plays almost exactly as an episode of the series, only missing the signature theme and Morgan glancing bemusedly at his halo a la Moore.

   Salute the Toff, starring John Bentley, who was also Paul Temple, is the first entry in the two film series with a screenplay by Creasey based on his novel with the entire cast, Jolly (Hughes), Bert Ebbutts (Patch), and Inspector Grice (Dyall) in an even better and faster moving adventure than Hammer the Toff which I reviewed earlier.

   Secretary Fay Gretton is concerned her boss John Draucott is missing and despite being dismissed by Canadian crime reporter Ted Harrison (Arthur Hill, very young, very tall, and very thin pre-Owen Marshall days) who never-the-less points out Richard Rollinson, the Toff, to her at a club.

   She calls on Rolly and in short order he finds a body in Draycott’s flat, but it isn’t Draycott, instead it is the son of wealthy Mortimer Harvey whose daughter Draycott is engaged to.

   Lorne (Peter Bull) and his cut-throats killed the younger Harvey and are after paper’s Draycott has that might incriminate the elder Harvey. Rolly puts Jolly on the trail of Draycott as he foils a trap set for Fay to get the papers involved, and it all comes to a head with a chase, a kidnapping, and a pair of twists in a fast moving film that like its sequel, does do justice to Creasey’s gentleman sleuth.

   Both films are currently on YouTube (here and here, along with Hammer the Toff), and depending on your tolerance for such things an entertaining way to spend an evening with two of the best of the gentleman adventurers. All the Paul Temple films are available too, so if you plan a weekend of British thrillers, you are set.

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

CROW HOLLOW. Eros Films, UK, 1952. Donald Houston, Natasha Parry, Pat Owens, Melissa Stribling, Esma Cannon, Nora Nicholson, Susan Richmond. Based on the novel by Dorothy Eden. Directed by Michael McCarthy. Currently available online here.

   Gothic thrillers usually see a young woman marry a man and move to a spooky old house where she begins to fear he may kill her. Many novels – from Mary Roberts Rinehart to Mary Higgins Clark – revolve around such portents, and Hitchcock made use of it too in Suspicion. It seems to happen also in this 1952 film in which newlyweds Ann and her doctor husband Robert move onto his family estate. However, the twist is that the danger does not stem from the new husband but, it seems, from the three eccentric old aunts who live with them.

   There’s Aunt Judith, a bespectacled entomologist; the doting Aunt Opal and the tall and severe Aunt Hester. All the aunts seem to adore their nephew and they are friendly enough to Ann, but she senses something is wrong. Robert’s dying mother had anxiously warned her not to go to Crow Hollow and she feels lonely and listless there while Robert is at his surgery in the village.

   The crows have returned to roost for the first time in decades, and legend has it that they foretell tragedy. Ann is also puzzled by the way in which her husband’s aunts indulge their insolent maid, Willow, and even catches the girl trying on her clothes. Things get stranger still when Ann suffers a series of accidents…

   This is one of the best B-movies I’ve seen yet. It may be rather languid – particularly for the first few minutes – but it’s one of those films in which the atmosphere takes precedent over plot. The aunts are suitably creepy, despite being polite, and we appreciate Ann’s trepidation as she is left alone with them. Played by actress Natasha Parry – whose career would be defined by her marriage to film director Peter Brook and the parts he gave her – Ann is a likeable, generous woman who is already in an unsettling situation before the danger starts.

   It does so about twenty five minutes in, and it is Parry’s engaging performance which holds the film until then. Husband Robert is a bit of a wet blanket who frustratingly – but, by the conventions of the genre, inevitably – dismisses his wife’s concerns. The film is only marred by its rushed ending and I was able to conjure a couple of better scenarios myself as, I think, would many others. Nevertheless, it’s well worth an hour and ten minutes of your time and – like so many excellent old films – is available for viewing online.

Rating: ***

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

   

WILKIE COLLINS – The Moonstone. Tinsley, US, hardcover, 1868. Harper, US, hardcover 1868. Serialised in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round and in the US in Harper’s Weekly, circa 1868. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft. (The book has probably never been out of print.) Adapted many times for the stage, movies, radio, TV, comic books and (!) a podcast.

   (William) Wilkie Collins was one of the most popular and accomplished writers of the nineteenth century, and The Moonstone is an early classic of the suspense genre. Like Collins’ other criminous works, it contains elements that later became staples of mystery writing: a purloined gemstone, carefully secreted clues, obtrusive red herrings, sinister Indians who lurk threateningly in the background, a blighted love affair, several shakily constructed alibis, numerous cliff-hanging scenes, and a mysterious suicide. Although complicated, the plot is well constructed and the reader’s interest seldom flags.

   The yellow diamond known as the “moonstone” was stolen from an Indian religious idol by John Herncastle, a man who chose to ignore the story of bad luck following the diamond should it be removed from the possession of the worshipers of the moon god. Upon Herncastle’s death, the gem was willed to his niece, Rachel Verinder, and the young lady is about to receive it when the story opens (after a prologue and two tiresome chapters filled with background material).

   The diamond disappears, of course, on the night Rachel is presented it by solicitor Franklin Blake. And when Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard appears on the scene, some clues point to Blake, while others indicate Rachel has secreted away her own diamond for some unknown and possibly unbalanced reason.

   The story proceeds, divided into two periods, respectively titled “The Loss of the Diamond” and “The Discovery of the Truth” (which in itself is divided into eight narratives), plus an epilogue. In spite of these numerous sections, each broken into various chapters narrated by different characters, the reader finds himself as determined as Cuff to learn the truth. Who are the Indians? Was this caused by the curse of the moonstone? Will Rachel find happiness? Such questions are ever in the forefront. And when the end is finally reached, all clues are tied up, all questions are answered, and — yes — Rachel does find happiness.

   Collins’ other works are not nearly as well known as The Moonstone, but a number are just as engrossing and stand the test of time equally well. These include The Woman in White (1860), which seems to have been Collins’ personal favorite; and The Queen of Hearts (1859), a collection that contains the cornerstone humorous detective story “The Biter Bit.”

     ———
   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.

   

BULLDOG DRUMMOND’S SECRET POLICE. (1939) John Howard (Captain Hugh C. “Bulldog” Drummond), Heather Angel (Phyllis Clavering), H. B. Warner, Reginald Denny, E. E. Clive, Elizabeth Patterson, Leo G. Carroll. Screenplay by Garnett Weston, based on the book Temple Tower by Herman C. McNeile. Director: James P. Hogan. Currently available online at several sites, including YouTube and Amazon Prime.

   John Howard played man of adventure Bulldog Drummond seven times in the movies, this one being the sixth, and it was Heather Angel who played his girl friend and would-be bride Phyllis Clavering in the last four of them. (If I’m off on the count of either of these, please let me know.) This one begins with high hopes that their marriage would finally come off, but even Aunt Blanche knows that something is going to happen and that the two of them are going to be off on yet another venture.

   But this one starts and actually takes place for the full film at Temple Tower, Drummond’s ancestral mansion of a home, with the ring, the best men, and the minister  all ready and waiting. What they don’t know is that the next visitor through the front door will be a dotty old professor of history who claims that he has a book with a code in it that will guide them all to a treasure well hidden somewhere in the house.

   And where there’s a treasure, there’s a villain who has learned about it too, and who is all too willing to kill whoever gets in his way to get his way to get his own hands on it.

   Lots of fun and adventure ensues, what with hidden passages, underground rooms, including one booby-trapped with iron spikes in the ceiling that comes crushing down upon whoever is inside when someone outside the room pulls a certain lever.

   Lots of fun, as I say, but unfortunately the fun is awfully silly way way too often, starting with the dotty professor and continuing with the clumsy antics of Drummond’s faithful crew and Aunt Blanche’s continual warnings and fainting spells.

   I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that [WARNING] Phyllis does not get her man this time around, but while I haven’t watched Bulldog Drummond’s Bride, the next in the series, I have my fingers crossed that she will then, given one last chance.

   

STAGE 7. “The Long Count.” CBS, 27 March 1955 (Season 1 Episode 9). Frank Lovejoy (McGraw), Joan Vohs, Ted de Corsia, Biff Elliot, Nestor Paiva, Mel Welles, Richard Deacon. Screenplay by Federic Brody, based on a story by John Roeburt. Director: Alvin Ganzer. Currently available on YouTube.

   Research on the early days of network TV is still spotty at best. There is an individual entry for this episode as being shown on Four Star Playhouse, but when you look at the episode list for that series, it is nowhere to be found. Yes, Frank Lovejoy played PI-for-hire McGraw (no known first name) at least twice on that series, but this particular episode (with all of the same stated crew and cast members) is also listed as the ninth episode of Stage 7 for its one and only season.

   These early episodes for both series preceded, of course, the series Meet McGraw, which ran on NBC during the 1957-58 season. For a more on that series, check out Michael Shonk’s overview of it for this blog several years ago. (Follow the link.)

   In “The Long Count,” McGraw is hired by a prizefighter’s behind-the-scenes manager to keep him away from dames before an upcoming bout, but the guy slips out on him and manages to get killed by a hit-and-run driver. The boxing business being what it is, there are a lot of suspects, but McGraw manages to name the killer well within the 30 minute running time.

   The dialogue is fine, the production values quite acceptable, especially for the era, but the plot is a little threadbare and to me, Frank Lovejoy seems a little tired of the whole thing. One bright spot is the suitably sexy Joan Vohs, who both narrates and plays the manager’s girl friend. Only problem with the latter, storywise, is that “Pretty Boy” Mendero (a well-cast Biff Elliot) has an eye out for her, too.

   In any case, there are a few other adventures of McGraw online, either from Four Star Playhouse or the Meet McGraw series itself. Given time, I enjoyed this one well enough to watch some of the others.

   

INFINITY SCIENCE FICTION. October 1957. Overall rating: 3 stars.  Cover by Ed Emshwiller [as by Ed Emsh].

C. M. KORNBLUTH “The Last Man Left in the Bar.” A bar is the scene of an incomprehensible search for a Chapter Seal, but furnishes considerable material for sardonic comment. (2)

DEAN McLAUGHLIN “Welcome Home.” Novelette. A man trying to have the space program reinstated makes a hero of a returning space pilot, but fails to consider the pilot’s anger. Realistic and exciting. (5)

Update: Even though I gave this one five stars, this has been this story’s only appearance.

EDWARD WELLEN “Dr. Vickers’ Car.” Stupid story of Hyde Park orator taken for a ride. (0)

CLIFFORD D. SIMAK “Death Scene.” How life, and death, would be, given universal 24-hour precognition. Personal, not wide-scale. (4)

ARTHUR C. CLARKE “The Other Side of the Sky.” Serial; part 2 of 2. The last three of the series of six stories. See a later report.

RICHARD WILSON “The Enemy.” An obvious story of the real war between the sexes. (2)

RANDALL GARRETT “To Make a Hero.” Short novel. The inside story exposing legendary hero Leland Hale as the crook he was. Read for fun only. (3)

JOHN VICTOR PETERSON “Second Census.” A census taker turns out to be from Alpha Centauri, checking for children planted on Earth for protection. (1)

–September 1967

   Gunhild Carling may be the greatest trombone player you never heard of:

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

LORD EDGWARE DIES. RKO Radio Pictures, UK, 1934. Austin Trevor (Hercule Poirot), Jane Carr, Richard Cooper (Captain Hastings), John Turnbull (Inspector Japp), C. V. France Screenplay by H. Fowler Mear, based on the 1933 novel by Agatha Christie. Directed by Henry Edwards. Currently available on YouTube.

   “Lady Edgware is a killer, but she isn’t like other people, she doesn’t know right from wrong.”

   
   Why is everyone trying to frame Lady Edgware for murder, including herself, even before anyone dies?

   At a charity ball Lady Edgware (Jane Carr), an American musical star who married into a peerage, tries to engage Hercule Poirot (Austin Trevor) and his friend Captain Hastings (Richard Cooper) to persuade her older husband Lord Edgware (C.V. France) to give her a divorce before she kills him. Not long after that a young actor friend of Lady Edgware from Hollywood goes to Poirot to beg him to help her before she kills her husband in desperation claiming she could do anything and does not understand right from wrong.

   Ironically when Poirot and Hastings call on Lord Edgware he informs them he agreed to the divorce in a letter six months earlier, and letter his wife claims to have never received.

   Then Lord Edgware is found murdered and Inspector Japp (John Turnbull) called in. Witnesses claim Lady Edgware appeared at the house, announced herself, entered the study, and murdered Lord Edgware, but then a quick investigation proves Lady Edgware was at a party, received a mysterious phone call, and could not have killed her husband.

   Just what is going on? Poirot proves someone could have impersonated Lady Edgware easily, but the suspect, an entertainer who did an imitation of Lady Edgware at the charity ball is found dead by her servant the next morning.

   There are suspects, Edgware’s daughter, a nephew Ronald Marsh who is something of a wastrel and needs the money and title he will inherit, a mysterious missing thirteenth guest at the party that provided Lady Edgware’s alibi, Lady Edgware’s servant who insisted she attend the party that provided her alibi, and any number of red herrings in the inimitable Christie style.

   Austin Trevor, who plays Poirot here, played more detectives in more British films than just about any other actor. In addition to Poirot he was Anthony Gethryn in The Nursemaid Who Disappeared and any number of British and French policemen on screen (he’s the policeman who tries to help Jean Simmons in So Long At the Fair some twenty years after this — Trevor played almost as many foreign as British detectives). Despite that he makes for an odd Poirot, tall, relatively handsome, with a full head of hair, no mustaches, a more reserved manner, and little eccentricity. Luckily with Christie involved in the screenplay Poirot’s keen mind is on full display if his eccentricity is not.

   As the case goes on it grows more complex. The Duke of Merton, a strongly religious man, who Lady Edgware wanted to marry it turns out would never marry her if she was divorced. He coolly dismisses Poirot and Hastings, but Poirot notes he is writing a love letter to her by reading it upside down on Merton’s desk.

   Carr plays Lady Edgware as a cross between Jean Harlow and Mae West, and quite effectively so there is more than some suspicion she could easily have murdered her husband, and might easily be as amoral as claimed, meanwhile that mysterious thirteenth guest features more importantly in the plot.

   Clues include a gold box holding sleeping powders, convex pence nez, and the torn page of a letter mailed by one victim to her sister in America.

   “Are you going to tell Japp about all of this?”

   “No, not yet, he would but say it was another nest of the mare.”

   Another victim is murdered while on the phone to Poirot about to reveal the murderer.

   “Oh, mon dieu, I’ve been blind, foolish. In an hour’s time we will all meet at the Barchester and I will tell you everything.”

   
   The solution is cleverly planned if hastily delivered.

   Poirot: “You tried to pull the wool over the eyes of Hercule Poirot.”

   Hastings: “And I’m hanged if we can have that.”

   The Killer: “Under the circumstances that’s a very tactless remark.”

   Nothing great here, but it is much better than reviews I’ve read and it moves interestingly at a clip. The mystery is fairly well done considering the limitations of the form, and Trevor and Carr overcome any drawbacks in the rest of the cast with energy and professionalism. If noting else it is worth seeing strictly from a historical point of view.

   

   I have just learned that this book starring a new version of my favorite OTR hero will be out in July. The start of a new series? “The Shadow knows!”

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