April 2021



DEADLIER THAN THE MALE. Rank, UK, 1966. Universal, US, 1967. Richard Johnson (Hugh Drummond), Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Nigel Green, Suzanna Leigh, Steve Carlson. Screenwriters: Jimmy Sangster, David Osborn) & Liz Charles-Williams, based on a original story by Jimmy Sangster and the character Bulldog Drummond created by Herman C. McNeile (as Sapper) & Gerard Fairlie. Directed by Ralph Thomas.

   By the late 1960s, almost everyone was cashing in on the wildly successful Bond films and seeing if they could make their own without breaking the international copyright laws. This splurge of spy movies gave us the two Derek Flint films with James Coburn, the four Matt Helm films, questionably starring Dean Martin, and – closer to home – the so-called ‘Euro-spy’ films. These were badly-dubbed Italian and French films which featured a Bond-like character.

   Here in Britain, we also had the Harry Palmer films, The Quiller Memorandum, Hot Enough for June and Modesty Blaise, along with comedies like Carry On Spying and that one with Morcambe & Wise.

   So it was only expected that some bright spark would dust off the old Bulldog Drummond adventure novels by 1920s writer ‘Sapper’ which were partly responsible for Bond in the first place. The original character is considered to be a racist bigot now, but he was more or less Bertie Wooster with a penchant for brutal justice and initially went up against criminal mastermind Carl Peterson.

   This film, however, strips Drummond of his nick-name, military rank, character, backstory, supporting cast and storylines and makes him a smooth, wryly-amusing insurance investigator with a Rolls Royce and a passion for karate. Richard Johnson would always be a respected actor and is perfectly likeable here as Drummond, but he was clearly cast because he bears a passing resemblance to Sean Connery.

   That’s no bad thing, of course. I would’ve cast someone who looked like Connery too (I wouldn’t, however, have cast Connery’s brother, as Italian director Alberto De Martino did that same year).

   I had big hopes for this film, not least because it managed to spawn a sequel, but mainly because I had seen so much love for it on the internet.

   First, the good: there’s the two glamorous female assassins, Irma and Penelope, played by Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina. There’s an outrageously Avengers-like scene near the beginning in which they emerge from the ocean, clad in bikinis and armed with spear-guns, and kill a sunbather. There’s a cigar which fires bullets into whoever smokes it. There is the excellent Nigel Green.

   Also, Leonard Rossiter (whose ability and work, of course, there isn’t a superlative strong enough to describe) dies in another Avengers-like scene in which our pair of saucy slaughterers paralyses him with a mysterious spy-fi drug and send him tumbling off the balcony of his fifteen-storey apartment building.

   There’s also a great bit where Drummond meets his old army friend, the crime boss Boxer, who is lying low in a tropically-themed flat after faking his own death. It’s one of those instances in which the character seems to live beyond the confines of the scene he’s in.

   Finally, there’s the climax, where Drummond and his nemesis creep around a life-size chess board in a duel to the death. Again, very Avengers. So, how come I don’t like the film as a whole?

   Well, the plot is dull and unimaginative. It’s all about a company named Phoenecian Oil and a merger which one man on the board of directors, Henry Keller, opposes. A third party has offered to resolve the issue, via an undisclosed method, within six months and asks to receive a million pounds in return. Subsequently, Keller dies in a plane explosion, the merger can go ahead and this mysterious problem-solver demands payment. It is, of course, villain Carl Peterson and he wants to take his murderous solution to every corporation in the world.

   Drummond is tasked with finding out what is going on. His only lead is an inch of audio tape which Keller had recorded a message, but only half of one sentence remains. It could well reveal the answer to the mystery, if Drummond can only make sense of the jumble of words.

   Unfortunately for Drummond, and indeed the viewer, his American nephew Robert has come to stay with him. Now, in order to secure distribution in the states, many British films cast an American actor in a role. This is one such example. As the ‘60s was a decade obsessed with youth, perhaps it seemed like a good idea to cast one in the film. Arguably, the result isn’t a good one, as the Robert character brings next to nothing to the film and distracts from the story it is trying to tell.

   The whole movie can be divided between the first half, set in London, and the second half, which moves to Northern Italy. Here, the film seems to come to a crashing halt. Drummond meets Peterson, yes, and we get to see his castle lair, but nothing really happens. It’s this half which I have always struggled with during three previous efforts to appreciate the film.

   I must reiterate, however, that the film seems popular enough with other people, and is certainly better than a couple of other Bond-pastiches of the era, such as Death Is a Woman (1966) and Hot Enough for June (1964), both of which I found to be utterly unwatchable.

   Despite this, I’ll check out the sequel [Some Girls Do (1969) was the second], while I’m always in the mood to watch the older Bulldog Drummond films, and indeed the books.

Rating: **



Reviews by L. J. Roberts


C. S. HARRIS – Who Speaks for the Damned. Sebastian St. Cyr #15. Berkley, hardcover, April 2020; paperback, March 2021. Setting: 1814 London.

First Sentence: Alone and trying desperately not to be afraid, the child wandered the narrow, winding paths of the tea gardens.

   Nicholas Hayes, a son to the late Earl of Seaford, had been convicted of murder, transported to Botany Bay, and assumed dead. Instead, he returned to London and was murdered. An Asian child who had been with Hayes, finds the body and goes to Hayes’ former friend James Calhoun, valet to St. Cyr. After which, the child disappears. It is now up to St. Cyr to find the child and uncover the murderer.

   There is nothing better than a book that captivates your attention from the very beginning. One is introduced to several of the main and recurring characters, learns about their backgrounds, and is taken straight into the story.

Harris sets the story up beautifully, providing multiple motives and suspects. Nothing here is obvious. She also effectively conveys the fear felt by young Jai, alone in a foreign country. He is a character who touches the heart but also allows for an interesting look at China during this period. The historical information woven into the story is both informative and harshly factual. Harris makes no attempt to soften the image of this time and confirms that bigotry has always existed.

   Honorable characters have great appeal. When asked why Sebastian, a Viscount, after all, spends his time chasing murders, especially when the victims are despicable characters themselves, he responds: “Making certain a killer doesn’t get away with what he has done is an obligation we the living owe to the dead — no matter how unsavory we consider them to be.” … “Am I not my brother’s keeper?” …”And because I believe we are all connected, every living thing one to the other, so that I owe to each what I would owe to myself.” What a perfect definition of equal justice under the law.

   The relationship between Devlin and his wife Hero is so well done. The intimacy is neither gratuitous nor salacious, and dialogue is very natural. Harris does involve Hero in the investigation, but in a way that makes sense for a woman of her time and rank.

   An historical mystery set in 1814 London, Who Speaks for the Damned, the 15th book in this series, is well-plotted. It moves along at a good pace and presents twists at just the right points, although one might wish authors weren’t quite so predictable in their timing. That said, it is nice when one is surprised by a plot twist. The story grows with one revelation upon another. Rather than confusing, this adds to the intrigue of the story. The inclusion of information on the forensics of the time adds veracity and interest.

   Good dialogue makes all the difference, particularly when twinged with humor— “How precisely does one go about accosting a man in the middle of a ball in order to discuss the murder of someone who once ran off with his wife.” “I don’t know,” said Sebastian. “But I’ll think of something.”

   Who Speaks for the Damned is an excellent read. The mystery is solved with an ending that speaks to humanity and puts paid to all the ugliness caused by man. It draws one in from the start and keeps one engaged to the very end.

Rating: A plus

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by John Lutz


K. C. CONSTANTINE – The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself. Mario Balzac #2. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1973. David R. Godine, paperback, 1987.

   Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, police chief Mario Balzic, despite misgivings, is persuaded by the new commander of the state troopers, Lieutenant Minyon, to accompany Minyon on the first day of hunting season. Balzic isn’t crazy about Minyon, and hunting (animals, that is) isn’t Balzic’s favorite pastime.

   Things go wrong. Minyon’s prize Weimaraner bites him in the hand while they are in the car on the way to the hunt. Then the dog causes even more problems for Balzic by rooting around in the woods and finding a human bone. Balzic is given the task of discovering who is missing, and finding the rest of the body.

   The someone missing turns out to be Frank Gallic, the partner in a discount meat business with Balzic’s friend Micky Samrnara. Sammara and his sister Tina have been operating the business for almost a year while waiting for Gallic to return. Minyon decides that Mickey had something to do with Gallic’s disappearance and arrests him, prompting Balzic to hire feisty Mo Vukanas, a local lawyer with a burning dislike for state troopers, to defend Sammara.

   This is offbeat crime fiction, written in a readable, literate style, tightly plotted and with believable, very human characters in familiar settings. Constantine knows how to maintain suspense. He lets it unfold to a logical and satisfying conclusion.

   Equally offbeat and worth reading are the other Mario Balzic novels, which include The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972), A Fix Like This (1975), the acclaimed Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes (1982), Always a Body to Trade (1983), and Upon Some Midnight Clear (1985).

   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.


UPDATE: There have now been 17 books in Constantine’s “Rockburg” series, through 2002. I do not believe that Mario Balzac has been in all of them, or if so, only tagentially. #12 in the series, Good Sons (1996) is described thusly: “Detective Rugs Carlucci is the likely successor to Police Chief Mario Balzic…,” but in #13, Family Values (1997), Balzic is called back into service.

   Céline Dion was my wife’s favorite female singer. She listened to her CDs constantly. It wasn’t until I came across a live version of this song on YouTube that I realized how dynamic if not out-and-out physical her singing voice was:

ROSALIE KNECHT – Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery. Vera Kelly #2. Tin House Books, Trade paperback original, 2020.

   Truth be told, Vera Kelly was not a private eye in her first recorded adventure, that being Who Is Vera Kelly? (Tin House, 2018). In that one, which I haven’t read, so please forgive me if I have some details wrong, she was recruited by the CIA for her computer skills and shipped off to Argentina to do some undercover work there. That was in the mid-1960s, she was only a 20-something, and when a new political regime took over, she was abandoned and had to make her way back to the States on her own.

   When book Number Two begins, it is August 1967, and she is living in Brooklyn (Brighton Beach), and it is a very bad day. Her live-in girl friend has left her, and her boss (she is working as a film editor for a small TV station) overhears her talking to Jane and fires her. As I say, not a good day.

   She needs a new way to make a living, to start with, and this is when she puts ads in both the Post and the Times looking for clients who need the services of a private investigator. Things do not go swimmingly at first, but at last she hooks one. A man and wife are looking for a young boy, their nephew, who has gone missing. The boy’s parents are back in Dominica, and they may be in jail after Trujillo’s ouster. (When Balaguer took over, the country was in total chaos.) They had managed to get their son to the US, but when his foster parent in this country died, he disappeared. Vera’s job: find him.

   Her very first case, and it is quite a way to get her feet wet.  In the end, though, after some interesting side trails that perhaps she needn’t have taken, she prevails.

   This is not your traditional gritty PI novel. At times it as much a study of Vera Kelly’s life as it is a hunt for a missing boy, and in an unusual haunting, somewhat surreal fashion. In some ways she is finding herself as well as solving the case. Not really a guy’s book at all, but when it comes down to it, here’s the crucial question: would I read the next book in the series, if there is one? My answer: yes.



LEO BRUCE – Furious Old Women. Carolus Deene #7. Davies, UK, hardcover, 1960. Academy Chicago, paperback, 1st US printing, 1983.

   Carolus Deene teaches history at a boys’ public school in England. He has a private income and also enjoys solving baffling crimes. On this occasion, Deene is called into the small village of Gladhurst to discover who murdered Millicent Griggs. What Deene discovers is a village full of “angry old women,” any of whom had good reason to intensely dislike Millicent enough to murder her.

   There also prove to be several men who are likely suspects. As Deene probes, he discovers a tremendous rivalry between Millicent (Low church proponent) and Grazia Vaillant (High church promoter), with the Rector caught between both women and their money. Two more bodies will complicate Deene’s investigation, as well as the. pressure from his headmaster to take a more active role at school (which means curtailing his detective tasks).

   Clues abound, and Bruce is nothing but fair with the reader in providing all the necessary facts to solve the mystery. The solution is quite clever and carefully hidden! A delight for mystery fans with a bent for the British.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 6, Number 3 (Fall 1985).

J. JEFFERSON FARJEON “Secrets in the Snow.” Short story. Included in Best Stories of the Underworld, edited by Peter Cheyney (Faber & Faber, hardcover, 1942; reprinted 1949). Original publication as yet unknown.

   When a Christmas Eve motor-coach gets stuck in a snowstorm, a young woman named Janet, anxious to get to her destination and the house party waiting for her, decides to tag along after her taciturn seat companion, who heads off in the storm in the direction she is going. He tries to dissuade her, telling her that he’s from Scotland Yard and that he’s on a job.

   She persists and begins to follow him anyway. Strangely, however, she discovers another set of footprints also on the trail she is following. Both are moving faster than she can, and she is all but lost when thankfully she comes to a small cottage with a fire going in the fireplace and a hot teapot set out on a small table.

   She is alone, she thinks, but no, a small wizened caretaker pops his head in. But why he is a carrying a shovel, which has been recently used? Then, as she is changing into a warm set of closing, he disappears into the snow, and she hears a small cry out in the darkness.

   Intrigued? If you’re not, you’re a much more a non-curious person than I. Also, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, this story may remind you of a full-length novel, Mystery in White, which was also written by Farjeon and first published in 1937. A reprint edition came out in 2014, and I reviewed it here.

   The mystery in “Secrets in the Snow”  is wrapped up neatly and efficiently. It’s a crime story, not a detective tale, so fairness to the reader does not come into play, but its lack of length also means it’s short enough to not wear out its welcome.  This one was fun.

PERRY MASON “The Case of the Restless Redhead.” CBS, 21 September 1957 (Season 1, Episode 1). Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Hopper, William Talman, Ray Collins. Guest Cast: Whitney Blake, Ralph Clanton, Gloria Henry, Vaughn Taylor. Teleplay: Russell S. Hughes. Based on the novel by Erle Stanley Gardner. Director: William D. Russell. Currently available on DVD and streaming on Paramount Plus.

   When a waitress comes home from work, she finds a gun in her cigarette case sitting on her coffee table. In her shoes, what would you do? I’m sure you would call Perry Mason’s office, the same as either you or I would, am I right? Even though it’s late at night, she heads out by car to meet him in his office.

   She’s followed by a car driven by a man with a pillow case over his head, with holes cut out for his eyes. When he tries to run her off the road, she uses the gun to fire two shots at him. She misses, but one shot hits the car, which seems to swerve off the road. Telling her story to Mason, he decides to drive out to the spot where all this took place.

   Would you be surprised if I told you the police are there first? You shouldn’t be. They are, and they’re trying to find a way to hoist a car up a steep embankment. The driver of the car, found inside, Mason is told, is dead. He has been fatally shot in the head.

   The Perry Mason novels always begin with extremely catchy openings, and this first episode of the Perry Mason TV show follows the pattern to perfection. Other familiar themes follow. Mason is not sure whether to believe the girl’s story or not, but when Lt. Tragg comes calling, he has no recourse but to take her on as a client. Della Street is there to comfort her and provide everyone with coffee. (It is now three o’clock in the morning.)

   As for the gun, Paul Drake soon discovers that is one of a pair, both bought by the same person at the same time. Mason maneuvers himself into the case personally by obtaining the other of two guns, putting a notch in the barrel with a small file, then shooting it a couple of times at the scene of the crime.

   This little trick comes in handy at the preliminary hearing, which ends up with D. A. Hamilton Burger completely befuddled. Now I posit this, if I may. Can you think of a better story line than this to demonstrate to TV audiences everywhere in the country what the rest of the series is going to be like, based on this very first episode? Nor can I.

   This synopsis so far does not include the following: Perry’s client was recently acquitted of stealing some jewelry from a movie star who just happens to be the fiancée of the man who bought the two guns, who is being blackmailed by the former husband of the movie star who claims the divorce never went through, and the husband and wife who run the motel where the theft of the aforementioned jewelry took place act very strangely when Mason comes asking questions.

   And do you know what? You can actually follow the plot, even with all of these players, and without a scorecard.



● ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC. Warner Brothers, 1943. Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Massey, Alan Hale, Julie Bishop, Ruth Gordon, Sam Levene, Dane Clark, Glenn Strange, and Ludwig Stossel. Written by John Howard Lawson, Guy Gilpatric, A.I. Bezzerides, and W.R. Burnett. Directed by Lloyd Bacon (and uncredited Raoul Walsh & Byron Haskin.)

● DAS BOOT (THE BOAT). German, 1981. Jurgen Prochnow, Herbert Gronemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, and Martin May. Written & directed by Wolfgang Petersen, based on the novel by Lothar Buccheim,

   A contemporary view and a weary look back from the other side.

   Action in the North Atlantic enlists Warners stock company into the Merchant Marine and pits them against ruthless Nazi U-Boat commanders as they ply the war-torn Atlantic (where else?) with much-needed supplies for the good guys.

   When it’s not bogged down by patriotic speeches and propaganda scenes, this is a dandy action flick with outstanding special effects: Massive convoys, ships blowing apart, U-Boats cruising the depths, and a freighter pulled to shore by hordes of cheering Russians, all done on studio sets, and done to mesh visually with the film as a whole — never quite convincing to my jaded eyes, but never jarringly unconvincing either.

   Unfortunately, when things aren’t blowing up there’s that script to get through. Bezzerides and Burnett, two authors I highly regard, are credited with “additional dialogue” and I sincerely hope they didn’t spew this hokum. Every time the action flags, someone has to raise an idiot question about the purpose of all this, and get patly put down by right-thinking Americans. Even when Bogey slugs some guy in a bar, it’s not just because he’s bothering the pretty chanteuse; the lout’s also blabbing about outgoing cargo boats in front of a “Loose Lips” sign.

   Almost forty years later, the Germans took a jaundiced but no less heroic look back at the same year in the same theater of operations. Das Boot opens with a celebratory orgy attended by outgoing naval officers drunk to walking-comatose state, the veterans trying to keep a straight face among the fiery youths shipping out for adventure and the glory of the Reich. Quite a contrast to Warners’ Action, but oddly moving in its own way.

   Once we get into the U-Boat, director Petersen and cinematographer Jost Vocano integrate smoothly into the cramped confines, with long tracking shots jostling through crowded passageways, tight close-ups and a camera that never seems more than elbow-length away from anything. Where Action in the North Atlantic goes for spectacle, Das Boot builds tension, with long stretches of fruitless patrolling, men getting on each other’s nerves, and a short burst of action that leads into even more tension as depth charges echo around the sub, and men bounce around like marbles in a tin can.

   The special effects here are on a smaller scale, but quite as effective as the showier stuff in Action. And in terms of character, the relatively unknown (to me) cast of Boot seemed more real than the actors I know and love from the earlier film. But this is not a put-down. Taken together, the two films make a fascinating and fun-to watch contrast as history seen then and seen now.


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