April 2021



BLACK MOON. Columbia Pictures, 1934. Jack Holt, Fay Wray, Dorothy Burgess, Clarence Muse. Screenplay: Clement Ripley & Wells Root. Directed by Roy William Neill.

   Despite the attitudes of the time, this Columbia horror film is almost a companion piece to Val Lewton’s classic, I Walked With a Zombie, and an effective and suspenseful tale of horror and mystery.

   Jack Holt is well to do businessman Stephen Lane, married to the mysterious Juanita Perez (Dorothy Burgess) who is obsessed with the voodoo culture of the island where she grew up. As the film opens she is playing the voodoo drum for their young child Nancy (Cora Sue Collins), while downstairs a psychiatrist warns Stephen to let her obsession play out on its own, causing him to put off joining her on her planned return to visit her plantation owner Uncle Dr. Raymond Perez (Arnold Korff) who raised her after her parents were killed in a native uprising.

   The next day Stephen’s secretary Gail Hamilton (Fay Wray) presents him with the passports needed, adding that she would like to resign because of a romantic entanglement, not telling him that reason is that she is helplessly in love with him, but he persuades her she is needed by his wife and she reluctantly agrees to accompany her to the island.

   Meanwhile Juanita loses her temper when a friend of her Uncle tries to prevent her from going to the island. Things are bad there, and her presence can only make things worse. While a child there it seems that she became deeply involved in voodoo ceremony thanks to a black nursemaid Ruva (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) and the local voodoo priest Kala (Laurence Criner). Her Uncle fears for her safety and sanity.

   Turns out he is right.

   Once on the island things proceed to get worse. Gail is frightened for Nancy and Anna (Eleanor Wesslehoeft), Nancy’s nurse, clashes with Ruva. When Gail cables Stephen to hurry to the island the native who sent the cable is murdered.

   Stephen arrives on a schooner captained by an American, “Lunch” McClaren (Clarence Muse) who is going to marry a local girl and warns Stephen the locals are in a dangerous mood. Stephen’s arrival is joyful for his daughter and a relief for Gail, but only for a short time. Anna has died in an unlikely accident and now Ruva is Nancy’s new nurse.

   Meanwhile Juanita has gone completely native as the priestess of the voodoo religion.

   When Lunch asks Stephen’s help to try and rescue his girl friend who is the sacrifice for that nights ceremony he witnesses Juanita in her guise as priestess before shooting and wounding Kala. Having failed to kill the high priest they now face an uprising as Juanita wants Nancy and plans to sacrifice Stephen and Gail. Forced to barricade themselves in the house they are driven out by a fire. Dr. Perez and Lunch escape but Nancy, her father and Gail are taken.

   Perez and Lunch manage to rescue the adults, but Nancy is still with her mother, and now the high priest has chosen to sacrifice the child with Juanita wielding the blade.

   Stephen and Lunch return for the child, will they be in time, will Juanita sacrifice her own child in her maddened hypnotic state…

   With an intelligent screenplay by Clement Ripley and Wells Root, atmospheric direction by the always interesting Roy William Neill, and a good cast, the film builds fine suspense, a real sense of impending doom. True Holt is a bit too old and stout, but he’s always good as a stalwart hero. Fay Wray doesn’t have much to do but look scared and pretty, and she does that just fine. Dorothy Burgess is quite good as the increasingly mad and cruel Mrs. Lane.

   More interesting for a film of this time is Clarence Muse. Despite his nickname “Lunch,” he is far from the usual comedy relief. In fact, other than a few lines his role is absolutely straight and courageous. He doesn’t have a single scene when he shows any more fear or concern than anyone else in the film, in fact he is the hero’s greatest ally, far more competent and intelligent than the white sidekicks in most films, all of which is unusual for a film from this era and goes someways from the simple superstitious natives in revolt elements of the plot.

   In fact, Dr. Perez is hardly presented as a Colonial paragon, and the screenplay brings out that he and those who came before him have oppressed the locals and driven them to extremes, nor or Ruva or Kala punished for their roles in the revolt, something fairly remarkable considering the fate of most such characters even in films today (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

   Black Moon isn’t a perfect film. It meanders here and there, the screenplay could use tightening, it doesn’t always live up to Neill’s atmospherics and inventive camera work, but on the whole it is a terrific little movie that compares well to Lewton’s more masterful I Walked With a Zombie.


STEPHEN KING “Quitters, Inc.” Short story. First published in Night Shift (Doubleday, hardcover, 1978). Reprinted in Best Detective Stories of the Year: 1979, edited by Edward D. Hoch (Dutton, hardcover, 1979); and Prime Suspects, edited by Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg (Ivy, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1987). Film/TV adaptations: (1) Anthology film Cat’s Eye (1985) along with “The Ledge” and “General.” (See comment #1.) (2) Bollywood film No Smoking (2007) (3) “Bigalow’s Last Smoke” (1985) an episode of Tales from the Darkside, 09 June 1985 (Season 1, Episode 21). (King is not credited on either of these last two.)

   An agency man named Morrison meets an old friend from another agency in a bar, but while Morrison is in bad shape healthwise – he’s overweight, drinks too much, and more importantly, smokes too much – his friend is in great shape. How’d he do it, he asks. The friend gives him a business card. It says Quitters, Inc., Treatment by Appointment. Go here, he is told. They have a plan that’s guaranteed to get you to quit smoking. 100%.

   Morrison demurs but decides to give it a try.

   If you’ve ever read a Stephen King novel or story, you know you’re in for a gonzo over-the-top tale from here on out. 100%. No doubt about it. And so it is here. Nobody can match Stephen King when it comes to stories like this, but in that regard, this is only a normal Stephen King story.

   Normal, that is, until it comes to the last line. If you ever read this story, you won’t forget it. Never. 100% guaranteed. And not a bad way to lead off an anthology of crime and mystery stories, as Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg did with Prime Suspects, the first of several similar collections they put together in the late 80s. Other authors include P. D. James, Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald and Donald E. Westlake, just for beginners.



MARGARET MILLAR – Beast in View. Academy Chicago, paperback, 1983. First published by Random House, hardcover, 1955. Bantam, paperback, 1956. Avon, paperback, date? Penguin, paperback, 1978. Carrol & Graf, paperback, 1999. Included in Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s (Library of America #269, hardcover, 2015). TV adaptations: The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, 20 March 1964 (Season 2, Episode 21) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 19 January 1986 (Season 1, Episode 13). Also of note: Voted #79 on “The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time,” issued by the MWA in 1995.

   In 1956 Beast in View was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel of the year. [For this Academy Chicago edition] Mrs. Millar has prepared a new introduction and afterword in which she reveals the effect this book had on her own personality as she wrote it.

   Beast in View is a psychological suspense story that probes the innermost recesses of a murderer’s mind and that of his victims. To say much more would be unfair to potential readers. The story unravels like a sweater with a loose thread. The reader experiences a sense of being stalked, much as the victims do — leading to the solution of who Evelyn Merrick is and why she is persecuting a group of people who range from intimates to only casual acquaintances.

   A classic crime novel in every sense of the word.

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


Editorial Comment: I have discovered online a site that quotes the first few opening lines. Here they are:

   The voice was quiet, smiling. “Is that Miss Clarvoe?”


   “You know who this is?”


   “A friend.”

   “I have a great many friends,” Miss Clarvoe lied.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Barry N. Malzberg


RICHARD CONDON – Mile High. Dial Press, hardcover, 1969. Dell, paperback, 1970.

   In his strongest work — The Manchurian Candidate (1959), Winter Kills (1974) — Richard Condon has shown an unerring ability to find the hub throughout which the threads of American corruption, desire, insanity, politics, dread, and dreams pass, and to find that precise point of convergence which indicates that the history (and future) of the culture is as coherent and malevolent as death; in his weakest work, Condon has been a Boy Scout leader mumbling increasingly repellent horror stories around a fire to the wide-eyed troops, trying to give them a thrill at whatever cost.

   Mile High is somewhere in the middle. It is as paranoid as The Manchurian Candidate but lacks its purity; it runs out of plot two-thirds of the way through and has to make do with an imposed and inauthentic suspense melodrama. Condon believes his generalities here but cannot pay attention to the particulars.

   The premise is audacious, wholly workable, and possibly even correct (as correct as the brainwashed-and-programmed-human-time-bomb premise of The Manchurian Candidate, or the presidential-assassination premise of Winter Kills): American Prohibition was virtually the single-handed creation of one rich and brilliant businessman who knew that it would be great for the illegal liquor business and used his. modest inherited assets to build a network that, in its complexity, virtually overtook the country. When Prohibition finally collapses, Edward Courance West is worth many hundreds of billions of dollars (and it is his consolidation of widely held assets into hard cash that causes the depression).

   West, however, is an unstable personality; abandoned by his mother, a. dark Italian, in his childhood, he must replicate the abandonment by wreaking terrible vengeance upon his black mistresses. His psychosis leads to murder and to his. removal from American society to a mile-high palace in the central Adirondacks. Here, aging, monumentally rich, safe and mad, West raves to his lifelong manservant, Willie Tobin, of the Communist peril and the rise of “the terrible black hordes” that are his alone to combat. (There is not a cause of the lunatic right to which he will not subscribe millions of dollars.)

   Good enough to this point (or bad enough), and a serviceable, often terrifying roman à clef of several figures in mid-century American life; but there is an imposed and highly coincidental subplot dealing with the black artist wife of West’s second son (the point of view character of the unnecessary middle section of the novel) who reminds West of his mother and of the black women in whose image murder was committed.

   Having run out its exposition and its implication, Mile High turns into a somewhat clumsy (and clumsily transparent) novel of menace and oversimplifies ultimately; West’s “insanity” is the hole through which the book’s true implication and terror drain. West becomes merely a symbol, and unfortunately, the novel “symbolic” rather than the horrifying near-documentary that Winter Kills is.

   Still, Condon’s pacing, portentousness, and Clemens-like contempt for the human condition come  through and sustain the narrative. At half its 160,000-word length, Mile High might have been a tormented, glacial vision: a century of history compressed to nightmare.

   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.

THE NIGHT WALKER. Universal Pictures, 1964. Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Judith Meredith, Hayden Rorke. Rochelle Hudson. Opening narration: Paul Frees. Screenplay: Robert Bloch. Director: William Castle.

   “…when you dream, you become … a Night Walker!” Or so goes the closing line of the opening narration, by the voice that also often did the lead-in to Escape, the greatest suspense radio show of all time. Sorry to say, in spite of all the talent that was involved in the making of this movie, it’s all downhill from here.

   It might have the murky reception our local cable company gives us of WTBS, but I think the plot was pretty murky to begin with. Barbara Stanwyck is married to an older man, rich, blind, and jealous – a dangerous combination — who, from overhearing her talk in her sleep, accuses her of having an affair with another man. He strikes her, she leaves, he goes upstairs and immediately dies in a laboratory explosion.

   Is she free? Not exactly. She begins to have nightmares, nightmares so real she is convinced they really are. Robert Taylor, who was her husband’s lawyer, is sympathetic, but he’ s hard to convince that she is doing nothing but dreaming. In the meantime, visions of Irene’s dead husband, even more badly disfigured than before, continue to haunt her.

   Is it real or is it all a dream? With Robert Bloch’s credentials as a combination fantasy/horror/mystery writer, it’s impossible to say in advance. Unfortunately, it was also almost impossible for me to stay awake. I’m awake now, but I really don’t think this movie will keep me awake later.

   I think that dreams are too personal to bring them very effectively to the screen. It’s been done, but with bigger budgets than this. Phony-looking make-up jobs and spinning cameras just don’t cut it, at least not any more.

– Reprinted from Mystery*File #32, July 1991, in slightly revised form.




MARK FROST – The Six Messiahs. Conan Doyle #2. Morrow, hardcover. 1995. Avon, paperback, 1996.

   Frost’s The List of 7 last year was an unexpected pleasure for me. It was a good, old-fashioned thriller rather than a crime novel, a story whose plot wouldn’t have been out of place in the pulps of the early decades of this century. It featured the pre-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who seems to be bidding to become as popular a lead as his creation) as does this, its sequel. I wonder — are there any figures of our time who will be seen as fascinating enough 60 or 70 years from now to be made heroes in thrillers? I don’t think so.

   A decade had passed since the events of the previous book, and the now-famous Doyle is making a tour of the US, accompanied by his younger brother, Innes. During the trip across the Atlantic by steamer a man is murdered, and evidence surfaces regarding the attempted theft of a rare and valuable religious book. Later, in New York, it becomes clear that there is a conspiracy by some very evil and competent people to steal a number of the world’s most revered religious works, to some end as yet unknown.

   The above plot summary is wholly inadequate, but it was going to be unless I wanted to give half a page to it. This is another book like its predecessor, a fantastic thriller that’s very well written and very enjoyable if you can take it on its own terms. I can’t with modern thrillers, but I can and did with this. Go figure.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #21, August-September 1995


Editorial Update: This was the second and last of only two books in Frost’s series of Conan Doyle adventure thrillers. According to a source I found online: “Mark Frost is an American novelist, screenwriter, director and film producer, best known as a writer for the television series Hill Street Blues and as the co-creator of the television series Twin Peaks.”



ERIC AMBLER – Journey Into Fear. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1940. Alfred A. Knopf, US, hardcover, 1940. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback.

JOURNEY INTO FEAR. RKO Radio Pictures, 1943. Joseph Cotten, Dolores Del Rio, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Jack Durant, Everett Sloane, Orson Welles. Screenplay by Orson Welles & Joseph Cotten, based on the novel by Eric Ambler. Directed by Norman Foster & Orson Welles (the latter uncredited).

JOURNEY INTO FEAR. New World, 1975. Sam Waterston, Zero Mostel, Yvette Mimieux, Scott Marlowe, Ian McShane, Joseph Wiseman, Shelley Winters, Stanley Holloway, Donald Pleasence, Vincent Price. Screenplay: Trevor Wallace. Director: Daniel Mann.

   A local video store was going out of business lately, and naturally I stopped by to see what priceless treasures I could pick up on the cheap. Among the things I emerged with was the remake of Journey Into Fear, adapted by producer Trevor Wallace from Eric Ambler’s 1940 novel (previously filmed by Orson Welles in 1942) and directed by Daniel Mann. Watching this, I began to suspect that Wallace’s script drew rather more from the 1942 film than from Ambler’s novel, so I pulled out the older film and the book to check my suspicions.

   The 1942 film is an engagingly gimmicky piece, complete with the Mercury players (Agnes Moorhead, Everett Sloan et al.), but the effect is somewhat vitiated by Welles’ giving himself all the smart lines and by his decision to depict the quiet Graham (Joseph Cotton) as a boob.

   The overall theme is deliberately un-heroic, which is probably just as well, given his strong visual style; a Welles movie with an out-and-out Hero would come off as altogether too Wagnerian. There is, in fact, more than a touch of Wagner in Welles’ two most nearly heroic characters, Rochester in Jane Eyre and MacBeth. But there I go digressin’ again

   To be fair, there are a couple lines from the novel in the newer film and not in the 1942 version. But to be frank, huge chunks of Welles’ film seem to have been simply re-shot without credit and plunked down in this movie. When Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton adapted Ambler’s novel for the film (Cotton gets sole screen credit for the writing) they gave lines from one character to another, re-arranged scenes and added little bits of business, and all these changes appear just about shot-for-shot in the re-make.

   In fact, the earlier film features a hired killer who never speaks, because the guy who played him was no actor and would only do the part if they cut out all his lines. And sure enough, in the re-make the hired killer – played by the very capable actor Ian McShane — has no dialogue.

   What difference exists between the two films is largely in the ordinary look of the ’74 film — the careful camerawork and set design of the original replaced by harsh color and tinny sound — and in the casting: Welles filled his film with capable bit players whose names mean little to most moviegoers, but players who leave a distinctive impression – the best-known are maybe Everett Sloane and Hans Conreid.

   The re-make, on the other hand, is filled with second-rank “stars” mostly miscast or wasted: Sam Waterston is fine in the lead, and Vincent Price and Donald Pleasance have a couple good scenes (though Price makes a decidedly unconvincing Arab) but Zero Mostel, Shelley Winters, Scott Marlowe, Yvette Mimieux and even Stanley Holloway all just kind of take up space.

   On the plus side, though, I’ve got to say Joseph Wiseman (fondly remembered as the first of the Bond villains and star of his own comic-book cover) is fine in the old Orson Welles part as Colonel Haki, there’s a solid, actionful ending, and a shoot-and-chase done entirely with sound effects. I still can’t figure out whether it was meant to be clever or merely cheap, but it’s enough to elevate this startlingly unoriginal film into the class of a pleasant time-filler.

   Moving on just briefly to Eric Ambler’s novel (the excuse for this piece, after all) well, it was one of those things I read in 7th grade, and I was glad to come back to it. Even after seeing two movies and getting very familiar with the plot, I found the writing absorbing and the story suspenseful.

   Ambler’s tale takes a bit of familiarity with the political map of war-torn Europe in the 40s; readers who didn’t live through it or bone up on their History might wonder at a story where British and German agents travel freely in Turkey while the British are supposedly arming the Turks against Hitler, but complications like this were pretty much gratis when Ambler wrote it, and by the time he gets to the crux of the tale — Howard Graham, an un-assuming British engineer trapped on a tramp steamer with a bizarre assortment of passengers, one of whom wants to kill him — he has notched the suspense up very agreeably indeed, and proceeds to a conclusion that is both cynical and exciting: no small feat, that.

   Ambler also does a sharp job here creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension, and he adds a layer of genuine thoughtfulness: our hero starts out his journey as a man with secrets to hide, and he seems at first rather unique and isolated, surrounded by a ship full of very ordinary and rather dull background characters.

   As the book and the journey go on, though, we discover the rest of the cast have their own secrets: droll, noble, sinister or just venal, the passengers who began the journey as stereotypes become real by the story’s end, and the central character seems much less unique — and more believable.

   This works both as a plot device (I won’t say how) and as something more. Perhaps Ambler, writing in a world at war, was trying to say something about the worth of the Individual. Or maybe he was just setting us up for a delicious bit of anticlimax at the very end of the book, when the last secret is revealed.

   Whatever, it makes for the kind of reading one remembers.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #42, January 2006.

ARTHUR C. CLARKE – The Deep Range. Harcourt Brace, hardcover, 1957. Signet S1583, paperback, 1958. Expanded from a short story of the same title first published in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3 (Ballantine, paperback, 1955). The novel first collected in From the Ocean, from the Stars (Harcourt Brace, hardcover, 1961).

   Essentially the life story of Walter Franklin and his career in the Bureau of Whales early next century. There are three distinct parts, each nearly independent of the others. In the first, Franklin is placed under the guidance of [Game] Warden Don Burley to learn a new career after astrophobia has forced him from space. Then, after becoming a warden himself, Franklin joins with Don in the capture of a giant squid, but an attempt to capture an unknown sea serpent ends in Don’s death.

   As Franklin rises to the directorship of the Bureau, he is forced to decide whether continued slaughter of the whales or conservation shall become policy. The philosophy of Buddhism is responsible for his choice.

   Smooth, intelligent and informative writing dominates, overshadowing a lack of real depth. An important exception occurs in the final third of the story. In the words of the Maha Thoro: “When that time comes, the treatment man receives from his superiors may well depend upon the way he has behaved toward the other creatures of his own world.”

   Another important facet of Clarke’s writing is his remarkable constraint in not telling the whole story when indeed it is not necessary.

Rating: 4 stars.

– September 1967

THE BARBARIAN. MGM, 1933. Ramon Navarro, Myrna Loy, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith, Edward Arnold, Hedda Hopper.  Screenwriters: Anita Loos & Elmer Harris. Directed by
Sam Wood.

   Myrna Loy is the only reason that anyone would watch this movie today. (And whatever became of Ramon Navarro?) It’s a strange mixture of comedy and strong melodrama, and maybe all the more fascinating (and “keepable”) because of it. (Or maybe not, since I’ve already reused the tape and recorded over it after watching it only once.)

   Here’s the story line. Besides being a guide, Navarro is a romantic gigolo who spends his time watching the Cairo train station for the arrival of rich foreign tourist women – rich, lonesome, and easy prey for men such as this. When Myrna Loy’s train comes in, however, he immediately drops everything (and everyone) else, and from that time on, she is the object of his never-ending attention and affection.

   This causes some problems, mostly amusing, at the beginning. She is already engaged to be married. (Reginald Denny is a stuffed shirt, true, but she loves him.) She also has the unfortunate ability to see through Navarro’s “charms.” She is flattered, but she spurns his advances – and this is a bad mistake. Suddenly the movie isn’t quite so funny any more. In fact, in a wedding scene that comes soon after, the atmosphere is extremely tense indeed.

   From here, this slightly risque, crazy-quilt tale muddles its way through to a conclusion that could only be described as “totally expected,” but through it all, Myrna Loy somehow still manages to hold her own. This maybe the only movie in which she is seen taking (and leaving) a bubble bath, and now that I am thinking about it, maybe I shouldn’t have erased it after all.

– Reprinted from Mystery*File #32, July 1991, in slightly revised form.


RICHARD HULL – Keep it Quiet. Dover , US, trade paperback, 1983. Originally published by Faber & Faber, UK, 1935. Putnam, US, hardcover, 1935. Reprinted again later by Agora Books, UK, trade paperback, 2018.



   Richard Hull abandoned his accounting career after reading Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought, the first “inverted” psychological mystery. Hull’s first mystery was The Murder of My Aunt, which followed the inverted model. Keep It Quiet was his second mystery. It proved to be very popular and successful.

   Set in a London men’s club, the ambience is that of quiet good breeding, tasteful meals, and drinks served in the library. The Whitehall Club’s atmosphere is predictable and ordinary – until one of its members dies shortly after eating dessert one day. The club’s chef fears he was at fault, since it was his prescription for perchloride of mercury that was mistaken for vanilla. The club’s secretary wants only to “keep it quiet.” And with the victim’s doctor also a member of the Whitehall Club, the death is labeled as one due to natural causes.

   Then a second club member dies after a few sips of sherry. Should the secretary and doctor keep this one quiet too? But what about the blackmail letters, and threats, that are received by the secretary and doctor?

   Hull has created a traditional British mystery that blends subtle humor with unnerving psychological twists that will please most any mystery fancier.



   Dover is doing us a good deed by reprinting some of the good old mysteries. The great ones remain in print; the good ones and even the mediocre ones are of interest historically, and Dover is giving us the chance to get our hands on them easily and inexpensively.

   Hull’s first mystery, The Murder of My Aunt, is one of the great ones. Keep it Quiet was his second, and not nearly so good. Yet it’s of interest. It begins on a farcical note, and I suspect that Hull had his tongue firmly in his cheek throughout the book. The cook at a London club has a carbuncle for which the doctor has prescribed perchloride of mercury. The cook’s wife thoughtfully puts part of the prescription in an old vanilla extract bottle so he can take it to work.

   So when old Morrison, who insisted on vanilla flavor in his souffle, dies unexpectedly, it’s no wonder that the club secretary, Ford, wants to keep it quiet. More surprisingly, Ford’s doctor, Anstruther, who’s also a club member, goes along. The result: blackmail.

   But blackmail of a marvelous kind! The blackmailer actually succeeds in getting muddleheaded Ford to make some long-needed improvements in the club facilities! Anstruther, on the other hand, is instructed to bone up on poisons, for the blackmailer intends that some people should suffer. Who is the blackmailer? How did Morrison really die? Who is stealing the library books? Did Pargiter die a natural death?

   Remember the tongue in the cheek and read this book for fun.

– Both reviews reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 6, Number 3 (Fall 1985).


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