June 2021



THE VELVET TOUCH. Independent/RKO, 1948.  Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn, Claire Trevor, Sydney Greenstreet, Leon Ames, Frank McHugh, and Lex Barker. Written by Leo Rosten, Walter Reilly, William Mercer and Annabel Ross. Directed by John Gage.

   Smartly written and well played, overwrought and predictable, this somehow feels like RKO’s attempt to do a Warners Joan Crawford flick of the time.

   Rosalind Russell is a Broadway star with a string of comedy hits produced by Leon Ames — with whom, it’s hinted she has been quite close in the past. But as things open, their passion has cooled and she’s eager to move on to serious dramas with another impresario. She also wants to marry Leo Genn, and Ames finds this such an affront to his ego that he gets rough with her and is promptly clubbed to death with one of those hefty knick-knacks the gods of melodrama provide for such occasions.

   Roz wanders in a Crawford-like daze from the scene, somehow not being spotted by the backstage crowd. Not so lucky Claire Trevor, who stumbles onto the body, gets her fingerprints on the murder weapon, screams for attention and faints.

   A lengthy flashback fleshes out the relationships between the characters amid some scintillating theatre atmosphere, and then it’s back to the present day, and a murder investigation conducted by the redoubtable Sydney Greenstreet.

   Up to this point it’s all been sort of soapy, but now things swing into an agreeable game of criminal cat-and-mouse, with Sydney making jokes about his weight and conducting a very laid back investigation that imperceptibly tightens around Ms Russell, who meanwhile makes herself busily neurotic in the best Joan Crawford tradition.

   The Warners look is reinforced by the presence of Greenstreet and Trevor, and of Frank McHugh, doing his usual amiable sidekick stuff, but the real surprise here comes from Leon Ames, usually typecast as stolid types like the exasperated dad in Meet Me in St. Louis. Here, given a chance at flamboyance, he takes it and gallops across the screen like Barrymore in 20th Century. And like Barrymore, he dominates every scene he’s in.

   The Velvet Touch may be a bit deliberate, lacking the dramatic fatalism of film noir, but to give it its due, it allows the supporting players some fine moments. Check out the scene where Sydney Greenstreet cautiously lowers himself into a folding chair and you’ll see what I mean.


Reviews by L. J. Roberts


CHARLES TODD – A Fatal Lie. Inspector Ian Rutledge #23. William Morrow, hardcover, February 2021.

First Sentence: On his sixth birthday, Roddy MacNabb was given a fishing pole by his pa, with promises to teach him how to use it.

   Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge is sent to Northern Wales where a man’s body was pulled from the River Dee by a young boy. It’s first thought the man had fallen from the viaduct that spans high above the river, put there are no signs of a fall, no identification on the body, and no one claims to know him.

   Only a few clues lead Rutledge on a trail to identify the victim, recreate the man’s recent travels, and uncover both the motive and the person responsible for the man’s death, and those that follow.

   Authors strive to create a good “hook,” the opening which will compel the reader to keep turning the pages. Todd’s opening does that very effectively.

   Ian is a unique character. Shell shock; i.e., PTSD, from WWI has left him with the voice of Hamish, a soldier executed for desertion, in his head. We are reminded of the cost of war, not only in the number of the dead, but the lasting impact on the veterans and their families— “A fine soldier, liked by his men, he didn’t suffer, and we must be proud of him, for he gave his life for his King and Country. That isn’t terribly reassuring, is it?”

   It is always fascinating to read about the forensics of the time. Todd weaves details of places, such as the operations of the aqueduct, and history, the Bantam Battalions, smoothly into the story. These create strong visual images and play into the fact that in the days before technology, police work was done by pulling the thread of clues, a lot of travel, and intuition.

   One does need to keep track of who is where. Between the character names and Ian traveling from place to place, and back again, it can become confusing. Pulling up a map proves helpful.

   It is also a challenge to follow the timeline. There is a lack of clarity as to when things happened as there can be the impression of something happening in the past only to realize it is in the recent past.

   Follow the trail of bodies which are always one step in front of Ian. Yet it seems to take a while before any real progress is made and then, after all the to-ing and fro-ing, there is the great and complete confession. Good grief.

   A Fatal Lie is a good book, but not as good as usual. The dialogue was weak, the usual wry humor was completely lacking, and the book could have used some serious editing and simplifying. One wonders whether because of COVID, the authors had little to do but write, so they just kept putting things in.

   Here’s hoping for a crisper, more involving book #24.

Rating: Okay

ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT “Man of Granite.” Novella. Published in Dime Mystery Magazine, August 1948. Probably never reprinted.

   Back in August, 1948, Dime Mystery Magazine cost fifteen cents. (I don’t know how they got around that, but they did.) It had been around since December, 1932, as Dime Mystery Book, and lasted until October 1950, by which time it was known as 15 Mystery Stories. The stories throughout its run were often a blend of mystery and supernatural fiction, with the latter usually explained away in the final two paragraphs.

   The cover of this issue shows a man being subdued by a cloaked and hooded figure in black, with chalk-white hands holding a knife to the victim’s throat, but to me, it’s not as horrifying a sight as it might seem. It’s effective but just little too static for me, especially for a pulp cover. You opinion may vary.

   The lead story, “Man of Granite,” by Arthur Leo Zagat, takes place during a single night that a young babysitter named Arlene Morgan is not likely to forget. Ever.

   Why don’t I quote to you the first paragraph? It’ll do two things. It’ll set the stage more than I could in simply telling you about it, and it’ll also show you exactly how a pulp story almost always began: right at the begin, daring you, if you will, to put the magazine down before it’s over. (And these were also the day when authors who lost their readers were also authors who were soon out looking for another line of work.)

   It wasn’t being alone in the house, except for the baby, that made Arlene Morgan uneasy. She’d done a lot of baby-sitting since her sixteenth birthday, last May, and she’d gotten used to the silence of an empty home and the noises within the silence: old wood whisperings to itself, scurrying inside ancient walls, ivy rustling against windows dark at night.

   This is the story, as it turns out, of a Golem, the stone monster of Frankfort, but what he is doing in this story, and what relationship he has with the parents of the child Alene is watching, it’s still not clear by story’s end.

   Several twists in the story have taken place by then. Even so, a final twist in the last few paragraphs shatters the reconstruction of the night’s events that Arlene’s father has carefully put together, shattering it to bits, leaving the reader to put everything back in order, if it’s something that can be done.

   It’s an unsettling end to an unsettling sort of story, full of dankness and noises in the night. It’s clumsily told at times, so at first thought it’s not quite clear if Zagat (a prolific but rather obscure SF and mystery writer in his day) fully intended the ending to be as perfectly matched to the story as it is – at least in the way I’m looking at it – of if it’s purely coincidental.

   It’s probably a little of both, but on reconsideration, I’m going to give Zagat the full benefit of the doubt, and say this is nicely inspired ending after all – in spite of (or maybe because of) all the loose ends.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.


HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME. RKO Radio Pictures, 1945. Pat O’Brien (Michael J. Malone), George Murphy (Jake Justus), Carole Landis (Helene Justus), Lenore Aubert, George Zucco, Gloria Holden (as Anje Berens), Chili Williams. Based on the characters if not the novel by Craig Rice. Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

   Craig Rice did indeed write a novel of the same name and with (more or less) the same characters, but other than that there is absolutely no resemblance between the book and the movie. (Note that in the book the lawyer is named John J. Malone, not Michael. It is not clear why they thought a change was necessary. Perhaps Michael flows better in dialogue than John.)

   In any case this review will be about the film, which is perhaps is among the last of the “screwball” comedies ever made in its day. The three friends, with two of them, Jake and Helene Justus, as it turns out, on their honeymoon, attend a magic show in which the headline performer disappears for real in the middle of his act. They suspect his body may be the trunk his girl assistant is taking to the same resort lodge they decide to go to. Why Malone is going along on the honeymoon of the other two is not quite clear.

   And all kinds of funny business ensues, with both the trunk and the “body” appearing and disappearing at regular intervals. I use the word “funny” with a word of caution. A better phrase might be “mildly amusing,” not laugh out loud funny. The comedy just isn’t in sync, no matter how hard the players seem to be trying. On the other hand, the mystery just doesn’t make any sense at all.

   Watch this one then for the presence of Carole Landis, whose performance is witty, sparkling and fresh, and whenever I read one of Craig Rice’s novels in which Helene Justus is in, I am sure that from now on I will have Miss Landis in mind. George Murphy is OK, if not quite fine in his role, but Pat O’Brien seems too old for me, even though in this otherwise disappointing film both he and Landis play off each other in terms of witticisms and other banter in reasonably fine fashion.


HARRY HARRISON – Sense of Obligation. Brion Brandd #1. Serialized in Analog SF in 3 parts, September through November 1961. Reprinted in book form as Planet of the Damned (Bantam J2316, paperback, January 1962); also under the latter title by Tor, paperback, December 1981.

   Brian Brandd is recruited as a member of the Cultural Relations Foundation, whose task it is to aid islated planets cut off after the fall of the Earth empire. His first assignment is to stop an impending war between the planets Dis and Nyjord.

   Dis is truly a disaster planet, where men have found it necessary to joining with native life-forms in symbiosis. It is a particularly malignant symbiote that has led the leaders of Dis into apparent race suicide, but with the help of Lea Marees, an exobiologist from Earth, Brian finally saves the day.

   It is a sense of obligation to the human race, in whatever adapted form it may take, that brings the resources of other men to the assistance of those who need it, and forms the underlying current behind the story. Competent, well-told, but probably not memorable.

Rating: ***

–September 1967

Note: Followed by one sequel, Planet of No Return (Wallaby, softcover, 1981).

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Crider


JONATHAN CRAIG – Morgue for Venus. Pete Selby #2. Gold Medal #582, paperback original, 1956. Cover by Barye Phillips. Belmont Tower, paperback, 1973.

   The popularity of the radio and television series Dragnet was responsible for the publication of several series of police procedurals in the middle 1950s. The best-known of these, and certainly the longest-lived, is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, but another, almost equally good, came from Jonathan Craig. Craig’s work has now faded into undeserved obscurity, possibly because he chose to tell his stories through a first-person narrator, Pete Selby, and thus did not. develop the gallery of characters that McBain did.

   All the cases handled by Selby and his partner, Stan Rayder, have strong overtones of kinky sex, and Morgue for Venus is no exception. The squeal begins when a body is fished from the East River. The body is that of a young woman wearing stockings and a dress, but no underwear. The case is immediately complicated by the fact that the girl has no known enemies but has apparently been associated with criminals, specifically burglars who attempted to rob the photography studio where she was working.

   The robbery and the murder are tied together, but just how is not clear to Rayder and Selby. Eventually, however, the crime is solved by painstaking police work. Craig has a good narrative sense; the story’s pace never lags, even when Craig is working in the details of police routine and procedure that form an integral part of the novel. His dialogue is crisp, and the characters encountered by the detectives in the course of their investigation are interesting and convincing.

   All the books in the Selby series are worth looking for, including The Dead Darling (1955), Case of the Cold Coquette (1957), Case of the Beautiful Body (1957), Case of the Petticoat Murder (1958), and Case of the Nervous Nude— “all she wore was a terrified expression” (1959).

   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.



DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE. Republic, 1939.  Charles Quigley, Herman Brix, David Sharpe, Carole Landis, Miles Mander, and Charles Middleton. Written by Barry Shipman, Franklyn Adreon, Rex Taylor, Ronald Davidson, and Sol Shore. Directed by John English and William Witney.

   Watched all twelve chapters of this this without feeling like I wasted a second of my precious youth.

   â€œThe Red Circle” sounded like a ranch to me, but despite the title, this is not a Western, but a contemporary action thriller. The eponymous Dare-devils (Played by Charles Quigley, Dave Sharpe and Herman Brix, just before he became Bruce Bennett) work in a Circus targeted for destruction by Master Villain 39013 who has devoted his life to ruining the fortunes of a millionaire named Horace Granville, played by that redoubtable and very busy English character actor Miles Mander.

   Here’s where it gets complicated: Sometime before the serial started, Granville was responsible for sending this guy to jail, where they given him that number and taken way his name, as Johnny Rivers used to say. 39013 broke jail, imprisoned Granville in his own home, and — using his mastery of disguise — assumed Granville’s identity.

   The rest of the serial deals with the efforts of the Daredevils to find 39013 or at least thwart his plans; the efforts of 39013 to destroy the Daredevils while maintaining his disguise; the efforts of Granville to smuggle messages out of his secret prison, and the efforts of a mysterious hooded figure known only as The Red Circle (Obviously one of the Cast Members… but which one?) to drop various clues and warnings to help the Daredevils along.

   The producers went all out for this one, scouting out all sorts of interesting locations, like off-shore oil rigs and gas refineries with tall ladders to swing from, sheer drops to dangle over, boilers to explode and tunnels to flood. Stars Quigley, Brix and Sharpe were natural athletes, and directors Witney and English make the most of every opportunity to jump, fight and all that other neat stuff. They also signed the talented and tragic Carole Landis just before she got “noticed” in 1,000,000 BC, and went on to I Wake Up Screaming.

   What impressed me most, though, was Charles Middleton’s tour-de-force performance as 39013 and Horace Granville. I don’t know how much was makeup and how much was acting, but when he puts on the disguise, Middleton is actually indistinguishable from Miles Mander, an actor several inches shorter, ten years younger, from a different country. Mannerism, eye color, hair line, and even the distinctive timbre of Mander’s voice. Middleton carries it off superbly. I don’t know how he could’ve missed an Oscar for a performance like that, but it’s worth seeing all by itself.

Miles Mander:


Charles Middleton:


Charles Middleton as Miles Mander:




WILLIAM L. DeANDREA – Written in Fire. Quinn Booker & Lobo Blacke #1. Walker & Co., hardcover, 1995. No paperback edition.

   I don’t know if Bill DeAndrea is “hot” or not, but he sure isn’t having any trouble getting books published. This is the third in the last year or so, and that’s not counting Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. I like his writing more than a lot of fans seem to, both in his books and in TAD. He doesn’t write Books for the Ages (or try to), but most of his stories are entertaining and go down smoothly.

   Quinn Booker is a journalist from New York in the late 1800s who has written a very profitable biography of a famous Western lawman, Lobo Blacke. Blacke is crippled now, and runs a newspaper in Wyoming. His mission in what remains of his life is to find the man who shot and crippled him, and he asks Booker to come West and help him. Booker does, but their quest for vengeance is postponed somewhat (or is it?) when a visiting famous photographer is killed. The West is still wild.

   DeAndrea is just a damned good storyteller-and that’s the primary quality I look for in genre fiction. He can adapt his narrative voice to whatever kind of story he is telling, and make it sound right. His characters are likable and believable. And uncommonly for this day and time, he does not use more words than his story requires.

   I enjoyed this a lot. I think Booker and Blacke are two of DeAndrea’s better creations, and I very much look forward to seeing more of them.

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


Bibliographic Update: There was to be only one additional book in the series, The Fatal Elixir (1997), published the year after DeAndrea’s death. He was only 44.

MURDER 101. Made for cable-TV: USA Network, 20 March 1991. Pierce Brosnan, Dey Young, Antoni Corone, Raphael Sbarge, Kim Thomson, Mark L. Taylor. Director: Bill Condon.

   This played on the USA network last week, and if you’re a fan of mysteries about mysteries and mystery writers, I hope you didn’t miss it. Pierce Brosnan is a college professor who is a mystery writer in his spare time. More than that, he has struck it rich (relatively speaking) by writing a true-crime book which has helped put a clever killer behind bars.

   Unfortunately he has also struck out in his married life — a combination of success going to his head, plus a clandestine affair begun with one of his students. Upon his return to academia, he finds his wife in a close entanglement with his new department chairman, a nasty surprise within a surprise, it you see what I mean.

   There’s more. One of the courses he’s teaching is in how to write a thriller, and the first assignment is a paper on “how to commit the perfect murder.” One of his students (female, and on the prowl herself) takes this a bit too seriously, and … well, I’m not going to tell you everything. Suffice it to say, there are lots of suspects and even a few motives, some pretty good twists, and an ending which is a knockout, even if two or three steps beyond the realm of reality, but it worked for me.

   There is even a final twist beyond that, a clever little conceit that I’ll probably remember, even after I’ve forgotten the rest of the movie.

   I never watched Pierce Brosnan in that other TV show he was in, but other than the fact that he constantly needed a shave and a haircut in this movie, he did a fine job. Everyone else, besides the students, who looked too old, looked too young, As a matter of fact, I think everyone in this movie was younger than I am. Is this going to continue to be a trend of some kind?

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.


LOST DAUGHTER – Michael Cormany.  Dan Kruger #1. Lyle Stuart, hardcover, 1988. Leisure 3063; paperback, April 1991.

   I’m not completely convinced this is a step forward for the world of Pl fiction, but here it is. PI Dan Kruger is hired to find a man’s daughter, but the case becomes far more than that. Rather. than try to summarize the plot myself, maybe I’m better off simply quoting from p.150:

   I had to give him credit; the smug look dropped a little, but only a little, “I’m not in the drug business,” he said quietly, “You are crazy, private man. You are so crazy I want you to leave right now, I’m scared to be alone with you, That is how crazy you are, You weave stories out of thin air, you hallucinate a little of this a little of that. A lost kid, a little dope, a murder, a guy trying to get his business off the ground, some story about a crooked cop and punks trying to kill you. Throw in a lot of paranoia and, man, you got instant bullshit. I’m calling the police.” He reached for the phone on the desk.

   This is the story, as it turns out, of an all-American family gone to hell in the 80s. It’s paced like Paul Cain (author of Fast One) on speed, and it’s plotted like Hammett on cocaine. It’s not quite as good as either one, but unless you can’t stand repulsive dope-smoking, Valium-addicted, booze-ridden PI’s such as former cop, ex-rock musician Dan Kruger, this will do quite nicely as an up-to-date substitute. It all depends on your level of tolerance. (Picture Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in 1973, then add 15 more years of revisionist literary history.)

   I’m not old enough to know, but to the general public, is it possible that Sam Spade was as great an anti- hero in his day? Like Spade, Kruger has at least one redeeming feature in his favor. Once hired, he refuses to be bought off, frightened off, or even fired, from what he’s been employed to do. He sticks to the case like a bulldog who can’t let go, and that, if nothing else, is precisely in the solid PI tradition.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.


      The Dan Kruger series —

Lost Daughter.  Stuart 1988
Red Winter. Stuart 1989
Rich or Dead. Birch Lane 1990
Polaroid Man. Birch Lane 1991
Skin Deep Is Fatal. Birch Lane 1992

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