November 2021

MAX BRAND “The Flaming Finish.” Short story. First published in Blue Book, August 1938. Not known if ever reprinted.

   Even though I’d have to say that Max Brand is my favorite western writer, I haven’t read anything by him in quite a while. That’s why when I was going through some old pulp magazines last week, it really caught my eye when I saw that he had the lead story in the August 1938 issue of Blue Book.

   It turns out that “The Flaming Finish” is of note because while Max Brand under his many pen names had already written hundreds of thousands of words for the pulp magazines, this was the first story he wrote for Blue Book. And while he was most noted for his western stories (see above), this is the first I’ve come across that’s been an aviation story.

   It takes place during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), but it’s really a nostalgic tribute to those air pilots who fought during World War I, when aviators (true or false) had a certain camaraderie, if not outright chivalry or a code of honor used as the basis for their battles in the air against each other. When one such pilot in this story crashes to the ground and is captured, his opposite partner in the air returns him to his home base instead of killing him on sight, as he had every reason to.

   I don’t know enough about the aviation pulps to know how long in time that stories celebrating this code of honor lasted, but I’d like to think this one was one of the final ones, and Brand made its length of only seven pages fly by. Pun intended.

PostScript: A blurb on the cover of the magazine announces this as the first of a “new series of air adventures” under the overall title of “Knights of the Sky.” I don’t know if the following all fall into that category, but here’s a list of the next few followup stories Max Brand did for the magazine:

      Last Flight, The Blue Book Magazine September 1938.
      The Return of the Man Who Was Killed,  The Blue Book Magazine October 1938.
      True Steel,  The Blue Book Magazine February 1939.
      Half a Partner, The Blue Book Magazine March 1939.

DONALD CLOUGH CAMERON – Death at Her Elbow. Henry Holt & Co., hardcover, 1940. Green Dragon #20, digest paperback, circa 1945-46, abridged.

   After the suicide death of her New York City roommate, Ann Porter fled to the West Coast to get away from the memories. Returning after a year’s absence, she thinks the memories have faded, but not only is she wrong about that, but the body of the man who at the root of Jenny’s death is found murdered in Ann’s bedroom, hit over the head by a heavy statue in the shape of a cat.

   Investigating the murder is homicide detective Peter Gore, whose only appearance in print this seems to be. The story does not follow Gore’s footsteps through the case, but Ann’s, who fears that her former boy friend, who has waited faithfully for her, committed the crime, whereas – you guessed – he thinks she did it.

   This complicates matters, of course, at least as far as Ann and Alec are concerned. Gore – and this is rather surprising – looks kindly upon the pair of lovers and does his best not to suspect either one. But what this means is that are two major themes to Death at Her Elbow. One, the romance, and secondly, the mystery.

   Luckily the mystery does not take a total second shrift. The problem is, as far as solving the murder is concerned, is that there are just a few too many suspects (although at least one is an out-and-out ringer) and not quite enough clues. As for me, I could have done with less romance, but Cameron was a decent writer, describing the characters and capturing the setting well, and I enjoyed this one.

   Cameron wrote a total of six mysteries between 1939 and 1947, three of them starring a chap named Abelard Voss, about whom Wikipedia says was a “young criminologist and detective … who liked to take philosophical reflections during his investigations.” He also wrote extensively for the comic books. I found this interesting enough that I’m going to quote liberally from his Wikipedia page:

   “Cameron made several notable contributions to the Batman mythos. The story “Here Comes Alfred!” in Batman #16 (April–May 1943) by Cameron and Bob Kane introduced Alfred as Bruce Wayne’s butler. Cameron co-created Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Detective Comics #74 (April 1943) and the Cavalier in Detective Comics #81 (Nov. 1943). His story “Brothers in Crime!” in Batman #12 (Aug.–Sept. 1942) featured “Batman’s Hall of Trophies” a precursor to the Batcave, which debuted in Detective Comics #83 (Jan. 1944). Cameron and Win Mortimer created Batman’s Batboat in Detective Comics #110 (April 1946). In addition, Cameron was one of the writers of the Batman comic strip for the McClure Newspaper Syndicate.

   “His work on Superman includes creating the Toyman in Action Comics #64 (Sept. 1943) and writing the earliest Superboy stories in More Fun Comics.

   “Cameron created Liberty Belle in Boy Commandos #1 (Winter 1942) and Pow Wow Smith in Detective Comics #151 (Sept. 1949). He was one of the writers of DC’s Hopalong Cassidy licensed series based on the film and TV Western hero. Other comic book work by Cameron includes Aquaman, Congo Bill, and the Western character Nighthawk.”

NO CLUE. Alliance, Canada, 2013. Brent Butt, Amy Smart, David Koechner, David Cubitt, Dan Payne, Kirsten Prout. Screenplay: Brent Butt. Director: Carl Bessai. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

   I wonder which mystery writer it was who was the first to open one of his books with a beautiful blonde babe walking into a PI’s office wanting him to do a job for her.

   As I say, I don’t know who it was, but the guy ought to have copyright the whole bit. If he had (were it possible), he’d have made a fortune by now.

   The problem in this case, for such an opening is the case, is that Leo Falloon is not a PI. His is the office down the hall, and the girl has made a mistake. He’s really a novelty pen salesman, the kind of pen that companies put their logos and slogans on, but when he hears the girl out – and she really is a beautiful blonde babe, so wouldn’t you? – and when she offers him real money – hell, yes, he takes the case.

   Her brother is missing, she says. He’s created a video game that’s brought in tons of money, and she thinks something is seriously wrong. Which of course it is, and equally of course is that Leo Falloon, a slightly overweight schlub of a man, discovers that he’s seriously in over his head, but in most comedic fashion.

   Luckily his best buddy Ernie (David Koechner, a long time regular on Saturday Night Live) is a devout aficionado of video games and is thus able to give Leo some pointers in the right direction. Of course all is not what it seems, and thus the heart of the tale that follows

   Brent Butt is a well-known standup Canadian comedian and the star of Corner Gas, a Canadian TV comedy about a small gas station slash convenience store in Dog River, smack dab in the middle of nowhere (Saskatchewan), if you have never seen, I recommend to you most heartily.

   On the other hand, as I’ve often said, humor is a funny thing. Most of the people who have written online reviews don’t get Butt’s kind of semi-sarcastic self-deprecating take on the world. Well, so be it. You can’t make people laugh if they their minds don’t work the way Brett Butts’ does, and mine, too, for that matter.

   What’s strange, though, is that many of the very same people thought the mystery was terrific – at least those of them who made it through to the end. The mystery’s OK, with all kinds of clues and things, but are they all tied up at the end? Not to me, they weren’t, but then again I didn’t mind. I had lots of everything else to keep me happy all the way through.

HUGH PENTECOST – The Fourteen Dilemma.  Pierre Chambrun #12.  Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1976. Worldwide, paperback, April 1990.

   It’s been quite a while since I read either a Judson Philips or a Hugh Pentecost mystery, and I find that I’d completely forgotten how much passion he used to put into a story. Not passion in a sexual sense, but pure, unadulterated emotion. Rage, hate, love, joy, the works.

   What disturbed me at first was the fact that this adventure of Pierre Chambrun centers around the death of a beautiful young 12 year old girl who also happens to be a deaf mute. She and her parents are staying at the Hotel Beaumont as the result of a winning lottery ticket in a $250,000 lottery, They’ve been given a luxury apartment on the exclusive 14th floor, along with assorted diplomats, movie stars, professional killers, including one working for the State Department, and some of the wealthiest people in the world.

   And thus the number of possible suspects is limited, even though the hotel is otherwise very much like a city unto itself. But young innocent girls are not supposed to be murder victims, and — if this makes sense — while I know it happens in real life, there is no real reason I have to read about it in fiction as well, is there?

   But the fact that she cannot hear or speak is an essential part of the plot, and that she is an innocent victim is part of what spurs Chambrun into taking some of the actions he does. The story builds, as it often does in Pentecost’s books, into a story of black power politics, Arab nationalism, corporate greed, and of course, national security. In other words, a full-fledged international crisis.

   As the years [have gone] by, some of the fervent emotion seems to have ebbed away from what seemed so important a decade or so ago. On the other hand, it’s still oil that makes the world go around, or haven’t you noticed?

   Overall,  this us a decent mystery, told in Pentecost’s straightforward, often blunt style of writing, but in the end the death of the small girl  is all but forgotten.  With all the other events going on, it’s not surprising, but I somehow still found it more than a minor annoyance to me.

– Slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, September/October 1978.

LARRY MADDOCK – The Flying Saucer Gambit. Agent of T.E.R.R.A #1. Ace G-605, paperback original, 1966.

   The Temporal Entropy Rescue and Repair Agency sends the team of Hannibal Fortune and Webley to the year 1966 on Earth to stop Empire from using a new weapon capable of driving mankind insane. The trail leads from the plains of Kansas to the mountains of Arizona, where a last-ditch battle is fought in the cave headquarters of Empire.

   The basis of history, as expounded upon on page 56, is not that of individuals, but of social dynamics, determining a certain stability that makes temporal tampering difficult, although not impossible. It is Fortune’s job to maintain current time-lies, relative to the 26th Century, against Empire’s efforts to tyrannize the universe.

   All ends [of the story] are tidy, except for a lingering suspicion that time-travel should make warfare even easier. Or more complicated. The background seems well-researched, but the basic character of Hannibal Fortune does not yet seem settled – James Bond is a prototype, but the Bond of the books, or of the movies?

Rating: **½

–October 1967

      The Agent of T.E.R.R.A. series —

1. The Flying Saucer Gambit (1966)
2. The Golden Goddess Gambit (1967)
3. The Emerald Elephant Gambit (1967)
4. The Time Trap Gambit (1969)

Biblographic Update: Larry Maddock was the pen name of Jack Jardine, who wrote other SF novels and stories as Howard L. Myers. The comments following my earlier review of The Mind Monsters which he wrote under that name has quite a bit of discussion about him.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts


GERRY SPENCE – Blood on the Table. Forge Books, hardcover, March 2021. Setting: Contemporary Wyoming.

First Sentence: Ringo felt something hard poking him in the ribs.

   Famed trial attorney Gerry Spence takes readers to small-town Wyoming, where 11-year-old Ringo must fight against corruption, prejudice, and hatred in order to protect his family.

   Time skips are frustrating, but time skipping between 1947,1940, and 1945; then, back to 1940, to 1947, to 1926, is just too much. What happened to telling a story in a linear format?

   The characters, almost all of whom are dislikable, read as stereotypes. Perhaps it is because stereotypes are based on reality that they make the book unsettling.

   Unfortunately, the plot gives the reader nothing to grasp, yet Spence is an excellent writer. You feel it, you know it, but the format and darkness of this story overwhelm the quality of the writing. And then the conclusion. No one knows better than a lawyer that justice is blind and not always served well. But oh, how one always hopes.

   Blood on the Table is dark and violent and might work for those who love noir. Spence; however, is an amazing writer. Here’s hoping his next book is more reminiscent of his book Court of Lies.

Rating: Poor.

JOHN BUXTON HILTON – Dead-Nettle. Inspector Thomas Brunt #3. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1977. St. Martin’s, US, hardcover, 1977.

   Hilton works the previously untapped treasure lode of tales from the English lead-mining country of Derbyshire once again. The year is 1905, and the grist of  Inspector Brunt’s dogged investigation is the death of a miner’s  long lost wife, a woman who had suddenly returned to him without warning.

   Complicating matters is the shyly aloof man’s new love, the mine owner’s daughter and a remarkably liberated lady for the times.  Much of the affair is related second-hand, but that in no way interferes with the reader’s growing involvement with the players upon the stage.

   Superb melodrama.

Rating: A minus

– Slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, September/October 1978.

RED NOTICE. Netflix, 2021. Dwayne Johnson (John Hartley), Ryan Reynolds (Nolan Booth), Gal Gadot (The Bishop), Ritu Arya, Chris Diamantopoulos. Screenwriter/director: Rawson Marshall Thurber.

   A “red notice” is a global alert issued by Interpol to hunt and capture the world’s most notorious criminals. In this regard, an FBI profiler (Dwayne Johnson) is called upon to nab the world’s most wanted art thief (Ryan Reynolds), but as chance will have it, they become reluctant partners in crime, but with the goal of obtaining Cleopatra’s bejeweled “third egg” ahead of a master thief (Gal Gadot), who seems to be able to outwit them both at every turn.

   Following constantly (and mostly futilely) in the of all three wake is Inspector Urvashi Das (Ritu Arya).

   It should be noted that this is a comedy as well as a slickly-made action thriller.

   It should also be noted that this film follows solidly in the footsteps of movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, without supplying anywhere near the thrilling experience that  that earlier movie did when I saw it the first time. Or even the second or third time. This one’s OK on its own terms the first time, but watch it again? I have no interest.

   Gal Gadot is a pleasure to watch, but I think “The Rock” is getting up there too far in years to keep making adventure movies such as this. And while Ryan is a motormouth when it comes to wisecracking and joking around, one wonders when if ever he also might grow up a little.

   While the movie is fun to see — and it really is a lot better than the trailer above — a lot more money was spent in producing it than the folks behind the syndicated TV series Relic Hunter had at their disposal,for example, and I’m not so sure the results are all that much better. If you’re already subscribed to Netflix, it won’t cost you anything to see this one, but if you’re on the fence as to deciding whether to sign up or not, I’d have to tell you that this one’s not the deal-breaker you’ve been waiting for.

   Unless , that is, you’re a Gal Gadot fan. Why else would I have watched this one?




KYRIL BONFIGLIOLI – Don’t Point That Thing at Me. Charlie Mordecai #1. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, UK, hardcover, 1972. US title: Mortdecai’s Endgame. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1973. Also published in the US under the British title by International Polygonics, paperback, 1990. Film: Mortdecai, 2015, starring Johnny Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow.

   Here’s another author that I’m sure most of you are familiar with, but whom I’ve never read. I keep stumbling across these large holes in my education.

   The Honorable (not) Charlie Mortdecai, art dealer, is involved in an intricate scheme to smuggle a stolen painting to America for an unscrupulous millionaire. The millionaire and another Englishman decide to blackmail a British public official, unfortunately, and this brings Charlie to the attention of Great Britain’s version of the OGPU and its brutally smarmy head-an old schoolmate of Charlie’s.

   Now begins a hare-and-hounds that leads to America (where Charlie encounters some lethal US Government agents), leaving bodies strewn along the way.

   This is written in that mannered, bitchy English prose style that I absolutely love, though I imagine it’s anathema to some people. It’s one of those books that I enjoy just for the voice, characters, and dialog, and don’t worry a lot about the plot.

  “Farce” probably wouldn’t be a bad description, though that’s a line of demarcation I’m never quite sure where to draw. Mortdecai is as engaging a villain as I’ve come across in a long time, and I thoroughly enjoyed him and his exploits. There are two more of these, and now I’ve got to hunt them up.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #22, November 1995


      The Charlie Mortdecai series

   Kyril Bonfiglioli:

Don’t Point That Thing at Me.  Weidenfeld 1972
Something Nasty in the Woodshed. Macmillan 1976
After You with the Pistol.  Secker 1979

   Kyril Bonfiglioli & Craig Brown:

The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery.  Black Spring 1996



SLEEPING CAR TO TRIESTE. General Film Distributors, UK, 1948. Eagle Lion Films, US, 1949. Jean Kent, Albert Lieven, Derrick De Marney, Paul Dupuis, Rona Anderson. Screenplay: Allan MacKinnon . Director: John Paddy Carstairs. Currently available on YouTube.

   I’ve always loved films set on vintage trains. It’s the best place to generate suspense: strangers trapped together with no safe way to escape. The Lady Vanishes (1938), of course, is the gold standard, though Night Train to Munich (1940), The Narrow Margin (1952) are other notables. This effort from prolific British director John Paddy Carstairs is a remake of 1932’s Rome Express, which I’ve seen, and follows it fairly faithfully.

   That film centred on a Van Dyke painting stolen by a gang of thieves who subsequently fail to regroup. Poole, one of the gang, tries to flee on the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits train the Rome Express, travelling between Paris and Rome, but his accomplice Zurta, gets on board himself in pursuit.

   Also on board are an adulterous couple, an English golf-bore, a wealthy but tight-fisted businessman and his brow-beaten secretary/valet, a French police officer and an American film star with her manager/publicist.

   The 1948 version went out under the title Sleeping Car to Trieste. The train is now the Orient Express, though the story’s biggest difference is probably the MacGuffin: instead of a painting, it’s now a diary. The film star has also disappeared, the businessman is now a celebrated writer and the golf-bore (who had been played rather wonderfully by Gordon Harker) is now a hooray henry, while other characters have been added.

   As in the original, when Poole (Alan Wheatley – who I only saw the other day in a Tara King-era Avengers episode) boards a train in an attempt to flee his accomplices, one of them, Zurta (Albert Lieven), gets on board and tries to catch him. The tension comes from watching how close he gets. Of course, Poole tries to lay low in his compartment (the sleeping car of the title) until he gets to the West, where he can sell the diary without sharing the proceeds with his accomplices.

   Unfortunately, he is interrupted by another passenger who insists on sharing his accomplice. The diary is hastily hidden in the en-suite bathroom and Poole tries to arrange another compartment for himself without raising too much attention. Before long, he is roaming the train alone and trying to find cover while avoiding bumping into Zurta.

   Elsewhere on the train, there is an adulterous couple (Derek De Marney and Rona Anderson) an Italian-American GI from New York (Bonar Colleano); a famous writer and his put-upon valet Finlay Currie and Hugh Burden); an ornithologist (Michael Ward); a French police inspector (Paul Dupuis) and an imbecilic stockbroker (David Tomlinson).

   The tone is much lighter than the more sinister Rome Express. There is a French chef who is forced to take lessons on English food from a cheerfully xenophobic passenger (“…And that’s called roly poly pudding!”) while the American GI, bored senseless by the chattering ornithologist sharing his compartment, has his romantic advances spurned by a couple of young French sisters (“We don’t want to be liberated anymore!”).

   Tomlinson’s character – younger than his Rome Express counterpart – is perhaps the most overtly humorous, as he bumps into the couple and realises he knows the man, George Grant, and insists on spending time with him. Grant, therefore, must keep away from his mistress, Joan, to avoid their affair becoming known.

   There’s a neat bit of satire here, perhaps even pathos, as Joan is more in love with him than he is with her. In fact, Grant is clearly using Joan as a bit of sexual distraction during his business trip, and deserves all the trouble he gets. Similar sympathy is wrought by author Alastair MacBain’s poor valet Mills who – in one of the film’s most engaging scenes – briefly turns the tables on his tyrannical employer.

   Although such scenes are diverting, they do distract from the main plot, particularly as these side-characters never become properly involved in it. I expected the diary to go from passenger to passenger but, although it does get discovered, this doesn’t quite happen.

   There is still tension, however, not least when Poole is cajoled into a card game involving Zurta and tries to avoid being left alone with him, and there’s a murder in the last couple of reels, followed by a confrontational climax.

   The film is neatly updated to the late 1940s political situation in Europe, though this is only ever obliquely referred to. Aside from the first five minutes, the whole thing is set on the train, so railfans and retro-romantics will enjoy seeing the compartments and corridors. Like the first version, it lacks a central protagonist, and there’s no larger conspiracy to unravel, but on its own terms, it is worth a watch.

Rating: ***

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