March 2022



JEAN-PATRICK MANCHETTE – The Mad and the Bad. ‎ NYRB Classics, paperback, July 2014. Translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Introduction by James Sallis. First published in 1972 as O dingos, O chateaux! Winner of the French Grand Prix of crime fiction for the year 1973.

   A super rich couple dies when their private plane flies into a mountain.

   The husband’s brother, a failed architect, inherits their young bratty son and their fortune.

   The fortune is cool. Who wouldn’t want a fortune?

Now all the architectural plans that nobody liked can finally be built!

   But the brat! What to do with the brat?

   He hatches a brilliant idea!

   He’ll start a foundation as a philanthropist for people with disabilities.

   Hire help, but only conspicuously with impairments: A chef with epilepsy; a valet with one arm; a wounded veteran chauffeur.

   Ahh. And the coup de grace: a nanny with bipolar disorder. Freshly released from a five-year stint of psychiatric hospitalization following arson.

   Ohhhh. It’s gonna be so sad. ‘The philanthropist was just trying to be philanthropic!’ That’s what they’ll say!

   Who could blame him?

   How was he supposed to know that the nanny would go manic, kidnap the kid, and then riddled with remorse, hang the kid and then herself?

   It’ll be so sad.

   So so sad.

   But how to make sure it happens that way?

   Well, better hire a world-renowned dyspeptic hitman. He’ll be sure to get ’er done. Make it look just right.


   Unfortunately for them, the ‘bad’ have grossly underestimated the ‘mad’. The nanny is hell to deal with off her meds.

   Escaping the initial assassination attempt, “[w]ith a dead branch she drew a large heart in the sand in front of her, and inside it she wrote: HERE LIVED… THE RABID BITCH.…. She pictured men flirting with her — and her shooting them point-blank. I must be in a manic phase, she told herself.”

   Dashing thru France, a scorched trail of destruction in their wake, go the nanny and child, and the hitman.


   Terrific, brisk, cinematic short novel. At dizzying speed, 163 pages might as well be 163 mph.

   Manchette, Hammett acolyte, shows you rather than tells you. You feel it thru the visceral description of the action and the surroundings. You rarely hear anyone’s thoughts. You feel fear because the circumstances are frightening. Not because a character tells you they are afraid. Be very afraid.

   Highly recommended.



CORNELL WOOLRICH – Black Alibi. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1942. Paperback reprints include: HandiBook #14, 194?; Jonathan Press, 194?; Collier, 1965; Ballantine, 1982.

THE LEOPARD MAN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1943. Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell. Based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich. Producer: Val Lewton. Director: Jacques Tourneur .

   So it was time to get back to the Classics, and in my book, that’s Cornell Woolrich. Black Alibi isn’t terribly well-structured — it consists mainly of a growingly repetitious series of rather lengthy vignettes of young girls going to meet untimely and violent ends at the hands of…. well, it’s a Mystery, isn’t it? — but it contains some of Woolrich’s richest prose, and that’s saying quite a lot.

   Alibi offers scene after scene of startling imagery, deft metaphor, and everything else that makes the words a pleasure to read, even when the book itself gets a bit tiresome.

   Black Alibi was filmed by the Val Lewton unit at RKO just a year after the book came out, and Woolrich never found an auteur more attuned to his peculiar sensibilities than Val Lewton. Lewton made “B” movies and Woolrich wrote pulp, but both men were compulsive poets, and The Leopard Man is one of the more meticulous Woolrich-to-film adaptations: bits of dialogue, trifling incidents, and minor characters from the book all show up on the screen under Lewton’s careful supervision and the classy direction of Jacques Tourneur, which seems to capture even the metaphors from Woolrich’s novel.

   Given the faithfulness of this film, I’ve sometimes wondered about the exact contributions of the screenwriters, Ardel Wray and Edward Dein. It takes a certain amount of talent not to mess  up a good story when putting it across the screen, so I can understand Wray’s contribution: she worked on a couple other Lewton films and a better-than average series entry, The Falcon and the Coeds. But I wonder what “additional dialogue” may have been contributed by Edward Dein, a writer whose dubious credits include Jungle Woman, Calypso Joe, and Shack Out on  101. Just one of those unexplained mysteries of The Cinemah, I guess.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #37, March 2005.




PAUL McGUIRE – Threepence to Marble Arch. Chief Inspector Wittler #2. Skeffington, UK, hardcover, 1936. Forgotten Books, UK, softcover, 2018. No US edition.

   Undoubtedly one of the better writers to turn his attentions to the mystery novel, McGuire seems nonetheless not to have quite made the top grade. This book perhaps illustrates why.

   After a promising  beginning in which, by paying her bus fare (of the title), hero Michael  Grey breaks the ice with heroine Gillian Robartes, and then goes with her to a political rally at which her two cousins Richard and Thomas violently oppose one another,  the book falters. True it gets a shot in the arm as Richard is killed in the office of his radical newspaper, but the investigation seems slow and ponderous, as various suspects are sought out and interviewed.

   Grey and Miss Robartes are an unusually silly and unlikely pair of sleuths, and I had great trouble in following the plot or retaining my interest. In fact the plot is one of the main weaknesses: thirties politics do not inspire, and there’s too little ingenuity or pace to carry the thing through successfully.

   I recall that another of McGuire’s books, Murder by Law, was also very slow, but that at least had an ingenious murder method. This does not, and must be counted as one of McGuire’s poorer efforts.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 3, Number 2 (March-April 1980).


WINDFALL. Netflix, 2022. Jason Segel, Lily Collins, Jesse Plemons, Omar Leyva. Director: Charlie McDowell.

   “Chekhov’s gun” is the principle, attributed to the eponymous Russian playwright, that every element introduced into a play should be necessary and extraneous elements should be removed. The gun aspect is largely understood to mean that, if the audience is going to see a gun at the opening of a play, it should be a key element in how the action unfolds later in the play.

   I couldn’t help but think of this while watching Netflix’s Windfall, a satisfying, if incomplete, thriller and black comedy directed by Charlie McDowell (son of actor Malcolm). At the very beginning of the film – in the first 10 minutes or so – the audience witnesses a man (Jason Segel) exploring and rummaging through a beautiful California country house that clearly is not his own.

   We don’t know why he is there, nor what his motivations are. But he seems to be taken with the place and its natural beauty. It also seems as if he is looking for cash. And, perhaps most significantly, he finds a handgun in a drawer.

   Pretty soon, though, Segel’s character is not alone. An upscale couple (Jesse Plemons and Lily Collins) arrives at the home. The break-in turns into a hostage situation. Over the next hour or so, tensions unfold between the three characters – who are never named – with the intruder asking for a giant financial sum from the wealthy husband.

   All of this puts great strain on the computer mogul’s wife, who seemingly has been unhappily living in her philandering husband’s shadow lo these many years. If this sounds like a chamber piece – like a play – you’d be absolutely on the mark. For this is a movie script that could have been written by Chekhov himself.

   Windfall is most certainly a slow burn; it doesn’t offer instantaneous thrills. What it does offer is atmosphere – a sunny quasi-noir disposition that you feel like you have been transported to the French countryside – and a quirky, offbeat sensibility.

   It’s well directed and certainly well cast, with Segel showing that he has a lot of potential for more dramatic roles that don’t require him to be quite so goofy. It just is that the film doesn’t add up to all that much. It certainly aims to be a little more highbrow than many Netflix offerings and, on that level, it succeeds.

   But there’s nothing all that new under the California sun here for those well immersed in the thriller genre. One last note: the aforementioned gun is ultimately fired. More than once.


Reviews by L. J. Roberts


DAVID HOUSEWRIGHT – What Doesn’t Kill Us.  Rushmore MacKenzie #18. Minotaur Books, hardcover, May 2021.

First Sentence: I was shot in the back at close range by a .32-caliber handgun yet did not die, at least not permanently.

   Rushmore “Mac” MacKenzie is a former cop now spending his time doing unofficial private investigations for his friends, some more law-abiding than others. It all starts when his friend Deese takes a genealogy-site DNA test and learns his father is not his father. But is that what led to Mac being shot in the back? Now lying in a medically-induced coma, it is up to Mac’s friends to do a favor for him to track down his would-be killer.

   What a unique premise. While the solving of the crime is left up to his diverse and fascinating assortment of friends with incidents shown from their perspective, the story is told, by post coma, by Mac. This gives a somewhat out-of-body feel to the narration. The book does mention COVID-19, although it was clearly written at the very beginning of the pandemic.

   Housewright has compiled a fascinating collection of characters. Many are recurring characters that add to the overall series. Some, such as Detective Shipman, are new and add a touch of vinegar to the story. That Nina, Mac’s wife, confesses being jealous of Shelby, the wife of Mac’s best friend, is perfectly written and exemplifies how women almost never realize their own worth or successes.

   The story segues into various relevant topics are insightful and add a layer to the story beyond the basic investigation. Rather than being intrusive or slowing the pace, they add a layer of significance.

   Housewright is an eminently quotable author. Whether talking about emotional pain— “It reminds me of that old Skeeter Davis song. I wake up in the morning and I wonder why everything’s the same as it was.” —or referencing Shakespeare to impart a facial expression— “I need you to do something for me,” she said. The way Smith and Jones glanced at each other yet again somehow reminded Shipman of Shakespeare’s Richard III – I am not in the giving vein today. “—or a t-shirt meme— “YOU MATTER unless you multiply yourself by the speed of light squared…then you energy.” —his words are relatable.

   Unconventional twists are sometimes so cleverly done as to make one smile. The story of Deese and the unintended result of taking the DNA test is one that could serve as a caution. But there is also a well-done twist that circles the plot back to the motive.

   What Doesn’t Kill Us  is a well-done, non-stop read. This may not be Housewright’s best book, only due to the plethora of characters which can be confusing, but it is certainly an entertaining one.

Rating: Good Plus.



VIRGIN OF THE SECRET SERVICE. “Entente Cordiale. ITV, UK, 11 April 1968 (Season One, Episode Three). Clinton Greyn, Alexander Dore, John Carter, Veronica Strong, Noel Coleman, Katherine Shofield, Frederick Preisly. Devised by Ted Willis. Teleplay by Betty Paul (as Betty Lambda). Directed by Paul Bernard. Currently streaming on YouTube.

   Captain Robert Virgin (Clinton Greyn) of the British Secret Service finds himself in Paris to attend the funeral of the son of a peer of the realm, an artist who was murdered, a John Bull figure with a knife through his chest found,  his body signaling that a Chinese Secret Society wanting revenge for the humiliation of the Boxer Rebellion is about to strike.

   The mostly likely target, according to Virgin’s chief Colonel Shaw-Camberley (Noel Coleman), is the Duke of Albany (Frederick Preisly) in Paris to negotiate the Entente Cordiale between the British and French against Germany, but more interested in the Can Can at the Moulin Rouge and its star, Cigarette (Katherine Shofield), the dead artist’s lover/model.

   Virgin and his batman Doublette (John Carter) pose as an artist and his servant to get close to Cigarette, is she part of the scheme or does she know something? She’s not particularly fond of the British despite her tastes in men, and her casual nudity modeling when she meets Virgin disconcerts him and Doublette both.

   Cigarette: And what do you paint?

   Virgin: I specialize in horses.

   Cigarette: And are the horses nude?

   Of course as feared there is a plot afoot, the Yellow Peril raising its ugly head, but in full irony more in the mood of Thoroughly Modern Millie than Dr. Fu Manchu.

   German secret agent Karl Von Blauner (Alexander Dore) has allied with Chinese assassins to assassinate Albany and they want to know what Cigarette knows too, leading to a white slavery ring, Virgin and Doublette trapped in a flooding chamber beneath enemy headquarters, an assassination attempt at a concert, and a final blowout at the Moulin Rouge with Albany surrounded by would be assassins.

   Along the way the mysterious Mrs. Virginia Cortez (Veronica Strong) appears across the hall from the Albany to lend a hand foiling the assassination while Virgin rescues Cigarette and others sold into White Slavery from a Chinese laundry. Mrs. Strong’s unexpected appearances no matter where Virgin’s adventures take him are a running joke in the series, likely an unsuccessful attempt to do a Victorian Mrs. Peel.

   It’s all played tongue in cheek and completely straight-faced despite the absurdity of the plot and dialogue. It’s no easy thing to pull this kind of thing off, but the British do it splendidly and this plays many of the notes of The Avengers (not as stylish and closer to the Honor Blackman than the Diana Rigg episodes) and Adam Adamant Lives, with Greyn appropriately dashing, rather thick headed but good at his job, brave, and veddy British. It’s a played broader than say The Wild Wild West, but the same general feeling of laughing up the sleeve while still attending to the action and adventure elements applies here.

   Everyone plays it straight but with more than enough humor with Dore particularly good as the villain, Carter as Doublette, and tall, blonde, handsome Greyn well cast as the hero. Unlike many attempts at this kind of thing the jokes mostly land and do so without the characters having to wink at the audience or step out of character.

   Virgin of the Secret Service was devised by Ted Willis (Lord Willis) creator of the legendary long running police procedural television series P.C. 49 and author of Man-Eater, The Buckingham Palace Connection, and The Churchill Commando. It ran thirteen episodes in 1968 from ITC, and while it only ran the one season it is worth catching the episodes available on YouTube


   It’s been a year since I posted this link on my blog. Take a 30% discount on the prices you see here, which is how they’re priced on Amazon:



CLIFTON ADAMS – The Desperado / A Noose for the Desperado. Stark House Press, trade paperback, 2017. // The Desperado. Gold Medal #121, paperback original, 1950. // Noose for the Desperado. Gold Medal #683, paperback original, 1957.

   First heard about this via George Tuttle’s defunct website defining noir and suggesting some titles:

   He says there: “The Desperado by Clifton Adams … though a Western, this novel is a landmark of early Gold Medal noir. Set in Texas during Reconstruction, the story traces the subtle transformation of Talbert Cameron from battler of injustice to outlaw.”

   Never before having thought of westerns as part of the noirboiled genre, this way eyeopening and provided this bibliomaniac with a whole new reading source to plunder.

   Though westerns seem like they are 1800’s rather than 1940’s, the genre started around the same time as noirboiled crime, involved many of the same writers, and contains many of the same themes and styles as the Hammett’s and Chandler’s whose bibliographies I’d exhausted.

   The lone gunman, the town harlot, and the marshall of the western are fairly transposable to the hardboiled detective, Jim Thompson psycho, and the femme fatale. The town always corrupt.

   The Stark House edition I read has the following Donald Westlake quote on its cover:

   “A compact, understated, almost reluctant treatment of violence, first introduced me to the notion of the character adapting to his forced separation from normal society.” Sounds like the Desperado’s the Parker template.

   Onto the books themselves (in a recent read (Blue of Noon) a female character says: “Get to the point. I never listen to prefaces.”).

   Talbert (“Tall”) Cameron is around 18 years old, with a temper, in small town Texas during reconstruction. His folks have a little homestead, raise cattle and horses. It’s all real homey.

   But then Talbert punches a carpetbagging cop who insults the local ladies, and he’s due to do time on the work gang.

   He ain’t going.

   He takes off, and when the cops beat his dad to death when his dad refuses to squawk of Tall’s whereabouts, all bets are off.

   Tall comes back, exacts his revenge, and from there on out he’s a desperado.

   It’s well written. It’s hard. It’s dark. It’s boiled.

   The Desperado is quite good. Quite archetypal. Innocence lost. Young love. Honor. Revenge. Betrayal.

   And like the typical hard-boiled detective, he’s got an ethos. He doesn’t steal. He only kills in self-defense.

   And then comes the sequel: A Noose for the Desperado.

   First of all: Spoiler alert: No Noose. Not even the suggestion of a noose.

   He takes over a western version of Poisonville for no apparent reason than greed.

   Now, for some unexplained reason, the Desperado has lost his morals. Or at least traded them for ambivalence.

   He’s like Yogi Berra’s old saying that if you see a fork in the road, take it.

   He steals. And then he decides that money doesn’t matter. He uses people. And then he looks after them. And then he doesn’t.

   One of the main Aristotelian virtues is constancy. It’s a virtue all the great heroes have.

   The Desperado has it in the first novel and loses it in second.

   While he escapes the noose, we do not.

ELLERY QUEEN – The Origin of Evil. Little Brown, hardcover, 1951. Paperback reprints include: Pocket #926, 1953; #2926, 1956. Signet, 1972. Harper Perennial, 1992. Also one of the three novels included in the omnibus volume The Hollywood Murders (J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, 1951).

   Ellery returns to Hollywood and finds reports of its death premature, but a new Hollywood, to be sure. Revenge is apparently the motive for a series of mysterious threats to a pair of business partners; one of them dies of fright.

   It is the other, confined to a wheelchair, who believes he has worked out the murder scheme, but this time the real murderer is even more clever.

   The pseudo-Tarzan living in a tree is the most remarkable character, one most remembered. There seemed to be a bit more lenient attitude toward sex in this story than expected. Ellery falls in love with one unworthy; Paula Paris is not mentioned.

   The series of threats has a hidden significance, as well as the first threatening note. Was EQ’s presence a factor? Lack of evidence keeps justice from triumphing completely, not quite satisfying.

Rating: ***

–December 1967


THOMAS B. DEWEY – Deadline. Mac #13. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1966. Pocket 55002, paperback, 1968. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1984. Presumably expanded from the short story “Deadline” appearing in Sir!, August 1968.

   For a hardboiled PI detective novel, which this one definitely is, it’s a little different from most hardboiled PI novels – but probably not different enough to be unique, one of a kind. Mac – that’s the only name we ever know him by in all 17 of his novels – has been hired by a panel of psychologists and social workers, not to prove a young boy on death row is innocent – he’s already confessed – but to prove that he’s legally insane, and to persuade the governor to issue a stay of execution.

   Most of Mac’s cases take place in the down and dirty streets of Chicago. (The second and last two take place in Los Angeles.) Deadline takes place in the small farming community of Wesley, Illinois. Dominating the town is the local John Deere dealer, and since it was his daughter who was brutally murdered, the man most certainly does not want Mac to stop the execution.

   Mac does not have much to work with. His “client” is socially challenged and it is difficult for him to give any coherent information about the day of the girl’s killing. Her best friend, still in high school, has an emotional disorder. Mac’s only ally in Wesley is Miss Adams, a teacher in the local high school, and since she is dating the girl’s father, her help is only reluctantly provided at best.

   Mac is beaten up at least once in this one, and chained up in a barn so he can’t do any damage to the case against the boy about to be executed. The title, Deadline, is certainly an appropriate one. Mac’s efforts to figure out what exactly did happen come down to the last minute. Somewhat unfortunately, the clue that’s the key one is rather an obvious one. (I spotted it, after all.)

   There’s a hint of attraction between Mac and Miss Adams, but it’s clear by book’s end that anything more than that is not going to happen. That’s an ending that quite probably happened to him more than once.

« Previous PageNext Page »