August 2022

IF SCIENCE FICTION, March 1967. Editor: Frederik Pohl. “Special Hugo Winners Issue.” Cover: McKenna. Overall rating: ***

ISAAC ASIMOV “The Billiard Ball.” Novelette. A conflict between a theoretical physicist and a technician over the possibility of ant-gravity leads to the death of one. The Master has not lost his touch. (5)

HARLAN ELLISON “I Have No Mouth and I must Scream.” Four men and a woman, the last human survivors, are trapped within the underground vaults of a computer. (4)

ROGER ZELAZNY “The Mortal Mountain.” Novelette. A mountain forty miles high challenges the best climbing team in the business. Complications arise when “energy beings” threaten their ascent. Too much of an adventure story only, but is SF. Symbolism, climbing to stars? (3)

JOSEPH WESLEY “Moonshine.” A marine orderly on the moon brews his own. Story has been told many times before. (1)

LARRY NIVEN “Flatlander.” Novelette. Beowulf Schaeffer and perhaps the richest man on Earth look for adventure on the mysterious planet of a protosun. All the clues to its true nature are provided. Well done, except that the details of the previous series parts are beginning to bore. (4)

ROSCOE WRIGHT “The Sepia Springs Affair.” A strange bunch of aliens write letters to Pohl. I’d rather read the [real] letter column. (0)

ALGIS BUDRYS “The Iron Thorn.” Serial; part 3 of 4. See report following final installment.

BETSY CURTIS “Latter-Day Daniel.” A man with one arm feeds synthetic ones to lion. (1)

–January 1968


HORACE McCOY – I Should Have Stayed Home. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover,  1938. Signet #884, paperback, 1951; Berkley #328, paperback, 1958.

   Ralph Carston, a 23 year old Greek god with a Jim Nabors accent, was a local playhouse star in smalltown Georgia. A talent scout invited him out to Hollywood for a screen test. So he picked up stakes and went California way.

   He’s rooming with a coupla Hollywood extras, struggling for work.

   It’s been eight months since his screen test and he still hasn’t heard back from the scout despite leaving messages every day.

   One of his roomies gets arrested for shoplifting and hangs herself after getting sentenced to six years prison. The other gives up and becomes a mail-away bride.

   Ralph? He’s been lying to his folks back home, insinuating great success in lieu of his abject failure.

   A Norma Desmond type aging millionaire nympho (sans von Stroheim) has eyes for Ralph, but Ralph is too disgusted by her aging flab to capitulate to her desires. He’d rather starve.

   And in the end it seems that he will. We are left with his high school sweetheart newly wed to another and honeymooning in Hollywood — his ma begging him to show them the high life of the stars of whom she knows he is one.

   Relentlessly hopeless look at Hollywood in the depressed 30’s. Tough, realistic writing, sad motif — yet not quite bleak enough to qualify as noir. Not particularly criminous. Just a realist, sad look at the life of a Hollywood extra, lured from small depressed towns these high school play stars go to Hollywood to face ruination and despair. McCoy, a failed Hollywood actor, probably knew of which he spoke.

   I’d probably put this one in fourth place of the four McCoys I’ve read, with the clear winner being the Jim Thompson at his peak-esque Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye; then No Pockets In A Shroud, the solid story of a hellbent for destruction muckraker taking on a corrupt town; followed by the unrelentingly depressing dance hall euthanasia of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

MR. PALFREY OF WESTMINSTER “Once Your Card Is Marked.” Thames TV (UK), 18 April 1984 (series one, episode one). Alec McCowen (Mr Palfrey), Briony McRoberts, Clive Wood, Caroline Blakiston. Written by George Markstein. Directed by Christopher Hodson.  Currently streaming on Acorn TV.

   Mr. Palfrey is a mild-mannered civil servant whose specialty is catching spies, and he’s very good at it, even though over two seasons of televised adventures, I don’t think he ever carried a gun. He may be even more tenacious at his job, however, than even the more famous James Bond was. Different folks have different strokes, and to my mind, Mr. Palfrey’s way of uncovering the truth of matters is a lot more interesting.

   It’s not clear when he’s called back to service at the beginning of this episode how long it’s been that he was gone. A vacation? A sabbatical? Long enough, though, for the department he works for to be completely reorganized. This means a new office for him – a tiny little cubbyhole of one – a new secretary — part-time only — and a new boss – and a female one to boot.

   His first assignment is to finalize the case against a schlub of a man accused a sending secrets to the Russians while working in a British embassy in another country. The messages to Moscow started when he started there, and the stopped when he left.

   Mr. Palfrey does not think this is evidence enough, which from his boss’s point of view is a serious mistake, even more so when the man turns up dead. There are wheels within wheels in this case, and while Mr. Palfrey is right, it is still a blow for him to learn there is such a think as being too right. I won’t say more, but it was nice epiphany of a moment for me to realize I was a half a second ahead of him.

   The British do spy fiction right, and they always have. Here’s another obscure example of that, and one well worth your tracking down.

NOTE: Although this was the first episode of the two seasons of Mr. Palfrey stories, it wasn’t the pilot. That came as an episode of another series called Storyboard entitled “The Traitor” (23 August 1983).




EMILY THE CRIMINAL. 2022. Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon, Jonathan Avigdori, Bernardo Badillo, Brandon Sklenar. Written and directed by John Patton Ford.

   Aubrey Plaza, who stars in Emily the Criminal, came up in the comedy world. I have to confess that I was mostly unfamiliar with her work until I saw her in Ingrid Goes West (2017), an exceptional dark comedy about a young woman who moves to Los Angeles in the hopes of befriending a social media celebrity. Plaza was very good in that. In John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal, she’s exceptional.

   New Jersey-native and art school graduate Emily Benetto is saddled with debt. She is working a dead-end catering job in downtown Los Angeles. It’s clear she’s capable of far more. But something is holding her back – a felony assault conviction from years ago. This, along with a brash take-no-prisoners attitudes, makes it virtually impossible for her to get a “normal” job. When given the opportunity to make some money off the books, Emily more or less jumps at the chance. It turns out that this chance to make $200 isn’t exactly legal. (No surprise there!). After initially walking away, Emily decides to work as a dummy shopper for a credit card fraud outfit.

   As in the case of any movie with a titular anti-hero and one with a noir bent as well, things escalate. What starts off as a one-time criminal act turns into something more substantial. Her romantic alliance with one of the members of the Lebanese credit card fraud outfit forces her to act both bolder and more recklessly. Pretty soon, it’s Emily who is calling the shots. As things get more daring and violent, Emily emerges as a new person – she’s no longer Emily the Caterer. She’s now Emily the criminal and is more than willing to use weapons to get her way.

   Numerous commentators have remarked on the film’s social commentary, citing Gen Z’s large student debt and the unfairness of the job market. I get it. Those elements are definitely in the movie, most notably when Emily – in her last ditch attempt to leave the credit card fraud world behind – is asked to work a full-time job as an unpaid intern.

   But to me, those elements are secondary to the film’s essence as a thriller. A very good one at that. Lean and barebones, Emily the Criminal works almost entirely due to Plaza’s commitment to the role and Ford’s refusal to ever dumb down his screenplay to make it more palatable to a wider audience. This isn’t a film for everybody, but for those who enjoy pulse pounding anti-hero films that refrain on passing moral judgments on their protagonists, it’s definitely worth your time.

WILSON TUCKER The Chinese Doll

DEVIL’S CARGO. Film Classics, 1948. John Calvert as Michael “The Falcon” Watling, Rochelle Hudson, Roscoe Karns, Lyle Talbot, Theodore von Eltz, Michael Mark, Tom Kennedy, Paul Marion. Based on a character created by Michael Arlen. Director: John F. Link Sr.

   This is the 14th of the 16 entries in Hollywood’s series of “The Falcon” movies, and the first to star magician-turned-movie-star John Calvert. I’m going to be generous and say that Calvert never made anyone forget either George Sanders or Tom Conway in the role, but if this happened to have been the first in the series, no one seeing this film would have asked for their money back, either. Suave, he wasn’t in the same league as the other two, but very few movie stars in the 1940s who didn’t mind playing private eyes in the movies were either.

WILSON TUCKER The Chinese Doll

   The version of the character Calvert played seems to have been named Michael Watling, not Michael Waring, and at this late date, no one seems to know why. His client first enters while he’s taking a bath and confesses to the murder of a wealthy playboy. A crime of passion, he says, and while he knows he will be exonerated for that reason, he asks the Falcon to help give himself up to the police. For $500, the Falcon says yes.

   There is a lot more to the story than that, and a lot of it has to do with a key, a locker in a bowling alley and a safety deposit box. And oh yes, the man doing the confessing has a wife (Rochelle Hudson), who is a looker, but when it comes down to it, she is not very nice, and when the client is poisoned to death in his jail cell, things get really complicated.

   In spite of some rather indifferent production values, the mystery is a more than decent one. It actually makes sense, in other words, and when the pieces are all put on the table, they actually fit. When it comes to black-and-white PI movies from the 1940s, this is a huge, huge plus.

NOTE:The obligatory comment that has to be included in every review that’s ever been written of this film, is that there is no  Devil in it, nor is there a Cargo. I couldn’t find room to point this out anywhere earlier, so here it is now.




WILSON TUCKER – The Chinese Doll. Charles Horne #1. Rinehart, hardcover, 1946. Detective Book Club, hardcover, 3-in-1 edition, May 1947. Dell #343, mapback edition, 1949.

WILSON TUCKER The Chinese Doll

   Charles Horne is a mediocre PI in a one horse town in Illinois. Just sitting around.

   Then a snazzy large dude named Evans bursts in, hands him $500 cash and says it’s for bail because he’s about to be arrested. He immediately bursts out of the office, getting flattened by a cute Chinese girl in a supercharged Studebaker who doesn’t bother to touch her brakes.

   The car’s later found trashed on the side of the road. It belongs to Evans, the guy that just got run over.

   Later that night the same Chinese chick picks our detective up in a brand new supercharged Studebaker and takes him to a secret casino hidden in a barn in the countryside run by the mob.

   Departing the casino that eve, he sees the Chinese doll skating on the frozen pond. It’s the last he sees of her alive as she shows up in the morning morgue, drowned. In tap water.

   It turns out the doll and Evans were in love, she his mistress, she with child, he remained with wife. So kablammo.

   But things are not always what they seem, as the mob was pulling all the strings. And wrapping up with bow and string, they drowned her, the Chinese doll.

   Horne is bound and determined to earn the $500 from his dead client and get to the bottom of things. He does, after a time, and in the nick of time too.

   Horne is not particularly hard or tough or smart or brave. He starts shaking when in danger. He makes witless decisions putting himself and his clients in harm’s way. He lets the bad guys push him around. Sometimes you wish Mike Hammer would show up and slap the meshuggenah out of him.

   And worst of all he writes every single thing to his wife by letter. Every confidence. Every move. Every thought. The entire book is in fact a book of letters from Mr. to Mrs. Horne, during the pendency of their trial separation.

   I thought I was going to complain about this affectation. But I can’t. Because this affectation is the plot device upon which the entire novel turns.

   It’s a bit like the Fredric Brown’s surprise in his short story “Don’t Look Behind You” in that the medium is vital to the message.

   It’s a good detective novel. It kept my attention and the ending was unique and surprising.

   It’s also nice to know that the device could only be used once because frankly I detest books of letters.

NOTE: Previously reviewed on this blog by William Deeck here.



THE INFORMER. Warner Brothers (UK), 2019. Joel Kinnaman, Rosamund Pike, Common, Clive Owen, Ana de Armas, Eugene Lipinski. Based on the novel Tre sekunder (Three Seconds) by Anders Roslund & Börge Hellström. Directed by Andrea Di Stefano. Currently streaming on Netflix.

   This is a bleak one. There’s not much levity or humor in The Informer. Rather, it’s a grim, brutal, and downbeat thriller about corrupt men and even crueler men. Based upon the Swedish crime novel Tre sekunder (2009), The Informer is at once neo-noir cinema, a police procedural, and a gangster film. Set in the gritty streets of New York, the movie doesn’t necessarily break any new ground. But it does provide – given you’re in the right frame of mind for such a depressing feature – mild escapism and momentary thrills.

   Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman portrays Peter (Piotr) Koslow, a Polish-American veteran who is now working as an informant for the FBI. In an off-the-book operation, FBI agents Keith Montgomery (Clive Owen) and Erica Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) have arranged for Koslow’s early release from state prison on a murder charge. In exchange, he must infiltrate a Polish drug dealing crime syndicate and inform on them. The FBI’s ultimate target: a seedy Polish fentantyl dealer known as The General.

   In typical noir fashion, everything goes wrong for Peter. And from there, it only gets worse. Not only is he present when one of the Polish gangsters kills a NYPD organized crime cop, he also is cut loose by the FBI and left to fend for himself. Fortunately, a NYPD detective (Common) comes to learn that the feds aren’t exactly playing by the rules and makes a commitment to protect Peter’s wife and daughter.

   Except for the final half hour of the film which feels oddly disjointed, the majority of The Informer runs smoothly and at an even clip. The film – refreshingly, I should emphasize – never tries to do more than necessary to make the narrative move forward. There are no attempts to be unduly clever, witty, or self-referential.

   As far as I can tell, The Informer – despite a solid cast – went relatively unnoticed by filmgoers. It’s not hard to figure out why. There’s definitely a limited appeal and audience for such downbeat crime films. There’s no razzle dazzle, buddy comedy, or dark humor here. Just a character story of a man who gets in over his head and then some. The closest point of comparison that I could think of is 21 Bridges (2019), also a New York crime film that had nary a happy moment.




CARTER DICKSON – The Judas Window. Sir Henry Merrivale #8, William Morrow, hardcover, 1938. Reprinted as The Crossbow Murder, Berkley, paperback, 1964. Many other reprint editions exist, both in hardcover and paperback.

   John Dickson Carr, the old maestro of the mystery story has left us forever, but his books go on and on. The Judas Window features Sir Henry Merrivale, another old maestro, as the detective, and what a glorious locked room puzzle it is, with a brilliant solution.

   In this one, James Caplon Answell is being tried for the murder of his fiancee’s father, Avery Hume. The two were talking in Mr. Hume’s study, with steel shutters over the windows and the door’ bolted. When Answell responded to the cries of the butler and secretary, he was found with Hume dead on the floor, an arrow through his  heart. The victim, an expert archer, had three arrows over the mantel as trophies.

   Answell cla1ms to have been drugged, and to have no recollection or what happened thereafter. The police arrest him, his solicitor quits, and Sir Henry is left to defend him all alone. Well, not quite. He has his secretary Lollypop and two old friends to run errands and keep an eye on proceedings.

   Sir Henry establishes that there was  a case of mistaken identity., that Mr. Hume had mistaken Answell for his cousin of a similar name who had been blackmailing Miss Hume. Hume and his brother, a doctor, had cooked up a plan to remove the blackmailer and get his documents.

   But the plan misfires in more than one way. In a tour de force of reasoning, Sir Henry recovers the missing crossbow, complete with piece of feather from the arrow-weapon, and shows how a crossbow could be shot so as to kill a man in a looked and bolted room.

   Readers are challenged to realize where the “Judas Window” in every room is; this one reader was stunned to find that she should have known it all the time!

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 2, Number 5 (Sept-Oct 1979).


DAVID HANDLER – The Girl Who Ran Off with Daddy. Stewart Hoag #7. Doubleday, hardcover, 1996; Bantam, paperback, 1996(?).

   This is a series that I’ve enjoyed, and I feel a  little guilty about it. It’s at least semi-cozy, quasi-cute, and has an “adorable” dog for a character. Not really my type of thing, but hey, consistency’s one hobgoblin that’ll never bother me.

   One-time promising novelist and currently successful ghost writer Stewart Hoag’s life has finally turned semi-decent, He’s reunited with his former wife, famous and lovely  actress Merilee Nash, and living in peaceful seclusion in Connecticut with her and their brand-new daughter.

   The only fly in Hoagy’s ointment is his inability to make any progress on his novel Another pair of huge insects are about to invade,   though, in the persons of an aging literary icon who was once Hoag’s mentor and his 17 year-old stepdaughter, with whom he has “eloped” to the accompaniment of nationwide nasty publicity. He wants Hoag to ghost-write the young nubile’s story, and because of old ties he feels compelled to agree. Nothing’s ever simple, though, and soon someone’s dead.

   I guess I just like Handler’s prose and people. Even the damned dog, a basset named Lulu, is appealing. This is some ways the best of the series, to my taste, and in some ways not. The first-person narration was well done, as always. On the other hand, I thought the characters of the novelist and the teenager were shallow and not particularly believable, and the police even more (and less) so — his charadet1zat1ons of cops have been an ongoing irritant to me. Still, with all the problems, I enjoy the books, and I can’t come up with any better reasons than those with which I started the paragraph.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #24, March 1996.


      The Stewart Hoag series —

1. The Man Who Died Laughing (1988)
2. The Man Who Lived By Night (1989)
3. The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald (1990)
4. The Woman Who Fell From Grace (1991)
5. The Boy Who Never Grew Up (1992)
6. The Man Who Cancelled Himself (1995)
7. The Girl Who Ran Off With Daddy (1996)
8. The Man Who Loved Women to Death (1997)
9. The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes (2017)
10. The Man Who Couldn’t Miss (2018)
11. The Man in the White Linen Suit (2019)
12. The Man Who Wasn’t All There (2021)
13. The Lady in the Silver Cloud (2022)
14. The Girl Who Took What She Wanted (2023)



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON – The Pavilion on the Links. Novella, first published in The Cornhill Magazine, Sept-Oct 1880. Included in New Arabian Nights (Chatto, UK, hardcover, 1882). Silent film: Paramount, 1920, as The White Circle. Also filmed as The Pavilion, a direct-to-video release, 1999, starring Craig Sheffer as Frank Cassilis, Patsy Kensit as Clara Huddlestone, Richard Chamberlain as Huddlestone, and Daniel Riordan as Northmour.

   Robert Louis Stevenson’s role in the development of the modern thriller is well established. The novel of chase and pursuit, the duality of human nature, and a fine Scottish appreciation of the uncanny are all marks of his fiction. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, St. Ives, The Master of Ballantrae, and the The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are all obviously influential in the development of the thriller.

   Still, if there is one work in Stevenson’s canon that I would argue was a direct influence on John Buchan, Geoffrey Household, Victor Canning, Allan MacKinnon, Gavin Lyall, Hammond Innes and the others in the adventure thriller genre it would be the short novel Pavilion on the Links.

   It is virtually a model for what followed.

   The Links of the title are sandhills in a rugged spot on the Scottish coast, this one the Sea-Wood of Graden-Easter on Graden Floe. That lonely barren rough country is another trope of the genre. The narrator, Frank Cassilis, who like the heroes of hundreds of books that followed, is a solitary fellow, sullen he calls himself, who likes the rough country and rough life. Back at university he had a kind of friendship with another student called Rupert Northmour, and the dark enigmatic and dangerous Northmour is still another staple of the genre, the not quite good not quite bad guy whose motives are played close to the vest.

   He is also a figure common to Stevenson’s fiction in the persona of Long John Silver, Alan Breck, or James Drurie.

   Northmour and the Frank were at each others throats after staying at the remote pavilion of the title for some time and as the story opens neither has set eyes on the other for years and our hero has been drawn back to their old hangout for no real reason, “a place of dead mariners and sea disaster.”

   He is also, like the heroes of countless adventures to follow about to be plunged into high adventure, international intrigue, high crime, romance, and desperate battle with life and death and the fate of four people at risk beginning when he discovers the pavilion already occupied by none other than Northmour who is there waiting for special cargo off the schooner yacht Red Earl anchored nearby.

   When a mysterious red bearded and exceptionally tall but unhealthy man and a beautiful girl come ashore on a wild and stormy night in the company of Northmour Frank’s curiosity is at fever pitch, not the least because of his instant attraction to the beautiful young woman, who once he has met her mysteriously warns him he is in great danger if the stays camping nearby, and not from Northmour.

   The mysterious older man and young woman are father and daughter, Bernard and Clara Huddlestone, the old man a banker who, when he fell into financial trouble, found his only recourse was to ask help of Northmour who had been courting Clara. Northmour, it is suggested in exchange for Clara’s hand, is to smuggle the banker out of England and to safety in the South Pacific, because while trying to avoid his fate Huddlestone became involved with criminal elements, including a group of unforgiving Italians led by a mysterious and possible royal one known as XX whose funds Huddlestone embezzled.

   He is not merely fleeing from prison, He is fleeing for his life from a blood vendetta.

   Frank and Northmour finally meet again and while Northmour is not happy that Clara has obviously fallen for his friend, he knows he needs help: “… frankly I shall be glad of your help. If I can’t save Huddlestone, I want to at least save the girl…I shall act as your friend until the old man is either clear or dead. But… once that is settled, you become my rival again and I warn you — mind yourself.”

   Cornered and besieged by the Italians in the pavilion, their rivalry over Clara growing, and Northmour’s disgust at the criminal he is trying to save for Clara’s sake tearing at him it all comes to a fine fiery head of self sacrifice and somewhat ill natured nobility, because Northmour is no flowery 19th Century hero, but something of a rogue, a bit of a scoundrel in the Stevenson tradition, and in the tradition of the genre a Janus figure. No Sidney Carton speeches on the guillotine for Northmour.

   All of this is the very stuff of an entire genre of British thriller fiction. Like most of Stevenson’s novels this one is still a historical, taking place sometime in the 1830’s or early 1840’s as best I can place it. But it is told in a contemporary voice and could frankly take place in some remote areas today. There are still a few spots on the Scottish coast you could fight a small war largely unnoticed. John Buchan makes some use of something very like this setup in Huntingtower replete with yacht, a princess, and Russians instead of Italians.

   The striking thing about the book though is just how familiar it feels to anyone well versed in the genre replete with complex motives, shady figures on both sides, feckless hero caught up in something he doesn’t quite understand, feisty heroine, noble enemies, and of course Northmour the Byronic anti-hero figure who haunts the genre even today.

   Storm-driven night, the romance of rough country by moonlight, desperate men in silent pitched battle, stealthy movements in the shadows, sudden death, and unexpected nobility are still a formula for a pretty good adventure story and still driving bestselling fiction today with only a few refinements.


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