January 2023



IAIN PEARS – The Last Judgment. Jonathan Argyll #4. Scribner, hardcover, 1996. Berkley, paperback, 1999.

   I’ve only read one other in this series, and my vague memory of it was that it was a quite decent read, if nothing major.

   Expatriate British art dealer Jonathan Argyll, now living in Rome, is having a rough season of it. While in Paris buying some sketches for a museum, he works out a deal with a Parisian dealer — if the dealer will see that the sketches are shipped to America, Argyll will deliver one of the dealer’s paintings to a buyer in Rome.

   Nothing could be simpler, right?

   Wrong. First someone tries to steal the painting in the train station, and then a murder is connected with it. Then there’s another, and Argyll’s lover, Flavia di Stefano of Rome’s Art Squad, gets involved The Parisian police are strangely obfuscatory, so Argyll and de Stefano follow the trail back to Paris and secrets buried since World War II and into some serious danger.

   I enjoy this series. I like the art background (though in one sense there isn’t much of it in this one), I like the European setting,  and I like the  characters. These aren’t major books by any means, probably on a par with and similar to Aaron Elkins’ Chris Norgren series, but they are enjoyable. In these days of bloated books about serial killers and women in peril, I value my minor pleasures more and more.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #25, May 1996.

      The Jonathan Argyll series —

1. The Raphael Affair (1990)
2. The Titian Committee (1991)
3. The Bernini Bust (1992)
4. The Last Judgement (1993)
5. Giotto’s Hand (1994)
6. Death and Restoration (1996)
7. The Immaculate Deception (2000)

      Is this the second best Private Eye movie ever made?



RICHARD SALE – Lazarus #7. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1942. Harlequin #79, paperback, 1950.

   Dr. Steve Mason has dedicated his life to fighting leprosy across the globe. He’s spent the past few years abroad. He’s back stateside for a new gig with the Rockefeller Institute in NYC. He schedules a stopover in LA to hang out with an old college buddy, Joss Henry.

   Joss is an A-list Hollywood screenwriter and hell with the ladies. By comparison, Dr. Steve’s a bit of a buttoned-up nerd. But he humors Joss, and they get drunk and party with the aspiring actresses, eager to please, hoping for their chance. And producers. And all the other Hollywood tripe.

   One particularly odd duck is the studio medico, Dr. Max Lekro, who lives in something like an abandoned castle in the middle of nowhere. Dr. Max is the kind of guy who likes to tear the wings off flies and then surgically reattach them. He’s really into killing dogs and trying to resuscitate them. He’s obsessed with the biblical story of Lazarus, who Christ raised from the dead. Lekro has made six attempts at raising dead dogs, naming each of his experiments in succession: Lazarus #1, Lazarus #2, etc…. One of his most successful experiments involves a beheaded dog who remains ‘alive’ via attachment to some blood circulation machine.

   Dr. Max has also been treating a Hollywood persona for leprosy. On the down low. Because being a leper doesn’t play so well in the fan zines.

   And a wannabe starlet has found out about the leper, and has been bleeding them for dough, blackmailing them that they’ll disclose the leper if they don’t keep paying thru the nose. And now the wannabe starlet is dead. But she had a poison pill letter sent to Joss Henry upon her death, disclosing the identity of the leper. And now Joss Henry, rather than telling the cops, decides to get greedy and use the info for his own aggrandizement. And then Joss is murdered. And so on.

   And now the perp thinks Dr. Steve, being a leprosy expert, might notice the tell tale signs. So he’s got to go too! But Dr. Steve is our hero, so he’s lucky and safe. But not so for Dr. Max.

   So Dr. Max gets stabbed to death. But Dr. Steve brings him back to life, for just a moment: Lazarus #7. Whispering the name of the murderer. Loud enough for Steve to hear. Loud enough for the truth. For justice. To be served.


   The book is okay. It kept my attention. It kept me turning the pages. And it’s short. But it ain’t great. It’s just okay. I wouldn’t expect this forgotten book to be raised from the dead anytime soon. If it were, count it Lazarus #8.

PHILIP K. DICK “The Defenders.” Novelet. First published in Galaxy SF, January 1953. First reprinted in Invasion of the Robots, edited by Roger Elwood (Paperback Library, April 1965). First collected in The Book of Philip K. Dick (Daw, paperback original, February 1973). Along with two of Dick’s other stories, “The Mold of Yancy” and “The Unreconstructed M,” the basis for his novel The Penultimate Truth (Belmont, paperback original, 1964).

   The story begins with a married couple unhappily having breakfast together. The war news is good, but there is an uneasiness to their conversation that suggests that not all is well. Gradually it is revealed they are several miles underground, and the war on the surface is being fought with robots (called leadies) on each side. Because of uncontrolled radiation, the Earth itself is uninhabitable.

   Strangely enough, the husband is called into his lab to learn that one of the leadies that has been brought down for a progress report is not radioactive after all. Baffled, a team including our protagonist is sent to the surface to investigate.

   I will not spoil your enjoyment of this story by telling you what they learn, but if you have read enough of Philip K. Dick’s work, I imagine you can guess what the twist is well enough on your own.

   Of course, though, that’s the point of the story, but what Dick also manages to do is describe living conditions not on, but inside the Earth so well that we, the reader, can feel the oppression of a life that is so subtly unbearable, although it has been made as palatable as technology can do it.

   It’s short for a novelette, only 25 pages long, but I think it was long enough to make a noticeable impression on SF readers of the day. My only personal unhappiness with it is that the ending seemed to me to be an overly happy one. To me, it was a case of too quick, too soon.

   This actually is a small tiny fraction of my To Be Read pile. I brought this stack up from the basement late last night, almost entirely at random.

   The question is, which of these should I read next? Any recommendations? Any I should stay far away from?

   Here’s hoping you can read both the authors and the titles:

ROCKET STORIES. July 1953. Vol. 1, No. 2. Edited by Wade Kaempfert [Lester del Rey]. Cover: Schomberg. Overall rating: 1½ stars.

ALGIS BUDRYS “Blood on My Jets.” Complete novel. Detached Operator Ash Holcomb of the SBI is hired to fly the first ship into hyperspace, but as old friend and his iwfe, known since Academy days, plot to steal it from him. Not much of a story, but it reads well enough. (2)

GEORGE O. SMITH “Home Is the Spaceman.” An experimental FTL ship is stopped by a policeman for speeding. (2)

MILTON LESSER “Picnic.” A husband, wife, and two brats stop on a living asteroid for a picnic. (0)

POUL ANDERSON “The Temple of Earth.” Novelette. Civilization on the Moon is headed downhill unless the priests and their knowledge of science can take over. Too much fighting. (2)

BEN SMITH “Sequel.” The paths of three former Academy students meet in space. (3)

CHARLES E. FRITCH “Breathe There a Man.” Rebellion on an Earth where the very air is taxed. The first plot twist really didn’t seem believable. (1)

IRVING COX, JR. “To the Sons of Tomorrow.” Novelette. The crew of a wrecked spaceship become the gods of a new Earth. Distortion of proper names didn’t help. (2)

WILLIAM SCARFF “Firegod.” A fair point to be made, but a basic flaw ruins story of a man playing god. [Pen name of Algis Budrys.] (1)

–February 1968

J. J. STARBUCK “Pilot.” NBC, 26 September 1987. (The series itself of sixteen episodes began three evenings later, on September 29th.) Dale Robertson (Jerome Jeremiah ‘J.J.’ Starbuck), David Huddleston, Shawn Weatherly. Guest cast: Bill Bixby, Patty Duke. Co-creators/screenwriters: Stephen J. Cannell & Lawrence Hertzog. Director: Corey Allen. Episodes are currently available on YouTube.

   J. J. Starbuck (no relation to the coffee shop chain, as far as I know) was an eccentric billionaire who left the running to his several successful commercial enterprises to underlings to travel across the country solving murder cases in which he feels an underdog is getting a poor deal. (At the end of this, the pilot episode, it is revealed that the deaths of his wife and son were what changed his mind about his earlier philosophy that money is everything.)

   His primary means of transportation is a Lincoln convertible enhanced by a hood ornament consisting of three foot span of steer horns. Over the top, yes, but it helped make many a killer think J. J. is nothing more than a corn pone cowboy prone to quoting appropriate homilies fitting the situation at hand.

   Example: “I like to keep an open mind, in case someone comes along and drops a good thought in it.”

   I don’t think anyone but Dale Robertson could get away with lines such as this. The part was almost surely made with him in mind.

   In this opening episode, the villain (Bill Bixby) is accused and arrested of killing his wife. Midway through the trial a pool boy (or the equivalent) confesses to the murder, and Bixby’s character is set free. Then the fellow who confessed retracts his confession, but can Bixby be arrested and tried again? Supposedly not, but I will allow the legal minds reading this have their say.

   The beneficiary of J. J. Starbuck investigation is Bill Bixby’s stepson, who also ends up as J. J.’s foster son halfway through the episode, but I don’t believe he ever showed up again.

   The series lasted only the one season, but it had to be fun for viewers to see Dale Robertson back in the saddle again, so the speak. (*) To me, he was a man totally at ease in any role he played, and he plays this one to the hilt.

(*) Robertson previously starred in two cowboy shows on TV: Tales of Wells Fargo (1957-62) and Iron Horse (1966-68)




RICHARD STARK – Plunder Squad. Parker #16, Random House, hardcover, 1972. Avon, paperback, 1985. University of Chicago Press, softcover, 2010.

   But surely you’ve met Parker. He’s amoral, totally selfish, a hard professional criminal to his fingertips. No sense of humor, he reacts like a computer to any situation he’s in. He’s Lee Marvin in print; he’s beautiful (as his would-be assassin remarked in the memorable film Point Blank) —  and I love every minute in his company.

   This particular book, the penultimate in the saga, concerns the hijacking of a consignment of valuable paintings by Parker and his associates. It also involves Parker finally catching up and dealing with someone unwise enough to double cross him in an earlier book. A very stupid man.  You just don’t try any tricks on Parker.

   One query. Why in Point Blank (the film) was the character  called Walker rather than Parker? (Walker was one of Parker’s aliases.)

– Reprinted from The Poisoned Pen, Volume 4, Number 4 (August 1981).


CHARLES WILLEFORD – The Difference. Dennis McMillan, hardcover, 1999. Previously published as The Hombre from Sonora as by Will Charles (Lenox Hill Press. hardcover, 1971).

   Starts off as a typical western. Set up maybe a bit like Shane.

   Johnny Shaw is 19. Living in Phoenix. He gets a letter saying his father is dead, deep in Arizona Territory, 1880. The elder Shaw left his son no money, only a ranch. But a nice one, with six head of breeding cattle.

   Soon as he arrives, the local open range ranchers want him gone. This is their land. Has been forever. Legal land claims be damned.

   But hey, for your trouble, we’ll pay you well. Say twice its value in gold. You’ve got til tonight.

   I don’t need til tonight, says Johnny. I’ll tell you now. I don’t want your money. My dad left me this ranch and this ranch only. It’s all I’ve got. Now get out.

   My father’s land, my father’s honor. My inheritance, my honor. I’m here to stay.

   So now Johnny’s at war with the ranchers. And the shooting starts.

   But this is Willeford, so you know there’s gonna a twist on western tropes.

   Once Johnny starts a-killing, he starts to like it. Once he defends his honor and wins back his right to till his land, to get the girl, to start a homestead, to be his father’s son, he doesn’t want it anymore.

   Like Courtney Love says, ‘Once I get what I want, I never want it again.’ Well Johnny’ll lay double on that.

   He’d rather be a gunman. And be free.


   If you like Willeford, you’ll love this one as much as anything in the Willeford canon. It fits right in. Another psycho in Willeford’s psycho pantheon. If you aren’t into Willeford and just like westerns — dunno how you’ll feel. I’m not that into westerns except as an alternate setting for hardboiled crime. It seems to me that noir is hardboiled in the city and gunslinger westerns are hardboiled in the country. As writers like Willeford and Whittington and Elmore Leonard and Clifton Adams show, a writer adept at one may be equally adept at the other.

   Another point of interest to me, the protagonist only fully realizes his potential once he dies inside. I book I read awhile ago, of marginal interest here, is called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down about cultural clashes between the Hmong and American medicine. It’s about how American doctors have a hard time dealing with the superstitions of other cultures and view them as impediments to scientific treatment methods. On the other hand, Hmong feel that to abandon their faith causes ‘soul death’.

   In any case, ‘soul death’ is exactly what allows Pretty Boy Floyd to become a successful, cool-handed bank robber and it’s exactly what allows Johnny Shaw to turn from a scared little boy to a stone cold killer. If you get treated like crap for long enough, you dissociate. You experience time-compression. You are outside your body and can watch things happen more slowly. Veteran NFL quarterbacks talk about time slowing down, watching the action unfold like Neo in The Matrix. In half-time, in quarter-time. While for everyone else everything is moving much too fast. Everyone else is scared.

   But for the dead man, the man who is dead inside already, like Johnny Shaw: “I knew that I would be faster [on the draw]…and deep down inside me I knew why, too. [They] wanted to live. They had everything to live for: a huge ranch, and two pretty girls anxious to marry them. Nobody had ever wanted to keep on living any more than those two men did at that moment. But I wanted to die, and knowing that I wanted to die meant that I would not be killed by either one of them. That was the difference between us”. That’s the Difference.



EARL NORMAN – Kill Me on the Ginza. Burns Bannion #6. Berkley Y626, paperback original, 1962. Barye Phillips cover art. Also available in ebook format (Kindle).

   You know the old saying, “you can’t keep a good thing down?” It seems sometimes you can’t keep a bad thing down either, which explains why Earl Norman’s Burns Bannion novels are back in print.

   Burns Bannion is an expatriate American private eye in Tokyo (each book gives us a long winded explanation how the Japanese would never give an American a P. I. License so Bannion is enrolled as a college student, but never goes to class), and an expert in karate. Literally the little bits of karate you get in these slender books is about the only reason to read them though they promised at times to be so bad they are good without quite making it.

   This one opens with our hero in a club on the Ginza, the neon club district in wide open Post War Tokyo, Burns is leaving a club when a pneumatic Japanese performer heaving precariously in her low cut outfit smacks him over the head with a metal tray.

   â€œSee fat slob! See big hunk! This Burns Bannion! This Tokyo private tante, Snooper! Detective! Lousy Bastard!”    

   So far I can’t disagree with anything she says.

   This is really poverty row private eye stuff with a little international intrigue and exotic locations thrown in. In every book Bannion meets one dimensional (character wise, physically they are three dimensional) Japanese women in various states of undress and gets drawn into pretty non-dimensional cases.

   Bannion fails to recognize this one because she has her clothes on, and he last saw her a week earlier in the buff posing at the Art Photography Studio for Photo Fans also on the Ginza (next to the Urological and Sexual Institute we are told) where Bannion had pretended to be a photographer to check her out for a client, Hedges, a correspondent. Seems the girl, G. N. Noriko was a friend of Bill Crea a missing correspondent who disappeared on a trip to Kobe.

   Before he can go to Kobe though Inspector Ezawa, another Karate man, picks up Bannion and Hedges and takes them to the train station where a dismembered body has been found, and the police have been sent his head in a bowling bag. Bill Crea’s head.

   Not a terrible opening despite Norman’s somewhat tiresome version of wise guy private eye-ese. In this one he’s battling a cult, the Oshira, based on a prototype of modern Japanese gods and predating Buddhism, the hidden god, and something called the Grand Apex which turns out to be a front for sex trafficking from Korea while Bannion gets help from G. N. (and you do not want to know what those initials stand for) and a stripper called Bay-bee.

   There’s also a philosophical criminal called House Charnel who talks like Nietzsche on LSD: “We are all born into the world as enemies.”

   I can see where these time killers were exotic enough at the time to draw some readers. The plots are serviceable, there is a lot of talk about sex and pneumatic Japanese beauties, and of course karate battle aplenty (I wanted to get my hands free so I could Karate-chop the Whore-master to his just rewards.).

   I have a feeling that many people feel more kindly about these than I do, and I have no problem with that.

   I will give Norman this, he manages to keep the action boiling down to the last page and without a single chapter break — that’s right, the edition I read had no chapter breaks, just continuous narrative, and I have a suspicion this may be his best book, though that isn’t saying a lot. He knows something about Japan and probably could have parlayed that into something interesting, but never does.

      The Burns Bannion series

Kill Me in Tokyo. Berkley 1958 [Tokyo]
Kill Me in Shimbashi. Berkley 1959 [Tokyo]
Kill Me in Yokohama. Berkley 1960 [Japan]
Kill Me in Shinjuku. Berkley 1961 [Tokyo]
Kill Me in Yoshiwara. Berkley 1961 [Tokyo]
Kill Me in Atami. Berkley 1962 [Japan]
Kill Me on the Ginza. Berkley 1962 [Tokyo]
Kill Me in Yokosuka. Erle 1966 [Japan]
Kill Me in Roppongi. Erle 1967 [Japan]

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