August 2023

CHINA SMITH “Devil-in-the-Godown.” Syndicated, 16 September 1952 (Season 1, Episode 6). Dan Duryea as China Smith, Douglass Dumbrille as Inspector Hobson, Myrna Dell as “Empress” Shira, Guest star: Marjorie Lord. Written by Robert C. Dennis. Director: Edward Mann. Currently streaming online here

   According to Wikipedia, the episode itself being of minimal use in this regard, China Smith was a “a soldier of fortune, an opportunistic con artist and sometimes private eye who sought adventure.” His base of action is Singapore, and this particular episode opens scene a man (later identified as a newspaper reporter) is unceremoniously dumped off a dock into the water below.

   Smith is hired to investigate, by whom is not clear, and after using a league of assassins to help finds himself tackling a gang of warehouse arsonists. Marjorie Lord plays a reporter, perhaps for the same newspaper as the dead man.

   This is all I know. The whole story is a horrible mess. You get the gist of it, and maybe that’s all you need. Perhaps if you were to watch it, you could fill me in on some of the details I missed.

   The players are more or less fine. I watched this mostly for the star, Dan Duryea, one of my all time favorite bad guys. I can tell you that he can also play a shifty kind of good guy too, and of course, either way he is his usual insouciant self. That might be all you need to know to give this one a try yourself, but keep in mind I warned you.

NICK CARTER – The Golden Serpent. Nick Carter #20. Award A216F, paperback original; 1st printing, January 1967.

   A golden serpent is the symbol of a Mexican political party seeking the return of the southwestern US. Chinese Communists are actually in control of the organization, as well as behind a plot to flood the US with counterfeit money.

   The CIA calls in the help of Nick Carter, the Killmaster, and he uncovers a mess of Chinese, neo-Nazis, Mexican bandits, and a Russian spy – all centered about the castle of a cosmetics heiress who has the strangest sex habits.

   Sex and sadism at its worst – or best. Maybe one likable character, some unpalatable action, mostly hack writing in spite of the abundance of promising plot lines. A few clumsy mistakes that might be overlooked in the pace, including information pieced out only when necessary. Reflections of the [real] CIA? Not really.

Rating: **

— April 1968.


Bibliographic Update: The man behind the “Nick Carter” alias this time was Manning Lee Stokes.

FOUR STAR PLAYHOUSE. “Search in the Night.”. CBS, 05 Nov 1953 (Season 2, Episode 7). Frank Lovejoy (Randy Stone), Frances Rafferty, James Millican, Rhys Williams, Vic Perrin, Colleen Miller. Directed by Christian Nyby. Current streaming on YouTube (see below).

   â€œSearch in the Night” features a reporter for the Chicago Star whose nightly beat takes him through the streets of that city after the sun goes down, looking for human interest stories to tell his reading audience in his next morning’s daily column. On this particular night, he comes a across a small crowd of people watching a man in a deep sea diver’s suit and helmet look for something off a short pier.

   What is he looking for? Who us the woman who hired him? At the rate of $50 per dive, it must be something important. But … a woman’s purse? Randy Stone is puzzled, until the purse is opened. In it is $5000 in a small wad of bills. Also in the purse … a gun. Then the diver reveals something else. The body of man is also down there, caught in the pilings of the pier. Now Randy Stone has his story. But how does it develop from there? And more to the point, how does it end?

   Old time radio fans will have recognized what is going on, almost immediately, I’m sure. This was an effort to transfer a highly successful radio show to TV. Night Beat was an NBC radio drama that was on the air  from February 6, 1950 to September 25, 1952

   Quoting from its Wikipedi page, “Frank Lovejoy starred as Randy Stone, a reporter who covered the night beat for the Chicago Star, encountering criminals, eccentrics, and troubled souls. Listeners were invited to join Stone as he ‘searches through the city for the strange stories waiting for him in the darkness.’”

   This “backdoor pilot” is a good one, filled with just the right amount of mystery and characters who are terrified about what comes next (some of them), while others feel safe as they go about go about their day-by-job, while revealing to Stone what led up to the events he wandered into in the middle of.

   As a pilot, this really ought to have been picked up. On radio, Frank Lovejoy’ gruff but yet kindly voice was perfect for the role. On TV, his square-jawed visual persona fit the role to a tee, and his interactions with the people he encounters and talks to are also finely tuned. (And not all of them are essential to the plot. His encounter with Colleen Miller’s character as a floozie in a bar, for example, lasts no more than a minute or so, but the conversation they have is solid gold.)




BARRY NORMAN – The Butterfly Tattoo. Bobby Lennox #2, St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1996. Published in the UK under the title The Mickey Mouse Affair (Orion, 1995).

   If I read the first in this series, The Birddog Tape, I’ve forgotten it. The author hosts a popular film review program for the BBC, and has written a number of other books both fiction and non-.

   Bobby Lennox is an ex-boxer of not quite first rank who was fortunate enough to get out of the game with his face and wits intact He’s used those wits to become a successful businessman and investor, but still has ties to the rougher world he used to inhabit.

   An old friend from that world, a top underworld figure who has almost become legitimatized, calls him and asks a favor: a London politician who may be in line for a Ministership and who is “helpful” to him is being blackmailed, and the crime figure wants Lennox to help make it go away. He does, and it does, but not before a lot of blood and tears are spilled.

   This was a pleasant surprise. It’s not a major book —  and not intended to be- — but one with more than competent first-person narration, well-drawn characters, and an interesting plot.

   In essence it’s a hardboiled private eye tale, though Lennox doesn’t have a license. In general I don’t think British authors have fared particularly well with this type of novel, but Norman seems to have the moves down pretty well.

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


Bio-Biographical Update (the first paragraph coming from the author’s Fantastic Fiction webpage) —

    “Barry Norman, 1933 – 2017, CBE, was a British film critic, journalist and television presenter. He presented Film… on BBC One from 1972 to 1998 and was the programme’s longest-running host. He also wrote many novels and non-fiction books, including books on film and cricket.”

   This and the one earlier one that Barry G. mentioned in this review constitute the entirety of Barry N.’s Bobby Lennox series.

Reviewed by TONY BAER:


DOUGLAS FAIRBAIRN – Street 8. Delacorte, hardcover 1977. Reprint paperback: Dell, 1978.

   Street 8 is Calle Ocho in Miami. Anti-Castro Cubans are everywhere. The white dudes are a dying breed. To keep his used car lot going, former Marine Bobby Mead hires a Cuban salesman to sell cars to the locals.


   One of the all time great first lines sets the scenario: “Afterwards, Bobby Mead kept thinking that he had known all along that Oscar Perez was going to get his head blown off.” Try to stop reading after that. I dare you.

   So, anyway, Bobby owns a used car lot. Has owned it for years. But now he’s barely making it, making the hire of Oscar Perez all the more necessary.

   Oscar starts out really well, very motivated, selling a ton. But then Oscar’s buddy gets rubbed out by the local Cuban “Death Squad”. The Death Squad gets rid of anybody who opposes Ramon Pache — a local politician who hopes to unite the Cuban vote behind him and take over Miami politics.

   Pache was a major right-wing political opponent of Castro in Cuba, and has used this past to leverage his political future in Miami. Pache has no interest in returning to Cuba and challenging Castro. But he uses anti-Castro sentiment as a tool to unify his political power. And anyone Pache’s Death Squad liquidates is automatically deemed to be a Castro-spy who deserved to die.

   When Oscar’s buddy gets killed, Oscar just can’t get over it. So Oscar starts shouting at all the customers, at all the passers by: “Pache! I hate you! I hate you!… I shit on your image! I will destroy you!”

   So, yeah. Hence the first line of the story.

   But if you think you know where it’s going from there, you’ve got another think coming (it’s never been ‘another thing coming’ — you just think it’s ‘another thing coming’ because of a Judas Priest song).

   Bobby Mead is a mess. He hasn’t given a shit about life ever since he screwed his 14 year old daughter. You read that right. Yup. Incest.


   Oh but don’t worry. His daughter’s 17 now, stars in amateur pornos, is a runaway, a prostitute, and a flower girl. And she tells him it’s fine. She wanted him to. It was the best sex she ever had. And for him too. He’s in love with her and doesn’t want anyone else.

   Yeah. Disgusting and disturbing. But Bobby Mead agrees with you. He hates himself. He agrees that he’s disgusting and disturbing.

   Bobby tries his hardest to drink himself to death. But it doesn’t seem to be happening quick enough.

   So when Pache makes an offer Bobby can’t refuse, converting Bobby’s garage into a bomb factory, Bobby agrees. But he doesn’t just say yes. He makes friends with the Death Squad guys (lead by another former Marine): True believers in the overthrow of Castro.

   But when the Death Squad discovers that Pache has no intention of overthrowing Castro — that he’s just leveraging anti-Castro sentiment for his own gains in money and power, they decide to go after Pache themselves. With Bobby leading the charge.

   The book is trey bizarro. Not in prose — the prose is straight and tight and hard and clear. But the story itself is literally incredible, as in not credible. But incredibly not credible, if that makes any sense. It’s not simply unbelievable. It pushes believability beyond a limit that somehow moves beyond its own unbelievability into a world where its lack of credibility hardly matters.

   To have incest in your novel is bad enough. But to have unrepentant incest, where the victim assures you that it’s okay, where the protagonist’s psychiatrist girlfriend, nonplussed, says ‘oh — no worries — it happens all the time’: that is simply astounding. Astoundingly tone deaf. But like a set of ginsu knives: Wait! There’s more! The incest isn’t even part of the story! It’s a side issue that’s never resolved. It’s just acknowledged that he fucked his daughter, years later they both look fondly upon the incident, and let’s move on to the story about the Cuban Death Squads.

   But I guess I can forgive it — because the incest thing I guess serves as a barely subconscious sublimation into alcohol fueled self-destruction as white American ex-Marine Bobby Mead leads an Anti-Castro Death Squad hunting hypocrites to the cause.

   Golly Jeepers, man. Whew.

   So I can’t recommend the thing. I can’t recommend anything that puts the incest taboo into question. Sorry. But I will say this. Douglas Fairbairn could really write.

   One example I’ll leave you with — and another side-track completely irrelevant to the story. But illustrative of just how talented this writer was. He can encapsulate a life in a sentence. A life sentence, you might say:

   â€œAfter [her husband] died, Mrs. Tyler dyed her hair black and put on dark red lipstick and false eyelashes and went to work as a checker in the Winn-Dixie, then started drinking too much and gradually became a famous Coconut Grove ‘character,’ which meant that she spent most of her time sitting on a bus bench on Grand Avenue with her pop eyes and wide mouth and deep froggy voice, yelling at everybody.”

   So, yeah. Anybody that can write sentences like that ain’t all bad. He’s damn good, even. But the incest just killed me. I couldn’t handle it. Maybe you can handle it better than I. If you can, it’s a memorable book. Kind of Charles Willeford meets James Crumley. With some incest thrown in just for the fun of it.

   Another review here:

Out of all the records that Light In The Attic has helped the world discover, none are shrouded in as much mystery as Lewis’ L’Amour. The Lewis journey began when a collector picked up the LP for a dollar at an Edmonton, Alberta flea market. The album’s minimal compositions, somber synth and piano, and ethereal vocals inspired the curious collector to share his unexpected discovery with a fellow vinyl fanatic.

From there, news of the album began to spread online. Light In The Attic became interested in reissuing the record and the search for Lewis began. They reached out to photographer Edward Colver, who was credited with shooting the eye-catching cover image. The man Colver worked with back in the early ’80s was named Randall Wulff. Although he stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel and drove a white Mercedes convertible, the check he wrote Colver bounced and Lewis quickly became untraceable. With Lewis’ real name as their best lead, Light In The Attic searched for a few more years before deciding to reissue the record and place the proceeds in an escrow account until Lewis surfaced. Lewis eventually turned up, turned down the money, and answered interview questions as vaguely as possible. He may have gained quite a few new fans, but the mystery of Lewis lives on.



   Song from the end credits of Brian De Palma’s The Phantom of the Paradise:

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


PETER DICKINSON – The Last Houseparty. Pantheon, US. hardcover, 1982. Published earlier in the UK by Bodley Head, hardcover, 1982.

   Peter Dickinson is both the author of classical detective stories and a reviewer of mystery fiction for Punch, where he was an assistant editor for seventeen years. His early novels featured the very British Superintendent James Pibble of Scotland Yard; in many of his later books he moved into the area of psychological suspense and amateur detection.

   Although the structure of the majority of his stories is classic-a murder, a number of suspects. and often a closed environment such as the English country house-the settings and characters are anything but ordinary. As Dickinson himself says, “I tend to overpopulate my books with grotesques.” But if he tends to the bizarre or eccentric, Dickinson also has the ability to make us believe implicitly in the existence of these people and places, and in the plausibility of the events they participate in.

   The Last Houseparty is a historical mystery set in three time frames: 1937, when most of the action takes place; 1940 (briefly); and 1980, when the mystery is resolved. The author tends to skip among these without giving the reader much warning, and in the first few chapters this is very disorienting; after we become familiar with the characters, it is easier to recognize which time frame we are in.

   The main action of the novel takes place at Snailwood, a grand English estate whose tower contains a fabulous clock, replete with moving figures that perform on the quarterhour. In 1937 the estate is the domain of Lord Snail wood and his second wife, the Countess Zena. who is famous for her weekend “dos” and “superduperdos” to which illustrious personalities are summoned. Zena’s current house party is to be a political one, and various people — including an Arab prince, a professor with high connections, and Lord Snailwood’s two nephews, one a publisher, the other a soldier — are to debate, in bright cocktail-party chatter, the world situation.

   The weekend begins successfully, with even a budding romance between Countess Zena· s new secretary and the publisher nephew in the offing. But it soon degenerates and dark events take place that result in the traumatization of a young girt, the disappearance of the soldier nephew, an old man’s near fatal heart attack, the clock stopping permanently-and this being the last of Zena’s famous parties.

   Of course, Dickinson does not reveal all these events at once; the story builds slowly, beginning in the present, with Snailwood now a “stately home” open for public display by the financially strapped heir. He then takes us back to 1937 and the arrival of the party guests; next, forward to the African desert in World War II. We gradually realize that terrible events have destroyed the Snailwood family, and we see what they apparently were, we also realize that there is even more under the surface. This is an intriguing novel that will keep you guessing right up to the final revelations.

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.



DONALD HENDERSON – A Voice Like Velvet. Random House, US, hardcover, 1946. Previously published in the UK as The Announcer (Hurst, 1944), as by D. H. Landels. The Detective Club [Collins], UK, hardcover/paperback, 2018/2021, with the inclusion of the short story, “The Alarm Bell.” Introduction by Martin Edwards.

   Mr. Ernest Bisham kept as still as possible behind the green velvet curtains and listened to the clock ticking, Suddenly he slipped from behind the curtains and made for the door. He went unchallenged along a corridor and opened the first door he came to. Nobody was in it, it was a bedroom. He went to the window and softly opened it. A few minutes later he was hurrying along a side street and panting slightly.

   Ernest Bisham is a cat burglar, a second story man, known by Scotland Yard as “the Man in the Mask.” He is not quite Raffles or the Baron, being middle aged, married, and a bit heavier than he was when he was younger. He lives with his wife Marjorie and his sister Bess, and is both highly respected, and a fixture in every home within the broadcasting range of the Broadcasting House (think BBC which Henderson wrote for creating the first soap opera broadcast, Front Line Family, later known as The Robinsons, and the radio play The Trial of Lizzie Borden among others) as the voice of Broadcasting House, Ernest Bisham, the Announcer, newsreader, famed for his closing, “… and this is Ernest Bisham reading it,” in a voice compared to velvet.

   For Americans unfamiliar with the UK and the BBC (*) it is hard to comprehend the role the legendary voice of the BBC played in dominating a culture and a way of life, From Buckingham to Whitechapel from the South of England to the Midlands and the North the voice of the BBC was a fixture, a respected and admired figure, the calm assured vaguely upper class sounding voice of a nation, particularly during the War years.

   And in Ernest Bisham’s case that voice belongs to a thief.

   Without berating the point, the novel quietly puts the reader into the mind and ego of Mr. Bisham but never bores with heavy-handed psychological breast beating. Finding that balance between the melodrama of a thriller (the realm of most gentleman cracksmen) and the dark near Gothic brocade of the serious crime novel Henderson manages to walk a tightrope never making a misstep. Though not as dark as Gerald Kersh’s Prelude to Midnight and Night and the City, Henderson is in the same vein of sharply observed recognizable humans in crisis.

   Henderson was an admirer of John Dickson Carr, but he began writing in the shadow of Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley) and his work is informed by the Iles’ books Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact, two works that freed the British crime novel from the Golden Age mode of the detective story and aristocrats dying in vast manor houses on isolated weekends.

   Most writers are lucky to write one classic genre novel over long careers. Some have more, but they are scattered over years of writing and working in the field, and some few like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler have their whole output considered classics.

   But it is a rarity to find a writer who only wrote three books, two in the genre of crime fiction, and those two books both classics in the field.

   Mr. Bowling Buys a Newspaper was Henderson’s first book, and the better known of the two, the story of a serial killer who only reads the paper after a kill in hope that the police are going to stop him before he kills again. That book was highly praised by critics and writers including Raymond Chandler (who claimed to have read it three times) and Ian Fleming.

   A Voice Like Velvet took a more torturous route to its stature as a classic of the crime genre.In fact the book was first published in the UK in 1944 during the War as a mainstream novel as The Announcer, and it was not until its American publication that it was recognized as a classic of the crime genre under the better known American title by Random House.

   Driven by the compulsion to spice his life with excitement, Bisham’s chosen manner is cat burglary, he is well aware that he risking everything he has earned, that his marriage, his life, his prestige, are all endangered by his recklessness, and now Chief Inspector Hood has Bisham in his sights and is having him followed, which makes the game even more exciting. As Hood assures him cat to potential mouse:

   â€œI know the public likes to weave its own romance out of things, eh? The life of a detective is supposed to be the most exciting life!” he laughed. “And so is the life of an Announcer, Mrs. Hood assures me of that,” he laughed again. “And so is the life of a cat burglar! Or I suppose! I suppose the public will be very upset if the Man in the Mask is sent to prison. There’s something unromantic about years of penal servitude!”

   While there is suspense and action in the book it is not a thriller. Like Iles, whose work inspired it, the suspense rises from the thoughts and actions of the protagonist, his compulsion, his quick wits, and his inevitable mistakes, but unlike Iles, A Voice Like Velvet would make a delightfully dark Ealing comedy

   This was Henderson’s best reviewed novel despite its first small print run. He died at age 41 shortly after it was published in the States under its better known title, and was recently brought back in print in the UK as Velvet by the Detective Club with an attractive jacket, and introduction by genre writer, historian, and editor Martin Edwards, and with “The Alarm Bell” a powerful short by Henderson.

   A Voice Like Velvet is well worth your time, a classic of British crime fiction both charming, suspenseful, and ironic.

(*) For anyone interested there is another classic of BBC crime fiction, Death at Broadcasting House (1934)  by Val Gielgud and Eric Maschiwitz as Holt Marvell, which was filmed and could recently be seen on YouTube.

LIA MATERA – A Radical Departure. Willa Jansson #2. Bantam, paperback original; 1st printing, March 1988. Ballantine, paperback, 1991.

   I reviewed lawyer Willa Jansson’s first brush with mass murder in M*F 4, a book called Where Lawyers Fear to Tread, which took place while she was still in law school. It’s now two years later, and she is a junior associate (not partner) in a liberal law firm.

   And people start being killed all over again. The case is intimately connected with left-wing politics, most of which has been left over from the ’60s. Willa’s mother is also involved. Still intense and cluttered, but well-clued, with a nicely appropriate ending.

– Reprinted from Mystery.File.6, June 1988.


Bibliographic Update: There were seven books in Matera’s Willa Jansson series, published between 1987 and 1998, plus five in a series starring Laura Di Palma, another young lawyer. These appeared between 1988 and 1995. Matera also has had two collections of short stories published, the first in 2000, the other in 2012.

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