Monday, November 30, 2015

Fred Blosser on THE POISONERS by Donald Hamilton

by Fred Blosser

Donald Hamilton began the 1970s with two books from Fawcett Gold Medal.  “Donald Hamilton on Guns and Hunting,” a collection of articles reprinted from “Outdoor Life” and other outdoorsman magazines, appeared in 1970.  (I wish I’d kept my copy from long ago: it’s a relatively pricey item now on the used-paperback market.)  “The Poisoners,” the thirteenth book in the Matt Helm series, followed in March 1971, nearly two years after the previous Helm.  At 224 pages, “The Poisoners” was one-third to one-fourth longer than the earliest, tightest Helm novels.  It continued the series’ turn toward more expansive and often flabbier page counts that became more the norm for Hamilton from the ‘70s on.    

“The Poisoners” begins with a familiar premise, as Helm’s boss, Mac, calls him back from vacation for a mission.  Mac orders him to find out who mortally wounded a female colleague in Los Angeles, Helm’s one-time bedmate Annette O’Leary, and oh yes, as a suggestion and not an order, authorizes Helm to take out the killer in turn as a lesson to the competition, whoever the culprit may have been and whatever the motive.  In LA, a local gangster summons Helm and serves up one of his employees, whom he claims committed the murder.  The employee, Basher, a small-time boxer, sullenly goes along with the story and says it was a case of mistaken identity.  But Helm is unconvinced, in part because Basher is too clumsy with the murder weapon, a .44 Magnum revolver, to be a believable shooter.

All of this occurs in the first 30 pages.  The rest involves Helm with a successive array of gorgeous but untrustworthy woman (a Hamilton staple), a hierarchy of mobsters, and Red Chinese agents.  Much of the storyline employs Hamilton’s formulaic playbook from earlier novels and those yet to come, including the ploy of somebody staging a fake assault against Helm or another character, for motives that the seasoned Helm easily discerns.  Compared with today’s world where arsenals of military-grade weapons seem to be a dime a dozen on the streets, it’s quaint that Helm’s weapon of choice is a .38 revolver.  A laser sight on a sniper’s rifle is such advanced technology that Helm calls it a “Flash Gordon gizmo.”

Hamilton’s title, “The Poisoners,” has a couple of symbolic meanings that are associated with the main, interlaced threads of the plot.  One meaning refers to a Mafia scheme that Matt stumbles into, involving the movement of ten kilos of Chinese heroin into the U.S. from Mexico.  The other meaning refers to a bigger Red Chinese operation for which the drug deal is only a cover.  This component of the plot brings back a recurring character from two earlier Helm novels, Red Chinese mastermind Mr. Soo, Mr. Soo isn’t sufficiently colorful, and isn’t on stage long enough, to be very memorable.  Still, I suppose he’s preferable to the Red Chinese villain played for laughs by the late, very un-Asian Victor Buono in the movie version of “The Silencers” (1966), Tung-Tse (the name being one of the movie series’ inane sexual puns -- get it, “tonguesy”?)

To say much more about the Red Chinese operation would give away the twists in the plot, but at risk of a spoiler, I’ll note that Hamilton foreshadows the big reveal by setting the action in LA during a smog crisis, alluding to the offstage disappearance of an environmental scientist, and through Helm, commenting several times on the “damp, chemical-smelling mist” that pervades the city.  I suspect that Hamilton devised, plotted, and wrote the novel with one eye on TV news coverage of Earth Day, the enactment of the U.S. Clean Air Act, and other environmental developments of 1969 and 1970.  Enough said, except to note that, even after Helm figures out the mystery on p. 178, Hamilton still has several surprises waiting in the remaining 46 pages.

You may wonder if the .44 Magnum in the novel was also an attempt by Hamilton to be topical, given that 1971 also saw the release of Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry,” in which Clint Eastwood’s Insp. Harry Callahan fetishized the sidearm as “the most powerful handgun in the world.”  Nope, chronologically impossible: “Dirty Harry” wouldn’t open until eight months later.  Maybe there was something in the water that year.

“The Poisoners” went into a second Gold Medal edition in 1984 with different packaging.  Aesthetically, the new cover was classier than the old format.  Nevertheless, older fans from the ‘60s are likely to mourn that something minor but significant went out of the series when the old layout was discarded.   

Sunday, November 29, 2015

From Stark House: Fell The Angels Catharine Butzen

Catherine Butzen
Fell the Angels
978-1-933586-89-2  $17.95

Stark House Press introduced the Fell the Angels characters in Catherine Butzen’s first novel, Thief of Midnight, back in 2010. The main character, Abby Marquise, works in Chicago for the Society for the Security of Reality, keeping the world area safe from the nefarious plots of such mythical creatures as boogymen, werewolves, ghouls and faeries. 

In Thief of Midnight, there is a plot by the bogeymen--their existence threatened by dying belief--to kidnap children and create a reign of terror. In Fell the Angels, Abby and her group have to deal with a group of rogue selkies who are in league with a group of power-hungry faeries.

Reviews for Thief of Midnight include this from Publishers Weekly: “Butzen's strong debut livens up some common urban fantasy tropes with witty dialogue and fun monsters.” 

Her new fantasy mystery is darker—and even stronger. 

In fact, Fell the Angels just received a PW review in late October, in which the reviewer had this to say: "Butzen keeps the action moving quickly, with plenty of fights distracting Abby and John from their search for the killer, but also tosses in some delightfully grim humor... fans of the formula will enjoy the ride." 

Part urban fantasy, part detective thriller, Fell the Angels is the second book in the Abby Marquise series. Available now from Stark House Press at

Saturday, November 28, 2015


Ed here: This is a discussion from

TCM Movie Morlocks. Even though I think Body Doubles is something of a mess structurally I enjoyed it and find this discussion entertaining.

Sark and Rick Discuss Brian De Palma's "Body Double"

This post is being republished as part of ClassicBecky's and Dorian'sThe Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made) blogathon. Click here to read other entries in the blogathon.

This discussion of 
Body Double (1984) between film fans from different generations assumes that you’ve seen the film. But if you haven’t—or have, but need a plot refresher--here’s a synopsis:Actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) experiences a debilitating episode of claustrophobia on the set of a low-budget horror film. Dismissed for the day, he discovers his girlfriend Carol making love to another man. Later, he learns that he has been fired from the movie. Since Carol owned the house they shared, Jake needs to find new lodgings. His luck improves when another actor, Sam, offers a house-sitting gig. One of the perks of the observatory-like house is a telescope aimed at the window of an attractive woman who performs a provocative dance routine every night. Jake becomes obsessed with his "window" neighbor, but becomes concerned when he spies another man watching and following her. (Body Double is rated for adult themes, nudity, and violence.)

: Sark, you once said that De Palma’s best Hitchcock homages were the ones where he took Hitchcockian themes and turned them on their head. I think Body Double is a great example of that. On the surface, Body Double is a suspense film--and a very good one. But underneath the surface, it's a witty film about acting and deception. When Jake freezes up while reliving the "sardine game" in his acting class, the teacher yells at him: "You've got to act!" That's just what everyone around Jake does throughout the rest of the movie. Alexander Revelle acts the role of Sam who, in turn, acts the role of "the Indian." Holly acts out of the role of Gloria. Even Jake gets in the game, acting out the role of an adult film producer. The scene over the closing credit is a perfect coda, where De Palma shows us a body double in a shower scene in the horror film. Holly, who is standing beside the lead actress, tells her: "I bet this will get you a lot of dates." Thus, more deception will be promulgated!
for the rest go here:

Barry Malzberg: Queen's Gambit

A posting to Rara Avis, that mystery discussion group. 

Patti Abbot, bless her, fails to see the fragility, the passion, the divided self and agonizing struggle of Elizabeth Harmon to supersede her damaged history and psyche, Patti Abbot mistakenly sees this novel as ideologically centered (anti-Commie) when politics is the shell, not the meaning, the distraction, not the soul.  She does not appear to understand the complexity of the characters, all of them or that they are all in thrall to chess itself which in this great novel is no metaphor but is the shape and expression of our condition.

In 1964 in Syracuse, my wife and I saw THE HUSTLER in a local theater (the second time I had seen it) as did our friend, the great poet Trim Bissell who said then "It's a nice film but I have come to the conclusion that it is _only_ about pool."  And I did not have the wit to give him the proper response until years later after he had jumped bail and gone underground for seventeen years meaning that when they finally caught him we surely would have had other matters to discuss.  So I must settle again for giving that proper answer to rara avis, such empty (but always earnest) forum: "Trim, you are right.  Of course you are.  But in being right you have isolated not the weakness of the work but its stunning power.  Because if if a work of art is truly about something, embraces its subject wholly, explores it to the absolute, then it has taken the world itself."

Poor Trim.  (1942-2002)   Poor Elizabeth Harmon.  Poor Boris Spassky.  Poor Bobby Fischer. 
The world in all its elegance, intricacy and darkness.
Barry N. Malzberg