Thursday, May 24, 2012


How Superman Would End the War (1940)

This book review (magazine actually) is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Hop over and check out the eclectic mix of reviews by other bloggers. It will be worth your while.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were bubbling with ideas to give Superman new adventures. How else do you explain this two-page comic story Jerry wrote and Joe drew for Look, a general-interest American magazine, in February 1940? The world is barely six months into World War 2 when the Man of Steel swoops down upon Hitler’s alpine mountain retreat and flies off with him, like a great eagle taking off with its unsuspecting prey.

Superman then stops over in Moscow to grab hold of Hitler’s ‘friend’ Josef Stalin, in front of his troops, before turning around and heading for Geneva where he deposits the two dictators at a meeting of the League of Nations which holds them “guilty of modern history’s greatest crime — unprovoked aggression against defenceless countries.” We don’t know whether they are sentenced to death or to a life behind bars. Death by legal or foul means was rare in early comics in which 
superheroes regularly handed over criminals to law enforcers. 

Everything’s fine about this short comic story except for Superman’s costume — white bodysuit, white cape and a pair of red shorts. Even the big ‘S’ on his chest is wonky. Those were early days. I liked the comic though, it’s vintage stuff (courtesy:

Take a look at the comic strips below…and don’t forget to check out an sf book way below.

Among other Forgotten Books news (at my end), I recently picked up a used science fiction paperback titled We All Died at Breakaway Station by American sf writer Richard C. Meredith (Venture SF, 1969). A short version of this story, about “race survival teetering in the balance,” appeared in Amazing (1968). I liked the cover. I hope I like the story too.

The blurb on the back cover says...

When race survival teetered in the balance...

Captain Absolom Bracer, with an artificial brainpan and synthetic eyes. Astrogation officer Gene O'Gwynn, a lady with a plastic face. Weapons officer Akin Darby and Communications Officer Miss Cyanta, both with assorted prosthetic parts.

These were the officers of the Iwo Jima, one of the two heavy battle-cruiser starships protecting the vast, cumbersome Rudoph Cragstone, a hospital ship returning to Earth with thiousands of wounded in 'cold-sleep'. These brutally injured officers had been restored to temporary, artificial life to do this job because no intact man or woman could be spared from the main conflict.

But then Breakaway Station, a vital link with Earth, was suddenly threatened...

It looks like a challenging read, doesn't it?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Books for a rainy day

May is a cruel month for Indians with average summer temperatures raging between 35ºC (95ºF) and 45ºC (113ºF). It will continue like this till the rains arrive in the south later this month and slowly move up to other parts of the country in June. The annual monsoon is supposed to hit Bombay, where I live, around June 15, the official date set by the Met department. The rains care two hoots for the Met — they come and go as they please, till September, only to make a brief appearance or two in October with a fairly deafening light-and-sound display.

Curiously, if the rains arrive in Bombay several days before the stipulated date, it's called opening showers and if they suddenly reappear, say, in October-November, it's known as closing showers. To me, a shower is a shower and not something like the opening or closing balance in your bank account.

I like the monsoon as long as it doesn’t flood the city, shut down the suburban rail network — the lifeline of over 12 million people — and bring the city to a complete halt.

What I don’t like about the rains is the restriction it imposes on browsing and buying books from pavement vendors and makeshift stalls. When the footpaths are under water, the books go under ground. It’s no fun.

With rains not far away, I have been making quick rounds of my favourite used and secondhand book haunts, braving 35 ºC (95 ºF) temperature and 66% humidity which is a lot of heat and sweat. The last two days were most productive: I walked away with a dozen paperbacks by various authors, all from one bookstore whose proprietor I know well having raided his godown many times in the past. The pile cost me Rs.120 (a little over $2).

Here are some of the books I purchased. The blurbs are from the book jackets.

The Vengeance Man by Dan J. Marlowe (1966): Nobody laughs at me and gets away with it. Not even my cheating wife — a couple of bullets through the guts took care of her. Not even the crooked senator. Not even the blackmailing lesbian. Not even the extortionist who'd taken the incriminating pictures. But there were still some wise guys left who really believed they could kill me before I kill them. That's what damn fools are made of... 

The Summer Man by Jory Sherman (1967): The women of Cambrian Grove were restless and bored with small-town men... Johnny was an exciting stranger, a folk singer who played his guitar with sensuous vitality. 

The Case of the Gilded Lily by Erle Stanley Gardner (1971): Caught up in an elaborate blackmail plot, Stewart G. Bedford turns to Perry Mason when he is charged with the murder of one of the blackmailers. 

Ice Trap Terror by Nick Carter (Jeffrey Wallman, 1974): The cunning of the man called the Colonel was only exceeded by his bizarre scientific genius which he is using to fuel his lust for power by creating a new ice age.

Guns by Ed McBain (1976): The story of Colley Donato who holds up a liquor store and kills a policeman in the process. Being on the run he is helped by a few dubious friends but it is all down to him in order to survive.

To Catch a King by Harry Patterson (1979): In July, 1940, Hitler's terrifying war machine is headed toward England. In its wake, he plans to enthrone puppet monarchs under Nazi control, and a beautiful nightclub singer and a SS man turned British sympathizer are the only two who stand in his way. Patterson's most famous pseudonym is Jack Higgins, my favourite author in the popular fiction category. 

* Gun Man by Loren D. Estleman (1985): John "Killer" Miller: outlaw at 12, lawman at 23, gunfighter at 30, dead at 38. His violent story. 

Murder Under Blue Skies by Willard Scott with Bill Crider (1998): America's beloved TV personality forecasts foul weather—and foul play—in his breezy mystery debut.

There are a few more interesting books where these came from but I have kept them aside for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog. The Payoff by Don Smith and Beyond The Black Stump by Nevil Shute were part of a lot I picked up last month.

Note: For my previous posts on books and book haunts, got to Books and brickbats and Going, going…not yet gone

* Not my copy of the book

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Secret Armies: The New Technique of Nazi Warfare — Exposing Hitler's Undeclared War on the Americas (1939) by John L. Spivak

This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase and Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don’t forget to check out the wide range of reviews, past and present, at both their blogs.

“You will proceed to Prague,” Richter instructed him, “and lose yourself in the city.”

The Gestapo chief opened the top drawer of his desk and took a small capsule from a box. “If you find yourself in an utterly hopeless situation, swallow this.”

He handed the pellet to the nervous young man.

“Cyanide,” Richter said. “Tie it up in a knot in your handkerchief. It will not be taken from you if you are arrested. There is always an opportunity while being searched to take it.”

This is but one instance of Nazi Germany’s espionage activities during World War II. This particular incident took place at Bischofswerda, what was then the Czechoslovak-German frontier, months before Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia.

In Secret Armies: The New Technique of Nazi Warfare — Exposing Hitler's Undeclared War on the Americas, John L. Spivak, an American socialist and journalist, describes numerous instances of how the Nazi propaganda machine led by Joseph Goebbels infiltrated scores of countries — socially, politically, industrially and economically — in order to gain the upper hand in the World War.

Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 was, it would seem, made easier by Nazi agents and sympathisers whose covert operations had increased greatly in days and months leading up to the conquest of the Central European country.

By taking over Czechoslovakia, the German dictator broke the Treaty of Munich he had signed in September 1938 with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier and Italian Fascist Leader Benito Mussolini. The Czechs had no representation at the conclave which allowed Hitler to have only the German-speaking Sudetanland of Czechoslovakia. Instead, he occupied the entire country.

Infiltration into other countries by all other means, besides war, was uppermost in the devious mind of Hitler who did not want Germany caught on the back foot as it was during World War I.

“To understand the feverish activities of foreign agents and native Americans working with foreign agents, one must remember that when the World War broke out in 1914, Germany was caught with only small espionage and sabotage organisations in the United States,” Spivak tells us. “It cost the German War Office large sums of money to build them under difficult and dangerous conditions. The Nazis do not intend to be caught the same way in the event a war finds the United States on the enemy side or, if neutral, supplying arms and materials to the enemy.”

Secret Armies: The New Technique of Nazi Warfare (Modern Age Books, 1939) details how the Nazi propaganda network infiltrated into the heart of countries — its people, its industry, and its government — in what was, arguably, a mind-numbing exercise to achieve two chief goals. One, interfere in the affairs of the country to the extent that public opinion turned against its government and undermined any effort on the war front; and two, bring these countries into the fascist circle. Here the Nazis were targeting highly influential people, including powerful world leaders like Chamberlain and doyens of US industry, who were reportedly in favour of appeasing fascist Germany.

Hitler used the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis to carry out espionage activities in Britain, United States, Central America including Panama Canal Zone, and Mexico, and eventually threaten the peace and security of the US. He knew America was the only country that could prevent Germany’s geographical domination of Europe and political supremacy in the world. He wanted to spread discord and confusion in the US with the hope that domestic issues would force that great nation to stay out of the war.

There are some interesting revelations in this book. For instance, Spivak talks about the Fifth Column in several European countries, especially in Czechoslovakia and France, through which the Nazis and Italian agents built a secret underground army of spies and 

The Fifth Column originally refers to the fascist sympathisers within Madrid who aimed at overthrowing the Spanish government through spying, sabotage and terrorism. During WWII the term was used to describe the various fascist and Nazi organisations operating within the borders of non-fascist nations.

Elsewhere, Spivak writes about the “influence of Nazi ideology upon England's now notorious ‘Cliveden set’ which maneuvered the betrayal of Austria, sacrificed Czechoslovakia and is working in devious ways to strengthen Hitler in Europe.” Comprising some of the most ambitious and powerful men and women in Britain, the ‘Cliveden set’ apparently had a potent effect upon the growth and influence of fascism throughout the world.

In Spivak’s words, “The small but carefully selected group of guests (at Cliveden House) had been invited ‘to play charades’ over the weekend — a game in which the participants form opposing sides and act a certain part while the opponents try to guess what they are portraying. Every man invited held a strategic position in the British government, and it was during this ‘charades party’ weekend that they secretly charted a course of British policy which will affect not only the fate of the British Empire but the course of world events and the lives of countless millions of people for years to come.” We don't know how far this is true.

Other chapters
The 137-page copyright-free ebook is divided into several incredible chapters, such as:

France's Secret Fascist Army — about a plot to destroy the Popular Front government and establish fascism in France with the help of leading French industrialists and top army bosses

Dynamite Under Mexico — where Nazi agents spread anti-democratic propaganda to turn popular sentiment against the ‘Colossus of the North’ and to develop a favourable attitude toward the totalitarian form of government).

Surrounding the Panama Canal — which, among other things, included buying or leasing land for colonisation and converting into an air base, if necessary).

Secret Agents Arrive in America — the one country where the Nazis concentrated maximum in terms of propaganda, espionage and smuggling. Besides, America had abundant sources of raw materials and foodstuffs that are critical in any war.

Nazi Spies and American ‘Patriots’ — the web rapidly embraced native fascists, racketeering ‘patriots’ and deluded Americans who swallowed the Nazi propaganda).

Other chapters include Henry Ford and Secret Nazi Activities, Nazi Agents in American Universities and Underground Armies in America.

My first impression upon reading Secret Armies: The New Technique of Nazi Warfare was: it can’t be true, not all of it at least, and certainly not the extent of Nazi interference in America’s affairs. For, had it been the case then history would have been quite different. Germany used the Fifth Column to achieve most of its nefarious schemes though Spivak doubts whether “the motive is primarily to win the Americas over to the joys of totalitarian government or to the theory of Aryan supremacy. The money and the effort seem to be expended for more practical reasons” such as having a clear advantage during the war and even winning it.

My second impression was that Spivak (1897-1981), who has authored several books about the working class, racism, and the spread of fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe and America, had spun a fantastic yarn. I wasn’t alone in thinking so. According to an article at Wikipedia, people doubted his conclusions, especially his assessment of the threat of domestic Nazism and anti-Semitism. 

John L. Spivak
British diplomat-turned-academic E.H. Carr called Spivak’s work "ambitious" and found nothing new except "fantastic stories about the German and Italian spy system."

He said, “According to Mr. Spivak, the leaders of secret anti-Fascist organisations sought to meet him, although not only their personal freedom and perhaps even their lives, but also, to a certain extent, the success of the movement itself, were at stake. With all respect for Mr. Spivak's abilities, the risks taken by these German, Polish and Austrian revolutionaries seem to be utterly unreasonable and the destinies of the anti-Fascist movement put in rather reckless hands.”

The book is interspersed with many first-person accounts by Spivak, particularly his interactions with agents, collaborators and sympathisers, while they were “working” for the Fifth Column. In one interview Spivak is penetrating to the extent that his subject is distinctly uncomfortable but nevertheless answers his questions. There is no way to verify these personal accounts.

Secret Armies: The New Technique of Nazi Warfare is a well-researched and well-written book which gives you two choices — either you believe it or you don’t. I am inclined to go both ways. While Hitler’s propaganda machine was very effective across the European mainland, I don’t think it succeeded, as well as Spivak would like us to believe, in Britain or the United States. The writer’s account of Nazi Germany’s secret, albeit well entrenched, presence in the two countries lacks credibility. Finally, Hitler’s miscalculation over America’s decision to enter the war against Germany, rather than take on Japan after Pearl Harbour, is testimony that the well-oiled Nazi propaganda had failed across the Atlantic. Which begs the question: was there one in the first place?

Wall Street's Fascist Conspiracy: Testimony that the Dickstein MacCormack Committee Suppressed (New Masses, January 29, 1935) was one of two articles John L. Spivak wrote exposing what he claimed to be a Wall Street tycoon plot to, reportedly, overthrow the government with a military coup. Apparently, most Americans didn’t know it existed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Saturday Night Fever (1977)

This film is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other fascinating entries over there.

Saturday Night Fever is the kind of film you liked the first time you saw it, which was probably in high school or college. I watched the dance film in my teens and remember liking it as well. Since the 1990s, the movie has been shown a few times on television. I have tried watching it again, to see if it still had the same appeal, and each time I have switched channels for something better. Clearly, it no longer holds. 

Last week, I saw a part of Saturday Night Fever and was, quite frankly, put off by Brooklyn brat Tony Manero’s (John Travolta) acrobats on the dance floor and his antics off it. If you see the film again three decades later, you’ll realise there’s not much dance that you can tap your feet too. You see better dancing now which is only to be expected. When Tony is not shaking his 6' 2" frame to Bee Gees music, he is either fighting with his father who doesn’t like his wayward life or indulging in reckless behaviour with friends, drinking, cussing, raping, and street fighting.

Tony Manero wants something out of his life and a job at a hardware store clearly isn’t what he has in mind. So each night he heads for the nightclub where his two feet bring out the best in him. Dancing partners are no problem as he dumps old-hand Annette (Donna Pescow) for Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a level-headed woman who wards off his sexual overtures.

The death of his close friend Bobby C. (Barry Miller) on a Brooklyn bridge, during a particular night of rape and revelry, comes as a wakeup call for Tony who realises that life is not all about fighting street gangs or bedding women as he likes. He decides to straighten out his life but not without a last dance.

In many ways Tony Manero reminds you of that other struggling Brooklyn kid, Danny Fisher, the hero of A Stone for Danny Fisher (1952) by Harold Robbins, who dreams of making it big.

For me, the saving grace of Saturday Night Fever is the music by the Bee Gees right from the time the credits roll and Tony is walking towards his hardware store with a can of paint in his hand, his feet moving in rhythm with Stayin’ Alive playing in the background. That walk is what made Travolta famous.

John Travolta was only 24 when Saturday Night Fever made him a superstar and he followed it up a year later by the box-office hit Grease opposite Olivia Newton-John (though I prefer the 1982-hit Grease 2 starring Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer).

Directed by John Badham in 1977, the film went on to become one of the most successful musical hits of all time. Even Travolta wasn’t prepared for it. As he said in an interview, “I just didn't think it would be the big hit. I thought it was too small a slice of life, reflection of humanity of the suburbs of New York and I didn't think there would be a lot of people interested in that. But the music and the dancing and everyone identifying with a young person struggle with identity allowed it to become this big deal that it became worldwide. But it was a surprise to me.”

Monday, May 14, 2012

Stamp of a Singer: Louis Armstrong

"To jazz, or not to jazz, there is no question!"

"Man, all music is folk music. You ain’t never heard no horse sing a song, have you?"

"I never tried to prove nothing, just wanted to give a good show. My life has always been my music, it's always come first, but the music ain't worth nothing if you can't lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, 'cause what you're there for is to please the people."

"My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blow that horn."

"The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician. Things like old folks singing in the moonlight in the back yard on a hot night or something said long ago."

"Musicians don't retire; they stop when there's no more music in them."

"If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. And if I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it."

"Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?"

"Making money ain’t nothing exciting to me. You might be able to buy a little better booze than the wino on the corner. But you get sick just like the next cat and when you die you’re just as graveyard dead as he is."

"When I go to the Gate, I'll play a duet with Gabriel. Yeah, we'll play 'Sleepy Time Down South' and 'Hello, Dolly!.' Then he can blow a couple that he's been playing up there all the time."

Previous celebrity stamps featured on this blog: Edgar Allan Poe, Cary Grant, Mark Twain, John Wayne, Virginia Woolf, James Dean, Groucho Marx, Bette Davis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Elvis Presley, Walt Disney, Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, and Bertrand Russell.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Tree of Life

I took the picture of this magnificent tree in the garden of a century-old hospital in South Bombay. I don't know the botanical name of the tree but I'm pretty certain it's older than the two-storey heritage hospital it looms over. The tree is home to all kinds of birds, such as owls, crows, kites, sparrows, koyals (the long-tailed cuckoo), mynas (the Asian starling) and many others, which "come home" to roost every evening just as the sun sets over the Arabian Sea. The tree has been a quiet chronicler of health and sickness, of life and death, for a hundred years. If only the tree could talk...

Footnote: In case you're wondering which camera I used, it was my Nokia cellphone with a 2 megapixel camera.

Photo Copyright: Prashant C. Trikannad

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Third Class in Indian Railways by Mahatma Gandhi

This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase and Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don’t forget to check out the wide range of reviews, past and present, at both their blogs.

The manner in which Mahatma Gandhi travelled third class in an Indian train in 1917 is more or less how millions of people still travel by train in 2012 — nearly a century after Gandhi undertook that unforgettable journey from Bombay (now Mumbai, the capital of the western state of Maharashtra) to Madras (now Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu), and back.

Train travel in India has improved vastly since independence in 1947, if not thirty years earlier, in terms of more trains and routes, frequency, amenities and luxuries but much of the rural and semi-urban population continue to travel like cattle. 

Had Gandhi travelled by any one of India’s long-distance express or passenger trains today, he would have found little difference in his experience then and now.

One of the first things the Indian statesman and spiritual preceptor did on arriving from South Africa in 1915 — to lead the freedom struggle against the British — was to travel by Indian Railways, and travel as the masses did, third class. He knew the only way to gauge the mood of the people was to travel by train wherever he went and if he had to champion their cause he had to become one of them. Gandhi did so in all humility and without any qualms.

Third Class in Indian Railways, a 31-page book published in 1917 by Gandhi Publications League in Lahore (now in Pakistan), chronicles the Mahatma’s two-day train journey from Bombay to Madras — a forty-eight hour period during which he studied the pitiable conditions under which hundreds of third-class passengers travelled and also endured insult, humiliation and degradation with them.

“On the 12th instant I booked at Bombay for Madras by the mail train… It was labelled to carry 22 passengers. These could only have seating accommodation. There were no bunks in this carriage whereon passengers could lie with any degree of safety or comfort,” Gandhi writes. “There were during this night as many as 35 passengers in the carriage during the greater part of it. Some lay on the floor in the midst of dirt and some had to keep standing.”

While Gandhi recoiled from the dirt, the filth, the lack of sanitation, the overcrowding, the absence of morality, the apathy, the sheer inhumanity of it all, he couldn’t, as a matter of principle, resort to violent protests as some of the other travellers did. Instead, he tried to improve their lot by bringing his critical observations to the notice of the managers of Indian Railways.

As Gandhi observes, “The existence of the awful war cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the removal of this gigantic evil. War can be no warrant for tolerating dirt and overcrowding. One could understand an entire stoppage of passenger traffic in a crisis like this, but never a continuation or accentuation of insanitation and conditions that must undermine health and morality.”

What hurt Gandhi most about the neglect of the third-class passengers was the loss of a grand opportunity — imparting “splendid education” to millions in orderliness, sanitation, a decent composite life, and cultivation of simple and clean tastes. “Instead of receiving an object lesson in these matters, third-class passengers have their sense of decency and cleanliness blunted during their travelling experience,” he writes.

While third-class passengers usually pay for the ever-increasing luxuries of first- and second-class travel, he felt they were entitled at least to the bare necessities of life.

Third Class in Indian Railways also consists of five other discourses, namely Vernaculars as medium of instruction, Swadeshi (self-sufficiency or self-sustenance), Ahimsa (non-violence), The moral basis of cooperation, and National dress.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957)

This film is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other fascinating entries over there.

Passionate love and scintillating verse dominated the twenty-month courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett that eventually culminated in marriage on September 12, 1846, at Marylebone Church in London. The renowned English poets, described as the “most romantic literary couple from the Victorian era,” exchanged hundreds of letters affirming and reaffirming their mutual love and friendship.

“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett — I do, as I say, love these verses with all my heart,” Robert, the more expressive of the two, wrote after he read Elizabeth’s poems for the first time.

It wasn’t long before he fell in love with Elizabeth and expressed his feelings for her in nearly all his letters.

In one letter, written on December 27, 1845, Robert declares, “For ever and for ever I do love you, dearest — love you with my whole heart — in life, in death.”

Then, on February 23, 1846, a few months before they were married, he gushes, “Bless you, my sweetest. I love you with my whole heart; ever shall love you.” 

Elizabeth, the eldest of the nine Barrett children, reciprocated his love both during their affair and after their marriage. In August 1851, five years after they tied the knot, Elizabeth wrote to her old friend Mrs. Martin:

“So far from regretting my marriage, it has made the happiness and honour of my life; and every unkindness received from my own house makes me press nearer to the tenderest and noblest of human hearts proved by the uninterrupted devotion of nearly five years. Husband, lover, nurse — not one of these, has Robert been to me, but all three together. I neither regret my marriage, therefore, nor the manner of it, because the manner of it was a necessity of the act. I thought so at the time, I think so now; and I believe that the world in general will decide (if the world is to be really appealed to) that my opinion upon this subject (after five years) is worth more.”

Her words “every unkindness received from my own house…” are particularly significant for Elizabeth is alluding to a long life of tyranny under her widowed father, whose possessiveness of his eldest daughter bordered on incest. Elizabeth, therefore, felt deeply indebted to Robert for saving her life — by marrying her when she was ill and whisking her off to Italy where they lived for fifteen years before she died in his arms on June 29, 1861.

It is the tyranny of her father on one hand and the devotion of her lover on the other that is at the core of The Barretts of Wimpole Street made by Sidney Franklin in 1957. This colour film is apparently a scene-by-scene replica of the black-and-white version directed by Franklin in 1934.

John Gielgud and Jennifer Jones in a tense scene.

In the original edition, Charles Laughton plays Edward Moulton-Barrett, the father, a role that is tailor-made for John Gielgud in the latter version. While Norma Shearer and Fredric March act as Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning in the 1934 film, they are replaced by Jennifer Jones and Bill Travers in the 1957 offering.

I cannot compare the two versions as I haven’t seen the first.

Had there been a 2012 version, however, I’d have liked to see either Colin Firth or Johnny Depp as Robert Browning, Winona Ryder as Elizabeth Barrett, and Gene Hackman, provided he is still acting at the age of eighty, as Barrett Senior (I can picture him gritting his teeth, grabbing Elizabeth by her arm and pulling her roughly to him). But this is neither here nor there.

Bill Travers and Jennifer Jones take their vows.

The wonderful John Gielgud is terrific as Edward Moulton-Barrett, the widower, as he goes around the Wimpole household terrorising his adult children who are not allowed to have affairs or marry without his consent.

Elizabeth (Jennifer Jones), known by her nickname Ba, gets the brunt of her father’s insane behaviour — he is more possessive of her than his other children and confines her to a room most of the time, with only her beloved dog Flush and her maid Wilson (Jean Anderson) as her faithful companions. Elizabeth loves her father and does what he says, partly out of fear and partly because she thinks he knows best. After all, he is her “Papah” and she is quite ill, with rheumatic fever, it would seem; a fact Barrett keeps reminding her if only to ensure she does not move out of his sight.

Enter Robert Browning (Bill Travers), the dashing poet with long sideburns, and Father Barrett’s questionable conduct is at once exposed. Having prohibited his other daughter Henrietta Barrett (Virginia McKenna) from seeing Captain Surtees Cook (Vernon Gray), he turns his amorous attention to Elizabeth. In one scene — in fact, the scene of the movie — he grabs hold of his daughter, pulls her towards him and tries to embrace her in a very non-parental way, and castigates her for bringing another man into her life.

Elizabeth is shocked beyond belief and agrees to marry Robert and elope with him to Italy with her dog, Flush, and maid Wilson. The film ends on a happy note, though, in real life Edward Moulton-Barrett disowned his daughter while her brothers refused to accept Robert because he was from a lower class.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street, originally based on a play written by Rudolf Besier in 1930, is more about the Robert Browning-Elizabeth Barrett romance and the fight for one’s happiness and less about a widowed father who is almost insane with jealousy over his daughter.

Friday, May 04, 2012


The Payoff by Don Smith

This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at well-known writer Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Don’t forget to check out the wide range of reviews at her blog.

I have a simple formula for deciding whether or not to read a book I have never heard of — I check out the picture on the front cover and the blurb on the back cover and if I like one or the other, or both, I go ahead and read the novel. So far it has worked for me.

It happened with The Payoff by Don Smith which I found under a pile of secondhand paperbacks. I knew I was going to read the book as soon as I pulled it out. As you can see, the cover is striking and the illustration smacks of corporate crime while the blurb on the back cover only hastened my decision to pick up the novel. It read...

"I've hit you three times and I'll go on hitting you unless you pay me two million dollars. If you discuss this with the police or the FBI you lose another plane..."

In addition, The Payoff was a Fawcett publication and Fawcett books rarely disappoint.

Now, you could write your own story with a blurb like that, but before you do, let's hear Don Smith's story first — it's his book.

Tim Parnell is trying to catch "trout" from a garbage can lying bottom side up in his office in Amsterdam airport when Bill Stanford, executive vice-president of Pan World Airways, hires him to investigate the mysterious bombing of three PWA planes followed by a two-million dollar ransom note.

The American detective's appearance doesn't inspire Standford's confidence — big frame, no tie, unbuttoned shirt, tousled hair, and fly casting at three o'clock in the afternoon. The former CIA agent is the best investigator of airline crimes and that's what a desperate Stanford needs to save his airline company.

"There was only one man in the world who had a prayer of doing that, and he was in Amsterdam. Tim Parnell. International private eye. If anyone could put a crimp in the Mafia's new sky-jack extortion game, it was Parnell..."

Parnell takes up the case, for a tidy fee and an all-expense account, because he provides good value for good money and because he knows where and how to find the hoods who are bombing planes with no passengers in them. The sleuth wastes no time in getting on the trail of the blackmailers whose tentacles are spread across America and Europe. He does so by accompanying Stanford on his first "drop" of ransom money somewhere between Zurich and Brussels.

The story then moves back and forth between Monte Carlo, Geneva, Marseilles, New York, Paris and Amsterdam as the hard-nosed detective with a predilection for taking risks discovers a caboodle of gangsters — American mafia led by the mastermind, the son of an NY don, and a big-time Italian drug runner — are behind the ransom caper. 

Even as Parnell gathers clinching evidence against the hoods, with help from a French private detective and an ex-cop, Standford, who has hired him on the sly, takes him off the case. The ransom has been paid and no more PWA planes have been bombed.

But the American detective continues his investigations, with what's left of the unaccounted fee from Stanford, because he realises that the people who bombed Pan World Airways planes will soon pick another target. They pick Lufthansa...and Parnell closes in. In the end Parnell, with a bit of smart thinking, is richer by the millions and a broad he has grown fond of.

The Payoff is a racy novel in the mould of a James Hadley Chase. There is never a dull moment in the 191-page turner which was published in 1973. It’s a predictable storyline but Don Smith tells it well. I recommend it if you have nothing better to read. 

There is very little about Don Smith and his other works on the internet, though I found something else. Private Eyes 101 Knights: A Survey of American detective Fiction 1922-1984 by Robert A. Baker and Michael T. Nietzel (1985), among other interesting things, briefly discusses the number of American detectives like Tim Parnell who have moved abroad to practice their investigative work. Don Smith has written books featuring Parnell — The Man Who Played Thief (1971), The Padrone (1971) and Corsican Takeover (1973) — as well as about a secret agent, Phil Sherman, who has featured in 16 secret missions.