DISNEY ADVENTURE (A Handy Ten)

For any number of reasons–ignorance, personal or professional jealousy, perceptions (true or false) of Walt Disney’s personal character–the Disney adventure films that linked the Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers of the thirties to the Lucas/Spielberg juggernauts of the seventies and eighties have been unjustly overlooked. Ken Annakin’s films alone represent a treasure trove of invention and style that left a large mark on the genre, and they were hardly alone.

There are plenty of others worth seeing, but these ten stand out to me:

Treasure Island (1950)
D. Byron Haskin

The Disney studio’s first full-length live action feature and it’s a doozy–first rate in every way. Robert Newton buried every portrayal of Long John Silver that preceded him and none since have escaped his shadow. Thirteen-year-old Bobby Driscoll, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, made a nearly-as-definitive Jim Hawkins and they were abetted by a first rate crew of mostly British actors.

It was a big hit and established the model for much of what followed while Walt Disney lived, including the heavy use of English, Scottish and Irish actors and directors who rarely worked in Hollywood (and even more rarely got films of this quality when they did); the plucky, teen-aged hero/heroine; and the new twist Newton provided on the comic villain, with the comedian masking the villain until it’s time for the villain to mask the comedian–who might or might not stage a last-minute comeback.

He was reaching back to Stevenson, if not Shakespeare, but there was none of the suave, unctuous charm Basil Rathbone (who would have made a great, if entirely different, Long John) had defined in an earlier era.

Unfortunately, Bobby Driscoll provided another model–followed by Janet Munro, Tommy Kirk, Johnny Whitaker and others–of the Disney kid headed for a troubled life (he died at thirty-one, the most tragic of all). But that’s another story for another time.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)
D. Ken Annakin

Ken Annakin’s first Disney venture and a spirited revival of the swashbuckling spirit that had died out during the war years. Richard Todd made an excellent Robin. The cast of merry men, led by James Robertson Justice as Little John, were top of the line. The script was at least as good as the famous Errol Flynn version and Annakin was an even better action director than Michael Curtiz (who was one of Hollywood’s best). The only relative weakness is Joan Rice as Maid Marian. Rice was plenty fetching but she didn’t bring the extra something Olivia de Havilland had. For that, Disney, Annakin and Todd had to wait another round…

The Sword and the Rose (1953)
D. Ken Annakin

…for Glynnis Johns, who brought a big-girl-now dimension to the tomboy heroine–and not just the Disney version. Not only is she all grown up, she’s at court. And not just any old court but Henry VIII’s just before he took to beheading wives (James Robertson Justice again, and even better than before, not least because you can see the head-lopper lurking underneath the hail-fellow-well-met exterior). Partial as I am to Annakin’s Swiss Family Robinson, which left such an indelible mark on my childhood, this is probably the best movie the Disney studio ever produced, including the animated and family classics. Johns is a major reason, but she’s hardly the whole show. Disney cast as well as anyone in Hollywood and, with the possible exception of Pollyanna, this is the deepest he ever assembled. The actors get across a great deal that a Disney script could not say in 1953…and not a little that no script could say. This might be the only film in history where a beautiful woman kills a king she doesn’t love by planting big, wet kisses on his wine cup.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
D. Richard Fleischer

Richard Fleischer is remembered by noir fans for low-budget wonders like The Narrow Margin. But this made him an A-lister. By now, Disney was a big enough player to get no less than James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre to star for him. They are all in fine form here. This joined Forbidden Planet and Ray Harryhausen as the last word in the period’s special effects. The giant squid scared the bejesus out of everybody my age twenty years later. Then again, so did Mason. It took me a long time to connect him to the man with the smiling eyes and suave manner who made so many heroes and villains come alive over a fifty-year career elsewhere. First impressions are indeed lasting ones.

Johnny Tremain (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not great by any means. This is the only film on this list somebody could remake and improve. It’s here, though, because it points up what a lost opportunity to filmmakers the American Revolution has been. Tepid as this often is, it’s still the best film about the Revolution after Drums Along the Mohawk and 1776. Pity that, especially since it could have been so much better. The one great feature is a fine reenactment of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, concluding in the long march back to Boston with the Minute Men picking off British regulars Indian-style. Outside that, the movie does catch at least a few of the nuances in Esther Forbes great source novel, just not enough.

Again, though, casting played a role. I can’t help looking at Hal Stalmaster’s bland, pleasant features, prominently displayed as he’s the title character, and wonder what might have been had a certain someone who was already on the lot been substituted in his place…

Old Yeller (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not that I would want Tommy Kirk to go missing from Old Yeller!

His Travis Coates doesn’t get mentioned often enough in the best-ever child performances. It should. The film could just as easily fit the “family” category. But the believability of the frontier setting and Robert Stevenson’s handling of Yeller’s intense fight scenes give it a home here. As for Kirk’s performance, put it this way: It’s a rare fifteen-year-old boy who could keep other teenage boys from missing Fess Parker (who appears only briefly). And, of course, few films–let alone action films–have ever made as many teenage boys pretend they had a cold…or wish they were a girl for five minutes so they didn’t have to pretend.

Thank Tommy Kirk for that.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
D. Ken Annakin

Annakin’s third, and least-known, feature for Disney. It’s a treasure worth seeking out. Another stellar cast, with James MacArthur and Janet Munro a consummate pair of young lovers. He plays the youngest of a family of Swiss mountain climbers, whose attempts to scale an impossible mountain have led to tragedy before and seem destined to do so again. Herbert Lom is, as usual, a standout, but the real force of nature here is the mountain itself. Annakin delivered climbing scenes that have never been matched. Certainly not for excitement and probably not for authenticity. Those alone lift an already fine film into another realm. If you catch the family’s name, and know anything about the Alps, the  name of mountain that defeats them until the last few frames will be no surprise. Just the same, I can’t promise there won’t be a lump in your throat when its full shape is finally revealed.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
D. Ken Annakin

In many ways, the jewel in the Disney crown. His most popular live feature, his greatest collaboration with Ken Annakin and, by far, his most influential. Stories of whether George Lucas named Anakin Skywalker as an homage have never been completely confirmed or denied. All you really need to know is that Lucas and Spielberg between them stole every trick in this book–including many Annakin invented. But it’s better than that, because Annakin (unlike Spielberg and especially Lucas) insisted on putting people first (a lesson that would be lost when a split between the director and the hypersensitive Disney likely kept him from helming In Search of the Castaways, which, everywhere but the box office, was undone by several disastrous mistakes it’s hard to imagine Annakin making, even with Walt Disney pressing him). I first saw this when I was eight. I’ve never watched it since without feeling a thrill that transcends nostalgia.

The Moon-Spinners (1964)
D. James Neilsen

Often described as Hitchcock-lite. But Hitchcock was often at his best in that mode and he wasn’t making this kind of movie anymore (he didn’t do anything “lite” between 1959’s North By Northwest and 1976’s Family Plot) and The Moon-Spinners fills in nicely. It’s a heist flick, which is the best kind of adventure to have. And Hayley Mills–who had become the ultimate Disney tomboy–closes down the concept in style. Eli Wallach makes a lovely bookend for Robert Newton. And silent star Pola Negri came out of retirement to ask Mills if anything like this has ever happened to her before.

“No,” Hayley says. “This is the very first time.”

“I have a strange feeling it won’t be the last.”

It was,though, really.

Too bad for us.

The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966)
D. Michael O’Herlihy

The last adventure film overseen by Disney himself (there would be one more family picture, Follow Me Boys!, before his sudden death in December of 1966). By now, the sudden climate change of the mid-sixties had rendered this sort of film an anachronism. For someone born as far from his time as I was, it’s probably fitting that the first film I remember seeing in a theater was the story of a young prince fighting for his throne in a time and place far, far away. Imagine my delight when, after years of searching in the age of video, I finally got a chance to see it again some thirty years later, and found it well up to snuff. Barely released on VHS or DVD (it’s going for thirty-two bucks used on Amazon as I type–I got my copy some years back by joining Disney’s video club), I’ve managed to see it many times since.

You don’t need nostalgic memories of the Vanguard Theater in downtown Cocoa, Florida to feel this one: It’s got a burning lead by Peter McEnery that would nave made a nice model for a new kind of swashbuckling hero if there had been any justice; the usual fine cast and stirring battle scenes; a surprising feel for Irish history even if no less (though no more) of the usual liberties are taken; and, not least, a dramatic castle siege that manages, in five minutes, to convey the degree to which the English and Irish have hated each other for centuries better than a thousand speeches or either island’s fleet of fine writers.

If it had to end, Donegal castle was a great place for it.

My six-year-old self couldn’t have asked for better.

And neither could the self that approaches sixty.

MY FAVORITE HEIST FLICK: COMEDY DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.

Today, I’ll fix that.

Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.

You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”

Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.

For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.

That ought to keep it simple.

And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.

I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.

Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.

There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).

And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).

But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.

They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in  And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.

My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.

So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:

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Charade (1963)
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)

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Topkapi (1964)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)

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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash

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How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings

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Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.

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The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)

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Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)

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Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!

I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.

Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).

I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.

So I’ll stick to my premise.

There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.

Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.

Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.

What better than loot?

Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.

And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)

The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.

There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.

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Gambit (1966)
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?

Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.

And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.

Such things can tell us…things.

If we let them.

I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.

What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).

All that’s a given.

What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom,  playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.

It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.

But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.

Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.

It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.

But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.

Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.

Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.

Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.

For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.

After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.

So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.

It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.

So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.

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Then Nicole arrives, and she climbs into the heavily protected cage. But she sets of the alarm.The last bit’s the tell…because, across an uncrowded room that’s taken their whole lives to reach, it’s obvious the Li Szu is no longer the object of desire.

AUGUST BOOK REPORT (8/13-Civilization Preserved, As It Should Be…By Cigar-Chomping Generals and Lady Novelists)

Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War, Jack Hurst (2007)

An admirably lucid account of an extremely significant but rather dry subject.

Hurst centers his telling of the Union campaigns to capture Forts Henry and Donelson in the winter of 1862–less than a year after Fort Sumter and the full weight of Confederate secession brought on the Civil War–around the personalities of Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest, with plenty of additional background on their various superiors and key subordinates thrown in for good measure.

Good decision, because in the Henry and Donelson campaigns, the personalities were far more influential than the military tactics.

In the end the military struggle for the heart of the Confederacy–then still in its crucial, defining infancy–came down to who wanted to fight and who didn’t.

On the Union side, those who wanted to fight were Grant and the able commander of the world’s first ironclad fleet, Andrew Foote, who, at Fort Henry, ended up carrying out history’s first successful assault on a fortification by sea (or, in this case, the Tennessee River). On the Confederate side, there was Forrest, who, fortunately for the future of the country (and perhaps the world), was then an obscure cavalry colonel.

That the book lacks a certain pace is entirely due, I think, to the discursive subject matter. As long as Hurst can stay with the men of action the story moves. When, of necessity, he takes some time off to study the less interesting men–the men dedicated to inaction, who were everywhere and central to the moment and therefore cannot be ignored–then even Hurst’s considerable narrative skills (which include a lot of apt, often stinging, psychological insights into the key players) can’t keep this key bit of history from flagging a bit.

The book is eminently worthwhile and valuable, though–not only to afficionados of its somewhat obscure subject or readers who just like to enjoy a beautifully turned sentence (of which Hurst provides many).

Hurst is far too honest to make the common mistake of ginning up false excitement out of military operations that were, for the most part, rather pedestrian, marked more by colossal Confederate incompetence than any brilliance on the Union side.

But his skill and patient attention to all the sordid, behind-the-scenes maneuvering pays off in the end. Without stating it in so many words, the author makes it eminently clear that, had Ulysses S. Grant been a Union cavalry colonel and Nathan Bedford Forrest in charge of Confederate forces–or even if the two men had been evenly matched as theater commanders–the outcomes of the battles that essentially doomed the Confederacy from the start might well have been reversed.

In an age when generals are routinely chosen for their real or (more usually) presumed mastery of corporate or political intrigue rather than combat skills, this finely wrought narrative is a worthy reminder that, should we ever find ourselves in a position where the notion of taking and holding ground is restored to its once vital significance, we had best choose our leaders wisely.

And to remember that favorable outcomes tend to hang by a thread in any case.

Grant’s reward for “exceeding” his authority and taking Henry and Donelson in record time was, after all, to be threatened with arrest by jealous superiors.

Proving once again that some things never change.

Airs Above the Ground (Mary Stewart, 1965)

Popular fiction, British Lady Novelist Division.

I hadn’t read anything by Stewart since I was a teenager when I inhaled a couple of her Camelot novels. I certainly would have read the rest had I been able to get my hands on them. Somehow I didn’t, but this popped up from someplace in the last few years (no idea where as I didn’t buy it) and I held onto it out of respect for those happy memories.

I have to say that the pace I remembered from those other novels (which were written later) and had reason to expect was the Stewart norm based on that memory plus numerous viewings of The Moon-Spinners (the Disney movie based on her source novel) was relentlessly absent from the first two-thirds of Airs Above the Ground. Stewart takes her sweet, ver-r-r-r-y deliberate time with a setup that involves a missing Royal Lipizzan stallion, a small Austrian circus and a female veterinarian becoming gradually aware that her husband is–heart be still!–a secret agent for Her Majesty’s Government.

She makes up for it in the end.

In days of yore, even British Lady Novelists carrying the weight of Civilation knew how to write action and Stewart wrote it as well as anyone going, civilized or not. The last seventy pages turn over rapidly to a comfortably satisfying conclusion, with a couple of memorably hair-raising sequences along the way….

All of which leads me to conclude something I would have had a hard time believing when I was half-way through this.

I just might get around to those other Camelot novels yet!