FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
The first time I saw Mickey Spillane was at a Bouchercon, back when he was the public face of Miller Lite beer. The second and last time I saw him was on April 27, 1995, the evening of that year’s MWA dinner. As 1994 Awards chair I got to host the pre-dinner cocktail party for Edgar nominees, and Spillane got to attend because, over vehement objections from some older mystery writers who were on the other side of the culture wars of the HUAC-McCarthy-Red Menace era, he was about to be given the Grand Master award.
Like just about everyone else in America I had read Spillane’s early novels — the septet of bestsellers that began with I, the Jury (1947) and climaxed, if that’s the word, with Kiss Me Deadly (1952) — but almost nothing that he’d written in the Sixties and later. Like just about no one else in America except intellectuals and critics, I thought his books were terrible. What turned me off was not so much the rabid right-wing politics or the gruesome sadism of the action scenes as it was the inept plotting and linguistic boners.
The basic storyline of I, the Jury is simplicity itself. Manhattan PI Mike Hammer vows to personally execute the murderer of his buddy, ex-cop Jack Williams, who had lost an arm in the Pacific saving Hammer’s life. In his search he meets a seductive female psychiatrist, a pair of man-hungry twin sisters, a medical student who lives with a racket boss, and other lovables. After wading through the carnage of four more murders he gets to carry out his grim sentence, gut-shooting the psychiatrist and narcotics queenpin Charlotte Manning. The last two lines of the book are justly famous, or at least infamous. Manning: “How c-could you?” Hammer: “It was easy.”
I could devote several pages to how and where I, the Jury goes off the rails but will limit myself to three specimens of track-jumping, the first trivial but telling, the others crucial.
(1) In Chapter 3 Hammer is discussing the case with his friendly enemy Captain Pat Chambers of Homicide. Chambers argues that “somebody was afraid of what [Williams] knew and bumped him.” Hammer suggests that Chambers doesn’t know much about murderers and offers the alternate theory that “To protect himself, the killer knocked Jack off.” Talk about a distinction without a difference!
(2) The second and third murders take place in a whorehouse which Hammer has under personal surveillance. Both the second victim and Charlotte Manning, the murderer, are by this time well known to our sleuth, and neither of them knows he’s on the scene, yet both manage to get in by the front door without Hammer spotting them. Miraculous luck is again with Charlotte as she escapes from the house and area while police have the whole block surrounded.
(3) The fourth and final murder victim is Jack Williams’ fiancée Myrna Devlin and the crime takes place at a society party with 250 guests. Would you believe that every blessed one of them turns out to have an alibi for the fatal minutes? At the time Charlotte shoots her, Myrna is wearing Charlotte’s coat. (Don’t bother to ask why.) This means that afterwards she has to take her coat off Myrna’s body, find Myrna’s coat, put a bullet hole in exactly the spot to coincide with the hole in Myrna, put that coat on the dead woman, and cover up the hole in her own coat. She also has to gamble that neither the gun nor its silencer nor the hole in her coat will be noticed during the investigation and that she’ll be able to get all three items off the premises under Hammer’s eagle eye. Once again miraculous luck sits on her shapely shoulders. Yikes!
In Chapter 12 Hammer visits a movie theater and sees a crime film, calling it “a fantastic murder mystery which had more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese.” The perfect description for any Spillane novel!
One of the things that surprised me when I revisited I, the Jury recently was that so much of the writing is so pedestrian and ordinaire. Clearly Spillane hadn’t yet mastered the psychotic rants which pockmark his novels of the early Fifties. But every so often one finds a linguistic flub that lingers in the memory:
“My thoughts wandered around the general aspects of the case without reaching any conclusions.”
“Living alone with one maid, a few rooms was all that was necessary.”
“It gave me ideas, which I quickly ignored.”
“He took off like a herd of turtles.”
“When Velda heard about this she’d throw the roof at me.”
“‘Well, you know that he was in a medical school. Pre-med, to be exact.’”
Talk about a distinction with a difference! Was Spillane the inspiration for all those lunatic lines that began streaming from the smoking typewriter of Michael Avallone a few years later?
A year and some months after Spillane was named a Grand Master, the publisher of the prestigious Library of America series asked me to comment on the authors and titles tentatively selected for the Library’s two-volume American Noir project. My only suggestion for Volume One, which covered the Nineteen Thirties and Forties, was that Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man be replaced by three or four of his short novels.
Volume Two, which dealt with the Fifties, was slated to include two books I didn’t think could be called American Noir: Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, because most of it doesn’t take place in America, and Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, because having a series character and first-person narrator readers can easily identify with (Lew Archer, of course) seemed to me to rule it out as noir.
I proposed as a substitute someone who was conspicuous by his absence in the table of contents. You guessed it. Mickey Spillane. As a writer, I argued, Spillane stands beside Highsmith and Macdonald roughly where Ed Wood stands among film-makers vis-a-vis Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. But in terms of the development of noir he’s of such immense historical significance that American crime fiction and crime films of the Fifties just can’t be understood without him. (This is why I never objected to his receiving that Grand Master award.)
Mike Hammer of course is a series character and first-person narrator just as much as Lew Archer but he’s certainly not one readers can easily identify with. In fact, I contended, critics would long ago have ranked Hammer with Lou Ford in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me as one of the genre’s most convincing sociopaths if only Spillane hadn’t labored under the delusion that he’d created a hero.
I’ve been commenting on mystery fiction and mystery writers for almost half a century but have discussed Spillane only once in a chartreuse moon and have never advocated for him except in my correspondence with Library of America. How did Atticus Finch do? Miserably. How many of my suggestions were accepted? You guessed it. None. But I did enjoy the interchange and wound up with complimentary copies of some very nice volumes. One of which I expect to figure in my next column.
“SHOOT HIM ON SIGHT!” – William Colt MacDonald. Ace F-389, paperback original; first printing, 1966. Ace ‘Tall Twin’ Western, 2nd printing, 1972; paired with The Troublemaker, by Edwin Booth.
Most westerns, it has been said before, and probably by me, are crime stories. They just happen to take place in the west, and mostly in the late 1800’s. Rustling, bank robberies, feuding between cattlemen and homesteaders and so on, all crime fiction, but unless there’s an element of detective work, Al Hubin does not include it in his bibliography of Crime Fiction, and rightly so. There’s a matter of intent, as well. Most western writers were (and are) writing westerns, and not crime fiction.
And of that aforementioned element of detective work, there is, I have to admit, none in this book. Not that there isn’t a crime, and it’s fairly obvious who the villain is, to the reader that is, and not the narrator of this tale, which is told – and I think this is unusual for westerns, isn’t it? – in first person by John Cardinal, who is on the run from the law.
It seems that to help out his foster parents, he extorted money from a mean, tight-fisted banker and then, knowing that he did wrong, lit out of town. What he doesn’t expect, though, is that his reputation as an outlaw would grow and grow, with WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE posters going up all across the west. Thinking that this is due to sheer laziness on the part of the law – blaming him when the local sheriffs cannot catch up with their own local desperadoes – the noose that John Cardinal has placed around his own neck grows tighter and tighter. He quickly learns to survive in wilder and wilder towns, trying his utmost to live up to his reputation.
Until he reaches the crookedest town of them all, that is, which is to say Onyxton, a town that’s run by Shel Webster, and whose girl friend is a beautiful dance hall hostess named Topaz. And this is where John Cardinal stops and makes a stand, where he finds out who he is, who’s been behind the problems he’s had in life, and what on earth are guns and ammunition doing in boxes labeled sewing machines being sent to small villages just across the border in Mexico?
A number of MacDonald’s other westerns are listed in Hubin, by the way, many of them featuring a rangeland detective named Gregory Quist, and if I have ever read any, it was so long ago that I do not remember. John Cardinal’s forte, on the other hand, seems merely to be being in the right place at the right time, once he’s decided that Topaz is the girl for him, that is.
Here’s a long quote from pages 112-113, a picturesque scene from Webster’s dance hall:
The noise was deafening: the music, the stamping of heavy feet on the dance floor, whirring of the wheel, click of poker chips and everyone talking at once. Cigar and cigarette stubs littered the floor, waves of tobacco smoke drifted through the room. I glanced through the room and finally spied Topaz, seated alone at a corner table. She was dressed about as I’d seen her yesterday, though the dress was of a different pattern, some sort of green and white figured material. Drooped loosely about her shoulders was a white, fringed Spanish shawl. God, she was beautiful, her shining red-gold hair looked as though every hair lay in place. Sleek, was the word for it. Then I thought of Shel Webster, and I scowled. I glanced around, but didn’t see anything of him; probably he was in the adjoining barroom. Not that it made any difference. He couldn’t have stopped me from going to her. I was like one of those big moths attracted to a shining flame.
There’s not a great depth involved here, as you can plainly see, but this is a smoothly told tale that’s not only tasty but a whole lot of fun to read.
— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #5,
July 2004 (slightly revised).
BARBARY COAST. ABC, 1975-76. Fancy Productions Inc., in association with Paramount. Created by Douglas Heyes. Executive Producer: Cy Chermak. Cast: William Shatner as Jeff Cable, Doug McClure as Cash Conover, Richard Kiel as Moose Moran and Dave Turner as Thumbs.
To read my earlier review of the BARBARY COAST TV-Movie, click here.
The series kept the TV Movie basic premise. Jeff Cable, master of disguise and undercover agent for the Governor of California (in the TV movie Jeff called himself a cop, in the series he called himself a spy) was out to bring law and order to the wild 1880’s Barbary Coast. Aiding him is the less than willing Cash Conover, owner of the Golden Gate Casino, Moose Moran the Golden Gate barker and bouncer, and Thumbs the casino’s piano player.
But changes were made. Most important, gone was creator Douglas Heyes, replaced by producer Cy Chermak (THE VIRGINIAN, IRONSIDE, KOLCHAK THE NIGHT STALKER) who lacked the experience in adult light drama/comedy of Douglas Heyes (MAVERICK, ALIAS SMITH AND JONES, BEARCATS!).
The series tone became lighter, more appropriate for a younger audience. Gone was Dennis Cole as Cash Conover, the biggest crook on the Barbary Coast. Doug McClure (THE VIRGINIAN, SEARCH) had a lighter more likeable persona than Cole and was better at the show’s growing comedic tone.
It had been awhile since TV had had a successful Western, but those paid by advertising agencies to forecast what shows would attract an audience believed BARBARY COAST Western format would attract more than the Science Fiction series INVISIBLE MAN airing opposite on NBC. They were wrong. But it didn’t matter as the CBS Top 10 lineup of RHODA and PHYLLIS destroyed both of them.
From the first week the ratings were basically the same. For September 8th BARBARY COAST finished 63rd out of 66 with a 12.0 and 21 share. NBC’s INVISIBLE MAN had a disappointing 16.3 and 28 share (30 share was usually needed to avoid cancellation). Both CBS’ RHODA with a 22.8 and 40 share and PHYLLIS with a 25.2 and 42 share finished in the top ten.
By late October ABC decided to switch BARBARY COAST with another rating disaster MOBILE ONE, and October 31,1975 BARBARY COAST moved to Friday at 8pm opposite NBC’s major hits SANFORD AND SON and CHICO AND THE MAN, and CBS’ BIG EDDIE and MASH. BARBARY COAST remained in the bottom five of the ratings and was cancelled by mid-November.
The reviews were bad. “Broadcasting” (September 22.1975) published excerpts from various newspaper TV critics reviews.
Morton Moss of the Los Angeles “Herald Examiner” wrote, “…a couple good actors, William Shatner and Doug McClure, and various gaudy ingredients that could add up to a vibrant western swashbuckler. But it doesn’t…”
From the Chicago Tribune Gary Daab, “It is hilarious to watch one of American’s raunchiest era – the 1880s Barbary Coast – being sanitized into a hunkey-dorey juvenile cartoon suitable for TV’s new family hour. Almost, but not quite, beneath contempt.”
This was the first season for FCC ordered “family hour.” No one knew what to program in the time slot. But a fun entertaining grown-up Western with bad men and easy women such as the TV Movie version of BARBARY COAST belonged in the 10pm time period not at 8pm when the kiddies where watching. In a fatale mistake ABC decided to adapt the series for the time slot.
From “Broadcasting” (August 2, 1976): “Last September, ABC’s BARBARY COAST, CBS’s THREE FOR THE ROAD and NBC’s THE MONTEFUSCOS and FAY were handicapped right from start (and were cancelled early) when pre-empted by affiliates that either had their own locally produced hours to put in primetime or had expensive syndication properties such as ITC’s SPACE 1999 that needed primetime airing to recoup prices.”
So, a premise that needed a more adult time slot, competed against top ten rating hits, and had fewer stations than normal airing the program meaning fewer people available to watch, all virtually dooming BARBARY COAST to failure.
I have seen four episodes of the series. I remain interested in seeing the series first episode “Funny Money” written by Douglas Heyes and with Flame (Bobbie Jordan), Cash’s lover still in the cast (according to IMdB).
Check out this clip containing scenes from episodes “Crazy Cats.” “Jesse Who?” and “Guns For the Queen”:
“Crazy Cats.” (9/15/75) Written by Harold Livingston Directed by Don Weis Guest Cast: Eric Braeden, Joanna Miles and Andrew Prine. *** Jeff needs to find and return to the Chinese government two priceless Jade cats stolen while on view in California.
Entertaining, but predictable. Perhaps its biggest weakness was a disappointing action ending that was too much filler and silliness (why set bombs to block your exits?).
“Jesse Who?” (9/22/75) Written by Howard Berk Directed by Bill Bixby Guest Cast: Rosemary Forsyth, David Spielberg and Lloyd Bochner. *** A man calling himself Jesse James is robbing banks in San Francisco.
The femme fatale and her motives make this predictable story almost interesting.
“The Ballad of Redwing Jail.” Teleplay by William D. Gordon and James Doherty. Story by Matthew Howard (Douglas Heyes). Directed by John Florea Guest Cast: Andrew Duggan, Ralph Meeker and James Cromwell. *** Jeff and Cash have to find some way to recover money buried inside the Redwing Jail without the greedy Sheriff finding out.
This episode made me sad, as the production values that had been a plus had now virtually disappeared, revealing Paramount’s loss of faith in the show.
Burdened with a dumber script than usual the only reason to watch this is to see Ralph Meeker show a surprisingly believable light comedic side.
“Gun for a Queen.” (10/6/75) Teleplay by William Putman Story by Matthew Howard (Douglas Heyes). Directed by Don McDougall. Guest Cast: John Ericson, Fred Beir and Joan Van Ark *** An old girl friend of Jeff and Cash arrives with a new husband who is there to buy some stolen guns for a revolution.
Some good twists but flawed by the near slapstick action scenes.
I remember liking this series when it was on. Watching it now there are moments when it is entertaining and fun, but overall the series is disappointing, one of failed potential.
…AND SUDDENLY IT’S MURDER. Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica, Italy, 1960. Originally released as Crimen. Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, Nino Manfredi, Dorian Gray, Franca Valeri, Bernard Blier, Silvana Mangano. Director: Mario Camerini.
Intersecting in this mildly entertaining comedy mystery are the lives of three couples: two Italian newlyweds trying to return a lost dog they find in Rome to its owner, a wealthy old woman who lives in Monte Carlo. On the train they meet a man who swears he’s given up gambling in order to save his marriage. He in turn gives some good advice to another couple, a pair of hair stylists (male and female) also heading for Monte Carlo to make their fortune and set up their own salon, based on a roulette system the husband has developed.
The advice? The only way not to lose by gambling is not to play. Do they take his advice? No. Does he take his own advice? No. Do the newlyweds return the dog to its owner? No, they find her murdered instead, and instant funny business ensues, as they want no part of the police, who they know will take them as their primary suspects.
Without boring you with the details of how it happens, each of the three couples comes under suspicion in turn, with Bernard Blier playing the frustrated head of police whose job it is to deal with them. Unfortunately at 108 minutes, the movie’s a little too long to reach its full comedy potential, with the first third, especially after the body is found, the most laugh-out-loud funniest. (And if this suggests to you that the movie starts to sag from there, indeed it does. In my opinion, of course.)
One thing about Italian movies like this one is that all of the women are beautiful and glamorous. One has to wonder how (and why) they hooked up with such nebbish (and not overly handsome) men. It is one of the great mysteries of life.
Note: The movie was remade a couple of times, once in the US as Once Upon a Crime in 1992 with John Candy, James Belushi and Cybil Shepherd as three of the stars. I’ve not seen that movie, unfortunately, but I know it involves a married couple (Richard Lewis and Sean Young) trying to return a lost dachshund to its owner in Monte Carlo. From there, I have no idea how closely the two plot lines coincide with the other.
CORNELIA PENFIELD – After the Town Clerk Died. Typed manuscript with corrections made by hand. No date. Unpublished.
Prologue: Cornelia Penfield was the author of two published works of detective fiction, both of which have recently been reviewed on this blog: After the Deacon Was Murdered and After the Widow Changed Her Mind. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend going back to read the earlier reviews (follow the links) before continuing:
The Internet is wonderful. It’s terrific. It took only a few days to trace down the family of Mrs. Cornelia Penfield Lathrop. She died in 1938, and a son Robert died several years ago, but Marilyn Lathrop, Cornelia’s daughter-in-law, is still alive and well. She lives two towns over to the east of me, and I’m not sure exactly what she thought when she opened the letter I wrote her, asking if she indeed was who I thought she was. (No, I have that wrong. I wrote the letter to Robert Lathrop, as the telephone is in his name, and I wasn’t sure if it were Robert the son, still living, or perhaps Robert, a grandson.)
In any case, she wrote back, saying yes, Cornelia was her mother-in law, and yes, she’d welcome a chance to talk to me on the phone. I called not too late the following evening, hoping to set up a time when we could talk longer. What happened instead was a conversation about Cornelia Penfield that lasted at least 30 minutes. I no longer remember whether I received the answer in the initial letter that she wrote me or in that conversation, but the question that I was simply itching to ask, given the first suitable opportunity, was “Do you know why the third book was never published?”
What I didn’t expect, whenever it was that the question was asked, or at least not realistically, was the reply that manuscript still existed, and would I be interested in seeing it sometime? I think my mind went blank right about then, but you know what my reply had to have been.
I went to see it, had a chance to have another lengthy conversation with Marilyn Lathrop and (which I never really anticipated) I was allowed to borrow it. I have kept it far too long. There were some extenuating circumstances, including a number of unexpected events that intervened and kept me from starting to read it, but I think the real reason I put off reading it for so long was that for me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I was simply relishing the anticipation much longer than I should have.
As to the answer to the question as to why the book was rejected – and this is the family’s version of what happened – is that the publisher said it “wasn’t seamy enough.” When we get to the review proper, I’ll go into that, but later on Marilyn partially reconsidered, saying that perhaps “seamy” wasn’t the word that was used, but even if it wasn’t, it was close.
What I didn’t realize right away, though, is that the title of the manuscript I have is NOT the title of the third book that was promised, and there is nothing in the story itself to suggest the title was changed, there being no doctor in the tale that I have.
So there is a fourth novel, and it is still missing, and unless someone in the Lathrop family remembers something – a box or trunk never opened – we shall reluctantly have to assume that it no longer exists.
It also seems possible that After the Town Clerk Died is a novel that was never sent to Putnam’s. It may have been that After What the Doctor Said was the one that was rejected, with the aforesaid comment attached, and that Town Clerk was abandoned before completion, almost but never quite finished.
It is, I am sure, no longer possible to say. It is remarkable that the typed pages still exist. As a mystery, it needs some work. I’ve never tried to write a full-fledged detective novel, or even an unfledged one. Reading this, in what I’m going to continue to think of as being in the form of a rough first or second draft, gave me quite a bit of insight into the physical problems of doing so. Being sure that an event mentioned on page 233 (say) as having happened earlier on page 165, really occurred, for example, and that a clue discussed on page 198 (say) was mentioned and pointed out back on page 53.
That’s what still needs some fixing, not a lot, and editors of detective story fiction deserve all the praise we can give them. (There are still a few of them, but not as many as before.)
Jane Trimble, the semi-elderly genealogist who appeared in the two published books, also appears in this one, her primary focus being that of keeping her friend Gordon Burr from becoming a suspect in the death of a man in a suspicious fire. Burr is a writer who is not only having problems completing his latest book, but who is also having domestic troubles with his wife, and Jane cherishes them both.
I don’t imagine retelling the plot in detail makes a lot of sense, as when is anyone else ever going to be able to read this as a work of detective fiction? I’ll retract a good deal of what I was going to say, and start painting things with a wider brush.
But what I started to say still applies. Jane was hardly the detective of record in the first book at all, and it was something of a surprise to find that she appeared in the second. In the second one, Widow, she shared sleuthing duty with another character, but in this one, she is the primary detective, even to the extent that she is the one with a watchful eye out for trouble even before there is trouble to be had.
And here lies a problem. It takes nearly 150 pages before the body of the dead man is discovered, and it takes a fairly talented mystery writer to keep the reader’s interest that long, with little or no “action” taking place. There are a lot of characters to identify, a lot of refined conversation to listen in on – this is suburban Connecticut, after all, and even in (say) 1935, the level or refinement was greater than many another part of the world.
Once Jane’s detective activities begin in earnest, it is quite a complicated state of affairs the mystery finds itself in, and – here’s another problem – many of the clues happened or were discovered back in the earlier portion of the book when no one (but Jane) even suspected that they were clues. An alert reader might get glimpses of the essentials of the plot in its early going, but as the manuscript now stands, some strong rewriting seems to be very much necessary.
There is a great to-do about who was where and saw what when, and even more about beards, false beards, who had one and who shaved one off and who hired someone to impersonate them who did or did not have a beard when he needed one. I may not have implied what I wanted to in that sentence. It is all very fascinating.
Penfield’s great talent was in miniature characterization, burbling good humor, dialogue, and in the end, a kindly heart. The mystery, as in Widow, turns out to have been a minor affair, complicated by a myriad of factors, related and unrelated, but once again – with a sense of forgiveness for loose ends – it’s a charming affair that I’m glad to have had the pleasure to read. (By the way, the Town Clerk’s death is involved, but he died of natural causes, and his involvement comes only in a clever way, one that could have been known only by someone intimately involved with the problems of genealogical research, and as such, it may be a First. The entire series, in other words, and this one in particular, may be “One for the Books.”)
Postscript: I have debated for a while whether I should do this, and once again, since you’re reading this, you will know that the better argument won. Here’s a longish quote from pages 245-246, getting within a hundred pages from the end. It will give you a sense, I think, of Cornelia Penfield’s knowledge of the conventions of the mystery field, and how, as I’ve mentioned in the two previous reviews, how she liked to play around with them.
Reviewing her evening with the Admiring Confidants, in the foggy dawn of a New York spring day, Jane felt she had not shone. How was it that fictional detectives made themselves the center of awestricken attention, summed up their findings in crisp dramatic sentences, and stated so authoritatively that the criminal must have done this and that as was clearly shown by these and those?
How was it that invariably they enlisted the kindly and obsequious services of? (1) Scotland Yard (2) the Division of Investigation of the Department of Justice (3) the Police Department of the metropolis concerned – (Select (1), (2), or (3) giving reasons for choice and write in your own words a complete detailed description of methods employed by that organization.)
By what magic did they also find various district attorneys, solicitors, barristers, photographers, experts in criminology and laboratory practice, reporters, butlers and valets to abet and assist the Super-Detective without wanting any reward beyond a kindly smile, who argued with him just sufficiently to point out his infallibility- and were content with being yes-men and filling about two hundred and ninety pages of escape literature?
None of her own intense concentration and really intelligent work on the Dymchurch affair had to date earned her a darned thing — and might possibly, as Judge Whitaker had hinted, be bringing her activities suspiciously into the official limelight.
However positive she might be that at least one of the theories so neatly worked out and counter-indexed in her notebook was a correct solution, just how was she going to submit the notebook to the Principal Official and secure his kind attention? After having, for reasons which at the time appeared to her sound, led him to believe her a romantic and muddleheaded moron?
And coming down to her own friends from whom at least she had the right to expect some awed silent admiration, what had been their attitude?
Merely a polite and passing interest in the least important phases of the whole affair – the beard and the altered entry – and in order to explain those she had had to battle against guppies and banal bunnies as conversational topics!
Worse of all, Judge Whitaker upon whom she had relied for so much of encouragement and intelligent cooperation, had not only failed her utterly, but had expressed his opinion in tactful judicial terms that she was a Meddlesome Mattie, and had better let the state of Connecticut and the town of Dymchurch deal with their own affairs as they were so well equipped and prepared to do.
“Ah well,” said Jane, ringing the pantry service. “A bit of breakfast may chirk me up. I must hold to the thought that I am not a Super-Detective, but merely riding a hobby-horse I found grazing along the roadside: and that even so I am an unpretentious Jarrocks and not eligible to the Hunt Club: nor am I called upon to demonstrate haute école before a circus audience that thinks a balotade is probably an off-color French joke… But, all the same, if this sinister Langton person does do away with me and dispose of my body in a crematory way, won’t all the grown-ups be sorry and begin to appreciate the risk I am taking?”
The pause-giving difficulty would be that she would not be around to hear the post-mortem regrets and to see Judge Whitaker turn her notebook pages with trembling fingers or to hear him say “Poor Jane! How little we appreciated all this clever work of hers!”
She sipped her coffee and enjoyed one of the famous St. Crispin croissants and decided to live a while longer, Langton willing. Even though a few more deaths were needed to bring the Dymchurch quota up to a good Van Dine average.
I’ve decided that if I’m going to do long quotes from the text, I ought to do it right. Here’s an earlier passage, from pages 35-38, in which Jane meets Don Wyckoff, a local attorney, who may or may not be representing either artist Jack Collins or his wife Julia in their upcoming divorce proceedings. As part of their conversation, some more light is shed on Jane’s detective proclivities:
Wyckoff smiled diplomatically. “… But I can’t undertake to nurse Jack Collins all the time.”
“Are you representing him or Julia in the oncoming action? Or doesn’t one ask?” Phyllis nibbled a cracker.
“One doesn’t – not at this moment.”
“But is Julia really going to carry it through, Don? I should almost think after all these years … tell the waitress no mayonnaise for me, please – just the diet dressing … I’m sorry, Don. Ethics always seem so silly among friends – professional ethics, I mean.”
There was a slight frown on Wyckoff’s bland forehead and he addressed his next remark directly to Jane. “Judge Whitaker spoke of you as a triple A detective, Miss Trimble.”
“I suppose he referred to the Gleason will case. That was simple genealogical research. Elementary.”
“The name is Wyckoff, not Watson. And I know an unfortunate lot about how much ability as well as research that sort of thing takes. Being myself mostly a digger-out of facts for others to profit by.”
“Oh, Don! Don’t be so ’umble. He’s in with the oldest, snootiest law firm in Tidewater, Jane – seven names and an ampersand on the door – and every one of the seven is a judge or a trustee or a receiver or something.”
“Except me and the ampersand. The only way I maintain my dignity out of office-boy hours is to keep a few clients of my own over here in Dymchurch.”
He began to outline amusingly a case involving a farmer and his step-son. Phyllis listened with applauding phrases at the right moment. Jane divided her attention between the table in the alcove – as yet unclaimed – and his bland face and pleasant voice. She had rather a prejudice against young lawyers, so given as a rule to screening their uncertainties by bumptious pronouncements and bristling authority. Wyckoff was of another sort. He had an adaptable geniality that hinted of the politician – of experience in gaining the confidence of folk of all degrees. A tactful young man, she concluded, who had been about a bit, who was sure of himself but not irritatingly so, and who might will be exactly what her beloved old neighbor, Judge Whitaker had been in his green legal youth. The anecdote finished, he again referred to Jane’s detective experience.
“It’s been rather accidental and incidental,” she said. “If I ever tried real detecting, I’m afraid I’d be much more interested in a criminal’s heredity and background and other antecedents than in the crime and whodunit. In the long run, though, I suppose detection and genealogy require about the same amount of patience and imagination and experience – and luck – ”
“The ideal job of detection may,” laughed Wyckoff, “but the detectives I’ve met in real life depend principally upon a lack of delicacy and a certain flair for installing dictaphones, breaking down doors, and otherwise intruding on the private life of a sincere criminal. Not picturesque persons – and the less imagination the better. You ought to hear our local chief of police, Hal Flint, cuss out detective story detectives. So many of the young literary colonists scribble mystery novels and they keep looking Flint up and getting in his hair and asking him questions.”
“And I suppose he replies in the same spirit as did the doctor whose dinner-partner wanted free medical advice and asked him what he did when he had a cold – he snorted at her and said ‘Same as everybody else ma’am. I cough and sneeze’ –”
“Exactly the way Flint feels. Routine and romance don’t team successfully. And what’s more, if your average detective has no imagination, your average criminal certainly has less. I’ve never met a master-mind, I never hope to see one – but if I do, I’ll call you in, Miss Trimble. I promise.”
“Thank you,” said Jane solemnly. “I’ll endeavor to cope genealogically.”
One more quote. I hope I’m not overdoing this, but I’d like to demonstrate what I mentioned earlier about Cornelia Penfield’s knack for dialogue. Jane is talking to Mrs. Turner, the cook in the Burrs’ household. Her husband Jim is the Burr’s handyman, and Beulah is their daughter, whom they’ve been concerned about. Either I’m right, or I’m hopelessly wrong, but I think this is the way people actually talk, instead of in neat diagrammable sentences. From pages 76-77:
“Perhaps I can give Mrs. Burr a few hints when she comes back,” concluded Jane. “She hasn’t, I know, the faintest idea of making it hard for you.”
“I know she hasn’t. That’s why I’ve kep’ my mouth shut and tried to do my best. Of course I never thought I’d get to do housework for other folks, but we couldn’t have it nicer than we have here, with our own little house an’ all. And after stretchin’ an’ strainin’ so many years, it’s a real rest to spend somebody else’s money for a change … not but what I don’t try to manage just as close ’sif it was my own” – added Mrs. Turner conscientiously, “But Mr. and Mrs. Burr, they’ve never had to count every cent twice, and they both do like good victuals … if we only had Beulah back and Jim didn’t get upset so easy–”
“Yes. That’s the whole trouble. Jim kep’ straight ’s string till she went off t’ New York, but people ’round here don’t give him credit for that. An’ I was hopin’ maybe if she did come home–” Mrs. Turner’s tight lip quivered – “You see, Miss Trimble, we lived out of Branford on a farm of our own when we was first married, and all the time Beulah was growin’ up we had all our own things nice. Then the bank closed in New Haven where we had our money, and the other bank foreclosed on a moggidge Jim had taken out to buy some more proputty with, and it was before they started the Home-Owners’ Loan or anything and we couldn’t beg or borrow a cent – so we lost our place and had to sell our furniture for what it’d bring – I had real nice walnut suites that had b’longed to my folks – and the best we could do was try to live with Jim’s step-uncle over Redding-way, but he’d never liked Jim – and his second wife didn’t get along with Beulah an’ we all had it pretty hard till Beulah took a notion to take her high-school cookin’ and so on seriously and get herself a job waitin’ on tables at the Tavern. She did real well with tips an’ all an’ then she found out there’d be this place for us all so we decided we’druther be independent an’ work for pay than keep on where we were … Only with Beulah gone and no relyin’ on Jim no more, I guess the Burrs is about ready to make a change. And if we haveta leave here, Jim’ll just get from bad to worse.”
In conclusion: Thanks again to Marilyn Lathrop for allowing me the use of the manuscript, and for the conversations we have had concerning her husband’s mother. Since Marilyn never knew her mother-in-law, her own knowledge is based on what Robert and other members of the family have told her over the years. Cornelia’s daughter Helen Harriet Petty is still living. She is in her late 80s, and the memories she has of her mother have been conveyed to me through Marilyn. A nephew, Fred Lathrop, is also still alive, and he has assisted me in proofreading the reviews and commentary above. He remembers her only as a young boy, recalling for the most part the years toward her death, when she was often bedridden with tuberculosis.
My impression of Cornelia Lathrop, through these conversations, was that she was a very progressive woman, ahead of her time in many ways. Similar in nature, I believe, to Eleanor Roosevelt, a lady whom Cornelia is said to have met. Not many women in the 1920s, for example, would take her three children to live in France for well over a year without her husband, who stayed home working.
She was always interested in the arts. Besides her brief involvement with Broadway, previously mentioned, in the mid-30s she also wrote several articles for Stage Magazine, including five in a 1936 series on famous Hollywood directors.
The photo you see at the top of this article/review is a publicity shot taken by her mystery publisher, G. P. Putnam. It’s nice to be able to display it again.
BARBARY COAST. TV movie/pilot. ABC – Paramount, 4 May 1975. Created, Written and Produced by Douglas Heyes. Directed by Bill Bixby. Cast: William Shatner as Jeff Cable, Dennis Cole as Cash Conover, Richard Kiel as Moose Moran, Lynda Day George as Clio Du Bois, John Vernon as Robin Templar, Bobbie Jordan as Flame, Charles Aidman as Lt. Tully, Leo V. Gordon as Chief Keogh, Neville Brand as Florrie Roscoe, and Michael Ansara as Diamond Jack Bassiter.
While the premise owed much to THE WILD WILD WEST, and the story was predictable, this Western Action TV Movie was entertaining in ways only 70s escapism nonsense could be.
The opening credits visually established the setting and premise quickly and with near perfection. Barbary Coast was a lawless area of San Francisco, filled with saloons, mud thick streets, women who would seduce you out of your money, dancing girls who could knock you out with a kick if you got too close, cops on the take, people demanding justice even if it meant vigilante justice, and places where if you entered you would wake up on a boat to Shanghai China.
Yet the mood of the opening was as upbeat as the music and the unsuspecting victims determined to have fun, such as the drunk who got tossed out of saloon after saloon but remained determined to find another place to drink.
The Governor of California had sent undercover cop Jeff Cable in to investigate the Barbary Coast and recommend how to clean the place up. Jeff couldn’t resist taking on the corruption by himself, with some help from a few reluctant friends, chiefly Cash Conover, owner of the city’s most successful and honest casino, The Golden Gate.
Captain Keogh and nearly all the local police were in the pocket of the local criminals. That is except honest Police Lieutenant Tully. While Moose Moran, the Golden Gate’s barker and bouncer assisted Cash and Jeff, others at the place apparently were not aware of Jeff’s activities and connection to Cash. Thumbs (Dave Turner), the piano player who would join the team in the series, was just a background character in this TV Movie.
West Point graduate Jeff Cable had worked undercover for President Grant to help bring down the Ku Klux Klan in the south. Now Jeff learns some of the former members have arrived at the Barbary Coast to set up a group called the Crusaders.
Crusaders’ leader, lawyer Robin Templar encourages a shootout in Cash’s Golden Gate, and then begins to collect donations from the “good people” of San Francisco demanding justice.
Meanwhile, a down on her luck French aristocrat, ineptly portrayed by Lynda Day George, finds her dream of marrying a rich man’s son shattered when the young man is killed in the shootout. She brings trouble to unsuspecting Cash who helps her find a place to stay and work.
Jeff Cable is the perfect role for William Shatner. The character’s love of disguises made hamminess an appropriate character trait. Shatner gives a surprisingly good performance giving each character he played a life of its own.
Dennis Cole was as bland as usual. Yet he was convincing enough as Cash the superstitious gambler with a past. Cash had killed the son of the Louisiana Governor in a duel. Jeff knows this and threatens Cash to turn him over to the Louisiana authorities unless Cash helps him fight the crooks.
Douglas Heyes (BEARCATS!) created, wrote and produced this TV Movie pilot. A favorite of Roy Huggins (MAVERICK) since their days working on CHEYENNE, Heyes used his experience writing for such series as MAVERICK and ALIAS SMITH AND JONES to recreate a similar light dramatic tone for the TV Movie.
The production levels were high as Paramount turned their back lot into the Barbary Coast. The Golden Gate interiors were lush and included the casino, Conover’s upstairs office and bedroom, and Jeff’s secret lair hiding behind a secret door/fireplace worked by the hands of a clock. Extras filled the Golden Gate and half a dozen dancing girls danced and high kicked endlessly on stage.
Art Director Jack F. DeShields and set decorator Reg Allen were deservedly nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction or Scenic Design in a Dramatic Special or Feature Length Film Made For TV (they lost to ABC Theatre’s ELEANOR & FRANKLIN).
Music for the TV Movie was by John Andrew Tartaglia. At times the background music brought back memories of the superior TV Western ALIAS SMITH & JONES. That was not surprising considering John Andrew Tartaglia also did music for that series.
In the May 5, 1975 issue of “Broadcasting,” ABC had decided to add a Western to their upcoming Fall schedule in the Monday at 8pm time slot in front of MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL. There were three pilots up for the spot, Paramount’s BARBARY COAST, Universal’s BRIDGER and MGM’s HOW THE WEST WAS WON.
BRIDGER starred James Wainwright and would air on ABC September 10, 1976. HOW THE WEST WAS WON starred James Arness aired January 19.1976 under the title THE MACAHANS. This lead to the HOW THE WEST WAS WON mini-series in 1977 and a weekly series in 1978 and 1979.
By the next issue of “Broadcasting” (5/12/75), BARBARY COAST, called for a short time CASH AND CABLE, had made the Fall 1975-76 schedule.
NEXT: A LOOK AT BARBARY COAST THE WEEKLY SERIES AND WHAT WENT WRONG.
VAL McDERMID – A Place of Execution. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1999; paperback, 2000. St. Martin’s, US, hardcover, 2000; paperback, 2001.
A PLACE OF EXECUTION. ITV, UK; 3 x 60m episodes: 22 Sept, 29 Sept, 6 Oct 2008. PBS, US, November 1 & 8, 2009. Lee Ingleby, Emma Cunniffe, Philip Jackson, Juliet Stevenson, Elizabeth Day, Tony Maudsley, Greg Wise, Poppy Goodburn, Mikey North, Danny Tennant. Based on the novel by Val McDermid. Director: Daniel Percival.
In 1963, when the Manchester police are investigating the first disappearances caused by the real-life Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, a 13-year-old girl goes missing from her small isolated Derbyshire village.
On hand when the call comes in is Detective Inspector George Martin, a man fast-tracked for promotion under the new graduate recruitment scheme. He becomes rather obsessed with the search for the missing girl, coordinating unsuccessful searches and then reacting with diligence when evidence starts to filter in slowly over the next few weeks.
When an arrest is made, we follow the accumulation of evidence and then the formality of the trial and verdict. This takes us through almost 400 of the 550 pages in the paperback that I read.
We then forward to the present day (or, at least, to 1998, when the book was written) and the story of Catherine Heathcote, a journalist who has taken time off to write a book about the about the case, co-operating with the now retired George Martin. With the book nearly finished, she receives a letter from him saying that he was withdrawing from the project ad insisting that she abandon it.
Catherine now has to investigate the reasons why and this takes up the final part of the book.
This is a very slow paced but enjoyable and rewarding book (after 200 pages very little has happened but I was enthralled and still reading enthusiastically).
However I have to say that it was very well written and I thoroughly enjoyed the reading of it. (It was short-listed for the Gold Dagger in 1999 and the Edgar in 2001, and won the Anthony and Macavity Awards for that year.)
I delayed watching the television adaptation of the novel (three one-hour parts, less adverts) because I wanted to read the book first. (It’s an awful dilemma because, as you all know, you gain the knowledge from one which can dilute the pleasure of the other, no matter which you experience – unless of course you leave a small gap, a few weeks seems to sufficient nowadays for me, in which case all knowledge of the original will be forgotten.)
This is a superior production and one I would recommend. Some changes are made to the original. The journalist is now preparing a television piece (which gives her people to speak to: a televisual necessity since thoughts are difficult to get across) and is given a difficult teenage daughter with which to contend. Also many of the characters of the book are jettisoned and the action is streamlined (again necessary or the production would last much longer than the allotted 2½ hours or so).
The switch between the 1963 scenes and the present day is well handled and well cast with corresponding actors chosen to portray the same actors in the differing eras.
The coincidence I complained of in the book is eliminated but, unfortunately, another much more unacceptable coincidence is added to close the production. This is not enough to ruin what is an enjoyable adaptation, but it would have been better if it not been added.
CORNELIA PENFIELD – After the Widow Changed Her Mind. G. P. Putnam’s Sons; hardcover, 1933.
Although she’s not the detective of record in either volume, Miss Jane Trimble of the author’s previous book, After the Deacon Was Murdered (reviewed here ) makes a return appearance in this one. (Since she was not designated as a Series Character in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, I immediately relayed this information on to him, which was gracefully accepted, as always.)
Two other minor characters have equally minor (but nonetheless significant) roles in this one as well: Judge Whitaker and the unsavory reporter named Parsons. But with the lack of any other detective by designation in this one, Miss Trimble seems to play the role as sleuth as well as anyone else, along with her co-worker on the dead man’s proposed biography, a young college graduate and presently out-of-work advertising copywriter named Anne Exeter.
It is Mrs. Prelton’s idea for the biography, coming five years after her husband’s mysterious death, but who has put her up to it, no one knows. Everyone who was at the gathering at Skyetower that evening then has been invited back, and no one dares refuse the widow’s change of heart – she had closed the mansion and had all but never mentioned the her husband’s name again.
The backgrounds of all of the guests – many of whom have fallen on hard times in the meantime – are interwoven and tangled together in intricate fashion, and much of the delightful first half of the book is spent in unraveling the various threads of their lives. It is a Christie novel that the author is attempting, but with a homespun and not-so-prim New England sense of humor mixed abundantly in.
A stuffed dog with a collar studded with diamonds also figures prominently in the early going – it seems to have been the basis for a smuggling scheme that the some of the people in the widow’s life (including a European prince from some small outpost overseas) have been involved in.
From page 109:
“You’ll excuse me, Prince, but I was reminded — did ye ever hear the story of the Englishman visitin’ here in this country who saw the little red bug?”
“I fear I have not.”
“Well, it was this way. This Englishman, he says ‘What’s that?’ says he. ”Tis a ladybug,’ says his American friend. The Londoner squints through his monocle like this and takes a closer look and then he turns and says, ‘Me word — how observant you Americans are!’ Haw-haw-haw!”
The prince smiled with puzzled politeness and turned again to speak with Mrs. Prelton.
The dead man, as it not very surprisingly turns out to be the case, did not have many friends, no matter how many guests were on hand during the fateful evening, and one gets one’s hopes up that this will really be a jewel of a mystery, or at least I did.
But the ending is disappointing, wrapped up in much too quick fashion, with yards and yards of explanation to go with it, and yet not enough to explain why Jane’s drive over the mountain to look up some records on page 276 was exactly the right place for her to go, and at the right time, to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Then again, a genealogist has to go where the records are, and if coincidentally it all connects with the matter of Mr. Prelton’s fatal fall from a window, then why not accept good fortune when it comes along?
As in her first book, Cornelia Penfield also continues to play with the conventions of the general novel as well as the detective story itself. For the latter, read the last page. For the former, I’ll leave you with this from page 258, where Anne is talking to a young man she happens to be fond of:
“Because I know what happens at house parties when an attractive young bachelor is found in a woman’s room alone — with another woman.”
Anne stooped to sniff a yellow rose. Then she looked pleasantly up at him. “Really? What?”
“A row of asterisks! I know!”
“You’ve been around a lot, haven’t you, John? But you haven’t caught up on your prescribed reading. Modern authors don’t use asterisks. They Leave Nothing to the Imagination!”
PostScript. Cornelia Penfield Lathrop was born in 1892 and died in 1938, five years after the two detective novels she wrote came out. From google.com I discovered that she was the producer of a Broadway play in 1923, and that she was very much someone was interested in local Connecticut history, if not genealogy herself. In 1930, for example, she was the author of work of non-fiction entitled Black Rock, the Seaport of Old Fairfield, Connecticut, 1644-1870. No copies are available on abebooks.com, but most every library of a certain size in the state seems to have a copy.
But what’s most intriguing is the statement that appears opposite the title page of this second mystery, to the effect that “In Preparation” was her third, After What the Doctor Said. If your brain doesn’t start tingling like mine did, then maybe you’re reading the wrong blog. You have to wonder how far along the unpublished manuscript got, why it never got finished, or if finished, then why it was never published. My assignment for next time, then, is to investigate, find out more, and report back with everything I’ve learned.
THE ADVENTURES OF HIRAM HOLLIDAY. California National Presentations, filmed for NBC, 1956-57. Based on the stories by Paul Gallico. Cast: Wally Cox as Hiram Holliday and Ainslie Pryor as Joel Smith. Produced by Philip Rapp.
The Adventures of Hiram Holliday is an amusing action spoof. The plots leaned to the absurd such as when Hiram stopped some foreign spies from turning Pearl Harbor to ice (“Hawaiian Humzah”). The humor was gentle and often based on misunderstanding or the odd image of Wally Cox as an action hero to rival Errol Flynn.
The screen credit and announcer tells us the series was “based on stories by Paul Gallico.” Which is odd since The Adventures of Hiram Holliday was published as a book in 1939. More confusing is Billboard (May 12, 1956), reported the TV series was based on stories from the Saturday Evening Post. Paul Gallico was writing stories for that magazine during the fifties, so perhaps Hiram appeared as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post.
Hiram Holliday was the copy editor for the newspaper New York Chronicle. Hiram catches an error that could have bankrupted the paper in libel charges. The grateful publisher Harrison Prentice sends Hiram on a trip around the world accompanied by reporter Joel Smith. On the way Hiram and Joel share one strange adventure after another with Hiram always the hero in the end and Joel failing for one reason or another to get the story published.
Wally Cox carried the show with his ability to make the absurd character of Hiram believable. It is Cox that makes the series funny and worth watching. He underplays the character, reacting to danger with a confident calmness. In one episode Hiram enters his room to find the femme fatale waiting for him. The room had been trashed and thoroughly searched. She tells Hiram she had been waiting for him. Hiram looked around and calmly replied he was glad she found something to do while waiting.
The rest of the cast were limited by one-note characters of dubious logic and were played by actors of various talents, from Sebastian Cabot to Thor Johnson (aka Tor Johnson). Publisher Prentice (Thurston Hall) existed to scream at Joel. The mastermind would make mistake after mistake while blaming it all on his henchman or femme fatale. The femme fatales existed to seduce Hiram.
Each episode would begin with Hiram and Joel entering a new country. Hiram’s interest was always in scientific and academic challenges. In Hawaii, he wanted to visit a Professor to study a lost consonant of the language. In Hong Kong, Hiram’s quest was for the rare sea cucumber.
Quickly, Hiram would stumble into an adventure while Joel was usually off somewhere eating. For reasons unexplained the misused laugh track thought Joel eating was hilarious, making it a bad running gag.
Villains arrive, usually made up of a mastermind, femme fatale, and a henchman. Through comedic misunderstanding the bad guys believe they have to get rid of Hiram. Hiram innocence and complete honesty is disbelieved and he has to turn into an action hero, from fighting atop a speeding train to performing some feat such as a carnival high dive act that he had never done before but had read about.
Ainslie Pryor failed to rise over the thankless role of Hiram’s traveling companion and best friend, Joel Smith who at times broke the fourth wall to talk to us. It was a difficult role. His character spent much of the time clueless and existed for Hiram to rescue or to take the brunt of the blame from the authorities for many of the misunderstanding that revolved around Hiram. In “Wrong Rembrandt.” Hiram had painted such a perfect copy of a Rembrandt the French police arrested Joel for art theft.
Production values were fine considering the era. Philip Rapp produced the series and wrote and directed many of the episodes. The show was funny but after a few episodes the situations became repetitive and the humor grew tired. How often can you laugh at Hiram winning swordfights with his umbrella?
The series followed Wally Cox’s successful turn asMr.Peepers. But that success didn’t carry over to Hiram Holliday. General Foods was the sponsor of The Adventures of Hiram Holliday and quickly regretted it.
Hiram Holliday premiered October 3, 1956 on Wednesday at 8-8:30pm (Eastern). In Billboard (October 13,1956), according to rating service Trendex, NBC’s Hiram received a 11.4 compared to ABC’s Disneyland with 19.2 and CBS’s >Arthur Godfrey Show with 14.2.
Billboard(January 1, 1956) discussed some of the TV series in trouble. Shows the sponsors were unhappy with but had given a 26 episodes or 52 episodes commitment. This included General Food and Adventures of Hiram Holliday.
January 28, 1957 issue of Broadcasting reported, “General Foods, N.Y. will drop its sponsorship of Hiram Holiday (sic) on NBC-TV, Wed. 8-8:30pm, and will become instead the alternate week sponsor of Wells Fargo (Monday, 8:30-9pm) effective March 18th.”
On February 27, 1957, the twentieth episode of the series to air was the last on NBC. Reportedly, three more episodes were showed in England during syndication, leaving 23 episodes apparently filmed.
Various episodes of the Adventures of Hiram Holliday are available on low budget DVD.
And on You Tube, at the moment, is the episode, “Moroccan Hawk Moth.”
HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM. American-International Pictures, 1959. Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow, Shirley Anne Field, Geoffrey Keen, Gerald Anderson, John Warwick. Director: Arthur Crabtree.
Horrors of the Black Museum is a gaudy comic book of a movie, best enjoyed if you park your good taste and critical faculties with the gum under your seat. The story, by Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel (the team that brought us such classics as I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Berserk) posits that a best-selling True Crime writer (Michael Gough, masticating the scenery with sadistic relish) gets his insights by committing the crimes himself — or having them committed by a young assistant in hypnotic thrall to him.
The murders themselves are fairly grisly, including the opening bit (featured in all the previews) with a pair of booby-trapped binoculars, and are all practiced against lissome young ladies, but they have the redeeming value of being so far over the top (like Gough’s acting) as to provoke the odd chuckle.
At one point, for instance, we are asked to believe that the killer snuck into a woman’s apartment and built a guillotine over her bed which she doesn’t see until she lies down in just the right position for it to — well you get the idea. Even better is Gough’s sanctum sanctorum, filled with acid vats, S/M apparatus and some sort of machine mounted with dials, lights and levers that seems to serve no function at all.
Okay, admittedly the writing is perfunctory, and the acting mostly capable but undistinguished. There’s also some fairly prominent homophobia running through all this, what with the tastefully appointed bad guy keeping his handsome young assistant enslaved so they can victimize women. But I foundHorrors suffused with a redeeming energy and engaging carelessness that kept me entertained throughout.