A. FIELDING – The Charteris Mystery. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1925. Knopf, US, hardcover, 1925; A. L. Burt, US, hardcover reprint, no date.
The first third of this novel made me wonder why I hadn’t discovered this author long before now. Some amusing and interesting characters and a complex crime start things off well.
When a beautiful young lady is found in a quarry with a broken neck, the local M.D, and the authorities are ready to write the death off as misadventure. A few people who knew her well — and, ignoring their knowledge, liked her — have doubts about the death being an accident.
Despite his being a master of disguise and coming to the case as fully equipped as Dr. Thorndike, Chief Inspector Pointer is an acceptable investigator. Called in unofficially, he discovers that the girl’s demise was a homicide.
From this point, the book deteriorates into a thriller with too much unlikely melodrama. I’1l try another Fielding novel, even one featuring Pointer, but I’1l have my fingers crossed.
— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 1990.
Editorial Comment: The name behind the “A. Fielding” byline was a subject of several posts on this blog when it first started. The current consensus seems to be that her real identity was one Dorothy Feilding, 1884-? You may use the search box over in the right hand column, or go here for the single post that summarizes the discussion the best.
BLUEBEARD. PRC, 1944. John Carradine, Jean Parker, Nils Asther, Ludwig Stössel, George Pembroke, Teala Loring, Sonia Sorel. Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.
John Carradine plays a disturbed puppeteer dubbed “Bluebeard” by the Parisian tabloids in this stylish, low-budget film. In the twenties Ulmer worked as a production designer on films directed by F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang,and the theatrical-looking studio sets (including what appears to be a cardboard cutout of Notre Dame) are appropriate to this study of a deranged artist.
The most striking visual effect is a shot of the puppeteer’s eye peering out balefully at the audience in the park- and, coincidentally, at the theater audience. It reminds me of a shot in Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) in which the blind covering the rear window of a menacing black automobile parts to reveal a pair of eyes, the face covered as if by a mask in an imaginative use of the melodramatic convention of the hooded villain.
Carradine plays the role of the artist/murderer with great restraint, and his long face and mournful eyes, wedded to his rich but monochromatic voice, give to his performance the haunting — or haunted — look of a fallen angel.
— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 3, May-June 1982.
RUSSELL TURNER – The Short Night. Hillman #103, paperback original, 1957.
One of the genuine pleasures of grubby old paperbacks is picking up something you never heard of because you like the cover or the set-up on the back, and opening it to discover you are reading a little gem, a happy experience I had with The Short Night, by Russell Turner.
This is something like a cross between what they call a “tale of Romantic Suspense” and a Gold Medal Original: tough, fast-moving and violent, but when you come right down to it just a story of True Love. Red Dolsan is a middle-aged scout for the Dodgers, recently widowed and just back home after traveling for months who learns in quick succession that he may have fathered a child in a one-night stand with a lonely young woman , and that this child could become the legal heir to a sizable (in 1957) fortune, a turn which would give conniptions to the witchy mother-in-law who caused his wife’s suicide but blames Red for it — frequently and at the top of her voice.
Red also quickly finds that this ain’t gonna be simple; the lonely young woman has disappeared, and as he starts looking for her he finds himself wading into colorful complications that include threats, small-time crooks, gratuitous violence, a quirky PI, the Feds, and one of the most engaging mysterious ladies I’ve ever come across in crime fiction.
Turner spins this out neatly, peopling it with bit players who come alive on the page and throwing in suspenseful twists and the occasional slug-fest just to keep it lively. He also evokes a telling picture of the 50s, when a three-room Manhattan apartment with a balcony cost the outrageous sum of $350 a month, a man could be thrown out of Organized Sports for scandalous conduct (like fathering a child out of wedlock) and folks wondered if there was anything to all this talk about cigarettes and cancer. And he paints a picture just as vivid and true of a man who finds himself falling in genuine love — with someone who may be setting him up for blackmail.
I closed this one with a great deal of satisfaction and ran to the computer to tell everyone about how I had discovered a talented unknown who deserved a bigger, better reputation — only to find that “Russell Turner” was one of the pen names used Leonard S. Zinberg — better known as Ed Lacy!
Long-time mystery readers should readily recognize Post’s name in regard to his two most famous creations: the righteous Uncle Abner (a stern but wise judge of human fallibility) and the deplorable Randolph Mason (morally the polar opposite of both Abner and another lawyer who would bear the name of Mason, yet just as clever).
Overton spends a great deal of time discussing Post’s most famous short story, “The Doomdorf Mystery” (1918), his intention being to show how Post took the mystery tale and refined it into something more meaningful than a mere conundrum (and, mirabile dictu, without giving away the full solution to the locked room problem).
While it would be best if you read Overton’s article yourself, here are a few statements that caught my attention:
“Mr. Post is one of the few who believe the plot’s the thing… [He] takes his stand thus definitely against what is probably the prevailing literary opinion.”
“…there is a creed, cardinal with many if not most of the best living writers, which says that the best art springs from characterization and not from a series of organized incidents, the plot; which says, further, that if the characters of a story be chosen with care and presented with conviction, they will make all the plot that is necessary or desirable by their interaction on each other.”
“Mr. Post had, initially, two difficulties to overcome. The first was fiction’s rule of plausibility. The second was art’s demand for emotional significance, a more-than-meets-the-eye, a meaning.”
“In fiction, there is no plausibility of cause and effect outside human behavior. The implausible (because unmeaning) manner of Doomdorf’s death is superbly supported by two flanks, the behavior of the evangelist and the behavior of a terrified, superstitious, and altogether childlike woman.”
“In other particulars ‘The Doomdorf Mystery’ exemplifies the artistry of the author. If I have not emphasized them, it is because they are cunning of hand and brain, craftsmanship, things to be learned, technical excellences which embellish but do not disclose the secret of inspiring art. The story is compactly told; tension is established at once and is drawn more tightly with every sentence; and the element of drama is much enhanced by the forward movement.”
“The prose style, by its brevity and by a somewhat Biblical diction, does its part to induce in the reader a sense of impending justice, of a divine retribution upon the evildoer.”
“We commonly call one type of story a detective story simply because the solution of the mystery is assigned to some one person. He may be amateur or professional; from the standpoint of fictional plausibility he had, in most cases, better be a professional.”
“As a noticeable refinement upon this discovery Melville Davisson Post has invented the type of mystery or detective-mystery tale in which the mysteriousness and the solution are developed together. Not suitable for the novel, which must have action, this formula of Mr. Post’s is admirable for the short story, in which there is no room for a race with crime but only for a few moments of breathlessness before a denouement.”
FORTY INTERESTING BIOGRAPHIES
OF MYSTERY WRITERS
A List by Josef Hoffmann
This list contains only biographies which are written about one crime writer or a couple who works together. It does not include books which have two or three short biographies like Master of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel 1920-1961 by Curtis Evans.
Furthermore the list does not contain autobiographies of the writers like G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography or memories of partners or relatives like Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers by Jo Hammett or Highsmith – A Romance of the 1950s by Marijane Meaker (Vin Packer).
Also the list does not contain biographical fiction like Arthur and George by Julian Barnes about Arthur Conan Doyle.
I cannot say that the selected biographies are the best because there are many more I do not own and have not read. I also have to admit that I have not read all forty biographies on the list in full length because some I use only as reference books. Fortunately most of them have an index where you can look for special names, books and events. I am sure that I missed several real gems on my list, and I hope that readers will supplement the list with their comments.
The list presents the books in the chronological order of the lives of the mystery writers. It begins with the oldest and ends with the youngest person.
Poe, Edgar Allan (1809-1849)
Ackroyd, Peter: Poe: A Life Cut Short, Vintage Books 2009
Symons, Julian: Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Penguin Books 1981
Zumbach, Frank T.: Edgar Allan Poe. Eine Biographie, Winkler 1986
“Ring of Kings, Ring of Thieves” From The Devlin Connection, 27 November 1982. NBC/Jerry Thorpe Production and Mammoth Films in association with Universal Television. Cast: Rock Hudson as Brian Devlin, Jack Scalia as Nick Corsello and Louis Giambalvo as Lt. Earl Borden. Guest Cast: Emory Bass, Stepfanie Kramer. Written by Rudolph Borchert. Directed by Jeff Bleckner. Created by John Wilder. Executive producer: Jerry Thorpe.
YOUTUBE SPECIAL: As with any YouTube.com link watch it before it disappears.
Brian Devlin was a successful PI who retired and now is the Director of the Cultural Arts Center in Los Angeles. One day Brian is visited by the son he never knew he had, Nick Corsello. Nick wants Brian’s help starting his own PI agency. Brian finds occasionally helping Nick is a good way for Dad and son to get to know each other.
The series began October 2, 1982, and aired Saturday at 10-11pm on NBC. Opposite on ABC was FANTASY ISLAND and the last hour of the CBS SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES.
I avoided this series when it was first on because of the cast, especially Scalia, but found this episode an entertaining spoof. While the episode was a typical 80’s TV mystery with believability issues, from the opening scene you get the sense that the show knew it and was having fun as mindless entertainment.
In “Ring of Kings, Ring of Thieves” Devlin finds himself the center of attention after he buys a gift at a jewelry store, so he hires Nick to check out those following him.
The opening is missing from the episode so a link to the series opening (from unknown episode) is here.
FREDERIC ARNOLD KUMMER – Design for Murder. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, hardcover, 1936. Arrow Mystery Novel #11, digest-sized paperback, no date .
Stephen Ransom, a playwright who has written not necessarily a successful but at least a produced play about a detective, is invited to lunch at the home in Washington, D.C., of Mrs. Thomas Kirby, wife of a prominent United States Senator. There Ransom meets Ann Vickers, an interior decorator who is living in the Kirby house while redecorating it. Jokingly he and she discuss a plot for a burglary and the murder of Mrs. Kirby for her jewels.
That night Ransom returns to the house, for reasons the author does not make persuasive, and notices someone leaving by a window. He investigates, of course, and finds that Mrs. Kirby has indeed been murdered. Vickers, who had overheard some peculiar dialogue and had heard the clock strike twelve when it was still fifteen minutes before the hour, also comes down to investigate.
It is obvious to Ransom that Vickers couldn’t have done it; she’s too attractive. It is patent to Vickers that Ransom couldn’t have done it; he, after all, has humorous eyes and rust brown hair.
Near the end of the novel Vickers remembers more about what she heard just before Mrs. Kirby’s death. Unfortunately, she won’t mention it over the phone, and thus we are vouchsafed the seemingly obligatory scene of the heroine placing herself in the best, maybe the only, position for the murderer to get at her for foul purposes.
Create credulity, which is more than the author could do, and you may be able to enjoy this one.
— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 1990.
Note: For some information about the author, fairly prolific in his day, you might wish to check out John Norris’s blog here, where he reviews The Scarecrow Murders, the first of two recorded cases of Judge Henry Tyson. John liked it considerably more than Bill Deeck cared for this one.
SWORDFISH. Warner Brothers, 2001. John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Sam Shepard, Vinnie Jones, Camryn Grimes. Directed by Dominic Sena.
As a recently released felon, famed computer hacker Stanley Jobson (Jackman) is recruited by the beautiful and alluring Ginger (Halle Berry) to work for the mysterious (and ruthless) Gabriel Shear (Travolta). Needing money to help regain custody of his young daughter (Camryn Grimes), Stanley accepts, and during the rest of the movie he learns to regret his decision, many times, over and over again.
This is pretty much one of those movies where you are better off not asking questions and sitting back to enjoy the ride. If, that is, you are not bored with watching someone typing at a keyboard and pretending they are breaking into various money accounts scattered around the world. The less-meaningful (but eye spectacular) action that takes place is largely confined to a mini-prologue that works about as well as anything in the movie (a bank under siege with hostages wired to blow up) and in the last thirty minutes or so, when all of the safety latches are set free.
Lots of large-scale explosives going off, in other words. Cars careening around busy city streets and smashing into each other, large guns being fired and causing all kinds of havoc, and tons of other vehicles of several makes and models veering out of control and smashing into tall buildings and on several different levels. That still leaves an hour to fill, which of course does not mean there are not plenty of bad guys willing to do all kinds of bad things in those remaining sixty minutes.
Travolta and Jackman have the good parts, and both do well in them, with Travolta taking (in my opinion) top honors as a truly Machiavellian mastermind, over the top and subtly clever at the same time. Amazing. (Unfortunately, with the need for pyrotechnics to keep the action crowd happy, “over the top” seems to prevail, more often than not, over common sense.)
Halle Berry appears too aware of herself to be truly sexy, but those commentators who have described her much-maligned topless scene as “gratuitous” should watch the movie again.
EVIL UNDER THE SUN. Universal, 1982. Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Colin Blakely, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, Sylvia Miles, James Mason, Denis Quilley, Diana Rigg. Based on the novel by Agatha Chrsitie. Director: Guy Hamilton.
In a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Julian Symons complained mightily about the betrayal of the Christie novel on which this is based. Chris Steinbrunner, in the July 1982 EQMM, recognized the tinkering with the novel but thought the result was splendid.
I haven’t read the novel, but, apart from competent performances by good actors — of whom the most amusing are Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, and Diana Rigg (whose archness is, however, beginning to wear thin) — good tunes by Cole Porter attractively orchestrated by John Lanchbery, and handsome location filming on Majorca, there is no reason to pay more than a bargain matinee admission for this film.
It is too long, the narrative sags intermittently as the camera doodles across the landscape and sets, and there is the curse of a campy performance by Roddy MacDowell as a critic who is probably modeled on the insufferable Rex Reed.
This might warm you if there’s a blinding snowstorm outside, but this is television fare dressed up as a big screen offering.
— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 3, May-June 1982.
WILLIAM P. McGIVERN – A Choice of Assassins. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1963. Paperback reprints: Bantam F2851, 1964, and Pyramid V3386, 1974. Film: France, 1967, as Un Choix d’Assassins.
I read William P. McGivern’sA Choice of Assassinsback in High School and thought it quite stylish — almost poetic. Fifty years on, a lot of it looks a bit silly, but there’s some interesting stuff nonetheless.
The plot sounds like David Goodis moved a bit upscale: Tony Malcom, one-time photo-journalist turned Wino in a Spanish resort town finally hits bottom: so desperate for a drink he offers to kill himself in exchange for one.
The proposition amuses a local bully who gives him the drink and a gun — which misfires at the crucial moment, leaving Malcom owing him a Death. How he repays the debt forms the crux of a story spun out with smuggling, corruption, and easy-going violence.
It’s also filled with patent absurdities. The notion of a bottle-a-day drunk quitting cold-turkey with no unpleasant side-effects carries poetic license a bit far, but no further than a bit later on, where a man who has never fired a gun before puts three bullets in the bad guy’s heart on a dark, wind-swept beach.
Fortunately, though, there’s enough poetry in Choice to justify the license, specifically McGivern’s role-playing tricks with his cast: A mouthy drunk becomes a silent killer, a prostitute is also a police informant, a bar-keep is an insurrectionist, a peasant becomes a baron, and the local Cop is in business for himself. And in a charming turn, the only “straight” character is a mystery writer whose ruminations on Plot lurch the whole story to a nifty conclusion.