Tue 18 Feb 2014
by Francis M. Nevins
Thanks to my office (where I keep my computer) being closed down for the holidays, followed by the frightful weather, followed by some health issues, I expected that my February column, if any, would be culled from those old book notes I wrote for my eyes only back in the Sixties and Seventies.
Surprise! Thanks to Joseph Goodrich, editor of that priceless selection from the letters between Fred Dannay and Manny Lee published in 2012 as BLOOD RELATIONS, I am now in possession of all the material from their correspondence that for space or other reasons Joe didn’t include in his book. There are gems in that material, which over the next several columns I’ll dole out here.
In a letter dated March 31, 1950 and not included or excerpted in BLOOD RELATIONS, Fred tells Manny that for years he’s been trying to interest various movie studios in subsidizing Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s annual story contests, arguing that an investment of as little as $10,000 would lead to an “increase in submitted stories,” “interest by bigger names,” and — always a high priority with Fred considering his background in the advertising biz — publicity.
Approached by Fred, MGM executives told him that “they have invested millions of dollars in literary contests, but never got a single desirable piece of property out of it….now they wouldn’t contribute $10, let alone $10,000.”
Not long after that exchange, MGM bought the movie rights to a second-prize winner in the latest year’s EQMM contest, “Once Upon a Train” by Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer, in which the authors’ respective series detectives John J. Malone and Hildegarde Withers teamed up to solve a railroad mystery.
Since the story wasn’t published until the October 1950 issue, MGM must have bought it from manuscript. (Those who have learned from Queen to read with extreme care may think Fred might have misdated his letter and actually wrote it in 1951, but this possibility is ruled out by his later statement to Manny that the story “has not yet appeared in EQMM….”).
Fred queried the suits at MGM and was told that they had only bought the story because they “‘had a spot for the use of two characters like Withers and Malone,’ a spinsterish schoolteacher and a dipso lawyer.” Later Fred learned that MGM’s original plan was to use the story as a vehicle for Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, who had scored a big hit as Ma and Pa Kettle in THE EGG AND I (Universal, 1947).
By the time the movie had been released, one actor and one character had been axed from the initial conception: Marjorie Main still starred but as Harriet “Hattie” O’Malley, not Miss Withers, and John J. Malone was still the leading male character but was played by James Whitmore. For anyone who wants to waste an hour watching this turkey, its title is MRS. O’MALLEY AND MR. MALONE (MGM, 1950).
In the same letter to Manny, Fred reports that MGM has also spent $5,000 buying movie rights to John Dickson Carr’s short story “The Gentleman from Paris” (EQMM, April 1950). This move baffled Fred as much as MGM’s purchase of rights to the Rice-Palmer story.
As everyone knows who has read Carr’s excellent tale, which is set in 1840s New York, the climactic revelation is that the main character is none other than Edgar Allan Poe. “[S]urely MGM does not intend to keep the identity of the detective a secret….”
Fred couldn’t figure out what the studio had in mind but any interested reader can find out by watching THE MAN WITH A CLOAK (MGM, 1951), a not-half-bad historical crime thriller starring a mustached Joseph Cotten as the Poe character (who calls himself Dupin) and Barbara Stanwyck and Leslie Caron as the female leads.
With a bit of space left over, I return to fields I plowed almost fifty years ago with comments on first novels by authors writing under their own names. Let’s begin with a writer whom I knew slightly and once, near the end of his life, lunched with at his lovely retirement home in Sedona, Arizona, armed with an assortment of first editions of his books, some of which he said were in better condition than his own, all of which he signed for me.
Richard S. Prather (1921-2007) was one of the first superstars of the paperback original, turning out a torrent of books for Fawcett Gold Medal in the Fifties and early Sixties which millions of readers gobbled down like Thanksgiving turkeys. I didn’t read them in order but, when I got to his first Shell Scott caper, CASE OF THE VANISHING BEAUTY (Fawcett Gold Medal pb #127, 1950) I had to concede that most of its plot and characters were lifted bodily from Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY with a few perfunctory variations.
One of a millionaire’s two spoiled daughters engages Scott to locate her missing sister and the trail leads LA’s coolest PI to the usual sinister nightclub, phony religious cult, dope smuggling, flying bullets, you name it. Prather had the gifts of pace and raw storytelling talent from the get-go but what distinguishes this otherwise routine programmer is Scott’s narration — bemused, self-mocking, gorgeously funny, and so wildly individual that he’s never been successfully imitated. He was, as we cruciverbalists say, a oner.
Bridge grandmaster Don Von Elsner (1909-1997) threw his hat, or perhaps I should say his lei, into the mystery ring with THOSE WHO PREY TOGETHER SLAY TOGETHER (Signet pb #S1943, 1961). Troubleshooter Colonel David Danning is hired by the board of directors of a packaging empire to protect its subsidiaries from a status-hungry gangster turned corporate raider.
The trail leads from a Chicago boardroom to Honolulu’s most lavish hotels and encompasses some superb stock-market shenanigans and a couple of murders which Danning must solve while on the run from both mobsters and cops.
At the climax all the characters unmotivatedly congregate for a Danning solution which is almost pure guesswork, but the pace is swift and the tooth-and-claw power struggles among tycoons seem to ring true.
SILVER STREET (Harper & Row, 1968) introduced the mystery world to E. Richard Johnson (1938-1997), a convict serving a life term at Minnesota’s Stillwater State Prison. It’s a short and unadorned tale of the mean streets in a nameless city where a modern Jack the Ripper is slicing up the local pimps for no discernible reason.
Streetwise homicide dick Tony Lonto’s hunt for the killer inevitably leads him to the discovery that his own girlfriend is a nympho and a whore. (Wouldn’t a streetwise cop have discovered this sooner?)
Superficially the book is tough as nails but it’s drenched with cloying romanticism beneath the surface. Nevertheless it won an Edgar for best first novel, an award which was duly presented to Johnson in the prison visitors’ room.
He wrote four more Lonto books and several other novels before being released in 1991 but by then his writing career was washed up and he died a few years later. So does crime pay or doesn’t it?