FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Usually this column deals with work by others: novels, stories, movies, whatever. This month, for starters anyway, it deals with me, or more precisely my latest book. Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law is a hefty tome that brings together various pieces I’ve written over the past quarter century on law-related fiction, films and TV.

   I admit up front that a few of the book’s chapters, for example the one on “Telejuriscinema, Frontier Style,” have nothing to do with the detective-crime genre, unless you include in that genre all sorts of TV Western series from The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid to Kung Fu.

   But many of the pre-Production Code movies that get picked apart in “When Celluloid Lawyers Started to Speak” belong to the genre in one way or another — even if I eccentrically insist on calling them juriscinema — and there are long individual chapters on Melville Davisson Post, Arthur Train and Erle Stanley Gardner, the lawyer storytellers who dominated what I eccentrically insist on calling jurisfiction from the tail end of the 19th century until Gardner’s death in 1970.

   There’s also a chapter on the three versions of the Cape Fear story, beginning with John D. MacDonald’s 1958 novel The Executioners and proceeding through the two vastly different movies called Cape Fear: the 1962 picture with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake with Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro.

   Also included are my takes on the fascinating if almost completely unknown court-martial film Man in the Middle (1964), with Mitchum playing a sort of Philip Marlowe in khaki, and on the equally obscure The Penalty Phase (1986), one of the last films directed by Tony Richardson, with Peter Strauss starring as a liberal judge faced with the nightmare of having to release a psychopath who raped and murdered seventeen young girls.

   The publisher of this volume is Perfect Crime Books, which also put out my Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection (2013), and I see on the Web that it’s been submitted for Edgar consideration to MWA.

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   Did anyone notice? In the previous paragraph I referred to Arthur Train (1875-1945) as a lawyer storyteller but not as an author of crime or detective stories. Why? Because Train himself insisted that he didn’t write in that genre and had little interest in it. But many of his stories about attorney Ephraim Tutt and his entourage have to do with trials for murder or other serious crimes, and at least a few of them seem to me, and not just to me, to deserve a place in the genre we love.

   The earliest of these is “The Hand Is Quicker Than the Eye,” the fifth tale in the Mr. Tutt series, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post for August 30, 1919, and collected in Tutt and Mr. Tutt (Scribner, 1920). Ephraim also operates as both lawyer and sleuth in a number of other tales first published in the Post and later included in one or another Scribner collection, for example “The Acid Test” (June 12, 1926; Page Mr. Tutt, 1926) and “The King’s Whiskers” (December 30, 1939; Mr. Tutt Comes Home, 1941).

   My own favorite among the Mr. Tutt stories that include significant detection is “With His Boots On” (September 12, 1942; Mr. Tutt Finds a Way, 1945). That’s the one I chose a number of years ago when Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine editor Cathleen Jordan asked me to select and introduce a story about Ephraim for its Mystery Classic reprint series.

   Ms. Jordan thought the tale was seriously flawed — although she died before she could explain her reasons to me — and instead we settled on “‘And Lesser Breeds Without the Law’,” which struck me as only marginally crime fiction. This is one of a very few tales in the series that the Saturday Evening Post rejected. Why? In the 1920s another magazine owned by the same publisher had serialized a Zane Grey novel that was not only sympathetic to what were then called American Indians but ended with the Navajo hero marrying the white woman he loved.

   So many benighted readers were so outraged that the publisher adopted a new policy: NO MORE POSITIVELY PORTRAYED REDSKINS! EVER!!! That policy was still in force when Train submitted his story, which was set on New Mexico’s Cocas Pueblo reservation and anticipates the treatment of Native Americans that we tend to identify with Tony Hillerman. The tale appeared as an original in the Train collection Mr. Tutt Comes Home (1941) and never came out in a magazine until AHMM for February 2002.

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   Not quite that long ago, when I was commissioned to write an essay on the poetry-crime fiction interface for the Poetry Foundation website, I decided that this column was the ideal place for material (of which there was a bunch) that wound up on the electronic cutting room floor.

   In recent years I haven’t run across any items that would justify reviving the old Poetry Corner feature, but now I have. Remember the world-famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)? One of his classic early poems was “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a work consisting of twelve lines divided into three stanzas, written in 1888 and first published two years later.

      Rex Stout, who needs no introduction here, considered Yeats “the greatest poet of the century.” (I assume he meant the 20th century.) In August 1943, a few years after Yeats’ death, Stout wrote “Booby Trap,” fifth of the Nero Wolfe novelets, which appeared in American Magazine for August 1944 and was included in the Farrar & Rinehart collection Not Quite Dead Enough not long afterwards.

   It’s one of the very few tales in the saga where Wolfe is working without pay as a civilian consultant to Army Intelligence and Archie Goodwin has become a major in the same branch of service. The hijacking of industrial trade secrets shared with the military for war purposes leads to the murder of a captain and a colonel, the latter taken out by a powerful hand grenade right in G2’s New York headquarters.

   The tale like so many of Stout’s is hopelessly unfair to the reader, with Wolfe fingering the culprit by the lazy old expedient of setting a trap and seeing who springs it, but for sheer readability it still holds up nicely after almost 75 years.

   All well and good, you may be saying, but where’s Yeats? Good question! In Chapter 4 Archie finds a sheet of paper containing a typed copy of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which for no earthly reason whatsoever is printed in the text. Its only plot significance is that both Wolfe and Archie immediately notice that it was typed on the same typewriter that produced an anonymous letter earlier in the story.

   Sharing that information with the reader didn’t require printing a line of Yeats’ poem, let alone the complete work. We know from John McAleer’s Rex Stout: A Biography (1977) — which misleadingly states that Stout quoted only the first “three stanzas” —that Yeats’ U.S. publisher raised a stink when the story appeared in print. Here’s how Stout explained to his Farrar & Rinehart editor.

   “I am an ass. When I was writing ‘Booby Trap,’ out in the country, I phoned somebody at Macmillan to ask if it would all right to quote that poem … and was told that it would be. But I made no record of the conversation, I don’t know the date that it took place, and I don’t know whom I talked to. Beat that for carelessness if you can, and let me know which jail I go to.”

   McAleer doesn’t tell us how the matter was resolved, but most likely Stout had to pay Macmillan some money. The poem must still have been protected by copyright in 1944, but it’s been in the public domain for decades and can be found online in a few seconds. On YouTube you can even hear Yeats reading it.

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   The city of Ferguson is about 15 miles and 20 minutes’ drive from my home in St. Louis’ Central West End. While I was working on this column, Ferguson exploded. Hundreds of thousands of words have already been written about the events and I see no reason to add to them except to quote a passage from Ellery Queen’s non-series novel The Glass Village (1954) where the protagonist reflects “that man was a chaos without rhyme or reason; that he blundered about like a maddened animal in the delicate balance of the world, smashing and disrupting, eager only for his own destruction.”

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   If Thanksgiving week was a sad time for reason and common sense, Thanksgiving Day was especially sad for our genre. P.D. James, one of the last great English detective novelists, died peacefully at her Oxford home. She was 94 and still thinking about writing one more novel. Peace be upon her.