Thu 14 Oct 2010
by Francis M. Nevins
On Sunday, September 12, at age 80, Claude Chabrol died. He was one of the most creative French film directors, and one of the most deeply committed to the crime-suspense genre, and the only one I ever met.
It was in the summer of 1986, at an international festival on Italy’s Adriatic coast where he and I and countless others were guests. We were introduced by another mystery writer, the late Stuart Kaminsky, and over the next several days we were on some tours together — including one to the castle of Cagliostro — and had a number of conversations.
I can’t claim to have seen all or even most of the dozens of films Chabrol directed in his career of more than half a century behind the cameras, not even all the crime-suspense-noir pictures with which his filmography is studded.
But among those I knew well were 1969′s Que la bête meure (The Beast Must Die) and, from 1971, La décade prodigieuse (Ten Days’ Wonder), the former very freely based on a classic Nicholas Blake novel and the latter on a classic by Ellery Queen.
His then most recent film, which was premiered at the festival, was Inspecteur Lavardin. After seeing Lavardin, and connecting what I took to be dots between it and the other two, I saw all three as sharing a common theme: the meaning of being a father.
Remembering that Ten Days’ Wonder in both novel and film form climaxed with a death-of-God sequence, I ventured to suggest to him that all three films tell us: “There is no God the father, therefore we must be good fathers.” His reply: “Yes, yes, yes!”
We talked about Cornell Woolrich, a few of whose stories he had adapted and directed for French TV, and after returning to the States I sent him, at his request, a few Woolrich tales that might be adapted into Chabrol features.
Nothing came of this, but among the many films he made in the quarter century after our meeting was Merci pour le chocolat (2000), based on Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb, which is also centrally about fatherhood. Among the other world-class crime novelists whose work he translated to film are Stanley Ellin, Patricia Highsmith and Georges Simenon. Adieu, cher maître.
In my student years I read just about every one of Frances and Richard Lockridge’s Mr. & Mrs. North mysteries, but I hadn’t revisited any of them in decades. Recently I reread The Norths Meet Murder (1940), first in the long-running series, and found it as charming and enjoyable as I had long ago.
It’s also a lovely piece of evidence in support of Anthony Boucher’s contention that one of the valuable functions of mysteries is that they show later generations what life was like “back then.”
The Norths Meet Murder takes place in late October and early November 1939. On September 1 Hitler had launched World War II, and in New York there’s an organized boycott against buying “Nazi goods,” which impacts at least one of the murder suspects.
The latest consumer novelty is the electric razor. Walking New York’s night streets, you see men working on the new subway line under floodlights. Those who read this novel back in 1940 probably took these verbal snapshots for granted, just as those of us who as kids watched the early TV private-eye series Man Against Crime took for granted the chases all over the New York landmarks of the early 1950s.
Now in the 21st century they strike me as treasures, and perhaps help explain why, given the choice between a vintage whodunit or a new one, or an episode of a vintage TV series or a new one, I tend to go for the gold in the old.
I recently attended a convention in suburban Baltimore but arrived before my hotel room was ready. Luckily there was a bookstore with comfortable chairs in the mall across the street, and I killed some time in the mystery section with “Arson Plus,” the first of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories, originally published in Black Mask for October 1, 1923 and recently reprinted in Otto Penzler’s mammoth Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories.
For decades this was one of the rarest of Hammett tales, revived only by Fred Dannay (in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1951, and in the Queen-edited paperback collection Woman in the Dark, 1951).
Today it’s in the Penzler anthology and a major hardcover Hammett collection (Crime Stories and Other Writings, Library of America 2001) and can also be downloaded from the Web in a few seconds.
The other day I felt an urge to compare the e-text with the EQMM and Library of America versions, and made a discovery that startled but didn’t really surprise me. The Web version I downloaded is identical with Fred’s except for a few changes in punctuation and italicization, but both are quite different from the Library of America text, which uses the version originally published in Black Mask.
Fred believed that every story ever written was too long and therefore tended to trim the tales he reprinted, even those by masters like Hammett. Some of the bits and pieces he cut were perhaps redundant, but he also axed part of the Continental Op’s explanation at the end of the story.
Reprinting “Arson Plus” in 1951, he must have felt a need to update some of the price references to reflect post-World War II inflation. At the very beginning of the original version, the Op offers a cigar to the Sacramento County sheriff, who estimates that it cost “fifteen cents straight.” The Op corrects him, giving the price as two for a quarter. Fred raised these figures to “three for a buck” and ”two bits each” respectively.
He also added a cool ten thousand dollars to the purchase price of a house that in the 1923 version sold for $4,500. Where a Hammett character disposes of $4,000 in Liberty bonds (sold by the government to finance World War I), Fred has him sell $15,000 worth of common or garden variety bonds.
Whenever Hammett refers to an automobile as a “machine,” Fred changes it to “car.” Where three men in a general store are “talking Hiram Johnson,” Fred has them merely “talking.” (Hiram Johnson, as we learn from a note in the Library of America volume, was governor of California between 1911 and 1917 and later served four terms as senator.)
He also unaccountably changes the name of a major character from Handerson to Henderson. A quick check of Fred’s versions of a few other Continental Op stories with the original texts yielded similar results and a clear conclusion: to read Hammett’s tales as they were meant to be read, you have to read them in the Library of America collection. This doesn’t help, of course, with the eight Op stories not collected in that volume, but it’s a start.
In every version of “Arson Plus” the plot is of course the same: a man insures his life for big bucks, assumes another identity, sets fire to the house he bought, and the woman named as beneficiary demands payment.
Did these people really think any insurance company would be fooled for a minute when there were no human remains in the ashes of the destroyed house? Didn’t Hammett with his experience as a PI realize that this plot was ridiculous? Was Fred ever bothered by its silliness?
So too is Night Forms (Perfect Crime Books), a collection of 28 of the short stories I’ve written over the last four decades including my earliest (“Open Letter to Survivors”), my latest (“The Skull of the Stuttering Gunfighter”), and a huge pile of tales that fall between that unmatched pair.
I’ve completely forgotten where the picture of me on the back cover came from, but whoever took it deserves some kind of award for improving on reality more than any other photographer in history.