Search Results for 'Anthony Abbot'


REVIEWED BY MARVIN LACHMAN:

ANTHONY ABBOT – About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women. Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1937. No paperback edition.

   A writer who was once tremendously popular, Anthony Abbot, is no longer read today. That is unfortunate because a recent reading (or in some cases rereading) of his books, published between 1930 and 1943, shows them to be still quite readable. In addition to a nostalgic look at New York in the past, there are plots far more imaginative than many conceived today.

   The general caliber of writing is not good, but there are some touches that are surprisingly effective. For example, in the book reviewed below, Abbot describes a police lab, drawing an analogy to the medieval attempts to turn baser metals into gold. “Here, instead, men sought to turn human flesh and blood into grand jury indictments.”

   Abbot, the pseudonym of Fulton Oursler, author of the best seller The Greatest Story Ever Told, is usually lumped with another pseudonymous writer, his contemporary, S. S. Van Dine. There are definite similarities, although Oursler eschewed the erudition and footnotes which caused Ogden Nash to threaten to kick Van Dine’s creation [Philo Vance in the pants]. Abbot’s Thatcher Colt, like Philo Vance, is larger than life, but he is easier to take. Both authors have “Watsons” whose names are the author’s pseudonyms and who record the adventures of their employers. Each series has a somewhat dense District Attorney.

   Another similarity is the use of real murder cases for many of the novels. There was a time when mystery novelists like Van Dine, Patrick Quentin, Anthony Boucher, John Dickson arr, and Abbot were very knowledgeable about the great true crimes of the past. In the first Thatcher Colt book, Abbot has the detective, who owns a library of 15,000 true crime books, ask, Ïf our criminals plagiarize from the past, why not our detectives?

   Much has been written about Abbot’s second mystery, About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress (1932) and its basis in the Hall-Mills case of 1922. I do not recall anyone pointing out that a lesser-known Abbot, About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (1937) is based on the William Desmond Taylor case, subject of two recent popular nonfiction books, though it clearly is.

   Man Afraid of Women has Thatcher Colt due to get married in a few days and frustrated by such problems as auto deaths, lack of adequate gun control, and pervasiveness of drugs in New York City. There is also a reference to air pollution. (Sound familiar?) Of historical interest is the attitude of the characters toward blacks, an outrageous racism as prevalent as the anti-Semitism found in British novels of the period between the wars.

   Colt’s fiancee sends him the problem of a secretary with a missing boyfriend, and that soon leads to the titular murder victim. The puzzle is a difficult one, and while the solution is not totally satisfactory, there is some real misdirection along the way and an exciting, albeit melodramatic, ending.

   Sometimes the writing is overheated, as when Abbot refers to this case as “the greatest of crime problems.” It’s not, but it’s a good puzzle nonetheless.

   Besides plot surprises, there is some dialogue that we would not expect. Coitus interruptus in a mystery written in the 1930s! Colt’s “Watson,”Anthony Abbot, is upset by Colt’s impending marriage and retirement. He asks his wife, Betty, “Why had a woman come back into the life of the greatest detective of all time?” Abbot’s wife claims he is jealous and sits on his knee. We read, “I spanked her and took her to bed. And then came one of life’s embarrassing moments, for shortly thereafter the telephone rang. Thatcher Colt was at the other end of the wire.”

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1991.


NOTE:   For Mike Nevins’ review of About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress earlier on this blog, go here.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins:


ANTHONY ABBOT – About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress. Covici Friede, US, hardcover, 1931. UK title: The Crime of the Century, Collins, hc, 1931. Also published as: Murder of the Clergymans Mistress. Popular Library #286, 1950.

ANTHONY ABBOT Clergyman's Mistress

   Fulton Oursler is best remembered as a magazine editor, for Liberty in the 1930s and Reader’s Digest in the late Forties and as the author of the religioso blockbuster The Greatest Story Ever Told (1949). But in younger days he also contributed to the mystery genre, using the by-line Anthony Abbot for eight detective novels starring New York City police commissioner Thatcher Colt.

   The format of the first six is clearly borrowed from S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance series. Each title falls into rigid About the Murder of pattern; Colt is portrayed as wealthy mandarin intellectual; his cases are narrated and signed by his faithful male secretary; his familiars include a stupid district attorney, a crusty medical examiner, and dignified butler; the novels tend to begin with a body found under bizarre circumstances, with strange clues pointing to a host of suspects; the investigation is punctuated by conferences at which, in the spirit of Socratic debate, the detectives offer alternative reconstructions of the crime; and a second murder usually takes place about two-thirds of the way through the book.

   Like those of the young Ellery Queen, Abbot’s variations on the Van Dine framework are better written and characterized and somewhat livelier than the Philo Vance books themselves, although Abbot unfortunately followed Van Dine in declining to play fair with the reader.

ANTHONY ABBOT Clergyman's Mistress

   The second and perhaps best in the Thatcher Colt series was About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress, which like many Van Dine novels was based on a famous true crime. In this version of the Hall-Mills case of the 1920s the bodies of a respected Episcopal minister and of a beautiful singer in his choir are found floating down the East River in a rowboat.

   Colt quickly takes over personal command of the investigation, with a huge assortment of peculiar clues — nine dumbbells, a bloody-pawed cat, Chinese sumach leaf, a bag of dulse — implicating various members of the minister’s and the singer’s households.

   Staying in full control of a stupendously complex plot, Abbot also treats us to vivid glimpses of early-1930s New York and to a sardonic portrait of the WASP clergy.

   Most of the Thatcher Colt novels are cut from the same pattern, including About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930), which launched the series; About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932), with its background of a circus playing Madison Square Garden; and About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935), with its intimations of the occult.

   The last two Anthony Abbot titles, The Creeps (1939) and The Shudders (1943), lack Van Dine elements and are believed to have been ghosted by another writer.

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Editorial Comment: The other writer has been tentatively identified as Oscar Schisgall. See the comment following the previous review.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


ANTHONY ABBOT – The Shudders. Farrar & Rinehart, US, hardcover, 1943. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, 3-in-1 edition, February 1943. UK title: Deadly Secret: Collins, hc, 1943.

    “The author requests that in discussing The Shudders readers and reviewers do not give away its plot.” An understandable request by Anthony Abbot (who in reality was Fulton Oursler), one must admit, since the plot is asinine.

ANTHONY ABBOT The Shudders

    Still, a reviewer must mention something about the book, besides declaiming that Anthony Abbot, the narrator and Watson for Thatcher Colt, is an even bigger twit than S.S. Van Dine, the narrator and Watson for Philo Vance, which is a claim many won’t believe until they encounter Abbot the narrator.

    Briefly then — and I hope that Abbot’s shade does not come back to haunt me — Thatcher Colt, New York City Police Commissioner, more detective than administrator, has been responsible for the conviction of a villain who poisoned his boss and mentor and made off with two million never-located dollars.

    The evening he is to be executed, the poisoner asks Colt to visit with him. He warns Colt that an even greater villain — a Dr. Baldwin — who kills for sport and who kills undetectably is lurking about ready to do untold damage.

    The poisoner is executed, with Colt looking on, and then Colt begins an unsuccessful three-year search for Baldwin. One day the former warden of the prison at which the poisoner was executed rushes into Colt’s office to tell him that he has met Dr. Baldwin, that the poisoner’s executioners are dying off, and that the warden is to be next.

    He also has more important information to impart, but he’s too busy talking about side issues to do so, and then he dies — of apparently natural causes.

    Why is Dr. Baldwin seemingly avenging the executed poisoner? It’s all too silly and impossible to narrate, even if the author’s request was to be flouted even more than I have, already.

    Skip this one.

From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1987.



Editorial Comment:   I’ll post a review by Mike Nevins of Anthony Abbot’s About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress next. At the end of his comments, he points out that the last two Abbot mysteries, The Creeps and The Shudders, are said to have been written by someone else.

    And, yes, it appears to be so, or at least it’s highly conjectured to be true. In Part 7 of the online Addenda to his Revised Crime Fiction IV, Al Hubin names Oscar Schisgall as the probable suspect.

    Which makes me curious, of course. Why should Fulton Oursler have farmed off his series character to someone to write up his last two adventures? If anyone knows or learns more, please elucidate!

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE SPIDER. Fox Film Corp., 1931. Edmond Lowe, Lola Moran, El Brendel, John Arledge, George E. Stone, Earl Foxe. Screenplay Barry Conners, Phlip Klein, & Leon Gordon, Albert Lewis, based on a play by Fulton Oursler & Lowell Bretano. Directed by Kenneth MacKenna &William Cameron Menzies.

   Murder in the theater, with Edmond Lowe as Chatrand, the magician sleuth who has to use all his stage skills to clear the name of his young assistant Tommy (John Arledge) when a member of the audience is shot while Chatrand and Tommy are on stage doing their mentalist act.

   Despite being based on a play by Fulton Oursler (Anthony Abbott of the Thatcher Colt mysteries) there isn’t much mystery to this film whose chief interests are Lowe as the fast thinking magician sleuth and the sets and magic acts designed by co-director William Cameron Menzies.

   Menzies, who directed Lowe in the excellent Chandu the Magician (1932), along with a third magic film, Trick or Treat [reviewed by Walter Albert here ] pulls out all the stops for the magic acts and sets, which along with Lowe are the chief interests in this pedestrian mystery.

   The basis for the plot is that Chatrand’s assistant Tommy has amnesia, but hopes having returned to the last place he remembers a face in the audience will awaken his memory during the mentalist act he does with the magician.

   Meanwhile Beverly Lane (Moran) thinks Tommy may be her lost brother and is accompanied by her uncle, John Carrington (Earl Foxe) whose cruelty caused Tommy’s amnesia and has every reason to keep him from returning.

   Sure enough, a shot rings out during the performance just as Tommy spies his uncle, and Carrington is killed in the front row. The police arrive, close the theater, and plan to arrest Tommy, but Chatrand hopes to awaken Tommy’s memory enough to identify the real killer and plays fast and loose buying time so he can stage one last act with Beverly’s help.

   El Brendel is the thoroughly disposable comedy relief which I suggest you fast forward through. He was never funny (he fared somewhat better as a director), and here, teamed with a smart aleck child, it’s not hard to wish the bullet fired into the audience had claimed two other victims. Every scene with him is a complete waste of time.

   But as I said, the real stars here are the sets and the magic acts designed by Menzies. Those and Lowe’s fast thinking magician are the best thing about the film, but the visuals are worth the price of admission at a fast fifty nine minutes. It’s just a shame they couldn’t wrap a better plot around them.

   

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


   I can’t claim to have read all 70-odd Maigret novels, but I’ve been reading them off-and-on since my teens and I still find many of them fascinating, especially the ones from the Thirties. Unfortunately my French isn’t good enough to allow me to read them as Simenon wrote them, but over the years I’ve sometimes wound up with two different translations of the same book, and a number of them are now being translated yet a third time. Reading two translations side by side is a heady experience, especially if you put on your detective cap and try to figure out what is and what isn’t in the original.

   There were characters a bit like Maigret and characters actually going by that name in a few of the more than 200 pulp novels Simenon wrote under a dozen or so pseudonyms in the 1920s, but the first genuine Maigret was PIETR-LE-LETTON, which was written in 1929 and published by A. Fayard et cie two years later as either the third or the fifth in the monthly Maigret series. In the States, as THE STRANGE CASE OF PETER THE LETT (1933), it was the fourth of six early Maigrets published by the Covici Friede firm.

   I am lucky enough to have a copy of that edition. No translator is credited but various sources in print and online claim that Simenon’s French was first rendered into English by Anthony Abbot. As all lovers of detection know, Abbot was the name under which best-selling novelist Fulton Oursler (1893-1952), following the lead of S. S. Van Dine, both signed and narrated the cases of New York City police commissioner Thatcher Colt, published originally by Covici Friede.

   Many decades ago I read all the Abbot novels and wrote an essay about them which in its final form can be found in my CORNUCOPIA OF CRIME (2010). I had heard the rumor that Oursler had translated the early Maigrets but, since he had died when I was a child, I couldn’t ask him. I did however write his son Will Oursler (1913-1985), who was also a part-time mystery writer both under his own name and as Gale Gallagher and Nick Marino.

   In a letter dated January 4, 1970 — My God! More than 46 years ago! — he replied as follows: “[M]y father did not make the actual translation as he simply was not that fluent in French. It is more probable that most of his effort was in the area of editing and polishing after the translation was done. It is certain that he would not have been capable of translating six Maigret novels.”

   The second translation of PIETR-LE-LETTON, retitled MAIGRET AND THE ENIGMATIC LETT, was by Daphne Woodward, published in 1963 as a Penguin paperback and sold in the U.S. for 65 cents. According to Steve Trussel’s priceless Maigret website, the Woodward version “is much closer to Simenon’s French text, the first being wayward at times.”

   Even without the French text at hand, I’ve found indications that Trussel is right. The novel features an American millionaire staying in the posh Hotel Majestic who is strangely connected with Pietr. The 1933 translation gives his name as Mortimer Livingston, which seems perfectly proper for the character. Daphne Woodward renders the name as Mortimer-Levingston, which is silly but consistent with the young Simenon’s ignorance of all things American.

   This character has a secretary, staying in London but never seen or spoken to. His name in the 1933 translation is Stone, which sounds fine. In Woodward’s rendition he’s called Stones, which is dreadful but again consistent with Simenon’s ignorance. It seems clear that the anonymous original translator went out of his or her way to Americanize various details in the novel that Simenon flubbed. Or was that part of the polishing job by Fulton Oursler?

   Written before Maigret and his world had crystallized in Simenon’s creative mind, PIETR-LE-LETTON is significantly different from almost all the later novels in the series. For one thing, it’s much more violent, with a total of four murders (the work of three different murderers) plus a suicide, committed in Maigret’s presence and with his gun.

   There’s also a great deal more physical action, with Maigret racing from Paris to the Normandy fishing port of F camp and out over the rocks along the muddy seacoast after his chief adversary despite being half-frozen and having been shot in the chest! But there’s a genuine battle of nerves between Maigret and his quarry, more intense and existential than their counterparts in many later books in the series, and the evocation of atmosphere which was Simenon’s trademark is as powerful as in the finest films noir. In either translation this debut novel is a gem.

***

   In 2014 Penguin Classics released yet another translation, this one by David Bellos and bearing the title PETER THE LATVIAN. Did some political correctness guru decide that Lett was a demeaning term like Polack? And what did Bellos make of passages like the beginning of Chapter 13? In Woodward’s version: “Every race has its own smell, loathed by other races…. In Anna Gorskin’s room you could cut it with a knife…. Flaccid sausages of a repulsive shade of pink, thickly speckled with garlic. A plate with some fried fish floating in a sour liquid.”

   There’s nothing like that first sentence in the 1933 rendition, perhaps because Fulton Oursler cut it out, but we do get to see and smell the “horrible pink sausages, flabby to the touch and filled with garlic” and “a platter containing the remains of a fried fish swimming in a sour-smelling sauce….” Need I mention that this scene takes place in the rue du Roi-de-Sicile, in Paris’s Jewish ghetto?

***

   While fine-tuning this month’s column I discovered that there really was, or at least might have been, a Latvian criminal named Pietr. He was known as Peter the Painter and his real name may have been Pietr Piatkow, or perhaps Gederts Eliass or Janis Zhaklis. He seems to have emigrated from East Europe to London where he joined an ethnic gang that stole in order to fund their radical political activities.

   He is believed to have taken part in the infamous Siege of Sidney Street which inspired the climax of Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), although a brief sketch in England’s Dictionary of National Biography warns us that “None of the … biographical ‘facts’ about him … is altogether reliable.”

   Whether Simenon had ever heard of this man remains unknown, but in any event the fictional Pietr the Lett is not a leftist radical, does not commit crimes of violence and turns out not even to be Latvian. Which raises another mystery: Why did Simenon call the guy Pietr the Lett? Pietr the Estonian — or the Esty? — would have sounded ridiculous even in French, but there’s absolutely no reason in the novel why he couldn’t have been a genuine Latvian. Ah well, c’est la vie.

***

   Train murders were something of a Simenon specialty. Of course, when such a crime takes place in a Maigret, it’s bound to lose intensity and vividness simply because we can’t be there to witness it. This is certainly true of the first murder in PIETR-LE-LETTON, and it’s also true of a Maigret short story dating from about seven years later.

   We learn from Steve Trussel’s website that “Jeumont, 51 minutes d’arrêt!” was written in October 1936 and, along with more than a dozen other shorts from the same period, was first collected in France as LES NOUVELLES ENQU TES DE MAIGRET (1944). It was never included in any collection of Maigret shorts published in English but did appear in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 1966, as “Inspector Maigret Deduces,” with no translator credit and with an unaccountable 1961 copyright date.

   (The FictionMags Index explains the date — the story’s first appearance in English was in the UK edition of Argosy for October 1961—and identifies the translator as one J.E. Malcolm.)

   As in PIETR-LE-LETTON, Maigret tackles a murder on a train, this one bound from Warsaw to Berlin to Liège in Belgium (Simenon’s birthplace) to Erquelinnes (on the Belgian side of the border with France) to Jeumont (just across the line on the French side) and on to Paris, except that one of the six passengers in a particular compartment is found dead in his seat at Jeumont. The dead man is a wealthy German banker named Otto Bauer.

   Called in by his railroad-detective nephew, Maigret gets in touch with his Berlin counterparts and learns that Bauer was forced out of the banking business “after the National Socialist revolution, but gave an undertaking of loyalty to the Government, and has never been disturbed….” and also that he’s “[c]ontributed one million marks to party funds.”

   Clearly, despite his name, Bauer was a Jew, and was desperately trying to escape Nazi Germany with whatever money he could salvage. That element is what makes this tale unique among the Maigret stories of the late Thirties. At least in translation there’s not a word of sympathy for the victim, not a word of disgust for the regime he was fleeing. For Maigret, and for Simenon I fear, it’s just another factor in another case. The murder weapon, by the way, turns out to be a needle, which was also one of the murder weapons in PIETR-LE-LETTON although not the one used in the train killing.

***

   I wouldn’t venture to guess how many train murders can be found in Simenon’s stand-alone novels, but the most vivid and intense that I can recall takes place in Chapter 2 of LE LOCATAIRE (1934; translated by Stuart Gilbert as THE LODGER in the two-in-one volume ESCAPE IN VAIN, 1943). Elie Nagear, a desperate young Turkish Jew, bludgeons to death a wealthy Dutch entrepreneur with whom he’s sharing a couchette on the night train from Brussels to Paris after it crosses the French border. (In European trains of the Thirties a couchette was a small chamber used as sleeping quarters by two and sometimes four total strangers.) On the run from the police, he takes a train back to Belgium and holes up in a boarding house for foreign students in the city of Charleroi.

   In Chapter 9 there’s a brief conversation between Elie and a fellow roomer. “They were talking in the papers of the difference between French and Belgian law. Well, suppose someone who’s being proceeded against in Belgium by the French police commits a crime in Brussels, or some other Belgian town…. What I mean is, that a man who’s liable to the death penalty in France might happen to commit a crime in Belgium. In that case, it seems to follow that he should first be tried in Belgium, if it’s in that country he’s arrested. And it also follows, doesn’t it, that he should serve his sentence in that country?”

   What Simenon assumes his readers know is that France at this time still had the death penalty while Belgium had abolished it. On May 10, 1933, in Boullay-les-Trous, a village south of Paris, an obese pornographer named Hyacinthe Danse, who was known to Simenon, murdered both his mother and his mistress. Fearing that he’d be caught and guillotined, Danse took the train to Liège in Belgium, where on May 12 he murdered his childhood confessor (and also Simenon’s), a Jesuit priest named Hault, and then turned himself in.

   This case was apparently still pending in Belgium when Simenon wrote LE LOCATAIRE. Sure enough, in December 1934 Danse was convicted of Hault’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, meaning that he couldn’t be extradited to France and stand trial for the other murders until he was dead. Less than two years later, Simenon turned the Danse story into a short Maigret, included as “Death Penalty” in the collection MAIGRET’S PIPE (1977) and discussed in my column for September 2015.

   Which is enough journey to France for one month. Or, as they say on the left bank of the Seine: basta.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER. Columbia, 1933. Adolphe Menjou, Greta Nissen, Donald Cook, Dwight Frye, Ruthelma Stevens. Based on the novel About the Murder of the Circus Queen, by Anthony Abbot (Fulton Oursler). Director: Roy William Neill. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   One of the disappointments of the convention. Menjou plays Anthony Abbot’s Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt, vacationing in a small town, where the arrival of a circus and an attempted murder draws him reluctantly into the center of a hastily conducted investigation. But not hastily enough.

   The beginning is promising and Colt’s secretary (Ruthelma Stevens) registers strongly as an attractive, smart companion, but her role is never sufficiently developed and the lame melodrama is capped by an underpowered, restrained performance by Dwight Frye that never ignites. (He’s much livelier in The Vampire Bat [Majestic, 1933], a cheap but entertaining thriller that I watched last night on a cheap video tape. He reprises his Renfield role from Dracula, even using the Renfield laugh.)

Editorial Note:  This move was also reviewed by Dan Stumpf some time ago on this blog. Check it out here.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THIS IS MY AFFAIR. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Victor McLaglen, Brian Donlevy, Sidney Blackmer, John Carradine, Douglas Fowley, Robert McWade, Frank Conroy, Alan Dinehart, Douglas Wood, Sig Ruman. Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, Allen Rivkin (uncredited: Kube Glasmon, Wallace Sullivan, and Darrel F. Zannuck). Directed by William A. Seiter.

   This film is a nostalgic romantic musical set at the turn of the nineteenth century with a pair of real life lovers in obvious love with each other — no, it’s a tough crime tale about a super gang of bank robbers threatening the safety of the nation’s economy — no, its about a tough young undercover operative who falls in love with the showgirl sister of one of the criminals he is sent to arrest — no, its about corruption at the highest levels of government — no, it’s about Teddy Roosevelt — but it’s also a tough prison drama as the hour counts down to an innocent man’s execution — and it’s a psychological drama as one man tries to break another to reveal the mastermind behind the bank robbing scheme…

   Well, actually it’s all of that, and with that many elements it shouldn’t work, but still they do.

   I first saw this as an adolescent, and again as a young adult, then it was over forty years before I saw it again earlier this week on You Tube, so I was surprised how accurate my memory was about it, and shocked to find it was every bit as good as I remembered it. Not many films manage that. The look, script, performances, careful recreation of the era from familiar names and slang to the very acts performing on stage, all meticulously recreated and still retaining the charm they possessed then and when first released.

   The film opens with a group of nuns and children touring Arlington National Cemetery in contemporary (1937) times. They pause at General Sheridan’s grave, then the next stone reads Lieutenant Richard Perry, who no one has heard of, though as one nun notes he must have done something great for his country.

   The tour walks on, the camera lingers, and slowly fog and clouds take us back to Washington DC in the McKinley administration and a party at the White House where we meet Vice President Sidney Blackmer as the loud and ‘bully’ Teddy Roosevelt (the first of many times to play TR), then young Lt. Richard Perry (Robert Taylor) recently back from the Spanish American War with medals and the praise of his commander Admiral Dewey (Robert McWade).

   Perry barely gets to flirt with a pretty girl, however, before he is called back to a meeting alone with President McKinley (Frank Conroy). It seems a gang of bank robbers in the Midwest have been so successful they threaten the economy and the Secret Service is helpless because of a high level leak in Washington.

   Perry is known to be rebellious, independent, brilliant, and brave. He will be McKinley’s personal operative, communicate only by a special mark on letters he sends, and his status and existence unknown to any other human.

   You can see where this is going.

   Perry goes deep undercover and sets out on his quest to find the man at the top. (Several IMDb reviews missed entirely that McKinley isn’t sending him to catch bank robbers, but a high placed traitor in Washington — the perils of reviewing films before watching them.) The trail leads to Chicago and a new elegant saloon replete with illegal gambling run by Bat (Baptiste) Duryea (Brian Donlevy) and brutal practical joker Jock Ramsay (Victor McLaglen).

   The star of the show is Bat’s half sister Lil Duryea (Stanwyck) who Jock believes is his girl, though she does everything short of throw a drink in his face to discourage him.

   Naturally Jock is none too pleased to see handsome Perry take and interest and despite her best efforts Lil take an interest back.

   If the middle section drags a little, keep in mind Taylor and Stanwyck were about to marry and very much in love and this was designed to take advantage of that publicity to bring in women audiences. We may complain today there are too many musical numbers and the romance goes on a bit, but audiences in 1937 did not. They wanted to see the real life lovers devouring each other with every glance and Taylor and Stanwyck deliver. Especially Stanwyck who does everything but melt when she looks at Taylor.

   Perry soon realizes the key to the bank robberies and Mr. Big is Bat and Jock, and through Lil to them, but he’s is also in love with her by now. Still he penetrates the gang and soon Bat begins to see the advantage of a smart smooth operator over crude Jock with his unfunny practical jokes and card tricks that never work. And his sister loves Perry as well another bonus, because Bat is not without nuances, including genuine affection for Lil.

   Perry manages to get a letter to McKinley, but when the president informs his cabinet and Vice President, the traitor is among them. Perry had planned to resign and get out with Lil, but he is too close to run now.

   The Midwest is too hot, so they plan to hit a bank in Baltimore, but plans go awry when the police spring a trap and Bat is killed. In due order Jock and Perry are caught, tried, and sentenced to death for the man killed in the holdup shoot out. (Justice actually did move faster then — or at least law did.)

   Perry still doesn’t know who the top man is and plans to work on Jock as the date of execution approaches. The following scenes between Taylor and McLaglen are well done as Jock begins to unravel under the pressure. Perry plays Iago to Jock’s Othello who falls apart with fear and anger as the date of his hanging approaches, and the pull never comes to free him. Both men are effective in these scenes.

   It’s an impressive scene when Jock does break with half a dozen policeman in his tight cell struggling to restrain him.

   Now Perry can write the President, and gets warden John Hamilton to send his specially marked letter so he can be freed and the traitor exposed. Which, as any good dramatist would stage it, is the point when news reaches Perry that McKinley has been shot, and dies without waking up.

   Oooops.

   Perry’s only hope is to tell Lil the truth and send her to President Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer), but when she finds out he was a policeman and her half brother died because of him, she turns on him and Perry has no where to turn as the hours near for the execution. The warden and the priest come for Ramsay, who has regained enough composure to do card tricks for the priest, and who looks forward to Perry hanging next.

   It isn’t giving that much away that Lil realizes she loves Perry goes to TR, is not believed, then is, then isn’t again until McKinley’s secretary calls a second time to confirm he was instructed to look with specially marked envelopes, but is it in time…

   Of course it is, this is Hollywood, not Stratford-on-Avon. Movie audiences still don’t want to mix too much irony with romance, and killing off Robert Taylor at that point would have killed the box office and word of mouth. These things aren’t film noir, happy endings, if at all possible, are required. Things would soon darken as the war approached, but in 1937 the odds of Taylor and Stanwyck not ending up in clench were microcosmic.

   The film was originally designed for the popular team of Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, then when they were out, Fox borrowed Taylor from MGM, and since he and Stanwyck were soon marrying this was guaranteed box office gold.

   Stanwyck sings her own numbers, and is sprightly, sexy, tough, and — well she’s Barbara Stanwyck and at a point in her career when she made one good or great movie after another. Taylor has some strong scenes in the prison and handles them with skill, his desperation quite real, and his manipulation of Jock has a tough sadistic edge we would not see in him again until the post war era.

   McLaglen chews the scenery with the best of them and yet delivers moments that will recall his Oscar-winning role in John Ford’s The Informer. Donlevy does well with a good bad man, but then he always did. The rest of the cast is capable with Douglas Fowley and John Carradine as henchmen.

   But one actor stands out.

   Sidney Blackmer’s Teddy Roosevelt comes close to stealing the movie every time he is on screen. He is full blooded, bully, enthusiastic, boisterous, loud, and altogether Teddy. He played TR in at least three other movies (uncredited in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill), and on television, and like Raymond Massey’s Lincoln, it is the role he is best remembered by.

   He was still a popular character actor as late as his role in Rosemary’s Baby but he seldom had a part with this much energy. He also played Anthony Abbot’s (Fulton Ousler) Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt in The Panther’s Claw, and Colt was modeled on TR.

   Director William A. Seiter had a good career that began in 1915 and lasted into television (he made the switch in 1955) up to 1965. If not an auteur, he was capable and professional in the manner of a George Sherman or Woody Van Dyke and helmed all sort of films ably, while screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Allen Rivkin went on to better things.

   This is a nostalgic postcard from the past, tinted with sepia and rose colored glasses, the early years of the 20th Century as only Hollywood could do them. You wouldn’t be too surprised if Perry turned out to be Nicholas Carter and this came straight from the Nickel Library and the pen of Frederick Rennasler Dey himself.

   If the film misses a beat I have never noticed it. It is exactly what is means to be, and to expect anything more or damn it for not being anything else is to totally miss the point that it is perfect for what was intended.

   I cannot find it in myself to criticize any film for being exactly what the audience wanted and the director, screenwriters, and producer intended. Doing anything different would have upset the delicate balance that allows this to work, and in 1937 no one wanted to see the film noir version of this story.

   It’s like complaining because there is no CGI in Snow White or Bert Lahr doesn’t look much like a real lion in The Wizard of Oz as far as I’m concerned, it completely misses the point. It is well and good to not like it for what it is, but don’t condemn it for not being what it was never intended to be.

   For what it is, its a wedding cake topper for an attractive young couple when they were at their most beautiful and has just the right mix of romance, comedy, melodrama, and grit to entertain anyone who loves movie movies. It is a perfect example of they don’t make them like that anymore with all the flaws and genius that statement encompasses. Seeing it again after forty years I was astounded at what good taste my fourteen year old self had in liking it and remembering it so well at the time.

   To think they used to give away dishes to get people to come in and see movies this good.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


ERIC HEATH – Death Takes a Dive. Hillman-Curl, hardcover, 1938. Mystery Novel of the Month, no number, digest-sized paperback, 1940.
       — Murder in the Museum. Hillman-Curl, hardcover, 1939. Mystery Novel of the Month, no number, digest-sized paperback, 1940 .

   Attending a Hollywood party at which a man drowns, Winnie Preston, assistant to criminologist Cornelius Clift, Jr., better known as Copey, suspects murder rather than accident in Death Takes a Dive. It turns out that the victim had been attacked and strangled to death at the bottom of the pool. Winnie narrates the investigation, which has no interesting features and is excessively tedious.

   On their way to get married in Murder in the Museum, Copey and Winnie stop at the home of Alexander Cameron, an Egyptology enthusiast who was one of Copey’s professors in college. Shortly after they arrive, Cameron is murdered in the museum he had built. Someone inoculated him with a rare Oriental poison.

   If the someone who killed Alexander was not Alexander’s son, a physician who is in love with Alexander’s second wife, then we have a locked-room situation. For Copey and Winnie arrive at the museum door immediately after the murder — they have heard it committed over a “Radio Nurse,” an early form of intercom — to find the door locked. When they do get into the museum, they discover Alexander’s corpse, no murderer, and no means for the murderer to have got out of the museum.

   Should you be able to accept Copey talking to his betrothed as if she were as dimwitted as the narrators S.S, Van Dine and Anthony Abbot, a Sausalito police chief so broad-minded as to say “Telepathy is almost an accepted thing nowadays,” strange tales of reincarnation, Cameron’s daughter who was scared by a dog, frequently goes about on all fours howling, and tries to kill one of the servants — didn’t provide her with milk bones, probably — and a few other miscellaneous oddities, you may enjoy the second and last novel featuring Copey and Winnie.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Note:   Murder in the Museum has been reviewed once before on this blog, the earlier time by David Vineyard, some five plus years ago. You may find his comments here.

SMALL GENRE DEPARTMENT
by Marvin Lachman

   Everyone knows the major divisions of the mystery: the private eye, the classic puzzle, the police procedural, et al. I like small genres, which I define as at least two mysteries about one topic, usually an obscure one. Here are some examples:

1. Mysteries about black-eyed blondes. In the Anthony Abbot book About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women discussed here, Colt is drawn into the mystery when his fiancee sends him a young blonds with a problem-and a shiner. There was also the 1944 Erie Stanley Gardner novel, The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde.

2. Mysteries about beautiful women who have documents tattooed on their backs. The only novel which comes to mind is H. Rider Haggard’s Mr. Meeson’s Will (1888), in which the heroine has a will tattooed on her back. In the movies, Myrna Loy had plans on her back in Stamboul Quest (1934) and so did Paulette Goddard in The Lady Has Plans (1942), My favorite variation on this is in the Helen Simpson short story, “A Posteriori,” in EQMM, September 1954.

3. Murders observed by people on trains. I’m sure there are more than the two examples which come to my mind: Agatha Christie’s 1957 Miss Marple novel, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw (in Britain as The 4.50 from Paddington), and Cornell Woolrich’s novelette, “Death in the Air” (Detective Fiction Weekly, Oct. 10, 1936), in which the hero sees two people struggling in a tenement, one of whom shoots someone in the elevated car in which he is riding.

4. Mysteries in which the detective is named Paul Pry. Erie Stanley Gardner had a pulp sleuth named Paul Pry, and the hero of Margaret Millar’s first three books was a psychiatrist, Paul Prye. The hero of Albert Borowitz’s This Club Frowns on Murder (1990) is true-crime historian Paul Prye.

5. Mysteries with plots based on the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick affair:
a. Warren Adler’s Options (1974), published in paperback as Waters of Decision.
b. Douglas Kiker’s Death at the Cut (1988).
c. Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Kennedy Center (1989).

6. Mysteries about bag people used as couriers for drugs or drug money:
a. Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s Julie Hayes series.
b. Anna Porter’s Judith Hayes series.

7.Mysteries set at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston:
a. Jane Langton’s Murder at the Gardner (1988).
b. Charlotte MacLeod’s The Palace Guard (1981). (Madam Wilkins’s Palazzo seems based on the Gardner.)

8. Mysteries with reporter-detectives named J. Hayes:
a. Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s Julie Hayes series.
b. Anna Porter’s Judith Hayes series.

9. Mysteries in which the authors get to make use (or fun) of the famous armaments company, Smith and Wesson:
a. In Michael Bowen’s cleverly titled recent book, Washington Deceased, he has a prison guard named Wesson Smith.
b. Phoebe Atwood Taylor had a murder suspect in Spring Harrowing (1939) named Susan Remington who owns a pair of bobcats named Smith and Wesson.
c. The series characters in Annette Meyers’s Wall Street mysteries are Xenia Smith and Leslie Wetzon.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1991 (very slightly revised).


Editorial Comment: This list was put together 24 years ago. If you can add examples to any of Marv’s nine categories, please do so in the comments. And if you can add a category 10 (or more), that would be most welcome as well!

THE PANTHER’S CLAW. Producers Releasing Corp. (PRC), 1942. Sidney Blackmer (Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt), Ricki Vallin (Anthony “Tony” Abbot), Byron Foulger, Herbert Rawlinson, Barry Bernard, Gerta Rozan, Joaquin Edwards. Based on a story by Anthony Abbot (Fulton Oursler). Director: William Beaudine.

THE PANTHER'S CLAW Thatcher Colt

   Thatcher Colt was a character who appeared in a number of detective novels by Anthony Abbot in the 1930s and early 40s, beginning with About the Murder of Geraldine Foster in 1930. According to IMDB, though, The Panther’s Claw was based on the short story “The Perfect Crime of Mr. Digberry.”

   On the other hand, the American Film Institute says it was based on the story “Shake Hands with Murder.” But since Mr. Digberry is definitely a character in Panther’s Claw, and Shake Hands with Murder is a totally different (non-Thatcher Colt) film made by PRC in 1944, we’ll say IMDB has the advantage here.

   There were two earlier film adaptations of Thatcher Colt novels, both of them with Adolphe Menjou in the starring role: The Night Club Lady (1932) and The Circus Queen Lady (1933).

THE PANTHER'S CLAW Thatcher Colt

   I’ve seen neither of these, but I think the solid, mostly no-nonsense acting of Sidney Blackmer fits the role of the definitely hands-on police commissioner better. In fact AFI states that Panther’s Claw was intended to be the first in a series. If so, the plans did not work out, as there never was a follow-up.

   Blackmer was the leading man, with top billing and all that goes with it, but believe it or not, it was Byron Foulger, the unlikeliest of movie stars, who gets the majority of the screen time. He plays Mr. Digberry, a mild, meek, milquetoast of a man (meaning that Foulger was perfect for the part) with a 180 pound wife and five daughters. (They’re out of town, though, throughout the movie. We only get to see Digberry’s reaction whenever he realizes that they’ll be back soon.)

THE PANTHER'S CLAW Thatcher Colt

   We see first meet Digberry as he’s being caught by the cops sneaking out of a city cemetery at night. It seems he’s received a note that requested he leave $1000 on a gravestone, signed by “The Panther” along with a paw print in ink at the bottom.

   The cops get a big chuckle out of this, as well as the audience, even though Digberry is not the only one to have received such a message. There is more to the case, though, as the “Panther” portion of which is quickly solved, and as it happens, there are more strings to the bow of the greatly bewildered and befuddled Mr. Digberry than first meets the eye.

   There is a murder to be solved, in other words, that of a female opera singer … and I won’t tell you more, but there is a lot more plot in this 70 minute movie than there is in a many a present-day double-the-running-time extravaganza with lots of action and special effects, none of which are present here. The Panther’s Claw was produced on what is obviously a bare-bones budget.

   While the movie’s still running, it is difficult to follow the business of the wigs and the rival wigmakers, or how important it is, but it all makes sense in the end. At least I think so. Overall this film makes for a very enjoyable viewing experience, in my moderately humble opinion. I also imagine there is more humor to be found in the movie than in the short story, based primarily on Foulger’s performance, but I suppose I could be wrong about that.

THE PANTHER'S CLAW Thatcher Colt