January 2012


PLEINS FEUX SUR L’ASSASSIN. Champs-Élysées Productions, France, 1961. English title: Spotlight on a Murderer. Pierre Brasseur, Pascale Audret, Marianne Koch, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Dany Saval, Philippe Leroy. Screenplay: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac. Director: Georges Franju.

   Boileau and Narejac are to me the most recognizable names in the credits above, but truthfully I know very little about either, except for the fact they wrote the novels on which the films Diabolique and Vertigo were based. They have a long list of other credits on IMDB (here or here ) but the two mentioned will probably catch your eye right away too.


   Georges Franju, the director, may be known to those who have been following the French film industry longer than I have. His most famous film may be Eyes Without a Face (1960), known in the US as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. I assume that if anyone knows more about him, they will tell us more in the comments. (Please do!)

   As for the players themselves, I shall embarrass myself even further, and say that only the name of Dany Saval is familiar. She made one or two films in the US, but no more than that. The one that came to mind right away was Boeing Boeing, a sexy comedy from 1965 with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis in the two leading roles.


   Moving on to the story. When an aging French aristocrat realizes that he’s dying, he hides away in small room behind a one-way mirror, the better to watch his befuddled heirs after his death. His motive is not clear, but perhaps he holds a grudge against all of them, as they cannot inherit until his body is found.

   There are six or perhaps eight of them at first, their number gradually begins to dwindle, their deaths occurring in mysterious ways, perhaps of accidents or natural causes, but more likely not. Strangely enough, the police do not seem to be suspicious, as there is no investigation to speak of.


   To obtain the funds they need to maintain the castle where they are now living, their plan is to produce a spectacular Son et Lumière show based on an old legend of a cuckolded husband and lord of the estate hundreds of years before.

   The story line itself, as described above, is fragmented and difficult to follow. Neither the screenwriters nor the director care to give any of the players any personality. They are only players in a game. If this were all the film had to offer there is no way I could recommend it to anyone — even those who have read this far!


   But the setting, the black and white photography, the atmosphere: all splendid, indeed. A spooky old castle filled with large and well-appointed rooms, staircases spiraling upward in the gloom, a sound and light show without parallel — including a suicidal fall from the highest tower at the climactic moment — hidden motives and fearful, wary eyes, that’s what I will remember, not the very basic story line — not even who the killer is, not at all.

NOTE:   A short three-minute clip can be found on YouTube here.


JACK WILLIAMSON – Mazeway. Ballantine/Del Rey, hardcover, 1990. Paperback reprint, October 1990.


   Younger science fiction writers may have technical proficiencies that Jack Williamson can only dream about, but other than that, I think his dreams are the stuff that dreams are made of.

   There is something somebody once called a “sense of wonder” in trying to describe a certain brand of science fiction, and Jack Wiliamson has it, and he always did: his first published story was in 1928. He had then — and still does — an awe of the future that younger writers take for granted, as everyday events, and their books are (arguably) the poorer for it.

   But what’s this book about? Nothing more than a few representatives of mankind trying to make the evolutionary leap from planet to space. How? By playing the eldern’s Game of Blade and Stone on the double planet Mazeway – sort of like taking a hard, rigorous entrance exam.

   Winning the game means mankind’s acceptance into the wider world of the entire universe.

   Why such exalted creatures such as the eldern need such a childish way to enter into their ranks is not precisely clear, but given the premise, admittedly not a new one, Williamson delivers an old-fashioned homily on growing up and getting along and maturing.

   It is, as well, a murder mystery. May I quote from page 80? Benn Dain, Terran, is making demands of the Hydrans concerning his friend and mentor, Edward Gibbon Beta, whose brother by fission at birth has been killed, under mysterious circumstances:

    “Sir. You can’t let him die. He wants to live. His brother was murdered at Starsearch. The murderer is unknown. I think you’ll find him determined to identify the killer.”

   Find the killer, they do, although I’d have to agree that it is not one that Ellery Queen, say, in his wildest dreams would ever have recognized. And as much as I like what some of the newer SF writers are saying, as futzy and outdated books like this might be, it’s still my kind of story.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 32, July 1991 (shortened and slightly revised).

[UPDATE] 01-18-12.   You didn’t miss a great deal when I shortened this review to post it here. Back in 1991 and for a reading audience of mystery fans who might not have known who he was, I spent a few paragraphs of time telling them something about Jack Williamson’s background as a writer.

   Today, however, all I have to do is include a link to an appropriate page, and you’ll know what I said about him then, and a whole lot more. (I also spent some time justifying the inclusion of a SF writer in a mystery journal. I stopped worrying about that a long time ago.)

HELEN REILLY – The Day She Died. Random House, hardcover, 1962. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, hardcover, 3-in-1 volume, January 1963. Paperback reprints: Ace #G-536, no date [circa 1965]; Macfadden, 1970.


   Checking Hubin to make sure my facts are straight, Helen Reilly’s primary series character, Inspector McKee, spent most of his career solving murders in New York City, his home base of operations, but over the years, he found himself tackling cases that took him up in Connecticut almost as often. Either way, but not always, he seems to have been pretty much a New York and New England sort of guy.

   With, as I say, a few exceptions. The Day She Died, which turned out to be Reilly’s last book and McKee’s last recorded adventure, is one of them, since he just happens to be in New Mexico when the killings take place – two of them, in fact – and “adventure” is exactly the word for it, and I’ll get back to that in a paragraph or so. (One other exception, before going any further, is Follow Me, which came two books before this one, took place in New Mexico as well.)

   McKee’s first recorded adventure was The Diamond Feather, which was appeared in 1930, which means that he had 33 years on the job, working on a grand total of 31 cases. Helen Reilly’s career was just as long, but it includes several mystery novels in which the inspector did not appear. You can read more about her and her books here in a long essay about her by Mike Grost on the primary M*F website. (Follow the link.)


   Enough of these preliminaries, though, and on to the review. Fans of the Golden Age of Detection will have a lot to like with this one, since the grand bulk of it follows one of the most well known (if not most commonly occurring) settings in vintage mysteries of the 1930s, that of murder in an isolated house in the middle of a storm, with no way in and no way out.

   You do have to have a well-engrained “sense of wonder,” though, since New Mexico is a long way from New York City, only to have McKee end up totally by chance in the very same home of a woman recently deceased but unknown to him until mentioned to him before he left on another matter altogether. Nor is he the only victim of the storm to find refuge there, all of whom have secrets and many of whom seem to have known each other from before.

   There is a lot of atmosphere in this novel, in other words, most of it dark and gloomy (and the water rising), with everyone’s eyes cast warily at everyone else. There is no contact with the outside world, so McKee is accepted by everyone as the person in charge. There is much detective work to do, what with one man seriously (and eventually fatally) wounded and another body found later in the stable. Not to mention the face in the window and other signs that someone else may be trapped on the small island the house sits on in the middle of the flood.


   The detective work, to get back to the primary thrust of the tale, is of necessity of the most primitive, basic kind: asking questions, checking everyone’s whereabouts at crucial points in time, and even more questions. Not everyone is involved with the murders, but everyone has secrets, and McKee cannot rely on any of the answers his receives in turn being true, not even the one supplied by the watch that was stopped at the moment of the fatal blow.

   Once contact is made with the outside world, the solving of the case proceeds at a much faster pace – which I found somewhat of a disappointment, and if truth be told, there was no “somewhat” about it.

   There are some really nifty twists in the plot that come at the end, but they came too fast, as far as I was concerned, with the police work occurring mostly offstage, sad to say. I found the slower pace of the first three-quarters of the book much more to my liking than I did the final few chapters, in which everyone, having made their way to the big city of Albuquerque, is now safe and sound, or nearly so.

Hi Steve:

I just received some information about the Memorial Service for Bob Briney that will be held at Salem State University. Please share this with anyone on your Mystery blog in case anyone lives in the area and would like to attend. Please note that I was told that Bob had no living family members to inform the press and that may be why there was no local announcement about his passing in the papers. Below is the information that I received today about the services:

“A memorial service for Dr. Briney will be held in the MLK room 12:30-2:30 Tuesday Feb 7. Anyone who wishes to speak at the memorial should get in touch with the Computer Department Chairperson, Joe Kasprzk. I still don’t have a date for interment – on 1/9 the lawyer handling Dr. Briney’s estate indicated late last week or this week, but there has been no follow-up.”

Chairperson, Joe Kasprzk can be reached at Salem State University at 978-542-6000.

Best wishes,
Bob Campbell

Dr. Robert W. Campbell
Computer Science Department
Salem State University

[UPDATE] 01-19-12. Here is the official announcement of the memorial service for Bob Briney, as forwarded to me by Patricia V. Markunas, Chairperson of the Department of Psychology:

Members of the Salem State Community:

In the announcement sent by President Meservey and Provost Esterberg on 1/6/12 regarding the passing of longtime Salem State faculty member Dr. Robert E. Briney, mention was made of a memorial service being planned by the members of the Computer Science Department, of which Dr. Briney was the founding chair. The commemorative event is now scheduled to be held Tuesday, February 7th beginning at 12:30 p.m. in the Martin Luther King Conference Room of the Ellison Campus Center on North Campus. All members of the university community are welcome.

For more information, please contact Pat Kantorosinski of the Computer Science Department at x6256.


Jean E. Fleischman
Executive Assistant to the President/
Secretary to the Board of Trustees
Salem State University
352 Lafayette Street, 316-MH
Salem, MA 01970


[UPDATE] 01-21-12. Thanks to Bob Campbell for providing this link to the online obituary for Bob in the Salem News:


It’s very nicely done, combining as it does aspects of both halves of Bob’s life, that of teaching Math and Computer Science at Salem State for so many years, plus a lengthy list of his many accomplishments as a life-long science fiction and mystery fan.



THEY DARE NOT LOVE. Columbia, 1941. George Brent, Martha Scott, Paul Lukas, Frank Reicher, Egon Brecher, Roman Bohnen, Peter Cushing, Lloyd Bridges. Director: James Whale (with Victor Fleming & Charles Vidor, both uncredited). Shown at Cinecon 39, Hollywood CA, Aug-Sept 2003.

   I was very pleased to find Whale’s last feature film on the program. George Brent is an Austrian aristocrat who leaves his country ahead of the Nazis. Living in London, he encounters Scott and comes into contact with Austrian emigres who make him realize he was wrong to betray his countrymen by fleeing.

   He meets with his old adversary, Nazi Paul Lukas, and works out an agreement that will exchange his freedom for some imprisoned Austrians. The agreement is a ruse, and as he and Scott set sail on what he believes to be a neutral Dutch ship, it mounts a German flag and he is a prisoner on his way to a certain death.

   Maltin lambasts the film for its silly script and unlikely casting of Brent as a “dashing” Austrian prince. Dashing he’s not, but in spite of the inadequacies of the script and the lack of the usual Whale flourishes, the film is competently directed.

   Reicher is good as the ship’s captain who’s finally willing to sacrifice himself (and probably his family) to thwart Lukas. Cushing and Bridges have small roles, but Cushing makes a dashing appearance as a British office who takes over the German ship and saves the day.

   Not a sad, but still a disappointing conclusion to a distinguished directing career.


WILLIAM COLT MacDONALD – Bad Man’s Return. Ace Double D-2, paperback reprint, no date [1952]. (Published dos-à-dos with Bloody Hoofs, by J. Edward Leithead.) First published in West Magazine, September 1946. Hardcover edition: Doubleday, 1947.


   Over the years there have been a lot of mystery writers named MacDonald (or Macdonald, McDonald, or even Mcdonald), and some of them were quite well-known, and still are. But if you’re a mystery fan only, William Colt MacDonald may be one you don’t recognize. If I were to tell you that he wrote a lot of westerns, though, maybe you’d place the name.

   He was the creator of “The Three Mesquiteers,” among others, intrepid cowpoke adventurers in a long line of B-western movies, and this is one of the novels they were in as well.

   Some of MacDonald’s western are listed in Hubin, although not this one. Most of the ones that are listed feature a western detective named Gregory Quist, but I have a feeling that more of them could easily be acceptable.

   The connection between between western fiction and detective stories is a solid one. My own feeling is that as many as 95% of all western stories contain crime, mystery or detective elements of one form or another. They come in various guises, and sometimes you have to look sharply, but if you look carefully, I think you’ll find that most westerns are nothing more (or less) than yesterday’s detective stories.


   And what’s more, not only should Al Hubin know about this one, but Bob Adey should, too. That’s right, this is a locked-room mystery, and it’s not in Adey’s book either.

   To tell you the truth, I haven’t really read as many westerns as I have mystery stories, so I can’t say that this is generally so, but it’s my impression that westerns have their own code of telling, their own sense of formal structure.

   Where I think the story is leading up to as the climax can often not be the case at all. Westerns seem to spread out plotwise in a good many directions, even more than spy or adventure thrillers do, and usually head off completely opposite from the one I think they ought to be taking.


   Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but most of the time I give in and let the author lead me where I will.

   In this case, for example, I’d have thought the capture of the killer who frames Barry Hesman for the killing of Tucson Smith would be what the final chapter would be all about. But no, somehow that’s a matter that’s settled long before then. By that time the story has gone on to other things, most notably the saving of Anne Callister’s ranch for her. It seemed anti-climactic to me, but I guess it wasn’t for me to say.

   As for the locked room, it takes our heroes the full novel before they work it out, but no long-time reader of detective stories will be at all surprised by what [WARNING: Quickie Plot Alert] a piece of rawhide and some bear grease will do.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 32, July 1991 (slightly revised).

[UPDATE] 01-15-12.   The last “Three Mesquiteers” movie appeared in 1943, and it’s easy to find a complete list of them online (here, for example). But I do not have a list of the books they appeared in, I’m sorry to say; the last one I have a record of is The Galloping Ghost, which was published in 1952.

   I also do not know what to make of my review above, where I say that Tucson Smith, one of the three original members of the group, was killed, and it was his murder that had to be solved. More than that, at this time it is a mystery to me.

[UPDATE] 01-18-12.   Thanks to David Smith, who reminded me that a list of Three Mesquiteer novels appeared in the WesternPulps group on Yahoo last June, and to Phil Stephensen-Payne for pointing out that two of the trio’s tales were serialized in the pulp magazines, as you’ll see below. (Taken from the online FictionMags Index.)

Restless Guns (with only Tucson and Stony) (1929)

Law Of The Forty-Fives (1933) aka Sunrise Guns

Powdersmoke Range (1934)

Riders of the Whistling Skull (1934)

The Singing Scorpion (1934) aka Ambush at Scorpion Valley

Ghost-Town Gold (1935) aka The Town That God Forgot

Bullets for Buckaroos (1936) aka Bullet Trail

The Three Mesquiteers (1944)

Bad Man’s Return (1947)

Powdersmoke Justice (1949)

Mesquiteer Mavericks (1950)

The Galloping Ghost (1955)

The Three Mesquiteers (serial) Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine Jun 29 1935, etc.

Cactus Cavaliers (serial) Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine Oct 26 1935, etc. [Name of hardcover edition, if any, unknown.]

[UPDATE] 01-20-12.   Thanks to “Alan in London” for providing the titles of four more appearances of the Mesquiteers, including the one from 1929 which featured only two of them. Besides adding them to the list above, I’ve changed the dates for a few others, based on the data I found in Twentieth Century Western Writers. When I get the chance, I’ll do some original research on this and make sure sure everything’s as correct as it can be.

TV Review – THE FIRM
by Michael Shonk

THE FIRM Josh Lucas

THE FIRM. NBC, 08 January 2012. Two-hour pilot for TV series to air Thursday at 10pm (Eastern) beginning 12 January 2012. Based on the John Grisham novel. Cast: Josh Lucas as Mitch McDeere, Molly Parker as Abby McDeere. Created for TV by Lukas Reiter. Written by Lukas Reiter. Directed by David Straiton. Executive Produced by John Grisham, Lukas Reiter, John Morayniss, Noreen Halpern and Michael Rosenberg, Co-Executive Produced by Helen Shaver and Peter Noah.

   It is 2012, ten years after the events of the film and novel.

   We open with our hero, Mitch being chased. He is running towards the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial. It is daytime. There is a crowd, yet no uniform security in sight. Our hero runs into a passing tour guide. They fall to the ground. Still no uniform security or police. We notice the large men in suits that are after Mitch. He runs and “They” chase. He runs through the reflecting pool.

   I am bored. Hey, endless number of evil henchmen, some advice. Don’t bother trying to catch him when he is in an open space with many witnesses. Follow him until he is stupid enough to go to a place where there is limited ways of escape.

THE FIRM Josh Lucas

   Extras, I know you are playing background, but this is 2012, don’t just ignore people running. No crowd today would let a well-dressed man run across the National Mall reflecting pool without having their cell phone cameras out. This entire chase and the faces of all would have gone viral on YouTube within an hour.

   And where are the uniforms? This is post 9/11 in the middle of one of the heaviest trafficked parts of Washington D.C. and this chase, with a person run over, attracts no uniformed cops or security?

   Back to the chase, Mitch thinks he has lost “Them.” He uses a pay phone to call his wife’s cell phone and warn her. A pay phone? Do those still exist? I know he does not use his cell phone because “They” can trace where he is through the cell phone. (I watch Person of Interest.) But our hero and wife have a plan, a plan that did not consider disposable untraceable cell phones. (Have they never seen an episode of Burn Notice?)

THE FIRM Josh Lucas

   Next he goes to talk to the one person who knows the truth. Where does Mitch pick as a safe place to meet? In a high-rise hotel room with only two exits, the apartment door and the window leading to the patio several floors above the ground. (Get him now henchmen, get him now.)

   The “Person Who Knows the Truth” refuses to share what he knows because “They” will kill him and he doesn’t want to die. Someone knocks on the door. So the “Person Who Knows the Truth” commits suicide by jumping off the room’s patio.

   I understand the scene is meant to introduce the characters and action, but flip the settings. Have Mitch running in the hotel hallways and stairways, “They” chase. He escapes. Call wife on disposable cell phone. He meets the “Person Who Knows the Truth” in the National Mall. Terrified, the “Person Who Knows the Truth” is spooked. He runs and is hit and killed by a car. Mindless TV action can be entertaining without insulting your intelligence.

THE FIRM Josh Lucas

   The show has been on for less than five minutes. At this point, I had to make a serious choice… continue and waste two hours of my life I’d never get back or watch something else. I went to my Amazon Video Library and watched They Call It Murder (1971).

   This got me to thinking about how the TV show has moved beyond the TV. You don’t need a TV to watch The Firm pilot movie or the weekly series. Visit the official website at http://www.nbc.com/the-firm/.

   At any point in the day you can watch a DVD featuring the first PI to appear on network TV (Martin Kane, Private Eye; NBC, 1949), or you can watch on your favorite device that streams or downloads video the very latest TV network PI (The Finder; Fox 2012).

   Today we have countless choices on countless platforms all available for us on demand and most are mobile. Any second we feel bored, virtually anywhere, we can pull out our favorite handheld device and watch a TV show.

THE FIRM Josh Lucas

   Will this change how television stories are told? Can you tell a story that visually works as well on a tablet as on a big screen TV? Will viewers care?

   Will we watch different types of TV shows on our tablet than at home? Will we continue to sit in front of the TV screen and mindlessly watch whatever is on or will we choose the television show as well as when we mindlessly watch it on our preferred device?

   So what began as a review of a badly written TV thriller ends with questions about how will we watch television in the future. Maybe if I had been more patient I would have found The Firm an entertaining thriller.

   Who cares, I was bored and had better things to do. With more choices and easier access we have a better chance to find the exact fit for our leisure time needs of the moment. Television will no longer be for the mass audience but instead for each individual viewer. How will television deal with that?

HARRY WHITTINGTON – The Brass Monkey. Handi-Book #138; paperback original, 1951. Harlequin 366, Canada, paperback, 1956.

   Harry Whittington is not a name very well known today, but in his day, he was one of the most prolific paperback writers of all time. He doesn’t have the reputation of a Jim Thompson, however, and that’s too bad, because I enjoy his books about three times more. They’re more entertaining, for one thing, but still quick and easy to read.


   And you can trust Whittington, if he were to write a PI book, which this is, to be different from most any other PI book you were to pick up and read. There is one large glaring flaw, which — even though it’s not an absolutely essential ingredient of the story — I’ll relegate to telling you about in a FOOTNOTE (*), and another hopelessly unmanageable coincidence, but it’s still a fascinating attempt to pull off a trick no other writer has even done, so far as I know.

   The PI is James Patterson, and he lives in Honolulu. He’s married to a rich woman who absolutely adores him, and that is precisely the problem. He married her only to prove to himself to the woman he really loved, but who jilted him. His present wife Troy he treats like dirt.

   The dead man is Herb Baldwin, Patterson’s best friend, and about his equal, as far as losers of the world are concerned. The policeman in charge of the case is Lanai Okazi, and the other girl who falls for Patterson (and no, I guess I don’t believe this either) is the beautiful Ona Kalani.

   The only other main character in this novel is the “emasculated” brass monkey (there’s a joke that goes along these lines, isn’t there?), which if you were looking for underlying meaning, would obviously represent Patterson himself — due to his loss of the love of his life, Julie, and unable to form any meangful relationship with his wife.

   And all of this is relevant to the case he’s trying to solve as well. As I said earlier, it doesn’t quite come off, but if you ever find a copy (I doubt it will ever be reprinted), you should grab it up at once.


FOOTNOTE (*) PLOT WARNING:   The flaw I mentioned is this. The police think the dead man in Chapter One is an obvious suicide victim. Patterson knows the man, and he thinks otherwise. Going to the morgue, he takes a piece of wire and pulls the bullet from the victim’s brain — and guess what? — it doesn’t match the caliber of the gun the dead man had in his hand.

   There are at least two things wrong with this. (A) What morgue attendant is going to stand aside and let him do this, and (B) what police department (even in 1951) is not going to have this checked out themselves. In this book, (A) he did, and (B) they didn’t.

   I also mentioned a whopper of a coincidence. ** PLOT ALERT CONTINUED ** The girl Patterson is sent off on a wild goose chase with (an overnight stand) is also the girl friend of the police lieutenant Patterson has gotten himself into deep trouble with.

   It’s an interesting development, to say the least, but if there was any reason the girl was deliberately chosen with that reason in mind, I think I must have missed it.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 32, July 1991.

[UPDATE] 01-14-12.   I’ve dug this review out the files as a followup to my much more recent review of Mourn the Hangman, also by Whittington and posted here.

   I confess that I don’t remember anything about The Brass Monkey than what you’ve just read yourself. (What the “fascinating attempt to pull off a trick no other writer has even done” was, I know not what.) But even though it’s clear that I didn’t think that Whittington was the second coming of Raymond Chandler, I enjoyed the book then, and there’s a good chance that maybe I would again now.



ROBIN HOOD, PRINCE OF THIEVES. Warner Brothers, 1991. Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Christian Slater, Alan Rickman, Geraldine McEwan, Michael McShane. Director: Kevin Reynolds.

   A lot of critics reviewed this film by dumping on Costner’s ego, just as they did with Brando twenty years ago, Welles twenty years before that, and D.W. Griffith twenty years before that. The few who paid any attention to the film itself carped about Costner’s accent — like, we go to Swashbuckler Movies for the Acting? — and delighted in making invidious comparisons with the Erroll Flynn version.


   Now I like the Flynn/Curtiz/DeHavilland/Keighly /Rathbone/Warner’s-Stock-Company Robin Hood a lot. It’s great fun and very pretty to look at, but I have to say
that it lacks any sense of dramatic development, due largely to the fact that the Basil Rathbone never gets to do anything very interesting, so Robin Hood doesn’t encounter any really substantial peril until the last few minutes, when Rathbone proves a worthy but out-classed opponent.

   The result is that Erroll Flynn, sexy as he is, comes off like a Hero in a Plastic Bubble and the film itself fails to generate much tension.


   The Costner Robin Hood, by contrast, offers some very substantial Heavies indeed, including a delightful Alan Rickman as the Sheriff, a slimy Guy of Gisbourne, a bona-fide Witch, and a pack of berserker Celts swarming atmospherically through the woods, jumping, screaming and generally having a hell of a time.

   The baddies in this one have so much fun, in fact, that what with Robin Hood having to be in it too, the whole thing gets to be just a trifle too long [143 minutes; 155 minutes, extended version]. Still, it’s a very nicely-done bit of film, and I recommend it.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #51, September 1991.


by Dan Stumpf


   One of the few advantages of working the Midnight Shift is that I get to listen to BBC World Service Overnight on the Radio, and it’s the sort of show that rivals anything from NPR. Among the interesting features that have livened my work nights was a program on the genesis and development of the Robin Hood legend, which was so fascinating I couldn’t help recapitulating its salient points here:

   Robin Hood apparently started out as just a bunch of stories about a guy who lived in Greens Wood in England; not an Outlaw, just a Hunter and all-around Doughty Woodsman.

He may be related to a nebulous character from Celtic myth and pre-history, the Green Man, who appears in some of the earliest stained-glass windows and illuminated manuscripts, although his exact nature is a mystery.


   At any rate, Robin Hood came to be accepted as the name of any good woodsman, the way names like “Casanova” and “Scrooge” have slipped into Modern language, and outlaws who lived in the woods back in the early middle ages took to calling themselves that.

   As tall tales of their exploits were told and re-told, they began to coalesce around someone named Robin Hood, who in those days was just a flattering portrait of Ye Merreye OuteLawe: Brave, witty, fair-minded and lovable.


   Time passed, History happened, and these worked changes on the character. Forests in England began to shrink, and the legend moved to center on the last largest extant forest, Sherwood. There was a Reeve (local administrator of the law) in that area who came from Nottingham, and he came to be called the Shire Reeve of Nottingham (say it fast).

   Minstrels began making a living at the courts of nobility, and as they told the Outlaw tales to their listeners, they made the central figure more popular with the audience by saying that he was a dispossessed Nobleman, with whom many could identify in those times.

   The tale made its way to France and back, and in the process picked up the Maid Marion character, along with others who represented stereotypes of the times: The lascivious Friar, the strong Woodsman (all that remained of the original character) and the romantic Minstrel.


   The tales were also returning to their Popular Roots, as traveling minstrels and the like began to find a market for their talents in the growing Middle Class.

   Robin Hood began to figure in an early version of Trick Or Treat in which people went from house to house, decorating, dropping off little treats and occasionally making mischief. And now the final wrinkle was added to the character for the stamp of Popular Approval: Charity. Robin Hood now robbed only from the rich and gave freely to the poor.


   In the last analysis, the program said, Robin Hood has survived because he has represented so many things to so many times. In our Century he has been a symbol of fun-loving freedom in the 20s, anti-Nazi in the late 30s, fighter for justice in the 50s, and in the 90s a champion of fairness and tolerance.

   What surprised me was that one professor said his favorite 20th Century treatment of the character was the half-hour TV show back in the 50s. In these shows, Robin was the archetypal Mythical Figure: no Origin, no beginning and no End, just a new tale to add to the legend every week, which goes back to the earliest traditions of story-telling.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #52, March 1992.

« Previous PageNext Page »