FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE - Mystery Commentary by Mike Nevins

    One of the Christmas presents I gave myself this year was rereading A Question of Proof (1935) and Thou Shell of Death (1936), the first two novels in Nicholas Blake’s Nigel Strangeways series.  (For the benefit of any website browsers who aren’t experts on the history of the whodunit I should mention that Blake was the mystery-writing pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis, who went on to become poet laureate of England and the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis.)  At this early stage of his career Nigel is burdened with a few silly-ass habits, like singing at the top of his lungs during wild auto chases, but these are marvelous books.  The most important character in Thou Shell of Death is called Fergus O’Brien, and it doesn't seem too much of a stretch to guess that the name was the inspiration for Anthony Boucher’s detective Fergus O’Breen, who debuted a couple of years after Thou Shell.

  Verne Athanas.  1917-1962.  Anyone out there besides Bob Briney ever heard of him?  I thought not.  He didn’t write mysteries but was a prolific author of Western novels and short stories.  One of his best known tales, “Pursuit” (Collier’s, 8 March 1952) is the lead story in the posthumously published collection Pursuit (Five Star, 2000).   More to the point, Fred Dannay reprinted the tale in the January 1957 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, retitling it “Ride with a Killer.”
        Before the end of that year the Athanas story was adapted into an episode (broadcast on December 2) of NBC's long-running Western series Tales of Wells Fargo, starring Dale Robertson.  Did the Wells Fargo story editors learn of the tale from its appearance in EQMM?  You betcha.  And the proof is that they kept Fred’s title for the episode!  It’s a stretch to imagine the creator of Ellery Queen having an influence on one of the TV Western series of my teenhood, but the evidence speaks for itself.
    It’s amazing how many classics of crime, suspense and detection get quickly dated by technology.  If Steven Spielberg were to remake DUEL today it would be a very short film indeed, because as soon as Dennis Weaver caught on that the truck was trying to kill him all he’d need to do would be to whip out his trusty cell phone and dial 911.  The reason there are few if any Holmes-like mastersleuths today is that the reading public is savvy to stuff like DNA – forensic technology that is to the deductive detective what Henry Ford was to the horse and buggy.  It’s also the reason why so many recent series are set in ancient Egypt or Rome or in medieval or Victorian times.  Such a simple way to do an end run around today’s technology!) 
        Of course, some classics of our genre remain immune to this problem.  Take Cornell Woolrich’s “Three O'Clock” (1938), perhaps the most powerful tale of pure suspense ever written.  Fat lot of good a cell phone would do the poor devil whose agony Woolrich makes us share as he sits bound and gagged and immobilized in his own basement with a time bomb ticking away at his feet!  A film based on this story could be set in the 21st century without substantial changes.  But only an idiot would make such a film because it would have to compete with the first version, dating back to 1957 and directed by no less than Alfred Hitchcock!

   In The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) Ellery Queen and the offical police are looking into the beheading and crucifixion of a wealthy rug dealer who claimed to be of Rumanian birth.  The Long Island inspector in charge of the case looks at the dead man’s widow and stepdaughter and business protege and asks them: “You people are all native Americans, I suppose?” and they all nod in agreement.  Now what tribe do you think they belonged to?  Oneida, anyone?  Pottawatomie?  Of course, the characters are native American only in the Bruce Springsteen sense that they were “bo-o-orn in the USA.”  How time changes the meaning of the words we read!

      Other installments of this column can be found by going here.  


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