Friday, July 13, 2012

FFB: Ghost Wanted - Finlay McDermid

The very first scene in Ghost Wanted (1943) gives us a rookie mailman in Hollywood making his first delivery to the home of the biggest star he's ever met. It's the home of actress Sally Marsh and he can't believe how plain looking it is, how small and unassuming it appears. He flips through the assortment of letters and packages and finds no less than eight different names in the addresses including the exotic Melisande. How do they all fit in the place, he wonders. In the assortment of letters he has a Special Delivery envelope which requires a signature. When he gets no answer at the front door he makes his way to the back and is greeted by a man in the swimming pool who promptly gets out revealing he's completely naked. The reading of the names on the mail is one of the most innovative examples of how to handle that cumbersome character exposition. The offbeat touch of humor and the odd nude scene are more examples of McDermid's originality. This is his first mystery novel. And it gets more innovative as it progresses.

The ghost of the title is not a specter at all but a writer. The idea of a ghost being someone who does the work for another who takes the credit will become a metaphor in the murder investigation as well. The cast is made up of six - count 'em - six writers: three screenwriters, one playwright turned screenwriter, and two secretary wannabe script writers. More writers than any Hollywood agent could ask for. Providing for a nice segue to Ben Breck -- vile, smarmy, and hated agent for several writers and actors in the book. It's only natural that someone as loathed as he is should up with an Argentinian knife stuck in his chest.

There are parallel stories going on. The first deals with Lt. Bernal from the Sheriff's office who is investigating Breck's murder aided by his team of sharp-witted detectives. At the same time we read of writer John Chumleigh and his actress wife Sally Marsh who are also trying to prove what really happened. Chumleigh has his own name to clear. He's witnessed a lot including seeing his own wife in the vicinity of the murder site and he does his best to withhold infromation or mislead Bernal. When Chumleigh and his wife discover a second corpse -- a duplicitous stenographer with multiple identities and formerly in the employ of Breck -- the desire to protect his wife and friends becomes more urgent.

The story is almost as complex and dizzying as The Big Sleep. It's clear that McDermid has a fondness for that type of hardboiled private eye novel. There's a Christie-like murder in someone's past, a sordid blackmail ring, and the eventual uncovering of multiple deep, dark secrets in the past lives of all of the suspects. Clues are laid as early as the opening with the rookie postman and his batch of letters, and will include a talking magpie that uses curse words, several Helen McCloy-like slips of the tongue, and shockingly a dead cat that had been smothered with a pillow. The detection throughout is excellent by both the police team and the amateurs from Movieland.


Finlay McDermid wrote the story, most likely
 also collaborated on the screenplay for this western
All those writers in the cast and insights into a writer's life and way of thinking are clues to the life of Finlay McDermid. It's clear that McDermid was an aspiring screenwriter himself at the time. A quick overview of his resume at imdb.com proves that he managed to have a mildly successful career as either story or screenplay writer in both movies and TV with an emphasis on some minor western TV series in the 1950s. The book gives McDermid a chance to show off his screenwriting skills in some cleverly concocted scenes that borrow heavily from movie making techniques. For instance there is a phone call from Tim, one of the writers, to an actress named Marilyn. The scene begins on Tim's end and we get his viewpoint, when he finishes the conversation the scene gracefully segues to Marilyn's apartment, just like a smoothly edited film, and we learn that Sally Marsh is with her and the scene continues from there with the two women discussing what Tim just told Marilyn. The entire book is structured like a movie with cuts, fade outs, and wipes just like filmed scenes. It's pretty damn impressive for novel writing.

The story takes place in the first week of December 1941 with the date December 6 prominently mentioned. No doubt that date had fresh impact on readers in 1943 when the book was first published. It's one of the few American detective novels I've read that uses events of World War Two to directly impact the way a murder investigation is handled. When news of the Pearl Harbor attack reaches the Sheriff's office Bernal is temporarily taken off the case in order take charge of high priority surveillance of ports and harbors. What follows is the one bit of highly improbable plotting – Bernal allows John and Sally to continue their amateur sleuthing as long as they report back to him their findings. They have become ghost detectives for Bernal in the same way John's various secretaries have been trained to become ghost writers for his radio scripts.

Anthony Boucher raved about this book when it first came out and kept expecting another book from McDermid. He was brilliant at the mystery novel based on this debut. But like most writers living in Hollywood McDermid preferred to surrender himself to movies and TV. It would be more than ten years before he tried his hand at another mystery novel. See No Evil was published again by Simon and Schuster in 1958. I recently found an affordable copy and when I've read it I'll let you know if Finlay McDermid still had the stuff that he shows off so well in Ghost Wanted.

6 comments:

  1. John, this is a fine review of a fascinating novel. Many thanks... I confess not having heard of the author or his work. Weaving events of WWII into the story and, by extension, into the murder case must make reading of this book more interesting. Ghost detectives must have been an original idea at the time McDermid wrote this book.

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    1. Prashant -

      The Pearl Harbor portions and the screenwriting techniques truly make this a unique book in the world of Golden Age detective fiction. Boucher's raves were numerous and he even cited it as one of the best mysteries of 1944. Well worth tracking down. I'm eager to read SEE NO EVIL now.

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  2. Terrific review John - this book sounds really great, especially as I am a big fan of Hollywood lore involving screenwriters (blame SUNSET BOULEVARD) - and by an amazing stroke of coincidence, I was just watching THE BOUNTY HUNTER on TV earlier today! How about that for synchronicity? I really will have to try to track this one down too - you're a devil, but I'm grateful sir!

    Cheers,
    Sergio

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  3. That is crazy about THE BOUNTY HUNTER! I'm itching to find a copy of that movie over here. The only DVD that shows up for sale is a version subtitled for Spanish audiences. I want to see anything that McDermid did for the screen. Finding *anything* is proving to be very difficult.

    For the past few weeks I've been on a Roy Huggins kick. I watched HANGMAN'S KNOT (superb western with a top notch), THE LADY GAMBLES (melodramatic casino addiction programmer with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Preston as her long suffering husband) and the best of the lot -- PUSHOVER (Fred MacMurray doing a sort of Walter Neff turned cop role and Kim Novak in her screen debut)Iplan to reveiw PUSHOVER next Tuesday for Todd Mason's Overlooked Films meme.

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    1. Yeah, HANGMAN'S KNOT and PUSHOVER are terrific movie - I haven't seen THE LADY GAMBLES though, I envy you that one. According to Colin over at his excellent blog RIDING THE HIGH COUNTRY (http://livius1.wordpress.com/) the subtitles on the Spanish DVD can at least be disabled.

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    2. PS - John, did you ever receive that email I sent you re: BOUNTY HUNTER on DVD?

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