Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trick or Treat!

This may be from last year, but it's still absolutely amazing.

Happy Halloweeen, to all you wonderful people out there in dark! Be safe.

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: The Curse of Rathlaw

This is a series of books published from 1968 through 1970 in various paperback and hardcover editions centering on a group called The Guardians who run an occult detective agency. Though easy to find via online sources I rarely find them in bookstores out here. So when I came across a copy of this second book in a series I've always wanted to read I immediately grabbed it. "Peter Saxon" is a house name for at least five different writers all of whom contributed to the Sexton Blake series for Amalgamated Press. The Saxon name was also used, with two writers dreaming up the plots and three others writing the books, to market these occult thrillers featuring the Guardians. If this book is any indication of what the others are like then I am eager to read them all.

The Curse of Rathlaw (1968) is at its core an elaborate revenge story with two supernaturally powerful brothers plotting their other worldly vengeance on the Rathlaw family. Fergus Trayle, the elder and more evil of the two brothers, was caught in the act of raping a young woman by some men on a hunting expedition. They bring Trayle (known to the locals as the Hermit of Black Loch) to Sir Alistair Rathlaw, laird and bigwig in this part of Scotland, for punishment. Rathlaw sickened by the Hermit's act resorts to a rather medieval punishment and has Fergus publicly whipped and beaten. Humiliated and enraged by the brutal severity of his punishment Fergus curses Sir Alistair's family and promises that his only son will be the end of the Rathlaw line. Sir Alistair will know the prophecy is approaching fruition with the passing of two omens: 1. Alistair's brother will be struck blind and 2. a kelpie (a water spirit in the form of a horse) will appear in the area of the Rathlaw estate. Following those two events Sir Alistair should be prepared for the worst -- the death of his son. Sir Alistair is frightened enough after the fulfillment of the two omens to seek out the Guardians hoping they will be able to prevent the third and final act in the Hermit's revenge.

Kelpie statues in Chicago (©2012 Andy Scott)
Fergus and his brother Cosmo are thoroughly wicked men ready to use and abuse everyone they encounter. Cosmo makes his living as a medium and he thinks nothing of using his hypnotic powers to manipulate a woman still in love with her long dead lover into believing he wants her to join him in eternity. So she offs herself, but not before signing over her entire fortune to Cosmo in order that "he might continue his good work in psychical research." Poor woman. That's only a sampling of the nastiness the Trayle brothers indulge in.

The real highlight of the book is the emphasis on Scottish folklore, Celtic superstition and weird occult practices. Among the many included are the Su-Dith, a superhuman dwarf; frequent divination using radiesthesia; and a mute boy who has the uncanny power called "The Horseman's Word" that he uses to summon a water kelpie. The scenes with the boy and his mentally unhinged mother are the best in the book I think. Too bad much of the story is spent on the somewhat tiresome evildoing of Cosmo and Fergus of a kind we've all read of before. Overall, the book is more in line with an action horror movie from the 1960s and has many sequences that will seem all too familiar with anyone well versed in the genre. The finale, especially, brings to mind the occult ritual scenes in The Wicker Man, The Witches, The Devil Rides Out and many, many other horror flicks and stories.

Below is the correct series order by original publication date. Anything else you may find on the internet purporting to be the order of this series is incorrect. Part of the problem is that a number order for the series was printed on the covers of US paperback publisher Berkley's editions of the books. All of these editions were published in the 1970s and they are mostly second printings of the books. The Killing Bone cannot possibly be the first book because Dark Ways to Death was published in hardcover in the UK in 1968. Caveat lector!

The Guardians series
Dark Ways to Death (1968)
Through the Dark Curtain (1968)
The Curse of Rathlaw (1968)
The Killing Bone (1969)
The Haunting of Alan Mais (1969)
The Vampires of Finistere (1970)

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: For Fear of Little Men

Ex-Nazis, terrorism via biologic tampering, Celtic folklore and legends, reincarnation, mind control, immortal beings -- all this in one book? All this and more, my friends! General Charles Kirk, Marcus Levin and his wife Tania (whose previous adventures are reviewed here and here) are all on hand once again battling possible supernatural beings and investigating microbiological terrors in John Blackburn's unique genre-blending thriller For Fear of Little Men (1972). The little men of the title come from an oft heard Celtic verse:
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen.
We dare not go a-hunting
For fear of little men.
There are no little men per se to fear in the context of the story. Professor Rushton, an archaeologist digging in the mountains of Wales, lectures the characters on local folklore and legends and alludes to that verse. He is hoping to unearth proof of the existence of an pre-Celtic race who were the forbearers of the fairies, leprechauns, pixies, and what have you of Irish and Scottish mythology. He proposes his theory that the "little people" are the genetically mutated descendants of a powerful superhuman race who had arcane powers connected to Earth's natural forces. Rushton's lecture though it appears early in the book will have startling ramifications as the story progresses.

Kirk has been enlisted by the government to investigate possible terrorist activity in the form of toxic pollution being purposely emptied into the water supply on the Welsh coast. The pollution has been traced to D.R. Products, an aerodynamic manufacturing company. On their staff is Hans Graebe, a known high ranking ex-Nazi who escaped punishment through a technicality during the war crimes trials. Kirk and his Home Office associates believe that Graebe is perhaps in league with a foreign government and has hatched an insidious plot to poison the marine life and kill the population dependent on the fishing industry in that part of the UK. Kirk sends Levin, a trained microbiologist, to gather samples of waste, run tests looking for identifiable toxins, and question Daniel Ryder, the head of D.R. Products, about the dangerous effluent being discharged in the waste water at his factory.

As in The Young Man from Lima there is a substantial portion of the story devoted to a scientific explanation for the poison that has been tainting locally fished shellfish. Levin runs a series of experiments and discovers that the toxic waste, rather than being created or biologically engineered contains an accidentally mutated bacillus that seems to have evolved from the polluted waste water. Interspersed with this scientific thriller plot we get a variety of intriguing incidents like the archeology project in the mountains and their determined efforts to reveal the existence of the mythic home of Daran, legendary immortal leader of a Celtic race; the mysterious death by falling of Daniel Ryder, an expert mountaineer, whose mangled and crushed body is found in a rocky ravine the frequent test flights of a newly designed airplane with a sinister built-in extra that threatens to cause havoc with the population of the entire country.

And what of those hippies Ryder invited to camp out on his land? Why are they still there after his horrible death? Do they figure in the story at all? Frequent references to them seem arbitrary. Yet nothing in this story that seems to be made up of haphazard incidents is ever random or inconsequential. All the seemingly unconnected threads will all tie together to form the fabric of a wicked plot. The eyebrow raising finale is suitably nightmarish enough for a Hammer horror movie.

Blackburn was perhaps the earliest genre writer who saw the nightmarish possibilities of eco-terrors. He was joined by John Creasey, whose Dr. Palfrey novels also mined this area. Together they were true pioneers in the burgeoning, yet to be formulaic, techno-thriller we have today. The X-Files, The Andromeda Strain, and other similar thrillers dealing with biological horrors owe a lot, whether conscious or not, to Blackburn.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

COOL FLICKS: Ghoulies & Ghosties & Long-Leggedy Beasties

The ravenous Creeper out for another joyride
Time for my annual suggestions for this year's Halloween mini-movie fest, one you can have in the privacy of your own home. As always I tend to choose the lesser known, the dismissed, and the forgotten movies that will be good for a thrill or two this time of the year when everyone (well, almost everyone) is looking to be scared. Once again, the list is in reverse chronological order. All the movies are available in some DVD version or via an online streaming movie website.

Aidan Gillen, gravedigging -- a devoted father's work is never done
Wake Wood (2011) One of the most original and truly terrifying films I've seen in a long time. Takes the basic idea in that old ghost story chestnut "The Monkey's Paw" to delirious levels. A young couple's first child dies and they enlist the aid of a local spellcaster with the power to bring her back to life for three days. The ritual sequences are some of the most cringe inducing and nightmarish of any recent film. The overall feel of the movie is one of impending doom and non-stop dread. You just know things are going to keep getting worse for this couple who wished for way too much and don't want their daughter to leave them. It combines the rural pagan rites seen in movies like The Wicker Man and Harvest Home with contemporary spins on witchcraft and ghost movies of the past. A real modern classic. With Aidan Gillen, recently a nasty Machiavellian courtier in Game of Thrones, as the Dad; Eve Birthistle as Mom; Timothy Spall as the man with the power; and Ella Connolly as one creepy little girl.

Jeepers Creepers (2001) You'll never think of that big band tune the same way again once you see this gruesome shocker. Admittedly a mixed bag it's still deserving of a look despite its reputation for being a bad film. The good far outweighs the bad here. A brother and sister have a near deadly encounter with a madman truck driver. Later they do their Scooby Doo act and investigate some nocturnal doings that reveal the driver to be a monstrous killer. And when he spots them spying on him they become his next target. Jeeper Creepers is interesting to me because it dares to take a young man and treat him the way most modern horror movies treat young women - as a sexualized victim. I also get a strong vibe of this film being an allegory for the horror of sexual predators. Justin Long is the hapless hero doing what a heroine normally does in horror movies of this type. Also on hand is Eileen Brennan in another trademark oddball role (the Cat Lady) that is an enjoyable bonus. Victor Salva directed (a man with a few skeletons in his closet) and also did a sequel which I have not yet seen.

Wine, women, and prongs are abundant in Grapes of Death
The Grapes of Death (1978) Bizarre take on the idea of the walking dead. A fungus blight affecting the grape crop of a French vineyard has gruesome results on the wine lovers of the nearby towns. Kind of a Eurotrashy grindhouse horror movie with cheap special effects, blood that looks like house paint, and lots of opportunity for gratuitous female nudity. But for an odd take on zombies it's definitely original and has some genuinely frightening scenes. And some very disgusting ones, too. Gore-aphobics should avoid this one. Directed by Jean Rollin who also made --

Lust & madness in a Parisian graveyard
The Iron Rose (1973) Rollin's best and artiest horror film made before he became obsessed with lesbian vampires. A young man and woman visit an ancient cemetery and become lost in its labyrinthine, weed infested grounds. Their desperate attempts to find a way out lead them to secret crypts, hidden desires and eventually madness. There is no real plot, but it's beautiful and mysterious and an often baffling film to watch. Above all, it's imbued with an unparalleled eerieness. How many films include a lovemaking scene in a bone filled pit?

Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (1972) The giallo category in crime/horror movies has quality that runs from arty decadence to campy to just plain dreadful. There is the arty gore of Dario Argento, the cinematic mastery of Mario Bava, the cruel and sadistic work of Lucio Fulci, and the trashy breast baring sexploitation films of Amando de Ossorio. I've seen at least one example of each and although I prefer my thrillers to be coherent and moderately entertaining I am willing to indulge in the guilty pleasures found in the work of those filmmakers mentioned above for the sake of the loopy stories, the eye-popping use of color, and the often terrible line delivery of the voice actors chosen to dub the primarily non-English speaking Spanish or Italian casts. On occasion I stumble across an example of this strange movie genre that is one I would recommend. If you've never seen a giallo and you want a good example -- one that isn't too laughably bad and includes crime, detection and elements of the supernatural you would do well to start with this one written and directed by Anthony Margheriti who often resorted to the English pseudonym Anthony M Dawson.

Doris Kunstmann & Jane Birkin discover something horrible

Corringa (played by Jane Birkin) has been expelled from her convent school and returns to Castle MacGrieff in Scotland where her mother and her aunt are bickering over selling the castle. We learn during a dinner scene that there is a family curse -- that if any MacGrieff kills another in the MacGrieff bloodline the victim will become a vampire. And soon members of the family are being attacked right and left.

The dialog in these movies is something to marvel at. You can count on someone saying something ridiculous about every five minutes or so. In this script we have such prizewinners as these:

Corringa: Too many books never did a woman any good. (as she tosses the Holy Bible and some other books into the blazing fireplace!)

Suzanne: Why all these scruples all of a sudden? When you found me, you knew I was a slut.

Dr. Franz: You are absolutely on fire tonight, darling! Are you excited by all the blood that has been flowing around here?


Jacqueline Pearce is cursed with
more than splitting headaches.
The Reptile (1966) Although the poor choice of the title already gets the viewer thinking of things that would have been better left a surprise this is still one of the better non-vampire Hammer horror films. Overall, I liked it and managed to forgive some of the creaky cliches and weak story telling. The plot is very reminiscent of the weird menace stories you'd find in pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s. If the film had been told from the point of view of the doctor's daughter I think it would've been more effective. As written we have the new neighbors trying to understand the sudden death of the husband's brother, a mysterious doctor, his daughter in peril and an equally sinister Malaysian servant whose role is never fully explained even in the doctor's final monologue which is supposed to explain everything that passed in the first two thirds of the movie. Some effective moments, good creepy acting from Noel Willman and Marne Maitland as the sinister doctor and Malay. Someone somewhere mentioned this movie has some parallels to Hawthorne's brilliant supernatural story "Rappaccini's Daughter" True but the movie's pulpiness doesn't merit such a lofty analogy.

The Wasp Woman (1959) If you want another female monster movie look no further than Roger Corman's subtle satire on cosmetics and obsession with artificial beauty. Sort of a female version of The Fly and not so much scary as it is just plain strange. Susan Cabot pays the price for vanity when she decides to be the human guinea pig for a rejuvenation product derived from wasp enzymes. The title says it all. It was remade into a more campy version in 1995. Another film, Evil Spawn (1987), also uses the same premise about a youth serum that turns an aging actress into a monstrous insect thing. Recycling and rehash is part and parcel of the horror movie making world.

Friday, October 26, 2012

FFB: The Female Detective - Andrew Forrester

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester
foreword by Alexander McCall Smith
introduction by Mike Ashley
British Library   $15.00
ISBN:  9780712358781
(distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)

The British Library who earlier this year gave us a handsomely designed facsimile reprint of The Notting Hill Mystery have matched their efforts with a second forgotten cornerstone in the history of detective fiction. An informative introductory essay by Mike Ashley traces the authorship of The Female Detective, credited to the pseudonym "Andrew Forrester," to James Redding Ware (1832 – c.1909) and puts this fascinating series of short stories and novellas into the context of the policeman's casebook style of fiction popular in the early 1860s that would later develop into stories and novels about consulting and amateur detectives. Ware's stories dare to cast in the lead role a woman undercover police officer (yes, such a person existed in the mid 19th century) who shows she is made of tougher and smarter stuff than the buffoons and doltish coppers she encounters in her line of work.

Not all of the stories feature the anonymous G___ , who often goes by the nom de guerre Miss Gladden. She at times steps aside to relate a second hand account of a mystery solved by the physician Y___, one of her colleagues in crime fighting, or Hardal "the most eccentric barrister who ever donned a stuff gown and a wig" who resembles in many ways the kind of genius consulting detectives that would soon flood the pages of The Strand in the tales of Conan Doyle, L.T. Mead, Arthur Morrison and others. When she is on her own, however, in the longest of the two stories Ware's skills as a detective story writer as at their best. Who knew that as early as 1864 there were fictional writers detailing 19th century scientific investigative techniques that would foreshadow the high tech forensic police work that has become standard in any work of crime fiction? Miss Gladden (as I will refer to our anonymous lead) not only makes use of her wily feminine interviewing talents, but is well versed in such varied fields as anatomy, criminal psychology, and Victorian law all of which she makes use of in ferreting out the culprits and their unusual reasons for committing their crimes.

"Tenant for Life" is the first story -- really closer to a novella at more than 90 pages -- in the volume.  A chance remark from a cabman and his wife leads Miss Gladden to the family at Shirley House.  They may have gone to great lengths to preserve an inherited fortune. But was the stunt involving the switching of children really entirely criminal? Catherine Shedleigh and her brother turn out to be good and decent people though they have perpetuated what amounts to legal fraud in the eyes of the law and Miss Gladden. She is torn between feeling sympathy for the brother and sister and doing her duty as a policewoman. In fact, doing one's duty is at the heart of this particular story. Miss Gladden is constantly referring to the necessity of the detective in society. She believes they exist to bring about justice. This need for justice guides Miss Gladden first and foremost and leads her to inform on the Shedleighs despite their decency and goodness to which she is greatly attracted. Only later when the truth behind the Shedleighs' fraud is revealed will she subvert the law in order to protect them and punish someone else she sees to be more guilty, both legally and morally.

In "The Unraveled Mystery" we see a more scientific approach to crime solving. Miss Gladden recounts a past crime involving a dismembered body left in a carpet bag beneath a bridge. It turns out to be Miss Gladden's cold case having left the police baffled who filed it as unsolved. She displays a virtuoso performance in tandem with her physician cohort Y___.  Together the two combine their talents and devise an entirely plausible solution to how and why the crime was done, what specific weapon was used, who the victim was, and most astonishing of all where he most likely lived.  She derides the routine police methods that often trap and hinder genuine police work. The point driven home in this exercise of detection is "that more intellect should be infused into the operation of the police system." She would rather have imaginative thinkers on the police force than the brutish, nearly illiterate dullards she almost always must deal with.

Less a tale of detection than a morality lesson is "The Judgment of Conscience." Here is another example of Miss Gladden's observations of how crime is done for "noble" reason as as was first hinted at in "Tenant for Life." In this tale a man intent on murder confesses to a crime committed by another and nearly ends up hanged for it. Miss Gladden's insistence that ballistics evidence be examined saves him from the executioner's rope.

There is also "A Child Found Dead - Murder or No Murder?" inspired by the Road Hill Tragedy better known to students of true crime history as the Constance Kent case.  An imaginative but unconvincing argument for a sleepwalking killer being responsible is presented in a second hand account. The solution is founded upon Victorian law and the legal definition of murder. Hardal, the detective in the story is also a lawyer, and he is more concerned with fitting the circumstances of the crime to the legal reasons that constitute murder. Too rigid regarding legalities Hardal dismisses or overlooks the complex human emotions at the root of the murder of the boy which turned out to be a sort of juvenile version of a crime of passion as we know now.

The best story in the volume -- one that had been previously collected in an anthology of Victorian detective novels by E.F. Bleiler for Dover Books -- is "The Unknown Weapon."  Closer to a short novel (it runs to just under 100 pages) it is a rich and fascinating story of the mysterious murder of a squire's son told from the point of the discovery of the body to the involved coroner's inquest and ending in Miss Gladden's personal investigation and solution of the crime.

In this tale more than any other we get Ware's satiric side and his sense of humor. There is a parade of gossipy country servants, a nervous Nellie of a maid who can barely speak the language and is prone to "conniption fits", and one of the stupidest police officers in all of Victorian fiction. An abundant use of country and lower class dialects is on display in the numerous interrogation scenes Miss Gladden conducts; her interpretative skills are taxed to their limit. Numerous parenthetical translations of the simplest words -- Yoa is yes, Whoa is what, for example -- are peppered throughout the story in a wry manner.

The Female Detective is a very welcome addition to the ever continuing evolution of the detective novel as we know it.  As more and more of these early texts are uncovered it is becoming clear to me that some of the most modern works of crime fiction came to us from overlooked writers in the earliest part of the 19th century. Ware's book proves that it can hold its own against modern technical forensic thrillers, psychological suspense, and the intense legal and police procedurals that make up the bulk of contemporary crime fiction. In many cases the subtleties of the characters' motives and the uncharacteristic and surprising vagaries of criminal behavior explored at the hands of a woman detective in the Victorian era are much more interesting to me than similar themes that have practically become commonplace in contemporary crime fiction.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

IN BRIEF: A Deed Without a Name - Dorothy Bowers

Three suspicious attempts made on Archy Mitfold's life in the past weeks make his sudden suicide by hanging appear less than genuine in the opening chapters of A Deed without a Name (1940), Dorothy Bowers' third detective novel. Keen detective work on the part of Inspector Pardoe and his team of smart policemen reveal that Archy was murdered. He was found in a darkened room with blackout curtains drawn. No suicide kills himself by hanging in a darkened room. It's awkward just trying to get the noose done right to start with, one of the coppers mentions. Plus, the overturned stool he was supposed to have used to climb up to the hanging rope showed no signs of the gunk and dirt on the soles of Archy's shoes. A not so clever killer is at work here.

The dying clue is usually the kind of gimmick we find in the works of Ellery Queen and other American mystery writers. Rarely do we get an example in British detective fiction, but there is a rather puzzling and recurring one in A Deed Without a Name. Archy had a habit of drawing a speckled bird and an envelope with numerous doodles of the strange bird is found in his home by an extremely helpful maid. It’s a clue that only the most diligent of readers will be able to figure out or a reader who happens to be the world's foremost ornithologist with a special interest in scarce birds of the British Isles. It's a puzzler indeed but not exactly the fairest clue of all in this well clued mystery with more than an ample amount of expert detection.

Simultaneous with the murder probe is the search for the missing millionaire Sampson Vick, a philanthropic businessman who vanished without a trace only a few weeks before Archy's death. With the help of some extremely knowledgeable servants (Vera, a maid, is a perfectly executed servant character and a highlight) and a few gossipy neighbors Pardoe and crew learn that Archy had recently become privy to some news that transformed him into a giddy young man and possible made him a danger to the murderer. A visit to a movie house apparently seemed to be the turning point in his personality shift. Pardoe and his sergeant find themselves visiting the movie houses of the neighborhood trying to determine exactly what Archy saw that made him the target of three murder attempts culminating in the fatal fourth. When during one of his movie theater visits Pardoe chances upon a newsreel featuring Vick he begins to imagine that the hanging murder and the millionaire's vanishing might be linked.

This is one of the most densely plotted books I've read in a long time. Bowers packs an awful lot into her story: the enigmatic bird drawings, Archy's teasing comments about his bit of news he learned, and a seemingly extraneous tale about Vick's gangster brother Humphrey that will eventually figure importantly in plot. The novel holds the reader's interest with cleverly detailed police interviews, a perfect balance between character and atmosphere portions, and adroitly placed surprise sequences that keep the pages turning and the wheels of the reader's brain spinning.

Monday, October 22, 2012

DRAWING ON THE PAST: In Homage to Oscar Wilde

It's the 158th anniversary of the birth of one of my idols -- Oscar Wilde. Ages ago (when I was still in high school!) I wrote my first thematic analogy paper that examined the similarities between The Picture of Dorian Gray and Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Little did I know that essay would eventually lead me into a world of similar content comparisons in crime and supernatural fiction. It seems to have become my trademark as anyone who reads this blog may have already discovered.
In honor of Oscar's natal anniversary I offer up a variety of illustrations from his brilliant tale of terror and crime.

We start with the thoroughly aged and corrupted portrait as revealed in the final scenes from the 1945 movie adaptation starring Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders and Angela Lansbury. I believe this color photo was taken as a screen capture from the extras available on the DVD.  The film itself is in black and white and yet I found several color photos of Hatfield's portrait both before and after the transformation.


Next, a young illustrator and art student who goes by the web name of "spyders".  This brilliantly realized version was found at the website DeviantArt.


This one is by artist Stephen Alcorn as part of a series of relief block prints interpreting literary characters.


The Dell paperback version from the 1950s. The artist got it completely backwards here. Strange.


Another cartoon interpretation.  I was unable to identify the artist or its source.


From a graphic novel version of the book as retold and illustrated by Ian Edgington and Ian Culbard:


Artist Dan Hipp's idea for a cover on a non-existent edition of Wilde's novel.

Basil Hallward and Dorian admire the portrait before it begins its gruesome transformation. Taken from an illustrated edition, neither publisher nor artist was attributed on the website where I found it.  For shame.


And finally...a publicity still from one of the most infamous (and horrible) movie versions. An utterly wrong adaptation of the tale set in mod 1970 starring Helmut Berger and including various absurd sex scenes and lots of nudity. I like to think that Oscar would most likely have found this movie version  hysterically funny.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

STAGE BLOOD: Invitation to a Murder - Rufus King

Invitation to a Murder became the lurid thriller
The Hidden Hand nearly ten years after it closed

There have been a few recent posts on crime fiction blogs about crime in the theater and now I'm jumping on that bandwagon. As you might infer from the post title I'm also planning on making this "Stage Blood" talk a regular feature here at Pretty Sinister Books. Whether I actually attend a performance or only read the play I hope to add to the growing diversity on this blog which originally was begun to honor books and gradually included movies, TV and now theater.

For my first exploration into crime on the stage I chose Invitation to a Murder (1934), a little known melodrama by Rufus King, the mystery writer recently celebrated in grand style over at Curt Evan's blog The Passing Tramp (all the posts can be read in succession by clicking here) and on this blog by yours truly here.  King had a minor success in theater with Murder at the Vanities, a musical murder mystery for which he wrote the book in collaboration with producer/director Earl Carroll, which ran for 207 performances and was later turned into a movie. A musical murder mystery was very unusual for the 1930s theater. One of the tunes in the show is called "Who Committed the Murder?" that gives the impression of a genuine detective story told through music but other songs, like "Virgins in Cellophane" and "Fans" both performed by the large number of women in the cast, make me think that the show was really about leggy dancers than solving the mystery of a dead chorus girl. In any case the success of Murder at the Vanities allowed King the chance to dabble in more theater and his next play, Invitation to a Murder, opened only two months after ...Vanities closed.

The play is a combination of melodrama, suspense thriller and mystery. Wisely King chose to veer away from the traditional whodunit in favor of a thriller with a plot which lets the audience in on various events other characters are unaware of. These kinds of crime dramas play much better on stage as they engage the audience, give the work immediacy, and have more at stake than the average whodunit which usually has its only real punch in the revelation of the killer just before the final curtain. There's a lot going on in Invitation to a Murder in its three acts, each one ending with a cliffhanging scene. Its clever multilayered structure can easily be seen as a forerunner to classic crime dramas like Wait Until Dark, Dial M for Murder and Deathtrap.

Gale Sondergaard (the original Lorinda) won an
Oscar for Anthony Adverse two years later
Lorinda Channing is the imperious leading lady of the piece. She has converted the family fortune back into gold and hidden it on the estate. Someone in the family, she thinks, has been searching for it. By the end of the first scene we see how ruthless she can be when she accuses her gardener of blackmail and theft and sends him to a watery grave via a hidden trapdoor in the living room floor. No one will stop her from her plans to reveal who among her relatives is after her money. She joins forces with the easily tempted Dr. Linton and together they hatch an incredible plot.

Inspired by the final scene in Romeo and Juliet she asks Dr. Linton to use a special drug he has acquired that will simulate her death. After explaining the bizarre family ritual having to do with a Channing ancestor's superstition of being buried alive she will be placed in an unsealed coffin for 24 hours in the family crypt. She is then to be released from her temporary resting site and the coffin sealed and buried empty. The family will think she is dead allowing her to spy on the survivors to see who among them is the greedy would-be thief. Linton has a secret in his past that Lorinda knows of and she uses this to pressure him into being her co-conspirator. The plan, however, backfires.

Walter Abel (Dr. Linton) in
The Lady Consents (1936)
Linton at the last minute decides to seal the coffin and send Lorinda to a horrid death by suffocation when she regains consciousness in the crypt. He wants the money for himself. Several plot complications involving other spies and hidden witnesses implicate Linton though he does his best to escape detection. Chief among these spies is Walter, Lorinda's weak cousin always in need of money, and he attempts to blackmail Linton. To the surprise of the audience Lorinda appears again on stage and she goes about preparing yet another trap to get even with the double crossing doctor. She confronts Linton who is astonished by her escape from the coffin. Martin, the butler, then appears and reveals himself to be Lorinda's secret guard who witnessed Linton screwing down the coffin and the one who revived her and set her free. This scene is key to establishing Lorinda's plans to get even with her betrayer. When Walter enters the scene Lorinda shoots him knowing that Linton had previously handled the gun and then disappears leaving him to explain to the others what they will never believe -- that a dead woman murdered Walter.

Bogart's publicity still for The Great O'Malley (1936)
It's all a little too much, I know. But it works remarkably well. King has worked out everything so tightly. Once you accept the Channing superstitious fear of being buried alive and the odd ritual of leaving a dead Channing in an unsealed coffin to allay any fears of the dreaded premature burial then the rest of the play works. The scenes with Linton fervently denying his guilt and desperately trying to get anyone to believe him that Lorinda is still alive are tense and exciting. There is even a great bit when Estelle Channing, the ingenue, turns amateur sleuth to reveal Lorinda's fatal mistake proving she was alive at the time of Walter's murder. Typical of King he gives one of the best scenes in the play to his two strongest female characters. His detective novels are populated with women who are much more interesting and complex than the men.

Lorinda is a killer part for any diva actress. As sleek and wicked as any femme fatale in a film noir piece. She's given the best dialogue, an opportunity to wear stunning gowns as described in the script, and two magnificent stage bits that would make for chilling scenes in live theater. I would have given anything to have been alive in 1934 to see Gale Sondergaard do the part. She must have been fabulously wicked in the role. Dr. Linton was played by versatile character actor Walter Abel who was the first talking D'Artagnan in the 1935 version of The Three Musketeers. Also in the cast was young Humphrey Bogart, already making a name for himself in supporting roles in the movies, playing the trenchant sophisticate Horatio Channing, a part that hints at the sinister tough guy movie roles that will be his trademark in the 1940s and 1950s.

Milton Parsons is Lorinda's murderous accomplice
in the 1942 film adaptation The Hidden Hand
Invitation to a Murder was adapted for the movies in 1942 several years after it had closed its run of only 53 performances on Broadway. The story was considerably rewritten and retitled The Hidden Hand. In its movie incarnation the story resembles more The Greene Murder Case with the Channing family being knocked off one by one by a homicidal maniac. The bit about the faked death and burial remained though this time it was a new character -- escaped lunatic John Channing -- whose death was faked and not Lorinda's. Strangely this theme was also lifted from the play and inserted in the film adaptation of King's novel Murder by the Clock which introduced Lt. Valcour to the 1930s mystery reading audience. Craig Stevens, famous as TV's Peter Gunn, played Peter Thorne who acts as the amateur sleuth rather than Estelle. Thorne does appear in the stage version but only as a very minor character. The rest of the cast is made up of minor actors who are unfamiliar to me. The Hidden Hand was shown in 2011 on TCM. The convoluted plot synopsis can be read here for those curious to know the differences between stage and screen versions.

Friday, October 19, 2012

FFB: The Deadly Truth - Helen McCloy

The ultra urbane New Yorkers of Helen McCloy's detective novels are beginning to remind me of  similar sophisticated Manhattanites of the 1920s in the S.S. Van Dine series about Philo Vance. But whereas Vance is the only one who seems to be extremely well read and eager to make literary allusions as often as the wind changes direction in McCloy's world everyone acts like Vance. Was there ever really a New York like the one we find in The Deadly Truth (1941)? Did people really spice up their language with frequent quotes from historical figures and obscure authors? Did mini lectures about chemistry and literature and the science of audiology take the place of regular conversation? I doubt it. Unlike Willard Huntington Wright who to me always seemed to be showing off in the guise of Philo Vance, Helen McCloy makes her erudite characters fit naturally into her mysteries. Her lectures are intrinsic not intrusive to the story.

Claudia Bethune, with her multiple marriages and multiple wardrobe changes, tart tongue and wicked ways, is very much like a 1940s version of Alexis Carrington. Life has become a great amusement to her and people are her toys. She is planning a cocktail party to which she has invited several friends and business acquaintances and sent individual invitations stating that each person should try to come as "you are the only one I really want to see." Little do they know that these cocktails will be laced with a new drug she stole from her biochemist pal Dr. Roger Slater. The drug is a derivative of scopolamine with "truth serum" properties enhanced and its dangerous side effects removed. Claudia is eager to find out all the secrets her friends have been keeping from her.

The cocktail party is a highlight of the book and gives McCloy a chance to show off her talent for wicked dialogue. The entire sequence might have been lifted from an episode of that hyper-melodramatic nighttime soap Revenge. During the party Claudia manages to goad her guests into revealing a myriad of deep dark secrets. Chief among those secrets are her husband's long time adulterous affair with Phyllis (who also happens to be his first wife) and the plummeting price of the stock in a clothing mill Claudia inherited from her father that has virtually left her penniless. There are other secrets, too, but McCloy cuts the scene short choosing instead to reveal those in the surprise-filled denouement.

The theme of truth and lies runs throughout the novel with the characters indulging in McCloy's love of allusion. Prior to their ever being aware of the truth drug they will ingest at the party we get quips and quotes like these:
Truth is always unpleasant and usually intolerable.

If I may be permitted to paraphrase Aaron Burr: Truth is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.
Yet even the speakers of those quotes are vulnerable to the effects of the super dose of the drug Claudia tosses into the bottle of vermouth used to make the night's martinis. She, of course, does not partake of the drinks nor does Roger who spotted a missing tube of the test drug only minutes after Claudia left his lab. He warns everyone to stop drinking while everyone else warns Claudia that she'll pay for her cruel game. But by then it's too late. And it's too late for Claudia as well. Later that night she is found brutally strangled with her prized emerald and platinum necklace.

Dr. Basil Willing, psychologist and consultant to the NYPD, is on hand and in fact discovers Claudia in her death throes, nearly catching the murderer in the act of strangling. Claudia is still alive when he breaks into the dining room, but the intricately designed catch on her necklace leaves Basil helpless to free her from the jeweled death trap. Basil is also an "ear-witness" of sorts to the crime. He will remember that prior to the discovery of Claudia he had heard an unusual sound of footsteps and does his best to apply his listening skills throughout the book to match that aural memory to the gait and footsteps of the suspects. Sound and the absence of sound feature prominently in the book as major clues even to the inclusion of a deaf character.

The Deadly Truth is not only a high spirited melodrama of modern mind game playing it is one of the best examples of a fair play detective novel I've ever read. The clues are right there in front of you. Many of them stood out to me flagrantly and yet I was unable to put the pieces together. Why? Because McCloy has ingeniously led the reader down the garden path with a plethora of red herrings that seem to lead to one person when in fact all the flagrant clues most assuredly point to another. It was one of those rare instances of an ending that left me gasping and saying, "That's why that happened!" I'd love to point out some specific examples but that would ruin the enjoyment of joining me as yet another reader fooled by a master deceiver.  With each new book I read by Helen McCloy I discover that she is indeed an artist of the detective novel.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Case of the Nervous Nude - Jonathan Craig

Not true. She was wearing shoes!
Not that I was in search of the sleaziest police procedural ever written but I do believe I have found it in Case of the Nervous Nude (1959). Out of the six books in this series that I have read so far this will win hands down in a competition of the book with the most oddballs, the most alternative sex practices, the most deviant and/or amoral characters, and the book with the darkest and most depressing atmosphere of the lot. I usually bestow the title of "Freak of the Week" to at least one character in a Jonathan Craig novel but there are so many to choose form I may have to have a kind of horse race finish with win, place and show.

The deeper I delved into this police procedural series the more I discover how Craig learned to concoct plots that are more and more multi-layered with the kind of red herrings and subplots you expect to find in books written by masters of the traditional mystery. This was like Ed McBain crossed with Agatha Christie with a dollop of Jean Genet – if you can imagine such a monster hybrid of genre fiction. Sleazy sex, creepy characters and solid police investigative techniques complete with bureaucratic obstacles and dreary paperwork all combine in a compactly told tale of outcast New Yorkers with lust and greed and several other deadly sins in their hearts. The number of characters with murder in their past, for example, rivals any Christie novel. Turning the pages is like releasing a Pandora's trunk of cruel wife killers, avaricious abortionists, and sex fiends upon the world. Looking for any sign of that jewel called Hope at the bottom of the trunk is almost pointless.

The story opens with Pete Selby and Stan Rayder, our cop protagonists, on their local beat. It's a foggy night and Stan hears something odd, but he can barely make out the sight. It is a woman running in high heels and as she approaches he sees that she's wearing nothing but the shoes. The naked dame jumps into a car waiting for her and it speeds off into the night. The two cops make their way in the direction from where she was running and find a garage with a door slightly open and a Cadillac with its motor still running. Inside the Cadillac they find a dead man, his face flushed not with a sunburn but the telltale signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. Further investigation uncovers an exhaust fan that had been tampered with to prevent it from removing possibly deadly fumes. It's a scene of murder for sure.

The usual police routine follows of identifying the victim, trying to locate the naked girl, and figuring out if she was with the guy or had anything to do with his death. Selby and Rayder will uncover several people with murder and larceny in their hearts. A jewel robbery, the thieves and some missing loot will keep turning up in their investigation. Along the way we meet a parade of the strangest characters in any of these books. Here's just a sampling:

  • "Drummer" Dugan – a local hood who gets his nickname from the way he pounds on doors to collect debts. He also loves to listen to marching band music. Oh! and he's a leper.

  • George & Elizabeth Willis - the parents of the naked girl who have the unusual habit of arguing through their dog. George will call his wife Liz to irritate her and she'll reply "The name is Elizabeth. Not Liz. Tell him, Chappy [the dog], tell him my is Elizabeth." The wife addresses the dog when she really is talking to her husband. Utterly bizarre.

  • Fred Sharma – somehow Fred manages to fool everyone into thinking he's a 35 year old Adonis. But up close and personal Pete sees he's closer to 50 and one of the poorest walking adverts for hair dye and plastic surgery out there. He also is a self-confessed sex addict with a penchant for frotting. For what? (I hear you ask in your usual puzzled voice.) Turns out it's a predilection for rubbing up against women in public places – especially crowded subway trains. A real charmer Fred is.

  • Wilbur Loftus – aka "the Ghoul" is a mortician's student who nearly killed his wife by giving her an overdose of "truth serum" when he suspected her of philandering with some local Lothario. She didn't tell him much and went into a coma instead.

  • Hootin' Annie – bar owner. I'll let Craig's words do the job here: "…real name, Anna Weber, born in Pell Street in New York's Chinatown – was Eurasian, an enormous neckless old harridan with a grayish-yellow skin, hooded black eyes, hair so black it had blue highlights in it, a voice her Jersey customers swore could be heard all the way to Hoboken, and a background that included being a lady bouncer in a waterfront dive in San Francisco, heading a phony Caodaist mission in Los Angeles, running a mitt camp with a succession of traveling carnivals, and teaching a refined form of judo to young ladies from Park and Fifth Avenues. She was a "character's character in an area where characters seem sometimes to outnumber the noncharacters three to one."

This nude is so nervous she left her clothes on
 Any one of them is deserving of the dubious honorific of "Freak of the Week." My preference for win, place and show would be Fred, Wilbur and the Willises with that second and third place running close to neck and neck. Feel free to come up with your own freak awards in the comment section.

I almost forgot! As a bonus the reader gets a crash course in sex crime terminology, circa 1959. The book is littered with slang terms that I'd never heard of in the hundreds of books I've read from this era. A dumper whore, for instance, is a prostitute who likes to be beaten with a cloth belt. Circus shows are gatherings with girl on girl action scenes where the johns pay to watch but no joining in is allowed. A ringmaster is what you call the pimp who runs a circus show. The girls are probably called performers or acrobats, though it's not mentioned outright. You'll not learn things like that watching Law and Order: SVU. Don't you love vintage crime novels?

The following books by Jonathan Craig have been reviewed previously on this blog. Those marked with an asterisk are my favorites (so far) and come highly recommended.

The Dead Darling (1955)*
Morgue for Venus (1956)
Case of the Cold Coquette (1957)*
Case of the Beautiful Body (1957)
Case of the Petticoat Murder (1958)*
So Young, So Wicked (1957)* - not part of the Pete Selby/Stan Rayder series

Friday, October 12, 2012

FFB: The Hound of Death - Agatha Christie

Odhams Press (1933), True 1st edition
Agatha Christie shows a completely different side of her writing talents in a little discussed collection of short stories called The Hound of Death (1933). Perhaps the reason The Hound of Death is so little known and never saw multiple reprints was due to the simple fact that it is not a collection of crime stories, but mostly tales of supernatural and fantasy. Can Agatha chill the bone as well as she does with bamboozling the mind in her well known whodunits? I think she does very well in some instances.

The book had an unusual publishing history in that it was originally offered with a handful of other books (including The Venner Crime by John Rhode) by independent publisher Odhams Press as part of a subscription series. The books were available only by purchase using coupons (plus seven shillings) that were collected from their magazine The Passing Show as a promotion for the revival of that journal. The book was later reissued by Collins Crime Club in 1936. The stories from The Hound of Death appear in three separate collections in the US. The bulk of them are split between The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories and The Golden Ball and Other Stories. One single story, "The Last SĂ©ance", appears in Double Sin and Other Stories. All three story collections are currently in print -- as are all of Christie's books -- in trade paperback and eBook editions from William Morrow in the US.

My intuition told me that many of the stories in The Hound of Death were written in her very early career. Further research proved my assumptions to be correct. Though the book was published in 1933 all of the stories were written much earlier with about half of them having first appeared in magazines throughout the 1920s. The earliest (and, in my opinion, one of the most effective) is "The Call of Wings." Written prior to World War I it shows a novice writer's love of symbolism, allegory and ironic endings. It's her most original story of a supernatural type in the entire book, perhaps her entire career.

Silas Hamer is typical of Christie's protagonists in these supernatural shorts.  He proclaims, "I don't believe in anything I can't see, hear and touch."  This is usually a sign that the character will encounter some life altering event that will challenge his rigid world view. And no sooner has Silas uttered those words then he meets up with a mysterious legless cripple playing enchanting music on  "a strange instrument whose notes were much higher and clearer than those of a flute."  The music is bewitching, transcendent and literally uplifting.  Silas finds himself floating and hovering above the ground.  It terrifies him and he finds himself clutching at a stone buttress in a nearby wall to keep himself from flying away. Later he attempts to explain what happens to him each time he hears the haunting melody:

"--the music carries me there--not direct, but a succession of waves, each reaching higher than the last, until the highest point where one can go no further. I stay there until I'm dragged back. It isn't a place, it's more a state. [...] [T]here were sensations of light..then of sound...then of colour...All very vague and unformulated. It was more the knowledge of things than seeing or hearing them."
"The Call of Wings" reminded me of a weird short story by Lovecraft -- "The Music of Erich Zann." Like Lovecraft and Manly Wade Wellman Christie's supernatural tales find her characters drawn to mysterious forces in the past, ancient unknown powers that somehow find their way into the hands of men and women of the 1920s.  In "The Gipsy" we find Mrs. Haworth who has a gift of psychic powers and the ability to recognize those powers in others.  Sister Marie Angelique, the nun thought to be mad in "The Hound of Death," somehow manages to harness an ancient power and summon a spectral being of horrible force to help defeat an attack on her convent by German soldiers. Even the sinister "half English/half Oriental" Lady Carmichael consults an old book among the dusty tomes in her husband's library to bring about the wicked transformation of her stepson. Occasionally, subtle allusions are made that intimate ancient creatures are present. It is hinted that the legless cripple in "The Call of Wings" is an incarnation of Pan who, tired of his goat legs, amputated them himself.

I found several influences and signs that Christie perhaps was familiar with the work of Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson and perhaps even Margery Lawrence. She follows a formula for many of these stories that those three writers all share in their treatment of the occult detective tale. A narrator listens to a story of an other worldly encounter from a friend. The narrator then does some investigative work to learn the truth behind the seemingly implausible or impossible events his friend related. In many instances during the course of that investigation the narrator also experiences some sort of supernatural event that explains the mysterious events. This is the formula used in nearly all of the stories. In one story –"The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael" – the model of a John Silence or Dr. Miles Pennoyer tale is imitated in full. Dr. Carstairs, a psychiatrist who could easily have become a series character, travels to Arthur Carmichael's estate in the hopes of treating the man's mental disturbance but instead winds up investigating a haunting and encounters genuine supernatural events that are at the root of Carmichael's personality transformation.

Psychic ability and mediums, however, are Christie's favorite other-worldly topic to explore. We find them in one form or another in "The Red Signal", "S.O.S", and "The Gipsy." Ghosts and haunted houses are the runner-up and occur in "The Lamp", "Wireless" (retitled "Where There's A Will" in the US editions), and "The Mystery of the Blue Jar."  Oddly enough I found her ghost stories to be the weakest of the lot, especially "The Lamp" a slight and simple tale of a lonely child ghost with the most predictable outcome of the lot. She works best when she is writing a crime tale that adds a tinge of the supernatural as in "Accident" or "The Red Signal," a nicely done story that shows a talent for the type of misdirection she will come to master in her later novels.

The Hound of Death and Other Stories
"The Hound of Death"
"The Red Signal"
"The Fourth Man"
"The Gypsy"
"The Lamp"
"Wireless"
"The Witness for the Prosecution"
"The Mystery of the Blue Jar"
"The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael"
"The Call of Wings"
"The Last Seance"
"S.O.S."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bouchercon Cleveland - Sat, Oct 6

Writing and reporting for me requires no distractions. Last year I happily sat in my hotel room after the panels, eating expensive room service food while typing away busily on my laptop reporting all my activities. I'd spend up to three hours writing and uploading photos all on my own. This year Joe was with me. I could barely sneak in an hour's worth of writing on my blog about the convention. Every fifteen minutes or so I'd hear "Are you not done yet? We have to get going!" Aargh. So my reports are all late. You'll be reading posts about Bouchercon for the next two days.  Perhaps a good thing.  I'm still embarrassed I couldn't' get it all done on time.

"Murder Is Everywhere" was this year's panel moderated by Peter Rozovsky who blogs at Detectives Beyond Borders, devoted to international crime fiction and books set in foreign countries. Though I knew all the writers I'd not heard any of them speak before. The conversations were lively and covered all sorts of insights into the cultures of Thailand (Timothy Hallinan), Greece (Jeff Siger), Botswana (Stanley Trollip one half of "Michael Stanley"), China and Mexico (Lisa Brackmann) and most fascinating of all Iceland (Yrsa Sigurdardottir).

Two of the most memorable stories came from the women writers. Brackmann (subbing for Cara Black who had to leave due to a death in her family) told of an encounter she had with a Chinese cab driver and their discussion of the huge changes in Peking. Travelling to China these days is "a little like being strapped to the back of a jetliner" she said.  The changes are huge and keep coming with increasing frequency. The cab driver felt he had more in common with Brackmann than his own people many of whom have no memory of China from the 1970s.  And Yrsa (at left) had several riotous stories about Iceland the most insane being the desire for the marketing arm of the Icelandic government  to change the name of the country to something more inviting and enticing.  Iceland just doesn't cut it anymore. Originally intended to fool invaders into thinking it was a barren wasteland the name now tends to drive away all the refugees Iceland is trying to get to emigrate there like those in disaster plagued Pakistan. When they hear the name they are turned off. Believe it or not, the best substitute the marketing geniuses have come up with Niceland.

Later that morning was the somewhat dreaded "Bucket List" panel.  I had a chance to hear Otto Penzler whose resonant voice reminded me of announcers from the Golden Age of Radio.  Unlike most panels he also acted as participant because in his own words "I, of course, know more than anyone" about the mystery novel.  In some instances that is very true. His self-deprecating humor was very welcome for a panel that oddly tended to be a bit too serious and somber. "This is my 39th Bouchercon.  [pause] I'm very old."

I say somewhat dreaded because I expected to hear the same old books mentioned as THE books you have to read. My hope was that I would be introduced to at least a handful of books and authors that would be new to me. My prediction proved correct. I knew nearly all the books recommended and had read many of them. There were only five that were new to me and, with the exception of an obscure Victorian work, all of them were published after 1978. 

Penzler threw out a type of mystery novel and asked each panel member to talk briefly about their favorite in that category. Panel members included booksellers Don Longmuir, Harriet Logan and Jim Huang, reviewer Oline Cogdill, and MWA officer and mystery writer Larry Light. The list is below. I marked the ones I never heard of with an asterisk.

PRIVATE EYE NOVEL
Penzler  - The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
Longmuir - anything by Mickey Spillane
Cogdill - The Monkey's Raincoat by Robert Crais
*Huang - Concourse by S.J. Rozan (confessing he was avoiding Hammet, Macdonald and Chandler)
Logan - The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler and most of Sue Grafton's work
Light - When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block



TRADITIONAL MYSTERY
Penzler - The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr (talked briefly about the impossible crime novel and mentioned the famous Locked Room Lecture in the book.  I was thrilled Carr got a nod.)
*Longmuir - the works of Giles Blunt, an underrated Canadian writer in Don's opinion
Cogdill - A Place of Execution by Val McDermid (traditional?  really?)
Huang - Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell (a book he has read several times. Very witty book. I recommend all her books, too.)
Logan - Hamlet, Revenge by Michael Innes (I nearly applauded)
Light - Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout (ALWAYS mentioned in talks like this)

THRILLER (espionage, action/adventure)
Penzler - Tears of Autumn by Charles McCrary (one of the many books that plagiarist stole from last year. A JFK assassination book that apparently has parts that "are not entirely untrue." )
Longmuir - Killing Floor by Lee Child (the first Jack Reacher book)
Cogdill - Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
*Huang - Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas
Logan - Rose by Martin Cruz Smith (The most enthusiastic rhapsodic speech made about any book. She says it will appeal to a wide range of readers from those who love techothrillers to those who like feminist fiction. "It's a superior crime novel," she said, "on so many levels." She sold me on this. I'll definitely be reading it soon.)
*Light - The Shipkiller by Justin Scott (this is another one so different that I will be hunting down a copy. A nautical revenge thriller that sounds like Cornell Woolrich meets Patrick O'Brian)

A PERSONAL FAVORITE (in any subgenre)
Penzler - The Hound of the Baskervilles (only because nobody mentioned anything by Conan Doyle) but also 
Night of the Jabberwock by Frederic Brown for it's surreal and very original story
Longmuir - In the Electric Mist of the Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke
Cogdill - The Black Echo by Michael Connelly
Huang - Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (not really mystery or crime, IMO. It's more fantasy or supernatural with detective story elements. Whatever.)
*Logan - The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins. (very unusual choice and one I knew nothing about. Shame on me!)
Light - Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

No surprise that most of the books mentioned were all contemporary works. That's the way of these panels these days.  [...sigh...]  Thank God for the mention of Innes, Carr and Brown.  People really need to know of the best of the past.  I wish the Bouchercon committees would see the potentially exciting discussions that could take place if they were to allow more space for panels on vintage writers and books.

Bouchercon Cleveland - Fri., Oct 5 (part two)

As always at any Bouchercon there are few panels dedicated to mysteries of the past. The entire concept of the convention has evolved over the years to sell new books and promote the authors who wrote them. That's to be expected, but it upsets me that so little space is saved for panels to talk of the authors of the past. If a book is out of print, it can't be sold at the convention. So why bother talking about it seems to be the attitude about the older books. Each year there tends to be a Holmes panel and one other writer whose work remains in print. Last year it was Christie. This year it was Rex Stout.

Back in the spring I made a valiant attempt to organize a ready-made panel that would discuss forgotten books and suggested it to the B-con committee to include this year. It was to be about reissuing forgotten books by neglected authors -- a melding of the past and the present and it would have included some very fascinating anecdotes about what it takes to get a long out of print book back into the hands of modern readers. Suffice it to say with only two bloggers and two writers mostly known for histories and biographical accounts of writers our panel did not make the cut. There was, however, a panel called "Bucket List - The Books You Have to Read Before You Die" moderated by Otto Penzler. More on that in a later post.

I attended the Rex Stout panel called "Wolfe at the Door" even though I'm not the biggest Nero Wolfe fan so I could get a better understanding of what I seem to be missing each time I read one of those books. To date the Stout book I have enjoyed the most is Alphabet Hicks, one of the few stand alone detective novels Stout wrote, and one that has fallen into the limbo of Out-of-Printdom. It's not considered one of his best books at all though I found it to be rather innovative in my review last year.

Moderated by James Lincoln Warren the panel was made up of mystery writers Jane Cleland and Dave Zeltserman; Linda Landrigan, editor at Alfred Hitchock's Mystery Magazine; and a substitute member whose name I never caught in the swift introductions. We were spared from Warren's usual time consuming oral interpretative skills, but had to listen to him dominate the panel with his vainglorious lecturing about his past award winning novella in the Black Orchid Novella Award writing competition sponsored by the Wolfe Pack, a group that celebrates all things Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I would rather listen to panel members talk and have a moderator ask the questions. Sometimes you get a panel hog who interrupts or talks forever, but when you get a moderator who takes over and talks indulgently about himself it gets dull very fast for me.

Most of the panel was devoted to discussing why they like Stout as a writer, why Archie and Nero Wolfe have become such iconic characters for mystery and crime fiction writers, especially American writers, and of course a usual list of the best Nero Wolfe mysteries. There was a brief discussion by the stand-in panel member (for the life of me I cannot remember his name) who gave some trivia I never knew of Stout's reaction to Edward Arnold as Wolfe (disliked the choice), Lionel Stander as Archie (hate that choice) and how he vowed never to allow any Nero Wolfe books to be adapted for the screen after the botched movie versions of Fer-de-Lance (retitled Meet Nero Wolfe) and The League of Frightened Men.

The most interesting part of the panel was when I learned about the Julius Katz stories by Dave Zeltserman. I have been won over by the Zeltserman as a true original among the contemporary writers when I read The Caretaker of Lorne Field last year.  His Katz stories came about when he wanted to enter the Black Orchid Award contest the mission of which is to revive the craft of writing mystery novellas, a form that Stout seemed to have perfected. He wrote forty of them and they are among the best in the corpus (as the Wolfe Pack like to call Stout's body of work). Zelterserman's homage to Stout's detective is Julius Katz, "Boston's most brilliant, eccentric and possibly laziest detective," who is assisted by an artificial intelligence named Archie that resides in his tie clip and is the narrator of the stories.  I had heard of these before and Patrick of "At the Scene of the Crime" even reviewed the Shamus award winning novella and another short story. To hear the characters described by the author himself along with some of his own personal insights -- he described the duo, for example, as having an almost father/son relationship-- made them all the more enticing. They are available in eBook format, but of course I am not part of that revolution.  So I'm stuck hunting them down in the old EQMM magazines where they first appeared.

Still more on Bouchercon Cleveland is coming...

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Bouchercon Cleveland - Fri., Oct 5 (part one)

I arrived a bit late to the first panel "Old Friends, New Friends" so I have no idea why Chris Grabenstein was not present. I attended this panel not because I am so much an avid fan of the series characters,  the topic of the panel, but I wanted to see and hear Jen Forbus whose blog, Jen's Book Thoughts, has done so much for the genre and its writers and readers. It was one of the first mystery blogs I read before I become completely devoted to out of print books. Also, two panel members -- Parnell Hall, Mary Jane Maffini (at left) -- are favorites of mine and I had never heard them talk about their work at previous conventions I've attended. Topics covered included eBooks helping readers obtain an author's back list more easily these days, the role of libraries and bookstores in helping talk up the series, and whether or not the writers present could actually work on two different series character books at the same time. A fun question from the audience:  "Who do you envision playing your series character in a movie or on TV?" There were the usual jokes about the Tom Cruise/Jack Reacher when Jeff Cohen said his character is 5'5" and Cruise was very welcome to play the part any day. Maffini mentioned a few Canadian actresses she was sure no one would know. I didn't recognize the name and I can't even remember it now having not had the smarts to write it down. Parnell Hall said he'd like to play Stanley Hastings himself and if not he'd take on the Puzzle Lady as well.

"Mystery & the Movies" -- Unlike last year's panel in which several writers discussed their favorite crime related movies this year's movie panel was about writer experiences with their own books being adapted to the screen. On hand to discuss the were Charlaine Harris, Robin Cook (one of the Guests of Honor), Chelsea Cain, Joseph Finder and Derek Haas, a last minute addition who is both a novelist and screenwriter, and most recently co-creator the new TV show Chicago Fire. Topics included all sorts of anecdotes about the hassles of dealing with Hollywood, the differences between writing novels and screenplays, whether the writers have ever or would ever want to adapt their own work, and -- once again drawing on the Tom Cruise/Jack Reacher business -- the importance of casting actors who match the character's physical description.

Haas had a great description of the difference between script writing and novel writing. When working on TV he'll get notes form his producers asking him to take out entire scenes or add a dog for the main character to make him more likable.  But when he gets a note from editor it's more along the lines of a polite email asking, "Do you think you could use a semi-colon here?"

I also liked Robin Cook's anecdote about learning that Michael Douglas would play a lead in the film version of his book Coma. He had just appeared on a talk show in Philadelphia with Mike Douglas and confused the two. He told the producer "Don't you think he's a bit old...and corpulent for a young doctor who has to do a lot of action scenes?"

We learned that Chelsea Cain whose series about Gretchen Lowell, a female serial killer and the police detective she once tortured then set free, is in the process of becoming a TV series for F/X.& She has absolutely no desire to write for TV or the movies. She wants to be in charge of her characters and knows that writers in Hollywood tend to be at the mercy of producers and directors. "I want to be able to control my own little universe," she told the audience. Another interesting bit form Cain was the revelation of a previous screen life for her debut novel. Heartsick apparently almost became a TV movie for another network at the hands producer Freddy DeMann. He showed her a portion of the script and she hated it. She said it was drippy and like "a deep, deep cable movie, like one of those Torey Spelling things." Then she revealed to the audience that all the dialogue was hers. They had used her exact words but when the dialogue had been removed from the book and set down on the page without her usual sardonic prose it sounded trite and lifeless.

Haas was the voice of Hollywood, so to speak, and gave a good insider's take on the way the collaborative work of TV and movies can be both good and bad. With Chicago Fire he says he finally got the kind of producer most writers dream of in Dick Wolf who respects and honors the writer's script. After giving a short speech to the cast about sticking to the script as written and restraining themselves from any kind of ad libbing, Haas said he would have actors come up to him and ask, "You have the line as 'I'm going to go home now.' Can I say 'I'm gonna go home now' ?"

There were several very funny stories from Finder and Harris as well.  Harris told a long story about how her personal assistant was refused entry to a meeting she was going to have with people of the True Blood production team. Not only refused entry to the meeting but the building! She was told her assistant could wait in the car in the parking garage. That was fixed but with a ridiculous amount of seemingly needless negotiation. Finder talked about so many things and did so eloquently and wittily, but I'll highlight his story about his cameo part in a TV movie of one of his books. He was given the role of an assistant D.A. and was told to not reveal to anyone that he was the author of the book. But after listening to an actor explain to him, a mere bit player, what the movie was all about (and Finder admits the actor knew the story and the themes very well) he couldn't hold back. So he leaned into told the actor and in a low discreet voice said, "I wrote the book."  Immediately the actor shouted out to the entire set: "Hey Morgan [Freeman]! Hey, guys!  This guy wrote the book!"

Next post I'll wrap up Friday's events with the third panel I attended on Nero Wolfe (many notes taken at that one), my first visit to the book room and my talks with two of the dealers there.