Friday, March 17, 2017

FFB: Garnett Weston, Screenplay Writer & Mystery Novelist

Before the perverse fascination of stories about psychopathic serial killers all but ruined crime fiction, mystery writers liked to indulge in stories about crazed multiple murderers. Free from contemporary psychological profiling that luridly told of abusive twisted past lives the vintage tales where an entire cast seems to be knocked off one by one nevertheless managed to convey the paranoia and fear known to modern readers. Sometimes the emotions are raised to a fever pitch and escalate to a level of hysteria as in the work of Garnett Weston, a Canadian screenplay writer who got his start in silent cinema. Weston was particularly adept at whipping up variations of these histrionic and preposterous murder mysteries. I'll look at two of his mystery novels both of which deal with multiple murder and coincidentally use the old "someone is after the heirs" plot structure.

Weston's first novel Murder on Shadow Island (1933) is an odd story of a group of friends who travel from Manhattan to a remote island in the St. Lawrence river off the coast of Ontario, Canada in order to rescue one of their own from the hands of a mad killer. A glance at a newspaper headline announcing a murder of an artist on Shadow Island sends them off to find out what happened. When they arrive they learn that Tay Burgess, their artist friend, was most likely mistaken for his host Court Mallory, another friend of the NYC trio. Also they learn that a group of British relatives have suddenly descended upon the household on Shadow Island all claiming to be heirs to the fortune of Lady Mary, Court's aunt. The reader is expecting a story in which the heirs start to kill each other off, one by one, but Weston has something altogether in mind as the weird story progresses.

There are several murders but instead of the heirs being targeted it is the group of New Yorkers who start dropping like flies. The friends all turn sleuths and as each gets closer to the truth it is the amateur detective who meets his end. Oddly, the group of squabbling unlikeable heirs (all but the doe-eyed Cora Holland, who serves as rudimentary love interest for our protagonist Kim Hayward) all turn out to be the biggest group of red herrings I've encountered in a mystery novel. The five heirs, more stereotyped sketches than characters, serve no other purpose but to misdirect the reader into thinking one conspiracy plot is taking place when in fact the true murderer and motivation for all the crimes has nothing to do with inheriting Lady Mary's money and house.

A back story involving Court's childhood, how he was adopted by the Holland family, and how he was foster brother to two other boys in the Holland family is at the heart of the overworked plot. The involved story concerns parents dying in accidents and children apparently drowning in a seashore accident. The backstory is so strange and filled with familiar mystery novel trappings that the reader cannot discount it as mere filler. A veteran devotee of detective fiction knows for certain that one if not all of the missing people from the Holland Family past will turn up later as one of the characters in the present day murder mystery. This proves to be true, but it all comes to be revealed in the most convoluted and macabre manner when Kim and Cora learn of a hidden seashore cavern accessible only by swimming through an underwater chamber. The discovery of what is hidden in the cave adds another level of horror to an already incredulous murder story.

Murder on Shadow Island was Weston's first mystery novel, most likely his first novel as well. Primarily a screenplay writer from 1927 through the 1930s his novel is filled with formulaic incidents and plots gimmicks as well as simplistic romance inspired by the movies. Kim and Cora are the love-at-first-sight couple who woo one another during an incongruous fishing trip scene followed by a picnic by the river. Their dialogue is grossly sentimental peppered with sweethearts and darlings in the way only people in the movies talk to one another when falling in love. All this only hours after one of Kim's friends was brutally killed!

Weston's attempts to make the mystery a detective novel never arise above the obligatory Q&A sessions with a load of repetitive alibi breaking scenes. Much of the dialogue consists in badgering the survivors with "Where were you? What were you doing? Who was with you?" each time a corpse is found. The heirs all vehemently deny any murderous actions while Cora cringes and wrings her hands in the corner begging Kim to find the murderer before he gets her too. She's not very bright as it should be obvious to all involved that the killer is only interested in killing men from New York. Soon all the friends are dead. Kim is attacked twice and Cora nearly killed merely because she happened to be standing next to him. It becomes more contrived and implausible with each new dead body.

The most exciting part of the book is saved for the final quarter of the book when it should become clear to all the characters, as well as the reader, who the culprit really is and why only the men from New York were murdered. Prior to these genuinely exciting and imaginatively executed scenes the book is something of a drag with too much reliance on hoary old clichés taken from "old dark house" cliffhangers.

Apparently not satisfied with what he committed on Shadow Island Weston tried his hand once more with the basic outline of a group of greedy heirs at one another's throats in Dead Men Are Dangerous (1937). This time melodrama and cliffhanger serial action set pieces are replaced with mad hysteria and a ruthlessness more suited to a Jacobean tragedy. Our hero and heroine fair much worse than brave Kim and wishy-washy Cora from Shadow Island. A bigger group of avaricious, back stabbing liars and thieves were never gathered in one household since the 17th century murderous characters stabbed, poisoned and strangled their way to the top of the food chain in the revenge tragedies of Middleton, Ford and Webster.

Art work by Emil Sitka, circa 1930s,
 depicting he and his brother "riding the rails"
Phil and Marion Acres and their son Herbert have been riding the rails with hoboes and tramps in the boxcars of freight trains as they make their way to California with the hope of starting a new life with greater job opportunities. With only $200 in savings preciously guarded in a money belt strapped underneath Marion's dress they endure indignities and assaults from a variety of drifters and vagrants on and off the trains. At their latest campsite on the grounds of an orange grove they are rescued from two thuggish tramps by Captain Rome and taken into his home as guests. There they are bathed, dressed and treated as guests of honor at a dinner where Rome's family have gathered to hear of news of his will. Rome's three daughters, each with a different mother from his sexual dalliances as a globetrotting sailor, and their men are puzzled by the appearance of the two strangers and the boy. Puzzlement gives way to shock when the captain announces that he has disinherited everyone and made Herbert Acres his sole heir and his parents executors of his estate. Oh yes, that means the Acres family just became targets of the greedy heirs.

No sooner than Captain Rome has made out the new will, had it signed and witnessed, he is shot dead. But by who and how? He is found in a room with one open window on a higher floor and no one was seen to enter the room from inside or outside. The gun is nowhere in sight and a search of the house and grounds fails to locate the weapon. And of course the will has apparently vanished. Has it been destroyed? Stolen? Hidden? What follows is an explosion of hate and violence as the members of Captain Rome's family tear apart the house in search of the will while alternately threatening the Acres with torture, then bargaining with them for a share of the estate. Shootings and stabbings escalate, the bodies pile up, but amazingly Marion and her son survive each murderous assault. It seems the room where Captain Rome kept his safe is a death trap. Anyone who tries to open the safe dies. A duplicitous and equally avaricious lawyer serves as the novel's Machiavellian mastermind manipulating everyone he can and playing each character against one another with loathsome ingenuity.

While the plot itself is clearly preposterous, Weston's devilish and ingenious death traps notwithstanding, the real interest of the book is in its compassionate depiction of homeless life in depression era America. The Acres, like Steinbeck's Joad family, represent the marginalized population that no one wanted to be reminded of in the 1930s. Phil Acres has dreams of owning his own ranch, Marion tends to her men and guards their savings with tenacious dignity, and Herbert drifts into a land of make believe never answering to his own name but instead demanding his parents indulge his fanciful alter egos like Orange Eagle, a tough Indian chief. Weston's tendency to sentimentalize his family threatens to cheapen this likeable trio but Weston gives them enough troubles to stave off the treacle. He lays it on a bit heavy with the survivalist instincts of two hoboes who antagonize the Acres family. One would have to believe that the tramps and hoboes were not willing to steal and kill for a scrap of food or clothing but were an interconnected underworld of devious criminals. The sheriff of Dead Men Are Dangerous actually believes the Acres are part of such a thieving gang of killer tramps.

Garnett Weston, circa 1970
(photo ©Tony Archer)
There are police aplenty to assist Sheriff Buller but none of them, like most policemen in detective fiction of this era, are very good at their jobs. The real detective and hero of the novel is a hobo with a secret past vaguely hinted at as being related to a failure in law enforcement. He goes by the nickname "Highway" and he is Marions's sole ally after the unexpected murder of her husband leaves her alone with Herbert and at the mercy of the gang of conspiring heirs. Highway does legitimate detective work, some of it fair play, but most of it done offstage with dramatic revelations and damning evidence produced at the eleventh hour. The story is almost entirely told through the viewpoint of Marion Acre. She appears in every scene and while not always the focus it is basically through her observations that we watch the story unfold. Highway can only speak out if Marion is present. If he leaves a scene and Marion stays behind, then we never get to see where he goes or what he does which is, I think, a major flaw of the book. When he is on stage he lends a delightful air of sophistication, intelligence and wit to a story burdened with base motives and ugly displays of class prejudice, racial prejudice and deceitful, dirty liars evading the truth.

QUOTES: Seedler, the lawyer: "Do you really think I have to be honorable and respectable because the community thinks I am? What's the advantage of being above suspicion if you don't make use of your position?"
Marion: "You're a horrible villain."
Seedler: "No, I'm a thoroughly honorable and respectable and successful attorney."


Michael Lady, reporter: "Screwy things happen in this world. Two guys killed a man the other day in Los Angeles for six dollars. Last year a guy hired himself out for seventy-five cents to a tired husband who wanted his wife out of the way. He was to get five dollars later. The guy did the job for the six bits and never collected the rest. If people kill for chicken feed what'll they do when there's a wad like the Rome money lying around?"

Highway: "I'm a solitary man; I've gone my way with little enough thought of others. But sometimes there comes a thing I can't let pass and hold my head up as a man should. This is one of them. What I do is for my own self-respect as much as for you, ma'am. So you see there's a grain of selfishness in it."

THE AUTHOR: Garnett Weston was born in born in Toronto in 1890. He started writing titles for silent movies in 1927 with The Yankee Clipper. He went on to write stories, scenarios, and screenplay adaptations of novels and plays from 1929 through 1941. Probably best known for his story of the cult horror movie White Zombie (1932) starring Bela Lugosi he also wrote or adapted the scripts for Supernatural (1933) starring Carole Lombard, The Ninth Guest (1934) based on the murder mystery The Invisible Host (1930), the first sound film version of The Mill on the Floss (1936), and several entries in the Bulldog Drummond series. In 1942 he left Hollywood, abandoned screenwriting, and moved with his wife and son to East Sooke on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. He continued to write novels, short stories and poetry throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. He died at his Canadian home in 1980.

Garnett Weston's Crime & Mystery Fiction
Murder on Shadow Island (1933)
Murder in Haste (1935) (UK title: Death Never Forgets)
Dead Men Are Dangerous (1937)
The Man with the Monocle (1943) (UK title: Citizens - To Arms!)
Poldrate Street (1944) (UK title: The Undertaker Dies - 1940)
The Hidden Portal (1946)
Legacy of Fear (1950)
Death Is a Private Affair (1970) (poetry)

10 comments:

  1. What to make of all this, John? As an instructional piece it is wonderful - I learned a lot about this author and these two books. But I have the feeling you don't really expect me to read them. You don't even mention if they are available anywhere - I wish I knew where you unearth these writers, John. Love the dust jacket on DEAD MEN ARE DANGEROUS but I like the title MURDER ON SHADOW ISLAND better. I love titles that begin, 'Murder On.......' :)

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    1. I felt the post was too long and I skipped the usual "Easy to Find?" part this time. MURDER ON SHADOW ISLAND you might be able to find, the other one is very scarce. Doubtful there are any copies out there.

      This blog is undergoing a massive revision. There will be fewer posts on vintage detective fiction and traditional mysteries as I turn my focus to supernatural and adventure fiction, thrillers and suspense. I feel the blogosphere is overrun with vintage mystery sites, too many people writing about obscure writers I've already covered. I feel I've outgrown my usefulness. So I'm handing it over to the younger, more avid fans. They're doing a better job than I ever could anyway.

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  2. Dead Men are Dangerous seems interesting with its portrayal of a particular era. From where do you unearth these writers, John?

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    1. I bought ...Shadow Island and read that first, then did research on Weston. When I learned that he had a series detective who was a hobo I had to find those books. Dead Men Are Dangerous was the first one I bought and it got here very quickly so I decided to write up both in one post. Another mystery with "Highway" as the amateur sleuth will be reviewed in April.

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  3. You labeled this post as an impossible crime and suppose this concerns the murder you described from Dead Men Are Dangerous, but this book, nor the author, is listed by Adey in Locked Room Murders. So you caught one he missed. Still, I probably won't seek Weston out.

    On a side note, will you still be doing a post about Francis Duncan? And you should not give up on posting about vintage crime novels, because they've been great signposts that helped many of us plot a course through our reading lists.

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    1. All but one of the five deaths in Dead Men... turn out to be impossible crimes. Quite a scarce title though there are three copies for sale right now. The Mordecai Tremaine/Francis Duncan post is next in line, followed by one on the detective Sgt. Harty created by US mystery writer Joel Y Dane. That's it for vintage detective fiction for a while. I'm interested in contemporary books this year more than the old stuff.

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  4. You make it all sound so tantalising, even when you are being a bit critical John! I can definitely see myself enjoying these :) I had, as so often, not heard of him before, so thanks as always chum!

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  5. (apologies for any double posting but having a few problems with commenting on blogger of late ...) - just wanted to say that to me these sound like potentially great fun but I suspect this is also because I just enjoy reading what you have to say about them - thanks as always chum :)

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  6. Wisdom of Solomon, hath Highway. Sounds to be a good yarn.

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    1. I loved that noble speech of his and had to highlight it. Revealing and frank in a way you don't find in pop fiction characters of this era. I also wanted to devote an entire section to the horrible insults Captain Rome hurls at his relatives; they rival the best of Shakespeare's epithets. But this essay went on way too long in discussing both books and I was forced to cut out a lot.

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