Friday, March 22, 2019

FFB: Death at 7:10 - H.F.S. Moore

THE STORY: An insatiably curious writer is compelled to investigate the poisoning death of a fellow passenger who died while on board a train en route to Philadelphia. His manner of investigation is unique -- he concocts short stories based on interviews he conducts with the suspects.

THE CHARACTERS: The victim, a vindictive and shallow society woman named Susan Ward Steele, appears in one brief scene in the first chapter. She is presented only through protagonist Mark Kent's eyes and it is only later in his interviews we get to really know her as she is described by others. Her character is therefore is known solely through the perceptions of others. Ultimately, Susan Steele is a complete invention of Mark Kent's. Within the story she is a real woman, but in essence nothing more than a character that Mark creates based on his brief eyewitness account of her interactions with the men in the train car with and his imagining of her personality drawn from his many interviews and the descriptions of others. This is a subtle part of the book that doesn't truly sink in until well into the middle section when Mark begins to master his unusual investigative technique via fiction.

Among the suspects are Gerald Steele, Susan's husband; Robert Ward, Susan's brother; Hallie & Sue Ward, Robert's wife and daughter; Thomas Doone, the Steele's man of all work; Margaret Ryan, a maid who works for Claire Ellis, Susan's old schoolgirl pal and "frenemy"; a radio singer named Lina Lind; and Pierce Carlton, a callous playboy who had affairs with both Susan and Claire. Among these characters we get a mix of shallow stereotyped characterization and a handful of intriguingly complex people.

The servants, Doone and Margaret feature rather prominently in the story and turn out to be boyfriend/girlfriend but both come off as Irish immigrant caricatures rather than real people. But they should not be ignored, especially Thomas Doone. He has a secret connected to one of the suspects in the case which turns out to be one of the biggest plot twists.

Overall, this is a somewhat standard storyline of jealousies and hatred directed at Susan who made very few friends in her selfish life and hedonistic pursuits of sex, drinking and shopping for expensive clothes. I wanted to read more of Gerald Steele's life in the radio broadcast world (he's an announcer for some music programs), but this is largely left offstage and only incidentally mentioned. Robert Ward and his family tend to get a lot of focus in the story, and Ward is yet another stereotype of a priggish, self-righteous moralist, in direct contrast to his indulgent amoral sister. It is Claire Ellis, however, who turns out to be the most fascinating character in the novel.

Claire has only one big scene but she and her maid Margaret do turn up in "Tea Tray for Two", one of the four short stories Mark writes. Claire is a war widow whose husband died in Spain. Just prior to his death she accidentally discovered that he was having an affair with Susan Steele when she spots him paying for a hotel room that Susan and he had shared. Later, she developed a romantic interest in Pierce Carlton and when Susan finds this out Claire is targetted as yet one more victim in Susan's serial man-stealing. More than any of the other suspects Claire seems to have an intense hatred for Susan though she continues to carry on a social friendship with her. Mark is drawn to Claire, feels empathy for a woman so exploited and abandoned but cannot shake from his mind that she seems to have a very strong motive and more than ample opportunity to have poisoned Susan's tea the day she died.

INNOVATIONS: Death at 7:10 (1943) makes use of two intriguing notions. One of course is the brilliant use of a murder investigation that is solely conducted using fiction writing techniques. It is the ultimate meta-detective novel, one that I've not come across at all in my vast reading in the genre. Both the notebook interviews (as close to verbatim dialogue as possible) and the stories contain major clues about character, incident and possible motivation for the murder. The ingenuity comes in Mark's melding of imaginative thinking with hard facts in his reconstructions of events that took place the day of the murder, events he was not witness to and has no evidence of. Instead of physical evidence he has something akin to metaphysical evidence -- memories and narratives. He must decide who is telling the truth, who is covering up, and glean from subtle references and passing remarks in his interviews what is most vital in understanding who wanted Susan dead and when they found the time to give her the poison. The story sections are rich with detail, especially clothing and interior decoration descriptions which Mark uses to great effect to reveal character.

Atropa Belladonna
Speaking of poison, the method of murder is the second most unusual aspect of the book. Susan at first appears to have died from the last drink she took on board the train, a Bromo-Seltzer for her hangover. However, the autopsy reveals poisoning by atropine, a primary ingredient in common medications like eyedrops used by several characters in the novel. Mark learns that the effects of atropine poison are not always consistent. Death can take place anywhere between one and eight hours after ingestion. All day Susan had been visiting with friends and family and drinkin all sorts of beverages. As the cover illustration for the Doubleday Crime Club first edition suggests it could have been any one of the many drinks she imbibed throughout the day that had been poisoned. The short stories Mark writes point out this by mentioning either directly or indirectly the drink in the title: "Sunday Morning Breakfast" (Susan had coffee), "Cognac at the Barclay", "Pheasant at the Wards" (sauterne was served with ice cubes (!), as well as coffee) and the previously mentioned "Tea Tray for Two." In each story the reader should pay careful attention to who had opportunity to poison any of Susan's drinks. As Mark and Dr. Grant Newton discuss the end of the murder case in the final chapter we learn that all the clues were present in both the notebook sections and the stories Mark writes.

THINGS I LEARNED: This book is teeming with 1940s pop culture references. On page one alone I had to consult the internet four times to figure out what Moore was talking about! The first troublesome sentence is Mark's first impression of Susan who he sees as a "picture drawn by Petty, disguised and undisguised by Mainbocher." I guess my parents would have had no trouble spotting those two people I've highlighted in bold type, but I was lost. I figured they had to do with the art world, but I was only half right.

George Petty was one of the most popular artists of pin-up drawings in the pre- and post-WW2 era. That's one of his women over on the right. You've seen his influence in the work of artists like Rudolph Belarksi and Rafael DeSoto whose women have graced the covers of both pulp magazines and vintage crime paperbacks.

Mainbocher dress, 1943
Main Rousseau Bocher was an American born fashion designer with a very French name who studied at art academies in Chicago and New York. After brief careers as a lithographer, fashion illustrator for Harper's Bazaar and French fashion correspondent for Vogue, he opened his own design house named after himself, a combination of his first and last names. Mainbocher would gain instant fame and increase his popularity after his wedding dress design for the Duchess of Windsor's notorious marriage in 1937. According to Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker's article at the online Encyclopedia of Fashion: "From the start, Mainbocher specialized in simple, conservative, elegant, and extremely expensive fashions, the luxury of cut, materials, and workmanship that could only be recognized by those in the know. Most importantly, the clothes, exquisitely finished inside and out, gave self-confidence to the women who wore them."

Page 5 features a long paragraph about Susan's clothes which include "the frivolous ribbon of a Lily Daché." This one I didn't have to look up because I'm such an avid vintage cinema fan. I was proud to know this was the name of a famous milliner made world famous by her work for movie stars and whose hats appeared in countless movies. Moore was describing one of the extraneous ornaments on Susan's hat that were Daché's trademark.

Portrait de Madame Paul Guillaume, 1928
© Photo: Josse/Leemage, © ADAGP, Paris
Another art reference crops up as an aside on p. 59: "She wiped off a smudge on the creamy buff woodwork, poked at the blazing logs in the fireplace, straightened the Marie Laurencin over the marble mantel..."

Laurencin was an avant garde Parisian painter, a member of Section D'Or. Most of her early work was done in gray, pink, blue pastel shades. She started as a porcelain painter then transitioned to oil painting on canvas.

I smiled when my old friend the Capehart record changing phonograph makes two appearances in the novel. More about that remarkable invention in this post.

In the first chapter Moore makes numerous allusions to Nick Charles when describing Mark Kent in both looks and attitude. But he's talking about the movie Nick Charles as portrayed by William Powell and not the Greek American son of immigrants who appears in Hammett's novel The Thin Man. Here's how Mark is described: "If the woman across the aisle was a Petty drawing Mark Kent was most un-Esquire; he was rather Anthony Eden-Nick Charles-Scott Fitzgerald.

THE RADIO SHOW: I've only recently discovered that Doubleday Crime Club had a radio series. There were actually two versions -- one lasted from 1931 to 1932 and was broadcast on CBS, the other began in 1946 and aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System and lasted just over a year. Both were sponsored by Eno's Effervescent Salts. Scripts for the 1940 series were a mixture of adaptations of Crime Club books and original stories. Unlike the multi-part episodes of the first 1930s series the MBS programs were full stories told in a single half hour episode. Death at 7:10 (original air date July 7, 1947) apparently was the penultimate show in the MBS series. The Librarian who serves as host of each episode introduces the story by answering a telephone and telling the caller "Yes, we have that Crime Club novel." Death at 7:10 had a tantalizing catchphrase to end the intro: "The very intriguing story of a beautiful woman who was in love... with death!"

You can hear the entire broadcast via YouTube. For purposes of a 30 minute radio show all the novels needed to be condensed and many of the best characters in Death at 7:10 were cut. As a disappointing consequence of these drastic cuts the murderer and motive had to be changed. In the radio show the murderer makes no sense as far as I'm concerned; murde is completely out of character for the person chosen. The book is much better. So we see that even script adaptations from over 70 years ago also suffered this travesty and are not solely an affliction of contemporary culture, like the recent spate of Christie manglings for TV and cinema.

For more on the Crime Club radio shows see the page at Digital Deli Too, the most accurate and informative of the old time radio sites.

Friday, March 15, 2019

FFB: The Flight of the Doves - Walter Macken

In celebration of the upcoming St. Patrick's Day weekend activities out here in Chicago here's a perfect book that embodies of the idea of the Luck of the Irish.

THE STORY: Fed up with the abuse of their cruel stepfather Finn Dove and sister Derval run away with plans to find refuge with their kindly grandmother who lives in Ireland. Their journey entails crossing the ocean by boat and then relying on their wits, what little money they've scraped together, and the kindness of strangers to help them reach their destination. But the police and nasty "Uncle Toby" (the nickname they call their stepfather) are hot on their trail.

THE CHARACTERS: Finn and Derval make for an immensely likeable pair. Finn is devoted to his sister often acting as surrogate parent since the death of both of their mother and father. He arranges their escape, pools their limited funds, packs clothes and comes up with the clever, if burdensome, idea of wearing multiple layers of clothes to lighten their makeshift luggage that will allow room for more important items like food and drink. He's wily and street smart knowing that children can seem invisible if they are in the company of adults. So he tries to make it appear that he and his sister are part of a large family in order to get aboard the boat to Ireland.

Remarkably, his resourcefulness need not be tested or challenged too much for the two children seem to be watched over by the powers of good wherever they travel. Nearly everyone they encounter -- from some ruffian boys playing football to a truck driver whose sideline is dealing in stolen goods -- helps them move along to their final destination. The Doves also meet up with a family of Irish travellers who temporarily adopt them, escape being handed off to the police for a £100 reward, and repeatedly manage to outwit the law and their "Uncle Toby" by a hair's breadth until they come to a much needed rest in Carraigmore.

Derval & Finn Dove
illustration by Charles Keeping,
from 1st UK edition (1968)
Along the way a police inspector named Michael in charge of the children's search becomes one of the most unexpected Good Samaritans of the novel. After hearing of the overly dramatic reaction of Toby, the stepfather's seemingly genuine weeping and how he manipulates the entire police force into consoling him Michael suspects something false in the melodramatic display. If this man's sorrow were genuine indicating a caring and compassionate guardian then why did the Dove children flee his home? Something must not have been right. He decides to resign from the case and go "on holiday" with his supervisor's permission. In reality he goes undercover to find the kids himself and secretly helps them to their grandmother's home. Michael will play a big role in straightening out the legal mess of the children having been made Wards of the Court, ensuring they are released from Uncle Toby's clutches, and that they get their just rewards of their inheritance from a distant relation and a home where they can be genuinely loved.

INNOVATIONS: Intended as a children's book The Flight of the Doves(1968) often reads like a fairy tale for adults. The best of children's literature can appeal to a wide audience and it never seems as if Macken is limiting himself to younger readers though he clearly set out to write it for kids. As with most children's books there are lessons to be learned. He reminds us that Michael the conflicted police officer is a representative of the legal system and must not ever break the law even if he finds himself bending the rules a bit in order to help the children achieve their goal. It is the overarching theme of connectedness, responsibility, and innate decency that make the book so enjoyable and mature. Macken manages to do all this without once becoming treacly or sentimental in any way. Derval is the only character in the book who suffers from cuteness (excusable for a child so young, I guess) but everyone else has an edge to them in spite of being kind and extravagantly generous. Even Granny O'Flaherty when we finally meet her is far from the saintly type of grandmother one encounters in children's books. She's tough as nails and puts up a fight using her steadfast Irish common sense and an iron will. The law will not take her grandchildren away from her if she has any say.

QUOTES: "If it wasn't for you we would have been caught," said Finn.
"How do you know?" Michael asked. "Something else might have happened. You might have got away. If a fellow wants a thing badly enough, he will get it."

[Michael] would have to be prepared to meet the law with the truth. This was what the law was about. Truth had no law to fight. He hoped the children could keep free for the time he required to find the truth that would really free them. He thought, with Finn's determination, that they might.

"No! Don't tell me. I like mysteries, see. I can be makin' up stories about it for the rest of time. If I knew, there'd be no fun in it. [...] Most stories has no mysteries in them. It's just nothing when you hear the truth. Sometimes lies is better than truth for the sake of adventure."

Movie tie-in edition
Pan Books (1971)
THE MOVIE: The Flight of the Doves was filmed in 1971 starring 19 year-old Jack Wild as Finn, Dorothy McGuire as Granny, and Stanley Holloway as the Judge. The movie also reunited Wild with his Oliver! co-star, delightful British character actor Ron Moody who played Hawk Dove, a new character created especially for the movie. I believe Hawk was the brother of the kids' father (so their real uncle) who is next in line to inherit the money if anything should happen to the children. In the film Moody is the main antagonist as he tries to find the kids and ...uh... dispose of them so that the trust fund money can be his alone. He adopts a variety of disguises (I think he was a failed actor, but my memory is fuzzy) in order to cajole and befriend Finn and Derval. Despite Finn and Derval's attempt to disguise themselves by reversing their genders, they cut their hair, dye it, and change clothes, Hawk Dove is able to track them down. I saw the movie ages ago when it was first released in movie theaters back in the 70s when I was a kid and just recently watched a few clips on the TMC website to help refresh my memory. But none of the clips I viewed were of scenes with Moody and the two children. Basically it's very similar to the book with the added tension and suspense of a murderous relative trying to do in the kids. The movie is available on DVD and various clips are on both the TMC website and YouTube.

THE AUTHOR: Walter Macken (1915-1967) was born in Galway and began his career in theater as an actor then playwright and director. In his youth he was with the Little Gaelic Theater in Galway where plays were presented in his native Irish language in which Macken was fluent. In 1948 he joined Abbey Theater where his playwriting flourished. His play Home is the Hero was the first Abbey production to travel overseas to Broadway and was also filmed three times (once for German TV). The 1959 film of Home Is the Hero was the first movie to be produced and filmed at Ardmore Studios in Dublin and featured the entire company of the Abbey Theater with American actor Arthur Kennedy as Willie O'Reilly the only non-Irish performer in the cast. Macken later turned to novels and is best known for his trilogy of books -- Seek the Fair Land (1959), The Silent People (1962) and The Scorching Wind (1966) -- forming an epic saga about the struggle of Ireland to gain freedom from England. He wrote one other children's book The Island of the Great Yellow Ox (1966) prior to The Flight of the Doves which turned out to be his final work. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at his home in Galway at the age of 51.

EASY TO FIND? To my great surprise I discovered that The Flight of the Doves has remained in print since it was first published. It's most recent edition is dated 2007. There are hundreds of copies for sale in the used book market, mostly paperback editions from both US and UK houses. The UK first edition appears to be a genuine rarity though just last year I managed to find a copy with a DJ much to my delight. It should not be difficult to locate a copy of this book no matter where you live. I'm sure it's still on the shelves of library children's sections, too.

I loved this movie when I was a kid and have never forgotten it. I only just read the book for the first time this year. It brought back a flood of memories and it was such a welcome relief from the gruesome and horrific novels I have been reading for the past couple of weeks. For some The Flight of the Doves may seem to be overflowing with convenient plot incidents, coincidence, and too much of the kindness of strangers.  For me, however, it was just the book I needed. This adventurous story will remind any reader that  goodness does exist in the world and of how we all have a responsibility to each other to do the right thing no matter how much the world seems to be against it.