Tuesday, January 22, 2019

My 12 Favorite Country House Horror Haunts in Film, From the Thirties to the Sixties, Part 2

You might have noticed in part one in this series that five of the six films were from the Forties.  Here, all six of them from the Sixties.  Fifties country house horror seems kind of flat to me, though I know there are fans of The Maze, for example, and The Bat, a remake of a classic silent film, itself an adaptation of a play, which was adapted from Mary Roberts Rinehart's iconic country house mystery The Circular Staircase (with horror elements added).  One of my favorite horror films does come from the Fifties, however, though it's not really a country house film--yet it is a super-duper supernatural thriller, based on a short story by the greatest master of classic British horror, MR James: Night of the Demon.  I'll have to review it sometime!  In the meantime....

You'll also notice that all of these Sixties films offer horrors in black-in-white.  With all due deference to Hammer Studios and Roger Corman, who indeed made moviegoers see the color of blood, I like my vintage horror in twilight shades.  I don't need to see red.  So without further ado:

7. Psycho (1960)
Source: Psycho (1959), by Robert Bloch


If your house in the country is running down rather a bit, what better way to make it a paying proposition than by taking in paying guests?  Or--this being mid-century America in Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film Psycho--building a cheap motor court for various weary and unwary travelers (such as pretty blonde absconding secretary Marian Crane, played by Janet Leigh in an Oscar-nominated supporting turn), right below your incredibly creepy, paint peeled, Addams Family Gothic house?  If your name is Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, not Oscar nominated, in one of most shameful awards snobs ever) it will naturally be called the Bates Motel.

One of your guests may be murdered, very memorably and horribly, in the shower of one of the hotel rooms, but in truth the heart of the darkness at the Bates domain lies within the house itself.  People who invade this sanctum have a way of being cruelly and bloodily done to death.

So is Psycho country house horror?  Sure.  And it takes things to far darker spaces than the earlier films I listed, just as the book Psycho is a far nastier piece of work than the literary sources for those earlier films.  With Psycho lay the future of horror, and the film provided one of my most unforgettable experiences as a movie watcher when I, a mere youngster, saw it in on television for the first time in the late 1970s. 

While the next film on the list is an elegant Sixties throwback to classic country house horror, it has moments that are no less terrifying than the flashing knife strokes in Psycho.

8. The Innocents (1961)
Sources: The Turn of the Screw (1898), by Henry James and The Innocents, a stage adaptation of James' novella by William Archibald


The first term paper I ever wrote, back in my senior of high school, was on Henry James' masterpiece of maddening ambiguity, the novella The Turn of the Screw.  Being a mystery fan (I read my first Agatha Christie novels when I was 8 and never looked back), I was attracted to the central mystery of the story: Is the governess sent by an indifferent wealthy uncle to his palatial country house, Bly, to look after his young niece and nephew, Miles and Flora, actually seeing spirit manifestations which threaten the children, or is she, well, completely off her nut? 

I made the case for ghosts.

Others of course have seen it differently.  That supreme killjoy, the American critic Edmund Wilson, found time, in between bemoaning people who enjoy detective fiction, to opine of The Turn of the Screw, that "the young governess who tells the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the governess' hallucinations."  Well, he would say that!

I watched The Innocents, the 1961 film version of The Turn of the Screw, back in the 1990s and then more recently, in its Criterion Collection edition, a few months ago.  The second time around I was blown away by it.  What a wealth of talent went into this film!

The Innocents was directed by Jack Clayton, just off his Oscar nomination for Room at the Top, which starred Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret and was one of the most admired of the then cutting edge "Angry Young Men" movies of the period.  With The Innocents Clayton turned seemingly backward to a formal Victorian ghost story, but The Turn of the Screw was a product of the Decadent Movement and there is a lot of truly insidious stuff going on in the subtext of the book, which the film, which was co-scripted by Truman Capote and William Archibald, author of a stage adaptation of Turn (see above) certainly picks up on.

In discussions with the housekeeper at Bly, Mrs. Grose, the new governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), learns some disquieting things about life at the country house in former days.  Miles has been sent home from prep school, for undisclosed transgressions which might relate to troubling goings-on at Bly. 


It seems that the former governess, Miss Jessel, was having a torrid sexual affair with Peter Quint, the deceased valet to Miles and Flora's uncle (to whom Miss Giddens, a near forty-year-old vicar's daughter and virgin--going by Deborah Kerr's own age, which was quite older than the character in the book--seemed obviously attracted).  The children are amazingly poised and charming, but gradually they start to seem rather too much so, disturbingly old beyond their years.  Miss Giddens begins to wonder whether the children could have been "corrupted" by their elders, Jessel and Quint, who, she learns, did not trouble to conceal their affair from their charges.  Is this why the youngsters seem so knowing?

However, things take a worse turn when Miss Giddens starts to see manifestations of Jessel and Quint around the estate.  Have the dead returned to take possession of the living?  Miss Giddens now sees herself as contestant in a holy battle with the forces of darkness to save the children's very souls.  Who will win the contest?

This film succeeds on all counts for me, starting with the performances.  It's always nice to see Michael Redgrave (Dead of Night), in his brief scene as the uncle, but everything depends on Miss Jessel and the two children, played by Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, and this trio is simply superb. 


Of course one would expect such from Deborah Kerr, but Jack Clayton deserves credit for getting such mature performances out of two young children, respectively aged 11 and 10 at the time.  Honestly if Anna Paquin could win an Oscar for The Piano, these two kids should have been taking home a pair of them back in 1962, yet they weren't even nominated!  Stephens only did 14 films, including his famous role as the lead "child" in the sinister scifi thriller Village of the Damned the year before, and Pamela Franklin briefly enjoyed a promising film career, which oddly fizzled.

In the event the film was entirely ignored by the Oscars, despite the literate script by William Archibald and the great Truman Capote (it did win an Edgar, however, dear mystery fans) and the masterful cinematography, by ultimate Oscar winner Freddie Francis.  Really, the whole thing is a model of how a classic ghost story should be filmed.  (Just note the scenes where the "ghosts" of Jessel and Quint make their appearances.)

It's a far darker ghost story than The Uninvited, listed in my previous post, which makes it feel more modern, yet it is based on a book that is 120 years old.  Which just goes to show you don't have to be "modern" to be dark.  Take note, Agatha Christie adapters!

9. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Source: Likely inspired by Lucille Fletcher's radio play The Hitch-Hiker (1941)



An extremely low budget, independent film that made little impression at the time, but has since become a horror cult favorite; and I'm one of its cultists.  It's about a woman, Mary Harvey (Candace Hillgloss), who survives a terrible car accident in Kansas which killed the two other occupants of the car.  She continues on her way to Utah, where she has secured a job as a church organist.  She gets a room in a boarding house with an oily, unctuous fellow lodger who keeps trying to score with her, to her frigid distaste.


Still she does like playing the organ, even though she has no religious faith and has terribly odd and unsettling visions when she plays.  Things are okay, though--until she starts seeing a ghoulish man who seems to be pursuing her!  She finds herself oddly drawn to an abandoned pavilion by the Great Salt Lake--the now destroyed Saltair Pavilion, a mesmerizing, haunting structure once located 15 miles from Salt Lake City.

The scenario of the film is familiar and I would think must have been inspired by Lucille Fletcher's 1941 radio play, which was televised as a highly-regarded Twilight Zone episode in 1960.  (Fletcher also gave us Sorry, Wrong Number and Night Watch, the latter of which I reviewed on this blog here.)  But the devil's in the details, and the details are devilishly superb in this film.  The cinematography and organ score are really impressive--and really eerie. 



People have criticized the often wooden acting in the film, and I can see that; but to me this gives it, up to a point, an air of Middle American authenticity.  Fortunately Candace Hillgloss is effective.  She only has one other film to her credit, the similarly low budget The Curse of the Living Corpse (better than the title, in my opinion), but with cultivation might she have been one of Alfred Hitchcock's icy blondes?  She makes me feel her character's plight, wanting to be part of society, but also feeling ill at ease with it, and pursued by visions she doesn't understand and which no one else sees.  Her pushy greaseball neighbor, who sadly is her closest contact with the everyday world, isn't bad at all either.  He is played by the late Sidney Berger, who you can read about here.  

The country house in the film?  Definitely the Saltair Pavilion.  Wait to you see just who, um, lives there!

10. The Haunting (1963)
Source: The Haunting of Hill House (1960), by Shirley Jackson


The American ghost film The Haunting is very similar to the British ghost film, and why not?  Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is quite reminiscent of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  Both are triumphs of teasing, maddening ambiguity and psychological terror.

The film is quite faithful to the novel.  In both the leading character is shy, downtrodden Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris, adept at playing such characters), who when the story opens is living in cramped discomfort with her grudging married sister, her demanding invalid mother, with whom she previously lived, having recently died.  (Truly, Eleanor is one of the saddest characters in fiction.) 

Because of a psychic experience--a shower of stones pelting her family's house--which occurred when she was young, she has been invited to participate in a study being conducted at a purportedly haunted mansion with a history of deep unhappiness and macabre death: Hill House (It's "not sane," as Shirley Jackson scarily tells us).


At Hill House ("not sane," mind you) Eleanor is joined by swinging lesbian empath Theodora, memorably played in sexy Sixties style Claire Bloom; the skeptical and scoffing playboy heir to the mansion, Luke Sanderson, pertly played by snub-nosed, curly-haired Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story and Peyton Place fame (both West Side Story and The Haunting were directed by Val Lewton horror alumnus Robert Wise); and sober team leader Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson, whom I feel I must have seen in something before, I'm just not sure what.) 


Once the group settles in at eerie Hill House ("not sane"), uncanny things start to happen--strange sounds in the night, cryptic writing on the wall--but is this the doing of whatever might haunt the house, or of psychic Eleanor herself, who seems increasingly unstable--perhaps dangerously so?


Some have criticized this film as too subtle and sparing in its scares, but others have praised the virtuoso fright scenes.  Put me in the latter camp.  And there is quite a climax, I think.  Russ Tamblyn dropping that bottle is far more effective than the cgi decapitation of Owen Wilson in the truly horrific--in a very bad way--1999 cinematic re-imagining.  Bring back subtlety, for pity's sake!  Well, at least there's always the recent Haunting of Hill House television series.

11. Hugh, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Source: Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? (novella and scenario for the film), by Henry Farrell


What better for a scary country house setting then a decaying, white columned Louisiana mansion? 

Inhabited by Bette Davis, acting crazy as a loon.  Not to mention chewing the scenery like no loon ever did.

And visited by a barking mad ax murderer?  Are they one and the same? 

For more see my post on the Oscar-nominated fright film, a follow-up of sorts to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, here.

12. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Source: Supposedly inspired by I Am Legend (1954), by Richard Matheson


That the "country house" in Night of the Living Dead is a dumpy old Pennsylvania farmhouse that never for a moment had any pretensions to grandeur or anything more than bare utility tells us we are at the end of the road...just like the characters in this film.  "They're coming to get you Barbara!" the teasing brother shouts to his sister in the cemetery at the beginning of this classic frightener.  What a great shout-out to vintage horror master Boris Karloff, who starred in the first house on our list, The Old Dark House.  But where the menace come from within in The Old Dark House, the menace in Living Dead, lies without--or does it???

In summary, we have

The Old Dark House (1932)
Rebecca (1940)
The Uninvited (1944)
Dead of Night (1945)
The Spiral Staircase (1945)
Dragonwyck (1946)
Psycho (1960)
The Innocents (1961)
Carnival of Souls (1962)
The Haunting (1963)
Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)


Sweet country dreams! TPT

Coming Attractions: Carolyn Wells, Bernice Carey, Webb and Wheeler and Some Mysterious Miscellany from Dean Street Press

I have been working a lot on book deadlines over Christmas vacation, so as a consequence I was not blogging as much as I might have liked.  With that work behind me, however, I thought that I should write about just what I have been doing.

a bibliophile bites the dust
First off, I have received some copies of Carolyn Wells' recently reprinted 1936 detective novel Murder in the Bookshop, Book 50 in HarperCollins' Detective Club Crime Classics series (to which I wrote the introduction eleven months ago).  It's a lovely book, with its superb original jacket sign reproduced, complete with a rare Wells short story, "The Shakespeare Title-Page Mystery," to go with the novel--a fitting combination, since both tales revolve around bibliomania.  One of America's most popular mystery authors during the Golden Age of detective fiction, Wells, about whom I have written a goodly number of times, made quite a lot of lucre from mystery writing and was able to indulge her own bibliomania.  At her death she bequeathed her valuable Walt Whitman collection to the Library of Congress.

I was greatly honored to be asked to participate in this HarperCollins series and I hope that it may continue.

Readers of this blog may recall that I wrote about California crime writer Bernice Carey a few times last year.  Now I can announce that a new edition of two of her novels, The Man Who Got Away with It (1950) and The Three Widows (1952), will be published by Stark House this year, with an introduction by me and back cover blurbs by, among others, noted authorities Anthony Boucher and Xavier Lechard

Stark House is also doing a "twofer" by Carey's crime-writing contemporary Jean Potts, with an introduction by John Norris, so it's looking like another good year for mid-century women crime writers at Stark House.  I think yet more will be in the offing too, all in good time.

Next, I co-edited and wrote an introduction to a new Crippen & Landru edition of short stories by my vintage mystery besties Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler (aka Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge).  This is The Cases of Lt. Timothy Trant, which collects all the known short form investigations of Webb and Wheeler's posh and perceptive police detective--22 in number, including a novella, novelette and a score of short stories. 

It's an impressive collection and one most certainly that fans of the keen crime writing couple--and fans of fair play puzzle detective fiction generally--should very much enjoy. Anthony Boucher urged the publication of a Trant collection over half a century ago.

It was fun indeed working with Doug Greene and Jeff Marks on this one.  The book was supposed to come out last year, but late in the day we found a new Trant story from an English source located by indefatigable Tony Medawar and I located a 1940 Trant novella, which appears to have been the sleuth's debut appearance in short form.  Also included in the book is a pic of Rickie and Hugh around 1940 with their Scottish terrier, Roddy.  There will be, I hope, several more Webb and Wheeler short fiction collections to come from Crippen & Landru.

Finally I wrote introductions for three newly reprinted British authors of vintage detective fiction...but I can't tell you their names yet.  More in February, however.  Included is one of my favorite mystery writers from the Golden Age, whom I have been trying for years to get reprinted.  I hope you like him!  (Or is it her....)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Murder Gone Meta 2 The Week-End Mystery (1926) by Robert A. Simon


Note: The Week-End Mystery has recently been reprinted by Coachwhip, with an introduction by yours truly, from which the piece below is drawn. For a preliminary post on this book, see here.

PART ONE
By 1926, when the 29-year-old American author and critic Robert A. Simon published his single detective novel, a charmingly whimsical murder story entitled The Week-End Mystery, the conventions of British and American detective fiction, then in its so-called Golden Age (conventionally dated as around 1920 to 1940), already were well-established, if not highly formalized.

Long before Anglo-American hard-boiled crime writer Raymond Chandler in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (originally published in 1944 and revised for book publication in 1950) derided what he termed the “Cheesecake Manor” school of class-bound, hoity-toity mystery writing, the weekend country house party attended either by landed gentry (in the UK) or the merely wealthy (in the US) had become the classic, indeed clich├ęd, setting for fictional murder; and it is precisely this setting which Robert A. Simon employed and wryly lampooned in his clever detective novel.

Seemingly not quite getting the author’s joke, the reviewer of the The Week-End Mystery in the New York Times lamented the novel’s “hackneyed situations and conventional characters,” while simultaneously allowing that these demerits did not much matter when “the story is so well told.”  “Mr. Simon has an ingratiating ability to take the reader into his confidence, to put him completely at his ease,” pronounced the reviewer of the author’s smooth narrative style, before concluding that “‘The Week-End Mystery’ must be classed among the superior detective stories.”  The novel was also published the same year in the UK by Collins, who the same year put out a certain little number by Agatha Christie of which you may have heard: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Robert A. Simon
(1897-1981)
author of The Week-End Mystery (1926)
The author of The Week-End Mystery, Robert Alfred Simon, was a member of the irrepressible American Jazz Age generation that during the Roaring Twenties took to detective fiction like it did to sitting on flagpoles--with, to be sure, less transitory results.  Robert was born in Manhattan, New York on February 18, 1897 (less than five months after Jazz Age bard F. Scott Fitzgerald), to Alfred Leopold Simon, a wealthy feather and silk manufacturer and milliner, and his wife Hedwig Meier, both of whom were of German Jewish heritage.

In his early years he resided in Midtown at a four-story brownstone  townhouse at 116 East 55th Street with his parents and younger sister, Helen, as well as an uncle and aunt, Leo and Anna (Meier) Simon, and their eldest son, Richard Leo Simon, a live-in maid and a German nanny. (German was Robert’s first language.)[1]

Two years younger than Robert, Richard would grow up to co-found the publishing firm of Simon and Schuster and father four children, including the famed singer-songwriter Carly Simon.  Other cousins of Robert’s included Richard’s three brothers: George Thomas Simon, a jazz writer and early drummer in Glenn Miller’s orchestra; Henry William Simon, an opera critic and professor of English at Teacher’s College, Columbia University; and Alfred Edward Simon, a rehearsal pianist for George Gershwin and radio programmer of light opera and show music.  In his own life and work Robert Alfred Simon evinced similar literary and musical interests to those of his multi-talented cousins. 

Max Schuster and Richard Simon with their first book
(a book of crossword puzzles)
Both Robert and Richard Simon attended Columbia University, where Robert received the degree of Bachelor of Literature in Journalism in 1921, after an interlude of a year’s service during America’s participation in the Great War as a Sergeant in Columbia University’s School of Military Cinematography. 

During his college years Robert was a student in the renowned creative writing class of Dorothy Scarborough, who later became the author of the searing regional novel The Wind (1925) and the future teacher of acclaimed southern novelist Carson McCullers.

After graduation Robert for a couple of years published articles on jazz and classical music in New York newspapers.  Then in 1923 the prestigious firm of Boni and Liveright (among their authors in the Twenties were novelists Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, poets T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings and Hart Crane and playwright Eugene O’Neill) published Robert’s first novel, Our Little Girl, an amusing satirical tale about “a young girl who was brought up to imagine herself a great singer and who came to believe it.”  At a party a year earlier Robert had wryly bet Boni and Liveright’s owner, Horace Liveright, a single dollar that he could write a novel which Liveright’s firm would accept.  Having won the bet, Robert dedicated Our Little Girl to his cousin Richard, who was then Boni and Liveright’s sales manager. 

Richard Simon's "little girl" Carly
Over the next few years Robert continued to produce interesting literary work.  In 1925 the newly launched New Yorker hired the young author as its first music critic (a position he would hold for the next 23 years) and Simon and Schuster, which Richard had co-founded the previous year, published his translation of Fraulein Else, Arthur Schnitzler’s highly regarded tragic novella.

The next year Robert produced his second and final novel, The Week-End Mystery. This book was published not by Simon and Schuster, but rather by G. Howard Watt, publishers of Clinton Stagg, whose tales of the amazing sleuthing exploits of visually impaired detective Thornley Colton, the so-called “blind problemist,” were gently lampooned by Agatha Christie in her 1929 Tommy and Tuppence Beresford short story collection Partners in Crime.  (The Thornley Colton cases have been reprinted by Coachwhip.) 

Although The Week-End Mystery was the only detective novel Robert ever published, in 1927 he versatilely produced Bronx Ballads, a humorous collection of Jewish songs with illustrations by American humorist, cartoonist and radio personality Harry Hershfield, and served as general editor of Simon and Schuster’s The Pamphlet Poets series,  designed “to promote poetry to the masses through paperback offerings sold for twenty-five cents.”[2]  Volumes in this laudable Simon and Schuster series included Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Witter Bytnner, Four National Negro Poets (including Langston Hughes) and The New York Wits, the latter of which Robert personally edited. 

Despite evident promise as a writer of both mainstream and mystery novels, Robert soon focused his creative writing energies exclusively in the field of music.  In 1927 he produced a widely praised translation of Charles Gounod’s Faust for Vladimir Rosing’s American Opera Company; librettos for modern operas by Robert Russell Bennett, Albert Stoessel and Vittorio Giannini followed in the Thirties.

In 1928 he wed like-minded concert pianist and music teacher Madeleine Marshall, who the year before had co-authored a book of gaming scenarios, published by Simon and Schuster, for Guggenheim, a Twenties games craze similar to today’s Scattergories.  Madeleine was one of two talented daughters of Benjamin Marshall, a prosperous Syracuse, New York hide, fur and leather manufacturer and a niece of Jewish community leader Louis Marshall, president of the American Jewish Committee and one of the most prominent constitutional attorneys in the United States (as a legal eminence he was considered an equal of the “other Louis,” Louis Brandeis). Together Madeleine and Robert would have two children.[3] 

Robert A. Simon died in 1981 at the age of 84, having lived a most interesting and rewarding life, though regrettably his sole detective novel—a comparative trifle, if rather a charming one--had been long forgotten at his death by the vintage mystery reading public.  Happily modern-day murder fanciers at leisure can now take the opportunity to relax for a few happy hours with The Week-End Mystery.

PART TWO
Another loathed American tycoon bites the dust
at weekend house party at his stately country mansion
Robert A. Simon’s The Week-End Mystery lies firmly within the tradition of the “Murder?  What fun!” school of detective fiction associated with A. A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery (1922) and several Twenties works by Agatha Christie, including The Secret Adversary (1922) and The Secret of Chimneys (1925), all tales written with a light hand and the tongue in cheek.  (Notorious sourpuss Raymond Chandler did not appreciate A. A. Milne’s joke and spent a good chunk of his “Simple Art of Murder” essay dismantling The Red House Mystery for its lack of realism, in one of the great examples of utterly-beside-the-point literary criticism.) 

Yet Simon’s novel is even more “meta” than Milne’s and Christie’s books, in that it openly revels in mystery genre self-reference from nearly its first page.
 


The story opens in the “little office on 94th Street near Broadway” of Dr. Hugh Farrigan, orthopedic specialist.  28-year-old Jimmy Wrome, assistant to the head of the refined sugar department in the Universal Sugar Refining Company, has come to Dr. Farrigan’s office seeking a cure for his aches and pains.  The doctor quickly diagnoses Jimmy’s malady as a broken heart and prescribes—but naturally—a steady diet of detective fiction, which Jimmy is to borrow from Curtin’s, the drugstore around the corner.[4]  Farrigan’s playful prescription reads:

Detective Stories.
Read one daily until relieved.  Dose may be increased if desired.
Hugh Farrigan, M. D.

Dr. Farrigan starts Jimmy off with a mystery novel he happens to have on hand at the office: The Shower Bath Enigma, one of the many popular tales about series sleuth Bernard Gatlin, “the Man of a Million Masks.”  Responding well to his course of treatment, Jimmy next reads The Porterhouse Murder, another Bernard Gatlin exploit, and after that there is no return.  From the Bernard Gatlin series Jimmy soon has devoured What Happened in Rochester, The Pumblewaite Legacy (“not so good, that one”), Eighteen Minutes Past Five, The Face in the Dark, The Rosenbaum Case, The Cryptic Bride, The O’Reilly Affair and the latest Gatlin opus, The Statue of Liberty Tangle, concerning the vexed question of just who “knifed the senator at midnight in the Statue of Liberty torch.”

Jimmy also reads tales about Great Detectives Hamilton Boone, Lord Hembury and Wilhelmine O’Connor, but the Man of the Million Masks remains his mainstay.  Soon he seemingly has gotten over his late love affair, but Dr. Farrigan starts to wonder whether the young man, who is now making Holmesian deductions about everyone he encounters, may be coming down with a severe attack of “detectivitis.”

Jimmy feeds his raging fever for detection when Dr. Farrigan invites him to a weekend house party being held by his most prominent patient, wealthy bachelor banker Leed Payne, “the Mystery Man of Wall Street,” at his country estate, Olean, in Bellechester.  (Westchester?)  Also among the weekend guests at Olean are

New York assemblyman Francis Gulvin and his theater enthusiast wife

jive-spouting jazz saxophonist Eddie Endle, who plays nightly at the nearby Shuffle Inn

beautiful Claire Trevor, who just happens to be the woman who violently wrung Jimmy’s withers

and Claire’s mystifying new love interest, bland bond dealer Blake Hesbe. 

All these people, along with Olean’s mysterious butler, Stelke (naturally there is a butler), become suspects when Leed Payne is discovered dead in his locked bedroom, having been mortally wounded from a single gunshot, seemingly self-inflicted.


Jimmy has other ideas about Payne’s sudden death, however, and he promptly communicates them at length to a local reporter.  Soon the case is being reluctantly investigated by Edgar Brinze, Captain of the Bellechester Police Reserve Force. Yet Jimmy has no confidence in the sleuthing capacities of Brinze, the son of a local cement manufacturer who had shown such “an alarming inaptitude for the niceties of the cement business” that he was foisted by his wealthy and politically influential father onto the police department, where he has proven every bit as inapt. 

Jimmy concludes that he will have to conduct his own investigation of the mystery, especially after Claire, whom it seems he has not quite gotten over after all, becomes Brinze’s lead suspect!  Can lessons from The Shower Bath Enigma, The Porterhouse Murder and The Rosenbaum Case help Jimmy mimic the crime-busting methods of the Man of a Million Masks and beat Bellechester’s bullying and boorish Captain Brinze to the solution of the Leed Payne murder case?

Thus begins the competition  for clues in one of the most meta mystery novels from the Golden Age of detective fiction.  The reader will not fully appreciate just how much so until she has reached the last line of the last page. 




[1] The Simon’s townhouse was later purchased by Robert B. Roosevelt, Jr., a cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt.  It was torn down and replaced with an elegant neo-Georgian mansion at the behest of its new owner, millionaire William Ziegler, Jr., in 1927.  Today the house is the site of the SUNY Global Center. 
[2] Quoting Randy Mackin, George Scarborough, Appalachian Poet: A Biographical and Literary Study with Unpublished Writings (McFarland, 2011), 6.  Dubbed the “Jewish Will Rogers” on account of his wryly humorous wit, Hershfield is best known today for his Abie the Agent, which featured the first Jewish protagonist in an American comic strip.  He also created the comic strips Desperate Desmond and Dauntless Durham of the U. S. A., in which he amusingly parodied cliffhanging crime melodrama.  Simon and Schuster did not launch its celebrated “Inner Sanctum” mystery imprint, edited by Lee Wright, until 1936.  It would include such lauded mystery writers as Patrick Quentin, Anthony Boucher, Cornell Woolrich and Craig Rice. 
[3] On Madeleine Marshall Simon (1899-1993), see Sheri Cook-Cunningham, “The Many Facets of Madeleine Marshall,” International Journal of Research in Choral Singing 4 (2): 52-76.  Madeleine, who performed as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini, would later teach English diction at the Juilliard School for over a half-century (1935-86) and author the standard school text The Singer’s Manual of English Diction.  She was coach and accompanist for many artists, including Lily Pons, Helen Traubel, Leontyne Pryce, Lawrence Tibbett and Lauritz Melchior.
[4] Jimmy Wrome is of the same age as the author when he was writing The Week-End Mystery.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

No Relation to Ryan Gosling: Christopher Bush Through the Ages

Images of some Golden Age detective writers are as elusive as those of their (often sadly forgotten) sleuths.  However, there actually are quite a few images out there of Christoper Bush, whose Ludovic Travers detective saga is currently being reprinted by Dean Street Press.  (Books #31-40 will be released in May.)

Below I've arranged some of these images chronologically.  Christopher Bush was born on Christmas day in 1885 and died in 1973, publishing his first Ludo Travers detective novel in 1926, when he was forty, and his last in 1968, when he was 82 years old.  Only a few of his prewar colleagues from England's Detection Club--Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, John Dickson Carr, Michael Innes and Anthony Gilbert come to  mind--outlasted him as active mystery authors, Christie, Carr and Gilbert by only as few years.

Maybe I'm alone in detecting a resemblance to Ryan Gosling in the earlier Christopher Bush pics, particularly the that second one.  (I don't see it in the later ones at all.)  What think you, Gosling stanners?  I think it's the eyes more than anything else.  Bush was rather the ladies man in younger days, with some, erm, sticky entanglements, one of them producing a (presumably out-of-wedlock) son, noted composer Geoffrey Bush.  The first Bush photo dates from Egypt, where Bush served in the Great War, in 1919; in the others I am roughly guessing his age by decade.

Bush at age 33

Bush in his forties

Bush in his fifties

Bush in his sixties

Bush in his early seventies

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sleuths in Pictures--Visualizations of Golden Age Sleuths (Hercule Poirot, Ludovic Travers, George Wharton)

Hercule Poirot is now one of the most visualized fictional detectives in history through the medium of film, having been played by a succession of famous actors--Tony Randall, Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, David Suchet, Kenneth Branagh, John Malkovich--over the decades.  Indeed, he's starting to rival Sherlock Holmes in this respect.  And before all that, illustrators liked to portray him on books.  The "book cover Poirot" I personally remember best is the Albert Finneyish one who used to appear, after the actor's Oscar-nominated appearance in Murder on the Orient Express, on Pocket paperbacks in the 1970s, which I talked about here.

But the real heyday of Poirot paperback visualizations seems to have been in the 1940s and 1950s, during the early years of the "paperback revolution," on softcover editions by Pan (UK) and Dell (US).  I think you could say that these were of varying success.  All the Poirots were consistent in key ways though--bald or balding (when hatless), mustachioed, generally Gallic looking.  (On the Pans he usually has a bow tie, which I think suits him.)

Poirot uncovers a secret
in the shrubbery!

Belgian Noir?
"Mon Dieu! I did not order
ze room service!!"

Caught in the headlights!
This attempt at a hard-boiled Poirot
cover always makes me laugh.
"The daughter's name is...Cynthia."
Poirot as mentalist?

He might need this as "evidence."
Poirot as shoe fetishist?

Color him red
Poirot looks more like Sinestro from
the Green Lantern comic book here.

They took that whole
"egg-shaped head" thing to a
new level here--or is M. Poirot
the "moon" over the cypress?
And why is she testifying outdoors?

But Poirot wasn't the only Golden Age sleuth portrayed on book covers of course.  For example, when I was working on illustrations for Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, I was thrilled to find a book jacket front panel from the Twenties that had been preserved, which actually included a likeness of John Rhode's Dr. Priestley.  It suited him too!  I made sure to include it in the book.

After the Second World War Christopher Bush's veteran sleuth Ludovic Travers maintained enough of  a following of his long-running series in the UK that his publishers decided that his fans might like to know what he looked like.  Certainly Bush described Ludo enough over the years: tall, lean, horn rimmed, and even somewhat hatchet-faced. 

The first visual depiction of which I'm aware is on the cover of Bush's 1952 detective novel The Case of the Happy Medium (pictured right).  This image was used for a time on jackets and in the front matter of Bush's Travers mysteries, though not on front covers again, as far as I'm aware.

Travers appeared on several jackets in the Fifties in fine fettle indeed, followed by odder Sixties appearances in photo fashion.  Who was that glassed man?  To me he looks rather like a Viennese psychoanalyst who should be appearing in books of a rather different order, like The Case of the Mother Fixation, The Case of the Skinner Boxes, The Case of the Anal Retentive Client, The Case of the Penis Envy and The Case of the Cigar That Wasn't Just a Cigar.

He's definitely not quite Travers as I imagine him, but he's certainly more mod, in keeping, to be sure, with the woman with the massive beehive-ish hairdo.  But the Fifties Travers on the covers of Colonel and Cross (especially Colonel) suits Bush's Travers to a "T."




But let's not forget Travers' police pal, Superintendent George Wharton, who likes to set suspects at their ease as he beams down at them, avuncularly, his wire rim glasses sitting low on his nose--and then pounce!  Wharton may not appear on book jacket covers, as far as I'm aware, but in the books Christopher Bush helpfully pointed out the Yard superintendent's marked resemblance to two people, the real life American silent and talking film comedian Chester Conklin and the rotund musician in Punch artist George Belcher's painting "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls," which exhibited as the Royal Academy in 1936, and was the Academy's award winner that year.  See here.

British television series makers, take note!  If you ever get tired of Christie adaptations that move ever farther away from Christie's texts, there's also Christopher Bush and the 63 cases of Ludo Travers.

Note: Books #31-40 in the Ludovic Travers series (with George Wharton), spanning the postwar years 1946-52, are scheduled to be reprinted this May, followed in the fall by Books #41-50, spanning the years 1952-57.

Chester Conklin (1886-1971)
The famous film comedian's span of life was nearly
identical to that of Christopher Bush (1885-1973).

"I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls..."

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Pajama Murder Case: S. S. Van Dine Encounters Appallin' True Crime (and in New Jersey, no less)

Below Tony Medawar explores a bizarre case of fiction colliding with fact which occurred in 1929, when S. S. Van Dine, creator of the bestselling Philo Vance detective series, as the newly-installed Police Commissioner of Bradley Beach, New Jersey had to confront a real life murder, the area's first--and a sordid and ugly one at that.  Instead of inspecting local bathing beauties Vance found he had to confront a bullet-riddled robbery victim.  It was not quite the thing the mystery writer was used to concoctin' in his gentlemanly fictional murder cases.--TPT

Police Commissioner Van Dine?
Willard Huntington Wright
The Hall-Mills Murder Case may have been S. S. Van Dine’s first ‘real’ murder investigation but three years later he faced an even more challenging case. During the 1920s Van Dine and his wife spent several summers at Bradley Beach, a small coastal resort borough in New Jersey that even today only has about 4,000 residents. This led, in 1929, to the appointment of Van Dine, now a bestselling detective novelist, as Police Commissioner at the police annual dinner that year. Reporting on the appointment, the Wilmington Journal said that one of the Commissioner’s chief duties would be "to inspect the bathing beauties and pass on the length and height of their suits. In accepting the appointment, Mr Van Dine assured the Mayor he would be neither short sighted nor narrow minded in the performance of this duty."

Journalists enjoyed themselves in speculation about what might happen next, including an anonymous reporter for the Reading Times who commented

Suppose it really happened that the body of a wealthy clubman was found in the library of his summer home with a jeweled dagger in his heart. Could a murder mystery writer actually solve the crime outside of fiction? We may soon find out. All that is needed for some wealthy clubman to get himself murdered at Bradley Beach, New Jersey.

the sort of "suspect" Van Dine hoped to interrogate
However, it was not long before the crime writer was confronted with true crime. In August 1929, George Danielson, a 67 year old messenger for the First National Bank in Bradley Beach, was shot dead in and robbed of the $7,000 payroll – equivalent to $100,000 – which he was taking to the pajama factory of Steiner & Sons in the nearby borough of Neptune City. The Springville Herald reported Van Dine’s announcement giving details of the killers and described their escape “presumably with a confederate or two, in a sedan later found abandoned. A Panama hat was discovered in the car as were two Pennsylvania plates.

Two factory workers described how they had seen
"two well-dressed young men, one with a small moustache, fire at the messenger. He dropped and as he did so the men snatched up the payroll and ran to the car. Van Dine...believed the bandits, after abandoning their car, might have mingled with the beach crowds, perhaps swimming. He requested a thorough search of all beach resorts and boardwalks in New Jersey” and, perhaps conscious that this was not what he had signed up for, offered to “withdraw from the post but Mayor Borden held him to his acceptance.

The Asbury Park Press reported Van Dine’s comment that the assailants were “inexperienced criminals or dope addicts” and noted that the new Police Commissioner was not exactly experienced. 


In an article for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Lemuel Parton--who had once shared rooms with Van Dine--reported the writer as saying that

Steiner & Son Factory
Neptune City, New Jersey
I see no reason for hoping that the methods I have suggested would be useful in solving a crime like this … in a gang crime like this, the police, with their records of known gangsters, their habitat and methods, may and should be quite capable of catching the gunmen. This may be classified with such crimes as the Diamond brothers shooting in Brooklyn, which the police quickly solved. These organization crimes do not fit into the methods of hypothesis and analysis under which European criminologists work, and which have suggested the operation of Philo Vance …

Personally, I strongly believe in the scientific European methods. Applied to a case like the Hall-Mills or Elwell murder 
[the case that provided the inspiration for Van Dine’s first Philo Vance mystery, The Benson Murder Case], they are unquestionably the soundest and most effective which can be used. But, as I have said, I do not see that the theoretical criminologist can be of much use of running down these gang killings and premeditated hold-ups in which two or more men participate. It is in the individual or personal crime, such as the two I have mentioned, in which an expert criminologist can best function can best function. Organization crimes may best be left to routine police work, although I believe the American system should be aided by staffs of experts, capable of psychological analysis, such as those of Austria, Germany and France.

see Bradley Beach
Wright’s analysis was exactly correct and the crime was effectively solved within a week by Inspector John Coughlin, formerly of the New York Police Department – “assisted”, according to the Montana Standard, “only by a large, black impressive cigar, a large black, impressive derby and a large, black impressive pair of No. 10 shoes."

Coughlin quickly identified a woman who had been working at the Steiner factory up until three days before the robbery, Rose Goldberg, and arrested her on suspicion of being an accomplice to the crime; she appears to have escaped jail, presumably for having assisted with the arrests of the actual perpetrators. Following her arrest, Coughlin arrested Robert Tully, who allegedly had driven the sedan.  Tully confessed and at his trial in 1930 he was spared execution, upon a jury recommendation of mercy, after his mother cited his war record and alleged that he had been suffering from what today would be termed post-traumatic stress disorder.

A week after the murder, while Tully and Goldberg were under arrest, Edward Baxter, a shipping clerk at the Steiner plant, turned himself in and took the police to the end of a nearby trolley line where he had buried his share of the loot.  Baxter was jailed for three years.

The next arrested was Tully’s brother, whose car Tully had been driving; he was released without charge. Then, after a shoot-out in West 196th Street, New York, Coughlin and another officer arrested Frank McBrien, leader of the infamous "Jersey Kid's Gang."  McBrien was found guilty of the murder of George Danielson and two other robberies, one of which had also ended in murder.  He was electrocuted in July 1930.

A fourth member of the gang was named as Francis ‘Lefty’ Long.  He was jailed in 1930 after being captured during a failed attempt to rob a bank. The fifth and final member of the gang, James Sargent alias ‘California Eddie’ Stewart, was be arrested until the following year, by which time he had committed another robbery and another murder.
In 1937, ‘Lefty’ Long was released from prison and finally charged with the murder of George Danielson. He was sentenced to 16 to 32 years penal servitude.  A few months later, having threatened during the trial to kill himself if sent back to jail, Long hanged himself with a blanket in his solitary confinement cell. Later in 1938, five years after a failed escape attempt, Tully also attempted suicide, failing, however, in that attempt too.


Reporting on what they called the “Pajama Murder Case”, echoing the titles of Van Dine’s mysteries by referring back to the factory whose payroll had been robbed, the Montana Standard ridiculed “Steamship Van Dine … Van Dyke whiskers and all”, praising Coughlin and suggesting that in Van Dine’s next detective story, he shouldn’t “be so hard on Sergeant Heath, his fictional character who is a big flat foot from the homicide bureau.

Other newspapers were equally mischievous, with the Lincoln Journal Star trumpeting that Coughlin had succeeded where “the redoubtable Philo Vance of fiction fame” had failed. All a little harsh given the accuracy of Van Dine’s analysis of the crime and the fact that almost the first thing established about it was that the murder was not in fact in the writer’s jurisdiction as it had taken place in the nearby township of Neptune City rather than Bradley Beach.

None of this deterred the Minneapolis Star Tribune from commenting that Wright’s “embarrassment, as he faced the reproachful glances of his own omniscient Mr Vance, must have been singularly acute.

Indeed.

Note: For more detail on the Neptune City Murder, see Ari Sims blog

Guest Post by Tony Medawar: The Orchard Murder Case, Part II Enter Philo Vance, Theorizin'

Note: On the Hall-Mills murder case, one of the most notorious in Twenties America, see Part I of Tony Medwar's piece here.

the master opines
S. S. Van Dine, creator of Philo Vance
S.S. Van Dine’s two articles on the Hall-Mills murder case, which were published on November 6 and 7, 1926 in the New York Times-Herald, were credited to ‘Philo Vance,’ “the ‘psychological detective’ hero of SS Van Dine’s mystery tales”--although his first investigation, The Benson Murder Case, had only just been published in October 1926.

The first article, ‘Psycho-Analyzes Crime As Terrible Partnership Murder', dealt “particularly with the importance of individual psychology in crime detection and a generalization on its application” to the specific case, while the second, ‘Confession Would Upset Crime Construction is Deduction of ‘Sleuth,’’ examined the individual figures in the case.

Both articles, which were syndicated and published across America, were prefaced with the blithe statement that “It is to be understood that any theory presented is purely conjectural.
In the first article, name-checking Corot, Ibsen and Shakespeare, ‘Vance’ begins by highlighting what he called “the nature of the night” and the “needless cruelty” in the fact that Eleanor Mills had been shot three times and had her throat and tongue slit while Hall had only been shot once. He emphasized that

every murder differs from every other murder – each one has its own set of conditions and circumstances as well as peculiarities, which indicate the character and temperament of the person who committed it.


In this way, he went on, “clues count for very little against the psychology of a crime [for] the psychology of the crime and the murderer remains the same and cannot be changed or obliterated.” This was just as well given the murders were already four years old while all of the clues, material evidence and witness accounts were “jumbled together in what appears almost chaos.


‘Vance’ then focused on the “theatrical tableau” of the two bodies

not left as they fell but carefully, almost lovingly, rearranged side by side and with locked arms. Their love letters are scattered over them with a gesture of poetic melodrama. The Minister’s card is placed near the body, perhaps to identify him.


Vance asked readers to consider whether it was

a man’s crime, or a woman’s crime. Would a woman have used a gun in this direct and efficient way and murdered both of them? On the other hand, would a man have slashed the woman’s throat and arranged the bodies and strewn them with love letters?


This led him to conclude that, “from the psychology of the crime and its setting, you may reconstruct a terrible partnership murder with two or more persons participating.

In his second article, ‘Vance’ argued that “only a confession will clear the Hall-Mills murder mystery of any considerable percentage of persons” but he went on to doubt that there would ever be any such confession and emphasized that his conclusions should not be interpreted as implying that any of those on trial were guilty or innocent:

I find it difficult – almost impossible – psychologically to fit all of these persons to the hysteria of the scene that must have been enacted under the crab apple tree that fatal night … There has been so much ‘covering up’ by dozens of people, so much that has been hidden, so much that is still hidden, that such confusion is only natural.

There were, he suggested, three possible solutions:

One type of person could have committed [the crime] but several, perhaps, added finishing touches;

Or it could have been committed by that type of person and others, surprised and startled by what had happened, could actually have gone to the scene without participating.

Or, thirdly, it could have been committed by more than one person, each using a different method of death and different degrees of violence, based on their different psychologies.

After delineating a psychological portrait of the three defendants, ‘Vance’ invited the reader to consider which possessed “a nature consistent with all the features of the crime”:

1 Seeking or finding Dr Hall and Mrs Mills at their rendezvous;
2 Drawing a gun and shoot[ing] first Dr Hall;
3 Then Shooting Mrs Mills three times;
4 Slashing Mrs Mills’ throat, presumably with a razor;
5 Laying out the two bodies with linked arms as if for burial;
6 Scattering the love letters of the murdered pair over them;
7 Placing the dead minister’s card near his body.

These were features from which, in the view of ‘Philo Vance’, certain implications could be drawn ... leading him to conclude that

several apparently conflicting and even opposite, emotions actuated whatever person or persons were present at the scene – one emotion being murderous and vindictive, another emotion being hysterical and disorganized … and still another emotion being sentimental and dramatic … does [that] fit any one of the defendants? Or does it coincide with any other person who might have committed the murder? Or does it imply a murder by more than one person?

For perhaps obvious reasons, Van Dine did not complete the article by providing his own answer to these questions.  He cautioned those who did:
You might be wrong for the probing of the human heart is a tremendous and tricky task. As we yet know little of the hidden impulses of the heart and intellect working in conjunction.

However, on 3 December 1926, in a verdict that one suspects would not have come as a surprise to SS Van Dine, the jury returned a Not Guilty verdict and the three defendants were acquitted. Carpender died in 1934. Henry Stevens in 1939 and his brother William in 1942. Frances Hall also died in 1942 and she was buried, like her husband, in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.No one has ever been convicted for the murders.


Next up, S. S. Van Dine personally encounters true crime in The Pajama Murder Case, Tony's third guest post.  I'll be posting it later today, it's simply fascinatin'!