Sunday, May 21, 2017

Peter Drax's Golden Age Crime Fiction

This month Dean Street Press has reprinted six of the seven Golden Age crime novels of Peter Drax (Eric Elrington Addis), one of the great, though in modern times largely unheralded, exponents of the realistic crime novel during the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Addis was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1899, not long before the commencement of the Boer War, and died during the Second World War in 1941, a casualty of a German air raid on the British Royal Navy base at Alexandria, Egypt.

During his brief life Addis published a half-dozen "Peter Drax" crime novels: Murder by Chance (1936), He Shot to Kill (1936), Murder by Proxy (1937), Death by Two Hands (1937), Tune to a Corpse (1938) and High Seas Murder (1939).  An additional crime novel, titled Sing a Song of Murder, having been left unfinished by Drax at his death and completed by his novelist wife, Hazel Adair (Hazel Iris Wilson Addis), was published in 1944.

Together the Drax novels constitute one of the most important bodies of realistic crime fiction published during the Golden Age.  Rather than the artificial and outsize master sleuths and super crooks found in so many classic mysteries from the Golden Age, Drax's novels concern, as contemporary publicity material for the books put it, "police who are not endowed with supernatural powers and crooks who are also human."  They are, in other words, books about "real" people.

a thrilling murder story

Two of the Drax novels, Death by Two Hands and Tune to a Corpse, were published in the United States, home of Dashiell Hammett and his progeny, to quite strong reviews. (In the US they were re-titled, respectively, Crime within Crime and Crime to Music).

The Saturday Review of Literature, for example, pronounced of Crime within Crime that "as a straightforward eventful yarn of little people in the grip of tragic destiny it's brilliantly done" and of Crime to Music "London underworld life is described with color and realism."  The Drax books were very well received in the UK too, where mystery writer and Sunday Times reviewer Milward Kennedy was a particularly enthusiastic and notable booster.

I'll be saying more here about the two "American" Draxes soon, I hope.  In the meantime, Eric Addis, I should mention, was a distinguished British naval officer, serving in the Second World War as Commander on HMS Warspite during the Second Battle of Narvik, a naval affray which took place during the Norwegian campaign; and dying in the line of duty, as mentioned above, at Alexandria, Egypt.

In the 1930s he left the navy and practiced as a barrister, specializing in fields of admiralty (naturally) and divorce. During commutes to work in London he read and dissected thrillers, and concluded that the vast majority of them were lamentably unlikely affairs. He set out to writer thrillers that were "credible."

Happily, in his relatively short live Addis achieved that goal, in addition to spinning seven gripping and often grim tales--not at all what people often think of, stereotypically, as the stuff of the "Golden Age."  Try them for something different, or if you are already a fan of the "tough" American crime fiction from the same era.  There's more on Addis/Drax and the books in my introduction to the series.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Worth Fifty Years of Late Fees? The Shocking Tale of William Faulkner and Marion Mainwaring's Murder in Pastiche (1954)

William Faulkner, like his mother, was a great reader of detective fiction....The classic cases and sleuths are there in hardcover and paperback.  Nero Wolfe and Inspector Maigret appear alongside the works of [John Dickson] Carr, [Carter] Dickson, [Dashiell] Hammett, [Ellery] Queen, [Mary Roberts] Rinehart and [Dorothy L.] Sayers.

John Faulkner, the author's brother, also confirms that the whole family enjoyed detective fiction.  He recounts one amusing occasions when Bill pretentiously declared that he never read anything more except Shakespeare and the
Bible," although he had asked his mother, "only minutes before, if she had anything new about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin."

                             --From "Studying the Masters: Influences from Classic Detective Fiction on Faulkner's Knight's Gambit," by Suzanne Bray, in Faulkner at Fifty: Tutors and Tyros (2014)*

(*This essay quotes The Passing Tramp on page 113, by the way.)

I remember one day walking with Faulkner over to the drugstore where he was going to exchange a stack of mystery stories for a new stack.  I asked him, "Why do you read all of these damn mysteries?" and he said, "Bud, no matter what you write, it's a mystery of one kind or another."

                             --Albert I. Bezzerides, quoted in William Faulkner, Life Glimpses, by Louis Daniel Brodsky (1990)

William Faulkner's interest in detective fiction is well-known among Faulkner aficionados, and has, indeed, been discussed previously at this blog.  In his attraction to the mystery form Faulkner hardly was alone among great writers of the 1920s and 1930s : other mystery fiends of his distinguished breed who might be mentioned are T. S. Eliot (blogged about here a number of times), Fernando Pessoa (subject of an essay by Henrique Valle in Mysteries Unlocked), Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis.

Yet with its emphasis on murky mystery embedded in complex and tricky narratives, Faulkner's "straight" fiction is especially suggestive of a man who liked mystery tales. Faulkner himself also wrote a small amount of self-disparaged crime fiction, collected in the volume Knight's Gambit; and, coincidentally, some of his early novels had dust jackets designed by one of the great between-the-wars mystery jacket artists, Arthur Hawkins, Jr.  One of these jackets, that for the notorious 1931 Faulkner novel Sanctuary, bore a strikingly similar design to that for a 1931 John Rhode detective novel, The Hanging Woman, about which I blogged here exactly three years ago today.)

There is, indeed, as much mystery in Faulkner novels like The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! as there is in any of the most baroque Golden Age detective novels. When I read those two novels over thirty years ago I found them as purely page turning as any classic mystery in the sense of their drawing me into the dark tales with the tantalizing lure of discovering just what the heck it was that had happened to the various characters. Absalom, Abaslom! in particular draws on all sorts of classic southern Gothic tropes familiar today in the writing of such writers as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Flannery O'Connor and films like Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

In her enjoyable memoir of the Faulkner family, Every Day in the Sun, the Great Man's late niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, documents how at his home town of Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner made a habit of issuing forth from his domain at Rowan Oak to borrow mystery fiction from the nascent rental library at Gathright-Reed's Drugstore.  Writes Wells of Oxford and her distinguished yet frugal uncle [or Pappy, as she calls him]:

What did Oxford have to offer [Faulkner]?  The [town] square shut down at six.  The county was dry. There were no bars.  Restaurants stopped serving at nine.  Where could he go?

There was a single oasis on the square, Garthright-Reed's Drugstore, on the south side of the square where it had stood for thirty years, stayed open until ten.  Here was Pappy's ray of hope, his light in the window.  It wasn't exactly a watering hole, but this friendly neighborhood drugstore offered something that bars couldn't: a lending library.

Of course, Pappy had his own magnificent library at Rowan Oak, a beautiful room, understated and elegant,  Bookshelves lined two walls.  He collected everybody from Shakespeare and Henry Fielding to Henry Miller and Dostoyevsky....

Having read all the books in his library, however, Faulkner resorted to Garthright-Reed's Drugstore "for something new to read."  Pharmacist Mac Reed was a great admirer of Faulkner's writing, keeping copies of his out-of-print books for sale, "stacking them next to the cash register." Since Oxford had no bookstore, "Garthright-Reed's was the only place in town to purchase Faulkner first editions--signed when the author was in a good mood."

Square at Oxford (Mississippi)

In 1955 Reed's drugstore associate Gere Hopkins, who would later marry the best friend of Faulkner's daughter, installed a mostly paperback lending library in the drugstore.  Recalls wells:

As soon as heard about the lending library, Pappy was there.  The square was a ten-minute walk from Rowan Oak.  He could puff his pipe and pretend that he was going someone besides Garthright-Reed's and be grateful that as long last there was somewhere to go in Oxford after nine at night. He could "drop in" at the drugstore and sort through the paperbacks, greet other regular lending-library patrons, and perhaps exchange an opinion on this mystery or that.  Hopkins serenely presided over this burst of nocturnal activity.  An avid reader and devoted fan of William Faulkner, he welcomed Pappy to the store night after night.

One day, however, one of the volumes from the lending library vanished!  "The overdue book," writes Wells, "was Murder in Pastiche...by Marion Mainwaring."

Readers of this blog will recall that in my last, more than month-old post I wrote about Marion Mainwaring and her first of two detective novels, Murder at Midyears.  In the post I also mentioned how highly praised Mainwaring's second detective novel, the aforementioned Murder in Pastiche, had been by the United States's then premier crime fiction critic, Anthony Boucher

Boucher, it seems, was not the only fan of the book.  Continues Wells:

After several weeks Hopkins went to Rowan Oak to pick up the book [Murder in Pastiche].  I don't know if he went out of his way to track down every overdue item.  Maybe he was just caught up in the art of detection, or maybe he just wanted to visit with Pappy.  When Aunt Estelle [Faulkner's wife] came to the door, Hopkins explained why he had come and she said, "Just a minute, I know right where Bill put that book."  She gave it back to Hopkins and apologized for its being late. Hopkins thanked her and brought it back to the drugstore.

A mere week later, however, Hopkins

William Faulkner at Rowan Oak
noticed that the mystery had been checked out again.  He looked at the call card. The book had been signed out by...William Faulkner....

After several weeks passed, and Pappy still had not returned the book, Hopkins faced a dilemma. Should he go back to Rowan Oak again, or should he wait and let the situation resolve itself? Discretion proved the better part of valor. Hopkins relinquished
Murder in Pastiche to posterity. (I have a hunch that Pappy loaned the book to Nannie [his mother]. She would have been beside herself to get her hands on it after he mentioned it.  And he would have.)

Years later Hopkins told Wells this anecdote at the annual Faulkner Conference at the University of Mississippi.  "Not long afterward," Wells wryly reports, she and her husband "purchased a copy of the paperback and presented Murder in Pastiche to him with an apology for having "kept it" so long and, considering that the book was fifty years overdue, with a request for special consideration regarding late fees."

More on Faulkner and Square Books.

More coming soon on Murder in Pastiche!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Academic Annihilation: Murder at Midyears (1953), by Marion Mainwaring

"This room--it's nothing but prufrock on the surface.  But one of these nice cultured people sipping tea killed a man three days ago."

....in theory one knew perfectly well that Auden's borough of murder was not a locality in space, that no realm was exempt, that academic squabbles could breed evil as well as international intrigue. Everywhere we lie in death's lap and sleep in his outer chambers....But that was not Auden, it was Jeremy Taylor.

"I'd like to see Mersey's own questionnaire, by the way.  Rank: Professor.  Publications: notorious....Special interests: uglification, megalomania and tortures.  His confessions would read like a chapter from the Marquis de Sade."

Jill shivered.  "I hate this place.  All the neuroses in the canon and a few besides."

                                                 --Murder at Midyears (1953), by Marion Mainwaring


Today Marion Mainwaring (1922-2015) is best known as the independent scholar who controversially completed American author Edith Wharton's final, unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, in 1993.  Since then, "completions" and "continuations" seemingly have become commonplaces in the world of mystery fiction, where publishers seek to wrest additional sums out of vintage crime fiction fans by offering them new works inspired by Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Raymond Chandler, etc., which have been completed or entirely composed by living writers, sometimes with decidedly mixed results.

Yet four decades before before completing the final novel by Edith Wharton (herself no stranger to the criminous in fiction), Marion Mainwaring demonstrated great skill as a pastichist in a detective novel entitled, appropriately enough, Murder in Pastiche, originally published in the US 1954 and the UK in 1955 and reprinted in over half-a-dozen editions between 1961 and 1989.  (It's currently available in an eBook edition too.)

Murder in Pastiche was much praised by the influential American critic Anthony Boucher, who pronounced that so far as his "fairly compendious memory" stretched "the brilliance of Miss Mainwaring's achievement is....unmatched in the history of the detective story" and that the novel would stand as "a permanent addition--both as criticism and as entertainment--to the detective bookshelf."

Boucher was more equivocal in his review of Mainwaring's far scarcer first detective novel, an academic mystery entitled Murder at Midyears, which was published the previous year, 1953.

Following rave notices of Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying (soon to win an Edgar award for best first mystery novel) and Charles Einstein's The Bloody Spur (another first novel, reviewed by me here), Boucher declared that Mainwaring's Midyears looked "a bit pallid" by comparison, chiefly because "Miss M. has not yet learned that the modern suspense novel demands some forward plot movement in addition to a lengthy series of plot interrogations to solve a murder."  Yet he declared that author's "understanding of department politics...and of the various types of academic personalities is first rate--as are the allusive donnish wit and the ability to create a school complete with a century of history and tradition."

I agree fully with Boucher in his praise for Murder at Midyears.  I dissent somewhat from his criticism.  Midyears is no "suspense novel," however much that term was in fashion with publishers  in the Fifties, but rather, a true detective novel--most decidedly so--and I fail to see why it should be judged by an alien standard. Surely today, when classic crime revivals seem to be taking place every week, we can dispense with the regrettable "modern" tendency to dismiss classic detection for not being sufficiently rapid.

no trumpet for this Gabriel
the late, unlamented Gabriel Mersey
To the classic crime fiction devotee Mainwaring's novel is most pleasingly classical in form.  There is a horrendous individual, English department chairman Gabriel Mersey, who is poisoned early in the novel (though not before giving numerous people at the staid New England women's college at which the novel is set reasons of varying degrees of magnitude to desire his hasty departure from life); there is, yes, the series of interrogations, followed by an attack on the heroine (love interest is present but subtly and adroitly handled) and another murder, appallingly violent yet fastidiously described at second-hand; and there is a devious, mechanically clever solution like something out of a work by a youthful John Dickson Carr.(The skull placed beside the dead professor's body reminded me as well of PD James.)

I never for a moment felt bored with the novel, because in addition to the author's successful presentation of an intriguing problem, her writing is hugely enjoyable: witty, pointed, learned (without getting heavy-handed), sometimes bitingly satirical, as one expects from first-class academic mysteries.

In a short but remarkable opening chapter Mainwaring even gives an ironic and highly amusing account of the history of Collins College: the indulged child, if you will, of three determined spinster sisters, Hortensia, Lucretia and Sophonisba.

These names, the author notes, suggest "classical proclivities" on the part of the good women's father: the Reverend Mr. Tertius Collins, "a congregational clergyman ministering to the village of Dunham."  ("Miss Venable, the official chronicler of the college, has traced a relationship to the poet William Collins; others have rejoiced to connect him with a still more celebrated cleric: the Reverend Mr. Collins of Jane Austen's history.  The date of his death, even, is uncertain.  He seems to have faded duskily away as his children rose to glory".)

Surely this is a book of which the late Amanda Cross, not to mention Dorothy L. Sayers herself, would have approved. Speaking of which, at one point in the novel students passingly discuss the difference between detection in books and in real life (as presented by this book):

    "I always thought...if I was in a place where there was a murder I'd beat the police to the solution.  It's so easy in the books, but the dean would have me suspended is I went poking into things.  I guess you have to have a detective in love with you, like Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey."
    "Or a father who's chief of police, like Ellery Queen."

You will not be surprised to learn (if you have not already read the novel) that Ellery Queen and Lord Peter Wimsey both feature prominently in Murder in Pastiche.

Midyear's smart, charming, and new thinking heroine, English professor Jill Carey, herself is a classic detective fiction fan, thinking at one point:

    It was as if she was usurping the role of some personage in a novel, one of those heroines who discover bodies at house parties and answer faked telephone messages and are rescued by resourceful, intrepid young men....

I really do love the writing in the book.  Here's Mainwaring on the Anglophile English professor, familiar as well to me from my undergraduate days, four decades after Mainwaring's. She knows how to set a scene:

a tweedy professor
Before he had been two minutes in Palfrey's study, Sampson understood the sobriquet Dane had given him.  Palfrey was white-haired and pink-cheeked; he wore shabby corduroy and tweeds and an old-fashioned vest; he was Santa Claus in black-rimmed glasses.  Sampson felt himself being sucked into the homey bookish atmosphere as into a benevolent quicksand.  Dane or Jill Carey, more experienced academic types, could have abstracted the elements which made up this Victorian Anglophiliac comfort: the roll-top desk; the fringed lampshade; the darkened prints of the Birth of Venus and Views of the Oxford Colleges; the shelves of Scott and Trollope; the black umbrella; the sherry bottle and glasses on a lacquer tray.  Palfrey smoked a pipe, and within a couple of minutes was addressing his visitor as "my boy" while he deplored the death of Mersey.

And here's Mainwairing memorably skewering the pompous college president, Orville Holiday, "a square short man with a florid face, sleek as a platitude":

"Well," said the president judiciously.  "You know how it is, Lieutenant.  In any business people have their little differences, and that's as true in a college as anywhere else.  Even in a quiet friendly little town like this.  He stopped to examine this prohemium and found it good.  "Mr. Mersey was a--a--crotchety old fellow.  Perhaps not the easiest person in the world to get along with--till you knew him.  A great scholar.  This Bibliography, you know.  And a real character, you know, peppery temper, but a heart of gold!"  Afraid, perhaps, of draining his thesaurus of cliches, he paused again. Dane looked at him in admiration.  The gap between the real malignancy of Gabriel Mersey and this pseudo-Dickensian creature of Holiday's wishful imagining was unfathomable.
no Mersey

Holiday and his sycophantic entourage attempt to fob suspicion of the murder onto a convenient--from the college administration perspective--Italian maintenance man, providing Mainwaring an opportunity to depict and condemn still present WASPish prejudices of the day. (She also goes after anti-Semitism, when the chief suspect becomes the English department's one Jewish professor--and it's not the police who are anti-Semitic but certain members of the faculty.)

Mainwaring herself came from a family of none too remote working class, immigrant origins (comparatively late-coming British arrivals), which perhaps influenced her portrayals of elite, establishment prejudices in Midyears.

On her mother's side of the family her grandfather, Matthew Imrie, worked as a bricklayer in Newcastle, England (his ancestors originally came from Lockerly, Scotland) before moving in middle age with his family to Boston; while her maternal grandmother, Mary Lawson Milburn, was the daughter of a Newcastle butcher. 

Mainwaring's paternal grandfather, Richard James Mainwaring (pronounced "Mannering" when the family resided in England), a Roman Catholic machinist and carriage maker originally from Liverpool, settled in Boston by way of Nova Scotia.  He died from consumption at the age of thirty six months before Marion's father-to-be, Herbert James Mainwaring, was born, leading Herbert's mother to place the infant in a Boston home for destitute children run by the Episcopal Church until a second marriage--to Edward Frost, a stock man at a bookbindery--finally allowed her to recover him when he was ten.

Perhaps developing an interest in the printed word from exposure to his stepfather's occupation, Herbert Mainwaring worked as an advertising copywriter (he also later edited a Cape Cod tourist magazine and was known in his leisure time to compose many a letter to editors of local newspapers, most often addressing Episcopal Church affairs), while his wife, Marion Imrie, who had once worked in a perfume factory, taught embroidery and dressmaking. 

Marion Mainwaring around mid-century
The young Marion Mainwaring grew up with her parents and three siblings in Quincy, a major Boston suburb associated with the distinguished American presidential family. A most alert and able student, she won academic prizes at Simmons College, allowing her to pursue graduate studies at Harvard, where she received her doctorate in English, submitting a dissertation on Matthew Arnold, who gets mention in Midyears.

Mainwaring taught as an instructor at Mount Holyoke college in 1948, but disliked this work and left her employment after a few years.  Like many a restless academic in the day, she turned to writing mysteries, her experiences at Mount Holyoke providing her with sufficient material for a first novel and her own voluminous reading in detective fiction for a second, but sadly for mystery fans she developed writer's block after publishing Murder in Pastiche.

Moving to Europe, Mainwaring freelanced as a researcher and learned French, Greek and Russian.  She translated novellas by the distinguished Russian author Ivan Turgenev and did research for R. W. B. Lewis, whose 1976 biography of Edith Wharton won a Pulitzer Prize. 

In France Mainwaring unearthed new details on Wharton's years in Paris and her passionate mid-life affair with the "singularly attaching" bisexual journalist and author Morton Fullerton"I was fortunate enough to engage the services of Miss Marion Mainwaring, a gifted scholar," allowed Lewis in his book acknowledgments.  Mainwaring was unhappy with Lewis's use of her research, however, and a quarter-century later she published her own take on the Wharton-Fullerton affair (and more) in her 2001 book Mysteries of Paris: The Quest for Morton Fullerton, which, as the title suggests, is something like a detective novel in itself. (As any scholarly researcher knows, researching past lives is detective work.)

Marion Mainwaring was an independent individual to the end of her life.  Returning to the US in the late 1970s to care for her elderly parents, she lived and worked after their deaths in a Framlingham, Massachusetts apartment until in 2015 she suffered what was a soon-to-be fatal stroke at the age of 93. 

"Marion is an elitist in the best sense of the word," a novelist friend once recalled of her.  "She is very quick to detect pomposity and loose thinking.  She lives in a kind of cultural attic, or garret, all by herself."  From that cultural garret came two excellent detective novels, the product of a most lively and engaging mind, for which mystery fans should be particularly grateful.  Personally I think Murder at Midyears compares very favorably indeed with other satirical academic mysteries I have reviewed here, such as Morris Bishop's The Widening Stain (1942) and Robert Barnard's Death of an Old Goat (1974).

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Owner Lies Dead (1930) and Johnny on the Spot (1943): Two More Vintage Mystery Reissues


Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead was one of the most praised detective novels of 1930, in both Great Britain and the United States, a product of the High Golden Age, boasting not only an ingenious sort of "miracle" murder plot but an intriguing and unusual setting (a Colorado coalmining town) and appealing characters; while Amen Dell's Johnny on the Spot is an endearing World War Two thriller boasting a memorable company of characters, narrative elan and a well-conveyed Greenwich Village setting that was highly praised by Anthony Boucher, who picked Amen Dell as one of the most promising mystery newcomers of the year.

Both these novels are being reprinted by Coachwhip, in spiffy new editions with introductions by me.

I have already blogged about "Amen Dell," aka Irving Mendell (ie, "A Mendell"--get it?), here; but there is more to come on his sole known mystery novel, as well as more on Tyline Perry.  Stay tuned.



Also, I wanted to note that I am doing some collection down sizing and I direct anyone interested in buying from my collection to check out my eBay page here.  You may see something you'd like.  This Tramp has seen a lot of interesting things over the years!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

New Vintage Mystery Reissues by Coachwhip: The Rumble Murders, Anonymous Footsteps, The Hex Murder

Here is the latest group of vintage mystery reissues from Coachwhip.  For three of these books I have written introductions.  Two of these three books, The Rumble Murders and Anonymous Footsteps, I have written about previously at the blog.  The third, The Hex Murder, was reviewed, highly favorably, by John Norris over at Pretty Sinister Books last year.




Coachwhip has also reprinted Crime in Corn Weather (1935), by Mary Meigs Atwater, which I reviewed here at this blog several years ago, and John Ferguson's The Grouse Moor Murder (1934), a classic Golden Age English mystery.  You should check those out too!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Heavens, Philippa Bevans! The Notorious Landlady (1962)

The Notorious Landlady is a 1962 romantic comedy thriller starring Kim Novak (she got top billing) and Jack Lemmon, with supporting performances from Fred Astaire (in a role that originally was to have gone to Ernie Kovacs), Estelle Winwood and Philippa Bevans.

Philippa who, you say?  I'm probably the only film fan who has ever watched this flick primarily to see the foursquare Philippa Bevans in action. Happily I can report that both the film and the seventh-billed member of the cast are good.  The script, which was co-written by future comedy stalwarts Blake Edwards and Larry Gelbart, was nominated by the WGA for the best written American film comedy of 1962.

trust but verify

Set in England (primarily London), The Notorious Landlady concerns the notorious "Carly" Hardwicke (Kim Novak), whose husband has disappeared under mysterious and sinister circumstances, leading her neighbors, like the wheelchair-bound nosy old biddy Mrs. Dunhill (Estelle Winwood) and her faithful nurse, Mrs. Agatha Brown (Philippa Bevans), to think that he was murdered by Carly, obviously some sort of insidious femme fatale.  (Maybe they saw Vertigo.)

tale of the tub
Not knowing about Carly's "notorious" background, ingenuous Bill Gridley (Jack Lemmon), a young, newly-posted American diplomat, takes rooms in Carly's elegant Regency townhouse, though his superior at the embassy, Franklyn Armbruster (Fred Astaire), has sternly warned him of the utmost need of avoiding scandal.

Naturally, Carly and Bill fall in love. But what exactly did happen to Carly's mysterious husband?

This film recalled to me other, better-known light romantic thrillers like To Catch a Thief, Charade, Arabesque and How to Steal a Million, starring such cinema luminaries as Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren and Peter O'Toole.

The first half of the film emphasizes romance, with the mystery placed on the slow burner; but then there's a shooting and a trial and a flight and pursuit finale at a Dartmouth convalescent home that involves the sort of manic slapstick that became a Blake Edwards trademark. Mark ye, my mystery fan friends, Mrs. Dunhill and her nurse, who suddenly loom large in the story line.

shadow of a doubt
I enjoyed this film.  Kim Novak is certainly alluring (the credits announce that she designed her own wardrobe) and Jack Lemmon is perfect for this sort of film, with his patented anxiety, double takes and slow burns.  Fred Astaire is as ever charm incorporated, though I did want him to glide his heels just a bit.

I don't know about you, but I have long adored that wonderfully eccentric Victorian/Edwardian relic, the English actress Estelle Winwood (1883-1984), who played drolly batty old biddies on television and in the films for three decades, from 1950 to 1980. 

She pops up in a series of genre films including, besides The Notorious Landlady, Dead Ringer, Games and Murder by Death, where she played Miss Marbles' (aka Miss Marple's) extremely aged nurse (she was 92 at the time), who loves nothing more than solving a good "murderpoo."  I was ten when I saw this film and I remember Miss Winwood in it well. Elsa Lanchester played Miss Marbles and the two women made a delightfully wacky comedy pair.

in hot pursuit
Miss Dunhill's nurse, Mrs. Agatha Brown, is played, as mentioned above, by Philippa Bevans, who, as I explained in an earlier blog post, was married for eight years to John M. O'Connor, a fellow stage actor and the author of a single mystery novel, Anonymous Footsteps (1932), now reprinted by Coachwhip, with an introduction by me.

O'Connor  dedicated his novel "To Philippa," whom he wed the next year.  Bevans went on to appear on Broadway in seventeen plays, most famously with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins' landlady in My Fair Lady.

Bevans, Novak
Like Andrews she did not appear in the film version of the play, though in the 1960s she was a player in some other films, including, besides The Notorious Landlady, The World of Henry Orient, The Group and Madigan, as well as episodes of the classic television anthologies The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  She specialized in the matron type, her figure having significantly broadened in her middle years.

Bevans has all of one line in Madigan, but in The Notorious Landlady her role is an important one, including a sort of wrestling match with Kim Novak, which you shouldn't forget any time soon. Also, if you have the original cast recording of My Fair Lady, you can hear her, albeit briefly, on "I Could Have Danced All Night"--a tune you may have heard on occasion!

he should have danced all night

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Lipstick Vogue: The Lipstick Killer, The Bloody Spur (1953) and While the City Sleeps (1956)



"Turn off the television and tell me all about it."
"Don't you like this program?"
She made a face.  "It started out all right, but I was beginning to get tired of it.  They're all the same, these mysteries."


....Lamin...had sent a reporter to cover the burial of Judith Felton, a young lady who, only recently, been murdered.  It was a good story, especially with the killer as yet uncaught: it had captured the imagination of newspaper readers not only in New York but out along the line, for in addition to such standardized ingredients as a knife, a rape and a nude body, the killer had added a grotesque touch. He had taken the dead girl's lipstick, and with it scrawled a plea for help on the bathroom wall.

One murder's bad.  Two are wonderful.  Two murders can sell papers all day long.

Apparently he gave her the business after she was already dead."
Walter Kyne shuddered. "Imagine," he said.

"I have," John Day Griffith said.

"This guy, see, he's a pervert.  Both times, you know what he did?"  Something told him the presence of a woman in the room, even his wife, called for moderation of expression.  He lowered his voice. "He moved his bowels on the floor."

"Two babes were killed and now a little girl's been kidnapped and they found an axe and a lot of blood in the basement and maybe she's been murdered too."

Across the newsroom, another copy boy was handing Joe Levine...a copy of the rival INS bulletin on the same subject.
Levine read it, exclaimed in a guttural voice, and strode into Lamin's office.  "Arn," he said, "INS has a leg missing, too."
"What have we got, just two arms?"
"That's all."
"Damn that Collier," Lamin said.  "I always said he took dope."
"Maybe INS is wrong," Levine said.
"Yes," Lamin said, "and maybe I'll be working for INS in the morning."

"If you became suddenly very sure of something," Jon Day Griffith said, "and there was one other thing you could do in another direction to make you even more sure, but that something else was--well, say it was unethical--what would you do?"
Healey looked at him.  "It would depend on how much I wanted whatever it was I wanted."
Griffith grinned.  "You're a moralistic son of a bitch."
"Anybody who's moralistic around here," Healey said, "is crazy."

"She's sleeping around....My God, Friday night Mobley, last night Meedy, tonight who knows?"

"That's what I like to hear," Mobley said.  "Get tough with me.  Call me names."
"I think you have a fetish or two of your own," Nancy said.
"Agreed," Mobley said.  "Would you care for details?"

"Weren't there any honest men working for Kyne?"
"Damn few," Mobley said.  "Certainly nobody that mattered."
"Were you one of them?"
"Maybe in a way."  He kissed her hair. "But I was getting polluted."

When you worked for Kyne, a certain amount of plotting was necessary.


                              --All quotations from The Bloody Spur (1953), by Charles Einstein


A series of three brutal murders of females, two women and a young child, struck Chicago in 1945-46.  All of them were linked to one of the century's most notorious alleged serial murderers, the so-called "lipstick killer."

William Heirens (1928-2012)
aka the "lipstick killer" (?)
On June 5, 1945, Josephine Ross was discovered dead, savagely stabbed, in her Chicago apartment. Seven months later, on December 10, Frances Brown was discovered dead, savagely stabbed, in her Chicago apartment.  This time a message was left scrawled in lipstick on a wall in Brown's apartment:

For heavens
sake catch me
Before I kill more
I cannot control myself


The killer of Frances Brown from this point on became known, not surprisingly, as the "Lipstick Killer."

On January 7, 1946, six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was discovered missing from her home; her dismembered body parts soon were discovered in several nearby storm drains. Chicago's finest arrested a 65-year-old janitor, Hector Verbergh, in the building where Degnan lived and subjected him, Verbergh alleged, to severe beatings with the aim of extracting a confession from him. 

Despite the beatings and other abuse at the hands of the police, Verbergh never confessed to any crime and he was released. He and his wife later sued the Chicago Police Department, and they were awarded in damages a total of nearly $250, 000 (in modern dollars), more than they had originally requested.

On June 26, 1946, 17-year-old William Heirens was arrested for attempted burglary. (This was not his first burglary.) Heirens later asserted that he too was beaten while in police custody. Additionally sodium pentothal (so-called "truth serum") was administered to him without his or his parents' consent. Those were the days!

Police began to believe they might have their "man" in the lipstick killer case.  The press had a field day, publishing photos of Heirens as a Jekyll and Hyde killer and stories about a supposed Heirens confession to all three of the above murders, a confession which in fact had never been made.

Eventually, however, Heirens did plead guilty to the killings, urged on by his lawyers, who thought he was guilty and wanted to save him from the death penalty.  Heirens retracted his confession within days, but to no avail: he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms.

Hereins, who died in 2012, maintained his innocence to his death, but he was never released from jail (where he proved a model prisoner). Many people have long argued that the case against him, in which his "confession" was supplemented by disputed handwriting and fingerprint evidence, is unpersuasive. Certainly police conduct in the case left a great deal to to be desired, as it often did in those days when states allowed their law enforcement apparatus such a free hand in criminal investigations.

Whatever the truth about Heirens' guilt or innocence, the "lipstick killer" case unquestionably served as an inspiration for Charles Einstein's fascinating 1953 paperback original crime novel, The Bloody Spur, filmed three years later with an all-star cast by director Fritz Lang as While the City Sleeps.

Einstein accepts Heirens guilt in the novel, unambiguously portraying his murderer character, Robert Manners, based on Heirens, as a criminal lunatic and a sexual psychopath: He has "mama issues"; is maniacally obsessed with the Bible; steals women's underwear, which he keeps in a locked suitcase under his bed; defecates at the crime scenes; and performs necrophilia on one of his murder victims. (Thankfully, we are only told about these last two things obliquely, and at second hand.)

1956 reprint of the novel
using the film title
Einstein handles these chapters concerning the killer well, but what is really interesting about The Bloody Spur is the author's portrayal of the ruthless world of the news media.  Essentially Einstein used the lipstick killer case as his occasion to study the Machiavellian machinations of a great syndicated newspaper chain.

The novel opens with twin burials at a cemetery: that of Judith Felton, victim of the latest brutal murder, and that of Cyrus McCrady, executive director of the Kyne publishing empire, consisting of

a chain of newspapers only slightly smaller than Scripps-Howard and Hearst, bulwarked by KPS (Kyne Press Service, a national newswire network), KWF (Kyne World Features, a feature story syndicate), and Kynpix (a national picture service).

Walter Kyne, successor to his father, must now choose a successor to the great McCrady, upon whom he relied to run his empire for him. The candidates for the succession to executive power at Kyne are Arnold Lamin, editor-in-chief of the Kyne news-wire service, John Day Griffith, editor of the Sentinel, the key Kyne paper in New York, and advisory editor to the nine other papers in the chain; Harry Kritzer, chief of the Kyne picture service; and Mark Loving, head of features.

the original paperback edition
As the "Lipstick Killer" case snowballs into a morbid city sensation, Kyne conceives the idea of handing the big job at Kyne to the man who cracks the murder case. His executives get the message and act accordingly (i.e., they feel the pricks of Shakespeare's "Bloody Spur")--often in ethically dubious ways.

This is a suspense novel and a crime novel, but the suspense lies more in the battle for supremacy at Kyne, and the most interesting crimes detailed are the ethical ones committed by white-collared pillars of society. I'm reminded of some of the sardonic corporate crime novels from this period by the English crime writers Andrew Garve and Michael Gilbert.

Women play a notable role in the novel as well. Besides the unfortunate women in the killer's life, there are Nancy Liggett, Lamin's secretary and girlfriend of Edward Mobley, the star reporter on the Sentinel, and Mildred Donner, the women's features editor who is free with her amors, as well as the executive's assorted wives, one of whom vigorously pursues sexual agendas of her own.

The author adheres to a realistic, "warts-and-all" presentation of his characters--so much so, indeed, that a common criticism of the book is the classic complaint that the characters aren't "nice."  I don't entirely agree with that assessment--Nancy and Ed provide a moral center for the novel, though even that relationship is "nuanced," shall we say--but the novel is, to be sure, quite a cynical and satirical one.  It's a long way away from the Fifties family sitcom world of Father Knows Best and its ilk!

John Barrymore, Jr. as the lipstick killer in While the City Sleeps
You'd never suspect this guy, would you?

The 1956 Fritz Lang film version of The Bloody Spur, generically titled While the City Sleeps (the title seemingly taking issue with a brilliant earlier film, City That Never Sleeps), has its fans, but was somewhat disappointing to me.  Admittedly, the cast of the book is huge (I haven't even mentioned some of the key characters from the book), but I think the film treatment loses a lot of the novel's fascinating detail and sheer potency.

John Barrymore, Jr.'s performance as the killer seems more a thing of older, expressionist film--Mmm, what Might Lang have had in Mind?  In an unsubtle alteration concerning the killer's Freudian motivations, the lipstick message in the film is a terse and blunt "Ask mother."  Another change, a huge one, is that the child murder is deleted, cutting a lot of the horror and satirical force from the book.

Vincent Price is a good choice for Kyne--and it was nice to see him briefly reunited in antagonism, after the great film Laura, with Dana Andrews--but he is reduced to a feckless playboy, a crude simplification of the book character.  In a streamlining move Kyne's executives are reduced to three (Lamin having been written out of the film), one of whom is played by George Sanders, who seems rather listless here, though Thomas Mitchell, as the voluble Jon Day Griffith, provides some journalistic gusto.

Dana Andrews plays the key role of Ed Mobley and he is good in the role (you might be reminded of Edward R. Murrow), but he was more than ten years older than the book character and he is made a Pulitzer prize winner and a television commentator to boot, which lends this character a stature he simply didn't have in the book, as respected as he was for his reporting skills.

Sometimes You want to go where everybody knows your name:
Andrews, Forrest, Mitchell, Lupino
up to no good
Lupino and Sanders drink and scheme

Conversely Nancy Liggett is played in Fifties ingenue fashion by Sally Forrest (in her penultimate film performance). Forrest was twenty years younger than Andrews and in this film seemingly was instructed by Fritz Lang to ask herself "What would Doris (Day) do?"  In other words, for me she's too prim and perky for the character portrayed by Einstein in the book (who, for example, pronounces unblushingly that she likes her men to be sexually experienced). 

On the other hand, the role of seductress Mildred Donner fits Ida Lupino like a fine glove, and Rhonda Fleming makes a bold and brassy impression as Kyne's unfaithful wife, Dorothy.  I should mention the reliable Howard Duff appears as Andrew's helpful cop friend--Just how many film cops did Duff play in the Fifties, anyway?

"They'd sell out their own mothers!"  

Certainly While the City Sleeps is well worth watching--but I say read the book first! Charles Einstein knew his stuff when it came to big city journalism, and in the Fifties paperback original medium he found a forum to express it. Don't let the surface pulp trappings of the lurid paperback covers dissuade you, this is one sophisticated and smart novel, one from which I couldn't resist, as you will have seen, quoting extensively at the beginning of this piece. 

Happily the novel is available in a modern edition, both in paper and eBook versions.  In closing I'll leave you with the wise words of Anthony Boucher, taken from his contemporary review of The Bloody Spur:

....it's an unusually long but tightly knit suspense novel, with an ambitious and well-handled problem in construction....the detailed examination of the sexual and professional lives of a group of highly talented heels is objectively fascinating, and the obsessed murder is as believable as the protagonist of a Notable Trial.