Sunday, July 28, 2013

Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance....

a pretentious upper class doofus?
So said Ogden Nash, famously, of S. S. Van Dine's (Willard Huntington Wright) affected American gentleman detective, Philo Vance, who once was hugely popular in the United States in the 1920s, where The Greene Murder Case (1928) and The Bishop Murder Case (1929) were bestsellers.

Nevertheless, lots of people couldn't and can't stand Vance, as the Ogden Nash couplet suggests.  One of Dashiell Hammett's most famous book reviews is devoted to ridiculing the original Philo Vance outing, The Benson Murder Case (1926).

Over at the Thrilling Detective website, Vance is rather bluntly referred to as a pretentious upper class doofus and a pompous blowhard.

Granted, Thrilling Detective is partial to hard-boiled private eyes, pretty much the antithesis of Vance, but even Golden Age true crime writer Edmund Pearson, a great admirer of "classic crime," couldn't take Philo.

This is a pretty amusingly-written take-down by Pearson, I think:

The author [of The Canary Murder Case] seems to be enormously pleased with the mannerisms and peculiarities of his amateur detective, Philo Vance.  As Vance is represented as a Harvard man (who has later studied at Oxford and lived in England) I can only understand his creator's animus on the ground that Mr. "Van Dine" is a graduate of Princeton, seeking revenge.  Vance is very nearly the most insufferable ass whom I have ever met in the pages of a novel.  Any man who met him in a club would instantly get up and seek refuge in another room.  He is a dilettante, a flaneur, a poseur, a viveur, and if you can think of any other foreign terms, he is all of them to boot.  He talks like a high school girl during her first year in studying French [Hammett made this charge too]....Surely the author could have suggested this type of man without overloading his conversation with foreign phrases and perpetual airy references to various learned matters.

On the plus side for Van Dine, however, Pearson declares that the "irritating personality of Vance is almost the only weak point in the book."  And judging by the sales of The Canary Murder Case in 1927, plenty of people agreed with him about the quality of the novel!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Who Killed Charmian Karslake? Revisited

Here is the dust jacket to the American edition of Annie Haynes' Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1930), recently reviewed here.

On the back panel of the jacket Dodd, Mead urges its readers to

Watch for books this Spring by the following well-known authors:


How many of these authors have you read?  It's interesting that not one is American (all are British).  And only two women (yes, one of the "men" was a woman who used a male pseudonym).  Dodd, Mead did not have much in the way of American series mystery authors at the time (though there was Charles J. Dutton, reviewed by blogger John Norris here, a certain individual named Sinclair Gluck, and a new Dodd, Mead writer named Carl Clausen, who though born in Denmark, lived in the United States).

On the front flap, Haynes' earlier The Crow's Inn Tragedy is praised "for its realistic background and its skillful plot, two necessary qualities of a good detective story."  On the back flap John Rhode's (John Street's) Peril at Cranbury Hall is blurbed.  "Among the present-day writers of detective stories," declares Dodd, Mead, "John Rhode stands in the front rank."

In Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, I write about John Street's relationship with Dodd, Mead, having had access to his correspondence with the publisher.  I think it's very interesting material.

Let's hope that one day John Rhode's literary agency will allow him to be (legally) reprinted! It would be nice, for that matter, to reprint Annie Haynes, who died way back in 1929 and hasn't been reprinted in over eighty years and is quite collectible.

One more thing for now: Here's a blog interview I did with Pietro De Palma, over at his blog, Death Can Read.  See also this interview with Rich Westwood at Past Offences, if you haven't already!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Time to Change Hats (1945), by Margot Bennett Part 1

Margot Bennett (1912-1980)
Margot Bennett isn't really a Golden Age detective novelist, unless we extend the period from its traditional cutoff of 1939/40 to the end of World War Two or, better yet, the early 1950s.  She published two detective novels in the aftermath of World War Two, Time to Change Hats (1945) and Away Went the Little Fish (1946), followed by The Widow of Bath (1952), The Man Who Didn't Fly (1955) and Someone from the Past (1958), which won the Golden Dagger from the Crime Writers Association (earlier The Man Who Didn't Fly had been shortlisted by the CWA--in both CWA actions, I detect the fine hand of Julian Symons, who was a great fan of Bennett's later fiction). Two other Bennett novels, The Golden Pebble (1948) and Farewell Crown and Goodbye King (1952) are more in the nature of being thrillers, I believe.

Margot Bennett's debut detective novel, Time to Change Hats, which introduces series detective John Davies (who also appears in Away Went the Little Fish) is a highly discursive English rural comedy of murders that is quite reminiscent, I think, of Edmund Crispin's detective fiction in the same period.  At the same time there's a genuine mystery puzzle at the heart of the tale.  I'm finding it an entertaining though slow-moving tale, rather long at over 110,000 words. Tomorrow I hope to have a full review up, wherein /I render a final verdict.  In the meantime, enjoy Martin Edwardspiece on Bennett over at his blog.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929), by Annie Haynes Part Two

The murder of Charmian Karslake, a celebrated American stage actress, occurs during a house party at Hepton Abbey, near Hepton, a village located in England somewhere near Wales (I'm thinking Shropshire, lads).

Hepton is the "quaintest of old villages," and to the typical villagers the Penn-Morton family, the ancestral owners of Hepton Abbey, represent "the ruling class, all that they knew of rank, or wealth, or culture....[T]he King and Queen were higher, but then the King and Queen did not come in the way of the Heptonians. Sir Arthur and Lady Penn-Moreton were enough."

Charmian Karslake is shot in her locked bedroom at Hepton Abbey (apparently no one heard the shot, though this matter is passed over by the police) and her famous sapphire necklace has disappeared. Soon Scotland Yard Inspector Stoddart is on the scene, along with his mysterious...assistant? colleague?, Mr. Alfred Harbord.

I have to admit that I was confused by Harboard's exact position in the police.  He appears with Inspector Stoddart in at least four of the dozen Haynes novels, The Man with the Dark Beard (1928), The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929), Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929) and The Crystal Beads Murder (1930)--maybe his exact position is better explained in one of those books!*

*(another police detective, Inspector Furnival, is the sleuth in Haynes' earlier The Abbey Court Murder, 1923, and The House in Charlton Crescent (1926) and The Crow's Inn Tragedy, 1927)

Stoddart is an appealing British copper, of the solid Inspector French school of Freeman Wills Crofts, a tremendously popular British detective novelist in the 1920s.  No scintillatin' gentleman amateur detectives here, although Dicky Penn-Moreton certainly talks like one, eh, what?

Potential suspects in Charmian Karslake's murder are Sir Arthur Penn-Moreton and his wife Vita; Dicky Penn-Moreton and his wife Sadie, daughter of Silas P. Juggs, American millionaire (canned soup); and brilliant barrister John Larpent and his fiancee, Paula Galbraith.  And of course there are a couple servants to consider, Charmian's French maid, Celeste ("she knew the value of her smiles too well to be prodigal of them"), and the Hepton Abbey butler, Mr. Brook ("like Homocea, always on the spot").

Most of the novel consists of engrossing delving by Stoddart and Harboard into Charmian Karslake's personal history.  Interestingly, while Haynes' country house denizens are a gallery of country house cliches (although amusing ones), Haynes' shopkeepers, workmen and show people are more substantive.  I especially liked the the music hall performer Tottie Villers, who I suspect Haynes based on the infamous Dr. Crippen's slain wife, Cora (aka Belle Elmore).  The Crippen case is referenced in the novel, along with the Thompson-Bywaters murder (1922).

Surprisingly, an occasional sentiment antagonistic to the upper classes appears in the novel.  Former Heptonians tell Stoddart "I have no use for such a place as Hepton with its petty class restrictions" and "Many's an errand I've done for 'em [the Penn-Moretons] and had a copper chucked to me like as if I was a dog."  There's a bitterness to that last comment that has a ring of historical truth.

Overall, however, Who Killed Charmian Karslake? is very much a British country house mystery in the classic mold.  The plot does not have the technical dexterity of the Humdrums nor the sheer ingenuity of a Christie, but I found the narrative fast-paced and enjoyable.  Haynes even manages something of a surprise ending, although I felt some plot strands were left dangling (for example, there's the matter of that locked room....).

I think fans of the British cozy should enjoy this one and that it thus merits reprinting.  As Dicky Penn-Moreton noted over his breakfast bacon and kidneys, British balls can bring on sticky wickets; but, gracious me, for the classical mystery fan these deadly country house kerfuffles can make most enjoyable reading.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"If You Will Give Balls You Have To Put Up With The Aftermath" Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929), by Annie Haynes

"Beastly mess the place seems to be in," grumbled Sit Arthur Penn-Moreton," looking round the room with a disgusted air.

"Well, if you will give balls you have to put up with the aftermath," said Dicky, his younger brother, screwing his monocle in his left eye as he spoke.

--Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929)

And at a country house too!
The nerve of the miscreant!
The monocled Dicky's utterance of these supremely fatuous and presumably inadvertently double entendre-ish words, while he is "seated at the table devouring kidneys and bacon with apparent relish," inspired Bill Pronzini to include the above quotation in Gun in Cheek, his survey of bad mystery fiction. It's a classic utterance, indeed.

Yet I didn't find Charmian Karslake a bad book, despite what might be termed the Dickyisms.  In the spirit of Gun in Cheek, I will note some other amusing comments of that order:

"This affair has got to be probed to the very bottom.  That a woman should be murdered in my house and the assassin go unpunished is unthinkable." (apparently it's open season on the men).

"How many people have you staying in the house now, Sir Arthur?"
Sir John looked surprised.  "Only my brother and sister-in-law, Mr. John Larpent and Miss Paula Galbraith. And the usual servants, of course." (oh, yeah, them)

"I tell you, sir, we United States men will not stand it.  This last affair is about the limit and we shall know how to avenge it.  Guess we aren't too proud to fight when it is a question of our women. Guess we shall make your government look alive." (Silas P. Juggs, 100% All-American)

"Just the man we wanted to see. You are a good old thing, Brook. Like Homocea, always on the spot, don't you know.  Now it's just a tot of whiskey and soda that we are after." (yes, it's Dicky again--this actually is not a bad joke, Homocea having been a Victorian-era patent medicine with this motto: "HOMOCEA touches the spot")

So, we have old money gentry; a desperately American American millionaire, canned soup king Silas P. Juggs; murder; a stolen gem with a history of death; lovers divided; a dignified butler, Brooks; and a scheming French maid, Celestine.

Annie Haynes clearly aimed squarely at the country house mystery subgenre with Who Killed Charmian Karslake?  How did she succeed?

More coming in part 2.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Lost Ladies of Mystery Fiction: Annie Haynes, Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929)

We hear a lot about the Crime Queens, of course, but what about the lost ladies of Golden Age crime fiction?

Women like Annie Haynes, for example.  Haynes wrote a dozen crime novels before her death in 1929, but practically nothing is known about her within the classic mystery community, despite the fact that her books were well-regarded in England, where they were published by The Bodley Head, the same company that published the earlier Agatha Christie novels (though Christie, exasperated with her penurious contract with The Bodley Head, moved on to the Collins Crime Club; The Bodley Head thus lost out on a certain novel called The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

Only three Haynes mysteries were published in the United States, however (two by Dodd, Mead) and she was soon forgotten after the posthumous publication of her twelfth mystery, The Crystal Beads Murder (completed by another woman mystery writer).

Ada Heather-Bigg, a prominent Victorian-era feminist and advocate of women entering the labor force, wrote the foreword to Haynes' last novel, in which she revealed that during the last fifteen years of her life Haynes suffered from a painful, debilitating illness that kept her confined to her house.  It was during this time that she wrote her dozen crime novels.

Before her illness, Haynes had been a very active woman, intensely interested in "crime and criminal psychology."  Ada Heather-Bigg wrote that Haynes had cycled "miles to visit the scene of the Luard Murder, [pushed] her way into the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent, where the remains of Belle Elmore were discovered, and [attended] the Crippen trial.

These events described by Heather-Bigg took place in 1908-10, a few years before Haynes was afflicted with her grave illness, probably around 1914.  The Luard Murder refers to the death of Caroline Mary Luard, a general's wife who was found shot dead in a summerhouse in the village of Ightham, Kent.  It's a situation out of a classic British mystery novel if ever there were one, and crime novelist Minette Walters recently published a short book about it, A Dreadful Murder. The Crippen murder case is, of course, concerned one of the most infamous of British murders.

Although not charged with the crime
General Luard was subjected to poison pen letters
accusing him of it and he committed suicide
by throwing himself in front of a train.

How does Annie Haynes' penultimate mystery novel (also published posthumously), Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929), compare with these notorious British murders and the celebrated tales of Agatha Christie, her colleague at The Bodley Head? Check in this weekend and see.

Meanwhile, here's a list of the Annie Haynes crime novels:

The Bungalow Mystery (1923)
The Abbey Court Murder (1923)
The Secret of Greylands (1924)
The Blue Diamond (1925)
The Witness on the Roof (1925)
The House in Charlton Crescent (1926)
The Crow's Inn Tragedy (1927)
The Master of the Priory (1927)
The Man with the Dark Beard (1928)
The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929)
Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929)
The Crystal Beads Murder (1930, completed by another hand)

Note: This blog entry is dedicated to Carl Woodings, possibly the only other living person in the world besides Allen Hubin, Bill Pronzini, and your own Passing Tramp who actually has read a book by Annie Haynes!  In fact I think we can say that Carl probably has read more Annie Haynes novels than anyone else in the world.--TPT

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Far Cry Man: The Far Cry (1951), by Fredric Brown

Black Lizard paperback edition (1991)
Opinions differ over the matter of what is "the best" crime novel by Fredric Brown (1906-1972). Some people say The Fabulous Clipjoint, some Night of the Jabberwock, some say The Screaming Mimi, some The Far Cry, some yet something else.

Me, I'm a Far Cry man.

In the 1990s Vintage's excellent Black Lizard imprint reprinted some Fredric Brown titles, including The Far Cry, but it has since let him lapse.*

*(last year a $75 edition of The Far Cry was issued by Centipede Press in a limited edition of 300 copies, now sold out; that is very nice, but surely there is some middle ground between high-end and dead-end!).

Now people tend to be more familiar, among notable mid-century crime writers, with Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, and David Goodis.

This is good for these writers, but too bad for Brown!  I think Brown's comparative neglect is a shame, because he is my personal favorite of the bunch.

Bantam paperback edition (1953)
a typically salacious cover
in the manner of the period
It is hard to see why a book like The Far Cry is so overlooked today. Unlike Brown's Murder Can Be Fun, reviewed here last week, The Far Cry is not remotely humorous or "light."

The Far Cry has that "noir" quality of despair and impending doom that is all the modern rage, combined with a Christiesque plotting skill that is rather less respected today (among Brown's contemporaries, I would compare his plotting deftness to that great psychological suspense writer Margaret Millar).

In his critical biography of Fredric Brown, Martians and Misplaced Clues (1993), Jack Seabrook has written acutely about The Far Cry, though he gives away plot spoilers right and left and I can't do this, here, on a blog.  So I will try to be circumspect!

George Weaver, a Kansas City real estate man--married, rather unhappily, with two kids--is recovering from a nervous breakdown near Taos, New Mexico (there appears to be quite a bit of autobiographical detail in The Far Cry, as well as Brown's usual depiction of nearly non-stop alcohol consumption among his characters, which also may well be autobiographical).

In Taos George comes across an eight-year old local mystery in the "Lonely Hearts" knifing murder of pretty Jenny Ames by an artist named Nelson. He sees a chance of making some money by writing an article about the murder, but he becomes increasingly fascinated with the case for its own sake--or, really, for the sake of Jenny Ames. Meanwhile George's slovenly wife, Vi, comes to join him in New Mexico, and the novel develops two wicked prongs of interest. At this point, it takes an abstemious reader indeed to stop reading.

With its strongly-conveyed setting, high degree of narrative suspense and deft plotting, The Far Cry is a classic among crime novels.  Why it does not get the attention of a number of Jim Thompson or David Goodis titles I don't know (the two latter authors have now both been canonized by the Library of America). Could it be Brown's plotting genius that is held against him? In some literary circles it seems that cleverness can be something of a crime.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Those Meddling Kids! Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys

Between 1991 and 2005 the publisher Applewood reissued facsimile editions of twenty-one Nancy Drew novels (dating from 1930 to 1944) and of nineteen Hardy Boys novels (dating from 1927 to 1940).

The first several Nancy Drew reprints have introductions by women writers telling of Nancy Drew's influence.  I don't believe you see the same phenomenon with the Hardy Boys mysteries, leading me to believe that Nancy Drew is a more iconic figure for women than the Hardy Boys are for men.

originally published in 1938 and
revised in 1969, The Twisted Claw
was the only Hardy Boys mystery
the young Passing Tramp owned
In my own experience I owned one, just one, Hardy Boys book as a kid, The Twisted Claw (original edition, 1938), and I don't believe that I ever read it! I never checked them out from libraries either, for some reason.

My sister, on the other hand, had some dozen or so Nancy Drews, all of which she read.  I remember as a kid being fascinated with one of them, The Hidden Staircase. What young kid isn't fascinated by secret passages in old houses! My mother's very old home in Gratz, Pennsylvania had a sort of concealed staircase, which no doubt added to the book's appeal for me.

It was not until the Applewood editions began to appear when I was in graduate school that I learned that beginning in 1959 the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books had been heavily revised: shortened, modernized, simplified in language and shorn of racially insensitive material.

Naturally that set me off to get the facsimile editions, for I love Golden Age mysteries, as all of us here know!  I was especially spurred to get them when I found out the Hardy Boys series was specifically inspired by the huge success in the 1920s of S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance detective novels.

I thought it would be fun to do a blog review of one book apiece about these teen sleuths (preferably ones from the 1930s), but as a preliminary I would like to hear from readers of this blog about their experiences with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

Did you read these books when you were young (er)?  Did you read the original editions or the revised ones?  Did they get you interested in reading adult mystery fiction?  What were your favorite titles?  Do you think the originals are better than the revised versions, or vice versa?  Did you read both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, or one or the other?  Has Nancy Drew had more of an impact than the Hardy Boys? It would be great to hear from you in the comments!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Right Odd'uns: Queer Books (1928), by Edmund Pearson

In 1928, with three of his true crime studies behind him (see here and here), Edmund Lester Pearson published a work intriguingly entitled Queer Books.

Although today a book with this title likely would be the product of a student of gay studies, in fact Pearson's Queer Books deals with oddities of nineteenth-century writing.  Pearson is just as interesting and clever in this book as he is in his accounting of murder.

Not surprisingly, there are two chapters devoted to writing about murder ("From Sudden Death" I and II).

Yet there are also chapters on the following fascinating subjects:

temperance novels
American 4th of July orations (issued as pamphlets by the proud orators)
the Gothic novel (specifically Isaac Mitchell's The Asylum; or, Alonzo and Melissa)
some very bad poetry (see below)
sensational pamphlets masquerading as true stories (Love, Suicide, and Murder! The True Story of the Unfortunate Lives of Mary Caroline Austin and Edgar Worthington)
etiquette books
ladies gift books/albums
purportedly true life seduction tales (such as The Great Wrongs of Shop Girls: The Life and Persecutions of Miss Beatrice Claflin: How Miss Claflin became the White Slave in the Gilded Dry Goods Palace of a Merchant Prince! Her Incarceration in a Private Insane Asylum! Two Years in a Mad House!...)
local color novels (Shepherd M. Dugger's The Balsam Groves of Grandfather Mountain, an amalgam of a romance novel and "a guide book to the mountains of North Carolina")

1998 collection of the imperishable
works of Julia A. Moore,
The Sweet Singer of Michigan
This is a droll book, as you can imagine.  The writing discussed herein is of the sort that vastly amused Mark Twain in his day.  Some of it he satirized in Huckleberry Finn and other works, as Pearson mentions.

With the character of Miss Emmeline Grangerford, Twain paid specific tribute to a contemporary of his,  Julia A. Moore (1847-1920), aka The Sweet Singer of Michigan, often termed the greatest bad poet in American literature.

At heart a "mortuary poet," Julia Moore was inspired by the subject of tragic demise, especially the deaths of children and those incurred in dreadful mass calamities, like the Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster (1876), the Great Chicago Fire (1871) and southern yellow fever epidemics (1873, 1878).  Certainly the 1870s gave Moore a lot of material!

As Pearson notes, in her poetry Moore "was far happier when her themes were casualties; sudden deaths, and the fate of people who suffered fits."

Her poem "Ashtabula Disaster" begins:

Have you heard of the dreadful fate
Of Mr. P. P. Bliss and wife?*
Of their death I will relate,
And also others lost their life.

*(Mrs. Moore here refers to Percy Bliss, the gospel singer and hymn writer, who, with his wife, perished in the tragedy)

Then there's Moore's poem on "The Great Chicago Fire," which starts:

The Great Chicago Fire, friends,
Will never be forgot;
In the history of Chicago
It will remain a darken spot.

Moore's yellow fever dirge, "The Southern Scourge" begins:

The yellow fever was raging,
Down in the sunny south;
And in many of the cities,
There was a death in every house.

You get the idea!

Mark Twain's fictional genteel death-obsessed poetess, Emmeline Grangerford, famously composed the "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd.":

And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?

No; such was not the fate of 

Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thicken,
'Twas not from sickness' shots.

No whooping cough did rack his frame,
Nor measles drear, with spots;
Not these impaired the sacred name
Of Stephen Dowling Bots.

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots

O no.  Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly,
By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.

So now you know!  As the bad poet might put it:

The well it was
That sadly brought
Young Stephen Bots
To utter naught.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)
The man who immortalized
young Stephen Dowling Bots
Like Mark Twain, Edmund Pearson had a great eye for what Bill Pronzini calls the "alternative classics" of literature (stuff so bad it's good).

On the qualities necessary to make a bad poet, Pearson writes:

There must be an absolute inability to know what is ridiculous; absence of the sense of humor must be congenital.  Great seriousness of purpose must exist, together with a persistent urge for literary fame.  But all these will avail nothing, unless the poet has, in addition, a diabolical aptitude for the wrong word in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And, rest assured dear reader, it doesn't stop with poetry!

There is such a cornucopia of queer writing in Queer Books, it is too much to cover in a mere blog article, but I will deal with some more in part two (and don't worry, there will be some actual murder and mystery!).

Friday, July 5, 2013

And How! Murder Can Be Fun (1948), Fredric Brown

"Why, Baldy, are detective stories so popular?"
"Because people read 'em?"
"And people read them because they like them.  Because murder can be fun--if it's fictional and not factual murder."

Murder Can Be Fun (1948) is the third mystery novel by the great American mid-century crime and science fiction writer Fredric Brown (1906-1972).

The novel, which is an expansion of Brown's 1942 short story "The Santa Claus Murders," has the qualities of classic Fredric Brown: an intriguing plot, a strong setting, touches of surrealism and an astonishing amount of drinking.

If the characters in Fredric Brown novels don't quite make those in the books of Craig Rice look like amateurs at the fine art of alcohol consumption, it's not for want of trying.  Many a Fredric Brown tale, including this one, might also be tiled Murder Makes You Thirsty.

The surrealistic quality in Brown's work comes to fore immediately in Murder Can Be Fun when on a sweltering August day a Manhattan man is shot to death by a person incongruously clad in a Santa suit. Another murder follows, although this time there are no witnesses to say whether Santa was the one who dun it.

one of many distilled beverages
quaffed in Murder Can Be Fun
Both murders are linked to radio scripts that former-journalist-now-radio-hack Bill Tracy wrote for his proposed radio mystery series, Murder Can Be Fun. Are Bill's scripted murders coming real?!

This surrealistic element is something that Brown would develop more powerfully in the novel some people regard as his masterpiece, Night of the Jabberwock (1950).*

*(in Murder Can Be Fun, incidentally, Brown actually makes a couple references to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass and to animated chess pieces)

Bill's current job is writing scripts for the popular radio soap opera, Millie's Millions.  Fredric Brown's portrait of a forties radio show is for me the most appealing part of this appealing book (and probably will be to as you as well if you love old-time radio).

The author of Murder Can Be Fun doesn't think too much of radio soap opera:

In moments of fairness, [Bill] would admit that the formula the soap operas used was the basic formula of all great literature.  The only difference, really, between Millie's Millions and, say, the Odyssey of Homer was that Ulysses suffered for a limited time only, whereas Millie went on forever, because her public demanded that they should. She couldn't get married happily and settle down, nor yet could she die and get her troubles over with.  That, of course, is the real reason why the radio serial must become a bane to the discriminating ear; instead of being a story with a beginning and an end, it goes on and on until it becomes a palpable and palpitating absurdity.

"[A] ghastly travesty of life," Brown terms radio soap opera (even more horribly, today we have "reality" television, which actually claims to be real life).

Of course in Murder Can Be Fun there's a mystery to be solved and there's a nice fair play puzzle embedded in the text.  There's also a winsome little romantic subplot, involving Bill with two fetching ladies, next door neighbor Millie (a hosiery model, not the Millie of Millie's Millions) and the lovely and ambitious blonde stenographer, Dotty. In fact Murder Can Be Fun could almost be called a cozy of sorts (a cocktail cozy, if you will)--though I wasn't altogether sure that that last line bode all that well for Bill!  Read it and see for yourself.  It's a swell mystery tale.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

King of Capers: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

This 1968 caper film starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway and directed by Norman Jewison (who previously directed Steve McQueen in his 1965 poker film, The Cincinnati Kid) is short on substance but long on style and star appeal, in the manner of such earlier sixties crime flicks as Charade (1963), Arabesque (1966) and How to Steal a Million (1966).

Some people have complained that there was too much plot in Steve McQueen's other 1968 crime film, the mega-hit Bullitt, but arguably The Thomas Crown Affair is too short on plot (Alan Trustman wrote The Thomas Crown Affair screenplay and co-adapted the screenplay of Bullitt).  There's about enough plot in the film for a Mission Impossible television episode, though it's padded with some pretty stuff.

The Thomas Crown Affair received Oscar nominations for best score and best song, winning an Oscar in the latter category, for the hit song "The Windmills of Your Mind."  I was only two years old when this film opened at the box office, but even I somehow knew the lyric "Like the circles that you find/In the windmills of your mind"--I think due to a bit on The Carol Burnett Show in the 1970s!

Faye Dunaway

Somehow the film missed a nomination for best costume design, surely a disappointment for whoever designed the seemingly endless succession of sixties-chic outfits that a stunning-looking Faye Dunaway wears during her single hour of screen time (over a half-hour elapses before she appears).

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, looking blonder than ever and altogether quite natty in his various three-piece suits, must have had a lot of fun playing Thomas Crown, a millionaire undergoing something of an existential crisis (he organizes bank robberies because he's bored, you see, conveniently leaving insurance companies--hiss!--to pick up the tab).

Thomas and Vicki going out for a spin

As Crown, McQueen gets to sleep with both Astrid Heeren (wow!) and Faye Dunaway, fly a glider--well, he didn't actually fly the glider himself, as I understand it, and I don't know whether or not he really slept with his attractive female co-stars, but this seems to have happened with some frequency over McQueen's career--smoke cigars, play polo, drive a dune buggy and just look all round darn cool in general.

these two players have all the right moves

With Dunaway he even gets to play out (or perhaps I should say make out) the film's much-talked about erotic chess scene (and people think chess is boring!).

a split screen heist (Yaphet Kotto on the lower left)

There is a neat bank heist at the beginning of the film that is quite effectively filmed (much use is made of split screen images). One of Crown's crooks is the fine African-American actor Yaphet Kotto, making one of his earliest appearances, and another is the great, late character actor Jack Weston.

Vicki always gets her man....

The police are stymied, naturally, but once Vicki Anderson, impossibly stylish insurance investigator, shows up she is soon hot on Crown's trail. She makes some nice deductions here, but also some absurdly casual intuitions (she immediately eliminates one possible suspect because he's too "square" looking to be a clever criminal).

Will Thomas Crown elude the clutches of the law?

But who am I kidding?  People surely went to see this film to enjoy watching two beautiful people romance each other in beautiful locations surrounded by beautiful things; and here the film does not disappoint.  As the smart and determined Vicki Anderson starts to fall for the debonair and enigmatic Thomas Crown, will she allow her career ambitions to triumph over love?  Or will Thomas Crown get the last laugh on the law?

on top of the world

Well, I won't tell! See this original version of The Thomas Crown Affair for yourself, if you haven't already, even if you've seen the more recent remake.  That sixties style is hard to match today.