Sunday, October 30, 2016

An Abbott and Costello Comedy Creeper Double Feature: Hold That Ghost (1941) and Who Done It? (1942)

Being a great fan of Universal classic horror films as a kid in the 1970s, one of my favorite films that was shown regularly on television back then was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), where the classic comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello encountered, to their horror and our hilarity, the unholy trinity of Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula (played once again by Bela Lugosi) and the Wolf Man.

This comeback film for the two talented yuksters spurred a whole new series of Abbott and Costello films, wherein the pair "met," for example, the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), the Invisible Man (1951), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953) and the Mummy (1955)  Some of these films incorporate mystery elements as well.

But Abbott and Costello's filmography goes back farther than that.  They first appeared together on film as a comedy team in One Night in the Tropics in 1940, stealing the show.  The next year they starred in the smash hit Buck Privates, which was followed over the next couple of years by In the Navy (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), Keep 'Em Flying (1941), Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942), Rio Rita (1942), Pardon My Sarong (1942) and Who Done It? (1942).  Two of those titles will immediately suggest themselves to mystery fans: Hold That Ghost and Who Done It?

a dark and stormy matte painting

Hold That Ghost is an old dark house flick played for laughs, like Bob Hope's The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), films which set the gold standard for this sub-genre. In the film Abbott and Costello are gas station attendants who manage to inherit a deceased gangster's old Twenties-era roadhouse. (Don't ask me to explain how this comes about here, but the gangster's will reading scene is amusing.)

They go out there, one dark and stormy night, and it turns out that the moribund roadhouse is quite the old dark house.  Let me add in passing here that these early Abbott and Costello flicks really had great set designs: the old dark house in this film is a splendid one indeed, riddled with secret passages and hidden rooms, and it's just all-round cobwebby creepy.

Don't they know to stay out of the cellar? Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Richard Carlson

Other people end up at the defunct roadhouse as well: pencil-thin mustached gangster Charlie Smith (Marc Lawrence), obviously up to no good; a beautiful blonde, Norma Lind (Universal's "Scream Queen" Evelyn Ankers); handsome, bespectacled Dr. Jackson (Richard Carlson), who seemingly has eyes more for water microbes than for lovely Norma Lind; and wacky radio mystery star Camilla Brewster (Joan Davis).

Another thing I have to interject here is what a good supporting cast this is!  Abbott and Costello films followed a pattern, common for the day, of having a romantic subplot run parallel with the zany doings of our boys.  Often in these situations the male and female lovers are bland and boring, making their passages d'amore a chore to watch, but here the dependable Evelyn Ankers and Richard Carlson are a charming pair.

Carlson in fact had appeared in The Ghost Beakers the year before and in 1941 he was in the acclaimed film The Little Foxes as well.  He's best known for King Solomon's Mines, I think, as well as the sci-fi/horror films he did in the 1950s, such as The Magnetic Monster, It Came from Outer Space, The Maze, Riders to the Stars and Creature from the Black Lagoon (another absolute favorite of mine as a kid).  He was also in The Spiritualist/The Amazing Mr. X (1948), a fine little film that I reviewed here.

And fangs!  Like this!!
Bud Abbott, Joan David, Richard Carlson (Evelyn Ankers peeking out from the shadows)

Then there's Joan Davis--best known today, I believe for the Fifties television series I Married Joan--who is superb as the comic female in the film.  She adds a lot from the humor standpoint, including a memorable waltz-rumba dance scene with Lou Costello.

And let's not forget Marc Lawrence, whose credited film career spanned seventy years, from White Woman (1933), not at all a bad thriller with Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard (reviewed by me here) to The Shipping News (2001) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)  Lawrence appeared in countless crime shows on the big and small screens over the decades, often playing gangsters.  He had good roles in such classic films as This Gun for Hire, Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle.

Hail, Hail, the gang's all here (and a certain person is totally stressed out again)
Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis, Richard Carlson

I should also mention Shemp Howard, who has one nice scene in a drugstore, and Mischa Auer, who appears in book ending nightclub scenes, which also include numbers by the Andrew Sisters and Ted Lewis, performing his theme song, "Me and My Shadow" (a performance that you would not see today).

In only their third of many starring outings, Abbott and Costello are in top form here, Abbott bossy and bullying (at times he comes off like a snarling Dan Duryea) and Costello the not-too-bright man-child, who gets very stressed out indeed in trying situations.

He has one of his classic bits here, involving a pair of candlesticks.  I also love the discussion he, Abbott and Joan Davis have about "figures of speech," it's a hoot.  I know some people consider Abbott and Costello's humor unpardonably low, but I admire the gusto Costello put into his best performances.  In his own way I think he was a comedy genius.

Hold that Ghost is, I think quite a bit better than Who Done It? Abbott and Costello don't seem as funny here, and the supporting cast, which includes some fine players, like Thomas Gomez (the murder victim), William Bendix (dumb cop) and Mary Wickes (gal Friday, essentially the Joan Davis role from Ghost), don't have as good material either.

Patric Knowles
and Louise Allbritton carry the romantic subplot here and while they are perfectly competent and pretty to look at, they come off as rather aloof and superior and don't have the sparks that the more naturalistic Ankers and Carlson do in Ghost.

The great Thomas Gomez is murdered after one scene, and so is wasted.  The mystery plot might not have been bad, but here, unlike in Ghost, Abbott and Costello's frantic antics work decidedly against it.

Still, there are some good bits, including a great finale (I can see the influence on the 1994 film Radioland Murders, reviewed here), and there's a wonderful evocation of a radio mystery series, Murder at Midnight, in a couple of scenes. I don't know who played the radio announcer, but he did a fine job in this part. 

"Murder! At Midnight"
....(cue woman's scream)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Pump up the Volume! Radioland Murders (1994)

witnesses to death
Scott Michael Campbell and Brian Benben

Radioland Murders, a terrifically frenetic yet warmly nostalgic comedy-mystery film produced by George Lucas, was overwhelmingly panned by critics upon its release in the US and promptly cratered at the box office, having one of the biggest second weekend drops in American film history; yet since then it has enjoyed a good life on television, video and DVD, having developed something of a loyal fan following.

I'll admit it, I'm one of those fan followers.  Sure, the film is far from Woody Allen's ingenious Bullets over Broadway (1994), but it leaves me with a smile.

Anita Morris
At the time of its release, Radioland Murders received a dreaded one-star review from the late film critic Roger Ebert, who lambasted it as "all action and no character."  It certainly is one frenetically paced film, obviously drawing inspiration from Thirties screwball comedy as well as slapstick Forties mystery spoofs like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's Who Done It? (1942) (which is also set at a radio station). 

The film was originally conceived by George Lucas when he was writing the script of American Graffiti. (He also has a certain untitled science fiction film in mind.)  By 1979 it was slated for production (Steve Martin and Cindy Williams had been approached to star as the leads), but it took fifteen years for the film, heavily rewritten to appeal to the MTV generation, finally to be made.

Set in 1939 during the inaugural night of a major new radio network (WBN-Chicago), Radioland Murders is a madcap, mile-a-minute mystery film with a fantastic cast, although many of the parts are little more than cameos. 

Frantic! Scott Michael Campbell and Mary Stuart Masterson

The film's main characters are radio scriptwriter Scott Henderson (Brian Benben), Penny Henderson (Mary Stuart Masterson), Scott's estranged wife and assistant director at WBN, and harassed page boy Billy Budget (Scott Michael Campbell); though there are a tremendous number of additional players, including:

Ixnay on the urdermay! Mary Stuart Masterson and Brian Benben

Michael Lerner
as Lieutenant Cross, the police officer investigating the murders; Dylan Baker as Detective Jasper, Cross's dim assistant; Ned Beatty as General Walt Whalen, the owner of WBN; Jeffrey Tambor as Walt Whalen, Jr., WBN program director; Larry Miller as Herman Katzenback, the German-born stage manager of WBN; Anita Morris as Claudette Katzenback, "the va-va-va voom girl with the va-va-va voom voice"; Stephen Tobolowsky as Max Applewhite, the WBN sound engineer; Michael McKean as Rick Rochester, the WBN band conductor; Corbin Bernsen as Dexter Morris, the station announcer; Christopher Lloyd as Zoltan, sound effects impresario; Ellen Albertini Dow as the WBN organist; and Bobcat Goldthwait, Harvey Korman, Robert Klein, Ann De Salvo and Peter MacNicol as additional scriptwriters.

Whew! Even after six murders, there is still quite a bit of cast left!

the frequently clueless WBN scriptwriters get a lot of helpful tips from
cleaning lady Morgana (Leighann Lord, center), in a nice bit of social commentary

I'll admit right off that the mystery element is certainly a fizzle as a fair play mystery, but the plot still offers the old attraction of keeping us in suspense to see who will be next to be bumped off.  Also, the film adheres to the classic "wrong man" plot gambit so beloved by Alfred Hitchcock and other suspense film directors, as Scott Henderson gets arrested by Lieutentent Cross for the murders and ends up making a break for it, getting pursued by the blundering cops all over the towering station building. 

On the lam with a fruity problem: Brian Benben

The production design of the film is fantastic (if improbably elaborate?) and the radio show parodies that hurtle past us are wonderful. (Of course it helps if you love old time radio.)  Roger Ebert was right that there isn't much emphasis on character development--I think the page boy Billy Budget, in a winsome performance by Campbell, actually has the most developed character (he even has a story arc!)--but a number of the characters make impact even with their limited screen time. 

Back on the case: Michael Lerner and Brian Benben

The great Michael Lerner makes a great blustering cop; Anita Morris, in her last role (she tragically died from ovarian cancer at the age of 50 seven months before the film opened), is funny and sexy to the very end; Stephen Tobolowsky offers a welcome oasis of calm for much of this frantic film; Dylan Baker is delightfully dim indeed; Michael McKean, is quite droll in a mostly visual performance (check out the Saber Dance scene); Corbin Bernsen is memorably suave and acidly snide as the announcer; and even Bobcat Goldthwait didn't seem as irritating as I remember him from those days. Brian Benben and Mary Stuart Masterton gamely follow the bickering and bantering path blazed by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, even if their lines aren't nearly as good and Benben's character is more schlep than sophisticate.

Off the hook?  Brian Benben and Mary Stuart Masterson

I should mention too that there are additional cameos, uber-cameos, by Joey Lawrence, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Barty and, in his last film, the legendary George Burns, then 98 years old and with a delivery as comically deadpan as ever.  Radioland Murders always leaves me wanting to see more of the characters who inhabit its world (until they get bumped off); and that's not a bad thing to say about any creative work.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Writing Illini, Part 2: More Detail on the College Days of Rudy Kagey, aka Kurt Steel

Pictured in this 1927 Sigma Alpha Epsilon group photo are
Rudolph H. Kagey (second row, fifth from left) and his close college friends
Charles E. Bliss and Robert M. Yoder (back row, second and fourth from left)

See Part One here.

One of Rudy Kagey's two closest undergraduate friends at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was Robert M. Yoder (1907-1959), a fraternity brother of Kagey's in Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

A man and his machine:
Robert McAyeal Yoder in the mid 1940s
(this copy now owned by the passing tramp)
Having become in his post-college years a columnist with the Chicago Daily News, Yoder achieved a certain literary distinction after his service in the Second World War, in which he, then a husband and father of three, was commissioned a naval lieutenant. His wartime job consisted, according to his daughter, of writing speeches for admirals. (He was evaluated during the war as "an exceedingly competent public relations officer" and "an exceedingly facile writer, with great ability.")

In the post war years Yoder became a nationally known humorist and an associate editor at the Saturday Evening Post. His daughter recalled that he "would have liked to have been a Fred Allen or a Grocho Marx.  He used the same kind of biting humor and would have liked the greater degree of notoriety held by those two. [He] was....a Democrat, a Presbyterian....The Presbyterianism was taken on from his mother, but he did not display it much....

When Yoder wed in 1932, the marriage was conducted by Charles Evans Bliss (1906-1986), a young Illinois county judge, who was another great undergraduate friend of Rudy Kagey during his college years.  (Like Kagey and Yoder, Bliss was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.)

Oddly enough, Robert M. Yoder was a very distant--eighth, to be exact--cousin of my mother's, something I didn't even know before I began learning about Rudy Kagey. Yoder's elder brother, Dale, was a noted twentieth-century labor economist. 

Sigma Alpha Epsilon, UIUC campus
Rudy Kagey himself was clearly interested in journalism when he attended UIUC, serving as literary editor and columnist at the Daily Illini, a student-run newspaper founded in 1871.  For the newspaper he reported on campus events, reviewed plays and wrote editorials and satires. Possibly his most notorious piece for the DI was an editorial he published in January 1925, when he was 20, titled "The Balance."

In this piece Kagey lamented the postwar decline in emphasis in college education on the fine arts relative to the mechanical sciences and athletics, querying: "Has the placement on an equal footing of the department of Modern Languages, Athletic Coaching, Animal Husbandry, and History not rather destroyed a great Balance that has existed since the beginning of wisdom?" As Kagey would have been well aware, college enrollment nearly doubled in the United States during the 1920s, and with this phenomenon came greater emphases on "practical" business and technical education, as well as a heavy focus on organized intercollegiate athletics, especially football, the popularity of which dramatically expanded over the course of the Jazz Age.

With his editorial Kagey succeeded in stirring up, as the DI put it, "hornets from the ravaged nest of the good people," who accused him of anti-democratic elitism.  In his letter to the paper, someone who signed himself "Sir Laughalot" surmised that "the academic Mr. Kagey...does not care much for football, animal husbandry, engineering or any of those pursuits which do not involve the assimilation of the higher learning."

a favored subject of Greek muses

Sir Laughalot allowed that "everybody knows that football and engineering...have pushed the Muses off their sacred wall and have built stadia and skyscrapers on Mount Olympus," but faulted "the Muses for putting up such a poor resistance."  Sir Laughalot pointed out that "Pindar wrote odes to Greek athletes that far outlived the fame of those athletes" and suggested that if "Herr Kagey really has the divine thirst let him stop raving about commercialism and morons, and take his pen in hand and compose an 'Ode to Red Grange' which will be read twenty centuries hence."

Kagey's college contemporary Red Grange (1903-1991), for those who don't know, played halfback for the University of Illinois from 1923 to 1925, winning for himself the nickname "the Galloping Ghost." He inspired the esteemed sportswriter and broadcaster Grantland Rice to pen these poetic lines about him, as Sir Laughalot had suggested to "Herr Kagey":

A man and his ball:
Red Grange commemorated
A streak of fire, a breath of flame,
Eluding all who reach and clutch;
A gray ghost thrown into the game,
That rival hands may never touch;
A rubber bounding, blasting soul,
Whose destination is the goal--Red Grange of Illinois!

In a 1983 interview Red Grange himself recalled of his college education at UIUC:

I didn't have a scholarship.  Never such a thing. Heavens no.  Everybody paid their own way.  I never got a dime to go to school.

I majored in business.  Took a business course and economics, history, analytical geometry.  I had all kinds of trigonometry.

And I had good marks in school.  Just because I played football, doesn't mean I was dumb.  A Lot of people think, because you play football, you're dumb.

A new football stadium had been completed at UIUC in 1923, the year of the lauded Red Grange's arrival, at the cost of 1.7 million, or about 24 million today (actually not so much by today's stadium standards, though it unquestionably represented the greatly increased financial commitments that colleges were making to football programs in the Twenties).  On October 14, 1924, some 67,000 people attended Illinois' home game against Michigan, which vaulted Red Grange, who over the game's duration scored six touchdowns (including a 95-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff), to national prominence. Rudy Kagey evidently was less impressed than Grantland Rice with Red Grange's dramatic accomplishment, however.

"R. E. H.," another contentious letter writer on the question of academic "balance," quite explicitly threw down the class card, castigating "poor, deluded Kagey" in unambiguously egalitarian terms: "Will you please tell him for me that today, even as three thousand years ago, the older order changeth, giving place to the new?"

Illinois Memorial Stadium (completed in 1923,
during Rudy Kagey''s freshman year in college)

R. E. H. urged that the old order, which he suggested Kagey try imagining as a seesaw, was no great shakes:

Now in the olden days, so fondly eulogized by Mr. Kagey, on one end of this seesaw were the University people.  There were only a few of them.  Mr. Kagey admits that fact.  At the other end was the great mass that constituted the rest of the people.  That, says Mr. Kagey, was the ideal Balance. ...The great mass of the people were down on the ground, in the muck, and the favored few--and favored by birth, please note--were up in the clouds, blissfully chattering of their wonderful Balance.

Now see what has happened.  One by one, the great mass has climbed up the seesaw toward the fulcrum.  Bit by bit, as they got closer and closer, and as some of them even crawled past the fulcrum and out amongst the favored few, the lighter end of the seesaw dropped and the lower end raised. The more near a level the seesaw became, the easier it became for the great mass to climb up the board. And as their end of the board began to sink, the favored few were forced to creep closer to the fulcrum themselves, to keep from dropping down.  They even began to mingle with the great mass. From such a mingling has come those dire calamities, Animal Husbandry, Athletic Coaching, and their ilk.

Of course there are still remnants of the favored few hanging on to the end of the seesaw. You can find them here in the back rooms of the seminars, and while they are forced down to the level of the others, or nearly so, they are still a separate, and probably an advanced, group.  But they aren't arguing how many angels can dance on the point of a pin, or whether Joan should be burnt because she talked of God and not the Church, they are discussing the economic interpretation of history, and psycho-analysis as a means of getting better results from employees.  Maybe, if Mr. Kagey walks very carefully and keeps his balance, he can edge his way out there.  Probably enough of the great mass are still left on the opposite end of the seesaw to keep the balance.

"Maybe, if Mr. Kagey walks very carefully and keeps his balance,
he can edge his way out there."

In contrast with "Sir Laughalot," the criticism of "R.E.H." is rather stinging toward Kagey, casting the young philosophy major as a snobbish elitist desirous of maintaining the college as a rarefied bastion of class privilege.  This attack prompted one "Cinicus" to come to Kagey's defense. "R.E.H.'s" letter may well have constituted a "swell little essay on social equality" "Cinicus" rather condescendingly conceded, but it missed the point entirely, since the "Balance" in Kagey's essay concerned not that "between aristocrats and peasants, or even college men and non-college men," but, rather, that "on which is weighed the value of the mechanic arts and the fine arts."

"Bernard" next entered the fray, chastising both Kagey and Cinicus for their lofty pretensions to intellectual superiority:

Strange as it may seem to Mr. Kagey and to Cinicus, there are other pursuits in this corner of the Cosmos besides Literature and The Arts....There is just as much learning involved in these other pursuits as there is in the former....Men fully as brilliant as our two Schoolmen, Kagey and Cinicus, may at this minute be carrying on research in Apiary Management, while the fratres ponder upon the submerging of the Balance.

I couldn't help thinking, as I read over this epistolary dispute, how a decade later Rudy Kagey would as "Kurt Steel" launch a successful writing career in crime fiction, one in which over time he would address highly topical social issues like racism and the struggle between capital and labor, typically from more of a liberal/left perspective. 

From the lofty heights of proud tower of pure intellect he chose to climb down annually in the Thirties and Forties and address the public in a popular literary medium. Perhaps his spat with Sir Laughalot, Bernard and, most of all, R. E. H. spurred him in this direction. 

However, there is evidence that Kagey's own family background tended to orient him this way as well.  In the next post I want to look at the public activities of Rudy Kagey's mother, Martha, who exercised great influence over him, and the future crime writer's own early expressions concerning the perennially thorny subject of race.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Writing Illini: Rudy Kagey (aka Kurt Steel) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Although Rudolph Hornaday Kagey (aka mystery writer Kurt Steel) was born in 1904 in the small Illinois town of Tuscola, sometime around the outbreak of the First World War he moved with his parents, Charles Claudius and Martha Francis (Hornaday) Kagey, to Flint, Michigan, where his father served as secretary and general manager of the Guaranty Title and Mortgage Company. By 1922, however, the family had returned to Illinois, specifically the city of Champaign, some thirty miles north of Tuscola.

Kagey House in Champaign, IL (right)

The Urbana-Champaign metropolitan area is home to the flagship campus of the University of Illinois system.  Rudy Kagey attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign between 1922 and 1927, received BA's and MA's there in 1926 and 1927.  In the latter year Kagey left UIUC for New York to attend Columbia University, where he received a PhD in philosophy in 1929. For the remaining 17 years of his short life he would teach philosophy at New York University.  Between 1935 and 1943 he also would publish ten mystery novels under his Kurt Steel pseudonym.

After his premature death at the age of 41 in 1946, Rudy Kagey's body was sent back to Tuscola, where he was laid to rest.  Matthew T. McClure (1883-1964), then Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UIUC and formerly the chairman of the philosophy department when Kagey was there, eulogized his late pupil as follows:

Rudy, as he was affectionately known to us, was carving for himself a distinguished career.  He must have seemed to himself to possess an inexhaustible store of energy, for he worked with a drive and at a tempo that knew neither caution nor limit.  His achievements as a writer of radio scripts, mystery stories, and magazine articles, as well as his more serious contributions to philosophy, his ruling passion, carried him in a swiftly moving rise to literary and professional recognition. 

Rudy never lost his affection for his friends here.  And we here never lost our interest and pride in his career in New York.  I remember how swiftly the news went around among us when we finally discovered that Kurt Steel was our own Rudy Kagey.

Kagey definitely made his mark at UIUC, as did his parents in Champaign, where they lived in a wide-porched Victorian house on West Hill Street.  I'll be looking at this matter, plus actually reviewing some "Kurt Steel," very soon.

"Death Loves a Shining Mark"
Rudy Kagey's burial plot in Tuscola, IL

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

So You're Going to Write a Mystery? Kurt Steel Has Some Tips For You

Kurt Steel's "So You're Going to Write a Mystery," is, like crime writer Todd Downing's "Murder Is a Rather Serious Business" (collected in my book Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing), a 1940s trade article advising would-be mystery writers on just how to go about it.  At about 2400 words it's shorter than Downing's piece, but still interesting in its own right.  The two men, by the way, had very closely contemporaneous crime writing careers, Downing publishing nine detective novels between 1933 and 1941, seven of them about amateur sleuth Hugh Rennert, and Steel publishing ten detective novels between 1935 and 1943, nine of them about series sleuth PI Hank Heyer.  Death curtailed the career of Steel, who was two years younger than Downing but died at the age of 41, while Downing simply retired from fiction writing, as far as we know, though he lived on for over thirty years.

A reading of "So You're Going to Write Mystery" makes clear that what one might call Kurt Steel's aesthetics of mystery writing were similar to those of Raymond Chandler, who followed Steel into print with a novel, The Big Sleep (1939), by four years, although he had been publishing short fiction in the pulps since December 1933, with the appearance of "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" in Black Mask.  Both men cited Dashiell Hammett as a guiding angel, though Steel in the article also discusses S. S. Van Dine, to whom deference still was paid at this time by many in the United States (where he had once been a huge bestseller) as one of the leading exponents of the classical, puzzle-oriented mystery novel.

In the beginning of the essay Steel (who was actually NYU philosophy professor Rudolf Kagey) jumps right into a problem that then much preoccupied mystery fiction theorists of the day (and would continue to do for decades to come, as, for example, when Julian Symons and Jacques Barzun jousted over the question in the 1970s): the distinction between the mystery as story and the mystery as puzzle.  Steel was most definitely in the story school, as he saw it.

Rudolph Kagey (aka Kurt Steel) in the classroom
at left are three NYC policemen who were taking special classes at NYU

"The problem of compiling a puzzle is one which belongs properly to the realm of logic and mathematics," Steel pronounced.  "As such it has nothing to do with the problem of writing a story.  Nothing whatever.  If you intend to write mysteries, you must understand that, and you must bear it in mind constantly.  You must learn, first of all, to write a story, a yarn, fiction that is honest and true in its own right, about people who are real with that impelling reality that people in well-written fiction have always had since Homer's day."

Steel declared that the "traditional detective story," by which he meant one centered strictly on the murder problem ("Who killed Cock Robin?"), is "simply a freezing of this universal pattern into one small and cramping mold.

the classic confession scene
"[T]o write a mystery story that has one chance in a hundred of making the magazines that pay, or which will have more than a one-day sale as a book," he advised mystery writing neophytes, "you must concentrate on some age-old problems of craftsmanship in addition to making a pretty puzzle and hiding clues.  You must learn to create characters, characters equipped with full complements of the vital juices; you must learn to describe a scene so that it sticks in the reader's mind...; you must learn the genuine springs of love and hate and fear and malice and charity and dip your story deep in them; you must, above all, never cheapen your story by sacrificing what you know to be the truth in order to achieve a flashy effect."

Like other prominent mystery fiction theorists at the time like Chandler and Dorothy L. Sayers, Steel was calling on the mystery story to move into the mainstream of fiction by adopting the qualities of the so-called "straight" novel; not relying "merely" on the puzzle to carry the tale, but rather the qualities of good writing, characterization, setting and scene.

"If you expect to be a success at writing mystery stories, you must set yourself to impressing people in such a way that they will not readily forget the stories you write.  That is the test.  To do that you must create something, not merely record the intricacies of the puzzle....a cash customer's experience in reading your story must be predominantly emotional. He must, in the act of reading what you have written, feel sympathy, suspense, hatred, grief, concupiscence, jubilation.  In short, he must participate in events which are dramatic because they involve the lives of genuine people brought together only incidentally by crime...."

Steel turned for an example to Dashiell Hammett's keystone hard-boiled text, The Maltese Falcon:

creator of the "blond Satan"
Dashiell Hammett
"If you will read (or re-read) Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon you will see what I mean.  Who cares whether a ragpicker or a Kleagle or Floyd Thursby actually killed Miles Archer?  But what reader can put that book down after the first paragraph, in which he meets Sam Spade who "looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan"?  And who, on finishing the book, can forget Brigid O'Shaugnessy, Joel Cairo, Gutman, Spade himself (who, despite the brevity of his career, deserves to live in the company of Vidocq and Holmes)?

The Maltese Falcon
is a book you don't forget, and it is that because it is a whale of a good yarn about fascinating people."

This emphasis on the mystery as being dependent primarily on the reader's emotional rather than ratiocinative engagement certainly goes against the Barzun school of mystery criticism, which cherishes the problem-oriented detective novel above all other forms of mystery. However, Steel did not, as Chandler sometimes seemed to, utterly discount the matter of the puzzle. 

sitting in judgment
S. S. Van Dine
Concerning the "construction and development of puzzles," Steel advised readers to consult S. S. Van Dine's Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories

Seventeen of the rules, Steel pronounced, "should be committed sternly to heart by anyone who tries to construct detective stories," as they "give a brilliant and simple chart of the pitfalls to be avoided."

Steel doesn't say what are Van Dine's three offending rules, but I feel confident that two he had in mind were the ones dealing with love interest and, to quote Van Dine's memorable term, "literary dallying":

#3 There must be no love interest in the story.  To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment.

#16 A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and detection.

Then there's the one (#17) that proscribes professional criminals as culprits, on the ground that the crimes such people commit "are the province of the police department--not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives."  Sniffed Van Dine: "Such crimes belong to the routine work of the Homicide Bureau."  (And. I might add more cynically, it saves the author from having to learn about police procedure.)

Steel offered three substitutions for Van Dine's "dubious trinity":

the sharp slap of reality
1. The detective...should not monopolize the spotlight to such an extent that his associates become mere lay figures slipping in and out of the wings at his bidding.  In my own case I have always tried to round out the cast of every story with several characters, each of which is interesting in his own right and with whom my Hank Hyer must share the stage whether he likes it or not.

2. The detective should be mortal like his opponent, not an observer of human frailties from the arctic eminence of his infallibility.  I have always been very careful to record Hyer's shortcomings candidly, never to gloss over his mistakes and the jams in which they land him.  Anyone who likes Hyer, likes him as a human being, not a calculating machine.

3. The pattern of the story should be such that minor characters are permitted to manifest a wider range of emotional response than merely fear, bewilderment, and prostration at the genius's feet.  That is, they should reveal idiosyncrasies, get into peripheral scrapes, make love.  In Judas, Incorporated I have extended the emotional latitude to include Hyer himself.
a chess problem
While Steel paid due, with exceptions duly noted, to Van Dine's rules, he nevertheless diagnosed readings of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest and The Thin Man as a "safe antidote to [Van Dine's] formalism.  These books of Hammett's are superior to anything Mr. Van Dine has written himself precisely because they break three of his cherished rules."

No "oh-so-irritating wise guy crap here" (see my immediately previous post).  Just well-meant advice for neophyte mystery-writers. How on point do you find it?  Certainly it was in accord with the temper of the times, as most modern crime fiction, I believe, tries, at least, to follow ideas similar to those laid out in Steel's three addenda. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"Oh-So-Irritating Wise Guy Crap": Chandler Melts Steel (But Was Chandler Full of Hot Air?)

Shot Down
Chandler wrote dismissively of
Kurt Steel's crime fiction but in
earning Chandler's scorn Steel
found himself in good company.
Raymond Chandler's marked crankiness toward other writers of crime fiction is amply demonstrated in his late-night correspondence (though regrettably all the acerbic hard-boiled author's fascinating correspondence still has not been preserved in a single volume).

To be sure, Chandler did praise some crime fiction authors, like Michael Innes and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, but in a net of vituperation he caught many another wriggling crime writer, including not only esteemed British Crime Queens like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorthy L. Sayers, but fellow American hard-boiled/noir authors like Ross Macdonald (one of the "literary eunuchs"), who felt the sting of Chandler's scorn all the rest of his life, and James M. Cain ("Proust in greasy overalls"), who returned Chandler's disfavor. There's no getting around it, Chandler was a very good (if highly entertaining) hater, and his ire found a lot of targets among his fellow mystery writers.

In a December 19, 1939 letter to the slick semi-hard-boiled mystery writer George Harmon Coxe (whose writing he once criticized in a letter to another correspondent), Chandler complained of the lack of good crime fiction in his local library in La Jolla, California, a city he dismissed, by-the-by, as "too dear, too damp, too elderly."

Chandler, it seems, was short of crime fiction to read. "If you still have that spare copy of your last book but one I'm hoping you are still feeling generous about it," he wrote Coxe, bluntly adding of his local library: "You're not represented."  He then declared, "But so are not a lot of other people who should be, and so are represented some mighty feeble gestures at detective fiction." On this point he expounded:

What do you make of a place that has one book by Hemingway, nothing by Faulkner, or Hammett, two pieces of oh-so-irritating wise guy crap by one Kurt Steel, everything by one J. S. Fletcher, a British brother who is far far duller than even a British brother has any right to be, nothing by Coxe, Nebel, Whitfield, or anybody you would think of as at all representative.  And my God no Gardner, yet a book called The Bigger They Come by A. A. Fair which copies the Gardner technique exactly and even swiped Gardner's idea of how Ed Jenkins couldn't be extradited.  

Raymond Chandler

Of course it's amusing to see Chandler complain about this nefarious "A. A. Fair" swiping from Erle Stanley Gardner, A. A. Fair having been a prominent pseudonym of Gardner's, but Chandler's recognition of the similarities of style in the novels of Fair and Gardner does show Chandler could be quite perceptive as a reader. (On another occasion he criticized Gardner's writing, though at yet another time, when he was bogged down with the plotting of his novel The Little Sister, Chandler expressly wished for Gardner's "facile plotting brain.") And few hard-boiled aficionados, I imagine, would cavil about Chandler's praise of a tough guy trinity like Dashiell Hammett, Frederick Nebel and Raoul Whitfield.

J. S. Fletcher could be, to be sure, rather, um, sedate, but what of Chandler's withering blast about mystery writer Kurt Steel's "oh-so-irritating wise guy crap"?  This shaft Chandler let fly at the end of 1939, a year in which Kurt Steel published a pair of what might be termed more serious social problem crime novels, Judas, Incorporated and The Crooked Shadow, efforts which I personally found quite interesting.

Had Chandler read either of these books? Or perhaps he had only read something of Steel's previous four shorter and slicker crime novels, what I call the Steel "Murder" series: Murder of a Dead Man (1935), Murder for What? (1936), Murder Goes to College (1936) and Murder in G-Sharp (1937).  Excerpts from critical reviews of the day give you some flavor of these earlier books:

Professor Rudolf Kagey smokes a pipe
while perusing a newspaper in 1942.
Rudy Kagey's "Kurt Steel" crime novels
were popular with reviewers and readers,
however much Chandler may have
dissented from general opinion.
The action, speed and lingo make it worthwhile. (Murder of a Dead Man)

Gangsters, gamblers, and counterfeiters contribute fast action to a tough but literate thriller. (Murder for What?)

Contains one of the most believable and nasty gangsters in fiction, wry humor, smart talk, shivers, and slick deducing. (Murder Goes to College)

For all its lurid descents into odd dives, voodoo overtones, crisply reminiscent patter, and abnormally observant detecting, it's slightly phony. (Murder in G-Sharp)

All of these persons deal in actions rather than words, and their actions are as quick and deadly as their words are forcible. (Murder for What?)

All six of the novels named above have a series detective, tough PI Hank Hyer, who also appears in Dead of Night (1940), Madman's Buff (1941) and Ambush House (1943). Hyer's qualities were described in this review of his debut novel:

[Hank] Hyer is a hard-boiled detective who does not shrink from burglary or other crimes when they suit his purpose.  No red tape is ever permitted to hamper his investigations. But tough as he is, his language is not so offensive to sensitive ears as that of some of the other detectives who have adorned the pages of recent detective fiction. So far as action and thrills go, he is the equal of any of them.  

Perhaps Chandler found all this synthetic and unconvincing, but I find Steel an entertaining writer. Ironically Steel himself--or I should say Professor Rudolf "Rudy" Kagey, philosophy professor of New York University, who wrote the "Kurt Steel" crime fiction--had a personal sense of mystery writing aesthetics that was rather similar to that of Chandler.  I'll be exploring this matter in an upcoming post on Steel's 1940s trade article, "So You're Going to Write a Mystery."