Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Passing Tramp at the Movies--Old Sinners Cast Long Shadows: The Good Liar (2019)

first date: Roy and Betty (Ian Mckellen and Helen Mirren)

When The Good Liar opens, it's late at night in England sometime in 2009 (yes, it's backdated a decade for a reason) and we see two elderly people in their separate dwellings using an internet dating service.  Like a lot of people on such services, one suspects, they are slipping in a few fibs here and there in their accounts of themselves: he says he doesn't smoke, as he puffs away a cigarette, she see says she doesn't drink, as she quaffs a glass of red wine.  So in a sense they are both liars--which of them will prove the good one?

Early on we find that the old man, Roy Courtnay (Ian Mckellen, 80), is not a merely an incidental white liar, but the deepest dyed of villains.  He's a con artist involved, often in tandem with his oily partner in crime, Vincent (Downton Abbey's Jim Carter), in multiple scams.  His latest one is bilking the aforementioned woman on the dating service--wealthy widow Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren, 74)--of her tidy little fortune.  Betty is no fool--hey, she's Helen Mirren--but gradually she allows Roy to inveigle himself further and further into to her life, to the expressed dismay of her humorless postgraduate history student grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), who fears this charming old man may be up to no good. 

Before you know it, however, Betty has allowed Roy to move into her house (though she resists his fumbling sexual blandishments) and the two are planning a lovely trip together to the continent, though they have some disagreement about which cities they should visit there.  (Ah, the carefree days before COVID-19!)

Of course we know Steven is right about Roy.  He isn't up to any good.  But just what is everyone else up to?

always beware
a determined Englishman with an umbrella
This is the sort of film you can't really adequately discuss with resorting to spoilers, which I am trying to avoid, as it was released in theaters only last year and only recently came out on DVD, so I am assuming  a lot of people have not seen it.  Critical consensus on the film seemed to be high on the distinguished lead actors, but kind of meh overall.  Myself, I liked it quite a bit, as someone with an admitted susceptibility to these sorts of genre films.

Certainly the leads are very appealing.  Two time Oscar nominee Mckellen dominates much of the film and is superb at conveying both the seemingly sweet-natured old duffer widower guise he adopts for the con's sake and the ruthless, knowing schemer that he really is. 

Admittedly, that divine, Oscar-winner, Queen Helen Mirren, takes a back seat to Ian Mckellen for much of the film, but she comes into her own later on, when she finally gets to go full Helen.  And then some.

A lot of people see this as a twist film.  It's based on the novel of the same title by author Nicholas Searle which frankly I haven't read, so I can't say how that aspect was played in the book; but the film boldly teases the question: Is Betty up to something herself?  After all this is Helen Mirren we're talking about!  Some other actress, someone like Imelda Staunton (63), say, though over a decade younger than Mirren would have been more plausible as a malleable, naive widow.  Mirren isn't even really "deglammed" in this film.  (No doubt a hard task!)

Even expecting, as I was, some sort of twist along these lines, however, I still found the plot most interesting to follow, having as it does some neat twists and turns. 


Admittedly, The Good Liar is not on par with director Bill Condon's 1998 collaboration with Ian Mckellen, Gods and Monsters (a brilliant bio film about eccentric gay horror director James Whale) but I think it's at least on the level of Condon's and Mckellen's 2015 mystery film of sorts, Mr. Holmes.  (Yes, it's about Sherlock.)  Condon and Mckellen are building up rather a nice body of work together as director and lead actor respectively.

glum grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) warns widowed Betty
that she's being taken for a ride by a charming rogue

It was also nice to see out actor Russell Tovey in a film as well.  With his jug ears and pug nose he's the "endearingly ugly" type--except he's not really ugly--who might have been cast as a stolid leading man in British Golden Age mystery films.  He did have a supporting role in Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun, but that was nearly two decades ago, when he was still a teenager.

To be sure, The Good Liar, as befits its subject, has a nastier edge than those earlier, poignantly bittersweet films, especially in its final ironic moments, but I found it an appealing twisty murder thriller for those as likes 'em.  But don't just take my word for it.  Never trust anyone.  See it for yourself!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Passing Tramp at the Movies--Plain Murder: Witness (1985)

Witness: young Samuel Lapp observes a murderer

My mother, who was born and grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, is, I would hazard to guess, of about 90% German ancestry, even though all of her German ancestors came to this country before the American Revolution and you would think there might have been some dilution of that stock over the decades.  But there never really was, not until after World War Two.  She had a paternal great-grandmother named Hannah Buffington, but even Hannah had only partially English ancestry.  (It's through Hannah Buffington's ancestors, by the way, that I'm related though marriage to Raymond Chandler, who has Pennsylvania Quaker roots going back to the time of William Penn.  Through Hannah I'm also related to the lesser known though recently reprinted onefer mystery writer and doctor, Ada Lingo.)

Everybody else in my mother's ancestry besides the Buffingtons was German married to German.  My mother's own maternal grandmother, who saw Lincoln's funeral train in Harrisburg, knew German and practiced German folk medicine, aka powwow, giving rise to my interest in the vintage mystery novel The Hex Murder.  So, in short, my mother is about as "Pennsylvania Dutch" as can be.

Some forty-five years ago, when I was eight years old, I spent some time in Pennsylvania with my relatives, and it was then that I first saw their very cool old house, which originated as a small structure in the 1830s.  There was a carpenter's workshop with a loft off to the side where my uncle kept his dartboard (a carpenter and a shoemaker once owned the house) and there was as well a cellar and a well and a staircase hidden behind a door that went up to a big attic with a mounted buck's head that stared, glassy-eyed, right back at you--all manner of things to fascinate a young boy.

the old family house in Pennsylvania
the original portion of the house was on the left, the bigger portion being added later
 on the right (it feels almost like a separate house)
the carpenter's shop is in back on the left
pictured are my mother's grandmother and her three daughters
(my mother's mother is on the far right) and their boarder
my mother's old room was on the second floor on the left, above her
grandmother's old sitting room

I have since had an interest in rural Pennsylvania culture, something which, eleven years later, drew me to the 1985 crime thriller film Witness, which is set in Amish country.  when it opened I saw it with my parents, appropriately enough.  Three years later I had a job interview in Wilmington, Delaware and after it I took time to visit my uncle at the old house in Pennsylvania.  I slept up in my mother's old bedroom, which faced the main street of the town.  Amish had moved up into the area since my mother's day and in the early morning you could hear the clop clop clop of horse's hooves as Amish came through town in their buggies.  It inevitably reminded me of Witness.

The other day I came across an article on the net from the New York Post, dealing with, like most news stories these days, the coronavirus: "Pennsylvania's Amish community not 'as spooked' by coronavirus, mothers say."  One of the Amish mothers interviewed for the article is named Ruth Lapp, the latter being the same surname as Samuel Lapp, the young titular character of the film Witness.  A character in the film comments about how common the Lapp surname is in Amish country, and evidently it is!  So I thought I'd watch the film again.

culture clash
a bloody murder in the City of Brotherly Love takes
Detective John Book (Harrison Ford) into the bosom of an Amish household--
that of the recently widowed Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis
and her inquisitive eight-year-old son, Samuel (Lukas Haas)

I should have watched in again sooner because I think I liked it better now than I did many years ago when I was nineteen.  Don't get me wrong, I liked it way back in 1985 (thirty-five years ago!), as did a great many people at the time.  In the U. S. the film grossed the equivalent of 161 million dollars in modern worth, and it scored eight Oscar nominations, including best picture, director (Peter Weir) and actor (Harrison Ford), winning two for original screenplay and film editing.  Although it lost best picture (to Out of Africa), it did win the Edgar for best crime/mystery film, beating out the Glenn Close thriller Jagged Edge and, more questionably in my view, the Coen Brothers' precociously brilliant Hitchcockian debut feature film, Blood Simple.

One thing I appreciate better now is just how fine the acting performances in Witness are.  Of course Harrison Ford deservedly got a lot of attention for his role in Witness, as stalwart police detective John Book, the role finally getting him out of his typecasting as Stephen Spielberg-George Lucas action hero in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films (although don't forget his earlier impressive turn in the landmark 1982 sci-fi crime noir film Blade Runner). 

I was interested to hear the producer of the film saying he was looking for someone like Gary Cooper in the 1956 film about Quakers, Friendly Persuasion, another best picture nominee. Big shoes to fill, but they managed it!  The entire cast is amazingly good, however.  And there are many other finer details which I don't believe I appreciated as much at the time.

a curious Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas) is struck by the sights at the
Philadelphia bus station (which looks like an
Edward Hopper painting, though the Amish interiors
look like Johannes Vermeer)

The basic plot of Witness follows the consequences of a trip taken to the big city (Philadelphia), after the untimely death of her husband, Jacob Lapp, by lovely young Lancaster County, Pennsylvania widow Rachel Lapp and her eight-year-old son, Samuel (the latter is the same age I was when I visited Pennsylvania in 1974).  Rachel Lapp en route to visit her sister in Baltimore, but she and Samuel are held up several hours at the bus station, during which time young Samuel, on a trip to the bathroom (Rachel seems a bit neglectful by today's standards), becomes an eyewitness to a violent murder.  Holed up in a toilet stall, he is, fortunately for him, unspotted by the two remorseless killers.  Thus he becomes Detective John Book's key to solving the crime, which has a high priority for Book, as the victim was an undercover cop.

At  a police station Samuel sees a photo in a newspaper clipping of a policeman, Lt. James McFee (a young Danny Glover, on the cusp of film stardom), and shockingly--or perhaps not--he identifies that man to Book as one of the killers.  Book now knows that he is dealing with a crooked cop, but when he takes this disturbing news to a superior, Chief Paul Schaeffer (played well by Josef Sommer, a German-American actor who seems to have specialized over his long career in weaselly authority figures), it turns out that the latter man is on the criminal activity too.  (This won't come as a surprise if you have seen many modern crime films.) 

Slimy Schaeffer promptly puts McFee onto Book, who survives McFee's murder attempt, though he is seriously wounded.  Of course the crooked cops now know there was a witness, some young Amish boy, so Book, after disappearing the police the records of the case, drives Rachel and Samuel out of the city and back to their community before collapsing himself from his wound.

tension in the air: John Book at table with Rachel Lapp
Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis

So now Book becomes a part of this Amish community, as the crooked cops attempt to track him down and kill him and the eyewitness.  This sets up the central dynamic of the film: the clash and gradual accommodation between Book's modern urban outlook and the Amish community's anachronistic rural values.  You might say this is really a culture clash film masquerading as a crime drama, except for the fact that it is punctuated with some effectively rendered sequences of violence.  (The finale, where Book employs information supplied him earlier by Samuel to great effect, is exceptional and made a great impression on me back in 1985.)  By director Peter Weir's own admission, it is the cultural aspect of Witness what drew him to what he terms a "genre film."

Since John Book spends so much of the film amid the Amish, it is important that this community be convincingly depicted, which it is.  Besides Rachel and her son Samuel, the major Amish characters are Rachel's stern but loving father-in-law, Eli Lapp (opera singer Jan Rubes), and her neighbor, Daniel Hochleitner (Russian ballet star Alexander Godunov), who is quite obviously quite smitten with Rachel. 

Both roles are unorthodoxly but superbly cast.  Godunov, who simply oozes charm, gives us a different picture of an Amish man, a worthy foil of sorts to John Book, whimsically humorous and even randy.  (He's introduced to us making a joke about a horse's testicle.)  In his first film role, Viggo Mortensen pops up as Daniel's brother, Moses, looking like a Botticelli angel.  I think he has one line in the film, but who cares?  He certainly looks the part.

Book doffs Amish duds; Hochleitner brothers
(Alexander Godunov and Viggo Mortensen) look on skeptically

Among the city folk--or "da English" as Eli calls them--I should also mention stage great Patti Lupone (!) as John Book's single mother sibling Elaine, who has briefly to put Rachel and Samuel up at her house in Philadelphia.  She only has a few scenes, but she's important in establishing Book as a caring, if somewhat overbearing, bachelor uncle of her children.  That's a crucial quality in Book's character as regards his relationship with young Samuel, with whom he shares some lovely scenes.  Through Samuel (and of course with his mother Rachel, more on that below) we see that Book can be sensitive and tender, not just the "tough cop"--although Harrison Ford does the tough cop very credibly too!

It helps of course that such a terrific performance is given by Lukas Haas as Samuel.  Witness is a film that depends heavily on actors' facial reactions, and Haas with his big black eyes and innocent mien is marvelously effective in this regard, as are Ford and McGillis, who really looks like she could be Haas's mother.  Haas, with Danny Glover, carries the pivotal bathroom murder scene with assurance.  (I should mention that while Glover's character is underwritten, he is smartly given, besides his casual cruelty, one memorable trait, the antithesis of Amish values, which Glover conveys with aplomb: vanity).

Samuel walks into an imminent crime scene

McGillis received supporting actress Golden Globe and Bafta nominations for this film, and I have to assume that she must have just missed an Oscar nomination, because she is superb here.  She captures the intensely quiet piety, modesty and spirituality associated with the Amish, or "plain people" as they are known, but she's also a real flesh and blood woman too, with an unmistakable sensual side to her.  This certainly comes out in her famous silent nude scene, but here, as in other places, it's really her face (and Harrison Ford's) that speaks volumes, not just her, ahem!, other showy body parts. 

Obviously Rachel is sexually attracted to John Book (as he is to her), but she's measured about it too, wanting to find out what kind of a man he truly is.  (She's impressed, for example, when she finds out he does carpentry.)  Could he really ever be a part of her world, she is wondering, or would he just not fit, like the pants of her dead husband which she symbolically gives him to wear.  Dead man's shoes, if you will?  (Rachel promises to let out those pants.)

I did find the Oscar-nominated synthesizer score by the famed Maurice Jarre a little jarring at items, but that was the eighties!  Although, to be sure, it's effective in the barn raising scene, one of the film's brilliant set pieces.  And the cinematography, by Oscar winner John Seale, is terrific.  I was struck on rewatching by how the Amish interiors resembled paintings by Johannes Vermeer, and I have since found out this was, naturally, by design.  I also thought the Philly bus station looked like something out of Edward Hopper.

the Amish are used to raising barns, not ruckuses,
but the outside world has different standards

Harrison Ford went on to do some additional notable crime genre films, like Roman Polanski's Parisian Hitchcock homage Frantic (1988); Presumed Innocent (1990), an adaptation of Scott Turow's bestselling crime novel; Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), both based on the Tom Clancy espionage chart toppers; and The Fugitive (1993), a big screen version of the beloved Sixties series about the man wrongly accused of killing his wife.  (It really was the one-armed man, don't you know.)

Yet I don't believe Ford ever did anything as good again in this vein as Witness.

Kelly McGillis famously went on to play Tom Cruise's nominal love interest in the famously homoerotic military action film Top Gun (1986), but, more interestingly from my perspective, she also co-starred with Jodie Foster in the rape courtroom drama The Accused (1988) and the Hitchcockian mystery thriller The House on Carroll Street (1988).

While still a boy, Lukas Haas starred in an interesting little mystery-horror film called Lady in White (1988) and played supporting roles in the Holocaust courtroom drama Music Box (1989), with Jessica Lange, and the quirky film Rambling Rose (1991), with Laura Dern and Robert Duvall.  He received an Emmy nomination for the biographical AIDS drama The Ryan White Story (1989) and has stayed a working actor, but honestly I completely lost track of him after the bizarre Tim Burton sci-fi black comedy Mars Attacks! (1996), until he popped up in a small role at the beginning of the reality-bending heist film Inception in 2010.  (I remember saying to people, hey, that's the Witness kid!  Not to be confused with the E. T. kid!)

Alexander Godunov died tragically young at forty-five, though he made his mark in acting not only in Witness but in the pratfall comedy The Money Pit (1986), with Tom Hanks, and the hugely popular Bruce Willis action thriller Die Hard (1988).

Acclaimed native Australian director Peter Weir made the enigmatic mystery film Picnic at Hanging Rock way back in 1975, when he was a prodigy of thirty, but he never really did the crime genre after Witness as far as I am aware--although admirers of rousing period adventure films should fondly recall Weir's Master and Commander (2003), based on the Patrick O' Brian series novels, which like Witness was nominated for, but did not win, best picture.

Eli Lapp (Jan Rubes) instructs his grandson,
(who like his mother seems enchanted by John Book):
"The gun--the gun of the hand--is for the taking of human life.
Would you kill another man?
What you take into your hands, you take into your heart."

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Box Office Poison! The Box Office Murders (1929), aka The Purple Sickle Murders, by Freeman Wills Crofts

the show must go on....

But though [Inspector French] didn't know it, Fate, weighty with the issues of life and death, was even then knocking at his door.


--The Box Office Murders, Freeman Wills Crofts

I was to do a discussion of this novel with Jim Noy on his blog, but what with work deadlines, a terminally ill parent, pandemics and the like, it seems it just did not work out for us.  So I am posting a review separately.  Read on, if you wish....


The most popular mystery writer of the 1920s (by far) was not Agatha Christie but Edgar Wallace, King of the Shockers.  We hear a lot about the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars--and it indeed it was such, and shiningly so--but this period was also the Golden Age of the classic thriller, as embodied by not only Wallace, but "Sapper," Sax Rohmer, John BuchanPatricia Wentworth and a host of other writers.

With the huge popularity of the thriller, it's no surprise that writers more commonly associated with classic detective fiction got in on the lucrative game as well.  There were, for example, Christie, of course, with her excessively jolly dogooders Tommy and Tuppence, Margery Allingham, with her debut Albert Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929), and Freeman Wills Crofts, who during the Twenties published three mystery novels in the thriller form (of nine from that decade): The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922), Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926) and The Box Office Murders (1929).

For my money, the best of this trio is easily the latter title, The Box Office Murders, published in the United States under the less apt but far more lurid title The Purple Sickle MurdersThe Pit Prop Syndicate, with its soppy heroine moaning over and over to her beloved, like a wilting Victorian miss, that their love "cannot be," and The Cheyne Mystery, with its dunderhead hero of whom Inspector French and the the author seem quite unaccountably fond, are not nearly Crofts' strongest books in my opinion; but The Box Office Murders is a different packet of thrills altogether, or so it seems to me.  (Plus there is detection.)


Who is killing cinema box office cashiers, all young women, in London?  (Remember when we used to go to movie theaters?) 

It is up to intrepid Inspector French to find the clues that lead to a infamously diabolical criminal conspiracy.  "As he picked up the [telephone] receiver," Crofts begins the novel weightily, "[Inspector French] little thought that that simple action was to be his introduction to a drama of terrible and dastardly crime, indeed one of the most terrible and dastardly crimes with which he had ever had to do."

That pregnant phone call introduces French to one Thurza Darke (You won't forget that name!): a distressed cinema box office cashier who believes that nefarious criminals have murdered her friend Eileen Tucker, a supposed suicide by drowning, and are now after her too.  Like Thurza, Eileen was a box office cashier.  Thurza believes that crooks had been trying separately to inveigle both young women into some sort of criminal scheme involving the cinemas, by means of pulling them into bottomless pits of rigged gambling and resulting debt.

As I discuss in my book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (2012), Crofts had an obsession with the evils of gambling.  Its perils crop up over and over in his books.  "How many times had just such a little drama been enacted, and how many times it would again," Crofts intones sententiously in The Box Office Murders.  "Probably since before the dawn of history  gambling had been used to get fools of the human race into the power of knaves."  I don't know that cavemen were rolling dice (bones maybe), but this does seem to have been a highly personal indeed to Crofts, who takes on his most solemn and biblical of cadences as a writer when addressing it.

Just what sort of scheme the crooks are up to, however, is unclear, and this becomes the major part of the mystery French has to clear up.  His job is made harder when the terrified Thurza is found dead--another supposed suicide by drowning!

Through her friend Eileen, Thurza, however, was able to identify the lead crook as a man with a lividly purple, sickle-shaped scar on his wrist (giving rise to the American title of the novel).  Crofts ends the first chapter of the novel with these dramatic lines:

"And then," repeated Miss Darke excitedly and with an unconscious dramatic effort, "then he raised his arm and I saw his wrist.  Mr. French, it had a purple scar like a sickle on the inside!"

Is anyone else reminded of, "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"  Crofts may have cribbed this from the Master, but it's still highly dramatic, I would say!

Another of the "evildoers," as Crofts calls them (recalling former American president George W. Bush) is the gang's "procurer," if you will, the tellingly named Gwen Lestrange.  She's described as "a big girl, tall and broad and strong looking," with "a square face" and "a big jaw."  Obviously a wicked adventuress who has, like Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, unsexed herself with her wickedness.

This is an uncommonly sober novel, even for Crofts.  The concept of "sex" in reference to the young women is referred to directly (rare for Crofts, one of the most upright of authors) and one of the villains calls someone a bitch, although a long dash is primly used in place of the actual word.  Further, when Thurza is killed, French grows "hot with rage against the people whose selfish interests had led to the snuffing out of this young life."  Still, Crofts finds yet another menaced box office cashier, one Molly Moran, and puts her in peril of her life to try to nail the killers.  Will Molly meet the same fate as her predecessors?

French remains cavalier about police ethics (oxymoron?) in this novel.  He jokes with a chief constable about hoodwinking a coroner's court, for example, and he still uses his trusty "bent wire" to try illegally to break into places to conduct searches.  "By hook or by crook he would examine the car," French thinks at one point, "even if he had to commit a felony.

French is very determined indeed to put an end to evildoing.  When he wants to search a velvet side pocket of the car, however, he finds himself longing in vain "for the skill of Dr. Thorndyke to secure microscopic dust from its fibres...."  With all due respect to the brilliance of the fictional Dr. Thorndyke, wouldn't Scotland Yard have had a technical expert to do this?  Maybe that's a reason why French shouldn't always be breaking into things and, well, violating the law with his illegal searches and seizures.

This aspect gives French, for all his surface niceness, a ruthless quality that television adapters have picked up on, even as they have dispensed with French's motherly body of wife, Em.  In this book, as in others, Em sits and knits near her husband, when he's at home, "full of a tender maternal feeling for this great child in whom all her life was centered."  Blech!  Spare a little bit of your life for yourself, Em.

At these happy times by the domestic hearth, Em gets what she calls "notions" (if she were a man Crofts would call them ideas); and, no doubt about it, Em has a good notion indeed in this novel, one which makes you wonder why she isn't in the police force rather than her husband.  Yet the highly traditional Emily French would be a tough sell in a modern television adaptation, with all her placid knitting and matronly mothering.  Molly Moran is more like it now, spunky with a "stubborn little chin" (not mannish Gwen Lestrange's objectionable "big jaw")--though she's required to behave like a complete nitwit later in the book, in classic thriller fashion to be sure.  Still Molly would play admirably well on television.


I can also imagine how well those old movie palaces would show up on film.  Crofts captures a bit of that glamour when he writes that the "facade of the Cosmopolitan blazed with the coruscations of flaming lights as [French and Sergeants Carter and Harvey) ascended the marble steps to its doors."

Crofts' most arresting writing for me, however, is always when he takes on that old time biblical cadence.  It may sound hokey to some but for me Crofts' absolute sincerity carries it through.  Crofts was not a great writer (his fondness for cliches is on full display here), but he had great moral conviction which continues to impress with its sheer authenticity.  He also created one--and only one--great archetypal character in Inspector French.

Crofts can surprise you with his acute observations sometimes.  when French is looking for other menaced box office cashiers, he reflects that

There was no use in asking the mangers of the various London cinemas whether any of the girls under their charge had lately displayed signs of hidden anxiety.  So long as their work was done, the managers would neither know or care.

That's quite  statement on employer-employee relations, circa 1929! 

Back to what I call the biblical writing style of Crofts, let me close by offering a couple of examples.
"From such slight threads are the webs of justice woven" is one such line.  There is also the highly moralistic closing paragraph of the book, when we learn that

As for French, the consciousness of work well (if slowly) done was its own reward...he had at least the satisfaction of knowing that he had....cleared out a nest of evildoers whose removal was essential to the welfare of the entire country.

How satisfying such a happy (if hard won) resolution, where justice wins out in the end, must have been to readers who were heading into the 1930s, a decade of constant uncertainty and frequent terror.  Perhaps hindsight tells us that The Box Office Murders will afford similar comfort to readers today, nine decades later, as they plunge into the 2020s, which are already off to rather a perilous start.  After all, hindsight is 2020.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Murder as a Fine Art: Travers, P. I. --Christopher Bush's Ludovic Travers on Fifties dust jackets

the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
--the raptor to which detective
Ludo Travers frequently likened himself in the
Christopher Bush mysteries

Dean Street Press has a new tranche of Bushes--Christopher Bushes--out now, just in time for all those dreary (though necessary) quarantines and lock downs and what not.  These ten titles, beginning in 1952 and ending in 1957, are the cases of the Counterfeit Colonel, Burnt Bohemian, Silken Petticoat, Red Brunette, Three Lost Letters, Benevolent Bookie, Amateur Actor, Extra Man, Flowery Corpse and Russian Cross--the last of these, incidentally, being Bush's fiftieth, "Golden Jubilee" Ludovic Travers detective novel.

I shall be reviewing a few of these here soon, but in the meantime I wanted to pay tribute to the British Bush dust jackets of these years, when Ludo Travers became one of the best visualized of vintage crime fiction detectives.  Alan Hunter, author of the George Gently mysteries, at this time dubbed Ludo the "English Marlowe" (referencing Raymond Chandler's famed sleuth). 

If Bush's novels are ever adapted as films, the filmmakers certainly will have a ready model for casting the lead, courtesy of these splendid Macdonald jackets from the Fifties.  What actor looks like Ludo to you?

No social distancing going on here!
The Case of the Silken Petticoat (1953)
Here Ludo is consigned to the role of an onlooker on the jacket spine as a mysterious brassy blonde confronts arrogant critic Clement Foorde at the Cafe Rond.  This is a truly superlative jacket which really captures the scene from the book:

It was almost half-past six and the bar was pretty full. There was plenty of chatter and so much of a smoke haze that I had to give my hornrims a polish before I could see clearly to the far end. Behind the bar, and against a long background of multi-coloured bottles, a cocktail-wallah and a couple of barmen were busy as beavers.

A fat man had slid off a stool and put on his hat, and I was on that one vacant bar stool before its temperature had sunk by half a degree and ordering a treble whiskey and soda.  Then I had  a good look to my right, and there was Clement Foorde.

....Had I leaned forward I could have stroked the voluminous cape or the silky head of swept-back white hair.  I could almost have counted each hair in the mustache and the little imperial that barely reached the bottom of his chin, and I could see every detail of the setting of the handsome antique ring that flashed as he gently waved a white, gesticulating hand. 

He was in one of the deep leather chairs with a low table between him and his listener, a donnish-looking man whom I did not know....

...the girl--or should I say woman?--...came past us....she was what is known as an uncommonly good-looker...a blonde...the fur cape she wore was probably nutria.


The Case of the Benevolent Bookie (1955)
In past cases lanky and bespectacled Ludo, who narrates his cases, often self-deprecatingly compared himself physically to a secretary bird.  This cover, depicting Ludo and a plainclothes policeman investigating a dead body found in a burned hayrick, brought the image of a secretary bird to  my mind.

The Case of the Extra Man (1956)
Here Ludo really looks like a PI spying on a couple--including another blonde--from an alley.

The Case of the Russian Cross (1957)
Ludo trails a suave suspect who has just left his photography studio, with its exterior woodwork painted in turquoise blue and cream: "I saw the beautifully trimmed dark beard as he turned, and the smartly cut black overcoat and the dark Homburg hat."

The Case of the Running Man (1958)The titular running man appears on the cover, fleeing Ludo's presence in a high-end antique shop. 

This novel will appear be reissued next year, with the dozen other remaining Bush Ludovic Travers titles.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

With Malice Toward All: A Simple Case of Ill Will (1964), by Evelyn Berckman

I have an article coming out next week at CrimeReads, in which I look at poison pen letters in fact and fiction.  One factual case which I found rather mordantly amusing (happily no suicides were involved) occurred in 1934 in the small town of Vermilion, Ohio (located west of Cleveland on Lake Erie).  Perhaps there are people alive today who recall it.  Two of the main combatants in the affair, Mrs. Zenobia Krapp and Mrs. Marvell Snyder, proved remarkably long-lived, dying respectively in 1984 and 2000 at the ages of 91 and 104.  Enmity dies hard.

Over several months in 1934 members of the Vermilion chapter of Sorosis--a national women's literary and social club originally and ironically founded in New York in 1868 to promote among women "mental activity and pleasant social intercourse"--had been inundated with what newspapers termed "vile and obscene letters," the contents of which "cannot be be decently repeated.

Handwriting experts pointed the finger of guilt at no less than the President of the Club, one Zenobia Krapp, who as a result was promptly expelled from its ranks.  Mrs. Krapp thereupon went to court (it's the American way), filing a $10,000 defamation lawsuit against eleven of her former Club members.  Undaunted, Marvell Snyder, the newly installed president, affirmed her belief that the culprit behind the letters was indeed the former president, elaborating thusly: "Mrs. Krapp plays the piano.  There are several other members of the Club who play it too, and in the opinion of some people they can play better than Mrs. Krapp.  That's what's back of the whole thing."

What might be termed the unpleasantness at the Sorosis Club made national newspaper headlines in the United States, although this poison pen affair, unlike most others, was treated rather mirthfully by the press.  Despite its humorous manifestations (including the fact that the putative villainess in the affair was named, well, Zenobia Krapp), the Vermilion poison pen case beautifully illustrates how intense rivalries and feuds among women in uncomfortably close proximity could produce unexpectedly bitter jealousies and animosities.

This fact is illustrated as well--very well--in fiction, in author Evelyn Berckman's tenth crime novel, A Simple Case of Ill Will (1964). 

Berckman was once a highly regarded suspense novelist who today has largely fallen out of the public eye.  Formerly a promising composer and concert pianist, Berckman published her first crime novel in 1954, at the age of 53, simply to assure herself of an adequate income in middle age.  She produced well-reviewed nine crime novels between 1954 and 1962.  Between 1964 and 1977 she published an additional seventeen novels, but these are more of a mixed lot, some being classic crime novels, some not so classic crime novels and others not crime novels at all.

I reviewed one of the good crime novels, The Victorian Album (1973), seven years ago.  Since then, works by her have been highly favorably reviewed by additional bloggers.  (One of them called my review "cheerfully fulsome," something I don't recall my writing ever being called before....)

Many of Berckman's novels are set in England, where Berckman herself migrated (she was originally from Philadelphia), and they have more than a touch of distinctly English disquiet, like a serving of tea and cakes where arsenic has been surreptitiously added to the menu.

Like The Victorian Album (1973), A Simple Case of Ill Will is one of the good Berckman crime novels.  The American edition of Will, published by Dodd, Mead, copied the British edition on the front cover but on the back produced, in its entirety, crime writer and reviewer Julian Symons' rave notice of the novel in the Sunday Times.  (Despite this rave, Symons oddly neglects to mention Berckman, as was the case with so many women suspense writers, in his genre survey Bloody Murder.)

Symons' review is indeed worth quoting in full:

Julian Symons' full review made
the back cover
Uncommon Wit And Style
A Simple Case of Ill Will, by Evelyn Berckman

There are few more likely settings for crime than a bridge club, and the club at which Armina Clere is a hostess is full of characteristic small greeds, fears and enmities.  Tottering, wheezing Lady Mellish and her niece Evadne whose subterranean rebellious fires never quite break out; the club's anxious owner Phyllis Dalton; its distinctly sinister servant, Arthur; and Armina herself, daughter of a Dean and now come down in the world to the point where the sum of her ambition is to be given a bedroom on the club premises-Miss Berckman shuffles them together and asks us to spot which of them is activated by some more powerful motive than common malice.

Why was there a strong smell of gas in a gasless basement, who tried to push Armina under a lorry, who is going to die and how?  The atmosphere of the bridge club is touched off perfectly.  Miss Berckman really takes trouble about the way in which her book is written.  Wit and style in crime stories must not go unmentioned.


This is a fine short review, which gives an apt summary of the plot of the novel, while also emphasizing its ample stylistic merits.  In my own case, I am once again reminded of the late Ruth Rendell, an crime author who had just commenced her writing career when Berckman's Ill Will appeared.  The tone of subtle menace is apparent from the novel's first sentence, in the way the second part of the sentence undercuts the first: "Hatred was a stranger to Miss Armina Clere, in the usual course of things."  What follows, of course, is not the usual course of things....

Armina Clere, the Dean's daughter, is another in that long line, in English crime fiction, of precariously positioned aging English spinsters (to indulge in that antiquated word).  What is reminded somewhat of Dorothy Bowers' Fear and Miss Betony, recently reviewed here.  In Ill Will, Miss Clere has to make a living as a hostess at a bridge club in a lovely old Victorian row house in London, a lone survivor, in the vicinity, of the Blitz and commercial development which followed after the war.  She covets moving from her dismal, distant flatlet to a storage room in the house, which would convert, in her eyes, into a lovely little bedsit.  This her great ambition in life, as the author poignantly captures:

She thought of the small dark room that hemmed her in with her few possessions, she thought of its gas fire and the greedy meter that gulped the shillings; she thought of the unheated house that contained it, its dank halls, its icy lav and chilly bathroom with its unconvincing hot water....It was all part of the deterioration that was taking place within her from the abrasions of worry and poverty, of making do with a small wage, a microscopic income and the scanty old-age pension.  She knew herself to be a person of good-nature and goodwill whom these pressures were turning into a woman of ill-nature and ill-will....

skulduggery at the bridge table
To what extremes of their own will ill-willed people in extremis turn? Miss Clere is the protagonist and point-of-view character of the novel, and we are intensely drawn to following her fate; but there are other interesting characters as well at the deadly bridge club, including

Phyllis Dalton, the club's austerely remote owner

Fleur Daintry, the house's florid second floor tenant

choleric Lady Mellish, the owner of the house and devoted patron of the club

Evadne Raikes, Lady Mellish's disgruntled, dependent niece

Arthur, the club's elderly, satyric and subtly malevolent butler

Ellen, the young woman who helps Arthur serve the patrons ("staff, very minor staff, yet no staff was minor these days")

The tone is predominantly feminine, but most wickedly so--malice domestic at its best, as it were.  I think it's true that Berckman lost interest in plot over the years (like other crime writers, she had an urge to write "novels," if you know what I mean), but here the plotting is intricate and devious, while the writing and characterization is as much as devotees of the crime novel could ask.  This is a splendid mystery story, richly deserving of a reissue.

Friday, February 14, 2020

When Will You Pay Me? The Bells at Old Bailey (1947), by Dorothy Bowers

When Will You Pay Me?
Say the Bells at Old Bailey
--Oranges and Lemons aka The Bells of London (trad. English nursery rhyme)

But I believe you--oh yes.  Women aren't content with suicides.  Nothing short of murder for them.  And we call 'em the gentle sex!
--The Bells at Old Bailey, Dorothy Bowers

In 1947, after an interval of six years since the appearance of her last mystery, Fear for Miss Betony, Dorothy Bowers published what proved to be her fifth and final work of crime fiction, The Bells at Old Bailey.  In remembrance of "the dark years" (presumably the late Second World War, during which she had not published a book), Bowers dedicated the novel to her steadfast English publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, who had issued all her mysteries in England, to much critical acclaim. 

a novel of detection
Hodder and Stoughton edition
On the dust jacket, Bells was pugnaciously subtitled, in the dawning era of the psychological crime story, "a novel of detection," which may have helped spur Bowers' elevation to membership in England's Detection Club.  She died the next year, at the age of forty-six, doubtlessly resulting in the loss to the world of at least several more of the author's quietly literate novels of detection.  So Bells remains our last word on Dorothy Bowers and where she was headed as a mystery writer.  How does it toll for thee?

In a slightly earlier blog piece, I commented about how markedly feminine is the milieu which Bowers presents readers in Fear for Miss Betony.  The same point obtains as well in Bells, although here we see more of the forces of the official--and hence, at that time, mostly male--world of police, doctors and lawyers. 

The main setting is Miss Bertha Tidy's establishment "Minerva's," a hat shop and beauty parlor with cafe located in the village of Ravenchurch.  Miss Tidy's charming cottage, The Keepsake, located in the nearby village of Long Greeting, where she dwells with her Breton housekeeper Leonie, is also a focal point.  With one exception, the main characters--Miss Tidy and Leonie, the girls employed at the hat shop (I was reminded, with them, of Christianna Brand's Death in High Heels), antiquarian bookstore owner Emmie Weaver, tweedy, Dorothy Sayers-ish mystery writer Kate Beaton--are all female. 

The exception is "great novelist" Owen Greatorex, who remains a somewhat amorphous character. There is also clever Inspector Raikes of Scotland Yard, who may have been intended as a new series sleuth; but he mainly struck me for his sweeping sexist comments about women, a proclivity he shares with other male characters in the book.  I think Bowers was making a point here!

Bells has been called a poison pen mystery, by the by, but it really is not, as I define it.  Poison pen mysteries ideally involve masses of anonymous missive sent to various people at a specific location, preferably an English village, making scurrilous and scandalous accusations.  In threatening letter mysteries, like Bells, Philip Macdonald's RIP, Ngaio Marsh's Photo Finish and PD James' The Skull Beneath the Skin, menacing letters are mailed to one specific target, forecasting imminent death or harm.

There have been five recent deaths in Long Greeting, all of them ruled suicides.  These have not been the result of poison pen letters, however, but something else, something rather insidious as well....

corn measures

When the novel opens Miss Tidy is planning a visit to the local police to bring to their attention a couple of anonymous, vaguely threatening letters which she has received.  After she makes her carefully tailored complaint to the police, it's not long before she herself is found dead, battered with a corn measure and strangled with a scarf.  During the heyday of the Golden Age of detective fiction, when bizarre murders rather than subtle psychological delineations were the thing, this might have resulted in the novel being mechanically titled The Corn Measure Murder.  I was reminded of Agatha Christie's early Fifties detective novel Mrs. McGinty's Dead, where the murder weapon was a sugar cutter.

American edition
Bowers is as interested in characterization as well as detection, however; and this is well done on the whole, especially with the splendidly named murder victim Miss Tidy and several other women.  The plot is good, though there are some flaws in my view, which I can get into without spoilers.  There seem to me a few signs of haste around the edges, despite the fact that it is a long detective novel for the period, close to 100,000 words by my count.  Still, I would say that all in all this is a fine mystery that presaged more fine mysteries, but for a life sadly truncated.

A few words on the title.  It references a well-known English nursery rhyme, verses of which provide the headings for chapter titles (more relevantly so than you typically find with other mystery writers, like Gladys Mitchell). 

The dust jacket of the English edition (see above) incorporates the early nineteenth century sampler by young Adelaide Bascomb, age eight, which illustrates the nursery rhyme and hangs in Miss Tidy's quaint, if something less than cozy, cottage.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Coming Attractions in February and March: All for the Love of the Crime Ladies

I was kept rather busy most of January, so was not even able to finish my Ten Carrs of Christmas.  Which puts me in a quandary: do I do finish them now, or in December?  What do you think?

What I was doing, however, was completing introductions to Dean Street Press' new set of Golden Age Moray Daltons and first set of Golden Age Henrietta Clandons (including one of my absolute faves from the era, Good by Stealth), as well as a new article on poison pen mysteries in fact and fiction for CrimeReads and an introduction to the latest Bernice Carey "twofer" by Stark House, which collects her mid-century crime novels The Reluctant Murderer and The Body on the Sidewalk

The Reluctant Murderer
I reviewed, quite favorably, here in 2018.

Speaking of Stark House, their new Ruth Fenisong twofer, for which I wrote the introduction, is out now.  At this blog I have written enthusiastically about both the author and her work.  Like Bernice Carey, she is another accomplished mid-century American woman crime writer.  Although her career in the genre was longer lived than Carey's, both she and Carey fell out of print, most unjustly, after they stopped writing crime fiction.

So that is four women vintage crime writers, two British and two American, whom of late I have been involved with resurrecting, which is always a great feeling.  Except one of them wasn't actually a woman: Henrietta Clandon.  As Austin Powers might say, she's a man, baby!  But don't fret: as someone else said, approximately, a rose by any other name smells as sweet.  More anon.