Saturday, December 31, 2016

Out with the Old, In with the...Old: 2016 at The Passing Tramp

My blog activity in 2016, the fifth year anniversary at the blog, was mostly devoted to discussing writing projects of mine: the original essay collection I edited called Murder in the Closet (more on this soon) and introductions to vintage mystery issues by Crippen & Landru (Patrick Quentin's The Puzzles of Peter Duluth), Coachwhip (Clifford Orr's The Dartmouth Murders, 1929, and The Wailing Rock Murders, 1932, Louis F. Booth's The Bank Vault Mystery, 1933, and Brokers' End, 1935, Katherine Woods' Murder in a Walled Town, 1934, Anita Boutell's Death Brings a Storke, 1938, and Cradled in Fear, 1941, and Ada Lingo's Murder in Texas, 1935) and Dean Street Press (20 E. R. Punshon titles, 6 reissues by Molly Thynne, and over 30 of Patricia Wentworth's mysteries--the ones without Miss Silver). That's 1 book for Crippen & Landru, 8 books for Coachwhip and nearly 60 for Dean Street Press, for a total of nearly 70 books (though "only" 22 individual introductions, I believe).

The Punshon project was the most involved, extending back two years now and seeing the reissuing of Punshon's entire oeuvre of Bobby Owen mysteries (35 novels, 5 short stories and 1 radio play).  In total I wrote around 30,000 words in introductions for the series, making them collectively rather like an additional chapter to my two books on British mystery writers, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, J.J. Connington) and The Spectrum of English Murder (Henry Wade, G.D.H. and Margaret Cole).

But I enjoyed as well writing about Patrick Quentin (about whom there is yet more in Murder in the Closet), and Molly Thynne, Clifford Orr, Louis F. Booth, Katherine Woods, Anita Boutell and Ada Lingo. More is on the way this coming year, 2017.  I have already written an introduction for Eleanore Kelly Sellars' Murder a la Mode (1941), which will be out in January, and introductions for Elizabeth Gill's three "Benvenuto Brown" detective novels--Strange Holiday (1929), What Dread Hand? (1932) and Crime De Luxe (1933)--which will be out in February.  And there is much more to come!

On the blog I had lengthy pieces on the lives of crime fiction writers Kurt Steel, Amen Dell and Gordon Meyrick (all of whom are coming back in print in the coming year), Phoebe Atwood Taylor and the mother and daughters Helen Reilly, Mary McMullen and Ursula Curtiss, as well as crime fiction illustrator GP Micklewright; a long discussion about controversy surrounding Miles Burton's The Chinese Puzzle (1957); and reviews of Margaret Maron's Christmas Mourning (2010), Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Yellow Room (1945), Jonathan Stagge's The Three Fears (1949), Phoebe Atwood Taylor's The Annulet of Gilt (1938), Victor Gunn's Three Dates with Death (1947), George Bellairs' The Dead Shall Be Raised (1942) and Death on the Last Train (1948), W. Bolingbroke Johnson's The Widening Stain (1942), M. C. Beaton's Death of a Travelling Man (1993) and Death of a Bore (2003), Helen Reilly's Name Your Poison (1942), Mary McMullen's Strangle Hold (1951), Ursula Curtiss' The Noonday Devil (1951), HRF Keating's Inspector Ghote's Good Crusade (1966), Gordon Meyrick's The Body on the Pavement (1941), Colin Dexter's Service of All the Dead (1979), Douglas Clark's The Longest Pleausre (1981), Helen McCloy's She Walks Alone (1948) and Gladys Mitchell's Groaning Spinney (1950).

Of these 20 latter books, I would say the best was The Widening Stain, a classic American mystery in an an academic setting. Rue Morgue Press did reissue this one, but it has since gone out of print. Hope someone brings it back!

I wish my blog readers a happy new year and I promise to try to do more reviews while I keep my off-blog writing activities going.  The coming year holds promise of many interesting things, and not just in the world of vintage mystery.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Clouzot for Christmas: Quai des Orfevres (1947)

Yes, Quai des Orfevres is a Christmas film.  Read to the end of the review!

Quai des Orfevres
the Inspector is on the case
French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) is a name that ideally should be familiar to all fans of classic mystery and suspense cinema.  In the Anglo-American world he was dubbed, helpfully or not, the French Hitchcock

As a film director Clouzot made a series of important contributions to the crime film genre, most famously Diabolique (Les diaboliques) (1955) and The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur) (1957), but also, from earlier in his career, Quai des Orfevres (1947), The Raven (Le corbeau) (1943) and The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (L'assassin 21) (1942), and, from later in his career, Les epions (1957) and The Truth (La verite) (1960).  

Additionally, as a screenwriter, Clouzot wrote the screenplays for The Last One of the Six (Le dernier des six) (1941), directed by Georges Lacombe, and Strangers in the House (Les inconnus dans la maison) (1942), directed by Henri Decoin.  These latter two films were respectively based on novels by the French crime writers Stanislas- Andre Steeman and Georges Simenon.

Steeman's crime fiction been far overshadowed by the world famous Georges Simenon, which is  a shame because it is worthy in its own right and often offers more intricately plotted puzzles, for the purist puzzle fan.  (For more on Steeman's crime fiction, see this blog piece by Xavier Lechard.) The Last One of the Six was based on Steeman's 1931 crime novel Six hommes morts (Six Dead Men), one of his few titles that was contemporaneously published in English.  The novel was filmed again in France in 1964 and 1975 and earlier in England in 1935, under the title The Riverside Murder.

Jenny, Maurice and Dora: the three main suspects in Quai des Orfevres

Both Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Murderer Lives at Number 21 and Quai des Orfevres are based on Steeman novels.  Of Quai des Orfevres the liner notes for the DVD by Luc Sante state that Clouzot when writing the screenplay could not find a copy of the Steeman novel on which the film was to be based (Legitime defense, 1942), so he just went by memory, "leaving only faint traces of the original story" in the script. 

I can't address this point, having only ever been able to track down and read one translated Steeman novel (Six Dead Men, reviewed here), but I will say that I disagree with Sante when he declares that the crime plot is of little consequence in the film.

checking out an alibi
Quai des Orfevres--the title references 36, quai des Orfevres, the headquarters of the Paris criminal police--concerns a murder implicating three of the film's main characters: lush music hall singer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair); her husband and pianist-accompanist, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier); and Jenny's childhood friend, austere blonde photographer Dora Monier (Simone Renant).

To advance her career Jenny has been spending some time playing up to a wealthy "dirty old man," businessman Georges Brignon, much to the fury of her hot-headed husband and the concern of her savvy friend Dora, who knows just what Brignon is about: S-E-X. 

Part of Dora's photography business is devoted to taking sexy "art"  pictures of the pretty girls whom Brignon brings to her--legal, but rather on the order, I gather, of some of the 1990s Melania Trump pix publicized in the press this year: Brignon likes the girls to wear only pumps.

checking out a suspect
Of course the sex fiend Brignon ends up dead and the investigation into his murder conducted by Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) eventually pits him against Jenny, Maurice and Dora, who all happened to be at the scene of the crime on the fatal night, in classic mystery fashion. 

Maurice, in fact, had brought a gun with him to Brignon's mansion, planning to shoot the creep, but he found him already dead.

Having plotted a murder, Maurice had taken time to construct an alibi.  Will it hold up under the relentless scrutiny of Inspector Antoine?

Just friends? Dora at work
Sounds like a pretty plot-driven crime film, doesn't it?  But I certainly agree with Sante that there is a lot of additional interest in the film.  Clouzot brilliantly explores both the Parisian postwar musical theater and police milieus, weaving us an exceedingly rich and varied social fabric.  Not only issues of class but those of sex are dealt with, the latter in a refreshingly, well, frank, manner, in contrast with so many American and English films from the same period. 

Dora, for example, is a lesbian, passionately attracted, in her cool and reserved way--extreme discretion is necessitated by the era in which she lives--to Jenny.  This attraction is hinted all the way through the film and finally made sufficiently explicit in a terrific line directed to her by Inspector Antoine.

father and son
Speaking of the old copper, Louis Jouvet is simply wonderful as Inspector Antoine: what a spectacular detective series he could have given us!  He's very much a sleuthing incarnation that modern crime fiction fans will identify with: a gruff loner who can be very tough on people, but with a heart too. (Fascinatingly we learn he has custody of a young bi-racial son from a dalliance in the tropics, when he served overseas in the military, for whom he cares greatly.) Some of the debates in the film about the role of police in society will sound very familiar to modern ears.

And, yes, on top of all this splendor, Quai des Orfevres manages to be a Christmas film! 

The climax of the movie takes place on Christmas Eve, as snowflakes begins to fall over Paris, making suspects and sleuths alike shiver. Will this be a happy Christmas for our characters, or a tragic one?  You will have to see for yourself.

Quai des Orfevres
was released in a splendid set with English subtitles by Criterion, but the edition has since gone out of print.  Look around though, it's worth taking some trouble to find a copy.  This is a splendid film, easily as good as most contemporary Hitchcock I would say, if not better.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Frosty Wind Made Moan: Groaning Spinney (1950), by Gladys Mitchell

"What do you think of it?" asked Jonathan....
"Desolate, enchanted, apt, and supernormal," replied his relative, gazing raptly at the charged and lowering sky.
"Apt for what?"
"For treason, magic, stratagems, and snow....

"Parson talk about the brotherhood of man, but nature know better, I reckon."

However happy the Christmas, there is usually a deep-seated human instinct which feels tremendous relief when it is over.

                                                                                                            --Groaning Spinney

haunted wood
By 1950, when Gladys Mitchell published Groaning Spinney, her 23rd Mrs. Bradley mystery in 21 years, the crime writer was toning down some of the oddities and outrageousness that had characterized many of earlier novels (often dubbed eccentric by admirers and detractors alike) from the prior two decades.

Where some of her mystery narratives in the 1940s had become opaque and confusing for readers, Groaning Spinney--like Tom Brown's Body (one of Mitchell's more popular Mrs. Bradley novels) from the previous year--is relatively linear and straightforward.  It's a fine "winter's tale."

The leisurely and charming tale opens with Mrs. Bradley deciding to spend Christmas in the Cotswolds with relatives and ends with a fox hunt and the natural landscape on the verge of issuing forth all of its finery.  In the intervening period, the keen-minded psychiatrist and amateur sleuth manages to solve a couple of cold-blooded Cotswolds Christmas murders.

A reader of Mitchell will know, as the author drolly puts it at the beginning of Groaning Spinney, that "Mrs. Bradley's three marriages had provided her with a vast and varied tribe of spirited and gifted in-laws, some of whom she liked."  I can never completely follow Mrs. Bradley's complicated kin (and sometimes seemingly random) network, despite being something of a family genealogist myself, but in this one the relatives with whom she spends Christmas are Jonathan Bradley and his new wife, Deborah Cloud. Her niece Sally LeStrange, who plays a major role in the excellent Brazen Tongue, also appears, though rather superfluously.

Jonathan and Deborah, a most amiable couple, have bought a Cotwolds manor house and one-third of the accompanying estate (the other two-thirds and the "huge modern house" having gone to the Ministry of Education for one of those women's colleges that so often crop up in Mitchell's books--here, an Emergency Training College).

Jonathan and Deborah have maids and a cook, gardeners and an estate agent, so in a way this feels like a pre-war novel, despite the fact that the estate has been broken up, India has been lost for good and all, people carry identity cards and ration books, and Scotch is passing hard to find.

Besides the manor house and the wintry Christmas season, there is in the novel a quaint village, some broad rural dialect (not too much), lots of friendly animals and even a local ghost, the spirit of a nineteenth-century parson named Horatius Pile that is said to haunt a local wood called "Groaning Spinney." Those readers desirous of cozy milieus in classic mysteries will find lots to like here.

the new e-edition
Indeed, the village postmistress and her son are such traditionalists that they insist on referring to Jonathan and Deborah as "My Lord" and "My Lady."  The original owner of the estate having been a peer of the realm, "it had proved impossible to persuade [them] to address Jonathan and Deborah by any other titles than the ones now loyally bestowed":

"But out letters and parcels come addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Bradley," Deborah had observed.  The postmistress had agreed.

"But," said she, "the old house always had a lord and a lady in it, and I've always voted Conservative and always shall." [The Tories would take power again the next year--TPT]

However, the relatively placid life of the village is disrupted when dead bodies are uncovered in the heavy snow. There's also the matter of poison-pen letters which appear in people's mail. Eventually the tenacious Mrs. Bradley foils a crafty and cruel murder design.

I enjoyed Groaning Spinney and would recommend it particularly to Mitchell neophytes, who may have been put off trying the author by hearing how "weird" her books are.  This is one of her most straightforward and "classic" detective novels, adorned with lots of attractive bits characteristic of the author, and Mrs. Bradley is in fine form.

Mrs. Bradley's assistant Laura barely appears in the novel and her chauffeur George makes only sporadic appearances.  But even if you miss those two supporting characters (personally for me a little Laura goes a loooong way), there is much to like.  I note, for one modest example, this short exchange between Deborah and Jonathan:

"I'm going to smoke a pipe and read the new Nicholas Blake."
"You can't.  I've got it."
"Then," said Jonathan, "you can jolly well hand it over."

the "new" Nicholas Blake in 1950: Head of a Traveller (1949)

I wonder whether Mitchell's Detection Club colleague Nicholas Blake ever returned the favor in one of his detective novels?

I also loved this passage:

Tearjerker: Hesba Stretton (1832-1911)
could make grown men cry
"I knew a sailor once who used to take Little Meg's Children to sea with him every voyage, and read it at least twice before  he came home again.  He said it used to make him cry just as well as if he had gone to the pictures."

"It's frightfully odd, that, about the pictures," said Jonathan.  "Lots of fellows have confessed to me that they cry at them.  I suppose there's a psychological explanation.  Most of the chaps are quite tough, in the normal way, too."

"It's the darkness, and the feeling that you can release emotion without anybody knowing," said Deborah. "Most people say they feel all better for a good cry.  Personally, if I
do cry at pictures, I come out feeling completely chewed up and with a frantic headache."

Mrs. Bradley, who had not cried since she was four, but who believed that crying at pictures was a morbid symptom and reflected deep-seated neurosis built on self-pity, made no contribution to the discussion.

Ah, dear, unsentimental Mrs. Bradley!  She's like a cup of rather bracing Christmas cheer.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Procession of Death: Dorothy L. Sayers and the "Detective Cavalcade"

In 1936 Dorothy L. Sayers edited a series of detective short stories, entitled "Detective Cavalcade," for the London Evening Standard.  By my determination thirty stories and thirty sleuths, in a manner of speaking, were included in the series, as follows:

dogged as does it
Freeman Crofts' Inspector French
The Tremarn Case, by Baroness Orczy (Man in the Corner)
The Stealer of Marble, by Edgar Wallace (J. G. Reeder)
The Invisible Man, by G. K. Chesterton (Father Brown)
East Wind, by Freeman Wills Crofts (Inspector French)
The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge, by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot)
Sexton Blake Solves It, by Pierre Quiroule (Sexton Blake)

The Nail and the Requiem, by C. Daly King ((Trevis Tarrant)
The Hanover Court Murder, by Sir Basil Thomson (Mr. Pepper)

The Adventure of the Seven Black Cats, by Ellery Queen (Ellery Queen)
The Missing Undergraduate, by Henry Wade (Inspector Poole)
The Wrong Problem, by John Dickson Carr (Dr. Fell)
The Clever Cocktatoo, by E. C. Bentley (Philip Trent)
The Cyprian Bees, by Anthony Wynne (Dr. Hailey)
A Sower of Pestilence, by R. Austin Freeman (Dr. Thorndyke)
The Elusive Bullet, by John Rhode (Dr. Priestley)
The Learned Adventure of the Dragon's Head, by Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey)
Gentlemen and Players, by E. W. Hornung (Raffles)
The Case of the 100 Cats, by Gladys Mitchell (Mrs. Bradley)
Policeman's Cape, by David Frome (Mr. Pinkerton)

dashing as does it
Margery Allingham's Mr. Campion
A Question of Coincidence, by GDH and Margaret Cole (Supt. Wilson)
A Drop Too Much, by Christoper Bush (Ludovic Travers)
The Wrong Hand, by Melville Davisson Post (Uncle Abner)
The Ghost at Massingham Mansions, by Ernest Bramah (Max Carrados)
Diamond Cut Diamond, by F. Britten Austin (QQ)
White Butterfly, by Anthony Berkeley (Roger Sheringham)
Locked In, by E. Charles Vivian (Inspector Head)
Lord Chizelrigg's Missing Fortune, by Robert Barr (Eugene Valmont)
A Study in the Obvious, by E. R. Punshon (Sergeant Bobby Owen)

The Borderline Case, by Margery Allingham (Albert Campion)
Before Insulin, by J. J. Connington (Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield)

Some of these stories were written expressly for the Standard, Sayers having prodded some of her Detection Club colleagues for them (Mitchell, Punshon, Connington, Bush, Berkeley, Carr, Allingham, I believe).  Others are old classics, or a few new ones, including a very few by (gasp!) Americans.

Gladys Mitchell hit the mark with Mrs. Bradley

Only one woman detective was included in the lot, Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley. (Sayers stated that only Mrs. Bradley and American Stuart Palmer's Miss Withers were unqualified successes as women detectives.) Additionally of 32 authors (counting the Cole spouses and the pair of Ellery Queen cousins), only seven women writers are represented (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Mitchell, Margaret Cole, Leslie Ford, Baroness Orczy).  And only a handful are Americans. Official police investigators are likewise a comparative handful, running a little ahead of doctors.

Length may have been an issue with some of the stories. Sayers noted to Gladys Mitchell that the Standard wanted no more then 4000 words for a story, but she knew they would go to 6000 if pressed.  She added that she had almost broken the hearts of the powers that were at the Standard by telling them that some of the older stories were something like 10,000 words.

What do you think of the collection?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Twister: Murder in Texas (1935), by Ada E. Lingo

Ada Emma Lingo
published only one detective novel, Murder in Texas (1935), but the novel, now reprinted by Coachwhip after over eight decades, stands as an interesting and enjoyable example of the American regional mystery from the period between the two world wars. 

Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1908, Ada Lingo spent half of her years up to the age of ten in Oakdale, Louisiana, where her father, David Clayton Lingo, worked for the Oakdale Ice and Light Company.

I believe this was Ada's residence in Big Spring

After her mother, May Evans Lingo, died in Oakdale in 1919 (possibly a victim of the flu pandemic), Ada, an only child, was sent by her salesman father to live with relatives: first in Highland Park, near Dallas, where she resided with May's twin sister, Daisy Evans Lockart, Daisy's husband, James, and the couple's son, Ada's cousin Jimmy; then May's widowed mother, the thrice-wed Ada Manning Price Desel Evans, and May's half-brother Reuben L. Price, an officer in the First National Bank of Big Spring, Texas, a then booming oil town on the Great Plains.

Ada Lingo in high school
The red-haired Ada, who was nicknamed "Rusty," proved a gifted athlete, excelling in swimming and tennis, and an outstanding scholar. After graduating from Big Spring High School she received degrees in journalism from the College of Industrial Arts (later the Texas State College for Women and now Texas Women's University) and the University of Missouri and got a job with the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer's legendary newspaper. 

The paper folded in 1931, but the same year Ada married Charles Trabue Hatcher, a University of Virginia graduate and electrical engineer eleven years Ada's senior. Ada gave birth to the couple's daughter the next year, but the marriage soon fell apart, and Ada moved back to Big Spring with her child.  The couple divorced later in the decade. 

Back in Big Spring Ada worked as Society Editor for the local newspaper, the Daily Herald, while writing her sole published detective novel, Murder in Texas.

In the fall of 1934 she enrolled in the pre-med program at Baylor University and between her completion of the program in the spring of 1935 and her enrollment at the Texas University Medical School in the fall she produced, as per her contract with the publisher of her first novel Houghton, Mifflin, a second detective novel manuscript, Murder by Minims, set at the mountain resort town of Ruidoso, New Mexico and reflecting her new medical training. Although her cousin Jimmy apparently read the second novel, it was not published and the fate of the manuscript is unknown.

Ada Lingo in college
After obtaining her medical degree Ada interned in Los Angeles. There during World War 2 she started her own practice, winning a prominent reputation in southern California as a cancer specialist. In LA she lived at a large house with a swimming pool and tennis court, allowing her conveniently to indulge her athleticism.

Later in life she would settle in Olympia, Washington, where she would pass away at the age of 79 in 1988. Twenty years later a granddaughter recalled Ada as "a family doctor, writer, environmentalist, animal lover, techno geek, and photographer," who "was also a lesbian."  Ada's Texas first cousin, once removed, Jim Lockart, to me recalled his cousin as "brilliant."

A powerful, sardonic intelligence certainly comes through in Murder in Texas.  Admiration for the realistic and evocative milieu of the novel was frequently expressed in contemporary notices, the reviewer Kay Irvin, for example, writing in the New York Times Book Review that:

There is a smell of oil and the breathlessness of Southern Summer throughout this Texas tale.  There is, also, the atmosphere of a singularly unpleasant small town, and, particularly, of the small town's newspaper office, whose society editor is the novel's heroine.

Hotel Settles, Big Spring, featured (though not by name) in Murder in Texas

The Big Spring Daily Herald, although not perceiving the town in Murder in Texas, which was based on Big Spring, as unpleasant, let alone singularly so, declared that the novel would "make the swellest Christmas present that one Big Spring person could give to another" and predicted that "Fitting the characters to people in town will be great indoor sport for those who read the book, for many months to come." Ada Lingo claimed that all of the characters in the novel had been drawn entirely from her own imagination, but the Daily Herald genially scoffed, "They say that all writers have to do this."

the dust jacket from the original edition
of Murder in Texas shows the novel's
protagonist, newspaper society editor Joan Shields
In my introduction to the novel I identify buildings and people drawn from Big Spring in Lingo's setting of "Fordman," such as the Hotel Settles, still the most prominent architectural landmark in Big Spring today. This is an interesting aspect of the novel (especially if you are from Big Spring), but the appeal of the novel goes beyond the identification game.

Murder in Texas concerns the murder of Fordman's "Great Man," oil tycoon and newspaper owner John Fordman (for whom the town has been named). When the novel opens Fordman is discovered dead from a bullet wound to the head inside his luxury Isotta-Fraschini limousine, during the shooting of the latest local gusher.

Joan Shields, Society Editor of the Fordman Daily News, bored with regaling the town with the latest thrilling doings of local bridge clubs, looks into the murder; and, the local sheriff not being very bright, she brings into the case Richard Fields, her private detective pal from New York. It's a tough case to crack, what with the suspects in the crime including town fathers, local journalists and even a discarded mistress or two. John Fordman, it seems, had quite a few skeletons in his spacious closets.

There's lots of local color in the novel, and it's clear that Ada Lingo based Joan Shields to a great extent on herself and drew upon events from her own life.  In depicting Joan's family, for example, Ada drew on her Lockart relations, especially her younger cousin Jimmy, the basis in the novel for Joan's younger brother, "Jimmie."  Like Ada, Joan also spent time in New York working on a newspaper, before the Depression forced her return to Texas, where she is rather restive. (Unlike Ada, however, Joan has no such controversial complication as a discarded husband and certainly no child.)

Doc Manning (l) and friend,
not long before Doc's  El Paso shooting
fracas with Marshall Dallas Stoudenmire
In the introduction to Murder in Texas, I include a lot of detail about Ada's fascinating family history.  On her father's side Ada was descended from Pennsylvania Quakers (indeed she and my grandfather were seventh cousins, which I hope hasn't biased me in her favor!), while on her mother's side, the southern side, she was kin to antebellum Alabama planters turned post-bellum frontier shootists. 

The Manning boys of El Paso, Ada's great uncles (including Felix "Doc" Manning), were involved in the killing of Marshall Dallas Stoudenmire in 1882, less than a year after the more famous Gunfight at the O. K. Corral. Additionally a great-great uncle of Ada's was killed by his ill-treated wife, a daughter of a pioneering southern feminist who later became one of New York's first female physicians. 

Murder, medicine and moxie seem to have been in the family blood!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Thrill Me! My Favorite "Thrillers," Part One

I had never even heard of the Boris Karloff anthology series Thriller (1960-62), until I caught it very late one night on the Sci-Fi Channel about seventeen years ago.  (This was back in the not too distant past when they were still airing original Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes.)  But then I wasn't and am not alone, surely: compare the 848 ratings for Thriller on with the 46, 438 for The Twilight Zone and the 9671 for Alfred Hitchock Presents. (Let's not even get into the 662, 468 for The Walking Dead.)

I can't recall for certain the first episode I saw--I think it was The Terror in Teakwood--but I know I was immediately hooked.  This was beautifully done classic horror, not the kind of thing I had seen much even in classic anthology series like the madly creative and endlessly versatile The Twilight Zone and the macabre and sophisticated Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  And then there was Boris Karloff!  As a kid I had loved the classic monster films and Karloff especially.  But the series came and went on Sci-Fi and it was not until a decade had elapsed that it was released on DVD, by Image Entertainment--and then it was rather expensive!

Finally, six years later, I acquired a set and I am hugely enjoying both old Thriller favorites as well as ones I never saw originally.  Having watched the Season One in its entirety, I thought I would name my favorite episodes from that season.  It's probably a pretty conventional list of choices, but you tell me.

#12 A Good Imagination
It was either going to be this or Late Date--based on a Cornell Woolrich "How do I get rid of the body?" story--for the #12 spot, but it was the mordant humor of A Good Imagination that settled the matter for me.  As Thriller fans know, this episode is not supernatural horror, but rather one of the series' crime tales, which are usually, rightly I think, maligned by Thriller fans as inferior to the horror episodes.  Thriller adaptations of Margaret Millar's Rose's Last Summer (with a good performance by Mary Astor), Charlotte Armstrong's The Mark of the Hand, Philip Macdonald's The Fingers of Fear and Fredric Brown's Knock Three-One-Two are earnest but oddly uninvolving, I think. However, A Good Imagination is a vintage slice of the mirthful wickedness we associate with Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Patricia Barry, Edward Andrews
The episode benefits hugely from the lead performance of the superb character actor Edward Andrews (today most people probably know him as Grandpa Howard in John Hughes' 1984 teen film Sixteen Candles). Andrews plays a seemingly mild bookseller who resorts to murder to solve the problem of his flighty, philandering wife (the recently deceased Patricia Barry, a natural for such roles; she shows up again in the next episode on the list). After knocking off her lover, he finds that murder begets murder....

Also in the cast is the late Ed Nelson, playing a hunky handyman.  We'll see him again, in an episode farther down, where he plays, well, a hunky handyman.  Series television back then certainly depended on those actors who could reliably play a type!  Nelson gets to to play a couple of more, um, developed characters in Thriller's second season.

One of the amusing bits in the episode, incidentally, is how the bookseller gets his murder inspirations from the "classics."  The final scene might remind you somewhat of a classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents too.

"I ain't afraid of no ghosts": Rip Torn

#11 The Purple Room
The seventh episode in the series, The Purple Room was the first to incorporate supernatural elements (or are they???) in an episode, in a riff on the classic bit of the brash person (in this case Rip Torn) who must spend the night in a haunted house (the Bates house from Psycho, which will make further appearances in the series).

The moments that a deliciously scenery-rending Rip Torn--appropriate name--spends alone (?) in the house are quite eerily done, although the resolution isn't landed quite as solidly as I would have liked. Rip's relations are played by Richard Anderson and Patricia Barry.

really, people should know to stay out of this house

#10 Dark Legacy
This one starts off as well as any episode in the series, with relatives gathered on a stormy night in a creepy house where their wealthy kinsman, who just happens to be a dabbler in the dark arts, is dying. (The whole splendid milieu looks like something out of a Charles Addams book.)

The magician's nephew, a hack magician (Harry Townes, who we will see again below), inherits his uncle's book of sorcery and soon is putting it to work to advance his career.  What will be the result?  Nothing good, we can be sure.  Most atmospherically directed by John Brahm, director of the genre films The Undying Monster, The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Locket and The Brasher Doubloon, Dark Legacy has some fine flourishes, though the story is not exceptional, and the actress who plays Townes' wife (Ilka Windish) goes over-the-top too quickly, detracting from the fright factor rather than adding to it. When you scream at everything, Ilka, then nothing becomes frightening!  A good episode, but admittedly more style over substance.

The best performance in the episode is given by veteran Milton Parsons, playing the sorcerer's butler, but he doesn't get enough to do.  Parsons enlivened (?) film and television for years with his ghoulish presence and delivery.

the inimitable (perhaps even embalamable)
Milton Parsons

#9 The Poisoner

This is a nicely done Victorian family murder story, where poison plays a tremendous role, as it always should in a Victorian family murder story--unless Lizzie Borden is involved of course. (The Victorian era was such a great era for poisoning.)  What can gentleman Thomas Edward Griffith (based on a real life personage, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, 1794-1847) do about his irksome relatives and in-laws?  Quite a lot, it seems!

Griffiths' ironic self-portrait
A neat script, but what brings this one the higher marks is the terrific performance by Murray Matheson as the murderer Griffith.  In this role Matheson is so elegantly and coldly contemptuous of his admittedly vexatious victims that he has stayed indelibly fixed in my mind, as a drolly deadly yet in some ways ultimately moving character.

Born in Australia, Matheson was another fine character actor who appeared on countless television programs from the 1950s into the 1980s, including one of the classic Twilight Zones, where he played the clown in the surreal Five Characters in Search of an Exit.

About the real person on whom the Matheson character is based, the dandyish artist, essayist, poet and possible multiple poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, there has been much controversy up to this day. The inspiration for a story by Charles Dickens and the subject of an essay by Oscar Wilde, Wainewright continues to attract the interest of writers in the modern era.

#8 The Hungry Glass
A classic haunted house tale, based on a short story by Robert Bloch, who by providing either the original source material or adapting that of others, gave us some of the best hours of the series.  (A Good Imagination, above, was adapted by Bloch from one of his own short stories; for others he was involved with, see below.)  An attractive young couple (William Shatner, Joanna Heyes) purchase a long abandoned cliffside mansion in New England with a history of violent deaths.  What could go wrong?

What does he see in the glass?

Very evocatively shot, with supporting performances by Russell Johnson and Elizabeth Allen as another nice young couple who become friends of the Shatner and Heyes characters.  (Everyone else in the town would seem to be more comfortable in an HP Lovecraft adaptation).  It's somehow kind of thrilling to see Captain Kirk and the Professor from Gilligan's Island thespianing with each other. Shatner, you no doubt will agree, is much more flamboyant, but I think they play off against each other well, Johnson's stolidness balancing the Shat's patented rising, halting-voiced hysteria.

Interestingly, Shatner's character is a Korean War veteran who suffers from PTSD.  In this respect he rather reminded me of his character in one of the great Twilight Zones, Nightmare at 20, 000 Feet. Shatner's greatest Thriller, however, is not The Hungry Glass but The Grim Reaper, where we will also see Elizabeth Allen return. (See below.)

not Lon Chaney but Henry Daniell

#7 Well of Doom
A superbly pulpish tale brought to splendidly eerie life.  On the way to his wedding a Scottish laird and his estate manager are abducted by a hellish, vengeance-spouting maniac (Henry Daniell) and his hulking assistant (Richard Kiel).  What dread fate lies in store for them?

The great English actor Henry Daniell popped up in five Thriller episodes, but this is my favorite one with him.  My, does he get to chew the scenery!  Wonderful, scary performance.  In the 1940s, Daniell appeared in both the Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan franchises.  (He, along with Lionel Atwill and George Zucco as I recollect, played Moriarty to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce's Watson.  He was also in The 13th Chair, The Suspect (with Charles Laughton), The Sea Wolf (fighting it out with Errol Flynn) and, along with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Body Snatcher.  He died not long after Thriller went off the air and surely Well of Doom offered one of the best of his later performances.

It's also fun to see the towering Richard Kiel, who was as familiar on television and film in the 60s and 70s playing giants as Billy Barty was playing midgets, in a role where he gets actually to speak as well as loom menacingly.

not Janet Leigh but Pippa Scott

#6 Parasite Mansion
What's a thriller without southern Gothic?  Thriller's moonlight and magnolia mayhem in the South always seems to take place in Louisiana, in crumbling old mansions of course, (The Purple Room is set in the state too). I lived in Louisiana for seven years, and it's certainly an evocative locale, so why not?

Here a pretty and earnest college teacher (Pippa Scott) following a road detour somewhere in the bayou, wrecks her car (after a wheel is shot out) and is knocked out in the process.  When she wakes up she finds herself a prisoner in the most cobweb-strewn southern mansion you surely have ever seen.  Also residing at the house are a malevolent rifle-toting boy (popular child actor Tommy Nolan), his older, drunk brother (B-film star James Griffith) and Granny Harrod, a cackling old harridan played with characteristic panache by Jeanette Nolan (Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' film version of Macbeth as well as Granny Hart in one of the best Twilight Zones, Jess-Belle).

You can trust Granny!

This episode typifies what Thriller does so well: trap someone in an old dark house for 48 minutes and follow them around as they try desperately to escape.  This is a little different from the standard film formula, however, in that the heroine is not  a shrinking violent but really in effect a paranormal investigator. When I watched Pippa Scott climbing up those hidden stairs to the attic I was reminded rather of that determined youngster Nancy Drew.  Her courage under mire may tamp down the scares a bit, though there are some very good ones indeed. However, this is really a splendid paranormal mystery, based on a fine 1943 short story of the same title by Alabama weird fiction writer Mary Elzabeth Couselman.

Mr. George's new residence

#5 Mr. George
Based on the short story of the same title by the incredibly prolific author August Derleth, Mr. George tells the story of a wealthy, orphaned little girl named Priscilla. (Gina Gillespie, who would soon play the young Blanche Hudson, aka Joan Crawford, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) Priscilla is imperiled, right at the turn of the nineteenth century, by the ill-motivated machinations of her awful, greedy cousins, the Leggetts: childish Adelaide (Lillian Bronson), sanctimonious Jared (Howard Freeman) and just plain mean Edna (Virginia Gregg). It's a good thing for Priscilla that she has a most devoted protector in Mr. George....

This episode is like a Grimm's fairy tale of sorts, with childish innocence menaced really quite nastily by adult evil.  Like several other episodes of Thriller, this one was directed by the veteran actress Ida Lupino and she does a splendid job.  There's lots of creative camerawork and superb performances from the evil cousins.  In her severe black hairdo Virginia Gregg in particular was Emmy-worthy.  Yikes.

Edna is not happy--but then she never is.

I should mention that the wonderful musical score adds a lot to the episode, as it does to many a Thriller.  The score here, as in 17 additional Thrillers, was written by Jerry Goldsmith, who would go on to win an Oscar for his film score for The Omen. Altogether he was nominated for Oscars 18 times between 1963 (Freud) and 1999 (Mulan).  His nominated scores included those for genre films Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Boys from Brazil, Poltergeist, Basic Instinct and LA Confidential.  An impressive record!  Indeed, Thriller's only Emmy nomination was for its music.  Thriller lost to a concert performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein, which seems a little unfair.

#4 The Terror in Teakwood
A dreadful delight from start to finish.  First, what a great cast this episode has! 

Reggie Nalder
It stars beautiful and classy Hazel Court, known to vintage film horror fans for her work around this time with Hammer Films and Roger Corman, but who also was a contributor of note to Alfred Hitchcock Presents (particularly Arthur, with Laurence Harvey) and to B crime films; Guy Rolfe, best known to horror fans for William Castle's Mr. Sardonicus, which came out the same year as The Terror in Teakwood, but who also appeared in such films as Ivanhoe and Nicholas and Alexandra; Reggie Nalder, of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and the 1979 Salem's Lot vampire miniseries (two very memorable roles!); and Charles Aidman, an actor who radiated a Henry Fonda like decency and who was a familiar face for years on television.  (He starred in two of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone series, And When the Sky Was Opened and Little Girl Lost, and narrated the first two seasons of the 1980s TZ revival. 

There's also, in supporting performances, the great Russian-born actor Vladimir Sokoloff (who also shows up in Mr. Sardonicus) and Linda Watkins, stage star of the 1920s and 1930s, who will be appearing very soon again on this list, for another brilliant Season 1 Thriller episode.

Okay, this is Charles Aidman in The Twilight Zone
but, damn, what a beautifully composed shot
Doubtlessly there was enough story and star wattage here to make a full film, but did Teakwood really need an additional half hour to add to its 48 minutes?  It packs a wallop as is. 

The story concerns the classic "triangle," here composed of the brilliant, though insanely jealous (of course), concert pianist (Rolfe), his beautiful wife (Court) and her puppy dog loyal admirer (Aidman).  But there's more to the story than that. Why is a creepy central European graveyard caretaker trailing this trio around?  And what is in the great pianist's locked teakwood box? 

Admittedly, the plot is not exactly original, but it is carried off with real virtuosity and panache.  The music scenes are especially effective.  For sheer dramatic tension I'll take Rolfe attempting to play the notorious Carnowitz Sonata over that damn baseball bat in The Walking Dead any day.  Linda Watkins in her terrific supporting role as a music critic who colorfully professes loathing for Rolfe's concert pianist character contributes both humor and intensity.

The Terror in Teakwood was directed by debonair Continental actor actor-turned director Paul Henreid, who seems a natural for this sophisticated Thriller.

#3 Pigeons from Hell
This is one I missed back on Sci-Fi, but I had heard so much about from viewers who had first seen it  as kids or teens back in 1961 that I was really looking forward to it.  I don't think it's the very best Thriller as many say, but I can certainly see the appeal.  It's a strong southern Gothic reminiscent not only of works by Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner (albeit with a strong otherwordly aspect), but also the Grand Guignol of the film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964).

Based on a posthumously published 1938 story by Robert E. Howard, Pigeons from Hell tells the story of two young Yankee brothers (Brandon De Wilde, David Whorf) whose cars bogs down, literally, in the countryside while the brothers are touring plantation country in Louisiana.  Nothing to do but to go out and investigate that long-abandoned mansion nearby! But why are there so many pigeons around the house?

Petrified: Paul Renard
I can see why this one was a big hit with kids and teens watching Thriller fifty-five years ago. The atmosphere of the plantation is superbly done and the tension level high until something...rather horrible happens. 

Then we move into a period of investigation, which to me doesn't quite live up to the beginning but is still excellent and still has its shocks, which I of course shall not divulge.  Let's just say some decrepit plantation houses are best left untoured!

For me the highlight of the second half of the episode was Paul Renard's performance as an old black man, a former employee on the plantation, who knows things about the house's history, terrible things, he doesn't want to divulge.

I agree with commentators who have compared this one to a Val Lewton film: it's easy to imagine this sort of material in a movie directed by one of Lewton's top directors, Jacques Tourneur, who helmed Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man.

The very blond Brandon De Wilde--who played Paul Newman's nephew in the critically-acclaimed film Hud and a decade earlier was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his scene-stealing performance in the classic Alan Ladd western Shane--and the brunette David Whorf, who later became a very busy assistant director, so much resemble the Hardy Boys of that period that I could not help but feel this was a deliberate image the Pigeons director, John Newland, was conveying. Honestly, these boys should have gotten a HB television series, way before Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy.

Tragically, Brandon De Wilde died in a car accident in 1972, when he was only 30, leaving behind not only Shane and Hud but Pigeons from Hell as some of his best known projects.

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), creator of the renowned fantasy warrior Conan the Barbarian,  lived most of his adult life in Cross Plains, Texas.  On his father's side of the family Howard had some German ancestry, which out of a sense of atavistic wish-fulfillment he seems to have believed was Scandinavian, or, as he put it, "Viking."

The parents of his father, Isaac Mordecai Howard, came from southern Arkansas, not far from the town of Camden, and his maternal grandmother, Louisa Elizabeth Henry Howard (1835-1916), used to tell young Robert Old South ghost stories. These shuddery tales were obviously a major source of influence on Pigeons from Hell

Joe Hardy, wait, I mean Brandon De Wilde

"In many of her tales," Howard recalled of his grandmother's stories, there "appeared the old, deserted plantation mansion, with the weeds growing rank about it and the ghostly pigeons flying up from the rails of the verandah."

Seemingly these ghostly pigeons were direly omnipresent as well, murmuring and flapping their wings, in "negro" ghost stories he was told:

The one to whom I listened most was the old cook, Aunt Mary Bohannon, who was nearly white, about one-sixteenth negro, I should say....

Who is the lady in the picture?
Another tale she told...I have often met with in negro-lore....Two or three men--usually negroes-- are traveling in a wagon through some isolated district--usually a broad, deserted river-bottom.  They come onto the ruins of a once-thriving plantation at dusk, and decide to spend the night in the deserted plantation house.  This house is always huge, brooding and forbidding, and always, as the men approach the high-columned verandah, through the high weeds that surround the house, great numbers of pigeons rise from their roosting places on the railing and fly away.  The men sleep in the big front-room with its crumbling fire-place, and in the night they are awakened by a jangling of chains, weird noises and groans from upstairs....Then a terrible apparition appears to the men who flee in terror.  This monster, in all the tales I have heard, is invariably a headless giant...and it is sometimes armed with a broad-ax....

I'll leave it to those of you haven't yet seen Pigeons from Hell to conclude how closely this description matches the television adaptation!

Shortly before Robert E. Howard wrote Pigeons from Hell, the U. S. National Park Service established the Historic American Buildings Survey to document American architecture and, not altogether incidentally, provide employment for architects, draftsmen and photographers in need of remunerative work during the Great Depression.  Some of the most evocative photographs of decaying Louisiana plantation houses were taken during this decade as part of the survey.  Walker Evans (1903-1975) was another famous Depression-era photographer of these homes.  Thriller did a wonderful with the Pigeons from Hell adaptation of capturing this moss-bestrewn atmosphere of decay and death.

the awful truth: Mildred Dunnock

#2 The Cheaters
Based on a 1947 Robert Bloch story (there is also a resemblance to Daphne Du Maurier's unsettling Fifties tale The Blue Lenses), The Cheaters shows that horror can do more than merely frighten: it can make us think. (Perhaps to think is to be frightened.) 

This one opens with a prologue in which a man (Henry Daniell, yay!) creates a pair of spectacles that allows him to see the truth in others and, when he looks in the mirror, in himself.  The results aren't pretty.  The rest of the episode take us through a series of vignettes in which we see the spectacles (aka "cheaters") having an impact in the modern day, leading up to a shocking climax.  A wonderful story, translated to film with great finesse and boasting particularly good performances by veteran the Oscar-nominee Mildred Dunnock (playing one her patented batty old ladies), then relative newcomer Jack Weston and Harry Townes (back again).  Ed Nelson and Linda Watkins again deliciously deliver in smaller roles.

Death looks down

#1 The Grim Reaper
Probably not just my favorite episode of Thriller in Season 1 but my favorite Thriller episode period and one of my favorite episodes of any television program ever.  It's got superb pacing, scripting, acting, atmosphere--it's simply wonderful!

Ingeniously adapted by Robert Bloch from The Black Madonna, a Weird Tales short by Harold LawlorThe Grim Reaper easily could have been a stage play with diabolically eerie elements. After a memorable prologue with a Henry Daniell cameo (yay again!), we join Paul--a handsome if stolid young accountant played by William Shatner--on his visit to his eccentric mystery-writing aunt, Beatrice Graves (a delightfully dotty Natalie Schafer), at her newly-acquired mansion, "Grave's End," where she resides with her newly-acquired husband, the debonair--in a slithery sort of way--Gerald Keller (Scott Merrill), and her secretary, lovely Dorothy Lyndon (Elizabeth Allen, a blonde this time rather than the brunette she was in The Hungry Glass).

Is he just a gigolo?

To his aunt Paul expresses concern not about her having acquired a melancholy old mansion (a classic California Spanish Revival resembling something out of Hollywood's Golden Age) or a mercenary young (relatively) gigolo, but, rather, about her having bought a "cursed" painting by a mad French artist of...the Grim Reaper!

Like the Hope Diamond, the Grim Reaper painting is said somehow to bring death to its owners. Beatrice informs Paul that she has bought the painting precisely because of the curse: it makes for good publicity for a mystery writer.  Paul fears for the worst, however--and the worst soon happens!

A tipsy Beatrice Graves explains the world to nephew Paul

With a clever and suspenseful script and a grand finale, The Grim Reaper is a winner.  The acting too is excellent, with the four main players being exceptionally well cast. Shatner is relatively subtle here, but he gets the chance to execute something extra in the way of emoting soon enough, carrying us along with him every scary step of the way.

Scott Merrill, who was 42 years old at the time, really delivers as the actor getting a bit too old to play boyish-looking murderers who decides to cash in on a rich older woman. 

Originally a stage dancer, Merrill, co-starring with Lotte Lenya, played Macheath (Mack the Knife) in the acclaimed 1954-61 American revival of Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera (see photo on the right). Surprisingly he had only three television credits, and none in films.

Merrill's once-promising career declined from 1961 onward, though his performance in The Grim Reaper suggests he ought to have done well on television. Could something in his private life have held back his career?

Born in Baltimore on July 14, 1918, Wilfred Joseph Unger, to use Scott Merrill's real name, was the son of Wilfred Genouse Unger, an iron foundry moulder, and Caroline Rothmaier.  After his father's death his mother married bartender John Rahll and with him ran a Baltimore cocktail bar.

near far right is the house where Wilfred Unger (aka Scott Merrill) lived with his
mother and stepfather, who ran a Baltimore cocktail bar

Enrolled by his mother in dancing school upon a doctor's recommendation after he was diagnosed with diabetes, Wilfred as an adult took up dancing professionally.  While performing in local clubs he landed his first role in Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark, on tour in Baltimore.  It was then that he took the name Scott Merrill.  He danced in the musical when it reopened on Broadway in 1943. Dancing roles in Oklahoma!, Paint Your Wagon and Pal Joey, among others, followed.

Aside from Macheath in The Threepenny Opera, Merrill's most significant acting role on the stage was in Eugenia, adapted from Henry James' The Europeans, where he played Felix De Costa, brother of the title character, played by Tallulah Bankhead.

In the 1970s and 1980s Merrill and his life-partner, Edward Oscar Busse, directed an assisted living center in Bristol, CT, where Busse, son of auto machinist Frederick Busse and his wife Amelia Krampitz, had grown up.

Merrill died, seemingly largely forgotten in the artistic world, in 2001 at the age of 82. The slightly younger Busse passed away four years later at the age of 85.

In a brief obituary of Merrill, the Hartford Courant referred to Busse as Merrill's "longtime friend," a classic euphemism, but the longer notice in the New York Times allowed that Busse had been Merrill's "companion" (though in the article Busse's name was misspelled as "Buffe").  In death the two men, a couple of many years standing in life, share a headstone in a Bristol cemetery.

Elizabeth Allen, done up for The Grim Reaper as a frosty blonde, has a great presence that reminds me of Hitchcock leading ladies from this time, particularly Kim Novak and Vera Miles. She particularly shines late in the episode with some dramatic and quite convincing line deliveries.

But the show is stolen by Natalie Schafer, known for many decades now as daffy millionaire matron Mrs. "Lovey" Howell from Gilligan's Island, a staple of my childhood when it was in syndication (I must have seen every episode several times), but who actually had roles in some notable films, including Dishonored Lady, Secret Beyond the Door, The Snake Pit, Caught and Female on the Beach. Initially Schafer's Beatrice Graves seems just a wacky eccentric, like Martita Hunt's deliciously oddball character, as we will see, in a Thriller episode in Season 2; but we come to see pathos in her as well. 

Watch your crown, Jessica, Lovey's coming!
Ten years younger than Agatha Christie (making her 60 years old at the time of filming), Schafer really captures with complete conviction the personality of a mid-century Queen of Crime, with all her knowing and ironical trade talk. My only regret is that Schaefer never got to do a mystery series; she might have given those Snoop Sisters a good challenge--perhaps even Jessica Fletcher!

Well, there you have it, my top dozen Thrillers from the first season. A dozen more are to follow from Season Two. 

Stick around--if you dare!  For, as sure as my name is The Passing Tramp, there are some very good ones indeed remaining.

For more on Thriller see the guys over at the A Thriller a Day blog and MonsterGirl at The Last Drive-In blog.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Exit to Death: So Many Doors (1949), by E. R. Punshon

Crime detection at its exciting best!

This fascinating tapestry of murder and superior detection is a prime example of the classic type of mystery story--a story whose ingenious kinks and turns absorb you, while its intense scrutiny of clues will keep you agog with anticipation.

E. R. PUNSHON was inducted into the London Detection Club by the late G. K. Chesterton, then president.  This club was founded with the idea of bringing together mystery writers who were willing to aim at high literary standards, and who believed that in the mystery novel "the reader must always be given fair play...."

--From the front and back flaps of the American edition of E. R. Punshon's So Many Doors (Macmillan, 1950)

Does "intense scrutiny of clues" keep mystery readers "agog with anticipation" these days?  Did it in 1950?  Apparently someone at Macmillan thought so. Or, possibly, they were making for traditionalists the most that they could of Punshon's perceived strengths as a mystery writer in an era when, to generalize, male readers of crime fiction were turning increasingly to hard-boiled novels and women to so-called domestic suspense.

Yet to no avail: So Many Doors (to be reissued in January by Dean Street Press), would be the last Punshon novel published in the United States during the author's lifetime, though nine more new Punshons would be published in the UK by the author's longtime publisher, Victor Gollancz.

Taking note of the 17th-century stage origin of the title of So Many Doors, Anthony Boucher, then dean of American mystery critics, praised the "Elizabethan, even Jacobean" aspect of the novel in its compulsive chronicling of the "obscure destinies that drive [Punshon's] obsessed and tormented characters, and...the frightful violence that concludes the story." These were qualities that should have appealed to mid-century American readers, yet they may have been obscured by Punshon's deliberate narrative style for most of the novel.

For much of the novel Punshon's charming series sleuth, Bobby Owen--now, in his 26th novel appearance, ranked a Commander in Metropolitan Police (more on this below)--is trying to determine what happened to to Isabel Winlock, a respectable young woman who has run off with Mark Monk, a magnetic male of doubtful character who is suspected of having done in his wife.

Monk has a connection to Bexley House, a great Thameside mansion from "the days when domestic help was cheap and plentiful and and no one dreamed that it would one day very much be the reverse."  The once abandoned house seems to be the locale for gambling and black market activities, and there's evidence that someone--Mark Monk? Isabel Winlock?--was done in there, evidently stabbed, not long before Bobby pays Bexley House a visit.

Eventually Bobby's investigation of this most mysterious matter takes him to scenic Cornwall, specifically the old tin mining district around Redruth. What does he discover there? Read the novel and find out!

remains of tin mine works in Cornwall

Now, about Commanders on the Metropolitan Police.  Some people have commented that Bobby's rise in Scotland Yard seems meteoric.  Bobby was still a sergeant in 1939, when he left the Yard to join the police force in Wychshire, where he spent the war years as an inspector and later deputy chief constable.  Returning to London in Music Tells All and The House of Godwinsson (both 1948), Bobby is made a deputy assistant commissioner, the equivalent of deputy chief constable, but by So Many Doors he has become a Commander, reflecting the recent creation of the rank of commander out of junior DAC's.

For comparison, PD James' Adam Dalgliesh started off as an Inspector in Cover Her Face (1962), but had made it up to Commander by The Black Tower (1975). It took Bobby about fifteen years to make it up to deputy assistant commissioner (if you think this was too fast, blame Wychshire, not the Yard), but then he was a lot younger than Dalgliesh.

Or maybe not.  Bobby starts off the series at about age 23 and ages more or less naturally as the series progresses over the next 23 years, so at the end of his recorded career he's about the same age as Dalgliesh, who starts off in his forties, I believe, but never seems to age over the 46 years of cases chronicled by James. Good thing too, because had he aged naturally Dalgliesh would have been around 90 at the time of his last case!

More on the next Bobby Owen novel in the series, Everybody Always Tells, coming soon. If So Many Doors bears resemblance to Christie, Tells brings in bit of today's birthday boy, John Dickson Carr.