Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Objectivism in the Court! The Night of January 16th (1934), by Ayn Rand

Like myriad between-the-wars intellectuals, philosophical author Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a devotee of crime fiction.  (Ludwig von Mises, on the other hand....)  The fervent anti-communist writer and promoter of the rival belief system known as objectivism, who had left the Soviet Union for the United States in 1925 at the age of twenty, once informed hard-boiled detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, an avowed leftist, that his landmark novel The Maltese Falcon (1930) "has always been one of my favorite mystery stories"--while she simultaneously chided Hammett for his communist sympathies.

idealized depiction of
Ayn Rand on 1999 US
postage stamp
(What would Rand have thought of that?)
The outspoken Libertarian icon also denounced mystery writer Rex Stout as an insidious, anti-American "Red," while apparently not expressing any view, one way or the other, about the famed Nero Wolfe creator's beloved detective fiction.  On the other hand, Rand heaped praise on the popular post-WW2 crime novels of commie-hating Mickey Spillane, declaring sunnily that his writing "gives me the feeling of hearing a military band in a public park."  (Me, it gives the feeling of hearing a torturer at work in a gulag, but, hey, different strokes!)

I suppose Spillane's tough as nails, symbolically named sleuth, Mike Hammer, was a grand embodiment, in Rand's eyes, of man as a heroic being, boldly willing, if not eager, to murder Communists with his own bare hands for the sake of Lady Liberty.  Or something.

However, Rand also read and enjoyed non-hard-boiled crime writing as well.  In 1943 she went out to Hollywood to write the script for a film adaptation of her breakthrough novel The Fountainhead (1943).  Producer Hal Wallis thereupon hired her as a scriptwriter and script doctor.

Ivar Kreuger on the cover
of Time Magazine
For Wallis Rand over the next couple of years crafted a couple of scripts which were produced, including one for the Oscar nominated mystery film of sorts, Love Letters (1945).  She also wrote several scripts for films which were not produced, including an adaptation of Mabel Seeley's naturalist neo-Gothic crime novel, The Crying Sisters

Published in 1939, this was Seeley's second crime novel, after her superb The Listening House (1938).  I didn't like Crying Sisters that much when I read it years ago, but maybe I should give it a second look.  The male lead whom I thought was utterly unbearable Rand probably unreservedly adored.  Rand also praised a highly traditional "fair play" detective novel, Marion Randolph's Grim Grow the Lilacs (1941).

Ayn Rand's popular stage play The Night of January 16th (1934), a courtroom murder melodrama, indicates familiarity on the author's part with both hard-boiled crime fiction and more traditional detective fiction.  The two most immediate influences on the play were fictional and non-fictional, respectively. 

The fictional one was Bayard Veiller's 1927 courtroom melodrama The Trial of Mary Dugan (1927), a smash hit play which was twice filmed, and the non-fictional the story of entrepreneur and swindler Ivar Kreuger, the so-called Swedish "Match King" (so named for his control of much of the world's matches production).  Financially ruined with the onset of the Depression, Kreuger committed suicide in his Parisian apartment in 1932, not long before Rand wrote her play.  Naturally enough given his mysterious persona, people speculated that the Match King was really murdered or that he cleverly faked his own death.

Ivar Kreuger was just the sort of larger-than-life ruthless egoist whom Rand romanticized, it seems to me; and it's easy to see him as the dead man in The Night of January 16th: renowned financier Bjorn Faulkner.  When the play opens, Karen Andre,  Bjorn's former secretary and mistress (whether she's his former or his current mistress is in dispute), is on trial, charged with his murder.  It seems that late one night the great business titan came hurtling down to the pavement from Karen's luxurious penthouse apartment, atop the Faulkner Building, seat of Bjorn's empire. But did he fall, or was he pushed???  Or did he deliberately jump to his death, knowing that his business empire was about to collapse and desirous to end life on his own terms?

District Attorney Flint and defense attorney Stevens joust over the truth, in the event calling on a parade of sometimes colorful witnesses: a private eye, Homer Van Fleet; a Swedish housekeeper, Magda Svenson; a cleaning lady, Mrs. John Hutchins; the policeman on the murder scene, Elmer Sweeney; a woman handwriting expert, Jane Chandler; a Norwegian bookkeeper, Sigurd Jungquist; a notorious gangster, Larry Regan, and a deceased gangster's widow, Roberta van Renssalaer, aka Ruby O'Toole; and, last but not least, Bjorn's wife of recent vintage, determined young heiress Nancy Lee Faulkner, and her indulgent banker father, John Graham Whitfield.

As the play develops, there are twists and turns which come right out of the props box of classic crime fiction.  This play could easily have been reworked as a novel by Freeman Wills Crofts, say, or even the great Agatha Christie herself.  But ultimately Rand chooses not to solve this mystery.  Instead she presents her audience with alternative explanations of the facts, one being that Karen is guilty of murder, the other that...well, I should leave you to see or read it for yourselves.

The great gimmick of the play, which likely led to its initial success and continued longevity, is that the jury that decides Karen's guilt is randomly chosen from the play audience: there are two different endings to the play, based on how the jury decides. 

Producers had a lot of fun with this gimmick, sometimes impaneling celebrity juries, for example.  Some of the notable jurors from the Thirties included sports figures Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, actor Ricardo Cortez, James Roosevelt, eldest son of the president, and Helen Keller (!), as well as four then sitting US congressmen.

The play, suitably revised (or unsuitably in Rand's view) by one Nathaniel Edward Reeid, caught on for amateur performances, including in high schools.  When my Mom, a twelfth grade English teacher, staged this play, in little Tri-Valley High School in Hegins, Pennsylvania, in 1956, teachers from the school served as the jurors, to the great amusement of the audience, my Mom told me.  (Below you will see one of the juries from my Mom's production, along with some scenes from the play.)

from my mother's high school production at little Tri-Valley High School in 1956
Defendant Karen Andre gets emotional on surprise witness Larry Regan,
while defense attorney Stevens (with false mustache) looks on

The amateur version of the play is billed as a "comedy-drama," something which Rand, who never struck me as a notably mirthful person, doubtlessly disliked.  She saw her play as an intensely serious one which had been altered into mere melodrama by producers.  "Only the plot and the characters have been kept, but every abstract or psychological implication has been destroyed, so that it is now nothing but a rather vulgar melodrama."

I don't know, I still think it's a good piece of entertainment, but then I like plot machinations and I can manage without Rand's "abstract and psychological implications."  As it is, I think it comes through to us that Rand clearly sympathized with her rogue financier, Bjorn Faulkner, and his intrepid lover-secretary, Helen Andre; and expected us to find her not guilty.  (In its original Broadway run of over 250 performances, juries decided on acquittal by a 3-2 margin.)

Roberta von Renssalaer (aka Ruby O'Toole)
questioned by defense attorney Stevens
The humor in the play actually is pretty light handed, depending mainly on characters' dialect. There's also a brassy gangster's moll (wife in the amateur version), who is played for some laughs.  Rand specifically complained about what she termed the "flashy gun moll."  But even with these emendations, the play remains a serious criminal affair of illicit passion and death.

Some of the lines seem unexpectedly adult for a play that was being put on in high schools in the Fifties.  Hell, my philistine southern high school, when I was there in the early Eighties, probably would have deemed it unacceptable.  (As it was the school quit bothering to stage plays the year before I arrived there--the last one performed there was Lil Abner.) 

Here's censorious Swedish housekeeper Magda condemning Karen's sensuousness and sounding rather like that hateful old puritanical woman in the then recent James Whale horror film The Old Dark House (1932):

Magda Svenson on the stand with DA Flint
He [Bjorn] had a platinum gown made for her [Karen].  Yes, I said platinum!  Fine mesh--fine and soft as silk.  And she vore it on her naked body.  She had a fire in the fireplace, and she heated the dress.  And she asked me to put it on her as hot as she could stand; and if it burned her shameless skin, she laugh like the pagan she is and say it vas man, kissing her vild like tiger.

Pretty hot stuff for teenagers in the Fifties, I would have thought, if those lines actually were left in.  Maybe after that passage Karen was doomed with high school juries comprised of upright teachers.  Later on, she makes think even worse by announcing that she (like Rand) is an atheist. I wish I knew how Mom's jury decided.

In 1971, the play was reprinted in its original version, as Rand had intended it.  I plan on following this post with another on the differences between the two versions.  Even as adulterated, however The Night of January 16th is still an entertaining piece of twisty melodrama, "vulgar" or no.

the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, along with, I believe, DA Flint
Tri-Valley High School in 1956

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Janet Knohr Evans, 1931-2020

My mother Janet Knohr was considered an older mother by many of the kids I grew up with in Alabama in the 1970s.  She had married in 1958 at the age of 26, but I wasn't born until my mother was nearly 34, seven years into her marriage to John Evans, then a graduate student in economics at the University of Wisconsin.  Even 26 was old for first marriage to a lot of my contemporaries, however, their parents having wed when they were not long out of high school.  Contrastingly  my mother had had a career before marriage, something somewhat unusual in the 1950s, when women were being urged, after rosily riveting during the Second World War, back into domesticity, by keeping house and bearing children.

Janet Knohr Evans
with her grandmother,
Mary Maurer Lehr
Like her four brothers, my mother became a schoolteacher.  She was born in the small Pennsylvania Dutch town of Gratz in 1931, to Daniel Milton Knohr and his wife of two decades, Jennie Lehr.  Some of her earliest memories were of her maternal grandmother, Mary Maurer, who saw Lincoln's funeral train in Harrisburg in 1865, when she was just shy of sixteen years old. 

Widowed at a young age (her husband Daniel Lehr had died in 1888 from Bright's Disease), Mary Maurer owned the house in which Daniel and her daughter Jennie lived all their married life together.  One half of the first floor of the house served as Mary's bed-sit, where Janet, the youngest of the eight children of Daniel and Jennie, on occasion would be invited by her elderly grandmother to partake of hard candy from a coffee canister.  Janet remembered her grandmother Mary, who died at the age of 88 two days after Janet's sixth birthday, on one occasion giving her ears a playful tweak.

Janet's earliest years were lived during the Great Depression.  Her four brothers eventually became schoolteachers, but her bright eldest sister, Mary, who served as rather a mother figure to her, was never sent to college, though in school she had proved an adept student, with a penchant for Latin. 

Janet herself graduated from high school in 1949, six years after her father's death during World War Two.  (Two of his sons then were fighting in Africa and Europe and the stress over this helped kill him.)  Thereupon Janet enrolled at Shippensburg State Teachers College (today Shippensburg University).  She graduated four years later and began teaching twelfth grade English at Hershey High School in the famed "chocolate town" of Hershey, Pennsylvania.

my mother directed drama at Hershey High School,
Hershey Pennsylvania, 1954-56
(pictured lower left in top pic and left in center pic)
Janet taught at Hershey for two years, during which time she became the faculty adviser to the drama club and directed the annual school plays, One Foot in Heaven and Father of the Bride

In 1955-56 she taught twelfth grade English at Tri-Valley High School in the small town of Hegins, Pennsylvania, where she herself had graduated from high school a half-dozen years earlier.  Again she directed the annual school play, this time Ayn Rand's popular Thirties courtroom mystery, The Night of January 16th.*

*(I'll have more on this play and my Mom's staging of it in my next blog post.)

After a year at Tri-Valley Janet left with her good teacher friend Ethel Long to enroll in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  There she met, and in 1958 married, John Evans, a strapping Texas native.  She later taught sixth grade English at Jolley Elementary school in Vermilion, South Dakota, home of the state university, where John was teaching.  The conservative and highly upright woman principal at Jolley praised Mom for being "a lady," which always amused her.  She got called a lady a lot over the years.

In 1968 Janet and John ventured south from Madison, Wisconsin to Alabama, where John had accepted a teaching position at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. This move Janet initially greeted with considerable skepticism, given events in the South at that time,  but Janet and John would live in Alabama for over three decades, there raising their two children, Jennifer and Curtis.  Not happy with the teaching positions being offered her in Alabama, Janet in the late Seventies and early Eighties successively managed the Brooks Fashion Stories at McFarland and University malls in Tuscaloosa.  In her leisure time, which came to her finally in her fifties, she enjoyed reading, films, music, games (particularly word games, at which she was fantastically adept) and travel.

Among Janet's favorite reading were mysteries.  In 1974, when the Evans family was living in Mexico City, where John taught international finance at the National University, Janet, with her itchy eight year-old-son Curtis in tow, for eight pesos apiece fatefully bought four Agatha Christie Pocket paperback mysteries (And Then There Were None, The ABC Murders, Funerals Are Fatal/After the Funereal and Murder Is East/Easy to Kill),  Sitting curled up in the family's love seat that summer in their Mexico City apartment, Curtis devoured them all and was hooked on tales of detection forever more.  (I also vividly recall reading some shocking twist tale called "The Machete Murderer" in, believe, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.) 

me with my mother at the cancer clinic
on the first day of her treatment for
metastatic breast cancer, three years ago
Thus I owe my love of mysteries to my mystery loving mother, who, like so many of her sisters in the Fifties, gave up an academic career in the Fifties for marriage and children.  I hope that whatever success she saw her son enjoy in intellectual work may have been one of the things that helped reconcile her to that decision. 

Not only her sister Mary had encouraged her to follow an intellectual course in her life, but also her favorite teacher at Shippensburg, labor historian James Bernard Hogg, the first chair of Shippensburg History and Philosophy Department.  They knew she had great promise.  I know I owe my late mother more than I could ever have hoped to repay, has she lived to be 100, as she might well have but for her metastatic stage one breast cancer.

She died from that cancer today, April 15, at age 88 and is terribly missed by her husband, children and grandchildren.  Memorial contributions can be made to the Center for Creative Education and Metavivor, promoting metastatic breast cancer awareness and research.  Please give, both for those of youthful promise and for those who, though older, may still have much left to offer the world.  Creative life at any age should never be cut short.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Shock the Monkey: The Case of the Grinning Gorilla (1952), by Erle Stanley Gardner

Somehow I never imagined I would come across a Perry Mason mystery where the redoubtable defense attorney gets pursued through an eccentric millionaire's nearly deserted mansion by a killer gorilla.  Yet, sure enough, this is just what I found in Erle Stanley Gardner's fortieth--if I counted right--Perry Mason detective novel, The Case of the Grinning Gorilla (1952). 

In most American mysteries from the period, the titular "gorilla" would have been some nasty, hulking human bruiser with one ugly mug, who has it down for some reason on our series hero; but, nope, when ESG promises you a gorilla, you get an actual gorilla.  And then some!  Things get pretty hairy for our Perry, let me tell you.

It's all rather implausible and hard to believe--and I loved every utterly bananas minute of it.  This is one of the closest mysteries from the Fifties to a gonzo between the wars Golden Age detective novel that I can recall.  If it had a locked room or a devious murder gadget, much of it could have been conceived by crafty Golden Age master brains like John Dickson Carr or John Rhode.  It's amazing to me that ESG was able to come up with something so different (for him) at forty books into the series.  Truly, like Raymond Chandler once enviously wrote of ESG, the man had one fertile plotting brain.

The courtroom sequences come late in the book and are rather short, though entertaining as always.  (By the by, ESG's Hamilton Burger always seems something of an ass to me, in contrast with the splendid William Talman's portrayal on the television series, who always seemed too smart to lose every damn time to Perry, impressive as Raymond Burr was in the role.)  Much of the book is devoted to actual investigation by Perry, assisted by his loyal and ever eager secretary Della Street ("Right, Chief!") and hungry gumshoe Paul Drake.  There is also more than a bit of emphasis on Perry's implied romantic relationship with Della.  (I don't see how anyone could doubt there was one after reading this book.)

It all starts when Perry quixotically buys some effects from the estate of the late Helen Cadmus, beautiful secretary to Benjamin Addicks, "the eccentric millionaire."  (Yeah, that guy.  You know there's fun in store when an eccentric millionaire is involved in the mystery.)  It seems that poor Helen disappeared from the yacht of her employer one stormy night off Catalina Island.  Did she fall or jump from the boat--or could lovely, lost have been Helen pushed???  

The court concluded that it was all an unfortunate accident, but canny Perry has decided doubts.  Now Perry has Helen's diaries and Addicks and his retinue want them back--badly.  Which only makes Perry more suspicious, of course.  And then things get Even Weirder.

We learn that eccentric millionaire Addicks bizarrely keeps gorillas caged at his house so that he can perform hypnotism experiments on them.  (Somebody call PETA!  Wait, they weren't around back then, were they?)  Well, this strange dude is an eccentric millionaire, after all, so you have to expect such things. I suppose.

Addicks also is hounding his former housekeeper, Josephine Kempton, whom he believes pilfered valuables from him, by writing bad references about her, effectively preventing her from getting another housekeeping job.  Kempton is suing Addicks over this matter and she is quite pleased when Perry, after reading Helen's diaries and making a visit to Addicks' grimly isolated and fortress-like mansion, Stonehenge, is able to solve this little mystery. 

Perry faces a much bigger mystery, however, when a terrified Kempton calls the defense attorney out to the Addicks' mansion late one night.  There Perry finds Addicks stabbed to death and Kempton out cold on the floor.  Not to mention some of the gorillas are loose from the cages!  Where is Tarzan when you need him?  

Kempton of course ends up being charged with Addicks' murder and Perry joins her ingenuous young attorney in mounting her defense.  It's a tough job, since Kempton says that it was not the butler who did it, but rather one of the captive gorillas!  Was this a crime of simian passion?  Or something yet weirder?

There are implausible elements to this story, to be sure, but if you will just go with it, The Grinning Gorilla is a tremendous amount of fun in the Golden Age vein.  I also liked the byplay between Perry and Della here, even if it is all very Fifties and somewhat sexist. 

In his review of the novel Anthony Boucher, a dedicated Gardner fan, avowed that ESG was "largely at his best" here, although he complained about "those damned gorillas."  Despite the fact that they were "indispensable to the plot," they made the novel, in Boucher's view, "sound luridly pulpy" and the solution to Addicks' murder "verge on the farcical."

I say, lighten up already,  Tony, baby.  Think back to the great Golden Age of detective fiction, when writers, be they of classic British mystery or lurid American pulpery, like ESG at one time, dared to use their wildest imaginations, unimpeded by dreary reality.  Sometimes it's fun just to have fun. Who says a man can't encounter a rogue gorilla when down those mean streets he must go?

Yet I'm not surprised that the makers of the series waited until 1965 to film this one.  Personally, I'd like to see Raymond Burr getting chased by a gorilla.  Of course in another incarnation he'd already tangled with no less fearsome a creature than Godzilla, King of the Monsters, so maybe he was up to it still, despite the bulk he had added to his frame by that time.  The grinning gorilla was scary, no question, but at least we're not talking King Kong!

King of the Monsters, all right!