Sunday, May 28, 2023

Prince Albert in a Can: Out of the Dark/Child's Play (1964), by Ursula Curtiss and its film adaptation I Saw What You Did (1965)

To a great extent, children were neither seen nor heard in Golden Age detective fiction, though they certainly pop up in Dorothy L. Sayers' humorous short story Talboys, say, Margaret Cole's novel Scandal at School (1935), where the murderee is a blackmailing teenage girl, and Agatha Christie's Crooked House, where--well, I'd better not say more about that one!  

I have the impression that the depiction of children in crime fiction owes rather more to the Americans than the Brits, Americans like like Craig Rice with her classic Home Sweet Homicide and the various mid-century mistresses of domestic suspense, like Ursula Curtiss.  Indeed, Curtiss, the mother of five children, went so far as to base her 1964 crime novel Out of the Dark (Child's Play in England), on her own family.  

The book reads something like Shirley Jackson's popular domestic child-raising comedies, Life among the Savages and Raising Demons, crossed with a tale about a psychotic killer.  It's a rather weird combination, to my mind inadvertently making the case for keeping kids out of crime stories, unless they are themselves killers like the sociopathic tot in William March's The Bad Seed--tales of morbid psychology, in other words, where anything narsty goes.  

Tales about the mirthful doings of wacky kids, on the other hand, don't really mix well with murder, in my view.  But that is rather what we got here!

The basic scenario in Child's Play--the title I'm used to, and the better one I think--is clever, and it's not surprising the novel was adapted as a film by that great American impresario of horror schlock, William Castle.  In the novel a pair bored girls, "home alone" as it were, decide to make a series of prank phone calls to unsuspecting victims, and soon get in over their heads.

It's the old "Prince Albert in a can" ruse, I suppose you know that one?  It's where kids call a store asking if they have "Prince Albert in a can?,"  referring, don't you know, to the Prince Albert brand of tobacco.  If the victim unsuspectingly answers, "yes, we do" then the kids scream: "Let him out!"  Hilarity ensues.  I did this one myself, but disappointingly the person on the other end of the line anticipated me by saying, "No, we let him out.Stephen King used this bit in his horror novel It and it appeared as well in the television adaptation.  It's referenced in the Curtiss novel as well.

Let him out!
In the Curtiss novel, which is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the author's place of residence from 1960, the teen girl pranksters are Libby Mannering and her visiting friend from Chicago Kit Travers.  In the book Kit--a sort of urban sophisticate who seems older than her fourteen years (Libby is fourteen as well)--is the instigator of the phone calls, uttering to her victims, all for fun, the threatening line: "I know who you really are, and I saw what you did...."  

This lands the girls in trouble when they utter the line on the phone to a man who years ago got away with a terrible murder....

As I mentioned above, this is a classic suspense scenario and kudos to Curtiss for being the first, apparently, to use it. 

Unfortunately, however, from my perspective, Libby happens to have four younger siblings, three brothers and a baby sister, and their antics, lovingly dwelt upon by the author, undermine the suspense.  It seems that Curtiss, herself the mother of five children, based the kids in the book on her own.  She told the Albuquerque Journal that the novel "was written around the five Curtiss children, Katy, 15, John, Paul, Kieran and Mary, 8."  Based on the antics in this book I would say that the Curtiss children must have been quite the hellions!  More than a match for any mere murderer, indeed.

But the book is not a murder comedy either.  To me it's schizophrenic.  Early on there's a rather frightening depiction of the original murder that makes clear the killer is a very bad dude, a sociopathic type, and it should make us fear powerfully for the safety of the kids, but it really doesn't.  I could never really make myself believe Curtiss' brat pack was in true danger, despite the atmospherics. (The somewhat feckless Mannering parents are spending the night in Santa Fe and had gotten the kids an adult babysitter, who never shows.)  

Perhaps had Curtiss confined the cast of kiddie characters to just the two teenage girls, it might have worked better.  If three's a crowd, five is a calamity, at least as far as suspense is concerned.  The author's slightly earlier suspense novel, Hours to Kill, a superb study in terrifying isolation, is much stronger as pure suspense, I believe. 


Some reviewers voiced similar complaints about the book as mine, but on the whole the novel received boffo reviews (specially in England) and it became one of only two Curtis novels to be filmed.  The 1965 film version of Out of the Dark, entitled I Saw What You Did, is an interesting movie to thriller fans, though ultimately I think it is deeply flawed.  

It was directed by William Castle, the last film by him, I believe, that anyone ever talks about, though he would direct five more.  Its main stars were two teenage unknowns, Andi Garrett and Sara Lane, as Libby and Kit respectively.  (Lane was fifteen at filming; I'm not actually certain how old Garrett was.) 

Girls Night In

However, the main adult co-stars in the film were big movie stars then in their fifties: Joan Crawford, 58, and John Ireland, 50.  Both stars had drinking problems and if anything looked older than their ages.  It's stated a couple of times that John Ireland's character is, or looks like, around forty old, which is laughable, while Crawford, saddled with a horrendous beehive hairdo and some sort of costume jewelry collar contraption that looks like it was lifted from the Temple of Doom, is positively matronly.  (Originally Barbara Stanwyck was supposed to play the role, which would have been more plausible, though Stanwyck was only a year younger than Crawford.)  However, Joan and John still lend an air of needed seriousness to the film.  

John Ireland can't figure it out either.

Fifty-three year old actor Leif Erickson is in the film too, in the throwaway part of Libby's father, like Crawford and Ireland looking old for his age.  The only other sizeable part belongs to nine-year-old Sharyl Locke, as Tess Mannering, Libby's baby sister.  Libby's three brothers from the book, all have been expunged, surely a necessary move for cohrency's sake.  However, little Sharyl does enough mugging for all of them.  

more glamorous days
Joan Crawford and John Ireland in the 
melodrama Queen Bee, from 1955
For the film, it must be noted, is as schizophrenic as the book, if not more so.  The teenage actresses have been much criticized as terrible, but I don't know that this is such a fair charge.  Basically they are tasked with playing a pair of silly teenage girls and at that job I think they succeeded well enough.  (Andi Garrett gets a bit goofy at times though.)  

The biggest problem I had with the film is the godawful silly sitcom music on the soundtrack, which made the film seem like more like a wacky episode of the contemporary "identical cousins" sitcom, The Patty Duke Show.  The lightness of the portions with the kids doesn't blend well with the murderous goins-on among the adults, which, come to think of it, is a pretty fair translation of the book, only more so!  

In particular, the first murder--a blatant rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock's infamous shower scene from Psycho--is quite violently presented and rather off kilter with much of the rest of the film. So, what's the first murder, you ask (if you haven't seen the film already)?  Well, John Ireland, playing Steve Marak (Leonard Whelk in the book), knocks off his pretty young wife Judith (Joyce Meadows) in a rage because she is leaving him.  When he gets a call from Libby, in the sexy guise of Suzette, telling him, "I saw what you did....and I know who you are!," he goes bananas of course.  

Joan Crawford, who starred in William Castle's 1964 horror film Strait-Jacket (a much better flick), has been shoehorned into this film in the part of Amy Nelson, a seriously overdressed neighbor who has the hots for Steve and is always spying on him from her window.  Amy comes up with the brilliant idea of blackmailing Steve, with her knowledge of the murder, into marrying her, which predictably only succeeds in prompting Steve to slay Amy too.  Before Amy--okay, let's just say Joan, cause this is who Joan really is playing here--kicks the bucket, however, she has a great scene confronting Libby, who has come to get a gander at Steve (she thinks he sounds sexy on the phone), scolding and shoving her and denouncing her as a tramp.  Why, if they had gotten Joan's daughter Christina to play Libby, Joan wouldn't have had to do any acting at all!  

"Get outa here, you tramp!"
the scariest thing in the film
Apparently in real life, however, Joan got along with the teenagers just fine.  It was the adult and sexy Joyce Meadows whom she felt threatened by and banned from the set.  (Joan and John Ireland had had a fling during the filming of Queen Bee a decade earlier.)

"Amy" really wasn't much of a part for Joan, in truth, but after I Saw What You Did all she would have left to do on film was two indifferent English horror flicks, Berserk (1967) and Trog (1970).  The Oscar-nominated Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in the end proved no career-saver for Joan.  Soon we may take a look at the late career of Joan's arch-nemesis from Baby Jane (and real life), Bette Davis, and she how she fared!

Murder's nothing a nice little drinkie won't solve!

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Cozy Sundays: "Fee Fie Ho Hum!" The Blood of an Englishman (2014), by MC Beaton

At the time of its publication, The Blood of an Englishman (2014) was advertised as something of an "event" in crime writer MC Beaton's long-running Agatha Raisin mystery series, as it was the author's 25th book in the series.  Only five more Raisins from the author's hand (ostensibly) followed it before her death at age 83 on the last day of 2019.  The series has since continued under the hand of R. W. Green (a man, Rod Green), who has been described as a longtime friend of Beaton.

Personally, I suspect Mr. Green, not of having done it with the revolver in the billiard room, but of having helped in the writing of the last of the Beatons ostensibly produced by his benefactor, Beating about the Bush, published the year of her death, because to me it doesn't read quite like Beaton herself and it is a huge improvement on her previous two Raisins, The Witch's Tree (2017) and The Dead Ringer (2018), which are, to be brutally frank, two of the worst mysteries I have ever read.  Sadly, they are practically unreadable, like Agatha Christie's Postern of Fate (1973) without that novel's dotty, meandering charm.  I haven't read the two Raisins which come between Blood and Tree (Dishing the Dirt and Pushing up Daisies), but Blood comes off like a work of sheer genius compared to Tree and Ringer, though in fact Blood is very much adulterated in my view.

When The Blood of an Englishman was published in 2014, the Agatha Raisin series had been in sharp decline for some time, since approximately 2008.  The year before that, in the rather charming (if you like the series) Kissing Christmas Goodbye (2007), the eighteenth Raisin novel, Beaton had introduced Toni Gilmour, a young, beautiful  sidekick for Agatha Raisin, who had graduated from amateur village snoop to licensed private detective in the fifteenth Raisin novel, Agatha Raisin and the Deadly Dance (2004).  The first few PI Raisin books aren't bad, in my opinion, but the wheels start to come off the dead cart with A Spoonful of Poison (2008).  I don't blame Toni for this but rather structural changes that Beaton made in the books at the time.

The books start to rely much more on barking mad murderers, the body counts rise to absurd levels, the plots become disjointed and chaotic, Agatha is put in more perils of her life than Pauline and there's this weird thing where the murderers get revealed early and then the last chunk of the novel concerns the murderer plotting, futilely of course, to kill Agatha, after which there is an epilogue introducing the setup in the next, apparently already written book.  

Beaton's cast of  longtime supporting characters continue to make appearances, but these appearances feel ever more rote.  The charm of life in the Cotswolds village of Carsley, so well-depicted in the debut novel in the series Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (1992) and others which followed it, is lost.

Indeed, after Kissing Christmas Goodbye, the lone bright spot in the series for me has been Something Borrowed, Someone Dead (2013), which immediately preceded The Blood of an Englishman.  Although it shares the same narrative structure of the later Raisins, Borrowed benefits from a better plot and choice of murderer. But let's look in more detail at Blood below, shall we?  Following this list of the Raisin novels, provided so that you can better follow what I have been saying, along with my ratings of them.  (Imagine they are raisins rather than stars.)

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death 1992 ****

Agatha Raisin [hereafter AR] and the Vicious Vet 1993 ***

AR and the Potted Gardener 1994 ***

AR and the Walkers of Dembley 1995 ***

AR and the Murderous Marriage 1996 ***

AR and the Terrible Tourist 1997 ***

AR and the Wellspring of Death 1998 ***

AR and the Wizard of Evesham 1999 ***

AR and the Witch of Wyckhadden 1999 **

AR and the Fairies of Fryfam 2000 ****

AR and the Love from Hell 2001 ****

AR and the Day the Floods Came 2002 ***

AR and the Curious Curate 2003 ****

AR and the Haunted House 2003 ***

AR and the Deadly Dance 2004 ****

AR and the Perfect Paragon 2005 ***

Love, Lies and Liquor 2006 ***

Kissing Christmas Goodbye 2007 ***

A Spoonful of Poison 2008 **

There Goes the Bride 2009 *

The Busy Body 2010 -

As the Pig Turns 2011 *

Hiss and Hers 2012 *

Something Borrowed, Someone Dead 2013 ***

The Blood of an Englishman 2014 **

Dishing the Dirt 2015 -

Pushing up Daisies 2016 -

The Witch's Tree 2017 NONE

The Dead Ringer 2018 NONE

Beating about the Bush 2019 (with R. W. Green?) -

In Blood, Agatha attends a pantomime of Babes in the Wood (mashed up with Mother Goose, Jack and the Beanstalk and other tales) in the nearby village of Winter Parva with her saintly friend and moral mentor (to the extent this is possible with Agatha), Mrs. Bloxley, the wife of the rather less patient and forbearing vicar of Carsley, improbably named (as Agatha herself thinks) Alf.  When the man playing the ogre, bullying baker Bert Simple, is eviscerated by a metal spike when exiting the stage via a trapdoor drop, Agatha is hired by the play producer, Gareth Craven, to find the depraved culprit.  Agatha is not notably successful in this endeavor (to be fair, neither are the police), for it's not long before, after a performance of The Mikado, another actor is decapitated with the (real) sword of the Lord High Executioner.

Why do they call these books cozies again?  These are very unpleasant killings (and there's another one, which I can't divulge, which is even worse).  Even Mrs. Bloxley doesn't mince words (well, not much) in reference to the neutering of Bert Simple, commenting that the villain "plotted not only to kill him but to destroy his manhood in the process."  Nice to know that cozies can encompass emasculation and decapitation and--well, I can't mention the other thing.  With some tonal shifts this book could have been written by Jo Nesbo!

Blood has a lot of the flaws characteristic to the late Raisins, including the sidelining of a great many of the series' longtime supporting cast members and an overemphasis on Agatha's dysfunctional love life, or more accurately lust life.  Anyone reading many of these books must surely start to wonder how much MC Beaton actually liked women. So many of them, including Agatha herself, are messes, hot and cold.

Aside from the fact that Agatha Raisin, in the depiction of whom the author said she drew upon herself, repeatedly denounces feminism for ruining romantic relationships between the sexes, there's the fact that Agatha is such a basket case in her relationships with men.  In Book 5 her marriage ceremony to her handsome neighbor James Lacey, a Jane Austen hero with the stodginess and emotional repression dialed up to 99, is interrupted when her long lost (and conveniently assumed dead) husband Jimmy shows up, then in Book 11, when Agatha and James finally do marry, the union is a train wreck that lasts out only this one novel.  

There are other men whom Agatha gets interested in and even sleeps with over the course of the series, including charming if rakish aristocrat Sir Charles Fraith, but usually they turn out to be utter scoundrels.  Still over and over Agatha falls head over high heels (she hates flats) in love with any handsome man she meets.  No wonder in Blood, her friend with occasional benefits Sir Charles thinks: "It would be hopeless being married to her....He would never be able to trust her.  Agatha would always be one woman looking for an obsession."

"If I were only fifty years younger!"
MC Beaton tweeted this sentiment
 in 2017 concerning this pic of herself
and scrumptious actor Matt McCooey,
who plays cop kindhearted Bill Wong,
Agatha's first friend by her own admission, 
in the Agatha Raisin television series

When I started this series I had a notion that Agatha, she of the breakfasts of back coffee and cigarettes and the perpetual gins and tonics, was some sort of tough feminist icon, but she's really nothing of the sort, even though she's a highly successful, frequently ribald, retired PR executive.  Her neuroses. mostly over men and her appearance but also concerning her lower class social origins, pull her down constantly.  She does have her genuine feminist, girl power moments, like when she storms the woman-averse pub in Fairies of Fryfam, one of the best books in the series, but all is canceled out with her desperate man chasing and pathetic obsession with her looks.  

I recall there was a woman character in a satirical meta episode of the American sitcom Newhart, the horny middle-aged single woman neighbor, who was introduced as "Man-crazy Smitty."  Well, that's Agatha to a "T."  Despite all her professional successes she just can't get along without a man in her life.  She even goes about with her ambiguously gay "toy boy" pal from the City, Roy Silver,  when no other man is available, pale and weedy and effeminate as Roy is invariably described.

In Blood Agatha gets smitten with handsome men four (!) times, though in the one case the passion is somewhat lukewarm because the man has a weak chin, that bane of Golden Age crime fiction, at least as far as men were concerned.  (Conversely with women strong chins were problems.)  

just your typical gay shindig

In another case, the man sadly turns out to be gay, a fact to which Agatha tumbles when he invites her to a party he has thrown where the parking attendant is wearing a "hat, black leather thong and nothing else."  I'm guessing Beaton got her notion of this little shindig from watching Elton John's forty year old "I'm Still Standing" video.  

There at least is some relationship to the plot in all but one of these cases, but at this point in the series I just find Agatha's obtuseness in regard to men and her low self-esteem not sympathetic but simply exasperating.  She's like the Bill Murray character in the Nineties romantic comedy Groundhog Day, had he never learned anything whatsoever from repeating the same day over and over again.  

Was the author herself really anything like this?  If so I think I can see how she ended up handing off authorship of the series (and the Hamish Macbeth one too)not to anoither woman writer but to a ruggedly handsome male friend--no toy boy he--named Rod.  She strikes me as rather a man's woman.

Rod Green

The plot in Blood isn't bad, actually.  The climax, which occurs when a fifth of the book yet remains, is actually intriguing, though it's stolen from another, rather famous crime source.  (Let's call it an homage, since the source is actually mentioned in the book.)  

Unfortunately, everything then is dragged out as the murderer pursues Agatha, even abducting her a second time and trying to kill her by throwing her in a river while confined in a barrel.  (It really is very Perils of Pauline.)  By my count this is only a 60,000 word novel, but at least 10,000 words could have been profitably cut from it.  

Agatha's great days in book form were the fifteen years between 1992 and 2007, when you could still hold out hope that Agatha might come to her senses about men.  Really, she and Charles, who latterly carried the series on his nattily-clad, aristocratic shoulders (Mrs. Bloxby and Roy help), should have married after Love, Lies and Liquor, by which time any fan of the series should have wanted to see James Lacey get his richly deserved comeuppance. 

The popular ongoing television adaptation of the Agatha Raisin novels makes the characters more likeable generally, including Roy Silver, James Lacey and, most crucially, Agatha herself.  The TV series is genuinely warm and cozy, Sex and the City-ish gay sex jokes notwithstanding.  That the Agatha Raisin novels are "cozy" is something I have to question.  The tea has a lot of gin in it, and the saucer is littered with stubbed-out cigarettes.