Friday, April 26, 2024

Coronet and the Masters of Mystery, 1956

378 million copies sold 

Coronet Magazine did another illustrated article on mystery writers in 1956, eighteen years after the first one.  Six of the "masters" were the same, while three were new.  All are listed below, with scans from the article.

Erle Stanley Gardner

Agatha Christie

Mickey Spillane NEW

John Dickson Carr NEW

Rex Stout NEW

Frances and Richard Lockridge

Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee)

Lots of emphasis on family life, or in Erle's case his secretaries.  The thirty-eight-year-old Spillane is shown teaching his children the Bible (Did he tell them about "thou shalt not kill"?), along with what strikes me as something of an aggressively masculine beefcake shot.  (Did women thing Spillane was sexy?)  In a particularly patronizing moment, as written up anyway, Carr is shown "explaining a Hogarth etching to his wife."  (Better that than his extra-marital affairs, I guess.)  The writer didn't even bother to give Clarice's name, it was just "wife."   

Rex Stout is shown making salad and furniture.  Truly a Renaissance man!  The Lockridges evidently had no children but like a lot of childless couples, they had cats, which certainly feature in their many mysteries.  Jacques Barzun, a hater of felines (or any pets) in mysteries, termed the cats "intolerable."  

Of the new guys, none were really new, barring Spillane, relatively.  Carr and Stout well could have been on the '38 list.   Gone this time around were Helen Reilly, Leslie Ford and Dorothy L. Sayers.  Sayers had retired from crime writing and would pass away the next year, but Helen Reilly and Leslie Ford were still publishing mysteries.  

Reilly would produce five more crime novels before expiring in 1962, while Ford was slowing down, publishing just two more crime novels in the next five years, although she lived until 1983.  Both women published their last mysteries in 1962.  

Frances Lockridge would die in 1963, but her husband Richard kept writing mysteries into the Seventies, as did Gardner, Christie, Carr, Stout and Queen.  Actually Lockridge published his last detective novel in 1980 at age 82, titling it The Old Die Young.  Does mystery writing and reading keep you young?  Spillane's Mike Hammer novels appeared intermittently up though 1996, he being the baby of the bad bunch, having been born in the plagued, pestilent year of 1918.  Alone among this group he lived to see the 21st century, dying at age 88 in 2006.  

Query: Who would have been the nine or ten masters of mystery in 1974?  Christie and Stout might well have featured again, perhaps even Carr and Queen.  The latter authors had published their last novels slightly earlier, but they was that known at the time?  Gardner died in 1970, leaving unpublished mysteries behind him.  

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Coronet Crowns the 1942 Kings and Queens of Crime

In 1942 an American digest, Coronet Magazine ran an interesting "portfolio of personalities" entitled Merchants of Murder, in which nine popular mystery writers were profiled.  These were:

"A Pair of Queens"--Ellery Queen, aka Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee

"Double-Trouble-Maker"--Leslie Ford/David Frome, aka Zenith Brown

"Mr. and Mrs."--Frances and Richard Lockridge

"Keeper of the Gray Cells"--Agatha Christie

"Prolific Lawyer"--Erle Stanley Gardner

"Master of Wimsey"--Dorothy L. Sayers

"Little Sister"--Helen Reilly

I posted pics of the pages below, hope they are legible!

Fourteen years later in 1956 Coronet did another profile on crime writers, Masters of Mystery.  Nine writers again were featured.  Six had appeared in 1942, but three were new.  Who do you think three "newbies" were?  Who do you think they replaced?  

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Worse Angels of Our Nature: No Evil Angel (1964), by Elizabeth Linington

After launching her Dell Shannon and Lesley Egan series in 1960 and 1961 respectively (and penning a one-shot Gothic as Anne Blaisdell), Elizabeth Linington finally started a series under her actual birth name in 1964.  (Her full name was Barbara Elizabeth Linington.)  The primary characters in this series were LA police sergeant Ivor Maddox and policewoman Susan Carstairs.  The latter emerged as a significant character in the second book in the series, No Evil Angel (1964), the novel I discuss below.  

Ivor Maddox is a slightly undersized, nondescript fellow of, no foolin', Welsh ancestry, who is inexplicably magnetically attractive to  apparently virtually all non-lesbian women (and maybe he would "turn" them too for all I know), including our lovelorn police girl named Sue.  "It was about every female who laid eyes on him," as Linington puts it in Angel, managing to make women--excuse me, "females"--sound like a bunch of idiots.  

During Ivor's interviews with females in his investigations, Linington lets us know, the lady interviewees invariably get suddenly horned up just looking at him and simply ache to pull out their mirrors and lipsticks.  "Maddox and his women, falling all over him, damn the lot of them," thinks Sue bitterly in Angel.  And again: "And what there was about Ivor Maddox, that damned ordinary little Welshman--women falling all over him."  Maddox himself is resigned to this phenomenon, "used to seeing female eyes interested in him, as whatever it was about Ivor Maddox hit them."  Oh, those silly females!  It is indeed a man's world in man's woman Linington's novels.  

Sue (and the author) goes on and on about this in Angel because as mentioned she herself is no exception to the Maddox Male Maxim, being head over sensible police heels in love with Ivor.  But of course she knows, even though she is physically attractive, that no real man in his right mind "wanted to date a policewoman....Only men like that obnoxious Randy Sills, who was studying interior decorating."  

I assume that means our Randy is light in the loafers, or one of "the fags" as the author's heroes put it in her books.  At another time Sue despondently thinks to herself: "if no ordinary man would think twice about a lady cop, no policeman would think even once."  And policemen are the best men too!  

At 27 years of age Sue is well on her way to becoming an old maid.  Sigh!

Carstairs doesn't find consolation in her job either, alas, because she hates her job.  "Anybody was crazy to want to join any police force," she thinks.  "Talk about thankless jobs."  For six years Sue has been a "female cop" as Linington puts it, so she knows. (What was she before that, a male cop?)  Law women get "mostly used for the juvenile stuff," which is better than meter maiding but oh! so depressing these days, what with parents being so lax and incompetent and their children being little horrors.  

So ruminates Sue at the beginning of No Evil Angel, after she finishes applying her lipstick--Ivor wants to see her, don't you know.  It seems he has a missing juvenile case he wants her help with: the mother might "talk easier to another female.  You know."  ("Yes, that was what they used the females for, mostly.")  

It transpires that the missing girl, Jewel Beal, has a neglectful, cocktail-waitress single mother who has only gotten around to reporting the girl's absence after a week, even though Jewel is only thirteen.  But Mrs. Beal, a husbandless and slatternly slut (by the author's standards) with a string of boyfriends trooping in and out her door, pretty much lets her not so precious Jewel do whatever she wants.  

The interview sequence the two cops hold with dreadful Mrs. Beal simply drips with the author's disdain.  It starts with Mrs. Beal herself: hair "bleached too often amateurishly," flabby skin, bad teeth, torn pink slip, "dirty pink nylon peignoir with yards of cheaps lace" at the collar and cuffs and "a pair of fake-fur, pink-dyed scuffs.Clothes in Books, my blog turns its enquiring eyes to you.

The apartment is no better: third-rate Grand Rapids furniture, circa 1920, a dime-store gilt-framed seascape on the long wall and no other pictures, tables with overflowing ashtrays and piles of magazines.  In the 1980s a newspaper reported that Linington's house, where she lived alone with two cats, was filled to overflowing with cat toys, books and scratched furniture and carpets (Linington was a chain smoker too), yet Linington, a reader of Seventies/Eighties tabloid true crime trash, never applied the same standards to herself that she did to others.

Mrs. Beal's speech, rendered with painfully pedantic naturalism by the author, is poor as well.  She utters words like "lessee" (let's see),"hadda," "dint," "wontcha," "o'course."  "My God," thinks Sue, applying the worst insult she knows: "People."  This gets repeated over and over in Linington's books and she's definitely not using it in the sense of Barbara Streisand's hit 1964 song.  It means, my God, isn't humanity horrible?  Maybe this is true, but when you're on your eighteenth Linington/Shannon/Egan, it gets pretty wearying.  

Forget luckiest!
People...are the scummiest people.  

The author's distaste for the poor and poorly educated single mothers--the stupid people and morons, as she calls them--is especially pronounced, though to be fair she often finds people in middle-class two parent households are nitwits too.  Truly, her misanthropy contains multitudes.  She also faults not just "people" for the wayward Jewel Beals of the world, but "this damn-silly, ignorant, sex-ridden culture."  This in a book written, probably, in 1963!

Anyway, Sue being a "female cop" gets put on this case, leaving Maddox to spend his time working on the more important fatal poisoning of Steven Wray, a handsome fellow who worked at a men's clothing store.  This is the novel's most engagingly tangled plot strand.  

Then there is the matter of the string of robberies, accompanied by completely gratuitous fatal shootings, that are going on in the precinct, and the case of the independent-minded middle-aged wife and mother who has vanished.  

Making reappearances as well from the debut novel in the series, Greenmask! (1964), are cops D'Arcy (he doesn't use his first name because it's so awful we are told) and Cesar Rodriguez.  In that novel a series of serial killings cribbed from an old Golden Age detective novel is being committed (maybe sixty years ago it was a bigger surprise just which novel it is--you've probably already guessed it yourself); and Maddox finds the solution by virtue of being a vintage mystery buff.  

Personally I found the book too long and rather boring, but the one cute part in it is the author's detailing about Ivor's vast mystery collection and Cesar's gradually becoming utterly smitten with Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.  He is still reading them in No Evil Angel and near the end of the novel even takes up with Ed McBain, which is a nice (and deserved) salute from Linington to a fellow contemporary police procedural writer.  

Just for the record, here are the real-life mysteries which Linington mentions Rodriguez reading in No Evil Angel:

John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson

The Judas Window ("So beautifully dovetailed.  So neat.  Everything so relevant," says Rodriguez, to which Maddox sighs: "About the last thing you could day of the real job.")

The Sleeping Sphinx 

The Curse of the Bronze Lamp

The Burning Court  ("I don't know that I just swallow all this," Cesar reflects.  "A nice intricate plot, but--."  To which Maddox responds: "You need a change of pace....Try some more Christie or Ellery Queen.")

Agatha Christie

The Pale Horse (a contemporary mystery when No Evil Angel was published)

Ed McBain

Killer's Wedge

Ten Plus One (published the previous year)

A good group of books, all better than the book that mentions them.  Linington obviously loved classic crime fiction but she chose to write police procedurals in which she repetitively--and there is a lot of repetition of utterance in her books--had her cop characters distinguish real life crimes committed by stupid brutes from the clever murders concocted by Golden Age mystery writers and their successors.  

Yet, as Linington herself was aware, these unrealistic puzzlers were damn entertaining--a lot more so, for many, than a dull as dishwater and depressing police procedural.  Ed McBain frequently was able to fuse PP realism with clever plots, yet Linington herself was less successful at this, meaning that for me the sentiments she makes above come off as special pleading.  But trading a mess of "realism" for a pot of ingenuity is a poor exchange in my book.  McBain actually could do both, but maybe I expect too much.  

Jewel's got a gun

In some books Linington could concoct a good workmanlike puzzle, but No Evil Angel was not one of these books.  I suppose you could say there are clues of a sort in the disappearance of Jewel and the robbery murders and especially the murder of Steve Wray, but in any case the police solve the crimes not through brilliant intuition or proceduralism but rather lucky breaks.  The solutions have some interest, but I can't divulge them here, unfortunately.  Let's just say a lot of the book reveals the author's equivocal view of women.  

Indeed, Linington strikes me as the most misogynistic woman mystery writer this side of Patricia Highsmith.  A reviewer at the time accurately commented that the poorest character in the book is Sue Carstairs, whom Linington just could not help but treat frivolously.  

Linington once commented to an interviewer that "I'm not much of a feminist (not at ALL)" and truer words have never been spoken.  Though an independent, unmarried woman herself, she portrays the truly blissfully fulfilled women in her books as married and jobless.  

So what happens to Sue and Ivor?  Carstairs is mostly dismissed from the book less than halfway through, after she attempts to question some teenagers by herself in a bad part of the city and almost ends up getting assaulted.  Teenage punks have no respect for a female cop.  Fortunately Ivor is able to rescue Sue, leaving her to keep pining for him in the next installment.  After several books, they get--well, plot it yourself.  

"You might have known, Sue," Ivor chastises his lady colleague on the phone when from a booth she asks him for help.  "Why do you think we save all the nice genteel jobs for you females?  You [females] just don't carry authority."  

Knowing that her knight in blue armor is coming imminently to rescue her, Sue forgets the loutish teenagers for a moment, pulls out her compact mirror and applies powder and lipstick to her face.  She may be in danger from the hooligans, but the important thing is that she doesn't have a shiny nose or dull lips when she sees the man she desperately wants to be her boyfriend.

As for the sneering, smart-alec West Side Story-ish teens, who mock the male police and menace the females, Maddox explains "kids like that just grow up naturally hating cops and nothing on God's green earth that we can do or don't do is going to change that."  The only thing cops can do with that sort "is make them respect us for being tougher than they are."  

Maddox actually gives one of them a vicious gratuitous punch in the face after he has established his authority, with the full approval of the author.  Like the modern-day Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ivor bitterly wonders "why we keep fighting all the wars to save democracy" when with the nation's debased rising generation it's not clear "we've still got any [democracy] left in this country."

the kids are not all right said Elizabeth Linington

In 1968, four years after the publication of the crime novel, a student at a girls' Catholic prep school, Ursuline Academy in Cincinnati, wrote Linington informing her that Jewel Beal, the "unwashed, immoral, atheistic and loud-mouthed girl"  in No Evil Angel, was not representative of teenagers.  She received a letter from Linington in reply, wherein the author stated that the teenager had reassured her that "girls like you...with good sense and moral integrity...are really in the majority."  (I wish the whole letter had been quoted.)  

Yet that's not really the feel you get in Linington's novels, where brutal youth crime, by middle-class kids and well as poor ones, gets a tremendous amount of the author's focus.  When Sue interviews a couple of women teachers from Jewel's school, one of them explains that the school generally gets "kids from good homes--it's an average middle class district."  Nonetheless, she herself refers to her charges as "little monsters"--"People--it makes you wonder," she snorts--and the other teacher chips in with "I sometimes think they're all potential delinquents."  And this was in 1964, before the youth revolution and hippies had Woodstocked their far-out ways into the world.  

Generally I find the crime fiction of Elizabeth Linington a long, depressing slog, not merely because the books tend to lack ingenuity, but because they utterly lack hope.  I suppose the author would have condemned me as a naive liberal and Communist dupe in not sharing her gloomy world view.  Like the MAGA movement today she seems to have been consumed with a paranoid fear of others, to have glimpsed American carnage round every dangerous corner.  

It's not a world view I find congenial to read about regularly.  I'm not demanding a thousand points of light to illuminate my mystery fiction, but I would like at least a few flickering cracked street lamps.  

In an interesting column in the Kansas City Times, a contemporary book reviewer, academic George Grella, then an English professor at the University of Kansas, was much more impressed with No Evil Angel than I was, but then he thought police procedurals were the best thing going on in the crime genre at the time, asserting that the "most successful detective fiction often has no mystery at all; instead, it shows the process of investigation...."  (He went on to spoil a good chunk of the book, which actually, contrary to his contention, did have some mysteries.)  

Contrasting Linington with English crime writer JJ Marric (John Creasey), Professor Grella observed that while Marric's procedurals were positive in their outlook on life, Linington's were negative.  Linington, in short, thought the country was rapidly going to hell in a handbasket.  Her novel, Grella noted, "displays life at its worst, unstable, decadent and corrupt, with the forces of good [the cops and no other] pitted against a real and active evil."  

My problem with this view is that conservatives seemingly have been expressing it, as Linington helps illustrate, from time immemorial.  Linington predicted the country's imminent collapse in her books for over two decades and I have no doubt that if she were still alive today (she'd be 103), she would be tweeting from behind the locked gates of her house that the end is nigh.  Apparently nothing is so deliriously addictive as doomsaying.  

Monday, April 15, 2024

Three million blog views and a new post--Airing out the Linington: The Crime Novels of Elizabeth Linington, aka Dell Shannon, aka Lesley Egan, aka Anne Blaisdell

First off, as of today I have had over 3 million views on the blog, a milestone I wanted to mention.  The blog started slowly in late 2012, shortly after Thanksgiving, and it took a good while to reach a million views, but now those additional millions pile up faster than one might think.  I don't blog nearly as much as I would like to anymore, and have had thoughts of doing a podcast or such, but will will see how things play out in this new year, already almost a third over.  

I have written a long article on crime novelist Elizabeth Linington--and I mean long: about 28,000 words.  It's really intended especially for the election year, looking at her political views, her crime fiction and her personal life and background.  Her politics infuse the whole thing.  

Linington disliked the 
wayward youth of the Sixties.
The fetching cover girl is supposed  
to be a runaway thirteen-year-old.

You see, if you have read the fine review posts by the late Noah Stewart or John Norris, you will know that Linington was a member of the notorious John Birch Society, interest in which has risen markedly lately among political historians due to the JBS's resemblance to the modern MAGA movement. 

Founded in 1958 as an anti-Communist group, the JBS was a highly paranoid organization that saw the subversive Communist conspiracy and its minions everywhere: President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, the civil right movement, the Supreme Court, etc.  

Linington wrote a propaganda book for the organization in 1965, a year after GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was crushed by 20 percentage points in the presidential race contest with Democrat Lyndon Johnson because he proved such a cranky right-wing extremist.  (Naturally, the JBS loved him.)  

The Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation and racial discrimination became law in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial barriers to the franchise, was enacted the following year.  The JBS opposed both, as did Goldwater.  The only states Goldwater won were his home state of Arizona (and that was by less than 5000 votes) and five then arch-conservative states in the Deep South: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, where blacks faced said racial barriers to the franchise.  

In Mississippi Goldwater got 87% of the vote and Johnson 13%, though blacks made up 43% of the population, which just shows how fraudulent the vote was in that state.  Yet Linington incredibly insisted that for some time there had been no real prejudicial treatment of blacks until the civil rights groups stirred up white resentment as part of the Communist plot to turn racial and ethnic groups against each other.  Things were just fine between the races before that, you see.

In retrospect it's clear that the years 1964-65, now nearly six decades in the past, was the high tide of modern liberalism in America.  The John Birch Society once was cast on the ash heap of history, even by many conservative Republicans, but it lives on today in MAGA.  If you look at Elizabeth Linington's reactionary political beliefs, which often found their way into her crime writing, it's obvious she would be right at home in MAGA today.  I can see her as a great trollish tweeter online.  

Alas, the author died over thirty-five years in 1988 at the age of 67.  At least she went out when conservative Republican Ronald Reagan was still president, though she might have detected Communist tendencies even in him.  She once denounced Democratic President Jimmy Carter in a newspaper letter as "Comrade Carter" (not that she liked his Republican opponent Gerald Ford either).  

Linington was in her mid-thirties, still lived with her parents in Glendale, California and had never held an actual paying job for any significant length of time or accomplished anything of note when she got a historical romantic novel published in 1955.  By 1960, however, she turned, like many others before her, to the potentially more successful venue of crime fiction.  

A great admirer of the Los Angeles police force (this not long before the Watts Riots), she became the first woman, as far as I know, to write a so-called police procedural novel, putatively realistically detailing police efforts to investigate crimes.  Linington's connection to the LA police was through a fellow John Birch Society member who belonged to the force's public relations department.  She also read a lot of true crime magazines.  By the early Seventies, reviewer Allen Hubin had dubbed her the "Queen of the Procedurals"--the Agatha Christie, as it were, of the police novel.  

Linington was much praised by critics from her first very first crime novel, Case Pending (1960), which she published under her best-known nom de plume, Dell Shannon, a year before the rock singer of the same name scored a big hit with the single RunawayCase Pending was nominated for an Edgar, as was another Dell Shannon novel, Knave of Hearts (1962), and a standalone Gothic thriller called Nightmare (1961), which she published under the pseudonym Anne Blaisdell.  

This latter book was filmed in England as Fanatic (1965) (Die! Die! My Darling! was the subtle title in the US), a so-called "psycho-biddy" melodrama starring Tallulah Bankhead as the titular religious maniac.  One thing setting Linington apart from a lot of her fellow conservatives was that she was a religious agnostic, if not an atheist, rather hostile to organized religion, though she later modified her views and was always personally moralistic and highly censorious of the behavior of others, especially youth and the lower classes, whom her cops frequently dub "louts" and "thugs."  

Linington loved the police, however, and essentially divided society into two classes: the police and the citizenry.  The citizenry she subdivided further into two groups, the honest, if dumb, ones (usually middle class and white) and the actively venial ones (usually the poor, blacks and queer men). 

Linington honestly did not see herself as a racist and criticized racism in her books, but the blacks and hispanics she portrays positively tend overwhelmingly to be middle-class, college educated and assimilated in what the author termed American culture, meaning by this White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or WASP, for the most part.  Linington made her Dell Shannon series hero, police detective Luis Mendoza, a native Mexican (and lapsed Catholic), but he's essentially no different from her conservative white cops, aside from peppering his speech with Spanish tags.  He allows that he might have some Native American blood, but it's so far back, going to Aztec times, it's a meaningless allowance.  

Mendoza is essentially a posh, romantic great detective, who intuits solutions like Lord Peter Wimsey, Roderick Alleyn and Albert Campion, the group British writer Joanna Cannan derisively termed the "glamour boys."  (Unsurprisingly, Linington was a huge reader of classic crime fiction.) 

Mendoza literally inherited a fortune from his grandfather, but he stays in the police because he likes the mental work of solving problems.  It's certainly not because he is a do-gooder or likes people, because he, like Linington's other cops, to the contrary despises people, "the citizenry" as he eye-rollingly terms them, who are either criminally debased or pretty dumb, not measuring up to the standards of the police who have to strive ceaselessly to save them from the depraved criminal menace that threatens to engulf the country in lawless chaos.  

Linington thought of herself as a great civil libertarian and she denounced big government for social legislation like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (she had no belief whatsoever in a social safety net), all of which she deemed part of the massive Communist conspiracy to destroy America and enslave its citizens.  (How she would have hated "Obamacare.") Yet when it came to limitations upon police authority, she opposed these in toto.  Invariably anyone who tried to restrain the freedom of police to do whatever they deemed necessary in battling criminals is condemned as naively soft hearted if not worse.  

From my perspective, Linington seems like a monstrous concoction of Victorian Social Darwinism and modern authoritarian fascism, but in fairness I have to allow that her books charmed even liberal reviewers like Anthony Boucher and Dorothy B. Hughes.  It was not until Linington revealed in a 1970 interview that she was a staunch John Birch Society supporter and that she deliberately filled her books with right-wing "propaganda" (her own term for it) and had voted for George Wallace for president in 1968 that some writers in fanzines, like Marvin Lachman, began noticing and commenting on her reactionary conservatism themselves.  

Critics started losing interest in her afterward, in part as well because she was just so damn prolific, often publishing three or four novels a year, but she maintained a devoted fan following right up until her death in 1988; and she was brought back in print again in the States around a decade ago.  Recently Case Pending was reprinted in the Library of Congress crime classics series (though it's not one).  Some of her fans will comment that Linington tells unfashionable "truths" in her books, but a lot of her readers just seem to feel she tells a good story.

Noah Stewart in his fascinating and utterly scathing blog post on Linington simply eviscerated the author for her extreme conservatism and I can't really do much to defend her on this score.  She opposed prejudice against blacks, provided they sounded like US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas or the blacks in the film Get Out if you get me, but she was also horribly misogynistic (like today's incels she hated independent, single, successful career women, though she was one herself) and viciously anti-gay (lesbians she mostly ignored), at least until an unexpected partial mea culpa concerning the latter in her penultimate book in 1986.  

Like the late conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, she celebrated women performing "traditional" domestic roles while eschewing to do this herself.  Over her life she may never have had an intimate relationship with another human being, let alone a subservient wifely one.  After her mother died in 1975 (her father having died a dozen years earlier), she built her own ranch house in Arroyo Grande, living alone there behind a chain link fence with her cats, dog and goat, writing more books as well as agitated letters to the local newspaper about how the country faced imminent collapse due to Communist conspiracies and the inability of the deluded, naive citizenry to appreciate the grave danger.  MAGA much?  

As mentioned, Linington got ideas for her book plots from true crime magazines, which became increasingly tabloid trashy and uninteresting (to me) over the Seventies and Eighties.  And so went her own fiction, the pages of which are filled with rape-murders of women and young children, though incongruously the author never uses four letter words, of which she prissily disapproved.  That she and much of her audience reached for their fainting couches when they saw words like "shit" or "fuck" in crime fiction, believing use of these blunt four-letter words more discomforting than writing about the brutal sexual violation of tiny children is so weird to me.  

Although Linington always lectures us about the horror of these sordid and stupid crimes she details (most crimes, she says, are committed by stupid people), she never makes me feel horror, because like her cops she doesn't really like anyone besides cops and (maybe) their wives and children and pets, the doings of which are cutely and cozily detailed.  (Most of her cops are men, of if women, they constantly pine about getting married to men.)  She can't make us care about people whom she doesn't really care about herself.  Her overriding emotion when it comes to other human beings is disgust.  

If I were evaluating Linington solely on the basis of her Seventies and Eighties books that I have read, I would write her off completely as a worthwhile crime writer.  Ed McBain, King of the Procedurals, I find a far better and more sympathetic writer, and he's also a better plotter, more on the level with the Golden Age classics that Linington liked reading but could not duplicate herself.  (Her book Greenmask! steals the plot of a very famous classic mystery, as John Norris details at his blog.)

And yet I have found that in the Sixties, at least, Linington was capable of coming up with a decent mystery plot.  In her best books, from this standpoint, she's like a more modern-day female Freeman Wills Crofts, a workmanlike "Humdrum" mystery writer (to use Julian Symons' terms for Crofts, John Rhode, JJ Connington and other Golden Age greats) capable of pleasing intricacy in problem setting.  To be fair to the hateful old hag I'll try to review some of her better books here.  Fair is fair, though often reading her books feels to me like getting spat in the face.

Now lemme tell ya....
Linington in the 1980s
lays it all out for us

I have never read a popular crime writer so hateful to gay men over the course of a long writing career.  Did Mickey Spillane keep that shit up over his writing life?  Maybe he did.  

All the ostensibly sympathetic characters in Linington's books, people she at least greatly admires, call gay men "fags" (or, in her odd lingo, "the fags") and they are deemed degenerates and criminals.  Her cops keep this up into the 1980s and illustrate precisely why people did not trust the police, if this was the sort of thing they read about them.  Did she honestly think that queer people expected fair treatment from her ideal sort of cops?

Yet Linington apparently had no clue that she was making her police look unsympathetic in her books, doubtlessly because she viewed gay men as sub-human, like she did poor, and poorly-educated, people.  

On the other hand, some people read these books and then praise the author for upholding what they euphemistically term traditional values.  Well, please count me out of your "traditional values," if your traditional values mean hating and othering anyone who isn't white, straight, male and middle class.  

It's not just her cops either.  In her Lesley Egan books her non-religious Jewish defense attorney hero Jesse Falkenstein in the Seventies calls gay men "the fags."  Jesse's beautiful fashion magazine editor sister calls gay men "the fags" too and, resurrecting an old canard, speculates that they hate women and design clothes to make them look bad.  

This noxious stuff is all just hateful, hurtful garbage, but the author kept it up year after year after year.  And she was not a stupid woman.  Nor was her liberal editor, Joan Kahn, a neglectful one.  But this was all just allowed to pass.  And please don't tell me it was just typical for its day.  I don't believe that it was. I can honestly say I've never read an author I've disliked as much as Elizabeth Linington, on a visceral personal level.  Yet she wrote some decent mysteries.  In this case, though, it's like saying Leni Riefenstahl took some cool photos.  Maybe so, but she was still an awful person, as far as her politics went. 

Queen of the procedurals?  Try Archie Bunkerette or Anita Bryant of the procedurals.  Please don't tell me that no one in the Seventies besides the late Norman Lear knew that it was wrong to hate on gay men like this.  

In my article I try to give as sympathetic look as I can at Elizabeth Linington, to figure out why she became the way she was.  When it's published let me know what you think.  

Friday, April 12, 2024

The Monogram Pictures Murders Part I: Charlie Chan's Dangerous Money (1946) and The Trap (1946) with special notes on screenwriter Jack DeWitt and actors Sidney Toler and Kirk Alyn

Seventy-two-year-old Sidney Toler was less than seven months away from death when shooting on The Trap--his last Charlie Chan film for poverty row Hollywood film studio Monogram Pictures--wrapped up in August 1946.  The film would premier on November 30, by which time the actor was bedridden with terminal cancer.  He died on February 12, 1947, about ten weeks shy of his seventy-third birthday.

The Trap was the fifth Chan film Toler made for Monogram in 1946, following The Red Dragon, Dark Alibi, Shadows over Chinatown and Dangerous Money.  Rather like actor Bruce Willis in more recent times, Toler soldiered on despite precipitously declining health, though by the time of the filming of The Trap he was said to be constantly exhausted and in considerable pain, making the ongoing effort challenging.  After The Trap he finally could not go on with it anymore, though the Chan film series would be revived yet one more time with another caucasian actor, Roland Winters, playing the Chinese detective for six more films between 1947 and 1949.  

In the late 1950s Chan would be played on television by J. Carroll Naish in a year-long series, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan.  There was even a brief early Seventies Charlie Chan cartoon series, with the actor who back in the Thirties played Chan's number one son, Keye Luke (now in his sixties) at least getting to voice Charlie Chan.  (Jodie Foster voiced one of the daughters!)  

English actor Peter Sellers parodied Charlie Chan (or more accurately Caucasian actors portrayals of him) in the 1976 satirical mystery comedy Murder by Death.  The character's last film appearance was five years later in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, which starred another Caucasian English actor, Peter Ustinov, who was coming off his success playing Belgian Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile (1978), in the title part.  

For nearly forty-five years now there have been no new screen Chans, but the world has not gone Chanless.  Like the Forties Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, the Charlie Chan films from the 1930s and 1940s have maintained a loyal following among mystery film fans, despite decades of criticism of the flicks for having Caucasian men--Swede Warner Oland and Americans Sidney Toler and Roland Winters--playing Chan.  

Sidney Toler took over the Chan franchise in 1938 after Warner Oland--who starting in 1931 played Chan in sixteen films (four of which are lost)--died in 1937 at the age of 58.  Beginning with Charlie Chan in Honolulu, which premiered in January 1939, Toler made eleven Chan films for Twentieth-Century Fox before the studio canceled the series after Castle in the Desert, which premiered in February 1942.  

If looks could kill: a fiendish face in Dangerous Money

Toler, a long time character actor in films, enjoyed his three years finally playing lead and he shopped around the Chan series to other studios, only getting a taker in 1943 with Monogram, a so-called poverty row (i.e., el cheapo) studio.  For Monogram he would live to make eleven more Chan films, beginning with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, which premiered in February 1944.  All told he would spent about three years doing Chan at Fox and another three years doing Chan at Monogram, making 22 films which constitute a rich legacy for mystery fans, even if the Monogram flicks admittedly have much cheaper production values and some undoubted rough patches.

In six of the Monogram Chans, Charlie's primary "assistant" offspring was number three son Tommy, played by Benson Fong, who was in his late twenties when essaying the role.  In Charlie Chan in the Secret Service he shares assisting duties (admittedly dubiously) with number two daughter Iris (Marianne Quon), while in the films Black Magic and The Jade Mask he is displaced respectively by another Chan daughter (number three?), Frances Chan (played by, how about that, Frances Chan), and number four son Eddie, played by Edwin Luke, real life younger brother of Keye Luke.  

This suggests to me that Monogram was a little doubtful of Benson Fong's thespianic abilities, but Fong actually improved over his next four appearances and developed a good rapport with Charlie's other "assistant", introduced in the Monogram films: chauffeur Birmingham Brown, played by brilliant black comic actor Mantan Moreland.  Like Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best and other black actors of the Thirties and Forties, Moreland was confined to comical servant roles, but somehow he triumphantly bursts out of stereotype and really comes off as a true individual, and not at all dumb. He was genuinely popular with black audiences and it's said that on movie marquees in black neighborhoods his name was placed above Toler's.  In the worst of the Monogram Chan films he actually supplies the most entertaining moments. 

The eleven Monogram Charlie Chan films (rated by me on a ten poverty row scale as a B-mystery junkie) are:


Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (february) 7

The Chinese Cat  (may) 6

Black Magic (august) 4


The Jade Mask (january) 6

The Scarlet Clue (may) 5

The Shanghai Cobra (September) 5


The Red Dragon (february) 3

Dark Alibi (may) 8

Shadows over Chinatown (june) 4

Dangerous Money (october) 6.5

The Trap (november) 6.5

Five films in 1946 suggests a really accelerated production schedule and I suspect they tried to get in the last two films while Toler was still able to do them.  There's some indication of haste to the last two Toler Chans, which have often had detractors in modern times.  Maybe it's the contrarian in me, but as you can see these are two of my favorites in the Monogram series, after what seems to me its clear summit, Dark Alibi, and its debut outing, Secret Service.  

Not a case of thousands, quite, but there is no shortage of suspects in The Trap.

The last two films in the series, Dangerous Money and The Trap, are unique in having a credited scripter named Miriam Kissinger, about whom no information is given on imdb,  She has no other credits to her name.  Presumably she was Miriam Kissinger of Santa Barbara, California, who was married to then neophyte screenwriter Jack DeWitt.  Possibly the Chan scripts actually were written by him, using his wife's name for some reason.  DeWitt, the son of Methodist minister Jackson Dewitt, was born in Morrilton, Arkansas in 1900.  I have no idea what this man did over the next three decades, but in 1930 he was living in Council Bluffs, Iowa and working as crime reporter for the Daily Nonpareil

DeWitt also served as a Justice of the Peace.  One of the cases that came up before him concerned a teenager named Herbert Rosenthal, a delivery boy and son of an immigrant Lithuanian Jewish grocer who in 1932 was charged with the offense of driving his car 45 miles an hour on the wrong side of the street.  (I don't know whether he was making a delivery at the time--maybe he worked for Domino's Pizza and they had a guarantee.)  

The Nonpareil reported that at the bench the youngster faced the JP confidently, pertly informing him: "I can't be sent to jail because of my age, and if you fine me my Dad will have to pay it."  Justice DeWitt had young Rosenthal copy a sentence he had written down, then told him to go home and write that sentence 3000 times and hand it in to the sheriff within three days.  The sentence was "Delivery boys drive dangerously."  DeWitt retained his sample of the boy's handwriting to make sure that the 3000 sentences he turned in were from his own hand.  

At least Rosenthal put his devil-may-care recklessness to good use, like Tom Cruise in Top Gun.  Rosenthal family history records that Herbert, who would become a colonel in the US Air Force during the Second World War "lived large" and was "a daredevil that loved thrills and chills--physical challenges, fast cars and fast boats and motorcycles, the tang of danger.  He liked to smoke and drink and party all night.  On two occasions he walked away unharmed after his Air Force jet crash-landed.  He won accolades in fistfights, wrestling matches, sharpshooting competitions and motorbike races."

Miriam Kissinger

Rosenthal was appointed US Air Attache in Athens, Greece in the Sixties and was decorated for maneuvering the US Ambassador through a dangerous coup d'etat.  Back in the US in 1969 he assigned Lt. Joseph Caudle to escort Miss Colorado, one of the princesses in the DC Cherry Blossom Festival. Caudle took the opportunity to criticize the ongoing omission of "Negroes as princesses and escorts," for which statement he was relieved of his duty as an escort by an Air Force major.  Rosenthal, however, declared that no disciplinary action would be taken against Caudle.  The DC Board of Trade promised that efforts would be made to achieve racial diversity.

Sounds like Colonel Rosenthal had his head on straight and his heart in the right place.  Maybe those 3000 sentences Jack DeWitt made him write had a good effect.

Another case DeWitt heard in 1932 was a suit brought by a man, John P. Kelley, against American President Herbert Hoover, demanding eighteen cents, the current market price for a typical chicken, because the president as a candidate in 1928 had promised Americans a chicken in every pot and he, Kelley, never got one.  

Jack DeWitt married in Council Bluffs, but his wife died from a heart ailment after only a few years of marriage.  (There's one for the crime writers.)  

DeWitt decided to try to succeed as a freelance writer and moved to Bandon, Oregon.  Over the rest of the decade he produced scores of true crime articles for pulp magazines.  In 1936 he married again, this time to Miriam Kissinger, a radio dramatist in Lincoln, Nebraska.  In the late Thirties the couple moved to Santa Barbara, California where Miriam had the couple's first child and Jack began writing for the film industry.  

In 1941 he produced his first filmed script for International Lady, a spy thriller starring George Brent, Basil Rathbone and Ilona Massey as the lady.  The same year he published a crime novel, Murder on Shark Island, which was optioned but not actually made into a film.  The next year he wrote the script for Beyond the Blue Horizon, a South Seas melodrama starring Dorothy Lamour.  

Both these films were from major studios.  However, DeWitt's next official screen credit is not for four additional years, with the script for Don Ricardo Returns (1946), a Zorro-esque drama for PRC, the cheapest of the cheapo studios.  After this DeWitt seems to have scripted almost exclusively for Poverty Row and later for television, except that he had an odd late in life resurgence after writing the script for the modern Western classic A Man Called Horse (1970), starring Richard Harris.  He died eleven years later at the age of eighty.  

Surprisingly given his background in true crime and early work in mystery, DeWitt's film and television scripts on the whole were not for crime and mystery movies.  Probably his next most famous film after Horse is the adventure flick Bomba the Jungle Boy (1949).  But it is certainly plausible that he and not Miriam Kissinger wrote the script for the two last Toler Chan films, Dangerous Money and The Trap.  

Yet in that case why would not DeWitt have used his own name, rather than his wife's, if she had nothing to do with the scripts?  It is hard to believe he would have been embarrassed to acknowledge publicly having written Chan films for Monogram, when the same year he wrote, under his own name, the script for a PRC adventure film.  It seems to me more likely that the spouses might have collaborated on the scripts, Miriam having background as a radio dramatist and actress at a Lincoln, Nebraska radio station.  

In any event the two Chan films scripted by either or both of the spouses strike me as some of the best of the series.  Flaws in the films probably have to do more with cuts made to the scripts and scenes edited out of the film, rather than the scripts themselves. 

In Dangerous Money, Charlie Chan is on a Pacific liner on his way to--well, now I forget where (Australia?), but there is to be a one night stopover in American Samoa.  All the Monogram Chans ran slightly over an hour and in this one the first forty minutes take place on the ocean liner, making it essentially a shipboard mystery film.  It's filmed pretty convincingly, though there are lots of nighttime fog scenes, which, aside from being atmospheric, were cheap to shoot.  The few rear screen daytime scenes to suggest that the cast is really on a ship as opposed to stage sets are actually fairly well done though.  

On the deck PT Burke bores the minister and his wife and the professor and his entourage

Chan questions lovers Gloria Warren, daughter of a renowned art collector,
 and George Brace, the ship's purser

The plot concerns the machinations of a gang of counterfeiters, who during the late war stashed their hot money somewhere on Samoa and now with the cessation of hostilities want to get it back again--and they will kill to do so.  When the film opens an attempt is made on the life of the American treasury agent investigating the matter (dependable Tristram Coffin) and when he suggests to Charlie that they go back to his room for safety, the Great Detective brilliantly suggests that they instead go sit in the dining room where they can scope out the suspects.  The evening entertainment is a knife thrower and, sure enough, the treasury agent shortly ends up dead from a knife thrown into his back by someone on the deck.  It wasn't the knife thrower though (or was it).  

The knife thrower, by the way, is played by John Harmon, who played the "crusty lighthouse keeper"--Is there any other kind?--in The Monster of Piedras Blancas, one of those rubber suit monster films from the 1950s (don't know whether this one is radioactive, but I love monsters and lighthouses). Harmon's last film was 1979's Microwave Massacre, which likely is every bit as bad as it sounds.  Same year he did Malibu High, which is apparently considered a Seventies sexploitation classic.  Old dude really hung in there!  Like most of the actors in Dangerous Money, however, Harmon is another solid contributor.  

Chan learns someone is trying to kill treasury agent Scott Pearson

knife thrower Freddie Kirk (John Harmon) provides entertainment

Stabbed in the back!

Charlie investigates on ship, mostly by observing or eavesdropping upon other people.  For their part, Chan's assistants, his No. 2 son Jimmy (Victor Sen Young) and his chauffeur Chattanooga Brown (Willie Best, subbing for Mantan Moreland's infinitely superior Birmingham Brown), bumble around as well. The weakness of Dangerous Money lies primarily in the poor comic relief bits with Jimmy and Chattanooga, which aren't really integrated for most of the film with Chan's investigation.  

Jimmy wants to gets everyone's fingerprints so there's a bit with that and then the pair follow the trail of a cook's assistant who has been flashing a big wad of bills.  Ultimately this does go somewhere, though strictly accidentally.  There are also a couple scenes where the two bumblers use walkie-talkies, taking on the respective codes names Chop Suey and Pork Chop.  Guess which is which?

Number two son has a new toy

Chattanooga lays it on the line.

Benson Fong, who as mentioned had appeared in six Monogram Chan films as number three son Tommy Chan, had actually developed a pretty good rapport with Mantan Moreland's Birmingham Brown by this time and I missed them both in DM.  Never does the film explain why these characters are absent, or even why Chan needed any assistants with him on the cruise in the first place (though Tommy does send his pop a telegram).  

The last time we saw Jimmy, in 1942's Castle in the Desert, he was on leave from the army.  Although he was only a year older than Benson Fong (thirty at the time of this film), Sen Yung looked older than that and the role of enthusiastic comical juvenile doesn't sit quite as well with Jimmy in 1946 as it had in 1942.  Sen Yung is still good, however, though he has no chemistry with Willie Best.  

In his two appearances in the series, Willie Best unfortunately is pretty cringeworthy.  Mantan Moreland was able to transcend the "frightened negro" routine, but Best, for whatever reason, doesn't.  I remember him as being good in the Bob Hope fright comedy The Ghost Breakers, but that film probably gave him a better role to work with.  It's the biggest flaw of this script that it gives Best nothing.  

On the other hand, the mystery plot is enjoyable.  There's a lot going on and most of it, red herrings and all, is adequately disposed of.  There is some evidence, however, that some cuts were made to the film, leaving some things unexplained. There are surviving stills from the film that show things that you don't see in the actual final cut.  

At the start of one scene we see Jimmy and Chattanooga with the bound and gagged native guard of the ichthyology museum and we never actually see the encounter that led to the affray which must have taken place.  There's also the unsolved mystery of the turtle and the strap-on flashlight.  (Nothing naughty, I assure you; see film.)

I suspect sometimes that when people complain that these mysteries are confusing, it's due to edits.  This film was edited down to about an hour and five minutes, when it probably was something more like and hour and twenty originally.  Incredibly, the last murder takes place at the hour mark, with only five minutes left to wrap up!

On the plus side, though, the performances are quite good for this sort of film, on the whole.  Standouts are Rick Vallin as Tao Erickson, a smooth, if not oleaginous, Samoan trader (I think he's supposed to be a half-caste--half Samoan, half-Swedish or something--he looks like Fox News' smarmy and insincere Jesse Waters here); roly-poly Dick Elliot as PT Burke (Barnum?), a fast-talking, cigar-waving textiles executive from Dixie with all sorts of opinions about the murder (I will always think of him as Mayberry's mayor on The Andy Griffith Show); Gloria Warren as female "juvenile" love interest Rona Simmons (a personable actress who had a very brief film career and died about two years ago); and Leslie Denison as scolding missionary Reverend Dr. Whipple, who with his equally censorious wife disapproves of all the sketchy shipboard goings-on around them.  

Freddie Kirk and PT Barnes

PT Burke gets a surprise

noted absent-minded ichthyologist Professor Martin,
his handsome secretary and his pretty younger wife

the Reverend and Mrs. Whipple, walking in harmony as always

Denison, a reliable native British actor who I'm not sure had any really standout role though his face looked very familiar to me as a watcher of B-films (he looks a lot like Henry Daniell), is probably best known today for providing testimony in the murder of actor David Bacon in 1943.  Supposedly a closeted homosexual in a lavender marriage with cabaret singer Greta Keller, Bacon had a trysting pad in a Laurel Canyon duplex shared with Denison, who lived in the upper half of the building.  Reading between the lines, Bacon may have been killed by a short blond pickup from the merchant marine. 

Definitely not a scenario you will find in a Charlie Chan film!  Did Denison play on both sides as well?  I have no idea.  He seems to have married later in life, and divorced.  

At its resolution Dangerous Money does have one very cute and ahead of its time twist, which, unfortunately, I can't give here.  And the last scene, in which Jimmy literally provokes his pop into strangling him, is an amusing one, because we fans have been seeing that coming for a long time.  

Will Charlie finally commit his own murder?

People have said that Toler began to feel sick during the filming of Dangerous Money, but his performance seems up to the Monogram par.  He even has a two minute dance sequence with Tao Erickson's lovely wife Laura, played by Egyptian actress Amira Moustafa, whose credited film work consisted of this role and Queen of the Amazons from the same year, where she played the titular queen Amazon, Zita.  This film gets a 3.6 on imdb, so must really be something.  Amira dropped out of film work right after it. Yet she's perfectly fine in the Chan film.  

Daddy issues
Viva Tattersall in Whispering Shadow with her "father"
Bela Lugosi (who was eight years younger than 
her future husband Sidney Toler) 

Truth be told, I think Toler had been showing his age and declining health from the start of the Monogram series in 1944, when he was 69 years old.  Just two years earlier in the final Fox Chan film, Castle in the Desert, he looked noticeably younger and more energetic.  

Toler's first wife, Vivian Marston, died at age 65 in October 1943 and a month later Toler married Vera "Viva" Tattersall, a beautiful blonde native English woman who was 24 years younger than he.  

A former actress probably best known today for playing Bela Lugosi's daughter in the crime serial The Whispering Shadow (1933), she had been Toler's mistress, I suspect, for years.  When he died in 1947, Viva told newspapers that her husband of less than four years had never really recovered from an operation in 1943. 

By the time of the filming of The Trap, Toler's energy level had noticeably declined.  Much of the screen time in the film is handed over to the supporting players, including son Jimmy and Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland is back, thankfully) and a hunky young (or youngish) motorcycle cop who improbably heads the murder investigation.  

Kirk Alyn playing a different sort of lawman

The cop is played by thirty-five-year-old Kirk Alyn (aka John Feggo), who a couple of years later would become the first man to play Superman on film.  Alyn is sixth-billed, but it's probably his most substantial part in a regular film, his Superman and other leading performances all being in serials.  

Most of the film roles of Kirk Alyn--who started his entertainment career not long out of high school in the late 1920s as a stage choirboy in New York and moved to LA around 1940, marrying there a few years later--went uncredited.  Yet prior to The Trap he was in fact credited in 1943's The Man from the Rio Grande, Overland Mail Robbery and Pistol Packin' Mama and 1944's Forty Thieves, Call of the Rockies and The Girl Who Dared, the latter a decent adaptation of Medora Field's mystery novel Blood on Her Shoe, reprinted by Coachwhip with an introduction by me.  

Despite all this, in August 1947, LA Times drama columnist William Schallert reported that 

Kirk Alyn, husband of [singer-actress] Virginia O'Brien, seems all set for a movie career.  It's a new venture for him, though he modeled for physical culture propaganda for a long time, being a strapping sort of chap.  

Monogram has signed him for the leading juvenile part in "The Trap," and that was because he was observed by James S. Burkett, producer of his Charlie Chan whodunit, while screening as John the Baptist in A Voice in the Wilderness, one of Cathedral Films' 16mm Biblical subjects.  

Engagement in "The Trap" will be only a break-in, because it is believed his career will proceed a lot further.  

I've never seen reference anywhere else to Alyn as a physique model, but as an old man he liked to tell the story about how when he auditioned for Superman that they asked him to take off his shirt and then his pants and he was like, "Wait a minute....I thought this only happened to women."  When playing John the Baptist he runs about with a fake black beard in a short, sleeveless tunic like a peplum film extra, showing off some well-developed arms and long legs, though his voice is ludicrously dubbed in a booming bass voice.  

In The Trap Alyn stands out a lot, towering over the rest of the cast in his motorcycle cop outfit (complete with jodhpurs).  There is even considerable focus, it struck me anyway, on Alyn's, um, ample bum, shall we say.  I guess the producer indeed was impressed with his physique, likewise the director and photographer.  

Reynolds doing justice to his jodhpurs

Reynolds revs up his engine

Reynolds investigates.  (I think he's looking for a secret passage.)

okay, this butt shot was completely gratuitous

Reynolds confronts Rick

Jimmy comes out of the closet

But, fear not, in this Chan installment there are also a lot of pretty showgirls, who get some time in between murders to run about in bathing suits on the beach with their flabby, pale middle-aged male bosses, which is probably a realistic enough depiction of Hollywood, then and now.  

Sergeant Reynolds never dons a bathing suit throughout the film, only ever appearing in his cop clothes, but then they say women love a man in uniform.  Ruby, one of the showgirls, certainly does!  

Another dead body is discovered

A subtle hint that Winifred and Rick are an item.  Winifred's role was edited down to the bone.

Even after carousing on the beach, Clementine is still nervous

Malibu Beach is an hour or so down the coast from where Jack DeWitt and Miriam Kissinger lived in Santa Barbara.  In fact the working title of the film was Murder at Malibu Beach.  It opens with a shot of our strapping motorcycle cop standing at the porch of Malibu Beach Real Estate (a very recognizable actual place) and observing a car speeding down the highway.  He hops on his bike and stops the car, to find that it's filled with a troupe of show people heading for a Malibu Beach mansion they've rented for a few weeks to enjoy some fun and sun.  Off they go on their merry way, getting let off with a warning, but we'll be seeing police sergeant Reynolds again.  

Ruby gets a good look at a Malibu native

the building where the movie's opening film was filmed (see above)

When the show troupe arrives at the mansion they encounter forbidding housekeeper Mrs. Weebles, who seems like something right out of Rebecca, maybe Mrs. Danvers' older sister, as she disapprovingly sneers about "show people."  She's played by Minerva Urecal, a fun character actress who specialized in this type.  There's actually a scene where, seemingly frightened, she throws her apron over head and runs away, something I had read in books but never actually seen in a film.  

Some people have complained about the large cast of show people, and indeed it is, so I will helpfully list them all here for you:

sinister housekeeper Mrs. Weebles with her toasting fork,
like she's ready to roast sinners
Hearing a scream Mrs. Weebles throws her apron over her head and runs off in panic.

Women from left to right:
Winifred, Clementine, Ruby, Adelaide, Mrs. Thorne, San Toy, Madge Mudge
Men from left to right:
Rick Daniels, George Brandt, Sgt. Reynolds, Cole King

The Women (Nine):

Adelaide (Tanis Chandler)--the very French one, oui, oui!  She's in love with the troupe physiotherapist (see below).  The native French Tanis Chandler appeared in the mystery film Lured, with Lucille Ball and Boris Karloff, and she played "waitress" in The Big Sleep

Adelaide professed her love for George.  Pork pies?  She means pigsties, get it?  

Marcia (Anne Nagel)--the biatch who you know will get killed off.  She knows secrets of Adelaide and the troupe's "maestro" and knows too much for her own good all round.  Marcia--or Mar-cee-a as the maestro calls her (I don't know whether this is a nod to the character's pretentiousness or whether the actor simply didn't know how to pronounce Marcia)--is not in the film very long, I'll just say, but she makes an impression with her all round hatefulness.  

In real life Anne Nagel married closeted gay actor Ross Alexander, who committed suicide in 1937 after a year of marriage to her.  Nagel was thirty by the time of The Trap and thus older than the other girls.  She plays her witchypoo character with conviction. 

Marcia looks daggers at Adelaide

Marcia looks daggers at Lois

Clementine (Rita Quigley)--the screamer who you want to see killed off but it never happens damn it.  Clementine is always frightened, not to mention terribly racist, and she screams at everything.  I've seen Rita Quigley in another film, Whispering Footsteps, and she played a perfectly normal rational adult human being there, so she's not at fault here, she was playing the character as was wanted.  

Oddly enough in Whispering Footsteps it was her real life younger sister, former child star Juanita Quigley (aka "Baby Jane," I kid you not) who did all the screaming.  In my view goofy Clemmie adds zest to the film, though a lot of people just hate her.  

Clementine has a premonition of doom

It's a Chinese trick!
Clementine goes all racist on San Toy
Ruby (Helen Gerald)--the flirt.  Ruby spends the film coming on to Sergeant Reynolds and can you really blame the girl?  Born in 1926, it appears that Helen Gerald is still around today, maybe still pining for Kirk Alyn.

Well, hello sergeant!

Sergeant Reynolds is modest.

Lois (Jan Bryant)--the ingenue forced to do Marcia's bidding who actually gets bumped off first.  Actress Jan Bryant may still be around today too; little is known of her.  

Winifred (Bettie Best)--the nonentity who probably should have been cut from the film.  Yet another actress with a brief career, Bettie Best is given very little to do here.  She is supposed to be the publicist's girlfriend, but not much is made of that accept as related to the publicist.  The actress is fine, just needed an actual scene to herself.

San Toy (Barbara Jean Wong)--the "little Chinese girl."  She's very spunky and spirited and brings Charlie into the case and looks to become Jimmy's girlfriend at the end.  Barbara Jean Wong is best known for playing Arbedella Jones, daughter of Amos Jones on the hugely popular radio series Amos and Andy.  She was a child actress known as the Chinese Shirley Temple.  She's pretty and very fluent in English--a good catch for Jimmy.

Madge Mudge (I kid you not) (Margaret Brayton)--the troupe's deadpan masseuse.  Over her career Brayton played a lot of nurses, secretaries, policewomen, manicurists, so this role was right in line.  

Mrs. Thorne (Lois Austin)--wardrobe mistress and house mother.

The Men (three)

Cole King (Cole Porter?) (Howard Negley)--the troupe's leader, or maestro as they call him.  Negley capably played lots cops, tough guys, bad buys.  I thought he was only so-so here though.  

George Brandt (Walden Boyle)--the troupe's physiotherapist and Adelaide's boyfriend.  

Rick Daniels (Larry Blake)--the troupe's excitable publicist.  His acting career on film and television ran from 1937 to 1979.  He has some fisticuffs with Sergeant Reynolds in this film and later told his son disliked Kirk Alyn during filming.  Jealous?

When you throw in the housekeeper, Jimmy, and Birmingham and Charlie Chan himself, you have sixteen people running around this house (one of them the murderer) and, frankly, I was impressed that the camera managed literally to keep track of them all.  Really the photography of the film is quite good and the beach shots (on a real beach) and studio shots (the house and backyard) are well-integrated.  The murder of Lois is quite effectively staged, for example, as are the scenes in the cellar.

By the way, the set decorator, thirty-four-year-old Raymond Boltz, was on only his fifth film here, but he did a good job with the house.  (He had previously done Dangerous Money.)  His last work was in the early Seventies when he decorated the sets for the Mary Tyler Moore Show's first three seasons, which I think it pretty cool.  I swear to God some of the stuff in The Trap looks like it ended up in Mary's and Rhoda's apartments.  

Charlie has an audience

Birmingham tries to keep count of the cast.

Poor Lois gets done in.

in the cellar

Jimmy falls down the coal chute and make a discovery. 
Thankfully no blackface joke was made here.  

San Toy meanced

For some reason Chan is living near Malibu (LA?) in this one, along with Birmingham, who actually does get to chauffeur this time, and Jimmy.    No mention is made of the wife and family back home in Honolulu.  When showgirl Lois is strangled to death at the rental house in Malibu and Clementine starts screeching that murdering with a silk cord is a "Chinese trick" and looking meaningfully at San Toy, the latter decides to call Jimmy, who has been bragging about his detective work to her.  He will defend his country woman she cries!  So Charlie gets involved in yet another case, albeit nearly halfway into the short film.  

Truthfully Toler doesn't get nearly as much screen time as he normally did and he does seem more tired (there's a scene with Kirk Alyn where he stands with his one hand on the fender of a car as if to support himself), but he's still enjoyable to watch.  Mantan Moreland gets the fading shot, but Charlie has a nice moment with his son at the end.  With the case solved, he's eager just to get out of the house and get home to bed--kind of a poignant metaphor for what Toler was going through in real life.

The solution is reached very quickly after the hour mark and a car chase and the motive is pretty wooly, I'll allow, but I enjoyed the fact that this is a genuine detective story rather than a crime thriller. In the end, though, Charlie admits he has to resort to a trap to catch the killer (hence the title).  I didn't find this a bad sendoff for Toler at all. To the contrary I thought it one of the better films in the Monogram Chan line.  Again it would have been nice had it been able to run another ten minutes or so.  

chasing a murderer


Charlie says goodbye to his son in Toler's last few seconds in the long-running series.  

The Trap was directed by Howard Bretherton, who seems to have done little work in mysteries, though a year earlier he did direct the mystery serial Who's GuiltyDangerous Money was directed by Terry Morse who helmed the undistinguished Shadows over Chinatown, the previous Chan feature, as well as Fog Island (1945), a cheapo B mystery fan favorite.  However he's best known for directing the Raymond Burr scenes in the classic Fifties atomic creature feature Godzilla King of the Monsters.  

So that's my take on the last two Toler Monogram Chans.  I'm glad Toler stuck with the series as long as he could, because in my view they ended on a mostly delightful note, at least by Monogram standards.  

murder reenactment with Jimmy playing corpse and Charlie murderer

Moreland's best lines in the film