PVR Overload!

watching-tvIt’s been a little bit more than a year since I got my first PVR, and in my usual way I’ve managed to fill more than half of it up with stuff that I’m absolutely sure I’m going to review “real soon now”. Unfortunately the backlog is such that I think I’m going to merely do one big recommendation, just in case you find some of these items passing by in your television feed and a brief recommendation will tip the balance, or perhaps get you to add a title to your Netflix list (I don’t have Netflix; I have boxes of DVDs LOL).

I should mention that these films have all been on Turner Classic Movies since March 2013. If you don’t get TCM and you like old mysteries, this might be a good investment for you; TCM is not reluctant about re-running movies once every year or so. I liked all these films enough to hold onto them in the hopes of reviewing them someday; I will suggest that any of them will fill an idle hour, although your mileage may vary. I’m one of those people who enjoys bad movies but I understand that that taste is not universally shared.

Ricardo-Cortez-and-June-TravisCHere’s what about 40% of my DVR’s storage capacity looks like:

  • Three Perry Mason movies with Warren William: TCOT Howling Dog (1934), TCOT Lucky Legs (1935), TCOT Velvet Claws (1936).  And with Ricardo Cortez, TCOT Black Cat (1936).
  • Murder on the Blackboard (1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935); Hildegarde Withers mysteries with Edna May Oliver. Murder on a Bridle Path (1936) with Helen Broderick as Miss Withers. The Plot Thickens (1936) and Forty Naughty Girls (1937), featuring ZaSu Pitts as Miss Withers
  • The Thirteenth Chair (1937); Dame May Whitty plays a spiritualist who solves a murder.
  • Detective Kitty O’Day (1944) and Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1944), where Jean Parker plays the titular telephone operator at a hotel who solves mysteries with her boyfriend, Peter Cookson.
  • The Death Kiss (1933): Bela Lugosi is top-billed but only supports this story about an actor who’s killed while on set shooting a movie called “The Death Kiss”. I love backstage movies where the real camera pulls back to reveal a fake camera and crew shooting the movie within the movie!
  • Having Wonderful Crime (1945): Pat O’Brien as J.J. Malone and George Murphy/Carole Landis as Jake and Helene Justus in a story based on a Craig Rice novel. And Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (1950), where James Whitmore plays J. J. Malone and, the script having been changed from Hildegarde Withers, Marjorie Main plays the earthy Mrs. O’Malley. (Her novelty song is worth the price of admission alone.)
  • After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy).
  • chained-for-life-3Chained For Life (1952): Real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton have a vaudeville act, but when one murders the other’s husband, they both end up on trial. Yes, seriously. They sing and dance, not very well. The kind of movie that it sounds like much more fun to watch than it actually is, unfortunately.
  • The Dragon Murder Case (1934), with Warren William as Philo Vance; The Casino Murder Case (1935), with Paul Lukas as Vance; The Garden Murder Case (1936), with Edmund Lowe as Vance; Calling Philo Vance (1940), with James Stephenson as Vance. And The Kennel Murder Case (1933), with William Powell as the best Vance of all.
  • The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936), with Kay Linaker as the multi-named Sarah Keate (in this case, Sally Keating — from the Sarah Keate novels by Mignon Eberhart). Ricardo Cortez as the love interest.
  • Sherlock Holmes (1922), starring John Barrymore in the famous silent.
  • Miss Pinkerton (1932), with Joan Blondell as a sleuthing nurse from the novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
  • Guilty Hands (1931), wherein Lionel Barrymore kills his daughter’s sleazy boyfriend.
  • The Scarlet Clue (1945), with Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan investigating a murder at a radio station.
  • before d 1Before Dawn (1933), a good old-fashioned Old Dark House film with Stuart Erwin and Dorothy Wilson as a beautiful young psychic.
  • We’re on the Jury (1937), with Helen Broderick and Victor Moore as jurors on a murder case who comically take the law into their own hands.
  • The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), with William Powell and Jean Arthur as a sleuthing couple.
  • Welcome Danger (1929), a comedy with Harold Lloyd investigating murders in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
  • They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), with James Garner as a small-town lawman solving a murder with the help of veterinarian Katharine Ross.
  • Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), starring Gene Raymond in another remake of the Earl Derr Biggers thriller.
  • Lady Scarface (1941), with Judith Anderson chewing the scenery as a cruel mob boss.
  • Fast and Loose (1939), with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in one of the “bookseller” trilogy, each of which featured a different pair playing Joel and Garda Sloane.
  • The Verdict (1946), with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre solving a mystery in Victorian London.
  • Secrets of the French Police (1932); Gregory Ratoff is a mad hypnotist who runs a scam with Gwili Andre as the bogus “Tsar’s daughter”.
  • moonlightmurder1Moonlight Murder (1936), with Chester Morris taking time off from being Boston Blackie to investigate a murder case during a performance of Il Trovatore at the Hollywood Bowl.
  • Nancy Drew, Detective (1938), with Bonita Granville as the plucky teenage investigator.

Are any of these cherished films for you — or are any of them over-rated? Your comments are welcome.

 

 

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

n60581Author:

Ellery Queen is a fictional detective in the books by Ellery Queen … who is  a fictional writer.  The fictional writer whose name is on a set of novels from 1929 to 1971 was actually two people, cousins generally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, whose joint Wikipedia entry is found here. As Wikipedia makes clear here, quite a few books ascribed to Ellery Queen were actually written by other authors; this one, however, is certainly the product of Dannay and Lee. Dannay also managed the affairs of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (the original version of this post erroneously suggested that it was Dannay and Lee in tandem), and the Ellery Queen name appears on the cover of many books of anthologized short stories reprinted from the magazine. Complicated, isn’t it? There’s also an old-time radio program, a series of vintage movies, a television series, comic books, a game or two, and even reference books about the character and the authors.

2633Publication Data:

This volume is the fourth Ellery Queen novel to be published by the cousins. The first nine books in the series each have a number of common features; there is a nationality in the title, here “Greek”; there is an introduction written by someone known only as “J.J. McC.”, now not considered canonical, and the famous “Challenge to the Reader”.  This challenge stops the action of the book and speaks directly to the reader, asserting that every piece of information necessary to solve the mystery is now in the reader’s hands. This is, in fact, the case; this volume is a strict-form puzzle mystery as I have elsewhere defined this term. One interesting conceit of this particular book is that each chapter has a single-word title; examination of the table of contents reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles, considered acrostically, spell out “The Greek Coffin Mystery By Ellery Queen”.

The book was first published in 1932 by Frederick A. Stokes in the U.S. and a little later by Gollancz in the UK.  The first paperback edition is Pocket #179, seen at the head of this post. Many paperback editions exist; this book has only sporadically been out of print since its publication. It is now available in multiple e-book formats.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1960 - illus James Meese-1Although I have a VG copy of the first paper edition shown above, I actually used an e-book from an unknown source as my reference copy for this review (I found it in my files and have no idea where it came from, possibly as part of a gift of a bundle of e-books from a colleague); pagination is impossible to guarantee and I have chosen to not give page citations.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read may discuss in explicit terms the events of this murder mystery in GREAT detail. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK, STOP HERE AND GO READ IT BEFORE YOU RETURN. YOU WILL THANK ME. I can’t be any clearer — your first reading of this book should be unsullied by any knowledge of its contents, and the less you know in advance, the happier you will be. 

index-3_1The story begins with the death of wealthy Greek-American art dealer and connoisseur Gregor Khalkis; for once in a murder mystery, there’s nothing suspicious about the death. He’s been suffering from heart troubles for years that have left him blind and under the full-time care of a physician. It’s the disappearance of Khalkis’s will that is baffling everyone; five minutes before the funeral it was there, after the funeral it’s vanished. The house is searched, to no avail, and Mr. Woodruff, the family lawyer, calls in District Attorney Pepper. More searching, and no results. No secret passages or hidden compartments in the furniture or walls; no evidence that it was destroyed. Apparently the disappearance of the will is connected with its provisions, and someone’s desire to return to an earlier testamentary disposition of the Khalkis estate … but no one can figure out what happened. Finally Pepper calls in Ellery Queen, who deduces that the only possible location is inside the only object that’s left the house unsearched — Mr. Khalkis’s coffin. He convinces the authorities of the validity of his logic and they obtain permission to dig up the coffin. Unfortunately the coffin doesn’t contain the will. What it does contain is the strangled body of an ex-convict, a convicted forger named Grimshaw, jammed in on top of the late Mr. Khalkis. 

We soon meet the household and learn that Grimshaw had been admitted to a private interview with Khalkis shortly before their deaths. Khalkis has household staff (including the beautiful British secretary, Miss Brett, who might be romantically involved with Khalkis’s handsome young nephew Alan), relatives (including his mentally handicapped cousin Demmy, who acts as a kind of valet for the blind Mr. Khalkis) and the various employees of his art gallery and other business operations.

Ellery directs the activities of his father, Inspector Queen of the New York Police, with the assistance of DA Pepper, and a large group of officers immediately begin to learn everyone’s every movement. As is common in such fictional situations, it soon becomes apparent that most of the people in Khalkis’s life had recent acrimonious interactions with him, and many of them may well have had interactions with the deceased forger. Promptly upon the start of investigations, multi-millionaire Wall Street baron James Knox, friend of both the President and the late Mr. Khalkis, insists upon being briefed upon progress; Ellery announces that the case is solved. <gasp>

index-5_1A few chapters previously, the people around Ellery were baffled by his insistence on performing a number of experiments with the contents of a tea-urn in Khalkis’s office, and the surrounding used teacups, lemon, et cetera. He boils water, pours it out, measures amounts — no one understands what’s going on, and they think he’s losing his grip. As well, Ellery seems curiously interested in Mr. Khalkis’s neckties; he’d had some new ones delivered for the use of his handicapped cousin in executing his valeting duties. Ellery doesn’t explain until this point, when he reveals that, first of all, the details surrounding the neckties reveal that Mr. Khalkis has spontaneously regained his vision, and second, that two mysterious people who visited Khalkis in his study the night before his death were not actually two people, and that Khalkis had gone through an incredible rigamarole to make it seem as though two other people had been there. This idea, Ellery reveals, is the result of his analysis of tea-cups and tea water. And therefore — Khalkis murdered Grimshaw.

Immediately upon this revelation — about halfway through the book — two things happen. One is that Miss Brett reveals that, oopsie, she forgot to mention that the used teacups were differently arranged than when they were found by Ellery, and Knox reveals that there was indeed a third man in that meeting with Khalkis and Grimshaw.  How does he know?  Knox was the third man.

At this halfway point in the novel, Ellery’s house of logical cards collapses and he sinks into depression; this event actually affects the remainder of his career and all subsequent books that feature him. He determines that because he has revealed the results of his analysis and been disproven, he will never again speak about his investigations until he is absolutely, completely certain of the identity of the murderer (rather like Saul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus). Although it’s not referred to specifically in later volumes, his detective career is forever changed by this event; it also changes the way in which his work is presented. When you think about it, it’s not sensible for a detective to hide the progress of his investigations from the police; this situation was apparently set up by the authors to create a structure for future novels that would delay the solution until the end of the book.

Knox now starts the second half of the plot in motion.  He had been dickering with Khalkis for the right to purchase a Da Vinci painting that had previously been thought to have been destroyed. But Grimshaw had become involved by going to Knox, announcing that he had stolen the Da Vinci some years ago for Khalkis, and Khalkis had apparently been unable to pay him for his labours. Finally Khalkis had agreed to make out his will in favour of Grimshaw and in the interim gave him a promissory note. Khalkis, Grimshaw and Knox had all met and drunk tea on that fateful evening, and then some unknown person had tampered with the physical evidence in order to lead Ellery away from the truth. Ellery soon determines that that unknown person must logically have been in partnership with Grimshaw.

Knox refuses to hand over the Da Vinci and announces that he’ll deny having it in his possession — and that it’s a copy anyway. Ellery then realizes that his deduction of Khalkis having recovered his sight was also incorrect; instead, handicapped Demmy is revealed to be colour-blind. Ellery grimly acknowledges his mistakes and gets back to work on solving the case.

Events now progress more rapidly.  The investigation receives an anonymous tip that the manager of Khalkis’s art gallery, Gilbert Sloane, is actually Grimshaw’s brother. The police discover that an empty house in Khalkis’s neighbourhood was the temporary resting place of Grimshaw’s corpse (until the murderer had the bright idea of disposing of it in the coffin) and they discover a shred of the burned will in a furnace in the empty house, confirming that the missing will indeed left the huge Khalkis estate to Grimshaw. This means that Sloane will actually inherit through his brother; they find a key to the empty house concealed in the Sloane home. Everyone rushes to the Khalkis Gallery to arrest Sloane — and he’s been shot. Superficially it looks like suicide, but Ellery makes a deduction that proves it to be murder. And everything grinds to a halt, because Ellery cannot find a thread of the tapestry upon which to pull in order to make progress with the case.

index-221_1Miss Brent reveals herself to have been an agent of the British Museum, employed to track down the Da Vinci; she’s hired by Knox to help him with his executor’s duties on the Khalkis estate. And the British Museum is about to pull the lid off the case unless Ellery solves it in a hurry.  Soon, the missing promissory note shows up — half of it is used as the paper upon which a blackmail note is typed. The actual typing of this note is of interest; there’s a tiny typographical error that is shown to the reader but not further explained.

At about this point, the above-mentioned “Challenge to the Reader” breaks the flow of the action; you now have in your possession enough information to solve the mystery and identify Grimshaw’s partner and the murderer.  I will from this point on be reticent about what happens; I haven’t yet told you anything that would make any difference to your ability to solve the murder, since if you read the book everything will be available to you.  But henceforth, I will cut back drastically on my comments for fear of spoiling things for you.

It is safe to say, though, that there is a common theme in nearly all Ellery Queen stories that is repeated here; the false solution, then the true. At this point, Ellery makes an announcement about who is guilty of precisely what; this leads to a series of events that brings us to the final solution. Ellery has set a trap for the real killer, and I wager that you will be very, very surprised by the answer, which is revealed dramatically with Ellery being shot in the shoulder and the murderer dying in a hail of gunfire at the end of Chapter 33. Chapter 34 consists of Ellery recuperating from his wound and explaining everything, in great detail, to an assembly of suspects and investigators.

04b_GreekWhy is this book worth your time?

The year of publication of this book is 1932.  In 1932, Agatha Christie had published a mere dozen novels, but including one of the most difficult mysteries ever written (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Ngaio Marsh was two years away from her first book; Margery Allingham was at the beginning of her career; John Dickson Carr had not yet published a Gideon Fell or a Henry Merrivale novel; Anthony Berkeley had published a number of excellent books including 1929’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case — and the “Golden Age” mystery was in its early stages. It was not completely newborn; perhaps adolescent; still finding its way, outlining the ideas that define the form, the boundaries of the genre, its passions, its likes and dislikes, its enthusiasms and hatreds. S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox had both published sets of rules as to what detective stories should and should not be; clever writers like “Ellery Queen” were casting off the old strictures and extending the boundaries of the form.

This particular story has to be one of the most difficult strict-form puzzle mysteries ever written and, frankly, they don’t make ’em like this any more. This book has more sheer logic and detection in it by the halfway point than in the entire oeuvre of your average cozy author; and by the end of the novel, more difficult chains of logic than the entire oeuvre of ten cozy writers. This book was written at a time when readers did not cavil at being faced with an extremely difficult puzzle and it has, over the years, maintained its place as one of the finest examples of such a puzzle. I haven’t worked out the ramifications of this in great detail, but I’ll suggest that this is one of Queen’s top two books — the other being The Chinese Orange Mystery — and one of the top 25 puzzle mysteries ever written. Just don’t make me name the other 23, please!

When I’m analyzing a puzzle mystery, there’s a process I go through that is crucial to determining its level of quality. Simply put, once I know whodunnit, I go through the novel again from the murderer’s point of view and see if everything makes sense. And I think you would be surprised at how often things just do not make sense when I do that. For instance, I recently looked at a poorly-written mystery by Frances Crane, The Applegreen Cat. (My analysis is here.) Among other problems, the plot consisted of a mystery that was difficult from the point of view of the reader — but ridiculous from the point of view of the murderer, who apparently deliberately waited until the country house was filled with house guests before embarking upon a killing spree among the servants. Another example is an early novel of Harlan Coben’s whose name slips my mind along with most of the details. Three-quarters of the way through the book, the protagonist discovers that the murderer has a cabin  in the woods filled with evidence, and this provides everything needed to bring the book to a close. The problem is, as I realized even before reaching the end of the novel, no murderer in his right mind would have left all that tasty evidence in place, sitting in an empty cabin for anyone who happened by. It’s rather like one of those plots where the murderer has the detective at his mercy, but stops to deliver a complete detailed confession before disposing of his nemesis. It helps out the book a lot, but lowers the murderer’s IQ by 50 points in an instant.

If you go through the process of analyzing things from the murderer’s point of view, everything in this book continues to make perfect sense. The murderer’s motives are clear; they make sense and continue to make sense once you know what they are. The only thing that trips up the killer is a trap set by the detectives that is also based on something that the murderer needs to see happen. The tiny clues left by the murderer are tiny accidents; they aren’t taunts left by the killer, or foolish oversights, but something small and careless like closing a door when it shouldn’t have been closed, or not predicting that a character may confess something that is not in his best interests in order to cooperate with the police. And there are not many puzzle mysteries about which this can be said. Nothing depends on coincidence, chance, acts of God or ridiculous motivation. Just about the only logical flaw in the entire novel is the size of the fragment of the will that is found in the furnace of the empty house, and the fact that it contains precisely the information that is needed to move forward; this is a bit of a stretch, but, you know, it could happen. All the clues you need are fairly there, and the Challenge to the Reader is accurate.

The other part of this book that is beautifully crafted is the false trail that the reader is meant to follow. I read this book as a teenager and I remember the sense of exultation with which I came to the conclusion that the authors wished me to reach; I’d spotted the tiny clues, I’d noticed the snippets of dialogue, and I’d realized what they meant. I felt smart. By golly, this mystery business wasn’t so hard after all, I thought. And then I realized that I’d been well and truly fooled, and that was what the authors had meant to happen. Up until that point, I’d merely failed to solve the mystery, or I’d guessed sort of randomly at a possible solution. This time I’d tried to solve the mystery, and I’d been fooled. And it may well be this book that started me on a lifetime of challenging my wits against those of the author.

In short — this is one of the finest strict-form puzzle mysteries that you will ever have the pleasure of failing to solve. In the past, for the benefit of a friend who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of encountering this mystery, I’ve taken a cheap paperback and torn it in half at the point at which the Challenge to the Reader appears, in order to give my friend the chance to give this mystery the attention it deserves without the opportunity to spoil it by peeking. There are not many mysteries worth doing that with. If you enjoy the experience, and you see a cheap paperback copy go by, pay it forward for a friend.

Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, AbeBooks has on offer a Good copy of the first edition, inscribed by Frederick Dannay to his sister-in-law, for $500, and two unsigned copies of the first for $236 and $250. The second edition will set you back $175, and a copy of the first UK from Gollancz is listed for about $60. I am aware of an interesting edition from International Readers League in 1933, with a street map and floor plan of the Khalkis house (like the ones reproduced here, which are also in the first paper edition), and Abe has a copy for $75.

Some crazy person on ViaLibri wants $500 for the Bestseller Mystery/Mercury edition of 1941, and I can only think that it has about $490 in cash tucked between the pages. Amereon reprinted this title in 2001 and I can’t think why this particular book is bringing prices in the $75 range for an undistinguished hardcover with no jacket.

In paper, the 1942 first paper edition from Pocket is quite collectible because it’s a low-numbered book in that pioneering series, collected by many, even though, as you can see from the illustration at the top of this post, the cover art is downright unattractive — muddy, unexciting and dull. (When you look at the gaudy but exciting cover of The French Powder Mystery from the same company at about the same time, you wonder if the publishers were trying to make the Greek Coffin look boring!) Mine is a relatively nice copy and what appears to be a similar one on Abe is listed for $20; I’ve seen many copies of this book and many of them appear to have vertical creases in the cover, rolling, etc. There is a Penguin greenback available, of which there are many collectors, and many other editions.

1808330There’s a Cardinal edition that has a great piece of “girlie leg art” on the cover and, for once, it actually depicts a scene from the book. One quirky favourite edition of mine has always been a uniform set of Signet paperbacks from the early 70s with a tightly-kerned Helvetica title and cover art of a pretty model posed within a box, holding an oversized prop that has something to do with the plot.  Possibly this has something to do with the fact that in many cases this was the first edition that passed through my hands; at this remove, they look quite camp. Your mileage may vary. The point is that, depending on what your budget and collector’s instincts might be, there’s something for you. My own recommendation would be the signed first, which is quite scarce with any signature, and for smaller budgets the best copy you can afford of the Pocket edition, unless you like “girlie leg art” in which case the Cardinal edition may suit you best.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “D”, “Read a book already read by another challenger.” This volume was reviewed on February 17, 2014 at a blog called “Classic Mysteries”; the review is found here. For a chart outlining my progress, see below.

Vintage Golden Card 001

Mystery of the Dead Police, by Philip MacDonald (1933)

Mystery of the Dead Police, by Philip MacDonald (1933)

PM-Police2Author:

Philip MacDonald, although this book was originally published as by “Martin Porlock”. Philip MacDonald was a well-known Golden Age writer who came to prominence with a clever book called The Rasp, in 1924.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; second under “L”, “Read a book that has been made into a movie.” This qualifies twice: The Mystery of Mr. X in 1934 and The Hour of 13 in 1952.

Publication Data:

Even so simple a question has a complicated answer here. This book was originally published in 1933 in the UK as X v Rex as by “Martin Porlock”. It has been suggested that it was later published as The Mystery of Mr. X under the author’s best-known name of Philip MacDonald, which would probably be some kind of movie tie-in edition (see above), but I am wholly unable to confirm this and I advise my readers to take good care before quoting me. It has certainly been published as the edition at the top of this post and numerous others in the United States as Mystery of the Dead Police as by Philip MacDonald. The edition shown above is Pocket Books #90 from 1940 which I believe is the first U.S. paper edition. Most publications these days appear to have stabilized as Mystery of the Dead Police, perhaps because most new editions are American.

MacDonald seemed to have an affinity for the letter “X”; his publishers seemed to have a positive delight in changing the titles of his books. You should be aware that this book has nothing to do with Warrant for X, another MacDonald book/film property that I’ve addressed here; I have more to say about MacDonald and his work there.

2196About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

From the standpoint of 2014, it’s hard to remember a time when there wasn’t really such a thing as a “serial killer” plot. We are currently inundated by them, to the tune of a couple of prime-time television programmes, dozens of films, and enough good and bad novels to sink a yacht. Back in the day, though, before the term “serial killer” was invented — Wikipedia is not entirely sure, but the English-language phrase is “commonly attributed to … the 1970s” — we had novels and films about concepts like “psycho killer”, “Jack the Ripper”, “blood lust”, etc. I believe you’ll agree with me that the concept first became cemented in the language because of the activities of Jack the Ripper. No one really wrote a lot of fiction about Jack the Ripper (barring Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger in 1913) and relatively few people wrote novels about “lust murderers” until about the time of this novel (1933). By 1936, upon the publication of Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, the concept had become solidified sufficiently to be the subject of one of Christie’s famous twists. But in 1933, there was a clean patch of untrodden snow upon which writers were free to scrawl whatever they wished. 

imagesSo it is difficult from the modern perspective to write about these books because the people who wrote them and read them had a different set of words they used in order to categorize them. It’s hard to trace the development of the serial killer novel back into a time when there was no such thing. In 1933, although as I’ve said such themes were not common, there was an occasional novel about the activities of an insane person who commits a series of crimes for what seems to the reader to be an insane reason. The course of the novel is something like a modern procedural, where we see the activities of crime fighters attempting to (a) figure out the linking theme that governs the killer’s choice of victims, and/or (b) use knowledge about the killer (including an awareness of that linking theme) in order to predict the next victim and thus intervene and capture the killer.

Philip MacDonald apparently enjoyed this theme sufficiently to write at least two similar novels, Murder Gone Mad and Mystery of the Dead Police. Both are about a series of violent murders committed by an individual who is insane, as above. In Murder Gone Mad (I don’t have a copy in front of me) it’s random members of a small British town, and the killer is someone who is concealing their madness and functioning quite well. In Mystery of the Dead Police it’s uniformed police officers, and the killer is less completely functional.

The first such murder takes place in the small town of Farnley; someone fakes a burglary call at the local manor and, when all active constables are called out, someone enters the police station and kills the desk officer. After that, the scene of the crimes moves to London, where someone is killing an on-duty officer every couple of days.  The tension mounts over the course of the novel until Scotland Yard forms an alliance with a consultant, Nicholas Revel, to trap Mr. X and bring him to justice.

Meanwhile, there’s another plot entirely going on in the background. Mr. Revel might be a criminal; he is certainly extremely wealthy and young and handsome, and he apparently hangs around with members of the underworld. We meet a young woman, Jane Frensham, cherished only daughter of Sir Horace Frensham, who happens to be in charge of Scotland Yard. Jane is on-again-off-again engaged to Christopher Vayle, a beefy alpha-male-type young aristocrat. Vayle gets drunk at his regimental dinner and decides he has to have a policeman’s helmet from which to drink; after he biffs the man on duty in the neighbourhood, the stunned constable is killed minutes later by Mr. X. Vayle is prosecuted for the death — but, strangely enough, Revel shows up and gives Vayle a complete alibi, corroborated by someone we learn is a henchman of Revel’s. (I have to admit, I might be confusing the details here with one of the films. The Mystery of Mr. X certainly makes it clear exactly how this process happens and cements it in your mind by linking it to an interesting character, the henchman who poses as a garrulous Cockney cab driver.)

In the next while, Revel uses this entree to Vayle and thereby to Jane Frensham in order to seduce Jane and meet her father socially. Since everyone in London is mesmerized by the Mr. X killings, Sir Horace is entirely consumed by the case and looking for suggestions; Revel piques his interest. It seems also as though Revel is planning some kind of criminal act but the details are certainly not clear, nor even is Revel guaranteed to be participating. We are told about the activities of a gentlemen who is extremely carefully disguised as a down-on-his-luck clubman, who gets together with other lowlifes in pubs and talks about … something.  But we’re not guaranteed at any point that Revel is in disguise, merely that someone is.

Sporadically through the book, we have also been given the ramblings of the killer himself, writing in a journal.  We learn something about why he does what he does, and certainly a lot about how, but we don’t have enough information to identify him or precisely why he has selected policemen as his victims. It becomes clear that the killer is, in modern terms, decompensating mentally, and stepping up the level and violence of his murders.

Revel makes a number of suggestions that Sir Horace finds very useful in the hunt for Mr. X. It seems to be that the unspecified crime to be committed by the disguised man is not going to be committed, unless the activities of Mr. X cease. Meanwhile — and this is a significant theme in the book — Vayle realizes that Jane has fallen in love with Revel and reacts very badly, threatening violence to Revel and creating social contretemps. Jane comes to understand that she has fallen for Revel; Sir Horace doesn’t quite understand what’s going on but will allow Jane to make her own choices, it seems.

Revel and Sir Horace set a trap for the killer, using Vayle as the figure of the policeman who is the bait. Together they trap the killer, arrest him, and find his diary, proving beyond doubt the identity of Mr. X. In something of a reversal of the reader’s expectations, we learn tangentially that a large robbery has taken place; Revel leaves town and Jane reunites with Vayle. Revel is last heard of when he sends them a wedding present.

Why is this book worth your time?

Mystery of the Dead Police would be a significant book even if it were only an early example of the modern serial killer novel. It’s fascinating to follow the development of the theme over the decades; at this point, the killer is “insane” and his actions cannot be predicted or even more than barely logical. In the 1950s, there was a growing awareness that some such murderers in real life, like the Boston Strangler, were motivated by some twisted sexual motive. And in the 70s and beyond, of course, the modern serial killer might be represented by Hannibal Lecter; a brilliantly insane figure who has rejected the ability of society to control his actions. But this is 1933, and thinking has only gone as far as imagining that the series of murders is committed by an insane person for a relatively inexplicable reason.

There’s another reason to source this book and enjoy it for yourself; it is really very well written, and one of its strengths is that it’s an example of a writer striking out, trying to find new forms and ways of telling a story. E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913) contains a section near the beginning where the world’s newspapers are seen to react to the death of industrialist Sigsbee Manderson in a series of headlines, which was quite innovative for its day. This volume contains segments where the reactions of various levels of society to the activities of Mr. X are displayed in brief paragraphs, mainly for the amusement of the reader.

For instance, chapter 22 consists of small segments each from a different point of view. The first segment explains that every segment of society is concerned about Mr. X; Mr. X writes a letter to the newspapers and everyone reacts. The next segments are from the point of view, respectively, of Sir Horace, the Prime Minister, Mrs. Rawle of 14 Laburnum Road, Upper Sydenham, a General at the War Office, a couple of Mr. Revel’s henchmen, a superintendent of police under Sir Horace, Mr. X himself, three rank-and-file policemen, and finally Sir Hector again. Each segment is merely a few paragraphs long, more or less; characters like Mrs. Rawle are not so much introduced as allowed to speak characteristically for a few moments, then vanish from the novel.

I think of this technique as being an early precursor of what I call “intensively recomplicated” genre novels like, say, John Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit (a dystopian science fiction novel of 1969) where the narrative is multi-stranded and some main characters never encounter each other. It is used to show various types of people reacting to a central event or trend, in this case interracial disharmony in the United States of — exactly 2014, which as I write on New Year’s Day 2014 doesn’t seem so far from reality! Anyway, Brunner was nominated for the Nebula for this novel, and deservedly so. But without the early efforts of writers like MacDonald, this method of storytelling wouldn’t have been possible.

x-screen.4The Mystery Of Mr. X (1934)

This book was first filmed, in a fairly faithful rendition of the two plots if not the recomplicated structure, a year later. It stars Robert Montgomery as Nicholas Revel, Elizabeth Allan as Jane, Henry Stephenson as Sir Horace Frensham and Lewis Stone, the garrulous Cockney cab-driver who plays a major role. The film’s equivalent of Christopher Vayle is played by Ralph Forbes, and Leonard Mudie is seen briefly as Mr. X.

Although I’ve sourced a copy of The Hour of 13 and it is on its way, I haven’t screened it in time for this to be my first post of 2014. I may return to this in the future and update this, if there’s anything truly significant about the remake.

936full-the-hour-of-13-posterJanuary 15, 2014: I’ve now screened The Hour of 13 (1952) a couple of times and thought I’d make a note of it. This may sound paradoxical, but what’s significant is that this movie is very nearly an identical remake of The Mystery of Mr. X except for the cast, and one unusual change; the time period has changed to what might be 1890. The garrulous Cockney cab-driver’s cab is drawn by a horse, for instance. I can’t think of why they would have arbitrarily changed the period. This must have been expensive in sets, costumes and props. It might be that the film company had just done an Edwardian production and found this convenient. Peter Lawford may have wanted to go all costume on us. Who knows?

Peter Lawford is Nicholas Revel, Dawn Addams is Jane Frensham, Michael Hordern is a wonderful Sir “Herbert” Frensham, Derek Bond as this film’s equivalent of Christopher Vayle.  There are minor changes here and there between the filmed versions, but the two are remarkably equivalent — except The Hour of 13 is slightly easier to follow, because they’ve added a scene or two that makes it clear how Peter Lawford’s character works as a jewel thief and just what the stakes are. I haven’t gone to the trouble of comparing exactly, but the climactic scene where Nicholas Revel and Mr. X are battling in an abandoned factory, or some similar building, appears to have been filmed on exactly the same set and even with exactly the same fight sequence, the same desperate scramble not to be decapitated by an elevator car, etc. Peter Lawford is quite charismatic but not up to Robert Montgomery’s high standard. The film overall is uninspired — the acting in general is not convincing and there is an air of dull melodrama throughout — but the studio has given it full value in sets, costumes, etc.

UnknownNotes for the Collector:

This novel has been in print for quite a bit of its long life; it was selected as #19 of the Dell Great Mystery Library in the late 1950s. The copy I read for this review is, as is my habit, pictured at the very top of this piece; it is a copy of Pocket #70 from 1940. A Near Fine copy on Abe is today selling for $40. A Canadian bookseller with more enthusiasm than realism wants $75 for a copy of the 1973 re-issue of the original Collins Crime Club edition, titled X v. Rex as by “Martin Porlock”, and insists that it is scarce; $75 will also get you a copy of the first US edition from Doubleday in 1933, Very Good in an ordinary jacket. I know which one I’d prefer for my $75. The true first can be found on viaLibri for $99 in VG shape; a  copy of the beautiful first paper edition, Collins White Circle, London, 1939, tenth edition in the scarce dust jacket (seen just above, with the standard “two hooded criminals” cover), will set you back $50.

And, of course, there are the usual wacky prices and editions from sources such as eBay and Amazon, mostly, as noted above, from vendors with more enthusiasm than realism. I don’t see copies of Mystery of Mr. X on Amazon but TCM shows it on an irregular basis. You can get a copy of Hour of 13 for $17.96 from Amazon today.

If I were buying a paper copy of this novel to lay down for the future, I think I might look for a pristine copy of the Collins White Circle edition with jacket, even over the early Pocket edition; the British edition is much more visually interesting than the muddy Pocket cover. If the true first is within your reach, by all means, get what you can afford; this is a fairly important book and will appreciate in the future.

Star of Midnight (1935)

Star of Midnight (1935)

StarofmidnightposterWriters: Screenplay by Howard J. Green & Anthony Veiller, and Edward Kaufman, from a novel by Arthur Somers Roche. Howard Green has a long list of credits that include After Midnight with Boston Blackie and Meet Nero Wolfe. Anthony Veiller was nominated for an Academy Award for 1946’s The Killers and 1937’s Stage Door, and won the Edgar for The Killers.  He also wrote the screenplay for The List of Adrian Messenger and Seven Keys to Baldpate (the 1935 version). Edward Kaufman has only a short list of credits but they include The Gay Divorcee.

Arthur Somers Roche’s work was previously unknown to me and there doesn’t seem to be much of it, but he did write “mystery thrillers” in the 1910s and 1920s, including Find The Woman (1921) which is found here, if you’re interested.

Other Data:  90 minutes long. Released April 19, 1935, according to IMDB.  Directed by Stephen Roberts, who died in 1936 but has a large filmography of mostly short subjects  mostly silents. His final film was The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.

Cast: William Powell plays Clay “Dal” Dalzell, and Ginger Rogers plays wealthy socialite Donna Martin. It’s interesting to note that this film seems like a fairly clear variation on 1934’s huge hit, The Thin Man, but at the time of production, Myrna Loy was apparently under suspension/on strike to get more vacation time and better scripts, so Powell made films in 1935 with Rogers, Luise Rainer and Rosalind Russell, among others. The small cast doesn’t contain many actors whose names have remained well-known, but Paul Kelly and Ralph Morgan are principal among them. Gene Lockhart plays Dal’s butler — something of a departure for the times in that he appears to be clearly heterosexual — and Vivien Oakland stands out as the much-married Jerry Classon, who apparently dallied with Dal at some past point and is now mixed up with the murder. More about her role below.

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I wanted to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing the ending of the film, and the identity of the murderer.  If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own. 

star midnight2Once you’re aware that M-G-M was attempting to cash in on the success of The Thin Man, it’s much clearer what this film is attempting to do; the problem is, Ginger Rogers doesn’t appear to have much chemistry with Powell, and the movie just loses its sparkle when compared with the electricity between Powell and Loy. Rogers also suffers through a series of truly regrettable gowns in this production — this was apparently the height of the “Pilgrim” fad in women’s evening gowns and Rogers is swathed in a voluminous red outfit with a huge collar and shoulders. Another ridiculous outfit is a full length satin skirt with matching jacket, and the jacket is trimmed with huge mink lapels and mink sleeve puffs that look like swimming sleeves for buoyancy. It might have been the height of fashion in 1935 but in 2013 it just looks uncomfortable, hot, and confining.

The story is interesting, but the central premise is so strange and unbelievable that for me it sucked the life out of the plot. It’s focused on “Mary Smith” — whom we never see for more than about three frames of film — who is the star of a musical revue called Midnight.  Get it? She’s the star of Midnight, and that’s where the title comes from. No mysterious diamond stolen from the forehead of a Hindu god, just an unclever play on words. Mary Smith is anxious to avoid her past and apparently is never seen on-stage without, are you ready for this, her mask. This is strange, but not so strange as the idea that no one in the movie seems to think it’s strange, if you follow me. The star of a major musical review is named “Mary Smith”, no one knows where she comes from, and she always wears a mask. Pfft, could happen to anyone, it seems, and the producers are quite happy to keep her secret rather than capitalizing on the potential publicity.  Nobody knows what the “mask” looks like because we never see it, but if it’s anything like the one the murderer wears at the end of the film, this is the world’s only musical star who can fill the theatre with song without opening her mouth beyond a slit.

She’s onstage performing when a former fiancé recognizes her, heaven knows how, and stands up and shouts “Susan!” Mary Smith finishes Act I and promptly vanishes. Oh, and this all takes place out of the view of the audience; apparently they didn’t want to complicate the plot with any exciting drama or anything like that. It’s a bizarre omission because we see the principals sitting in the audience and the theatre set is shown — the only bit we aren’t allowed to see is the crucial one, and it’s because Dal leaves to take a phone call. No, we hear all this from the lips of a gossip reporter who visits Dal’s apartment to tell the story and is promptly shot before he can complete it. There’s apparently gangsters in the mix, who know more than they are telling, and an old girlfriend of Dal’s who is married to a lawyer who is looking for Susan/Mary Smith as a witness that will enable him to save his client from the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit.

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I’ll save you the trouble; the lawyer is looking for Susan/Mary to kill her, and is ready to take out anyone in his path. To be honest, it’s not absolutely clear why, or at least I found the explanation so impenetrable that I just let it sit there indigestibly.  Susan/Mary was apparently quite prepared to disappear forever — if you accept the fact that she wanted to be a musical star under the name of “Mary Smith” and preserving her incognito with the mask, which strains credulity — and it’s only the lawyer’s messing about that leads to the exposure of his crimes. It seems as though Alice/Mary’s desire to disappear is connected with the murder for which the lawyer’s client is about to die, but apparently the lawyer committed the murder himself. All he has to do is refrain from looking for the witness, but noooooooo …

StarOfMidnightPIC-165

Ginger on the left, Vivian Oakland on the right — unlikely romantic rivals.

Meanwhile, the much-married Jerry Classon seems to have her eyes on Dal as her next ex-husband, and comes to visit him late at night in his apartment, seemingly on a whim. Ginger Rogers steps in and pretends to be his new wife, and Jerry decides to leave, but not before she tries to get information from Dal. The thing I cannot understand is — why on earth is Jerry Classon considered to be a femme fatale here? The producers could have cast anyone, but they present us with a stocky, middle-aged matron with severely shingled hair and a severe case of rubbery triceps and ask us to believe that at least four men have fallen for her, including Dal at one point. Is it because she’s independently wealthy? (She’s always dripping with chinchilla and diamond bracelets.) Nothing against Vivien Oakland, who does the best she can with this character and actually portrays her with as much verisimilitude as possible, but she’d have to lose 50 pounds to look like Ginger, and we’re expected to believe that they are potential rivals.  It makes one wonder what kind of heifer Mary Smith was, since we never see her.

star-of-midnightSpeaking of Dal’s apartment, which is the scene of more than half the film, it seems, I think the producers were trying to indicate that Dal is the wealthiest man in Chicago. He has what must have been groundbreaking and avant-garde at the time, a glass-enclosed shower stall in his bathroom AND a full barber’s chair where he is shaved by the butler. His bathroom, in fact, is about the size of my apartment. His living space does have one disadvantage, though; apparently anyone can easily get onto his balcony by some unspecified means, because at least three times somebody is out there to inimical purpose, twice with a gun, and there’s a police officer who simply sits out there listening to the microphone the cops planted clumsily. I’d have looked into a one-way gate on the fire escape, frankly.

starofmidnightAfter a bunch more hugger-mugger, frequently involving Dal and Donna spending time in cocktail lounges making amusing comments about who has to pay for the drinks, Dal finally decides to set a trap to catch the killer. They announce that Mary Smith has showed up and make arrangements so that innocent people will go to Dal’s apartment and guilty ones will head for Mary’s cheap flat to cover their tracks. Of course, Dal doesn’t bother to bring a gun, or anything useful like that; merely a recording of Alice/Mary singing, to lure the suspects, and a portable record player. A strange woman arrives looking for Mary and turns out to be — the male lawyer, wearing a mask of a woman’s face and in top-to-toe drag. I’m not sure why. (Is the lawyer trying to leave a false trail to his wife?) Maybe, though, Jerry Classon had to be a chunky matron so that her husband could fit into her clothes. So there is a dramatic climax, the murderer is arrested and Dal and Donna finally agree to tie the knot.

I have to add that Mary Smith never appears, even after the real murderer is caught; she is said to be “at the Inspector’s house” as a kind of throwaway line, about a minute before the movie ends, and Dal adds that he traced her through her bank account (conveniently forgetting that she insisted upon being paid in cash to avoid precisely such an entanglement). I don’t know if the writers simply felt they didn’t need to tie off that loose end, or whether they figured nobody would remember, or care, or what. What it means is that the title character, who is possibly one of the most interesting people in the film, never appears and is only heard. It’s not enough to suggest that the writers couldn’t find a way to wedge her in — this has to be deliberate, and it’s frustrating and quite annoying. She’s never seen in her mask, and the murderer is never said to wear one before he shows up in one. If the producers were trying to focus on the witty byplay and cocktail-drinking scenes between Dal and Donna, well, there’s not enough of them and they’re not sufficiently amusing to carry the story over its bumpy patches. The mystery doesn’t make sense, the chemistry of the leads is insufficient to make us believe in their romance, the sub-plots don’t add up, and the script pulls its major punches for no reason. I admit there is a certain amount of charm here; Ginger Rogers tries hard to live up to Myrna Loy’s characterization, William Powell is his usual suave and urbane self, and there are a few funny lines. But there are so many things wrong with this movie that it’s not surprising that it hasn’t survived as an example of a great movie mystery.

Notes For the Collector:

Amazon sells this film individually for about $15 and TCM screened it earlier this year; as I always remark, TCM is not shy about repeating its offerings and you can expect to see it about once a year from now on.

The Maisie series, starring Ann Sothern (1939-1947)

MaisieThe Maisie series, starring Ann Sothern, is a series of ten films released between 1939 and 1947. They are as follows:

  • Maisie (1939)
  • Congo Maisie (1940)
  • Gold Rush Maisie (1940)
  • Maisie Was a Lady (1941)
  • Ringside Maisie (1941)
  • Maisie Gets Her Man (1942)
  • Swing Shift Maisie (1943)
  • Maisie Goes To Reno (1944)
  • Up Goes Maisie (1946)
  • Undercover Maisie (1947)

At the height of Sothern’s association with this role, she was also starring from 1945 to 1947 in The Adventures of Maisie on CBS Radio (and later with the down-market Mutual in 1952, and further in syndication, which I understand for so short a radio series indicates some exceptional quality that delivers an audience). The role seems to have determined the course of her entire career; after Maisie, she starred in two sitcoms for CBS, Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show, and garnered three Emmy nominations. Then she appeared as the voice of Gladys Crabtree in My Mother the Car, Gladys being the deceased mother whose spirit has somehow transmogrified into a 1928 Porter touring car.  This sitcom is generally considered to be either the worst or the second worst TV program of all time (first being Jerry Springer). Finally, Sothern was nominated for an Academy Award for best Supporting Actress for The Whales of August (1987), standing out among an exceptional cast, including Bette Davis and Lillian Gish.

Maisie’s (movie-based) character is that she’s a wisecracking burlesque showgirl from Brooklyn with a spirit as big as all outdoors, and a heart of solid gold. Perhaps the other way around. At any rate, Maisie mostly starts out having just lost her job and down on her luck. She meets a guy who annoys her, but for whom she appears to feel some kind of romantic attraction. Simultaneously, she enters a new environment in which she is a breath of fresh air in some respect — kind of like the plot of most Shirley Temple movies. Maisie’s plainspoken ways break down emotional reserves and misunderstandings that have been hampering progress, everything ends happily and Maisie gets the man, although he conveniently disappears before the next movie. Apparently during WWII this was more common than it is these days; well, no, I’m kidding. It’s just that, at the beginning of every Maisie movie, all previous plot developments get retconned out of existence and new ones freely take their place. So Maisie doesn’t really have a history; it’s more like an attitude.

I certainly understand why Maisie was career-making for Ann Sothern; it was a role that appears to have struck a chord with the public and heaven knows she made it hers. I think the fact that it started in 1939 had something to do with it, but it’s hard to say just what. We know that 1939 was an amazing year for films, perhaps the best year ever, and I think that was a year that formed people in the habit of going to the movies two or three times a week, because they were just so damn good. 1939’s list of movies includes Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, The WomenGone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and quite a few important mystery films, including Another Thin Man, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (yes, I’m serious), and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (yes, I’m serious).  It was also the first rumblings of WWII in the United States, and I’ll suggest that Maisie’s plucky spirit and get-down-to-work attitude were felt to be a help to the war effort, if you know what I mean. Maisie does a lot of war work during WWII, alternating between riveting and entertaining the troops, etc. So I imagine she was a kind of symbol for women; Maisie had her priorities ostentatiously in order and didn’t mind going nose to nose with people who weren’t pulling their weight. After the war, as the series petered out, Maisie was more often the agent of Cupid, working to get two good-hearted young people back together after a romantic misunderstanding. It rather seemed like it had outlived its usefulness until it transferred to radio, where they essentially told the same set of stories again.

Warning: If you read beyond this point, you may find out more about the plot of the first movie in the series, Maisie (1939) than you want to know, and a bit about some others.  If you haven’t seen these films, you may wish to stop here and preserve your ignorance in favour of future enjoyment. Consider yourself warned. 

Maisie_FilmPosterI originally became interested in the series because I happened to capture #1 on my PVR, from Turner Classic Movies, and found that it had some minor detective content. Maisie is stranded jobless in a small town in Wyoming and finagles her way into a position as live-in maid on a ranch, against the wishes of her soon-to-be romantic interest, cowboy boss Robert Young. She is the servant to the ranch owner’s wife (Ruth Hussey, who does a wonderful job), a slick city orchid who is superficially attentive to her wealthy husband but is really committed to her lover, city slicker John Hubbard.  Maisie finds the boss’s wife locked in the arms of her boyfriend by accident; the boss’s wife decides that Maisie must go, and she cooks up a story about how Maisie is romantically involved with the boss, which simultaneously torpedoes Maisie’s job and her engagement to Robert Young. So she leaves.

The boss then commits suicide but in such a way that it looks like homicide, and Robert Young is put on trial. Maisie is far away and only finds out about the trial in time to arrive barely before sentencing, but she can’t persuade the judge that Robert Young is innocent — until the boss’s lawyer comes up with an envelope that he had been told to deliver to Maisie. It’s a complete explanation, Robert Young goes free, and Maisie inherits the ranch and lots of money, to the well-deserved chagrin of the widow. We are meant to believe that Maisie is about to marry Robert Young, but as I said, he disappears before the next movie and all the money is gone.

This is really the only detective/mystery content I could identify in the whole series, worse the luck. I watched them, at least as far as #8, with an eye to a potential piece not unlike this about their detective content. Since that’s pretty much it for interesting content, I was going to put it aside. But I have to say this. I’m not sure I could have stood the final entries in this series; the whole thing is just too darn depressing.

Maisie_Was_a_Lady_FilmPosterOkay, not depressing at the level of UK kitchen sink drama or Russian expressionism or Italian postwar cinema. But depressing. Chillingly depressing. Ann Sothern is plucky, but man oh man, is that the knife edge upon which people like her used to balance? Not really knowing where their next meal was coming from if they didn’t finagle their way into a job? Because that’s what happens in the Maisie series, over and over. Maisie loses her job and is about to — well, I have no idea, unless it’s starvation added to prostitution or a similar life of crime. She never gets to it, thank goodness. But she is pretty much about to be what we would think of as a homeless person, and she finds herself among a group of people who are similarly down and out. There is one entry, 1940’s Gold Rush Maisie, in which she is taken in by what I believe is called a family of Okies; these people have nothing but an old car and enough food to make it through a day or so. No money, no education, no social services, and possibly not even a change of clothes. I admit it is not too hard to believe that Maisie is imminently going to rally people to work together to improve their collective lot, but still, I mean, good heavens! This is not a light comedy about a Brooklyn showgirl, this is more like The Grapes of fricken’ Wrath. Now, I don’t mind that kind of entertainment, when I sign up to see it.  What I do object to is being told that I am about to see light entertainment with occasionally a song and dance, and being taken to the depths of despair.

And once that became plain, each entry began to demonstrate an affinity for melodrama and pathos, followed closely by bathos. In Ringside Maisie, for instance, her boxer friend is knocked out and comes to blind; only his life’s savings will finance the brain operation he needs, and that will put paid to his ambitions to follow in his father’s footsteps and open a small country store. In the next one, Maisie Gets Her Man, everyone we meet is completely broke and desperate; everyone rallies together to follow a cherubic guy who turns out to be a con artist who cheats everyone out of the pittances they have, then leaves town. Maisie Was a Lady has her as a maid to the daughter of a wealthy but emotionally cold family who is so screwed up that she does her darndest to commit suicide. I think the last few entries in the series are a bit more lighthearted, but honestly, I just don’t want to take the chance.

Annex - Sothern, Ann (Maisie Gets Her Man)_01_DSI can’t think that this was meant to be light entertainment in the way it’s presented nowadays. I think the social context is missing that would tell us that this series is an entry in a different sub-genre, one that we don’t quite understand in the same way any more. What this appears to me to be is a kind of cross between Blondie (who started out the same, as a brash flapper) and the lush romantic entanglements of Douglas Sirk’s 50s overwrought domestic melodramas. Perhaps this was a big-screen version of the exquisitely ridiculous radio soap operas of the day, like Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories or Backstage Wife, but I’ve never been able to listen to more than a few minutes of either of those before reaching my limit. Whatever it is, to my taste, and I suspect most 2013 viewers, it is a mix of sub-genres that contains far too much life-and-death drama and doesn’t adequately recompense the viewer with comic or musical relief. There is little or no detection content that would interest the majority of my readership. (The Wikipedia entry tells me that, in the final entry of the series, 1947’s Undercover Maisie, she becomes a Los Angeles cop, but an exceptionally incompetent one, and all detection is done by someone else.)

The way I see it, all these films are about a character, and that character never changes throughout the course of the films. In fact, the audience would be disappointed if Maisie did change in any way. Therefore, the natural story elements are preserved by having other characters change in an appropriate way around her, and usually on a simple and predictable path — poor to rich, bad to good, wrong to right. I have no data on the audience for whom these were designed, but I speculate that it was uneducated and primarily female; women with no money and no power who enjoyed Maisie wading into emotionally overwrought situations and sorting out people who were on the wrong track. Maisie was always just a little brassy and a little overdressed and a little florid, and I think this appealed more than lame evening gowns and brittle social comedy would have done.

So whether you will enjoy this series or not depends on your capacity to tolerate soap opera, pseudo-social commentary, overwrought romanticism, and/or Ann Sothern. Mine revealed itself to be limited to eight-tenths of the oeuvre; your mileage may vary.

Death on the Diamond (1934)

Death on the Diamond

Death_on_the_Diamond_FilmPosterAuthor: Screenplay by Harvey Thew, Joe Sherman and Ralph Spence from the book by Cortland Fitzsimmons. Thew wrote films as far back as 1916, and his contemporaneous work includes a couple of interesting mysteries. Joe Sherman didn’t have much of a film career but he also wrote Murder in the Fleet and directed three films. Ralph Spence has a huge list of writing credits including the original Tillie the Toiler from 1927.

Cortland Fitzsimmons is a mystery novelist whose name was new to me, but not to my better-read fellow reviewers. Bill Deeck reviewed one of his books and suggested it was “like watching grease congeal”. I wish I’d turned that phrase! Others have a similarly poor opinion of his written work. Fitzsimmons wrote a couple of series of mysteries, including a set focused on different sporting events like football (the 1932 film 70,000 Witnesses is based on that one) and the eponymous book that forms the basis of this film. I have a copy of 70,000 Witnesses and have now been prompted to screen it; if it’s as flawed as this film, I may have another review coming down the pike.

Other Data:  71 minutes long. September 14, 1934, according to IMDB.  Directed by Edward Sedgwick, who directed a long list of films from 1920 on including, strangely, Murder in the Fleet and Father Brown, Detective.

Cast: Robert Young as Larry, the star ball player. Madge Evans as the daughter of the owner of the team, Pop Clark, played by David Landau. The credits confused me for a minute because there’s a character played by DeWitt Jennings whose character (the groundskeeper) seems like it should be named Pop Clark  in fact, “kindly old Pop Clark” would be appropriate. But his character’s name is merely Patterson.

Nat Pendleton plays the team’s catcher and Ted Healy (of Three Stooges fame) plays his nemesis, the umpire who hates being called “Crawfish”. C. Henry Gordon plays a villainous racketeer and Edward Brophy plays the dumb but honest cop. No actual pro ball players appear to have been recruited for this film, although it does have Mickey Rooney in a tiny role as the bat boy. Hard-working Walter Brennan has an uncredited role as a hot dog vendor and Ward Bond is in an uncredited role as a security guard.

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I wanted to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing the ending of the film, and the identity of the murderer.  If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own. 

300788520464_1My curiosity about this film was prompted by its recent appearance on TCM, but also because I’ve recently become interested in how films of the 1930s and 1940s co-opted the murder mystery format and combined it with other themes. Recently I looked at a “Western mystery” to see how the two formats meshed. Then this item came along and I started wondering about “sports mysteries”.

My general sense, unsullied by much actual experience, was that the 1930s in Hollywood had produced a number of “sports movies”, simplistic “programmers” whose main theme was the progress of a sports team towards a season’s victory, interwoven with the progress of the team’s best player towards the hand of his best girl and the team’s battle against game-fixing gangsters. Sometimes the sport is boxing or horse-racing and then the team idea dwindles down to an individual. This, I thought, was the same level of entertainment as the typical Western. The hero cowboy bests the rival ranch, or the crooked rustlers, or the railroad baron, and gets the girl. The audience has low expectations and they are usually met, at a low level of inspiration by the screenwriter and low production values by the studio. B-pictures, churned out by the dozens to fill the evenings of Americans before the invention of television.

To be honest, I haven’t bothered to find and screen a bunch of rubbishy old baseball and football movies just to confirm this theory. It is certain that the genre hasn’t survived; today’s viewer has thousands of actual games from which to choose on television at any given moment, in every sport from poker to NASCAR to beach volleyball, and a huge publicity machine to convince the prospective viewer that the plucky team is working hard to vanquish its rivals and overcome huge odds to win the pennant. <yawn>  No one wants to update this genre for the 21st century, which seems more interested in quirky films like Moneyball. We see the occasional film like The Bad News Bears, but this theme has not presented itself by the handful year after year like it used to in the 1930s. I had the feeling this genre was an artifact of the age of film before television, and when audiences became more demanding,the simple sports film collapsed and vanished.

With most such ritualized genres, though, occasionally someone decides to switch up the standard theme and add a murder mystery plot to the mix, mostly connected with the game-fixing gangsters. And this seemed like the inspiration for Death on the Diamond, so I thought I’d give this a good look and see how successful the sports mystery genre might have been had it flourished.

I suspect that sports movie fans were disappointed by the introduction of the unfamiliar mystery plot to get in the way of the “St. Louis Cardinals winning the pennant against great odds and gangsters”, and while mystery fans may have been sufficiently interested to attend, they wouldn’t have left in a good mood. The mystery is, frankly, pretty ridiculous.

death diamond01When the film starts, the team is in trouble; Pop Clark has hocked his majority interest to finance the season, and the team must win the pennant or Pop will lose the team. He hires Larry to come in and pitch to save the day. Larry promptly falls in love with Pop’s beautiful daughter, the team’s secretary. Indeed, after a few abortive attempts to injure the players — someone smears “alkaloid” on the inside of their gloves, and runs Larry and the catcher’s taxi into a ditch — at about the 33 minute mark, someone shoots a player just as he’s rounding third base towards home. At the 47 minute mark, a strangled player falls out of a locker and a few minutes later Nat Pendleton’s character is killed when someone poisons the mustard he smears on his hot dog.

We are aware that there’s a phalanx of gangsters who stand to lose nearly a million dollars — this sum is announced in hushed and reverential tones — if the Cardinals win. They have a motive to do violence to team members, of course, and apparently they do. But of course there is another murderer. This is meant to be a surprise twist at the end; truthfully it will not be a surprise to anyone who has seen more than a couple of films.

I have spoken before about the tightly-timed scripts of movies (and television programmes). Every word, every action, even every camera angle is carefully chosen to communicate a maximum of information as tersely as possible. This film is no exception. But when everything grinds to a halt in the first ten minutes while the kindly old groundskeeper establishes that he goes back a long way with Pop Clark, and thinks he knows more about baseball than anyone on the team, well, we either have the murderer or 90 seconds of useless information. And Hollywood very rarely provides 90 seconds of useless information.

Similarly, throughout the movie, the kindly old groundskeeper does things like show up having coincidentally found the rifle with which the player was shot on the field — and got his fingerprints all over it, silly old man — and we know this is not an accident. And every time he shows up, he gets a little crazier and a little phonier and a little less believable (he never actually does any groundskeeper’s duties on screen).

By the time the team is playing the “big game” at the end of the film, and we see the traditional shadowy figure with claw-like hands lurking in the dugout, everything is obvious; the kindly old groundskeeper is a loony who thinks he should be running the team himself and is responsible for the murders. Larry is pitching on the mound and sees someone in the dugout slipping something into the pocket of his hanging jacket, so Larry throws an unbelievably accurate beanball an unbelievably long distance and knocks out the mysterious figure. Larry’s pocket turns out to contain a bomb, which detonates harmlessly. the groundskeeper is arrested and goes ostentatiously crazy before confessing; Larry wins the game and gets the girl as the closing music swells.

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There are so many inconsistencies and logical flaws in this movie that I could go on for a thousand words about them. Why do the gangsters start to intimidate but cease their threats when the murderer starts in? Why is the umpire on the scene two weeks before the season starts? Why does the baseball game start up again ten minutes after the base runner is shot and killed? Why do the media not make more of a series of murders taking place on a professional sports team? (Think about what would happen if someone started killing off real-life St. Louis Cardinals in the dugout this year. CNN would be parachuting reporters into the outfield during games, trying for interviews.) Why do all the players never seem to do anything except stand around? Where did the groundskeeper learn to make a bomb that looked like a wristwatch? What on earth is an “alkaloid” so distinctive that it can be recognized by smell, and why would it be activated by body heat? Why is there a black sleeve on the arm poisoning the mustard, when moments later the groundskeeper is shown wearing white? Why is Madge Evans the only woman in the universe? But really, this film is just so uninspired that no one will ever really care. Indeed, there are not enough baseball scenes to please baseball fans and there is so little mystery that no one over the age of 10 will be troubled to solve this before the 60-minute mark. Nothing makes sense and everything is a cliche. Bah.

A fellow reviewer more interested in baseball than mystery called this “the Reefer Madness of baseball movies” — he was aggrieved by the lack of anyone wanting to stop the game for little things like the pitcher getting murdered. He suggests a wide variety of themes for baseball movies that are worth repeating — and that are not represented in Death on the Diamond. “It isn’t about a rookie’s struggles fitting in.  It isn’t about underdogs struggling to win the pennant.  It isn’t about the struggles of a veteran losing his skills.  It isn’t about the relationship between different generations of men.” No. None of those things. Trust me, there is nothing here that you need to see.  So unless you have some peculiar and idiosyncratic reason for screening this — for instance, you want to try to spot Walter Brennan in his three-second appearance in the sequence where Nat Pendleton is smearing poisoned mustard on his own hot dog (is that him at the far right of the photo?) — really, don’t bother.

Notes For the Collector:

I was unable to locate a copy of this on Amazon or other traditional marketplaces, but TCM screened it in mid-August 2013 and is not shy about re-running its movies once or twice a year.

Rocky Mountain Mystery (aka The Fighting Westerner) (1935)

Rocky Mountain Mystery (also released as The Fighting Westerner)

rocky-mountain-mystery-movie-poster-1935-1020198180Author: An adaptation by Ethel Doherty of an unpublished novel (Golden Dreams) by Zane Grey. Screenplay by Edward E. Paramore Jr. Ms. Doherty’s writing career went back to 1925 and this was, in fact, her last screen credit. Mr. Paramore wrote a long list of films including perhaps his most famous, The Bitter Tea of General Yen. And Zane Gray, of course, was a best-selling and extremely prolific writer of Westerns who became an overnight success in 1912, with “Riders of the Purple Sage”. He has 116 writing credits in IMDB alone, his own TV series (Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre from 1956-1961) and a long, long list of published books — which makes me wonder, just what on earth is he doing with an unpublished novel? However, this story appears to have been updated to 1935, regardless of when it was first written, and this seems to have been the work of Mr. Paramore. No source suggests that Zane Grey had anything to do with this film personally.

The unpublished novel Golden Dreams was filmed under that title in 1922 of the silent era; IMDB says nothing about it beyond the cast, but merely by the characters’ names I can tell that it has little or nothing to do with this plot about a radium mine. At least, it seems to be vaguely about Spanish aristocrats in early California.

Other Data:  63 minutes long. March 1, 1935, according to IMDB.  Directed by Charles Barton, who won an Academy Award for best assistant director in 1933 — no, I didn’t know there was such a thing either — and started his directing career in 1934 with a different Randolph Scott/Zane Grey feature, Wagon Wheels. His career included The Shaggy Dog, for Walt Disney, and 106 episodes of the execrable Family Affair on CBS, 1967 to 1971.

rocky-mountain-mystery-ann-sheridan-randolph-scott-1935All extant prints that I’ve seen bear the title The Fighting Westerner. There is no reason cited for this title change that I can find; frequently it has something to do with the sale of the film to a television packaging company in the 1950s, such as Favorite Films, here cited above the title with a credit to Paramount, whose original production this was. I suppose they mean that the hero is a fighting Westerner but really he’s more of a detective than a fist fighter.

Cast: Chic Sale as Deputy Sheriff Tex Murdock. Mrs. Leslie Carter as sinister housekeeper Mrs. Borg. George Marion, Sr. as the invalid father; Ann Sheridan as his daughter Rita, Florence Roberts as his long-lost wife, Kathleen Burke as her daughter Flora, Willie Fung as the mysterious Ling Yat, and finally, at the end of the credits, Randolph Scott as broad-shouldered, clean-limbed hero Larry Sutton.

It seems odd to me but, omitting a few supporting players near the end, this is the order in which the credits were run. If so, Chic Sale had a much larger following than I’d thought. His Wikipedia entry here makes fascinating reading; at one point around this time referring in conversation to his name meant that you were making a euphemism for an outhouse, and there’s actually a reference to him in the Marx Brothers’ film Animal Crackers. He specialized in “backwater hicks”; in this film he’s mainly the comedy relief.

Mrs. Leslie Carter also had a more interesting career than I’d ever heard of, a précis of which is found here. Frankly, she sounds like a character from the musical Chicago — she used her married name to spite her husband — and they made a movie about her in 1940, The Lady with Red Hair. This is one of her few film appearances and OMG, does she ever look like a drag queen, with a huge jaw, unplucked furry eyebrows, and a deep serious voice. Ann Sheridan of course went on to become the “Oomph Girl” and made The Glass Key the same year; and about a dozen other films, all in 1935. They worked ’em HARD in those days. Even the barely-seen Willie Fung has an interesting biography and resume. All things considered, this would have been a high-powered cast without Randolph Scott, but with him, it’s quite a bit above the usual level of the Westerns of the period.

And of course Randolph Scott is a well-known Western hero who was just getting his career off the ground in 1935 — this film is cited as a turning point for his promotion from B films to the A level. Between 1932 and 1935, he made ten Zane Grey westerns in a loose series for Paramount and this seems to be the last.

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I wanted to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing the ending of the film, and the twist that underlies some events.  If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own. 

imagesI originally decided to investigate this film for a peculiar reason. I mentioned idly elsewhere in this blog that “I can suggest there are a couple of Western series characters whose films were primarily mysteries with Western trappings and characters, albeit at the general level of mystery of Scooby-Doo and those meddling kids.” Of course, when I sat down and tried to think of some, well — I had had the vague idea that what I think of as the “Radio Ranch” genre of movie cowboy series frequently dipped into the standard mystery plot structure as a basis for their activities. For instance, Riders of the Whistling Skull from 1937, featuring The Three Mesquiteers, qualifies as a “weird western” and has both a murder mystery element and a mummy. But I do remember one plot structure that recurred over and over. The kindly old owner of Ranch A was found dead and it shore did look like the owner of Ranch B made good on his threats. Luckily the lovely orphaned daughter of the victim managed to attract the attention of a gallant Western hero, who solved the crime, shot or arrested the perpetrator and kissed the girl. (My recollections here are based on a misspent youth in front of the television in the 60s.)  I may still find some of these; however, I got sidetracked when I found Rocky Mountain Mystery.

To me, this is a fairly standard Western, but I gather from my reading that there are significantly different elements. To begin with, this all takes place against the background of a radium mine — radium being worth an enormous amount per gram in 1935 — and there is barely a horse to be seen, but quite a few automobiles and telephones. We begin as Randolph Scott (playing “Larry Sutton”) arrives at the Ballard radium mine to take over as chief engineer (not ranch foreman, as is more usual) because his brother-in-law has disappeared after the death of the ranch caretaker, Mr. Borg. Randolph Scott teams up with deputy sheriff Tex, the comedy relief, to investigate Borg’s death — gruesomely, crushed in a gigantic piece of mining equipment used to crush rock. Elderly paterfamilias Jim Ballard is bedridden, and his niece Flora and nephew Fritz have arrived to secure their inheritance from his radium mine and accompanying ranch. (His other niece Rita (Ann Sheridan) has also arrived, but she’s only there to provide a love interest for Randolph Scott.) Borg’s widow Mrs. Borg and her scrawny son John, and “mysterious Chinaman” Ling Yat, keep the household running.

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After Randolph Scott arrives, things heat up. Soon Fritz is found crushed in the same piece of equipment, and a dark cloaked figure runs around and stirs things up; but everyone seems to have an alibi.  Next John Borg is shot, Randolph Scott is attacked by the cloaked figure, and Flora is murdered by having her throat cut. All these events take a toll on the invalid, it seems. Randolph contacts his ex-wife, who hasn’t been out at the ranch in 30 years, and tells her to come quickly to say good-bye.  When she does, she reveals that the invalid isn’t her ex-husband at all, but Mr. Borg — who crushed the ranch’s owner into unrecognizability and took his place. In an exciting finish, the Borg family and Ling Yat run for the hills, and a number of chase scenes result in the Borgs and Ling Yat being sentenced to 20 years in prison, Tex becoming the sheriff, and Randolph Scott marrying Ann Sheridan and buying a ranch in Hawaii.

Indeed, this is a strict-form puzzle mystery, as I have elsewhere defined it. The film is careful to show us people at the precise moment in time when things happen — for instance, when Flora screams her final scream, we see Randolph Scott amid three or four other suspects, all of whom look up. Everyone is carefully alibied except the invalid, who clearly must be guilty. If you get that far, it’s easy to figure out that the central clue is that someone spirited away the dead body that had been identified as Mr. Borg, and thus the murderer has changed places with his victim.

This did hold my attention. Every once in a while it veers into the cliche-ridden B-movie Western, notably with the “by cracky” antics of  Chic Sale — and yet we see him taking the hoof prints of horses to identify the one ridden by the murderer, which is hardly silly at all. Similarly the black-cloaked villain seems to be a hangover from the fast and dirty days of the B movie, but this movie, with a cheerfully uncaring attitude towards any possible disbelief, offers us all kinds of cliches with an air of not knowing that they are indeed cliches. So we have the swarthy suspicious Chinese servant and the brooding housekeeper and her weird, weakling son. We’ve seen everything here before, more or less, and if the director is not ashamed to include it, I’m not ashamed to enjoy it.

It’s interesting to see how the film changes with the introduction of cars, automobiles and radium; as if there has been some sort of time warp that leaves half the script in the 1890s and the other half in 1935. I imagine they must have had rudimentary identification in 1935 and that it would have been a lot easier to take over someone’s identity in 1895. Similarly, villainous Chinese servants were all the rage in 1900 or so, but rather old hat in 1935, what with the introduction of Charlie Chan and all.

And it’s rather fun to watch this weird crossover between mystery and Western. The director is apparently convinced that there are no problems inherent in fulfilling the requirements of each genre, and he seems to be right. (If you’re interested in seeing how cross-genre Westerns can occasionally fail spectacularly, check out The Terror of Tiny Town some day.) The merging of mystery and Western is quite good here; enough detective work to satisfy the crime fan, and enough Western action for Western devotees. I have to say that the final solution is precipitated by the arrival of the long-lost ex-wife, and it’s not clear that Randolph Scott has invited her to attend with any detective motivation in mind; so the solution is kind of accidental, I think. Not as strict-form a mystery as the purists among us would like, but fun nevertheless.

Notes For the Collector:

This film is apparently in the public domain and can be found here.