Clue as Carrier Wave

14330145_964495950345839_2469714263963758410_nI encountered this commercial product recently; it’s the “Harry Potter” edition of Clue (my UK friends will know it as Cluedo). My reaction was, if you’ll pardon my saying so, “WTF?” To me, there didn’t seem to be any rationale as to why there would be a Harry Potter mystery game; the two genres don’t overlap and  there is no natural brand affinity that would make this an obvious product. I understand the idea of a “Sherlock” edition, there’s common ground there, but Harry Potter … no.

imagesThat piqued my curiosity sufficiently to do a quick search, and I found there are a number of such brand crossover editions, some of which I’ve pictured here. The edition that relates to the movie Clue does seem to have some rationale, but — The SimpsonsFireflyThe Big Bang Theory? None of these make any sense to me.

cluedo-sherlockIt does serve as a little corroboration to a theory about detective fiction upon which I’ve been ruminating lately; this just seemed to be a very bare-bones approach to my idea, and thus was more interesting. For my regular readers, this is what I hinted at recently when I suggested that one of the reasons people read detective fiction is because of indoctrination; I’m still not prepared to
clue-simpsons-edition-580x410define that term, it might take quite a long blog post. Suffice it to say here that my idea of indoctrination means that the basic elements of detective fiction are used by writers as a vehicle to carry information about society in an entertaining way. Golden Age detective fiction carried less about society and more about committing a crime in a clever way; modern crime fiction can very nearly ignore the crime and focus on characterization and milieu.

650x650_0684b4dbc9c1a09983731913dd49f37c1c10bc3de428b2e562b76039What I see suggested here with these various board games is that the basic structure of a murder mystery — the death of Mr. Boddy, a faceless and personality-free victim, and the attempt to solve the who/what/where questions surround his death — is now so familiar to consumers of fiction that it is essentially a cliche that requires no explanation. The
174096_s0branded characters from other franchises are superimposed upon the basic plot of who killed Mr. Boddy, providing some amusement for children who were bored with Miss Scarlett and Professor Plum. Alternatively there are people who collect everything stamped with, say, the Firefly brand, whether it’s an edition of Clue or a stamped metal lunchbox or a swizzle stick, and thus those brands gain some small extension. And Clue/Cluedo here is the carrier wave that carries the superimposed brand.

ff_cl_flatbt_web_0What I’m moving towards is trying to explain why people like me and my readers still find the structure of mystery fiction entertaining. After all, let’s face it, it’s exactly the same plot over and over and over again. Mr. Boddy gets killed, various people could be guilty, someone investigates and figures out who is guilty, that person is punished. We
81gtzlei-l-_sl1500_know what’s going to happen with an inevitability that approaches 100% (just as we know that at the end of a Harlequin romance that the male and female will become a couple). I’m suggesting that Golden Age detective fiction, and particularly the Humdrum school, are no longer viable precisely because they contain mostly plot and little or no characterization; GAD that contains
movie-edition-prototype-covinformation about the social backdrop against which such crimes are committed is considered “better” when it contains more such information. (I’m thinking here of Dorothy L. Sayers; I don’t enjoy her work as much as others do, but I recognize that a novel like Gaudy Night with no murder and a huge romantic subplot was groundbreaking.) I admit that “all plot no character no milieu” detective fiction was occasionally fascinating in its day — people still know Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? — but when it comes to the less well written outputs of a Farjeon or a Rhode, the mystery plot is like a carrier wave for dead air. Half of John Rhode’s oeuvre is like trying to work the same three elementary-level Sudoku puzzles over and over again, against a background of snobbery, racism, and social elitism, and no one will ever manage to bring that back successfully to the market today. As Julian Symons so accurately notes in Bloody Murder, those pure-puzzle exercises really died with the brief hegemony of the dossier novel.

ptruca1-11966168dtAnd what does an edition of “SpongeBob SquarePants Clue Jr.” tell us about the social backdrop? Merely that, if you’ll pardon my saying so, some people will buy anything. I suspect that quite a bit of the market for such things is people investing in “collectibles” towards a projected coup on eBay 20 years from now … or adults buying toys for children without any idea at all about the semiotic overtones of having a “Family Guy” Clue game, because they have no idea of the social milieu that produced Clue in the first place.  Those ideas are also interesting to me as a student of branding, but I don’t find them particularly pleasant to contemplate (the first is venial and the second is ignorance).  It makes me want to dig out my 30-year-old version of Clue that merely has Mrs. Peacock and Colonel Mustard instead of Marge Simpson and Sheldon Cooper and have the pure Clue experience!

 

 

 

Cards on the fable: Mysteries written by bridge players

acedeathcardfrontI’m a bridge player and a mystery reader, and to me it doesn’t seem odd that there should be a natural affinity between playing serious bridge and appreciating a well-written mystery. (And doing difficult crosswords, but that’s another article.) Both require similar skill sets; the ability to notice small clues, draw inferences from them and form a theory that leads to a conclusion. Yes, really, playing bridge is like that if you’ve done it a long time. “Hmm, my left-hand opponent didn’t even twitch when I played the queen of diamonds, so I deduce his partner has that particular king. Therefore Lefty is more likely to have the spade king, and I’m going to finesse him for it.” That’s the same kind of thought pattern that solves fictional mysteries. There’s a similar pleasure in both milieus; the “Aha!” response to solving a problem can be very enjoyable.

4912745286_8d10008dd8Contract bridge was in its infancy during the Golden Age of Detection, of course, since it was invented in 1929. But immediately upon its introduction into polite society, contract bridge became extremely popular among writers of detective fiction and hence among their characters. How often, for instance, do an ill-assorted set of houseguests in a country-house mystery stand up from quarrelling at the dinner table to play bridge for a few hours, with people taking their turn as dummy and wandering in and out of Sir Cedric’s library accompanied by an astonishing variety of weapons and motives? Agatha Christie was a good social bridge player, or at least to my mind she knew enough about it to know the vagaries of how different people keep score, and what happens when you bid and make a lucky grand slam. Cards on the Table is where she has most to say about bridge, but there are many other mentions.

james_bond_03_moonrakerIn fact a number of fairly well known writers (both of mysteries and general fiction) were bridge players to greater or lesser degree, either known to us biographically or merely by things they say in their books. Somerset Maugham, for instance, was a bridge fiend and an excellent player; to a lesser degree, but apparently very highly skilled, was Edmund Crispin (Bruce Montgomery). Philip MacDonald is said to have been an enthusiastic player. Ian Fleming thought so much of bridge that he inserted a well-known bridge problem into one of his James Bond novels (the “Culbertson hand” in Moonraker, where one player has the majority of
34549face cards yet cannot take a single trick). A couple of mystery writers have set a book against a background of the game; Georgette Heyer‘s Duplicate Death (1951) (discussed in detail by me here) is better known than Anne Archer‘s 1931 Murder at Bridge but both take place at a large card party. And well-known Sherlockian pastiche writer Frank Thomas wrote two elementary (sorry) textbooks on contract bridge using Holmes and Watson as a bridge partnership. They’re actually good textbooks for a beginner.

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Omar Sharif at the table

Writers as a category, though, have not produced any great bridge players, it seems. Politics (Dwight Eisenhower and Deng Xiaoping), business (Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) and cinema (Omar Sharif, a top-ranked player who has represented three countries in international competition, and Chico Marx) have all generated great bridge players. But although certainly there are good writers who are good bridge players, no one appears to have reached the top rank of bridge players after achieving success in writing.

btmThe other way of going about it is to start as a bridge expert and write a great mystery. And believe me, folks, that’s never happened. I’m not sure why it is, but expert bridge players seem to have the writing equivalent of a tin ear when it comes to generating detective fiction or indeed any kind of fiction at all. Matthew Granovetter is a well-known American bridge player now living in Italy, and has written many interesting bridge texts and columns, but his three bridge mysteries have been ghastly. GHASTLY. I discuss his 1989 novel I Shot My Bridge Partner here; suffice it to say it made my list of “Mysteries to die before you read”.  There are many others equally awful, now that self-publishing is more common, even more of them, and I’m not sure why. Is it that bridge players think that mysteries are a kind of formula fiction, where you flesh out the activities of a game of Cluedo and meanwhile throw in a bunch of backstage information about bridge tournaments? I’ve seen that a number of times and it never works. I’ve talked before about how minority groups find it useful to use a mystery as a way of telling a story set in their particular milieu, in what I call the “information mystery” format. But those information mysteries have some “guts” to them because the minority stories are fresh and important and dramatic. The maximum stakes of winning or losing a bridge tournament were pretty much exhausted in that antique variety of film, the college football movie of the 1930s, and the two plot threads seem impossible to balance in intensity. Ah well.

41R4aESvkYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Being as obsessive as I am about reading all the mysteries, of course over the years I’ve tracked down dozens of mysteries about bridge written by bridge players. Unfortunately there are no really good ones. In fact the more famous the bridge player the more horrible the mystery, it seems. Terrence Reese and Jeremy Flint are two very famous bridge players who both competed for England at the highest international level, but their 1979 bridge/mystery/thriller novel, Trick 13, is tooth-grindingly painful to read. Reese was well known to be incredibly focused at the bridge table (there’s a famous story about his friends hiring a woman to walk nude around the table while he was playing a hand, and he didn’t notice) and wrote dozens of bridge textbooks; this novel reads as though it was written by someone who had been told how humans tend to act but who had never actually met any. Except for the parts where a woman is spanked with a hairbrush, which are regrettably salacious and smack of someone’s personal knowledge. Ugh.

268678Don Von Elsner was a very good bridge player and it may well have been that he would have found success as a mystery writer if he’d found a way to focus on the puzzle mystery. He had most of what he needed; a sense of how to sprinkle humour through his plots, an understanding that you had to tell a story before you gave bridge lectures, and the ability to occasionally create a reasonably good character.  Unfortunately in the early 60s when he was writing, what publishers wanted was spy novels, so he wrote spy novels with a bridge background about the adventures of one Jake Winkman: bridge player, low-level spy, and enthusiastic heterosexual. He achieved publication in mass-market paperback by a major publisher, so someone was reading these back in the 60s, but they don’t stand up well. The books focus more on sex than violence and the spying is minimal. (One of his plots, about a Commie code being transmitted via the spot cards in newspaper bridge hands, is just ludicrous.)

353927812Dorothy Rice Sims certainly stands out in the history of bridge, although unfortunately not especially for her contribution to mystery writing. Mrs. Sims may indeed have become famous to bridge players originally because of her marriage to a national bridge champion, P. Hal Sims, and their subsequent winning of the second national mixed-pair championship in the US (and then their shared participation in a very important public bridge competition). But her fascinating biography — read the bare bones of it here in Wikipedia — includes the invention of an entire area of bridge theory, that of the “psychic” bid. She played literally at the dawn of bridge when no one really knew what they were doing, but everyone was anxious to discern what the best “rules” for bidding and play were; except Mrs. Sims. Her philosophy was literally to make things up on the spur of the moment (she wrote a book called How to Live on a Hunch, or, the Art of Psychic Living) and her ground-breaking book, Psychic Bidding, was published after her multiple championships. The next year she collaborated on 1932’s Fog, a thriller taking place aboard an ocean liner, with experienced thriller writer Valentine Williams; I don’t think it’s going too far overboard to suggest that Mr. Williams did most of the heavy lifting. The book is interesting; I’m hampered by not having a copy at hand to refresh my memory, but I recall thinking it was at least competent and enjoyable reading.

2595722This brings me finally to the most successful writer of mysteries and writer on bridge, S. K. (Skid) Simon. Skid Simon collaborated with Caryl Brahms, a newspaper writer and ballet columnist, on the first of eleven comic novels in 1937, A Bullet in the Ballet. This novel immediately catapulted them to the front rank of a writing style which they pioneered, the madcap mystery — Julian Symons would have categorized them as Farceurs. A murder takes place in the eccentric ranks of the ballet company of Vladimir Stroganoff, a zany Russian-born impresario, and Inspector Quill of Scotland Yard must untangle financial, political, and unusual sexual motives before solving the crime. The book was a best-seller in the UK in its year (partly because it was unusually frank about the sexual preferences of certain of the ballet dancers) and generated a career for the pair writing comedic takes on various historical situations before Simon’s untimely death at age 40. I’ve never cared for this particular four-volume series about Quill and Stroganoff, because they seem a little overwrought to me, but they certainly have their adherents.

Skid Simon, though, is much better known to the bridge world than the mystery one; he was one of a small group who created the British-born bridge bidding system known as Acol. I’m not sure how to describe the magnitude of this achievement; it was a revolutionary thing in its day and created the foundation for decades of competition at the highest levels of international play, including the foundations of the careers of Terence Reece and Jeremy Flint.  Simon also wrote a brilliant bridge textbook in 1945, Why You Lose At Bridge, that is still useful today; it focuses on the psychology of bridge players and how they learn what they know about bridge. And it does so in a very amusing way; Simon invents humans like the garrulous Mrs. Guggenheim to take the place of the faceless Easts and Norths that populate many bridge texts.  His text will last a long time; it even has utility for games other than bridge.

41KMA5WMC6LAnd I have to say, in terms of a mystery with bridge in it, the Brahms/Simon collaborations are not on the map; there’s literally no bridge at all. So if you’re looking for a murder mystery that is set against a background of duplicate bridge, I have nothing to offer that I think you’ll really enjoy, I’m sad to say. If you want to read a mystery that has bridge in it that isn’t by a professional player, I recommend the works of Susan Moody about bridge teacher Cassandra Swann; there is a nice balance between bridge and mystery, Susan Moody has a great sense of humour, and she can actually write — she knows how to structure a book to make it flow, without being predictable. Okay, it’s a bit hard to imagine why a bridge teacher keeps getting involved in murders but I personally have been able to suspend my disbelief; I wish she’d write a few more.

Please, please, do not write and tell me about your cousin’s former bridge partner in rural Wisconsin who self-published a bridge mystery. I’ve read a couple of those, perhaps even that specific one, and trust me — I am doing the authors a favour by not reviewing them. So far the field of self-published bridge mysteries has been marked by a uniform awfulness, in my experience, and the experience of shooting those particular fish in that small barrel is not one I relish. Yes, it is impressive to have mastered the strip squeeze; I haven’t managed it. The place for that sort of anecdote is half-time break at a tournament, not grinding the action of a murder mystery to a complete dead stop while you explain your brilliance for ten pages. And, generally speaking, if one wants to write a murder mystery it helps to have read a couple first. Don’t whip out the unreliable narrator gambit or the long-lost twin brother as if I’ve been living under a rock for fifty well-read years. I went through three or four of these no-hit wonders a few years back and until someone writes the breakout novel, you can safely avoid everything that’s not from a major publisher.

1081529Similarly, I am absolutely not interested in any of the handful of cozy bridge mysteries in various series, some of which I’ve also read. On The Slam by Honor Hartman about the little old widow (#1 in a series!) who decides to learn bridge until an unpleasant neighbour is murdered at the table will stand for all of them, as far as I’m concerned. It might possibly be of use if you were having trouble understanding some of the most basic principles of bridge, since it handles them lightly and clearly and for the most part leaves them alone. The mystery itself might trouble a bright fourteen-year-old to solve before the police do; you will not be unduly strained. I gave this book to a dear friend who was very elderly at the time, and in roughly the same situation.  She returned it to me almost immediately with a withering glance, saying, “What PAP.” I have to agree. Generally, any book whose cover proclaims “Bridge tips included!” is suggesting a paucity of attention to the mystery in the process.  And all the Goodreads comments that suggest the positive virtue that you don’t actually have to know anything about bridge to read this book — are missing the point. That’s a bug, not a feature. The book should make you want to learn, not be pleased that you don’t know how.

If you are a bridge player who wants to read a mystery, I suggest that you either go with Susan Moody or avoid the topic of bridge entirely as a basis for a mystery. And if you want to know how to play a better game of bridge, I emphatically recommend S. J. Simon’s Why You Lose at Bridge.

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.

death-diamond-healy-pendleton

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.

Whodunnit? (Season 1, 2013)

Whodunnit? (Season 1, 2013)

Colonel Mustard in the Kitchen with the Trained Cougar and the Cyanide

35118Concept:  Wikipedia describes this as “a murder mystery reality competition television series”.  Somewhere in Beverly Hills is a place called Rue Manor, staffed by a butler — “Giles”, played by Gildart Jackson, who is the series’ host — and two silent maids.  A group of people is invited to Rue Manor and soon learns that they cannot leave; one among them is a killer and will continue to kill them, week by week, until there is a single winner who will earn US$250,000.

The concept that underlies the program’s structure is quite complex and I have to say that Wikipedia has done a good job of describing it in demented-fanboi-level exactitude at this link; go there if you want to know everything. I’ll try and give you the bare bones of it. At the beginning of each episode, one of the contestants is “murdered”. (S/he appears in corpse makeup at the very end to reassure credulous viewers as to their still-alive status.) The other contestants are offered the chance to investigate a single area of a number related to the crime — frequently, the last known whereabouts, the crime scene, and the morgue. There are things at each location to be learned and there are no rules about whom you tell what; some cooperate, some do not. (Teams soon formed.) After that segment there is a time to reflect, then a sort of “riddle contest” that will provide valuable and unique information to its winner. During the riddle contest, people race around the house chasing a line of clues. When someone finds the crucial clue at the end of the line, a bell rings and the contest is over.

Then there’s a period where the contestants can interact and, should they so desire, share information. Soon afterwards, the contestants are required to deliver a monologue into the camera that outlines their theory of how the murder took place.  Theoretically this serves as their entry in the competition to remain in the house; in actual fact this is accomplished off-camera by a written examination that allows a more just assessment of correctness.  Once this is done, the contestants have dinner. During dinner, Giles the butler announces the complete solution in detail and then announces that one person has won for the week, and is therefore spared the murderer’s attention. Everyone else has an envelope containing a card. Most cards have the word “Spared”.  At least two cards have the word “Scared”; one of those people is about to be murdered.  It is understood that they have achieved the lowest scores on the exam, although they don’t explain it like that.

At the very end of the program, we see a brief excerpt that shows a contestant being “murdered” (the one with the lowest score, apparently). This material forms the first portion of next week’s episode.

The numbers of contestants decrease each week, “murder” by “murder”, until the winner and murderer are revealed in the season finale.  As this is being written, the Season 1 finale has not yet been broadcast; it’s due this evening.

Author: Anthony Zuiker, executive producer, who is also responsible for the CSI empire. I expect there are people employed as writers, and very talented ones too; the murder plots are complicated and subtle. However, they are not made a big deal of. It is clear that Zuiker has marshalled the considerable talents of the people who create the forensic exhibits for his programmes.

Other Data:  Premiered June 23, 2013, on the CBS network in the United States; broadcast once weekly since. At the precise moment of writing this piece, the finale episode has not yet been broadcast.

About this program:

cast-whodunnit-550-abc

Note: This essay now reveals the solution to Whodunnit?, Season 1, which had actually not yet been broadcast at the time of writing. It also hints at the solution to an old Agatha Christie novel/film, Ten Little Indians aka And Then There Were None. Consider yourself warned.

My favourite television programme that I can think of is The Mole, especially the first two seasons in the United States hosted by Anderson Cooper. I don’t know how it happened, but The Mole‘s concept for a reality game show totally works. It’s satisfying, intellectually challenging, psychologically interesting — this is the pinnacle to which games like Survivor and Big Brother should aspire.

When I first heard about Whodunnit?, I thought it had potential to be a new Mole. I assured myself early on that it was not a remake of an eponymous poorly-done 80s programme from Great Britain that had actors enacting a stupid mystery story and C-listers trying to solve the crime in a hokey, jokey way. The idea that one of the contestants was secretly the murderer made me think that there was a possibility that this could be a mystery-themed Mole, and that had me wriggling with anticipation.  Sadly, it fails to live up to this standard by a considerable degree, at least thus far.

The problem is that there is no real way to decide who the murderer is based on evidence with which the audience is provided. We haven’t yet seen the finale, so it may be that there is evidence I simply haven’t seen, but I’ve given each episode at least two screenings and there is just nothing there.  We aren’t given any information about what the contestants are doing at the time of the murders (I think we are meant to assume that they are locked in their bedrooms) and while we are occasionally shown a fuzzy shot of a black-clad, black-gloved figure executing various murder-related deeds, it’s pretty obvious that this is a stand-in. The size and build of the individual keeps changing. In fact, there is nothing whatever available as a clue to the murderer’s identity. It’s like the murderer has been selected at random and may not even be aware that they ARE the murderer, if you know what I mean. This is the way it works in Cluedo; it’s always a surprise to find that your card is in the centre envelope. Whichever contestant is the murderer, they don’t have to DO anything. She doesn’t have to disguise her activities or her person, he doesn’t have to sneak around.

Most importantly, it’s perfectly obvious that all the murders are being scripted by professionals. I had thought that it would be easy to tell that some of the contestants were simply too dim to be able to come up with the murderous schemes, but it simply doesn’t matter. One of the murders has the victim going into the kitchen to cook his steak. As he places the steak into a frying pan on the stove, he steps on a pressure plate which releases a cougar from a hidden compartment in the kitchen; the real cause of death, however, is a spray of cyanide gas released from the interior of the stove from a hidden mechanism. Now, think about it. The murderer has to have excellent engineering skills in order to rig the mechanism in the stove and attach the hidden compartment to the pressure plate. Also, I’m not exactly sure where I’d get a cougar, but if I were doing so in the furtherance of a murder scheme, I’d have to find a way to acquire one without leaving a trail to my identity; darn near impossible.  It’s not like there’s a website called Cougars R Us or anything that will cheerfully take your MasterCard number and deliver a cougar by FedEx. Indeed, it’s pretty much impossible for any of the contestants to both invent these fantastic plots and to carry them out without the resources of, say, professional mystery writers and the production team that is responsible for CSI. It’s fairly clear that Melina, a 29-year-old flight attendant from Chicago, is not capable of wiring a tank of gaseous cyanide into the internal workings of an oven or of controlling a live, angry cougar into a small secret compartment without screaming her face off; Melina is unlikely to be able to spell “cyanide” on the first try. Yet we have to believe that it’s possible that she could be the murderer.

In fact, there are many problems here with coherence, intellectual consistency, and logic. We are told that Giles the butler has been co-opted into helping the murderer by threat of death, and the butler is shown to be wearing an ankle bracelet that somehow prevents him from merely leaving the estate. And I gather that that’s how things like cougars make it into the house and are inserted into secret compartments in the kitchen; the butler did it, or allows it to be done. What we are NOT told is why Giles feels he has to cooperate with the murderer’s plans; surely he could find a way to lead the contestants to safety, if he wanted to do that. (Giles has an ankle bracelet that does … something … but the contestants are not so encumbered.) The maids are apparently not allowed to speak or even have facial expressions. Why don’t they leave? Are they confederates? Spear-carriers? Idiots? Speaking of idiots, why don’t the contestants together storm the gates and escape nearly-certain death?

Because this is all a polite fiction, of course. The contestants know that they are not in danger of actual death, and they want to earn a quarter of a million dollars. The problem is that the production tries to have it both ways. They want the contestants to seem to be afraid of “death”, and the contestants obligingly display fear when they’re about to receive cards that may indicate their imminent “death”. But if they truly were in danger of death, they’d be trying to escape. So there is a kind of cognitive dissonance here. Everyone is playing along with a flawed premise. The producers are winking at the audience, and that reduces it to the emotional level of a game of Cluedo.

So it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm with respect to who the murderer is; literally, it could be any of the remaining contestants, and the producers would simply announce that the guilty party had done all these things and we’d have to buy into it. The only place to insert a fingernail into the fabric of the “plot” and potentially unravel it is by noting which contestants are selected to be “scared”.  And opinion is sensibly split. One contestant, Cris, has never been “scared”. Does that mean she’s the murderer? Or just that she’s pretty good at figuring out the mystery plots? Other contestants have been scared and survived. Since the murderer would obviously not have been killed — perhaps (see below) — this means that some contestants think that their selection for murderer has nominated herself for death without any expectation that this would happen. A kind of double-bluff. So, ultimately, there’s just nothing that the viewer can use to figure out whodunnit. And that really destroys the reason for following along with this, which to me is sad. I had high hopes for this.

My proposed solution: I actually have two solutions to offer. One is merely my best guess as to who the murderer is, and the other is what I would have done if *I* were writing this. I very much doubt that my second solution is even remotely correct, but I’ll offer it for your amusement.

My first solution is that Cris is the murderer (and that Kam will eventually win). There’s nothing I can really point to that indicates that this is the solution; there are no clues, nothing concrete or physical. It’s just a “feeling”. Cris didn’t seem as nervous as she might have done about being “scared”, and she never has been. And that’s the only conclusion I can come to after spending hours and hours watching this program — and that’s kind of depressing. I wanted more to chew on.

My own solution is probably against the “rules” of the program. It came to me earlier this week when I was watching the second-to-last episode and there was a scene by a pool table. Earlier in the week, I had pooh-poohed a suggestion by a friend who is not expert in the ways of detective fiction but who has a wonderful grasp of theatrics. (And here I have to name-check Neil Boucher; thanks for starting my brain rolling!) He’d mentioned casually, “Is it possible they’re doing some kind of Ten Little Indians thing here? Where one of the characters fakes his own death?”  “Naaaaaah,” I said. But then a couple of the suspects were playing pool, and it took me back to the various filmed versions of the Agatha Christie classic that have the climax taking place around a pool table. “Could it be?” I thought.  “How would they do that?”

gildart-jackson-300So here’s my proposal — this is what I would have done if I didn’t care whether the program would be renewed and I just wanted to prove that I could run a double bluff on the audience. There was a single death that didn’t end up with the victim’s corpse available on a slab in the “morgue” for up-close identification; Adrianna, whose body ended up in a tree after her golf cart exploded. During that episode, a closed-circuit television camera shows Adrianna leaving the house and speeding away in the golf cart towards freedom, then kaboom! and her corpse ends up in the crook of a tree. Deliberately difficult to examine carefully, I think. But this is exactly the same bluff that was run by the guilty party in Ten Little Indians; pretend to be dead and continue to kill people in the house. Anyway, regardless of what I took in at the time, I suggest it’s possible to have shown the audience material that would make everyone think that Adrianna was dead but that she was still alive. The CCTV has been faked, Adrianna was holding her breath, or introduced a body double — one of the maids? I wasn’t keeping careful track of them early on in the series — or whatever.

Cut to the second-last episode. After the latest mystery has been solved, the four remaining contestants are told by Giles to enter a limousine, which is then driven off the grounds and down PCH. Importantly, at least to me, the four contestants are in the vehicle together the entire time. Suddenly the car slews around and heads for home in a hurry. The contestants enter Rue Manor and see a gigantic TV screen in a main room that wasn’t there when they left. The TV reveals that Giles is somewhere in the house, tied to a chair, and surrounded by dozens of guns pointed at him with strings attached to their triggers. Then the room fills with smoke and Melina, one of the two contestants who has already received a “scare” card, vanishes. And the episode ends without revealing in the usual way that Melina has been murdered.

Now, there are two things that could have happened while the contestants were in the limousine. The first is that the murderer’s henchmen/confederates captured Giles and tied him up. The second is that Adrianna could have done so, after emerging from concealment in the house. The point is, though, that if what we have seen on camera is true, then none of the four remaining contestants can be the person who tied up Giles. I think the cheezy way to explain this is that the killer had henchmen. I think the interesting way to explain it is that Adrianna is the killer.

Melina, the vanished contestant, had been having a hard time in the house. She had had an alliance with a group of other contestants who were all killed, one by one, leaving the field to the three other players who had been playing as a group (Kam, Lindsey and Cris). Melina was desperate to exploit any finger-hold that would give her enough information to survive the next elimination; she would have made any kind of deal with anyone to survive.  I’ll suggest that the simplest solution is that Melina has been abducted and later killed under cover of the smoke, possibly with her own complicity, and that the three remaining contestants will solve her murder this evening. And, as I suggest, reveal Cris as the killer and Kam as the winner.

But if you  think back to Ten Little Indians — remember the character of the doctor? He was enlisted by the murderer to add verisimilitude to his supposed death, and then vanishes. Near the end of the book, his body is found on the beach and he’s been dead for days, but in the meantime other characters have been ascribing all kinds of nefarious activities to him. It made me think of Melina. Has Melina had some kind of deal with Adrianna all the time? Has she been helping Adrianna by performing little tasks that would be too dangerous for Adrianna to accomplish, for fear of being seen?  And has she now been gotten rid of under cover of the smoke? Perhaps we will receive plenty of hints that Melina is alive and trying to kill the other three players, and then her hours-old corpse will be found, in parallel to Ten Little Indians.

There was an interesting shot in the “next week’s show” snippets shown at the end of the penultimate program that showed a long line of “corpses” on the staircase; apparently all the “deceased” competitors have come to visit. I don’t have access to a recording so I’m unable to check to see if Adrianna was among them; to be honest, I don’t really care. I don’t think enough of this program to entertain the idea that my solution is correct; it’s way too smart for the level they’ve been presenting so far, it’s not really fair in terms of the competition (it would almost mean that all the “competitors” are really hired as actors) and it’s not what the lumpenproletariat has been expecting, hence they will be frustrated and angry should their simple expectations be thwarted. This is, after all, on ABC — not BBC2.

No, I think they’ll reveal that Cris is the killer and any and all inconsistencies will be explained away or ignored, which is kind of sad but predictable. I think I had a fun idea that, had it been true, would have been all over the internet for a week or so, as furious fans moaned and bitched about how they’d been cheated. (Much like I personally felt after the 2009 fiasco called Harper’s Island, where the most ridiculously impossible suspect turned out to be the murderer, for a reason that was pulled out of an unimaginative screenwriter’s ass.) And that will appeal to the lowest common denominator, who will tell their families as they watch that they knew all the time that that bitch Cris was the killer. Or whatever.

I’ve been unable to determine whether there will be a second season of this; my most reliable source, which is not reliable at all, suggests that it hasn’t actually been cancelled, which is far from confirming that it’s been picked up. I suspect it won’t be, because the game mechanism is too seriously flawed (although in an unobvious way). It needs some sort of rejigging and for the life of me, I cannot think of how to make this game work properly. Essentially, we have to have some way of seeing the contestants during the period of time when, say, the cougar is being introduced to the kitchen; did X or Y have time to slip away and lead in the cougar? And we also have to have a really clear idea of the boundaries of the game. I’m bothered by the idea, for instance, that the maids could be complicit in the crimes; we simply don’t know. The series has been skewed by the need to build it around the resources that produce CSI; there’s a lot of lingering camera work on what admittedly are realistic depictions of what would happen if you hooked a tank of liquid nitrogen into a hot tub and added a timer. But that’s not what we need to see; we need to see where Melina is an hour or so before the tank explodes. And all that expensive reconstruction is wasted. It seems likely, though, that if Mr. Zuiker realizes that the CSI resources are not useful in the context, he may well decline to produce another season.

I will look forward to tonight’s program, though, with great anticipation.  I will revisit this in a day or so to bring you all up to date on what actually did happen, but I don’t intend to edit my predictions.

Postscript, after the final episode was aired: I was correct, in a sense.  Cris was the killer, Kam was the winner.  And I believe I am also correct that this solution is not very interesting, except perhaps for Kam, who took home $250K. There’s a set of interlocked puzzles that the contestants have to solve in order to get to the endgame; nothing to do with their knowledge of the killer, though. Melina is murdered, then Lindsey. Everyone’s alive at the end and shakes hands with Kam as he leaves with a briefcase full of money.  Strangely, I wish I actually had been disappointed; I would have enjoyed being fooled.  I certainly think my solution is more interesting. And I definitely think this game needs a few tweaks if and when they do season 2.

Post-postscript, a few days later: I note upon a review of the final episode that there is a third option with respect to how Giles ends up tied to a chair surrounded by guns.  He said he tied himself up which, given what we saw, is pretty much ridiculous.  He says later that he managed to wriggle free just in time to participate in the segment where the final three contestants run around the house solving puzzles, including one which asks them to decide whether or not Giles is the murderer.

Now, think about it.  He ties himself up because he has been told to, surrounded by a dozen guns pointed at his head with wires or cords attached to their triggers. This is not something you do idly; he obviously expects some kind of fatal punishment should he not carry out instructions. This is also not something I think is actually physically possible, but let that lie unexamined; my belief has been officially suspended on this point.  So for no apparent reason, he then decides to wriggle out of his bonds and participate.  Why didn’t he just forego the nonsense and not tie himself up?

As noted above, the murderer is absolutely not in the house at this time — all four remaining contestants are speeding around PCH in a limousine. There’s no one watching to see that Giles ties himself up, except of course when the four return, they see Giles on TV. But it’s at this point that it’s clear that the producers just don’t care about any kind of intellectual rigour; they just want to make some fun visual images.

Is this bad? Hard to say conclusively. We’re not talking Jeopardy here, with respect to intellectual rigour; Jeopardy tries very hard to get its details right. But at the same time this cannot be logic-free entertainment like, say, the average science-fiction piece. Puzzle mysteries are focused on details and logic and internal consistency because they have to be.  “If you were under observation by two witnesses at 8:34, then you can’t have committed the murder” type of thing. Whodunnit? tosses that requirement aside in small important details, and it’s just trying to entertain. As a friend remarked, it looked like they were having fun making it. I suppose I’m just grumpy because I was presented with something that looked like a puzzle mystery but that wasn’t worth the effort to try to follow along; rather like washing your hands with gloves on. The form is there but the function is useless.

Notes For the Collector:

This is currently being broadcast by ABC on Sunday evenings, to finish tonight. It’s available in my area in video-on-demand format, for free from my cable television service provider, but not for long. I don’t know if there are any plans to issue this in a boxed format; this occasionally happens. It’s also unclear at the time of writing whether this will be renewed for a second season. Probably a number of people have recorded it and you’ll be able to borrow a copy for viewing if you ask around hard enough.

The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938) (#005 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #005

$(KGrHqZ,!oQF!K6tt)S5BQK)+QwFlQ~~60_35The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938)

Author:

S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) was, in the late 1920s, one of the best-selling authors in the United States.  In 1939, he died “of a heart condition exacerbated by excessive drinking”. He published 12 mysteries between 1926 and 1939 that featured Philo Vance, a foppish aesthete and amateur detective, and was also a well-known writer on such topics as Nietzsche and aesthetic philosophy. Many of his books were made into films and he also wrote a dozen mystery “short subjects” for the screen. His best-known biography, Alias S. S. Van Dine, says that he got started writing mysteries when he was confined to bed recovering from a cocaine addiction.  His life and work are interesting and complex, and summarizing it in a single paragraph cannot do it justice: I recommend the biography, and the Wikipedia entry for both Van Dine and Philo Vance.

Publication Data:

This is the second-last of 12 novels, from 1938, and was the last novel published in the author’s lifetime. The Winter Murder Case, released posthumously, was conceived as the basis of a movie featuring Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie.  It seems unarguable that this book was conceived and produced with a similar motive in mind, as a vehicle for popular radio star Gracie Allen, who was known for publicity stunts.  The film version was released in 1939, a year before Allen ran for president of the U.S. and received 42,000 votes.

The first edition is from Scribner’s in 1938; first UK is from Cassell, also in 1938.  First paper is the edition you see above, released as The Smell of Murder by Bantam, 1950, #756. To my knowledge this is the only time that a Van Dine novel was issued under any other title. (Philo Vance books follow a pattern of titles: The (six-letter word) Murder Case, and I gather that originally this title was meant to be merely Gracie.)  Other editions exist, including a paperback from Otto Penzler’s line, and the entire text of the novel is online from Project Gutenberg.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Philo Vance and his associate S. S. Van Dine, chronicler of his exploits, are assisting District Attorney Markham with a case focused on gangster Benny the Buzzard. Vance and Van Dine are out in the country when they encounter a young woman (Gracie Allen) employed by a perfume company, the In-O-Scent Corporation, as assistant to George Burns, here represented as a perfumier. Ms. Allen is what would today be known as a ditz; her conversation is replete with non-sequiturs and she is surrounded by a general air of goofiness. Vance apparently finds her charming. The action soon focuses on a nightclub called the Domdaniel where not only do a group of gangsters hang out — I almost called them a coterie, which gives you an idea of how Van Dine’s language rubs off on the reader — but Gracie’s brother is employed as a dishwasher. (It is not likely that the brother’s character in the book is meant to have anything to do with Allen’s real-life brother, but it is worth noting that in 1932/33, the Burns/Allen radio appearances contained a year-long search for Allen’s supposedly missing brother as a publicity stunt.  Contemporary audiences would be likely to have this more at the top of their minds some five or six years later.)

The activities of the gangsters, escaped convicts, etc., are focused on the Domdaniel nightclub and the first dead body is identified as that of Allen’s brother. There is a character involved with the gangsters, a Mr. Owen, who stands out because of his anguished and rather Nietzschean philosophy (the author’s first success was with a volume called What Nietzsche Taught, and the action grinds to a halt whenever Owen and Vance begin to chat) and the rather muddled plot concerns a secret entrance to the nightclub’s office, an escaped convict, and various manoeuvrings concerning a poisoned cigarette that smells of “jonquille”.

After some tedious gangster-focused material (the author apparently knew nothing about real gangsters) that is periodically interrupted by Gracie Allen saying cute and silly things, Vance solves the crime and arranges that an associated reward should go to Allen; Burns proposes to Allen in the final pages.  Vance also encourages the murderer to commit suicide, a Nietzschean echo of an earlier book, The Bishop Murder Case.

As noted, there is a filmed version of this novel which was released in 1939. Gracie Allen receives first billing over Warren William’s efforts as Philo Vance (referred to by Gracie as “Fido”) and many poor-quality prints exist of this film if you’re interested in seeing it. The film ignores most of the more complex material of the book and instead is a starring vehicle for Gracie, including an opportunity for her to sing a novelty song (“Snug as a Bug in a Rug”) where she runs the first lines of many popular songs together, apparently mistaking the link between tune and lyrics.

tumblr_llemg8HRrr1qceuzao1_500Why is this so awful?

I haven’t got a copy of Alias S. S. Van Dine handy but my recollection is that like many authors who strike it big, the author established spending habits early in his career that required labour to sustain. In 1932/33, for instance, he churned out a dozen short mystery stories that served as the basis for a series of short films (about 20 minutes) starring Donald Meek as Dr. Crabtree, Criminologist. As we progress along his career towards his death in ’39, though, his earning options grew fewer. He was no longer turning out four Philo Vance novels in three years as he did between 1933 and 1935; he released his last “true” Vance novel in 1936, The Kidnap Murder Case, and there were two years before the release of this piece of work.  In fact he was casting about for money, I think. He did have income coming in from filmed versions of his work; again, about one a year. But he had a very expensive penthouse in Manhattan and a dilettante’s lifestyle to support, one not unlike that of Philo Vance.

Part of the reason why his income was decreasing was because his work was, not to put too fine a point on it, getting worse and worse. There is an often-quoted line by Julian Symons in his history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder, which runs “The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case.” And this book is his eleventh.

To the modern eye, frequently, there is little to choose between Philo Vance at his best and worst. Such tricks as having an alibi established by a specially-made phonograph record were inventive in 1927 but vieux jeu today. Certainly, connoisseurs of the locked room mystery appreciate the door-closing mechanism in The Kennel Murder Case as well as the Benson, and there is inventiveness and intelligence behind quite a bit of all of the first six novels. It has been said that The Bishop Murder Case is an early and essential precursor of the modern serial killer novel, but written at a time when the concept of a serial killer did not yet exist.

What is really hard to take, though, is the pompous nitwit who is at the centre of it all, Philo Vance. This is the detective about whom Ogden Nash wrote “Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pance.”  Wikipedia has a full article on him that goes into great detail, but I can find no better commentator than Dashiell Hammett reviewing the first Vance novel:

“This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory; he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong.”

Yes, it’s unfair to judge the mysteries of yesteryear by the standards of today. Yes, literary styles were different then. And yes, mysteries were in their infancy and one cannot expect the same level of sophistication as available to a modern writer who has the inventiveness and trickery of a century upon which to draw. But honestly, Van Dine was not much of a writer. Philo Vance is a ghastly annoyance with whom you must deal if one wants to try one’s hands against his clever plots (or his stupid ones since, for instance, Greene’s murderer is pretty much the only suspect left alive at the end). And judging by the alacrity with which the filmed versions calmed down Vance’s pomposity, I think most people would agree that one reads Van Dine to get past Vance for the intricacy of the solutions.

So we have a trajectory of an author whose best-selling days are behind him and who is scraping around trying to find well-paid work in Hollywood. And we have the beginnings of something that is a much more common and well-developed phenomenon in this day and age — product placement.  And when they collide, this is the result.

445467522The movie industry was just waking up to the possibilities of tie-in materials. At about the same time, Whitman Publishing did a series of novels for young people with names like Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx and Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. Whitman later went on to publish many series familiar to children in the 1950s and 1960s, with cheap pictorial board covers and names like Walt Disney’s Annette and the Mystery at Moonstone Bay; not much in the way of change, merely new faces.

This volume is something quite special, at least I think it is. You’ll note that Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx contains no author’s name upon the jacket; the author was more or less irrelevant to the experience. But a merger of Philo Vance and Gracie Allen is a cross-over perhaps not quite as impressive as, say, Spiderman versus Superman, but an amalgamation of two media platforms nevertheless, and this is unusual for such an early time as 1938. This is not an age where the crossover is common, either by shuffling two icons together into a story or taking a single franchise into a quite different platform. Its examples are unusual and worth noticing.

gracie-allen-murder-case-smUltimately, that’s why this belongs in my Die Before You Read section; it’s a very early example of the crossover novel, and it fails more thoroughly than any other in my recollection. Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island, let’s face it, was a piece of disposable trash aimed at pre-teen girls. It might even be an early example of slash fiction, albeit the authorized version. It doesn’t really matter if the novel had any literary quality because it didn’t need to, and thus its author remained mercifully anonymous. But when you take a well-known intellectual like Willard Huntington Wright and put his writing talents at the service of a radio comedienne, well, you already have a brand mismatch. Vance is known for being smart, Gracie’s known for being dumb. Putting the two together in a single novel is a waste of talent; his fans won’t appreciate her, and vice versa. And all the attempts to try to make it work — don’t work.

And so the book is excruciating. Since everything in the plot has to be engineered to keep Gracie in the scene as much as possible, allowing her to exhibit multiple virtues but giving her absolutely no vices, the plot becomes merely ridiculous. Everything — logic, common sense, characterization, human qualities — is sacrificed to the need to show off Gracie Allen. You’ll notice in the plot outline above, I haven’t really said very much about the plot. That’s mostly because very little of it makes much sense. It’s easy to tell that the writer intended this as the basis of a screenplay (I think of this as a “reverse novelization”) because there aren’t all that many locations used; the Domdaniel nightclub recurs again and again, and other obviously interesting locations like, for instance, George Burns’s perfume factory are ignored because they would be expensive to shoot. For the rest of it, well, there are gangsters, and Van Dine had no ear for how gangsters talk or who they are. They are merely physical descriptions with labels like “chanteuse”, “boss”, “underling”.  And there is a silly murder method based on a poisoned cigarette. And there is Gracie Allen making silly jokes and non-sequiturs, and Vance having a quite unnecessary fondness for her on first sight. Nothing makes sense and nothing rings true.

In short, this is tawdry and meretricious and altogether unfortunate. It really makes one think that, like so many other authors, Van Dine should have quit mysteries before releasing his last few, or perhaps that he should merely have settled for the screenplay income and not released this as a novel also. After his death, his estate felt more free to tamper with the asinine character at the base of all this, and the 1940s brought a considerably more ordinary Vance to prominence in radio for many years.  There was a market for a detective brand named Philo Vance, it just wasn’t the one the character’s creator had much to do with.  But the author was busily ruining his own brand before he died, and it was rehabilitated by others. If modern television is looking for competition for Sherlock Holmes in his various incarnations, this is one brand that could, I believe, be rehabilitated successfully. Just not by doing cross-over stuff with it.

There is a further reason why this volume in particular rather than, say, the 12th in the series (the Sonja Henie vehicle) I have pinpointed for my Die Before You Read series, a specific defect of literary quality unique to this volume.  It’s because of what Colin Watson calls, in Snobbery With Violence, the Silly Ass quality.

Philo Vance and Peter Wimsey and Reggie Fortune and Albert Campion and even Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham all qualify as the Silly Ass detective (but only Vance is American, which tells you something).  Watson describes it as:

“[A] young man in smart clothes, sickly grin and monocle, whose vocabulary was as limited as his means and expectations were supposed to be substantial. He was generally depicted as having difficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him. When making his own laboured but idiotically affable contribution to dialogue, he would … address his companion as ‘old bean’.”

A well-known type in the early history of detective fiction. But two things occurred to me in considering the Silly Ass character type in relation to this particular novel. The first is that, in order to work, the Silly Ass has to be surrounded by characters who are not actually Silly Asses, in order for the Silly Ass’s mannerisms to be more attention-getting.  For every Peter Wimsey there needs to be a Charles Parker against whose backdrop he can glitter.

And the second is that, in every reasonable sense, Gracie Allen has assumed the mantle of the Silly Ass. Read the above quote again with that in mind.  “[D]ifficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him”? Exactly. The Silly Ass was pretty much over when Philo Vance worked it to death, and other comic talents mined its base metal for new alloys.  Like Gracie Allen, who transmogrified it into the Ditzy Young Woman.

But, as I noted in point one — the one thing you need if you have a Silly Ass is a Not-Silly-Ass.  In fact, the one thing you do not need is the modernized version of your own protagonist as Ditzy Young Woman.  There is no staid presence against whom they can play, and so they merely try to out-amuse each other until the piece of fiction is over.  This is not very enjoyable to consider in the abstract, since there is no opportunity for the interrelationship to contribute to any plot structure, and in this concrete case it’s simply boring and silly, like two seven-year-olds shrieking “Look at me! Look at me!”.

If you actually want to read a Philo Vance novel after this, I’d recommend The Bishop Murder Case, which as noted above is actually a proto-serial killer novel at a time when the phrase didn’t exist. The ‘Canary’ Murder Case — yes, there is a single quote mark surrounding the word “Canary” and yes, that is how the book’s title is represented if you’re a purist — is also interesting for its very early puzzle-mystery contributions to the construction of an alibi. And if you want to see one of the films, The Kennel Murder Case is considered the best, but I actually also highly recommend The Bishop Murder Case because Basil Rathbone’s only outing as Philo Vance is not to be missed.

Notes For the Collector:

Abebooks.com has a Very Good copy of the first edition for $500, which seems a bit high to me: other similar copies are listed from $235 to $350, and less crisp copies from around $90 up.  The only copy on Abe of the first paper edition shown at the top of this review is listed at $20.  My own copy is in much better condition than the one shown; I would say it’s VG+ and I might price it for retail sale at $20 to $25.  I always think the variorum title is worth having, especially since Van Dine is so rigorous about naming his books.

Since the text of the novel is freely available for the interested reader, this novel is certainly not scarce. A poor book in a well-known series is often scarce, but this book is also available in print-on-demand format. Unlike most of my Die Before You Read series, various copies of this book might appeal to collectors interested in Burns and Allen, Philo Vance completists, and even collectors of Bantam paperbacks. It’s not easy to find a crisp one of these and although the cover illustration doesn’t appear to be Gracie Allen, this would qualify as a movie tie-in to some collectors.

pic1583568_mdA DVD copy of the film version is available on Amazon for $22 as of this writing; I have never seen it screened on television. I was fascinated to learn that as a tie-in to the tie-in of the filmed version, Milton Bradley released a board game that looks to be a cousin of Clue. I’ve never seen this object in real life and I suspect that if you like this sort of thing, this particular item would be VERY collectible if it was accompanied by the novel and film.

I Shot My Bridge Partner, by Matthew Granovetter (1989) (#002 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #002

I Shot My Bridge Partner, by Matthew Granovetter (1989)

imagesAuthor:

Matthew Granovetter is “a professional bridge player, writer, and teacher, who has won three North American Championship titles”.  

Publication Data:

I have to say that I’m not certain of these publishing details.  As best I can tell, the 1st edition of this was a trade paperback from the eponymous Granovetter Press in 1989; possibly in a jacket, which is unusual.  The edition you see to the left is the second edition, dated 1999, from Master Point Press.  Both publishers specialize in books about bridge (the card game) and generally these are at a level that would be largely incomprehensible to the average home player.

This is the second volume in a series of three mystery novels; this one’s focus is rubber bridge.  (The first volume was based in duplicate bridge and the third in team play.) The protagonist — it’s not correct to call him the detective, he’s more like the stupid Watson/narrator — is also named Matthew Granovetter, but it is impossible that these are meant to be taken as biography.  

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

If I were to say that the victim in this mystery was shot while playing bridge in full view of three other people plus a number of spectators (“kibitzers”, in bridge parlance), but that no one was able to see who fired the shot because all the lights were out at the time, you might think that this was the basis for a clever puzzle mystery not entirely unlike John Dickson Carr. You would, of course, be wrong. Extremely wrong.

This is only a mystery because a character in it gets murdered and no one knows who murdered him. What this really is is a sort of annotated textbook on how to play rubber bridge for money, written by someone who I believe has actually done so.  The book is stuffed with bridge hands and an accompanying discussion of their bidding and play, based physically in a location that actually exists in the real world, the Mayfair Club (whose function is to facilitate the playing of high-stakes rubber bridge, as you can imagine from the context).  The discussion is at a high level, and is quite erudite and intelligent. The mystery content makes Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Machine seem like John Dickson Carr.

The story is told by a young university student whose name is the same as that of the author. I’m being careful to make this distinction because I believe the published antics of this nitwit cannot possibly represent any kind of reality. In fact, I believe if asked, the author would say, “Oh, no, I made it all up to amuse people while they absorbed the bridge lessons.”  The protagonist plays bridge with an assortment of “colourful characters”, one of whom is murdered.  There is a sub-plot  about his educational efforts, another about his efforts to get laid, and a bunch of muddled stuff about a notebook containing observations on bridge games and various people who owe money to each other as a result of bridge games.

In fact, I have to here confess something. This book is so awful, and so defiantly unreadable, that I really have very little idea what it’s about.  It seems to be about nothing much at all, frankly. I have to bow to the writer’s mastery of the deep reasoning that can underlie the playing of rubber bridge; he truly does know what he’s talking about.  What he apparently knows nothing about is the creation of fiction. That being said, I hope you will understand why I cannot give you much a précis of what happens here. First, as I read this book, it came to a grinding halt every few pages to present a bridge hand and its associated discussion. It’s hard to get your mind back in the game; rather like watching a difficult whodunnit TV programme dependent on tiny inferences that’s interrupted by a commercial every five minutes. Second, the characters are so poorly conceived and presented, their antics are so ludicrous and so deliberately manipulated, that I kept putting the book down and silently praying that they would all be hit by Acme anvils dropping from the sky.  These are not even remotely real people and it is impossible to work up any empathy for them regardless of how dire the events of the plot. Third, the story is told in a way that makes it really difficult to follow the plot, because the author keeps jumping backwards and forwards in time — not in the sense of “Twenty years ago, such-and-such happened”, but skipping back and forth almost at random over the period of what seems to be a couple of weeks.  I think.  It’s hard to tell.

Usually it’s part of my reviewing process to give the book a thorough re-reading before starting the review. Here, I started the review when I was about 20 pages into it, thinking, “Oh, well, I sort of remember reading this book when I got it, I’ll just keep flipping through it to find specific things that illustrate my analysis.”  I am ashamed to say that I just could not manage it, and I sincerely apologize. This is execrably, abysmally awful, and I couldn’t manage to read 20 pages at a time without putting the book down.  Although once I got out a deck of cards to play out a hand a few times, because I’m not as skilful as the author at hand analysis.  I suggest that a novel that encourages you to put itself aside has not grasped the concept properly.

I even read the ending a couple of times, trying to identify whodunnit so that I could try to go back and trace the actual plot from the dreadful muck that surrounded it. It will possibly not surprise you to know that this book is so poorly written that it is not absolutely clear who the murderer truly is.  There is a solution which seems acceptable to the police, even though it makes a limited amount of sense. Nothing in this book really makes much sense except the bridge hands. The whole thing is literally unreadable.

One key element of good mysteries is that there is generally a sub-theme that relates to the larger theme, but in a subtle way that is not obvious from the beginning.  For instance, to create something from whole cloth, if the main plot theme is the murder of a plagiarist at a university, and there is what appears to be an unconnected theme about the failure of a restaurant business wherein we meet many of the suspects, in some way the theme of plagiarism must relate to the failure of the restaurant by the end of the novel. Perhaps the restaurant is failing because someone has stolen the recipes from another chef but failed to get the details correct. That’s how the mystery should work.

In this book, there is one tiny piece of good work that gives the reader the faint hope that this relation of sub-themes will actually take place.  For a class assignment, the student protagonist is reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allan Poe, which proves to begin with a few paragraphs about how good whist players (whist, of course, is the precursor to contract bridge, which was not yet invented when Poe wrote) analyze hands based on the psychology of the opponents as well as mathematics and logic. Great stuff! This is precisely what the author is saying is crucial at rubber bridge, and what should inevitably happen is that psychology should prove to be the distinguishing factor in the solution of the mystery. For instance, someone who habitually overbids might commit a rash, impulsive murder. Where this breaks down is that the author apparently has no idea how human beings think or act away from the bridge table, and cannot depict characters in any degree of realism. It’s as though the author said, “Oh, I’ll make this guy like this, that will be interesting,” without stopping to think about how that character might serve to illustrate a theme of the novel. This book could have been written by consulting a copy of “What shall we name the baby?” and, after a silly name has been selected, three dominant character traits are selected from a bag filled with randomized slips of paper. So-and-so is “stingy”, “irascible” and “doesn’t bathe enough”.  Crucially, the author doesn’t make this character play bridge in a “stingy” way, and any idea of thematic relationships is completely beyond his ability. It was, however, nice to find this reference to card-play in Poe, and it’s like a hint of what might have been but could not.

To sum up as best I can: someone is murdered during a bridge game when the lights go out. The characters are unbelievably fake, the plot is ridiculous and chaotic, the writing is muddy and imprecise, and the author does not really understand how mystery novels are supposed to work. It is one of the few mysteries I have ever read where not only did I not care whodunnit, I wanted to go in and kill someone myself — the author.

Why is this so awful?

The history of detective fiction since the 1940s or so has contained a couple of major pathways or channels that are easily recognized by the student or even a frequent reader. One is what I have personally termed the “information mystery”. This is a kind of mystery written by an expert in a field — let’s suggest, at random, glass-blowing. The protagonist will be a glass-blower who has a personal reason to solve a murder that takes place among a group of glass-blowers and their hangers-on. Our protagonist is constantly throwing off little snippets of information about glass-blowing and, almost always, one of these pieces of information is absolutely essential to the solution of the crime. (“Hmm, there was no cadmium powder in the victim’s workshop, but he was blowing a blue vase. Therefore he must have gone next door to Mr. Jones’s workshop to borrow some and …”  You know the kind of thing I mean, although I made this up out of whole cloth.) It could even be stretched to say that many police procedurals are a variety of information mystery — it’s merely that the area of expertise is the actual workings of real police officers. But that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.

Information mysteries can be fascinating, but they can also be both boring and illiterate. Think of Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, which is a simple mystery about a jewel robbery that has been padded to great length by the addition of huge indigestible wads of boring information about campanology (bell-ringing). That’s the boring kind. The illiterate kind is exemplified by a review elsewhere on this site of what purports to be an information mystery about interior decoration, Killed by Clutter by Leslie Caine, whose protagonist asserts that shoji screens come from China (https://noah-stewart.com/2012/11/08/killed-by-clutter-by-leslie-caine/).

The fascinating kind are ones in which the information is true — if one actually would need cadmium powder to blow a blue-coloured vase — but parcelled out in such a way that it’s not coming in great indigestible lumps, like The Nine Tailors. In addition, the reader cannot have the sense that the action grinds to a halt every once in a while for a lecture on how pigment is introduced into molten glass, as it were. The information has to be integrated smoothly into the plot. Also, and this is crucial, the plotting and characterization have to be the equivalent of a non-information mystery.

I once remarked in the context of Margaret Atwood’s first science-fiction novel that she seemed to have ignored the stricture that it was customary before writing one to have actually read a couple first. The problem with the information mystery is that someone in possession of a great deal of information about glass-blowing tends to think that the writing of epic passion or psychological accuracy against a background of glass-blowing is a daunting task, but that anyone smart enough to accumulate a wad of glass-blowing knowledge is certainly smart enough to write a mystery without, you know, actually knowing how.  Because mysteries are “formula fiction”, and anyone can look up that particular formula, or so they seem to believe. This misconception is responsible for a large number of rubbishy self-published mysteries, and a fair number of one-offs for publishers when it proves impossible to think of more than a single mystery plot whose solution depends on an abstruse point about glass-blowing.  (Gillian Farrell’s Alibi for an Actress comes to mind; a great little mystery based on the everyday life of an actress whose follow-up was atrociously unreadable.)

Here’s an important aside. There’s a kind of mystery very closely allied to the information mystery that I call the minority mystery. This is a style of mystery novel whereby the author uses the mystery form to introduce the reader to the workings of a minority group in society. I assert that this form is different, and probably much more important, than the information mystery because it allows minority groups in society to find a voice in fiction. It is no accident that the “lesbian mystery” sub-genre became an important way for lesbians to write about their lives; there’s an entire publishing house, Naiad, that was founded upon the mystery novels of the trail-blazing Katherine V. Forrest about a gay cop. I personally find Walter Mosley just about unreadable, but there is no denying that he and Chester Himes took the “black mystery” and elevated it to the level of literature, while letting people of every skin colour know what it’s like to live in everyday black society in the United States. Someday I’ll write about why The Glory Hole Murders by Tony Fennelly is NOT a minority mystery but a mean-spirited piece of crap, but not today.

Anyway, minority mysteries work differently. Minority mysteries always arise at a time when the publishing world is unwilling to publish mainstream novels based in this minority viewpoint, booksellers uncomfortable about displaying them, and potential readers are not comfortable with buying them. The minority mystery is a kind of literary toehold from which a minority takes its literary voice. The mystery element is less important and can actually be almost simplistic, because the mystery is not really the point of the novel; what’s crucial is that the author has the entree to a part of society that the reader does not, and displays its inner workings.  The information mystery, on the other hand, must have the mystery be crucial to the novel — because it’s the possession of that vital piece of information that solves the crime, and if there’s no crime that requires an insider to solve, there’s no novel.

What’s wrong with this particular book, over and above all the complaints I’ve outlined above, is that it purports to be an information mystery but doesn’t actually follow through. One doesn’t really have to know anything about bridge to read this book, even to agree with whomever you decide committed the crime, and that’s absolutely fatal. What this book provides is a huge wad of rubber-bridge theory surrounded with a mystery that is not baffling, but merely incomprehensible because the author doesn’t have the writing skill to make it come alive. It would have been an interesting textbook on how to think at the rubber-bridge table, and that is its only useful or entertaining or informative function.

There is one last serious error of judgment here; this book is illustrated. By “illustrated”, I do not mean the charming drawings of Sidney Paget that accompany the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Nor do I mean that they partake of the practice of a bygone age whereby five or six full-page illustrations are added throughout the book.  What has happened here is that someone with a desktop publishing program and access to a large file of computer clip art has selected snippets of illustration and splattered them throughout the book wherever they seem to be marginally relevant. The illustration styles vary wildly but are based in a uniform poverty of artistic inspiration. For the most part, they seem chosen to demonstrate someone’s command of wrapping text around artwork with a desktop publishing program. They cheapen the look of the book immeasurably, they are ugly, poorly-chosen, and break the flow of the book (which was already quite disjointed by poor writing).  It’s a way to explain to book designers why one doesn’t do this particular thing, because the results are so dire.

Notes For the Collector:

A Montana bookseller on Abebooks.com will provide you as of this writing with an inscribed copy of the true first edition for US$20 plus shopping.  That being said, I’m unable to fathom why an Australian bookseller wants $21.69 for the second edition and a Canadian wants US$103.53 for the first. The cover price of the 2nd edition was $15 US/$20 CDN and I paid $10 CDN for my copy used.

In a small way, I’m a collector of bridge literature and it’s never been tough to get a copy of this book.  Mr. Granovetter now lives in Israel, so is unlikely to be signing many copies in North America, but I don’t think his signature is all that collectible.  There are today 42 (mostly unsigned) copies available on Abebooks and a number of similarly-priced copies available from Amazon and eBay.  I cannot imagine that this book will appreciate at all and, if I have anything to say about it, its price will decline.  So unless you are some kind of maniac who must own a copy of every novel ever published whose basis is bridge, there’s no point in laying down a copy of this and it is likely to be cheaper in the future.

Battleship (2012)

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Title: Battleship

Year: 2012

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna

Themes: Alien Invasion, Combat Action

Generally speaking, I try to go and see films like this in a theatre, where I can.  This is one of the few types of films that really demands to be seen in a theatre with a huge screen, Dolby surround sound, all that good stuff, and in the company of the popcorn-munching hoi polloi.  (Otherwise, how would you know when something was meant to be funny?)  But for some reason I missed this last summer and just got a DVD of it the other day.

I mean, okay, let’s be clear.  This is the kind of film where you walk out of the theatre, as I am wont to say, humming the special effects.  The SFX are the star of this show, no question, and the actors play a decided second fiddle.  Everything about this film is oriented towards building towards SFX set-pieces, displaying them dramatically, and then moving on to the next.  There are entire films (Tron: Legacy comes to mind) where the film is about the SFX and wouldn’t be meaningful without them.

That being said, this film has some interesting moments.  To start with, as most of you already know, it’s based on a game.  Not a video-game-to-video translation like Doom or Lara Croft, but a game that you play in your home without the intermediation of a computer or a video screen.  So there’s a delicate balance that goes on in a situation like this.  Obviously it cannot be a transliteration of the game, with two people each trying to sink the other’s battleships.  At the same time, battleships must be sunk, as it were.  You need ships, sailors, and a situation that requires combat.

In order to solve this problem and bring some sort of coherent baseline to the script, the producers grafted the good old “Alien Invasion” theme in, so as to anchor everything.  So there are no racial or cultural tensions (the script feebly tries to graft in a US vs. Japan element but renounces it so that the “unlikely buddies” theme becomes more prominent as “all the humans work together to defeat the soulless aliens”).  But the alien invasion theme actually worked for me.

In fact, the script is quite clever, as these things go.  Look at what you’re starting with — the requirement that at least once during the movie the audience should hear, “You sank my battleship!” or equivalent.  There are no characters, no plot events, nothing but the requirement to have battleships firing at each other for some reason.  So I have to say that the script goes to a great deal of trouble to add interesting plot events and characters.  I’m not saying this is a triumph of characterization — Brooklyn Decker does a really good job at being “the girl who bounces when she runs” where Nicole Kidman would not — but it’s better than it has to be.  Indeed, this is almost a good story and these are characters whom one cares about ever so slightly.

A couple of minor characters, indeed, steal the show; a red-headed ensign/sidekick who is an amusing doofus, and some sort of sailor played by Rihanna, who cusses and is tough.  Both these actors deserve our praise and future attention.  I honestly didn’t recognize Rihanna for a moment, until she had the benefit of some amazing lighting in a shot that looked accidentally designed to make her look gorgeous.  She too is better than she has to be.  I’m not saying she transcends the entire oeuvre of “semi-famous musicians who are plunked into small roles in big movies” but, frankly, she doesn’t suck.  She appears to have listened to the director and has some natural acting talent — and the courage to be restrained and moderately believable, rather than wearing three feet of eyelashes and a push-em-up.

The final third of the film is devoted to the type of activity I think of as “things blow up good”, which in this case is mostly sea-going vessels.  There is an amusing bit where the survivors of one sinking must commandeer a drydocked relic from WWII, complete with elderly sailors.  The aliens have technology that lets them blow things up decisively and manage to kill off Alexander Skarsgard at about the midpoint of Act II, but not before he manages to remove his shirt in an early scene (this is, after all, a summer blockbuster).  Taylor Kitsch survives, which is good, and does not manage to remove his shirt, which is bad.  Perhaps he felt his excellent physique was too much on view in John Carter earlier in the year.

I was interested in a bit of technology run by the aliens — a kind of spinning wheel of teeth that is projected onto an enemy vessel, or land-based installation, and simply rolls around at high speed crunching whatever is in its path into splinters.  It reminded me a little of Stephen King’s The Langoliers, but much more explosive.  I was also curious about a small point of their tech.  Numerous times during the film, alien tech looks at a screen, map or live input and puts a green line around non-threatening things and a red line around threatening ones.  The aliens in person then, for instance, slap the “red lined” rifle out of the “green lined” human’s hands, disarming him without killing him.  What I was wondering was, “why not just kill them?  Did you have a use for them later?”  And, perhaps less importantly, where did the aliens get the idea that green means safe and red means dangerous?  A little bit anthropocentric, to my mind.  And perhaps I am looking for logic where none need exist, because the film is perfectly enjoyable without the requirement of conscious thought.  Still, it did pique me a bit.

All things considered, I was very pleasantly surprised.  I felt I had received more than I’d signed up for and still had an enjoyable couple of hours.  Mind you, I was expecting absolute rubbish — I mean, come on, a movie based on a child’s board game.  I’m aware that cross-platforming from children’s consumer products/media into feature films doesn’t always work (Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Flintstones) and sometimes does (The Dark Knight, Watchmen).  This one, based on the most slender of threads, actually worked.  Go figure.  I expect this will be available in various forms of television by 2013 and, if you like this sort of thing, you will certainly like this one.