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.

Top Chef Canada — crap for dessert

The second season of Top Chef Canada finished last night.  My regular readers (both of you, LOL) will remember that some time ago I posted about my pleasure at finding an honest game, as it were.  I was, and am, sick and tired of America’s Next Top Model, where Tyra Banks and her gang of sycophants seem to make decisions about who wins based on who sucks up the most effectively, or who has the cutest backstory, or — I don’t know what, but almost anything except who is going to be an effective and employable model.  And I thought that the ejection of an unpleasant and unprofessional contestant from Top Chef Canada signaled that the producers of this show intended to do the right thing and allow the judges to judge based on the food that was served to them, and without taking inconsequential intangibles into account.

Boy, was *I* wrong.

Indeed, for a long while, up until the last episode, I still thought I was right.  That’s because the penultimate programme in the season reduced the contestants from four to three with the elimination of a very strong contender for all the marbles — a gentleman named David Crystian from Toronto, who had demonstrated an exceptional skillset and an interesting imagination.  So the final three were Trevor Bird from Vancouver, Jonathan Korecki from Ottawa, and Carl Heinrich from Sooke, B.C.

The finale, 90 minutes long, began with what was to me an extremely unpleasant surprise.  The remaining three candidates were greeted by the three immediately previous unsuccessful contestants — who were told that they were going to compete for a place in the finale.  Which they promptly did.  David beat out Xavier Lacaze and Trista Sheen and re-entered the competition.

What’s wrong with that?  Well, it’s just — bullshit.  David was an interesting competitor, but he screwed up and was eliminated.  My suspicion is that the producers got together and said, roughly, “We have to have someone from Toronto in the finale or else we lose a bunch of our audience.  Plus, he’s telegenic and we can give him the ‘underdog battling his way back through adversity’ edit.”  As someone who lives in Vancouver, I can tell you there are about 25 million Canadians who are sick and tired of the attitude that if someone from Toronto isn’t involved, then it isn’t really important to Canadians. What this demonstrated to me was that they weren’t interested in having a test of skill, they were interested in who would best support the product placement machinations.

After David’s return, they finished the competition by having the final four candidates compete.  I was expecting Trevor to win, but he placed second to Carl. But, you know, I had lost interest at that point and barely bothered to stay awake long enough to see who won.  It was all nonsensical — whoever the producers decided would be the “best” winner was the winner and that was it.  The judges were just glove puppets and would have given the prize to a cannibal if they’d been told to, as far as I’m concerned.  So, Carl won.  Yay.  He promptly moved to Toronto and opened a restaurant and began drinking the bathwater of all the people who got him to that point.

The real winners here were a company called Caesarstone, which advertised heavily on the program and gave away a couple of custom countertop installations to contestants, Milestone’s Restaurant, which featured a couple of the contestants’ dishes on its menu, and the paper towel company whose products were prominently featured in as many shots as possible (I think they were supplying the $100,000 prize).  Two of the quickfire challenges featured Tostitos and Kraft Dinner.  There were also frequent tie-ins with other Food Network programming hosts like Michael Smith, who deserves better, lots of “famous” Canadian restaurateurs (memo to Vikram Vij — lose 50 pounds and hire a clothing stylist if you want to stop looking like a Bollywood tranny hooker), a couple of third-rate Canadian actors like Alan Thicke, and the entire province of Prince Edward Island.  In fact, there was so much product placement in these episodes I was a little surprised not to have badges on the chef’s uniforms, like Nascar drivers.

I will merely add that if you want me to believe that the people involved are connoisseurs of fine food, you might want to leave out the Tostitos and Kraft Dinner.

And I won’t be bothering with Season 3, thanks.  If I want to see whores, there are a couple of local corners that would give me more exercise to walk to, and they don’t dilute their entertainment offerings by pretending that they’re not selling things.

Top Chef Canada — a satisfying dish

As far as “off the island” shows go, Top Chef — and its local variant, Top Chef Canada, now in its second season on Canada’s Food Network — is difficult to appreciate properly. It’s based on a concept that must be judged rather than simply viewed, unlike, say, Top Shot, where the one closest to the target is clearly the winner. Many such programs invite the viewer to judge right alongside the experts; did you like the dress as much as the judges of Project Runway? Do you think A is a better singer than B, or is C a better dancer than D? Everyone has an opinion, and part of the fun is agreeing or disagreeing with the results. But with food, you’re completely dependent on the judges because you just cannot taste for yourself. If the judge says the dish is too salty, well, you either play along or you don’t.  You have to trust that the judge’s resume is good enough to produce a worthy judge, and also that the contest isn’t rigged to produce a result that isn’t based on skill and talent.

And that is why I’ve given up on America’s Next Top Model, as I’ve said elsewhere, because the young woman who wins the contest is usually the one who sucks up to Tyra Banks the most thoroughly. But I am delighted to say that that is not how it goes down on Top Chef Canada.

I’ve just finished viewing the latest episode, entitled “Restaurant Wars”.  I’ve been liking Top Chef Canada because I like the underlying concept — now, I absolutely love it. Because it’s honest; the person who deserves to go home goes home.

You see, when Russell Hantz demonstrated on national television (Survivor) that he was a sneaky little bastard, it exemplified an idea dear to the hearts of reality TV producers. If you’re a nasty unlikeable competitor, they want you to hang around, because you’re good for ratings. People tune in hoping to see you lose. So in many cases the producers bend things as much as possible to ensure that you do hang around; this is really only possible when the underlying concept is that judges make decisions based on their personal preferences. Russell Hantz benefited only from Jeff Probst making some not-very-subtle nudges in his direction at Tribal Council, raising suspicions in one direction or another. But various design-oriented programs have kept argumentative bitches around long past their sell-by date, and it’s pretty clear how and why.

Top Chef Canada is populated with Canadian contestants, of course, which is to say that by and large they’re a group of friendly, polite and humble folks. But there was one bitch among them, a young sous-chef named Elizabeth Rivasplata who was pushy, arrogant and very unlikeable. (Attention, Art Gallery of Ontario; I’m never eating in your restaurant while she’s working there.) Of course I didn’t taste her food, but her interaction with her fellow competitors was enough to make me think that she deserved to leave, because you can’t be a top chef if you can’t get the respect of your fellow kitchen workers. Yes, competitors are in the game to win, but you also have to share the kitchen with others; if you hog the ovens, it’s like pushing your way to the front of a line — very un-Canadian.

And of course after her first out-and-out quarrel with a fellow competitor, I thought regretfully that she had now cemented her place in the final five, regardless of the quality of her work, because she would draw ratings. It seemed as though she would have won a vote for “least favourite” among her fellow competitors; probably why, when the episode of “Restaurant Wars” came along, she was named a team leader (in the hope that she would shoot herself in the foot).

Indeed, she fired a number of shots in her own direction and struck home every time. She failed to keep to the “Canadiana” theme of her menu and chose to show off by preparing octopus. She quarrelled and whined. She couldn’t keep the orders straight and failed to pass along crucial information about who had ordered what and how many at which table. Finally, one of my favourite competitors simply took over and ran the kitchen.

Her team lost. And in the post-mortem, she claimed to the judges things weren’t arranged the way they had been.  (A tip, honey — if you’re going to do that, be sure you’re not on camera at the moment you take responsibility for something.) It looked very much as if she was going to get away with it.

God bless the judges, they sent her home.

And of course, on the way out, she demonstrated that she just didn’t get it. “It’s all their fault, I was right, they were out to get me, they’re mean, nobody loves me, it’s not fair,” yada yada yada. In fact, she presented a portrait of someone who had completely failed to understand why she had lost the competition. They liked your octopus, Elizabeth — it’s your ability to run a kitchen that was in question, and you just didn’t measure up. Plus, you’re a big ol’ bitch.

This was incredibly satisfying to me because I had resigned myself to hating her for weeks to come. Instead, I gained a great deal of respect for the judges, not that I didn’t have it already. I mean, yeah, okay, the program is replete with product placement — you might say riddled with it. The chief judge is a chef named Mark McEwen and all the contestants do their food shopping at his personal grocery store named, oddly enough, “McEwen”. And the financial prize is supplied by a brand of paper towels, a shot or two of which shows up prominently in every episode. But that’s the way that goes in this business, I assume. What this episode demonstrated to me is that they’re not just tasting the food, they’re assessing the personalities and character of the individuals whom they’re testing. And Ms. Rivasplata came up well short of requirements for someone who would be representing their brand, so they put her on her bike and sent her home. And this was regardless of the demands for viewership that I’m sure such a format imposes. I’m pretty sure there was at least one producer who wanted to keep her just because she was so unlikeable, but sanity prevailed.

So I’ll be continuing to watch every week, happy as a clam in a delicate white wine sauce on a bed of wild rice, a deconstructed play on a satisfied customer. And since I think I can now completely trust the editing, I’m going to put my money on Jimmy Stewart from Whistler, B.C., to take home the prize.

Update (April 30, 2012): Jimmy Stewart got the boot last night. And I am happy to say that I didn’t feel it was absolutely foreshadowed by the edit, either. I guess I’ll just wait to see who wins.  There’s still a competitor left from my home town…

Top Shot — unobtrusively interesting

Since I’ve just finished crapping all over a bunch of “one by one off the island” reality programs, I thought I’d briefly mention one that I’ve been liking a lot lately. It’s called Top Shot, hosted by Colby Donaldson — yes, THAT Colby Donaldson, who came so close to winning Survivor 2 by being the nicest guy in the history of Western civilization, more or less.
Top Shot is about marksmanship. They start with a double handful of people who have pre-existing qualifications at some kind of target-shooting thing, ranging from biathlon to Army snipers to more out-there stuff like archery, and get them to compete in situations where their expertise with a particular weapon isn’t all that relevant. The results are fun and interesting, Colby is nice to look at (and, man oh man, his voice is soooo sexy it would peel the underwear off, say, ME), charming, and a reasonably good host, and the artificial conflicts are held to a reasonable minimum. It’s not boring, but there are no teenage-girl adolescent cat-fights, to my relief.
I managed to catch nearly all of Season 1 in a single day — Season 2 is currently underway. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll like Top Shot. It’s on the History Channel, and I gather they justify this by doing a lot of “weapons from the past” competitions like flintlock rifles. One thing I enjoyed is that the quality of the photography is very, very high, which I suppose is necessary if you’re going to show, say, a tomahawk in slo-mo in flight. So, check it out.

Survivor — has the shark been jumped?

ImageI have to admit, I’ve been watching Survivor since — strangely enough — season 2.  Yes, I was aware of the huge interest in season 1, I just pushed out my lower lip and refused to participate in it.  But I was over at some friends’ place one night and they were all excited because season 2 was about to begin, and I begrudgingly sat through S02E01.  And I have not missed an episode since.  And, of course, I went back and watched season 1.  

There have been good seasons and bad seasons, of course.  It got bad around season 4, if my memory is correct, when Vecepia won — and then I think Brian, the minor-part soft-core porn actor and generally not nice person picked up the million in the next season.  Vecepia was an example of the Survivor meme that goes “Well, I can’t stand to give the million to anyone ELSE, so she’ll do.”  Brian — I still have no idea why Brian won.  Possibly everyone else was dehydrated and protein-deprived.  They used to really starve those people back in the early seasons.  

It got more interesting, for me, when the series went to China in season 15.  Todd Herzog, a 22-year old gay Mormon flight attendant, played the smartest game in a decade and well deserved his win.  James, the enormously muscular black gravedigger, played the stupidest game EVER and went home with two immunity idols that he had believed he didn’t need to use, even though they were about to become useless.  Duh.  

Todd’s strategy wasn’t made much of at the time; as I recall, he only mentioned it once for about a minute in the course of an episode.  He allied himself with someone stronger, someone nicer and someone less likeable/stupider to form a core group of four.  Then he manoeuvered to guide a group of four into the endgame (not necessarily the same core group, as I recall — I believe he threw James under the bus).  The point is that Todd was well known to be a long-time fan of Survivor who had watched every episode and learned from them, and he had evolved his strategy before starting the game.  (He talks extensively about it at http://www.realitytvworld.com/news/exclusive-survivor-china-champion-todd-herzog-talks-strategy-6280.php.)  I thought this was interesting because he developed a self-aware strategy that involved assessing the strategy of everyone else who had ever played the game, and figuring out a pattern that worked.  I have to add that, like all such strategies, it only worked for his season because, naturally enough, future competitors had seen his season and were prepared to deal with his strategy, so a new one had to evolve.  If you’re curious, I think of the next strategic wave as the “Russell Hantz” strategy, where Russell, a truly horrible human being who is my personal choice for “most deserves to be eaten by ravenous zombies”, flat-out bullied and intimidated his way through the game and paved the way for people with him to be voted the winner in the endgame.  And, of course, we’re past that now too.  I think the next theme was the “Jesus is my homeboy” trophe spontaneously evolved by Russell’s nephew Brandon, a vulgar and nasty-minded simpleton —  Jesus apparently wasn’t his homeboy, since Brandon was deservedly ejected. But it was an interesting if useless strategy that failed to work for both Brandon and Coach (another vulgar egotistical simpleton) and handed a million dollars to the brooding and unlikeable Sophie, apparently on the same principle that won it for Vecepia many years previously — default.  

And now season 24, the oxymoronically named “One world”.  Indeed, it’s one world only if that means “Throw everyone overboard and leave the high ground to me”.  The producers apparently decided that the Russell trophe deserved another go-round, so they cast a vicious and pudgy little cretin named Colton Cumbie.  Colton is sufficiently unaware of anything except his enormous ego to reveal in public that he’s a gay Republican, which flies in the face of logic, an awareness of history, and any possibility of a future career, and is in every way one of the most unpleasant people who has ever appeared on television, including presidential candidates.  He is nasty-mouthed, scheming, irrational, vituperative and above all stupid.  His premature departure from the game for medical reasons only left me wishing that people had more than a single appendix, so that he could experience the associated agonies more than once.  I’m sure he’s recovering on a sofa somewhere firmly believing that he could indeed have won the game, rather than being given the boot like his mentor Russell, and I’m equally sure that Jeff Probst and his team are already planning on bringing him back into a future season.  Unless someone shoots him first.  

Season 24 isn’t over yet, but I’m already bored — and that’s something that’s never happened before.  Certainly there have been seasons, like Brian Heidik’s, when I disliked everyone who had a chance at winning.  And there are a couple of people in this season’s mix whom I dislike, certainly.  Alicia, for instance, hasn’t yet realized that being a nasty-mouthed bitch only works when you’re the sidekick to an even bigger bitch (the late and unlamented Colton), and I’m hoping a tree falls on her in an upcoming episode.  Greg “Tarzan” has an ego the size of a small European country and has completely failed to realize just how much everyone, including millions of people in the audience, dislikes him for it.  (Oh, and Tarzan — shouting “Cheater” at people during competitions is not part of your job description.  If Probst feels someone’s cheating, he’ll do something appropriate about it. You don’t get to make that call.)  I’d rather do my own surgery than go to that nitwit, thanks.  

But for the most part — I can’t even remember the names between episodes.  During episodes, even.  And that’s just not something I can remember ever happening before.  There’s nothing happening to distinguish between individual contestants.  Rather than having competent strategies based on previous seasons, as the intelligent competitors in previous seasons have done, the main strategy here seems to be “Keep your head down and hope nobody notices you.”  Which is why my money is on Kim to win, because she’s playing this strategy best so far. For crying out loud, there’s even two middle-aged oafs who think they are entitled to be called “Tarzan”, even though there are two guys in the game so beautifully built that they make these two look like Cheetah.  What possessed the casting people to let that happen? This season’s cast is “the usual suspects”.

In my opinion, this season is a write-off, and pretty much was from the beginning. I have to blame the casting here. Certainly the execrable Colton was an “interesting” character, but we didn’t need another proto-Russell (and if we did, I’m sure that the trailer he comes from contains a few more half-witted personality-free Jesus-freak nephews ready to step up to the plate).  The Russell Hantz strategy is dead, dead, dead, not that it ever worked for anyone anyway. There’s not even an interesting fundamentalist Christian for me to mock. And, most crucially, there is no one who has half the strategic abilities of Todd Herzog.  As my friend and fellow aficionado Neil remarked, “You need someone that it’s fun to hate.  But you also need someone to like.” And there is no one in this season whom I’d invite to dinner as anything more than a curiosity, because they have failed to demonstrate that they have any understanding of how the game works.  Kim is nice, and smart, but she’s no Parvati Shallow.  

Will Survivor get any better?  Hard to say, but I am starting to think that it’s about time to cancel it.  After 24 iterations, one would suspect that it’s lost any forward momentum. Todd was the last player who had a strategy that actually worked to bring him a well-deserved win, and in the subsequent 9 seasons we had strategies that could be described as merely being less despised than one’s fellow competitors.  I suspect it will depend on whether the producers can find anyone who wants to bring something new to the table, something that we haven’t seen in a while.  It isn’t vulgar bitchiness and it isn’t Jesus — it’s brains, which are in short supply on American reality television.  Until we get that, it’s just going to be like driving past a car accident over and over again.  

Here’s some free advice for Jeff Probst.  Go back to what worked in the first place.  Make it cruel, make it hard, make them starve — quit bringing in coolers full of 7-Up for some extra cash from product placement.  Part of the interest of season 2, for instance, was the incredible hardships under which these people laboured in the Australian outback, and there were certainly no competitions to win an afternoon where one stuffed oneself with ice cream.  Find people with interesting personalities who are likeable and intelligent — and for heaven’s sake, avoid casting cretinous villains merely to stir the pot.  No more stunts — no more Redemption Island, no more fake merges, and possibly even no more hidden immunity idols.  No more “themes”.  No more bimbos and himbos; eye candy is nice, but there’s plenty of it on TV and this is a game.  See if you can find 12 or 16 people who have a roughly equivalent chance of winning and let them battle it out without luxuries or visits from home or by deforming the original concept into a series of product placement opportunities.  Because right now, you’ve bored me.  And if you’ve bored me, you’ve definitely bored millions of people — I can put up with just about anything in the name of Survivor, and I’m finding it easier and easier to miss an episode.  So wake up and smell the cancellation, Probst.